Monthly Archives: September 2016

Innis and McLuhan in 1936

Scholars have stipulated that “only in 1951 did he [McLuhan] begin reading anything by that great political economist [Harold Innis]”. So Babe. Theall concurs: “McLuhan first read Innis in 1951”. For many reasons this claim cannot be correct.1 The proper date must be 1949 at the latest and could have been, at least as regards McLuhan’s time at UT, as early as 1947 (when his long-time Winnipeg friend, Tom Easterbrook, came back to UT to work closely with Innis).

In fact, it is highly likely that McLuhan first read Innis fifteen years before 1951 — in 1936! While he was still in Cambridge!

Here is the cover of the Dalhousie Review from January 1936 with its table of contents: the ninth contribution is McLuhan’s ‘G.K. Chesterton: A Practical Mystic’; the second is Innis’ ‘Discussion in the Social Sciences’.2 

McLuhan’s very first scholarly paper appeared in the same issue of the Dalhousie Review as an important essay of Innis — one in which (as detailed below) his turn to communication is already visible.

There are good reasons to think that McLuhan read Innis’ essay as soon as he received a copy of the review.3 In the first place, of course, McLuhan must have taken great interest, and pride, in this issue of DR with his first paper (outside of University of Manitoba undergraduate publications). It is hardly imaginable that he failed to look into all its articles and to read the ones of interest to him.

In the second place, it is very likely that Innis’ essay, like McLuhan’s, came to The Dalhousie Review via Fr Gerald Phelan at UT.  Phelan was from Halifax, was an old friend of the DR editor, Herbert Leslie Stewart4 and was himself a contributor to DR5. Correspondence between McLuhan and his mother (April 12, 1936, Letters 82) shows that both knew Phelan and it was to him that McLuhan communicated his decision to convert (on November 26, 1936, Letters 93). A decade later Phelan, having been Hugh Kenner’s faculty adviser for his M.A. thesis on Chesterton, would secure publication for it (with an introduction by McLuhan). Although no correspondence has yet come to light regarding the publication of McLuhan’s Chesterton paper in DR, it is highly likely that Phelan did the same thing for him as he came to do a decade later for Kenner. Both were started on their academic careers by Phelan through publications on Chesterton and through jobs at Catholic schools (McLuhan at St Louis, Kenner at Assumption in Windsor). And both McLuhan and Kenner went on from Phelan’s assistance with their careers to become Catholic converts.

By 1936 Phelan and Innis had been colleagues in Toronto for more than a decade.6 Since Innis — unlike McLuhan at this time — had no need of help to publish a paper, his DR piece must have appeared there through some kind of special request from the side of DR. And this must have been mediated, if not originated, through Phelan.7 Whatever the details of the case may have been, it may be supposed that Phelan talked of Innis’ paper in the course of what must have been a great many exchanges with McLuhan about his Chesterton piece for DR and about his conversion (where Phelan played a, probably the, central role).

Thirdly, McLuhan’s close friend from Winnipeg and the University of Manitoba, Tom Easterbrook, was studying for his PhD with Innis at just this time in Toronto. It is probable that Innis’ essay was discussed in exchanges between the two Winnipeg friends — particularly in regard to Chesterton in whom also Easterbrook had a long-standing interest. Indeed, Easterbrook is said to have been the person who first suggested Chesterton to McLuhan’s attention. Further, this connection with Innis via Easterbrook may have been reinforced through the fact that McLuhan’s mother was now living in Toronto with his brother, Maurice, and both knew Easterbrook well from Winnipeg.  

