The “magical” essence of communication

As theme (…) I have taken (…) the new media of communication and their power of metamorphosis. (McLuhan to Wyndham Lewis, December 18, 1954, Letters 245)

We paced along the lonely plain, as one who returning to his lost road, and, till he reached it, seems to go in vain. (Dante, Purgatorio, Canto 1, cited by McLuhan in ‘Space, Time, and Poetry’, 1955)

The world of electric circuitry feeds us back into ourselves. The whole point about feedback is that it feeds back into you, and involves you in the process. That is what is called communication. (Education in the Electronic Age, 1959)

In his letter to Harold Innis from early in 1951 (if not at the end of 19501), McLuhan observed that modern art, social science and commerce all echoed an ancient complex (recalling his 1946 essay ‘An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America’2):

Many of the ancient language theories of the Logos type which you cite [in Empire and Communicationsfor their bearings on government and society have recurred and amalgamated themselves today under the auspices of anthropology and social psychology. Working concepts of “collective consciousness” in advertising agencies have in turn given salience and practical effectiveness to these “magical” notions of language. (…) Mallarmé (…) saw at once that the modern press was not a rational form but a magical one so far as communication was concerned. Its very technological form was bound to be efficacious far beyond any informative purpose.

By “informative purpose” here McLuhan meant what he would later call “the message” and “its very technological form” was “the medium”.  So he was clear already in late 1950 or early 1951 that “the medium is the message”.3 That is, something else and something more is going on in communication than information exchange. This something else and something more is, in the first place, the trans-formative effect of communication on its users to produce by a kind of backwards flip the social understanding that is required to be already in place in order to begin to issue or to receive a message as a message. Required, that is, for communication to be initiated at all.

It is this trans-formative power of a medium to effect integration into the social environment required by it that McLuhan called “magical”. A sort of backwards somersault is effected so that the capacity that must already be in place in order to have the capability to send or receive a message has somehow suddenly been activated beforehand

Following Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, McLuhan saw that a sudden knot in time was the key structural feature of such “magic”:

We have to repeat what we were about to say (‘The Be-Spoke Tailor’, Explorations 8, 1957, #4)

The basis of all paradox, Christian and secular, is to be found in the sixth book of the Physics of Aristotle [235b-241b], to which Aquinas refers in his Summa Theologica I.II.q 113.a.7, ad quintum. The question for Aquinas is whether justification by faith occurs instantly or gradually. Aquinas says it occurs instantly because — ­here he appeals to Aristotle’s Physics — “the whole preceding time during which anything moves towards its form, it is under the opposite form.” (From Cliché to Archetype, 1970, 160)4

In a postscript to his May 6, 1969 letter to Jacques Maritain (Letters, 371), McLuhan cited all of this same text, in Latin, and included its continuation:

et in ultimo instanti illius temporis, quod est primum instans… (and in the last instant of that [preceding] time, which is the [succeeding time’s] first instant …)

The initial (initiating) understanding of language, whether in an individual child or in the whole species, cannot be the result of gradual steps. For this would presuppose something like ‘pre-linguistic thinking’ and would decisively submit the supposed process to Zeno’s paradox (that a gradual course cannot be brought to an end because always reaching only some fraction of the way to that end).5 In fact, language learning implicates Zeno’s paradox in a particularly heightened way since the process at stake is not only one of crossing a certain distance in time or space, but of crossing from ignorance to insight. As with McLuhan’s example from Aquinas of “justification by faith”, understanding language can hardly be thought to depend on a process “under the opposite form” — ie, based on the ignorance and absence of what is to be achieved. 

When a child first hears the sounds of language it can have no idea yet of their “informative purpose”. At some point, however, it will suddenly grasp the meaning of one or two of these sounds as its first steps toward full language capability. From this “magical” moment on, it will understand both the meaning of a growing number of sounds and be more and more integrated (or in-formed) into its social environment exactly through this understanding. These steps will be possible only because the child has “magically” been introduced into the “very technological form” of these sounds — that is, into the medium of language as the technique of using sounds to communicate. The time sequence here is all important. The child cannot understand a message like ‘mama’ without first understanding (however unconsciously) the medium of language: it must already have come to understand in some sense that sounds can mean in order then to grasp the meaning and use of some particular sound. Strangely, however, the medium (that sounds can mean) is somehow learned (ie, found to be in effect) through the sounds repeatedly made to the child. The that medium, which must come first, is somehow effected via the what messages, which can come only second.6 In the event, the medium is imparted unconsciously and by “magic”. It is a matter, as McLuhan says, of a “collective consciousness” that is somehow able suddenly to bootstrap itself in the child as the peculiar sort of creative receptivity needed to understand the meaning of sounds. This can occur only after it has first of all mysteriously found itself in a communicative environment.

Something of the sort occurred when language first began to be used by humans (regardless of whether this happened once or multiple times). Before this sudden event, or events, there was, of course no acclimatization to language because there was no language. Nor did one or more proto-humans think up language in some sort of non-verbal thinking leading to a light-bulb moment.  For whatever ‘non-verbal thinking’ might be, it would of course be non-verbal and the great phylogenetic (species related) question, as much as the ontogenetic (individual related) one, is exactly how a non-verbal being suddenly becomes a verbal being. How is this gap crossed? How is this gap crossed into a new sort of environment that is suddenly accomplished in a moment’s time and not by one individual alone but by at least two together and at once — for communication (“the human dialogue itself”) is inherently social.

