McLuhan’s new sciences: “only the authority of knowledge”

it is no longer feasible in decision-making to exercise delegated authority, but only the authority of knowledge. (Technology, the Media, and Culture, 1960)1

There are only two basic extreme forms of human organization. They have innumerable variants or “parti-colored” forms. The extreme forms are the (…) eye and ear… (Take Today, 22)

no sense can function in isolation. Only as sight relates to touch, or kinesthesia, or sound, can the eye see. (The Argument: Causality in the Electric World, 1973)

at all times consciousness involves a ratio resulting in the immediate “closure” or completion of pattern, such new “closure” or completion is, in fact, a new posture of mind charged with new preferences and desires. (Two Aspects Of The Communications Revolution, 1961)

There are certain questions concerning the work of Marshall McLuhan whose importance can hardly be overstated. First, did he propose a way in which rigorous scientific investigation in the humanities and social sciences might be inaugurated? Second, if he did, was his proposal in fact capable of igniting the sort of investigation he foresaw? Third, was he correct that this sort of investigation, and this sort of investigation alone, could address the problems which threaten the survival of humans (and perhaps the rest of earth’s biosphere along with them)? 

So far, it must be said, research into McLuhan’s writings has failed to pose even the first of these questions — which is required for the second and third. Reading his work, it may be, has yet to begin.

When chemistry and genetics were established as rigorous sciences in the course of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth2, the initial suggestions regarding the definition and functioning of their elements3 were far from perfect. Subsequent research would find critical imprecision and outright errors in them.  Despite this, subsequent research (including revision of the initial suggestions) was indeed enabled on their respective bases and can, it seems, be continued indefinitely. This (along with comparable advances especially in physics) has revolutionized the world — but also imperiled it.  Never before have there been such threats to our social, political and ecological orders.  It is now all too easy to contemplate the extinction not only of the human species but even of the entire biosphere of the earth.

McLuhan saw these dangers and thought that the only answer to them was an analogous sort of investigation in the humanities and social sciences (as we call them) to that of the physical sciences.4 It appears that he became conscious of the key to this hope in the course of writing Report on Project in Understanding New Media (1958-1960):

Survival indicates5 that we grasp by anticipation the inherent causes (…) of the electronic media in all their cultural configurations and make a fully conscious choice of strategy (…)  We need prescience of the full causal powers latent in our new media (…). A kind of alchemical foreknowledge of all the future effects of any new medium is possible.  Under electronic conditions, when all effects are accelerated in their mutual collision and emergence, such anticipation of consequence is basic need as well as new possibility. (‘Electronic Revolution: Revolutionary Effects of New Media’, 1959)6

Although McLuhan repeatedly cited the need to understand “our new media” in this passage, he was aware that this would require understanding all media — just as chemistry and genetics necessarily apply to all materials and to all heredity. His particular focus on “new media” came from the role they were playing in destroying our old world, or worlds, without supplying anything stable in return. At a time when, as a result, “we have achieved a world-wide fragmentation” (Understanding Media, 108), our survival as a species now hung in the balance such that:

The affairs of the world are now dependent upon the “highest information” of which man is capable. (Take Today, 232)

McLuhan set out his intuition of such “highest information” in letters from the end of 1960. This was the year in which he experienced his first major stroke7 and had been close enough to death that the last rites were administered. In this situation, his letters at the end of the year to friends and colleagues take on the flavor of a recap, not only of a year, but of a lifetime and a lifetime’s vocation.

we are impelled toward the discovery of a global order and equilibrium of media experience (…) When there is no longer a [foundational order of] center-margin interplay  in a positional or spatial sense [ie, deriving from political or commercial empire], is it not yet possible to have a more inclusive ecology than any previously envisagedand would not such equilibrium or interplay be capable (…) of [instigating and sustaining] true freedom [via “a fully conscious choice of strategy”]8?  (McLuhan to to Serge Chermayeff, December 19, 1960)9

we are in the desperate position of not having any [external or public] sensus communis. (…) From Aristotle onward, the traditional function of the [individual] sensus communis [was seen]10 to translate each sense into the other senses, so that a unified, integral image is offered at all times to the mind. (…) The problem (…) is assuming more and more the character of language itself11, in which all words at all times [implicate]12 all the senses, but in evershifting ratios which permit ever new light to come through them. Is not this the problem that we have now to face in the management of inner and outer space, [a question of] not fixed but [of] ever new-made ratios, shifting always to maintain a maximal focal point of consciousnessThus the human community would assume the same integral freedom and awareness as [with the sensus communis of] the private person. (…) [But] before we can return to one another [in such dialogue and consensus], a good deal of clarification is needed for the purposes of reconciliation. (McLuhan to Jackie Tyrwhitt, December 23, 1960)13

The university itself would seem to become the only possible model of such consensus, inviting the concept of a university of being and experience, rather than of subjects [like mathematics and economics]. Such a concept of university could supersede the concept of [a political] urban center [as the source of order] in an age of electronic information movement, and need not be locational, or geographic. (McLuhan to to Claude Bissell, January 4, 1961)14

In a fourth letter, which the editors of McLuhan’s Letters assigned to 1961, but may well be from 1960 a few weeks before the letters to Chermayeff, Tyrwhitt and Bissell, McLuhan summarized his position for Walter Ong:

I am naturally eager to attract many people to such study as this and see in it the hope of some rational consensus for our externalized senses. A sensus communis for external senses is what I’m trying to build. (McLuhan to Walter Ong. Nov. 18, 1961?, Letters, 281)

By “external” and “externalized senses” McLuhan meant both such automated senses as tele-phone and tele-vision, but also all the ‘senses’ or meanings of the word with which we are now bombarded in the “global village”: “the character of language itself in which all words at all times [implicate] all the senses”15. In a “worldpool” of “allatonceness” everything in world history is suddenly present16 to us:

In our time we are re-living at high speed the whole of the human past. As in a speeded-up film we are traversing all ages and all experience including the experience of pre-historic men. Our experience is not exclusive of other peoples’ experience but inclusive. (New Media in Arts Education, 1956)

From the far reaches of contemporary space and of historical time, we are confronted with the brute fact of diverse mindsets and their associated cultural practices. The outstanding question is how to understand this diversity as the only way to understand our own mindset and cultural practice as one modality of it. Hence the imperative to understand all media.

