MEA 2019 at the University of Toronto, June 26-30

Updated: Jan 29, 2020

Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

After a wonderful weekend at the 20th Annual Convention of the Media Ecology Association, I can now reflect on an amazing program that focused on the topic: "Media Ethics: Human Ecology in a Connected World." I was exposed to a lot of fantastic work that included philosophical discussions, artistic performances and exhibits, social scientific data, and discussions from those outside of academia working in various industries. I really enjoyed meeting so many new colleagues and chatting with a lot of my social media buddies—in person—from the field as well!

Because I've had a few inquiries for access to my presentation, I'd like to share it here:

“McLuhan’s Hermeneutic of Subjectivity”

Amanda Sevilla, Ph.D.

The following ideas were presented on Thursday, June 26, 2019 at the Media Ecology Association’s 2019 International Conference at the University of Toronto. This initial inquiry is anticipated to be the impetus of future work, so proper attribution would be appreciated.


Today I am discussing a few hermeneutic coordinates within Marshall McLuhan’s ideas on culture, perception, and identity in new environments. These interpretive entrances include the following:

· First, culturally situated identity, or cultural interpretation

· Second, cultural energy, as situated in the notion of the metaphor of the modern machine (an idea also attributable to Lewis Mumford, where the modern machine is not “a” machine,” necessarily, but instead a force through time and space)

· Third, memory, as an exploration of how consciousness works to

create a new orientation of society (also an idea inspired by Mumford, as well as Frances Yates, in McLuhan’s work)

McLuhan explores these ideas to create a story about life, more specifically everyday life and its social impact. We can see some overlaps with sociological ideas about communal anxiety, for example, whenever McLuhan discusses Hans Selye’s [pronounced sell-yay] sociological ideas on stress response and reactions to stimuli. Instead of classifying stress as an immediately identifiable, observable, or situational type of stress, McLuhan seemed more interested in the ways people cope with the implications of holistic, environmental stressors—i.e., eventually finding themselves disoriented or exhausted as they encounter communal sources of anxiety and technological immersion.

The Modern Machine & McLuhan’s Critique of Modernity

The acceptance of popular modes of existence is an important part of McLuhan’s exploration of human presence in space and time. This leads me to a question about McLuhan’s critique of modernity. What does the so-called modern machine do to the lived experience? If the Incarnate is about embodiment and living in the body, then discarnate life is fragmented, dislocated, outside of the body, and, in many ways, imagined.

To work from a hermeneutic entrance within this framework, we can open up a constructive look at interpretation of community and subjectivity. The construction of meaning is key. Discarnation creates the notion that there are endless possibilities, whether we’re talking about nearly anything. Endless options, endless information, an infinity of possibilities.

I want to continue my exploration of McLuhan’s hermeneutic of subjectivity as discarnation, where the mind and body are envisioned as “out there,” infinite, and that which is “out there” is also here. For example, today’s Internet is not the person. The photos we see are not place, at least in the literal sense. These activities amount to one aspect of communication—or perhaps better described as communal representation—that serves as a fragment of one’s extended existence. McLuhan insists on incarnate coherence and integrity; if it isn’t there, then it is the human being that becomes obsolesced.

McLuhan’s work explores subjectivity to show us why human perception was becoming worryingly simplistic in Modernity. As defined by Gadamer, hermeneutics points to “myth” as part of “unreflective life, not yet analyzed by culture” (Truth and Method 275), and we see the echo of history where the mythical state of intellectual thought has reached a stagnation that begs for something to break the communal trance at hand. The answer is an examination of logos by way of an account of attentiveness—i.e., an attentiveness to human biases and synthetically created moments in one’s life. Essentially, people can recognize the past and even describe it well, but it’s the new innovations that evade immediate perception.

As a philosophically parallel notion in Truth and Method, Gadamer explains the notion of “foregrounding” as a hermeneutic coordinate of lived experience. An encountering of new environments creates new standpoints from which perceptual change can occur. Additionally, Heidegger’s work also talks about the ways people neglect the true understanding of Being, which seems to allude to things being present and acknowledged on a surface level (see Guignon, “Being as Appearing” 37-38), to which Heidegger might designate the concept of “ready-to-hand” things, such as tools, etc.

The Maker Culture & Nostalgia

Today’s inventive maker culture is comprised of people who embrace specialized talents or services, such as coffee roasters, jewelry makers, pastry artisans, wedding photographers, and so on. Even technology-related shifts and their pseudo-environments can become the topic of nostalgia, such as the movement from MySpace to Facebook in the mid-2000s. My point here is that nostalgia can try to reclaim the sensory appeal achieved by past innovation. Even so, the notion of nostalgia is due to environmental impact, so it pertains to the new habits in social settings in the current historical moment.

