Monthly Archives: April 2015

Autobiography – encountering Maritain

My first encounter with your work was at Cambridge University in 1934. Your Art and Scholasticism was on the reading list of the English School. (McLuhan to Jacques Maritain, May 6, 1969, Letters 371)

It was in 1934-6, when I was an undergraduate at Cambridge in England, that I encountered the writings of Jacques Maritain. Art and Scholasticism was featured on the shelves of our English department library, and I had a glorious time discovering that art and the art process were essentially intellectual in character. In those years I was deeply interested in things Catholic, having started in that direction under G.K. Chesterton whose What ‘s Wrong with the World I had read in 19321. From that time I read everything I could get my hands on by Maritain, and have kept fairly well up on all of his works.
Part of the excitement in reading Maritain was the awareness that he was saying something new about something very old, so that there was the excitement of discovery and of sharing this discovery with one’s contemporaries. I discovered Maritain simultaneously with the work of I. A. Richards, and T. S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound, and James Joyce, and Wyndham Lewis. All of these people seem to relate to each other in many different ways, and each seems to enrich the other. Along with the work of contemporary painters and ballet and the world of Sergei Eisenstein and music, one had the experience of a very rich new culture, in which the great intellectual Maritain was a notable ornament. Maritain helped to complete the vortex of significant components in a single luminous logos of our time. (McLuhan to John Dunaway, September 1, 1976, Letters 521)

  1. This should probably be 1931 given McLuhan’s diary entry from July of that year: “Few writers, yes I can say, no other writer, has ever before been able to arouse my enthusiasm for ideas as has G.K.” (Escape, 32)

Key texts #2 — SI/SC revisited as “cliché­-probes”

It could be argued that McLuhan never thought about anything other than a spectrum of “modes of experience”, each conceived as a combination of “sensory input” (SI) and “sensory completion” (SC). But his explicit use of these SI-SC terms was limited. He used them extensively in his 1960 Report on Understanding New Media, and in letters around this time, took them up again in TVP (1968) (considered in Key Texts #1), and then returned to them once more in From Cliché to Archetype (1970).  Here is a key passage in this 1970 book: 

The Oriental world has, on the whole, tried to anesthetize itself against the inputs of sensation because of its thousands of years of knowledge of the experiential effects of the inputs. The West, in contrast, has tried to maximize the sensational inputs and to minimize the experiential effects. It is useful to have a shorthand for this pattern of input and response: SI/SC — sensory input or impact and sensory closure or involvement. Today the roles of East and West seem to be shifting. The Orient is more inclined today to give the SI side of things a go, while the West, undergoing retribalization, may appear to be already satiated with involve­ment and participation of SC. The outer trip has been specialist and Western. The inner trip has been echological and Oriental. Both kinds of trips are cliché­probes. Each has its own methods and preferences of retrieval from the rag-and-bone shop of past experience. The outer trip prefers to retrieve antiquities or archetypes. The inner trip prefers the probing cliché world of the module. (From Cliché to Archetype,13-14)

This text may well seem hasty, if not fundamentally confused, an effect deriving especially from two sections of it.  First, the phrase “knowledge of the experiential effects of the inputs” in the initial sentence seems a very strange way to describe what earlier in the same sentence is called the attempt “to anesthetize (…) against the inputs of sensation”.  How have “knowledge of the experiential effects of (,..) inputs” by anesthetizing against them? Second, it seems equally puzzling to characterize the West as “already satiated with involve­ment and participation of SC” when everywhere else in the text the West is equated with SI. While a flip from SI to SC would be strange enough, the characterization of such a flip as “already satiated” seems bizarre. Already? Satiated?

An attempt to come to grips with the text might begin by amplifying it with additions, many taken from different parts of itself:

The Oriental world has anesthetized itself against the inputs of sensation [ie, against their revolutionary “impact”] because of [= through] its thousands of years of knowledge of the experiential effects of the inputs [= through intense subjective “involve­ment and participation” with those inputs such that their negative “impact” is ameliorated]. The West, in contrast, has tried to maximize the [revolutionary effects of] sensational inputs and [thereby moved] to minimize the experiential effects [of subjective “involve­ment and participation” with them]. It is useful to have a shorthand for this pattern of input and response: SI/SC — sensory input or impact and sensory closure or involvement. Today the roles of East and West seem to be shifting. The Orient is more inclined today to give the SI side of things a go, while the West [is more inclined to give the SC side of things a go. This trend in the West appears as if it were] undergoing retribalization [in some ways, such that its younger generations] may appear to be already satiated with involve­ment and participation of SC. The outer trip [SI] has been specialist and Western. The inner trip [SC] has been echological [implicating back and forth “involve­ment and participation”] and Oriental. Both kinds of trips are cliché-­probes. Each has its own methods and preferences of retrieval from the rag-and-bone shop of past experience. The outer trip [SI] prefers to retrieve antiquities or archetypes [or scientific laws or theorems, all of which it isolates ‘on their own’ by ruthlessly suppressing SC]. The inner trip [of the Oriental world or of the space shot] prefers the probing cliché world of the [self-enclosed] module [where strict SC — as ancestor worship or as a technologically fabricated environment — dominates SI].

Once the passage is augmented in this way, it is important to consider not only what it has to say, but also how McLuhan (and Watson?) chose to say it. And why this choice was made. This post will examine the first question  (in the main), but future posts will need to investigate the latter two at length.

In the most puzzling sections of the text, McLuhan appears to have run together several different lines of thought. These different lines of thought may be teased apart as follows…

He proposes in the first place to analyze “modes of experience” in terms of a singular, but variable, complex: “It is useful to have a shorthand for this [recurring] pattern of input and response”. The central thought here is that all experience has, or is, some variety of a singular “pattern” or form (much as all physical materials exhibit some variety of the elementary structure).

