Nef on McLuhan’s proposal

If 30-60 men can be found, gradually, and encouraged to talk to one another instead of to the robots they must pretend to talk to for a living, then something may come of it. (McLuhan to Hugh Kenner, January, 1951)

Robert Hutchins gave McLuhan’s December 1947 proposal for an “editorial community”1 to his close University of Chicago colleague, John Nef2, for his comments.  It took Nef only a few days to report back that he found its central object “little short of idiotic”:

Mr. McLuhan’s idea of having eight editors strikes me as little short of idiotic. The responsibility for any journal, if it is to be valuable, has got to be in one place.3

In fact, the tremendous need for such for an “editorial community” is so simple and so obvious that it could not be seen at the time — nor in the 70 years since.

The basic idea came to McLuhan from two publications of Sigfried Giedion, Space, Time and Architecture (originally lectures at Harvard in 1938), together with his ‘‘A Faculty of Interrelations’ (1942 and variously reprinted thereafter). McLuhan and Giedion met in St Louis in 1943 (the same year McLuhan met Wyndham Lewis in Windsor) and McLuhan quickly read everything from Giedion he could find.

The first lines of the foreword to the first edition of Space, Time and Architecture states that the book:

is intended for those who are alarmed by the present state of our culture and anxious to find a way out of the apparent chaos of its contradictory tendencies. I have attempted to establish, both by argument and by objective evidence, that in spite of the seeming confusion there is nevertheless a true, if hidden, unity, a secret synthesis, in our present civilization.

The great question was how this “true (…) unity” and “secret synthesis” was to be defined and certified. Addressing himself to academics across the spectrum of disciplines, Giedion stipulated:

Our task and our moral obligation is to make order in our own field, to establish the relations between the sciences, art, and the humanities. This Is what is lacking today. [We must] build up the interrelations between the different branches of human knowledge (…) A faculty must be created In the universities which functions as a sort of coordinator between the sciences and the humanities. Scholars will not only have to teach on such a faculty; each of them will have to learn as well. There must be built up a knowledge of methods, the beginning of a common vocabulary. Scholars must have systematic contact with one another.4 (Giedion, ‘A Faculty of Interrelations‘)

This was exactly what McLuhan hoped Hutchins would help to establish, potentially, but not necessarily, in Chicago. In order to fulfill its chief functions — definition of “true (…) unity”, and authoritative certification of it — such a faculty would need to include widely recognized scholars. In his cover letter to Hutchins, McLuhan suggested Eric Voegelin and Étienne Gilson as the sort of academics who would be required.5 Hence the need for an ample budget in order to have any hope of attracting and retaining such luminaries.

Interestingly, and perhaps not coincidentally, 6 months after McLuhan sent his proposal to Hutchins, in June 1948, Harold Innis made some of the same points to a conference of Commonwealth university administrators in Oxford

Knowledge has been divided in the modern world to the extent that it is apparently hopeless to expect a common point of view. (…) I propose to ask why Western civilisation has reached the point that a conference largely composed of University administrators should unconsciously assume division in points of view in the field of learning and why this conference, representing the Universities of the British Commonwealth, should have been so far concerned [only] with political representation as to forget the problem of unity in Western civilisation, or, to put it in a general way, why all of us here together seem [ourselves] to be what is wrong with Western civilisation.6

Innis concluded:

The Universities should subject their views about their role in civilisation to systematic overhauling and revise the machinery by which they can take a leading part in the problems of Western culture [especially “the problem of unity”].

The “problem of unity in Western civilisation” and this way of attempting to address it in the university environment was just what McLuhan had proposed to Hutchins. Compare Innis’ conclusion just given with McLuhan’s earlier proposal:

The first step, therefore, is to perform a basic overhaul job on the academies. To redirect the energies of the American college from the immediate goal of preparing students for local commercial society to preparing students for the fullest kind of citizenship, such as is actually demanded of us as a condition of present survival — that is the task.

