Monthly Archives: September 2014

McLuhan and Plato 9 – on the plain of oblivion

In McLuhan and Plato 8 Plato’s description from the Sophist is given where he describes ontology aka ontologies as a gigantomachia peri tes ousias:

What we shall see is something like a battle of gods and giants going on between them over their quarrel about reality (…) On this issue an interminable battle is always going on between the two camps. (Sophist 246a-247c, empasis added)

The matter of the ‘between’ (Gk ‘meso‘ as in ‘mesolithic’, ‘mesoamerican’ etc) is ‘central’ to Plato, especially in the Sophist. It is the nature of this ‘between’ that is the casus belli between the contesting ontologies described by him there. This gap is “where the action is”. But this action has a peculiar twist. While the gods and the giants eternally disagree as to the nature of “true reality”, and are determined to fight to the death over this issue, they entirely agree with one another that “real being” is singular and undifferentiated. They each hold that the gap between them should not exist exactly because, they assert, it ultimately does not exist. Each of them battles ‘interminably’ (ie, without limit or border) to overcome the other — aka reclaim it back into itself as into a “real existence” or “true being” that is monolithic.  Each therefore also battles ‘interminably’ to eradicate the gap between it and the other. For only if this gap is erased can the other then be merged into its proper reality.1

For the childish philosopher or philosophical child, in fundamental contrast , “reality or the sum of things is both at once” (249c). For this ontological child, the gap between the gods and the giants not only happens to exist (as even the gods and giants find, however unaccountably), it must exist since “real being” is plural in its view and plurality cannot exist without difference and difference cannot exist without borders or gaps between its plural constituents. Indeed, since the borders in this case are ontological, they are truly abysmal gaps in Being itself. They fall outside all the possible varieties of Being and yet hold together those varieties — in Being.

As future posts will need to explore in detail, the ineradicable gaps in human being are isomorphic with these gaps in Being itself. The latter supply the very strange ground to the figures of the former. This is particularly to be seen in that abysmal moment between lives when, according to Plato, humans are exposed to “true being”, aka to the ‘lots’ or destinies of the different ontologies of the gigantomachia peri tes ousias. He describes this exposure as follows:

And here, my dear Glaucon, is the supreme peril of our human state; and therefore the utmost care should be taken. Let each one of us leave every other kind of knowledge and seek and follow one thing only, if peradventure he may be able to learn and may find some one who will make him able to learn and discern between good and evil, and so to choose always and everywhere the better life as he has opportunity. (Republic 618)

The isomorphism between the agon of the gigantomachia and the “agony” of “the supreme peril of our human state” is particularly drawn in the Phaedrus:

this is the hour of agony (!) and extremest conflict (!) for the soul (648a)2

In the face of this moment of “supreme peril” and “extremest conflict”, continues Plato in the Republic,

A man must take with him into the world below an adamantine faith in truth and right, that there too he may be undazzled by the desire of wealth or the other allurements of evil, lest, coming upon [such lots as] tyrannies and similar villainies, he do [in the life that results from the choice of such a lot] irremediable wrongs to others and suffer yet worse himself [both in that life and in the other world after it]; but let him know how to choose [the lot of] the mean and avoid the extremes on either side, as far as possible, not only in this life but in all that which is to come. (619)

As is clear from Plato’s specification of thehour of agony” exactly “in this life“, what happens ‘between lives’ is the characteristic action of human being at every moment. Humans are always on their way between the ontological possibilities of Being and their particular being — that is, they are always ‘between lives’. It is this vertical up and down movement constituting the horizontal line of our lives that has been forgotten in the stupendous progress of the latter. A cloak of the secondary has been thrown over the primary. 

Now among the ‘siamese triplets’ of the gigantomachia peri tes ousias Plato ‘sides’ (or doubly sides) with the child in its determination to “hold to both” and “to choose the mean and avoid the extremes on either side” since “reality or the sum of things is both at once”.  It is this stance, he says, that characterizes the philosopher. Future posts in this Plato series will attempt to specify just how this occurs and why. Suffice it to note here that McLuhan takes up this question in terms of the labyrinth, the vortex and the maelstrom. But Plato, too, considers the strange time and place that is implicated with this “mean” (or ‘medium’) when it falls between ontologies and between lives and between the moments of “this life”. Thus, later in this same concluding book of the Republic, he describes Er’s experience with the souls of the dead preceding their rebirth:

they marched on in a scorching heat to the plain of Forgetfulness, which was a barren waste destitute of trees and verdure; and then towards evening they encamped by the river of Unmindfulness, whose water no vessel can hold; of this they were all obliged to drink (…) and each one as he drank forgot all things. Now after they had gone to rest, about the middle of the night there was a thunderstorm and earthquake, and then in an instant they were driven upwards in all manner of ways to their birth, like stars shooting. (Republic 621a-b)

These souls between lives find themselves on a “plain of Forgetfulness”, or oblivion, “a barren waste destitute of trees and verdure”. Though this plain flows a “river of Unmindfulness, whose water no vessel can hold”. When the spirits drink from this river, “each one (…) forgot all things”. Each one then goes to sleep, sinking into “the middle of the night”.

Plato describes an encounter with — nothing. For there is no world “between worlds”, no experience between modes of experience, no life between lives, no place between sorts of places, nothing (no-thing) between varieties of things. There is no possible experience of this nebulous in-between state, no possible language to describe ‘it’.  To experience or describe it would be to frame it — but it falls between frames. Plato’s wonderful observation is exact: this is “water no vessel can hold”.

