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 standing 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)
  • Language itself and every department of human activity would in this view be a long succession of ‘momentary deities’ or epiphanies.  And such indeed is the view put forward in the Cratylus of Plato: I believe, Socrates, the true account of the matter to be, that a power more than human gave things their first names, and that the names which are thus given are necessarily their true names. In this way etymology becomes a method of science and theology. William Wordsworth called these momentary deities ‘spots of time’, Hopkins called them ‘inscapes’ and Browning built his entire work on the same concept of the esthetic of the ‘eternal moment’.” (The Little Epic, late 1950s, unpublished manuscript in the Ottawa archive)
  • 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)
  • In Vico and in the Wake language Itself becomes the memory theatre and the scene of dramatic action and change. (McLuhan to Sheila Watson, December 8, 1966.)
  • 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.

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