New life is born from garbage and ashes. (Innovation is Obsolete, 1971)
Apropos of recent telephone comment about my “philosophical approach”. Remember that when one approaches the intelligible aspects of media patterns one is in danger of philosophy. But my concern is with light through the media onto our situation, not light on the media from our theories. But unified field of awareness of inter-action of media does need some verbalized articulation [through what might be called ‘philosophy’]. Has not the effect of media over the centuries been kept at the sub-verbal level precisely by (…) philosophical assumptions [of a certain kind]…? (McLuhan to Harry Skornia, March 30, 1959)1
As described by McLuhan in the CKLN tapes, humans have enclosed themselves and their planet in a “human box”:
Since 1957 when Sputnik went up and ever since that satellite arch went around the planet, the planet ceased to be nature. What we used to call nature is gone. The planet is now contained inside a human box. There is no more nature. What remains is simply whatever we make of this planet by programming. There is no nature anymore. (23:51ff)
With Harold Innis, McLuhan saw this as a problem both of world-subjugating “empire building” and world-annihilating solipsism. Indeed, it is distinctive of the Toronto school (including John O’Neill along with Innis, Havelock and McLuhan) to have seen solipsism, not only as the effect of a profound crisis of soul, but also as the strange opening to the only possible unloosening of the death grip of empire.2
In the view of the Toronto school, if we are to turn away from global war and the looming annihilation of the biosphere, solipsism must be deeply probed as the one way to recover the possibility of peace. Solipsism was at once the greatest of all dangers, the death of life itself, and the threshold to the one possibility of a reversal out of our political, social and spiritual catastrophes.
McLuhan brought imperialism and ecological disaster together with solipsism as the “eco-box”3 in his frequent recourse (concentrated between 1968 and 1973) to a series of overlapping images: the “satellite surround”, the “garbage apocalypse” and “planet polluto”:
The McLuhan DEW-LINE, 1:5, November 1968
From the first moment of the satellite, the earth ceased to be the human “environment”.
Satellites automatically enclose the old Darwinian “Nature” environment by putting the planet inside a man-made environment. They are just as much an extension of the planet as is clothing an extension of the skin.
Satellites are equivalent to enclosing the Earth in a Bucky Fuller “dome” of acoustic space.
The consequent process of archetypalization of Nature ensures that the Earth is now an old “booster-stage”. . . a quaint form of Camp. . . a sort of archaeological museum affording immediate access to all past cultures simultaneously on a classified-information basis.4
The Satellite Decides For Us That Our Future Relation To The Planet Is One Of “Program”.
The satellite is also the shift from the planet as a homogeneous continuum or visual space, to the planet as a “chemical bond” or mosaic of resonating components.
Thus, the Earth has become a “national” or tribal park. It is already a teaching machine, a universal playground for advertisers and teenagers.
Address to Author’s Luncheon, 19695
Put a fast rim spin around a slow one and the slow one disintegrates. Put a satellite ring around the planet and all arrangements on the planet disintegrate. It becomes garbage. Garbage means clothing [‘garb‘] — look up the Random House dictionary and you’ll find the fifth definition of garbage is old nose cones and capsule boosters. The new clothing of this planet is that sort of [space] garbage. (…) Satellites as a new garbage or climate surround around the planet are moving information at speeds that the planet cannot cope with and have created not a global village but a global theatre.6
From Cliché to Archetype, 1970
The classification of “garbage” concerns a host of misconceptions. The term itself literally signifies clothing. The cultures of the world have been clad in and constituted by retrieved castoffs: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” (…) The Random House Dictionary of the English Language (1966) assigns the fifth meaning of “garbage” to that new global environment of cast-off nose cones, boosters, and other ballistic flotsam and jetsam.7
McLuhan On Russia, 19718
The new surround of satellites, beginning with Sputnik in 1957, scrapped Nature itself. The planet went inside a man-made environment. Art replaced Nature. The total programming of the earthly environment is all that remained. It’s planet Polluto from here on. The giant rimspin impels all.
