Key texts #1 — “physiological and psychological balance”

In the Introduction (called ‘Sensory Modes’to his 1968 Through the Vanishing Point, McLuhan cites a passage from his friend , Gyorgy Kepes:

In ancient writings on vision two polar points of view were prevalent. On the one hand, emission theorists regarded the eye itself as the source of rays which explore the world somewhat as the fingers palpate objects. On the other hand, reception theorists regarded the eye as a receiver of information originating from external objects.1

McLuhan then comments:

Emission theories prevailed for many centuries. They yielded to reception theories with the advent of Newton’s Optics. (…) The late nineteenth century saw a remarkable advance on2 Newtonian ideas, with particular emphasis on the afterimage and simultaneous contrast. While this theory is generally known to practicing painters, its wider sociological implications have never been explored. To explain simply, in the field of color the afterimage consists of a physiological balancing on integral white. A brief formula might be sensory impact plus sensory completion equals white (SI + SC = W). (…) It is postulated that just as white is a result of the assembling of the primary colors in ratio, so touch is an assembly of all the senses in ratio. Black is, therefore, the after-image of touch [SI + SC = B]3. Naturally as the visual [or white] gradient of the culture ascends, the modalities of touch [or black] are minimized. This appears very vividly in the sensory evolution of the arts. From cave painting to the Romantics, there is steady visual progress. Thereafter, with the coming of synesthesia in the arts and non-visual electronic phenomena in the sciences, we may well be moving into a kind of zero-gradient culture, with all modes of experience receiving simultaneous attention. The need for physiological and psychological balance means that any new sensory impact needs to find familiar sensory completion, just as a man on the moon would need to translate all lunar experience into familiar earth terms.4

It is easy to misunderstand this passage or not to understand it at all.  One misunderstanding is to think that McLuhan is writing about diachronic5 progressions, both in history in general and in the individual processing of sensory data.  After all, the object of his analysis is what he terms an “afterimage”, which invokes the before and after of time, and he speaks of it as a “result”. However, he also emphasizes the “simultaneous” which excludes our usual sequential (or diachronic) sense of time. And further, he somehow brings these two together in the phrase “emphasis on the afterimage and simultaneous contrast”.

With this juxtaposition of process and simultaneity, McLuhan’s point is that any notion of the simultaneous in which ‘time stands still’ and ‘nothing happens’ must be discarded. Instead, the simultaneous is to be understood as that time and process among plural times and processes in which the essential unfolds or ‘takes shape’ — and thereby ‘gives shape’. The vulgar happenings in historical or diachronic time are secondary6 and receive what intelligibility they have from the synchronic order. Compare chemistry: although physical materials are certainly subject to change in historical time, through fire, say, or through slow everyday processes like desiccation, just how they can change depends upon their elementary structure which determines the range of their diachronic modalities from another dimension — the synchronic.

Another related misunderstanding can arise from McLuhan’s admittedly strange use of ‘familiar’ in the last sentence. Once again, ‘familiar’ seems to implicate sequential historical time in the purported imperative to subject new experience “on the moon” (say) to the rule of the old: the “need to translate all lunar experience into familiar earth terms”. But the purported neccesity of consumption of the new by the old is exactly what McLuhan doesn’t mean! On the one hand, this would contradict his ever-repeated critique of the RVM, aka of “concept”, as against fresh “percept”. On the other hand, this would deny even the possibility of perceptual change (let alone the understanding of perceptual change) since the “familiar” would remain fixed in place, subjecting everything to itself.  But the understanding of perceptual change (“the sensory evolution of the arts”) in terms of variable “emphasis” and “gradient” and “attention” is precisely what this passage concerns. And besides, if the “familiar” were fixed, how could there be so many varieties of what is “familiar” to different societies and different eras and to different individuals in the same society in the same era? In fact, of course, what is “familiar” even to the same individual varies greatly over a lifetime (and sometimes over an hour).

