Laws of Media-A New Science by Marshall & Eric McLuhan [Cosmos Café 2022-01-20]

Georges de La Tour Mary Magdalene with a Mirror

Eyeball to eyeball. The skull is a Baroque mirror.

The visual confrontation of life as shallow horror. In a visual culture honor can assume the character of profundity.

A universal symbol of death appears as a stage prop.

The feel of the dark against the sight of the skull.

The mirror reflects the Baroque quest for depth through duality.

" The artist today might well inquire whether he has time to make a space to meet the spaces that he will meet." Marshall McLuhan, Through the Vanishing Point

As technology changes our enviornmental spaces, it changes our sense of self as well. Most of us navigate our lives by a rear view mirror but today it is within our power to perceive more directly the Kleinian paradoxes of our man made world. In the next Cosmos Cafe we will probe visual and acoustic space with the guidance of the McLuhan’s weird book Laws of Media.

Reading / Watching / Listening

Preface and Introduction
Chapters 1-3
McLuhan_Marshall_McLuhan_Eric_Laws_of_Media_The_New_Science.pdf (3.9 MB)

Links to suggested reading, podcasts, video clips, or other media

Seed Questions

  • Q1
  • Q2

Context, Backstory, and Related topics

  • Other relevant links or topics, e.g., leading up to this talk
  • Links to additional reading, viewing, listening

Listen to these two recordings

What are the most beautiful sounds?
What are the ugliest sounds?
Are these questions useful?


Have you ever read a book and then seen the movie? What was your reaction? Do you react in the same way when you see a movie and then read the book? Think about your answer. What do your answers tell you about books, movies, or newspapers?


When you remember your childhood home, how many windows did it have? How many bathtubs? How many electrical outlets? Could you make a map of this? What would be the difference between your map and your memory?


Thanks for instigating this conversation, @johnnydavis54. I like your seed questions, which invite reflection on different qualities of mediated experience. We might become like fish now, thinking about the water we swim in.

I do have a very clear memory of my childhood home—I just emptied it out the year before last. What’s interesting to me, thinking about your question, is that if tried to make a map of the rooms, and even if I got certain details correct—such as the number of windows or outlets, the color of the walls, the patterns of the wallpaper, the stains on the carpet—I would still totally fail to convey the meaning or feeling of that home. Maybe a drawing or painting could transmit something more than a schema, but I don’t know have that artistic skill.

I would have to start telling stories, writing poems, making music, or perhaps conceiving a movie, to get any important information across. The visual by itself wouldn’t do it, but would require language, sound, and characters in motion, representations (thus unavoidably, reimaginings) of events, to convey the essence of my memory.

The intimate, intertwined, integral relationship between media and memory is interesting indeed, and I hope we’ll get to explore it more deeply in this series.


Thanks, Marco, for playing with my rather naive questions, which are sort of like gestalt warm ups. McLuhan’s enigmatic tetrad model, featured in the last chapters, have a spoon bending quality that reminds me of Escher drawings. I took a workshop years ago on spoon bending. It was a very strange experience. I succeeded in following the instructors model and after a few hours of practice everyone ( including myself) could do it. What happens is you have to practice and then forget about it and then it happens. A tetrad, is like a four line poem, a kind of stanza, a resonant structure, that happens by surprise. Like spoon bending.


I remember in one of our zoom calls ( can’t recall which one) you were in a room in your house on Long Island. You had a poor night’s sleep and as you talked a woman appeared and glided quickly behind you. You identified her as your mother. I wonder about the rooms that we are projecting our images from? It is all about images and rooms within the mind .

When I first started doing zoom calls I rehearsed by arranging the room I was in, trying to fix the lighting, and find a sense of being at home before a camera. I had to learn how to do a zoom call. It did not come naturally or intuitively. Nor does learning how to be heard from the stage to the back of the hall. It takes practice sounding ‘natural’ before a thousand spectators. I’ve fretted over my need for a different kind of workspace to make the modeling in the moment happen upon tiny square flat screens. This has bedeviled me as I am not made to work in such an alien enviornment. I have struggled and continue to struggle to bring forth that which within me in this alien enviornment, alien to my voice and my gestures, turning complex others into ar·rhyth·mic heads in boxes. Maybe this flat medium can gather a momentum again. We try.

I wondered, when that woman glided past you," Who is that beautiful woman?" And where do our memories of our mothers come from and where do they go? This is such a common theme we tend to ignore it.

Adorno asked can we create art after Aushwitz? Paul Celan, the great German poet, after his mother was shot by the gestapo, said he could not. After writing some of the saddest poems ever written, he drowned himself in a cold river.

