Monthly Archives: November 2013

Exploring ignorance (10) – the dialogue of being

In Exploring ignorance 8 and Exploring ignorance (9), the first sentence of Take Today is cited, together with passages from later in the same first paragraph:

The art and science of this century reveal and exploit the resonating bond in all things. (…) To naïve classifiers [however] a gap is merely empty (…) With medieval dread they abhor vacuums.

Such “naïve classifiers” dedicate themselves and their world to merger.

But there is something strange here. For if merger is the state of “all boundaries now gone” (Take Today 209), it would seem either that “the resonating bond” does not exist “in all things”, namely, not in merger — in which case “all things” would not be “all things”; or that merger somehow does implicate “the resonating bond” and therefore is included “in all things” — but how could it then be merger?

McLuhan was very much aware of this problem.  In fact, it forms the sole entrance-way into his thought.

So far from invalidating the perception of “the resonating bond in all things”, merger qua merger (merger exactly as merger, merger as “all boundaries now gone”) is that without which fundamental dialogue (“the resonating bond”) could not be fundamental dialogue!

As discussed in Exploring ignorance (6)Take Today 22 concludes as follows:

dialogue as a process of creating the new came before, and goes beyond, the change of “equivalents” that merely reflect or repeat the old.

“Dialogue” is fundamental: it “came before”. But if “dialogue” as “creating” were only the replication of itself as more and more “dialogue”, it would be no more than “the change of ‘equivalents’ that merely reflect or repeat the old”. And it would not be “dialogue” in the deep sense of “creating the new” and different. It would not , therefore, be that which earlier on Take Today 22 is called “innovation” and which, in a passage from the I Ching cited on that same page, is called “the Creative”.

Merger is needed by “dialogue” in order for it freely to ex-press itself as “creating”. Merger is that fundamental other to “dialogue” in the creation and continuing sustenance of which “dialogue” reaches out from itself to relate to that which is decisively other than it. In this way, and in this way only, is “dialogue”, in a fundamental way, “innovation”. But since merger is exactly the absence of dialogue, “all boundaries now gone”, this free need of “dialogue” at the same time renders it “hidden”. Its “creating” is a way of stepping back from visibility. Hence, as McLuhan cites the I Ching:

[The Creative] does indeed guide all happenings, but [it never becomes manifest;] it never behaves outwardly as the leader. Thus true strength is that strength which, mobile as it is hidden, concentrates on the work without being outwardly visible. (Take Today 22)

The hiddenness of “the Creative” does not result from it being closed; it results from it being open! “Dialogue” does not merely (merely!) relate to merger without ceasing to be “dialogue”, it relates to merger in order to be “dialogue”!

To “naïve classifiers [= merger moguls] a gap is merely empty”. They see gaps merely as “vacuums” which “with medieval dread they abhor”. Such inability to relate to the essential power which “does indeed guide all happenings” might seem to be merely negative. In stark opposition to “dialogue” which “concentrates on the work” of creating and sustaining fundamental difference, merger “concentrates” only on itself and never “goes beyond the change of ‘equivalents’ that merely reflect or repeat the old”. But exactly this closure is the sole need of “dialogue” and is, therefore, the unique sign of “dialogue” (subjective and objective genitive)!

This closed sign is nothing other than human being.

Human being is a sign that points in its closure beyond itself.

As will be detailed in future posts, it is exactly this “hidden” and “resonating bond” of “dialogue” even or especially with merger which enables “understanding media”.  For it is this “hidden” way which enables investigation to change from merger to “dialogue” and so exposes the common structure of media — “the resonating bond in all things” — in and through which intelligibility in general, and new sciences in the human domain in particular, are possible.

As McLuhan remarks early in Take Today:

Alice [in Wonderland] went through the vanishing point into the “total field” that bridges the worlds of visual and acoustic, civilized and primal spaces. (10)

“Understanding media” must take this same way. So it is that McLuhan remarks later in Take Today:

Explanations that ignore the perceptual complementarity of eye and ear lead to conceptual conflict — the divorce of rhyme and reason. (140)

McLuhan’s goal was to describe the movement from the conception of “conflict” between “rhyme and reason” (a conception of “conflict” which leads to the supposed ‘peace’ of merger and “rhyme”) to the perception of their differentiated “complementarity”.  This occurs at that moment when the “dialogue” or “the resonating bond” between merger (the “visual” goal of the perspectival “eye”) and other possibilities of communication (“the worlds of [the] acoustic”) is beheld as the “hidden” way and ground between them. And this occurs when merger recognizes itself, qua merger, as the peculiar closed sign of the “resonating”1 of that original/originating “bond” (subjective genitive).

  1.   In regard to “resonating”, cf “acoustic” and “ear” in the Take Today passages (10/140) immediately above.

Exploring ignorance (9) – The Concept of Dread

In Exploring ignorance 8, the first sentence of Take Today is cited: “The art and science of this century reveal and exploit the resonating bond in all things.” (3)  But McLuhan goes on to note in the same place that:

To naïve classifiers a gap is merely empty (…) With medieval dread they abhor vacuums.

