A prime sector for the development of the Cyborg idea is that of the military. Here the Buck Rogers world of supermen and super-soldiers is taken quite seriously. It is not only weapons that could be controlled remotely by a mere flick of the eye or turn of thought. This is the field of “systems” development and controls that increasingly occurs in the entire (…) operation of our world. (‘Alarums in a Brave New World’, Review of Cyborg: Evolution of the Superman, by D. S. Halacy, Winnipeg Free Press, December 11, 1965, 73)
Here is a puzzling passage in ‘Art as Survival in the Electric Age’ (1973)1:
Poe hit upon the key to the electric age, programming from effects in order to anticipate causes. The effects come before causes in all situations. The ground comes before the figure in all situations. So that when any new innovation occurs, people are always able to say, “The time is ripe,” meaning the ground and the effects have come long before the causes. The effects come first, and the fact of the effects coming first indicates that the study of environmental action, or the action of the strom, must begin with the effects rather than with a theoretic pursuit of causes. (212-213)
The puzzles in this passage turn the meaning of the word ‘before’ — or on its meanings, plural. For if “effects come before causes in all situations”, this cannot be the same ‘before’ as in “ground comes before the figure in all situations”. Effects come before causes in our experience such that causes must be induced.2 But so little does ground “come before the figure” in our experience that McLuhan continually employed the phrase “hidden ground” and frequently characterized phenomena or whole ages as lacking perception of ground. Eg:
Integrity concerns figure without ground (…). When the ground itself becomes Protean or bewildering in its multiplicity of changes, then the ordinary psyche abandons all hope of relating thereto and retreats to the ivory tower of integrity. (Take Today, 285-286)
The plays of Ibsen are a familiar example: groups of human figures are starkly presented to the audience minus any social ground or human community. This, in a word, is abstract art: figures without ground. Speed-up pushes all work and living towards specialism that is the dissolution of community. (…) What has happened today is that there is a new hidden ground of all human enterprise, namely, a world environment of electric information. (University of Alberta Convocation Address, 1971)
If “ground comes before the figure in all situations” it plainly does not do so in our experience. Or, more precisely, if any figure comes to light, as we say, only over against some prior ground, it is not the case that that ground is necessarily, or even usually, perceived. Indeed, McLuhan sometimes maintained that it was not possible to know present grounds at all, only past3 ones — as figures on unknown present ones.
When it is said here that “ground comes before the figure in all situations”, McLuhan is not talking about a ‘before’ in our experience — but about a ‘before’ to our experience.
In the order of things, ground comes first. The figures arrive later. Coming events cast their shadows before them. (The Global Village, 6)
“In the order of things, ground comes first.” But in our experience, effects come first and, insofar as figures may be said to be the effects of grounds, so do figures and not grounds.
The great problem is to understand these knotted senses of ‘before’ and the knotted times associated with them. Humans are related to “the order of things” only indirectly and, so to say, later. However, it is somehow given to humans to understand “the order of things” that is before exactly in and through their remove from it. Call it ‘communication’.
In a review which originally appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press, McLuhan specified:
One of the results of accelerated change and innovation has been the recognition of the need for study of effects. As our environment tends to be more and more constituted by information everything has an effect on everything without delay. The entire social web becomes as sensitive and nervous as the stock-market, or the front page. The result is that it becomes necessary to know effects before they occur. This, in turn, requires a new kind of study of whatever is going on. (‘Alarums in a Brave New World’, Review of Cyborg: Evolution of the Superman, by D. S. Halacy, Winnipeg Free Press, December 11, 1965, 73)
But when “everything has an effect on everything without delay” another sense of time emerges that cuts across clock time and its “before”. In this other simultaneous sense of time, the synchronic, the understanding of causes emerges as a “new possibility”:
Survival indicates that we grasp by anticipation the inherent causes (…) of the electronic media in all their cultural configurations and make a fully conscious choice of strategy in education accordingly. (…) We need prescience of the full causal powers latent in our new media (…). A kind of alchemical foreknowledge of all the future effects of any new medium is possible. Under electronic conditions, when all effects are accelerated in their mutual collision and emergence, such anticipation of consequence is basic need as well as new possibility. (‘Electronic Revolution: Revolutionary Effects of New Media’, Understanding Me, 5, 8)
Concern with effect rather than meaning is a basic change of our electric time, for effect involves the total situation, and not a single level of information movement. (Understanding Media, 26)
ESP Is Old Hat When Effects Precede Causes. The patterns of formerly hidden processes now begin to obtrude on every hand. Prescience, prophetic vision, and artistic awareness are no longer needed to establish an understanding of the most secret causes of personal and social processes. Mere electric speed-up makes X-ray awareness natural. (193)
Because time is plural for McLuhan as times, and because everything is double, or at least double, words and phrases like ‘the past’, ‘history’, ‘déjà vu‘, ‘obsolescence’, ‘the old’, etc, carry complex meanings in his work. Passages like the following must therefore be read slowly and, so to say, both vertically and horizontally. A vertical reading of these words and phrases points to “another existence” in the realm of the spectrum of sensory thresholds from which synchronic ‘past’ or ‘déjà vu‘ we have come to our present experience.
When a new environment forms, we see the old one as if we lived in a world of the déjà vu. This was, of course, Plato’s theory of knowledge, that it was a form of recognition of that which we had known in another existence. Much learning theory still accepts this illusion as a warranty that we must learn by going from the familiar to the unfamiliar. Yet this strategy merely ensures that whenever we encounter the unfamiliar, we will translate it into something we already know. It is this that seems to make the present almost impossible to apprehend in any period or culture. It was James Joyce in Finnegans Wake who demonstrated that the way to overcome the fear of the present, and of innovation in general, is to make an inventory of all the effects of the new thing as it encounters all the older forms of the society. Failure to make this inventory results in the use of the present as a nostalgic mirror of the past. (The Future of Morality: inner vs outer quest, 1967)
Strangely running them together, McLuhan discusses déjà vu in this passage in the two radically different ways of the vertical and the horizontal. He first mentions Plato’s theory of recollection according to which learning is achieved through the activation of the forgotten memory of what has been known before. But this is not a ‘before’ in chronological time or chronological sequence. It is not, like the second sort of déjà vu, an “illusion” which merely replicates the past horizontally and makes “the present almost impossible to apprehend” and could never result in the creation or recognition of “innovation”. Instead, this sort of Platonic déjà vu is exactly what enables innovation, and the apprehension of innovation, through a questioning of the assumptions of the present. Assumptions are active in the present, but are not constant; questioning them requires a vertical descent into the time and space of “another existence” where assumptions are arrayed, decided, maintained and rejected.1 This sort of déjà vu, so far from translating the new into the old, and the unfamiliar into the familiar, effects the transformation or rebirth of experience through which, alone, innovation can come to light.
