Monthly Archives: February 2018

Multi-levels of simultaneous presentation

The meaning of the New Criticism today is not just literacy but a shift to reading in depth (…) rather than the single-plane approach of the older literacy. (Electronic Revolution: Revolutionary Effects of New Media, 1959)

A passage from McLuhan’s 1953 ‘Trivial and Quadrivial’ essay tells us everything we need to know about his project: 

Joyce underlines the skill of Bloom’s social decorum in a peculiarly witty way. Homer’s Odysseus learns from Circe that after passing the Sirens there were two courses open to him. One is by way of the Wandering Rocks, which Jason alone had passed in the Argo. The other is the way of Scylla and Charybdis, rock and whirlpool. Odysseus avoids the labyrinth of the Wandering Rocks. But Bloom navigates both labyrinths safely, thus excelling Odysseus. The Rocks are citizens and society seen in abstraction as mindless, Martian mechanisms. The “stone” men are children of the sun, denizens of space, exempt from time (…) Opposed to them are “The Dead” (see last story in Dubliners) children of the moon, the Celtic twilight (“cultic twalette”), moving in the aquacities of time, memory, and sentiment. On these dual labyrinths of stone and water Joyce has built almost every line he has written. (emphasis added) 

There are two courses” or dual labyrinths” to all human action and experience. Known or unknown, all human beings constantly “navigate” each of the two and between the two in every present moment of their lives. These two courses are arrayed vertically in synchronic time such that each of us perpetually traverses also a third labyrinth between them. This is the famous ‘gap where the action is’.  As Eliot has it in one of his two epigrams from Heraclitus for his Four Quartets‘odos ano kato. The way between (odos as in ‘meth-od’) and above (ano as in ‘an-ode’) and below (kato as in ‘cath-ode’): one, two, three.

Those who do not know of this constant back and forth of katabasis and anabasis are

citizens and society seen in abstraction as mindless, Martian mechanisms. The “stone” men are children of the sun, denizens of space, exempt from time.

But these are “mindless Martian mechanisms” only “in abstraction”, as McLuhan notes, because navigating these courses cannot not be done by humans. And so also these “citizens”, who conceive themselves as living only in the sun, have in fact made the “twilight” journey from their everyday lives above, to and within the dark below: “the aquacities of time, memory, and sentiment”. Indeed, their deportment above as “mechanisms” always reflects this action below — but only behind their own backs. Each one of them has reconnoitered these nether regions over and over again — but in blackout mode and utterly unconsciously.

It seems necessary to postulate a profound motivation for such universal somnambulism. (Take Today, 192, emphasis added)

This watery environment is therefore the last thing that human fish of this ilk can come to know.  But they can come to know it1 and exactly as the spectrum of sensory thresholds through which all their experience, individually and collectively, is ordered.2

Now McLuhan had this tiered model of human being in mind, at lest vaguely, from the very start of his career. A letter to his family from Cambridge on Dec 6, 1934 records:

Of late I have been wayfaring among the work of T.S. Eliot (…) the poems I am reading [Poems 1909-1925] have the unmistakable character of greatness. They transform, and diffuse and recoalesce the commonest every day occurrences of 20th cent. city life till one begins to see double indeed — the extremely unthinkable character, the glory and the horror of the reality in life, yet, to all save the seer, [obscured and unknown] behind life… (Letters 41, emphasis added)

Eliot’s Norton lectures at Harvard (The Use of Poetry and The Use of Criticism, 1933) had just been published at this time, doubtless to enormous interest in Cambridge (where repeated attempts had been made to add Eliot to the English School faculty, especially by Eliot’s friend, I.A. Richards). McLuhan’s letter to his family had perhaps already been influenced by a passage from the lectures that he would never stop citing for the rest of his career:

What I call this “auditory imagination” is the feeling for syllable and rhythm, penetrating far below the conscious levels of thought and feeling, invigorating every word; sinking to the most primitive and forgotten, returning to the origin and bringing something back, seeking the beginning and the end. It works through meanings, certainly, or not without meanings in the ordinary sense, and fuses the old and obliterated and the trite, the current, and the new and surprising, the most ancient and the most civilized mentality.3

For McLuhan, this dynamic ano-kato movement (“returning to the origin and bringing something back“) was “the centre of the poetic process [and of the cognitive process in general that all great art mirrors in some way4], which Mr. Eliot, among others, has revealed in our time.”5

McLuhan’s 1943 Ph.D. thesis on Nashe told the story of these tiers or levels of life in terms of a background “quarrel” of the three disciplines of the trivium between 400 BC and 1600 AD. His 1946 paper on ‘An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America’ brought the story into the present day.  And for the following 35 years of his lifetime he would continue in a whole series of ways to investigate this notion of the synchronic dynamic of experience and to attempt to communicate his findings to the world.

The most direct of these ways (although nothing in this area is properly said to be direct) was to describe, over and over and over again, this “multi-level” perception of human being (dual gen!):

1947
the awareness of the unity of mythopoeic activity in history and art (…) has given modern man a sense once more of the simultaneity of all history seen at the psychological and intellectual level, as well as of the close bonds between all members of the human family past and present. (Inside Blake and Hollywood )

1947
Even [Etienne] Gilson (…) has no developed sensibility in contemporary art. I heard him on the puns in St Aug’s
Confessions. He noted that they were inseparable from the multi-levels of simultaneous presentation without seeing that this is precisely our contemporary “cubist” sensibility. (McLuhan to Walter Ong, December 1947)6

1951
This secret [of Dante] consists in nothing less than a fusion of the learning and the creative processes in the analysis and reconstruction of the aesthetic moment of arrested awareness. This peculiar fusion of the cognitive and the creative by an act of retracing the stages of apprehension was arrived at by Joyce as a result of the prior discovery for the technique of fission [aka the discernment of plural levels] of the moment of aesthetic awareness. (…) In art as in physics fission preceded fusion. (The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape Poetry)

1951
this kind of single-level awareness [of Dos Passos] is not possible to anybody seriously manipulating the multiple keyboards of Joyce’s art. (Dos Passos: Technique vs. Sensibility)

1952
The multi-leveled consciousness fostered by modern physics and anthropology is matched in the contemporary arts of music, poetry, and painting. 
The unilateral perspectives of nineteenth century biological theory cannot be imposed even in an academic milieu any longer. (Review of Auden: An Introductory Essay)

1953
The theme of this admirable work is that Herbert’s work is embedded in the matrix of orthodox Christian experience.  St. Thomas pointed out that all levels of meaning are contained in the literal. Miss Tuve says of Herbert that “he reads the spirit in the letter. Not into but in: he writes in symbols because he thus sees it as a web of significance not as a collection of phenomena (…) He writes not of events and facts, but of meanings. and values, and he uncovers rather than creates these meanings.” This sort of approach, now widely accepted, really speIls the end of the Cartesian era of culture. (Symbolist Communication, review of A Reading Of George Herbert, by Rosemond Tuve)

1953
[Bloom’s bar of] soap is a sign of grace uniting earthly and stellar, hermetic and astrologic, East and West labyrinths. These two levels of reality, which are in conflict all during Bloomsday, are thus reconciled among the stars. In the same context Dante is invoked obliquely as another sign of the reconciliation of Bloom and Stephen. For Dante, like Joyce and Eliot, employs grace to reconcile East and West. Reconciliation is not merging, however. (James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial)

1953
the trivium and quadrivium represent seven crossroads for
the meeting of the various degrees and levels of reality.  (James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial)

1953
The trick is in finding the principle of intelligibility (…) in active relationships in existing dynamic situations
. (The Later Innis)

1954
a passage of Greene, Lyly, or Nashe is not prose in the 18th or 19th century sense. The focus of attention has to be readjusted for changes of tone and attitude in every sentence. Print had not yet imposed its massive mechanical weight to level off the oral and colloquial features of prose. (New Media as Political Forms)

1955
Sixteenth-century prose still retains many of the rapidly shifting perspectives of multiple levels of tone and meaning which characterize group speech. It took two centuries of print to create prose on the page which maintained the tone and perspective of a single speaker. The individual scholar, alone with his text, had to develop habits of self-reliance which we still associate with the virtues of book culture. (Historical Approach to the Media)

1957
the poem [The Ancient Mariner] achieves a kind of
continuous parallel between two levels of action, as does Joyce’s Ulysses in moving simultaneously in modern Dublin and ancient Ithaca. And it is in this same way that Tiresias in The Waste Land moves “between two lives.

1957
Oral disputation and multi-level comment on texts were the natural result of oral teaching. Multi-level awareness of linguistic phenomena and of audience structure held up during print’s first century, but swiftly declined thereafter, since the speedy linear flow of printed language encouraged single perspective in word use and word study. (The Effect of the Printed Book on Language)

1957
For 500 years our idea of efficacy and efficiency was rooted in the technology of explicitness. To make happen and to explain scientifically have both meant the consecutive spelling out of consequences, one at a time. In the electronic age we enter the phase of the technology of implicitness in which by grasp of total field relationships we package information and deliver messages on many levels, all in an instant. (The Subliminal Projection Project)

1958
Electronic media are not mechanical but post-mechanical, and they evoke very different attitudes of mind from the mechanical age. On all sides we can see the rise of the “oral man” once more, the man whose awareness is shaped by the simultaneous flow of information from every quarter at once, a man who takes for granted that any situation has many levels at once. (Media Alchemy in Art and Society) 

1959
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. (Myth and Mass Media)

1959
A low definition form like ordinary speech operates on many levels at once, and manuscripts were close to speech in offering a multi-leveled discourse to the reader. But print being of high visual definition did not exact the degree of participation that the manuscript did and does. Print could be read fast on one level… (Supplement to ‘Electronics and the Changing Role of Print’)

1960
The modern world of dynamics is an all-at-once world in which there cannot be single levels or one-thing­-at-a-time awareness. (The Medium is the Message)

1960
Automation depends upon an exactly syncronized information flow from electronic tapes, and substitutes the multi-levelled complex for the single-plane assembly line. (Report on Project in Understanding New Media)

1960
dialogue  (…) depends upon an everyway simultaneous flow which is a very far cry indeed from the one direction, one level flow of the printed page, or of the lecture platform. Electronic technology instructs the world again with simultaneous, every direction information flow. We cannot choose but live this way under electronic conditions. (Report on Project in Understanding New Media)

