McLuhan 3: The Medium is the Massage

Posted by PH on June 13, 2007
Marshall McLuhan, Resonant Interval

A couple of weeks ago, in an idle moment, I picked up The Medium is the Massage again and read it from cover to cover. It took me about an hour. Since then, I’ve read it cover to cover twice more, and am constantly dipping into it. I love it.

The Medium is the Massage wasn’t actually “written” by McLuhan:

The book had in fact been composed by Jerome Agel, who had written a profile of McLuhan in 1965, and Quentin Fiore, a first-class book designer. The two selected or commissioned photographs to accompany excerpts they culled and reshaped from various writings and statements of McLuhan’s. […] McLuhan contributed the punning title and approved the text and layouts. Agel and Fiore evidently did their work well: McLuhan changed only one word. Their mix of text and visuals was indeed a virtuoso feat. They used arresting photographs and artwork and performed interesting experiments with type, laying it upside down, on the slant, or in mirror image, switching its size from page to page, switching between regular and boldface, and so on.
Agel referred to the result as a “cubist” production. McLuhan recognized that it was an effective sales brochure for his ideas. (Marchand 1989, p.192)

Exactly forty years on, the book stands up well: it’s very digital media. The book is a riot of collages, visual puns, voice prints, excerpts from newspapers and magazines, cartoons, abstract patterns, extreme close-ups, black- and white-negative space, and runs the whole gamut of typographical experimentation. It’s the sort of thing that would be quite easy to do now, but was probably very difficult in 1967.

Set against and around this visual feast are expertly chosen and edited nuggets of McLuhan’s writing. The text bounces off the images, argues and agrees with them, works in concert and opposition. It resonates. It’s metaphoric.

The Medium is the Massage remains McLuhan’s bestselling book, and it’s easy to see why: the brevity, the condensation, the humour, the life offered by the interplay between text and image. It’s deep and entertaining. As an introduction to McLuhan it is second to none.

References
Marchand, P. (1989) Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger. New York: Tickner & Fields.
McLuhan, M. & Fiore, Q. (1967) The Medium is the Massage. San Francisco: Hardwired.

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