Re-Understanding Media: Feminist Extensions of Marshall McLuhan | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

Re-Understanding Media: Feminist Extensions of Marshall McLuhan

Re-Understanding Media: Feminist Extensions of Marshall McLuhan
Sarah Sharma & Rianka Singh, Editors

Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2022
280 pp., illus. 39 b/w. Trade, $99.95; paper, $26.95
ISBN: 978-1-4780-1525-3; ISBN: 978-1-4780-1787-5

Reviewed by: 
Jan Baetens
June 2022

A gathering of papers presented at the Monday Night Seminar series of the McLuhan Institute (University of Toronto), this book is more than just an “extension” of McLuhan’s major publication, Understanding Media (1964), as the subtitle somewhat misleadingly suggests. It is indeed the very idea of medium as extension, one of McLuhan’s most central convictions, that is critically challenged in this collection, which aims at reading McLuhan in light of a feminist and critical agenda. To be more precise, the aim of this book is neither to simply criticize nor to critically update McLuhan, but to show that in spite of the well-known limitations of his thinking (it is not by chance that the opening sentence of this publication reads: “Feminism is not the first thing that springs to mind when considering Marshall McLuhan” (p. 1)), this classic medium theory can still be a source of inspiration for feminist, critical, and intersectional authors and practitioners, whose first concern is not always medium theory, and proves open to remediations and new insights offered by questions of gender, sex, and race.

Yet what do the editors and contributors of this book actually mean by McLuhan’s medium theory? Their ambition here is rather modest. They do not address the whole of McLuhan’s work, here summarized by the most striking of his own slogans, “the medium is the message”. All contributions primarily focus on the classic interpretation of this catchphrase, namely the fact that the meaning of a medium is not purely technological (although McLuhan himself has often been accused of techno-determinism) but the change it produces at the level of both the individual and society –and this change is further defined in terms of (spatial) extension and (temporal) acceleration. Re-Understanding Media accepts these ideas as the cornerstone of McLuhan’s work, but it also pays attention to specific texts, most importantly of course The Mechanical Bride. Folklore of Industrial Man (1951), where the link between sex and medium is a central issue. More fundamentally, the uniting factor of sex and medium is the notion of power, and it is the relationship between power, medium, and gender (but also sex and race) that is at the heart of this collection.

All contributors take as their point of departure McLuhan’s complex analysis of the relationship between power, sex, and medium, with, on the one hand his clear awareness of the fact that gender issues are writ large in what media are and what media perform, and, on the other hand his complete denial of this point. For McLuhan, “man” and thus the “power” of a medium (all media being “manmade” and having an impact on “man”) are quasi-natural givens, gender-insensitive, and not hindered by power imbalances between genders, sexes, races, abilities, income levels, etc. It is against such universalization and naturalization of “man” and, thus, the explicit refusal to include all forms of difference that this book is protesting. At the same time, however, the purpose of both editors and contributors is never to simply debunk McLuhan. Instead, they all try to take advantage of his work to foreground a more inclusive, more political, less techno-determinist and less sexist or racialized form of medium and medium theory.

Re-Understanding Media is divided in three equal parts (all well-presented and well-edited): 1) theoretical interventions in the academic field of media studies, 2) ongoing media research that has been asked to engage with McLuhan’s work, 3) reflections (in interview format) on digital technologies as seen through a feminist lens. The most interesting chapters of the book are those that succeed in bringing together the analysis of concrete objects, not all of them automatically seen as media (such as the curb of a sidewalk or the auction block of the slave market) and a more theoretical reflection of media that goes beyond the mere technological aspects. This is, of course, what McLuhan himself had been doing in the best of his writings, which disclose tools as media while showing that one needs a humanist approach to fully understand what goes on in medium theory. In this sense, the critical voices of this book are the best example of post-McLuhan thinking one can dream of.

One of the most interesting aspects of this book is, of course, the variety of its subjects (with a good mix of subjects already studied by McLuhan such as textiles or shoes and less evident or neglected ones, such as the gallows and the filing cabinet) and the often surprising but always polite confrontation between McLuhan’s eurocentrism and completely different points of view. Yet the most stimulating parts of Re-Understanding Media are definitely those that manage to rethink medium theory itself, be it that of McLuhan as that of his followers or critics. Several chapters –and please allow me to single out my favorite on Tupperware by Brooke Erin Duffy and Jeremy Packer –tackle the problematic link between “extension” and “containment”, often framed in gender terms: men use tools to conquer the world; women are in charge of maintaining the status quo in the domestic sphere. In these chapters one will find a smart deconstruction of the extension versus containment divide, with for instance new readings of the medium not as extension but as container (these texts thus reject a reading of the medium as container that refuses to see that in many cases to contain is the best possible way to extend), but also of the active role of containers (instead of insisting on the purely passive role that many medium theories give to storage, these texts highlights that storage is also processing) and the critical power of containment (and here these texts oppose the traditional way of naturalizing the relationship between containment and conservatism).