A year ago, in Odense, I tried to explore some theoretical issues related to orality, literacy and secondary orality, investigating various forms of remembering in relation to the development of new technologies of communication. For our Cardiff conference, I have decided to work instead on a very specific ‘case study’, as I am discussing, very briefly, Marshall McLuhan’s ‘mosaic’ and ‘laws of media: the form of writing developed by the well-known Canadian media guru (Fig.1), in fact, can be approached as an interesting rhetorical pastiche where the juxtaposition of orality and literacy features results in an original verbal architecture combining language, media and literature, which I have called “electric literacy”.
a) Rationale of McLuhan’s Electric Language
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) was the first to employ the term ‘interface’ in an original context:
Interface is the meeting of two structures, or cultures, or conflicting technologies and the way they change each other.
He moved from this concept to investigate the making of what he called ‘electric age’. In particular, what he started to investigate since the late Forties was the meeting of orality and literacy in his own world then in progress, more and more characterised by new media environments and media-induced dynamics. In a short span of time he became the well-known media guru, enlightening on the passage ‘from the eye to the ear’, ‘from linear to acoustic space’ (Fig. 2), and investigating new ways to understand the side-effects and implications of what Walter J. Ong later called “secondary orality”.
As a consequence, he developed a new method of investigation (the ‘mosaic’) still based on literacy; and yet, he started to conceive the book and the written page as powerful interfaces to meet and explore new forms of orality, in that anticipating the later hypertext heuristic. Similarly, in order to grasp the implications and meaning of his own actuality and societal matrix, McLuhan elaborated a set of Laws of Media which, in turn, use literacy to trigger and understand orality, therefore inducing a new take on the very idea of memory and technologies of remembering. What is interesting to notice, is that both McLuhan’s mosaic and Laws of Media seem to retrieve ancient forms of communication and art (such as a the graffiti, the manuscript, philosophical dialogues all forms linked to various phases of orality) also apt to contain and reveal the new ‘electric tribalism’.
In his controversial but still much used (and abused) media theories, McLuhan underlined that, since the half of the 19th century, the new electric media (telegraph, telephone, radio, television) had progressively reconfigured the environment in the form of a global village (Fig.3), retrieving acoustic space and time modes typical of oral society after centuries of ‘visual orientation’; he also pointed out that such a shift had been so rapid that human beings were not necessarily aware of it and continued to act and feel according to visually oriented patterns still based on the idea of ‘linearity’, in the Western world encouraged and induced by the development of the phonetic alphabet first, and printed books later. In order to counter balance what he considered as a sort of sensorial schizophrenia, McLuhan started to investigate new forms of perceptions and rendering capable to translate the new acoustic environment and encourage individuals to acquire acoustic modes of understanding and interplaying, which, in turn, couldn’t but be multi-sensorial, inclusive and global. His goal was to try and recompose Gutenberg’s ‘fragmented man’. In his investigations, he tried to act as an intellectual moved by a renewed integral awareness aiming to “read the language of the outer world and relate it to the inner world” (PI, 56). He manifested such a consciousness through a renewed form of writing, intentionally built upon new patterns and following rhetorical strategies which nevertheless reveal conscious affinities with ancient mnemonic-techniques and with various modernist poetics: McLuhan had, in fact, investigated the arts of the trivium – grammar, rhetoric and dialectic – while writing his Ph.D dissertation on Thomas Nashe (Cambridge 1943), and had studied with Richards at Cambridge in the Thirties; he also corresponded with Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis. In particular, he was fascinated by Joyce’s experiments with language, to the point to celebrate him as a sort of new grammarian of the electric age; similarly, McLuhan used to call his own media explorations ‘applied Joyce’. Not surprisingly, his new electric prose is built through a carefully conceived interface of ancient and new forms of communication and writing which try to grasp new implications of knowledge in a renewed integral way.
