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EME 10 (3+4) pp.

185–206 Intellect Limited 2011

Explorations in Media Ecology


Volume 10 Numbers 3 and 4
© 2011 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/eme.10.3-4.185_1

Laureano Ralon
Argentinean Center for International Studies

Marcelo Vieta
York University

McLuhan and
Phenomenology

Abstract Keywords
This article builds on the notion that McLuhan is “beyond categorization” in existential
the sense that his thought—much like the media of communication he sought to phenomenology
understand—is in constant flux. Attempts to reduce the multiple resonances of Marshall McLuhan
McLuhan’s work to an explicit “message” or text, either by erroneously assigning Martin Heidegger
ready-made labels such as “technological determinism” or by uncritically worship- media ecology
ping an accumulation of mummified insights, are destined to fail. McLuhan should phenomenology of
be engaged by an authentic appropriation of the possibilities inherent in his work. media
This requires apprehending his work as a medium (a body of thought to think from,
through, and with) rather than containing hard truths to be understood explicitly.
The key is to engage with his probes as explorations at the level of ground; it is about
deploying his insights in order to uncover “areas of inattention”—that is, digging
up possibilities for interpreting mediated reality from out of unlikely regions in his
oeuvre. A mostly unexplored area of inquiry within McLuhan studies is the connec-
tion between the perceptual model of his “general media theory” and Heideggerian-
inspired phenomenologies. This article brings McLuhan’s media theory—grounded
on the senses, embodiment, and mediation—into conversation with existential
phenomenology—grounded on perception, existence, and lived-through world expe-
rience. This article plumbs an unexplored hidden existential side to McLuhan that
should be examined for the mutual benefit of McLuhan studies, media theory, and
phenomenology.

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Heidegger surfboards along on the electronic wave as triumphantly as


Descartes rode on the mechanical wave.
—Marshall McLuhan (1962)

Existentialism offers a philosophy of structures, rather than categories, and of


total social involvement instead of the bourgeois spirit of individual separate-
ness or points of view.
—Marshall McLuhan (1964

[P]henomenology [is] that which I have been presenting for many years in
non-technical terms.
—Marshall McLuhan (Letter to Roger Poole, July 24, 1978)

Marshall McLuhan’s claim that the tools we shape in turn shape us is argu-
ably the common thread running through all of his published books and arti-
cles on media and technology. Starting in the late 1940s and extending to
his two posthumously published books in the late 1980s, McLuhan argued
consistently and forcefully—if not poetically—that the introduction and use of
any technology contours not only aspects of our sociocultural lives but, more
subtly, our sense of self and our relations with things and others in the world.
This is McLuhan’s technologically mediated reality pervading his entire general
media theory, which is his ontology of existence amidst human artifacts.
Fundamentally, McLuhan’s ontology is a theory of mediated reality grounded
in a perceptual model of experience (Striegel, 1978). This article explores
McLuhan’s general theory of technologically mediated reality that reveals him
to be an existential phenomenological philosopher of mediated experience;
there is a compelling affinity between existential phenomenology—grounded
as it is in perception, existence, and lived-through world experience—and
media ecology—grounded as it is in the senses, embodiment, and mediation.
More specifically, this article begins to explore a promising connec-
tion between Marshall McLuhan, one of the forefathers of media ecology,
and Martin Heidegger, one of the founders of existential phenomenology.
McLuhan’s perceptual model of experience in many ways runs parallel to
and shares similarities with the philosophies of existential and hermeneutic
phenomenology inspired by Heidegger. Both McLuhan and post-Husserlian
phenomenologies, for example, emerged from the common well of intel-
lectual nourishment rooted in the 20th century’s human-centered and anti-
positivist critiques of modernity (Gordon, 1997; Ihde, 1983; Marchand, 1998;
Striegel, 1978). As Michael Heim (2005) identified, the strongest complemen-
tary chord resonating between McLuhan and Heidegger is the notion that
technologies have a profound influence on our existential (lived-through) sense
of reality: “Both Heidegger and McLuhan,” observed Heim, “saw intimate
connections between information technology and the way the mind works”
(p. 357). This connection lies mainly in the central ontological place given
to technology by both Heidegger and McLuhan: “What synchronized their
visions,” Heim explained, “is the crucial role that technology plays in defin-
ing reality, in operating as an invisible backdrop within which the content or
entities of the world appear” (p. 357). Where Heideggerian-inspired phenom-
enologies propose that we come to know our “humanness” via daily, practi-
cal  encounters in, with, and through the world (i.e., “being-in-the-world”),
this article proposes that McLuhan’s media program can be said to put
forward the notion that we come to know ourselves and our world—saturated

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as it is in technological rationality and electric and digital information—within


a process that could be termed being-in-the-technologically-mediated-world.
This points to an ontologically existentialist McLuhan; however, unveiling a
phenomenological McLuhan requires a new approach with regard to the way
in which his work has generally been interpreted until recently.

Morphing, Transforming, or Moving Beyond McLuhan?


Joshua Meyrowitz gave a keynote address at the 2001 convention of the
Media Ecology Association, noting that although McLuhan is too rich to
abandon, we should do more than simply worship him. With Shakespearean
flair, Meyrowitz confidently declared he had “come to help unbury McLuhan
and to praise him. But I also want to wrestle with his legacy and add encour-
agement for moving beyond McLuhan—partly with his help. I’d like to see
McLuhan become, in his own terminology, more ‘obsolescent’” (p. 8). By
“moving beyond” McLuhan and letting him become more “obsolescent,”
Meyrowitz did not mean bypassing McLuhan, as it has been recently called
for (Dunbar-Hester, 2010); for what is obsolesced can also be potentially
“retrieved”—brought back in new form—just like McLuhan himself
proclaimed in Laws of Media: The New Science (McLuhan & McLuhan, 1988).
Meyrowitz meant advancing him by a process he called “morphing”:

One of the exciting things about seeing one image morph into another
is to realize that two seemingly very different faces or other visual forms
can be interchanged and blended in a way that illustrates their connec-
tions. (The result is much like seeing a child who somehow looks like
both parents, even though the parents look nothing like each other.) In
this metaphor lies a potential method for both extending and moving
beyond McLuhan. I’d like to see more attempts to morph McLuhan with
those who seem to know nothing about media in the McLuhanesque
sense.
(p. 15, italics added)

Meyrowitz’ synthesizing approach—his search for a fusion between McLuhan


and other authors—is indeed compelling. However, attempts at connecting or
morphing McLuhan’s media theory with other human or media philosophies
often have been truncated by the obvious fact that one cannot go beyond
something that is not properly understood. McLuhan’s work, as humor-
ously portrayed in Woody Allen’s film Annie Hall, has, to some extent, fallen
victim to such misunderstandings over the years. Many efforts to understand
McLuhan have failed because they have centered largely on trying to reduce
and assimilate his message under the rubric of various ready-made labels—
most notably, the infamous label of “technological determinism”—despite the
fact that his writing resists such simplistic and short-sighted categorizations
(Gordon, 1997; Marchand, 1998; Ralon, 2009a). The technological determin-
ist label, incidentally, has been placed on other influential social and tech-
nology theorists such as Karl Marx or Lewis Mumford, for example; and yet
their works have proven to be too multifaceted and rich to be so quickly
marginalized from the Western theoretical canon. McLuhan also deserves the
careful treatment that authors like Marx and Mumford have received, recog-
nizing that there has been an equally unproductive tendency to uncritically
“worship his work” (Meyrowitz, 2001, p. 15); Wired magazine’s 1993 claim

