“Might not our current translation of our entire lives into the spiritual form of information seem to make of the entire globe, and of the human family, a single consciousness?” – Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media
Today would have been the 100th birthday of Herbert Marshall McLuhan (July 21, 1911 – December 31, 1980). McLuhan gained celebrity status in the 1960s for his writings on media effects, and in the popular imagination he retains his status as Guru and Prophet of the new media. The last decade has seen a resurgence in interest in his theories, what Gary Genosko refers to as a “McLuhan renaissance”, due in large part to the advent of the Internet. It has become a commonplace assertion that McLuhan’s writings foresaw the transformation of communication technologies and our daily lives by the Internet decades in advance. Our contemporary interconnected and networked world is seen as the manifestation of McLuhan’s notion of “the global village.” His theories have influenced the work of artists, philosophers, and other evolutionary agents of social change. This influence is evident in the films of David Cronenberg, notably in Videodrome.
Cronenberg and McLuhan are both Canadians. In fact, Cronenberg attended the University of Toronto during McLuhan’s tenure there, but he states in the Videodrome director’s commentary that he did not attend any of McLuhan’s lectures. Nonetheless, Cronenberg speaks of McLuhan emanating an aura that permeated the institution. This aura certainly permeated Videodrome, as the film explores the relationship between the human body and electronic media, a central theme of McLuhan’s writings.
Videodrome presents the story of Max Renn (played by James Woods), director of a cheap Toronto cable channel called Channel 83. Max is constantly searching His video pirate compatriot discovers a satellite transmission of something called “Videodrome” depicting scenes of torture and murder. Max is entranced, and as he investigates the Videodrome transmission further he is drawn into a shadowy world that blurs the lines between reality and hallucination, between and entertainment and mind control, and between the human body and technology.
McLuhan’s influence on Videodrome is not limited to the thematic explorations: the character of Brian O’Blivion is directly modeled on McLuhan.
O’Blivion is introduced as a guest on a televised talk program called “The Rena King Show.” The topic under consideration is media programming, and the discussion panel consists of protagonist Max Renn, radio personality Nicki Brand, and “media prophet” Professor Brian O’Blivion. (Other filmic “media prophets” include Howard Beale in Network and Chance the gardener in Being There.) Unlike Nicki and Max, O’Blivion does not appear in the studio in-person. Rather, his image appears on a television set that is situated in the studio alongside the other guests.
O’Blivion responds to a question from the program host by saying:
The television screen has become the retina of the mind’s eye. That’s why I refuse to appear on television, except on television. Of course, O’Blivion is not the name I was born with; that’s my television name. Soon, all of us will have special names – names designed to cause the cathode ray tube to resonate.
O’Blivion is clearly evocative of McLuhan’s manner of speaking in tantalizing aphorisms as well as his status as “media prophet” (and Cronenberg has confirmed that O’Blivion is modeled on McLuhan). O’Blivion’s policy of only appearing on television televised on a TV set resonates with the spectacular society of Debord, and the hyperreality of Baudrillard. As Douglas Rushkoff says: “Most of media is media commenting on media commenting on media.” There are also shades of Baudrillard in O’Blivion’s assertion that “whatever appears on the television screen emerges as raw experience for those who watch it. Therefore, television is reality, and reality is less than television.” But O’Blivion also represents the deification of television, the apotheosis of the medium.
For example: Max tracks O’Blivion to the Cathode Ray Mission, a sort of homeless shelter whose residents are provided with beds, food, and television sets. He meets O’Blivion’s daughter, Bianca, and demands to meet with the professor. Bianca takes Max to O’Blivion’s study, where instead of meeting with O’Blivion he is given a videotape. Bianca explains that monologue is O’Blivion’s preferred mode of discourse. This is to be expected from the embodiment of the television medium, because monologue is the mode of discourse of TV.
In 1977 Jerry Mander published an anti-television treatise titled Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. It remains one of the best and most comprehensive statements against TV ever compiled.
Mander is highly critical of McLuhan’s media analysis and directly rebuts many of his thoughts on television. However Mander shares McLuhan’s belief that the medium is the message. In an interview with Nancho.com Mander said:
Most criticisms of television have to do with the program content. People say if there is less violence on television or less sexism on television, or less this or less that, television would be better. If there were more programs about this or more programs about that, then we’d have “good television”.