1960
With radio it is easy to notice one of the major features of electronic m
edia, namely the powerful drive toward the extension of human dialogue into all levels of human affairs. (Report on Project in Understanding New Media)

1960
The barbarian plays it by ear. The civilized man plays it by eye. The 
barbarian lives in the all-at-once world of many directions and many levels of meaning at a single moment. Whereas the literate man lives by the eye, one-thing-at-a-time, one direction at a time, one level at a time. (Report on Project in Understanding New Media)

1960
mythic forms of explanation explicated all levels of any situation at the same time.  (‘Introduction’ to Explorations in Communication)

1960
Multi-levelled exegesis of7 Ovid or Virgil or the Scriptures was not only a medieval mode of reading and writing. It preceded Christianity and was the norm among ancient “grammarians.” To-day it is again the norm in physics, in psychology, in poetry and the arts. (Grammars for the Newer Media)

1962
there is nothing subliminal in non-literate cultures. The reason we find myths difficult to grasp is just this fact, that they do not exclude any facet of experience as literate cultures do. All the levels of meaning are simultaneous. (Gutenberg Galaxy, 72)

1962
Senecan antithesis and “amble” (…) provided the authentic means of scientific observation and experience of mental process. When only the eye is engaged, the multi-levelled gestures and resonances of Senecan oral action are quite impertinent. (Gutenberg Galaxy, 103)

1962
To the oral man the literal is inclusive, contains all possible meanings and levels. So it was for Aquinas. But the visual man of the sixteenth century is impelled to separate level from level, and function from function, in a process of specialist exclusion. The auditory field is simultaneous, the visual mode is successive. (Gutenberg Galaxy, 111)

1962
The study of the Bible in the Middle Ages achieved conflicting patterns of expression which the economic and social historian is also familiar with. The conflict was between those who said that the sacred text was a complex unified at the literal level, and those who felt that the levels of meaning should be taken one at a time in a specialist spirit. (Gutenberg Galaxy, 112)

1962
The scholastic method was a simultaneous mosaic, a dealing with many aspects and levels of meaning in crisp simultaneity. (Gutenberg Galaxy, 129)

1962
Structuralism as a term does not much convey its idea of inclusive synesthesia, an interplay of many levels and facets in a two-dimensional mosaic. But it is a mode of awareness in art language and literature which the West took great pains to eliminate by means of Gutenberg technology. It has returned in our time, for good or ill…  (Gutenberg Galaxy, 230-231)

1963
It is important to observe that the quality of the new “structural,” as opposed to the old lineal, sequential and mechanical, is the quality of the simultaneous. It is the simultaneous “field” of multitudinous events in equipoise or interplay that constitutes the awareness of causality that is present in ecological and nuclear models of perception today. Our electric mode of shaping the new patterns of culture and information movement is not mechanical but biological. (We Need a New Picture of Knowledge)

1963
In obtaining an eye for an ear, Western man clearly abandoned depth or structural knowledge in favor of applied knowledge. For the phonetic alphabet gave him the means of translating and reducing the complexities of the ear world to the flat retinal level of visually organized data. With Gutenberg came a further stage of this transfer of multi-leveled awareness into the typographic forms of exactly repeatable data. This very large step of transferring a manual craft into a mechanical form was done strictly within the compass of phonetic technology; that is, the further analysis of functions into uniform segments of movable and replaceable kind was the step that created at once the infinitesimal calculus, the uniform citizen armies of Napoleon, and the assembly lines of mechanical industry. (We Need a New Picture of Knowledge)

1963
T
he Gutenberg era of our Western world saw the suppression of dialogue in favor of visual systems and blueprints of knowledge laid out in “subjects” and “fields” packaged in varying degrees of processing and predigestion. Our Gutenberg technology enabled us to “apply” knowledge freely; that is, we learned how to translate every sort of knowledge into single planes of homogeneous kind. Applied knowledge is a process of translation and reduction of varied forms into a single form. This process of homogenization, as it gathered momentum, struck panic into the nineteenth century mind, but it greatly increased property and wealth and made the first consumer society. (We Need a New Picture of Knowledge)

1964
Concern with effect rather than meaning is a basic change of our electric time, for effect involves the total situation, and not a single level of information movement. (Understanding Media, 26)

1964
The first great change in [prose] style came early in the eighteenth century, when the famous Tatler and Spectator of Addison and Steele discovered a new prose technique to match the form of the printed word. It was the technique of equitone. It consisted in maintaining a single level of tone and attitude to the reader throughout the entire composition. (Understanding Media, 206)

1964
As early as 1830 the French poet Lamartine had said, “The book arrives too late,” drawing attention to the fact that the book and the newspaper are quite different forms. (…) The mosaic of the [ newspaper] press manages to effect a complex many-leveled function of group-awareness and participation such as the book has never been able to perform. (Understanding Media, 205, 216)

1964
“depth” means “in interrelation”, not “in isolation”. Depth means insight, not point of view; and insight is a kind of mental involvement in process that makes the content of the item seem quite secondary. Consciousness itself is an inclusive process not at all dependent on content. Consciousness does not postulate consciousness of anything in particular. (Understanding Media, 282-283)

1965
The new stories tend to be much more compressed and on two levels at once, like the sort of Finnegans Wake phrase: “though he might have been more humble, there’s no police like Holmes.”8 That kind of compressed double-plot story is a  very interesting development… (Address at Vision 65)

1967
Highly literate people speak on one level, in a monotone. “Good” prose is spoken this way. A level of form, one plane. You cannot discuss multi-relationships on a single plane, in a single form. That’s why the poets of our time have broken all the planes and sequences, forming a cubist prose. (Hot & Cool Interview with Gerald Stearn)

1967
Consciousness (…) is a specialist and fragmentary operation which works by exclusion rather than inclusion. The subconscious by contrast is inclusive rather than exclusive  It accepts all things and all times and all places, and accepts them all-at-once. (The Future of Morality: inner vs outer quest)

1968
The seventeenth-century interassociation of varied levels of fact had begun to appear incompatible with the new science of the time. (Through the Vanishing Point, 10)

1968
Much of A Preface to Chaucer by D. W. Robertson (Princeton University Press, 1962) is concerned with explaining how the world of space and  time in the art of Chaucer is discontinuous and multileveled. For the modern scholar, the discovery of discontinuity creates dismay since it disrupts his ordinary procedures and classifications. Robertson, for example, declares that the principles of conventional philology are quite inadequate to the task of  establishing an encounter with the Medieval habits of multileveled exegesis. (Through the Vanishing Point, 238)

1968
Depth requires perception on many levels and, therefore, an absence of single purpose or direction. (All of the Candidates are Asleep)

1968
The mechanical enthroned the “point of view”, the static position with its vanishing point. The electric age favors a total field approach, a kind of X-ray in depth which not only avoids a point of view but avoids looking at situations from any single level.  (Environment As Programmed Happening)

1968
The same speed of access to many kinds of data has given us the power to X-ray all the cultures and subcultures in the world
. We no longer approach them from any point of view or for the purpose of taking a picture of them. The new approach is the X-ray approach of penetration in depth to achieve awareness on many levels at once. It is natural that we should adapt this approach to our own condition. The psychiatrists have done so for the individual, and comparable analysis is now available for the corporate or group condition. (Environment As Programmed Happening)

1968
The simultaneous interrelations between many levels of meaning of the word have to be sacrificed in keeping everything moving on a single plane on one level. (The Medium Is The Massage LP)

1970
L. P. Smith in Words and Idioms draws attention to a mysterious property of language, namely, the ineradicable power of doublets. The Greek word for these structures [is] hendiadys, “one through two”… (From Cliché to Archetype, 108)

1970
consciousness is (…) a multileveled event (From Cliché to Archetype, 117)

1972
How about the adman’s rip-off?  He must move on more than one level in order to obtain the the interplay that involves the public. (‘Introduction’ to Subliminal Seduction)

1974
There was for many centuries [up to the end of the middle ages] a decorum in dress and costume as much as in speech and levels of rhetorical style. The structuralism upon which these distinctions was based was not visual but acoustic, and [when this ended] the same process of levelling in dress or in costume proceeded by the same means as the levelling of rhetorical styles and exegetical levels of interpretation of scripture. Those means were, of course, the advent of [Gutenbergian] technologies which stepped up visual stress to new levels of intensity, just as today the advent of powerful new acoustic structures in the environment have disposed human perception towards an easy understanding and acceptance of complex non-visual structures once more. (The Medieval Environment)

1974
Bacon’s organic approach, I suggest, is derived from the multi-levelled exegesis of the book of nature and Scripture alike. The simultaneity of all levels in ancient grammatica coincides with twentieth century quantum mechanics which is concerned with the physical and chemical bond of nature as the “resonant interval.” The acoustic simultaneity of the new physics co-exists with “synchrony” and structuralism in language and literature and anthropology as understood in Ferdinand de Saussure and Levi-Strauss. (Bacon, Ancient or Modern?)

1979
Contemporary linguistics [ie, Saussure] has recovered the multileveled study of language in our time. (Pound, Eliot, and the Rhetoric of The Waste Land )

 

  1. “If man, by his ingenious extensions of himself, creates new dimensions and new environments, he also has another creative power for making himself aware of these new forms, and of giving himself cognizance of their effect upon him.” (Alarums in a Brave New World, 1965)
  2. These “thresholds” are the elementary media of human experience and action. They are the message that is constantly expressed but seldom heard. The riddle lies in finding the one medium among the media through which these media might first be perceived in their dynamic action.
  3.  Leaving aside McLuhan’s great many bare references to “auditory imagination”, this passage from Eliot is cited in full in all of the following essays and books: ‘Coleridge As Artist’ (1957), ‘Environment As Programmed Happening’ (1968), From Cliche to Archetype (1970), Culture is Our Business (1970), Take Today (1972), ‘Media Ad-vice: An Introduction’ (1973), ‘Liturgy and Media’ (1973), ‘The Medieval Environment’ (1974), ’English Literature as Control Tower in Communication Study’ (1974), ‘At the Flip Point of Time’ (1975), ‘Empedocles and T. S. Eliot’ (1976), ’Pound, Eliot, and the Rhetoric of The Waste Land’ (1979). In her thesis (59), Liss Jeffrey cites it from McLuhan’s unpublished note ‘My Last Three Books’. Further citations of it will doubtless be found as McLuhan’s papers continue to be vetted.
  4. See, eg,  the citation above from the 1951 ‘Aesthetic Moment in Landscape Poetry’.
  5. Eliot and The Manichean Myth As Poetry’, Address to Spring symposium of the Catholic Renascence Society, April 19, 1954.
  6.  Letters 190.
  7. Dual genitive!
  8. McLuhan often cited this punny sentence and attributed it to Joyce in FW. In fact, however, it derives from E. W. Hornung, Conan Doyle’s brother-in-law, as recorded in Doyle’s autobiography, Memories and Adventures (1924). It is another question, however, whether Joyce knew of Hornung’s pun and signaled to it in some fashion in FW, where the adventures of Shedlock Homes are a thread in Joyce’s tapestry. Perhaps McLuhan go confused between puns.

