Monthly Archives: January 2018

McLuhan to Serge Chermayeff

McLuhan wrote a long letter to Serge Chermayeff in December, 1960.  It is not included in the Letters, but is referenced in a letter a few days later to Jackie Tyrwhitt (Dec 23, 1960, Letters 277).

Part of the letter was later included in Chermayeff and Alexander’s Community and Privacy: toward a new architecture of humanism. It appears that Chermayeff sent McLuhan a draft of this book (“your manuscript”) asking for his comments on it. This may have been on Tyrwhitt’s initiative, since she is mentioned in the letter to Chermayeff and he is mentioned in the letter to her.

The Chermayeff letter is given here with permission of the McLuhan estate.

December 19, 1960

Dear Professor Chermayeff,

It was a delight to read your book, and of course very exciting to be in at the formative stage of a great work. It would be very presumptuous of me to do more than to offer suggestions such as pop into my head from my interests where they concern yours tangentially.

My own world of media study has not yet become involved in polemic because so little has been done about it. If I should tread on touchy ground where your interests are concerned, I’m sure you will realize it is in all innocence and unawareness. On the other hand, should my concepts derivative from media study sound unwelcome or unpleasant, please credit me there,too, with innocence.

The media from writing to television are extensions of our senses. Any technological means of extending one or another sense naturally upsets whatever ratio has preexisted among those senses. As such, it is revolutionary and alters the whole pattern of human sensibility. Today, when all of the senses have been  externalized, the human sensorium is itself a global envelope, it is not only the mix of sense components which is altered, but the total environment of sense has become potentially integral but actually alien and disruptive.

My own suggestion is that we are helpless as long as we imagine that it is by some control of programming and “content” that we can make sense of the whole situation.

Allow me then to pause here and there in your manuscript for a brief comment or so, hoping to have a proper chat sometime. I agree entirely with you about the obsoleteness of the “diverse pieces of man’s habitat”. This raises a very large question to which I will recur, the conditions under which the wheel is abstracted from animal form now recur in reverse and it is wheel which is obsolete. In an electronic age, all that properly moves is information. The massive overlay of antecedent and existent technologies takes on a peculiar character of simultaneity in the electronic age. All technologies become simultaneous, and the new problem becomes one of relevance in stress and selection, rather than of commitment to any one.

On the other hand the rise of the phonetic alphabet which translated sight into sound, and sound into sight, created the experience which we call Euclidean space, uniform and homogeneous and single-planed. Such space now is totally without foundation in our electronic technology, but it continues to have enormous foundations in western languages, and all our means of codifying experience in legal and educational and political institutions.

The question of obsoleteness encounters the need for some continuity in transition, but in practice total brainwashing is more likely to occur. Enclosed pictorial space, based on the alphabet and the abstraction of sight from the matrix of the other senses, is the foundation of western privacy and individual existence. It reached its peak in mechanism, and also its reversal in the telegraph and afterwards. I know with absolute clarity exactly why the electronic age means the end of Euclidean space, as of perspective and points of view, if we merely follow the lines of force in the electronic technology. If there are permanent values involved in this galaxy of alphabet, perspective and machine, they cannot any longer be generated or maintained by the technology which brought them into being. It is only by astute use of the new technology alien to these older values that we can recreate their image in a new milieu.

Now that we begin to understand how over-all changes in sensibility, in preference, in daily awareness of space and of time, alters with the new impact of any medium, any new means of moving information, it is possible to reverse that process, and by a careful selection of the means by which we move information we can enrich or deprive any milieu of this or that feature. That is to say that radio as radio would have an utterly different effect upon the sensibilities of India or China, just as it had a very different effect upon North America from its effect on Germany. Radio at this moment is exerting the most devastating effect upon the tribal community of Africa — since it is an auditory field of force, itself capable of generating tribal patterns of inter-association even in the most fragmented and literate consciousness. Literacy on the other hand is profoundly traumatic to Africans (see Psychiatry magazine, November 1959; article by J.C. Carothers in which he mentions that the preliterate African scarcely regards sight as a sense organ at all). On the other hand, sight is isolated and intensified by phonetic alphabet technology, which translates the entire auditory complex into visual terms, releasing the individual from the tribal matrix, and initiating those characteristics which we associate with individualism and privacy.

And in this connection it is equally observable in preliterate societies, as in our own post-literate global village, that we begin to note a heightening of auditory values after centuries of neglect through auditory stress. (Georg von Békésy in the Psychological Review for January 1959 has an article on ‘The Similarities between Hearing and Skin Sensations‘.) But in preliterate societies where the auditory is supreme as the mode of organizing experience, there is a deprivation of value in the other senses equivalent to the worst excesses of abstract visuality and pictorial space.

It would seem that, beginning with writing at least, there is a technological externalization of one sense which disrupts the economy of the senses, but which does permit a tremendous visual organization of experience, the rise of lineal logics, of roads, of sequential processes and special subject-matters. This is more particularly true of the phonetic alphabet than of other forms of writing. In the past, then, we have progressively externalized all of the senses and now we have globally an external and collective sensorium which demands the same degree of nutrition and titillation that our private sensorium does. Put in these terms, do not all the complaints about the excesses of our media take on a new meaning? When only one or two senses had been given technological externalization, there was less motive to regard such external senses as part of ourselves. Conversely, with the externalization of all the entire sensorium we are impelled toward the discovery of a global order and equilibrium of media experience with the same intensity with which we pursue the same [sort of] order in our private lives. Yet the total absence of any precedent for such a global quest merely seems to threaten individual values. All of our institutions, legal, political, including spoken language, resist such global order. The answer, of course, must lie in the direction of pluralism, rather than monism, and here is where the image of the City is an inevitable and necessary model. Because the city is precisely the area of multiple modes of awareness in a montage of luminous unity.

But this raises another set of problems. Electronically considered the human population of the globe occupies a very small village. It may never become a city. In terms of information movement, the patterns of human association now have the immediacy and the explosiveness of close oral contact in a tiny village. Sooner or later the same strategies of culture will suggest themselves to the global family as suggested themselves to small tribes. Since everything that happens in them happens at the same time for everybody, it is extremely inconvenient when anything happens at all. Institutional steps are soon taken that nothing will ever happen at all.

Let me approach this whole matter in a somewhat different way. Natural resources and staples, whether cotton, fish, lumber, coal, iron, water power or water ways are in certain respects low-grade media of communication gradually imposing their assumptions upon the entire community, creating a kind of organic unity. But our electronic media are in a very basic sense new natural resources, new staples of global extent and distribution since they are extensions of our own private senses. Archimedes said, “Give me a place to stand and I’ll move the world.” Photography, radio, television, et cetera enable anybody to stand on the collective human ear, eye, skin and to manipulate the entire human population as natural resource. Cultural experience gained from earlier media is not only useless, but confusing when confronted with this electronic situation.

What I’m saying is that the globe has become the scene of a new set of natural resources and staples, and culturally and politically we are being urged toward those patterns of life which characterize a staple economy such as is marginal to great economic centers. One characteristic of staple economies is a pattern of deep persistence and of intense resistance to innovation and technological change. Centers as opposed to margins, are the areas of response to innovation and technological change. Again, with the electronic movement of information, any area whatever on the globe can be a center and can simultaneously be a margin. Centers and margins can no longer have a clear positional aspect. Is not this one of the basic problems of our time? Are we not still trying to solve this problem positionally? Must we not now expect every position whatever to be simultaneously a montage of all others?

This illumination by light through rather than light on, while friendly to mosaic, two-dimensional experience, would seem to include much more.

In a paper by my friend Muller-Thym which I recently sent on to Jacqueline Tyrwhitt, he traces the development of new structures of management in the past ten years, conclusively showing that the only workable ones have a common pattern. In fact with great self-consciousness they depart from the pyramidal and hierarchical character of antecedent management structures, and insist upon small team patterns in which the members of the team, habituated to crossing functional boundaries, display diverse competences.

Parallel to this, management no longer talks about making the public conscious of product, but of making the product conscious of the consumer. The consumer is included in the product by becoming co-producer. Basically then the change is this: big managerial centers now deliberately create marginal conditions at their very heart. Conversely our job today on a global scale is to introduce urban awareness into rural conditions, and rural freedom into urban centers. The overall model must be the global village since that is imposed upon us by electronic speed of information movement. Should we in time understand our technology sufficiently we might dream of a global city. For the present we must put up with the global village, swept alternately by panic and apathy, terror and complacency.

In terms of these observations, I do think it possible not only to analyse form as a continuous process, but to predict and to control form. The tactile depth and sculptural contour of the TV image is Europeanizing North America as rapidly as pictorial values and consumer goods are Americanizing Europe. The kinds of literacy and pictorial intensity which characterized whole sectors of American life from the beginning had eliminated tactility and producer orientation in favor of visual and consumer values. Is not tactility and the mode of creative process that very interplay of the senses which we call synesthesia? The literary mind is easily misled by the program content of our mass media. The constitutive character of their imagery has very little to do with their program content.

