Monthly Archives: June 2014

Through the vanishing point 2 – Shakespeare

All of Shakespeare exists in auditory depth… (Verbi, Voco, Visual Explorations, 16)

When we say, therefore, that Shakespeare draws his people in the round, we are noting the auditory depth with which his music invests the least gesture or intonation of his characters. The complexity of his characters is often the effect of all the other characters being simultaneously present in the auditory space provided by the music of his language. (Printing and Social Change, 25)

The Shakespearean moment (“that time of year”) includes several times at once… (Through the Vanishing Point, p 103)

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything. (As you like It, 2.7)1

The Gutenberg Galaxy is typical of McLuhan’s work in turning repeatedly to Shakespeare to explicate his project.2 He introduces his central concern in it, referring to Shakespeare, as follows:

His theme in Lear is that of John Donne in An Anatomy of the World3:
‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone;
All just supply, and all Relation:
Prince, subject, Father, Son, are things forgot.
For every man alone thinks he hath got
To be a Phoenix… (13)

McLuhan cites Lear itself in naming the controlling problem of that theme:

The breaking of “the most precious square of sense”…4 (13)

He then turns to Troilus and Cressida to specify the sure sign of the breaking of sense — “mere oppugnancy”:

O, when degree is shak’d,
Which is the ladder of all high designs,
The enterprise is sick! How could communities,
Degrees in schools, and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenity and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
But by degree, stand in authentic place?
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And hark what discord follows! Each thing melts
In mere oppugnancy5. (19)

The reconstitution of sense requires that thought and identity go “through the vanishing point” and this is again described by a citation from Lear:

Come on, sir; here’s the place: stand still. How fearful
And dizzy ’tis, to cast one’s eyes so low!
The crows and choughs that wing the midway air6
Show scarce so gross as beetles: half way down
Hangs one that gathers samphire, dreadful trade!
Methinks he seems no bigger than his head:
The fishermen, that walk upon the beach,
Appear like mice; and yond tall anchoring bark,
Diminish’d to her cock; her cock, a buoy
Almost too small for sight: the murmuring surge,
That on the unnumber’d idle pebbles chafes,
Cannot be heard so high. I’ll look no more;
Lest my brain turn, and the deficient sight
Topple down headlong.7  (16)

McLuhan poses the questions: when (in what time) is the string of the world tuned? how can we attend such tuning? how are we to understand it in relation to the lack of tuning that is manifest everywhere? why does a pathway pursuing these questions lead “through the vanishing point”? how does this take us beyond “mere oppugnancy”?

The goal (“Finds bottom in the uncomprehensive deeps”) is taken from Troilus and Cressida and is cited in Understanding Media, Take Today, and Laws of Media

The providence that’s in a watchful state
Knows almost every grain of Plutus’ gold,
Finds bottom in the uncomprehensive deeps,
Keeps place with thought, and almost like the gods
Does thoughts unveil in their dumb cradles.8

The dark that must be confronted in going “through the vanishing point” into “the uncomprehensive deeps” (as discussed previously in regard to McLuhan’s use of Milton and Pope) is an ineradicable aspect of human existence that must have a central place in any fitting consideration of it.  Again, it is Shakespeare who supplies the definitive rendition of such “death’s second self” in Sonnet 73, which McLuhan cites in full both in Through the Vanishing Point (102) and in Voices of Literature (1.181):

That time of year thou may’st in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day,
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by-and-by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.9

A speech from As you like It (2.7), included in Voices of Literature (1.135), and discussed in Through the Vanishing Point, is called by McLuhan “The Seven Ages of Man”.  Here “mere oblivion (…) sans everything” is seen as the concluding “part” of the different roles a person “plays” in a lifetime:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.10 

  1. Cited in full below from Voices In Literature (1.135).
  2. It is note-worthy (although ignored by most academic research) that McLuhan turns back to the tradition in this way to explicate the path thought must take in “understanding media”. Indeed, the indirection and multiplicity of time is one of McLuhan’s fundamental themes.
  3. 1611
  4. King Lear 1.1
  5. Troilus and Cressida 1.3
  6. See Wallace Stevens “mid-day air” here.
  7. King Lear 4.6; this same text is cited in the introductory chapter (“Sensory Modes”) of Through the Vanishing Point, p 14, and later again in the same text on p 74.
  8. Troilus and Cressida 3.3; on the same page (13) of The Gutenberg Galaxy cited repeatedly above, McLuhan speaks of “the very constitution of rationality”. For the correlation of “the uncomprehensive deeps” with the “dumb cradles” of thought, see “The Seven Ages of Man” cited below where Shakespeare brings together “oblivion” and “second childishness”. That humans cannot escape first and “second childishness” may be taken to reveal an unbreakable bond with the pluripotent springs of “language itself” (also discussed here).
  9. McLuhan also cites this sonnet in part in ‘Space, Time, and Poetry’ (1955)  and in From Cliché to Archetype, 84, In ‘Space, Time, and Poetry’, he comments on the first 4 lines of the sonnet as follows: “Here the time of year, designated as a mental state, is visualized swiftly in three different ways in the second line and then a fourth and fifth time in the third and fourth lines. First, bare boughs as choirs for birds of the air, and then ruined abbey choirs, as former scenes of the choirboys’ efforts, provide a superimposed visual image. The rapid transition of brief visual shots creates a kaleidoscopic sense of speed and complexity which is controlled only by the solemn music of the lines.”
  10. When “The Seven Ages of Man” are considered synchronically, “all at once”, they may be taken to define the spectrum of “language itself” as the repository of the possibilities of human existence: “one man in his time plays many parts”. In Through the Vanishing Point (65) McLuhan comments on these lines: “The mode of song and of festival is inclusive, all-at-onceness. As a means of creating involvement and participation, nothing seems to rival a simple catalogue. Compare ‘The Seven Ages of Man’ in As You Like It.”
    See the wonderful evocation of this spectrum or “catalogue” by Wallace Stevens here.

Through the vanishing point 1 – Milton and Pope

As broached in regard to CHML, McLuhan’s thought goes “through the vanishing point” with Nietzsche’s. His work is anything but the sort of naive positivism that would pick out various objects (the wheel! the alphabet! the telephone!) or collections of objects (the information environment!) for detached academic research into “media ecology”. When he cites Pope at length at the very end of The Gutenberg Galaxy, or Milton in From Cliché to Archetype, it is clear that he was fully conscious of a deep dark that is an ineradicable aspect of human existence and that must play a central role in any consideration of it.

Any fitting reading of McLuhan must go “through the vanishing point” along with him and with the great poets he cites like Milton and Pope:

John Milton, Paradise Lost, 16681

Before thir eyes in sudden view appear
The secrets of the hoarie deep, a dark
Illimitable Ocean without bound,
Without dimension, where length, breadth, and highth,
And time and place are lost; where eldest Night
And Chaos, Ancestors of Nature, hold
Eternal Anarchie, amidst the noise
Of endless warrs, and by confusion stand.

