Figure/Ground (Happy 100th Marshall!)

Marshall McLuhan was born on July 21st, 1911 in Edmonton, Aberta, Canada. This year marks the centennial celebration of his birth, although he died in 1980 at the far too young age of 69. In Canada, as you might imagine, the talk of the nation on this day is of their native son and international hero. Around the world this year, celebrations of his life and work are taking place in the form of conferences and gatherings of various types. Although the hours are waning on his birthday in North America, I thought I’d drop a quick note about something prominent and important in his contribution to our understanding of our environments…a perspective.

At the moment, I’ve been researching McLuhan’s views on education and learning and have paid special attention to a book he authored in 1977 with his son Eric and Katherine Hutchon called, “City as Classroom: Understanding language and media.” The book begins with the statement, “Let us begin by wondering just what you are doing sitting there at your desk.” The opening chapter deals with several important questions about the value and necessity of school in the information age and presents a very interesting perspective in saying:

Some educational theorists of this century argue that we are living today in a new kind of world: our community has become a storehouse of information of all kinds, and this information is easy to get. They argue that when schools were first established, there was not much information in the community, and schools were opened to provide knowledge and information. Your grandfather may have gone to the ‘little red schoolhouse’ that was common in Canada and in the United States. Such schools had a single teacher, and all grades  were taught in one room. The school teacher, next to the preacher, was the best-educated person in the community. (Look at Oliver Goldsmith’s poem, “The Deserted Village.”) Outside the school, people toiled at the country tasks of plowing and sowing and harvesting. They were very active physically. School was a strong contrast to work. How has the relationship changed between work done in the community and work done in schools?

The book is largely structured in this way. A series of questions is punctuated by several assertions that lead to other sorts of questions. The anecdote above, and it’s corresponding question, are punctuated by the assertion that we live in a society filled with information in the form of “libraries, recordings, films, centers of instruction for every kind of skill, in-service training programs, adult programs for intensive language training, [and] data banks of computerized information…” McLuhan asks, “[I]f all these resources and many more and everywhere around us, then why should schools exist at all?”

The answer to that question is certainly implied in the direction of the text and in the general philosophical bent obvious in McLuhan’s body of work, but the question is left open for the most part. It’s a great question that we should continue to ask for a variety of reasons. The remainder of this book, for the most part, is a series of suggested research exercises with accompanying questions designed to direct learning outside the classroom via community resources. Before sending learners out “into the wild” to work on these problems and engage in “thinking cap” activities, the authors revisit one of McLuhan’s most important tools for perception training, the figure/ground relationship.

In the Chapter called “Training Perception,” the authors begin by warming up readers with a few short games. Here’s one for your edification and amusement:

Call your local bank and ask about the procedures for opening and account, or call some other business and ask for information. Make sure the person to whom you are talking is not someone you know. After your call, write a description of the person you talked to, including such details as height, weight, age, length and style of hair. Be as faithful as you can to the image you have formed of the person, and do not let anyone else’s ideas interfere.

Without going into excruciating detail (find of copy of the book!) the figure/ground relationship is important in training perception because it calls attention to the structure of phenomena around us. It can be understood via the metaphor of Edgar Rubin’s work, including this painting…

Notice how when you focus on the profiles, the vase fades into the background and vice versa. When the profiles are seen as the figure, the white area that would otherwise be the figure of a vase becomes the ground (territory) out of which the black profiles emerge. When the white vase is the figure of observation, the black profiles fade into the background as the ground (territory). In this visual phenomenon one can train to observe both images together, simultaneously, but it requires a significant exercise in unlearning established modes of perception. McLuhan uses this metaphor in a way that extends beyond sight perception and is applicable to all forms of perceiving our environment. A sound, for example, is a product of its environment, where a particular noise sounds the way it does because of the acoustic qualities of the surrounding area. A clap (figure) sounds differently in a school hallway than it does in a forest or a hospital or at the beach. The same clap can be perceived as disturbing or appropriate or may go relatively unnoticed depending on the environment (ground).

This can get quite involved and sophisticated as we apply it to other environment, including technological environments, but a simple exercise presented in the book, related to objects and meaning serves as a nice illustration of the possibilities of this perspective:

Pick up a wastebasket. Ask other students to name the object you are holding. Ask them to write down the definition of wastebasket. Ask them to prove that the object is a wastebasket according to their definition. Next, turn the wastebasket upside down and sit on it. Ask students what it is now. They’ll probably say that it’s an upside-down wastebasket, but by their definition they will no longer be able to place garbage in it. This means that they can’t prove any longer that it’s a wastebasket. It is now a seat. If you put earth and a plant in it, what is it? Ask the students to think of other uses for the wastebasket, until it becomes obvious that the ground, or usage, changes our experience of anything that is a figure in that situation.

This is a very simple entry to McLuhan’s notion that the medium is the message, that structure dictates important characteristics of phenomena and that the way we perceive and communicate about our world depends on this relationship. It’s also indicative of the overlap between McLuhan’s thinking and the general semantics tradition established by Alfred Korzybski, famous for noting that the map is not the territory. At the end of this chapter, a nice statement rounds out our understanding of this issue with a flair:

A stereotype is a figure repeated so often in a culture that it ceases to be noticed and becomes part of the unconscious ground of that culture, shaping people’s perceptions subliminally. 

Happy birthday Marshall.


About mikeplugh

Media Ecology General Semantics Baseball Japan Fordham University
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