Monthly Archives: January 2014

Brothers’ broil

Joyce has an interesting take on the question of time and times:

Television kills telephony in brothers’ broil. Our eyes demand their turn. Let them be seen! (FW 52)

Exactly contrary to McLuhan’s usual practice (although not to his intent), vision is here taken in synchronic fashion (since vision can see difference “all at once”) and hearing is taken diachronically (since hearing can hear difference only over time, first one sound and then another, “one at a time”).

The doubling (Dublin) of vision here — Let [our eyes] be seen! — implicates simultaneity (aka “double perspective“) as method: a method to be used in understanding vision as much as the relation of vision to hearing as much as the relation between the brothers in their broil. “Let them be seen!”

It would seem/seen that synchrony and diachrony, vision and hearing, are each both.

The ancient bond of guest-host-enemy

Contemporary research into human origins is achieving astonishing results through genetics. But research into the mind of early human species is currently limited to the interpretation of artifacts like stone tools and beads and, beginning something like 50,000 years ago, of carvings, flutes and then, somewhat later, cave paintings.

Mythology in written texts, like the Egyptian battle between Horus and Seth, is first available from between 5000 and 6000 years ago. Historical linguistics can also reach back to this same time-frame with its investigations of the proto-Indo-Europeans. Calvin Watkins has this interesting note in the third edition (2011) of his Dictionary of Indo-European Roots:

The basic meaning of the Indo-European word ghos-ti was “someone with whom one has reciprocal duties of hospitality”. In practical terms it referred to strangers in general [Greek xenos, ‘stranger’, descends from ghos-ti] as well as to both guests and hosts (both of which [English words] are [etymologically] descended from [ghos-ti]). The word ghos-ti was thus the central expression of the guest-host relationship, a mutual exchange relationship highly important to ancient Indo-European society. A guest-friendship was a bond of trust between two people that was accompanied by ritualized gift-giving and created an obligation of mutual hospitality and friendship that, once established, could continue in perpetuity and be renewed years later by the same parties or their descendants. The bond created by guest-friendship resembled kinship. A famous example is the story of the Trojan warrior Glaucus and the Greek warrior Diomedes in the Iliad who agree not to fight one another when they discover that Glaucus’s grandfather Bellerophon had been a guest of Diomedes’s grandfather Oeneus many years before. (…) Strangers are potential guest-friends, but also potential enemies; note that the Latin cognate [= likewise descended from ghos-ti] of English guest, namely hostis, means ‘enemy’ [which we have in the other meaning of host in English as ‘army’ (eg, ‘the attacking host’)]. (32)

The ambiguity of I-E ghos-ti recalls the ambiguity of the non-IE relationship of Horus and Seth conceived as both mortal enemies and as friends, indeed as close relations (sometimes brothers, sometimes nephew-uncle). Similarly, in the gigantomachia, the battle between the gods and the giants is waged between relatives (all are descended from Gaia, the Earth) and is subject to various kinds of resolution (in Plato, unsurprisingly, to philosophical resolution).

The same questions of time are implied again and again. When is the institution of the guest-host rule of friendship even to strangers and potential enemies? Is this a rule that is defined in and by linear history or a rule that defines history from a time prior to it? When is the battle between divine generations and when is its resolution? Are all these one-at-a-time or are they somehow simultaneous? And if simultaneous, how is this to be understood?

A reflex of these questions may be seen in the arguments in the early Church concerning the relationship of the Father and the Son. Doctrines which defined their relationship in linear fashion — first the Father and then the Son in some way — were declared heretical. Instead, the Church in council decreed that the Father and the Son are different as only original difference can be different; but at the same time they are also one — originally one.

The great question was, and is, when are the Persons of the Trinity in dynamic community? And if the time of that dynamic community is essentially different from our time, though in community with it, what sort of transparency is there between the two?