I suggest that “maximal passivity” and the vicarious are most characteristic of the abstract pictorial values of a literary and consumer culture. North America is the only place that ever took Gutenberg with uncritical seriousness. To Gutenberg we owe our massive uniformity and repeatability at all levels of our institutions. To the merely newcomers to print culture (the backward countries) our uniformity and repeatability are utopian ideals. I do not know myself whether this phase is necessary or bypassable for the achievement of what Rostow calls “economic takeoff.”

Apropos of (…) your remark that “interference will turn into control,” are you not assuming that control equals misunderstanding? When there is no longer a center-margin interplay in a positional or spatial sense, is it not yet possible to have a more inclusive ecology than any previously envisaged, and would not such equilibrium or interplay be capable not of control but of true freedom? Just as a lecture is a kind of superimposed control, whereas a dialogue among a few people is a process of interplay, insight and discovery, can we not create the ideal conditions of global dialogue or multiple dialogues, both verbal and non-verbal? Is not this already happening in spite of ourselves, and our natural disposition to impose antecedent imagery upon new situations? 

One peculiarity of center-margin relationships is that when freedom of interplay between these areas breaks down in any kind of structure, the tendency is for the center to impose itself upon the margin. In the field of attention which we call perception, when the center enlarges and the margin diminishes beyond a certain point, we are in that induced state called hypnosis. The dialogue has ended.

Apropos of “the problem of keeping the capsule’s inhabitants human”. For the capsule there can be no margin. Or rather let us consider that for the capsule the problem is the creation of margin that there may be dialogue.

You of course are far more familiar than I am with a very great number of occasions in our contemporary world when by inadvertence we have designed environments which lacked the ratio between center and margin necessary to dialogue.

I hope I have said enough to indicate how extremely relevant and exciting I find your thoughts and observations. I sense that you have made a very great book indeed, and not only look forward to its publication but to some opportunity of pursuing its themes with you in private conversation.

With most cordial good wishes,



McLuhan’s new sciences: “only the authority of knowledge”

it is no longer feasible in decision-making to exercise delegated authority, but only the authority of knowledge. (Technology, the Media, and Culture, 1960)1

Telephone in hand, the decision maker can exercise only the authority of knowledge, not delegated authority. (Effects of the Improvements of Communication Media, 19602 

it was his mastery of the art process in terms of the stages of apprehension that enabled Joyce to install himself in the centre of the creative process. Whether it appears as mere individual sensation, as collective hope or phobia, as national myth-making or cultural norm-functioning, there is Joyce with cocked ear, eye and nose at the the centre of the action. He saw that the change of our time (‘wait till Finnegan wakes !’) was occurring as a result of the shift from superimposed myth to awareness of the character of the creative process itself. Here was the only hope for a world culture which would incorporate all previous achievements. The very process of human communication, Joyce saw, would afford the natural base for all the future operations and strategies of culture. Towards this vivisectional spectacle of the human community in action we have been led ever more swiftly in recent decades by increasing self-consciousness of the processes and effects of the various media of communication. Our knowledge of the modes of consciousness in pre-literate societies together with our sense of the processes of culture formation in many literate societies past and present, have sharpened our perceptions and led to wide agreement that communication itself is the common ground for the study of individual and society. To this study Joyce contributed not just awareness but demonstration of individual cognition as the analogue and matrix of all communal actions, political, linguistic and sacramental. (Notes on the Media as Art Forms 1954)

No sense operates in isolation. Vision is partly structured by ocular and bodily movement; hearing, by visual and kinesthetic experience. (The Effect of the Printed Book on Language in the 16th Century, 1957)

Like Pound and Eliot, Joyce assumed that verbal art in the electronic age had to assume the responsibility of precision and power equivalent to the physical sciences. (Compliment Accepted, 1957)

the ratio among [1] sight and [2] sound, and [3] touch and motion, offer precisely that place to stand which Archimedes asked for: “Give me a place to stand, and I will move the world.” The media offer exactly such a place to stand, for they are extensions of our senses, if need be into outer space. (Effects of the Improvements of Communication Media, 1960)

The globe has become on one hand a community of learning, and at the same time, with regard to the tightness of its inter-relationships, the globe has become a tiny village.  Patterns of human association based on slower media have become overnight not only irrelevant and obsolete, but a threat to continued existence and to sanity. (Report on Project in Understanding New Media, 1960)

at all times consciousness involves a ratio resulting in the immediate “closure” or completion of pattern, such new “closure” or completion is, in fact, a new posture of mind charged with new preferences and desires. (Two Aspects Of The Communications Revolution, 1961)

One reason why [Adolf] Hildebrand had such an immediate effect on the artists of his time is that he was able to explain not only why synesthesia is normal3 [to all] human experience but he showed [as well] why the isolation of the retinal or [of] the haptic or [of] any [one sort of sense] impression was, artistically, a disaster. Humanly speaking, the [extreme imbalance]4 of the senses is the formula for insanity. (1962 addition to ‘Joyce, Aquinas, and the Poetic Process’)

Depending on which sense or faculty is extended technologically (…) the “closure” or equilibrium-seeking among the other senses is (…) predictable. It is with the senses as it is with color. Sensation is always 100 per cent, and (…) color is always 100 per cent (…) But the ratio among the components in the sensation or the color can differ infinitely.5 (Understanding Media, 1964, 44)

There are certain questions concerning the work of Marshall McLuhan whose importance can hardly be overstated. First, did he propose a way in which rigorous scientific investigation in the humanities and social sciences might be inaugurated? Second, if he did, was his proposal in fact capable of igniting the sort of investigation he foresaw? Third, was he correct that this sort of investigation, and this sort of investigation alone, could address the problems which threaten the survival of humans (and perhaps the rest of earth’s biosphere along with them)? 

So far, it must be said, research into McLuhan’s writings has failed to pose even the first of these questions — which is required for the second and third. Reading his work, it may be, has yet to begin.

When chemistry and genetics were established as rigorous sciences in the course of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth6, the initial suggestions regarding the definition and functioning of their elements7 were far from perfect. Subsequent research would find critical imprecision and outright errors in them.  Despite this, subsequent research (including revision of the initial suggestions) was indeed enabled on their respective bases and can, it seems, be continued indefinitely.8 This (along with comparable advances especially in physics) has revolutionized the world — but also imperiled it.  Never before have there been such threats to our social, political and ecological orders.  It is now all too easy to contemplate the extinction not only of the human species but even of the entire biosphere of the earth.

McLuhan saw these dangers and thought that the only answer to them was an analogous sort of investigation in the humanities and social sciences (as we call them) to that of the physical sciences.9 It appears that he became conscious of the key to this hope in the course of writing Report on Project in Understanding New Media (1958-1960):

Survival indicates10 that we grasp by anticipation the inherent causes (…) of the electronic media (…) and make a fully conscious choice of strategy (…)  We need prescience of the full causal powers latent in our new media (…). A kind of alchemical foreknowledge11 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’, 1959)12

Although McLuhan repeatedly cited the need to understand “our new media” in this passage, he was aware that this would require understanding all media — just as chemistry and genetics necessarily apply to all materials and to all heredity. His particular focus on “new media” came from the role they were playing in destroying our old world, or worlds, without supplying anything stable in return. At a time when, as a result, “we have achieved a world-wide fragmentation” (Understanding Media, 108), our survival as a species now hung in the balance such that:

The affairs of the world are now dependent upon the “highest information” of which man is capable. (Take Today, 232)

McLuhan set out his intuition of such “highest information” in letters from the end of 1960. This was the year in which he experienced his first major stroke13 and had been close enough to death that the last rites were administered. In this situation, his letters at the end of the year to friends and colleagues take on the flavor of a recap, not only of a year, but of a lifetime and a lifetime’s vocation.

we are impelled toward the discovery of a global order and equilibrium of media experience (…) When there is no longer a [foundational order of] center-margin interplay  in a positional or spatial sense [ie, deriving from political or commercial empire], is it not yet possible to have a more inclusive ecology than any previously envisaged14, and would not such equilibrium or interplay be capable (…) of [instigating and sustaining] true freedom [via “a fully conscious choice of strategy”]15(McLuhan to to Serge Chermayeff, December 19, 1960)16

we are in the desperate position of not having any [external or public] sensus communis. (…) From Aristotle onward, the traditional function of the [individual] sensus communis [was seen as being]17 to translate each sense into the other senses, so that a unified, integral image is offered at all times to the mind. (…) The problem (…) is assuming more and more the character of language itself18, in which all words at all times [implicate]19 all the senses, but in evershifting ratios which permit ever new light to come through them. Is not this the problem that we have now to face in the management of inner and outer space, [a question] not [of] fixed but [of] ever new-made ratios, shifting always to maintain a maximal focal point of consciousnessThus the human community would assume the same integral freedom and awareness as [with the sensus communis of] the private person. (…) [But] before we can return to one another [in such dialogue and consensus], a good deal of clarification is needed for the purposes of reconciliation. (McLuhan to Jackie Tyrwhitt, December 23, 1960)20

The university itself would seem to become the only possible model of such consensus, inviting the concept of a university of being and experience, rather than of subjects [like mathematics and economics]. Such a concept of university could supersede the concept of [a political] urban center [as the source of order] in an age of electronic information movement, and need not be locational, or geographic. (McLuhan to Claude Bissell, January 4, 1961)21

