Archive for January, 2015

08th Jan 2015

The Cartoon as Cold Medium

Yesterday’s fatal terrorist attack on the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo draws our attention to the persistent and undiminishing political power of that antiquated vehicle of expression known as the still-image cartoon. The basic technology of pencil, paper and print, almost banal in its simplicity, nonetheless represents a potent weapon in the fight for journalistic freedom and the democratic right to say what one wants.

Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan coined the term ‘cold media’ to define forms of communication, like cartoons, that require higher sensory participation in order to interpret the message they convey. So the cartoon is a cold medium in contrast to the hotter media of photography or film, the latter of which convey a message (i.e. image) that is more vivid and requires less sensory work to understand it.

Today’s media are, predominantly, hot. They are short, succinct, sensational, and demand little brain or eye or ear work to be fully appreciated. The 140-character tweet is perhaps the ultimate expression of cold information, though the most popular social networks and user-generated sites - Facebook, Instagram, Youtube - attract users with visual/video rather than textual matter.

The cartoon, by contrast, remains colder, harder to digest, more highbrow and intellectually challenging, perhaps even alienating in its aloofness, but therein lies the secret of its success. Much like the book, the sermon and the political pamphlet, the cartoon demands respect and carries with it an air of authority and assurance no hot medium could ever acquire.

Just as the burning of books and the censorship of the printed word has, historically, made a far greater impact on the pursuit of civilisation and democracy than has the latest sensational fad or gimmick, so too, that cold and simple, but frighteningly effective, medium of the cartoon moves the world today - provoking fervent debate on religious and political rights - in far greater degrees than hotter media forms.

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