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that McLuhan was its “patron saint” is but the most salient example of such
worship (Shachtman, 2002).
The problem with these approaches is that they tend to gloss over the
complexity of McLuhan’s general media theory, which is intricately inter-
twined with his artistic method, his eclectic style, and his multifaceted person-
ality (Babe, 2000, p. 12; see also Striegel, 1978, pp. 100-103). This glossing over
has barred any attempt at understanding his work since. Scholars must think
McLuhanistically (i.e., dealing with McLuhan on his own terms by approach-
ing his vast work from a different standpoint than a superficial reading of
parts of his texts). In other words, his work must engage playfully with his
general theory and method in “constant flux,” as opposed to merely compil-
ing an accumulation of mummified theoretical insights disguised as clichés
(i.e., “the medium is the message,” “the global village,” etc.). It is alarm-
ing that what remains most alive in mainstream discourse about McLuhan
today is a simplified take on some of his probes and aphorisms. To this day,
people continue to encounter McLuhan through these and other metaphors
without fully understanding the significance of his general media theory
(Ralon, 2009a, p. 1).
More than 30 years ago, James F. Striegel (1978) was already warning
that “McLuhan has been misquoted, misapplied, and misunderstood since
he began writing about communication techniques and technologies over
25 years ago” (p. 2). McLuhan continues to be misunderstood (Ralon &
Levinson, 2010), and the difficulties always are the same, not helped, admit-
tedly, by McLuhan’s own evasive and provocative claim that he had no theo-
ries to ground his work and by his overreliance on a pun-filled style of prose.
These traits, however, should come as no surprise: A professor of English
literature with an interest in poetry and rhetoric, McLuhan’s ability to synthe-
size highly complex ideas and package them in catchy phrases was undoubt-
edly one of his greatest strengths (Theall, 2001, p. 26). McLuhan’s talent as
a synthesizer, however, is simultaneously the principle fodder for those that
criticize his work. Striegel (1978) observed:

[h]is apoditic [sic] statements and his tendency to subsume widely differ-
ing academic disciplines without explanation led to his rapid segrega-
tion from the recognized mainstreams of scholarly investigation. Easily
objectivated both socially and geographically as the Toronto School of
Communications Research, McLuhan and his work could be effectively
circumscribed outside the bounds of legitimate academic research and
sidestepped as a little more than a curious and occasionally irritating
symbol system.
(p. 2)

Again, McLuhan himself often failed to contest the numerous misinterpreta-


tions and over-simplifications of his work (Theall, 2005, p. 49). As he once
declared with regard to his own work, “people make a great mistake trying to
read me as if I were saying something” (cited in Marchand, 1998, p. 196); this
is hardly a convincing statement from which to confidently attempt to system-
atically analyze what McLuhan is actually saying. Moreover, Meyrowitz (1984)
has noted that the tendency of critics to take McLuhan too “seriously” (i.e.,
looking for a linear, sequential, orderly analysis where there isn’t one) often
leads to frustrations and even the ultimate dismissal of his entire work as both
irrational and incoherent:

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McLuhan suggests that traditional scholarly analyses are based on a false


assumption that linear thinking is the only way to reason, … Scholars
who approach McLuhan’s work for evaluation, therefore, are faced with
a peculiar paradox: they have to call on their traditional rational critical
skills to criticize a work that questions the necessity and universal value
of such skills. Ironically, but predictably, the response of many critics
has been emotional, hostile, and, at times, irrational.
(p. 21)

“Taking McLuhan seriously,” then, does not mean taking every statement he
makes literally or explicitly (Meyrowitz, 1996); it means, rather, that McLuhan’s
probes and aphorisms should be contextualized and considered within the
horizons of his general theory and beyond. Read more holistically, one then
begins to see the figural patterns that emerge from a rich wellspring of intel-
lectual ground that McLuhan nurtured throughout his professional life.
In sharp contrast, then, with the fragmentary method of focusing on the
most visible clichés in his work (i.e., isolated phrases like “The medium is
the message,” which McLuhan would have criticized for being all figure and
no ground), what is required to better understand and reveal an existential/
phenomenological McLuhan is a playfully absorptive approach that discloses
hidden areas of concern. Meyrowitz’ method of “morphing” is one such
playful—and fruitful—approach to McLuhan’s work. It also is complementary
to McLuhan’s assertion that “we make sense not in cognition, but in recogni-
tion and replay,” that is, in the experiences and encounters of everyday life
(McLuhan & Nevitt, 1972, p. 3). Morphing McLuhan with, for example, criti-
cal theory (as Paul Grosswiler has done) or phenomenology (as we do here)
implies a more proactive handling of McLuhan—a Marshalling of McLuhan,
as Meyrowitz (2001, p. 20) so astutely put it; this is quite an improvement
from the common disposition of passively contemplating his work from a
theoretical standpoint. Indeed, morphing as a method appears to us to at
least be consistent with a more holistic, even phenomenological form of
understanding, favoring the interpretative and hermeneutic “know-how”
associated with “skillful coping” (Dreyfus, 1991, p. 67) and pattern recogni-
tion. This approach is for us more compelling than the theoretical “about-
ness” of armchair theorizing.
But is a morphing of McLuhan with, say, phenomenology, enough? On
closer examination, one of the shortcomings of “morphing” is that it requires
the fusion or synthesis of two images (figures) to the detriment or neglect of
their context (ground). Again, this was precisely McLuhan’s main criticism
of positivistic approaches to communication theory and the scientific method
generally. Moreover, we should not forget that McLuhan’s work was about
“balance rather than synthesis” (Dowler, 2000), and in this respect, like exis-
tential phenomenology, McLuhan’s method was more Heideggerian than
Hegelian. A more effective strategy for advancing McLuhan than simply
morphing concepts or figures together consists of conducting “explorations”
at the level of ground—that is, digging up the possibilities that McLuhan’s
work offers us from unlikely places, out of which tangible figures can then
come into their own. As Roman Onufrijchuk (1998) pointed out, “a significant
aspect of McLuhan’s contribution to media theory may also be found in what
he did not say but implied throughout his work” (p. 202, italics added).
To be fair, although the use of the term morphing remains problematic
because of the reasons just enumerated, Meyrowitz’ method produced some