And yet it is precisely Plato’s point that it belongs to human nature to traverse this plain and to drink this water and to go into this night and to encounter this nothing. Human being belongs to this mean between ontological extremes aka to this medium between. Only so do humans learn and communicate and come to know the truth — for all of these, Plato argues, are derived by recollection of the soul’s exposure to “true being” in its journey through this in-between state:

every soul of man has in the way of nature beheld true being; this was the condition of her passing into the form of man. But all souls do not easily recall the things of the other world; they may have seen them for a short time only, or they may have been unfortunate in their earthly lot, and, having had their hearts turned to unrighteousness through some corrupting influence, they may have lost the memory of the holy things which once they saw. Few only retain an adequate remembrance of them (Phaedrus 249e-250a)

Now McLuhan, too, attempted communication concerning a “mean” or “medium” or “frontier” or “borderland” whose “water no vessel can hold”:

the artist (…) lives perpetually on this borderland between (…) worlds, between technology and experience, between mechanical and organic form (…) [exercising] the spirit of play which is necessary to maintain the poise between worlds of sensibility (McLuhan to Wilfrid Watson, Oct 8, 1959, Letters 257, emphasis added)

In this peculiar situation between identities, there is no identity, there is only the “the unperson: the man that never was” (Take Today, 26):

When things come at you very fast, naturally you lose touch with yourself. Anybody moving into a new world loses identity. If you go to China, and you’ve never been there before, you’re a nobody.  You can’t relate to anything there. So loss of identity is something that happens in rapid change. But everybody at the speed of light tends to become a nobody. This is what’s called the masked man. The masked man has no identity. (Forward Through The Rearview Mirror, 100)

In fact, there is nothing ‘there’ at all, it is “pure opacity”:

the new frontier is as invisible as a radio wave. There are no tracks (…) The new frontier is pure opacity3 (Take Today, 90) 

  1. McLuhan describes this will-to-merger in ‘Nihilism Exposed’ (1955) as follows: “it is precisely the courage of (Wyndham) Lewis in pushing the Cartesian and Plotinian angelism to the logical point of the extinction of humanism and personality that gives his work such importance in the new age of technology. For, on the plane of applied science we have fashioned a Plotinian world-culture which implements the non-human and superhuman doctrines of neo-Platonic angelism to the point where the human dimension is obliterated by sensuality at one end of the spectrum (Plato’s giants) , and by sheer abstraction at the other (Plato’s gods). (…) And now in the twentieth century when nature has been abolished by art and engineering, when government has become entertainment and entertainment has become the art of government, now the gnostic and neo-Platonist and Buddhist can gloat: ‘I told you so! This gimcrack mechanism is all that there ever was in the illusion of human existence. Let us rejoin the One’.” (The interpolations of ‘Plato’s giants’ and ‘Plato’s gods’ have been added here.) Six years before, in “Mr. Eliot’s Historical Decorum” (1949), McLuhan made the same point as follows: “Analogy institutes tension, polarity, a flow of intellectual perception set up among two sets of particulars. To merge those two sets by an attempt to reduce a metaphor situation to some single view or proposition is the rationalist short circuit (…) “Symbol” means to throw together, to juxtapose without copula. And it is a work that cannot be undertaken nor 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 (…) his very postulates discourage him from the loving and disciplined contemplation of existence, of particulars.”
  2. For discussion, see McLuhan and Plato 3 – the wild horses of passion.
  3. McLuhan often calls the childish “both together” of the third possibility “dialogue” (eg, Take Today 22). In ‘Prospect’ (1962) he notes: “In dialogue (…) you are deeply involved because it is so vague. It is so opaque, so incomplete and you have so many broken components to work with, that you have to pay the utmost attention in order to participate.”

Autobiography 1962

He couldn’t bear a fully conscious existence under the frenetic conditions that he is exposed to (…) He could not register these terrible shocks directly and survive. He’d go mad. I think that all human technology and invention has occurred under this kind of anxious pressure. You don’t outer anything (…) until you’re under some dire pressure and fear. But (…) fear is no longer the problem. Anxiety is the problem. Fear is specific, anxiety is total. (…) You don’t know now precisely what you’re dreading, rather it’s a pervasive state. The condition of man is what you dread. You no longer dread that animal, that famine, and so on, but this condition. (…)  Anxiety means utmost alertness, utmost watchfulness, involvement and therefore of course a very heightened kind of existence, a sort of nightmare1 

These lines from ‘Prospect’ in Canadian Art (1962) were not written as autobiography. But McLuhan speaks generally here (switching between the first, second and third person) in a way that includes, as he must have been well aware, also himself:

all human (…) invention has occurred under this kind of anxious pressure. You don’t outer anything (…) until you’re under some dire pressure.

According to Carpenter, McLuhan suffered a severe stroke in 1960.2 His condition was acute enough that he received the last rites. This may have been a prodromal sign of the tumor growing in his brain that would be removed seven years later in New York.3 And/or it may have been an effect of the genetic liability to stroke he shared with his mother. It had killed her in 1961, the year before ‘Prospect’, and would eventually kill him as well. But whatever the precise details may have been with McLuhan’s physical health, he certainly knew at this time (age 50) that he was living on borrowed time and that his ability to communicate his message was threatened by more than its inherent conceptual difficulties. The more he felt the importance of relaying his ancient message, at last, the more anxiety he must have felt. 

In his major text from this same year, The Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan cites some lines from As You Like It (II, vii):

Give me leave
To speak my mind, and I will through and through
Cleanse the foul body of th’ infected world,
If they will patiently receive my medicine.

He then comments in words that may be taken as applying also to himself:

Though engaged in this cathartic enterprise, Shakespeare felt the absence of role bitterly. (GG 195)


  1. ‘Prospect’ in Canadian Art (1962). Similarly, at the end of the decade: “the story line in the minotaur myth is (…) the confrontation with human identity, which is the monster”. Exploration of the ways, means, and values of museum communication with the viewing public, Museum of the City of New York, 1969
  2. This 1960 stroke is mentioned without attribution by Coupland (132) and seems to have been general knowledge in the UT community. From this time, McLuhan was known to have changed markedly. Carpenter describes the stroke in detail in unpublished correspondence and mentions it in a long YouTube interview at 13:41ff (where, however, he dates the stroke erroneously to 1957) and again at 40:24ff where he mentions that “Marshal was very sick at the time to the point where they administered last rites”.
  3. See the note in Letters, doubtless from Corinne McLuhan, that prior to McLuhan’s brain tumour operation in 1967 “for eight years before (ie, since 1959) he had been afflicted with occasional blackouts and dizziness” (175).