As reflected in McLuhan’s Catholicism, his peculiar claim is that new developments in contemporary history, like electronic media and their effects, can be understood only against this deep background, only as “An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America”.  His 1946 article of this title begins “The battle of the books has broken out again” and it concludes:

Between the speculative dialectician and scientist who says that “the glory of man is to know the [synchronic] truth by my methods,” and the eloquent moralist [and rhetorician] who says that “the bliss of man is good government carried on [diachronically] by copiously eloquent and wise citizens,” there need be no conflict. Conflict, however, will inevitably arise between these parties when either attempts to capture the entire education of an age or a country. It would seem to be a matter of distributing time for these studies.1

In 1969, following the publication earlier in the decade of McLuhan’s most influential books, Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media, and more than 20 years after its initial publication, this essay was not only included in The Interior Landscape (223-234), but chosen to conclude it.

  1. ‘An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America’, The Classical Journal, 41:4, January 1946, 156-162, emphasis added.

Assmann on the battle between Horus and Seth

Jan Assmann, retired from Heidelberg University and now at Konstanz, is widely considered to be the dean of contemporary Egyptology. His translation of coffin text #7 includes a note-worthy question mark:

Beendet ist der Kampf, zuende der Streit,
gelöscht die Flamme, die herausgekommen war.
Beweihräuchert (=besänftigt?) ist die Rötung (=Zorn) vor dem Tribunal des Gottes

The battle is over; strife is finished,
the flame that emerged is put out.

Censed (=calmed?) is the reddening (= wrath) before the tribunal of the god

Assmann suggests (but wonders about his own suggestion) that the use of incense as a way of marking holy power is intended here in reference to the ending of the conflict between Horus and Seth. His interpolation of “(=besänftigt?)” or “(=calmed?)” would seem to indicate that the conflict itself could not be regarded as holy. The conflict in this view is only negative and, in contrast, something positive, something holy, something like “justice”, is to be achieved only as a result with its resolution or calming.

Assmann’s suggestion depends upon a take on time as singular and linear. First there was the struggle, then its resolution. Time’s arrow is thought in some way to explain and to cure.  He does not consider that time might be multiple and that explanation might therefore lie, not in the result of some supposedly calming resolution as brought about in linear time, singular, but in the overlap of times, plural.

Chemistry explains by seeing through any sample of material stuff to the rule governed interaction of the elements composing it.  The life of the material stuff and the life of elements must be understood as decisively different from one another, each with their own time, but as mutually pointing to the other. Material stuff is the expression of elementary interaction. Elementary interaction is the explanation of material stuff. Everything depends on a layered difference between the two which is yet transparent or, as McLuhan usually puts it, “metaphorical”.

Where ontology has its own time, where as Plato says, “an interminable battle is always going on between the two camps”, the power of resolution is envisioned and emphasized in a new way. Here resolution holds in the conflict, not beyond it.

This reading throws new light on the first lines of the text:

Aufgehackt ist die Erde, nachdem die beiden Gefährten gekämpft haben,
nachdem ihre Füße den Gottes-Teich in Heliopolis aufgegraben haben.

The earth is hacked up after the two companions [ie, Horus and Seth] have battled
after their feet have dug up the divine pond in Heliopolis.

When is “nachdem” (“after”) here? Have the feet of Horus and Seth in their battle disturbed the earth and “the divine pond in Heliopolis” so that they require restitution? Require some kind of calming back to a prior state of rest? Or have their feet created the condition for the fertility of the earth, a disturbance which needs to be repeated endlessly in seasonal ploughing? Is “the divine pond in Heliopolis” their creation in the same way? Have their feet first (and always) created its basin? Is that pond therefore a reflection1 of a divine struggle which “is always going on between the two camps” and whose “justice” is both dynamic and wondrous exactly because it is in that struggle and not beyond it?

McLuhan’s emphasis on the plurality of time as times and on the power of “simultaneity” must be understood in this truly ancient context.


