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Issue 5. The Uncanny - Guest editor: Anneleen Masschelein

Looking at McLuhan
'Remediation', Iconophobia and Denial of the Body in The Medium is the Massage

Author: Jan Baetens
Published: January 2003

Abstract (E): This article deals with the way how contemporary theory of digital communication denies crucial cultural issues such as the body. It focuses both on a famous book of Marshall McLuhan, Quentin Fiore and Jerome Agel, The Medium is the Massage (1967), where despite the very experimental use of illustrations the denial of the body is clearly articulated, and on some recent evolutions in cyber scholarship, where a similar denial is at work. At the same time, it discusses The medium is the Massage as an example of failed 'remediation' of a medium through a new and different use of it.

Abstract (F): Cet article se penche sur la manière dont les approches contemporaines de la communication électronique traitent le thème clé du corps. Le corpus analysé est double : d'un côté, le célèbre manifeste écrit et conçu par Marshall McLuhan, Quentin Fiore et Jerome Agel, The Medium is the Massage (1967). Dans ce livre, l'emploi très novateur des illustrations s'accompagne d'un refoulement très net de tout ce qui touche au corps ; de l'autre certaines tendances la cyberthéorie récente, où des mécanismes analogues sont à l'œuvre. On tentera de montrer que The Medium is the Massage illustre avant tout l' échec d'une tentative de « transmédialisation ».

Keywords: McLuhan, media studies, remediation, body


Marshall McLuhan alive and kicking

A founding father of contemporary media studies (understood as electronic mass media studies), a forerunner also of the pictorial turn,1 (although many elements of his theory will appear to be at odds with the emphasis on the image), and a prophet of the new post-Gutenberg, post-print society (with a "post" apparently less problematic than in postmodernism and other related post-isms), Marshall McLuhan has recently risen from the purgatory and oblivion to which the mystical turn of his late writings had suddenly condemned him (for a general introduction to the life of Marshall McLuhan, see Gordon (1997) and Marchand (1998); for a synoptic but not very critical introduction to his principal ideas and beliefs, see Levinson (1999)). Although in some circles he continued to be seen as the brilliant spokesman of the initial years of the TV-era, his own media theory and its philosophical underpinnings hardly encountered any creative echoes in the 80s, a decade actively preparing the current domination of the cultural studies model, which ferociously opposed itself to some of McLuhan's most basic stances. The idea that the medium is the message, i.e. the idea that the vehicle of a message counts more than the content or the form of the message itself, might at first continue to exert some late seduction, but rapidly McLuhan's indifference of any concrete socio-political dimension whatsoever made his work almost useless for researchers and students in the cultural studies field. Who owns the media, for instance, was not one of the most urgent questions on his agenda, and despite of his concerns with war and peace in the global village, his point of view has remained notably and permanently underpoliticized 2.

Not to speak of some other ideas, even more unacceptable for the contemporary doxa: the idea for instance that the clash of media conforms a teleological pattern (a cursed and doomed hypothesis in the eyes of any postmodernist thinker) or the idea that the successive substitution of one medium by another (the first becoming then the content of the latter) had achieved its path with the rise of electricity. In McLuhan's approach, electricity is the ultimate of all media, freed from any content whatsoever, the medium of immaterial light at last coinciding with itself in a quasi-mystic union of idea and expression. (but as we shall see, this emphasis on light is not to be read in a 'visual' sense, since "voice" shall appear to be a key concept in McLuhan's media theory, strangely at odds with the already mentioned pictorial turn). A comparable ostracism finally struck also the typical McLuhan dream of universal reconciliation through technological remastering of mankind, a viewpoint which appeared to be less inspired by Darwinism than by Theology. Mankind had to adapt itself to electronic culture, not so much in order to survive at the expense of the less well fitted, as in order to recover the Eden of universal understanding and brotherhood shattered by the emergence of print culture (these general theses are most clearly developed in McLuhan's seminal 1964 book Understanding Media (McLuhan 1994); for a contemporary viewpoint on this work, see the introduction to the new edition by Lewis H. Lapham (Lapham 1994)).

Such a naive religious techno-utopism remains hard to swallow, even for the new generation of McLuhanophiles who achieved in a very short time a spectacular social and intellectual reappraisal and reevaluation of their guru (in the credits pages of the cybermag Wired, McLuhan is listed as "Saint McLuhan"). For the many observers and, most of all, for the many agents of the digital revolution of the 90s who consider the master of the electronic revolution the best representative of pre-cyberphilosophy (Landow 1997, Bolter and Grusin 1999), the mystical overtone of McLuhan's work is not necessarily the most inspiring part of it. Or as Lewis H. Lapham puts it, speaking of the mystic McLuhan: " The rhetoric falls into the rhythms of what I take to be a kind of utopian blank verse, and much of seems as overblown as the bombast arriving from Washington about the beneficence of the "New World Order" and the great happiness certain to unite the industrial nations of the earth under the tent of the General Agreement on Tariffs on Trade." (Lapham 1994: xviii). The reason for this revival can only surprise, given the fact McLuhan has said, written and thought so many things which are more than simply differing from any form of postmodernism and critical theory whatsoever. McLuhan's defenders (one thinks here of course of Régis Debray (Debray 1995) and, to a lesser extent, of Lévy (Lévy 1993 and 1997)) nevertheless argue that the McLuhan of the 90s is not the McLuhan of the 60s. Indeed, so they continue, what McLuhan said in his own more than fifteen minutes of glory could basically not be understood because of the visionary force of most of his writing. One had to wait for the Internet, the world wide web, virtual reality and so on to fully grasp the ideas behind some of his sibylline --but indeed intriguing and exciting-- formulas. As reads the blurb of the reprint of The medium is the Massage via a quotation by Tom Wolfe: "I pay attention to every one of Marshall's insights, no matter how implausible they seem at the time, because he has been proven right over and over again" (McLuhan and Fiore 1996). And as one of McLuhan's most faithful followers puts it: "But as intriguing and useful as those connections may have been (and still are), they could not provide the corroboration of McLuhan's ideas that the arrival of a new medium -- as revolutionary and unforeseen in its impact as television -- might have bestowed, had the advent of that new medium and its effects been predictable and explicable on the basis of McLuhans's work. The digital age new provides such an occasion. (…) provides evidence of the underlying accuracy of McLuhan's thinking that was unavailable when he was alive." (Levinson 1999: 3-4).

