519/1030: the medium and the message

Once upon a time, there was a Canadian professor who had such a low opinion of literature studies students in the 1960s, or such a high opinion of advertisement and commercials, that he started teaching poetry analysis with media like newspapers. Then in 1964, this once literature professor, now media scholar, published the controversial Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man from which the famous saying comes: “the medium is the message.” With this, Marshall McLuhan started a trend that everyone seems to want to follow, including the French semiologist Roland Barthes. While not citing McLuhan directly, Barthes’ article “The Photographic Message” would not exist without some preconception of the argument that the “channel of transmission” affects the content of the transmission so much, that it becomes the transmission (15). That is, as McLuhan would say, “the personal and social consequences of any medium- that is, of any extension of ourselves- result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs […] by any new technology” (107). Or, said in my own words, the form of a medium has so much autonomy that it can affect the content and make it mean something it may not have in another medium. That is, the medium can control the message. In the end, the medium itself carries so many signs, and the message is so bound up within these signs, that the content of the medium does not seem to exist without the medium. It cannot conceivably exist.

That all sounds much more complicated than it has to be. Trying one last time to articulate it, there is a strain of media studies that believes in technological determinism and that one cannot study media without considering their form and their affect on the message. So there. It is with this understanding that I approach literary text, especially when it is put into contact with other media via intermedial references.

However, before assuming “the medium is the message” again, let us consider the two terms in isolation, since I must be able to have working definitions before I can begin manipulating them.

I will start with defining medium, which is often used in its plural form, “media.”  Historically, a medium is a tool, material or technique wielded by a user (an artist/designer, etc.) and used to communicate/accomplish something.  For example, cement, marble, paint, clay, and charcoal could be considered media and the term is often used this way in an art setting.
Now, medium is referred to the technology that allows something to be communicated: radio, television, print, digital coding, etc.
Media can be print or in-person: Text in books, on billboards, in newspapers, etc., sound waves
or electronic and broadcast: Recorded sound, recorded (moving) image. How it is broadcast can be distinguished between analog means or digital (via code). Hence, one can consider the physical qualities of the film, cassette, vinyl record, versus the “invisible” quality of the internet and mobile devices.

In his chapter “The Photographic Message,” Barthes considers the medium of the press photograph. He is concerned with its form as an “object endowed with a structural autonomy” (15). His definition of medium doesn’t stray beyond what I’ve explained above in that the medium is a physical object that transmits as message. However, McLuhan extends the definition of medium to include anything that changes the ways humans can interact. So to him, the light bulb is a medium, since it “shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action” (108), and  it allows us to work and play at night and see in the dark corners of our brain during surgery. Because McLuhan’s definition allows for such a varied ascription of the term, medium is not as easy a term to pin-down as I would like. I may find myself stating that I will only define television and text as media and avoid getting too far into general definitions.

Before actually trying to define the two terms, I thought message would be the more difficult of the two, even if it is a term most readers have an intuitive understanding of message. However, it turns out both are difficult terms to define.

A message (not the thing left on the answering machine, but the one we come into contact with whenever we come into contact with media) is a meaning,  idea or sense of something. It is always conveyed by something, which is why some people say the message is inextricable from the medium, but there is something we talk about when we say “message of this is this.” In the old “form vs. content” debate, the message is the content. Despite these clear statements, defining a message is actually very difficult, since it is an abstract, variable concept. For example, Barthes considers media transmitting two messages, a denoted and connoted message. McLuhan considers that the message of a medium is not the one (or two) message(s) we consider we are being transmitted, but the way in which the medium has changed human interaction. Add to these messages the infinite possible messages an audience or recipient receives based on their/his/her subjective position and interpretation, and one has many possible messages given by one medium or subject of inquiry.

Really, if anything, this attempt at defining  message and media was nice, and may be useful as a general introduction, but I don’t know if I have a working definition yet. Talking about them in general terms is probably what makes it difficult to understand. Once I start using examples, I believe I will be able to work with the terms better.

Now I have to figure out how to integrate this into my dissertation later in a productive way. Sigh.

Works Cited:

Barthes, Roland, trans. Stephen Heath. “The Photographic Message.” Image Music Text. London: Fontana, 1977. 15-31. Print.

McLuhan, Marshall. “The Medium Is The Message.” Media And Cultural Studies: Keyworks. 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2006. 107-116. Print.


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