Monthly Archives: March 2018

Dialogue and ethics

McLuhan often noted that a rigorous investigation of media and communication could not be based on particular values.  For particular values were rooted in prior media and, because media study was essentially comparative, it could not presuppose the privilege of some one of them.

This did not mean, however, that he had no ethical position. He had converted to Catholicism as a young man and as he aged he became more and more engaged with issues surrounding war and peace, abortion and euthanasia.

The basis of his ethics was comparativism itself:

the greatly increased speed of action and reaction (…) of electronic information movement compels organizations to assume an ethical character in the sense of having inclusive rather than exclusive purposes. Specialized lines of development are intolerable, when every line crosses every line. That is to say, that the dialogue now characterizes the interplay of things themselves, and any effort to understand or control such situations by any means less inclusive than the dialogue will scarcely work. (McLuhan to Claude Bissell,  May 6, 1960, Letters 273)

The environment as a processor of information is propaganda. Propaganda ends where dialogue begins. (The Medium is the Massage, 1967)1

  1. The passage in The Medium is the Massage continues: “You must talk to the media, not to the programmer. To talk to the programmer is like complaining to a hot dog vendor at a ballpark about how badly your favorite team is playing.”

William H. Allen

W.H. Allen appears as the co-author with McLuhan of ‘Title VII Research Abstract’ (for Report on Project in Understanding New Media), Audio Visual Communication Review, 9:4, 1961. Allen might have appeared with McLuhan in this way for several reasons.

First and most simply, Allen was the founding editor of this journal and may have helped McLuhan put the abstract into the required form for it.

Second, as recorded in the ‘Itinerary and Summary of the Activities of the Consultant’ section of the Report:

February 28-March 5 (1960): The DAVI [Department of  Audiovisual Instruction of the National Education Association] Convention in Cincinnati where I was a member of a continuing panel. The major effect of this conference for my  studies was the sudden awareness that my approach to the media is close to the Systems Development type of effort. I owe this discovery to William Allen, Rand Corporation [and editor of the DAVI journal, Audio Visual Communication Review], and James Finn, DAVI President. As a result I have begun to work with our electrical engineering department here at Toronto.

With the shared by-line, McLuhan may have been expressing his appreciation of Allen’s help with his thinking more broadly.

Third, since Allen’s influence in the educational AV community was second to none, this might have been a way on his part to promote consideration of McLuhan’s work in that community. In fact, in the 1959-1964 period, discussion of McLuhan was nowhere as prevalent as it was in the Audio Visual Communication Review.

Fourth, Allen was both an academic (at USC) and an associate with the Rand Corporation. As was the case with Bernard Muller-Thym and Peter Drucker, McLuhan appreciated scholars who worked outside of the academy and who attempted to apply their ideas in real life.  As he repeatedly expressed, he had this ambition for himself.

Fifth, Allen combined his technology and education research with an intense concern with Christianity.  Also this sort of multiple avocation greatly appealed to McLuhan. It was one of the reasons for his longtime friendship with Muller-Thym and may well have been a factor in his relation with Allen.

The description of the papers of Andrew Christian Lohr (

This material was collected by William Homer Allen (1914-2009). Raised in Glendale, California, and in Arizona, he received an AB from UCLA (1941); MA, Claremont Graduate School (1948); and EdD, UCLA (1950). He was a captain in the Army, serving from 1941 to 1946.
Allen taught at San Diego State College, University of Wisconsin and the University of Southern California. He worked for the RAND Corporation from 1957 to 1960. He founded and edited the journal, AV Communication Review, published by the Department of Audiovisual Instruction [DAVI] of the National Education Association. (…)1 He retired from USC as professor in the education department in 1978.
Allen’s parents were Christian Scientists and then members of the Unity Church. They met Andrew Christian Lohr (1880-1960) in the early 1930s and became part of the group who met with him on a regular basis. They held teachings at their house in Glendale.
After he retired, Allen transcribed and organized Lohr’s teachings, leading to a self-published book, Born of Water and Spirit: Teachings in Mystic Christianity (1990). The book is organized into four parts: The Realm of God, The Realm of Man, Aspects of Man’s Regeneration, and Ways to Spiritual Attainment. Additional books with Lohr’s talks were planned but never published. Allen also painted and wrote an unpublished book on the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus. He died in 2009.

  1. The description of Allen has “After 18 years” here, but this number seems mistaken since Allen was at USC already in the 1950s.  His career there lasted easily over 20 years. It may well be, however, that he became “professor in the education department” in 1960 and then retired from that position “after 18 years”.

“Factual means of avoiding disaster”

The so-called new criticism (…) followed after the new poetry which followed after the new [scientific and industrial] developments in our Western world [in the first half of the 19th century]  (…) It was the new media themselves, from the telegraph (1830) onward which created the situation which the poets and painters tried to explain to us by “prophetic” new art forms. (…) For the past century, the artist has been our only navigator in social and political terms. The models which he makes are not wishful dreams (…) but urgent factual (…) means of avoiding disaster. (Report on Project in Understanding New Media: ‘What I Learned On The Project’)

As McLuhan already affirmed to Harold Innis in 1951, he saw techniques developed in the arts  as eminently practical.1 What was needed was application of them to our looming social, political and ecological problems.

In one of his few publications in 19582, Knowledge, Ideas, Information and Communication (A Canadian View)’, just prior to the explosion of communications he would issue between 1959 and 1964, McLuhan “attempted to sketch a strategy of observation and exploration by which it would be possible to apply some of the recent information concepts to (…) teaching and learning in the age of the new media.”3 Given the context of his essay in a Yearbook of Education, McLuhan naturally directed his remarks here to “teaching and learning”.  But he was increasingly clear that that human beings were facing catastrophe especially in war and ecology and that the one “means of avoiding disaster” at our disposal was the application of ideas that had been developed in the century between 1850 and 1950 — above all in the seemingly remote realms of poetry and criticism.

