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Poetics is not a subject but a function.


"Not a subject but a function" means that the essential nature of poetics is the process of making. The etymology is the Greek verb, poiein, to make, create, produce. A poem is a thing made. Technologies are poems; poems are all technologies for dissecting sensibility equally as for laying bare the structure of cultures. A poem is a vivisection of the mind and senses in action. Poems, regardless of their subject matter, put on display a new bias in the imagination of a culture and can serve as a corrective to that bias. Such has been their principal function in the West since the mid-19th century, in the hands, for example, of the French Symbolists (Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Mallarme) or the English "Moderns" (Eliot, Pound, Lewis, Yeats, Joyce).

The question of how technologies emanate from the human body probes at the etymology of our inventions and in the process reveals that there is no essential difference between hardware technologies and software ones (ideas, laws of science, theories, literature, music, etc.--in short, all of the arts and the sciences).

This dialogue does not represent anything; it explores and stimulates new ideas. It is an exercise in poetics and probing.

The Four Postures

EM: The Human Equation approaches the question of communication and technologies from the vantage point of the body. The subtitle of Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man became our point of departure: how does the body extend itself into technologies?

PZ: Where's the notion of "extension" originally from? Did Marshall McLuhan read Andre LeroiGourhan? Gilles Deleuze (in Anti-Oedipus) and Paul Virilio (in Open Sky) both cite him. His voice is definitely a media ecological one. You may find this line interesting: "In the view of Leroi-Gourhan for one, tools and instruments of any kind were supposed to extend man's organs, as with the fist improved by the hammer, the hand by pliers or tongs, and so on" (Virilio, 1997, p. 111). The curious thing is that this line is from Virilio, who is fairly familiar with McLuhan's work but does not attribute the notion of extension to McLuhan.

EM: The idea of extension came out of New England. It was Ralph Waldo Emerson (New England Transcendentalist) who observed that the human body is the magazine (storehouse) of all innovations.

Dad certainly never read--or even heard about--Leroi-Gourhan. Neither have I. Note that my Human Equation series explicitly examines the four processes of human extension. It, and Laws of Media, relate them to speech: our big discovery was that all human artifacts, without exception, are essentially verbal, that they have the same structure as words.

PZ: The Human Equation starts with four basic bodily postures: standing, lying, sitting, and kneeling. I believe you'll like this: "In Buddhism the four principal activities of man-walking, standing, sitting, and lying - are called the four 'dignities', since they are the postures assumed by the Buddha nature in its human (nirmanakaya) body" (Watts, 1957, p. 158). The Chinese for the four dignities is "[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]" (the wording is wonderful) and the Chinese for walking, standing, sitting, and lying is "[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]"

There is no mention of kneeling here. Thoughts?

EM: Amazing! I hardly know how to respond. What a find! Delighted, of course; independent confirmation is always welcome (even if partial). Where did you find this observation? Is it a commonplace, something everybody knows? Thank you very much for the lead.

Curious about kneeling, though, as you note. I wonder if they conflate kneeling and standing. Or perhaps kneeling features somewhere else in their reckoning. This question will certainly deserve further looking into.

Elias Canetti has some revealing things to say about the significance of the postures in Crowds and Power, but I do not recall any comment there on Buddhism. I have not myself read much about Buddhism, I regret to admit.

PZ: The quote is taken from Alan Watts's book, The Way of Zen. Perhaps what postures to designate as THE postures is culture-specific.

The four "dignities" have a ritualistic, ascetic dimension to them. The typical Zen monk practices Zen by assuming one of the four postures. According to the movie, The Shaolin Temple (1982), a monk is supposed to stand like a pine tree, sit like a bell, sleep like a bow, and walk like wind ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. He is supposed to lie on his side, not on his back. Naturally this sleeping posture is also adopted by the layperson. Here's the media ecological moment: there's such a thing called the bamboo wife ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), which is used between the legs to keep the sleeper cool in summer-an extension of man based on this bow-like sleeping posture, the posture being the formal cause of the bamboo wife. I believe the "bamboo wife" has been used by females as well. The name is simply a symptom of the male-centeredness of premodern China.

In another book of his entitled Play to Live, Watts (1982) mentions a form of sexual yoga, which is practiced in a sitting position (p. 55). In yoga, the human posture is pluralized. The point is to catalyze becoming. The same happens in martial arts. The martial artist can play being a golden rooster standing on one foot ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), or a white crane displaying its wings ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). The Kinsey Institute houses a rare book in traditional Chinese which shows many sexual positions. How are we to take account of all of these postures? I bring these up to pose the question: are there technologies based on these other postures of the human body? For example, isn't the treadmill based on the walking posture? In this sense, The Human Equation is supposed to be heuristic rather than exhaustive. On the other hand, don't machines force humans to assume uncomfortable, inhuman postures as well? Aren't humans imagined and used as cogs in machines or machinic assemblages, too? Should we call this alienation?

