Monthly Archives: January 2017

Reuel Denney

Gary Genosko has pointed up the relevance of Reuel Denney for McLuhan research and for communication studies in general. Denney was a co-author with David Riesman and Nathan Glazer of The Lonely Crowd (1950) and was a colleague of Riesman at the University of Chicago in the 1950’s.1 In 1957 he published The Astonished Muse which followed The Mechanical Bride in offering a close reading of American popular culture, especially its spectacles (football games) and hobbies (hot rods). Riesman supplied an introduction to the 1982 reprinting.

With Riesman, a McLuhan correspondent and frequent contributor to Explorations, and Denney, Chicago was one of the institutions, along with Toronto (Innis, McLuhan, Carpenter and Tyrwhitt), Harvard (Richards, Parry, Havelock; also Tyrwhitt after she left Toronto for Harvard in 1955) and Yale (Cleanth Brooks; also Havelock after he left Harvard for Yale in 1963) where investigation of oral and written media was thought to have the potential of throwing important new light on the working of mind.

In 1955 Denney authored ‘The Cultural Context of Print in the Communications Revolution‘ (Library Quarterly, 25:4, Oct 1955, 376-383).  Like Innis and McLuhan before him, Denney led off his article with the tale told by Socrates in Plato’s Phaedrus concerning the invention of writing by the Egyptian god, Theuth:

At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Theuth; the bird which is called the Ibis is sacred to him, and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters. Now in those days the god Thamus was the king of the whole country of Egypt; and he dwelt in that great city of Upper Egypt which the Hellenes call Egyptian Thebes, and the god himself is called by them Ammon. To him came Theuth and showed his inventions, desiring that the other Egyptians might be allowed to have the benefit of them; he enumerated them, and Thamus enquired about their several uses, and praised some of them and censured others, as he approved or disapproved of them. It would take a long time to repeat all that Thamus said to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts. But when they came to letters, This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality. (‘The Cultural Context of Print in the Communications Revolution‘, 376-377, citing Phaedrus, 274-5 in the Jowett translation)



  1. Riesman left for Harvard in 1958; Denney for Hawaii in 1962.

What nobody knows

ἐπειδὴ καὶ σχεδὸν ἀνώνυμον ὂν τυγχάνει τὸ τῶν αὐτεπιτακτῶν γένος (Plato, Statesman, 260e, ‘since the class of those who issue orders on their own is virtually nameless’)

Movies and TV complete the cycle of mechanization of the human sensorium. With the omnipresent ear and the moving eye, we have abolished writing, the specialized acoustic => visual metaphor1 that established the dynamics2 of Western civilization.
By surpassing writing, we have regained our WHOLENESS, not on a national or cultural, but cosmic, plane.3 We have evoked a super-civilized sub-primitive man.4 
NOBODY yet knows the language inherent in the new technological culture; we are all deaf-blind mutes5 in terms of the new situation. Our most impressive words and thoughts betray us by referring to the previously existent, not to the present.6
We are back in acoustic space. We begin again to structure the primordial7 feelings and emotions from which 3000 years of literacy divorced us. (‘Five Sovereign Fingers Taxed The Breath’, Counterblast, 1954) 

the full analogical sense of exact orchestration (…) implies the complete self-effacement of the writer (…) Existence must speak for itself. It is already richly and radiantly signed. The artist has merely to reveal, not to forge the signatures of existence. (Joyce, Mallarmé, and the Press, 1954)

Have you encountered the work of Ed T Hall? He says he got the idea of our technologies as outerings of sense and function from Buckminster Fuller. I got it from nobody.8 (McLuhan to Walter Ong, February 27, 1962, Letters 287) 

Nothing has its meaning alone. (Take Today, 3)

