All about those tetrads.
McLuhan, M., & McLuhan, E. (1992). “Tetrads.” In Laws of media: The new science. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Laws of media; tetrads; Enhances; Reverses Into; Retrieves; Obsolesces;
McLuhan outlines a method, or laws of media, to evaluate, review, and understand media by applying a tetrad to explore how the media enhances, makes other things obsolete, retrieves things made obsolesced earlier, and how the media is flipped when pushed to extremes.
“In tetrad form, the artifact is seen to be not neutral or passive, but an active logos or utterance of the human mind or body that transforms the user and his ground.” (p. 99)
“. . . all human artefacts are extensions of man, outerings or utterings of the human body or psyche, private or corporate.” (p. 116)
“There is no ‘right way’ to ‘read’ a tetrad, as the parts are simultaneous.” (p. 129)
This week’s reading really helped to make sense of many of the conversations we’ve had in class over the past two weeks. Tetrads provide a basis for understanding media — something our group has debated and discussed extensively. Tetrads can be very simple (see McLuhan’s tetrad of a cigarette, p. 34) or incredibly complex (see his tetrad of romanticism on pp. 200–201). The tetrad model provides flexibility and power for “yes, and” in critical analysis of a media.
Consider cigarettes. McLuhan presents cigarettes as a simple tetrad and stops his analysis of reversal at nervousness and addiction in this text. But, this could be expanded to include a slew of cancers and other health issues, alteration of physical appearance, alienation from family and friends, and smelling awful. He stops his analysis of enhancements at calm and poise. Could we not also add fitting in and looking cool (think: teenagers and peer pressure), a stress reducer, a means for weight loss or appetite control? I could go on. But, I think the most interesting aspect of the idea of tetrads is the ability to dig deeper and continue exploration and analysis of the media.
McLuhan introduced the idea of looking at a media and not through it in The medium is the massage, a concept that can be difficult to understand and mobilize. Laws of media: The new science, in my opinion, seeks to provide a practical framework for this weighty task.
I also think McLuhan’s message that “in tetrad form, the artifact is seen to be not neutral or passive, but an active logos or utterance of the human mind or body that transforms the user and his ground” (p. 99), helps to make sense of our conversations around guns in our class discussions. No media can be passive, by simply existing, the media suggests a use and has the ability to impact the human mind or body.
Can all “things” be considered media when looking through McLuhan’s tetrad lens?
1974, Marshall McLuhan on the laws of media.