© Eric McLuhan and Figure/Ground Communication.
Dr. McLuhan was interviewed by Laureano Ralon on August 1st, 2010.
Eric McLuhan is an internationally known lecturer on communication and media, the son of Herbert Marshall McLuhan. He has over 30 years of teaching experience in subjects ranging from high-speed reading techniques to English literature, media, and communication theory. He has taught at many colleges and universities in both the United States and Canada. He has published articles in magazines and professional journals since 1964 on media, perception, and literature. He co-authored City as Classroom (Irwin, 1977), with Marshall McLuhan and Kathryn (Hutchon) Kawasaki, and assisted McLuhan with research and writing of The Medium is the Massage, War and Peace in the Global Village, Culture is Our Business, From Cliché to Archetype, Take Today: The Executive as Drop-Out, and most notably, Laws of Media: The New Science (University of Toronto Press, 1988).
Media Ecology, the Toronto School of Communication, Canadian Communication Studies, McLuhan studies – is there a difference among these terms? If so, where do you place yourself?
Of course there’s a difference. The “Toronto School” is completely ersatz, invented decades after the fact as a sort of attempt at branding what a few Canadians have tried to do by way of studying the effects of media. There are three or four main figures, including Innis and McLuhan. Those two barely met once or twice. McLuhan got interested in Innis when he learned that Innis was using The Mechanical Bride in his classes. He then read Innis’s work on the fur trade and the cod fisheries and both Empire and Communications and The Bias of Communication, and found them absorbing and useful in furthering his own work. But he and Innis never collaborated on anything or had deep conversations, so there is little to justify the name of a “Toronto School.” The people involved were working on their own.
Media Ecology is a term I invented when we were at Fordham. I discussed it with Postman and he ran with it.
I suppose if I have a place in this it is as my father’s son and heir. I am continuing the work he began and we furthered together. I have a few new things of my own, to put it mildly, but they are not the same as his any more than I am the same as he.
You have written and edited a great number of books throughout your prolific academic career, but in my opinion Laws of Media: The New Science remains your masterpiece. Though often presented as a recapitulation of the gestation of Marshall McLuhan’s thought, which culminated in the tetrad, I think Laws of Media: The New Science also distinguished you from you father. Indeed, the beginning of the book seems very McLuhanesque, at times incomprehensible, but by the time you get to page 93, it suddenly becomes surprisingly clear and concise, less poetic and more scientific. And I think overall it proves to be a much more accessible volume than Understanding Media, which relied heavily on “probes” and aphorisms as vehicles for provocation – to blow things out of proportion in order to bring them back into focus. Now, I’m wondering how much of the book was written by you and how much of it was written by your father…
Ahh, well there’s a question! Nobody has asked me that before. I left my father’s employ in the mid-70s to spend two years in graduate school. Newly-wed, with a baby daughter, we had daughter number two while we — my wife and I — were there. As soon as I got back we resumed work on the project to revise Understanding Media. McGraw had asked for a tenth-anniversary revision and rejected what we sent them. We had found the four laws and were going to use them as revisions, plus add a dozen or so new chapters to incorporate media that had appeared since 1964—cable TV, satellites, videotape, etc. After McGraw turned the revisions down we began thinking about a new book. We put together three separate pieces for the job. One was a long, shapeless piece that we had been working on, which we called the Visual Space Essay. My father had been talking and writing about visual space, and acoustic space (and other-sensory spaces), for some time. He’d let slip a new observation from time to time and they were beginning to accumulate, but he had never set the ideas out in any sort of systematic fashion, so we determined to gather all that we had learned and put it together. That was the genesis of the Essay. From time to time we would pass a copy to a friend or colleague for comment, and after Dad’s death, from time to time, a piece of it would appear in the writings of one or another of those colleagues, without credit, I may add. A bit of homework will supply names…
A second piece of the mosaic that became Laws of Media: The New Science was another essay that we were writing as a result of excitement over the new studies of the two hemispheres of the brain that were just then breaking news. This became chapter two.
A third piece was of course the four new Laws. We had by this time well over a hundred examples. So we drafted an introductory essay (chapter three as it turned out) and used the laws themselves as the fourth chapter.
