The Proscenium Arch (3)

In The Proscenium Arch (2), the claim is made that:

the “Global Electric Theatre” is the apotheosis of Gutenbergian “single perspective”.

But how so? McLuhan uses “the electric” as one of the terms in a series which also includes “inclusiveness”, “allatonceness”, “dialogue”, etc — all of which designate “double perpespective” (a=≠b).  Now this series is just what the Gutenberg galaxy rejects or at least deemphasizes and ignores:

the medieval stage had been cyclic and simultaneous in presenting many scenes and episodes at once like a three-ring circus. Whereas the new humanist theater developed the proscenium arch with its single perspective (‘Printing and Social Change’, Printing Progress, 1959)

It would seem that McLuhan intended to contrast the image of a “Global Electric Theatre” with that of the “humanist theater”. So how can the “Global Electric Theatre” represent the apotheosis of the Gutenberg galaxy and its theater and not a fundamental break from them?

Everything depends on the perspective — or perspectives! — in which and for which the “Global Electric Theatre” is taken to be. That is, everything turns at this point on ontology.

The Gutenberg galaxy everywhere eventuates in an appreciation of the equation.  And the equation serves to specify an identity between unequals. In E = mc2, for example, Einstein’s point is not that matter and energy are ‘the same’ in such a way that they might be merged in some all-encompassing master concept, Instead, the two are held to be fundamentally different, but yet related via the speed of light squared. Their equation sets forth this highly complex relationship. In literature, similarly, symbolism developed the notion that surface and depth in textual expression could be fundamentally different, but yet related in a certain manner of experience which it was the goal of the poet or artist to articulate. Here the artistic vision might be compared to the speed of light needed to correlate mass and energy in physics. In both these examples (and everywhere in the explosions of insight in all the arts and sciences following on the Gutenberg revolution) what is at stake is the universal potential for equation where discrete unequals are investigated as related in complex ways. Hence McLuhan’s general formulas:

The “meaning of meaning” is relationship. (Take Today 3)

The gap is where the action is (Take Today 81)1

Now the great question urged by McLuhan is: what is the state of perspective for which such equation represents the real? 

The danger is that equation as the relationship of unequals is taken to be a power or form exercised from the “single perspective” of humans:

The Apollo age has scrapped Greek Nature as we assume full responsibility for orchestrating our total environment on human scales  (‘The argument: causality in the electric world’, Technology and Culture, 14:1, 1973)

In this case, the “double perspective” entailed by equation would be a secondary expression of human “single perspective” and the “Global Electric Theatre” would therefore be the apotheosis of the Gutenberg galaxy. As will be discussed in future posts, McLuhan frequently compares this development to the event of atomic power coming into human hands. In both cases, the danger is that an unlimited, more than human power comes to be exercised on the basis of limited human insight. More, as foreseen by Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, such gigantic power comes to be exercised by that limited human insight which has been set utterly free by the nihilism and amoralism entailed by our ownership of the gigantic equation form. Where there is no truth, “everything is permitted”.

The situation is that of a gigantomachia in which the mis-shapen giants of the earth have succeeded in their assault on Olympus and the gods.

By contrast, where “double perspective” is foundational, not secondary to a prior singularity, humans are called to recognize not only some other incidental perspective, but a divine one.  Here humans, instead of grounding equation as figure, are figured on its ground.

McLuhan often treats this contrast as one of “light on” (coming from our “single perspective”) versus “light through” (coming to our perspective from another one). Here is a typical discussion from The Gutenberg Galaxy (106-107)

any medieval person (…) would assume that the reality looked through at us, and that by contemplation we bathed in the divine light, rather than looked at it. The quite different sensuous assumptions of manuscript culture, ancient and medieval, from anything since Gutenberg, obtrude from the ancient doctrine of the senses and the sensus communis.

Armed with this principle that there is a ratio or rationality in the senses themselves, Panofsky is able to move freely among the ratios that are between medieval scholasticism and medieval architecture. But this principle of ratio in the senses as light through Being is everywhere in study of the senses of scripture as well. But all of these matters became much confused by the growing demand for light on, rather than light through, as the later technology set the visual faculty in ever sharper separation from the other senses. (…) After Gutenberg the new visual intensity will require light on everything. And its idea of space and time will change to regard them as containers to be filled with objects or activities. But in a manuscript age when the visual stood in closer relation to the audile-tactile, space was not a visual container. (…) There was scarcely any furniture in a medieval room, as Siegfried Giedion explains in Mechanization Takes Command (p. 301):

And yet there was a medieval comfort. But it must be sought in another dimension, for it cannot be measured on the material scale. The satisfaction and delight that were medieval comfort have their source in the configuration of space. Comfort is the atmosphere with which man surrounds himself and in which he lives. Like the medieval Kingdom of God, it is something that eludes the grasp of hands. Medieval comfort is the comfort of space. A medieval room seems finished even when it contains no furniture. It is never bare. Whether a cathedral, refectory, or a burgher chamber, it lives in its proportions, its materials, its form.


  1. Also Take Today, 60-61: “That the gap is where the action is, is now acknowledged as the basis of chemical and physical change.”  And: McLuhan, ‘The Gap is Where the Action is’, Ontario Dentist (The Journal of the Ontario Dental Association), 53:6, 1976.

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