If, in the new global village, Gutenberg’s fragmented man must return to the integral, tribal man in order to avoid the risk of a sensorial unbalance (an idea which recalls Eliot’s dissociation of sensibility), then the goal is to find a way to trigger a different approach to the environment, no longer based on the predominance of the Euclidean line, by McLuhan symbolically translated through the metaphor of the eye, a symbol emphasising the modes of perceptions induced by literacy and, also, a certain type of ‘civilisation’: the civilisation of the line (Fig. 4), or of the book (Fig.5), or of the eye (Fig.6), is in fact the expression he uses to epitomise a well defined construct, that he calls ‘mechanic age’ (Fig.7), characterised by clear anthropological patterns, dominated and ruled by visually oriented modes of perception and interaction, as well as by a clear dominance of the ‘self’ upon the collective body, with clear consequences on the role and function of memory in relation to the cultural aspects and on the relational dynamics of the societal constructs in which memory is communicated. McLuhan tells us that the civilisation of the book started to develop, in the Western world, after the introduction of the medium ‘phonetic alphabet’, and in time was consolidated and perfected by the introduction of the medium ‘printing press’.
What McLuhan understood before others (he started to acknowledge it already in the Forties) is that the development of new electric media was quickly inducing new anthropological constructs in which literacy would reset according to new forms of relational and communicative patterns and modes more and more encouraging collective interplay, hence retrieving the ancient idea of orality, but nonetheless shaping the new post-literate world (which he called electric age. Fig. 8 & Fig. 9). Mcluhan was not there when the world wide web exploded and could not work with that medium; instead, he preserved the book as an object and as a form of communication, but reconfigured and redesigned it no longer on the basis of the Euclidean line, but of the tribal circle. He conceived the printed page as a new interface on which to plug in and translate the new electric simultaneity by means of a renewed approach to ancient alphabetic and visual patterns. He readjusted the traditional syntax in order to grasp the new sensorial implications encouraged by electric media, developed inclusive and paratactic patterns making an interesting use of discontinuous forms already explored by modernist writers and artists, at the same time retrieving ancient educational precepts. By so doing he retrieved also a more general approach to knowledge and experience, in contrast with a too narrow specialisation, typical, he insisted, of the mechanic age (the age of literacy), but not longer useful to understand the simultaneity characterising the new electric world (the age of post-orality). Joyce, Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, but also Francis Bacon, Gian Battista Vico and Thomas Aquinas offered him heuristic models based on aphorisms, paradoxes, and paratactic constructions to support what Bacon himself called ‘broken knowledge’, in fact a clear strategy to learn and memorise experiences and ideas in a way capable to induce the reader to ‘enquire further’:
But the writing of aphorisms hath many excellent virtues, whereto the writing in method doth not approach. For first, it trieth the writer, whether he be superficial or solid; for aphorisms, except they should be ridiculous, cannot be made but of the pith and hearth of sciences; for discourse of illustration is cut off; recitals of examples are cut off; discourse of connection and order is cut off; descriptions of practice are cut off. So there remaineth nothing to fill the Aphorisms but some good quantity of observation: and therefore no man can sufficie, nor in reason will attempt to write aphorisms but he that is sound and grounded. But in methods,
series juncturaque pollet,
This idea of broken knowledge and aphorism seems to offer a more appropriate approach also to the new electric environment which is more and more dominated by new psycho sensorial dynamics based not on linearity but on simultaneity. Aphorisms and parataxis replace method and therefore linearity and suggest an analogical way to grasp new implications of knowledge and to trigger new learning. Following this assumption, McLuhan experimented with words, images and syntax and his writing ended by looking like a sort of avant-garde experimental pastiche; and yet, he caused a sensation because he acted not as an artist, but as a scholar belonging to the more serious world of ‘academia’, that is the kingdom of ‘method’. In the early Sixties, as well as all along the Seventies, his language was often labelled as ‘nonsensical mcluhanese’ by ‘linear’ critics; today, when ICT dominate our daily life and we better understand the side effects of the global village on our cognitive modes of perception, understanding and remembering, it is easier for us to understand McLuhan’s electric language as an interesting way to interface orality and literacy so to understand and shape post-orality.
