Is There a Message in the Medium? The Materiality of Language

Critical Writing
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Abstract (in English): 

The initial argument of this essay is absurdly simple, obvious, literal: language must be embodied and thus its particular medium is—literally, ontologically—the matter, the flesh, the materiality of any message that it articulates. Marshall McLuhan urged us to recognize that media signify, that the matter in which the message is embodied also traces differences that were already what we have come to call ‘writing’ in a poststructuralist, Derridean sense: grammatological practices. However, McLuhan’s copula was not ontological. It expressed a concern that these other, parallel messages were more significant than any linguistic message they embodied. This same anxiety has reached a kind of apotheosis in recent criticism of digital literature—from Christopher Funkhouser and Roberto Simanowski—revenant as no less than our ancient fear of cannibalism. The message of the medium literally consumes the materiality of language: its own body, flesh of its flesh. But this cannibalism would only be literal—and thus taboo, thus truly terrifying—if McLuhan’s copula were ontological. The consequences of recognizing that messages are only ever media, that they cannot otherwise be—cannot matter or be matter—has not been sufficiently addressed. There are, perhaps, two coherent approaches to the categorization of media as ‘new’: new media may be programmable (this is a novel property of media as general principle) and/or new media may be materially distinct, in literal substance or by embodying some novel form of interaction with space and time. This essay pursues the materiality of language into new media—thus categorized—critiquing certain aspects of theory, and suggesting certain potentials for the practice of literal art when the Message is (New) Media.

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Eric Dean Rasmussen