McLuhan and Plato 8 – Gigantomachia

In the Sophist, Plato turns to the mythical battle between the gods and giants to portray his vision of ontology as essentially pluralontology as ontologies:

What we shall see is something like a battle of gods and giants going on between them over their quarrel about reality [gigantomachia peri tes ousias] (…)
One party [the giants] is trying to drag everything down to earth out of heaven and the unseen, literally grasping rocks and trees in their hands, for they lay hold upon every stock and stone and strenuously affirm that real existence belongs only to that which can be handled and offers resistance to the touch. They define reality as the same thing as body, and as soon as one of the opposite party asserts that anything without a body is real, they are utterly contemptuous and will not listen to another word. (…)
Their adversaries [the gods] are very wary in defending their position somewhere in the heights of the unseen, maintaining with all their force that true reality consists in certain intelligible and bodiless forms. In the clash of argument they shatter and pulverize those bodies which their opponents wield, and what those others allege to be true reality they call, not real being, but a sort of moving process of becoming. On this issue an interminable battle is always going on between the two camps. (…)
It seems that only one course is open to the philosopher who values knowledge and truth above all else. He must refuse to accept from the champions of the forms [the gods] the doctrine that all reality is changeless, and he must turn a deaf ear to the other party [the giants] who represent reality as everywhere changing. Like a child begging for ‘both’, he must declare that reality or the sum of things is both at once.
(Sophist 246a-249c, emphasis added)

The mythical tale of a war between generations of divine beings was ancient even in Plato’s time.1 This battle (Gk machia) is gigantic, not only because it is waged on one side2 by the giants (Gk gigantes), but also, according to Plato, because it takes place peri tes ousias — as a war concerning the nature of reality (Gk ousia3) waged between primordial powers of Being that are all gigantic exactly as ontologies. Each of them has universal claim.4 Each claims to be “real existence” or “true reality” or “real being” or “the sum of things” (as Plato variously expresses the point). And where a war is waged between gigantic powers over gigantic issues, that war is of course also gigantic.

This war is never-ending (“always going on”, as Plato notes) since no one of these powers can ever defeat its rivals: they are all equally fundamental, equally original and equally powerful. Such equality is the condition of the powers persisting in Being as a plurality since, if there were any difference in their power, Being would ultimately be singular. Its weaker forms would not be able to hold out forever against the stronger. (Or, inversely, when they are able to hold out forever, they cannot be weaker.) Further, ontological plurality (hence ontological equality) is the condition of the difference between Being and beings as its ground: beings can be different from Being and yet remain in Being exactly and only because plural Being is different in and from itself. Absent such differentiating-uniting power in Being itself, beings could not come to be nor maintain themselves in being. Deeper than them is the gigantic power to be in difference. Take Today 22 expresses this notion as “the fact that dialogue as a process of creating the new came before”.

The three ontologies envisioned by Plato (each original and originating)  are materialism (aka only what can be touched is real aka the giants), idealism (only what can be conceived is real aka the gods) and both of these together (as held by the childish philosopher or philosophical child). The third is necessary if Being is plural (and not just a lifeless One). But the first and second are equally necessary if the third is their combination or “dialogue”.

McLuhan’s project in one sense was to reprise these points aka (in Whitehead’s phrase) to mount, yet again, “a series of footnotes to Plato”.

Here he submits that Being is plural, that it entails contesting “universal forms of experience” and that this contest of “universal forms” is synchronic and “now”:

One of the amazing things about electric technology is that it retrieves the most primal, the most ancient forms of awareness as contemporary. There is no more “past” under electric culture: every “past” is now. And there is no future: it is already here. You cannot any longer speak geographically or ideologically in one simple time or place. Now, today, we are dealing with universal forms of experience. (‘Electric Consciousness and the Church’, 1970)5


Every medium is in some sense a universal pressing towards maximal realization.” (‘Notes on the Media as Art Forms’, Expl 2, 1954)

Here he characterizes the contest of “universal forms” (often styled “environments” by McLuhan) as a “war” between “worlds” in which a third form (“a two-way bridge”) is also at work:

There does exist, then, a two-way bridge between the traditional and technological worlds which are at war in Western culture. But it has been officially ignored or condemned. To travel this bridge requires of the traveller an acquaintance with the language and techniques of poetry [aka the ear world] on the one hand, and of the language and techniques of painting, architecture, and the visual world [aka the eye world] on the other. Few are prepared to acquire both languages and so the war between these worlds continues, waged witlessly in classroom and market-place alike (‘Space, Time, and Poetry’, Explorations 4, 1955)

Here he defines the three “universal forms” in the same terms as Plato, the “idealists”, the “practical men” and “dialogue”:

The idealists share with the experienced and practical men of their time the infirmity of substituting concepts for percepts. Both concentrate on a clash between past experience and future goals that blacks out the usual but hidden processes of the present. Both ignore the fact that dialogue as a process of creating the new came before (Take Today 22)

The “practical men of their time” are those entrepreneurial “giants” who “drag everything down to earth out of heaven” and who “strenuously affirm that real existence belongs only to that which can be handled” or otherwise managed6. “They define reality as the same thing as body, and as soon as one of the opposite party asserts that anything without a body is real, they are utterly contemptuous and will not listen to another word.” The “idealists” or “Peter Pans“, in contrast, “are very wary in defending their position somewhere in the heights” of their ivory towers. Opposed to both, but in such a way as to unite them (as its name implies), is the third position of “dia-logue” holding that “reality or the sum of things is both at once”.

That this war “is always going on”, that “all is always now” (as Eliot has it7) is nicely captured by McLuhan in the title of a 1944 talk (published in 1946 and then reprinted as the concluding chapter of The Interior Landscape in 1969): ‘An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America’.

