Monthly Archives: July 2016

McLuhan & Williams on discovering ‘auditory space’

In ‘The End of the Work Ethic’, an address to The Empire Club of Canada, November 16, 1972, McLuhan described a moment, apparently in 19541, which he styled as “my own first discovery of acoustic space”.2 The same event was described by Carlton Williams for Who Was Marshall McLuhan (1994, p 144).

McLuhan: A group of us which included Carl Williams (now President of the University of Western Ontario), Tom Easterbrook (Political Economy, University of Toronto), and Jacqueline Tyrwhitt (Architecture and Town Planning) were discussing the newest book of Sigfried Giedion, The Beginnings of Architecture.

Williams: At one of our earlier [Culture and Communication seminar] sessions3 we were wrestling with Space, Time and Architecture, a major work by (…) Sigfried Giedion.

Williams must be correct about the Giedion book which was being discussed. The Beginnings of Architecture was not published until almost a decade later and Giedion’s underlying Mellon lectures to Beginnings were not given until 1957.4

McLuhan: Jacqueline Tyrwhitt (she had worked with Giedion on this study for years) was explaining how Giedion presented the fact that the Romans were the first people to enclose space. The Egyptian pyramids enclosed no space since their interior was dark, as were their temples.

Williams: I made the point that one could, and indeed had to, consider space in various ways: it was not a simple “given.” There was, he [Giedion] said, “hollowed out” space, as in a cave; “enclosed” space, as in a stadium; “infinite” space, as in the heavens.

McLuhan: At this point, Carl Williams, the psychologist, objected that, after all, the spaces inside a pyramid, even though dark, could be considered as acoustic spaces, and he then mentioned the characteristic modes of acoustic space as a sphere whose centre is everywhere and whose margins are nowhere…

Williams: This put me in mind of a comment of Hermann von Helmholtz, a major figure in German psychology and physics at the turn of the century. Helmholtz used the phrase, “auditory space” to describe the notion of space experienced by a blind person, or a seeing person wearing a blindfold. Such persons are at the centre of an n-dimensional sphere, in that they may detect a sound from any angle.

McLuhan: I have never ceased to meditate on the relevance of this acoustic5 space to an understanding of the simultaneous electric world.6

Williams: The notion of auditory space struck Marshall with great force and I was thereafter bombarded with telephone calls, (usually after midnight), as he presented his latest insights sparked by this idea. This was characteristic of Marshall: that he appropriated ideas from others, developing and expanding them beyond anything contemplated by the original proposal.7

For Carpenter on the same event, see Ted Carpenter on discovering ‘auditory space’.

  1. McLuhan to Wyndham Lewis, December 18, 1954 (Letters 245): “A group of us here have been studying the new media and have been looking into the character of Acoustic Space as reconstituted by the mechanization of sound. Acoustic Space is spherical. It is without bounds or vanishing points. It is structured by pitch separation and kinesthesia. It is not a container. It is not hollowed out. It is the space in which men live before the invention of writing — that translation of the acoustic into the visual. With writing men began to trust their eyes and to structure space visually. Pre-literate man does not trust his eyes very much. The magic is in sound for him, with its power to evoke the absent.” On the same day to Ezra Pound: “A group of us here are working on the character of acoustic space — the space of pre-literate man. Non-euclidian, non-container.” (Letters, 246)
  2. An earlier description of the same event was recounted by McLuhan in ‘Environment As Programmed Happening’ (1968): I vividly recall an occasion when I made my first encounter with acoustic space as a concept. Professor Jacqueline Tyrwhitt, now at the Harvard School of Design, was a member of our Toronto seminar on Culture and Communications. She had been explaining some of Sigfried Giedion’s recent findings in which he discriminated between enclosed and unenclosed spaces. Since that time his study of The Beginnings of Architecture has brought these matters into a luminous focus. As Professor Tyrwhitt followed his exploration of Egyptian as contrasted with Roman space, she stressed the point that a pyramid did not enclose any space since darkness is to space what silence is to sound. In the same way, an Egyptian temple does not enclose space since it, too, is dark. Even the Greeks never achieved true closure of space. This remained for the Romans. At this point psychologist Carl Williams (now President of the University of Western Ontario) intervened, He observed that unenclosed space could best be considered as acoustic or auditory space. Williams had long been associated with E.A. Bott, who has spent his life studying auditory space. Bott’s formula for auditory space is simply that it has no centre and no margins, since we hear from all directions simultaneously. Structurally, it tends to be the space of all preliterate societies since the auditory sense has much primacy over the visual sense in preliterate cultures.”
  3. The seminar began in 1953 and ended in 1955.
  4. McLuhan was doubtless thinking of Giedion’s ‘Space Conceptions in Prehistoric Art’ which appeared in Explorations 6 (1956) and may well have been discussed along with Space, Time and Architecture in this same seminar session in a preview version courtesy of Tyrwhitt (Giedion’s longtime editor and translator). It was not unusual for the seminar to have access in this way to research which would be published in Explorations at a later date.  The ‘Auditory Space’ paper attributed to Carlton Williams in Explorations 4, for example, cites an Eskimo bard declaring “Let me be known only as the man who wrote the songs of my people”.  This would appear years later in Explorations 9 in Ted Carpenter’s Eskimo.
  5. Williams: “He (McLuhan) always — and wrongly — called it ‘acoustic’ space. I say ‘wrongly’, because acoustics pertain to the physical properties of the room, auditorium or whatnot, in which human auditory capacity is called into play.”
  6. Cf, McLuhan to Tyrwhitt, Dec 23, 1960 (Letters 278): “Today with electronics we have discovered that we live in a global village and the job is to create a global city, as center for the village margins. The parameters of this task are by no means positional (= those of visual space). With electronics, any marginal area can become centre, and marginal experiences can be had at any center. (…) In a word, that which is normal and desirable in a print culture with regard to the titillation of the senses may become quite nonviable under electronic conditions, even for the welfare of the private individual. Whatever we may wish in the matter, we can no longer live in Euclidean space under electronic conditions, and this means that the divisions between inner and outer, private and communal, whatever they may have been for a literate culture, are simply not there for an electric one.”
  7. Cf, Ted Carpenter, ‘That Not So Silent Sea’: “Writers commonly speak of Marshall’s original ideas. He had none. (…) His genius lay in perceiving, not creating. He accepted the world as he found it and simply described what he saw, free of the haze he believed obstructed all others.” (Virtual Marshall McLuhan, Donald Theall, 2001, 245) Also Buckminster Fuller: “McLuhan has never made any bones about his indebtedness to me as the original source of most of his ideas. The ‘Global Village’ indeed was my concept. I don’t think he has an original idea. Not one. McLuhan says so himself. He’s really a very great enthusiast, a marvelous populariser and teacher. He has an irrepressible sense of the histrionic, like no one I’ve known other than Frank Lloyd Wright. . . . My concept of the ‘mechanical extensions of man’ is the basis for his talk of the ‘Electrical Extensions’ of man. . . . McLuhan has always been the first to say ‘Bucky is my master. I am only his disciple.’” Letter from Fuller to E. J. Applewhite, July 10, 1973, in Synergetics Dictionary: The Mind of Buckminster Fuller, ed. E. J. Applewhite (1986), 592. Also Wilfred Watson: “invention was not his metier”, ‘Marshall McLuhan and Multi-Consciousness: The Place Marie Dialogues’, boundary 2, 3:1, 1974, 197.