In a fourth letter, which the editors of McLuhan’s Letters assigned to 1961, but may well be from 1960 a few weeks before the letters to Chermayeff, Tyrwhitt and Bissell, McLuhan summarized his position for Walter Ong:

I am naturally eager to attract many people to such study as this and see in it the hope of some rational consensus for our externalized senses. A sensus communis for external senses is what I’m trying to build. (McLuhan to Walter Ong. Nov. 18, 1961?, Letters 281)

In a 1961 review of Edward Hall’s The Silent Language, McLuhan reiterated these ideas:

having driven our senses out of ourselves by technological extension, do we not lack entirely a consensus? (…) these externalizations, however separate and distinct, [do] yet speak22 a common language which can be learned even by the occupants of the Tower of Babel. The practical program implicit in The Silent Language is that there can be a consensus for all the separate senses and faculties which we are endlessly externalizing. We can learn how to translate all the diverse, external manifestations of our inner lives into a coherent statement of human motive and existence.23

By “externalizations” and “externalized senses” McLuhan meant both such automated sensory devices as the tele-phone and tele-vision, but also all the ‘senses’ or meanings of the word with which we are now bombarded in the “global village”: “the character of language itself in which all words at all times [implicate] all the senses”24. In a “worldpool” of “allatonceness” everything in world history is suddenly present25 to us:

In our time we are re-living at high speed the whole of the human past. As in a speeded-up film we are traversing all ages and all experience including the experience of pre-historic men. Our experience is not exclusive of other peoples’ experience but inclusive. (New Media in Arts Education, 1956)

From the far reaches of contemporary space and of historical time, we are confronted with the brute fact of diverse mindsets and their associated cultural practices. The outstanding question is how to understand this diversity as the only way to understand our own mindset and cultural practice as one modality of it. Hence the imperative to understand all media.

This situation is described in Understanding Media (a book based on McLuhan’s Report on the Project in Understanding New Media) as follows:

we are haunted by the need for an outer consensus of technology and experience that would raise our communal lives to the level of a world-wide consensus. (…) Such a universality of conscious being for mankind was dreamt of by Dante, who believed that men would remain mere broken fragments until they should be united in an inclusive consciousness. (108)

The same page in Understanding Media (as cited above) refers to “a world-wide fragmentation” at present, assimilating us today to Dante’s “broken fragments” and to his vision of hell.26

The uniting and “inclusive consciousness” which could save us from such “fragmentation” is nearly always interpreted by readers of McLuhan as something vaguely mystical  — when attention is paid to it at all. But, as recorded in the citations from his correspondence above, this “more inclusive ecology than any previously envisaged” was to be based on, and to further, “rational consensus“. To Claude Bissell, McLuhan’s friend, one-time colleague in the UT English department27 and now president of UT, McLuhan called this “a university of being and experience“. One intent, of course, was to suggest to Bissell a calling for the university that he might not be considering even as its head.  But, as is clear from the unusual phrase “a university of being“, it also represented a nod in the direction of McLuhan’s continuing debt to, and dialogue with, his very close friend, Bernard Muller-Thym. Muller-Thym’s PhD thesis at UT was published in 1939 as The Establishment of the University of Being in the Doctrine of Meister Eckhart of Hochheim. This was the same year Muller-Thym was the best man at McLuhan’s wedding in St Louis and two years before he would be the Godfather of the McLuhans’ first child, Eric. 

In fact, McLuhan had mentioned the connection with Eckhart to Bissell in a note to him earlier in 1960:

Now, from your point of view, it seems to me that some of these points directly concern the university. The principle, that at very high levels of information movement substitutability occurs, (…)28 applies to the studies of the university. When stress moves from product to process, all of the subjects in the university also become substitutable for one another. At the very high level of information movement in which to-day we are involved, we find ourselves less in a university of subjects [or disciplines] than in what Meister Eckhart called the university of being. For (…) method and creative insight [today] tends to bring each subject directly into the mode of contemplation of its relation to Being29. (May 6, 1960, Letters 273)

The day before this, May 5, 1960, McLuhan had broached these same ideas in a note to Muller-Thym himself:

In terms of the university as an area of subjects, the tendency of awareness of process [vs subjects or disciplines] is certainly to make one subject substitutable for another. And so by a commodius vicus of recirculation30 (…) we come back to Bernard, Eckhart, and the University of Being.  (Letters 271-272) 

It appears, indeed, that it was first of all to Muller-Thym that McLuhan described the key to his breakthrough in early 1960 regarding “a sensus communis for external senses”, aka “a more inclusive ecology than any previously envisaged”, aka “an outer consensus of technology and experience”, aka a new notion of ontological or external “center-margin interplay” or “equilibrium” or “substitutability” that would ground our internal regime of the senses (rather than vice versa), aka a vision for the contemporary global village world of a commodius vicus of recirculation as the “Uni-versity of Being31:

The break-through in media study has come at last, and it can be stated as the principle of complementarity32: that the structural impact of any situation is subjectively completed as to the cycle of the senses. (McLuhan to Muller-Thym, February 19th, 1960)33

the [external] situation [today] closely resembles the activity of the [individual] sensus communis in translating one sense into another. (…) I am trying to get the systems-development people to work out flow charts which would enable us to chart and predict the effects of input through any one sense, as it affects the ratio of intensities in the other senses. (…) This is only to say that anything which affects one sense has a due effect on the others (…) With each of our senses becoming externalized electronically, we encounter the sensus communis in a collective form for the first time, and can and need to know very much more about the operations of the private sensus communis [in its similarity and difference from the collective one]. (McLuhan to Muller-Thym, May 5, 1960)34

The appeal to Bernard and Eckhart in this same letter (as cited above) might again suggest some sort of mysticism. It is clear from all these passages taken together, however, that McLuhan was contemplating something very much like chemistry and genetics, but for the always mediated phenomena of individual and collective experience:

A sensus communis for external senses is what I’m trying to build….some rational consensus for our externalized senses….the traditional function of the [individual] sensus communis is to translate each sense into the other senses, so that a unified, integral image is offered at all times to the mind….an outer consensus of technology and experience (…) would raise our communal lives to the level of a world-wide consensus….a more inclusive ecology than any previously envisaged (…) such equilibrium or interplay [would] be capable (…) of true freedom…Thus the human community would assume the same integral freedom and awareness as [with the sensus communis of] the private person….

Just as chemistry and genetics (and all the other physical sciences) have no national boundaries (as Lysenkoism demonstrated negatively), but instead have a kind of dynamic international consensus roughly defining at any given time what is known and unknown, so McLuhan proposed that something similar was both possible and necessary in the fields of human action and experience. Moreover, he agreed with Hegel that the only convincing proof of the possibility of such science would be its actuality. He therefore made suggestions along two paths at once.

On the one hand, he never stopped pointing to devices like the camera, radio, phonograph, television and computer, and to the astonishing success in the modern world of advertising, propaganda, popular entertainment and automation, as clear evidence that knowledge of an external sensus communis was already deployed all around us in highly effective (but frequently not beneficial) ways. This was happening without our having an understanding of the unfolding situation, however, such that we were (and are) utterly unfree in relation to it. Hence the great need for — understanding media. Such an understanding would function like chemistry and genetics as a study of effects and their causes which have always been in operation, and in fact could not not have been in operation, but which have remained fundamentally unknown until recent times. As McLuhan noted to Innis in his 1951 letter to him:

this major revolution, intimately linked to technology, is one whose consequences have not begun to be studied although they have begun to be felt. (Letters, 221)

On the other hand, McLuhan proposed what had been necessary to the instigation of chemistry and genetics, namely, an intuition of the elementary structure of this new field:

The break-through in media study (…) can be stated as the principle of complementarity: that the structural impact of any situation is subjectively completed as to the cycle of the senses….[this] would enable us to (…) predict the effects of input through any one sense, as it affects the ratio of intensities in the other senses….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….the problem that we have now to face in the management of inner and outer space [is a question] not [of] fixed but [of] ever new-made ratios, shifting always to maintain a maximal focal point of consciousness….all words [in which our individual and collective consciousnesses are constellated] at all times implicate35 all the senses, but in evershifting ratios… 

As McLuhan would continue to attempt to specify for the remaining 20 years of his life, the central notion here was that the elements of individual and social awareness are binary structures (like proton/electron in chemistry) that are marked by relative “intensities” (like dominant/recessive in genetics).  Taking his clue at once both from the long history of thought (dating at least to Aristotle) about the individual sensus communis36 and from the sensory mimesis of the new media like the telephone and television, McLuhan proposed that this structure be conceived as a variable dynamic relation between the senses of the eye and ear, with touch (along with smell and taste conflated to touch) as their modulating ratio. But these ‘senses’ were not to be confused with the physical senses or their sense data (although, in attempting to communicate the fundamental role of the senses by way of illustration, McLuhan often enough seemed to confuse them himself).37 Hence, for example, symphonic music was, McLuhan said, not aural but visual; television was not visual but tactile; and tactility was not touch but the variable inter-relation of eye and ear or the dynamic sensus communis itself:

Notice, sense of touch is not skin, not direct contact. It is rather the interplay of the senses.38

As he specified already in the 1956 ‘New Media in Arts Education’ (and repeated verbatim in the 1969 Counterblast):

It was to be a world in which the [1] eye listens, [2] the ear sees, and in which [3] all the senses assist each other in concert.39 

Then in the crucial 1958-1960 period, McLuhan made this point in regard to the newspaper in his 1959 essay, ‘Myth and Mass Media‘:

Since the telegraph (…) Western culture [has] been strongly shaped by (…) a field of awareness in which all the elements are practically simultaneous. It is this instantaneous character of the information field today, inseparable from electronic media, that confers the formal auditory character on the new culture. That is to say, for example, that the newspaper page, since the introduction of the telegraph, has had a formally auditory character and only incidentally a lineal, literary form.40

Just as physical materials may look closely alike but be composed of entirely different chemicals, so the newspaper looks like print to be read with the eyes, but is actually, according to McLuhan, something formally heard by the elementary ear. (As enlarged upon below, however, the elementary ear could never fully exclude the elementary eye since the two exist only together in variable relation or ratio. Exactly this was “the principle of complementarity” vouchsafed to Muller-Thym in February 1960.)

