Monthly Archives: May 2014

The Waters of Intelligibility

An important factor in McLuhan’s religious faith was his determination that intelligibility cannot be invented or otherwise cobbled together (by human genius or by raw chance), but must be given. He expressed this association of his faith and the datum of intelligibility (dual genitive!) in a letter to Martin Esslin: “One of the advantages of being a Catholic is that it confers a complete intellectual freedom to examine any and all phenomena with the absolute assurance of their intelligibility.” (Sept 23, 1971, Letters 440)

Human “thought and perception” on this view do not somehow develop intelligibility, but instead result from it1, and our various ways of exercising intelligence, especially our language use, result in turn from the synchronic irruption of “language itself” into our diachronic lives.2 To be human on this view means to stand (knowingly or unknowingly) in the “light from” this source and to derive (knowingly or unknowingly) one’s inevitably particular “light on” any matter from it.

A series of points comes together here, all of which must be discussed at length in future posts:

1. The constant synchronic address of humans in their linear history by “language itself” reveals the inherent plurality of time. Knowingly or unknowingly, humans as humans always stand in two essentially different times: “Acoustic and visual space structures may be seen as incommensurable, like history and eternity, yet, at the same time, as complementary (…) [humans have] a foot, as it were, in both” (GV 45).3

2. “Language itself” is exactly not some particular language that speaks in the way a particular language speaks. Instead, it is the range of possibility of all language and of all individual and collective intelligibility. McLuhan understood Finnegans Wake as a portrait of this dynamic spectrum of possibilities in its synchronic address to everyone (HCE) in every moment of our always particular diachronic lives: “James Joyce used language itself as the index of these modifications and explored them fully in Finnegans Wake.” (Laws of Media 221, 1978?)

3. Like fish in the sea, humans are usually oblivious to this medium of intelligibility4 even though we are completely dependent on it as that environment without which we cannot be. It is above all this medium which is the (missed5) message.

4. The archetypal power of this fundamental intelligibility is at once the great danger (in the missing of the message in its take-over) and the saving (in its re-calling). When the original might of intelligibility is taken over by humans as by its source and owner, its power is such that we come to assume control of the entire planet, replacing nature by art6. This both threatens the environment which is needed by humans for life (an environment that is both natural and intelligible7 at once) and contradicts the very nature of that power which consists in the true strength” of dis-owning. This is the original refusal of take-over, hence the originality of “dialogue” as creation. This is “dialogue” understood as going “beyond” even, and exactly, itself (such that even its take-over by us is enabled by it in its out-reach): “dialogue as a process of creating the new came before, and goes beyond, the exchange of ‘equivalents’ that merely reflect or repeat the old” (Take Today 22). Along with the “colossal” power of intelligibility, able to take over the planet in the retrieval/replay/recognition/retracing/retracking of “language itself”, humans are thus also given in this way the deeper power of dis-owning. When humans dis-own the “light on” of their take-over of intelligibility in the memory of “light from”, this danger is perceived to be the saving.8

5.  The take-over of intelligibility by humans is itself an ex-pression of the “true strength” of “language itself” aka Logos. Hence, even the danger belongs to the saving qua saving, but in such a way that the danger is a danger (“beyond” saving) and may indeed eventuate in the destruction of the planet. The saving could not be the saving if the danger were ultimately to threaten it. But, just as much, the saving could not be the saving unless the danger were real and somehow “beyond” its control. For human beings there is no de-finitive answer to the question of how these belong together. Instead, humans stand in the questionability of these matters. To be human means to be caught up in their wake and to know the ebb and tide of both at once.

6. When fish come to experience the existence of a different environment, they die: “Fish don’t know water exists till beached” (Culture is Our Business, 191).  But being beached is native to humans: “the gap where the action is”. Knowingly or unknowingly, humans always stand in the gap between times and between the particular intelligibility they happen to have at any time and the general intelligibility of “language itself“. The danger lies in the rejection of the gap through fear or pride (aka, rejection or identification); saving lies in the re-call of the originality of the gap in “dialogue”9. Or again: the danger lies in confusing some particular intelligibility (the only sort of intelligibility humans have) with intelligibility itself; the saving lies in the “mememormee” of the wild fertility and utter peculiarity of the springs of intelligibility in “language itself” as seen (for example) in Finnegans Wake: “James Joyce used language itself as the index of these modifications and explored them fully in Finnegans Wake.” (Laws of Media 221, 1978?)