As indicated by the repeated word ‘overhaul’ in these passages, Innis could have been nudged in this direction by Giedion’s ideas via McLuhan (doubtless mediated by McLuhan’s old friend from Winnipeg, Tom Easterbrook, who was now a close associate of Innis at UT).7 

What requires decision is the question whether “a common point of view” (Innis) is possible for all humans and their cultures and religions — or not.  If it is possible, presumably this is a conclusion which only the wisest of human beings might work out first of all among some of themselves. This knowledge might then spread out from them, through the power both of their definition of it and of their reputations in their respective fields. Indeed, if such commonality were not defined and publicized in this way, how could it ever (given the conditions of modernity) be established among us?8

Innis’ good friend, John Nef9perfectly illustrated the problem at stake in his reaction to McLuhan’s proposal.  Faced with multiplicity, Nef could perceive only a plurality without even the potential for unity; or, conversely, any actual unity would have to be imposed on plurality by reducing it to singularity:

Mr. McLuhan’s idea of having eight editors strikes me as little short of idiotic. The responsibility for any journal, if it is to be valuable, has got to be in one place.

A third possibility, a real multiplicity which was also at the same time a unity, Giedion’s “systematic contact” among scholars, seemed to him “idiotic”.10

We remain in the same “idiotic” — and incredibly dangerous — situation today.


  1. “Editorial community” was McLuhan’s description in his cover letter to Hutchins.
  2. Nef was a long-time friend and correspondent of Harold Innis.  He was also a good friend of Sigfried Giedion. Strangely, it was to Nef that Giedion first wrote in his attempt to help McLuhan find a more felicitous position in the academy. For discussion see Giedion to Nef re a “promising young scholar”.
  3. Memo from John Nef to Robert Hutchins, Dec 18, 1947.
  4. Emphasis added. The physical sciences have “systematic contact” with each other and it was Giedion’s great insight that this was both an intellectual demand for the the humanities, but also the one answer to national and international peace.
  5. McLuhan to Hutchins, December 6, 1947: “Nothing is said (in the proposal) of the actual personnel of the editorial community, but I have men in mind. (…) Eric Vogelein is a “must” for Political Science, I think. (…) Etienne Gileon, with whom I have discussed the project (…) would not, I think, hesitate to join the venture.”
  6. A Critical Review’, in The Bias of Communication, 1951, remarks originally delivered at the sixth Congress of the Universities of the Commonwealth at Oxford, on July 22nd. 1948.
  7. If Innis’ remarks in Oxford were sparked by McLuhan’s proposal to Hutchins, the bond between the two would not have been, in the first place, the study of media.  It would have been their mutual diagnosis of the fate of western civilization and ideas for its rehabilitation and rescue. Remarkably, the same sort of revision may be in order for an understanding of the relationship of Eric Havelock and McLuhan.  Instead of concentration on media, the bond in this case may have been, on the one hand, a shared analysis of literature focused on synchronic structures (for discussion, see The Journey of Aeneas through the Waste Land) and, on the other, a mutual interest in the history of education (for discussion, see Havelock, McLuhan & the history of education).
  8. For McLuhan’s ultimate position on this question, where new science would instantiate such a common view, see McLuhan’s new sciences: “only the authority of knowledge”.
  9. Innis in the ‘Preface’ to Empire and Communications: “I have been greatly encouraged also by Professor and Mrs. John U. Nef and the Committee on Social Thought (…) of the University of Chicago.” Nef was also good friends with Giedion who, strangely enough in the present conttext, wrote a letter to Nef recommending McLuhan.
  10. It is possible that Nef’s objection to McLuhan was not so much notional as territorial. The University of Chicago Committee on Social Thought (now named The John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought) had been Nef’s inspiration and achievement. Given Nef’s friendship with Giedion, the idea may have had as much impetus from him as did McLuhan’s proposal. In any case, Nef may well have thought that McLuhan’s ‘editorial team’ was close enough to his ‘committee’ to require stiff resistance.