Alexander Pope, The Dunciad, 17432

In vain, in vain,—The all-composing Hour
Resistless falls: The Muse obeys the Pow’r.
She comes! she comes! the sable Throne behold
Of Night Primaeval, and of Chaos old!
Before her, Fancy’s gilded clouds decay,
And all its varying Rain-bows die away.
Wit shoots in vain its momentary fires,
The meteor drops, and in a flash expires.
As one by one, at dread Medea’s strain,
The sick’ning stars fade off th’ethereal plain;
As Argus’ eyes3 by Hermes’ wand opprest,
Clos’d one by one to everlasting rest;
Thus at her felt approach, and secret might,
Art after Art goes out, and all is Night.
See skulking Truth to her old Cavern fled,
While the Great Mother bids Britannia sleep,
And pours her Spirit o’er the Land and Deep.
She comes! she comes! The Gloom rolls on,
Mountains of Casuistry heap’d o’er her head!
Philosophy, that lean’d on Heav’n before,
Shrinks to her second cause, and is no more.
Physic of Metaphysic begs defence,
And Metaphysic calls for aid on Sense!
See Mystery to Mathematics fly!
In vain! they gaze, turn giddy, rave, and die.
Religion blushing veils her sacred fires,
And unawares Morality expires.
Nor public Flame, nor private, dares to shine;
Nor human Spark is left, nor Glimpse divine!
Lo! thy dread Empire, CHAOS! is restor’d;
Light dies before thy uncreating word:
Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
And Universal Darkness buries All.

  1. Book II, cited in From Cliché to Archetype, 44.
  2. Dunciad B, IV, cited at the closing of The Gutenberg Galaxy, 263. The first 11 lines are also cited in From Cliché to Archetype, 189-190.
  3. Argus panoptes

Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters 2: What Mallarmé saw

In Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters McLuhan describes Mallarmé’s innovative theory of “the poetic process” as a matter of time:

Gradually it dawned on Mallarmé that pure poetry was impossible. Henceforth the subject and framework of a poem would be the retracing of a moment of perception. For some of the Romantic poets the doctrine of the aesthetic moment as a moment out of time — a moment of arrested consciousness — had seemed the key to all poetry. (…) But Mallarmé saw deeper (CHML)

Although it will be necessary to show that a highly complicated (“deeper”) notion of time is in play here — namely, time singular as inherently times plural — it is not entirely mistaken to read this passage as referring to a moment in or out of singular linear time. On this reading, the difference between “the Romantic poets” and Mallarmé would be, on McLuhan’s account, that the former attempted to express “a moment out of time”, while the latter saw “the poetic process” as necessarily unfolding only in time. “Pure poetry was impossible” — that is, the contamination of poetry by time was unavoidable.

In 1951 McLuhan had already described how:

Mallarmé stated the matter: “The poetic act consists in seeing suddenly that an idea fractions itself into a number of motifs equal in value, and in grouping them; they rhyme.” In other words Mallarmé discovered that the aesthetic moment of arrested cognition can be split up into numerous fractions which can be orchestrated in many discontinuous ways. (The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape Poetry1951)

McLuhan termed such “discontinuous” poetry the “prismatically arranged landscapes of Rimbaud and Mallarmé” (ibid). Like a prism exposing the rainbow of color in a beam of light, “the aesthetic moment was, like the band of the spectrum, an affair of zoning” (ibid). Faced with the “fractions” of an idea or “aesthetic moment”, like the different color “fractions” of a spectrum, poets were left with the task of “orchestrat[ing]” them “in many discontinuous ways” to produce their creations. More fundamentally considered, even the ‘colors’ which were the building blocks of such poetic creations, were already the result of the “zoning” activity of perception on the “the band of the spectrum” before it. Thus it was that perception itself had to be interrogated in regard to its central role in human experience and especially in “the poetic process”:

Henceforth the subject and framework of a poem would be the retracing of a moment of perception. (CHML)

Essential to such investigations of “the poetic process” was the symbolist discovery of the “fission of the moment of aesthetic awareness”1, of the “fractions” into which any idea could be analyzed. And as McLuhan observed in this same place, “in art as in physics fission preceded fusion”. It followed that no amount of fusion resulting in a purported “moment out of time” could obviate the prior “fission” that “preceded” it. Time was not subject to the “fusion” of poets and artists; far rather, their “fusion” was subject to time and to time’s prior “fission”.

The symbolists arrived at this insight through an intense analysis of the romantic “moment of arrested consciousness”:

Poets and artists literally turned their own psyches into laboratories where they practiced the most austere experiments in total disregard of their personal happiness. (CHML)

“Their personal happiness” was at stake because the analysis of “the aesthetic moment” turning on its prior “fission” into “fractions” had the effect of relativizing it in multiple ways. Any such moment could be seen to depend upon a whole collection of social and individual factors such as language, fashion, place and tradition (on the social side) and mood, courage, happenstance and inspiration (on the individual side). All these inevitably ‘colored’ perception and did so in such fundamental fashion that they could not be recalled — except at the unacceptable price of recalling perception itself.

Where insight captured in “the aesthetic moment” was held to be the key to truth, meaning and, indeed, reality (for these had to be perceived as truth, meaning and reality), the intensely felt result of such relativizing analysis was the suspicion that these were arbitrary. And since ‘arbitrary truth’ may well seem no different from ‘no truth’, the further suspicion dawned that life lacked these “esteemed commodities” (as Beckett would later have it). These suspicions were buttressed at the time (beginning around 1860) by Darwin’s discoveries in biology, Marx’s investigations in economics, the beginnings of archaeological and anthropological studies of remote cultures, and the initiation of depth psychology culminating in Freud. Everything began to point to the idea of truth as a construction.

Mallarmé’s life (1842-1898), like that of his close contemporary, Nietzsche (1844-1900), spanned the period of these developments. It was Nietzsche who drew the rigorous nihilistic conclusion from them. If perception was now seen to result from “grouping”, “rhym[ing]”, “orchestrat[ing]” and “zoning”, as Mallarmé’s had it, and if truth, meaning and reality were matters of perception, it was imperative to establish the basis on which poets and artists carried out these defining activities. Since all these techniques amounted to the administration of a kind of glue within perception, how did poets and artists have access to this glue in the first place? Where did it come from? And what reality did poets and artists themselves have, as such orchestrators? For this reality, too, namely their own reality, would — like any other reality — itself have to be “orchestrated” through “zoning”. 

Surely the required glue could not result from its own application (like Baron Münchhausen extricating himself and his horse from a mire by pulling on his own hair). As a result, either the glue of fusion, as subject to time’s fission, was a fortuitous historical development in the evolution of the human species, or the glue “preceded” humans in some prior time of archetypal “fission” and “fusion” such that perception and “the poetic process” (as a special case of perception) amounted to a “retracing” of it. In the former case, human knowing is ground and everything known is a figure on that ground; in the latter case, human knowing is a figure on the “deeper” ground that enables it.

