Monthly Archives: May 2018

John Lindberg

McLuhan came across John Lindberg’s The Foundations of Social Survival shortly after its publication in 1953. After reviewing it in Commonweal magazine early in 1954, he continued to refer to it frequently in his writings and lectures in the following months:

The God-Making Machines of the Modern World
John Lindberg is a Swedish nobleman long associated with the League of Nations and now with the United Nations.1 (…) Himself a Manichean resigned to the ordinary necessity of rule by myth and lie, Lindberg argues in his concluding chapter that the new conditions of global inter-communication2 compel us to scrap the rationalist Manichean hypothesis in favor of a plunge into faith and the City of Love. His march towards this city of the future is headed by a banner quote from Bergson’s Two Sources of Morality and Religion: “The essential function of the universe which is a machine for the making of gods.” The revolutionary situation which faces us would appear to have suggested to Lindberg that the man-made machine is the new universe for the making of gods. And whereas the machine of Nature made whatever gods it chose, the machines of man have abolished Nature and enable us to make whatever gods we choose. Perhaps a better way of saying this would be to suggest that modern technology is so comprehensive that it has abolished Nature. The order of the demonic has yielded to the order of art.
Lindberg speaks as one who has spent his life inside the great god-making machines of the modern world. He speaks also from inside the great classical tradition of European rationalist culture and scholarship. He does not write as a Christian. But Lindberg does write as a pagan for whom the Christian doctrine is now, for the first time in history, a plausible and even indispensable hypothesis for social survival. As an analysis of the pagan theology underlying dominant political theory since Plato, Lindberg’s testimony is of first importance. Most readers would find Fustel de Coulange’s classic, The Ancient City, a valuable preface to Lindberg’s book. Jane Harrison’s Themis and Rachel Levy’s Gate of Horn are likewise filled with detailed information about the pagan theory of the universe and the city as a machine for the making of gods. And Lindberg assumes to some extent a reader who is at home in pagan ritual and theology.
So far as these concern politics, he also provides a good deal of information himself. For example, most of the first chapters are taken up with a discussion of vertical and horizontal conditions of society. The golden age of primitive man is horizontal socially because there are no institutions. Men are related laterally by kinship but there are no hierarchies and no authority. Moreover the horizontal metaphor (which provides the sleeping giant Finn McCool of Finnegans Wake) indicates a state of collective consciousness. A state of homogeneity and non-differentiation which in pagan theory proceeded the fall of man. Vertical man, self-conscious man, rational and civilized man is in this view the result of a spiritual fall. Lindberg agrees with Karl Marx that this fall resulted from the first attempt to transfer or exploit a food or property surplus for private purposes. Horizontal man, pre-historic man, in this view, was innocent of “mine” and “thine.” He was without individual self-consciousness. Technological man or post-historic man is rapidly approximating the same state. Instantaneity of global communication plus the abundance of mass-produced goods has created a situation of mental and social collectivism.
It is to tracing the social and political consequences of the “fall” that Lindberg devotes much of his book. Paradoxically, the fall brings about the rise of individual reason and the invention of the instruments of culture and civilization. Reason, the tool-making faculty, is the fruit of evil. And reason is the myth-making power which produces the ruler.The ruler rules by the myth or lie which intimidates men to the point of social obedience. It is important to grasp Lindberg’s idea of myths and norms since they have characterized all civilization till now. But henceforth they must have new functions. Myths are for Lindberg the traditional religions imposed on men. They are products of reason. They are expedient lies. They are the means of curbing the monsters bred of men’s passions. Norms or moral conventions, on the other hand, are merely a cinematic projection on the screen of the city of the passions and preferences of men. Myths are vertical affairs imposed by ruling authority on the ruled. Norms are horizontal developments spreading outwards in accordance with men’s desires. Myths are static. The authoritarian myth-built city is local, brittle, easily susceptible of shock. If one myth falls, all will tend to fall. But the norm-structured society is open, elastic, malleable, receptive of change. Under current conditions of communication the static, myth-built cities of the Western world are doomed, says Lindberg.
The foundations of social survival are, however, to be found in a switch from reason to passion, from fear to love. And the possibility of the switchover resides in our capacity today to discover the creative dynamics of norm-making. Norm, the region of passion and flux, was no basis for any past city. But norm seen as a product of an individual and collective creative activity may be a clue to a new social dynamics.  If we can discover by observation of many societies past and present the principles of creativity in morals, we shall have the master-clue to all future government of huge inter-cultural associations of men.
It is the conviction that such a possibility is realizable today that prompts Lindberg to espouse the idea of Christian charity in a spirit of positivism. Not belief but necessity urges him to a Christian idea of society and government. It is the same conviction which leads him to abandon the Manichean principles of realpolitik.
One tires today of hearing of “important” books. This book provides many striking perspectives on the theological principles underlying the practice of classical politics and economics in the past. (‘The God-Making Machines of the Modern World’, Review of John Lindberg, The Foundations of Social SurvivalCommonweal, 59:24, 606-607, March 19, 1954)

Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters
For anybody concerned with the subject of Catholic humanism in modern letters I should think that Joyce’s insight, which was marvellously realized in his work, is the most inspiriting development that is possible to conceive. But we must ask, what happens when this insight occurs even in a fragmentary way to the secular minds of our age?  The answer can be found in The Foundations of Social Survival a recent book by John Lindberg, a Swedish noble man associated with the United Nations. His proposal for social survival is that we adopt the Christian doctrine of brotherly love. He is not a Christian but he thinks Christianity might be made to work by non-Christians. Perhaps he has in mind that it appears to be unworkable when left to Christians. In short, he proposes practical Christianity as a sort of Machiavellian strategy of culture and power. And his reasons are directly linked to the developments I have outlined in modern [arts and] letters. Namely that in the modern world we have through the very perfection and instantaneity of our means of communication made it impossible to resolve the conflicting claims of the numerous societies and cultures which are now in close association. Neither can we hope to impose any one culture on all the others and reduce them to a single form. But, he argues, we now have the key to the creative process which brings all cultures into existence (namely the extension into social institutions of the central form and mystery of the human cognitive process). And it is this key which he proposes to deliver into the hands of a world government. (‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’, a lecture given at 
St. Joseph College, West Hartford, Connecticut, on March 23, 1954)

Eliot and The Manichean Myth As Poetry
John Lindberg’s recent Foundations of Social Survival is devoted to an elucidation of the political and social consequences of these two positions [viz, “the theology behind vertical and horizontal”]. And for the purposes of explaining Mr. Eliot’s use of the Manichean myth, Mr. Lindberg is helpful, because he attaches the term ‘myth’ to the Manichean or dualist position from Plato to Bergson. Myth, he considers to be that necessary or salutary lie which any governing class must tell the governed in order to arrest and control the daemonic movement of the passions in ordinary men. Opposed to myth is the area of norms and value, says Mr. Lindberg, speaking out of the Platonic tradition. Human values are all demonic, because they are mere expressions of irrational appetite and tempermental preference. The  realm of norms and values is the realm of the brutish. But casting a twentieth-century eye over the untamed jungle of norms and values, Mr. Lindberg sees reason for preferring it to the dust on bowl of rose-leaves which is about all that remains of myth in an age of rapid inter-communication and change. If the governing elites have previously been rationalist, Platonic and Averroist in their strategy for power and culture, they now see the possibility of a more thorough-going control. Instead of imposing a brittle myth on the ordinary levels of human consciousness, why not occupy its creative centre? Why not install oneself at the point where the norms and values are born and control this process? Instead of governing men’s appetites, why not govern men through their appetites? The shift is basic. It is the shift from the dualism of the time school to the monism of the space men. It is a magical shift to the centre of the poetic process, which Mr. Eliot, among others, has revealed in our time. (‘Eliot and The Manichean Myth As Poetry’, Address to the spring symposium of the Catholic Renascence Society in Philadelphia on April 19, 1954)