Where gaps are (held to be) no “resonating bond”, but only “empty (…) vacuums”, merger becomes the order of the day: “All boundaries now gone” (Take Today 209). This is the only form of coherence that remains a possibility. All other possible forms of coherence1 are articulated in some way and “classifiers” therefore consider them (if consideration is made at all in the general “numb”) to be fundamentally illegitimate and, at best, secondary.

For “classifiers” such complex forms are infected by a vacuous and dreadful emptiness at the axis of their purported connections and “bonds”. Indeed, difference and coherence are held by them (knowingly and unknowingly) to be mutually exclusive in a fundamental sense: the im-possibility of the conjunction of fundamentally different relata dominates their experience “in all things”.

The power of the urge to merge in the “electric age” is manifested in three world-historical developments:

  • The gapped bond of ontology/ontical is collapsed into the ontical only. ‘Echology’ and intelligibility are lost. The very idea of human beings having an essential relation to truth and reality becomes laughable. “Fear of the Lord” becomes obsolete, something humans have grown — extended themselves — far beyond.
  • The gapped bond of human beings and nature is collapsed into human beings only: “We have put the brains and nerves of man around the globe.” (‘Prospect’ 365); “When Sputnik went around the planet, nature disappeared, nature was hijacked right off the planet, nature was enclosed in a man-made environment…” (Florida State University lecture, 1970; cf Lamberti, Marshall McLuhan’s Mosaic, 35)
  • As humans in a state of Narcissistic narcosis fixate on their own image in and as the “man-made environment”, the fractures and differences of human fin-itude are collapsed and humans become generic automatons only: “we are merely servo-mechanisms” (‘Prospect’  365);  “each of us is merely a Narcissus dancing around in love with his own image” (‘Prospect’ 365); “THE UNPERSON: THE MAN THAT NEVER WAS” (Take Today 26).

These three momentous reductions of the complex to the simple are like Poe’s maelstrom, forming a vortex: the descending gyres whirl in circles which are increasingly smaller, faster and more violent. First the macrocosm, then the cosmos, then the microcosm collapse into themselves, one after the other, like so many black holes. Dante’s inferno has the same conical architecture as the maelstrom but with stationary circles: there the downward momentum is energized by our souls, not by its gyrations. But both the maelstrom and the inferno gravitate to a merged point of doom.

In ‘Prospect’ McLuhan enlarges on this merged state of Narcissistic narcosis as follows:

we’re merely obsessed, fascinated with a little bit of ourselves, stuck out there, in another material. I think it is very important to know that it is a bit of yourself out there because otherwise you are never going to get off the hook. You’re always going to be a servo-mechanism. The servo-mechanism is the perfect feedback.  You echo exactly the thing that’s out there like a thermostat jumping to the heat variations. When we are completely unaware of the nature of television or radio or telephone, we are merely servo-mechanisms of those forms. We respond to them in the immediate mechanical way that they demand of us. In this way, each of us is merely a Narcissus dancing around in love with his own image. (‘Prospect’ 365, emphasis added)

Merger, which McLuhan saw as a, or the, form of madness is the structural energy, the fateful dynamic, at work here. The collapse of the ontological gods and powers and of nature into a collapsed human being results in a state of “perfect feedback” where “you echo exactly the thing that’s out there” — and what is “out there” is “the brains and nerves of man” (‘Prospect’ 366). We come to function “like a thermostat jumping to the heat variations” where there is no “gap” of consideration between the external “variations” and our response to them.  We react simply “in the immediate mechanical way that they demand of us”.

When, especially in Take Today (but in general everywhere), McLuhan is concerned to probe “the nature” of media “by directing perception on (…) interfaces” as “prime sources of discovery”, he is above all concerned with restoring what he calls the “evitable” dimension (Take Today 6) of human being:

I take it we consider it more desirable for human beings to have some autonomy, some independence of the gimmicks. (‘Prospect’ 365)

To free himself from servitude to his own artifacts has become the main program of the new ecological age that began with Sputnik. (Take Today 7)

Restitution of human “evitability” out of servo-mechanical “servitude” to “gimmicks” depends on a threefold re-cognition.  First there must be recognition of the possibility of change. No such recognition, no foundation and no motive from which to attempt to act evitably. This requires, In turn, re-cognition of the plurality of the possible states from and to which change might be made.  No such plurality, no possibility of change. And this requires, finally, re-cognition of “boundaries” and “gaps” between such states. No such boundaries, no such plurality and no such possibility.

Hence McLuhan’s ever-repeated attention to “boundaries [as] areas of maximal abrasion and change”, as “where the action is”. Here alone is where evitability can start.

But these restorative re-cognitions must begin in the “electric age” with human being, because, as seen above, literally everything (even itself) has collapsed into human being. There is nothing else. “We have put the brains and nerves of man around the globe” (‘Prospect’ 366); “nature [has] disappeared” (Florida State University lecture, 1970; cf Lamberti, Marshall McLuhan’s Mosaic, 35). “The Viewer is Monarch of All He Surveys” (Take Today 142). “The user of the electric media, whether radio, telephone, movie, or TV, has a powerful sense of being king and emperor, since he is the content of a total environment of electric services.” (Take Today 144)

Ontology and nature and human nature itself have all collapsed into Marcuse’s “one-dimensional man” (published in the same year as Understanding Media, 1964), McLuhan’s “UNPERSON”.

