Monthly Archives: January 2016

Deutsch on Christian complementarity

An important section of Karl Deutsch’s 1950 paper (originally delivered orally in 1948), ‘Higher Education and the Unity of Knowledge’, is titled ‘Christianity and the Resurrection of Science’. Deutsch was a Jew, but he was a specialist in the middle ages and had an understanding of Christianity that was interesting in itself and especially in the relationship he saw between it and science.

Any revival of the growth of knowledge and science must have been remote from the preoccupations of the early Christians — and yet there is some reason to suggest that the profound reorientation of human motives in the course of the rise of their faith opened the fundamental channels of communication so much more deeply and widely [than before] as to lay the foundations for later centuries of unparalleled intellectual and technological growth.
Christianity implied a new attitude of man to man, a radical acceptance of empathy, a willingness to accept full communication of the fate and experience of other persons, however poor or low, and a feeling: “Here but for the grace of God go I.” This feeling is expressed in Jesus’s saying: “What you have done to the least of these, you have done to me”; in Paul’s conviction that, in the things that truly matter, there is “neither Jew nor Gentile, neither bond nor free,” and that men must come to view themselves as “members of one another.”
Beyond the language of faith, these are statements of essential aspects of communication. Men are viewed as potential substitutes for each other in their external fate, their external interactions with their environment, their experiences of nature and society — to such a degree that “but for the grace of God” the fate of another might be mine. This accepted possibility of substitution implies that the behavior and experiences of other men are relevant for me as potential test cases of my own.
This view embraces operations [research]. A tentative modern definition of the relationship of complementarity — that is, of the relationship between broadcasting and receiving radio sets tuned to each other, or between a key and all the locks which it fits — might be that it consists essentially in the possibility of performing an operation in one set of facilities which is effective in the other, while preserving a significant number of its characteristics in both [otherwise independent] sets. These characteristics of the operation, or chain of events, may be described in statistical terms as a pattern of “yes’s” and “no’s,” and may then be called “information”. Is not this relationship stated in the words: “What you have done to the least of these, that you have done to me”? By restoring and deepening the community of human experience and communication, Christianity restored and deepened one of the essential foundations, not only for common belief (…) but also for every future community of science.
It should be clear that Christianity cannot claim any exclusive monopoly in that contribution. The vision of the Hebrew prophets who took the side of the poor (…), the pity of Buddha, and the trend of some currents of Hellenistic thought, all implied some awareness of men’s relationship as potential substitutes and test cases for each other. What seems to me to have been new in Christianity was the consistency with which this insight was carried toward the conclusions of seeing all human beings as “members of one another,” and of recognizing love to one’s neighbor (…) as the visible test of love to God.
Less directly, and less dramatically, early Christianity laid the foundations of a later restoration of a fuller communication between men and nature. The doctrine of creation and of the fatherhood of God, already found in Judaism, favors the notion of a friendly universe. It implies that the universe is such that men can live in it — that it is not fundamentally hostile to either life or understanding, and indeed that understanding may reveal a friendly wisdom behind it all.1 

This passage incorporates several foundational convictions of McLuhan’s mature project (which was just beginning to come into focus at the time around 1950 when McLuhan obtained Deutsch’s paper).  

First, as McLuhan put the point in a letter two decades later to Martin Esslin: 

One of the advantages of being a Catholic is that it confers a complete intellectual freedom to examine any and all phenomena with the absolute assurance of their intelligibility. (September 23, 1971, Letters 440)

As Deutsch has it: “Christianity laid the foundations of a later restoration of a fuller communication between men and nature. The doctrine of creation and of the fatherhood of God, already found in Judaism, favors the notion of a friendly universe. It implies that (…) it is not fundamentally hostile to either life or understanding, and indeed that understanding may reveal a friendly wisdom behind it all.”

Of course, McLuhan was clear, as Deutsch may or may not have been, that the repeated “friendly[ness]” here in no way excludes tragedy and disaster.  Hence McLuhan’s citation of FW 332 in Culture is our Business (160): “Such was the act of goth”! Ultimate conciliation — or ultimate friendship — is as utterly “inexact” (discussed here) as that between the decrees of God and those of the goths when they sacked Rome. The relation of humans to such “wisdom” as may be “behind it all” is ineradicably limited such that any pretension to an exact comprehension of it (let alone identification with it) is simply laughable.