McLuhan opted for the latter possibility, of course, and further posts on CHML will need to detail just how he re-constucted this process. Suffice it to note here only that his views on the multiplicity of time as times, on the fundamentality of “language itself“, on “dialogue” as both “before” all else and yet as “beyond” itself, on the elementary role of media in human life, and, indeed, on the truth of the Catholic tradition, all these must be located in relation to a deep archaeology of the glue of “fusion” in human experience.2

The first possiblility, specified by Nietzsche, was that the glue of fusion, as subject to time’s fission, is nothing but some peculiar historical development associated with the evolution of the human species. A key text here is his early unpublished fragment, ‘On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense‘ from 1873:

Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe (…) there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of “world history”, but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die3. One might invent such a fable, and yet it still would not have adequately illustrated how miserable, how shadowy and transient, how aimless and arbitrary the human intellect looks within nature. There were eternities during which it did not exist. And when it is all over with the human intellect, nothing will have happened. For this intellect has no additional mission which would lead it beyond human life. Rather, it is human, and only its possessor and begetter takes it so solemnly — as though the world’s axis turned within it. But if we could communicate with the gnat, we would learn that he likewise flies through the air with the same solemnity, that he feels the flying center of the universe within himself. (…) It is remarkable that this was brought about by the intellect, which was certainly allotted to these most unfortunate, delicate, and ephemeral beings merely as a device for detaining them a minute within existence.4

On this view “the human intellect” is an adaptation strategy that has nothing to do with ‘truth’:

we believe that we know something about the things themselves when we speak of trees, colors, snow, and flowers; and yet we possess nothing but metaphors for things –- metaphors which correspond in no way to the original entities. (…) What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding. Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions…5

Fifteen years later, just before his collapse into silence for the remaining decade of his life, Nietzsche drew the consequences of this view in the two final stages of his 6-stage overview of the western tradition, ‘How the “true world” finally became a fable: the history of an error‘ (in Twilight of the Idols):

5. The “true” world — an idea which is no longer good for anything, not even obligating — an idea which has become useless and superfluous — consequently a refuted idea: let us abolish it! (…)
6. The true world — we have abolished. What world has remained? The apparent one perhaps? But no! With the true world we also have abolished the apparent one!!6

Nietzsche had come to realize that if we do not “know something about the things themselves” and instead have only “illusions” about ‘them’, the acid of this insight cannot be withheld from our words (as a variety of “things themselves”) — or, indeed, from the users of words, namely from ourselves (as another variety of “things themselves”). Via this general dissolution, of “things”, “words” and finally of our own selves, not only (only!) “the ‘true’ world” is “abolished”, but also “the apparent one” along with ‘it’.

No amount of construction can produce even an apparent world if the only available constructors themselves require construction.

Nietzsche’s nihilism goes decidedly “through the vanishing point“. But the question arises (if pursued with sufficient passion), whether a critique able to effect the utter abolition of the world, even the “apparent” one, can be wielded without implosive effect on its own postulates. In this case, Nietzsche’s nihilism might act as an important way marker, perhaps even as a necessary and unavoidable one, but — like Wittgenstein’s arrows — this would be a way marker potentially pointing in another direction, or other directions, from the one it purports to indicate.

Although not specifically naming Nietzsche, McLuhan was thinking along these lines by 1949 at the latest and, as will be shown below, already associated his take on this complex with Mallarmé:

Existence is opaque to the rationalist. He seeks essences, definitions, formulas. He lives in the concept and the conceptualizable. Ideally in a world of essences, actually in a world of complete inanition. Cut off from the nutriment of existence, his very postulates discourage him from that loving and disciplined contemplation of existence, of particulars. (Mr. Eliot’s Historical Decorum, 1949)

While it may well seem odd to characterize Nietzsche as a “rationalist” who “seeks essences, definitions, formulas” and who “lives in the concept and the conceptualizable”, Heidegger, too, considered Nietzsche a sort of upside-down metaphysician. For what Nietzsche required of the substantial perception of truth and reality was a demonstrable matching. The dissolution of truth and reality which occurs in his nihilism is able to occur only given this demand.

In ‘Joyce, Aquinas, and the Poetic Process’ (1951) McLuhan remarks that:

“Le Démon de l’Analogie,” by Mallarmé, (…) revealed the proportion that is between knowing and making.

McLuhan’s ever-repeated insistence later in his career on the critical difference between matching and making is already at work here. Matching is the realization of identity between a human activity (like making a certain noise or having a certain idea) and an object. When such an identity is realized, the noise becomes a communicating word and the idea becomes “true”. Nietzsche accepted the necessity of this equation and then pursued the consequences of its breakdown. In fundamental contrast, making is a finite activity of finite beings that yet achieves communication and truth without the realization of identity. Indeed, making has a certain “proportion” with “knowing” only given a fundamental difference between it and its products that can never be recalled or obviated. For it is only (only!) the environment or medium of this difference — a medium that exposes itself above all in the mediating “gap where the action is” — that first of all en-ables whatever making achieves.

In 1954, the same year as CHML, McLuhan described the work of Mallarmé as follows:

His task had become not self-expression but the release of the life in things. [Mallarmé’s 1897] Un Coup de Dés illustrates the road he took in the exploitation of all things as gestures of the mind, magically adjusted to the secret powers of being. As a vacuum tube is used to shape and control vast reservoirs of electric power7, the artist can manipulate the low current of casual words, rhythms, and resonances to evoke the primal harmonies of existence (…) But the price he must pay is total self-abnegation. (Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press)

The medium is the message here in the all important sense that it provides the possibility of relation — aka communication — across fundamental difference. Where Nietzsche held that “clever beasts invented knowing”, here “knowing”, indeed perception of any sort, is enabled by the ontological medium or “framework” in the context of which it occurs: “the primal harmonies of existence” (subj gen!). Hence McLuhan’s insistence, over and over again, that the activity of knowing, whether in the arts or in the sciences, is always only (only!) a “retracing” (re-cognizing, re-playing, re-tracking, re-trieving, re-presenting, etc etc) of what already takes place in any and all human perception — namely, “gestures of the mind” which are “magically adjusted” to objects in the world, and to words spoken by and to it, because they are first of all “magically adjusted to the secret powers of being” (subj gen!). Since it has — even ‘is’ — these “secret powers” as possibilities of “adjustment”, and since it de-cides to issue them “beyond” itself, so are we able to relate successfully with the world via “retracing” in all the ways to be seen from the most ordinary perception to the most esoteric art or science. Thus (again):

Henceforth the subject and framework of a poem would be the retracing of a moment of perception. (CHML)

Here “knowing” does not belong to human beings as their invention and especially does not belong to any individual poet or scientist:

Mallarmé (…) saw that a poetry of effects was impersonal. The author effaced himself above all in not assigning causes or explanations as transitional devices of a novelistic and a pseudo-rationalistic type between the parts of a poem. (Mr. Eliot’s Historical Decorum, 1949)