Hence the imperative to expose boundaries and gaps in human nature as the “areas of maximal abrasion and change” where, alone, evitability might be reborn. Hence the need to reconsider Finn MacCool and Huckleberry Finn as exemplary types of “Finn-again” — as types of human fin-itude whose limitations and boundaries are fundamental and therefore revelatory (in the first place of evitability).

The need is to relearn ana-lysis of discrete “bits”:

we’re merely obsessed, fascinated with a little bit of ourselves, stuck out there, in another material. I think it is very important to know that it is a bit of yourself out there because otherwise you are never going to get off the hook. (‘Prospect’ 365, emphasis added)

McLuhan thought, or rather hoped (in way that tended with experience more to faith than to expectation), that the investigations in geology, biology, anthropology and psychology, which had been vastly extended in time and space beginning in the nineteenth century, would bring re-cognition of the fin-itude of human being (objective genitive) by exposing its incredible variety. No finitude, no real variety. And conversely, if real variety, then real finitude. The exacting analysis of language and of the social environment to which McLuhan was exposed in Cambridge, especially by Richards and Leavis, could spark a similar hope. How consider, for example, “Seven Types of Ambiguity” without a sharp appreciation for the discrete and finite? Then In Toronto, the focus on “bias” that McLuhan found in Harold Innis could be thought to have related promise. If all human action and experience is necessarily biased, how not acknowledge its fin-itude?

And once fin-itude were deeply acknowledged, “evitability” might relaunch.

But the fin-itude of human being could not be, cannot be, re-cognized on account of an intervening curtain of dread:

With medieval dread they abhor vacuums. (Take Today 3)

The boundaries which constitute fin-itude are taken to be “empty (…) vacuums” and this emptiness, as Pascal already saw, excites a repulsive horror and a general state of “anxiety”:

when you put the nervous system outside [and equate it with all there is], fear is no longer the problem. Anxiety is the problem. Fear is specific, anxiety is total. (…) You don’t know now precisely what you’re dreading, rather it’s a pervasive state. The condition of man is what you dread. You no longer dread that animal, that famine, and so on, but this condition. (‘Prospect’ 366)

Anxiety and dread are “total” and “pervasive” and exclusively concern “the condition of man” because, on the one hand, human being in the “electric age” is all there is; on the other hand, this “all there is” must be taken in a “total” and “pervasive” way — it must lack all variety and borders and any sort of specificity in order to avoid that fin-itude and dread-ful vacuity that all “gaps” and borders entail. “You no longer dread that animal, that famine, and so on” because these are discrete forms of life, discrete happenings, discrete threats, and it is exactly the discrete with its implicated borders and limits and difference that is dreaded.

It is just because “all boundaries now gone” (Take Today 209) that human being can expand into being “all there is”. Conversely, only some featureless “all there is” can be without borders: if there were anything else, anything specific or discrete, borders would be required. The condition of such nebulous inflation (Hegel’s night in which all cows are black) is at the same time, however, the condition of — that which introduces — “total anxiety” and dread. On the one hand, the whole construct is a rickety “gimmick”; on the other, any change from it, even any genuine consideration of it, is so dreaded (since these would implicate borders) as to be im-possible. This pathetic state of being trapped in a gigantic construction which we ourselves have jerry-built, and then locked ourselves into, constellates “total anxiety”.

Our whole existence is known to be a sham and yet any movement from it is blocked by our own dread. We suffer mortally from a kind of metaphysical incarceration that we yet know to be fatally flawed and doomed.

McLuhan describes it as follows:

when we put our nerves outside, we become of course vulnerable to the nth degree; in fact, we barely survive from day to day. Mere existence becomes one of perpetual anxiety. (…) We now have an unimaginably harassed [‘life’] by putting our nerves outside ourselves; it is like living without a skin. So what we do is go numb. When we put our nerves outside we can only survive by anaesthesia. And so we live in the unconscious. This is the age of the unconscious because it is the age when the nervous system is totally exposed. (…) Man is now in a somnambulant state because this offers him his only possibility of survival and sanity. He couldn’t bear a fully conscious existence under the frenetic conditions that he is exposed to by his own technology. He could not register these terrible shocks directly and survive. He’d go mad. (‘Prospect’ 366)


man lives in total anxiety in the age of electricity. Anxiety means (…) involvement and therefore of course a very heightened kind of existence, a sort of nightmare (‘Prospect’ 366)

This “mad (…) nightmare” is not only (only!) the loss of feeling at home in this skin and on this earth.  It is not only (only!) the torture humans impose on themselves and on all the creatures of the earth. It is not only (only!) the ceaseless warfare that must be waged against any and all difference. It is also an ontological conflict where what is at stake is the very nature of being itself, the very nature of “all that is”.

Where “gaps [are the] prime sources of discovery” (Take Today 3) and yet “gaps” are fundamentally rejected in favor of “merger”, no “dis-covery” is possible absent fundamental change. But fundamental change cannot be contemplated because the gaps between essential forms, to which and through which fundamental change would need to be made, are what are dreaded most of all. These are the most abysmal “gaps” and the ones whose consequences are the most ‘earth shaking’. (Here again, the relationship  may be noted between McLuhan’s work and that of his University of Toronto colleague, Tuzo Wilson, on plate techtonics.)