In the second place, he proposes that this pattern and its variations are best approached through focus on two essential components of it: “input and response”, SI and SC. Here it is important to note that SC or “sensory closure” is not conceived as an enclosure or as a barricade, but as an action of “response” and of “involvement and participation” with SI. Indeed, all experience must have both SI and SC. If only one component part of the pattern were present, only “input” or only “response”, only SI or only SC, the required “pattern” of experience would not be present and there would be no experience. SC does not, and cannot ever, operate in the absence of SI, just as SI does not, and cannot ever, operate in the absence of SC.

But, in the third place, in order to achieve the recommended focus, it is necessary to understand the two essential components of it on their own. Similarly, elements must be approached in terms of their particular structure of electrons and protons, but in order to achieve this approach it is necessary to understand what electrons and protons are. So when McLuhan writes of “the Orient” and “the West”, his intent is not to reference all experience in these rather inchoate areas, but to define SI and SC apart from concrete manifestations in which both are always present and always mixed. An unreal “Orient” and an unreal “West” are used to describe the unreal situation of SI or SC on their own.

In the fourth place, once a recommended method of analysis is in place, it is necessary to see how it may be used to investigate concrete matters around us. This helps to specify the method and to proof it. In this mode, McLuhan looked at hair and clothes fashions, children’s toys, sizes of cars, styles of dancing, advertising, war, etc etc etc. If chemistry is chemistry only because all materials are chemical, and similarly with physics and biology, McLuhan insisted that nothing in experience could fall outside the purview of the sort of analytic of experience he was proposing. This is one important implication of his mantra that he had no point of view and took no moral position.

Lastly, precisely because the pattern of experience is fundamentally variable and there is, therefore, no singular instance of it that is definitive or normative in all respects, all particular “modes of experience” may be regarded as clichés separated (and necessarily separated) from the archetypal “rag and bone shop of the heart” (“where all the ladders start”, as Yeats has it). Any “mode of experience” represents a limited selection from a “plenary” range before it (where ‘before’ must be understood in multiple senses). Any sample of experience, including any attempt to analyze experience like McLuhan’s own, is necessarily limited in this way and any fitting presentation of it must keep this factor of limitation front and center.1

The key text represents a kind of compromise expression of these different currents of thought. But McLuhan’s evident contentment with such a ‘compromise expression’ itself demands consideration. In fact, he did this himself for us:

You do not seem to have grasped that the message as it relates to the medium, is never the content, but the (…) effects of the medium as an environment of service and disservice.(…) I have always assumed that the user of any medium is the content. The person who turns on an electric light is the content of the electric light, just as the reader of a book is the content of a book. This is standard Aristotelian and Thomistic doctrine, that the cognitive agent is himself thing and content. (…) My canvasses are surrealist, and to call them ‘theories’ is to miss my satirical intent altogether. As you will find in my literary essays, I can write the ordinary kind of rationalistic prose any time I choose to do so. (McLuhan to Bill Kuhns, December 6, 1971, Letters, 448)

 Similarly to Ralph Cohen (July 13, 1973):

Since ‘communication’ means change, a theory of communication most naturally concentrates on the sort of public with which they [authors/artists] felt themselves to be confronted. It is this public which always affects the structures which the performer chooses to adopt, and it is this public which he seeks to shape and alter in some way.

It would seem that the effort required to untangle2 McLuhan’s prose, especially the prose he turned out in the last 15 years of his life, was an important factor in his composition of it. Or, perhaps better put, in his decision not to put much effort into the construction of it as polished prose. The central question may have been: How to attempt to elicit thought once more — aka the effort of untangling — in a civilization gone brain-dead (despite its mountains of polished prose)?

  1. McLuhan’s evident satisfaction with hasty composition has one of its motivations here — somewhat like abstract expressionism in painting, perhaps. This also explains his suspicion of the cliché/archetype opposition, since any attempt to describe an archetype is necessarily limited and therefore necessarily cliché. A further factor may have been the idea that he had from I.A. Richards that subsequent correction is more important to analysis than initial perfection: “The neglect of the study of the modes of metaphor in the later 19th Century was due, I think, to a general feeling that those methods of inquiry were unprofitable, and the time was not ripe for a new attack. I am not sure that it is yet ripe in spite of all that Coleridge and Bentham did towards ripening it. Very likely a new attempt must again lead into artificialities and arbitrarinesses. If so, their detection may again be a step (ahead) on the road. In this subject it is better to make a mistake that can be exposed than to do nothing, better to have any account of how metaphor works (…) than to have none. (…) And progress here (…) comes chiefly from profiting by our mistakes” (I.A. Richards, The Philosophy of Rhetoric, 1936, 115-116). Richards gave these lectures in the U.S. in 1936, but McLuhan heard what must have been substantially the same lectures in Cambridge the year before. His lecture notes on them are retained in his papers in Ottawa. A passage from the preface to The Meaning of Meaning by Richards and Ogden (1923) goes to a related point: “Convinced as they are of the urgency of a stricter examination of language from a point of view which is at present receiving no attention, the authors have preferred to publish this essay in its present form rather than to wait, perhaps indefinitely, until, in lives otherwise sufficiently occupied, enough moments of leisure had accumulated for it to be rewritten in a more complete and more systematized form. They are, they believe, better aware of its failings than most critics will suppose, and especially of those due to the peculiar difficulties which a fundamental criticism of language inevitably raises for the expositors thereof.”
  2. Cf Richards: “In all interpretation we are filling in connections, and for poetry, of course, our freedom to fill in the absence of explicitly stated intermediate steps is a main source of its powers. As Mr. Empson well says (in his Seven Types of Ambiguity, p. 32),  ‘Statements are made as if they were connected, and the reader is forced to consider their relations for himself. The reason why these statements should have been selected is left for him to invent; he will invent a variety of reasons and order them in his own mind. This is the essential fact about the poetical use of language.’ The reader, I would say, will tryout various connections, and this experimentation — with the simplest and the most complex, the most obvious and the most recondite collocations alike — is the movement which gives its meaning to all fluid language.” (Philosophy of Rhetoric, 125)

