Monthly Archives: March 2014

McLuhan to Innis 1951 (2)

Continued from Part 1 of McLuhan’s letter to Harold Innis from March 14, 1951 (with italics and bold added except where noted):

Mallarmé saw the modern press as a magical institution born of technology. The discontinuous juxtaposition of unrelated items made necessary by the influx of news stories from every quarter of the world, created, he saw, a symbolic landscape of great power and importance. (He used the word “symbol” in the strict Greek sense sym-ballein, to pitch together, physically and musically). He saw at once that the modern press was not a rational form but a magical one so far as communication was concerned. Its very technological form was bound to be efficacious [emphasis from MM] far beyond any informative purpose. Politics were becoming musical, jazzy, magical. The same symbolist perception applied to cinema showed that the montage of images was basically a return via technology to age-old picture language. S. Eisenstein’s Film Form and [V.I. Pudovkin’s] Film Technique explore the relations between modern developments in the arts and Chinese ideogram, pointing to the common basis of ideogram in modern art, science and technology.1

McLuhan here restates the point made repeatedly in the opening of his letter: that time is plural and multi-directional and that the overlap of times is even now to be seen everywhere in contemporary life: “a return via technology to [the] age-old”. Here it is cinema that provides a further example:

the montage [in depth] of images was basically a return via technology to age-old picture language (…) to the common basis of [the ancient] ideogram [and] modern art, science and technology.

Once again, “perception” must not only discern such overlap. but must itself be it. For in order to focus such “montage”, It must itself first of all be “symbolist perception”, as McLuhan puts it here, or “double simultaneous perspective” (as McLuhan has it in his Sept 23, 1950 letter to Walter Ong). So it is that “symbolic landscape” names not only the exterior landscape of nature and city, but also a corresponding interior landscape. McLuhan’s later characterization of his selected criticism from 1943 to 1957 as The Interior Landscape (Baudelaire’s “paysage interieur” from Fleurs du Mal) therefore describes not only what was to be seen in his essays, but also how it was seen by him and, therefore, how it was to be seen by anyone who understand them.

But now, continuing his letter to Innis, McLuhan turns from exemplary illustrations of such “landscape” in “modern art, science and technology”, and even, indeed, in our “collective consciousness”, to a structural description of it. Both in regard to the perceived object and the perceiving subject, it is a “discontinuous juxtaposition of unrelated items“.

Heidegger maintains that every genuine thinker has only a single thought. If so, this is McLuhan’s single thought: the “discontinuous juxtaposition of unrelated items”.

This is a thought against which the assertion of the nihilist that we lack relation to reality is powerless. Similarly with the assertion of the atheist that we lack relation to God. Similarly with the assertion of the materialist that mind lacks the foundation that only body has, or the assertion of the idealist that body lacks the foundation that only mind has. In each of these assertions, connected relation — what McLuhan calls “matching” — is presupposed as the only proper evidence of coherence. But for McLuhan, it is rather “making” as the “discontinuous juxtaposition of unrelated items” that characterizes coherent relationship and only so is it that “the ‘meaning of meaning’ is relationship” (Take Today, 3).

The suggestion that to be unrelated is to be related is, of course, supercilious “foolishness to the Greeks” (as St Paul has it).  This is why McLuhan repeatedly calls it “magical” in the passage above and throughout his work. This characterization is intended to call frank attention to the strangeness of the claim, as well as to the invisible and unconnected manner of operation which is proposed as being in play here.

The earnestness of the conception (Hegel’s Ernst des Begriffes) is to be appreciated, however, only where ‘to be unrelated’ is taken in its full finitude and utter emptiness. It is one thing to laugh at what seems to be nonsensical impossibility; it is quite another to enter into that dark night in which the ramifications of unrelation are borne into one. Eliot2 follows San Juan de la Cruz (in Subida al Monte Carmeloin putting it this way (in ‘East Coker’):

You say I am repeating
Something I have said before. I shall say it again.
Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.3  

It is solely in and through such a vacuous gap that it may first be appreciated how “the gap where the action is” . The gapped object, be it in “modern art, science and technology” or in our “collective consciousness”, may be perceived only by the vacuously gapped subject — by “symbolist perception” aka “double simultaneous perspective”.