True to hermeneutic inquiry, McLuhan moves his ideas away from content and toward the bigger picture, which is the environment or the medium as a social message (see UM). The hermeneutic quality emerges as social. The bigger picture therefore involves social life. As a hermeneutic of subjectivity, then, we have the following elements present:

  • The hermeneutic offers an examination of human perception

  • It sheds light on the anticipatory nature of humankind, where people seek the next big thing

  • And it leads us to recognize patterns of implosion, where we see explosion eventually leading to the point of implosion

These ideas also profile a hermeneutic notion of the humanistic communal world, which is tied to the scientific definition of a “life-world,” as the communal world involves the interaction and “being with other people” (Gadamer, TM, 239). McLuhan’s critique of modernity includes the manner in which a person engages a changing ground, which is always changing. He shows us, for example, that “the interplay between you and this changing ground changes you” (M. McLuhan, Hutchon, and E. McLuhan, City as Classroom 10).

Applying these ideas to the places where the person meets today’s simulated versions of self in mediated environments highlights the social minimization of the value of humanity. This social minimization of people, of those who make up the community, shows the power of major shifts in societal focus. For example, we see new patterns of extreme conspicuous consumption taking over the narrative of our time. The rapid growth is what suffocates communal life, as many cannot meet their shifting ground with ease. We have a running narrative of false wealth as well, which is depicted through contrived self-branding campaigns on Instagram and other social media platforms.

At quite possibly the highest level of the human eclipse is the overwhelming structure of life, including much of the newest architecture in cities. The people view shiny new spaces that push a narrative of building community, when much of the community is excluded or even forcibly pushed out or into so-called “poor-doors” describing entrances for those who pay the lowest rent without the added amenities. From the literal ground on which people stand, many find they are helpless against the changes. At the same time, the modern notion of innovation continues to create an illusion of identity for many people in the social forum.

A further interpretation can lead us to the particulars of language change as well. We now hear certain words and phrases in different contexts than we might have in the past, such as “urbanspaces,” “curators of content,” and “the maker’s market.” It’s a new definition of community, but much of it is still corporatized or at least tied to huge corporate funding. And many of those who participate in the new urbanspaces as makers or curators create a pseudo-sense of belonging in an increasingly expensive landscape, which many today attribute to a loss of a past culture that thrived on independent artists.

Now I should shift gears a bit, and perhaps backstep just a little. I need to clarify that this talk was not necessarily intended to demonize the wealthy, while it might seem to be the case. Instead, the hermeneutic of subjectivity in McLuhan’s work informs the conversation about the human element in the world and how it fades into the backdrop when transitions in a community occur. The new ground, as McLuhan’s work shows us, changes the human condition.

As the hermeneutic of subjectivity in McLuhan’s work, technology creates discarnate life, and the natural state of everyday life shifts. There may be an obstruction of realized time when a new innovation monopolizes communal attention. For example, if the speed of new technologies prevents a thorough sense of retrospect and it also captivates communal thought, then the community also lacks the ability to predict which technologies will transpire in the future. At the same time, from the language and perceptual changes, we can discover a movement toward the new waves of technology (i.e., or meet the demands of a communal push toward new innovation). The task of predicting future events is not something we can procure in reality, but the patterns of new behaviors can shed light on expectations of the masses. Consequently, these expectations are signs of the future unfolding as new ground while another ground is still active. In the meantime, there is a hermeneutical foregrounding that seems to occur at the moment a new innovation is about to make a transition.

I recently started looking more closely at gentrification of urban spaces, and my original focus was on technologized discarnation. There are overlapping themes within those two inquiries, however, including an anticipation for bigger and better artifacts or environments and a call for constant entertainment as part of daily existence. We see many echoes of these ideas elsewhere, including Postman’s critique of distractions and a call for constant entertainment in the social sphere in Amusing Ourselves to Death. Additionally, we can find other philosophical ideas from the twentieth century that refer to a technological oppressiveness in society. For example, in Jaques Ellul’s metaphor that the television is a place of “elimination" of self, the person sacrifices time, energy, and social engagement, thus having too much involvement in watching television (see The Humiliation of the Word 120).

As I conclude my talk today, I would like to reiterate these few coordinates that I’m pursuing further:

· First, McLuhan’s hermeneutic of subjectivity informs an inquiry into culturally situated identity

· Second, cultural energy is situated in the notion of the metaphor of the modern machine as a force through time and space

· Third, memory is situated within a discussion of how consciousness works toward, with, and through innovations, which creates a new orientation of society

Thank you for listening!


Works Cited

Ellul, Jacques. The Humiliation of the Word. Translated by Joyce Main Hanks, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1985.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Philosophical Hermeneutics. Translated by David E. Linge. Berkeley, U of California P, 1976.

—. Truth and Method. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall. 2nd ed., Continuum, 2004.

Guignon, Charles. “Being as Appearing: Retrieving the Greek Experience of Phusis.A Companion to Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics, edited by Richard Polt and Gregory Fried, Yale UP, 2001, pp. 34-56.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Critical ed., edited by W. T. Gordon, Gingko Press, 1964.

McLuhan, Marshall, Kathryn Hutchon, and Eric McLuhan. City as Classroom: Understanding Language and Media. Agincourt, 1977.

Mumford, Lewis. The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects. Harcourt, 1961/1989.

—. Technics and Civilization. U of Chicago P, 1934/2010.

Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Penguin Books, 1985/2005.

Yates, Frances. The Art of Memory. The Bodley Head, 1966/2014.

© 2019 Amanda Sevilla, PhD

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