To supply connections would be to provide what is already there — as if they were not already there . Art (indeed also science and any human activity) therefore had no more important function than the withdrawal of pseudo-connections in favor of existing ones: “the release of the life in things”. The essential act of poets, or indeed of scientists, was thus seen to be to retreat in favor of existing “transitional” possibilities8 reflecting the “secret powers of being” and “primal harmonies”. But:

the price he must pay is total self-abnegation. (Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press)9

In Mallarmé’s attention to the waters of intelligibility which first enable poetry as an exemplary mode of perception, McLuhan found an articulation of the Catholic tradition — even though Mallarmé himself had no such intent:

In Mallarmé the Word has no theological overtones. It is rather a return to the pre-Christian doctrine of the Logos which included ratio et oratio and was the element in which all men were thought to move and have their being. (Review of Eleven Eliot Books 1950)

the poetic process as revealed by Poe and the symbolists was the unexpected and unintentional means of reestablishing the basis of Catholic humanism. (CHML)

This complete absence of doctrinal intent was, in fact, an essential aspect of Mallarmé’s contribution:

Mallarmé did not approach this question as a speculative one, but as a practical matter of poetics. It was the poetic experience of his time that reconstituted this doctrine and not the other way around. (Review of Eleven Eliot Books 1950)

To follow Mallarmé along this way, it was necessary to go “through the vanishing point” — and this in a double respect. It was necessary in the first place to expose the way of matching as a cul-de-sac10 that, once pursued with sufficient passion, dissolves into nothing  (the lesson of Nietzsche). In the second place it was necessary through this sort of “total self-abnegation” to activate a “loving and disciplined contemplation of existence, of particulars”. This was an attitude that was possible — indeed, actual11 — for all “gestures of the mind” through the prior fact that they are “magically adjusted to the secret powers of being” far “beyond” their own powers of matching. 




  1. The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape Poetry
  2. Readers of McLuhan have attempted to understand him absent the drama or contest of perception (subj gen!) he saw to be always at stake in human experience. But as he wrote to Joe Keogh, “I am not a ‘culture critic’ because I am not in any way interested in classifying cultural forms. I am a metaphysician, interested in the life of the forms and their surprising modalities” (July 6, 1970, Letters 413). “Metaphysics” on this view is exactly an interest in “the life of the forms and their surprising modalities” and this “life”, in turn, can be investigated only at the deepest levels of human experience as excavated by thinkers like Nietzsche. Reading McLuhan first of all requires the passion without which these levels of human experience remain inaccessible.
  3. It is noteworthy that, up to a point, McLuhan accepts Nietzsche’s view: “Historic man may turn out to have been literate man. An episode.” (‘Culture Without Literacy’, Explorations 1, 1953)
  4. Über Wahrheit und Lüge im außermoralischen Sinn‘: In irgendeinem abgelegenen Winkel (…) Weltalls gab es einmal ein Gestirn, auf dem kluge Tiere das Erkennen erfanden. Es war die hochmütigste und verlogenste Minute der »Weltgeschichte«; aber doch nur eine Minute. Nach wenigen Atemzügen der Natur erstarrte das Gestirn, und die klugen Tiere mußten sterben. – So könnte jemand eine Fabel erfinden und würde doch nicht genügend illustriert haben, wie kläglich, wie schattenhaft und flüchtig, wie zwecklos und beliebig sich der menschliche Intellekt innerhalb der Natur ausnimmt. Es gab Ewigkeiten, in denen er nicht war; wenn es wieder mit ihm vorbei ist, wird sich nichts begeben haben. Denn es gibt für jenen Intellekt keine weitere Mission, die über das Menschenleben hinausführte. Sondern menschlich ist er, und nur sein Besitzer und Erzeuger nimmt ihn so pathetisch, als ob die Angeln der Welt sich in ihm drehten. Könnten wir uns aber mit der Mücke verständigen, so würden wir vernehmen, daß auch sie mit diesem Pathos durch die Luft schwimmt und in sich das fliegende Zentrum dieser Welt fühlt. (…) Es ist merkwürdig, daß dies der Intellekt zustande bringt, er, der doch gerade nur als Hilfsmittel den unglücklichsten, delikatesten, vergänglichsten Wesen beigegeben ist, um sie eine Minute im Dasein festzuhalten.
  5. Ibid. “Wir glauben etwas von den Dingen selbst zu wissen, wenn wir von Bäumen, Farben, Schnee und Blumen reden, und besitzen doch nichts als Metaphern der Dinge, die den ursprünglichen Wesenheiten ganz und gar nicht entsprechen. (…) Was ist also Wahrheit? Ein bewegliches Heer von Metaphern, Metonymien, Anthropomorphismen, kurz eine Summe von menschlichen Relationen, die, poetisch und rhetorisch gesteigert, übertragen, geschmückt wurden und die nach langem Gebrauch einem Volke fest, kanonisch und verbindlich dünken: die Wahrheiten sind Illusionen, von denen man vergessen hat, daß sie welche sind,
  6. Götzen-Dämmerung — Wie die “wahre Welt” endlich zur Fabel wurde — Geschichte eines Irrtums: (…) 5. Die “wahre Welt” – eine Idee, die zu nichts mehr nütz ist, nicht einmal mehr verpflichtend – eine unnütz, eine überflüssig gewordene Idee, folglich eine widerlegte Idee: schaffen wir sie ab! (…) 6. Die wahre Welt haben wir abgeschafft: welche Welt blieb übrig? die scheinbare vielleicht?… Aber nein! mit der wahren Welt haben wir auch die scheinbare abgeschafft!!
  7. McLuhan to Pound, June 12, 1951: “I’m interested in such analogies with modern poetry as that provided by the vacuum tube, The latter can tap a huge reservoir of electrical energy, picking it up as a very weak impulse. Then it can shape it and amplify it to major intensity. Technique of allusion as you use it (situational analogies) seems comparable to this type of circuit.” (Letters, 224)
  8. The whole history of science is a series of such retreats in favor of existing “transitional” possibilities. So Galileo gave up the prior conception of how bodies fall for the perception of how they actually do so. And chemistry requires the retreat from alchemical conceptions in favor of perception of the actual relations of physical materials.
  9. Compare Joyce in Portrait: “The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.”
  10. Cf, Through the Vanishing Point (55): “The three-dimensional illusion of depth has proved to be a cul-de-sac”.
  11. The knot of possibility and actuality is the fundamental concern of Take Today 22. The relationship between the two is the “true strength” of “dialogue” that “goes beyond”.

Mallarmé: “a competition for the foundation of the popular modern Poem”

Between 1949 and 1954 McLuhan’s thought underwent a profound revolution. Primarily through his readings of the French symbolist poets — especially Mallarmé — in connection with his ongoing work on Eliot and Joyce, McLuhan came to see that incarnation must be experienced and expressed against any attempt to consider it in some supposedly special moment of time or in some supposedly oceanic feeling or in some supposedly pure thought.

Considered originally, as first principle, incarnation necessarily rebounds on any experience of it (subj gen!)1. If incarnation is fundamental, any and all experience of it must be incarnated (ie, later than incarnation) and therefore informed by it and therefore particular and finite. There can be no special experience of incarnation (obj gen!).