McLuhan touched on this sort of rebirth experience that gives access to the “totally different” in his 1972 interview with L’Express:
the key is that they [the young] return to a primitive existence, in which life is reduced to nothing, and they no longer have any kind of identity. They reject their own identity, and become no-one. (…) It is liberation, but when it is total liberation, it is like death. We all know the reincarnation thesis: we are freed from our own body; we can disappear right now and come back totally different next time. This is what we have reached.
In passages from this same time, McLuhan emphasized the first, vertical or “deep”, sense of déjà vu and again brought reincarnation into this context:
Is the déjà vu phenomenon, i.e. ‘I’ve been here before’, exotic with the ‘man of letters’, and normal and un-noticed by non-literate man? If so it could account for the deep, reincarnational or déjà vu sense of the non-literate societies. The sensation itself may result from situations of deep sensuous involvement, natural in highly tactual cultures and environments. Ergo normal in childhood. May this not be the source of the abiding sense of reincarnation in non-literate societies and explain the lack of such sensation in literate societies? (Counterblast, 1969, 26)
oral culture is easily led to feel that something has been left out. Perhaps this is the origin of our feeling of déjà vu, the sense of having been “here” before. (Cliche to Archetype, 1970, 68)
- If assumptions were decided in chronological or clock time, experience would be mediate, not immediate. Before taking in the world, or our own minds, we would have to go about the business of deciding what approach to take to them. This might raise the further question of what approach to take to our approaches. And so on. Experience in this case might never start. As McLuhan noted in his review of Cyborg: “The goal-oriented man must defer involvement and participation in his world until he has acquired certain specialist skills.” But to “acquire certain specialist skills” might require “certain specialist skills” of their own. Hence the concluding note of this same review: “As we move our nerves outward into the environment of electric information, we all tend to become investigators, hunters, fact gatherers, somewhat on the ‘007’ pattern. This is the exact opposite of man the specialist, and points to the onset of a new human culture of unspecialized existence.” ↩
Today with the revelation of the poetic process which is involved in ordinary cognition we stand on a very different threshold from that wherein Machiavelli stood. His was a door into negation and human weakness. Ours is the door to the positive powers of the human spirit in its natural creativity. This [2-fold] door opens onto psychic powers comparable to the physical powers made available via [that other 2-fold of] nuclear fission [F1] and fusion [F2]. Through this door men have seen a possible path to the totalitarian [F1] remaking of human nature. Machiavelli showed us the way to a new circle of the Inferno [F1]. Knowledge of the creative process in art, science, and cognition [F2] shows us the way either to the earthly paradise [F2] or to complete madness [F1]. It is to be either the top of Mount Purgatory [F2] or the abyss [F1]. (‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’, 1954, in The Medium and the Light, 160)
We are engaged in Toronto in carrying out a unique experiment — it is far too big for us — we need a lot of help and a lot of collaboration. We are carrying out an experiment to establish what are the sensory thresholds of the entire population of Toronto. That is, we are attempting to measure, quantitatively, the levels at which the entire population prefers to set its visual, auditory, tactile, visceral, and other senses as a matter of daily use and preference — how much light, how much heat, how much sound, how much movement — as a threshold level. Anything that alters a sensory threshold alters the outlook and experience of a whole society. The sensory thresholds change without warning or indications to the users thereof, for it is new technological environments that shift these levels. We are concerned with what shifts occur in a sensory threshold when some new form comes in. What happens to our sensory lives with the advent of television, the motor car, or radio? (Address at Vision 65, 1965)
We have no reason to be grateful to those who juggle the thresholds in the name of haphazard innovation. (Relation of Environment to Anti-Environment 1966)
New environments reset our sensory thresholds. These, in turn, alter our outlook and expectations. The need of our time is for the means of measuring sensory thresholds and of discovering exactly what changes occur in these thresholds as a result of the advent of any particular technology. With such knowledge in hand it would be possible to program a reasonable and orderly future for any human community. Such knowledge would be the equivalent of a thermostatic control for room temperatures. It would seem only reasonable to extend such controls to all the sensory thresholds of our being. (Relation of Environment to Anti-Environment 1966; also Through the Vanishing Point, 253)
modern painting does not allow for the single point of view or the dispassionate survey. The modern painter offers an opportunity for dialogue within the parameters inherent in (…) the total world of man’s sensory involvement. (Through the Vanishing Point, 261)
Until this century, the limits have been set well below the threshold of rational control of the total environment. At electric speeds it is quite futile to set limits of awareness at that level. (Take Today, 192-193)
The gulping or swallowing of Nature by the machine was attended by a complete change of the ground rules of both the sensory ratios of the individual nervous system and the patterns of the social order as well. (Notes on Burroughs, 1964)
in the age of the X-ray inner and outer are simultaneous events. (Through the Vanishing Point, 254)
According to Philip Marchand in his bio of McLuhan, The Medium and the Messenger:
In ‘Footprints in the Sands of Crime’ McLuhan (…) articulated a theme that would remain his until the end of his career — the theme of Poe’s story “The Maelstrom.” In that story, a sailor caught in a giant whirlpool eventually saves himself from drowning through detached observation of the vortex. For McLuhan, the sailor’s action became a symbol, along with the sleuth, of his own work — of his freeing himself from the vortex of threatening social change through the process of understanding it. (McLuhan never mentioned that the hero of the story was broken in mind and body after the experience.)1
Marchand’s description here goes fundamentally awry. For, in the first place, McLuhan did indeed see “that the hero of [Poe’s] story was broken in mind and body” — to the point of “vanishing”:
More importantly, Marchand’s take on McLuhan’s appeal to the Maelstrom is that it concerns a “hero” who “saves himself (…) through detached observation” of “the vortex of threatening social change”. But such a stable heroic identity, however broken it might become, with an objective perspective on an exclusively external social environment, is possible only within the parameters of the Gutenberg galaxy! As McLuhan repeatedly maintained:
From the development of phonetic script until the invention of the electric telegraph human technology had tended strongly towards the furtherance of detachment and objectivity, detribalization and individuality. Electric circuitry has quite the contrary effect. It involves in depth. It merges the individual and the mass environment. (…) The awareness and opposition of the individual are in these circumstances as irrelevant as they are futile. (Through the Vanishing Point, 244)
In contrast to Marchand’s take, McLuhan started from ‘The Gutenberg Galaxy Reconfigured’4 and pointed to an “anti-hero” whose heroism has not only been broken but “has gone through the vanishing point”:
The anti-hero became a theme in art and literature as early as Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, the “novel without a hero.” (…) The heroism of New England’s Pilgrim Fathers has gone through the vanishing point. (Take Today, 207)
“The vanishing point” is the utter extinction of the hero because the hero cannot survive the “vanishing” of his or her external — and associated internal — ‘landscape’. Where Marchand writes of “the vortex of threatening social change”, McLuhan was clear that the twin aspects of the “psychic and social environment” (Through the Vanishing Point, 12) rise and fall only together:
the slightest shift in the level of visual intensity produces a subtle modulation in our sense of ourselves, both private and corporate. (Through the Vanishing Point, 238)
As the Western world goes Oriental on its inner trip with electric circuitry (…) the whole nature of self-identity enters a state of crisis. (Through the Vanishing Point, 254)
The new hero is a corporate rather than a private individual figure. (Through the Vanishing Point, 260)
Marchand’s “hero” is able to take “detached observation of the vortex”. But for McLuhan:
[only] the “objectivist” supposes that he can stand naked “out of this world.” (The Argument: Causality in the Electric World, 1973)
For him, a collapsing environment collapsed such objectivity along with it:
Their [observers like Marchand] hidden hang-up was the visual bias of all “objectivity,” whether “materialist” or “idealist.” They also ignored the acoustic “message of the birds” — the output of any process, biological or psychic, always differs qualitatively from the input. There are no “through-puts” or connections between processes but only gaps or interfaces for “keeping in touch” with “where the action is.” (The Argument: Causality in the Electric World, 1973)
In his ‘Descent into the Maelstrom’ the mariner is just such a processing of (gen obj!) his own self!5 The “output” of himself “differs qualitatively from the input” of himself. His own being — he himself — is what is at stake in this knotted (and notted) process of trans-formation! Between his input ‘down’ state (‘Descent into the Maelstrom’) and his output ‘up’ state (‘Ascent from the Maelstrom’) “there are no ‘through-puts’ or connections between processes but only gaps or interfaces”.
Such a transitive gap in identity via “vanishing” is what Poe calls “the incomprehensible mechanism” and this is the one starting point or “threshold“, among the plurality or spectrum of possible thresholds, from which any fitting consideration of McLuhan’s work must make its start:
New environments reset our sensory thresholds. These, in turn, alter our outlook and expectations. The need of our time is for a means of measuring sensory thresholds and a means of discovering exactly what changes occur in these thresholds (Through the Vanishing Point, 253)
Thresholds have us, not we them.6 Their spectrum constitutes a kind of psychological and ontological Maelstrom whose navigation “demands awareness that can be achieved only by going Through the Vanishing Point.”
- Philip Marchand, The Medium and the Messenger, 76. The last sentence stems from Marchand. It is bracketed, apparently, to signal a change of level in his report: here is what McLuhan said, but here is what I have remarked about what he said. ↩
- Similarly in his letter to The Listener, October 8, 1971: “Poe provided clues for ascending from The Maelstrom” (Letters 443). ↩
- Similarly in Take Today, 207 (cited above): “The heroism of New England’s Pilgrim Fathers has gone through the vanishing point.” ↩
- ‘The Gutenberg Galaxy Reconfigured’ is the concluding section of The Gutenberg Galaxy. ↩
- McLuhan to Father Shook, June 20, 1972: “the individual private psyche, the human ‘self’, is itself an artifact.” ↩
- See Percepts of existence. The etymology of ‘threshold’ is obscure but may be taken to have come from ‘thresh‘, in the sense of ‘to tread’, and from ‘hold‘, in the sense of a ‘refuge’ or ‘keep’ (household, hold of a ship, etc). So: ‘a step into or from a protected place’, a ‘doorstep’. ↩
Marchand, The Medium and the Messenger:
There were times when McLuhan felt proud that he had been an intellectual pioneer, almost the first person in the West since Plato, as he sometimes put it, to study effects rather than to talk about causes. (278)
McLuhan was overstating the case, of course. Gilson and Muller-Tyme had taught him how important this method was to Augustine and to Christian philosophy generally. But the claim gives good measure of the importance within McLuhan’s work of this sort of investigation. In the sciences it is comparable to a chemist recommending close attention to the workings of particular material reactions in order to illuminate the table of elements. Or to a physicist attempting to define a law through concrete observations of, say, the path of a planet. But in the humanities, far more consequentially, it is the one way around nihilism.
Poe’s story (if that is what it is), ‘The Premature Burial’ (1844), rehearses the action of ‘Descent into the Maelstrom’ (1841) in another medium, earth rather than sea:
To be buried while alive is, beyond question, the most terrific of these extremes which has ever fallen to the lot of mere mortality. That it has frequently, very frequently, so fallen will scarcely be denied by those who think. The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins? We know that there are diseases in which occur total cessations of all the apparent functions of vitality, and yet in which these cessations are merely suspensions, properly so called. They are only temporary pauses in the incomprehensible mechanism. A certain period elapses, and some unseen mysterious principle again sets in motion the magic pinions and the wizard wheels. The silver cord was not for ever loosed, nor the golden bowl irreparably broken. But where, meantime, was the soul?
just where and when (“a certain period”) are “the boundaries which divide Life from Death”? And what occurs to the soul, ‘there’ and ‘then’, between identities, or between identity and its annihilation? Poe’s wonderfully formulated suggestion is that such trans-formation is the working of an “incomprehensible mechanism”:
some unseen mysterious principle again sets in motion the magic pinions and the wizard wheels. The silver cord was not for ever loosed, nor the golden bowl irreparably broken.