Tobias Dantzig

McLuhan discovered the work of Tobias Dantzig (1884-1956) during his travel for Project 69 (as he styled his ‘Project in Understanding New Media’):

This book [Tobias’ Number: The Language Of Science], which Einstein proclaimed “the most interesting book on the evolution of mathematics that has ever fallen into my hands”, fell into my hands at the Washington, D. C. airport. This is relevant to the present report since I was then in Washington in connection with Project 69. (Report)

This must have been in November 1959 or January 1960, since McLuhan’s itinerary for the project (included in his Report) showed him in Washington at these times.

Dantzig then joined the art historians, Hildebrand, Wölfflin, Ivins and Gombrich, as a major resource for the Report — and for papers and books prepared by McLuhan over the next few years extending to the 1964 Understanding Media (which was based on the Report).

Report on Project in Understanding New Media (1960)

  • Since we consider that our way of life is rooted in literacy it concerns us deeply to know why our children will increasingly spurn it, just as our artists and physicists rejected perspective a century ago. I think the best way (…) to explain this matter further is to cite the evidence of Tobias Dantzig in his Number: The Language Of Science. (…) Pages 139-147 provide all that is needed to understand why phonetic writing created Euclidean space, or the Greek miracle of perspective and naturalistic illusion. The same pages also explain why the Western world since Newton has steadily dissolved Euclidean space and pictorial illusion, and shifted to non-Euclidean geometries and non-objective art. In a word, here are all the clues to the mystery of the rise and fall of Western man, the mystery of his detribalization by literacy and his retribalization by electric communication.
  • More than anybody else, the mathematician is aware of the arbitrary and fictional character of this continuous, homogeneous visual space. Why? Because number, the language of science, is a fiction for re-translating the Euclidean space fiction back into auditory and tactile space. The example Dantzig uses on page 139 concerns the measurement of the length of an arc: “Our notion of the length of a curve may serve as an illustration. The physical concept rests on that of a bent wire We imagine that we have straightened the wire without stretching it; then the segment of the straight line will serve as the measure of the length of the arc. Now what do we mean by ‘without stretching?’ We mean without a change in length. But this term implies that we already know something about the length of the arc. Such a formulation is obviously a petitio principii and could not serve as a mathematical definition. The alternative is to inscribe in the arc a sequence of rectilinear contours of an increasing number of sides. The sequence of these contours approaches a limit, and the length of the arc is defined as the limit of this sequence.  And what is true of the notion of length is true of areas, volumes, masses, movements, pressures, forces, stresses and strains, velocities, accelerations, etc., etc. All these notions were born in a linear, ‘rational’ world where nothing takes place but what is straight, flat and uniform. Either, then, we must abandon these elementary rational notions — and this would mean a veritable revolution, so deeply are these concepts rooted in our minds; or we must adapt these rational notions to a world which is neither flat, nor straight, nor uniform.” (…) The invaluable demonstration of Dantzig is that in order to protect our vested interest in Euclidean space (i. e. literacy), Western man devised the parallel but antithetic mode of number in order to cope with all of the non-Euclidean dimensions of daily experience. He continues: “But how can the flat and the straight and the uniform be adapted to its very opposite, the skew and the curved and the non-uniform? Not by a finite number of steps, certainly! The miracle can be accomplished only by that miracle-maker, the infinite. Having determined to cling to the elementary rational notions, we have no other alternative than to regard the ‘curved’ reality of our senses as the ultra-ultimate step in an infinite sequence of flat worlds which exist only in our imagination. The miracle is that it works!”
  • The Graeco-Roman galaxy had a one-way road of conquest of all other cultures in the phonetic alphabet. But (…) this one-way road led from sound to sight. This was the road that hoicked Western man from the tribal space of ear and tactility to the civilized visual space of the straight, the flat and the uniform. [Two millennia later,] print, of course, gave [even]1 greater stress and emphasis to the pictorial space of the straight, the flat and the uniform. The phonetic alphabet was the first technological medium that gave obvious salience to the fact that all media are natural resources or staples. Number, as Dantzig implies, is subservient to letters and meaningless without a civilized, pictorial culture to support it
  • Letters translated us out of the all-at-once auditory and tactile world of pre-literate man, while Numbers: The Language of Science (…) developed parallel with letters as a means of translating the visual and the literate back into the non-visual and the tactile. The artist faces the problem of responding to this type of awareness with new forms of relevance for mankind. Pre-literate society enthroned the artist as medicine man. Post-literate society (the electronic) must enthrone the artist as navigator.

Technology, the Media, and Culture (1960)

  • In his book Number: The Language of Science, Tobias Dantzig tells us that “The attempt to apply rational arithmetic to a problem in geometry resulted in the first crisis in the history of mathematics.” Today, that crisis is occurring on a massive cultural scale. Our rational Euclidean world of continuous and homogeneous space, extrapolated by the phonetic alphabet from the resonating tribal world, has now to face the electronic challenge of its own irrelevance and superfluousness. l think Dantzig can help us some more to get our bearings here. Just before the passage already quoted he is explaining the crucial use made in mathematics of the Renaissance concept of the “infinite process.” If this concept does not derive from the new perception of perspective or vanishing point, it is at least parallel to it. “The prototype of all infinite processes,“ says Dantzig, “is repetition.” And this is a facet of the concept of convergence, recession, vanishing point, perspective, infinity which is inseparable from Gutenberg technology. For uniformity and repeatability are as basic to print as visuality to the phonetic alphabet. 
  • Dantzig continues: “The importance of infinite processes for the practical exigencies of technical life can hardly be overemphasized. Practically all applications of arithmetic to geometry, mechanics, physics and even statistics involve these processes directly or indirectly. . . . Banish the infinite process, and mathematics pure and applied is reduced to the state in which it was known to the pre-Pythagoreans.” That is to say, without the minute segmentation, whether of alphabet or of the infinitesimal calculus, there can be no translation, no bridge from the tactile, resonating, tribal world, to the rational, flat, visual world. Dantzig simply points out that number aided by infinite process can measure our world by translating visual, Euclidean space created by the phonetic alphabet back into the tactile modalities of touch and sound. One of the many prices we paid for abstracting ourselves from the tribal, multi-sensuous world was that we came to rely more and more on number to get us back into relation to that tribal world. It is not surprising therefore that number, the servant of letters, finally outgrew its  master, civilization. For pushed all the way, number or tactile measurement gave us the new electric media which restore the resonating, tactile world as an immediate datum and all-embracing matrix of culture. 
  • “Our notion of the length of an arc of a curve,” says Dantzig, “may serve as an illustration. The physical concept rests on that of a bent wire. We imagine that we have straightened the wire without stretching it; then the segment of the straight line will serve as the measure of the length of the arc. Now what do we mean by “without stretching?” We mean without a change in length. But this term implies that we already know something about the length of the arc. Such a formulation is obviously a petitio principii and could not serve as a mathematical definition. The alternative is to inscribe in the arc a sequence of rectilinear contours of an increasing number of sides. The sequence of these contours approaches a limit, and the length of the arc is defined as the limit of this sequence.” Calculus, that is to say, is a means of translation of one kind of space into another — especially of visual into tactile and auditory fields of measurement. “And what is true of the notion of length is true of areas, volumes, masses, moments, pressures, forces, stresses, and strains, velocities, accelerations, etc., etc. All these notions were born in a “linear,” “rational” world where nothing takes place but what is straight, flat, and uniform. Either, then, we must abandon these elementary rational notions — and this would mean a veritable revolution, so deeply are these concepts rooted in our minds; or we must adapt those rational notions to a world which is neither flat, nor straight, nor uniform. But how can the flat and the straight and the uniform be adapted to its very opposite, the skew and the curved and non-uniform? Not by a finite number of steps, certainly! The miracle can be accomplished only by that miracle-maker, the infinite. Having determined to cling to the elementary rational notions, we have no other alternative than to regard the “curved” reality of our senses as the ultra-ultimate step in an infinite sequence of flat worlds which exist only in our imagination.” The same navigational techniques of adaptation, compensation, and correction for distortion, which the mathematician provides for the sciences, the artist provides for sensibilities distorted by social technologies and media change.