To describe the form at stake here, McLuhan repeatedly uses the term “magical”, but also, again repeatedly, “musical”. And like ‘magic’ and ‘magical’, the recourse to ‘music’ and ‘musical’ is made over and over again in his texts, from first to last. For example, here he is in his wonderful essay, ‘Tennyson and Picturesque Poetry’ from 1951, the same year as his letter to innis:

Whereas in external landscape diverse things lie side by side, so in psychological landscape the juxtaposition of various things and experiences becomes a precise musical means of orchestrating that which could never be rendered by systematic discourse. Landscape is the means of presenting, without the copula of logical enunciation, experiences which are united in existence but not in conceptual thought. Syntax becomes music … (Essays in Criticism 1:3, emphasis added)

In the next year, in a letter to Pound he writes:

With landscape comes necessary musical adjustment of all parts of poetic composition. Juxtaposition of forces in field rather than continuous statement. (July 16, 1952, Letters 231/232, emphasis added)

Twenty years later, the central matter to be treated in Take Today is described as follows:

The interval or gap constitutes the resonant or musical bond in the material universe. This is where the action is. [Take Today, 3, emphasis added.]



  1. McLuhan’s reference to Russian formalist theory in cinema cites Film Form (essays written between 1928 and 1945 by Sergei Eisenstein, 1898 – 1948) and Film Technique (1929) by Vsevolod Pudovkin (1893 – 1953). Film Technique was first issued in English translation in 1935; Film Form in 1949.
  2.  McLuhan studied Eliot intensely, but with very ambiguous reactions, over a period of almost 50 years. Eliot’s art and criticism were central to his Cambridge studies, especially via Leavis, and two of his last essays before his 1979 stroke, both from 1978, were ‘Rhetorical Spirals in Four Quartets‘ and ‘Pound, Eliot, and the Rhetoric of The Waste Land‘. Around the time of his 1951 letter to Innis, McLuhan wrote ‘Mr. Eliot’s Historical Decorum’ (Renascence 2:1, Fall 1949) and was at work, sometimes jointly with Hugh Kenner, on a book on Eliot which was never completed.  Both published and unpublished essays on Eliot were to appear in The Great American Vortex which was assembled in 1949 but never published. The McLuhan papers in the National Archive of Canada have a very sizable number of Eliot files, unpublished typescripts and notes from all periods of McLuhan’s career.
  3. Para venir a gustarlo todo,
    no quieras tener gusto en nada;
    para venir a saberlo todo,
    no quieras saber algo en nada;
    para venir a poseerlo todo,
    no quieras poseer algo en nada;
    para venir a serlo todo,
    no quieras ser algo en nada;
    Para venir a lo que no gustas,
    has de ir por donde no gustas;
    para venir a lo que no sabes,
    has de ir por donde no sabes;
    para venir a poseer lo que no posees,
    has de ir por donde no posees;
    para venir a lo que no eres,
    has de ir por donde no eres.
    Cuando reparas en algo,
    dejas de arrojarte al todo;
    para venir del todo al todo,
    has de dejarte del todo en todo,
    y cuando lo vengas del todo a tener;
    has de tenerlo sin nada querer.
    (San Juan de la Cruz, Subida al Monte Carmelo, 1.xiii.11)

McLuhan to Innis 1951 (1)

A fragment of McLuhan’s 1951 letter to Harold Innis has been cited in Why Science? In this and following posts, a detailed commentary will be made of this letter. It will be seen that the central pieces of McLuhan’s mature position were already in place at this early date.

By way of background, McLuhan was 40 in 1951. He had now been at UT (St Michael’s) for 5 years. As earlier described, he had begun to read Innis in the late 1940’s through the instigation of his old Winnipeg friend, Tom Easterbrook (who may also have been his conduit to Chesterton almost 20 years earlier1). Easterbrook, in turn, had been a doctoral student of Innis in the Political Economy department in the 1930s and was now his colleague and close friend there. Along with Easterbrook and Innis, McLuhan had participated in The ‘Values Discussion Group‘ which the Rockefeller Foundation had sponsored at UT in 1949. At the same time, as set out in The Beginnings of Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan was already at work in the early 1950s on what would be published as The Gutenberg Galaxy a full 10 years later. And, finally, he was continuing to publish at an astonishing clip. In 1951 his first book, The Mechanical Bride, finally appeared (it was written in the 40s). In the same year, McLuhan published major essays on Joyce and Pound and Tennyson and continued to provide his usual regular contributions to Renascence edited by his old friend, John Pick.2

In the passage cited below from McLuhan’s letter to Innis March 14, 1951, Letters 220-223, emphasis has been added, except where otherwise specifically noted as stemming from McLuhan. 3