Autobiography – McLuhan’s place in Canada and in the arts

In a short entry in The Concise Encyclopedia of English and American Poets and Poetry (ed Spender & Hall, 1963) under the heading ‘Canadian Poetry’, McLuhan reflected on Canada and its arts. It is a description (given here in abbreviated and rearranged form) which may be taken to specify what he took to be his own place in them. 

From the colonial beginnings until 1920, Canadian poets accepted the fate of outer landscape as the formula for inner states of mind, if only because this pattern had been worked out by the [English] Romantics on the basis of Newton’s Opticks.

Alienation from the medium of speech as such has been a special Canadian problem, because Canadians began to write poetry just when English poets had shifted the stress in poetry away from speech to the presentation of mental states by means of descriptions of landscape. Canada has a macroscopic landscape and a microscopic social life; and the coincidence of the new landscape poetry and the new Canadian settlement was not fortunate for the arts. Its shaping effect on Canadian poetry was noted by a reviewer as follows: “For what emerges indubitably (…) is that Canada is a country where every prospect is so vile that the villainies of man are dwarfed by the assembled cruelties of rock, wind and snow.”

This theme of stark isolation and human insignificance was to be repeated by Canadian poet and novelist alike (…). What Pascal had shuddered at in the unsocial spaces of the heavens, the Canadian writer lived with at home.

The struggle to perceive some sort of autonomous centre of significance in Canadian expression is made difficult by the fact that a third of the small population is French-speaking. The English group, reading and speaking a principal literary language of the world, can scarcely discern the segment of its image or detect its own intonation in the mosaic of English (…), the Canadian poet feels like an amateur radio-station operator who has to compete with a national network. The Canadian writer has never been encouraged to imagine that English, as a medium of experience and expression, was a personal responsibility and possession. But this situation is not even mainly due to the circumstances of marginal remoteness. Lack of confidence in the medium of English is also due to lack of community and conversation in an over-sized environment. Yet Robert Frost [in the United States] was able to use this very factor of lonely incoherence in North American speech in achieving many of his uniquely successful effects of laconicism amidst large silences.

Writing in the second issue of The Tyro (1922) in an essay entitled “The Three Provincialities”, T.S. Eliot began by observing: “It has been perceptible for several years that not one but three English literatures exist: that written by Irishmen, that written by Americans, and that composed by the English themselves.” By provinciality Eliot here indicates that uneasy state of groping towards identity and definition which was once referred to by a Canadian critic as “the sense of our density”. When a remote section of population aspires to be in the mode, it involuntarily becomes provincial. When the same group simply assumes the right to innovate and to create without any regard to modishness, it becomes an authentic centre of culture. Canada has not yet approached this state, but the once provincial United States have done so.

But Canadian landscapes, if used as equations for inner mental states [= “the world of natural and urban processes alike traversed with tactile rather than visual stress”], would yield some quite amazing results. (…) Had Canadians been daring enough to accept their landscape as the formula for mental states, they would have been projected into non-human orbits at once.1

Canadian poets have never been disposed to wipe their hands across their mouth and laugh. The ability to yearn for pre-industrial charm among the ice-floes and the blasted pines appears as an impressively rugged trait of the Canadian artist and writer. But it may have been no more than loyalty to British fashion.

Corresponding to the Group of Seven in Canadian painting, we find E. J. Pratt and the Montreal poets who turned to Expressionism and observation of the outer processes of nature and urban commercial life. This meant a quite sharp break with picturesque poetry. Finally, corresponding to the new International Group in painting, are the Academic poets who consider that poetry is made from other poetry. Just as the painters became very much aware of other painters and publics, the poets have begun to notice varieties of poetry and reading publics. The result is a strong tendency towards what might be described as a dialogue in the arts. It even points towards the possibility of Canadian poets beginning to take the resources and traditions of language as their province. 

The world of natural and urban processes alike traversed with tactile rather than visual stress — such was the new Canadian poetry and painting as it arose in the twenties to the fifties. (…) And this tendency, so different from derivative adaptation, has led (…) deeper into the world of language than Canadians have ventured before.

The emergence of a dialogue among the poets speaks of an entry into the world of the English language which is quite new. The long reign of the picturesque landscape may be over.

  1. McLuhan seems to have been of two minds as regards “outer landscape as the formula for inner states of mind”.  On the one hand, he plainly welcomed the fact that “the long reign of the picturesque landscape may be over”. On the other, he saw actual landscape, rural and urban, natural and constructed, as an integral aspect of engaged perception. This same ambiguity may be seen in his Foreword to The Interior Landscape where he first reports: “After a conventional and devoted initiation to poetry as a romantic rebellion against mechanical industry and bureaucratic stupidity, Cambridge was a shock. Richards, Leavis, Eliot and Pound and Joyce in a few weeks opened the doors of perception on the poetic process, and its role in adjusting the reader to the contemporary world.” But he then concludes: “All this is merely to say that my juvenile devotion to Romantic poetry is closely related to my present concerns with the effects of the media in our personal and political lives.” He seems to have thought that the modernists not only turned decisively away from the romantics, but were also their fulfillment.