This process of metamorphosis is the precondition of rebirth, psychological or otherwise. ‘The Premature Burial’ concludes:
My soul acquired tone — acquired temper. I went abroad. I took vigorous exercise. I breathed the free air of Heaven. I thought upon other subjects than Death. I discarded my medical books. “Buchan” I burned.1 I read no “Night Thoughts” — no fustian [speech] about churchyards — no bugaboo tales —such as this2. In short, I became a new man, and lived a man’s life.
- “Buchan” has not definitively been identified. Candidates include William Buchan (1729-1805), author of a popular medical book, and Peter Buchan (1790-1854), a collector of dark tales. See The Short Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe: An Annotated Edition. Night Thoughts is the famous book of Edward Young (1683-1765). ↩
- Poe’s genial self-reference within his own “bugaboo tale” — “such as this” — also functions to describe the metamorphosis at stake in it as an “incomprehensible” flip in awareness. ↩
Breton’s sentence, particularly as cited in 1884 by van Gogh (1853-1890), captures a number of McLuhan’s themes at once: the gap where the action is, the hidden processes of the present, the unperceived transitive water or footbridge, the function of artistic creation, the dialogue of the light and dark, “light through” toward us rather than “light on” from us, etc.
McLuhan talking in ‘A Matter of Faith‘, a 1972 interview with Fr Patrick Peyton:
It’s perfectly obvious that the family has been ripped off, as it were. In our kind of world the extreme mobility of the hardware components of the world around it have destroyed the community in which the family normally is embedded. The matrix of the family, the community, has been ripped off by new instruments of transportation which simply eliminate the neighborliness and the natural rapport that men have with one another by proximity and daily dialogue and familiarity. It is the daily dialogue and familiarity that has been ripped off by rapid transport so that people now go as quickly to Berlin (…) or to Moscow (…) as formerly they made a short journey (…) Now this has temporarily, at least, destroyed what we call community and so the family is left isolated — the nuclear family [today is] stark naked, unsupported by community. Now a family in which you have no [surrounding] community is naturally one that is put under a terrible stress. If only the members of the family are there to constitute community and neighborliness this is surely [only the] bare bones [of community] and it’s a pretty stark situation.
And in 1974:
In a world of perpetual motion and high mobility there can be no meaningful community, since by definition, all we really have in common is the mobility; and the one thing we depend upon is change. The mobility itself is inseparable from our new affluent technologies which demand that we become their servo-mechanisms. (Foreword to Abortion in Perspective)
In the mid 1960s, when McLuhan began to be lionized in the US (giving license to Canadians to do so in train), the understanding was that he was a conservative capitalist who provided highfalutin thoughts on the great virtues of modern technology. Television and electric media generally were — the new God.
But then it turned out that McLuhan saw capitalism as the private rip-off of public goods and the new media as potentially enslaving and as certainly destructive of individual and social identity.1
Once this other side of McLuhan’s thought became known, he had to be exposed as a fraud and an idiot.2 Even worse, as a Catholic even! The press and the academy were duly organized to this end and the required result was soon obtained, first in the US and then, ever taking its cue, in Canada as well. McLuhan became an embarrassment.
McLuhan is usually considered as a student of the media. But his career may as usefully be studied as an object of manipulation3 by that rabid merger of media and intelligentsia that has torn off its mask today to reveal its monstrous power and terrible intent.
- Cf, Take Today, 41: “From tribal brotherhood to universal otherhood — Benjamin Nelson, Idea of Usury; 59-60: “Brooks Adams in 1896 produced his classic study of the effect of acceleration on social institutions: ‘Nothing so portentous overhangs humanity as this mysterious and relentless acceleration of movement, which changes methods of competition and alters paths of trade; for by it countless millions of men and women are foredoomed to happiness or misery, as certainly as the beasts and trees, which have flourished in the wilderness, are destined to vanish when the soil is subdued by man.’ — The Law of Civilization and Decay” ↩
- This effort continues unabated to this day. The bite of McLuhan’s insight into the modern world is such that there continues to be a good market for its discounting. ‘How to Become a Famous Media Scholar: The Case of Marshall McLuhan‘ by Jefferson Pooley (associate professor of media and communication at Muhlenberg College) is an outstanding contemporary example of such exposure: McLuhan as a media creation, McLuhan as a reactionary, McLuhan as “Panglossian seer”, McLuhan as “pious agrarian”, McLuhan as “media mystagogue”, McLuhan as “cultural pessimist”, McLuhan as self-contradictory, McLuhan as nostalgic for tribalism, McLuhan as pentacostal, McLuhan as “truth-indifferent”, McLuhan as “schizophrenic”, etc etc. There is little Pooley fails to throw against the wall to see what will stick. ↩
- Pooley notes with some truth: “In some ways, though, McLuhan was more a product of the media culture than its student.” But what Pooley thinks we find in this “product of the media culture” is, somehow, “the man” himself! More, this is the man himself as a media manipulator! Pooley is able to reach this bizarre conclusion because he holds, as a convinced Gutenbergian, directly contra McLuhan (and contra all the great moderns championed by McLuhan from Poe to Joyce), that the media environment is subject to individual control. McLuhan as a “product of the media culture” is immediately thereafter said to have “seduced Esquire and the ad men (and later Wired) because what he had to say resonated with Americans already primed for the good news about technology.” And exactly therefore (as Pooley ends his screed another sentence later): “the man (…) is more instructive than his books.” Where McLuhan, like Poe’s mariner in the Maelstrom, investigated the depths of the media sea to learn how it was that Americans are “already primed”, Pooley would direct our interest to the hero with a thousand faces making his way over that sea’s surface — a sort of Captain Cook of the media. ↩
if the external world is attuned to the mind of man, then the whole of Nature is a language and the poet is a pontifex or bridger between the two worlds. He conducts the symphony of mind and nature. (…) The poet here is exercising his priestly powers of purifying the wells of existence, exerting his primary imagination which is the agent of all perception, not the secondary imagination which brings art into existence as an echo of the functions of perception.1 (Coleridge As Artist, 1957)
I am myself quite aware that there is a great contrast between perceptual and conceptual confrontation; and I think that the “death of Christianity” or the “death of God” occurs the moment they [Christianity/God] become concept. As long as they remain percept, directly involving the perceiver, they are alive. (Electric Consciousness and The Church, 1970)
The idealists share with the experienced and practical men of their time the infirmity of substituting concepts for percepts. Both concentrate on a clash between past experience and future goals that black out the usual but hidden processes of the present. Both ignore the fact that dialogue as a process of creating the new came before, and goes beyond, the exchange of “equivalents” that merely reflect or repeat the old.2 (Take Today, 1972. 22)
Percepts of existence always lie behind concepts of nature. (The Argument: Causality in the Electric World, 1973)3
Effects Are Perceived Whereas Causes Are Conceived (The Argument: Causality in the Electric World, 1973)4
The effects come first, and the fact of the effects coming first indicates that the study of environmental action, or the action of the [Mael]strom, must begin with the effects rather than with a theoretic pursuit of causes. The effects are percepts, and the causes tend to be concepts. (Art as Survival in the Electric Age, 1973)
“Percepts of existence” is a subjective genitive5 (where percepts belong first of all to existence), not an objective genitive (where existence would belong to percepts as their achieved/assembled/certified/manipulated/conceptualized object).
