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A Comparison between the Theories of Marshall McLuhan and two films by
David Cronenberg

by Rowan Laing 

All Rights Reserved © Rowan Laing and Deep South
Deepsouth v.6.n.3 (Spring 2000)

The function of media in society is a subject that has been investigated by media theorist Marshall McLuhan and, in another register, filmmaker David Cronenberg. The theories that Marshall McLuhan proposes in Understanding Media are highly relevant to Cronenberg's films, as is Cronenberg's portrayal of mediated societies to McLuhan's theories. McLuhan and Cronenberg both focus on the relationship between electronic media and the human condition, and the possible affects of this relationship in the social sphere. 

In this essay I will be discussing the implications of McLuhan's theoretical understanding of media, as proposed in Understanding Media, comparing these theories to the representation of the mediated society in two films by David Cronenberg. The films I will be discussing are the 1982 release Videodrome and the 1999 release eXistenZ. Both films deal explicitly with media presence in the modern world.



McLuhan's proclamation that an understanding of media is of utmost importance in the electronic age shares in common with Cronenberg the view that media condition and shape human perception and experience. The advent of electronic media has increased the scope of mass media in the social sphere, and this is the focus of McLuhan's investigation. In Understanding Media McLuhan introduced a radically new perspective into the study of media concentrating on a sensual experience of the mediated world: the major shift in theory being the concept that "the medium is the message".1 


For McLuhan, the psychic and social consequences that media introduce into human affairs constitute its primary message, or affect. In this way McLuhan concentrates on the formal qualities of media, rather than the content, in order to evaluate the way media operate in society. As methods of communication, media organise information into formal structures that affect the pace and pattern of social practice. The reason being, McLuhan tells us, is that media are an extension of our senses, and are thereby organised by patterns of sensory perception. Media are therefore "the extensions of man "2 as the function of media is to translate human experience into external forms of information.

A crucial aspect of McLuhan's theory is his emphasis on the interplay between the senses and media technology. Media are not described as being separate from the body, in fact the body and media technology are described as being enmeshed and interactive. They are linked integrally, since the origin of media, as McLuhan regards it, is the extension of the nervous system and the senses beyond the body.

In relation to the way we experience media, McLuhan identifies different media as falling into categories of hot or cool forms. A hot medium is "one that is extended in 'high-definition.' High definition is the state of being well filled with data."3 This means that the message of the medium is very defined and complete, resulting in a low-level of sensory participation with the medium. Alternatively, a cool medium is low in definition and data, involving more sensory participating with the medium to complete its meaning. The television is a good example of a cool medium, as it projects a mosaic of light particles onto the spectator, engaging the spectator in a tactile experience of the medium. The physical participation in the reception process is also heightened by the necessity to order the light mosaic into a coherent form, which involves the senses further in completing the image. Because of the high level of sensory participation, a cool medium is more inclusive of the senses than a hot medium.

In the electronic age McLuhan notices a movement towards more aural and tactile media forms, which he regards as involving deeper participation from the individual. Electronic media interact with human senses in a more inclusive relationship, creating a more sensuous involvement between the body and media. Because of this high level of inclusion, human experience is being extended further into the domain of media, and it is this immersion of human activity in forms of media that McLuhan addresses. Indeed, McLuhan envisages the future extension of man as being the total technological simulation of consciousness outside of our bodies, a virtual reality if you will, achieved by the complete extension of the nervous system (the basis of sense perception) beyond the body. This is a departure from what McLuhan regards as the specialist, fragmentary media of the industrial age, during which sight was privileged as the primary sense in media forms. In this way, McLuhan claims that in the electronic age technology has radically altered our media forms, and this in turn has caused a reorganisation of our social-structures as we accommodate new forms of mediated experience. This, he sees as having wide implications for social practice and human experience.

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1 McLuhan, Marshall, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 1994. Cambridge: MIT Press. p. 7.
2 ibid p. 3.
3 ibid p. 22.