The Law of Media 2

[The Law of Media 2 is an internal expansion of The Law of Media 1. The two versions have been retained as indicating the current of thought exercised in this blog. Its flow-through. That current should be open to critique as much as any factual assertion in the blog’s posts. McLuhan named this current at play here in his 1962 ‘Prospect’ rumination: “There are endless popular phrases (…) that are really questions.”]

The epigraph to Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Les Structures élémentaires de la parenté (1949)1 is taken from Primitive Culture (1871) by E. B. Tylor:

The tendency of modern inquiry is more and more towards the conclusion that if law is anywhere, it is everywhere.2 

Earlier in the same decade as Lévi-Strauss’s original publication of  Elementary Structures, McLuhan, in his 1943 PhD thesis on The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of his Time, expressed a slightly offset agreement with Tyler as follows:

Just as language offers an extensive and complex apprehension of the structure of beings, so that faculty which produced this state of language is perpetually operative — an intuitive perception of essentials.3

Tyler in 1871 located the “conclusion” that “law is (…) everywhere” as following from a “tendency of modern inquiry”. On its surface, Tyler’s observation concerned an objective condition (the ubiquity of law) to which subjective inquiry found itself increasingly constrained. This was its “tendency“. But what was the nature of this constraint on the subjective side and just how grounded was its conclusion of the lawful condition of the objective side?

Like the concern in phenomenology with Wesensschau4 in the first decades of the twentieth century, McLuhan’s formulation, 70 years after Tyler, shifted the matter at stake towards the conditions of reliable “perception”. The assertion was that both sides of Tyler’s equation are subject to an “intuitive” — unconditional — consolidation. That is, the essential nature of the object is revealed as that without which it could not be that object; while for the subject, its “perception” is bound to that essence — focused on it — since only so could it be the “perception” of it.    

But just who was doing this looking? And exactly why should her perception of [just these] essentials” be trusted?

“The medium is the message” marked McLuhan’s decided realization, 15 years after his Nashe thesis, that the first steps towards open collective investigation into these questions had yet to be taken — namely, agreed identification of those purported essentials.5 Such ‘agreement’ had to do not only with the question of the object to be investigated collectively, but also with the question of the ‘who’ doing the investigation. For once an agreed object were in place — the ‘medium’ — subjectivity would be constrained to findings about it and could no longer freely hypothecate (except in art and in the rare circumstance of scientific revolution).

Moreover, here the object to be investigated was just that of subjectivity itself. As a result, the subject would find itself doubly bound: on the one hand, within the new investigation, by its agreed parameters and findings (Kuhn’s ‘normal science’); on the other hand, outside that investigation, by feedback from it to human deportment everywhere. Where before actions and beliefs had been the effects of unknown causes or (as McLuhan preferred to say after he read Wolfgang Köhler’s Gestalt Psychology in 1964) figures on unknown grounds, now those causes and grounds, along with their effects and figures, would be exposed in and by the newly inaugurated field of interrogation. Within the field, just as in any other science, findings would continually lead to further findings through the working of scientific interrogation. Outside of the field, formerly subliminal actions and beliefs would now increasingly be exposed and illuminated.

This double binding of subjective action and belief would introduce a new sort of freedom to individual and collective behavior. But would humans be capable of exercising it? The old freedom had been grounded in the caprice of ignorance. It expressed itself in the ungrounded figures of that vast range of individual and collective action comprising the historical record.6 Now a new freedom was possible, comparable to the new ways of behavior both within and without such relatively new sciences as physics and chemistry7 — but now applicable to social and political behavior in ways they were not.

With “the medium is the message”, it had become clear to McLuhan that only agreed definition could at last initiate the open collective investigation into human experience  — through which survival might be yet be achieved.8 But he was also increasingly aware that the possibility of such agreement was subject to a strange and potentially ominous knot in time — a ‘knot’ that could eventuate (and indeed always had eventuated) in a ‘not’ of refusal. 

The problem was that the promised future feedback9 between figured thoughts and actions and their grounds had to be activated (or pre-activated, as might be said) in the present — in order for that future to be initiated. This knot in time meant that, at a minimum, investigators would have to expose themselves to the uncertainties of a rigorous investigation into the unknown grounds of their existing thoughts and behaviors.

