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Meditations on media ecology.


The distinctness of media ecology as a style of exploration into the human condition lies partly in its inclusiveness. Almost everything is relevant as long as we approach it with a media ecological sensibility. This article is a collection of probes the author crafted in the process of developing the media ecological sensibility. Insofar as they remain probes, they do not so much define as suggest (deviation from ready-made definitions betokens not so much an error as a will to difference). Also, probes always start in the middle. They are meant as attempts to point to ways of furthering an ongoing conversation, familiarity with which defines one's membership in this community of exploration. As such, each probe is to be taken as a spurt of nomad thought in the raw. Out of respect for the readers' predilection for filling in the gaps on their own, even the most basic framing and transition are left out. The reader is invited to treat this article as a media ecological montage and to turn the numerous intervals and interruptions into spaces for the most profuse of ruminations.

Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Orality

Put in a nutshell, secondary orality is the copy of a copy; it is twice removed from (primary) orality. It differs from primary orality stylistically. Michel de Certeau (1988) articulates the difference in a succinct way: "Where it does manage to infiltrate itself, the sound of the body often becomes an imitation of this part of itself that is produced and reproduced by the media--i.e., the copy of its own artifact" (p. 132).

We live in an age of tertiary orality, though. Although we often find simulated human voices to be annoying, they have started to affect, infect, and inflect the way we (particularly those among us who are digital natives) talk, partly because we often have to interact with them to get things done. Machines don't recognize human voices well. Idiosyncrasies often come off as deviances. People normally don't find it complimentary when a machine suggests they have an "accent." With voice-based human-machine interaction increasingly becoming part of our everyday life, is standardization of the human voice on the horizon? At least this is the direction tertiary orality seems to be pointing to.

If the age of orality is marked by spontaneity, and the age of secondary orality by planned spontaneity, then in the age of tertiary orality, the machine ear will serve as a formal cause to shape the contours of the human voice.

Vision and Strategy

Both John Dewey and Michel de Certeau suggest connections between vision and strategy. Take this passage from Dewey (1934):

Things in plain view are not of themselves disturbing; the plain is the ex-plained. It connotes assurance, confidence; it provides the conditions favorable to formation and execution of plans. The eye is the sense of distance--not just that light comes from afar, but that through vision we are connected with what is distant and thus forewarned of what is to come. Vision gives the spread-out scene--that in and on which ... change takes place. The animal is watchful, wary, in visual perception, but it is ready, prepared. Only in a panic is what is seen deeply perturbing. (p. 237)

To the blind, all things are sudden, as McLuhan points out. In the following two passages, de Certeau (1988) seems to suggest that strategy goes with vision and a figure orientation (as against a ground orientation).

   As in management, every "strategic" rationalization
   seeks first of all to distinguish its own place, that is,
   the place of its own power and will, from an
   "environment." A Cartesian attitude, if you wish: it
   is an effort to delimit one's own place in a world
   bewitched by the invisible powers of the Other. It is
   also the typical attitude of modern science, politics,
   and military strategy. (p. 36)

De Certeau (1988) further points out:

   [The "proper"] is ... a mastery of places through
   sight. The division of space makes possible a
   panoptic practice proceeding from a place whence
   the eye can transform foreign forces into objects
   that can be observed and measured, and thus
   control and "include" them within its scope of
   vision. To be able to see (far into the distance) is
   also to be able to predict, to run ahead of time by
   reading a space. (p. 36)

One becomes a tactician insofar as one is no longer hindered by an exclusively visual understanding of the world. De Certeau's association of strategy with figure implies that although a strategically organized place may appear to be the total ground, it really isn't, and that the strategist's power to compel and control isn't the ultimate power, which resides in the hidden ground. De Certeau (1988) compares this hidden ground to "a dark sea from which successive institutions emerge, a maritime immensity on which socioeconomic and political structures appear as ephemeral islands" (p. 41). For the tactician, de Certeau's political vision is an optimistic one. In a way, de Certeau and Mao are likeminded. Mao's dilemma starts when the tactician comes to inhabit a strategic position and ceases to be a tactician.

Listening to History

The distinction between the eye man and the ear man is a recurring motif in McLuhan's work. It calls to mind an interesting piece of artwork created by Bill Woodrow, the British sculptor, which is on display at Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids, Michigan: a bronze head resting on one side with a book tied against the other side (i.e., against the ear), with both eyes blindfolded with ropes. The title is "Listening to History." The moment I saw it I realized it's an artifact that speaks to media ecologists. There is a sense of incongruity in the art piece: books are for eyes, not for ears. Yet the sculpture is provocative precisely because of the incongruity. History is better accessed in an acoustic mode so we can readily invoke any wisdom from any age. When we read, we tend to objectify what is read and hold a detached attitude toward it. In contrast, when we listen, we tend to be more open to being affected by what we hear. To risk exaggerating the difference, I feel tempted to point out that, when we read, we accumulate knowledge, whereas when we listen, we absorb wisdom, and develop our paraskeue (a Greek term, which roughly means "equipment for living").

