McLuhan’s realism 2: “the real things, exactly as they are”

McLuhan did not believe that communication and knowledge (knowledge being communication with certain objects of practical or theoretical interest) can be perfected; but neither did he believe that they can ever entirely fail.1 Instead his notion was that communication and knowledge are always to some degree successful, although always also subject to all the limitations and blindnesses and misunderstandings that inevitably beset our mortal coil.

The Catholic has never underestimated the value or the mystery of ordinary human perception and consciousness. Nor is he likely to overestimate them today. (Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters, 1954)

The creative imagination in the Christian tradition is an intellectual power, not a super-human emanation from “spirit” or from the uncreated divine spark in the human soul. (Nihilism Exposed, 1955)

The miracle of communication is that it happens at all.  If it always happens to some degree, however restricted it may be at times, it becomes somewhat understandable (although never without its mystery) that infants learn language (or that the species does so in the first place) and that humans develop all the arts and sciences that they do. For communication always to succeed, the enabling environment and the potency to function within it must be already present, always and everywhere.  What is called for, and enabled, is to try out different possible avenues arising from this culture medium, to give up the false trails we are always taking in it and to learn with others (itself through communication, of course) how these probing actions can be — and are! — carried out socially as well as individually.

McLuhan particularly considered this sort of fallible but at the same time successful realism in the first half of the 1950’s:

all existence cries out to be raised to the level of scientific or poetic intelligibility. (Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press 1954)

For Joyce and Eliot (…) every artist is dedicated to revealing, or epiphanizing the signatures of things, so that what the nous poietikos is to perception and abstraction [subjectively realizing what is given to it] the artist is to existence at large [objectively realizing what is given to it] . (Joyce, Aquinas, and the Poetic Process 1951)

Impressionism and symbolism alike insisted on attention to process in preference to personal self-expression. Self-effacement and patient watchfulness preceded the discovery of the creative process. Poets and artists literally turned their own psyches into laboratories where they practised the most austere experiments in total disregard of their personal happiness. Gradually it dawned on Mallarmé that pure poetry was impossible — a poetry which would have as its theme the poetic process itself [as if the cause and ground of itself]. Henceforth the subject and framework of a poem would be [in the investigation of what must already be the case for “the poetic process” to take place at all:] the retracing of a moment of [ordinary] perception. (…) And so we arrive at the paradox of [= reached by] this most esoteric of all art doctrines, namely that the most poetic thing in the world is the most ordinary human consciousness. (Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters)

For that school of thought for which the external world is an opaque prison [cf, The bubble of life in Tolstoy, Nietzsche, Havelock and Innis], art can never be regarded as a source of knowledge but only as a moral discipline and a study of endurance. The artist is not a reader of [the existing] radiant signatures on materia signata but the signer of a forged check2 on our [own] hopes and sympathies. (…) [In contrast] the job of the [genuine] artist is not to sign but to read signatures. 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.  (…) All those pseudo-rationalisms, the forged links and fraudulent intelligibility which official literature has imposed on existence must be abandoned. (Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press 1954)

In this angelic view [“that school of thought for which the external world is an opaque prison”] the business of art has nothing to do with the analogy of cognition nor with our miraculous power to incarnate the external world. It is a means rather to lift us [angelically] out of our human condition (…) Reality is not to be trusted or revered but to be remade by social engineers [and other artistic constructionists]. Joyce is the single poet voice in our century raised not not merely against this view but in wild laughter at its arrogant confusion. Far from turning his back on it he invaded it and took it up into the analogical drama of his art.  (Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters)

If communication and the possibility of knowledge are always present, it must be the case that these are to be detected even in “arrogant confusion”.  This is one more reason that McLuhan refused value judgements and their associated points of view.

McLuhan found a particularly revealing expression of his understanding of “a direct approach to everyday reality”3 in a 1952 interview of Cesare Zavattini. He quoted it at length in ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’:

The most important characteristic, and the most important innovation, of what is called neorealism [in film], it seems to me, is to have realised that the necessity of the “story” was only an unconscious way of disguising a human defeat, and that the kind of imagination it involved was simply a technique of superimposing dead formulas over living social facts. Now it has been perceived that reality is hugely rich, that to be able to look directly at it is enough; and that the artist’s task is not to make people moved or indignant at metaphorical situations, but to make them reflect (and, if you like, to be moved and indignant too) on what they and others are doing, on the real things, exactly as they are. (…) to have evaded reality had been to betray it. (…) We have passed from an unconsciously rooted mistrust of reality, an illusory and equivocal evasion, to an unlimited trust in things, facts and people. Such a position requires us, in effect, to excavate reality, to [reveal in] it a power, a communication, a series of reflexes, which until recently we had never thought it had. It requires, too, a true and real interest in what is happening, a search for the most deeply hidden human values — an act of concrete homage towards other people, towards what is happening and existing in the world — Substantially, then, the question today is, instead of turning imaginary situations into “reality” and trying to make them look “true,” to take things as they are, almost by themselves, creat[ing] their own special significance. Life is not what is invented in “stories”; life is another matter. To understand it involves a minute, unrelenting, and patient search. (…) The world goes on getting worse because we are not truly aware of reality. The most authentic position anyone can take up today is to engage himself in tracing the roots of this problem. The keenest necessity of our time is “social attention”. 4 

Here was the project to which McLuhan would dedicate the rest of his life: engaging himself in “social attention”.


  1. Many different sorts of investigations in the twentieth century explored areas that had previously been assumed to be uncommunicative and therefore lacking in knowledge interest: dreams and other unconscious phenomena (Freud), relativity (Einstein), psychoses (Jung), mythology (Frazier), suicide (Durkheim), etc. etc.
  2. It was because a “forged check” must ultimately be seen to be worthless that Nietzsche maintained: “With the true world we also have abolished the apparent one!!”
  3. Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters
  4.  Zavattini cited from ‘Some Ideas on the Cinema’, Sight and Sound, 23:2, Oct-Dec 1953, pp 64-69 — an interview translated from La Revista del Cinema Italiano, December 1952.