Converting the Visual Space Essay into chapter one was a job. By the time we decided to integrate it into the new manuscript, it had reached well over 135 pages and was still growing. We had to stop adding things and cut at least a quarter. We had decided to keep to the two kinds of space as they made — as always — a handy contrast that caught the reader’s imagination easily. We might have included other spaces, but didn’t, to keep matters simple. I must apologize for the painful style. I was fresh back from graduate school and so it reads like a long graduate essay, which in a way it was. Mea culpa. A good deal of it comes from a loooong paper I wrote (the sort that is never finished) on tracking the history of the logos.
When I took the final MSS to U of T Press, the editor assigned to it was R.I.K. Davidson, the man who had edited The Gutenberg Galaxy. Who could possibly have been better? RIK decided to rearrange the order of sections in Chapter One: the result was printed. The Press also decided to chuck about half of the tetrads that we had in Chapter Four in order to save space. (Now and then I print a few in this mag or that.)
As to who wrote what. The easiest way to answer that is to say that Dad & I worked together over every sentence, though I did most of the actual writing. We would get together in the study on the top floor of Wychwood Park and begin composing aloud. I would do the writing-down during these sessions at the time, not afterward at home (as Barry Nevitt did with Take Today), and read them back and we’d edit on the fly. Handwriting. Then I’d take the MSS home and type it up on my old IBM model B. We did that for months. So I can claim that those parts of the book were 50-50 in the writing. Naturally, Dad had enormous erudition to bring to bear, and so he was responsible for that much more of it.
The final chapter we saw at the time as more of a post-face; it consisted of three or four pages of sketchy prose, when he died. We sent the incomplete MSS around to several publishers. Doubleday was one of them. They took it seriously enough to assign an artist to make sketches for it, and he did do so. I had also asked a former student, Dean Motter, to make a few, and he did so. For example:
Doubleday had asked a “very contemporary” artist of their choosing to do some illustrations and preferred his work to Dean’s. U of T considered Dean’s work too déclassé for their taste and refused to use it. That’s another story.
Anyhow, about 1986, after the book had lain fallow for a while, I returned to it and finished the writing. I inserted the material about Francis Bacon and Giambbatista Vico and added the subtitle, The New Science. (If I ever get to do a second edition, I will switch the main title and subtitle to read The New Science: Laws of Media. I will also try to persuade the Press to add a III to align the book with Bacon (Vol. I) and Vico (Vol. II). Pretty certainly, they will refuse. It is beyond question that Vico was aware of Bacon’s work and also that he chose his title in order to invoke the Novum Organum. Bacon’s title is a swat at Aristotle and the Organon.) I also wrote the conclusion, chapter V. The structure of the book as it stands, therefore, is dictated by the five divisions of rhetoric.
I would add that we evidently made a tactical error in addressing the book to the academic community. They have, almost universally, ignored it. We ought to have written it for a popular audience, where it would have been read at least and perhaps stirred some controversy. Doing so would call for a different style and some serious cuts, but it might have found an audience. I gave it a shot in my own Electric Language where there is a chapter on tetrads using some everyday examples.
Here is a recent one, concerning street-parking permits. I have high-lighted the glosses to distinguish them from the core matter. I should add that, until one has determined these glosses, the work on a tetrad is not completed.
Though the tetrad was originally presented as a set of scientifically rigorous laws, Philip Marchand wrote in his biography: “in a way, it was absurd for McLuhan to think that his laws of media were any more ‘inductive’ or ‘scientific’ than any of his other pronouncements. They could not be disproved, only endlessly argued. There were too few factual constraints on this tetrad for it to resemble, however faintly, a true scientific hypothesis” (p. 253). I personally see the tetrad as performing the function of a phenomenological reduction, where usual assumptions about the world are put in brackets so that fresh insights may be had. Actually, in a recent interview with Figure/Ground, Harman declared that, even though the tetrad in Laws of Media is not identical with Heidegger’s fourfold, there is an obvious common point. He also pointed out that, while Heidegger is concerned with the layer of reality that withdraws, so is Marshall McLuhan when he speaks of background media that are not perceived as long as we are inside them. Furthermore, he affirmed that both of them were concerned with how the ground reverses into figure, and vice versa. Is there an affinity between your new science and phenomenology in your view?