His form of writing is therefore an open probe which encourages an active response from readers, who are constantly asked to play with his words and aphorisms, his repetitions, his slogans, his puns, as well as with his gaps (that is all links that are CUT OFF). In order to play fully, readers must no longer approach his pages in a traditional way, but must act differently, finding meanings through gaps (which he calls ‘resonant intervals’) and brave associations. “The Mosaic” is the actual translation of such an idea, a strategy that McLhuan employed and introduced since his most famous book, The Gutenberg Galaxy:
The Gutenberg Galaxy develops a mosaic of field approach to its problems. Such a mosaic image of numerous data and quotations in evidence offers the only practical means of revealing crucial operations in history. The alternative procedure would be to offer a series of views of fixed relationships in pictorial space. Thus the galaxy or constellation of events upon which the present study concentrates is itself a mosaic of perpetually interacting forms that have undergone kaleidoscopic transformation – particularly in our own time. […] Technological environments are not merely passive containers of people but are active processes that reshape people and other technologies alike. In our time the sudden shift from the mechanical technology of the wheel to the technology of electric circuitry represents one of the major shifts of all historical time. […] What we have called ‘nations’ in recent centuries did not, and could not, precede the advent of Gutenberg technology any more than they can survive the advent of electric circuitry with its power of totally involving all people in all other people. (8)
McLuhan’s mosaic is worked out combining, on the one hand, the modernist technique of montage or collage, and on the other hand a more ancient idea of enkyklios paideia, of encyclopaedic learning; inevitably, it forces the reader to play an active role and to constantly interact with the witty author. A passive reader would miss the point, and the complex architecture would result in a sort of ‘nonsensical mcluhanese’ or in a trivial version of the Reader’s Digest, a risk which is always present also when exploring the world-wide-web: we jump from a fragment to the next one, but if we do not make the interval resonate, we flatten understanding and knowledge, oversimplify complex issues, neglect history and stratified memories with dangerous societal effects. The difficult part is, therefore, to move from cliché to archetype, to investigate further and to turn the broken knowledge into meaning and experience, to be preserved individually and collectively.
b) The Morphology of the Mosaic
Today, for us it is easier to appreciate McLuhan’s mosaic and to understand it also in the light of the new hypertext heuristic. The approach to both forms of communication has, in fact, many points in common, as Marshall McLuhan’s writing is based on analogical thinking, and not on logical thinking: first of all, readers can decide how to orient their own reading, they can decide if they want to follow the table of contents or if they want to start ‘in media res’, establishing their own explorations in a more autonomous way (a similar approach is possible also when exploring hypertexts). As I will show in a little while, McLuhan’s mosaic is in fact built around ‘glosses’ or ‘linguistic probes’ which are designed as a sort of ‘windows’ introducing a complex set of issues through a paratactic structure retrieving the aphoristic technique. Also, his writing is characterised by ‘hypertextuality’, which, in fact, forces readers to explore a much more complex ground against which the single words or probes are set as iconic figures: hypertextuality acts both within the very text (variations and repetition of the same concept) and outside it (juxtaposition of quotations and images from other texts or domains). Also, the brevity of each gloss or linguistic probe perfectly matches the span of attention of today readers, which is more and more shortened; the density of the gloss, its aphoristic and paratactic structure is aimed to compensate such a brevity and to encourage various approaches. If readers read through the gloss, they read in depth and can spend hours investigating possible meanings, links, and implications; if they skip from a gloss to the next one quickly, they can just have fun and use the mosaic as a form of divertissement which, nevertheless can induce unexpected association and, in time, understanding and knowledge. Humour was a favourite feature of McLuhan’s; he was famous for his one-liner and for the playful attitude of his explorations.
Hence, the gloss or (linguistic) probe constitutes the basis of McLuhan’s mosaic: it is used to convey a broken knowledge as per the aphoristic tradition. Each gloss introduces a set of apparently unrelated questions which are often conveyed in a paradoxical way. In time, McLuhan’s developed different types of gloss, moving from traditional aphorisms to paratactic constructions involving also images; and yet, the function of the gloss stays the same: it must provoke the reader, tune him on the new environment and alert him on new perceptive modes to investigate and explore a given issue.
