Laws of Media: the New Science


In the Gutenberg Galaxy Marshall McLuhan gave us Typographic Man, trapped in the repetitions of print and sundered from the close harmonies and unites of the pre-print world. In this posthumous work, put together from notes and their conversations by his son, Eric McLuhan, the source of entrapment is taken one stage further back; not to the dissemination of the word but to the very means of writing it: we are presented with Alphabetic Man, his emergence out of pre-Homeric orality and his present-day demise in the post-literacy of the television world.

For McLuhan the significance of the alphabet is to be understood in terms of the kind of space that is forced on those who invented and used it; its abstract coupling of meaningless sounds and autonomous graphic bits, and its detachment of figures from their ground, being in his view the model and formal cause for the Greek invention of abstract Euclidean space – visual, homogeneous, linear, sequential. Against such visual space there is aural or acoustic space – mosaic, simultaneous, indepth, resonating. Before the alphabet, space in its primary mode was “structured by logo – resonant utterance or word” and “penetrated by tactility”. After this the logos was suppressed and space went Euclidean and visual; a mode in which it remained until this century, when under the impact of Einsteinian space-time, wave mechanics, psychoanalysis, linguistics, the media and much else, it became post-Euclidean and acoustic once more.

McLuhan was never short of ideas or rhetorical devices (“probes”) for making connections – often startling and always provocative – between apparently remote aspects of the cultural scene, and his writings on the media changed the way we think about them. The story of space given here is no exception. It moves in an unstoppable rush from probe (“The dyslexic: everyman as cubist”) to gnomic probe (“The culture-heroes of pre-literacy and post-literacy alike are robots”), authorizing itself through selected quotation and paraphrase of everything from pre-Socratic fragments to blurbs from the covers of previous McLuhan books. And it gives itself what seems a hard, neurological edge through a constant appeal to the opposition between left and right-brain functioning. The attributes of the left brain (logical, analytic, sequential, etc.) corresponding to visual space, as against those of the right brain (holistic, intuitive, simultaneous, etc.) which match acoustic space, allowing him to play off polarities between cultures (right-hemispheres = tribal, closed, holistic, versus left-hemisphere = literate, fragmented, technologized); so that, for example, Chinese society is held to be right-brained (though nothing is said about the Japanese, whose mixture of ideogrammatic and syllabic writing makes them presumably both-brained) and, even more fatuously, Popper’s falsifiability criterion is blithely categorized as a right-brained statement.

But the story being told by the McLuhans has a larger purpose than brain-handedness. Among the host of references and supporting extracts two authorities, Francis bacon and Vico, are returned to repeatedly. Both understood themselves to be founding a New Science against what they (very differently) saw as the Old Science. And if Bacon’s New Science is what we now call science, and Vico’s Scienza Nuova is something radically different, this is less important for McLuhan than their availability as avatars. For the whole thrust of Laws of Media is the claim to be the founding document of a new science of human artefact which would somehow model its scientificity on Bacon and take its focus on artefacts from Vico.

What, then, does the new science of artefacts look like? It rests, we learn immediately, from the introduction, on two fundamental discoveries. First, that an artefact of any sort is “a kind of word, a metaphor that translates experience from one form into another”. Second, it makes no difference whether these words are hardware such as bowls, spoons, tools, radios, computers, or software such as theories, scientific laws, philosophical systems, music, theories of disease, or indeed laws of media. These discoveries result in the formulation of a fundamental fourfold object called a “tetrad”, which embodies the four law-like features of an artefact in a double opposition: any artefact being seen to enhance, retrieve, reverse into, “obsolesces” some other artefact or aspect of human experience. As examples of the simpler tetrads we are given a list from Booze, Brothel, Cigarette, Crowd, to Hermeneutics, to Tactile Space, Xerox. Thus the artefact Brothel, for example, enhances “sex act as a package deal”, obsolesces “involvement and privacy”, retrieves “the siren as prostitute”, reverses into “hallucination for lonely hearts”.  While Hermeneutics enhances clarity, reverses into obscurity, retrieves depth, obsolesces naivety.

Readers will decide for themselves how to apply the four laws to the artefact under review and so work out what sort of a tetrad Laws of Media is. For this reader the overwhelming (right-brained) feeling was that the left brain – rational persuasion, the just use of evidence and so on – is not so easily mocked. And that (taking television-induced post-literacy to be as monolithic as McLuhan claims) the “laws” here fit uncomfortably inside an alphabetic book. Much better as a television programme in acoustic, resonating space, where the flat, overlit, low-definition surface of a screen would have provided the minimum of reflective impedance.


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