I don’t want to quibble with Philip Marchand at this point. I believe he is a bit wiser now than he was at the time he wrote the biography. Remember that LOM is called New Science deliberately to place it alongside Bacon’s and Vico’s New Sciences. There is irony or paradox in these designations, for the New science is actually much older than the Old Science, as practised by our scientific establishment. Ironically, our scientists have no sense at all of their place in the tradition. Bacon built his NS on the work of his medieval forebear, Roger Bacon, and Vico was drawing on understandings that go back at least as far as Cicero, so these efforts have deep roots. Vico, as did we, built his NS using the five divisions of rhetoric — but then Vico was a professor (in both senses) of rhetoric. We three are quite sensible of the relation of our efforts to words and language; our scientists do not realize that their efforts are predicated on the abstract word as the source of their every feat of abstraction. I treat these things at some length in LOM. The important thing to realise is that, the establishment aside, there is more than one valid kind of science.
We took Karl Popper’s remarks to heart. Our four laws are testable and they apply in every single case. In the more than 30 years since we formulated them, I have found not one case in which one of the laws did not hold, nor have I been able to find a fifth that holds in every case. I issued a challenge years ago to the public to find an exception and thus far no-one has done so. Naturally, the results will vary from culture to culture, from environment to environment, but this is to be expected.
New science is empirical and not based on theories; Old science is theoretical, Aristotelian. New science belongs to grammar and Old science to dialectic and philosophy. We are not philosophers, and neither were Bacon and Vico, although they have been co-opted by philosophy, ignorant of the traditions of the trivium (rhetoric, grammar, and dialectic). Bacon would have been amused, or perhaps a bit miffed, by his being misread as a philosopher by our time. These distinctions, and the nature of the trivium, are discussed at length in my father’s Ph. D. thesis, now finally published by Gingko Press under the title, The Classical Trivium. It will richly repay every moment spent in reading it.
I will have to defer to Prof. Harman’s judgment in the matter of our relation to Heidegger. But along the lines of philosophical enquiry, I might add that it was only several years ago, when working on another matter, I discovered that our four laws are actually an analytic of Formal Cause. Here is a major reason why the scientific community cannot grapple with the tetrad: normal science is concerned exclusively with Efficient Cause, and has no foothold (or interest) in any other area. Formal Cause is almost universally misunderstood. For one thing, it is not sequential; it works outside of time and Efficient Causality is completely sequential and time-bound. Of Formal Cause it may be said that effects generally precede causes: the saying “the time was ripe” or the saying, “coming events cast their shadows before them”— these allude to the working of Formal Cause. And Formal Cause is exactly the mode of operation of media on culture and society. I wrote an essay on the matter and published it in the journal, Explorations in Media Ecology. Formal Cause concerns the working of environments and how they bring about change. Media are environments, without exception. The medium is the message of any technology, and the user is the content of that environment.
This next question is an extension of the previous one and was drafted by Professor Harman himself: “You are justifiably proud of your concept of the tetrad, and even go so far as to claim that it’s the most important intellectual discovery of the past few centuries. Nonetheless, you restrict your own concept so that it covers only human artefacts, since you interpret your own tetrad in linguistic terms. My question is this: why are you so sure that the tetrad applies only to items having the structure of language? Could you possibly be selling yourself short here?”
Graham, you are putting the cart somewhat before the horse, in order to be provocative — as I know you are aware.
At first, we tried the tetrad on everything in sight. It did not take very long — a day or two — to realize that it was only applicable to human artefacts. It tells us nothing, for example, about spider webs, or beaver dams, or birds’ nests, and so on. And it is equally inapplicable to trees or hurricanes or mountains or plate tectonics or supernovas or comets or tidal bores. Animal artefacts produce no intelligible result, and natural “artefacts” or events likewise. But it applies to every single human artifact without exception, from the smallest to the largest, from the most recent to the most ancient. And it applies equally to tangible (hardware) artifacts as well as to software ones, including ideas, and styles in the arts, and scientific laws, and computer programs, etc.