This situation is described in Understanding Media (a book based on McLuhan’s Report on the Project in Understanding New Media) as follows:

we are haunted by the need for an outer consensus of technology and experience that would raise our communal lives to the level of a world-wide consensus. (…) Such a universality of conscious being for mankind was dreamt of by Dante, who believed that men would remain mere broken fragments until they should be united in an inclusive consciousness. (108)

The same page in Understanding Media (as cited above) refers to “a world-wide fragmentation” at present, assimilating us today to Dante’s “broken fragments” and to his vision of hell.17

The uniting and “inclusive consciousness” which could save us from such “fragmentation” is nearly always interpreted by readers of McLuhan as something vaguely mystical  — when attention is paid to it at all. But, as recorded in the citations from his correspondence above, this “more inclusive ecology than any previously envisaged” was to be based on, and to further, “rational consensus“. To Claude Bissell, McLuhan’s friend, one-time colleague in the UT English department18 and now president of UT, McLuhan called this “a university of being and experience“. One intent, of course, was to suggest to Bissell a calling for the university that he might not be considering even as its head.  But, as is clear from the unusual phrase “a university of being“, it also represented a nod in the direction of McLuhan’s continuing debt to, and dialogue with, his very close friend, Bernard Muller-Thym. Muller-Thym’s PhD thesis at UT was published in 1939 as The Establishment of the University of Being in the Doctrine of Meister Eckhart of Hochheim. This was the same year Muller-Thym was the best man at McLuhan’s wedding in St Louis and two years before he would be the Godfather of the McLuhans’ first child, Eric. 

In fact, McLuhan had mentioned the connection with Eckhart to Bissell in a note to him earlier in 1960:

Now, from your point of view, it seems to me that some of these points directly concern the university. The principle, that at very high levels of information movement substitutability occurs, (…)19 applies to the studies of the university. When stress moves from product to process, all of the subjects in the university also become substitutable for one another. At the very high level of information movement in which to-day we are involved, we find ourselves less in a university of subjects [or disciplines] than in what Meister Eckhart called the university of being. For (…) method and creative insight [today] tends to bring each subject directly into the mode of contemplation of its relation to Being20. (May 6, 1960, Letters 273)

The day before this, May 5, 1960, McLuhan had broached these same ideas in a note to Muller-Thym himself:

In terms of the university as an area of subjects, the tendency of awareness of process [vs subjects or disciplines] is certainly to make one subject substitutable for another. And so by a commodius vicus of recirculation21 (…) we come back to Bernard, Eckhart, and the University of Being.  (Letters 271-272) 

The great question at stake was whether the world and being itself must be conceived in light of the individual sensus communis or the individual sensus communis perceived in light of the world and being itself. McLuhan called the former the “consumer” position and the latter the “producer” position (aka “making”)22 and argued that the shift from consuming to producing was implicated in electric technology. (‘Producing’ works in dialogue with what is already present. Electricity with its two poles is such dialogue and cannot be without it.23) This had fundamentally to do with “substitutability” since the use of language defines human beings and language is exactly the ‘substitution’ of the word for the thing in the “making” of meaning: “metaphor”. So the great question was whether the sensus communis, aka language and metaphor, aka the commodius vicus of recirculation, was subjective or objective or, precisely, both together. Was this a matter of “light on” from us — or “light through” to us eliciting  dialogue with us?

It appears, indeed, that it was first of all to Muller-Thym that McLuhan described his breakthrough in early 1960 regarding “a sensus communis for external senses”, aka “a more inclusive ecology than any previously envisaged”, aka “an outer consensus of technology and experience”, aka a new notion of ontological “center-margin interplay” or “equilibrium” or “substitutability” that would ground our internal regime of the senses, aka a vision for the contemporary global village world of a commodius vicus of recirculation as the “Uni-versity of Being24:

The break-through in media study has come at last, and it can be stated as the principle of complementarity25: that the structural impact of any situation is subjectively completed as to the cycle of the senses. (McLuhan to Muller-Thym, February 19th, 1960)26

the [external] situation [today] closely resembles the activity of the [individual] sensus communis in translating one sense into another. (…) I am trying to get the systems-development people to work out flow charts which would enable us to chart and predict the effects of input through any one sense, as it affects the ratio of intensities in the other senses. (…) This is only to say that anything which affects one sense has a due effect on the others (…) With each of our senses becoming externalized electronically, we encounter the sensus communis in a collective form for the first time, and can and need to know very much more about the operations of the private sensus communis [in its similarity and difference from the collective one]. (McLuhan to Muller-Thym, May 5, 1960)27

The appeal to Bernard and Eckhart in this same letter (as cited above) might again suggest some sort of mysticism. It is clear from all these passages taken together, however, that McLuhan was contemplating something very much like chemistry and genetics, but for the always mediated phenomena of individual and collective experience:

A sensus communis for external senses is what I’m trying to build….some rational consensus for our externalized senses….the traditional function of the [individual] sensus communis is to translate each sense into the other senses, so that a unified, integral image is offered at all times to the mind….an outer consensus of technology and experience (…) would raise our communal lives to the level of a world-wide consensus….a more inclusive ecology than any previously envisaged (…) such equilibrium or interplay [would be] be capable (…) of true freedom…Thus the human community would assume the same integral freedom and awareness as [with the sensus communis of] the private person….

Just as chemistry and genetics (and all the other physical sciences) have no national boundaries (as Lysenkoism demonstrated negatively), but instead have a kind of dynamic international consensus roughly defining at any given time what is known and unknown, so McLuhan proposed that something similar was both possible and necessary in the fields of human action and experience. Moreover, he agreed with Hegel that the only convincing proof of the possibility of such science would be its actuality. He therefore made suggestions along two paths at once.