Knowledge, Ideas, Information and Communication (A Canadian View):

  • We welcome the non-Euclidean spaces of modern physics which are not visualizable. And in these fields of relations we find it easy to recognize that any new factor of information (…) will somewhat modify the entire field of relations.  This admission from the world of mathematics and physics was introduced into literary discussion by T. S. Eliot in 1917 in his Tradition and the Individual Talent when he indicated that for the twentieth century it was natural to consider “that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order”. This type of perception, so natural to a world in which all kinds of information flow with electronic velocity, involves the obvious corollary which Mr. Eliot at once pointed out: “The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (…) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new.” To the literary mind, accustomed to the lineal arrangement of language on the page, the notions of simultaneity and of transformation by mutual interaction are very difficult concepts. They are alien and repugnant ideas. But even the literary person has no trouble recognizing the way in which a musical theme or harmony simultaneously modifies all the portions of a musical work. In a musical structure it is easy to observe the total relevance of every phrase to the entire work. The gradual admission of this organic criterion of ‘total relevance’ has come about in all fields of discussion in this century. It is equally the basis of anthropological study of cultures and of critical method in literature. The so-called ‘new criticism’ is, in the main, a recognition of the validity of the ‘total relevance’ attitude to all forms of speech and composition.
  • The work of F. R. Leavis and the Scrutiny group at Cambridge has been the most notable effort to meet the new situation. They diagnosed the problem as one resulting from failure to notice the exact verbal arrangement of words on the page. Training in attention to the nuances of tone and rhythm as a key to the total response indicated was excellent both in intention and in result. However, this strategy, though brilliantly carried out, merely propped up a sagging literary culture. It assumed that literary training was inevitably the norm of all educational effort. In their Culture and Environment, Leavis and Thompson turned  the trained literary eye upon the non-literary scene, revealing at once how vulgar that scene was. But the poets of our time have used press and cinema, radio, television as new techniques for organizing experience. They have learned the grammars of these new media and assimilated them to (…) the tasks of poetry.
  • If we are to retain the values of book-trained perception and judgment, it can only be by learning how to incorporate the former lineal and analytic habits of mind into the new patterns of mind already being established by the new media, which are not at all lineal in their modes of arranging and presenting information. (…) We have to consider that we can no longer teach reading to-day, with its slow, eye-dropper mode of verbal flow, as if we were teaching students who lived in a world which took such a form of information and experience as predominant and normal. It [“book-trained perception”] is to-day a secondary rather than a constitutive form. And if it is to be taught it has to be done realistically, as the presentation of a specialized and somewhat alien type of experience.
  • To-day, our new media compel us to notice that English is a mass medium (…) and that the new media are new languages with unique powers and deficiencies. Not to recognize this situation is to encourage the rise of a new tower of Babel. That the new media, with their non-lineal means of presenting complex information and attitudes, have already had a strong influence even on older modes of literary study appears in the great vogue of Mr. William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity. Previously, literary people had encouraged the assumption that meaning was something that could be obtained from the page by a single-minded pursuit of the plain sense offered by words in sequence; (…) Hobbes abandoned art and history in favour of Euclidean rationalism, saying: “The Light of humane minds is Perspicuous Words but by exact definitions first snuffed, and purged from ambiguity.” Mr. Empson demonstrated that this aim was sheer illusion. We had been taught [in the Gutenberg era] to ignore the complexities of verbal experience, and [now] the twentieth century (…) was eager to explore the non-lineal aspects [and other complexities] of language and experience. It is this situation which has brought into vogue the concern of the ‘new criticism’ (…) with the ‘total relevance’ of word and phrase4 — much to the chagrin of the true bookmen who continue to insist on the ‘one plain meaning’ coming off the assembly-lines of print.
  1. McLuhan to Innis, March 1951: “the esthetic discoveries of the symbolists since Rimbaud and Mallarmé (developed in English by Joyce, Eliot, Pound, Lewis and Yeats) (…) have served to recreate in contemporary consciousness an awareness of the potencies of language such as the Western world has not experienced in 1800 years. (…) this major revolution, intimately linked to technology, is one whose consequences have not begun to be studied although they have begun to be felt. (…)  I have been considering an experiment in communication (…) linking a variety of specialized fields by what may be called a method of esthetic analysis (…) the organizing concept would naturally be “Communication Theory and Practice.” (…) Arts here used as providing criteria, techniques of observation, and bodies of recorded, achieved, experience.” (Letters, 220, 221, 223)
  2. McLuhan’s Letters includes no correspondence at all from 1958.
  3. Knowledge, Ideas, Information and Communication (A Canadian View)’, Yearbook of Education for 1958225-232.
  4. McLuhan: “It is this situation which has brought the methods of the ‘new criticism’, with all their concern in any composition into vogue with the ‘ total relevance ‘ of word and phrase, much to the chagrin”…

Project 69: What I Learned On The Project

With the exception of its Bibliography and Appendices, Report on Project in Understanding New Media concludes with a section on ‘What I Learned On The Project (1959-1960)’.1 The final sentences of this final section read:

Another basic aspect of the electronic is this: it telescopes centuries of development and evolution into weeks or months. In speeding up actual change, it makes the understanding of change much more feasible just as a movie of an organic process may reveal years of growth in seconds. But such acceleration of growth in no way prepares the human community to adapt to it. Suddenly there is a nine foot redwood where in the morning you had experienced a bedroomOur educational, political and legal establishments are scarcely contrived to cope with such change. There is no mercy for culture-lag in our new technology. There is no possibility of human adaption. Yet in all these situations we confront only ourselves and extensions of our own senses. There is always the possibility of escape into understanding. We can live around these new situations, even if we cannot live with them. (…) In purely realistic terms, I feel that the associated power of specialist and vested interest of many kinds definitely insures that we shall fail to meet any and every challenge that is offered to us in the electronic age. Why should we [come to] understand [our] new media when no generation of the Western past has understood [its]2 media? However, now that we have begun to [try to] understand all media for the first time (see H.A. Innis, Empire and  Communications) there is the outside possibility that we might decide to consider them as fit objects of study and control.3

McLuhan ended his Report in this way by implicating the great problem of time plural, namely, the problem of understanding the relation4 of “development and evolution” (aka “adaption”), on the one hand, to what can come only “suddenly”, on the other. This was a labyrinthine question which had been raised by great minds for millennia and never solved intellectually or socially (“study and control”). McLuhan was plainly divided as to the prospects5, but knew that in either case, utter disaster or understanding at last, “we confront only ourselves”.

In fact, McLuhan’s lifelong enterprise might be put as the question of what is to become of human extension? Will it continue only outward to oblivion or turn back inward to what is already there, namely, the underlying prior possibility of such extension? And of its potential return?

On the way to these concluding thoughts, ‘McLuhan made a series of related points:

Correction for Lasswell formula6 [Who (says) What (to) Whom (in) What Channel (with) What Effect] — not who is speaking to whom, but what is speaking to whom. Lasswell ignores the media, except speech; but obviously if a person is speaking into a P.A. system or into a radio microphone, etc., the who and the what are profoundly transformed.

