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The DEW Line card deck as a metagame.

The DEW Line card deck offers an oblique way of solving problems. It is a mental lubricant, a second-order game or metagame. It was designed to help the players to harness the psychic energy released by the chance juxtaposition of aphoristic expressions that have no necessary connections with one another. The players are put in an at once loosened up and aroused state of mind so that they are ready to reap the benefit of the interplay of minds and overcome their own psychological blind spots. In a way, it is a McLuhanesque operationalization of Bateson's notion of the ecology of mind. Its utility evidences the serviceability of interality. The designers aptly called it "a contemporary I Ching."

The following dialogue discusses further the rationale of the DEW Line deck and examines a few puzzling aphorisms from the deck to reveal not only the esoteric semantics of some of the cards, but also their pragmatic impact as devices for retuning the players' sensibility. There is a high degree of intertextuality between this dialogue and two recent articles that foreground the interological aspect of the DEW Line deck: "McLuhan and I Ching: An Interological Inquiry" (Zhang, 2014) and "Prologue to Interology: In Lieu of a Preface" (Zhang, 2015).

PZ: Was the DEW Line card deck co-designed by Marshall McLuhan and Harley Parker, or did McLuhan do it all by himself?

EM: The deck was co-designed, by Dad, Harley, George Thompson, and me. We all contributed to the probes on the faces. Dad and Harley came up with the backs, the boxes, and the images. Thompson, working with Harley, did the execution of all of the artwork.

PZ: Here's a line from the deck: " The law of averages will clobber you every time." Does it mean try not to stand out?

EM: It is meant as a wry comment on the meaninglessness of the word average in the world of statistics. There is not one average, or one kind of average, but there are many, in some cases, a dozen or more. There used to be a lovely little book called How to Lie with Statistics by Darrell Huff. He points out that "average' means too many things to be useful--it can be made to mean anything.

PZ: The probes on the faces are not directly about any particular problem or situation. Their utility does not lie in their topical relevance but in their effect on the user's mind. I know no Spanish. When I was visiting Mexico in March 2014, at one point I started to try deciphering Spanish words. That effort had an interesting side effect: I ended up sculpting English sentences differently. Reading Joyce has a similar but more intense effect. That one does not end up understanding what Joyce is saying shouldn't be a concern, because that doesn't keep Joyce from retuning one's sensibility. This is exactly how the DEW Line deck works. The cards stretch the mind. They put the user in a state of mind conducive to the solving of problems. They do not so much shed light on the situation directly as arouse and lubricate the user's mental apparatus. Their utility is thus oblique. Therein lies the designers' cunning intelligence and practical wisdom. Maybe that's why Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt called their deck, first published in 1975, "Oblique Strategies."

EM: It is a curious piece of phrasing, Peter. Sounds a great deal like my father, but several locutions are not those he would have used. In general the sentiments are accurate enough.

PZ: What it means is far less important than what it does, so to speak.

Oscar Wilde teaches us that people are more interested in beautiful but untrue stories than plain facts. Take this example: "A Japanese wife never speaks irritably to her husband--she merely rearranges the flowers." Is this the kind of Zen humor Deleuze talks about? Or is it a statement about the high-context culture one finds in Japan? In a way, Chinese medicine works in the same way. A good doctor doesn't just treat the head when the head hurts, or the foot when the foot hurts ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]).

There is a line by John Cage from the deck: "Silence is all the sounds of the environment at once." A similar idea: white is all the colors mixed together.

This idea calls to mind two lines from a Chinese poem: The noisier the cicadas are, the quieter the forest sounds. The more birds chirp, the more secluded the mountain feels ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). Cage is a musician. I think he's talking about ambience music.

EM: He is. He paid lots of attention to the conjunction of music and the environment and was constantly probing them. I wonder what he and Murray Schafer would have said to each other; I don't think they ever met. The musical nature of the environment and of the cosmos for that matter was a common topic on the curriculum from ancient times until the Renaissance. The quadrivium (four sciences) consisted of music, mathematics, astronomy, and geometry. Music served as the basis for the rest, and thereby united them, until the age of specialism arrived.

PZ: People often forget the subtitle of Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy. It's called "Out of the Spirit of Music." Deleuze's ontology is a music-based ontology. Which is to say, it is an interology, the God term of which is resonance.

Plato is right about a few things, including music: "Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything." He compared philosophy to playing the music of justice beautifully in the Republic.