This is the second pandemic that I have lived through. The first one wiped out everything that I loved and wanted. I’m writing about that experience. Covid intensifies the medicalization of humanity. What retrieve? The HIV terror, the same kind of scapegoating is re-emerging. What does Covid obselesce? What does it reverse? The same players that created that previous debacle are in charge of this one. And just as I did back then, I am still here in this second wave of mass destruction trying to forge alliances and create conditions for a ‘we’ that is the agent of struggle and what is struggled for. Transformation demands a collective subjectivity, which I find missing in our public lives, our constant citing of ephemeral facts and statistics, our perpetual information gathering. It is a non-linear mess but it still has a meta-pattern if we can develop the organs of perception to percieve that patterning with.

I hope, in our study of McLuhan, that we can create a space for new kinds of communiction skills to become more integrated. Can public policy change as a result? I have seen this happen before. Thanks again for everyone’s kind meta-attention.


Once when I took a nap, during the time after my dad died, and my mother was spiraling into liminal dementia, I was able to leave my physical body and move through the wall of living room, then into the kitchen, where there was nothing particularly going on, a lot of clutter, boxes everywhere, photos, dust… the broken scenery of family decay.

It was just like being a ghost, a ghost in a ghostly world. When I became too self-conscious about what I was doing, I got sucked back into the physical and soon I woke up, wondering if I could do that again.

We are creating a lot of images here, which will become part of a haunted archive. Who knows where this data will go when we die. Will it leave the body of this forum? I studied Celán in a theory class on “the limits of representation,” with Christopher Fynsk, really a beautiful man and a thinker’s thinker; and I remember Celán’s “Death Fugue”—his “black milk of morning,” remembering his mother, and the German soldier whose eye is blue, whose aim is true; and we watched Claudio Lanzman’s excruciating film, Shoah, which is a whole contemplation on time, dwelling with images of decommissioned concentration camps, yet no historical footage, everything captured in the present of the film, in survivors’ memories, and their recounting, in the artifacts of the dead.

Here I think may be an interesting study in the artistic use of this new medium we’ve been acclimating to:

I think she had a decent budget, and some CGI whizzes helping out, but we might imagine and enact still other new possibilities in our culture-making, which may ever so slightly yet significantly shift the media landscape, move meaning-making in new directions, with a little help from some friends.


Thanks for the link, Marco, I got a chance to watch Laurie’s first lecture with great interest. She works really well with the medium,reshaping the old school, academic Norton Lectures, with her own ineffable style. She is offering her own probes into her own process in telling a collective story that I find authentic. The AIDs epidemic echoes in her final song on drowning sailors, echos that seem to come right out of Whitman and Melville, the great poets who haunt the West Side, near the Hudson, where her dreams come from. I have spent many hours contemplating that river, too. Her communiques emerge out of a queer punk aesthetic. Laurie is one of the last of the bohemians, before the corporations coopted us with high rents and fancy gadgets. I admire her ability to evoke a nostalgia for that lost time without devolving into cheap sentiment. Understatement and slow rhythms and nighttime images of the dark river evokes a future city that I remember, also. She captures the voice of her generation, she contains multitudes, creating a resonant sound structure,a homage to the weirdos who walk the streets of the city that never sleeps, inviting subtle gestalt shifts as the interiors of a new kind of cityscape is contrasted through her Imaginal communique with the living and the dead. She and We are haunted by friendly sponsors. We have walked on the wild side. As we search the waterfront with Laurie, she becomes an elder/artist with a lyric vision we can trust.


A Study in Erotics

In a dark wood walking with
An older woman of great beauty
I sing I love you in just the right key
She sings I love you, too
We kiss

Don’t walk me to the door
We walk away from each other
Her way my way

Over my shoulder
I speak to her shadow
Watch out for wormholes
From the dark woods I hear her laugh

I’m in bed facing a man
Half of his face is sunk in the pillow
We kiss

Claudius killed my father by pouring poison into his ear. …

wormwood wormwood

What’s on the other side of fear?

wormwood wormwood

And when will my breath become air?

wormwood wormwood

I’m glad I was bird.


Thanks for starting this conversation John! This is an interesting question, especially the part about having watched a movie and then reading the book. As far as I can tell this reversal of order in experience sends shivers down most peoples spines. But this in itself is telling. Why should watching a movie spoil or taint a book, while having read a book that a movie is based on can create intrigue and desire to see the movie. Does reading a play spoil seeing one? Does seeing a play spoil reading one? Not so much I would say. I believe this is due to temperature differentials.

For me stories are a vehicle for creating a feeling-environment, or a tone. While the events of the narrative no doubt play a part in the production of aesthetic tone, the tone or ‘mise en scene’ (not sure if this is the right term) is not reducible to the content of the narrative. In a weird way I experience the figure and ground reversed; the feeling-environment becomes the figure of experience and the narrative-content becomes the ground. Of course this is a simplified division, and is much more fused in reality, but is still something to consider.

