Monthly Archives: June 2015

McLuhan’s Topic #3 – Richards and ontology

The chief weakness of our best criticism today is the pretence that fundamental matters can be profitably discussed without prolonged and technical thinking. (A.I. Richards, Coleridge on Imagination, 1934, 5)

As discussed in Autobiography — Richards and Empson, McLuhan first described I.A. Richards in a letter from January 16, 1935 as follows:

Richards is a humanist who regards all experience as relative to certain conditions of life. There are no permanent, ultimate, qualities such as Good, Love, Hope, etc., and yet he wishes to discover objective, ultimately permanent standards of criticism. He wants to discover those standards (what a hope!) in order to establish intellectualist culture as the only religion worthy [of] a rational being and in proportion to their taste for which all people are “full sensitive, harmonious personalities” or “disorganized, debased fragments of unrealized potentiality”. When I see how people swallow such ghastly atheistic nonsense, I could join a bomb-hurling society. (Letters, 50)

McLuhan heard Richards’ lectures on the ‘Philosophy of Rhetoric’ that same year and they were suggestive enough to exercise profound influence on him for the remainder of his life (as future posts will detail). But it is unlikely that the opinion of Richards expressed to his mother was based purely on personal experience. Instead, McLuhan probably had this impression mostly from Cambridge scuttlebutt, which, in turn, was based on Richards’ notorious anti-clericalism and on emphatic statements made by him like the following:

I write then as a Materialist trying to interpret before you the utterances of an extreme Idealist [Coleridge] and you, whatever you be by birth or training, Aristotelian or Platonist, Benthamite or Coleridgean, Materialist or Idealist, have to reinterpret my remarks again in your turn. (Coleridge on Imagination, 19)

As seen here, Richards sometimes had the idea that conflicting views needed to be reduced to a single one of them (“have to reinterpret … in your turn”) and it was in this mood that he identified himself as a materialist and a Benthamite. A clear statement of this sentiment may be seen in a footnote in Practical Criticism (1929):

I use “need” here to stand for [an imperative within] an imbalance mental or physical, a tendency, given suitable conditions, for a movement towards an end-state of equilibrium. A swinging pendulum might thus be said to be actuated by a “need” to come to rest, and to constantly overdo its movements towards that end. We are much more like pendulums than we think, though, of course, our imbalances are infinitely more intricate. (275n1, emphasis added)

In these terms, Richards could be said to have been “actuated by a ‘need’ to come to rest” and that he did so as a materialist. This was his “end-state of equilibriumBut elsewhere in Practical Criticism he resisted this sort of monolithic self-identification.  For example, when his thought was criticized as crassly utilitarian both by his friend T.S. Eliot and by Herbert Read, Richards rejoined:

Mr Eliot, reviewing Science and Poetry in The Dial, describes my ideal order as “Efficiency, a perfectly-working mental Roneo Steel Cabinet System“, and Mr Read performing a similar service for Principles [of Criticism] in [Eliot’s journal] The Criterion, seemed to understand that where I spoke of “the organisation of impulses” I meant that kind of deliberate planning and arrangement which the controllers of a good railway or large shop must carry out. But “organisation” for me stood for that kind of interdependence of parts which we allude to when we speak of living things as “organisms”; and the “order” which I make out to be so important is not tidiness. (285n1, emphasis added)

Now “organisms” as such complex (“interdependence of parts“) structures “need” not, in fact cannot, “come to rest” with one of them.  Applied to the above citation from Coleridge on Imagination, page 19, an “organic” view would be one in which Aristotelian and Platonist, Benthamite and Coleridgean, Materialist and Idealist would maintain themselves in an organic “kind of interdependence”In fact, still in Coleridge on Imagination, Richards himself put forward — in highly convoluted language, perhaps indicating that he had not been able to think through all the implications of his claim — something very like just this suggestion. Citing Coleridge’s question whether “ideas are regulative only, according to Aristotle and Kant; or likewise constitutive, and one with the power and life of nature, according to Plato and Plotinus” (Coleridge on Imagination,183-4) with Coleridge’s following observation that this “is the highest problem of philosophy, and not [merely] part of its nomenclature” (ibid), Richard wrote:

What by and in it [“the whole soul of man”] we know [what we know] is certainly not [merely] a part of philosophy’s nomenclature. But what we say about it — whether we say that it is the mode of (…) our knowledge (ideas are regulative) or that it is [all of] what we know (ideas are constitutive) — must be said (…) in a vocabulary. And I have tried to make the position acceptable that these rival doctrines here derive from different arrangements of our vocabularies and are only seeming alternatives, that each pressed far enough includes the other, and that the Ultimate Unabstracted and Unrepresentable View that thus results is something we are familiar and at home with in the concrete fact of the mind. If this were so, the problems of criticism would no longer abut [ie, conflict in sterile fashion], as they so often did for Coleridge, on this problem of Reality; they would be freed for (…) inexhaustible inquiry… (Coleridge on Imagination, 184, emphasis added)

