Nooks and Kindles: Media en Abyme

The first chapter of Marshall McLuhan’s seminal work Understanding Media is entitled ‘The Medium is the Message’; along with ‘hot and cool media’ and the ‘global village’ this title has become something of an immediate catchphrase associated with the media ‘guru’, but we will look again to this chapter for its precise definition. ‘The medium is the message’ ‘is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium—that is, of any extension of ourselves—result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology[;] it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action.’ For example, in terms of ‘electric light’, McLuhan says that it ‘is pure information. It is a medium without a message, as it were, unless it is used to spell out some verbal ad or name’, but he goes on to say that even if it does do this, ‘the “content” of any medium is always another medium’ too.

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In an earlier EDA article – ‘Old Spice and the Structure of Advertising’ – which discussed Walter Benjamin and the detective novel in relation to an Old Spice ad, the pronouncement was made that ‘the advert has read Benjamin’. Here, Amazon has read McLuhan, as is shown in their new ad for the Kindle. In it, ‘the medium is the message’ itself is extended. The ad shows a bunch of kids reading their Kindles and waxing lyrical about how involving books are: ‘when I’m reading a book, it’s as if I’m on a different planet, I’m oblivious to everything else around/Sometimes I just giggle to myself and people are like, what you laughing at? and I’m like, just the book’, etc. Ostensibly, this is an advert just about books (the word ‘Kindle’ is not even spoken once, it only softly comes into focus, written, at the end). It is an ad that has seemingly cleverly covered the tracks of the medium itself, presenting only the message: ‘books’. ‘Forget the kindle as a device, as medium, or mediation’, it says, ‘it just is books.’ But in this respect, the focus of the advert is nonetheless still only on a medium itself: indeed, books.

In its double bluff it gives its game away and forces us into a concentration on books, as a ‘medium without a message’ (what McLuhan called ‘the Gutenberg galaxy’). It forces us to realise the gap in the advert too: no book is being advertised here, just the ‘universal’ and supposedly ‘universally beneficial’ experience of reading, collapsing all literature into this experience, without any distinction between individual works. It’s an advert about reading, which, handily, the Kindle is the platform of…

But, if we read the advert closer we’ll see it’s actually something else; a medium en abyme. A ‘mise en abyme’ is the descriptor for the abyssal reflecting-in-on-itself of, say, a TV monitor being filmed, on which you can see an infinity of TV monitors disappearing into the vanishing point, or similarly of two parallel mirrors, which do the same when you look into one, from the point of standing between them. To start to disentangle ourselves from this medium/mise en abyme we’ll have to realise we are already two removes in. By focusing on the medium books, we’re already eliding the medium the kindle (the advert’s ostensible goal: its saying ‘it’s not just a medium, it is reading’), and the medium the viewing platform (TV/YouTube/etc.) of the advert. The content of the ad begins to elude us when we look for it; at its irreducible point there is no content, no real message: there is no book, but only books, as a medium – ‘the Kindle is books – being advertised. McLuhan gives an explanation of this effect in an Australian TV interview: ‘what’s in print is nothing compared to the effect of the printed word. The printed word sets up a paradigm, a structure of awareness, which effects everybody, in very very drastic ways.’

The Kindle is such a structure or paradigm. It is still the printed word, but the printed word as an electronic medium. And the Kindle’s latest manifestation, the Paperwhite, can now illuminate its pages with light. ‘If the student of media will but meditate on the power of this medium of electric light’, McLuhan says, ‘he[/she] will have the key to the form of the power that is in all media to reshape any lives they touch.’ ‘The message of electric light is total change. It is pure information without any content to restrict its transforming and informing power.’

Barnes and Noble’s rival to the Kindle, the Nook, goes to prove just how transformative (and informative) privileging the medium over the message can be: at one point its ‘search and replace’ function changed every instance of the word ‘kindle’ in their e-book version of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace to ‘Nook’; an instance in which the medium completely usurped the message. How many will have noticed this content flaw of their own accord it cannot be said, but the response of Elif Batuman – a Russian literature specialist and memoirist – beautifully sums up its own surprisingly subversive force in redirecting concentration back onto the medium (as the message): ‘it’s kind of great’, she says, ‘to have one’s attention drawn to the shared connotation of lighting something up from within’. The backlit e-reader itself.

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