Sense and senselessness 1 — Some sense?

Der ehrliche religiöse Denker ist wie ein Seiltänzer. Er geht, dem Anscheine nach, beinahe nur auf der Luft. – Sein Boden ist der schmalste, der sich denken läßt. Und doch läßt sich auf ihm wirklich gehen.1 Wittgenstein

One of the fundamental issues posed by McLuhan’s work lies in the question: can there be some sense? That is, is it possible for some things to make sense — the sciences, say — but for other things to remain senseless?2

Or may it be that there is no such thing as some sense — either because nothing at all makes sense, or because everything makes sense?

Nietzsche makes the former case that nothing at all makes sense, most pointedly in the unpublished early fragment ‘On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense’3

Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe (…) there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of “world history”, but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die. One might invent such a fable, and yet it still would not have adequately illustrated how miserable, how shadowy and transient, how aimless and arbitrary the human intellect looks within nature. There were eternities during which it did not exist. And when it is all over with the human intellect, nothing will have happened. For this intellect has no additional mission which would lead it beyond human life. Rather, it is human, and only its possessor and begetter takes it so solemnly — as though the world’s axis turned within it. But if we could communicate with the gnat, we would learn that he likewise flies through the air with the same solemnity, that he feels the flying center of the universe within himself.4 (…) It is remarkable that this [insight into its own nullity] was brought about by the intellect, which was certainly allotted to these most unfortunate, delicate, and ephemeral beings merely as a device for detaining them a minute within existence.

Nietzsche’s argument turns on the finding that the gap between our finite grasp of anything and that thing itself — the thing that would be grasped — can never be closed. Words are thus left hanging in the air, without achieved reference, and without any reality of their own once they themselves (‘they themselves’!) are the thing (the ‘thing’!) we would attempt to grasp:

we believe that we know something about the things themselves when we speak of trees, colors, snow, flowers [and words and ourselves] ; and yet we possess nothing but metaphors for things –- metaphors which correspond in no way to the original entities. (Ibid.)

That it makes no sense to speak of “original entities” in such a case is exactly Nietzsche’s point. Notably, it also makes no sense to speak of “metaphors” in this context since, in their case as well, these noises we make (me-ta-phor) “correspond in no way to the original entities”. Hence Nietzsche’s insight that “with the true world we also have abolished the apparent one”5 (aka the ‘metaphorical’ one). 

McLuhan, on the other hand, argues that it is exactly the metaphorical power of the irremedial gap between us and the things we address that is the very foundation of sense. Hence it is that truth and reality are not in his view to be found through the matching of thought/word and thing (via the collapse of the gap and of metaphor) but through making (the triumph of the gap and of metaphor). Not that human making on its own is able to achieve anything more than castles in the air — here Nietzsche was quite correct.  But McLuhan’s contention is precisely that human making is not — ‘on its own’. Instead, human making on the basis of a foundational medium of sense6 successfully communicates with other people and with things and even with gods. It is this foundational or grounding medium of sense that is the primal message/massage. 

McLuhan’s claim is precisely that everything ‘makes’ sense because it is sense that is the foundational ground of everything. A series of considerations may help to specify this claim. 

1. It is difficult to make the case that science fails to grasp real things. If anything, a nuclear bomb, say, seems all too real. Even Nietzsche was greatly impressed by science and thought it unreal, along with everything else, only in the absence of a cogent contrary position. Accepting that Nietzsche may have demonstrated only (only!) that certain premises are self-defeating (premises around which the world increasingly turns), the implication of the astonishing success of science in a great many fields is that sense does truly exist in some way and the resulting tasks are to specify that way and especially to understand its relation to senselessness.  

2. It is difficult on the other hand to see how a case for some sense (as exemplified by science, say) can be sustained if some massive senselessness can never be obviated. Must not such ultimate senselessness (like the foreseeable extinction of the solar system) swallow any and all purported sense over the long run? Here Nietzsche may be thought to have supplied the coup de grâce to the notion that sense and senselessness can co-exist over time (“eternal recurrence” being exactly ‘endless time’): “After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die.” 