McLuhan predicted a world in which private (aka discrete) identity would disappear and what it means to be a human being would be dictated from some unquestionable and unconsiderable source. In a state of “total anxiety”, ‘security’ would demand that we all “echo exactly the thing that’s out there”. Take Today


  1.  The table of media elements set out in ‘On the new opening of a domain‘ represents an attempt to specify the range of the elementary forms of media on the basis of a variable atomic structure of coherence. Recognition of something like this range represents the only possible first step out of merger.

Exploring Ignorance (8) – “Nothing completely packaged”

In Exploring Ignorance (7) a first look was taken at McLuhan’s view that, as it was expressed there, ‘modernity is the time in world history when humans press their case for merger, especially — and first of all — the merger of ontic or phenomenal reality with itself, in such a way that its essential relation with the ontological fails to be observed. This fulcrum falls into obscurity and the world enters its night.’

The strangest thing about this night of the world (subjective genitive!) is that it manifests itself as light. It is a time in which the light of human understanding and inventiveness is projected as never before onto — indeed, ultimately as — the entire planetary environment.  The old night of the world in which the stars supplied “light through” the distance between them and human beings is transmogrified into a new night in which the stars go dark in the human projection of artificial “light on” the heavens. Satellites replace the stars, night becomes day.

In a prescient 1962 article simply called ‘Prospect’, McLuhan probed this light-night of the world in interesting ways: 

In our time, instead of putting out this or that organ such as feet into wheels or (…) our skin into city walls, we have projected our brains and nerves outside. Telegraph, radio, television, telephone really are extensions of our central nervous system, not of our physical organs. We’re putting our central nervous system, our most intimate selves, outside (…) We have put the brains and nerves of man around the globe. (‘Prospect’, Canadian Art, issue 81, September/October 1962, 363-366, here 365-366)

What powers this gigantic revolution is exactly what has always powered everything, namely that “dialogue as a process of creating the new [which] came before, and goes beyond”, that “innovation” which “does indeed guide all happenings, but (…) never becomes manifest”. (Take Today 22 as discussed in Exploring ignorance 6)  But here, just as occurs with nuclear energy, this original/originary force (“dialogue […] before”) becomes re-packaged for human purposes such that what was ground is itself now subjected to new “ground rules”:

These new forms — television and radio — are new languages. They’re huge extensions of ourselves which enable us to participate in one another’s lives, much as a language does. But these forms lay down their own ground rules (‘Prospect’ 365, emphasis added)

McLuhan uses television to illustrate this imposition of new ground (which implicates the rescission of the old ground):

The scrabbled bits of information that come on TV are like symbolist poems or pointillist paintings. They have to be completed at every moment by the reader or viewer. There is nothing tied in. Nothing completely packaged. And this is what gives the TV image its tremendous power, as compared with radio, which gives a sharp, high definition image (‘Prospect’ 364).

There is nothing tied in. Nothing completely packaged.” These observations must be read in two ways. In one way they refer to the “completion” which humans supply in their “cool” or “low definition” use of television. They have to ‘fill in’ the gaps through which the medium operates: they have to ‘connect the dots’ of its images. In the other, more fundamental way, these observations refer to the human mobilization (“tied in”, “packaged”) of that original hidden power (aka “nothing”) which, “mobile as it is hidden, concentrates on the work without being outwardly visible” (Take Today 22, citing the I Ching). Its “hidden” mobility comes to be re-placed by — through being put to use within — our manifest mobilization. “Nothing completely packaged.

The endpoint of this process is approached as the essential gap de-fining original “dialogue” is not only abrogated between ontology and the ontical, but is even progressively subject within the latter — on account of that abrogation — to ” filling in” or “completing” by “new technology”:

The character of the present television image is determined by the curious mosaic created by the scanning finger. This could change in time. Technologically the mosaic could end. There could be a filling in, a completing of it by some totally new technology. (‘Prospect’ 364)

Indeed, this mobilization of manifestation of ours comes to dominate the entire planet such that “nature disappears”:

When Sputnik went around the planet, nature disappeared, nature was hijacked right off the planet, nature was enclosed in a man-made environment and art took the place of nature. Planet became art form. (Florida State University lecture, 1970; cf Lamberti, Marshall McLuhan’s Mosaic, 35)

When Sputnik went around the planet in I957 the earth became enclosed in a man-made environment and became thereby an “art” form. The globe became a theatre enclosed in a proscenium arch of satellites. From that time the “audience” or the population of the planet became actors in a new sort of theatre. Mallarmé had thought that “the world exists to end in a book.” It turned out otherwise. It has taken on the character of theatre or playhouse. Since Sputnik the entire world has become a single sound-light show. (‘Roles, Masks, and Performances’, New Literary History 2:3, 1971, pp. 517-531, reprinted in McLuhan Unbound #12, 3-26, here p 22, emphasis added)