  1. McLuhan has “the specialized acoustic-visual metaphor” here which might be taken to indicate that his thinking about the question of how to express the sensory foundations, plural, of media was still in development at this point.  The essential difference between “the omnipresent ear and the moving eye” together in “movies and TV” and “the specialized acoustic-visual metaphor” of writing is captured only in the word “specialized”.  The essential time difference between the either/or emphasis of the chronological ‘acoustic => visual’ transformation eventuating in writing, and the both/and synchronic emphases of ‘ear <=> eye’ in “movies and TV” remains silent in his formulation — as does writing’s marginalization of the acoustic and correlative centrification of the visual.
  2. “Dynamics” here points to “cosmic” in the next sentence. Going back to Plato and Aristotle, and continued to this day in the liturgy of the eastern church, δύναμις names the power that is the basis of order throughout the κόσμος. Cf, in Plato: “wise men tell us, Callicles, that heaven and earth and gods and men are held together by communion and friendship, by orderliness, temperance, and justice; and that is the reason, my friend, why they call the whole of this world by the name of order (κόσμος), not of disorder (ἀκοσμία) or dissoluteness (ἀκολασία). Now you, as it seems to me, do not give proper attention to this, for all your cleverness, but have failed to observe the great power (μέγα δύναται) of geometrical equality amongst both gods and men: you hold that self-advantage is what one ought to practice, because you neglect geometry.” (Gorgias 207e-208a)
  3. Here is the nub of McLuhan’s difference from, say, Richards and Havelock. He starts from an ontological or “cosmic plane”.  Only from it can there be “WHOLENESS, (…) on a national or cultural (…) plane” or, indeed, on an individual one.
  4. ‘Super-sub’ invokes Heraclitus B60: ὁδὸς ἄνω κάτω μία καὶ ὡυτή (the way up and the way down are one and the same) — one of the epigrams to Eliot’s Four Quartets.  This image implicates in turn his central themes of figure/ground and the synchronic “interior trip into the darkness of our own being”, aka into the “interior landscape”.
  5. McLuhan invokes “the language inherent” here in contrast to “mutes” and to “words and thoughts (that) betray us”.  The Logos as “the language inherent” in all things is a “cosmic” third against the “specialized acoustic” (“deaf”) and “specialized (…) visual” (“blind”) — or (as it may just as well be put) against the “specialized acoustic” (“blind”) and “specialized (…) visual” (“deaf”).
  6. Here the question of time emerges that would preoccupy McLuhan for the rest of his life. How to express “the new situation” in terms of the “all” that “is always now” (Eliot)?
  7. Primordial aka “cosmic”.
  8. “I got it from nobody” may be considered in many different ways,  Heard as an historical claim, this is of course nonsense: McLuhan plainly had the idea from Henry Wright.

I.A. Richards on Eric Havelock

Eric Havelock officially moved from the University of Toronto to Harvard in 1947, but was a guest lecturer there already in 1946. He and I.A. Richards appear to have immediately developed a close relationship. But even prior to their becoming Harvard colleagues, they may have been acquainted: both were at Cambridge (UK) twenty years before, Richards as a popular lecturer, Havelock as a brilliant student. And while Havelock was still in Toronto, Richards may have been in touch with him as part of the recruitment process for Harvard.

Richards had begun an intense engagement with Plato soon after he arrived at Harvard from Cambridge in 1939.  By 1942 he had already produced a translation of the Republic into Basic English. But after Havelock’s arrival he took up Homer and published a translation of the Iliad in 1950.  As seen from the citations below, it is probable that he began to investigate “the shift from Homer to Plato” through the influence of Havelock’s published and unpublished work (particularly his never published volumes on Socrates funded by the Guggenheim foundation) and through personal dialogue between the two.

Richards’ references to Havelock are surprisingly frequent:

‘The Spoken and Written Word’. The Listener, October 16, 1947 (pp 669-670), reprinted as ‘Literature, Oral-Aural and Optical’, in Complementarities, (1976, ed John Paul Russo), 201-208:

Eric Havelock has suggested that we may see in Plato’s rejections of Homer the revolt of the writing mind’s mode of apprehension against the pre-literate mind’s other, less abstract and intellectual, ways of ordering itself.

‘Toward a More Synoptic View’ (1951) in Speculative Instruments, (1955):

It is a perilous transition [from oral apprenticeship to literary instruction], no doubt, but hardly new or, on our ordinary time-scale, sudden. If Mr Eric Havelock is right, Socrates was put to death for trying to replace apprenticeship — association with and imitation of the knowledgeable — by instruction, and it looks as though the founding of [Plato’s] Academy itself was an early and decisive step in an interminable and necessary process. (Speculative Instruments, 126)

‘Opening Address’, P.E.N. Conference 1964, Arena, v24 (1965), 4-14, 20-22, reprinted in Design for Escape: World Education Through Modern Media (1968), chapter 2:

As Eric Havelock has been insisting, Homeric and Platonic utterances are trying to do radically different things. Plato’s rejection of Homer was in fact a revolution, a redesigning of what a man should be endeavouring to be. “The greatest invention of the Greeks was man”, remarked Werner Jaeger. The Greeks he was speaking of have Plato, not Homer, as their type specimen! This contrast between Homer and Plato has a special importance just now when in so many parts of the world an oral, story-borne culture is being destroyed and and replaced by a literate conceptual world-picture. (Design for Escape, 37)

‘Prologue: From Criticism to Creation’, Times Literary Supplement, 27 May, 1965, 438-439, reprinted in So Much Nearer (1968) with additional notes:

the shift from Homer to Plato: Eric Havelock in Preface to Plato (Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1963) very fully discusses this transition showing the depth and extent of the changes that can occur in a culture as an oral tradition is replaced by a  literature. In the Greek case the outcome was singularly happy. But with the cultures, say, of Africa, there are grave reasons to fear that values now carried in speech will be swept away without compensating gains for any but an unhappily separated few.  On how this world-wide transition is managed (or mishandled) the mental and moral quality of living of the majority of human beings, for many generations, will depend. But how many competent people are thinking about this — compared with those competent people who are devoting themselves to ‘winning’ some local and ephemeral war? (So Much Nearer, 20)

‘Instructional Engineering’ in The Written Word (1971):

further reflection on how writtens and spokens differ and yet aid one another is timely. And here a sustained explanatory account of a chief difference by Eric Havelock, in his Preface to Plato, proves useful. He gives it as a reply to a striking, indeed, for our occidental tradition, a momentous question: whether, given the immemorial grip of the oral method of preserving group tradition “a self-consciousness could ever have been created. If the educational system which transmitted the Hellenic mores had indeed relied on the perpetual stimulation of the young in a kind of hypnotic trance, to use Plato’s language, how did the Greeks ever wake up? The fundamental answer must lie in the changing technology of communication. Refreshment of memory through written signs enabled a reader to dispense with most of that emotional identification by which alone the acoustic record was sure of recall. This could release psychic energy, for a review and rearrangement of what had now been written down, and of what could be seen as an object and not just heard and felt. You could as it were take a second look at it . . . In Greek, the words for explain, say, and mean could coincide . . . Now, the statement in question, if it concerned important matters of cultural tradition and morals, would be a poetised one, using the imagery and often the rhythms of poetry. It was one which invited you to identify with some emotively effective example, and to repeat it over again. But to say, ‘What do you mean? Say that again’, abruptly disturbed the pleasurable complacency felt in the poetic formula or the image. It meant using different words and these equivalent words would fail to be poetic; they would be prosaic.” This account presents an opposition between the identification invited by epic and the questioning attitudes which release from the memory load and development of thinking can induce.1 (70)

  1. The same passage from Havelock cited by Richards here from Preface to Plato (208-209) is used earlier by McLuhan in ‘The Future of Morality: The Inner versus the Outer Quest’ (1967). That Richards was reading McLuhan at just this time is evidenced by his mentioning him in 1968 in So Much Nearer.

Body percept 2

McLuhan seems to have first broached the notion of body percept in a letter to Peter Drucker in October 1966:

Whenever we make a new technology, that creates a new environment which we automatically assume as our cultural mask. We do this via our senses, not our concepts. Each new environment creates a new body percept, new outlook and new inlook (…) The orientalizing of our world by inner involvement in depth occurs via circuit or feedback along with speed-up of data. An all-at-once world is structurally like the subconscious. It tends to be mythical and archetypal. Consciousness becomes incidental rather than structural. It is the old environment, not the new one. The individual yields to the tribal man. Electronic man is the first since neolithic times to live in a man-made environment. Preliterate man naturally regarded his world as man-made. An information environment like ours is man-made. Media are, as it were, cultural or corporate masks. (McLuhan to Peter Drucker, October 24, 1966, Letters 338) 

Over the next two years he recurred to the notion with some frequency:

Each of us forms a body percept, from moment to moment, based upon his intake of sensations, perceptions, but we are completely unaware of this body percept which we form of ourselves from moment to moment. It takes considerable dexterity and skill to observe one’s own body percept, the image we form of ourselves. (Contribution to Technology and World Trade, Session — Technology: Its Influence on the Character
Of World Trade and Investment, November 16, 1966)