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interesting results. In his 2001 keynote address, he proposed four possible


ways of moving beyond McLuhan by morphing McLuhan and Birdwhistell,
McLuhan and Goffman, McLuhan and Marx, and McLuhan and Habermas
(pp. 16-19). Of these four options, Meyrowitz himself (1984) explored the
McLuhan–Goffman interplay and Donna Flayhan (1997) and Paul Grosswiler
(1998) articulated the McLuhan and Marx interface. Furthermore, in the
same year of Meyrowitz’ keynote address, Grosswiler established a promis-
ing link between McLuhan’s media ecology and the late Frankfurt School
philosopher and communication scholar Jürgen Habermas. This latter
morphing reinforced McLuhan’s connection with critical theory: By compar-
ing the notions of “public sphere” and “media as environments,” and
considering other “resonating intervals” such as bourgeois public sphere/
print culture, manipulated public sphere/electronic culture, refeudalization/
retribalization, and ideal speech situation/synæsthesia, Grosswiler (2001)
argued for Habermas’ incorporation into the pantheon of media ecology’s
orbit (p. 22). Recently, Grosswiler and a renowned score of contributors in
media ecology and critical theory—such as Gary Genosko, Lance Strate,
Richard Cavell, and Donna Flayhan—reasserted the view that McLuhan
was a uniquely important critic of modernity who resisted uncontrolled
technological change (Grosswiler, 2010; see also Heim, 2005; Onufrijchuk,
1998). These media ecologists and social theorists unanimously reject the
view of McLuhan as an uncritical herald of technotopia, and reconsidered
his thought from a variety of postmodern and post-structuralist perspectives
(Grosswiler et al., 2010).
These efforts to transform McLuhan are to be celebrated. Not only that,
but “transforming McLuhan” seems like the right turn of phrase (quite an
improvement over the metaphors of “morphing” or “moving beyond”
McLuhan) to designate the process of advancing McLuhan. Nevertheless,
as with Heidegger (1996), “primordial interpretations” are those that trans-
form while preserving; those that commit the least amount of hermeneuti-
cal violence and, in the spirit of phenomenology, “let that which shows it be
seen from itself in the very way in which it shows itself from itself” (p. 34). In
Heideggerian language, this implies a release of the ”ownmost” potentiality
of being in the self-showing, which in turn requires an authentic projection
toward inherent possibilities grounded in “the things themselves.” Any proc-
ess of transforming McLuhan must be grounded in a pressing toward possi-
bilities that emerge most naturally from hidden areas of exploration within
McLuhan’s own work. Being a generalist and an interdisciplinarian, McLuhan
paved the way for this undertaking; he was indeed quite generous in provid-
ing valuable clues—grounded possibilities—toward activating the process of
advancing his work. It is in part because of this inherent richness that his vast
oeuvre appears for further interpretation and that, for us, his legacy lives on
decades after his death.
“In this late day certainly, no critical process can be conducted reasona-
bly without eclecticism,” writes Pater (2008, p. 13). The beauty of eclecticism
is that it leaves ample room for multiple interpretations, and McLuhan’s
work demands a high level of engagement by an active reader; he was after
all a “cool” philosopher whose work has been characterized as providing a
“Do-It-Yourself-Creativity-Kit” requiring a “U-Think approach to moving
ideas” whereby “the reader is given the task of closing the circuit” (Theall,
1971, cited in Gow, 2004, p. 186). Nevertheless, because McLuhan’s work
can be said to be very much alive, the act of moving beyond McLuhan is

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seriously encumbered when understood as reconstructing his work wishfully


from the perspective of a solitary ego that stands back and adjudicatively
predicates objectively present entities (Anton, 2001, p. 30; see also Dreyfus,
1991). This is perhaps another weakness in Meyrowitz’ method, that is,
understanding morphing as a desituated, decontextualized, and deworlded
activity or, as he himself put it, “looking to insightful scholars in other disci-
plines—no matter how innocent of understanding of media they are—and
adapting their work into new forms of medium analysis and theory” (p.
16). Similarly, the term moving beyond remains equally problematic, for, as
Heidegger (1929) noted:

those who wish to transform must bear within themselves the power of
a fidelity that knows how to preserve. And one cannot feel this power
growing within unless one is up in wonder. And no one can be caught
up in wonder without travelling to the outermost limits of the possible.
(par. 16 )

The problem with focusing only on clichés and key phrases is that it tends to
remove McLuhan from the picture and negates the “eventful” character of
his work. Furthermore, it reduces and objectifies his thought and negates its
continued resonance for understanding the technologically mediated world.
This not only violates the principle of transforming while preserving; we
believe the results it yields are not so useful and fail to advance McLuhan in
meaningful ways.
Hence, without denying the valuable connections established by Grosswiler
et al.—as well as other powerful contributions grounded in critical theory, most
notably, Gary Genosko’s Marshall McLuhan: Critical Evaluations in Cultural
Theory (2005)—we take a step back and tackle the unexplored possibility of a
phenomenological McLuhan, which we argue is valid and genuine insofar as it
is grounded in McLuhan’s general media theory (most notably, its perceptual
model), as well as by his own interests in phenomenology during the late 1970s.
If this phenomenological reinterpretation of McLuhan comes as a surprise, it
should not be forgotten that Heideggerian-inspired existential philosophy has
provided much inspiration to critical and social theorists throughout the 20th
century. One example is his influence on the neo-Marxian contributions of
the Frankfurt School, even though, at the same time, the Frankfurt School
critiqued Heidegger on many occasions and from many angles (Jay, 1973).
Nevertheless, the fact remains that the Frankfurt School was an interdiscipli-
nary one, and as such, many of its insights into instrumental and technologi-
cal rationality, its critiques of modernity’s privileging of formal reason, and in
particular, its influence on the relations  between subjects and objects, were
derived partly from Heidegger and other existentialist philosophers. Marcuse
was, after all, a student of Heidegger, and Habermas, although extremely criti-
cal of Heidegger, actually borrowed much from him to develop his ontology
of freedom. In fact, Iain Thomson went as far as to argue that postmodernism
really begins with Heidegger:

For Heidegger, who is really the father of postmodernism, the philosoph-


ical core of the postmodern movement is the aforementioned attempt to
help lead humanity beyond the nihilistic metaphysical presuppositions
underlying the modern and late-modern ages.
(Ralon & Thomson, 2010, par. 34)

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As early as 1927, in Basic Problems of Phenomenology (1988), Heidegger


himself spoke of the necessity of a “critical stance” in relation to his onto-
logical difference—the difference between beings and being—which helped
Heidegger place the study of ontology on a whole new level. Anton argues
that Heidegger’s refusal to accept the world and space as a pre-given, static
container, whereby objectively present entities can be discovered as located
“in” space and time, the way naturalism would have us believe is arguably the
starting point for structuralism, post-structuralism, and deconstruction. That
said, Heidegger’s existential phenomenology and ontology remained quite
different in their constitution from various forms of structuralist, post-structur-
alist, and deconstructionist thought. In a phrase, in Heidegger’s ontological/
existential account of lived-through world experience is not placed on knowl-
edge, truth and reality, but rather, on experience, meaning, and existence
(Anton, 2001, p. 13).