Relativity in Space, Time & Architecture

This is not an invitation to prophecy but a demand for a universal outlook upon the world. (Space, Time and Architecture, 7)

In what was originally his introductory lecture, ‘The Role of History Today’, in his Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard on “Art and Architecture”, 1938, and later became the first chapter of Space, Time and Architecture (STA), Sigfried Giedion sets out the case for a relativity theory of the domain of human experience — aka the domain of “the world of history”.

There are no “absolute points of reference”:

Absolute points of reference are no more open to the historian than they are to the physicist; both produce descriptions relative to a particular situation. Likewise there are no absolute standards in the arts: the nineteenth-century painters and architects who thought certain forms were valid for every age were mistaken. (5)

The historian cannot in actual fact detach himself from the life about him; he, too, stands in the stream. The ideal historian — out of the press of affairs, au-dessus de la melée, surveying all time and all existence from a lofty pedestal — is a fiction. The historian, like every other man, is the creature of his time and draws from it both his powers and his weaknesses. (6)

Unfortunately the historian has often used his office to proclaim the eternal right of a static past. Ever since man recognized the impossibility of making objective judgments, such an attitude has been discredited. (6-7)

History is not simply the repository of unchanging facts, but a process, a pattern of living and changing attitudes and interpretations. As such, it is deeply a part of our own natures. To turn backward to a past age is not just to inspect it, to find a pattern which will be the same for all comers. The backward look transforms its object; every spectator at every period — at every moment , indeed — inevitably transforms the past according to his own nature. (5)

History cannot be touched without changing it. The painters of our period  have formulated a different attitude: lo spettatore nel centra del quadro. The observer must be placed in the middle of the painting, not at some isolated observation point outside. Modern art, like modern science, recognizes the fact that observation and what is observed form one complex situation — to observe something is to act upon and alter it. (5-6)

But intelligibility is not the same thing as building upon “absolute points of reference”:

Historians quite generally distrust absorption into contemporary ways of thinking and feeling as a menace to their scientific detachment, dignity, and breadth of outlook. But one can be thoroughly the creature of one’s own period, embued with its methods, without sacrificing these qualities [of scientific detachment, dignity, and breadth of outlook]. Indeed, the historian in every field must be united with his own time by as widespread a system of roots as possible. The world of history, like the world of nature, explains itself only to those who ask the right questions, raise the right problems. The historian must be intimately a part of his own period to know what questions concerning the past are significant  to it. (6) 

So it is that “scientific detachment, dignity, and breadth of outlook” are possible, and are possible only, on the basis of the relativity of human experience:

We must take our departure from a large number of specialized disciplines and go on from there toward a coherent general outlook on our world. (17)1

The key is to discover some co-variance which functions across all the varieties of “specialized (…) outlook” (thereby establishing a continuum in which also our own outlook is situated)2:

Today we consciously examine the past from the point of view of the present to place the present in a wider dimension of time, so that it can be enriched by those aspects of the past that are still vital. This is a matter concerning continuity… (7)

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 Time 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”.  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. (14)

Each period lives in a realm of feeling as well as in a realm of thought, and changes in each realm affect the changes in the other. Each period finds outlets for its emotions [the realm of feeling] through different means of [artistic] expression. Emotions and expressive means vary concomitantly with the concepts [in the realm of thought] that dominate the epoch. Thus in the Renaissance, the dominant space conceptions [in the realm of thought] found their proper frame in [artistic] perspective [in the realm of feeling], while in our period the conception of space-time  [thought] leads the artist to adopt very different means [feeling]. (16) 

The degree to which its methods of thinking and of feeling coincide [aka, establish some kind of balance] determines the [particular sort of] equilibrium of an epoch. (17)

Present-day happenings are simply the most conspicuous sections of a continuum; they are like that small series of wave lengths between ultraviolet and infra-red which translate themselves into colors visible to the human eye. (7)

Such a general theory of experiential relativity enables us to overcome relativity in the vulgar sense:

A transition period may affect two observers in very different ways. One may see only the chaos of contradictory traits and mutually destructive principles; the other may see beneath all this confusion those elements which are working together to open the way for new solutions. It is not a simple thing to decide between two such judgments, to determine which has emphasized the essential marks of the time. We need some objective guide to what is going on in the depths of the period, some sign by which we can determine whether or not its dispersed energies are being brought into united action.  A comparison of the methods which govern its [correlated] major activities, its thinking and feeling, may afford us such an objective criterion.3(12)

But sensing such a possibility and communicating it are two different things: 

In both contemporary science and contemporary art it is possible to detect elements of the general pattern which our culture will embody. The situation is a curious one : our culture is like an orchestra where the instruments lie ready tuned but where every musician is cut off from his fellows by a soundproof wall. It is impossible to foretell the events that will have to come before these barriers are broken down. The only service the historian can perform is to point out this situation, to bring it into consciousness. (17)

Still, historians have a responsibility to such “interrelationship”, both in establishing focus for their subject matter and in their dedication to communication with their contemporaries:

The historian detached from the life of his own time writes irrelevant history, deals in frozen facts. But it is his unique and non transferable task to uncover for his own age its vital interrelationships with the past. (6)

A period may be dominated by transitory or by constituent [aka, interrelational or orchestral] facts; both alternatives are open. There is, however, no doubt which of these two classes of trends is the more likely to produce a solution of the real problems of the age. (19)


  1. McLuhan 30 years later writing about Harold Innis: “lnstead of despairing over the proliferation of innumerable specialisms in twentieth-century studies, he simply encompassed them.” (‘Introduction’ to Empire and Communications, 1972, vii)
  2. See the editors’ statement for Explorations: “We envisage a series that will cut across the humanities and social sciences by treating them as a continuum.”
  3. The words ‘methods’ and ‘activities’ here are not well chosen, since such correlation of thinking and feeling occurs prior to any action and hence prior to any methodical activity. It might have been better to formulate the point as follows: “A comparison across periods, or across disciplines in any one period, of the correlated emphases holding between the elementary components of thinking and feeling, may afford us such an objective criterion.” Of course, it would then become imperative to show how such thinking-feeling correlations can objectively be identified and studied. Much of McLuhan’s incessant work may be thought to have been directed to this end: how to define the co-variables (such as thinking/feeling, science/art, eye/ear, print/speech, left hemisphere/right hemisphere, diachronic/synchronic, linear/circular, literal/mythic, west/east, message/medium, figure/ground, etc etc) through which the field, or continuum, of human experience might be delimited, exoterically, and thereby investigated?

Space, Time & Architecture and McLuhan

Giedion influenced me profoundly. Space, Time and Architecture (1941) was one of the great events of my lifetime. (Stearn interview)

In Space, Time and Architecture (1941), Giedion makes a series of points which McLuhan would find decisive for his life’s work:

Giedion: “in spite of seeming confusion, there is nevertheless a true, if hidden, unity, a secret synthesis, in our present civilization.” (Space, Time and Architecture, Foreword to the first edition.)