Relatedly in Mencius on the Mind: Experiments in Multiple Definition (1932):

can we maintain two systems of thinking in our minds without reciprocal infection and yet in some way mediate between them? And does not such mediation require yet a third system of thought general enough and comprehensive enough to include them both? And how are we to prevent this third system from being only our own familiar, established tradition of thinking rigged out in some fresh terminology or other disguise ? There is nothing new about the problem, that is obvious. What would run some risk of novelty would be an attempt to discuss it explicitly, to bring it out of the realm of midnight dubiosities and initial misgivings into the field of arguable methodology or technique. The problem seems to grow still more formidable as we realize that it concerns not only incommensurable concepts but also comparisons between concepts and items which may not be concepts at all. (87)

A series of points grow out of these considerations which are important both in general and for an understanding of McLuhan’s project in particular.


Richards studied philosophy under G. E. Moore at Cambridge. And Moore, like the three other world famous philosophers at Cambridge in the first decades of the twentieth century, Russell, Whitehead and Wittgenstein, thought that it might be possible to solve philosophical problems via their reformulation in some special language (like the logics proposed in the Principia Mathematica and in the Tractatus) or in ordinary language (as suggested by Moore and by the later Wittgenstein). Richards applied this search for a better understanding of language1 to the “criticism” of literature, but hoped for similarly broad results as regards (eg) the “problem of Reality”.2 Here communication would be both the means and the goal of solving problems (or dissolving them, as Wittgenstein had it) through, as Richards put it, the dialogue of “inexhaustible inquiry”. 

McLuhan brought forward these ideas in new ways. On the one hand, he took a more historical approach than the Cambridge philosophers or Richards by asking how language was used and considered at different times and in different societies.3 Within this approach, he suggested that focus on the disciplines of the trivium or on the senses (including the sensus communis), or on the canons of rhetoric, or on the material means of communication (like writing or radio or TV) or on the hemispheres of the brain (etc etc) could enable the required comparative study.4 As with Richards, the intended result would be to isolate possibilities “we are familiar and at home with in the concrete fact of the mind”, not because we are conscious of being so, but because these have shown themselves as organizing forms of experience in people with whom we can imaginatively identify today thanks to developments in anthropology, psychology, sociology and the arts — as well as in transportation and the media.5 These possibilities could then not only be studied as possibilities with testable qualities; they could also be ‘tried on’ by investigators to see if they might solve problems which were intractable in our usual perspectives.6 This sort of experiential dynamism and resulting research is exactly what McLuhan learned at Cambridge (see Autobiography – encountering Shakespeare) and is what he would come to call “probing” resulting in “perception”.

Commenting on “Coleridge’s conversion from Hartley to Kant”, Richards nicely specifies the point:

The two systems (or set of assumptions), violently opposed though they seemed to him, may each — to a Coleridge — be ways of surveying our mind. In the final theory what he had learned from each came together. A later inquirer, for whom materialist associationism and transcendental idealism are usually systems to be thought of rather than to be thought with, is not likely to learn so much either through or about either. (Coleridge on Imagination, 17, emphasis in the original)

On the other hand, McLuhan took nihilism as a theoretical and practical problem of great moment (in a way few academics have done, including the greats in the Cambridge philosophy and english schools). If other approaches to experience could solve problems that twentieth century experience could not, and if they did not lead to nihilism, as it did, and if they could account for nihilism, as it could not, then these rival modes would recommend themselves, not (or not only) for our comparative study, but for personal adoption.7


Richards can be seen in the passages given above to instigate (or to be subject to the instigation of) a kind of quarrel with himself.  One side of him thinks that in a situation of “imbalance” between “rival doctrines” there is “a need to come to rest” in “an end-state of equilibrium”. But the other side of him thinks that “organisation” may be thought as a “kind of interdependence of parts” where “rival doctrines” may be seen as “only seeming alternatives” such that “each pressed far enough includes the other”.  This would “require yet a third system of thought general enough and comprehensive enough to include them both”.  But each time Richards attempted to state one of these sides, the other came out as well.  So when he identified himself as a Materialist, he is instantly aware that the person he is addressed by, namely Coleridge, is instead “an extreme Idealist”, and that those persons whom he, in turn, addressed himself to were “Aristotelian or Platonist, Benthamite or Coleridgean, Materialist or Idealist”. The situation was such that the quarrel of these “rival doctrines” not only did not end when Richards declared himself for one or the other, but was rather further incited. Similarly, so soon as Richards put forward the organic view for which “rival doctrines” are interdependent “parts” and “only seeming alternatives”, he somehow came to sum up this position in starkly monolithic terms: “the Ultimate Unabstracted and Unrepresentable View [singular] that thus results”! Supposedly fundamental plurality suddenly showed itself as an Unsurpassable Singularity! In caps!