McLuhan’s observation here is indeed obvious enough: media do transform who we are, what we communicate and to whom we communicate. Yet this massive field has been virtually ignored even while its world-transforming effects have gigantically accumulated.  Now in 2018, almost 40 years after McLuhan’s death, in an age of grossly inflated fake news and unforgivably inflated real deaths, his observations about information war ring more true than ever:

Today, when the largest commodity of all is information itself, war means no longer the movement of hardware [like weapons], but of information. What had previously been “a peace time” activity within our own boundaries now becomes the major “cold-war” activity across frontiers.

Therefore:

Today, civil defence would seem to consist in protection against media fallout.

But beyond the pressing practical need for the investigation of media in matters of war and peace, there was also the prior question of just who we are as human beings:

Media are extensions of the human senses. They modify the patterns of human association while remaining rooted in this or that sense, and these staples are not limited to any geographical area, but are co-extensive with the human family itself.

  1. Presumably this section (and others like ‘Purpose of the Project’, ‘Materials Developed by the Project’, ‘Itinerary And Summary Of Activities Of The Consultant’, etc) was required by the terms of the research grant.
  2. McLuhan has “all media” here, a phrase evidently intended to contrast with Innis studying “all media” in the next sentence. But behind this matter of vocabulary and style lay his conviction that we can come to understand any medium at all only by understanding media per se.
  3. It would seem that McLuhan wrote ‘What I Learned On The Project’ hurriedly and with little or no revision.  Awkward phrasing and repetitions are common in it.  The apparent explanation for such haste is given in the ‘Itinerary and Summary of Activities of the Consultant’ section: “Project 69 travel was amply rewarding in insight and friendship. Unfortunately, it had adverse effects on my health, requiring hospitalization and a long period of rest, delaying the conclusion of these reports and the summarizing of the results of this project.”
  4. “Relation”: both the fundamental difference and the equally fundamental harmony of the two.
  5. Soon after this, in 1962, McLuhan would publish two papers on our dim prospects: ‘Prospect’ in Canadian Art magazine and ‘Prospect of America’, a review in UTQ of The Image: What Happened to the American Dream by Daniel Boorstin.
  6. Harold Lasswell (1902-1978) and his communication model. Lasswell already appears in the references of Harold Innis — both had their PhDs from the University of Chicago in the early 1920s. Lasswell’s concerns with the political, social and psychopathological implications of communications might usefully be compared and contrasted to those of McLuhan.

Kenneth Boulding

Unlike most of the authors and investigators McLuhan studied in his crucial 1958-1962 period (such as Adolf HildebrandHeinrich WölfflinWilliam IvinsGeorg von Békésy and Tobias Dantzig), Kenneth Boulding’s work continued to be cited by McLuhan into the 1970s. Furthermore, he had come to know of Boulding’s work earlier than these others — Boulding contributed ‘The Information Concept’ to Explorations 5 in 1955.

Media Alchemy in Art and Society, 1958

Kenneth Boulding’s The Image [1956] is an important event in advancing our knowledge of alchemical change in all types of structure. And we achieve this advance by seeing every kind of structure, from the botanical to the animal and human, as a knowledge structure subject to information in-put. The structure is the image: “We must distinguish carefully between the image and the messages that reach it. The messages consist of information in the sense that they are structured experiences. The meaning of the message is the change which it produces in the image.” Boulding is disposed to regard some information as neutral (“We may imagine that the message is going straight through without hitting it.”). Such neutral messages bombarding the inattentive image or structure have tended in our time to be cut down almost to zero. Modern psychology is here in accord with the arts in thinking that subliminally received messages (what used to be called cultural conditioning) are much the most effective as shaping powers. Massive achievements like Siegfried Giedion’s Space, Time, and Archiitecture or his Mechanization Takes Command offer as it were a vivisectional awareness of the living inter-relational current of forms and information.

McLuhan to Harry Skornia, June 5, 1959

Ken B is going to be one of my earliest approaches. (…) Look Harry, the first big miracle has occurred [= the funding of the Understanding Media project].  Those that follow will be easier and bigger but more natural as it were.  Let’s keep in mind that events and actualities are all on our side.  The opposition has to be by-passed not clobbered.  Ours must by mobile war not positional, if we are to salvage an appreciable proportion of our establishment, educational and political.  We must waste no time or strength in opposition or diatribe.  People love to fight but don’t want to be left out of main trend!

McLuhan to Claude Bissell, May 6, 19601

At the very high level of information movement in which to-day we are involved, we find ourselves less in a university of subjects than in what Meister Eckhart called the university of being. For in each subject concerned with method and creative insight tends to bring each subject directly into the mode of contemplation of its relation to Being. For example, Ken Boulding in The Organizational Revolution, on p. 66, mentions that “the idea that a theory of organization is possible is one of the important ideas of our time“. Notice that if information moves so fast that the causes and effects of any action are felt almost together — then it becomes indispensable to have a theory of organization, but it also becomes possible. It is the telescoping of actions and consequences which makes understanding of principles easier. Another way of putting this, Claude, is to say that control is only possible through acceleration of change. A ship that is moving at the same speed as the current has no steerageway. What is ordinarily called planning is, in effect, acceleration. In the same way, the greatly increased speed of action and reaction, because of electronic information movement, compels organizations to assume an ethical character in the sense of having inclusive rather than exclusive purposes. Specialized lines of development are intolerable, when every line crosses every line. That is to say, that the dialogue now characterizes the interplay of things themselves, and any effort to understand or control such situations by any means less inclusive than the dialogue will scarcely work. Should be able to get the Meier paper to you late on Monday. Between him and Boulding2, you should be able to manage very well indeed with the Manufacturers’ Association. By the way Ken Boulding’s book. The Image, 1959, is small and richly nourished. It has lots of economic tie-ins.

