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 Owl) 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 written, 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 America‘ (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 poise 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” ). 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”, 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. 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.
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 conceive 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 itself — 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-standing 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’. 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’:
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 Thomas, 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 time, 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 Innis) “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. 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 sense 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”.