What is to be witnessed here within Richards himself is the “ancient quarrel” that McLuhan would describe in terms of the trivium in his PhD thesis and in his programmatic essay, ‘An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America’.  This was an essay which was first delivered as a talk in 1944, then published in 1946 (in The Classical Journal, 41:4, January 1946, 156-162) and finally republished in The Interior Landscape, almost 25 years later, as its final chapter. It is noteworthy that the essay therefore brackets in time, before and after, nearly all the work for which McLuhan is known.

‘An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America’ concludes with this summation:

Between the speculative dialectician and scientist who says that “the glory of man is to know the truth by my methods,” and the eloquent moralist who says that “the bliss of man is good government carried on by copiously eloquent and wise citizens,” there need be no conflict. Conflict, however, will inevitably arise between these parties when either attempts to capture the entire education of an age or a country. It would seem to be a matter of distributing time for these studies.

“The speculative dialectician” here is Richards’ “Platonist (…) or Coleridgean (…) or Idealist”, while “the eloquent moralist” is Richards’ “Aristotelian or (…) Benthamite or (…) Materialist”. McLuhan takes the “organic” view of them that “these rival doctrines (…) are only seeming alternatives, that each pressed far enough includes the other”. He therefore says that between them

there need be no conflict. Conflict, however, will inevitably arise between these parties when either attempts to capture the entire education of an age or a country.

Taken not in terms of pragmatic education policy, but in terms of ontology  or, as Richards has it, of “Reality”, it is, however, exactly the essential activity of each of these parties that it “attempts to capture the entire education of an age or a country”, indeed their entire being. In this case, if “the speculative dialectician” did not make a monolithic ontological claim, it would not be “the speculative dialectician” at all; it would be a third “organic” view instead, a view approvingly relating itself to difference.  Similarly with “the eloquent moralist”. All three “doctrines” make universal claim to constitute “Reality” and it is precisely in this that the corresponding magnitude of their “quarrel” consists. The “quarrel” at stake concerns, indeed enacts, “Reality” itself.8 It is therefore not a “quarrel” that can ever be brought to resolution (through some kind of historical development, say) but must instead be active in its fundamental plurality always. It is “ancient”, then, not only diachronically, but synchronically as well as being ‘before’ (or “ancient” to) all experience at every moment. (See McLuhan and Plato 2 – When is myth?)

That this “quarrel” is ground or “being itself” (as McLuhan sometimes put it9) is well illustrated in Richards.  When he attempts to settle the quarrel and “to come to rest” with one of its contestants (by taking either a materialist view or an organic one), the other “parts” immediately assert themselves against it.  It is not Richards who grounds the quarrel, then, but the quarrel that grounds Richards. No matter what he argues, he is always only some or other figure of it. While it remains constant (but in its dynamic struggle), he shows himself (or is himself shown) now as this, now as that, derivative aspect of it.


Richards’ work illustrates the laws of what Plato called “1,2,3”. The matter at stake is the number that applies to ontology.

One of these laws is that reality must be 1 or 3 and cannot be 2. When Richards writes of “Aristotelian or Platonist, Benthamite or Coleridgean, Materialist or Idealist”, he is aware that these pairs are either exclusive or inclusive.  If they are exclusive in the sense of not being equally fundamental, there is a “need” or imperative “for a movement towards an end-state (…) a ‘need’ to come to rest” on one of the sides or the other — whichever is more real.  If they are not equally fundamental, this is to say, one of them (1 or 2)  must be more real than the other and we ourselves must, in the end, be oriented by it, indeed  we ourselves must ultimately be it. It is in this “exclusive” mode that Richards declares himself to be a Materialist and Benthamite. Here 1 or 2 (ie, Materialist or Idealist) implies a decided 1.

Contrariwise, if they are inclusive or equally fundamental, there must also be a third possibility that would account for such a fundamental balance of 1 and 2. Here these “rival doctrines (…) are only seeming alternatives, [such] that each pressed far enough includes the other”.  Here 1 and 2 implies an “organic” 3.

Either way, if 1 and 2 are or are not equally fundamental, “Reality” must be 1 or 3 and not 2.

