"Understanding Media" Revisited

What would Marshall McLuhan say about Elizabeth Warren?

Posted Dec 08, 2019

Marshall McLuhan was a cultural icon in the 1960s and 1970s, a best-selling academic whose ideas were so popular that he was interviewed on various late-night talk shows and made a cameo appearance in the film Annie Hall, in which he told Woody Allen, “You know nothing of my work.” (This was probably true, as McLuhan’s media theory was so nuanced and complex—bordering on incoherent—that few of his appreciators fully understood it). An English professor, and later head of a center on culture and technology, at the University of Toronto, McLuhan became an overnight sensation in 1964 with the publication of a small book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. The book’s popularity stemmed mainly from McLuhan’s highly original ideas about the still relatively new medium of television, and how it differed from older media such as radio, cinema and printing (the revolutionary impact of which he addressed in an earlier book, The Gutenberg Galaxy).

McLuhan’s ideas about evolving culture and technology caused him to be in high demand as a speaker and consultant who weighed in as a futurologist on various phenomena such as advertising, print journalism, etc. In a talk I attended in the mid-1970s at the dedication of SUNY Geneseo’s new college library, McLuhan predicted the internet more than 20 years before it became a reality. The gist of his lecture was that the library of the future would not have any books, as all printed material would henceforth be accessible digitally from computer terminals. At the time, I remember thinking that McLuhan had really gone off the deep end, as I could not imagine such development ever taking place. Now, of course, McLuhan has been proven largely correct (I almost never check out or even physically handle academic books or journals anymore). The only place he fell short was in assuming such electronic access would require a trip to a library to use one of its computer terminals. McLuhan, whose lecture took place many years before the invention of personal computers or smartphones, undoubtedly would have painted a more complete picture of the future of information technology had he not suffered a debilitating stroke in 1979, dying a year later.  

The essence of McLuhan’s ideas about television and other media is summed up in his famous catchphrase “The medium is the message." (His follow-up to Understanding Media was punningly titled The Medium Is the Massage.) By this, he meant that the form of communication does more to affect the “sensorium” (psyche and society) than does content. This shift in emphasis from content to form was presaged according to McLuhan’s somewhat over-stated view in much earlier eras, such as the shift in Renaissance monasteries (McLuhan was a devout Catholic) from the teaching of logic to teaching of rhetoric and grammar. But this retreat from content seems to have reached an apogee in the current era, as an example in the rise of political leaders in America and elsewhere who make no pretense of caring about policy, except on the most gross level (e.g, kill or lock up immigrants or other bad people). The current rise of quasi-facism in various countries around the world could be considered, I suppose, the dark side of what McLuhan termed in a more optimistic time “the global village”: the idea that we are all inter-connected through access to common media.   

The aspect of Understanding Media with the most relevance to politics was McLuhan’s characterization of the “coolness” or “hotness” of various forms of media phenomena. This is mistakenly assumed to refer to the style or chicness of various media personalities (e.g., John F. Kennedy decked out stylishly on the first cover of the men’s fashion magazine GQ, as opposed to his opponent Richard Nixon’s bad haircut and old-fashioned suits). But it really had to do more with the degree of attention required of the viewer or listener, with a more detached experience (such as when watching TV) defined as cool and a more intense experience (as when watching a movie) defined as hot. People watch TV while their attention is not fully engaged (doing such things as walking around, reading, cooking, conversing, having sex, etc.) unlike say watching a film in a movie theater where the viewer is totally engaged in the sensory experience. This makes TV more of participatory exercise, in that the viewer is required to put some effort into making sense of the experience. In a clarifying essay (McLuhan admitted that many readers found the hot-cold thing hard to understand) he reframed the dichotomy as a matter of relative degree of definition, with hotness involving high definition and coolness involving low definition. The advantage of a low definition (cool) presentation is that one can more easily assimilate it into one’s own schemas and make it one’s own.   

In line with the cognitive metatheory of “constructivism,” associated with scholars such as Jean Piaget (I consider myself a neo-Piagetian) this theory, which I doubt McLuhan had knowledge of, as his sources of inspiration were mainly literary—posits that learning is most likely to occur when someone actively works to assimilate new information into their existing internal schemas. In the Google and Facebook era (neither of which were likely anticipated by McLuhan) television no longer has the monopoly on dispensing political (mis)information as when he was alive. But TV still is of powerful importance, at least during the current pre-nomination debates, as a source for making intuitive judgments about the personalities and platforms of various political candidates. Using McLuhan’s theoretical framework here is my take on how the sage, if still alive, would handicap the current crop of various Democratic contenders (at least the major ones), as well as a general election involving Donald Trump, assuming he still in office a year from now.

Using the McLuhanesque coldness-hotness construct, the Democratic presidential candidates (as of December 2019) most likely to fall by the wayside are likely to be very hot (high definition), while the winner is likely to be relatively high on coolness. I began writing this post before Kamala Harris (who I considered one of the highest definition candidates) dropped out, so I am denied the ability to qualify as a seer. Nevertheless, I think the above conceptual framework may add something different from what I have read about why her initially promising candidacy ultimately faltered. Most of the analysis has concentrated on her disorganized campaign and her failure to articulate a coherent or consistent message, but there has been little discussion of the fact that her image had too much rather than too little definition, and that ultimately is what caused her to be disliked by so many (which is what caused donations to dry up). The coolest (softest edged) candidates I consider to be Pete Buttigieg and Joe Biden, and that—more than their supposed political moderateness—may explain why they are leading the pack. (Mike Bloomberg, who parked cars at Johns Hopkins when I was a student there, also has soft edges, and that along with his billions, gives him a big advantage.) Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have very high definition and sharp edges, and that is why I don’t think either of them will prevail.

The political pundit class (of which I am obviously not a member) still mostly labor under the illusion that winning is a matter of developing the best policy (or content, in McLuhan's terminology). Certainly, Elizabeth Warren is an extreme embodiment of that position, as she seems to have developed a policy for everything.

If Marshall McLuhan were alive today, I believe he would say to her, "Chill out, Elizabeth. What the public craves is not someone with the best policies but someone they can like, and that is not just a matter of being the smartest, or even having the best character, as much as it is a matter of having the softest edges.” You might say “Well, Trump has hard edges and he won, so that disproves your theory.” But aside from the fact that Trump hardly emphasized policy, he had the advantage in 2016 of running against a candidate in Hillary Clinton who herself was fairly high definition (i.e., lacking in coolness). While a successful candidate in the general election should be able to strongly stand up to and deflect abuse, it is important, in this neo-McLuhanite’s opinion, that he or she should leave some defining to the imagination, so that voters can project their own hopes, dreams, and even fantasies onto that person. Trump’s continuing popularity among his base demonstrates the truth of that formulation.  

Copyright Stephen Greenspan