In the fourth place, Innis’ paper (which was originally a lecture at UBC) would have interested McLuhan both in its content and in its style, especially its biting depreciation of the academy. As regards the latter, Innis at the very start of his remarks observes:

I am addressing a university audience interested in the pursuit of truth and in certain standards of intellectual integrity and honesty. This may be a bold assumption. (‘Discussion in the Social Sciences’ (= DSS below), Dalhousie Review, January 1936, 401-413, here, 401)

He goes on to describe academic conferences as follows:

Conferences subsidized (….) for the discussion of problems of the social sciences would become intolerable without the entertainment provided by a trained group of intellectuals designed to stimulate those anxious to think they are making important contributions to a solution of the world’s problems — and to amuse those who know better. The social sciences provide both the opiates and the stimulants to what passes for modem thought. The travelling comedians who masquerade as economists and prophets… (Ibid, 406)8

Innis scholars often criticize McLuhan’s sometimes disparaging style as if it were opposed to the supposedly more scholarly or responsible style of Innis.  But this is mistaken.  Innis could be just as direct, and just as politically incorrect, as McLuhan: 

academic freedom has become the great shelter of incompetence. The intellectual writes informatively for people who still believe they discuss the complex problems of society intelligently… (ibid, 405)

As regards content, Innis’ January 1936 DR paper was “intended as complementary to ‘The Role of Intelligence’ [in] The Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, May 1935″ (ibid, 401n). The proximity of views held by McLuhan at this time to those of Innis (and perhaps influenced by Innis) may best be seen from this “complementary” article:

Innis: the social scientist is apt to develop strong vested interests in the prospects of an enterprise or of a group or of a society. He becomes concerned in many cases with the increasing profits and the increasing sale of products irrespective of the wants of the community, and acts largely in a predatory capacity. (…) A politician succeeds by detecting and using to his advantage the weakness of others. (‘The Role of Intelligence’, CJEPS, 1:2, 1935, 281; hereafter ‘The Role of Intelligence’ = ‘RI’.)

McLuhan: What sort of motive, what complexion of intelligence is likely to be concerned with the output and control of Little Men? For almost a century now, the intelligence of the ablest men has been systematically bought and set to work to exploit the weakness and stupidity of the rest of mankind. This is the exact reverse of the traditional procedure of all civilizations. Hitherto the ablest men have been selected to govern, to educate, rather than to exploit, the others. (‘Peter or Peter Pan’, Fleur de Lis, 37:4, 1938)

Further, Innis’s DR paper indicates the direction in which McLuhan (along with Eric Havelock and, indeed, Innis himself) would head in the following decades:

…the possibilities of discussion have increased immeasurably. The character of discussion (…) has been tremendously influenced by recent industrialism and inventions (…) the development of the printing press, economic expansion and the growth of literacy (…) improvements in facilities for discussion, particularly the radio (…) the intellectual has failed to realize the significance of the change which has so profoundly influenced discussion. He remains as a vestige of an era of discussion which has passed.  (DSS 403, 404, 405)

All this is encapsulated in Innis’ bald formulation:

The pulp and paper industry is a fundamental development.9 (DSS 403)

That is: continuing “development of the printing press, economic expansion and the growth of literacy”, along with new inventions (“particularly the radio”), have “increased immeasurably” the amount and speed of information exchange (“possibilities of discussion”) and have thereby closed one “era of discussion” and opened another.  With this closure and opening has come a revolution in “the character” and “the significance” of “discussion” — aka of communication.10

Innis could see with his friend and mentor, E.J. Urwick, his predecessor as the chair of the Department of Political Economy, that these developments implied, or at least served fully to expose, “fundamental limitations” (RI 284) in the findings of the social sciences.  These had to do, on the one hand, with what Innis took to be “the contradiction in terms” of “introspection” investigating “introspection”:

the impossibility  of building a science on a basis on which the observer becomes the observed (…) the social scientist cannot be “scientific” or “objective” because of the contradiction in terms (…) “Introspection” is a contradiction, but what is meant by the word is the foremost limit of scientific investigation in a range extending back to geological time (…) [“scientific” or “objective”] organized discussion [in the social sciences] is a contradiction in terms…(RI 281, 283, 284)

This “contradiction” was the old worry that any introspection of introspection initiated an unstoppable infinite regress. For also such investigative introspection as a subjective act could and should become the object of a further subjective act of introspection in its turn. And so on “in a range extending back to geological time”.

