- The Crack in the Electric Window
You can always rely on Marshall McLuhan to supply memorably pithy aphorisms about media culture, even if his logic soon crumbles apart in your fingers. Reading his distinction between light on media, like film, and light through media, like television, he appears to have captured a fundamental aspect organizing screen technologies, namely projection versus emission.1 But then he extends his observation to what are ultimately untenable claims about differing levels of cognitive and emotional involvement in each. As is the case with most dichotomies, it takes only a few counterexamples to reveal the wobbliness of the split. Film can be back-projected, video can be front-projected, and both were being done for years prior to McLuhan's own technologically static projections.
McLuhan's binary prompts him to declare that projected images situate spectators in the position of the camera, whereas the emission of light from television turns viewers into screens.2 The notion of "viewers as screens" is provocative for screen culture scholars struggling to provide workable definitions for any and all "screens." At the most basic level, regardless of the light source, our faces are the surfaces on which both projections and emissions settle. Our eyes register the light, reflected or not, and our ears receive the sound waves. One such iteration of viewers as screens—the wide-eyed child, bathed in the light of a television, computer, or film—is a conventionalized representation of absorption and hypnotic media control; it is a figuration of the innocent actually becoming a media screen. But we need not reinforce this version of what C. Wright Mills [End Page 167] might have called the cheerfully robotic spectator. Maintaining the sensory condition of our human screen-ness—sentient bodies oriented toward audiovisual media—as a conceptual anchor helps film and media scholars avoid rigid typologies of mechanisms that stimulate sensations, which is a philosophical dead end toward which so many after McLuhan continue to dash. For all its variations, we should begin by acknowledging that the concept of the "screen" stitches together an identifiable and meaningful array of artifacts. We just seem to know what it is reflexively: a thing that glows and attracts attention with changing images, sounds, and information.
Technical specifications—screen size, aspect ratio, resolution, frame and refresh rate, brightness, color scale—might help us define what we are talking about in a specific instance, or better yet complicate what we presume we know about media. But the mechanical level only gets us so far in our job of actually understanding the related senses, sensibilities, and practices that form as a consequence of media use. All those unruly features of human existence simply can't be neatly confined and appended to medium specificity. As Raymond Williams wrote, and emphatically italicized, "[N]o mode of production and therefore no dominant social order and therefore no dominant culture ever in reality includes or exhausts all human practice, human energy, and human intention."3 The human element that exceeds structuring concepts equally speaks to the boundaries that we claim exist between media, screen-based and otherwise.
So what is a screen? The question can be situationally answered with details about scale, technology, shape, tactility, portability, and location. Erkki Huhtamo's work has effectively taken the presentist air out of our inflated thinking, pushing us to understand the centuries-long trajectory of screen culture to include billboards and spotlights.4 Other valuable research has made inroads by focusing on urban concentrations of screens, and some have elaborated on descriptive nuances to the term "screen" that include filter, protection, barrier, and surface.5 As this and other research shows, the category of "screen" is baffling precisely because it is not in and of itself a medium, format, or platform. Rather, it is often an in-between manifestation of all three, one that materializes how we come to see and describe the differences and connections among television, film, computers, electronic signage, and digital spaces. In contrast to McLuhan's typological claims, our critical gaze is as much directed toward the integrated qualities of all the sites and locations that we casually understand as screens...