McLuhan and the “ceaseless quest for the inclusive image”

In ‘New Media and the New Education’ (1960) McLuhan submitted that “the Romantics (…) began a ceaseless quest for the inclusive and integral image”. He himself was heir to this same quest.  For there was no other way than in and through such an “inclusive and integral image” to understand the complications of a world where all spaces and all times were simultaneously present. And where, above all, there was no other way than through such an “inclusive and integral image” to reawaken and renew a consciousness of God.

Already in 1951 he had described “symbolic vision” or “inclusive consciousness” as “the juxtaposition without copula of diverse and even paradoxical situations or states of mind” (Tennyson and Picturesque Poetry, 1951). But what could be more “paradoxical” than a world consumed by nihilism that made sense, not through transformation into something else, but in the utter extreme of its dislocation exactly as it was?

Beyond (or before) the revolutionary bent of a simultaneous electric world, McLuhan recognized a “human craving for an inclusive auditory organization of many-layered and interpenetrating experiences”1 that was timeless — or, at least, that was subject to multiple times and therefore that was not only chronological: “a moment in and out of time” (as McLuhan cited Eliot). Without such a “craving”, like the stag for the running stream as Psalm 42 has it, how else could God ever have been known and worshipped in a world that was at no time without its small and large tragedies or lacking in recurrent overwhelming senselessnesses?

Thus it was that McLuhan took the symbolists as continuing the “ceaseless quest for the inclusive and integral image” of the romantics and his own task within this tradition as being the further unfolding of its insights and aims:

the central difference between romantic or picturesque poetry and modern symbolist poetry was that whereas the landscape poets from Thomson to Tennyson were engaged in manipulating an external environment as a means of evoking art emotion, after Poe, Baudelaire, and Rimbaud, the symbolists turned to the manipulation of an interior landscape, a paysage intérieur, as the means of controlling art emotion or of exploring the aesthetic moment. This amounted to a considerable revolution — from natural conditions for art emotion to art conditions for art emotion. (The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape Poetry, 1951)

the Symbolists [took] aesthetic experience as an arrested moment, a moment in and out of time2, of intellectual emotion for which in their poems they sought the art formula by retracing the stages of apprehension which led to this moment.” (Tennyson and Picturesque Poetry, 1951)

The Romantics (…) insisted upon the creative imagination as the birthright of all, and began a ceaseless quest for the inclusive and integral image. This arduous search was taken up with great intensity by the Symbolists who realized that it could not be a merely visual image, but must include all the senses in a kind of dance. En route to this discovery, Hopkins and Browning, Poe and Baudelaire, ended the print-fostered dichotomy between author and reader, producer and consumer and swept mostly unwilling audiences up into participation in the creative act. After Poe, and since Cezanne, poets and painters devised ever new modes of speaking not to their readers and viewers, but through them. (…) Such is the meaning of the abstract art and the do-it-yourself kits which artists have for a hundred years been carefully preparing for this affronted public. (New Media and the New Education, 1960)

Like the symbolists in their transformation of the romantic quest, McLuhan’s goal was to set out a kind of prolegomena to the apprehension of an “inclusive and integral image” through which that image might again be dis-covered and beheld – and applied. What he called “the art formula”. Audience participation was required, not only because this image was necessarily not that of any individual perspective (not that of the artist nor that of any of the artist’s consumers), but above all because the goal was to communicate the means through which perception of “the inclusive and integral image” might be enabled. And this required complex transformation in the audience just as it had first of all required complex transformation in the artist attempting its specification.

[Romantic] poetry, too, [like science following Newton], succeeded in achieving a new visual order based on the correspondence between the inner faculties and the natural scene outside. But this new order was exclusive rather than inclusive in its very nature. It had to deal with one emotion at a time and one level of experience at a time. It could not include erudition and accumulated past experience in the single perspectives of visual space that were devised in order to isolate and to control single emotions. But, above all, it could not fulfill the human craving for an inclusive auditory organization of many-layered and interpenetrating experiences. (Review of The Romantic Assertion, 1960)

the electronic mode of shaping situations reveals its bias towards field structure. But even “field”, preferred by physicists, can mislead by suggesting a flat, single plane. But a multi-dimensional field is intended, an ”everyway roundabout with intrusions from above and below”. Thus, for example, point-of-view, if inevitable in print culture, is alien to electronic ‘field’ and the affiliates of such [a] ‘field’. (New Media and the New Education, 1960)3

Sense might be made of the world, once again, and in particular of the Christian tradition, but only through a revolution in our understanding of sense in the “every-way roundabout with intrusions from above and below” of its shape(s).4

  1. ‘Review of The Romantic Assertion‘,1960
  2. Without attribution, McLuhan cites Eliot here from The Four Quartets (The  Dry Salvages).
  3. New Media and the New Education, 1960, citing (without attribution) Frank Budgen, ‘Joyce’s Chapters on Going Forth by Day’, Horizon, September 1941. McLuhan cited this same passage more extensively a decade before in 1951 in ‘The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape Poetry’: “The worst (difficulty) of writing about Finnegans Wake (said Budgen) is that all our words are wrong. Story is wrong, of course, for a story is one thing happening after another along a one-way time street, coming from and going to some place, whereas Finnegans Wake is going nowhere in all directions on an every-way roundabout with intrusions from above and below. On every page Joyce insists upon this all-time dream-time by every device of suggestion and allusion and by a continual modification and cancellation of all-time words.” Where McLuhan consistently has ‘intrusions’, Budgen had ‘infiltrations’.
  4. The great problem implicated in “a revolution in our understanding of sense” was, of course, that “understanding” for McLuhan was already a certain configuration of sense. There could be no such revolution unless it had already occurred! This knot in time of a ‘future past’ was therefore both a central feature of the sought “inclusive and integral image” and its pre-liminary precondition — that which first had to be in place for it first to be.