Marshall McLuhan’s Laws of Media Applied: Photography Flips into Snapchat


There has been a recent sometimes heated discussion on the Media Ecology Association’s listserv about the value and applicability of Marshall and Eric McLuhan’s Laws of Media (LoM). As in the past, some media scholars value and apply the LoM in their teaching and writing, while others either willfully or otherwise misunderstand them or do not teach new media for which LoM are especially useful for understanding new communication forms. They thus ignore them, or do not like the man himself for whatever reason. I am of the former group, as is my colleague at Fordham University, Paul Levinson, who demonstrates in a posting to his Infinite Regress blog the usefulness of LoM in understanding the evolution of photography from analog film to digital selfies and Snapchat………Alex

Monday, October 27, 2014

Photography Flips into Snapchat

One of the joys of understanding McLuhan is how his insights can leap forth at unexpected times to supply us with a connection or a new insight about a matter – or medium – at hand.  About six months ago, I came to realize that the photograph has flipped into the selfie in our own day and age.  Just yesterday, I did a little podcast on this subject – in which I also pointed out that radio has flipped into the podcast. And today, just a few hours ago, I realized that photograph has also flipped into Snapchat.

One of the best things about McLuhan’s tetrad or four laws of media is that a given medium can enhance, obsolesce, retrieve, and flip into multiple media.  In case you’d like a quick refresher on the tetrad, it is an exploratory tool that McLuhan developed to help us make sense out of the emergence of media.   Take radio, for example:  It (1) enhances or amplifies sound (speech, music, etc) sent instantly across great distances simultaneously to lots of people; (2) obsolesces the written word as in newspapers as a mode of news delivery; (3) retrieves the spoken word that of course never really went away but was eclipsed to some extent by the products of the printing press; and radio, when it is pushed to its limits, (4) flips into television, which broadcasts like radio but re-inserts the visual into the mix.   And, radio, the professional mass medium, also flips into podcasting that anyone with a microphone and a connection to the Internet can do. More on the tetrad in my book, Digital McLuhan, pictured below.But back to photography: its flip into Snapchat is profound indeed, because permanency has always been one of photography’s hallmarks.  As Andre Bazin so aptly noted, a photograph rescues an image from “its proper corruption in time”.  In contrast, the Snapchat photo is deliberately intended to corrupt over time – and very quickly.  Because the essence of Snapchat is that you send someone a photograph that you want him or her to see only when they receive it, and not any time after.  If only former Congressman Anthony Weiner had known about Snapchat!

So we can now add Snapchat to the selfie as one of the media that photography has flipped into.   Like a reflection in a pool of water, which can also be a selfie and also can disappear as soon as the person staring into the pool walks away, Snapchat epitomizes the ever percolating evolution of media to forms that are at once both new and well established in our past.

See also Marshall McLuhan and the Kindle and Tetrad on Eyeglasses Flipping into Google Glass 

Republished by permission from:

Levinson, P. (1999). Digital McLuhan: A Guide to the Information Millennium. London: Routledge.

In each chapter of Digital McLuhan Paul Levinson provides a clear introduction to one of McLuhan’s key ideas. He then goes on to demonstrate how McLuhan’s writing provides tools to help us think through changes to society and individuals that have been brought about by the internet. Levinson shows how McLuhan’s ideas, so strange and provocative in the 1960s, have become especially relevant in the new millenium.


Addendum: Those academics who dismiss McLuhan’s Laws of Media for whatever reason, might want to reconsider the matter, in view of Professor Graham Harman’s analysis of them from a philosophy of technology perspective:-

“I contend that the tetrads transform not just the philosophy of technology, but metaphysics as a whole. If Darwin gains credit for shaking the stability of ‘essence’ in philosophy, thereby encouraging such figures as Bergson and Whitehead, the McLuhans deserve equal credit for redefining entities as media. In my view, the term media is relevant not just to paper and electric technologies, but also to trees, reptiles, gases and stones, since every object is a medium transmitting the energies and broadcasts of others. The famous phrase ‘the medium is the message’ deserves a place not just in TV Guide, but on a short list of the basic principles of metaphysics. All entities are fourfold media, as the McLuhans have done even more than Heidegger to establish.” (pp. 100-101)
“And no one in the twentieth century, not even Heidegger, does as much as the McLuhans to retrieve the metaphysics of objects as a viable medium.” (p. 122) – Harman, G. (2009). The McLuhans and metaphysics. In J.K.B. Olsen, E. Selinger & S. Riis (Eds). New waves in philosophy of technology (pp. 100-122). London: Palgrave Macmillan.

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