Monthly Archives: October 2013

Menippean satire 3

Further pro menippean satire (PMS) texts given at the Winnipeg school site are:

[McLuhan:] “I don’t have A Theory of Communication” and “I don’t use theories in my work”

These are taken from Eric McLuhan’s lecture, ‘Marshall McLuhan’s Theory of Communication: The Yegg‘ where they are cited as “Marshall McLuhan’s classic refrains”.

A whole series of questions comes together at this juncture, the most important of which (to be treated in later posts) concerns perception and conception in McLuhan’s work.

Here three points may be made.

First, Eric McLuhan is well aware that ‘theory’ is not only something which his father didn’t have and didn’t use. Here is Eric in this same lecture:

When Stephen Hawking discusses his own theory of communication, it becomes immediately obvious that one function of a theory in the hands of a scientist is to prod reality into revealing itself. “[W]e cannot distinguish what is real about the universe without a theory,” he writes. A good, elegant theory will describe a wide array of observations and predict the results of new ones. “Beyond that, it makes no sense,” he points out “to ask if [a theory] corresponds to reality, because we do not know what reality is independent of a theory” (Hawking, [Black Holes and Baby Universes], 1993: 44). A theory is a way of seeing and as such a formal cause of reality. (28)

In this sense of ‘theory’, Marshall McLuhan not only did “use theories”, he could not not use them.

Second, as H-G Gadamer often pointed out, the Greek root of ‘theory’ (which we also have in ‘theatre’) is only one of many different words the Greeks had for different kinds of ‘seeing’. Others we retain in English include ‘idea’ (cognate with Latin and English ‘video’), and ‘panorama’, ‘optometry’, and ‘ophthalmology’ (all cognate with English ‘aware’ and ‘wary’). The kind of seeing reflected in theory and theatre can be called ‘participatory seeing’ and was applied by the Greeks above all to the exercise of sight in divine ritual. Here the object seen in-forms the subject such that a kind of receptive passivity is necessary to ‘see what is going on’. Gadamer’s point is interesting in itself and also supplies an etymological footing to Hawking’s point above.

Third, it is insulting both to McLuhan and to menippean satire itself to think that something like ‘avoiding theory’ could supply a non-distorting mirror in which — on the basis of which — media analysis could then be pursued.  (Not that huge amounts of energy are not wasted in just this way!)  The RVM is nothing but perspective that is anchored in some way. But McLuhan’s thought necessarily goes “through the looking glass” since its study is of anchors, plural.






Menippean satire 2

The Toronto School Of Communications fb page offers some counterblast to the idea that the importance of menippean satire in McLuhan’s work is overrated. McLuhan is cited as follows:

I don’t see any point in making anything but controversial statements …There is no other way of getting attention at all. I mean you cannot get people thinking until you say something that really shocks them; dislocates them.

This is from a talk McLuhan gave before a panel studying ‘The Aims and Objectives of Education in the Schools of Ontario’ (January 19, 1967). It was published in print in The Best of Times/The Worst of Times: Contemporary Issues in Canadian Education, 1970. The preceding sentence reads: “Here is another thought for you that is very controversial.” So McLuhan was offering a “controversial” thought about his “controversial statements”. This might be thought similar to satire about menippean satire. But would this be an endorsement or a rejection? Neither? Both?

At any rate, McLuhan was hardly an advocate of shock. In fact, he might well be imagined as addressing the difficult question of how to wake people up from the repeated shocks of modernity without resorting to the contradictory and doubtless useless strategy of attempting to administer one more dose of it.  We have shock jocks and shock and awe and today a thousand more shocking things/girls/boys/songs/images/movies/events etc etc will join the previous billions of them. Shock and somnambulism have become so merged that unimaginable violence against everything is not only the new normal, it is the fervently endorsed new normal.

The mean level of stupidity in the world has never been so high and there have never been so many people around to exercise it. The prospects are shocking.

Another pro menippean satire text cited is:

The urgent effort of the poets to gain a hearing for their intuitions is always lost on the public.

This is from ‘The Crack in the Rear-View Mirror‘ which appeared in the first issue of the McGill Journal of Education in 1966. But instead of offering a questionable historical description of the “urgent effort of the poets to gain a hearing”, or giving the questionable advice that poets turn their attention to publicity instead of their writing, perhaps McLuhan was thinking here of something more like the “urgent need of the public to give poets a hearing”? His dictation ‘writing’ all too often came out like this.