I think there are lines appearing in Empire and Communications, for example, which suggest the possibility of organizing an entire school of studies. Many of the ancient language theories of the Logos type which you cite for their bearings on government and society have recurred and amalgamated themselves today under the auspices of anthropology and social psychology. Working concepts of “collective consciousness” in advertising agencies have in turn given salience and practical effectiveness to these “magical” notions of language. But it was most of all the esthetic discoveries of the symbolists since Rimbaud and Mallarmé (developed in English by Joyce, Eliot, Pound, Lewis and Yeats) which have served to recreate in contemporary consciousness an awareness of the potencies [MM emphasis] of language such as the Western world has not experienced in 1800 years.

Later in the letter McLuhan proposes the production of “a single mimeographed sheet to be sent out weekly or fortnightly to a few dozen people in different fields (…) illustrating the underlying unities of form which exist where diversity is all that meets the eye”. As just seen from the beginning of his letter, McLuhan pointed to “underlying unities of form” between “the ancient language theories of the Logos type” and contemporary “anthropology and social psychology”. Further “underlying unities of form” were said to exist between “working concepts of ‘collective consciousness’ in advertising agencies” and such ancient “magical notions of language”. Further yet, “underlying unities of form” were claimed for “the esthetic discoveries of the symbolists (…) which have served to recreate in contemporary consciousness an awareness of the potencies of language such as the Western world has not experienced in 1800 years”.

All these examples display, as McLuhan puts it later in this same letter to Innis, “a simultaneous focus of current and historic forms”.  Now this “simultaneous focus” or “double perspective” was far from being a new topic and stance for him in 1951. This is just what his 1943 Cambridge PhD thesis had considered, and itself used as its method, in tracing different configurations of the classical trivium between the Greeks and Thomas Nashe over a period of 2000 years. And this is precisely the topic named in the title of his 1946 essay, “An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America”.

In a letter to Walter Ong from the previous year, 1950, McLuhan called this technique “double simultaneous perspective”:

Hope to go to work on Thesis re-write during term this year. It has rewritten itself via my work on Eliot Joyce Pound Valery etc. So I can now write it in double simultaneous perspective from Cratylus to Joyce and from Valéry to the Timaeus. (Sept 23, 1950, Letters 216)

“Perspective” and time are depicted as correlate here.  Time is plural, running both forwards (“from Cratylus to Joyce”) and backwards (“from Valéry to the Timaeus”), and these are not “one at a time”, but “simultaneous”.  Human “perspective” then follows this complex pattern of time/times, as “double simultaneous”.4

McLuhan’s 1951 letter to Innis, both as a “mimeographed sheet” and as repeatedly “illustrating (…) underlying unities of form which exist where diversity is all that meets the eye”, is itself an instance of the very proposal made by it.  The declared aim of the letter is to “suggest the possibility of organizing an entire school of studies” on the basis of focus on such “underlying unities of form”. Here again there is decided self-reference. For in order to communicate this possibility to Innis and to others, McLuhan’s language required the “potency” to reach across from his intent to their understanding of it. More, it required the further “potency” to provide focus for a school investigating such matters as “government and society”, esthetics”, “collective consciousness” and even “advertising” in a new field of “communication study in general”.

In all these ways, then, McLuhan’s letter to Innis, both in itself and in its suggestions, was a “probe”.  And this is just what he writes in it:

As Easterbrook may have told you I have been considering an experiment in communication which is to follow the lines of this letter.

 Commentary on the Innis letter continued here.

