GV and TT p22 — Commentary 1: “the great quantum leap”

The selection of GV texts given in GV and TT p22 concludes with this one:

The archetype, which depends on an overarching comprehension of the past (the mythic milieu), is retrieved awareness or consciousness. It is consequently a retrieved combination of clichés — an old cliché brought back by a new cliché. (GV 16)

This short passage goes to the very heart of McLuhan’s thought.

TT 22 and GV concern the structural form which McLuhan perceived as grounding all particular examples of human experience, individual and collective.  This structural form of media in human experience is comparable to the structural forms of the element in chemistry and of DNA in genetics.  Further commentaries on GV and TT p22 will examine this structural form, the range of its expression and its uses in the humanities and social sciences which could have the effect of reinstituting them on this new basis.

But an understanding of McLuhan’s insight must begin with an understanding of its particularity and its acknowledged fallibility. Neither what McLuhan saw nor how he saw it were de-finitive.  Just as was the case with initial insight into the formal structure of the chemical element in the nineteenth century and with initial insight into the formal structure of DNA in the twentieth, both the what and the how of McLuhan’s perception will forever be subject to adjustment, revision, correction and even revolution.

The decisive question has nothing to do with the match between McLuhan’s perception — the how — with the purported reality or truth of what he perceived. Instead, as subjectively and objectively finitive (= not de-finitive1), McLuhan’s insight was nothing more than cliché as regards both how it envisioned and what it envisioned:

It is consequently a retrieved combination of clichés — an old cliché brought back by a new cliché.

The matter of finitive particularity or cliché is explained by McLuhan and Watson (as formulated by Eric McLuhan?2) as follows:

The function of (…) cliché is to select for use one item or one feature out of a vast middenheap of (…) materials. (…) The function of (…) cliché depends upon the suppression of huge quantities of unconscious (…) materials. (…) A mind has many rationales; a cliché probe stresses only one of these at a time. The others are dismissed into the unconscious. (From Cliché to Archetype, 39-40)

A cliché is both arbitrary and utterly partial. The great question is: how is it that at the same time it can reveal?

McLuhan found it astonishing that his contemporaries could not understand this question in regard to the humanities — and especially not in regard to religion — at the same time that admittedly partial insight was spectacularly successful in the hard sciences in exploring all aspects of the physical universe and even in creating atomic weapons and going to the moon. In this respect no different from the physical sciences, of course religion is cliché — but how else, McLuhan must be understood as asking, could it possibly be?

To be anything at all is to be particular and finite! But as we know very well in our own experience, and as we know especially from the successes of hard science in the last 200 years, particular ways of addressing particular questions can indeed reveal what is going on in them.

The key to the GV p16 passage cited at the head of this post lies in the word “retrieved”: that passage has to do with “retrieved awareness or consciousness”, with “a retrieved combination”. “Retrieved” (from re-trouvé or ‘re-found’) appears over and over again in McLuhan’s work as “re-play”, “re-tracing”, “re-cognition”. What is retrieved (re-played, re-traced, re-cognized) is that initial, indeed initiating, “awareness or consciousness” through which humans first appear as humans.

Such “awareness or consciousness” is initiated by and through language:

If one must choose the one dominant factor which separates man from the rest of the animal kingdom, it would undoubtedly be language. The ancients said: “Speech is the difference of man”. Opposition of the thumbs and fingers and an erect stature were certainly key developments in the separation of man from animals, but the great quantum leap of intellectual capacity took place with speech. The work of Whorf and Sapir shows that the spoken language structures the way in which man thinks and perceives the world. It is the medium of both thought and perception as well as communication. (‘Alphabet Mother of Invention’, McLuhan and Logan, Et Cetera 34, 373-83, 1977)

