Monthly Archives: October 2014

McLuhan and Plato 1: strange prisoners like ourselves

In his 1954 lecture, ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’ (CHML), McLuhan draws an extended parallel between Plato’s cave and the movies. Plato’s allegory presents an “image of human life” where “existence is a kind of cave or cellar on the back wall of which we watch the shadows of real things from the outside world of reality”. And now today, “the dreaming eye of the movie god casting his images on the dark screen corresponds to that image of human life offered to us by Plato in the Republic“. The allegory drawn by Plato and the modern medium both raise fundamental questions concerning the relationship of image and reality, epistemology and ontology. McLuhan proposes to use a comparison of the two to investigate what occurs “in every instant of perception” in “our primary and constant mode of awareness”.1

Plato’s allegory of the cave in the Republic (514a–520a) is unfolded in an exchange recollected by Socrates between himself and Glaucon:

Socrates: Behold human beings living in an underground cave, which has [its] mouth open towards the light and [reaches deep into the earth]; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing (…) and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised [walk]way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the [walk]way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show their puppets. (…)
And do you see, I said, men passing along [the walkway behind] the wall carrying [figurative objects above them] — all sorts of vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall [like the puppets in a marionette theatre]? (…)
Glaucon: You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.
Socrates: Like ourselves, I replied; and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave?
Glaucon: True, he said; how could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?
Socrates: And of the objects which are being carried [along the walkway], in like manner they would only see the shadows? (…)
And if they were able to converse with one another [about the shadow images before them], would they not suppose that they were [discussing real things] ? (…)
To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the [figures carried along the walkway]. (…)
And now look again, and see what will naturally follow if the prisoners are released and disabused of their error. At first, when any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and walk and look towards the light [of the fire], he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of [the puppet figures of] which in his former state he had seen [only] the shadows; and then conceive someone saying to him, that what he saw before was an illusion, but that now, when he is approaching nearer to [the real] being [of the figures] and [since] his eye is turned towards [their] more real existence, he has a clearer vision — what will be his reply? And you may further imagine that his instructor is pointing to the [figure] objects as they pass [above the wall of the walkway] and requiring him to name them — will he not be perplexed? Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw were [more real and] truer than the objects which are now shown to him? (…)
And if he is compelled to look straight at the light [of the fire], will he not have a pain in his eyes which will make him turn away [back to] the [shadow] objects of vision which he can see [without pain], and which he will conceive to be in reality clearer than the things which are now being shown to him [in the fire’s light]? (…)
And suppose, once more, that he is reluctantly dragged up [the cave over] a steep and rugged ascent, and held fast until he’s forced into [the outside world and into] the presence of the sun itself, is he not likely to be [even more] pained and irritated? When he approaches the [sun’s] light his eyes will be dazzled, and he will not be able to see anything at all of what [is in the outside world]. (…)
He will require [time] to grow accustomed to the sight of the upper world. And first he will see [only] the shadows [of things] best, next the reflections of men and other objects in water, and [finally] the objects themselves; then he will gaze upon the light of the moon and the stars and the spangled heaven; and [at first] he will see the sky and the stars by night better than the sun or the light of the sun by day. (…)
Last of all he will be able to see the sun, and not mere reflections of it in water, but he will see it in its own proper place, and not in another; and he will contemplate it as it is. (…)
He will then proceed to argue that this is [the power] which gives [us] the seasons and the years, and is the guardian of all that is in the visible world, and in a certain way the cause of all things (..)
And when he remembers his old habitation [in the cave], and the [accepted] wisdom of the cave and [of] his fellow-prisoners, do you not suppose that he would [rejoice] in the change [he has undergone], and pity them? (…)
And if [the prisoners] were in the habit of conferring honors among themselves on those who were quickest to observe the [order of the] passing shadow [images] and to remark which of them [regularly] went before, and which followed after, and which were [regularly] together [with one another]; and who were therefore best able to draw conclusions as to the future [order of the shadow images from these observations], do you think that he would care for such honors and glories, or envy the possessors of them? (…)
Imagine once more, I said, such a one coming suddenly out of the sun to be placed again in his old situation [in the cave]; would he not be certain to have his eyes full of darkness? (…)
And if there were a contest, and he had to compete in [investigating] the shadow [images] with the prisoners who had never moved out of the cave, while his sight was still weak, and before his eyes had become steady [in the dark once more](…), would he not be ridiculous? Men would say of him that he went up [in the cave] and [when] he came down [again, he was] without [the use of] his eyes; and that it was [therefore far] better not even to think of ascending [which had left him without his sight in this way]; and if anyone tried to loose another [prisoner from his chains] and lead him up to the light (…) they would put [the one attempting to free the prisoner] to death [as happened to Socrates2].3

