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 by 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.




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