7. Because humans are constantly exposed to the address of “language itself” and because it is “given” to them to be capable of retrieval/replay/recognition/retracing/retracking of it, we can “examine any and all phenomena with the absolute assurance of their intelligibility.” This applies to the modes of intelligibility themselves, particularly since humans constantly cross from one sort of intelligibility to another in their general state of being “beached” (which is the only way an environmental medium can be illuminated). We can come to understand our environmental media of intelligibility via “pattern recognition” as a finite exercise of “retrieval” (etc) of (dual genitive) “language itself”. This is different from what Joyce was up to in Finnegans Wake. Where Joyce composed a kind of cubist portrait of “language itself in action” in its dynamic universality/particularity, “understanding media” is an investigative science which depends upon (like chemistry and genetics) the isolation of an elemental structure, the mapping of the elementary expressions of that structure and the investigation of the ways in which these elements combine to produce all the myriad phenomena of individual and collective intelligibility throughout all history. As McLuhan writes in Take Today 22:

There are only two basic extreme forms of human organization. They have innumerable variants or “parti-colored” forms. The extreme forms are the civilized and the tribal (eye and ear)

What McLuhan calls “the civilized and the tribal (eye and ear)” here are components of an elementary structure like protons and electrons in the chemical elements or like the ACGT bases in DNA. His suggestion was that the universe of “human organization”, from individual experience to social cultures, may be understood through focus on this structure: “visual and acoustic space are always present in any human situation” (GV 55).

8. In his repeated attempts at communication, McLuhan called the components of the elementary structure of intelligibility by many names: “eye and ear”, “visual and acoustic space”, left and right brain (or hemisphere), figure and ground, print and speech, “the civilized and the tribal”, diachrony and synchrony, etc etc. None of these may be taken literally as referring to a natural object! Each has its meaning for McLuhan exclusively within a structural context:

Failure in perception occurs precisely in giving attention to the program “content” (…) while ignoring the form (UM, 209)

9. In ‘The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape Poetry’ (1951) McLuhan claims that Theodore Lipps “is of special importance for an understanding of Joyce, Pound, and Eliot” and cites him as follows: “the simple clang represents to a certain extent all music”10. This observation must be understand from both of two directions at once.  On the one hand, “the simple clang” may be taken as a single note of sound. This implicates “all music” because a note has meaning only within a certain scale and a certain scale has meaning only within a system of scales. The intelligibility of a single note as a single note implicates “all music”. In the same way, a gold nugget implicates the entire physical universe insofar as it must be understood within chemistry and chemistry is the investigatory schema of that universe. On the other hand, all music may be understood as the unfolding of “the simple clang” of the Word or thunderstroke in the beginning: the sound of one hand clapping11. This is the singular ray of “light through” towards us that, in the prism of finite particularity, shows itself as a rainbow spectrum — what McLuhan in ‘James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial’ (1953) calls the “discontinuities or aspects of the single Word”12.


  1. As discussed in a previous post, McLuhan puts this point with Robert Logan as follows: “If one must choose the one dominant factor which separates man from the rest of the animal kingdom, it would undoubtedly be language. The ancients said: “Speech is the difference of man”. Opposition of the thumbs and fingers and an erect stature were certainly key developments in the separation of man from animals, but the great quantum leap of intellectual capacity took place with speech. The work of Whorf and Sapir shows that the spoken language structures the way in which man thinks and perceives the world. It is the medium of both thought and perception as well as communication. (‘Alphabet Mother of Invention’, McLuhan and Logan, Et Cetera 34, 373-83, 1977, emphasis added)
  2. “One cannot but see Language itself as the supreme literary masterpiece, since every creation in this order reduces itself to a combination of forces in a given vocabulary, according to forms instituted once and for all.” (James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial, 1953, quoting Valery with emphasis added here).
  3. Cf the end of Finnegans Wake: “Yes, tid. There’s where. First.” Tid is ‘time’ in Danish, hence English ‘tide’, which is essentially twofold and bi-directional, ebb and flow, end and beginning, back and forth. As Joyce goes on to put the point succinctly: “Us then.”
  4. “Medium of intelligibility”: a subjective and objective genitive at once! This is a medium which first of all belongs to intelligibility aka “language itself” — subjective genitive. But at the same time intelligibility gives itself over to humans through this medium — objective genitive.
  5. How the missing of the message relates to Being and to “language itself” is the great question. In McLuhan’s view, this is the “beyond” of “dialogue” — aka of “language itself” — considered as both a subjective and an objective genitive.
  6. “Blast Sputnik for enclosing terrestrial nature in a man-made environment that transfers the evolutionary process from biology to technology.” Counterblast, 85
  7.  ‘Intelligible’ in the sense first of all of its being, of its inherent animation and psyche, not of our conception of it. This is the ‘intelligible’ in its full sense, not in our always finite notion of it.
  8. The end of Finnegans Wake continues: “Take. Bussoftlhee, mememormee! Till thous-endsthee. Lps. The keys to. Given!” “Take” becomes “Given” as memory works against “me-me-mor(e)-mee” in the recall of an original plurality where “thous” “end” singular “thee”, just as in a kiss (“keys” “Bussoftlhee”) the singular ‘I’ is lost in the giving/receiving action of the two or four “Lps”. This is “The keys to. Given!”
  9. Recall neither rejects the gap nor identifies with it. It situates itself in a fitting distance from it but just as much also towards it.
  10. Compare (as discussed in “language itself“): “The spoken word instantly (…) reverberates with the total history of its own experience with man. We may be oblivious of such overtones as of the spectrum of colour in a lump of coal.” (Culture Without Literacy, 1953).
  11. Cf Counterblast (1969) 13: “a cosmic invisible architecture of the human dark”. Interesting that the word ‘clap’ appears in these two contexts.
  12. Note that this (the “discontinuities or aspects of the single Word”) is another way of describing McLuhan’s Take Today 22 point that “dialogue as a process of creating the new came before, and goes beyond, the exchange of ‘equivalents’ that merely reflect or repeat the old”.