In this same paper from the McGill Journal of Education, McLuhan concludes by expressing the counterfactual hope that:

In the jet age there are some indications that the rear-view mirror as a notification device is losing its monopoly.

Earlier he had given the “only conceivable” way in which this might eventuate:

The only conceivable defence against the distorting effects of the new environments created by new technologies is a patient and total understanding of their powers and influences.


Oscar Hijuelos

Oscar Hijuelos died this weekend (Oct 12, 2013). His Thoughts Without Cigarettes: A Memoir (2011) provides an excellent account of McLuhan’s New York City life when he (McLuhan) visited during the 15 or so years after WW2. McLuhan is mentioned only in passing, but Hijuelos grew up on W 118th St between Columbia and Morningside Park right across the street from the large (eight kids) Muller-Thym family.  His best friend was Richard Muller-Thym.  So the Muller-Thyms and their complex life is front and center throughout the memoir.

Bernard Muller-Thym and his wife Mary had been close friends and role models for McLuhan and his wife Corinne, since standing as their witnesses in their last minute 1939 marriage. A letter McLuhan wrote to them when Muller-Thym was on his death-bed in 1974 fondly recalls their years in St Louis together, from 1938 to 1942 or 1943:

Naturally, we are thinking of you day and night and remembering all the wonderful times we had in St Louis. Your home was the super seminar of all time, in which young instructors were taught the mysteries of cuisine, avant garde music, new liturgy and metaphysics. It was very rich and heady brew that formed and was shared by your delighted friends. I pray that other other such centres exist even now, and that others will be as lucky as I in sharing them. The fact that you [Mary] and Bernie had such a wonderful musical background [she was a pianist whose father was the conductor of the Kansas City Symphony and he was an accomplished violinist], to say nothing about your knowledge of SLU, the Jesuits, and the city of St Louis, was like knowing James Joyce himself! (June 11, 1974, Letters 498)

Muller-Thym regarded his activities as a business consultant (which he had begun already in St Louis when he was teaching at SLU as a means of supplementing his meager professor’s salary) as applied Thomism. Since McLuhan was well aware of the deficiencies in his knowledge of classical philosophy and of scholasticism, and knew nothing about business organization, Muller-Thym became his adviser and muse on all these fronts. The considerable role these topics play in McLuhan’s work testifies to Muller-Thym’s extraordinary influence on it from the late 1930s onwards.

McLuhan stayed with the Muller-Thyms whenever he was in New York. His stash of The Mechanical Bride (purchased at considerable discount from the publisher when it was decided to pulp it) was kept there and John Muller-Thym (whose bed McLuhan took over on his visits) remembers pushing grocery cart loads of it up to the Columbia University Bookstore whenever The Bride was featured in some course.

Hijuelos’ memoir provides a touching entrance into this small world, as well as the larger one in which it was embedded.

Chrystall on time 2

It needed the clash of two worlds to see one. (TT 38)

As already seen in Chrystall on time 1, Chrystall’s reading of McLuhan sometimes remains wedded to a sense of history — of time — that is singular and linear. To this extent his reading remains print-oriented since it is fundamental to the difference between print and electric media that the former are “lineal”, “one at a time” and “exclusive”, while the latter are “complex”, “all at once” and “inclusive”. While a sort of complexity is hardly unknown to “visual” print media, their exemplification of the complex is secondary and derivative, not primary and constitutive as it is for “auditory” electric media. McLuhan treats this difference in characteristic fashion in this GG passage:

The study of the Bible in the Middle Ages achieved conflicting patterns of expression which the economic and social historian [viz, Innis and Giedion] is also familiar with. The conflict was between those who said that the sacred text was a complex unified at the literal level, and those who felt that the levels of meaning should be taken one at a time in a specialist spirit. This conflict between an auditory and a visual bias. . . (112)

The contrast McLuhan draws here between “conflicting patterns of expression” concerns “an auditory (…) bias” in which the “complex” is already present “at the literal level” and “a visual bias” for which  the “complex” is compounded as a linear effect from the aggregation of “one at a time”. In the former, the “literal level” follows from the complex which is prior and already “united” with it — which is why the “complex” may be read from it. In the latter, the complex follows from the movement of “one(s) at a time” which are prior — which is why the complex must be fabricated “one at a time in a specialist spirit”.