In 1957 Sputnik put the planet inside a man-made environment for the first time in human history.  When Sputnik went around the planet, creating a new information environment, the planet was transformed and Nature ceased to exist.  The planet then became an art-form, and to use Bucky Fuller’s phrase it became “Spaceship Earth” where everybody is a crew-member and there are no passengers.  Now, Spaceship Earth has to be totally programmed. (…) The idea that everything on the planet must be controlled and programmed was born at the moment of Sputnik, and this manifested a new hidden ground of information which has transformed the figure of the planet.  (Address to The Festival of Life 1977, emphasis added)

The old natural “hidden” ground of original “dialogue” or “innovation” (aka “nothing”) becomes figure(d) within human designs.  At the same time, human designs which used to be figure(d) in relation to that original “dialogue” or “innovation” become the “new hidden ground of information” (subjective genitive) — “The idea that everything on the planet must be controlled and programmed...”

That McLuhan’s project was the quixotic attempt to reverse this profound reversal is explained on the first page of Take Today:

Nothing has its meaning alone. Every figure must have its ground or environment . A single word, divorced from its linguistic ground, would be useless. A note in isolation is not music. Consciousness is corporate action involving all the senses (Latin sensus communis or “common sense” is the translation of all the senses into each other). The “meaning of meaning” is relationship. (3)

Once again, “Nothing has its meaning alone”, must be read in two ways. In one way it expresses the syntactical complexity of all things: everything has its meaning in context. There are no bare facts, only interpretations. In the other, more fundamental way, it expresses the need that the “hidden” power, aka “nothing”, not be framed in human definition and use, but allowed — acknowledged — “its meaning alone”.

The previous paragraph from this first page of Take Today, the very first paragraph of the book, explains how McLuhan would attempt this reversed reversal:

The art and science of this century reveal and exploit the resonating bond in all things. All boundaries are areas of maximal abrasion and change. The interval or gap constitutes the resonant or musical bond in the material universe. This is where the action is. To naïve classifiers a gap is merely empty. [They think there is ‘nothing’ there.] They will [therefore] look for [hardware] connections instead of [investigating those “resonant or musical”] bonds [which seem to them “empty”, but are actually the “hidden” recesses of fundamental power]. (…) With medieval dread they abhor vacuums. But by directing perception on the interfaces of the processes in ECO-land, all gaps become prime sources of discovery. (3)

The keynote here is to be found in the phrase “the resonating bond in all things“. It is because the “the resonating bond” is always already implicated “in all things” — ie, as their ontological foundation — that it is “reveal[ed]” in “the art and science of this century” and in fact in “all boundaries” as “areas of maximal abrasion and change” — areas which reflect in this way that original boundary which “came before, and goes beyond” (as Take Today 22 has it).  For this same reason, all “interfaces” and “gaps” in the “processes in ECO-land” can “become prime sources of discovery” once they are perceived as belonging to that original “resonating bond in all things”. The key to the new sciences of this ecology is this echology.

“Nothing completely packaged” is continued in Exploring ignorance 12.

Exploring ignorance (7) – Humpty Dumpty

Exploring ignorance (6) continued

In McLuhan’s view, modernity is the time in world history when humans press their case for merger, especially — and first of all — the merger of ontic or phenomenal reality with itself, in such a way that its essential relation with the ontological fails to be observed. This fulcrum falls into obscurity and the world enters its night.

This failure of observation has many forms which future posts will need to analyze. Suffice it to note here that it is subject to a range of expression varying from outright rejection of the possibility of ontological-ontical relation to unconsidered lack of notice. Nearly always it is subject to a fateful sort of double forgetfulness where the forgetting is itself forgotten.

In any case, the gap between the two, “where the action is”, becomes displaced — if not erased — within the phenomenal.  So, as seen for example in Chrystall’s suggestion for exploring ignorance, “dialogue” (although always presupposing some kind of gap between different persons and different views) is not seen as an original power to which humans are subject, but as a “resource” which humans can and should turn to advantage.

A strange kind of humpty-dumpty effect occurs where humpty, instead of falling into the inherent fractures of human being — fractures which, once passionately explored, are revelatory of ontological relation — instead rises into an ethereal unity with himself.

Humpty-dumpty becomes a satellite, Sputnik.

In such gravity-defying flight, the one thing which might save — falling, fracturing — is what is most feared. And the one thing that is unavoidable is what is to be avoided “at all cost”.

Exploring ignorance (6)

Exploring ignorance (5) continued…

(f) What does all this have to do with exploring ignorance?

Section (e) of the exploring ignorance series discusses a passage from page 22 of Take Today:

dialogue as a process of creating the new came before, and goes beyond, the change of “equivalents” that merely reflect or repeat the old. (italics added)

Earlier on this same page “dialogue as a process of creating the new” is called “innovation” and “innovation”, in turn, is described through a citation from the Richard Wilhelm translation of that “4,000 year-old management manual”, the I Ching:

[The Creative] does indeed guide all happenings, but [it never becomes manifest;] it never behaves outwardly as the leader. Thus true strength is that strength which, mobile as it is hidden, concentrates on the work without being outwardly visible.

