understanding media 1: mcluhan hot and cold

1    marshall mcluhan's 'hot and cold media' as mapping
2    comparisons with aristotle's four types of cause
3    hot hot hot: powerpoint presentations and the easy reversability of material cause
4    the fool and the enthymeme: it's for the audience to say . . .

Marshall McLuhan's gound-breaking book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), presciently described the modern world, without the benefit of knowing about personal computers, the Internet, cable television, or nation-building. McLuhan's basic distinction between 'hot' and 'cold' media and even cultures and their paraphernalia illuminates a fundamental aspect of 'screen theory' - the 'compression' between the 'objectivistic authoritarianism' of the modern attitude, and the remnants of the traditional 'subjective orientation' of traditionally 'cool' cultures. McLuhan helps to (1) understand why ancient cultures operate through a use of symbols that detaches from the 'network' of authority through the invention of a 'fictim' - a representative or hero who personifies the subject's relation to the world; (2) why modern culture is modern through an evolved relationship to materialization and materialism - heightened dependence on the senses as empirical; and (3) the continuous and fluid relationship between both perspectives, concentrated in the 'anamorphic' quality of appearances as a 'screen' that projects structured, valued spaces on either side of the object's sensible aspects.

The 'zig-zag' diagram contrasts a horizontal line structured by the 'network of symbolic relationships' with an imaginary diagonal line connecting the 'metonymic surpluses' of both the object and the subject. The structure is topological, resembling a Möbius band in its resistance to projective understanding and dependence on actualization and temporality. Perception 'takes a section' through this fluid, circular stream. Cutting into it with a 'screen' that 'cuts in both directions.' The screen can be cut, metaphorically, in the same way a plane of representation maps an object. Placed close to the object, the representation approaches the high accuracy of a 1:1 transfer of the object to its image. Moving the plane of representation towards the subject makes the map more useful at the expense of accuracy.

The scale analogy recreates McLuhan's distinction between traditional, 'cold' cultures who, using metaphor, hieroglyphics, ritual, and other means of distancing the subject from authority (laws interpreted through fabular origins) and 'hot' modernity, which 'does the same thing' but uses the object's resistant, undiscoverable 'surplus' (a 'lack' in terms of the viewer who wants to map the object completely).


heroes in a cold climate v. obscure objects of desire

Modern culture abandons the heroic model in favor of a mania for accurate mapping of 'reality' (an aspiration to a 1:1 representation). This goal can never be achieved, and every object is related to a surplus that is defined as 'ineffable' or 'essential.' The subject can gain it through a lapse or gap in the symbolic network, without being able to explain how the experience relates to representational reality. "Coke is it" and "Marlboro Country" show how well advertising has adopted to this modernist attitude towards authority and materiality.


theater design and use of the stage

The analogy of the theater stage helps to see how the historical situation can be 'staged' in single art forms and even single events. The deep stage was a technique of Baroque theater, which created impressive 'forced perspective' sets creating the illusion of a city or country landscape (Teatro Olimpico, Vicenza, is a good example). To get the effects to work properly, the auditorium had to be as narrow as possible. Or, as in the case of Teatro Olimpico, the 'sweet spot' was reserved for royalty.

The opposite attitude is demonstrated by the edge of the stage closest to the audience, the point where the actor can whisper directly to the audience, and is practically 'one of them.' In this, the margin between representation and reality can be blurred or parodied.


metonym to metonym: my place or yours?

The important issue in the diagram is the symmetry between the metonymic creation of the hero (one part that represents the whole) and the metonymy of an inaccessible object of pleasure/pain defined as a lack/surplus of the material basis of demand/desire. Metonymically, these parts 'connect', as in the personification of 'Marlboro Country" as a "Marlboro MAN," the resident of that indefinite wild-western landscape.


the compression of anamorphosis


Along the line of the 'network of symbolic relationships' binding subjects into communities and societies, it is the 'compression' of the two points-of-view, experienced as an anamorphosis of appearance - images concealed within 'ordinary' appearances that require a special 'point of view' that gives access to the meaning of the image and the concealed pleasure lying beyond - the point-of-view of the Lacanian 'subject-supposed-to-know.'

For selections from McLuhan's Understanding Media go to:


© 2012, Donald Kunze, all rights reserved