McLuhan’s ‘Media Log II’ was written as part of his Understanding Media project with the NAEB in 1959-1960. It is included in the NAEB files which the great Unlocking the Airwaves has posted online.
Sir Arthur Eddington, in his New Pathways in Science (Cambridge University Press 1935) makes a statement of relevance to those who are trying to understand why “the medium is the message”:
Out of the unknown activities of unknown agents1 mathematical numbers emerge. The processes of the external world cannot be described in terms of familiar images; whether we describe them by words or by symbols their intrinsic nature remains unknown. But they are the vehicle of a scheme of relationship which can be described by numbers, and so give rise to those numerical measures (pointer-readings) which are the data from which all knowledge of the external universe is inferred.
Our account of the external world (when purged of the Inventions of the story teller In consciousness) must necessarily be a “jabberwocky” of unknowable actors executing unknowable actions. How in these conditions can we arrive at any knowledge at all? We must seek a knowledge which is neither of actors nor of actions, but of which the actors and actions are a vehicle. The knowledge we can acquire is knowledge of a structure or pattern contained In the actions. I think that the artist may partly understand what I mean. (p 256).
After 3000 years of writing, and 500 years of printing. Western man is not surprisingly devoted to the idea of knowledge as a static, repeatable aspect or item, Eddington is saying that all along we have never had any knowledge of content or component, But he is not saying that we have not had knowledge. We have really had a higher form of knowledge than our theories, our speculative instruments and our instructional materials would permit us to recognize. Our knowledge is of the dynamic
symmetries, and the inexhaustible proportionalities among the actors and actions of sense, sensibility, and consciousness. Light through these proportionalities may be quite undetectable when the bias of a medium like writing, or print, sets up a powerful pressure for light on, directed from a rigid, private vantage point. But electric media compel us to consider light through as the norm of knowledge and experience.
What Eddington here says about our not being able to know content or components, but only structure and patterns applies to verbal structure. Recent studies make clear that so great is the semantic variation in ordinary discourse, that communication between people cannot be accounted for by the notion of agreement on meanings of words. That we communicate at all seems to be the result of sharing an action that is made possible by words and persons as actors and actions. The pattern or structure of meaning is communicable, not the “content” in the sense of some detachable, fixable set of data. This older idea of meaning, originating in the Cartesian age, is strikingly captured in the absurd statements
“Meaning is an arrow which best reaches its mark when least encumbered with feathers.”
But the idea of meaning as a pellet or arrow shooting along in a line toward a target is still embedded in some prominent
“encoding and decoding” theories of communication. As soon as the artists liberated us from lineality into field theory, a century ago, the idea of meaning as package or capsule assumed a grotesque aspect. The idea of art as self-expression faded out at the same time; and the idea of the artist as working with and through the media of public language and group awareness, took over in Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé. Yeats, Eliot, Joyce and Pound made the same assumptions. And these assumptions hoick the artist from the Ivory tower to the control tower. He becomes an indispensable person, not a luxury. In quite the same way that higher education has become a necessity of production.
It may well be that the artist will now merge with the media, rather than staying outside as ironic spectator and commentator. Certainly the avant gardism of yesterday is more evident in the public than the private arts to-day.
The role of the newspaper in structuring the habits and assumptions of human association Is obviously complex. For example, in a recent Ph.D. dissertation on methods of teaching media in Grade XI, the writer mentioned, casually, that he assumed as the basis of all media teaching that the student should become alert to the factors of program control. Thus, who owned the station, or the movie studio, would be Important for studying the type of programs emanating therefrom.
Further, the student can Influence programming decisions by knowing who to write to about such matters. This “content” approach to the media has real meaning for the newspaper as a medium. Its relevance outside the newspaper, for radio or movie or TV, is very small.
Was it the newly achieved power of press technology that led Marx, in the same way, to assume that the important thing about the means of production was who owned them? It is puzzling to know how Marx managed to ignore the media of communication, as the major factor in the process of social change. For the means of production, especially since Gutenberg, are so many footnotes, or appendages, of the printing press Itself. This fact appears, clearly, at present, when the assembly-line is obsolete by reason of electric tapes entering and altering the production patterns. Print from movable types was the archetype of all assembly-lines, and of all static analysis of movement.
The form of the newspaper changed many times, as various changes were made in the speed of type-setting, and of the presses. These changes in turn affected the process of news-gathering and news-distribution. As Innis showed, the newspaper hastened and paid for the development of highways, and was inseparable from the development of modern postal services.
