All media are active metaphors in their power to translate experience into new forms. The spoken word was the first technology by which man was able to let go of his environment in order to grasp it in a new way. (Understanding Media)1
the ratio2 among sight and sound, and touch3 (…) offer[s] precisely that place to stand which Archimedes asked for: “Give me a place to stand, and I will move the world.” The media [as defined by the elementary structure of this ratio] offer exactly such a place to stand, for they are extensions of our senses, if need be into outer space. (Effects of the Improvements of Communication Media, 1960)
inputs are never the same as (…) outputs! This pattern of non-lineality is evident in every human activity. (Take Today, 137).4
Reading Heisenberg has made me feel that my media studies are at the state that nuclear studies had reached in 1924. But my heart sinks, because those nuclear studies were being urged forward by eager teams, and media studies enjoys no such support at all. But I am bold [enough] to say that many of the same techniques and concepts are needed for advancing media studies as were used for nuclear studies. But there is the huge difference, that media studies involve human lives far more profoundly than nuclear studies ever have done, or ever can do. (McLuhan to E.T. Hall)5
The signature suggestion of McLuhan’s undergraduate mentor at the University of Manitoba, Rupert Lodge, was that philosophy — and by extension truth and reality6 — comes in three irreducible flavors: realism, idealism and pragmatism:7
If philosophers are to come down from their ivory tower and be of some practical use in the world — as is so often demanded nowadays — one great difficulty which they must somehow surmount is the difficulty occasioned by their internecine differences. There are, roughly speaking, three schools of philosophy (…): realism, idealism, and pragmatism. Each has many branches, concerning which, qualifications might have to be introduced; but taken as wholes, the three are fundamentally distinct. (…) Each of these schools exploits a particular kind of explanatory hypothesis. Realism exploits what Aristotle called the “material cause,” idealism the “formal cause” and pragmatism the “efficient cause”. These lines of explanation as followed by the three philosophical schools, are not only different. They are divergent. The methods, backgrounds, and outlooks of the three schools become increasingly different. Even where they all use the same words, they understand them in distinctive senses. They compete with each other over the whole field of experience, and, as far as they can, negate each other’s explanatory efforts. To the practical mind, philosophers appear to be engaged in a sort of triangular duel.8
Lodge was interested in the “practical use” of his ideas in education, business and throughout society, taking his three different possibilities more or less at face value. The central questions for him were: how to recognize the basic forms? how to interrogate their influence throughout the life of the individual and society? how to put to use the ever-present possibility of other approaches? McLuhan took over the importance of these questions, but also intuited that the further exploration of the implications of such pluralism might be of critical importance in a global village where truths and worldviews were increasingly in deadly conflict with one another and with the physical environment. This would lead him in the direction of what might be termed a quantum theory of information and communication.
The central implication of Lodge’s threefold proposal, McLuhan eventually found, was that no human experience can be continuous on its preceding moment or input. As he recorded 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.”9
If input and output were connected in some continuum, a plurality of different fundamental approaches to experience would not be possible.
No fundamental approach can be based on a previous one since in this case it would no longer be primary — it would be secondary on that earlier basis and itself not basic at all. Instead, a fundamental approach must be able to bootstrap itself as its own cause on its own base or ground. Further, this possibility of bootstrap auto-ignition must be synchronic — always available and always active — since, were this not the case, experience would at least sometimes be continuous on previous moments. At such hypothetical times, the activation of the supposedly fundamental approaches would be repressed or cancelled by continuity. Here again they would not be fundamental at all.
The upshot is that human experience, at its deepest level, must take place as a kind of perpetual auto-ignited sparking of some one of the fundamental possibilities of approach. Above this level, just as in the physical universe, there may be all sorts of predictable regularities having to do with, say, the typical compound formations of the fundamental possibilities and their properties. But at the level of contesting fundamentals, constraints comparable to those of quantum physics must be in force. For example, it must always be uncertain in principle what sort of experience will follow on a chronologically prior one. So experience at any moment may be specified, but not its trajectory. Or typical trajectories may be identified, but the particular moments constituting them cannot be specified without interrupting the continuity of those linear trajectories (aka, ‘world lines’).
Hence, the ‘location’ and the ‘momentum’ deriving from the fundamental dominants of human experience — media — may be specified, but not both together and at once.
McLuhan’s vocabulary can be understood only in this context. Thus, ‘probing’ and ‘exploring’ in his work have to do with an exercise of thought that is exactly not continuous. They arise freely out of the ineluctable “gap” in every moment of human experience between input and output, “the medium [that] is the message”, and represent the attempt to find a new way to consider, and perhaps to solve, suddenly, some problem.
