Dagwood and the ineradicable roots of our being

it will be interesting to ask a few questions and to offer some answers to those questions which will illuminate our daily lives. (Dagwood’s America, 1944)

Increasingly, I feel that Catholics must master C.G. Jung. The little self-conscious (…) area in which we live to-day has nothing to do with the problems of our faith. Modern anthropology and psychology are more important for the Church than St. Thomas to-day. (McLuhan to Walter Ong and Clement McNaspy, Christmas 1944, Letters 166)

[In the] retroactive not yet (…) every moment is radically new only to the extent that it is utterly ancient. (…) Hence, what comes to be is what has always been, the same difference that perpetually recurs as differently the same. (Elliot Wolfson)1

After finishing his PhD thesis in 1942, McLuhan turned to consider the practical ramifications of its suggestion that there are three forms of being and of knowing which “contest” or “quarrel” in all human experience.2 In his thesis, the history of these forms over the two thousand year period between classical Greece and Elizabethan England had been treated in terms of the trivium (dialectic/grammar/rhetoric). The hypothesis was that all possibilities of being and of knowing are inherent in language and that these possibilities may be grouped into the three linguistic genera of the trivium — like solid/liquid/gas or mineral/vegetable/animal in the natural world.

On the one hand, investigation of the practical implications of the quarreling forms could work to clarify and to demonstrate this hypothesis and potentially help to ameliorate individual and social problems in a novel way. On the other, human freedom and self-knowledge could be promoted, quite aside from any practical ramifications, by illuminating how momentary ‘choices’ or ‘identifications’ or ‘preferences’ are always being made regarding the perpetual contest of forms, deciding it now in this way and now in that. On this understanding, humans ‘create’ identity, not out of nothing, but by associating themselves with pre-existing forms which they activate in various ways — like playing a piano to fashion a melody, not of sound, but of identity3:

Every human being is incessantly engaged in creating an image of identity for himself4

These were ‘choices’ which were left in obscurity for the most part and were therefore made only unconsciously and mechanically.  His 10 year voyage to The Mechanical Bride (like his later 10 year voyages to The Gutenberg Galaxy and to Take Today) was underway.

The title of his 1944 talk, ‘An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America’ (published at the start of 1946) named the project upon which he was then embarked: the study of the contemporary world through the lens of this threefold contest of forms. His 1944 paper, ‘Dagwood’s America’,5 was one of his first attempts to bring forward this investigation:

Dagwood, our Mr Everyman, is the residual legatee of a century during which the masculine ideal of noble being has been systematically destroyed by the base ideal of endless doing. Men are now increasingly aware of their plight [or, at least, increasingly collide with their plight] because endless doing has involved them in unsolvable frustrations. For the accumulated heritage of unrestrained tycoons and predatory power-gluttons has led us into a vast suburban swamp [not to speak of the planetary swamp of the then raging WW2] from which few can ever emerge sane and wholeThe map which can alone lead Dagwood out of this swamp is the image of his lost masculine ego. That image he can now recover only by taking thought. He could, of course, find It quickest of all in healthy and fructifying work, but unfortunately he must wait to invent this work until after he has rediscovered the ineradicable roots of his own being. But he can never discover nourishment for these roots in popular art and literature6… 

Life with a strong wife and four daughters would soon enough cure McLuhan of expressing himself in terms of “the masculine ideal of noble being”. But the fundamental idea at stake here (one he thought men were chiefly responsible for bringing about and must therefore be chiefly responsible for repairing)7 was that modern humans, not ‘only’ men, had become fragmented to the point of insanity: they were neither “whole” nor “sane”. The cause of this fragmentation, in turn, was their not “taking thought” concerning “the ineradicable roots of [their] own being”. Hence, “an unofficial blackout” now prevailed “over the spiritual and intellectual areas of [human] nature” —  “areas” which ought to be concerned with such “roots of [our] being” but, in the event, have been left unattended and vacant. Human beings had thereby become “alienated from the entire framework” both of their own selves and of life in general. Further, having in this way lost “the detached use of autonomous reason for the critical appraisal of life”, they had been left “totally without the means of locating the cause or cure of [their]  disturbances and frustrations.”

Since “means” = “medium”, and since rediscovery of the missing “means of locating the cause or cure of [their] disturbances and frustrations” entailed, first of all, learning to access and accord with such “means”, McLuhan was already at work on “understanding media”. The book of that title would be published a full 20 years later.

