Chemistry of the interior landscape 2

Philosophic agreement is not necessary among those who are agreed that the insistent operation of media-forms on human sensibility and awareness is an observable, intelligible, and controllable situation. (‘Myth and Mass Media‘, 1959)

We can, perhaps we must, become the masters of cultural and historical alchemy. (‘Myth and Mass Media‘)

In his 1960 review of American Folklore by Richard Dorson, ‘Myth, Oral and Written’ (Commentary, 30:1), McLuhan reflected on the reversal he proposed from the analysis of human experience in all its forms by philosophy1 — to the analysis of philosophy by human experience in all its forms.2

He did so by recounting with deadpan humor how Dorson put him in mind of Lewis Carroll:

The scientific folklorist seeks out, observes, collects, and describes the inherited traditions of the community, whatsoever forms they take.”3 Such is Professor Dorson’s undertaking [in American Folklore], and it is a broad program [a broad program!] which has my own sympathies and interests deeply involved. Yet such a program might easily parallel Lewis Carroll’s idea of a map of the scale of one mile to the mile. Carroll pointed out that since such a map would inevitably rouse the hostility of farmers [whose fields would be covered over by the map], we might alternatively [just] use the earth itself as a map of itself. And is not this what folklorists have hit upon as a strategy of culture — with the ordinary citizen in the role of the farmer about to be blanketed by an earth map?4 If so, can we find some means of awareness that will not obliterate the cultural scene, some way to get enough light through and still prevent a general brainwashing by putting too much light on?5

The question was, and is, how bring to bear an understanding of human experience in all its forms6 on the analysis of particular examples of experience? A series of notions are implicated in McLuhan’s thinking here:

  1. The understanding of any cultural phenomenon can be achieved only by an analysis, like that of chemistry regarding the material world, that applies to all such phenomena, regardless of where or when they are found.7 
  2. The understanding of anything must involve an equal understanding of what it is not — but might have been. Actualities must be understood in relation to their possibilities.8 This implicated what McLuhan called “multi-levels of simultaneous presentation“.
  3. The understanding of the complete universe of psychological phenomena cannot be made by taking it entire (“Lewis Carroll’s idea of a map of the scale of one mile to the mile”), or by the reduction of the whole to some simplicity (as has been attempted forever, like Thales’ water) — the two extremes of ‘matching‘.9 Instead, an understanding of the complete universe of psychological phenomena must be ‘made‘ through a self-conscious reduction that is acknowledged from the outset as less than ‘fully true’ (and exactly therefore, subject to future investigation). For such an understanding, the necessary reduction it makes — like the reduction of a liquid by boiling that may be stopped at different points with different results — is necessarily questionable. “Philosophic agreement is not necessary” — or permitted!
  4. The initiation of such investigation does not depend on truth (although individual thinkers may well mistakenly believe that they are discovering truth), but only on the collective determination to begin and continue investigation on some agreed basis — an agreed basis that approaches every individual or social act of human being as “an observable, intelligible, and controllable situation.”
  5. Truth in this case (as exemplified in all the hard sciences) is just the open collective investigation of what are known to be finite samples by finite methods. Some final consolidation (whatever that might be) is neither possible nor desired.
  6. Nostalgia for finality (which is manifested also by regret at its loss) tracks the continuing grip of the Gutenberg galaxy on our innards (a variation of inwards) — which extend, as always, also outwards.
  1. ‘Philosophy’ here and in the following instance stands in for all the disciplines (psychology, anthropology, sociology, etc) that undertake to ‘understand’ human being.
  2. For further discussion, see A medium is the sum total of all its impact. The field of chemistry is the physical world in all its forms. McLuhan contemplated a similar field of media that would cover human experience in all its forms.
  3. McLuhan citation from Dorson’s American Folklore.
  4. About to be blanketed — since nothing at all of human being falls outside the blanket of “the inherited traditions of the community, whatsoever forms they take.”
  5. See The goal of science for some thoughts on the Scylla and Charybdis of this too little light (“obliterate the cultural scene”) vs “too much light”.
  6. See A medium is the sum total of all its impact.
  7. Regardless of where and when = spacetime independence. Chemical elements in the early universe, billions of light years away in time and space, are not different from elements here and now (although subject to very different conditions, of course).
  8. Heidegger’s Introduction to Sein und Zeit (1927) concludes: “Higher than actuality stands possibility. We can understand phenomenology only by seizing it as a possibility.” (Höher als die Wirklichkeit steht die Möglichkeit. Das Verständnis der Phänomenologie liegt einzig im Ergreifen ihrer als Möglichkeit.)
  9. The two extremes: all is all (and nothing less) vs all is one (and nothing more).