The knot of times, plural, implicated in this vision of the contemporary gigantomachia peri tes ousias, right here, right now, the most ancient and the immediately modern together, is treated extensively by McLuhan:

time considered as sequential (left hemisphere) is figure and time considered as simultaneous (right hemisphere) is ground. (GV 10)

we live in post-history in the sense that all pasts that ever were are now present to our consciousness and that all the futures that will be are here now. In that sense we are post-history and timeless. Instant awareness of all the varieties of human expression constitutes the sort of mythic type of consciousness of ‘once-upon-a-timeness’ which means all time, out of time. (‘Electric Consciousness and the Church’, The Medium and the Light, 88)

And over and over again he cited Eliot’s definition of the “auditory imagination” which “fuses the old and obliterated, and the trite, the current, and the new and the surprising, the most ancient and the most civilized mentality”.8

McLuhan expressed this complicated “fusion” in many ways — the intercommunication of the old and new, but also the interrelation of the eye and the ear, or the “doubleness” of “the written and oral traditions”:    

Plato and Aristotle, the representatives of the new literate culture of Greece in philosophy, had this same doubleness. They straddled the written and oral traditions. They translated the tribal encyclopedia of the preceding culture into the written, classified form…9

Always at stake was the fundament — or fundaments — of Plato’s gigantomachia.


  1. Further considerations here and here.
  2. ‘One side’ of what Eric McLuhan nicely terms “siamese triplets” (The Medium and the Light, xii).
  3. ‘Ousia’, like ‘onto(logy)’, derives from ‘einai’, Gk ‘to  be’. ‘Essence’ from the cognate Latin verb ‘esse’ is a translation of ousia.
  4. McLuhan: “Every medium is in some sense a universal pressing towards maximal realization.” (‘Notes on the Media as Art Forms’, Expl 2, 1954)
  5. The Medium and the Light, 80, emphasis added. As detailed already by Plato and Aristotle, and then as taken up as the central contention of his work by Hegel, “universal forms of experience” and “universal forms of Being ” are mutually implicating. This is because “universal forms of experience” is a dual genitive. These forms belong to, or characterize, experience as a subjective genitive.  What we can know of these forms depends upon our experience of them. But ‘at the same time’ these forms generate experience in being as an objective genitive: it depends on them. The same considerations are at stake in “the forms of Being”. These forms belong to Being as a subjective genitive, but Being belongs to these forms as an objective genitive. The key question, as specified by Plato, Aristotle, Hegel and also McLuhan, is whether the “both together” aka “two-way bridge” of this genitive is accorded its fitting weight.
  6. The etymological root of ‘manage‘ is Latin ‘manus‘ = ‘hand’. “One party (the giants) is trying to drag everything down to earth out of heaven and the unseen, literally grasping rocks and trees in their hands, for they lay hold upon every stock and stone and strenuously affirm that real existence belongs only to that which can be handled“.
  7. Four Quartets, ‘Burnt Norton’, v: “And the end and the beginning were always there/Before the beginning and after the end./And all is always now.
  8. McLuhan cited this passage from Eliot’s 1933 essay ‘The Use of Poetry and The Use of Criticism’ at least 10 times.  See Comparative philosophy – Masson-Oursel and Crookshank.
  9. ‘Toward an Inclusive Consciousness’, Lecture of March 17, 1967 at the University of Toronto, in Understanding Me, pp124-138.

McLuhan and Plato 7 – “a poise between”

In ‘Technology and Political Change’ (International Journal ,1952), McLuhan described the invention of the Greek alphabet (“the visualization of the word”) as reflected in Plato’s dialogues as follows:

Intellectually, the visualization of the word may have made possible the rise of dialectics and logic as they are found in Plato’s dialogues. And the Platonic quarrel with the Sophists, from this point of view, may represent the clash of the older oral with the new written mode of communication. For the written form of communication permits the arrest of a mental process for private analysis and contemplation [= dialectics and logic], whereas the oral form is naturally concerned with the public impact on an audience [= rhetoric]. The Platonic dialogue may well represent a poise between the aesthetic claims and tendencies of these two forms of expression, between dialectic and rhetoric. 

McLuhan characterizes Plato in two fundamentally different ways in this four-sentence passage. The first three sentences echo the understanding of Plato McLuhan put forward in his PhD thesis and throughout the 1940s.  The last sentence represents a new understanding following his exposure to the work of Harold Innis beginning in 1948 (when UT Press issued Minerva’s Owl1) or, at the latest, 1949 (when Innis and McLuhan participated in a seminar together). Now, by 1952, McLuhan had been reflecting on Innis’ work for some years and had carefully studied both his 1950 Empire and Communications and his 1951 Bias of Communication.

In the first three sentences Plato’s dialogues are seen as operating in a “quarrel with the Sophists”, a “clash” representing “the rise of dialectics and logic” in Plato against the “rhetoric” of the Sophists. Although the emphasis here on the media of communication, oral and written2, was new to McLuhan in the early 1950s, the characterization of Socrates and Plato in opposition to the Sophists is familiar from McLuhan’s work throughout the 1940s. The “clash” of Plato’s Socrates with the Sophists was consistently seen by him as the instigation of a vast historical struggle (set out most fully in his PhD thesis) stretching from 500 BC in Greece to the present day. In the aptly named ‘An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America3 (1946) McLuhan summarized this drama as 

the old quarrel between the grammarians and rhetoricians on the one hand and the dialecticians on the other hand (…) is the quarrel begun by Socrates against the Sophists, from whose ranks he came. However, the Church Fathers, notably St. Jerome and St. Augustine, made Ciceronian humanism basic training for the exegetist of Scripture. Patristic humanism subordinated dialectics to grammar and rhetoric until this same quarrel broke out afresh in the twelfth century when Peter Abelard set up dialectics as the supreme method in theological discussion. Abelard’s party was opposed by the great Ciceronian humanist John of Salisbury, whose Metalogicus, as the name implies, was aimed against the logicians, who were called the Schoolmen, or moderni. After four centuries of triumphant dialectics, the traditional patristic reaction, heralded by Petrarch, had gathered sufficient head under Erasmus to supplant a scholasticism weakened from within by bitter disputes. But by many channels mathematical, philosophical, theological, and scientific, dialectics has persisted.

It is against this background that McLuhan proposed to treat a contemporary question (like the value of the University of Chicago great books program) as “an episode in a dispute which began in ancient Athens”. This originary “dispute” was “the quarrel begun by Socrates against the Sophists” in which

the Sophists made logic subordinate to rhetoric or persuasion, since their end was political. And this it was which raised against them the opposition of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, who were all agreed that dialectics should control rhetoric, that knowledge was superior even to prudential action.