Understanding Media, 1964

Kenneth Boulding put this matter in The Image by saying, “The meaning of a message is the change which it produces in the image.” Concern with effect rather than meaning is a basic change of our electric time, for effect involves the total situation, and not a single level of information movement. (26)

…in any medium or structure there is what Kenneth Boulding calls a “break boundary at which the system suddenly changes into another or passes some point of no return in its dynamic processes“… (38)3

Take Today, 1972

NOTHING EXCEEDS LIKE EXCESS. Writing on the “Failures and Successes of Economics” (THINK, May- June, 1965), Kenneth E. Boulding cites “Phillips Curve” to the effect that beyond a certain point “the more employment the more inflation”. Boulding, in The Image, was one of the first to note that the gist of economic life had moved into the information or “software” orbit. Political economy had, in fact, become economic politics. The trend to what he calls THE GRANTS ECONOMY is a reversal of an age-old and opposite trend of the separation of work and residence. The increase of “software” and information as industries become knowledge-oriented can have only one terminal, namely, the restoration of the decentralized “cottage economy”. So far this development has been called “moonlighting” and “starlighting.” “Do-it-yourself” now permits use of the total environment as a private resource. Earlier, it had been an elite that exploited the “public benefits for private vices.” Now it is everybody who gets in on the act. This, naturally, via Hertz Law of Complementarity brings the flip or reversal of effect. In Boulding’s words, “grants may be made out of fear rather than out of love.” The grant as tribute, levied on a puzzled public, becomes a feature of the “threat system,” as in Speenhamland. (81-82)

  1.  Letters 273
  2. “Between him (Meier) and Boulding” —  at this time Richard Meier and Boulding were colleagues at the University of Michigan.
  3. This passage from Understanding Media is cited in Laws of Media, 107.

McLuhan’s #1 breakthrough

the (…) way in which the lines of force in any medium are structured. (McLuhan to Harry Skornia, 25 January 1960)1

When stress moves from product to process… (McLuhan to Claude Bissell, May 6, 1960)2

Understanding Media [= Report on Project in Understanding New Media] postulates the basic hypothesis that any means of codification of experience in terms of any sense whatever inevitably transforms the ratio among the other senses and thereby alters patterns of thought, feeling, and action. (‘Title VII Research Abstract’, 1961)3  

McLuhan experienced enough self-styled breakthroughs in his career that he sometimes complained that he didn’t have time to write them down.  The single most important one of these occurred in January 1960:

Early in 1960 it dawned on me that the sensory impression proffered by a medium like movie or radio, was not the sensory effect obtained.4 Radio, for example, has an intense visual effect on listeners. But then there is the telephone which also proffers an auditory impression, but has no visual effect. In the same way television is watched but has a very different effect from movies. These observations led to a series of studies of the media, and to the discovery of basic laws concerning the sensory effects of various media. These will be found in this report.  In 1915 Heinrich Wölfflin published his Principles of Art History which has since then revolutionized the study of many matters besides art. His entire approach confirms what I discovered about media: “the effect is the thing that counts, not the sensuous facts5… (Report on the Project in Understanding New Media)

The last few days have seen a major breakthrough in media study. Working with the fact that each medium embodies one or more of the human senses, it struck me that we are impelled in perceiving each medium to complete the scale or spectrum of our sensorium. So that, radio impels us to provide a visual world moment by moment, and photography, which is so adequate in visual terms, compels us to complete the tactual and kinesthetic part of the sensorium. Thus the degree of sensuous completion is one way in which the lines of force in any medium are structured. (McLuhan to Harry Skornia, 25 January 1960)6

The break-through in media study has come at last, and it can be stated as the principle of complementarity: that the structural impact of any situation is subjectively completed as to the cycle of the senses. (McLuhan to Bernard Muller-Thym, February 19th, 1960)7

As far as the project goes, rather large developments and discoveries have occurred in the last few weeks which will enable me to complete it in a very satisfactory manner while, at the same time, opening a new phase of media study… (McLuhan to John Wain, March 11, 1960)8

Some large breakthroughs have occurred in communication study…9 (McLuhan to Peter Drucker, April 18, 1960)10

At first following Innis, Havelock and Richards in the late 1940s11, and then working with the Explorations seminar group in the middle 1950s, McLuhan by 1960 had considered for more than a decade how media shape experience through the manipulation of the senses — particularly the ear in illiterate cultures and the eye in literate ones. But now, in January 1960, he came to the idea that media — and therefore all human experience (since all human experience is media-ted at the very least by language and culture) — that media and all human experience might be characterized by specifiable structure.12 Furthermore, he saw that such a specifiable structure, once tentatively accepted for collective investigation, could represent the “opening [of] a new phase of media study” leading to “the discovery of basic laws”.

He immediately saw that collective study along these lines, with the promise of the sorts of progressive and sometimes revolutionary findings that other sciences such as chemistry and genetics had made once an elementary structure had been identified for common focus in their fields, could have enormous effect on the great questions of the contemporary world. And, given the state of the world with the threat of nuclear weapons in war, of pervasive automation in the economy, and environmental disaster in the biosphere, this effect could hardly be for the worse. Indeed, the accumulative result of the new investigation was its promise finally to lift the automata-like slavery of humans to the media control of their experience — which was leading the planet into multiple disasters.

Once he began looking at media as structures, McLuhan saw various possibilities for scientific investigation. For example, he saw that different media stimulated the human sensorium with different intensities: what he called High Definition (HD) and Low Definition (LD). Already in 1960 this would lead him to the famous typology of hot (HD) and cool (LD) media. Then, given some such input, he hypothesized that “we are impelled in perceiving each medium to complete the scale or spectrum of our sensorium”. The initial idea (never fulfilled in practice, but perhaps never yet fully appreciated) was that it might be possible to establish that the ratio between the sensory input of a medium and the inverse (high response to low input and vice versa) ‘subjective completion’ (SC)13 of a perceiver would maintain itself according to some dynamic constant or, at least, might prove to have predictable action somewhat as valence does in chemistry. Comparable to the action of valence, the hypothetical goal of all experience would be to convert an unstable initial situation into a subsequent stable one.14 On this model, human being would ceaselessly function as a kind of gyroscope working to keep the changing inputs of experience in balance.  As McLuhan wrote to Jackie Tyrwhitt on December 23, 1960:

Is not this the problem that we have now to face in the management of inner and outer space, [a question] not [of] fixed but [of] ever new-made ratios, shifting always to maintain a maximal focal point of consciousness?15

Or again in the 1961 ‘Care and Feeding of Communication Innovation’:

the senses never operate in isolation [from one another]. If one sense is suppressed, the other senses compensate in various ways in order to maintain that steady ratio among the senses which is the norm of human consciousness. If one sense is [relatively] isolated by stress or intensity we are in the state of hypnosis at once. Pushed a bit further, the [more extreme] isolation of [a] sense [relative to the others] leads swiftly to insanity.

