Now that I’m finished with the second draft of The Democracy of Object I have the opportunity to return to McLuhan’s Laws of Media for the book Bogost and I are writing on media. In my view, McLuhan is a privileged figure for developing an object-oriented theory of social, political, and cultural studies because he’s rather on the fringe of Continental theory, places all entities on equal footing (technologies, natural objects, theories, texts, etc., are all media for him), and is himself something of an object-oriented philosopher. McLuhan, I believe, will thus provide us with the means of unifying both the expressive dimension of cultural formations (contents, representations, signs, meanings, theories, etc) and the role of nonhuman entities such as technologies, nonhuman animate and inanimate actors, and so on.
McLuhan’s famous thesis is that media are “extensions of man”. Ian and I, no doubt, will quibble with this this thesis, questioning its focus on man while not excluding the human, but I suspect we both embrace the basic idea. Here, I believe, media must be understood in relative terms. Every media is an object. However, a media is the manner in which one object extends another object. This is the relativity of media. An object becomes media when it extends another object in a particular way. In this regard, every media also simultaneously withdraws because the manner in which one object “uses” it to extend itself is such that it only plays on certain powers embodied in the object, “ignoring” the rest. McLuhan’s four laws of media help to illustrate this thesis. Each medium 1) enhances some aspect of an object, 2) displaces, obsolesces or diminishes other powers, 3) retrieves other modes of relation from the past, and 4) reverses into its opposite when taken to the limit. Taking up the first two of these laws, take the example of the telescope. The telescope obviously enhances the power of vision, while diminishing the role of touch and sound. Touch and sound fall into the background, while vision is foregrounded.
The relation between foreground and background is tremendously important in McLuhan’s thought. One gets the sense that for McLuhan the background always rumbles with hidden potentials that threaten the integrity of forms that appear in the foreground. In this connection, McLuhan’s analysis of the genesis of geometrical space is particular interesting. McLuhan’s striking thesis is that geometrical space came into existence with the rise of phonetic writing. Where acoustic and tactile space are always characterized by foreground/background relations where the background rumbles with hidden potentials, the visual space of phonetic writing tended to abolish background altogether as a result of transforming sounds into fixed units (phonemes) that were divorced from meaning and that could be repeated again and again as the same. Indeed, with writing we can always return to what has been written once again as identical, whereas speech disappears or falls away.
McLuhan’s thesis– and I’m not nearly doing him justice here –is that these features of written language were the ground for a conception of geometrical space as featureless, static, unchanging, infinite, a container, and identical. This space, in its turn, is deeply wedded to the sense of vision as writing is closely connected to vision and vision is that one modality of sense that detaches and isolates their figures from their background (just as a written sentence is detached from all background). McLuhan argues that the development of this concept of space is also deeply connected to the rise of philosophical discourses of Being that tended to treat objects and beings as static figures.
McLuhan’s analysis of the origins of visual, geometrical space and the relation between this type of space and writing, are, I believe, of great significance for object-oriented ontology. The conception of objects that arises based on this unconscious conception of space is that of objects as fixed and self-identical entities that are fully present. In other words, geometric space leads to a conception of being where withdrawal is erased. For example, for the geometer all points on an infinite line are fully present, simultaneous, and actual even if we can’t directly perceive this line. Visual spatialized thought thereby “objectivizes” entities in the bad sense of erasing their withdrawal.
However, what makes McLuhan’s critique of visual spatialized thought so interesting is not that it repeats, in many respects, something akin to Bergson’s critique of spatialization or Whitehead’s critique of misplaced concreteness and simple location, but rather that it attaches this way of thinking to text and phoneme. The really interesting implication of such an analysis is that those who work primarily with the medium of texts– e.g., scholars –will be susceptible to a whole host of “transcendental illusions” arising from the primacy of vision and the manner in which vision detaches figure from foreground generating an abstract conception of space as a continuum. These illusions would extend throughout one’s ontology at all levels, generating a host of errors that have little relation to the real. McLuhan, for example, goes so far as to argue that logic itself is based on a metaphor that derives from geometrical space, e.g., connection between propositions is really a metaphorical expression of containment, a relation of which is only possible in non-dynamic geometrical spaces. And indeed, wouldn’t claims about ideal norms governing all else be transcendental illusions produced by the iterability of texts or propositions that we can return to on a piece of paper? Moreover, the focus on content, propositions, and meanings to the detriment of practices and involvements with various matters would arise from the manner in which texts detach persons from doings. However, above all, the spatialization that arises as a result of phonetic writing would erase all withdrawal as a consequence of generating the illusion that all is present and simultaneous.