Table of Contents
Reviewing the Reviews
Across the centuries, they traded passing nods of a sort: Marshall McLuhan (1911 - 1980), the highly literate scourge of literacy, and Giordano Bruno the Nolan (1548 - 1600), rambunctious philosopher of the infinite.
Thanks to James Joyce and Finnegans Wake, McLuhan and Bruno met, so to speak, almost every day. The Wake was McLuhan's vade mecum. In later years he kept one copy unbound, with each page pasted onto a sleeve of 3-ring paper. The stack stood in an accessible spot just outside the door of his office. McLuhan was forever plucking fresh pages like a gambler toying with oversized cards. He liked to snap the pages into new configurations, up, down, across, and read the phrases in a kaleidoscopic collage, much as Joyce himself had written them. Bruno, who flits through dozens of the pages, must have become a pleasantly familiar ghost.
Joyce gives the ghost guises like Saint Bruno and The Nolan of the Cabashes and Noland's brown and Nolan Browne and Bruno Nowlan and Nolans Brumans and Mr. Brown and Bruno Nolan and many others. The encyclopedic Joyce was deeply impressed by Bruno's heady coincidence of contraries, and was no doubt sympathetic to Bruno's hectic and finally tragic bouts with the Inquisition. McLuhan the Joycean scholar was certainly conscious of Joyce's debt to Bruno. But I like to think there was more: that when "Bruno Nolan" winked from one of paper sleeves, McLuhan made a recognition as if glimpsing a companion from across the centuries and winked back.
"History has not yet registered a stable appraisal for Giordano Bruno" writes Giorgio de Santillana in The Age of Adventure. Perceptions of Bruno were volatile enough in his lifetime; many have remained polarized to this day. Radoslav Tsanoff calls Bruno "the outstanding philosopher of the Renaissance," and Harold Hoffding cites Bruno's work as "the greatest philosophical thought-structure executed by the Renaissance." Yet Bertrand Russell despairs of crediting Bruno with philosophy at all: "There were fruitful intuitions lost in that disorder, but they had not yet reached the point of precision at which philosophy begins." The chasm of opinion dividing Bruno, even to this day, is one of the many improbables of this turbulent and exultant figure.
"Graduate of no Academy," he called himself simply "the Nolan," or often, sarcastically, "il fastidito," literally the man with his stomach turned. At twenty-eight he shed the robes of a Dominican friar to wander Europe as a fugitive scholar. Except for a few brief lecturing posts he had no position. He made his living largely by selling mnemonic tracts, complex methods of artificial memory, or promising to teach these methods to noblemen. His own memory was phenomenal but owed nothing to mnemonics; most of his earnings, and no small degree of his fame, were the result of clever showmanship. He wrote his tracts back-to-back with dialogues and poems that made infinity a new starting point for the whole of metaphysics, cosmology, ethics, ontology, logic and science. The hustler of mnemonics was simultaneously tumbling the philosophical scaffoldings of centuries/ Bruno's important writings began when he was 36; they came with an incendiary rush, sparked by the deductive guesswork of a Polish astronomer named Nicholas Copernicus. Copernicus had proposed that the earth wasn't stationary, that it circled the sun.
In 1584, twenty- five years before Galileo lifted a telescope, Bruno took the Copernican hypothesis to the outrageous new conclusion that the sun is merely one of an infinity of stars, which stretch across boundless and inexhaustible space. It was consummate audacity to proclaim an infinite universe in the teeth of the doctrinal dogfights of the 16th century. It was yet bolder to exult in the de immenso with the bounding wonder of a poet. The prospect of our earth reduced to a turning speck in endless space was terrifying to contemplate. An ecstatic Bruno cried, "My thoughts are stitched to the stars!" and contemplated little else. With an impetuous abandon that his contemporaries found reckless and even dangerous, Bruno proceeded to rethink man's relationship to the universe, to himself, and to God by the unimaginable light of countless stars.
His conclusions were simply unbelievable for a late medieval mind:infinite other worlds, inhabited like our own, spread throughout space; a structure to the universe of suns and clusters of suns circling in grand orbits, but no "center" except in the ground beneath two human feet; the presence of God not atop an empyrean throne past the threshold of the farthest stars, but inhabiting every atom of matter; an eternal span to matter, which can change its form but never be exhausted in any proportion; and finally a logic infinity demanded of him an innate union of all contraries, by which evil and good, history and the future, localized humanity and an infinite universe inform and express one another.
