McLuhan Studies : Issue 5

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Hugh McDonald

Nature and the Tetrad

Nature and the Tetrad

by Hugh McDonald

The McLuhan tetrad is an exploration of the dynamics of formal causality. Marshall McLuhan, in his letters, displays an interest in formal causality that hearkens back to a time before the programmatic reductionism of the followers of Francis Bacon. In a letter to Joseph Keogh, Marshall writes:

My approach to media is metaphysical rather than sociological or dialectical ... I get such great joy from contemplating the forms of culture ... the language of forms is a source of perpetual joy and discovery that is quite inexhaustible ... I am a metaphysician, interested in the life of the forms and their surprising modalities.

The scholastic philosophers, guardians of the deposits of antique sapience, had fallen under the spell of the clear and distinct, the mechanical and serial. It seems that they could not understand McLuhan's insistent probes into their own buried inheritance of formal causality:

Two years ago I began to query the local Schoolmen about formal causality, only to discover that they had no use for it whatsoever. As one of them said the other day, "the danger of formal causality is relativism. We prefer platonism with its static universals as less dangerous."

George Klubertanz, one of McLuhan's circle at St. Louis, in those same years, was exploring the forgotten territory of analogy as the interplay of "dangerous" formal causalities. Analogy is a redundance of logos, not in serial fashion, but more as partial echoing. The doctrine of analogy takes us back to an auditory space, and McLuhan was at home with it:

Analogy of proper proportionality ... is a mode of awareness destroyed by literacy, since the literate man insists on visual connections, where being insists on resonance.

Linus Pauling and the quantum physicists had opened up a new field to be understood only in terms of resonance, but they themselves did not understand the implications of their discoveries, that resonance spelt the end of Newtonian reductionism, the Baconian and Cartesian approach of breaking problems (things, and even people) into byte-size pieces.

The tetrad evokes the question, "But is it science?" Indeed, the title of the work of Eric and Marshall McLuhan, Laws of Media: the New Science, makes the question unavoidable. Where the McLuhanists forge ahead in the new science, others stand at the edge of the new wilderness, interested instead in making a sufficient case for the new approach in terms comprehensible to the old:

Once two quantum entities have interacted with each other, they retain the ability instantaneously to influence each other, however widely they may subsequently separate [...] Once they have come together, the two quantum entities continue to form a single system even after their physical separation. It seems that the subatomic world cannot be treated as a collection of purely independent entities [...] I do not think that philosophers in general have yet come to terms with this declaration from quantum physics: the days of the Universe as Mechanism are over.

The McLuhans’ explorations of formal causality, and the relations between forms, are in a sense conservative, as Aristotle and Aquinas put formal causality before efficient causality. Giambattisto Vico applied formal causality not only to the fixed natures of the physical world, but to cultural forms. Vico's Scienza Nuova affirms that new technologies are not mere appendages, but that they alter our senses and perceptions.

Marshall McLuhan applied formal causality as well to technological forms. He was struck by how philosophers had since Aristotle ignored the matter-form relation in technology, that artifacts have (within their cultural context) a quasi-entelechy of their own. Where Aristotle and Aquinas (and scholastics to this day) would say that an artifact is a heap or aggregate, and that the true and primary forms within it are those of the natural elements composing it, they would admit that the form of an artifact as such is at least an accidental form. Accidental forms were not interesting to them (except perhaps where Aristotle studies the various constitutions of Greek states, these constitutions being accidental and artificial forms resting "on top" of nature). The classic approach of Aristotle and Aquinas focused on the per se, but it becomes apparent that the per accidens is also important. An accidental form is not thereby a form without importance. Classical science was concerned only with the necessary, that which could not be otherwise because it arose out of nature in a consistent way, but artificial forms arise with a necessity secundum quid—in a certain respect. As Walter Ong writes, "Technologies are artificial, but—paradox again—artificiality is natural to human beings." The natural necessity of artificiality is related to man/soul as "form of forms," as the hand is "the tool of tools."