Instead of carrying a literal meaning, the ‘senses’ were to be understood as diverse configurations of space and time. As he already saw in 1951:

Traditionally there are two kinds of labyrinth, stone and sea, eye and ear. (Joyce, Aquinas, and the Poetic Process)

That is, “eye and ear” are not to be understood as physical organs or types of sense data, they are, essentially considered, different sorts of time-space configurations: “two kinds of labyrinth”.

In this way, the chemical and genetic model of defining a field by elementary structure was extended to include physics and relativity theory.41 The eye and its vision were to be understood as modes of contiguous horizontal space and linear time in which atomic units replaced one another in succession (like moments in time or places in space). The march of letters on a printed page, the assembly line and the railway were favorite images of McLuhan in describing such ‘visual’ time-space. In fundamental contrast, the ‘ear’ and its ‘hearing’ were to be understood as modes of discontinuous vertical space and simultaneous time in which multi-leveled complex units maintained themselves through dynamic homeostasis.  Here music, dance, sculpture and the vortex were favorite metaphors.

Whereas visual space is continuous, uniform, connected and static, the spaces created by all the other senses are discontinuous and dynamic. (McLuhan to Barbara Ward, February 9, 1973, Letters 466)

Like eye/ear, these time-spaces, too, according to McLuhan, exist only together in variable ratio.42

McLuhan often talked about these sensory modes and time-spaces in linear historical terms, of course — the preliterate ear giving way to the literate eye in Greece, the literate eye being gigantically reinforced by print with Gutenberg, and then this cyclopean print eye being subjected to catastrophic deformations by the return to the ear in new media like radio and the phonograph. But this perspective was itself visual, in his terms, and it was the essence of his proposal that all human experience is subject to “the principle of complementarity” — namely, that “any situation is subjectively completed as to the cycle of the senses” such that there is never any human consciousness that does not exemplify “ever new-made [eye/ear] ratios“.43 So it was that he always offset his linear story with other ones concerning “allatonceness” and the sort of instantaneous vertical descent described by Poe in the Maelstrom. Except through such complicating dynamics, indeed, how account for all the great art that did not conform to the predominant technologies of its time?44 Or even for all the tiny complications (“innumerable variants”) of everyday life (such as those McLuhan and his wife knew very well from their family life with six children)?45 

The tension between these linear and simultaneous takes may be seen in a further passage from ‘Myth and Mass Media‘:

The multilayered montage or “transparency,” with its abridgement of logical relationships, is as familiar in the cave painting as in cubismOral cultures are simultaneous in their modes of awareness. Today we come to the oral condition again via the electronic media, which abridge space and time and single-plane relationships, returning us to the confrontation of multiple relationships at the same moment.46 

When the logical relationships expressed in singular visual perspective are absent or suppressed “as [is] familiar in the cave painting as in cubism”, multiple orders are layered “at the same moment”.  Their presentation is “simultaneous”.  But at the same time McLuhan observed in this passage that “today we come to the oral condition again via the electronic media (…) returning us…” — where time, if indeed circular, is certainly not “simultaneous”. Such a return ‘takes time’. So two different modes of time were in play here and the question for McLuhan was, how can the two persist in coexistence? How is it that one or the other chronology (together with its implicated space) doesn’t swallow its rival? If “allatonceness” pertains, how can there be any genuine reality to chronological time? Or, conversely, if  chronological time is genuinely real, how can “allatonceness” obtain?47

The nub of McLuhan’s answer lay in the phrase “multilayered montage“.  Just as chemistry explicates materials in terms of their underlying elements and their properties, and just as genetics explicates hereditary characteristics in terms of their underlying genes and their properties, so would McLuhan explicate human experience in terms of its underlying media elements and their properties. Now the notion of such layers is very ancient.  Where changes are somehow predictable, it lies close at hand, it seems, to attribute this to ‘atoms’ or ‘elements’ or ‘humours’ or ‘forms’ of some sort, whose explanatory power derives from their existence in a different yet related order from that of the particulars of ordinary experience. (As Harold Innis appreciated, it was Eric Havelock’s genius to have seen that the question of when and where and how attributions of this sort arose, and with what results, was critical for investigations across the humanities and social sciences.) But it took many millennia to find a fruitful way to conceive these underlying elements in chemistry and genetics. And in the case of ‘psychological types’, despite countless suggestions over the 5000 years of the historical record, this has never yet been achieved.48 (This is not to say that great minds like Plato didn’t identify the required conceptualization.  Only that it was not developed in a collective discipline or disciplines — which is exactly the outstanding task to which McLuhan hoped to contribute. And where we today have the opportunity and obligation to contribute.)

The main reason for this general failure seems to be that the self-reference implicated in the study of human experience in human experience is more problematic than the self-reference implicated in the study of chemistry or genetics by humans composed of chemicals and genes. If human experience is grounded in formal types, potentially disabling difficulties seem to be implicated both as regards how consensus about them could ever be reached (a consensus that would be needed across such types) and as regards what would follow from any such consensus (seemingly some sort of unwelcome determinism).

McLuhan proffered several answers to the first of these questions. Namely, that the dis-coveries of sciences like chemistry and genetics amounted at the same time to a dis-covery of discovery itself. Here he followed and extended Whitehead. Further, that the new media amounted to externalizations of the senses and this enabled a new objectivity in regard to them  and their “consensus” — an objectivity that, in fact, was already at work in the new media and now needed only harvesting in the humanities and social sciences for their own purposes. Further yet, that the global village world had so conflated spaces and times that another sort of unprecedented objectivity was now before us in all the different cultures of the past and present.49 Then too, that the new criticism initiated by I.A. Richards had introduced a depth dimension to the study of poetic language and had shown that art since the eighteenth century had worked to uncover where science needed to go. Above all, that the simultaneity of the electric world enabled (or enforced) a startling compression of cause and effect through which both how we experience and what we experience are necessarily revolutionized. It followed that old arguments against the possibility of such a new science or sciences might no longer apply and that new possibilities for such a science or sciences might, and indeed would, appear.

The changing configurations of this massive structure inevitably alter the bias of [1] sight, [2] sound, and [3] sense [aka tactility] in each one of us, predisposing us now to one pattern of preference, and now to another. Today, via electronic means, the coexistence of cultures and of all phases of process in media development offers to mankind, for the first time, a means of liberation from the sensory enslavement of particular media in specialized phases of their development. (Electronic Revolution: Revolutionary Effects of New Media, 1959)

As regards the second question, he had another: what will happen to us and to the planet absent such a consensus?

The essential thing for all of these scientific fields, McLuhan could see, was that their different “layers” could never be merged or conflated. Instead, in all of them it was exactly the persistent difference separating their two “layers” that enabled ongoing discoveries, aka new correlations between the two of them, now from one side of the coin, now from the other. Everything depended on a mediating “gap where the action is” — aka “tactility” or the “sensus communis“.

These two layers were called by McLuhan by many different names: concept and percept, message and medium, cliché and archetype, figure and ground, visual and acoustic space, diachronic and synchronic time.  All were isomorphic with his eye/ear media elements and all were essentially ratios such that one alone could not be, only the two together. An interesting result followed. In chemistry and genetics, and in McLuhan’s proposed general theory of communication, the sort of correlated binary relation characterizing their elementary structures also had to hold between the layers of what was to be explained (the explanandum) and what was to explain (the explanans). As will be further developed below, the critical implication was that the beginning of any science requires a kind of Rubik’s cube manipulation50 where the  explanandum and the explanans suddenly fall together with a certain notion of elementary structure and all are illuminated (though not without inevitable imprecision and error) — at once.

All history may be the demonstration of how difficult this movement is when we ourselves are the explanandum at stake. And yet must somehow conceive the explanans.