In further Plato’s Cave posts, the full CHML passage will be given, and analyzed at length, in which McLuhan discusses Plato’s allegory in relation to the movies. Here only a single sentence will be singled out for particular notice:

the mechanical medium [the movie] has tended to provide merely a dream world which is a substitute for reality rather than a means of proving reality. (Emphasis added)

‘A means of proving reality’ here may well be a typo for ‘a means of prov(id)ing reality’.

the mechanical medium [the movie] has tended to provide merely a dream world which is a substitute for reality rather than a means of providing reality. (Emphasis added)

‘Proving’ is not impossible here since McLuhan was hardly allergic to unusual constructions and the related (originally identical) word ‘probing‘ was a favorite of his.   Moreover, it is exactly the central point of CHML that, properly considerered, “modern letters” and modern science may be taken as “proving reality” (rather than being ontologically neutral at best and, at worst, a nihilistic threat to any notion of reality — and especially to traditional notions of reality like the Catholic tradition).

However, typos are common in McLuhan’s work (he notoriously refused to proofread his texts) and ‘providing’ is a recurrent term in CHML. In fact it appears multiple times in this same sentence.4

Further, the word ‘pro-vide’ itself raises the fundamental matter at stake here, namely, the riddle of what is before (‘pro’) our vision (‘vide’) in space as the question of what is before our vision in time.5 

The great issue for McLuhan both in Plato’s cave and in the movies is exactly whether the images seen in them present “a dream world” which is taken to be real (“a substitute for reality”) or one which is known to result from a particular “means”, or medium, which provides that particular sort of reality (“a means of prov(id)ing reality”).

Between the two, the nature of time is at stake. The first lives exclusively in diachronic time and therefore cannot know its experience as an effect of a prior cause. Its notion of cause and effect is such that what is experienced ‘first’ is cause and what is experienced ‘later’ is effect. In fundamental contrast, the second understands that what is experienced ‘first’ may be the effect of what is experienced ‘later’ as cause.6 In the allegory of the cave, the prisoner who is loosed from his chains and experiences the outside world comes to learn later the cause of his earlier notions of truth and reality now considered as effect.7

In the first case, the medium is unknown, or at least unconsidered, and it is this lack of consideration which then chains human “prisoners” to false ideas of reality and of truth. In Plato’s cave, the prisoners do not know that they are in a cave, they do not know that are prisoners, they do not know that their light comes from a fire, they do not know that the objects they see are shadows, etc etc.  They do not know the medium of their vision any more than fish are aware of water. The thing that is most obvious to their situation, seen from the outside, their “strange” environment, is oblivious to them from the inside.

In the second case, the medium is known. In Plato’s allegory the prisoner who is loosed to leave the cave learns the circumstances which previously determined his vision and his corresponding ideas of reality and truth. He now knows that these were only one “means [among many] of prov(id)ing reality”. He now knows that the medium is the message.

  1. The citations in this paragraph are taken from CHML: “And as we trace the rise of successive communication channels or links, from writing to movies and TV, it is borne in on us that in order for their exterior artifice to be effective it must partake of the character of that interior artifice by which in ordinary perception we incarnate the exterior world. Because human perception is literally incarnation. So that each of us must poet the world or fashion it within us as our primary and constant mode of awareness. And the mechanical or mass media of communication must at least parrot the world in order to hold our attention.” For discussion and references see Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters 1.
  2. The irony of Plato putting this allusion to the execution of Socrates into the mouth of Socrates is rich.
  3. Aside from the interpolations in square brackets, Jowett’s translation has been slightly altered. Where he has ‘den’, here ‘cave’ has been used. And where he refers to the sun as masculine (‘he’, ‘him’ ‘his’ etc), here the neuter ‘it’ and ‘its’ has been preferred.
  4. The full sentence reads: “But whereas cognition provides that dance of the intellect which is the analogical sense of Being, the mechanical medium has tended to provide merely a dream world which is a substitute for reality rather than a means of proving reality.”
  5. The closely related words proving/probing may also be taken to specify the fundamental matter. McLuhan’s point is exactly that ‘probing’, once pursued passionately, becomes a manner of ‘proving’ the real and not one of nihilistic dissolution.
  6. For discussion, see McLuhan and Plato 11 — on the perception of the child (obj gen).
  7. According to McLuhan, all perception, insight and learning works in this way: it is “our primary and constant mode of awareness” (full CHML passage given above in note 1).