However, it was the telegraph that made the greatest change in the role and format of the newspaper. Here, a century before electronic tapes repatterned the meaning of production, information from everywhere-at-once, by wire, repatterned English prose and verse. Private “point of view” disappeared from the newspaper at the same time as Cezanne, Seurat, Baudelaire and Rimbaud abandoned it in poetry and painting. “Point-of-view” in the perspective sense came in with printing, but not directly because of printing. Rather, the same kinds of visual analysis that occurred in fifteenth century logic, philosophy and science made common cause with art technology and the printed book to produce fixed point of view or single perspective. (See a book by Walter Ong, S, J., devoted to these themes: Ramus: Method and Decay of Dialogue – Harvard 1958.)
When information began to flow electrically, field supplanted “point-of-view” in the arts, and in technology alike. And when information began to arrive at the newspaper at electric speed the newspaper mosaic, or format, changed very much.
Browning’s The Ring and the Book is a conscious abandoning of “point-of-view” in favor of multi-levelled perception. It is a newspaper epic, as it were. What Browning did in that work, Ruskin was hoping could be done. He put it this way, in Volume III of Modern Painters:
A fine grotesque Is the expression, in a moment, by a series of symbols thrown together in bold and fearless connection, of truths which it would have taken a long time to express in any verbal way, and of which the connection is left to the beholder to work out for himself; the gaps left or over leaped by the haste of the imagination, forming the grotesque character,
This do-it-yourself stress and character is as typical of the arts, after 1860, as of the post-telegraph newspaper. Even now, the sober and serious newspapers retain a good deal of perspective or fixed point-of-view, compared with the popular press with its mosaic of grotesque juxtapositions of unrelated data. And it is the sober press that is passively and consumer-oriented, whereas the popular press provides no single-perspectives upon any event at all, save on editorial pages,
Speaking technically then, not appraisingly, the ready-made packaged views of the sober press are consumer goods. Whereas, the grotesque mosaic of the popular press, a sort of Marx Brothers charade, is a do-it-yourself form, “Make your own meanings.” It is producer-oriented, like symbolist poetry,
Another aspect of “point-of-view”, as it rose in all its technical novelty, appears in the satisfaction which the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries took in the new power of enclosing space in painting and architecture. But also the
craze for methods and systems was the discovery of the enclosing power of single, fixed perspectives, applied to law and politics and economics, as well as to art and poetry.
The simple fact is, as sense psychologists have shown, that the awareness of fixed perspective or of vanishing points, is not a visual experience of which man is capable. The illusion of visual perspective is a mix of sensuous components, tactual and kinesthetic, but to “see” at a distance is a form of prediction, not of sensation. Thus what we see is flat. What the cubists painted as spatial form is far closer to pure unaided visual experience than what Western men have for centuries supposed to be visual experience.
It is worth dwelling on this matter, since it directly concerns the powers of media to modify our sensuous lives without benefit of concepts or of indoctrination. Printing fostered visual perspective subliminally. Yet, already with the Romantics, and their drive towards unconstrained spontaneity of vision and sensuous impression, the matrix of Gutenberg culture was dissolving. The Romantic vision moved steadily towards cinematic illusion. And the achievement of the cinematic conveyor belt of still shots superseded the line of verbal-visual still shots that is printing. The photo superseded the print, and engraving, in the same way. The words of William Ivins, Jr. (Prints and Visual Communication – Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1953) are of great relevance.
On page 122 he reports the invention of photography by Talbot who, in 1839, gave to the Royal Society an account of “the Art of Photogenic Drawing, or the Process by which Natural Objects may be made to delineate themselves without the aid of the Artist’s Pencil.” Ivins’ comment:
Here were exactly repeatable visual images made without any of the syntactical elements implicit in all hand made pictures. Had Talbot been a competent draughtsman instead of an incompetent one he would probably not have recognized this fact, even if he had discovered how to make the images.
Here, Ivins is vividly aware of traditional competence, and of acquired knowledge and skill as blocks to new perception. It would be possible to build an art of media study on this passage alone. For he also points to the primacy of the repeatability factor in all printing, from book and engraving to photo and movie. Even more important is the awareness that, in the shift from engraving to photo, there is a reversal from light on to light through. (The kaleidoscope was almost simultaneous with Talbot’s photos.) Also, there is key perception in Ivins’ noting the absence of syntax in the photo. The paradox of statement without syntax rides herd on our world now. It is stated by Ivins on page 28:
The great importance of the half-tone lay in its syntactical difference from the older handmade processes of printing pictures in printer’s ink. In the old processes the report started by a syntactical analysis of the thing seen, which was followed by its symbolic statement in the language of drawn lines. (Known in the trade as “the network of rationality.) This translation was then translated into the very
different analysis and syntax of the process. The lines and dots in the old report were not only insistent in claiming visual attention, but, they, their character, and their symbolism of statement, had been determined more by the two superimposed analyses and syntaxes than by the particularities of the thing seen. In the improved half-tone process there was no preliminary syntactical analysis of the thing seen into lines and dots, and the ruled lines and dots or the process had fallen below the threshold of normal vision. Such lines and dots as were to be seen in the report had been provided by the thing seen and were not those of any syntactical analysis. At least men had discovered a way to make visual reports in printer’s ink without syntax, and without the distorting analyses of form that syntax necessitated.