He was drawn to the centers of learning to announce his startling philosophy; from most he was curtly expelled. Except for two years in England, he more often wandered in the company of dislocated souls like himself. No doubt part of his dismissal into the company of rogue scholars was the upshot of his temperament. He was contradictory, capricious, often insufferable: his moods could flash abruptly from antic lampooning to raw invective, from wild exhilaration to fierce bitterness, from clownishness to a blackdog melancholy. "Gay in sorrow, sorrowful in gaiety," he said of himself, and the contraries of the tempestuous Bruno survive in his writings, where exalted and discerning passages seem to bob and dip in great waves of bombast. Says William Boulting in his biography of Bruno:There is a real unity underlying each of his works; but all give the impression of disorder.... Bruno lost no opportunity of keeping his readers awake by the oddness of his antics; he surprises them by bombardments and unexpected raking fires. He thinks to throw each noble design, each lofty thought into relief by the dodge (not unknown to modern writers) of smart paradox.... All is overdone: there is not a thought of repose. Penetrative insight, soaring observation, novel wisdom, severe thought have a setting of jest and jeer, clumsy buffoonery and sheer indecency.
His active career was remarkably brief: from the prodigious outburst of 1584 to the last writings in 1591. In May of 1592 he was arrested in Venice and given over to the Holy Office of the Inquisition. For eight years he languished in a dungeon of Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome. When he refused to recant his "heretical propositions" he was sentenced to death and burned at the stake of the Campo dei Fiore on February 17th, 1600.
Controversial and largely dismissed in his lifetime, Bruno fared no better after his death. If his ideas were disputed, so was his martyrdom. For centuries, rumor and doubt shrouded the terrible fire in the Campo dei Fiore and as late as 1885 there are references to the "legends" of Bruno's burning at the stake. And among scholars at the time of his death, Bruno was regarded as little more than a largely misunderstood curiosity. In 1608 the famed astronomer Joannes Kepler wrote to a physician friend with the not untypical misconception: "That Bruno was burnt in Rome I learnt from Master Wackher; he suffered his fate steadfastly. He had asserted the vanity of all religions and had substituted circles and points for God."
Through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Bruno's ideas were widely imparted, borrowed, sounded; almost never, though, with the name Giordano Bruno attached to them. Kepler once chided Galileo for omitting his debt to Bruno; yet we can discern Kepler's own indifference in the letter quoted above. In England, the discoverer of magnetism, William Gilbert, was a virtual disciple of Bruno in his argument about infinity; in all Gilbert's writings, Bruno is mentioned once, as typifying those authors who base cosmology "on imagination rather than on experience." Later generations would evoke Bruno's writings to the phrase, without quoting or acknowledging him. Recent scholarship on Spinoza, for example, cites Bruno's powerful exertion on his thought about infinity and on his style. Never does Spinoza cite Bruno by name. Brunnhofer, an early apologist of Bruno's, cites Leibnitz, Lessing, and Herder as virtual disciples. They weren't, quite; but influences in all three are apparent, and mention of Bruno all but nonexistent. Bruno's coincidence of contraries was very probably the seed of Hegel's dialectic. Hegel writes of Bruno to complain of his revolting Italian exuberance.
By the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, a few sporadic figures predominantly Schelling, Jacobi and the poet Samuel Coleridgeóbegan granting Bruno a lost kinship with the ideas he had once imparted.
Coleridge especially was impressed by Bruno's startling logic and his "dynamic philosophy," and for a time contemplated writing a biography.
In the last volume of this work...I propose to give an account of the life of Giordano Bruno...who was burnt under pretence of atheism, at Rome, in the year 1600 and of his works which are perhaps the scarcest books ever printed... The most industrious historians of speculative philosophy have not been able to procure more than a few of his works...out of eleven, the titles of which are preserved to us I have had an opportunity of perusing six.
Only in the twentieth century has Bruno begun emerging from his long neglect into prominence. Significantly, the belated recognition hasn't come from philosophers, or historians of philosophy, but from physicists, astronomers, philosophers of science, and -- the century's greatest champion of Bruno -- James Joyce. Yet Coleridge's lament continues. Of Bruno's surviving writings, only a minuscule portion have been translated into any language other than German. An authoritative biography in English remains as improbable as the translated collected works. Meantime, our astronomers chart a universe that Bruno first disclosed, and quantum physicists depict a wave-to-particle-to-wave fluctuation in the soul of matter that Bruno long ago anticipated. If Bruno's name registers anything at all to the modern mind, it is his terrible fate in 1600. The imbalance between history's debt to Bruno and its recognition of him is extraordinary; yet perhaps not altogether puzzling.
Today we credit Galileo and his forebear Copernicus for the modern universe: Galileo for observing it with a telescope and calculating the orbits mathematically; Copernicus for his original hunch that the earth circles the sun. Their discoveries created what we know as modern astronomy. Bruno's role in that process is perhaps significant, but equally discomforting. The birth of modern astronomy was in many respects the birth of modern science. And Bruno cannot be shown to have contributed anything to modern science. He proved nothing about the post-medieval universe; he merely guessed. He guessed with a poet's reckless yearning, with an inexhaustible volatility. And most disconcertingly, he very frequently guessed right. How could the descendants of Galileo, Newton, Descartes, acknowledge their homage to a figure whose contribution to the modern science of astronomy had been that of a gadfly, unloosing a flood of exuberant metaphor?
