a single word (…) is (…) a (…) snapshot of a complex process (Myth and Mass Media, 1959)
In a letter to Harry Skornia, December 1, 1958, McLuhan wrote:
An image of an entire process is a myth. Myth (e.g., Cadmus, Gorgon, Trojan Horse) is a single image of an entire process. A word is a single shot of a process. A language or medium is a macro-myth which may include all sorts of derivative myths, etc.1
Every word is a “derivative myth” within the “macro-myth” of some language. An “entire process” lies behind its appearance and activity there. This is the process — but not one in clock time! — through which that word has come to be selected out of all the other words which might have been used in its place. Moreover, as McLuhan described, every word selected in this process has multiple meanings and here, too, selection must be exercised:
every word has a hidden ground of many many layers under every single word you utter (…) Every single word you use whether it is ‘cat’ or ‘dog’ or whatever has layer after layer of hidden meanings that are not [all] used, but when you use the word, all of them are put into resident activity. Whenever you use the word it doesn’t matter whether you know the [complete range of its] meaning or not, the whole word is in resident activity. It echoes. The totality of the word is put into action by just using it. You don’t have to know [all] that it means — just hearing it is enough. So this again is an example of the hidden ground as part of our ordinary perceptual lives. (45:50ff)2
In fact, even individual letters and sounds must be selected in a process that precedes every use of a word (but does not precede them in clock-time).
to the structural linguist the fact that the letter “k,” for example, as written, may suggest a single sound, does not hide from him the fact that there are several quite distinct “k” sound-structures mastered by every child by two or three years of age. For the “k” in “quick” Is not the “k” in “chalk.” Using the fill-at-once approach of electronic tape, the linguist becomes aware of the interpenetration of the alphabetic sounds and the consequent modification of letters that look alike in the one-thing-at-a-time world of the written word. So he doesn’t hesitate to say that written letters, insofar as they pretend to point to distinct sounds, are a very crude gimmick for reducing couples and subtle qualities of sound to mere averages.3
On the way to speaking or writing, ‘run’ may be selected as against ‘ran’ and even ‘rune’ in order to express one sort of action (running not rune-ing) and when that action took place and whether it was finished (perfected) or not. Nearly always, this grammatical process is entirely ignored as it is made. But it need not be ignored and Wakese never does so. The sort of vague touch ‘rune’ has with ‘run’ is always implicated. But this sort of implication need not be explicitly marked and, indeed, usually is not in Wakese — just as it is not explicit in ordinary language use. The difference is that Wakese works with the constant admonition that this sort of implicated history may be in play at any moment and therefore must always be considered even if Joyce did not bother to do so! The lesson is that language works through an implicated range of interpretation and the business of Wakese is nothing other than to magnify this range as a way of revealing its necessary presence in any language use at all.
What is always overlooked in the usual uses of language simply cannot be overlooked in Wakese because, absent such attention to its synchronic process of selection, its words and hence its lumpy narrative — make no sense. Tellingly, the etymology of ‘sense’ has to do with ‘direction’ and ‘pathway’, as in ‘send’ (in English) or ‘sens unique’, ‘senso unico’, ‘sentiero’ and ‘sendero’ (in French, Italian and Spanish). ‘Sense’ is always and only arrived at by following a pathway whose usually subliminal understanding is what it is to know a language.
- This letter is in the Project in Understanding New Media folders posted to the Internet Archive by the massive project called “Unlocking the Airwaves: Revitalizing an Early Public and Educational Radio Collection.” This admirable project is a collaboration among the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Communication Arts, and the Wisconsin Historical Society. It is supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities through a Humanities Collections and Reference Resources grant. ↩
- For further discussion, see Wakese 2: McLuhan on the “potencies” of language. ↩
- McLuhan’s presentation to the NAEB research committee, September 23, 1959. ↩