Readings, Week 2: Analytic Tools

Welcome to Week 2.

Pop Culture is such a vast and confusing mash-up of seemingly non-related and often irrelevant data, it is essential that we approach the subject heavily armed with various systems of analysis for deconstructing what we see, hear, and experience in this realm.

Indeed, when we begin to understand both modernism and the more obscure, less definable concept of postmodernism, we see that popular culture today is like the mythical creature called the ouroboros, a serpent eating its own tail. Pop culture is still mired in the endlessly self-referential (a modernist concept), constantly recycling its own icons and memes. Thus, the need for heavy armaments.

In Week 2, we examine three such powerful systems of analysis and we practice using them, in preparation for the examination of more complex systems of iconography. Knowledge of these three analytic tools will be essential when you are researching and writing your ‘pop icon essays.’

  • Modernism and Postmodernism
  • Icons and Iconography
  • Cultural Icons and Pop Icons
  • Semiotics, Maslow, and McLuhan
  • Semiotic analysis
  • Signifier and signified
  • Political Semiotic Analysis: Levels 3 and 4
  • Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
  • Maslow and Advertising
  • Marshall McLuhan
  • The Medium is the Message
  • The Extensions of Man
  • Definitions
  • Sources

Want to understand pop culture and its icons? Start thinking like a detective, not a fan. This second module, explaining the analytic tools we use in pop culture analysis, is the hardest module in the course. Don’t be alarmed. Once you get the hang of these iconographic tools, the fun part begins. Promise.

Modernism and Postmodernism

Where is pop culture today? While we will discuss this in more detail in Week 6, when we examine the philosophy behind pop art, essentially, we understand that we are in an era called the postmodern age. It’s tricky to understand pop culture, though, until we really get postmodernism’s predecessor, modernism.

The age prior to postmodernism was the modern age. Wiki offers an excellent description of modernism as follows:

“Modernism, in its broadest definition, is modern thought, character, or practice. More specifically, the term describes the modernist movement in the arts, its set of cultural tendencies and associated cultural movements, originally arising from wide-scale and far-reaching changes to Western society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In particular the development of modern industrial societies and the rapid growth of cities, followed then by the horror of World War I, were among the factors that shaped Modernism. In art, Modernism explicitly rejects the ideology of realism and makes use of the works of the past through the application of reprise, incorporation, rewriting, recapitulation, revision and parody in new forms. Modernism also rejects the lingering certainty of Enlightenment thinking, as well as the idea of a compassionate, all-powerful Creator.” (Wiki, Modernism).

I know. Pretty heavy stuff, right?

However, ask a philosopher what characterizes the age that follows modernism, the postmodern era, and it gets weird and complex. Each postmodern philosopher describes this new era using an entirely different definition and set of terminology. Fortunately, postmodern philosophers seem to agree that all definitions of postmodernism must have one idea in common: deconstruction.

“The notion of a ‘deconstructive’ approach implies an analysis that questions the already evident deconstruction of a text in terms of presuppositions, ideological underpinnings, hierarchical values, and frames of reference. A deconstructive approach further depends on the techniques of close reading without reference to cultural, ideological, moral opinions or information derived from an authority over the text such as the author.” (Wiki, Postmodernism)

Like I said, weird and complex. Indeed, critics such as Chomsky have argued that postmodernism is entirely meaningless.

“Criticisms of postmodernism are intellectually diverse, including the assertions that postmodernism is meaningless and promotes obscurantism. For example, Noam Chomsky has argued that postmodernism is meaningless because it adds nothing to analytical or empirical knowledge. He asks why postmodernist intellectuals do not respond like people in other fields when asked, “what are the principles of their theories, on what evidence are they based, what do they explain that wasn’t already obvious, etc?…If [these requests] can’t be met, then I’d suggest recourse to Hume’s advice in similar circumstances: ‘to the flames’.” (Wiki, Postmodernism)

I tend to support Chomsky on this assertion. Luckily, apart from the fact that postmodern thought (by virtue of its rejection of ideology, morality, and authorship) opens the door for artistic plagiarism of sorts, we as pop culture students do not have to understand the concept in any detail. For the purposes of popular culture analysis, it seems that something so hard to grasp (for so many) has had little or no effect on popular culture.