“Language itself”

“Every letter is a godsend,” wrote Joyce. And, much more, every word is an avatar, a revelation, an epiphany. For every word is the product of a complex mental act with a complete learning process involved in it. In this respect words can be regarded not as signs but as existent things, alive with a physical and mental life which is both individual and collective. The conventional meanings of words can thus be used or disregarded by Joyce, who is concentrating on the submerged metaphysical drama which these meanings often tend to overlay. His puns in the Wake are a technique for revealing this submerged drama of language, and Joyce relied on the quirks, “slips,” and freaks of ordinary discourse to evoke the fullness of existence in speech. (James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial 1953)

Take Today 22 speaks of “the usual but hidden processes of the present”. These “usual” or constant “processes” are the medium for all individual human experience and for all collective social and cultural experience as well — like water for fish and all their various pods and schools. As “the principle of intelligibility” — that which originates and grounds all intelligibility — this “hidden” medium may be called “dialogue” and is said in this same place to be “a process of creating the new [that] came before, and goes beyond”. It is a ferment whose dynamism is so fundamental (“came before”) that it is plural not only ‘in itself’ as “dialogue”, but also “beyond” itself: it “goes beyond the exchange of ‘equivalents’ that merely reflect or repeat the old.” Thus it is that the fundamental “principle of intelligibility” inherently generates intelligibilities — plural — even as it hides its singularity. As McLuhan cites Theodore Lipps below, it is “the simple clang [that] represents to a certain extent all music.”

This singular/plural medium, the underlying “discontinuous juxtaposition” (as McLuhan wrote to Innis in 1951), was McLuhan’s continuous topic from start to finish. Often, as reflected in the following series of texts from 1938 to 1978, he called it “language itself“:

