Posts Tagged ‘conditioning’

Form and Content

December 21, 2009

Marshall McLuhan is famous for his dictum the medium is the message. He meant that the form of any given medium has a more powerful effect on us than its content. In fact, he said that the actual content of any medium is really just another medium. The content of writing is the spoken word, the content of television is the movie, and so on. When I was in high school, I was tremendously excited by McLuhan’s book Understanding Media. It was the first intellectual-type book that I ever grasped. Before that I’d only read novels. Now I think McLuhan is wrong about a lot. He’s right in that people who live unconsciously don’t pay much attention to the ideas presented in any given medium. But we’re not obliged to live unconsciously. I’m indifferent toward the media that people use. I want to understand what they’re saying.

Conventional wisdom nowadays is that we human beings are influenced almost exclusively by our genes and our environment, that this is our natural way of being and cannot be overcome. You see this all the time in scientific studies that supposedly explain people’s preferences. Studies that read like, “Researchers at the University of Missoula have discovered that men prefer women with green hair because it gives them a biological advantage in the color wars.” I see these kinds of articles in the news all the time. But we can live consciously and deliberately. It takes an effort, but we can do it. We can pick our loves based on affection rather than on some physical characteristic. And we’re much better off when we do so. What scientists are really discovering in all these behavioral studies are the nuances of neuroses. If we want a healthy world and healthy minds, content is what matters. Where form becomes something more than the outcome of content, it is delusory. It means that the artist or thinker or lover or whatever has nothing real to say.