My own feeling is that that is true – that it’s very important to improve the program content – but that television has effects, very important effects, aside from the content, and they may be more important. They organize society in a certain way. They give power to a very small number of people to speak into the brains of everyone else in the system night after night after night with images that make people turn out in a certain kind of way. It affects the psychology of people who watch. It increases the passivity of people who watch. It changes family relationships. It changes understandings of nature. It flattens perception so that information, which you need a fair amount of complexity to understand it as you would get from reading, this information is flattened down to a very reduced form on television. And the medium has inherent qualities which cause it to be that way.
One of Mander’s many points is that television is not truly communication because the message being sent is strictly one-way: television viewers receive the message passively, and are unable to respond to the sender, which is a fundamental aspect of basic communication models. Any direct response is precluded. Thus, like TV itself, O’Blivion communicates in televised monologues, negating the possibility of true interaction.
Douglas Rushkoff makes this same point in his essay “The Information Arms Race”: “Television is not communication. […] Unless we have just as much of an effect on the director, writer, producer, or journalist as he has on us, we are not involved in communication. We are merely the recipients of programming.”
“By imitating the qualities we associate with living communication, and then broadcasting fixed information in its place, the mass media manipulator peddles the worldview of his sponsors.”
Eventually Max discovers that he, too, has been the recipient of programming. Max discovers a nefarious conspiracy behind the Videodrome transmission: the Wikipedia synopsis describes it as “a crypto-government conspiracy to morally and ideologically “purge” North America, giving fatal brain tumors to “lowlifes” fixated on extreme sex and violence”. As O’Blivion tells Max via pre-recorded message: the battle for the mind of North America will be fought in the video arena – in the Videodrome.
When I last watched Videodrome I was reading Media Virus! by Douglas Rushkoff. The book was first published in 1994 and betrays its age through dated pop culture references and the nearly mystical utopian vision of cybernetic society that was common in the early overly-optimistic years of the burgeoning Internet culture. But there are several points that tie-in with the themes of Videodrome.
In the film, Max discovers that the Videodrome transmission causes a brain tumor to develop in viewers. From this point the victim will suffer hallucinations and a radically distorted reality.Bianca O’Blivion tells Max that the Videodrome signal can be embedded in any transmission: color bars, station IDs, test patterns…all that matters is that the signal be received via television: the medium is the message.
In his book, Rushkoff describes the memetic nature of media messages using the spread of viruses as a metaphor. Rushkoff’s term for the Videodrome is the “mediaspace,” which he calls “the new territory for human interaction”. He states that the mainstream media “are in command of the most sophisticated techniques of thought control, pattern recognition, and nuero-linguistic programming and use them to create television that changes the way we view reality and thus reality itself.” The self-replicating memes of the media virus inject their hidden agendas through what Rushkoff calls “ideological code”.
Again, there are similarities to the media theory of Jean Baudrillard, who wrote: “We must think of the media as if they were, in outer orbit, a sort of genetic code with controls the mutation of the real into the hyperreal, just as the other, micromolecular code controls the passage of the signal from a representative sphere of meaning to the genetic sphere of the programmed signal.”
In Videodrome, Max Renn experiences bodily mutation as a result of his exposure to the pirate signal. The parallels to McLuhan’s theories of media and technology as “extensions of man” are obvious. McLuhan wrote in Understanding Media that all media serve as extensions of human faculties, either physical or psychic. Andrew Murphie and John Potts, in their book Culture & Technology, call Videodrome‘s world of mutation and transformation “a ‘dark twin’ of McLuhan’s theories: electronic media and other technologies become the agents of mutation, with disturbing consequences.” Max develops a vertical slit-like opening in his chest that is reminiscent of a vagina and a VCR, and video cassettes can be inserted into the new orifice to “program” him. Shortly after the slit develops Max probes it with his hand, and when he withdraws his arm the hand has been transformed into a sort-of fleshy, biological gun. From then on that hand is only useful as a weapon. McLuhan emphasized that every extension was accompanied by a corresponding amputation.
Another illustration of McLuhan’s thought is evidenced in the tactile element of the television. Max’s television screen reaches out to touch him, and he in turn buries his head in the permeable face of the TV. McLuhan said that television effects viewers not on a visual level but on a tactile level.
McLuhan scholar W. Terrence Gordon explains: “The image on the screen has the type of texture associated with touch. Additionally, while it provides a minimum of information, television creates an interplay of all the senses at once, whereas print media separate and fragment the physical senses.”
“There is, of course, no contact between the skin of the viewer and the television, but, according to McLuhan, the eye is so much more intensely engaged by the television screen than by print that the effect is the same as that touching!”
