Sense and Nonsense of McLuhan

Sidney Finkelstein

The Medium and the Deceptive Message

Essential to rational expression and communication is that it does not rest upon naked, isolated fact, or sense-data. This is rather combined with knowledge, individual and social experience, and wrought into a pattern of reality. A tool of irrational or subliminal communication is however the seeming fact; a form of naturalism, the fact out of any context of understanding. An example from recent times can be cited: the rise of the Nazis in Germany in the 1920’s and early 30’s, sponsored by the great banks and trusts. Of course there were ideological arguments for the Nazis, weak ones. An influential argument, however, was the marching array of brown-shirts, the hobnailed boots, the truncheons and guns, the leeway given them by the police and government to beat up any dissenters. The medium is the message. So a form of naturalism became a powerful tool for deception. The image, which frightened so many people into submission, was that the forces of fascism and reaction were all-powerful.

What Shakespeare, the penetrating psychologist, saw as a rising form of adroit psychological deception carried on by individuals, has now become organized and systematized on a mass scale. Whole industries are devoted to it, like advertising and publicity. Shakespeare saw the method in which “the medium is the message” as something to be warned against, something to be explained, a bid for irrationality that had to be put into a rational context by showing the kind of people and motives responsible for it. McLuhan asserts “the medium is the message” as a universal law.

To the advertising and publicity industry, as to the industries purveying commercial mass entertainment or pseudo-art, truth or any approach to it is not only exiled, but wiped out of mind as a concept. Thus, the key method of modern publicity and advertising is that a “message” must be implanted in the mind of the public without its realization that it has been thus manipulated. If advertising were simply aimed to tell the truth about a product, it would not be a multi-million dollar industry turning hordes of talented writers and artists into well-paid serfs, with the function of creating beguiling images; forms of “media” that are also innate messages. The process has invaded politics. A candidate for office, including the highest, does not present his real views but has a staff of publicity experts and ghost writers who debate what “image” to create. Even the terminology is that of commercial victimizing. He must be “sold” to the public. And in both cases, there is not only the calculated assault upon the public, but an internecine war among the “media” manipulators.

The process has invaded diplomacy, international affairs and the operation of wars. So in the Second World War, behind the fakery about a seemingly miraculous bomb sight and the pretense that bombing would win the war—a fakery that cost many lives—was a hidden build-up for the aircraft industry. In the war in Vietnam, the hidden message within all the forms of publicity and news is that we are fighting, not a people who have risen in anger against a foreign-supported, murderous dictatorship, but a “communist conspiracy.” And so it has been an unwritten law for all news media that the Vietnam National Liberation Front must never be mentioned, as leading the fighting. The people we are fighting are always “Vietcong,” and the dead bodies on the battlefields or bomb targets are invariably “dead communists.” The real message lies not in what is said—the information the public looks for on the actual events—but in how it is said. The ostensible message is that a skirmish occurred at such-and-such a place. The hidden message, conveyed by the loaded words chosen, is that we are facing not Vietnamese peasants defending their homes but a dire conspiracy hatched in Moscow and Peking. Again, this is the process of manipulating people’s minds without their knowing that they are being manipulated. The medium is the message.

More and more, the operation of foreign affairs is carried on in terms borrowed from the commercial advertiser; namely labels and slogans. The countries with a capitalist economy—a simple economic fact—and those open to capitalist investment, must never be described as such; the term to be used, by not only the press but the State Department itself, is the “Free World,” regardless of what military and bloody dictatorships this “Free World” embraces. If in some issue that rises between us and one of the “other world,” a proposal comes from the other side, both UN delegates and State Department officials draw on either one of two stock answers: the proposal is either “the same old story” or it offers something new “only for propaganda purposes.” The real, hidden message is that the other side is made up of wily characters with whom it is impossible to deal. The truth, of course, is that we do not want to deal with them.