  • Donne, and the later Shakespeare, on the one hand, and the Romantics on the other, have been read at Cambridge as though they were contemporaries of Mr. Eliot — which of course they are. For the continuing life of the language itself is such as to constitute a medium in which they are all contemporary. (The Cambridge English School, 1938) 
  • The origin of this important claim for the inseparable character of eloquence and wisdom would seem to lie in the familiar doctrine of the Logos, which may be supposed to have arisen with Heraclitus. Society is a mirror or speculum of the Logos, as, indeed, are the external world, the mind of man and, above all, human speech. (An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America, 1945)
  • Often noted from Montaigne onward is the growing interest in the anatomy of states of mind which in Giambattista Vico reached the point of stress on the importance of reconstructing by vivisection the inner history of one’s own mind. A century separates Vico’s Autobiography and Wordsworth’s Prelude, but they are products of the same impulse. Another century, and Joyce’s Portrait carries the same enterprise a stage further. Vico generalized the process as a means of reconstructing the stages of human culture by the vivisection and contemplation of language itself. (The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape Poetry, 1951)
  • [Theodore] Lipps [1851-1914] is of special importance for an understanding of Joyce, Pound, and Eliot: “The simple clang represents to a certain extent all music. The clang is a rhythmical system built up on a fundamental rhythm. This fundamental rhythm is more or less richly differentiated in the rhythm of the single tones.”1 (The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape Poetry, 1951) 
  • Language itself (…) at once the greatest mass medium of communication and also the greatest time-builder of cultures and civilizations. (The Later Innis, 1953)
  • To glance in brief succession at the trivium and quadrivium in Joyce is to begin with grammatica or philology. This involves speech itself, which has been properly named as the main protagonist of every work of Joyce. (James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial, 1953)
  • The first work of Adam in the Garden, says Bacon, was the viewing of creatures and the imposition of names. Such is the work of Stephen, poet and philologian, on the strand — the binding of Proteus, the reading of signatures and evocation of quiddity by the imposition of names. Some power more than human, says Socrates in the Cratylus (a dialogue named for the grammarian who was Plato’s teacher) gave things their first names. In the Wake the origins of speech as gesture are associated with “Bigmeister Finnegan of the stuttering hand.” This seems to tie up with Vico’s view that the earliest language was that of the gods of which Homer speaks: “The gods call this giant Briareus” of the hundred hands. The idea of speech as stuttering, as arrested gesture, as discontinuities or aspects of the single Word, is basic to the Wake and serves to illustrate the profundity of the traditional philological doctrine in Joyce. (James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial, 1953)
  • Paul VaIery (Variety V) expresses our contemporary sense of these matters: “It is the domain of the ‘figures’ with which the ancient rhetoric was concerned and which today has been almost abandoned by pedagogy. This neglect is regrettable. The formation of figures is inseparable from that of language itself, in which all ‘abstract’ words are obtained by some abuse or transfer of signification, followed by oblivion of the primitive meaning. . . . Moreover, in considering these things from the highest point of view, one cannot but see Language itself as the supreme literary masterpiece, since every creation in this order reduces itself to a combination of forces in a given vocabulary, according to forms instituted once and for all.” (James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial, 1953)
  • language itself is the greatest of all mass media. The spoken word instantly (…) reverberates with the total history of its own experience with man. We may be oblivious of such overtones as of the spectrum of colour in a lump of coal. But the poet by exact rhythmic adjustment can flood our consciousness with this knowledge. The artist is older than the fish2. (Culture Without Literacy, 1953)
  • language itself is the principal channel and view-maker of experience for men everywhere. (Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters, 1954)
  • language is the great collective work of art transcending all individual works (Notes on the Media as Art Forms, 1954)
  • For language itself is an acoustic medium which incorporates gesture and all the various combinations of sensuous experience in a single medium… (Educational Effects of Mass Media of Communication, 1956)
  • You cannot conceive a form of scientific hypothesis which is not part of your own language, implicit in that language. All the mathematics in the world are externalizations of certain linguistic patterns. What the poets were saying — now more widely appreciated — was that the language itself embodies the greatest body of scientific intuition possible. The proportionalities in things, and between things and our senses, and so embodied in language itself, are inexhaustible 3. The particular technology of a time releases some of that inexhaustible store of analogical intuition and experience which IS language. (Communication Media: Makers of the Modern World, 1959)
  • The culture-hero as conceived in our time by James Joyce (Stephen Hero) is he who has learned the technique of intercession between the profane and the divine. He is the inventor of language4, the one who can capture in his net the divine powers. (Tennyson and the Romantic Epic, 1960)
  • language itself, the simultaneous storehouse of all experience (GG 1962) 
  • the notion of the medium of the language itself as a public trust rather than [as an exploitable resource] of the reader as private consumer. (GG, 1962)
  • symbolism strove to recover [language itself as] the unified field of being (GG 1962)
  • the alphabet and kindred gimmicks have long served man as a subliminal source of philosophical and religious assumptions. Certainly Martin Heidegger would seem to be on better ground in using the totality of language itself as philosophical datum (GG, 1962)
  • language itself [is] the accumulated store of perception to which the writer owes the deepest responsibility. That is why Pope made such an issue of dullness, for he saw the hack writers as people not only without perception, but as creators of a collective opacity in language, which is the very instrument of perception. (The Functions of Art, 1963) 
  • It [UM] explores the contours of our own extended beings in our technologies, seeking the principle of intelligibility in each of them. In the full confidence that it is possible to win an understanding of these forms that will bring them into orderly service, I have looked at them anew, accepting very little of the conventional wisdom concerning them. (UM, 1964)
  • In our time, study has finally turned to the medium of language itself as shaping the arrangements of daily life, so that society begins to look like a linguistic echo or repeat of language norms. (UM 1964) 
  • For language itself is the collective mask of a culture, even as its resources and powers for channelling perception are the prime concern of the poet. With language, the poet assumes the corporate mask. (Masks And Roles And The Corporate Image, 1964)
  • Folklorists and anthropologists had recovered the tribal and social memories of whole cultures at the same time that the symbolist poets had come to regard language itself as the inclusive storehouse of racial memories. (‘The Memory Theatre’, 1967)
  • No matter how the specialist of language or science strives to isolate his studies, he will find them resonating with the patterns and intensities of fields remote from his own. And is not the ground and existence of the common and shared measures of the language itself a main reason for this shared consciousness? (Roles, Masks, and Performance 1971) 
  • The world that Yeats alludes to as “A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street” is endlessly alluded to as the “midden heap” in Finnegans Wake. In Beckett’s Breath it is the global theatre “littered with miscellaneous and unidentifiable rubbish.” Each of these artists handles his “midden heap,” his “Waste Land“, in a unique way. Beckett’s world is managed by both narrative and drama. Joyce presents it as “language itself in action.” (‘Man as the Medium’, 1975) 
  • as the very informing principle of cosmic action, it is language itself that embodies and performs the dance of being. (‘Empedocles and T. S. Eliot’, 1976)
  • the media themselves, and the whole cultural ground, are forms of language5. (GV 1978)