An example of remediation'

In this article I would like to follow a different thread, and state that the misunderstandings produced by McLuhan have less to do with the prophetic or futurologist character of his theses, than with the rather unorthodox style of writing and communicating he adopted in some of his books. In other words: the problem with several of McLuhan's publications is not their (often too) metaphorical meaning, but their strange and sometimes confusing combination of word and image.3 Thus I shall argue that McLuhan's ideas have mostly suffered from the fact that they had to be "packaged" in a too complex or too ambivalent way. To put it more blatantly: if McLuhan didn't manage to make himself as clear as necessary (and the preachy tone of his work proves well enough that he really had the ambition to be clearly understood), this was probably the result of the way he addressed the public and maybe even more by the way he tried to remediate the imperfections of his first attempts.

There is indeed something weird in the idea of using books as the main rhetorical vehicle in the crusade against print culture. Not that it would not be possible to criticize books or print culture or texts from within, on the contrary. Maybe it is even very naive to think that such a critique could be made otherwise (we all know now that "il n'y a pas de hors-texte"). But the very use of books and academic writing (which wasn't the first choice, see the very free, almost pre-Barthesian, tone and scope of The Mechanical Bride (McLuhan 1951)) to make the masses conscious of the need to embrace the new electronic culture and to strongly reject print culture as a dangerous and harmful anachronism, remains a very paradoxical starting point. In this specific case, one could only say that McLuhan's choice of the book is, at least at first sight (I will try to demonstrate infra that things are not so easy), a double strategic and intellectual error. First because the natural or logical tool for his theory should have been television. As adversaries of anti-print thinking repeatedly insisted upon (see the introduction of Nunberg 1996): the very proof that the book has a future, is the fact that you will always need it to argue that books are now being superseded. But of course one may not forget that in those years TV was not culturally recognized yet, and this situation has certainly played a role in McLuhan's decision4. Second, and this point is of course more crucial, because the use of the book form seems to be in contradiction with the major thesis of McLuhan's media theory, i. e. the idea that it is not in the first place the content of a medium that is important, but the medium itself. Everybody remembers the opening sentences of Understanding Media: "In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message. This is merely to say that 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 each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology." (McLuhan 1994: 7) McLuhan undoubtedly became aware of the aporetical relationship of form and substance in his anti-print writing, but this acknowledgement generated new paradoxes the effects of which I will read here more in detail. McLuhan indeed tried to remediate5 the deficiencies of the traditional book medium, not by replacing it by a new medium (as an orthodox application of his theory should have forced him to do), but by transforming it from within, hoping to create a new writing space homologous to the electronic sphere characterized not by segmentation but by unification, not by detachment but by involvement, not by continuity but by simultaneity, not by monotony and repetition but by rhythm and change, etc.

The Medium is the Massage, his innovative but not too much acclaimed collaboration with art designer Quentin Fiore (who did the illustrations) and editor Jerome Agel (who selected and arranged, with McLuhan's explicit approval, some famous fragments of his previous and already published writings) was thus meant to be the artistic translation of Understanding Media and The Gutenberg Galaxy (McLuhan 1962) into a more convenient form, into a remediated medium whose form would speak for itself, and not only on behalf of the substances it was carrying (on the -- very difficult -- genesis of the book, which was refused by seventeen publishers, see Marchand (1998: 203)). And indeed, The Medium is the Massage is a mesmerizing book, undoubtedly one of the missing links in the rich history of 'graphically designed' and often 'non-linear' theory which everybody seems to (re)discover in the 90s (Bernstein 1997a and 1997b, Rasula and McCaffery 1998, Ronell 1989). At the same time however, the project of an ars poetica, a piece of writing which does what it tells and tells what it does, could but produce a catastrophe (I know this judgment can only be taken seriously if one accepts that The Medium is the Massage is indeed a crucial work in McLuhan's writing and thinking, and in the next paragraph I would like to demonstrate that this apparently 'minor' book is in fact a 'major' accomplishment his career). Yet if, on the one hand, the McLuhan-Fiore-Agel book didn't function as ars poetica, its failure would necessarily have weakened McLuhan's efforts to remediate his former work. And if, on the other hand, it did satisfactorily function as ars poetica, its very success would have implied a certain criticism of McLuhan's major insights, all based upon the fundamental inequality of form and substance. At the same time, however, McLuhan could not avoid using the book form because of the circular and holistic aspects of his teleology. The supersession of print culture by the new electronic media was indeed considered by McLuhan as a reconciliation with the creative possibilities of the unskilled, unspecialized, uncompartimentized of the child or the savage (see for instance McLuhan and Fiore 1996: 72-73), so that the future he foresaw was less thought of in terms of conflict and exclusion, than in terms of multidimensionality and simultaneity. And although the claim is not explicitly made by McLuhan, this forecast in its turn made it necessary to find a place for older forms of thinking and communication, not only that of the pre-print culture of the savage and the child, but also that of print culture itself, provided that it proved fit to be rhythmically and aurally remediated.