However, as McLuhan protested against the usual portrait of the Sophists,

it is unfair to suppose that the Sophists were merely cynical power and money gluttons. They claimed also to teach the means to wisdom; for wisdom, as well as eloquence, was thought by them, as by Cicero, to be the by-product of erudition. It was this claim which most annoyed Plato and against which he directs his dialectical refutations in the Gorgias and elsewhere.

To correct this unfair supposition it was therefore, necessary to show

how this identity of eloquence and wisdom enters into the work of Cicero, since he, more than any other individual, was responsible for the concepts of humanism which prevailed in the twelfth, the sixteenth, or the twentieth centuries. (…) The origin of this important claim for the inseparable character of eloquence and wisdom would seem to lie in the familiar doctrine of the Logos, which may be supposed to have arisen with Heraclitus. Society is a mirror or speculum of the Logos, as, indeed, are the external world, the mind of man and, above all, human speech. (…) And just as Zeno considered wisdom or prudence “not only as the first of the virtues, but as the foundation of all”, so (…) the Stoics deduced from this doctrine the corollary that “the bond of the state is the Logos (ratio atque oratio)”.

McLuhan’s concluding suggestion in ‘An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America’ was that peace is possible and desirable between the two parties of this “conflict”:

Between the speculative dialectician and scientist who says that “the glory of man is to know the truth by my methods,” and the eloquent moralist who says that “the bliss of man is good government carried on by copiously eloquent and wise citizens,” there need be no conflict. Conflict, however, will inevitably arise between these parties when either attempts to capture the entire education of an age or a country. It would seem to be a matter of distributing time for [both] these studies.

This 1946 article, and its concluding section in particular, suggested a series of questions (to be detailed in a later post) whose consideration would be crucial for McLuhan’s later work. By 1952 and the writing of ‘Technology and Political Change’, McLuhan was at work (with various degrees of consciousness) on these questions as decisively influenced by his exposure to the work of Harold Innis. This turn in his work may be seen in the second characterization of Plato he draws in that essay:

The Platonic dialogue may well represent a poise4 between the aesthetic claims and tendencies of these two forms of expression, between dialectic and rhetoric. 

McLuhan seems to have been well aware of the contrasting takes on Plato presented in this 1952 paper. He refers to the first with the qualification “from this point of view”. The clear implication is that other points of view are possible — especially when McLuhan immediately proceeded to put forward another one himself. In any case, the differences between the two takes are striking and revealing. In the first, Plato’s dialogues are seen as one of the terms of a twofold opposition: Socrates versus the Sophists, dialectic versus rhetoric, writing versus speech, new versus old. In the second, however, both terms fall within the compass of “the Platonic dialogue” such that it, the dialogue, “represent[s] a poise between the aesthetic claims and tendencies of these two forms of [written and oral] expression, between dialectic and rhetoric”. Where the first puts forward an unstable duality (hence the recourse to “subordination” and “control” in an attempt to achieve a stable structure), the second propounds a dynamic trinity whose knotted interplay is its stability (hence the link noted by McLuhan in 1946 “of the Logos (…) with Heraclitus”5 ). Again, the first sets out a conflict of two claims where each purports to represent “the foundation of all” and which are therefore necessarily in irresolvable conflict. But the second sees the possibility of mediation between these claims where the dialogue form functions as a third. Here the unitary and absolutist claims of each of the two sides of the first view are abrogated in favor of a complex structure where “the foundation of all” is somehow plural and therefore strangely discrete and finite.

The key factor differentiating the two takes is time. Both recognize a certain interplay between dialectic and rhetoric.  But in the first take, this interplay is diachronic (there is first the one and then the other) while in the second it is synchronic: the interplay functions as a kind of threefold balance which manifests “innumerable variants”6, but these “variants” are always subject to the structural laws of an underlying equipoise.

The contrast between these two is universal. For the first, time is singular and historical events unfold on a singular plane. For the second, time is plural (both synchronic and diachronic) and historical events unfold on two planes at once.7 For the first, all multiplicity is secondary and deficient. Substantiality and stability depend upon a prior singularity. The great mystery is how and why the one became two. For the second, interplay is original and originating.

The ‘third’ of the two together is later for the first take, earlier (indeed, earliest) for the second.8

The problems latent in McLuhan’s early work before (approximately) 1950, therefore the spur to the marked changes in his work which began at that time, are especially on display in his statement in the 1946 essay:

My explanation (…) is in terms the old quarrel between the grammarians and rhetoricians on the one hand and the dialecticians on the other hand.

Here was a convert to the trinitarian Catholic church, who wrote his extended PhD thesis on the threefold of grammar, logic and rhetoric in the trivium. But at this time McLuhan was manifestly caught up in a series of contesting dualisms. In this 1946 passage “the grammarians and rhetoricians”, instead of functioning in a threefold economy, are brought together as one in a two-sided struggle with the “dialecticians”. In a similar way McLuhan postulated — as he himself admitted — stark dualisms between God and creation and between nature and technology: 

For many years, until I wrote my first book, The Mechanical Bride, 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. (Playboy interview)

The incoherence of this position was especially to be seen in this admission 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… (‘Sight, Sound and the Fury’, Commonweal Magazine, April 9, 1954)

This observation is odd, even comical, since the main contention of McLuhan’s early work (as repeatedly seen above) was that “dialectic” aka “literary values” aka “book-culture” should be “subordinated” to the “Ciceronian humanism” of “rhetoric”. This consistent attack on “writing” was now said to have been “a defense of book-culture”! 

What has happened here is that McLuhan has become conscious of a tendency (first of all in himself and then generally) to conceive9 everything in terms of a dualistic form structured by (a) antagonistic claims (b) necessitating the valorizing or privileging or identification with one of them (exactly on account of their basic quarrel or agon concerning the fundamental nature of reality). In the early 1950’s McLuhan came to call this experiential form ‘gnosticism’ and future posts will need to examine his attempts to investigate this phenomenon in his essays and correspondence between 1950 and 1955. Suffice it to note here that McLuhan was shocked, once he could see this form (instead of seeing with it), both at its extent and influence in the world and at the undisguised manner in which it propagated itself. It was hidden in plain sight in a way which cried out for investigation — but somehow eluded it despite recurrent efforts since Heraclitus and Plato to expose it.