In the notes published posthumously in The Global Village, McLuhan described the ubiquity in human experience of “the principle of complementarityaka of “the cycle of the senses:

visual and acoustic space are always present in any human situation, even if Western civilization has (…) tamped down our awareness of the acoustic. (55)


every artifact of man [specifically including natural language]51 mirrors the shift between these two modes. (x)52

McLuhan characterized the “evershifting ratios” of the eye/ear elementary structure as reflecting differences in “preference” or “intensity” or “emphasis” or “stress” or “dominance” of one of them relative to the other. Via “the principle of complementarity”, more of one always entailed less of the other. This meant that the range of the co-variance of the nominator and denominator of these ratios could be imagined as forming what McLuhan called a “spectrum” or “axis”. The two ends of the spectrum would represent the greatest possible difference between the eye and the ear, one dominating at one end of the spectrum (while always remaining in ratio) and the other dominating at the other (ditto). Between these two “extreme” ends, all the possibilities of reduced antagonistic ratio between the eye and ear would be arrayed until, at the middle of the axis, the two would be in equal balance.

Another image of the range of forms could be represented along the same “spectrum” by tactility alone. A vertical line might represent the modulating function of touch at one end of the spectrum as 99% above the axis and 1% below. At the other end, the vertical line would be 99% below and 1% above. Between the two, the % of the line above and below the axis would gradually shift until at the middle it was 50% for both. The constant 100% at every point of the axis would express “the principle of complementarity” aka “the cycle of the senses” aka “interplay”, aka “equilibrium”, akasubstitutability”, aka “metaphor”, aka a commodius vicus of recirculation as the “Uni-versity of Being.  The upper and lower ends of these vertical tactility lines would then be the eye and the ear (ie, the ‘eye’ and the ‘ear’).  The horizontal line of the spectrum would be the “keyboard” of “the whole of existence”.53

 Just as “the principle of complementarity” would structure every media element in McLuhan’s  explanans, so would it structure the relation of that explanans to the explanandum of all human experience (gen obj!). However, this implicated a problem of circularity that has bedeviled western thought at least since Plato (and surely for uncounted millennia before Plato). For where would knowledge of such a principle start? With the principle itself?  But haven’t we always started already (in very particular circumstances of language and historical era and social environment) and so inevitably come too late to make such a principled start? Or, if starting with a knowledge of such a principle is exactly what humans cannot do, if we are always beyond what is first (princeps), how find that which is first in or through the second, in or through what follows (secundus)? In this latter case, which is always the case, how get back to the start

The problem is unsolvable on Gutenbergian assumption. Where continuous linear sequence is assumed to be fundamental or, at least, where it is valorized such that interruption is taken as disabling54, a return to the beginning, or beginnings, can be nothing but illusory.  Jacques Derrida put the point against McLuhan as follows:

I think that there is an ideology in McLuhan’s discourse that I don’t agree with, because he’s an optimist as to the possibility of restoring an oral community which would get rid of the writing machines and so on. I think that’s a very traditional myth which goes back to… let’s say Plato, Rousseau… And instead of thinking that we are living at the end of writing, I think that in another sense we are living in the extension – the overwhelming extension – of writing. At least in the new sense… I don’t mean the alphabetic writing down, but in the new sense of those writing machines that we’re using now (e.g. the tape recorder). And this is writing too.55

But what Derrida called “the overwhelming extension of writing” here was just what McLuhan called “the monarchy of print” aka “the Gutenberg galaxy”. 

Today the monarchy of print has ended and an oligarchy of new media has usurped most of the power of that 500-year-old monarchy. Each member of that oligarchy possesses as much power and message as print itself. l think that if we are to have a constitutional order and balance among these new oligarchs, we shall have to study their configurations, their psycho-dynamics and their long-term messages. To treat them as humble servants (audiovisual aids) of our established conventions would be as fatal as to use an x-ray unit as a space heater. The Western world has made this kind of mistake before. But now (…)  would be a very bad time to allow our own new media to liquidate the older media [on the monarchic model that we are supposedly overthrowing]. The message and form of electronic information pattern is the simultaneous. What is indicated for our time, then, is not succession of media and educational procedures, like a series of boxing champions, but coexistence based on awareness of the inherent powers and messages of each of these unique configurations. (Electronic Revolution: Revolutionary Effects of New Media, 1959)

The dynamic “coexistence” at stake here was not only that of the eye and ear with their different time-spaces, but also that between an explanans of that first “complementarity” (gen subj!) and the explanandum of human being (gen obj!). Against Derrida’s assertion almost a quarter century later (and a few years after McLuhan’s death), McLuhan contended that “the overwhelming extension” of writing — “the monarchy of print” and of the eye — could never come loose, so to say, from speaking — from the ear and the voice providing “equilibrium” to the eye.  And, he continued, this correlation of the eye and ear was nothing less than the elementary structure which would enable, not merely (merely!) the rigorous investigation of all human experience, individual and collective, through a further “complementarity” of explanans and explanandum — it was also the only possible basis for the sort of exoteric consensus upon which human survival itself depended.

Derrida’s impression that McLuhan foresaw or desired “the possibility of restoring an oral community which would get rid of the writing machines” was itself a continuing gesture of the ghost of the Gutenberg galaxy whose haunting persistence to this day threatens to overwhelm us in a tsunami of exceptionalism (in Derrida’s case, that of writing).

All this was implicated in McLuhan’s capsule reference to:

This principle of a continuous dual structure56 for achieving order… (‘Spiral: Man as the Medium’, 1976, in Sorel Etrog: Images from the Film Spiral, 1987)

But already in 1960 he had come to see that:

it would be necessary to have a very complete knowledge of the new dynamics of our new technology in order to harmonize the twain. It is characteristic of the semi-aware products of print culture that they prefer to take a strong moral stand on one or another horn of a dilemma. They love dichotomies. (New Media and the New Education, 1960 = ‘Exhibit 1’ of Report on Project in Understanding New Media)

One peculiarity of center-margin relationships is that when freedom of interplay between these areas breaks down in any kind of structure, the tendency is for the center to impose itself upon the margin. In the field of attention which we call perception, when the center enlarges and the margin diminishes beyond a certain point, we are in that induced state called hypnosis.57 The dialogue has ended. (McLuhan to to Serge ChermayeffDecember 19, 1960)

Exceptionalism was just a dichotomy where it was necessary to come down “on one or another horn of [the] dilemma” since the poles of the dichotomy were perceived not to be in “equilibrium” and dynamic correlation. But this was just to remain fixed in the “hypnosis” of “the Gutenberg galaxy” — an “hypnosis” which took itself to be ‘beyond relativity’ (“overwhelming”) when, in fact, it was just as relative (mediated) as any other human experience.58

The question remains of how McLuhan himself came to this insight.  Partly it was a matter of allowing the full complication of language to register, something he had learned above all from I.A. Richards:

let the artists of the last ten decades be our guide. The Romantics reacted strongly against the book as book, spotting it as the enemy of nature and of natural modes of learning. They insisted upon the creative imagination as the birthright of all, and began a ceaseless quest for the inclusive and integral image. This arduous search was taken up with great intensity by the Symbolists who realized that it could not be a merely visual image, but must include all the senses in a kind of dance. (New Media and the New Education, 1960 = ‘Exhibit 1’ of Report on Project in Understanding New Media)

He himself had taken up this “ceaseless quest for the inclusive and integral image” that he  described already in 1954 in these terms:

impressionism and symbolism alike insisted on attention to process in preference to personal self-expression. Self-effacement and patient watchfulness preceded the discovery of the creative process59. Poets and artists literally turned their own psyches into laboratories where they practised the most austere experiments in total disregard of their personal happiness. (Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters)

As had been the case with these poets and artists, this was not a matter for McLuhan of finding some objective (“merely visual”) “inclusive and integral image” that would simply constitute an  affirmation of the questing subject. Instead, such an image would necessarily include the subject as well as the object in a dynamic consensus “in a kind of dance”. As McLuhan put the great point in ‘Electronics and the Changing Role of Print’ (1959): “We simply have to (…) become contemporaries of ourselves.”  The required meth-od (from ‘odos) was ceaselessly to try out all the ways of not being “contemporaries of ourselves” in the unaccountable hope of finding an exit downwards and backwards60 to an “inclusive and integral image” capacious enough to embrace even and precisely all those modes of internal alienation and bifurcation:

to elicit the image of truth from past errors and to confirm the unity of man’s quest from the jarring discords of unremitting debate. (Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters)

McLuhan saw that this movement towards a sensus communis of all human experience was the underlying quest of the modern world:

It was my study of these men [Joyce, Pound, and Eliot] that made me aware that tracking backward from effects to hidden causes, to the reconstruction of mental states and motives, was a basic pattern of culture from Poe to Valéry.61

To participate in this “basic pattern” he had to exercise it on himself by internalizing “the jarring discords of unremitting debate” in an attempt to locate and define their “hidden causes”.  This was to seek:

to reamalgamerge, to use James Joyce’s term for this mysterious kind of retrograde metamorphosis.62

In an exercise of “prodigious experimentation” (‘Electronics and the Changing Role of Print’), “predisposing (…) now to one pattern of preference, and now to another” (ibid)63, this amounted to a self-vivisection of his own physical and psychological being:

it is precisely his fidelity to the vivisection of isolated moments that links Tennyson to the greatest work of his time and of ours. This concern with the spectrum of the emotional life was linked with Newton and with Gainsborough on one hand and with the best art and archaeology of the nineteenth century on the other. It is to be related to the tendency to abandon succession for simultaneity when our instruments of observation acquired speed and precision. Looking back from the nuclear age it is easy to recognize the pattern of ‘total field’ forming in the concern with totality of implication in the aesthetic moment, or spot of time. Lineal succession as a concept of order [aka “the overwhelming extension of writing”] cannot hold the same absolute position in our nuclear consciousness as it did in the great age of mechanism that stretches from Gutenberg to Darwin. (Tennyson and the Romantic Epic, 1960)