3. The remaining possibility, that sense is fundamental, seems to be the only way to account for language learning and everything that language learning enables. For children learn language, not by interpreting it in terms of their natural lights, but by interpreting their natural lights in terms of it.7 That this instantaneous flip occurs at all, and that it then enables all the various arts and sciences, and the myriad social dealings humans have with one another, was taken by McLuhan to evidence the fundamentality of sense and hence the very metaphysical nature of the universe:

The ideal orator will be a man of encyclopedic8 knowledge because learning precedes eloquence. (…) “Every letter is a godsend”, wrote Joyce. And, much more, every word is an avatar, a revelation, an epiphany. For every word is the product of a complex mental act with a complete learning process involved in it. In this respect words can be regarded not as signs but as existent things, alive with a physical and mental life which is both individual and collective. (James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial 1953)

The timeless or simultaneous aspect of words leaps out at us (the literal sense of “object”) when they are used not as conventional signs but as metaphysical existents. (James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial 1953)

The pattern by which one learns one’s mother tongue is now being extended to all learning whatsoever.9 (McLuhan to John Snyder, Aug 4 1963, Letters 291)

A child does not learn language as a series of classified meanings. He learns language as he learns to walk, or to hear, or to see. He learns language as a way of feeling and exploring his environment. Therefore, he is totally involved. He learns very fast because of this enormous sensuous involvement and the resulting depth of motivation. (The Invisible Environment: The Future of an Erosion 1967)

In a word, that “pattern by which one learns one’s mother tongue” is the synchronic relation of human beings to sense. Were this relation diachronic — constructed — language would never be learned (and therefore never be) since, as McLuhan repeatedly cited Thomas citing Aristotle, “the whole preceding time during which anything moves towards its form, it is under the opposite form”.10 Not understanding language (“the opposite form”) can never bring about an understanding of language except via a transformation through which a completely new understanding is inaugurated. This new understanding has its basis in what is to be learned: “the whole preceding time during which anything moves towards its form”. But for an as yet unknown form to guide the way to itself through an “opposite form”, and to ground the required transformation into it from that “opposite form”, requires that it be existing foundation. This is the synchronic medium that is the message, the medium that is the massage into new identity and new possibilities of communication. 

In the 1969 Counterblast McLuhan observes:

The content of writing is speech; but the content of speech is mental dance, non-verbal ESP.

By ‘content’ here McLuhan means something like: the previous medium that any medium always re-plays (re-cognizes, re-trieves, re-calls, etc), like speech by writing or movies by TV.  But the medium re-played and recalled by the first use of speech by human beings was no previous human technology, for in McLuhan’s understanding there were no humans prior to speech. Instead the prior medium to speech is the medium of existence (dual genitive!) itself — what McLuhan terms in ‘Notes on the Media as Art Forms’ (Explorations 2, 1954) “the dance of existence” or here “mental dance, non-verbal ESP”.

It is this “dance of existence” itself that first of all enables humans to speak. It is always implicated in their speech, as a sort of “content”, but (as further brought out below) in a distorted way that allows its identification only by seeing through it to the other side of the mirror.

4. McLuhan was aware that the use of language of any sort, specifically including pre-historic (ie, pre-written) oral language in what he called “tribal” societies, arbitrarily abstracts from immediate contact with the surrounding world11 (‘immediate contact with the surrounding world’!) just as Nietzsche detailed.12 Although always in the context of discussion concerning the alphabet, McLuhan repeatedly referred to “meaningless phonemes” which are, however, not alphabetic particles but sound particles belonging to spoken language:

The phonemic principle is that there are in each language a limited number of elemental types of speech sounds, called phonemes, peculiar to that language; that all sounds produced in the employment of the given language are referable to its set of phonemes; that only its own phonemes are at all significant in the given language. (Laws of Media 14, citing Morris Swadesh, ‘The Phonemic Principle’, 1934, emphasis added)

Alphabetic aka visual abstraction only extends the abstraction that is already in force in any and all language use:

The role of language itself, as of any other medium, is to translate and transform being by “participation” and perception. (McLuhan to Jane Bret, January 3 1973, Letters  460)

The phonetic alphabet also served as a paradigm for the process of abstraction, for the written word is an abstraction of the spoken word which, in turn, is an abstraction from the holistic experience. (Alphabet Mother of Invention 1977)13