Even more shocking to McLuhan was his rueful recognition that this form was somehow compatible with a highly self-conscious Catholicism like his own, and this even where the “Logos (ratio atque oratio)” was explicitly held to be “the first of the virtues” and “the foundation of all” including “the external world, the mind of man and, above all, human speech” (as McLuhan had written in 1946). Despite all this, the “atque” — the “poise between” — had somehow been missing from his experience and his writing!

With this new insight, writing aka “book-culture” was no longer seen within the terms of antagonistic opposition to an older oral culture (as if it were a matter of material forms in diachronic time). Now it was to be associated with such opposition itself10 — with an “exclusive” or “either-or” dualism — that might or might not be found in some particular sample of writing (like Plato’s dialogues or the Bible) or indeed in some particular sample of oral speech. In this new sense, even McLuhan’s previous pronounced opposition to “dialectic” (aka “writing” aka “book-culture”) could be described as “a defense of book-culture” on account of the oppositional dualistic structure in which it had been formulated. 

This movement away from found objects to their underlying structure had, of course, already been initiated in McLuhan’s earlier work where he had (for example) investigated the course of western history in terms of the interplay of the underlying “studies” of the trivium. But he had not turned such investigation on itself with the reflexive questions: if human experience can be studied through focus on underlying structures, what is the structure which the investigation itself has? and what is the structure which it should have? These questions then precipitated a series of others: what is the nature(s) of time if it is somehow possible to get ‘before’ experience? And: what is the pathway to experience (apparently through very strange times and spaces) that has always already been taken among its possible approaches? And: if this pathway is always being taken, even now, how can it not be recognized? how can it take place in complete oblivion? how can it be forgotten even as it is happening? And: in the attempt to recover the ‘before’ of experience, how avoid the infinite regress of mirror image in mirror image in mirror image (in which the experience of every ‘before’ has its own ‘before’)? 

McLuhan had gained some insight into these deep questions regarding “the potencies of language” and experience in his study of modern French and English poetry in the 1940’s. As he described in his letter to Innis early in 1951 (or, perhaps, late in 1950):

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 (…) One major discovery of the symbolists which had the greatest importance for subsequent investigation was their notion of the learning process as a [synchronic!] labyrinth of the senses and faculties whose retracing provided the key to all arts and sciences… (emphases added)

But Innis himself had decisively contributed to McLuhan’s changing understanding of these matters at this time around 1950 through his long-standing11 concern with method in the humanities and with the importance of self-reference — aka the examination of “bias” — to method. On the first page of Empire and Communications, for example, Innis observes:

We are immediately faced with the very great, perhaps insuperable, obstacle of attempting (…) to appraise economic considerations by the use of tools which are in themselves products of economic considerations. (…) It is an advantage, however, to emphasize these dangers at the beginning so that we can at least be alert to the implications of the type of bias [in our own observations]. Obsession with economic considerations illustrates the dangers of monopolies of knowledge and suggests the necessity of appraising its [such an obsession’s] limitations.  (1-2)

Through Innis, McLuhan was recalled to his interest in communication that had first been aroused by Henry Wilkes Wright, and particularly by Wright’s book, The Moral Standards of Democracy, at the University of Manitoba twenty years before. It lies close at hand to suspect that McLuhan was further prompted by Innis to examine his own method and bias and to wonder about their limitations. In this context, the striking differences between Innis’s take on Plato’s dialogues and McLuhan’s in his thesis and throughout the 1940s may have played a critical role. Only compare McLuhan in ‘An Ancient Quarrel’ (cited above from 1946) to Innis in 1950 in Empire and Communications:

The character of Socrates worked through the spoken word. He knew that ‘the letter is destined to kill much (though not all) of the life that the spirit has given’12. He was the last great product and exponent of the oral tradition. Plato attempted to adapt the new medium of prose to an elaboration of the conversation of Socrates by the dialogue with its question and answer, freedom of arrangement and inclusiveness. A well-planned conversation was aimed at discovering truth and awakening the interest and sympathy of the reader. The dialogues were developed as a most effective instrument for preserving the power of the spoken word on the written page and Plato’s success was written in the inconclusiveness and immortality of his work. His style was regarded by Aristotle as half-way between poetry and prose. The power of the oral tradition persisted in his prose in the absence of a closely ordered system. Continuous philosophical discussion aimed at truth. The life and movement of dialectic opposed the establishment of a finished system of dogma. (68-69)

A similar point was made by Innis in regard to the Bible in what seems to have been the first work of his read by McLuhan, ‘Minerva’s Owl’13:

With access to more convenient media such as parchment and papyrus and to a more efficient alphabet the Hebrew prophets gave a stimulus to the oral and the written tradition which persisted in the scriptures [of] the Jewish, Christian, and Mohammedan religions. (Emphasis added)

Several points seem to have proved decisive for McLuhan. First, Innis showed that orality and writing aka rhetoric and dialectic need not be contrasted as material activities situated in diachronic time. Instead, “question and answer, freedom of arrangement and inclusiveness”, typical of oral exchange, might be expressed just as much in writing as in speech:

The dialogues were (…) preserving the power of the spoken word on the written page… 

the Hebrew prophets gave a stimulus to the oral and the written tradition which persisted in the scriptures…

Innis described Plato and the Hebrew prophets in this way just as such figures as Thomas14, Shakespeare and Joyce would later be described by McLuhan. Second, the contrast between orality and writing was therefore seen to extend over a spectrum where privilege independent of linear time might be accorded to one or the other — or both together. Third, once explanation were not limited to material expressions arrayed in diachronic time15, the variety and richness of the tradition could be accounted for in a new way, especially where an author or a text might be seen to reflect multiple forms of privilege — in molecular or compound or even mixed fashion — and not merely some supposedly “closely ordered system”. 