What McLuhan means by the “familiar” in the last sentence of the key text does not refer to some fixed understanding from the past, but to the defining characteristic of human being — what is so “familiar” that human being cannot be without it — namely, its “need to translate” its encounter with the world, its need to come to “terms” with it, its need to establish “physiological and psychological balance”. The same point is made in ’James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial’ (1953) and is described as the “age-old adequation of mind and things, enacting the drama of the endless adjustment of the interior acts and dispositions of the mind to the outer world. The drama of cognition itself.”

“Familiar” in the key passage is the same as “age-old” in the Joyce essay. The “familiar” is what has always been practiced by humans and cannot not be practiced by them. “A man on the moon” would get nowhere by simply repeating his familiar actions on earth — breathing ‘normally’, for example, would be fatal. Instead, “a man on the moon” needs to do what is more deeply “familiar” to humans even than breathing normally, namely, he needs to establish “physiological and psychological balance” by “adjustment of the interior acts and dispositions of the mind [and body] to the outer world” (in this case, the lunar world).

To sum up thus far: McLuhan is concerned here not only with diachronic processes in sequential or historical time (what can be called “sociological implications”), but also with synchronic or “simultaneous” processes and with the inter-relation between these two orders of time and being.  And the focus of his investigation is on what is fundamental or “age-old” or “familiar” to all humans at all times — namely, the need to establish “physiological and psychological balance” through “adjustment of the interior acts and dispositions of the mind to the outer world”.  This is a singular imperative that, notably, yet appears in “innumerable variants” (TT 22).

McLuhan’s proposal in the key passage is that analysis should focus on what he calls “the afterimage” which he defines “in the field of color” as the “physiological balancing on integral white”. “Balancing”, in turn, is said to be “assembling (…) in ratio”, while “balancing on” means “balancing on [the basis of]”.  The point at stake is that “in the field of color” the range of “sensory impact” consists of the entire spectrum of colors that — as “is generally known to practicing painters” and can be illustrated with a prism — is equal to white.  Any particular color other than white represents a fraction (or “ratio”) where the numerator is (say) blue and the denominator is white.  The sum of all the possible color fractions together is always equal to unitary or “integral” white — so blue/white + red/white (…) = white/white = white, in the same way as 1/8 + 2/8 (…) = 8/8 = 1. This “balancing” or “contrast” (McLuhan sometimes calls it “zoning”) within the total spectrum is “simultaneous” or synchronic because it does not come about through a process in sequential time, but is a way of understanding the ‘production’ of color out of a different order. As with chemistry, the point is to understand “sociological implications” with reference to such ‘prior’ determinations — here, “assembling (…) in ratio” some fraction of white to produce (say) blue.

“Practicing painters” work with this notion, but without understanding its “sociological implications”.  In a similar way, cooks and vinters and blacksmiths always worked with materials in a chemical way, but with no understanding of the “sociological implications” of their activity. As Hegel remarks, what is known is not necessarily well known.

The “afterimage” is, however, not confined to “the field of color” or to “sensory impact” or to “information originating from external objects” (as Kepes says).  There is also the field of the senses and of “sensory completion” considered on its side as another “source” (Kepes) of perceptual in-formation.  The “afterimage” or basis on the sensory side can be said to be “touch” because touch is both a singular sense and “an [integral] assembly of all the senses” just as white is both a singular color and the “integral” basis of all the colors. So Kepes can describe one theory of the working of sight as “the eye itself [being] the source of rays which explore the world somewhat as the fingers palpate objects”.  Comparably, taste, smell, and hearing can all be described as ways of registering the touch of sensations via the tongue, nose and ears.