McLuhan and Plato 11- on the perception of the child (obj gen)

Ξένος: ἀλλὰ δὴ τῷ μύθῳ μου πάνυ πρόσεχε τὸν νοῦν, καθάπερ οἱ παῖδες; πάντως οὐ πολλὰ ἐκφεύγεις παιδιὰς ἔτη. (Plato, Statesman 268e. ‘Stranger: Then please pay careful attention to my story, just as if you were a child; and anyway you are not much too old for children’s tales.’)

In McLuhan and Plato 10 – on the child and the child’s perception, the perception of the child is treated as a subjective genitive: this is perception that belongs to the ontological child, the perception that this ontological child has, a mode of perception that is structured by the ontological child’s determination that “reality or the sum of things is both at once”. But what of the perception of this ontological child as an objective genitive? What of the perception of it as the object of experience that you or I might have? Just how are we to experience this ontological child “holding to both” as such?

What is distinctive about the view of the child discussed in McLuhan and Plato 8, 9 and 10 is that it is considered as an ontological power on a par with the gods and giants. If it is asked on what basis such a view of the child is possible as an objective genitive, as the possible object of our experience, the answer must be that this is a possibility that belongs, first of all, and indeed exclusively, to the perception of the child as a subjective genitive. For this experience requires of us — we who are definitively finite or ontic — perception of the child (obj gen) as holding to both the gods and the giants at the ontological level. But the availability of ontological perception to utterly finite beings in this way is something only the ontological child can see.

Each side of the contesting gods and giants in the gigantomachia battles to reduce all existence to its version of seamless singularity — the gods to pure formal ontology “in the heights of the unseen”, the giants to that sheer ontic particularity “which can be handled and offers resistance to the touch”. In fundamental contrast, the ontological child insists on an ontological plurality and complexity that exactly therefore does not hold itself away from ontic expression1: “reality or the sum of things is both at once”.

Only childish perception can experience such an ontological child.

Considered as an objective genitive, fitting experience of the ontological child is itself ruled by the childish determination to “hold to both [ontic/ontological]” and “to choose the mean and avoid the extremes [ontic/ontological] on either side” since “reality or the sum of things is both [ontic/ontological] at once”.2 It emerges in this way that the only means to such experience is its goal. The prerequisite (what must already be in place) for the perception of the ontological child (obj gen) is exactly its end (what seems to be not yet in place), namely, the perception of the child (subj gen). If we cannot already see as the ontological child sees, we cannot come to see the ontological child at all.

The result or effect of such experience must be its cause. The implication is that time must bend around on itself to form a knot — and/or be plural such that the order of tenses in one time does not coincide with their order in another time. In the crossing of such times, time’s tenses would become layered and com-plicated such that what was past in one time is present in another (hence: ‘An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America’) or what is present in one time is future in another (hence: “The future of the future is the present, in any age. All you have to do in order to predict the future quite accurately is to look at the present, what‘s under your nose. Wyndham Lewis once said, ‘The artist is engaged in writing a detailed history of the future because he‘s looking at the present’.” ‘McLuhan reacts to his critics’, CBC Media Archives, 1967).

What is to be experienced in the present and future can equally be the how of experience that is already in place from the past.  What is to be realized as an objective genitive may, even must, already be realized as a subjective genitive.

What is to be seen must already have been seen.