McLuhan knew that few would understand this requirement, let alone submit themselves to it. Therefore, the prospect of such agreed collective identification of the ‘medium’ to be interrogated in the new field was uncertain in multiple respects: it was uncertain if investigators would submit themselves to the uncertainties entailed by the peculiar initiation required for such investigation. And, if McLuhan were right that the survival of civilization and perhaps of the species depended upon this achievement, it, too, was uncertain.

McLuhan reflected on these problems in his 1962 ‘Prospect’ essay:

Man is now in a somnambulant state because this offers him [what seems to him as] his only possibility of survival and sanity [whereas it is really exactly what threatens survival]. He couldn’t bear a fully conscious existence under the frenetic conditions that he is exposed to by his own technology. He could not register these terrible shocks directly and survive. He’d go mad. I think that all human technology and invention has occurred under this kind of anxious pressure. You don’t outer anything [original]10 (…) until you’re under some dire pressure and fear. But when you put the nervous system outside [with the innovations of electric technology], fear is no longer the problem. Anxiety is the problem. Fear is specific, anxiety is total. As in Kierkegaard’s Concept of Dread, a book that appeared in the year of the telegraph.11 You don’t know now precisely what you’re dreading, rather it’s a pervasive state. The condition of man is what you dread. You no longer dread [things or possibilities in the environment like] that animal [or] that famine, and so on, but this [unprecedented] condition [of human being subject to “a fully conscious existence” in dread.] (…) Anxiety means utmost alertness, utmost watchfulness, involvement and therefore of course a very heightened kind of existence, a sort of nightmare (…) This [all] terrifies mechanical man because he does not know what to do about the transition that is taking place [within and without him].

In the 1950s McLuhan himself had gone through the “transition” he described here. Now he wondered about the prospect of anyone following him in the required complete trans-formation of turning oneself inside-out. The operative inside-out of the electric environment where “our nerves [are] outside ourselves” made both possible and impossible12 a science which would treat the human insides, at last, in an outward conscious manner.