How “easy to recognize” this was, may be judged from the concluding lines of McLuhan’s 1957 Coleridge essay (where Richards was constantly in his thoughts)64. Its description of such a “ceaseless quest” and “arduous search” amounted to a second sight or premonition of the oncoming stroke65 that would very nearly kill him:66

as with Rimbaud, the very magnitude of the change he [Coleridge] experienced in his own modes of thought and feeling (…) made (…) exhausting demands on mind and heart.67



  1. McLuhan attributed this insight, with which he evidently agreed, to his friend Peter F. Drucker, who “points out in his book Landmarks of Tomorrow that it is no longer feasible in decision-making to exercise delegated authority, but only the authority of knowledge.”
  2. The Journal of Economic History20:4, December 1960. See previous note for McLuhan’s attribution of this contrast.
  3. McLuhan: “why synesthesia is not only normal”…
  4. McLuhan: “separation”. For McLuhan, ‘separation’ was not necessarily ‘imbalance’. Extreme separation was imbalance, while balance was complementary separation.
  5. Re “the ratio among the components in the sensation or the color can differ infinitely”, compare: “There are only two basic extreme forms of human organization. They have innumerable variants or “parti-colored” forms.” (Take Today 22)
  6. It was only at the beginning of the twentieth century that Gregor Mandel’s pioneering work in what would become genetics was rediscovered — four decades after his work studying pea plant generations and two decades after his death.
  7. ‘Genes’ were unknown to Mandel — he proposed “Elementen”.
  8. As T.S. Kuhn has shown, it is precisely the imperfection of science that opens a space for its successful investigation: “to be admirably successful is never, for a scientific theory, to be completely successful” (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Sec. VII).
  9. McLuhan felt that it was the high calling of Canada, as the counter-environment to the United States, to initiate such study: “Nature and history seem to have agreed to designate us in Canada for a corporate, artistic role. As the U.S.A. becomes a world environment through its resources, technology, and enterprises, Canada takes on the function of making that world environment perceptible (…) The ordinary procedures and environmental patterns of a society don’t become visible until the artist creates this counter-environment of art objects. This is a frontier problem that relates to Canada’s position as a frontier country, giving Canada a kind of world art role in making visible the vast, man-made American environment that is becoming a world environment. I don’t know whether that makes much sense at first, but as the United States becomes a world environment, some means is needed to make it visible and capable of appraisal, appreciation, and criticism — that, only the artist can do — and Canada is essentially in this artistic role.” (Canada, the Borderline Case, 1967)
  10. McLuhan frequently used ‘indicate’ in its sense of ‘suggests the need for’. See, for example, the passage cited above from this same 1959 essay, ‘Electronic Revolution: Revolutionary Effects of New Media’: “What is indicated for our time, then, is not succession of media and educational procedures, like a series of boxing champions, but coexistence based on awareness of the inherent powers and messages of each of these unique configurations.”
  11. Re “alchemical foreknowledge”, here is McLuhan the year before ‘Electronic Revolution: Revolutionary Effects of New Media’ in the 1958 ‘Media Alchemy in Art and Society’: “Kenneth Boulding’s The Image (1956) is an important event in advancing our knowledge of alchemical change in all types of structure. And we achieve this advance by seeing every kind of structure, from the botanical to the animal and human, as a knowledge structure subject to information in-put.”
  12. See Understanding Me, 5 and 8. Here and throughout, emphasis has often been added to citations for emphasis.
  13. This stroke is mentioned by Fitzgerald (97) and Coupland (132), but, strangely, not by Marchand or Gordon. From internal evidence in Report on Project in Understanding New Media, in which McLuhan describes his travels from June 1959 to June 1960, it seems to have happened in the second half of 1960 (although Carpenter remembered ‘1959’ in his account three decades later). Carpenter is cited in ‘Remembering McLuhan’ by Edward Ball in Art & Text 39, 1990, 51-53 as follows: “According to Ted Carpenter, in 1959 McLuhan suffered the first of many strokes, falling to the floor and flailing his arms in a seizure. ‘A priest at the hospital was called to deliver last rites’, said Carpenter, ‘but he recovered and eventually returned to teaching’.” Coupland: “Producing the book (Report on Project in Understanding New Media) came with a price. The two years spent making it were arguably the most exploration-rich of Marshall’s life. But the stress on his brain took a toll. In early (? more probably in the fall of) 1960 he suffered a stroke so severe that a priest was called in for last rites. Marshall survived but was forced to rest by his doctor. The medical event was kept under wraps, and in the fall of 1961, Marshall resumed teaching, with only a few people close to him aware of the intellectual and physical journey he’d been on.” Fitzgerald: “In a note attached to the Report, McLuhan reveals his health has broken under the stress of prolonged overwork on the project. (…) When McLuhan returns to teaching in the fall of 1960 (1961?), however, he cavalierly pretends he never suffered a stroke. But his family and close friends can clearly see the toll it’s taken: the man who was a robust and animated specimen has turned into an old man overnight. His nervous intensity’s more pronounced. He’s incapable of relaxing for more than five minutes at a stretch.”  McLuhan’s note (in a section of the Report called ‘Itinerary and Summary of Activities of the Consultant’): “(My) travel was amply rewarding in insight and friendship.  Unfortunately, it had adverse effects on my health, requiring hospitalization and a long period of rest, delaying the conclusion of these reports and the summarizing of the results of this project.” The Report is dated June 30, 1960 on its cover.  But this must have been the closing date of its research grant and not the date of its submission, since the Report includes references to events and publications later in 1960.
  14. Compare Take Today (227): “The future of government lies in the area of psychic ecology and can no longer be considered on a merely national or international basis.”
  15. As cited in full above, this phrase is from ‘Electronic Revolution: Revolutionary Effects of New Media’ (1959).
  16. McLuhan’s letter to Chermayeff is described in Letters (277 note), but is not given there. It is in Chermayeff’s papers at Columbia.
  17. McLuhan has the typo ‘is’ here.
  18. See ‘Language itself‘ for further discussion.
  19. McLuhan has ‘comprise’ here rather than ‘implicate’. His point is that language forms a system that is analogous to chemistry in that any word implicates a complete underlying system just as any material sample implicates not only the elements and properties comprising it, but also the whole of chemistry in which those  elements and properties have their place and meaning. Here he is from earlier in that same year of 1960: “The entire drama of conflict between individual and mass is most usefully studied under the aspect of the role of a poet in relation to his medium, because a language is a mass medium in all senses. Nobody in particular made it. Yet individuals have always to think and dream and feel in terms of this mass medium.” (Technology, the Media, and Culture)
  20. Letters, 277-278
  21. Letters, 280
  22. McLuhan: “speak yet”.
  23. ‘A Common Language Nonetheless’, Audio Visual Communication Review, 9:2, 1961, 147-148. The order of these two passages has been reversed.
  24. McLuhan to Tyrwhitt as cited above from December 23, 1960.
  25. See ‘What is the present?‘ for further discussion.
  26. As Nietzsche demonstrated, such “fragmentation” inexorably precipitates nihilism — and  nihilism inexorably entails the loss of the “broken fragments” themselves: “With the true world we also have abolished the apparent one!!”
  27. The two came to the department in the same year, 1946.
  28. McLuhan has a bracketed note here: “this by the way applies also to our own sense lives in which each sense typically translates itself into each of the other five senses”. The faculty of such translation is the sensus communis.
  29. Already in 1948 McLuhan had written to his friend Felix Giovanelli: “in an age like ours (…) every motion of the mind (individual) is seen to involve the whole mind (society) and its entire relation to Being.” This letter is not in Letters; it is in the Pound papers at Indiana.
  30. The first sentence of Finnegans Wake, completing its last, is: “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.” Back to Howth Castle and Environs = back to HCE = back to here comes everybody = back to human being = back to what human being is and what its calling is.
  31. The “Uni-versity of Being” is a dual genitive, but first of all a subjective genitive!
  32. Both I.A. Richards and McLuhan knew that McLuhan’s realization of this principle was in part due to Richards’ attention to it in his literary criticism. In his 1968 book, So Much Nearer, Richards wrote of the “Principle of Complementarity”: “This immensely important topic— publicized recently by Marshall McLuhan…”. But, as was not at all unusual for McLuhan, he extended the application of the principle far beyond what Richards contemplated.
  33. Cited in Gordon, Escape into Understanding, 313-314.  A few weeks before, McLuhan had written to Harry Skornia: “The last few days have seen a major breakthrough in media study. Working with the fact that each medium embodies one or more of the human senses, it struck me that we are impelled in perceiving each medium to complete the scale or spectrum of our sensorium. So that, radio impels us to provide a visual world moment by moment, and photography, which is so adequate in visual terms, compels us to complete the tactual and kinesthetic part of the sensorium. Thus the degree of sensuous completion is one way in which the lines of force in any medium are structured” (25 January 1960, cited in Gordon, Escape into Understanding 399-400, n99). And the next month, on March 11, 1960, McLuhan wrote to John Wain: “As far as the project (of Understanding New Media) goes, rather large developments and discoveries have occurred in the last few weeks which will enable me to complete it in a very satisfactory manner while, at the same time, opening a new phase of media study…” (Letters 266). In Letters the editors identify this “project” as “the (Gutenberg) project”, but McLuhan was referring to Project 69.
  34. Letters, 271.
  35. McLuhan has ‘comprise’ here.