There are other ways to interpret the sculpture, though. On April 9, 2014, Chan Master Victor Chiang ( [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), Stephen Rowe (the philosopher), and I were taking a walk at Meijer Gardens and we stopped in front of the sculpture. Master Chiang blurted out two Chan spirited lines: "Human minds are bound to books. Books make humans blind."


Synesthesia is another recurrent motif in McLuhan's work. The term McLuhan uses is sensus communis (literally "common sense" in Latin). He makes the point that alphabetic literacy intensifies the sense of vision and isolates it from other senses, giving Western people a visual bias.

Synesthesia is also a figure of speech called "[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII])" (convertibility of the senses) or "[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), " (the transfer of one sense into another) in Chinese. There are plenty of examples in English. A color can be "loud," whereas a voice can be "velvety."

There's a part in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream where Bottom bemoans the functional non-versatility of humans' sense organs: "The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was." The least we can say is that Shakespeare is a literate phenomenon.

Synesthesia seems to be coming back in the postliterate age. There's been a resurgence of nomad art, in which the eye functions more like a hand. To couch it in technical terms, the emergence of the haptic between the manual and the optical marks the becoming-hand of the eye.

Overall, synesthesia betokens a tactile mode of perception, which involves an interplay among all of the senses.

In a passage on satori ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]),), Alan Watts (2006) indicates that there is a continuity between light, sound, and texture (or, between vision, hearing, and touch):

   ... every mystic in the world has seen the light, that
   brilliant blazing energy, brighter than a thousand
   suns, which is locked up in everything ... You
   watch it receding from you, and on the edges like a
   great star that becomes a rim of red, and beyond
   that a rim of orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo,
   violet, and you see this great mandala appearing,
   this great sun. Beyond the violet there is black, like
   obsidian, not flat black, but transparent black, like
   lacquer and again blazing out of the black as the
   yang comes from the yin there comes sound. There
   is a sound so tremendous with the white light that
   you cannot hear it, so piercing that it seems to
   annihilate the ears. Then, along with the colors, the
   sound goes down the scale in harmonic intervals,
   down, down, down, until it gets to a deep
   thundering bass that is so vibrant, that it turns into
   something solid, and you begin to get the similar
   spectrum of textures. (p. 164)

Watts's language calls to mind the language of quantum mechanics. Light, sound, and texture, etc. are different ways in which the human sensorium perceives cosmic energy. Synesthesia is a matter of course for the one who has experienced a sudden, total awakening, so Watts seems to suggest.

Percept and Concept

Jakob von Uexkull (2010) points out: "In our human environment, there is no mammal-in-itself as intuitable object, only as a notional abstraction, as a concept which we use as a means of analysis but never encounter in life" (p. 179). For the tick, however, mammalness is entirely a percept. What makes a mammal a mammal for the tick is the smell of butyric acid.

Concept minus percept means desiccation. As we grow older, we tend to have fewer and fewer encounters. Instead, we withdraw into the world of concepts dissociated from percepts. A symptom of this is what is called "nature deficit disorder." Artists are the ones who manage to remain close to percepts, who continue to hone their percipience.

For the empiricist, percepts are the ground from which concepts emerge. Genuine empiricists are pluralists.

There are experience-close concepts and experience-distant concepts. The more we lock ourselves into the latter, the more desiccation we suffer from. On the other hand, abstraction is a given as long as we use language.

Art invigorates perception. The Russian Formalists' concept of ostanenie or defamiliarization is relevant here. The concept means "the ability--indeed the need --of art to invigorate perception by presenting the familiar in unfamiliar ways" (Geoffrey WinthropYoung, 2010, p. 234).

Time and Space Depend on the Subject

Uexkull (2010) points out, "... the subject controls the time of its environment ... 'Without a living subject, there can be no time'" (p. 52). In the same context, he observes further: "the same is true of space" (p. 52). This understanding can be traced back to Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. As Kant (1998) puts it:

   ... if we remove our own subject or even only the
   subjective constitution of the senses in general, then
   all constitution, all relations of objects in space and
   time, indeed space and time themselves would
   disappear, and as appearances they cannot exist in
   themselves, but only in us. (p. 185)

The above understanding is very phenomenological. To be fully media ecological, however, we need to add another line: media reshape the subject, and thereby reshape the subject's sense of time and space.

Edward T. Hall on Evolution and Extension

In The Dance of Life, Edward T. Hall echoes McLuhan's point that human evolution has become technological. As Hall (1984) puts it, "To speed up evolution and achieve flexibility in meeting environmental challenges, humankind began to evolve its extensions" (p. 130).

