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