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.