The put-on

My mother, by the way, was a one woman theater. She travelled from coast to coast from year to year putting on plays and acts. Single. Yes, she put on whole plays single.  Played all the parts, yes. (McLuhan interview with Nina Sutton, 1975)1

McLuhan the entertainer is in fine form — changing viewpoints as often as a quick-change artist changes hats. (‘Change itself has become the main staple.’) McLuhan is an actor — at least that’s my working hypothesis. This is not to devalue philosophy but to raise the currency of acting. In a day when understanding roles is essential and when one must fill several roles oneself, the art of the actor becomes the art of living. (Mavor Moore, 1972)2

A report from The Winnipeg Evening Tribune, 1929-10-18 (Page 4):


Impersonating over twenty characters of varied nationalities, times and places, Elsie McLuhan, reader and impersonator, at Greenwood United Church Wednesday night provided a large audience with a most interesting entertainment.

Comedy predominated throughout [one of her presentations,] the one act play, “The Florist Shop“. Six distinct characterizations were given, the Jewish proprietor; the gum-chewing Henry; the spinster Miss Wells; her fifteen year fiance Mr Jackson, who added a bit of the hurrying-up process; and Maud, the romantic saleslady, who was instrumental in bringing about the usual happy ending.

Elsie McLuhan publicized herself as an “impersonator”.3

This was a skill she demonstrated in her one-woman shows both by playing multiple characters in sketches like The Florist Shop, but also in the readings she did from high and low literature from “varied nationalities, times and places” (as the Trib report has it).  The elocutionist aim was to enunciate the particular point of view evidenced in a poem (or of any literary composition) like the nationality and period of the author or the individual circumstances  displayed in different works. For McLuhan this meant that an elocutionist had to dis-cover, and find the means to present, the sort of effect an author intended via the language he or she had “put on” — as a “put-on”.

The content of these readings was not some message which a poem or story clothed in fancy language for some reason and which an elocutionist then would then ‘read out’ like a living teletype machine.4 Far rather, the content, as McLuhan would later insist, was the user. The particular language of a poem was used, or “put on”, by the poet in “the presentation of self”5 in his or her particular individual and social circumstances — including an estimate of the possible audience and of the means to communicate with it. And then this first level use by the poet or other producer could be used again by an elocutionist in presenting such poems in her “presentation of self” to audiences of users with their complex “assumptions” and “investments”. All were “put ons”.

In sum, Elsie specialized in “putting on” different points of view in a situation where success depended entirely on a related ability to “put on” the role of “impersonator” before people who had “put on” the role of an audience. There is a house of mirrors effect here where points of view are reflected within points of view reflected within yet further points of view.6

McLuhan’s whole career may usefully (not to say exclusively) be understood as the attempt to understand this phantasmagoria — an attempt he himself often likened to Alice’s adventures behind the looking glass and to Joyce’s adventures in that other literary isolate, Finnegans Wake.

This interest in the “put on” and its modalities was already reflected in McLuhan’s M.A. thesis on George Meredith written in 1933-1934:

The poet plants himself upon his instincts and permits his temperament sovereign sway. And he has quite as much right to do this as the philosopher has to trust his thought processes. In his table talk, Coleridge noted that all men (…) are born either Platonists or Aristotelians. There are similarly, in all times and places, definite types of temperament displaying consistency of conformation. The literary or artistic expression of such temperaments has properly the same validity as has the philosophizing of the Idealist and the Realist.7

“The (…) expression of such temperaments”, of such “definite types of temperament displaying consistency of conformation”, is just how McLuhan would come to study literature and, indeed, all experience, individual and social. “The medium is the message.”

From very early on in McLuhan’s life, Elsie’s vocation must have been a topic of intense discussion and, indeed, of controversy within the family. As McLuhan grew, and particularly after he changed his university concentration from Engineering to English at age 18 in 1929, this interest grew with him and exchanges about it on a theoretical level became common between mother and son.  These were conducted orally when both of them were in Winnipeg, and by letter when Elsie was on tour and especially after she left for Toronto in 1933 and McLuhan began his studies in Cambridge in 1934. Indeed, their correspondence in Letters broaches the subject of elocution over and over again. In a letter to his family from Cambridge on November 3, 1934, for example, McLuhan offered Elsie this advice about a talk she was to give to the English-Speaking Union in Toronto:

I would elaborate the theme that elocution has suffered, more than singing, from its seeming proximity to common parlance. Point out that excellence therein is as far removed from the flowers and intonations of rhetorical oratory (with its narrow compass of tones and showy emphasis) as is excellence in poetry (with its organic relation or interdependence between content and tone and material patterns). (Letters, 34)

Such “interdependence between content and tone and material pattern” was just what Elsie strove to present in her readings and would become the basis of McLuhan’s understanding of literature as a wildly heterogeneous collection of “voices”. With his colleague Robert Schoeck, McLuhan would later, three decades in the future, edit a two volume anthology, Voices of Literature (1964/5).