Why close-reading The Medium is the Massage anyway?
As I have already mentioned, the decision to focus in this article on The Medium is the Massage is far from evident. The difficulties are twofold. First: why choosing indeed this particular book, which is a popularizing and maybe not too ambitious one6, instead of choosing, for instance, McLuhan's 'magnum opus' Understanding Media? Second: why proposing a critical reading of a book which is probably not the ideal type of 'remediation'?

Before starting my reading of The Medium is the Massage, I would like to indicate that this book cannot be discarded as an 'opus minor', on the one hand, and that the defense of a new era (and this defense is the heart of the matter of The Medium is the Massage) is not automatically condemned by the choice of the 'traditional', albeit 'remediated' book form, on the other hand. The reasons therefore are not only to be found in the internal qualities of The Medium is the Massage, but follow logically from the main stances and thesis of McLuhan's most important book, Understanding Media. Indeed, a careful reading of Understanding Media yields many arguments both in favor of a (re)valorization of The Medium is the Massage and in favor of the principle of 'book remediation'.

As far as the first point is concerned, I would like to stress here four arguments. First of all, there is the fact that in the eyes of McLuhan, analyzing media and technology should not only left to the specialists in the field. On the contrary, since media analysis must bring a human response to the social problems created by technological evolution (which McLuhan mainly reads as technological specialization and fragmentation), the more 'popular' version of his thinking has certainly no less value than the more sophisticated or academic version of it. In other words, even if The Medium is the Massage represents undeniably a type of writing whose intellectual standards are not as high as the ones applied to Understanding Media, the very objectives of his media theory are no less achieved in the former than in the latter. From the utilitarian viewpoint of social and psychological engineering and care-taking, The Medium is the Massage is even to be preferred to Understanding Media, since the more easy understanding of the former will simply prove more helpful to more 'technologically traumatized subjects' than the latter. If the aim of the media analyst is to heal the social body, then he or she ought to publish books such as The Medium is the Massage. Whether or not this goal is achieved, is another question, and one can have seriously doubts concerning the 'easy understanding' of The Medium of the Massage. The book sometimes repeats in a too cryptic and too condensed way some lines of thinking more smoothly developed by Understanding Media, but this problem is a practical, rhetorical one, very different from the theoretical point I am raising here.

A second reason why The Medium is the Massage is not a minor book is directly linked to McLuhan's theory of the 'temperature' of media, and to his conception of the therapeutic value of the "mixing" of media. In order to avoid the traumatizing effects of new 'hot' media (i.e. of media with a low degree of 'involvement', and thus with an increased effect of fragmentation and specialization), Understanding Media regularly makes a plea for the "mixing" of media, and argues that the combination of cold and hot media can resist the heating-up and help the cooling-down of new technologies. In the case of The medium is the Massage, the global 'word and image'-structure of the book can be seen as an intent to achieve this goal. What McLuhan says on the failure of the traditional, scholastic Schoolmen facing the raise of print, can be helpful to understand why he accepts to give a mixed form to his media theory (instead of, for instance, directly choosing a completely new medium): "Had the Schoolmen with their complex oral culture understood the Gutenberg technology, they could have created a new synthesis and oral education, instead of bowing out of the picture and allowing the merely visual page to take over the educational enterprise" (Mc Luhan 1997: 71). Given the fact that the 'new' is always experienced as 'trauma', there is something very sound in the preference for a medium which stays a little beyond the possibilities of the day.

A third reason for the valorization of The Medium is the Massage, results from the distinction McLuhan makes between the medium on the one hand and the way it is used on the other hand. A hot medium can always be cooled down, and vice versa. Hot and cold are not absolute characteristics of a medium. The comparison with Bacon is here very speaking: "Francis Bacon never tired of contrasting hot and cold prose. Writing in "methods" or complete packages, he contrasted with writings in aphorisms, or single observations such as "Revenge is a kind of wild justice." The passive consumer wants packages, but those, he suggested, who are concerned in pursuing knowledge and in seeking causes will resort to aphorisms, just because they are incomplete and require participation in depth." (McLuhan 1994: 31). It would be difficult to give a better definition of the style of... McLuhan himself, both in Understanding Media (where the role and place of the so-called "aphorisms" are already very considerable) and in The Medium is the Massage (where the "packages" are replaced by the "aphorisms", and where these "aphorisms" are confronted with images, which could be analyzed as a kind of aphorisms in the second degree).

