Deutsch on Christian complementarity

An important section of Karl Deutsch’s 1950 paper (originally delivered orally in 1948), ‘Higher Education and the Unity of Knowledge’, is titled ‘Christianity and the Resurrection of Science’. Deutsch was a Jew, but he was a specialist in the middle ages and had an understanding of Christianity that was interesting in itself and especially in the relationship he saw between it and science.

Any revival of the growth of knowledge and science must have been remote from the preoccupations of the early Christians — and yet there is some reason to suggest that the profound reorientation of human motives in the course of the rise of their faith opened the fundamental channels of communication so much more deeply and widely [than before] as to lay the foundations for later centuries of unparalleled intellectual and technological growth.
Christianity implied a new attitude of man to man, a radical acceptance of empathy, a willingness to accept full communication of the fate and experience of other persons, however poor or low, and a feeling: “Here but for the grace of God go I.” This feeling is expressed in Jesus’s saying: “What you have done to the least of these, you have done to me”; in Paul’s conviction that, in the things that truly matter, there is “neither Jew nor Gentile, neither bond nor free,” and that men must come to view themselves as “members of one another.”
Beyond the language of faith, these are statements of essential aspects of communication. Men are viewed as potential substitutes for each other in their external fate, their external interactions with their environment, their experiences of nature and society — to such a degree that “but for the grace of God” the fate of another might be mine. This accepted possibility of substitution implies that the behavior and experiences of other men are relevant for me as potential test cases of my own.
This view embraces operations [research]. A tentative modern definition of the relationship of complementarity — that is, of the relationship between broadcasting and receiving radio sets tuned to each other, or between a key and all the locks which it fits — might be that it consists essentially in the possibility of performing an operation in one set of facilities which is effective in the other, while preserving a significant number of its characteristics in both [otherwise independent] sets. These characteristics of the operation, or chain of events, may be described in statistical terms as a pattern of “yes’s” and “no’s,” and may then be called “information”. Is not this relationship stated in the words: “What you have done to the least of these, that you have done to me”? By restoring and deepening the community of human experience and communication, Christianity restored and deepened one of the essential foundations, not only for common belief (…) but also for every future community of science.
It should be clear that Christianity cannot claim any exclusive monopoly in that contribution. The vision of the Hebrew prophets who took the side of the poor (…), the pity of Buddha, and the trend of some currents of Hellenistic thought, all implied some awareness of men’s relationship as potential substitutes and test cases for each other. What seems to me to have been new in Christianity was the consistency with which this insight was carried toward the conclusions of seeing all human beings as “members of one another,” and of recognizing love to one’s neighbor (…) as the visible test of love to God.
Less directly, and less dramatically, early Christianity laid the foundations of a later restoration of a fuller communication between men and nature. The doctrine of creation and of the fatherhood of God, already found in Judaism, favors the notion of a friendly universe. It implies that the universe is such that men can live in it — that it is not fundamentally hostile to either life or understanding, and indeed that understanding may reveal a friendly wisdom behind it all.1 

This passage incorporates several foundational convictions of McLuhan’s mature project (which was just beginning to come into focus at the time around 1950 when McLuhan obtained Deutsch’s paper).  

First, as McLuhan put the point in a letter two decades later to Martin Esslin: 

One of the advantages of being a Catholic is that it confers a complete intellectual freedom to examine any and all phenomena with the absolute assurance of their intelligibility. (September 23, 1971, Letters 440)

As Deutsch has it: “Christianity laid the foundations of a later restoration of a fuller communication between men and nature. The doctrine of creation and of the fatherhood of God, already found in Judaism, favors the notion of a friendly universe. It implies that (…) it is not fundamentally hostile to either life or understanding, and indeed that understanding may reveal a friendly wisdom behind it all.”

Of course, McLuhan was clear, as Deutsch may or may not have been, that the repeated “friendly[ness]” here in no way excludes tragedy and disaster.  Hence McLuhan’s citation of FW 332 in Culture is our Business (160): “Such was the act of goth”! Ultimate conciliation — or ultimate friendship — is as utterly “inexact” (discussed here) as that between the decrees of God and those of the goths when they sacked Rome. The relation of humans to such “wisdom” as may be “behind it all” is ineradicably limited such that any pretension to an exact comprehension of it (let alone identification with it) is simply laughable.

Second, both McLuhan and Innis must have been deeply struck by Deutsch’s emphasis on communication and complementarity as essential for operations research.  These were already central aspects of their own work in the humanities and now Deutsch was revealing (along with Wiener in his 1948 and 1949 cybernetics books) how they were implicated in the most modern and propitious (for both good and evil) scientific research.2

Third, as indicated by Deutsch, communication and complementarity turn on the relations of centre to margin, on “a radical acceptance of empathy”.  Innis had dedicated his entire life to the study of the (Canadian) history and (universal) theory of centre-margin relations such that Watson’s biography of him would fittingly be called Marginal Man. McLuhan, too, would increasingly come to see that the centre-margin structure (particularized along a spectrum of its possible expressions) is the ‘wobbling pivot’ around which human life and all history can and must be understood.3 Often he put the point, as if it were possible to have a centre without margin:

