Translating McLuhan to McLuhan

McLuhan often requires translation from himself to himself. As will be illustrated here with reference to ‘Why the TV Child Cannot See Ahead’1, there are a variety of reasons for this.

In the first place, McLuhan wrote amazingly quickly, but paid little attention to correcting his work. Unclear and potentially misleading constructions were often left standing. Second, he frequently used passages written at different times and for different purposes in composing ‘new’ texts.2 This could lead to conflicting emphases or contradictions. Third, he habitually used abbreviated designations in place of more complicated ones even when this created inevitable confusion. For example, in the text given below, he contrasts “mosaic form” to “visual order”. But are ‘form’ and ‘order’ strictly comparable? Maybe yes, maybe no. More, what about ‘mosaic’ and the ‘visual’ themselves? Surely these belong to very different categories? More yet, he says of “mosaic form” that it “is not just to be seen [like ‘visual order’], but to be perceived by all our senses”. Later in the same essay, however, it is said that “all forms whether of art or technology (…) involve all the senses”. But if everything “involves all the senses”, if nothing is “just to be seen”, where does this leave “visual order”? Or its supposed contrary, “mosaic form”?

Here is the passage in question:

a mosaic is not just to be seen, but to be perceived by all our senses. Highly literate people in our Western world are naturally confused whenever they move across the boundaries of visual order and arrangement. But mosaic form, although it can be seen, is not visual in its organizing principle.

‘TV Child’ later supplies some clarification of the matter at stake:

The effect of phonetic literacy in extending and amplifying the visual component in Western experience and social organization was to create a sort of hypertrophy in our visual lives at the expense of the other senses.

That is, there is in fact nothing at all that is “just to be seen”. Instead, “visual order” like “mosaic form”, involves “all our senses”. The two are not differentiated by the one visual sense versus all the other senses, but by the emphasis or weight or stress accorded, in the case of “visual order”, to the visual relative to the other senses. Hence the characterization of “visual order and arrangement” as “a sort of hypertrophy in our visual lives at the expense of the other senses“. Presumably the “mosaic form” is a more balanced configuration of these same senses and may therefore loosely be said to be “perceived by all our senses”.

The underlying conception is of sensory ‘form’ or ‘order’ as a topological matrix of “all our senses” with an undefined number of configurations, each depending on the emphases accorded the various senses relative to one another:

The tribal drum extends hearing in a specialist mode. Clothing extends skin and heat control [hence ‘tactility’?] in a specialist way. Each of these extensions or amplifications, in turn, involves all the other senses, modifying their relation to each other. (…) All forms whether of art or technology, if not for their impact then in our reactions, involve all the senses… (TV Child) 

Even appeal to different configurations of all the senses is itself misleading, however, since, at the end of the day, it is not the senses that are at stake in the investigation of experience. Instead it is the “organizing principle”, “form”, “mode”, “order”, or “medium” that is at stake — and the senses, alone or together, are but one way of designating these.

The great question is how to characterize “organizing principles” such that they become openly and uncontentiously identifiable. On this basis, the shared investigation of all human experience can and must be initiated: “the medium is the message”. ‘TV Child’ points to this possibility as follows:

the instant character of electricity introduces the principle of interrelation that is antithetic to all earlier technologies which in effect had fragmented and extended the body by way of specialism and amplification

This passage has much to say between the lines. Taken at face value, it seems to parallel the earlier contrast between “visual order” (“just to be seen”, the eye “fragmented (…) by way of specialism and amplification”) and the “mosaic form” (“perceived by all our senses” according to “the principle of interrelation”). However, if “all forms whether of art or technology (…) involve all the senses”, it must be that “the principle of interrelation” is actually a constant — a highly variable constant, to be sure — in all human experience, individual or collective, at any time whatsoever. Hence the famous “allatonceness”. 

Once this is clear, it may be seen (if that is the right word) that McLuhan’s text here moves on two different levels at once. There is the obvious diachronic contrast between earlier forms or orders, ones that amplified a single sense relative to the others, and the later electric order that is said to introduce3 a more balanced approach. Read closely, however, this ubiquitous reading falls apart. In the first place, McLuhan emphasizes that it is “the instant character of electricity” that “introduces the principle of interrelation”. But how is instantaneity to be squared with a diachronically ordered understanding of the passage? Instantaneous but also before-and-after? Likewise with “the principle of interrelation”. If this is the signature of the electric form, would McLuhan have us step away from it — presumably back to the Gutenberg galaxy — in order to behold “all earlier technologies” not in principled “interrelation”, but as “antithetic” to one another and to us today?

McLuhan’s contention is far different. Between the lines (“the medium is the message”) he is saying that with electricity “the principle of interrelation”, which is always active in human experience (what might be termed its implicit or “instant character”), becomes (or can become) explicit.4 What is “antithetic” between electricity and “all earlier technologies” is not their basic common form of interrelation, but their ability to explicate that basic common form. This is what he called, amongst a raft of other designations, the ‘exteriorization of consciousness’.5

When chemistry took off in the nineteenth century, it marked no difference in the physical makeup of the world. That exterior landscape was what it always had been and what it always would be. What was new was the increasing ability to explicate that world. Just so, according to McLuhan, with the “interior landscape” in the electric age.