Poetry and Society
John Lindberg’s recent
Foundations of Social Survival does go into the theology behind vertical and horizontal, but in the sphere of politics only. (‘Poetry and Society’, Poetry Magazine, May 1954, 93-95)

  1. In the American Swedish Historical Museum 1944 Yearbook biographical information about John Lindberg is provided as follows: “John Lindberg, Ph.D., is a member of the Mission of the Economic Department of the Secretariat of the League of Nations, Princeton. He has been instructor at the University of Stockholm, Assistant Secretary to the Swedish Unemployment Commission,  member of the Statistical and Economic sections of the International Labor Office, and since 1937 member of the Economic and Financial Section of the League Secretariat. He spent 1925-28 in the United States as Laura Spelman Rockefeller fellow.  He has written numerous books, articles and reports; he is a member of our Museum Board.” This was contributor information for Lindberg’s paper in that 1944 Yearbook, ‘The Long Sleep: An Essay on Swedish Nationalism‘.  During his Laura Spelman Rockefeller fellowship, Lindberg wrote The Background of Swedish Migration to the United States (1930). Following WW2, he remained in Princeton as a member of “the Economic, Financial and Transit Department of the League of Nations on mission at the Institute for Advanced Study. In 1946, apparently just before its demise in March of that year, the League of Nations issued his Food, Famine and Relief, 1940-1946. Lindberg then joined the UN within the United Nations Technical Assistance Administration. He was chief economist for an assistance mission to Libya in 1951. This resulted in a brochure authored by Lindberg and published by the UN: A General Economic Appraisal of Libya. Later he was the UN economic adviser to Jordan. In 1964, Lindberg published ‘The Secret Life of Dag Hammarskjöld’ in Look Magazine, 28:13, 30 June 1964. As described in the Look essay, Lindberg (1901-1991) and Hammarskjöld (1905-1961) had known each other in Sweden at Stockholm University in the early 1930s, long before both became UN officials (Hammarskjöld as its Secretary-General from 1953 to 1961).
  2. McLuhan’s use of “inter-communication” here, and in the passage below from ‘Eliot and The Manichean Myth As Poetry’, recalls the frequent use of the phrase by his University of Manitoba teacher, Henry Wright. See Henry Wilkes Wright and Henry Wilkes Wright 2 for examples and discussion.

“Perpetuity of collective harmony” as judo

In the beginning was the Word: a spoken word, not the visual one of literate man.1

The post below treats a passage in Understanding Media from its chapter 8. The title of this chapter is:

The Spoken Word – Flower of Evil?2

This was a question McLuhan treated with some frequency:

The golden age of primitive man (…) indicates a state of collective consciousness. A state of homogeneity and non-differentiation which in pagan theory proceeded the fall of man. Vertical man, self-conscious man, rational and civilized man is in this view the result of a spiritual fall. [John] Lindberg agrees with Karl Marx that this fall resulted from the first attempt to transfer or exploit a food or property surplus for private purposes. Horizontal man, pre-historic man, in this view, was innocent of “mine” and “thine.” He was without individual self-consciousness. Technological man or post-historic man is rapidly approximating the same state. Instantaneity of global communication plus the abundance of mass-produced goods has created a situation of mental and social collectivism. (…)  Paradoxically, the fall brings about the rise of individual reason and the invention of the instruments of culture and civilization. Reason, the tool-making faculty, is the fruit of evil. (‘The God-Making Machines of the Modern World’, 1954)3

But how to specify the question at stake when it involves not some object of perception or of consideration, but rather the source from which perception and consideration arise in the first place? In Understanding Media, chapter 8, McLuhan attempted to use judo on this problem.


In several places McLuhan waxed lyrical about the possibility, enabled by technology, of “a perpetuity of collective harmony and peace“.  This phrase appears in Understanding Media (80) and was then repeated five years later, verbatim, in his Playboy interview.4

Critics (and even some admirers!) of McLuhan recur to these passages to demonstrate in his own words that he was a technological Utopian.

There are very good reasons to take it, however, that McLuhan was practising “intellectual judo” in these passages:

a procedure in tackling problems which resembles the “negative capability” of Keats5 — a sort of intellectual judo. Instead of straining all available effort on a visible goal or problem, let the solution come from the problem itself. If you can’t keep the cow out of the garden, keep the garden out of the cow. (Technology, the Media, and Culture, 1960)

In the first place, as illustrated in his review of John Lindberg (cited above), written a full ten years before the publication of Understanding Media, McLuhan had long seen such “a situation of mental and social collectivism” as a product and sign of “pagan theory”.

Moreover, immediately before the extended passage in Understanding Media where McLuhan treats “the bliss of union in the collective unconscious” he observed:

It helps to appreciate the nature of the spoken word to contrast it with the written form. (UM, 79) 

What then follows is McLuhan contrasting “the spoken word”, not with “the written form”, at least not directly, but with “the condition of speechlessness” aka “the preverbal condition of men” :

the process of consciousness itself (…) without any verbalization whatever

to by-pass languages in favor of a general cosmic consciousness which might be very like the collective unconscious dreamt of by Bergson

“Consciousness (…) without (…) verbalization”! A “cosmic consciousness” that is “unconscious”! How many readers of McLuhan have testified to their own idiocy by swallowing, in appreciation of his supposed view, or in derision of it, such “dreamt” idiocies?

What is at stake here, then, is a way “to appreciate the nature of the spoken word” (aka the logos) in contrast to “the written form” as “a human technology”6 — exactly through the sort of idiotic non-sequiturs that can be generated only via premises typical of the Gutenberg galaxy.  This is the judo move of turning the momentum of one’s opponents back against them.

Henri Bergson, the French philosopher, lived and wrote in a tradition of thought [nota bene: “in a tradition of thought”! cf, “in this view” in the Lindberg review above] in which it was and is considered that language is a human technology that has impaired and diminished the values of the collective unconscious. It is the extension of man in speech [according to this tradition] that enables the intellect to detach itself from the vastly wider reality. [“In this view”, to attach oneself to the world and to other human beings in speech is actually to “detach” from them. Keep your eye on the pea in this shell game!] Without language, Bergson suggests, human intelligence would have remained totally involved in the objects of its attention. [“Objects of (…) attention” aside from language? And even from consciousness?]
Language [considered as a “human technology”] does for intelligence what the wheel does for the feet and the body. It enables them to move from thing to thing with greater ease and speed and ever less involvement.
Language extends and amplifies man but it also divides his faculties. His collective consciousness or intuitive awareness is diminished [according to this tradition] by this technical extension of consciousness that is speech.
Bergson argues in Creative Evolution that even consciousness is an extension of man that dims the bliss of union in the collective unconscious. [“The bliss of union in the collective unconscious”!] Speech acts to separate man from man, and mankind from the cosmic unconscious. [“the cosmic unconscious”!]
The power of the voice to shape air and space into verbal patterns may well have been preceded [as all things must be “preceded” in Gutenbergian serial chronology] by a less specialized expression [“A less specialized expression” — a language that was “expression”, but was not yet language!] of cries, grunts, gestures, and commands, of song and dance [“song and dance”!]. (…)
Our new electric technology that extends our senses and nerves in a global embrace has large implications for the future of language. [Language subject to serial time again!  What happened to “allatonceness”?] Electric technology does not need words [according to this “tradition of thought”] any more than the digital computer needs numbers [“any more than the digital [number] computer needs numbers”!]7. Electricity points the way to an extension of the process of consciousness itself, on a world scale, and without any verbalization whatever [“extension of the process of consciousness itself and without any verbalization whatever”!]. Such a state of collective awareness [aka, unawareness] may [may!] have been [according to this “tradition of thought”] the preverbal condition of men. [“The preverbal condition of men” who are men, as McLuhan repeatedly insisted, only in and through language!] Language as the technology of human extension, whose powers of division and separation we know so well, may [may!] have been the “Tower of Babel” by which men sought to scale the highest heavens. Today computers hold out the promise of a means of instant translation of any code or language into any other code or language. The computer, in short, promises by technology a Pentecostal condition of universal understanding and unity. The next logical step would seem to be, not to translate, but to by-pass languages in favor of a general cosmic consciousness [“to by-pass languages in favor of a general cosmic consciousness”!] which might [might!] be very like the collective unconscious dreamt of by Bergson [“a cosmic consciousness which might be (…) unconscious”!]. The condition of “weightlessness” [“by which men sought to scale the highest heavens”?], that [Teilhardian?] biologists [in this “tradition of thought”] say promises a physical immortality, may [may!] be paralleled by the condition of speechlessness that could confer a perpetuity of collective harmony and peace. (UM, 79-80)

