Wheel and Axle

Here are the  opening lines of Take Today

The art and science of this century reveal and exploit the resonating bond in all things. All boundaries are areas of maximal abrasion and change. The interval or gap constitutes the resonant or musical bond in the material universe. This is where the action is. (…) Nothing has its meaning alone. Every figure must have its ground or environment. A single word, divorced from its linguistic ground, would be useless. A note in isolation is not music. (…) The “meaning of meaning” is relationship. 

Around 1970 McLuhan began using the relations between the wheel and axle to illustrate the focus on “resonating bond” that he advocated for media analysis.1  

Here in chronological order are some of his observations around this image:

Where lt’s At — or the Garbage Apocalypse, 19702

The world of play, celebrated in the study Homo Ludens by Huizinga, is a world of the resonating interval such as we experience in the relation between wheel and axle. It is play rather than connection or logic that makes possible both wheel and axle.3

Discontinuity and Communication in Literature, 19704

The double plot structure (…) presents no connection or continuity, but only an interface or continuous parallel between two actions. This interface is tactility itself, the metamorphic moment of the resonant interval such as occurs between the wheel and the axle. Without the interval, there would be neither wheel nor axle. It is this resonant interval that constitutes the chemical bond, according to Linus Pauling.

McLuhan to Frank Kermode, 1971

As you know from many sources (eg, Linus Pauling’s The Nature of the Chemical Bond), there are no connections in matter, only resonant intervals. Such is the nature of touch. It is like the space between the wheel and the axle.5

Take Today, 1972

Touch, as the Japanese know best of all, is created by space between the wheel and axle where both action and “play” are one.6

The End of the Work Ethic, 1972

All are familiar with the play between the wheel and the axle as the very principle of mobility, and we seek to avoid the up-tight, on one hand, or the too slack, on the other hand. But it could be argued that the dropout is a victim of the up-tight situation and that he drops out in order to regain “touch”. When the wheel and the axle get too close, they, too, lose touch. When they are too distant, they collapse. To be “in a bind” is to lose touch as much as when we become too remote.7

Media and the inflation CROWD, 1973

It is necessary to recognize the principle of the dynamic at work in a new kind of situation — one in which there is an interface or abrasive action between two unconnected spheres (…) Is the gap or interval (…) itself the hidden causal “connection”In current physics and chemistry the resonant interval is where the action and abrasive interface is found. Between the wheel and the axle is an interval of “play” which is where the action is, but without this “play” there is no action at all. (…) The interface of parallel but unconnected actions creates the sense of universality in poetry and drama, the sense of the crowd. Between the parallel actions (…) is an interface which renders the sense of the situations as indicative of the human condition in general.8 

Technology and the Human Dimension, 1974[1.Interview with Louis Forsdale in Marshall McLuhan: The Man and His Message (1989).]

Well, the new physics tells us that touch is not connection but a gap where things rub, like the gap between the wheel and the axle . There has to be “play” here, if they are to “keep in touch”. When the wheel and axle get too close together, they “seize up” in a bind. When they get too far apart, they collapse.

Foreword to Abortion in Perspective, 1974

Let us consider for the moment one of our conquerors, the TV image itself. This image is constituted by innumerable pulsations of bits of light. What makes the image so enthralling and compelling is precisely the intervals or gaps between these pulsations. It is in these intervals, which people feel urged to fill, that their involvement with the action occurs.  Just as action is in the play between a wheel and the axle, so too, our psychic and social lives find their action in the play between our identities and the surrounding world. As long as there is the interval of “play” between man and his world, there is action and life; but when the interval between the spirit and the world closes, there is no more play but the fusion of stasis and death

Man and Media, 1975

The dropout is the figure of our times. He is the person who is trying to get in touch. When you get uptight you have to let go in order to get back in touch. “To get in touch” is a strange phrase. When a wheel and an axle are playing along together, as long as there is a nice interval between wheel and axle, they are in touch. When the interval gets too big or too small, they lose touch, the wheel is either uptight, or seized up, or else falls apart. Keeping in touch requires this interplay, this interface, which is a kind of interval of resonance. Touch is actually not connection but interval. When you touch an object there is a little space between yourself and the object, a space which resonates. This is play, and without play there cannot be any creative activity in any field at all.9

Nina Sutton Interview, 1975

The resonant interval is where the action is. And so the dropout is a person who is trying to restore the resonant interval. The dropout is one who finds out that the interval is too small or too big, and loses his grip. (…) He gets up tight. When you get up tight, there’s no interval. (…) There’s many ways of getting up tight. Or of losing touch by getting things too wide apart. Like the wheel and the axle. When it gets too far apart, it falls off. If it gets too tight it stops. So it can go both ways. But the wheel and the axle is figure/ground. They can change roles.10 The axle can be figure. The wheel can be ground. Or vice versa. (…) They flip all the time. Anything can become a figure to a ground and any ground can become a figure to another ground. They interrelate.

