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)

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