Monthly Archives: June 2016

Minkowski in Giedion

For McLuhan, reading Sigfried Giedion’s Space, Time and Architecture in 1943 was a “one of the great events of my lifetime” (as he noted in the Stearn interview).

A central aspect of that importance for McLuhan was Giedion’s appeal to human integrity, to the union of thought and feeling, which could be re-established, he claimed, through focus on the common root of science and art.

Throughout the nineteenth century the natural sciences went splendidly ahead, impelled by the great tradition which the previous two hundred years had established, and sustained by problems which had a direction and momentum of their own. The real spirit of the age came out in these researches in the realm of thinking, that is. But these achievements and results were regarded as emotionally neutral, as having no relation to the realm of feeling. Feeling could not keep up with the swift advances made in science and the techniques. The century’s genuine strength and special accomplishments remained largely irrelevant to man’s inner life.
This orientation of the vital energies of the period is reflected in the make-up of the man of today. Scarcely anyone can escape the unbalanced development which it encourages. The split personality, the unevenly adjusted man, is symptomatic of our period.
But behind these disintegrating forces in our period tendencies leading toward unity can be observed. From the first decade of this century on, we encounter curious parallelisms of method in the separate realms of thought and feeling, science and art. Problems whose roots lie entirely in our time are being treated in similar ways, even when their subject matter is very different and their solutions are arrived at independently.
In 1908 the great mathematician Hermann Minkowski first conceived a world in four dimensions, with space and time coming together to form an indivisible continuum. His Space and Time1 of that year begins with the celebrated statement, “Henceforth, space by itself, and time by itself, are doomed to fade away into mere shadows, and only a kind of union of the two will preserve an independent reality”2 It was just at this time that in France and in Italy cubist and futurist painters developed the artistic equivalent of space-time in their search for means of expressing purely contemporaneous feelings.3

  1. Raum und Zeit, German text here; translation here.
  2. “Von Stund′ an sollen Raum für sich und Zeit für sich völlig zu Schatten herabsinken und nur noch eine Art Union der beiden soll Selbständigkeit bewahren.”
  3. Space, Time and Architecture, 13-14. Giedion’s marginal guidelines for these paragraphs include: “The split personality”, “The split civilization”, and “Unconscious parallelisms of method in science and art”.

“New Media Changing Spatial Orientation Of Self”

The 4-page cover (front cover, inside front, inside back, and back cover) of Explorations 2 (April 1954) features pages from the Feenicht’s Playhouse ‘newspaper’. The newspaper headline reads:

New Media Changing Spatial-Temporal Orientation Of Self

There are 24 ‘reports’ on the 4 newspaper pages, with a total of 3 pictures and, inside the back cover, a single ‘ad’ — for the movie “Bwana Devil”, in “3-D natural vision”, a new viewer experience providing “A Lover in your arms” and “A Lion in your lap!”!  Now!

The best of these reports, “Time-Space Duality Goes”, narrowly edges out “Historic Time Comes To End”, “Modern Art All The Bunk”, and “Ploof Book Sells Millions” (“Sabrina Horne’s bosom, a prominent part of this novel, was agitated”).

Time-Space Duality Goes

Today scientists announced that western notions of time and space once believed to be intuitive and universal, are, in fact, neither.  Recognition of this fact stems from two sources: (1) a growing awareness that other cultures do not share these particular metaphysical concepts, and (2) realization that these concepts are rapidly changing in our own society.
Since the Renaissance the metaphysics underlying our language and thinking has imposed upon the universe two grand cosmic forms said to be utterly separate and unconnected aspects of reality. These are: (1) static three-dimensional  infinite space, and (2) kinetic one-dimensional, uniformly and perpetually flowing time, which is, in turn, the subject of a three-fold division: past, present and future.
But for modern man, lineal thought, chronological order, historical sequence, causal relationships, and all that these imply, are no longer of vital importance. Time standing alone has ceased to be a primary value; only as an ingredient of a larger whole is it now important. The novel, the autobiography, the essay are no longer structured by historical time, while emphasis upon causality and succeeding impressions, is being replaced by emphasis upon the single gestalt standing alone. The “past” and the “future” have become part of the “now”, and time and space are one.
Scholars are divided in their enthusiasm over these changes. Some argue that the end of the time-space duality, inseparably connected with science since the Renaissance, means the end of science. They view with alarm the new role of space, and fear for the printed page and the analytical argument. One large foundation has thrown its full weight behind traditional time studies. Other scientists are not so sure, and wonder if perhaps science will not only survive but flourish in this new climate.
Attempts to explain this revolutionary trend must be sought not in changes in the techniques of production of commodities, but in changes in the techniques of packaging and distributing ideas and feelings, which for man at least is as important as the food-quest itself. The power for change is not in the content of the messages, but in the form of the media themselves. Just as in the industrial revolutions, human relations and personality patterns were changed more by the means of production than by the commodities produced, so will these new media…1

  1. Explorations 2, April 1954, front cover, emphasis added

Explorations and Epilogue

The covers (front, back, inside front and inside back) of Explorations 2 (April 1954) give 4 pages of a ‘Feenicht’s Playhouse’ newspaper. There are 23 single-spaced reports and one 3-line double spaced insert (on the inside back cover).  It reads:

Now time has reached the flurrying curtain-fall

That wakens thought from historied reverie

And gives the word to uninfected discourse

This is a silent citation from the short-lived1 Laura RidingRobert Graves journal, Epilogue (1935–1938). Riding described the name and the journal (referring to the 3 verse lines) as follows:

…the thing is called Epilogue, meaning that it’s all about what comes after the drama of history, that although it’s after history it represents happenings, though of another kind. And the three verse lines say this too. I don’t want to print Epilogue on the cover just as a magazine name, but as a meaning to remind that Epilogue means a dramatic performance coming after the strict dramatic performance. (…) the play proper is over…2

The citation from Epilogue serves to situate Explorations as a successor au revoir to modernism. Robert Graves was co-editor of Epilogue and a contributor to Explorations.

  1. Explorations was originally intended to be even shorter lived.  A note at the start of the early issues specifies: “Published three times a year for two years.”
  2. Letter from Laura Riding to John Aldridge from March? 1935, cited in The Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines, vol 1, 2009, 806.

Different kinds of “acoustic space”

Today, with all our technology, and because of it, we stand once more in the magical acoustical sphere of pre-literate man (Space, Time, and Poetry, 1955)

Not any art doctrine, then, but such complex changes as occur in the emergence of the press as art form, lead to the union of the visual and acoustical space in a new space-time poetry. (Space, Time, and Poetry, 1955)

McLuhan observed that he “never ceased to meditate on the relevance of (…) acoustic space to an understanding of the simultaneous electric world.” (‘The End of the Work Ethic’: The Empire Club Address, 1973).  But what may never have been defined explicitly by him are the deep differences between disparate sorts of “acoustic space”: (1) pre-literate experience, (2) electric experience and (3) topological meta-experience about all experience — with (3) including both (1) and (2), as well as the intervening Gutenberg galaxy: “the union of the visual and acoustical space in a new space-time”.1

All three of these were considered by him as variously implicating “acoustic space”.

The third — topological meta-experience about all experience — must include all possible experience whatsoever, but without identification with any one sort of it. Or, conversely, with identification with precisely every sort of it.