  1. McLuhan cites from the 1926 translation of the second edition (1905) of Lipps’ Psychologische Studien: “Der einfache Klang repräsentiert in gewisser Weise das Ganze der Musik. Der Klang ist ein rhythmisches System, aufgebaut auf einem Grundrhythmus. Dieser Grundrhythmus wird in den Rhythmen der einzelnen Töne mehr oder weniger reich differenziert.”
  2. “The artist is older than the fish”: McLuhan here cites Lewis from Men Without Art (as he did repeatedly). The idea is that the artist swims in the first and oldest medium, that of “language itself”.
  3. See ‘James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial’ (1953): “Whereas the ethical world of Ulysses is presented in terms of well-defined human types the more metaphysical world of the Wake speaks and moves before us with the gestures of being itself. (…) They are the representatives of age-old adequation of mind and things, enacting the drama of the endless adjustment of the interior acts and dispositions of the mind to the outer world. The drama of cognition itself. For it is in the drama of cognition, the stages of apprehension, that Joyce found the archetype of poetic imitation. He seems to have been the first to see that the dance of being, the nature imitated by the arts, has its primary analogue in the activity of the exterior and interior senses. Joyce was aware that this doctrine (that sensation is imitation because the exterior forms are already in a new matter) is implicit in Aquinas. He made it explicit in Stephen Hero and the Portrait, and founded his entire poetic activity on these analogical proportions of the senses. (…) The analogical relation between exterior posture and gesture and the interior movements and dispositions of the mind is the irreducible basis of drama.”
  4. “The inventor of language” is primarily a subjective genitive — an inventor that first of all belongs to language itself.
  5. Again a subjective genitive.

McLuhan and Leavis: For Continuity

When McLuhan began his MA studies in Cambridge in 1934, he was exposed for the first time to close consideration of great modern figures like Hopkins, Eliot, Pound, Joyce and Lewis. While these writers were generally in the air at the time, in Cambridge if not in Winnipeg, McLuhan’s initiation to them, and to engaged attention with them, came especially through the quarterly literature journal, Scrutiny, which was published at Cambridge, beginning in 1932, by F R Leavis (1895-1978). 

A collection of Leavis essays, nearly all from Scrutiny, were published in 1933, just before McLuhan’s arrival. The title of this collection, For Continuity, captured a life-long fascination of McLuhan. While he was in process then of developing a fundamentally different notion of the nature of continuity from that of Leavis1, Leavis’s view of it did resonate with McLuhan and came to exercise a decided influence on him, especially over the next 10 to 15 years of his career.

The following texts from For Continuity illustrate Leavis’s sense of continuity which McLuhan took upon himself to think together with somewhat related, but ultimately incompatible, ideas from Chesterton, Eliot, Pound, Joyce, Lewis and Maritain. 

we — those of us who (…) deduce the need to work very actively for cultural continuity….
Change has been so catastrophic that the generations find it hard to adjust themselves to each other, and parents are helpless to deal with their children. It seems unlikely that the conditions of life can be transformed in this way without some injury to the standard of living (to wrest the phrase from the economist [and therefore to mean something like the ‘spiritual standard of living’]): improvisation can hardly replace the delicate traditional adjustments, the mature, inherited codes of habit and valuation, without severe loss, and loss that may be more than temporary. It is a breach in continuity that threatens: what has been inadvertently dropped may be irrecoverable or forgotten.
social changes (…) have virtually broken continuity. The standards that, maintained in a living tradition, constituted a surer taste than any individual as such can pretend to, have gone with the tradition; there is now no centre and no authority, so that Mr. Eastman, Mr. Nicolson, Mr. Priestley or Mr. Walpole can assume authority without being in the eyes of the world ridiculous.
It is to the culture that transcends the individual as the language he inherits transcends him that we come back; to the culture that has decayed [along] with tradition. The standards maintained in such a tradition (…) constitute a surer taste than any individual can pretend to. And it is not merely a matter of literary taste. The culture in question, which is not, indeed, identical with literary tradition but which will hardly survive it, is a sense of relative value and a memory — such wisdom as constitutes the residuum of the general experience. It lives only in individuals, but individuals can live without it; and where they are without it they do not know what they miss. And the world, troubled as it is, is unaware of what is gone. So nearly complete is the gap in cultural consciousness…
To revive or replace a decayed tradition is a desperate undertaking; the attempt may seem futile. But perhaps there will be some agreement that no social or political movement unrelated to such an attempt could engage one’s faith and energy. The more immediate conclusions would seem to bear upon education. No one aware of the problem will entertain easy hopes, for, inevitably, the machinery of education works in with the process of the modern world…