McLuhan ‘postulates’ that the senses constitute a spectrum on the basis of touch just as colors constitute a spectrum on the basis of white: “just as white is a result of the assembling of the primary colors in ratio, so touch is an assembly of all the senses in ratio”. Thus, where any color is a fraction with denominator or “afterimage” of “integral” white, so any sense can be said to be a fraction with denominator or “afterimage” of “integral” touch. So it is that humans can touch something with a hand (say), but they can also be touched in a global way (touched by some drama, say), reflecting no one sense, but all the senses together of the whole person. Further, this “afterimage” of sense can be said to be SC ‘black’ both because it represents the opposite extreme from SI ‘white’ and because it works as the unperceived background — the sensus communis  — to any particular exercise of sensing (like the black backing of a mirror to any particular image reflected in it).

In the 1969 Counterblast (22) McLuhan notes:

Media tend to isolate one or another sense from the others. The result is hypnosis. The other extreme is withdrawing of sensation with resulting hallucination as in dreams or DTs, etc.

What is missing in each of these “extremes” is attention to the “afterimage” of the complete range of SI “sensation” on the one side and of SC “senses” on the other. “Hypnosis” is possible only when awareness is incomplete. “Hallucination” is possible only when sensory input is incomplete. Further, this isolation from the “afterimages” of the “integral” spectra of external input and of internal awareness is itself a product of the fateful “exclusion” of SI and SC from each other. Where both are at work together, neither can be isolated in an “extreme” way.

McLuhan’s whole enterprise may be said to be the interrogation of the phenomenon of SI/SC co-variability.

McLuhan’s suggestion in the key text is that “all modes of experience” are the “result” of both of these SI/SC sides at once such that human experience is always the sum of “SI + SC” together aka of the perpetual “adjustment of the interior acts and dispositions of the mind to the outer world” aka of the achievement of “physiological and psychological balance”.  The synchronic ‘production’ of experience on this model proceeds through the summation (or “balancing” or “assembly”) of these two fractions together.  And just as the spectrum of color has its basis in the “afterimage” of white (where white may be imagined as the terminal unit of all possible color fractions), and just as the spectrum of the senses has its basis in the “afterimage” of touch (where touch may be imagined as the terminal unit of all possible sense fractions), so in turn may all the possible sums of SI + SC together be seen to form a further spectrum stretching between unitary vision/white and unitary touch/black at the two extremes.

In contrast to the two spectra of color and of touch, however, the “afterimage” or denominator of experience does not have a single “gradient” but two: W and B. Its complete expression is not “SI + SC = W” or ‘SI + SC = B’, therefore, but SI + SC = W and B together. ‘W and B together‘, in turn, have three possible types of expression: W/B or B/W or WB. That is: experience is always the product of a selection between fundamentally incompatible “afterimages” where W may be figured on base B, or B may be figured on base W, or the two together may be figured as equally basic, WB.

It is in regard to this double-gradient spectrum of W-B spectra that McLuhan says:

Naturally as the visual [or color or white or SI] gradient of the culture ascends [= B/W], the modalities of touch [or sense or black or SC] are minimized. [Contrariwise, as the touch (or sense or black or SC) gradient of the culture ascends (= W/B), the modalities of the visual (or color or white or SI) are minimized.] This appears very vividly in the sensory evolution of the arts. From cave painting to the Romantics, there is steady visual progress. Thereafter, with the coming of synesthesia [= WB] in the arts and non-visual electronic phenomena in the sciences, we may well be moving into a kind of zero-gradient [= WB] culture, with all modes of experience receiving simultaneous attention [= WB].

“Attention” or “emphasis” may be allocated dynamically all along the SI + SC  spectrum, from all white to all black to all the white/black positions between these.  Total attention or emphasis at one end of the W-B spectrum would be “integral white” = (all SI and no SC) = “hypnosis”. Total attention or emphasis at the other end of the spectrum would be integral black = (no SI and all SC) = “hallucination”. In both of these “extreme” cases, experience collapses into incoherence. In contrast, the middle of the spectrum represents “a kind of zero-gradient culture with all modes of experience receiving simultaneous attention.” This “zero-gradient” condition is also called “synesthesia”.