Giordano Bruno, gadfly, can be instructive about the career of a more recent gadfly, Marshall McLuhan. Admittedly, the prospect of comparing these two men is halting. In virtually every respect they convey no serious affinities. The wandering, tormented Nolan bears no surface resemblance to the settled literary scholar. Their personalities seem diametrical: Bruno as arrogant and volcanic as McLuhan was gracious, demure, gently wry. The Church from which Bruno the ex-Dominican fled and from which he suffered his fate in 1600 was the same which attracted and converted the 26-year-old Cambridge student. The contrasts persist anywhere we look, except in the startling reaches of their imaginations, after each had become obsessed with an "unthinkable" idea.
The idea came to both of them at an age when the core directions of their education and thought were durably set. It was precipitated, in both cases, by a mentor who had phrased an early version of that idea tenuously, within a confined and cautious framework. That idea released extraordinary energies in both men and drove them for the remainder of their lives. Both took that idea to such exorbitant conclusions that at the end neither could claim a disciple in full agreement with those conclusions. Both were vauntingly confident about what their contemporaries hooted as lunging, undisciplined guesswork. Both were surrounded by a brief, peaking, controversial fame. Both died with their ideas in doubt, leaving no school, no followers of import, no acknowledged impression on the thinking of scientists and scholars. The careers of both men gravitated most acutely toward poetry and it was as poets, undoubtedly, that both altered the world around them and the world to come: charging not science, or even scholarship, but that deep nutrient from which radical changes in science or scholarship can, perhaps, only come. Coleridge, who links both of them, might have been speaking for both of them when he wrote in his Rime of the Ancient Mariner:
We were the first that burst
Into that silent sea.
Between 1513 and 1544 a document sat untouched in a cabinet in the bedroom of a Polish canon, Nicholas Koppernick, also known as Copernicus. De revolutionibus orbium coelestium is one of the three or four most seminal books in the history of science. Yet the dying canon would only allow it to be published after his death and in a dedication to Pope Paul III, dourly admitted, "...that certain people, on learning that...I ascribe certain movements to the Earth, will cry out that, holding such views, I should be hissed from the stage... In considering this matter, fear of the scorn which my new and absurd opinion would bring upon me, almost persuaded me to abandon my project."
For almost seventy years after its posthumous publication, De revolutionibus both tantalized and affronted the Renaissance imagination. Surely any mind that entertained Copernicus' hunch about a spinning, sun-orbiting earth would soon be drawn to contemplate the stars as something other than a fixed integument, a celestial board of stage-lights at the feet of God. "The infinite is unthinkable!" Kepler frequently cried. Galileo, after expanding the reach of a telescope to the power of a thousand, spoke of the immensities he'd observed yet dodged every mention of the real issue: "Reason and my mental powers do not enable me to conceive of either finitude or infinitude," he said. Half a century later even Pascal would lament: "Le silence eternel de ces espaces infinis m'effraie!"
Perhaps no spectre haunted the sixteenth century with such ominous intuition of the world to come as the prospect of an infinite universe. And indeed, the question itself would remain open well beyond Newton and his acknowledgment of a potentially infinite space surrounding the gravitational islands of circling stars and planets. Only after Einstein suggested that space itself curves with time, and astronomers measured an expanding universe with a radius of some eleven billion light-years to the receding sources of a "big bang," would the idea of expanding, infinite space become a commonplace. But so too would be its corollaries of humanity adrift in an absurd and meaningless void.
In this historic context, Giordano Bruno and his exalted De immenso seems ill-fit and inexplicable: like a child at a mourning procession, cheering, and without an inkling that to everyone about him, it isn't a parade.
In London, in 1584, Bruno arranged with a printer to publish three philosophical dialogues and stamp each work with a fictitious, "printed in Venice in the year 1584." For a flamboyant and unhesitating temperament like Bruno's, it seems a curiously circumspect move. Yet in London, finally, he had found the company of open minds he had sought vainly to find throughout Europe: Renaissance figures such as Philip Sidney, Fulke Greville, Water Raleigh, George Chapman, Thomas Sackville and Francis Drake. More critically, he knew the volatility of the three dialogues he was printing. As if overnight, the complete philosophy of the infinite had exploded in his mind. The entire range of his thought existed, full-blown, in those earliest of works: every theme and tenet he would strike, was already struck here. Into The Ash Wednesday Supper, On Cause, Prime Origin, and the One, and On the Infinite Universe and Worlds, Bruno inexhaustibly pours what he calls his "ocean of Being."
"Here," he announces gustily as a circus barker, "is the philosophy which opens the senses, contents the soul, enlarges the mind." Every mention of the infinite is touched with an exaltation totally contrary to Kepler's "Unthinkable!" or Pascal's "m'effraie!" "The beauty of an edifice," writes Bruno, "is not to be judged from its smallest part...but is most apparent to him who views the whole and the relationship of part to part." He promises that infinity can liberate us, even from death: "For deeply considering the Being and Substance in which we are fixed, we find there is no such thing as death, not for us alone, but for the true substance. Substance never diminishes but changes, and this throughout infinite space." He depicts the very universe most dreaded by his contemporaries: "In the Universe there is no centre and no circumference; but the centre is everywhere, and every part is outside some other part."
