Feb 13

McLuhan: Understanding Media, Part 1

“With the arrival of electric technology, man extended, or set outside himself, a live model of the central nervous system itself. To the degree that this is so, it is a development that suggests a desperate and suicidal autoamputation, as if the central nervous system could no longer depend on the physical organs to be protective buffers against the slings and arrows of outrageous mechanism” (McLuhan, 2011, p.65).

Right now, I type and these keys literally extend my fingers. Tapping causes symbols to appear in my WordPress edit box and a blue “publish” button will extend my thoughts (via image-symbols) to a potential public. Media is an “extension of [wo]man.” McLuhan’s (2011) emphasis on media extensions through amputation and de-emphasis of the connecting body seems harsh, violent and permanent.

Narcissus by Michelangelo Carvaggio

Narcissus image cc Wikipedia

In this way, he points to our love of “gadgets” that extend our bodies causing us to forget to account for material selves. Instead, man fixates on technology that mediates our participation. Extended man becomes numb; he enters into a state of narcosis, or numbness– a reference back to the Greek myth of Narcissus who became so infatuated with his reflection that he thought it was a different person. McLuhan (2011) writes, “the point of this myth is the fact that men at once become fascinated by any extension of themselves in any material other than themselves” (p. 63).

My first few experiences using social media, especially in closed network microblogs, illustrates a Narcissus-syndrome. As McLuhan points out, Narcissus’ “extension of himself by mirror numbed his perceptions until he became a servomechanism of his own extended or repeated image” (p. 63). I can remember my first experiences in Twitter. I became so fascinated with my posts that I began to filter my daily life as a mental 140 character post. If someone said something funny, I’d mentally compose my micro-post then repeat it until I could get to an Internet connection. I was fascinated with my ability to create an image of myself through participation in social media–so fascinated that I would carefully craft identities that were not necessarily consistent with my offline self. Unlike Narcissus, I could change the shape of my image…even still, I didn’t recognize myself.

“Self-amputation forbids self-recognition” (McLuhan, 2011, p.64)

While reading “Narcissus as Narcosis,” I was struck by how relevant this concept is for students involved in distance education programs, namely those using synchronous mediums for class delivery. While present through audio and a visual headshot, participants on both sides of the media must use closure to sense man as extended through technology. In what way does this technology induce numbness in our ability, both at a distance at in Norfolk, to perceive the presence of your mediated cohort? 

Distance Ed at ODU / Image cc Carmen Christopher Caviness

I struggled early in my participation in ODU’s program because I sensed my non-presence. I’m now wondering how much of that numbness was media induced. Classes where we openly discussed issues of mediation (via Polycom, Adobe, Skype, Webex) felt different. In those moments, “the meeting of the media” became “moment[s] of freedom and release from the ordinary trance and numbness imposed by them on our senses” (McLuhan, 2011, p.81).

I’m grateful for those moments when we were far enough back to recognize ourselves seeing  reflection, and I am also thankful for an opportunity to participate in such an intellectually creative program. Still…McLuhan’s concepts of amputation, narcosis, and media extended man raise critical issues for students, like me, who choose to extend their presence as scholars in ways that might not be traditionally perceived as “scholarly” or “real” by others looking at our reflections.


McLuhan, M. (2011) Understanding media: the extensions of man. Critical edition. Ed. by Terrence Gordon. Gingko Press: Berkeley, CA. Print.



  1. Susanne Nobles

    I too had been very struck by McLuhan’s Narcissus/narcosis theme (http://snobles.blogspot.com/), but I had not connected this to our own mediated selves in our ODU classes. Your point about the classes where we discuss the mediation tool (WebEx, Polycom, etc) is really insightful because you are saying that in those classes we have not ignored the medium like McLuhan says happens when media are paired. His concern is that the content media hides the delivery media, and your example of us as distance students is a perfect one for this concern. I had thought about why just merely having a discussion about the medium — really just a simple acknowledgement of the medium existing for some of us and not all in a class — changed things for me. But until reading McLuhan and your blog post, I could not have articulated why beyond thinking, “Other people understand how I feel.” The answer really is that we as a community, when we discuss WebEx/Polycom/etc, are acknowledging that these become extensions of us and we no longer are uncomfortably numb inside them. We acknowledge and pay attention to both of the media in the pair that make up our class time.

  2. Eric Sentell

    Jennifer – I’m studying McLuhan’s “The Medium is the Massage” and some other chapters, so I found your post especially relevant and interesting. McLuhan has a way of stepping back and objectively examining things, and you did a great job of similarly presenting his views and connecting them to your personal experiences. McLuhan can seem a little wacky until you start to reflect on what it’s actually like to transcribe mental thoughts into written symbols that represent oral speech that represents mental thoughts. And that’s just writing in general! As you explain, genres like Twitter shape our writing, which in turn shapes our thoughts. The medium is the massage, indeed!

    More to your point, I agree that the mediation of our distance learning courses can be quite unsettling and even “othering” or “numbing.” Sometimes, I don’t feel like I’m a part of the class, especially when polycom boots me or my video/audio freezes or lags. It’s hard enough to “jump” in and speak when you lack the visual cues of the classroom, but literally losing your voice can be disheartening. And there’s just something about staring into a screen for a prolonged period that promotes a certain amount of “disembodiment” or “mental numbness.” Thanks for updating me on these key parts of McLuhan’s theory and their application to our experiences.

  3. Shelley Rodrigo

    (crossing fingers that the blockquote will work!)
    I was captivated by the abrupt pain you shared with the sentence about McLuhan’s emphasis being “harsh, violent & permanent.” I’m especially intrigued by the “permanent” idea since one of the reasons people like digital media is the ability to easily edit. But then, your interest in our discussions have always been about the permanence of these blogs when you go on the job market. I’m now trying to think about how permanence of artifact combines with Brooke’s pattern as memory. Does permanence “massage” (go read Eric’s post) the pattern in a way that “normal” memory loss would not?

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