Monthly Archives: July 2014

Through the Vanishing Point 3 – Yeats

In Through the Vanishing Point (44) McLuhan cites from W.B. Yeats’ Byzantium (1928):

The unpurged images of day recede;
The Emperor’s drunken soldiery are abed;
Night resonance recedes, night walkers’ song
After great cathedral gong;
A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains
All that man is,
All mere complexities,
The fury and the mire of human veins.

It is on the other side of this night (“now that my ladder’s gone”) where (indeed, also when) the “midden heap” — aka “language itself” — is to be found.  Here is “where all the ladders start”:

Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start,
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.

McLuhan cited these lines from Yeats’ The Circus Animals’ Desertion (1938) over and over again in his late texts: in Take Today, in ‘Man as the Medium’ (the introduction to his 1975 commentary on Sorel Etrog’s film, Spiral) and, especially, in From Cliché to Archetype where they are cited twice, along with the first lines of the poem:

I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,
I sought it daily for six weeks or so.
Maybe at last, being but a broken man,
I must be satisfied with my heart, although
Winter and summer till old age began
My circus animals were all on show,
Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot,
Lion and woman and the Lord knows

  1. Yeats’ “circus animals” (meaning those ideas and creations through which he obtained social attention) may be taken to correspond to the meaningful sounds of any particular language (“those masterful images” of “pure mind”). These are selected (in a collective process that is deeply mysterious) from the complete range of possibly meaningful sound that is “language itself aka “the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart”.  McLuhan’s great interest was twofold: (a) how is it that any and all utterly finite sound (or other sensory input) is potentially meaningful? (b) how is it that the sounds (or other sensory input) of any particular language are able to retain this potential in actualizing it (a capability only humans can realize)? Both of these interests pointed him to the fundamentality of the medium in which these are situated. Together these questions ask: how is that there is such a thing as communication?

“Language itself” 2 – Wallace Stevens

At the start of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, the concluding essay of Through the Vanishing Point, McLuhan cites a passage from Esthétique du Mal by Wallace Stevens:

This is the thesis scrivened in delight,
The reverberating psalm, the right chorale.
One might have thought of sight, but who could think
Of what it sees, for all the ill it sees?
Speech found the ear, for all the evil sound,
But the dark italics it could not propound,
And out of what one sees and hears and out
Of what one feels, who could have thought to make
So many selves, so many sensuous worlds,
As if the air, the mid-day air, was swarming
With the metaphysical changes that occur.
Merely in living as and where we live.1

These 1944 lines from Stevens may be considered a foreshadowing amplification of McLuhan’s claim thirty years later in his 1972 Take Today:

There are only two basic extreme forms of human organization. They have innumerable variants or “parti-colored” forms. The extreme forms are the (…) eye and ear… (22)

“Language itself” is the range of relational possibilities between the eye and ear (“what one sees and hears”) accounting for

So many selves, so many sensuous worlds,
As if the air, the mid-day air, was swarming
With the metaphysical changes that occur
Merely in living as and where we live.

So it is that we may observe (following McLuhan in Through the Vanishing Point, 191):

the individual as a montage of loosely assembled parts.

These are not spare parts or any sort of mechanical bits and pieces; they are stage parts — roles, perspectives, identities (“so many selves, so many sensuous worlds”) — that an individual “puts on”:

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 parts2

McLuhan’s suggestion, comparable to Stevens in Esthétique du Mal, is that the different possible relationships between the eye and ear (“what one sees and hears”) structure all the different “parts” we play: “the meaning of meaning is relationship” (Take Today, 3); “visual and acoustic space are always present in any human situation” (Global Village, 55). The study of human experience therefore requires focus on the manifold of such eye/ear relationships or ratios. For it is not only “the individual” who “plays many parts”: any family or society or language or culture, too, is just (just!) such a “a montage of loosely assembled parts”.  