The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962)

  • Tobias D. Dantzig points out in his Number: The Language of Science (pp. 141-2): “The attempt to apply rational arithmetic to a problem in geometry resulted in the first crisis in the history of mathematics. The two relatively simple problems, the determination of the diagonal of a square and that of the circumference of a circle, revealed the existence of new mathematical beings for which no place could be found within the rational domain (…) A further analysis showed that the procedures of algebra were generally just as inadequate. So it became apparent that an extension of the number field was unavoidable (…) And since the old concept failed on the terrain of geometry, we must seek in geometry a model for the new. The continuous indefinite straight line seems ideally adapted for such a model.” (GG 81)
  • Dantzig explains why the language of number had to be increased to meet the needs created by the new technology of letters. (…) Tobias Dantzig, in his Number: The Language of Science, has provided a cultural history of mathematics which led Einstein to declare: “This is beyond doubt the most interesting book on the evolution of mathematics that has ever fallen into my hands.” The explanation of the rise of Euclidean sensibility from the phonetic alphabet was given in the early part of this book. Phonetic letters, the language and mythic form of Western culture, have the power of translating or reducing all of our senses into visual and “pictorial” or “enclosed” space. More than anybody else, the mathematician is aware of the arbitrary and fictional character of this continuous, homogeneous visual space. Why? Because number, the language of science, is a fiction for retranslating the Euclidean space fiction back into auditory and tactile space. The example Dantzig uses on page 139 concerns the measurement of the length of an arc: “Our notion of the length of an arc of a curve may serve as an illustration. The physical concept rests on that of a bent wire. We imagine that we have straightened the wire without stretching it; then the segment of the straight line will serve as the measure of the length of the arc. Now what do we mean by ‘without stretching’? We mean without a change in length. But this term implies that we already know something about the length of the arc. Such a formulation is obviously a petitio principii and could not serve as a mathematical definition. The alternative is to inscribe in the arc a sequence of rectilinear contours of an increasing number of sides. The sequence of these contours approaches a limit, and the length of the arc is defined as the limit of this sequence. And what is true of the notion of length is true of areas, volumes, masses, movements, pressures, forces, stresses and strains, velocities, accelerations, etc., etc. All these notions were born in a ‘linear’, ‘rational’ world where nothing takes place but what is straight, flat, and uniform. Either, then, we must abandon these elementary rational notions — and this would mean a veritable revolution, so deeply are these concepts rooted in our minds; or we must adapt those rational notions to a world which is neither flat, nor straight, nor uniform.” (GG 176-177)
  • The invaluable demonstration of Dantzig is that in order to protect our vested interest in Euclidean space (i.e., literacy) Western man devised the parallel but antithetic mode of number in order to cope with all of the non-Euclidean dimensions of daily experience. He continues (p. 140): “But how can the flat and the straight and the uniform be adapted to its very opposite, the skew and the curved and the non-uniform? Not by a finite number of steps, certainly! The miracle can be accomplished only by that miracle-maker the infinite. Having determined to cling to the elementary rational notions, we have no other alternative than to regard the ‘curved’ reality of our senses as the ultra-ultimate step in an infinite sequence of flat worlds which exist only in our imagination.” The miracle is that it works! (GG 178)
  • today number is as obsolete as the phonetic alphabet as a means of endowing and applying experience and knowledge. We are now as post-number as we are post-literate in the electronic age. There is a mode of calculation that is pre-digital Dantzig points out (p. 14): “There exists among the most primitive tribes of Australia and Africa a system of numeration which has neither 5, 10, nor 20 for base. It is a binary system, i.e., of base two. These savages have not yet reached finger counting. They have independent numbers for one and two, and composite numbers up to six. Beyond six everything is denoted by ‘heap’.” Dantzig indicates that even digital counting is a kind of abstraction or separation of the tactile from the other senses, whereas the yes-no which precedes it is a more “whole” response. Such, at any rate, are the new binary computers that dispense with number, and make possible the structuralist physics of Heisenberg. (GG 178-179)
  • Dantzig explains in his Number: The Language of Science a great step in numeration and calculation taken by the Phoenicians under commercial pressure: “The ordinal numeration in which numbers are represented by the letters of an alphabet in their spoken succession.” But using letters, Greek and Roman alike never got near a method suited to arithmetical operations: “This is why, from the beginning of history until the advent of our modern positional numeration, so little progress was made in the art of reckoning.” That is, until number was given a visual, spatial character and abstracted from its audile-tactile matrix it could not be separated from the magical domain. “A man skilled in the art was regarded as endowed with almost supernatural powers. . . . even the enlightened Greeks never completely freed themselves from this mysticism of number and form.” It is easy to see with Dantzig how the first crisis in mathematics arose with the Greek attempt to apply arithmetic to geometry, to translate one kind of space into another before printing had given the means of homogeneity: “This confusion of tongues persists to this day. Around infinity have grown up all the paradoxes of mathematics: from the arguments of Zeno to the antinomies of Kant and Cantor.” It is difficult for us in the twentieth century to realize why our predecessors should have had such trouble in recognizing the various languages and assumptions of visual as opposed to audile-tactile spaces. It was precisely the habit of being with one kind of space that made all other spaces seem so opaque and intractable. From the eleventh to the fifteenth centuries the Abacists fought the Algorists. That is, the literate fought the numbers people. In some places the Arabic numerals were banned. In Italy some merchants of the thirteenth century used them as a secret code. Under manuscript culture the outward appearance of the numerals underwent many changes and, says Dantzig: “In fact, the numerals did not assume a stable form until the introduction of printing. It can be added parenthetically that so great was the stabilizing influence of printing that the numerals of today have essentially the same appearance as those of the fifteenth century.” (GG 180)  
  • The great sixteenth century divorce between art and science came with accelerated calculators. Print assured the victory of numbers or visual position early in the sixteenth century. By the later sixteenth century the art of statistics was already growing. Dantzig writes: “The late sixteenth century was the time when in Spain figures were printed giving the population of provinces and the population of towns. It was the time when the Italians also began to take a serious interest in population statistics — in the making of censuses. It was the period when in France a controversy was carried on between Bodin and a certain Monsieur de Malestroit concerning the relations of the quantity of money in circulation to the level of prices.” There was soon great concern with ways and means of speeding up arithmetical calculations: “It is hard for us to realize how laborious and slow were the means at the disposal of medieval Europeans for dealing with calculations ‘which seem to us of the simplest character’. The introduction of Arabic numbers into Europe provided more easily manipulated counters than the Roman numbers, and the use of Arabic numbers seems to have spread rapidly towards the end of the sixteenth century, at least on the Continent. Between about 1590 and 1617 John Napier invented his curious ‘bones’ for calculating. He followed this invention with his more celebrated discovery of logarithms. This was widely adopted all over Europe almost at once, and in consequence arithmetical calculations were immensely accelerated.” (GG 181)
  • “Strike flat the thick rotundity of the world,” cries Lear as a curse to snap “the most precious square of sense.” And the striking flat, the isolation of the visual is the great achievement of Gutenberg and the Mercator projection. And Dantzig notes: “Thus     the alleged properties of the straight line are of the geometer’s own making. He deliberately disregards thickness and breadth, deliberately assumes that the thing common to two such lines, their point of intersection, is deprived of all dimension … but the assumptions themselves are arbitrary, a convenient fiction at best.” It is easy for Dantzig to see how fictional classical geometry was. It got huge nourishment from printing after being engendered by the alphabet. (GG 182)

Understanding Media (1964)

  • So far as Tobias Dantzig is concerned in his Number: The Language of Science, the progress from the tactile fingering of toes and fingers to “the homogeneous number concept, which made mathematics possible” is the result of visual abstraction from the operation of tactile manipulation. (UM 113)
  • Dantzig, having made clear that the idea of homogeneity had to come before primitive numbers could be advanced to the level of mathematics, points to another literate and visual factor in the older mathematics. “Correspondence and succession, the two principles which permeate all mathematics—nay, all realms of exact thought—are woven into the very fabric of our number system,” he observes. So, indeed, are they woven into the very fabric of Western logic and philosophy. We have already seen how the phonetic technology fostered visual continuity and individual point of view, and how these contributed to the rise of uniform Euclidean space. Dantzig says that it is the idea of correspondence which gives us cardinal numbers. Both of these spatial ideas — lineality and point of view — come with writing, especially with phonetic writing; but neither is necessary in our new mathematics and physics. Nor is writing necessary to an electric technology. Of course, writing and conventional arithmetic may long continue to be of the utmost use to man, for all that. Even Einstein could not face the new quantum physics with comfort. Too visual a Newtonian for the new task, he said that quanta could not be handled mathematically. That is as much as to say that poetry cannot be properly translated into merely visual form on the printed page. (UM 113-114)
  • Dantzig develops his points about number by saying that a literate population soon departs from the abacus and from finger enumeration, though arithmetic manuals in the Renaissance continued to give elaborate rules for calculating on the hands. It could be true that numbers preceded literacy in some cultures, but so did visual stress precede writing. For writing is only the principal manifestation of the extension of our visual sense, as the photograph and the movie today may well remind us. And long before literate technology, the binary factors of hands and feet sufficed to launch man on the path of counting. (UM 114)
  • Dantzig reminds us also that in the age of manuscript there was a chaotic variety of signs for numerals, and that they did not assume a stable form until printing. (UM 114)
  1. McLuhan: “much”.

Ernst Gombrich

In McLuhan’s decisive ‘art history’ period, 1958-1962, Ernst Gombrich played a central role along with Adolph Hildebrand, Heinrich Wölfflin and William Ivins.  Art and illusion, Gombrich’s retitled 1956 Mellon lectures, appeared in print in 1960 and was instantly and repeatedly, almost compulsively, cited by McLuhan in multiple publications that same year and continuing to 1962.  As with the other art historians, Hildebrand, Wölfflin and Ivins, McLuhan then returned to Gombrich only briefly thereafter (with the notable exception of the important citation, given below, in ‘The Argument: Causality in the Electric World’ from 1973).

Report on Project in Understanding New Media (1960)