Both “thought and perception”, without which humans would not be human, are enabled by language.  But language itself functions esentially through the finitive. The human ear can recognize a broad range of sounds (though not as broad as the more intelligent dog), but every particular language, even every particular dialect, recognizes only a selection of these. The repertoire of sound used in any language represents only a finite selection of the sounds potentially available to it. Further, and yet more importantly, the particular sound associated with a certain meaning in any language is arbitrary: the sound of ‘tree’ is no more fitting to its meaning than is ‘Baum’ or ‘arbre’. Further yet, the grammatical structure of any language is again arbitrary and subject to wide variation relative to other languages and even relative to itself over time: English once had cases and genders, but now it does not. This does not mean that a language might do without grammar or that grammar doesn’t matter; it means that grammar is made, not matched. Only as a result of these different finitive factors do humans speak at all and in thousands of different languages.

Language is utterly finitive and yet it is exactly through such finitude that it constitutes itself and thereby constitutes human “thought and perception”. McLuhan agreed with Heidegger that humans do not invent language — since there is no “thought and perception” prior to it and therefore no human being to do the inventing! Humans are, therefore, not the primary speakers of language. Rather, it is “language itself” that first of all speaks itself and thereby invents (= ‘brings in’) humans: die Sprache spricht.

language itself is an infinitely greater work of art than the Iliad or the Aeneid, (‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’, M&L 157, 1954)

it is language itself that embodies and performs the dance of being. (‘Empedocles and T. S. Eliot’, 1976)

James Joyce used language itself as the index of these modifications and explored them fully in Finnegans Wake. (Laws of Media 221, 1978?)

When language speaks, and when humans, consequently, have “thought and perception” and thereby first appear as humans, what results is ‘world’ — a ‘world’ which always appears in some correspondingly structured fashion and which is definitively limited by that structure:

  • The pre-neolithic art of making stone tools moved man out of the process of evolution and into a world of his own making. (GV 93)
  • The media extensions of man are the hominization of the planet; it is the second phase of the original creation. (GV 93)
  • language as ground biases awareness (GV28)
  • We are all trapped in [some] assumption about the nature of reality (GV 77)

The limitation here which can be described as “bias“, or even as our being “trapped”, is also what at the same time illuminates and frees. Formation and deformation belong together here and each is as necessary as the other in bringing a world to modulated light.  ‘World’ without delimiting structure is as little possible as language without delimiting structure (such as the recognition of some particular range of audible sounds, a particular grammatical structure and particular sounds correlated to particular meanings).

When humans come to understand something, a fitting relation clicks into place between a particular way of looking and a domain.  A particular way of looking may be called ‘cliché’; a domain may be called the ‘archetype’, since it is the “overarching (…) milieu” of what is at stake in that domain. It is in relation to the archetype that a cliché must be evaluated; but at the same time only cliché can reveal a domain since only human perception, never more than finitive and so never more than cliché, can reveal domains for continued exploration. Exactly because no cliché can ever reveal an archetype fully, however, also what is known of the archetype is also finitive and is therefore itself cliché:

The archetype, which depends on an overarching comprehension of the past (the mythic milieu), is retrieved awareness or consciousness. It is consequently a retrieved combination of clichés — an old cliché brought back by a new cliché. (GV 16)

The archetype is the full or “overarching” domain — for example, the chemical nature of physical materials. No human understanding of this domain is able to comprehend it fully (which is why we can investigate it forever) and to this extent our understanding is never more than cliché in regard to it — just as it itself remains cliché in comparison to its “overarching” fullness as archetype.

The great mystery is that humans can and do come to understand. Everything in the modern world testifies to this — except our striking ignorance of what the hell we ourselves as humans are up to.

McLuhan attempted to begin an exploration of our ignorance of the human domain through the preliminary identification of the elementary structure of human experience. Of course, for him and for all following investigation forever, this would always remain cliché. But cliché can and does have an essential relation with truth exactly as retrieval.

