Monthly Archives: October 2017

Easterbrook in Toronto

W.T. (Tom) Easterbrook graduated from the University of Manitoba in 1933, the same year as McLuhan. He then went on to graduate school at UT in political economics where he obtained his MA in 1935 and his PhD in 1938.  He began teaching at Brandon that same year. In 1941, he was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship and spent the year of 1942 studying, presumably at UT. In 1943 he came back to Manitoba, but not to Brandon College — he taught at the University of Manitoba until 1946.

In 1947 he returned to UT where he eventually became the head of the political economy department like his teacher, thesis adviser, colleague and friend, Harold Innis.

In 1941 his career to that point was recorded in the Guggenheim Foundation’s Report for 1941–42 as follows:

Appointed from Canada:
EASTERBROOK, WILLIAM THOMAS:  Appointed for studies in the economic history of the Pacific Northwest; tenure, twelve months from July 1, 1941.

Born December 4, 1907, at Winnipeg, Canada.  Education:  University of Manitoba, B.A., 1933; University of Toronto, M.A., 1935, Ph.D., 1938 (Royal Bank Economics Fellow, 1933–34; Alexander Mackenzie Fellow, 1934–35; Maurice Cody Fellow, 1935–36); Harvard University, 1936–37 (Harvard University Fellow).
Assistant in Economics, 1937–38, University of Toronto.
Lecturer in Economics, 1938–40, Assistant Professor, 1940—, Brandon College of the University of Manitoba.
Publications:  Farm Credit in Canada1, 1938.
Articles in Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, Encyclopedia of Canada.

In the decade between his graduate work at UT and the beginning of his teaching career there, Easterbrook returned as a visiting lecturer for a year in the early 1940’s in connection with his Guggenheim:

Innis supported [Henry] Cody‘s2 program of developing graduate studies at Toronto with a proposal of his own. He was anxious to bring young professors in the social sciences from other Canadian universities to Toronto on one- or two-year stints. He argued that many of them had been struggling during the Depression with large classes and low salaries. They would benefit by a “relaxed” period (with a light teaching load) at Toronto. After becoming familiar with the Toronto system, they would return home and organize their classes along the lines of Toronto’s, using the same textbooks. In due course they would be sending graduate students to Toronto. Cody approved of the proposal and the result was a series of visits from young professors from western universities: W.T. Easterbrook (…) and others. (Donald Campbell Masters, Henry John Cody: An Outstanding Life, 1995, 208)


  1. This was Easterbrook’s PhD Thesis.  Innis arranged its publication by UTP and wrote an introduction to it.
  2. Canon Henry J Cody was the president of the University of Toronto from 1932 to 1945 and its chancellor from 1944 to 1947.

Echoes of Joyce

the way of escape from the dangers of excessive spiritual isolation was through wholehearted participation in the great stream of human experience and endeavor. (‘Introduction’, Tennyson: Selected Poetry, 1955, vii)

He was passing at that moment before the jesuit house in Gardiner Street and wondered vaguely which window would be his if he ever joined the order. Then he wondered at the vagueness of his wonder, at the remoteness of his own soul from what he had hitherto imagined her sanctuary, at the frail hold which so many years of order and obedience had of him when once a definite and irrevocable act of his threatened to end for ever, in time and in eternity, his freedom. The voice of the director urging upon him the proud claims of the church and the mystery and power of the priestly office repeated itself idly in his memory. His soul was not there to hear and greet it and he knew now that the exhortation [to join the jesuit order] he had listened to had already fallen into an idle formal tale. He would never swing the thurible before the tabernacle as priest. His destiny was to be elusive of social or religious orders. The wisdom of the priest’s appeal did not touch him to the quick. He was destined to learn his own wisdom apart from others or to learn the wisdom of others himself wandering among the snares of the world. (…) He crossed the bridge over the stream… (Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Chapter 4)

Perhaps because he was not a cradle Catholic and because Canada was not a Catholic country like Ireland, McLuhan did not feel the same tension between freedom and catholicism that Joyce did. However, five of his six children did.  And McLuhan understood this, both in Joyce and in his kids. His resolution of the tension was, while respecting the forms of contemporary catholicism (as only partially true like all things finite, but yet partially and importantly true), to criticize the Gutenbergian heritage of the church and the Gutenbergian assumptions of many of its parishioners and clerisy.  But, at the same time, to contribute to a scientific understanding of human experience in which the possibility of belief and the possibility of the need for a small-c catholic church were exposed and weighed against the full spectrum of rival possibilities. McLuhan’s faith was that the result of this open assessment would be definitively favorable to the religious life:

No longer is it possible for modern man, individually or collectively, to live in any exclusive segment of human experience or achieved social pattern. The modern mind, whether in its subconscious collective dream or in its intellectual citadel of vivid awareness, is a stage on which is contained and re-enacted the entire experience of the human race. There are no more remote and easy perspectives, either artistic or national. Everything is present in the foreground. That fact is stressed equally in current physics, jazz, newspapers, and psychoanalysis. And it is not a question of preference or taste. This flood has already immersed us. (The Mechanical Bride, 87)

What we have to defend today is not the values developed in any particular culture or by any one mode of communication. Modern technology presumes to attempt a total transformation of man and his environment. This calls in turn for an inspection and defense of all human values. And so far as merely human aid goes, the citadel of this defense must be located in analytical awareness of the nature of the creative process involved in human cognition. For it is in this citadel that science and technology have already established themselves in their manipulation of (gen subj!) the new media. (Sight, Sound and the Fury, 1954)

The distinction at stake may be seen in McLuhan’s use of “citadel” in these passages (itself deriving from Joyce)1. Joyce differentiated “the citadel of his soul” from its “sanctuary”, their difference consisting in “his freedom”:

he wondered at (…) the remoteness of his own soul from what he had hitherto imagined her sanctuary, at the frail hold which so many years of order and obedience had of him when once a definite and irrevocable act of his threatened to end for ever, in time and in eternity, his freedom.

McLuhan, on the other hand, in a move going back to John Watson, saw “the citadel of his soul” and its “sanctuary” as harmonious (not to say identical) given “analytical2 awareness of the nature of the creative process involved in human cognition”.

Whereas Joyce “crossed (…) over the stream” in the name of freedom, McLuhan opted in the same name for “wholehearted participation in the great stream of human experience and endeavor” — a stream which included religion and its concrete tradition in the past of McLuhan’s particular civilization. 

  1. See “The very citadel of civilized awareness”.
  2.  McLuhan used “ana-lytical” both in its etymological and Kantian sense as ‘differentiated’ and as opposed to ‘syn-thetic’ (as a different kind of differentiation). In Bellum-Pax-Bellum McLuhan is cited treating this distinction as that of ‘fission’ vs ‘fusion’.