  • In 1915 Heinrich Wölfflin published his Principles of Art History which has since then revolutionized the study of many matters besides art. His entire approach confirms what I discovered about media: “the effect is the thing that counts, not the sensuous facts“, (Dover Publications, p. 62). This is also the theme of E. H. Gombrich’s Art and Illusion (Pantheon Books, 1960), in which be provides “a study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation,” bridging and fusing much recent perception study with the history of culture.
  • In his extensive survey and analysis of the illusion and ambiguities of perspective and the third dimension, E. H. Gombrich (Art and Illusion) again and again reverts to the Greek miracle: “the discovery of fore-shortening and the conquest of space early in the fifth century” (p. 116). The cause of this “miracle” was the phonetic alphabet. Again, let it be stressed, concern with the sensory data rather than effects has for many centuries concealed the operation of this cause.
  • At the end of his classic study of Art and Illusion, E. H. Gombrich says: “In investigating the growth of the language of representation we may have gained some insight into the articulation of other languages of equivalences. Indeed, the true miracle of the language of art is not that it enables the artist to create the illusion of reality. It is that under the hands of a great master the image becomes translucent.”
  • I am going to draw heavily on E. H. Gombrich’s Art and Illusion (Pantheon Books, 1960) simply because (…) his ample use of current perception study will give comfort to the scientifically-minded. (…) He notes: “Now the historian knows that the information pictures were expected to provide differed widely in different periods. Not only were images scarce in the past, but so were the public’s opportunities to check their captions. …How many travelled widely enough to tell one city from another?” Low Definition images were merely take-off strips for private fantasy: “All they were expected to do was to bring home to the reader that these names stood for cities.” But to that very degree they elicited maximal effort on the part of the beholder. Of a sixteenth century picture of Rome, Gombrich says: “I am fond of this coarse woodcut because its very crudeness allows us to study the mechanism of portrayal as in a slow motion picture.” 
  • Its [television’s] mosaic has brought us back to the two-dimensional and to the fascination with tactile process. Gombrich writes: “It has become increasingly clear since the late nineteenth century that primitive art and child art use a language of symbols rather than ‘natural signs.’ To account for this fact it was postulated that there must be a special kind of art grounded not on seeing but rather on knowledge, an art which operates with ‘conceptual images.’ The child — it is argued — does not look at trees; he is satisfied with the ‘conceptual’ schema of a tree that fails to correspond to any reality since it does not embody the characteristics of say, birch or beech, let alone those of individual trees. This reliance on construction rather than on imitation was attributed to the peculiar mentality of children and primitives who live in a world of their own. But we have come to realize that the distinction is unreal. Gustaf Britsch and Rudolph Arnheim have stressed that there is no opposition between the crude map of the world made by a child and the richer map presented in naturalistic images. All art originates in the human mind, in our reactions to the world rather than in the visible world itself… “
  • The general principle that LD or Low Definition situations are especially evocative of participation of the beholders is illustrated many times in Gombrich. The correlative principle that HD or High Definition situations keep the public in an external, consumer role is likewise illustrated over and over again (…) For example he shows how we learn from over-simplified hypotheses rather than from the carefully elaborated ones: “In order to learn we must make mistakes, and the most fruitful mistake which nature could have implanted in us would be the assumption of even greater simplicities than we are likely to meet with in this bewildering world of ours.”
  • The age-old clash between walking and marching is the clash between LD [Low Definition] art in which there is much participation in the creative process, and HD  [High Definition] art which tends towards (…) pictorial [realism]1There are few civilizations that even made the change from walking to marching, and only where the image has been developed to a high degree of articulation does that systematic process of comparison set in which results in illusionist art.” (Gombrich) But HD art and technology speeds the process of change and transformation. It is an absolute principle that to the degree that any situation is put in HD by a flow of much information, that situation is at the point of drastic change and of the manifestation of opposite characteristics. “An artist of our own day, Georges Braque, has recently spoken of the thrill and awe with which he discovered the fluidity of our categories, the ease with which a file can become a shoehorn, a bucket, a brazier. We have seen that this faculty for finding and making underlies the child’s discoveries no less than the artist’s.” (Gombrich).
  • Chiasmus is indispensable to understanding media since all information flow (…) operates simultaneously in opposite modes. (…) One more illustration from Gombrich illustrates the above point: “I believe the student of these inventions will generally find a double rhythm which is familiar from the history of technical progress but which has never yet been described in detail in the history of art — I mean the rhythm of lumbering advance and subsequent simplification. Most technical inventions carry with them a number of superstitions, unnecessary detours which are gradually eliminated through shortcuts and a refinement of means. In the history of art we know this process mainly in the work of the great masters. Even the greatest of them began their careers with a very circumspect and even heavy technique, leaving nothing to chance.”
  • Gombrich provides (…) illustration of how SI-SC [Sensory Impression/Subjective Completion] merge with HD-LD [High Definition/Low Definition]. He is speaking of how the impressionists exploited “the charm and challenge of incomplete representation”: “But where the earlier masters prepared the beholder for this artifice and facilitated the projection, the impressionists wanted him to enjoy the challenge of a visual shock. (…) The amount of information reaching us from the visible world is incalculably large, and the artist’s medium is inevitably restricted and granular…. in the end he will always have to rely on suggestions when it comes to representing the infinitely small.”
  • SI is not SC. The impression is not the experience. The beholder must collaborate in creating the illusions of space, as of time. The receiver of a structured impression, such as any medium offers, must be attuned to that structure. It must be for him a sort of familiar keyboard on which he can play a great variety of melodiesSuch, for us all, is our native tongue. Such is the written and the printed word. Such are the impressions from all our technology. “Psychologists have long recognized that our reaction to images also transforms what we ‘see’ in a much more radical way than we usually notice”. (…). The fact that the area of the mirror that reflects the face is always exactly half the size of the face is so startling as to meet with skepticism on the part of most people who have looked into mirrors all their lives. Obviously, therefore, that is not what they see. They see the face in the distance behind the mirror surface, and thus they see it correspondingly larger” (Gombrich). SI and SC, or impression and response, are much like the old pair of “seeing” and “knowing”: “What we see when we respond to moistness or smoothness is the ‘global’ quality itself, not the elements of local color and reflection” (Gombrich). That is, the SC of many visual presentations is not visual at all any more than the SC of radio’s SI is auditory. What I’m trying to do (…) in the questions and suggestions that go with them is to discover the dynamic symmetries and contours of the media. There is no point in being apologetic since the entire effort is experimental. As Gombrich puts it again, in a sentence that also seems to me to illustrate the relations between SI-SC: “Not even the most skillful artist should claim to be able to plan a single stroke with the pen in all its details. What he can do is to adjust the subsequent stroke to the effect observed in the previous one. (…) In this new process of schema and modification, the artist is one controlling fact, the public another (Gombrich).

Technology, the Media, and Culture (1960)

  • E.H. Gombrich, in his recent Art and Illusion, regards cubism as “the most radical attempt to stamp out ambiguity and to enforce one reading of the picture — that of a man-made construction, a colored canvas.” Cubism, the means of seeing all aspects of an object from numerous points of view, at the same moment, is the near-equivalent of the telegraph press, which provides an inclusive global snapshot from hour to hour. Gombrich is right, however, in suggesting that when the ambiguities of perspective or the third dimension are pushed far enough they yield suddenly a reverse set of characteristics. Instead of pictorial space, we are suddenly confronted with formal space. Instead of a visual world that contains objects, we meet a world in which each object creates its own space, and imposes its own assumptions like a melody. There is one passage in Gombrich’s Art and Illusion which has instant appeal to a literary man. He is discussing the ambiguities of the third dimension as they are rendered in the Adelbert Ames perception laboratory. He wants to pin down (…) why (…) [we] think of the third or perspective dimension as non-illusory: “It is important to be quite clear at this point wherein the illusion consists. lt consists, I believe, in the conviction that there is only one way of interpreting the visual pattern in front of us.” This was also the most cherished illusion of the print reader. For reasons never yet investigated, the notion of the “one plain meaning” never “bugged“ the manuscript reader, ancient or medieval. Possibly the higher definition of print created the expectation of exclusive rather than inclusive meaning. But it was only a generation ago that the literary world was startled by the rediscovery of multiple levels of statement in the simplest words and syntax. As we move deeper into the electronic galaxy the pressure to reconfigure age-old patterns in the alphabetic and Gutenberg galaxy becomes overwhelming. It is therefore with ready understanding that we can nowadays confront the disturbance felt in the ancient world when the alphabet was new. The growth of the Euclidean fictions in the patterns of human sensibility were as upsetting then as the return of nuclear non-Euclidean modalities of experience today. Gombrich, writing of the  rise of pictorial space and illusion in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C., says: “The very violence with which Plato denounces this trickery reminds us of the momentous fact that at the time he wrote, mimesis was a recent invention.“  And again: “There is finally the history of Greek painting, as we can follow it in painted pottery, which tells of the discovery of foreshortening and the conquest of space early in the fifth century and of light in the fourth.“ What we today can see very easily is that the departure of the Greek world into pictorial and Euclidean space was anything but natural.

The Electronic Age – The Age of Implosion (1962)

  • Today the hypnotized and somnambulistic citizen [is] percussed by the electronic implosion in general and the TV image in particular (…) A fixed position from which to gaze at the current plasma of super-heated events is consistent with the old technology of “single vision and Newton’s sleep”. A fixed point of view yields what E. H. Gombrich calls “the anguish of the third dimension.” It is based on the isolation of the visual sense from the interplay of the other senses, and it never seeks nor finds insight into the actual structure of any situation. By substituting point of view for insight we trap ourselves in a single isolated sense as is shown at length in The Gutenberg Galaxy.

The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962)

  • In his Art and Illusion, E.H. Gombrich writes (p. 116) : “If I had to reduce the last chapter to a brief formula it would be ‘making comes before matching’. Before the artist ever wanted to match the sights of the visible world he wanted to create things in their own right. (…) The very violence with which Plato denounces this trickery reminds us of the momentous fact that at the time he wrote, mimesis was a recent invention. There are many critics now who share his distaste, for one reason or another, but even they would admit there are few more exciting spectacles in the whole history of art than the great awakening of Greek sculpture and painting between the sixth century and the time of Plato’s youth toward the end of the fifth century B.C.” Etienne Gilson makes much of the distinction between making and matching in his Painting and Reality. And whereas till Giotto a painting was a thing, from Giotto till Cezanne painting became the representation of things. (GG 51)
  • Gombrich begins his tenth chapter of Art and Illusion with further observations on visual mimesis: “The last chapter has led this inquiry back to the old truth that the discovery of appearances was not due so much to a careful observation of nature as to the invention of pictorial effects. I believe indeed that the ancient writers who were still filled with a sense of wonder at man’s capacity to fool the eye came closer to an understanding of this achievement than many later critics … but if we discard Berkeley’s theory of vision, according to which we “see” a flat field but “construct” a tactile space, we can perhaps rid art history of its obsession with space and bring other achievements into focus, the suggestion of light and of texture, for instance, or the mastery of physiognomic expression.” Berkeley’s New Theory of Vision ( 1709) (…)  was concerned to refute Descartes and Newton, who had wholly abstracted the visual sense from the interaction of the other senses. On the other hand, the suppression of the visual sense in favour of the audile-tactile complex, produces the distortions of tribal society2 (…) Gombrich not only has all the most relevant information about the rise of the pictorial mode; he has all the right difficulties. He ends his Art and Illusion by commenting: “There is finally the history of Greek painting as we can follow it in painted pottery, which tells of the discovery of foreshortening and the conquest of space early in the fifth century and of light in the fourth (…) Emanuel Loewy at the turn of the century first developed his theories about the rendering of nature in Greek art that stressed the priority of conceptual modes and their gradual adjustment to natural appearances … But in itself it explains very little. For why was it that this process started comparatively so late in the history of mankind? In this respect our perspective has very much changed. To the Greeks the archaic period represented the dawn of history, and classical scholarship has not always shaken off this inheritance. From this point of view it appeared quite natural that the awakening of art from primitive modes should have coincided with the rise of all those other activities, that, for the humanist, belong to civilization: the development of philosophy, of science, and of dramatic poetry.” (GG 52-53)
  • The relation of tactility to the visual, so necessary to an understanding of the fortunes of the phonetic alphabet, only became starkly defined after Cezanne. Thus Gombrich makes tactility a central theme of Art and Illusion, as does Heinrich Wölfflin in his Principles of Art History. And the reason for this new stress was that in an age of photography the divorce of the visual from the interplay of the other senses was pushed all the way into reaction. Gombrich records the stages of nineteenth-century discussion and analysis of “sense data” leading to the Helmholtz case for “unconscious inference” or mental action even in the most basic sense experience. “Tactility” or interplay among all the senses was felt to be the very mode of this “inference” and led at once to the disintegration of the idea of the “imitation of nature” as a [merely] visual affair. Gombrich writes: “Two German thinkers are prominent in this story. One is the critic Konrad Fiedler, who insisted, in opposition to the impressionists, that ‘even the simplest sense impression that looks like merely the raw material for the operations of the mind is already a mental fact, and what we call the external world is really the result of a complex psychological process.’ But it was Fiedler’s friend, the neoclassical sculptor Adolf von Hildebrand, who set out to analyze this process in a little book called The Problem of Form in the Figurative Arts, which came out in 1893 and gained the ear of a whole generation. Hildebrand, too, challenged the ideals of scientific naturalism by an appeal to the psychology of perception: ‘if we attempt to analyze our mental images to discover their primary constituents, we will find them composed of sense data derived from vision and from memories of touch and movement. A sphere, for instance, appears to the eye as a flat disk; it is touch which informs us of the properties of space and form. Any attempt on the part of the artist to eliminate this knowledge is futile, for without it he would not perceive the world at all. His task is, on the contrary, to compensate for the absence of movement in his work by clarifying his image and thus conveying not only visual sensations but also those memories of touch which enable us to reconstitute the three-dimensional form in our minds’.” It is hardly an accident that the period when these ideas were so eagerly debated was also the period when the history of art emancipated itself from antiquarianism, biography, and aesthetics. Issues which had been taken for granted so long suddenly looked problematic and required reassessment. When Bernard Berenson wrote his brilliant essay on the Florentine painters, which came out in 1896, he formulated his aesthetic creed in terms of Hildebrand’s analysis. With his gift for the pregnant phrase, he summed up almost the whole of the sculptor’s somewhat turgid book in the sentence “The painter can accomplish his task only by giving tactile value to retinal impressions.” (GG 81-82)