The male chauvinism all too easily found in McLuhan’s article indicates that McLuhan was unclear at this time (and perhaps never gained decisive clarity) about how to describe the relation of human individual and social existence with its roots.8 The result was that he jumped between talk of ‘men’ as sorry creatures in everyday family life and ‘man’ as an “image”, as an “ideal”, as a “form”, as a type of “ego”, as a “role”, and even as a kind of experienced “world”: Dagwood and his fellow characters in the comics were said by McLuhan to be “poised between two worlds — between a masculine and a feminine world”.

But that such an image or form or ego type or role or world can dominate a woman as much as it can a man is clear from McLuhan’s description of Blondie:

Blondie is efficiently masculine, purposive, ego­tistical and hard, just as Dagwood is ineffectually feminine, altruistic and sensitive. She has assumed, superficially, the masculine role just in proportion as he has lost it. (…) How did this come about? How did Dagwood forfeit his masculine ego and thereby force Blondie to take up the social slack by herself becoming masculine? For justice forces us to recognize that American women are not to blame for the collapse of the masculine role in society. They are eager to resume the feminine role… 

Finding a way to describe elementary roots in themselves and in their relation to the everyday world was a fundamental problem (and today remains a problem) which McLuhan’s project needed to clarify and solve. In a comparable way, chemistry once needed to learn the difference between gold, silver, iron, mercury, tin, copper, sulfur, etc, as elements and as familiar physical materials. Same name — but completely different ‘stuff’! The latter can be pointed out just like a tree or a house; the former are ideal and function in an explanatory economy whose beginning and further advance depend upon creative insight and whose practical application requires special training.

At the same time as it was learning to isolate its elements, chemistry also had to demonstrate itself through practical applications (like all the new manufacturing techniques invented through it in the nineteenth century, such as those for paint and gunpowder). As McLuhan commented regarding the relation of cartoons to “American life” (with emphasis added):

Somehow the [ideal] patterns of behavior in Dagwood’s home [in the funnies] reflect the interests and experiences of millions of readers. This reflection may or may not be direct.

This admittedly problematic “reflection” derived from the fact that Dagwood exactly as a popular cartoon character was an ideal form or archetype. McLuhan called him “our Mr Everyman” (anticipating — or reflecting even at this early date? — his study of HCE in Finnegans Wake). Dagwood, he said, is a “basic fascination of millions of readers”:

The uninterrupted popularity of Dagwood’s miseries since 1930 entitles him to be considered as a nationally appointed symbol of something in our lives. Somehow the patterns of behavior in Dagwood’s home reflect the interests and experiences of millions of readers. 

nobody would read Chic Young [the Dagwood cartoonist] unless his comic strip portrayed some basic pattern or conflict of American life.

Dagwood is Mr Everyman in America today.

But that we have no idea how to relate such an archetype to our living is exactly the central point of McLuhan’s article.

Part of the problem is that we fail to perceive such “basic patterns” as “basic patterns” . They are too big and too dominant in our lives even to register:

a form so huge that it can no longer be taken in9

Further, this “blackout” prevailing “over the spiritual and intellectual areas of [human] nature” entailed that the very idea of such principles working as “basic pattern” in our experience was unimaginable. Even what they might mean in our lives remained utterly obscure.

To “be taken in”, such forms needed to be illuminated and studied.  This was just what McLuhan proposed:

it will be interesting to ask a few questions [about Dagwood and the comics in general] and to offer some answers to those questions which will illuminate our daily lives.

But the presupposition of such illumination and study was, according to McLuhan, the detached use of autonomous reason for the critical appraisal of life”. “Detached”, “autonomous” and “critical” here name a reason that studies the “roots of [our] own being” in themselves — without distorting admixture from the ordinary world (aka from the rear-view mirror). Hence, as touched on above, the task he faced was very much like that of chemists throughout the nineteenth century when the chemical elements needed to be extricated from an admixture of ordinary materials (so, for example, air, water, fire and earth had to be shown to be complex mixtures and not elements).  But how was this to be possible?  How study the roots of human being on their own?10 Further, since an important part of the required demonstration would lie in practical applications of a clarified notion of elementary roots in the ordinary world, how differentiate the former purification from the latter application to what is always mixed and impure?

One of the keys to McLuhan’s reflections on Dagwood lies in the phrase, ‘ineradicable roots’. Since ‘radix’ is ‘root’ in Latin11, ‘in-e-radic-able roots’ means ‘un-up-root-able roots’. The roots, plural, of human being are always present and cannot be uprooted or, even less, eradicated. An implicated question of enormous import follows: how it is possible for modern humans to be “alienated from the entire framework” of both their own selves and of life in general (a condition that, recognized or unrecognized, has increasingly prevailed for centuries) if they are always rooted?  How can utter rootlessness somehow at the same time be rooted?