  36. McLuhan was schooled in the topic by Muller-Thym in St Louis, especially via Muller-Thym’s paper ‘Common Sense, Perfection of the Order of Pure Sensibility’ in The Thomist 2:315–343, 1940.  His consideration of the topic was then reawakened in Toronto at the end of the decade by the attention paid to the eye and ear in historical and contemporary media by Havelock, Richards and Innis. Here Richards may have been the first to correlate Havelock’s theme of oral and literate mindsets with the ear and the eye in his BBC broadcast from October 5, 1947, ‘The Spoken and the Written Word’. Innis in particular then frequently recurred in his last few years to the topic of the eye and ear as media correlates and organizing principles of experience. By the early 1950s, then, McLuhan had the notions of the fundamental role of media in social and cultural change and of the correlation of such media with the senses.  And from Mallarmé, Eliot, Pound and Joyce he had the further notion of the reduplication in art of the process of the generation of experience via such media. But what he did not yet have, and would not have until the end of this further decade, was the idea of an elementary structure of the media and the senses that could serve to focus collective investigation in this new field or fields. Importantly, it was only with a such a notion of elementary structure that he could begin to know through it what the media and the senses are!
  37. The great problem here was how to communicate about the essentials of communication in communication? Or, as this question might be put, how are the eye and ear, which we all know very well, at the same time the ‘eye’ and the ‘ear’ that we don’t appreciate at all? The same problem had to be solved on the way to chemistry where all sorts of seemingly well known materials like gold, silver, iron, tin, mercury, sulphur, etc, had to be appreciated also as elements.  Navigating to this ‘also’ is nothing less than the vocation of thinking.
  38. Prospect’, Canadian Art Magazine, # 81, 363-366, September/October, 1962.
  39. In the same essay (‘New Media in Arts Education’): “The organization of experience here is orchestral or acoustic rather than visual. Yet the various units of experience are visualized.” Understanding Media reverts to this point repeatedly.  Eg: “the eye must act as hand” (29, cf 288 and 334); “The effect of radio is visual, the effect of the photo is auditory” (64); “touch is not just skin contact with things, but the very life of things in the mind” (108); “much of our hearing takes place through the skin itself” (122); etc.
  40. Compare: “the oral is accidentally the spoken but essentially the instantaneous. Because auditory spatial structure is a simultaneous field of relations.” (The Electronic Revolution in North America, 1958). “The instantaneous” = the tactile, the sensus communis.
  41. Art as Survival in the Electric Age (1973): “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.”
  42. In formulating relativity theory, Einstein had no need to assemble all possible experiences of time-spaces. What he needed was a formula that covered all such experiences, no matter how they might unfold in particular (and even if they could not unfold in particular — like traveling at the speed of light!). In the same way, McLuhan was not interested in sampling (so to say) all the various modes of human experience but in the definable range of their possibility.
  43. Global Village: “In our desire to illumine the differences between visual and acoustic space, we have undoubtedly given a false impression: and that is that the normal brain, in its everyday functioning, cannot reconcile the apparently contradictory perceptions of both sides of the mind.” (48)
  44. This is a point methodically avoided by most McLuhan scholarship.
  45. Today we experience that kind of bewilderment that ensues when an individual and private culture begins to resume an involvement in the corporate and collective modes of awareness with all the depth and commitment that implies. Our most immediate experience of this takeover of individual culture by the corporate and collective vision of tribal man is in our own homes. The present generation gap between teenagers and their parents is a major manifestation of a technological gap between the mechanical and the electric cultures.” (‘Canada, the Borderline Case’, 1967)
  46. McLuhan’s use of the term ‘abridgement’/’abridge’ here is intentionally strange.  He employs it in the sense of shortening to the extent of annulling — as if ‘a-bridgement’ might be taken as an example of an alpha privative (like a-moral) to designate ‘not-bridging’ or even an active ‘gapping’.  This was what he had long called “sudden juxtaposition without copula” (eg, in the 1949 ‘Eliot’s Historical Decorum’).
  47. In the world of 2018, linear time has swallowed synchronic time.  But that such swallowing is possible is a key consideration for any attempt at ‘understanding media’. As McLuhan explicitly noted: “It seems necessary to postulate a profound motivation for such universal somnambulism.” (Take Today, 192, emphasis added.) Ultimately, this topic implicates “the main question“.
  48. T.S. Kuhn: “History suggests that the road to a firm research
    consensus is extraordinarily arduous.” (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Sec. I)
  49. See note 16 above.
  50. In one of his many 1960 writings, McLuhan referred to the need for “a sort of intellectual judo” (Technology, the Media, and Culture).
  51. English is itself a mass medium, as is any language employed by any society.” (Myth and Mass Media, 1959)
  52. Further statements along these lines in The Global Village include: “Acoustic and visual space structures may be seen as incommensurable, like history and eternity, yet, at the same time, as complementary (…) a foot, as it were, in both visual and acoustic space” (45); “No matter how extreme the dominance of either hemisphere in a particular culture, there is always some degree of interplay between the hemispheres” (62); “Within each of man’s inventions (extensions of himself) left- and right-hemisphere modes of thought struggle for dominance” (102).
  53. See ‘The keyboards of existence‘.
  54. Derrida: “The book on grammatology is not a book for grammatology; it’s also a book which insists on the limits of grammatology.” Reference in the following note.
  55.  Excuse me, but I never said exactly so: Yet Another Derridean Interview, with Paul Brennan, On the Beach, 1, 1983.
  56.  Compare a story told about Eric Voegelin: “At his first lecture (at the University of Florida in the mid 70s), he was confronted by the Dean of Graduate Studies regarding ‘this thing you call the two poles of human existence’. Voegelin went on to elaborate but the Dean became exacerbated by what he was hearing. He responded, somewhat irritably, ‘I don’t know how you can stand there and claim that there are only two poles to human existence. Why not five or six?’ Voegelin paused a moment, adjusted his glasses, and said in a very low voice: ‘I am sorry to disappoint you’.”
  57. Hence McLuhan’s denial that “monism is a resolution of Cartesian dualism” (The Gutenberg Galaxy, 247).
  58. Precise note should be made of the essential difference between how such exceptionalism understands itself (as “overwhelming”, that is, as situated outside or beyond the relativity of eye/ear time-spaces) and how it would be understood in McLuhan’s proposed analysis as necessarily situated within that spectrum of relativity (aka, that spectrum of modes of media-tion). The potential power of McLuhan’s suggestion lies in the fact that any such exceptionalism may be combated indirectly by the demonstration that analysis based on the spectrum returns expanding consensual results, like chemistry or genetics, whereas the attempt to proceed aside from the spectrum, like speculation about physical materials aside from chemistry or about heredity aside from genetics, gets nowhere. But ‘nowhere’ is, of course, just our current situation in the humanities and social sciences: if you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.
  59. “Attention to process” and “discovery of the creative process” point to McLuhan’s later discussions of process cited above in, eg, his May 1960 letter to Claude Bissell: “When stress moves from product to process, all of the subjects in the university also become substitutable for one another. At the very high level of information movement in which to-day we are involved, we find ourselves less in a university of subjects than in what Meister Eckhart called the university of being.” (Letters 273).
  60. The neolithic man (who came) after the age of the (mesolithic) hunter has suddenly (today after 8 millennia or so) dropped aside or dropped back, and we are back once more in the age of the hunter, only this time the hunter is a fact-finder and a researcher…” (Towards an Inclusive Consciousness, 1967).
  61. McLuhan to Etienne Gilson, January 19, 1971, Letters 421.
  62. The Care and Feeding of Communication Innovation, 1961.
  63. The full passage from ‘Electronics and the Changing Role of Print’ is cited above.
  64. See McLuhan’s letter to Richards from July 12, 1968 (Letters 355) where the two, Richards and Coleridge, are virtually identified: “I owe you an enormous debt since Cambridge days. I also owe a great deal to S.T.C.” Richards published Coleridge on Imagination in 1934, McLuhan’s first year in Cambridge.
  65. To compare, on September 28, 1967, two months before undergoing an emergency brain operation on November 26, McLuhan gave his inaugural lecture at Fordham that was titled ‘Open-Mind Surgery’.
  66. Twenty years later, of course, another such stroke would kill him.
  67. On the immediate other side of his stroke, in 1962 — perhaps reflecting his own now diminished physical and mental capacity and/or the state of a world where an external sensus communis was being put to work everywhere but in unknown and unconstrained ways — McLuhan wrote these rather chilling lines in his ‘Prospect’ piece in Arts Canada: “Man is now in a somnambulant state because this offers him his only possibility of survival and sanity. He couldn’t bear a fully conscious existence under the frenetic conditions that he is exposed to by his own technology. He could not register these terrible shocks directly and survive. He’d go mad. (…) When you put the nervous system outside (as an external sensus communis), fear is no longer the problem. Anxiety is the problem. Fear is specific, anxiety is total. (…) You don’t know now precisely what you’re dreading, rather it’s a pervasive state. The condition of man is what you dread. You no longer fear (McLuhan has ‘dread’ here) that animal, that famine, and so on, but (you dread) this condition. (…) Man lives in total anxiety in the age of electricity. Anxiety means utmost alertness, utmost watchfulness, involvement and therefore of course a very heightened kind of existence, a sort of nightmare“. See note 37 above for the full reference. It may be guessed that McLuhan’s inside knowledge of “these terrible shocks” and this “dread” and this “total anxietyderived from the “ceaseless quest for the inclusive and integral image” on which he had been engaged since the late 1940s and which amounted to his ‘second conversion‘. This had been a decade and more of “utmost alertness, utmost watchfulness, involvement and therefore of course a very heightened (and at the same time deep, ‘odos ano kato) kind of existence”.

