She Who Gets Slapped

The medium is the message.

The moment of the meeting of media is a moment of freedom and release from the ordinary trance and numbness imposed on them by our senses.

The telephone: speech without walls.
The phonograph: music hall without walls.
the photograph: museum without walls.
The electric light: space without walls.
The movie, radio, and TV: classroom without walls.

From Understanding Media, by Marshall McLuhan (1964)

Culture today is infecting everything with sameness.

From The Dialectic of Enlightenment, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer (1944, 1947, 1969)

I needed a break this weekend, but could ill afford to spend either time recovering from a massage or a massage itself. I needed time away from a screen, time in the air, time when I was not typing or reading something that someone else had typed. My life is ruled by the immediacy of type. Or maybe it is ruled by the mediacy of type. At any rate, j’en avais marre, and I needed to take a break.

So I went and sat in front of a screen. In the dark. And watched a screen. With a digital print of a silent movie on it. It was glorious. The medium, or rather, the media, were the message.


This weekend has been dedicated to some rather dense critical theory that I find myself agreeing with, once I am able to untangle it. I am breathing the rarefied air of the Frankfurt School, engaging in the dialectic of the enlightenment (or rather, trying to keep up with people who are talking over my head), with Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. Let me tell you something. Every word is worth it. Every hour spent muttering about the culture industry; fretting about mass art as opposed to art for the masses; grumbling about whether we have all been duped about beebop, that it might not be art; worrying about pseudoindividuality; every one of those moments is a moment well spent. If you haven’t read the Dialectic of Enlightment, then, believe me, you are totes missing out. And I am not being ironic about this.


You’re missing out on some real gems: “Existence in late capitalism is a permanent rite of initiation.” “Fun is a medicinal bath which the entertainment industry never ceases to prescribe.” And this one: “Joy is austere.” But it started me thinking. . . was I about to go out to experience art? Or culture? Or entertainment? Or something else?

I needed a break from Adorno and Horkheimer, but I also needed a break from Marshall McLuhan, who, after Theo and Hork, was a laugh riot. McLuhan expands upon Northcote Parkinson’s law, “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion,” by asserting that with the computer, ” ‘work to be done’ is actually the movement of information.” I needed to stop moving information for a while. But in doing so, I would have some time to think about the medium of silent film being the message.

Marshall McLuhan seemed to make his living coining neologisms and witticisms about the media–all media. Clothing (a medium for. . .not being naked?). Cars (a medium of conveyance disguised as a statement, or maybe the other way around). TeeVee (it’s sound! It’s moving pictures! It’s soap and JFK and Jack Ruby and Jack Parr). The hifi (get your Mel Torme ready). Money (more than a store of value). Clocks (a medium of time). Wheels fer chrissake. We have him to thank for the phrase “global village,” and if you can make it through his book without grinding your teeth at his own self-satisfaction at being a white guy who pats Africans on the head when they don’t know how to look at a photograph and without poking your eye out with a pencil every time he refers to a not-man as a girl, you’re going to get to think about some really interesting stuff. Around eye poking and teethgrinding. For McLuhan, whose estate carefully controls all McLuhania, the medium is the message. Rarefied air it is not.

The Alloy Orchestra was my escape. They set silent films to music, and I had the opportunity to see them at the KiMo Theater in Albuquerque in 2011, where they accompanied a screening of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Alloy Orchestra is three guys who make a lot of noise. Their score is performed live without loops or delays, which lends an intense immediacy to the performance. Yet these three guys, Roger Miller, Terry Donahue, and Ken Winokur, create atmosphere and mood with synthesizer, clarinet, accordion, and a “rack of junk.” Electronic and traditional instruments together. Oh my.

