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. Mallarme 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 of 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.

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