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Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Medium is the Maker

Most people in the West are familiar with the phrase “The Medium is the Message”, coined by Marshall McLuhan. 

Not so, in Japan!  

Here,  people are inclined to take many things -- including technology -- more at face value. Good thing Socrates was not Japanese – he wouldn’t have found anyone to debate. Then again, he would have lived a longer life!  “Critical discourse” is just not that big here.

 I once had a job writing the rationales for about 30 Japanese submissions to the Clio Awards.  To do this, I had to interview the directors who had made the TV commercials – none of whom could really explain how their ads worked or why. Each had just gone with an idea -- in more than a few cases proposed by a junior member of their team -- and worked it out cinematically because it felt good.  Now, no one said anything like, “it just felt good” but that was the general idea.  There was no critical thinking here.  No consideration of the psychology of the viewer. No “logic”.   

I couldn’t just say that the TV commercials had just sort of “happened” – that they evolved.   In the end, I just analyzed the commercials myself and wrote them up as though some deep thinking had gone into the process –some “intelligent design”.

Three of those commercials won awards.

The fact is that the nature of a medium -- in the case of TV commercials – multi-medium – does shape the message.    McLuhan wanted to entitle his book not “The Medium is the Message” but “The Medium is the Massage”.  His publishers disagreed I guess.  “Message” was catchier I guess.
However, it might be better to say, as J Hillis Miller does in his book on Browning, Derrida and Freud, that the “medium is the maker”.  Yes, mediums do frame messages, often changing the original concept – or – in case of our those Japanese TV commercial directors I mentioned – helping generate it –but beyond that they are “performative” – they make things happen .

This idea (“performative”)  is clearly seen in TV commercials which are an art form but primarily intended to influence someone to do something.

The CM is funny .  It cleverly – shall I say “artfully”?  exploits its time constrained, nominally low viewer attention TV medium --but its purpose is to make you do something  visit the website.
Did I go to  Yes, I did.

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