McLuhan in Europe 2011
A text by Stephen Kovats about the relevance of McLuhan in 2011.
McLuhan in Europe: Do you like TV?
In 1967 a member of a live CBC broadcast audience asked Marshall McLuhan if he liked TV, to which the media guru of the day nonchalantly replied “Ah, yes, why shouldn’t I. Any reason why not?“. McLuhan went on to describe the emotional rigor and physical participation television extracts of its audience calling TV a ‘cool medium’. In the era of the Vietnam war, “a hot shooting war” he notes that a “cool medium such as TV involves the audience so deeply they find the war unbearable. Show the same war on press photography etc. and people won’t feel so badly about it. On TV they feel really involved.”
Revisiting this exchange in the era of cultural convergence that social media and digital culture creates globally we may ask today which medium has gained the emotional and reactive foreground of our participation as an audience? McLuhan anticipated the media itself as becoming participatory and interactive, where the individual becomes broadcaster, however such a form of interaction in his time was limited to the controlled scenarios created within studios. Such mechanisms of control, that then had such force and impact vis-à-vis an audience, continued to be channels of power effected by states and other ‘empires’ right up until the moment that same audience took the tools of contemporary media into their own hands. The relevance of TV as both a manifestation of cultural identity as well as a beacon of power has severely diminished if not altogether disappeared as ever broader swaths of the media consuming populace gained access to the internet and the means of IP distribution. TV, as a symbol of power, perhaps had its last gasp as McLuhan’s ‘cool medium’ in December 1989 as the revolutionaries toppling Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu took possession of the State TV to confirm the end of tyranny and proclaim a new future of freedom for their country. Here, a ‘hot’ event converged with a ‘cool’ medium in a penultimate act of social and political power.
When considering McLuhan in 2011, the year of the centennial of his birth in 1911 and subsequent Western Canada upbringing (at the time a relatively hermetically sealed and isolated region internationally – a quality in its presumed ‘cultural backwardness’ as McLuhan would allude to in his COUNTERBLAST manifesto from 1954), the question of the reception of McLuhan’s work beyond North America is raised. Where the cultural iconography and context McLuhan attached to TV were intrinsically North American, the instrumentalisation of power attributed to the medium were to be found elsewhere, as in the case with Romania 1989.
The McLuhan in Europe 2011 initiative is aimed at examining McLuhan’s influential body of work in the context of art and cultural development in Europe. Much of his paradigm-setting work on media and broadcast culture was penned during the Cold War, a period of deep political uncertainty in which the emergent and rising role of telecommunications were an infallible and indispensable part of the political machinery, particularly in the Eastern Bloc. From the early Fifties McLuhan started to postulate the meeting of Eastern and Western realities induced by the then evolving new media environments; he pointed out both potentialities and limits of the sudden cultural clash, at the same time enlightening on the role played by new forms of communications in the making of new social forms. Yet few of McLuhan’s texts and publications were translated in Eastern and Central Europe, and if so, they became part of the cultural underground. Much of this development and reception of TV and new means of electronic communication forms an under-explored territory of the Cold War context of McLuhan’s work, especially as to how McLuhan was received by Eastern European scholars of the time and of today. The McLuhan in Europe project aims to create new dialogue within the continued growing together of Europe, articulating the notion of trans-European communication in the age of digital universality. By invoking McLuhan’s work in this particularly European context, new readings of both McLuhan as well as Europe’s own history emerge.
As such, with new projects examining McLuhan from multiple angles coming Eastern and Central Europe the initiative has also established itself as a point of departure on how the post Cold War cultures of Europe, within themselves and in relation to North America have sculpted their identities based on the influence of TV and telecommunications culture. Do we perceive different codes that inform us about who we are in fundamentally different ways between former East and former West? How are these codes changing in a post-TV world, when the meaning of media shifts from ‘media as carrier’ to ‘platform as social space’?
And at a time when people are asking one another whether they ‘like’ Facebook, perhaps McLuhan’s ‘cool’ media as a gauge of society’s interaction with their means of communication have now been eclipsed by something which is therefore truly ‘ice cold’ – the platforms of social media that have broken all political and cultural boundaries, and have pushed a frenzied interpersonal activity encompassing all areas of daily life. Perhaps this is the penultimate of McLuhan’s visions, and the creation of another entirely unique form of cultural icon – one that may finally put the old cultural codes still dividing much of East and West irrevocably behind us.
Berlin, November 01, 2011