On McLuhan's Metaphysics of Media

In Yoni Van Den Eede, Joke Bauwens, Joke Beyl, Marc Van den Bossche & Karl Verstrynge (eds.), Proceedings of ‘McLuhan’s Philosophy of Media’ – Centennial Conference / Contact Forum, 26-28 October 2011. Koninklijke Vlaamse Academie van België voor Wetenschappen en Kunsten (2012)

Allen George Plant
Wayne State University
Marshall McLuhan was a theorist of media in a wide sense. He took as his subject matter not just the overtly communicative media such as printed books and television with which his ideas are commonly associated, but artifacts—that is, technology—in general. It is no accident that in Understanding Media the first specific example of a medium which McLuhan discussed at any length was the electric light. And yet, even when McLuhan’s discussions focused on media that were not overtly communicative, he persisted in using language that we associate with media of that kind. For example: in the first chapter of Understanding Media, McLuhan used such terms as ‘message,’ ‘content,’ ‘information’ and ‘medium’ to explicate the role of the electric light. McLuhan’s idiosyncratic use of this intentional terminology was such that even those who were reasonably fluent in McLuhanese could sometimes find his pronouncements difficult to decipher, if not hopelessly obscure. Compounding his readers’ interpretive problems were passages in which McLuhan seemed to contradict himself. For example, McLuhan wrote that “the message of the electric light is…totally radical, pervasive, and decentralized,” after having declared that the electric light “is a medium without a message.” Thus, he seemed to both explicitly deny and implicitly assert that the electric light has a message. However, much of this paradoxicality is merely apparent. In this paper I will discuss the relations among the aforementioned intentional terms and the concepts they connote, in the process demonstrating that there is more coherence and consistency in McLuhan’s thought than there may seem to be upon one’s first reading. I do so in part by emphasising the central role that Thomist philosophy played in influencing McLuhan’s metaphysics of media, particularly with respect to the concept of formal causation.
Keywords Marshall McLuhan  Philosophy of Media  Philosophy of Technology
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