Through the three tracts come a rush of prescient observations. "When we observe anything to die as we call it we should not so much believe it to be death as change; the mere accidental composition and harmony ceasing, but the things to which they happen remaining immortal..." (La Cena, The Ash Wednesday Supper.) "If Spirit, Soul, Life, is in all things, it is the form of all things, directing and governing matter" (De la Causa). Many of his ideas would prefigure a science unknown until our century: the sun's heat, he claimed, is produced as fire is produced on earth; when heavenly bodies collapse and die, their matter remains to form new configurations in the sky; the "primal bodies" -- or atoms -- which make up all worlds are in constant motion and wherever they pass, leave behind traces of themselves. But the headiest of his proposals was his theory of contraries: that everything contains within itself its opposite.
"It is profound magic," Bruno writes, "to draw the contrary out after having discovered the point of union." Upon exactly such magic he remarks, anticipating a later magician, William Blake. "The infinite dimension, being no magnitude, coincides with the individual." He illustrates the principles with some mathematical sketches, yet the following exuberant description has proven more enduring.
...even in the two extremes of the scale of nature, we contemplate two principles which are one; two beings which are one; two contraries which are harmonious and the same. Therefore height is depth, the abyss is light unvisited, darkness is brilliant, the large is small, the confused is distinct, dispute is friendship, the dividend is united, the atom is immensity.... Here are the signs and proofs whereby we see that contraries do truly concur; they are from a single origin and are in truth and substance one. This, having been seen mathematically is accepted physically...
Here as in a seed are contained and enfolded the manifold conclusions of natural science; here is the mosaic, the disposition and order of the speculative science.
Virtually overnight the vagabond scholar who appointed himself "The Nuisance" and "il fastidito" had become one of the most commanding and farsighted voices of the Renaissance.
Over the coming seven years Bruno would publish almost thirty new works, most of them bearing a new name of a city in Europe. Conflicts with authorities at Oxford banished Bruno from England, and his travels became incessant, unmitigated by any durable acceptance. A map of his sojourns touches eleven cities in Germany alone. This wasn't nomadic habit but his intractable and inveterate clashes with university and civic authorities. A Marburg rector has described one confrontation: "When the right...to teach philosophy was denied him by me for good cause and with the assent of the philosophical Faculty, he burned with rage, and impudently reviled me in my own house as though I had acted in defiance of the law of nations." The exultant dreamer of a forbidden infinity was himself forbidden to be anything more than a migratory, outlaw scholar.
His three final poems, De minimo, De monade and De immenso have become recognized as a summation and a final exultant release of his bold speculations. The heady coincidence of contraries guides his theme of unity and immensity in these works, particularly the last. "He who itches to philosophy," Bruno enjoins in De minimo, "must set to work by putting all things to the doubt." In De monade he seems to anticipate his coming incarceration and martyrdom: "I have fought; it is much...Victory lies in the hands of Fate. Be that with me as it may, whoever shall prove conqueror, future ages will not deny that I did not fear to die, was second to none in constancy, and preferred a spirited death to a craven life."
But in its in the great De immenso that the prophet of awesome unities takes the reader into an unimaginable future.
...I shall place you in the body of the moon; your senses, through proper adaptation, will enable you to use your faculty of reason and see these things... From this side I shall show you the face of the earth shining in the opposite region, in the light of the radiant sun diffused into the surface of the ocean. Do you see how the vast machine seems contracted into a small mass? ... Now the moon is not the moon to you, but it seems to be the true earth... Notice how Britain is condensed to a small point and the very narrow Italy is condensed into a thin and short hair...
Within weeks after writing De immenso, Bruno was arrested and placed under custody of the Office of the Inquisition. It would be almost eight years of confinement to a dank and usually unlit cell, broken only by occasional visits from his inquisitors. Above all for the vociferous Bruno, it would be eight years of horrific silence, culminating that final dawn in the Campo dei Fiore in Rome. Accounts inform us that as Bruno was led naked to the stake, his hands were bound and his jaw contorted from the plug of wood jammed tightly into his mouth, now that his last opportunity to recant his thoughts had passed.
"The soul of the space traveler will be the cockpit of his ship," wrote a bitter Herman Hesse as he neared the end of his life. Not many years after he wrote those words, a widely respected psychiatric researcher, Nathan S. Klines, teamed with the inventor of the CAT-scanning computer, Dr, Manfred Clynes, to make a startling proposal. In "Cyborgs and Space," published in Astronautics in September, 1960, Kline and Clynes suggested that the exploration of space could best be accomplished by merging a human brain with a newly adaptive mechanical body, effectively, a spacecraft. The result of that union they named a "cyborg," from the terms cybernetic and organic. Kline and Clynes:
In the past, the altering of bodily functions to suit different environments was accomplished through evolution. From now on, at least in some degree, this can be achieved without alteration of heredity by suitable bio-chemical, physiological and electronic modification of man's modus vivendi.