So the commercial, mass produced popular entertainment industry, whether producing paperback “thrillers,” or motion pictures, or television shows, is full of “cold war” messages, hidden within the seemingly innocent purpose of make-believe time-killing. A rather frank confirmation of this deception plus hypocrisy is offered by the New York Times Magazine (December 24, 1967) in an article by Joan Barthel called “John Wayne, Superhawk.” It told of a movie, then being made by John Wayne, as acting star, director and part producer, of the book The Green Berets, with the active help of the U.S. Army brass. It is a propaganda movie extolling the American necessity for bombing, defoliating and burning Vietnam, and slaughtering its people, on the grounds that if we didn’t do so, they might be friendly to communism. It was released in June, just months before the 1968 elections, in which the war was certain to be an issue. Mr. Wayne declared:

“This picture is naturally from the hawk’s point of view. But I don’t think pictures are made for messages. I think they will emotionally affect people, which in turn may affect thinking, but this picture is strictly for entertainment.”

What Wayne is saying in effect is this: “My picture is a definite statement about an existing situation, made without any attempt to be true to the realities of this situation but only to impress my thought on your mind through thrilling pictorial battles between good men, labeled my side, and bad men, labeled the other side. I trust you will absorb this statement and make it your view without questioning whether it is true or not. You should not even be aware that there is a statement. You should be aware only of the pictorial thrills. The medium is the message, the only message you need believe exists.”

It is precisely this kind of subliminal deception, influencing the mind in such a way that it does not know it is being influenced, to which McLuhan gives blanket approval, with his proclamation that “the medium is the message.” He does not openly advocate deception, of course. He merely accomplishes the same purpose, that of guarding the operations of modern media from any criticism in terms of deception, by removing from his picture of media any consideration of truth or untruth.

Never in McLuhan’s book does he ever raise the concept of truth, or truth to life. There is no hint that what he calls “media” have any connection to the knowledge and exploration of the actual world. The most he will say in this respect is that some “media” are “informational.” Truth means correspondence between what one thinks of the real world and what is actually doing in the real world. But the real world never exists for McLuhan. He doesn't use the term. What he uses in its stead is “environment.” And since according to his theory, each “medium” creates a “totally new environment,” the concept of any knowable real world vanishes. McLuhan’s utter unconcern with truth or deception is seen when he writes about newspaper and magazine ads: “The ads are by far the best part of any magazine or newspaper.... Ads are news. What is wrong with them is that they are always good news. In order to balance off the effect and to sell good news, it is necessary to have a lot of bad news. Moreover, the newspaper is a hot medium. It has to have bad news for the sake of intensity and reader participation. Real news is bad news.... Ads, in contrast, have to shrill their happy message loud and clear in order to match the penetrating power of bad news" (pp. 187-8).

True, ads are good news—to the publisher. They bring income. But to the public? The fact is that the vast majority of newspaper readers are interested in truth, or in knowing what happened sometime, somewhere; even in learning something of the real forces and events in the world that affect them. McLuhan, however, betraying the contempt for people typical of a Madison Avenue media theorist, says the people are interested only in having their feelings twisted. Apparently the newspapers made a colossal mistake in putting the end of the Second World War in headlines. They should have found some bad news to feature.

Having evaded the concept of truth and deception, McLuhan’s further step is to muddle the understanding of media itself by using the term without qualification for diametrically opposite kinds of phenomena. He starts with the meaning of the term as it is used on Madison Avenue, the center of the advertising and publicity industry, and then assumes that this is nothing other than what media mean in the creative arts. On Madison Avenue, media refer to the organized mass communication networks like newspapers, magazines, radio and television. According to the Madison Avenue mentality, a mass campaign is under way to establish some product, or politician’s image, or political policy. What media should be used for this? Newspapers? Radio? Magazines? TV? Which provides for the money it asks the largest and most impressionable audience, along with the best technology for capturing its mind? In all such projects, the public is thought of as an object or victim to be operated on. The medium itself, so far as it lends itself to this campaign, is impersonal, and embodies in itself or its technologies no special perceptions of or approach to life. Like the telephone and telegraph, which McLuhan also calls “media,” it is run by technicians whose job it is to carry out whatever messages are given to them, with the impersonality of hired servants.