Innovation is Obsolete, 1971
The latest technology in our world is the satellite. The satellite is the first man-made environment to encompass the planet. The earth has become the content of a human artifact. The satellite surround is the new artistic mask worn by the earth itself. It is a kind of proscenium arch, turning the globe into a theater. With Sputnik, Earth became an eco-box. (…) The satellite environment has transformed the planet itself into an art form. The total scrapping of the old Nature, and the planet itself, has created a garbage apocalypse, turning the earth into Planet Polluto. The computer programmer is naturally concerned with the task of tackling the entire planetary environment as a problem in programming. Nothing less now confronts us as the immediate task.
The Hardware/Software Mergers, 19729
Sputnik — 1957. Nature was junked. Result was planet polluto. When you put one environment around another, the outer one scraps the inner one, as the suburb scraps the city. (…) When you scrap nature, then everything looks like pollution, including nature. When you go into spaceship Earth, anything that is not programmed is pollution. (…) The spaceships were the first totally programmed human environments. You had to take “nature” with you if you were going to leave this planet. We have thus learned how to program environments totally. When you begin to program the total human environment it is like restoring a ruined Rembrandt. All the previous tinkerings look like defacements. Since Sputnik, the new information environment supersedes hardware and experience alike. Only knowledge remains. That is another simple corollary of moving into the software environment of information: experience is useless. (…) Every technological innovation creates an extension of our bodily senses that translates all our inputs of experience into its specific new form. That literal fact is what is meant by “the medium is the message.” Thus, the new environment of satellites around the planet processes the entire human situation anew. The planet itself is “transplanted” through the new satellite surround, and the new message is “pollution.” Nature itself is now seen to be an utter mess.
The Planet as Art Form, 197210
When Sputnik went around the planet, nature disappeared. Nature was hijacked right off this planet. Nature was enclosed in a man made environment and art took the place of nature. This was one of the biggest hijack jobs conceivable. When you put a new service environment around, say TV, with hologram or what-not, you will find that TV has been completely hijacked, that a new service environment has come in. It isn’t in yet. But, when you put TV around the movies, movies were hijacked. The whole service industry of movies was hijacked and another service industry went around it. When Sputnik went around the planet, the planet became an art form. Nature disappeared overnight and planet polluto took the place of the old nature. Planet polluto, discovered to be in a very bad state, needing a great deal of human attention – art form.
Take Today, 1972
Since the satellite surround, beginning with Sputnik in 1957, there has come the sudden awareness that nature itself has dropped out. Old experience is no longer relevant, and man must now assume responsibility for the total programming of his planetary environment through new knowledge. “Experience,” said Erasmus, “is the schoolmaster of fools.” That is, the rates charged by this ruthless pedagogue are outrageous, and few have ever survived his instruction. As the criminal said on his way to execution: “This will teach me a lesson!”11
Take Today, 1972
At High Speeds Art Replaces Nature, And Nature Goes To School. To The Artist On Planet Eco-Polluto Nothing Exceeds Like Excess12
The Argument: Causality in the Electric World, 1973:
There are no more spectators in lab or life, only participants in the Global Electric Theatre. Sputnik created a new proscenium arch that transformed our awareness of planet Polluto — a limited figure against the ground of limitless space. The Apollo age has scrapped Greek Nature as we assume full responsibility for orchestrating our total environment on human scales beyond ideologies.
The problem of solipsism is that of the fly in the flybottle.13 If “what remains is simply whatever we make (…) by programming”, what can we “make by programming” of that “programming”? What can we “make by programming” of this “we”?
