Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Meta-Four-Play: McLuhan's Tetrad and Lévi-Strauss's Canonical Formula Part 2.

In my previous post I suggested that there is a fundamental similarity between Marshall McLuhan’s Tetrad and Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Canonical Formula. The Tetrad, which is meant to explain the social processes underlying the adoption of a technology, was compared to the Formula, which is meant to explain the logical processes underlying mythology.The premise was that a combination of the two theories would provide easier access to the descriptive capabilities of each.

Step 1: De-objectify the Correlative

One of McLuhan’s assumptions is that there must be human agency in the adoption of any new technology. McLuhan often stated that understanding the biases of technology would enable us to control that impact, to act as stewards of culture change. McLuhan believed that the ivory tower would become the control tower for understanding and controlling the impact of a technology. This often is misinterpreted by critics who describe his work as “technological determinism.” Technology doesn't "act," people do. Oral narratives, and now electronic ones rely on a hero, or concrete human agent to carry forward the narrative. Instead of the concrete actor of a mythic tale, McLuhan gives us an abstract "actor" assumed by the adoption of a particular technology. But, excluding artificial intelligence, only humans can be actors.

Hidden within the Tetrad’s four part exposition, “enhance, obsolesce, retrieve and reverse,” is the assumption that someone enhances, someone obsolesces, someone retrieves and someone reverses. That someone can be an individual, an oligopolic group or a large-scale organization. It is the unthinking adoption of a technology which is of concern, not necessarily the technology itself. The problem is that in analyzing a technology, we focus on the concrete object of the technology, rather that the metaphor it represents. To modify T.S. Eliot, in order to understand the underlying metaphor of human agency that any technology represents, we need to “de-objectify the correlative.” Once we focus on the technology metaphor, rather than the technology itself, we are in a position to predict how that technology will influence human agency.

This may explain our fascination with robots in our science fiction tales and the “undead” in our gothic tales. These stories reveal our thoughts about what happens when human agency is eclipsed. This is true whether the narrative focuses on the cultural/technological (Terminator, Matrix) or the natural/supernatural (vampires, zombies.) Like the mediating figures of mythic tales that can function across boundaries, robots represent the literal embodiment of human agency in the form of artificial intelligence. As such, they have the potential to extend human potential as well as the capability to eclipse it. When the supremacy of human agency is threatened, the story always takes place in a dystopia.

Step 2: Defy Logic

According to Lévi-Strauss the purpose of mythology is always to reconcile the inevitable inconsistencies of a culture’s body of beliefs. His Canonical Formula is a tool to explain the way mythology works. Such an analysis is necessary because the reasoning taking place within a myth defies what we understand as logic. It is not linear thinking, but rather a metaphoric leap of faith that finds connections where there aren’t any and achieves the reconciliation of the irreconcilable. As Eric Csapo puts it,

“The solution is never logical, strictly speaking, but it imitates logic. If the problem were capable of a purely logical solution, there would be no need to have recourse to myth. But myth can do what logic cannot, and so it serves as a kind of cultural trouble-shooter. Rather than thinking of it as a kind of placebo which creates the mere impression of solution to a problem, it may be regarded as a mechanism for relieving anxiety.” (Csapo, 2005, p.226)

McLuhan also stated that his Tetrad was not a logical technique:

“The whole point about my tetrads is that they are analogical. That is there are no connections between any of them, but there are dynamic ratios.”

So, to continue the comparison, if the purpose of myth is to reconcile incompatibilities in or inconsistencies a culture, perhaps it could be said that the purpose of a tetrad is to reconcile technological incompatibilities, that is, to reconcile incompatible human activities under the influence of technology.

Next post: Breaking down the formula


Csapo, E. 2005. Theories of Mythology. p.226 (Blackwell Publishing)

McLuhan, M. Letter to the Editor in Technology and Culture, Vol. 17, No.2, p.263

1 comment:

dilemma dilemma said...

Finally getting round to creating some tetrads on current and past mediums… I'm working on the Occupy movement as a twist to the anti-capitalism agenda where the occupation of your home town takes over from an attack on the buildings of capitalist corporations… Your blog seems to have inspired me… Thank you