The basis of this abstraction is the phoneme. The irreducible meaningless bit of sound which is translated [in the alphabet] by a meaningless sign, the phoneme is the smallest sound unit of speech and it has no relation to concepts or semantic meanings. The phoneme is then a thing perceived on special fragmentary terms. (Havelock & McLuhan, The Early and Later Innis 1978, emphasis added)14

According to McLuhan, language does not arise from human perception and experience, but the reverse: human perception and experience, even thought, arise from language (which is one more indication that language — either in the individual or the species — is no cumulative achievement of a supposed ‘pre-linguistic’ state lacking “thought and perception as well as communication”):

language itself is the principal channel and view-maker of experience for men everywhere. (Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters 1954)

language structures the way in which man thinks and perceives the world. It is the medium of both thought and perception as well as communication. (Alphabet Mother of Invention 1977)

Human being and language use are, therefore, as McLuhan often observed, co-extensive. But since language inherently abstracts and irremedially distances at the same time that it illuminates

the sin committed by HCE in Phoenix park is language itself i.e. the ultimate self-exhibitionism, the ultimate uttering. This is all in the Wake around p. 506 ff. This uttering is the means of taking HCE out of the woods into the world of the self-consciousness and guilt. (McLuhan to Wilfrid Watson, summer 1965)

Because phonemes are meaningless aside from their context within languages, and because languages are social constructs presupposing what McLuhan often called a “do-it-yourself” principle15, human beings and their languages are unable on their own to establish any relation to reality. Words as agglomerations of phonemes “correspond in no way to the original entities” they would designate and therefore have, as McLuhan said, “no relation to concepts or semantic meanings”. In the event, the notions of “original entities” and of “words” (as one class of “original entities”) and of “designation” (as the relation between these unrealities) fall away, just as Nietzsche described. With them go any and all “meanings”. “The ultimate uttering” proves in this way only to be an “outering” and not meaningful “uttering” at all.

McLuhan was clear that this entire story is self-defeating (as Nietzsche himself insisted, “self-defeating” being his verdict on the human adventure) and insistently diachronic. But modern science (even social science like Saussure’s linguistics) and modern art are, McLuhan maintained, primarily synchronic. And history is replete with different notions of time than the purely diachronic — only Gutenbergian civilization assumes its exclusive domination. It follows (since the diachronic possibility is senseless and alternate accounts are available) that some other story (or perhaps stories) must be the case. 

McLuhan’s contrary suggestion was that humans have a synchronic relation to a foundation of sense and that this accounts not only for the initial learning of language, but also for the ongoing performance of language as it is exercised in human society at large and in particular in the arts and sciences. Although never capable of matching correspondence with the real (here Nietzsche was prescient), human making, while always incomplete and therefore to some degree arbitrary, achieves genuine communication with other humans and with the surrounding world16 beyond its own its constructive ability to do so — given (and only given) the medium in which and on the basis of which it operates.

McLuhan’s repeated allusion to fish being the last to recognize water was therefore no mere illustrative simile.  He thought it demonstrable that human beings are fish who do not recognize the medium in which they live and without which they could not be — the waters of intelligibility. Human history is largely the story of this remarkable blindness, Joyce’s “nightmare from which I am trying to awake”.17

It followed for McLuhan that all human perception is always a (usually unknown and unacknowledged) retrieval or replay of the original synchronic relation to the foundational ground or medium of sense through which language is first learned and then exercised in human “thought and perception as well as communication”:

The poetic process is a reversal, a retracing of the stages of human cognition. It has and will always be so; but with Edgar Poe and the symbolists this central human fact was taken up to the level of conscious awareness. It then became the basis of modern science and technology. That is what Whitehead meant when he said that the great event of the nineteenth century was the discovery of the technique of discovery. (Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters 1954)

5. It is the fundamentality of sense that continues to enable human beings, throughout their individual lifetimes and throughout history, to be addressed by language, and indeed by things, instead of merely addressing them in the RVM (rear-view mirror).18 As evidenced first of all by the learning of language, and then by all the arts and sciences that arise through language, humans beings are not restricted to the mere reception of things on the basis of what they already know (or think they know). Instead, human beings can be, and are, freely trans-formed and in-formed — massaged — by words and things in such a way that they come to learn what those words mean and what those things are.19

The first section of Through the Vanishing Point begins:

The word itself as evocative power, not a sign.
Fusion with the natural process. “Weed in a river am I.” An artist might have said: “Used by the words, am I.”
There is no question here of privacy or private identity, but a free flow of corporate energy.20