As far as my media studies are concerned, the Mechanization Takes Command by Sigfried Giedion is indispensable background for the languages of media. As soon as one approaches [such] a field, one has to abandon subjects. Or rather, [all] subjects are automatically included within the field. (McLuhan to Harry Skornia, January 20, 1960.)2

In this context the differentiation of “acoustic space” from “mosaic  space” could be highly important. For, while the Gutenberg galaxy (say) was exactly not “acoustic”, it was a “mosaic”: “the galaxy or constellation of events upon which the present study concentrates is itself a mosaic”. Perhaps “mosaic” might be thought of as the ontological shape of everything that comes to be, as Bernard Muller-Thym might put it, with “acoustic” being those modes of human experience which are fitting to “mosaic” as lacking fixed perspective (although inevitably not fitting in other respects):

Auditory space has no point of favored focus. It’s a sphere without fixed boundaries, space made by the thing itself, not space containing the thing. It is not pictorial space, boxed in, but dynamic, always in flux, creating its own dimensions moment by moment. (‘Auditory Space’, 1960)

With the end of lineal specialisms and fixed points of view, compartmentalized knowledge became (…) unacceptable… (Gutenberg Galaxy, 253)

It is exactly this lack of a “point of favoured focus” — a lack that it shares with pre-literate and electric experience — that enables topological meta-experience about all experience to extend its “formula to the entire world of language and consciousness” (‘New Media as Political Forms’, Explorations 3, 1954).3

  1. As exemplified by this citation from ‘Space, Time, and Poetry’, McLuhan was clear (although often not explicit) that pre-literate experience and modern experience were not the same. See also: “modern man has to live mythically, in contrast to his ancient forebears, who sought to think mythically” (Take Today, 8) — perhaps contrasting conscious (“modern”) with unconscious (“ancient”) modes.
  2. Cited by Michael Darroch in Media Transatlantic: Developments in Media and Communication Studies between North America And German-Speaking Europe, ed Friesen, 2016, 63. It is unclear whether McLuhan was referring here to academic subjects like English and Engineering and Anthropology, or to subjects as ‘perspectives’ and ‘points view’. Perhaps both.
  3. As suggested by McLuhan’s letter to Harry Skornia from January 20, 1960 (cited above), Giedion’s suggestion of an “anonymous history”, aka a history beyond or aside from subjects, seems to have played a key role in the development of McLuhan’s ideas here. Cf, ‘The Later Innis’ (1953): “No individual can ever be adequate to grappling with the vision of what Siegfried Giedion calls ‘anonymous history’. That is to say, the vision of the significance of the multitude of personal acts and artefacts which constitute the total social process which is human communication or participation.”


McLuhan, along with everybody else in his time, regularly invoked Einstein.  The suggestion here is that, uniquely, McLuhan may have found a way to apply relativity and topology to the universe of human experience.  This was his answer to the question of how to maintain values which had taken root in a literary environment — like private identity and individual rights and democracy and religious belief — when that environment was dissolving in the electric era. For such a theory would allow the translation of values across experiential divides: “seeing our old literary culture in the new plastic [or electric] terms” would “enable it to become a constitutive part of the new culture created by the orchestral voices and gestures of new media.”1 

 McLuhan himself attributed the initial dis-covery of the idea to Joyce:

Siegfried Giedeon has given exact procedures for how the modern painter or poet should conduct himself in the company of scientists: Adopt and adapt their discoveries to the uses of art. Why leave this solely to the distortions of the industrialist? [Just as] Newton revolutionized the techniques of poetry and painting [through his optics, so] Joyce encompasses Einstein but extends his (…) formula to the entire world of language and consciousness. (‘New Media as Political Forms’, Explorations 3, 1954)

Dis-covering a “formula” that would cover “the entire world of language and consciousness” was possible for McLuhan, however, only when he learned how to translate himself across that “entire world”.  In fact he had long applied this demand to others.  Already in 1944 he had complained in a letter to Walter Ong and Clement McNaspy that F.R. Leavis, his erstwhile intellectual model, was unable “to grasp current society in its intellectual modes”:

the trouble with Leavis is that his passion for important work forbids him to look for the sun in the egg-tarnished spoons of the daily table. In other words, his failure to grasp current society in its intellectual modes (say in the style of Time and Western Man or Giedion’s Space, Time and Architecture) cuts him off from the relevant pabulum.2

This demand for potential identification with any and all human experience was central both to McLuhan’s intellectual trajectory and to his religious persuasion. Over the next decade (1944-1954) he would come to see that the rejection of any aspect of human experience amounted to gnosticism — to the claim that God’s power was limited, and/or that God’s goodness was limited, in such a way that aspects of reality were not as they ought to be. Such a value judgement, he would realize, necessarily privileged some perspective and this, in turn, both implemented a central procedure of the dissolving Gutenberg galaxy and cut off access to the possibility of a general relativity theory of “the entire world of language and consciousness”. 

It is no accident that his struggles with gnosticism came at just the time that he was also struggling intellectually to understand non-Gutenberg experience, aka “acoustic space”, from within. 

McLuhan had to come to valorize acoustic space as much as visual space in order then (and only then) to focus experience as the range of the ratio of the ‘visual’ and the ‘acoustic’ as modulated by ‘touch’. Thanks to Ted Carpenter‘s work with the Inuit, and Carlton Williams‘ work on “auditory space” with E.A. Bott,  and to his own on-going absorption with Finnegans Wake (all of which require much future consideration), McLuhan came in the second half of the 1950s to perceive, through a new appreciation of “acoustic space”, how decidedly he himself had been visually biased even as late as 1954.3

This new appreciation of acoustic experience and of its fundamental differences from visual experience emerges in reference to Einstein in the 1960 version of ‘Acoustic Space’ (in the anthology, Explorations in Communication), a reworking by McLuhan and Carpenter of Williams’ earlier essay of the same name in Explorations 4.

Most people feel an obscure gratitude to Einstein because he is said to have demonstrated that “infinite” space has a boundary of some kind. The gratitude flows, not because anyone understands how this can be, but because it restores to visual space one of its essential elements. The essential feature of sound, however, is not its location, but that it be, that it fill space. We say “the night shall be filled with music,” just as the air is filled with fragrance; locality is irrelevant. The concert-goer closes his eyes. Auditory space has no point of favored focus. It’s a sphere without fixed boundaries, space made by the thing itself, not space containing the thing. It is not pictorial space, boxed in, but dynamic, always in flux, creating its own dimensions moment by moment. It has no fixed boundaries; it is indifferent to background.

Two years later in The Gutenberg Galaxy McLuhan described the coming and the going of the visual world in further reference to Einstein:

But the absurdity of speaking of space as a neutral container will never trouble a culture which has separated its visual awareness from the other senses. Yet, says Whittaker (p. 100 [Space and Spirit, 1948]) “in Einstein’s conception, space is no longer the stage on which the drama of physics is performed: it is itself one of the performers; for gravitation, which is a physical property, is entirely controlled by curvature, which is a geometrical property of space.” With this recognition of curved space in 1905 the Gutenberg galaxy was officially dissolved. With the end of lineal specialisms and fixed points of view, compartmentalized knowledge became (…) unacceptable (…). And it has been the effort of this book to explain how the illusion of segregation of knowledge had become possible by the isolation of the visual sense by means of alphabet and typography.4  Perhaps it cannot be said too often. This illusion may have been a good or a bad thing. But there can only be disaster arising from unawareness of the causalities and effects inherent in our own technologies. (253)

 In Understanding Media he again recurs to Einstein in two important contexts:

Lewis Carroll took the nineteenth century into a dream world that was as startling as that of Bosch, but built on reverse principles. Alice in Wonderland offers as [its contasting] norm that continuous time and space that had created consternation in [Bosch and] the Renaissance. Pervading this uniform Euclidean world of familiar space-and-time, Carroll drove a fantasia of discontinuous space-and-time that anticipated Kafka, Joyce, and Eliot. Carroll, the mathematical contemporary of Clerk Maxwell, was quite avant-garde enough to know about the non-Euclidean geometries coming into vogue in his time. He gave the confident Victorians a playful foretaste of Einsteinian time-and-space [when Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was published in 1865, decades before] (…) relativity theory in 1905 announced the dissolution of uniform Newtonian space as an illusion or fiction, however useful. Einstein pronounced the doom of continuous or “rational” space, and the way was made clear for Picasso and the Marx brothers and MAD. (UM 162-163)

WHY THE TV CHILD CANNOT SEE [LINEARLY] AHEAD: The plunge into depth experience via the TV image can only be explained in terms of the differences between visual and mosaic space. Ability to discriminate between these radically different forms is quite rare in our Western world. It has been pointed out that, in the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is not king. He is taken to be an hallucinated lunatic. In a highly visual culture, it is as difficult to communicate the non-visual properties of spatial forms as to explain visuality to the blind. In the ABC of Relativity Bertrand Russell began by explaining that there is nothing difficult about Einstein’s ideas, but that they do call for total reorganization of our imaginative lives. It is precisely this imaginative reorganization that has occurred via the TV image. (UM 332-333)

A number of critical insights may be noted in these passages:

  • Einstein’s ideas play a role in history about history 
  • extending relativity theory to human experience requires the specification of ‘visual’ and ‘acoustic’ space as “radically different forms” — ie, not (or not only) of senses as found in experience, but as co-variable elementary factors within a topological equation about experience
  • certain axial periods in history like that of fifth century BC Greece, the Renaissance and the birth of the electric era (in which we are still immersed) give important information about the valence (aka, the measure of combining power) of such experiential forms

In ‘Television in a New Light’ (1966), Einstein’s theories are used to illustrate the “momentous” explosive power of “electric speeds”:

The [Gutenberg] public is a world in which everybody has a little point of view and a little fragment of space all his own, private. In the [electric] mass audience everyone is involved in everybody and there is no fragmentation and no point of view. The mass is a factor of speed, not of quantity. This is literally and technically true. The mass is created by speed and everyone reading the same thing or doing the same thing at the same time. It is like Einstein’s idea that any kind or particle of matter can acquire infinite mass at the speed of light. Any minute, trite bits of news acquires infinite potential at the speed of electricity. Anything becomes momentous at electric speeds. And a mass audience is an audience in which everyone experiences and participates with everybody and in which nobody has a private identity. So the psychiatrist’s couches today are groaning with the weight of people asking, “Who am I? Please tell me who I am.” There is no identity left. At electric speeds nobody has a private identity. Don’t ask whether this is good or bad. It is an inevitable function of electric speeds.