On the other hand, Innis could also sense (with implications he could at this time only vaguely fear, but that Havelock would unfold step by step in the introduction to his 1950 Prometheus book)11 that this “contradiction” left humans enclosed in themselves with no purchase on “reality”:

The never-ending shell of life suggested in the persistent character of bias… (RI 283)

As Nietzsche had detailed a half century before, human thought encased in a “never-ending shell” cannot come into genuine contact (genuine contact!) with objective reality — not even, or especially not, with the ‘ objective reality’ of “human thought” in its “never-ending shell”.  As Nietzsche put it: “With the true world we have also abolished the apparent one!”.  The result was exactly that nihilism which has since manifestly engulfed the planet.  And both Innis and McLuhan would go to their graves wrestling with this spectre.

But meantime a series of deep questions were precipitated from Innis’ 1935-1936 essays which Havelock and McLuhan and Innis himself would all take up in their different ways (thereby defining the ‘Toronto school of communications’):

  • what exactly is “the character” of “an era of discussion”?  How is “an era” to be recognized as such and differentiated from another?
  • if “the nineteenth century, with the development of the printing press, economic expansion and the growth of literacy”, together with later “improvements in facilities for discussion, particularly the radio”, precipitated a new “era of discussion” in the twentieth century, when and where have such eras arisen in the past and what could their study tell us about the course of history and about our present situation?
  • If all human experience is ineluctably limited or biased by the “era of discussion” in which it occurs, might the social sciences be reoriented and revivified through focus on this figure-ground relationship (experience/era of discussion) as on some kind of elementary structure?

In his RI essay Innis repeatedly broaches this latter possibility:

The innumerable difficulties of the social scientist are paradoxically his only salvation. (…) The ‘sediment of  experience’ provides the basis for scientific investigation. The never-ending shell of life suggested in the persistent character of bias provides possibilities of intensive study of the limitations of life and its probable direction. (RI 283)

the habits or biases of individuals which permit prediction are reinforced in the cumulative bias of institutions and constitute the chief interest of the social scientist. (RI 283)

The fundamental limitations outlined by Professor Urwick involve the salvation and the despair of the social sciences. Habits and institutions, even stupidity, are the assets of the social scientist. (RI 284)

But it may be that Innis himself never resolved the question of whether ineluctable bias is “the salvation [or] the despair of the social sciences”, whether “the persistent character of bias provides possibilities of intensive study” or wrecks itself on the unavoidable reef of “the limitations of life”. The great issue may be put in terms of Innis’ use of the word ‘fundamental’:

The pulp and paper industry is a fundamental development. (DSS 403)

The fundamental limitations outlined by Professor Urwick… (RI 284)

Was the “fundamental development” of “the pulp and paper industry” (standing in for all those innovations which have served to define “discussion” aka “communication” in terms of mass consumption) “fundamental” in the sense of providing a “basis for scientific investigation” (RI 283)? Or did it entail “fundamental limitations” that disabled any such “basis” exactly because they were “fundamental” and so insuperable?

In 1936, at least, Innis leaned toward the view that “the social scientist cannot be ‘scientific’ or ‘objective’ because of the contradiction in terms” (RI 283) implied by the attempt to make a study of bias that would itself inevitably be biased:

There are fewer and fewer people who will admit that they do not know, or who have the courage to say that they have not solved the problem. And yet that is what the social scientist must continually keep saying if he hopes to maintain any hold on intellectual life. (DSS 408)

If not a science, then, perhaps the social sciences could function as some kind of art? But no! Even this proves illusory. ‘Discussion in the Social Sciences’ ends abruptly with the resigned assessment:

Discussion runs riot and ceases even to be artistic. (DSS 413)

A decade later Innis would come to speak of”

the fundamental solipsism of Western civilization (in Empire of Communications).