The silent film they scored this time was HE Who Gets Slapped, a tragicomedy about Paul (Lon Cheney), a theorist whose ideas are stolen, and scorned by the Academy, he turns to clowning. His schtick? Getting slapped. The Baron (Marc McDermott) who steals his ideas, also steals his wife, and will try to steal the girl again. The Girl (Norma Shearer), is the bareback rider Consuelo, the daughter of a disgraced count who is reduced to wearing only an undershirt with cuffs and collar under his coat. Paul, as the clown HE, falls sweetly in love with Consuelo, but knowing that he can never have the girl, protects the nascent love of Benzano (John Gilbert) and Consuelo, unleashing a lion on the ignoble Count and Baron. You see. . .ok. Enough of this. Two guys get eaten by a lion. And they deserved it. But HE dies. And I was wondering. Why is it important that this medium, or these media, had this message? Is the message one of “hotness” or “coolness?”

McLuhan, probably in an attempt to get jiggy with the hipster youth of the 1960’s, decided to adopt the terminology of cool and hot. He’s such a square, so it comes off badly, but let’s go with it. “Cool” media is that media that does not give away too much, or does not contain a large amount of information. A telephone call, speech, “so little is given and so much has to be filled in by the listener.” “Hot” media is low in participation because it contains so much data, so much information, that is “high definition.”

The movie that I saw, and the concert that I listened to contributed to a “hot” experience, according to McLuhan. But according to his statement, that the media are the message, I was having a cool experience. i need to figure out what the message was. Was it that the clown gets slapped? Was it that schadenfreude is a cruel sentiment? Was it that the bad guys get eaten by lions? Was it that silent movies make you think about the music, and the music makes you think about the movie? Was this the tonic bath of fun that the culture industry prescribed for me?

What ever it was, it shook my brain loose from my typewriter for an hour or so, and I experienced a bit of amusement, a bit of relief, and the bad guys got it in the end.


3 thoughts on “She Who Gets Slapped

  1. The categorization of McLuhan’s media as “hot” or “cool” does seem a bit forced. Forced in the sense that there exists no middle ground or grey area in regards to our experiences and/or participation with the medium and technologies themselves in his analysis. The fluidity of today’s technologies to cross boundaries seems to suggest that instead of media being either “hot” or “cold,” a new category of “lukewarm” may be more applicable – especially in the case of the example you provided.

  2. It’s interesting to yoke together the Frankfurt School and McLuhan, since the latter seemed to have hated — on a personal level — all the media that McLuhan is talking about. Few of them had any patience at all for “low culture.” In the Minima Moralia, Adorno wrote, “Every visit to the cinema leaves me, against all my vigilance, stupider and worse.” And we won’t even get into Adorno’s incoherent thoughts “On Jazz,” which leave one with the suspicion that he can’t stand it.

    Personally, I find their attitude elitist and pretentious. But then again, so did the Birmingham School (of cultural studies) that succeeded them. As with the Frankfurt School, they were also committed neo-Marxists. But they began to wonder if popular culture wasn’t, instead, a source of revolutionary pressure. One suspects, too, that they really liked The Beatles.

    • I agree that they are elitist, but they have a point, and there is a convergence of Horkheimer and Adorno with McLuhan that cannot be ignored: the medium is the message. For Hork and Theo, the medium of film conveys the message that we are consumers of a product that we do not know we are consuming. We are unaware of our own consumption. The reasons for this are legion, but the simplest one to identify is that we, as the viewing public, have become the product. The Culture Industry seeks conformity, uniformity, and sameness in products, whether that product is the film, or that product is the person.

      If you consider social media, we are all rendered homogenous. We are tweeters, bloggers, profiles. Our “friend” list is homogenous. We cull out, or “unfriend” those who diverge too far from our norm. We even have appropriated a term from mythology to describe the person who troubles our online thoughts too much–they are “trolls”. The message of these media is conformity, self-absorbance, and superficiality, along with uniformity. We are nothing without facebook, a blog, a twitter account. We have to be part of the flock of tweeters.

      While Horkheimer and Adorno would have hated to have a cuppa with McLuhan, I think that they would grudgingly agree that the media are the message.

Leave a Reply to sramsay Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s