From “inside a human box” there is no access to ground and to reality, only to the confines of the box: “what we used to call nature is gone”.
the new information environment supersedes hardware and experience alike. Only knowledge remains.14
The stipulation of the real and the true can be made only through the knowledge of a “we” whose own ground and reality can be stipulated by nothing other than the knowledge of that same “we”.15 This vicious and ultimately vacuous circle is the solipsistic box in which we are locked. Deeply considered (a rare enough occurrence) the box itself utterly “disintegrates”, together with its contents: the “we” and all of its “knowledge” =>
the “we” and all of its “knowledge”.
All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned. (Marx)16
The true world — we have abolished. What world has remained? The apparent one perhaps? But no! With the true world we also have abolished the apparent one!! (Nietzsche)17
McLuhan described this implosion as follows:
In King Lear Shakespeare opens his play with the King himself launching a program of fragmentation of his external kingdom. The reverberation of this deed quickly reduces all the social roles of his society to chaos. Finally, the inner kingdom and pattern of his own consciousness feel the same disruption of fragmented functions.18
The problem the Toronto school set for itself was how to penetrate solipsism to establish contact with demonstrable reality and truth. “Nothing less now confronts us as the immediate task.”19 This was the same question for the Toronto school of how the planet and the human species belonging to it might be rescued from the explosive effects of empire in which we are ensnared. The root cause of the imperial attempt at limitless inflation was seen to lie in the implosive deflation of solipsism.20 Hence it was in the “garbage” of the “eco-box” of planet polluto that the required solution had to be sought.
How to elicit creativity from these middenheaps has become the problem of modem culture.21
Metro Garbage May One Day Be Used As Building Blocks22
Scrap is a useful resource but you have to start from scratch.23
The imperative “to start from scratch” was the great clue. Following the method of phenomenology as exercised across multiple disciplines from philosophy and linguistics to physics, namely, to “start with output and ask what input leads to such output”24, the need was to start with solipsism as output “and ask what input leads to such output”. For solipsism, too, was first of all a possibility. And if possibilities were inherently plural, retracing solipsism to its root would equally expose other roots with other outputs.25 A different output than solipsism was exactly the imperative need.26
Only solipsism as output was fitted to this end because there is nothing actual or possible between actuality and possibility, just as there is no possibility between possibilities. These borders between actuality and possibility and between possibilities are the “new frontier” and “the new frontier is pure opacity”.27 Solipsism along with the garbage to which it reduced the planet and everything on it exposed this “new frontier”. It was this no man’s land of universal nihilism, the disintegrated
precipitate of solipsism, and this alone, that gave access to the required life-renewing possibility:
it is precisely the courage of [Wyndham] Lewis in pushing the Cartesian and Plotinian angelism to the logical point of the extinction of humanism and personality that gives his work such importance28
Managing The ‘Ascent’ from the Maelstrom today demands awareness that can be achieved only by going ‘Through the Vanishing Point’. (Take Today)29
- In Unlocking the Airwaves. ↩
- For the death grip of empire and the term “empire building”, see ‘The subjugation of the human spirit‘. In the Toronto school, it was Harold Innis, of course, who first placed “empire” in question. ↩
- See the passage from ‘Innovation is Obsolete’ above: “With Sputnik, Earth became an eco-box.” ↩
- “A classified-information basis” leads inevitably to solipsism since it is impossible to get outside of ‘classifications’ in order to know for any sample of knowledge how much comes from the classification and how much from its object. When the unknowable object is the nature of classifications themselves, the whole procedure, as McLuhan said, “disintegrates”. Nietzsche had, of course, detailed the problem as precipitating nihilism almost a century before this. ↩
