Friday, June 12, 2009

The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects by Marshall McLuhan

Massage? Shouldn’t that be ‘message’? Well, yes, it should. When the book came back from the typesetter there was a misprint in the title. According to his son Eric, McLuhan took one look at it and exclaimed, ‘Leave it alone! It's great, and right on target!’.

It was a typical McLuhan strategy. The phrase ‘the medium is the message’ – coined by McLuhan in the early 60s and denoting the way new media such as film and television had by their very nature begun to manipulate the way ideas were conceived and received - was already a cliché by the time the book came out in 1967, and McLuhan must have welcomed the chance to ring the changes on it. As Eric writes on the Marshall McLuhan website: ‘Now there are possible four readings for the last word of the title, all of them accurate: "Message" and "Mess Age," "Massage" and "Mass Age."’

Never just a stuffy theorist, McLuhan was a precursor of maverick cultural critics like Camille Paglia or Slavoj Zizek, and The Medium is the Massage, far from being a dry work on communications theory, is a riot of images, jumbled typefaces, blank and black pages, cartoons, prophetic maxims and scholarly jokes. It’s part photo essay, part harangue, part spoof. It's never boring, which given its subject – communications theory – is quite an achievement.


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