The tetrad of technological forms describes the effects of new extensions of man's nature. When one faculty of man is extended, a new balance is created, which affects the other faculties. The centre of psychic gravity is shifted, and there are necessary effects in the areas not extended. The extension of one sense, for example, means a diminution of receptivity in the other senses. The heightening of all the senses means a dimming of appetite. Sensory overload is associated with a cool medium, because appetite is like heat. Indeed, we speak of a dog in heat, and a dog in heat cares for naught but one thing. On the other hand, Thomas counseled that study (along with prayer) cools passion. In terms of figure and ground, while the mind can be figured variously, the mind is only one figure at a time.

The tetrad has been applied to technology, and it works because technology is an extension of man. Technology does have its own teleology, but it is a teleology that arises out of the human teleology that gave it birth. The tetrad of enhancement - retrieval - obsolescence - reversal applies all the more to nature itself. Both in the Darwinian evolution and in the older (somewhat static) hierarchy of being, there is the interplay and mutual implication of forms. The Darwinian model, leaving aside the question of verification, falls into the Baconian trap of seeking a mechanistic and serial approach to all questions. It is the work of a serial thinker, for whom the movement of the syllogism must be a locomotion. Yet both in the ladder of being and in the Darwinian model, we can apply the tetrad.

If we look at senses and locomotion of the animal as an extension of the plant, we can see that the things that a plant does are indeed accelerated. A plant is like an animal that must keep its mouth open hoping that food drops into it (or, as Aristotle put it, like an animal that keeps its head buried in the ground). The plant constantly assimilates mud into the variety of its own being. It has a Protean flexibility of shape, and its basic strategy for overcoming obstacles is to grow around or through them. It is constantly being born, as every branch is like a new tree. The longevity of a plant is at the cost of individual identity, for a new shoot is like a new plant.

In my front porch, there is a slight gap in the brickwork. A morning glory outside the house found the gap, and with great persistence worked through six inches of darkness to emerge and flower within the house. The genetic code of a plant is surprisingly rich in information, and a tree can be more complex genetically than a man because it has to have a considerable library of growing strategies.

If we consider the powers of the animal as an extension of those of the plant, we find all the elements of the tetrad. Nutrition and self-repair is enhanced. Yet the constant regeneration of the plant disappears. The animal, with its ability to seek its food with its senses, and to put its limbs and mouth in motion, recovers the mobility of free atoms, and its motion is similar to Brownian motion. Indeed, the primary percept of the common sensorium is motion, through which the animal builds its perceived world. The frog cannot see its fly except for motion, and an incredulous dog faced with a static mystery will cock its head from side to side. The common sensorium is the center of gravity for all sensation, pulling all together into shape, size, number, distance, and motion, but of these motion is chief. Putting together formal unities out of motion makes memory an integral part of all perception.

The senses, appetites, and locomotive powers obsolesce the needs for roots. Those animals that are rooted are deficient in sensation, and have no need for much memory. If you are an oyster, you do not need to remember where you put your keys. Periodically the animal reverts to a plantlike existence, and then it must return to its nest, to sleep. Obsolescence is not disappearance, and the obsolescence of roots does not mean the complete disappearance of all plantlike fixity.

Whereas the senses perceive the mobile, the intellect pushes knowledge to the point of a reversal. Emerson compares intellectual knowledge to a tree:

The idea of vegetation is irresistible when one considers mental activity. Man resembles a superior plant [...] In fact striking analogies exist between the birth, growth, and intellectual assimilation of ideas or works and those activities of the plant which nourishes and augments itself by means of all it can assimilate. We say the book has the thrust of the author.

The permanence of this metaphor is striking. The tree of knowledge is found both in the Garden of Eden and in the Apocalypse. The tree of Porphyry is an illustration of the protocols of logical division, which is less like a hyena dividing its prey, and more like a branching. Plato put the soul's true abode in the fixed realm of ideas, far from the upsetting mobility of animality. A Chinese philosopher says that the sage can see the world better by not leaving his chair.

Aristotle was so struck by the quasi-vegetative character of intellect that he hesitated to say that it was integral to man, and so later commentators thought it was a separate angelic being to which men were grafted.

