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Re: <nettime> No Soap! Radio?
Newmedia on Wed, 1 May 2013 22:07:38 +0200 (CEST)

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Re: <nettime> No Soap! Radio?

> I'm wondering if you can elaborate on something 
> here, as I find what you're saying to be important, 
> of course. in applying language, like McLuhan's 
> "environment" to technologies or media, how do you
> disentangle  "our" understanding of them from the 
> "environment" itself?

Carefully?  Painfully?  By  somehow getting "outside" that environment . . 
. ??
Or, as McLuhan said, "I don't know who discovered water but it wasn't a  
After spending his life working on this problem, McLuhan came to use the  
FIGURE and GROUND relationships explored by Gestalt Psychology to discuss 
this  difficulty.  In this approach, the ground-of-our-experience is  
psychologically "hidden" (as a defense mechanism?) and tends to be exposed when  the 
figures-that-attract-our-attention change but remains elusive even  then.
For McLuhan, whose day-job was English professor, the dramatic changes in  
20th century literature were a powerful touchstone for him to illustrate how 
 this works.  In particular, James Joyce was a prime example of someone  
trying to expose a changing ground (in his case, to an "electric media  
environment") that required his poetic gymnastics to become  manifest. 
I've been asking people I run into two questions for a few years now -- 1)  
do you think that the Internet has already changed everything? and 2) what 
the  most important changes in your attitudes caused by the Internet?
The first is a *figure* question and 95%+ of those I ask say YES.   Figures 
are easy.
The second is a *ground* question and very few can say anything other than, 
 "Now I have an iPhone, etc." -- which, of course, is a *figure* answer.   
Ground is difficult.
In Gestalt terms (as used by McLuhan), what we think we understand is  
typically figure, while the "environment" is ground and is rarely directly  
Even though it is clear to most people that the figures of our daily lives  
have changed, trying to understand *why* this has occurred (i.e. examining 
the  changing ground) is uncomfortable, if it's even tried at all.
My presumption is that McLuhan was pretty good at working on  this because 
he came from "nowhere" (e.g. Edmonton, Alberta) but still had  a strong 
sense of identity (i.e. he converted to Catholicism in his  mid-20's).
It also helped that he was an historian of RENAISSANCES (plural) -- so he  
wasn't limited by the need to force-fit everything into a single "linear"  
narrative, which requires you to deal mostly with figures and ignore  the 
counter-trends that dominate actual history -- and that he had quite a  lot of 
support (until he didn't and it all fell apart).
Clearly our need for IDENTITY is at work here, driving us to express what  
is easy for those around us to "agree" with -- which then tend to be 
figures,  even (or maybe especially) among those who consider themselves to be  
McLuhan managed to gather a group of people who *expected* him to say  
things that were puzzling, so he seems to have gotten away without too much  
"psychic" damage (although the fact that his brain "exploded" at one point 
might  indicate that the stress was a very real one.)
Mark Stahlman
Brooklyn NY

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