Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
(Tennyson, The Charge of the Light Brigade, 1854)
When in late 1958 McLuhan via André Girard first came upon the notion of TV as “light through” as opposed to “light on“,1 he had already been writing for some years about “the charge of the light brigade” used by Joyce in characterizing TV:
The TV camera is not the movie camera. It does not arrest the flow of action in a series of still shots. Its continuous pick-up is like the radio mike with respect to the voice. Again the TV screen is not the movie screen. In some sense the spectator is himself the screen. The cathode tube carries ‘the charge of the light brigade’. The tube carries both the charge and the answering barrage.2 The result is the painting of images by the ballet of electrons. (Notes on the Media as Art Forms, Explorations 2, 1954)
Joyce saw TV as the fateful charge of the Light Brigade made possible by the ‘abnihilisation of the etym’. (…) With TV the spectator is the screen. The world external to the TV camera is interiorized in the TV watcher. (Radio and TV vs. the Abced-Minded, Explorations 5, 1955)
The “abnihilisation of the etym” — the dismantling of the atom — as the cutting of the uncuttable is, taken as an objective genitive, the freeing of the electron for its “charge” and resulting “ballet”. Its bullet and resulting bulletin.
On the other hand, this technology, like all others, is enabled by what it at the same time veils, namely the gap or “abnihilisation” at its heart. And since “the medium is the message” as the ‘root’ or “etym” of all possible messages, this gap is the “abnihilisation of the etym” as a subjective genitive, the gap belonging to the medium-root-etym as its defining structural characteristic. Hence Joyce’s “ab” (from) and not merely “nihilisation”.
In the third place, the “abnihilisation of the etym” taken as a dual genitive, both objective and subjective, is the ‘death of Adam’ (subjective as well as objective because brought about by himself). Joyce brings together ‘atom’ and ‘Adam’ throughout FW: “from atoms to ifs” (455), “adomic structure” (615). Among the points being made is that ‘objective’ insight is never without ‘subjective’ ramification: “both the charge and the answering barrage”.3 Human extension ends, as McLuhan would repeatedly insist, in implosion.
- See From world to worlds. ↩
- “The answering barrage” in Tennyson describing the Russian response to the English charge:
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volleyed and thundered. ↩
- See The chemistry of the interior landscape for McLuhan to Skornia: “the actual lines of force generated by any medium as it expands, making its own world, yet reciprocally modifying existing forms and being modified by them as well”. ↩