This is a knotted, highly complicated matter. But there can be no doubt that this sort of loop in time was critically important to McLuhan and, on his reading, to the whole western tradition.  As future posts will need to elaborate, this issue is central to such core concerns of his as:

  • the nature of cognition
  • the rearview mirror and the possibility of fresh perception (which turns on the nature of cognition)
  • the nature of the artist and of art (exercising fresh perception)
  • the discovery of discovery (turning on the possibility of fresh perception of fresh perception)
  • the nature of media as necessarily founded in the nature of perception and cognition (including their possible perversions)

The working of the loop in time may be seen in language learning by children.  A newborn child can hear sounds, but not as language. When it begins to hear certain sounds in its environment as significant (sign-ificant), it has begun to filter meaningful sounds from meaningless ones and to associate the meaningful sounds with their objects. Such filtering and such association is, however, already structured by the language which the child does not yet know. The question is, how does a child come to structure its experience in a way that corresponds to what it has yet to learn?  Here the pathway to is somehow defined from the goal that is to be reached.

The same considerations apply in spades to the first use of language by humans. In order to have begun to communicate, humans must have had the ability to take the pathway leading both to and from language. This is the archetypal example of the event that, as McLuhan came increasingly to stress,

in all structures of a simultaneous or acoustic character “effects” always precede “causes”. (‘The Medieval Environment’, 1974)

Plato3 accounts for this possibility of a loop in time by describing the life of the soul between lives in which it is exposed to “true being” (eg, to the forms of “justice” and “temperance”)4:

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; and they, when they behold here any image of that other world, are rapt in amazement; but they are ignorant of what this rapture means, because they do not clearly perceive. For there is no light of justice or temperance or any of the higher ideas which are precious to souls in the earthly copies of them: they are seen through a glass dimly; and there are [therefore only] few who, going to the images, behold in them the realities, and these only with difficulty. (Phaedrus 249e-250b, emphasis added)

Plato complicates time by introducing a time between the times of the soul’s plural lives and by appeal to a “recall” through which the diachronic time of souls in their different lifetimes can be broken through by the synchronic vision in depth (as McLuhan would say) “of the holy things which once they saw” in that previous time (which is always also the future time of the ‘next world’). Human experience is taken to consist of “images” and “copies” which appear on a kind of looking glass, a looking glass that obscures as much as it illuminates. Insight (in-sight), like that of the philosopher according to Plato, must penetrate through these images5 to the underlying forms of “true being” in an exercise of “recall” that rides the multi-dimensionality of time.

Plato and McLuhan (to mention only Plato and McLuhan) each followed this same labyrinthine complex which defines the western tradition.6 It is precisely this complex which is at stake in McLuhan’s appeal to “light through” as opposed to “light on”. When it learns language, a child has to “flip” from the latter to the former: it must cease taking sounds in its own way and instead put on its environment in order to begin to hear what is being communicated through those sounds. But as Plato and Aristotle already investigated, and as Thomas reiterated from them, the ground in play here turns on the nature of time. As discussed previously7, McLuhan repeatedly cited a passage from Aristotle which he found in the Summa Theologica. Here is his treatment of it in From Cliché to Archetype:

The basis of all paradox, Christian and secular, is to be found in the sixth book of the Physics of Aristotle, to which Aquinas refers in his Summa Theologica I.II.q 113.a.7, ad quintum. The question for Aquinas is whether justification by faith occurs in­stantly or gradually. Aquinas says it occurs instantly because — ­here he appeals to Aristotle’s Physics — ”the whole preceding time during which anything moves towards its form, it is under the opposite form”. (160)8

If a child learned language gradually, it would never come to learn it.  Zeno’s paradox would apply. Instead, a moment of illumination must occur in which a new structure of experience is sensed suddenly — a new structure for the child which is the existing structure of the child’s environment. As McLuhan continued the citation of Aristotle (following Thomas) in his letter to Maritain:

et in ultimo instanti illius temporis, quod est primum instans

The last moment of the old time suddenly becomes the first moment of the new.  But this ‘first’ (“primum”) is not only the start of a new diachronic series in correspondence with the child’s environment, it is above all the “recall” of what ‘first’ has to be in place in order for such a new series to be possible at all: the medium of the “both together” (word and object, mind and thing, language and world, speaker and hearer and, in particular here, the child’s old world and its new one). It is this enabling medium, this copula, that is the message.9

McLuhan considered these complications of time especially in his 1974 essay, ‘The Medieval Environment’. The first sentence of this essay declares:

I want to explore a theme concerning a new inter-relationship of past and present.

