I have found that a great way to explore whether or not I really understand something is to try to explain it to someone else.
Recently, I had an epiphany — ‘an experience of sudden and striking realization’. I don’t have them very often, but if you’ve had one, you’ll know that it is one of life’s joys. Please allow me to tell you about this one.
T.S. Eliot, the poet, wrote:
“The chief use of the ‘meaning’ of a poem, in the ordinary sense, may be (for here again I am speaking of some kinds of poetry and not all) to satisfy one habit of the reader, to keep his mind diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him: much as the imaginary burglar is always provided with a nice piece of meat for the house-dog. “
— T.S. Eliot — ‘The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism’ [Harvard University Press, 1933]
Marshall McLuhan, author, educator, appropriated and repurposed that statement (among many others) in his well-known (if not closely read) book ‘Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man’.
“For the “content” of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.”
— Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man [London, England: MIT Press,1964; p.18]
I am not sure when I first came across that bit about content being a ‘juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind’, but it was at least ten years ago. More likely, it was about 20 years ago, when I first tried reading UM. It was only quite recently that I finally felt I understood it.
“…while the poem does its work upon him.” What work?
“…to distract the watchdog of the mind.” Distract? From what?
What does that even mean? What work can a poem be doing? The ‘Aha! moment’ (epiphany) occurred when I took a little leap and instead of reading the word ‘poem’, I substituted the word ‘medium’.
To distract your attention while the medium does its work.
Then it all made sense to me, and in a wonderfully pleasant way. I believe I did smile - because I know that when McLuhan talks about the work of a medium, what media do, he’s talking about the effects of technology.
The opening McLuhan quote comes from the first chapter of his 1964 ground-breaking book ‘Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man’. In the first chapter, titled ‘The Medium is the Message’ [m=m], he explains what that pithy quote means several times over. He was restating the Eliot quote to make it obvious, and I totally missed it before.
The ‘juicy piece of meat’ bit is another way of stating m=m:
“…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.” [p.7 (p.1 of ch.1)] “For the ‘message’ of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs.” [p.8]
Consequences. Change. He’s talking about effects. My dad once put it so simply and well: what made McLuhan’s theory of communication stand apart from the others was that McLuhan’s theories are based on transformation (the effects of technology on people and societies), and the conventional approach dealt with transportation (how information moves here and there, as typified in the Shannon-Weaver communication model).
“…because it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action.” [p.9]
“Specialized segments of attention have shifted to total field, and we can now say “The Medium is the Message” quite naturally.” [p13]
For those following figure/ground:
‘Specialized segments of attention’ = figure, and ‘total field’ = ground
The ‘work’ in question, which media do, is in changing the way we interact with each other, the way societies function, and the very nature and operation of our brains and senses.
For instance, the car and the highway made suburbs possible. Not until then was it possible for large groups of people to live outside the cities they worked in and commute back and forth daily. Large groups. Scale. Pace. No cars, no highways: no suburbs. Smart phones have and are changing the way we associate with each other as well. Face to face communication skills are deteriorating. Attention is shrinking, being compressed. Sentences are shrinking — the way we express things is changing — ‘because media’.
And all of this happens while we are otherwise occupied. While we are drooling over all those enticing cuts of meat.
It is helpful, and I think fascinating, to keep in mind that Marshall McLuhan was an English professor who studied and taught literature and poetry. All his work in media comes from that. Here, in typical fashion, he has taken something from literature and used it to explore media.
Thank you for reading.
Thanks go to Eric McLuhan for continued patient guidance. Love you, dad.
If you have questions or comments, feel free to leave them here or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org