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.

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