Such “a new inter-relationship of past and present” implicates that loop in time through which the diachronic order of “of past and present” is reversed:

in all structures of a simultaneous or acoustic character “effects” always precede “causes” (…) Acoustically, causes and effects are “simultaneous” or, in the practical order, effects really precede causes.  (‘The Medieval Environment’)

In learning a language, a child somehow senses its “effects” long before it comes to understand (ie, speaks) the “cause”. Considered diachronically, the language was ‘first’ in place in the child’s environment, indeed as the child’s environment; but what the child ‘first’ experiences are the “effects” of that “cause” (such as the significance of certain sounds like ‘mama’). Considered synchronically, however, the two are “simultaneous” since language is just such “effects”:

The synchronic approach (…) regards each moment or each facet of any situation as inclusive of the full range of the matters studied. (…) In synchronic terms (…) the effects [are] exercised simultaneously on whole situations, (‘The Medieval Environment’)

The “full range” or “whole situation” is that plenum of sounds and of rules of association — “language itself” — out of which any particular language represents a selection.  Language use may be imagined, as it was by Saussure and as McLuhan here salutes Saussure in calling “the synchronic approach”, as the ability to follow those structural selections which define any given particular language.10

In ‘The Medieval Environment’ McLuhan speaks of

 The flip from visual to acoustic order, from rational connectedness to intuitive insight.

He was able to predict this “flip” (as following from TV, say) because it had already occurred and, indeed, is always occurring. As the ontological gigantomachia — the dynamic relations of the gods and giants and child — such “flip” between the “colossal” forms of “true reality” is the basis of what will occur because it has occurred; and it has occurred because it always occurs. Language learning (indeed all learning whatsoever) performs this flip through “retrieval” and, since humans are humans through language, it is precisely the nature of human beings to be followers of this flip (as adherents and investigators, but also in the temporal sense).

Such a knotted complication of time and times is treated repeatedly by Eliot in Four Quartets. In ‘The Medieval Environment’ McLuhan cites two passages from the first (‘Burnt Norton’) and last (‘Little Gidding’) poems of Eliot’s cycle:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
(Burnt Norton, i)

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.
(Little Gidding, v)

“The end is where we start from” or, as Eliot concludes ‘East Coker’, “In my end is my beginning.”

Not cited in this essay by McLuhan, but central to the knotted complex at stake here, are further passages from Eliot’s cycle like the following:

Time past and time future
Allow but a little consciousness.
To be conscious is not to be in time
But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,
The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,
The moment in the draughty church at smokefall
Be remembered; involved with past and future. (Burnt Norton, ii)11

Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.
Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts,
Not that only, but the co-existence,
Or say that the end precedes the beginning,
And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.
And all is always now. (Burnt Norton, v, emphasis added)12

That “all is always now” is exactly not a collapse of time into an ‘eternal now’. Such collapse into singularity is what both the gods and the giants fight for — eternally unsuccessfully. Instead, as only the ontological child can see, the “all” that “is always now” is the crossing of times, plural, such that:

If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable. (Burnt Norton, i)13

Quick now, here, now, always  —
Ridiculous the waste sad time
Stretching before and after. (Burnt Norton v)

“All time” does not redeem because it includes incalculably much that required (and requires) redemption — but is now gone. And this will “always” be the case.

As will need to be considered in detail in future posts, McLuhan read Eliot continuously over a period of 45 years. He wrote to his family at some length about Eliot in 193414 and two of his last essays before his 1979 stroke were ‘Rhetorical Spirals in Four Quartets‘ (written for a volume of essays dedicated to Sheila Watson in 1978)15 and ‘The Possum and the Midwife’ (McLuhan’s 1978 Pound Lecture at the University of Idaho which takes its title from the complicated authorship of The Waste Land). Suffice it to note here that the plurality and other knotted complications of time, although conspicuously absent from McLuhan scholarship, were central considerations for him from the mid 1930’s when he began to read Eliot at Cambridge.16

Such complications are “the end and the beginning” of the perception of the ontological child since the child can neither be seen (as object), nor seen with (as subject), apart from the determination that “reality or the sum of things is both at once” (also, or especially, in regard to time and times17).