Everybody responds to a new environment without benefit of concepts. The immediate sensory adjustments which we make to each and every change in our surroundings also (…) alter our body-percept or our sense of ourselves. (The Future of Morality: inner vs outer quest, 1967)

a feeling of themselves — an image of themselves — body percept (McLuhan in conversation with Norman Mailer and Malcolm Muggeridge in 1968)

the vanishing point in the viewer (…) proprioceptive tension and body percept (Through the Vanishing Point, 59)

On the frontier everybody is a nobody

ἐπειδὴ καὶ σχεδὸν ἀνώνυμον ὂν τυγχάνει τὸ τῶν αὐτεπιτακτῶν γένος (Plato, Statesman, 260e, ‘since the class of those who issue orders on their own is virtually nameless’)

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall.
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.
(Hopkins, No Worst, There Is None, 1885, cited in ‘The Analogical Mirrors’, 1944, and in Take Today, 1972, 256)

What is more moving than to think that this soldier [featured in an ad] 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… (The Mechanical Bride, 1951, 13)

the artist (…) lives perpetually on this borderland between (…) worlds, between technology and experience, between mechanical and organic form (…) [exercising] the spirit of play which is necessary to maintain the poise between worlds of sensibility (McLuhan to Wilfrid Watson, Oct 8, 1959, Letters 257)

When we put our central nervous system outside us we returned to the primal nomad state. (…) Television man is nomadic man again; he has only one possible environment again: the globe. (‘Prospect’, 1962)

the interior trip into the darkness of our own being (Contribution to Technology and World Trade, 1966, 28)

the computer, by speeding up the total available human experience, has in effect put outside — as the new environment — the human subconscious or unconscious. For years I’ve been noticing the extension of consciousness by various technological means. The human unconscious is the total experience of mankind, stored without any story line, just jumbled and assembled in the human unconscious. Now, with instant dispersal and instant retrieval systems, we have the all at once. We have put outside us, as a new environment, the unconscious… (Contribution to Technology and World Trade, 1966, 13)

the vanishing point in the viewer (Through the Vanishing Point, 1968, 59)

the unperson: the man that never was (Take Today, 1972, 26)

the new frontier is as invisible as a radio wave. There are no tracks (…) The new frontier is pure opacity (Take Today, 90)

The We Nobody Knows (Take Today, 259)

Quest for Privacy And Identity Turns Everybody into Nobody (Take Today, 269)

When things come at you very fast, naturally you lose touch with yourself. Anybody moving into a new world loses identity. If you go to China, and you’ve never been there before, you’re a nobody.  You can’t relate to anything there. So loss of identity is something that happens in rapid change. But everybody at the speed of light tends to become a nobody. This is what’s called the masked man. The masked man has no identity. (Forward Through The Rearview Mirror, 100)

On the frontier everybody is a nobody (‘All The Stage Is A World In Which There Is No Audience’, 1978; ‘Last Look at the Tube’, 1978; ‘Living at the Speed of Light’, 1980)

McLuhan’s nomad/no-man is Plato’s Er in the realm of the dead, Poe’s mariner in the Maelstrom, Conrad’s Kurz in the Heart of Darkness, Alice in Wonderland, Eliot’s Tiresias in The Waste Land (see below). All undertake the “interior trip into the darkness of our own being” (Technology and World Trade, 28, 1966). And what is encountered there, in the dark, are the primordial forms of time and space out of which human identity is forged: “the total experience of mankind, stored without any story line, just jumbled and assembled in the human unconscious”.  (“Assembled” in this passage means “situated”, not “put together” — for there is ‘no one’ there “on the frontier” before identity who might assemble anything.  Here there is only “the unperson: the man that never was”, “the masked man”, the “nobody”.)

This phantom “unperson” is robbed of all identity in this “interior trip into the darkness” where it ‘finds itself’ in the “pure opacity” of “the human unconscious”. Most strangely, however, what effects the “opacity” here is not an absence but a fullness1 — for what is to be encountered here are the seeds of “everybody”, “the we nobody knows”, “the total experience of mankind“, “worlds plural, the entire “globe” of all possible human perception.