Pop culture seems to be eternally in a modern cycle, asserting and reasserting the same ideas over and over again. What I want you to gather from “the modern” are the ideas of recapitulation, revision, and parody, artistic techniques from the modern age that have carried forth into the post-modern era.

Simon Reynolds refers to this endless recycling as “retromania.”

“Focusing on music, Reynolds asserts that recycling the past is nothing new, but that the vast digital advances of the most-recent decade have caused the amount of unimaginative and static retro culture to explode. He says we’re victims of a ‘crisis of overdocumentation,’ facilitated by ‘YouTube’s ever-proliferating labyrinth of collective recollection’ and the fatiguing amount of digital music history only a couple mouse-clicks away. Human beings need not rely on the foggy hard drives in their skulls anymore. Instead, they can simply Google a phrase, and spend an evening tumbling down the rabbit hole of not-so-old history. In his reading, we’re in an extended cultural moment of “hyper-stasis”—and not for the first time, either. The “surge” decades of the ‘60s (British Invasion pop and psychedelia) and ‘90s (rave culture and electronic music) gave way to the “going-in-circles” decades of the ‘70s and the just-completed 2000s. Yes, even the supposed “revolution” of punk emerged from a reactionary impulse, he says—returning to the simple garage-created sounds of the ‘50s and ‘60s in the face of prog and the bourgeois, over-produced sounds of the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac—and the ostensibly future-driven genre of electroclash was only ‘80s synth pop posing. Geez, even Gaga can’t get a break: She’s only Bowie + Grace Jones + Madonna + Marilyn Manson + Fischerspooner.” (Harvey, 2011)

If we combine, then, the modern ideas of recapitulation, revision, and parody with the postmodern notion of the rejection of the oppression of authorship (open season for plagiarism), we have a pretty good idea of where popular culture has resided for the past fifty years. What postmodernism has contributed to the art of recycling is its unabashed approval of blatant plagiarism, in the guise of art.

“Post-modernists reject the idea that originality, creativity, and authorship resides in a divine or human creator. Instead, human identity is a web of interpretations. This shift away from “original authorship” can be seen in music, architecture, television, film, and written works. In the 20th century, one of the key advances in music was the development of drum machines, synthesizers, cassette tape recorders, turntables, and other audio mixing tools that allowed the average person to sample music from the radio and remix it, creating a new work. The hip-hop genre relies heavily on the ability of listeners to re-shape old songs into new ones. File sharing technologies and creative commons licenses give artists even more freedom. There are many classic and modern texts that are considered to be a work of pastiche rather than plagiarism. Examples include the works of Virgil, Shakespeare, and Michael Cunningham. The concept of assemblage is an important element of post-modern authorship. Johnson-Eilola and Selber say that assemblages are ‘texts built primarily and explicitly from existing texts in order to solve a writing or communication problem in a new context.’ The authors believe that the binary of plagiarist versus original author is inadequate to address issues of intertextuality, the effects of previous discourse, and the need for students, artists, and citizens to problem-solve using information that exists in the marketplace of ideas. The modern copyright and intellectual property framework is evolving as courts hear cases about process copyrights, file-sharing, and the rights of collaborators.” (Teacher C, 2008)

In the past twenty years, with the explosion of sampling, the postmodern idea of the rejection of authorship seems to have escalated. It has been asserted that L’il Wayne, over time, has sampled over 150 artists (ie. The Rolling Stones, The Persuaders, Funkadelic, Karma-Ann Swanepoel)  that came before him. Does he give credit for these samplings? No… not even when he is sued for creative plagiarism and theft of intellectual property. Such suits against Wayne, Kanye West, the Beastie Boys, Timbaland, Nelly Furtado and others are usually settled out of court for a few million and life goes on. Embarrassingly enough, these are the operating costs of modern/postmodern popular culture.

Think about it for a minute… would this kind of property theft be tolerated in banking… business… literature… real estate? Why should it be different for art or music?

In Week 6, we’ll explore the idea of art recapitulating and combining ideas it has already explored. Nevertheless, I invite you to put this idea to the test. Take your favourite music, comics, art, movie, or TV show, and see if you can detect elements within it that may be referencing past pop culture forms.