Because McLuhan saw that quantum physics had encountered these sorts of problems, he foresaw that the conceptualities deployed in it could be helpful in the investigations of quantum communications. As he said in his letter to Hall cited above:
many of the same techniques and concepts are needed for advancing media studies as were used for nuclear studies.
The reverse is also possible:
many of the same techniques and concepts are needed for advancing nuclear studies as were used for media studies.
But the potential synergies between quantum physics and quantum communications go far beyond “techniques and concepts”. Especially, the inter-working of the two could establish truth once again as the ground and calling of human beings and so put an end to the reign of nihilism.
Nihilism would be ended by demonstration that quantum communications can aid in the specification of physical reality (from quarks to the universe).10 For such demonstration in the hard science of physics would rebound on the domain of communications in the supposedly soft social sciences and humanities to reveal their capacity for truth.
Life in truth would be re-established on this earth — only now on “the authority of knowledge“.
- Understanding Media, 61. Cf: “So it is with the emergence of language in the child. In the first months grasping is reflexive, and the power to make voluntary release comes only toward the end of the first year. Speech comes with the development of the power to let go of objects. It gives the power of detachment from the environment that is also the power of great mobility in knowledge of the environment” (Understanding Media, 132). In these passages from Understanding Media McLuhan does not explicitly raise the issue if ‘man’ may properly be said to have existed before being “able to let go of his environment in order to grasp it in a new way” through language. The implication of “the spoken word was the first technology” is that there was indeed something like ‘pre-technological man’. But elsewhere McLuhan was clear that humanity and language use are coextensive. Or even that language as logos is prior to humans and that the beginning of human being (verbal) and learning the use of language were simultaneous in origin — no humanity absent language. This event, in turn, would have been the inauguration of an unaccountable accord between humans and that prior logos. ↩
- The ratio, singular, “among sight and sound, and touch”, names a spectrum of ratios, plural, in the same way as the singular elementary structure in chemistry names a table of elementary structures, plural. ↩
- McLuhan’s hypothesis was that all media are based in an elementary ratio “among sight and sound, and touch”. This ratio extends over a spectrum with 3 main types: predominantly sight, predominantly sound, and sight/sound balance in which touch predominates. These 3 types recapitulate Lodge’s 3 types, just as did the “ancient quarrel” of the 3 arts of the trivium in McLuhan’s work in the 1940s. ↩
- See “Food for the mind is like food for the body”. ↩
- McLuhan to Edward T. Hall, April 5, 1962, Papers of Edward Twitchell Hall, Univ of Arizona Special Collections. ↩
- As Lodge says in the extended passage cited above from ‘Balanced Philosophy and Eclecticism’: “They (the 3 forms of philosophy) compete with each other over the whole field of experience“. As cannot be emphasized enough, it is precisely the relation of philosophy, experience and thought, on the one hand, to truth and reality, on the other, that is the question at stake in the ‘ancient quarrel’ of the 3 forms. Wherever this quarrel is decided in favor of one of them, the primacy of the quarrel has been abrogated. The central insight of Lodge, inherited from a long tradition, and bequeathed to McLuhan, was that the quarrel is deeper than its forms — although it exists through its forms. ↩
- This notion of a 3-fold beat to reality was hardly original to Lodge — it goes back at least 2500 years to Heraclitus and Plato. See Gigantomachia, triangular duel, siamese triplets. ↩
- ‘Balanced Philosophy and Eclecticism’, Rupert C. Lodge, The Journal of Philosophy, 41:4, February, 1944, 85-91, here 85. This article is in McLuhan’s papers in Ottawa, but misnamed in the finding aid as ‘Balanced Philosophy and Scholasticism’. ↩
- This insight occurred 25 years after McLuhan was explicitly exposed to the idea in 1936 books by Francis Yates and Muriel Bradbrook (see “Food for the mind is like food for the body”) and 40 or so years after he was implicitly exposed to it in the work of his mother as an impersonator. Elsie’s whole art was founded on the notion that sensibility is founded, knowingly or unknowingly, on a creative decision among possible options. It followed that any particular exercise of sensibility could be acted out by reproducing that decision. ↩
- For example, all theory in quantum physics is, of course, just that — theory. Quantum communications might provide quantum physics with a new way, or ways, to test and evaluate competing theories. Or quantum communications might provide a formulation of ontology — creative autonomous sparking of a spectrum of possibilities in both the physical and psychological domains — and so provide a kind of target conceptual map for (and of) investigations in physics. Above all, communications and the humanities in general have explored the implications of entanglement (under a series of different names) for centuries, indeed for millennia. These can supply new questions and new answers for the interrogations of physics (dual genitive). ↩