Lance Strate on Maelström & Vortex in Marshall McLuhan’s Thought

03Nov14

A Descent into the Maelström

Edgar Allan Poe’s 1841 short story, “A Descent into the Maelström,” anticipates the systems concepts of chaos and complexity, and provided Marshall McLuhan with a vivid metaphor for popular culture, technology, and the modern media environment. It was invoked in McLuhan’s first book, The Mechanical Bride, originally published in 1951, and McLuhan would make similar references in his later work. The 2002 documentary, McLuhan’s Wake, also drew on the narrative and imagery.

The following YouTube video creatively edits together part of Marshall McLuhan’s final lecture with animation featuring Eric McLuhan’s reading of the Poe story, all taken from McLuhan’s Wake:

It’s worth noting that McLuhan was also quite taken with the Vorticism movement in modern art, the leading proponent and practitioner being Wyndham Lewis, and which also significantly involved Ezra Pound, and was associated with the publication of two issues of Blast, a literary magazine.

The Vorticists      Cover of the 1915 BLAST

 Wyndham Lewis, “Composition,” 1913.*

So, we’re talking about art and media married to science and technology, all linked to a revolution in our understanding of time and space, a revolution that in science was associated with Albert Einstein, and in art with Pablo Picasso, both of whom, McLuhan argued, were in their own way responding to the new media and technological environment originating with the 19th century invention of Samuel Morse’s electro-magnetic telegraph, and Guglielmo Marconi’s wireless.

Now, just to make the connection, let me throw in some computer-generated images associated with the more recently developed science and mathematics of chaos and complexity:

I don’t want to go into the specifics of the images here, I just think it’s pretty clear how these simulacra are related to the real world phenomena of the maelström and vortex. And all this came to mind when I recently came across the DjSadhu’s wonderful video, The helical model – our solar system is a vortex. Here, take a look:

Life is vortex! I love it! And it is so very true. We live on the edge of chaos, as bits of emergent order, animated by the vortex. And while the emphasis here is on the relativity of position in space, and understanding motion, underlying it all is an awareness of time as the fundamental factor, the basic dimension, of existence. A vortex or maelström is a timespace phenomenon.

So, even with that understanding, the solar system is taken out of the larger ecology of the galaxy, which is where the follow up video, The helical model – our Galaxy is a vortex, comes in:

The galaxy is a vortex! And this lends new significance to the title of McLuhan’s second book, The Gutenberg Galaxy from 1962. And in the introduction to that work he explains that galaxy is synonymous with environment, so the Gutenberg galaxy, and what he also refers to as the Marconi galaxy, and a media environment in general, is a vortex or maelström.

the gutenberg galaxy

And even with the second DjSadhu video, we miss the larger context of the galaxy itself as a vortex, and it’s relation to other galaxies, the supercluster as a vortex as well, and that within the enormity that is the universe. And then, try to relate all that to the full time scale of the big bang, the mother of all maelströms!

Maelström, vortex, galaxy, environment, or if you prefer, dynamic systems characterized by chaos and complexity. And as above, so below, the metapatterns, to use Gregory Bateson’s term, follow a fractal logic of self-similarity across macro and micro scale.  This is the kind of thinking, in relation to human existence and our place in the universe, that media ecology is all about. There is no way out of the vortex, but the choices we make will determine whether we sink or swim.

Republished by permission from Lance Strate’s Blog Time Passing at http://tinyurl.com/kc3h5ej .

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2 Responses to “Lance Strate on Maelström & Vortex in Marshall McLuhan’s Thought”

  1. 1 plavendran

    a wonderful work….

  2. 2 alex

    what year was McLuhan’s final lecture?


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