Following Joyce in Stephen Hero, McLuhan used the term ‘vivisection’ between 1951 and 1960 to designate what he elsewhere called “percept”, “x-ray awareness”, “insight” and “retracing”.  It is the action of mind whereby it dis-covers the vertical descent and ascent it itself makes every moment in de-ciding the structure of its experience and action from out of the full spectrum of their formal possibilities:

this figure [of the labyrinth] is (…) traced and retraced by the mind many times in the course of a single [Thomistic] article. Perhaps this fact helps to explain the power of Thomas to communicate a great deal even before he is much understood. It certainly suggests why he can provide rich esthetic satisfactions by the very dance of his mind — a dance in which we participate as we follow him. His “articles” can be regarded as vivisections of the mind in act.  (Joyce, Aquinas, and the Poetic Process, 1951)

the conjunction of landscape and labyrinth provided Joyce with [a] vivisection of the stages of esthetic apprehension (…). As much, therefore, as the ancient Daedalus who made the labyrinth in Crete, Joyce had the right to name his hero “Stephen Dedalus” (the French form of the word). But it is not only the labyrinth of cognition in which Joyce made himself at home, tracing and retracing with delicate precision. The labyrinthine structure of the eye it is that gives such salience in his work to the figure of the Cyclops. Most of all he was at home in the labyrinth of the inner ear where he met Persse O’Reilly, who is per se, son of the Real. On the labyrinth of the ear, organ of the Incarnation, Joyce built those metaphysical analogies which enabled him to restore the orchestra of the seven liberal arts to its plenary functions. He is never less than the artist of the word. Ulysses is reared on the labyrinth landscape of the human body as the body politic; and Finnegans Wake whispers throughout with the voice of the river of human blood and immemorial racial consciousness. Joyce was at home in all labyrinths because of his original conquest of the stages of apprehension, of the mind in act. (…) [As Joyce writes in Stephen Hero:] “The modern spirit is vivisective. Vivisection is the most modern process one can conceive. The ancient method investigated law with the lantern of justice, morality with the lantern of revelation, art with the lantern of tradition. But all these lanterns have magical properties: they transform and disfigure.1 The modern method examines its territory by the light of day.”2 (Joyce, Aquinas, and the Poetic Process, 1951)

For Mallarmé, as for Joyce, the minutest, as well as the most esoteric, features of the alphabet itself were charged with dramatic significance, so that he used the word and the printed page as do the Chinese, for whom landscape painting is a branch of writing.  Mallarmé had been led to this technique by an aesthetic analysis of the modern newspaper, with its static inclusiveness of the entire community of men. But the newspaper, not so much as a cross section as a vivisection of human interests, stands (…) behind Ulysses, with its date-line Thursday, June 16, 1904.(…) What Mallarmé and Joyce exploit in landscape technique is its power of rendering an inclusive consciousness in a single instant of perception. (The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape Poetry, 1951)

Often noted from Montaigne onward is the growing interest in the anatomy of states of mind which in Giambattista Vico reached the point of stress on the importance of reconstructing by vivisection the inner history of one’s own mind. A century separates Vico’s Autobiography and Wordsworth’s Prelude, but they are products of the same impulse. Another century, and Joyce’s Portrait carries the same enterprise a stage further. Vico generalized the process as a means of reconstructing the stages of human culture by the vivisection and contemplation of language itself. (The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape Poetry, 1951)

For his [Joyce’s] view of the poet was that he should read, not forge, the signatures of things. As he explains in Stephen Hero, this involves the poet in a perpetual activity of retracing and reconstructing the ways of human apprehension. A poem is a vivisection of the mind and senses in action, an anagenesis or retracing, begetting anagnorosis or recognition. This is the key to the theme of memory and history embodied in Anna Livia of the Wake. She runs forward but “ana” is Greek for backwards, and speIls the same both ways. Anna Livia is also the Liffey nourishing the Guinnesses (anagenesis) of all things. It is the business of grammarian and poet to see this cyclic process of emanation and return as the origin and term of all words and creatures. (James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial, 1953)

Massive achievements like Sigfried Giedion’s Space, Time, and Architecture or his Mechanization Takes Command offer as it were a vivisectional awareness of the living inter-relational current of forms and information. (Media Alchemy in Art and Society, 1958)

it is precisely his fidelity to the vivisection of isolated moments that links Tennyson to the greatest work of his time and of ours. This concern with the spectrum of the emotional life was linked with Newton and with Gainsborough on one hand and with the best art and archaeology of the nineteenth century on the other.  It is to be related to the tendency to abandon succession for simultaneity when our instruments of observation acquired speed and precision. Looking back from the nuclear age it is easy to recognize the pattern of ‘total field’ forming in the concern with totality of implication in the aesthetic moment, or spot of time. (Tennyson and the Romantic Epic, 1960)

  1. One can imagine a light-bulb moment for McLuhan reading this sentence from Stephen Hero sometime in the late 1940s. If media as studied by Mallarmé, Innis and Havelock might be taken as “lanterns” with “magical properties” that both “transform and disfigure”, this sentence would bring together (a) the media insights from these three (a poet, an economist and a classicist), (b) Joyce and (c) the New Criticism he had learned especially from Richards where the “magical properties” of language, past and present, was a frequent topic. McLuhan’s whole subsequent career would be woven from these threads. Hence, for example, the title of his 1958 essay, ‘Media Alchemy in Art and Society’.
  2. This text from Stephen Hero was repeatedly cited by McLuhan. “The light of day” may be taken as implicating both the full spectrum of the different colors of the magical media “lanterns” as if through a prism and their study in “the light of day”. This reading of Joyce’s sentence was given 15 years later by McLuhan as follows: “If man, by his ingenious extensions of himself, creates new dimensions and new environments, he also has another creative power for making himself aware of these new forms, and of giving himself cognizance of their effect upon him.” (Alarums in a Brave New World, 1965)