I continue to think that media ecology is an interology that studies the interality between humans and human artifacts. In studying this interality, we should go beyond anthropocentric thinking to get a better sense of the human condition. It was McLuhan who, following Sam Butler's logic, made the point that humans are the reproductive system of machines, which is to say: humans are machines' way of making more machines.

EM: That recalls the old quip about the conundrum, which came first, the chicken or the egg? Answer: The chicken was the egg's idea for getting more eggs.

Of Mount and Man

PZ: In The One Taste of Truth, William Scott Wilson (2012) cites an intriguing passage from The Demon's Sermon on the Martial Arts (by Issai Chozanshi):

   Haven't you seen a man riding on a horse? The man
   who rides well runs the horse to the east and west,
   but his mind is tranquil and his unhurried body is
   unmoving and at peace. Seen from the side, the
   horse and the man seem to be firmly fastened
   together. And if he simply restrains the horse's
   errors, he will be doing nothing contrary to the
   horse's nature. Thus, though the man is mounted on
   the saddle and is master of the horse, the horse is
   not troubled by this, and moves with its own
   understanding. The horse forgets the man, the man
   forgets the horse, and their spirits are one and do
   not go in different ways. You could say that there is
   no man in the saddle, and no horse under it. (p. 90)

Wilson (2012) comments: "No one is riding, nothing is being ridden. I and the other are one body. When the tea bowl or sword is held in this way, there will be No-Thing in one's hand" (p. 90).

A few things come to mind.

Edward T. Hall would take account of this mode of horse riding in terms of rhythm, or synchrony. These terms apply to the man-carrying-pole-water-buckets assemblage, and the man-sword assemblage as well.

Marshall McLuhan would call the well-adjusted rider a servomechanism.

EM: Dad got the servomechanism idea from Wyndham Lewis, the painter and writer. Lewis put it roughly thus: the man who is perfectly attuned to the demands of his environment, the well-adjusted man, is a robot.

PZ: The student of media ecology would foreground the stirrup and the centaur myth, if not the saddle.

Virilio (1999) would talk about mount as woman, and woman as mount. He would emphasize that the proximity between mount and man is a metabolic one, not a mechanical one (p. 40).

Besides talking about the social machine, which takes up both mount and man, Deleuze would use this example to challenge the subject-object dichotomy.

The General Semanticist would use this example to render visible and question the ideology of transitivity embedded in our syntax. So would Richard Mitchell, the underground grammarian who authored A Bunch of Marks. So would the Zen master, who believes in wu-wei ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) and wu-wo ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], ego-loss), and for whom man and horse are one. In the same vein, the Zen-minded swordsman wields No-Thing. He is one with the sword.

Poetics on the Warpath

PZ: Is the following right-minded? I'm alluding to your essay with William Kuhns entitled "Poetics on the Warpath" (McLuhan & Kuhns, 2003, pp. 403-424).

McLuhan's "poetics on the warpath" is the equivalent of montage, which is an art form proper to war. This art form diverges from the linear narrative and "works in short sequences instead because in war one cannot work for a long time" (Virilio, 1999, p. 29).

EM: That is certainly a novel approach, and an interesting one. It is also miles from what we had in mind--but that does not make your reading wrong, just unexpected. Our thought was putting a poetic device out as an active technique rather than as simply for aesthetic satisfactions. Poetry is not often considered as a mode of attack (disregarding the mere content or ideas IN a poem). We did not think of attention span in this regard!

PZ: "Poetics on the warpath" is a good way to characterize probes. Virilio's mode of writing resembles McLuhan's poetics on the warpath, so Lotringer seems to suggest:

When everything has been said, nothing's left. Your approach, on the contrary, is resolutely telescopic. As soon as you hook something, you let it go, you jump aside instead of saturating the area you had invested. It's a whole politics of writing. It's not an organized discourse of war, even less a discourse on war; it's a discourse at war. Writing in a state of emergency. (Virilio & Lotringer, 2008, p. 52)

EM: Say, rather, we use discourse itself AS war.

That is: discourse as probe, poetic technique used to wake up the somnambulist horde, to induce play in the ossified imaginations, to illuminate hidden configurations of things. Words, more than their meanings, are the heavy artillery. Finnegans Wake is the extreme example: like Buckley's, "It tastes awful ... but it works." An hour of solid labour at the Wake has a toning effect that lasts for days.

PZ: Two hidden metaphors lie behind the idea of probing: fission and fusion. Probing has the potential to release an enormous amount of energy.

Speaking of probes, the "DEW deck of cards" approach resembles the Oblique Strategies created by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt, and divination based on I Ching. The difference is that the DEW deck of cards approach is practical-minded-when one card does not yield much insight, you go for another-whereas divination based on I Ching believes in what Carl Jung calls "synchronicity," or the interfusion of alea and necessity. In the case of the Oblique Strategies cards, the card drawn is trusted even if its appropriateness for a situation is quite unclear.

In the same vein, tribal chiefs in Africa invoke proverbs to judge cases. Folk wisdom works in the same way: people name "recurrent situations" with proverbs which coach specific attitudes toward those situations. Rhetoricians call this approach prudence, the gist of which is a good nose for analogies (Figure 1: Ground 1 = Figure 2: Ground 2) and a sound sense of proportionality. To reason by analogy is to "weigh" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]).