In the Four Quartets, too, it is the child who shows, or is, the way:

Other echoes
Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?
Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,
Round the corner. Through the first gate,
Into our first world (…)
Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
Hidden excitedly, containing laughter. (Burnt Norton i)

And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.

These lines from ‘Little Gidding’ (v, emphasis added) lead immediately to the conclusion of the cycle where “the fire and the rose” may be taken (among other things) as the times which cross in, or indeed, as the present (“Quick now, here, now, always”):

And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

This is the vision of the child (objective and subjective genitive!).

  1. The availability of coherent ontological perception at the ontic level has its ground in the event that difference between the ontological and the ontic is a reflex of the difference at the ontological level between the gods, giants and child. And since such fundamental difference is coherent at the ontological level (the position the child maintains against the gods and giants), so is it coherent between the ontological and ontic levels. These dynamic formalities are what McLuhan called “the usual but hidden processes of the present” (Take Today 22).
  2. These citations from Plato’s Republic 619 and Sophist 249 are discussed in McLuhan and Plato 89 and 10.
  3. Cf McLuhan and Plato 1
  4. These forms are structures of ontological balance as seen in (by) the child ‘holding to both’. As such, “justice” and “temperance” underlie language and communication generally and therefore also human being considered as the being that is defined by language.
  5. McLuhan appealed over and over again, of course, to Alice going ‘through the looking-glass’.
  6. It is no part of these McLuhan and Plato posts to claim that McLuhan was a Plato scholar. He certainly was not. The point is rather that the very different enterprises of the two are to be understood in regard to one and the the same underlying complex.
  7. Chrystall on time 2
  8. The passage from Aristotle found in Thomas is also cited by McLuhan, in Latin, in his letter to Maritain (May 6, 1969, Letters, 371) and in ‘The Medieval Environment’ (1974): “Aquinas (…) explained this paradoxical reversal of form (…) when he noted that during the preceding time, when anything is moving to a new form, it appears under the opposite form: Et ideo in toto tempore praecedenti, quo aliquid movetur ad unam formam, subest formae oppositae”.
  9. When a child flips into this medium of both-together in learning a language, it retrieves that form through which it was ‘first’ given life from the ‘both together’ of its parents. Their both together, in turn, retrieves the both together of ontological/ontic dispersal which, in its turn, retrieves the ontological child holding to both and the gigantomachia of which the ontological child is both part (as 1 of 3) and whole (as holding together the other 2).
  10. But since language defines human identity and not vice versa, who makes these selections and where and when is this ‘done’?
  11. Lines 3, 4 and 7 of this passage are cited in ‘Empedocles and T. S. Eliot’, 1976.
  12. The lines beginning “Only by the form” down to “stillness” cited in ‘Empedocles and T. S. Eliot’, 1976
  13. Cited by McLuhan in ‘Empedocles and T. S. Eliot’, 1976
  14. Dec 6, 1934, Letters 41, discussed in McLuhan and Plato 1 – Phaedrus and Er.
  15. Four Quartets also figure prominently in McLuhan’s 1976 essay ‘Empedocles and T. S. Eliot’.
  16. A year or so after beginning to study Eliot and Pound, McLuhan began reading Wyndham Lewis — beginning with Time and Western Man.
  17. McLuhan argued that historical epochs are above all characterized according to their emphasis on time as synchronic (“tribal man”) or diachronic (The Gutenberg Galaxy) or “both at once” (“the electric age”).  The parallel with Plato’s gigantomachia is clear. But the gigantomachia is “always now” such that these historical epochs were and are cut across by the times of the other epochs. Hence the recurrent possibility of perception that was and is not limited to that of its age: “Other echoes/Inhabit the garden.” So much for McLuhan’s purported ‘technological determinism’.

Subjective and objective genitive

The difference between the subjective and objective genitive is important for languages, like Greek and Latin, in which the genitive or possessive case has multiple functions. But although little attention is paid to it in a language like English which has lost its nominal cases, this distinction is highly important also in it. The objective genitive answers the question ‘of what?’ For example, ‘the child’ in ‘the experience of the child‘, if taken as an objective genitive, answers the question, ‘the experience of what?’. Here the child is the object of the experience. The subjective genitive, on the other hand, answers the question ‘whose?’, ‘belonging to whom?’ Hence, ‘the child’ in ‘the experience of the child‘, if taken as a subjective genitive, answers the question, ‘experience of whom?’, ‘whose experience?’ Here the child is the subject of the experience.