What is “retrieved” (re-played, re-traced, re-cognized) when cliché reveals an entrance-way into a domain is that founding relation between finitive sound and finitive meaning that first manifests language and communication. Such re-traced relation to the founding relation of language (subjective genitive!) is what McLuhan calls the “retrieved combination”. Its relation of signal and meaning grounds our “retrieved combination” with it and, consequently, our own combinations yielding meanings and discoveries in language and knowledge. Relating to it, we are able to relate things as speakers and to relate to domains as investigators. 

The founding relation of language is what first constitutes “thought and perception” and thereby human being and ‘world’. What McLuhan calls “the mythic milieu” (GV 16) is the story of these developments which do not occur in historical time, but are what first enables historical time. This is the story of how the “great quantum leap” initiating “the second phase of the original creation” is first of all enabled through the “great quantum leap” of “the original creation” itself:  the archetypal “great quantum leap”. It is this original power which occurs as re-play in all language use and in all practical and theoretical knowledge — and especially in our insight into new domains. 

This “great quantum leap” which initiates “the second phase of the original creation” is itself the “retrieved combination” with “the [first] phase of the original creation”. Because the beginning is already repetition3 or dialogue, and because that origin continues to power all subsequent history, so can it be re-peated (re-trieved, re-played, re-traced, re-cognized) by us. As McLuhan notes at the end of Take Today 22:

dialogue as a process of creating the new came before, and goes beyond…

So it is that within historical time, cliché can and does open new domains.  McLuhan contended that the “electric age” was the time when “cliché probe” would at last open the human domain. And it would do so, he further contended, by consciously aligning itself through retrieval with that original “quantum leap” or “magic”,  as he often described it, through which utterly arbitrary sound was first heard to communicate meaning.

it is language itself that embodies and performs the dance of being. (‘Empedocles and T. S. Eliot’, 1976)

  1. De-finitive’: one of the uses of the common prefix ‘de‘ is to act as a privative, negating what follows: hence ‘defrost’, ‘defuse’, ‘definitive’. Compare ‘dis’ in ‘dishonest’, ‘disallow’, etc.
  2. From Cliché to Archetype was published in 1970 and supposedly written by McLuhan and Wilfred Watson. But Watson claimed to have had little to do with the final form of the book and McLuhan himself was in no shape to have much to do with it following his brain surgery in 1968 — this aside from his increasing reluctance to play the role of the scholarly, but utterly ineffectual, academic. Philip Marchand and Fred Flahiff, a student and later colleague of McLuhan in the English department at St Mike’s, attribute the completion of the book to Eric McLuhan.
  3. Repetition, cf repeat: “to say what one has already said”, from Old French repeter “say or do again, get back, demand the return of” (13c, Modern French répéeter), from Latin repetere “do or say again; attack again”, from re– “again” + petere “to go to; attack; strive after; ask for, beseech”. See petition: early 14c., “a supplication or prayer, especially to a deity”, from Old French peticion “request, petition” (12c., Modern French pétition) and directly from Latin petitionem (nominative petitio) “a blow, thrust, attack, aim; a seeking, searching”, in law “a claim, suit”, noun of action from past participle stem of petere “to make for, go to; attack, assail; seek, strive after; ask for, beg, beseech, request; fetch; derive; demand, require”, from PIE root *pet-, also *pete– “to rush; to fly” (cognates: Sanskrit pattram “wing, feather, leaf”, patara– “flying, fleeting”; Hittite pittar “wing”; Greek piptein “to fall”, potamos “rushing water”, pteryx “wing”: Old English feðer “feather”; Latin penna “feather, wing;” Old Church Slavonic pero “feather”; Old Welsh eterin “bird”). As may be seen in this etymology, the association of saying with wings is very ancient: Homer uses “winged words” over and over again.  This “combination” of words and wings is doubly significant. On the one hand, wings are always two: a bird with only one wing cannot fly. So a word must be both uttered and understood. On the other hand, the wings of words work through an intermediary space between a speaker and a hearer and between a sound and a meaning: between the two is “the gap is where the action is”. Absent this gap, twofold words with their two wings cannot fly — since without it they cannot be two and there is no medium for their back and forth.

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