McLuhan: “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)1

Giedion: “To point out why this synthesis has not become a conscious and active reality has been one of my chief aims.” (Space, Time and Architecture, Foreword to the first edition.)

McLuhan:  “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.” (The Gutenberg Galaxy)

In the latter passages, both Giedion and McLuhan describe the “aim” or “effort” of their most important books. Giedion investigates a missing “synthesis”; McLuhan investigates the flip side of the same coin, “the illusion of segregation”, “the isolation”.

Giedion: History is not a compilation of facts, but an insight into a moving process of life. (Space, Time and Architecture

McLuhan: “History is not a compilation of facts, but an insight into a moving process of life.” S. Giedion, Space, Time and Architecture (Take Today, 76)

There is an original complexity (“a moving process of life“) in which all human events unfold. This complexity accounts for both finitude (as an original going out) and finitude’s relation beyond itself (as an original going in). In McLuhan’s terms: “Un Coup de Des [“Throw of the Dice”] illustrates the road he [Mallarmé] took in the exploitation of all things as gestures of the mind, magically adjusted to the secret powers of being.”  (Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press, 1954)

Giedion: In Civilization of the Renaissance Burckhardt emphasized sources and records rather than his own opinions. He treated only fragments of the life of the period but treated them so skillfully that a picture of the whole forms in his readers’ minds. (…) Modern artists have shown that mere fragments lifted from the life of a period  can reveal its habits and feelings; that one must have the courage to take small things and raise them to large dimensions(STA, 3-4)

McLuhan: Now was the time for the artist to intervene in a new way and to manipulate the new media of communication by a precise and delicate adjustment of the relations of words, things, and events. His task had become not self-expression but the release of the life in things. (…) As a vacuum tube is used to shape and control vast reservoirs of electric power, the artist can manipulate the low current of casual words, rhythms, and resonances to evoke the primal harmonies of existence… (Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press)

Two further STA texts show Giedion’s general influence on McLuhan which would only be diminished by giving specific McLuhan texts in proof:

Giedion: These artists have shown in their pictures that the furniture of daily life, the unnoticed articles that result from mass production — spoons, bottles,  glasses, all the things we look at hourly without seeing — have become parts of our natures. They have welded themselves into our lives without our knowing it. (4)

Giedion: Moreover, such insight is obtained not by the exclusive use of the panoramic survey, the bird’s-eye view, but by isolating and examining certain specific events intensively, penetrating and exploring them in the manner of the close-up. This procedure makes it possible to evaluate a culture from within as well as from without. (vi)2

While individual quotations might certainly be found to parallel these STA passages, in fact McLuhan’s whole work might be considered as arising from them (although not only from them, of course) and as framed by them.   

  1. Compare McLuhan to Giovanelli, May 10, 1946, Letters 184, “The view is horrible. but the garden is there too”; also: “The present stage is (…) full not only of destructiveness but also of promises of rich new developments (MB, v).
  2. McLuhan cites this passage in his 1972 introduction to Innis’ Empire and Communications.

The dateline 1

While McLuhan himself may have been entirely unconscious of the remarkable parallel, the “date line” (or “dateline”), which he treated repeatedly in his work, is precisely what distinguishes experiential events from physical events in their “world line” (or “worldline”).

The idea of world lines originates in physics and was pioneered by Hermann Minkowski. The term is now most often used in relativity theories (i.e., special relativity and general relativity).
The world line (or worldline) of an object is the path of that object in 4-dimensional spacetime, tracing the history of its location in space at each instant in time. It is an important concept in modern physics, and particularly theoretical physics. The concept of a “world line” is distinguished from concepts such as an “orbit” or a “trajectory” (e.g., a planet’s orbit in space or the trajectory of a car on a road) by the time dimension, and typically encompasses a large area of spacetime wherein perceptually straight paths are recalculated to show their (relatively) more absolute position states — to reveal the nature of special relativity or gravitational interactions. (Wiki)

The dateline (and perhaps especially in its difference from the worldline) is critical in delineating the domain McLuhan was attempting to dis-cover for investigation: the universe of experiential events — “the infinite, interior spaces of our psyche” (Space, Time, and Poetry, 1955) comprising the total field of information” (Great Change-overs for You, 1966).

Future posts will examine the relation of dateline and worldline in some detail. Here McLuhan’s continuing reflections on the meaning and function of the dateline will be documented in a series of passages from a 20 year period from 1951 to 1972:

The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape Poetry, 1951
Mallarmé had been led to [his] technique by an aesthetic analysis of the modern newspaper, with its static inclusiveness of the entire community of men. But the newspaper (…) as a vivisection of human interests, stands (…) behind Ulysses, with its date-line Thursday, June 16, 1904. (…) What Mallarmé and Joyce exploit in [interior] landscape technique is its power of rendering an inclusive consciousness in a single instant of perception.

Technology and Political Change, 1952
Perhaps the most significant single fact about the newspaper is its date-line. Aesthetically speaking, a week-old newspaper is of no interest at all, even though intellectually speaking it has exactly the same components as today’s paper. Aesthetically the newspaper creates an impact of immediacy and of super-realism. Metaphysically its mode is existential. Its impact is that of the very process of actualization. The entire world becomes, in this way, a laboratory in which everybody can watch the stages of an experiment. Everybody becomes a spectator of the biggest show on earth — namely the entire human family in its most gossipy intimacy. One curious aspect of the press is its willingness to be as surrealist as possible in its handling of geography and space, while sticking rigidly to the convention of a date-line. As soon as the same treatment is accorded time as space, we are in the world of Joyce’s Ulysses where it is 800 B.C. and 1904 A.D. at the same time. (…) On looking closely at the newspaper once more, it becomes evident that as a popular art form it embraces the world spatially but under the sign of a single day. The newspaper as a late stage in the mechanization of writing is handicapped in taking the next step, which occurs easily in radio and television, namely to cover not only many spaces but many times, or history, simultaneously. But even the newspaper has long felt the pressure to take this step. In juxtaposing items from Russia, India, Iran and England, it is plain that there is also a diversity of historical times that are being artificially and arbitrarily elucidated under a single date line.

Comics and Culture1, 1953
In the one-day world of the newspapers, the comics are time-binders, making possible a continuity of experience which is not to be found in the day-by-day news itself. The news is assembled each day from the world of space. In respect to time, continuity, and memory, the newspaper hasn’t the capacities of a low-grade idiot, but in its breadth of geographic perception the press has the apprehension of a god. Local items jostle others from Iran, California, Korea, Tibet, and Italy. Yet all that holds these diverse items in focus is the date line which in effect proclaims: “This is the world in cross-section for today”. The newspaper is a highly specialized and collective art-form brought into existence by instantaneous telegraphic and radio abridgement of space.

