The spectrum of forms

If man, by his ingenious extensions of himself, creates new dimensions and new environments, he also has another creative power for making himself aware of these new forms, and of giving himself cognizance of their effect upon him. (Alarums in a Brave New World, 1965)1

Any form of imbalance proves fatal at electric speeds with the superpowers released by the new technological resources representing the full spectrum of the human senses and faculties. Survival now would seem to depend upon the extension of consciousness itself as an environment.2 (Take Today, 14)

Perception as such is a proportion among proportions apprehended in our sensory life. (Take Today, 137)

In his PhD thesis on Thomas Nashe, written in 1941-42, McLuhan, just entering his 30s, began a life-long attempt to further the project to which he had been introduced by his undergraduate teachers at the University of Manitoba, Henry Wright and Rupert Lodge: the specification of the “forms of human organization”. Like Wright and Lodge (and through them going back via John Watson, 1847–1939, and Edward Caird, 1835–1908, to Hegel, 1770-1832), McLuhan saw the working of these forms throughout all the theoretical and practical realms of human life and society — not only in the intellectual disciplines of the arts and sciences, but in the everyday activities of practical politics, business, education and religion as well. Hegel had seen philosophy as inherently ‘encyclopedic’ and Lodge, McLuhan’s teacher in philosophy, published books on logic, on Plato and on “the great thinkers”, but also on Philosophy of Education (1937), Philosophy of Business (1945) and Applied Philosophy (1951). Wright, comparatively, published widely in philosophy and psychology, but also on politics and religion: Faith Justified by Progress (1916), The Moral Standards of Democracy (1925) — a book heavily annotated by McLuhan — and The Religious Response: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion (1929).

But McLuhan’s work increasingly differed from such prior attempts to define the “forms of human organization” and this in a number of decisive ways. 

By the late 1940s, his interest in Wyndham Lewis, the poetics of the symbolists and futurists, and the work of his new colleague in Toronto, Harold Innis, led him to the realization that ‘mental activity’ could not be supposed to be confined within the skulls of human beings, individually or collectively.3  Instead, as the nascent fields of computer science and cybernetics were already demonstrating with real life devices,  intelligence exceeded humans and needed to be investigated more on the model of ecology than logic (although logic, too, was now subject to a broader understanding). Humans existed first of all in environments which were both material and intelligent (however little the latter was understood). This fitted with McLuhan’s longtime interest in the environment as a teaching machine which had been fostered (if not implanted) by Wright and Lodge in Winnipeg and then amplified in different ways by Chesterton and Leavis in the 1930s and by Lewis and Giedion in the 1940s.4

If whole environments might be conceived as mediating human identities, individual and collective, the radiating effects of particular media like books and newspapers and radio might be investigated both as models of environmental forms and as important, arguably the most important, components of such wider forms. Lewis, Innis, Havelock and even Richards were already thinking along these lines in the 1940s and McLuhan seems to have differed from them above all in his consternation at the difference between the enormous social effects of media — not just historically, but right here, right now — and the little or no notice taken of them. Modern humans were children playing with loaded guns.

In the 1950s McLuhan came in these ways to the idea that specification of the “forms of human organization” might be achieved, or at any rate decisively furthered, through intense focus on communications media.  But investigation of media would at the same time need to start aside from any notion of accepted differences between human and machine, high and low culture, past and future time, and individual and mass identity. Certainly none of these could be conflated; but at the same time no notions about such oppositions could be presupposed at the outset and all would need to be investigated as a critical part of the new science or sciences.