I will briefly present some examples of McLuhan’s glosses, all of them contributing to interface orality and literacy, therefore creating on the printed page effects which aim to alert on the matrix of the new secondary orality. In the Gutenberg Galaxy, glosses are, at the same time, within and outside the text, as they are juxtaposed to McLuhan’s discussions, and visually framed (Fig. 10 & Fig. 11). The mode of juxtaposition is paratactic and analogical and forces the reader to look for connections, among glosses and between a gloss and the previous/following essay, the previous/following quotation. Readers can decide to stop at the gloss and work out its potentialities in depth, trying to unveil the aphoristic lines before moving forward; or they can read it as a textual continuum, or even jump from a gloss to the next one, skipping the more discursive parts. Readers are encouraged to approach the book at their own speed and pleasure: they are free to jump across pages, they are not request to read the text in a sequential way. It is a possibility, but the text works not only horizontally, but also vertically, in depth, precisely due to the evocative power of words consciously used by McLuhan, and the aphoristic construction. Also, readers can open the book at random and start to speculate (or meditate) on the gloss they found, just as they can open a book of psalm and speculate or meditate on the one they found. Only, the background they are sent to is not the world of spirituality and religion, but the new electric world that readers are invited to explore analogically. Interestingly, in The Gutenberg Galaxy McLuhan groups all the probes at the very end of the book, in a sequence which can be perceived as an imagistic table of contents for the whole book: you could, in fact, just work on the listed probes, juxtapose them in different way in order to trigger new speculation, understanding and knowledge, skipping all the rest. The aphoristic glosses contain and evoke all that which is discussed in the book: the well-learned reader can act as the story-teller and replace McLuhan in the production of meaning and knowledge. In this sense, the glosses can be perceived as imagist one-liner and puns, in the sense Pound meant: ‘an image is that which presents an intellectual and an emotional complex in an instant of time’. Similarly, glosses are not juxtaposed according to grammatical subordination, but instead by analogical juxtaposition, by paratactic association.
Here is an example of McLuhan’s gloss – or one image poem – in The Gutenberg Galaxy, which is quite interesting also in the view of the idea of ‘interfacing orality and literacy’:
Civilisation gives the barbarian or tribal man an eye for an ear and is now at odds with the electric world
Such a gloss immediately renders the cyclic vision of human history, as expressed by McLuhan himself in his media analysis: he retrieves language metaphorical structure and plays with it. The terms, ‘barbarian or tribal man’, ‘civilisation’, ‘electronic world’ immediately evoke three different social constructs, each of them implying a different relation between the individual and the environment, that is a different sensorial order, a different way to be together, to act, to experience, to remember: the world before the invention of the phonetic alphabet; the world after the phonetic alphabet and printing press; the world after the discovery of electricity. The passage from ear to eye indicates the passage form the ancient acoustic mode of perception, inclusive and simultaneous, typical of tribal society, to a sequential and linear one functional to the Western mechanical society, now obsolete or no longer adequate (actually ‘at odds’) for the new electric environment which is rediscovering acoustic modes and tribal dynamics.
This gloss can therefore be worked out in depth, and used as a window to open new complex grounds; also, in this book the juxtaposition of the various glosses enables to reconfigure the galaxy, to reconstruct the thin network of analogies and links which, all together, reveal ‘casual operations in history’.
In other books, the gloss is conceived as a pun structured as a witty subtitle to immediately convey the complexity of the psychodynamics triggered by a given medium. It is, for instance, the case of the famous book Understanding Media. The Extension of Men, or of the less famous but still interesting volume Take Today. The Executive as a Dropout, where puns and game words aim to induce a different attitude to approach the evolving environment, often touching the responsive chord of humour. Here are some examples of this playful attitude: “Telegraph: The Social Hormon”; “The Telephone: Sounding Brass or Tinkling Symbol?”; “The Phonograph: The Toy that Shrank the National Chest”; “Movies: the Reel World”; “Radio: the Tribal Drum”; “Television: the Timid Giant.” These playful titles, all listed from Understanding Media, can simply be read as more or less funny one-liner, but also as aphoristic sums synthesising cognitive, societal and cultural change induces by the new medium and its interplay with all other media.
In other volumes, the paratactic juxtaposition of the various glosses is developed not only through language, but also through drawings, images and photographs. These books retrieve a sort of cubistic montage which forces the reader to become the vanishing point. Also in these books, the “mosaic is the mode of corporate or collective image and commands deep participation”. (Um 183) This is particularly true for the most controversial ‘pocket-books’ that the Canadian critic published in the late Sixties and early Seventies, such as The Medium is the Massage, War and Peace in the Global Village, Counterblast, and often labelled as quick and witty market products. Even though it is logical to suspect a certain malicious understanding of the new editorial market, it is nevertheless true that the mosaic, already tested in McLuhan’s first published books, not only The Gutenberg Galaxy or Understanding Media, but also The Mechanical Bride. Folklore of the Indutrial Man (1951), is conceived by McLuhan as a serious tool to explore ongoing processes, understand post-literate society and the new evolving societal matrixes.