Another law is that each of 1,2,3 requires the others in order to be itself. Each side of the oppositional pairs of “Aristotelian or Platonist, Benthamite or Coleridgean, Materialist or Idealist” is what it is in not being the other side.  As Richards put the point by citing Chaucer in the epigraph to Mencius:

By his contrarie is every thyng declared. (Troilus and Criseyde, Bk 1)

Absent such an other (in these cases, absent such an absolute other, since these oppositions concern the nature of “Reality”), the remaining singularity would be more like Richards’ “Ultimate Unabstracted and Unrepresentable View” than any distinct side — which is to say that any such side would cease to be itself.  More, since these oppositional pairs “need” their absolute other in this way, they also need that third kind of organicism through which “rival doctrines are only seeming alternatives”.

1 cannot be 1 without 2 (just as 2 cannot be 2 without 1) and 1 and 2 cannot be together without 3.

In a comparable way, an “organic” third is impossible without 1 and 2. Alone, 3 would be a singularity — Richards’ “Ultimate Unabstracted and Unrepresentable View” — that would not only not be 1 or 2 (as just seen), it would in particular not be 3 as the unity of “parts” that are at once independent — and interdependent. 

At the fundamental level of “Reality” that is at stake here, “parts” cannot be subject to some kind of supposedly deeper resolution in an “Ultimate Unabstracted and Unrepresentable” third since there is no deeper level — “Reality” is as deep as it gets. Here “parts” must be absolute in their independent difference and it is only through some third that is equally deep with them that they can both be equally and ultimately real and — therefore — also interdependent (exactly in that fundamental equality). It is just the absolute difference of 1 and 2 from each other, then, and of both 1 and 2 from 3, that is “needed” by the “organism” of 3 in order to be a third. Such a 3 cannot be 3 at the level of “Reality” without 1 and 2 as absolutely independent “parts”.10


The “ancient quarrel” is a “quarrel” because it ‘is’ the irreducible plurality of absolute forms. And such absolute forms cannot not contest since each asserts itself universally.

And it is “ancient” both as having an original time in the perpetually on-going ontological quarrel itself and as some or other a priori (prior, ancient) form from that contest as expressed in every moment of our changing historical times. (See McLuhan and Plato 2 – When is myth?)

Now just as Richards shows himself to be subject to a fundamental ambiguity between 1 (the “endstate” of Materialism) and 3 (“organisation”), so is he subject to an isomorphic ambiguity between diachrony and synchrony.  He argues for the latter against Quiller-Couch’s quip that “systems of philosophy are perhaps the most fugacious of all human toys” (cited at Coleridge on Imagination, 8):

But we may regard philosophers in another way; and then they will not seem so fugaciousNo careful, acute and resolute piece of thinking ever loses it value  (…) every good philosopher stands with Plato and Aristotle; his work remains permanently as an aid in exploring the possibilities of our meanings.  (Coleridge on Imagination, 9-10, emphasis added)

Further on the same page, however, Richards plumps for an over-riding diachrony:

And here is the modern reader’s difficulty with Coleridge; that neither as theology (…) nor as symbol, is this fabric satisfactory, or even intelligible, to him. Coleridge constantly presents it as though it were the matrix out of which he obtained his critical theories. But the critical theories can be obtained from the psychology without complication with the philosophical matter. They can be given all the powers that Coleridge found for them, without the use either literally, or symbolically, of the other doctrines. The psychology and the metaphysics (and theology) are independent. For Coleridge’s own thought, they were not; they probably could not be; to a later reader they may, and, as a rule, will be. (Coleridge on Imagination, 10-11, emphasis added) 

Richards reverts to the advance beyond philosophy again, a few pages later:

the problems and methods of metaphysics and morals which Coleridge’s theory of poetry could supersede are in fact those that have most exercised most philosophers; and (…) they would be superseded not by being taken into the theory and there solved but by being shown to be, as problems, artificial, and, as methods, inadequate.  (Coleridge on Imagination, 20, emphasis added)

Synchrony and diachrony are opposed in these passages as metaphysics to psychology or as idealism to materialism or as 1 to 2. Absent a 3 (despite his arguments everywhere for its necessity), Richards had a resulting “need” or imperative “for a movement towards an end-state” in one or the other.  He came down on modernity.  His fundamental problem may thus be seen to have been an inability to think and to live the irreducible plurality of time as times.