Any reference to this idiocy, positive or negative, as if McLuhan didn’t have his tongue firmly planted in his cheek when he translated pure gnosticism into his own characteristic terms, betrays, via judo, a corresponding idiocy of approach.  And a tin ear. The only proper response to such “secret escape hatches from the sunken submarine or the unguided missile of existence” is, according to McLuhan, “wild laughter at its arrogant confusion”.8 

Finally, it must be remembered that the issues at stake in this passage were repeatedly treated by McLuhan elsewhere:

  • language not as “a human technology” but as the primary characteristic of human being and of civilization and, first of all, of being itself: “it is language itself that embodies and performs the dance of being.”9
  • time not as a linear one-way arrow, but as plural and as fundamentally simultaneous with the sequential as a figure upon it10
  • primitive life not as “bliss of union in (…) the cosmic unconscious” but as “the human dark” and perpetual terror11
  • “weightlessness” as the cause and symptom of an animus against life in war, abortion and euthanasia
  • monism as the goal and sign of gnosticism: “Let us rejoin the One”!12
  • Bergson as lacking “the courage of his own philosophical position”13
  • The global village not as “a Pentecostal condition of universal understanding and unity” but as irresolvable conflict14 
  • Electric technology as potentially Luciferian15 

There is no need to guess what McLuhan thought about these matters — as opposed to how they appeared in “a tradition of thought” which was utterly foreign to him.


At the end of his Playboy interview, McLuhan may have had both of the iterations of “a perpetuity of collective harmony” in mind.  

PLAYBOY: Despite your personal distaste for the upheavals induced by the new electric technology, you seem to feel that if we understand and influence its effects on us, a less alienated and fragmented society may emerge from it. Is it thus accurate to say that you are essentially optimistic about the future?

MCLUHAN: There are grounds for both optimism [the Playboy interview iteration] and pessimism [the Understanding Media iteration]. The extensions of man’s consciousness induced by the electric media could conceivably usher in the millennium [the Playboy  interview iteration], but it also holds the potential for realizing the Anti-Christ [the Understanding Media iteration] — Yeats’ rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouching toward Bethlehem to be born. Cataclysmic environmental changes such as these are, in and of themselves, morally neutral; it is how we perceive them and react to them that will determine their ultimate psychic and social consequences. If we refuse to see them at all, we will become their servants. It’s inevitable that the world-pool of electronic information movement will toss us all about like corks on a stormy sea, but if we keep our cool during the descent into the maelstrom, studying the process as it happens to us and what we can do about it, we can come through.
Personally, I have a great faith in the resiliency and adaptability of man, and I tend to look to our tomorrows with a surge of excitement and hope. I feel that we’re standing on the threshold of a liberating and exhilarating world in which the human tribe can become truly one family and man’s consciousness can be freed from the shackles of mechanical culture and enabled to roam the cosmos. I have a deep and abiding belief in man’s potential to grow and learn, to plumb the depths of his own being and to learn the secret songs that orchestrate the universe. We live in a transitional era of profound pain and tragic identity quest, but the agony of our age is the labor pain of rebirth. I expect to see the coming decades transform the planet into an art form; the new man, linked in a cosmic harmony that transcends time and space, will sensuously caress and mold and pattern every facet of the terrestrial artifact as if it were a work of art, and man himself will become an organic art form. 

  1. Carpenter and McLuhan, ‘Accoustic Space’, Explorations In Communication, 1960, 65.
  2. This is the title of Understanding Media chapter 8 in which the “perpetuity of collective harmony and peace” passage appears. Its question mark is a sign of the interrogation its judo is intended to provoke.
  3. Review of The Foundations of Social Survival by John Lindberg, Commonweal magazine, 59:24, 606-607, March 19, 1954.
  4. McLuhan used the same “perpetuity of collective harmony and peace” phrase from Understanding Media in the Playboy interview, but to fundamentally different purpose — as if he needed to say in reference to the Understanding Media passage that “harmony and peace” were not only laughing matters. The Playboy passage reads: “The computer thus holds out the promise of a technologically engendered state of universal understanding and unity, a state of absorption in the logos that could knit mankind into one family and create a perpetuity of collective harmony and peace. This is the real use of the computer, not to expedite marketing or solve technical problems but to speed the process of discovery and orchestrate terrestrial — and eventually galactic — environments and energies. Psychic communal integration, made possible at last by the electronic media, could create the universality of consciousness foreseen by Dante when he predicted that men would continue as no more than broken fragments until they were unified into an inclusive consciousness. In a Christian sense (ed: in fundamental contrast to the gnostic “tradition of thought” unfolded in the Understanding Media passage), this is merely a new interpretation of the mystical body of Christ; and Christ, after all, is the ultimate extension of man.” Here “consciousness” that “enables the intellect to detach itself from (…) reality” (Understanding Media) and “divides (our) faculties” (ditto), so doubly alienated both externally and internally, finds “peace” not by attaining “the cosmic unconscious” (attaining “the cosmic unconscious”!), but by “escape into understanding” — an understanding that works only because it “divides”.  And dividing, in turn, can and does yield understanding because “in the beginning” the extension of logos (subjective genitive!), which was “with God”, as John has it, provides the ground and archetype for “the ultimate extension of man” (objective genitive!) into his multiple insanities (these being in humans also the “ultimate extension” of creation away from God). Hence it is that the divisions of humans (subjective and objective genitive!) may be healing (since healed) because, prior to them (in all senses), in an original belonging in even greater difference, there is the “ultimate extension” of Christ. This is an “extension” which is “ultimate” exactly and only because it is already operative “in the beginning”: hence, “the gap is where the action is”! So it is that “harmony and peace” are possible for humans, despite their mad warring on themselves and the rest of creation, because there is, prior to them and their divisions, a belonging together of fundamental difference (call it ‘logos‘) which forever exceeds even their crazed centrifugal flight into “weightlessness” and purported “physical immortality”. (That this passage and this reasoning appeared in Playboy provides another great example of “intellectual judo”!)
  5. Keats described “negative capability” in a December 1817 letter to his brothers: “when a (hu)man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching-after-fact & reason“.
  6. Nietzsche: “Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of the universe (…) there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing.” See The bubble of life in Tolstoy, Nietzsche, Havelock and Innis. Many different paths go out from this crossroads. Like Tolstoy, McLuhan took it that the multiple absurdities of this supposition required a new start elsewhere: “The gap (between this supposition and others) is where the action is.” For Nietzsche it required the admission of nihilism since the story of the “clever beasts (who) invented knowing” was itself invented. For Bergson, according to McLuhan, it was an indication of a prior and perhaps still possible conscious/unconscious “bliss of union”. For Havelock it precipitated a crisis of faith and, eventually, insight into rival possibilities. For Innis this idea threw mankind reactively into short-term thinking that, in turn, led to war as a way of life. For Hegel this whole topic was important in his dryly humorous consideration of what it means to take away an instrument from objects which are accessible only through that instrument.
  7. Understanding Media, 114: “long before literate technology, the binary factors of hands and feet sufficed to launch man on the path of counting. Indeed, the mathematical Leibniz saw in the mystic elegance of the binary system of zero and 1 the image of Creation. The unity of the Supreme Being operating in the void by binary function would, he felt, suffice to make all beings from the void.”
  8. Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters: “Art and poetry are regarded as private religions, secret escape hatches from the sunken submarine or the unguided missile of existence. The Catholic alone can laugh at these antics.” Later in the same lecture: “Joyce is the single poet voice in our century raised not not merely against this view but in wild laughter at its arrogant confusion.” Compare The Mechanical Bride: “The human person who thinks, works, or dreams himself into the role of a machine is as funny an object as the world provides. And, in fact, he can only be freed from this trap by the detaching power of wild laughter. (…)  Finnegans Wake by James Joyce (…) being a great intellectual effort aimed at rinsing the Augean stables of speech and society with geysers of laughter.” (100-101)
  9. Empedocles and T. S. Eliot, 1976.
  10. The Global Village: “time considered as sequential (left hemisphere) is figure and time considered as simultaneous (right hemisphere) is ground.” (10)
  11. Counterblast: “Until WRITING was invented, we lived in acoustic space, where all backward peoples still live: boundless, directionless, horizonless, the dark of the mind, the world of emotion, primordial intuition, mafia-ridden. Speech is a social chart of this dark bog. SPEECH structures the abyss of mental and acoustic space, shrouding the race; it is a cosmic, invisible architecture of the human dark.” (1954 and 1969)
  12. Nihilism Exposed, 1955. From the start of his career onwards, McLuhan equated merger with the cosmos as suicide: “The Dagwoods and the billionaire power-gluttons are equally rushing to the suicide of total immersion in the chaos of matter.” (Lemuel in Lilliput, 1944) Earlier in Understanding Media itself, McLuhan characterized the human merger with the cosmos not as “bliss”, but as “suicidal auto-amputation”: “With the arrival of electric technology, man extended, or set outside himself, a live model of the central nervous system itself. To the degree that this is so, it is a development that suggests a desperate and suicidal auto-amputation, as if the central nervous system could no longer depend on the physical organs to be protective buffers against the slings and arrows of outrageous mechanism. It could well be that the successive mechanizations of the various physical organs since the invention of printing have made too violent and super-stimulated a social experience for the central nervous system to endure.” (43)
  13. Nihilism Exposed, 1955.
  14. Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters: ” in the modern world we have through the very perfection and instantaneity of our means of communication made it impossible to resolve the conflicting claims of the numerous societies and cultures which are now in close association.”
  15. See the Playboy interview passage at the end of this post: “The extension of man’s consciousness induced by the electric media (…) holds the potential for realizing the Anti-Christ”.

