From Figure / Ground to Actor-Networks: McLuhan and Latour

Felix Stalder: felix@openflows.org


[Paper given at the Many Dimensions: The Extensions of Marshall McLuhan Conference, Toronto, 23-25 October, 1998.
For redistribution, please contact author first.]


The figure / ground concept is a theme that runs through almost all of McLuhan's books. This concept shapes McLuhan's ideas deeply and leads to some of his most profound, enigmatic and long-lasting insights -- the famous "the medium is the message" is but one. A great deal of McLuhan's work has been devoted to shifting attention from figure to ground. However, it is nowhere discussed in its own right, at least to my knowledge. But without that, we cannot understand McLuhan nor find ways to retain his key insights and avoid some of the problems that are connected to them.

This paper presents a brief assessment of this concept and contrasts it with an approach that has been developed without any reference to McLuhan but shares a similar shift in perspective: Actor-Network theory (ANT) as formulated by Bruno Latour.

The figure / ground idea was developed as one of the concepts of Gestalt psychology, a approach to what was called "perceptual organization". The question was: how do we perceive? This approach has had its heydays between the two world wars in Europe, a time when McLuhan was in England writing his Ph.D. thesis (completed in 1943). Gestalt, a German word infrequently used in colloquial German, in this context means the form that emerges out of the interaction of its part in the process of perception. The continuous movement in film, emerging from the rapid sequence of stills, for example.

The figure / ground relationship describes a way in which perception is structured. The figure and the ground together constitute the totality of what is perceivable. However, it is the figure on which perception is focused. The figure is what appears structured, as the foreground and whereas ground appears as unstructured and background. The boundary between the two appears to belong to the figure, that is why the figure has a shape whereas the ground appears to be shapeless. The figure is specific, the ground is generic.

This distinction between that which is perceived and that which is blocked out in order to focus perception is central for McLuhan. A great deal of his work is the result of shifting attention from the area of attention, the figure, to the area of inattention, the ground. McLuhan used different sets of words to describe the figure / ground relationship, for figure he used content, for ground he used environment, or more often, medium. The study of media, then, is the study of ground, the study of the area of inattention. This area of inattention, however, is where the pervasive influence of media unfolds, rather independent in the figures that appear easily visible. His Understanding Media, for example, is by and large the exploration of different grounds as they are structured by media such as Television, radio print, the car, clothing or money.

The ground, or environment, is not a passive container, but active processes that influence the relationships between all of the elements in it. Shifting attention to the ground, McLuhan found that the ground is not all generic, as it has been though by the psychologist. The ground is full of differences. Its elements are extremely heterogeneous -- basically everything except what you look at . Most important is that they are related across all categorical distinction. Their relationships ignore preconceived categories that modern science was all about establishing. However, these relationships are not random, but structured by the medium itself. And the restructuring of ground is the most important thing that a new media does. Hence, the medium itself is the message. To follow these patterns, one has to jump across categories and neatly separated distinctions. The speed with which McLuhan jumped in a seemingly random fashion from observation to observation is legendary. The reason why he did that, and why these jumps were natural to him, was because he described ground. The reason why he ran at such as speed was that he had to be fast enough to avoid turning what he described into figures, and, quite literally, he had to cover lots of ground.

Now turning attention to the area of inattention is a tricky, paradoxical thing. Given the intuitiveness with which McLuhan performed thus trick, few at the time, and today, have been able to understand it and even fewer to follow.

One of the reason for this is that McLuhan defined ground very poorly: basically as that which is ignored. This is problematic. Consequently, McLuhan ran into significant difficulties describing what ground is. In The Relation of Environment to Anti-Environment he writes: "An environment is naturally of low intensity and low definition. That is why it escapes observation." That doesn't clarify too much, one of the few methods to probe ground was the inventory, a list of related things without being specific about their relationships. While this had the advantage of not being trapped in inadequate categories, it wasn't overly specific either. Laws of Media is an attempt to become more specific. The tetrad is a way of probing ground. But again, the tetrad is strong in turning up surprising result but weak in arguing why these results matter. In short, it's something for insiders.

As a side note: McLuhan wasn't the only one who struggled with the difficulties in the paradox of focussing on ground -- the area of inattention. Martin Heidegger's fundamental distinction between beings and being, between Zuhandheit and Vorhandenheit, things that you can grasp and things that are just there, is not much less opaque.

However, the shift away from the single entities, the figures, to the surprising and strange combination of the diversity of things -- people, cultures, things and artifacts is ground breaking, so to speak. It is a necessary shift if we want to understand the ramifications of the new facts and artifacts that we are creating. But how can we manage this shift from the clearly defined, isolated entities to the hybrid configurations that are related to those entities? In other words, how can we move beyond taking of granted what needs to be explained?