McLuhan’s central question has to do with “the air, the mid-day air” (echoing Shakespeare’s “mid-way air“) in which such ‘loose assemblages’ are possible and actual: “the medium is the message”. For it is through such a medium, alone, that “their exits and their entrances” can take place. No part or assemblage can achieve such “exits and (…) entrances” on its own, let alone its transitions to other “parts”. Unlike Baron Münchhausen, who extricated himself and his horse from a mire by pulling himself up by his own pigtail, each of these requires ground on the basis of which, alone, such assemblages and “flips” or “metamorphoses” between assemblages may take place at all. Each must originate in, and eventually return to, what grounds them.

2500 years ago Anaximander put it like this:

Into that from which things take their rise they pass away once more, as is ordained; for they [must] make reparation and satisfaction to one another for the injustice according to the appointed time.3

  1. Esthétique du Mal (1944), xv. This passage appears in Through the Vanishing Point on p 237.
  2. As you like It, 2.7. See the discussion here.
  3. κατὰ τὸ χρεών· διδόναι γὰρ αὐτὰ δίκην καὶ τίσιν ἀλλήλοις τῆς ἀδικίας κατὰ τὴν τοῦ χρόνου τάξιν. Diels-Kranz 12A9. The translation is from Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. “Injustice” is distance from ground. The great mystery is how it is that ground as justice de-cides upon such unjust distance “beyond” itself. This is ‘the main question‘.

Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters 3 – On the existence of knowledge

Around 1950, McLuhan’s attitude toward popular culture and modern media changed fundamentally. He described this change in his Playboy interview twenty years later:

For many years, until I wrote my first book, The Mechanical Bride1, I adopted an extremely moralistic approach to all environmental technology. I loathed machinery, I abominated cities, I equated the Industrial Revolution with original sin and mass media with the Fall. In short, I rejected almost every element of modern life in favor of a Rousseauvian utopianism. But gradually I perceived how sterile and useless this attitude was, and I began to realize that the greatest artists of the 20th Century — Yeats, Pound. Joyce, Eliot — had discovered a totally different approach, based on the identity of the processes of cognition and creation. I realized that artistic creation is the playback of ordinary experience — from trash to treasures. I ceased being a moralist and became a student.
As someone committed to literature and the traditions of literacy, I began to study the new environment that imperiled literary values, and I soon realized that [it] could not be dismissed by moral outrage or pious indignation. Study showed that a totally new approach was required, both to save what deserved saving in our Western heritage and to help man adopt a new survival strategy. I adapted some of this new approach in The Mechanical Bride by attempting to immerse myself in the advertising media in order to apprehend its impact on man, but even there some of my old literate “point of view” bias crept in.

Compare McLuhan’s contemporary description from 1954:

When I wrote The Mechanical Bride some years ago I did not realize that I was attempting a defense of book-culture against the new media. I can now see that I was trying to bring some of the critical awareness fostered by literary training to bear on the new media of sight and sound. My strategy was wrong, because my obsession with literary values blinded me to much that was actually happening for good and ill. What we have to defend today is not the values developed in any particular culture or by any one mode of communication. (‘Sight, Sound and the Fury’)

In the Playboy passage McLuhan reverts to one of the central points in CHML:

the greatest artists of the 20th Century — Yeats, Pound. Joyce, Eliot — had discovered a totally different approach, based on the identity of the processes of cognition and creation. I realized that artistic creation is the playback of ordinary experience…2

For McLuhan an important implication of the notion that “ordinary experience” is “the basis of modern science and technology”, aside from the fact that they had a “basis”, was that “values” could be explicated independent of “any particular culture or [of] any one mode of communication”. For “ordinary experience” is, of course, common to all cultures and to all modes of communication.

But in these passages McLuhan also touches on another — seemingly obvious — matter which was decisive for him (as it had already been decisive for Mallarmé more than 50 years before). This decisive matter was the realization that in the face of modern applications of art and science (like the new mass media of communication), it could hardly be denied that knowledge exists and that human beings really can know things.