In the later 1960s McLuhan continued to bring Einstein together with Alice:

Lewis Carroll looked through the looking-glass and found a kind of space-time which is the normal mode of electronic man. Before Einstein, Carroll had already entered that very sophisticated universe of Einstein. Each moment for Carroll had its own space and its own time. Alice makes her own space and time. Einstein, not Lewis Carroll, thought this was astonishing. (Stern Interview, 1967)

The discontinuities of the electric “space-time” had received much advance billing in the arts before Einstein. Lewis Carroll’s Alice flipped out of the hardware world of visual space, of visual uniformity and connectedness, when she went Through the Looking-Glass. (Include Me Out, 1968)

Leaving aside the posthumous Laws of Media (requiring separate treatment), it is in Take Today (1972) that Einstein receives most frequent mention from McLuhan:

As the electric environment increasingly engulfed the old Greek “Nature,” it became apparent that “Nature” was a figure abstracted from a ground of existence that was far from “natural.” Greek “Nature,” which sufficed until Einstein, excluded most of the chaotic resonance of the great Sound-Light Show of existence itself. Most of the pre-Socratic magic and ESP and all the Oriental and “Primitive” Natures were pushed into the “subconscious.” Civilized man exists by dumping most of his experience into that convenient bin. Electric man has discovered that it is his major resource centre. (TT 7)

Once science went through the vanishing point into acoustic or resonant space, (…) economists were left on the wrong side of the looking glass, because they were mostly unable to make what Bertrand Russell cited (on the first page of his ABC of Relativity) as the indispensable preliminary act needed for grasping Einstein: “What is demanded is a change in our imaginative picture of the world…” (TT 69)

There are, in fact, no connections in the material universe. Einstein, Heisenberg, and Linus Pauling have baffled the old mechanical and visual culture of the nineteenth century by reminding scientists in general that the only physical bond in Nature is the resonating interval or “interface”. Our language, as much as our mental set forbids us to regard the world in this way. It is hard for the conventional and uncritical mind to grasp the fact that “the meaning of meaning” is a relationship: a figure-ground process of perpetual change. The input of data must enter a ground or field or surround of relations that are transformed by the intruder, even as the input is also transformed. (TT 86)

In his preface to Where Is Science Going?, Albert Einstein insists: “There is no logical way to the discovery of these elemental laws. There is only the way of intuition, which is helped by a feeling for the order lying behind the appearance.” (TT 128)

Finally, as noted in the posthumous Laws of Media:

Part of the confusion of Einsteinian four-dimensional space-time results from the figure of abstract visual space suddenly acquiring a ground of ‘relativity.’ The visual figure now relates to the speed of light as its ground…(23)

The acoustic figure, too, has this same difficult ground in simultaneity and, therefore, relativity.

But while “the speed of light as (…) ground” and the resulting “relativity” may indeed produce great “confusion”, so may they also enable in the domain of experience (as Einstein demonstrated in the physical domain) a new intelligibility.

  1. Culture Without Literacy, Explorations 1, 1953
  2. McLuhan to Walter Ong and Clement McNaspy, December 23, 1944, Letters 166. Giedion referred to “the sun in the egg-tarnished spoons” four years later in Mechanization Takes Command. Especially since McLuhan names Giedion in this same letter, it is probable that he got the phrase from Giedion somehow rather than Giedion from him.
  3. See From vision to ‘vision’.
  4. In the terms of McLuhan’s topology of the senses, “the isolation of the visual sense by means of alphabet and typography” means the relative “emphasis” or “stress” on vision within the matrix of the senses.

Relativity in The Mechanical Bride

The Mechanical Bride 3

Discontinuity is in different ways a basic concept both of quantum and relativity physics. It is the way in which a Toynbee looks at civilizations, or a Margaret Mead at human cultures. Notoriously, it is the visual technique of a Picasso, the literary technique of James Joyce. (…) Quantum and relativity physics (…) have provided new facts about the world, new intelligibility, new insights into the universal fabric. Practically speaking, they mean that henceforth this planet is a single city. Far from making for irrationalism, these discoveries make irrationalism intolerable for the intelligent person. They demand much greater exertions of intelligence and a much higher level of personal and social integrity than have existed previously. In the same way, the technique of Toynbee makes all civilizations contemporary with our own. The past is made immediately available as a working model for present political experiment. Margaret Mead’s Male and Female illustrates a similar method. The cultural patterns of several societies, quite unrelated to one another or to our own, are abruptly overlayered in cubist or Picasso style to provide a greatly enriched image of human potentialities. 

The Mechanical Bride 22

the dream of relativity physics is not of centralism but of pluralism. It is not centralist but distributist in the matter of power and control. And to see this new vision at work side by side with the old one is to permit the reformer a sure method of diagnosis and therapeutic suggestion. It permits the reformer to co-operate with the same forces that have produced the disease, in order to point the way to health.

Field theory

McLuhan’s central suggestion is that all human experience may be studied as situated within a “unified field” of different patterns of “homeostasis of the perceptual factors” — aka different patterns of “relative interplay of the optical and the auditory modes” as modulated by touch. These patterns, in turn, may be characterized as different forms of “distribution of emphasis [or stress] among the senses“.

Gutenberg Galaxy 63
The increase of visual stress among the Greeks alienated them from the primitive art that the electronic age now reinvents after interiorizing the unified field of electric all-at-oneness.

Gutenberg Galaxy 71
“For religious man, space is not homogeneous; he experiences interruptions, breaks in it”
(Eliade). Likewise in time. For the modern physicist, (…) space is not homogeneous, nor is time. By contrast, the geometrical space invented in antiquity, far from being diverse, unique, pluralistic, sacral, “can be cut and delimited in any direction; but no qualitative differentiation and, hence, no orientation are given by virtue of its inherent structure.” (Eliade) The next statement applies entirely to the relative interplay of the optical and the auditory modes in the shaping of human sensibility: “It must be added at once that such a profane existence is never found in the pure state. To whatever degree he may have desacralized the world, the man who has made his choice in favor of a profane life never succeeds in completely doing away with religious behavior. This will become clearer as we proceed; it will appear that even the most desacralized existence still preserves traces of a religious valorization of the world.” (Eliade)

McLuhan to Chuck Bayley, December 16, 1964 (Gordon 150)
His [Innis’] great insight was that every situation can be studied structurally by asking the question: ‘What is the primary stress or action that holds this whole structure in place?’ I think he got this approach from Max Weber. Weber had used it for institutions. Innis extended the approach to media. This structural approach tends to dispense with the accidents of ‘content’.

MM to Hans Selye, July 25, 1974 (Gordon 150)
My own approach (…) is a transformation theory, thus homeostasis of the perceptual factors in a rapidly changing environment requires much redistribution of emphasis among the senses. For example, a blind or deaf person compensates for the loss of one sense by a heightening of activity in the others.  It seems to me that this also occurs in whole populations when new technologies create new sensory environments.


The mosaic in A Faculty of Interrelations

McLuhan regularly invoked the mosaic as displaying the sort of coherence which he took to be the form of reality itself — and therefore of that type of human awareness most fitting to it.1 Famously, he does so at the beginning of The Gutenberg Galaxy:

The Gutenberg Galaxy develops a mosaic or field approach to its problems. Such a mosaic image of numerous data and quotations in evidence offers the only practical means of revealing causal operations in history. The alternative procedure would be to offer a series of views of fixed relationships in pictorial space. Thus the galaxy or constellation of events upon which the present study concentrates is itself a mosaic of perpetually interacting forms that have undergone kaleidoscopic transformation — particularly in our own time.