Heinrich Wölfflin and the laws of media

Heinrich Wölfflin, together with Adolf HildebrandWilliam Ivins and Ernst Gombrich, solved a problem for McLuhan in the late 1950s that had been nagging him for most of the decade.  During that time he held (following on Innis, Havelock and Richards) that the introduction of the Greek alphabet, as gigantically reinforced by the advent of printing two millennia later, effected an extreme emphasis on the eye relative to the ear in human experience and communication. Further, he proposed, like Richards if not Innis, that modern devices like the telephone, phonograph and radio were rebalancing that emphasis back towards the ear. At the same time, however, he postulated that photography, comics and advertising were active with such auditory media in revolutionizing visually weighted Gutenbergian experience — but this through the introduction of new visual elements into printed material:

in our own time technology has restored pictorial communication to a public which is completely untrained in pictorial discrimination. (Comics and Culture, 1953) 

I suggest that the real reversal which has overtaken print technology 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. (Printing and Social Change, 1959)

The problem was: how could such increased emphasis on the visual produce (or at least cooperate in producing) a decreased emphasis on the visual?  How could photography, comics, and advertising (augmented by the movies) have a leading role in a pictorial “age of advertising” that yet “somehow” marked “the end of the Gutenberg era” (a phrase McLuhan was already using in the early 1950s1)? This when “the Gutenberg era” seemed to represented the very acme of visuality?2

The answer that McLuhan discovered late in the 1950s through the art historians was twofold.3  

On the one hand, he found especially in Hildebrand and Wölfflin that tactility characterized all experience. This tactility was not touch in the normal sense but was rather the coordination of the senses — a notion that linked up with McLuhan’s discussions with Bernie Muller-Thym starting already around 1940 concerning the sensus communis in Aristotle and Thomas.

sense of touch is not skin, not direct contact. It is rather the interplay of the senses. (‘Prospect’, 1962)4

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. (The Gutenberg Galaxy, 41, full passage given at ‘Heinrich Wölfflin)

“Tactility” or interplay among all the senses… (The Gutenberg Galaxy, 81, full passage given at ‘Heinrich Wölfflin‘)

In this understanding, the visual was never absent from experience but its presence was subject to a dynamic emphasis and de-emphasis relative to the other senses as structured by ‘tactility’. As McLuhan could already state in an Explorations article in 1957:

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

Hence McLuhan’s rather strange statements that “the (…) visual (…) is in effect very tactile, resonant, and auditory” and that “Wölfflin taught the Hildebrand stress on visual forms as haptic or tangible-tactile”.5

In this way, McLuhan came to understand that the visual could be implicated in opposite effects (like Gutenbergian and post-Gutenbergian experience) for the simple reason that visuality was always implicated in some fashion in all effects. Media were complex structures and visuality was a component in those variable structures like, say, the electron in every atom. The great need, as McLuhan put the point in the ‘Printing and Social Change’ passage above, was to “unriddle the complex of new messages involved in this new situation which has been created by print technology itself”. That is, it was necessary to “unriddle” just what ‘implicated in some fashion‘ amounted to.

On the other hand, he found from the art historians that such “interplay among all the senses”  had to be understood not from experiential input (like the visual appearance of a newspaper or the auditory impression of a symphony) but from experiential output or effect:  

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“. (Report on Project in Understanding New Media, 1960, full passage given at ‘Heinrich Wölfflin‘)

This meant that “laws of media” had to be formulated (if they were to be formulated at all) from investigative focus on their effects on individual and social experience and not at all on how they happened to present themselves and be sensed.  So, as McLuhan repeatedly illustrated the matter after encountering the work of J.C Carothers in 1959, radio might always be heard by anyone exposed to it, but its effects depended upon the inter-relation between it and the socio-cultural environment into which it was introduced: “the Bedouin with his battery radio on board the camel”, as McLuhan put the point in Understanding Media (16).  And since media were never absent from human history and society, those socio-cultural environments themselves might be investigated as media effects as well. 

The promise was of a new way, or ways, of studying human history and society that would at once avoid problems of relativity (since these, too, could be considered as effects) and supply new ways to address such pressing social and political problems as automation and war.

The upshot of these two points in McLuhan’s own career was that he began to think of media as as future perfect forms subject to their own dynamics. In the 1970s this would lead to the formulation of “laws of media” as an overview of the types of interaction that eventuate between media.  But already in The Gutenberg Galaxy he expressed this insight  as follows:

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.  (The Gutenberg Galaxy, 81, full passage given at ‘Heinrich Wölfflin‘)

Much as Harold Innis had pioneered, McLuhan was focusing here on media as a new field of explanation within which “basic laws” (so McLuhan already in 1960)6 might be discovered to be at work at work in human psychology and society — or, rather, discovered to have always been at work in human psychology and society. “Reaction” or reversal would be one of such “laws of media” —  one of such laws of media interaction — along with obsolescence, retrieval and  amplification. These were types of effect of media on media through which our “forms of codifying information co-exist [by] transforming one another” (Printing and Social Change, 1959, full passage given above).


