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Introduction to the Philosophy of Medium

Lecturer: John Lechte

Originally Taught: Summer School 2022

The overall orientation of this course is to reconsider the meaning and significance of the notion of medium and the idea of ‘media specificity’ as derived from Marshall McLuhan’s catch phrase, ‘the medium is the message’.  It will be shown that the origin of the term, ‘medium’, reveals a far deeper meaning than is commonly acknowledged, including the notion of medium as ‘middle’ and as linked linguistically to the ‘middle voice’. To highlight the issues at stake, reference will be made to the latest developments in German media theory, in particular as seen in the work of Sybille Krämer, who argues that the medium qua medium does not appear as such; Wolfgang Ernst and the notion of media archaeology, where archaeology is loosely based on Michel Foucault’s concept of archaeology, and Friedrich Kittler, who argues that individual media disappear once digitalisation becomes widespread. In the wake of Kittler’s work, Rosalind Krauss has coined the term, ‘post-media’, and an evaluation of her approach will be proposed.


To begin, we consider, as an example, the immanence of the medium – medium as milieu -- such as fish in water, or maybe the human in an/the environment? According to Bernard Stiegler, Plato says in Timaeus that ‘if the world were made of gold, gold would be the only thing that we could not know’ (cited in Stiegler 1998: 109). Aristotle, too, comments that ‘animals that live in water would not notice that the things which touch one another in water have wet surfaces’ (see Stiegler 109). In other words, the medium is what is not perceived.

The medium, on this basis, would be a supreme test of thought, not something that can be approached lightly and in a ‘taken-for-granted’ mode. 

This is very different from how the medium has been approached in modern societies, where ‘media specificity’ reigns, that is, where the medium is deemed to be what can be perceived, known, analysed – and this because it is objectified. But is the medium an object? Reading Marshall McLuhan, the answer would seem to be ‘yes’.

In this introductory lecture, we will begin to question and problematize McLuhan’s notion of medium as the message, which is equivalent to media specificity, where the medium ‘speaks’. We will challenge the dominance of media specificity in relation to meaning, message, image, etc. With media specificity, time presented by the clock becomes ‘clock time’; orality produces an ‘oral’ – non literate – view of the world; the printed word opens out on to a ‘bookish’ view of the world; a photograph presents a photographic view of the world; the computer would produce an essentially virtual world, etc. Or, as Mark Hansen says regarding the digital and time: ‘time has changed in the wake of the digital computational revolution’ (Hansen 2009: 295). Moreover, in light of the dominance of the technical artifactual, digital medium: ‘we cannot but recognize the extensive temporalizing power wielded by technical artifacts that function autonomously or quasi-autonomously in relation to narrowly human regimes of temporalization’ (304). Hansen goes on to note ‘the ways in which media objects function to capture human time’ (306. Emphasis added).


  • Guillory, J. (2010). Genesis of the media concept. Critical Inquiry, 36(2), 321–362. doi:10.1086/648528
  • *Hansen, Mark B.N. (2009) ‘Living (with) Technical Time From Media Surrogacy to Distributed Cognition’ Theory, Culture & Society, 26 (2–3), 294–315.
  • *Stiegler, Bernard (1998) Technics and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheseus, trans. Richard Beardsworth and George Collins, Stanford: Stanford University Press.


Re-examining the Meaning and Signification of ‘Medium’

This lecture aims to establish the meaning and signification of the term, ‘medium’, the better to understand the notion of ‘media specificity’, as employed by media theorists. ‘Media specificity’ relies on only one possible meaning of ‘medium’. We will see, in particular, that the notion of medium as milieu (already mentioned in Lecture ONE), and as ‘middle voice’ offer fruitful ways of understanding the medium.


