McLuhan once again. Or, more specifically, The Medium is the Massage, around which I am yet again centering multiple courses. (What can I say? The book rewards rereading.) I’ve just read Kevin Brooks’ “More ‘Seriously Visible’ Reading: McCloud, McLuhan, and the Visual Language of The Medium is the Massage,”1 available for download from http://www.ncte.org/cccc/ccc/issues/v61-1. As I’ve blogged before, I’ve had some fruitful discussions with Kevin about the book, and his essay is quite helpful. I’ve read Scott McCloud’s trilogy of comics theory2 and have used passages from them in digital/new media theory classes. Kevin’s now got me thinking about including sections in the first-year composition course to help us think about The Medium is the Massage. I’m also considering adding one to the book list for Advanced Composition: Image, Sound, Text, which I teaching in March as an accelerated half-semester course.

As interesting and useful as Kevin’s application of McCloud to McLuhan’s text is, this post is not about Kevin’s application of McCloud but his brief discussion of the structure of The Medium is the Massage. Kevin divides the book into seven scenes:3

  1. An introduction: pp. 1-7
  2. The Mechanical Bride reworked, pp. 8-24
  3. A visual inter-chapter, pp. 25-43
  4. The Gutenberg Galaxy reworked, pp. 44-75
  5. Another visual inter-chapter, pp. 76-91
  6. Understanding Media reworked, pp. 92-149
  7. A conclusion, pp. 150-60.

As the book is often described as “Understanding Media lite” or “reworked,” I  like that Kevin finds sections in the book that correspond to The Mechanical Bride and The Gutenberg Galaxy as well, making the book more of a summary/reworking of McLuhan’s work to date and especially The Mechanical Bride. McLuhan—and through him Walter Ong—were deeply influenced by I. A. Richards’ Practical Criticism, which precedes Leavis’ New Criticism. (As Rob Pope notes in The English Studies Book, Richards was much more interested in describing reactions to literature than professing judgments of value as Leavis and his predecessors, and Richards was also much more interested in a text’s rhetorical effects (84-85). Ong used to say that McLuhan brought with him to Saint Louis University the New Criticism of Cambridge and their Richardsonian focus on analysis as description of effect is a unifying methodology through much of their work. The Mechanical Bride is an excellent example of this approach.4 It’s my sense that far too few people are aware of the Richardsonian underpinnings to Ong and McLuhan’s methodology.

While I’m still ruminating on Kevin’s seven scene structure, I’m contrasting it with the structure I present as I teach the book. My found structure is as follows:

  1. Introduction, pp. 1-41, that is the “Good Morning” page which has the egg on the plate through the page which explains that by altering the environment, media “evoke in us unique rations of sense perceptions.” It is in this section that McLuhan presents his argument and teaches us how to read the book, which he does on page 10 and to a lesser extent pp. 8-9. In the context of the transition that follows, we can call this section the “sentence.”
  2. Transition, pp. 42-43. The paraphrase of the trial scene from Alice in Wonderland. The focus here is the question of whether evidence should come before the sentence or the sentence before the evidence.5 (I discuss the importance of this transition below.)
  3. Evidence, pp. 44-151, in which McLuhan both supports and elaborates on his argument.
  4. Transition, pp. 152-55. Here again McLuhan and Fiore return to Alice, framed by the crowd portrait with numbers instead of faces. Here we find the caterpillar asking Alice who she is and with her responding that she isn’t sure, having gone through several transformations since she got up that morning. This itself invokes page 1 of the book with it’s “Good Morning!” and egg on a plate. This use of Alice’s Adventures here is intended to signify our new awareness of the effects of media and how they change “practically every thought, every action, and every institution taken for granted” (8).
  5. Conclusion, pp. 156-60. This section begins with a The New Yorker cartoon of a son explaining McLuhan to his father, takes us through the photo credits, and ends with a final A. N. Whitehead quote, “The business of the future is to be dangerous;” a final reminder that we must be willing to contemplate what is happening if we, like Poe’s mariner, are to successfully navigate our environment.6

I probably spend too much time on the transition of pp. 42-43, but I find it’s debate over the order of presenting the evidence and sentence (judgment) as a discussion over when we present a thesis and when we present the supporting evidence. The evidence then sentence model of Anglo-American trials, which is premised on the idea of innocent until proven guilty, is a hold over from Anglo-Saxon legal practices, that is from an oral/oral-literate transitional culture. We also find this structure in scribal culture and early print culture.7 As we interiorized the ideology of print, our evidence the sentence model reversed itself to give us our present structure in writing, including the structure of McLuhan’s book which presents the sentence (thesis) and then supports that sentence with evidence.8 That McLuhan and Fiore use the trial scene from Alice’s Adventures Under Ground is critical to understanding the function of the break. Having just given us his sentence and just about to give us his evidence—which begins with Western culture’s transition from the oral to the phonetic—McLuhan and Fiore foreground for us that even the conventions of reading a printed book are predicated upon the medium itself.

  1. CCC 61.1 (September 2009): W217-37. []
  2. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art; Reinventing Comics: How Imagination and Technology are Revolutionizing an Art Form; and and Making Comics: Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga, and Graphic Novels []
  3. See pp. W225-27 for a fuller explanation of Kevin’s reasons for dividing the book up as he does. []
  4. Ong, by the way, was one of three people to review The Mechanical Bride. (See item 67 in Thomas Walsh’s Walter J. Ong, S.J.: A Bibliography 1929-2006 for the full bibliographic record of Ong’s review.) []
  5. The text and the picture of Alice and the Queen of Hearts used on pp. 42-43 actually come from Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, the original mss. from which is derived  Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. (( See the Project Gutenberg HTML version, pp. 88-89. []
  6. I could just as easily posit the start of the conclusion at page 150 as does Kevin, and have indeed done so with some past classes, I can’t ignore the return to Alice and Wonderland and its position right before The New Yorker cartoon. As I place so much emphasis on the importance of first transition, I need to think of this as a transition as well. And, of course, transitions are medial spaces, verges that resist being one or the other. []
  7. I ask students to think here of Thomas Aquinas—their Jesuit education comes in handy!—and I give a mini-lecture of Montaigne and the origins of the essay, doubly relevant as Montaigne is quoted in The Medium is the Massage and understanding the origins of the essay as exploration through writing helps foreground the idea of writing to learn. Also important is the fact that McLuhan gives us a means of understanding why “the essay” has gone from an exploration through writing to a demonstration of mastery through writing. []
  8. Note that print culture’s reversal of evidence and sentence is predicted in McLuhan’s tetrad of media effects. The hot medium of print reverses the order in which evidence and sentence are presented. []