Screen Culture – Week 01

Classwork

I was encouraged by the broad scope of the introductory lecture and tutorial for Screen Culture this week. It will be the first – and only – strictly theory subject I’ve taken this year and probably a nice break from the weight of project based work.

I had expected Screen Culture to look primarily at film works and to talk about the ideas and philosophy behind important cinema. However, the subject takes a far more broad approach, and looks at all kinds of screens: interfaces for devices (mobiles, MP3 players, ATMs); the way we monitor and observe both individuals and data via screens; distribution and consumption on screen (film, television); and the way the screen impacts how we see the world – particularly the way it compresses time and space (think of the internet).

It will also look at the term ‘media’ and what this actually means. Obviously it can represent both the medium of communication as well as the institutions and organisations controlling the flow of (mis)information. Of course we’ll be touching on McLuhan‘s work, which fits in nicely for me, as I’m bumbling through Understanding Media right now. Mostly I’m really enjoying the book, but there are some parts that I feel as though a few crib notes would go a long way.

Marshall McLuhan

Research

We were given two readings to lead into the McLuhan lecture next week. The first, an excerpt from Essential McLuhan (McLuhan, Eric; Zingrone, Frank. 1997), was a seemingly random selection of McLuhan’s Understanding Media, with a list of McLuhan quotes thrown in. I’m sure that if I read the entire book, the decision to reprint sections of McLuhan’s publications would be put into some kind of context, but seeing as I’m already reading Understanding Media anyway, the reading felt a little pointless.

The second paper was a section of our textbook New Media: A Critical Introduction (Lister, Dovey, Giddings, Grant, Kelly. 2009), the latest edition of which has proved extremely difficult to get a hold of in Australia. This paper presented a more critical view of McLuhan and seemed to be leaning more in favour of a Williams-esque perspective of McLuhan’s philosophy. The main difference between the two academics was summed up in this paper…

“While McLuhan was wholly concerned with identifying the major cultural effects that he saw new technological forms (in history and in his present) bringing about, Williams sought to show that there is nothing in a particular technology which guarantees the cultural or social outcomes it will have (Williams 1983: 130).”

I do think there are too many assumptions within New Media about McLuhan, creating something of a misleading picture about his work. They seems to suggest that McLuhan believes that the orally-based, tribal cultures of pre-literate man are ‘primitive’ in a simple sense. I get the impression that McLuhan actually believes that oral cultures are extraordinarily rich and it is the introduction of the Western alphabet that stifles man, narrowing his perception and ability to think broadly. McLuhan also makes a heavy handed point that it was the alphabet that introduced a ruling class. The introduction of a ‘new media’ doesn’t imply a greater evolution of man.

These are just first impressions though, and not only have I not finished reading Understanding Media yet, but I haven’t seen any of Williams’ work either. I am looking forward to getting some more clarity in next week’s lecture, and even if nothing else, McLuhan is a highly interesting subject, as New Media suggests…

“He is seen as a theoretically unsubtle and inconsistent thinker who provokes others to think (Silverstone 1999: 21).”

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