The very citadel of civilized awareness

The very frequency and violence of temptations showed him at last the truth of what he had heard about the trials of the saints. Frequent and violent temptations were a proof that the citadel of the soul had not fallen… (Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man)

McLuhan was evidently struck by Joyce’s formulation here of “the citadel of the soul” since he repeatedly used variations of the phrase in the 1950s:

The Mechanical Bride, vi:
criticism is free to point to the various means employed [in art works] to get the[ir] effect, as well as to decide whether the effect was worth attempting. As such, with regard to the modern state1, it can be a citadel of inclusive awareness amid the dim dreams of collective consciousness.

The Mechanical Bride, 87:
No longer is it possible for modern man, individually or collectively, to live in any exclusive segment of human experience or achieved social pattern. The modern mind, whether in its subconscious collective dream or in its intellectual citadel of vivid awareness, is a stage on which is contained and re-enacted the entire experience of the human race. There are no more remote and easy perspectives, either artistic or national. Everything is present in the foreground. That fact is stressed equally in current physics, jazz, newspapers, and psychoanalysis. And it is not a question of preference or taste. This flood has already immersed us.

Sight, Sound and the Fury, 1954
What we have to defend today is not the values developed in any particular culture or by any one mode of communication. Modern technology presumes to attempt a total transformation of man and his environment. This calls in turn for an inspection and defense of all human values. And so far as merely human aid goes, the citadel of this defense must be located in analytical awareness of the nature of the creative process involved in human cognition. For it is in this citadel that science and technology have already established themselves in their manipulation of the new media.

Educational Effects of Mass Media of Communication, 1956:
And no matter how many walls have fallen, the citadel of individual consciousness has not fallen nor is it likely to fall. For it is not accessible to the mass media.2

Printing and Social Change, 1959:
The literate man is one who is accustomed to the inner translation of sight into sound and of sound into sight, a complex activity for which he pays by psychic withdrawal, a weakening of sensuous life and a considerable lessening of the power of recall. But in return he obtains analytic mastery of specific areas of knowledge, and especially the power of applied science for social purposes. The increase of inner self-awareness resulting from the incessant translation of sound into sight and sight into sound also enhances his sense of individual identity and fosters that inner dialogue or conscience within, which we rightly associate with the very citadel of civilized awareness.

Characteristic for McLuhan was the attempt to bring together a way of describing art (derived especially from Pound) in terms of “individual consciousness” as the “citadel of inclusive awareness”, “vivid awareness” and “civilized awareness” — with science: “For it is in this citadel that science and technology have already established themselves in their manipulation of the new media.” Both art and science, separately, had come to develop an “analytical3 awareness of the nature of the creative process involved in human cognition”. Now was the time in which the two needed to be brought together explicitly in order to harness “the power of applied science for social purposes”.

Just this was already the message of McLuhan’s programmatic letter to Innis early in 1951:

One major discovery of the symbolists which had the greatest importance for subsequent investigation was their notion of the learning process as a labyrinth of the senses and faculties whose retracing provided the key to all arts and sciences (…) Retracing becomes in modern historical scholarship the technique of reconstruction. The technique which Edgar Poe first put to work in his detective stories. In the arts this discovery has had all those astonishing results which have seemed to separate the ordinary public from what it regards as esoteric magic. From the point of view of the artist however the business of art is no longer the communication of thoughts or feelings which are to be conceptually ordered, but a direct participation in an experience. [Similarly] the whole tendency of modern communication whether in the press, in advertising, or in the high arts is toward participation in a process, rather than apprehension of concepts. And this major revolution, intimately linked to technology, is one whose consequences have not begun to be studied although they have begun to be felt. (…) As mechanical media have popularized and enforced the presence of the arts on all people it becomes more and more necessary to make studies of the function and effect of communication on society. (…) [However] the fallacy in the Deutsch-Wiener [cybernetics] approach is its failure to understand the techniques and functions of the traditional arts as the essential type of all human communication. (…)  There is a real, living unity [of art and science] in our time, as in any other, but it lies submerged under a superficial hubbub of sensation.

  1. This phrase (“the modern state”) may be an indication that McLuhan was reading Innis’ 1946 Political Economy in the Modern State as he was composing The Mechanical Bride in the late 1940s.
  2. These same two sentences were reused by McLuhan in the 1969 Counterblast, 135).
  3. McLuhan uses “ana-lytical” here in its etymological and Kantian sense as ‘differentiated’ and as opposed to ‘syn-thetic’. In Bellum-Pax-Bellum McLuhan is cited treating this distinction as that of ‘fission’ vs ‘fusion’.

John Watson’s heritage in political economics and communications

During an invited lecture given at the University of Toronto in 1938, [W.A.] Mackintosh paid homage to his fellow economist, Harold Innis: “If we ever come to the time when Who’s Who includes the intellectual pedigrees of scholars, there will appear an item: ‘Innis, H.A., by [Thorstein] Veblen, out of [Adam] Shortt‘.” In this spirit, a second entry would surely read: ‘Mackintosh, W.A., by [O.D.] Skelton, out of Shortt’. The teaching of political economy in Canada began in 1878, when John Watson lectured on the topic as part of the moral philosophy curriculum at Queen’s. (…) Nonetheless, it was not until [Watson’s pupil and colleague] Adam Shortt was appointed as lecturer at Queen’s in 1887 that the subject received systematic treatment. (Hugh Grant, W.A. Mackintosh: The Life of a Canadian Economist, 2015, p 6)

Innis (b 1894) at UT, and Mackintosh (b 1895) at Queen’s, 160 miles east of Toronto, were close contemporaries and were responsible for the introduction of the ‘staples thesis’ into Canadian economics and political theory. Mackintosh broached the topic explicitly in his 1923 article ‘Economic Factors in Canadian History’.1

As described by Hugh Grant in the head citation above, both were influenced in their broad view of political economics by Adam Shortt.  And Shortt, in turn, was a student and later colleague of Watson at Queen’s.

While attention (often of dubious quality however) has been paid to Watson’s lasting influence on philosophy in Canada, especially on George Grant and Charles Taylor, little to no attention has been paid to Watson’s influence on Innis, through Shortt, and on McLuhan, through Innis. Moreover, McLuhan’s most influential teachers when he was an undergraduate at the University of Manitoba, Henry Wright and Rupert Lodge, were two of the contributors (out of 11) to the Festschrift volume he received on the occasion of his 50th anniversary (1872-1922) teaching at Queen’s: Philosophical Essays Presented to John Watson.  Further still, another of the contributors was Fr Henry Carr whose indirect influence on McLuhan (especially by bringing Bernard Phelan and Etienne Gilson to St Michael’s) was massive.

In short, Watson’s influence on Canadian life and thought, through his students and through further generations of students beyond them, was far greater than is generally known. Many of these like Shortt and Skelton eventually left the academy for work in the public service in Ottawa. And others, while still in the academy, like Carr or McLuhan, were active in areas and subjects far afield from Watson’s.  But what all received from Watson, directly or (mostly) indirectly, was the notion — now largely lost — that human reason, while ineluctably finite, can and does know truth in any domain to which it freely applies itself.