Here again Richards may be taken to reveal, against himself, a background “quarrel” of which he is figure to its ground.  It is by beginning with it, and not with him, that it may be seen how right he was in observing “that to ask about the meanings of words is to ask about everything.” (Coleridge on Imagination, xxi) Not, or not only, as Richards intended, that a deeper study of words is the way to study “everything” in a rigorous way; far rather, instead, that the rigorous study of “the meanings of words” must first of all focus on what take they have on “everything” — on the ontological ground they figure. 11

  1. ‘Language’ understood broadly to include all the modes of logos, hence also logic.
  2. Cf Richards in his preface to Mencius: “these linguistic situations have an interest that spreads beyond the field of English-Chinese translations. A theory which could handle them would have direct bearing upon the whole range of our language purposes from the practice of the most elementary education up to the more abstruse enterprises of comparative criticism and philosophy.” (xi-xii)
  3. McLuhan was again following Richards’ lead here, since Richards championed Malinowski’s pioneering anthropology with its emphasis on primitive languages and “phatic communication”, himself repeatedly visited the far east and published on Mencius. What distinguished McLuhan from Richards was the greater flexibility of his approach such that conversion was possible to (indeed mandatory in the constitution of) any position (as it was not for Richards for anything that smacked of organized religion). To be noted in this connection are McLuhan’s opening remarks in ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’ (1954): “For 2,000 years, wrote Theodore Haecker, Western man has been pre-eminent because it has been possible for him to understand all other men through his Catholic faith.”
  4. McLuhan may not have found a satisfactory way to characterize different “modes of experience” and therefore kept trying new ones. Or he may have known very well how to characterize such modes (“the ‘meaning of meaning’ is relationship.” Take Today, 3), but may not have found a satisfactory way to communicate this finding — and therefore kept trying new ones.
  5. These developments might enable the required sympathetic identification, but in the main they seem not to.  We continue to exterminate cultures, languages, customs and mythologies at an astonishing pace.
  6. Cf Richards in a letter to a Cambridge colleague, Raffaello Piccoli, during his first teaching assignment in China in 1929: “Students very able and incredibly charming but moving so much in another medium of thought and language from ours that they feel nearly as far off as fishes in a tank.” (Cited in Mencius on the Mind, 2001 edition, ‘Editorial Introduction’ by  John Constable, xii, emphasis added.) Richards’ study of Mencius was presumably an attempt to “put on”, as McLuhan would say, this rival medium.
  7. Something like this took place, of course, with McLuhan’s conversion to Catholicism. He begins ‘The Medieval Environment’ (1974) as follows: “I want to explore a theme concerning a new inter-relationship of past and present. (…) The electric age, by virtue of its simultaneity, has created a universal “acoustic” environment. Having left the Middle Ages by the visual route, we are returning to full medieval awareness by the acoustic route.”
  8. See McLuhan and Plato 8 – Gigantomachia
  9. See McLuhan’s Topic #4 on Being itself.
  10. The importance of absolute ontological difference cannot be overstated.  If nihilism (for example) is to be subject to account, without essential distortion, this is possible only within an economy that has no “need” for ultimate singularity and that can, or must, recognize absolute difference.
  11. This post will be updated with at least two further points beyond the four in its concluding section.  One will consider how criticism might unfold if it were “freed for (…) inexhaustible inquiry”, in Richards’ suggestive phrase; the other will describe the abysmal gaps implicated in an ontology of 1,2,3 — both between its own “parts” and (as a result) between the parts of historical (ontic) events grounded in that ontology. Such iconic isomorphicism between the two realms, in turn, holding them both together and apart, is generated as a re-play of “the fecund interval” already dis-played in the ontological quarrel between its contesting parties.

McLuhan’s Topic #2 – confronting nihilism

McLuhan was clearly aware of the threat of nihilism while still in his twenties.  The world had lost its bearings and the questions were, how did this happen and how were bearings to be regained? His work over the following four decades and more must be understood in this context.

The Cambridge English School, 1938
In view of the generally recognized collapse of serious standards of living, of taste, and of judgment, it has become almost impossible for an individual to find his bearings amidst the hubbub of cheap excitements today. The attainment of genuine critical judgment was never so difficult, or so rare. If in view of this situation alone, the Cambridge English school might easily vindicate its insistence on the rigorous training of sensibility. And literature, properly considered, remains one of the few uncontaminated sources of nutrition for impulse and the education of emotion. With the failure of the external environment to provide such nutrition, or anything except confused sensations, it has become the major instrument of education.

Wyndham Lewis: Lemuel in Lilliput, 1944
The destruction of family life, in theory and in practice, the flight from adulthood, the obliteration of masculine and feminine has all gone ahead — by means of a glorification of those things. Never was sex so much glorified, children and motherhood so idolized and advertised in theory as at this present hour when the arrangements for their internment have been completed.

Network #21, 1953
The area of spatial communication is that of politics, business and power. Time is the sphere of language and knowledge. Equilibrium between these interests means social viability. Divorce between them is the breakdown of communication — the jamming of the social network. Nineteenth century development of spatial communication widened the gap between knowledge and power, [between] poetry (all the arts) and politics [&] business. The withdrawal of the arts to an ivory tower and of politics and business to a tower of Babel is the figurative way of citing the current divorce between knowledge and know-how. Irresponsibility and loss of bearings occurred in both domains.

