The breakthrough insight at “the level of essence”

My own approach, following Harold Innis, is a transformation theory, thus homeostasis of the perceptual factors (…) requir[ing] much redistribution of emphasis among the senses. (McLuhan to Hans Selye, 1974, full citation and discussion below.)

Throughout the 1950s (hence his delay in completing The Gutenberg Galaxy that whole decade), McLuhan was puzzled by the fact that the movement in new media analyzed by Havelock, Innis, Richards and himself beyond the eye and back towards the ear, somehow seemed to have occurred through intensely visual innovations like photography, film, comics and, above all, television. How had the eye come to trump the eye?

An answer came to him at last at the start of the following decade. As he reported in Project in Understanding New Media: “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.” That is, the effects of media were not to be found in their sensory input toward us (eg, of television or telephone), but in the shape of the subsequent sensory output from us (eg, a demand or even a need in an electric age for participation).1

This revolution in focus from input to output implicated2 the notion that media had to be understood on two fundamentally different (though interconnected) levels, the literal level (Voegelin’s “factual level of history”3) where media were found objects (like newspapers and computers, or like spoken languages, or even like abstractions such as orality and literacy) and the level of formal cause (Voegelin’s “level of essence”4). The former was the level of the explanandum, that which required explanation, as opposed to the latter level of the explanans, that which would explain.

Studying with Rupert Lodge at the University of Manitoba in the early 1930’s, McLuhan had imbibed the notion that human experience was differentiated into three fundamentally different types and that the multilevel study of these types as explanans could help solve the explanandum of practical problems in education, commerce and politics.5 His PhD thesis awarded in 1943 put forward the notion that these types could be identified and investigated in terms of the three arts of the trivium. But through his exposure to the ‘synaesthesis’ of I.A. Richards at Cambridge,6, then to Catholic theology7 and finally to the work of Harold Innis (itself also influenced by Eric Havelock and I.A. Richards), he came to think by 1950 that the dynamic order of the senses might be the best way to characterize the “level of essence” and therefore also the “factual level of history” via the linked working of these explanans/explanandum strata. 

In 1974 he wrote to Hans Selye:

My own approach, following Harold Innis, is a transformation theory, thus homeostasis of the perceptual factors in a rapidly changing environment requires much redistribution of emphasis among the senses. For example, a blind or deaf person compensates for the loss of one sense by a heightening of activity in the others.  It seems to me that this also occurs in whole populations when new technologies create new sensory environments.8

Communication via media did not occur through the ‘transportation’ of some meaning through a ‘pipeline’ or linear chain, but though instantaneous “transformation” as when a child first learns to speak.9  In this understanding, all mental activity may be imagined as a series of Gestalts10 which displace each other so completely from moment to moment that there is little or no explanatory power to be derived from looking at their series.11  Instead, understanding came from investigation of the Gestalts themselves and the key here was to define what Voegelin called “theoretically justifiable units”12. In his note to Selye, McLuhan called the unit of experiential Gestalts the “homeostasis of the perceptual factors” and the dynamism accounting for differences between the units he termed the “redistribution of emphasis among the senses”. That is, the unit of experience which is expressed at the “factual level of history” as explanandum, and which explains at the “level of essence” as explanans, is the constant (in sum) but dynamic relation or ratio of “the perceptual factors” — the elementary structure of the senses together in some or other “distribution of emphasis among the senses” = the variable Gestalt of “common sense”.13

To compare, the explanans in chemistry is the constant relation, or “homeostasis”, of electrons and protons which expresses itself in Mendeleev’s table as a “redistribution” between the two. This “redistribution” takes place in chemistry through the increasing number of the two which yet always remains in homeostatic balance.14 Meanwhile the explanandum of chemistry is the entire universe of physical materials.

In the case of media, the  constant (though dynamic) relation or “homeostasis” between the eye and the ear, as the elementary structure of communication, varies not through a changing  matching number (as the chemical elements do), but through the co-variance of the two.15 Here, although their total does not change, the relative contribution between the eye and ear varies over a spectrum stretching between all eye at the extreme end on one side of the spectrum and all ear at the other extreme. Along the spectrum between these extremes each point is defined by a different “redistribution of emphasis among the senses”, but is always equal to 1 (= the dynamic constant of the Gestalt of “common sense”). The full spectrum, in similar fashion to Mendeleev’s table, defines the complete range of the possible forms of elementary media. Meanwhile the explanandum of McLuhan’s “new science”, or sciences, is the entire universe of human experience.

  1. Nevertheless, McLuhan all too often confused (or at least disguised) this insight by talking about the input from media: the 360 degree field of sound, the assembly line of letters on the printed page, the ‘charge of the light brigade’ of television, etc. His purpose in doing so was doubtless to help along the closer inspection of all media as surrounds, as directives, as dynamic formal causes, whose properties are then their effects. Thus, sound as a surrounding field in ordinary experience could be taken as exemplifying any medium considered at the level of formal cause, even print. However that may have been, so far at least, 40 years on from McLuhan’s death, this purpose has gone unrealized and the technique has proved to be only misleading and counter-productive.
  2. The implication here was triggered by the idea that the “factual level” did not provide satisfactory explanation either through “the units thrown up in the stream of history” (Voegelin) or through their sequence in that stream. Therefore the implication that other units at another level had to be isolated. And this seemed further to imply that instead of one “stream of history” there must be at least three: the “stream of history”, the stream of “essential units”, and the stream of their interconnection.
  3. See Voegelin and the question of “intelligible units” for citation and discussion.
  4. Ibid.
  5. See The Comparative Method of Rupert Lodge and, in general, these Lodge posts.
  6. ‘Synaesthesis’ was treated by Richards and his co-authors in The Foundations of Aesthetics and The Meaning of Meaning from the early 1920s, but remained a central concern of his for the rest of his life as, eg, ‘complementarity’.
  7. Here McLuhan was prompted especially through his study with Bernie Muller-Thym of Muller-Thym’s ‘Common Sense, Perfection of the Order of Pure Sensibility’ (1940), but also through his related reading of Maritain, Gilson and Phelan (where Muller-Thym served as his expert guide).
  8. McLuhan to Selye, July 25, 1974, cited in Gordon, Escape into Understanding, 150.
  9.  McLuhan to Marshall Fishwick: “I have the only communication theory of transformation — all the other (communication) theories are theories of transportation.” (July 31, 1974, Letters 505)
  10. Similarly, quantum physics is based on the notion that momentary Gestalts at the quantum level and their series in time are so fundamentally incompatible that it is impossible to have both at once.
  11. Voegelin: “the self-formation of movements in history, institutionally and ideologically, is not (the same thing as) theoretical formation. The investigation inevitably will start from the phenomena, but the question of theoretically justifiable units in political science cannot be solved (simply) by accepting the units thrown up in the stream of history at their face value.” See Voegelin and the question of “intelligible units” for citation and discussion. Study of historical series is necessarily study mainly of the past (so far as one knows it) and is therefore an exercise of what McLuhan called the “rear-view mirror” (which is both a framework and the deployment of such a framework).
  12. See the preceding note.
  13. Just as the electron and proton are only two of many different particles in the atom, but are central for investigation and explanation, so the eye and the ear are only two of the five senses — but are central for investigation and explanation.
  14. The “homeostasis” of electrons and protons is always preserved in elements. But ions, of course,  are constituted by its loss. The latter are the key to valence and to investigation of the huge variety of chemical combinations, but are dependent on a prior understanding of the nonionic elements.
  15. For discussion, see Relativity and topology.