EM: Interesting take on the cards. I can't really comment except to say that we had no outside examples in mind when we composed the deck. Our intent was to introduce an element of play into uptight situations as an approach to finding solutions. The cards are the area "outside the box" that everyone is always hankering for. You deal yourself two or three cards at random, and the exercise involves relating them to your problem no matter how distant it may seem from your topic. Each card is a way of seeing into the matter at hand.

PZ: The phrase "Now ... This" captures Postman's hostility toward TV news, or toward interruptions, gaps, and intervals. I felt McLuhan would disagree. In a sense, Paul Virilio is totally a "Now ... This" type of writer. So is William Burroughs, whose writing in a way offers a foretaste of the Internet culture. What's your sense of this?

EM: A few things annoyed my father. One of them was travel: he found the interruption of his work a constant irritation. On the other hand, the interruption did offer opportunities to work on other things, so occasional benefit resulted. Another thing: in his later years, he was disinclined to spend a lot of time catering to the needs and wishes of earnest or well-meaning inquirers who had not done their homework. He was quite patient with people as a rule, but eventually figured that "life is too short": ... etc. As to TV news and interruptions, no more than the ordinary impatience: the ads were one of the things we studied and wrote about, so they were less of a problem to us.


EM: I have wondered for years about how a Chinese character could be made to pun, and what then would constitute a good pun. Can you enlighten me any?

PZ: There are two kinds of puns in Chinese: homonymy-based puns and meaning-based puns.

Homonymy-based puns involve different characters that sound the same or close to each other. Take this couplet:


The literal meaning of the first line is: The lotus seed ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) is bitter at heart. It can be heard as: pitying one's son ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), one is bitter at heart.

The second line literally means: The pear ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) is sour in the belly. It sounds like: leaving one's son ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), one feels sour in the belly.

Here's a familiar example:


This could be rendered as a pun in English: To wear a skirt in winter-cool (the literal meaning here is: beautiful but freezing; it sounds like: movingly beautiful).

Some puns sound right only in specific dialects. For example:


Here's the English: To slip and fall on a rainy day there's mud on your back (meant to be heard as: deep friendship).

Since the Chinese language is full of homonyms, there are plenty of opportunities for crafting this type of puns.

Meaning-based puns can be illustrated with the following ad for Pacific Insurance:


This ad is a stroke of genius. A literal translation is good enough: One drop of water in normal times, Pacific ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) in hardship.

If literalness is the devil's weapon, then puns coach a sense of humor and celebrate human playfulness. A pun is the equivalent of a "fork" in chess, or a feint in boxing. Its essence lies in the interval or gap between expression and intention ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). The audience is expected to hear "a sound other than the one played on the string" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). As such, puns are a cool mode of languaging.

EM: My original query was really asking about graphic rather than acoustic puns in the Chinese character: any thoughts there?

PZ: Do you have an example of a graphic pun in English?

EM: Graphic puns would cross all languages as they are nonverbal. I have hundreds of them. Take this one:

Rabbit or Duck?

And this one:

PZ: Story has it that Cao Cao ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) once wrote "[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]" (a box of shortbread) to test his underlings' wit. Yang Xiu ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) got it immediately: "[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]" (one bite of shortbread per person).

EM: Of course, a verbal pun (paranomasia) can be heuristic, as it is in the hands of James Joyce, for example. And poets and writers have always used it in their works. Critics, who fear and despise puns as "low" and unrefined, found a way to live with them, if they're useful to the meaning of the passage: they call the puns "richness" and "texture." Here's a little piece I have in an unpublished book on ancient Egyptian art (taken from the first chapter):

      Old Kingdom artists would likely have
   regarded what we call ambiguity as economy of
   statement: two images from one set of lines?
   Marvelous! It is a trait of much primitive art, too,
   that the artist uses one set of curves or shapes to
   convey several related ideas.

      Our literary critics domesticate ambiguity by
   calling it "texture," "richness," "semantic depth."
   They are careful to praise the poet who applies it
   unobtrusively. And all of our best poetry is chock-full
   of double meanings. For example, John Keats
   opens his "Ode on a Grecian Urn" with these lines:
   "Thou still unravished bride of quietness, / Thou
   foster child of silence and slow time." The
   academics strew some "richness" and "texture"
   across our path as early as the second word, "still."
   One meaning comes immediately to mind, "as yet":
   so the sense runs,

      Thou as-yet-unravished bride of quietness,

      Thou foster child of silence and slow time ...

While we are thinking this way, the other meaning ("still" meaning "not moving") lurks in the background. Obviously, the figures painted on the urn are forever fixed in paint. The "bride of quietness" may indeed flee her pursuers but all are frozen there in a compressed instant: they will not eventually catch her and she will never elude them. Keats manages to retain both meanings simply by leaving out some punctuation.

The Egyptian artist manages to convey a double image by leaving out any detail that would freeze his "meaning" to just one view. It is a delicate business: leave out too much and the result is cryptic or disjointed and too easily degenerates into nonsense; leave out too little and the possibilities seize up.

