Hominization of the planet 2

It is man who has become both figure and ground via the electro-technical extension of his awareness.1

In Hominization 1, McLuhan was seen to replay Lucretius on human creativity:

that freewill, wrenched away From the fates, by which we each proceed to follow pleasure’s sway, So that we swerve our motions…

In fact, McLuhan did one better than Lucretius in that creativity is seen by him not, or not only, in the conscious exercise of will, but in all human experience whatsoever — even when the genesis of experience in creativity remains almost entirely unconscious:

In ordinary perception men perform the miracle of recreating within themselves, in their interior faculties, the exterior world. This miracle is the work of the nous poietikos or of the agent intellect — that is, the poetic or creative process. The exterior world in every instant of perception is interiorized and recreated in a new matter. Ourselves. (Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters, 1954)

The great question is: what does the actuality of such ubiquitous creativity2 indicate about possibility?

Strangely (since on reflection what could be more obvious?), it has occurred less and less to our purported thinking in the last two centuries that what is actual must also be possible! One of the explicit aims of Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit (Being and Time) was to address this thought-provoking oversight. The last sentences of the ‘Introduction’ to SZ3 reads:

Higher than actuality stands possibility. The understanding of phenomenology [dual genitive!] lies entirely in the grasping of it [dual genitive!] as a possibility.4

What happens when creativity is recognized as actual and therefore also as possible is that the structural leap or gap expressed in creativity must be rooted in the ground of human being (dual genitive!). Hence McLuhan’s insight that “it is man who has become both figure and ground”. That is, human creativity points to the conditions of creativity in possibility — namely, plurality and the bordering gaps that are necessary for that plurality, gaps that are manifested in the creative leaps we make in actuality. In this way humans re-present ‘ground’: “men perform the miracle of recreating (…) in every instant”. But in re-presenting ‘ground’ in their actual circumstances, humans cannot enact plural fundamental possibilities at once, any more than physical material can be more than one chemical formula at a time.5 So at the very instant when humans re-present ground, they do so as a dynamic figure of that ground. “It is man who has become both figure and ground”.

Hominization of the planet 3 will further unpack this insight by considering a passage in From Cliché to Archetype that was “quoted” in Laws of Media:

The cliché (…) is incompatible with other clichés, but the archetype is extremely cohesive, the residues of other archetypes adhere to it. When we consciously set out to retrieve one archetype, we unconsciously retrieve others (…) In fact, whenever we ‘quote’ one consciousness, we also ‘quote’ the archetypes we exclude.6



  1. Take Today, p11. Humans becoming “both figure and ground” is not a matter that first becomes possible in some chronological time like the “electro-technical” era. Instead, what becomes possible today is a new “awareness” of this perennial condition. As McLuhan said of the objects of the new awareness made possible by literacy in classical Greece: “The functions and processes were not new. But the means of arrested visual analysis, namely the phonetic alphabet, was as new to the Greeks as the movie camera in our century.” (The Gutenberg Galaxy, 23)
  2. Creativity is most manifest, perhaps, in the arts and sciences. But we properly recognize it as well, of course, throughout the whole range of human activity: in child-rearing, cooking, hunting, sewing, telling jokes, etc etc. And the often startling creativity of animals manifests it as well!
  3. Since SZ was never completed, there is an important sense in which these concluding sentences of the ‘Introduction’ represent Heidegger’s ‘last word’ on the SZ project. Not to say that there are not other ‘last words’ on it as well, of course — such as ‘Zeit und Sein’ from 1962!
  4. Sein und Zeit, ‘Einleitung’: “Höher als die Wirklichkeit steht die Möglichkeit. Das Verständnis der Phänomenologie liegt einzig im Ergreifen ihrer als Möglichkeit.”
  5. Not to say that human being or physical being cannot be some highly complicated combination of fundamental possibilities! In fact, with both human being and physical being it is disappearingly rare for a singular elemental possibility to be manifested on its own.
  6. From Cliché to Archetype, p21 = Laws of Media, p104.