What is the present?

Present: adj. c. 1300, “existing at the time”, from Old French present “evident, at hand, within reach”; as a noun, “the present time” (11c., Modern French présent) and directly from Latin praesentem (nominative praesens) “present, at hand, in sight; immediate; prompt, instant; contemporary”, from present participle of praeesse “be before (someone or something [in space]), be at hand”, from prae “before” (see pre-) + esse “to be” (from PIE root *es- “to be”). Meaning “being there” is from mid-14c. in English. As a grammatical tense, recorded from late 14c. (Online Etymology Dictionary)

With our Vortex the Present is the only active thing.
Life is the Past and the Future.
The Present is Art.
(Wyndham Lewis, ‘Long Live the Vortex!’, Blast 1, 1914)

the artist, as Wyndham Lewis said to me, “is engaged in writing a detailed history of the future because he is aware of the unused potential of the present.” (Technology, the Media, and Culture, 1959)1

We simply have to (…) become contemporaries of ourselves. (Electronics and the Changing Role of Print, 1959)

Only those who have learned to perceive the present can predict the future. (…) For the future of the future is the present. (Take Today, 134)

McLuhan’s notion that most people don’t perceive the present is well known:

NOBODY yet knows the language inherent in the new technological culture; we are all deaf-blind mutes in terms of the new situation. Our most impressive words and thoughts betray us by referring to the previously existent, not to the present.
(‘Five Sovereign Fingers Taxed The Breath’, 1954 Counterblast)

We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future. (The Medium is the Massage, 74-75)

When a new environment forms, we see [only] the old one as if we lived in a world of the déjà vu. (…) Much learning theory still accepts this illusion (…) 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… (The Future of Morality: inner vs outer quest)

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. (…) 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. (McLuhan Interview on CBC ‘Our World’)

The habit of avoiding the present or the new (…) has been immemorial human tradition
… (Environment As Programmed Happening)

Ordinary human instinct causes people (…) to rely on the rear-view mirror
as a kind of repeat or ricorso of the preceding environment, thus insuring total disorientation at all times. It is not that there is anything wrong with the old environment, but it simply will not serve as navigational guide to the new one. (Through the Vanishing Point, xxiii)

But what is the present and why is it fearsome? The vague general idea seems to be that most people prefer the old to the new because they don’t want to make the effort to accommodate themselves to changed circumstance. While this is doubtless true, even of you and me, this answer does little more than restate the question — namely, what is the ‘effort to accommodate’ and why should it be fearsome?

McLuhan’s answer to these questions was that the process of accommodation is always going on — “In every moment of human awareness”, in “every moment of cognition”, in “the millions of repetitions of the cognitive labyrinth” —  but that we fear (or are otherwise discouraged2) to live it consciously and awake. That is, we don’t fear something that we don’t know, but something we ‘know’ all too well — something that is, however, unconscious and “hidden”, subject to blackout.3

McLuhan’s notion here was close to that of the psychoanalytic ‘unconscious’: there are processes in all human life which are constantly active that are yet not admitted to conscious awareness. And, like the psychoanalysts, McLuhan pointed to dreams as revealing these active yet largely unknown processes:

Interpretation of Dreams reveals the amazing power that all people have in their dream life of invention and poetic discovery; that the most ordinary person in his dream life is a tremendous poet. Most Freudians are concerned with the subject-matter of this poetry. That never interested me. I was always fascinated by the amazing ingenuity, symmetry, and inventiveness of the dreamer. We all have these tremendous unused powers which we use surreptitiously. We are afraid to use them in our waking lives. Except the artist. The artist uses in his waking life the powers an ordinary person would use in his dream life. The creative man has his dream life while awake. (…) The dream is a way of processing waking experiences in a pattern which is non-lineal, but multi-leveled. (McLuhan interview with  Gerald Stearn, McLuhan Hot & Cool)

“The subject-matter (…) never interested me”: the medium is the message.

