Ear-view mirror

Gordon records that McLuhan used the great phrase “ear-view mirror” in a letter to Barbara Rowes from August 9, 1977.1 But he does so as part of a questionable claim:

The television medium forces the use of what McLuhan later referred to as the ‘ear-view mirror,’ because the eye never receives a complete picture from the screen, just as the ear never receives a word in isolation from a stream of speech.

Gordon’s sentence is often enough cited with approval as if it captured the intent of McLuhan’s play on words. But of course it does not. In fact, once actually considered, it is hard to know what Gordon could have been thinking — his sentence is a sequence of non-sequiturs.2

The phrase is first of all a product of McLuhan’s Joycean mind that found it easy, enjoyable and informative to juggle words and thoughts.  Leaving off the ‘r’ from ‘rear-view mirror’ reveals a mind in action and reflects a common phenomenon in language — like the Cockney ‘enry’ or the Greek ‘oinos’. A funny thing happened on the way to the present.

Secondly, the phrase captures ‘tactility’ in its characteristic action of melding without merging, in this case ‘ear’ with ‘eye’ (view, mirror). According to McLuhan, this is what television, as the epitome of new media, is — the extension of tactility.

Thirdly, the coinage indicates that its twin, the rear-view mirror, is more complicated than might be thought. Like everything else, it is knotted and not-ed internally.

  1. Escape into Understanding, p210 with reference at p405, n63.
  2. McLuhan’s phrase does not concern what “the television medium forces the use of”. Whether or not “the eye (…) receives a complete picture from the screen” depends entirely on how the ‘eye’ is conceived and how “a complete picture” is understood. And what this has to do with the reception of a word in “a stream of speech” — which is usually the case, but sometimes not — is obscure at best. At a guess, Gordon equated the linear “stream of speech” with an analogous ‘stream of images’ in TV and considered that both make sense only in such a chronological context. But this ignores McLuhan’s ‘allatonceness’. So a series of non-sequiturs goes wrong through an overconcern with sequence.