Autobiography – encountering Chesterton

McLuhan first read a bit of G.K. Chesterton in 1930 when he was still in his teens, a preface by GKC to an edition of Great Expectations. Gordon reports McLuhan commenting on the fact (without evident enthusiasm) in a diary entry from June 17 that year (Escape, 358, n21).   A year later, a diary entry from July 1931 records a very different impression:

Few writers, yes I can say, no other writer, has ever before been able to arouse my enthusiasm for ideas as has G.K.  (Escape, 32)

Between these two dates seems to have fallen an incident that has been variously dated and variously located (eg, Letters 10; Marchand 28; Escape 32; Medium and the Light xiv) when Tom Easterbrook either gave him, or traded to him, or brought to his attention, Chesterton’s What’s Wrong with the World (1910).

Both McLuhan and Easterbrook must have developed a mutual interest in Chesterton thereafter. A letter to his parents about their experiences in Montreal prior to their embarkation for England in the summer of 1932 has McLuhan reporting:

Since a further shower of rain was impending we hastened into a library (…) and each [of us] sat down with a book of G.K.C. and spent a very pleasant 2 hours. (Letters, 11) 

Two years later, in his first month at Cambridge (October, 1934), he could already speak of Chesterton’s “social (not faddish) philosophy based on a completely adequate religion” (Letters, 24) and was subscribing (as he had perhaps already done in Winnipeg) to the G.K Weekly (Letters, 27, 45 and 62).  From this and from the fact that McLuhan was already talking up Chesterton from Cambridge to his Winnipeg friends at this time (eg, by circulating copies of  the G.K Weekly among them)1, it would seem that McLuhan’s engagement with Chesterton must have crystallized in Winnipeg when he was in his early twenties (age 20 to 23) — between his July 1931 diary entry given above and his departure for Cambridge in the fall of 1934.2

Several of his letters from his first months in Cambridge illustrate conclusions he must have brought with him from Canada. A letter from November to his family has this recommendation for his brother:

I can heartily recommend GK’s book on St Thomas as being of use to you in your philosophy. He deals with Plato and Aristotle and their influence on Christendom — incidentally there is a very clear exposition of their theories of knowledge (how we know and know we can know). (Letters, 39, McLuhan’s emphasis)

The question of “how we know (…) we can know” would remain central for him throughout his career. On the one hand, it points toward his religion — toward his notion of, and response to, the nature of the real (within which mortals can come to know). On the other hand, it points toward those complex problems of communication he would consider for the next 45 years — how does communication both with things (eg in the sciences) and among humans (eg in the arts, but also in all the provinces of practical life) take place at all and how may consideration of these questions about communication be communicated?

A letter to his brother Maurice from December 1934 broaches some of the implicated problematics:

But in psychology the confusion arises from the fact that the thing which [studies] is also the thing studied. The psychologist forgets that a man does know some things about a man long before he is cloven in 2 and 1/2 becomes a psych-ist and the other a psychol-al problem. When he plunges into the dark sea of the subconscious he forgets that there is such a thing as the broad daylight of human nature. You will remember Coleridge saying that “Shak keeps to the main highway of the human affections”. (Letters, 44-45)

Decades later, in 1968, McLuhan would set out a view of “the modes of experience” as constituting a spectrum between white SI (sensory input) and black SC (sensory completion): see Key texts #1 — “physiological and psychological balance”.  It is noteworthy that in both these 1934 and 1968 reflections, McLuhan associates light with external SI (” broad daylight”) and darkness with internal SC (“the dark sea of the subconscious”).

At the same time (late 1934) he was already planning the article on Chesterton that would become his first scholarly publication. As he reported to his mother:

My head is teeming with ideas for the GK article which will be written on a sudden shortly. I have kept jotting down separate notions as they came from all sorts of reading I have been at lately, so the longer it waits the better it will be. I intend to send it to the mgr of GK’s Weekly before sending it to Canada, to have any criticism or suggestion he can offer. (December 17, 1934, Letters, 48)

It is significant that the article was already intended for Canada — in fact for The Dalhousie Review — and that Elsie would have understood this.  As will be detailed in a further post, it would seem that she had met Fr Gerald Phelan in Toronto, perhaps at one of his lectures on Chesterton, and that she had then brought Phelan into contact with McLuhan (whose enthusiasm for Chesterton she knew all too well). Phelan was from Halifax, was a long-time friend of the founding (and continuing) editor of The Dalhousie Review (Herbert L. Stewart) and had published in it himself. Just as he would later help McLuhan obtain his first teaching position at St Louis University in 1937, so (it may be guessed) did Phelan pave the way for his first published article the year before. McLuhan’s conversion fell between these two events, again helped along by Phelan who was the first to learn of McLuhan’s decision in a letter of November 26, 1936 (Letters 93) and who then proofed McLuhan’s intention when he traveled from Madison to visit his mother in Toronto that Christmas. 

The article was published in January, 1936 and must have been finished sometime in the middle of 1935.  Letters to his family from early in 1935 record:

Heard GK on the wireless again to-night. Will turn to the completion of my article on him as soon as [Lent] term ends. If it is accepted I will feel impelled to further essays and efforts. (February 27, 1935, Letters, 62; Lent term in Cambridge extends from January to March)

The GK article — ignoble me — is not done yet, but much more has been written. It shall be complete before [Easter] term commences. (March 30, 1935, Letters, 66; Easter term in Cambridge extends from April to June.)