In the same context, Hall also echoes McLuhan's point that humans are the etymology of technologies. In Hall's words, extensions ... are rooted in specific biological and physiological functions. They originate in us! Properly read, one can tell an incredible amount about human beings by studying their extensions" (1984, p. 130). As extensions of humans, technologies are rooted in humans' extendibility. In the last analysis, the ultimate formal cause of each human technology is necessarily a human capacity or extendibility. Computers, for example, are an extension of a fairly limited portion of what the human brain is capable of doing. The "electronic brain" ("[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII])," which is what the computer is called in Chinese) is nothing like the human brain in its versatility. As Hall (1984) puts it, ". computers [extend] the memory and some of the arithmetic parts of the central nervous system ..." (p. 130). Hall quickly points out that the extensions of humans may well become a source of anxiety because they exert existential pressures upon humans. He uses the clock as an example: "... it is the tension between the internal clocks and the clock on the wall that causes so much of the stress in today's world" (p. 131). We easily become the dog wagged by the tail.

Assemblage Orientation

A striking similarity can be seen between the notion of symbiosis (say, between the wasp and the orchid) shared by Jokob von Uexkull and Gilles Deleuze on the one hand and this McLuhan formulation on the other hand: "Man becomes, as it were, the sex organs of the machine world, as the bee of the plant world, enabling it to fecundate and to evolve ever new forms" (McLuhan, 1994, p. 46). The wasp is to the orchid as "man" is to the machine. The logic here is analogous to Samuel Butler's logic: "A hen is only an egg's way of making another egg"--a line McLuhan is fond of quoting. Paul Virilio (2006) applies the same logic to men and women: "Paraphrasing Samuel Butler, we could say that the female is the means the male has found to reproduce himself, in other words to come into the world' (p. 173).

To couch it in Deleuzian terms, humans are elements of machinic assemblages that take us up. McLuhan simply foregrounds the fact that "man" is the reproductive element of machinic assemblages. Once we adopt this assemblage orientation, we will see that machines are not self-sufficient but unfinished. The same can be said about humans. Take this line from McLuhan (1994): " ... the car has become an article of dress without which we feel uncertain, unclad, and incomplete in the urban compound" (emphasis mine) (p. 217). The line, "I don't know how to cross the street without my purse," indicates to what extent the purse has become an integral part of the typical urban woman's being.

Both machines and humans are elements of some assemblage. What's special about humans is that we have more affinity and versatility, which is to say we are capable of being taken up by all kinds of assemblages.

But I think McLuhan means something different when he talks about "man's sex relation to the motorcar" in the same context--an idea somewhat echoed by Virilio's notion of man's sex relation to the horse. Metaphorically and psychologically, a car is a man's "mechanical bride" (this is the subtitle of McLuhan's chapter on the motorcar in Understanding Media). This is an implicit metaphor that in-forms many people's attitudes in a subconscious way.

The cowboy assemblage creates a cowboy affect and social posture. In like fashion, the hummer assemblage creates a hummer affect and social posture.

There is a subtle distinction between an assemblage of life experimentation and a drug-assemblage. So Deleuze and Guattari (1987) suggest.

The following passage from Deleuze's (1988) book on Foucault embodies an assemblage orientation.

   ... the machines are social before being technical.
   Or, rather, there is a human technology which
   exists before a material technology. No doubt the
   latter develops its effects within the whole social
   field; but in order for it to be even possible, the
   tools or material machines have to be chosen first
   of all by a diagram and taken up by assemblages.
   Historians have often been confronted by this
   requirement: the so-called hoplite armies are part of
   the phalanx assemblage; the stirrup is selected by
   the diagram of feudalism; the burrowing stick, the
   hoe and the plough do not form a linear progression
   but refer respectively to collective machines which
   vary with the density of the population and the time
   of the fallow. (pp. 39-40)

It is obvious that what Deleuze means by "assemblage" parallels what McLuhan means by "medium."


Virilio (2011) has a nice passage on Gestalt:

   The definition of the Gestalt is the environment
   itself. ... To explain, there's no text without a
   context and the whole is more than the sum of its
   parts ... when you take a lift with plain walls and
   you look at the wall, you can't help looking
   upwards if the lift is going down. It's as though
   there were a piece of elastic between the wall and
   the eyes of the person looking. Try it! That's
   Gestalt: when something passes in front of you.
   you can't help but be sucked in by the movement of
   that thing. Once again, it's another 'aesthetics of
   disappearance'. (pp. 77-78)

There is a natural affinity between media ecology and Gestalt Theory since media ecologists think of each medium as an environment, or a Gestalt, which is disrupted when a new medium comes to the scene.

Virilio's point above can be couched in terms of an assemblage: the walls, the person, and the lift form a single assemblage, which tends to conserve itself. This tendency manifests itself most clearly when the assemblage is being disrupted, that is to say, when the lift starts to go down.