It is this fundamental “free flow of corporate energy” — the ubiquity of sense — that McLuhan saw as underlying all human culture including, especially, modern culture: 

In Mallarmé the Word has no theological overtones. It is rather a return to the pre-Christian doctrine of the Logos which included ratio et oratio and was the element in which all men were thought to move and have their being. Mallarmé did not approach this question as a speculative one, but as a practical matter of poetics. (T. S. Eliot [Review of Eleven Eliot Books] 1950)

6. What then to make of senselessness if it is not all-annihilating, as Nietzsche argued, but also is not some independent power competing with sense? If McLuhan did not take sense to be limited by senselessness, did he believe that the senseless death of a child (for example) might ultimately be seen to make some kind of terrible sense? No, McLuhan had, if anything,  a clearer view of human folly and the general reign of senselessness than the rest of us. But he also saw that senselessness, indeed the very possibility of senselessness, arises through the seriousness with which sense or meaning entails relationship and relationship entails plurality:

Nothing has its meaning alone. Every figure must have its ground or environment . A single word, divorced from its linguistic ground, would be useless. A note in isolation is not music. Consciousness is corporate action involving all the senses (Latin sensus communis or “common sense” is the translation of all the senses into each other). The “meaning of meaning” is relationship21. (Take Today 3)22

Sense restricted to itself would not be sense. “There is no question here of privacy or private identity, but a free flow of corporate energy.” Hence the association continually stressed by McLuhan of ‘sense’ with ‘extension’. As implied by its etymological ties to ‘direction’,23 sense inherently ex-presses itself out to, and with, another: it ex-ists as dia-logue. It is essentially “corporate”. But the extreme extended other of sense is — senselessness. Hence it is that sense and meaning, as inherently dia-logical, do not remain in some crystal palace of purity, but utter/outer themselves in “free flow to, even as, the possibility of senselessness:

dialogue as a process of creating the new came before, and goes beyond, the exchange of “equivalents” that merely reflect or repeat the old. (Take Today 22)24

It is this inherent creativity of sense — the “process of creating the new [that] came before, and goes beyond” — which opens the possibility, even the necessity, of senselessness. But this ex-pression of sense (objective genitive) so little contradicts or empties sense that it is the sign of sense (subjective genitive). This ex-pression out of itself is what sense is“There is no question here of privacy or private identity, but a free flow of corporate energy.”

7. This free dramatic structure of sense is synchronic, not (or not only and not first of all) diachronic. When sense ex-presses itself outwardly to the extreme of senselessness it does not utterly (outerly) lose itself or, contrariwise, initiate an historical process through which it eventually comes to itself. Instead, its free outflow is immediately its assured inflow: “The timeless or simultaneous aspect of words leaps out at us (the literal sense of ‘object’)” (James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial 1953).

Sense as dramatic dia-logue is what it is in the “timeless or simultaneous” creation and   maintenance of compound difference which yet remains in communicative correlation:

The “meaning of meaning” is relationship.

So it is that a foundational synchronic dynamic of identity and difference — aka, of sense or meaning — structures all the contrasted pairs considered by McLuhan:

eye / ear
visual / oral
visual space / acoustic space
diachrony / synchrony
print / speech
left hemisphere / right hemisphere
civilized / tribal
cliché / archetype
concept / percept
C/M / C-M
mechanical / electric
figure (without ground) / ground (with figure)25

Some observations in The Global Village concerning visual and acoustic space and the hemispheres of the brain apply to all these pairs:

visual and acoustic space are always present in any human situation, even if Western civilization has (…) tamped down our awareness of the acoustic. (GV 55, emphasis added) 

No matter how extreme the dominance of either hemisphere in a particular culture, there is always some degree of interplay between the hemispheres… (GV 62, emphasis added)26

In each of the listed pairs, an uncollapsible difference is installed via a “gap” between the two; but both of the two are always present in their irreducible plurality and they always remain in dynamic relation with one another. Such is the synchronic medium of sense on the basis of which all things occur. There is always both plurality and relation:

no sense can operate in isolation from all the others and no medium can exist by itself. (Title VII Research Abstract [Report on Project in Understanding New Media], 1961)

the concentric pattern is imposed by the instant quality, and overlay in depth, of electric speed. But the concentric with its endless intersection of planes is necessary for insight. In fact, it is the technique of insight, and as such is necessary for media study, since no medium has its meaning or existence alone, but only in constant interplay with other media. (UM, 26)