Through the Vanishing Point (1968)

  • In Art and Illusion, Gombrich comments: “After the many weighty tomes that have been written on how space is rendered in art, Steinberg’s trick drawings serve as a welcome reminder that it is never space which is represented but familiar things in situations.” It might seem to the casual reader that Gombrich assumes that the only real space is based on vision. This is to postulate that space is a container for things. On the contrary, as painters well know, space is created or evoked by all manner of associations among colors, textures, sounds and their intervals. The works of painters like Jackson Pollock, for example, present spaces evoked by proprioception and kinesis, as well as other sensory relationships. (6)

The Argument: Causality in the Electric World (1973)

  • Making sense involves “unified sensibility” or synesthesia, as E. H. Gombrich explains in Art and Illusion: “What is called “synesthesia,” the splashing over of impressions from one sense modality to another, is a fact to which all languages testify. They work both ways — from sight to sound and from sound to sight. We speak of loud colors and bright sounds, and everyone knows what we mean. Nor are the ear and the eye the only senses that are thus converging to a common center. There is touch in such terms as “velvety voice” and “a cold light,” taste with “sweet harmonies” of colors or sounds and so on through countless permutations. (…) Representation is never a replica. The forms of art, ancient and modern, are not duplications of what the artist has in mind any more than they are duplications of what the artist sees in the outer world. In both cases they are rendering within an acquired medium, a medium grown up through tradition and skill — that of the artist and that of the beholder. [We fix our attention not on likeness of elements but on structural relationships.] (…) synesthesia concerns relationships.”3 (22-23)
  1. McLuhan has “illusion” here instead of “realism”. He meant, of course, the “illusion” of realism, “where (as Gombrich has it), the image has been developed to a high degree of articulation”.
  2. McLuhan has a note here: “Georg von Bekesy’s article on ‘Similarities between Hearing and Skin Sensations’ (Psychological Review, Jan., 1959, pp. 1-22), provides a means of understanding why no sense can function in isolation nor can be unmodified by the operation and diet of the other senses.”
  3. ‘The Argument: Causality in the Electric World’ was written with Barrington Nevitt. When Nevitt cited this passage from Gombrich in this 1980 ABC of Prophecy (38-39 in the so-called ‘preview edition’) he included the sentence which is given in square brackets. An interesting question: how could McLuhan have failed to include this passage, with its discussion of ‘synesthesia’, ‘touch’, ‘medium’ and ‘relationships’, in his earlier citations from Gombrich in 1960-1962? At a guess, he failed to do so because he was fixated in those years on the insight that “SI (structural impact) is not SC (subjective completion). The impression is not the experience. The beholder must collaborate in creating…”. He had to digest this notion, at last, before attempting to integrate it with his other concerns. (‘At last’, because this notion was implicated in his earliest concerns as an undergraduate in Winnipeg with Lodge’s — and Elsie’s — multiple modes of experience in  philosophy and literature. But he seems only with his breakthrough in 1960, more than 25 years later, to have perceived the revolutionary inferences to be drawn from that notion of fundamental pluralism.)

William Ivins

Ivins, Wm. M. (Jr.), Prints and Visual Communication. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul (1953) This is surely one of the great books of our very great time. The print being the lowest of definitions in informational terms, it has a great deal in common with the television image. (Report on Project in Understanding New Media, 1960)

McLuhan first read William Ivins (1881-1961) in the late 1950s and was helped by him, as by the other art historians McLuhan came to read at that time, to his proposal of the sensus communis, aka tactility, as the elementary structure of experience and of its resulting science or sciences.  This decisive ‘art history’ phase of McLuhan’s work lasted from 1958 to 1962 and it was in this period that his concern with Ivins was concentrated.

The Electronic Revolution in North America (1958)

  • In his Prints and Visual Communication, William Ivins explained the stages of development of a visual syntax which codified complex information in a ‘net of rationality’ as the engraver’s lines were called. Exactly repeatable visual statement developed steadily until the photograph. At that stage, line1 disappeared, syntax ended, and statement became not partial but total.

Myth and Mass Media (1959)

  • In his Prints and Visual Communication (…), William M. Ivins explains how the long process of capturing the external world in the “network of rationality”, by the engraver’s line and by ever more subtle syntax, finally reached conclusion in the photograph. The photograph is a total statement of the external object without syntax. This kind of peripety [from the extreme of one medium to a different one] will strike the student of media as characteristic of all media development.

Printing and Social Change (1959)

  • As William Ivins analysed it in Prints and Visual Communication, the woodcut and engraving moved through many stages of statement about the visible world, achieving an ever more subtle syntax, until photography suddenly presented us with total statement minus syntax. The suggestion that print from movable type created a new kind of codification of reality, a new way of representing and communicating mental activity is readily assented to. But to relate this new form of expression and statement to the science and culture of its time needs the scrutiny and collaboration of many minds.
  • …until the Renaissance, classroom time was spent to a great degree in making rather than in studying the text. The stress which William Ivins has given, in Prints and Visual Communication, to the new power of exactly repeatable information has not yet found its analyst and commentator (…). Such a commentator would be obliged to examine the effects of this exact repeatability in developing a new consumer orientation in market place and study alike.
  • I suggest that the real reversal which has overtaken print technology [from within print technology itself] is to be found in the photograph and the movie, and that these forms of total ‘statement without syntax,’ as William Ivins describes it, are utterly unlike telegraph, radio, and TV. Somehow we must unriddle the complex of new messages involved in this new situation which has been created by print technology itself. So far nothing has been done to explicate the situation because we still imagine that these forms of codifying information can co-exist [as atomic units in successive time and space] without transforming one another. This attitude, now suicidal, is yet a natural legacy of print culture.

Report on Project in Understanding New Media (1960)

  • It would be a sufficient justification to include this section on prints [in McLuhan’s Report] if only to bring to the students’ attention the work of William M. Ivins, Jr. His Prints and Visual Communication (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1953) stresses the meaning which prints have had in the development of science. Until there was some uniform and repeatable means of transmitting non-verbal information, it was impossible for scientists to communicate. Mr. Ivins helps us to define a “backward country” as “one of those that have not learned to take full advantage of the possibilities of pictorial statement and communication” (p. 1). He spots, at once, the disadvantages to knowledge of the “persistent habit of regarding prints as of interest and value only insofar as they can be regarded as works of art” (p. l).
    He will receive increasing recognition as a master of media analysis, because of such critical awareness as this: “Historians of art and writers on aesthetic theory have ignored the fact that most of their thought has been based on exactly repeatable pictorial statements about works of art rather than upon first hand acquaintance with them. Had they paid attention to that fact, they might have recognized the extent to which their own thinking and theorizing have been shaped by the limitations imposed on those statements by the graphic techniques. Photography and Photographic process, the last of the long succession of such techniques, have been responsible for one of the greatest changes of visual habit and knowledge that has ever taken place and have led to an almost complete rewriting of the history of art as well as a most thoroughgoing revaluation of the arts of the past” (p. 2). Mr. Ivins does not merely offer valuable data, he offers us better ways of perceiving data,
    an approach rather than conclusionsWe must look on prints “from the point of view of general ideas and particular functions, and, especially we must think about the limitations which their techniques have imposed on them as conveyors of information and on us as receivers of that information” (p. 3). To extend this kind of awareness, not only to prints but to all media, is the aim and scope of understanding mediaThe approach of Mr. Ivins readily reveals why historians until recent times “have rarely found anything they were not looking for” (p. 4).
  • Art and Geometry, Wm. M. Ivins, Jr: This book is concerned, among other things, with the nature of Euclidean space. One of its themes is that it was not until the Renaissance that  Western man finally freed the visual from the tactile. We have seen how print culture strongly stressed segmental one-thing-at-a-time approach to problems of organization of space and time.
  • Wm. M. Ivins suggested, in Art and Geometry (Cambridge, Mass., 1946) that the Greek geometric sense was profoundly tactual and that Euclidean geometry thus had to wait further development until the visual sense had been abstracted from the tactual sense in the Renaissance. (…) In fact, it was only the pictorial abstractness of print that made possible the diminishing of the tactile values sufficiently to advance mathematics to its eighteenth century phase.
  • William M. Ivins, Jr., in his Prints and Visual Communication (Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1953) traces the stages of lineal syntax in prints and woodcuts all the way to that point of no return where photography provides a total statement without snytax. “With photography, however, we come to a kind of print that no one could have made before the nineteenth century,” (p, 116). He proceeds with his theme (p. 128): “At last man had discovered a way to make visual reports in printer’s ink without syntax, and without the distorting analyses of form that syntax necessitated. Today we are so accustomed to this that we think little of it, but it represents one of the most amazing discoveries that man has ever made — a cheap and easy means of symbolic communication without syntax” (pp, 128-9).
  • In his Prints and Visual Communication, William M. Ivins, Jr., traces the rise of the print with its “network of rationality” or mesh of lines for capturing the external world. The minute mesh of lines, or statements about the external world suddenly yield in the photograph an image without lines. Reality is there as a total statement without syntax. It was as if by reversal that things drew themselves instead of being drawn.

