The Mediated Mind in the Rearview Mirror


Scott McLemee examines Susan Zieger’s The Mediated Mind: Affect, Ephemera, and Consumerism in the Nineteenth Century, which helps put into clear view the impact of mass media culture on the way we live now.

By Scott McLemee   –  July 27, 2018

Among the first books about Marshall McLuhan was one called The Medium Is the Rear-View Mirror (1971)– [by Donald F. Theall, McLuhan’s first PhD student at U of Toronto] a title that alluded to the media theorist’s most famous sound bite while also incorporating one of his favorite metaphors. An uncommonly lucid explanation of what he meant by “the rear-view mirror view of the world” can be found in the interview he gave to Playboy magazine in 1969: “Because of the invisibility of any environment during the period of its innovation, man is only consciously aware of the environment that has proceeded it; in other words, an environment becomes fully visible only when it has been superseded by a new environment; thus we are always one step behind in our view of the world.”

McLuhan’s core doctrine was that technology in general and communications media in particular defines the terrain of human experience and cognition so completely as to be, in effect, our real environment — our second nature, in the fullest sense. A sufficiently transformative innovation, such as Gutenberg’s movable type, reorganizes the whole social and cultural order so radically that, soon enough, it is almost impossible to comprehend the extent of the change itself. Instead, old expressive forms and patterns of life turn into content for the new media system. Television absorbed film, just as film consumed narrative literature, which assimilated and digested oral storytelling — with changes in audience and habits of attention at each turn.

McLuhan had an unfortunate tendency to coat his insights with thick layers of vatic bafflegab [a matter of opinion]. (Perhaps the less said about his notion of television as a tactile medium engaging the mind more fully than the printed page, the better.) But the nub of his argument is bound to seem plausible to anyone who has lived through at least the last two or three decades of cultural reformatting by digital means. Visible in the rearview mirror now is the telecommunications system of McLuhan’s own day, with messages beaming out from a few stations to a mass audience — an ordering of attention that grows ever harder to imagine, but that anyone who grew up in it took as a given. “We don’t know who discovered water,” as another of McLuhan aphorisms has it, “but we know it wasn’t a fish…”

Read the rest of the review of Susan Zieger’s book here:

Publisher’s listing for Zieger’s book:

2-page spread from McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage

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