Euclid and effect

The study of media begins, not with their uses or their programs, but with their effects. Indeed, the “cause” of any medium is its effects. (McLuhan to Martin Esslin, Sept 23, 1971, Letters 440)1

To arrive at his laws of geometry, Euclid needed to implement the insight formulated by Heinrich Wölfflin 2300 years later: the effect is the thing that counts, not the sensuous facts.2 (Wölfflin, Principles of Art History, 62)

Wölfflin’s dictum was quoted by McLuhan in 1960 in the context of his discovery that “the sensory impression proffered by a medium like movie or radio is3 not the (…) effect obtained”.4

No “sensuous” or factual circle can ground a law like circular circumference = 2πr. Instead, any material circle qua circle is the effect of such laws. Hence the entranceway to a science like geometry is to regard all factual circles as the effects of a formal shape; they take their form to a greater or lesser degree from a perfect circle whose circumference (unlike any material circle) exactly equals 2πr. That formal circle, in turn, must itself be regarded as the effect of mathematical laws like circumference = 2πr. 

But what is the relation of such an ideal mathematical law to the real? McLuhan says that reality does not primarily belong to either side of the ideal/real relation, but to their middle or medium: “the ’cause’ of any medium [= the cause belonging to any medium] is its effects“.5 That is, it belongs to any medium to manifest itself in and as effects.6 Its cause, its motivation, its raison d’etre, its very being — is to extend itself.7 But precisely for that reason, “the study of media begins, not with their uses or their programs, but with their effects.”

To study beginning with effect means to approach a matter (any matter whatsoever) as effect and therefore as inherently intelligible.8 Attention to effect means to regard something (including regard itself) as imperfect — in the sense of never ‘matching’ its cause, of always reaching out from itself — but not for that reason as untrue!

Effect correlates with McLuhan’s ‘making’ as differentiated from ‘matching’ or ‘merging’. Effect preserves difference, but difference as indicative, as suggestive, as meaningful, as intelligible.9


  1. Emphasis added. Both genitives in this passage are dual, but first of all they are subjective genitives! That is, ‘the study of media’ and ‘the cause of media’ belong to media like ‘the ball of the boy’. Not — at least not in the first instance — that media are what is studied or what is caused as objective genitives like ‘the punishment of the boy’. The objective genitives here (the study of media and of their causes) are enabled by the subjective genitives (study and causes grounded in media!)
  2. Plato might be read as generalizing Euclid’s insight that all shapes may be regarded as effects. For Plato, not only all shapes but everything without exception may be regarded in this way. But Plato formulated this insight, not after Euclid, following his lead, but a century or so before him!
  3. McLuhan: “was”. See next note.
  4. Project 69: “Early in 1960 it dawned on me that the sensory impression proffered by a medium like movie or radio, was not the sensory effect obtained.”
  5. The gap is where the action is.
  6. See The representative ferment.
  7. McLuhan’s distinctive manner of thought was to consider a term like ’cause’ across the range of its meanings and implications. So ’cause’ here is not only an originating impulse with a certain effect or effects, it is also the goal or conviction or value from which one proceeds: one’s cause.
  8. McLuhan in his letter to Esslin (referenced at the head of this post): “One of the advantages of being a Catholic is that it confers a complete intellectual freedom to examine any and all phenomena with the absolute assurance of their intelligibility. Moreover, there is absolute value in intelligibility as such, to say nothing of pleasure and satisfaction.”
  9. See Effect before cause in Gilson for McLuhan’s debt on this topic to his St Michael’s colleague, Etienne Gilson.