A fourth step, which is a deepening of the idea of "mixed media" and hybridization, brings us to the valorization of the very idea of collaboration between "artists". As McLuhan puts it in Understanding Media, only the artist can 'save the world', since it provides "immunity" (McLuhan 1994: 64) against the traumas created by technological development, and he does so by building "models (...) for facing the change that is at hand" (McLuhan 1994: 65). But the McLuhanesque artist (and here the Leonardo 'model', if one may say, is very strong) is a 'mixed' character: "The artist is the man in any field, scientific or humanistic, who grasps the implications of his actions and of new knowledge in his own time. He is the man of integral awareness" (id.). With such a definition, it becomes clear that The Medium is the Massage is, strategically speaking, an important work, for it combines the two aspects of the artist which Western, alphabetical, technological society keeps radically apart: the "scientific" (in this case the media theorist) and the "humanistic" (in this case the graphic designer). The fact that throughout the sixties so many artists were choosing the book medium as a vehicle for the creation of their models (not everybody was turning away from the book, on the contrary), is a crucial element to understand the very artistic goals at stake in The Medium in the Massage, a book which was clearly in 'unisono' with many experiments in the field of book design and book-objects (for a survey, see Moeglin-Delcroix 1985).

In short, if the choice of the book-medium can be seen today as curious and bizarre, in profound contradiction with the revolutionary aspects of the anti-alphabetical stances of McLuhan, this judgment is maybe a little too anachronistic, and here I would like to tackle the second problem raised by the decision to focus on The Medium is the Massage, which remains indeed a 'book', although a very 'remediated' one. For us who have DVD, read Wired, and have stopped considering 'virtual' reality as something which is just 'virtual', the choice of the book can seem a regression. However, in the years when The Medium is the Massage was issued, things were certainly less clear. The idea of the death of the book is more recent (and, by the way, probably already passé, but this is, once again, another discussion I do not want to re-open here). Furthermore, there is a very deep and profound complicity between on the one hand the main features of The Medium is the Massage, where hybridization (of signs, authors, tones, styles, etc.) is a key element and on the other hand the most personal convictions of McLuhan on the role to be played by media theory (which becomes almost a kind of "agit-prop" theory!) in his major work Understanding Media.

Of course, if for all these reasons the close reading of such a strange, and possibly rather marginal work as The Medium is the Massage, can be fully justified, the historic and theoretical importance of this book does not imply that Marshall McLuhan does not take a very great risk while making his 'bet' for the book-form. Indeed, and here the distinction between hot and cold uses of media (be they hot or cold themselves, theoretically speaking) is crucial. McLuhan clearly wants to cool down the book in order to create a new involvement. But does he also succeed in doing so? I would like to demonstrate in my analysis that, despite the many very spectacular pages of the work, the hybridization of The Medium is the Massage does not fully manage to keep off the characteristic heating-up of printed alpabetic/typographic works.

Visual rhetoric or visual thinking?
But what do McLuhan and Fiore7 achieve in The Medium is the Massage? When one looks at the book, the remediation of the graphic sphere displays a direct influence of the New Typography's credo, as developed mainly in the 20s and the 30s by several Bauhaus-collaborators (Tschichold 1995). From a technical point of view, New Typographers introduced, combined and systematically used typically "modern" devices such as: the sans serif letters, the equality of text and image, the expressive lettering techniques (use of color, of diagonal lines, of underlinings, etc.), the replacement of linearity of the text by the simultaneity of a global composition or the shift from the basic unity of the line to the basic unity of the page (or better the poster). This set of techniques (for further details, see Drucker 1994) was motivated at a first level by the wish to invent a new graphic form which was better adapted to modern times, where principles of innovation and rationalization (Ross 1991) provoked a shift in cultural values, stereotypes and hierarchies. Following the new role models of that era, the typographer felt himself closer to the socially inspired engineer than to the petty-bourgeois artist. However, the most important change, which concerns in a very direct manner the re-use of the New Typography in graphic design (Rand 1996, Tufte 1990), was the shift from verbal (alledgedly non-visual) to visual communication. New Typography no longer wanted to represent just strings of words, but had the ambition to present a verbo-visual composite whose form and meaning aimed to be caught and understood in one single glance. Although New Typographers such as Tschichold rapidly became aware of the difficulties of this way of working in the field of book design, a softer and corporate financed version of the typographic revolution spread about commercial typography. Its influence on The Medium is the Massage is manifest, and historically coincides with a renewed interest in visual poetry (Jackson, Vos and Drucker 1996). Of course one has to wonder whether the New Typography's posterity was able to produce in The Medium is the Massage an example, within the field of the book, of the 'simultaneous-multidimensional-auricular' space of which McLuhan was the prophet.

A close look at the book yields not only a positive, but also a negative answer. First of all should be stressed that in spite of all claims in favor of unity, blending and simultaneity, word and image do almost never in this book constitute a fully realized entity. Words and images remain 'separated' and their relationship basically obeys the rules laid bare by Roland Barthes in his seminal articles on publicity and press photography. Text and image stay apart, and the meaning of both elements is determined mainly by the text (this is the so-called "anchorage" function, which is largely dominant in this case) or the combination of text and image in a new meaning (the so-called "relay" function, which is here rather secondary). In The Medium is the Massage, a book of more than 150 pages with pictures and graphics on almost every double spread, one cannot find real examples of complete blending of text and image into a new verbo-visual unity (the best examples of such a blending are found on the pages where typographic plays transform texts into images), whereas the creation of meaning never depends on purely visual devices (one can hardly find some smaller examples of "creative" visual montage, where the meaning results from the brushing of one image against the other). Thus, the role of the image in the best hypothesis is that of a rhetoric underlining of the text. Images mark meanings the same way as typographical techniques emphasize keywords or notions. They scarcely inject into the book spots of 'visual thinking', i.e. of thinking where the production of new ideas is generated first of all by the combination and the clash of images.