Like much else, this image was given to McLuhan for his further reflection by Sigfried Giedion in ‘A Faculty of Interrelations‘ from 1942:

In line with the whole structure of present-day knowledge we have to continue to train specialists. We do not want to educate dilettanti. There should be no popular courses on astronomy, on painting, on physics, literature, or ethnology. Rather should there be given an insight Into the methods and the interrelations of present-day knowledge [as practiced across all these fields by their best representatives]. In this way the mind of the coming specialist may be trained so that he will be able to conceive his own problems in relation to the whole. To make order, as I said at the beginning, is the first step towards a new universal. According to the structure of our period, the renascent universality has to be built up gradually. Like a mosaic, it has to be put together, piece by piece, by specialists of the new type. 

 The Gutenberg Galaxy was published twenty years later, in 1962. 


  1. Cf, The Beginnings of Gutenberg Galaxy 2 – Carothers: “The mosaic form in which I present the Galaxy has baffled some readers. It is a form that permits a considerable degree of natural relating of matters that cannot be presented in ordinary lineal exposition.” (Letter to Carothers, December 20th, 1963)

Schafer — The Tuning of the World

….a new Orpheus could be born

…the world as a macrocosmic musical composition

…to investigate the possibilities of orchestral harmony in the multi-levelled drive towards pure human expressiveness

At a UNESCO Symposium in 1976, ‘Place and Function of Art in Contemporary Life‘, McLuhan cited R Murray Schafer1 extensively (with Schafer, in turn, citing Whitman, Carr and Huizinga):

In a recent book, The Tuning of the World, Murray Schafer begins by saying:

Now I will do nothing but listen . . .
I hear all sounds running together, combined, fused or following,
Sounds of the city and sounds out of the city, sounds of the day and the night
(Walt Whitman, Song of Myself)

When so much of the sound in the world is of human origin, it is natural to conceive of the possibility of orchestrating these sounds, and such is the concern of Murray Schafer:

Orchestration Is a Musician’s Business. Throughout this book [The Tuning of the World] I am going to treat the world as a macrocosmic musical composition. This is an unusual idea but I am going to nudge it forward relentlessly. The definition of music has undergone radical change in recent years. In one of the more contemporary definitions, John Cage has declared: “Music is sounds, sounds around us whether we’re in or out of concert halls: cf. Thoreau”. The reference is to Thoreau’s Walden, where the author experiences in the sounds and sights of nature an inexhaustible entertainment. 

We are moving into a time when a new Orpheus could be born. Schafer offers a large inventory of the natural sounds of the earth which had preceded the industrial time, beginning with the phases of the sea and of the waterfall (including falling rain). There are the phases of the wind and of the forest. The Canadian writer Emily Carr speaks of the forest [as cited by Schafer]:

The silence of our Western forests was so profound that our ears could scarcely comprehend it. If you spoke your voice came back to you as your face is thrown back to you in a mirror. It seemed as if the forest were so full of silence that there was no room for sounds. The birds who lived there were birds of prey – eagles, hawks, owls. Had a song bird loosed his throat the others would have pounced. Sober-coloured silent little birds were the first to follow settlers into the West. Gulls there had always been; they began with the sea and had always cried over it. The vast sky spaces above, hungry for noise, steadily lapped up their cries. The forest was different — she brooded over silence and secrecy. (Hundreds and Thousands — Journals of Emily Carr)

Schafer contrasts the visual profiles of the mediaeval and the modern city:

Looking at the profile of a mediaeval European city we at once note that the castle, the city wall and the church spire dominate the scene. In the modern city it is the high-rise apartment, the bank tower and the factory chimney which are the tallest buildings. This tells us a good deal about the prominent social institutions of the two societies. In the soundscape also there are sounds which obtrude over the acoustic horizon: keynotes, signals and soundmarks; and these types of sounds must accordingly form the principal subject of our investigation. 

In terms of human scale, Schafer reminds us that the sound of the church bell is coextensive with the community, and he appends the memorable opening of Johan Huizinga’s The Waning of the Middle Ages:

One sound rose ceaselessly above the noises of busy life and lifted all things unto a sphere of order and serenity: the sound of bells. The bells were in daily life like good spirits, which by their familiar voices, now called upon the citizens to mourn and now to rejoice, now warned them of danger, now exhorted them to piety. They were known by their names: big Jacqueline, or the bell Roland. Everyone knew the difference in meaning of the various ways of ringing. However continuous the ringing of the bells, people would seem not to have become blunted to the effect of their sound. Throughout the famous judicial duel between two citizens of Valenciennes, in 1455, the big bell, “which is hideous to hear”, says Chastellain, never stopped ringing. What intoxication the pealing of the bells of all the churches, and of all the monasteries of Paris, must have produced, sounding from morning till evening, and even during the night . . .2

One of Schafer’s themes concerns the “Quiet we call ‘Silence’ — which is the merest word of all”. What interval, or gap, is to space, silence is to sound, and the Chinese and Japanese painters work by means of these carefully ordered gaps. Today it is the same with silence:

Because it is being lost, the composer today is more concerned with silence; he composes with it. Anton Webern moved composition to the brink of silence. The ecstasy of his music is enhanced by his sublime and stunning use of rests, for Webern’s is music composed with an erasure. 

McLuhan had long been concerned with the orchestration of the world. He had read Giedion’s ‘A Faculty of Interrelations in the early 1940’s:

As I tried to say in Space, Time, and Architecture, our culture is like an orchestra where the instruments lie already tuned, but where every musician is cut off from his fellows by a sound-proof wall.

And then McLuhan himself had written in the first two issues of Explorations:

our need [is] to discover [a] means (…) of seeing that modern physics and painting and poetry speak a common language and of acquiring that language at once in order that our world may possess consciously the coherence that it really has in latency, and which for lack of our recognition has created not new orchestral harmonies but mere noise. (’Culture Without Literacy’, Explorations 1, 1953) 

Every medium is in some sense a universal, pressing towards maximal realization. But its expressive pressures disturb existing balances and patterns in other media of culture. The increasing inclusiveness of our sense of such repercussions leads us today hopefully to investigate the possibilities of orchestral harmony in the multi-levelled drive towards pure human expressiveness. (‘Notes on the Media as Art Forms’ Explorations 2, 1954)

The orchestration of the world envisioned by McLuhan is decidedly not the sort of total-mobilization-of-the-world-as-a-resource foreseen and criticized by Heidegger. Instead, as reflected in the appeal to music and silence and to the bells of the middle ages, McLuhan envisioned the conscious orchestration of “interrelations” whose existing half-conscious and uninvestigated deployment in industry, entertainment, broadcasting and warfare has produced our contemporary waste land. Thus far, humans have learned only enough of these interrelations to misuse them to misuse their fellow humans and the planet itself.  This is to enter a cul-de-sac. The only way out is so to investigate these “interrelations” that their effects become known (and therefore objects of choice) before they cause them — which is just how we study anything that is important.

Here is McLuhan in ‘New Media as Political Forms’ from Explorations 3 in 1954:

Siegfried Giedeon has given exact procedures for how the modern painter or poet should conduct himself in the company of scientists: Adopt and adapt their discoveries to the uses of art. Why leave this solely to the distortions of the industrialist? 


  1. Also see McLuhan to Schafer (McLuhan 1974 letter to Murray Schafer), which is where Schafer may have obtained reference to Huizinga.
  2. See the previous note. McLuhan wrote to Schafer: “I have a recent essay explaining in what senses the medieval period was acoustic right up to the edge of the Gutenberg, or visual, revolution. Huizinga, in The Waning of the Middle Ages (1954), explains some of it…”.