This rebound (in league with the nihilist thrust culminating in Nietzsche) at once negates any supposedly foundational pier of the western tradition depending on special experience and points to a foundational complex (“dialogue [that] came before, and goes beyond”) dynamically supporting that tradition even, or exactly, in its weaknesses and failures. For incarnation is just (just!) the dynamic release into weaknesses and failure that yet sustains2.

In ‘Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press’ (1954), McLuhan formulated this turn as follows:

Moral and aesthetic horror at the ignobility of the popular scene gave way to an opposite attitude (…) and Mallarmé is, before Joyce, the best spokesman of the new approach.

This was a “radically democratic aesthetic” where “democratic” refers to the utter lack of privilege (whether sensual, conceptual or institutional) prompting it. And it was Mallarmé who first began to map the labyrinthine terrain:

The author of Ulysses was the only person to grasp the full artistic implications of this radically democratic aesthetic elaborated by the fabulous artificer, the modern Daedalus3, Stéphane Mallarmé.

It was this “radically democratic aesthetic” which lay behind the decided animus McLuhan developed at this time against ‘gnosticism’ (even — or especially — when he found it in any of his literary heroes like Eliot, Pound, Joyce and Lewis) and which grounded his new positive valuation of the mass media, precisely in the face of his previous — especially in The Mechanical Bride — and continuing [!] critique of them.

Incarnation, limited in any way by moral view or distaste or doctrinal conviction, is not incarnation.

The following texts from this period highlight the role of Mallarmé in this revolutionary process through which McLuhan became the theorist of all media.

Mr. Eliot’s Historical Decorum, 1949
in the library section of Ulysses (…) Joyce (…) presents (…) Mallarmé as his Hamlet who walks the world only to read “the book of himself”. This image is the exact opposite of the activity of Joyce and of the Mallarmé that Joyce at that time knew better than anybody else. To read not in the book of the self but in the book of the existent and subsistent world, the world of the incarnate logos (…) was the esthetic task (…) “Symbol” means to “throw together”, to juxtapose without copula. And it is a work that cannot be undertaken or understood by the univocalizing, single plane, rationalist mind. Existence is opaque to the rationalist. He seeks essences, definitions, formulas. He lives in the concept and the conceptualizable. Ideally in a world of essences, actually in a world of complete inanition. Cut off from the nutriment of existence, his very postulates discourage him from that loving and disciplined contemplation of existence, of particulars. (…) Mallarmé (…) saw that a poetry of effects was impersonal. The author effaced himself above all in not assigning causes or explanations as transitional devices of a novelistic and a pseudo-rationalistic type between the parts of a poem.

Review of eleven Eliot books 1950
In Mallarmé the Word has no theological overtones. It is rather a return to the pre-Christian doctrine of the Logos which included ratio et oratio and was the element in which all men were thought to move and have their being. Mallarmé did not approach this question as a speculative one, but as a practical matter of poetics. It was the poetic experience of his time that reconstituted this doctrine and not the other way around.

Review of Essays in Criticism 1920-1948, ed R W Stallman, 1950
Poetry is made with words not with emotions, feelings, or ideas — it is that perception of Mallarmé [subj gen!] that has changed first poetic and then critical practice in the past seventy years. (…) Poems such as Mallarmé’s Igitur or Un Coup de Dés are great symbolist structures which made possible the metapoetic orchestration of Ulysses, The Cantos, Finnegan’s Wake, and Four Quartets. (…) Beginning with Mallarmé, poetry once more embraced the entire diversity of civilized interests. (…) Superficially, the first Romantics had rejected the formal methods and content of the encyclopaedic arts and sciences. But the last Romantics, such as Mallarmé, Joyce, Yeats, Rilke, and Eliot, have joined poetry once more to theology, metaphysics, history, and anthropology.

Letter to Innis, 1951
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 of language such as the Western world has not experienced in 1800 years. 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 far beyond any informative purpose. Politics were becoming musical, jazzy, magical.

Joyce, Aquinas, and the Poetic Process, 1951
“Le Démon de l’Analogie,” by Mallarmé, (…) revealed the proportion that is between knowing and making. (…) The Stephen of The Portrait, (probably named after the Dedalian Stéphane  Mallarmé) understands Aquinas via Mallarmé whereas Joyce the artist [in contrast to Stephen Daedalus,] while led to Aquinas by Mallarmé and the symbolists, finally was able to complete the work of the symbolists because he discovered [through reversal] how to perfect their insights by means of Aquinas.

The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape Poetry, 1951
With Joyce words syntactically ordered to statement yielded to words as pantomime, as ballet, and especially as static landscape. Mallarmé, in his Coup de Dés, had preceded Joyce in establishing the printed page as a symbolist landscape able to evoke the most ephemeral incident and, simultaneously, the most remote cycles of time. For Mallarmé, as for Joyce, the minutest, as well as the most esoteric, features of the alphabet itself were charged with dramatic significance, so that he used the word and the printed page as do the Chinese, for whom landscape painting is a branch of writing. Mallarmé had been led to this technique by an aesthetic analysis of the modern newspaper, with its static inclusiveness of the entire community of men. But the newspaper, not so much as a cross section as a vivisection of human interests, stands, as I have shown elsewhere, behind Ulysses, with its date-line Thursday, June 16, 1904. The shape of Ulysses is that of the city presented as the organic landscape of the human body. The shape of the Wake is the same, save that the landscape of the human mind and body is presented more intimately and under a much greater diversity of forms, landscape taking over even the functions of “character”. What Mallarmé and Joyce exploit in landscape technique is its power of rendering an inclusive consciousness in a single instant of perception. (…) Earlier than Mr. Eliot or Joyce, Mallarmé, pointing to the intimate connection between the ultimate artist and nature, insisted that fragments of the great work were constantly being written by the many who are as Nature to the hero-artist (…) For them [Joyce, Pound, and Eliot] the aesthetic moment was, like the band of the spectrum, an affair of zoning. As Mallarmé stated the matter: “The poetic act consists in seeing suddenly that an idea fractions itself into a number of motifs equal in value, and in grouping them, they rhyme.” In other words Mallarmé discovered that the aesthetic moment of arrested cognition can be split up into numerous fractions which can be orchestrated in many discontinuous ways. (…) Joyce, Pound, and Eliot recovered the secret of the dolce stil nuovo through the prismatically arranged landscapes of Rimbaud and Mallarmé. And this secret consists in nothing less than a fusion of the learning and the creative processes in the analysis and reconstruction of the aesthetic moment of arrested awareness. This peculiar fusion of the cognitive and the creative by an act of retracing the stages of apprehension was arrived at by Joyce as a result of the prior [viz, by Mallarmé] discovery for the technique of fission of the moment of aesthetic awareness. And landscape plays an indispensable role in every stage of both fission and fusion. In art as in physics fission preceded fusion.