  1. The divine pond in Heliopolis is of the earth, but reflects the sky. It does not merge the two, but is a representation of their peace in difference. Hence:
    The battle is over; strife is finished,
    the flame that emerged is put out.
    Censed is the reddening (= wrath) before the tribunal of the god

Mis-taking McLuhan (Kroker 2)

As seen in Mis-taking McLuhan (Kroker 1), “creative freedom” — McLuhan’s “primary value” according to Kroker — is the movement “where ‘fixed perspective’ drops off” and “double perspective” takes over such that “everything passes over instantaneously into its opposite”. The present post will look at what is at stake (enjeu in the precise French expression) in this dynamic.

Kroker’s most important contributions have been made as a reader of McLuhan and of Canadian intellectual history in general. If this seems to rate his contributions in the 1980’s higher than his later work, the impression would not be wrong. But this evaluation should be taken to regard his early work very highly indeed, not to regard his later work as insignificant. In fact, Kroker’s nose for fundamental issues is acute and even his wrong turns are usually indicative of topics which will repay close consideration.

In the view taken here, Kroker’s importance is, however, not at all limited to Canadian intellectual history considered in isolation. Instead, his great contributions in this area (especially Technology and the Canadian Mind: Innis/McLuhan/Grant from 1984 and his wonderful essay Augustine as the Founder of Modern Experience: The Legacy of Charles Norris Cochrane from 1982) investigate Canadian thought in reference to a complex which has dominated the western tradition for 2500 years since Heraclitus and Plato (and arguably for another 2500 years before that since the dawn of recorded history in early dynastic Egypt). In this perspective, Canadian intellectual history has its meaning as a particularly revealing figure against this deep background and of this deep background. And the peculiar fit of Canada to this role has to do with its founding two nations and with its self-conscious status as a margin (or margins) that would both establish itself on its own and relate itself to an acknowledged centre (or centres) — elsewhere. Kroker’s turn in his later work to the three Germans, Heidegger, Nietzsche and Marx (in The Will to Technology and the Culture of Nihilism, 2004), may be understood as situating his matching three Canadian figures, namely, McLuhan, Grant and Innis (in Technology and the Canadian Mind 20 years earlier) on this prior ground.

Kroker’s analyses of Cochrane (1889-1945), Innis (1894-1952), McLuhan (1911-1980) and Grant (1918-1988) bring structural opposition marked by “privilege” together with ontology. This methodology may be seen at work in the following passage from his ‘Digital Humanism‘ essay on McLuhan:

McLuhan’s intellectual preference was to privilege the question of technology over all other aspects of social experience, including the economic foundations of society. (emphasis added)

Preference or privilege is the valuation of one term of an opposition (here, technology/economics), relative to the other, in a way that is held to be characteristic of the experience of a particular thinker, like McLuhan, and may thus be regarded as a certain style of ‘identification’ (= both ‘identity formation’ and ‘recognition’) that has ontological implications for the experience in question. In this short passage Kroker is thereby able to characterize McLuhan’s kind of experience as ‘technology/economics’ (where the underlining indicates all three of “preference”, ‘identification’ and ontological type) and to characterize his own differing type as ‘technology/economics‘ and to indicate his valorization of the latter relative to the former through his use of the term “foundations” for it. McLuhan’s experience, in poor contrast, is said to be “over” and the implication is that McLuhan has confused what is “over” (precisely through his “preference” or “privilege” of it) with what is properly ‘under’, namely foundations. McLuhan’s experience in Kroker’s view is, so to say, ‘downside up’ and Kroker would correct it by turning it ‘upside down’. At the other end of the western tradition, it will be recalled that Aristophanes similarly critiques Socrates as being, ludicrously, in the “clouds”.