Sigfried Giedion — A Faculty of Interrelations

— It’s a question of nothing less than to pursue and to define the Unity of Nature . . .
— But what’s to prove to me that there is any unity in nature?
— That’s exactly the question I put to Einstein. He answered: It’s an act of faith.    (Valéry, L’Idée Fixe)1

McLuhan had initially informed Tyrwhitt that the Rockefeller Foundation wanted to fund a research center at the University of Toronto in commemoration of the communications scholar Harold Innis (1894–1952), who had died in November 1952. The way McLuhan talked about the proposed center to support the sorts of interdisciplinary studies Innis had done, sounded a lot to Tyrwhitt like Giedion’s ideas for a Faculty of Interrelations.2

McLuhan and Sigfried Giedion3 met in 1943 in St Louis.  According to Shoshkes, Giedion was there doing research for Mechanization Takes Command (which would be published in 1948, with a review by McLuhan the following year under the fitting title of ‘Encyclopaedic Unities’). In 1943 McLuhan immediately read Giedion’s Space, Time and Architecture,4 which he later described as “one of the great events of my lifetime”,5 and he must have studied some of Giedion’s papers at that time as well, especially ‘A Faculty of Interrelations’ — an article Giedion considered important enough to have issued in three separate journals between 1942 and 1944.6 McLuhan, too, thought an inter-departmental ‘Faculty of Interrelations’ critically important and he doggedly pursued the idea himself with, eg, proposals to the University of Chicago7 and to the Dean of Graduate Studies at the University of Toronto, Harold Innis.8 The Explorations seminar (Culture and Communications) and the Centre for Culture and Technology, both at the University of Toronto, eventually represented two different realizations of the notion.9

What may have immediately attracted Giedion and McLuhan to each other was the fact that each saw in modernism the potential to reestablish a spiritual balance that had been lost, or at least deeply distorted, in the world (ie, the European world) of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In his ‘Faculty of Interrelations’ paper (in which his English could have used the touch-up later provided to his writing by Tyrwhitt), Giedion refers to “the lost equilibrium between feeling and thinking and between an external world which has gone wild10 and the basic nature of man”.  This “lost equilibrium” is elaborated as follows (with changes for gender neutrality): 

A period which regards art as a plaything, as a luxury, or as unnecessary, a people who believe that research which does not pay can be ignored, has signed therewith the death warrant of culture, and has revealed its own inner breakdown. Behind this misunderstanding lies the [disjointed psychic] structure of the human being today. The representative human of our period is the unevenly developed, the maladjusted human being, thinking and feeling divorced, a split personality. The human being today has one organ developed at the expense of another, or has some organs hypertrophied.11

Both Giedion and McLuhan insisted, however, that this “lost equilibrium”, although terribly real and no illusion, was not definitive:

in spite of seeming confusion, there is nevertheless a true, if hidden, unity, a secret synthesis, in our present civilization. To point out why this synthesis has not become a conscious and active reality has been one of my chief aims.  (Giedion, Space, Time and Architecture, 1941, foreword to the first edition.)12

There is a real, living unity in our time, as in any other, but it lies submerged under a superficial hubbub of sensation. (McLuhan to Harold Innis, March 14 1951, Letters 223)

In Giedion’s paper, a ”Faculty of Interrelations” is discussed mainly as an interdepartmental institutional setting where scholars from different fields would attempt to find and to elaborate common ground:

Our task and our moral obligation is to make order in our own field, to establish the relations between the sciences, art, and the humanities. This Is what is lacking today. To build up the interrelations between the different branches of human knowledge (…) a faculty must be created In the universities which functions as a sort of coordinator between the sciences and the humanities. Scholars will not only have to teach on such a faculty; each of them will have to learn as well. There must be built up a knowledge of methods, the beginning of a common vocabulary. Scholars must have systematic contact with one another.

But it is clear from the citations from ‘A Faculty of Interrelations’ and from Space, Time and Architecture given above that such an institutional “faculty” could function only within a set of further “faculties of interrelations” in the individual human being, in culture and society and, in the last analysis, in existence itself (what has elsewhere in this blog been called, following Jackson Knight, ‘the main question‘). For unless existence itself had (or is!) some grounding “Faculty of Interrelations”, how could there remain some “hidden unity, a secret synthesis”, some “real, living unity in our time, as in any other” given “the death warrant of culture” and the “inner breakdown” of the human psyche? Given “an external world (…) gone wild” (WW2 was raging) and a resulting disconnect between it and “the basic nature of man”?13 

The “Faculty of Interrelations” may be seen to have a series of different, so to say,  theatres of operation — like an embedded set of Russian dolls. Such a “faculty” is operative in what Giedion calls the ever-changing equilibrium within the human soul“. But it also has social operation in Giedion’s “cultural structure” and “present civilization” (extended by McLuhan to “in our time, as in any other“). Ultimately, it has (or is) an ontological operation such that real change in what is therefore genuine history does indeed unfold — Giedion observes that “there is no reason whatever to expect that the road which knowledge will follow will refrain from even greater differentiation” in the future than is already occurring in the present — and yet, despite the inevitable “loss” implicated in such historical change, “a secret synthesis” or “interrelation” remains, according to Giedion, fundamentally at work at the deepest — that is, at the ontological — level.

Each of these individual and social “faculties” below the level of “life” itself functions as a dynamic Gestalt or variable “equilibrium” which may be balanced or utterly distorted — or situated at any point between these extremes. But what is the relation between these various “faculties” themselves — how are they distinguished and related? What is Giedion’s proposal for “taking hold of them organically“?14

In McLuhan’s March 14, 1951 letter to Innis, already cited above, the claim is made that it is language that has this key role:

Many of the ancient language theories of the Logos type which you [Innis] cite for their bearings on government and society have recurred and amalgamated themselves today under the auspices of anthropology and social psychology. Working concepts of “collective consciousness” in advertising agencies have in turn given salience and practical effectiveness to these “magical” notions of language. But it was most of all the esthetic discoveries of the symbolists since Rimbaud and Mallarmé (developed in English by Joyce, Eliot, Pound, Lewis and Yeats) which have served to recreate in contemporary consciousness an awareness of the potencies of language such as the Western world has not experienced in 1800 years. (Letters 220, emphasis added)

The same central role of language is to be seen in Giedion’s ‘Faculty of Interrelations’ paper from almost a decade before:

Great changes are foreshadowed in our cultural structure. The elements of this change already exist in science, whether biology or physics, in art, in architecture and in many other fields. But these elements are unrelated; they have no inner contact with one another. (…) This Is what is lacking today. (…) To make order in our own field we have to restore again the lost contact between the different sciences, between sciences and humanities, and then this interrelationship with human expression. We have to create a new vocabulary. This is not easy. Anyone who has tried to place representatives of different disciplines at the same table in order to elucidate the methods each follows in his own sphere will have encountered at once this obstacle — each representative seems to speak a language of his own. The extreme specialization of the sciences has led to the loss of a common vocabulary based on mutual understanding. (…) The specialist has destroyed that common consciousness which we call culture. It is the specialist who has to restore it again.15

Giedion concludes “A Faculty of Interrelations” with an image which McLuhan would repeatedly take up in his own work: 

As I tried to say in Space, Time, and Architecture, our culture is like an orchestra where the instruments lie already tuned, but where every musician Is cut off from his fellows by a sound-proof wall.16

“The [individual] instruments lie already tuned” through the “faculty of interrelation” native to each of them. But their common orchestral tuning depends upon “ever greater (…) insight into the moving process of life” itself. This is the “wider field” of an ontological “faculty of interrelations”.

Something must be changed. And this is the type of specialist.17 His activity has to be founded on a wider field. There is no reason whatever to expect that the road which knowledge will follow will refrain from even greater differentiation. And there is no contradiction in saying that at the same time an ever greater urge toward breadth of outlook must be developed. (…) The mind of the coming specialist may [ie, must] be trained so that he will be able to conceive (…) problems in relation to the whole.  (Emphasis added)