Second, this secundarity of the image compared with the text can be read also at a more technical or structural level. It is easy to remark that images are formally organized as traditional texts, i.e. as linear and hierarchical structures, systematically segmented and controlled by a temporal logic, with a clear beginning, a clear middle, and a clear end. This logic of classic writing and traditional books is pervasively present in the visual economy of The Medium is the Massage. Images function in series or, better, in sequences. And although there is no overt division in chapters, the whole book is a string of separated key ideas, all of which are divided in substrings, each with its own type of illustrations and its own type of word and image interaction and its own marking-up of beginning, middle and end. Images so furthermore obey the most important feature of traditional writing, which is linear order (of course images are ordered also, they are not organized at random, but unlike traditional writing, this ordering is not only linear).

By the refusal of any advanced blending of text and image and the systematic linearization of images, the force of the visual elements is as massively mobilized as it is radically repressed. Images are welcome, but only if they function as texts, underlining and blowing up their meaning. Such an attitude can only be described as a blatant case of iconophobia (to follow the terminology thoroughly updated by W.J.T. Mitchell in his book Iconology) (Mitchell 1985). And since this iconophobia is never an isolated phenomenon, it should not be a great surprise that the hidden agenda of The Medium is the Massage is, philosophically speaking, unashamedly phonocentric. If the old graphic space of linear writing is associated by McLuhan and Fiore with Western bureaucracy and print culture, the new graphic space of dynamized, rythmic and auricular typography is associated with a very particular type of East. Indeed, the East as seen through the looking-glass of McLuhan and Fiore, is not the visual East of ideogram and calligraphy dramatically put forward by Pound's Cantos or Barthes' Empire of Signs (Barthes 1982), but that of the ear and the voice, and of language as sound, as clearly shown by the quotations of Finnegans Wake describing which kind of East the West needs for its regeneration: that of the uncorrupted youth, that of renewal, that of the anti-print-culture8. Iconophobia and phonocentrism are so two sides of the same "vision", but this vision is one whose visuality and iconic dimension are strongly refused and, as we shall see in more detail, even actively censored.

Human faculties: body and mind?
The Medium is the Massage repeats a thesis readers of McLuhan were already familiarized with since the years of Understanding Media: "All media are extensions of some human faculty -psychic or physical." (p. 26). But contrary to its academic version, the mass media double of this axiom visualizes the idea in a way that perfectly illustrates McLuhan and Fiore's use of images. At the same time, it enables to go a little farther in the diagnosis of iconophobia and phonocentrism.

For this, let's have a look at the well-known but never really read sequence where the authors start working out this idea. It seems unnecessary to tackle once more the logic of linear ordering and semantic and formal climaxing in these eight double-spreads (they are, I repeat, neatly separated from the preceding and the succeeding sequences, as are all sequences in the book). What is more interesting are the concrete ways in which words and images interact. This interaction can be studied in two interrelated manners. First: what is the relationship of the things seen on the one hand and the things said on the other hand? Second: what is not shown, i.e. which words are deprived of images, and what is not said, i.e. which images are deprived of texts?

From this viewpoint, one can immediately notice that there is a very shifting relationship between what is said and what is shown. In a first step (p. 26), the "moral" of the whole sequence is loudly announced, and the thesis of the medium-as-extension-of-a-human-faculty will then be "declined", following a paradigmatic logic which film studies would label as "categorical" (Bordwell and Thompson 1997), every new visual issue being a variation on the same theme or idea, the photographs being furthermore nothing more than illustrations of it. In a second step, then, (photographic) images are overwhelmingly present, but their role and importance rapidly shrink: we first see three images (p. 27, 28-29 and 30-31) for the representation of the "foot" and one image (p. 32-33) for that of the "wheel"; afterwards we find one image (p. 34-35) for the representation of the "book" and one (p. 36-37) for that of the "eye"; and finally we find one image (p. 38-39) for the representation of the "skin", but nothing for that of "clothing" and nothing for the last part of the chain (central nervous system/electric circuitry) at all. In a third step, text takes over once again, and this shift is made explicit in many ways; Text becomes larger: sentences turn into paragraphs. Text concentrates typographically: from pp. 30-31 to pp. 36-37, the sentences are spread over two double pages; on pp. 38-39 the sentence is spread over one double page, and the last isolated sentence (p. 40) is contained within one single page. Text forces images to obey its own syntagmatic order. A good example of this mechanism whereby the linear order of the text transforms the reading of the juxtaposed or successive images, is the fact that at the beginning of the sequence there is no visual coincidence of theme and rheme9, whereas in a second time this coincidence becomes the rule. First we see the foot and then only, on another page, the wheel while the text first only speaks of the wheel and then only, on the other page, of the foot. Secondly this verbo-visual chiasm is abandoned and textual and visual representations walk hand in hand. Finally, the text associates itself with a graphic symbol, i.e. with a de-iconized visual item the meaning of which is more abstract, less open, more easy to control and thus, as all iconophobes know, more easy to control and closer to verbal logic, than photographic images.