Had Keats inserted a hyphen,

      Thou still-unravished bride of quietness,

      Thou foster child of silence and slow time ...
   he would have eliminated all ambiguity on the spot;
   had he used a comma instead,

      Thou still, unravished bride of quietness,

   Thou foster child of silence and slow time ...
   he would have resolved the matter the other way
   and shed the "unwanted" ambiguity. He opted to
   leave the matter open.

      Much of the poet's and the painter's art lies in
   knowing what to leave out. Keats was not unaware
   of the double meaning: of course he knew it was
   there. Equally, it isn't that the Egyptian didn't
   know how to draw: he knew his technique and
   proportions perfectly well. We have difficulty with
   his images because we approach his drawing with
   our assumptions; we engage them with our eyes,
   and our knowledge. Sometimes, ignorance can be
   an asset.

Photography, Chronophotography, Iconography

PZ: AndreBazin (1967) points out: "Simultaneously a liberation and a fulfillment, [photography] has freed Western painting, once and for all, from its obsession with realism and allowed it to recover its aesthetic autonomy" (p. 16). The invention of photography allowed and forced painting to diverge. A good example would be Impressionism, which "was a critique of photography," according to Virilio (1999, p. 33).

EM: Bazin sounds entirely conventional: not much use to our efforts. His "freed Western painting" remark simply means that the photograph made painting things obsolete.

PZ: Bazin fails to see the other possibility: painting can also inspire divergence in photography. A recent article of mine shows how Oriental painting can inspire photographic artists to diverge into a "cool" photography. I call it "photography in a Zen key."

EM: Hot and Cool describe the extent of the user's sensory engagement in whatever. They are not properties of the technology but rather of the user's responses. That is, they are part of the closure for the experience: they do not describe the technology or artifact. Hot and Cool are not categories or classifications, not absolutes; they are relative. One medium may be "hot," that is, hotter than this or that, or cooler than this or that other medium, or both at the same time. Anyone who makes two columns and tries to sort media into one or another column, as people often do, clearly does not understand the idea. What is hot to one culture/sensibility may well be quite cool to that of a neighbour.

An image does not have to be mathematically precise or correct in order for it to be aesthetically precise or correct. The two are not at all the same. Ancient Egyptian iconography, like that of Picasso or Braque, may be mathematical lunacy while at the same time being aesthetically quite exact.

PZ: Virilio (1989) has an intriguing passage about the Egyptians:

   Animation is produced by what the Egyptians called
   'luminous vitality'-an expression which shows how
   well they had mastered the anatomical problem of
   perception and the production of appearance, not as
   something given but as an active operation of the
   mind ... . In Egypt there was no symmetry but only
   equivalences: walls were walls of images, limestone
   strips painted from top to bottom on which figures
   passed 'in action'. Once more we are very close to
   the definition of chronophotography: 'Successive
   images representing the different positions that a
   living being with a certain gait has occupied in space
   at a given moment.' (p. 46)

The focus here is not so much on images per se as on the relationship between images. Speed and time become relevant here. The vision is neither subjective nor objective but trajective. I guess we are dealing with a harbinger of film here. The difference between animation and film is a matter of how jumpy the gap between two images is. Film is not a continuous medium, to state the obvious.

Another thing that springs to mind is strobe dance, the equivalent of which in writing is Helene Cixous's work, according to Deleuze.

EM: I have an entire book on the topic (working title: The Dance of the Ages: The Art of Old Kingdom Egypt) and can't find a single publisher willing to take it on! Gah!

The big surprise is the discovery that images of this sort-canonical images--are actually moving images, and will perform beautifully if the observer uses the ancient Egyptian sensibility to look at them. Here's a classic example (a line drawing):

This canonical image moves and dances with the best of them--but NOT for Western eyes. Not only that, it will slip into the most amazing form of 3D you ever saw, again with the condition that you use the Egyptian manner of sensing. It is a mosaic of puns, of course. (The chief one: is the figure facing the viewer or facing away from him? There isn't a single detail in the image that would resolve that fundamental pun.)

Westerners have to be taught how to configure their senses when they encounter the Egyptian tricks; it is not easy for them. I cannot help but wonder if the Chinese sensibility would respond any more readily to the demands of this ancient art. People trained in the meditative arts generally conform to them rather quickly, and with only a little introduction: hence, I have had some ready success with persons from India, and Japan.

PZ: Do Westerners tend to dismiss it as an optical illusion?

EM: Nope. Westerners (and everybody else) simply don't see the ambiguities; if for example they notice the business with the hands, they put it down to mistakes (or incompetence).

Here, for example, is a bas-relief (Sixth Dynasty, 2200 BC. Saqqara, the tomb of Mereruka). I use it in Part Two of The Dance of the Ages.