The bracketed portions of the citation are omitted by McLuhan.  The second one — “it never becomes manifest” — seems to have been skipped in error since it is not marked by ellipses and, moreover, it is easy to see how such an error might have been made through the repetition in the passage of “it never be-“. Indeed, there was good reason to include this clause since the citation continues, as if repeating it, that this power “never behaves outwardly”, “is hidden”, and “concentrates on the work without being outwardly visible”.

Now it is imperative at this point to ask: is this power “hidden” and not “outwardly visible” essentially (such that any attempt to illuminate it would be deformative and distorting) or is it accidentally “hidden” (such that it can and perhaps should be illuminated)? Or again, If this power “never becomes manifest” is this because of the way it is, retreating in favor of its relata, or is this because of some failure on our part to unveil it?

There are important reasons to come down in favor of the first of these alternatives and to hold that this power is essentially hidden on account of the way it “guide[s] all happenings”:

  • If dialogue” is first of all the dialogue of the ontological with the ontical, the power relating them cannot ‘be’ the one or the other. Even to call such a power “hidden” seems to make more than is fitting of ‘something’ which is neither in Being or in being, which is neither ontological nor ontical, but between them.
  • If “dialogue” in this sense is ground, any attempt to frame it would convert it to figure, to, that is, what it essentially is not. 

When McLuhan specifies that “dialogue as a process of creating the new came before, and goes beyond, the change of ‘equivalents’ that merely reflect or repeat the old”, he implicates a power of which we are essentially ignorant. Not on account of some weakness or inability on our part, but on account of its ‘concentration’ (as the I Ching has it). “Ignorance” here is not a term of subjective blame; it is a term of objective depth.

Perhaps, then, the exploration of ignorance is above all a subjective genitive: not the exploration of what (= objective genitive), but the exploration of whom (= subjective genitive).  Because it can never fittingly belong to us as some kind of object within our media, the need is for us to find a way for our media to belong to it.

To be continued in Exploring ignorance (7)….


Exploring ignorance (5)

Exploring ignorance (4) continued …

(e) why is ontological/ontic inter-communication (aka dialogue, inclusivity, interface, metaphor, mosaic, etc) the fundamental relationship for McLuhan?  why does all perception need to start from it?

This gets to the meat of Chrystall’s question.  He wants to know why we can’t start with a known fact — viz, McLuhan’s consulting work.  The short answer is that McLuhan agrees with Nietzsche that there are no facts, only interpretations.  Starting with any ‘fact’ is to start with the RVM. (Why? Because the RVM supplies a direct relationship to something. Once indirection is allowed, once the question of interpretation is allowed, the RVM is relativized and this shatters it. Relativity and the RVM are incompatible.)

Where McLuhan diverges (or reverses) from Nietzsche (like Eliot in this respect) is his finding that the ubiquity of interpretation leads into the tradition rather than out of it. Most of the howling from McLuhan’s critics about his deficiencies has its root just here. Unable or unwilling to probe their own positions with radical questioning, therefore unable to follow him in this reversing maneuver, attention is directed instead at certain ‘facts’ which are alleged to disqualify his perceptions: he contradicted himself or did other bad things. (Those with no ethical position can always find ethics when a stick is needed to beat a competing view.)

Once it is allowed that there are no facts, only interpretations, the question arises (or can arise, if questioning is pursued with sufficient passion, that is, once all questions are allowed): if interpretation is (ex hypothesi) not only not contradictory to truth, but essential to it (as does indeed seem to be the case in the sciences and in practical know-how as well), what could account for this strange relationship? How is it that human beings can successfully relate to truth via interpretation which is never more than partial?

McLuhan’s answer (which he got from Wright, Chesterton, Leavis, Maritain and Gilson) is that ontological/ontical inclusivity precedes all else:

dialogue as a process of creating the new came before, and goes beyond, the change of “equivalents” that merely reflect or repeat the old. (Take Today 22, italics added)

Take Today 22 is one of the most important pages McLuhan ever wrote, and this passage (which concludes the page) is one of the most important ones on it.  Later posts will need to unpack the page as a whole: suffice it here to unpack only this key concluding passage…

– “dialogue (…) came before“: dialogue does not arise as some combination or blend of things which are prior to it, but is itself prior to the relata conjoined by it.

– “dialogue (…) came before, and goes beyond“: dialogue does not come first and then stop; rather, dialogue is the continuing power both in the beginning and throughout the history founded by it.

– “dialogue (…) goes beyond” also in the sense that it goes beyond itself: it is “a process of creating [and sustaining] the new“. This “process” is not merely the creation and sustenance “of equivalents” of itself, it does not “merely reflect or repeat the old“, it is “dialogue” in the deep sense of conjunction between fundamentally different relata. As such deep dialogue, there can be no supposed resolution of it in the merger “of equivalents“; it is a gap which never closes and never fails to conjoin, and is exactly therefore “where the action is”.

Now it can be seen how human beings can successfully relate to truth via interpretation which is never more than partial. The “dialogue” between fundamentally different terms is prior to humans and its power is deeper than them. McLuhan’s problem is therefore to investigate how humans might come back from their “extensions” to its.

It is the “medium” which is the “message” exactly as being prior to all our media and all our messages.