Humans belong to all kinds of assemblages or Gestalts--material (including technological), symbolic, social, or a mixture of all of them. A fraternity, for example, is an assemblage with all three dimensions. We tend to pay more attention to its symbolic and social dimensions. Like all assemblages, a fraternity has the tendency to maintain its homeostasis. A lot of symbolic work is needed at the moment when its original social texture is being ruptured, as when new members are taken in (which can be a source of irritation) or when veterans quit (to leave behind a big hole). Almost all cultures make a big fuss about weddings because that's the moment when the textures of two families or clans (i.e., two assemblages) are ripped while a new assemblage is composed into being. People resort to the magic power of symbols and rituals to rearticulate the social texture, to seal the newly formed bond, and to patch up those spots where there have been ruptures.

The Merriment Machine

To ride a merry-go-around ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], literally "wooden horses that make circles") is to be taken up by a merriment-producing machinic assemblage. The most idiosyncratic merry-go-around I've ever seen has real ponies as elements of the assemblage. For the Chinese person, there is something tropological about the idea. It creates a hilarious effect precisely through literalization (the employment of real horses where artificial ones are expected). Little kids get the humor immediately. The merriment is thus doubled.

The workings of the merry-go-around can be explained with the language of Gestalt. As the carousel goes round and round, the Gestalt formed by the rider and the standstill background is constantly disrupted. "Ilinx" (Roger Caillois's category, meaning vertigo or giddiness) is the name of the game. The rider (typically a kid) also experiences a periodic mode switching between presence of mom and absence of mom (who's off the machine but close by), between anxiety and alleviation of anxiety. Mode switching is partly what people pay for.

Still Life, Anti-Form

McLuhan (1994) points out: "The painter learns how to adjust relations among things to release new perception." (p. 148). In the same vein, Virilio (2011) points out:

   As I saw it, still life wasn't an exercise on objects
   and the way they're laid out within the space of the
   canvas but an exercise on the space between
   objects. The whole of my work would, in fact, be
   directed towards anti-form, to the gap between the
   objects, as I say in the introduction to Negative
   Horizon. (p. 69)

The way Virilio talks about still life and anti-form indicates that he has an interological sensibility. What's in-between objects is more interesting than the objects themselves. Better still, there are no self-standing objects but only elements of this or that assemblage. Each object, each being, is definable only by its interalities, by the assemblages that take it up.

Being is interbeing. Objects inhabit each other's field of vital energy ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) acoustically.


If the message of Cubism is all-at-onceness, then what is the message of Surrealism? Virilio (2012) points out:

   Surrealism comes from war, from Apollinaire's
   "Oh God! what a lovely war." The madness of war
   and fear fed Surrealism, which is an excess of
   reality. The Surrealists wanted to highlight the
   acceleration of reality, the movement beyond
   common reality through speed. But we have turned
   the Surrealist's alarm into an ideal, which is a
   tragedy. (p. 90)

That is to say, for Virilio the dromologist (dromology is the study of speed, its psychic, social consequences, and its impact upon the human condition), the message of Surrealism is speed, or speeding up.

McLuhan (1994) suggests that the newspaper as a medium is the formal cause of surrealism (p. 216). We can get a hint as to where McLuhan is going by musing on a textual fragment from Burke (1945): "any Surrealist's assemblage of forms from different orders of experience" (p. 429). That's exactly what a typical newspaper page feels like--"a whole jumble of disjunct imagery," to use another phrase from Burke (1945, p. 429). We can get a sense of the flavor of this artistic movement from a passage written by Karl Ruhrberg (2002):

   With de Chirico, classical scenes were transformed
   into nightmarish visions. Surrealism raised this sort
   of visualization of the unharmonious, dissonant side
   of human existence to the status of a program.
   Their inclusion in literature and visual art of the
   irrational, paradoxical, and absurd had been
   prepared for by the Dadaist revolt. The
   Surrealists ... set out to bring system into anarchy.
   (p. 137)

This understanding is compatible with Virilio's take.

Media Ecology is General Semantics Writ Large

Semantics is to General Semantics as content is to medium. Semantics studies meaning (content) from within language. General Semantics problematizes language itself (the medium). "The medium is the message" captures the spirit of General Semantics and media ecology alike. The difference is that General Semantics studies one medium, which is language, whereas media ecology studies all of the media and their interplay within an ecology, as the name suggests.

Like Chuang Tzu, Korzybski is more concerned with the inadequacy of language. Hayakawa, the disciple, has a somewhat narrower concern, which is the semantic environment (this indicates a meaning orientation, the overall concern being the milieu/medium created by meaning). In contrast, McLuhan has a much more robust medium orientation when it comes to the study of language: the concern is with the phonetic alphabet, hieroglyphics, orality, literacy, and the like.