EM: Notice that there is no insight here, just sentiment. Plato is repeating conventional cliches of his time.

By contrast, when he noted that "when the mode of music changes, the walls of the city shake," he was making a technical observation--not sentimentalism but the reverse.

PZ: Chuang Tzu has a nice passage about music:

Perfect music must first respond to the needs of man, accord with the reason of Heaven, proceed by the Five Virtues, and blend with spontaneity; only then can it bring order to the four seasons and bestow a final harmony upon the ten thousand things. (Watson, 1968, p. 156)

To switch gears, here's a line that presents a double bind, or a catch-22 situation: "Unless we have a certificate of discharge from a mental home we can't prove we are sane." Nothing stretches the mind better than conundrums. At a practical level, some psychiatric institutions only allow certain patients to be admitted involuntarily, which is to say, they cannot get admitted voluntarily. The paradox is that once admitted, such patients cannot get out of the institution voluntarily. They must get voluntarily readmitted first, in order to get out voluntarily.

Some of the lines from the deck are like Zen koans. Wonder what you make of this one: "She shell ebb music wayriver she flows."

EM: A complex one. It comes from one of two limericks that James Joyce wrote to promote sales of Finnegans Wake. As I remember, the limerick goes like this:
   Buy a book in brown paper from Faber and Faber
   To hear Annie Liffey trip tumble and caper.
   Sevensinns on her singthings,
   Plurabells on her prose,
   Sheshell ebb music wayriver she flows.

It is a parody of a familiar nursery rhyme. Annie Liffey is the character in the Wake, Anna Livia Plurabelle: she embodies the river Liffey that flows through Dublin to the sea. The last lines of the limerick parody, the last lines of the poem:
   ... With rings on her fingers
   And bells on her toes,
   She shall have music wherever she goes.

PZ: What's the intended utility of the card that has this line on it?

EM: The same as the rest: to provoke lateral thinking.

PZ: What about this one: "Learning creates ignorance."

EM: It is a statement of figure/ground dynamics. There are several other observations of the same kind. "Affluence creates poverty." "Light creates dark."

That is, unless there is some wealth around, there is nothing that one would call poverty. This was true in the Great Depression of the thirties: there was no wealth to speak of, so no one spoke of poverty. Instead, there was hardship everywhere.

Similarly, without light, there is no darkness, just the way things are. But given even a tiny amount of light suddenly we discover vast stretches of darkness.

So it is with knowledge. Given a tiny discovery, like Newton's laws of motion, what is revealed is not a lot of knowledge but whole vistas of which we had formerly been ignorant.

The new little figure creates/reveals the existence of an immense ground. It's as simple as that!

PZ: Figure/ground dynamics is a matter of interality.

What about this one: "Here comes everybody. He wears his people on his sleeve." And this one: "The stripper puts the audience on by taking them off."

EM: Here Comes Everybody is HCE, one of the heroes in Finnegans Wake, known by his initials: any three words in sequence with those initials invoke the presence of HCE, Has Children Everywhere and Howth Castle and Environs. The initials can be in any order. The rest is an echo of "wears his heart on his sleeve," meaning does not try to conceal his feelings (usually amorous feelings). HCE's wife is Anna Livia (recall "Annie Liffey"), also known by her initials, ALP, which also can stand for anything--a lovely petunia, or any little pussycat.

The stripper is a different kettle of fish. On stage, she is not a private person, so she can do and say things that she could not do or say offstage, in her kitchen (or in yours), for example. On stage she is in role and insulated; offstage, she is a private person like you and me. There's an illustrative story:

An art model was posing for a class, nude. She had eaten little for days, as is true of many such models in penury, and, exhausted, fainted and fell on the floor. Immediately, the students rushed to cover her up. You see, when she fainted, she stopped putting on her audience of students and reverted to being a private person, now no longer nude, but naked. She was no longer in role.

PZ: How about this one: "The clown is the emperor's PR man."

EM: By the "clown," we meant the traditional role of the court jester.

PZ: In Shakespeare and other playwrights the clown also has the function of using humor to tell the king truths that would get others into trouble if they said them. Put otherwise, since the clown is inculpable, he becomes an outlet (sometimes the only outlet) for fearless speech, or parrhesia. In a sense, the emperor is as good as his clown. His image hinges on the freedom of speech the clown enjoys.