Second, both McLuhan and Innis must have been deeply struck by Deutsch’s emphasis on communication and complementarity as essential for operations research.  These were already central aspects of their own work in the humanities and now Deutsch was revealing (along with Wiener in his 1948 and 1949 cybernetics books) how they were implicated in the most modern and propitious (for both good and evil) scientific research.2

Third, as indicated by Deutsch, communication and complementarity turn on the relations of centre to margin, on “a radical acceptance of empathy”.  Innis had dedicated his entire life to the study of the (Canadian) history and (universal) theory of centre-margin relations such that Watson’s biography of him would fittingly be called Marginal Man. McLuhan, too, would increasingly come to see that the centre-margin structure (particularized along a spectrum of its possible expressions) is the ‘wobbling pivot’ around which human life and all history can and must be understood.3 Often he put the point, as if it were possible to have a centre without margin:

Speed-up creates what some economists refer to as a center-margin structure. When this becomes too extensive for the generating and control center, pieces begin to detach themselves and to set up new center-margin systems of their own. The most familiar example is the story of the American colonies of Great Britain. When the thirteen colonies began to develop a considerable social and economic life of their own, they felt the need to become centers themselves, with their own margins. This is the time when the original center may make a more rigorous effort of centralized control of the margins, as, indeed, Great Britain did. The slowness of sea travel proved altogether inadequate to the maintenance of so extensive an empire on a mere center-margin basis. Land powers can more easily attain a unified center-margin pattern than sea powers. It is the relative slowness of sea travel that inspires sea powers to foster multiple centers by a kind of seeding process. Sea powers thus tend to create centers without margins, and land empires favor the center-margin structure. Electric speeds create centers everywhere. Margins cease to exist on this planet. (Understanding Media, 91)

As the example of Great Britain and its American colonies shows, McLuhan’s point here is, however, not at all that “margins cease to exist on this planet” in the sense that the former margins entirely cease to be. Instead, such margins are transformed such that they “begin to detach themselves and to set up new center-margin systems of their own”.

What transpires is a change in the recognition, valuation, power and structure of the previously marginalized. These come to be accorded the sort of recognition, valuation, power and structure that characterize a centre. The result is a correlated revolution in both marginality and centrality without, however, the abrogation of the underlying centre-margin structure.

It is not the case that centre-margin structures can ever disappear (since humans and, in fact, the whole universe are definitively marginal).4 All that can happen, all that does happen — and in so doing accounts for historical change — is that the relative weight assigned to centre and margin is modified along a spectrum of possible relations between the two. This is a spectrum stretching between a monopoly of recognition of the centre at one end and a monopoly of recognition of the margin at the other. While this relation can be assigned values at every point along the spectrum (and all these points can combine and recombine in a myriad of different complexes), the centre-margin relation itself is always present.

 McLuhan put this point in a letter from December 19, 1960 to Serge Chermayeff:

When there is no longer a center-margin interplay in a positional or spatial sense5, is it not yet possible to have a more inclusive ecology [of such interplay] than any previously envisaged, and would not such [an ecology of] equilibrium or interplay be capable (…) of [providing the basis for] true freedom? (…) One peculiarity of center-margin relationships is that when freedom of interplay6 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.7 The dialogue has ended. (…) The problem is the creation of margin that there may be dialogue (…) the [maintenance of that] ratio between center and margin necessary to dialogue.8

Everything in McLuhan’s work depends upon these three interrelated convictions: that dialogue or complementarity is foundational; that dialogue and complementarity exist in, and so require, centre-margin relations; and that the key to insight into such relations is appreciation of their variability along the spectrum of their possible expressions (especially that of their “unequal” balance at the medial point or medium of the spectrum):

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

  1. References for Deutsch’s paper are given here; this passage is found on pp 95-96.
  2. At just this same time, McLuhan was learning from his closest friend, Bernie Muller-Thym, how operations research was revolutionizing modern manufacturing and business in general.
  3. This is exactly the medium that is the message/massage/mess age/mass age.
  4. They are marginal in the sense that they do not have the power of existence within themselves — utter oblivion can, and presumably will at some point, fall on them both.
  5. Cf. UM 94: “The principal factors in media impact on existing social forms are acceleration and disruption. Today the acceleration tends to be total, and thus ends space as the main factor in social arrangements.” McLuhan’s point is that in an age of instantaneous information, history no longer turns on the rise and fall of geographical empires. Hence: “Now that man has extended his central nervous system by electric technology, the field of battle has shifted to mental image making and breaking…” (UM 103).
  6. McLuhan often put this point in terms of “the natural interval between the wheel and axle (…) where action and ‘play’ are one” (Take Today, 4).
  7. As McLuhan did not note here, at the other extreme, where the margin enlarges and the centre diminishes beyond a certain point, we are in that induced state called psychosis. Monolithic enlargement at either end of the spectrum acts as grit in the dialogue of centre and margin, reducing a working two to a dysfunctional one: “A gap is an interface, an area of ferment and change. The gap between wheel and axle can seize up when grit gets in” (Culture is our Business, 70).
  8. This letter is not included in McLuhan’s Letters, but is referenced in a note on 277.  It is in the Chermayeff papers at Columbia and part of it has been published in Chermayeff & Alexander, Community and Privacy, 1963, 102. The last sentences, which have been conflated above, read: For the (space) 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. You of course are far more familiar than I am with a very great number of occasions in our contemporary world when by inadvertence we have designed environments which lacked the ratio between center and margin necessary to dialogue.”