  1.  Canadian Historical Review, March 1923, 12-25.

Henry Carr

In 2012 Father Henry Carr was designated as a person of national historic significance by the government of Canada. A press release (no longer available at the government of Canada website) gave the following backgrounder:


A pioneering figure in the history of Catholic higher education in Canada, Father Carr played a key role in the evolution of St. Michael’s College in Toronto, from its origins as a small Catholic college focused on preparation for the priesthood, to a full arts college federated in 1910 with the University of Toronto. While at St. Michael’s, he promoted excellence in Catholic higher education, bringing well known Catholic scholars to the college and founding the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies (1929), a world-renowned research institute located on the grounds of St. Michael’s College. Father Carr went on to be an advocate for the creation of Catholic colleges within secular universities, bringing the St. Michael’s model of federation to other universities and heading Catholic colleges at the Universities of Saskatchewan and British Columbia.

Henry Carr was born in Oshawa, Ontario, in 1880, the eldest of nine children in an Irish-immigrant family. He was educated first in the local separate school run by the Sisters of St. Joseph, and then at the Oshawa Collegiate Institute, graduating in 1897 with the gold medal for the top student. In the summer of 1897, while working in a Toronto lithographing shop, Carr learned of a teaching opportunity at St. Michael’s College, a Roman Catholic college in downtown Toronto run by the Basilian Fathers: in return for teaching beginner German at the high school level, Carr would be offered room and board at St. Michael’s, as well as enrollment in the college’s post-secondary classical course. Following a successful first year of teaching, Carr was given responsibility for teaching the “Varsity Class”, a small group of boys preparing for the university entrance examination. In 1899, while continuing his teaching duties, he enrolled in an honours course in Classics at the University of Toronto.

Carr entered St. Basil’s Novitiate in 1900. He was permitted to continue his university studies, and received his Honours B. A. in Classics in 1903. From 1903 until December 1904 he attended Assumption College in Windsor before returning to St. Michael’s College in 1905, when he was ordained. Father Carr played a critical role in the college’s federation with the University of Toronto in 1910 and was a central figure in its subsequent evolution, acting as superior and president from 1915 to 1925. Federation broke the long period of isolation from the mainstream of Canadian university life, and made St. Michael’s College one of the earliest English-Canadian Roman Catholic colleges to provide higher education in partnership with a secular institution. Father Carr attracted outstanding scholars to St. Michael’s and was instrumental in the establishment in 1929 of the Institute of Mediaeval Studies as a centre for scholarly research and publication. The Institute became an international centre of Thomistic studies, that is, the study of the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. It attracted graduate students and scholars from around the world, including the prominent Catholic philosopher, Jacques Maritain. Father Carr served as superior general of the Basilian Congregation from 1930 to 1942. Later, he was the superior and principal at St. Thomas More College (1942-49) in Saskatchewan and at St. Mark’s College at the University of British Columbia (1956-61). At each of these institutions, he was directly involved in their federation with the university, viewing federation as the best solution for Catholic colleges in an age of increasing secularization, and never advocated for the stand-alone Catholic university, which was the dominant model in the United States. Father Carr retired in 1961 and died in 1963.

The government backgrounder does not mention Carr’s tremendous influence on athletics at St Michael’s and, indeed, nationally.  St. Michael’s College: 100 Years of Pucks and Prayers describes how:

In 1906, Father Henry Carr initiated a hockey program at [St Mike’s]. (…) It did not take long for the school to attain championship success, claiming the Allan Cup senior hockey title in 1910. Under the guidance of Father Carr and later Father David Bauer, the institution evolved into the top breeding ground for junior hockey players in preparation for the National Hockey League. On four occasions between 1934 and 1961, St. Michael’s captured four Memorial Cup titles as the nation’s best team in junior hockey.

Carr was equally successful in football:

after its inaugural season in 1897, Fr. Henry Carr, C.S.B. led the [football] team in 1909 to a Canadian [Junior Football League, CJFL] Championship. Coach Carr (…) introduced both hockey and football to St. Michael’s as a way to integrate the Irish Catholic College and community into the fabric of the city. Luckily, Carr found two willing partners for his unique brand of ecumenism in the principals of Upper Canada College and St. Andrew’s College. Thus two new rivalries on the ice and field were born. Carr strongly believed that athletics were an excellent way to instill discipline and knowledge into young men, and he hoped to create a reputation for athletic excellence that would establish St. Michael’s name across the country. Carr’s exploits as a coach were legendary and beyond leading teams to  championships, he was a true football innovator, with many crediting Carr and other Basilian coaches for introducing the forward pass into the Canadian game in the 1920’s. (St Mike Blue Banner, 2009, p 22-23)

In philosophy, however, Carr was of international, not only national, importance.  He was able to attract Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson to St Michael’s Mediaeval Institute at a time when Maritain was arguably the most influential Catholic intellectual in the world and when Gilson had been offered a chair at Harvard.

At the heart of Carr’s vision was the determination that neither Catholics nor Canadians needed to fear competition from any quarter. Instead, their calling was to immerse themselves in the widest possible world of their contemporaries — but without giving up their identity as Catholics or Canadians or, indeed, as Catholic Canadians.  This was exactly the position described by McLuhan as one Catholic Canadian in the year before he came to St Michael’s:

My increasing awareness has been of the ease with which Catholics can penetrate and dominate secular concerns — thanks to an emotional and spiritual economy denied to the confused secular mind. But this cannot be done by any Catholic group, nor by Catholic individuals, trained in the vocabularies and attitudes which make our [usual] education the feeble simulacrum of the world which it is. It seems obvious that we must confront the secular in its most confident manifestations, and, with its own terms and postulates, to shock it into awareness of its confusion, its illiteracy, and the terrifying drift of its logic. There is no need to mention Christianity. It is enough that it be known that the operator is a Christian. This job must be conducted on every front — every phase of the press, book-rackets, music, cinema, education, economics. Of course, points of reference must always be made. That is, the examples of real art and prudence must be seized, when available, as paradigms of future effort. (…) These can serve to educate a huge public, both Catholic and non-Catholic, to resist that swift obliteration of the person which is going on [today]. (McLuhan to Clement McNaspy, SJ, Christmas 1945, Letters 180)



The only extended word for word citation in Finnegans Wake is the following:

Aujourd’hui, comme aux temps de Pline et de Columelle, la jacinthe se plaît dans les Gaules, la pervenche en Illyrie, la marguerite sur les ruines de Numance; et, pendant qu’autour d’elles les villes ont changé de maîtres et de nom, que plusieurs sont entrées dans le néant, que les civilisations se sont choquées et brisées, leurs paisibles générations ont traversé les âges et se sont succédé jusqu’à nous, fraîches et riantes comme au jour des batailles. (FW 281)

Today, as in the days of Pliny and Columella, the hyacinth disports in Gaul, the periwinkle in Illyria, the daisy on the ruins of Numantia; and while around them the cities have changed masters and names, while some have ceased to exist, while the civilisations have collided with one another and shattered, their peaceful generations have passed through the ages, and have come up to us, one following the other, fresh and cheerful as on the days of the battles.

