Comments on Elder’s comments on Barilli

Elder’s comments on Barilli at New Explorations immediately raise noteworthy difficulties.

First and foremost, when gaps are to be removed or solved or declared absent from McLuhan’s thought, we are no longer dealing with McLuhan. “There is no bifurcation of reality, no ontological gap”, writes Elder. “The barrier, the gap, the hiatus that exists between the two poles [of subject and object or word and thing], denying any possibility of communication (…) was the main feature of all modern philosophical positions as they anxiously awaited an audacious solution that would be able to bypass the obstacle”, writes Barilli, thumbing his notice at Hegel, but presumably pointing to McLuhan’s great gap-obviating contribution.

But McLuhan insisted that “gaps are where the action is” (not least to the Ontario Dental Association), and it or its equivalents featured prominently in his work and were meant very seriously. And this for a series of reasons (quite aside from the fact that the man was a Catholic convert for whom the dead God on the cross symbolized, or was, the condition of a definitively gapped reality).

Creativity, beginning with the infant’s learning of language, does not take place through x number of steps of linear sequence to produce “matching” (by conquering the gap), but through a “paradox” resulting in “making” (on the basis of the gap):

The basis of all paradox, Christian and secular, is to be found in the sixth book of the Physics of Aristotle, to which Aquinas refers in his Summa Theologica I.II.q 113.a.7, ad quintum. The question for Aquinas is whether justification by faith occurs in­stantly or gradually. Aquinas says it occurs instantly because — ­here he appeals to Aristotle’s Physics — “the whole preceding time during which anything moves towards its form, it is under the opposite form”.1

Shortly put, no gap, no paradox. And if no paradox, no language and no creativity. (Hence McLuhan’s full agreement with Hume, as cited by Elder, in the supposed obstacle that “the first imagination or invention of a particular effect, in all natural operations, is arbitrary” — but not for that reason, for McLuhan at least, necessarily false or unaccountable!)

Furthermore, what gives for McLuhan the unique revelatory power of the electric form (which Barilli and Elder decidedly want to celebrate, if not apotheosize) is exactly its ineluctable gap between negative and positive poles in electricity and magnetism which, generalized, became the ineluctable gap between yes/no gates and 0/1 binary digits in computers and other computing machines.

But this did not mean previous thought was thereby overcome (as though McLuhan or anyone else could out-Kant Kant, or out-Plato Plato). Instead it meant that the same sort of value free analysis as chemistry can make of materials at any time anywhere could now be made (if McLuhan were right) of all experience anywhere anytime. As Elder himself cites in his extended discussion in this same post of McLuhan’s unpublished review of Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism:

A bedouin’s rug of timeless patterns which include all possible arrangements of human experience is indispensable equipment today.

Right or wrong was not the issue; the issue was how to approach “all possible arrangements of human experience” in a new medium such that collective investigation became possible — with, it was McLuhan’s great hope, the same sort of revolutionary insights and solutions as followed upon those other media revolutions — the instigation of literacy in Athens 2500 ago and again after printing 500 years ago.

Moreover, the key to understanding space, time and media was exactly to understand their inherent plurality and, therefore, the “bifurcation” or “ontological gap” between (!) their instances. “Understanding media”, in particular, posed the problem of this plurality and of its gaping borders (since media cannot be separated and differentiated by media), for here the spectrum of medial gaps was itself gapped.

Finally, McLuhan recognized what might be termed existential gaps. Here he is in his Nina Sutton interview with Barbara Rowes sitting in:

BR: What is the fascination with identity ?
MM: Because it’s gone [under electric conditions]. You are always aware of the thing that’s disappeared. It’s a gap. It’s like a lost tooth, an aching void — you feel it all the time.

In a word, gaps, plural, are what are to be understood in understanding media. They are McLuhan’s topic. They are his one thought, as Heidegger might put it.

The other great difficulty posed by Elder and Barilli is what seems for all the world to be a far too one-sided evaluation of the electric form and electric environment,2 despite the unique dangers they pose (of which McLuhan was well aware early on). It may be that enthusiastic assessment is where Prof de Kerckhove gets his notion of the saving power of digital ID. In any case, however the electric may have solved various problems, it has also created more of its own and more ominous ones to boot. Forgetting this means to overlook the up-down dynamic of Heraclitus’ way of which McLuhan’s tetrads are a modern iteration. For humans there is no up that does not implicate an ever-present down and this gapped-gaping-chaotic3 implication is — the medium that is the message.

  1. From Cliché to Archetype, 160. The passage from Aristotle used by Thomas is cited by McLuhan in Latin in ‘The Medieval Environment’ from 1974 and appears as well in letters to Maritain and others. For discussion see The “magical” essence of communication.
  2. Berilli: “For where else do we find the force in which all the synthetic, holistic and structuralist principles of our age are based, if not in the electromagnetic field with all its features and laws? This is the unifying notion from which no one and nothing can be removed. In itself, holism might be considered a fallacious theoretical, quasi-mystical or religious concept. It might even provoke a degree of suspicion. Yet the notion of the electromagnetic field constitutes an indisputable, physical and material reality that immerses us all at every moment of our lives. This is the link, the ultimate warrant of our present unitary, structuralist condition”.  Elder: “Thinking is electric; spatial reality is electric. There is no bifurcation of reality, no ontological gap (…) The holism of the theory of electromagnetism guarantees thought and spatial reality will be related”.
  3. Cf, the shared etymology of gap-gape-chaos.