A series of lessons emerged here which would shape the remaining thirty years of McLuhan’s research. In the first place, McLuhan would have to attempt in his own probes always to assume the “poise” of the third position between (as he would come to express it, again as influenced by Innis16) “eye and ear”. This ‘double privilege’ position was always possible for the investigating subject as an approach to experience and in regard to the object of experience represented an inherent respect for (aka correlate privileging of) its value and complexity. In the second place, this position as a way of of “preserving the (…) spoken word on the written page” could not avoid the “inconclusiveness” and “limitation” and “freedom of arrangement” of that form. It could never itself be, or aspire to be, a “closely ordered system”. In the third place, this movement away from dualism could not take place if it retained a dualistic view of dualism itself.  But just how to take a non-dualistic view of dualism (while avoiding it on principle) was and is one of the deepest questions of human existence.

Two decades later, in 1972, McLuhan would express many of these points at once in his concluding considerations to Take Today 22, 

The idealists share with the experienced and practical men of their time the infirmity of substituting concepts for percepts. Both concentrate on a clash between past experience and future goals that blacks out the usual but hidden processes of the present. Both ignore the fact that dialogue as a process of creating the new came before, and goes beyond, the exchange of “equivalents” that merely reflect or repeat the old.

The use of the word “dialogue” here recalls that time 20 years earlier when McLuhan’s research was re-oriented by Harold Innis in several different ways, but perhaps especially by his notion that

Plato attempted to adapt the new medium of prose to an elaboration of the conversation of Socrates by the dialogue with its question and answer, freedom of arrangement and inclusiveness.

From now on McLuhan’s work would eschew that sort of dualism he had previously taken to ground the western tradition in which “the Sophists made logic subordinate to rhetoric or persuasion, since their end was political” and “Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, who were all agreed that dialectics should control rhetoric, that knowledge was superior even to prudential action”. These two positions were (as McLuhan expressed the matter 20 years later) “the experienced and practical men” on the one side, and “the idealists” on the other, both of whom shared “the infirmity of substituting concepts for percepts” by concentrating on the “clash” between the two of them as well as the “clash” between their past presuppositions and the open future (which each of them solved by subjecting their futures to their pasts via the rear-view mirror to produce “equivalents that merely reflect or repeat the old”).

In fundamental contrast to these two “extremes”, McLuhan would now take up the “poise” of the middle or third position where he would focus on “the usual [ie, constant] but hidden processes of the present” in which the ‘before’ of experience is contested — “the gap where the action is”. And in which the future is met depending on those “processes”.

In doing so, however, he would need to bear in mind that dualism, too, is a powerful form of being (only so its persistent influence) and that it is not only to be considered in dualist — gnostic — fashion as merely opposed to “dialogue”. For dialogue could not be dialogue if it related only to itself via the production of “equivalents that merely reflect or repeat the old”. Therefore the “hidden” way in which dialogue “goes beyond” itself in the direction of what would might seem to be the lesser and the lower — except for the fact that it is only in this way that dialogue can ex-press itself as dialogue.17 Hence McLuhan’s Take Today 22 citation of the I Ching in regard to such “innovation” that it

does indeed guide all happenings, but it never behaves outwardly as the leader. Thus true strength is that strength which, mobile as it is hidden, concentrates on the work without being outwardly visible.

The modern world would be able to turn from its sense18 of meaninglessness only by appreciating that meaninglessness, too, has meaning (actually, meanings) qua meaninglessness. For meaning, too, ex-presses that “true strength” — “mobile as it is hidden” — of “creating the new [that] came before, and goes beyond, the exchange of ‘equivalents’ that merely reflect or repeat the old”.19 