This implicated the further idea that scientific investigation might focus on the senses themselves in their attempt “to maintain that steady ratio among the senses which is the norm of human consciousness“. This facility dynamically seeking sensory stability was called by McLuhan ‘tactility’ — or ‘kinesthesia’ or ‘synesthesia’ or ‘equilibrium’ or ‘the sensus communis‘ — and he postulated that it could be defined in terms of the ratio between the visual and the aural:

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… (Take Today, 22)

The idea was not that the eye and the ear ever function aside from the ‘synesthesia’ of the five senses, but that they have a specialized role in the investigation of human experience comparable to the specialized role of the electron (which in practice never functions aside from a host of other particles in the atom) in the investigations of chemistry (particularly in regard to valence). Moreover, the visual and the aural were to be defined, not in terms of either sent or received sense data — “the sensory impression” — but in terms of “the effect”.16 And the effects of media were the “variants” of time-space experience: 

each sense actually makes its own space with its own distinctive perceptual structure. (Take Today, 137)

The elements of experience would then be the plenary spectrum of time-space configurations specifiable as variations of the basic ear-eye ratio. The hope would be that they would prove as fertile for new discoveries, and indeed even for whole new sub-sciences, as was the case following the definition of elementary structures in chemistry and genetics. And this, in turn, might provide an answer to the “threat to continued existence and to sanity”17 posed to the planet, then and now, by the limitless assertion of unconsidered assumptions.18

 

  1. See note 6 below.
  2. Letters, 273
  3. McLuhan and AllenTitle VII Research Abstract’ for Report on Project in Understanding New Media, in Audio Visual Communication Review, 9:4, A25-A26, 1961.
  4. This is the first sentence of the most important section of Report on the Project in Understanding New Media: ‘General Introduction to the Languages and Grammars of the Media’. More than a decade later, in Take Today, McLuhan continued to emphasize “the continual transformation of sensory inputs into outputs of quite different kinds. Food for the mind is like food for the body; the inputs are never the same as the outputs!” (137)
  5. Wölfflin, Principles of Art History, Dover edition, 62.
  6. Cited in Gordon,  Escape into Understanding 399-400, n99.
  7. Cited in Gordon, Escape into Understanding, 313-314.
  8. Letters, 266
  9. This passage continued: ” pushing media (study) towards Systems Development and I am now working with the (UT) Electrical Engineering Dept.” The idea of investigating media as systems in an electrical engineering sense may have come to McLuhan as a result of hearing Richard Meier at Michigan earlier than same month. In his 1960 paper, ‘Technology, the Media, and Culture’, McLuhan quoted Meier as follows: “With the elaboration of electrical engineering, and the fusing of many strands of chemical knowledge, a field that was evolving rapidly in a mainstream of its own that led from mass reactions to molecular, to atomic, and most recently to nuclear reactions, the possibility of a flexible, quick-acting, autonomous economy emerged. It is capable of substituting one set of raw materials by others so as to meet virtually all foreseeable emergencies which reduce or cut off supplies”. But see the next note for a slightly earlier source for a Systems Development approach.
  10. Letters, 269; the Systems Development approach (see previous note) apparently came from William Allen — see Project 69: Purpose, note 8.
  11. At the same time in the late 1940s McLuhan was following developments in the then-new field of cybernetics, particularly in the work of Norbert Wiener and his colleagues at MIT. In the 1969 UT President’s Report, Claude Bissell noted that McLuhan “received the British Institute of Public Relations’ Presidential Medal for 1969 and while in London was the guest of honour at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet, proposing the main toast of the evening to the 21st anniversary of the formal birth of cybernetics!”
  12. McLuhan to Peter Drucker, April 26, 1960: “As with me in media study, he (“my friend, Tom Easterbrook”) has reached the structuralist stage where content is indifferent. He has isolated the dynamics of the inter-relation between power centers and marginal areas, and momentarily we have a bond in the matter of media as staples.”
  13. The concept of closure or completion is basic in understanding media, since it becomes possible to see why no sense can operate in isolation from all the others and no medium can exist by itself.” (‘Title VII Research Abstract’ for Report on Project in Understanding New Media, in Audio Visual Communication Review, 9:4, A25-A26, 1961)
  14. A fundamental question here would be in what time this ‘initial-subsequent’ process takes place? Clearly it does not occur in clock time: our experience of the world does not wait upon the completion of such an action. But if that is the case, when and where and how does the action take place?
  15. Letters, 277-278
  16. As he first attested in Report on Project in Understanding New Media, McLuhan learned (or confirmed what he already suspected) from Heinrich Wölfflin’s  Principles of Art History that the effect is the thing that counts, not the sensuous facts. See McLuhan on ‘effect’ in 1946.
  17.  Report on Project in Understanding New Media: ‘Purpose
  18.  For further discussion of these issues, see McLuhan’s new sciences: “only the authority of knowledge”.

Richard L Meier and “substitutability”

I would like to draw attention to the fine paper of Richard L. Meier on “Information, Resource Use, and Economic Growth,” (read at Ann Arbor, Michigan, April 1960). Not only does he point to the media of communication as staples or natural resources, and to our senses as the climate of information, but [also to the fact that] the natural effect of the electric is to substitute  information movement for transportation of things. As information movement increases, “machines can be designed which normally make for [far?] fewer mistakes than humans.” That is, as information moves into very high level phases there occurs (…) reversal and substitution of forms (…). Above all, information movement at electric speeds results in a society “capable of substituting one set of raw materials by others“. “Now, however, it is impossible to specify any set of resources which are crucial”. (Report on Project in Understanding New Media: ‘General Introduction to Charts’)

McLuhan heard Meier’s paper at a conference on Natural Resources and Economic Growth held at Ann Arbor, Michigan, April 7-9, 1960.1 Apparently on account of its ontological implications, McLuhan immediately began to discuss Meier’s notion in his correspondence and papers: 

I want to mention some aspects of the Richard Meier script which came to mind yesterday. A propos of his theme of substitutability, notice that when information flow reaches a sufficient level almost any resource material can be substituted for any other, then the situation closely resembles the activity of the sensus communis in translating one sense into another. (…) I am exceedingly grateful to Richard Meier, but I understand what he is saying so much better than he does that I am really in some doubt as to what sort of credit to hand him when these things come to publication. (McLuhan to Bernard Muller-Thym, Letters 270-272, May 5, 1960)

