Psycho-dynamics (the medium is the message)

It is not easy to convince a literary man that an interest in the psycho-dynamics of the printed form of codification of information is anything but malice toward literature. Moreover, he is likely to feel personal humiliation at finding that he is, in fact, quite unaware of some of the basic effects of the print form upon many of his most cherished ideas and attitudes. (…) Personally I am not trying to upset such people. I am really trying to understand media and to discover their unique dynamics. (The Medium is the Message, 1960)1

If there is one dominating theme to McLuhan’s 24 ‘items’ in Explorations 8, it is that of “psycho-dynamics”.2 When he states in #3 that “extra sensory perception is normal perception” he means that in “normal perception” there is more going on than “sensory” reception and deployment. The additional “extra sensory” factor at work in perception is the medium in terms of which any and all experience is always already structured. Both the working and corresponding study of such media may be called “psycho-dynamics”.

In #8 he compares such “psycho-dynamics” to modern physics and medicine:

the rise of field theory in physics now has its medical counterpart in Dr. Hans Selye’s stress view3 (…) The Selye theory (…) that “all vital phenomena depend merely upon quantitative variations in the activation of pre-existent elementary targets.”4 is not a superficial view5 (…) The analogical drama of being and perception needs no more than the quantitative terms postulated by Selye. With these the living word constitutes and manifests itself in all mental and spiritual complexity.6

“The living word constitutes and manifests itself in all mental and spiritual complexity”7: such constitution/manifestation is the work of “psycho-dynamics” and is further specified in #6:

The most obvious feature of any (…)8 situation is extreme flexibility in immediate foreground and extreme persistence or rigidity in overall pattern. 

Compare this to Selye from Explorations 1 as cited (see above) by McLuhan in Explorations 8: “all vital phenomena depend merely upon quantitative variations in the activation of pre-existent elementary targets”. Selye’s “vital phenomena” = McLuhan’s “extreme flexibility in immediate foreground”; and Selye’s “pre-existent elementary targets” = McLuhan’s “persistence (…) in overall pattern”. If the former may be taken as the message or figure and the latter as the medium or ground9, a central implication of “the medium is the message” is that — just as in chemistry — understanding depends on a specification the underlying elements (= media grounds) and of their expression in the production (pro-duction) of the experienced world (whether material or mental).

Again just like chemistry, “the literal level was held to include all levels” (#22) since the literal level was to be investigated as the law-governed expression of the levels below it terminating in elements/media.10

The dynamic model at work here is further described in #16 as “the contrapuntal stacking of themes” and is fleshed out there as follows:

In Chaucer the realism never detracts from the polyphony of character themes or contrapuntal melodies all simultaneously heard.  Until about 1600 in art, literature and music, the only way of organizing a structure was the song technique of superimposed or parallel themes and melodies. (…) All of Shakespeare exists in auditory depth. The complexity of any of his characters is enforced by all of the others being simultaneously present.

The narrative of characters as figures driven by grounding external forces or internal drives is reversed here. Now characters are to be taken as ground and external and internal circumstances to be produced from “quantitative variations in the activation of [such characters as] pre-existent elementary targets”. 

In this reversal, as stressed by McLuhan, time is the critical factor: the model posits “the polyphony of character themes or contrapuntal melodies all simultaneously heard” — “all (…) simultaneously present”. 

The result:

all the arts approach a condition of music; for in music all parts tend to be simultaneous in the sense that narrative progress in musical composition must constantly recapitulate and unify…” (#10)

Time is not only “simultaneous” or only “narrative progress”, but both together. And it is just our inability to conceive time in this complex way that prevents our understanding media (and all the complex problems to which understanding media is the key):

Our present conceptions of what constitutes social cause, effect, and influence are quite unable to cope with this electronic simultaneity of conspicuous co-existence. (#14, italics added)

Real control [of our out-of-control world] comes [only] by study of the grammars of all the media at once. (#16, italics added)

Just as there is no such thing as some chemistry that would apply only to a part of the world but not to other parts, so a general investigation of “all the media at once” is needed “to understand the psycho-dynamics of these totally new conditions of culture” (#17). Or to preserve the many derivatives of the Gutenberg galaxy that we should not allow to be overwhelmed by the electric tsunami:

the old set-up may be saved [only] by an understanding of the new one [as a necessary piece of “all the media at once”]. (#24)


  1. ‘The Medium is the Message’, Forum magazine, spring 1960. This is the lead paragraph of McLuhan’s influential essay. But it may have been the last time McLuhan employed the term ‘psycho-dynamics’ after using it repeatedly between 1957 and 1960.
  2. The term itself appears in #6, #15 and #17 (twice). For an overview of McLuhan’s 24 ‘items’ in Explorations 8, see Birthpains of the new: “an arduous metamorphosis”.
  3. McLuhan specifies here that Selye “becomes at once intelligible and acceptable in our twentieth century oral awareness”. This is problematic in that McLuhan habitually — not to say always — confounded four different sorts of “oral awareness”: 1) the (the?) “oral awareness” of pre- and post-literate peoples; 2) “oral awareness” as one medium of perception among others; 3) “oral awareness” as implicating “all the media at once” (#16); 4) “oral awareness” as dynamically related to ‘literate awareness’ in some ratio of the two in every moment of all experience whatsoever. An important demand made in the observation/admonition that “the medium is the message” (an admonition first of all to McLuhan himself) was that these ambiguities needed to be sorted out. He was still working on this when he died twenty years later.
  4. Two McLuhan sentences have been spliced together here. The Selye citation is from his paper in Explorations 1 (1953), ‘Stress’.
  5. “Not a superficial view” intends both (1) that the theory is profound and (2) that its profundity lies in seeing through the superficial level of perception to its “psycho-dynamic” springs. McLuhan continues this sentence with “in terms of auditory space”. But “auditory space” in McLuhan has all the problems of “oral awareness” as discussed above.
  6. McLuhan continues here: “Analogical proportion is a basic aspect of auditory space and of oral culture. It is the oral equivalent of the golden section in architecture and design.” This adds a further complication to his use of the terms “auditory space” and “oral culture”, for he was well aware that not all auditory or oral experience exemplifies “the golden section”. The questions arise: What level (message or medium, figure or ground) is intended here? At this level (whichever it is), how to account for the presence or absence of “the golden section”? And how to specify all this for education and all other practical applications extending from governance to entertainment?
  7. From earlier in #8: “In the old lineal terms, quantitative relations mean the exclusion of (…) all spiritual complexity.”
  8. McLuhan has “oral situation” here. For the implicated problems see the discussions above.
  9. McLuhan was not yet using figure/ground at this time. He would later consider the figure/ground contrast as essential to the understanding of his work.
  10. McLuhan came to this view from poetry and theology, in both of which he had long recognized interlocking levels of significance. His path to science from the arts and religion came via Whitehead and, especially, Giedion.