Joyce was quoting the French historian Edgar Quinet (1803-75), from Introduction à La Philosophie de l’Histoire de l’Humanité (1857), via the naturalist, Léon Metchnikoff (1838-1888),  who cited Quinet in his La Civilisation et les Grands Fleuves Historiques (1889). Joyce read Metchnikoff’s book in 1924. As nicely set out in the From Swerve of Shore to Bend of Bay blog from which the above translation is taken, Joyce used the Quinet text over and over again in FW and was known to cite it by heart in his conversation. Peter Chrisp, the Swerve of Shore blogger, describes how:

Joyce summed up the [Edgar Quinet] sentence in a letter to Harriet Shaw Weaver: ‘E.Q. says that the wild flowers on the ruins of Carthage, Numancia etc have survived the political rises and falls of Empires’ (L1: 295).  Quinet uses classical Rome as the example of empire. Pliny the Elder and Columella were the great Roman writers on nature: Pliny wrote a massive Natural History and Columella wrote books on Agriculture and Trees. Numantia was a city in Spain whose inhabitants committed suicide rather than surrender to the Romans. Illyria in the western Balkans and Gaul (France) were also conquered by Rome.
Joyce said he ‘felt at home’ in this sentence. He shared Quinet’s detached view of history, eternally repeating the same events. (…). In later life, says [Richard] Ellmann [in his biography of Joyce], [Samuel] Beckett ‘thought this ability to contemplate with telescopic eye Joyce’s most impressive characteristic, and quoted four lines from Pope’s ‘Essay on Man’ to illustrate:
Who sees with equal eye, as God of all,
A hero perish, or a sparrow fall,
Atoms of systems into ruin hurled,
And now a bubble burst, and now a world.’  (Ellmann, James Joyce, 1982, 709)

The same Quinet citation is treated in How Joyce Wrote Finnegans WakeA Chapter-by-chapter Genetic Guide, ed Luca Crispi and Sam Slote (2007), where it is seen as central to the involuted structure of the entire book:

the turning point for [the FW character] Shaun [the post], and indeed for Finnegans Wake [as a whole], came when Joyce read a book by Leon Metchnikoff, La Civilisation et les Grands Fleuves Historiques. Metchnikoff describes Giambattista Vico’s cyclical theories of corsi and ricorsi as the underlying dynamic for historical progress. Joyce had already been interested in Vico, but this book seemed to have energized his thoughts on the matter and especially on how he could deal with Shaun. The delivery of the letter is no longer a single episode in the saga of HCE but rather a repetition and recapitulation, “by a commodious vicus of recirculation” (FW: 003.02), of that saga into a different register. Shaun’s delivery of the letter replays HCE’s downfall, which is what is recorded, somehow, in the letter itself. The discovery of Shaun’s role could thus be seen as the final nail in the coffin of Wakean narrative as “goahead plot” (LIII: 146).  With Book III Wakean narrative turns back on itself to repeat “the seim anew” (FW: 215.23). If Book I could be said to move forward in the explication of HCE’s fate, then Book III moves backward. As Joyce explained to Weaver, the first part of Book III “is a description of a postman travelling backwards in the night through events already narrated. It is written in the form of a via crucis of 14 stations but is actually only a barrel rolling down the river Liffey” (LI: 214). What Joyce had been experimenting with at the local level with the textual reverberations emanating from the [post-Ulysses] sketches (…) has now, with the invention of Shaun, become the organizing structural principle for the work as a whole.
Another element Joyce derived from Metchnikoff’s book is a quotation from the French philosopher of history Edgar Quinet’s book Introduction à La Philosophie de l’Histoire de l’Humanité  (…). It is clear that Joyce derived the quote from Metchnikoff, since he reproduces Metchnikoff’s errors. The sentence describes the effects of temporal change, and Joyce described it as “beautiful” (LI: 295). The sentence was ultimately to take on a kind of nodal resonance as it wound up being incorporated into the [FW] text six times with varying degrees of Wakean distortion. (‘Introduction’, 19-20)

“Temporal change” at the end of this passage is a surprising singular, since the central point of the Quinet sentence would seem to be the contrasting times in the lives of cities and whole civilisations compared to that of flowers. The chapter of FW, in which the Quinet citation appears in its word for word form, features marginal notes from Joyce.  Next to the citation appears:


The time of the mutuomorphomutation of cities, empires and civilizations — and, indeed, of “belletristicks” like Shem’s and Joyce’s own efforts — is not the time of flowers nor that of mutuomorphomutation itself. The latter times, although not without their own dynamic rhythms, are synchronic (always in play, always about to bloom again and again, regenerating themselves in and through death), while the former are diachronic and definitively subject to death.  Identity in the former infolds ‘passing away’; in the latter ‘passing away’ is — ‘passing away’.

These contrasting times are particularly focused in Joyce’s note: BELLUM-PAX-BELLUM. On the one hand, this could be taken in the “register” of “goahead plot” or diachronic law: this is time’s arrow to which cities, empires and civilizations, along with belletristicks, are subject. On the other, BELLUM-PAX-BELLUM could be read as the synchronic spectrum of being itself, a triple form which human beings have always already witnessed (although nearly always in “blackout” mode) traversing their perpetual ano-kato pathway in the genesis of experience.

Now McLuhan imagined this synchronic process in terms of Poe’s Maelstrom.  On this model, human beings are at every moment subject to a katabasis into a “worldpool” of warring forms — BELLUM-PAX-BELLUM — from which they emerge, or have always already emerged, into their momentary experience, like Poe’s mariner riding a “barrel” to the surface of the sea out of the Maelstrom whirlpool.

Consideration of this process led to McLuhan’s stipulation in Take Today:

There are only two basic extreme forms of human organization. They have innumerable variants or “parti-colored” forms. The extreme forms are the civilized and the tribal (eye and ear): the Cromwellian specialist and the Celtic involved. Only the civilized form is fragmented in action…(22; the bracketed insertion of “eye and ear” is from McLuhan)

Compare Joyce in conversation with Georges Borach fifty years before in 1918:

There are indeed hardly more than a dozen original themes in world literature. Then there is an enormous number of combinations of these themes.1

The advance from “two basic extreme forms” (eye/ear) to three, BELLUM-PAX-BELLUM (aka eye-ear-eye), occurs through the fact that BELLUM, as the word itself indicates, and as its doubling (Dublin) in BELLUM-PAX-BELLUM makes explicit, is “fragmented in action”. Its warring sides each claim fundamental priority and exactly therefore eternally battle against the other in an endless attempt to establish a singular priority for themselves alone. Considered synchronistically, where “all is always now”, such a war of archetypal forms can have no end. Both of its sides must be equally original and, therefore, unknown to themselves, behind their backs so to say, subject to a kind of PAX as their mutual right to be a part (or “station”) of the archetypal order. To wage their endless war, they must be double, but with a common standing.