It is true, though, that McLuhan’s pocket books are conceived in order to attract diverse audiences and make use of several avant-garde techniques (from cubism, to dadaism, to pop art): and yet, the printed page preserves its role of interface, as images and words overlap and enlighten each other therefore offering new cognitive understanding. For instance, in War and Peace in the Global Village, designed together with the artist Quentin Fiore, the word/image juxtaposition is conceived in order to offer ‘An inventory of some of the current spastic situation that could be eliminated by more feedforward” (p. 3). In particular, Fiore and McLuhan examine here the sudden clash of Eastern and Western cultures forced to meet in the global village, giving shape to new cultural hybridisation and syncretism. In order to render the new interfacing, the pages of War and Peace in the Global Village have all a different outline and form an asymmetric collage that readers are asked to read sometimes from left to right (as in Western literate culture), others from top to bottom (as in Eastern culture). The authors try to render inclusive and acoustic modes of perception by playing with the traditional outline, for instance, by forcing the reader to rotate the book itself in order to read it. (Fig. 12). But, what is particularly interesting in relation to the retrieval of ancient modes of orality, knowledge and, therefore, cultural matrixes, is the fact that the acoustic effect is sometimes conveyed through the presentation of the printed text in vertical columns decorated with images and words like in ancient manuscripts (Fig. 13 & Fig. 14). The text columns are embellished not with hand-painted drawings, of course, but with photographs, illustrations, excerpts from the text itself, used as marginalia (at both sides) or borders (bottom of page) to emphasise concepts or to help to memorise them, or to recall other knowledge ALL AT ONCE. In some pages, the rate is totally inverted, the written words blur and almost disappear or become little aphorisms to the advantage of huge images (Fig. 15). In such a composite mosaic, little quotations from Joyce’s Finnegans Wake are used as leitmotivs to connect all fragments and to guide readers to work out new meanings. They should provide the ‘feedforward’ the authors promised to counterbalance the “current spastic situations”:
The frequent marginal quotes from Finnegans Wake serve a variety of functions. James Joyce’s book is about the electrical retribalization of the West and the West’s effect on the East: “The west shall shake the east awake…./while ye have the night for morn…” Joyce’s title refers directly to the Orientalization of the West by electric technology and to the meeting of Est and West. The Wake has many meanings, among them the simple fact that in recoursing all the human pasts our age has the distinction of doing it in increasing wakefulness (pp. 4-5)
quotations (in turn aphoristic, playful and evocative) become here a
transversal tool employed to help readers to recompose the textual fragments
and to read them simultaneously and in depth, therefore alerting on
the ongoing societal changes, awaken people and avoid numbness.
In the later years of his life, McLuhan worked out a real operative model to explore the world in progress. Together with his eldest son Eric, he worked out a set of Laws of Media conceived as a vocal, verbal, visual tool to assess post-orality: they are built upon the idea of interface, combine literacy and orality, and encourage a participative and inclusive attitude in the observer. Also, they reset the idea of the self and trigger collective interplay. The investigative tool is based on a set of four questions asked not in sequence, but simultaneously, called ‘the tetrad’: the very architecture of the tetrad is visually rendered on the written page in a way which immediately combines and recalls at once ancient techniques and strategies of recollection, and modern hypertext strategies of montage. The tetrad is deeply based on orality, as it moves from a verbal investigation of a question carried out through dialogic strategies, but developed through literacy and is visually rendered on the printed page according to the heuristic underpinning McLuhan’s mosaic. When printed, each tetrad looks like an imagist poem, or and ideogram or as a verbal hypertext: in other works, it looks like a set of figures which must be read in depth and simultaneously in order to truly understand the complex patterns it investigates and contributes to enlighten.