The infinity of space both terrorized and paralyzed the sixteenth century imagination; much as today the infinity of technological possibility terrorizes and paralyzes ours. A ruling by the U.S. Patent Office recently opened the patent process to new hybrid animal forms; we can doubtlessly anticipate new sorts of cows, sheep, pigs, chickens, and other "designer beasts." In 1985 several bioengineers succeeded in locating the gene responsible for giving a lightning bug its efflorescence; spliced into a tobacco plant, it created the first laboratory plant that glows in the dark. There is no longer any point in attempting to forecast what the newest discoveries in biotechnology, or superconductivity, or artificial intelligence will usher into our world: the rate of discovery and application is fast exceeding our abilities for assimilation, comprehension, and imagination. We are fast at work creating a world that we seem less and less capable of inventing ways for thinking about. Three centuries ago, Pascal could at least regard his infinity as something coldly apart from himself. Ours rushes at us, wrenching us into its vortex at the speed of light.
Not that our new infinite is without its own tradition of "m'effraie!" Said Emerson, a century and a half ago: "Things are in the saddle, and ride mankind." One can follow the thread of that assumption from Mary Shelley's man-monster through Hawthorne, Thoreau, Carlyle, Dickens, Twain, Samuel Butler, Duchamp, Chaplin, Orwell, Valéry, and Vonnegut. "Can the human mind master what the human mind has made?" Valéry asks in one of the most succinct descriptions of that tradition. In recent years Lewis Mumford and Jacques Ellul have virtually cemented the tradition with their works of apocalyptic warning: that we stand uselessly at the broken clutch and stripped brakes of an accelerating locomotive, with the idea of control a thing behind us, and comprehension of our situation dimming even as the crashing forces gather in speed.
And at the tail end of this despondent processional comes Marshall McLuhan, hoisting the spectre of what to everyone else is soul-usurping technology and snapping it across the sky as if it were a kite.
As with Bruno, the full reach of his imagination would be unloosed by the guesswork of a far more cautious mentor. In 1951, McLuhan read The Bias of Communication by "the great panjandrum" of the University of Toronto, the economic historian Harold Innis. What Innis had hit upon was a ricochet of startling effects from any new technology, depending on its form. If the Babylonians used clay tablets for their writings, Innis proposed, one could follow the effects into priestly dynasties, unchanging legalisms, a society haunted with time. Inversely, papyrus to the Romans was a builder of roads, armies, and vast territorial empires. Innis had sighted history through the crosshairs of technologies biased toward time and space, and opened an awesome new reach of possibility: what if history is an elaborate, ever-creative dance between mankind and its technologies, particularly communication technologies? What if we are, in large part, what we do to -- and not with Information?
Copernicus had waited until his deathbed, and even then resisted publishing De revolutionibus. Innis clung to his dialectic of time and space, even as he opened glimpses onto things beyond. "The disastrous effect of the monopoly of communication based on the eye hastened the development of a competitive type of communication based on the ear." Or: "Communication based on the eye in terms of printing and photography had developed a monopoly which threatened to destroy Western civilization, first in war, and then in peace." Or: "Education...became the art of teaching men to be deceived by the printed word." The insights sparking from his discovery would not be contained, even in his own writings, to the constraints of those crosshairs.
Innis died in the summer of 1952. In the blizzard of tributes and encomiums that followed, almost none made more than a faint acknowledgment of his communication studies. Most colleagues regarded Innis's media work as a regrettable scholarly lapse much as if he had turned in his later years to a serious theory that might prove dowsing, or the tenets of ancient astrology.
There is ample evidence in the writings of the younger McLuhan that even without the unloosenings of an Innis, he would have left his signature across some patch of the sky. In his Ph.D. thesis, nominally about the Elizabethan writer Thomas Nashe, he traced a conflict between the forces of logic and analogy back as far as the pre-Socratics, to suggest, with already that flair of untethered McLuhan audacity, that logic is a virtually an alien virus given free reign since Aristotle to infect the thought of Western man. His essays of the later 1940s and his spirited appraisal of pop American culture, The Mechanical Bride, suggest his ability to create fission in welding two discrepant ideas. (The department store, he observed, was stimulated into existence when entire pages of newspapers were devoted to a mosaic of different products featured in small ads.) Yet it was in 1952, in an essay entitled "Technology and Political Change," that the content of media became suddenly dismissable, irrelevant, and all attention became focused on form.
"He who itches to Philosophy must set to work by putting all things to the doubt," said Bruno. In his speeches and letters and essays of the remaining 1950's, McLuhan was absorbed in "putting all things to the doubt." But carefully: within that pre-established framework he had once inveighed at Aristotle for first imposing on our thoughts. It appears that early in 1960 the dam that was harnessing those extraordinary energies broke. From a letter to old friend Bernard Muller-Thym, dated February 19th, 1960:
The break-through in media study has come at last, and it can be stated as the principle of complementarity: that the structural impact of any situation is subjectively completed as to the cycle of the senses. That the effect of a medium is in what it omits and what we supply, but the factors of high or low definition image may qualify this radically. That in telephoning, for example, we are dealing with such a low definition auditory image that we are engaged in completing rather than filling in the visual...