On the one hand, he never stopped pointing to devices like the camera, radio, phonograph, television and computer, and to the astonishing success in the modern world of advertising, propaganda, popular entertainment and automation, as clear evidence that knowledge of an external sensus communis was already deployed all around us in highly effective (but frequently not beneficial) ways. This was happening without our having an understanding of the unfolding situation, however, such that we were (and are) utterly unfree in relation to it. Hence the great need for — understanding media. Such an understanding would function like chemistry and genetics as a study of effects and their causes which have always been in operation, and in fact could not not be in operation, but which have remained fundamentally unknown until recent times. As McLuhan noted to Innis in his 1951 letter to him:

this major revolution, intimately linked to technology, is one whose consequences have not begun to be studied although they have begun to be felt. (Letters, 221)

On the other hand, McLuhan proposed what had been necessary to the instigation of chemistry and genetics, namely, an intuition of the elementary structure of this new field:

The break-through in media study (…) can be stated as the principle of complementarity: that the structural impact of any situation is subjectively completed as to the cycle of the senses….[this] would enable us to (…) predict the effects of input through any one sense, as it affects the ratio of intensities in the other senses….a kind of alchemical foreknowledge of all the future effects of any new medium is possible.  Under electronic conditions, when all effects are accelerated in their mutual collision and emergence, such anticipation of consequence is basic need as well as new possibility….the problem that we have now to face in the management of inner and outer space [is a question] not [of] fixed but [of] ever new-made ratios, shifting always to maintain a maximal focal point of consciousness….all words [in which our individual and collective consciousnesses are constellated] at all times implicate28 all the senses, but in evershifting ratios… 

As McLuhan would continue to attempt to specify for the remaining 20 years of his life, the central notion here was that the elements of individual and social awareness are binary structures (like proton/electron in chemistry) that are marked by relative “intensities” (like dominant/recessive in genetics).  Taking his clue at once both from the long history of thought (dating at least to Aristotle) about the individual sensus communis29 and from the sensory mimesis of the new media like the telephone and television, McLuhan proposed that this structure be conceived as a variable dynamic relation between the senses of the eye and ear, with touch (along with smell and taste conflated to touch) as their modulating ratio. But these ‘senses’ were not to be confused with the physical senses (although McLuhan often enough confused them himself).  Hence, for example, symphonic music was, McLuhan said, not aural but visual; television was not visual but tactile; and tactility was not touch but the variable inter-relation of eye and ear or the dynamic sensus communis itself:

Notice, sense of touch is not skin, not direct contact. It is rather the interplay of the senses.30

As he specified already in the 1956 ‘New Media in Arts Education’ (and repeated verbatim in the 1969 Counterblast):

It was to be a world in which the eye listens, the ear sees, and in which all the senses assist each other in concert.31 

Then in the crucial 1958-1960 period, McLuhan made this point in regard to the newspaper in his 1959 essay, ‘Myth and Mass Media’:

Since the telegraph (…) Western culture [has] been strongly shaped by (…) a field of awareness in which all the elements are practically simultaneous. It is this instantaneous character of the information field today, inseparable from electronic media, that confers the formal auditory character on the new culture. That is to say, for example, that the newspaper page, since the introduction of the telegraph, has had a formally auditory character and only incidentally a lineal, literary form.32

Just as physical materials may look closely alike but be composed of entirely different chemicals, so the newspaper looks like print to be read with the eyes, but is actually, according to McLuhan, something formally heard by the elementary ear. (As enlarged upon below, however, the elementary ear could never fully exclude the elementary eye since the two exist only together in variable relation or ratio. Exactly this was “the principle of complementarity” vouchsafed to Muller-Thym in February 1960.)

Instead of carrying a literal meaning, the ‘senses’ were to be understood as diverse configurations of space and time. As he already saw in 1951:

Traditionally there are two kinds of labyrinth, stone and sea, eye and ear. (Joyce, Aquinas, and the Poetic Process)

That is, “eye and ear” are not physical organs or types of sense data, they are different sorts of time-space configurations: “two kinds of labyrinth”.

In this way, the chemical and genetic model of defining a field by elementary structure was extended to include physics and relativity theory. The eye and its vision were to be understood as modes of contiguous horizontal space and linear time in which atomic units replaced one another in succession (like moments in time or places in space). The march of letters on a printed page, the assembly line and the railway were favorite images of McLuhan in describing such visual time-space. In fundamental contrast, the ear and its hearing were to be understood as modes of discontinuous vertical space and simultaneous time in which multi-leveled complex units maintained themselves through dynamic homeostasis.  Here music, dance, sculpture and the vortex were favorite metaphors.

Whereas visual space is continuous, uniform, connected and static, the spaces created by all the other senses are discontinuous and dynamic. (McLuhan to Barbara Ward, February 9, 1973, Letters 466)

Like eye/ear, these time-spaces, too, according to McLuhan, exist only together in variable ratio.33

McLuhan often talked about these sensory modes and time-spaces in linear historical terms, of course — the preliterate ear giving way to the literate eye in Greece, the literate eye being gigantically reinforced by print with Gutenberg, and then this cyclopean print eye being subjected to catastrophic deformations by the return to the ear in new media like radio and the phonograph. But this perspective was itself visual, in his terms, and it was the essence of his proposal that all human experience is subject to “the principle of complementarity” — namely, that “any situation is subjectively completed as to the cycle of the senses” such that there is never any human consciousness that does not exemplify “ever new-made [eye/ear] ratios“.34 So it was that he always offset his linear story with other ones concerning “allatonceness” and the sort of instantaneous vertical descent described by Poe in the Maelstrom. Except through such complicating dynamics, indeed, how account for all the great art that did not conform to the predominant technologies of its time?35 Or even for all the tiny complications (“innumerable variants”) of everyday life (such as those McLuhan and his wife knew very well from their family life with six children)?36 

The tension between these linear and simultaneous takes may be seen in a further passage from ‘Myth and Mass Media’:

The multilayered montage or “transparency,” with its abridgement of logical relationships, is as familiar in the cave painting as in cubismOral cultures are simultaneous in their modes of awareness. Today we come to the oral condition again via the electronic media, which abridge space and time and single-plane relationships, returning us to the confrontation of multiple relationships at the same moment.37 