Now time is exactly that which is per se complex. So the fundamental question or “conflict” addressed in McLuhan’s GG text above is whether there is a time which is prior to that of linear history. Or, as this may equally be put, is time singular or plural? Or, as it may be put in yet another way, is the complex first as cause, or is it third (once a prior first and second are in place) as effect? (A later post will detail how these questions are exactly those addressed in Bernard Muller-Thym’s thesis, The Establishment of the University of Beinga text which McLuhan must have studied in great detail with Muller-Thym during their SLU years, a study which probably began even before Muller-Thym’s thesis was issued in print in 1939.)

The importance of these questions for an assessment of Chrystall’s reading of McLuhan may be seen in the following passage from ‘A Little Epic: McLuhan’s Use of Epyllion‘:

Juxtaposition of plot and subplot, McLuhan states in “Double Plots in the Poetry of Pope”, is never a blend but means of revealing both plus the third thing — the ineluctable. McLuhan also discusses this effect, via use of the double plot or juxtaposition of two momentary environments or digressions, in terms of hendiadys—one by means of two (“Joyce’s Use of Epyllion”).

In the first sentence, “the ineluctable” (which Chrystall follows Joyce and McLuhan in using as much to mean ‘the ineffable’ as ‘the necessary’), is first precisely as the ineffable and the necessary. As such, even though it may be called “the third thing” (reflecting its order of discovery, not its order of being) it is “never a blend”. It follows that the “juxtaposition of plot and subplot” (and equally the “Juxtaposition” of any other duality) arises ‘ineluctably’ as a reflex of this prior medium. It is the “means of revealing both”. In the second sentence, however, Chrystall rewrites the first, reversing it. Here the “revealing” from the first sentence is termed “this effect” and the hendiadys is said to arise “by means of two”. Here “the third thing” is “third” in every sense and it is not, above all, “the ineluctable” first in the order of being. Instead, it is exactly some kind of sequential “blend”.

In and between these two sentences, the question of the plurality of time(s) is at stake. The “ineluctable” causal “means” in the first becomes an “effect” of prior “means” in the second. The first “means” implicates not only a time of its own exactly as prior and as a — or the — “means”, but also a time of reaching out from itself to our “literal level”. In contrast, the second “means” is that of “momentary” history from whose movement the hendiadys arises now as “the third thing” in a fundamentally different, strictly “lineal”, sense.

This question of the plurality of time(s) comes to its head in Chrystall’s essay in the following passage:

In and through his use of the epyllion McLuhan both involves the reader and simultaneously creates detachment — a space-time for the reader that is, in a sense, outside history. To be involved and detached simultaneously is, of course, a paradox. But it is also the crux and precisely what McLuhan is offering in and through these two works [GG and UM]. By having the reader involve themselves with media forms and reconstruct the flux of history within themselves, again and again, the reader is “liberated” from history and comes to see the extent to which their own biases are historically conditioned.

Time is implicated throughout.  Chrystall refers to (a) “space-time (…) that is, in a sense, outside history”), (b) “the flux of history”, (c) liberation “from history” and (d) the ways in which “biases are historically conditioned”. Time is plural in (a) and (c) (which clearly puzzles Chrystall, hence the cautionary “in a sense” and the scare quotes around “liberated”) and decidedly singular in (b) and (d). Chrystall senses that something important is at stake here, even “the crux” of what McLuhan was up to, but he does not thematize time as that which inherently “both involves (…) and simultaneously creates detachment”. For time remains itself — is what it is — in detaching itself from itself: evolution as involution and involution as evolution.

Chrystall observes that “to be involved and detached simultaneously is, of course, a paradox”. But why “of course”? And just when is “paradox”? Is it first or third? What sort of time or times does it implicate? As first, it would govern how the “involved and [the] detached” are to be understood. They would then be “paradox” in an original, archetypal sense. As third, its understanding would be governed by how we first understand the “involved and [the] detached”. It would then be cliché, “of course”.

The former, “paradox” as first, is what is seen “through the looking glass”. The latter, “paradox” as third, is what is seen on the surface of the RVM.

