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”.

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