Unhappily, the connotations of the term “academic” are of ill augury: the concern for “tradition” that I have in mind will not be that commonly associated with formal education. Everything must start from and be related to the training of sensibility, that kind of training in which Mr. Richards2 [1893–1979] was a pioneer.

Mass-production, standardisation, levelling-down — these three terms convey succinctly, what has happened. Machine-technique has produced change in the ways of life at such a rate that there has been something like a breach of continuity (…) for the tradition has dissolved : the centre — [Mathew] Arnold’s ” centre of intelligent and urbane spirit”3 which, in spite of his plaints, we can see by comparison to have existed in his day — has vanished. 
Civilised life is certainly threatened with impoverishment by education based on crude and defective psychology, by standardisation at a low level, and by the inculcation of a cheap and shallow emotional code.
[D H Lawrence’s] crude hope of picking up (for he certainly believed a casting-back to be necessary) the lost continuity here, or there, in this or that primitive people.
It is plain from his books that [Lawrence] was not able to maintain steady confident possession of what he sought — wholeness in spontaneity; a human naturalness, inevitable, and more than humanly sanctioned; a sense, religious in potency, of life in continuity of communication with the deepest springs, giving fulfillment in living, “meaning” and a responsive relation with the cosmos
“Thank God,” said Lawrence, “I’m not free, any more than a rooted tree is free.” While he said also, “Unless from us the future takes place we are death only,” it was in the past that he was rooted. Indeed, in our time, when the gap in continuity is almost complete, he may be said to represent, concretely in his living person, the essential human tradition4; to represent, in an age that has lost the sense of it, human normality, as only great genius could.
We assume an “inner human nature,” and our recognition that it may be profoundly affected by the “economic process” persuades us that it must rally, gather its resources and start training itself for its ultimate responsibility at once.
It is an order that is gone (…) and there are no signs of its replacement by another: the possibility of one that should offer a like richness of life, of emotional, mental and bodily life in association, is hardly even imaginable. Instead we have cultural disintegration, mechanical organisation and constant rapid change.
We have poets in our own day, and James Joyce wrote Ulysses. For how long a cultural tradition can be perpetuated in this way one wonders with painful tension. Language, kept alive and rejuvenated by literature, is certainly an essential means of continuity and transition — to what? We are back at the question, which has been raised in Scrutiny before and will be again, if Scrutiny performs its function, whether there can be a culture based on leisure, and if so, what kind. We can demand no more than the certitude that there are certain things to be done and cared for now.


  1. Where Leavis regretted any “gap” in continuity and urged its repair, McLuhan would come to emphasize the gap as fundamental to continuity — a difference between the two which was ultimately religious.
  2. I A Richards, arguably the leading figure in English studies in Cambridge during McLuhan’s time there, influenced McLuhan in many ways which will be considered in future posts. See his Meaning of Meaning (with C K Ogden) and Practical Criticism.
  3. Leavis cites from Arnold’s 1864 “The Literary Influence of Academies”
  4. Lawrence increasingly came to represent “the essential human tradition” for Leavis. This valorization hinged on Lawrence’s supposed integrity. The difference between Leavis and McLuhan on this point mirrors that later between Mailer and McLuhan as regards what Mailer called “alienation”. In the video see especially 24:05ff.

GV and TT p22 — Commentary 3: “McLuhan is a charlatan”

At the end of the 1960s, McLuhan’s trajectory through the heights of acclaim began a precipitous decline which lasted until his death a decade later — and then continued for further decades beyond that. Even today, 35 years after his death, McLuhan’s reputation remains decidedly clouded by charges that his scholarship was shoddy at best and that he was a complete “charlatan” at worst with no scholarship at all.

One of those who dismissed McLuhan out of hand was Carroll Quigley (1910-1977), an influential professor of history at Georgetown University in Washington. Quigley was a conservative Catholic who may have found McLuhan particularly distasteful as a traitor in the ranks. Here are some excerpts from a review — ‘McLuhan as a Global Verbalizer‘ — which Quigley published in the Washington Star for September 15, 1968:

It is quite evident that McLuhan cannot think, and there is considerable evidence, as I shall show, that he cannot read (…) McLuhan is not interested in communication either as transmitter or receiver (…) McLuhan neither knows nor cares to know how electronic systems really operate. Instead he pounds away at these misconceptions (…) McLuhan ‘s ignorance is monumental, almost total. (…) How could a man like this win the fame and fortune our society provides to him?

