The Beginnings of Gutenberg Galaxy 2 – Carothers

Philippe Theophanidis in his aphelis blog has an important letter from McLuhan to  J. C. Carothers concerning the writing of The Gutenberg Galaxy.

December 20th, 1963

Dear Dr Carothers:

It was reading your article on “Culture, psychiatry and the written word”1 that decided me to settle down and write the Gutenberg Galaxy. It was published in 1962 by the University of Toronto Press and reprinted by Routledge & Kegan Paul Company.

The mosaic form in which I present the Galaxy has baffled some readers. It is a form that permits a considerable degree of natural relating of matters that cannot be presented in ordinary lineal exposition. I was happy to be able to quote your article extensively.

There is really no excuse for my having delayed so long to express my admiration of your work. It was of great use to me, indeed.

Sincerely, Prof. H. M. McLuhan

Theophanidis supplies context for this letter by citing passages from GG and UM as follows:

GG 22
[Carothers’] great contribution has been to point to the breaking apart of the magical world of the ear and the neutral world of the eye, and to the emergence of the detribalized individual from this split.

GG 35
The concluding observation of Carothers is that genetic studies of human groups offer no certainty and very small data, indeed, compared to cultural and environmental approaches. My suggestion is that cultural ecology has a reasonably stable base in the human sensorium, and that any extension of the sensorium by technological dilation has a quite appreciable effect in setting up new ratios or proportions among all the senses. Languages being that form of technology constituted by dilation or uttering (outering) of all of our senses at once, are themselves immediately subject to the impact or intrusion of any mechanically extended sense. That is, writing affects speech directly, not only its accidence and syntax but also its enunciation and social uses. (Emphasis added)

GG 278-279
What will be the new configurations of mechanisms and of literacy as these older forms of perception and judgment are interpenetrated by the new electric age? The new electric galaxy of events has already moved deeply into the Gutenberg galaxy. Even without collision, such coexistence of technologies and awareness brings trauma and tension to every living person. Our most ordinary and conventional attitudes seem suddenly twisted into gargoyles and grotesques. Familiar institutions and associations seem at times menacing and malignant. These multiple transformations, which are the normal consequence of introducing new media into any society whatever, need special study and will be the subject of another volume on Understanding Media in the world of our time.  (Emphasis added)

UM, 16
Detribalization by literacy and its traumatic effects on tribal man is the theme of a book by the psychiatrist J. C. Carothers, The African Mind in Health and Disease2 (World Health Organization, Geneva, 1953). Much of his material appeared in an article in Psychiatry magazine, November, 1959: “The Culture, Psychiatry, and the Written Word.” Again, it is electric speed that has revealed the lines of force operating from Western technology in the remotest areas of bush, savannah, and desert. One example is the Bedouin with his battery radio on board the camel. Submerging natives with floods of concepts for which nothing has prepared them is the normal action of all of our technology. But with electric media Western man himself experiences exactly the same inundation as the remote native. We are no more prepared to encounter radio and TV in our literate milieu than the native of Ghana is able to cope with the literacy that takes him out of his collective tribal world and beaches him in individual isolation. We are as numb in our new electric world as the native involved in our literate and mechanical culture.

A previous post has shown that McLuhan was contemplating the Gutenberg galaxy, and doubtless already drafting notes for it, in the early 1950’s. It appears from McLuhan’s letter to Carothers, however, that it was the appearance of “Culture, Psychiatry and the Written Word” at the end of 1959 that pushed McLuhan to concentrate on finishing GG at last. Future posts will need to investigate just why this was. At a guess, reading Carothers may have sparked a vision in McLuhan’s mind of “cultural ecology” (GG 35) as the topology of the sensus communis (individual or social) subject to “bicontinuous deformation”3. That is, the  sensus communis might be conceived as a complex of lines or shapes where any change in one line or shape would simultaneously effect changes in the others — but would always preserve the “invariants” of (eg) total line length or total area of the shapes. If such invariant properties might represent “human perception” in general, all the different possible configurations of such lines or shapes would represent the different moments (the “innumerable variants” of Take Today, 22) which perception can assume in particular. This would be the sensus communis understood as subject to “bicontinuous deformation” aka “ratios or proportions among all the senses” (GG 35).

