“Media & Formal Cause” Selected by Artforum as a Best Book of 2011 (Redux)


Media and Formal Cause

The December issue of Artforum magazine includes a feature on the 10 best books of 2011, and one of the 10 picks is Media and Formal Cause by Marshall and Eric McLuhan (Houston: NeoPoiesis Press, 2011). The feature includes a review of the book by Graham Harman, Professor of Philosophy and Associate Provost for Research Administration at the American University in Cairo.

Here is Graham Harman’s review:-

“Displacing percepts is the role of the artist. The artist in any field is the person who anticipates the effects in his own times.” So say  Marshall McLuhan and Barrington Nevitt in “Causality in the Electric World,” one of four chapters in Media and Formal Cause (NeoPoiesis Press) an anthology that also contains two other essays by McLuhan and one by his son and frequent collaborator Eric McLuhan.

Dr. Graham Harman

Toward the end of Marshall’s life, he and Eric were hard at work on a more systematic presentation of media, which appeared after McLuhan père’s death as the overlooked classic Laws of Media in 1988. They concluded that all media produced by humans, without exception, show four basic traits: enhancement, obsolescence, retrieval, and reversal. All media extend one of the human senses while deadening another, all retrieve some previous medium as their content, and all eventually flip into their opposite. The resulting “tetrad” method of analyzing media is even more powerful than it sounds, and it leads to insights on human artifacts ranging from satellites to chewing gum.

The present collection gives us the crucial prehistory of this tetrad while linking it ever more closely with Aristotle’s doctrine of “formal cause,” which the authors try to rejuvenate. What we usually term “causation” is Aristotle’s “efficient cause”: Tables are made by carpenters, bridges by engineers. Formal cause is what a thing really is: the structure of a table or bridge quite apart from how it was made.

The formal cause of a thing is not what is most visible to us, but what hides in the background while we are distracted by the content it generates: “The medium is the message.” In the present book we learn that every medium has effects heralding its own downfall. The telegraph paves the way for the telephone by producing telephone-like effects; effects precede their causes. Once the telephone is invented, the telegraph becomes obsolete, and the phone begins to retreat into the background even as it reaches its own phase of preeminence.

One of the McLuhans’ most crucial insights is that media enslave us unless we can produce “antienvironments,” which we need for the same reason that governments need opposition parties. For the McLuhans, the primary role of the artist is to produce such antienvironments, rummaging through the clichés of dead forms and transforming them into new and powerful archetypes.

Graham Harman is a Professor of Philosophy and Associate Provost for Research Administration at the American University in Cairo. His most recent book is The Quadruple Object (Zero, 2011). 

Artforum is located online here:- http://artforum.com/inprint/ . Unfortunately, the Graham Harman review is not available online.

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