Northrop Frye on Marshall McLuhan’s Ideas

05Aug11

Northrop Frye (1912-1991)

Even the brilliant Canadian literary scholar Northrop Frye didn’t “get” what Marshall McLuhan was getting at with his “medium is the message” aphorism. This comes from the Northrop Frye blog, hosted at McMaster University……..AlexK

The Educated Imagination » Blog Archive » Frye on McLuhan’s “The Medium is the Message”

From “Literary and Mechanical Models” (1989):

Apart from the analogies of ballad and folklore scholarship, I was also influenced by the twentieth-century fluidity of media, in which a story might begin as a magazine serial, then become a book, and then a film. I remember the shock of picking up a copy of [Dostoevsky’s] The Brothers Karamozov and seeing it described as “the book of the film,” but I also realized that certain verbal cores, of the kind I usually call archetypes, were constants throughout the metamorphoses. The variety of media, in fact, was what made the conventions and genres I was interested in stand out in such bold relief.

It was this that made it impossible for me to go along with McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” axiom, despite my general sympathy for what McLuhan was trying to do. McLuhan’s formula was essentially in application of the Aristotelian form-content unity. He says, for example, that the form of one medium is the content of a later medium. I could see the identity of form and content: the content of a picture, for example, is the form of that picture, as long as we are talking about it as a picture and not as a representation of something else. But the McLuhan aphorism also implied an identity of form and medium, and that I cannot buy. A medium is precisely that, a vehicle or means of transmission, and what is transmitted are the real forms. The form of a Mozart quartet is not affected by whether it is heard in a concert hall or over the radio or read in a score, though there would be psychological variants in reacting to it, of the kind that McLuhan made so much of. The real forms are not media but verbal or pictorial structural units that have been there since the Stone Age. (CW 18, 455-6) http://tinyurl.com/42lnk96

Below is one of Frye’s numerous assessments of McLuhan’s concept of the “global village” from Notebook 11f (1969-70):

The “flow of information,” which is mostly disinformation, is actually a presentation of myths. And people are increasingly rejecting the prescribed myths & developing their own counter-myths. Take another McLuhan phrase, “global village–one early satellite broadcast was called the “town meeting of the world.” The myth behind this phrase assumes that every technological development creates a new anxiety & understanding–that a village is a community of friends. But, of course, a village may be a community of cliques & feuds & backbiting & gossip of a ferocity far worse than any metropolis, like those hideous little downs at the divisional points of railways, where the conductor’s wife couldn’t compromise her dignity by speaking to the breakman’s wife. So when communicators, with a schoolteacher’s bright & glassy smile, say: now we’re going to be able to create a dialogue with Paraguay & Tanzania, & won’t that be nice? the reaction is, very often: we don’t want all those people in our living room: we want to get together with the people who speak our language & share our beliefs & prejudices, including, if we’re lucky, a minority that we can have fun of kicking around. Separatism, except when it is a genuine effort to escape from tyranny, is in most respects a mean, squalid & neurotic philosophy, but it is the strongest force yet thrown up by the age of total communication. (CW 13, 97) http://tinyurl.com/42lnk96

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