Again like the psychoanalysts, McLuhan saw these processes at work not only in dreams, but in every aspect of “everyday life” without exception. Not only now and then, but all the time. In this way, the present was conceived by McLuhan as including all those hidden processes through which we experience what we experience:

The poetic process he [Joyce] discovered and states in Stephen Hero is the experience of (gen subj!) ordinary cognition, but it is that labyrinth reversed, retraced, and hence epiphanized. The moment of arrested cognition achieves at once its stasis and epiphany as a result of the reconstruction of the stages of ordinary apprehension. And every moment of cognition is thus a Beatrician moment when rendered lucid by a retracing of its labyrinth. (The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape Poetry)

The spoken word instantly evokes not only some recently conceived idea but reverberates with the total history of its own experience with man. We may be oblivious of such overtones as of the spectrum of colour in a lump of coal. (Culture Without Literacy)

the creative act of ordinary human perception
a greater thing and a more intricate process than any devised by philosophers or scientists. (Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters)

The rational notes of beauty, integrity, consonance, and
claritas traced by St. Thomas were actual stages of apprehension in every moment of human awareness. (Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters) 

the poetic process (…) is involved in ordinary cognition
(Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters)

Stephen’s surname is (…) “Dedalus,” i.e., “dead all us.” Joyce’s last story in Dubliners, “The Dead,” and the last lines of the Portrait explain the relation of the young artist to the 
dead; “I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of ex­perience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated con­science of my race.” This verbal implication of ricorsothe millions of repetitions of the cognitive labyrinth (…) is the task of making sense, of waking the somnambulists in the labyrinth of cognition. (From Cliché to Archetype, 148-149)

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 blacks 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. (Take Today, 22)

sensations and concepts [entail] (…) the continual transformation of sensory inputs into outputs of quite different kinds. Food for the mind is like food for the body; the inputs are never the same as the outputs! This pattern of non-lineality is evident in every human activity. (Take Today, 137)

McLuhan’s take on the present was that it implicated a synchronic descent into the formal possibilities of experience and that this descent had two chief modes.  It could be made perceptively or conceptually.4 The former might be imagined in terms of Poe’s mariner who saved himself in the Maelstrom by learning to understand how it functioned.  This involved a distance not only from his ship, but also from himself, since the possible vehicles in the flotsam and jetsam of the Maelstrom (as a representation of the possibilities ‘present’ in each recurrent moment of experience) were modalities of identity and awareness.  Their plurality could be investigated only by letting go of his own supposed singularity and its associated world. Since there is no world between worlds, he was able to save himself only by becoming nobody. But this is a kind of death and extinction and is feared as nothing else is.

In fundamental contrast to the mariner, the conceptual encounter with the present might be imagined in terms of the mariner’s brother, who was not able to ‘let go’ of the ship’s ‘ring’ and to ‘abandon ship’. Transfixed by fear, he could not learn what the vortex had to teach of the present — of what is ‘before’ us at every instant. He thereby went to his doom.



  1. McLuhan used this passage frequently.  It appears, sometimes with light variations, in at least a dozen different papers and books in the 1960s and 1970s. As early as 1953 in a review entitled ‘Symbolist Communication’ he noted, without mentioning Lewis, “art is a record of the future in so far as it is an expression of the unlived possibilities of the present”. This was clearly a highly important insight for him.
  2. In McLuhan’s take, mass media are grounded in our cognitive processes and attempt, with staggering success, to manipulate them. Part of his turn to media was the thought: if media are successful in manipulating how human beings live, they must do so on the basis of some genuine foundation, regardless if this is known or unknown to them. Therefore they are key to the investigation of what human being is and how it functions.
  3. All of the quotations in this paragraph come from passages given in full elsewhere in this post.
  4. Percept and concept align with synchronic and diachronic in time and with acoustic and visual in sensory emphasis.