  1. As set out in McLuhan on first meeting Innis, it is certainly not the case that “McLuhan first read Innis in 1951”. He commented on Empire and Communications in his March 1951 “rewrite” of his letter to Innis which was first composed either at the end of 1950 or very early in 1951. So McLuhan must have read Empire and Communications in 1950, the year of its publication. But McLuhan recorded that the first thing he read from Innis was ‘Minerva’s Owl’  (published by UTP in 1948) which would accord with his participation with Innis in the Values Discussion Group of 1949.
  2. Reissued as ‘The Intellectual in History’ in the collection of Innis papers, Staples Markets and Cultural Change, ed Drache, 446-458, published more than 40 years after Innis’ death, in 1995.
  3. McLuhan may also have looked up a related Innis essay that had appeared the year before. A footnote to the title of Innis’ 1936 DR piece reads: “A paper read before a meeting of the summer session of the University of British Columbia; 1935, and intended as complementary to ‘The Role of Intelligence’, The Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, May 1935, 280-7.”
  4. Phelan and Stewart were among the small handful of teachers of philosophy in Halifax after WWI (Stewart at Dalhousie, Phelan at St Mary’s — but Phelan was active also at Dalhousie where he founded its Newman Club and lectured on ethics) and had a mutual interest, originating with Stewart, in the relation of philosophy to psychology. (Stewart’s book Questions of the Day in Philosophy and Psychology was published in 1912, immediately before he began his long career at Dalhousie.) Phelan would go on from Halifax to do advanced graduate work in philosophical psychology in Europe (he was based in Louvain from 1922 to 1925) and became a recognized expert in the field.
  5. The first item in the January 1936 issue of DR, immediately before Innis’ paper, was ‘Fifteen Years Of The Review‘ by the editor, H.L. Stewart. In it he observes that the review’s “catholicity of interest is illustrated by the appearance, within a short space, of critical papers on Bertrand Russell and Cardinal Mercier”. The Mercier article (DR 6:1, 1926, 9-17) was one of Phelan’s contributions. A more recent Phelan article was ‘The Lateran Treaty‘ in DR 9:4, 1930, 427-438.
  6. Innis started at UT in 1920, Phelan in 1925.
  7. It is not impossible that Innis sought out a ‘remote’ publication for his rather acerbic essay. But if so, and if he thought DR appropriately remote, approach to Stewart would have taken place through Phelan.  It is more likely, however, that the impetus came from the DR side and that Stewart and/or Phelan wanted a piece from UT’s rising star. But here again, Phelan was the natural person to approach Innis.
  8. Innis’ punctuation has been slightly altered here in the service of clarity. Compare Innis’ “travelling comedians who masquerade as economists and prophets” to Rabelais in Gargantua and Pantagruel: when a company from the University of Paris in their academic robes comes to Gargantua wishing to retrieve the bells of Notre Dame he has made off with, “seeing them so disguised, (he) thought they had been some masquers out of their wits, which moved him to inquire of one of the said artless masters what this mummery meant.” Rabelais’ “said artless masters” were, of course “artless masters” of arts.
  9. See here for discussion of Irene (Biss) Spry’s view that Innis’s “work on the pulp and paper industry (…) was leading him into his later work on communications.”
  10. Importantly, where the subject of Innis’ 1936 DR essay is called ‘discussion’ (even in its title), his 1937 Encyclopedia of Canada article on the ‘Pulp-and-Paper Industry’ replaces that term with ‘communication’: “Expansion of press services and of advertising agencies has accompanied the marked improvements in communication and in the distribution of newspapers”.
  11. First published as The Crucifixion of Intellectual Man. See The bubble of life in Tolstoy, Nietzsche, Havelock and Innis.