A tree is like an entire species that can adapt its shapes to what surrounds it. The animal's greater mobility comes at the sacrifice of flexible growth. The animal must reproduce sexually (the severed branch self-grafting itself onto the tree) in order to produce another that can approach the environment with a slightly different shape. Sexual reproduction is a desire for immortality, but it is also the obsolescence of the parents. The immortality is that of the species.

The tetrad could be applied at multiple levels to sexual reproduction, but I am interested in one particular reversal. The fertility cycle of the human female has a considerable gap of infertility, yet with no loss of sexual appetite on the part of male or female. This gap in the fertility cycle can be seen teleologically as a factor enhancing reproduction. The presence of the parents is important to the success of the offspring. With the periodic infertility, nature is playing several strategies together. First, it limits the number of children. Second, since the parents are drawn together regularly, the children that are there have a bonded and stable couple to raise them. One strategy for promoting the survival of the next generation is to play the game of numbers, that is, launch as many new individuals as possible in the hopes that at least two will be successful. Another strategy is to launch fewer, but to invest more into their success. In this way, this natural infertility reverses into fertility.

Nature here is complex. The Malthusians would explain all fertility as a mindless and aimless mechanism. Population grows geometrically. By sheer mindless mechanism, this means that any success reverses into failure. Yet, any such statement, in order to be empirical, must take into account the whole of human and natural history, and Malthus had a very small sample. In fact, there are hidden mechanisms in human fertility that nevertheless make perfect sense in formal and teleological terms. If people are living in anxiety and oppression, surrounded by death, they give birth to more children. If conditions are perceived as favourable, fertility goes down, and the birth rate declines with the death rate. When the British were building the Suez Canal, there was a high death rate on account of malaria among the Egyptians. The administrators wondered whether it would be moral to drain the malaria swamps, since there was also a high birth rate, and they worried that there would be an increase of population leading to misery. They did drain the swamps, the death rate declined, and immediately the birth rate declined. Aristotle said that nature avoids the infinite, because the infinite lacks purposeful completion, but that is just what nature seeks. Marshall McLuhan restates the same thing, in a quote from the inventor of the laser:

Exponential curves grow to infinity only in mathematics. In the physical world they either turn around and saturate, or they break down catastrophically.

Change cannot be interpreted merely in quantitative terms. If a process is accelerated, in the real world there will come a point where one form will change into another. McLuhan's reception of Gabor's remark seems to echo the element of the tetrad called reversal or flipping: if a process is pushed to its limits it will flip or reverse into its opposite or complement.

Nature is very familiar with the tetrad. Push a process far enough and a reversal is necessary. Nature, in the primary sense as that which is alive and develops, does not grow as fire grows, but all organic growth has built in limitations. Nature is full of feedback mechanisms, enhanced by human mimesis. The phenomena of obsolesence and retrieval are found in the unlikely-but-true observation that children are more like their grandparents than their parents.

If we see the infertility cycle as an enhancement of fertility, which it is, then what of the contraceptive as an extension of infertility? The natural infertility gap achieves a new form and strategy, as nature's old numbers game is obsolesced in favour of another reproductive strategy. The natural infertility gap is the figure against the ground of fertility. It promotes monogamy as the new strategy of nature.

The artificial enhancement of infertility is a figure without ground. On the one hand, it is populary conceived as a personalization, a welcome liberation from the constraints of sexual activity, an escape from consequences. Sex could become more spiritual by eliminating physical consequences. In fact, it is an angelization. The promised spiritualization, the mirage of the sexual revolution, has instead become an objectification. Contraceptives immediately enhance a man's field of sexual opportunity by widening the field of receptive females. Thus, it obsolesces monogamy (which was enhanced by the natural gap in fertility). Having obsolesced monogamy, it also renders futile nature's strategy behind episodic infertility by destroying the stable environment that allows nature to quit the numbers game. Eventually, it limits sexual activity, as we are finding out. Contraceptive chemicals eventually find their way into the food and water supply, and affect the secondary sexual characteristics of individuals of many species. If contraception has resulted in an awkward angelization on the psychic level, it has an analogical effect on the organic level: it creates eunuchs.

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