Wakese 2: McLuhan on the “potencies” of language

start with output and ask what input leads to such output (McLuhan to Harry Skornia, Sept 3, 1960)

On November 19, 1984, a radio broadcast from CKLN in Toronto  presented a collage of audio recordings of McLuhan in which “language [a]s the metamorphic power” was discussed by him from a variety of different angles.1 The key to this power as considered by McLuhan in respect to its internal2 reach within language was the relation of words and sounds to their underlying possibilities. Every aspect of language could be different and therefore could be understood as a choice made on the way to its expression (whether orally or in some other medium).  In recent history, this notion went back to Saussure and raised the questions of when and where and how such choices were made (since they were certainly not made consciously in ordinary time and space in the course of our normal activities).

Shortly after Saussure, but with explicit roots in Aristotle and implicit ones in many of Aristotle’s predecessors, the importance of a consideration of possibility was recognized in many fields. For Heidegger in Sein und Zeit (1927) possibility ‘stands higher’ than actuality so that the project of phenomenology needed to explicate itself as one possibility among others.  To begin, it needed to account for itself as not being what it otherwise might be. In that same year of 1927 Born and Heisenberg recognized the mathematics of quantum physics as probability waves, as graphs of possibilities. Explorations of color and form in art and of different scales and rhythms in music were likewise attempts to probe underlying possibilities of those areas.

Finnegans Wake was begun in the middle 1920s and the strange Wakese it employs is a language in which possibilities intrude on its surface level in a way they do not in everyday life — so far as we notice. But by this time, Freud and Jung had been looking at the ‘psychopathology of everyday life’ in similar fashion for decades.

In the context of this broad return to Aristotelian dynamics3, McLuhan’s remarks in the tapes broadcast over CKLN provide an introduction to Wakese as a language in which possibilities are highlighted in what McLuhan termed their “resident activity”:4

one reason that you have to guess when you’re looking at any word whatever is that it has dozens of meanings that are not being used at that particular moment. When you look up the word ‘read’ you’ll find many columns of meanings for the word and beside the word ‘read’ is the word ‘run’. He who runs may read; well, ‘run’ means ‘rune’, ‘run’ comes from ‘rune’, which means a cryptic puzzle and reading and rune-ing are close. (39:50ff)

Reading and rune-ing in this passage are used in the double sense of words in the dictionary and the skills necessary to access a dictionary (or, in fact, to carry out any human activity). McLuhan was doing what he was talking about and talking about what he was doing.  He was using his wits in a consideration of wit. Media study, just like phenomenology according to Heidegger, had to account for its actuality in terms of its underlying possibilities.

the fact that reading is guessing means that every word has a hidden ground of many many layers under every single word you utter (the word ‘utter’ is a very good example of
this multilevel of hidden meanings [like ‘outer’ in English and ‘uttar’ in Hindi]). 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. Now under conditions of electronic technology the hidden acoustic ground of language has awakened enormously. Words are much more in the level of consciousness [now] than they ever were for many centuries thanks to our living in an acoustic age. (45:48ff)5

the sounds6 of the environment are filtered through the language or transformed in the language: language is the metamorphic power (6:20ff)

all art forms really resonate from hidden grounds that are there in depth all the time. All the possible musics are latent (…) in the acoustic forms of the language itself and are just waiting [to be expressed] (12:08ff)

there is a hidden ground that makes possible any technological change (5:35)7

Visual man can suppress nearly all the meanings of a word. A highly literate person is offended when you pun using some other meaning of a word. He groans merely to hear the acoustic dimension of a word put into play: “Jung and easily Freudened”; “Though he might have been more humble there’s no police like Holmes” — James Joyce,  I’m quoting him from Finnegans Wake. (47:47ff)

  1. Most of these audio tapes came from seminars, lectures and interviews held in the 1970s, some later even than the publication of City as Classroom in 1977.
  2. Internal — that is, not considered in terms of the intimately related external reach of language in its manifest communication with others.
  3. It is not at all the case, as is usually assumed, that Aristotle’s dynamics represented a turn away from Plato. Instead Plato himself argued that forms were not mere abstractions and dynamics were Aristotle’s attempt to understand the metaphorical life of forms as an inherent urge to expression. Hence — ‘en-ergy’. McLuhan in a June 5, 1959 letter to Harry Skornia: “One new concept for us: media are ‘ideas’ in action.” This was exactly Aristotle’s notion of the dynamics of Plato’s forms or ideas. In fact, in a letter to Skornia two days later, and then repeatedly in letters to him thereafter, McLuhan calls this notion the “generalized theory of the dynamic-model” (June 7, 1959). (Both letters are in the NAEB materials referenced in Wakese 3.)
  4. All citations below are taken from the CKLN recordings referenced above. For “resident activity” see the segment cited from 45:48ff.
  5. Compare McLuhan’s letter to Innis from a quarter century earlier where possibilities are rendered as “potencies”: “Many of the ancient language theories of the Logos type which you (Innis) cite for their bearings on government and society have recurred and amalgamated themselves today under the auspices of anthropology and social psychology. Working concepts of ‘collective consciousness’ in advertising agencies have in turn given salience and practical effectiveness to these ‘magical’ notions of language. But it was most of all the esthetic discoveries of the symbolists since Rimbaud and Mallarmé (developed in English by Joyce, Eliot, Pound, Lewis and Yeats) which 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.”
  6. Not only the sounds, but the sights, smells, tastes and felt tactility of the environment are all filtered though language. But ‘language’ here has multiple meanings. It might be taken to refer (as McLuhan often took it to refer) to a particular language like English.  He often discussed rock, for example, as a distillation from the particular language of English. Or it might be taken to refer to “language itself”, language in general, and this again in two senses: first, language as it is used to communicate in some fashion and, second, ‘language’ as the dynamic power generating actual expression out of a manifold of possibilities. It was this latter dynamism which is not restricted to language, but which is particularly to be seen in language, that he termed the “metamorphic power”.
  7. In this context it must be recalled that language itself, for McLuhan, is a technology. So not only any technological change in the narrow sense, but any change in human history whatsoever, individual or collective, has its hidden grounds. Just as the once hidden ground of chemistry makes possible (now and in the past and in the future) all the changes in the material world, or the once hidden ground of genetics makes possible (now and in the past and in the future) all the changes in the genesis of living beings, so all individual and collective cultural changes have their (still hidden) ground which it is the business of media study to probe and to attempt to bring to light.