Hands and fingers support the sense that this presents a dorsal view. The hand on the right is evidently the figure's right hand, as indicated by the way the fingers and thumb curl about the scepter. It, in turn, crosses "behind" the body, which makes no sense unless we imagine we are seeing the figure's body from the rear. At the same time, the hair falls over the shoulder in a manner that suggests we are seeing a frontal view. The suggestion is a mild one; although the same hair-fall could occur with a dorsal view, it is somewhat unlikely.

Note that the image appears at first glance to be facing the beholder. On closer examination, you see that the hands are on the wrong arms--but only if you assume that the image faces you. A dorsal view would naturally display the hands as they are here: and that was the point. The Egyptian artists were quite careful and systematic about these things. Hands were put on the "wrong" arms to assist the beholder to see the image dorsally instead of frontally. One of a number of techniques they used for that purpose.

PZ: What's the difference between "canonical" and "iconic"? I see the wording "iconic" often in Marshall McLuhan's books. Take this line: "The flat iconic image gives an integral bounding line or contour that represents not one moment or one aspect of a form, but offers instead an inclusive integral pattern" (McLuhan, 2003, p. 47). Doesn't "iconic" apply to the bas-relief?

EM: Yes! An icon is a very involving image, one that entrains most or all of the senses in apprehension. Iconic images are never particular; they are never images of individuals but rather of types. They are corporate masks. These show no individual features, no scars, or balding, or warts or sunburn or obesity, etc.

Canonical: the canon is a system of rules and aspects. A good reference is Whitney Davis's The Canonical Tradition in Ancient Egyptian Art (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989). That's for the "canonical" idea. I am the first ever to note the intricacies of the art and show how they conduce to movement and to 3D.

Each canonical image is a mosaic or collage of aspects and points of view. Each element of the body is drawn from a separate vantage point, chosen to present its most significant outline. Every part of the image is given at the beholder's eye level, which implies that the beholder, in effect, imaginatively moves about and around the image in the process of apprehending it. The beholder is expected to participate in these matters as much as the artist. Objectivity, the Western custom, would

kill instantly any possibility of seeing the images move or slip into 3D.

PZ: Deleuze's point about nomad art comes to mind. Anyway, is this a harbinger of Cubism. Better still, is Cubism a retrieval of Egyptian art? Is that what you mean by 3D-showing all aspects at once?

EM: Cubism is an attempt to explore the same territory as the Egyptians, without knowing the ancients had been there before them.

Cubism IS a good indication of how closely our sensibilities have moved in the direction of the Egyptian stance. A century ago, I could not have shown anybody (except perhaps, for a crazed artist or two) how to read the images; today, I get most of a crowd to one or another degree of success. Give it another century...

What I meant by their 3D is exactly that, full 3D, but a form of it utterly and surprisingly different from our form of 3D. Ours is static; theirs is in motion. Ours relies on tricks: point of view, foreshortening, vanishing points, chiaroscuro and the rest. Theirs uses NONE of these. The bas-relief image is good enough as an example: with a little training, you can be taught how to LOOK at the thing and see it adopt the 3D form, and you can also turn it around so that you see all sides as you will. The resultant image is (bad analogy) somewhat like a holographic image in that it is transparent, or seemingly so.

With Cubism, what you see is what you get, more or less; with the Egyptian images, what you get is what you make in collaboration with the original artist.

PZ: The vanishing point, by the way, was discovered by Filippo Brunelleschi when he was painting the outlines of various Florentine buildings onto a mirror (which makes a counter-environment of sorts).

Symbolism, Montage, Collage

PZ: The predominant feel of the electric age is discontinuity. We see juxtapositions at every turn. A new artistic sensibility simply emerges from this new environment. In painting we have Cubism. In film, we have montage. In literature we have mysteries, Walter Benjamin's literary montage, and William Burroughs's cut-up method, which is the equivalent of collage in writing-Deleuze (1997) would say the interstices and intervals of language thus formed "are not interruptions of the process but breaks that form part of it" (pp. 225-230). In music we have jazz. In philosophy, we have Nietzsche's aphorisms (Kenneth Burke points out that Nietzsche's writing offers "perspective by incongruity"). Marshall McLuhan's notion of Symbolism belongs here, too. As he puts it:

Symbolism discovered that in order to capture the live drama of speech you have to break up the sentence and break up language. That's what Symbolism means-it comes from the Greek symbaline-to break things into bits and reassemble them into patterns. (Steam, 1967, p. 282)

What you call "poetics on the warpath" or "electric language," Lotringer calls writing in a state of emergency (an example would be Virilio's Speed and Politics-a fast book), which calls to mind the speed at which the Impressionists painted. All has to do with the acceleration of reality to the speed of light. For the first time, abstraction (i.e., pulling out visual connections) is laid bare. For the first time, we see artificiality in the seamless, the linearly connected, and the seemingly transparent.

On the other hand, abstraction is a given in all communication. People are simply accustomed to it and therefore blind to it. As fish do not see water, so we do not see the intrinsic bias of our own language, or the levels of abstraction in the most "true-to-life" words.