James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial, 1953
The net of analogies or symbolic juxtapositions of Ulysses can (…) be seen with reference to the date line June 16, 1904. The frankly newspaperish aspect of this epic derives from the speculations and practice of Mallarmé who regarded the press as a new kind of popular poetry, collective in origin and appeal. If the trivium and quadrivium represent seven crossroads for the meeting of the various degrees and levels of reality, a page of the press is an even more complex set of crossroads, juxtaposing events representative of many times and multiple spaces under a single date line. In the press an Eskimo item will repose beside a Parisian event, the neolithic and the atomic man meet in the same flat paper landscape of the press. In the same way Ulysses is 1904 A.D. but also 800 B.C. And the continuous parallel between ancient and modern provides a “cubist” rather than a linear perspective. It is a world of a “timeless present” such as we meet in the order of objections in a Thomistic article, but also typical of the nonperspective discontinuities of medieval art in general. History is abolished not by being disowned but by becoming present. “History is now,” as Eliot sees it in Four Quartets. This “cubist” sense of the past as a dimension of the present is natural in four-Ievel scriptural exegesis and ancient grammatica. It is necessary to enjoyment of Ulysses or the Wake with its theme that “pastimes are past times,” that the popular press, popular games and ordinary speech are charged with the full historic weight of the collective human past.

Giedion-Welcker’s Klee2, 1953
What became cubism [in art] was implicit in the technological conditions of reportage and news presentation more than a hundred years earlier. Implicit in the juxtaposition of many different spaces (news items) is multiplicity of times, since different areas of the world represent widely varied stages of historic acculturation. In a word the press landscape as art form is intimately linked to the technology of spatial communication and control, but is also a revolutionary medium artistically and politically. The simultaneous presentation of numerous geographic entities and historic cultures under the daily date-line creates a melting pot of the mind on a global scale.

Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press, 1954
It was Mallarmé who formulated the lessons of the press as a guide for the new impersonal poetry of suggestion and implication. He saw that the scale of modern reportage and of the mechanical multiplication of messages made personal rhetoric impossible. Now was the time for the artist to intervene in a new way and to manipulate the new media of communication by a precise and delicate adjustment of the relations of words, things, and events. His task had become not self-expression but the release of the life in things. Un Coup de Des illustrates the road he took in the exploitation of all things as gestures of the mind, magically adjusted to the secret powers of being. As a vacuum tube is used to shape and control vast reservoirs of electric power, the artist can manipulate the low current of casual words, rhythms, and resonances to evoke the primal harmonies of existence or to recall the dead. But the price he must pay is total self-abnegation. (…) By extending the technique of reporting the coexistence of events in China and Peru from global space to the dimension of time, Joyce achieved the actualized realism of a continuous present for events past, present, and future. In reverse, it is only necessary to remove the [particular] date-line from any newspaper [by adding all possible datelines] to obtain a (…) model of the universe [of experience].

Space, Time, and Poetry, 1955
[Pound’s] Cantos (…) are a flat landscape compounded of innumerable inner and acoustical spaces. (…) Even more than the Cantos, Finnegans Wake is the ultimate whispering gallery of the human psyche, its vast nocturnal caverns reverberating with every sigh and gesture of the human mind and tongue since the beginning of time. Joyce had only to remove the [particular] date-line from an ordinary newspaper in order to turn its contents into such a timeless [every dateline] whispering gallery-cum-shooting alley. But it is probably the exceptional auditory powers of Joyce and Pound that led them to acoustical manipulation of the great flat landscapes of Romantic art and the new media. To order visual images in the airy dimensions of the inner ear has been their achievement.

The Electronic Revolution in North America, 1958
More than a century ago Edgar Poe, a newspaper man, foresaw the news pattern which was to be confirmed by the telegraph. As the flow of news increased in speed and quantity, editorial or literary processing (…) became impossible. It became necessary to present a vast number of items under a single date line as a do-it-yourself kit. More and more the reader had to process the news himself. And this consequence of the electronic or instantaneous is exactly opposite to the supposed passivity which had long been the tendency of a mechanical and industrial culture in creating a consumer-oriented world. The electronic age has to become a producer-oriented world. Poe was the first to Invent art forms which met the electronic challenge by anticipation. Baudelaire and Valéry were not misguided in regarding him as a sort of Leonardo da Vinci. For he created the symbolist poem and the detective story at the same time. And both of these forms invite the reader to become co-creator. For a century the misunderstanding (…) has risen between those who look at art as a completely processed and packaged experience and those who are prepared to become co-creators in developing the experience it presents.

Myth and Mass Media, 1959
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. Each item makes its own world, unrelated to any other item save by date line. And the assembly of items constitutes a kind of global image in which there is much overlay and montage but little pictorial space or perspective.

Report on Project in Understanding New Media, 1960
In the case of the newspaper, the image which is given to the reader is of the community itself. The public press presents a kind of group picture or verbal telephoto of the global human community, hour by hour. This image is made by means of a collage or assembly of dozens and even hundreds of small items much as a wire photo is achieved by means of numerous dots forming a stippled pattern. The make-up of each page must tend toward a selection in order to include a very large range of human interests. The mosaic of human interests thus achieved creates a strong impression of depth and range so that the ordinary reader is quite satisfied that he has made a real contact with the collective life of the community under the dateline indicated at the top of the page. Of course, if a reader suddenly discovers that he is reading yesterday’s newspaper, the sort of disillusionment and letdown is acute indeed. (…) By definition, no two items in a newspaper can have any connection one with the other. The only connection between any two items in a newspaper is indicated by the dateline. The fact that it happened on our planet on a given day affords the only logic or rationale…

The Medium is the Message, 1960
The items of news and advertising that exist under a dateline are interrelated only by that dateline. They have no interconnection of logic or statement. Yet they form a mosaic whose parts are interpenetrating. Such is also the kind of order that tends to exist in a city or a culture. It is a kind of orchestral, resonating unity, not a logical unity of discourse. It is not necessary to be satisfied with such a state of affairs once it is understood. Personally, I feel none of the fervor in favor of such order, as an ideal to be sought for, that is not uncommon among anthropologists. My notion is that this kind of order is inseparable from electronic technology and that auditory order quickly wipes out or brainwashes visual kinds of order by subliminal action.

The Agenbite of Outwit, 1963
The items of news and advertising that exist under a newspaper dateline are interrelated only by that dateline. They have no interconnection of logic or statement. Yet they form a mosaic of corporate image whose parts are interpenetrating. Such is also the kind of order that tends to exist in a city or a culture. It is a kind of orchestral, resonating unity, not the unity of logical discourse.

Understanding Media, 1964
Long before big business and corporations became aware of the image of their operation as a fiction to be carefully tattooed upon the public sensorium, the press had created the image of the community as a series of on-going actions unified by datelines. Apart from the vernacular used, the dateline is the only organizing principle of the newspaper image of the community. Take off the dateline, and one day’s paper is the same as the next.