Nihilism in Turgenev

The tiny space I occupy is so small compared to the rest of space, where I am not and where things have nothing to do with me; and the amount of time in which I get to live my life is so insignificant compared to eternity, where I’ve never been and won’t ever be  . . .
Yet in this atom, this mathematical point, blood circulates, a brain functions and desires something as well . . . How absurd! What nonsense! (Fathers and Sons, 1862, Katz translation)

The Maelstrom in Dostoevsky

His position at that moment was like the position of a man standing over a frightful precipice, when the earth breaks away under him, is rocking, shifting, sways for a last time, and falls, drawing him into the abyss, and meanwhile the unfortunate man has neither the strength nor the firmness of spirit to jump back, to take his eyes from the yawning chasm; the abyss draws him, and he finally leaps into it himself, himself hastening the moment of his own perdition.1  (The Double, 1846, Pevear and Volokhonsky translation)

I live under the influence of feelings just past, under the influence of fresh memories, under the influence of all this recent whirl, which drew me into that turbulence then, and threw me out of it again somewhere. It still seems to me at times that I’m spinning in the same whirl, and that the storm is about to rush upon me, snatch me up with its wing in passing, and I will again break out of all order and sense of measure, and spin, spin, spin… (The Gambler, 1867, Pevear and Volokhonsky translation)

In that whirl in which I then spun, though I was alone, without guide or counselor, I swear, I was already aware of my fall, and therefore had no excuse. And yet all those two months I was almost happy — why almost? I was only too happy! And even to the point that the consciousness of disgrace, flashing at moments (frequent moments!), which made my soul shudder — that very awareness — will anyone believe me? — intoxicated me still more: “And so what, if I fall, I fall; but I won’t fall, I’ll get out! I have my star!” I was walking on a slender bridge made of splinters, without railings, over an abyss, and it was fun for me to walk like that; I even peeked into the abyss. (The Adolescent, 1875, Pevear and Volokhonsky translation)


  1. Compare Poe’s Arthur Gordon Pym (1838): “The more earnestly I struggled not to think, the more intensely vivid became my conceptions, and the more horribly distinct. At length arrived that crisis of fancy, so fearful in all similar cases, the crisis in which we begin to anticipate the feelings with which we shall fall — to picture to ourselves the sickness, and dizziness, and the last struggle, and the half swoon, and the final bitterness of the rushing and headlong descent. And now I found these fancies creating their own realities, and all imagined horrors crowding upon me in fact. I felt my knees strike violently together, while my fingers were gradually yet certainly relaxing their grasp. There was a ringing in my ears, and I said, “This is my knell of death!” And now I was consumed with the irrepressible desire of looking below. I could not, I would not, confine my glances to the cliff; and, with a wild, indefinable emotion half of horror, half of a relieved oppression, I threw my vision far down into the abyss. For one moment my fingers clutched convulsively upon their hold, while, with the movement, the faintest possible idea of ultimate escape wandered, like a shadow, through my mind — in the next my whole soul was pervaded with a longing to fall; a desire, a yearning, a passion utterly uncontrollable. I let go at once my grasp upon the peg, and, turning half round from the precipice, remained tottering for an instant against its naked face. But now there came a spinning of the brain; a shrill-sounding and phantom voice screamed within my ears; a dusky, fiendish, and filmy figure stood immediately beneath me; and, sighing, I sunk down with a bursting heart, and plunged within its arms.”

“Deutsch’s interesting pamphlet on communication” 1

Early in 1951 (perhaps initiated already in 1950) McLuhan and Harold Innis exchanged letters in which an “interesting pamphlet on communication”1 by Karl Deutsch2 is mentioned. Apparently it had been obtained by McLuhan and then shared with Innis — Innis calls it “your pamphlet”. If both McLuhan and Innis had read the “pamphlet” by February 1951, it is evident that McLuhan must have acquired it in 1950 or, less probably, very early in 1951.