When the globe becomes a single electronic web with all its languages and culture recorded on a single tribal drum, the fixed point of view of print culture becomes irrelevant, however precious. (McLuhan to David Riesman, February 18, 1960, Letters 261)

What robs the “unperson” of identity is not (or not only) the disappearance of its usual markers, but the “jumbled” revelation of all possible markers. As Aristotle puts it in his usual pithy manner:

the fact that we cannot simultaneously grasp a whole and its parts shows the difficulty involved. However, since the difficulty is twofold [involving both what we see and our seeing], perhaps its cause is not in things but in us; for just as the eyes of owls are to the light of day, so is our soul’s intellective power to those things which are by nature the most evident of all. (Metaphysics, 993)

Hence, in The Waste Land, Tiresias, as man and woman, living and dead, has “foresuffered all“:

And I Tiresias have foresuffered all
Enacted on this same divan or bed;
I who have sat by Thebes below the wall
And walked among the lowest of the dead.

2500 years before, Plato set out the scene as follows:

every soul of man has in the way of nature beheld true being; this was the condition of her passing into the form of man. But all souls do not easily recall the things of the other world; they may have seen them for a short time only, or they may have been unfortunate in their earthly lot, and, having had their hearts turned to unrighteousness through some corrupting influence, they may have lost the memory of the holy things which once they saw. Few only retain an adequate remembrance of them. (Phaedrus 249e-250a)

McLuhan’s claim was that with the advent of electric technology the planet would be forced to regain “an adequate remembrance” of “true being”.  As a professor of English, he put forward the hypothesis that this might be accomplished by the interrogation of language:

I have not wandered as far from literature as might appear. In so far as literature is the study and training of perception, the electric age has complicated the literary lot a good deal. However the new extensions of our senses have greatly enhanced the role of language as training for coping with the total environment. As the total environment becomes a technologically prepared environment, language assumes new roles over and beyond the confrontation with the printed page. Yet the literary man is potentially in control of the strategies needed in the new sensory environment. Language alone includes all the senses and interplay at all times. (McLuhan to Michael Wolff, July 4, 1964, Letters 304)

It is distinctive of human beings to have language and to have language to deploy some constellation of sense. Every constellation of sense, in turn, may be thought to derive from a mysterious exposure to all the possibilities of such constellations in “the darkness of our own being” — and to have made a selection there resulting in some “body percept“. Insofar as language expresses such selections as their effect and exposes them under itself, like a palimpsest, it may be said to reveal, in “the totality of language itself” (GG 248-9) across the historical and spatial range of its users, “all the senses and [all the possibilities of their] interplay”.2 Hence it is that “the literary man is potentially in control of the strategies needed in the new sensory environment” — where the word ‘potentially‘ indicates not only a future eventuality, but also the strange space and time of the investigations (from ‘vestige’ and ‘vestigium’ = “a footprint, a track”) of the potencies3 of sensory modalities through which, alone, this eventuality might be realized.4 

  1. Therefore the utterly strange finding that this “opacity” is at once a “landscape”.
  2. Cf, McLuhan to Robert J Leuver, July 30, 1969: “The reason that Joyce considered Vico’s new science so important for his own linguistic probes, was that Vico was the first to point out that a total history of human culture and sensibility is embedded in the changing structural forms of language.” (Letters 385). Also: “Eliot and Joyce accepted language as the great corporate medium that encodes and environs the countless dramas and transactions of man.” (Media Ad-vice: An Introduction, 1973)
  3. Cf, McLuhan’s letter to Innis of March 14, 1951: “But it was most of all the esthetic discoveries of the symbolists since Rimbaud and Mallarmé (developed in English by Joyce, Eliot, Pound, Lewis and Yeats) which have served to recreate in contemporary consciousness an awareness of the potencies (McLuhan’s emphasis) of language such as the Western world has not experienced in 1800 years. (Letters 220)
  4. The ‘situation’ of the nomad/nobody between the potencies of sense-formation is that of the child (or of the entire human species) at the moment of first language learning (when learning and use occur at the same moment). In a 1962 addendum to ‘Joyce, Aquinas, and the Poetic Process’ (1951) McLuhan cited Adolf Hildebrand from The Problem of Form: “The height of positivism would be attained if we could perceive things with the inexperience of a new-born child” (Joyce’s Portrait: Criticisms and Critiques, ed Thomas E Connolly, 265). Then, the next year in a letter to John Snyder (August 4, 1963, Letters 291): “The pattern by which one learns one’s mother tongue is now being extended to all learning whatsoever.” McLuhan’s claim, following the great minds from Heraclitus to Eliot, was that the forms of human experience differ in a fundamental way from the forms of physical materials in that they require activation from moment to moment. Known or unknown, the horizontal span of human experience is broken at every moment by a vertical descent into “the darkness of our own being” where selection must be made made between the potential formations ‘there’. The potential for our waking from the nightmare of history is therefore omnipresent. Cf, Heraclitus DK B53: αἰὼν παῖς ἐστι παίζων, πεττεύων· παιδὸς ἡ βασιληίη (Eternity is a child moving counters in a game, the kingly power is a child’s); and DK B70  Ἡ. παίδων ἀθύρματα νενόμικεν εἶναι τὰ ἀνθρώπινα δοξάσματα (Heraclitus considered human opinions to be children’s toys).