Found this line in McLuhan's 1972 address entitled "The End of the Work Ethic": The clown is "one who keeps the emperor in touch with 'Where it's at', regaling him with jokes and gags which are frequently of a hostile intent" (McLuhan, 2005, p. 200).

What about "blowing both horns of his dilemma"?

EM: I instinctively resist attempts to explain humor and jokes: it kills the humor and the play. In many jokes, as in this one, the wit and the play itself are the point of the joke, not so much the meanings.

However, the point of the horns was that the unfortunate might be tossed back and forth from one horn of a bull to the other and back. A dilemma is a double-lemma (a lemma is a proposition used in math/science to prove another proposition, i.e., an assumption or premise). A synonym: a two-edged sword, cuts both ways. The two lemmas are the two horns--painful decision.

To blow one's horn of course means to call attention to oneself. So the entire expression indicates someone who is vociferously drawing attention to his predicament (and himself).

PZ: Thoughts on the following?

"High rise and mini-skirts, the end is in sight; i.e., instant slums." "Fulton's steamboat anticipated the mini-skirt. We don't have to wait for the wind anymore." There is a reverse zeugma in each. A zeugma is the linguistic equivalent of a fork in chess. It is interality in action.

EM: Fulton's steamboat and the mini-skirt are a rather complex zeugma, as you suspect. (Remember the advice, "Whenever you come to a fork in the road, take it.")

In any case, the steamboat meant we could dispense with sails to move the boat, and we could do so under any weather conditions, including a dead calm. The miniskirt meant that we didn't have to wait for a gust to lift the hemline and reveal the lady's bottom: the new "cut" would do that for us. But surely these things occurred to you.

My favorite zeugma was one that I found years ago in a book by Willard Espy (I think it was him): "He put out the light, the trash, and the cat." It cuts three ways at once.

Apropos the ambiguity, zeugma is, I suppose, a member of the Irony family of figures. In Laws of Media, I agreed with Vico that there are four fundamental figures of speech: metaphor, irony, metonymy, and synecdoche; or rather, that all of the tropes can be seen as members of one or another of those four families. Irony uses one figure against two grounds. Zeugma also poses one figure against two disparate grounds. Is not that the same for all of your interality structures?

PZ: Kenneth Burke has an appendix about the four master tropes in A Grammar of Motives. Good to know it came from Vico.

EM: I dig rather deep in Laws of Media, as you might recall. Each of the four sired a family and thus was born all of the figures.

I mean to say each one of the tropes has one of the four foundations as its grandsire. And the "big" one of the four, the father of them all, is of course metaphor. These matters are a main topic of the last chapter of Laws of Media, "Media Poetics." Poetics there means the process of making.

In Laws of Media, I showed that the four relate to each other as A:B:C:D.

In The Human Equation, I showed that they also map directly onto the four modes of action. Metaphor, of course, is isometrics-and the heart and soul of Laws of Media.


McLuhan, M. (2005). Understanding Me. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Watson, B. (1968). The complete works of Chuang Tzu. New York: Columbia University Press.

Zhang, P. (2014). McLuhan and I Ching: An interological inquiry. Canadian Journal of Communication, 39(3), 449-468.

Zhang, P. (2015). Prologue to interology: In lieu of a preface. China Media Research, 11(2), 57-67.

Eric McLuhan is an internationally known and award-winning lecturer on communication and media. In addition to coauthoring "Larovs of Media" in 1988 and working closely for many years with his father, the late Marshall McLuhan, he has also been deeply involved in exploring media ecology and communications. In 1980, with Roger Davies, Dr. McLuhan developed the Thinking and Writing workshops, and together they founded McLuhan & Davies Communications, Inc., to help business professionals with their writing and editing skills. His research and thinking has been published in books, magazines, and journals covering topics such as media, communications, perception, and literature since 1964. He is currently researching on the nature and structure of renaissances, including the one that now envelops us: the first global renaissance. His most recent published work includes On Media Ecology (Explorations in Media Ecology, Vol. 5, No. 3), Theories or Communication (Hampton Press, 2011), and Media and Formal Cause (NeoPoesis Press, 2011).

Dr. Peter Zhang is associate professor of communication studies at Grand Valley State University. His work bridges media ecology, rhetoric, French theory, and Chinese culture, with his current research focusing on interology. He has been a frequent contributor to the pages of ETC.
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Author:McLuhan, Eric; Zhang, Peter
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Article Type:Discussion
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2015
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