Hence, since existence is our ground, and since existence is originally fractured as6 primordial percepts, we belong first of all to percepts, not them to us.
The qualification “first of all” is required because the mystery (“the main question“) lies in the fact that the subjective genitive in “percepts of existence” comes to be an objective genitive. The subjectivity of existence (gen. subj.) comes to be taken over by an objectivity. And this objectivity seems to belong to us, not to it — since it, existence, comes to be the object of our conceptualization.
But what if even, or especially, this hand-over belonged (and indeed belongs) first of all to it? To an “incomprehensible” kenosis?
- “Primary” here must be taken in terms of rank (ie, of fundamentality), but also in terms of time. For a sound comes first or is “primary” and its “echo” is “secondary”. So in experience, perception is always first (although this is usually blacked out and unknown) and what we make on this basis, from conceptions to bed-frames to artworks, always second. ↩
- “Dialogue” is both one percept on the spectrum of percepts and the prerequisite for consciousness of the katabasis that perpetually recurs to that spectrum. What comes first and what comes second here is knotted: “dialogue” must be known in order to come to know “dialogue”. This knot in time constitutes a labyrinth which must be threaded as the initial step into the terra incognita McLuhan attempted to introduce and explore. ↩
- This passage in ‘The Argument: Causality in the Electric World’ continues: ‘Their hidden hang-up was the visual bias of all “objectivity,” whether “materialist” or “idealist.” They also ignored the acoustic “message of the birds” — the output of any process, biological or psychic, always differs qualitatively from the input. There are no “through-puts” or connections between processes but only gaps or interfaces for “keeping in touch” with “where the action is.” When the “play” between the wheel and the axle ends, so does the wheel. 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 of the rationalist philosophers still persists: to achieve an inclusive “science of the sciences.” But such a “science” would be a monster of preconceived figures minus un-perceived grounds. No “objective” dialectics of Nature or of science as visually ex-plainable can stand up to a resonant interface with the existential. For “testing the truth” is not merely matching by congruence or classification; it is making sense out of the totality of experience — a process of pattern re-cognition that requires not only concepts but active perception by all the senses. Today, as “hardware” is transmuted into pure information by the process of “etherealization,” the “inner” and the “outer” merge — thinking becomes doing.’ ↩
- This further passage in ‘The Argument: Causality in the Electric World’ continues: ‘Unable to explore actual processes perceptually from every side, the conceptual man apprehends only visual goals. For example, the conventional ideas of “evolution” and “technology” are illusions engendered by the visual bias of literate cultures. Such cultures translated the “chain of being” metaphor from the astral to the biological plane. For the use of the missing link” idea we are indebted to a missing inventor. So far nobody has appeared as originator of this phrase. The gap created by the “missing link” has sparked more exploration and discovery than the established links in “connected” science. Conceptual choices, like “natural selection,” can come only after the fact. The “origins” of all species vanish in rear-view perspectives, while the music goes round and round.’ ↩
- A subjective genitive like ‘the ball of the boy’. An objective genitive, in contrast, may be seen in ‘the boy’s ball’. ↩
- ‘As’ not ‘into’, since ‘into’ might be taken to imply a chronological sequence of, first, existence, and then, sometime later, its fracture into percepts. Instead, existence is primordially fractured and these fractions may be called percepts. ↩
- McLuhan often emphasized the importance of “replay” as “recognition” and “retrieval”. Here it has the opposite value of preventing “recognition” and “retrieval”. The differences between these values turn on the presence or absence of “dialogue as a process of creating the new” that does not “merely reflect or repeat the old” (Take Today, 22). ↩
- “Old lives” as giving “a sense of reality” provides an interesting ontological twist to the “rear-view mirror”. ↩
- Linda Sandler, ‘Interview With Marshall McLuhan: His Outrageous Views About Women’,Miss Chatelaine magazine, September 3, 1974). Some further observations from the same interview: “Escaping into another time or space is a form of indulgence — like licking a candy bar. I’m not sure there should be any law against it. I don’t think people should be deep and profound — my gosh! who wants even to hear such people?”; “Men (as opposed to women) have no imagination (…) (they have taken) early retirement for sagging psyches”. ↩
The Symbolists long ago, and Yeats, Joyce, Pound, Eliot in this century, spent their entire lives expounding the aesthetics of the resonant intervals of acoustic space. The same resonant intervals have become the basis of modern quantum mechanics.The major factor is that the interval is where the action is. (McLuhan to Barbara Ward, February 8, 1973, Letters 466, emphasis in the original)
When McLuhan came to read Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés (1897) in the late 1940s, he must have been struck to find that one prism in its assemblage of prisms reflected, or refracted, Poe’s ‘Descent into the Maelstrom’ (1841).1 For McLuhan had been deeply engaged with Poe at least since 1943 (but he had begun to read Poe’s stories a full decade before this on his way to England with Tom Easterbrook in 1932) and had published an essay on ‘Edgar Poe’s Tradition’ in 1944. Then in 1946 he began that series of prescriptions of the Maelstrom that he would continue unabated for the rest of his life:
The sailor in his story The Maelstrom is at first paralyzed with horror. But in his very paralysis there is another fascination which emerges, a power of detached observation which becomes a “scientific” interest in the action of the strom. And this provides the means of escape. (Footprints in the Sands of Crime, 1946)
Mallarmé’s poem (if that is what it is) situates itself (if it can be said to situate itself in “this region of vagueness, in which all reality dissolves”) in the abyss of a shipwreck at the moment of “detached” (McLuhan) “vertigo” (Mallarmé) when its “master” (Poe’s mariner) is between “vessels” (“the man without a vessel”). This is “the moment of striking”, like the striking of a spark, through which some or other particular form of experience is actualized out of the “original foam” or spectrum array of its possibilities. Hence it is a moment “beyond former calculations” (defining “the old man”) but that is “not yet some [further] account” or “sum”.