Maybe it is because I am an artist, that the reversal feels so strong in my experience, but I think the fact that most people would consider a movie spoiling a book, but not a book spoiling a movie is telling. If Im not mistaken Mcluhan would consider a movie ‘hotter’ then a book. In a movie much less participation is involved. Many times in a book the image of a character, of the scene, or environment is left much to the viewers imagination and by default always partially is. In the movie, the image, the feeling-environment is forced upon us, we can not imagine a characters appearance, or the landscape, differently. Can we forget the heat that a movie brought? I don’t think I can, whatever actor played a character in a movie will always infiltrate the experience of the book. Once an egg is heated beyond a certain temperature it undergoes a coagulative solidification that is irreversible and is never able to return to that more mercurial fluid state.

So it seems that knowledge of the narrative does not necessarily detract from the experience. We can read a story many times, watch a movie many times, read a story and then watch it expressed in moving -images and still be immersed, still be affected. But once the aesthetic has been actualized as visual percepts, this ‘hotter’ mise-en-scene dominants and can’t be undone. For me this indicates that the feeling-environment, the aesthetic tone, or the ‘mise-en-scene’ is actually the object or figure of the story-medium. In the case of the cooler media, it is the co-creation of this tone, and in movies it is the immersion within it.


John Cage talks of “Interpretrating Centers”


These are astute probes, Matt, that McLuhan invites in his tetrads. In a sense, time is not fixed in the making of cultural artifacts, pasts and futures co-specify, unfold each other. We will watch Macbeth ( I’m eager to see Frances MacDormand as Lady M in the recent Coen film) again and again onstage or onscreen. And I’m sure we are not motivated to return to a different production or film of a famous script to re- engage the plot. We already know what happens and yet good productions introduce different features of the symbolic landscapes of the actor/writer/audience that transcends simple cause and effect responses. We don’t return for the plot alone or even for a text. And filmed plays tend to have a radically different arrangement, the eye of the camera is different from the eyes of the audience out there in the dark. And good directors know this. Look how Hitchcock storyboarded his movies long before that method became popular.

The subtext, the ensemble effect, the unsaid, the long pause, the gesture and the surround in which the gesture takes place. We want to sense the kinds of aesthetic decisions that the performers made on that occassion, using a particular voice and body in that role in that way to bring forth patterns that we want to pick out again from the background (located somwhere behind us) and bring it forward as figure into view. Within a few seconds of clocktime we can reverse background/figure into something we forgot about but have always known. A sense of the whole. Plays are meant to be acted, they are like a check without a specified amount. The playwright promises that the production and actors will make the price of admission worth your effort. Of course, there are some great critics who claim they can get the best performance by reading the play silently in the library but I don’t believe them. One of the great pleasures of performance is sitting with an alert audience of different persons who suddenly slip into what is happening on stage and co-create shared reality.

Audiences (unmasked) who have trained themselves in the use of the altered states of consciousness the medium offers, can take the performers to another level through the quality of a shared attention. A good audience can teach the actor what it all means. This is much more like walking alone in the woods at night and hearing a twig snap, or sniffing whiff of a perfume that seems to come from an unspecified source.

The last play I attended was a week before the lockdown.The audience coughed a lot. The man next to me was scrolling through his text messages. Simon and Garfunkel ask in a song -" is the theater really dead?" It is in such moments, as I describe, that I believe that it really is. Of course, when the masks are removed and unvaxed persons are allowed back into theaters we might find a reviival of that troubled art form. A composer I know says that many persons want to sing opera but no one wants to hear it anymore. I’m sure this is true.The AIDS epidemic of the 80s and 90s wiped out much of the opera audience.

About novels and films.Pauline Kael ( my favorite film critic) suggested that bad novels are improved by a good film but this is not true of a great novel. No film has ever improved a great novel. That is why I think I won’t see a movie made from a book I want to read. I will read the book first because I don’t want a badly cast actor ruin a book. I read Brokeback Mountain after I saw the movie and was impressed by how faithful it was to Annie Proux’s gorgeous short story. But this is because a great director had dissappeared in his actors. Great directors know how to choose a cast. It is the most important task that they have to perform.

That is why I enjoyed Laurie Anderson’s solo performance on zoom in her Norton Lectures. I was quite surprised by how versatile she made the medium. Perhaps, out of these new constraints imposed upon us our imaginal selves can still break through, break out, go within, go beyond. We are symbolic modelers and to do these gestalt shifts on purpose is where I like to give my attention.

I’m reading his book Silence. Jan Zwicky, a poet and musician, uses the term “interdetermination” to capture the mysteries of gestalt shifts.


