This is Marshall McLuhan

This is Marshall McLuhan is the transcript of Alex Kitnick's opening remarks preceding the screening of This Is Marshall McLuhan: The Medium Is the Massage, that took place at the New Museum as part of Rhizome's New Silent Series.

Anthony McCall, Long Film for Ambient Light, 1975

Tonight we’re going to look at a 16mm print of This is Marshall McLuhan: The Medium is the Massage, which begins with a brief shot of a light bulb. A few weeks ago as part of its programming at Dia, Light Industry presented Anthony McCall’s Long Film for Ambient Light (1975), which consists of a lone, if rather large light bulb, hanging in an otherwise empty room, with a wall of windows covered over in scrim on one side to modulate the light coming in and out. Over a 24 hour span, reaching from noon one day to noon the next, the natural light of the sun and the artificial luminescence of the bulb were put in constant tête-à-tête, projecting forwards and back, contrasting and comparing and facing off with one another. In this play of light and shadows, various social interactions took place, different at different times of the day and night. Occasionally, the bulb was the center of attention—literally highlighted—with people clustering around it, while at other moments its light seemed to match the daylight and not draw much interest at all. Alone and isolated in a cool white space, the bulb’s plain power, usually used as an aid to display, was itself illuminated.

Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 1964

The light bulb was always McLuhan’s first example when explaining what he meant by his famous mantra “the medium is the message” since it communicates no information itself but rather facilitates a range of behavioral possibilities: “The electric light is pure information,” McLuhan wrote in 1964’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. “It is a medium without a message…unless it is used to spell out some verbal ad or name. This fact, characteristic of all media, means that the ‘content’ of any medium is always another medium.” A medium, in other words, is always filled with (or, we might say, ‘contented with’) another medium, but it is also something distinctive itself. The footage of film provides the content for television just as the stuff of TV functions as the raw material that gets cranked through Hulu and YouTube, and, in a way, this fact helps demonstrate the difference between the content of film or TV and their apparatus. “Whether the light is being used for brain surgery or night baseball is a matter of indifference,” McLuhan continued. “It could be argued that these activities are in some way the ‘content’ of the electric light, since they could not exist without the electric light. This fact merely underlines the point that ‘the medium is the message’ because it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action.”[1] McLuhan’s interest, in other words, was not so much with what was on the screen, but with the powers of the screen itself—what it does to its audience.

Shot on film, This is Marshall McLuhan was first screened commercial-free in 1967 as part of NBC’s Experiments in Television, a short-lived attempt to stimulate people after Sunday football, and it was later distributed in classrooms, as a film, in order to educate students on the effects of the media; with its fast-paced montages and one big idea coming after the other [information overload] it may have served as a small antidote to the disciplinary structure of the classroom, even if it still asked for everyone to sit in a row and look forward at the screen [good things on education]. The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects was also published that same year, a book composed of text by McLuhan and layout by Quentin Fiore that included cinematic spreads of photographs deliberately intended to expand the traditional structure of the book, and in the same year the fourth issue of the art magazine Aspen, which McLuhan and Fiore edited as well, also came out—a box of curios, full of brochures, records, and uncut page proofs. The same year Columbia Records put out an LP album to coincide with these releases, a kind of failed dorm room experiment with McLuhan reading his prose over various discordant clangs and bangs, a rather unfortunate art of noises. At some point that year, young girls paid by admen walked the streets in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, and San Francisco holding signboards above their heads, spreading McLuhan’s word in a weird mockery of protest politics but also suggesting perhaps that there might be a kind of politics to be found in what McLuhan had to say.


Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects, 1967

Aspen no. 4, eds. Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, 1967 

The Medium is the Massage with Marshall McLuhan, Columbia Records, 1967

Clipping from The New York Times, July 20, 1967

This full frontal media blitz (literally, a kind of massing of media, a contamination of one media by another, distinct media but all pushing against one another and linking up with one another) is interesting given McLuhan’s tendency to define media by specific properties. In Understanding Media, McLuhan had broken down technologies into hot and cold (media into messages), insisting that hot media like print and film forged identity and that cold or cool media like TV and video encouraged interactivity. Ultimately, he surmised that the nationalist former would give way to the tribal latter—the so-called electric global village. In 1967, however, there was an icy hot chorus of media rubbing people down from all directions, TV, film, books, magazines, records, and performance all piled on top of one another, loaded with a similar content. If different media have distinct qualities and play to certain particularities of the human sensorium (has separate effects/extends from distinct senses) there is also a linkage and continuum between them. What distinguishes modernity from modernism is that in the former media constantly join together (content linked together, aimed at everyone from elite to mass) where in the latter one incessantly attempts to separate them and parse them out. In the former media swirl around the subject, bumping the modern person around, pushing and pulling in different ways—a kind of aggressive massage. [So much happening at once; parse] 


“The wheel is an extension of the foot”: Photographs by Peter Moore from McLuhan and Fiore, The Medium is the Massage

Though McLuhan had spoken for many years about the visceral and tactile effects of certain media, especially television, with the Massage projects his thesis moved in a new direction. The idea of the body—the social body as well as the human body—was brought to the fore. McLuhan had always been man-centric to be sure—media, he declared again and again, were extensions of man—but if that had previously been the case now these media extensions were taking on a life of their own, linking up to create a new social body, a global body electric. The age of massage was a mass age (and vice versa), and McLuhan often caught glimpses of it in recent art. (In a way, he fancied himself an artist, an inheritor of Pound and Lewis). Artists such as Allan Kaprow, who appears in this film, were onto this with happenings, as were Charlotte Moorman and Nam June Paik, who also appear in the film. Niki de Saint Phalle’s She: A Cathedral, which invited people, via its vagina, into a new techno world, and people blending into one another under the lights and sound of Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable, both featured in the Massage book, seemed to prove his point that people were coming together into different types of bodies, and in potentially utopian ways. The media’s massage was rubbing the body politic into a malleable if unified whole—on the best of days, a global village. A new Leviathan was clearly taking shape—the question was who was the head and who carried the sword.


