The gap is where the action is. (Take Today, 81)1
McLuhan inherited the goal of a “comparative method” from Rupert Lodge whose classes in philosophy he took at the University of Manitoba in the early 1930s. One of the tasks to which he would dedicate his life was to probe the problems and potential of this meth-od, this way (‘odos) of thought and life. And perhaps the deepest of these problems was that any conclusion reached through the method could not exclude, in principle, what was fundamentally opposed to it. For any such exclusion would evince an “external condemnation” and/or a “synthesis” and these, as Lodge emphasized over and over again, were “out of the question”.
The year after the appearance of his ‘Comparative Method in Philosophy‘ in Manitoba Essays, 1937, Rupert Lodge published a follow-up dialogue, ‘Synthesis or Comparison?’ in The Journal of Philosophy (35:16, 1938, 432-440). Here he (as author and as one of the participants in the dialogue) observed:
as long as realists remain realists, and idealists idealists, and pragmatists pragmatists, how can there possibly be a ‘synthesis’? The differences are so extreme that no agreement seems possible. The three schools have no common ground. They differ in principle as well as in detail. We have three complete antinomies. Sympathetic understanding is the most we can look for. But any sort of compromise or synthesis is surely out of the question. (434-435)
Similarly at the conclusion of the piece:
Comparative philosophy preserves in its original purity, each of the three schools. (…) Comparison is not synthesis. What it objects to is the negation of any school, whether by (…) external condemnation, or by some form of synthesis which would radically emasculate all three. (440)
McLuhan never gave up this intuition of his first mentor of a comparative discipline that would refuse to attenuate the irreducible plurality of the fundamental structures of its analysis (either through external critique or consuming synthesis). Some of the great implicated questions to be faced were:
- how does the “psychogenetic process”2 of all human perception and experience work if its ground(s) is (are) plural?
- what kind of spacing must be native to human being before such fundamental plurality?
- how would the investigative study of such “psychogenetic process” work if it must have its own genesis in this same “psychogenetic process”?
- what kind of augmented spacing must characterize such analysis if it is to avoid on principle all “external condemnation” and “synthesis” of its ground(s)?
- how can the possibility of such a discipline be communicated across such multiple spacing(s)?
McLuhan reflected on the need and difficulties of such investigation in his ‘Foreword’ to the reprinting of Innis’ Empire and Communications in 1972:
Innis learned from historical analysis that what Lusseyran [in And There Was Light3] describes as the private re-ordering of all the components of experience, as a result of a single sensory shift, occurs on a massive social scale with the introduction of technological innovation and the resulting new service environments thus created. Though Innis hit upon this Lusseyran perception of perceptual metamorphosis quite early, he had as little success in communicating his insights as Lusseyran. What Innis indicates as a basis for social survival is nothing less than a reorganization of our perceptual lives and a recognition that the environments we witlessly or involuntarily create by our innovations are both services and disservices that make very heavy demands of our awareness and understanding. (‘Foreword’ to Empire and Communications, 1972)
The self-reflexive knot of such thought was clear enough — even as mirrored in McLuhan’s involuted language in this passage. On the one hand there was the problem: the “re-ordering of all the components of experience” that “occurs on a massive social scale with the introduction of technological innovation” and that results in the creation of “environments” with deep “disservices”; on the other hand was the only solution for “social survival”: “reorganization of our perceptual lives” enabling a new kind of “recognition” of such “environments”.
The problem and the solution were the same: a “re-ordering of all the components of experience” (that leads to “disservices”) vs “a reorganization of our perceptual lives” (that leads to “recognition”).
McLuhan frequently noted this seeming paradox of the fundamental inter-relation of problem and solution “that make[s] very heavy demands of our awareness and understanding”:
In his Landmarks of Tomorrow, Peter F. Drucker has pointed to Operations Research as “organized ignorance”. It is a procedure in tackling problems which resembles the “negative capability” of Keats — a sort of intellectual judo. Instead of straining all available effort on a visible goal (…), let the solution come from the problem itself. (Technology, the Media, and Culture, 1960)
All solutions are in the very words by which people confuse and hide their problems. (Take Today, 1972, 103)
Failure Through Success and Success Through Failure (Take Today, 1972, 279)
More than 20 years after his study with Lodge, McLuhan would define nihilism as the fatal attraction to “external condemnation” and “synthesis”, a fatal attraction that did not recognize the comparative originality of our problems and solutions and failures and successes:
It just happens that in the new age of technology when all human arrangements from the cradle to the grave have taken on the hasty extravaganza aspect of a Hollywood set, the nihilist philosophies of neo-Platonism and gnosticism have come into their own. Existence is an empty machine, a cheap art work, they have always said. The soul is a shabby mechanism, the body a monstrous one. The [nihilistic] spirit or artist says to body and soul, a plague on both your prisons. And now in the twentieth century when nature has been abolished by art and engineering, when government has become entertainment and entertainment has become the art of government, now the gnostic and neo-Platonist and Buddhist can gloat: “I told you so! This gimcrack mechanism is all that there ever was in the illusion of human existence. Let us rejoin the One”. (Nihilism Exposed, 1955)
- Also Take Today, 60-61: “That the gap is where the action is, is now acknowledged as the basis of chemical and physical change.” And: McLuhan, ‘The Gap is Where the Action is’, Ontario Dentist (The Journal of the Ontario Dental Association), 53:6, 1976. ↩
- ‘Foreword’ to the reprinting of Empire and Communications (1972): “The kind of psychogenetic process that Innis describes as ‘the bias of communication’…”. ↩
- Jacques Lusseyran, And There Was Light, 1963. ↩