McLuhan to Serge Chermayeff

McLuhan wrote a long letter to Serge Chermayeff in December, 1960.  It is not included in the Letters, but is referenced in a letter a few days later to Jackie Tyrwhitt (Dec 23, 1960, Letters 277).

Part of the letter was later included in Chermayeff and Alexander’s Community and Privacy: toward a new architecture of humanism. It appears that Chermayeff sent McLuhan a draft of this book (“your manuscript”) asking for his comments on it. This may have been on Tyrwhitt’s initiative, since she is mentioned in the letter to Chermayeff and he is mentioned in the letter to her.

The Chermayeff letter is given here with permission of the McLuhan estate.


December 19, 1960

Dear Professor Chermayeff,

It was a delight to read your book, and of course very exciting to be in at the formative stage of a great work. It would be very presumptuous of me to do more than to offer suggestions such as pop into my head from my interests where they concern yours tangentially.

My own world of media study has not yet become involved in polemic because so little has been done about it. If I should tread on touchy ground where your interests are concerned, I’m sure you will realize it is in all innocence and unawareness. On the other hand, should my concepts derivative from media study sound unwelcome or unpleasant, please credit me there,too, with innocence.

The media from writing to television are extensions of our senses. Any technological means of extending one or another sense naturally upsets whatever ratio has preexisted among those senses. As such, it is revolutionary and alters the whole pattern of human sensibility. Today, when all of the senses have been  externalized, the human sensorium is itself a global envelope, it is not only the mix of sense components which is altered, but the total environment of sense has become potentially integral but actually alien and disruptive.

My own suggestion is that we are helpless as long as we imagine that it is by some control of programming and “content” that we can make sense of the whole situation.

Allow me then to pause here and there in your manuscript for a brief comment or so, hoping to have a proper chat sometime. I agree entirely with you about the obsoleteness of the “diverse pieces of man’s habitat”. This raises a very large question to which I will recur, the conditions under which the wheel is abstracted from animal form now recur in reverse and it is wheel which is obsolete. In an electronic age, all that properly moves is information. The massive overlay of antecedent and existent technologies takes on a peculiar character of simultaneity in the electronic age. All technologies become simultaneous, and the new problem becomes one of relevance in stress and selection, rather than of commitment to any one.

On the other hand the rise of the phonetic alphabet which translated sight into sound, and sound into sight, created the experience which we call Euclidean space, uniform and homogeneous and single-planed. Such space now is totally without foundation in our electronic technology, but it continues to have enormous foundations in western languages, and all our means of codifying experience in legal and educational and political institutions.

The question of obsoleteness encounters the need for some continuity in transition, but in practice total brainwashing is more likely to occur. Enclosed pictorial space, based on the alphabet and the abstraction of sight from the matrix of the other senses, is the foundation of western privacy and individual existence. It reached its peak in mechanism, and also its reversal in the telegraph and afterwards. I know with absolute clarity exactly why the electronic age means the end of Euclidean space, as of perspective and points of view, if we merely follow the lines of force in the electronic technology. If there are permanent values involved in this galaxy of alphabet, perspective and machine, they cannot any longer be generated or maintained by the technology which brought them into being. It is only by astute use of the new technology alien to these older values that we can recreate their image in a new milieu.

Now that we begin to understand how over-all changes in sensibility, in preference, in daily awareness of space and of time, alters with the new impact of any medium, any new means of moving information, it is possible to reverse that process, and by a careful selection of the means by which we move information we can enrich or deprive any milieu of this or that feature. That is to say that radio as radio would have an utterly different effect upon the sensibilities of India or China, just as it had a very different effect upon North America from its effect on Germany. Radio at this moment is exerting the most devastating effect upon the tribal community of Africa — since it is an auditory field of force, itself capable of generating tribal patterns of inter-association even in the most fragmented and literate consciousness. Literacy on the other hand is profoundly traumatic to Africans (see Psychiatry magazine, November 1959; article by J.C. Carothers in which he mentions that the preliterate African scarcely regards sight as a sense organ at all). On the other hand, sight is isolated and intensified by phonetic alphabet technology, which translates the entire auditory complex into visual terms, releasing the individual from the tribal matrix, and initiating those characteristics which we associate with individualism and privacy.

And in this connection it is equally observable in preliterate societies, as in our own post-literate global village, that we begin to note a heightening of auditory values after centuries of neglect through auditory stress. (Georg von Békésy in the Psychological Review for January 1959 has an article on ‘The Similarities between Hearing and Skin Sensations‘.) But in preliterate societies where the auditory is supreme as the mode of organizing experience, there is a deprivation of value in the other senses equivalent to the worst excesses of abstract visuality and pictorial space.

It would seem that, beginning with writing at least, there is a technological externalization of one sense which disrupts the economy of the senses, but which does permit a tremendous visual organization of experience, the rise of lineal logics, of roads, of sequential processes and special subject-matters. This is more particularly true of the phonetic alphabet than of other forms of writing. In the past, then, we have progressively externalized all of the senses and now we have globally an external and collective sensorium which demands the same degree of nutrition and titillation that our private sensorium does. Put in these terms, do not all the complaints about the excesses of our media take on a new meaning? When only one or two senses had been given technological externalization, there was less motive to regard such external senses as part of ourselves. Conversely, with the externalization of all the entire sensorium we are impelled toward the discovery of a global order and equilibrium of media experience with the same intensity with which we pursue the same [sort of] order in our private lives. Yet the total absence of any precedent for such a global quest merely seems to threaten individual values. All of our institutions, legal, political, including spoken language, resist such global order. The answer, of course, must lie in the direction of pluralism, rather than monism, and here is where the image of the City is an inevitable and necessary model. Because the city is precisely the area of multiple modes of awareness in a montage of luminous unity.