Gerard Manley Hopkins: Victorian Proto-Martyr of the Arts, 1953
“feedback” [ie, dialogue] is necessary for getting bearings. It is perhaps the essential character of the new mass media of communication that no feedback is possible. A person can be a divinity in radio or pictures and yet remain a lonely, isolated private figure with no experience of his audience. Yet this divorce between the artist and the public, seemingly inherent in our new media, is fatal for the arts. It starves them and misguides them. Hopkins was an early victim of this situation, a kind of proto-martyr of the arts. We have not begun to solve or understand the problems that faced him.

Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters, 1954
Today, therefore, when writing, speech, and gesture have all been mechanized, the literary humanist can get his bearings only by going back to pre-literate societies. If we are to defend a civilization built on the written and printed word against the present threat from TV, for example, we must know what we are defending.

New Media in Arts Education, 1956
this break-through from the visual world into the acoustic world seems to be the most revolutionary thing that has occurred in Western culture since the invention of phonetic writing. To understand the human, social, and artistic bearings of this event is indispensable today whether for the teacher or the citizen. Most of the cultural confusion of our world results from this huge shift in the geography of perception and feeling. 

MM to Serge Chermayeff Dec 19, 19602
Today, when all of the senses have been externalized [and] the human sensorium is itself a global envelope, it is not only the mix of sense components which is altered, but the total environment of sense has become potentially integral but actually alien and disruptive. My own suggestion is that we are helpless as long as we imagine that it is by some control of programming and “content” that we can make sense of the whole situation. (…) 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 point, we are in that induced state called hypnosis. The dialogue has ended. Apropos of “the problem of keeping the capsule’s inhabitants human” — for the capsule there can be no margin. Or rather let us consider that for the capsule the problem is the creation of margin that there may be dialogue.

MM to Jackie Tyrwhitt, December 23, 1960, Letters 277–2783
Now that by electricity we have externalized all of our senses, we are in the desperate position of not having any sensus communis. Prior to electricity, the city was the sensus communis for such specialized and externalized senses as technology had developed. From Aristotle onward, the traditional function of the sensus communis is to translate each sense into the other senses, so that a unified, integral image is offered at all times to the mind. The city performs that function for the scattered and distracted senses, and spaces and times, of agrarian cultures. Today with electronics we have discovered that we live in a global village and the job is to create a global city, as center for the village margins. The parameters of this task are by no means positional [ie, they “are by no means” spatial problems, to be conquered or otherwise politically ‘managed’].

Canadian Poetry, 1965
Canadian landscapes, if used as equations for inner mental states, would yield some quite amazing results. [But] Canadians could never bring themselves to accept the logic of their landscape (…) 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. (…) This theme of stark isolation and human insignificance (…) was to be repeated by Canadian poet and novelist [over and over again, but without drawing its implications]. What Pascal had shuddered at in the unsocial spaces of the heavens, the Canadian writer lived with at home. 

A Glimpse of Christmas Future (1967)
A satellite environment where the Christmas star that guides us might well be man-made. 

Through the Vanishing Point (The Emperor’s New Clothes), 1968
The artist puts on the distortion of sensory life produced by new environmental programming and creates artistic antidotes to correct the sensory derangement brought by the new form. In social terms the artist can be regarded as a navigator who gives adequate compass bearings despite magnetic deflection of the needle by changing environmental forces. So understood, the artist is not a peddler of new ideals or lofty experiences. He is the indispensable [navigational] aid to action and reflection alike.

MM to Ted Carpenter, April 9, 19694
From Cliché to Archetype is a paradox from beginning to end. It is the clichés that are alive and the archetypes that are dead 

Take Today, 1972
the new frontier is as invisible as a radio wave. There are no tracks to identify or to locate the new frontiersman, even nostalgically. He has neither retrospect nor prospect in his instant space-time field.  (…) The new frontier is pure opacity.


  1. The known recipients of his flyer were Ezra Pound, Claude Bissell, A.E. Malloch & Louis Dudek. Pound’s copy is at Indiana in his papers there; Bissell’s is in his papers at UT; Malloch’s is in his papers in Ottawa (MG 31, D 254); and Dudek published some of Network 2, without naming it, in his review of Innis and McLuhan in CIV/n, No. 3, 1953.  Dudek was in correspondence with Pound at the time and may have received his copy from him rather than from McLuhan. At a guess, McLuhan must have sent it also to such friends and correspondents of his as Bernard Muller-Thym, Cleanth Brooks, Fr Gerald Phelan (who received Network #1), Hugh Kenner, Tom Easterbrook, Ted Carpenter, Carleton Williams, Don Theall, Walter Ong, Jacqueline Tyrwhitt and Sigfried Giedion.
  2. Part of this letter was published in Chermayeff & Alexander, Community and Privacy, 1963, 102.
  3. This letter to Tyrwhitt refers repeatedly to McLuhan’s letter to Serge Chermayeff which was written a few days earlier. In fact McLuhan begins the letter to Tyrwhitt by saying that it will attempt to summarize the earlier one: “After having written six single-spaced pages to Chermayeff, I think I can put them all in a couple of sentences, as follows.” (Letters 277) The two letters were written between Project 69 (Project for Understanding New Media) and The Gutenberg Galaxy and are highly important indications of his thinking at this crucial time.
  4. Cited in Gordon’s Escape Into Understanding, 411n15.

