Filming the Past Midpoint Essay

Finish reading pages 1-45 and 62-68 of Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media. This was originally published in 1964. What has changed and what has remained similar about media since it was published over half a century ago? How do the newer mediums through which we consume film, video, and text change or extend the insights of this book? Write up a short essay (500-600 words) comparing or contrasting McLuhan’s arguments about media with something that we have watched in class and share it by posting a comment below (your comment will not be visible until I approve it–if you don’t want it to be public, just include a note to that effect at the top or bottom of your essay).

NOTE: Please leave an extra line of space (hit enter twice) between each of your paragraphs before you copy and paste your text into a comment to post it here. The comment system strips out indents, so if you don’t leave extra space all of your paragraphs will run together in one big block. Also, you don’t need to use your real name for this assignment–choose any handle you like. I will identify you by the IIT email address you enter (which will only be visible to me, not publicly).

This assignment is due October 19 by 11:00pm. Given the pandemic and continued uncertainties we’re all dealing I realize you may have unexpected setbacks. If you have trouble turning it in by this deadline, send me an email.


  1. The medium is not neutral. McLuhan’s “Understanding Media” proposes that media is the extension of man or another medium, therefore having inherent predisposed effects. He characterized some mediums as hot. These mediums can transform the very basis of society — as in how it functions or views things overtime. Conversely, the climate of society influences the effect (message) of the medium. Therefore, the choice — of utilizing one medium over the other — has unique effects that other mediums cannot deliver.

    Cache brilliantly uses the medium of surveillance to establish the plot and maintain the audience’s morbid curiosity. Why is George being surveilled? The word surveillance means “close observation, especially of a suspected spy or criminal.” Thus by viewing the movie through surveillance footage, George has a degree of suspicion on him — as if he has something to hide. The surveillance content does not matter to the plot because it is banal. Being surveilled is enough to make the audience shift the blame onto the surveilled and crave the reason why the film is surveilling him.

    Beyond how we engage with the material, the information age influences how we perceive the material. For example, McLuhan mentions, “To a highly literate and mechanized culture the movie appeared as a world of triumphant illusions and dreams fiat money could buy.” In the Information Age, Cache becomes a movie to decipher. No longer is a movie for pure entertainment, but also to be understood. If the intended effect of Cache was to bring light to the Algerian massacre in Paris and the effects of colonization catching up, then it delivers this message by the medium. Because in the Information Age, the movie is to be deciphered. Juxtapose this against the documentary, “Drowned by Bullets.” Against the backdrop of the information age, the documentary is pure condensed information — almost overwhelming to the audience. This leaves not much to imagination or participation, fitting the characterization as a hot medium. Thus, the ambiguity of Cache serves its purpose by leaving the viewer questioning the plot since it breaks from a familiar structure. As discussed earlier, the influence of Cache is shown by viewers discussing this film on various social media platforms or searching up interviews from the director, news articles, or blogs dissecting this film.

    While “Understanding Media” is well ahead of its time and even predicted the anxious, hyper-fragmented state of our world, it’s the distinction between hot and cold media that gets turned on its head in our Information Age. “Paper is a hot medium that serves to unify spaces horizontally, both in political and entertainment empires,” McLuhan continues that “hot medium allows of less participation than a cool one.” But, in the Information Age, interaction, by extension participation, is decentralized. We discuss every piece of content. Over the years after Cache’s release, the audience was consumed by its mystery and went on sites such as Reddit or used commenting features on blog posts to discuss the meaning behind it. The hot medium of the movie was the provocation that drove asynchronous participation on different forums. Social media and commenting features on websites, artifacts of our time, allow any medium to be transformed into a participatory one regardless of whether it is hot or not.

    Our time is characterized by decentralization and asynchronous engagement which allows for participation over time. This means that the influence of older mediums, like the movie, are extended on newer platforms and the internet. McLuhan’s main message stands true that the “medium is the message.” However, playing with the medium’s properties, such as the chronology of the plot, strengthen the message. As McLuhan has stated, the state of society also influences how the medium is received. Cache’s ambiguity is only successful during the Information Age because the audience seeks out more information. Lastly, the medium of surveillance within Cache is further proof that the “medium is the message” and is used to establish it’s the plot. McLuhan’s seminal work “Understanding Media” has largely stood the test of time.

