Frye on McLuhan’s “The Medium is the Message”

McLuhan interviewed in 1977

The Frye on McLuhan compilation is almost done. I’m off for a few days and will complete it while I’m away. Until then, below is a sample. (I’ve also put together Frye/McLuhan-related posts for Friday and Saturday.)

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)

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