William Burroughs

PZ: Burroughs's Naked Lunch can be used as a key to unlock Deleuze's chapter on becoming in A Thousand Plateaus, and vice versa. The two illuminates one another. The title of the chapter is telling: "Becoming-Intense, Becoming-Animal, Becoming-Imperceptible." Burroughs's chapter, "The Black Meat," simply plants the idea of becoming-insect in the reader's mind.

In Burroughs, the "what's it about" side of language becomes only secondary. The message is primarily in his intensive appropriation of the English language.

The meticulous description is its own message-the author simply cannot help it. In the same vein, when Huxley was on mescaline, the most ordinary object starts to quiver with incredible life. This is not to suggest that Van Gogh was on drugs when he painted. As an artist, he got there without drugs-he was in that mode all the time. A line from Deleuze's short article, "Literature and Life," is in order here:

[The writer] possesses irresistible and delicate health that stems from what he has seen and heard of things too big for him, too strong for him, suffocating things whose passage exhausts him while nonetheless giving him the becomings that dominant and substantial health would render impossible. The writer returns from what he has seen and heard with red eyes and pierced eardrums (Deleuze, 1997, pp. 225-230).

As with writers, so with artists.

When the doors of perception have been opened up, one starts to see that everything is in flux. This makes E-Prime necessary-the impulse behind E-Prime is to see every "thing" as a verb, as an event, as a vital process (Deleuze sees the same sensibility in the Stoics and Leibniz). There is no-thing, so to speak. When one reads a few random pages in the middle of Naked Lunch, one starts to wonder whether E-Prime has been called forth by chemical mediation, whether chemical mediation is a formal cause of E-Prime. The language of Naked Lunch is more than electric-it is "electrified." As Burroughs puts it: "I wrote nearly the whole of Naked Lunch on cannabis" (Hibbard, 1999, p. 93).

The Three Bodies

PZ: Digital media threaten to render obsolete three bodies: the territorial body, the social body (in this sense, "social media" is a misnomer at best), and the human body. The movie, Ghost, precisely addresses the anxiety that comes with a discarnate (i.e., bodiless) mode of being.

The movie, Jumper (based on Steven Gould's science fiction novel of the same name), is another good example. It's all about ubiquity and instantaneity. It must have been called forth by people's angst over real-time trans-appearance technologies.

EM: Digital media have not obsolesced the human body: that condition has reigned since the first electric media appeared. The telegraph did it, and the telephone, and radio, etc. Digitalism is but the latest entry in a very old chapter.

A great deal of the turmoil in the world presently is entirely due to Western electric media. We are the source of their angst; the Arab Spring and various revolutions now underway around the world are directly ascribable to the environments put in place by electric media. All of the electric environments, from the telegraph forward, are global in extent: they affect everybody in the world, whether or not he or she uses this or that technology.

Instant Replay

PZ: Before instant replay became available, there were three kinds of referees. Those who say "I call it as it is" are realists. Those who say "I call it as I see it" are perspectivists. Those who say "It's nothing until I call it" are constructivists. When instant replay was introduced, judging became a matter of "I call it as the camera sees it." Literally, this is what "objectivism" means-the French word "objectif" means "lens." For the TV viewer, it is a matter of tele-objectivism.

EM: We had slated a tetrad on instant replay for use in Laws of Media, but the editors cut it (and a couple of dozen more) from the manuscript at the last minute--to save space and keep the book smaller. Here's the tetrad in layout form (see Appendix). (I put the key letters smack in the middle to make it easier to read. The tetrads ARE poems, after all. Remember that this dates from 1978!)

Uttering and Outering

PZ: Here's a line by Fernando Pessoa: "In order to create, I destroyed myself; I have externalised so much of my inner life that even inside I now exist only externally" (Virilio, 2010, pp. 99-100). There is a mythical quality to this line. Isn't it a statement about the human condition in the electronic age at large? It can be read as a paraphrase of Marshall McLuhan's title, "The Agenbite of Outwit."

EM: If he has externalised his inner life, then it is because he has internalised his outer life. Electric circuitry puts the central nervous system outside the body, makes it an environment, so that the old outer world becomes content of the new environment.

PZ: A phrase comes to mind: travel in situ, or movement on the spot-a formula for inertia. This is a different idea, though.

EM: Wayne Constantineau taught me that MOS, or Movement on the Spot, is another term for Isometrics--one of the four modes of action (the other three being articulation, displacement, and posture-see The Human Equation, Book 1) (Constantineau & McLuhan, 2010, p. 4). Every posture is an interval in movement, so it contains the before and the after. But inertia is not involved.

PZ: This calls to mind Mona Lisa's smile.

EM: Movement on the spot, or movement without displacement, describes the kind of movement used by the Egyptian artists. Their icons move, right enough, but neither from nor towards anything or anyone. The entire business is paradoxical, and nonetheless real. They inhabit kinetic space, which is an interval that burgeons with movement.

PZ: Virilio (1999) talks about Rodin's art along similar lines: "his drawings are animated" (p. 23). Rodin's art is a protest against photography, and a retrieval of the Egyptian manner of sensing.

EM: Another good example: the interval between frames in any movie. All of the movement in a movie occurs in those intervals when the screen is black, and all of it is supplied by the viewer. The actual images are of course static.