It is otherwise with the languages and means of expression of the arts. Here we are in the realm of “extensions of man,” or of the expanded mind, skills, perceptions and senses; the realm of active exploration by human beings of the world outside them, along with that within them, and the exchange of their findings. The term “medium” is used here, but in a quite different sense from that which it has to the advertiser choosing between magazines, newspapers, radio or TV. A painter may decide to use the medium of water color, oil painting, etching or drawing; a composer may use that of an orchestral piece, song, piano piece, or string quartet; a writer may use the medium of the novel, essay, lyric poem or drama. The medium is not the message, although it is involved with and shaped by the message.

The arts are nourished by truth to life. The medium is a tool both for exploring this reality, always changing and inexhaustibly revealing ever new facets, and for fixing the artist’s perceptions in objective, evocative form. Each artistic medium relates to a special aspect of external and internal reality which it is best fitted to explore. Within this aspect of reality the crystallized discoveries or “messages” are as varied as is real life itself. And the medium is shaped by the life it reflects. Works of art may view life narrowly, and can even falsify it. But if falsification dominates the work, it does not operate as art. If there is no integrity at all, no genuine and deeply felt human response to something real, this is revealed in the lifelessness with which the medium is handled. All the fine craftsmanship applied cannot make it live. As Shakespeare showed, the skills of deception are different from those that reveal the beating heart of a human being, or open the mind to the real world. For example, in Othello, Iago’s prim and pompous observations on “good name” are skillful blank verse, and nevertheless dead rhetoric:

Who steals my purse steals trash; ‘tis something, nothing;
‘Twas mine,’'tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.

Cassio’s outburst when he has been caught derelict in duty, not knowing that Iago has tricked him into this, is prose, and yet a moving cry from the heart:

IAGO: What, are you hurt, lieutenant?

CASSO: Ay, past all surgery .... Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial. My reputation, Iago, my reputation!

McLuhan’s writing is close to the skills of deception. Enthusiastically he exploits the ambiguity of the term “medium”—on the one hand an active tool for the expanded perception of reality and on the other an impersonal, mechanical channel for communicating anything, true or untrue—to eliminate the concept of truth from all discussion of media. Just as Nietzsche declared himself to be “beyond good and evil,” so McLuhan, in his exaltation of the modern service and communications media, is beyond such considerations as truth or untruth. He is liberated from this relic of the “print age.” His statements, he says, are only “probes.” His book, in the spirit of the advertising media, is above such questions as, “Is what you say true?” It is presumably a gigantic probe. But we might legitimately ask, just what is he probing? Is it the gullibility of his readers?

It is a cunning device for McLuhan to draw upon the arts in order to make the modern electronic media appear to be the culmination of what the arts had been striving for in history. But it is a deceptive device. The arts are the historic embodiment of the growth of human sensitivity, the media through which human beings have striven to know the world and themselves, the windows progressively opened on reality, the developing extensions of man that make human life more human. They are not simply technologies that become outmoded, to be replaced by new technologies. They are not environment but forms of human relationship and collectively shared perceptions sensitizing people to their real environment.

The electronic media of today, however, try their best to become the people’s environment, to become their universal culture, so that to the advertiser or publicist, they can guarantee a captive audience. This confusion of media is necessary to McLuhan’s thesis. It enables him to ennoble, with the phrase “extensions of man,” the operation of media today for assaults upon man.

SOURCE: Finkelstein, Sidney. Sense and Nonsense of McLuhan (New York: International Publishers, 1968), Chapter 4, "The Medium and the Deceptive Message," extract, pp. 53-60.

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