Not long thereafter, on June 1st, McLuhan attended a dinner in London of the Distributist League at which Chesterton was present.  He described the event in a letter from June 2, 1935:

Well, GK was at the dinner! I had seen his pictures, heard his voice, and thought his thoughts, and knew what to expect. But I was not prepared for his quick, light-blue eye, or the refinement and definition of his features. He has much that reminds me of R.B. Bennett, but a larger head, and as I say, finer features. His hair is not very long but it curls up at the back of his head — like his light moustache, it is quite white. His bulk is unexaggerated by accounts. He is 6 feet 2 or 3 and much thicker (at the equator) than he is wide at the shoulders, or elsewhere. His voice is not tiny or high-pitched but it is not very powerful. He holds himself quite erect when he  stands — necessarily he moves slowly, and because he is GK, he imparts a sense of largesse, ample humour, tolerance, and significant dignity to the necessity which nature has laid upon him. His eye and head and face might easily, in a more portable figure, have been consonant with the speedy active agitator and leader (…) GK made several short speeches at various times. His chair was directly opposite an emergency exit and he feigned each time he rose that the morbid grip of the prepensive suggestion which he was sure was in our minds had tightened on his mind. At 10.15 when he rose to go he announced that he had conquered the morbid desire to fling himself through the emergency exit and would content himself with breaking several stairs as he departed in the usual manner. He urged us to go on with our songs and recitations (which we did) and hoped that his departure would occasion only a geographical deficiency (which it did). (Letters, 68-69)

A few months later (September 5, 1935) McLuhan summed up the first five years of his encounter with Chesterton in a letter to his Mother:

Had I not encountered Chesterton I would have remained agnostic for many years at least. Chesterton did not convince me of religious truth, but he prevented my despair from becoming a habit or hardening into misanthropy. He opened my eyes to European culture and encouraged me to know it more closely. He taught me the reasons for all in me that3 was simply blind anger and misery. He went through it himself; but since he lived where much Catholic culture remained and since he had genius he got through it quicker. He was no fanatic. He remained an Anglo-Catholic as long as he was able to do so (19224). (Letters 73)

But this same letter from September 1935 also records the fact that a year in Cambridge had effected a decisive change in McLuhan’s view of Chesterton. He was no longer seen as McLuhan had viewed him in Winnipeg — as a great personality heroically standing against the tide of modernity.5

The very definition of an enthusiast is that he has seized a truth which he cannot and would not if he could, relate to other truths of life. He is invariably unsympathetic and lacking in humanity. l have some elements of enthusiasm which have  been more than occupied in hero-worship —- e.g. Macaulay and Chesterton. Them days is gone forever but I shall always think that my selection of heroes was fortunate. Both were calculated to suppress effectively any tendency I had towards harping on one truth at a time.6 (Op. cit. — McLuhan to his Mother, September 5, 1935, Letters 72)

In this same month, a letter from McLuhan was published in Chesterton’s newsletter, G.K.’s Weekly, in which he took earlier correspondents to task over this same point:

They assume that the stock-in-trade of this paper consists in two vials, one of wrath and one of ardour, to be poured automatically upon unjust and righteous causes. (McLuhan to the Editor, G.K.’s Weekly, September 19, 1935)

McLuhan had come to see that the mark of truth is not certainty based on singularity (“the very definition of an enthusiast is that he has seized a truth which he cannot and would not if he could, relate to other truths of life” aka the “vial…of ardour”), but insight or perception based on a fundamental complexity:

the greatest fact about man [is] that he is a creature and an image, and not sufficient unto himself. It is the whole bias of the mind that it seek truth, and of the soul (…) that it seek that which gave7 it. The great difficulty about Truth is that it is not simple… (Op. cit. — McLuhan to his Mother, September 5, 1935, Letters 72)

Chesterton had helped McLuhan to this insight, but would now himself (along with all else) be subject to it. Chesterton would now be appreciated as “a creature and an image” through whom could be witnessed the complex interaction of contesting fundamental truths, of contesting forms of reality: “the great difficulty about Truth is that it is not simple”. The imperative question (that in the following year McLuhan would answer for himself with his decision to convert) was which one of these contesting truths best reflected this complexity of truths — ie, which one of these truths fundamentally committed itself to the creation and maintenance of plural difference both on the level of these contesting truths themselves and as regards the relation of such creative power (or powers) and the existence of less-than-fundamental creatures like ourselves?  This one would then be exemplary as an account of the real by explicating how and why it was not alone.8



  1. Letters 45
  2. Cf Marchand, 27: “Chesterton’s influence permeated McLuhan’s experiences in his last year at the University of Manitoba…”
  3. McLuhan: “all that in me”
  4. Chesterton converted to Catholicism in 1922 at age 48.
  5. “Until I came to the Cambridge English School, my principal qualification was a boundless enthusiasm for great books, great events, and great men. Dr. Richards and Dr. Leavis have proved to  be a useful supplement and corrective to that attitude.” (McLuhan to Prof E.K. Brown, December 12, 1935, Letters 79)
  6. The contentions here are that there are plural “truths of life”, and that “harping on one truth at a time” is an evasion of that plurality. The implication is that time, too, must be plural. But when would multiple truths deploy if not “one truth at a time” — and then another truth at another time? In this case, the plurality of truth would depend upon diachrony or lineality: because lineal time constitutes itself in plural moments, so can plural truths be constituted in the sequence of those moments. This would, however, be nothing other than “harping on one truth at a time”, even if different truths might be harped upon, in different moment after different moment.  Instead, it is McLuhan’s contention that if the plurality of truth is fundamental, the contest of truths must take place synchronically — “an interminable battle is always going on” as Plato says — and this time of the contesting plural “truths of life” must occur as an essentially different chronology from that of sequential historical moments. Times cross, in this view, and humans are that type of being that stands, knowingly or unknowingly, at their intersection. Only so can multiple truths be in contest at the same time. In sum, multiple truths are possible only if there are multiple times and multiple times are possible only if there are multiple truths.  As will be described in detail in a further post, this knot of truths and times may be imagined in terms of the maelstrom, where the waves of the surface of the sea may be taken to represent the on-going moments of lineal (diachronic) time, the maelstrom to represent vertical (synchronic) time, and the different sorts of debris in the maelstrom to represent contesting truths, some of which save and some of which doom — by leading between, or failing to lead between, these differing vertical and horizontal axes of time. For further discussion of time as times, see McLuhan and Plato 2 – When is myth?
  7. On giving, see this footnote and its associated post.
  8. In regard to this knotted combination of plurality and singularity, cf McLuhan to John Dunaway, September 1, 1976, Letters 521): “I discovered Maritain simultaneously with the work of I. A. Richards, and T. S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound, and James Joyce, and Wyndham Lewis. All of these people seem to relate to each other in many different ways, and each seems to enrich the other. Along with the work of contemporary painters and ballet and the world of Sergei Eisenstein and music, one had the experience of a very rich new culture, in which the great intellectual Maritain was a notable ornament. Maritain helped to complete the vortex of significant components in a single luminous logos of our time” (emphasis added throughout). Similarly (even featuring the same word “luminous”), McLuhan to Serge Chermayeff. Dec 19, 1960: “The answer, of course, must lie in the direction of pluralism, rather than monism, and here is where the image of the City is an inevitable and necessary model. Because the city is precisely the area of multiple modes of awareness in a montage of luminous unity.”