The book on Egypt (i.e., The Dance of the Ages) has a great deal of information about these matters and the senses involved in each phase.

PZ: Burke, who has read Elias Canetti, thinks of a posture as embodying an attitude, which is an incipient act.

Rhetoric precisely fashions this posture or attitude (the meaning of "attitude" in aeronautics is telling). In a sense, rhetoric is all about inclination or disposition (both of which are synonyms of "posture"). A specific rhetoric coaches a specific attitude, and inclines people toward a potential act. As people are possessed by a specific rhetoric, so they assume a specific posture and adopt a specific attitude. For Marshall McLuhan (1959), a figure of rhetoric enacts a posture of mind (339-348).

EM: Bang on!

PZ: The power to fashion postures doesn't reside in rhetoric only but also in media/technology (which are social machines in the last analysis). Chivalry as a social posture is unthinkable without the stirrup. Driving a Lexus makes a social posture, too.

Real time technologies induce (or, the electric age fosters) movement on the spot. That's Virilio's concern. Hence his book, Polar Inertia. The treadmill and the hula-hoop are symptomatic of the electric age, the Zeitgeist of which also shows itself in postmodern dance (lots of movement on the spot).

EM: As I am free of academia, I don't feel the need to quote what others (academics) think unless they have something to advance the study. Mostly, they write for each other and themselves, and their investigations are not geared towards advancing knowledge so much as currying favour with each other. They have a great fear of genuine discovery: it always upsets their apple-carts, and they really don't like that. Viz the reaction that my father's stuff produced, and still produces. Here at the University of Toronto, they tried several times (unsuccessfully) to have Dad's tenure revoked and have him tossed out of the university. And you can hardly imagine the vitriolic responses his books and articles produced in them.

I am a solitary explorer, a detective of sorts. I make discoveries and solve problems (e.g., my work on Formal Cause). If I cared what people thought of me, I'd never ever do anything really new or original. As it is, I do little else. It's no way to make a living, but my integrity is intact, and I am free to roam where I will.

My coauthor, Wayne, KNOWS the body inside-out. He has no theories about it, but has (well, had) an immense fund of direct, nonverbal experience. Academics like to work with theories, which puts them at a safe, objective distance. They play tennis with theories. I prefer immediate experience and training of perception, which scares off most academics. But then, I am an empiricist.

Kenneth Burke and Media Ecology

PZ: Burke calls his interpretive ideology dramatism. His ethics is a comic ethics. Put in a nutshell, Burke's dramatism is about the study of human motives through the lens of the ratios among scene, act, agent, agency, and purpose-the five terms of the pentad.

There is a striking similarity between pentadic thinking and Gestalt thinking. The scene is the conceptual equivalent of what Gestalt theorists call the ground. An alternate term Burke uses is the total situation.

To couch it in Burkean terms, media ecology is interested in a few things: agency as an extension of agent, the interface between agent and agency, the study of agency as scene, the retuning of agent's senses and sensibilities by agency, the interplay and ecological balance among agencies, the interality between agency and scene (e.g., hockey against what cultural backdrop), and perhaps the agent-becoming of agency (i.e., technology interpellating people as its servomechanisms).

The meaning of the term "medium" is not unproblematic. It oscillates between "agency" and "scene." In the former case, we have a figure orientation. In the latter case, we have a ground orientation.

EM: I'd suggest replace "agency" and "scene," which bring additional terms (and their own baggage) into the discussion, with "technology (radios, TVs, etc.)" and "milieu or ground."

Ground always imposes its own bias of sensibility and does not restore clarity to the sensorium. Ground by definition is out-of-conscious-awareness and hence utterly tyrannical.

PZ: Burke's point that human communication is necessarily selective can be couched in tetradic terms. In an entry from his "Dictionary of Pivotal Terms" that problematizes efficiency, Burke points out: "A man cannot say everything at once. Thus, his statements are necessarily 'efficient' in our sense; they throw strong light upon something, and in the process cast other things into shadow." That is to say, spotlighting or overstressing is what we do by default whenever we communicate. We necessarily "enhance" one thing, and "obsolesce" everything else-that is to say, push everything else into the background. This overemphasis, if taken to an extreme, is bound to exhaust its serviceability and "reverse" itself. What is left out of the picture eventually needs to be reintroduced or "retrieved." For Burke, the moment of retrieval is a "comic" moment. It's the moment when we realize that we need to widen our frame of acceptance so we can see the full picture. To be comic is to recover a correct sense of proportions or ratios-precisely what rationality means for McLuhan. The pointing of the "comic" is in the direction of the "cosmic."

EM: Background, a term from painting, is another figure--look out for that. Ground instead is the area of inattention, not of attention.

PZ: Burke (1953) has a passage that has to do with McLuhan's notion of Narcissus as narcosis:

   "... whereas intensity of fear or pain will generally
   produce in most people a kind of "stereotypy," a
   mental and physical numbing which leaves the
   individual almost without memory of the painful or
   terrifying event, great artists have shown capacity
   to keep themselves receptive at precisely such
   moments. (p. 76)

Percept and Concept

EM: Poetics is not a subject but a function.