Any one “mode of experience” represents a certain SI + SC sum which may be called a position of “attention” on the black/white spectrum. McLuhan also speaks of such “attention” in this context as a certain “emphasis”. In other texts he uses the terms “preference” and “stress” for this same synchronic marking of a base position within the range of experiential possibility. The question at stake is always what base or “afterimage” — either W or B or BW — is to be the denominator in the resulting “fraction” or “ratio” of experience.7 In a comparable way, the synchronic analysis of language use might be thought to begin with the selection of a certain language which then leads on to the choices of expression given with that optional base. A different base would entail different choices.

McLuhan’s law of “physiological and psychological balance” is the hypothesis that there is a “natural” inverse correlation between the two sides of the W-B spectrum of W and B spectra: “Naturally as the visual [or color or white or SI] gradient of the culture ascends, the modalities of touch [or sense or black or SC] are minimized.” Further, each of the multiple individual positions at points along the entire length of the W-B spectrum — each of which is some “fraction” or “ratio” of W and B together — is subject to this same law of “balance” or of “assembling (…) in ratio”. That is, as “attention”  or “emphasis” on W ascends, “attention” or “emphasis” on B descends — and vice versa. 

The ‘production’ of experience on this model must be understood as implicating the selection of some position on this white/black spectrum; the “innumerable variants” of experience may then be understood in terms of changes of position on it (in a synchronic ‘progression’) and/or of combinations of such positions (at the same synchronic ‘moment’). Here human experience is understood on the model of a piano score where the keyboard represents the spectrum of possible white/black ‘positions’ and the melody set out by the score represents a pattern of “attention” or “emphasis” exercised on the individual keys. As emphasized again and again by McLuhan, both experience itself and the study of experience are matters of “pattern recognition”. Just as all possible piano melodies are given with the keyboard, so are all “patterns” of experience given with the W-B spectrum — including the experience of the study of experience. What is required is the passion to re-cognize it.

A piano score sets out music synchronically; playing the score sets out the music diachronically. 

But how can “all modes of experience” be subject to “simultaneous attention”? In the same way as chemistry is investigation against the background of the complete table of elements, or musical composition envisions the complete range of notes (but neither of these need be definitively complete and perhaps cannot be definitively complete), so experience must be understood against its complete (or “plenary” as McLuhan sometimes says) range or spectrum. Now McLuhan had little interest in the spectrum of colors or even in the spectrum of the senses considered in themselves. For his purposes, it was enough for these to be designated simply as ‘white’ and ‘black’.  But these color and sense spectra were very important to him as illustrations of his understanding of “the modes of experience” as fractions along a spectrum of the total W-B range of “the afterimage(s) and simultaneous contrast(s)”.


  1. Cited by McLuhan at TVP 15 from Gyorgy Kepes, Structure in Art and in Science, 1965.
  2. TVP has ‘of’, not ‘on’, but this may well be a typo since McLuhan is not concerned here with a further development of Newton’s ideas but on their transformation.
  3. The first formula in round brackets ‘SI + SC = W’ stems from McLuhan; the second in square brackets ‘SI + SC = B’ has been added.  For added clarification, these formulas might be rewritten as ‘SI(v) + SC = W’ and ‘SI + SC(t) = B’.
  4. TVP 15. All bold and underlining in the passage has been added.
  5. The word ‘temporal’ might be easier to understand than ‘diachronic’. But the nature of the (the!) temporal is exactly one of the central questions at stake in this passage. Therefore the recourse to ‘diachronic’ as a way of indicating that different sorts of time are at stake here.
  6. The relation between the synchronic and the diachronic therefore ‘takes place’ in yet another dimension of time, in which the former is first and the latter second!
  7. How “attention”, “emphasis”, “preference” and “stress” work will require detailed exposition in further posts.  Suffice it to note here that this peculiar pre-experiential action from which identity and experience “result” may be termed ‘bobbing’. Cf. Counterblast (1969) 35: “We’re in an age of implosion after 3000 years of explosion — an implosion in which everybody is involved with everybody. The age of co-presence of all individuals is the age of communication — the age of instant humans.”

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