When the logical relationships expressed in singular visual perspective are absent or suppressed “as [is] familiar in the cave painting as in cubism”, multiple orders are layered “at the same moment”.  Their presentation is “simultaneous”.  But at the same time McLuhan observed in this passage that “today we come to the oral condition again via the electronic media (…) returning us…” — where time, if indeed circular, is certainly not “simultaneous”. Such a return ‘takes time’. So two different notions of time were in play here and the question for McLuhan was, how can the two persist in coexistence? How is it that one or the other chronology (together with its implicated space) doesn’t swallow its rival?38

The nub of McLuhan’s answer lay in the phrase “multilayered montage”.  Just as chemistry explicates materials in terms of their underlying elements and their properties, and just as genetics explicates hereditary characteristics in terms of their underlying genes and their properties, so would McLuhan explicate human experience in terms of its underlying media elements and their properties. Now the notion of such layers is very ancient.  Where changes are somehow predictable, it lies close at hand, it seems, to attribute this to ‘atoms’ or ‘elements’ or ‘humours’ or ‘forms’ of some sort, whose explanatory power derives from their existence in a different yet related order from that of the particulars of ordinary experience. (As Harold Innis appreciated, it was Havelock’s genius to have seen that the question of when and where and how attributions of this sort arose, and with what results, was critical for investigations across the humanities and social sciences.) But it took many millennia to find a fruitful way to conceive these underlying elements in chemistry and genetics. And in the case of ‘psychological types’, despite countless suggestions over the 5000 years of the historical record, this has never yet been achieved. (This is not to say that great minds like Plato didn’t identify the required conceptualization.  Only that it was not developed in a collective discipline or disciplines — which is exactly the outstanding task to which McLuhan hoped to contribute. And where we today have the opportunity and obligation to contribute.)

The main reason for this general failure seems to be that the self-reference implicated in the study of human experience in human experience is more problematic than the self-reference implicated in the study of chemistry or genetics by humans composed of chemicals and genes. If human experience is grounded in formal types, potentially disabling difficulties seem to be implicated both as regards how consensus about them could ever be reached (a consensus that would be needed across such types) and as regards what would follow from any such consensus (seemingly some sort of unwelcome determinism).

McLuhan proffered several answers to the first of these questions. Namely, that the dis-coveries of sciences like chemistry and genetics amounted at the same time to a dis-covery of discovery itself. Here he followed and extended Whitehead. Further, that the new media amounted to externalizations of the senses and this enabled a new objectivity in regard to them  and their “consensus” — an objectivity that, in fact, was already at work in the new media and now needed only harvesting in the humanities and social sciences for their own purposes. Further yet, that the global village world had so conflated spaces and times that another sort of unprecedented objectivity was now before us in all the different cultures of the past and present.39 Then too, that the new criticism initiated by I.A. Richards had introduced a depth dimension to the study of poetic language and had shown that art since the eighteenth century had worked to uncover where science needed to go. Above all, that the simultaneity of the electric world enabled (or enforced) a startling compression of cause and effect through which both how we experience and what we experience are necessarily revolutionized. It followed that old arguments against the possibility of such a new science or sciences might no longer apply and that new possibilities for such a science or sciences might, and indeed would, appear.

The changing configurations of this massive structure inevitably alter the bias of sight, sound, and sense [aka tactility] in each one of us, predisposing us now to one pattern of preference, and now to another. Today, via electronic means, the coexistence of cultures and of all phases of process in media development offers to mankind, for the first time, a means of liberation from the sensory enslavement of particular media in specialized phases of their development. (Electronic Revolution: Revolutionary Effects of New Media, 1959)

As regards the second question, he had another: what will happen to us and to the planet absent such a consensus?

The essential thing for all of these scientific fields, McLuhan could see, was that their different “layers” could never be merged or conflated. Instead, in all of them it was exactly the persistent difference separating their two “layers” that enabled ongoing discoveries, aka new correlations between the two of them, now from one side of the coin, now from the other. Everything depended on a mediating “gap where the action is” — aka “tactility” or the “sensus communis“.

These two layers were called by McLuhan by many different names: concept and percept, message and medium, cliché and archetype, figure and ground, visual and acoustic space, diachronic and synchronic time.  All were isomorphic with his eye/ear media elements and all were essentially ratios such that one alone could not be, only the two together. An interesting result followed. In all of these sciences, the sort of correlated binary relation characterizing their elementary structures also had to hold between the layers of what was to be explained (the explanandum) and what was to explain (the explanans). As will be further developed below, the critical implication was that the beginning of any science requires a kind of Rubik’s cube manipulation where the explanandum and the explanans suddenly fall together with a certain notion of elementary structure and all three are illuminated (though not without inevitable imprecision and error) — at once.

All history may be the demonstration of how difficult this movement is when we ourselves are the explanandum at stake. And yet must somehow conceive the explanans.

In the notes published posthumously in The Global Village, McLuhan described the ubiquity in human experience of “the principle of complementarityaka of “the cycle of the senses:

visual and acoustic space are always present in any human situation, even if Western civilization has (…) tamped down our awareness of the acoustic. (55)


every artifact of man [specifically including natural language]40 mirrors the shift between these two modes. (x)41

McLuhan characterized the “evershifting ratios” of the eye/ear elementary structure as reflecting differences in “preference” or “intensity” or “emphasis” or “stress” or “dominance” of one of them relative to the other. Via “the principle of complementarity”, more of one always entailed less of the other. This meant that the range of the co-variance of the nominator and denominator of these ratios could be imagined as forming what McLuhan called a “spectrum” or “axis”. The two ends of the spectrum would represent the greatest possible difference between the eye and the ear, one dominating at one end of the spectrum (while always remaining in ratio) and the other dominating at the other (ditto). Between these two “extreme” ends, all the possibilities of reduced antagonistic ratio between the eye and ear would be arrayed until, at the middle of the axis, the two would be in equal balance.