Kroker would reverse McLuhan’s preference or privilege from ‘technology/economics’ to  ‘technology/economics‘. Now the possibility of this reversal lies in “creative freedom”. McLuhan was entirely free to exercise the preference or privilege attributed to him by Kroker. But exactly therefore, he remains just as free to exercise it differently. “Creative freedom” has, then, always already been at work in the formation of experience, Kroker’s as much as McLuhan’s, yours as much as mine,  But the additional claim made by Kroker is that his own “creative freedom” is, so to say, doubled or tripled, in ways McLuhan’s is not. However McLuhan may have been self-conscious of his manner of privilege in the formation of his experience, Kroker’s is purported to be exercised at least one level better in his critique of it.

For the moment, the question of the accuracy of Kroker’s critique may be left aside in favor of a consideration of the genealogy of his method. His treatment of structural oppositions is explicitly ordered along a vertical axis: in this passage, “technology” is envisioned as “over” and economics as “foundations” or ‘under’. But “technology” and “economics” are not the same for McLuhan (‘technology/economics’) and for Kroker (‘technology/economics‘) either individually or relative to the other. “Technology” privileged as foundational ground is not the same as “technology” considered as a figurative epi-phenomenon. The same is true for “economics” or for anything else. So it is that the vertical axis of “technology” over “economics” is better imagined as ‘technology/economics’ over ‘technology/economics‘. And since the “preference” or “privilege” made with one side or the other of the ‘technology/economics’ opposition may be made with greater or lessor fervor, with greater or lessor antagonism between the terms, it is possible to imagine a whole range of ‘technology/economics’ formations between ‘technology is everything and economics nothing’ at the top of the vertical axis to ‘economics is everything and technology is nothing’ at its bottom.  Between these extreme formations, “preference” or “privilege” of gradually increasingly irenic flavor towards the midpoint of the axis may be imagined. (McLuhan often characterizes this sort of variation in “preference” as difference in the level of “stress”.)

Such a vertical axis represents not only the range over which “technology” and “economics” may be experienced relative to the other, it also represents the range of “creative freedom”. Indeed, every formation on the axis represents one and the same exercise of “creative freedom” (regardless of whether an additional self-conscious or critical level of “creative freedom” has been exercised relative to the “primary” exercise of “preference” or “privilege).

The deep background of this analysis appears in a fragment from Heraclitus: hodos ano kato mia kai houte. This fragment from around 500 BC was used by Eliot 2450 years later as one of the twoepigraphs, both from Heraclitus, for his Four Quartets. It is often cited — as it is by McLuhan in Take Today (283) — as “the way up is the way down”. The Greek is more like: “The way up and the way down are one and the same”. While Heraclitus certainly identifies the way up and the way down, he also differentiated them as seen in the river fragment below. In any case, one of the many possible readings of the fragment is that it describes the action of “creative freedom” over the range of its exercise along the vertical axis as described above. This exercise is always the same and yet always different as it is concretely realized in the different positions along the range of the axis. As Heraclitus has it in another fragment (which we have as cited by Plato): “You could not step twice into the same river”.

The issues at stake in Kroker’s reading of Canadian intellectual history — namely, structural relations marked by privilege indicating individual identity formation and ontology — were already subject to brilliant analysis by Plato. The notion attributed by him to Socrates that no one knowingly does evil may be understood to specify the relation between identity and ontology. Since ontology implicates not only what is most real but also what is most good, if identity is a factor of ontology, no one — absent a change in identity — can do anything other than the good as delimited by that ontology.

Plato was fully self-conscious that this only deferred the question of ethics to the question of ontology. In the Sophist he poses the question of ontology in terms of the even then ancient mythological theme of the battle between the gods and the giants, the gigantomachia:

What we shall see is something like a battle of gods and giants going on between them over their quarrel about reality [gigantomachia peri tes ousias]1 (…) One party is trying to drag everything down to earth out of heaven and the unseen, literally grasping rocks and trees in their hands, for they lay hold upon every stock and stone and strenuously affirm that real existence belongs only to that which can be handled and offers resistance to the touch. They define reality as the same thing as body, and as soon as one of the opposite party asserts that anything without a body is real, they are utterly contemptuous and will not listen to another word. (…) Their adversaries are very wary in defending their position somewhere in the heights of the unseen, maintaining with all their force that true reality consists in certain intelligible and bodiless forms. In the clash of argument they shatter and pulverize those bodies which their opponents wield, and what those others allege to be true reality they call, not real being, but a sort of moving process of becoming. On this issue an interminable battle is always going on between the two camps. (…) It seems that only one course is open to the philosopher who values knowledge and truth above all else. He must refuse to accept from the champions of the forms the doctrine that all reality is changeless and exclusively immaterial, and he must turn a deaf ear to the other party who represent reality as everywhere changing and as only material. Like a child begging for ‘both’, he must declare that reality or the sum of things is both at once. (Sophist 246a-249c)

Plato’s tale wonderfully enriches the ‘technology/economics’ axis described above to include such further oppositions as sky/earth, light/dark, up/down, head/hand, still/moving, one/many, being/becoming, clouds/rocks, Parmenides/Heraclitus, etc, as well as the gods and the giants. But it also specifies a mode of “preference” or “privilege” which may already have been intended by Heraclitus in saying that “the way up and the way down are one and the same”, and even by Parmenides in describing the two horses of the chariot on the path of truth, but which here in the Sophist is stated plainly: “Like a child begging for ‘both’, [the philosopher] must declare that reality or the sum of things is both at once”.  That is, “preference” or “privilege” need not be confined to one side of a structural pair, as argued (and fought to the death for) by the gods and the giants, aka idealists and realists, but may be made with both. This possibility, too, lies on the vertical axis, indeed exactly at its mid-point, and “creative freedom” may, perhaps even must, be exercised in regard also to it (in affirmation or rejection).

2500 years before classical Greece, around 3000 BC, a variation of Plato’s take on the gigantomachia is described in the battle between Horus and Seth as recorded in the Egyptian ‘coffin texts’:

The earth is hacked up after the two companions [i.e., Horus and Seth] have battled
after their feet have dug up the divine pond in Heliopolis.
Thoth comes, equipped with his rank,
after Atum has distinguished him with (the requirements of) power
and the two Great Ones (ie, the Enneads) [= councils of the gods] are satisfied with him.
The battle is over; strife is finished,
the flame that emerged is put out.
Censed (=calmed?) is the reddening (= wrath) before the tribunal of the god
so that it is seated to speak justice before Geb.
(Jan Assmann, Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt, 283)2  

Detailed exposition may be left to a later post. Suffice it to note here that Horus as the hawk or falcon and as descended from the sky, Nut, is a god of the sky, while Seth is associated with the red earth of the desert and portrayed as a jackal with a forked tail suggesting association with the snake, Their battle is a gigantomachia as regards both the divine combatants and the ontological issues at stake. Peace is brought about between them by Thoth, the philosopher god, whose work has been enabled and then certified by the gods in council who represent in their assembly another image, like the treaty between Horus and Seth itself, of complex peace or “justice”.

Egypt as “the two lands”, upper and lower, strung out along the Nile, styled itself as “justice” in this sense. There is a parallel with the confederation of upper and lower Canada strung out along the St Lawrence.

For the 5000 or 6000 years of recorded history, which is all we have, the complex which forms the background against which Kroker reads Canadian intellectual history has been at work. “Creative freedom” is a central feature of this complex. But so also is “justice” and the next post will consider the “resonating bond” between these two.

McLuhan may be read as asserting the common truth of this ancient ontology of “justice”. he maintained that Western civilization beginning with the Greeks, but accelerating with the renaissance and Gutenberg, disturbed this balance in a way which culminated in the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But only if this massive disturbance of balance is somehow itself balanced can the ancient ontology be justified. Just such a theodicy is the central aim of McLuhan’s work.3