In his March 28, 1951, letter to Norbert Wiener (in the Wiener papers at MIT), McLuhan — apparently referring to the same paper — writes of his “recent encounter with Professor Deutsch’s discussion of communication and education”.

A note to McLuhan’s letter to Innis by the editors of his Letters3 inexplicably identifies this document as Deutsch’s ‘Communication in Self-Governing Organizations: Notes on Autonomy, Freedom and Authority in the Growth of Social Groups’, which he presented at a conference in September 1951 and first published in 1953.4 But this could not have been the Deutsch paper McLuhan and Innis were reading at the start of 1951 — the dates clearly don’t match up. But in this case, just what “pamphlet” was it that McLuhan shared with Innis?

McLuhan’s library at the University of Toronto contains two early articles by Deutsch: ‘Mechanism, Organism, and Society: Some Models in Natural and Social Science’, published in 19515 and ‘Communication Theory and Social Science’ published in 19526. The second could not have been in “pamphlet” (reprint?) form at the end of 1950, but it is just possible that the first was. However, a footnote to ‘Mechanism, Organism, and Society’ reads:

The substance of this paper was presented to the joint meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science at New York on December 30, 1949, and some passages have appeared in Goals for American Education, New York, Harper Brothers, 1950. (230n)

This note points to the most likely candidate for the pamphlet — Deutsch’s paper in Goals for American Education7, ‘Higher Education and the Unity of Knowledge: An Operational Approach to the History of Thought’.  This was a 1948 seminar presentation which was published in 1950. A reprint of this paper, from which passages were lifted for ‘Mechanism, Organism, and Society’ in 19518, could well have been in McLuhan’s hands at the end of 1950 and its title certainly accords with McLuhan’s description of it to Wiener as “Deutsch’s discussion of communication and education”. Furthermore, just such a reprint exists to this day in the Sigfried Giedion papers archived in the Institut für Geschichte und Theorie der Architektur (gta) in Zurich. 

Now Giedion and McLuhan had been in friendly correspondence since 1943 when they met in St Louis. In 1948 Giedion published Mechanization Takes Command, a book which decisively influenced McLuhan for the rest of his career and which he reviewed in The Hudson Review in 1949.9 Moreover, at just this time, Giedion was in touch with Deutsch and Wiener at MIT and would teach there with them in 1951. It therefore seems likely that McLuhan was sent a reprint of ”Higher Education and the Unity of Knowledge’, either directly by Giedion himself or through his agency, sometime in 1950. 

Another (perhaps complementary) possibility is that McLuhan may have been alerted to Deutsch’s work by his closest friend at this time, Bernard Muller-Thym.  Muller-Thym was a “leading business analyst” (GG 140) in New York with great interest in automation and corporate communications10, who later himself taught at MIT (from 1955 to 1966).11

A footnote (249n24) to Deutsch’s 1951 ‘Mechanism, Organism, and Society’ reads:

On the importance of flow patterns of information and decision in economic or political organization, see K. W. Deutsch, “Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and the Learning Process,” in Change and the Entrepreneur, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1949, p.29; and “A Note on the History of Entrepreneurship, Innovation, and Decision-Making,” Explorations in Entrepreneurial History, Vol. I., n.5, May 1949, pp. 12–16.

Deutsch’s work on “flow patterns of information” and entrepreneurship would certainly have caught the interested attention of Muller-Thym and his colleagues at McKinsey and Company. But few of them would have had the sort of background — as Muller-Thym did — to understand the wider context of Deutsch’s work. Indeed, Muller-Thym may even have known one of Deutsch’s first papers, ‘Medieval Unity and the Economic Conditions for an International Civilization’ (1944) which was printed, strangely enough, given Muller-Thym’s Toronto PhD in medieval studies, in The Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science (10:1, 18-35). This was a periodical that was published in Toronto and that Harold Innis had helped to found in 1935 — just when Muller-Thym was doing his graduate work there.12 Futher, ‘medieval unity’ and ‘international civilization’ were important implications of Muller-Thym’s PhD thesis (which he was writing in 1935), On The Establishment of the University of Being.