The distinction becomes obvious in how symbolism is comprehended. Hayakawa's question is "What does the symbol symbolize?" This, again, betrays a meaning orientation. McLuhan's emphasis remains on the medium itself: what's interesting about the medium is that the visual connections are pulled out (i.e., abstracted). This emphasis allows him to come up with a flash of insight: "Symbolism is a kind of witty jazz." (McLuhan, 1962, p. 267). This style of exploration enables him to perceive parallels among apparently disparate realms: there is "abstraction" in the newspaper page (no connections among the articles other than the dateline), the mosaic-like TV image, jazz, and Symbolist art and literature, all of which mark a paradigm shift from the visual to the acoustic and inclusive. This shift entails a new mode of doing politics in the global theater. As such, "democracy the acoustic way" sounds like a matter of course. McLuhan's mode of inquiry is acoustic, to state the obvious. Hence the elegance and effortlessness with which he leaps from one dimension of human existence to another. The shift from the visual to the acoustic mode of operation is enabling. Deleuze shares the sensibility. His mode of operation is best characterized as nomadism.

Instant Replay

Instant replay allows for re-cognition. It enables and necessitates the use of the desired effect to work on the causes. Its relevance goes well beyond the sports arena. Jon Stewart uses the technology to make politicians look bad. Speakers tape themselves to polish their performance. Ballerinas rely on big mirrors for the same purpose. TV studios without exception are equipped with monitors.

The downside is that nowadays information is spoon-fed to us. We get the image and the meaning minus the actual experience. In "The Loss of the Creature," Walker Percy (1954) bemoans that meaning minus experience turns us into mere consumers of information, and that foreknowledge of things and places is a sure way of preventing us from having real encounters with them. In our digital environment, life is bogged down by the proliferation of instant replay.


A medium is rendered obsolete once it becomes the content of another medium. The proliferation of books in the form of the content of the Internet is a sign of the obsolescence of books. Books are no longer the dominant medium, or the environment that shapes people's tastes.

Deleuze and Guattari (1987) point out: "In a sense, everything we attribute to an age was already present in the preceding age (p. 346). The point is that discernibility comes with obsolescence. This is another way of saying that "we" tend to be rear-viewing.

The proliferation of videos nowadays is a sure sign of the obsolescence of filmmaking, which means, paradoxically, that filmmaking will diverge and come back as an art.

Virilio (2010) points out: "The REVOLUTIONARY of bygone days is now about to be eliminated by the revelationary forecaster, the REVEALER of postmodern times" (p. 6). To eliminate is to render obsolete.

In a different context, Virilio indicates that the genetic bomb (he refers to genetic engineering as a bomb which is as threatening as the atomic bomb) will render obsolete "the unity of the human species" (Virilio & Lotringer, 2002, p. 108). He further points out: "I believe that we are leaving biology behind to enter the realm of teratology, that is, the creation of monsters" (p. 117).


Put in a nutshell, retrieval means: "what is old becomes new again." On the other hand, what comes back always comes back with a new face.

The medium (milieu) of the binary number system which we now inhabit via computers and other digital technologies is supposedly retrieved by Leibniz from I Ching, the immemorial Chinese classic also known as The Book of Changes.

Heidegger retrieves the Pre-Socratics to deal with positivist tendencies in his time. He sees in Plato and Aristotle a residual understanding of logos as generative, life-giving, as calling the world into being, rather than merely referential. When he promotes primordial appropriations, he precisely has this sense of logos in mind. He sees this mode of languaging in Holderlin, the poet. Jia Pingwa ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), the Chinese essayist and novelist, also seems to be languaging in this mode, as shown by this line of his: "[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]" (spring has sprouted; bees are swarming into a lump).


The kind of reversal McLuhan talks about can be found in Tao Te Ching: "The greatest straightness seems bent, the greatest skill seems awkward, the greatest speech, like a stammering"[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) (Watts, 2002, p. 157). There is a minute difference here, though, since this line is all about "seeming to be." Deleuze is one who makes a big deal out of stammering and stuttering, which he associates with the invention of a foreign language within language.

Here's William Blake on reversal: "The fool who persists in his folly will become wise" (Watts, 1966, p. 98).

Typically we think of technologies as extensions of human beings. The relationship can be reversed, though. In a conversation with Paul Virilio, Sylvere Lotringer points out: "with the human genome it is the entire body that is becoming a prosthetics of technology" (Virilio & Lotringer, 2002, p. 96). He is sounding an alarm.


Standardization being the zeitgeist, the age of mechanical reproduction produces subjects that conform to models. Similarity intensifies competition. The postliterate era is an era of fractalization and diversification and therefore tempers narrowly conceived competition. Virilio (2000) predicts total competition in an age of total information or total exposure but he seems to have ignored the role played by diversification.


Titanic the ship is supposedly the sublime object of techno-fetishism. The movie Titanic is arguably an elegy (if not a eulogy) for the mechanical age. The romance is just the burglar's meat that keeps the housedog of the mind distracted so the movie can do its job without the viewer's conscious opposition (in the same way the content of violence in the movie Inception is merely formal whereas the form of the movie is the real substance).

The mechanical age is an age that idolatrizes rationality and maintains a strict social hierarchy. Jack the male protagonist was obviously a disruptive force. He got his ticket for the voyage by gambling and cheating. He disregarded his proper station in life. Everything he did (especially his love with Rose, his social superior) was ir-ratio-nal, that is to say, disruptive of the sense of proportion the mechanical age rests on. For the mechanical age, for the social microcosm performatively realized on the ship, he was trouble, dirt, or matter out of place pure and simple. As such, he would have to pay a price (the price of death) for his ways.