  1. Derrick de Kerckhove tells this story from around 1930: “McLuhan was browsing for books with his lifelong friend, the economist Tom Easterbrook. Easterbrook told me that when both came out of the store, they compared what they had bought. Marshall had a textbook of economics and he (Easterbrook) had picked up, not exactly knowing why, Chesterton’s WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE WORLD? Both looked at their books and then at each other, and Easterbrook said to Marshall, handing him the Chesterton: “This feels more like your kind of stuff; why don’t we swap?” They did just that and Marshall proceeded to read the book at once, and everything else he could find by Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc and other controversial Catholics.”
  2. Pick and McLuhan were fellow teaching assistants at the University of Wisconsin in 1936-1937. When McLuhan was received into the Catholic Church in March 1937, Pick was his sponsor. See McLuhan’s February 1, 1939 letter to Corinne Lewis, a few months before their marriage in Letters, 108.
  3. The editors of Letters note (220n) concerning this March 14 date: “The manuscript of this letter is headed in the upper-left corner: ‘Rewrite of letter for mimeograph HMM’. The original letter was written some weeks (? or months?) previously because it was acknowledged by Innis on February 26 (with apologies for not doing earlier). Innis said he had been ‘very much interested’ in McLuhan’s letter and that he would like to have it typed and circulated to ‘one or two of our mutual friends’, adding that he wished to receive the ‘mimeographed sheet’ referred to. Innis wrote over the body of the letter: ‘Memorandum on humanities’.”
  4. Later in his career, McLuhan would come to see that the nature of ‘following’ in this sense is fundamentally misunderstood when it is taken as exemplifying efficient causality.  He would therefore begin to stress the importance of formal causality which differs from efficient causality above all in regard to time — efficient causality being linear and formal causality being simultaneous. There is no first-then relation between the chemical structure of gold and a gold ring. Strangely, as McLuhan frequently pointed out, contemporary humans have no trouble understanding the formal relationship of, say, DNA or chemical structure with material instances of them. Formal “pattern recognition” of this sort makes the world go round. But when it comes to ourselves, we inexplicably, and with devastating consequence, are blind to the formal structures at work in our own actions and experience — even though (or exactly because) we put them to use in advertising, entertainment, commerce and, indeed, everywhere. In fact, even our failure to recognize patterns in our own behavior and experience follows archetypal patterns.

The Beginnings of Gutenberg Galaxy 1

In letters to Ezra Pound and to Walter Ong in 1952 and 1953, McLuhan set out a vision of what would become The Gutenberg Galaxy ten years later in its 1962 published form. In both letters, the contemporary revolution beyond Gutenberg — beyond the cultural environment of print communication — is highlighted. Indeed, the working title of the book at that time was ‘The End of the Gutenberg Era’, a topic eventually covered in the book only in a short (15 page) concluding section: ‘The Galaxy Reconfigured’. McLuhan’s many essays in the 1950s, particularly in Explorations, would increasingly turn to a consideration of this electric revolution and these thoughts, in turn, would find their book form above all in the 1964 Understanding Media.

McLuhan to Ezra Pound July 16, 1952 (Letters 231/232; the formatting has been changed to aid clarity, but the word order is unchanged):

I’m writing a book on “The End of the Gutenberg Era”.

Main sections:

[a] The Inventions of Writing [&] Alphabet.

  • Transfer of auditory to visual.
  • Arrest for contemplation of thought and cognitive process.
  • Permits overthrow of sophist-rhetoric-oral tradition

[b] Invention of printing.

  • Mechanization of writing.
  • Study becomes solitary.
  • Decline of painting music etc in book countries.
  • Cult of book and house and study.
  • Cult of vernacular because of commercial possibilities.
  • Republicanism via association of simple folk on equal terms with “mighty dead”.

[c] Telegraph ultimate stage of mechanization of writing.

  • Creates newspaper form.
  • Simultaneity of many spaces = simultaneity of many different eras = “abolition” of history by dumping whole of past into the present.
  • Rimbaud

[d] Radio-telephone-cinema-TV

  • mechanization of speed.
  • mechanization of total human gesture.
  • Last 2 stages too steep for present day adjustment.

Since Rimbaud the newspaper as landscape enters all the arts.1 With landscape comes necessary musical adjustment of all parts of poetic composition. Juxtaposition of forces in field rather than continuous statement.2 With mechanization of speech and gesture and swamping with visual-auditory3 matter after print-created drought we come to age of semi-literacy, at best.

McLuhan to Walter Ong, January 23, 1953 (Letters 234, emphasis added): 

Am working on a book whose theme is The End of the Gutenberg Era. Tracing impact of print, and now, the switch to media which rep[resents] not the mechanization of writing but of word and gesture (radio movies TV). Necessarily a much greater change than from script to print.