This is a time aside from chronological time that unaccountably “hesitates” and so provides a kind of freeze-frame portrait of “THE ETERNAL CIRCUMSTANCE” of the exposure of the master’s “childlike2 shade” or “immemorial ulterior demon” to “the virgin index” of possibilities (“in sight of all non-existent human outcomes”, the “non-existent regions” of “AS IF” constituting the un-decided “neutrality of [the] abyss”). These formal seeds may be imagined as the flotsam and jetsam circling within the Maelstrom’s “worldpool”, some one of which Mallarmé’s “master”, like Poe’s mariner and his brother (and, indeed, everyone) must forever, over and over again, ‘select’, or somehow originate. as the momentary “vessel” of their eternally forthcoming experience.
This is the ‘story’ (although exactly not a chronological one, not linear ‘history’) of “the memorable crisis where the event matured, accomplished in sight of all non-existent human outcomes“. But this singular “event” is one that is “accomplished” over and over again in (or to) all human experience such that it is the “ETERNAL CIRCUMSTANCE” by which precisely “NOTHING (…) WILL HAVE TAKEN PLACE (…) BUT THE PLACE”. That is, nothing itself, the synchronic gap or interval between particular vessels of experience, as an original creative force before experience, unaccountably activates itself (or ‘takes place’) and the result is — some “place”, some “CONSTELLATION“, some orientation, like “North”. In the midst of this synchronic way humans eternally reenact the original creation where, too, “NOTHING (…) WILL HAVE TAKEN PLACE (…) BUT THE PLACE”.
THE ETERNAL CIRCUMSTANCE OF A SHIPWRECK’S DEPTH (…) the Abyss raging (…) beneath the desperately sloping incline (…) falling (…) the surges, gathered far within the shadow buried deep by (…) its yawning depth (…) rocked from side to side (…) THE MASTER, beyond former calculations, where the lost manoeuvre (…) that formerly (…) grasped the helm (…) hesitates, a corpse pushed back by the arm from the secret3, rather than taking sides4, a hoary madman, on behalf of the waves: one [wave] overwhelms the head, flows through the submissive beard (…) of the man without a vessel, empty (…) a legacy, in vanishing, to someone ambiguous, the immemorial ulterior demon having, from non-existent regions, led the old man towards this ultimate meeting with probability, this his childlike shade caressed and smoothed and rendered supple by the wave (…) the sea through the old man or the old man against the sea, making a vain attempt, an Engagement whose dread the veil of illusion rejected, as the phantom of a gesture will tremble, collapse, madness, WILL NEVER ABOLISH (…) AS IF
A simple insinuation into silence (…) the mystery hurled, howled, in some close swirl (…) whirls round the abyss without scattering or dispersing and cradles the virgin index there [of] AS IF (…) that IF the lucid and lordly crest of vertigo on the invisible brow sparkles, then shades, a slim dark tallness, upright in its siren coiling, at the moment of striking, through impatient ultimate scales (…) that imposed limits on the infinite (…) rhythmic suspense of the disaster, to bury itself in the original foam, from which its delirium formerly leapt to the summit faded by the same neutrality of abyss (…) NOTHING of the memorable crisis [gen subj!] where the event matured, accomplished in sight of all non-existent human outcomes, WILL HAVE TAKEN PLACE a commonplace elevation pours out [of] absence BUT THE PLACE some lapping below, as if to scatter the empty act abruptly, that otherwise by its falsity would have plumbed perdition, in this region of vagueness, in which all reality dissolves (…)5
These excerpts comprise over half of the text. Another substantial prism-theme has to do with what occurs at this juncture of “un Coup de Dés“. A de-cision is made (such as Poe’s mariner’s decision to abandon ship and entrust himself to a barrel) that is at once uncertain as regards its provenance (the mariner’s brother can’t understand it) and its viability, but also certain as regards its specific shape: “that imposed limits on the infinite”. The “throw of the dice” is such a “meeting with probability” that cannot hope to “abolish hazard” or “chance”; but at the same time occasions some “unique Number which cannot be another”, “a final account in formation”, “A CONSTELLATION”:
EXCEPT at the altitude PERHAPS, as far as a place fuses with, beyond, outside (…) through such declination6 of fire (…) towards what must be the Wain also North A CONSTELLATION (…) a final account in formation (…) stopping at some last point that (…) expresses a Throw of the Dice [Un Coup de Dés].
As Gilson noted in his 1930 Augustine essay: “by the very act of choosing the way he considered best he precluded himself from at the same time following another”.7 Similarly in McLuhan’s Nashe thesis: “the history of the trivium is largely a history of the rivalry among [the three arts] for ascendancy” such that “in any study of the history of the trivium it is unavoidable that one adopts the point of view of one of these arts”.
Human beings always act and experience on the basis of some orientation (“the Wain also North A CONSTELLATION”), but an orientation singular is not given. Instead there are orientations, plural, and both the art and science of the 20th century came to interrogate how de-cision is made between them (or has always already been made between them), at the prior level of AS IF possibility (although to the normal mode or “vessel” of experience such questioning could only seem to be a shipwreck). And the great question was, and is, how such achieved singularity out of pluripotent ground might or might not be compatible with meaning.