Tradition and the Individual Talent

Eliot’s 1919 essay, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent‘, originally published in The Egoist, runs like a red thread through McLuhan’s work from beginning to end. Here he is at St Louis University in 1938, in his first year of full-time teaching (where the passage in bold announces his lifetime research goal):

Donne, and the later Shakespeare, on the one hand, and the Romantics on the other, have been read at Cambridge as though they were contemporaries of Mr. Eliot — which of course they are. For the continuing life of the language itself is such as to constitute a medium in which they are all contemporary. It is thus, as Mr. Eliot points out in his celebrated essay on ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, that the present is able to alter the “past” as much as the “past” nourishes the present. The “past” must be constantly reconsidered in order that it may be available in the present. And just as insensitivity to poetry marks a person as oblivious to the most exact and significant effects of language, so a lack of concern for the situation of contemporary taste and literary expression, is the mark of a radical defect in approaching letters. (‘The Cambridge English School’, Fleur de Lis, 38:1, 24, emphasis added)

And here he is 40 years later in the last substantial essay published before his death:

As cited (…) in Eliot’s (1919) review [of Pound’s Quia Pauper Amavi (which contains three Cantos) entitled “The Method of Mr. Pound”], “Mr. Pound proceeds by acquiring the entire past,” at which point “the constituents fall into place and the present is revealed”. This is the Pound “vortex”, and also the key to Mr. Eliot’s idea of Tradition: “a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional”. (‘Pound, Eliot, and the Rhetoric of The Waste Land’, 1979, citing ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, Selected Essays, 1932, 14.)

A set of isomorphic problems is posed: what is the nature of time such that there can be “the timeless as well as (…) the temporal and (…) the timeless and of the temporal together”? What is the nature of language such that it is always constituted as “contemporary taste and (…) expression” while yet it “has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order”? What is the nature of human individuality such that a person can be a particular self, even while constantly changing — and such that that self is at once  differentiated from all others while ‘at the same time’ belonging with others to family, society and tradition? 1

Aside from frequent direct and indirect allusions to Eliot’s essay, McLuhan’s discussions of it include the following:

The New England ethos naturally finds its highest level of expression in the scholastic man, and the result is that the New England professor is autocratic. There is no social life co-extensive with him, nor one able to embody (…) his thought and actions. Brought up amidst this social nudity (…) T. S. Eliot confronted the situation directly in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’. Here it was that he exploded the heresy of “self-expression,” of “message”, and of artistic isolation and futility, which had found such congenial soil in New England. (Edgar Poe’s Tradition, 1944)2

The whole problem for the critic to determine in poetic judgment has been precisely indicated by Mr. Eliot in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’: “For it is not the ‘greatness’, the intensity of the emotions, the components, but the intensity of the artistic process, the pressure, so to speak, under which the fusion takes place, that counts.” (Poetic and Rhetorical Exegesis, 1944)

To the merely rationalist and revolutionary mind of the social “planner” or engineer there is never any way of grasping the nature of politics or of art. Rilke makes the same point as Eliot in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’: (…) only the traditionalist can be radical. He isn’t content merely to cut the shrubbery into new shapes. The essential impatience and rebellion of the New England mind disqualifies it for political and artistic functions, so that the defection of Henry James and T. S. Eliot was a trauma necessary to the preservation of their talents. (The Southern Quality, 1947)

