“Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase ‘the medium is the message’ in 1958.” Boy oh boy. The front-page sting for Chris Mitchell’s deeply buried media column suggested we were in for something special. Eraserhead did not disappoint. The column is … to call it a ramble is misleading because a ramble will eventually get you somewhere. If you’re going to stick together Quadrant, Shannon Molloy, Morrissey, a play wot he saw, and wandering in the Mulga, a bit of art is required.

But the best bit is at the start, where Mitchell summons up the ghost of Marshall McLuhan:

“Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase ‘the medium is the message’ in 1958. Much misunderstood, McLuhan was not so much concerned about media technologies in his Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. He was thinking about how media change humans.

“Changes wrought by media on society have peaked with social media, where Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat now divide whole societies, local communities and international politics and media along shrill partisan lines, but with little reflection about substantive issues. Rather, social media capture and instantly reflect the emotional reactions of different communities of interest to different events …”

Then going back to the play wot he saw

“[Character X] does not want to follow [the] facts. She wants to report what is trending on Twitter. This is, I think, McLuhan’s media message for modern journalism.”

“Social media has nothing to do with journalism and less to do with the truth. Journalists must talk to real people and develop real contacts, rather than follow people’s self-focused social media mental doodles and poses. Privilege facts over feelings.”

Much misunderstood is right. McLuhan’s whole point was that the technological form of a medium changes the nature of human perception and cognition. A print culture via the technology of the presses will give you a certain way of being in the world, the instant transmission and real-time duration of the cathode-ray-tube and aerial. 

Because human society went through different media ensembles and were thus different types of people, McLuhan argued that there was no one ensemble that was “truer” than another. The media ensemble of the time defines what matters, to whom, and what acquires the status of “fact”. McLuhan was an English studies scholar of deep and broad learning. He regarded the newspaper as a recent invention that changed the way people thought. In his 1962 book The Gutenberg Galaxy he pointed out that the surreal juxtaposition of  stories created by the broadsheet newspaper form changed the way that different narratives were linked together, and thus changed the actual character of our thought. As McLuhan pointed out, “news” was an invention of the 17th century.

What is funny about Mitchell’s article is that, in arguing for a separation between “truth” out there and the medium that conveys it, he is getting McLuhan’s core idea — the idea upon which all his work and influence rests — exactly wrong. There is no point in McLuhan’s work from which to judge social media as better or worse with regards to earlier media forms. In a famous debate on TV with Norman Mailer, Mailer noted that he didn’t ever hear the words “good or bad” in McLuhan’s commentary. McLuhan replied, quoting Burke on the American Revolution, that there was no point condemning a whole people, i.e. the sort of judgements Mitchell routinely makes are asinine. You can watch it on YouTube — social media coming to the rescue against shoddy newspaper journalism.

There are two possibilities arising from Eraserhead’s errors. Either he genuinely believes that his version of McLuhan’s ideas are correct, in which case he has got it completely wrong. Or he doesn’t care, and he is just jamming together a famous name with his usual diatribe against social media. In which case he would appear to be disregarding any notion that truth matters, in order to argue for the importance of truth.

Why dissect this at such length? Well first off, it’s fun to watch Mitchell make a fool of himself while trying to present as a thoughtful and well-read man, but it’s also a measure of the dilemma the right finds itself in. They spend so much time pumping out ideology and propaganda that they lose the ability to do any real analysis. Result? You run a national broadsheet with no competition to an eight-figure annual loss. Truthy.

The only way to end this is with the famous scene from Annie Hall: “Oh yeah, well, I happen to have Mr McLuhan right over here …” Chris, do you know what a hostile gesture this is towards you?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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