Jerry Mander disagrees with much of McLuhan’s analysis of TV, and seems particularly perplexed by this assertion: “McLuhan made the case that television stimulates the sense of touch. He called TV “tactile”. I don’t know if he intended that as one of his personal jokes, which got taken too seriously, but it is one of the most dangerous of the many misleading statements he made.”
“While McLuhan may be correct that seeing the image stimulates the impulse to move, the impulse is cut off. The effect is a kind of sensory tease, to put the case generously.”
Max Renn’s sensory tease escalates to full-bore reality-warping episodes involving breathing cassette tapes, pulsating television sets, and But then he learns of his role as a secret agent (or an ulterior agent) unwittingly programmed by television signals to advance the agenda of a fascist conspiracy. The result of his physical interaction with the Videodrome signal is his transformation into a biological weapon. For Max, TV isn’t tactile, but tactical.
Rushkoff writes about tactical media in Media Virus!, in the sense of alternative media making targeted information strikes to undermine the existing structures of domination. Just as O’Blivion says that the war for the minds of the people will be fought in the Videodrome, Rushkoff quotes a Greenwich Village video artist that “The TV screen is the front line of the war.” Rushkoff charts a course through the media underground, populated with rebel artists and activists describing an Info-War landscape riddled with disinformation, psychological warfare, and a control-centralized media empire connected to the military-industrial complex.
“The TV tacticians’ response to mainstreamization is simple: Create alternative networks for feedback so that the imagery they gather reaches its target before it is mutilated.”
This line of thought can be expanded into further analysis of Information Warfare and the notion of information as a weapon and tool of domination. This tangential thread will be left dangling for now.
As mentioned earlier, the character of Nicki Brand is a radio personality. She hosts an “emotional rescue show” on talk station CRAM. It is significant that Max, a television programmer, becomes romantically involved with Nicki, a radio host.
In charting a genealogy of media McLuhan defines three epochs:
- The Preliterate or Tribal Era: dominated by the spoken word and the ear; humanity lived in the “acoustic space” of “all-at-once-ness.”
- The Gutenberg Era: dominated by the printed word and the eye; all-at-once-ness is displaced by linearity and sequential order.
- The Electronic Age of Retribalized Man: Humanity is “retribalized” in the sense that the tyranny of the eye is ended and mankind returns to full sensory involvement (espeially touching) and all-at-once-ness.
The relationship between Nicki and Max can be viewed as a combination of two media, an exchange that alters the ratios between them (i.e., the arrival of radio changed the presentation of news stories and film images). When media combine, the combination changes the environment of the media and its users. It can also be interpreted as symbolic of the transition from radio to television to videodrome. However the strictest McLuhanesque reading would focus on Videodrome’s absorption of Nicki. McLuhan said in Understanding Media that the content of a medium is always another medium. For instance, television absorbs and represents not only the content of the radio medium (commercial breaks, voiceovers, news reports, etc.), but also earlier forms of serialization in print and motion pictures. This is illustrated by Videodromes absorption of Nicki Brand: the television displaces the radio host, and she disappears only to materialize on the television screen, in the bowels of Videodrome.
Videodrome killed the radio star.
She, in turn, seduces Max into Videodrome. The image of her lips materialize on his television, filling the entire screen. As the embodiment of “the Voice” she calls for Max to come to her.
Finally, let’s apply McLuhan’s tetrad of media effects, also known as the laws of media, to the Videodrome transmission (more information on the tetrad is available here):
- What does it extend: Videodrome extends voyeuristic and sadistic impulses.
- What does it make obsolete: By broadcasting scenes of torture and murder on television, Videodrome obsolesces the underground market for tapes and recordings of these acts. Eventually Videodrome obsolesces the human body itself: both Brian O’Blivion and Max Renn depart their corporal form to inhabit the New Flesh.
- What does it retrieve: It retrieves the older form of the snuff film, as well as the ancient practice of staging gladitorial combat and other bloody scenes for spectators in the arena (hence “video drome = video arena”).
- What does it reverse into: The voyeuristic and sadistic pleasure of passively watching scenes of violence reverses into an actively violent role as viewers are transformed into agents of assassination.
Max Renn eventually learns that Brian O’Blivion has actually been dead for some time. In his last year of life he made thousands of videotaped recordings. These recordings constitute his continuing public appearances, and this is why he only ever appears on a television set. I think that, like Brian O’Blivion, Marshall McLuhan has been enjoying a “life after death,” engendered by the resurgence of interest in his work and the increasing relevance of his thought.
Long live the new flesh!