The further advance from 2 and 3 to “hardly more than a dozen” is generated through the fact that BELLAM, as a contesting power that is “fragmented in action”, is subject to degree. The opposition between the belligerent sides ranges along the archetypal spectrum from the avowed obliteration of the other at the extremes of their mutual antagonism to the PAX of mutual recognition where the two meet in the middle of the range. 

In short, the archetypal powers are arrayed in along a spectrum whose double ends (Dublin) tend toward the maximum antagonism of the warring sides (BELLUM-BELLUM) and whose middle represents their PAX. The Gutenberg Galaxy would tell the tale of the diachronic ascendancy of BELLUM over PAX over the last 500 years and begin the exposition in its concluding section of ‘The Galaxy Reconfigured’ in the ‘electric age’ today.2

Considering the perpetual exposure to the forms of being in the genesis of human experience, McLuhan wrote to Innis early in 1951:

One major discovery of the symbolists which had the greatest importance for subsequent investigation was their notion of the learning process as a labyrinth of the senses and faculties whose retracing provided the key to all arts and sciences… (Letters 221)

“The learning process” requires a resetting of experience. What the symbolists dis-covered according to McLuhan (citing especially Whitehead in this connection, but the general notion was vaguely in the air in the mid 20th century, hence the sudden appearance of cybernetics at that time) was that human experience is constituted, or perpetually reconstituted, through nothing else than such “learning”. Unlike physical materials whose being can be reset only through extremes of temperature and pressure, the notion here was that the being of human experience is continually reset via a momentary or synchronic katabasis into “a labyrinth of the senses and faculties”. This was to characterize the archetypal forms in terms of what was affected and, indeed, effected, by exposure to them: the variable shapes of “the senses and faculties”. There was no fixed orientation of the senses or faculties (the attachment to which defined the Gutenberg Galaxy); there was only a kaleidoscope of different configurations of these which became set through the synchronic process of ‘descent into the Maelstrom‘.

Exactly therefore, the “innumerable variants or ‘parti-colored’ forms” and “enormous number of combinations” of human experience. The ‘molecules’ and ‘compounds’ and ‘mixtures’ of experience resulted not only from diachronic interactions, like physical materials, but also, and above (or below) all, from moment to moment exposure to the entire range of experiential possibilities or forms and the resulting changes from this exposure. Human beings are exactly that type of being that is uniquely exposed to both these times at once.

As illustrated already by the 1918 observation of Joyce, itself doubtless related to Jung’s work at the time, and that to Freud and Frazer, modernity was the time when a resetting of experience was “learning” to focus on this resetting process of learning itself.  And it was doing so through a “retracing” of what had always already been retraced. 

Starting in the late 1940s, McLuhan began using Poe’s “Descent into the Maelstrom” as a figure of this synchronic process. At around the same time, he seems3 to have encountered Havelock’s two essays ‘Virgil’s Road to Xanadu’ (1946-1947) and ‘The Journey of Aeneas through the Waste Land’ (1949), in which a synchronic katabasis under the sea or into the underground is detailed in the literary environment of Virgil. At this time, too, he met Ezra Pound with Hugh Kenner and began an intense correspondence with Pound that lasted a full decade.  And, also with Kenner, he reread Eliot, again, especially Four Quartets, Pound, especially the Cantos, and Lewis (again) and Joyce (ditto). 

On other fronts, he continued his immersion in French symbolism (as Sigfried Gideon had recommended in 1944) resulting in his considerable unpublished manuscript ‘Prelude to Prufrock’. And, here prompted and assisted by his old Winnipeg buddy, Tom Easterbrook, he began as well his Auseinandersetzung with the work of Harold Innis and especially with his 1942 observation:

The concepts of time and space must be made relative and elastic and the attention given by the social scientists to problems of space should be paralleled by attention to problems of time. (‘The Newspaper in Economic Development’, reprinted in Political Economy in the Modern State, 1946)

The upshot of this vast and as yet inchoate complex of interests and influences was his developing notion of experience as a constant retracing of its principles or forms through a katabasis into their “worldpool”. Experience was always the result or effect of some selection out of that “worldpool” that McLuhan imagined in terms of the decision of Poe’s mariner in the Maelstrom to abandon his ship and to entrust himself, instead, to a “barrel”.

Now, rereading Joyce around 1950, this was exactly what he found in FW:

With Book III Wakean narrative turns back on itself to repeat “the seim anew” (FW: 215.23). If Book I could be said to move forward in the explication of HCE’s fate, then Book III moves backward. As Joyce explained to Weaver, the first part of Book III “is a description of a postman travelling backwards in the night through events already narrated. It is written in the form of a via crucis of 14 stations but is actually only a barrel rolling down the river Liffey”

FW research has paid some attention to Poe, both on account of his short story, ‘The Purloined Letter’ (1844), and on account of his influence on the symbolists via Baudelaire. But it may not have considered if Joyce’s “barrel rolling down the river Liffey” is Poe’s barrel in the Maelstrom. In any case, regardless of whether Joyce himself intended this connection, the vertical motion of Poe’s barrel reveals how Joyce’s horizontal “barrel rolling down the river” must be understood. Because time is “travelling backwards” here into the night of consciousness, and because it thereby revisits all “events already narrated” in their possibility (hence the need to abandon the language of actuality), such a barrel cannot be taken to disport itself in any fixed sense of “down”.  Instead, the coordinates of human action and experiences are here exposed as being just as relative as those of physical materials whose orientation depends entirely on the momentary perspective taken on them. (Hence the importance to relativity theory of Einstein’s thought experiments where, eg, clocks travel at the speed of light.)

What McLuhan discovered in Joyce4 at this time around 1950 was what he already knew from Mallarmé and Eliot and Pound.

Mallarmé discovered that the aesthetic moment of arrested cognition can be split up into numerous fractions which can be orchestrated in many discontinuous ways. (…) Joyce, Pound, and Eliot recovered the secret of the dolce stil nuovo [of Dante] through the prismatically arranged landscapes of Rimbaud and Mallarmé. And this secret consists in nothing less than a fusion of the learning and the creative processes [aka, of the genesis of experience] in the analysis and reconstruction of the aesthetic moment of arrested awareness. This peculiar fusion of the cognitive and the creative by an act of retracing the stages of apprehension was arrived at by Joyce as a result of the prior discovery for the technique of fission of the moment of aesthetic awareness. (…) In art as in physics fission preceded fusion. (The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape Poetry, 1951)

“The technique of fission” here was study of that synchronic “via crucis of 14 stations” through which experience is generated — ie, just what cybernetics was investigating at MIT (initially for the military) and what corporations were investigating for management training and marketing and what advertising agencies were investigating in their consumer research.

