Human being: navigator between worlds

a new concept of the nature of thought (Is It Natural That One Medium Should Appropriate and Exploit Another?)1

In ‘The Implications of Cultural Uniformity’2 McLuhan offers the following:

William Empson has described the role of the semiconscious navigator between worlds, in his ‘Arachne’ [1928] which opens:

Twixt devil and deep sea, man hacks his caves;
Birth, death; one, many; what is true, and seems;
Earth’s vast hot iron, cold space’s empty waves:

King spider, walks the velvet roof of streams:
Must bird and fish, must god and beast avoid:
Dance, like nine angels, on pin-point extremes.

His gleaming bubble between void and void,
Tribe-membrane, that by mutual tension stands,
Earth’s surface film, is at a breath destroyed.3

Worlds” for McLuhan are structured by variable binary relations between the oral and the literate or the auditory and the visual or the ear and eye.4 This is an elementary5 structure that, as Empson says, by mutual tension stands“. All human experience and identity is grounded in this ear/eye structure:

every artifact of man mirrors the shift between these two modes (Global Village, x)6

The spectrum of these elementary forms stretches from an extreme emphasis on the eye at one end of its range to extreme emphasis on the ear at the other. All the degrees of reduced antagonism between the two are arrayed along the axis between these opposed poles. Starting from one end of the spectrum, the eye pole, say, “extreme” emphasis on it as against the ear gradually diminishes toward the centre of the range; at the centre the emphasis on both the eye and the ear is in balance, favoring neither one of the two; from the centre in the other direction, stress on the ear as against the eye gradually increases until it reaches its “extreme” emphasis at the other end. As Take Today has it: 

There are only two basic extreme forms of human organization. They have innumerable variants or “parti-colored” forms. The extreme forms are the (…) eye and ear… (22)

Another text from this same period in the early 1970s, ‘The Medieval Environment’7 from 1974, has this:

there are two great principles of organization present in Western culture, the acoustic and the visual, and (…) these principles have enlarged and reversed themselves at various time in the past 2500 years of Western development (…) the culture of the eye and [of] the ear, of the outer-directioned rational man, on one hand, and the inner-directed intuitive man, on the other hand, are antithetic and incompatible. The other possibility, of course, is that they may be (…) complementary [ie, at the centre of the range of their possible relations where the emphasis on both the eye and the ear is in balance, favoring neither one of the two relative to the other].8

In this same essay, McLuhan turns to the question of time as times in the work of Saussaure:

Structural linguists, following the lead of Ferdinand de Saussure, have divided the approaches of their studies into diachronic and synchronic modes. The diachronic approach is chronological or developmental or sequential, and is familiar to most students of Western history and language and institutions.  The synchronic approach on the other hand, regards each moment or each facet of any situation as inclusive of the full range of the matters studied.  Another way of putting it is to say that the diachronic approach adopts a visual point of view, while the synchronic method prefers the simultaneity of the acoustic method.9 If the diachronic offers a point of view and continuous, rational exposition, the synchronic tends toward insight and instant awareness of totalities. The visual faculty (…) offers a world of continuity and homogeneity (…) whereas the acoustic world (…) offers a world that is discontinuous and multi-locational…

On the one hand, McLuhan explicitly correlates the diachronic/synchronic relation with the eye/ear relation so that the “variants” of diachronic/synchronic emphasis, like those of eye/ear, may be taken to define the range or spectrum of possible worlds. But, on the other hand, the diachronic/synchronic relation has an additional application which is essential to the proposed analysis. Here, diachronic/synchronic is not isomorphic with the eye/ear as the “two basic extreme forms” of the spectrum of worlds, but with “antithetic”/”complementary” where “antithetic” names both “extreme” ends of the spectrum of forms (all the “innumerable variants” of eye versus ear and of ear versus eye) while “complementary” names the middle of that spectrum (where eye and ear are balanced). Now it is this middle (“Medieval”) or  “synchronic approach” to any situation which first and only gives access to the spectrum of world forms from which the structure of that situation derives:10

The synchronic approach on the other hand, regards each moment or each facet of any situation as inclusive of the full range of the matters studied (…) the synchronic tends toward insight and instant awareness of totalities.

