David Cronenberg’s “Videodrome” (1983) & Marshall McLuhan

24May12

Dr. Brian O'Blivion

Dr. Brian O’Blivion (influenced by McLuhan)

“The television screen has become the retina of the mind’s eye. For that reason, I refuse to appear on television, except on television. O’Blivion is not the name I was born with. It’s my television name. Soon, all of us will have special names, names designed to cause the cathode-ray tube to resonate.” – Dr. Brian O’Blivion

Blurring Between Hot and Cool Media

Cronenberg has never shied from famous Canadian media scholar Marshall McLuhan’s influence on Videodrome. In fact, one of the film’s “villains,” Dr. Brian O’Blivion, is based off McLuhan. The author of Understanding Media was noted for introducing several important concepts into our understanding of how media determines ourselves, including the logic of media’s design as extensions of our bodies (taken to the literal extreme in the film) and the phrase “The medium is the message” (the “medium” and “message” in Videodrome’s case being the “new flesh”).

McLuhan was also known for distinguishing between “hot” and “cool” media. Hot media engages in a single sense and ostensibly requires little participation of or imagination from a viewer (for example, watching a conventional narrative film in a movie theater). Cool media, by contrast, requires more participation: a seminar discussion is a cooler form of media than listening to a lecture or reading a book, for example. But McLuhan’s conceptualization of these terms was never medium-specific. Watching film or television is not always or necessarily hot or cool.

videodrome2

As new forms of media get introduced, their specific utilities – and the changing functions of older forms of media – can come into question. The way that a form of media technology is designed is not necessarily the same as how it is ultimately used. In Videodrome, no medium is fixed in its utility. Television sets made for observing from a distance can suddenly transform into breathing automatons readied for one-on-one interaction rather than as vessels for mass broadcast.

This readymade understanding of media technology speaks more readily to our current digital moment than to 1983. We no longer think of technologies or media artifacts as a given in terms of the way they’re presented to us: smart phones can be retooled for unintended use, movies can be re-edited and distributed on the web, and the supposed obsolescence of “older” technologies and media delivery formats only provide more opportunities for rethinking them. Thus, hot and cool mediums become more and more difficult to distinguish. The option for participation is not so much determined by the design of the media itself, but whether or not we choose to activate our own agency.

Convergence

Henry Jenkins defines convergence as the drawing together of previously discrete media. That means our portable phones are not only phones, our television sets do not only broadcast television, etc. No technology is homogenous; everything is transformed into a broad conceptualization of a “media device,” whether physically mobile or stationary. Convergence doesn’t only refer to our technological formats, but the media we consume as well. Instead of watching a film in a movie theater, we can view it on a DVD, stream it through a website, or watch it on our phone. Everything is mobile and nothing is fixed.

Convergence is inseparable from the other two categories previously discussed. Media texts can circulate readily as a result of an array of devices that they can travel through and between, and this greater circulation is enabled and emboldened by the blurring between hot and cool media: a film is no longer “hot” if I can touch the screen on which it plays. But convergence has profound implications on the ways in which our bodies navigate the world. Our fingers become adept at touching digital devices in a specific way (for the generational implications of this, watch this baby attempt to turn the pages of a magazine). There are no longer distinct spaces for digital interaction like the desktop; we have all become, to a certain extent, mobile media devices ourselves (especially if Google gets their way).

But as Cronenberg is a filmmaker deeply concerned with the relationships between the body, technology, and culture, the implications of convergence go a long way in Videodrome. Technology is not only modeled as an extension of the human body; it is the human body. Renn’s fingers become an abject flesh-machine hybrid that fires bullets, and his lower chest is transformed into a vaginal cavity for both consuming and delivering media. Now, while the reign of all things Apple may not mean that we’ll all develop electromechanical chest-vaginas, that distinctions between flesh and technology will continue to blur is certain, and this fact has both hopeful and strange implications.

Final Thoughts

Videodrome is no doubt a dystopian film. It posits the ubiquity of media as a condition that can fry our minds and destroy reality. I would hesitate to say that Videodrome is a pessimistic film (it’s far too intelligent for that), but it’s views of viral media, hot and cold media, and convergence do not match the optimism by currently assigned to supposedly “democratized” media. But that’s why Videodromeis more important than ever. It’s a portending signpost, a cautionary tale about the illusion of control that asks viewers to never confuse agency with independence.  http://tinyurl.com/bmqnfqr

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