Another image of the range of forms could be represented along the same “spectrum” by tactility alone. A vertical line might represent the modulating function of touch at one end of the spectrum as 99% above the axis and 1% below. At the other end, the vertical line would be 99% below and 1% above. Between the two, the % of the line above and below the axis would gradually shift until at the middle it was 50% for both. The constant 100% at every point of the axis would express “the principle of complementarity” aka “the cycle of the senses” aka “interplay”, aka “equilibrium”, akasubstitutability”, aka “metaphor”, aka a commodius vicus of recirculation as the “Uni-versity of Being.  The upper and lower ends of these vertical tactility lines would then be the eye and the ear (ie, the ‘eye’ and the ‘ear’).  The horizontal line of the spectrum would be the “keyboard” of “the whole of existence”.42

 Just as “the principle of complementarity” would structure every media element in McLuhan’s  explanans, so would it structure the relation of that explanans to the explanandum of all human experience (gen obj!). However, this implicated a problem of circularity that has bedeviled western thought at least since Plato (and surely for uncounted millennia before Plato). For where would knowledge of such a principle start? With the principle itself?  But haven’t we always started already (in very particular circumstances of language and historical era and social environment) and so inevitably come too late to make such a principled start? Besides, how even suspect at the start that there is such a thing as a principle at all and specifically such a thing as “the principle of complementarity”?  Or, if starting with a knowledge of such a principle is exactly what humans cannot do, if we are always beyond what is first (princeps), how find that which is first in or through the second, in or through what follows (secundus)? In this latter case, which is always the case, how get back to the start

The problem is unsolvable on Gutenbergian assumption. Where continuous linear sequence is assumed to be fundamental or, at least, where it is valorized such that interruption is taken as disabling43, a return to the beginning, or beginnings, can be nothing but illusory.  Derrida put the point against McLuhan as follows:

I think that there is an ideology in McLuhan’s discourse that I don’t agree with, because he’s an optimist as to the possibility of restoring an oral community which would get rid of the writing machines and so on. I think that’s a very traditional myth which goes back to… let’s say Plato, Rousseau… And instead of thinking that we are living at the end of writing, I think that in another sense we are living in the extension – the overwhelming extension – of writing. At least in the new sense… I don’t mean the alphabetic writing down, but in the new sense of those writing machines that we’re using now (e.g. the tape recorder). And this is writing too.44

But what Derrida called “the overwhelming extension of writing” here was just what McLuhan called “the monarchy of print” aka “the Gutenberg galaxy”. 

Today the monarchy of print has ended and an oligarchy of new media has usurped most of the power of that 500-year-old monarchy. Each member of that oligarchy possesses as much power and message as print itself. l think that if we are to have a constitutional order and balance among these new oligarchs, we shall have to study their configurations, their psycho-dynamics and their long-term messages. To treat them as humble servants (audiovisual aids) of our established conventions would be as fatal as to use an x-ray unit as a space heater. The Western world has made this kind of mistake before. But now (…)  would be a very bad time to allow our own new media to liquidate the older media [on the monarchic model that we are supposedly overthrowing]. The message and form of electronic information pattern is the simultaneous. What is indicated for our time, then, is not succession of media and educational procedures, like a series of boxing champions, but coexistence based on awareness of the inherent powers and messages of each of these unique configurations. (Electronic Revolution: Revolutionary Effects of New Media, 1959)

The dynamic “coexistence” at stake here was not only that of the eye and ear with their different time-spaces, but also that between an explanans of that first “complementarity” (gen subj!) and the explanandum of human being (gen obj!). Against Derrida’s assertion almost a quarter century later (and a few years after McLuhan’s death), McLuhan contended that “the overwhelming extension” of writing — “the monarchy of print” and of the eye — could never come loose, so to say, from speaking — from the ear and the voice providing “equilibrium” to the eye.  And, he continued, this correlation of the eye and ear was nothing less than the elementary structure which would enable, not merely (merely!) the rigorous investigation of all human experience, individual and collective, through a further “complementarity” of explanans and explanandum — it was also the only possible basis for the sort of exoteric consensus upon which human survival itself depended. Derrida’s impression that McLuhan foresaw or desired “the possibility of restoring an oral community which would get rid of the writing machines” was itself a continuing gesture of the ghost of the Gutenberg galaxy whose haunting persistence to this day threatens to overwhelm us in a tsunami of exceptionalism (in Derrida’s case, that of writing).

All this was implicated in McLuhan’s capsule reference to:

This principle of a continuous dual structure for achieving order… (‘Spiral: Man as the Medium’, 1976, in Sorel Etrog: Images from the Film Spiral, 1987)

But already in 1960 he had come to see that:

it would be necessary to have a very complete knowledge of the new dynamics of our new technology in order to harmonize the twain. It is characteristic of the semi-aware products of print culture that they prefer to take a strong moral stand on one or another horn of a dilemma. They love dichotomies. (New Media and the New Education, 1960 = ‘Exhibit 1’ of Report on Project in Understanding New Media)

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. (McLuhan to to Serge Chermayeff, December 19, 1960)

Exceptionalism was just a dichotomy where it was necessary to come down “on one or another horn of [the] dilemma” since the poles of the dichotomy were perceived not to be in “equilibrium” and dynamic correlation. But this was just to remain fixed in the “hypnosis” of “the Gutenberg galaxy” — an “hypnosis” which took itself to be ‘beyond relativity’ (“overwhelming”) when, in fact, it was just as relative (mediated) as any other human experience.45

The question remains of how McLuhan himself came to this insight.  Partly it was a matter of allowing the full complication of language to register, something he had learned above all from I.A. Richards:

let the artists of the last ten decades be our guide. The Romantics reacted strongly against the book as book, spotting it as the enemy of nature and of natural modes of learning. They insisted upon the creative imagination as the birthright of all, and began a ceaseless quest for the inclusive and integral image. This arduous search was taken up with great intensity by the Symbolists who realized that it could not be a merely visual image, but must include all the senses in a kind of dance. (New Media and the New Education, 1960 = ‘Exhibit 1’ of Report on Project in Understanding New Media)

