“Factual means of avoiding disaster”

The so-called new criticism (…) followed after the new poetry which followed after the new [scientific and industrial] developments in our Western world [in the first half of the 19th century]  (…) It was the new media themselves, from the telegraph (1830) onward which created the situation which the poets and painters tried to explain to us by “prophetic” new art forms. (…) For the past century, the artist has been our only navigator in social and political terms. The models which he makes are not wishful dreams (…) but urgent factual (…) means of avoiding disaster. (Report on Project in Understanding New Media: ‘What I Learned On The Project’, 1960)

As McLuhan already affirmed to Harold Innis in 1951, he saw techniques developed in the arts  as eminently practical.1 What was needed was application of them to our looming social, political and ecological problems.

In one of his few publications in 19582, Knowledge, Ideas, Information and Communication (A Canadian View)’, just prior to the explosion of communications he would issue between 1959 and 1964, McLuhan “attempted to sketch a strategy of observation and exploration by which it would be possible to apply some of the recent information concepts to (…) teaching and learning in the age of the new media.”3 Given the context of his essay in a Yearbook of Education, McLuhan naturally directed his remarks here to “teaching and learning”.  But he was increasingly clear that that human beings were facing catastrophe especially in war and ecology and that the one “means of avoiding disaster” at our disposal was the application of ideas that had been developed in the century between 1850 and 1950 — above all in the seemingly remote realms of poetry and criticism.

Knowledge, Ideas, Information and Communication (A Canadian View):

  • We welcome the non-Euclidean spaces of modern physics which are not visualizable. And in these fields of relations we find it easy to recognize that any new factor of information (…) will somewhat modify the entire field of relations.  This admission from the world of mathematics and physics was introduced into literary discussion by T. S. Eliot in 1917 in his Tradition and the Individual Talent when he indicated that for the twentieth century it was natural to consider “that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order”. This type of perception, so natural to a world in which all kinds of information flow with electronic velocity, involves the obvious corollary which Mr. Eliot at once pointed out: “The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (…) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new.” To the literary mind, accustomed to the lineal arrangement of language on the page, the notions of simultaneity and of transformation by mutual interaction are very difficult concepts. They are alien and repugnant ideas. But even the literary person has no trouble recognizing the way in which a musical theme or harmony simultaneously modifies all the portions of a musical work. In a musical structure it is easy to observe the total relevance of every phrase to the entire work. The gradual admission of this organic criterion of ‘total relevance’ has come about in all fields of discussion in this century. It is equally the basis of anthropological study of cultures and of critical method in literature. The so-called ‘new criticism’ is, in the main, a recognition of the validity of the ‘total relevance’ attitude to all forms of speech and composition.
  • The work of F. R. Leavis and the Scrutiny group at Cambridge has been the most notable effort to meet the new situation. They diagnosed the problem as one resulting from failure to notice the exact verbal arrangement of words on the page. Training in attention to the nuances of tone and rhythm as a key to the total response indicated was excellent both in intention and in result. However, this strategy, though brilliantly carried out, merely propped up a sagging literary culture. It assumed that literary training was inevitably the norm of all educational effort. In their Culture and Environment, Leavis and Thompson turned  the trained literary eye upon the non-literary scene, revealing at once how vulgar that scene was. But the poets of our time have used press and cinema, radio, television as new techniques for organizing experience. They have learned the grammars of these new media4 and assimilated them to (…) the tasks of poetry.
  • If we are to retain the values of book-trained perception and judgment, it can only be by learning how to incorporate the former lineal and analytic habits of mind into the new patterns of mind already being established by the new media, which are not at all lineal in their modes of arranging and presenting information. (…) We have to consider that we can no longer teach reading to-day, with its slow, eye-dropper mode of verbal flow, as if we were teaching students who lived in a world which took such a form of information and experience as predominant and normal. It [“book-trained perception”] is to-day a secondary rather than a constitutive form. And if it is to be taught it has to be done realistically, as the presentation of a specialized and somewhat alien type of experience.
  • To-day, our new media compel us to notice that English is a mass medium (…) and that the new media are new languages with unique powers and deficiencies.5
  • Not to recognize this situation is to encourage the rise of a new tower of Babel. That the new media, with their non-lineal means of presenting complex information and attitudes, have already had a strong influence even on older modes of literary study appears in the great vogue of Mr. William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity. Previously, literary people had encouraged the assumption that meaning was something that could be obtained from the page by a single-minded pursuit of the plain sense offered by words in sequence; (…) Hobbes abandoned art and history in favour of Euclidean rationalism, saying: “The Light of humane minds is Perspicuous Words but by exact definitions first snuffed, and purged from ambiguity.” Mr. Empson demonstrated that this aim was sheer illusion. We had been taught [in the Gutenberg era] to ignore the complexities of verbal experience, and [now] the twentieth century (…) was eager to explore the non-lineal aspects [and other complexities] of language and experience. It is this situation which has brought into vogue the concern of the ‘new criticism’ (…) with the ‘total relevance’ of word and phrase6 — much to the chagrin of the true bookmen who continue to insist on the ‘one plain meaning’ coming off the assembly-lines of print.
  1. McLuhan to Innis, March 1951: “the esthetic discoveries of the symbolists since Rimbaud and Mallarmé (developed in English by Joyce, Eliot, Pound, Lewis and Yeats) (…) have served to recreate in contemporary consciousness an awareness of the potencies of language such as the Western world has not experienced in 1800 years. (…) this major revolution, intimately linked to technology, is one whose consequences have not begun to be studied although they have begun to be felt. (…)  I have been considering an experiment in communication (…) linking a variety of specialized fields by what may be called a method of esthetic analysis (…) the organizing concept would naturally be “Communication Theory and Practice.” (…) Arts here used as providing criteria, techniques of observation, and bodies of recorded, achieved, experience.” (Letters, 220, 221, 223)
  2. McLuhan’s Letters includes no correspondence at all from 1958.
  3. Knowledge, Ideas, Information and Communication (A Canadian View)’, Yearbook of Education for 1958225-232.
  4. See Grammars of the Media from the same year of 1958.
  5. See the previous note.
  6. McLuhan: “It is this situation which has brought the methods of the ‘new criticism’, with all their concern in any composition into vogue with the ‘ total relevance ‘ of word and phrase, much to the chagrin”…