The language is yet that of an exacting literary scholar, but the Bruno-like exuberance is shining through. Later that year he would complete the study that had roused this excitement, Report on Project in Understanding New Media, which he had prepared for a contract for the U.S. Office of Education. To read that study is to see the rents and cleavages gather in a chrysalis. "Why," McLuhan asks, "should the broken lines of the television mosaic emphasize the sculptural contours of objects?" "Is it natural that one medium should appropriate and exploit another?" "Is the medium the message?" Then, with in a rush of uncontained excitement in being onto something big:
When information moves to and from all directions and locations at the same moment, we return to a mode of experience that is structured as an auditory field of simultaneous relations. Even our visual experience is now a mosaic of items assembled from every part of the globe, moment by moment. Lineal perspective and pictorial organization cannot cope with this situation.
In this connection I would like to report a discovery concerning the role of writing in creating what is now to mathematics and physics the obsolete fiction of "Euclidean space"THE IMPLICATIONS OF THIS DISCOVERY FOR ORIENTING US TODAY IN THE ELECTRONIC AGE ARE SO GREAT THAT I FEEL NO QUALMS IN STATING THAT IT JUSTIFIES PROJECT 69 [which funded the study] MANY TIMES OVER. THAT IS TO SAY, WERE THIS PROJECT TO HAVE NOTHING AT ALL TO REPORT IN MEDIA STUDY BEYOND EXPLAINING THE ROLE OF THE WRITTEN WORD IN BRINGING INTO EXISTENCE 'EUCLIDEAN SPACE', IT WOULD YET OFFER A MASSIVE AND CHALLENGING SET OF DATA FOR THE ATTENTION OF WESTERN MAN.
The capitalizations belong to the exhilarated writer who was, at the time, 48. Innis taught that history is what man does to information. The freighted implication is what becomes of information: religion, philosophy, art, science as we've known them. Innis avoided the conundrum with the tight constraints of his crosshair dialectic. Like Copernicus, he left the larger question What's beyond? to later generations. It was McLuhan who plunged.
As it had with Bruno, the complete spinning galaxies of the mature thought came in a sudden and inexhaustible rush. Between 1960 and 1964 McLuhan wrote his De l'Infinito, The Gutenberg Galaxy, and his De immenso, Understanding Media. In the Galaxy, written in a scarce thirty days in the summer of 1960, McLuhan maintains at least a semblance of larger framework a sense that the "content" of religion or philosophy or law are still very much a part of history. But what dizzying fun he has introducing the effects of new of form of the printing press, provocateur of capitalism, nationalism, bureaucracies galore, individualism, Protestantism, scientific and humanistic specialisms, and virtually every vice entrenched in the dynamics of the modern world. Some of his most exorbitant flights come in his rereadings of the classics. King Lear is no longer the threshold for dramatic tragedy but "an elaborate case history of people translating themselves out of a world of roles into the new world of jobs." Pope's Dunciad becomes "entirely concerned with the formalistic pattern and penetrative and configurating power of the new technology." Of Bacon he writes blithely: "The entire Middle Ages had regarded Nature as a Book to be scanned for the vestigia Dei. Bacon took the lesson of print to be that we could now literally get Nature out in a new and improved edition."
The genius of audacity is its refusal to hesitate. If the plunge into an untethered universe of print had invigorated McLuhan, the frenzied universe of MAD magazines, TV talk-shows, nuclear arsenals and fishnet stockings would turn his already volatile imagination into its own racy, nonlinear image. Understanding Media resumes the themes of the Report he'd written four years earlier. But the difference! From the Report and its chapter, "Introduction to Television": "The total contrast between the movie, and television images, closely corresponds to the discrepancy between the manuscript and the printed page." From Understanding Media, "Television: The Timid Giant": "So avid is the TV viewer for rich tactile effects that he could be counted on to revert to skis. The wheel, so far as he is concerned, lacks the requisite abrasiveness."
Less than four years separate these passages; the distance is probably immeasurable by any other standard. With Understanding Media, McLuhan releases his hold on every previous containment of Innis's audacious proposal. The book is a reckless and ebullient romp through the immensities of transformation that open when technology is taken solely as form. And the examples are often as outrageous as they are abundant. The typewriter revives oral poetry. The small wraparound European car is nearer to clothing than to being a vehicle. Radio created and controlled World War II. In a nonlinear electronic age all straight guidelines disappear, explaining what happened to the line of a nylon stocking.
