Media as atomic structures

Root posts: On the new opening of a domainThe bias of communication

Marshall McLuhan aimed to initiate the scientific investigation and mapping of the domain of human sciences and humanities through the identification of the structure of its atomic elements — “media”.

Atoms in the physical sciences are not ‘a-tomic’ (Greek: ‘un-cuttable’) in the sense that they have no smaller components. Particle physics is the study of just how complex (and therefore ‘cuttable’) these atomic structures are.  The chemical atoms are  ‘uncuttable’ only in the sense — only in the fundamental sense — that important definition and investigation must focus on them. Exactly so with McLuhan’s media.

The basic ‘particles’ of media are “eye and ear”:

There are only two basic extreme forms of human organization. They have innumerable variants or “parti-colored” forms. The extreme forms are the civilized and the tribal (eye and ear)… (TT 22)

All material elements are expressions of the formula (PE)n. Their atoms are composed of some matching number (n) of protons and electrons (PE), plus some roughly matching number of neutrons (Nx), where x approximates n, but can also be zero. The “two basic extreme forms” of the chemical element are therefore the proton and the electron. All of the chemical elements — and all the “innumerable” things compounded of those elements — are “variants” of their combination.

In a comparable way, all elementary media are a relation R of the “basic extreme forms” of eYe and eAr — eYe R eAr — but here the relation R does not consist of some quantifiable matching number, but of some variable quality of “preference” and “stress”. (The designations eYe and eAr are intended only to indicate that these are formal structures and not senses as found objects.  The same holds for toUch which McLuhan generally treats as R. This sort of refocus from found object to formal structure explains how it is that McLuhan can speak of using the eye as an ear or can think of TV as a medium of touch, not of vision.  An analogous turn from found object to structure occurs with chemistry or, indeed, with any scientific law like Galileo’s law of falling bodies.)

“Preference” is the valorization or marking or identification with either the eYe or eAr side of R — or with both sides at once (“all at once”). “Preference” is therefore an expression of R:

The “meaning of meaning” is relationship. (TT 3)

A Mendeleev’s table of elemental media would set out the complete range of R.  As early as 1944, the 33-year-old McLuhan concluded an essay on his Cambridge teachers, Richards, Empson and Leavis, with reference to:

the journey which remains to be accomplished before winning an overall view, which is plenary critical judgment. (‘Poetic and Rhetorical Exegesis: The Case for Leavis against Richards and Empson’, Sewanee Review, 52(2), 1944, 276)

Such judgement would be “overall” and “plenary” in two senses.  First, it would envision the complete range of the ways in which humans ‘make sense’ and would judge in light of this range.  To compare: chemistry is a map of the range of the ways in which physical materials exist; chemical analysis situates substances and reactions in light of this range. Second, since such judgement would itself fall within this range, it would itself be “overall” and “plenary” in the sense that it would be that way of ‘making sense’ best able, or perhaps uniquely able, to initiate and accomplish such judgement.

“Stress” is the color of “preference”.  The valorization of eYe, for example, can be made in a violently one-sided way against eAr or it can be made in a way which also acknowledges the virtues of eAr. The same is true for eAr preference. Every “preference” state is further marked by some such “stress”.

Following on “preference”, therefore, “stress” is a further specification of R:

The “meaning of meaning” is relationship. (TT 3)

The difference between the domain of the physical sciences and the domain of the human sciences is that R is fundamentally invariable in the former and fundamentally variable in the latter. In this sense, among many others, the medium (R) is the message.

Further, just as the solution to all problems in physical nature lie within chemistry, so in the human sciences “all solutions are in the very words by which people confuse and hide their problems” (TT 103). Here again, in a different sense,  the medium (the revisioned domain of human sciences and humanities) is the message.

Further still, just as the identification of the chemical element was the key to the revisioned domain of physical sciences that has developed in the last two centuries, so the medium as the elementary structure in the domain of the human sciences is the key to a parallel development in it:  the medium (as the elementary structure) is the message

“Preference” and “stress” as markers of R are markers of bias. And it is exactly the bias of communication that enables rigorous investigation of the human domain.

Subsequent post: Plenary judgment

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