A later letter to Wyndham Lewis (July 11, 1955) shows McLuhan continuing to work on the same themes:

Am spending summer on a book on The Gutenberg Era — an attempt to assess the pre-literate, the pre-print, and post-print eras of culture. (Letters, 248)

  1. McLuhan has a question mark here. His intent was presumably to elicit Pound’s expert opinion on the matter.
  2. “Juxtaposition of forces in field rather than continuous statement.” Here McLuhan formulates the contrast he will later draw between “the principle of complementarity” and “lineal exposition”.  In 1952 he was thinking of this contrast in terms of the arts and especially poetry. Over the next decade leading up to The Gutenberg Galaxy he would come to see it as specifying different kinds of space (acoustic vs visual) and different kinds of time (synchronic vs diachronic). Even more importantly, he would come to see that the “juxtaposition of forces in field” characterizes scientific specification and that its application to the individual and social (and, indeed, ontological) sensus communis would thereby enable the inauguration of a series of new sciences in the human domain.
  3. McLuhan is thinking of ads, comics and their associated culture or cultures here. It is a good example of how he did not begin to contrast the eye and ear until the later 1950s.

Why Science?

As described in Eric McLuhan’s introduction to Laws of Media, in the last decade of his life McLuhan became increasingly interested in establishing his work on a scientific basis. There were many reasons for this.

In the first place, the initiation of scientific investigation in any field represents successful communication. Instead of the assertion and counter-assertion that characterize pre-scientific activity, science works on the basis of some accepted framework (Kuhn’s “paradigm”) within which problems may be defined and progress made.  This represents successful communication in two ways.  First, the initiation of science presupposes that the possibility of such focus has been communicated and accepted. Second, on the basis of this founding communication, a new sort of communication becomes possible and this new sort of communication is science.

McLuhan therefore became interested in establishing a science of media as a way of communicating his work and of continuing that work after his death. By the 1970s, he had already suffered a series of strokes. The first of these apparently occurred already in 1960 and was serious enough that the last rites were administered (Coupland 1321). Then in 1961 his mother died of a stroke. His brain operation in 1967 and a further serious stroke in 1970 produced marked further declines in his health. The handwriting was on the wall and the question of his legacy necessarily imposed itself.

It should not be thought, however, that it was fear of death that motivated McLuhan’s search for a way in which his work might survive him. Instead, McLuhan had a calling and it was in response to that calling that he sought colleagues with a similar calling or, at least, who would work within a new field, or new fields, initiated by it.

His frustration in these efforts may be seen in a letter he wrote to Sheila Watson (26 January 1976,  Letters 516)

There is no way in which serious work can be promoted without team effort. In isolation, it is ground to powder. My own position here at the University of Toronto is no better than yours at the University of Alberta. Total isolation and futility!

In any case, McLuhan had always wanted to establish some sort of collective research effort. His letter to Harold Innis from March 1951 is typical of this ambition (which McLuhan already entertained by the middle 1940s at the latest):

As Easterbrook may have told you I have been considering an experiment in communication which is to follow the lines of this letter in suggesting means of linking a variety of specialized fields by what may be called a method of esthetic analysis of their common features. This method has been used by my friend Siegfried Giedion in Space, Time and Architecture and in Mechanization Takes Command. What I have been considering is a single mimeographed sheet to be sent out weekly or fortnightly to a few dozen people in different fields, at first illustrating the underlying unities of form which exist where diversity is all that meets the eye. Then it is hoped there will be a feedback of related perception from various readers which will establish a continuous flow. (…) the organizing concept would naturally be “Communication Theory and practice.” A simultaneous focus of current and historic forms. Relevance to be given to selection of areas of study by dominant artistic and scientific modes of the particular period. Arts here used as providing criteria, techniques of observation, and bodies of recorded, achieved, experience. Points of departure but also return. For example the actual techniques of common study today seem to me to be of genuine relevance to anybody who wishes to grasp the best in current poetry and music. And vice versa. There is a real, living unity in our time, as in any other, but it lies submerged under a superficial hubbub of sensation. (Emphasis added throughout.)

Communication — “the actual techniques of common study” — had always been the topic of McLuhan’s concern and the way in which he attempted to initiate investigation of that topic. His confidence in the power of the word motivated him in both senses.  His turn to science in the last 10 or so years of his life simply represented another way in which he attempted to instigate the sort of community which would both illustrate and investigate such communication in action.

  1. Coupland doesn’t annotate his source here, but Ted Carpenter has described this early stroke and the administration of the last rites (in unpublished correspondence) and was probably Coupland’s source. Marchand and Gordon do not mention the event, but Corinne McLuhan may have alluded to it in an editorial note in Letters, 175: “McLuhan’s twelve-month tenure (at Fordham), beginning at the end of August 1967, was seriously interrupted in November (of that year) by a long operation for the removal of a brain tumour. For some eight years before (ie, since 1959) he had been afflicted with occasional blackouts and dizziness…”