That the captain was stubbornly confident should come off as no surprise. Speed is glaucomatous. One wedded to the idea of linear progression necessarily lacks peripheral vision or ground awareness or simply wisdom. In this sense, the ship's ruin was more or less predestined.

The drama unfolded between the two forces of rationalism and nomadism, between technophilic tragedy and boundary-crossing romance.

The elegiac quality of the movie became unmistakable when the ship was beginning to sink. The fiddlers played their classic music with a remarkable sense of detachment from the impending disaster. Women and children were guided onto lifeboats one at a time. For the most part orders were followed and orderliness was maintained except for an unscrupulous businessman, proving yet again the point made by Deleuze and Guattari (2009) that "Capitalism is profoundly illiterate" (p. 240).


Violence in the movie is a matter of giving the audience what they want. (The kung fu sequences in The Matrix work the same way.) The easily missed "real" message is weightlessness, sleepwalking, inertia, and paralysis. Like Poe's purloined letter, this message is too obvious to be noticed. As the culture's "dream material," the movie addresses our collective anxiety over the human condition in the digital age. The dream motif in the movie is a timely, pungent one, too. Aren't people migrating from dream to dream in real life, unable to tell the difference between the real and fantasy? Didn't Chuang Tzu anticipate this confusion thousands of years ago (he wasn't able to tell whether he was Chuang Chou dreaming of a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming of Chuang Chou)? Instead of waiting for Godot, we all are awaiting "the kick."

Ballet Music, Swan Lake, Decodification

Music played at a ballet school seems to be filled with intentions. Each rest dictates a freeze in the ballerina's posture.

A taken-for-granted aspect of ballet music is that it does not exceed the human scale. The human body can match the beat of the music with its rhythmic movements.

Tchaikovsky's music induces the swan becoming of the ballerinas. When a bevy of ballerinas line up and enter into an assemblage with the music, they also become ego-less and uncoded, in the same way a Go piece is uncoded. One doesn't watch Swan Lake to see Ashley or Evelyn. One is there to see one or several swans. There might be a storyline but what really counts is the graceful, weightless form.

Swan Lake foregrounds the assemblage, or the constellation, not the star.

A good ballerina is one who has achieved wuxin (i.e., no mind), who relies on visceral memory, who assumes a sequence of postures at the suggestion of the music almost subconsciously. Discipline taken to an extreme reverses into gracefulness. Only then do we say the ballerina has developed a feel for the music, and the dance. All boils down to an embodied disposition.

In the last analysis, uncodedness or decodification is a mode of being, or a mode of interbeing, which can be reached in basketball as well. The difference between Kobe Bryant and the Detroit Pistons is that Kobe has an Ego whatever team he's on whereas the Pistons always seem to be forming configurations out of uncoded players--at least they come off that way. In a configuration-oriented team, the individual player's meaning is almost entirely a matter of his relative position vis-a-vis his teammates in the moment.

Hot and Cool

Visual and acoustic, hot and cool--these are root metaphors in McLuhan's work. Visual is to acoustic as hot is to cool. The movement of Western cultures from orality to literacy and then to postliteracy can be understood as a shift from acoustic to visual and then to the neo-acoustic, or a shift from cool to hot and then to the neo-cool.

Enthymeme is cool; syllogism is hot. The former relies on completion by the audience; the latter is selfcontained and self-sufficient.

A man who lived upstairs had the habit of throwing his shoes on the floor when going to bed, so the story goes. It got on the nerves of his neighbor downstairs, who finally complained. This night, going to bed like normal, the man upstairs suddenly remembered the complaint after throwing down the first shoe. Acting nice, he put the second shoe down gently. The man downstairs stayed awake all night waiting for the fall of the second shoe--the "coolest" thing in the entire world. Had he known it, the man upstairs could have acted even nicer by picking up a shoe and throwing it down on purpose so the poor man downstairs wouldn't have to deal with the suspense.

One could take account of this story through the lens of Burke's notion of the psychology of form (1964). Good form is cool because it manipulates the audience's psychology. In contrast, mere information is hot because it does not involve the audience as much. It is true that the second shoe not dropping turned a nuisance into a torment. Yet how much more intensified would be the gratification of the poor man downstairs if, after waiting forever, the second shoe did drop!

A cool speaker speaks softly, which forces the audience to listen attentively. Paul Fussell sees an inverse correlation between a person's habitual volume of speaking and his or her social class. This is a point dramatized by Luis Bunuel's 1972 movie, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.

Hot and cool apply to gardens, too. By traditional Chinese standards, a good garden is a cool garden. As the proverb has it, "A private garden should have a section of rustic wilderness; if it merely dazzles by its sumptuousness, the vulgarity of it suffocates one's breath" (Lin, 1942, p. 1094).