The vacuum tube, “the ballet of electrons”

As recorded in a letter to Norbert Wiener from March 1951, McLuhan seems to have become interested in the vacuum tube from Wiener’s 1950 The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society:

it may interest you to know that the electron valve (…) represents a principle discovered in 1870 by Arthur Rimbaud and applied to poetry and painting since that time. Your account of the uses of the vacuum tube in heavy industry is an exact description of the poetic techniques of Joyce and Eliot in constructing their works.  Their use of allusion as situational analogy effects an enormous amplification of power from small units, at the same time that it permits an unrivalled precision. Their stripping of rhetoric and statement corresponds to your observation that “it is no longer necessary to control a process at high-energy-levels by a mechanism in which the important details of control are carried out at these levels”.1  Stephane Mallarmé made this observation about his own poetic technique in 1885.  In short, appearances and pedagogical limitations aside, there never is or can be a dichotomy between the top-level perceptions and procedures in the arts and sciences of an age. (McLuhan to Wiener, March 28, 1951)

He specified this interest further in a letter to Ezra Pound a few months later:

I’m interested in such analogies with modern poetry as that provided by the vacuum tube. The latter can tap a huge reservoir of electrical energy, picking it up as a very weak impulse. Then it can shape it and simplify it to major intensity. Technique of allusion as you use it (situational analogies) seems comparable to this type of circuit. Allusion not as ornament but as precise means of making available total energy of any previous situation or culture. Shaping and amplifying it for current use. (McLuhan to Pound, June 12, 1951, Letters 224)

Another 1951 instance is found in McLuhan’s ‘Dos Passos: Technique vs. Sensibility’:

Ulysses shows a very different conception of history in providing a continuous parallel between ancient and modern. The tensions set up in this way permit Joyce to control the huge accretions of historic power and suggestion in the human past by means of the low-current of immediate incident. The technological analog of this process occurs in the present use of the electronic valve in heavy-power circuits. So that Joyce does not have to step up the intensity of the episode or scene so long as he maintains its function in the  total circuit.’:

His on-going consideration of the matter is reflected in a series of texts McLuhan published in the mid 1950s:

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. (Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press, 1954)

The technique of an Eliot poem is a direct application of the method of the popular radio-tube grid circuit to the shaping and control of the charge of meaning.2 An Eliot poem is one instance of a direct means of experiencing, under conditions of artistic control, the ordinary awareness and culture of contemporary man. (Media Log, 1954)

The cathode tube carries ‘the charge of the light brigade’. The tube carries both the charge and the answering barrage. The result is the painting of images by the ballet of electrons. (Notes on the Media as Art Forms, Explorations 2, 1954)

… radio and TV were not just the electrification of speech and gesture but the electronification of the entire range of human personal expressiveness. With electronification the flow is taken out of the wire and into the vacuum tube circuit, which confers freedom and flexibility such as are in metaphor and in words themselves. (Historical Approach to the Media, 1955, emphasis added)

The electronic or vacuum tube first manifested its powers in the acoustic sphere [radio] but did not achieve full expression until TV. (…) Television takes a large step toward reassembling all the elements of interpersonal discourse which were split apart by writing and by all the intervening artificial media. For language itself is a (…) medium which incorporates gesture and all the various combinations of sensuous experience in a single medium… (Educational Effects of Mass Media of Communication, 1956)

His most protracted consideration is to be found at this same time in Explorations 5 (1955):

