Thursday, July 23, 2015

Things Come in Fours

Comparing Marshall McLuhan's Tetrad and Claude Levi-Strauss's Canonical Formula


The figure-ground structure of a four part approach to analyzing media, merging McLuhan's "Laws of the Media" with the Claude Lévi-Strauss’s "Canonical Formula," allows us to focus our inquiry on the ways a new technology transforms society rather than technology content alone. The hidden biases of a new technology can change our assumptions about what is valuable and what is not, what is true and what is false, and who are the winners and the losers in the new Media Ecology. Ultimately, as Levi-Strauss suggested in his study of myths, we may be able to go beyond traditional media content analysis to understand how technological transformations operate in men's minds without their being aware of the fact.
It may seem strange in an essay exploring Marshall McLuhan’s use of formal cause in media analysis to talk about the contributions to the Media Ecology canon of French Structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. After all, Lévi-Strauss studied the myths, kinship systems and cultural artifacts of low technology societies while McLuhan is famous for his insights into the impact of mass communications and high technology on our modern civilizations. I will suggest that these theories are complementary and in fact address many of the same concerns.

In 1977 I participated in a communications studies conference panel at Fairleigh Dickinson University which featured Marshall McLuhan as a respondent.  Panel members were doctoral students invited to present their research exploring the relationship of current mass media and society.  Dr. McLuhan then commented.
I opened my presentation with a brief overview of French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss's use of the "triad" to analyze the structure of human cultures. Based on structural linguistics techniques, Lévi-Strauss sought to devise a means of analyzing and interpreting the kinship systems, myths and totemic practices of pre-literate populations. His work provides insights into how a cognitive framework affect how activities are carried out in oral societies, and gives us an opportunity to anticipate how they might evolve in our age of Digital Literacy. Lévi-Strauss’s goal was to “show, not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men's minds without their being aware of the fact.”(1964, p. 11)

Figure 1: Transformation of “raw” material into edible/inedible foodstuff
Lévi-Strauss used his "culinary triangle" to demonstrate how cultures differentiate that which is natural from that which is cultural by describing how foodstuffs move from their original "raw" condition to the condition of "cooked" or "rotten" depending on whether they go through a cultural or a natural process. One side of the triangle represents a cultural transformation; the other side represents a natural transformation. In most cases, “cooked” signifies edible and “rotten” signifies inedible.

I then presented my own triad analyzing television content:

Figure 2: Transformation of “raw” data into program content

Out of a “blooming, buzzing confusion,” television programmers in the United States filter the raw stuff of reality into three major categories,

1.      News. (the most raw)

2.      Entertainment shows. (the most cooked) and

3.      Advertising. (the most rotten.)

While the average viewer experiences these three types of television content as separate and discrete, they actually represent a continuum of possibilities. 

Figure 3: The Television Content Continuum

Between news shows and entertainment shows the continuum runs from the totally “objective” to the totally “subjective,” ranging from

Ø   Raw footage hard news to

Ø   Happy news to

Ø   reality shows to

Ø   Docu-dramas to

Ø   Scripted dramas and comedies

If news in its most uncooked form is the truth (and of course this is not the case), then advertising at its extreme is the most propagandistic.  Again, there exists a continuum between the two, ranging from

Ø  The “see it now” productions of Edward R. Murrow to

Ø  The “see it my way” admonitions of Bill O’Reilly or Rachel Maddow to

Ø  Infomercials to

Ø  What McLuhan called the “good news” that is advertising.

 Between entertainment shows and advertising there exists the continuum between attention and action which ranges from

Ø  Those 30 second interruptions we have learned to tolerate to

Ø  Sponsorship images appearing within sporting events to

Ø  Product placement within regular programming.

Television content reinforces social norms. Entertainment programming focuses on how rules are the broken and re-established on the interpersonal level. News programming deals with rules on the public level. Advertising is preoccupied with the breaking and re-establishing of social expectations on a personal or intrapersonal level.