A related distinction concerns what may be termed weak and strong ambiguity in the genitive. Weak ambiguity may be seen in a phrase like ‘the color of the sky’. Here there is little distinction between the objective and subjective senses of the genitive. ‘The color of what‘ seems to cover both. Presumably this is because the sky may be thought (rightly or wrongly) to exercise little subjectivity (pace William Turner). In contrast, in ‘the experience of the child’, the difference between the objective and subjective senses of the genitive is strong.  Objectively there are a great many different possible experiences of a child.  Subjectively, too, experience belonging to a child varies over a great range.  As a result, definition in a phrase like ‘the experience of the child’ is much more demanding than it appears to be in a phrase like ‘the color of the sky’. The ambiguity of the genitive is stronger because the subjective aspect is marked.

McLuhan and Plato 10 – on the child and the child’s perception

Ξένος: ἀλλὰ δὴ τῷ μύθῳ μου πάνυ πρόσεχε τὸν νοῦν, καθάπερ οἱ παῖδες; πάντως οὐ πολλὰ ἐκφεύγεις παιδιὰς ἔτη. (Plato, Statesman 268e. ‘Stranger: Then please pay careful attention to my story, just as if you were a child; and anyway you are not much too old for children’s tales.’)

For McLuhan, like Plato, it is the child (and the childish artist like Plato’s childish philosopher) who is able to perceive the “breach” (Take Today, 91) or “gap of ignorance” (Take Today, 103) that is the abysmal medium of ontological — hence also ontic!complication.


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 249)


We can never see the Emperor’s new clothes, but we are staunch admirers of his old garb. Only small children and artists (…) perceive the new environment. Small children and artists are anti-social beings who are (..) little impressed by the established mores (‘The Emperor’s Old Clothes’, 1966, in György Kepes, The Man-made Object)

When the Emperor appeared in his new clothes, his courtiers did not see his nudity, they saw his old clothes. Only the small child and the artist have (…) perception of the environmental. (‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, 1968, in Through the Vanishing Point, 254, emphasis added).1

Under normal circumstances the emperor’s courtiers have no problem recognizing nudity. When they themselves are naked, they are quick to sense this.  When someone else is naked, they are even quicker on the uptake. What they cannot see is only the emperor’s nudity. In the imperial setting fear and sycophancy and habit work together to prevent the courtiers from perceiving what is directly before them. Only “small children and artists (…) who are (..) little impressed by the established mores” can see that there is nothing there at all: the emperor is butt naked.

The imperial setting concerns the whole — not only some particular environment, but all environments.  And not only all particular (ontic) environments, but all environments per se — ie, the ontological environment (of environments).  This is “the environmental” that “only small child and the artist have (…) perception of”.

Plato makes this point in regard to the interest that characterizes the philosopher as a philosopher:

Hearing of enormous landed proprietors of ten thousand acres and more, our philosopher deems this to be a trifle, because he has been accustomed to think of the whole earth; and when they sing the praises of family, and say that some one is a gentleman because he can show seven generations of wealthy ancestors, he thinks that their sentiments only betray a dull and narrow vision in those who utter them, and who are not educated enough to look at the whole (Theaetetus 174-175)2

In the ontological environment gaps and borders are abysmal since there is nothing deeper which could ground them. Ontology is as deep as it gets. Gaps and borders in ontology are black holes that are impossible to frame since they fall through any frame, including the ontological frame.

Now as discussed in McLuhan and Plato 9 – on the plain of oblivion, McLuhan attributes a childish “spirit of play” to the artist:

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 (McLuhan to Wilfrid Watson, Oct 8, 1959, Letters 257, emphasis added)

Such a “spirit of play” is characterized not only by a subjective freedom of perception, but also by what can objectively be sensed by that freedom, namely, the nudity of the Emperor. Because the artist and the child can assume “the poise between worlds”, they can sense what is there, namely nothing (“nudity”).  Conversely, because they can sense this absence — an absence that is equally a bridge3 — they are able to assume “the poise between worlds”.