  1. McLuhan to Innis, March 14, 1951, Letters 222.  This was a reworked version of an earlier letter to Innis to which Innis replied on February 26, 1951 and in which he apologized for his late reply. See the editors’ note to McLuhan’s letter, Letters 220n1.
  2. Karl Wolfgang Deutsch, 1912-1992, taught at MIT 1943-1956, Yale 1956-1967 and Harvard  1967-1982.  McLuhan reviewed Deutsch’s 1963 book, The Nerves of Government: Models of Political Communication and Control, in The University of Toronto Law Journal, 16:1 (1965), pp. 226-228.
  3. Letters, 222n6
  4. In Freedom and Authority in Our Time, ed Lyman Bryson (1953).
  5. In Philosophy of Science 18:3, 230-252 (1951)
  6. In American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 22:3, 469–483 (1952)
  7. Goals for American Education, A Symposium, ed, L Bryson, L Finkelstein and R.M. MacIver, 1950; Deutsch’s paper (‘Higher Education and the Unity of Knowledge’) is located at pp 55-139.
  8. Verbatim passages also appear in ‘Some notes on research on the role of models in the natural and social sciences’ (reprinted as: ‘Toward a cybernetic model of man and society’ in Walter Buckley (ed), Modern Systems Research for the Behavioral Scientist: A Sourcebook, 1968), Synthese 7: 6-B, 506-533, 1948-1949.
  9. ‘Encyclopaedic Unities’, a review of Vision in Motion (László Moholy-Nagy) and Mechanization Takes Command (Sigfried Giedion), The Hudson Review 1:4, 599-602, 1949.
  10.  Muller-Thym’s work is discussed by McLuhan in ‘Effects of the Improvements of Communication Media’, 1960; ‘Inside the Five Sense Sensorium’, 1961; ‘The Electronic Age – The Age of Implosion’, 1962; GG, 140-141, 1962; and ‘We need a new picture of knowledge’, 1963. The concentration of these discussions in the early 1960s reflects the fact that Muller-Thym published a series of papers at this time on topics of great mutual interest to McLuhan and him: ‘New Directions for Organizational Practice’, in 50 years Progress in Management 1910-1960, 42-50, 1960; ‘Cultural and Social Changes’, in The Changing American Population, ed Hoke S. Simpson, 85-96, 1962; ‘The Real Meaning of Automation’, Management Review, June 1963, 40-47.  But Muller-Thym had long been McLuhan’s adviser both on scholasticism, particularly Thomas, and developments in business — a strange concoction Muller-Thym explained in this way: “I stopped philosophy to start a new life, he (Muller-Thym) once told me (Richard Kostelanetz), but later I realized that what I did reflected my earlier training. Indeed, he now regards the work of St. Thomas Aquinas, an encyclopedia of information and methods for handling it, as perhaps the best intellectual preparation for understanding the computer; and he once told me that after unraveling the previously unfathomable complexities of Meister Eckhart (in his PhD thesis), I got the feeling that I could penetrate any difficult mystery.” (Richard Kostelanetz, Master Minds, 1969, 159). Exchanges between Muller-Thym and McLuhan went back to their time together at St Louis University between 1937 and 1942 — when Muller-Thym became the best man at McLuhan’s wedding and the Godfather of his first child — so that when McLuhan recommended Peter Drucker’s books to his Jesuit friends, Walter Ong and Clement McNaspy, in a Christmas 1944 letter (Letters 166), this doubtless reflected advice he himself had first received from Muller-Thym. In his 1960 Report on Project of Understanding New Media McLuhan described his appreciation of Drucker and Muller-Thym as follows: “I make numerous trips to Management Training Centers, and (…) these visits coincide with frequent consultations with capable educators in these top management centers. (…) During this past year I have had a dozen sessions with Peter F. Drucker and Bernard J. Muller-Thym. Both of these men, who are considered the greatest management consultants in the world today, are former professors of philosophy. I find it much easier to talk about the meaning of media to such men than to educators. The reason is this: Drucker and Muller-Thym deal daily with management in the world’s largest business organizations. They are acutely aware of the effects of media, new and old, on decision-making in big business.”
  11. Since Deutsch remained at MIT until 1956, his and Muller-Thym’s time there slightly overlapped.
  12. It is possible there was some kind of connection between Innis and Deutsch independent of McLuhan. Innis would certainly have known of Deutsch’s 1944 paper in CJEPS on the interrelation of ideology and economics. It was exactly at this time, of course, that Innis himself was turning to the examination of this topic — communications, plural — as a key to universal history. Then, shortly before Innis’ death, Deutsch published a review of The Bias of Communication in CJEPS 18:3 (1952), 388-390. And two years later, in 1954, he again published in CJEPS — his important paper on ‘Game Theory and Politics: Some Problems of Application’ appeared in 20:1, 76-83.