The simplest way to get at Joyce’s technique in language, as well as to see its relation to TV, is to consider the principle of the electronic tube. The paradox of the electronic tube is that it is the [continuation by] means of breaking the conductor in an electric circuit. The tube permits the electrons to escape from the wire that ordinarily conveys them. But the tube controls the conditions of escape. It liberates electrons from the wire but it provides a new context in which they can be repatterned. The cathode inside the tube is one end of the broken conductor and the anode is the other. The anode attracts and receives the billions of electrons that are “boiled” off the surface of the cathode. When a tube is connected into an alternating-current circuit, the anode is positive during half of each cycle. During the half cycle when the anode is negative, electrons cannot reach the anode.3 (…) This led to a more effective way than any known before of controlling a large current by a small voltage.  (…)
The grid is the (…) “valve” (…) of the tube. It is located between the cathode and the anode in the path of the electrons. By voltage control the grid acts as [a variable] trigger for the electronic flow. Grid bias4 blocking electronic flow is recentralized [or coordinated with the main circuit] by signal voltage. Signal voltage is a trigger that releases full flow of current through the tube. But this flow stops when anode voltage becomes negative. Cycle then repeats. (…)
Thus a tiny amount of energy can be exactly controlled or stepped up instantly to very high potentials.5
Now metaphor has always had the character of the cathode-anode circuit, and the human ear has always been a grid, mesh, or, as Joyce calls it in Finnegans Wake, Earwicker6. But Joyce was the first artist to make these aspects of language and communication explicit. In so doing, he applied the principles of electronics to the whole history of culture. The entire cyclic body of Finnegans Wake is suspended between a predicate and a subject.7 The cathode-anode aspect of metaphor and language Joyce first extended to syntax. He took the charge of meaning out of the wire of direct statement into the vacuum-tube of the self-contained poetic drama of his “all nights newsery reel” (FW 489).8

Later in this same essay:

Metaphor means a carrying across. (…) There is necessarily discontinuity in metaphor. There has to be a leap from one situation to another. (…)  Joyce carried these (…) proportions into every gesture and situation in the WAKE. That is why it is always radiant with intelligibility when seen or apprehended. Here Comes Everybody is his cathode, Anna Livia Plurabelle his anode, and Earwicker or Persse O’Reilly his grid or triggerman. We are the main circuit into which this electronic tube is connected. We can thus see that the functions of a work of art, or electronic tube in the social circuit, are manifold. Principally, however, the tube provides a means of control which can step up the feeble signal voltage to greater intensities of manifestation. The tube permits multiple re-shaping of the ordinary current of small talk and gossip for many kinds of work. It is no exaggeration to say that all things in this “funanimal” (FW244 – Ed.) world were current for the tube of the WAKE. All the social currents that ever were, Joyce can easily adopt in the vacuum tube, or head, or glass house of the sleeping giant Finnegan.

  1. The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society, 1950, 146. For the wider passage see here.
  2. McLuhan concludes his March 14, 1951 letter to Harold Innis as follows: “There is a real, living unity in our time, as in any other, but it lies submerged under a superficial hubbub of sensation. Using Frequency Modulation (FM radio) techniques one can slice accurately through such interference, whereas Amplitude Modulation (AM radio) leaves you bouncing on all the currents.” Letters, 223
  3. Cf, The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society, 1950, 145: “the vacuum tube, or electron valve (…) originated in Edison’s greatest scientific discovery (…). He observed that when an electrode was placed inside an electric lamp, and was taken as electrically positive with respect to the filament, then a current would flow, if the filament were heated, but not otherwise.” In his March 1951 letter to Wiener (given above), McLuhan cited a sentence from this same paragraph of Wiener’s book.
  4. “Grid bias” is a tip of the hat to Harold Innis. McLuhan’s idea is that all communication not only has bias, as Innis said, but also that all communication works through bias and only through bias. To understand communication therefore demands an understanding of how bias operates and this is just what McLuhan was attempting to do in his considerations of the vacuum tube.
  5. The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society, 1950, 146: “It is quite possible to form a certain pattern of behavior response at levels much lower even than those found in usual radio sets, and then to employ a series of amplifying tubes to control by this apparatus a machine as heavy as a steel-rolling mill.”
  6. ‘Wicker’ in the sense of a wicker basket and of a wicket; ‘ear’ in  the sense of ‘communication capability’, eg, “she had an ear for languages”; but ‘ear’ also as “Eire”. So the individual and collective “grid” or “mesh” ‘enablishing’ (400 hits in Google!) the continuation of the communication circuit by breaking it in patterned ways. Hence McLuhan’s frequent description of language, following Joyce, as a “stutter“.
  7. Bias works through a gate or grid in the communication circuit, just as a basket works through wicker. The etymology of wicker in ‘weak’ might be taken to be indicated by Irish pronunciation of ‘wicker’ as ‘weaker’. This etymology, in turn, would point to the enabling of language through a weakness without whose pliability and strength language could not be. Finnegans Wake weaves this weakness and strength, or weakness as strength, into its entire construction down to individual letters.
  8. Radio and Television vs. The ABCED-Minded, Explorations 5, 1955, 15-16.