McLuhan emphasized the importance of this point for an understanding of the present and future of the electric age in a letter to John Snyder, Aug 4 1963:

we are already moving in depth into a situation in which learning becomes a total process (…) from infancy to old-age. The pattern by which one learns one’s mother tongue is now being extended to all learning whatsoever. The human dialogue itself becomes not only the economic, but the political and social, fact.  (Letters 291)

Media, and especially language as the archetypal medium, somehow effect a resetting of time and space — and of the individual and social identity that is correlate with these. This is “magical” exactly because of this unaccountable translation of space, time and identity. Always and everywhere humans are submitted to this “magic” with incalculable effect. But they do not perceive this submission, nor its trans-formative effect, nor their calling to an understanding of these. Nor, of course, do they intuit their utmost need to do so.

His [Midas’] power of translating all he touched into gold,7 is in some degree the character of any medium, including language. This myth draws attention to a magic aspect of all extensions of human sense and body; that is, to all technology whatever. All technology has the Midas touch.8 (UM, 139)

This “Midas touch” possessed by “any medium, including language”, is the vast but invisible “power of translating” into a new space-time dimension and its correlate identity: the fundamental power of meta-phor.9

  1.  McLuhan’s letter to Innis of March 14, 1951 (Letters, 220-223) is described as a “rewrite”.  Innis’ answer to the original was written in February and apologizes for the belated reply.
  2. ‘An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America’ was originally a talk delivered in 1944. The talk, in turn, was based on his 1943 PhD thesis, The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of His Time, a thesis which might well have been titled ‘An Ancient Quarrel in Elizabethan England’.
  3. In a letter to Pound (July 16, 1952, Letters 231): “Once a man has got onto technique as the key in communication it’s different. But somehow the bugbear of content forbids that anybody be interested in technique as content.”
  4. The passage from Aristotle discussed by Thomas here is cited again by McLuhan, but in Latin, in ‘The Medieval Environment’ from 1974.
  5.  Aristotle specifically discusses Zeno in this same book of the Physics.
  6. The sounds conveying the what message vary greatly, of course, from culture to culture.  But the that medium is universal.
  7. McLuhan was well aware that Midas touched his own daughter, Zoe (‘life’) into gold (death). The unanswered question hanging over modernity is whether the magical world-transformative powers gigantically developed in it lead to life or death.
  8. The centrality of the “magical” essence of communication to McLuhan’s whole enterprise may be seen from the ‘declaration’ he made on the sacred island of Delos in 1972 on his second ‘ekistics’ tour of the Aegean with C.A. Doxiadis: The mystery of creativity is the paradox of how beauty is created from ruin. After a long career of stylistic invention and triumph, W.B. Yeats deliberately scrapped his entire enterprise in order to begin again: “Now (that) my ladder’s gone, I must lie down (where all the ladders start) in the (foul) rag and bone shop of the heart.” (The Circus Animals’ Desertion) It is the mystery of how life succeeds in that it seems to fail, the paradox of how beauty is born out of despair, art out of the garbage and sweepings of the street. The merely mechanical world of the computer has coined the phrase: “Garbage in, garbage out”. It is the glory of the human spirit (…) that “garbage in” is wonderfully transformed into “treasure out”. (‘Epilogue to the Declaration of Delos Ten’, Ekistics v203, 291, October 1972.) Because no human medium can ever do more than enable the making of meaning (“garbage in”), never the matching of it, the success of communication (“treasure out”) depends entirely upon its prior situation in an ontological environment that prompts and sustains this multiple transformation.
  9. Compare Samuel Beckett speaking in his excellent German to gymnasium students in Germany in February 1961: “Für mich ist das Theater keine moralische Anstalt im Schillerschen Sinne. Ich will weder belehren noch verbessern noch den Leuten die Langeweile vertreiben. Ich will Poesie in das Drama bringen, eine Poesie, die das Nichts durchschritten hat und in einem neuen Raum einen neuen Anfang findet. Ich denke in neuen Dimensionen, und im Grunde kümmert es mich wenig, wer mir dabei folgen kann. Ich konnte nicht die Antworten geben, die man erhofft hatte. Es gibt keine Patentlösungen.” (Spectaculum 6, 1963, 319, emphasis added.) The translation given in Knowlson’s biography of Beckett (427) is frequently cited in English language Beckett criticism, but stupidly gives “space-room” for Beckett’s “Raum”: “For me, the theatre is not a moral institution in Schiller’s sense. I want neither to instruct nor to improve nor to keep people from getting bored. I want to bring poetry into drama, a poetry which has been through the void (das Nichts durchschritten hat) and makes a new start in a new room-space (SB: ‘in a new space’). I think in new dimensions and basically am not very worried about whether I can be followed. I couldn’t give the answers,which were hoped for. There are no easy solutions.”