In my previous post I experimented with a tetrad-fourfold hybrid analysis of media and discovered that the tetrad could be used to look at non-human specific media. Laws of Media (LOM) was a fascinating read that has encouraged me to seek out some more McLuhan. This post brings together insights from The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media, of which I can report that there is a lot more to them than this simple tetrad. This article aims to outline many of the arguments from LOM towards a questioning consideration of Heidegger and technology.
One of the many surprises from reading the McLuhan’s LOM, is their reading of Heidegger and the phenomenological tradition. Firstly, they are aware of the importance of the ground/figure relationship for Heidegger and the limitations of his approach. The McLuhan’s want to not only recognize the ground/figure dif-ference, but the figure is the ground and visa versa: ‘[Heidegger] has not noted that the ground is formed as a mosaic, structured acoustically, nor that its structure is entirely due to its interface with figures’ (LOM, p.63). Essentially, the McLuhan’s critique the notion of thinking being beyond beings. For the McLuhan’s, Graham Harman and Levinas, this is impossible.
LOM is not the only place the McLuhan (senior) has commented on Heidegger. In The Gutemberg Galaxy (TGG), he makes the claim that “Heidegger surf-boards along on the electronic wave as triumphantly as Descartes rode the mechanical wave” (TGG, p.248). Heidegger claims that technology is a mode of enframing, which as the McLuhan’s explain “is not a batch of concepts, but a special technique of perception that reveals the ground” (LOM, p.63). Heidegger understands this in the negative as ‘fleeing from the question of being’. It is in the notion of ‘question’ that we must question. If we no longer question being, then we no longer respond to the absent gods as they beacon us to wonder at being. Put simply, if there is no longer an absence that brings us to question the relation with beings, we have lost the RTH and have become PAH automatons. Thus, Heidegger’s favourite philosophical demon (not daimon), Descartes, whose mechanical and mathematical metaphysics of presence, is the main culprit for our modern ontologically degenerate forgetting of the question. Or so he thinks.
Descartes championed the mechanical which was then repeated by Newton. McLuhan comments with wonderfully dry whit in Understanding Media that Newton “in an age of clocks, managed to present the physical universe in the image of a clock”. Whilst “Blake spoke of the need to be delivered “from single vision and Newton’s sleep,” knowing very well that Newton’s response to the challenge of the new mechanism was itself merely a mechanical repetition of the challenge”. Concurrent to Blake, it would be an understatement to say that Heidegger was not fond of mechanization. However, McLuhan notes that Heidegger champions the electrical. McLuhan makes the claim that Heidegger has a non-literate bias in his philosophy and language. Heidegger wants to ‘turn’ the being of Dasein towards the ground of being, the RTH withdrawn essence in contradistinction to the PAH revealed relations of scientific and mathematical representation. In LOM we learn that media which focus to the figures of visual space are conceptual, while acoustic space brings focus to the ground. It is in this acoustic space that Heidegger sees the no-thing which characterizes Eastern oral traditions of the non-literate. This turning towards the acoustic is hampered by the medium Heidegger’s work circulates within: the phonetic [orthographic] alphabet.
‘The interiorization of the technology of the phonetic alphabet translates man from the magical world of the ear to the neutral visual world.’ (TGG, p.21). The manner of his work is abstract and visual, even though he is trying to ‘explore the occult (hidden) area’ of beings (LOM, p.63). In McLuhan’s terms, Heidegger’s concern for the essence and saving power of technology is a response to the ‘left brained’ visual/conceptual logos interpreted as logic which characterized western philosophy since the instantiation of metaphysics with Plato amplified by Descartes and culminating with Nietzsche. Graphocentricism followed in the 17th century, which is why Heidegger re-enacts the pre-Socratic logos of Heraclitus, a logos of the oral tradition of beings gathered by speech. Heidegger’s turn towards poetry exemplifies the ‘right brained’ acoustic/perceptual spiritual line of flight away from the PAH, towards a ‘hearkening’, a hearing beyond sound and tone, that indicates a deeper dense of perception of an openness to the simultaneous withdrawing and the taking place (On the Essence of Language, p.88).It is this ‘hearkening’ to acoustic space that Heidegger’s ideas can ”surf’ along the electronic technological revolution commanded by the mosaic image of the television and visual display unit, while simultaneously, his message is replicated through the medium of the printed page, the flat visual space Heidegger despises. To compromise, he turns to poetry.
The poetry of Trakl, Holderlin and Rilke (and Heidegger himself) is a ‘cool’ medium that requires participation. Like Nietzschian aphorisms, which signal an incomplete reasoning, poetry presents a gap which forces the reader to think instead of swallowing a complete package or method of thought. This is in contrast to Heidegger’s ‘Being and Time’ (B&T), which is hot in it’s attempt at an exhaustive deconstruction of the meaning of being. The fact that B&T was never finished, party shows the movement from hot prose to cool poetry that would characterize his later work. Although, in essence, his tool analysis fourfold was present as early as 1919, B&T was a product of the hot medium of phenomenological analysis, whose practice of the epoché created mountains of paper analysis in the name of phenomenological ‘seeing’. Thus the momentum and style of Husserlian phenomenology was still in top gear as Heidegger was writing B&T, only later to ease off the accelerator and take the fourfold’s cool structure seriously.
There is no essence of Dasein that needs protecting and saving through the poetic return of the gods: McLuhan stresses that “the acoustic power available to the poetic establishment that Plato warned against was puny by comparison to the sensory stress exerted by any one of our technologies and its grounds” (LOM, p64). The human essence is always already a fluctuating media-being through the facticity of worldly equipmentality. There is no ‘clearing’ (lichtung) which sets the horizon of meaning, as human Dasein’s worlded horizon changes according to newly acquired media practices. Heidegger fails to notice that new media all always demonized before they are normalized. As McLuhan observes in TGG, there was ‘considerable alarm and revulsion’ at the mounting use of of books in the late 17th century which contrasts with the modern concern for the ‘end of the book’. Technology itself does not have a moral dimension, but provokes a moral response because of its transformative powers: technology is not itself a disaster, only the myopia of being unprepared for the fundamental changes to human perceptions, habits, values they could bring.
NB – Heidegger’s logocentricism was deconstructed by Derrida, who, through McLuhan’s eyes, was responding the hypocrisy of Heidegger surfing the electric (i.e. the visual space of writing) while promoting the acoustic space of speaking. Heidegger was in neglect of the arch-writing that makes speech possible and thus Heidegger remains committed to a metaphysics of presence: as writing involves the absence of the speaker, whereas the speaker is always present to the listener. Derrida’s archi-writing seems to not only recognize speech and writing as modes of signification, but that neither is subordinate to the other when seeking being qua being. McLuhan knowingly deconstructs himself when he notes that contained in the fourfold structure of the self proclaimed amazing revolutionary thought of the tetrad itself is its reversal into ‘the external logical method’: hardware (the physical stuff of the world) becomes software (word), “thereby losing their murky, non-linguistic materiality” as Harman writes in his article ‘Phenomenology and the tetrad’. He wants to make us aware of the acute workings and transformations of media, just as Derrida wants to engage in inter-textual deconstruction while making us aware of the impossibility of the end of his task.
This is a particularly interesting clip of Heidegger’s. Most people use TV’s and Radio’s yet have no idea how they work, except for a few technically minded people, in the same way, most people think they are thinking, yet only a few people actually know what it means to think. For Heidegger. what we think is thought is the message which hides a medium which enframes how we think. This analytic visual space prioritizes being expressed through its presence in visual space. Thus, beings forget the acoustic space of being.