Things become even weirder, when we start paying attention to what is not visually (iconically) shown in the "media-as-extension-sequence" we are reading. If we list the several items of faculty and medium, the differences are striking. As far as the human faculties are concerned, we notice that the first three items are visualized (foot/eye/skin), but not the last one (the brain), whereas in the case of the media only the first two items are shown (wheel/book), whereas the two following ones (clothing/electric circuitry) are not. Besides the already noticed global shift from image to text, it is important to underline here the very strange displacements in the matching of words and images: when discussing the item of the foot as wheel, what we are invited to see is not the foot but the toes (and even the "nails", as if we were invited to notice an analogy, not between foot and wheel, but between toe + nail and wheel + tire, which obviously does not seem to be the point McLuhan wants to make). Even more strange is the image representing the book where we don't see anything besides two thumbs holding a white sheet which we cannot but interpret as the pages of a book (and even, in an astonishing visual metalepsis10, as the pages of this book, the pages of the specific copy we are holding ourselves, covering with our own thumbs the thumbs seen on the page) These tensions may provide an explanation for the gradual vanishing of the photographic image, too "multidimensional" or "all-embracing" (in the terminology coined by McLuhan himself) to function in the demonstration elaborated by the "media-as-extension sequence"). The linearization and sequentialization of the image, the aim of which was to reduce the tension between the logic of the image and that of the word, prove here to be an insufficient device: so strong is the tension in question that the image itself must be erased, at least as iconic device (in the Peircean sense of the word), or wiped out by the metaphysics of the presence metaleptically introduced by the curious "non-image" of the book, or replaced by graphic symbols, which have a different structure (the symbol on p. 40-41 reconciles the censored iconic representations of faculty and medium, since it can refer to both, and attenuates the word and image conflict since it acts in full concordance with the visual strongly marked textual fragments11).

It is probably not by chance that the global movement towards de-iconization coincides with a kind of progress from "lower" to "higher" human faculties. This process is repeated twice. First we are "elevated" from the foot to the eye, second we abandon the exteriority of the skin to go both inwards and upwards (we are not confronted with "lower" body functions, but with its most prestigious and most highly located part: the "brain"). In the verbo-visual string constructed by these pages of The Medium is the Massage, the book suggests a strong relationship between the image and the body, and it seems that, from that viewpoint, the vanishing and then the absence of images is connected with a "purification" of the body. 12

Iconophobia is thus not only a matter of phonocentrism, but also of devaluation of the body and, one could argue, of materiality in general. McLuhan's ideal of the electricity/light medium, i.e. of an inherently empty medium, free from any proper substance, can be read as the expression of a freeing of the body. The global village is that of the spirit, of the ear, of the all-over voice (the pneuma?), not that of the sight, the image, or the body, which all definitely resist globalization, totalization simultaneity, etc. At the same time, however, these convictions can only be communicated if they are represented, mediated, and finally embodied.

The denial of the body as a symptom
One thing however is to reveal --by close reading a very specific text-- what happens when seemingly bodyless ideas are communicated through material media and forms. Another thing is to show what the final significance of such a reading means for the current debates in cultural and media studies (i.e. the fields where the heritage of McLuhan is actually under discussion). In the last part of this article, I would like to underline the consequence of the disembodiment point I was trying to make in my analysis of The Medium is the Massage in perspective of a more global discussion in the field. One can indeed assume that some of the failures which have become manifest in the thinking of McLuhan, are still working through in mainstream analyses of much "culture and technology" research. Although it is now very fashionable to poke fun at McLuhan's humanist technodeterminism, not to speak of the already mentioned theological subtext of his evolutionary theory, much contemporary research remains under the spell of some blind spots in McLuhan's books. I have insisted in my reading of The Medium is the Massage on the denial of the body, but this denial is in fact symptomatic for the whole set of cultural determinants that have made possible the emergence of the cultural studies paradigm. Issues of class, race, gender, sex, etc., either melt into the thin air of new media studies and culture and technology discussions, or receive only some symbolic degree of attention (I will later mention some examples of this). It is as if with the globalization induced by computer networks, the global village idea has miraculously lost all traces of relevant social, biological, psychological, sexual, or economic difference. In the iconography of The Medium is the Massage, one still can see white and black people, younger and older ones, the West and the East, the clash of which is superseded by the fabulous leap into the new and still largely unknown step in men's evolution towards the recovering of the lost unity. In many contemporary culture and technology research however, identity -or better: difference—is no longer at stake. On the one hand, computer technology is said to free us from our given identity, whatever this identity may be (an interesting exception is Bukatman (1993), where McLuhan's thinking is explicitly linked to discussions on both the body and the problem of identity). On the other hand, it is said to enable us to create whatever new identity we dream of. The success of Sherry Turkle's Life on the Screen (Turkle 1996) and its politically very quietist continuation in Bolter and Grusin's Remediation (the third part of which is an enthusiastic approval of the idea of free self-construction) strangely contrast with some basic facts in the global field of culture, where problems of race, sex, gender, or class, are far from solved by computer technology. On the contrary, free and unrestrained self-construction appears to be the privilege of a limited group (and this group is, yes, white, male, Western, and middle class), so that the very dis-remembering of identity/difference matters acts as an almost too simple an example of ideological Verneinung. As Maria Fernandez, puts it in a recent special issue of Third Text whose contributors often explicitly mention the influence of McLuhan on this shift: "In the late Eighties and early Nineties, electronic media theory debates focused on the preeminence of the virtual body; in the late Nineties the body is altogether irrelevant. More interesting in current theory are discussions about genetic technologies and artificial life. As other live entities, humans are viewed primarily as patterns of information transferable to various media, i.e. a computer. In this scheme of things, embodiment is secondary. (...) In contrast to this fascination with mechanization and virtualization of the body, postcolonial studies underscore the physiological specificity of the lived body as the realities of subjection are inscribed on the bodies of colonised people (...)" (Fernandez 1999: 12-13). One should regret this absence of the body as a theoretical key issue in several forms of new media theory (while in other fields, such as theory of vision, the body is a crucial part of the new paradigm). Quoting an AT&T advertisement about the Internet from 1996-1997: "There is no race, there is no gender, there are no infirmities..." (little kids testimony from around the world), Hal Foster interprets this putting between brackets of the (raced, gendered, (un)healthy) body, as a clear symptom of anti-modernism (Foster 1999). Linking Newt Gingrich and Bill Gates, the "culture wars ... and "the commodification of almost everything as 'information' ", he discovers a common logic of immediacy13 in both cases: the "literalism of interpretation" in the case of the culture wars, the "promise of transparency and instantaneity" in the case of the selling of information technologies. New media theory, in this regard, has a hidden agenda, the major point of it is the (postmodern) obliteration of modernism. One of the most important issues at stake when comparing McLuhan's media theory and more current discussions in the cultural studies field, should be that of 'hybridization'. As I have tried to demonstrate, the work of McLuhan makes a strong theoretical plea for all kind of hybridization, which is considered to be an important strategy in the struggle against technological trauma. Thanks to the mixing up of media, among other things, the negative effects of specialization and fragmentation can successfully be slowed down or even eliminated. Cultural studies, however, has a less optimistic, or naive, vision on hybridization, since it strongly emphasizes the power relations which hybridization brings to the air. Multiculturalism, which one could see as a contemporary form of hybridization, is obviously seen also as a factor of cooling-down societal tensions, but its perspective is much less oecumenical than in McLuhan's media theory, where the dichotomy is more between technology and man, then between different positions men and women can (or better: are obliged to) occupy in the social field.