  1. See  McLuhan to Ezra Pound July 16, 1952.
  2. How to understand the working of visuality was hardly McLuhan’s only problem in the 1950s.  He also had to learn how to differentiate the auditory from the tactile (he frequently ran the two together in these years) and to understand how Gutenberg (for example) could lead to simultaneity but itself be fundamentally linear: “Gutenberg made all history SIMULTANEOUS: the transportable book brought the world of the dead into the space of the gentleman’s library…” (Counterblast, 1954).
  3. Ivins on prints played a central role in this development which future posts will need to delineate. It may have been first through Ivins that McLuhan in the late 1950s turned, with revolutionary effect, to the art historians.
  4. Canadian Art Magazine, # 81, 363-366, September/October, 1962.
  5. The full passages for these snippets are given at ‘Heinrich Wölfflin‘. Most McLuhan scholarship has yet to allow the frequent strangeness of his suggestions to register and thereby to occasion the sort of probing consideration his language was intended to spark. As Heidegger noted, the most thought-provoking thing is that nothing provokes our thought.
  6. Report on Project in Understanding New Media, ‘General Introduction to the Languages and Grammars of the Media’: “Early in 1960 it dawned on me that the sensory impression proffered by a medium like movie or radio, was not the sensory effect obtained. Radio, for example, has an intense visual effect on listeners. But then there is the telephone which also proffers an auditory impression, but has no visual effect. In the same way television is watched but has a very different effect from movies. These observations led to a series of studies of the media, and to the discovery of basic laws concerning the sensory effects of various media.”

Winnipeg Free Press obituary of R.C. Lodge

Rupert Lodge died on March 1,1961.  The following obituary appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press, March 9, 1961, p. 21:

Rupert Clendon Lodge 

Although it is well over a decade since Professor Rupert C. Lodge presided over his last class at the University of Manitoba, the legend of him, both as man and philosopher, lives on. It will continue to live on despite the news of his death in St. Petersburg, Florida, earlier this month. Indeed, among former students during the past week, he has come more alive than ever. In death he has become for them more than a topic of conversation — he has become what they had always sensed he was, a part of their lives. 

Though he taught elsewhere before coming to Winnipeg, and was visiting lecturer at Long Island University for four years after leaving here in 1947, it was with the University of Manitoba that Professor Lodge had his longest association. 

He was with the department of philosophy here for 27 years. He made his reputation not only as teacher but as author. To a host of former students and friends, however, he will live on as a winning, puckish, provocative personality whose impact on their personalities has not become less with the years. There will be regret at his passing.  

McLuhan on first meeting Innis

Although a great deal has been written on ‘the Toronto school’, little has been done on what might seem to be a prerequisite to the topic, namely, the questions of who read what by whom? And when? This post looks at the question of when Innis and McLuhan began to read texts of each other (aside from the probability that McLuhan first read Innis already in 1936 when his first published essay on Chesterton appeared in the same issue of The Dalhousie Review as an important essay by Innis).1  Previous posts have looked at the same question in regard to Innis and Havelock and Havelock and McLuhan.2

But a very great deal remains to be done in this area: these posts should be regarded only as initial approaches to its investigation.


On a number of occasions in the last years of his life, McLuhan described how he had come to meet Harold Innis thirty years before:

Harold Innis — I was very lucky to encounter him. It was through The Mechanical Bride that I met him. and when I heard he had put it on his reading list, I was fascinated to find out what sort of an academic would put a book like The Mechanical Bride on a reading list. So that’s when I went around and met him and we became acquainted for the few years of his life that remained. (Marshall McLuhan in conversation with Mike McManus, TVOntario, Dec 28, 1977)3

My own acquaintance with Innis began when I heard that he had put my book, The Mechanical Bride, on his course reading list. It intrigued me to know what sort of academic would take an interest in this book. I read his Bias of Communication and became a follower of Harold innis from that time. (‘The Fecund Interval’, Preface to Eric Havelock, Harold A Innis: A Memoir1982, written by McLuhan in 1979 on the basis of his talk with Havelock in memory of Innis held at Innis College, October 14, 1978.)

None of this makes sense. Innis would have been able to include The Mechanical Bride on a reading list only in the fall of 1951,4 since McLuhan’s first book was published, at last, only earlier that year. Then, after that, so even later in 1951 at the earliest, McLuhan’s memory was that he “went around and met him and we became acquainted”. In fact, however, McLuhan and Innis had met years earlier, by 1948 at the latest. In a letter to Lewis Mumford (December 28, 1948)5 he mentions having a meal with Innis and Tom Easterbrook. And McLuhan and Innis participated in a seminar together early in 1949. Further, after both The Mechanical Bride and The Bias of Communication were published in 1951, it was sadly not the case then that a “few years (…) remained of [Innis’] life”6: Innis would die the next year in November 1952.  Further yet, in a letter from early 1951,7 and or even from late 1950 (since the copy we have from March 1951 is a “rewrite” of a letter Innis answered in February and apologized for his delay in doing so), McLuhan discussed Innis’ 1950 Empire and Communications.  This was before The Bias of Communication was even published — so the latter was with certainty not the first book from Innis that McLuhan read.

McLuhan’s memory in the late 1970s of his meeting with Innis thirty years before was plainly confused. But it was not simply made up out of whole cloth.  Instead, it seems that he remembered events that were indeed very important for both Innis and himself, but he associated them with the wrong texts and, therefore, with the wrong dates.

A clue to the correct story is given in the footnote in The Bias of Communication to a passage in  ‘Adult Education and Universities’: “The advertiser has created distrust through his power of penetration in the field of education”. There is no footnote to “the advertiser has created distrust” in its original appearance in the Manitoba Royal Commission of Adult Education (1947).  But in its reprinting Innis added a reference here to McLuhan’s The Mechanical Bride.  When The Bias of Communication appeared in 1951, Innis was able to add this reference to The Mechanical Bride only because McLuhan’s first book had finally appeared earlier that year after having been largely composed in the 1940s. While it is not impossible that Innis had seen parts of it in typescript through Tom Easterbrook who was a close friend of both men, he would not have been able to put such unpublished material on a reading list for a course.  But Innis would indeed have been able to assign one or both of two papers that McLuhan published in 1947 and that derived from the ongoing composition process of The Mechanical Bride

More than three decades after the event, McLuhan seems to have confused these papers derived from the composition process of his first book with the book itself. 

On his side, by the end of this same year of 1947, Innis had already published three of the nine papers which would later be collected in The Bias of Communication:

  • Minerva’s Owl (Presidential Address, Royal Society of Canada, 1947)8 
  • The English Publishing Trade in the Eighteenth Century (Manitoba Arts Review, iv, 1945)
  • Adult Education and Universities (Innis’ contribution to The Manitoba Royal Commission on Adult Education, 1947)

And a fourth of the nine was published as an appendix in the 1948 reprinting of Minerva’s Owl:

  • A Critical Review9

Two of these papers would have been particularly significant to McLuhan and Easterbrook as having been published in Winnipeg, their hometown.10 In addition, ‘The English Publishing Trade in the Eighteenth Century’ bridged their academic specialties in English and Economics.