Review of Ruskin and the Landscape Feeling, by F G Townsend, 1952
Ruskin was (…) seeking always the collective center of the poetic process but finding only the peripheral effects in the individual or the society. (…) [the symbolist (namely, Rimbaud, Mallarmé and Valéry)] view that the art process is the analogue of cognition itself, is metaphysical. But it provides all those insights into the poetic process and into the social role of the poet which Ruskin never stopped seeking.

James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial, 1953
Modern linguistic theory is quite sympathetic to the semi-magical views of the ancients. Our idea of language as gesture, as efficacious, and as representing a total human response, is a much better base for a study of the figures and arts of speech than any merely rationalistic approach can provide. But for Mallarmé, Valery, Joyce, and Eliot the figures of rhetoric are discriminated as notable postures of the human mind. The linguistic studies of Edward Sapir and B. L. Whorf have lately shown that language is not only the storehouse of scientific thought. All actual and potential scientific theories are implicit in the verbal structure of the culture associated with them. By 1885 Mallarmé had formulated and utilized in his poetry these concepts about the nature of language uniting science and philology, which nowadays are known as “metalinguistics.” However, these views of languages were commonplaces to Cratylus, Varro, and Philo Judaeus. They were familiar to the Church Fathers, and underlay the major schools of scriptural exegesis. If “four-Ievel exegesis” is back in favor again as the staple of the “new criticism,” it is because the poetic objects which have been made since 1880 frequently require such techniques for their elucidation.

Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters, 1954
Gradually it dawned on Mallarmé that pure poetry was impossible — a poetry which would have as its theme the poetic process itself. Henceforth the subject and framework of a poem would be the retracing of a moment of perception. For some of the Romantic poets the doctrine of the aesthetic moment as a moment out of time — a moment of arrested consciousness — had seemed the key to all poetry. The pre-Raphaelites had pushed this doctrine as far as they could. But Mallarmé saw deeper (…) It is a crucial matter for us to understand in the age of the so-called mass media. Mallarmé wrote his most difficult poem, Un Coup de Dés, in newspaper format. He saw, like Joyce, that the basic forms of communication — whether speech, writing, print, press, telegraph, or photography — necessarily were fashioned in close accord with man’s cognitive activity. And the more extensive the mass medium the closer it must approximate to our cognitive faculties.

Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press, 1954
But it was Mallarmé who formulated the lessons of the press as a guide for the new impersonal poetry of suggestion and implication. He saw that the scale of modern reportage and of the mechanical multiplication of messages made personal rhetoric impossible. Now was the time for the artist to intervene in a new way and to manipulate the new media of communication by a precise and delicate adjustment of the relations of words, things, and events. His task had become not self-expression but the release of the life in things. Un Coup de Dés illustrates the road he took in the exploitation of all things as gestures of the mind, magically adjusted to the secret powers of being. As a vacuum tube is used to shape and control vast reservoirs of electric power, the artist can manipulate the low current of casual words, rhythms, and resonances to evoke the primal harmonies of existence or to recall the dead. But the price he must pay is total self-abnegation. (…)
Moral and aesthetic horror at the ignobility of the popular scene gave way to an opposite attitude in the symbolists, and Mallarmé is, before Joyce, the best spokesman of the new approach. In his Shop-Windows (Etalages), while analyzing the aesthetics of the commercial layout, he considers the relations between poetry and the press. A shop window full of new books prompts his reflection that the function of the ordinary run of books is merely to express the average degree of human boredom and incompetence, to reduce to a written form the horizon of the human scene in all its abounding banality. Instead of deploring this fact as literary men tend to do, the artist should exploit it: “The vague, the commonplace, the smudged and defaced, not banishment of these, occupation rather! Apply them as to a patrimony.”
Only by a conquest and occupation of these vast territories of stupefaction can the artist fulfill his culturally heroic function of purifying the dialect of the tribe, the Herculean labor of cleaning the Augean stables of speech, of thought and feeling. Turning directly to the press, Mallarmé designates it as “a traffic, an epitomization of enormous and elementary interests (…) employing print for the propagation of opinions, the recital of divers facts, made plausible, in the Press, which is devoted to publicity, by the omission, it would seem, of any art.” He delights in the dramatic significance of the fact that in the French press, at least, the literary and critical features form a section at the base of the first page. And even more delightful:
“Fiction properly so called, or the imaginative tale, frolics across the average daily paper, enjoying the most prominent spots even to the top of the page, dislodging the financial feature and pushing actuality into second place. Here, too, is the suggestion and even the lesson of a certain beauty: that today is not only the supplanter of yesterday or the presager of tomorrow but issues from time, in general, with an integrity bathed and fresh. The vulgar placard, bawled (…) at the street corner thus sustains this reflection (…) on the political text. Such experience leaves some people cold because they imagine that while there may be a little more or less of the sublime in these pleasures tasted by the people, the situation as regards that which alone is precious and immeasurably lofty, and which is known by the name of Poetry, that this situation remains unchanged. Poetry (they suppose) will always be exclusive and the best of its pinions will never approach those pages of the newspaper where it is parodied, nor are they pleased by the spread of wings in our hands of those vast improvised sheets of the daily paper.”
Mallarmé is laughing at these finicky and unperceptive people [McLuhan may be thinking here of the author of The Mechanical Bride] for whom the press appears as a threat to “real culture”; and continues:
To gauge by the extraordinary, actual superproduction, through which the Press intelligently yields its average, the notion prevails, nonetheless, of something very decisive which is elaborating itself: a prelude to an era, a competition for the foundation of the popular modern Poem, at the very least of innumerable Thousand and One Nights: by which the majority of readers will be astonished at the sudden invention. You are assisting at a celebration, all of you, right now, amidst the contingencies4 of this lightning achievement!”
The author of Ulysses was the only person to grasp the full artistic implications of this radically democratic aesthetic elaborated by the fabulous artificer, the modern Daedalus, Stéphane Mallarmé. 

  1. The ‘experience of incarnation’ is necessarily a subjective genitive (i.e., experience belongs to incarnation) exactly where incarnation is taken originally, as cause and not as effect, as subject and not as object, as ground and not as figure. But at the same time it is essential to incarnation that it submits itself to experience as its object. The mystery is the knot of these two genitives together (‘at the same time’): the absolute release as ground is figured in the relative capture — since only (only!) such capture IS such release!
  2. Sustains — because it is the grounding first principle. And because its release is not its loss of itself but its fulfillment of itself. Like time, incarnation could not be what it is without going out from itself.
  3. As frequently remarked by McLuhan, Daedalus was the creator of the labyrinth of King Minos in Knossos, with its minotaur. Not incidentally, since the design of the labyrinth was the key to human discovery, he also found a way for his son, Icarus, to fly.
  4. The last page of Hegel’s Phenomenology (1807) enacts this “celebration” of (dual gen!) finite spirits, whose finitude is the “hidden” way in which the “true strength” of the infinite ex-presses itself.

Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters 1

In a letter to Ezra Pound from December 21, 1948 (Letters 207) McLuhan writes:

the principle of metaphor and analogy [is] the basic fact that as A is to B so is C to D. AB:CD (…) relations in four terms (…) I am trying to devise a way of stating this (…) Until [the principle of metaphor and analogy is] stated and publicly recognized for what it is, poetry and the arts can’t exist (…) Mere exposure to the arts does nothing for a mentality which is incorrigibly dialectical. The vital tensions and nutritive action of ideogram remain inaccessible to this [dialectical] state of mind.

McLuhan’s most sustained attempt at stating “the principle of metaphor and analogy” was made a little over 5 years later in a lecture he delivered in March 1954 at St Joseph Seminary in Hartford, ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’ (= CHML1 hereafter). Here he begins by asserting the central concern of his lecture: the fundamental relation between metaphor and language:

When we look at any situation through another situation we are using metaphor. This is an intensely intellectual process. And all language arises by this means. (154)

Language, in turn, is said to be the channel or medium of all human experience:

language itself is the principal channel and view-maker of experience for men everywhere. (154)

More than 20 years later, at the end of McLuhan’s career, the same observation appears as follows:

language structures the way in which man thinks and perceives the world. It is the medium of both thought and perception as well as [of] communication. (‘Alphabet Mother of Invention’, 1977)

McLuhan’s point here is not that an individual language structures the way in which all its speakers perceive the world2. Instead, this “medium” of “thought and perception as well as [of] communication” is “language itself” as the repository of the possibilities of meaningful combination (like the table of elements in chemistry). McLuhan’s concern was rather with the fact that a human being has language at all and thereby “thinks and perceives the world”. This is the “miracle” he set out to explore:

As language itself [as “the medium of both thought and perception as well as communication”] is an infinitely greater work of art than [particular works of art like] the Iliad or the Aeneid, so is the creative act of ordinary human perception a greater thing and a more intricate process than any devised by philosophers or scientists. (157)

In ordinary perception men perform the miracle of recreating within themselves, in their interior faculties, the exterior world. This miracle is the work of the nous poietikos or of the agent intellect — that is, the poetic or creative process. The exterior world in every instant of perception is interiorized and recreated in a new matter. Ourselves.  (165)

What happens in perception is that “the exterior world” is apprehended or “recreated” in our interior world. These two ‘worlds’ are at once different3 and yet correlated and it is exactly the “principle” of such correlation over fundamental difference that is the “miracle”. As an example, consider language learning in a child. Although it hears sounds as soon as it is born, and presumably even before it is born in the womb, it must learn the particular sorts of correlation between sound and meaning instantiated in its native language.  This requires a certain distance from the noises it hears so that meaningful sound may be distinguished from random sound and the rules governing the former gradually recognized and reproduced. But this sort of recognition of a correlation between particular sounds and their meanings presupposes a deeper one between the child and the possibility of language learning and this deeper correlation is not subject to learning or any kind of assembly — it is what must already be in place in order for language learning to take place at all. Similarly, the correlations between sound and meaning in the language learned by a child are necessarily given, not created by it.

The “poetic or creative process” of correlation is at work in everything humans do. In language, a finite sign is correlated with meaning and a finite speaker with a finite hearer. In experience, finite perception is correlated with the finite particularities of the external world. And art, according to McLuhan, is so concerned with such correlation as “the principle of metaphor and analogy” that, “until it is (…) recognized for what it is, poetry and the arts can’t exist”4

McLuhan set out to discover the origin and basis of such correlation by working backwards from it as effect “by way of sympathetic reconstruction5. Here he took Poe and the symbolist poets as his models:

the road to this wisdom is by way of sympathetic reconstruction, involving the abeyance of personal prejudice and preconception6. This method of reconstruction (…) appeared first in the Romantic poets of the later eighteenth century, and it went with a conscious concern with the creative process in the arts. (155-156)

Poe saw that poetry should be written backward. One must begin with the effect (…) and then seek out the means for obtaining that effect and no other effect. Thus the same insight which enabled Poe to be the inventor of symbolist poetry also make him the inventor of detective fiction. For the sleuth works backwards from the effect of the event to reconstruct the circumstances which produced the particular event or murder. (156)

The ef-fect (< ex-facere) or e-vent (< ex-venire) which the symbolists and especially Mallarmé set out to reconstruct was perception itself or “human cognition”. What was at stake was therefore the re-cognition of cognition:

The poetic process is a reversal, a retracing of the stages of human cognition. It has and will always be so; but with Edgar Poe and the symbolists this central human fact was taken up to the level of conscious awareness. It then became the basis of modern science and technology. That is what Whitehead meant when he said that the great event of the nineteenth century was the discovery of the technique of discovery. (157-158)

If cognition is the general dis-covery of the world, McLuhan would follow Poe, the symbolists and Whitehead in attempting “the discovery of (…) discovery itself”. Like them, he would work backwards from particular modes of discovery to their enabling principles, but the goal would not be the discovery of any sort of “technique” developed by humans and owned by them to dispose of as they would. Rather, the goal was the dis-covery of the underlying “principle” of correlation (aka “metaphor and analogy”) in Being itself — that ground on the basis of which something like cognition is first possible at all:

the drama of ordinary perception seen as the poetic process is the prime analogate, [it is] the magic casement opening on the secrets of created being (158)

cognition provides that dance of the intellect which is the analogical sense of Being (165)

This sense of Being 7, in turn, is said to point to the “basis” from which “Catholic humanism” springs:

the poetic process as revealed by Poe and the symbolists was the unexpected and unintentional means of reestablishing the basis of Catholic humanism. (157)

The key matter here is “incarnation”: 

And as we trace the rise of successive communication channels or links, from writing to movies and TV, it is borne in on us that in order for their exterior artifice to be effective it must partake of the character of that interior artifice by which in ordinary perception we incarnate the exterior world. Because human perception is literally incarnation. So that each of us must poet the world or fashion it within us as our primary and constant mode of awareness. And the mechanical or mass media of communication must at least parrot the world in order to hold our attention. (169)

each of us in perception or cognition incarnates the external world of experience. But every word uttered by man requires a large measure of the poetic ability. Our words are analogies of the miracle by which we incarnate and utter the world. I suggest that our faith in the Incarnation has an immediate relevance to our art, science, and philosophy. (169)

“Incarnation” implicates at once both distance and correlation, far and near8. It is like language — or is “language itself” as Logos — as that correlation of finite particularity with meaning that McLuhan called “the principle of metaphor and analogy”.