Address at Vision 65, 1965
One of the mysterious things about newspapers is that the items in them have no connection except the dateline. The only connecting factor in any newspaper is the dateline, and it is this dateline that enables us to enter the world of the news, as it were, by going through the looking glass. Just as Alice in Wonderland went through the looking glass, when you enter the world of the telegraph or of the circuit, you really become involved in the information process. When you enter through the dateline, when you enter your newspaper, you begin to put together the news and you are producer. And this is a most important fact to understand about the electric time, for it is an age of decentralism. It is hard to face this. We still like to look in the rearview mirror. We still tend to think of the Electric Age as a mechanical age. It is in effect organic and totally decentralist. But the reader of the news, when he goes through his dateline apertures, enters the news world as a maker. There is no “meaning” in the news except what we make and there is no connection between any of the items except the instant dimension of electric circuitry. News items are like the parts of the symbolist structure. The reader is the co-creator, in a newspaper as in a detective story, in which the reader has to make the plot as he goes.

Great Change-overs for You3, 1966
The story line has disappeared from the recent forms of movie, whether it is the work of Fellini, or Vanderbeek, or Warhol, or Bergman. Oddly enough, the disappearance of the story line creates a much higher degree of involvement for the viewer or reader. The discovery of this means of involving the audience had been made more than a century ago by symbolist poets. Edgar Allan Poe had used the same technique in his invention of the detective story. By the use of scrambled time sequences, the detective story requires the reader to be co-author. When the telegraph entered journalism, it was quickly discovered that no story line could accommodate the total field of information produced at instant speeds. The newspaper has only one unifying factor: a dateline. There are no connections between any of the items in a newspaper, save on the editorial page which retains the story line and point of view of the book. In an electric world it is not only the story line that disappears, but also the clothes line, and the stag line, and the party line. The alternative to a story line, and to the art of connecting events, is the art of the interval. Oriental art doesn’t use  connections, but intervals, whether in the art of flower arrangement or in the poetry of Zen Buddhism. The Western world first intuited the onset of the electric age and the change-over to the art of the interval in symbolism, on one hand, and the primacy of musical structures, on the other hand. Walter Pater had observed the tendency for all the  arts to approach the condition of music, that is to say, the art of timing and of interval. James Joyce in Finnegans Wake took over the art of the interval as a means of retrieving the fantastic wealth of perception and experience that is stored in ordinary human language. As used by Joyce, the dispensing with the story line became the means of instant grasp of complex wholes

Relation of Environment to Anti-Environment, 1966
The items in the daily press are totally discontinuous and totally unconnected. The only unifying feature of the press is the date line. Through that date line the reader must go, as Alice went, “through the looking glass”. If it is not today’s date line, we cannot get in. Once he goes through the date line, he is involved in a world of items for which he, the reader, must write a story line. He makes the news, as the reader of a detective story makes the plot.

Is The Book Dead? 1967
When everything happens at once, you have mass. It doesn’t matter how many, as long as they are all the same moment. The newspaper, the telegraph services of a newspaper, creates a mass audience in a sense that everything happens at once. When everything happens at once, you don’t have a story line. You have a dateline. In newspaper, there is no story line. The events are totally unrelated to one another except by a dateline. That is a happening. The newspaper was a happening in the fullest sense of the word, artistically, decades before the happenings began to break out in New York.

Include Me Out: The Reversal Of The Overheated Image, 1968
The world of the ear offers none of the continuity and connectedness known only to the eye. 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-GlassBut the telegraph press itself had, even earlier, reversed the pattern of the old book and editorial image. At electric speeds, a point of view is meaningless, even in a newspaper. News items are necessarily unconnected except by a date line. The newspaper mosaic has no story line. Like syncopated jazz or poetic symbolism, it is discontinuous.

From Cliché to Archetype, 1970
The newspaper has claim to be considered the first verbal form to be subjected to the shaping power of electric circuitry. The wire services had a direct impact on the nature of reporting and relating as well as upon observing events. Telegraphic speed in relaying reports had a peculiar result upon editorial practice of laying out the copy on the page. It seems to have been discovered at once that no connection was needed between any of the events recorded. The dateline was a sufficient force to create a unified field for all events whatever.

Take Today, 1972
The new information environment tends to supplant Nature, whereas the old mythic wisdom tried to explain nature. Thus modern man has to live mythically, in contrast to his ancient forebears, who sought to think mythically. Myth is the record of a simultaneous perception of effects with causes in a complementary process. It is possible to see a history of world art today in thirty seconds. A newspaper under a single date line gives you “Your World Today”.

Take Today, 1972
The poet Ezra Pound saw that the telegraph press, with its mosaic coverage of world events under a single date line, had solved the problem of creating the new poetic vision for our time.

  1. Saturday Night, 68:1, 19-20 Feb 28, 1953. Reprinted in Our Sense of Identity: A Book of Canadian Essays, ed, Malcolm Ross, 240-246 1954.
  2. Review of Carola Giedion-Welcker, Paul Klee (1952), Shenandoah, 3:1, 77-82,1953.
  3. Vogue, 148:1, 60-63, 114-115, 117, August 1, 1966, Reprinted: Problems and Controversies in Television and Radio, ed H. T. Skornia and J. Kitson, 26-36 1968.

Relativity in Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters

What we symbolize in black the Chinaman may symbolize in yellow; each has his own tradition. Greek beauty laughs at Coptic beauty and the American Indian derides them both. It is almost impossible to reconcile all tradition whereas it is by no means impossible to find the justification of every form of beauty which has been adored on the earth by an examination into the mechanism of esthetic apprehension whether it be dressed in red, white, yellow or black. We have no reason for thinking that the Chinaman has a different system of digestion from that which we have though our diets are quite dissimilar. The apprehensive faculty must be scrutinized in action. (James Joyce, Stephen Hero, as cited in CHML1)

It was the Thomistic awareness of analogy derived from sense perception that gave Joyce the means of digesting all the ideas of all his contemporaries without relying on any of them as a (…) frame of reference. (CHML)

What [Etienne Gilson] does is to elicit the image of truth from past errors [“All those pseudo-rationalisms, forged links and fraudulent intelligibilities which official literature has imposed on existence”]2 and to confirm the unity of man’s quest from the jarring discords of unremitting debate. But what I wish to point out is that Gilson’s method is that of contemporary art and science (for contemporary poetry has healed the old breach between art and science). Gilson does not set out to produce a theory or view that will unify the philosophical disputes of the past. (…) We don’t arrive at a simple unifying concept but are put on the road to achieving a wisdom. And the road to this wisdom is by way of sympathetic reconstruction, involving the abeyance of personal prejudice and preconception. (CHML)

By 1954, almost all of the pieces of McLuhan’s mature position were in place. He could sense that a theory of theories was possible which would cover “the entire world of language and consciousness”3: “all the ideas of all“.  It would function not as one more perspective in “the jarring discords of unremitting debate” among perspectives, but exactly through “the abeyance of personal (…) preconception” — ie, “without relying on any [one perspective] as a prop or frame of reference“.  This it would accomplish, in turn, through focus on “the mechanism of esthetic apprehension“, of “the apprehensive faculty (…) in action“, across every possible perspective, “by way of sympathetic reconstruction“.

In another 1954 article, ‘Sight, Sound and Fury’ (Commonweal, April 9, 1954) McLuhan put these points as follows:

What we have to defend today are not the values developed in any particular culture or by any one mode of communication. Modem technology presumes to attempt a total transformation of man and his environment. This calls in turn for an inspection and defense of all human values. And so far as merely human aid goes, the citadel of this defense must be located in analytical awareness of the nature of the creative process involved in human cognition.