  2. While McLuhan makes multiple arguments concerning media in his writing, Understanding Media, a major theory is that over time media changes. This main argument has an affect on every other statement that he makes throughout the piece. This can be most easily identified in his argument on hot and cold media. McLuhan makes the argument that there are different kinds of media, hot and cold, but that the culture and the time in which it is interpreted is what determines which one a medium is. This argument alone can be proven by some of the very examples McLuhan had given to define hot and cold media.

    McLuhan defines hot media to be that which requires low audience participation in order to fully experience and understand the message, while cold media requires the opposite. One example that McLuhan gives for hot media is a photograph. Over half a century ago, when this piece was written, once the picture was taken it could not be changed. This meant that the audience could only look at the picture to understand the message, but was unable to have any other involvement. However, today there is such a thing as photo editing and photoshop. Now, if a person so chose, they could edit a photograph after it was taken to the point that it can look like a completely different image. Because the medium is now being interpreted by a different time, it has changed from hot to cold media.

    McLuhan’s central argument about how “the medium is the message” does stay true today, despite the change in time. Storytelling most clearly highlights this theory, showing how a different story can be told based on the medium that is used. Take Hidden Figures, a story about three women who played key roles in helping NASA during the “Space Race.” Their story is told through two different mediums, a book and a film. The book, while telling these women’s story, also brings to attention more aspects of racism that not only these women, but other black people were enduring during this time. The main focus of the book was to bring awareness to the injustices that were happening at that time, many of which continue to happen today. While the movie is based on the same story as the book, a different medium meant that an entirely different message is able to be told. In the Hidden Figures movie, the main goal of bringing an untold story to light remained the same, yet the tone and the theme changed dramatically when the medium did. The new medium resulted in a light-hearted, feel-good story where everything was fixed in the end. This film showed the struggles that these women went through, yet made it seem as if after changing the hearts and minds of a few coworkers meant that racism no longer affected these women. Each medium was reaching for an entirely different goal, one to bring attention to a story and the other to bring awareness to a movement. The same story was told, but different mediums meant that different versions of it were heard and that’s what McLuhan argues in his theory that “the medium is the message.”

  3. In his 1964 Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan asserted that society is rapidly approaching the “final phase of the extensions of man” – the technological imitation of consciousness (p. 3). He argues the urgent need to understand the physic and social effects of those “extensions”, specifically its mediums, because they “compel commitment and participation” despite anyone’s individual point of view (McLuhan, p. 5).

    Not only did we not understand technology’s repercussions on our society and psyches in 1964 since “little consideration” up to that point was given to that topic, but even by that time we had grown numb to it (McLuhan, p. 4). If he had written this book today, I think he would have drawn the same conclusions and possibly we have reached that final phase. We have a slight recognition of the way in which media shapes our physical lives. We acknowledge our obsession with phones and social media and how it transforms our relationships; how it fixates itself to our daily routines. Yet we have become so accustomed, so numbed that we hardly do anything about it.

    We have evolved into magnificent consumers, and we buy into lifestyles of others and get the latest version phone that performed the same function of its precedent. “It is this continuous embrace of our own technology in daily use that puts us in…subliminal awareness and numbness in relation to these images of ourselves. By constantly embracing technologies, we relate ourselves to them as servomechanisms. That is why we must, to use them at all, serve these objects, these extensions of ourselves, as gods or minor religions” (McLuhan, p. 46).

    McLuhan sees artists, though, as somewhat immune to the detachment, the numbness. They have an ability to shape, analyze and understand the life forming that technology plays on our lives (McLuhan, p. 65). More importantly, they have an ability to show us ourselves. As McLuhan explains, “[The artist] is the only person aware of the nature of the present.”

