On the new opening of a domain

The new art or science which the electronic or post-mechanical age has to invent concerns the alchemy of social change. (Explorations 8)

When the elementary structure of a domain is identified, the nature of that domain remains largely a matter for future investigation. It is like the mapping of a new continent. The beginning inevitably has much fantasy and imprecision to it.  However, the future investigation of that domain is now decisively altered.

After the chemical element was gradually defined over the course of the nineteenth century, the way was opened for a whole series of new sciences. Organic chemistry, genetics, medicine, geology, meteorology, etc etc were either initiated or re-initiated on this new basis. The physical world became the object of investigation for these new sciences with an ever-increasing number of puzzles requiring (and receiving) explication. The nature of the physical domain has become decisively clearer through this process, but also remains murky in an always increasing number of areas. This advancing obscurity provides signposts for further investigation and therefore belongs to the on-going clarification of the domain. The designation of the elementary structure of a domain initiates a process which, once begun, continues forever through an evolving dynamic of new light and new dark.

All that can be done at the beginning moment of such a process is to use existing understandings in an attempt to indicate new possibilities. Take Today, the 1972 book written by McLuhan with Barrington Nevitt, is his most important statement of his insights into these new possibilities.  There the domain which is predicted to be capable of rigorous investigation is variously characterized as “all the principal features and postures inherent in the life of the community” (5), “psychic artifacts and social organizations” (8), people’s “sensory and mental lives” (9), “the ‘total field’ that bridges the worlds of visual and acoustic, civilized and primal space” (10), “the full spectrum of the human senses and faculties” (14), “the pattern of social organization and management” (22), “the interaction of all environments in transforming physical, psychic, and social perceptions” (69), “all pasts whatever, including the most primal and primitive modes” (84), the “interplay of mutual transformation that occurs between man and his world” (96), “the mental and physical drama of social man beleaguered by innumerable problems” (103).  In short, in this domain it is “man [himself] who is the content” (90) and what is to be investigated is nothing less than “the whole course of history”:

The Marxists’ ambition to explain the whole course of history was both noble and feasible, but not on economic terms.  (Take Today 69, emphasis added)

What McLuhan saw as misguided in the Marxist explanation of history was the fact that it couldn’t account for itself as a possible view of things. What was missing — and what McLuhan proposed to supply or at least to initiate — was investigation of the whole domain of the possible views of things and only then to proceed to an analysis of, say, social classes or economic relations,  Let’s get straight about basic chemistry, he might be seen as saying, and only after that get down to complex molecules and the rest.

From the interaction of all environments in transforming physical, psychic, and social perceptions, the Marxists select the “class struggle”. (Take Today 69)

For McLuhan, the operative word here is “select”. Where Marx might say that the truth or value of his theory is to be found in the light it throws on the social and economic world before it, McLuhan held that such theory belongs first of all to a fundamentally different domain, that of our “sensory and mental lives” (Take Today 9) where media are the atomic elements.

As a materialist, Marx considered that the scientific domain which would provide the foundation for his theories was already in place. The true view of the world would come down, somehow, to the physical sciences.  Such a consolidation or merger of realms McLuhan saw as typical of the modern age, something that Marx shared with Adam Smith and many others. This urge to merge would be something which the new sciences of human being would investigate as a law-like effect of prior cause or causes. For now, the important thing for McLuhan was that moderns like Marx and Smith could not perceive that the difference between physical materials and human views — the fact that the latter are in some way optional — meant that they belong to fundamentally different domains of investigation and explanation. That is, whereas physical materials are what they are and may be studied as such, human views are what they are only as held in some way by a person or a group. They are what they are only as something which some human being, or group of human beings, “select”.

This domain difference is captured in an incisive comment in Understanding Media:

Although an automated [manufacturing] plant is almost like a tree in respect to the continuous intake and output, it is a tree that can change from oak to maple to walnut.  (UM 356) [Cf NAEB Project “WHAT I LEARNED ON THE PROJECT 1959-60”: “Suddenly there is a nine foot redwood where in the morning you had experienced a bedroom.”]

This domain shift is both cause and effect of fundamental changes in everything (technology, media, information flow, management, commerce, education, social life, art, etc etc):

The assembly line has now hit the top brass of management, just as automation begins to supersede the assembly line at the production level. America is rapidly moving into a new phase of simultaneous and many-leveled organization, which brings the enterprise era to an end. (Take Today 283)

Where fundamental change is exterior to physical materials and is unusually possible only under extraordinary conditions of temperature and pressure (resulting in fusion or fission), fundamental change is interior to the human domain and is usual under normal conditions. Where physical nature is linear and single-leveled, the human domain is “simultaneous and many-leveled”.

McLuhan saw that investigators would therefore need to confront this fundamental factor in a different domain which would study the range of possible human views exactly as “selections” — including the “selections” made by the investigators themselves in investigating “selections”. (The ‘through the looking glass’ effect here is exactly what enables investigation in the human domain; its supposedly disabling effect is a RVM — rear-view mirror — artifact.)

