Meaning as an arrow

I remember a phrase, “Meaning is an arrow that best reaches its mark when least encumbered with feathers”. What’s wrong with that remark? Without feathers there wouldn’t be any arrow. (…) At what stage do feathers become an encumbrance? At what stage do they become a necessity?1 (McLuhan  to Nina Sutton)

McLuhan’s remarks here (reminiscent of Wittgenstein) are both a statement of his method and an illustration of it.

In regard to any observation McLuhan wants to know where it may be situated on the f/g < > g/f spectrum. Here with “Meaning is an arrow that best reaches its mark when least encumbered with feathers”, feathers as figure are seen on the ground of the arrow of meaning and this figure is situated near the end of the f/g side of the spectrum.2 The arrow of meaning is taken as having exclusive, or near exclusive, worth relative to feathers: “best (…) when least encumbered”. 

But, says McLuhan, the arrow of meaning is possible only on account of feathers: “without feathers there wouldn’t be any arrow”. Now feathers are seen as ground and the arrow of meaning seen as a figure on it. Here the previous f/g relation or ratio has flipped to a g/f one and the new ratio of the two is now situated somewhere on the opposite side of the spectrum between its middle and g/f end.3

McLuhan’s next move is to try to specify where on the spectrum this flipped g/f ratio should be situated. He does so by further inquiry into the spectrum itself. “At what stage do feathers become an encumbrance? At what stage do they become a necessity?” On the one hand, if an arrow were to have too many feathers, it might fly badly or not at all. On the other hand, if it had too few feathers, it would again fly badly or not at all.

McLuhan’s unstated conclusion is that the ratio between arrow and feathers, between ground and meaning, between medium and message, must be situated at the middle of the spectrum: neither too many feathers nor too few. (In the middle of the spectrum — that is, the point where not only g/f obtains, but also f/g. As Heraclitus put it 2500 years ago, but with communication of the insight still not achieved today, ὁδὸς ἄνω κάτω μία καὶ ὡυτή, ‘the way up is the way down’. Here ‘up’ and ‘down’ or ‘f’ and ‘g’ are definitively different, but also bound together in a fundamental structure just as are, say, electron and proton in the chemical element or 0 and 1 in the binary bit.) This midpoint is the ‘superposition’ of quantum physics.

The further implication has truly vast importance. If statements (a) may collectively be investigated on the basis of the f/g < > g/f spectrum (b) with cumulative results (thus enacting ‘science’), this might serve (c) to show the carrying power (so to speak) of the spectrum and particularly of its middle position.  

Consider the relation of homelessness to being at home. If the f/g < > g/f spectrum is able to demonstrate itself as science through collective investigation, the decided homelessness of modern civilization (if this may still be termed ‘civilization’) could be seen as balanced at the middle position of the spectrum by ‘being at home’.4 

McLuhan traced violence to a lack of identity aka ‘homelessness’. The extreme danger of nuclear war (‘extreme danger’ in multiple senses) might therefore be ameliorated through this method. Perhaps only through his method?

The newfound possibility of science in and of the humanities would supply the ground for a new sense of identity for humans beings in a global village where particular identities were, dangerously, no longer possible. Or, better put, where particular identities once seemed to be no longer possible (“when least encumbered with feathers”), but could now be re-evaluated and rejuvenated and reinstituted through their repositioning on the f/g < > g/f spectrum.

McLuhan’s conversion was an illustration of this universal possibility5 and a kind of second sight or pre-conclusion of a method he would not be able to articulate until two decades later.

  1. McLuhan continued: “Meaning is never a thing. It is a relation between something and you. Meaning is a relation is not a thing. It is a relationship. It is a relationship between something and you, the user. (…) So it’s different for everybody. Meaning is never the same twice…”.
  2. The spectrum of f/g<>g/f relations is defined by increased tension going out in both directions from its centre — between the numerator and denominator, say, of each of the points of the spectrum. When feathers are seen as having little significance relative to the arrow of meaning, or only negative significance as an “encumbrance” to it, the difference between the two has become extreme and their relation threatens to collapse into a monism of the arrow only, with no feathers. Hence, the supreme reality of the arrow, isolated from feathers, is not to be an arrow at all. The same dynamic occurs on the other side of the spectrum where the increasing value/truth/reality of feathers relative to the arrow tends to the isolation of the feathers from the arrow. In the end, the supreme reality of the feathers as an essential navigation device for arrows is no longer to be such feathers at all.
  3. One of the problems in formulating McLuhan’s method is that there are no constants to it other than the range of change itself. What was figure can (and does) become ground and vice versa. Similarly with centre and margin and eye and ear and all such ratios. Seen in this light, McLuhan may be thought to have taken up the quest of the Cambridge English School to define ambiguity (as seen in Richards’ turn to ‘basic English’ and Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity). The great question is how to do this without ambiguity undermining definition or definition undermining ambiguity?
  4. Ratios of being-at-home to homelessness may be situated at all points along the f/g < > g/f spectrum. On the one side homelessness (like that of the prodigal son in the Bible) may be seen as grounded in a more fundamental being-at-home (as the prodigal son comes to realize). On the flip side, any particular identity as a sense of being-at-home may be seen as increasingly challenged by an unavoidable homelessness. What was f/g is now g/f: the homelessness that was figure is now ground and the being-at-home which was ground is now figure. The contemporary world is dangerously tilted in the latter direction, of course. But to be tilted in any one direction is to come down against the fact of the spectrum itself and its cohesive array of possible determinations. Hence, the more a science based on the spectrum demonstrates itself in on-going findings. the more the difficult middle position of being-at-home and homelessness together suggests itself. And this is the one way, it may be, that humans can again find themselves at home in a universe in which the inevitable limitations of every particular stance can once more hold out against their dissolution. Where omnis determinatio est negatio the need is to take up determination and its bound twin, limitation, in a new elucidation of the interior landscape — one that is based on them and is not possible without them. See The technique of flight for further discussion of these questions.
  5. Universal possibility: a possibility open to anyone to assume any identity. But precisely since this would be a universal possibility situated at any position along the f/g < > g/f spectrum, each particular possibility would be subject to investigation on the basis of that spectrum. Such investigation would doubtless show that many purported identities no longer made sense given their instability — that is, their tendency to flip to the opposite side of the spectrum.