  • Amy Winehouse = Ronnie Spector + Etta James + Janis Joplin
  • Harry Potter = Chronicles of Narnia + Lord of the Rings + Arthurian magician, Merlin + Roald Dahl’s work
  • Lennie Kravitz = Jimi Hendrix + Prince
  • Prince = Jimi Hendrix + James Brown + Liberace
  • Lady Gaga = Madonna + David Bowie + Pink + the robot from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis
  • The Magnificent Seven = Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai + Cowboys

Icons and Iconography

The best way to study almost anything is to break it down into smaller sub-sections so that its content becomes more manageable.

To begin our analysis, the most useful ‘unit’ of pop culture study is the icon. What is an icon? Wiki offers an excellent starting point:

“An icon (from Greek εἰκών eikōn “image”) is a religious work of art, most commonly a painting, from Eastern Christianity and in certain Eastern Catholic churches. More broadly the term is used in a wide number of contexts for an image, picture, or representation; it is a sign or likeness that stands for an object by signifying or representing it either concretely or by analogy, as in semiotics; by extension, icon is also used, particularly in modern culture, in the general sense of symbol — i.e. a name, face, picture, edifice or even a person readily recognized as having some well-known significance or embodying certain qualities: one thing, an image or depiction, that represents something else of greater significance through literal or figurative meaning, usually associated with religious, cultural, political, or economic standing.” (Wiki, Icon)

So, we understand that ‘icon’ was an idea that began with basic signs and symbols that represented other things. When two lines or bars are placed across one another, one vertically and the other horizontally, a cross is created. However, this icon does not necessarily possess any spiritual meaning, unless such meaning is assigned to that symbol and agreed upon by a group of users. Yet, the religious icon called the ‘cross‘, that Christian people hang around their necks, for example, is a symbol that has gained great religious meaning in the past two-thousand years. The meaning bestowed on this icon exists because a group of people known as Christians have assigned that spiritual meaning to the icon. The symbol tells other people that the bearer of the cross is a person of the Christian faith. It is a symbol that represents the teachings of Jesus to over 2 billion people, about 1/3 of the world’s population.

Similarly, the eight-sided red object that we see at the end of streets has come to mean “stop.” Indeed, the object’s meaning is so universally understood that people would discern its meaning even if the word “stop” was not inscribed on it. However, initially, a red octagon did not mean ‘stop.’ This now universal meaning did not exist until a group of users agreed that such meaning would exist.

It is important, then, to understand that the meaning assigned to our signs and symbols is an arbitrary meaning. That is to say that the agreed-upon meaning could have been something else, if its users had decided on something entirely different. If we go back two thousand years in time, we might have seen a world in which a red octagon symbolized Christ and two crossed bars symbolized ‘stop.’ Meaning is arbitrary. It exists because users agree that it exists.

Cultural Icons and Pop Icons

Gradually, over time, the term icon itself has gathered many more meanings. Wiki defines a ‘cultural icon‘ as follows:

“A cultural icon is an object that represents some aspect of the values, norms or ideals perceived to be inherent in a culture, or section of a culture. Cultural icons vary widely, and may include objects like telephone boxes, aircraft, and buildings, or indeed real or fictional people.” (Wiki, cultural icon)

Logically, then, a pop culture icon or pop icon is a cultural icon that is derived from popular culture. Wiki defines pop culture icon as follows:

“A pop icon is a celebrity, character, or object whose exposure in pop culture constitutes a defining characteristic of a given society or era. The categorization is usually associated with elements such as longevity, ubiquity, and distinction. Moreover, “pop icon” status is distinguishable from other kinds of notoriety outside of popular culture, such as with historic figures. Some historic figures are recognized as having reached “pop icon” status during their era, and such status may continue into the present. Pop icons of previous eras include Benjamin Franklin and Mozart.” (Wiki, pop icon)

As the course progresses, I will ask you to choose a pop culture icon, preferably one by which you are fascinated. On this icon, you will perform an extensive analysis, using the three systems described here in Module 2 (Semiotics, Maslow, and McLuhan).