McLuhan’s Topic #1 – “the law of writ”

Some pieces of what would become McLuhan’s topic were already in place when he left Winnipeg for Cambridge in the fall of 1934. Most importantly, Henry Wright had introduced him to the central role of communication in all the provinces of human activity from individual thought to social life and culture.  And Wright and Rupert Lodge (see here for further discussion) together had introduced him to the idea going back to Hegel and ultimately to Plato that there are plural possible approaches to the consideration of all things and that a prior consideration of these approaches1 was necessary if a new foundation was to be won for civilization (which the first world war and the depression beginning in 1929 had already showed — not needing the second world war — to be in extremis).2

At Cambridge, further pieces of his topic came into focus.  As will be shown at length in future posts, the project of I.A. Richards to establish a new basis for criticism, specifically in the service of communication, supplied McLuhan with problems and methods which would occupy him for the rest of his life. Jacques Maritain gave him a more sophisticated way to approach the philosophical notions he had from Manitoba and a way to link these both to aesthetics and to religion, specifically Catholicism. First exposure to Eliot, Pound, Joyce and Lewis revealed developments in literary practice which were new to him and which necessitated a complete renovation of his ideas about literature and the literary tradition. 

In early November, 1934, only a month into his Cambridge career, McLuhan attended a lecture before the Cambridge English Club by “the great Dover Wilson” (Letters 32) on ‘Hamlet’s Make-up’.  Dover had just published his controversial edition of Hamlet within the New Cambridge Shakespeare where, for example, he replaced “O that this too solid flesh would melt” with “this too sullied flesh”. McLuhan declared himself “unconverted” (ibid). But the occasion seems to have acted as a catalyst in setting all the new influences flooding into him at Cambridge into combined motion.3 He immediately began to report in his letters home how he was experiencing a strange sort of welcome unsettling (that he would ever after associate with “perception”):

My mind is a ferment these days — boiling with new ideas and experience. (McLuhan to his family, December 6, 1934, Letters 44; see similarly in his letters from January and February, 1935, as discussed in Autobiography – encountering Shakespeare.)

Biographers and commentators have described McLuhan at this time as a kind of hayseed from the prairies who was bowled over by the sophistication of Cambridge. But this is to underestimate both McLuhan and Cambridge.  How could anybody — be they from Winnipeg or from Paris — not be impressed, even incredulous, at the intellectual firepower assembled at Wilson’s lecture?  Here were people, including Muriel Bradbrook4, Arthur Quiller-Couch5, Joan Bennett, George (Dadie) Rylands and others from the English School whose knowledge of Shakespeare and the Elizabethan age was so precise and so alive that the discussion following Wilson’s lecture lasted, as he reported, “far into the night” (What Happens in Hamlet, 22). McLuhan was stunned by the vivacity of the occasion, not because he was a hayseed, but because he was smart enough and prepared enough to appreciate what was taking place before him. In comparison, he would shortly afterwards judge his own competence as “scarcely literary”6, but would then spend the remaining 45 years of his life turning out an enormous volume of published and unpublished writings whose main aim would be to help resuscitate the tradition to which Cambridge had exposed him in unforgettable ways. (Uniquely among literature and communication scholars, McLuhan saw that such resuscitation work entailed a confrontation with nihilism and it is just in this — as yet completely unappreciated, of course — that the fundamental importance of that work lies.)

Here is a part of what McLuhan would have heard from Wilson:7

… it is probable that the aesthetic standard of both playwright and audience is lower to-day than it was in the age of Elizabeth. It was killed, like so many of the old art-forms, by mechanical invention. The printing-press brought about the multiplication and the cheapening of books, and, as the reading habit became general, dramatists took more and more to writing with publication in mind, until today plays with any pretension to literary merit appeal quite as much to the reader as to the spectator. This is one, perhaps even the chief cause of the decline of the poetic drama; for, directly a dramatist begins to keep one eye upon a reading public, he is obliged, or at least feels himself obliged, to conform to the rigid consistency which the novelist must observe.  Nor dare he leave points in doubt or intentions obscure. Both the chiaroscuro and the orchestral scope of the Elizabethans are denied him. Yet modern critics, instead of envying Shakespeare the liberty of his art and praising the masterly use he makes of it, condemn him for not obeying the “law of writ”8 that binds an Ibsen and a Bernard Shaw.9

If The Gutenberg Galaxy could be seen as a footnote to the work of Harold Innis, as McLuhan himself observed, so can it be read as an expansion, thirty years removed, of what McLuhan heard in Dover Wilson’s lecture at the very beginning of his Cambridge studies regarding the “law of writ”.