This fundamental difference between physical materials and the “spectrum of the human senses and faculties” (Take Today 14) has profound consequences. For if potential views are radically plural (constituting a “spectrum”) and are adopted or “selected” in some essential fashion belonging to their nature, bias is not only (and not first of all) a phenomenal characteristic of (say) this person or that TV network or even of whole material media like print or radio; It is also, and primarily, a constitutional quality of the “interplay of mutual transformation that occurs between man and his world” (Take Today 96) at the elementary atomic level of media.

Bias is built into the atomic structure of media in a way which is utterly lacking in the atomic structure of the physical elements. The latter vary according to the atomic weight of their proton-electron-neutron components and therefore according to the different structures necessary to accommodate these component particles. But the former vary by the “preference“ of their bias and by the intensity or “stress of that “preference“.

In Take Today, “preference is usually indicated by example:

the pattern of (…) management swings violently from stress on the entrepreneur and the virtues of the lonely individualist to the close-knit and emotionally involved group (22).

Here “preference“ (or the quality of its “stress”) reportedly “swings violently” between individual and group, hence between inner and outer direction, between innovation and norm, between thought and emotion, etc. McLuhan’s point is that the elementary structure here is constant (a ≠ b) but that it has at least two different “preference” states — (a ≠ b) and (a ≠ b) — where the underlining = preference and where ‘a’ = individual, inner, innovation, thought etc and ‘b’ = group, outer, norm, emotion, etc.

Astute readers will note that ’thought’ and ‘emotion’ might be swapped in these a/b strings and it is conceivable that other swaps might be made between them as well. Further, “preference” need not be restricted to one string or the other: what McLuhan terms “inclusivity” is exactly a “preference” for both. More, “stress” can vary between a violently one-sided preference to an irenic one.  Indeed, “stress” can be so irenic that “preference” becomes inclusively doubled.

The range of elementary media therefore looks something like this:

(a10 ≠ b), (a≠ b), (a≠ b)…(a≠ b)…(a=≠b)…(a ≠ b1)…(a ≠ b8), (a ≠ b9), (a ≠ b10)

The superscripts here stand for increasing “stress”: (a10 ≠ b) and (a≠ b) have a common “preference” for a, as marked here by the underlining, but the “stress” on that “preference” is much more marked in the former than the latter.

The sign =≠ signifies a structure where a and b are irreducibly different, but “preference” is nonetheless made with both. In Take Today (292) this is called “Embracing Both Horns of a Dilemma”. In this case, the “stress” of “preference” has diminished to zero:

Two complementary modes are thus at work in all parts of the world. Previously, the cultures of the world had known only one of these modes at a time. There had been a stress on “hardware” and weaponry or on “software” and knowledge. These forms are no longer mutually exclusive and the specialist must now become the comprehensivist (Take Today 293)

Conversely, “stress” can so increase that the ”preference” for a single side of the (a/b) relation completely overcomes the other side and therefore collapses the relationship itself:1

(a∞ ≠ b) > (b = a) > a

(a ≠ b) > (a = b) > b

McLuhan calls this “merging”. Instead of resulting in a stabilized ontology (as it intends), this unlimited increase in “stress” results in destabilized nihilism and “sterility”:

When the individual is entirely at one with his world or organization, he is headed for a hang-up of merging and unconsciousness, which is sterility in life or in business. (Take Today 282)

Such collapse of the atomic media structure may be located beyond the two ends of the range of the (a/b) elementary relation set out above.

Suffice it to note here only that the new sciences of the human domain will investigate all questions like these and that no claim is made in the present context to foresee the results of such investigations.  All that is at stake at present is McLuhan’s insight into the elementary structure of this domain where “preference” further marked by “stress” is a fundamental feature of its atomic media.

Instead of holding human subjects constant, like Ptolemaic earths, with views circling around them in complex movements like so many planets (including the sun), McLuhan’s suggestion is that we hold views constant, like Copernican suns, and study humans as revolving around them. This is one of the meanings of his remark that “we ‘make sense’, not in cognition but in recognition or replay” (Take Today 4).  That is, ‘sense’ is something that is already there; so we ‘make sense’ not by constituting it, “but in recognition or replay” of it.

McLuhan held that sputnik marked a decisive break in human history. With it, nature disappeared and was replaced by art.  Its orbit provided a ‘proscenium arch’ for a planet which had become a ‘global theatre’ in which human being was revealed as consisting only in ‘roles’. What is at stake in this cloudburst of images is the addition of a revisioned domain of human sciences to the domain of physical sciences and the replacement of the latter (ie, the disappearance of nature) by the former in the investigation of any situation where human experience is implicated. In this human domain all individual and social action would appear as a ‘role’ selected in some way from the full spectrum of possible roles. All human identity would be revealed as a sort of satellite bonded in specifiable ways to the range of possible ‘senses’.

But all this remained for McLuhan, and remains for us today, a new continent seen from afar. Unavoidably, it still appears (to an unknowable extent) in the RVM. Only future research will be able, gradually, to filter the old from the new. The only important question for now is whether McLuhan was able to identify the elementary structure of this human domain in such a way as to enable that future research.

See further: Media as atomic structures and The bias of communication. 

  1. Cf, Summa Theologica, 1a.ii.3: “For if one of two contraries is unbounded its opposite is altogether ousted.”

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