The McLuhans on Artifact Retrieval

The Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan died in 1980 and has cycled in and out of fashion ever since. Those –like me– who see him as one of the major intellectual figures of the twentieth century are still in the minority. The majority rejection of McLuhan’s canonical status is usually based on one of two reasons: (1) he was a flashy media pundit rather than a serious academic figure, or (2) he was a technological determinist exposed as shallow by the Leftist authority Raymond Williams.Raymond Williams, Television: Technology and Cultural Form (London: Fontana, 1974). Sometimes one also hears: (3) McLuhan’s fellow Canadian theorist Harold Innis was better and deserves our attention instead.Harold Innis, The Fur Trade in Canada: An Introduction to Canadian Economic History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1930). A brief article like this one is not the place to confront these objections point by point. Instead, I wish to discuss McLuhan’s concept of retrieval, a notion of great importance for philosophy, history, and design alike.

McLuhan’s career is one of those cases where the primary catchphrase is also the best introduction to his thought: “The medium is the message.”Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994). The chief opposition he deploys is the one between medium and content. Whatever book you happen to be reading at the moment, the sheer fact that you are reading a book –rather than assembled in a small group hearing a scroll read aloud– is what is important. The invention of a new medium marks a change in human existence. This happens slowly enough that people tend to forget the medium itself and focus on its variable contents, just as happened with books in the centuries since Gutenberg invented the printing press. The first smartphone –Apple’s initial iPhone– was introduced early in June 2007, and has been revolutionizing the features of human interaction ever since. At that early date, we could not yet imagine the impact of ride-sharing services and the regular filming of police violence that are now staples of our daily existence.

In his later career, McLuhan worked with his son Eric to reorganize his thought into a fourfold structure known as the “tetrad.”Eric McLuhan and Marshall McLuhan, Laws of Media: The New Science (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992). The idea behind the tetrad is that every human artifact does four separate things simultaneously: it enhances something, causes something else to become obsolete, retrieves an older medium that was previously dead, and eventually reverses into its opposite. In terminological shorthand: enhancement, obsolescence, retrieval, reversal. The division between the enhancement and obsolescence of any artifact is what the McLuhans call the “morphology” of an artifact. This morphology already incorporates, though in more practical and applicable form, the most important philosophical insight of the twentieth century: Martin Heidegger’s critique of presence-at-hand.Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (New York: Harper, 2008). An object is not equal to its explicit content since it also has powerful background effects that no explicit analysis ever gets quite right. My one objection to how the McLuhans present this morphological pair is that they sometimes speak as if “enhance” meant “to make more visible,” though by their own principles, it should actually mean “to make into more of a hidden medium while downplaying visible content.” In any case, the McLuhans link this discussion of artifacts in terms of enhancement and obsolescence with their proposed shift from classical dialectic (explicit argumentation) toward classical rhetoric (subtle attention to the background assumptions of our listeners). It is already a powerful tool for understanding human artifacts.

Yet perhaps the more important part of the tetrad is the axis between reversal and retrieval, which the McLuhans call “metamorphosis.” That is to say, unlike Heidegger, they pay a good deal of attention to cases in which the hidden and the visible change roles at various points in history. Reversal is the easier of the two to explain, and for the McLuhans, it is largely outside our control. Consider the case of democracy, which aspired to replace European royalty and aristocracy with a society in which everyone was as good as everyone else: even if, in the case of the United States there was slavery for ninety more years, and women were denied the right to vote for even longer. But let’s assume an ideal case in which the democratic principle had been more consistently enacted from the start. Even under this scenario, democracy could not have lasted in anything like pure form. With the settlement of the United States and an ongoing population boom, we became a geographically vast country that is now home to more than three hundred million people. In this situation, we all risk dissolving into a mass anonymity of interchangeable spare parts. This is why, in terms of the McLuhans, democracy “overheated” and flipped into its opposite. The most obvious –though not most interesting– case is the emergence of an elite class of American plutocrats, widely criticized in our time for their excessive fortunes while underpaying their workers. The more interesting case is the emergence of a shameless celebrity culture, which could only take root in a society so unconsciously committed to anonymous interchangeability that it begins to hunger nostalgically for the glamour of new aristocrats. These days we may vilify the ultra-rich, but if we cross paths accidentally with a celebrity –as can easily happen in Los Angeles– we are less likely to denounce them than to excitedly retell the story to our friends. It feels as if something magical has happened; a long lifetime of everyone being just another number is replaced by a brief encounter with a glittery parallel universe. Little wonder that so many people aspire to be celebrities, despite the obvious drawbacks of such a tabloid-infested life.

The other metamorphic form of the McLuhans, retrieval, is under more direct human control, and is therefore perhaps of greater interest.This topic is developed in Marshall McLuhan and Wilfrid Watson, From Cliché to Archetype (New York: The Viking Press, 1970). When old media die out, they become obvious clichés that no one wants anything to do with. Anyone still listening to music on a clunky old iPod in public would draw stares, not to mention subdued contempt and even a degree of pity. A person excitedly repeating yesterday’s news, or demanding our attention for an old and worn-out joke, is merely a pest. At all times, we are surrounded by clichés, unwanted debris of the cultures of yesteryear. According to the McLuhans, this is where “the artist” comes in, in the broadest sense of the term. How do we take a dead past medium and give it a renewed contemporary form? Architects have to confront this problem more often than most. Consider the predicament faced by Bernard Tschumi when designing the Le Fresnoy Art Center in northern France. As the architect’s website informs us: “The site holds buildings from a 1920s leisure complex that included cinema, ballroom dancing, skating, and horseback riding. Although the existing structures could have been demolished to make way for new construction, they contained extraordinary spaces whose large dimensions exceeded what the limited project budget could supply.”Bernard Tschumi Architects, “Le Fresnoy Art Center. Tourcoing, 1991-1997.” His solution, of course, was to put a roof over all of the old buildings and to focus on generating interesting interior effects. In the words of Jeffrey Kipnis: “Tschumi… enveloped the entire complex within a partially enclosed modern roof to create a cohesive graft,” while adding “a system of catwalks and stairs, visually interlacing them with cuts, partial enclosures, ribbon windows, and broad transparencies.”Jeffrey Kipnis, A Question of Qualities (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2013), 300. Tschumi was able to aestheticize the old, previously unwanted buildings at the site by inserting them into a new background medium of his own creation.

There are many other ways to restore dead things to life. But all such strategies must follow at least two basic principles. First, the original functional context of the thing cannot be restored, since the world to which it originally belonged is irretrievably past. A historic town for tourists might offer a quaint blacksmith’s shop as an attraction, but it will surely be used for creating souvenirs stamped with the names of children rather than actually protecting the hooves of horses. In a word, retrieval requires decontextualization. Second, the content of the old medium cannot be straightforwardly retrieved since it will need to be adapted to new circumstances. Anyone literally defending the 1600s single-substance metaphysics of Spinoza today would be viewed as a philosophical crank. But if you are Gilles Deleuze, able to skillfully extract Spinoza’s monism while cross-breeding it with the everything-in-motion philosophy of Bergson, then you may have created an artist’s retrieval of a sort that would make the McLuhans proud. Here, we see that retrieval also requires adaptation. Both decontextualization and adaptation are forms of translation, and this is precisely what the artist or designer is: a translator able to avoid a literal repeating of old forms.