The question of the “objective correlative”

In a previous post, McLuhan’s goal and the means to that goal were set out as a continuation of the symbolist attempt to specify “art conditions for art emotion” in an “inclusive image”1:

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)

As McLuhan was fully aware, his account of the transition from romantic to symbolic poetry grew out of Eliot’s notion of the “objective correlative” from his 1919 Hamlet essay:

The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked. (T.S. Eliot, ‘Hamlet and His Problems’, 1919)

In McLuhan’s view, the Romantics had followed the Newtonian specification of “the external facts” absent consideration of the subjective conditions needed to reach it.  This objective definition, however, then “evoked” (or so the intention was) the “experience” of the subject that the artist intended.  The advance of the Symbolists was to take subjective conditions into explicit account.

Here is McLuhan in ‘Tennyson and Picturesque Poetry’ from 1951 (the same year as his ‘Aesthetic Moment’ essay cited above):

At the end of the epoch of picturesque [or Romantic] experiment and exploration there is Cezanne in painting, and Rimbaud in poetry. That is, the impressionists began with sensation, discovered ‘abstraction’, and achieved, finally, a metaphysical art. The picturesque begins with work like Thomson’s Seasons, in the search for significant art-emotion amid natural scenes and it achieved plenary realization in Rimbaud’s metaphysical landscapes — Les Illuminations. The early Romantics sought aesthetic emotion in natural scenes; the later Romantics confidently evoked art-emotion from art-situations. The early Romantics ransacked nature, as the Pre-Raphaelites did literature and history, for situations which would provide moments of intense perception. The Symbolists went to work more methodically. As A.N. Whitehead showed, the great discovery of the nineteenth century was not this or that fact about nature, but the discovery of the technique of invention so that modern science can now discover whatever it needs to discover. And Rimbaud and Mallarmé, following the lead of Edgar Poe’s aesthetic, made the same advance in poetic technique that Whitehead pointed out in the physical sciences. The new method is to work backwards from the particular effect to the objective correlative or poetic means of evoking that precise effect, just as the chemist begins with the end product and then seeks the formula which will produce it. Mr. Eliot states this discovery, which has guided his own poetic activity since 1910 or so, in his essay on Hamlet: “The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.”2

Beyond the Eliot “objective correlative” quotation here in the context of McLuhan’s take on the history of post-Newtonian art and science, note should be made of a critical ambiguity in this passage. McLuhan writes of “the objective correlative or poetic means of evoking (…) precise effect” and compares this to a chemical “formula which will produce” some particular material or “end product”. But while the latter goal is exactly not subjective and may therefore be used in mechanized production, the former is avowedly subjective: it is, as McLuhan follows Eliot in expressing, the evocation of a certain “emotion”. However, “poetic means” or “poetic activity” is then explicitly equated with “the objective correlative” (“the objective correlative or poetic means”) which, according to Eliot, consists in “a set of objects” and even of “the external facts” evidenced by the poet.

It seems that the poet uses objective means to achieve a subjective goal, while the chemist uses subjective means (chemical theory) to achieve an objective goal.  The intention is, however, precisely to deny this sort of raw distinction between the objective and the subjective in the direction of an “inclusive image” of their interrelation. Indeed, it is just for this reason that Whitehead’s description of “the discovery of the technique of invention (…) in the physical sciences” was seen by McLuhan to apply equally to “the same advance in poetic technique” made by Rimbaud and Mallarmé

Central to this ambiguous account is what McLuhan calls “poetic means” and what Eliot calls “the only way of expressing emotion in the form of art”. These phrases may be translated as “poetic technique” and as “the only technique of expressing emotion in the form of art” in order to illuminate the relation of McLuhan’s account in this Tennyson essay to a passage in a letter he wrote to Pound shortly thereafter:

I know exactly what you mean . But I found out the hard way. Too late. Your own tips are always exact. But they are of little help to the uninitiated. Once a man has got onto technique as the key in communication it’s different. But somehow the bugbear of content forbids that anybody be interested in technique as content.3

McLuhan made a series of points here which were to define his work for the next 30 years:

  • content always implicates some means or technique or medium which has enabled it to be what it is
  • the medium is therefore “the key in communication” of any sort: artistic, scientific, or, indeed, simply linguistic — oral, written or otherwise signaled
  • since human beings are defined among living things by their distinctive ability to communicate, the whole history of the human species may be said to turn on media
  • but the study of media is rendered difficult (and, so far, impossible) by “the bugbear of content” which somehow obscures the very technique (or means or medium) that has enabled it
  • Part of the difficulty implicated in such study is its self-reference: the question arises what medium must be engaged to enable the investigation of media?
  • the symbolist quest to define “the inclusive and integral image” must therefore be continued as the only way to enable perception of content and medium together and so enable their investigation together in a new domain, or domains, of scientific investigation

These points, in turn, suggested certain problems McLuhan had to address together with some potential answers to those problems:

  • how to point out (un-obscure) what required study: how illuminate “technique as content“? Potential answer: use obvious ‘media’ (newspapers, magazines, radio, TV, etc etc) as analogues to the foundational media that are the elementary “key in communication”  
  • how to specify such foundational media? Potential answer: use co-variant binary relations as Einstein had done in physics4
  • how to seed awareness of this way to augment human self-knowledge as a survival tool?  Potential answer: use the obvious ‘media’ of newspapers, magazines, radio and TV to propagate the possibility5


  1. “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)
  2. McLuhan cites this same passage from Eliot in ‘Media Alchemy in Art and Society’ (1958), ‘The Electronic Age – The Age of Implosion’ (1962), and The Gutenberg Galaxy, 277.
  3. McLuhan to Pound,  July 16, 1952, Letters 231. Emphases in the original.
  4. “The victory over the concept of absolute space or over that of the inertial system (fixed frame of reference) became possible only because the concept of the material object was gradually replaced as the fundamental concept of physics by that of the field. Under the influence of the ideas of Faraday and Maxwell the notion developed that the whole of physical reality could perhaps be represented as a field whose components depend on four space-time parameters. If the laws of this field are in general covariant, that is, are not dependent on a particular choice of coordinate system, then the introduction of an independent (absolute) space is no longer necessary. That which constitutes the spatial character of reality is then simply the four-dimensionality of the field.” (Einstein, ‘Foreword’ to Max Jammer, Concepts of Space, cited in Laws of Media, 41)
  5. This accorded with McLuhan’s understanding of the education process that he had reached already in Winnipeg (age 22): “It is, of course, mistaken to suppose that education in any important sense is connected with the schoolroom. Education is the sum total of all those ideas and objects pressing in on the mind every hour of the waking day.” (‘Public School Education’, The Manitoban, Oct 17,1933)