Already in his first month in Cambridge , McLuhan had reported back to his family:

I heard Mr [Mansfield] Forbes [1889-1935] of Clare this morning who lectures (…) on “metre rhyme, rhythm, and the reading (aloud) of poetry with spec. ref. to the ages of Pope and Wordsworth.” It was the biggest intellectual treat of my life. (…) There is great variety in tone and accent among lecturers here [in their ordinary conversation, yet] (…) all of them try to read poetry (…) without any transitions of manner to suit the poem (…) This standard way (….) lags miles behind your [technique of variable elocutionist] interpretation, Mother, and I simply must get a background of [such] technique [myself]. (Oct 16, 1934, Letters 24-25.)8

Again some months later (in another letter to his family from February 7, 1935, Letters 58):

I spoke about Ruth Draper to Forbes (…) her ability to hold an audience for 2 hours he considered very remarkable (…) Forbes was impressed by Ruth D’s capacity to present “two or three different people” (consecutively) …

The duration of McLuhan’s interest in this topic, his continuing intense preoccupation with it, may be seen from a typical passage, almost 40 years later, in Take Today:

When we read a poem or listen to a song, we put on an extension of our language. Such extensions bring into relation to us the experiences of multitudes of lives. These experiences can be the means of enlarging or sharpening and enriching our private perceptions. However, when we “put on” an entire service environment, such as radio or TV, something more seems to happen than in the case of the individual means provided by a poem or song or book. There is a strange character in electric media, which we encounter even in the daily newspaper. The daily paper says in effect: “This is your world for today.” It has been pointed out that by some miracle, just enough happens every day to exactly fill all the newspapers. It is the simultaneity of news coverage that makes possible this mosaic experience of the world for today. No connections are sought or found amidst the innumerable items. Everything is unified under date line rather than story line. (146)

“Relation to (…) the experiences of multitudes of lives” (often put by McLuhan using Yeats’ phrase, “the experience of multitude”) occurs with language not only because language is the incalculably complex product of untold generations.  It also occurs with language because the choice of words requires at the same time a choice of persona: just who will speak the words (which includes an assessment of whom they will be spoken to) is one of the most important considerations in the decision of how to say what is to be said. Some persona must be “put on” both in speaking and in understanding (with each of these experiencing a ping-pong feed-back effect from and to the other).

Now the array of the personae (or points of view) who might be “put on” is just what McLuhan called ‘the unconscious’. And just as a language may be considered as a synchronic pattern of choice of significant sound and significant grammatical marker (among all possible sounds and all possible markers), so may experience be considered in terms of a synchronic pattern of choice of point of view (or human type) among all possible human types. As McLuhan put it already in his MA thesis (in the passage given above):

Coleridge noted that all men (…) are born either Platonists or Aristotelians. There are similarly, in all times and places, definite types of temperament displaying consistency of conformation. The literary or artistic expression of such temperaments has properly the same validity as has the philosophizing of the Idealist and the Realist.

These types and temperaments have to do with the “organization of experience”.9 But, of course, also the experience or understanding of the “organization of experience” must itself be organized in some fashion (aka, according to some further type).  On the one hand, this again introduces the house of mirrors effect where any point of view is reflected endlessly in further points of view. And this endless mirroring, which seems never to come into contact with the objectively real or even with its own subjective reality, is, in turn, exactly what led Nietzsche to nihilism.10 On the other hand, however, these threats to the integrity of experience, which promise to undermine it from within, also supply proof-stones for its rigorous investigation. For if someone like McLuhan claims to have uncovered a scientific way to investigate individual and social experience, proof or disproof of the claim will implicate the question: does the analysis come to an end in such a way that real contact with the real is really achieved?  More particularly, for McLuhan, does his suggestion that investigation focus on “the activity of the exterior and interior senses” fulfill an ontological criterion in such a way as to enable both new sciences in the domain of human experience and thereby reveal, once again, foundation and ground for an age in which “all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned”?11

McLuhan was beginning to come clear about these matters around 1950 (in a labyrinthine search which would culminate in 1958). Here he is (in a passage discussing Joyce which will require detailed examination elsewhere) claiming that the consideration of the modalities of the “adequation of mind and things”, modalities to be specified in terms of “the exterior and interior senses”, can itself uncover/recover relation to the prior “the dance of being” aka “the gestures of being itself” (by finding itself being them):