Havelock, McLuhan & the history of education

Just a note about the Thomas Nashe dissertation. Studying Nashe’s style led me to look at the rhetorical education of his day.  I soon got on to the history of this form of symbolic action. Having tracked it back to 5th Century Athens, I moved forward, relating the rhetorical program to the dialetical studies, and especially, to the grammatical studies.  (…) Philologists since the Renaissance have pooh-poohed this inclusive approach [of the trivium and particularly of grammar], but it lasted until the time of Bishop Sprat [1635-1713] and got going again with the Symbolists. (McLuhan to Tom Wolfe, October 25, 1965, Letters 326)1

Homer knows nothing about private identity: his world is that of the acoustic epic, the tribal encyclopedia of memorized wisdom which Eric Havelock reported so ably in his Preface to Plato. The Homeric epics were part of this acoustic wisdom that preceded literacy and were phased out by literacy. Homer was wiped out by literacy, even though he had been the educational establishment of the Greeks for centuries. (…) Along came the phonetic alphabet, and Plato seized on it and said: “Let us abandon Homer and go for rational education.” Plato’s war on the poets was not a war on poetry but a war on the oral tradition of education. (McLuhan, ‘Living in an Acoustic World‘, 1974.)

Although scholars regularly attribute Havelock’s influence on McLuhan to his 1963 Preface to Plato, there are many indications in McLuhan’s writings that he was already clear about Havelock’s main points in that monograph years before its appearance. Here he is, for example, in the 1960 ‘New Media and the New Education’, whose importance to McLuhan may be seen in the fact that he published this essay repeatedly with different titles and small changes and even included it as an ‘Exhibit’ in his Report on Project in Understanding New Media from that same year of 1960:

oblivion of the structure of the page, and of print itself, extends to writing in the ancient world as well. For the alphabetic translation of the audible into the visible had huge consequences such as mark off Greece and Rome from all other societies which lacked phonetic means of codifying and translating experience into analytic, visible terms. 

McLuhan continued this passage in ‘New Media and the New Education’ with reference to education after Gutenberg, but there are many parallels in his description to Havelock’s longtime investigation into changes in Greek education following the introduction of literacy:

Let us suppose for a moment that a team of present-day [educational] testers had been available in the year 1500 to find out whether the new book or reading machines and instructional materials were capable of doing the plenary traditional job of education in the future. Would not this team, even as it would today, ask whether the privately read word could measure up as a means of teaching and learning to the memorized [tale]2 and its formidable extension in oral exegesis and group disputation? Since we know that [literacy]3 wiped out the educational procedures of the preceding centuries, we can say that the testers would have been quite wrong in asking whether the new could compete with the old when the new had only one mode of procedure, namely to erase and to brainwash the older culture. Our testers today are still geared to the static assumptions of the print form and ignore the structural dynamics of the electronic form. In 1500, as in 1960, they could report variations in the facility with which educational skills in a wide range of subjects are achieved by print or by educational television. But they have no regard for the new patterns of perception and sensibility which are subliminally imposed on us all by new structures for codifying and moving information. For the new structures modify our means of apprehending past and present. They recreate our sense of space and time, of teaching and learning.4

In sum, as the same essay concluded:

any new structure for codifying experience and of moving information, be it alphabet or photography, has the power of imposing its structural character and assumptions upon all levels of our private and social lives, even without benefit of concepts or of conscious acceptance. That is what I’ve always meant by “the medium is the message“.

Havelock had been investigating along these lines for decades.  He had, for example, published ‘Evidence For The Teaching Of Socrates’ in 1934 and ‘The Significance of the Greek Sophist’ in 1938. A lecture before the APA in 1940 was titled ‘The Professional Technique of the Sophists’. While he was not yet focused then on the fundamental role of literacy in educational changes dating to around 400 BC, he was already clear in the 1930s that a teaching system in which memorization and family apprenticeship were key features of education was giving way in the late 5th century in Athens to a new professional system of instruction associated with the sophists. He sensed that profound changes in social and individual identity were precipitated by these changes and that Plato and Aristotle might be read against this background as theoreticians and practitioners (in the Academy and Lyceum) of a revolution in education that was then affecting all aspects of Greek life and culture.

When McLuhan arrived in Toronto in 1946 he did so as an expert in the history of education in western civilization.  As he described in his note to Tom Wolfe given above, he had written his 1943 Cambridge PhD thesis on the “quarrel” of the disciplines in the educational trivium only a few years before and earlier in that year of 1946 he had brought this history from his thesis (which had terminated with Thomas Nashe in 1600) into the present day with an essay published in the Classical Journal, ‘An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America’.5

Surely McLuhan would have been greatly interested to learn that a young (only 8 years older than himself) professor of classics at Toronto was concentrating his research on education changes leading up to the point in time and place from which McLuhan’s Nashe thesis took its start. Havelock was, in effect, working on the prolegomena to McLuhan’s study of the trivium. (When McLuhan finally finished The Gutenberg Galaxy for publication in 1962, it was exactly with this prolegomena that it took its beginning. For discussion see ‘Parry and Lord in McLuhan‘.) Although by 1946 Havelock was already beginning to focus on oral vs literate information storage as a key to such educational and social changes, it was almost certainly the broader topic of the history of education which first interested McLuhan in his work. 

In the 1940s Havelock modulated his research in the directions of media research and of literary analysis, particularly of Virgil.  Both of these would profoundly influence McLuhan.  But it seems that it was the history of education which provided the common background between Havelock and McLuhan upon which these influences would have their effect.


  1. McLuhan’s 1943 Cambridge PhD thesis was nominally on Thomas Nashe (1567-1601), but was mostly a history of the trivium over the two millennia from 400 BC to 1600.
  2. McLuhan has ‘manuscript’ here, not ‘tale’, since he is describing the transition from the middle ages to the renaissance following the introduction of printing. ‘Tale’ has been substituted to highlight the parallels with Havelock’s research into the earlier transition in Greece from orality to the literary.
  3. McLuhan has ‘printing’ here, not ‘literacy’. See the prior note for the reasoning behind this substitution.
  4. Since McLuhan had been thinking and publishing along these lines throughout the 1950s, it is conceivable that the influence between his work and Preface to Plato may have run, in some yet to be determined part, in the other direction from what is usually supposed.
  5. An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America’ was originally a lecture given in St Louis in late 1944.

The keyboards of existence

If there is a “keyboard” of existence, who plays it?1

The point here is that this kind of single-level awareness [in Dos Passos] is not possible to anybody seriously manipulating the multiple keyboards of Joyce’s art. (Dos Passos: Technique vs. Sensibility )

The beloved detective story will serve as an example of a supposedly non-cultural type of expression. Built around the character of an omniscient and omni-competent sleuth whose lineage stretches backwards from Holmes to Da Vinci it manages to be popular poetry about the modern city. The sleuth is a master of every facet of the city. With the skill of an organist at a five-keyboard instrument, he can touch any note or level of metropolitan life. He is familiar with all the dives and clubs. He knows the whole range of drinks, foods, clothes, perfumes, as well as every intricacy of transportation routes and schedules. Anybody in the future who wished to acquaint himself with the full range and texture of the modern big town would not be able to find in reputable novels anything comparable to the poetic reportage of the detective story. The raw mechanical power that is imparted to the ordinary metropolitan citizen by his milieu is found in the gestures and idiom of the sleuth. (Technology and Political Change)

Joyce has shown us is how to do for the whole of existence what the sleuth does with the keyboard of the city. Today we are compelled by the quantity of available social and political facts to learn a new (…) language for swiftly mastering the inner dynamics [through]2 the outer carapace of facts. (New Media as Political Forms)

the press opened up the “human interest” keyboard after the telegraph had restructured the press medium (Understanding Media, 52)

  1. In Un Coup de Dés, Mallarmé writes of a “childlike shade”, of an “immemorial ulterior demon”, and of a “corpse”, exposed to “the virgin index” of possibilities — “in sight of all non-existent human outcomes”.
  2. McLuhan has ‘by’.