Empedocles and T. S. Eliot, 1976

Each of the Empedocles passages stresses “a double truth.” This is a matter central to Eliot, but it is also closely involved in the work of Yeats, who, as I have suggested, has elucidated the procedure in his brief essay on “The Emotion of Multitude”. This emotion, or sense of the universal in the particular, is born of “a double truth,” somewhat in the mode of Quantum Mechanics where the chemical bond is the result not of a connection but of a “resonant interval” such as must obtain between the wheel and the axle.11

Laws of Media, posthumous

Interface of the resonant interval — as’where the action is’ in all structures, whether chemical, psychic, or social — involves touchTouch, as the resonant interval or frontier of change and process, is indispensable to the study of structures. It involves also the idea of ‘play‘, as in the action of the interval between wheel and axle, as the basis of human communication.12

  1. In his 1957 ‘Coleridge as Artist’ essay, McLuhan cited Joseph Barrell’s Shelley and the Thought of His Time (1947) in a way that might have laid a seed for his later use of wheel and axle imagery: “The Greek way (…) is to take the reader or listener, by the hand and lead him step by step from the old position to the new position. It seeks to explain and to demonstrate. Its logic might be described as linear and transitional. (…) The Oriental way is different. Its logic might be described not as linear but as radial. The recurring statements do not progress, but return to their center as the spokes of a wheel to their hub.” This image used in 1957 highlights a difference in time between the linear and the simultaneous or, at least, the cyclic. The later wheel and axle image highlights the foundational difference in ratios between the individual senses in experience, as well as the degree of that difference on a sliding scale. So the Barrell citation has to do with the relations of correlated moments in linear versus in “radial” time, while wheel and axle has to do with the underlying “play” of possibilities according to which, known or unknown, experience is generated. One such possibility is the ‘inclusive’ relation of linear (horizontal) and radial (vertical) time.
  2. See Where lt’s At — or the Garbage Apocalypse. Also the Ottawa Journal report: “Junk, Garbage Key To Art — McLuhan (By The CP) – All art is born from garbage or destruction, communications expert Marshall McLuhan told the International Association of Art Critics here Sunday. The University Of Toronto professor, scheduled to speak on ‘Space in Art’, instead chose the topic ‘Where lt’s At or the Garbage Apocalypse’. Garbage becomes a new art form on a massive scale, he said. ‘As we introduce new services, we scrap the preceding services. The preceding services then take on the character of art form.’ He said art forms are derived from junk or old garbage. Old locomotives that have been scrapped suddenly become art forms. Art works (originate) in an ‘environment of garbage’, he said. ‘The artist uses ruins as a resource pile’. He said that as soon as man put a satellite into orbit, he scrapped nature itself. Art used to involve the reproduction of nature but the new material available now makes this superfluous since nature is now the material for art itself. However, he said, the old criteria are sill being considered. Turning to a more conventional discussion of art, Rudolph Arnheim, professor of psychology of art at Harvard University, told the conference art depends on how you look at it. Arnheim demonstrated with slides how different people see different images in a painting. To say different people see the same object but with different interpretations is not correct, he said.. Many things affect the way you perceive an image: the environment around you, memories of things related to the image, even reading a critic’s interpretation, he said. ‘It’s amazing what an art teacher can make a student see in a painting . . . things that aren’t even there.’ One of the biggest problems of an art critic in deciphering an image in a painting is to ‘try to peel off the context that each beholder or group of beholders brings’. In another address, Harold Rosenberg told the conference art and culture have had to pay for the new universality that has dominated them since the Second World War by ‘an impoverishment in content’. The art critic for the New Yorker magazine said today’s artists tend to select from the vast menu of the ‘global art gallery’ for their inspirations rather than from the ‘unique experience of one’s living time and place’. Reproductions, slides, art publications and the worldwide circulation of accredited works draw the artist toward an immediate response to the many styles available in the global art gallery, he said. “Works of art related exclusively to other works of art fail to engage themselves with the historical movement in which the artist lives. The artist as an individual becomes possessed by ‘the tyrannical grasp of world art and his fear of falling behind’. ‘Released from place and from the sensual, political and cultural ties imposed by local tradition, art Increasingly derives from the scrutiny of other art.”
  3. Here and in the McLuhan passages to follow, italics have been added throughout.
  4. Lecture given at the University of Toronto.
  5. March 4, 1971, Letters 426. For ‘touch’ see the following note.
  6. Take Today, 4. McLuhan’s references to the Japanese notion of ‘touch’ originated with research by Fred Thompson, who wrote a paper for McLuhan in 1969 on the idea and practical consequences of Japanese MA. See McLuhan in UT President’s Report 1969Thompson was an architecture student especially interested in Japan. He later published on these topics: Fudo: An Introduction (1986) and Ritual and Space (1988).
  7. ‘The End of the Work Ethic’ was an address to the Empire Club of Canada, November 16, 1972.
  8. Further in ‘Media and the inflation CROWD’: “May it not be that inflation is engendered in this gap, in the resonant and abrasive interval between the rim spin of global credit and electric information, and the laborious motions and mechanisms of commodity supply and demand in the old markets of packaged goods and services? Between this system of instant information, on one hand, and a slow system of fragmentary transportation of commodities, on the other, is there not so great a disparity of action as to create the enormous noise and anarchy of sheer crowd dynamics? May it not be the very lack of connection between these two separate spheres that is itself the cause of the inflationary commotion? It is precisely where there is no connection that there will occur a resonant and potentially violent interface of mounting intensity.”
  9. Man and Media’, 1975, in Understanding Me. ‘Man and Media’ is wrongly assigned to 1979 in Understanding Me.
  10. Take Today: “Everything must become figure, or everything must become ground. The interface or interplay of figure and ground (is) necessary to community, or social dialogue and diversity” (33).
  11. ‘Empedocles and T. S. Eliot’, Introduction to Empedocles by Helle Lambridis.
  12. Laws of Media, 102.