Key texts #1 — “physiological and psychological balance”

In the Introduction (called ‘Sensory Modes’to his 1968 Through the Vanishing Point, McLuhan cites a passage from his friend , Gyorgy Kepes:

In ancient writings on vision two polar points of view were prevalent. On the one hand, emission theorists regarded the eye itself as the source of rays which explore the world somewhat as the fingers palpate objects. On the other hand, reception theorists regarded the eye as a receiver of information originating from external objects.1

McLuhan then comments:

Emission theories prevailed for many centuries. They yielded to reception theories with the advent of Newton’s Optics. (…) The late nineteenth century saw a remarkable advance on2 Newtonian ideas, with particular emphasis on the afterimage and simultaneous contrast. While this theory is generally known to practicing painters, its wider sociological implications have never been explored. To explain simply, in the field of color the afterimage consists of a physiological balancing on integral white. A brief formula might be sensory impact plus sensory completion equals white (SI + SC = W). (…) It is postulated that just as white is a result of the assembling of the primary colors in ratio, so touch is an assembly of all the senses in ratio. Black is, therefore, the after-image of touch [SI + SC = B]3. Naturally as the visual [or white] gradient of the culture ascends, the modalities of touch [or black] are minimized. This appears very vividly in the sensory evolution of the arts. From cave painting to the Romantics, there is steady visual progress. Thereafter, with the coming of synesthesia in the arts and non-visual electronic phenomena in the sciences, we may well be moving into a kind of zero-gradient culture, with all modes of experience receiving simultaneous attention. The need for physiological and psychological balance means that any new sensory impact needs to find familiar sensory completion, just as a man on the moon would need to translate all lunar experience into familiar earth terms.4

It is easy to misunderstand this passage or not to understand it at all.  One misunderstanding is to think that McLuhan is writing about diachronic5 progressions, both in history in general and in the individual processing of sensory data.  After all, the object of his analysis is what he terms an “afterimage”, which invokes the before and after of time, and he speaks of it as a “result”. However, he also emphasizes the “simultaneous” which excludes our usual sequential (or diachronic) sense of time. And further, he somehow brings these two together in the phrase “emphasis on the afterimage and simultaneous contrast”.

With this juxtaposition of process and simultaneity, McLuhan’s point is that any notion of the simultaneous in which ‘time stands still’ and ‘nothing happens’ must be discarded. Instead, the simultaneous is to be understood as that time and process among plural times and processes in which the essential unfolds or ‘takes shape’ — and thereby ‘gives shape’. The vulgar happenings in historical or diachronic time are secondary6 and receive what intelligibility they have from the synchronic order. Compare chemistry: although physical materials are certainly subject to change in historical time, through fire, say, or through slow everyday processes like desiccation, just how they can change depends upon their elementary structure which determines the range of their diachronic modalities from another dimension — the synchronic.

Another related misunderstanding can arise from McLuhan’s admittedly strange use of ‘familiar’ in the last sentence. Once again, ‘familiar’ seems to implicate sequential historical time in the purported imperative to subject new experience “on the moon” (say) to the rule of the old: the “need to translate all lunar experience into familiar earth terms”. But the purported neccesity of consumption of the new by the old is exactly what McLuhan doesn’t mean! On the one hand, this would contradict his ever-repeated critique of the RVM, aka of “concept”, as against fresh “percept”. On the other hand, this would deny even the possibility of perceptual change (let alone the understanding of perceptual change) since the “familiar” would remain fixed in place, subjecting everything to itself.  But the understanding of perceptual change (“the sensory evolution of the arts”) in terms of variable “emphasis” and “gradient” and “attention” is precisely what this passage concerns. And besides, if the “familiar” were fixed, how could there be so many varieties of what is “familiar” to different societies and different eras and to different individuals in the same society in the same era? In fact, of course, what is “familiar” even to the same individual varies greatly over a lifetime (and sometimes over an hour).

What McLuhan means by the “familiar” in the last sentence of the key text does not refer to some fixed understanding from the past, but to the defining characteristic of human being — what is so “familiar” that human being cannot be without it — namely, its “need to translate” its encounter with the world, its need to come to “terms” with it, its need to establish “physiological and psychological balance”. The same point is made in ’James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial’ (1953) and is described as 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.”

