On Lewis and Technology 1944

our lives are so (…) involved with the evolution of our machines that we have grown to see and feel everything in [their] terms. (Lemuel in Lilliput, 1944)1

[Lewis’] concern for the order of Western civilization has led him to contemplate the contemporary situation minutely and in its entirety. (Ibid)

In the middle 1940s, McLuhan began to turn his attention to the relation of technology and culture.  This had much to do with his exposure to the work of two major European intellectuals both of whom he met personally in 1943: Sigfried Giedion, who came to St Louis to further his research on its riverfront, and Wyndham Lewis, who was discovered living in Windsor by McLuhan’s mother. McLuhan immediately read everything he could find from both.

Giedion emphasized the growing influence of technology on architecture and all the arts in Space, Time and Architecture (1941, originally lectures at Harvard in 1938) and had begun to publish the research which would eventuate in Mechanism Takes Command (1948).2

McLuhan had read Lewis’ Time and Western Man (1927) in Cambridge.  Now he scrambled to catch up with the rest of his remarkable output. His 1944 ‘Lemuel in Lilliput’ represented the first of his lifelong attempts3 to come to terms with Lewis and began by stipulating:

I propose to consider here only three or four of the thirty-odd volumes of Wyndham Lewis. This means neglecting the fact that he is the only serious painter England has had in the past fifty years, and that he is one of the half-dozen great painters of Europe in the same period. This, perhaps his most important side in the long run, must be put out of the present discussion. Similarly, as the author of Tarr, The Apes of God and The Childermass, he takes his place in the literature of prose satire as a classic. (…) Works of this scope and importance must be reserved for separate treatment, especially since they are little read in America. Instead, something will be said about another side of his work — the pamphleteering. This is the side from which both the novels and the painting of Lewis are most readily approached. 

In the pamphlets, especially The Art of Being Ruled (1926), what particularly attracted McLuhan’s attention was Lewis’ treatment of the affect of technology on culture — aka “the war on the intellect”:

  • we hear on every hand [McLuhan was writing in 1944]: “This isn’t a war, it’s a revolution.” “We live in an age of transition.” “Things will be different after this war.” “This won’t be the last war.” Whether spoken by the responsible or the moronic, these remarks, and countless others like them, have no meaning. They are spoken in a trance of inattention while the reason is in permanent abeyance. They are typical of men who no longer understand the world they have made and which, as robots, they operate day by day. Such is the situation into which Lewis shot his pamphlet breezily entitled ‘The Art of Being Ruled’.
  • To read the “pamphlets” of Lewis is to become aware not only of the scope of the forces arrayed against reason and art, but it is to have anatomized before one’s eyes every segment of the contemporary scene of glamorized commerce and advertising, and, above all, of the bogus science, philosophy, art, and literature which has been the main instrument in producing universal stupefaction.
  • The dehumanization of life [proceeds] by means of centralized methods of “communication”, and by the lethal abstractionizing of the machine (…) The life of free intelligence has never (…) encountered such anonymous and universal hostility.
  • The rulers of modern society are increasingly identified with these technicians who control “scientifically” [via] educational experiment and the Gallup poll: “In reality they are another genus of puppets, a genus of homicidal puppets” [citing ‘The Art of Being Ruled’].
  • Lewis presents a massive documentation and analysis of the art and science and philosophy which manufacture the Zeitgeistthe Zeitgeist being the force which manipulates the puppets who govern [ie, manipulate] us.4
  • the modern state is necessarily an educationalist state owing to the huge impassivity of the urban masses on the one hand and to the closely centralized control of all agencies of communication on the other.

“In a word”, said McLuhan, using a mannerism he had picked up from Bernie Muller-Thym, his close friend and colleague at SLU, “not only was modern society hostile to art, but to life and reason also.”

McLuhan had no ideas yet just how — through what means of transformation — technology and communication were able to affect culture. But he was clear that, in modern times at least, their result was to consolidate into a undifferentiated fog (as in the opening scene of Fellini’s ):

  • the fabric of modern life is woven without a seam.
  • as a thousand different activities mystically coalesce in response to the religion of merging, or mesmeric engulfing (…) the Dagwoods and the billionaire power-gluttons are equally rushing to the suicide of total immersion in the chaos5 of matter (…) the exploited and the exploiter coalesce.
  • Modern man, philosophically committed and conditioned to sensation and its twin, action, is automatically manifesting the fruits of that philosophy in a multitude of ways. Fanatically wedded to matter (…) all his acts will uniformly possess a character of accelerated imbecility.
  • Everything in our life today conspires to thrust most people into prescribed tracks, in what can be called a sort of trance of action. Hurrying, without any significant reason, from spot to spot at the maximum speed obtainable…
  • how is the typical individual of this epoch to do some detached thinking for himself? All his life is disposed with a view to banishing reflection.
  • the rulers of the modern world are not detached or critical. They do not reflect. They do not consider ends. They are wholly immersed in the matter which they utilize without understanding its character.
  • the pathological blindness of the modern world to anything but itself: “It is naturally, for itself, the best that has ever been — it is for it that the earth has laboured for so long (…) “The Heir of all the Ages.”

