By Santiago Ramos
In his contribution to a collection of contentious essays on Marshall McLuhan* (a wonderful find at a book sale—like an ancient scroll describing a famous battle), Anthony Burgess makes a common but important observation. He notes that the formation McLuhan received before he entered into his brave new field of media studies came from the literary school in vogue during his studies at Cambridge: the New Criticism.
The New Critics were the ones who made sure that McLuhan would be as mindful of the form of a literary work as to what the work was trying to “say,” and that the form of the work could not be completely separated from its content. Apply that principle to other modes of communication outside the literary realm, and you see the beginnings of McLuhanism and “The medium is the message.”
Burgess goes on to make one simple criticism of his subject:
There is nothing sacrosanct about a medium that hasn’t changed since the fifteenth century, despite the halo that all books, however bad, borrow from the good one. But in refusing to accept that ideas are stronger than media, that the influence of media is (appropriately: I’m thinking of my typewriter prose again) marginal, McLuhan is perhaps guilty of a heresy worse than the esthetic one that thought that message was all.
McLuhan is right, Burgess concedes, about the powerful influence that media have in shaping or even subverting the message; but ideas are stronger, or they can be, and the message is not always subservient to the media that convey it. “The medium is the message” is a catchy phrase, but it’s not as dominant an idea as McLuhan claims.
Within Bruce Sterling’s list of “18 Challenges to Contemporary Literature,” posted in a blog from techie mag Wired (which once named McLuhan as its patron saint) is one “challenge” that has nothing to do with recent technological developments. It has all to do with the message, not the medium:
10. Contemporary literature not confronting issues of general urgency; dominant best-sellers are in former niche genres such as fantasies, romances and teen books.
Now, even with this statement, we could get sidetracked on side issues, such as: Why have certain genres been discriminated against inclusion in the canon? Why should literature care about “general urgency”? Etc. (For those who ask the second question, I recommend Clive James’ essay on G.K. Chesterton in his recent book, Cultural Amnesia, where he wonders, “Suppose we knew everything about popular entertainment at the time of Ovid: it might turn out that tall stories about metamorphosis were a craze at fashionable dinner tables, the hot topic of Saturnalia.”) But those questions miss the point, the Thing Itself.
The Thing Itself is the printed work that could be so powerful that it could trump any other concern in Sterling’s list, numbers 1 through 9 and 11 through 18, just because it’s so good. Burgess calls it an idea, but I prefer calling it a thing, or a work, because an idea can be either good or bad, but a good work is powerful because it is good.
It’s interesting that Sterling chose what seems to be an arbitrary place for such a central concern. It is the central concern, but we can’t worry about it, because inspiration comes unannounced. So I guess it makes sense that, meanwhile, we worry about the other things, because we actually can do something to change technology.
Nevertheless, Sterling helps us look at Ezra Pound’s motto in a contemporary light: “Make it new.”
*Anthony Burgess, “The Modicum is the Messuage,” McLuhan: Pro and Con. Ed. Raymond Rosenthal, Penguin Pelican, 1968.