What was McLuhan up to?

Satellites automatically enclose the old Darwinian “Nature” environment by putting the planet inside a man-made environment.1 

This sentence is from Dew-Line 1.5 (November 1968) but it could be from any number of McLuhan’s books and essays in the last two decades of his life after 1960. Here he is, for example, in 1971:

The latest technology in our world is the satellite. The satellite is the first man-made environment to encompass the planet. The earth has become the content of a human artifact. The satellite surround is the new artistic mask worn by the earth itself. It is a kind of proscenium arch, turning the globe into a theater. With Sputnik, Earth became (…) echo-land… (Innovation is Obsolete)

Are these reports of an historical event and its effects ? Namely, the launching of satellites which began in 1957 and the effects this has had in creating a new “man-made environment” across many fields from warfare to weather forecasting to resource mapping? In this case (1) McLuhan would have been doing a history of modern technology and its effects with an emphasis on new media.

Or (2) are these passages a figurative description of a ‘new science’ of human experience in which all of its data would be “man-made” in the sense of being an “artefact” of some or other subjective perspective or bias? A science, that is, where every object would be correlated with a subjective ‘take’ somewhat as a bat navigates by sonar signals which it sends and receives in a back and forth “echo-land” environment? “Blip calling unto blip” as McLuhan wrote in his 1957 review of Northrop Frye.

The satellite is also the shift from the planet as a homogeneous continuum or visual space, to the planet as a “chemical bond” or mosaic of resonating components. (Dew-Line 1.5)

In this case McLuhan would have been characterizing the domain of a potential new type of scientific investigation.2 Not ‘old science’ which takes its objects as much as possible exclusive of subjective bias, but ‘new science’ which would take its objects always inclusive of a correlated bias.3 Hence McLuhan’s observation that his work was a footnote to that of Harold Innis:

Innis taught us how to use the bias of culture and communication as an instrument of research. By directing attention to the bias or distorting power of the dominant imagery and technology of any culture, he showed us how to understand cultures.4

But already in 1944, years before he met Innis,5 McLuhan could speak in relation to Hopkins of our need to “keep ever sharply focused the stereoscopic gaze at the work itself”.6

Or (3) are these texts a description of how such a science might first come into view as a possibility? Just as satellites provided new imagery of the globe and thereby revealed the possibility and the need for environmental action, so could this same imagery suggest the idea that all of nature — all possible experience of nature — might be investigated in a new science or sciences:

The (…) archetypal-isation of Nature ensures that the Earth is now (…) a sort of archaeological museum affording immediate access to all past cultures simultaneously on a classified-information basis. (Dew-Line 1:5)

The first snippet given above is from this same Dew-Line issue. In it McLuhan brought together the new satellite environment with the possibility of ‘new science’ as follows:

The inability to perceive the “Emperor’s New Clothes” technological environments (…) needs no more illustration than Sputnik.
From the first moment of the satellite, the earth ceased to be the human “environment”.
Satellites automatically enclose the old Darwinian “Nature” environment by putting the planet inside a man-made environment. They are just as much an extension of the planet as is clothing an extension of the skin.
Satellites are equivalent to enclosing the Earth in a Bucky Fuller “dome” of acoustic space.
The consequent process of archetypal-isation of Nature ensure that the Earth is now an old “booster-stage”. . . a quaint form of Camp. . . a sort of archaeological museum affording immediate access to all past cultures simultaneously on a classified-information basis.

In this case McLuhan would have been crafting a real-time history of science, in which the birth of a ‘new science’ of human culture would be traced and thereby announced.   

Or (4) was McLuhan actually doing ‘new science’? That is, was McLuhan talking about the possibility of investigating human culture as “programming” — or was he attempting to perform cultural programming, as far as he was able as an isolated individual, back to us from the actualization of that possibility? Was he fulfilling Hegel’s acute observation that the only convincing proof of the possibility of a science would be its actuality?

Or (5), by continually jumping between all these different aims, was McLuhan attempting to provoke that “quantum leap” which is required to obviate our “inability to perceive” and thereby to come to see the “Emperor’s New Clothes” of new science?

My canvases are surrealist, and to call them ‘theories’ is to miss my satirical intent  altogether. As you will find in my literary essays, I can write the ordinary kind of rationalistic prose any time I choose to do so.7

Was he jumping between different audiences — in the academy, government, commerce and entertainment — in such different modes — from scientific to analytic to comedic — as a strategy of communication?8 

Or was he always doing all of these different things (and perhaps others as well) together and at once?

  1. McLuhan saw this development prior to the first satellites: “power technology has abolished ‘nature’ in the old sense and brought the globe within the scope of art“. (‘Notes on the Media as Art Forms’, Explorations 2, 1954)
  2. In this same Dew-Line 1.5, McLuhan described the appearance of the domain investigated by new science: “A TOTAL FIELD (…) OF MULTIPLE CONGLOMERATES AND INTERVALS WHOSE INTERFACES CREATE A VAST FERMENT OF RAPIDLY CHANGING PATTERNS.” Like old science in this respect, new science would not engage with pure elements at the level of the phenomenal world. Here it would instead find “conglomerates” of various sorts. But, again as was the case with old science, the prerequisite of such study would be the dis-covery of the underlying elements composing those “conglomerates”: media.
  3. Western Old Science approaches the study of media in terms of linear, sequential transportation of data as detached figures (content); the New Science approach is via the ground of users and of environmental media effects.” (Laws of Media, posthumous, 85, the bracketed insertion of ‘(content)’ is original.) The word ‘inclusive’ is one of the most important in McLuhan’s vocabulary — it designates the need to take subject and object together, as well as the related need to take all the varieties of human experience together.
  4. ‘Media and Cultural Change’, McLuhan’s introduction to the reprinting of Innis’ The Bias of Communication in 1964.
  5. See Innis and McLuhan in 1936 for the question of when McLuhan first read Innis.
  6. ‘The Analogical Mirrors’, Kenyon Review, 6:3, 1944.
  7. McLuhan to Bill Kuhns, December 6, 1971, Letters 448.
  8. McLuhan must be understood in the context of the fact that western civilization knows ever less about fundamental matters. Plato knew far more about the human situation than we do, although we have the means to destroy ourselves, and all life along with us, and the classical Greeks did not. Our problem is, then, not to learn more. It is to learn what has long been available to us — to achieve communication at last, with what is already there. As McLuhan said of the man who in his view provided “the only method of escape”: “Vico aimed to heal the rift (…) between the Ancients and the Moderns.” (See McLuhan on Vico.)