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.