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‘.)