  • Williams, Raymond (1985) Keywords, London and New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Kristeva, Julia (1986) ‘Word, Dialogue and Novel’ in Moi, ed, The Kristeva Reader, Oxford: Blackwell, 39-51 (on 0-2).
  • *Fenves, Peter (1998) ‘ “Out of the Order of Number”: Benjamin and Irigaray Toward a Politics of Pure Means’, Diacritics, 28 (1), 43-58.
  • Krämer, Sybille (2015) Medium, Messenger, Transmission: An Approach to Media Philosophy, trans. Anthony Enns, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 36.
  • Heidegger, Martin (1978) Being and Time, trans. John Macquarie and Edward Robinson, Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Heidegger, Martin (1978) ‘Temporality and Within-time-ness’ in Being and Time
  • McLuhan, Marshall (2008 [1964]) ‘The Medium is the Message’ in Understanding Media, London and New York: Routledge, 7-23.
  • *Scott, Charles (1989) ‘The Middle Voice of Metaphysics’, The Review of Metaphysics’, 42 (4), 743-764.
  • Scott, Charles (1988) ‘The Middle Voice in Being and Time’ in Sallis and Taminaux, eds, The Collegium Phaenomenologicum, The First Ten Years, Dordrechte and Boston: Kluwer Academic, 159-173.
  • *Wolf, Herta (2007) ‘The Tears of Photography’, Grey Room, 29, (Fall), 66-89. (on media specificity)


On the idea that ‘the medium disappears’.

This lecture will focus on the work of the German media philosopher, Sybille Krämer. After indicating the scope of Krämer’s research, we will undertake a reading of methodological considerations in the book, Medium, Messenger, Transmission: An Approach to Media Philosophy. It is in this chapter that Krämer sets out her thesis of the disappearance of the medium.


  • Krämer, Sybille (2015) ‘Methodological Considerations’ in Medium, Messenger, Transmission: An Approach to Media Philosophy, 27-37 and passim.


Revisiting the ‘Medium is the Message’: McLuhan and Media Specificity

In this lecture we will be undertake a reading of a selection from McLuhan’s classic text, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Reference will also be made to the aim of the book, The Guttenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man

The first task will be to acknowledge the apparent plausibility of McLuhan’s historical approach to the evolution of communications media and to examine Macro and Micro Approaches to the Medium


  • McLuhan, Marshall (2008 [1964]), Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, London and New York: Routledge Classics, 24-80; 157-169 (on Clocks).
  • McLuhan, Marshall (2011[1962]) The Guttenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
  • Goody, Jack (2000) The Power of the Written Tradition, Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press.
  • Ong, Walter J. (1997 [1982]) Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, London and New York: Routledge.


Medium as Immaterial and Material Object (Part 1)

The notion that media are what disappears is effectively challenged by another strand of German media theory, one that explicitly promotes the medium as concrete object.  And it is necessary to address this. Indeed, despite appearances to the contrary, with the approach inaugurated in the modern era by Marshall McLuhan, the study of the medium in many quarters remains dominated by the notion that the material support, historically inflected, is the medium. To be considered in this lecture is the work of media archaeologist, Wolgang Ernst, and that of media theorist, Friedrich Kittler. 

What is of pertinence in Ernst is the question of whether the medium as such ‘speaks’, or whether, alternatively, the medium is the condition of possibility of all forms of communication. With Kittler, the issue is whether the blurring of forms of media means that, effectively, the medium as such ‘disappears’.


  • Ernst, Wolfgang (2016) Chronopoetics The Temporal and Operativity of Technological Media, trans. Anthony Enns, London and New York: Rowman and Littlefield, Parts I and II.
  • *Ernst, Wolfgang (2013), ‘From Media History to Zeitcritique’, Theory, Culture and Society, 30 (6), 132-146.
  • Kittler, Friedrich (1999) Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, trans Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz, Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Kittler, Friedrich (1990) ‘Rebus’ in Discourse Networks, 1800/1900, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 265-346.
  • *Kittler, Friedrich (2009), ‘Towards and Ontology of Media’, Theory, Culture and Society, 26 (2-3), 23-31.

Medium as Immaterial and Material Object: ‘Post-medium’ (5, Part 2).

In the wake of the putative dissolution of media comes Rosalind Krauss’s formulation of a ‘post-media’ reality. In her critique of ‘post-media’, Krauss, inspired by Benjamin, endeavors to rehabilitate obsolescent media – in effect, media as object – the better to gain a deeper understanding of that which in its operation went more or less without saying. Obsolescent media can, Krauss proposes, come to assume a ‘redemptive’ role by bringing to light the ‘necessary plurality of the arts’ (199: 305).    

  • Krauss, Rosalind (2000) 'Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post/Medium Condition’, New York: Thames & Hudson.
  • *Krauss, Rosalind (1999) ‘Reinventing the Medium’, Critical Inquiry, 25 (2), 289 305.
  • *Kim Ji-Hoon (2009) ‘The Post-medium Condition and the Explosion of Cinema’, Screen, 50 (1), 114-123.

* = Reading available in course Box.