Figure 4 Television reinforces social norms
A 1976 advertisement for Vaseline Petroleum Jelly represents an easy point of entry into the structural system of television.[1]  This advertisement demonstrates the way the concrete product, Vaseline Petroleum Jelly, becomes an abstract concept. Within the space of a thirty second commercial we see a young boy in three different situations. In each case, there are two constant elements: the boy himself, and the use of the Vaseline Petroleum Jelly. since the boy is curious about what the adults are doing, let’s examine their behavior more closely:

·         The father suffers from chapped lips.

·         The aunt is keeping her skin smooth.

·         The mother is protecting her baby from diaper rash.

In each case, an adult is using Vaseline Petroleum Jelly to counteract a physical affliction brought about by some natural process. In other words, the cultural product is a remedy for the natural affliction. If this culture/nature opposition is taken as the underlying message of this advertisement, it then can generate a table of permutations according to the procedure for structural analysis outlined by Lévi-Strauss.


Assuming that there is no point in presenting either term as neutral, a positive or negative value is assigned to each term within the Culture/Nature opposition. The table tells us what we might look for in other advertisements.

Figure 5: The Permutation Table
Let’s consider another example.[2] At the beginning of an advertisement for Wisk laundry detergent a man and a woman are preparing a dinner party. In all cultures the sharing of food is a primary social situation, and when food is scarce and hard to acquire, many rituals and myths are devoted to the origins and continued availability of the staples. In American society, where most people get enough to eat, much attention is still paid to the quality and the quantity of the food we eat and the people with whom we share it.

Figure 6: Applying the Permutation Table

In this advertisement the dinner party is disrupted before it begins by the discovery that the husband has “ring around the collar.” Mary Douglas[3] has defined dirt as “matter out of place,” (35) and it would seem that this social occasion cannot take place if dirt is present. Notice that fast upon this dreadful discovery we are told that “anyone can get ring around the collar,” as if to emphasize that there is no personal guilt involved here; it is a chance occurrence that can happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time. What is the effect of this discovery? The dinner party vanishes, and the wife is suddenly sent down to the laundry room to get the dirt ring out of the collar.  First she uses a spray, an ineffectual cultural product. Success is finally achieved by use of Wisk. Compare the woman’s initial and subsequent situations. In the first scene she is engaged in a “positive” activity, preparing for a dinner party. Anything which disrupts a cultural activity must be seen as an attribute of its opposite, a natural situation. Typically, this advertisement does not portray a situation in which nature is positive while culture is negative. It is thus possible to align the narrative of this ad according to the table of permutations developed previously.

The sudden incursion of nature into the sphere of culture seems to be a preoccupation of advertising. If the way advertising content is structured concerns an opposition between culture and nature, then within the other “legs” of the Television Triad there may be other hidden structures that a thorough structural analysis will reveal. 

After I completed my talk, Dr. McLuhan observed that I had missed the point in focusing on the triad, because, he noted, "things come in fours." In 1977 McLuhan was working on his own methodology to explain the structure of television. His "Laws of the Media" Tetrad described all technologies as metaphors with their own biases and hidden assumptions. It is the metaphor of a technology, not its content, which determines its true impact on society.

The nature of these technology metaphors can be revealed by asking four questions:

·         What is enhanced?

·         What is made obsolete?

·         What is retrieved that was previously lost?

·         What does it reverse into when pushed to an extreme?

For example, the impact posting on Twitter can be understood by the following effects.


·         Enhances “many to many” communication.
     As a medium, tweeting allows me to get my message out to many without the need of access to television, radio, print or film production facilities. Tweeting also allows me to receive messages from many sources.

·         Obsolesces  “one to one” or “many to one” communications.

Telephone chats and television binges are replaced by blogging connections.

·         Retrieves the habits of 18th letter correspondents or diarists.

At the minimum blogging requires that we capture and express our thoughts via the keyboard. some bloggers go much further than that. in the blogosphere, we all become nascent Montaignes.

·         Reverses into total narcissism.