He himself had taken up this “ceaseless quest for the inclusive and integral image” that he  described already in 1954 in these terms:

impressionism and symbolism alike insisted on attention to process in preference to personal self-expression. Self-effacement and patient watchfulness preceded the discovery of the creative process46. Poets and artists literally turned their own psyches into laboratories where they practised the most austere experiments in total disregard of their personal happiness. (Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters)

As had been the case with these poets and artists, this was not a matter for McLuhan of finding some objective (“merely visual”) “inclusive and integral image” that would simply constitute an  affirmation of the questing subject. Instead, such an image would necessarily include the subject as well as the object in a dynamic consensus “in a kind of dance”. As McLuhan put the great point in ‘Electronics and the Changing Role of Print’ (1959): “We simply have to (…) become contemporaries of ourselves.”  The required meth-od (from ‘odos) was ceaselessly to try out all the ways of not being “contemporaries of ourselves” in the unaccountable hope of finding an exit downwards and backwards47 to an “inclusive and integral image” capacious enough to embrace even and precisely all those modes of internal alienation and bifurcation:

to elicit the image of truth from past errors and to confirm the unity of man’s quest from the jarring discords of unremitting debate. (Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters)

McLuhan saw that this movement towards a sensus communis of all human experience was the underlying quest of the modern world:

It was my study of these men [Joyce, Pound, and Eliot] that made me aware that tracking backward from effects to hidden causes, to the reconstruction of mental states and motives, was a basic pattern of culture from Poe to Valéry.48

To participate in this “basic pattern” he had to exercise it on himself by internalizing “the jarring discords of unremitting debate” in an attempt to locate and define their “hidden causes”.  This was to seek:

to reamalgamerge, to use James Joyce’s term for this mysterious kind of retrograde metamorphosis.49

In an exercise of “prodigious experimentation” (‘Electronics and the Changing Role of Print’), “predisposing (…) now to one pattern of preference, and now to another” (ibid)50, this amounted to a self-vivisection of his own physical and psychological being:

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. Lineal succession as a concept of order [aka “the overwhelming extension of writing”] cannot hold the same absolute position in our nuclear consciousness as it did in the great age of mechanism that stretches from Gutenberg to Darwin. (Tennyson and the Romantic Epic, 1960)

How “easy to recognize” this was, may be judged from the concluding lines of McLuhan’s 1957 Coleridge essay (where Richards was constantly in his thoughts)51. Its description of such a “ceaseless quest” and “arduous search” amounted to a second sight or premonition of the oncoming stroke52 that would very nearly kill him:53

as with Rimbaud, the very magnitude of the change he [Coleridge] experienced in his own modes of thought and feeling (…) made (…) exhausting demands on mind and heart.54