In Understanding Media, and much of the later work, McLuhan dances through a whirligig vision of technologies that interact with us solely as forms. This is no less audacious than Bruno's infinity and the outcry is inevitable. McLuhan is unmooring everything we've known as the foundation of our laws, philosophies, sciences. In allowing "content" to disappear from reach, he makes the destinies of nations and human beings a vanishing spectre in a rear-view mirror. A chain of being more firmly ensconced than that of the medievals of our assumed command over our memories, associations, environment, affections has become so much cosmic drift within the strange, still undefined orbitings of technologies in their interplay with other technologies and with man. The pure process of transformation has for McLuhan, as Bruno would say, "no measure, no proportion, no comprehensible number." The world as we believe we've known it disappears into the vortexes of Understanding Media: all that remains are strange new affinities, "interplays of process" and "in-depth involvement" and "awareness of the total field" -- and the distant, twinkling light of long-lost "content," as it plays through an unmanageable maze of media mirrors.
We become, McLuhan had announced, what we do to information. Almost unanimously, his critics echoed Goethe's complaint of the Nolan, that "to extract the solid gold and silver from the mass of such unequally precious lodes is almost beyond human strength." And every difficulty his critics encountered seemed to be aggravated by McLuhan's celebrity and his nonchalant persona. One can only stoke the worst suspicions of critics in admitting, as McLuhan did frequently, "Even I have difficulty understanding what I'm saying." The terms McLuhan had accepted in going overboard with Understanding Media became, almost inevitably, the terms in which he thought, wrote, spoke for the remainder of his life.
Typically, McLuhan never asked that he be accepted, all-or-nothing; not even that he be accepted. "I probe," he said; the process of discovery meant far more to him than the value or permanence of any of those discoveries. Often he would utter a totally offhand remark, then grab for a pen to jot it down, shaking his head in something not unlike marvel. Yet he'd be capable the next week, upon hearing it, of asking, "Who said that?" and disputing it tenaciously.
He claimed, throughout all this, never to hold theories yet almost no one took him at his word. From The Gutenberg Galaxy on, "McLuhanism" was taken to be identical with the end of a regimenting reign of print, the extensions of man's nervous system round the globe creating a new condition where "everybody is inside everybody's skin," tribal, acoustic, and profoundly involving. A thorough reading of all his writings which include over 600 essays would consign that proposition to a far more elaborate galaxy of startling new understandings. No single "theory" such as our movement to a nonlineal age or "acoustic space" or the sensory basis of media effects should be taken as the heart and core of McLuhan's canon. Infinity of process and of endless transformations the only heart and core of McLuhan's canon.
But is it too late, or too early, to establish that? Even before his death in 1980, he took what seemed to be the final rappings of his critics: the book-length, authoritative dismissals. Two are worth quoting because both conclude with a ringing fiat of rejection that neither seems willing to examine. First, Jonathan Miller, in his conclusion to Marshall McLuhan:
I am grateful for the ways in which McLuhan alerted me to the odd properties of the medium itself [TV]. And yet I can rehabilitate no actual truth from what I read. Perhaps McLuhan has accomplished the greatest paradox of all, creating the possibility of truth by shocking us all with a gigantic system of lies
And Donald Theall's final appraisal of Understanding Media, in his The Medium Is The Rear-View Mirror:
The history that McLuhan is trying to write is the right history, but it is tied to a misleading and mechanistic framework unworthy of his insight... If thinking about extensions creates images in which men become the sex organs of machines, the resultant analysis is perhaps only too predictable the schizophrenic split of the McLuhanesque universe.
Their terms tell us more about Miller and Theall than McLuhan: "no actual truth...the possibility of truth"; "the schizophrenic split of the McLuhanesque universe." The rejection is as sweeping as it is largely unconscious: an innate repugnance in looking where McLuhan has announced his de immenso. By the late 1970's such a reaction had become virtually universal. McLuhan was a once-famous theorist whose ideas lay shredded with the detritus of the sixties. In September of 1979, McLuhan suffered a stroke that left him with aphasia, the inability to speak. For the final sixteen months of his life he was as effectively silenced as Bruno in his years in his cell at the Castel Sant'Angelo, in his walk to the spit at the Campo dei Fiore. When he died on the New Years Eve of 1981, he was remembered more warmly than Bruno but in general, no more percipiently. For the influence that his thought had left on ours, he too might have proposed substituting "circles and points for God."
It has taken about three and a half centuries since the martyrdom of Giordano Bruno for critics to recognize the scale of his achievement. In this lonely Italian vagabond, great ages pivot and the whole of human thought tilts. Ernst Cassirer, in An Essay on Man:
What is characteristic of the philosophy of Giordano Bruno is that here the term "infinity" changes its meaning.... In Bruno's doctrine infinity no longer means a mere negation or limitation. On the contrary, it means the immeasurable and inexhaustible abundance of reality and the unrestricted power of the human intellect.
Rudolf Thiel, in And There Was Light:
[Bruno] represented the Copernican system as the beginning of a new mode of thinking, as a revolution in science, and in the growing consciousness of the human race... Once the Copernican system had won its victory, Bruno's idea of infinity was accepted tacitly, without discussion though it was no more than a belief at the time. The strictest of sciences, the science bound more than all others to mathematical precision, accepted for seven generations a belief whose author was never recognized as a scientist, scarcely ever mentioned. Science bowed to the words of a prophet.