McLuhan’s General Media Theory


Although McLuhan claimed, in a tone of prankish caginess, that he had no
theories and preferred process over product, “percepts” over “concepts”
(Gordon, 1997, p. 252), a closer study of his media writings exposes a theo-
retical coherence and consistency that is perhaps lost in the usual cursory
reading that his pun-filled prose receives. Here the work of J.F. Striegel is
of paramount importance: Just as media ecology was beginning to emerge
in the mid-1970s under the leadership of Neil Postman, more than two
decades before McLuhan’s reappraisal in the late 1990s, Striegel was among
the first scholars who were able to extrapolate a coherent general theory
out of McLuhan’s aphoristic writings—one akin to phenomenology and
ethnomethodology (Striegel, 1978).
Striegel first met McLuhan at the University of Toronto’s St. George
School of Graduate Studies in 1970, where he studied under McLuhan’s
supervision for 2 years as a doctoral student in literature. In 1975, Striegel
was named a research associate of the University of Toronto’s Centre for
Culture and Technology. In the acknowledgments section of his PhD disser-
tation, Striegel recognized, first and foremost, “the guidance of Dr. Herbert
Marshall McLuhan … both as a teacher and a friend” (p. iv), and in the
introduction to his thesis he went on to claim, “much of the description and
explanation included here is drawn directly from personal experience with
Marshall McLuhan” (p. 3). Most importantly, in his posthumously published
book, The Global Village: Transformations in World Life and Media in the 21st
Century (McLuhan & Powers, 1989, pp. 180-181), McLuhan himself endorsed
Striegel’s study of his media theory.
In his sadly neglected PhD dissertation, “Marshall McLuhan on Media,”
Striegel convincingly shows that, despite his repeated early claims of having
no theories and no point of view, there is in fact a coherent general media
theory behind McLuhan’s probes and aphorisms. In his introduction, Striegel
announces that the purpose of his dissertation is to “alleviate some of the
confusion and controversy” and to present the work of McLuhan “in the
context of a coherent and successful general theory acceptable to a number of
academic disciplines” (p. 3). He writes:

The subject matter of this dissertation is the work of Hebert Marshall


McLuhan in describing the effects of technological innovation—and

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McLuhan and Phenomenology

particularly communications media—on sensory perception, modes of


cognition, and the alteration of social and psychic environments. The
substance of this study is the author’s interpretation and construction
of this body of work as a coherent and significant general theory. The
objectives are to accurately present and describe what McLuhan himself
has written in terms of three models of experience, and to suggest link-
ages wherever appropriate between this unique body of inquiry and a
variety of other fields of study.
(p. 4)

Throughout the remainder of his dissertation, Striegel argues that there is


a consistently coherent tripartite program behind McLuhan’s often quoted
aphorism, “the medium is the message; the content is the user,” which
consists of (a) a perceptual model, (b) a historical model, and (c) an analogi-
cal model.
This tripartite program drew some of its inspiration from Harold Innis’
writings in the 1950s concerning the inherent “biases” of communication
technologies in shaping society’s perceptions of time, space, cultural values,
and power (Innis, 1986, 1991), which influenced McLuhan’s views on the
central role of media in shaping history. This is McLuhan’s historical model
of media, witnessed in particular in his 1962 book The Gutenberg Galaxy: The
Making of Typographic Man. His threefold general theory was also informed
by his Cambridge teacher I.A. Richards’ version of New Criticism, which
held that texts transmit an effect on the “multiple sensory channels” of the
reader (Richards, cited in Gordon, 1997, p. 333) and that the “transference”
of these effects constitutes the communication of human experiences them-
selves via metaphor and language (McLuhan, 1964, p. 56–61). This grounded
McLuhan’s analogical model.
Most importantly, for Striegel—and at the crux of McLuhan’s threefold
general theory—is his perceptual model of mediated experience. McLuhan’s
perceptual model grew out of the intellectual movements engaging with
human experience of the early 20th century, still strong during his formative
years (Marchand, 1998). In this perceptual model the individual, as it was for
Husserl and Heidegger, is ground zero (Gordon, 1997, p. 204). As Gordon
explained: “McLuhan’s analysis identifies the effects of media in all areas of
society and culture, but the starting point is always the individual since media
are defined as technological extensions of the body” (p. 204). For Husserl,
the world also extended out from the experiencing individual: “The animal
body,” wrote Husserl, “bears the zero-point of orientation for the pure ego, as
its absolute ‘here’. … [T]he animated body … is also the one who is zero. …
Thus, the zero shifts position in relation to the other unified centres to which
perceptions accrue; but as it does so, the series of their appearings change
in a regular way” (Husserl, paraphrased in Sawicki, 2001, section 6, par. 13).
And for Heidegger, Dasein’s “active and engaged Being-in-the-world”
meant, “meaning is tied up with our existence as experiencing active beings”
(Feenberg, 2005, p. 1). For Heidegger, human beings thus had a central role in
bringing out the very Being of things within the meanings enabled by “human
witnessing” (p. 21) because the meaning of things are intimately connected
“with our existence as experiencing active beings” (p. 1).
More specifically, McLuhan’s perceptual model looks at how technological
innovation—and especially communications technologies—affects an indi-
vidual’s “sensory perception [and] modes of cognition” (Striegel, 1978, p. 4) as

