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"Synthesis and Surprise": Reading & Teaching The Medium is the Massage

"Synthesis and Surprise": Reading & Teaching The Medium is the Massage

Since I keep posting images of and excerpts from Marshall McLuhan’s (and Quentin Fiore’s) The Medium is the Massage on bookmobility, I thought I’d also draw your attention to a new book, the amazing-looking The Electric Information Age Book (2012).

Maria Popova, over at BrainPickings, describes the book:

The Electric Information Age Book: McLuhan / Agel / Fiore and the Experimental Paperback tells the fascinating story of these collaborations and how they created a new media form “designed to put into popular form, or into more understandable form, some of the greatest ideas of our time.” … The promise of that story is a deeper understanding of contemporary visual culture, the convergence of highbrow and lowbrow, the vernacular of advertising, the dynamics of newspaper and magazine publishing, the creation of avant-garde mass culture, and a wealth in between.

I am definitely getting this books as soon as possible.

In particular, I’m excited to read it because teaching Massage raised, appropriately enough, fascinating questions about the relationship of form and content in the book itself.

Popova continues:

McLuhan, Agel, and Fiore embraced “the book’s intrinsic strengths as a site for synthesis and surprise,” as [Adam] Michaels eloquently puts it, and forged a visionary model in which the unconventional intertwining of form and content engaged audiences with new, almost cinematic modes of delivery.

When we read excerpts of the book for class, I scanned them and provided them as PDFs in addition to having the entire book in the bookstore. This prompted a truly fascinating discussion amongst my students about the differences between reading it as a book and on a screen.

As rapturous as McLuhan can be about the possibilities of television and of electric circuitry, my students generally agreed that the message (or Massage, rather) fared best in print, on paper. They argued that—more than four decades after the book’s publication and in the midst of a digital age—seeing interrelated layers of text and image on a screen is not exactly new and exciting. But their peculiar marriage in a book, and especially the way they are brought together in this book, continues to offer “synthesis and surprise.”

More precisely, some students continued, reading the paper version of Massage means seeing yourself holding it and thus understanding it as a strange, synthetic, but whole object, as yet itself rent by the fragmentation it portended. (This was, of course, something that McLuhan and Fiore played with explicitly if incompletely, as in the two spreads above.)

Next time I teach Massage, I’ll have to assign The Electric Information Age Book. And that’s a very exciting prospect, indeed.

co-posted on bookmobility

[photo credit: Greg Babula]
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