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 earlier)1. Easterbrook, in turn, had been a doctoral student of Innis in the UT 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 continues 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 answering 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.

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