- YouTube recording 12:50ff. The date given for this address is 1966. But as is clear from many references in it — like McLuhan mentioning The Love Machine by Jacqueline Susann, which was published in 1969, or describing his return from the May 1969 Bilderberg conference in Denmark — this date is mistaken and should be 1969. ↩
- The global theatre is a “box” with a “proscenium arch” where everybody plays only some “role” ↩
- From Cliché to Archetype, 183. McLuhan continues this passage to cite from a New York magazine article titled “The Garbage Apocalypse”. ↩
- ‘McLuhan On Russia: An Interview’, Abraxas, A Journal for the Theoretical Study of Philosophy, the Humanities and the Social Sciences, 1:2, Winter 1971. ↩
- ‘The Hardware/Software Mergers: How Successful Have They Been?’, Educational Technology, Hearings, Ninety-second Congress, second session, on H.R. 4916, House of Representatives, Committee on Education and Labor, Select Subcommittee on Education, September 13, 1972. ↩
- McLuhan on the David Frost Show, ABC Television, 30 May 1972, video and transcript at Marshall McLuhan Speaks. ↩
- Take Today, 1972, 6. ↩
- Take Today is composed of aphoristic segments. This is the title of a segment on p 81. ↩
- Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, #309: “What is your aim in philosophy?—To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.” ↩
- ‘The Hardware/Software Mergers’, 1972, full passage cited above. ↩
- Cf, ‘Notes on the Media as Art Forms’, Explorations 2, 1954: “The habitual contemplation of the media of communication as art forms necessarily invokes the principle that the instruments of research are also art forms, magically distorting and controlling the objects of investigation. Critical awareness of this fact has saved the modern scientist from many blunders, but such awareness has arrived tardily in the popular sphere.” McLuhan saw “the popular sphere” here as including everything outside of the research of “the modern scientist”, so not only politics, commerce and entertainment, but education as well — and especially the humanities and social sciences. ↩
- The Manifesto of the Communist Party. The original reads: “Alles Ständische und Stehende verdampft, alles Heilige wird entweiht…”. ↩
- Twilight of the Idols. The original reads: “Die wahre Welt haben wir abgeschafft: welche Welt blieb übrig? die scheinbare vielleicht?… Aber nein! mit der wahren Welt haben wir auch die scheinbare abgeschafft!!” ↩
- ‘The Lewis Vortex: Art and Politics as Masks of Power’, in Letteratura/Pittura, ed G. Cianci, 1982. Written around 1970 for a L’Herne volume but never published there. ↩
- ‘Innovation is Obsolete’, full passage cited above. ↩
- “We may end ourselves (…) because we think we have nothing left in ourselves to respect.” Havelock, The Crucifixion of Intellectual Man, 1950, 6. ↩
- From Cliché to Archetype, 1970, 184. ↩
- Headline from the Toronto Telegram of March 5, 1969 cited in From Cliché to Archetype, 1970, 182. ↩
- ‘The Hardware/Software Mergers: How Successful Have They Been?’. See note 9 above for the reference. ↩
- McLuhan to Harry Skornia, Sept 3, 1960 in Unlocking the Airwaves. ↩
- Cf, McLuhan, ‘The Role of Mass Communication in Meeting Today’s Problems’, NAEB Journal, vol 18 (Oct, 1958): “Let us grant for the moment that the medium is the message. It follows that if we study any medium carefully we shall discover its total dynamics and its unreleased powers.” ↩
- What McLuhan called “media dynamics”, with its explicit reference to Aristotle’s investigations of possibility, was the field dedicated to the investigation of such root assumptions. For media as root assumptions, see Media definition. ↩
- Take Today, 1972, 90. See McLuhan on Malthus and “unpopulous margins”: “It seemed obvious to Malthus that population pressed outward upon the means of subsistence. (…) For an industrializing England the means of subsistence were increasingly at the margins of the population structure. But the awareness of margins was itself a novelty of an exploding or expanding economy. To have identified the remote and unpopulous margins of an economy with the limits of the means of subsistence was a stroke of artistic genius” (‘The Electronic Age – The Age of Implosion’, 1962). ↩
- ‘Nihilism Exposed’, Renascence, Vol.8, Winter, 1955 ↩
- Take Today, 13. “The ‘Ascent’ from the Maelstrom” is, of course, McLuhan’s ano-kato play on Poe’s ‘A Descent into the Maelström’. ↩