“Familiar” in the key passage is the same as “age-old” in the Joyce essay. The “familiar” is what has always been practiced by humans and cannot not be practiced by them. “A man on the moon” would get nowhere by simply repeating his familiar actions on earth — breathing ‘normally’, for example, would be fatal. Instead, “a man on the moon” needs to do what is more deeply “familiar” to humans even than breathing normally, namely, he needs to establish “physiological and psychological balance” by “adjustment of the interior acts and dispositions of the mind [and body] to the outer world” (in this case, the lunar world).

To sum up thus far: McLuhan is concerned here not only with diachronic processes in sequential or historical time (what can be called “sociological implications”), but also with synchronic or “simultaneous” processes and with the inter-relation between these two orders of time and being.  And the focus of his investigation is on what is fundamental or “age-old” or “familiar” to all humans at all times — namely, the need to establish “physiological and psychological balance” through “adjustment of the interior acts and dispositions of the mind to the outer world”.  This is a singular imperative that, notably, yet appears in “innumerable variants” (TT 22).

McLuhan’s proposal in the key passage is that analysis should focus on what he calls “the afterimage” which he defines “in the field of color” as the “physiological balancing on integral white”. “Balancing”, in turn, is said to be “assembling (…) in ratio”, while “balancing on” means “balancing on [the basis of]”.  The point at stake is that “in the field of color” the range of “sensory impact” consists of the entire spectrum of colors that — as “is generally known to practicing painters” and can be illustrated with a prism — is equal to white.  Any particular color other than white represents a fraction (or “ratio”) where the numerator is (say) blue and the denominator is white.  The sum of all the possible color fractions together is always equal to unitary or “integral” white — so blue/white + red/white (…) = white/white = white, in the same way as 1/8 + 2/8 (…) = 8/8 = 1. This “balancing” or “contrast” (McLuhan sometimes calls it “zoning”) within the total spectrum is “simultaneous” or synchronic because it does not come about through a process in sequential time, but is a way of understanding the ‘production’ of color out of a different order. As with chemistry, the point is to understand “sociological implications” with reference to such ‘prior’ determinations — here, “assembling (…) in ratio” some fraction of white to produce (say) blue.

“Practicing painters” work with this notion, but without understanding its “sociological implications”.  In a similar way, cooks and vinters and blacksmiths always worked with materials in a chemical way, but with no understanding of the “sociological implications” of their activity. As Hegel remarks, what is known is not necessarily well known.

The “afterimage” is, however, not confined to “the field of color” or to “sensory impact” or to “information originating from external objects” (as Kepes says).  There is also the field of the senses and of “sensory completion” considered on its side as another “source” (Kepes) of perceptual in-formation.  The “afterimage” or basis on the sensory side can be said to be “touch” because touch is both a singular sense and “an [integral] assembly of all the senses” just as white is both a singular color and the “integral” basis of all the colors. So Kepes can describe one theory of the working of sight as “the eye itself [being] the source of rays which explore the world somewhat as the fingers palpate objects”.  Comparably, taste, smell, and hearing can all be described as ways of registering the touch of sensations via the tongue, nose and ears.

McLuhan ‘postulates’ that the senses constitute a spectrum on the basis of touch just as colors constitute a spectrum on the basis of white: “just as white is a result of the assembling of the primary colors in ratio, so touch is an assembly of all the senses in ratio”. Thus, where any color is a fraction with denominator or “afterimage” of “integral” white, so any sense can be said to be a fraction with denominator or “afterimage” of “integral” touch. So it is that humans can touch something with a hand (say), but they can also be touched in a global way (touched by some drama, say), reflecting no one sense, but all the senses together of the whole person. Further, this “afterimage” of sense can be said to be SC ‘black’ both because it represents the opposite extreme from SI ‘white’ and because it works as the unperceived background — the sensus communis  — to any particular exercise of sensing (like the black backing of a mirror to any particular image reflected in it).

In the 1969 Counterblast (22) McLuhan notes:

Media tend to isolate one or another sense from the others. The result is hypnosis. The other extreme is withdrawing of sensation with resulting hallucination as in dreams or DTs, etc.

What is missing in each of these “extremes” is attention to the “afterimage” of the complete range of SI “sensation” on the one side and of SC “senses” on the other. “Hypnosis” is possible only when awareness is incomplete. “Hallucination” is possible only when sensory input is incomplete. Further, this isolation from the “afterimages” of the “integral” spectra of external input and of internal awareness is itself a product of the fateful “exclusion” of SI and SC from each other. Where both are at work together, neither can be isolated in an “extreme” way.

McLuhan’s whole enterprise may be said to be the interrogation of the phenomenon of SI/SC co-variability.

McLuhan’s suggestion in the key text is that “all modes of experience” are the “result” of both of these SI/SC sides at once such that human experience is always the sum of “SI + SC” together aka of the perpetual “adjustment of the interior acts and dispositions of the mind to the outer world” aka of the achievement of “physiological and psychological balance”.  The synchronic ‘production’ of experience on this model proceeds through the summation (or “balancing” or “assembly”) of these two fractions together.  And just as the spectrum of color has its basis in the “afterimage” of white (where white may be imagined as the terminal unit of all possible color fractions), and just as the spectrum of the senses has its basis in the “afterimage” of touch (where touch may be imagined as the terminal unit of all possible sense fractions), so in turn may all the possible sums of SI + SC together be seen to form a further spectrum stretching between unitary vision/white and unitary touch/black at the two extremes.