- Following Baudelaire’s intense engagement with Poe, Mallarmé published his sonnet, Le Tombeau d’Edgar Poe, in 1876, and his translations of Poe’s collected poems (Les Poèmes d’Edgar Poe) in 1888. ↩
- “Childlike” because ‘hesitating’ before possibilities yet to be actualized (or not)”: “someone ambiguous“. ↩
- “A corpse pushed back by the arm (of the vortex) from the secret”: a “corpse” because “a legacy, in vanishing” and not yet some “final account in formation” that would expose “the secret” of either the “plumbed perdition” below or the “commonplace elevation” above. ↩
- Ditto. ↩
- Translation by A.S. Kline (underlining emphasis added). ↩
- Regarding altitude/declination, see note 3 above. McLuhan doubtless read Coup de Dés against the background of Eliot’s Four Quartets, one of whose epigrams is Heraclitus’ ‘odos ano kato… ↩
- ‘The Future Of Augustinian Metaphysics’, A Monument To Saint Augustine, 1930, 287-315. ↩
Mallarmé (…) saw that a poetry of effects was impersonal. The author effaced himself above all in not assigning causes or explanations as transitional devices of a novelistic and a pseudo-rationalistic type between the parts of a poem. (Mr. Eliot’s Historical Decorum, 1949)
When a new environment forms, we see the old one as if we lived in a world of the déjà vu. (…) Yet this strategy merely ensures that whenever we encounter the unfamiliar, we will translate it into something we already know. It is this that seems to make the present almost impossible to apprehend in any period or culture. It was James Joyce in Finnegans Wake who demonstrated that the way to overcome the fear of the present, and of innovation in general, is to make an inventory of all the effects of the new thing as it encounters all the older forms of the society. (The Future of Morality: inner vs outer quest, 1967)
It was the symbolist poets who began the study of effects minus causes. This is a technique indispensable to the developing of perception and the by-passing of concepts. (McLuhan to Jim Davey, March 22, 1971)
the discovery of the “technique of discovery” (…) is [to learn how] to trace a process backward from its ultimate effect to the point at which to begin to produce that effect, i.e., to invent the market before the product. This was the discovery of Poe in detective fiction, and Baudelaire in poetry. (Take Today, 195)
This putting the effect before the cause is what we do typically and ordinarily in the electric time. In 1844, at about the same time that Gould [Cantor?], the mathematician, invented set theory by separating the mathematical operations from mathematical quantities, Edgar Allan Poe, the great innovator in the arts, separated the poetic process from poetry. This was his great breakthrough, and it was of instant effect on the French symbolists and the French poetic activity of the period. Baudelaire translated Poe (…) and took on this idea of simultaneity that if you want to write a poem you have to start with the effect and then look around for the causes. And this became the awareness of acoustic space in which the beginning and the end are at the same time. This is the kind of space and time in which we live now. Einstein was only catching up with Poe in the twentieth century when he invented space-time or relativity theory. The poets and the artists are usually fifty years ahead of the physical scientists in devising models of perception. The job of the artist is to devise means of perceiving that are relevant to the situation in which you exist. This is the gap between biology and technology… (Art as Survival in the Electric Age, 1973)
Poe hit upon the key to the electric age, programming from effects in order to anticipate causes. (Art as Survival in the Electric Age, 1973)
I begin with effects and work round to the causes, whereas the conventional pattern
is to start with a somewhat arbitrary selection of ‘causes’ and then try to match these
with some of the effects. It is this haphazard matching process that leads to fragmentary
superficiality. (McLuhan to Franklin R Gannon, June 12, 1973, Letters 478)
converts come in through the back door of the church. Coming in through the back door is coming in through the effects of the church, and not through its teachings. (McLuhan to Nina Sutton, 1975)
In the late 1940s a series of influences suddenly coalesced for McLuhan into a position he would continue to articulate for the remaining thirty years of his life. This coalescence amounted to his second conversion. The central notion was that everything experienced in human life and culture is effect, never cause — but that effect indirectly suggests cause (via induction and making, not deduction and matching).
In the order of their work on (working over) McLuhan, these influences were: T.S. Eliot’s lectures and essays and especially his Four Quartets which appeared sequentially in the late 1930s and early 1940s; the many books and essays of Etienne Gilson from the 1920s and 1930s1; Edgar Poe’s ‘Descent into the Maelstrom’ (1841) and ‘Philosophy of Composition’ (1846); Cleanth Brooks’ poem on the Maelstrom explicitly correlating it with times plural (written in 1944 and published in 1946)2; the poems and essays of Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898); the essays and poetry of Ezra Pound; and the novels of James Joyce (which McLuhan reread in the late 1940s).3
When Bernard Muller-Thym returned with his PhD from the University of Toronto to St Louis University in 1938 to teach in the philosophy department, he and McLuhan rapidly became close friends. Muller-Thym would be the best man at McLuhan’s marriage in 1939 and the Godfather of McLuhan’s first child, Eric, in 1941. In Toronto Muller-Thym had been Etienne Gilson’s favorite student and in turn passed on his knowledge of Gilson to McLuhan. The years Muller-Thym and McLuhan spent together in St Louis (before Muller-Thym enlisted in the navy in 1942) amounted to a master’s class in Gilson’s thought conducted by Muller-Thym for McLuhan. As is especially evident once the editor’s additions to McLuhan’s own bibliography are discounted, Gilson would became by far the most cited reference in McLuhan’s PhD thesis on Nashe, written in 1941-1942.
