Look to the Future, but also to the Past, but All at Once

McLuhan, M., & McLuhan, E. (1992). “Tetrads. In Laws of media: The new science. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Four Laws of Media (tetrad); first/second nature; structures/performances of media

McLuhan explains what he calls the tetrad, or the four laws of media, as a means of understanding how media affect and influence us. The tetrad is an illustration of four aspects (enhancement, obsolescence, retrieval, and reversal) of media which are complementary and occur simultaneously in order to create new media environments and reshape old ones.

“This tetrad of the effects of technologies and artefacts presents not a sequential process, but rather four simultaneous ones. All four aspects are inherent in each artefact from the start. The four aspects are complementary and require careful observation of the artefact in relation to its ground, rather than consideration in the abstract.” p. 99

“Retrieval is not simply a matter of hauling the old thing back onto stage, holus-bolus. Some translation or metamorphosis is necessary to place in into relation to the new ground… The old thing is brought up to date, as it were.” p. 101

“In presenting the laws of media in tetrad form, our object is to draw attention to situations that are still in process, situations that are structuring new perception and shaping new environments, even while they are restructuring old ones: the structures of media dynamics are inseparable from performance.” p. 116

From our reading and discussion of The Medium is the Massage last week, we were introduced to two parts of McLuhan’s tetrad: media and technology (artefacts) are created as an extension of some human faculty, as a sort of “prosthesis” (enhancement); while also “amputating” some other faculty (obsolescence). The four laws of media introduce us to two other aspects that are also at play: reversal and retrieval. But what does this reading and these new aspects add to our understanding of how artefacts work on us?

In order to answer that question, we must note that McLuhan sees the processes in his tetrad as functioning simultaneously. Each of the four aspects are built in to the artefacts, and he emphasizes this textually, as well as visually in the way that the tetrad is designed with a lack of sequence or hierarchy.

McLuhan argues that prior media study was too preoccupied with what the artefact enables and what it replaces (p.99), so he wanted to go further and find out how far it goes in either direction — that is, what obsolete artefact from the past does the new artefact call back to and recontextualize (retrieval), and how far forward can it go until becomes both opposite and complementary to itself (reversal)?

Enhancement and obsolescence are essentially considered to be a simultaneous, complementary dichotomy in the four laws of media, which is fairly easy to understand. Reversal and retrieval operate in the same way. Media is an attempt to extend or enhance our capabilities, but it is also an attempt to bring us back into balance with our physical being, our “organic first nature” as McLuhan puts it (p.116). With every attempt to improve our faculties through media and technology (via the process of enhancement and reversal; creating our “second nature”), we are also hearkening back to those original and organic faculties (our first nature) and updating them to be in relation to our current context — in relation to the new “ground” of the medium.

Going back to the point of simultaneity, McLuhan points out that these aspects are part of an endless and continuous process that is happening all at once, not sequentially. In order to fully understand how media work on us, we need to understand that they are not only creating new forms of life, they are also recreating and recontextualizing old ones — we need to understand that the “structures” of media are inseparable from their “performances” (p.116).

I think one of the most important themes to this reading and the idea of the tetrad in general is the distinction between our first nature (this is our physical being; our bodily capabilities and mental faculties) and our second nature (all of the media, technology and artefacts we create that enable as well as inhibit us). 
 Given that, what do you think of McLuhan’s argument that all creation of new media is somehow rooted in our first nature? Is it possible to think of media and technologies without somehow considering their “etymologies” in terms of our first nature? Does this mean that the human ideal is somehow fusing the organic and the artificial?