In his ‘Introduction’ to the 1964 republication of The Bias of Communication McLuhan recalled his first meeting Innis somewhat differently than he was to do 15 years later (as detailed above):  

Flattered by the attention that Innis had directed to some work of mine, I turned for the first time to his work. It was my good fortune to begin with the first essay in this book [that McLuhan was introducing, namely The Bias of Communication]: “Minerva’s Owl.” How exciting it was to encounter a writer whose every phrase invited prolonged meditation and exploration: “Alexandria broke the link between science and philosophy. The library was an imperial instrument to offset the influence of Egyptian priesthood.”

Here McLuhan does not refer to The Mechanical Bride, but to “some work of mine”, and he names the first essay he read from Innis as Minerva’s Owl — a lecture Easterbrook would have been able to share with McLuhan in any of the multiple forms in which it appeared in 1947 and 1948.11 

As seems to have been the case with The Mechanical Bride, so also with The Bias of CommunicationMcLuhan’s memory thirty years after the event appears to have confused texts later included in the book with the book itself.

On the basis of these qualifications to McLuhan’s descriptions of his first acquaintance with Innis, a reconstruction of the event may be made along the following lines.

A year after McLuhan joined the English faculty at St Michael’s (UT) in the fall of 1946, Tom Easterbrook rejoined the UT political economy department headed by Innis. Easterbrook and McLuhan were decades-old close friends from Winnipeg — the two had even toured England together in the summer of 1932 when they were still undergraduates at UM. In the middle 1930s, when McLuhan was in Cambridge, Easterbrook did graduate work in political economy in Toronto and wrote his PhD thesis there with Innis as his adviser. Easterbrook and Innis were close even then: Innis had seen to the publication of Easterbrook’s thesis by UTP with a foreword by himself (Farm Credit in Canada, 1938). On his return to Toronto, Easterbrook immediately began to work closely with Innis again, in a relationship that continued to grow until, by the time of Innis’ death 5 years later, Easterbrook was one of his most intimate friends. 

In 1947 Easterbrook must have immediately been impressed (if he did not already carry this impression with him from before) by the many parallels between the lives and views of Innis and McLuhan.12 Both had lived and worked in university communities in the US midwest, both had married remarkable American women and both had sizable families (Innis and his wife had four children, the McLuhans’ fourth child, of an eventual six, was born in 1947). Both had grown up in a Baptist environment which they had come fundamentally to question; but both remained obsessed by the spiritual and social question of what had happened to religion in the modern world. Both believed that education and the transmission of tradition were shaped primarily by culture and environment and that culture and environment, hence also education and the transmission of tradition, had been transmogrified (and not for the better) by the industrial revolution. Both had long been extremely critical of the academy. And both held that the disruptions of modernity were unavoidably reflected in internal conflict in the individual between intellect and emotion.13 Finally, both had a strong interest in business and the economy: Innis, naturally, as an economist by profession; and McLuhan through his friendships, established while he was still in St Louis in the early 1940s, with Bernard Muller-Thym, a corporate consultant in New York (at first with McKinsey & Company and later on his own),14 and with Peter Drucker, who was on his way to becoming one of the leading theoreticians of business of his generation.15 

Other themes may have been further preexisting commonalities or they may have been adopted by Innis from McLuhan.  So, for example, Innis in his 1947 ‘The Church in Canada’: 

Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People is a symptom of a widespread interest in the technique of pushing people around.

Innis doesn’t further enlarge on the topic, but McLuhan, since the early 1940s, had been working on an essay, or essays, variously called ‘Dale Carnegie: America’s Machiavelli’, ‘Dale Carnegie in the American Grain’ and ‘Dale Carnegie’s Moral Arithmetic’. McLuhan was in the habit of sharing work in progress like this and may well have done so in this case with Easterbrook — and, through Easterbrook, with Innis. 

Similarly, Innis drew repeated attention in this same address to the “the basic problem of character”:

The Church is in part responsible for a tendency in the social sciences to neglect the importance of training and character. With great pretentiousness they pronounce on questions of exceeding complexity in the social sciences and belittle the necessity of a long period of intense training and the development of character essential to an appreciation of the danger of interfering in other people’s lives. (…) we would do well to follow the example of the medical profession based on centuries of experience and tradition in emphasizing the importance of respect for the individual, evident as early as the oath of Hippocrates, and to realize that decisions affecting the lives of individuals should be made only on the basis of intensive training and on character.  (The Church in Canada, 1947)

Innis certainly did not require McLuhan’s help to note the central importance of character in education and life generally.  Still, McLuhan had by this time written a sizable manuscript called ‘Character Anthology’ which he had begun while still at Cambridge and was in circulation with friends. It is quite possible that Innis knew of the work through Easterbrook and was prompted by it to revert to the issue of character, repeatedly, in his United Church address.

Further, Innis began this same address by observing in language more typical of McLuhan than himself:

Modern civilization, characterized by an enormous increase in the output of mechanized knowledge with the newspaper, the book, the radio, and the cinema, has produced a state of numbness, pleasure, and self-complacency perhaps only equalled by laughing-gas.

Further yet, as detailed elsewhere16, it seems that Innis had seen McLuhan’s 1947 proposal to Robert Hutchins on university innovation and reform and was impressed enough by it to put forward some of the same suggestions in his 1948 address in Oxford to a conference of commonwealth university educators.17 In this Oxford address Innis remarked on “the pervasive influence of discontinuity, which is, of course, the characteristic of the newspaper” — surely reflecting one of McLuhan’s central thoughts at this time about Mallarmé and the relation of the form of the newspaper to discontinuity in modern poetry, art, music and science.18

Finally, Innis read and used in his work at least two books of Wyndham Lewis: The Art of Being Ruled (1926) and Time and Western Man (1927).19 McLuhan was a friend and admirer of Lewis and treated both of these works at length in his 1944 essay, ‘Lemuel in Lilliput’. Aside from access to McLuhan’s essay through Easterbrook, it seems very unlikely that Innis would have turned to Lewis and especially to The Art of Being Ruled.

In summary, it seems that Innis beginning at the latest in 1947 read some of the published and unpublished work of McLuhan. And by 1948 at the latest the two had become personally acquainted. But for Innis, at least, the meeting with McLuhan was not of decisive significance. He remained unconvinced for the few years remaining to him that the inevitable bias and relativity implicated in communications study could be overcome or, at least, turned to use in a new investigative discipline.  At the most, he seems to have been cheered to learn of someone in the next generation who was thinking along similar lines to his own.20 And, perhaps as a sign of this, he seems to have included one or both of ‘American Advertising’ and ‘Time, Life and Fortune’ on the reading list when he first began to offer a course in communication in the late 1940’s.

As regards McLuhan’s access to Innis’ work, beyond the published essays from the 1940s later collected in The Bias of Communication — especially the long-remembered ‘Minerva’s Owl’ — and the two University of Michigan lectures included in that book which Innis previewed in the 1949 ‘values seminar‘ (‘Bias of Communication’ and ‘Technology and Public Opinion in the United States’)21, Easterbrook doubtless prompted McLuhan to read Political Economy in the Modern State. This was the bridge between Innis’ work in political economics of the preceding decades and the communications research he would pursue in the few years remaining to him. Political Economy in the Modern State had just been published in 1946 as McLuhan arrived in Toronto. Apart from its essays on culture, media and society22, which were grist for McLuhan’s mill, McLuhan seems to have been transformatively impressed by three great topics in Innis’ book concerning the history and working of media.

First, Innis quoted in his ‘Preface’ the story of the invention of writing by the Egyptian god Theuth (now usually rendered ‘Thoth’) from Plato’s Phaedrus (274ff). As detailed in previous posts23, this same tale from Plato was then cited by I.A. Richards in discussing Havelock’s work in 1947, by Innis again in Empire and Communications (1950, but based on lectures delivered at Oxford in 1948), and repeatedly by McLuhan throughout his career.24 It was understood by all of them to illustrate not only the social and psychological effects of the introduction of writing in Greece, but also the analogous effects from the introduction of any medium of communication in any society at any time.

