The Proscenium Arch (2)

In his first proscenium arch passages from the 1950s, McLuhan establishes an equation between the proscenium arch and singular perspective. A theatre with such an arch provided a specialist space for “a single audience looking at a single scene”. It was a set-up enabling a “single perspective such as a single page presents to a reader” and therefore could be termed by him “the pure projection of the form of the printed page”. The medieval stage, In contrast, “had been cyclic and simultaneous in presenting many scenes and episodes at once like a three-ring circus”. (All citations in this post are from the passages given in The Proscenium Arch 1.)

The proscenium arch was, then, an educational medium teaching the use of intense “single perspective” focus to a medieval world previously dominated by multiple perspective. It functioned as a kind of catalyst promoting the latter relative to the former. But it was not, as future posts will elaborate, a technology which originated or caused or invented “single perspective” — an absurdity into which all too many readings of McLuhan fall when explicating his take on comparable media like the alphabet or the book.

When McLuhan in his later texts refers to “the proscenium arch”, his earlier definitions must be borne in mind.  This would guard against the frequent mistake of understanding his “Global Electric Theatre” as some kind of break from the Gutenberg galaxy. Rather, when “Sputnik put the globe in a ‘proscenium arch’, and the global village [was] transformed into a global theater”, “single perspective” came to dominate as never before. Here “doing one’s [own] thing” (aka “single perspective”), at the expense of “public space” (aka multiple perspective “like a three-ring circus”), amounts to the “simulation of [the] human condition”, the substitution on a planetary scale of “the proscenium arch and stage lighting” for the “ambient light” of the real world and the real condition of humans in it. The “Global Electric Theatre” is the apotheosis of Gutenbergian “single perspective”!

This is an apotheosis which has eventuated in “our awareness of planet Polluto — a limited figure against the ground of limitless space”. Such awareness is exactly nihilism since “a limited figure against the ground of [the] limitless” is, of course, nothing at all — for the “limited” has no “ground” or foundation or reality where these are taken as lacking limit, as not recognizing limit, as “limit-less”.1

The relationship of “single perspective” with multiple perspective on “many scenes and episodes at once like a three-ring circus” is not linear. As regards such essentials, there is no appeal to progress in McLuhan, either positive or negative.  Humans qua humans are always and everywhere subject to the range of possible perspectives and this range (while of course always subject to further specification just like the table of chemical elements) has itself no history2.


  1.  Cf GG, 259: “Print, with its uniformity, repeatability, and limitless extent, does give reincarnate life and fame to anything at all. The kind of limp life so conferred by dull heads upon dull themes formalistically penetrates all existence.” (Emphasis added)
  2. No history in the sense of sharing our history. But it has its own history which is the springboard of ours.

Leave a Reply