The kind of total cinema Andre Bazin speaks of is hot. Sergei Eisenstein's montage is cool.

McCarthyism is hot. Democracy is noisy, messy, inefficient, and cool.

Fascism is hot. Bohemianism is cool.

Goose-stepping is hot. Dancing is cool.

Money-based economies are hot. Gift and barter economies are cool.

Cars are hot. Horses are cool.

Motorboats are hot. Sailboats are cool. To operate a motorboat is to dominate nature. To operate a sailboat is to be one with nature.

Apple Is Not Cool

We live in an "Apple, Inc." era.

People tend to think Apple is cool for a few reasons: Apple products mostly have a sleek feel to them; the material used is almost transformed into an aesthetic medium; Apple has cool ads; Apple products seem to be less susceptible to harassment by viruses; Apple products are user-friendly; the anti-PC feel of Apple products makes users feel special about themselves--therein lies the snob value of Apple; the logo of Apple is an incomplete apple, which solicits people's participation.

Apple is cool only for the unmitigated consumer. Apple also calls into being such consumers.

For one who wants to do idiosyncratic things on the computer, Apple is very restrictive. It does not give the user as much liberty as a PC does. Put differently, Apple makes geeks feel crippled. It does not allow for "deep play." In this sense, Apple is "hot." Apple's hotness also lies in the inhibitive prices of its products. Furthermore, Apple's applications are very exclusive - they are not for non-Apple gadgets, and vice versa. It should be fair to say that Apple's business model is monopolistic.


Science is what science does. More precisely, science is how science is done. The chief problem lies not so much in what it abstracts from the "ground" (i.e., the total situation) but in what it leaves out. The factors left out often turn out to be more deadly. The supposition we hear often, "other things being equal," is untenable. When seasoned actuaries from different organizations come together to appraise the embedded value of a life insurer's in-force business, they almost invariably start with each other's working assumptions, i.e., what is taken for granted.

The one "science" I can think of that has a ground orientation is anthropology. Whatever it is that they closely examine, good anthropologists always ask the question: what about all of the rest?

In Crepuscular Dawn, Virilio suggests that science enhances reason, obsolesces myths, and, pushed to an extreme, reverses into myths, unreason, and magic (Virilio & Lotringer, 2002).

Levi-Strauss, Jung, I Ching, Cybernetics

Claude Levi-Strauss was around for a hundred and one years. There are a lot of media ecological insights in a short chapter from his book, Myth and Meaning. The title of the chapter is noteworthy: "'Primitive' Thinking and the 'Civilized' Mind" (Levi-Strauss, 1979, pp. 15-24).

Levi-Strauss's (1979) definition of "primitive" is a mediumistic one: "primitive" simply means "without writing." For him, "this is really the discriminatory factor between them and us" (p. 15). It is notable that he doesn't say, "without an alphabetic writing system." This understanding is foregrounded and furthered by Paul Grosswiler (2004) in the article, "Dispelling the Alphabet Effect," in which he puts forward the notion of a writing effect to displace the ethnocentric-sounding "alphabet effect" (pp. 145-158).

Levi-Strauss (1979) suggests that primitive thinking is holistic and economical since "its aim is to reach by the shortest possible means a general understanding of the universe - and not only a general but a total understanding" whereas scientific thinking (which he associates with writing) is analytic and fragmentary since it proceeds "step by step, trying to give explanations for very limited phenomena, and then going on to other kinds of phenomena" (p. 17). Put otherwise, primitive thinking is aware of the total ground all of the time whereas, by definition, scientific thinking treats of figures in isolation from the encompassing ground. The two modes of thinking translate into two attitudes toward the world, the one non-exploitative since it emphasizes interdependence, the other exploitative. The downside of primitive thinking is that "the savage regards everything as being related to everything, which is a formula for paranoia," as McLuhan (2003) points out in a context where he cites Levi-Strauss's book, The Savage Mind (p. 222). Divination based on hexagrams is an example of primitive thinking. I Ching itself oscillates between or bridges the primitive and the civilized, since it's a book (i.e., a civilized artifact) about preverbal (i.e., primitive) signs. Carl Jung uses "synchronicity" to take account of the rationale behind such divination. As Jung (1977) explains:

   ... synchronicity takes the coincidence of events in
   space and time as meaning something more than
   mere chance, namely, a peculiar interdependence of
   objective events among themselves as well as with
   the subjective (psychic) states of the observer or
   observers. (p. xxiv)

While basing one's read of an immediate situation at a particular moment on the tossing of a single coin is definitely a bit too simplistic, the pattern (i.e., the hexagram) formed by tossing three coins for six times may bear some isomorphism with the immediate situation and the psychic state of him or her who confronts the situation since all three are of the same total situation--one only needs to know how to do the interpretation, so the principle of synchronicity suggests. I Ching offers a way of doing the interpretation. The consciousness behind the principle of synchronicity is cosmic. In the same context, Jung suggests some similarity between the mode of thinking behind I Ching and the mode of thinking characteristic of modern physics, as if the latter is a retrieval of the former. As Jung (1977) puts it:

   The ancient Chinese mind contemplates the cosmos
   in a way comparable to that of the modern
   physicist, who cannot deny that his model of the
   world is a decidedly psychophysical structure. The
   microphysical event includes the observer just as
   much as the reality underlying the I Ching
   comprises subjective, i.e., psychic conditions in the
   totality of the momentary situation. (p. xxiv)

If I hear him correctly, Jung is suggesting that unlike Newtonian physics, modern physics is selfreflexive and self-conscious. Science eventually retrieves what it initially dismisses as irrelevant, so it seems.