But this raises another set of problems. Electronically considered the human population of the globe occupies a very small village. It may never become a city. In terms of information movement, the patterns of human association now have the immediacy and the explosiveness of close oral contact in a tiny village. Sooner or later the same strategies of culture will suggest themselves to the global family as suggested themselves to small tribes. Since everything that happens in them happens at the same time for everybody, it is extremely inconvenient when anything happens at all. Institutional steps are soon taken that nothing will ever happen at all.

Let me approach this whole matter in a somewhat different way. Natural resources and staples, whether cotton, fish, lumber, coal, iron, water power or water ways are in certain respects low-grade media of communication gradually imposing their assumptions upon the entire community, creating a kind of organic unity. But our electronic media are in a very basic sense new natural resources, new staples of global extent and distribution since they are extensions of our own private senses. Archimedes said, “Give me a place to stand and I’ll move the world.” Photography, radio, television, et cetera enable anybody to stand on the collective human ear, eye, skin and to manipulate the entire human population as natural resource. Cultural experience gained from earlier media is not only useless, but confusing when confronted with this electronic situation.

What I’m saying is that the globe has become the scene of a new set of natural resources and staples, and culturally and politically we are being urged toward those patterns of life which characterize a staple economy such as is marginal to great economic centers. One characteristic of staple economies is a pattern of deep persistence and of intense resistance to innovation and technological change. Centers as opposed to margins, are the areas of response to innovation and technological change. Again, with the electronic movement of information, any area whatever on the globe can be a center and can simultaneously be a margin. Centers and margins can no longer have a clear positional aspect. Is not this one of the basic problems of our time? Are we not still trying to solve this problem positionally? Must we not now expect every position whatever to be simultaneously a montage of all others?

This illumination by light through rather than light on, while friendly to mosaic, two-dimensional experience, would seem to include much more.

In a paper by my friend Muller-Thym which I recently sent on to Jacqueline Tyrwhitt, he traces the development of new structures of management in the past ten years, conclusively showing that the only workable ones have a common pattern. In fact with great self-consciousness they depart from the pyramidal and hierarchical character of antecedent management structures, and insist upon small team patterns in which the members of the team, habituated to crossing functional boundaries, display diverse competences.

Parallel to this, management no longer talks about making the public conscious of product, but of making the product conscious of the consumer. The consumer is included in the product by becoming co-producer. Basically then the change is this: big managerial centers now deliberately create marginal conditions at their very heart. Conversely our job today on a global scale is to introduce urban awareness into rural conditions, and rural freedom into urban centers. The overall model must be the global village since that is imposed upon us by electronic speed of information movement. Should we in time understand our technology sufficiently we might dream of a global city. For the present we must put up with the global village, swept alternately by panic and apathy, terror and complacency.

In terms of these observations, I do think it possible not only to analyse form as a continuous process, but to predict and to control form. The tactile depth and sculptural contour of the TV image is Europeanizing North America as rapidly as pictorial values and consumer goods are Americanizing Europe. The kinds of literacy and pictorial intensity which characterized whole sectors of American life from the beginning had eliminated tactility and producer orientation in favor of visual and consumer values. Is not tactility and the mode of creative process that very interplay of the senses which we call synesthesia? The literary mind is easily misled by the program content of our mass media. The constitutive character of their imagery has very little to do with their program content.

I suggest that “maximal passivity” and the vicarious are most characteristic of the abstract pictorial values of a literary and consumer culture. North America is the only place that ever took Gutenberg with uncritical seriousness. To Gutenberg we owe our massive uniformity and repeatability at all levels of our institutions. To the merely newcomers to print culture (the backward countries) our uniformity and repeatability are utopian ideals. I do not know myself whether this phase is necessary or bypassable for the achievement of what Rostow calls “economic takeoff.”

Apropos of (…) your remark that “interference will turn into control,” are you not assuming that control equals misunderstanding? When there is no longer a center-margin interplay in a positional or spatial sense, is it not yet possible to have a more inclusive ecology than any previously envisaged, and would not such equilibrium or interplay be capable not of control but of true freedom? Just as a lecture is a kind of superimposed control, whereas a dialogue among a few people is a process of interplay, insight and discovery, can we not create the ideal conditions of global dialogue or multiple dialogues, both verbal and non-verbal? Is not this already happening in spite of ourselves, and our natural disposition to impose antecedent imagery upon new situations? 

One peculiarity of center-margin relationships is that when freedom of interplay between these areas breaks down in any kind of structure, the tendency is for the center to impose itself upon the margin. In the field of attention which we call perception, when the center enlarges and the margin diminishes beyond a certain point, we are in that induced state called hypnosis. The dialogue has ended.

Apropos of “the problem of keeping the capsule’s inhabitants human”. For the capsule there can be no margin. Or rather let us consider that for the capsule the problem is the creation of margin that there may be dialogue.

You of course are far more familiar than I am with a very great number of occasions in our contemporary world when by inadvertence we have designed environments which lacked the ratio between center and margin necessary to dialogue.

I hope I have said enough to indicate how extremely relevant and exciting I find your thoughts and observations. I sense that you have made a very great book indeed, and not only look forward to its publication but to some opportunity of pursuing its themes with you in private conversation.

With most cordial good wishes,