From his first years as a university student around 1930, McLuhan had been interested both in theory (aesthetics, epistemology and ontology) and in the practical world around him of education, entertainment, business and politics. Now, 20 years later around 1950, he found a way to bring these concerns together in the investigation of “the stages of cognition”:

Mallarmé wrote his most difficult poem, Un Coup de Dés, in newspaper format. He saw, like Joyce, that the basic forms of communication — whether speech, writing, print, press, telegraph, or photography — necessarily were fashioned in close accord with man’s cognitive activity. And the more extensive the mass medium the closer it must approximate to our cognitive faculties. (Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters, 1954)

What we have to defend today is not the values developed in any particular culture or by any one mode of communication. Modern technology presumes to attempt a total transformation of man and his environment. This calls in turn for an inspection and defense of all human values. And so far as merely human aid goes, the citadel of this defense must be located in analytical awareness of the nature of the creative process involved in human cognition. For it is in this citadel that science and technology have already established themselves in their manipulation of the new media. (Sight, Sound and the Fury, 1954)

  1. Borach, ‘Conversations with James Joyce’, College English, March 1954, 325-327.
  2. McLuhan’s faith might be said to be the perception that even BELLUM implicates PAX.  This is ‘the main question‘.
  3. “Seems”, because the evidence so far is only indirect.
  4.  McLuhan’s re-engagement with Joyce in the early 1950s was marked by three substantial essays: ‘Joyce, Aquinas, and the Poetic Process’ (1951); ‘James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial’ (1953); ‘Joyce, Mallarmé, and the Press’ (1954).

The bubble of life in Joyce’s Portrait

His very brain was sick and powerless (…) He seemed to have put himself beyond the limits of reality. Nothing moved him or spoke to him from the real world unless he heard in it an echo of the infuriated cries within him. He could respond to no earthly or human appeal, dumb and insensible to the call of summer and gladness and companionship (…) retaining nothing of all he read save that which seemed to him an echo or a prophecy of his own state… (Chapter 2)

He could scarcely interpret the letters of the signboards of the shops. (…) listlessness seemed to be diffusing in the air around him a tenuous and deadly exhalation and he found himself glancing from one casual word to another on his right or left in stolid wonder that they had been so silently emptied of instantaneous sense until every mean shop legend bound his mind like the words of a spell and his soul shrivelled up sighing with age as he walked on in a lane among heaps of dead language. His own consciousness of language was ebbing from his brain… ( (Chapter 2, Chapter 5)

A sense of fear of the unknown moved in the heart of his weariness, a fear of symbols and portents, of the hawk-like man [Daedalus] whose name he bore soaring out of his captivity on osier-woven wings, of Thoth, the god of writers, writing with a reed upon a tablet and bearing on his narrow ibis head the cusped moon.  (Chapter 5)

the cry of his heart was broken. His lips began to murmur (…) then went on stumbling through half verses, stammering and baffled; then stopped. The heart’s cry was broken.  (Chapter 5)

Voices in Dubliners and A Portrait

Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

While his mind had been pursuing its intangible phantoms (…) he had heard about him the constant voices of his father and of his masters, urging him to be a gentleman above all things and urging him to be a good catholic above all things. These voices had now come to be hollow-sounding in his ears. When the gymnasium had been opened he had heard another voice urging him to be strong and manly and healthy and when the movement towards national revival had begun to be felt in the college yet another voice had bidden him be true to his country and help to raise up her language and tradition. In the profane world, as he foresaw, a worldly voice would bid him raise up his father’s fallen state by his labours and, meanwhile, the voice of his school comrades urged him to be a decent fellow, to shield others from blame or to beg them off and to do his best to get free days for the school. And it was the din of all these hollow-sounding voices that made him halt irresolutely in the pursuit of phantoms.

As described in The Put-on, McLuhan’s life from the time of his boyhood onward was filled with contending voices. This ultimately raised the questions for him of the validity of any one of these voices and of what to make of their multiplicity.

In the Portrait passage above, Joyce described some of the voices Stephen Dedalus heard about him as he grew. Meanwhile, he described their collective murmur in the Dubliners:

The grey warm evening of August had descended upon the city and a mild warm air, a memory of summer, circulated in the streets. The streets, shuttered for the repose of Sunday, swarmed with a gaily coloured crowd. Like illumined pearls the lamps shone from the summits of their tall poles upon the living texture below which, changing shape and hue unceasingly, sent up into the warm grey evening air an unchanging unceasing murmur. (Two Gallants)

His investigation of voices would be continued in Ulysses, while the murmur of language itself, embracing all these voices, indeed all possible voices, would be treated in Finnegans Wake.

Occultation of human thought

McLuhan wrote to Ezra Pound on December 21, 1948 about American ignorance of “the ideogram principle” aka of “the inclusive image“:

The American mind is not even close to being amenable to the ideogram principle as yet. The reason is simply this. America is 100% 18th Century. The 18th century had chucked out the principle of metaphor and analogy — the basic fact that as A is to B so is C to D. AB:CD. It can see AB relations. But relations in four terms are still verboten. This amounts to deep occultation of nearly all human thought for the U.S.A. I am trying to devise a way of stating this difficulty as it exists. Until stated and publicly recognized for what it is, poetry and the arts can’t exist in America. Mere exposure to the arts does nothing for a mentality which is incorrigibly dialectical. The vital tensions and nutritive action of ideogram remain inaccessible to this state of mind. (Letters 207)

Re the ” deep occultation of nearly all human thought”, see Dagwood and the ineradicable roots of our being (1944):

As excessive activity starved the other needs of man and sharpened the spirit of gain and commercialism, an unofficial blackout was ordained over the spiritual and intellectual areas of man’s nature.

Given this “occultation” or “blackout”, art, religion and philosophy — “the spiritual and intellectual areas of man’s nature” — were now surface phenomena serving only for manipulation:

The press, the pulps, the slicks, and Hollywood — it is a great nursery world of sensations, thrills, and wide-eyed child-like myopia. (Dagwood)

The result was that Americans aka the modern world

can never discover nourishment for these roots in popular art and literature.

The Gorgon

It presents a hair-raising difficulty. Or rather a hair-removing difficulty – it makes my hair fall out, to think about it! (‘Love’, Saturday Night Magazine, 25-28, February, 1967)

I’m quite helpless. Its a real humming, buzzing confusion. (Interview on CBC ‘Our World’ , June 24, 1967)

For McLuhan, mythology was not something from the old days or some kind of vague rival to religion and philosophy. In a world of “allatonceness”, it was here now, in all its power.