  1.  Heidegger cites this phrase in Greek on the first page of Sein und Zeit and then again on its last page in German translation.  At the middle of the book, in the 42nd of its 83 sections, he gives a mythological treatment of the theme in the fable of Cura. What Heidegger understands by Sein (Being) is exactly the always outstanding question of “justice”.
  2.  Assmann: Tod und Jenseits im alten Ägypten, 374:
    Aufgehackt ist die Erde, nachdem die beiden Gefährten gekämpft haben,
    nachdem ihre Füße den Gottes-Teich in Heliopolis aufgegraben haben.
    Thot kommt, ausgerüstet mit seiner Würde,
    nachdem Atum ihn ausgezeichnet hat mit (dem Bedarf der) Kraft
    und die beiden Großen (Neunheiten) zufrieden sind über ihn.
    Beendet ist der Kampf, zuende der Streit,
    gelöscht die Flamme, die herausgekommen war.
    Beweihräuchert (=besänftigt?) ist die Rötung (=Zorn) vor dem Tribunal des Gottes,
    so daß es Platz nimmt, um Recht zu sprechen vor Geb.
  3. See ‘the main question‘.

Mis-taking McLuhan (Kroker 1)

Arthur Kroker’s insightful essay, Digital Humanism: The Processed World of Marshall McLuhan (from his 1984 book Technology and the Canadian Mind: Innis/McLuhan/Grant), concludes with a final section in which he treats “McLuhan’s Blindspots“. Here the heart of Kroker’s critique lies in the charge that McLuhan lacked a “primary” sense of justice. This lack, according to Kroker, bound McLuhan to “technological society” in a way which rendered him indifferent to its “barbarism”:

McLuhan’s primary value was, of course, creative freedom, not “justice”; and his political preference was for a universal community founded on the rights of “reason”, not for the “ethic of charity”. This is to say, however, that McLuhan’s “historical sense” already embraced, from its very beginnings, the deepest assumptions of technological society. (…) Thus, it was not with bad faith but with the curious amorality of a thinker whose ethic, being as it was abstract freedom and reason, and who could thus screen out the barbarism of the technological dynamo, that McLuhan could associate with the leadership of technological society. (This, and all citations below from Kroker, are taken from ‘Digital Humanism‘)

But this is a peculiar charge in many ways. For example, it ignores McLuhan’s early (age 23) commitment to distributionism and to the central role played by its vision of economic and social justice in his life-defining conversion to Catholicism (topics to be treated in later posts). For present purposes here, however, the central point is that it ignores McLuhan’s characteristic turn in any situation towards an analysis of the structural balance or lack of balance — ie, of the justice or lack of justice — displayed by it. This was the very fulcrum of his thought: his ever-repeated dictum that “the gap is where the action is” was intended to highlight that boundary which is never absent from human experience and which holds the balance, in a range of possible ways, between difference and unity in it. Thus it is, as Kroker nicely has it:

To read McLuhan is to enter into a “vortex” of the critical, cultural imagination, where “fixed perspective” drops off by the way, and where everything passes over instantaneously into its opposite.

Hence Kroker’s description of McLuhan’s “specific strategy” as a “constant resort to paradox, double perspective, to a carnival of the literary imagination”.  Hence his citation of McLuhan referring to “the coalescing of inner and outer, subject and object” (from Through the Vanishing Point). This is a “coalescing”, however, that does not result in merger as the purported escape from oppositions in experience (like “subject and object”). Instead, such oppositions remain decisively different from each other — gapped — but what was “subject” is now “object” and what was “object” is now “subject”:

where “fixed perspective” drops off by the way, and where everything passes over instantaneously into its opposite

Such “passing over”, “coalescing”, “resort to paradox” and “double perspective” is indeed the work of “creative freedom” and it does indeed operate as a “primary value” in McLuhan’s thought. [See Mis-taking McLuhan (Kroker 2) for elaboration of “creative freedom” as the movement “where ‘fixed perspective’ drops off” and “double perspective” takes over such that “everything passes over instantaneously into its opposite”.]