Beyond the new mass media, the definitive proof of the reality and (potentially terrible) efficacy of human perception lay, for McLuhan, in the development — and use! — of atomic weapons. ‘The Southern Quality’ (1947) begins as follows:

There is a sense in which at least literary and artistic discussion may benefit from the advent of the atom bomb. A great many trivial issues can now, with a blush, retire from guerrilla duty and literary partisans can well afford to cultivate an urbane candor where previously none had been considered possible. (…) La trahison des clercs may come to an end since the atom bomb has laid forever the illusion that writers and artists were somehow constitutive and directive of the holy zeitgeist. In colossal skyletters the bomb has spelt out for the childlike revolutionary mind the fact of the abdication of all personal and individual character from the political and economic spheres.3

In the present context, the key point from these widely separated 1947 and 1969 texts is:

the new environment that imperiled literary values (…) could not be dismissed by moral outrage or pious indignation. (Playboy Interview)

This realization was decisive because Nietzsche, largely restricting himself to the literary tradition, had indeed “dismissed” not only “the new environment”, but the whole world, real and apparent, tout court4. And the basis on which he had done so was the notion that human knowledge is “an illusion” which tells us nothing about “the things themselves”:

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. (…) Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions…5

In future posts it will be necessary to compare and contrast Nietzsche and McLuhan on the nature of metaphor. Suffice it to note here that for Nietzsche metaphors “correspond in no way to the original entities” and are therefore secondary and defective “illusions”; while for McLuhan metaphor does “correspond (…) to the original entities” — but in a “making” way, not in a “matching” way! — and is therefore necessarily “efficacious”6 exactly because it is primary. (But when is the primary?)

Ultimately, it is a position like Nietzsche’s that is accused by McLuhan of la trahison des clercs: “the illusion that writers and artists were somehow constitutive and directive of the holy zeitgeist.” In a letter to Wilfred Watson from October 4, 1964, McLuhan formulated this point as follows:

Talk about blind spots in regions of maximal impact! Looking at The Diabolical Principle [and the Dithyrambic Spectator, Wyndham Lewis, 1931] just now, I read loud and clear that art must be totally environmental. It must be the content of nothing whatever. Ergo, the VORTEX = the totally environmental. (…) Lewis wants nothing less for Art than the power to create total environments for Life and Death. (…) I find it a bit staggering to confront Lewis as a man who really wanted to be Pontifex maximus of a magical priesthood. I suppose Yeats, Joyce and Pound had similar aspirations. Their priesthood was to create new worlds of perception. They were to be world engineers who shaped the totality of human awareness. (…) The environment as ultimate artifact.7

Following Mallarmé, McLuhan turns the table on Nietzsche.  Where for the latter, “truths are illusions”, for the former it is instead exactly this nihilist position that is “the illusion”, one which only rebellious children might hold:

In colossal skyletters the bomb has spelt out for the childlike revolutionary mind the fact of the abdication of all personal and individual character from the political and economic spheres. (‘The Southern Quality’)

These concerns provide the background to McLuhan’s observation in his 1951 letter to Innis:

Mallarmé saw the modern press as a magical institution born of technology. The discontinuous juxtaposition of unrelated items [aka “metaphor”] 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 form8, 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.

The “magic” at stake here is the original power of metaphor, aka of the “juxtaposition of unrelated items”, aka of “sym-ballein“. Modern art and science had learned to tap into this original “magic” of correlation, eventually giving humans such “great power” that they could come to take over the entire planet and even to project that power beyond the planet in a “satellite environment” (as McLuhan would note after Sputnik). It was because human knowledge was a “replay” or “playback” of this original power that “its very technological form was bound to be efficacious”.

Now Mallarmé and McLuhan were in complete agreement with Nietzsche that human society remains almost entirely oblivious to the implications of a deep archaeology of knowledge:

In his Shop-Windows (Etalages), while analyzing the aesthetics of the commercial layout, [Mallarmé] 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. (Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press, 1954)

For Nietzsche (here following Schopenhauer) this “numb” was a protective stance against the horror of the recognition of the utter futility of human knowledge and of human existence generally; for Mallarmé and McLuhan, on the contrary, even “numb” was the result of the practical application of knowledge in the production and use of mass media (beginning with language and reaching new heights, or lows, in the nineteenth century book and newspaper press). “The human scene in all its abounding banality” was therefore a paradoxical expression of the original power of correlation.