Against this background, it is noteworthy that McLuhan, from the start and continuing throughout his career, perceived the “forms of human organization” as arrayed in a “spectrum” or “axis” or “total field of relations”5 somewhat akin to Mendeleev’s table of chemical elements. In the citations given below, McLuhan characterized the “forms of human organization” in terms of many different relations (male/female, visual/auditory, mechanical/organic, above/below, light/dark, etc); but what is common to them all is the notion that such forms are based on variable binary structures arrayed along a “spectrum” or “axis” according to the degree of opposition of each one between its numerator and denominator (along with rules for establishing these). This spectrum was therefore the rule-governed series of all the possible instances of such formal structures — “the full spectrum of the human senses and faculties”. To compare, Mendeleev’s table similarly displays the chemical elements in terms of the possible relationships of electrons/protons set out along a spectrum ranging from the most simple to the most complex. Importantly, in the case of both proposals, each single form must be understood as an instance of the single elementary structure arrayed along the spectrum of its possible configurations.[For an important implication, see Archetypes as inherently plural.]

George McManus [Bringing Up Father cartoonist] was just as pro-Jiggs as Chic Young [Blondie cartoonist] is pro-Blondie. This is another way of saying that America has swung very far toward the feminine pole of the axis in recent years. (Dagwood’s America, 1944)

Baudelaire whose spectrum analysis of states of mind has sufficed poetry ever since as a base of operation. (…) What these poets effected after Baudelaire was that plenary elucidation of verbal landscape, psychological with Laforgue, metaphysical in Rimbaud. (T. S. Eliot [review of eleven books on Eliot], 1950)

For them [Joyce, Pound, Eliot] the aesthetic moment was, like the band of the spectrum, an affair of zoning. As Mallarmé stated the matter: “The poetic act consists in seeing suddenly that an idea fractions itself into a number of motifs equal in value, and in grouping them, they rhyme6.” (The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape Poetry 1951)

The poetic process he [Joyce] discovered and states in Stephen Hero is the experience of ordinary cognition, but it is that labyrinth reversed, retraced, and hence epiphanized. The moment of arrested cognition achieves at once its stasis and epiphany as a result of the reconstruction of the stages of ordinary apprehension. And every moment of cognition is thus a Beatrician moment when rendered lucid by a retracing of its labyrinth. Dante implies all this in the Beatrician moment of the Vita Nuova, but the pre-Raphaelites had accepted it at the relatively banal level of psychological impressionism. The Beatrician, or sacramental, moment when analyzed as a spectrum band yields the entire zoning of the hierarchized scenes and landscapes of the Commedia (…). As the eighteenth century recovered some of the techniques of the Middle Ages through their own development of the picturesque, so Joyce, Pound, and Eliot recovered the secret of the dolce stil nuovo through the prismatically arranged landscapes of Rimbaud and Mallarmé. (The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape Poetry 1951)

By means of the interior landscape, however, Baudelaire could not only range across the entire spectrum of the inner life, he could transform the sordidness and evil of an industrial metropolis into a flower.7 (Tennyson and Picturesque Poetry, 1951)

The spoken word instantly evokes not only some recently conceived idea but reverberates with the total history of its own experience with man. We may be oblivious of such overtones as of the spectrum of colour in a lump of coal. But the poet by exact rhythmic8 adjustment can flood our consciousness with this knowledge. (Culture Without Literacy, 1953)

Joyce employs (…) the lore associated with the ancient conception of the auditory side of the external world as an Aeolian harp. His color symbolism employs the complementary conception of the visual aspect of creation as the harp of Memnon9. With the development of the spectroscope in the eighteenth century both these ancient images became popular again. The color chord of the spectrum suggested that there exists a rapport between the outer world and the inner world of our faculties which developed into the symbolist doctrine of “correspondences”. (James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial, 1953)

we have fashioned a Plotinian world-culture which implements the non-human and superhuman doctrines of neo-Platonic angelism to the point where the human dimension is obliterated by sensuality at one end of the spectrum, and by sheer abstraction at the other. (Nihilism Exposed, 1955)

using poetry as a means of exploring the spectrum of mental states (Introduction to Tennyson: Selected Poetry, 1955)

