Brain Pickings

Design Legend David Carson Brings Marshall McLuhan’s “Probes” to Life

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One of the greatest living graphic designers reframes the greatest dead media theorist.

“McLuhan searches for semiotics beneath semiotics, levels of meaning beyond the messenger’s intent or the recipient’s awareness,” Philip B. Meggs once wrote. Though his most famous concept-catchphrases remain “the global village” and “the medium is the message”, Marshall McLuhan originated hundreds of other “probes” — cryptic aphorisms designed to push the reader or recipient into completing a thought process.

In The Book of Probes, Eric McLuhan, Marshall’s son, partners with media theorist William Kuhns and David Carson, considered by some the most influential graphic designer working today, to bring to life McLuhan’s sharpest probes culled from his books, speeches, classes, and various writings published between 1945 and 1980. Since McLuhan was as much a master of textual provocation as he was a co-conspirer in a new visual vernacular for the Information Age, Carson’s bold, thoughtful visual metaphors — all 400 gripping pages of them — present a powerful lens on McLuhan’s legacy that is at once completely fresh and completely befitting.

Terrance Gordon, author of the authorized biography Marshall Mcluhan: Escape Into Understanding, writes of the McLuhan-Carson pairing in one of the featured essays:

McLuhan’s words are about words, and Carson responds with a map about maps.

[…]

Unlike the spines of a cactus in their tidy rows, McLuhan’s prickly probes zigzag across a vast thoughtscape. Following him, keeping up with him, we have no time to rest or recognize a new location before he beckons us to move on. David Carson comes to our rescue. As translation into the local idiom and bearings for our current whereabouts, his art work roots us for a moment, even as McLuhan pulls us ahead. But Carson does not deliver comforting postcard views; his visual mosaics can leave us just as breathless as the punches of McLuhan’s prose. Snap and shoot, but no snapshots from either artist or writer.

The McLuhan-Carson partnership works constantly to turn symbiosis into synergy.”

The probes themselves, wrapped in Carson’s equally provocative and thought-provoking visual micro-narratives, reveal not one McLuhan but many — the social psychologist (“The content of new situations, both private and corporate, is typically the preceding situation.”), the linguist (“Languages are environments to which the child relates synesthetically.”), the artist (“Color is not so much a visual as a tactile medium.”), the scholar (“The content of new situations, both private and corporate, is typically the preceding situation.”), and a near-infinite number more

(Cue in Paola Antonelli on humanized technology.)

Kuhns points to four recurring keywords that define McLuhan’s probes: conditions (the idea that understanding hinges on the ability to remove oneself from a situation just enough to see the connections between various elements at play), space (the question of the human family’s confines and whether escape is even possible), resonant (the inescapability of our sound environment, which is a prison if we let it but an escape mechanism if we know what to listen for), and tribal drums (the concept of the resonant utterance, inspired by James Joyce’s vision for a western world retribalized by electric technology).

Other critical terms and themes also recur throughout McLuhan’s thinking and writing — the relationship between perception and conception (“Effects are perceived, whereas causes are conceived”), the interplay of figure and ground (“Ground cannot be dealt with conceptually or abstractly — it is ceaselessly changing, dynamic, discontinuous, and heterogeneous, a mosaic of intervals and contours”), semiotics and language (“The right word is not the one that names the thing but the word that gives the effect of the thing”).

Gordon observes in a featured essay:

All media of communications are clichés serving to enlarge man’s cope of actions, his patterns of association and awareness.”

(A note is due here on Gordon’s disappointing use of “man” and “his” to connote all of humanity — while the politics and semantic landscape of McLuhan’s era may have made such gender-skewed umbrella terms culturally acceptable, one would hope half a century of progress might demand a more balanced relationship with pronouns.)

The end of the book features 100 pages of selected precepts, fragments, and probes by McLuhan, including themes of intense timeliness and urgency:

The trouble with a cheap, specialized education is that you never stop paying for it.*

The print-made split between head and heart is the trauma that affects Europe from Machiavelli to the present.**

The media tycoons have a huge stake in old media by which they monopolize the new media.***

The amateur can afford to lose. The expert is the man who stays put.****

Symbolism consists in pulling out connections.*****

Candidates are now aware that all policies and objectives are obsolete. Perhaps there is some comfort to be derived from the fact that NASA scientists are in the same dilemma. While pursuing the Newtonian goals of outer space, they are quite aware that the inner dimensions of the atom are very much greater and more relevant to our century.”

Ultimately, The Book of Probes offers a prescient perspective on the present through the cerebral alchemy of McLuhan’s past-future. Kuhn concludes:

We cannot avoid being inundated by the powerful forces of the culture and technology that make up our environment, but we can look at their different effects and form strategies for controlling our destiny in the midst of the electric maelstrom. When we are faced with information overload, McLuhan tells us, the key to understanding is pattern recognition. The Book of Probes offers us that key.”

* See A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change.

** See David Brooks on the dangerous and artificial divide between reason and emotion and Einstein, Steve Jobs, and Anne Lamott on intuition vs. rationality.

*** See this 1923 critique of everything that’s wrong with modern media in a media equation where the “circulation manager” (once of newspapers, now of pageviews) has replaced the editor.

**** See Steve Jobs and other famous creators on the fear of failure.

***** See famous authors on the power and meaning of symbolism.

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