Chrystall is an acute enough reader of McLuhan that his analyses raise these questions. Suffice it to note here only that “paradox” is indeed “the crux” and that it must be allowed its questionability if McLuhan is to be considered fittingly. Only note that in the “Paradox” section of From Cliché to Archetype (1970), paradox is brought together with the eloquence of the doctus orator, a theme from McLuhan’s 1943 thesis, and with Chesterton, the subject of McLuhan’s first scholarly paper in 1936 and the most important influence on his 1937 conversion:

Chesterton’s entire vision was paradoxical because it was based on perception as process. (CA 159)

In the same place, McLuhan links paradox specifically to the question of time:

The basis of all paradox, Christian and secular, is to be found in the sixth book of the Physics of Aristotle, to which Aquinas refers in his Summa Theologica I.II.q 113.a.7, ad quintum. The question for Aquinas is whether justification by faith occurs in­stantly or gradually. Aquinas says it occurs instantly because — ­here he appeals to Aristotle’s Physics  — “the whole preceding time during which anything moves towards its form, it is under the opposite form”. (CA, 160) (The passage from Aristotle used by Thomas is cited again by McLuhan in Latin in ‘The Medieval Environment’ from 1974.)

In a postscript to his May 6, 1969 letter to Jacques Maritain (Letters, 371), McLuhan cites all of this same text, but in Latin, and importantly includes its continuation as follows:

et in ultimo instanti illius temporis, quod est primum instans . . .

Fifteen years before, in his 1955 Explorations 4 essay ‘Space, Time, and Poetry’ McLuhan cited Dante from Canto 1 of the Purgatorio:

We paced along the lonely plain, as one who returning to his lost road, and, till he reached it, seems to go in vain.




Menippean satire

The importance of menippean satire in McLuhan’s work is overrated. While he did have a great (typically western Canadian) sense of humor and certainly did not disdain satire, including menippean, reading his work from this vantage brings with it a series of problems. Most importantly, menippean satire all too easily suggests that some passage is not understood because it is not intended to be understood. Instead, it is supposed, the passage is intended to ‘jar the reader’ (as the saying goes) with its absurdity or its opacity. So one understands all of McLuhan by understanding the understandable parts and not understanding the not understandable parts.  End of story. The history of the world can be grasped in short order following this recipe.


Centre and Margin 3

McLuhan’s  January 4, 1961 letter to Claude Bissell (Letters, 279-280) is cited in Centre and Margin 2. This post will provide a running inline commentary on it. Italics appearing in McLuhan’s text here have been added.

. . . what our technology has done electrically, and will do with ever-increasing intensity, is to increase the flow of information in all directions and at all levels. 

As usual, McLuhan’s language functions here on two levels at once, the phenomenological and the ontological.  Phenomenologically he is describing, straight-forwardly, information flow in the electric age. It greatly increases “in all directions and at all levels” both in speed and amount. Ontologically, electric technology functions in this passage to describe the process of “preference” which becomes “all at once” as the velocity of “information flow” increases to “the speed of light”. The one-sided “preference” of print technology (a ≠ b or a ≠ b) gives way to the multiple “preference” state of the electric (a =≠ b).

What is needed therefore is an understanding of what happens to existing center-margin relationships as the interplay between center and margin is affected by ever-higher levels of information.

As the relationship R (characterized by “preference” and “stress”) in the a/b structure changes, so do ‘a’ and ‘b’ (here ‘center’ and ‘margin’). McLuhan puts it this way in Take Today:


This is why the medium is the message/massage. Hence it is that:

Classroom and curriculum as centers for community margins can undergo some strange reversals of roles, as well as considerable subdivision of roles, when the same levels of information are equally available at margin and center. It is this in a word which has caused the restructuring of management.

The double “preference” of the electric is described as “the same levels of information (…) equally available at margin and center”. This sort of shift in “preference” and “stress” (= this sort of shift in R) is what McLuhan often calls “the restructuring of management”.

As McLuhan points to changes in the education environment (changes that Bissell knew all too well), he is like a proto-chemist who points to the gas produced when mercury oxide is heated and says: “Oxygen”. Phenomenologically, it seems clear what is indicated. But the ontological dimension is utterly obscure. When it is finally grasped that the two belong together and express each other, even the phenomenological dimension is transformed and a new world is born.

But there is nothing in any management structure, so far as the response to such information change is concerned, which differs from an educational structure, a biological structure or an art structure. Any field of perception is a structure of center-marginal interplay…

Here McLuhan directs Bissell’s attention (or attempts to do so) to the elementary or ontological level of the educational phenomena in which he is interested. He could not understand ‘Oxygen’ if he did not understand the ways in which it appears in air, water, mercury oxide, etc etc.  Just so, Bissell will not understand the educational changes in which he is interested until he sees the general structures and laws that are expressed in them (as in “any field of perception”).

and when the center usurps margin, the patient is in an hypnotic trance; or alternatively,  mad. 