The “Vacuum of the Self”

McLuhan specifies a “vacuum” in the human self and society. But goes on to understand it, and valorize it, as ontological ground:

What is more moving than to think that this soldier fought and died for the fantasies he had woven around the image of Betty Grable? It would be hard to know where to begin to peel back the layers of insentience and calculated oblivion implied in such an ad. And what would be found as one stripped away these layers, each marked with the pattern of sex, technology, and death? Exactly nothing. One is left staring into a vacuum … (Mechanical Bride, 1951, 13)

The nihilist (…) must destroy because of the vacuum and self-hatred within him. He is born  (…) of the violent meeting and woundings which occur when different cultures converge. In short, he is born of the social conditions of rapid turnover, planned obsolescence, and systematic change for its own sake.  (Mechanical Bride, 13)

Mailer’s General [in The Naked and the Deadis literally a big nobody. He is big because he is geared to a war-machine of which he is the central nervous system. He is successful to the degree to which he can reduce his personal nervous equipment to the level of that machine. Success in this renders him a robot, a nobody, a vacuum. That is inevitable in modern circumstances.  (Mechanical Bride, 37)

That huge frozen vacuum which constitutes our northern frontier territory exerts a polarizing force, in every sense, on Canadian psychology. (Defrosting Canadian Culture, 1952)

the clash of the old segmented visual culture and the new integral electronic culture creates a crisis of identity, a vacuum of the self (Playboy Interview, 1969)

Living in the transitional identity vacuum between two great antithetical cultures… (Playboy Interview, 1969)

The art and science of this century reveal and exploit the resonating bond in all things. All boundaries are areas of maximal abrasion and change. The interval or gap constitutes the resonant or musical bond in the material universe. This is where the action is. To naïve classifiers a gap is merely empty. (…) With medieval dread they abhor vacuums. But by directing perception on the interfaces of the processes in ECO-land, all gaps become prime sources of discovery. (Take Today, 1972, 3)

“We must know the whole play in order to properly act our parts; the conception of totality must never be lost in that of the individual. This Laotse illustrates by his favourite metaphor of the vacuum. He claimed that only in vacuum lay the truly essential. The reality of a room, for instance, was to be found in vacant space enclosed by the roof and walls, not in the roof and walls themselves. The usefulness of a water pitcher dwelt in the emptiness where water might be put, not in the form of the pitcher or the material of which it was made. Vacuum is all potent because all containing.” (Okakura Kakuzō, The Book of Tea, as cited in ‘The Brain and the Media’, 1978, and the posthumous Laws of Media, 78)

Over these citations, the representation of the “vacuum of the self” moves from an objective genitive, where the self as object is expunged by the vacuum, to a subjective genitive, where the self as subject is endowed1 by the vacuum. The vacuum gives way to the self, gives space for it.

The transformation in the representation of the vacuum is from the empty to the replete and from the disabling to the enabling. At the same time, the representation of the vacuum moves from being an overpowering pole opposed to another pole, that of the overpowered self, to being the transitive middle or gap that enables relations (such as those of self and world or word and thing) as meta-phor.