As already seen above, McLuhan held that “the road to this wisdom is by way of sympathetic reconstruction [of the poetic process], involving the abeyance of personal prejudice and preconception”. This is a “road” on which a fundamental turn of 180° is required from “light on” (“personal prejudice and preconception”) to “light through” (“the miracle”, “the principle of metaphor and analogy”). He describes the genesis of this notion in the modern arts and sciences as follows:

The whole of nineteenth century art and science is charged with the implications of the poetic process and its discovery. Our own century has seen that process put to work in the so-called mass media. Before Poe and Baudelaire the impressionism of Romantic art had taught the artist to pay minute attention to his perceptions, to their mode and inner effect. These experiences he practiced to arrest and to fix in external landscapes as we see in Keats, Tennyson, and Hopkins. Romantic impressionism unexpectedly opened the door to the creative process by developing new resources of introspection. Impressionism was the parent of symbolism. And impressionism and symbolism alike insisted on attention to process in preference to personal self-expression. Self-effacement and patient watchfulness preceded the discovery of the creative process. Poets and artists literally turned their own psyches into laboratories where they practiced the most austere experiments in total disregard of their personal happiness. Gradually it dawned on Mallarmé that pure poetry was impossible — a poetry which would have as its theme the poetic process itself. Henceforth the subject and framework of a poem would be the retracing of a moment of perception. For some of the Romantic poets the doctrine of the aesthetic moment as a moment out of time — a moment of arrested consciousness — had seemed the key to all poetry. The pre-Raphaelites had pushed this doctrine as far as they could. But Mallarmé saw deeper… (160-161)

As with language learning in a child, indeed with learning of any kind, “the road to this wisdom is by way of sympathetic reconstruction, involving the abeyance of personal prejudice and preconception”. So the first step here, taken in “impressionism and symbolism alike”, was “attention to process in preference to personal self-expression”: “self-effacement and patient watchfulness preceded9 the discovery”. This step backward as the only way forward — the way up as the way down10 — already illustrated (and itself presupposed) that correlation whose investigation was underway.  But the decisive step, or turn, was achieved when “it dawned on Mallarmé that pure poetry was impossible”.

What happened in this decisive — or catastrophic11 — moment was that Mallarmé turned against a knotted notion of time, structure and reality which the best poets of the century before him had formulated:

For some of the Romantic poets the doctrine of the aesthetic moment as a moment out of time — a moment of arrested consciousness — had seemed the key to all poetry. The pre-Raphaelites had pushed this doctrine as far as they could. But Mallarmé saw deeper…

What Mallarmé saw will be treated in a series of further posts here and here.


  1. Page numbers refer to the reprint of this lecture in The Medium and the Light.
  2. McLuhan was well aware that perception varies fundamentally between individuals speaking the same language. Indeed, one of his major concerns was the failure of perception in those he was addressing in their common language.
  3. The difference between what McLuhan calls the exterior and interior worlds is evident socially in all the different cultures of historical time and contemporary space and individually in our different moods. To survive, each must relate to a common world; to be recognizably different from each other, each must distinguish itself from a common world.
  4. McLuhan to Pound from December 1948 as cited above. Emphasis added. With the phrase “stated and publicly recognized” here, McLuhan does not mean, absent these,  that no “poetry and the arts” can exist at all. Clearly, they can. Instead he means something like: “Until (the principle of metaphor and analogy is) stated and publicly recognized for what it is, poetry and the arts can’t (properly) exist”, that is, poetry and the arts can’t be seen (or for that matter produced) as what they really are. Therefore he adds: “mere exposure to the arts does nothing for a mentality which is incorrigibly dialectical”. “Exposure to the arts”, even where it “does nothing”, requires that they be present in some sense, however deficient a sense this may be.
  5. Emphasis added.
  6. Until a child practises “the abeyance of personal prejudice and preconception”, it cannot begin the separate meaningful sound from noise.  Only then can it begin to learn language “by way of sympathetic reconstruction”.
  7. The nature of the genitive in “this sense of Being” is the great question. The genitive is both subjective and objective and the riddle within which human life is situated has to do with the correlation between these. This is the “dialogue” that “came before, and goes beyond” of Take Today 22.
  8. The primary signs of Incarnation in Christianity are the Nativity and the Cross. They reveal an utter finitude of coming to be and of ceasing to be that is meaningful, indeed supremely meaningful, because they remain fundamentally correlated with God — despite (or exactly through) the absolute release implicated in them. The knot of such absolute release with the equally absolute hold of God in and with it is the mystery.
  9. With “preceded” a complication of time is introduced here which is essential.
  10. McLuhan cites this fragment from Heraclitus in Take Today. Eliot uses it as one of his mottoes for Four Quartets.
  11. “Catastrophic” in the etymological sense of the word as an overturning, originally of the soil in ploughing.

The Waters of Intelligibility – Mis-taking McLuhan

Reading McLuhan has yet to begin on account of a series of mis-takes which disable it from the start. These mis-takes include:

  • It is supposed that McLuhan considers the history of media (first speech, then writing, then printing, then photography, then radio, then television, etc) when he in fact considers the history of our knowledge of media. This is the same difference as between a history of the chemical elements (in the first milliseconds of the big bang, say) and a history of our knowledge of the elements eventuating in chemistry. Neither McLuhan’s new sciences nor chemistry can start until their elements are finally isolated as synchronic structural forms: “visual and acoustic space are always present in any human situation” (GV 55, emphasis added).
  • It is supposed that McLuhan considers natural or literal ‘things’ instead of formal structures. So (for example) ‘space’ in McLuhan is taken to refer to physical space or, at least, to the different experience of physical space in different ages or places. Or ‘the brain’ and its two ‘hemispheres’ are taken to refer to what he called our pulsating mass of grey matter. These ideas ignore McLuhan’s stricture that “failure in perception occurs precisely in giving attention to the program “content” of our media while ignoring the form” (UM, 209). McLuhan was interested only in such forms and used a term like ‘space’ exclusively to characterize them — and not to refer to some supposedly natural or literal objective thing.  As he wrote to Joe Keogh: “I am not a ‘culture critic’ because I am not in any way interested in classifying cultural forms. I am a metaphysician, interested in the life of the forms and their surprising modalities.” (July 6, 1970, Letters 413)
  • It is supposed that singular words or things can ‘make sense’ aside from the formal ratio from which they have whatever significance they have: “Erasmus and More said that a unified ratio among the senses was a mark of rationality” (GV 94). Therefore the need in examining different rationalities to realize that “visual and acoustic space are always present in any human situation” (GV 55) and that “no matter how extreme the dominance of either hemisphere in a particular culture, there is always some degree of interplay between the hemispheres” (GV 62). What is at stake is not “visual space” or “acoustic space” or even “space” at all (and not “left brain” or “right brain” or even “brain” at all), but the structural forms or ratios which are in play in any and all human experience.
  • It is supposed that a gradual approach may be made to ‘media ecology’ aside from the articulation of its essential focal structure, its elements and the field it would investigate in terms of these. As if chemistry (say) might be initiated aside from insight into its elements and their field of expression. Instead, media analysis necessarily begins suddenly and necessarily begins with work which is already focused in these ways — however much the required structure, its elementary expressions and their field will forever be subject to further research and revision.

In all these ways, the keys to the study of human experience are formality and synchronicity. But how can our finite intelligence, which never knows more than some part of a formal whole possibly come (diachronically) to initiate such intelligibility? McLuhan’s answer to this question, as broached previously, is that intelligibility is not some invention of humans, but is given to humans for retrieval/replay/recognition/retracing/retracking.1


  1. Just how McLuhan conceived this to occur is described in his lecture, Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters — which will be examined from this perspective in a later post.