Now, from your point of view, it seems to me that some of these points directly concern the university. The principle, that at very high levels of information movement  substitutability  occurs, (this by the way applies also to our own sense lives in which each sense typically translates itself into each of the other five senses) applies to the studies of the university. When stress moves from product to process, all of the subjects in the university also become substitutable for one another. At the very high level of information movement in which to-day we are involved, we find ourselves less in a university of subjects [or disciplines] than in what Meister Eckhart called the university of being. For (…) method and creative insight [today] tends to bring each subject directly into the mode of contemplation of its relation to Being. (McLuhan to Claude Bissell, May 6, 1960, Letters 273)

Richard Meier, in a paper given at Ann Arbor this past April, formulated a natural law for media when he pointed out that increased levels of information flow result in substitutability: “With the elaboration of electrical engineering, and the fusing of many strands of chemical knowledge, a field that was evolving rapidly in a mainstream of its own that led from mass reactions to molecular, to atomic, and most recently to nuclear reactions, the possibility of a flexible, quick-acting, autonomous economy emerged. It is capable of substituting one set of raw materials by others so as to meet virtually all foreseeable emergencies which reduce or cut off supplies. (…) The task that remains is one of redesigning social institutions so that they are consonant with the revealed potentials of resource availability and technological efficiency.” (Technology, the Media, and Culture, 1960)

information theory is able to reveal in the person and the paper of Richard Meier that “the degree of substitutability of one resource for another increases when either the stock of knowledge or the flow of communications increases.” (…) Meier, in the paper already referred to, notes: “We are forced to conclude that natural resources have an informational aspect, in addition to the bulk and utility features mentioned earlier.” But if media as extensions of our senses offer ready access to our inmost lives, putting the lever of Archimedes in the hands of bureaucrat and entrepreneur alike, natural resources can also be seen as media of communication. (…) To put it in Meier’s terms again, with the rise of information levels and speeds, war may cease to be the exchange of bulk or heavy goods, and may become an information exchange before a global public. If adjustment (economic, social, or personal) to information movement at electronic speeds is quite impossible, we can always change our models and metaphors of organization, and escape into sheer understanding. Sequential analysis and adjustment natural to low speed information movement becomes irrelevant and useless even at telegraph speed. But as speed increases, the understanding of process in all kinds of structures and situations becomes relatively simple. We can literally escape into understanding when the patterns of process become manifest. (Effects of the Improvements of Communication Media, 1960)

The theme appears a few years later in Understanding Media as follows:

Our new concern with education follows upon the changeover to an interrelation in knowledge, where before the separate subjects of the curriculum had stood apart from each other. Departmental sovereignties have melted away as rapidly as national sovereignties under conditions of electric speed. (Understanding Media, 35–36)

McLuhan wrote to Walter Ong:

A sensus communis for external senses is what I’m trying to build. (McLuhan to Walter Ong. Nov. 18, 1960? 1961?, Letters 281)

Meier’s principle of the substitutability of “one set of raw materials by others” seemed to give him a concrete illustration of the objectivity of the sensus communis. As he wrote to Muller-Thym in the letter from May 5, 1960 already cited above:

when information flow reaches a sufficient level almost any resource material can be substituted for any other, then the [external] situation closely resembles the activity of the [internal] sensus communis in translating one sense into another. 

And as he wrote the next day to Claude Bissell:

today (…), we find ourselves (…) in what Meister Eckhart called the university of being. (…) dialogue now characterizes the interplay of things themselves… (McLuhan to Claude Bissell, May 6, 1960, Letters 273)2

Indeed, two years before, in 1958, he had already seen that some kind of “knowledge structure subject to information in-put” was characteristic not only of the human mind but of everything in nature:

Kenneth Boulding’s The Image [1956] is an important event in advancing our knowledge of alchemical change in all types of structure. And we achieve this advance by seeing every kind of structure, from the botanical to the animal and human, as a knowledge structure subject to information in-put. (Media Alchemy in Art and Society)

  1. The papers presented at the conference, including Meier’s, were published in 1961 in Natural Resources and Economic Growth, ed J.J. Spengler.
  2. McLuhan continued this passage: “and any effort to understand or control such situations by any means less inclusive than the dialogue will scarcely work.”

Project 69: Purpose of Project

Report on Project in Understanding New Media: ‘Purpose of Project’1

  • Project 69 in Understanding Media proposed (…) a new tactic (…), namely to consider not so much the constituents nor the “content” of media, as their effects. I therefore raise the question at once: “Why have the effects of media, whether speech, writing, photography or radio, been overlooked by social observers through the past 3500 years of the Western world?” The answer to that question (…) is in the power of the media themselves to impose their own assumptions upon our modes of perception. Our media have always constituted the parameters and the framework for the objectives of our Western world.
  • In top-management study and planning today assumptions and objectives are recognized to be distinct (…) “Now, the primary difference between an assumption and an objective, is that an assumption pertains to things that are beyond your control, and an objective pertains to things that are achieved through your own effort.”2  What the writer of this brief does not know is that assumptions can also come within the range of prediction and control just as soon as it is recognized that the new media of communication in any age, as they penetrate and transform the older media, are the source of new assumptions and consequently the causes of change in our objectives.
  • Media study has not begun to approach such awareness because it has not established the sort of “self-sustained growth” enabled by the “take-off mechanism”3 of social change involved in the shaping and speeding of information for eye and for ear and for touch and kinetics.4 Project 69 set out to bring media study within the range of [such] expanding awareness here indicated by Rostow5 in economics. My assumptions, then, were (…) that such understanding was quite possible [and that] media assumptions do not have to remain subliminal…

In these passages from his short (965 words on 3.5 typed pages) introductory overview of Project 69, McLuhan makes a series of points which remain startlingly unconsidered today — almost 60 years later. These points may be summarized as follows:

  1. It is necessary to differentiate between conscious and (currently) unconscious (or “subliminal”) factors in experience, corresponding to objectivesachieved through your own effort” and assumptions “beyond your control”.
  2. But “assumptions do not have to remain subliminal” and, consequently, “assumptions can also come within the range of prediction and control”.
  3. Assumptions as “the causes of change in our objectives” must be investigated through “a new tactic (…) to consider (…) their effects“, aka through the objectives they engender.
  4. Media are the vectors of assumptions and therefore are the vectors of the effects and objectives of assumptions: “media have always constituted the parameters and the framework for (…) objectives”.6
  5. “In these circumstances Understanding Media must mean the understanding of the effects of media.”
  6. However, media as the vectors of assumptions can as much obscure assumptions as illuminate them. Everything depends on making the transition from the former to the latter.
  7. New media can illuminate through being “the source of new assumptions and  consequently the causes of change in our objectives”.
  8. The new media of today can enable the needed illumination of assumptions (dual genitive!) only if their study is revolutionized through the sort of “social change involved in the shaping and speeding of information” as described for economics by Rostow in The Stages of Economic Growth (and, two years later in 1962 by Thomas Kuhn for the physical sciences in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions7).  As McLuhan cited from Rostow’s Stages in The Gutenberg Galaxy, this is the metamorphosis in thought and practice initiating “that decisive interval in the history of a society when [“self-sustained”8 economic or scientific] growth becomes its normal condition” (Gutenberg Galaxy, 90).

