Saturday, March 15, 2008

Meta Four Play Part 3 - McLuhan's Tetrad and Lévi-Strauss' Canonical Formula: Breaking Down the Formula

"I therefore claim to show, not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men's minds without their being aware of the fact." - Claude Lévi-Strauss (1)

In my posts on January 7 and January 15 I suggested that there is an affinity between Marshall McLuhan's Tetrad and Claude Lévi-Strauss' Canonical Formula (CF). I pointed out the similarity between the Tetrad's four aspects of technology influence (enhance, retrieve, obsolesce and reverse) and the CF which states that all myths operate by a function of analogy and inversion, where fx(a) : fy(b):: fx(b) : f(a-1)(x), which can be read as "the function 'x' of (a) is to the function 'y' of (b)" as "the function 'x' of (b) is to the inversion or opposite of the original element f(a-1) when considering the original x function as an element.

This approach interprets McLuhan's Tetrad in a way different than he may have intended. Merging the Laws of the Media with the CF allows us to focus on the transformation brought about by a technology, not the technology itself. McLuhan formulated his Laws of the Media as a methodology to bring to the foreground the otherwise hidden influences of technology. My approach proposes that the Tetrad can help to reconcile technological incompatibilities, that is, the incompatible effects of a technology on human activities. A new technology no longer "enhances, retrieves, obsolesces and reverses." Instead, we can say that the Tetrad shows how the technology "empowers" one aspect of a social organization while "repressing" a related aspect that had been empowered by a preceding technology.

Lévi-Strauss has shown how the purpose of myth is to reconcile inconsistencies in a culture's world view. I am suggesting that the purpose of a Tetrad is to tell a story and that story is an attempt to resolve a contradiction brought about by the adoption of a new technology. Seen this way, the Tetrad becomes a mechanism to mediate between some characteristic of a new technology and the resulting societal effect when that technology is pushed to an extreme. I also suggest that the assumed agent of a Tetrad be brought to the foreground in order to reveal the mythic operation McLuhan’s Laws of the Media .

To take one example from McLuhan's Laws of the Media (2), a Tetrad for the automobile might look like this:

The Automobile

Enhances: Privacy
Obsolesces: The horse and buggy
Retrieves: The knight in shining armor
Reverses into: Gridlock, massive traffic jams.

A man driving his carriage past one of the first automobiles might have shouted "Get a horse!" Early cars may not have been a match for horsepower, but as the technology improved horse and buggy users were caught in a contradiction. The most efficient mode of personal travel no longer depended on horseflesh, and the automobile began the process of setting new requirements for road quality, service stops, travel times, geographic distances and expectations concerning travel. The culture of the horse was no longer relevant. What the Tetrad reveals is how a new technology creates a contradiction within the corporate and social structure fostered by the preceding technology.

It is possible that McLuhan, in formulating his Laws of the Media, demonstrated how the mythology of secondary orality will develop. In classical mythology, an agent, who represents the first part opposition of terms, performs an action that is opposed by a second agent, who performs a contradictory action. McLuhan’s Tetrad assumes an agent or agents, but only examines the results of an agent’s actions.

Re-formulating using the Canonical Formula, the automobile Tetrad might look like this:

a= New Technologies: “automobile “
x= empowering
b= prior technologies: “horse and buggy”, “knighthood”
y= repressing

If we frame the narrative of the Tetrad as a story with actors and agents, here is one possible narrative representing the effect of the automobile:
Henry Ford created a mechanical vehicle far superior to prior modes of transportation (a). He gave this “automobile” to John Q. Public so that he could go faster and travel farther. This created a private space for speedier travel fx(a). John Q. Public stopped using the horse and buggy fy(b). Exemplary (i.e. modern) instances of the car re-create John Q. Public as a knight in shining armor fx(b). However, too many knights create gridlock or traffic jams, bringing travel to a standstill and reversing Henry Ford’s original intention fa-1(y).
Thus, the privacy enhancing function of the speedy automobile fx(a) is to its repressing function of the horse and buggy as fy(b) as its enhancing function of retrieval of the “knight in shining armor” fx(b) is to its reversal into gridlock when pushed to an extreme fa-1(y) or

fx(a) : fy(b):: fx(b) : f(a-1)(x)

which is one example of how McLuhan’s Tetrad conforms to Lévi-Strauss’ Canonical Formula.

Next: Implications of the use of Levi-Strauss' Canonical Formula to understand technology change.


1. Lévi-Strauss, C. The raw and the cooked: introduction to a science of mythology, Vol. 1. New York: Harper & Row, 1964, p. 11.

2. McLuhan, M. and McLuhan, E. Laws of the media: the new science. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988), p. 148.

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