My reference is this book;




Hey all, I look forward to this. @johnnydavis54 I got an email from you today (Mon) but it seemed to be blank. What was supposed to be in it? Do I need to sign up for this course? If so, remind me how :upside_down_face:


That’s odd. A blank message? Another mystery. I didn’t’t send a message, Lisa, but I’m glad you responded to it. I have been thinking of your new book and look forward to reviewing it again. Please show up this Thursday and shine your light on McLuhan with us. It isn’t a course, exactly, more like a self organizing symposium around a cluster of thinkers this Winter/Spring that we are enthusiastic about. We’ve planned future Cafes around Hofstader, W. I. Thompson, and Graeber. I hope we can create some new attractors and keep this Cafe afloat during these turbulent times. Welcome back!


I reviewed your comments and have a different response this morning than I did previously. I sense that you articulate a difference between what might be called “lyric” from what we might call " dramatic". Narrative draws upon both capacities. I share a few thoughts out loud.

We had this issue when reading Milton. It is written in blank verse and is called an epic but it has more the feeling of charracters presenting dramatic actions and required an actor’s presencing, which is different from the close reading of a lyric. I found out in my research that Milton had imagined it as a theatre piece but it ended up a very long poem. It is very cinematic! The characters leaped off the page! This is different from an intimate reading in a library by a cozy fire where you can contemplate a mood. A different kind of voice is demanded in Millton’s big set speeches. Reading Milton with an intimate, lyric voice puts me to sleep. Actors have to act! Dramatic speech is full of fire, the battle scenes are huge, right out of Ridley Scott. Both kinds of voice are needed in certain passages.

Lyric is usually for shorter pieces that create atmosphere and mood as you describe. The dramatic deals with conflict, public and private clashes, the logic of dramatic action, mixed motives, multiple personalities in motion, momentum, resolutions( comedy) or impasses(tragedy).We can blend dramatic and lyric elements but there is a felt sense of which genre are we working with. Poetry, prose, art, film and music are hard to seperate from each other. Art forms as interdeterminant.

This question of genre is in the background of McLuhan’s interdimensionality. He is exploring the interplay of the trivium and the quadrium which we are still acting out in our mixed media presentations today during a nightmare scenario. I will try to figure this out in the next Cafe. Thanks for working with the question, Matt.

Language ( if it has a purpose?) helps us stop something long enoough to bring attention to connections between elements. Language is a shared device for modeling structures of reality. And we know language does not sit still nor is it the only game we can play.


Thank you for these wonderful responses, they are rich and deep, and I am still contemplating them. I am finding this distinction between “lyric” and “dramatic” quit useful. In chapter 2 page 72 of Laws of media Mcluhan notes an experiment that touches on what we have been talking about:

“In another experiment, an audience was equally divided, with each half seated facing a translucent-opaque screen placed in the middle of a room. A movie was shown, and then the audience was asked to write a brief response. One group saw light reflected from the screen in the usual manner; the other group saw light passing through the screen, as with television. In their remarks, the 'light-on group adopted an objective, detached tone, and was analytic as to narrative, continuity, cinematography, editing and workmanship, and so on Whereas they reported 'how the movie looked/ by contrast, the ‘light-through’ group was mainly concerned with 'how the movie felt/ Their responses were subjective and emotional: they discussed themselves, how they felt, and the mystical or archetypal significance of characters or actions.”

I found this interesting and surprising (I think our stubborn left hemispheric bias, finds it hard to believe that mediums matter). The description of how the ‘light-through’ group responded seems to be more the way in which I respond to movies and narratives. Would it be right to associate the lyrical with the right hemisphere, and acoustic sensibilities? Im wondering if novels are a more or less acoustic media than movies?

When you say that Lyric is usually for shorter pieces, I totally agree, short stories can feel like standing in front of a painting; our emotions shift and change as we open ourselves to and blend with the feeling-environment that emanates from the painting. Short stories can feel more like this for me than following an unfoldment or a drama. The short story is resonant, like the viewer-painting dyad rather than linear and informational.

Fortunately I will be able to attend the meeting this week, as I was not called into work. I have written many notes and questions for tomorrow’s session and I am greatly looking forward to it!


Very perceptive , Matt, and I hope you will share your notes. I have made a pile of notes and sketches, too, and have a feeling of pleasant vertigo. I can feel the left brain/right brain splits in my own sensorium as a deep weirdness that I accept as a ‘sign’ of integration that wants to happen. Dream, fantasy, print and films are in the same bed togehter, working with different logics ( if p then q, a is to b what b is to c) and different ways of relating to light . And in our day-light ruminations media of different kinds drifts in and out of our mixed up attentions, the cognitve blends that we are makng each day is of great complexity. Through wide use of the Internet, confusion, now, hath made his masterpiece. Reading a subtle book like Laws of Media is a challenge and I’m glad that you have brought this quote to my attention as I got lost in another rabbit hole. It’s nice to know that what I forget others can remember and comparing our notes can help us integrate these McLuhanesque raptures.