Sympathetic reconstruction” of “all the ideas of all“, aka of “human cognition” in general, would function, furthermore, just as “contemporary art and sciencealready function — “for contemporary poetry has healed the old breach between art and science“. It would analyze any sample of experience in terms of the process through which it had come to be synchronically. So chemistry analyzes materials not in terms of how they happened to evolve in historical or diachronic time (iron rusting in water), but in terms of their necessary development according to synchronic law (Fe + O => Fe2O3). Similarly, modern art or poetry is not interested in how certain images came to be associated historically, but in their synchronic relationship in “the universal fabric” (The Mechanical Bride, 3).

Hence McLuhan’s observation in CHML that “the poetic process is a reversal, a retracing of the stages of human cognition”. This is no “retracing of (…) stages” in backwards linear time, but exposure by such images of their underlying synchronic prerequisites exactly as images of “cognition” or “apprehension” — something like Fe + O => Fe2O3, but where chemical law concerning chemical elements is replaced by “human cognition” law concerning the elements of “esthetic apprehension“. 

Now in 1954 McLuhan had a rough idea of such cognitive elements.  From a variety of sources (Wright, Lodge, Gilson, Muller-Thym, Richards, Giedion, Havelock, Innis) he understood human experience as pre-shaped by underlying types (realist, idealist, pragmatist) or disciplines (rhetoric, logic, grammar) or media (speech, print, electronics) or sense (ear, eye, touch) or different flavors of spaces and times. And he had a rough idea of the inter-convertibility of these classifications.4

But what he did not yet have was exactly what had provided Einstein with his key to the formulation of relativity: co-variance.  This McLuhan would come to see at some point between 1955 and 1960 through his exposure to, and subsequent reflection on, “acoustic space“. The essence of the matter is that law can depend either on a fixed frame of reference or on some dynamic co-variability that functions across all frames of reference.  For both Einstein and McLuhan a fixed frame of reference (Newtonian physics for the one, the Gutenberg galaxy for the other) was exactly the problem that had to be overcome. Their solution therefore depended on finding a formulation of co-variance that could be used in place of any fixed framework.

For McLuhan this meant that he had to find a way to specify the elements of “the mechanism of esthetic apprehension” in terms of a co-variability,  But which elements according to what co–variability would have to fall in place together, since only the co–variability would expose the elements and only the elements the co–variability. 

  1. Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters, a lecture delivered by McLuhan in March 1954 at St Joseph Seminary in Hartford.
  2. ‘Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press’, also from 1954.
  3. “Siegfried Giedion 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). For Newton’s optics and poetry, cf  ‘Space, Time, and Poetry’, 1955: “English poetry and painting of the 18th century were decades ahead of the European equivalents. That is, Thomson, Blake, Sterne, Wordsworth and Shelley were using techniques of landscape for the precise delineation and control of mental states long before the Europeans. And it was Newton’s Optics which gave these techniques in poetry and painting such early impetus. The discovery of the exact correspondence between the structure of the inner eye and the outer world established the study and vogue of symbolic correspondence between landscape and mental states.” (McLuhan writes of “delineation and control of mental stages” here which seems misleading on account of its diachronic implications. ‘Mental stages’ has therefore been changed to ‘mental states’ — which is the happier formulation McLuhan uses at the end of the cited passage.)
  4. Innis, for example, correlated speech, ear and time as also writing, eye and space.

Autobiography 1956: “Huge shift in the geography of perception and feeling”

Personally. I feel quite helpless and panicky as I contemplate the range of new assumptions and frames and parameters which our new technology has imposed upon us.  (NAEB Project, ”MATERIALS DEVELOPED BY PROJECT”)

McLuhan seems to have arrived at his relativity theory of human experience between 1955 and 1960. His coming to understand “acoustic space” as “a means of exploring and defining mental states was central to this process.

Here he is in ‘New Media in Arts Education’, an address given at the March 1956 convention of The Eastern Arts Association.

By the time of Baudelaire and Rimbaud the use of painting as a means of fixing a mental state had been pushed very far. Suddenly the visual boundaries yielded to music, and the symbolist poets discovered the acoustic space of the auditory imagination. Let me say at once that this break through from the visual world into the acoustic world seems to be the most revolutionary thing that has occurred in Western culture since the invention of phonetic writing. To understand the human, social, and artistic bearings of this event is indispensable today whether for the teacher or the citizen. Most of the cultural confusion of our world results from this huge shift in the geography of perception and feeling. Let me repeat that the artistic developments which we associate with the Romantics in painting and poetry, had consisted in the impressionistic use of external landscape as a means of exploring and defining mental states. When these artists came to the frontiers of visual landscape they passed over into its opposite, as it were, namely acoustic or auditory space. This unexpected reversal or translation of the visual into the acoustic happened again when the silent movies became sound pictures and again when radio was suddenly metamorphosed into TV. And the consequences of these shifts between sight and sound need to be understood by the teacher today since they turn the language of the arts into a jabberwocky that has to be unscrambled to be understood. When the arts shifted from sight to sound, from visual to acoustic organization of experience, the tempo and rhythm of our culture shifted as though an LP disc were suddenly shifted to 78 speed.

McLuhan is also describing his own experience here in the crucial 1955-1956 time period. To paraphrase: 

Suddenly the visual boundaries [which had constrained me until at least 1954yielded to music, and [I] discovered the acoustic space of the auditory imagination. This break through from the visual world into the acoustic world [was] the most revolutionary thing [that had ever occurred to me and, now that I had experienced it in myself, I came to believe that it was equally] the most revolutionary thing that had occurred in Western culture since the invention of phonetic writingTo understand the human, social, and artistic bearings of this event [seemed] indispensable [to me since I could now attribute] most of the cultural confusion of our world [to] this huge shift in the geography of perception and feeling.

By 1959 his thinking had advanced to the notion of an “instantaneous (…) information field” in which all possible space-time configurations were arrayed: “Each item makes its own world, unrelated to any other (…) and the assembly of items constitutes a kind of global image in which there is much overlay and montage but little pictorial space or perspective“. Here he is in ‘Myth and Mass Media‘ of that year:1

Electronic culture accepts the simultaneous as a reconquest of auditory space. Since the ear picks up sound from all directions at once, thus creating a spherical field of experience, it is natural that electronically moved information should also assume this sphere-like pattern. 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. Each item makes its own world, unrelated to any other item save by date line. And the assembly of items constitutes a kind of global image in which there is much overlay and montage but little pictorial space or perspective. For electronically moved information, in being simultaneous, assumes the total-field pattern, as in auditory space. And preliterate societies likewise live largely in the auditory or simultaneous mode with an inclusiveness of awareness that increasingly characterizes our electronic age. The traumatic shock of moving from the segmental, lineal space of literacy into the auditory, unified field of electronic information is quite unlike the reverse process. But today, while we are resuming so many of the preliterate modes of awareness, we can at the same time watch many preliterate cultures beginning their tour through the cultural phases of literacy.