It took some time, a few years’ work with the tetrads, before we realized that the four laws were in proper proportion to each other. They obey the analogical ratios of a is to b as c is to d (and all the reciprocals of those ratios). So we found that, for example, that the function of enhancement is to that of reversal as is the function of retrieval is to that of obsolescence. There is no sequence to these relations; no one law is “first” or “second.” Writing these out in a line obscures their relation and suggests sequence. We were forced, at length, to present them graphically so that the rhymes (ratios) could be seen. The tetrad above is an example. To write the four parts linearly would simply obscure any relation between then as would, say, writing out a quatrain of poetry in paragraph form. In the case of the tetrad, though, there are rhymes just as in a poem, but the rhymes are between situations not words or sounds. So we stopped listing the four laws and began to present them instead in stanza-form, thus:
I titled the last chapter of the book “Media Poetics,” both because the tetrad is essentially poetics and because it concerns the making process (from the Greek word for make). The tetrad gives the formal nature of its subject: it does not explain or expound — that is the job of regular science. The tetrad tells you what a thing IS by telling its effects.
After a while it dawned on us that these analogical ratios also were the structure of words themselves. Every word in every language is metaphor.
The heart of LOM is the tetrad on metaphor in the fifth chapter. We arrived at the idea that human technologies were words by this route. Understanding Media (our starting point, remember) has the startling subtitle, The Extensions of Man. Extensions are outerings of the body, that is, they are physical utterances — of the body itself not simply utterances through the vocal organs. This insight is confirmed over and over by our artists, and in particular by one of the greatest, James Joyce (our frequent mentor). Metaphor consists in translating one situation into another, of looking at one situation in terms of another. It is a fundamental process of knowing anything whatever. So a warrior attacks an enemy: “the lion sprang on his prey.” A is to B as C is to D. The two situations are not connected and the metaphor provides instantaneous awareness: metaphors defy translation into weaker figures such as simile or even analogy. A metaphor is an analogy among analogies. The barely literate often try to illustrate metaphor with such examples as “Man is a rock”: this is not metaphor but tautology, an entirely different figure of speech. “Man = rock” is connected statement, and not just because of the copula.
Well, finally, to come to the question. We learned that the tetrad had the structure of metaphor, and that all words also have the structure of metaphor, and also that words and artefacts were equally utterances. I wouldn’t call that restriction, now, would you? Rather, it opens up completely new avenues for understanding. For one thing, it thoroughly bridges the arts and the sciences and pushes aside their conventional separation. The arts are sciences, and the sciences are arts.
I believe one of the most interesting passages from the book Essential McLuhan reads as follows: “the meaning of meaning is relationship…truth is not matching, but something we make in our encounter with a world that is making us.” These claims seem to oppose Cartesianism, don’t they? They seem to suggest, as Heidegger pointed out, that the problem of the “external world” isn’t really a problem; that the self is not a self-sufficient substance with accidental properties, nor a solitary subject solipsistically trapped within the confines of its own consciousness, but an “extended self” which is out there, past its fleshy boundaries, partaking in the flesh of the world – a “being-in-the-world.” What do you make of all this?
This seems at first blush a complex affair but it is in reality simple. First, observe that the self, in whatever mode, is a human artefact. Try tetrads on the various forms and you will see instantly what I mean. The “external world” is another artefact, and so is “Nature” which the Greeks invented after their encounter with the alphabet. And the same is true of first nature and “second nature”: we addressed these factors in LOM. Tetrads on solipsism, Cartesianism, substantial properties, accidental properties, relativism, and nihilism, will sort the confusions out instantly. Try them, side-by-side.
The scriptures enjoin us to be in the world (unavoidable) but not of the world — a nice distinction. That is, take the world very seriously indeed, but don’t take it seriously.
In an interview with Michael Tippett you declared that, “media is only understandable as a form of metaphysics. Bodies are no longer relevant. Electronically we are simultaneously in many places at once.” Is it possible to live without a bodily identity? Is it possible for “discarnate man” to reinvent himself out of bits of information? Is there such a thing as a “larger whole” in this day and age? If not, how can we possibly ground ourselves?
That declaration applies to the new electric media which extend us into the environment. They work on us in ways that defy merely literal or physical investigation and kinds of understanding. There is a way of course in which any technology results in a new mode of being for the user, but with electric technologies the transformation is complete.
Of course we can live without a bodily identity, but the body confers a particular kind of identity. Aquinas pointed out that the principle of individuation consists in the intersection of matter and spirit. Without the body, then, individual identity is not possible. Discarnate man is mass man; individuality is simply not possible because there is nothing on which to base it, to give it substance. Individualism and private identity are artefacts, side-effects of the phonetic alphabet and its symphony of abstraction. (LOM chapter one.) One of the three themes on which Take Today: The Executive as Dropout is based is that jobs disappear under electric conditions and they are replaced by roles. Roles mean audiences and participation. Private identity depends first and foremost on detachment. Social media like Facebook provide identity from the in-crowd of friends that one can amass: that attention is the identity dynamic. Take it away and the user is nobody—a nobody with no body.
