Just as he does with the “vacuum”, McLuhan takes “abcedmindedness” in two different ways, one seemingly only negative, reflecting literal (ABC…) thought, the other a difficult positive, enabling complex insight into “the gestures of being itself”.  But where he treats the “vacuum” first in negative (empty) fashion, then in positive (replete), here the order is reversed to treat “abcedmindedness” first in its positive aspect (“to be abced-minded is to be part of the dream of history that is Finnegans Wake“), then in its negative one (“just alphabetically controlled”). As with the “vacuum”, the great question is, of course, the relation between these two senses of the term.

Whereas the ethical world of Ulysses is presented in terms of well-defined human types the more metaphysical world of the Wake speaks and moves before us with the gestures of being itself. It is a nightworld and, literally, as Joyce reiterates, is “abcedminded.” Letters (“every letter is a godsend”), the frozen, formalized gestures of remote ages of collective experience, move before us in solemn morrice1 [dance]. They are the representatives of age-old adequation of mind and things, enacting the drama of the endless adjustment of the interior acts and dispositions of the mind to the outer world. The drama of cognition itself. (James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial, 1953)2

Throughout Finnegans Wake Joyce plays some of his major variations on his theme of “abcedmindedness” in “those pagan ironed times of the first city . . . when a frond was a friend.” His “verbivocovisual” presentation of an “all nights newsery reel” is the first dramatization of the very media of communication as both form and vehicle of the flux of human cultures. (Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press, 1954)

Throughout Finnegans Wake Joyce sends telegraph messages to the “abced-minded.” That is, to the sleepers locked up in what he calls the nightmare of history, he tries to get through by a sort of telegraphic seance method. But, paradoxically, the abced-minded are the literate. Just as speech is a sort of staccato stutter or static in the flow of thought, letters are a form of static of oral speech. And letters, requiring as they do translation into inner speech, set up a complex group of mechanical operations between eye and ear which cause physical withdrawal. So to be abced-minded is to be part of the dream of history that is Finnegans Wake. (‘Radio and Television vs. The ABCED-Minded’, Explorations 5, 1955)

In From Script to Print, H.J. Chaytor suggests that with writing comes inner speech or the dialogue with oneself. This would seem to be the result of the action of translating the verbal into the visual (writing) and of translating the visual into the verbal (reading). This is an extremely complex process for which we pay a heavy psychic and social price — the price, as James Joyce put it, of ABCED-mindedness. Literate man experiences an inner psychic withdrawal from his external senses which gives him a heavy psychic and social limp. But the rewards are very rich. (Historical Approach to the Media, 1955; also in Counterblast, 1969, 117)

The phonetic alphabet and all its derivatives stress a one-thing-at-a-time analytic awareness in perception. This intensity of analysis is achieved at the price of forcing all else in the field of perception into the subliminal. For 2500 years we have lived in what Joyce called “ABCED-mindedness.” We win, as a result of this fragmenting of the field of perception and the breaking of movement into static bits, a power of applied knowledge and technology unrivaled in human history. The price we pay is existing personally and socially in a state of almost total subliminal awareness. In the present age of all-at-onceness, we have discovered that it is impossible — personally, collectively, technologically — to live with the subliminal. Paradoxically, at this moment in our culture, we meet once more preliterate man. For him there was no subliminal factor in experience; his mythic forms of explanation explicated all levels of any situation at the same time. (‘Introduction’ to Explorations in Communication, 1960)

everywhere in Finnegans Wake Joyce reiterates the theme of the effects of the alphabet on “abced-minded man,” ever “whispering his ho (here keen again and begin again to make sound sense and sense sound kin again)” and urges all to “harmonize your abecedeed responses”. (Gutenberg Galaxy, 1962, 152)

It would be difficult to exaggerate the bond between print and movie in terms of their power to generate fantasy in the viewer or reader. Cervantes devoted his Don Quixote entirely to this aspect of the printed word and its power to create what James Joyce throughout Finnegans Wake designates as “the ABCED-minded,” which can be taken as “ab-said” or “ab-sent,” or just alphabetically controlled. (Understanding Media, 1964, 285)

“(Stoop) if you are abcedminded … in this allaphbed!” (FW 18) (War and Peace in the Global Village, 1968, 92).

In the sixteenth century religion went inward and private with Gutenberg hardware. Liturgy collapsed. Bureaucracy boomed. Today liturgy returns. Bureaucracy fades. The present electric ESP age of multiple interfaces finds no problem in metamorphosis or transubstantiation such as baffled abced–minded culture of the sixteenth century and after. (Culture is our Business, 1970, 82)



  1. For “move before us in solemn morrice” compare Ulysses 2.155: “the symbols moved in grave morrice”.
  2. McLuhan was Don Theall’s adviser for his 1954 PhD thesis, ‘Communication Theories In Modern Poetry: Yeats, Pound, Eliot, And Joyce’. The remove necessary to investigate the nightworld is treated by Theall as follows: “The reader is continually reminded that he must be ‘abced-minded’ in reading the Wake, for it is through the individual word that the ‘communionistic’ technique occurs at the intellectual level. It is from HCE, HeCitEncy, that the intellectual act begins, for it is the stammer of HCE that breaks the flow of ALP. The ‘He’, ‘Cit’ and ‘Ency’ suggest the pattern of realization of the self, realization of the social nature of man, and realization of the arts of knowledge. Hesitency suggests the patience of thought and the stuttering of HCE himself.”