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well as influencing “the alteration of social and psychic environments” (p. 4).
Furthermore, McLuhan sought in his perceptually centered tetradic method to
understand this technologically mediated experience at the micro-perceptual
level before any theories of that experience (Gordon, 1997, p. 204; Striegel,
1978, p. 4). McLuhan’s perceptual model was thus congruent with Husserl’s
plan for phenomenology but with a specific interest in technologically medi-
ated life: it offers a subject-centered perspective of the lived experience of
mediated reality as opposed to the “abstracted and objectified” theory of
human experience preoccupying the positivistically minded fields of social
science (Striegel, 1978, p. 5). This parallels the same research stance advo-
cated by all branches of phenomenology: to bracket out a priori theories as
much as possible and go directly to the heart of the “things themselves” as
they engage with the lived-body’s intentional powers.
It is here, at the bodily level, where McLuhan’s affinity with existen-
tial phenomenology is strongest. This is particularly evident in McLuhan’s
understanding of sensory ratios, technologically mediated experience, and
perception—what Striegel terms McLuhan’s modalities of perception (Striegel,
1978, p. 4). A hermeneutical phenomenology also is palpable in McLuhan’s
understanding of the “interpretive recognition” (p. 4) required for conscious
awareness of the social and psychic changes imposed on individuals by the
use of human artifacts.
Striegel’s work is crucial, for re-reading McLuhan today for at least two
reasons. First, because he was among the first to thoroughly counter the claim
that McLuhan had no rigorous theories, a claim often leveled, as we have
already pointed out, in order to question the integrity of his work. Second,
because Striegel was among the first to suggest the possibility of a phenom-
enological McLuhan when, for example, he claimed that McLuhan’s percep-
tual model looks at “the effects of innovation on the individual’s… subjective
perception and interpretation of experience” (Striegel, 1978, p. 4).
A third reason positions McLuhan’s perceptual model of mediated expe-
rience within the phenomenological tradition. The roots of the phenomeno-
logical movement and McLuhan’s general media theory can be traced back to
the same fervent humanist—anti-positivist—revivals in philosophy, art, social
science, and literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that countered
detached Cartesian intellectualism and modernity’s scientism and positivism
(Gordon, 1997; Marchand, 1998). This intellectual movement, returning to the
experiencing- and interpreting-subject, infused itself into the academic and
cultural veins of the age, positioning human subjectivity and perception at the
center of reality (Hakim, 2001), by exploring notions such as the “plasticity”
of time and reality (Striegel, 1978, p. 14). Inspired by Kant, Kierkegaard, and
Nietzsche at the expense of Descartes’ dualism and Hume’s, Berkeley’s, and
Locke’s “Ways of Ideas” (Leahey, 2001, pp. 41-47), the focus on the “unique-
ness of human perception” (Striegel, 1978, p. 14)—furthered by the life philoso-
phies of James, Bergson, Dilthey, and others—inspired American Pragmatism,
the Chicago School of sociology, ethnomethodology, Gestalt psychology, and
phenomenology. This intellectual movement also had a large influence on all
aspects of 20th century “stream of consciousness” literature such as Joyce, Poe,
Pound, and the symbolist poets that inspired both McLuhan (Striegel, 1978)
and existentialist philosophers (Pollio et al., 1997). Husserl himself wrote
of “the living unity of consciousness as it flows along in a stream of experi-
ences” (Husserl, cited in Sawicki, 2001, sect, five, par. 1). It is from this intel-
lectual atmosphere that McLuhan also drew inspiration in part for his own

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perceptual model of subjective experience, his media theory, and the notion
that communication technologies extend the human body, senses, and mind
(Marchand, 1998; Striegel, 1978). It is also from this intellectual fervor that
20th-century phenomenological philosophies in part emerge from.
Notwithstanding the above, as Corey Anton (Ralon & Anton, 2010)
recently pointed out, phenomenology often is seen as a catch-all concept that
creates much confusion:

This is one of the difficulties of the idealist/Cartesian legacy within one


strand of phenomenology, namely transcendental phenomenology.
The word “phenomenology,” outside of the rigorous field proper (and
I mean existential thinkers like Heidegger, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty),
means so many things. For example, some people like Maturana and
Varela—whose work I like—somewhat make it seem like phenomen-
ology is basically “philosophy in the first-person;” it’s from the inside
out, like that “doom” video game, where you are the perspective, as
opposed to seeing your own character in the video field
(cited in Ralon & Anton, 2010, par. 10) 

McLuhan himself was caught in this confusion and confounded phenomenol-


ogy for a “Cartesian thing,” when in fact an important distinction must be
drawn between the transcendental phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and
the existential/ontological phenomenology of Heidegger, Sartre, and Merleau-
Ponty. We now turn to McLuhan’s (mis)understanding of phenomenology.

McLuhan and Phenomenology: The Trade-Offs


of Technological Mediation
The most obvious—if still under-explored—correspondence between
McLuhan and Heidegger’s views on technological existence and the work of
Heideggerian-inspired philosophers of technology such as Herbert Marcuse
(2002), Albert Borgmann (2003), Hubert Dreyfus (1991), Andrew Feenberg
(1999), Don Ihde (1979, 1983) and Michael Heim (2005), lies in the notion
that technological existence brings with it a “double aspect.” This view means
that any technology both reveals or extends certain aspects of the world while
concealing or obscuring others; at the same time, the very technologies that
contour the world “presence” and “absence” themselves from our fields of
awareness. To McLuhan, Heidegger and his intellectual followers, this neces-
sarily means that there are “trade-offs” (Heim, 2005) to the introduction and
use of any technology. For Heidegger, the working out of our mediations’
double aspect with the world via its objects is strongest in his most expressly
phenomenological work, Being and Time (1996), where he develops the
notion of the “unconcealing” (“disclosing”) and the “concealing” (“undis-
closing”) of the world via the equipmentality. That is, for Heidegger, some
aspects of the world are brought forth and revealed while, at the same time,
other aspects are concealed via the lived encounters between human beings
(loosely, Dasein) and the artifacts of the world “in use.” Borgmann, Dreyfus,
and Ihde view this double aspect as what is “revealed” (“focal”) and “forgot-
ten” (“fringe”) in the process of mediation; they are all concerned with how
this plays on our awareness and alters our lived-through world experiences.
For his part, McLuhan (McLuhan, Hutchon, & McLuhan,  1977; McLuhan
& McLuhan, 1988; McLuhan & Nevitt, 1972; McLuhan & Powers,1989)

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called this double-aspect dynamic the “figure/ground” of technological exist-


ence, which influences our “sensory awareness,” changes our sociocultural
and ecological environments, and, ultimately, “translates” and “transforms”
our notions of selfhood in ways that “extend” our bodies and conscious-
ness while simultaneously “reducing” aspects of accustomed ways of life and
perception (i.e., McLuhan’s basis for his “laws of media”). In other words,
all believe that technologies, in simultaneity, give to and take away from our
everyday lives, interplaying with and, in varying degrees, affecting how we
conceive of reality.
Another correspondence between McLuhan and Heideggerian philoso-
phers of technology are that neither tend to be completely technophobic
or technophilic; they all accept modernity’s technological providence while
advocating for the need to think critically about how we can “absorb” modern
technologies’ “impact” (Heim, 2005, p. 356). For Heidegger (1977), “what is
dangerous is not technology. There is no demonry of technology, but rather
there is the mystery of its essence” (p. 28). Similarly, for McLuhan (McLuhan
& Powers, 1989) there is no inevitability [to the technological juggernaut] …
where there is a willingness to pay attention” (p. 12). According to Heim,
McLuhan and Heidegger were thus “soft determinists” (p. 356).
For McLuhan and Heidegger, a circumspect disposition toward technol-
ogy meant that we could avoid the “juggernaut rolling over [us]” (McLuhan,
cited in Benedetti & DeHart, 1997, p. 70) while “remaining held fast in our will
to master it” (Heidegger, 1977, p. 32). Moreover, McLuhan, Heidegger, and
Heidegger-inspired philosophers of technology deem that authentic living in
modern times requires an attempt to control the full-throttled, all-consuming,
instrumentalizing, and totalizing nature of a heavily technologized world. In a
time where technologically mediated “action and the reaction occur almost at
the same time” (McLuhan, 1964, p. 4), technologies’ effects risked us becom-
ing a “creature of [our] own machine” (McLuhan & Powers, 1989, p. 3). The
late-Heidegger called this the “Enframing” essence of technology (Heidegger,
1977, p. 22, which is a way of revealing and understanding that captures us in
the systems and frameworks of our very technics.
McLuhan too advocated the necessity for understanding how technology
interacts with our everyday lives and our greater world in a way similar to
the late-Heidegger’s belief that a “free relationship” (Heidegger, 1977, p. 3)
with our technologies was needed. We do not have to accept our enframed
technological capture as our ultimate fate, claimed Heidegger: Being can be
rediscovered without needing to either “push on blindly with technology”
(p. 25) or to “rebel helplessly against it” (p. 26). Rather, we can come to “free
relationship” with our technologies, Heidegger suggests, where “truth” can
be reclaimed from the “frenziedness of technology,” via the openings to other
possibilities laid out by nontechnologistic modes of expression and life such as
art, poetry, and circumspectful modes of thinking and living (Heidegger, 1977,
p. 35). McLuhan also believed that the artist was ahead of his or her time. For
McLuhan, art, poetry, and more aesthetic modes of living could open up ways
for us to more profoundly understand the “actions” (McLuhan, 1951, p. v), or
patterns, of the instrumental and the ways it structures our existence. Often
concerned with events that have not yet become visible, the message of artists
and oracles is not meant to be immediately accepted; instead, their function
is to pave the way for the future to unfold by challenging the past with the
painfully manifested absurdity of the present, often through controversy and
eccentricism (Ralon, 2009b, pp. 335-336). It is in this sense that Ezra Pound