Keep in mind that a pop icon can be a person (like David Beckham), a character (like Fred Flintstone), or an object (like the McDonald’s golden arches). Though many students might prefer to do their study/essay on a person, some of the best essays I have received have been about characters and objects.

Semiotics, Maslow, and McLuhan


  • (1) Semiotics: signifier and signified
  • (2) Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
  • (3) Marshall McLuhan (two theories) (a) The Medium is the Message and the User is the Content; and (b) Extensions Theory

In this course, there are three main analytic systems that you are required to learn, in order to do the critical work of media literacy. These tools are (1) the field of Semiotics, (2) psychologist Abraham Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’ pyramid, and (3) two of the media literacy theories of media guru Marshall McLuhan.

Semiotic analysis 

Ferdinand de Saussure, father of Semiotics

What a semiotic perspective (on the analysis of icons and iconography) attempts to provide is a method by which students and analysts of a subject may endeavour to view the data brought to the table without any preconceived notions on the subject matter. Our quest is to be able to examine (1) a controversial icon like Tupac Shakur, (a) first with prejudice, and (b) later, offering a political analysis, being critical of his misogyny or his homophobic views or (2) the field of ‘alien’ conspiracy theories without engaging in the standard human visualizations of little green men, flying saucers, and “take me to your leader” rhetoric.

Semioticians assert that we cannot know the true meanings of any icons unless we learn to analyze them without prejudice or preconception.  Media literacy students should know how to analyze the meaning of signs, the meaning of ‘signifier’ and ‘signified’, and the different levels of meaning proposed in Semiotic theory.

Semiotics, semiotic studies, or semiology is the study of sign processes (semiosis), or signification and communication, signs and symbols, both individually and grouped into sign systems. It includes the study of how meaning is constructed and understood.  One of the attempts to formalize the field was most notably lead by the Vienna Circle and presented in their International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, in which the authors agreed on breaking out the field, which they called “semiotic”, into three branches:

  • Semantics: Relation between signs and the things they refer to, theirdenotata.
  • Syntactics: Relation of signs to each other in formal structures.
  • Pragmatics: Relation of signs to their impacts on those who use them. (Also known as General Semantics)”

“These branches are clearly inspired by Charles W. Morris, especially his Writings on the general theory of signs (The Hague, The Netherlands, Mouton, 1971, orig. 1938). Semiotics is frequently seen as having important anthropological dimensions, for example Umberto Eco proposes that every cultural phenomenon can be studied as communication. However, some semioticians focus on the logical dimensions of the science. They examine areas belonging also to the natural sciences – such as how organisms make predictions about, and adapt to, their semiotic niche in the world (see semiosis). In general, semiotic theories take signs or sign systems as their object of study: the communication of information in living organisms is covered in biosemiotics or zoosemiosis.  Syntactics is the branch of semiotics that deals with the formal properties of signs and symbols. More precisely, syntactics deals with the “rules that govern how words are combined to form phrases and sentences.” Charles Morris adds that semantics deals with the relation of signs to their designata and so the objects which they may or do denote; and, pragmatics deals with the biotic aspects of semiosis, that is, with all the psychological, biological, and sociological phenomena which occur in the functioning of signs.” (Semiotics, wiki)

Signifier and Signified

  • Level 1: THE SIGNIFIER: (signifiant) – the form which the sign takes
  • Level 2: THE SIGNIFIED (signifié) – the concept it represents

The sign is the whole that results from the association of the signifier with the signified (Saussure 1983, 67Saussure 1974, 67). The relationship between the signifier and the signified is referred to as ‘signification’, and this is represented in the Saussurean diagram by the arrows. The horizontal line marking the two elements of the sign is referred to as ‘the bar’.

If we take a linguistic example, the word ‘Open’ (when it is invested with meaning by someone who encounters it on a shop doorway) is a sign consisting of:

  • signifier: the word open;
  • signified concept: that the shop is open for business.