  1. In his introduction to the 1964 reprint of The Bias of Communication McLuhan claimed: “Flattered by the attention that Innis had directed to some work of mine, I turned for the first time to his work. It was my good fortune to begin with the first essay in this book: Minerva’s Owl.” Similarly, in ‘The Fecund Interval’ (1979): “My own acquaintance with Innis began when I heard that he had put my book, The Mechanical Bride, on his course reading list. It intrigued me to know what sort of academic would take an interest in this book. I read his Bias of Communication and became a follower of Harold innis from that time.” The timing reported here is clearly mistaken since The Mechanical Bride did not appear until more than a year after McLuhan became acquainted, at the latest, with Innis and his work in the ‘values’ seminar of 1949. But it may well be that Minerva’s Owl was the first work of Innis that McLuhan read — it was issued in Toronto by UTP around the time he must have begun hearing about Innis from his old Winnipeg friend and close associate of Innis, Tom Easterbrook. This was 1948, more than 2 years before the publication of The Mechanical Bride, when Easterbrook began organizing the seminar of 1949 in which both Innis and McLuhan were to participate.
  2. The influence of Innis is plain in McLuhan’s identification of the “quarrel” between the Sophists and Socrates with “the clash of the older oral (mode of communication) with the new written mode”. “Dialectics and logic” on this view were enabled through the “arrest” in writing of “mental process for private analysis and contemplation”. In his literary essays at this time McLuhan was similarly concerned with “the aesthetic experience as an arrested moment, a moment in and out of time” (‘The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape Poetry’ from 1951). Concern with media was therefore linked from the start in McLuhan’s work with the investigation of the varieties of time — just as Innis urged. in his ‘Plea for Time’ (1950) Innis had put the matter in a nutshell: “it becomes imperative to attempt to estimate the significance of the attitude towards time in an analysis of (…) change”.
  3. The Classical Journal, 41:4, January 1946: “This paper is an extension of an informal address given before a joint meeting of the Modern Language and the Classical Club of St Louis in 1944.” McLuhan emphasized the importance of this paper when he concluded The Interior Landscape with it a full quarter century after its initial delivery.
  4. McLuhan uses ‘poise’ here not to indicate a posture or role, but in the sense of something having weight, something equally substantial with the forms it mediates. The use of the word in this sense probably reflects a sensitivity to French arising from McLuhan’s study of the symbolists in the second half of the 1940s.
  5. In Four Quartets Eliot uses two fragments from Heraclitus as epigrams. He then links stability and movement as follows: ” Except for the point, the still point, / There would be no dance, and there is only dance.” ‘Burnt Norton’, ii
  6. Take Today, 22
  7. All of the physical sciences manifest the second of these structural profiles. In chemistry or genetics or physics, there is the time and level of “innumerable variants” and there is the different time and level of their lawful explanation. The modern world is above all characterized by a determination to withhold from the investigation of human being exactly that approach that is known to provide the only way of understanding anything.
  8. McLuhan describes the latter on Take Today 22  as “dialogue (that) came before”.
  9. ‘Con-ceive’, ie, not to per-ceive. ‘Conceive everything’, ie, experience the world.
  10. Hence, as McLuhan was to capture the point in nuce 20 years later in Take Today (3): “The meaning of meaning is relationship.”
  11. As future posts will need to detail, Innis’s concern with method and bias and self-reference in the humanities went back at least to his 1937 exchange with his colleague and mentor, Edward Johns Urwick: ‘The Role of Intelligence; Some Further Notes’, Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, 1:2. Hence his remark at the start of Empire and Communications: “In a sense these lectures become an extension of the work of (…) of E. J. Urwick.”
  12. Innis cites Cornford, Before and After Socrates (1932).
  13. ‘Minerva’s Owl’ was Innis’ presidential address to the Royal Society of Canada in 1947.  It was immediately printed in the society Proceedings for that year and distributed also as a reprint from the Proceedings (pages 83-108) which McLuhan’s old friend, Tom Easterbrook, must have had from his friend and mentor, Innis himself. The next year, in 1948, the address was reprinted by the University of Toronto Press with an appendix, ‘A Critical Review’ (composed of extracts from the address by Innis to the Conference of Commonwealth Universities at Oxford on July 23, 1948). As a later post will describe, ‘A Critical Review’ must have been particularly important for McLuhan’s turn to media. It would therefore be important to learn just when McLuhan first read it.
  14. Here is McLuhan’s contemporary description of Thomas from ‘Joyce, Aquinas, and the Poetic Process’ (1951) : Anyone familiar with the persistent use which Joyce makes of the labyrinth figures as the archetype of human cognition, will have noticed the same figure as it appears in the dramatic action of a thomistic “article”. There is first the descent into the particular matter of the “objections”. These are juxtaposed abruptly, constituting a discontinuous or cubist perspective. By abrupt juxtaposition of diverse views of the same problem, that which is in question is seen from several sides. A total intellectual history is provided in a single view. And in the very instant of being presented with a false lead or path the mind is alerted to seek another course through the maze. Baffled by variety of choice, it is suddenly arrested by the “sed contra” and given its true bearings in the conclusion. Then follows the retracing of the labyrinth in the “respondeo dicendum.” Emerging into intellectual clarity at the end of this process, it looks back on the blind alleys proffered by each of the original objections. Whereas the total shape of each article, with its trinal divisions into objections, respondeo, and answers to objections, is an “S” labyrinth, this figure is really traced and retraced by the mind many times in the course of a single article. Perhaps this fact helps to explain the power of Thomas to communicate a great deal even before he is much understood. It certainly suggests why he can provide rich esthetic satisfactions by the very dance of his mind — a dance in which we participate as we follow him.
  15. Alchemy attempted to account for the physical world in this way and it, too, needed to be cast aside in favor of structural elements operating on a different level and in a different time-frame.
  16. Eg in ‘Plea for Time’: “The disastrous effect of the monopoly of communication based on the eye hastened the development of a competitive type of communication based on the ear.”
  17. Therefore, “the way up is the way down” (Heraclitus), which is one of the epigrams to Eliot’s Four Quartets and the “ancient adage” cited by McLuhan in Take Today (283).
  18. Singular! The overcoming of nihilism takes place through the insight that experience is inherently plural and that there is no singlar sense of anything — including meaninglessness.
  19. It is not the case that the ex-pression of meaning is a subjective genitive only! In this case, its expression would have value only for it. Instead, this expression also confers value on the expressed in a refusal of what Innis called “monopoly” and McLuhan “merger”.

Ellul’s Propaganda

Jacques Ellul’s Propaganda was published in France as Propagandes (plural) in 1962. The English translation was issued in 1965. Passages from it will be given here in a post which will be updated regularly.


  • To study anything properly, one must put aside ethical judgments. Perhaps an objective study will lead us back to them, but only later, and with full cognizance of the facts.
  • The reader should know that he is (…) dealing with (…) a work that (…) endeavors to bring contemporary man a step closer to an awareness of propaganda — the very phenomenon that conditions and regulates him. 1
  1. The great question that lies in the background to much of McLuhan’s work is how perception aka insight aka learning is possible at all.  For if experience is always conditioned and regulated, how can something new originate in it?  And yet humans beings do learn new things, beginning with language when they are still infants. How is that humans can and do cross this gap “where the action is”?

McLuhan’s biographical note for ‘An Ancient Quarrel’ 1946

Marshall McLuhan’s acquaintance with the classical tradition and its history comes from study and teaching in Canada, England and the United States. He was born in Edmonton Alberta and received his B.A. from the University of Manitoba in 1933, followed by the M.A. in 1934. This was followed by study at Cambridge University in England from which institution he received a B.A. in 1936, an M.A. in 1940, and a Ph.D. in 1943. He has taught at the University of Wisconsin, St Louis University and is now a member of the faculty at Assumption College in Windsor, Ontario. (Biographical note for McLuhan’s ‘An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America’, The Classical Journal, 41:4, January 1946)

Since even McLuhan’s biography is often mangled in studies about him and his work, a series of autobiographical sketches will be included in this blog. Noteworthy here is his nod to “the classical tradition and its history” just as he was about to begin teaching in Toronto. There he would meet Harold Innis who would influence him in several decisive ways.  Innis in turn was deeply grateful for the stimulation his work received from scholars in the University of Toronto Classics department:

An interest in the general problem was stimulated by the late Professor C. N. Cochrane [1889-1945] and the late Professor E. T. Owen [1882-1948]. (‘Preface’ to Empire and Communications, 1950)

Charles Cochrane and Eric Trevor Owen were leading lights in Classics at UT. Another member of the department at the time was Eric Havelock whose Preface to Plato would be cited by McLuhan repeatedly after its publication in 1963.1

  1. Havelock’s work was a decided influence on McLuhan from the late 1940s — see here.