But “creative freedom” does not at all work in contradiction to “justice” or against an “ethic of charity” as Kroker charges.  Far rather, “creative freedom” is able to be “creative” and “free” exactly because it operates in an ontological environment where an original “justice” — “the resonating bond in all things” (Take Today 3) — both allows and supports it.  Only so can it be that “everything passes over instantaneously into its opposite”, The “creative freedom” that is “privileged” in McLuhan’s work is, then, only (only!) an attempt to follow this original dynamic of “justice” itself. [See Mis-taking McLuhan (Kroker 3) for elaboration of the ineluctable relationship between “creative freedom” and “justice”.]

In fact, Kroker provides many illustrations of this complex dynamic in McLuhan’s work. For example, he cites McLuhan’s thesis that: 

the outering or extension of our bodies and senses in a new invention compels the whole of our bodies and senses to shift into new positions in order to maintain equilibrium. (UM 252, emphases added)

Or again, shortly before his discussion of “McLuhan’s blindspots”, he observes:

McLuhan often noted that “the function of the body” was the maintenance of an equilibrium among the media of our sensory organs. And consequently, the electronic age is all the more dangerous, and, in fact, suicidal when “in a desperate (…) autoamputation, as if the central nervous system could no longer depend on the physical organs to be protective buffers against the slings and arrows of outrageous mechanism”, the central nervous system itself is outered in the form of electric circuitry. McLuhan inquires, again and again, what is to be the human fate now that with the “extension of consciousness” we have put “one’s nerves outside, and one’s physical organs inside the nervous system, or brain”. For McLuhan, the modern century is typified by an information order which plays our nerves in public: a situation, in his estimation, of “dread”. (Emphasis added. For more on dread in McLuhan see Exploring ignorance (9) – The Concept of Dread and Exploring ignorance (12) – “mechanization of total human gesture”)

This hardly seems to have “embraced (…) the deepest assumptions of technological society”. Instead, Kroker nicely formulates McLuhan’s concern that the “suicidal” event of the total displacement of nature by art in the electric age (“our nerves in public”) has broken down the required “maintenance of an equilibrium” in such an extreme way that it must lead either to unprecedented disaster or to a novel healing (or perhaps both). Later posts will examine how it is that Kroker could rightly see McLuhan’s insight into such “dread” but also hold to the seemingly contradictory idea that:

everything in McLuhan’s thought strained towards the liberation of the ‘Pentecostal condition’ of technology (…) the vision of ‘processed information’ as somehow consonant with the perfectibility of the human faculties.1

For now, the not unrelated matter concerns the inherent interplay between “creative freedom” and “justice” in McLuhan’s thought. Kroker’s contention is that the former is allowed — or forced — to trump the latter and that this points not only to limitations in McLuhan’s sense of “justice” and “ethics”, but also to a series of further problems.  The most important of these concerns “ontology, the locus of his world vision”:

McLuhan’s political value may have been the creation of a universal community of humanity founded on reason, his axiology may have privileged the process of communication, and his moral dynamic may have been the “defence of civilization” from the dance of the irrational; but his ontology, the locus of his world vision, was the recovery of the “poetic process”.  (Emphasis added)

Here “poetic process” is the same as “creative freedom” and Kroker’s problem is not so much that this particular “ontology” is wrong-headed, as he certainly believes, but that it dissembles the fact that no ontology remains viable for “technological experience”:

In the face of the incipient nihilism of the technological experience, McLuhan dangled that most precious of gifts: a sense of historical purpose (the age of communications as “cosmic consciousness”); and an intellectual justification (the technological imperative as both necessary and good).

This again raises the problem of the dynamic between the danger and the potential saving in the electronic age (which will be elaborated elsewhere). Suffice it to note here only in passing that nothing could be further from McLuhan’s “double perspective” in which “everything passes over instantaneously into its opposite” than that whole series of fundamental mergers and consolidations attributed to him by Kroker: his “primary value” as “creative freedom” only and not also “justice”; his supposed notion of “the age of communications as cosmic consciousness” only (and not also as unprecedented unconsciousness and blindness); his purported view of “the technological imperative as both necessary and good” only (and not also as willful and utterly demonic).

