McLuhan, hot and cold, and context

It’s been a while since I did anything with McLuhan. He wasn’t really part of any of my previous academic traditions so I haven’t pored over him as I have with other people. (Though, perhaps ironically, I found myself defending his prescience the other day.)

Still, I find that McLuhan is one of those people who challenges me in different ways each time I approach him. In general I feel as if he’s, at the macro level, confused. For instance, I think he correctly identified the importance of “electric speed”, but ened up improperly understanding why it is important. That most certainly does not render his observations any less useful.

This read-through I found myself, unsurprisingly for those familiar with the thinking I’ve been doing about fiction over the past couple of years, struggling with McLuhan’s differentiation between “hot” and “cold” media.

For some time I have felt that McLuhan’s classification of one medium as hot and another as cold to be massively and problematically arbitrary. This led me to dismiss the entire classification system as utterly useless. On my most recent reading I decided that his classification was indeed arbitrary, but that the categories themselves are potentially very useful. As with many things in McLuhan’s work, it’s hard to know precisely what he means by “hot” and “cold”, and I tend to find myself going through five different interpretations in as many minutes. However, I find that most (if not all) of the ways I look at it circle around a single theme. The fact that I’ve been interpreting a lot of things as circling around this theme may mean that I’m reading into things, but I’m okay with that.

It all comes down to context for me. I take it that “hot” media are those which contain more context within the media itself. Movies are, to a strong degree, self-contained. You come to a film with no exterior context and the film provides everything you need to understand it. (This is not entirely true since clearly there are cultural and genre assumptions at work, but it is relatively true.) “Cold” media, on the other hand, is full of gaps. Gaps that the reader/viewer has to fill in in order to get the message encoded within the media. This is the realm of conversation and commentary. In order to understand such things you must come to them with far more context than is required for a “hotter” medium such as film.

If this reading of “hot” and “cold” is close to what McLuhan intended, then it suggests that his classification of various media as one or the other must be arbitrary. Because there is nothing inherent in the technological form of film that necessitates that it provide its own context, and there is nothng inherent in the technological form of television necessitating that it leave gaps. In fact, it seems that television has shifted to be “hotter” than not. I suspect that there are technical aspects of various media that make them better suited to hotness or coldness, but nothing that constrains their use in the opposite mode.

McLuhan properly identifies hotness and coldness as a continuum rather than a dichotemy, but he fails to recognize that any piece of media’s position on that continuum is flexible.



Leave a Reply