  1. McLuhan attributed this insight, with which he evidently agreed, to his friend Peter F. Drucker, who “points out in his book Landmarks of Tomorrow that it is no longer feasible in decision-making to exercise delegated authority, but only the authority of knowledge.
  2. It was only at the beginning of the twentieth century that Gregor Mandel’s pioneering work in what would become genetics was rediscovered — four decades after his work studying pea plant generations and two decades after his death.
  3. ‘Genes’ were unknown to Mandel — he proposed “Elementen”.
  4. McLuhan felt that it was the high calling of Canada, as the counter-environment to the United States, to initiate such study: “Nature and history seem to have agreed to designate us in Canada for a corporate, artistic role. As the U.S.A. becomes a world environment through its resources, technology, and enterprises, Canada takes on the function of making that world environment perceptible (…) The ordinary procedures and environmental patterns of a society don’t become visible until the artist creates this counter-environment of art objects. This is a frontier problem that relates to Canada’s position as a frontier country, giving Canada a kind of world art role in making visible the vast, man-made American environment that is becoming a world environment. I don’t know whether that makes much sense at first, but as the United States becomes a world environment, some means is needed to make it visible and capable of appraisal, appreciation, and criticism — that, only the artist can do — and Canada is essentially in this artistic role.” (Canada, the Borderline Case, 1967)
  5. McLuhan frequently used ‘indicate’ in its sense of ‘suggests the need for’. See, for example, the passage cited above from this same 1959 essay, ‘Electronic Revolution: Revolutionary Effects of New Media’: “What is indicated for our time, then, is not succession of media and educational procedures, like a series of boxing champions, but coexistence based on awareness of the inherent powers and messages of each of these unique configurations.”
  6. See Understanding Me, 5 and 8. Here and throughout, emphasis has often been added to citations for emphasis.
  7. This stroke is mentioned by Fitzgerald (97) and Coupland (132), but, strangely, not by Marchand or Gordon. From internal evidence in Report on Project in Understanding New Media, in which McLuhan describes his travels from June 1959 to June 1960, it seems to have happened in the second half of 1960 (although Carpenter remembered ‘1959’ inn his account three decades later). Carpenter is cited in ‘Remembering McLuhan’ by Edward Ball in Art & Text 39, 1990, 51-53 as follows: “According to Ted Carpenter, in 1959 McLuhan suffered the first of many strokes, falling to the floor and flailing his arms in a seizure. ‘A priest at the hospital was called to deliver last rites’, said Carpenter, ‘but he recovered and eventually returned to teaching’.” Coupland: “Producing the book (Report on Project in Understanding New Media) came with a price. The two years spent making it were arguably the most exploration-rich of Marshall’s life. But the stress on his brain took a toll. In early (? more probably in the fall of) 1960 he suffered a stroke so severe that a priest was called in for last rites. Marshall survived but was forced to rest by his doctor. The medical event was kept under wraps, and in the fall of 1961, Marshall resumed teaching, with only a few people close to him aware of the intellectual and physical journey he’d been on.” Fitzgerald: “In a note attached to the Report, McLuhan reveals his health has broken under the stress of prolonged overwork on the project. (…) When McLuhan returns to teaching in the fall of 1960 (1961?), however, he cavalierly pretends he never suffered a stroke. But his family and close friends can clearly see the toll it’s taken: the man who was a robust and animated specimen has turned into an old man overnight. His nervous intensity’s more pronounced. He’s incapable of relaxing for more than five minutes at a stretch.”  McLuhan’s note (in a section of the Report called ‘Itinerary and Summary of Activities of the Consultant’): “(My) travel was amply rewarding in insight and friendship.  Unfortunately, it had adverse effects on my health, requiring hospitalization and a long period of rest, delaying the conclusion of these reports and the summarizing of the results of this project.” The Report is dated June 30, 1960 on its cover.  But this must have been the closing date of its research grant and not the date of its submission, since the Report includes references to events and publications later in 1960.
  8. As citated in full above, this phrase is from ‘Electronic Revolution: Revolutionary Effects of New Media’ (1959).
  9. McLuhan’s letter to Chermayeff is described in Letters (277 note), but is not given there. It is in Chermayeff’s papers at Columbia.
  10. McLuhan has ‘is’ here.
  11. See ‘Language itself‘ for further discussion.
  12. McLuhan has ‘comprise’ here rather than ‘implicate’. His point is that language forms a system that is analogous to chemistry in that any word implicates a complete underlying system just as any material sample implicates not only the elements and properties comprising it, but also the whole of chemistry in which those  elements and properties have their place and meaning. Here he is from earlier in that same year of 1960: “The entire drama of conflict between individual and mass is most usefully studied under the aspect of the role of a poet in relation to his medium, because a language is a mass medium in all senses. Nobody in particular made it. Yet individuals have always to think and dream and feel in terms of this mass medium.” (Technology, the Media, and Culture)
  13. Letters, 277-278.
  14. Letters, 280
  15. McLuhan to Tyrwhitt as cited above from December 23, 1960.
  16. See ‘What is the present?‘ for further discussion.
  17. As Nietzsche demonstrated, such “fragmentation” inexorably precipitates nihilism — and  nihilism inexorably entails the loss of the “broken fragments” themselves: “With the true world we also have abolished the apparent one!!”
  18. The two came to the department in the same year, 1946.
  19. McLuhan has a bracketed note here: “this by the way applies also to our own sense lives in which each sense typically translates itself into each of the other five senses”. The facility of such translation is of course the sensus communis.
  20. Already in 1948 McLuhan had written to his friend Felix Giovanelli: “in an age like ours (…) every motion of the mind (individual) is seen to involve the whole mind (society) and its entire relation to Being.” This letter is not in Letters; it is in the Pound papers at Indiana.
  21. The first sentence of Finnegans Wake, completing its last, is: “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.” Back to Howth Castle and Environs = back to HCE = back to here comes everybody = back to human being = back to what human being is and what its calling is.
  22. ‘Tennyson and the Romantic Epic’ (1960): “For Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, and Valéry, Poe succeeded in uniting these seemingly antithetic realms and in swinging critical discussion from connoisseurship and consumer-satisfaction round to the point of view of the artist and producer.”
  23. McLuhan’s friend, Harry Skornia, quotes him as follows: “McLuhan states flatly: ‘AC electric circuits are basic dialogue forms’. ‘With the coming of electronic tools’, he tells us, ‘the Western World has encountered the form of the dialogue in learning and teaching once more’…” (Harry Jay Skornia, ‘National jukebox or educational resource?’ in Problems and Controversies in Television and Radio, 1969, 191).
  24. The “Uni-versity of Being” is a dual genitive, but first of all a subjective genitive!
  25. Both Richards and McLuhan knew that McLuhan’s realization of this principle was in part due to Richards’ attention to it in his literary criticism. In his 1968 book, So Much Nearer, Richards wrote of the “Principle of Complementarity”: “This immensely important topic— publicized recently by Marshall McLuhan…”. But, as was not at all unusual for McLuhan, he extended the application of the principle far beyond what Richards contemplated.
  26. Cited in Gordon, Escape into Understanding, 313-314.
  27. Letters, 271.
  28. McLuhan has ‘comprise’ here.
  29. McLuhan was schooled in the topic by Muller-Thym in St Louis, especially via Muller-Thym’s paper ‘Common Sense, Perfection of the Order of Pure Sensibility’ in The Thomist 2:315–343, 1940.  His consideration of the topic was then reawakened in Toronto at the end of the decade by the attention paid to the eye and ear in historical and contemporary media by Havelock, Richards and Innis. Here Richards may have been the first to correlate Havelock’s theme of oral and literate mindsets with the ear and the eye in his BBC broadcast from October 5, 1947, ‘The Spoken and the Written Word’. Innis in particular then frequently recurred in his last few years to the topic of the eye and ear as media correlates and organizing principles of experience. By the early 1950s, then, McLuhan had the notions of the fundamental role of media in social and cultural change and of the correlation of such media with the senses.  And from Mallarmé, Eliot, Pound and Joyce he had the further notion of the reduplication in art of the process of the generation of experience via such media. But what he did not yet have, and would not have until the end of this further decade, was the idea of an elementary structure of the media and the senses that could serve to focus collective investigation in this new field or fields. Importantly, it was only with a such a notion of elementary structure that he could begin to know through it what the media and the senses are!