Gilson’s teaching on the chronological and phenomenological precedence of effect to cause is especially treated in his 1930 essay, ‘The Future Of Augustinian Metaphysics’:4
The fact on which [Augustine] fastened as the witness in ourselves of the existence of God was the true judgement. His analysis, often repeated, of the characteristics (…) which formally define truth as such, is well known; the antinomy between the contingency of the subject as the vehicle of truth on the one side, and the necessity of truth itself, whatever its object, on the other, can only be solved by the admission of a subsistent truth [or medium] (297)
For the Augustinian proof to have its full effect, it is necessary that, somehow or other, the human intellect, which conceives the truth [in the sciences, but also in everyday understanding of language and the environment], should not be the immediate sufficient cause of its truth; if it is, there is no necessity for it to affirm the existence of God as cause, and then the way opening [to God] through thought is blocked at the very entrance. Doubtless there would remain the search for God in the order of causality, as cause of the intellect itself (which Albert the Great was to attempt), but St. Augustine does not even try this, because the only operation of the intellect which requires the affirmation of God as its sufficient reason is the [existence]5 of truth. He has, therefore, always to come back to the true judgement, or, what comes to the same thing, the intellect, so far as it is capable of conceiving truth. (298)
if (…) this is the point on which his proof rests, it must necessarily follow that Divine illumination (to give it its traditional name) must reach thought directly [as cause, but known as direct cause only indirectly through effect]. For either it reaches it directly and in that case we grasp at the same time the sufficient reason of truth and God who is its foundation; or it reaches it indirectly, and in that case we are equally incapable of attaining to the existence of God and of accounting for truth [since in this case these would depend from the recognition bestowed upon them by our contingency]. (298-299)
To say that “we know in God”, or that we see His hidden light, is this not tantamount to inviting the metaphysician in search of a mystical intuitionism to treat God as the very light of our thought, as the natural and first object of this thought, so that, instead of knowing Him through things, we know things through Him? This deviation begins from the end of the twelfth century onwards, under the influence of Arabic neo-Platonism, and especially of Avicenna; [although] dammed in by the efforts of St, Bonaventura and of St. Thomas Aquinas, it spreads in the seventeenth century with Malebranche, thanks to the influence
of Cartesian idealism, and reaches its height in the nineteenth century under the impulse of German idealism. (299)
In proportion as the teaching of St. Augustine aimed at being a metaphysic, it is a metaphysic based upon a psychological empiricism, or, if preferred, a metaphysic of inner experience. Hence its extreme suppleness, its power of rebirth, and the very incompleteness which left a permanent possibility of progress open before it. (302-303)
The important point before all else is to understand that the two philosophies [Augustinian and Cartesian] have no essential relation (…) What is, for the French philosopher, but the initial step in a regulated order of thoughts is for St. Augustine a concrete and painful experience, an illness from which he has suffered and of which he has cured himself.(…) si fallor sum (301, 303)
Assuming (…) St. Augustine’s method is as we have described it, what do we find as the necessary starting-point of our search? Facts, and nothing but facts. These facts may be, and often are, facts of inner experience, they may be ideas — but ideas taken not as principles of deduction, but as the basis of induction. The problem of the existence of God enjoys no privileged position in his teaching. It is, indeed, a unique case in respect of the reality at stake and consequently also in respect of the nature of the datum which allows us to attain to it, but this datum differs from other data only in content, not in nature. Like being, like life, like sensation, like thought, truth is a fact; like other facts, it is
presented to our empirical observation; like other empirical observations, it demands of metaphysics the discovery of its sufficient reason; and if God alone can furnish its sufficient reason, we shall have proved the existence of God. Nothing here ever leaves the strictly philosophical order to pass over into mystical intuition and to substitute it for philosophical thought. (305-306)
Every ontological interpretation of St. Augustine presupposes, then, a more or less complete misunderstanding of his radical empiricism. (…) The primum cognitum of St. Augustine is not God ; it is man within the universe, and, within this universe and this man, the experience of a true judgement. But it must be added that this primum cognitum is not (…) the primum reale ; on the contrary, it [the primum cognitum] becomes intelligible only on condition of finding its sufficient reason in a transcendent fact which provides its explanation. (306)
St. Augustine starts from a complex cognitum in which he distinguishes by analysis an order of reality which postulates in its turn that of the First Being. Once this Being is apprehended and posited, it becomes possible to set off into an order which is not that of deduction, but rather of production ; and even then it must be remembered that the start is taken not from a principle, but from the consequence, since we ourselves are
only a consequence (…) the doctrine of divine illumination is not the vision of the First Cause, but the induction of the First Cause, starting from an effect, namely [the fact of our knowledge of] truth. (306-307)
The congenital impotence of our intellectual light to apprehend truth, a correlative impotence of our will to compass the good until truth and goodness are accepted as the gifts of God, instead of being conquered like the spoils of the victor, had been St. Augustine’s experience… (307)
to be Christian qua philosophy, a philosophy must be Augustinian or nothing. His metaphysic of nature completes a metaphysic of grace, because nature is given to the Christian in grace, which, working in him inwardly, manifests itself there in the manner
of a cause revealed by its effects. (308)
It is in no case possible for man to start from God to deduce from Him the creature; on the contrary, he must mount from the creature to God. The course recommended by St. Augustine — and herein lies his personal contribution to the treasure of tradition — is the path to God, leading through this particular creature which is man, and in man, thought, and in thought, truth. But this means, quite beyond speculations about the nature of truth and its metaphysical conditions, a sort of moral dialectic that, taking as object of its search the search itself by man of God, endeavours to show the presence in the heart of man of a contingency… (312)
that secret door behind which God stands. (313)
a renewed Augustinianism (…) would have to become assimilative and creative (…) it will so become, once it realizes that its function is to do well what has been badly done by modern idealism, to re-establish it on the foundations of a psychological realism which is its natural basis… (314)
In a word (as McLuhan sometimes said, following Muller-Thym’s frequent habit), “that secret door behind which God stands” is the utter finitude and contingency of everything human — a finitude and contingency that is yet somehow capable of communication and of learning the truth about many matters. These capabilities taken as effects are, once restlessly considered, revelatory of what is before them as cause — and so makes them possible.
This is, of course, circular — from what is later, what is earlier is induced. But being subject to this circularity is just what human being is.
- In a strange and humorous reversal of roles, McLuhan undertook, 30 years later, to instruct Gilson on effects: “Symbolism starts with effects and goes sleuthing after causes” (McLuhan to Gilson, January 19, 1971, Letters 420). ↩
- Since Brooks and McLuhan were in close contact at this time, it may well be that McLuhan knew of the poem before it was published. ↩
- Of course, many of these influences had been greatly influenced themselves by some of the others: Mallarmé, Eliot, Pound and Brooks by Poe, Eliot, Pound and Joyce by Mallarmé. ↩
- In A Monument To Saint Augustine, 1930, 287-315. All emphasis in the citations has been added. ↩
- Gilson’s translated text here has ‘conception’, which is not false, but which introduces unnecessary complications. As Gilson says in the very next sentence: “(Augustine) has, therefore, always to come back to the true judgement, or, what comes to the same thing, the intellect, so far as it is capable of conceiving truth.” ↩