Human beings could be “numb” only in the context of their unique power to extend themselves via media into the larger environment. But whenever they did so (and being human means nothing else but to do so) the price to be paid was a necessary and inevitable partiality:

the sin committed by HCE in Phoenix park is language itself i.e. the ultimate self-exhibitionism, the ultimate uttering.9

The great danger was the confusion of some particular content of some particular extension with “truth”.10 The saving was the re-call that all human insight, although necessarily limited and finite, is the “play-back” of an original metaphoric power to which humans have been gifted access — in however a limited way.

McLuhan would later attempt to explicate human “numb” as a kind of hypnosis where one sense organ, be it the eye or ear, would inhibit the functioning of the other. Considered the other way around, this same process could be seen as a sort of “auto-amputation” of a part of the total (eye/ear) field of sense, resulting in experience as “referred pain”.11 In either of these two versions of “numb”, the negative aspect was correlate with a positive one and the positive aspect was correlate with a negative one: the wondrous power of humans to extend themselves into the world in order to engage it successfully was always also a source of blindness (or deafness) and therefore equally a potential for disaster.12

Hence McLuhan’s recommendation (citing Mallarmé):

Instead of deploring this fact [viz, “the human scene in all its abounding banality”] as literary men [like the author of The Mechanical Bride?] 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.” (Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press, 1954)

Even (perhaps especially) human “numb” needed to be understood as the expression of a prior power which grounded both successful communication and its failure:

dialogue as a process of creating the new came before, and goes beyond, the change of “equivalents” that merely reflect or repeat the old. (Take Today, 22)13



  1. The Mechanical Bride was published in 1951, but seems to have been written for the most part before 1948.
  2. For discussion and citations, see CHML: “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.”
  3. As discussed in a previous post, with “the abdication of all personal and individual character” in this passage, McLuhan reveals his emerging interest in Mallarmé and Joyce.
  4. See Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters 2: What Mallarmé saw
  5. See Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters 2: What Mallarmé saw
  6. For “efficacious”, see the 1951 letter to Innis cited below. Regarding the quarrel about the nature of metaphor, about its power to ‘reach across’ or not, note that Joyce captures the issue in nuce in Ulysses when Stephen characterizes Kingstown pier as “a disappointed bridge”.
  7. Cited in Andrew Chrystall, The New American Vortex: Explorations of McLuhan, Massey University PhD thesis, published online, p 79
  8. By “a rational form”, McLuhan means a form structured by matching and connection. In fundamental contrast, “a magical one” is a made form structured over a gap by a lack of connection.
  9. McLuhan letter to Wilfred Watson in the summer of 1965.
  10. Hence McLuhan’s remark in the October 4, 1964 letter to Winfred Watson cited above, that for a would-be “Pontifex maximus of a magical priesthood” like Nietzsche or Lewis, and even like Yeats, Joyce and Pound, “art must be totally environmental. It must be the content of nothing whatever.” The great point is that where some insight is known to be the content of some particular manner of experience, it cannot be mis-taken for unlimited, capital-T “Truth”. Instead it will be seen as a relative figure whose ground must be sought elsewhere and elsewhen.
  11. See Through the Vanishing Point, 233: “Of the several kinds of space in the first eighteen lines of The Waste Land, the dominant space is the peculiar aloneness and isolation created by pain itself. Neurologists and biologists are quite ready to admit that pain is a mystery, but they agree that it originates in cerebral rather than sensory areas. Hence, the theoretical possibility of experiencing pain in amputated limbs or in parts of the body where there is no cause for pain, so-called “referred pain.” The world of 1922 knew much of “referred pain” and hallucinated anguish. Millions had died in 1914-18.”
  12. Almost universally ignored in McLuhan ‘scholarship’ is his “simultaneous” understanding of human extension as an open “replay” of a previous (in what time?) order of creation (therefore its potential for success) and as closed conceptualization (therefore its potential for disaster). There is a sense, then, in which all human experience is necessarily “numb”: “the sin (…) is language itself” (which, however, is exactly that which enables consciousness and perception in the first place). For McLuhan, everything turns on an appreciation of both of these aspects together and at once. Contemporary history, in McLuhan’s analysis, is the time when “numb”, aka “dumb”, gets misunderstood as “human genius”.
  13. “Dialogue” which did not “create the new” and merely “reflected or repeated the old”, which did not “go beyond”, would not be “dialogue” in and with difference.  It would be the repetition of the same. The enabling of “numb”, the breakdown of dialogue, is therefore what first enables dialogue to be genuine dialogue and to be dialogue as creative.

Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters – Introduction

The ideas set out in McLuhan’s March 1954 lecture, Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters, are like an archipelago composed of the peaks of a mountain range which is otherwise submerged. In order to understand the relationships of these island ideas to each other, indeed even to understand them individually, the submerged parts of the landmass must be investigated. This is what will be attempted in a series of commentaries on the lecture beginning here.

The potential importance of McLuhan’s lecture for us today, 60 years after the event, can hardly be overstated. By “modern letters” McLuhan designated what would become, decades later, mostly after McLuhan had died, post-humanism, postmodernism, post-structuralism (etc etc).1

His peculiar claim was that “modern letters”, when thought deeply, that is, “though the vanishing point”, lead back to the tradition and to “Catholic humanism”.  Critical to this claim was an investigation of the sort of time, or times, implied by the modern (cf, Latin ‘modo’, ‘just now’, hence à la mode).

Today, everything — politics, commerce, culture — exists in a state of soft nihilism.2 What we do and think has no ground; but this is not pursued because — it has no ground.  The controlling idea is that we must remain on the surface3 even if this implies endless war, the annihilation of all cultures, including (especially) our own, and the destruction of the planetary environment. So fearful are we of taking thought that might lead below. As Edgar observes for blind Gloucester in King Lear (and as McLuhan cites in introducing The Gutenberg Galaxy as discussed here):

I’ll look no more;
Lest my brain turn, and the deficient sight
Topple down headlong.4

The potential for manipulation in this situation is unlimited.  That things cannot be thought through to their ground entails that we live in what McLuhan styled (in a 1953 article of this name) “the age of advertising”. Everything takes place though prompting. But how prompting works, and who works it, and why, cannot be investigated because this would lead beyond appearances — and beyond appearances, nothing is there.

Soft nihilism exists, like cancer, on a residue of life that it has not yet consumed. When it has fully supped, it, too, will die. The simple goal of soft nihilism (but behind its back, since it is essential to it not to know itself) is to be the last one out the door. 

The remarkable significance of McLuhan’s enterprise is that he attempted to think against this logic of death. But the “age of advertising” is such that his work is even now being consumed in the maw of modernity in the guise of “extending McLuhan”.

A commentary on Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters can have no other goal than the attempt to re-institute its radicality. For this it is necessary to probe beneath the surface of the waters surrounding its multiple island ideas to their inter-communicating5 substructure below.



  1. The linearity of much of the thinking at stake here is evident in the ubiquity of ‘post’…
  2. “Soft nihilism” is a condition in which there is no truth, only bullshit. But since this would be alarming or otherwise inconvenient, this is not admitted nor, of course, investigated. Instead, like everything else, it is put to use. Customized ‘truth’ is produced for every occasion like a Hallmark card. ‘Truth’ becomes what is “trending”. The deep tie between soft nihilism and “the age of advertising” lies in the role of advertising (aka “news”) in supplying (via “prompting”) the truths which are needed for political and economic manipulation aka “progress”.
  3. As Nietzsche showed, and as discussed here, the notion that surface can be thought aside from ground is senseless. “With the true world we also have abolished the apparent one!!
  4. King Lear 4,6 — Edgar will “look no more” and Gloucester cannot look.
  5. “Intercommunication” was the central topic in the work of Henry Wilkes Wright, one of McLuhan’s most influential teachers at the University of Manitoba.