Besides the too optimistic posture in the debates on difference (but of course one should not forget that the issues of multiculturalism in the 1960s were rather different from today ones, the key words then being more counter-cultural than multicultural), one reads in the renewed interest for McLuhan and electronic media theory a second, and maybe still more problematic, completely untheorized stance, the nature of which is more semiotic than cultural studies oriented. As I have already mentioned, Marshall McLuhan is nowadays considered to be one of the major ancestors of the visual culture paradigm and although his direct influence on current debates is sometimes insufficiently acknowledged14 , the very way of theorizing visual culture as anti-textual and even anti-alphabetical (in McLuhan's terminology; nowadays we would say anti-logocentric), functions as an almost unchallenged dogma. The problem with such a thesis is, once again, not the thesis in itself, which has the merit of its clarity, but one of its related aspects, i.e. the subthesis that the breakdown of the printing tyranny would bring us back to a kind of revitalized oral civilization. While neither McLuhan nor authors such as Pierre Lévy (whose 'cognitive ecology' mind theory, however critic to some aspects of McLuhan's thinking, finds itself in full sympathy with the 'global village' idea (Debray 1995, Lévy 1993 and 1997) assume that this new orality just repeats or simply resembles that of the pre-printing age, the very insistence on the orality of visual culture could be an obstacle to a good understanding of what is visual in visual culture. In a certain sense, the return of orality creates as a side-effect a re-alphabetization (in the McLuhanian sense of segmentation and linear division) of visual culture. The thorough fore-grounding of 'real time' culture --a key issue in Lévy's cognitive ecology, for instance-- is a good example of this secret linearization, and thus of alpabetization, of visuality.

One could regret that other anti-alphabetical theories, the scope of which is much more visual, are academically and socially less successful, at least in the current state of affairs. Indeed, a theory such as that of the screen thinking developed by Anne-Marie Christin and others since more than two decades (Christin 1982, 1985, 1988, 1995 and 2000), could yield a valuable alternative to this hidden re-alphabetization of visual culture in post-McLuhan theory. For Christin, whose work belongs to the fields of history and anthropology of writing, the very opposition of writing and seeing or of text and image, is only a superficial one, as is the dichotomy between sign and screen (the term she uses to label any host medium for sign-seeing) or, even more generally, of 'form' and 'field' (in the Gestalt-psychological sense of the word). In screen thinking (la pensée de l'écran) signs are not forms put or left behind on a screen by absent authors and read by absent addressees, but elements disclosed on a field man isolates and frames not for deciphering or decoding, but for subjective interpretation and even meditation (here also, one sees the opposition between a linguistic sign theory which relies very heavily on the notion of absence and bodylessness-that of the referent, that of the maker, that of the reader—and a theory such as screen thinking where the body of the observer is directly involved). Corollary, writing and reading are no longer opposed to image making and seeing, but merged in the practice of screen thinking, the fundamental visuality of which is denied by our familiarity with Western alphabet, a transcription code we manage to see for ideological reasons as 'clear', 'logic', 'superior', 'simple', 'advanced', etc. And although screen is now a fetish-word in almost every new media theory, most scholars go on using it within a framework based on traditional communication schemes and largely ignore the more radically visual theories of screen-thinking such as Christin's. Screen-thinking, however, could provide a very helpful basis for new media theory, which is often more verbal and disembodied than it pretends or assumes itself to be.

As I have tried to make clear in this article, rereading McLuhan is not just a scholarly exercise of close reading of some half-forgotten pages (although I believe such a close reading remains an indispensable tool for anyone seriously involved in critical theory). On the contrary, a book such as The Medium is the Massage, which seems to be nothing more than a trendy, New Typography remake of already known and already published (but excessively academic) manifestoes, provides us with many opportunities for critically reading some aspects of new media theory (and even, although I have only briefly mentioned this dimension) theories of virtuality. In all these cases, a better dialogue between media theory and cultural studies should be a priority item.