The artist and the child are “abcedminded” in one of the good senses of the term4, namely absent-minded in the sense of being mindful of absence. McLuhan attributes this good sense to Joyce in ‘James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial’ (1953):

Whereas the ethical world of Ulysses is presented in terms of well-defined human types, the more metaphysical world of the Wake speaks and moves before us with the gestures of being itself. It is a nightworld and, literally, as Joyce reiterates, is “abcedminded”. (Emphasis added)

The spaces or borders between “the gestures of being itself” are abysmal voids without being (in both senses of ‘without’). They are yet essential to being in that, without them, the plurality and pluralizing of “the gestures of being itself ” could not be. Hence, as McLuhan notes in the same place concerning the artist:

He must become all things in order to reveal all. And to be all he must empty himself. Strictly within the bounds of classical decorum Joyce saw that, unlike the orator, the artist cannot properly speak with his own voice. The ultimate artist can have no style of his own but must be an “outlex” through which the multiple aspects of reality can utter themselves. That the artist should intrude his personal idiom between thing and reader is literally impertinence. (Emphasis added.)

Everything depends upon the perception of an essential absence that is ‘without being’; further, that this absence is transitive or metaphorical, bridging “the gestures of being itself ” with each other and at the same time linking “the [ontological] gestures of being itself ” with their concrete (ontic) expressions; further, that this transitivity cannot be singular5 and that it thereby implicates the intransitivity of the gods and the giants at the ontological level and the explosion of finite — ie, ultimately intransitive — particulars at the ontic level. In sum: “the gap is where the action is”. Or: “the medium is the message”. Or: everything depends on “understanding media”.

McLuhan continues the “abcedminded” passage above from ‘James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial’ as follows:

the Wake speaks and moves before us with the gestures of being itself. It is a nightworld and, literally, as Joyce reiterates, is “abcedminded.” Letters (“every letter is a godsend”)6, the frozen, formalized gestures of remote ages of collective experience, move before us in solemn morrice7. They are the representatives of age-old adequation of mind and things, enacting the drama of the endless adjustment of the interior acts and dispositions of the mind to the outer world. The drama of cognition itself.

In his last major work, Take Today, McLuhan designates this “adequation of mind and things”, this “adjustment of the interior acts and dispositions of the mind to the outer world”, this “drama of cognition itself” with the term “interplay”: 

Aquinas and Eliot share the classical idea of the “magical” interplay of mutual transformation that occurs between man and his world. (96)

It seems that it will be necessary to have a series of McLuhan and Aquinas posts and another series of McLuhan and Eliot ones. In any case, as the word “interplay” makes plain, and as the word “magical” further emphasizes, what is at stake here, from the classical world to Eliot, is the childish perception that “reality or the sum of things is both at once” aka “the spirit of play which is necessary to maintain the poise between worlds” (McLuhan to Wilfrid Watson, Oct 8, 1959, Letters 257, emphasis added).

αἰὼν παῖς ἐστι παίζων, πεττεύων· παιδὸς ἡ βασιληίη (Heraclitus, DK 52)

All time [αἰὼν] is a child playing [παῖς παίζων], playing with the pieces of a game; the kingdom [βασιληίη] is ruled by the child [παιδὸς]



  1. This passage also appears in ‘The Relation of Environment to Anti-Environment’, 1966.
  2. McLuhan’s chief point about “the electric age” is that it inherently implicates concern with the whole — the whole of the universe, the whole of nature, the whole of history, the whole of language, the whole of the psyche, etc etc. It thereby pushes us in the direction of Plato’s philosopher and of those childish perceptions which characterize his philosopher.
  3. If the absence were not equally a bridge it would not be between anything, it would not be a gap.
  4. All terms have multiple good and bad senses exactly because, as Plato’s child perceives, “reality or the sum of things is both at once”.
  5. No transitivity can be singular. But especially not that transitivity that is ontological and archetypal of all particular transitivities.
  6. This bracketed interpolation of a quotation from Joyce is McLuhan’s.
  7. Wordsworth, ‘To the Daisy’: “In shoals and bands, a morrice train,/Thou greet’st the traveller in the lane.” McLuhan’s “gestures (…) move before us in solemn morrice” seems to have been taken from Ulysses 2.155: “the symbols moved in grave morrice”.