Nef on McLuhan’s proposal

If 30-60 men can be found, gradually, and encouraged to talk to one another instead of to the robots they must pretend to talk to for a living, then something may come of it. (McLuhan to Hugh Kenner, January, 1951)

Robert Hutchins gave McLuhan’s December 1947 proposal for an “editorial community”1 to his close University of Chicago colleague, John Nef2, for his comments.  It took Nef only a few days to report back that he found its central object “little short of idiotic”:

Mr. McLuhan’s idea of having eight editors strikes me as little short of idiotic. The responsibility for any journal, if it is to be valuable, has got to be in one place.3

In fact, the tremendous need for such for an “editorial community” is so simple and so obvious that it could not be seen at the time — nor in the 70 years since.

The basic idea came to McLuhan from two publications of Sigfried Giedion, Space, Time and Architecture (originally lectures at Harvard in 1938), together with his ‘‘A Faculty of Interrelations’ (1942 and variously reprinted thereafter). McLuhan and Giedion met in St Louis in 1943 (the same year McLuhan met Wyndham Lewis in Windsor) and McLuhan quickly read everything from Giedion he could find.

The first lines of the foreword to the first edition of Space, Time and Architecture states that the book:

is intended for those who are alarmed by the present state of our culture and anxious to find a way out of the apparent chaos of its contradictory tendencies. I have attempted to establish, both by argument and by objective evidence, that in spite of the seeming confusion there is nevertheless a true, if hidden, unity, a secret synthesis, in our present civilization.

The great question was how this “true (…) unity” and “secret synthesis” was to be defined and certified. Addressing himself to academics across the spectrum of disciplines, Giedion stipulated:

Our task and our moral obligation is to make order in our own field, to establish the relations between the sciences, art, and the humanities. This Is what is lacking today. [We must] build up the interrelations between the different branches of human knowledge (…) A faculty must be created In the universities which functions as a sort of coordinator between the sciences and the humanities. Scholars will not only have to teach on such a faculty; each of them will have to learn as well. There must be built up a knowledge of methods, the beginning of a common vocabulary. Scholars must have systematic contact with one another [not only personally, but in their respective fields]. (Giedion, ‘A Faculty of Interrelations‘)

This was exactly what McLuhan hoped Hutchins would help to establish, potentially, but not necessarily, in Chicago. In order to fulfill its chief functions — discovery and definition of “true (…) unity”, and authoritative certification of it — such a faculty would need to include widely recognized scholars. In his cover letter to Hutchins, McLuhan suggested Eric Voegelin and Étienne Gilson as the sort of academics who would be required. Hence the need for an ample budget in order to have any hope of attracting and retaining such luminaries.

Interestingly, and perhaps not coincidentally, 6 months after McLuhan sent his proposal to Hutchins, in June 1948, Harold Innis made precisely the same point to a conference of Commonwealth university administrators in Oxford:

Knowledge has been divided in the modern world to the extent that it is apparently hopeless to expect a common point of view. (…) I propose to ask why Western civilisation has reached the point that a conference largely composed of University administrators should unconsciously assume division in points of view in the field of learning and why this conference, representing the Universities of the British Commonwealth, should have been so far concerned [only] with political representation as to forget the problem of unity in Western civilisation, or, to put it in a general way, why all of us here together seem to be what is wrong with Western civilisation.4

Innis concluded:

The Universities should subject their views about their role in civilisation to systematic overhauling and revise the machinery by which they can take a leading part in the problems of Western culture [especially “the problem of unity”].

The “problem of unity in Western civilisation” and this way of attempting to address it in the university environment was just what McLuhan had proposed to Hutchins. Compare Innis’ conclusion just given with McLuhan’s earlier proposal:

The first step, therefore, is to perform a basic overhaul job on the academies. To redirect the energies of the American college from the immediate goal of preparing students for local commercial society to preparing students for the fullest kind of citizenship, such as is actually demanded of us as a condition of present survival — that is the task.

As indicated by the repeated word ‘overhaul’ in these passages, Innis could have been nudged in this direction by Giedion’s ideas via McLuhan (doubtless mediated by Tom Easterbrook). Or McLuhan’s thoughts from Giedion could have been revived and/or reinforced at this time by Innis (again mediated by Easterbrook). Or, as seems most likely, the two could have learned around this time through Easterbrook that they shared ideas about the problems of contemporary culture and about the sorts of solution to them that might be attempted in the academy.5 

What requires decision is the question whether “a common point of view” (Innis) is possible for all humans and their cultures and religions — or not.  If it is possible, presumably this is a conclusion which the wisest of human beings might establish first of all among a selection of themselves. This knowledge might then spread out from them, both through the power of their definition of it and of their reputations in their respective fields. But if it is not looked for in this way, how could it ever be found?

Innis’ good friend, John Nef6, perfectly illustrated the problem at stake in his reaction to McLuhan’s proposal.  Faced with multiplicity, Nef could perceive only a plurality without even the potential for unity; or, conversely, any actual unity would have to be imposed on that plurality by reducing it to singularity:

Mr. McLuhan’s idea of having eight editors strikes me as little short of idiotic. The responsibility for any journal, if it is to be valuable, has got to be in one place.

A third possibility, a real multiplicity which was also at the same time a unity, seemed to him “idiotic”.  We remain in the same situation today.

 

  1. “Editorial community” was McLuhan’s description in his cover letter to Hutchins.
  2. Nef was a long-time friend and correspondent of Harold Innis.  He was also a good friend of Sigfried Giedion. Strangely, it was to Nef that Giedion first wrote in his attempt to help McLuhan find a more felicitous position in the academy. For discussion see Giedion to Nef re a “promising young scholar”.
  3. Memo from John Nef to Robert Hutchins, Dec 18, 1947.
  4. A Critical Review’, in The Bias of Communication, 1951, remarks originally delivered at the sixth Congress of the Universities of the Commonwealth at Oxford, on July 22nd. 1948.
  5. If Innis’ remarks in Oxford were sparked by McLuhan’s proposal to Hutchins, the bond between the two would not have been, in the first place, the study of media.  It would have been their mutual diagnosis of the fate of western civilization and ideas for its rehabilitation and rescue. Remarkably, the same sort of revision may be in order for an understanding of the relationship of Havelock and McLuhan.  Instead of concentration on media, the bond in this case may have been. in the first place, a shared analysis of literature focused on synchronic structures. For discussion, see The Journey of Aeneas through the Waste Land.
  6. Innis in the ‘Preface’ to Empire and Communications: “I have been greatly encouraged also by Professor and Mrs. John U. Nef and the Committee on Social Thought (…) of the University of Chicago.”