McLuhan’s repeated insistence that truth is making, not matching, has its foundation in these considerations. From this prior power of dialogue, human beings, too, are called to ‘create the new‘ and ‘go beyond‘, not in some “lineal” way. but “through the looking glass”, both via its primordial power and into its opening-holding “extension”.

In sum, the deepest form of such primordial dialogue, ontological/ontic dialogue, is fundamental as first, as continuing, as freeing and as sustaining. McLuhan’s confidence in “intelligibility” is anchored in it. And every word of Marshall McLuhan must be understood as issuing out of, and being directed back to, this original complex.

To be continued in Exploring ignorance (6)….




Exploring ignorance (4)

Andrew Chrystall’s question to Exploring ignorance (3) is important. He asks if that post (perhaps along with the previous Exploring ignorance posts) is “forgetting or willfully ignoring all McLuhan’s consulting gigs and his work with Ideas Consultants?”

In order to answer this question fully, it must be teased apart into a series of further questions (which will be answered individually inline):

a)  didn’t McLuhan, like any university professor, have enough to do with his teaching and research?  why did he also involve himself himself in areas (like consulting) where he didn’t have any experience at all? and, arguably, little competence?

McLuhan was attempting to communicate ideas which have been known forever.  As discussed in Take Today, he found them in (eg) the I Ching and the pre-socratics.  Beyond ‘fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ and ‘though wisdom is common to all, yet the many live as if they had a wisdom of their own’ and (therefore) ‘the way up is the way down’, he had little of fundamental import to add. But, on the one hand, these ideas had gained little traction in human affairs over the millennia and, in the modern era, increasingly less.  This at a time when contrary ideas were exploding across the world with ever-greater speed and with terrible efficacy. So it was (on the other hand) that McLuhan had a duty to God and man to attempt what he could, quixotic as it might seem. The astonishing amount of writing he did (the bulk of it either unpublished or little noted in McLuhan bibliographies) is testimony to the seriousness with which he took this duty. Similarly with his rushing around to ‘consult’ when this produced little result and much mirth.

b) why would McLuhan’s ideas have application beyond the ivory tower in the “control tower” of business, government, education administration, etc?

As cited and discussed in Centre and Margin 2 and Centre and Margin 3, McLuhan’s January 4, 1961 letter to Claude Bissell notes that media study has application to any field of perception:

… there is nothing in any management structure (…) which differs from an educational structure, a biological structure or an art structure. Any field of perception is a structure of center-marginal interplay, (Letters, 279-280, italics added)

So “McLuhan’s consulting gigs and his work with Ideas Consultants” simply exemplified his claim that business was one of the areas where his ideas had application.

At the same time, however, McLuhan had the notion through friends like Bernie Muller-Thym and Peter Drucker that business executives were on the lookout for new ideas in organization in ways which politicians, church leaders, education administrators and, in particular, academics were not. So commercial application could stand in the service for McLuhan of communication: perhaps here, for the first time in millennia, and in the very dynamo of modernity, traction could be found for ideas which were both the most important for the human project to heed — and the least heeded.

c) wouldn’t successful application of McLuhan’s ideas in (eg) business organization show that they were a type of management theory (however odd)? 

Centre and Margin 2 discusses this question in the following way:

As noted elsewhere (RVM or through the looking glass?) “management structure” is not (or is not only) a commercial term for McLuhan. It applies, as he specifically notes in his letter to Bissell, to “any field of perception”. So ‘McLuhan for Managers’ can be misleading in the same way as ‘chemistry for metallurgists’ might be. Of course chemistry has enormous application in metallurgy. But since chemistry is much broader than metallurgy, its application there depends upon first mastering the wider field. So with McLuhan and business management. His work was directed to the wider field of media research from which applications to organizational management, for instance, might be derived. But reading his work as business theory, even though he often cited people like Drucker and Muller-Thym, and even though he considered developments in business highly important, and even though he wondered if his thinking might better be communicated to business executives than to academics, is a category mistake.

d) why criticize an attempt to show application of McLuhan’s work even if in an admittedly restricted area?

The essence of McLuhan’s thought lies in the attempt to think through the implications of inclusivity (which he could characterize as “auditory”, “electric”, “dialogue”, etc) as opposed to exclusivity (“visual”, “print”, “point of view”, etc). Now inclusivity is originally plural and is above all expressed in the “inter-communication” (a term always echoing Henry Wright in McLuhan’s work) of the ontological with the ontic.  Just as chemistry has known for 200 years that there is no ontic stuff (like a glass of water) without a corresponding ontological designation (H2O), so for McLuhan’s media study any discussion of the ontic alone without its ontological designation is an ominous distortion, even a kind of madness:

Reconciliation is not merging. (‘James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial’, 79).

Any field of perception is a structure of center-marginal interplay, and when the center usurps margin, the patient is in an hypnotic trance; or alternatively,  mad. ( January 4, 1961 letter to Claude Bissell, Letters 279)

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)

Note may be made that these citations come from three different decades of McLuhan’s career.  A good argument could be made that he never talked about anything else. Certainly (as the posts on McLuhan’s language attempt to show), in “reading McLuhan, everything depends on whether his texts are seen in the RVM or ‘through the looking glass’.” Chemistry is simply the reading of nature ‘through the looking glass’ (H2O may be seen through water) and it was McLuhan’s conviction that a similar intelligibility lies in the nature of media.