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called the artist “the antennae of the race.” McLuhan (1964) later borrowed
and elaborated on the notion, as the following quotes illustrate:

• The serious artist is the only person able to encounter technology with
impunity, just because he is an expert aware of the changes in sense
perception. (p. 19)
• The artist picks up the message of cultural and technological challenge
decades before its transforming impact occurs. (p. 71)
• The ability of the artist to sidestep the bully blow of new technology of any
age, and to parry such violence with full awareness, is age-old. (p. 72)
• And it is here that the artist can show us how to “ride with the punch,”
instead of “taking it on the chin.” (p. 73)
• Only the dedicated artist seems to have the power for encountering the
present actuality. (p. 77)

In addition to the artist, McLuhan had great hopes in the new sensibilities
of the retribalized youth of the 1960s. In the “Playboy Interview” (1995) he
declared:

Because education, which should be helping youth to understand and


adapt to their revolutionary new environments, is instead being used
merely as an instrument of cultural aggression, imposing upon retribal-
ized youth the obsolescent visual values of the dying literate age.
(p. 249)

Similarly, Heidegger believed that techné of the peasant possessed a pre-


ontological mode of understanding that could cut through the enframing of
technological existence. David Cooper (1996) writes:

In a 1934 radio talk, Heidegger said, in romantic vein, that “philosophi-


cal work” belongs less in the academic’s study than “right here in the
midst of the peasant’s work. … It is intimately rooted in … the life of
the peasants.” Operating here, presumably, is the idea that the peasant,
like the traditional craftsman, is the possessor of that “primordial” prac-
tical understanding “in the hands” which the rest of us, seduced by the
“theoretical,” have largely lost. In that respect, the peasant is closer to
Being—to what makes any understanding possible in the first place—
than the city-slicker of the scientist.
(p. 54)

Finally, Heidegger, Marcuse, Feenberg, and Ihde, in particular, share in


McLuhan’s ultimate aim for understanding our technological reality better. All
of their projects are about empowering individuals and societies to always ask
themselves: How can we mitigate, control, or escape the “inevitable changes”
that new technologies bring? (Ralon, 2009a, p. 29).

Assessing McLuhan’s Understanding of Phenomenology


Despite their common roots, it was not until late in his career—in a 1977
letter—that McLuhan admitted to “only [becoming] aware of phenomenology
recently” (McLuhan, cited in Molinaro et al., 1987, p. 529). In further admit-
ting later in the same letter that “I should have [looked into phenomenology]

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long ago” (p. 529) (a surprising confession for an inter-disciplinarian of his


caliber), McLuhan in essence is disclosing that he failed to see earlier on in
his career the full wealth of insights that phenomenology could have offered
his own perceptual and analogical methods. When he did eventually turn
to phenomenology in the late 1970s, he was in the midst of a hectic sched-
ule that included writing The Laws of Media and The Global Village, all the
while engaging in extensive travels and appearances that preceded his debili-
tating 1979 stroke that would ultimately terminate his life. In the midst of
his frenzied and debilitating last years, it is perhaps not surprising that his
readings and analyses of select aspects of the phenomenological tradition are
fragmentary and overly critical. Judging by his comments in his letters and
published works of the time, McLuhan appears to have turned to phenom-
enology reluctantly and with critical caveats, ultimately—and unconvincingly,
we think—dismissing most phenomenological methods for application in
his own work (see McLuhan & McLuhan, 1988, pp. 10-11, 60-65, 121-126;
McLuhan & Powers, 1989, pp. 6, 27). If both the intellectual roots and theo-
retical positions of McLuhan and Heideggerian-inspired phenomenologies
run deep in many ways, why did McLuhan not turn to phenomenology more
fully in his perceptual model and tetradic method, choosing instead to apply
the more controversial left/right brain metaphor for exploring the perceptual
affects of technological mediation? Reviewing his two biographies and his
published letters, it can be argued that McLuhan misread phenomenology in
two fundamental ways, first claiming that phenomenology was “identical to
the Cartesian thing” (McLuhan, cited in Molinaro et al., 1987, p. 529) and,
second, that it was “all figure and no ground” (p. 528).
McLuhan’s view of phenomenology was further tainted by his aversion
to philosophical over-theorizing and was negatively encapsulated for him in
“the techniques and doubts of bracketing” (Gordon, 1997, p. 313) that led
to philosophical “obfuscation via jargon” (p. 314). As Gordon reports, and
as McLuhan’s own comments in published letters suggest, he throws all
phenomenologies into this Cartesian cauldron. Because of this, his overall
reading of phenomenology is tarnished, lumping as he does Hegelian dialectics
with Husserlian phenomenology and Heideggerian ontology: “From Hegel
to Heidegger,” McLuhan wrote, “phenomenologists have tackled … a right-
hemisphere problem using left-hemisphere techniques—which is comparable
to tap-dancing in chains” (McLuhan & Powers, 1989, p. 6). Further to this, he
states:

It does not seem to matter whether it is Hegel, or Husserl, or Heidegger,


phenomenology is the light coming through a figure from a hidden
ground and this leads to all the techniques and doubts of “bracketing.”
I think the obfuscation via jargon which had been going on in the name
of philosophy during these centuries is a professional racket.
(McLuhan, cited in Gordon, 1997, pp. 313-314)