With private identity and detachment also comes another artefact: privacy, now a major concern. As private identity evaporates, privacy becomes a matter of great concern-and so do private ownership and copyright. All of these things are interrelated and make no sense in isolation from each other. It is no secret that private identity is unknown in non-literate societies and equally that they have no use for privacy.
Speaking of larger wholes, you edited an interesting book with a provocative title – The Medium and the Light: Reflections on Religion, published in 1999. Is God the Light? What do God and the electric light have in common?
Well, it is not a book for the Illuminati. The title is obviously a play on ideas, as was The Medium is the Massage. At the same time, I did not intend to suggest that there was nothing weighty in the book. Nor did I intend the reader to regard McLuhan as a sort of medium in conversation with God. The “Medium” refers to various media. Malcolm Waddell suggested the title and I knew immediately that it was perfect, loaded with provocative resonances.
What are you currently working on?
I have three publishing projects currently “at the press.”
One is the book on Media and Formal Cause (NeoPoiesis Press), mentioned above.
A second is called Theories of Communication (see table of contents) and concerns the “theories” of various persons and groups. Examples: Aristotle, Aquinas, Chesterton, Wyndham Lewis, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, the advertising profession, even Judaism and Christianity (Peter Lang publishers).
A third is actually a set of five books. The main title is The Human Equation. I worked with a professional mime for a number of years and we found a way to rewrite Understanding Media from the inside out. That is, UM, subtitled The Extensions of Man, looks at the media in relation to the body and their effects. The Human Equation begins with the body and the process of extending, so it is essentially concerned with the etymology of media. It turns out that there are only four ways of extending (yes, another proportional foursome!), corresponding to the four modes of action of the body. All of our media without exception begin their journeys outward from one or another of the modes of action. And our media invariably come in sets of four… We plan to publish over the Internet, on-demand. First copies available in a few weeks.
I have a half-dozen others, brides as yet awaiting the attentions of suitors (publishers). I’d love it if you could play matchmaker here!
One is a book-length academic study of Menippean satire.
One is a study of Egyptian art in the Old Kingdom. These folks invented the first moving images: they found a way to animate their principal paintings. We can see them move is we learn to adopt their manner of seeing—not so difficult as it has been until the onset of electric technologies and the modes of perception they afford. An additional dimension: the same moving images, with further exercise of perception (and a bit of training) gently slide into 3D. The latter is remarkably like holograms, and is achieved without any of the usual cumbersome apparatus of vanishing points or foreshortening or chiaroscuro. They manage it using their odd style—and silhouette.
One is a study that begins with the observation that much of the chaos that surround us at present is due to the fact that we are smack in the middle of an enormous renaissance, one large enough to make the “Grand Renaissance” look like a small digression. It has been invisible up to now because it is environmental. Precipitated by the onrush of electric technologies, it got its start in the nineteenth century as is now still accelerating. Generally, renaissances wind down after a century or so: not this one….
How’s that for starters?
 The Classical Trivium: The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of His Time. Gingko Press, 2006.
 Explorations in Media Ecology, Vol. IV, Nos. 3 / 4, 2005, pp. 181-209. I have a book “at the press” at the moment called Media and Formal Cause, consisting of my essay and three by my father. It ought to be out before the end of the year.
 Northrop Frye asserted with clenched teeth that the formal cause of a poem or a painting or anything else HAD to subside inside the item; if it were outside, it would ruin the entire edifice. Sorry, Norrie. The formal, cause of a poem, like that of an ad, is the audience.
 In The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.
THIS INTERVIEW IS AVAILABLE IN JAPANESE
© Eric McLuhan and Figure/Ground Communication. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Eric McLuhan and Figure/Ground Communication with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
Your feedback is welcome and appreciated! If you like what you see, please consider commenting or donating to help us grow and expand. Figure/Ground is currently on the outlook for collaborators to help with the expansion of this section into the largest repository of scholarly interviews on the net. For specific suggestions regarding future/potential interviewees or to obtain permission to republish any of the interviews already on the site, please contact email@example.com.