|They wanna see me on my satellite. Get it right. Here tonight.|
I never read any McLuhan in the philosophy courses I took as a student, and I never taught any McLuhan in the philosophy courses I delivered as a tutorial leader. A major reason is disciplinary: he’s classified as a media theorist, so while he’s creating concepts, which is the essential philosophical activity, he isn’t identified as a philosopher and his books and ideas don’t enter the mainstream narrative in the university-based tradition of what philosophy properly is.
I think another reason why he isn’t included in most philosophy canons is that he’s fucking weird. Academic philosophy is typically taught as having a single form of writing: the argument. So while a text may create concepts, explore ideas, and touch on major philosophical themes, a university professor won’t call it philosophy unless it’s written as an argumentative essay.*
|Then there were philosophers like Heraclitus, who were|
sages writing epic poems like The Iliad, but about
* Of course, there are exceptions within the canon. No university-based philosopher would deny that Plato’s dialogues and Spinoza’s Ethics are works of philosophy because they’re such undeniably huge figures in the Western tradition. But Plato’s surviving works are these strange mutations of the dramatic script. Dialogues contain arguments, yet usually end having undermined all the positive statements. Spinoza’s Ethics is often called an argument, but that’s just because philosophy’s institutionalized culture is really uncomfortable dealing with an experimental composition that adapted the form of a logical-mathematical proof to examine abstract metaphysical, ecological, and psychological concepts.
The fourth chapter of Laws of Media isn’t written like an essay. It doesn’t even have paragraphs. It’s written as a series of tetrad diagrams. See, there are four laws of media that the book is largely about. A given piece of human technology does four things simultaneously.
1) ENHANCES some phenomenon or mode of experience.
2) REVERSES the character of its enhanced characteristic when its intensity reaches an extreme.
3) RETRIEVES some abstract principle that’s latent in its enhancement.
4) OBSOLESCES some other phenomenon that used to be fairly widespread.
So I thought of talking about some examples of these four-sided frameworks of thinking and understanding. One of McLuhan’s tetrad diagrams describes what the satellite does. It reminds me a lot of the major ideas in Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity.
The satellite enhances the planet Earth itself, extending it beyond its physical limits of the atmosphere that is capable of supporting macroscopic life. The Earth’s affects and communication from one part of it to another now extend into the stratosphere. This is actually one of the central concepts of my book: that you can’t understand the full range of a body’s possible powers and potentials if you take its boundary to be just the physical membrane of its discrete corpus. A human extends beyond its skin, and a planet extends beyond its atmosphere. A body is a field of affects, the proliferation in space and time of what it does beyond its membrane.
The abstract principle that this phenomenon of the satellite’s activity brings to the forefront is what McLuhan calls ecology. And so do I. This tetrad shows how bodies, in this case the Earth itself, can extend beyond their physical boundaries, and how important these extending, environmental affects are to its identity. I take the extension of bodies beyond their physical boundaries to integrate with each other to be the foundational principle of any ecologically-informed philosophy.
When the dynamics of satellite communication reverse themselves, we get what McLuhan calls an implosion of reflexivity. Signals travel around the Earth so fast that distance becomes practically immaterial. As far as communication goes, satellites can make the planet the size of a house.
However, satellites make nature obsolete. Well, I should say Nature, not nature. Because McLuhan’s diagram refers to Nature as the mythical concept of the wild Eden, the absolute Other to human civilization. There’s a dominating dynamic in environmental philosophy and environmentalist political activism that sees Man as essentially a technological, destructive, rationalistic force that’s in inevitable conflict with Nature and its creative, instinctual harmony.
The first three chapters (of seven) in Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity are an extended polemic about several aspects of this dualist view of humanity and nature. Ecological thinking makes this kind of dualism totally obsolete, in the literal sense. There’s no use thinking in terms of that romantic (and Romantic) dualism when you understand all of existence in terms of ecological relationships.
There can be nothing literally outside nature, like the dualism of Man/Nature (and Technology/Natural and Mordor/Shire and Earth/Eden and Discord/Harmony and Evil/Good), if everything that acts integrates with each other as our affects extend ourselves beyond our bodies.
There are only natural processes that sustain themselves and natural processes that wreck themselves and drown in their own shit. Environmentalism as a political movement and a philosophy is social mobilization to push humanity to sustain itself instead of destroy itself and drag a lot of other creatures down with us.
All this is in just one brief tetrad diagram. And I hadn’t even read McLuhan before writing that book.