Giorgio de Santillana, in The Age of Adventure:
[Bruno] does not merely contemplate the illimitable ocean of Being; one might say that he "goes overboard" in it. In the fullness of this Being he finds a new freedom. The center of gravity, as it were, has tilted for the whole of human thought. The relationship of man to God is depersonalized, because God, being infinite necessity, can no longer come down to man. It is man who must raise himself up to him by transcending his own limits in an effort which can have no end.
These are not the modest assessments of a philosopher's achievements in cosmology, metaphysics, and the like. They defer to terms as exorbitant as those we'd expect to hear from the Nolan himself: "'infinity' changes its meaning"; "a revolution...in the growing consciousness of the human race"; "the center of gravity... has tilted for the whole of human thought."
Possibly, someday, the tributes written of Marshall McLuhan's pivotal role in the reconception of our relationship to our technologies will be equally exorbitant: "'technology' changes its meaning"; "a revolution...in the corporate consciousness of the human race"; "the center of gravity... has tilted for the whole of human aspiration." Indeed, as with Bruno, it will be that McLuhan deserves accolades at this scale of thought, or that he deserves none at all. What is perhaps worrisome to contemplate, however: must it take another three hundred and fifty years?
Already we are living through an early seizure of transformative technologies than we have no precedent for grasping, comprehending, questioning. The desktop computer is quietly translating how we write, play, manage, learn, and create new knowledge. What does it mean, for example, that new generations of geologists, film animators, or diagnostic specialists in medicine, will spend far more time with the data of a terminal screen than with rocks and terrain, ink and cells, living patients? Or what are we to make of high-tech training methods that translate athletics into competition with a computerized image? No one has given us a better vantage point to ask the questions than McLuhan:
...we now live in a technologically prepared environment that blankets the earth itself. The humanly contrived environment of electric information and power has begun to take precedence over the old environment of "nature." Nature, as it were, begins to be the content of our technology.
He said, in 1970: "we live in post-history in the sense that all pasts that ever were are now present to our consciousness and that all the futures that will be are here now." We are every day exposed to an incessant barrage of indefinite media reprocessing and media recycling. Rock videos pilfer the clichés and styles and even moments from our collective knowledge of TV, ads, and movies, whirling them into a volatile jumble not one of the original surrealists would recognize. A generation of film makers mount their spectacles lavishly on the scaffoldings of older movies, translating the cinemascope screen into the world's largest rear-view mirrors. And the spectre of reprocessing appears endless: with home TV cameras becoming as common as microwave ovens, intimate events become more and more like public ones: they exist to be recorded and replayed. What is lost in all this? Traded off? Gained? No one has adequately begun to offer a thought-structure by which we can even ask such questions as, What is happening to our sense of the present? or, How can we adapt creatively to living under recycled and reprocessed media conditions? No one but McLuhan.
And that thought-structure is one of its marvels extends outward from our present technologies as far on the horizons as we can sight, and very probably further. McLuhan had never, for example, heard of desktop publishing; the phrase and concept were created after his death. Yet he remarked in 1967: "Instead of being a package, uniform and repeatable, the book becomes a service to suit the needs of the private person." And he warned that failure to think along such lines could defeat the potential of the new technologies. "Computers are still serving as agents to sustain pre-computer effects," he remarks. And more acutely, he proposes that we are locked into "an age-old habit of using new means for old purposes instead of discovering what are the new goals contained in the new means."
And at the farthest vistas there are the startling technological "unthinkables" that we, or our children, will almost certainly be forced to learn to think about. But how do we regard, anticipate, regulate generations and generations of ever-smarter machines, including "neural net" computers that astoundingly resemble the analogic learning of the young human brain; or knowledge itself as it is increasingly delegated to our electronic surrogates, until the very notion of knowledge may become akin to that of husbandry; or new biotechnical mergings of organic and inorganic; of living creatures reawakened from the past or designed anew, perhaps with resources of wit and creative capabilities such as we can hardly conceive; or cyborgs and ultra-intelligent machines, perhaps ultra-intelligent living machines?
Like the terrifying prospect of infinity, our first reaction is Pascal's: "m'effraie!" We can hardly afford to permit it to control all our other reactions. To take one final sweeping glance at Bruno and McLuhan, we're reminded that at the heart of both their speculations was the bounding wonder of a poet. "All things are in all!" Bruno exulted. "The new reality is in the image and not behind it," McLuhan quipped. It is in that spirit that, over the centuries, thanks to a Brunnhofer, a Coleridge, a Joyce, Bruno was finally heard. It is in that spirit that today and tomorrow McLuhan should finally and properly be heard. We read him rightly only when we read him as a poet, one who could have said with the star-dazzled Italian of four hundred years ago:
And while I venture out beyond this tiny globe Into reaches past the bounds of starry night I leave behind what others strain to see afar.