A sign must have both a signifier and a signified. You cannot have a totally meaningless signifier or a completely formless signified (Saussure 1983, 101Saussure 1974, 102-103). A sign is a recognizable combination of a signifier with a particular signified. The same signifier (the word ‘open’) could stand for a different signified (and thus be a different sign) if it were on a push-button inside a lift (‘push to open door’). Similarly, many signifiers could stand for the concept ‘open’ (for instance, on top of a packing carton, a small outline of a box with an open flap for ‘open this end’) – again, with each unique pairing constituting a different sign.

Nowadays, whilst the basic ‘Saussurean’ model is commonly adopted, it tends to be a more materialistic model than that of Saussure himself. The signifier is now commonly interpreted as the material (or physical) form of the sign – it is something which can be seen, heard, touched, smelt or tasted. For Saussure, both the signifier and the signified were purely ‘psychological’ (Saussure 1983, 12, 14-15, 66Saussure 1974, 12, 15, 65-66). Both were form rather than substance:

“A linguistic sign is not a link between a thing and a name, but between a concept and a sound pattern. The sound pattern is not actually a sound; for a sound is something physical. A sound pattern is the hearer’s psychological impression of a sound, as given to him by the evidence of his senses. This sound pattern may be called a ‘material’ element only in that it is the representation of our sensory impressions. The sound pattern may thus be distinguished from the other element associated with it in a linguistic sign. This other element is generally of a more abstract kind: the concept.” (Saussure 1983, 66Saussure 1974, 66) (From Daniel Chandler, Semiotics for Beginners)

Political Semiotic Analysis: Levels 3 and 4

When Semiotics is combined with a Political Science analysis, it is generally acknowledged that analysts will explore deeper levels of the “signified.”

NOTE: We will use the following four levels in our analyses of cultural icons.

  • Level 1: THE SIGNIFIER: (signifiant) – the form which the sign takes
  • Level 2: THE SIGNIFIED (signifié) – identification of the concept it represents
  • Level 3: THE SIGNIFIED: what is a functional meaning of the concept?
  • Level 4: THE SIGNIFIED: what are the deepest meanings of the concept?  What does the concept ‘signify,’ on a political level, to a wide variety of perceivers?
  • ESSENTIAL: View the Professor’s Icons PowerPoint, called ICONS online. Can you perform each of the four levels of Semiotic analysis on each icon? (Remember: when you see a picture of Eminem, the first level response–the signifier– is not “Eminem.”)

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

The second system that we will use to analyze icons was invented by psychologist Abraham Maslow. The theory is called the Hierarchy of Needs.

“Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a theory in psychology proposed by Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation”…. Maslow used the terms Physiological, Safety, Belongingness and Love, Esteem, Self-Actualization and Self-Transcendence needs to describe the pattern that human motivations generally move through.” (Wiki, hierarchy of needs)

Maslow asserted that healthy humans follow a predictable pattern of human motivations guiding what their needs will focus on at a given time in their growth. This progression is usually depicted in a five-level diagram, as follows:

File:Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.svg

Maslow asserts that it is impossible for a human to be motivated by higher needs (safety, love, esteem, self-actualization, etc), until basic lower level needs have been met and satisfied. At first, he says, human needs are focused on the physiological. Most of humanity resides at this level of motivation. A poor man is concerned with staying alive, getting food and water for himself and his family, and so on. Once these basic, first-level needs are met, he may move on to be concerned about second-level needs or safety needs: employment, security, health, etc.

Once a person has met both first and second level needs, only then may he be concerned with third level needs, friendship, family, intimacy, and so on. According to Maslow, the belonging level also includes how we identify ourselves as members of a group: ie. I am a student, I am a teacher, I am a musician, I am a sports fan. The level to which many of us in this privileged society aspire is that which he calls the esteem level. On this fourth level, the individual acquires self-esteem, delights in individual achievement, and hopes to distinguish himself from the greater group of humans. The human on the esteem level achieves the respect of others, even as he feels comfortable enough to respect others.

The self-actualized human is a rare person and the self-actualization level is a level which few humans achieve. He/she is a person, presumably like pop icons Oprah Winfrey or Steven Spielberg, who is doing precisely in life what he/she wants to do, circumscribed by a superior morality. The self-actualized person has the career of his choice and is entirely content with life, knowing that he/she is living life to its fullest. Similarly, he/she is comfortable enough that he/she is without prejudice, without restrictions, and entirely spontaneous.