  1. English translation: The Elementary Structures of Kinship, 1969.
  2. This is the concluding sentence of Lévi-Strauss’s quotation from Tyler. The preceding part of the citation reads: “Few who will give their minds to master the general principles of savage religion will ever again think it ridiculous, or the knowledge of it superfluous to the rest of mankind. Far from its beliefs and practices being a rubbish-heap of miscellaneous folly, they are consistent and logical in so high a degree as to begin, as soon as even roughly classified, to display the principles of their formation and development; and these principles prove to be essentially rational, though working in a mental condition of intense and inveterate ignorance.”
  3.  The Classical Trivium, 51. McLuhan’s enduring thought, explicitly from the time of his thesis onwards, but implicitly from the time of his work with Rupert Lodge at the University of Manitoba a decade before, concerned the identification of the basic structures of human experience and the investigation of how these structures interrelate to constitute the very complicated fabric of the historical record. See Take Today 22 for his formulation of this complex thirty years after his Nashe thesis.
  4. The Nashe thesis phrase “perception of essentials” supplies a fitting translation of Wesensschau — if the phrase is taken as a dual genitive. That is, Wesensschau is both essential perception and the perception of essence.
  5. The nature of such agreement at the start of a science requires close consideration. As set out in a previous post: If we are to survive what McLuhan approvingly cited from Sheila Watson, ‘the intrusion of the mechanical foot into the electric desert’, it will be only because we have learned to understand at last: (a) how everything we currently experience, from our own identity to world issues threatening nuclear war, are subliminal effects of as yet imprecisely known media structures — effects which are insuperable as unknown, but optional once dis-covered and investigated: ‘All of my recommendations, therefore, can be reduced to this one: study the modes of the media, in order to hoick all assumptions out of the subliminal, non-verbal realm for scrutiny and for prediction and control of human purposes.’ (Report on Project in Understanding New Media, ‘Recommendations’, 1960) (b) that we do not have to know definitively how to specify these media structures prior to initiating research into them. Rather, just what such media are and how they operate is exactly the central question of the proposed investigations. Therefore McLuhan’s emphatic remark in 1959 to Harry Skornia in the course of his NAEB project to research new media: ‘We can’t assume that we understand media already!‘ (Therefore as well his constant admonition that we need to organize our ignorance.) (c) that the imperative is therefore for researchers, in particular media researchers, to abandon their specialist perspectives in order to initiate open collective research into the nature of media and their effects as guided by a series of clues supplied for the first time by the electric environment: the digital (multilevel, figure/ground, eye/ear) structure of media (and, indeed, of all that is); the variable emphasis or weighting or valorization that may be made of all such structures (eg, more eye than ear or more ear than eye); the covariable nature of such variation (the more eye, the less ear and vice versa); the fundamental reversibility of all such structures at the extremes of emphasis (eye collapsing into ear or ear collapsing into eye); the plurality of time (diachronic/synchronic) in the horizontal/vertical unfolding of these structures in a myriad combinations. (d) that findings in the existing sciences should be used as indications of complications to be expected in media investigations — eg, that a given sample may be a compound or compounds rather than an element, or that it may be subject to some further as yet unknown science, not chemistry but organic chemistry or genetics, etc. (e) In sum: no science is more needed than the rigorous investigation of the internal landscape and more than enough clues and guidelines exist to initiate it. If it is asked what is preventing the initiation of such science(s), despite the great need and the existing clues, the chief answer seems to be that the will is lacking to subsume individual point of view to collective questioning. This will cannot be taught or otherwise urged into existence, however, since these would be grounded when the very point at stake is to question ground. The beginning of a science of the interior landscape can have no other origin than the abysmal unaccountable will to enter its maelstrom. See note 9 below.
  6. Compare this to the fact that all physical reactions for millions, indeed billions, of years have always been grounded in the interactions of the elements. But this was unknown until chemistry exposed those grounds in the course of the nineteenth century.
  7. Physics and chemistry, especially in their applications to transportation and commerce, revolutionized the world. Of course, these sciences were also revolutionized internally. But the latter changes, although they caused the former, were as nothing, taken quantitively, compared to the former.
  8. McLuhan’s “survival strategy” lay in the question: how can we so exercise our “intuitive perception of essentials” in the study of human experience to realize in it the sorts of revolutionary dis-coveries achieved (only recently in human history) in sciences like physics, chemistry, biology and genetics?
  9. McLuhan concluded his 1968 letter to I.A. Richards with this short paragraph: ” Your wonderful word, ‘feedforward’, suggests to me the principle of the probe, the technique of the ‘suspended judgement’ which has been called the greatest discovery of the 20th century.” (Letters, 355) ‘Feedforward’ captured both how the proposed science might operate and the great problem of initiating it. ‘Suspended judgement’ in this context entailed ‘suspended identity’ and ‘no one’ (strangely enough) was willing to wager this.
  10. McLuhan’s suggestion here is very compact and requires teasing apart. The component premises are: (a) originality from the infant learning language to revolutionary insight in art or science represents a resetting of perception; (b) the resetting of perception requires a descent into the possibilities of human being; (c) descent into the possibilities of human being implicates a loss of previous identity and orientation; (d) the loss of previous identity and orientation occurs only under “dire pressure” (like fusion in physics); (e) dire pressure implicates “fear”. In sum, what is most human about human beings is a continual retreat into their essence which is a spectrum of possibilities. This essential descent is yet fearsome because of the threat it implies to identity and orientation and for the most part it is therefore cloaked and forgotten. Original insight pulls away the cloak and consciously experiences the turbulence within. The great question posed by McLuhan, and by all original thinkers, is whether human beings can learn to live consciously who (and where and when) they are.
  11. McLuhan immediately qualified this statement a few sentences later in ‘Prospect’: Kierkegaard came out with the concept of dread in 1844 which was when commercial telegraph began in America, about ten years after the development of the telegraph.”
  12. Instead of the carapace of the “somnambulant state”, the required transition would feel “like living without a skin” (‘Prospect’).