A  month later Quigley followed up this review with a letter to the Washington Post (October 20, 1968) — ‘One page of McLuhan’ (given below his Washington Star review on the same page of a website maintained in Quigley’s memory). Here he stated for the record that “McLuhan is a charlatan” and made his case for this charge by fact-checking “one page of McLuhan”. Quigley showed in his letter (and in less detailed fashion also in his review) that page 25 of War and Peace in the Global Village is full of assertions which are either false on their face or are at least highly questionable (though presented by McLuhan in his usual never-in-doubt fashion). He then asked:

What are we to make of scholarship like this? Is this deliberate fraud, or is McLuhan unable to read? I think that the latter may well be the case. At least it is more charitable. But let us not call work like this “scholarship”.

It must be admitted that much of Quigley’s case is not far off the mark. With the possible exception of his selected criticism in The Interior Landscape, not a single one of McLuhan’s 151 or so books qualifies as “scholarship” in its usual sense. The Gutenberg Galaxy is generally thought to have been the best of them and won a Governor General’s award –- but around a quarter of it consists of citations which are sometimes very long and often hard to identify as citations. Just like The Mechanical Bride, Through the Vanishing Point and Culture Is Our Business, The Gutenberg Galaxy is more a series of commentaries on the work of others than it is a work of sustained scholarship. Verbi-Voco-Visual, Medium is the Massage, War and Peace in the Global Village and Counterblast are all books which attack the form of the book and perhaps especially the form of the scholarly book. Four of his remaining books are strikingly uneven collaborative efforts, two of them posthumous assemblages from notes, dictations and recordings left behind at his death.

In fact, all of McLuhan’s books after The Gutenberg Galaxy show clear signs of hasty construction. Sustained argument is almost unknown. Contradictions or at least hazy conceptions abound: “electric technology” may be presented as a saving or as a damning development; the visual era may be presented as lasting 2500 years (since the invention of the alphabet) or 400 years (since Gutenberg) or 200 years (since the industrial revolution); the Gutenberg galaxy may be presented as ending with the telegraph or with television or as continuing in and through them; the “tribal age” may be presented as a lost day of innocence or as a continuing night of violence; media may be presented as characterizing whole epochs, or various cultures, or some societies, or different individuals, or single works of art or aspects of single works of art — as well, of course, as both instruments of communication and all their various products like photographs, recorded music and film. Further yet, all of McLuhan’s books after The Gutenberg Galaxy are tiresomely repetitive. The supposed “Balinese saying” that “We have no art, we do everything as well as possible”, to take only one example, appears in Understanding Media and then in practically every one of his books thereafter as well as in many of his essays and lectures.

The undeniable impression is that McLuhan wanted to get stuff out the door and didn’t much care how it stacked up in terms of scholarship. He notoriously refused to proof his work or even to correct mistakes when they were pointed out to him. He frequently maintained that ordinary conversation is the only standard for genuine communication and noted that it does just fine without much attention to grammar or facts or logic. So why bother with these in books?

McLuhan’s poor health after his 1960 stroke, and particularly after his 1967 brain operation, may be thought to have played an important role here. He may no longer have been capable of the sort of sustained attention he had previously brought to his work. Further, both his parents died in the 1960’s, his mother following a stroke, and he himself had at least these two very close calls with the grim reaper. He may well have thought that speed of production was more important than quality control. Another complication in these years was his turn to a kind of academic showmanship. This both busied his schedule and further distanced him from traditional scholarly roles and goals. (Not that he had ever been comfortable as a scholar!  For at least two decades following the start of his academic career in 1937 McLuhan repeatedly expressed his determination to find another vocation.)

The result of all these factors has been that McLuhan research remains restricted to the remote borders of academic respectability. While he did indeed seem to see things — arguably very important things — which scholars of his time missed (so that his work remains alive in ways theirs does not), it is a painfully open question how to relate his insights to the strange form in which we have them. 

Contemporary McLuhan researchers like Lamberti or Marchessault rightly emphasize the importance of attention to how McLuhan said or wrote what he had to to say or write. But attention of this sort is invariably directed to purportedly positive aspects of his “rhetorical practice”. Hence the attraction of the idea that McLuhan authored “menippean satire”. Sure, McLuhan seems to have had his faults, so the argument runs, but these faults were in the service of an ancient style, or anti-style, in terms of which they may be seen as contributing virtues. Contradictions, gaps, repetitions, bombast, uneven construction — all money in the bank for such capitalists of scholarship!