What seems to be fundamentally at stake here is the notion (the central “metaphysical” notion according to Heidegger) that ontology and consolidation hang together: ‘matching not making’ (to reverse the point made repeatedly by McLuhan following both Heidegger and Gilson). Future posts will therefore need to consider how it is that for McLuhan, by giving up the desire for matching and merger, ontology is possible, even necessary; while Kroker, in fundamental contrast, by maintaining the “metaphysical” standard, ‘matching not making’, judges it to be impossible and fraudulent.

When these positions have been elaborated, it will then need to be asked how judgement might be made between them. Even if ontology is a viable project for finite human beings once the ideal of matching and merger is left aside, is a critique of ontologies, plural — including Kroker’s “nihilism of the technological experience” — viable?

McLuhan notes that


It will be seen in later posts that this dictum has multiple readings. Not least among them, it may be taken to posit a gaping darkness at the heart of the viable that renders consolidation impossible while mandating and supporting “double perspective” aka “justice”.

* Later posts will elaborate how it is that Kroker mistakes McLuhan’s take on the dynamic between the danger and the saving in the electric age. Kroker rightly sees that there is an important ambiguity here, but what he takes to be McLuhan’s saving — an electric utopia — is just what McLuhan takes to be the danger. While the danger, for McLuhan, lies exactly in making this mis-take.



  1.  Later posts will elaborate how it is that Kroker mis-takes McLuhan’s take on the dynamic between the danger and the saving in the electric age. Kroker rightly sees that there is an important ambiguity here, but what he takes to be McLuhan’s saving — an electric utopia — is just what McLuhan takes to be the danger. While the danger, for McLuhan, lies exactly in making this mis-take.

Mis-taking McLuhan (Overview)

Although interest in McLuhan’s work has certainly revived in the last decade or two, investigation of it remains fundamentally limited by debilitating mis-takes. These will be examined here in a series of ‘Mis-taking McLuhan’ posts which will look at the ways particular scholars have distorted, often violently, what he was up to.

Certain obvious failures appear over and over again.  For example, little McLuhan ‘scholarship’ has bothered to read, let alone consider, all or even most of his astonishing output.  Even highly influential readings of McLuhan — like that of James Carey — are based on superficial acquaintance with only a few of his texts.  This sort of shoddy scholarship is especially surprising where it frequently leads to the charge that McLuhan’s scholarship was shoddy.

More fundamentally, all existing McLuhan scholarship examines his work in what he termed the rear-view mirror (RVM).  That is, presuppositions are brought to the reading of his work which render his object of examining presuppositions null and void.  This reflects a certain despair which McLuhan lacked.  As seen in his frequent recourse to Poe’s maelstrom, McLuhan was not only not frightened at the thought of his own presuppositions contesting in a sea of rival ones, he was convinced that this was the only way in which serious thought about the nature and destiny of human being could fittingly be pursued.

For McLuhan, the gap or boundary between presuppositions is a “resonating bond” (Take Today 3).  Where presupposition is not questioned, not allowed equal plausibility with rival ones, that is eo ipso to institute the RVM and to betray a fearful despair that such a gap is nothing but an “empty (…) vacuum” (Take Today 3).

McLuhan’s concern for “simultaneity”, “dialogue”, “past times”, “inclusivity” (etc etc etc) simply cannot be understood where presuppositions of any sort are privileged.

More fundamentally still, no existing McLuhan scholarship re-cognizes the passion he brought to the investigation of human being — beginning with his own.  He was willing to swim in the sea of presuppositions, even when these formed a maelstrom, for the simple reason that this is the only way for the open investigation of human being to be initiated.

For McLuhan, the question of human being is the question of privilege. This is a matter which cannot be investigated from any privileged position. But allowing a questioning distance to one’s own presuppositions demands a passion which McLuhan ‘scholarship’ has thus far utterly failed to muster.