Friday, January 12, 2007

McLuhan's Debt to Lévi-Strauss

I came across this very interesting reference to Claude Lévi-Strauss in a letter Marshall McLuhan sent to the Journal of Technology and Culture in 1975. In it he credits Lévi-Strauss (and Ferdinand de Saussure) with providing the structural basis for the development of his Laws of the Media.

Very interesting!

From Technology and Culture, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Jan., 1975), 74-78

McLuhan's Laws of the Media

Marshall McLuhan

To the Editor:

I have been experimenting with developing a series of "Laws of the Media," which I submit herewith for comment and discussion by the readers of Technology and Culture. My purpose is to invite criticism, directed not at me or at my rhetoric, but rather at the substance and contents of my thoughts. It seems to me that historians of technology–and kindred students of the sociology and philosophy of technology, economists, practicing engineers, and the like–might enjoy and profit from attempting to disprove my "laws."

So, cognizant of the seeming paradox that a "scientific hypothesis is one that can be disproved," I have put my "Laws of the Media" in a "disprovable" form, hoping that in the course of disproving each of them, many new discoveries might occur.

How did I arrive at these "Laws of the Media"? By a structural approach. The structuralists, beginning with Ferdinand de Saussure and now Lévi-Strauss, divide the approaches to the problem of form into two categories: diachrony and synchrony. Diachrony is simply the developmental, chronological study of any cultural matter; but synchrony works on the assumption that all aspects of any form are simultaneously present in any part of it. Although I have used the simultaneous approach in arriving at these Laws of the Media, any one of them is susceptible to the diachronic approach for filling in the historical background and details.

Since electric speeds of information constitute a sort of simultaneous structuring of experience, synchrony, representing all directions at once, is, as it were, acoustic; whereas the diachronic, representing one stage at ta time, is visual in its analytical pattern. Few People seem to be aware that visual space and order are continuous, connected, homogeneous, and static. In these regards, visual space is quite different from any other kind of space, be it tactile, kinetic, audile, or osmic (smell). Visual space alone can be divided.

You will note that, although these are called Laws of the Media, only a few of them deal with communications media narrowly conceived. Instead, I am talking about "media" in terms of a larger entity of information and perception which forms our thoughts, structures our experience, determines our views of the world about us. It is this kind of information flow–media–which is responsible for my postulation of a series of insights regarding the impact of certain technological developments. I call them "laws" because they represent, as do scientific "laws," an ordering of thought
and experience which has not yet been disproved; I call them "laws of the media" because the channel and impact of today's electronic communication systems provide the informational foundation upon which we order, or structure, these experiential perceptions.

In formulating these laws, I have utilized what is sometimes called the "scientific method." That is, I have proceeded by induction, even though in the process of induction one discovers many things that could not be merely inducted. The Laws of the Media have been shaped by studying the effects of the media, so there is always
a hidden ground upon which these effects stand, and against which they bounce. That is, the law of the medium is a figure interplaying with a ground. As with a wheel and an axle, there must be an interval between the two in order for the play to exist.

Even if the readers of Technology and Culture might not agree with my underlying structure, approach, and methodology, I hope they will examine these sample apothegms for their validity on a historical basis. I am not primarily a historian, so my reference base in not historical. However, I should like to test the validity of my
laws in terms of history. In other words, do my Laws of the Media–derived from my inductive approach to synchronous form–correspond to historical data as viewed from the vantage point of historians of technology? Does the history of technology "prove" or "disprove" my postulates?

I should appreciate hearing from readers of Technology and Culture in response to the above questions. They might write me directly, or they might address me through the pages of this journal. Perhaps in this way we can get a dialogue going, from which we might all profit greatly.

A sample of my proposed “Laws” of the media follow (the four steps of the process are named in the first “law” and assumed for the rest):

I. Cable TV

a. Amplifies quality and diversity of signal pickup.
b. Obsolesces diffusion broadcasting
c. Retrieves early transmission broadcast pattern of point-to-point (ship to shore)
d. Reversal is flip to home broadcasting

(Other examples clipped)

Marshall McLuhan, Director
Centre for Culture and
University of Toronto,
Toronto 5, Canada

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