Levi-Strauss (1979) observes: "... as scientific thinkers we use a very limited amount of our mental power" (p. 18). The way he elaborates on this idea indicates he has specialism in mind when he says it. This idea is compatible with McLuhan's point that alphabetic literacy leads to a left-hemisphere dominance. Levi-Strauss (1979) further points out: we use considerably less of our sensory perceptions" (p. 18). Perhaps with the exception of artists and little kids. For one thing, we cannot see the planet Venus in full daylight. Nor can we navigate in the open sea by relying on what James C. Scott (1998) calls metis. LeviStrauss's point definitely holds true in the field of medicine - doctors in left-hemisphere cultures rely heavily on equipment rather than direct sensory perceptions for diagnosis. There's no sign of this trend reversing itself. Indeed, we pay a huge price for being civilized. Another example: when china was made in pre-modern China, experienced workers could tell whether the temperature was right simply by looking at the flames in the kiln. The error was minimal. Sensory perceptions continue to play a significant role in the way traditional Chinese medicine is practiced today.

Levi-Strauss (1979) points out, "... it is only under conditions of under-communication that [a culture] can produce anything" (p. 20). This is a timely message for us today, who tend to be bogged down by overcommunication. We need to practice what Chuang Tzu calls the fasting of the mind ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]).

After explaining to us that the skate myth from western Canada and cybernetics both contain a binary logic (the skate is a binary operator--it is very large seen from above or below, and extremely thin when seen from the side), Levi-Strauss (1979) makes the point that "there is really not a kind of divorce between mythology and science" (pp. 22-23). The skate myth was first obsolesced or dismissed as irrelevant by science, only to be retrieved again by a new species of science, i.e., cybernetics. Science seems to have reversed itself over time. A succinct media ecological account of these paradigm shifts can be found in McLuhan (2003): ". cybernation has much in common with the acoustic world and very little in common with the visual world" (p. 47).

To put it in tetradic terms, cybernetics enhances feedback and control, obsolesces linear thinking, retrieves mythical thinking and binary logic (as contained in the skate myth and the immemorial I Ching), and, taken to an extreme, reverses into hypersurveillance.

Concluding Remarks

Probing is the modus operandi of McLuhanesque explorations. Whether McLuhan is in favor of literacy or postliteracy is a superfluous question--the telling fact is that he writes in a postliterate mode. The language he uses is precisely what Dr. Eric McLuhan calls "electric language." The ethos is in the style. Like McLuhan's corpus, this article is visually discontinuous but acoustically coherent. The whole is immanent in each part as much as each part is immanent in the whole. The recurring motif is the distinction between the eye mode and the ear mode - the same distinction that runs through McLuhan's entire corpus. The other main idea is the notion of a medium as an assemblage. The article is as much about performing media ecology as it is about contributing some fresh ideas.

We live in an age of busyness. "Homo distractus" has become a fitting label for many of us, as William Powers indicates in his book, Hamlet's Blackberry. Powers suggests that, although or precisely because a multitude of ideas rushes through our consciousness each day, at the end of the day, we should pick and focus on just one that matters, and give it the kind of organic time it deserves. Essentially, he is asking us to practice meditation, or the fasting of the mind, so we can save ourselves from the maddening crowd mode, from the tyranny of the digital vortex, and reclaim some sacred time. This article has come to fruition as a result of such meditations.

While McLuhan's writing may leave the impression of being a forerunner of the kind of rhizomatic interconnections the Internet feeds us today, there is nevertheless a difference in kind between the two. McLuhan has done extensive reading. He earned the capacity to make a whole assemblage of flash references on any given topic only after the struggle. The typical webpage juggler today encounters a sea of ideas in something like a video game mode, without having developed an intimate familiarity with the contexts within which those ideas are organically embedded, let alone an intimate familiarity with a few great authors' entire corpuses. Jumpy as this article may appear from section to section, it has resulted from a process of slow cooking, a patient process through which the author allows the media ecological sensibility to sink in and then reemerge in a new guise, one idea at a time.


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Peter Zhang

Grand Valley State University, USA

Correspondence to:

Dr. Peter Zhang

School of Communications Grand Valley State University Allendale, MI 49301

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Author:Zhang, Peter
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Date:Jul 1, 2014
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