The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962)

  • William Ivins, Jr., in Prints and Visual Communications, stresses how natural it is in the world of the written word to move towards a merely nominalist position such as no non-literate man could dream of: “Plato’s Ideas and Aristotle’s forms, essences, and definitions, are specimens of this transference of reality from the object to the exactly repeatable and therefore seemingly permanent verbal formula. An essence, in fact, is not part of the object but part of its definition. Also, I believe, the well-known notions of substance and attributable qualities can be derived from this operational dependence upon exactly repeatable verbal descriptions and definitions — for the very linear order in which words have to be used results in a syntactical time order analysis of qualities that actually are simultaneous and so intermingled and interrelated that no quality can be removed from one of the bundles of qualities we call objects  without changing both it and all the other qualities. After all, a quality is only a quality of a group of other qualities, and if you change anyone of the group they all necessarily change. Whatever the situation may be from the point of view of a verbalist analysis, from the point of view of visual awarenesses of the kind that have to be used in an art museum the object is a unity that cannot be broken down into separate qualities without becoming merely a collection of abstractions that have only conceptual existence and no actuality. In a funny way words and their necessary linear syntactical order forbid us to describe objects and compel us to use very poor and inadequate lists of theoretical ingredients in the manner exemplified more concretely by the ordinary cook book recipes.” Any phonetic alphabet culture can easily slip into the habit of putting one thing under or in another; since there is constant pressure from the subliminal fact that the written code carries for the reader the experience of the “content” which is speech. But there is nothing subliminal in non-literate cultures. The reason we find myths difficult to grasp is just this fact, that they do not exclude any facet of experience as literate cultures do. All the levels of meaning are simultaneous. (GG 71-72)
  • It is necessary for the understanding of the visual take-off that was to occur with Gutenberg technology, to know that such a take-off had not been possible in the manuscript ages, for such a culture retains the audile-tactile modes of human sensibility in a degree incompatible with abstract visuality or the translation of all the senses into the language of unified, continuous, pictorial space. That is why Ivins is entirely justified in maintaining in his Art and Geometry (p 41): “Perspective is something quite different from foreshortening. Technically, it is the central projection of a three-dimensional space upon a plane. Untechnically, it is the way of making a picture on a flat surface in such a manner that the various objects represented in it appear to have the same sizes, shapes, and positions, relatively to each other, that the actual objects as located in actual space would have if seen by the beholder from a single determined point of view. I have discovered nothing to justify the belief that the Greeks had any idea, either in practice or theory, at any time, of the conception contained in the italicised words in the preceding sentence.” (GG 112)
  • William Ivins has made a more thorough analysis of the esthetic effects of prints and typography on our human habits of perception than anybody else. In Prints and Visual Communication he writes: “Each written or printed word is a series of conventional instructions for the making in a specified linear order of muscular movements which when fully carried out result in a succession of sounds. These sounds, like the forms of the letters, are made according to arbitrary recipes or directions, which indicate by convention certain loosely defined classes of muscular movements but not any specifically specified ones. Thus any printed set of words can actually be pronounced in an infinitely large number of ways, of which, if we leave aside purely personal peculiarities, Cockney, Lower East Side, North Shore, and Georgia, may serve as typical specimens. The result is that each sound we hear when we listen to anyone speaking is merely a representative member of a large class of sounds which we have agreed to accept as symbolically identical in spite of the actual differences between them.” In this passage he not only notes the ingraining of lineal, sequential habits, but, even more important, points out the visual homogenizing of experience in print culture, and the relegation of auditory and other sensuous complexity to the background. The reduction of experience to a single sense, the visual, as a result of typography leads him to speculate that “the more closely we confine our data for reasoning about things to data that come to us through one and the same sense channel the more apt we are to be correct in our reasoning”. However, this type of reduction or distortion of all experience to the scale of one sense only is in tendency the effect of typography on the arts and sciences as well as upon human sensibility. Thus the habit of a fixed position or “point of view” so natural to the reader of typography, gave popular extension to the avant-garde perspectivism of the fifteenth century: “Perspective rapidly became an essential part of the technique of making informative pictures, and before long was demanded of pictures that were not informative. Its introduction had much to do with that western European  preoccupation with verisimilitude, which is probably the distinguishing mark of subsequent European picture making. The third of these events was Nicholas of Cusa’s enunciation, in 1440, of the first thorough-going doctrines of the relativity of knowledge and of the continuity, through transitions and middle terms, between extremes. This was a fundamental challenge to definitions and ideas that had tangled thought since the time of the ancient Greeks. These things, the exactly repeatable pictorial statement, a logical grammar for representation of space relationship in pictorial statements, and the concepts of relativity and continuity, were and still are superficially so unrelated that they are rarely thought of seriously in conjunction with one another. But, between them, they have revolutionized both the descriptive sciences and the mathematics on which the science of physics rests, and in addition they are essential to a great deal of modern technology. Their effects on art have been very marked. They were absolutely new things in the world. There was no precedent for them in classical practice or thought of any kind or variety”. (GG 125-126)

 

  1. in Principles of Art History, Wölfflin put forward ‘line’ as one of his principles.

Heinrich Wölfflin

Giedion gave us a language for tackling the structural world of architecture and artifacts of many kinds in the ordinary environment. He learned this language from his preceptor, Wölfflin, whose Principles of Art History revolutionized the entire language of art criticism at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. (Stearn Interview)

McLuhan long knew of Heinrich Wölfflin (1864-1945) through Sigfried Giedion’s frequent mention of him as his mentor.  In Space, Time and Architecture, for example, which McLuhan read immediately after meeting Giedion in 1943 in St Louis, Giedion described his study with Wölfflin in explaining “where I come from“:

As an art historian, I am a disciple of Heinrich Wölfflin. In our personal contacts with him as well as through his distinguished lectures, we, his pupils, learned to grasp the spirit of an epoch. Wölfflin’s incisive analysis made clear to us the true meaning and significance of a painting or a piece of sculpture. He delighted in contrasting one period with another. He employed this method most effectively both in his teaching and in his books — in his Renaissance and Baroque [Renaissance und Barock] (1889), in Classical Art [Die klassische Kunst] (1899), in which the fifteenth century is opposed to the sixteenth, and even in his Principles of Art (Kunstgeschichtliche Grundbegriffe, 1915), which had just appeared when I studied under him at Munich. Many of his pupils have tried to emulate this method of contrasting styles, but none have achieved the same depth and directness. In my own first book, Late Baroque and Romantic Classicism [Spätbarocker und romantischer Klassizismus] (Munich, 1922, written as a thesis), I tried to follow Wölfflin’s method.

The great question was whether “the spirit of an epoch” might be defined rigorously via Grundbegriffe or fundamental principles such that investigation of it and of other epochs, alone and in combination, might be established on a new basis.

Now although McLuhan began reading Giedion in the mid-1940s and learning about Wölfflin through him, he seems not to have read Wölfflin himself until the late 1950s when art history began to play a decisive role in his thought. With Adolph HildebrandWilliam Ivins and Ernst Gombrich, Wölfflin effected a revolution in McLuhan’s thinking at this time that provoked his notion of the elementary structure of experience and its resulting science or sciences. As cited below from The Gutenberg Galaxy, this was the notion that there is

“unconscious inference” or mental action even in the most basic sense experience. “Tactility” or interplay among all the senses was (…) the very mode of this “inference”. (81)

Like Hildebrand and Ivins, Wölfflin was treated by McLuhan chiefly in publications between 1960 and 1962:

Report on Project in Understanding New Media (1960)

  • In 1915 Heinrich Wölfflin published his Principles of Art History which has since then revolutionized the study of many matters besides art. His entire approach confirms what I discovered about media: “the effect is the thing that counts, not the sensuous facts” (…)  Switching attention to effects away from “the sensuous facts” highlighted (…) that the (…) visual (…) is in effect very tactile, resonant, and auditory. 
  • But just how tricky the analysis of the quality of prints can be is revealed by Wölfflin (…) He analyses two engravings, one by Dürer, one by Rembrandt. The Dürer he shows has an SC [Subjective Completion] that is highly tactual. The Rembrandt has an SC that is highly visual. (…) The processing which the SI [Structural Impact or Sensory Impression] undergoes in each of us is bound to vary, just as the effect of radio or movie differs widely as it is processed through  different cultures.

Inside the Five Sense Sensorium (1961)

  • The art historian Heinrich Wölfflin taught the Hildebrand stress on visual forms as haptic or tangible-tactile — and Wölfflin’s pupil, Sigfried Giedion, embodied it in his Space, Time and Architecture. 