In sum:

The globe has become on one hand a community of learning [but so far only in fields other than media], and at the same time, with regard to the tightness of its inter-relationships, the globe has become a tiny village. Patterns of human association based on slower media have become overnight not only irrelevant and obsolete, but a threat to continued existence and to sanity.

This mortal threat even to our “continued existence” has its ground in the retention of pre-nuclear assumptions and their objectives in a nuclear age, and, at the same time, in the impediment by those pre-nuclear assumptions of the sort of media study that might alone bring assumptions “within the range of prediction and control“. This blockage occurs because recognition, let alone study, of underlying assumptions (especially its own underlying assumptions) necessarily remains “subliminal” within the Gutenberg galaxy. For this is that epoch whose very world-altering success depends upon its proceeding in principle upon a single level only: “the single-plane approach of the older literacy“.9 Within the terms of pre-nuclear objectives there is, therefore, not only no defence against their fatal implications, there is their limitless assertion. As McLuhan noted in the same year as Project 69:

the subliminal legacy of print can have strange effects in the highest scientific quarters of the post-print age. (Effects of the Improvements of Communication Media)

A peculiarly insidious example of this point is provided by all current McLuhan ‘research’. But  McLuhan himself summed up his work as follows: 

All the recommendations can be reduced to this one: Study the modes of the media, in order to hoick all assumptions out of the subliminal, non-verbal realm for scrutiny and for prediction and control of human purposes.10

McLuhan ‘research’ thus far has had — and has today — no other objective than to hoick his work back into the Gutenberg galaxy where assumptions are once again subject to “blackout”. In this way, McLuhan has been — and continues to this day to be — harnessed to the very forces he desperately attempted to combat.

  1. All citations in this post, unless otherwise identified, are taken from this introductory ‘Purpose of Project’ section of McLuhan’s Report.
  2. Citation from “a Westinghouse ‘Long Range Planning’ brief of August 3, 1960″. This is one of many references in the Report which are later than the June 30, 1960 date given on its cover.
  3. Citation from W. W. Rostow, The Stages of Economic Growth (Cambridge University Press, 1960) — one of the many 1960 books extensively cited in Project 69 (like Gombrich, Art and Illusion and Békésy, Experiments in Hearing). Despite the date on its cover of June 30, 1960, McLuhan seems to have completed the Report only late in 1960 or even in 1961.
  4. “Eye (…) ear and (…) touch and kinetics” is the formula for McLuhan’s proposed elementary structure of media and experience: the ratio of eye to ear as modulated by touch and kinetics.
  5. See note 3 above.
  6. McLuhan in a 1961 review of Edward Hall’s The Silent Language wrote of “the effects of media in setting the assumptions of cultures”. There is a circularity here of the highest importance: media have the effect of resetting what is prior to effects!  It is this unaccountable temporal power of media which McLuhan wanted to direct towards — understanding media.
  7. Kuhn’s study was cited infrequently by McLuhan in the last decade of his life beginning with From Cliché to Archetype in 1970. He seems to have been alerted to it by Barrington Nevitt in ‘Predicting Scientific Prediction’ which appeared in the new series of Explorations in the University of Toronto Varsity Graduate, 13:3, 49-64, May, 1967.
  8. Full passage quoting Rostow cited above from Report on Project in Understanding New Media: “Media study has not begun to approach such awareness because it has not established the sort of “self-sustained growth” enabled by the “take-off mechanism” of social change involved in the shaping and speeding of information”.
  9. See ‘Multi-levels of simultaneous presentation‘.
  10. Report on Project in Understanding New Media: ‘Recommendations’. Also in W.H. Allen and H.M. McLuhan, Title VII Research Abstract’ (for Report on Project in Understanding New Media), Audio Visual Communication Review, 9:4, 1961.

Georg von Békésy

Georg von Békésy’s Experiments in Hearing was published in 1960 and immediately put to use by McLuhan in his own writings that year, especially in Report on Project in Understanding New Media. Two years later, in The Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan continued to cite von Békésy extensively.

Report on Project in Understanding New Media (1960)

  • Switching attention to effects away from “the sensuous facts” high-lighted (…) that the two-dimensional in visual presentation is in effect very tactile, resonant, and auditory. Three dimensional representation on the other hand remains primarily visual, pictorial, retinal, abstract and exclusive of the non-retinal. (…) In direct connection with this, it is most illuminating, at the very beginning of Georg von Békésy’ s Experiments in Hearing (McGraw-Hill, 1960), to find him contrasting two-dimensional and three-dimensional  paintings. His purpose is to explain how in the study of hearing, “mosaic” methods of research are more effective than “perspective” methods. Acoustical research is necessarily “depth” study since hearing is from all directions at once. Two-dimensional mosaic structures with their multi-levelled effects are therefore of great relevance to auditory research. There can be no fixed point of view with perspective and vanishing point, in such study. But Békésy is naturally apologetic in abandoning the conventional “perspective” patterns of research (such as are still used in audio-visual media study): “It is possible to distinguish two forms of approach to a problem. One, which may be called the theoretical approach, is to formulate the problem in relation to what is already known, to make additions or extensions on the basis of accepted principles, and then to proceed to test these hypotheses experimentally. Another, which may be called the mosaic approach, takes each problem for itself with little reference to the field in which it lies, and seeks to discover relations and principles that hold within the circumscribed area.”1 Békésy then proceeds to introduce his two paintings: “A close analogy to these two approaches may be found in the field of art. In the period between the eleventh and seventeenth centuries the Arabs and the Persians developed a high mastery of the arts of description and portrayal and they used the mosaic style (…) Later, during the Renaissance, a new form of representation was developed in which the attempt was made to give unity and perspective to the picture and to represent the atmosphere (…) When in the field of science a great deal of progress has been made and most of the pertinent variables are known, a new problem may most readily be handled by trying to fit it into the existing framework [or perspective]. When, however, the framework is uncertain and the number of variables is large the mosaic approach is much the easier.”
  • Just as Békésy found perspective irrelevant to acoustical research, so today by virtue of electric information movement all of us live globally in a kind of tribal drum of simultaneous resonance. When information moves to and from all directions and locations at the same moment, we return to a mode of experience that is structured as an auditory field of simultaneous relations. Even our visual experience is now a mosaic of items assembled from every part of the globe, moment by moment. Lineal perspective and pictorial organization cannot cope with this situation.
  • in concluding this general introduction I want to revert to Georg von Békésy’s discovery that you can’t investigate auditory problems by conventional scientific methods of  perspective. The auditory must be handled on its own terms, and these call for a mosaic approach, not a three-dimensional perspective approach. The auditory forbids perspective if only because it is inaccessible to any fixed position.
  • Edison once laid down a general rule for aspiring inventors: “When you are experimenting and you come across anything you don’t understand, don’t rest until you run it down; it may be the very thing you are looking for or it may be something far more important.” The technique of research that Edison here points to is the “mosaic” one described by Georg von Békésy at the opening of his Experiments in Hearing. “The very thing you are looking for” is the natural way of referring to our standard method in research in which we try to get everything into a single consistent picture or perspective. The exploratory “mosaic” pattern of research is the one referred to by Edison when he says: or it may be something far more important.”