The patient here is Bissell and the whole world of education he represents. In that world, only the one phenomenal side of events is acknowledged and not their equally present ontological side. This one-sided usurpation or marginalization leaves Bissell and his world “in an hypnotic trance” of unknowing. Or “alternatively”, if the “stress” of such one-sided “preference” is stepped up, this world becomes “mad”.  Hence:

The same problems are faced now by town planners, for whom changes in center-margin roles and interplay have become sheer nightmare.

To come to see the ontological level of events and its interplay with the phenomenological level, McLuhan suggests (what he had earlier suggested also to Innis) that Bissell take the same route McLuhan himself took and that is close at hand for Bissell from his own training in English. Namely, he should consider, or reconsider, what takes place in modern poetry and art:

We at least in education have available possible structures of moving transparencies, or montage patterns of multi-level kind, in which by means of dialogue centers and margins can change positions at high speed.

In order to understand the “multi-level” or “moving transparencies” or “montage patterns” of the phenomenological/ontological “dialogue” relationship at stake here, Bissell would have to adjust his own “management structure” which itself falls within the domain to be refocused. The new world into which McLuhan invites him already includes everything Bissell has ever done or ever will do and everything that has ever happened in universities or ever will happen. The phrase “we at least in education” has both objective and subjective reference and it is the subjective which is the more important of the two because the more difficult to acknowledge.

The movement at stake is catastrophic (a ‘turning of the furrow’ in Greek) in a way the birth of chemistry was not since this new shift is self-referential in a new way.  Although chemists were and are composed of chemicals, chemistry is not (so far as we yet know) a matter of the disposition of chemicals. At any rate, the disposition of chemicals in our brains was not something which had to be consciously re-arranged in order for chemistry to gain its start. But disposition is exactly what the domain of media interrogates.  This is, therefore, a domain which we cannot begin to understand until it is already understood: the required disposition falls within the field whose study is to be initiated. To take the required initiatory movement, the field into which movement is to be made must already be in focus (however necessarily ‘gapped’ this focus must be). Such a ‘knot in time’ (Eliot) is one of the implications of McLuhan’s ever-repeated insistence on “all at once”.

(…) The traditional role of city is that of center or consensus for rustic margin. Now that our technologies are no longer positional but interplanetary, an urban consensus will not serve. 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.

Electric ‘identity’ is inclusively dual (a =≠ b) or, as McLuhan phrases the point here, “interplanetary” (= both the ‘a’ and ‘b’ planets are “privileged”) . No attempt to preserve a one-sided (“positional”) “consensus” (= “preference”) can attain the “dialogue” between the phenomenal and ontological “levels” which is the prerequisite for the initiatory perception of this domain.  The “university” (= diverse unity) of both being and experience must be seen to underlie this possibility, not “subjects” taken either only objectively, as diverse university subjects of study, or only subjectively, as determinative action by individuals. (Both Lamberti and Chrystall urge the active participation by subjects in the learning process as if this could ever not be the case. Future posts will deal with the time problem here where Lamberti and Chrystall want to go forward into a new situation when the need is to go backward into an existing one.)

Such a concept of university could supersede the concept of urban center in an age of electronic information movement, and need not be locational, or geographic.

As always, McLuhan is making many points at once. At the ontological level, print1 is “positional or geographic” because it isolates a single pole in the a/b relation through “preference” and “stress”.  Subsequently, it operates at the phenomenological level (expressing the ontological model) to isolate a university, both geographically and as an ivory tower, away from the rest of society.  As a “university of being and experience”, however, it could function everywhere or “all at once” (just as chemistry functions everywhere and “all at once”). By re-presenting the belonging-together of unity and diversity, especially of phenomenology and ontology in the human domain, the university might retake its place in “dialogue” with society as both symbol and laboratory for the study and application of the new sciences of this domain.

  1.  As future posts will need to detail, there is nothing more important for an appropriate reading of McLuhan than the insight that one-sided (“hypnotic trance”) and even “mad” views have an ontological basis just as much as two-sided and entirely sane ones. How else could such errant views be? McLuhan’s realization that he had failed to give full weight to this insight came at the start of the 1950s with his turn to advertising and popular culture as the very keys to media analysis. If not also here, then nowhere. (Cf, Gilson in The Unity of Philosophical Experience, 202: “There is nothing arbitrary in the ventures of a philosopher, even when he is mistaken.”)