Nihilism has flooded the planet and, just as Nietzsche described it would, it has eviscerated our community and with it our morality, our traditions and our fellow feeling for the creatures of the earth (including any sort of different creatures of our own kind). McLuhan saw that, without our notice, we had been turned to stone by the Gorgon — the hydra-headed monster whose mere glance paralyses. It followed that we could not cure ourselves and heal our world without somehow confronting, like Perseus, “the Gorgon of the present”.  But this was a Gorgon inside us who had taken over our very selves! A Gorgon in our “in learning and knowing”!

Myth and Mass Media (1959):
Languages as human artifacts, collective products of human skill and need, can easily be regarded as “mass media,” but many find it difficult to consider the newer media deriving from these languages as new “languages.” Writing, in its several modes, can be regarded technologically as the development of new languages. For to translate the audible into the visible by phonetic means is to institute a dynamic process that reshapes every aspect of thought, language, and society. To record the extended operation of such a process in a Gorgon or Cadmus myth is to reduce a complex historical affair to an inclusive timeless image. Can we, perhaps, say that in the case of a single word, myth is present as a single snapshot of a complex process, and that in the case of a narrative myth with its peripety, a complex process is recorded in a single inclusive image? The multilayered montage or “transparency,” with its abridgement of logical relationships, is as familiar in the cave painting as in cubism. (…) Is the Gorgon myth an account of the effects of literacy in arresting the modes of knowledge? Certainly the Cadmus myth about letters as the dragon’s teeth that sprang up [as] armed men is an image of the dynamics of literacy in creating empires.  H. A. Innis in his Empire and Communications has given us a full exegesis of the Cadmus myth. But the Gorgon myth is in much greater need of exegesis, since it concerns the role of media in learning and knowing

McLuhan Interview on CBC ‘Our World’ (1967):
people have always, in all ages, been terrified of the present. The only people that seem to have enough gumption, or nerve, to look at what is happening right under their nose are artists. They are specialists in sensory life. They just deliberately look at the present, you know, as if they dared it to ruin, or do something to them. They are like Perseus and the Gorgon. The artist looks into the mirror of art and says, the heck with the gorgon’s image, I’m not terrified. But most people simply expect, when they look at the present, to be turned to stone, as by the gorgon’s spell, and they are terrified. Therefore they prefer the rear-view mirror.

The Invisible Environment: The Future of an Erosion (1967):
You can never perceive the impact of any new technology directly; but it can be done in the manner of Perseus looking at the Gorgon in the mirror of artYou have to perceive the consequences of the new environment on the old environment before you know what the new environment is. You cannot tell what it is until you have seen it do things to the old one.

Understanding Canada and Sundry Other Matters  (1967):
But one thing I have been working on lately and I haven’t solved: the go-go girl and the discotheque. They’ve been around in the environment, and I didn’t pay any heed at all until I suddenly said to myself, shucks, anything like that must have some relevance, some meaning for people; otherwise, they wouldn’t tolerate it. Because in itself it is just hideous and it’s a nice example of the Gorgon of the present; the horrible thing that nobody can look at without being turned to stone.1

Cliche to Archetype (1970):
Throughout the entire discussion of
Fiction and the Reading Public Mrs. [Q.D.] Leavis makes the assumption of a “higher code” which it is the function of literature to make accessible. Entree via this code is presumed sufficient to enable the reader to “place” the products and activities of any culture at all. Mrs. Leavis is making the familiar literary assumption that matching, rather than making, is the function of literary training. In a world of rapid innovation and environmental development the “finer code” permits the classi­fication of novelties and the rejection of vulgarity, but for the creation of new codes from new cultural materials, the finer code, as a mere matching or checking device, is quite ineffectual. Indeed, the “finer code” that Mrs. Leavis finds so adequately manifested in the homogeneous tonalities of eighteenth-century prose is an interesting example of the environmental form being moved up to nostalgic archetypal status by a nineteenth-century mind. It is the nineteenth century that discovers rich cultural values in the ritual gestures and corporate decorum of eighteenth-century discourse. The twentieth century, on the other hand, has discovered many new values in the popular art and literature of the nineteenth century. (…) What appears to elude the Leavis approach is the role of ­new art and literature in creating new perception for new environ­ments. Such environments are invisible and invincible except as they are raised to consciousness by new artistic styles and probes. With the advent of new styles or instruments of perception, the effect of the new environment is to mirror the image of the old one. The industrial nineteenth century developed a considerable empathy for anthropology and the study of nonliterate societies. [But] industrial and print technology have a profoundly fragmenting effect on human sensibilities. It was not, therefore, very realistic to use nonliterate societies as a “mirror of Perseus” in which to observe the hated face of the industrial Gorgon.  (174-175)

Take Today, ‘Polemics Right And Left Thrive By Hardening Of The Categories’ (1972):
What Marx called “the process of producing surplus value” is the nineteenth-century version of usury. Whereas Aristotle saw Nature as the
ground against which appeared the gargoyle of usury, Marx saw the market as the ground from which stared the Gorgon of surplus valueLet an entrepreneur buy materials and “labor power” on the market and combine them in a production process to create a buggy. Let him sell the buggy in a free market. The difference between his investment and his take is his profit or loss. Marx assumes a continuing operation backed by a whole social superstructure of services. He would define as “accident” a single transaction. “Surplus value” results from the private use of the entire superstructure of social services. The basic figure is the material “production process” looked at against the ground of the social “superstructure.” Access to this corporate superstructure is via the new fragmentation of the market process. The ancient political principle of “divide and rule” had now permeated the entire social fabric. All the human institutions that had been built to serve the common good could now be channeled into private pockets.

Take Today, ‘The Recognition Of Process As Prior To Classification Is The Key To Relevant Decision‘ (1972):
New instant speed of data processing reverses the order of organizing any structure or procedure. Whereas mere headings were once specialist, mechanical catchalls, they now become the avenues of insight into complex organic processes. An obvious example is pollution. It has always been a major feature of any environment. At high information speeds it presents a Gorgon-like and intolerable visage. It is no longer a category or nuisance, but a process that turns [whole] societies to stone.  (106)

McLuhan to Joe Keogh, April 11, 1973:
Apropos dialogue, it is done with mirrors, of course, only you hold the mirror up to the public. Was it not Perseus who thus beheaded Gorgon by looking at it in a mirror of art, as it were? By holding the mirror up to the public you literally confront the Gorgon of tangled impressions and biases. You ‘put them on’ this way, as well, and you can sort through their problems at will.