8. Human beings are subject to this gapped medium of sense in an extraordinary way. For humans have a free or distanced or gapped relation to it. “We live mythically but continue to think fragmentarily and on single planes” (UM 25).  This is the motor of diachronic history, the story McLuhan tells of the diachronic trajectory from “the tribal” through the alphabet and Gutenberg to “the electric” — a diachronic trajectory which yet never fails to observe its underlying synchronic law of identity and difference.

This gapped relation of humans to the gapped ground of sense means that we are its sign — in humans and in humans alone sense manifests that extreme outreach into senselessness whereby beings attempt to take over sense on their own. This is another story McLuhan tells — of Babel — to which McLuhan returned again and again.

Only in humans is it possible and indeed usual to emphasize or prefer or stress one of the two elements in McLuhan’s pairs — pairs whose explicit consideration goes back to the Greeks and whose implicit consideration is what human society ceaselessly goes on about.

Humans as the extreme senselessness of sense can never escape the role they play within the need of sense to go “beyond the exchange of ‘equivalents’ that merely reflect or repeat the old”. Human being, exactly in its failure to respect “equivalence”, is the kenotic fulfillment of this need of sense for that plurality or distance from itself through which it synchronically maintains itself in and as “dialogue”.

Here is McLuhan to Jackie Tyrwhitt Dec 23, 1960: “irrelevance is a needed margin for any kind of attention or center. In the field of attention27, a center without a margin is the formula for hypnosis, stasis and paralysis” (Letters, 278). The “irrelevance” of humans is the “needed margin” in which the the “stasis” of sense is definitively overcome in dynamic outreach.

One peculiarity of center-margin relationships is that when freedom of interplay between these areas breaks down in any kind of structure, the tendency is for the center to impose itself upon the margin. In the field of attention which we call perception, when the center enlarges and the margin diminishes beyond a certain a certain point, we are in that induced state called hypnosis. The dialogue has ended. (McLuhan to Serge Chermayeff, Dec 19, 1960)

Hence McLuhan’s citation from the I Ching regarding creativity or innovation or “the free flow of corporate energy” that

“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.” (Take Today 22)

The “true strength” of guidance has its mobility in its not “being outwardly visible” to and in humans