Speed-up creates what some economists refer to as a center-margin structure. When this becomes too extensive for the generating and control center, pieces begin to detach themselves and to set up new center-margin systems of their own. The most familiar example is the story of the American colonies of Great Britain. When the thirteen colonies began to develop a considerable social and economic life of their own, they felt the need to become centers themselves, with their own margins. This is the time when the original center may make a more rigorous effort of centralized control of the margins, as, indeed, Great Britain did. The slowness of sea travel proved altogether inadequate to the maintenance of so extensive an empire on a mere center-margin basis. Land powers can more easily attain a unified center-margin pattern than sea powers. It is the relative slowness of sea travel that inspires sea powers to foster multiple centers by a kind of seeding process. Sea powers thus tend to create centers without margins, and land empires favor the center-margin structure. Electric speeds create centers everywhere. Margins cease to exist on this planet. (Understanding Media, 91)

As the example of Great Britain and its American colonies shows, McLuhan’s point here is, however, not at all that “margins cease to exist on this planet” in the sense that the former margins entirely cease to be. Instead, such margins are transformed such that they “begin to detach themselves and to set up new center-margin systems of their own”.

What transpires is a change in the recognition, valuation, power and structure of the previously marginalized. These come to be accorded the sort of recognition, valuation, power and structure that characterize a centre. The result is a correlated revolution in both marginality and centrality without, however, the abrogation of the underlying centre-margin structure.

It is not the case that centre-margin structures can ever disappear (since humans and, in fact, the whole universe are definitively marginal).4 All that can happen, all that does happen — and in so doing accounts for historical change — is that the relative weight assigned to centre and margin is modified along a spectrum of possible relations between the two. This is a spectrum stretching between a monopoly of recognition of the centre at one end and a monopoly of recognition of the margin at the other. While this relation can be assigned values at every point along the spectrum (and all these points can combine and recombine in a myriad of different complexes), the centre-margin relation itself is always present.

 McLuhan put this point in a letter from December 19, 1960 to Serge Chermayeff:

When there is no longer a center-margin interplay in a positional or spatial sense5, is it not yet possible to have a more inclusive ecology [of such interplay] than any previously envisaged, and would not such [an ecology of] equilibrium or interplay be capable (…) of [providing the basis for] true freedom? (…) One peculiarity of center-margin relationships is that when freedom of interplay6 between these areas breaks down in any kind of structure, the tendency is for the center to impose itself upon the margin. In the field of attention which we call perception, when the center enlarges and the margin diminishes beyond a certain point, we are in that induced state called hypnosis.7 The dialogue has ended. (…) The problem is the creation of margin that there may be dialogue (…) the [maintenance of that] ratio between center and margin necessary to dialogue.8

Everything in McLuhan’s work depends upon these three interrelated convictions: that dialogue or complementarity is foundational; that dialogue and complementarity exist in, and so require, centre-margin relations; and that the key to insight into such relations is appreciation of their variability along the spectrum of their possible expressions (especially that of their “unequal” balance at the medial point or medium of the spectrum):

dialogue as a process of creating the new came before, and goes beyond, the exchange of “equivalents” that merely reflect or repeat the old. (Take Today, 22)

  1. References for Deutsch’s paper are given here; this passage is found on pp 95-96.
  2. At just this same time, McLuhan was learning from his closest friend, Bernie Muller-Thym, how operations research was revolutionizing modern manufacturing and business in general.
  3. This is exactly the medium that is the message/massage/mess age/mass age.
  4. They are marginal in the sense that they do not have the power of existence within themselves — utter oblivion can, and presumably will at some point, fall on them both.
  5. Cf. UM 94: “The principal factors in media impact on existing social forms are acceleration and disruption. Today the acceleration tends to be total, and thus ends space as the main factor in social arrangements.” McLuhan’s point is that in an age of instantaneous information, history no longer turns on the rise and fall of geographical empires. Hence: “Now that man has extended his central nervous system by electric technology, the field of battle has shifted to mental image making and breaking…” (UM 103).
  6. McLuhan often put this point in terms of “the natural interval between the wheel and axle (…) where action and ‘play’ are one” (Take Today, 4).
  7. As McLuhan did not note here, at the other extreme, where the margin enlarges and the centre diminishes beyond a certain point, we are in that induced state called psychosis. Monolithic enlargement at either end of the spectrum acts as grit in the dialogue of centre and margin, reducing a working two to a dysfunctional one: “A gap is an interface, an area of ferment and change. The gap between wheel and axle can seize up when grit gets in” (Culture is our Business, 70).
  8. This letter is not included in McLuhan’s Letters, but is referenced in a note on 277.  It is in the Chermayeff papers at Columbia and part of it has been published in Chermayeff & Alexander, Community and Privacy, 1963, 102. The last sentences, which have been conflated above, read: For the (space) capsule there can be no margin. Or rather let us consider that for the capsule the problem is the creation of margin that there may be dialogue. You of course are far more familiar than I am with a very great number of occasions in our contemporary world when by inadvertence we have designed environments which lacked the ratio between center and margin necessary to dialogue.”