Second, one of Innis’ seemingly more strictly economic essays in the volume was ‘The Penetrative Powers of the Price System‘ from 1938. The notion (better, the question) of such  “penetrative power” was to become one of the motors of McLuhan’s intellectual life for the next 30 years. Here is how he began his memorial essay on ‘the late’ Harold Innis in the year following Innis’ premature death in 1952:

Often misunderstood or ignored by those who had admired his classic study of the Fur Trade, the work of the later Innis was a shift in attention from the trade-routes of the external world to the trade routes of the mind. Technology, he saw, had solved the problem of production of commodities and had already turned to the packaging of information. And the penetrative powers of the pricing system were as nothing beside the power of the new media of communication to penetrate and transform all existing institutions and patterns of thought. (‘The Later Innis’, The Queen’s Quarterly, 1953)

The great questions were: are media the fundamental engines of historical change? are they the underlying forces which work to “transform (…) existing institutions and patterns of thought”? if so, just how does such media penetration work?25 how is it to be investigated in a collective discipline? and does such collective investigation, alone, offer a way in which the often catastrophic effects of media innovation might be ameliorated?26

Third, Innis ended the first chapter of Political Economy in the Modern State, ‘The Newspaper in Economic Development’ (originally 1942) with this admonition: 

Finally this paper is designed to emphasize the importance of a change in the concept of the dimension of time, and to argue that it cannot be regarded as a straight line but as a series of curves depending in part on technological advances. (…) The concepts of time and space must be made relative and elastic and the attention given by the social scientists to problems of space should be paralleled by attention to problems of time.

The whole rest of McLuhan’s career could be said to be a series of probes into these two sentences.  Ultimately he would come to perceive media as fundamentally multiple time-space matrices whose understanding in a relativity theory for the humanities and social sciences depended upon insight into the plurality of time and especially into the relation of diachronic history as figure to the synchronic keyboard of existence as ground:

time considered as sequential (left hemisphere) is figure and time considered as simultaneous (right hemisphere) is ground. (The Global Village, 10)

Combined at just this time in the late 1940s with McLuhan’s fascination with the theory and poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé (closely connected to his on-going study of Eliot, Joyce and Pound) and his discovery of cybernetics (apparently through Sigfried Giedion), these themes from Innis (and in part also from Havelock) concerning media and their “power (…) to penetrate and transform” served to advance, decisively, McLuhan’s life’s work.  He would set out the stage he had reached at that time in programmatic letters to Innis in 1951 and to Pound in 1952 and then reach definitive clarity on the topic of ‘Understanding Media’ after a further decade in 1960.27



  1. Of course, Innis might have read McLuhan on Chesterton at the same time.
  2. See Innis and Havelock – 1930 and beyondSirluck on Innis, Owen and HavelockNef on McLuhan’s proposalHavelock, Innis and Richards in 1947 , “The formula of Virgil’s poetic chemistry” and The Journey of Aeneas through the Waste Land.
  3. Transcribed as ‘Violence as a Quest for Identity’, Understanding Me, 265-276, here 273.
  4. But did Innis even offer courses this late in his lifetime? He probably knew by the fall of 1951 that he was dying and would certainly have wanted to dedicate what time he had left to his work aside from the classroom. Further, in his oral history recollections, Tom Easterbrook mentions that he took over Innis’s communications course. This must have been in the fall of 1951. Since Easterbrook and McLuhan were decades-old and very close friends, McLuhan would certainly have remembered any role played by him in this history — if it had happened.
  5. Letters  208
  6. McLuhan continued his conversation with Mike McManus (cited above) by specifying: “He (Innis) only had about three years to live at that time.” Since Innis died in November 1952, this would place the events described by McLuhan in 1948 or 1949 — years before either The Mechanical Bride or The Bias of Communication were published.
  7. McLuhan’s early 1951 (or late 1950) letter would, on McLuhan’s 1977-8 narration of when he met Innis, have been written to someone he had not yet met. And the Deutsch offprint discussed in that letter, and in Innis’ reply, would somehow have been shared in the same fashion. Neither of these makes any sense, of course.
  8. This lecture was published in 1947 by the Royal Society of Canada both in its Proceedings and in a separate offprint. The UT Press then reissued it in 1948. In the 1948 printing by UTP, furthermore, another text that would later be included in The Bias of Communication,  ‘A Critical Review’, appeared as an appendix.
  9. See previous note.
  10. The Innis paper in the Manitoba Arts Review undoubtedly owed its presence to Roy Daniells who had taught at Victoria college (UT) for years before replacing E.K. Brown as the head of the English department at the University of Manitoba. As described in the Daniells biography, Professing English by Sandra Djwa (2002), Daniells was actively involved with the Manitoba Arts Review (first published in 1938) during his whole tenure at UM from 1937 to 1946. McLuhan and Daniells knew each other, apparently from meetings of various English associations, and exchanged a few letters in the mid 1940s, which are now in the Roy Daniells papers at UBC.
  11. See note 8 above.
  12. Such parallels should not be taken to exclude deep differences. Marchand and others, particularly among Innis researchers, are not wrong in noting fundamental divides between Innis and McLuhan regarding, eg, the Catholic church and the civil war in Spain. As must have struck Innis at some point, however, this did not mean that McLuhan was less liberal or less tolerant than him.  On the contrary, McLuhan’s Catholicism was compatible with a much wider range of individual intellectual and personality type and of cultural expression from advertising, comics and baseball to modern film and art than Innis was able to relate to. Contemporary research on both men continues to dodge this truly basic issue, however, since it is just as incapable of understanding it, and for the same reasons, as was Innis.
  13. Innis refers to “the inability to secure a proper agreement between desire and intellect” in his ‘Preface’ to Political Economy in the Modern State’ (1946, p. x); McLuhan, also in 1946, in a Christmas letter to Clement McNaspy, S.J., refers to the “emotional and spiritual economy denied to the confused secular mind” and goes on to state in regard to the University of Chicago: “Hutchins and Adler (…) are emotional illiterates. Dialectics and erudition are needed, but, without the sharp focussing of training in moral sensibility, futile.” (Letters 180).
  14. Muller-Thym was a philosophy professor at SLU from 1938 until 1942. During these years, he and McLuhan became very close friends. Muller-Thym was the best man at the McLuhans’ wedding in 1939 and the Godfather of their first child, Eric, and of Mary, one of the twin girls born 2 years after Eric. Muller-Thym and his wife, Mary, with their large family of eventually eight children, provided a prototype of the Catholic family for the McLuhans. Corinne McLuhan would follow Marshall’s 1937 conversion with her own in 1946, greatly influenced in that direction by her intimate friendship with Mary Muller-Thym.
  15. Peter Drucker’s books were already recommended in a Christmas 1944 letter (Letters 166) to two of McLuhan’s Jesuit friends from SLU, Walter Ong and Clement McNaspy. McLuhan’s friendship with Drucker should be seen in the context of his friendships with other great European intellectuals like Sigfried Giedion, Wyndham Lewis, Etienne Gilson and Karl Polanyi. Ezra Pound, as an elective European, could be added to the list. So where North American intellectuals, busying themselves somewhere along the tenure track, look down their noses at McLuhan, Europeans appear to have noticed something else in him. Indeed, there is no comparison between the European and North American receptions of his work. The latter remains unimaginably shallow to this day.
  16. See Nef on McLuhan’s 1947 proposal.
  17. A Critical Review’, address before the Conference of Commonwealth Universities, 1948.  First published as an appendix to Minerva’s Owl (1948) and included in The Bias of Communication (1951).
  18. See ‘Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press’ (1954), an essay composed years earlier in 1950 or 1951.
  19. Innis referenced The Art of Being Ruled in ‘A Plea for Time’ (included in The Bias of Communication, 1951) and in ‘Great Britain, United States, and Canada‘ (included in The Changing Concept of Time, 1952). Time and Western Man is cited in ‘A Plea for Time’.
  20. See Innis to McLuhan January 12, 1952: “I was immensely pleased to get your warm letter particularly as it is the first I have had which indicated that the reader had taken the trouble to understand what it (= The Bias of Communication) is all about.”
  21. By the spring of 1949, therefore, McLuhan had probably been exposed to six of the nine essays later (in the middle of 1951) published in The Bias of Communication.
  22. Political Economy in the Modern State begins with six essays on the interface of culture and the economy: ‘The Newspaper in Economic Development’ (1942), ‘An Economic Approach to English Literature in the Nineteenth Century’ (1945), ‘The Problem of Rehabilitation’, ‘A Plea for the University Tradition’ (1944), ‘The University in the Modern Crisis’ (1945) and ‘On the Economic Significance of Cultural Factors’, (1944).
  23. See ‘McLuhan and Plato 6 – Theuth‘ and ‘Havelock, Innis and Richards in 1947‘.
  24. Research is needed on the question if it was through McLuhan in his 1953 ‘Culture Without Literacy’ (in the first issue of Explorations) that this story in Plato came to assume its enormous importance for Jacques Derrida (variously said to have been a subscriber or at least a reader of Explorations).
  25. See McLuhan’s ‘Foreword’ to the 1972 reprinting of Empire and Communications: “The mere classification of the innumerable patterns of energy arising from specific human organizations such as speech and writing and weaponry, as well as all the means of accelerating work and travel, avoids the effort of understanding the actual processes involved.”
  26. See McLuhan’s new sciences: “only the authority of knowledge”.
  27. For his 1952 position, see  The Beginnings of Gutenberg Galaxy; for 1960, see McLuhan’s #1 breakthrough and  McLuhan’s new sciences: “only the authority of knowledge”.