    Michael Haneke’s Cachè is a wonderful example of this artistry. On the surface, it is a film about a stalker and its impact on a family, but beyond its storyline, it reveals aspects of humanity that challenge assumptions about our human relationships and interaction with technology (filmmaking). The stillness that characterizes many of the scenes in the film, ones that are meant to represent stalking, disturb our normal relationship to film and test what we are accustomed to, challenging the status quo of filmmaking. Those scenes of stalking video footage are completely jarring in that they don’t have us on the edge of our seat. We may find ourselves uncomfortable, not by the stalking, but by its lack of action.

    The film visualizes our detachment from technology. In a scene where Anne and Georges are trying to find their son, Pierott; Anne rings phones of his friends. In the background the TV is playing, and while Anne and Georges are suffering at the thought of their son missing, there is even greater suffering occurring on the screen – something of a an occupation, war or riot, and a group is carrying their dead friend – but the individual suffering of Anne and Georges’ family is what matters to them. Georges even describes the experiences of their family as a campaign of terror against them, yet there is a real terror going on around them; they just have the luxury of ignoring it.

    There is no buttoned-up ending, no resolution in the film. There is nothing obvious, just like there is nothing obvious when it comes to our own reflection and self-awareness. The couple in the film have knowledge at their fingertips – walls of books and media in their home – yet they are no smarter in their marriage or familial relationships with their son. They have connections to the broader world – she just published a book on globalization, he is an acclaimed book-talk show host, yet they are ever more isolated by the events that take place. McLuhan describes similar contradictions that he calls a great many reversals of form and dynamic.

  4. Marshall McLuhan’s 1964 book, Understanding Media: Extensions of Man, is a very melancholic yet eccentric book in which McLuhan critiques media presentation back when he was writing the book. McLuhan believes that humans are approaching “the final phase of the extensions of man-the technological simulation of consciousness” (McLuhan 5).

    Media had changed dramatically since when this book was initially published and now. News sources now have become very similar to the media McLuhan described. McLuhan put a high emphasis on the delivery of the media rather than the content the media contains. New sources now are creating articles containing some truth but fabricate a portion of the story to fit their narrative and sell copies. Although media delivery has changed with newspapers being delivered is becoming rarer, people are still consuming the news, but now these newspapers are online.

    McLuhan mentions how the media can tilt the balance of power if used correctly. This is evident in Cache and Drowned by Bullets because they are about the French police’s mistreatment against the Alergians and the ensuing coverup. In both movies, the police do not allow the media to film their clashes with the Algerian protests. This is a strategic play by them as they control the media, and causing the only media to be released is the story they created. All the rest of the country sees the Alergians attacking police and the police retaliating while playing down the numbers of injured and killed people. This demonstrates how the police were able to use the media to tilt the balance of power towards themselves and make themselves the victim, giving them the people’s support. It was not until years later that their real crimes were revealed. Once the actual story was out, the police’s opinion changed, showing the true power media has.

    McLuhan’s opinion on mediums is reasonably accurate for the time. In his book, McLuhan said that media, like radio and television, is a media that “extends one single sense in “high definition” (McLuhan 30). For McLuhan, hot media does not need to be filled in by the audience and does not require extra participation. McLuhan believes that cool media can be things such as a telephone, a tv, and a cartoon because of the limited sensual information given and thus mean they must have the audience/reader to participate and finish. This appears to be very confusing as often times now, we seem movies and TV as very similar however TV back then lacked color causing them to not be as high definition in the visual aspect as movies. This has now changed as TV should no longer be considered a cold media as it is now very high definition visually and sounds. TV has reached the same high definition level as movies. McLuhan also believed that all films were hot mediums. In the case of Cache and Drowned by Bullets, this appears to be accurate as they appeared to be high definition sensually and did not require the audience’s participation. McLuhan’s opinion on these forms of mediums is very confusing. “It makes all the difference whether a hot medium is used in a hot or a cool culture. The hot radio medium used in cool or nonliterate cultures has a violent effect, quite unlike its effect, say in England or America, where radio is felt as entertainment. A cool or low literacy culture cannot accept hot media like movies or radio as entertainment.” (McLuhan 39). McLuhan believes that his opinions should be taken very loosely because it is easy to find contradictions. He notes that the reader should not take his message too critically as they were only meant as a loose “definition” with context and the surrounding culture having a very strong impact on whether a specific media is hot or cold.

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