How to investigate and communicate this “field of experience” would become the task for the remaining two decades of his life. Here he is attempting both of these in the ‘The Agenbite of Outwit’, 1963:

The all-at-once-ness of auditory space is the exact opposite of lineality, of taking one thing at a time. It is very confusing to learn that the mosaic of a newspaper page is “auditory” in basic structure. This, however, is only to say that any pattern in which the components co-exist without direct, lineal hook-up or connection, creating a field of simultaneous relations, is auditory, even though some of its aspects can be seen. The items of news and advertising that exist under a newspaper dateline are interrelated only by that dateline. They have no interconnection of logic or statement. Yet they form a mosaic or corporate image whose parts are interpenetrating. Such is also the kind of order that tends to exist in a city or a culture. It is a kind of orchestral, resonating unity, not the unity of logical discourse.



  1. Myth and Mass Media‘ was originally given as a lecture at Harvard in the spring of 1958.

Ontology and epistemology

…for Being, which is analogous, and in which beings are proportionately and not generically one, in so far as it always expresses a proportion to its Act-to-Be, which to-Be is diverse, [such Being] holds everything known in a concept under the formality of essence within the intelligibility of the ultimate Act-to-Be; and thus Being is an absolute principle of human cognition. (Muller-Thym, ‘The To Be which Signifies the Truth of Propositions’, 1940)1

As Aquinas indicates everywhere, there is a proportion between the modes of Being and the modes of our human knowing. (Joyce, Aquinas, and the Poetic Process)

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.” (Take Today, 128)

The last citation illustrates the implication of epistemology in ontology for Einstein and, indeed, McLuhan. Since “there is no logical [step by step, linear] way to the discovery of these elemental laws” — just as “there is no logical [step by step, linear] way” to the learning of language by a child — the possibility of making these leaps at all and of their succeeding to communication and even to “the discovery of (…) elemental laws”, rests upon a prior translative or metaphorical “resonance of (…) existence itself” (TT 7): the gap is where the action is!2

Only because there is an “order lying behind (…) appearance” (but one that expresses itself in and as appearance), and only because this order is that of “the resonating interval” (whose transitivity equally grounds (or is) the relation of ontology and “appearance”), is it possible for humans to learn to communicate with each other and to come to recognize “elemental laws”.3 For while understanding is never perfect, neither of words nor of the various things we study, so that both of these may be further investigated forever, it remains true that we do learn to communicate and do learn to know.


  1. Proceedings of the Sixteenth Annual Meeting of The American Catholic Philosophical Association, Vol XVI, 230-254, 1940, 231-232). ‘Being’ has been capitalized as have ‘to-Be’ and ‘Act-to-Be’, which have been hyphenated as well.
  2. See here: Absent such fundamental ’relation beyond ourselves’, humans could never have begun to use language in the deep past and could not learn language as children even now. The mystery is that a capacity (for relation beyond itself) can be awakened in a child in a process that could not take place unless this capacity were already operative. Here is McLuhan to John Snyder, Aug 4 1963: “…we are already moving in depth into a situation in which learning becomes a total process (…) from infancy to old-age. The pattern by which one learns one’s mother tongue is now being extended to all learning whatsoever. The human dialogue itself becomes not only the economic, but the political and social, fact.”  (Letters 291)
  3. “Elemental laws” operating in the physical — and in the experiential! — domains.

Analogy of proper proportionality

Now to-be is diverse; and while diverse, it is yet that ultimate act in proportion to which each being is being; so that all beings are one in being, not with the unity of a genus, but with the community of analogy: and we are speaking of the analogy of proper proportionality. (Bernard Muller-Thym, ‘The To Be which Signifies The Truth of Propositions’, Proceedings of the Sixteenth Annual Meeting of The American Catholic Philosophical Association, Vol XVI, 230-254, 1940)1

Perhaps the most precious possession of man is his abiding awareness  of the Analogy of Proper Proportionality, the key to all metaphysical insight, and perhaps the very condition of consciousness itself. (‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, Through the Vanishing Point, 1968, 240)

The following passage from the 1968 Through the Vanishing Point (TVP) has been considered at length in a previous post (here). The present post will look at its specification of “the Analogy of Proper Proportionality” in human experience.

The late nineteenth century saw a remarkable advance on Newtonian ideas, with particular emphasis on the afterimage and simultaneous contrast. While this theory is generally known to practicing painters, its wider sociological implications have never been explored. To explain simply, in the field of color the afterimage consists of a physiological balancing on integral white. A brief formula might be sensory impact plus sensory completion equals white (SI + SC = W)2 (…) It is postulated that just as white is a result of the assembling of the primary colors in ratio, so touch is an assembly of all the [psychological] senses in ratio. Black is, therefore, the after-image of touch [SI + SC = B]. Naturally as the visual gradient [or SI or white] of the culture ascends, the modalities of touch [or SC or black] are minimized. This appears very vividly in the sensory evolution of the arts. From cave painting to the Romantics, there is steady visual progress. Thereafter, with the coming of synesthesia in the arts and non-visual electronic phenomena in the sciences, we may well be moving into a kind of zero-gradient culture, with all modes of experience receiving simultaneous attention [SI + SC = BW]. The need for physiological and psychological balance means that any (…) sensory impact needs to find (…) sensory completion… (‘Sensory Modes’, TVP 15, 1968)

Another TVP passage supplies commentary and amplification:

Perhaps the most precious possession of man is his abiding awareness of the Analogy of Proper Proportionality, the key to all metaphysical insight, and perhaps the very condition of consciousness itself. This analogical awareness is constituted of a perpetual play of ratios among ratios. A is to B, what C is to D, which is to say the ratio between A and B, is proportionable to the ratio between C and D, there being a [third] ratio between these [first two] ratios, as well. This lively awareness of the most exquisite delicacy depends upon there being no connection whatsoever between the components [of these various ratios]. If A were linked to B, or C to D, mere logic would take the place of analogical perception, thus one of the penalties paid for literacy and a high visual culture is a strong tendency to encounter all things through a rigorous storyline, as it were. (‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, TVP 240)3

McLuhan posits the dynamic interaction — or co-variance — or proportionality — of several ratios here at once. First, within sensory input (SI) and sensory completion (SC), each considered on its own, there is a dynamic interaction between figure and ground, or between numerator and denominator, or between individual SI color or SC sense (on the one hand) and their respective foundational “after-images” (on the other). As the ground or denominator or “after-image” asserts itself, the figure or numerator or particular color or sense recedes. And vice versa. So, as the grounding “after-image” of a particular color is emphasized, namely in favor of the full spectrum of color that is clear light, that color fades towards ‘white’; while emphasis of a particular color, contrariwise, has the opposite effect of fading out its ground in favor of its increasingly vivid individual ‘shade’. In parallel fashion, when we have only a general sense4 of, say, expectation, all the individual senses fade into the background of a global ‘feeling’; while emphasis on any particular sense has, contrariwise, the effect of depressing our awareness of our general feeing in favor of the particular sort of evidence of that single sense.5 Each of these ratios or fractions co-varies such that the more of the one component (be it figure or ground, numerator or denominator, foreground or afterimage), the less of the other. At the same time, there is also a further dynamic ratio or proportionality between these two ratios, SI and SC, together. The more SI, the less SC — and vice versa.