Compare chemistry. It, too, “regards each moment or each facet of any situation as inclusive of the full range of the matters studied” (namely, Mendeleev’s table and its associated laws and properties defining the chemical field) and it is “multi-locational” in vertical perspective since chemistry sees through any and every physical sample to the structures and laws exemplified by it. Notably, it is essential to chemistry that (a) the samples it studies and (b) its principles do not merge on a single level, but remain “multi-leveled”, each forever different from the other and, in their different ways, each forever subject to further specification.11

Ordinary experience proceeds (or, at least, takes it that it proceeds) diachronically from moment to moment, continuous and unbroken. It is like the mariners’ ship in Poe’s story sailing on the surface of the sea. The synchronic cuts across this sailing12, like the Maelstrom, which operates to wrench the mariners’ vessel out of its horizontal bearing into a catastrophic vertical descent (where the mariner or “navigator” is exposed to other ‘vessels’ and to the question of which one to ‘ride’). The synchronic in its relation to the diachronic is therefore not only a mode of characterizing possible worlds (where the relations of the two are isomorphic with those of ear and eye); it is also the one and only way in which access to the spectrum of elementary forms is to be gained. To repeat:

The synchronic approach on the other hand, regards each moment or each facet of any situation as inclusive of the full range of the matters studied (…) the synchronic tends toward insight and instant awareness of totalities.

For McLuhan there is a synchronic gap (where the action is) in every moment of human experience (where each is necessarily structured by some eye/ear relation):

The resonant interval may be considered an invisible borderline between visual and acoustic space (Global Village, 4)13

It is in this “invisible” gap “between visual and acoustic space” — the “common sense” or “tactility” which both links and differentiates them14 — that a vertical motion is enacted through which the spectrum of elementary experiential forms are exposed and ‘marked’ (or ‘re-marked’) in some way. “Consciousness is also a multileveled event” (From Cliché to Archetype, 117) and in its synchronic aspect, perpetually cutting across its diachronic bearing, thismultileveled event” unfolds as the essential exposure to “the full range of the matters” at stake, namely, “worlds”. This exposure is what McLuhan repeatedly termed the drama of cognition“.

In this way, access to the array of possible worlds always has been gained in every presentmoment or each facet of any situation” — but this process is nearly always subject to blackout. The scientific investigation of ‘worlds’ therefore only does consciously what unconsciously takes place in every moment in the synchronic generation of experience. Hence “the link between the stages of apprehension [in every moment of all experience] and the creative process [of scientists and artists]”.15

What happens in this perpetual exposure is that certain possibilities along the spectrum of the formal possibilities (the “sensory ground rules”16) receive “emphasis” such that a kind of melody is constellated. Such a ‘melody’ played on the harmonium of the forms of worlds is identity (individual and social) as a “pattern” of experience. The great question is: if identity results from this synchronic process — who plays it?

McLuhan names the agent in this process — an agency that is human being — as “the semiconscious navigator between worlds”.17 These worlds, between which human being perpetually navigates, are the worlds of lived experience and the array of forms beneath it as its ground:

To say that we live mythically today while continuing to think conventionally may help to draw attention to the technological18 gap in our ordinary experience. (Environment As Programmed Happening)

Since this ‘mythical’ ground of forms is the range of possible worlds19, ‘here’, too, the human being is a “navigator between worlds”.

So it is that human being is always actively navigating “between worlds” in three different ‘time-spaces’ at once: the figured world of lived experience (which varies between macro-worlds like east and west and between micro-worlds like the different individualities of each one of us); the grounding spectrum of ‘worlds’ where the possibilities of world structure are constantly in the process of re-view and improvised activation; and the ano-kato vortex between these two such that the latter are encountered below and the former are generated above.