The contrary suggestion here is that literally everything depended for McLuhan on the perception that faults as faults exist within a saved world — and that they are even the special sign of it. As he wrote in a letter to Joe Keough (July 6,1970):

I have no interest at all in the academic world and its attempts at tidying up experience. (Letters 448)

For McLuhan, “tidying up experience” included not only the rituals of scholarship, but also and far more importantly all those correlations and retracings through which humans have remade the world. This was a process which began with language as “the discontinuous juxtaposition of unrelated items” (as he wrote to Innis) and thus with that “thought and perception” which this power of “discontinuous juxtaposition” first enabled in human being (thereby initiating us as human beings). The power thus given to human beings then developed exponentially in our hands and eventually culminated in the “electric age” with its “proscenium arch” of satellites and its abolition of nature in favor of art:

The media extensions of man are the hominization of the planet; it is the second phase of the original creation. (GV 93)

Now “tidying up experience” in this way is one of the wings which carry humans in their being. The alphabet as “mother of invention”, the “Gutenberg galaxy” and the “satellite surround” are all reflexes of this uncanny power and represent our gradual extension of it around the earth and finally into the heavens themselves. All re-present a retrieval or retracing of the power of that original “resonating bond” which may be called “dialogue” or language or Logos. Human being is in this way one-half characterized by the fact that this power has unaccountably been given over to it to imitate (via retrieval, retracing, replay and recognition) in such a way as to direct and even control it.

But this power is subject to a triple forgetfulness in regard to the other wing of2 human being: particularity and utter finitude. It forgets in the first place that human language, and hence thought and perception, are possible only as inflections of finitude3. And it forgets, in the second place, that inflections of finitude can constitute and convey meaning, and so enable “thought and perception”, and thereby initiate human being, only on the basis of a prior “resonating bond” to which this chain of possibility owes literally everything. And lastly, in the third place, it forgets that it has forgotten these things.

For McLuhan, emergence from the prison-house of the “hominization of the planet” depended on the re-call of this triple forgetfulness. Only by recalling their ineluctable finitude could humans understand the enabling condition of language, thought and perception and thereby of themselves as humans. And only by recalling the sway of such finitude in this way could humans then recall that unaccountable prior “resonating bond in all things” (Take Today 3) through which language — and hence thought and perception and hence human being — are first of all constituted.

A “saved world” cannot be saved in part. It must be saved as a whole or not at all. This presents the Gutenberg galaxy with an unsolvable problem. Try as it might, it cannot see the two wings of human being, meaning and finitude, as mutually implicating. In its foundational “one at a time” lineal fashion, it is driven to see finitude and meaning as ultimately contradictory. The origin of things and the end of things, if thought is ever given to these extremes, are conceived as some variety of monolithic merger (“chaos”, “nothing” and “darkness” are now in fashion where “order” and “being” and “light” have also had their day).  More usually, only the unconscious reflexes of such fundamental determinations are in place in a present where the incompatibility of meaning and finitude presents all sorts of staggering problems and especially prevents (what is imagined of) “belief”.

McLuhan could see that what is fundamentally at stake here is a question of the approach to experience. His work from start to finish was therefore an attempt to expose the plurality of approaches to experience — media — to which humans are subject. But the key to an understanding of this question lay in the matter of finite particularity. Only if finite particularity were valued utterly without cosmetics and deodorants could it be seen as belonging together with meaning. And this on several grounds. In the first place, if media as approaches to experience are plural, the “selection” of one or another of them is itself inherently particular and finite. Secondly, if finite particularity were experienced in some deodorized fashion, this would not only reflect a prior selection of some approach to it, it would also change it into something else. It would not be finite particularity at all. Thirdly, the foundational role of language in the constitution of human being, indeed of all being, could be understood only where the necessity of finite particularity to it were acknowledged.

So McLuhan’s task was a difficult twofold. On the one hand, he wanted to expose the fact that human nature is just as intelligible as physical nature has proved to be.  On the other, he needed to emphasize the finite particularity of both the objective and subjective sides of such investigation.

In this context, the faults of McLuhan’s scholarship may be seen in a new light — or in a new direction of light, “light from” rather than “light on”. These are real faults.  But he seems to have gone out of his way, not only not to exclude them, but to highlight them. And now it can be seen why.  The valuation of finite particularity, indeed of outright faults, already determines whether or not escape velocity from the Gutenberg galaxy has or has not been achieved.

  1. Because of the unusual nature of his books and the various collaborations represented by them, even their number is hard to specify. Janine Marchessault gives it, not as 15, but as 8! (Cosmic Media, xv)
  2. Gen obj!
  3. Gen obj and subj!