However, this new possibility remains hidden from us by our own presupposition — “the viable is always invisible” (Take Today, 285).6 Here is McLuhan further in ‘TV Child’:

The effect of phonetic literacy in extending and amplifying the visual component in Western experience and social organization was to create a sort of hypertrophy in our visual lives at the expense of the other senses. This situation exists even among our scientists who make assumptions about the natural order of things as if this order were primarily visual in respect to uniformity and continuity and connectiveness.

Instead of “our scientists” this passage might be read as ‘this situation exists even among all our McLuhan scholars’. For without exception,7 all are locked in “assumptions about the natural order of things” which it was the explicit purpose of McLuhan’s lifelong labors — to unlock. His revolutionary suggestion of a “new science” goes begging because the unwavering assumption of “uniformity and continuity and connectiveness” by his readers binds their understandings of him to a past in which there was no such science and, indeed, could not be one. They cannot make the required “flip” out of this unavailing “uniformity and continuity and connectiveness” of unscience.

This would be hilarious — indeed, it is in fact hilarious — but for one small problem. Namely, McLuhan conceived his work as a ‘survival strategy’. Here he is speaking to Nina Sutton and Barbara Rowes:

McLuhan: when you invade one [group’s] culture with a totally different [cultural] strategy from theirs, naturally they regard you as an enemy.
Barbara Rowes: And how do you personally take this?
McLuhan: 
I simply consider that this particular form of enmity or creation [of mine that elicits it] is necessary for [our] survival. That’s all. If you want to survive, you had better pay attention. But in paying attention [and who pays attention to McLuhan other than McLuhan scholars?], they get quite angry because they are enraged to think that all these years we have been manipulated by our own culture without knowing it. This is what enrages [the McLuhan scholar]8 — to think that he has been put through all these paces9 like a trained seal, like a blooming robot.

Of course, few McLuhan scholars regard themselves as “enraged” or, even less, as “trained seals”. Most of them are doubtless hail fellows, well met. What with their tenure, travel grants and great bennies, how not? But perhaps it is not so easy or obvious to know what it is to be “trained” to be “enraged”? And perhaps it is just this obscurity at the foundation of our experience, one that prevents the perception of a deep rage, even or especially in oneself, that above all places the question of our survival in grave doubt?

  1.  ‘TV Child’ first appeared posthumously in a special McLuhan issue of The Antigonish Review (#74-75, October 1988) and then in a selection from that issue as a standalone book, Marshall McLuhan: The Man and His Message (ed George Sanderson and Frank Macdonald, 1989). But most of the essay was written in the 1960s — extended portions of it appeared in ‘Murder by Television’ (Canadian Forum, January 1964), and in Understanding Media that same year.
  2. As described in note #1 above in regard to ‘TV Child’, this was common with McLuhan. The 1969 Counterblast, for example, not only includes the 1954 Counterblast, but also whole sections from other essays from the 1950s.
  3. Or, as McLuhan specifies elsewhere, reintroduces from paleolithic times.
  4. McLuhan’s “new science” (which, if the chemical model is any guide, would soon be plural sciences) would be founded on definition of the “the principle of interrelation” in terms of the spectrum of its possible range. He outlined the idea for Nina Sutton as follows: “The wheel and the axle is figure/ground. They can change roles. 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.” The spectrum ranges from all figure at one extreme to all ground at the other. All the f/g and g/f points between these extremes are the ratios of possible perception (objective genitive!). What is interesting about the electric middle point of the spectrum is that here and here alone it becomes possible to define its whole range. This midpoint where f/g is equipoised is “the instant character of electricity (that) introduces the principle of interrelation”. Once introduced, the principle can be applied to the understanding the full spectrum — ie, the project of understanding media can be initiated on this basis.
  5. Consciousness becomes exteriorized when its investigation has become subject to Kuhn’s ‘normal science’. It would then no longer be merely implicit inside us operating as a kind of surd. And just as chemistry soon developed all sorts of ‘exterior’ manifestations like new manufacturing methods, new products, new university courses, new journals, new modes of medicine, etc etc, so (it may be expected) would the explicit investigation of all human experience be exteriorized in comparable ways. The world would be changed — and hence conceivably saved from itself!
  6. “The viable is always invisible” has multiple interpretations. That the viable cannot be seen from within an order of perception is the very presupposition for the hang-ups of that order. But these hang-ups invariably relate to some dominating variety of visibility (including its suppression by other sensory factors) such that any viable solution to them is necessarily in-visible. Finally, the viable way away from any problematic order of experience requires descent into the spectrum of its possible orders and transition ‘there’ into another one. All of these movements between the levels of experience and between the different possibilities of its order are necessarily invisible since all are gaps between what is subject to experience at all. In these gaps we are all nobodies on the frontier, somehow aside from all experienceable context.
  7. If there were even a single exception among McLuhan scholars, the scientific investigation of human experience foreseen by him could take off. We could do it! But instead of entering that silent sea McLuhan’s new science remains landlocked as an untried possibility.
  8. McLuhan: “Western Man”.
  9. “Paces” => today’s typical academic CV with its 1001 papers, conference presentations, panel discussions, etc etc.