How can the world be consumed as it is by nihilism — and yet remain grounded in “the ineradicable roots of [its] being”?

McLuhan’s answer to this question may be found in the context of his contention that the comics, as a kind of contemporary mythology, presented characters “poised between two worlds — between a masculine and a feminine world”. Characters from the comics, this was to say, were situated along an “axis” or spectrum of “worlds” (forms”, “ideals”, “ego” types, “roles”, etc) — worlds which could be described in terms of ‘gender’, but also in many other ways. (‘Gender’ in the realm of forms is fundamentally different from gender in everyday life. That we have lost the ability to perceive this difference is an index of the nihilism in which we are ensnared.)

Dagwood, as decidedly feminine and childish12 in the archetypal sense of these, and as “a nationally appointed symbol”, revealed at once that, as a whole nation, in fact as a global civilization, “America has swung very far toward the feminine pole of the axis“. 

This “axis” of forms/roles/ideals/worlds was McLuhan’s lifelong topic.  His contention was that all individual and social experience derives from these forms just as language derives from phonemes or physical materials from chemical elements.  Now each position along this axis is a binary structure: the very first words of McLuhan’s very first paper were: “When it is seen that there are two principal sides to everything…”.13 Such a binary structure of “two principle sides” characterized principles themselves,14 everything we experience in the ordinary world (exactly because its principles are binary) and also the relation between principles and the ordinary world (ditto). But it is all important to realize (possible in regard to principles only through the exercise of “autonomous reason” which has “detached” itself from any particular principle) that binary structures deploy themselves in a complex set (or “axis”) of expressions. Set out in terms of gender15, the range of these expressions may be put as follows:

male/female……(male-female or female-male)……female/male

The denominator here (underlined) indicates dominance, emphasis, stress, preference, identification. The middle position where there is no denominator or where both are denominators (male-female or female-male) indicates a balance of the two. One-sided emphasis and dominance increases in both directions from the middle position towards the two ends of the axis, over an indeterminate (or at least undetermined) number of forms, such that the denominator in each case tends to overwhelm the numerator. The two sides therefore tend to merge to become all female and all male monisms:

male/female > female alone

female/male > male alone

Structurally these fundamentally opposed sides show the same tendency to monism and it is exactly this monistic tendency of both of the ends of the axis of ideal forms that allowed McLuhan to trace rootlessness and nihilism to — fundamental roots. Monism of any sort is first of all a principial or fundamental determination.

In this way, nihilism exactly as nihilism, as a ‘world’ fundamentally cut off from God, truth, meaning and from any and all traditions, may be perceived to express — “the ineradicable roots of [its] being“. In so doing, nihilism as the utter extreme of rootlessness, in which even the “apparent world” has been abolished (as Nietzsche showed), equally reflects the foundational grounding of the world in its “roots” at all times and all places. For if the utterly alienated and undifferentiated extremes are grounded in “ineradicable roots“, how not all less extreme positions?

Ten years after ‘Dagwood’, McLuhan in ‘Nihilism Exposed’ (a review of Hugh Kenner’s Wyndham Lewis) had advanced his thinking about the “axis” or “spectrum” of ideal forms to the following:

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.

Instead of the gender typology in the Dagwood article, McLuhan here put forward several different characterizations of the “axis” or “spectrum” of ideal forms:


abstraction/sensuality……human dimension……sensuality/abstraction

In other contexts he submitted many other characterizations like:

 dialectic/rhetoric……grammar…… rhetoric/dialectic (Nashe thesis)

archetype/cliché……cliché-archetype interplay……cliché/archetype (From Cliché to Archetype)

In all cases, the extremes tend to monism.  But the middle position of dynamic interplay (eg, sensuality and abstraction together, the human dimension, grammar, etc) does not.  The middle position therefore has no impulse to obliterate the extreme poles of these axes: it represents a relaxation of their opposition into a differentiated harmony. Although fundamentally opposed to those poles, the middle position just as much finds peace with them despite their aggressive difference from it and from each other. Of course, what these oppositions are at peace is fundamentally different from what they are at war. But it is the very essence of the middle position that fundamental difference can at the same time be harmonious.

This is another reason that McLuhan was able to perceive the modern world engulfed as it is in nihilism — as yet grounded. This is the the secret of inequality or ‘the main question‘.