In contrast to the two spectra of color and of touch, however, the “afterimage” or denominator of experience does not have a single “gradient” but two: W and B. Its complete expression is not “SI + SC = W” or ‘SI + SC = B’, therefore, but SI + SC = W and B together. ‘W and B together‘, in turn, have three possible types of expression: W/B or B/W or WB. That is: experience is always the product of a selection between fundamentally incompatible “afterimages” where W may be figured on base B, or B may be figured on base W, or the two together may be figured as equally basic, WB.

It is in regard to this double-gradient spectrum of W-B spectra that McLuhan says:

Naturally as the visual [or color or white or SI] gradient of the culture ascends [= B/W], the modalities of touch [or sense or black or SC] are minimized. [Contrariwise, as the touch (or sense or black or SC) gradient of the culture ascends (= W/B), the modalities of the visual (or color or white or SI) are minimized.] This appears very vividly in the sensory evolution of the arts. From cave painting to the Romantics, there is steady visual progress. Thereafter, with the coming of synesthesia [= WB] in the arts and non-visual electronic phenomena in the sciences, we may well be moving into a kind of zero-gradient [= WB] culture, with all modes of experience receiving simultaneous attention [= WB].

“Attention” or “emphasis” may be allocated dynamically all along the SI + SC  spectrum, from all white to all black to all the white/black positions between these.  Total attention or emphasis at one end of the W-B spectrum would be “integral white” = (all SI and no SC) = “hypnosis”. Total attention or emphasis at the other end of the spectrum would be integral black = (no SI and all SC) = “hallucination”. In both of these “extreme” cases, experience collapses into incoherence. In contrast, the middle of the spectrum represents “a kind of zero-gradient culture with all modes of experience receiving simultaneous attention.” This “zero-gradient” condition is also called “synesthesia”.

Any one “mode of experience” represents a certain SI + SC sum which may be called a position of “attention” on the black/white spectrum. McLuhan also speaks of such “attention” in this context as a certain “emphasis”. In other texts he uses the terms “preference” and “stress” for this same synchronic marking of a base position within the range of experiential possibility. The question at stake is always what base or “afterimage” — either W or B or BW — is to be the denominator in the resulting “fraction” or “ratio” of experience.7 In a comparable way, the synchronic analysis of language use might be thought to begin with the selection of a certain language which then leads on to the choices of expression given with that optional base. A different base would entail different choices.

McLuhan’s law of “physiological and psychological balance” is the hypothesis that there is a “natural” inverse correlation between the two sides of the W-B spectrum of W and B spectra: “Naturally as the visual [or color or white or SI] gradient of the culture ascends, the modalities of touch [or sense or black or SC] are minimized.” Further, each of the multiple individual positions at points along the entire length of the W-B spectrum — each of which is some “fraction” or “ratio” of W and B together — is subject to this same law of “balance” or of “assembling (…) in ratio”. That is, as “attention”  or “emphasis” on W ascends, “attention” or “emphasis” on B descends — and vice versa. 

The ‘production’ of experience on this model must be understood as implicating the selection of some position on this white/black spectrum; the “innumerable variants” of experience may then be understood in terms of changes of position on it (in a synchronic ‘progression’) and/or of combinations of such positions (at the same synchronic ‘moment’). Here human experience is understood on the model of a piano score where the keyboard represents the spectrum of possible white/black ‘positions’ and the melody set out by the score represents a pattern of “attention” or “emphasis” exercised on the individual keys. As emphasized again and again by McLuhan, both experience itself and the study of experience are matters of “pattern recognition”. Just as all possible piano melodies are given with the keyboard, so are all “patterns” of experience given with the W-B spectrum — including the experience of the study of experience. What is required is the passion to re-cognize it.

A piano score sets out music synchronically; playing the score sets out the music diachronically. 

But how can “all modes of experience” be subject to “simultaneous attention”? In the same way as chemistry is investigation against the background of the complete table of elements, or musical composition envisions the complete range of notes (but neither of these need be definitively complete and perhaps cannot be definitively complete), so experience must be understood against its complete (or “plenary” as McLuhan sometimes says) range or spectrum. Now McLuhan had little interest in the spectrum of colors or even in the spectrum of the senses considered in themselves. For his purposes, it was enough for these to be designated simply as ‘white’ and ‘black’.  But these color and sense spectra were very important to him as illustrations of his understanding of “the modes of experience” as fractions along a spectrum of the total W-B range of “the afterimage(s) and simultaneous contrast(s)”.


  1. Cited by McLuhan at TVP 15 from Gyorgy Kepes, Structure in Art and in Science, 1965.
  2. TVP has ‘of’, not ‘on’, but this may well be a typo since McLuhan is not concerned here with a further development of Newton’s ideas but on their transformation.
  3. The first formula in round brackets ‘SI + SC = W’ stems from McLuhan; the second in square brackets ‘SI + SC = B’ has been added.  For added clarification, these formulas might be rewritten as ‘SI(v) + SC = W’ and ‘SI + SC(t) = B’.
  4. TVP 15. All bold and underlining in the passage has been added.
  5. The word ‘temporal’ might be easier to understand than ‘diachronic’. But the nature of the (the!) temporal is exactly one of the central questions at stake in this passage. Therefore the recourse to ‘diachronic’ as a way of indicating that different sorts of time are at stake here.
  6. The relation between the synchronic and the diachronic therefore ‘takes place’ in yet another dimension of time, in which the former is first and the latter second!
  7. How “attention”, “emphasis”, “preference” and “stress” work will require detailed exposition in further posts.  Suffice it to note here that this peculiar pre-experiential action from which identity and experience “result” may be termed ‘bobbing’. Cf. Counterblast (1969) 35: “We’re in an age of implosion after 3000 years of explosion — an implosion in which everybody is involved with everybody. The age of co-presence of all individuals is the age of communication — the age of instant humans.”