  1. 1932. Translated by Eleanor Wolff, whose abbreviated translation of L’Idée Fixe appeared originally in Meja, Number Two (Autumn 1946), edited by Herbert Steiner. It was reprinted in ETC, ed S.I. Hayakawa, 6:1, 1948. For Hayakawa as a member of the Winnipeg School of Communication see here.
  2. Jaqueline Tyrwhitt: A Transnational Life in Urban Planning and Design, Ellen Shoshkes, 2013.
  3. Giedion was a champion of modern architecture and modern art and, as McLuhan wrote Wyndham Lewis, October 26, 1943 (Letters, 136) “a great friend of the Stars”:  Giedion knew, and worked with, among many other luminaries, Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Hans Arp, Piet MondrianPaul Klee and James Joyce.  It was Giedion’s wife, Carola Giedion-Welcker, who arranged Joyce’s return to Zurich in late 1940 and for Joyce’s death mask when he died there shortly thereafter in January 1941. McLuhan reviewed her 1952 study, Paul Klee, in Shenandoah, 3:1, 1953.
  4. 1941; McLuhan’s copy at Fisher Library UT is from the 1943 printing — a testament to their meeting that year.
  5. Stearn interview (1967): “Giedion influenced me profoundly. (Reading) Space, Time and Architecture was one of the great events of my lifetime”.
  6. Education, in 1942, Weekly Bulletin of the Michigan Society of Architects in 1943, and Architect And Engineer in 1944.
  7. Proposal to Robert Hutchins 1947.
  8. In McLuhan’s letter to Innis of March 14, 1951: “I think there are lines appearing in (your) Empire and Communications (…) which suggest the possibility of organizing an entire school of studies. (…) It seems obvious to me that Bloor Street (where Innis’ Political Economy Department was located) is the one point in this University where one might establish a focus of the arts and sciences. And the organizing concept would naturally be “Communication Theory and Practice”. A simultaneous focus of current and historic forms. Relevance to be given to selection of areas of study by dominant artistic and scientific modes of the particular period.” (Letters 220ff)
  9. For further discussion, see Faculty of Interrelation in Toronto.
  10. ‘Wild’ in German and English largely overlap but, of course, have their particular ways of being used.  Probably Giedion had in mind here something like ‘has become unbound’ for ‘has gone wild’.
  11. ‘A Faculty of Interrelations’. McLuhan would take up a series of questions implicated in Giedion’s analysis here: how to specify the different structures and adjustments which are possible for human beings? Especially, how to do so in terms of the way one “organ” (or “faculty” or sense) might be “developed at the expense of another” and even become “hypertrophied”? And how to relate these different structures as both cause and effect to social and cultural developments? His general answer would be that focus must be made on the internal and external senses and that their various modes of “interrelation” or “equilibrium” be investigated scientifically with this focus.  Since these modes might be called ‘media’ — precisely because their possibilities depend upon the particular sort of “interrelation” operative in them — the discipline could be termed that of “understanding media”.
  12. Compare, 20 years later, Gutenberg Galaxy 254: “And it has been the effort of this book to explain how the illusion of segregation of knowledge had become possible by the isolation of the visual sense by means of alphabet and typography.”
  13. Cf Giedion, The Eternal Present: The Beginnings of Art (A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, 1957): “We have become worshipers of the day-to-day. Life runs along like a television program: one show following relentlessly upon another, barely glancing at problems with never a notion of taking hold of them organically. This has led to an inner uncertainty, to extreme shortcomings in all essential phases of life: to what Heidegger calls ‘a forgetfulness of being’.” (7-8)
  14. See the previous note.
  15. Emphasis added throughout.
  16. Compare McLuhan in ‘Culture Without Literacy’, Explorations 1, 1953: “our need (is) to discover means (…) of seeing that modern physics and painting and poetry speak a common language and of acquiring that language at once in order that our world may possess consciously the coherence that it really has in latency, and which for lack of our recognition has created not new orchestral harmonies but mere noise.” Also: ‘Notes on the Media as Art Forms’ Explorations 2, 1954: “Every medium is in some sense a universal, pressing towards maximal realization. But its expressive pressures disturb existing balances and patterns in other media of culture. The increasing inclusiveness of our sense of such repercussions leads us today hopefully to investigate the possibilities of orchestral harmony in the multi-levelled drive towards pure human expressiveness.”
  17. “The type of specialist”: if ‘type’ is understood as the printer’s letter ‘type’, and ‘of specialist’ as a dual genitive (so that a certain kind of specialist is an effect of ‘type’ as its object) Giedion’s unusual English phrase here may be taken to indicate McLuhan’s position that the monocular culture of print — the ‘Gutenberg galaxy’ — must give way to ‘understanding media’, plural, not the singular literary medium. “His activity has to be founded on a wider field.”

What is coherence?

Coherence: the state or power of ‘sticking together’ … ‘to cohere’, compare ‘to adhere’, ‘to inhere’…

coherence (n.) late 16c., from Middle French cohérence,1550s, from Middle French cohérent (16c.), from Latin cohaerentem (nominative cohaerens), present participle of cohaerere “cohere”, from com– “together” + haerere “to stick” (see hesitation);
hesitation (n.) c. 1400, from Old French hesitacion or directly from Latin haesitationem (nominative haesitatio) “a hesitation, stammering”, figuratively “irresolution, uncertainty”, noun of action from past participle stem of haesitare “stick fast, remain fixed; stammer in speech”, figuratively “hesitate, be irresolute, be at a loss, be undecided,” frequentative of haerere “stick, cling,” from PIE root *ghais– “to adhere, hesitate” (source also of Lithuanian gaistu, “to delay, tarry”).1

the need (…) of seeing that modern physics and painting and poetry speak a common language and of acquiring that language at once in order that our world may possess consciously the coherence that it really has in latency… (Culture Without Literacy, Explorations 1, 1953)

There is a real, living unity in our time, as in any other, but it lies submerged under a superficial hubbub of sensation. (McLuhan to Harold Innis, March 14 1951, Letters 223)2

the gold thread in the pattern (Pound, Canto CXVI)

When he started at Cambridge in 1934, age 23, McLuhan already had the conviction that “a real, living unity” runs through even “the horror of (…) life” like a “gold thread”:

Of late I have been wayfaring among the work of T.S. Eliot (…) the poems I am reading have the unmistakable character of greatness. They transform, and diffuse and recoalesce the commonest every day occurrences of 20th century city life till one begins to see double indeed — the extremely unthinkable character, the glory and the horror of the reality in life (yet, to all save the seer, behind life) is miraculously suggested.3

In the 45 years he had yet to live, McLuhan would continue to consider and refine many of the topics raised here, often in specific relation to Eliot. The last essay he published in his lifetime was ‘Pound, Eliot, and the Rhetoric of The Waste Land’ (1979). Over these decades, he would be particularly preoccupied by two of these topics: what does it mean “to see double” and what does it mean for an age when only “the seer” can (or at least will) do this?

The two sorts of relation posited in McLuhan’s letter between “the glory and the horror” are what he would later style (following Ogden and Richards) as inclusive (“the glory and the horror of the reality in life”) and exclusive (“the glory” only “behind life”, if at all).  For “the seer”, a “gold thread” holds “the glory and the horror” together, despite “the extremely unthinkable character” of this juxtaposition; for “all” the rest, “the glory” is thinkable, if at all, only if it is held apart from “the horror”, somewhere beyond and “behind life”.

Now this is a perception and a problem that has hung over western and now world civilization like the sword of Damocles at least since Heraclitus:

τοῦ λόγου δ’ ἐόντος ξυνοῦ ζώουσιν οἱ πολλοὶ ὡς ἰδίαν ἔχοντες φρόνησιν

Though the logos is common to all, the many live as if they had a wisdom of their own.4

McLuhan felt a calling to address this problematic perception, once again.  Its difficulty lies in the further question: is the relation between the perception of “the seer” and that of the “many” inclusive or exclusive? If the latter, if it is exclusive, then it is not the case that “the logos is common to all” and it is not the case that “the extremely unthinkable character” of the “gold thread” has any application here.  In this case, Heraclitus’ dictum would be false. But if it is inclusive and the dictum therefore true, how so?  How can it be an aspect of “the logos (…) common to all” that it is not “common to all”? That it is not only not seen by “the many” in “the commonest every day occurrences of 20th century city life”, let alone in “the horror of (…) life”, like war — but also, and above all, that this lack of vision of “the many” (οἱ πολλοὶ) has ‘nothing in common’ with “the logos [that] is common to all”?

As reflected in his religious persuasion, and consequently in his literary and social criticism, McLuhan held that a fundamental coherence, “the logos”,5 orients the world like a “gold thread in the pattern” — even when it doesn’t. This orientation in absence, or what seems for all the world to be absent orientation, is the great mystery: “true strength is that strength which, mobile as it is hidden, concentrates on the work without being outwardly visible”.6

But how to articulate such a difficult coherence for a world in which orientation is so utterly “hidden” that it is indistinguishable from its complete absence? How unveil or dis-cover a power that on its side operates, essentially, “without being outwardly visible“? And, considered on our side, how in any case communicate such a dis-covery to a world in which communication has died in the perceived absence of grounding orientation? 

McLuhan felt called to this task of articulation “in order that our world may possess consciously the coherence that it really has in latency”.  But what is “latency”?  The great question here, as he came increasingly to appreciate in the last decade of his life, concerns time.  Is “latency” something that expresses itself in and through linear time? Something which struggles to unfold from latency to actuality?  Or is “latency” fundamentally synchronic such that it is in some way higher, or more grounding, than any actuality?

