by S. Brent Plate

Excerpted from CrossCurrents (June 2012), special issue on “The Mediation of Meaning.”

In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, 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.

–Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, 1964

Meaning is produced by, in, and through social, political, and economic institutions, cultural and religious forces, technology, education, and human bodily engagement with the physical world. Through these multiple movements and productions, meaning is mediated, which means it comes to individuals encapsulated and put into a format that we are taught to recognize, name, and engage. Meaning is enveloped, arriving like a letter in the post, stamped, addressed, and carried from one location to another, sealed by sender, opened by receiver. Just as the letter will not be delivered without proper postage and adequate address, meaning never appears apart from its existence as a particular embodied form. Meaning does not exist apart from its mediation.

The implication is that the medium, as McLuhan hyperbolically puts it, is the message. The metaphorical envelope is not a carrier that simply protects the integrity and insures the shipment of its lettered contents as it travels from town to town. Rather, the means of transport changes the nature of the contents. A written letter is not the same as a phone call or an email, and even if the same words are communicated, they will take on different meanings depending on their media. This is now a commonplace assertion for the many who have thought twice about it, but the constantly evolving nature of technology provokes us again and again to return to the implications of media on the human meaning-making process.

To think through the ways meaning is mediated is a challenge to older hermeneutic, iconographic, and semiotic frameworks that typically imagined meaning as a nut in a shell: the shell is broken open, discarded, and the nut is set free by the hermeneutical nutcracker. This outmoded model believed it could separate the outside from the inside, visible from invisible, surface from depth, with privilege given to the latter terms, the supposed true location of meaning. But there is no neat inside-outside distinction, no invisible (spiritual, mental) meaning within that can be easily extracted/exegeted by agents from without. “Depth,” as Erling Hope states in his contribution to this special issue, “has become cliché. This does not mean that it is false, only that we need to renew our thinking about depth.”

McLuhan’s tidy slogan, “the medium is the message,” is often repeated, though it is key to see the context of his 1964 phrasing, and specifically to understand that for McLuhan a medium is primarily defined here as an “extension of ourselves.” For example, the telephone enables “far-hearing,” the television “far-seeing,” and later the Internet would enable a “virtual community.” New developments in media allow humans to do things they were already doing—hearing, seeing, engaging others—but now to do them differently, in other places, times, ways, and with other sets of people. The “new scale” that is introduced by new media technologies rearranges the world: space contracts, time expands, sense organs are intensified, physical labor is eased, institutional structures and ritual practices are transformed. These are not secondary appendages that can be taken on and off willy-nilly while the core remains unchanged. Once the technological prosthesis of a new medium is in place, everything is changed and there is no going back. Within these human extensions, the message and the medium, the person and prosthesis, the inside and outside are but points along a continuum. In sum, the very nature of our being is altered.

Contemporary theorist Samuel Weber, taking McLuhanesque thought through a discourse via Kierkegaard, suggests, “Like all technology, the development of the electronic media follows the ambivalent law, or graphics, of prosthetic supplementarity: an ‘extension’ of human capacities, it simultaneously distances and undermines what it extends, exacerbating the vulnerabilities of the finitude it seeks to alleviate and protect.” The prosthetic media devices attached to our bodies extend our capacities as humans, allowing us to feel we are overcoming our limits, our finitude, our aloneness—newspapers at the tips of our fingers hold words of the world in front of our eyes, earbuds sonically connect bodily rhythms across space and time, companion robots vibrate and purr at our caress, new friend requests pop up on screen reminding us of a long lost friend and perhaps a long lost life. Yet these same devices simultaneously demonstrate and amplify our vulnerabilities, risks, and failures.

In her recent book, Alone Together, Sherry Turkle, with some fear and trembling, concurs, “These days, insecure in our relationships and anxious about intimacy, we look to technology for ways to be in relationships and protect ourselves from them at the same time.” The most meaningful encounters of our existence are increasingly structured and carried out through media technologies. In a real sense, they always have been, since oral communication and written letters are themselves “media.” Yet questions as to how far these technologies have changed our closest relationships seem to be heightened in the present day in light of globally networked media. There is something still correct in McLuhan’s general claim that it is the “new scale” that creates “personal and social consequences.” But, is it like before only bigger and broader? How far are the implications of media scale tied to other factors like global capitalism? Global Christianity? Global Islam? Or McLuhan’s “global village”? What happens to the body in social media? The senses? Face-to-face encounters? Do we have new bodies? New identities?

Like the blessing and curse, poison and cure that is one in the same, media protect us like a “sacred canopy,” to borrow Peter Berger’s phrasing, but concurrently threaten to tear us apart. Among other attributes given to Homo sapiens, “meaning-making creatures” is one of the most prominent of the modern age. And since we cannot make meaning without mediating it, we are stirred to look again at meaning in and through the media of its making.

In the end, expanding on the idea of media as an “extension of ourselves,” we might come to the conclusion that humanity cannot be summed up by the scientific moniker, Homo sapiens, but instead constitute a whole range of mediated and mediating creatures: Homo medias, Homo ludens, Homo aestheticus, Homo religiosus, et al., ad infinitum, becoming transformed with each new media development and employment.

S. Brent Plate is visiting associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College. His recent books include Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-Creation of the World; and Blasphemy: Art that Offends. With Jolyon Mitchell he co-edited The Religion and Film Reader. He is co-founder and managing editor of Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art, and Belief.

Read another piece by Plate on McLuhan, for The Revealer, July 2011.