Ten years later, in ‘Nihilism Exposed’, a 1955 review6 of Wyndham Lewis by Hugh Kenner, McLuhan retained this assessment:

it is precisely the courage of Lewis in pushing the Cartesian and Plotinian angelism to the logical point of the extinction of humanism and personality that gives his work such importance in the new age of technology. For, on the plane of applied science we have fashioned a Plotinian world-culture which implements the non-human and superhuman doctrines of neo-Platonic angelism to the point where the human dimension is obliterated by sensuality at one end of the spectrum, and by sheer abstraction at the other. (…)  And now in the twentieth century when nature has been abolished by art and engineering, when government has become entertainment and entertainment has become the art of government, now the gnostic and neo-Platonist and Buddhist can gloat: “I told you so! This gimcrack mechanism is all that there ever was in the illusion of human existence. Let us rejoin the One“. This pagan unworldliness carried to its ultimate mystical point is what makes the work of Lewis so intense and his evaluation so fearless.

What gave Lewis “such importance in the new age of technology” was his specification of the background structural dynamics through which analysis in the humanities and social sciences had to be made. This was the core of McLuhan’s lifetime work and he had glimpsed it already in this 1944 essay:

Where everything is in question, and where all traditional values are repudiated, the everyday problems have become, necessarily, identical with [problems of] the abstractions from which all [perceptions of] concrete things in the first place come. And the everyday life is too much affected by the speculative activities that are (…) trans-valuing our world for it to be able to survive in ignorance of those speculations…

It is (…) a matter of the utmost concern for us to know from what sources and by what means the rulers of the modern world determine what they will do next.  How do they determine the ends for which, as means, they employ the vast machines of government, education, and amusement? Lewis gives the answer that “art and science are the very material out of which the law is made. They are the suggestion; out of them are cut the beliefs by which men are governed” [citing ‘The Art of Being Ruled’].

Hence, because “art and science are the very material out of which the law is made”:

All question of the artistic value of Joyce and Picasso apart, the man whose sensibility and judgment cannot cope with them easily and naturally, has not the equipment to consider the world he lives in.

Defining “the equipment” of “sensibility and judgment” needed “to consider the world” was McLuhan’s aim. The object was not the world as the complex of physical things, but the world as the redoubled complex of experienced things, the world(s) we live in. Great questions remained, however. What was the means through which technology was able to affect culture? Prior to that, just what was technology, especially if language could be considered the first art and the first technology, one enabling culture (not disabling it as it does at present)? And if “speculative activities” might be thought to be the source “from which all concrete things in the first place come”, how was this different from Lodge’s “Platonist” comparative method where “philosophy is essentially speculative, an affair of alternative possibilities”? Key to this question, in turn, was the further question (as, indeed, Plato had been well aware) of the nature of ‘identity’ where “everyday problems have become, necessarily, identical with the abstractions from which all concrete things in the first place come”? And just what was implicated with this “first place”? What eventuated ‘there’? And when? And, finally, how was communication about all these questions to be initiated such that collective investigation could be made, at last, into them?

McLuhan would gradually begin to probe all these questions. For now he was clear that an important aspect of Lewis’ work lay in the fact that had faced the communication problem and attempted to answer it:

Lewis (…) sets out to create an audience for himself: “A book of this description is not written for an audience that is already there, prepared to receive it, and whose minds it will fit like a glove. There must be a good deal of stretching of the receptacle (…) It must of necessity make its own audience” [citing The Art of Being Ruled].

This “stretching of the receptacle” was conceived by Lewis as enabling, or forcing, the “toil of detachment” (The Art of Being Ruled):

  • As a preparation for intelligent action, Lewis advocates self-extrication from the ideologic machine by an arduous course of detachment…
  • Lewis pleases nobody because he is like an intruder at a feast who quietly explains that dinner must be temporarily abandoned since the food has been poisoned and the guests must be detached from their dinners by means of a stomach pump.
  • the modern man has long lost the use of his eyes. (…) The particular means by which Lewis has extricated himself from the ideologic machine of our epoch (…) is that of the painter’s eye…
  • the lethal abstractionizing of the machine (…) has left only a hole-and-corner existence for the serious artist. No great artist ever fought so furiously to maintain a tiny milieu for art as Lewis has done.