  1. In McLuhan Hot and Cool (1967).
  2. Published in Superculture: American Popular Culture and Europe, ed C.W.E. Bigsby, 1975, 43-56.
  3. Empson’s poem is discussed in New Bearings in English Poetry (1932) by F.R. Leavis. McLuhan was an enthusiastic Leavisite for more than a decade after encountering the man and his work at Cambridge. He mentions Leavis’ book in ‘Poetic and Rhetorical Exegesis’ (1944) as “assessing the precise changes in the poetic climate which have occurred in consequence of the impact of Yeats, Eliot, Hopkins, and Pound on our language”. Hugh Kenner wrote to Philip Marchand of the time in 1946 after he met McLuhan: “He pushed at me T.S. Eliot, who’d been the type of unintelligibility to my Toronto profs. And he had me read Richards’ Practical Criticism, Leavis’ New Bearings in English Poetry, and (eventually) the entire file of Scrutiny. He kept mentioning Wyndham Lewis, whom I’d never heard of, notwithstanding that for two years I’d lived half a mile away from him…. So many windows opened! (Hugh Kenner to Philip Marchand, March 18, 1987, cited in Marchand’s bio of McLuhan, 102). Empson was in Toronto and had dinner with McLuhan and Frye in 1973. This could have been the motivation behind McLuhan looking into Empson again and citing his poem in his 1975 essay. Further, McLuhan’s citation may be a hint of what first set him on his life’s work during his time in Cambridge from 1934 to 1936: Leavis, Eliot and the question of what is traditioncontinuity and — communication? “Tribe-membrane, that by mutual tension stands”…
  4. “All rational propositions can be reduced to binomial terms” (Is It Natural That One Medium Should Appropriate and Exploit Another? 1967).
  5. “Every medium is in some sense a universal” (Notes on the Media as Art Forms, 1954).
  6. In chemistry, to compare, every material sample “mirrors the shift between these two modes of the proton and electron. The Global Village reverts over and over again to the notion that the eye and ear in their formal sense exist only in relation and therefore must always be understood structurally: “Acoustic and visual space structures may be seen as incommensurable (…) yet, at the same time, as complementary — a foot, as it were, in both visual and acoustic space” (45); “In our desire to illumine the differences between visual and acoustic space, we have undoubtedly given a false impression: and that is that the normal brain, in its everyday functioning, cannot reconcile the apparently contradictory perceptions of both sides of the mind” (48).
  7. The full title of this essay is ‘The Medieval Environment’: Yesterday or Today?’. ‘Today’ points to the treatment of the synchronic in this essay as cited in this post above. It is because ‘the Medieval Environment’ is a present synchronic possibility that McLuhan observes as a hint to us now: “a time when such a process of using both the visual and the acoustic, the rational and the intuitive, in some sort of equilibrium, however shifting, such is the time we have learned to call the ‘Medieval Period’.” McLuhan considered modern art and science, if not his age itself, as deploying in such a “‘Medieval period”.
  8. See note 6 above.
  9. Re “the simultaneity of the acoustic method”, see ‘We need a new picture of knowledge’ (1963): “It is important to observe that the quality of the new ‘structural’, as opposed to the old lineal, sequential and mechanical, is the quality of the simultaneous. It is the simultaneous ‘field’ of multitudinous events in equipoise or interplay that constitutes the awareness of causality that is present in ecological and nuclear models of perception today. Our electric mode of shaping the new patterns of culture and information movement is not mechanical but biological.” Also McLuhan to Ralph Cohen regarding Saussure: “His celebrated distinction between ‘diachronic’ and ‘synchronic’ is quite basically the contrast between the world of the eye and the world of the ear, between sequential and simultaneous. La langue is natural, simultaneous, total and hidden, while la parole is obvious and conscious.” (July 11, 1974)
  10. The synchronic is both a formal world possibility and the realization of that possibility in the world of lived experience.  The difficult knot of communication implicated here lies in the fact that access to the former is obtained only through the latter, but awareness in the latter necessarily originates only in the former. As Eliot says in Four Quartets (Burnt Norton), the instigation of such awareness comes “before the beginning and after the end”.
  11. In Through the Vanishing Point McLuhan writes of “the world of space and time in the art of Chaucer (as) discontinuous and multileveled”, of “a multileveled exegesis” and “a multileveled approach” (all on 49); of the “multidimensional” and of the “many spaces in multileveled time” (55); of the “multispatial” (229). Again in From Cliché to Archetype on the “grammatical method”: it is “multi-leveled exegesis”, a “multi-leveled literary approach” that therefore is able to investigate “the multi-leveled phenomena of the world” (all on 128).
  12. Cf, Socrates’ ‘second sailing’ (τὸν δεύτερον πλοῦν, Phaedo 99c-d).
  13. Not only between but also within each of the “two great principles” there is a corresponding gap: “The sounds we utter are structured in acoustic space by noise spaced in silence. What silence is to acoustic space, darkness is to visual space” (Counterblast, 1969, 117).
  14. See ‘The humble ditch‘.
  15. Joyce, Aquinas, and the Poetic Process, 1951.
  16. Environment As Programmed Happening (1968).
  17. See the discussion of the ‘rider’ in Vortex atoms in 19th century physics.
  18. For McLuhan, the archetypal technology is language and there is no human being without language. Hence, there is no human being without such a “technological gap”.
  19. See Archetypes as inherently plural.