Whereas the ethical world of Ulysses is presented in terms of well-defined human types the more metaphysical world of the Wake speaks and moves before us with the gestures of being itself. It is a nightworld and, literally, as Joyce reiterates, is “abcedminded”. Letters (“every letter is a godsend”), the frozen, formalized gestures of remote ages of collective experience, move before us in solemn morrice. They are the representatives of age-old adequation of mind and things, enacting the drama of the endless adjustment of the interior acts and dispositions of the mind to the outer world. The drama of cognition itself. For it is in the drama of cognition, the stages of apprehension, that Joyce found the archetype of poetic imitation. He seems to have been the first to see that the dance of being, the nature imitated by the arts, has its primary analogue in the activity of the exterior and interior senses. (James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial, 1953)


  1. Cited by Gordon, Escape into Understanding, 1997,357n10.
  2. Mavor Moore, ‘The Prophet as Performer’ (review of Take Today), Toronto Globe and Mail, June 3, 1972, cited in Gordon, Escape into Understanding, 1997, 260.
  3.  Letters, 89.
  4. Compare McLuhan’s letter to his family (cited in this post) from Cambridge in October 1934, where he writes of the manner in which “lecturers here (…) try to read poetry (…) without any transitions of manner to suit the poem”.
  5. Cf, Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1956). Goffman has been called the most influential sociologist of the twentieth century. He was born in Mannville, Alberta in 1922, went to high school in Winnipeg and took his first years of undergraduate study at UM (1939-1942). He then graduated from UT before pursuing his further educaton and career in the US at Chicago, Berkeley and the University of Pennsylvania. Now Mannville with its mostly rural population in the early twentieth century barely reaching into the hundreds was the place where, in 1907, McLuhan’s grandfather, James McLuhan, came west to homestead with his family, including McLuhan’s father, Herbert. McLuhan, born in Edmonton in 1911, was conceived in Mannville before his parents, newly married at the end of 1909, moved from there to the provincial capital in early 1911. The chances of two such influential scholars (along with a future Lord Mayor of London) being associated in the same decade with a remote unincorporated hamlet on the prairies are slim to vanishing. That both McLuhan and Goffman should then have gone on from Mannville to high school and university in Manitoba is, of course, even more unlikely. Future posts will consider McLuhan and Goffman as representatives of the Winnipeg school of communication which also included Rupert Lodge and Henry Wright, in the first generation, and S.I. Hayakawa and W.O. Mitchell, along with McLuhan and Goffman, in the next.
  6. See already in the Nashe thesis: “The metaphor of the mirror comes as naturally to Whitehead as to Bonaventure (…) All specialism in knowledge disappears for Whitehead as for Philo or Hugh of St. Victor: ‘We can now see the relation of psychology to physiology and to physics. The private psychological field is merely the event considered from its own standpoint’. (Science and the Modern World, 175). The difference between Whitehead and Bonaventure is that between a man (Whitehead) taking his first uncertain steps into a new world of inexhaustible significance, and a man (Bonaventure) born into that world.” Trivium,144
  7. Compare McLuhan to his family from Cambridge, November 10, 1934: “It is useful broadly to distinguish PI and Arist as tending towards Bhuddism (sic) and Christianity respectively. Plato was an oriental in mind (…) Aristotle heartily accepts the senses” (Letters, 39). McLuhan’s letter is all nonsense, of course, but it does show him beginning to think through the contention of his two philosophy professors at UM, Rupert Lodge and Henry Wright, that all human experience is structured by fundamental types.
  8. The contrast here between a “standard way” of the Cambridge dons and the “great variety” cultivated by elocution looks forward to that later described by McLuhan between the Gutenberg galaxy and the electric universe. Cf, McLuhan to Gerald Stearn in 1967: “Highly literate people speak on one level, in a monotone. ‘Good’ prose is spoken this way.  A (single) level of form, one plane. You cannot discuss multi-relationships on a single plane, in a single form. That’s why the poets of our time have broken all the planes and sequences, forming a cubist prose. ‘I don’t follow you’ — as if that had anything to do with reasoning. It has to do with lineality and visuality. Logical or connected discourse is highly visual and has very little to do with human reasoning.” Note should be made here how McLuhan undermines the easy oral/literate contrast that is often thought to be his topic. His literate forms can just as well describe spoken as written language.
  9. The subtitle of Goffman’s 1974 Frame Analysis is “An Essay on the Organization of Experience.”
  10. “The true world — we have abolished. What world has remained? The apparent one perhaps? But no! With the true world we also have abolished the apparent one!!” Reference and German original here. While McLuhan may or may not have read much of Nietzsche, he certainly did read Eric Havelock’s Crucifixion of Intellectual Man (1950) whose long Introduction rehearses the same argument.
  11. Marx, The Manifesto of the Communist Party. The original reads: “Alles Ständische und Stehende verdampft, alles Heilige wird entweiht…”.