It could be argued that McLuhan never thought about anything other than a spectrum of “modes of experience”, each conceived as a combination of “sensory input” (SI) and “sensory completion” (SC). But his explicit use of these SI-SC terms was limited. He used them extensively in his 1960 Report on Understanding New Media, and in letters around this time, took them up again in TVP (1968) (considered in Key Texts #1), and then returned to them once more in From Cliché to Archetype (1970). Here is a key passage in this 1970 book:
The Oriental world has, on the whole, tried to anesthetize itself against the inputs of sensation because of its thousands of years of knowledge of the experiential effects of the inputs. The West, in contrast, has tried to maximize the sensational inputs and to minimize the experiential effects. It is useful to have a shorthand for this pattern of input and response: SI/SC — sensory input or impact and sensory closure or involvement. Today the roles of East and West seem to be shifting. The Orient is more inclined today to give the SI side of things a go, while the West, undergoing retribalization, may appear to be already satiated with involvement and participation of SC. The outer trip has been specialist and Western. The inner trip has been echological and Oriental. Both kinds of trips are clichéprobes. Each has its own methods and preferences of retrieval from the rag-and-bone shop of past experience. The outer trip prefers to retrieve antiquities or archetypes. The inner trip prefers the probing cliché world of the module. (From Cliché to Archetype,13-14)
This text may well seem hasty, if not fundamentally confused, an effect deriving especially from two sections of it. First, the phrase “knowledge of the experiential effects of the inputs” in the initial sentence seems a very strange way to describe what earlier in the same sentence is called the attempt “to anesthetize (…) against the inputs of sensation”. How have “knowledge of the experiential effects of (,..) inputs” by anesthetizing against them? Second, it seems equally puzzling to characterize the West as “already satiated with involvement and participation of SC” when everywhere else in the text the West is equated with SI. While a flip from SI to SC would be strange enough, the characterization of such a flip as “already satiated” seems bizarre. Already? Satiated?
An attempt to come to grips with the text might begin by amplifying it with additions, many taken from different parts of itself:
The Oriental world has anesthetized itself against the inputs of sensation [ie, against their revolutionary “impact”] because of [= through] its thousands of years of knowledge of the experiential effects of the inputs [= through intense subjective “involvement and participation” with those inputs such that their negative “impact” is ameliorated]. The West, in contrast, has tried to maximize the [revolutionary effects of] sensational inputs and [thereby moved] to minimize the experiential effects [of subjective “involvement and participation” with them]. It is useful to have a shorthand for this pattern of input and response: SI/SC — sensory input or impact and sensory closure or involvement. Today the roles of East and West seem to be shifting. The Orient is more inclined today to give the SI side of things a go, while the West [is more inclined to give the SC side of things a go. This trend in the West appears as if it were] undergoing retribalization [in some ways, such that its younger generations] may appear to be already satiated with involvement and participation of SC. The outer trip [SI] has been specialist and Western. The inner trip [SC] has been echological [implicating back and forth “involvement and participation”] and Oriental. Both kinds of trips are cliché-probes. Each has its own methods and preferences of retrieval from the rag-and-bone shop of past experience. The outer trip [SI] prefers to retrieve antiquities or archetypes [or scientific laws or theorems, all of which it isolates ‘on their own’ by ruthlessly suppressing SC]. The inner trip [of the Oriental world or of the space shot] prefers the probing cliché world of the [self-enclosed] module [where strict SC — as ancestor worship or as a technologically fabricated environment — dominates SI].
Once the passage is augmented in this way, it is important to consider not only what it has to say, but also how McLuhan (and Watson?) chose to say it. And why this choice was made. This post will examine the first question (in the main), but future posts will need to investigate the latter two at length.
In the most puzzling sections of the text, McLuhan appears to have run together several different lines of thought. These different lines of thought may be teased apart as follows…
He proposes in the first place to analyze “modes of experience” in terms of a singular, but variable, complex: “It is useful to have a shorthand for this [recurring] pattern of input and response”. The central thought here is that all experience has, or is, some variety of a singular “pattern” or form (much as all physical materials exhibit some variety of the elementary structure).
In the second place, he proposes that this pattern and its variations are best approached through focus on two essential components of it: “input and response”, SI and SC. Here it is important to note that SC or “sensory closure” is not conceived as an enclosure or as a barricade, but as an action of “response” and of “involvement and participation” with SI. Indeed, all experience must have both SI and SC. If only one component part of the pattern were present, only “input” or only “response”, only SI or only SC, the required “pattern” of experience would not be present and there would be no experience. SC does not, and cannot ever, operate in the absence of SI, just as SI does not, and cannot ever, operate in the absence of SC.
But, in the third place, in order to achieve the recommended focus, it is necessary to understand the two essential components of it on their own. Similarly, elements must be approached in terms of their particular structure of electrons and protons, but in order to achieve this approach it is necessary to understand what electrons and protons are. So when McLuhan writes of “the Orient” and “the West”, his intent is not to reference all experience in these rather inchoate areas, but to define SI and SC apart from concrete manifestations in which both are always present and always mixed. An unreal “Orient” and an unreal “West” are used to describe the unreal situation of SI or SC on their own.