Laws of Media (1988):
The ground that envelops the user of any new technological word completely massages and reshapes both user and culture. In this way too these words (extensions) have all the transforming power of the primal logos. Westerners’ only escape or antidote has hitherto been by means of artistic enterprise. All serious art, to use Pound’s phrase, functions satirically as a mirror or counter-environment to exempt the user from tyranny by his self-imposed environment, just as Perseus’s shield enabled him to escape stupefaction by the Gorgon. The art historian has long puzzled over the question: at what point do primitive cultures develop arts? Evidently the Balinese had not yet confronted the problem when they answered, ‘We have no art; we do everything as well as possible’. Art is a response to a situation that has reached a certain intensity (…) or paralysis… (226)


  1. McLuhan continued in this interview to note that “the go-go girl, as the Gorgon of the present, has this wonderful built-in past environment, the cage.” At around this same time in a CBC program, McLuhan riffed on go-go girls once again: “They (the young) still think in the old patterns, 19th-century patterns, but they live mythically. They live surrounded by mythic monsters like go-go girls. (…) The go-go girls ordinarily have a cage (…) so the go-go girls, (each) locked up each in her little world, represents a kind of theatre of the absurd, in which all communication has broken down. In fact, no attempt is really made to communicate. Each puts on her own show in her own little straitjacket.” (‘The McLuhan is the Message’, Telescope, CBC Television, 20 July 1967. See ‘Marshall McLuhan on go-go dancers‘ and ‘Flip-side Overlap’: The Medium Is The Music‘.)


Understanding Media (1964):
What the Orient saw in a Hollywood movie was a world in which all the ordinary people had cars and electric stoves and refrigerators. So the Oriental now regards himself as an ordinary person who has been deprived of the ordinary man’s birthright. That is another way of getting a view of the film medium as monster ad for consumer goods. In America this major aspect of film is merely subliminal. Far from regarding our pictures as incentives to mayhem and revolution, we take them as solace and compensation, or as a form of deferred payment by daydreaming. But the Oriental is right, and we are wrong about this. In fact, the movie is a mighty limb of the industrial giant. (294-295)

Address at Vision 65 (1965):
The 16th Century created the public as a new environment. This completely altered politics and altered all social arrangements in education, in work, and in every other area. Electric circuitry did not [continue to] create the public; it created the mass, meaning an environment of information that involved everybody in everybody. Now, to a man brought up in the environment of the public, the mass audience is a horror, it is a mess. In the same way, the public was many-headed monster to a feudal aristocrat.

The Hardware/Software Mergers (1969):
When figure and ground merge you have the monster.  

Further Thoughts on Icons (1970):
The TV camera is a Cyclops, a one-eyed monster, which merges the gestalt of figure and ground and turns the viewer into a kind of hunter.

Advice for Universities of the Future (1971):
In the big universities of today the community of the university itself has become as big as a city, as a big city. Universities of 20 to 30 thousand students no longer represent universities at all but represent cities. The modern university, big metropolitan universities, have merged figure and ground — university and community — in what is in effect a monstrous situation. When you merge the figure and ground you have a monster. King Kong is the image of modern man’s service environments stretching out to such size that they crush him. King Kong is our own man-made environment stepping on us.

McLuhan letter to Jim Davey Sept 29, 1971:
The really devastating programming [in the formation of modern society] is the destruction of perception and sensitivity by the creation of vast environments far exceeding human scale. The King Kong fantasies are direct expressions of the feeling most people have in their environments which have become monsters. Yet, the best intentioned bureaucrats in all governments are busily engaged in creating bigger and blacker King Kongs every day of the week. (Letters 441)

Take Today, ‘From Piles of Refuse to Monolithic Slums’  (1972):
When “order” is pushed to extremes (…) [it] becomes ordure. (…) The engulfing of the human scale in providing living accommodation by high-rise creates the hardware monolith where figure and ground grind each other to numerical bits. (…) This is the antisocial monster. The slum is the reverse, but more tolerable. Multiple families crowded in single dwellings turn the environmental ground into figure. This is the social monster. The social monster of the swarming slum has many values of diversity and great powers of endurance [aka ordurance]. Its antisocial opposite, the high-rise “slum”, has no [such] power of survival [via ordurance] (28-29)

Take Today, ‘Gigantism: the nemesis of classical elegance’  (1972):
Gigantism is compelled to grow until collapse. Adaptability is absent. Survival demands an “unthinkable” reversal of scale and pattern. At least, this megalithic monster of moreness tells us we are in the domain of Lord Kelvin, where everything can be said in numbers. It happens that Kelvin spent his life striving to reach absolute zero: the giant omission. Little did Kelvin realize how the numbers racket would be developed in economics and in the studies of the psychologists. His dream of absolute zero has been realized many times in the social sciences but remains a mirage for the physicist. (108)

Take Today, ‘Market-Anti-Market Merger’ (1972):
In Catch-22, the figure of the black market and the ground of war merge into a monster presided over by the syndicate. When war and market merge, all money transactions begin to drip blood. What has happened to war and market in today’s new “software” age is that both involve total commitment in contrast to the specialist “hardware” world of the nineteenth century. The contrast can be observed in the figure-ground relations of the slave market compared with the labor market. Labor is one thing; man as a commodity is another. Today, modes of business and warfare alike tend to blur these distinctions. (211)

Take Today, ‘The Capsized Organization Chart’ (1972):
nature itself performs a figure/ground merger, an OUROBOROS monster, uniting earth and air. (The worm OUROBOROS, which ate its own tail, is the ancient mythic symbol of a world that survives by endlessly devouring itself.)  (254)

The Argument: Causality in the Electric World (1973):
This music [of Marx and Engels] is worse than it sounds”, for it is played literally by eye without ear. Although its epistemology is dialectical, its ontology still rests on abstract Greek Nature. Marx and Engels saw conflicts of old figures as creating [revolutionary] grounds (…) while they remained oblivious of the new information surround that had [already] transformed their assumptions. They were attempting to match [!] the concepts of an earlier age to the experience newly visible in the “rear-view-mirror” of the 19th century. They were
unaware that percepts of existence always lie behind concepts of Nature. Their hidden hang-up was the visual bias of all “objectivity” [and “subjectivity”], whether “materialist” or “idealist.” (…) While the “subjectivist” puts on the world as his own clothes, the “objectivist” supposes that he can stand naked “out of this world.”  The ideal [goal] of the rationalist philosophers still persists [on both sides]: to achieve an inclusive “science of the sciences.” But such a “science” would be a monster of preconceived figures minus un-perceived grounds.

Interview With Marshall McLuhan: His Outrageous Views About Women (1974):
Horror shows are just a record of what people think has already happened to themselves. Exorcism is a picture of what they feel they have been through.

On the Evils of TV (1977):
[TV is] literally a tribal monster like the Minotaur from Greek mythology trapped in a maze of sensation. This Bull-man monster swallowed humans lost in the maze. And that’s exactly what TV does (…) our young are fed to the Minotaur1

  1. For further McLuhan takes on the minotaur, see Minotaur.