We welcome the non-Euclidean spaces of modern physics which are not visualizable. And in these fields of relations we find it easy to recognize that any new factor of information or of codification, any new medium or channel, will somewhat modify the entire field of relations.
This admission from the world of mathematics and physics was introduced into literary discussion by T. S. Eliot in 1917 in his ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ when he indicated that for the twentieth century it was natural to consider “that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order”. This type of perception, so natural to a world in which all kinds of information flow with electronic velocity, involves the obvious corollary which Mr. Eliot at once pointed out: “The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new.”
To the literary mind, accustomed to the lineal arrangement of language on the page, the notions of simultaneity and of transformation by mutual interaction are very difficult concepts. They are alien and repugnant ideas. But even the literary person has no trouble recognizing the way in which a musical theme or harmony simultaneously modifies all the portions of a musical work. In a musical structure it is easy to observe the total relevance of every phrase to the entire work. The gradual admission of this organic criterion of ‘total relevance’ has come about in all fields of discussion in this century. It is equally the basis of anthropological study of cultures and of critical method in literature. The so-called ‘new criticism’ is, in the main, a recognition of the validity of the ‘total relevance’ attitude to all forms of speech and composition. (Knowledge, Ideas, Information and Communication, 1958)

In an auditory order the speaker becomes a voice in a liturgy, not an orator seeking to alter a point of view. An all-at-once auditory structure makes “self-expression” meaningless. The catalytic concept of T. S. Eliot in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ merely helped us to face the change which had already occurred in our culture in the later nineteenth century. In fact this may well be a principal junction of art: to anticipate change and to invent new models of experience that will enable us to come to terms with change before its full impact can erase earlier achievement. (Romanticism Reviewed, 1960) 

an all-at-once and simultaneous presence of all facets of the past (…) is what T. S. Eliot calls “tradition” in his celebrated essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’. Eliot’s concept seemed quite revolutionary in 1917, but it was in fact a report of an immediate and present reality. Awareness of all-at-once history or tradition goes with a correlative awareness of the present as modifying the entire past. It is this vision that is characteristic of the artistic perception which is necessarily concerned with making and change rather than with any point of view or any static position. (The Emperor’s New Clothes, 1968) 

The mosaic arrangement of multiple items of daily news creates not a picture of the world but an X ray in depth. A picture has a vanishing point related to a fixed position from which the picture is taken, but a mosaic, like a total field of energy or relationships, does not present the means for a point of view or a fixed position. It is an all-at-once or mythical structure in which beginning and middle and end are simultaneously present.
T. S. Eliot explained in his essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ that all literature and art from Homer to the present constitutes a simultaneous order that is totally modified by the advent of any new work. A new work creates new space for itself and for all the pre-existing space, yet this is quite different from shifting one’s point of view. A point of view depends upon a pictorial space that is uniform and continuous and connected. (Environment As Programmed Happening, 1968)

Bertrand Russell noted of complementarity that the greatest discovery of the twentieth century was the technique of “the suspended judgement” — not single but multiple models of experimental exploration. The need to suspend points of view and private value judgments is indispensable to the programming of total environments.
T. S. Eliot, in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, gave classic statement to the theme of strategy of “the suspended judgment”. Citing the role of platinum as catalyst in effecting new chemical combination, Eliot observed: “The mind of the poet is the shred of platinum. It may partly or exclusively operate upon the experience of the man himself; but, the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material.” (Take Today, 97, 1972, citing ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, Selected Essays, 1932, 7-8.)