One way of doing that is to forget about McLuhan, at least for a moment, and bring Bruno Latour on stage. Actually, I'm glad he isn't here! I have the impression he wouldn't feel overly comfortable in the neighbourhood of McLuhan. He told me that he hasn't read McLuhan and when we met briefly last May he wasn't particularly interested in exploring possible connections. In his writing, he only refers twice to McLuhan, and once he misspells the name!

In one case he refers to the "Toronto School of Communication". In Drawing Things Together, he writes: "It is all too easy to throw a set of clichés together extending Eric Havelock's argument about the Greek alphabet, or Walter Ong's rendering of the Ramist method, all the way to computer culture, passing through the Chinese obsession with ideograms, double-entry book keeping-and without forgetting the bible. Everyone agrees that print, images and writing are present everywhere, but how much explanatory burden can they carry? How many cognitive abilities may be, not only facilitated, but thoroughly explained by them? When wading though this literature, I have the sinking feeling that we are alternately on firm new ground and bogged down in the old marsh".

Reading McLuhan, everyone knows this oscillation between excitement and disappointment.

However, much of Latour's work can be read as an exploration of ground, or more specifically until recently, as an exploration of the ground of science, science in the making, as he called it a long time ago. And he came, if we disregard the differences in vocabulary, to surprisingly similar results. In Latour's vocabulary, the environment is the networks and the content is the fact, or artifact that we are investigating.

The clean world of scientific facts, or manufactured artifacts, cannot be understood with looking at the hybrid networks that sustain them. These hybrid networks connect people to machinery, machinery to things, things to funding committees, committees to articles in journals which are written by people and so on. Each of the elements in this hybrid arrangement is active, constantly involved in redefining all other elements in the networks. "We shape our tools and thereafter they shape us," as McLuhan used to say. Unfortunately, McLuhan saw this really as a temporal sequence-thereafter-and he was most concerned with the latter part of it: the impact of technology. While he acknowledged the simultaneity of different effects, he his approach as an underdeveloped notion of feedback or of "mutual constitution". This skewed focus contributed to him being called a techno-determinist, a misunderstanding which was prone to happen.

For Latour now, the shaping and being shaped of culture, technology, nature and people, is an endlessly ongoing process, and this is important, one without a clear temporal sequence or cause-effect relationship. In his networks, each elements is an actor. Actor for Latour has particular definition: "An 'actor' in ANT is a semiotic definition-an actant-, that is, something that acts or to which activity is granted by others. It implies no special motivation of human individual actors, nor of humans in general. An actant can literally be anything provided it is granted to be the source of an action (Latour 1997)." Much of the method of ANT consist now of "following the actors" of investigating relationships of mutual constitution between elements, whatever they are. Each of them has an ability to act, that is, to make certain things easier and other things harder, to change the overall constellation of the networks. The ability of act is not inherent in the actor but a consequence of his, her or its position in the network. Astronomy was seriously limited without a telescope. But is it the telescope that caused, or gave rise to modern astronomy?

ANT yields not the simple truism that everything is connected to everything which, by the way, is not true at all! Nor does it end in post-modern despair that everything is just a construction. Well yes, everything is a construction, but not an arbitrary one. Since not only texts are connected to one another but also people and things, a network is at the same time subjective and objective, infinitely malleable and rigid. And it often changes from one state to the other according to the connections between its constitutive elements.

Facts and artifacts are constructed, but not out of thin air, but of heterogeneous elements. They are social, cultural and natural at the same time! There are no ultimate movers, as McLuhan saw them in media structuring ground.

Latour spent a great deal of time detailing the sociological and philosophical ramifications of the shift from the pure to the hybrid (Latour 1993), or in McLuhan's terms, from the figure to the ground. He and his circle also produced a number of case-studies in which the theoretical ideas are tested for describing actual realities. One of my favourite studies examines the actor-networks of a mechanical door-opener!

The shift from McLuhan to Latour allows us to retain some of the key ideas of McLuhan, namely that the most interesting aspects of new technologies are that they indicate much more extensive changes in the environment. However, ANT might be able to describe these strange new connections in ways that are less declarative but more argumentative, less intuitive but more analytical.

References:

Latour, Bruno (1990). Drawing Things Together. pp. 19-68 in Lynch, Michael; Woolgar, Steve (eds.) Representation in Scientific Practice. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
---- (1993). We Have Never Been Modern (translated by Catherine Porter). New York, London: Harvester Wheatsheaf
---- (1997). On Actor-Network Theory: A few Clarifications. to be published in Soziale Welt, 1997 available at: http://www.keele.ac.uk/depts/stt/stt/ant/latour.htm
McLuhan, Marshall (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill
---- (1966). The Relation of Environment to Anti-Environment. University of Windsor Review
----; McLuhan, Eric (1988). Laws of Media: The New Science. Toronto: University of Toronto Press




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