McLuhan tried in a whole series of ways to articulate (or dis-cover) this latent coherence: especially in terms of history (in, eg, the perennial struggle of grammar with logic and rhetoric) and in terms of the cubism, syncopation and symbolism of modern art. Hence, in regard to the latter, his suggestion in his letter to Innis (immediately following his observation that “ancient language theories of the Logos type (…) have recurred (…) today under the auspices of anthropology and social psychology”):

But it was most of all the esthetic discoveries of the symbolists since Rimbaud and Mallarmé (developed in English by Joyce, Eliot, Pound, Lewis and Yeats) which have served to recreate in contemporary consciousness an awareness of the potencies [aka, “latencies“] of language such as the Western world has not experienced in 1800 years.

But none of this worked: the only people who understood much of what he was up to, like Giedion or Brooks, already suspected themselves what was at stake and were themselves struggling with its articulation. Finally, at the end of the 1950’s, McLuhan hit on the idea that coherence could be expressed as the topological covariation of the senses and that communication of it could be achieved in the same way as the hard sciences had learned to communicate themselves: through demonstrable prediction and practical application.   

That was almost 60 years ago. At just that time, however, McLuhan began to experience “occasional blackouts”7 and in 1960 experienced a major stroke serious enough that the last rites were administered. Although he was able to develop aspects of his coherence-as-topology insight in the remaining two decades of his life, he never (as Carpenter has described) regained the focus he had had prior to 1960. As a result, the insight remained — perhaps fittingly in some harsh sense — more latent than actual.

It is the goal of this blog to attempt its further dis-covery.

But to affirm the gold thread in the pattern


al Vicolo d’oro


To confess wrong without losing rightness:

Charity I have had sometimes,

I cannot make it flow thru.

A little light, like a rushlight

to lead back to splendour.8

  1. Compare ‘James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial’: “In the Wake the origins of speech as gesture are associated with ‘Bigmeister Finnegan of the stuttering hand’. This seems to tie up with Vico’s view that the earliest language was that of the gods of which Homer speaks: ‘The gods call this giant Briareus’ of the hundred hands. The idea of speech as stuttering, as arrested gesture, as discontinuities or aspects of the single Word, is basic to the Wake and serves to illustrate the profundity of the traditional philological doctrine…”.
  2. Compare Sigfried Giedion, ten years before, in Space, Time and Architecture: “in spite of seeming confusion, there is nevertheless a true, if hidden, unity, a secret synthesis, in our present civilization. To point out why this synthesis has not become a conscious and active reality has been one of my chief aims.”
  3. McLuhan to his family, December 6, 1934, Letters 41; emphasis in the original; brackets have been added to “yet, to all save the seer, behind life”.
  4. Heraclitus DK B2. Eliot uses this fragment as one of the two epigrams for the Four Quartets from Heraclitus.
  5. Cf, McLuhan to Innis: “I think there are lines appearing in Empire and Communications, for example, which suggest the possibility of organizing an entire school of studies. Many of the ancient language theories of the Logos type which you cite for their bearings on government and society have recurred and amalgamated themselves today under the auspices of anthropology and social psychology. Working concepts of “collective consciousness” in advertising agencies have in turn given salience and practical effectiveness to these “magical” notions of language.” (March 15, 1951, Letters 220)
  6. Ching, as cited in Take Today, 22.
  7. See the note, doubtless from Corinne McLuhan, that prior to McLuhan’s brain tumour operation in 1967 “for eight years before (ie, since 1959) he had been afflicted with occasional blackouts and dizziness” (Letters, 175).
  8. Pound, Canto CXVI

From vision to ‘vision’

….acoustic space has unique physical prop­erties (a perfect sphere whose center is everywhere and whose margins are nowhere). [But] quantum physicists con­tinue to make efforts at visualizing the nonvisual… (Cliché to Archetype, 154)

The more that one says about acoustic space the more one realizes that it’s the thing that mathematicians and physicists of the past fifty years have been calling space-time, relativity, and non-Euclidean systems of geometry. And it was into this acoustic world that the poets and painters began to thrust in the mid-19th century. Like Coleridge’s Mariner, they were the first that ever burst into that silent sea. This was the world of experience emerging to Keats when he spoke of “magic casements opening on the foam of perilous seas in faerie lands forlorn”. It was to be a world in which the eye listens, the ear sees, and in which all the senses assist each other in concert. (Counterblast, 114)

The visual world has very peculiar properties, and the acoustic world has quite different properties. The visual world which belongs to the old nineteenth century, and which had been around for quite a while, say from the sixteenth century anyway, has the properties of being continuous and connected and homogeneous, all parts more or less alike. Things stayed put. If you had a point of view, that stayed put. The acoustic world, which is the electric world of simultaneity, has no continuity, no homogeneity, no connections, and no stasis. Everything is changing. To move from one of those worlds to the other is a very big shift. It’s the same shift that Alice in Wonderland made when she went through the looking glass. She moved out of the visual world and into the acoustic world when she went through the looking glass. (Living at the Speed of Light, 1974)

It is striking that Hayakawa in ‘The Revision of Vision’ not only manifestly appeals to different notions of vision via its revisioning, but in doing so at the same time specifies vision — doubtless following Kepes here — as the required focus for the study of individual and social experience. Indeed, he seems to equate vision with experience at large:

He [Kepes] gives us the “grammar” and the “syntax” of vision: what interplays of what forces in the human nervous system and in the world outside it produce what visual tensions and resolutions of tensions; what combinations of visual elements result in what new organizations of feeling… (9)

Up to some point in the 1950’s (although he would later characterize such emphasis on vision as typical of the Gutenberg galaxy) also McLuhan tended to privilege the role of vision himself. Here he is in his programmatic essay in Explorations 1, ‘Culture Without Literacy’ (1953; all emphasis added):

  • all art and all language (!) are techniques for looking at one situation through another one
  • it is hard for us to see the printed page or any other current medium (!) except in contrast to some other form
  • the curious thing is that Spaniards like Picasso or Salvador Dali are much more at home amidst the new visual culture (!) of North America than we ourselves
  • This division between visual and literary languages (!)
  •  we are unable to read the language of technological forms
  • seeing our old literary culture in the new plastic terms in order to enable it to become a constitutive part of the new culture created by the orchestral voices (!) and gestures (!) of new media
  • seeing that modern physics and painting and poetry speak (!) a common language 
  • Perhaps we could sum up our problem by saying that technological man must betake himself to visual metaphor (!) in contriving a new unified language for the multiverse of cultures of the entire globe. 
  • The language of visual form is, therefore, one which lies to hand as an unused Esperanto (!)  at everybody’s command. The language of vision has already been adopted in the pictograms of scientific formula and logistics. These ideograms transcend national barriers as easily as Chaplin or Disney and would seem to have no rivals as the cultural base for cosmic man.

The way to a topology of human experience based on the co-variance of the senses was blocked by such decided emphasis on visual form, visual metaphor and visual language. McLuhan would have to come to an appreciation of the difference between the senses, and especially vision, used in all sorts of different particular and general ways — and the ‘senses’ used in a technical way as a ground of all human experience (aka a “cultural base for cosmic man”) via a topology of their dynamic co-variation. (It may be that McLuhan came to use the word ‘space’ to indicate this technical use of the ‘senses’. “Acoustic space”, for example, could be engendered by things seen, like a newspaper or television.)1

More, he would have to learn the particular virtues of acoustic experience both in order to valorize the ear on a par with the eye and in order to formulate a “unified field” of all experience — something that could not be achieved on the basis of any sort of perspective with its correlative absolute space and inertial system.