From now on, McLuhan’s work would move along two parallel tracks “in theory and in practice”. On the one hand he would attempt a kind of phenomenology of American life that would culminate in The Mechanical Bride.  In the 1944 Lewis essay he could already adroitly specify:

The destruction of family life, in theory and in practice, the flight from adulthood, the obliteration of masculine and feminine has all gone ahead — by means of a glorification of those things. Never was sex so much glorified, children and motherhood so idolized and advertised in theory as at this present hour when the arrangements for their internment have been completed.

On the other hand, he would attempt to demonstrate how “Catholicity of mind”, attained neither abstractly in transcendent “grace”, nor through “immersing ourselves” in the particularities of world, might offer itself as the only exit from the cul-de-sac of nihilism:

let us not suppose for one instant that Catholicity of mind is conferred by grace or that we are freed from “the world’s slow stain” [Shelley, ‘Adonais’, 1821] by immersing ourselves in the best sellers of yesteryear(…)7 Certainly there can be no Catholic action at the educated level until this equipment [of combined “sensibility and judgment”] is acquired and mastered — a fact which explains why the Catholic mind never has to be seriously considered by the non-Catholic mind in England and America today. This situation can be illustrated by an exception such as [Jacques] Maritain. Maritain is perfectly at home amidst modern art and letters. He has a contemporary sensibility. This in turn has energized and directed his philosophical activity, and given a precise, contemporary relevance to the philosophia perennis. He is therefore a force to be reckoned with by non-Catholic philosophers. He can mesh with the modern mind, such as it is. He can impinge. For the English speaking Catholic who would do likewise but who knows not how to begin (and his formal education will not be of any assistance in this matter), let him pore upon the works of Wyndham Lewis, let him read by day and meditate by night.

 *****

  1. ‘Lemuel in Lilliput’, Key thinkers and Modern Thought (St. Louis University studies in honor of St. Thomas Aquinas), Volume 2, 1944, 58-72; reprinted in The Medium and the Light 178-197. All citations below, including all of the the bullet-points, are taken from this essay (unless otherwise identified).
  2. ‘A Complicated Craft Is Mechanized (Development of the Pin-Tumbler Cylinder Lock by Linus Yale, Jr.)’, The Technology Review, 46(1), 1944, 2–9.
  3. Aside from brief treatments throughout his books and essays, McLuhan wrote the following essays specifically on Lewis: ‘Lemuel in Lilliput’, 1944; ‘Wyndham Lewis: His Theory of Art and Communication’, Shenandoah, 4(2/3), 1953; ‘My Friend, Wyndham Lewis’, The Atlantic MonthlyJune 1969;  ‘The Lewis Vortex: Art and Politics as Masks of Power’, Wyndham Lewis: Letteratura/Pittura, ed Giovanni Cianci, 1982 (written in 1970-1); ‘Lewis’ Prose Style’, Wyndham Lewis: A Revaluation, ed Jeffrey Meyers, 1980. He also did several interviews on Lewis such as ‘Lewis in St Louis’, a flexidisk recording included in arts/canada, #114, November 1967, and ‘The Global Lewis’ in the Lewisletter, 5:2, 1976. McLuhan reviews of Lewis books included his important ‘Nihilism Exposed’ (review of Wyndham Lewis by Hugh Kenner) in Renascence 8:2, 1955 and ‘A Critical Discipline’ (review of Wyndham Lewis: A Portrait of the Artist as the Enemy by Geoffrey Wagner) in Renascence 12:2, 1960.
  4. ‘Govern’ = ‘manipulate’: “the rulers of the modern world (…) employ the vast machines of government, education, and amusement”.
  5. In ‘Where Chesterton Comes In’ (1948), the word ‘chaos’ is used over and over again to describe the contemporary situation. See http://mcluhansnewsciences.com/mcluhan/2017/07/mcluhans-realism-9-where-chesterton-comes-in/
  6. ‘Nihilism Exposed’, Renascence 8:2, 1955.
  7. The sentence omitted here is cited above: “All question of the artistic value of Joyce and Picasso apart, the man whose sensibility and judgment cannot cope with them easily and naturally, has not the equipment to consider the world he lives in.”