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.”