Centre and Margin 2

At the turn of a year, McLuhan reviewed questions which were important to him and often attempted to think them through in correspondence. On January 4, 1961 McLuhan wrote such a letter to Claude Bissell (1916–2000), then the president of UT and formerly McLuhan’s English department colleague. Like McLuhan, Bissell had joined the department in 1946. Since their personal and professional relationship went back 15 years in this way, McLuhan’s closing to the letter, “regards as ever”, was not merely perfunctory.

McLuhan used the letter to rehearse the presentation Bissell had asked him to give to a university advisory committee on “patterns of educational change”:

. . . what our technology has done electrically, and will do with ever-increasing intensity, is to increase the flow of information in all directions and at all levels. What is needed therefore is an understanding of what happens to existing center-margin relationships as the interplay between center and margin is affected by ever-higher levels of information.  Classroom and curriculum as centers for community margins can undergo some strange reversals of roles, as well as considerable subdivision of roles, when the same levels of information are equally available at margin and center. It is this in a word which has caused the restructuring of management. But there is nothing in any management structure, so far as the response to such information change is concerned, which differs from an educational structure, a biological structure or an art structure. Any field of perception is a structure of center-marginal interplay, and when the center usurps margin, the patient is in an hypnotic trance; or alternatively,  mad. The same problems are faced now by town planners, for whom changes in center-margin roles and interplay have become sheer nightmare. We at least in education have available possible structures of moving transparencies, or montage patterns of multi-level kind, in which by means of dialogue centers and margins can change positions at high speed. (…) The traditional role of city is that of center or consensus for rustic margin. Now that our technologies are no longer positional but interplanetary, an urban consensus will not serve. 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. Such a concept of university could supersede the concept of urban center in an age of electronic information movement, and need not be locational, or geographic. (Letters, 279-280, italics added)

McLuhan closed the letter by mentioning that he had “had a most delightful afternoon and evening with Peter Drucker and his family recently”.  Drucker (1909-2005) was a renowned, if somewhat controversial, management consultant and theorist whom McLuhan doubtless first got to know through his best friend, Bernard Muller-Thym. Muller-Thym was a PhD graduate of UT and the Mediaeval Institute, McLuhan’s colleague at St Louis University from 1938 to 1943 (but in the Philosophy department, not English), the best man at McLuhan’s wedding in 1939, the godfather of McLuhan’s first child, Eric, and now a successful management consultant in New York.  Muller-Thym also taught management theory, at first at Columbia and then for many years at MIT. McLuhan stayed with Muller-Thym and his large family (eight children) whenever he visited New York.

As a favorite student of Etienne Gilson (after whom Muller-Thym named one of his sons), Muller-Thym became McLuhan’s conduit not only to business theorists like Drucker, but also to Gilson and Aquinas. (Note may be made of the strange parallels between McLuhan’s relationships with Muller-Thym and Tom Easterbrook, his best friend from an earlier era. Like Muller-Thym and Gilson, Easterbrook was a favorite student and colleague of Harold Innis, and became McLuhan’s conduit to Innis and to the history of economics and communications research pursued by him. Coincidentally, both Muller-Thym and Easterbrook obtained their PhDs from UT in the same year, 1938, and both had the unusual honor of having their dissertations immediately published, in 1939 and 1938 respectively, through the efforts of their thesis advisers and fatherly friends, Gilson and Innis.)

When McLuhan writes in his letter to Bissell of “the concept of a university of being” he is quoting from the title of Muller-Thym’s UT PhD thesis (for which Gilson wrote a complimentary preface in the published version): On the University of Being in Meister Eckhart of Hochheim.