“One must satisfy lower level basic needs before progressing on to meet higher level growth needs.  Once these needs have been reasonably satisfied, one may be able to reach the highest level called self-actualization. Every person is capable and has the desire to move up the hierarchy toward a level of self-actualization.  Unfortunately, progress is often disrupted by failure to meet lower level needs. Life experiences including divorce and loss of job may cause an individual to fluctuate between levels of the hierarchy. Maslow noted only one in a hundred people become fully self-actualized because our society rewards motivation primarily based on esteem, love and other social needs.” (McLeod, 2007)

Maslow and Advertising

As students of pop culture and media analysis, we are interested in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs since it provides a great deal of insight as to why we and others are interested in particular icons over others. When performing icon analyses, ask yourself to what levels of Maslow a given icon appeals for different perceivers? When making this analysis, keep in mind that if an icon appeals to a given level, it necessarily also appeals to all levels below.

We can gain practice performing Maslowian analyses on pop culture phenomena by looking at advertisements. For example, what is the key level of Maslow to which the following Symantec advertisement appeals?


If you said “security,” you’re right. Symantec sells Norton computer security software, software designed to protect your computer from intruders. Thus, this ad appeals to the second level of Maslow, the security level.

It is interesting to know that most corporations employ psychologists whose job it is to determine how the corporation’s advertising will ‘hook’ the consumer. The higher the level to which the advertisement makes its appeal, the more customers the corporation can expect to engage. It is no surprise to learn that products of all kinds, even people and pop icons who participate in the entertainment business, consult Maslowian psychologists for the same reason– to maximize the target audience.

Let’s try another advertisement. What is the key level of Maslow to which the following Goodyear advertisement appeals? It’s a trick question. The text says, “On the first day in office, every U.S. president has four things in common with his predecessor: Transporting the Chief. On the wings of Goodyear.”


Your first temptation, since the product is a set of tires carrying an important person, is to say “security.” However, since the advertiser is attempting to make you identify with the president, the appeal is higher. If you identify with a group of users of this distinguished product, there is a ‘belonging’ appeal. But since the advertiser wants you to feel different, special, like a president, I assert that the appeal is as high as ‘esteem.’ We will find that most items, symbols, and icons that attempt to link themselves with ‘luxury’ (even bling artists like Jay-Z) rise to the ‘esteem’ level of Maslow.

Let’s try another one.


If you said the “physiological” level, because the product is a food, try again. I argue that this commercial’s appeal is at least on a “security” level, because this hamburger is an “oasis,” a place of comfort, on the highway of hunger. Each time you analyze an ad, an icon, or a symbol, think carefully and try to imagine just how high on the hierarchy the icon aspires to appeal. Let’s try one more.


If you said “Belonging,” you’re almost there. While this ad is making a “belonging” pitch, and trying to make us feel like we belong to this group of handsome, rugged guys, the Marlboro man is a special man, above the others. This Marlboro ad is going for an “Esteem” appeal. Whenever the product or its related icons are ‘special,’ or ‘above the others,’ it is always an “Esteem” appeal that is being made.

  • Power Point: Get some practice with more print advertising. Test yourself as to what level of Maslow the advertiser is appealing. See the Power Point Advertisements & Maslow Online

Once you feel like you have some expertise in this area (and you need to do so, since your essays will require this skill), try it out on cultural icons and pop icons, like your favourite music stars and movie stars. As with the advertisements, you’ll be amazed how many of them utilize conscious appeals to the esteem level of Maslow. Nevertheless, it is also amazing to realize how many do not transcend lower levels like physiological and safety needs. Check it out for yourself.

Marshall McLuhan

Who was Marshall McLuhan? We would not even be here, talking about media literacy, if it wasn’t for media guru Marshall McLuhan. Wiki writes:

“Herbert Marshall McLuhan, CC (July 21, 1911 – December 31, 1980) was a Canadian philosopherof communication theory. His work is viewed as one of the cornerstones of the study of media theory, as well as having practical applications in the advertising and television industries. McLuhan is known for coining the expressions the medium is the message and the global village, and for predicting the World Wide Web almost thirty years before it was invented. Although he was a fixture in media discourse in the late 1960s, his influence began to wane in the early 1970s. In the years after his death, he continued to be a controversial figure in academic circles. With the arrival of the internet, however, there was renewed interest in his work and perspective.” (Wiki, Marshall McLuhan)

It was McLuhan who said “we know that someone discovered water, but we know that it wasn’t a fish.”