It follows that McLuhan’s account of Dagwood as the story of the genesis of the modern world may be told as follows:

  • Dagwood has “somehow” come to identify himself with the ‘female’ archetypal organizing principle of matter, sensuality and rhetoric16
  • in fact, he has identified himself so strongly with this archetype (= advanced so far out from the centre of the archetypal spectrum towards this pole) that monism as the “logical point of the extinction” of any rival archetype, and, indeed, of the whole archetypal level of existence, has come to structure his entire experience
  • this monism has so merged the everyday world and its archetypal roots that these roots as a whole (including his identification ‘there’ with the ‘female’ pole) have become subject to “blackout”
  • at the archetypal level, this monism has cut him off from all the contesting principles along its axis, and especially from the ‘male’ pole of abstraction at its other end that alone might ground and motivate “the detached use of autonomous reason for the critical appraisal of life”
  • but were Dagwood to ‘flip’ to identify with the extreme end of the male pole as the mirror image of his existing ‘female’ position, he would still be subject to the same “endless” monism — a monism that IS his problem — but now dominated by endless abstraction, instead of “endless doing”
  • it is this monism of both ends of the archetypal spectrum that has effected the “unofficial blackout (…) over the spiritual and intellectual areas of [human] nature” — “areas” which are concerned with nothing else but the various “root” positions along the archetypal spectrum
  • in this way, Dagwood’s “blackout” has “alienated [him] from the entire framework” — an “entire framework” that includes the practical everyday level with the archetypal level together (in their fundamental difference) and, along the archetypal axis, with the entire range of its positions all together (in their fundamental difference from each other)
  • as a result, Dagwood “has no rational purpose in life” and “no directing principle of order and creative activity in him” — for “purpose”, “directing principle of order” and “creative activity” derive (like anything else) only from the archetypal level and to this he has lost all access
  • he has been left totally without the means of locating the cause or cure of his disturbances and frustrations” which lies in his unknown (subject to “blackout”) original identification made on the archetypal level with the extreme end of the sensuality segment of its “axis”
  • his problem is how to “emerge sane and whole” again. Sane — in touch also with his “autonomous reason”. Whole — in touch not merely with the practical world of “unlimited doing”, but also with the complete spectrum of the archetypal axis where, alone, his “autonomous reason” is both grounded and potentially motivated
  • Dagwood is thus subject to the aporia of the “hermeneutical circle” where what he most needs to do (get back in touch with his roots) presupposes action that is already rooted: “the map which can alone lead Dagwood out of this swamp is the image of his lost masculine ego”
  • both the difficulty and the solution to Dagwood’s problem (and therefore to his regaining his sanity and integrity) lie in the event which has been subject to “blackout”: his extreme monistic ‘choice’ on the spectrum of archetypal roots that fundamentally excludes him from being in touch with that spectrum and, therefore, with any possibility along that spectrum — even the one he has identified himself with!
  • therefore, and all importantly, interrogation of this “blackout” itself provides the only “map which can alone lead Dagwood out of this swamp”
  • expressed in terms of time, Dagwood needs to take a future action into his past in order to unveil the possibilities of a new present he already witnessed ‘there’ in making his existing ‘choice’ — but in “blackout” mode
  • McLuhan’s constant attack on the rear-view mirror may in this way be seen as principled and similarly with his “ceaseless quest for the inclusive and integral image” — the former is a mechanical and unconsciousness attachment to an uncritical archetypal ‘choice’ and the latter is a new ‘choice’ at the middle of the archetypal spectrum giving access, for the first time, to the archetypal and everyday worlds together

Over the next 15 years, McLuhan would describe the “retracing” of the labyrinthine “stages of cognition” over and over again in an attempt to illuminate the knots of time and space at stake here. And over the next 35 years he would recur over and over again to the mariner in Poe’s Descent into the Maelstrom as an exemplar of “every human being (…) incessantly engaged in creating an image of identity for himself”, or herself, through a moment-to-moment katabasis into the “worldpool” of the genesis of cognition. Becoming conscious of this process was, he thought, a matter of survival:

Poe’s “Descent into the Maelstrom” has structurally much in common with the vortices of the Cantos. [Pound’s] “Sargasso Sea” is a vortex that attracts multitudinous objects but which also tosses things up again in recognizable patterns which serve for survival. Survival for Poe’s sailor had meant attaching himself to one of the recurring objects in the whirlpool. The same strategy applies to Pound’s readers who need to be alert to the resonance of recurring themes. (Pound, Eliot, and the Rhetoric of The Waste Land, 1979)