  1. That a consideration of approaches cannot dispense with an approach of its own, one that has necessarily not yet been proofed in “a consideration of approaches”, is not only not an insuperable barrier to this quest, it is a kind of milestone on its way to which it is imperative to pay explicit attention.  It is exactly because an unproofed approach can relate itself successfully to the world that it is possible to learn and use language, to comport oneself unreflectively in all sorts of practical ways — and to learn how to proof approaches.
  2. These two notions — the centrality of communication and the analysis of approaches to experience — were first brought together by McLuhan in his PhD thesis written in the early 1940’s.  The thesis traced the disciplines of the trivium as contesting structures of experience over the 2000 years from the Greeks to Thomas Nashe. Then, following his exposure to the work of Harold Innis around 1950, he would come to combine these notions explicitly in the study of modes of communication as variable forms of experience.
  3. McLuhan described the lecture in a letter to his family from November 3, 1934, Letters 32-33. For further discussion see Autobiography – encountering Shakespeare.
  4. According to Marchand  (53) on the basis of an interview with her, Bradbrook was McLuhan’s first PhD research supervisor before leaving Cambridge to work in the war effort in 1941 (but see Letters 118 and 121 for indication that F.P. Wilson was his already his supervisor in 1939). At the least, however, Bradbrook was certainly a good friend of McLuhan (and later also of Corinne) and a lifelong correspondent. In 1934, although only two years older than McLuhan, she was already the author of Elizabethan Stage Conditions: A Study of Their Place in the Interpretation of Shakespeare’s Plays (1932) and was about to issue Themes and Conventions of Elizabethan Tragedy (1935). It appears that Bradbrook and McLuhan met early in his Cambridge career since he reports going to tea with her in May 1935 (Letters 65).
  5. “Q” was Wilson’s fellow editor of the New Cambridge Shakespeare, an edition that would take them almost half a century to complete. McLuhan would be privileged to take a “course” with Quiller-Couch that at least on one occasion amounted to a tutorial since only one other student attended (as described by McLuhan in a letter to his family, Feb 7, 1935, Letters 57).
  6. “I can see that I would perhaps have been better to have taken History to teach, not only because my faculty is scarcely literary….” (McLuhan to his Mother, Jan 18, 1935, Letters 51)
  7. Taken from What Happens in Hamlet (1935), chapter vi, pages 231-232. In the book, Wilson describes his lecture at Cambridge as follows: “But the final stroke of fortune (in the composition of the book) came as a chance sequel to a lecture delivered last November (1934) before the Cambridge University English Club, in which I tried out the argument of Chapter vi” (What Happens in Hamlet, 22). The lecture and chapter vi had the same title, ‘Hamlet’s Make-up’, and, as Wilson writes, the same “argument”.
  8. The phrase is from Polonius in Hamlet II:2 — “The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited. Seneca cannot be too heavy, nor Plautus too light. For the law of writ and the liberty, these are the only men.”
  9. Wilson appended a footnote to this passage which reads: “Since these paragraphs were written I have been reading Miss Muriel Bradbrook’s Themes and Conventions of Elizabethan Tragedy (1935). Had I done so earlier I might have enriched and strengthened this chapter. As it is, I will only say that her book seems to me the first systematic attempt to deal with Elizabethan dramatic technique on satisfactory lines.” Now Muriel Bradbrook, as noted above, seems to have been McLuhan’s supervisor in the initial stages of his PhD research in Cambridge in 1939 (and was a good friend and unofficial adviser to boot). It is therefore remarkable that Wilson cited her work in just this “law of writ” context to which McLuhan would subsequently (first beginning more than 15 years after Wilson’s book) dedicate himself. The potential role of Bradbrook in this development invites investigation.  Suffice it to note here only that Wilson and Bradbrook were clear that Elizabethan society in general, and Elizabethan drama in particular, had very different notions of the relations between individual and society (and character and play) than did Victorian and early twentieth century England. Further, they were clear that this difference had much to do with the economic and communications organization of the country. Further still, they knew that this difference, or differences, were necessarily also expressed in such contexts as religious belief and political practice.