In The Laws of Media (McLuhan & McLuhan, 1988), McLuhan underscored this
opinion when he concluded, “the root problem of phenomenology … is that it
is an all-out attempt by dialectic to invent … or force a sort of ground to surface”
(pp. 10-11). Here again McLuhan seems to be confounding the existential
phenomenology of Heidegger with the more dialectical French existentialism
of Jean-Paul Sartre, whose work has been characterized (albeit a little unfairly)
as a “brilliant misunderstanding of Heidegger” (cited in Dreyfus,  2005). It is

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not our aim here to discuss the differences between Heideggerian and Sartrean
phenomenologies. For our purposes, suffice it to say that Hegelian dialectics
is about synthesis, and synthesis, even as it suggests progress through the
clash of opposites, is still reliant on dichotomies and dualisms. By contrast,
both McLuhan’s and Heidegger’s work are about balance (i.e., circumspec-
tion, ratios, free relation), immersion (i.e., “being in… ,” environments), and
potentiality rather than synthesis and lineal progress. In Heidegger, the prob-
lem of the external world is overcome by an alternative and radical conception
of the self: the thrown human Dasein—“outside and past its fleshy bounda-
ries” (Anton, 2001, p. 22)—replaces the Aristotelian notion of a self-sufficient
substance, the Cartesian notion of a solitary thinking subject, and the Kantian
notion of a transcendental ego. In McLuhan, the problem of the external world
is overcome by the notions of technology as “extensions of ourselves,” which
culminates in the externalization of the nervous system on a global scale that
places man inside the nervous system.
Although an existential side to McLuhan is visible, why did he not see
himself as a phenomenologist? Where did he err in his views about the tradi-
tion? McLuhan’s first critique of phenomenology—that it was a “Cartesian
thing”—was based on the common misconception that, since Heidegger was
Husserl’s student, the former uncritically appropriated and carried on with
the latter’s work when, on the contrary, Heidegger radicalized (existential-
ized) Husserlian transcendental phenomenology. Still, Husserl’s phenomenol-
ogy, McLuhan (McLuhan & McLuhan, 1988) claimed, was too dualistically
Cartesian, dialectically Hegelian, and therefore, contextually insensitive, creat-
ing “a new split between inner and outer experience” (p. 61). This was, for
McLuhan, evident in Husserl’s concept of the “epoché,” that is, the bracketing
out of the world prior to the reduction proper—“a break en bloc with the world-
belief” (Ricoeur, 1967, p. 95). Husserl’s goal was for researchers to suspend
(bracket) all preconceived beliefs and theories so as to arrive at pure conscious-
ness (a science of phenomena) in search of the noematically and noemically
transcendental essences—the invariant structures of human experiences.
In his critique of the epoché, however, it seems that McLuhan missed the
fact that Heidegger also took issue with Husserl’s phenomenological reduc-
tion and his pursuit of transcendental subjectivity, considering “idealistic.”
Insteaad, Heidegger (1996) proposed his own unique brand of phenomenol-
ogy as a method for his fundamental ontology: “only as phenomenology is
ontology possible” (p. 35). His phenomenological ontology—the science
of the being of beings (p. 37)—centers around “being-in-the-world,” the
fundamental structure whereby Dasein’s character is defined existentially. To
be thrown into and amidst things in the world means that we are “already
always” fully engaged with the world in acts of pre-reflective awareness
driven by “operative intentionality” (Merleau-Ponty, 1962, p. 429), a state
often referred to as “ongoing skilful coping” (Dreyfus, 1991), or “mindless
everyday coping” (Stewart, 1996, p. 33). The pre-reflective, prelinguistic, and
preconceptual interpretative encounters with our objects of concern take place
at a rock-bottom level of awareness that precedes any attempts at predicating
objectively present-at-hand entities (Anton, 2001, p. 30). That is, we cannot
bracket the lived-through experience of the world and theoretical knowledge
is only derivative of the sort of implicit (preontological) understanding that
characterizes Dasein as thrown being-in-the-world.
In short, Cartesian ontology was rejected by all Heideggerian-influenced
phenomenologies (Moran & Mooney, 2002). Using McLuhan’s own terms,

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existential and hermeneutic phenomenologies can be considered pretheoretical


and “right-brained” approaches, as opposed to theory-laden, objectively
detached, and “left-brained” worldviews. In fact, all Heideggerian-inspired
phenomenological analyses are rooted in Heidegger’s (2001) notion that
“every inquiry is a seeking” and that “every seeking gets guided beforehand
by what is sought” (p. 24). As Dreyfus (1991) asserted, “Heidegger’s herme-
neutic phenomenology … calls into question both the Platonic assumption
that human activity can be explained in terms of theory and the central place
the Cartesian tradition assigns to the conscious subject” (p. 5). That is, herme-
neutic and existential phenomenology both aspire to “describe a phenom-
enon as they are lived rather than to give an abstract explanatory account” of
how or why a phenomenon occurs (Pollio et al., 1997, p. 46).
This specifically anti-Cartesian research stance was not relegated to
Heidegger alone. Gadamer built on Heidegger’s post-Husserlian ideas and
founded what has come to be known as the school of hermeneutic phenom-
enology that advocates an interpretive stance for human science research
where the researcher embraces the active interpretation of the world with
the participant (Schwandt, 2000). One of the things Merleau-Ponty does
in Phenomenology of Perception is to engage in a critical conversation with
Cartesian worldviews such as intellectualism, scientism, and cognitivism by
bringing back the entire body, not just the mind, as the locus from which
human beings apprehend the world (Mallin, 1979). And Ihde (1979, 1983),
Giorgi (1985), and more recent existential phenomenological psychologists
such as Pollio et al. (1997), advocated further amendments to Husserlian
methodologies in, for example, Giorgi’s and Pollio et al.’s dialogic interview
techniques (Pollio et al, 1997). Such amended reductions use imaginative
variations in phenomenological descriptions (Ihde, 1983), or develop situated
descriptions of participant experiences analyzed from data gathered using long
interviews. In other words, for McLuhan to have critiqued all phenomenology
on the grounds of being “left-brained” is unfounded when one considers that
Husserl’s notion of a first-person phenomenologist bracketing out the world
in a transcendental reduction also has been contested and moved beyond by
post-Husserlian, Heideggerian-inspired phenomenologists.
In summary, the evidence from McLuhan’s books, biographies, and
published letters suggests that McLuhan failed to distinguish the various
branches of phenomenology and certainly failed to differentiate Heideggerian
phenomenology from the Husserlian variant (see, e.g., McLuhan & McLuhan,
1988, p. 62; and McLuhan & Powers, 1989, p. 6). Furthermore, it seems he
only read Heidegger and other phenomenologists superficially and in pass-
ing. McLuhan mentions Heidegger enigmatically in The Gutenberg Galaxy
(1962, p. 248), all too-briefly comments on his philosophy of the “Enframing”
in The Laws of Media (1988, pp. 63-64), and gives only one very cursory
and highly critical observation on Heidegger’s philosophy in The Global
Village (1989, p. 6).
McLuhan’s second critique, that Heideggerian-inspired phenomenolo-
gies are “all figures and without grounds,” is also without foundation.
Although figure/ground was, by 1970, an essential tool in McLuhan’s media
toolbox (Gordon, 1997, p. 308), he did not seem to be aware, from the
evidence in his published works and letters, that existential phenomenology
had already adopted Gestalt psychology’s figure/ground analytics through
the writings of Sartre and Merleau-Ponty. Merleau-Ponty’s studies on
gestalts and perception have subsequently inspired more recent existential

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phenomenological research, such as the work of Giorgi (1985), Pollio et al.