The tetrad was found by asking ‘What general, verifiable, (that is, testable) statements can be made about all media?” We were surprised to find only four, here posed as questions:
does it enhance or intensify?
The tetrad counts also on the metaphoric structure of the language, which turns each word into an ‘arché’ which can contain and evoke all knowledge:
are complex systems of metaphors and symbols that translates experience
into our uttered or outered senses. They are a technology of explicitness.
By means of translation of immediate sense experience into vocal symbols,
the entire world can be evoked and retrieved at any instant.
In other words:
is metaphor in the sense that it not only stores but translates experience
from one mode into another”
The tetrad is therefore modulated as a model which aims to interface at once literacy and orality, but also the experiences related to various societal constructs, which are therefore recalled and enacted through the linguistic explorations, in turn triggering and preserving memories and mnemonic strategies. Also, McLuhan encourages the retrieval of the ancient study of etymology, a science which can help readers and observers to move from cliché to archetype, that is to perceive words in depth and make them resonate, instead than passively follow them in a flattened sequence: the tetrad retrieves, through a renewed take on literacy, the tribal circle and ancient grammar as cognitive experiences capable to assess post-orality.
trivium is our concern: all three of its elements are arts and sciences
of language. […] Rhetoric concerns speech. […] Grammar (Greek
for ‘literture’) concerns the interpretation of written
texts and the ground patterns in word, etymology. Dialectic specializes
in the word as thought […], is abstract and co-opts rhetoric and
grammar as a sort of external ground. …] The natural affinity
between rhetoric and grammar springs in part from each having both figure
and ground elements, and in part from both concerning words as presented
to the exterior senses in writing and speech.”
The four questions forming the tetrad are positioned on the written page not following a sequential pattern, but a field one:
The reader/observer must fill in the gaps and answer all questions simultaneously:
is no ‘right way’ to ‘read’ a tetrad, as the
parts are simultaneous. But when ‘read’ either left-right
or top bottom (Enhance is to retrieve as Reverse is to Obsolescence,
etc.) or the reverse, the proportions and metaphor – or word –
structure should appear.
are a couple of examples of two simple tetrads and of two more complex
one, just to show the various levels of complexity which such an investigation
can offer and reach:
Reads: cigarettes enhance calm and self-control (it also gives self-assurance by helping people to assume a poise), but if you exceed, they cause nervousness and addiction; cigarettes make embarrassment obsolete and retrieve the communality of a ritual gesture which makes the individuals feel they belong to the same group.
Hence, the tetrad combines literacy and orality and triggers a participation which is based on the observation carried out first verbally, through the four questions, then written and fixed on the printed page, and again re-enacted through story-telling; the story telling becomes more and more complex depending on the development of the tetrads and the observed medium. And yet, what is important is not only the working out of meaning and knowledge, but mostly the interplay among observers who are asked to interact, to talk and to connect the cognitive linguistic fragments suggested by the four questions.
Readers are therefore asked to play with the various ideas proposed simultaneously by the four questions of the tetrad, therefore establishing analogical links leading to a network of possible meanings and interactions. The visual resemblance to imagistic experiments of modernist avant-garde experiments (dada, cubism etc) is also quite evident. The complexity of the various tetrads is also increased by the fact that they are perceived and read by various observers and readers who can ‘narrate’ them in different ways. Also, each tetrad can then be related to all other tetrad, by so doing increasing the complexity, but also the possible links and interaction, following paratactic patterns which, again, recall the structure of the electronic or digital hypertexts. Needless to say, the ‘hidden ground of analogies’ which can be retrieved, discovered and enhanced by this model expands depending on the level of interplay, as well on the knowledge displayed by each observer.
McLuhan retrieves in his Laws of Media is, therefore, the metaphoric
structure of language, as words are conceived here ‘a technology
of explicitness’ and through them the whole world can be uttered
in an instant. Experience itself can be enacted and transmitted orally,
therefore inducing the individuals to restore an integral approach to
knowledge and to the exploration of that very knowledge. An attitude
which in fact shocked the most rigorous critics who often condemned
McLuhan’s ‘nonsense’ and playful attitude to understanding
and communication. And yet, as the witty fool knows well, ‘at
play man uses all his faculties; at work he specialises” (Fig.
16). (WWMM, p.34)
by Marshall McLuhan