By this, he meant that any pervasive environment is undetectable. Because the fish is surrounded by water at all times, and because he knows nothing else, it is impossible for the fish to discover that he is in water (until he is removed from the water, of course). He used the ‘fish in water’ metaphor to explain to us that because we are surrounded at all times by media and technological devices, it is impossible for us to understand the effect that media have upon us. He believed that this effect was profound and, in many ways, negative, but that we will never know or be able to measure, ultimately, what that effect is.

Test McLuhan’s ‘fish in water’ notion yourself. Unless you venture out into nature, and go camping, for example, is it possible to find yourself in a context where you are not surrounded by media? All over your house or apartment, all over the subways, all over the College, we are constantly surrounded by media. Even in the doctor’s office or the bank, there is likely to be a television there to entertain waiting customers. We can’t even venture into public washrooms these days without seeing some kind of ad or poster on the wall, promoting one product or other. Walking down the street, especially at a place like Yonge and Dundas, you will see hundreds of ad billboards. It is estimated that, each day, we see over 15,000 ads in some form.

How do these ads make you feel? Usually inadequate and lacking something, like there is something missing from your life, something that will be fulfilled only if you purchase this product or that one. Media make us feel. Media change us. Just by being in the room, even when they are turned off, our televisions make us feel something. McLuhan predicted it. He was right.

As students of media literacy, we are fascinated by McLuhan, not simply because he was the grandfather of media literacy, but also because of two specific theories he supplied for us.

1) The medium is the message and the user is the content

2) The Extensions of Man theory

The Medium is the Message

Initially, as an English teacher, McLuhan was passionate about trying to teach his students about the classics of literature. He realized, though, that he could get his students’ attention more effectively by teaching about things that interested young people: advertising, comic books, movies, and television. In the process, he began to develop his own expertise in these media and in how they affected people.

McLuhan was famous for his aphoristic language, the fact that he often spoke in clever original riddles and carefully designed poetic sayings. He was heavily criticized by the scholars of his time for not always speaking in formal language and for speaking about areas of scholarship that were not in his immediate field of expertise, which was English literature. It turns out, though, that by so doing, he was pioneering in a new field of scholarship that was a blend of many different fields: the field of media studies.

His most famous aphorism was “the medium is the message and the user is the content.” It has been interpreted in many different ways.

Still feeling lost? Here’s the simple Wiki definition of this aphorism:

“…the form of a medium imbeds itself in the message, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived, creating subtle change over time.” (Wiki, The Medium is the Message)

In fact, the entire phrase used by McLuhan was “the medium is the message and the user is the content.” By “the user is the content,” McLuhan meant that each perceiver brings his/her own experience, knowledge, and understanding to the table when he/she examines and analyzes communications and media. Thus, each user and that user’s preferences will derive an entirely different meaning from each medium he/she examines. One person might pick up a newspaper and go immediately to the Entertainment section, then read the World news, and be done with it. Another user might pick up only the Sports and then read the front page. The meaning that is gleaned by each individual user is dependent on who is perceiving the medium at a given time.

When you are performing iconographic analyses on your pop culture icons, think of each icon as a medium, a medium that is conveying a message. Now ask yourself, to use Federman’s and McLuhan’s words, “what is the change of scale or pace or pattern” that this medium has introduced and is introducing, over time, into human affairs”? Now, how is the medium (your icon) the message (the change he/she creates)?

In a sense, we are asking about the very prescription for life that Gandhi recommended: “You must be the change you want to see in the world.”

As with all pop cultural phenomena, you will find that your icon affects both negative and positive changes in the world. For example, while rappers Nelly or TI might affect positive changes by empowering young African American men (a positive change), these artists are also responsible for a great deal more sneakers, fitted caps, and women’s apple bottom jeans ending up in landfills (a negative change).

