Oracular ramblings by the erstwhile maven of media studies.
A tetrad, in Canadian literary scholar McLuhan’s gnomic formulation, “obsolesces logical analysis and ‘efficient causality.’ ” Put a little less elusively, a tetrad is a set of four “laws that govern all human innovations,” which is to say that a bit of technological advancement—a dishwasher, say—enhances, obsolesces, retrieves, and reverses all at the same time. So, by the author’s account, war “intensifies passions, and goals,” “obsolesces leisure and luxuries,” “retrieves camaraderie, team spirit,” and “reverses into research, social science, and double-agentry.” It helps to be well-versed in McLuhan-isms to follow the flow of logic of this extension of Understanding Media (1964), which does not always seem—well, logical. Still, giving McLuhan his lead, let’s grant that a kayak “obsolesces swimming” (one would think that, more properly, it obsolesces drowning), that a mirror “obsolesces the corporate mask and corporate appearance,” whatever that might mean, and that, as he puts it in a commentary on the tetrad for camera, “the stripper is naked only from the moment she steps backstage.” Things get more baffling as the tetrads seemingly dissolve into something like prose poems, as when he writes, anent the law of obsolescence, “entails the relegating of the form/action/service to the subliminal level of awareness while its content monopolizes the attention of the user.” Very well, then. The pleasure to be taken in this text is to observe the obvious pleasure McLuhan had in assembling these little puzzles, allowing for plenty of head-shaking along the way. At times, they resemble surrealist calligrammes, at others the bizarre philosophizing of a Dr. Bronner’s soap label, and most of the time they seem a species of private joke.
A treat for compleatist members of the cult of McLuhan, but best left to those insiders.