The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962)

  • if a new technology extends one or more of our senses outside us into the social world, then new ratios among all of our senses will occur in that particular culture. It is comparable to what happens when a new note is added to a melody. And when the sense ratios alter in any culture then what had appeared lucid before may suddenly be opaque, and what had been vague or opaque will become translucent. As Heinrich Wölfflin stated the matter in 1915, in his revolutionary Principles of Art History (p. 62) “the effect is the thing that counts, not the sensuous facts.” Wölfflin began working from the discoveries of the sculptor Adolf von Hildebrand, whose Problem of Form in the Figurative Arts had first clearly explained the disorder in ordinary human sense perception, and the role of art in clarifying this confusion. Hildebrand had shown how tactility was a kind of synesthesia or interplay among the senses, and as such, was the core of the richest art effects. (41)
  • The relation of tactility to the visual, so necessary to an understanding of the fortunes of the phonetic alphabet, only became starkly defined after Cezanne. Thus Gombrich makes tactility a central theme of Art and Illusion, as does Heinrich Wölfflin in his Principles of Art History. And the reason for this new stress was that in an age of photography the divorce of the visual from the interplay of the other senses was pushed all the way into reaction. Gombrich records the stages of nineteenth-century discussion and analysis of “sense data” leading to the Helmholtz1 case for “unconscious inference” or mental action even in the most basic sense experience. “Tactility” or interplay among all the senses was felt to be the very mode of this “inference”… (81)

 

  1. This was the same Hermann von Helmholtz, of course, whose study of the liquid vortex led to the idea of the vortex structure of the atom and to the adoption of the vortex in literary theory by Pound and Lewis.

Adolf Hildebrand

McLuhan first read The Problem of Form by Adolf von Hildebrand (1847-1921) in the late 1950s when, not coincidentally, he made his great breakthrough into the scientific investigation of experience in a ‘classroom without walls’.  Along with other art historians and theorists like Heinrich Wölfflin (1864-1945), William Ivins (1881-1961) and Ernst Gombrich (1909-2001), all of whom McLuhan initially encountered in these same years, Hildebrand helped McLuhan perceive how a number of seemingly disparate lines of inquiry might suddenly crystallize into a single coherent structure:

  • Aristotle and Thomas on the fundamental role of sensibility in human experience and thought
  • Eliot on the “dissociation of sensibility”
  • Mallarmé, Eliot, and Joyce on impersonality and the poetic genesis of experience
  • Innis and Havelock on media as determinants of experience
  • Innis, Havelock and Richards on media as forms of sensibility

McLuhan treated Hildebrand primarily in three publications in 1961 and 1962:

1961 — ‘Inside the Five Sense Sensorium’

  • in 1893 Adolf Hildebrand the sculptor published a small book called The Problem of Form. He insisted that true vision must be much imbued with tangibility, and that creative, aesthetic awareness was touching and making. Such was the timeliness of his insistence that the theme of artistic vision as tangible, tactile, and based on the interplay of the sense[s] began to enjoy acceptance in poetry and painting alike. The art historian Heinrich Wölfflin taught the Hildebrand stress on visual forms as haptic or tangible-tactile — and his pupil Sigfried Giedion embodied it in his Space, Time and Architecture.
  • television offers a massive Bauhaus program of the re-education for North American sense life. That is (…) the television image is, in effect, a haptic, tactile, or synesthetic mode of interplay among the senses, a fulfillment on a popular plane of the aesthetic program of Hildebrand, Berenson, Wölfflin, Paul Klee, and Giedion.
  • television has the power of imposing its own conventions and assumptions on the sensibilities of the viewer. It has the power of translating the Western literate back into the world of non-literate synesthesia, just as effectively as the phonetic alphabet can hoick the native out of his haptic matrix into a world of mechanistic individualism, and sequential cause-and-effect relations. Far from regarding these developments with any feeling of euphoria, I would suggest that when Hildebrand conducted his campaign for tactility against mere retinal pictorial impression, he was in the centre of a great cultural current which  from Cezanne in painting to Conrad in literature, swept up all into the ‘Heart of Darkness’ or ‘the Africa within’. This drive towards ‘spontaneity of consciousness’ fostered the child cult, as well as primitivism of many varieties, but it represented a rebellion against merely visual culture — a rebellion that had begun in the eighteenth century with Rousseau and others.

1962 — addition to ‘Joyce, Aquinas, and the Poetic Process’ (originally published in 1951)

  • One reason why Hildebrand had such an immediate effect on the artists of his time is that he was able to explain why synesthesia is [the elementary structure of]1 human experience, [and]2 he showed why the [relative] isolation of the retinal or [of] the haptic or [of] any [one sort of sense] impression was, artistically, a disaster. Humanly speaking, the [imbalance]3 of the senses is the formula for insanity. (…) Hildebrand saw with absolute clarity that photography and photo-engraving were effecting [a relative]4 isolation of retinal impression from the other senses. After his book appeared, the critics like Bernard Berenson and later Roger Fry and Clive Bell began to stress the urgency of haptic, tactile [balance with]5 retinal impression.(…) The role of Hildebrand in shaping the vortex idea of Lewis, Pound, and TS Eliot is as decisive as his effect on Heinrich Wölfflin and the Bauhaus.
  • Always with Hildebrand, then, is the prime stress on the interplay of [gen obj!] knowing and making. The intelligible is Being, says Aquinas; and it is the splitting up of knowing and making which impoverishes art, experience, and Being alike says Hildebrand in a passage relevant to “dissociation of sensibility”. 
  • Hildebrand points the corollary for Art: “If one would speak, then, of a mission of Art, it can be no other than this: in spite of all temporal eccentricities, to reestablish and make felt the sound and natural relations between our thought and sense activities.” [123] This is surely close to Baudelaire’s notion that the role of Art is to diminish the traces of original sin
  • [Hildebrand ] rejects the “innocent eye” notion of art as postulating a separation rather than an interplay of the senses: “The height of positivism would be attained if we could perceive things with the inexperience of a new-born child. This theory would lead us to regard the sculptor’s art as appealing exclusively to the tactual-kinesthetic sense of the esthetic percipient; the painter’s art, on the other hand, as appealing entirely to the visual sense quite apart from all experience of form. (…) In true Art the actual form has its reality only as an effect. By conceiving Nature as a relation of kinesthetic ideas to visual impressions, all combined and interrelated in a totality, [and this as [underlying] cause of the effect Art presents], Art frees her [Nature] of change and chance.”

1962 — The Gutenberg Galaxy

  • if a new technology extends one or more of our senses outside us into the social world, then new ratios among all of our senses will occur in that particular culture. It is comparable to what happens when a new note is added to a melody. And when the sense ratios alter in any culture then what had appeared lucid before may suddenly be opaque, and what had been vague or opaque will become translucent. As Heinrich Wölfflin stated the matter in 1915, in his revolutionary Principles of Art History (p. 62) “the effect is the thing that counts, not the sensuous facts.” Wölfflin began working from the discoveries of the sculptor Adolf von Hildebrand, whose Problem of Form in the Figurative Arts had first clearly explained the disorder in ordinary human sense perception, and the role of art in clarifying this confusion. Hildebrand had shown how tactility was a kind of synesthesia or interplay among the senses, and as such, was the core of the richest art effects. (41)
  • [McLuhan citing Ernst Gombrich at length from Art and Illusion:] “Two German thinkers are prominent in this story. One is the critic Konrad Fiedler, who insisted, in opposition to the impressionists, that “even the simplest sense impression that looks like merely the raw material for the operations of the mind is already a mental fact, and what we call the external world is really the result of a complex psychological process.” But it was Fiedler’s friend, the neoclassical sculptor Adolf von Hildebrand, who set out to analyze this process in a little book called The Problem of Form in the Figurative Arts, which came out in 1893 and gained the ear of a whole generation. Hildebrand, too, challenged the ideals of scientific naturalism by an appeal to the psychology of perception: if we attempt to analyze our mental images to discover their primary constituents, we will find them composed of sense data derived from vision and from memories of touch and movement. A sphere, for instance, appears to the eye as a flat disk; it is touch which informs us of the properties of space and form. Any attempt on the part of the artist to eliminate this knowledge is futile, for without it he would not perceive the world at all. His task is, on the contrary, to compensate for the absence of movement in his work by clarifying his image and thus conveying not only visual sensations but also those memories of touch which enable us to reconstitute the three-dimensional form in our minds. It is hardly an accident that the period when these ideas were so eagerly debated was also the period when the history of art emancipated itself from antiquarianism, biography, and aesthetics. Issues which had been taken for granted so long suddenly looked problematic and required reassessment. When Bernard Berenson wrote his brilliant essay on the Florentine painters, which came out in 1896, he formulated his aesthetic creed in terms of Hildebrand’s analysis. With his gift for the pregnant phrase, he summed up almost the whole of the sculptor’s somewhat turgid book in the sentence: The painter can accomplish his task only by giving tactile value to retinal impressions’.” (82)
  1. McLuhan: “synesthesia is not only normal human experience, but (also)”.
  2. McLuhan: “but”.
  3. McLuhan: “separation”.
  4. McLuhan: “an isolation”.
  5. McLuhan: “quality in”.

Grant on Innis and Cochrane

In a conversation originally included1 in George Grant in Process: Essays and Conversations (ed Lawrence Schmidt, 1978), Grant recorded the following interesting tidbit about Harold Innis’ relation with Charles Cochrane:

The person who educated Innis in his later life was Cochrane, because they went for walks around the University of Toronto. He helped Innis move beyond the fur trade, etc., into deeper subjects. (61)

Innis thanked Cochrane along with Cochrane’s colleague in the classics department, E.T. Owen,  in the ‘Preface’ to his 1950 Empire and Communications.  Cochrane had died in 1945 and Owen in 1948.

  1. Now also in Grant’s Collected Works, v4

Not a mode of being but a mode of processing

the world of the press has been aware for more than a century that news is entirely an artefact, since anything becomes news only by virtue of being printed. This is also the character of fame and celebrity, since they consist not in a mode of being but in a mode of processing by various mediaToday the available means of such processing are so fantastic that a four-year stint in the White House is no longer easily distinguishable from something arranged by a booking agency.1

  1.  ‘Prospect Of America’ (Review of: The Image: What Happened to the American Dream, by Daniel J Boorstin), University of Toronto Quarterly, 32:1,  October 1962

The American dream

… so far as the American dream is concerned, the dream of the open society and of the open road, that too was an outer landscape, which has gone the way of picturesque poetry into the dustbin of obsolescent equipment.1

  1. Prospect Of America’ (Review of: The Image: What Happened to the American Dream, by Daniel J Boorstin), University of Toronto Quarterly, 32:1,  October 1962

Universal abdication of human motive

McLuhan in 1948!

No college and no business city or govt is run by human persons anymore. I have yet to meet anybody who knew what he was doing let alone why he was doing it. Universal abdication of human motive is now plain. How to tackle that situation? Zombies. Sleepwalkers. Can’t argue with such. They agree with anything you say and go on. Mark that as the present feature. No disagreement. (McLuhan to Ezra Pound, July 30, 1948, Letters 198-199)