Ivins’ work provides one of the best guides to all media study, Just because he is working in a relatively neutral territory. To make statements like the above about the book, movie, press, radio, and TV, is to assault the largest vested interests of acquired knowledge and power.
In his book on Painting and Reality (Pantheon Books, New York 1957) Etienne Gilson pointed out that until Giotto a painting had not been a report about things, but a thing [itself]. From Giotto till Cezanne, painting became increasingly reportorial and representational. Since Cezanne, paintings have become things again, (pp.284-5). That is, perspective and reporting from a single point-of-view co-exist in various media for centuries, and disappear from those media at much the same time — that is, from about 1860 onwards.
A further point, related to the rise and fall of perspective, is made by Mircea Eliade in his The Sacred and the Profane (Harcourt Brace New York, 1959). He points to the rise in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries of the new concepts of time and space as “continuous and homogeneous.” Modern man abandoned these notions of time and space, at the same time as he “abandoned” perspective. The artists are the radar screen whose invented models and explorations report new lines of force in our culture decades before the scientists and engineers achieve them.
The educational establishment, however, is not able to achieve rapport with lines of force, even after the scientists and engineers have projected them into our daily tasks.
Now, in the time of accelerated change, this lag is critical. We have now to institutionalise change itself. Business is trying to do this via its research centers. The largest educational expenditure must now be for research also, if public education is to have any further relevance. Educational irrelevance is not waste only, but sheer destruction of new potential.
To return then to relate the mosaic of the telegraph press to all this. The Ruskin passage focused the issue of symbolism and mosaic pattern. A bit further on (p 96) he points
to the possibility of a new kind of popular epic which James Joyce was to write (Ulysses). But the newspaper is actually such a daily epic as Raskin describes, though he would have been embarrassed to hear it:
Hence it is an infinite good to mankind when there is full acceptance of the grotesque, slightly sketched or expressed; and, if field for such expression be frankly granted, an enormous mass of intellectual power is turned to everlasting use, which, in this present century of ours, evaporates in street gibing or vain revelling; all the good wit and satire expiring in daily talk, (like foam on wine,) which in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries had a permitted and useful expression in the arts of sculpture and. Illumination, like foam fixed Into chalcedony.
The nineteenth century drive towards gothic, Raskin explains, as it were, was to get away from fixed, private points-of-view back to group dynamic expression, back to the field and the folk. Of course, there was much self-deception in all this. But, at least, the Romantics strove to revive a period of culture which preceded perspective. And to this extent Gothic was truly avant garde, just as is Chinese art in our time.
The newspaper mosaic is a collectively achieved photo of the world2 and its inter-associations, hour by hour. To teach the understanding of what such a medium Is, and what it does to our association with ourselves and with one another, can scarcely be achieved by noticing the ownership, or policy, of the paper. Even Its contents, item by item, are not much help.
Why Is big news bad news? Why is advertising good news?
How much bad news is needed to sell advertising?
Why is the exposure of public motives and morals, in the daily press, such an Intense concern? Is this owing to medium or to policy?
Why are radio and television less concerned with the public mosaic of actions? Is this owing to medium or to policy?
Why must television elections be devoid of Issues? Why must all points-of-view be excluded, or included (the result is the same) in TV elections?
Why does the television image say so little, and imply so much, as contrasted with photo and film?
Why does television in politics neutralise the role and structure of the press? Why do electric media inevitably neutralise private concepts at all levels of sensibility, of education, of legal Institutions and politics?
If everybody were aware and agreed upon the nature and effect of media structures upon private and public structures of experience and action, would anything be done to moderate or to control the impact of such structures upon life and Institutions?3
- Bolding has been added throughout. ↩
- Cf above in regard to this “photo”: (1) “a way to make visual reports in printer’s ink without syntax, and without the distorting analyses of form that syntax necessitated” and (2) “the paradox of statement without syntax rides herd on our world now“. ↩
- Bolding and underlining have been added to McLuhan’s text. ↩