(1997, pp. 5, 12), and others.
In existential phenomenological psychology, Gestalt figure/grounds add
the concept of the “horizon” of an experience. That is, all experiences have
multiple or multiperspectival contextual grounds that texture them (Pollio
et al, 1997, pp. 14-15). This analysis could have helped McLuhan articulate his
tetradic method by using the already understood language of phenomenol-
ogy to communicate his theories more broadly and effectively. As explained
by  existential phenomenological psychologists Pollio et al. (1997), Merleau-
Ponty applied figure/ground descriptions to reveal that the objects of experience
have varying parts within the person’s experiential frame: In Merleau-Ponty’s
phenomenology, experience of any object includes, at the same time, the visi-
ble aspects of the object (figure, focal), the elements of it not visible (ground,
fringe), as well as the “degrees of horizon” of the experience (or the situated
context of the experience), all contributing to the totality of the experience
(Pollio et al., 1997, p. 13). For example, in Merleau-Ponty’s own phenomenol-
ogy and in the existential phenomenology psychology he inspired,

These perceptual demonstrations capture an extremely general aspect


of human experience: All objects of experience are experienced only in
relation to some less clear part of the total situation serving to situate
the focal object. There are no figures by themselves: All figural aspects of
(perceptual) experience always emerge against some ground that serves
to delineate its specific experiential form—in the case of our perceptual
examples, their specific shapes.
(Pollio et al., 1997, p. 12)

It is interesting to note that McLuhan himself could have written this


passage.
By “degrees of horizon,” Merleau-Ponty meant that both the object expe-
rienced and the person doing the experiencing have multiple grounds that
surround them and that any one perspective on an experience is only one
among an infinite possibility of perceptions and interpretations (p. 13). In
surprisingly similar language to McLuhan’s, the interplay of the figures and
grounds of awareness, together with the horizon of experience, make up the
totality of the experiential event. McLuhan’s critique of phenomenology’s
lack of understanding of figure/ground, therefore, exposes McLuhan’s lack of
awareness—or, at least, a refusal to recognize—Gestalt psychology’s influence
on existential phenomenology after Merleau-Ponty. In fact, McLuhan had
many years to encounter existential phenomenological theories focusing on
the figures and grounds of perception. Indeed, by Understanding Media, he is
already referencing Gestalt psychology (see McLuhan, 1964, pp. 54 and 201).
Furthermore, as early as his media writings of the late 1950s and especially by
The Gutenberg Galaxy in 1962, McLuhan already speaks of “the unified field of
electric all-at-onceness” (1962, p. 63, cited in Gordon 1997, p. 427). During
these years, Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, much of it grounded
in Gestalt psychology, was translated into English by 1962 and his Essential
Writings by 1969. Existential phenomenological figure/ground analysis might
also have given McLuhan more tools to expand his media extensions meta-
phor, grounding it in its rich presence/absence terminology, for example. As
Pollio et al. (1997) explain, the totality of the experience of the thing—the
object’s perceptual figure, ground, and horizon—reveals the experiences of

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any object as simultaneous “presences” (figures) and “absences” (grounds).


As Pollio et al. (1997) write:

Things have varying parts to my experiential frame, the things visible of


the object and the elements not visible, the fringe, and the degrees of
horizon. … Objects that appear always do so as a play of presence and
absence-in-presence.
(p. 14)

Ihde (1983) adopted the absence/presence language to further explain his typol-
ogies of human–technology relations and frame his version of the double nature
of technological existence: “For technology to function well,” Ihde writes,“it must
become a kind of barely noticed background effect. It must itself ‘withdraw’ so that
human action which is embodied through technology can stand out” (p. 52).
In summary, had McLuhan taken a closer look at phenomenology’s critiques
of Cartesianism, the post-Husserlian ways of addressing the phenomenological
practice of bracketing, phenomenology’s methodological position of holding
off on theorizing and relying on description to arrive at the meanings of expe-
rience, and existential phenomenology’s use of Gestalt psychology’s figure/
ground—all fully compatible with his ontology/epistemology—McLuhan might
have provided his own methodology with an array of additional and rigor-
ous tools with which to assess human–technology relations. Once again, it is
not the intention here to dress McLuhan in the robes of an existentialist; rather,
the objective was to expose an existential side of McLuhan that has impor-
tant affinities with Heideggerian-inspired phenomenologies; these should be
explored for the mutual benefit of media ecology and phenomenology. The
process of advancing McLuhan must begin not by morphing, worshipping, or
moving beyond McLuhan, but conducting explorations at the level of ground;
a phenomenological McLuhan is in fact an inherent possibility grounded in
unexplored areas of his multifaceted oeuvre. Having exhibited here a general
connection, we hope to uncover further resonating intervals in future papers.

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Suggested citation
Ralon, L. and Vieta, M. (2011). ‘McLuhan and Phenomenology’. Explorations in
Media Ecology 10: 3+4, pp. 185–206, doi: 10.1386/eme.10.3-4.185_1

Contributor details
Laureano Ralon earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from  Simon Fraser
University School of Communication under the supervision of Dr.  Brian
Lewis  and Dr.  Roman Onufrijchuk. He worked as a teaching assistant for
SFU’s  Center for Online and Distance Education, and as  a  research assist-
ant for the Center for Policy Research on Science and Technology, the New
Media Innovation Center, and the 2006  Telecommunications Policy Review
Panel. Ralon is the founder of Figure/Ground Communication, and has writ-
ten on various topics related to communication, technology and society.
Contact: Eeuu 1947 2G, Capital Federal Buenos Aires 1227, Argentina.
E-mail: laureano@alumni.sfu.ca

Marcelo Vieta is nearing completion of his Ph.D. in Social and Political Thought
at York University in Toronto. Since January 2012, he is visiting post-doc-
toral researcher at the European Research Institute on Cooperative and Social
Enterprises. He also is a research associate at the Centre for Research on Latin
America and the Caribbean, a board member of the Canadian Association
for Studies in Co-operation, and a founding member of the autonomous
community education collective Toronto School of Creativity & Inquiry. He
has published articles in Labor Studies, Affinities, Studies in the Education of

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Laureano Ralon | Marcelo Vieta

Adults, and Canadian Journal of Non-Profit and Social Economy Research, as well
as six book chapters.
E-mails: vieta@yorku.ca; marcelo@vieta.ca

Laureano Ralon and Marcelo Vieta have asserted their right under the
Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the authors of
this work in the format that was submitted to Intellect Ltd.

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