  1. “An honest religious thinker is like a tightrope walker. He almost looks as though he were walking on nothing but air. His support is the slenderest imaginable. And yet it really is possible to walk on it.”
  2. The generality of this question should be startling and it is simply not understood if it does not startle. But most people are unable to pose it (even those who don’t mindlessly fail to consider the sense of things at all) because they are utterly convinced that some things — in fact a great many things — don’t make sense and can’t make sense. Such as all the needless suffering and death that has characterized history from the beginning of time and that continues to do so as we speak.  Or all our own idiocies. Or the beginning and end of things. In the face of these black holes of senselessness, it can seem crazy to wonder if there is some foundational sense to things — an assumption that defines the modern world. Moreover, when one’s insight is necessarily limited by a host of factors (as McLuhan’s was, just like the rest of us), how make such a judgement at all — or, at least, how do so conscientiously?
  3. See here for references, the original German and further discussion.
  4. Cf Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground, 1864, Pevear and Volokhonsky translation: “This was a torment of torments, a ceaseless, unbearable humiliation from the thought, which would turn into a ceaseless and immediate sensation, of my being a fly before that whole world, a foul, obscene fly — more intelligent, more developed, more noble than everyone else — that went without saying — but a fly, ceaselessly giving way to everyone, humiliated by everyone, insulted by everyone.”
  5. See here for references and further discussion.
  6. ‘Medium of sense’ is an objective genitive when it is construed as the medium through which sense is generated and sustained. The medium of what? of sense! This is the foundational medium that is the message as being the basis and germ of all messages. But the ‘medium of sense’ may also be construed as a subjective genitive. The medium belonging to what? to sense! For McLuhan followed that ancient tradition of the Logos according to which the world is first created and shaped by the intentional — sensible — Word.
  7. A citation in War and Peace in the Global Village from The Senses by Otto Lowenstein throws an interesting light in this context: “Seeing seems to be a rather calculating business, and all this makes one wonder whether one can ever ‘see’ something of which one has had no previous knowledge. We gain this impression also from patients, blind from childhood, on whom normal vision has been bestowed by an operation. Previous to this ‘opening of the eyes ‘, they had been living in a world of tactile experience, of sound and scent, full of objects familiar to them in terms of their restricted range of sensory experience. How they shrink at first from the welter of additional stimulation, longing at times to return to the relative seclusion of their former world! One of the most striking facts is that it takes a lot of time and effort before they recognize the objects around them as separate items. They have gradually to learn to ‘make sense of them’ by associating their visual appearance with their tactile and other properties familiar to them. ‘At first sight’ the world looks like a flat extension of meaningless patches of light, dark, and color jumbled up into a quilt work. One by one objects grow out of this chaotic world, and remain unmistakably separate once they have been identified. A student of microscopy experiences something similar. A meaningless jumble of shapes defies description, until the demonstrator has drawn on paper one or the other specific shapes to be searched for. The saying ‘seeing is believing’ may fittingly be reversed in this context into ‘believing is seeing.” (WPGV 10-11, emphasis added) The same considerations apply to language learning, except that before language is learned there can be no “demonstrator” whose words help one along. It would seem that language learning must be based on something that is inherent, not itself learned (as Chomsky argues).
  8. “Encyclopedic knowledge” is not knowledge of every detail of every matter, but knowledge of the nature of the whole, knowledge of the entire ‘cycle’ of things.
  9. Cf Sense and senselessness 2 — Wittgenstein on language and language learning
  10. Cited by McLuhan in English translation in CA (160) and in Latin in ‘The Medieval Environment’ and in a May 6, 1969 letter to Jacques Maritain (Letters, 371).
  11. Language also abstracts from our own senses and our own selves! Cf McLuhan to Serge Chermayeff Dec 19, 1960: “in preliterate societies where the auditory is supreme as the mode of organizing experience, there is a deprivation of value in the other senses equivalent to the worst excesses of abstract visuality and pictorial space.” Such pre-literate and literate abstraction can never be recalled in a ‘simultaneous’ world where all past and future is present. Instead, the question must be posed: how do abstraction and integration each enable the other?
  12. Cf McLuhan to Pound (July 25, 1951, Letters 228-229): Joyce “decided that the poetic process was nothing else than the process of cognition. That sensation itself was imitation since the forms of things in our sensation are already in a new matter.” (Emphasis in the original.) Also: “That there is, however, a degree of poetic imitation in abstraction itself, is plain from the fact that even in sensation ‘things exist in the soul without their proper matter, but with the singularity and individuating conditions which are the result of matter’ (St. Thos., De Anima, article 13). That this is so is the effect of the nous poietikos, which has the power of individuating anew in a bodily organ that which it has abstracted from existence. ‘For in things made by art the action of an instrument is terminated in the form intended by the artisan’ (St. Thos., De Anima, article 12). Again, ‘For every object produced by art is the effect of the action of an artificer, the agent intellect being related to the phantasms illuminated by it as an artificer is to the things made by his art’ (article 5).” (‘Joyce, Aquinas, and the Poetic Process’) 1951
  13. There is no such thing as pre-linguistic “holistic experience”,  of course.  It follows, as Nietzsche saw, that humans are an abstraction per se.