To be continued in Exploring ignorance (5)….


Exploring Ignorance (3)

Another indication that Chrystall’s treatment of “ignorance” is amiss is that he explicitly treats it as a kind of “resource” (‘Ignorance as Resource for a Dialogic Community and Discovery’) which can and should be be subjected to mining and manipulation: “opened up [for] the possibility of organising”, as he says.

Now McLuhan could speak in similar terms, but only with deep and rueful irony, since this would displace the grounding power of nescience to use within human figuring. The parallel to atomic weaponry was clear to McLuhan as may be seen in his frequent resort to the images and vocabulary of nuclear physics and warfare.  What is at stake in each of these is the attempt to turn something fundamental to human use, an attempt replete with global danger.

McLuhan’s thinking here is close to Martin Heidegger’s critique of Technik as reducing everything to Bestand (usually translated as ‘standing reserve’) and, indeed, McLuhan’s close friend and colleague, Tom Langan, was a Heidegger scholar of some note in the ’60s and ’70s. His book, The Meaning of Heidegger, A Critical Study of an Existentialist Phenomenology was first published in 1959.

Langan, like McLuhan, once taught at St Louis University. He came to the philosophy department at the University of Toronto in 1967 after working with Etienne Gilson on his 4 volume history of philosophy project. Langan is presumably the source of McLuhan’s not infrequent references to Heidegger (as well as a spur to his Catholic activism in the 1970s).

It is possible that Langan gave McLuhan the idea of applying Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner line — We were the first that ever burst Into that silent sea — to his own work. As Langan must have known, and as he may have told McLuhan, Heidegger’s younger brother and archivist, Fritz, applied this same line to Martin.





Exploring ignorance (2)

In Chrystall’s exploring ignorance proposal to the MEA, he uses the word ‘extend’, innocuously enough perhaps , As a general rule, however, whenever words like ‘extend’, ‘extension’ etc are used in reference to McLuhan to indicate a desirable end (as in Robert Logan’s title [!] Understanding New Media: Extending Marshall McLuhan), there is something amiss.  For McLuhan, ‘extensions’ are not a good thing (or, for that matter, a bad thing), they are a problematic thing. They are at work to further only at the generally unconsidered expense that they are at work at the same time also to limit. So, eg, no increased sight without an implicated blindness. Similarly for any other sense or for all the senses together.

More is always also less for humans — ‘odos ano kato. (“The way up is the way down” from Heraclitus, which Eliot uses as one of his mottos to the Four Quartets and which McLuhan cites in Take Today (283) as an “ancient adage”).

Especially in the context of ‘exploring ignorance’, no mention of ‘extending’ should be proffered in McLuhan scholarship without counter-balancing acknowledgement of its inevitable shadow side.


Exploring ignorance (1)

Andrew Chrystall submitted a suggestion to the Media Ecology Association for a panel at its 2012 conference which would explore ignorance. Unfortunately — since nothing would be more important for media ecology to explore than the topic of fundamental ignorance — his suggestion was not taken up.

Chrystall ties his suggestion to two points:

Much of the emphasis McLuhan places on ignorance here appears to extend from: (a) the fact he regarded the sharing of ignorance and an examination of specialists’ ignorance as the starting point for dialogue, and (b) that the practice opened up the possibility of organising ignorance for discovery…

While not entirely wrong, these points do not get at the heart of MMs ‘doctrine of ignorance’. And for McLuhan everything depends on starting with and from that beating heart: “the medium is the message/massage” and “the gap is where the action is” are two ways of pointing to this fundament of “ignorance” whose dynamic life is “preliminary” to all history and experience.

Because Chrystall’s points miss the heart of what McLuhan was attempting to get at, they actually revert to POB perspective — exactly what McLuhan was attempting to get away from. They situate ignorance as a figure on the ground of human action. It is (taken to be) what results from our limited perspective, or from our hasty presupposition, or from our failed sympathy, etc.  But for McLuhan, “ignorance” is that border or interval or gap whose dynamic life (“where the action is”, “the massage”) is first of all ontological. It is that abysmal gap through which ontological possibilities can first be plural because bordered or gapped by ‘im-possibility’. It is the “medium” (between fundamental possibilities) which is “message” exactly on account of this originality. It is this strange ground on which human action and experience secondarily figures.

The dynamic power of ignorance in human life has its spring-board in this foundation. Properly perceived,  ignorance provides the bond via which the social is generated and maintained.  Since ignorance/impossibility both holds apart and bonds the fundamental possibilities of being, so can its gap bond humans with God, individual with individual, one generation with the prior generation and with the next generation, one people with another people, humans with nature, and so on.

It is this power which first enables language and which McLuhan treats over and over again in terms of logos.

Fitting relation to such fundamental ignorance requires beginning again with it and from it. This requires a gap from one’s existing experience and presupposition, reach to original ignorance and re-newed ex-pression of it (subjective and objective genitive!) — all of which receive their potentiality and power from the original gap. Because it is original power, so are we em-powered — a ‘delivery system’ McLuhan often describes in terms of “metaphor” and “light through”.