The artist’s insights or perceptions seem to have been given to mankind as a providential means of bridging the gap between evolution and technology. The artist is able to program, or reprogram, the sensory life in a manner which gives us a navigational chart to get out of the maelstrom created by our own ingenuity. The role of the artist in regard to man and the media is simply survival. (Man and Media, 1979)

These were some of McLuhan’s last words. The outstanding question was (and remains today) whether consciousness of this “providential means of bridging the gap” can be brought about (if at all) through any other way than the shock and horror it took in the mariner’s case “to change these hairs from a jetty black to white, to weaken my limbs, and to unstring my nerves”.



  1.  Elliot R. Wolfson, ‘Retroactive Not Yet: Linear Circularity and Kabbalistic Temporality, in Time and Eternity in Jewish Mysticism: That Which is Before and That Which is After, ed Brian Ogren, 2015
  2. Being and knowing: ‘knowing’ in some way is, while being is in some way known. But how to understand the relation of being to knowing and of knowing to being is the circular riddle defining the modern world.
  3. Of course, just ‘who’ it is playing this piano before identity is a question which on no account can be left unposed!
  4. McLuhan letter to R.J. Leuver, July 30, 1969, Letters 386. To repeat, ‘who’ performs such identity creation is a difficult and mysterious matter – along with its ‘when’ and ‘where’.
  5. ‘Dagwood’s America’, Columbia Magazine, January 1944, pp 3 & 22. All citations below are from this paper unless otherwise identified.
  6. “The press, the pulps, the slicks, and Hollywood — it is a great nursery world of sensations, thrills, and wide-eyed child-like myopia.”
  7. If, however, any ‘blame’ is owing for this grotesque family pattern, it is Dagwood’s. It is he who has collapsed, not Blondie. (…) Dagwood made (modern America), and Dagwood alone can restore balance to a completely, lop-sided social life…”
  8. The effort to get clear about the relation between phenomena and their underlying determinants (eg, elements in chemistry, laws in physics, DNA structure in genetics, etc) is exactly what leads to the birth of a new science through the specification of its domain.
  9. So the Dagwood essay; but similarly McLuhan 25 years later in a letter to R.J. Leuver: “When a new problem becomes greater than the human scale can cope with, the mind instinctively shrinks and sleeps” (July 30, 1969, Letters 386).
  10. The ‘fly in the fly-bottle’ problem here (the idea that we can never get out of subjective factors in order to relate to objects ‘purely’), may be seen, in McLuhan’s terms, as a symptom of Dagwood’s loss of “the detached use of autonomous reason”: “Dagwood, our Mr Everyman, is the residual legatee of a century during which the masculine ideal of noble being has been systematically destroyed by the base ideal of endless doing.” Later he would further trace the problem to a related and equally unconsidered preference for ‘matching’ over ‘making’, hence to a general failure to conceive of communication between finitude and truth, hence to nihilism.
  11. Cf English words like ‘radical’ and ‘radish’.
  12. In Dagwood we see not only defeat but docility and oblivion, He seems not to have any recollection of what constitutes a man’s’ world or masculine interests. He lives in a vacuum, isolated from all contact with men, save men of his own kind. In his world Blondie and her children are supreme. Nothing else exists. Totally deprived of the prerogatives of a father, not aware of the need or even the possibility of impersonal masculine authority in the home, he has become hungry for affection and understanding; and in order to obtain these there is no pose of childish irresponsibility and petulance which he fails to assume.”
  13. ‘G. K. Chesterton: A Practical Mystic’, 1936.
  14. One of the variations on ‘Giants’ in FW is ‘Joynts’ (FW 15.7).
  15. As observed above, it is essential to differentiate ‘gender’ (or anything else) as describing beings “in the world” from specifications using the same names for archetypal structures below or before the world. This differentiation is exactly the cervical path that every science takes on the way to its birth.
  16. McLuhan would come to address the question of this ‘somehow’ in terms of the triumph of “visual space” over “acoustic space”. The former implicated exclusive binary oppositions and exclusive binary oppositions implicated monistic preference for one of the two. Matter, sensuality and rhetoric had become the usual governing monism in modern America and, by extension, in the modern world. But previously, the rival monism of “sheer abstraction” had often held sway and still held sway in pockets of the modern world. Swinging between opposing monistic dominants in this way was exactly the signature of the Gutenberg galaxy.