Both these idylls represent two extremes of demonic possession. “The Holy Grail” concerns the invasion of unprepared minds by “mania from above”. “Merlin and Vivien,” like “Lucretius,” presents the struggle and fall of the merely intellectual man when invaded by “mania from below“. (…) The reader of Tennyson’s poems will find everywhere in his landscapes the symbolic struggle of light and darkness as the drama of the divine and the demonic. Many of his most characteristically poignant effects, as in “Tears, Idle Tears,” the seventh elegy of “In Memoriam,” “Morte d’Arthur,” and “Crossing the Bar,” are rendered by means of twilight and the poise of opposite powers.  (‘Introduction’ to Tennyson: Selected Poetry, 1955)

Is not the artist one who lives perpetually on this borderland (…) between technology and experience, between mechanical and organic form? And when a time or a culture is similarly poised between the new technology and traditional experience is not that the moment of maximal creativity for that culture? (…) In this respect, one might say that [Northrop] Frye’s world is simply the slapping down of the poised balance on the visual side of the scale. (McLuhan to Wilfred Watson, October 8, 1959)

it is precisely his fidelity to the vivisection of isolated moments that links Tennyson to the greatest work of his time and of ours. This concern with the spectrum of the emotional life was linked with Newton and with Gainsborough on one hand and with the best art and archaeology of the nineteenth century on the other.  (Tennyson and the Romantic Epic, 1960)

The various structures of knowledge that have been devised by the numerous languages, arts and technologies of mankind can be revolved or inspected almost at the speed of motion picture frames. At such speed would not the unity of human culture and experience become manifest as a single spectrum? (We need a new picture of knowledge, 1963)10

In India the idea of darshan — of the mystical experience of being in very large gatherings—stands at the opposite end of the spectrum from the Western idea of conscious values [in the individual]. (UM, 110)

Where before there had been a narrow selection from periods and composers, the tape recorder, combined with LPs, gave a full musical spectrum that made the sixteenth century as available as the nineteenth, and Chinese folk song as accessible as the Hungarian. (UM, 283)

Newton’s Optics had an extraordinary influence on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century poetry and painting alike. His revelation of the natural power of the eye to refract the visual world encouraged artists to select outer landscapes that isolated a particular mood or feeling from the emotional spectrum. (Through the Vanishing Point, 22) 

The low visual definition of the environment [of the Russian peasant] favored a high degree of tactile and acoustic stress. At this end of the sensory spectrum individuality is created by the interval of tactile involvement. At the other end of the sensory spectrum we encounter the familiar mode of individuality based on visual stress and fragmentary separateness. (Through the Vanishing Point, 222)

black is not a color. White is all colors at once, but black is not in the spectrum. It is a gap [in the spectrum]. (…) The spectrum gap that is black creates great involvement for all parties.  (…) black is not a color but an interval (Culture is our Business, 220, 226)

When a man-made environment circumvents the entire planet, moon, and galaxy, there is no alternative to total knowledge programming of all human enterprise. Any form of imbalance proves fatal at electric speeds with the superpowers released by the new technological resources representing the full spectrum of the human senses and faculties. Survival now would seem to depend upon the extension of consciousness itself as an environment.  (Take Today, 14)

There are only two basic extreme forms of human organization. (…) They have innumerable variants or “parti-colored” forms. (…) The extreme forms are the civilized and the tribal (eye and ear)…(Take Today, 22)11

The idealists share with the experienced and practical men of their time the infirmity of substituting concepts for percepts. Both concentrate on a clash between past experience and future goals that black out the usual but hidden processes of the present. Both ignore the fact that dialogue as a process of creating the new came before, and goes beyond, the exchange of “equivalents” that merely reflect or repeat the old.12 (Take Today, 22)

City planners seem to be incapable of understanding figure-ground relationships. They want uniformity. Everything [in their estimation] must become figure, or everything must become ground. The interface or interplay of figure and ground necessary to community, or social dialogue and diversity, are alien to their uniform concepts and blueprints.  (Take Today, 33)

