Wheel and Axle

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.1

Around 1970 McLuhan began using the relation between the wheel and axle to illustrate the focus he advocated for media analysis. 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

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.4

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.5

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.6

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.7

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.8 The axle can be figure. The wheel can be ground. Or vice versa. They can change roles. (…) 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.9

Laws of Media, posthumous

Interface, or 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.10



  1. These are the opening lines of Take Today.
  2. See the Ottawa Journal report.
  3. Here and in the McLuhan passages to follow, iItalics have been added throughout.
  4. March 4, 1971, Letters 426. For ‘touch’ see the following note.
  5. Take Today, 4. McLuhan’s equation of touch, the “generating gap” and “space” seems to have 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).
  6. ‘The End of the Work Ethic’ was an address to the Empire Club of Canada, November 16, 1972.
  7. Man and Media’, 1975, in Understanding Me. ‘Man and Media’ is wrongly assigned to 1979 in Understanding Me.
  8. 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).
  9. ‘Empedocles and T. S. Eliot’, Introduction to Empedocles by Helle Lambridis.
  10. Laws of Media, 102. The text has ‘Interface, of the resonant interval’ which I take to be a typo.