Here is a puzzling passage in ‘Art as Survival in the Electric Age’ (1973)1:
Poe hit upon the key to the electric age, programming from effects in order to anticipate causes. The effects come before causes in all situations. The ground comes before the figure in all situations. So that when any new innovation occurs, people are always able to say, “The time is ripe,” meaning the ground and the effects have come long before the causes. The effects come first, and the fact of the effects coming first indicates that the study of environmental action, or the action of the strom, must begin with the effects rather than with a theoretic pursuit of causes. (212-213)
The puzzles in this passage turn the meaning of the word ‘before’ — or on its meanings, plural. For if “effects come before causes in all situations”, this cannot be the same ‘before’ as in “ground comes before the figure in all situations”. Effects come before causes in our experience such that causes must be induced.2 But so little does ground “come before the figure” in our experience that McLuhan continually employed the phrase “hidden ground” and frequently characterized phenomena or whole ages as lacking perception of ground. Eg:
Integrity concerns figure without ground (…). When the ground itself becomes Protean or bewildering in its multiplicity of changes, then the ordinary psyche abandons all hope of relating thereto and retreats to the ivory tower of integrity. (Take Today, 285-286)
The plays of Ibsen are a familiar example: groups of human figures are starkly presented to the audience minus any social ground or human community. This, in a word, is abstract art: figures without ground. Speed-up pushes all work and living towards specialism that is the dissolution of community. (…) What has happened today is that there is a new hidden ground of all human enterprise, namely, a world environment of electric information. (University of Alberta Convocation Address, 1971)
If “ground comes before the figure in all situations” it plainly does not do so in our experience. Or, more precisely, if any figure comes to light, as we say, only over against some prior ground, it is not the case that that ground is necessarily, or even usually, perceived. Indeed, McLuhan sometimes maintained that it was not possible to know present grounds at all, only past3 ones — as figures on unknown present ones.
When it is said here that “ground comes before the figure in all situations”, McLuhan is not talking about a ‘before’ in our experience — but about a ‘before’ to our experience.
In the order of things, ground comes first. The figures arrive later. Coming events cast their shadows before them. (The Global Village, 6)
“In the order of things, ground comes first.” But in our experience, effects come first and, insofar as figures may be said to be the effects of grounds, so do figures and not grounds.
The great problem is to understand these knotted senses of ‘before’ and the knotted times associated with them. Humans are related to “the order of things” only indirectly and, so to say, later. However, it is somehow given to humans to understand “the order of things” that is before exactly in and through their remove from it. Call it ‘communication’.