Montaigne was the first to discover the meaning of the printed book: “I owe a complete portrait of myself to the public.” At the other end of the spectrum is J. P. Morgan, proclaiming “I owe the public nothing.”  (Take Today, 207)

While the “subjectivist” puts on the world as his own clothes, the “objectivist” supposes that he can stand naked “out of this world.”  (The Argument: Causality in the Electric World, 1973)

T S. Eliot pointed (…) out in regard to Dante, that a great poet or serious artist should be able to perceive or distinguish more clearly than ordinary men the forms and objects within the range of ordinary experience and be able to make men see and hear more at each end of the spectrum of their sensibility than they could ever notice without his help. (Laws of Media, 5)

  1.  Review of Cyborg: Evolution of the Superman, by D. S. Halacy, Winnipeg Free Press, December 11, 1965, p 73
  2. Many readers of McLuhan take it that “the extension of consciousness itself as an environment” is something mystical, a kind of oceanic fog emanating good vibes. But it is, on the contrary, simply (simply!) the extension of scientific understanding to all human experience and action.
  3. “If a person is speaking into a P.A. system or into a radio microphone, etc., the who and the what are profoundly transformed.” (Report on Project in Understanding New Media, ‘What I Learned on the Project’)
  4. The notion that environments had a mental element and could be studied scientifically led McLuhan in seemingly contradictory directions  On the one hand, low culture like comics might be investigated as readily as high culture like poetry.  To compare, what chemist would reject experiments with tin, say, as unworthy of the discipline? Perhaps tin could reveal more that silver — and similarly with low culture compared to high? On the other hand, a culture in which comics were used to manipulate children might well be judged harshly.  Readers of McLuhan have often failed to grasp the compatibility of these different approaches.
  5.  Environment As Programmed Happening (1968).
  6. “Rhyme” is used here as meaning something like ‘having a common origin’ — namely in “the band of the spectrum” of the “forms of human organization”. It is because this ‘aesthetic’ idea is applicable to all human experience and actions that McLuhan recommended it in his March 1951 letter to Innis as the basis for a new school of communication studies.
  7. Just as every physical material is ‘chemical’, so is every manifestation of culture, however “sordid and evil”, ‘formal’. To show the inherent exposure of humans to the formal elements of their experience and actions is itself transformative: “if the external world is attuned to the mind of man, then the whole of Nature is a language and the poet is a pontifex or bridger between the two worlds. He conducts the symphony of mind and nature. (…) The poet here is exercising his priestly powers of purifying the wells of existence, exerting his primary imagination which is the agent of all perception, not the secondary imagination which brings art into existence as an echo of the functions of perception.” (Coleridge As Artist, 1957)
  8. See note 4 above.
  9. Pausanias: “In Egyptian Thebes, on crossing the Nile to the so-called Pipes, I saw a statue, still sitting, which gave out a sound. The many call it Memnon, who they say from Aethiopia overran Egypt (…) This statue was broken in two by Cambyses, and at the present day from head to middle it is thrown down; but the rest is seated, and every day at the rising of the sun it makes a noise, and the sound one could best liken to that of a harp…”
  10. See TT 193: “The patterns of formerly hidden processes now begin to obtrude on every hand. Prescience, prophetic vision, and artistic awareness are no longer needed to establish an understanding of the most secret causes of personal and social processes. Mere electric speed-up makes X-ray awareness natural.”
  11. The bracketed insertion of “eye and ear” is McLuhan’s. These “extreme forms” characterize the reversible nominator/denominator fractions of the spectrum of forms and its two sides (depending on which is stressed relative to the other): “visual and acoustic space are always present in any human situation” (Global Village, 55).
  12. “The usual but hidden processes of the present” are the moment to moment retreat to the spectrum of basic forms or “percepts” and the de-cision there to align with one of them. These processes constitute a labyrinthine knot in time since ‘light on’ this spectrum can come only from it.