Almost a year before his new year’s letter to Bissell, McLuhan had rehearsed some of the same thoughts in a letter to Muller-Thym:

the increasing volume of information flow substitutes for products in the sense of becoming the major product. In terms of the university as an area of subjects, the tendency of awareness of process is certainly to make one subject substitutable for another. And so by a commodious vicus of recirculation (note the chiasmic form here) we come back to Bernard, Eckhart, and the University of Being. (MM to Muller-Thym, May 5, 1960, Letters, 271-272)

As noted elsewhere (RVM or through the looking glass?) “management structure” is not (or is not only) a commercial term for McLuhan. It applies, as he specifically notes in his letter to Bissell, to “any field of perception”. So ‘McLuhan for Managers’ can be misleading in the same way as ‘chemistry for metallurgists’ might be. Of course chemistry has enormous application in metallurgy. But since chemistry is much broader than metallurgy, its application there depends upon first mastering the wider field. So with McLuhan and business management. His work was directed to the wider field of media research from which applications to organizational management, for instance, might be derived. But reading his work as business theory, even though he often cited people like Drucker and Muller-Thym, and even though he considered developments in business highly important, and even though he wondered if his thinking might better be communicated to business executives than to academics, is a category mistake.

The letter to Bissell has many important theoretical implications for McLuhan’s overall project. These will be analyzed in Centre and Margin 3…





Centre and Margin 1

The economic history of Canada has been dominated by the discrepancy between the centre and the margin of western civilization. (Innis, The Fur Trade in Canada, 1930)

As described by McLuhan in ‘Media and Cultural Change’, his 1964 introduction to Innis’ The Bias of Communication, the structural pair of centre and margin is subject to a range of expression:

Visual technology creates a centre-margin pattern of organization whether by literacy or by industry and a price system. But electric technology is instant and omnipresent and creates multiple centres-without-margins.  

What Innis calls “the discrepancy” between centre and margin names not only their relationship in a particular case (here, the fur trade in Canada) but also, as McLuhan explicitly points out (and as is clearly implied by Innis), it may be taken to name a range of relationships which characterizes ‘events’ as different as “literacy”, “a price system” and “electric technology”. A “discrepancy” can hardly be unique.

It is not the case that these different happenings come first and then the relationships they exhibit between centre and margin are abstracted from them.  Instead, from the vantage of media analysis, the range of relationships is prior and the events with their different modalities of centre and margin are subsequent.  

Innis’ “discrepancy” names the relationship or medium between the two poles of centre and margin which governs or ‘dominates’ (as Innis says) their expression and which thereby determines the meanings of those poles. This structural determination may be seen in McLuhan’s manipulation of the pair. In the “visual (…) centre-margin pattern of organization” McLuhan puts forward an (a≠b) relation where the ‘centre’ pole is preferred to the ‘margin’ one (so either a≠b or a≠b). But when McLuhan comes to write of “multiple centres-without-margins” he is not indicating some centre-only state which might be mapped as a (alone) or b (alone). Instead, as the reference to plural “multiple centres” makes plain, the form of “electric technology” is still complex and certainly does not abrogate the elemental a/b structure. So McLuhan does not use the phrase “multiple centres” to indicate something about the single ‘centre’ pole of a centre/margin structure, but, instead, he uses it to describe an inclusive or “multiple” preference-state of that structure: (a=≠b). This is an a/b structure “without-margins” only in the sense that there is no pole of it which is without “preference” and which would therefore be ‘marginal’. In fundamental contrast to a case with one-sided “preference” and with corresponding marginality of the other pole, here both poles are, in this new sense, “centres”. Absent the literate habit of privileging ‘centre’ over ‘margin’ (aka ‘imperialism’, ‘orientalizing’, etc) this could also be expressed as centre =≠ margin.

In fact, margins are still necessarily present in “multiple centres-without-margins” since (eg) there could be no plurality of “multiple centres” if there were no margin or border or gap separating or differentiating individual “centres” from each other. In this latter sense, ‘margin’ takes on the meaning of R in the aRb relation and is therefore not only not absent but, as the medium, is just the elementary message: “the gap is where the action is”, “the medium is the message”, “the medium is the massage” . . .  




Chrystall on time 1

Andrew Chrystall opens his essay ‘A Little Epic: McLuhan’s Use of Epyllion’ with the statement: “Commentary on Marshall McLuhan’s oeuvre has shifted from debating whether he was right or wrong to a deeper consideration of his rhetorical praxis.” Different takes are implicated here. On the one hand, Chrystall is noting (and is surely correct in noting, along with Lamberti) that any discussion of “right or wrong” in McLuhan must be based on an accurate reading of what he had to say. And the understanding of what he had to say entails understanding how he said it: “the medium is the message”. Thus far one must agree that a consideration of McLuhan’s “rhetorical praxis” is indeed a necessary and “deeper consideration”.  But, on the other hand, Chrystall’s statement seems also to have been intended as a restatement in regard to McLuhan of Nietzsche’s title, On the Genealogy of Morals: in this case, “right or wrong” is to be treated as a surface manifestation of “deeper” psychological and/or sociological — at any rate historical — factors. “Rhetorical praxis” would name this supposedly deeper, and singularly efficacious, historical level.