In the fourth place, once a recommended method of analysis is in place, it is necessary to see how it may be used to investigate concrete matters around us. This helps to specify the method and to proof it. In this mode, McLuhan looked at hair and clothes fashions, children’s toys, sizes of cars, styles of dancing, advertising, war, etc etc etc. If chemistry is chemistry only because all materials are chemical, and similarly with physics and biology, McLuhan insisted that nothing in experience could fall outside the purview of the sort of analytic of experience he was proposing. This is one important implication of his mantra that he had no point of view and took no moral position.
Lastly, precisely because the pattern of experience is fundamentally variable and there is, therefore, no singular instance of it that is definitive or normative in all respects, all particular “modes of experience” may be regarded as clichés separated (and necessarily separated) from the archetypal “rag and bone shop of the heart” (“where all the ladders start”, as Yeats has it). Any “mode of experience” represents a limited selection from a “plenary” range before it (where ‘before’ must be understood in multiple senses). Any sample of experience, including any attempt to analyze experience like McLuhan’s own, is necessarily limited in this way and any fitting presentation of it must keep this factor of limitation front and center.1
The key text represents a kind of compromise expression of these different currents of thought. But McLuhan’s evident contentment with such a ‘compromise expression’ itself demands consideration. In fact, he did this himself for us:
You do not seem to have grasped that the message as it relates to the medium, is never the content, but the (…) effects of the medium as an environment of service and disservice.(…) I have always assumed that the user of any medium is the content. The person who turns on an electric light is the content of the electric light, just as the reader of a book is the content of a book. This is standard Aristotelian and Thomistic doctrine, that the cognitive agent is himself thing and content. (…) My canvasses are surrealist, and to call them ‘theories’ is to miss my satirical intent altogether. As you will find in my literary essays, I can write the ordinary kind of rationalistic prose any time I choose to do so. (McLuhan to Bill Kuhns, December 6, 1971, Letters, 448)
Similarly to Ralph Cohen (July 13, 1973):
Since ‘communication’ means change, a theory of communication most naturally concentrates on the sort of public with which they [authors/artists] felt themselves to be confronted. It is this public which always affects the structures which the performer chooses to adopt, and it is this public which he seeks to shape and alter in some way.
It would seem that the effort required to untangle2 McLuhan’s prose, especially the prose he turned out in the last 15 years of his life, was an important factor in his composition of it. Or, perhaps better put, in his decision not to put much effort into the construction of it as polished prose. The central question may have been: How to attempt to elicit thought once more — aka the effort of untangling — in a civilization gone brain-dead (despite its mountains of polished prose)?
- McLuhan’s evident satisfaction with hasty composition has one of its motivations here — somewhat like abstract expressionism in painting, perhaps. This also explains his suspicion of the cliché/archetype opposition, since any attempt to describe an archetype is necessarily limited and therefore necessarily cliché. A further factor may have been the idea that he had from I.A. Richards that subsequent correction is more important to analysis than initial perfection: “The neglect of the study of the modes of metaphor in the later 19th Century was due, I think, to a general feeling that those methods of inquiry were unprofitable, and the time was not ripe for a new attack. I am not sure that it is yet ripe in spite of all that Coleridge and Bentham did towards ripening it. Very likely a new attempt must again lead into artificialities and arbitrarinesses. If so, their detection may again be a step (ahead) on the road. In this subject it is better to make a mistake that can be exposed than to do nothing, better to have any account of how metaphor works (…) than to have none. (…) And progress here (…) comes chiefly from profiting by our mistakes” (I.A. Richards, The Philosophy of Rhetoric, 1936, 115-116). Richards gave these lectures in the U.S. in 1936, but McLuhan heard what must have been substantially the same lectures in Cambridge the year before. His lecture notes on them are retained in his papers in Ottawa. A passage from the preface to The Meaning of Meaning by Richards and Ogden (1923) goes to a related point: “Convinced as they are of the urgency of a stricter examination of language from a point of view which is at present receiving no attention, the authors have preferred to publish this essay in its present form rather than to wait, perhaps indefinitely, until, in lives otherwise sufficiently occupied, enough moments of leisure had accumulated for it to be rewritten in a more complete and more systematized form. They are, they believe, better aware of its failings than most critics will suppose, and especially of those due to the peculiar difficulties which a fundamental criticism of language inevitably raises for the expositors thereof.” ↩
- Cf Richards: “In all interpretation we are filling in connections, and for poetry, of course, our freedom to fill in the absence of explicitly stated intermediate steps is a main source of its powers. As Mr. Empson well says (in his Seven Types of Ambiguity, p. 32), ‘Statements are made as if they were connected, and the reader is forced to consider their relations for himself. The reason why these statements should have been selected is left for him to invent; he will invent a variety of reasons and order them in his own mind. This is the essential fact about the poetical use of language.’ The reader, I would say, will tryout various connections, and this experimentation — with the simplest and the most complex, the most obvious and the most recondite collocations alike — is the movement which gives its meaning to all fluid language.” (Philosophy of Rhetoric, 125) ↩