In a letter to his closest friend, Bernard Muller-Thym, in February 19th, 19604 McLuhan reported a “break-through in media study” at roughly the same time he must have encountered the November 1959 article of Carothers:

The break-through in media study has come at last, and it can be stated as the principle of complementarity: that the structural impact of any situation is subjectively completed as to the cycle of the senses. That the effect of a medium is in what it omits and what we supply…

As seen in McLuhan’s letter to Pound from July 16, 1952 (Letters 231/232), he was already clear at that time, almost a decade before reading Carothers, that perception was subject to a “transfer of auditory to visual” stress and that this resulted in the “arrest [of experience] for contemplation of thought and cognitive process[ing]” such that “study becomes solitary”. So the influence of Carothers on McLuhan was not the “contribution” reported in GG 22: “[Carothers’] great contribution has been to point to the breaking apart of the magical world of the ear and the neutral world of the eye, and to the emergence of the detribalized individual from this split.” This much had already long been in place. Instead, what McLuhan now saw was, as he wrote to Muller-Thym, “the principle of complementarity” aka “the principle of bicontinuous deformation” embedded in this “contribution”.  He now saw that human perception had certain “topological invariants” — some fixed-in-total relation of elements that were infinitely variable individually. These relations, he suddenly saw around the turn of the year 1959-1960, were subject to “complementarity” such that any change in one would result in all the others being “immediately subject to th[is] impact or intrusion” (GG 35, emphasis added).

The key to this insight is time and specifically the difference between linear (diachronic) and simultaneous (synchronic) times. McLuhan formulated this difference as follows:

The concluding observation of Carothers is that genetic [ie, historical] studies of human groups offer no certainty and very small data, indeed, compared to cultural and environmental approaches. (GG 35)

The mosaic form in which I present the Galaxy has baffled some readers. It is a form that permits a considerable degree of natural relating of matters that cannot be presented in ordinary lineal exposition. (Letter to Carothers, December 20th, 1963)

On the one hand there are “genetic studies” that unfold through “lineal exposition”. On the other there are “cultural and environmental approaches” which have a “mosaic form”. The first “offer no certainty” while the second “permit a considerable degree of natural relating”.

In this understanding, perception is a dynamic homeostatic structure maintained through a synchronic system of complementary “deformations” and thereby subject to lawful definition. For example, as McLuhan wrote to Muller-Thym, the “invariant” configuration of any perception could be called its resolution or its “completion”5. And “completion” could variously be achieved through (what he would come to call) ‘hot’ or ‘cool’ means, aka intense or less intense sensory input. The total “completion” would remain the same, but the relative contribution of its objective and subjective components would vary: “the effect of a medium is in what it omits and what we supply”.6 This variation could be mapped along a spectrum running from ‘all objective input’ (like a sudden thunderbolt) to ‘all subjective input’ (like a psychosis) and the points of the spectrum, in turn, correlated with observed “effects”. The same method would hold for “the cycle of the senses” where the sensorium, or sensus communis, could be studied in terms of the relative contributions to its “completion” of the visual, the oral and the tactile. Here again a spectrum and associated effects could be constructed.

Thus, when McLuhan wrote that “[Carothers’] great contribution has been to point to the breaking apart of the magical world of the ear and the neutral world of the eye, and to the emergence of the detribalized individual from this split”, his interest lay in the dynamic homeostatic form implicated in such “breaking apart”, or “split”, and the correlation of this particular structural configuration with individual, social and historical phenomena like (eg) detribalization.

McLuhan sensed that this model of perception as dynamic topological homeostasis would enable the study of history and of all human activity, individual and social, in new ways. Future posts will look at the development of this notion in McLuhan’s work at just this time on his extensive Report on Project in Understanding New Media on behalf of the National Association of Educational Broadcasters for the US Office of Education.

  1. Carothers’s article appeared in Psychiatry, November, 1959.
  2. Part two of Carothers’s monograph is available here.
  3. “Topology, the study of surfaces, is a branch of mathematics concerned with spatial properties preserved under bicontinuous deformation (stretching without tearing or gluing); these properties are the topological invariants.” (Wiki)
  4. Cited in Escape into Understanding, 313.
  5. “Completion” entails a process and any process entails time. But the time implicated here is not linear, diachronic, time. It is the synchronic time of (eg) chemistry where the properties of an element ‘result from’ (as we say) its protons, neutrons and electrons ‘coming together’ in a certain way. But this ‘resulting’ and ‘coming together’ cannot be understood as “lineal exposition”.
  6. In another letter to Muller-Thym a few weeks later (March 7, 1960), McLuhan outlined the working of homeostatic “completion” as follows: “any (increased) intensity in the (…) input (ie. High Definition) completely alters the over-all structure as compared with Low Definition. So that, for example, manuscript is low definition for the visual part of writing and the speech within the code, as it were, is in relatively high definition. So that a manuscript is read aloud and in depth. The same materials put in print have the visual code in high definition and the speech goes into very low definition and print is read silently…” (Letters, 262; the first bracketed insertion ‘(increased)’ has been added; the second ‘(ie. High Definition)’ belongs to McLuhan).

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