PZ: That is precisely what Deleuze wants his concepts to do. His writing is not just poetic. It is nomadological.

EM: Deleuze will fail as long as he works with concepts: he must shift to percepts. He'd be well advised to take a couple of years to study poetry from the poet's vantage. Mature poets care bugger-all about ideas. They are there to keep the reader engaged in the poem long enough for the poem to have its effect. Eliot likened the idea-content of any poem to the choice piece of meat carried by a burglar to distract the housedog of the mind, so the poem can go about its work unhindered. He also remarked that "genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood."

PZ: I believe your perception of Deleuze will change if you take a look at Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. He talks about percept, concept, and affect in What Is Philosophy?

Dr. Seuss

PZ: One thing I always wanted to ask you about is Dr. Seuss vis-a-vis media ecology, including both the language and the illustrations. A few thoughts would be great.

EM: Well, it's not exactly Beatrix Potter (author and illustrator of The Tale of Peter Rabbit), is it? Her stuff is for civilized kiddies. Seuss is rough and shaggy, and plays with puns and rhymes and uneven lines and absurdities--perfect for the generations raised on TV and computers: very tactile. In Potter (to use her books as exemplifying a hot sensibility), the story is important; in Seuss, the story is almost irrelevant; the play with words and images is the point. Very cool.

PZ: The content is relevant, too. The Lorax is about technology. So is The Butter Battle Book. On Beyond Zebra questions how the alphabet (another technology) constrains us.

There's a lot of rhetoric in Dr. Seuss, too. The Sneetches is all about segregation and congregation. So is The Butter Battle Book. I've been working on a media ecological read of Dr. Seuss for a few years now. No time to get it done.

Media as Pharmacon

PZ: We talked about logotherapy in "Pivotal Terms in Media Ecology." In his "Playboy Interview," Marshall McLuhan treats of media as having the potential to serve as collective therapies. As he puts it:

We could program five hours less of TV in Italy to promote the reading of newspapers during an election, or lay on an additional 25 hours of TV in Venezuela to cool down the tribal temperature raised by radio the preceding month. By such orchestrated interplay of all media, whole cultures could now be programmed in order to improve and stabilize their emotional climate.. (McLuhan & Zingrone, 1995, p. 263)

EM: See Pedro Lain Entralgo, The Therapy of the Word in Classical Antiquity. Essential reading.

Marshall McLuhan's idea is classic MEDIA ecology: tuning the world and tuning the environment to produce (or eliminate) effects, even to program an entire culture. At present, the technologies do it without any supervision, so they become utter tyrants; and we, the inhabitants, their robots. Here's where the idea has teeth: Suppose we find that a certain new technology, about to be released, will be toxic to our culture? Then we can decide to suppress it in the interests of national and cultural wellbeing.

PZ: A cure is oftentimes also a toxin. The word "pharmacon" seems to encompass both senses. Hence the notion, "media as pharmacon."

Appendix: The tetrad on Instant Replay (omitted from Laws of Media, by Eric and Marshall McLuhan)

In Tristes Tropiques, Claude Levi-Strauss deals with the moment of sunset as providing a replay of the experience of the day.

Let us go then, you and I, When the evening is spread out against the sky, Like a patient etherised upon a table . . .

--T. S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

The mode of the archetypal.

What I call the 'auditory imagination' is the feeling for syllable and rhythm, penetrating far below the conscious levels of thought and feeling, invigorating every word; sinking to the most primitive and forgotten, returning to the origin and bringing something back, seeking the beginning and the end.

--T. S. Eliot, " Matthew Arnold"

Current football achieves four-level exegesis via several replays of each play, just as statistics cover each play with past performance, private and corporate.



awareness of

cognitive process


corporate pattern





the epiphanic, the intensely

aesthetic moment of insight

and awareness

the representational

and chronological

the merely here-and-now



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Watts, A. (1957). The way of Zen. New York: Vintage Books.

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Eric McLuhan, Peter Zhang *

* An internationally known lecturer on communication and media, Dr. McLuhan has over 30 years' teaching experience. He worked closely with Marshall McLuhan for fifteen years and has also done extensive communication research. He has published many books and articles on media, perception, literature and the arts. Most recently, The Human Equation (BPS Books, 2011), Media and Formal Cause (NeoPoiesis Press, 2011), and Theories of Communication (Peter Lang, 2011). Dr. Zhang is assistant professor of Communication Studies at Grand Valley State University. His scholarship so far has unfolded in the interzones between media ecology, rhetoric, French theory (Gilles Deleuze, Paul Virilio, etc.), and affirmative criticism. He was interviewed by Figure/Ground Communication in August 2012. Some of his papers are available at http ://gvsu.academia. edu/ PeterZhang.

Correspondence to:

Dr. Eric McLuhan


Dr. Peter Zhang

School of Communications

Grand Valley State University

1 Campus Dr

Allendale, MI 49301

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Date:Jan 1, 2014
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