Chrystall’s essay embraces both of these readings. The focus of this post will be on the second and it will be argued that this misses an essential dimension of McLuhan’s thought — the fundamental plurality of time. In a word, there is no single ‘historical’ level to his work. Aside from his constant critique of “lineality” and his insistent recourse to figure and ground in his later work, note should be made that rhetoric in his earlier work is only one of the disciplines of the trivium whose “ancient quarrel” is always also contemporary. As McLuhan makes explicit in the title of his 1946 essay ‘An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America‘, it appears today as much as it did in Greece or Rome.  The surface reality may be utterly different between these widely separated civilizations, but beneath them, at a “deeper” level, there beats the same heart with the same three ventricles with their same complex interactions.

The beating heart of the trivium acts like continental drift beneath the surface of historical events. (There are important parallels between McLuhan’s work in communications and the contemporary work of John Tuzo Wilson, also at UT, on plate techtonics. These will be treated in later posts.) Like continental drift, the surface effects of the dynamic life of the trivium vary between slight movements that are hardly noticeable to earthquakes that are catastrophic. The key point here is that the trivium is dynamic and has its own fundamental time (“time not our time” in Eliot). Further, the relation of its time to our historical time has yet another chronology. Time, too, has a triple beat. Not only past-present-future, but layers of times like an onion.

McLuhan is often explicit concerning this complex plurality of time as times:

time considered as sequential (left hemisphere) is figure and time considered as simultaneous (right hemisphere) is ground. (GV 10)

Later posts will detail this fundamental theme in McLuhan’s works. Suffice it to note here with McLuhan that this other “simultaneous” time is “ground” to the “figure” of our historical time (the “lineal”) in the same way as techtonic plates underlie (and so can overwhelm) our surface geography. This is exactly why the “ancient quarrel” of the trivium, like continental drift in geophysics, can have global effect.

That Chrystall yet sometimes holds McLuhan to the standard of a single linear history is apparent at the very outset of his essay and at its very end. At the outset, after noting that “commentary on Marshall McLuhan’s oeuvre has shifted from debating whether he was right or wrong to a deeper consideration of his rhetorical praxis”, he immediately cites Geoff Pevere and Greig Dymond as if in clarification:

And if McLuhan wasn’t right? Well frankly, who cares? For the fact is, no North American intellectual of his era held the world’s ear quite as intensely and obsessively as this (…) professor of English literature from Toronto, and none mainlined the peculiar zeitgeist of the era with such (…) precision. (Mondo Canuck, 132-133)

Here McLuhan’s virtue is to be measured by that of an ad. The person who did more than anyone to direct our attention to the ways in which we allow ourselves to be manipulated by ads is here treated as being a successful ad himself — an ad so tuned to “the peculiar zeitgeist of the era” that it is able to grab our attention “intensely and obsessively”. This assimilation of McLuhan to advertising is possible only because the very question of whether McLuhan was “right” is rejected as uninteresting: “who cares?”  What alone is interesting is “the world’s ear”, “the peculiar zeitgeist of the era”, history at its most effervescent, history as nothing but such effervescence.

While Chrystall’s essay quickly veers away from this dedicated superficiality to treat (as Lamberti has it) “the structural (how he [McLuhan] said what he said)”, and does so with admirable insight (as future posts will elaborate), at the end of his essay, in its concluding note, he inexplicably returns to it. Reflecting on the structural analysis he has just set out with some perspicuity, he comments:

Admittedly this is a somewhat idealized reading, probably only possible within a decade of the initial publication of these works. Today, the weight of McLuhan’s observations are out of date and this militates against the possibility of reading McLuhan in this way.

Here again, single-layered linear history returns as a, or the, standard “ruler”. It rules even what is “possible” via what is, or is not, “out of date”.

Strangely, this same return of the “linear” also occurs with Lamberti. Future posts will need to consider why this is so. At a guess, the reason may have to do with the fact that the relation of the “linear” to the “simultaneous” cannot be one of either/or exclusivity.  It must be one of both-and inclusivity. But how to think such a relation of times while “holding to both” (as Plato has it in the Sophist) is something the present age has lost and now can grope toward only blindly.