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”.

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