  1. The etymology of endow works back through dowry, date, donatation.

Wiener on the Vacuum Tube

From The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society, 1950, 145-146 (emphasis added):

The most flexible universal apparatus for amplifying small energy-levels into high energy-levels is the vacuum tube, or electron valve (…) that  (…) originated in Edison’s greatest scientific discovery (…).
He observed that when an electrode was placed inside an electric lamp, and was taken as electrically positive with respect to the filament, then a current would flow, if the filament were heated, but not otherwise. Through a series of inventions by other people, this led to a more effective way than any known before of controlling a large current by a small voltage. This is the basis of the modern radio industry, but it is also an industrial tool which is spreading widely into new fields. It is thus no longer necessary to control a process at high energy-levels by a mechanism in which the important details of control are carried out at these levels.1
 It is quite possible to form a certain pattern of behavior response at levels much lower even than those found in usual radio sets, and then to employ a series of amplifying tubes to control by this apparatus a machine as heavy as a steel-rolling mill. The work of discriminating and of forming the pattern of behavior for this is done under conditions in which the power losses are insignificant, and yet the final employment of this discriminatory process is at arbitrarily high levels of power.
It will be seen that this is an invention which alters the fundamental conditions of industry (…) The study of the pattern of behavior is transferred to a special part of the instrument in which power-economy is of very little importance. We have thus deprived of much of their importance the dodges and devices previously used to insure that a mechanical linkage should consist of the fewest possible elements, as well as the devices used to minimize friction and lost motion. The design of machines involving such parts has been transferred from the domain of the skilled shopworker to that of the research-laboratory man; and in this he has all the available tools of circuit theory to replace a mechanical ingenuity of the old sort. Invention in the old sense has been supplanted by the intelligent employment of certain laws of nature. The step from the laws of nature to their employment has been reduced by a hundred times.


  1. This sentence was cited by McLuhan in his letter to Wiener from March 28, 1951. For discussion see here.

Menippean satire 4

Since all the arts (dance, opera, sculpture, painting, music, poetry, etc) began radical experimentation around the turn of the twentieth century, ‘the absurd’ (the absurd!), ‘satire’ and ‘shock’ have been used to explicate what artists were up to — without the need to engage the particular ways in which they presented their work. In this way, any artist could be run together with any other, or any number of others, since each of them had the same objective condition (the absurd) and the same lack of subjective foundation and conviction (on account of the absurd) and nothing substantial to say (ditto) and therefore no occasion for their work (ditto).

In the event, all that could be expressed was this lack of occasion: “The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express”, as Beckett put it in nuce.

The resulting act of production, together with what is produced, could be called ‘satire’. This was the obligatory hiccup indicating that the artist was aware of the utterly unhinged “obligation” of the creative act. (Any artist not so conscious was not an ‘artist’ at all.  He, or she, was a moron.)

In this situation, the one thing that could differentiate artworks, and so be used to rank them, was the question of how much notice they received. The achievement of such ‘notice’ could be called ‘communication’ and, as had been found in advertising generally, required ‘shock’. For what does not shock, aka reset perception in some way, however momentarily, cannot be said to have been noticed.

In this way, the resetting of perception, or at least what was taken to be the resetting of perception, became something normal and one-dimensional (as Herbert Marcuse had it from Heidegger). In modern life, nothing became more everyday than shock since everything, in the universal quest for attention, was shocking. (But genuine shock, as the fundamental resetting of perception, became obscured and, in general acceptance, impossible.)1

In sum, all real art was thought to express a fundamental absence of occasion and great art was what somehow motivated its audience, even and exactly in the event of that absence, to take out their wallets. Or at least something of their passing attention.

it was remarketable (FW 533)

Art and advertising had become the same.  But if someone like McLuhan pointed this out in so many words (cf ‘The Age of Advertising’, Commonweal Magazine, September 11, 1953), he was an ignorant jerk.

  1. The death of God —  as an objective genitive! — was simply the determination that all human experience, including all possible resets of experience, was locked into a small range that excluded the experience of God or, indeed, even the experience known by one’s own grandparents. This was, of course, stupendously ignorant, and lazy, but was what had become of modern humans.