McLuhan himself had to learn what he described in Take Today (69):

Once science went through the vanishing point into acoustic or resonant space, both scientists and economists were left on the wrong side of the looking glass, because they were mostly unable to make what Bertrand Russell cited (on the first page of his ABC of Relativity) as the indispensable preliminary act needed for grasping Einstein: “What is demanded is a change in our imaginative picture of the world…” 



  1. The word ‘formal’ can have this same function: “Since the telegraph, then, the forms of Western culture have been strongly shaped by the sphere-like pattern that belongs to a field of awareness in which all the elements are practically simultaneous. It is this instantaneous character of the information field today, inseparable from electronic media, that confers the formal auditory character on the new culture. That is to say, for example, that the newspaper page, since the introduction of the telegraph, has had a formally auditory character and only incidentally a lineal, literary form.” (Myth and Mass Media, 1959)

Hayakawa — The Revision of Vision

S.I. Hayakawa’s short (3 page) essay, ‘The Revision of Vision’, appeared as one of two introductions to Gyorgy Kepes’ 1944 The Language of Vision.  At the time, Kepes and Hayakawa were colleagues at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. There is little doubt that McLuhan knew of Hayakawa’s essay since:

  • the other, even shorter, introduction — titled ‘Art Means Reality’1 — was written by Sigfried Giedion who became McLuhan’s mentor and friend after they met in St Louis in 1943.2 McLuhan read everything he could find by Giedion and may well have come to Kepes’ book via him.
  • in any case, Kepes’ own text in the book is cited extensively in McLuhan’s 1953 essay ‘Culture Without Literacy’ from Explorations 1 and then again, repeatedly, in The Gutenberg Galaxy (126-127) 

McLuhan must have studied Kepes’ book at some point, or points, between its publication in 1944 and his citation of it in 1953. When he did so he must have read Hayakawa’s introductory essay and not only on account of its bare presence there.  For McLuhan knew Hayakawa from Winnipeg when they lived on the same street3 and he must have heard of him again repeatedly when he taught in the English Department at the University of Wisconsin in 1936-1937. Hayakawa had obtained his PhD in English there the previous year. As  a fellow Winnipigeon, UM English grad and published Eliot scholar, Hayakawa would have been the first thing that came to mind when people heard of McLuhan’s very similar background.

After a year away from Madison, Hayakawa returned in 1937 to marry and to teach for the university in its satellite locations: it is not impossible that he and McLuhan met there just as McLuhan was leaving UW. Later, it was probably through Hayakawa’s 1941 Language in Action that McLuhan was introduced to the general semantics of Alfred Korzybski, which he cited approvingly in a number of early texts, including his Nashe thesis.4

‘The Revision of Vision’ sets out, in startling clarity, a number of points to whose investigation McLuhan would dedicate himself in the 1950s:

The Gutenberg galaxy vs electric allatonceness:

We attempt to visualize the eventfulness of a universe that is an electro-dynamic plenum in the representational clichés evolved at a time when statically-conceived, isolable “objects” were regarded as occupying positions in an empty and absolute “space”. (9)

The drama of cognition5:

He [Kepes] gives us the “grammar” and the “syntax” of vision: what interplays of what forces in the human nervous system and in the world outside it produce what visual tensions and resolutions of tensions; what combinations of visual elements result in what new organizations of feeling… (9)

The medium and the message:

Mr. Kepes’s endeavor may perhaps best be characterized by the following analogy. To a Chinese scholar, the pleasure to be derived from an inscription is only partly due to the sentiments it may express. He may take delight in the calligraphy even when the inscription is meaningless to him as text. Suppose now a singularly obtuse Chinese scholar existed who was solely preoccupied with the literary or moral content of inscriptions, and totally blind to their calligraphy. How would one ever get him to see the calligraphic qualities of an inscription if he persisted, every time the inscription was brought up for examination, in discussing its literary content…? (9-10)

The practical need for insight into “the meaning of meaning is relation”6:

To cease looking at things atomistically in visual experience and to see relatedness means, among other things, to lose in our social experience, as Mr. Kepes argues, the deluded self-importance of absolute “individualism” in favor of social relatedness and interdependence. When we structuralize the primary impacts of experience differently, we shall structuralize the world differently.7 (10)

The quest for a topology of experience:

The reorganization of our visual habits so that we perceive not isolated “things” in “space,” but structure, order, and the relatedness of events in space-time, is perhaps the most profound kind of revolution possible — a revolution that is long overdue not only in art, but in all our experience. (10)

Importantly, the quest for a topology of the human domain ties back to the recognition of multiple galaxies of experience, at least one of which might be able to conceive “an electro-dynamic plenum” of relative spaces:

We attempt to visualize the eventfulness of a universe that is an electro-dynamic plenum in the representational clichés evolved at a time when statically-conceived, isolable “objects” were regarded as occupying positions in an empty and absolute “space”. (9)


  1. Giedion’s 2-page text: “This book, written by a young artist, bears witnessthat a third generation is on the march, willing to continue and to make secure the modern tradition which has developed in the course of this century; or, as Gyorgy Kepes states it: ‘To put earlier demands into concrete terms and on a still wider social plane’. It was not the rule in the nineteenth century for younger generations to consciously continue the work of their predecessors. To do so is new; it means that we are in a period of consolidation. The public, including those who govern and administer it, is still lacking the artistic, that is, the emotional training corresponding to our period. Both are plagued by the split which exists between advanced methods of thinking and an emotional background that has not caught up with these methods.. The demand for continuity will become more and more the key word of this period. ‘Every day something new’ is the inheritance of the last century’s disastrous urge. It still persists in many ways. Continuity does not mean standstill or reaction. Continuity means development. Every period changes, as the body does, from day to day. Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque were, in all their phases, constantly developing. But these changes have to be rooted in other than purely materialistic considerations. They have to grow from other sources: the medieval Kingdom of God, the absolutism of the seventeenth century, a political faith, or even an artistic credo. ‘Every day something new’ reveals helplessness combined with lack of inner conviction, and always eager to flatter the worst instincts of the public, it means change for change’s sake, change for the sake of high-pressure salesmanship. It means demoralization. Public taste today is formedmainlyby publicity and the articles of daily use. By these it can be educated or corrupted. Responsible are the art directors in industry and advertising firms and the buyers for department 5 & 10 (cent stores) and drugstores, who act as censors and level down the designs of the artists to their own conception of the public’s taste. They are supposed to feed the assembly line in the speediest way and as a safeguard they judge the public taste lower than it really is. Their educational responsibility seems to have no claim to existence. Who still believes that art, modern art, has to be defined as a mere luxury or something far-away, remote from real life, unworthy of the respect of a ‘doer’, had better not touch this book. Gyorgy Kepes, as we all do, regards art as indispensable to a full life. His main object is to demonstrate just how the optical revolution — around 1910 — formed our present-day conception of space and the visual approach to reality. He shows how this development was differentiated in many ways of expression, from cubism to surrealism, forming together the multi-faced image of this period. He shows why modern artists had to reject a slavish obedience to the portrayal of objects, why they hated the trompe-l’oeuil. The different movements have a common denominator: a new spatial conception. They are not outmoded when they become silent. Each of them is living in us. Step by step, Kepes follows the liberation of the plastic elements: lines, planes, and colors, and the creation of a world of forms of our own. The spatial conception interconnects the meaning fragments and binds them together just as in another period perspective did when it used a single station point for naturalistic representation. We have to note the great care with which Gyorgy Kepes shows the contact of modern art with reality, and how paintings which, at first sight, seem remote from life, are extracted from its very bloodstream. This book seems to be addressed to the young generation which must rebuild America. This rebuilding will be realized only in future years. But the book could have an immediate influence if those who command public taste in the many fields of present-day life would take time on a quiet week-end to read its pages and think it over. New York, June 12, 1944.”
  2. In the Stearn interview, McLuhan specifies that “Giedion influenced me profoundly. (His) Space, Time and Architecture (1941) was one of the great events of my lifetime. Giedion gave us a language for tackling the structural world of architecture and artifacts of many kinds in the ordinary environment. (…) Giedion began to study the environment as a structural, artistic work — he saw language in streets, buildings, the very texture of form.”
  3. See McLuhan, Hayakawa and Allison.
  4. See Hayakawa and Alfred Korzybski.
  5. James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial, 1953: the “age-old adequation of mind and things (…) the drama of the endless adjustment of the interior acts and dispositions of the mind to the outer world. The drama of cognition itself.”
  6. Like McLuhan, Hayakawa was greatly influenced by the Cambridge English school. Language in Action lists the works of Richards, Ogden and Queenie Leavis as supplying important contributions to a new theory of language and meaning.
  7. This insight was central to the work and teaching of Henry Wright at the University of Manitoba.  McLuhan certainly studied with Wright and ‘heavily annotated’ Wright’s 1925 The Moral Standards of Democracy which is still to be found in his library preserved at UT. At a guess, Hayakawa also studied with Wright during his years at Manitoba, 1925-1927. The UM Registrar has been asked to confirm this, but will not release the information due to privacy law.