The rather startling implication is that these various ratios — color:spectrum, sense:synaesthesia, SI:SC — are inter-convertible.  More, since each of these ratios can be expressed in terms of one of their terms (since their terms are co-variable), it would seem that any such one, properly specified, would entail6 all the rest.

With his reference to “a rigorous storyline” McLuhan adds a further inter-convertible ratio — that of time(s).  As is observed in The Gutenberg Galaxy:

The auditory field is simultaneous, the visual mode is successive. (111)

And in the posthumous Global Village:

time considered as sequential (left hemisphere) is figure and time considered as simultaneous (right hemisphere) is ground. (10)

The ratio of the brain hemispheres is thrown in for good measure.

So it was that McLuhan could write to Hugh Kenner:

We [analogists] are in position of being able to use any insights whatever. Any kind of knowledge is grist to an analogist. But to a Kantian every new fact is a potential threat to his entire world. E.g. Newton’s system now obsolete because of subsequent observations. Progress = obsolescence, destruction. Ritual slaughter of old by young. Unilateral causal connections.7

For “that ultimate act” of “to be”, the “progress” of its creative action, while it is indeed “to be (…) diverse”, does not result in “obsolescence” or “destruction” but in the very “Establishment of the University of Being“.  It is exactly this original “uni-versity” of the di-versity of “to be” that constitutes the “unity of nature” which, according to Einstein (see here), is both the basis and the goal of scientific research.

At the same time, in our everyday lives, it is only on the foundation of this “unity of nature” aka “university of Being” that we are able to learn language and generally communicate with our surrounding world despite all the various distances we have from it.


  1. Muller-Thym’s manner of expression was exacting in a way that won Etienne Gilson’s great admiration. Like Gilson, Muller-Thym held that everything depends on an under-standing of Being as verbal (“to be”), not as substantive: “to be is (…) that ultimate act” of original di-versity as “uni-versity”.  Because it is originally creative as its way “to be” and because it does not lose or dissipate itself in its creative action, so can we, and all beings, securely be: “while diverse, it is yet that ultimate act in proportion to which each being is being”. This hold through difference is what Muller-Thym calls the “Uni-versity of Being” in explicating Meister Eckhart. (In the citation, “to be” has been emphasized and hyphenated.)
  2. This formula in round brackets stems from McLuhan.  The following ones in square brackets have been added.
  3. Twenty years before McLuhan noted in a letter to Ezra Pound (December 21, 1948): “the principle of metaphor and analogy — the basic fact that as A is to B so is C to D. AB:CD” (Letters 207).
  4. Supposedly following Thomas, McLuhan often calls this general ‘common sense’ ‘touch’ or ‘tactility’ — just as ‘feeling’ can refer to a particular action of touching or to a general mood. The particular one-of-five sense of touch is exactly not meant (although it is, of course, included in tactility considered as the ‘common sense’).
  5. So the “Gutenberg galaxy” is first of all an emphasis on the single sense of sight and a corresponding and simultaneous depression of the common sense.  Then, exactly because the common sense is depressed, so also awareness of the other senses and especially of the acoustic.  In this way, awareness would seem always to be mediated by some or other modality of the common sense.
  6. The entailment here would of course not be direct. As McLuhan sometimes expressed the matter, a “formula” would be involved.
  7. In a letter from March 16, 1949, cited by Andrew Chrystall in his thesis, 90.

Giedion – an “Author’s Note”

Sigfried Giedion published ‘A Complicated Craft Is Mechanized’ in 1943 in the MIT Technology Review. This essay on the development of the cylinder lock by Linus Yale, Jr (1821–1868) would become a part of Mechanization Takes Command in 1948.

The following note was added at the head of the essay.

Author’s Note. — This essay in industrial history is based on research preparatory to a volume dealing with the creative as well as destructive influence of mechanization on the coming about of modern life. Here is neither the place nor the opportunity to explain the methodological background of that research. But some hints about it may be given.

Complicated craft: The difference between European and American industry is marked from the very beginning, the late Eighteenth Century. Europe mechanized, above all, the simple craft; the characteristic American development was the mechanization of the complicated craft. In Europe, the mechanization of simple crafts — mining, spinning, weaving — became nearly synonymous with industry. In America, the story is different. Here, the fundamental trend is to be seen in the mechanization of the complicated craft which demands men of special skill as well as a large amount of time and labor. America began in the Eighteenth Century with mechanizing the trade of the miller and ended in the Twentieth Century with mechanizing the job of the housekeeper. In between, all the trades concerned to a certain extent with our intimate life had undergone the same process of mechanization: the tailor, the shoemaker, the farmer, the locksmith, the baker, the butcher. In Europe, most of these complicated crafts still form important strata of society. That they have nearly disappeared from American life has had enormous influence on habits and thoughts.

Mass production: When the question arises: “What is the greatest contribution of America to mankind, what has America done that influences the whole Western world?” there is no doubt of the answer. It is the tremendous instrument of mass production, which has been developed more intensively in this country than in any other. Mass production, replacing skilled labor, replacing the complicated craft, penetrates into our most intimate life. It is a very dangerous instrument; everything depends on how it is handled. When it is misused, or when it assumes dictatorial power over the human mind, the whole hierarchy of human values begins to crumble. Man loses his perspective and becomes uncertain in faith and judgment. On the other hand, when the instrument of mass production is used in the right manner and restricted to the place it deserves, then, for the first time in human history, a differentiated culture can emerge without any kind of open or concealed slavery.

Historical consciousness: There are excellent studies on the social and economic background of our period, and on the lives of the great entrepreneurs. But when one tries to get an insight into the phenomena themselves — into the anonymous history of inventions and ideas, which are the tools that build the instrument of mass productions — one finds nothing but gaps. In general opinion inventions must pay dividends; if they do not, they are obsolete and without significance. But, on the whole, inventions and the trends they reveal govern our present-day life. Nothing shows the complete lack of historical consciousness more strongly than the fact that because no funds could be found to prevent [it],the most precious witnesses of American history — the original models of the United States Patent Office — have been wandering about from barn to barn since 1926, when, with the consent of Congress, they were sold for some thousands of dollars to an English industrialist. Historically speaking, this disrespect is as though the bones of our ancestors should be strewn to the winds.

Emphasis has been added throughout to highlight those points in Giedion’s note which especially set McLuhan to thought:

  • if “mass production (…) penetrates into our most intimate life”, into ourhabits and thoughts” and so comes togovern our present-day life” with dictatorial power over the human mind”, how does it do so? Just how does this all take place?
  • if the effect of mechanization is that “the whole hierarchy of human values begins to crumble” and “man loses his perspective and becomes uncertain in faith and judgment”, how is this to be exposed and combatted (especially given its dictatorial power over the human mind”)?
  • if a new sort of “anonymous history” may be initiated beyond that of assumed standpoints and privileged perspectives, how can this contribute to an investigation of the previous questions?