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Roland BARTHES (1982). Empire of Signs. London: Jonathan Cape.
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Jay David BOLTER and Richard GRUSIN (1999). Remediation. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
David BORDWELL and Kristin THOMPSON (1995). Film Art (New York and London: McGraw Hill (5th edition).
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Scott BUKATMAN (1993). Terminal Identity. The Virtual Subject in Post-Modern Science Fiction. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Anne-Marie CHRISTIN (1995). L'Image écrite. La déraison graphique. Paris: Flammarion.
-- (2000). Poétique du blanc. Louvain and Paris: Peeters and Vrin..
Anne-Marie CHRISTIN, ed. (1982, 1985, 1988) Ecritures I, Ecritures II and Ecritures III. Paris: Le Sycomore.
Régis DEBRAY (1995). "The Three Ages of Looking", Critical Inquiry 21-3, 529-526.
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[1]   For a global introduction to this concept, see W.J.T. Mitchell (1994: 16): "Whatever the pictorial turn is, then, it should be clear that it is not a return to naive mimesis, copy or correspondence theories of representation, or a renewed metaphysics of pictorial "presence": it is rather a postlinguistic, postsemiotic rediscovery of the picture as a complex interplay between visuality, apparatus, institutions, discourse, bodies, and figurality. It is the realization that spectatorship (the look, the gaze, the glance, the practices of observation, surveillance, and visual pleasure) may be as deep a problem as various forms of reading (decipherment, decoding, interpretation, etc.) and that visual experience or "visual literacy" might not be fully explicable on the model of textuality."

[2] This remains the case in the work of McLuhan's most enthusiastic followers such as Paul Levinson, who writes for instance: "And in many cases, the power of corporations to influence economic events, much like the power of governments to influence them, is melting in the light of personal computers and their empowerment of individual choice. Microsoft, the biggest corporation in the world, was unable to make its Windows 95 a thorough success, just as it has been struggling for years to attain a majority of the market for its Web browser, Internet Explorer: in both cases, the preferences of individual users, not the plans of the mega-corporation, prevailed. That is why lawsuits by the government to limit the power of Microsoft are unnecessary." (Levinson 1999: 8). I will come back on these problems in my discussion of Bolter and Grusin (1999).

[3] This is one of the major differences between the work of McLuhan and that of Walter Ong (see for instance  Ong (1982)), whose ideas, which it is impossible to discuss within the limits of this article, are close to those of McLuhan.

[4] Marshall McLuhan actually did participate in a TV-show inspired by The Medium is the Massage. This is how his biographer, Philip Marchand, explains his role in it: "Almost simultaneous with the publication of the book was the release of the CBS Records version of The Medium is the Massage and a one-hour NBC television documentary on McLuhan, which aired on March 19, 1967. The NBC film featured clips of McLuhan delivering one-liners, thrown into a stew of pop art, animated visuals, newspaper headlines, and other images and edited with the fast-cut technique coming into vogue in both movies and television. (Beatles' movies had led the way). McLuhan detested the film, produced by Ernest Pintoff, calling it "grotesque trash"." (Marchand 1998: 203).

[5] The concept of "remediation" is of course borrowed form Bolter and Grusin (1999). For a discussion, see Matthew Kirschenbaum (1999).

[6] Some critics even speak of a "nonbook" having weakened McLuhan's reputation (Marshall 1998: 229). Of course, the very term of "nonbook" is utterly significant, since it also emphasizes, at least in my analysis, the 'remediation' virtue of The Medium is the Massage, which is indeed a way of transforming the book into a kind of 'non-book' ('non-book' being sometimes the term used to define 'book-objetcts' or 'object-books').

[7] I will consider them, and of course also Jerome Agel, the 'architect' of the book, not a collective author but as two (or even three?) artists engaged in a collective creation. As The Medium is the Massage puts it: "As new technologies come into play, people are less and less convinced of the importance of self-expression. Teamwork succeeds private effort" (p. 123).

[8] See The Medium is the Massage, p. 143 sq. Finnegans Wake is pervasively present in the "sequel" of the book, War and Peace in the Global Village (San Francisco, 1997, 1st edition 1968), where almost every page is "captioned" by quotations by Joyce.

[9] The very existence of theme-rheme structures, i.e. the structures opposing the 'already known information' (theme) to the 'new information' (rheme), in the visual field is a very discussed item in visual studies. Depending on whether authors consider or not the "image" as a "language", there are strong fluctuations. A sound plea for the transposition of the theme/rheme structures to visual studies is Gunther Kress and Theo Van Leeuwen (1996).

[10] Metalepsis is a rhetorical figure redefined by Gérard Genette in his narratological framework as the blurring of boundaries between two worlds: the world of the story told and the world of the storyteller, cf. Narrative Discourse (Oxford, 1986).

[11] For the study of the cross-overs between text and image in the field of textual production, see the concept of "grammatextuality" by Jean Gérard Lapacherie (1994).

[12] By this interpretation, I am not suggesting myself that embodiment is more manifest in visual than in verbal messages. Both types of messages are semiotic systems, and unavoidably linked with the body, with a set of conventions, etc..

[13] I would like to remember here that in Bolter and Grusin's Remediation, the search for or, better, the desire of immediacy is the motor of every (r)evolution in Western media systems and structures.

[14] In two most recent readers on visual culture - Nicholas Mirzoeff (1998) and  Stuart Hall & Jessica Evans (1999)-the name of McLuhan hardly appears in the index, which does not mean of course that his work is ignored.



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