How is the medium (your chosen pop icon) the message (the changes, both negative and positive, he/she affects in the world)?

And how does the personality and psyche of you, the user of this medium, affect the meaning you have derived from your chosen medium (your pop icon)? How is the user the content?

The Extensions of Man

David Bobbitt explains McLuhan’s Understanding Media as follows:

“The core of McLuhan’s theory, and the key idea to start with in explaining him, is his definition of media as extensions of ourselves. McLuhan writes: ‘It is the persistent theme of this book that all technologies are extensions of our physical and nervous systems to increase power and speed’ (90) and, ‘Any extension, whether of skin, hand, or foot, affects the whole psychic and social complex….’ (4). From the premise that media, or technologies (McLuhan’s approach makes “media” and “technology” more or less synonymous terms), are extensions of some physical, social, psychological, or intellectual function of humans, flows all of McLuhan’s subsequent ideas. Thus, the wheel extends our feet, the phone extends our voice, television extends our eyes and ears, the computer extends our brain, and electronic media, in general, extend our central nervous system. (Bobbitt, 2011) [note: Bobbitt’s citations are from the 1994 MIT printing of Understanding Media]

Federman also provides an explanation of how media extend us:

“Right at the beginning of Understanding Media, he tells us that a medium is ‘any extension of ourselves.’ Classically, he suggests that a hammer extends our arm and that the wheel extends our legs and feet. Each enables us to do more than our bodies could do on their own. Similarly, the medium of language extends our thoughts from within our mind out to others. ” (Federman, 2004).

While we acknowledge that there is a strong upside to having these technologies extend us into the world, there is a profound downside. The more we use our technologies, the more the very sense we were trying to enhance, through extension, becomes obsolete. The more I use a computer to do mathematics, the more my own mathematical skills become rusty and out of shape. The more I use my glasses to see, the more my eyes become dependent on the glasses.  An excellent example of this kind of ‘amputation’ of a sense is provided when we compare our culture’s wearing of shoes to the practice of the Kogi Indians of Venezuela and Colombia. This is a culture that has never used shoes, and remarkably, they have very few back and postural problems. Recent studies have shown that the wearing of shoes creates numerous back problems in our culture.

Kappelman writes:

“Most individuals already understand the concept of extension, but many are unreflective when it comes to what McLuhan calls ‘amputations;‘ the counterpart to extensions. Every extension of mankind, especially technological extensions, have the effect of amputating or modifying some other extension. An example of an amputation would be the loss of archery skills with the development of gunpowder and firearms. The need to be accurate with the new technology of guns made the continued practice of archery obsolete. The extension of a technology like the automobile ‘amputates’ the need for a highly developed walking culture, which in turn causes cities and countries to develop in different ways. The telephone extends the voice, but also amputates the art of penmanship gained through regular correspondence. These are a few examples, and almost everything we can think of is subject to similar observations.” (Kappelman, 2001)

Test yourself by examining common everyday senses, to gain a mastery of extensions theory. You will find that most, if not all objects/media we use are sensory/bodily extensions of some kind:

  • car = extension of the foot
  • table = extension of the lap
  • chair = extension of the buttocks, for sitting
  • telescope = extension of the eyes
  • crane on construction site = extension of the hand
  • computer = extension of the mind

Extensions theory is extremely useful to us in media studies since we wish to assess the value that our icons hold for us. Since McLuhan argues that a medium is anything that extends us, it is helpful for us to look at our cultural icons, their presentation, and their artforms as media. Ask this question of your favourite media icon– how does this man/woman/object/brand extend me into the world? Women who are students might view an artist such as Madonna, and realize that this artist provides ‘voice’ to certain ideas (feminism, empowerment) that she, the woman student, holds. Thus, Madonna is a medium that extends the student’s voice. Similarly, a male student could analyze the ways in which martial artist Bruce Lee, as a pop icon, extends him, the student, into the world. Lee’s power provides a vicarious empowerment to his fans throughout the world. Thus, the fan/student’s own body/strength is extended by the medium known as Bruce Lee.

As you examine your icons and work on your term essays, ask yourself and report to me: how does this medium provide an extension for me?

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