When pushed to an extreme, I write only to myself, for myself. I put myself into the blogosphere, and seeing my own image, become entranced.
So while I was thinking about the media in terms of Lévi-Straussian "threes", McLuhan was thinking in terms of his Laws of the Media "fours." and it is clear that he and I were operating at differing levels of abstraction.

McLuhan believed that the four part structure of the Tetrad more accurately reflects the working of the human mind. The Tetrad tells us something about the way the mind sorts things into categories and makes sense of the world. “A four-part analogy is a figure-ground structure. (in a metaphor there are two figures and two grounds in ratio to one another)”[4] (Laws of the Media, p.120) McLuhan admitted in a 1975 letter to the journal “technology and culture” his debt to Claude Lévi-Strauss:

How did I arrive at these ‘Laws of the Media’?  By a structural approach.”[5] (74)

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.”(78)

If the elements of McLuhan’s Tetrad are in a ratio to one another, then we can see that the Tetrad brings to the foreground the underlying narrative of that technology’s impact on society.

Claude Lévi-Strauss also believed that things come in fours, especially with regard to the structure of myths.  Lévi-Strauss demonstrated that the there is a logic of myths that can be discovered if we think of them as a kind of musical score.  When we listen to a single mythic tale it is as if we are hearing only part of a musical score.  To get the “message” we need to consider the entire body of myths of a culture.

For Lévi-Strauss, the structure underlying a culture’s total body of mythology can be codified as a series of ratios which has become known as his “Canonical Formula.”
A myth begins by contrasting two elements.  The function X of element A is presented in the myth as the opposite of the function Y of element B. The myth then considers the effect of applying the original condition of “A” to “B” as the function X of B.  According to Lévi-Strauss, the contradiction of the original opposition of pairs is resolved by comparing this new term to the first term as it is transformed into a new condition where the positions of function and element are reversed.  The reversal resolves the contradiction that was the original concern of the myth. While presented as a logical formula rather than a series of questions, the Canonical Formula also represents a four-fold approach to analyzing cultural artifacts. Just as the enhancing impact of a new technology in McLuhan’s Tetrad flips into its opposite when pushed to the extreme, Lévi-Strauss asserts that within the structure of a myth, an initial contradictory relationship is mediated in such a way as to transform the original condition into its opposite, thereby mitigating the contradiction.

Any culture contains inherent contradictions and inconsistencies.  According to Lévi-Strauss, myths are created to reconcile these contradictions or to deny that they exist. In a similar fashion, McLuhan’s Tetrad helps us to reconcile inconsistencies that occur when a new medium or technology is introduced into a culture.  The Tetrad attempts to discern the technological metaphor within enhancements of human capabilities and can itself be viewed itself as a type of mythic narrative.

I would argue that the approaches of McLuhan and Lévi-Strauss are complementary.  Any new medium or technology contains its own bias, a type of mythic narrative, which we introduce into our culture when we adopt that medium or technology. By combining the two approaches, we can develop a better  methodology for interpreting and understanding technology effects.  It may well be that “things come in fours.” because the Lévi-Strauss’s triad doesn’t permit a transformation from within its terms, there is descriptive power, but no capacity for prediction or reconciliation.  The figure-ground  structure of a four part approach, merging McLuhan's Laws of the Media with the Lévi-Strauss’s Canonical Formula, allows us to focus our analysis on the culture or social transformation encouraged by a technology, not the technology itself. The hidden biases of a new technology can change our assumptions about what is valuable and what is not, what is true and what is false, and who are the winners and the losers in the new media ecology. Ultimately, as Levi-Strauss suggested in his study of myths, we can go beyond content analysis to understand how technological transformations operate in men's minds without their being aware of the fact.


Csapo, e. 2005. theories of mythology. p.226 (blackwell publishing)

Lévi-Strauss, c. The raw and the cooked: introduction to a science of mythology, vol. 1. new york: harper & row, 1964, p. 11.

McLuhan, m. Letter to the editor in technology and culture, vol. 17, no.2, p.263

McLuhan, m. and McLuhan, e. Laws of the media: the new science.  (toronto: university of toronto press, 1988), p. 148


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