  30. Prospect’, Canadian Art Magazine, # 81, 363-366, September/October, 1962.
  31. In the same essay (‘New Media in Arts Education’): “The organization of experience here is orchestral or acoustic rather than visual. Yet the various units of experience are visualized.” Understanding Media reverts to this point repeatedly.  Eg: “the eye must act as hand” (29, cf 288 and 334); “The effect of radio is visual, the effect of the photo is auditory” (64); “touch is not just skin contact with things, but the very life of things in the mind” (108); “much of our hearing takes place through the skin itself” (122); etc.
  32. Compare: “the oral is accidentally the spoken but essentially the instantaneous. Because auditory spatial structure is a simultaneous field of relations.” (The Electronic Revolution in North America, 1958). “The instantaneous” = the tactile, the sensus communis.
  33. In formulating relativity theory, Einstein had no need to assemble all possible experiences of time-spaces. What he needed was a formula that covered all such experiences, no matter how they might unfold in particular (and even if they could not unfold in particular — like traveling at the speed of light!). In the same way, McLuhan was not interested in sampling (so to say) all the various modes of human experience but in the definable range of their possibility.
  34. Global Village: “In our desire to illumine the differences between visual and acoustic space, we have undoubtedly given a false impression: and that is that the normal brain, in its everyday functioning, cannot reconcile the apparently contradictory perceptions of both sides of the mind.” (48)
  35. This is a point methodically avoided by most McLuhan scholarship.
  36. Today we experience that kind of bewilderment that ensues when an individual and private culture begins to resume an involvement in the corporate and collective modes of awareness with all the depth and commitment that implies. Our most immediate experience of this takeover of individual culture by the corporate and collective vision of tribal man is in our own homes. The present generation gap between teenagers and their parents is a major manifestation of a technological gap between the mechanical and the electric cultures.” (‘Canada, the Borderline Case’, 1967)
  37. McLuhan’s use of the term ‘abridgement’/’abridge’ here is intentionally strange.  He employs it in the sense of shortening to the extent of annulling — as if ‘a-bridgement’ might be taken as an example of an alpha privative (like a-moral) to designate ‘not-bridging’ or even an active ‘gapping’.  This was what he had long called “sudden juxtaposition without copula” (eg, in the 1949 ‘Eliot’s Historical Decorum’).
  38. In the world of 2018, linear time has swallowed synchronic time — only note in McLuhan research, for example, the relative importance accorded to space versus time.  But that such swallowing is possible is a key consideration for any attempt at ‘understanding media’. As McLuhan explicitly noted: “It seems necessary to postulate a profound motivation for such universal somnambulism.” (Take Today, 192, emphasis added.) Ultimately, this topic implicated “the main question“.
  39. See note 16 above.
  40. English is itself a mass medium, as is any language employed by any society.” (Myth and Mass Media, 1959)
  41. Further statements along these lines in The Global Village include: “Acoustic and visual space structures may be seen as incommensurable, like history and eternity, yet, at the same time, as complementary (…) a foot, as it were, in both visual and acoustic space” (45); “No matter how extreme the dominance of either hemisphere in a particular culture, there is always some degree of interplay between the hemispheres” (62); “Within each of man’s inventions (extensions of himself) left- and right-hemisphere modes of thought struggle for dominance” (102).
  42. See ‘The keyboards of existence‘.
  43. Derrida: “The book on grammatology is not a book for grammatology; it’s also a book which insists on the limits of grammatology.” Reference in the following note.
  44.  Excuse me, but I never said exactly so: Yet Another Derridean Interview, with Paul Brennan, On the Beach, 1, 1983.
  45. Precise note should be made of the essential difference between how such exceptionalism understands itself (as “overwhelming”, that is, as situated outside or beyond the relativity of eye/ear time-spaces) and how it would be understood in McLuhan’s proposed analysis as necessarily situated within that spectrum of relativity (aka, that spectrum of modes of media-tion). The potential power of McLuhan’s suggestion lies in the fact that any such exceptionalism may be combated indirectly by the demonstration that analysis based on the spectrum returns expanding consensual results, like chemistry or genetics, whereas the attempt to proceed aside from the spectrum, like speculation about physical materials aside from chemistry or about heredity aside from genetics, gets nowhere. But ‘nowhere’ is, of course, just our current situation in the humanities and social sciences: if you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.
  46. “Attention to process” and “discovery of the creative process” point to McLuhan’s later discussions of process cited above in, eg, his May 1960 letter to Claude Bissell: “When stress moves from product to process, all of the subjects in the university also become substitutable for one another. At the very high level of information movement in which to-day we are involved, we find ourselves less in a university of subjects than in what Meister Eckhart called the university of being.” (Letters 273).
  47. The neolithic man (who came) after the age of the (mesolithic) hunter has suddenly (today after 8 millennia or so) dropped aside or dropped back, and we are back once more in the age of the hunter, only this time the hunter is a fact-finder and a researcher…” (Towards an Inclusive Consciousness, 1967).
  48. McLuhan to Etienne Gilson, January 19, 1971, Letters 421.
  49. The Care and Feeding of Communication Innovation, 1961.
  50. The full passage from ‘Electronics and the Changing Role of Print’ is cited above.
  51. See McLuhan’s letter to Richards from July 12, 1968 (Letters 355) where the two, Richards and Coleridge, are virtually identified: “I owe you an enormous debt since Cambridge days. I also owe a great deal to S.T.C.” Richards published Coleridge on Imagination in 1934, McLuhan’s first year in Cambridge.
  52. To compare, on September 28, 1967, two months before undergoing an emergency brain operation on November 26, McLuhan gave his inaugural lecture at Fordham that was titled ‘Open-Mind Surgery’.
  53. Twenty years later, of course, another such stroke would kill him.
  54. On the immediate other side of his stroke, in 1962 — perhaps reflecting his own now diminished physical and psychological capacity and/or the state of a world where an external sensus communis was being put to work everywhere but in unknown and unconstrained ways — McLuhan wrote these rather chilling lines in his ‘Prospect’ piece in Arts Canada: “Man is now in a somnambulant state because this offers him his only possibility of survival and sanity. He couldn’t bear a fully conscious existence under the frenetic conditions that he is exposed to by his own technology. He could not register these terrible shocks directly and survive. He’d go mad. (…) When you put the nervous system outside (as an external sensus communis), fear is no longer the problem. Anxiety is the problem. Fear is specific, anxiety is total. (…) You don’t know now precisely what you’re dreading, rather it’s a pervasive state. The condition of man is what you dread. You no longer fear (McLuhan has ‘dread’ here) that animal, that famine, and so on, but (you dread) this condition. (…) Man lives in total anxiety in the age of electricity. Anxiety means utmost alertness, utmost watchfulness, involvement and therefore of course a very heightened kind of existence, a sort of nightmare“. See note 30 above for the full reference. It may be guessed that McLuhan’s inside knowledge of “these terrible shocks” and this “dread” and this “total anxietyderived from the “ceaseless quest for the inclusive and integral image” on which he had been engaged since the late 1940s and which amounted to his ‘second conversion‘. This had been a decade and more of “utmost alertness, utmost watchfulness, involvement and therefore of course a very heightened (and at the same time very deep) kind of existence”.