Niki de Saint Phalle, She: A Cathedral, 1966

Frontispiece from Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, 1651

McLuhan always insisted that he didn’t have a point of view on such things—he was just making probes, he said—and this lack of public conviction allowed him to make alliances with all different sorts of professions and people. In addition to the art world (and also perhaps because of his strained relations with fellow academics), McLuhan had strong connections to the realm of business and communications, evidenced not only in the Massage media blitz, but also by the fact that he made frequent appearances in corporate retreats and boardrooms giving tips on new directions in …. Years before Warhol quipped that being good in business is the best kind of art McLuhan intuited as much. There was a strange synchronicity of different cultural and financial realms at this moment, with the neo-avant-garde and mainstream culture both taking an interest in subjects including experiments, flexibility, experience, information, and youth. In the late 1960s, McLuhan started the D.E.W. Line Newsletter, a pamphlet that got sent out to a variety of business types and ad execs to stimulate new ideas. D.E.W. Line, an acronym for Distant Early Warning Line, was a defense system set up in the northern reaches of Canada after the Cold War to detect and report any incoming invasion by the Soviets. In McLuhan’s iteration, it served as a conceptual model that picked up changes and threats on the horizon and got them back to headquarters ahead of time. Dewline was almost McLuhan’s idea of a new avant-garde (both, it should be noted, are military terms), and it worked for business and culture alike. He was an early if unwitting trend forecaster, making guesses on everything from race riots to artistic trends. McLuhan titled his 1970 book of advertisements and insights Culture Is Our Business, and the phrase cuts both ways—as irony and affirmation at once. It has a twinge of how did we get here? and a kind of nihilistic glee at the same time. “Art used to be the province of Ma,” McLuhan states in this film, “but now it is big business, the domain of Pop—Pop Art.” (Warhols fill up the backgrounds of the film’s shots.) “Commercially, new art is kooky and worthless,” McLuhan notes in Culture, before countering: “The gap between the kooky and the commercially valuable is closing fast.”[2]


Massage Parlor, New York. Photograph by Sean Paul

If the kooky and the commercial, art and business, were closing in on each other, McLuhan noticed that they both combined in a kind of bodily address, and in the interceding forty years or so, it has only intensified. Today, the massage of the media has brought about a desire for real touch, which is less of an antidote to incessant mediation than its endpoint. Across New York, empty storefronts have been filled up with massage parlors—mostly Chinese—which are set up like call centers with just enough space to turn around and take off your shirt. (The foot no longer extends into the wheel, but becomes a body itself, a sign of a body.) [foot sign, not foot into tire but foot into sign—selling foot]. The hands and the hot stones pushing deep into tired muscles inside them are not basic or “human” things but highly mediated ones made available by divisions in the social order. [abstract shifts make the hand available]. The hand is not itself, but rather the content of social/financial instruments media. That people want to be touched now is not just because they’re stressed out but because we have been reduced to things that get touched all the time, stuck in a loop of 3D films and interactive experiences.

Georgia Sagri, That Energy Between Friends, 2011


What increasingly comes to light are the various ways in which media today simultaneously press the buttons of the individual body (treating like a body) while plunging it into ever more complicated networks and social bodies on the other. Light shows have given way to “hot spots,” and the promise of an electric “global village” has been subsumed by the pressures of iSolation. Each body now is two bodies at once, one hooked up to the other. An individual body’s heat and energy gets mined to make larger systems go. Media today are less extensions of the human body; rather they simply mine the body for its resources and take off on their own.

Jacques Boiffard, The Big Toe, 1929


In a famous essay, the dissident surrealist Georges Bataille called the big toe the most human part of the body because it is that which distinguishes human from monkeys. Unable to wrap around tree branches, it plants itself on the ground, and is thus vulnerable to muck and dirt. At the same time, it is that which allows one to stand erect and hold one’s head high; it is the link between the high and low, the sacred and profane. The head for Bataille extends from the toe much like media extends from the body for McLuhan except that for Bataille the toe had the ability to undermine the head, to trouble culture, to show its base affiliations. Starting with our toes and moving to our bodies, perhaps a similar operation can be formed on the media’s pervasive massage today in order to show that the body is not simply a container of reflexes and information—something to be monitored and surveyed—but a complex field of desires, pleasures, and irreducible matter that might also push against the media that extend from it.

With these thoughts in mind, I think it is time to turn off the lights and turn our eyes to the screen.

[1]Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: Signet Books, 1964), pp. 23-24.

[2]Marshall McLuhan, Culture is Our Business (New York: Ballantine Books, 1970), p. 46.