Effects of the Improvements of Communication (1960)

  • Perspective, with arbitrarily fixed point of view and its vanishing point, is natural to the reader of uniform lines of repeatable type. It is not natural at all in our nuclear age when information does not move exclusively in such patterns any more. And Georg von Békésy, in his Experiments in Hearing finds it necessary to criticize the perspective techniques in scientific research, as compared with the mosaic techniques needed in field theory and non-visualizable problems. 

McLuhan to Serge Chermayeff Dec 19, 1960

  • it is equally observable in preliterate societies, as in our own post-literate global village, that we begin to note a heightening of auditory values after centuries of neglect through [visual]2 stress. (Georg von Békésy in the Psychological Review for January 1959 has an article on ‘The Similarities between Hearing and Skin Sensations‘.) But in preliterate societies where the auditory is supreme as the mode of organizing experience, there is a deprivation of value in the other senses equivalent to the worst excesses of abstract visuality and pictorial space.

The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962)

  • A recent work by Georg von Békésy, Experiments in Hearing, offers an exactly reverse answer to the problem of space to the one which Carothers and Wilson have just given us. Whereas they are trying to talk about the perception of non-literate people in terms of literate experience, Professor von Békésy chooses to begin his discussion of acoustical space on its own terms. As one proficient in auditory spaces, he is keenly aware of the difficulty of talking about the space of hearing, for the acoustical is necessarily a world in “depth.” It is of the utmost interest that in trying to elucidate the nature of hearing and of acoustic space, Professor von Békésy should deliberately avoid viewpoint and perspective in favour of mosaic field. And to this end he resorts to two-dimensional painting as a means of revealing the resonant depth of acoustic space. Here are his own words: “It is possible to distinguish two forms of approach to a problem. One, which may be called the theoretical approach, is to formulate the problem in relation to what is already known, to make additions or extensions on the basis of accepted principles, and then to proceed to test these hypotheses experimentally. Another, which may be called the mosaic approach, takes each problem for itself with little reference to the field in which it lies, and seeks to discover relations and principles that hold within the circumscribed area.” Von Békésy then proceeds to introduce his two paintings: “A close analogy to these two approaches may be found in the field of art. In the period between the eleventh and seventeenth centuries the Arabs and the Persians developed a high mastery of the arts of description (…) Later, during the Renaissance, a new form of representation was developed in which the attempt was made to give unity and perspective to the picture and to represent the atmosphere (…) When in the field of science a great deal of progress has been made and most of the pertinent variables are known, a new problem may most readily be handled by trying to fit it into the existing framework. When, however, the framework is uncertain and the number of variables is large the mosaic approach is much the easier.” The mosaic approach is not only “much the easier” in the study of the simultaneous which is the auditory field; it is the only relevant approach. For the “two-dimensional” mosaic or painting is the mode in which there is muting of the visual as such, in order that there may be maximal interplay among all of the senses. Such was the painterly strategy “since Cezanne,” to paint as if you held, rather than as if you saw, objects. (GG 41-42)
  • The paradox presented by Professor von Békésy is that the two-dimensional mosaic is, in fact, a multidimensional world of interstructural resonance. It is the three-dimensional world of pictorial space that is, indeed, an abstract illusion built on the intense separation of the visual from the other senses.  (GG 43)
  • the suppression of the visual sense in favour of the audile-tactile complex, produces the distortions of tribal society, and of the configuration of jazz and primitive art imitations which broke upon us with radio, but not just “because” of radio. [McLuhan’s footnote: “Georg von Békésy’s article on “Similarities between Hearing and Skin Sensations”, (Psychological Review, Jan., 1959, pp. 1-22) provides a means of understanding why no sense can function in isolation nor can be unmodified by the operation and diet of the other senses.]  (GG 53)
  • Coexistence and interplay among the figures in the flat field create a multilevelled and multi-sensuous awareness. This mode of approach tends to partake of the character of auditory, inclusive, and unenclosed space, as Georg von Békésy has shown in his Experiments in Hearing.  (GG 63)

Cybernetics and Human Culture (1964)

  • Sculpture itself, which today is manifesting such vigor and development, is a kind of spatial organization that deserves close attention. Sculpture does not enclose space. Neither is it contained in any space. Rather, it models or shapes space. It resonates. In his Experiments in Hearing, Georg von Békésy found it expedient to explain the nature of sound and of auditory space by appealing to the example of Persian wall painting. The world of the flat iconic image, he points out, is a much better guide to the world of sound than three-dimensional and pictorial art. The flat iconic forms of art have much in common with acoustic or resonating space. Pictorial three-dimensional art has little in common with acoustic space because it selects a single moment in the life of a form, whereas the flat iconic image gives an integral bounding line or contour that represents not one moment or one aspect of a form, but offers instead an inclusive integral pattern. This is a mysterious matter to highly visual and literate people who associate visual organization of experience with the real world and who say, “Seeing is believing.” Yet this strange gap between the specialist, visual world and the integral, auditory world needs to be understood today above all, for it contains the key to an understanding of what automation and cybernetics imply.

 

  1. A note is inserted in square brackets at this point in the typescript. It reads simply: “light through”.
  2. McLuhan has a typo here: “auditory”.