  14. The transcript of these lectures printed in the Innis Herald has “the reducible meaningless bit of sound” which is an obvious transcription error or misprint. A section of the first chapter of Laws of Media is based on McLuhan’s remarks with Havelock and corrects this error on Laws of Media 14.
  15. Cf Thomas as cited by McLuhan in ‘Joyce, Aquinas, and the Poetic Process’: “For in things made by art the action of an instrument is terminated in the form intended by the artisan (St. Thos., De Anima, article 12).”
  16. Cf ’James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial’ (1953): “the (…) 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.”
  17. But human history also has an opposite current in which individuals and institutions — for McLuhan chiefly the Catholic Church — maintain the memory and the living reality of an underlying source of life and buoyancy.
  18. In his first published paper, ‘G. K. Chesterton: A Practical Mystic’ (1936), McLuhan wrote of “the daily miracles of sense and consciousness”. Then in 1970, as cited by Eric McLuhan in The Medium and the Light: “a thing has to be tested on its terms. You can’t test anything in science or in any part of the world except on its own terms or you will get the wrong answers.” (xvii) The great question is, how is relation to the “own terms” of a thing or a word possible given the multiple biases and limitations of all “sense and consciousness”? McLuhan thought about this question his whole life.  That is, he kept hammering away at it in an attempt to get clear about it both for himself and for others.
  19. Cf, again, ’James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial’ (1953): “the (…) 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.”
  20. McLuhan has not received sufficient credit for the periodic brilliance of his writing (in fact his writing is usually dismissed as completely artless).  But this sentence — “There is no question here of privacy or private identity, but a free flow of corporate energy” — evidences great subtlety. It contrasts “private” to “corporate” identity, of course, but at the same time it also specifies the condition of words functioning with “evocative power” such that we are “used” and trans-formed by them. Namely, that “there is no question here of privacy or private identity”. That is, not only does “private identity” present no barrier to the “free flow of corporate energy” exercised by words, but “private identity” somehow results from that “flow” as from a “formal cause”.  And is even the sign of that “free flow” exactly in its own “privacy”. The same sort of complex play may be seen at work in a phrase cited above from ‘James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial’: “The timeless or simultaneous aspect of words leaps out at us.” What leaps out to our understanding is that words as “evocative power” leap out to us to shape who we are. And both examples express at the same time McLuhan’s fundamental insight that is “natural” to ground to be “evocative” by providing — or by being — “a free flow of corporate energy” from itself without regard for its “privacy or private identity”. Indeed, it is only because ground has this nature that human beings can follow suit, without blockage from their “privacy or private identity”, in aligning themselves (or finding themselves aligned) with its “free flow”.
  21. Cf “The meaning of meaning … is meaning.” (McLuhan’s LP, The Medium is the Massage, 1968)
  22. This is the second paragraph of Take Today. As is generally the case with any author, special attention must be paid to the beginning and end of McLuhan’s texts.
  23. ‘Sense’ as ‘direction’ is very common in the Romance languages (sens uniquesenso unicosentido único) and in German (SinnRichtungssinn).
  24. McLuhan’s observation here expresses in nuce his entire work.  But it also reaches back into the work of the tradition. Kierkegaard, for example, makes the same point in Repetition (Gjentagelse 1843) in a closely related way: “The dialectic of repetition is easy, for that which is repeated has been — otherwise it could not be repeated — but the very fact that it has been makes the repetition into something new.” (Hong’s translation, 149) Amplifying Kierkegaard’s expression in the way indicated by McLuhan yields what may be the more helpful statement: “The dialectic of repetition is easy, for that which is repeated has been — otherwise it could not be repeated — but the very fact that it has (come to be as original/originating creativity) makes (its) repetition into something new (original and creative).”
  25. C/M / C-M is McLuhan’s shorthand for ‘centre with marginalization’ and ‘centre without marginalization’. His guiding motivation may be put in these terms as the attempt to be worthy of a centre which maintains itself through marginalization and thus redeems the marginal back to the centre.
  26. McLuhan decisively rejected the reduction of structural oppositions to an over-riding unity — “merger” — as “rationalistic” and “gnostic”.  ‘Nihilism Exposed’ (1955) put the matter 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, and by sheer abstraction at the other. (…) 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’.” Six years before, in ‘Mr. Eliot’s Historical Decorum’ (1949), McLuhan made the same point: “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.”
  27. “The field of attention” here is ambiguous. One the one hand it means the world (“field”) as beheld or attended; on the other it names a peculiar new discipline (“field”) of investigation, one that would study “any kind of attention or center”. That the latter may have been what McLuhan chiefly had in mind may be taken from his use elsewhere in this same letter to Tyrwhitt of the peculiar phrase “the field of nuclei”. The notion is that every sort of human experience implicates a distinctive configuration of the sensus communis or ‘nucleus’. Mapping the range (“field” again) of such “nuclei” would therefore provide a way of investigating experience as a new “field” of exploration.

2 thoughts on “Sense and senselessness 1 — Some sense?

  1. McEwen Post author

    “Waiting” is the mode of RVM, Mark. Taking Nietzsche seriously (which is different from saluting him) is a door through which thinking, if it is not to disappear from this earth, must go.

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