Centre and Margin 3

McLuhan’s  January 4, 1961 letter to Claude Bissell (Letters, 279-280) is cited in Centre and Margin 2. This post will provide a running inline commentary on it. Italics appearing in McLuhan’s text here have been added.

. . . what our technology has done electrically, and will do with ever-increasing intensity, is to increase the flow of information in all directions and at all levels. 

As usual, McLuhan’s language functions here on two levels at once, the phenomenological and the ontological.  Phenomenologically he is describing, straight-forwardly, information flow in the electric age. It greatly increases “in all directions and at all levels” both in speed and amount. Ontologically, electric technology functions in this passage to describe the process of “preference” which becomes “all at once” as the velocity of “information flow” increases to “the speed of light”. The one-sided “preference” of print technology (a ≠ b or a ≠ b) gives way to the multiple “preference” state of the electric (a =≠ b).

What is needed therefore is an understanding of what happens to existing center-margin relationships as the interplay between center and margin is affected by ever-higher levels of information.

As the relationship R (characterized by “preference” and “stress”) in the a/b structure changes, so do ‘a’ and ‘b’ (here ‘center’ and ‘margin’). McLuhan puts it this way in Take Today:


This is why the medium is the message/massage. Hence it is that:

Classroom and curriculum as centers for community margins can undergo some strange reversals of roles, as well as considerable subdivision of roles, when the same levels of information are equally available at margin and center. It is this in a word which has caused the restructuring of management.

The double “preference” of the electric is described as “the same levels of information (…) equally available at margin and center”. This sort of shift in “preference” and “stress” (= this sort of shift in R) is what McLuhan often calls “the restructuring of management”.

As McLuhan points to changes in the education environment (changes that Bissell knew all too well), he is like a proto-chemist who points to the gas produced when mercury oxide is heated and says: “Oxygen”. Phenomenologically, it seems clear what is indicated. But the ontological dimension is utterly obscure. When it is finally grasped that the two belong together and express each other, even the phenomenological dimension is transformed and a new world is born.

But there is nothing in any management structure, so far as the response to such information change is concerned, which differs from an educational structure, a biological structure or an art structure. Any field of perception is a structure of center-marginal interplay…

Here McLuhan directs Bissell’s attention (or attempts to do so) to the elementary or ontological level of the educational phenomena in which he is interested. He could not understand ‘Oxygen’ if he did not understand the ways in which it appears in air, water, mercury oxide, etc etc.  Just so, Bissell will not understand the educational changes in which he is interested until he sees the general structures and laws that are expressed in them (as in “any field of perception”).

and when the center usurps margin, the patient is in an hypnotic trance; or alternatively,  mad. 

The patient here is Bissell and the whole world of education he represents. In that world, only the one phenomenal side of events is acknowledged and not their equally present ontological side. This one-sided usurpation or marginalization leaves Bissell and his world “in an hypnotic trance” of unknowing. Or “alternatively”, if the “stress” of such one-sided “preference” is stepped up, this world becomes “mad”.  Hence:

The same problems are faced now by town planners, for whom changes in center-margin roles and interplay have become sheer nightmare.

To come to see the ontological level of events and its interplay with the phenomenological level, McLuhan suggests (what he had earlier suggested also to Innis) that Bissell take the same route McLuhan himself took and that is close at hand for Bissell from his own training in English. Namely, he should consider, or reconsider, what takes place in modern poetry and art:

We at least in education have available possible structures of moving transparencies, or montage patterns of multi-level kind, in which by means of dialogue centers and margins can change positions at high speed.

In order to understand the “multi-level” or “moving transparencies” or “montage patterns” of the phenomenological/ontological “dialogue” relationship at stake here, Bissell would have to adjust his own “management structure” which itself falls within the domain to be refocused. The new world into which McLuhan invites him already includes everything Bissell has ever done or ever will do and everything that has ever happened in universities or ever will happen. The phrase “we at least in education” has both objective and subjective reference and it is the subjective which is the more important of the two because the more difficult to acknowledge.

The movement at stake is catastrophic (a ‘turning of the furrow’ in Greek) in a way the birth of chemistry was not since this new shift is self-referential in a new way.  Although chemists were and are composed of chemicals, chemistry is not (so far as we yet know) a matter of the disposition of chemicals. At any rate, the disposition of chemicals in our brains was not something which had to be consciously re-arranged in order for chemistry to gain its start. But disposition is exactly what the domain of media interrogates.  This is, therefore, a domain which we cannot begin to understand until it is already understood: the required disposition falls within the field whose study is to be initiated. To take the required initiatory movement, the field into which movement is to be made must already be in focus (however necessarily ‘gapped’ this focus must be). Such a ‘knot in time’ (Eliot) is one of the implications of McLuhan’s ever-repeated insistence on “all at once”.

(…) The traditional role of city is that of center or consensus for rustic margin. Now that our technologies are no longer positional but interplanetary, an urban consensus will not serve. The university itself would seem to become the only possible model of such consensus, inviting the concept of a university of being and experience, rather than of subjects.

Electric ‘identity’ is inclusively dual (a =≠ b) or, as McLuhan phrases the point here, “interplanetary” (= both the ‘a’ and ‘b’ planets are “privileged”) . No attempt to preserve a one-sided (“positional”) “consensus” (= “preference”) can attain the “dialogue” between the phenomenal and ontological “levels” which is the prerequisite for the initiatory perception of this domain.  The “university” (= diverse unity) of both being and experience must be seen to underlie this possibility, not “subjects” taken either only objectively, as diverse university subjects of study, or only subjectively, as determinative action by individuals. (Both Lamberti and Chrystall urge the active participation by subjects in the learning process as if this could ever not be the case. Future posts will deal with the time problem here where Lamberti and Chrystall want to go forward into a new situation when the need is to go backward into an existing one.)

Such a concept of university could supersede the concept of urban center in an age of electronic information movement, and need not be locational, or geographic.

As always, McLuhan is making many points at once. At the ontological level, print1 is “positional or geographic” because it isolates a single pole in the a/b relation through “preference” and “stress”.  Subsequently, it operates at the phenomenological level (expressing the ontological model) to isolate a university, both geographically and as an ivory tower, away from the rest of society.  As a “university of being and experience”, however, it could function everywhere or “all at once” (just as chemistry functions everywhere and “all at once”). By re-presenting the belonging-together of unity and diversity, especially of phenomenology and ontology in the human domain, the university might retake its place in “dialogue” with society as both symbol and laboratory for the study and application of the new sciences of this domain.

  1.  As future posts will need to detail, there is nothing more important for an appropriate reading of McLuhan than the insight that one-sided (“hypnotic trance”) and even “mad” views have an ontological basis just as much as two-sided and entirely sane ones.  How else could they be? McLuhan’s realization that he had failed to give full weight to this insight came at the start of the 1950s with his turn to advertising and popular culture as the very keys to media analysis.  If not also here, then nowhere.

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