T.S. Eliot has two statements that directly concern our new simultaneous world of “auditory” or “acoustic” space in which electric man now dwells on the “wired planet.” The first passage is from his discussion of ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, explaining that “the whole of literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.” It is the character of auditory space, which we make in the act of hearing, to be a sphere whose center is everywhere and whose margin is nowhere, for we hear from all directions at once.
In the magnetic city of the new electric environment we receive data from all directions simultaneously, and thus we exist in a world sphere of resonant information that is structured and which acts upon us in the auditory pattern. Eliot had regard to the role of the individual talent faced by this new kind of richness of tradition and experience. So it is not strange that our time should witness a revival of many forms of oral culture and group performance, any more than it is strange that we should see on all hands the awakening and cultivation of occult traditions, and new concern with inner life and visionary experience.
For these are resonant things hidden from the eye. The wide interest in every kind of structuralism in language and art and science is direct testimony to the new dominance of the nonvisual values of audile-tactile involvement and group participation. In fact, it could be said that there is very little in the new electric technology to sustain the visual values of civilized detachment and rational analysis.
Mr. Eliot’s second statement on the world of the simultaneous concerns the “auditory imagination”: “What I call “auditory imagination” is the feeling for syllable and rhythm, penetrating far below the conscious levels of thought and feeling, invigorating every word: sinking to the most primitive and forgotten, returning to the origin and bringing something back, seeking the beginning and the end. It works through meanings, certainly, or not without meanings in the ordinary sense, and fuses the old and obliterated, and the trite, the current, and the new and the surprising, the most ancient and the most civilized mentality.”

Eliot here speaks of the mind’s ear, the subliminal depths and reach of the corporate tongue bridging countless generations and cultures in an eternal present. Eliot and Joyce accepted language as the great corporate medium that encodes and environs the countless dramas and transactions of man. Their raids on this vast inarticulate resource have made literary history on a massive scale. (Media Ad-vice: An Introduction, 1973)

My theme for the medievalist of today is that the electronic world has restored the habit of simultaneous awareness which is a primary character of acoustic or synchronic culture. T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets provides a complete guide to structural or synchronic perception of the world.  He had anticipated this awareness in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’: “the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of literature of Europe from Homer and within the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional.  And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his contemporaneity.” (The Medieval Environment, 1974) 

Yeats and Lady Gregory sought to regain the modes of corporate awareness of the oral folk as indispensable for the practice of contemporary literature. Eliot had stated his idea of tradition as an acoustic, resonating simultaneity without beginning, middle, or end, when he indicated [in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’] the relation of the individual to the corporate life as involving the historical sense, which “compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order”. The same simultaneous or acoustic approach to language occurs in his famous definition of “The Auditory Imagination”: “What l call the ‘auditory imagination ‘ is the feeling for syllable and rhythm, penetrating far below the conscious levels of thought and feeling, invigorating every word: sinking to the most primitive and forgotten, returning to the origin and bringing something back, seeking the beginning and the end, It works through meanings, certainly, or not without meanings in the ordinary sense, and fuses the old and obliterated, and the trite, the current,and the new and the surprising, the most ancient and the most civilized mentality. Arnold’s notion of ‘life’, in his account of poetry, does not perhaps go deep enough.” (English Literature as Control Tower in Communication Study, 1974)

It is quite fitting (…) that Alice and Humpty Dumpty should discuss words, since, as the very informing principle of cosmic action, it is language itself that embodies and performs the dance of being. Humpty Dumpty, the cosmic egg, says: “I can explain all the poems that ever were invented — and a good many that haven’t been invented just yet.” This remark by Humpty Dumpty invites a look at the work of T. S. Eliot, whose essay on ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ explains that a traditional writer will have the historical sense … “and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own Country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.” (Empedocles and T. S. Eliot, 1976)



  1. McLuhan’s conversion in 1937 announced that he found the answers to these questions in the ontological and economic trinities — in the nature of the Godhead and in the nature of the relation of the Godhead to creation. Following Thomas, he thereby accepted that the nature in both cases is love.
  2. Much ink has been spilled over the question of when McLuhan began asserting that “the medium is the message”. The passages in bold from 1938 and 1944 above, taken together, show that the point was already present in his mind at the very beginning of his career (although it would take decades to find a way to focus it). One the one hand: “the continuing life of the language itself is such as to constitute a medium” (1938); on the other, “the heresy of “self-expression,” of “message”, and of artistic isolation and futility” (1944). Because the message exists only in relation to the medium, it may be said that “the medium is the message”. That is, the medium is what makes a message possible as a message — what makes possible its intelligibility and therefore its very existence (since a message cannot be a message absent intelligibility). In this way, a message is always secondary to a primary medium (although our encounter with these is always reversed, first the message and second, if ever, the medium). When the medium goes into eclipse, so also any particular message and even the general possibility of messages. McLuhan’s whole career may usefully be seen as an attempt to answer the riddle of how to address these questions — how to compose a message about them — in a time (the night of the world) when media have fundamentally gone into eclipse. How to find a way of “contemporary (…) expression”?