Rupert Lodge: Synthesis or Comparison?

The gap is where the action is. (Take Today, 81)1

McLuhan inherited the ideal of a “comparative method” from Rupert Lodge whose classes in philosophy he took at the University of Manitoba in the early 1930s.  One of the tasks to which he would dedicate his life was to probe the problems and potential of this meth-od, this complex way (‘odos) of thought and life. And perhaps the deepest of these problems was that any conclusion reached through the method could not exclude, in principle, what was fundamentally opposed to it. For any such exclusion would evince an “external condemnation” and/or a “synthesis” and these, as Lodge emphasized over and over again, were “out of the question”.

The year after the appearance of his ‘Comparative Method in Philosophy‘ in Manitoba Essays, 1937, Rupert Lodge published a follow-up dialogue, ‘Synthesis or Comparison?’ in The Journal of Philosophy (35:16, 1938, 432-440).  Here he (as author and as one of the participants in the dialogue) observed:

as long as realists remain realists, and idealists idealists, and pragmatists pragmatists, how can there possibly be a ‘synthesis’? The differences are so extreme that no agreement seems possible. The three schools have no common ground. They differ in principle as well as in detail. We have three complete antinomies. Sympathetic understanding is the most we can look for. But any sort of compromise or synthesis is surely out of the question. (434-435)

Similarly at the conclusion of the piece:

Comparative philosophy preserves in its original purity, each of the three schools. (…) Comparison is not synthesis. What it objects to is the negation of any school, whether by (…) external condemnation, or by some form of synthesis which would radically emasculate all three. (440)

McLuhan never gave up this intuition of his first mentor of a comparative discipline that would refuse to attenuate the irreducible plurality of the fundamental structures of its analysis (either through external critique or consuming synthesis). Some of the great implicated questions to be faced were:

  • how does the “psychogenetic process”2 of all human perception and experience work if its ground(s) is (are) plural?
  • what kind of spacing must be native to human being before such fundamental plurality?
  • how would the investigative study of such “psychogenetic process” work if it must have its own genesis in this same “psychogenetic process”? 
  • what kind of augmented spacing must characterize such analysis if it is to avoid on principle all “external condemnation” and “synthesis” of its ground(s)?
  • how can the possibility of such a discipline be communicated across such multiple  spacing(s)?

McLuhan reflected on the need and difficulties of such investigation in his ‘Foreword’ to the reprinting of Innis’ Empire and Communications in 1972:

Innis learned from historical analysis that what Lusseyran [in And There Was Light3] describes as the private re-ordering of all the components of experience, as a result of a single sensory shift, occurs on a massive social scale with the introduction of technological innovation and the resulting new service environments thus created. Though Innis hit upon this Lusseyran perception of perceptual metamorphosis quite early, he had as little success in communicating his insights as Lusseyran. What Innis indicates as a basis for social survival is nothing less than a reorganization of our perceptual lives and a recognition that the environments we witlessly or involuntarily create by our innovations are both services and disservices that make very heavy demands of our awareness and understanding. (‘Foreword’ to Empire and Communications, 1972)

The self-reflexive knot of such thought was clear enough — even as mirrored in McLuhan’s involuted language in this passage. On the one hand there was the problem: the “re-ordering of all the components of experience” that “occurs on a massive social scale with the introduction of technological innovation” and that results in the creation of “environments” with deep “disservices”; on the other hand was the only solution for “social survival”: “reorganization of our perceptual lives” enabling a new kind of “recognition” of such “environments”. 

The problem and the solution were the same: a “re-ordering of all the components of experience” (that leads to “disservices”) vs “a reorganization of our perceptual lives” (that leads to “recognition”). 

McLuhan frequently noted this seeming paradox of the fundamental inter-relation of problem and solution “that make[s] very heavy demands of our awareness and understanding”:

In his Landmarks of Tomorrow, Peter F. Drucker has pointed to Operations Research as “organized ignorance”. It is a procedure in tackling problems which resembles the “negative capability” of Keats — a sort of intellectual judo. Instead of straining all available effort on a visible goal (…), let the solution come from the problem itself. (Technology, the Media, and Culture, 1960)

All solutions are in the very words by which people confuse and hide their problems. (Take Today, 1972, 103)

Failure Through Success and Success Through Failure  (Take Today, 1972,  279)

More than 20 years after his study with Lodge, McLuhan would define nihilism as the fatal attraction to “external condemnation” and “synthesis”, a fatal attraction that did not recognize the comparative originality of our problems and solutions and failures and successes:

It just happens that in the new age of technology when all human arrangements from the cradle to the grave have taken on the hasty extravaganza aspect of a Hollywood set, the nihilist philosophies of neo-Platonism and gnosticism have come into their own. Existence is an empty machine, a cheap art work, they have always said. The soul is a shabby mechanism, the body a monstrous one. The [nihilistic] spirit or artist says to body and soul, a plague on both your prisons. And now in the twentieth century when nature has been abolished by art and engineering, when government has become entertainment and entertainment has become the art of government, now the gnostic and neo-Platonist and Buddhist can gloat: “I told you so! This gimcrack mechanism is all that there ever was in the illusion of human existence. Let us rejoin the One”. (Nihilism Exposed, 1955)


  1. Also Take Today, 60-61: “That the gap is where the action is, is now acknowledged as the basis of chemical and physical change.”  And: McLuhan, ‘The Gap is Where the Action is’, Ontario Dentist (The Journal of the Ontario Dental Association), 53:6, 1976.
  2.  ‘Foreword’ to the reprinting of Empire and Communications (1972): “The kind of psychogenetic process that Innis describes as ‘the bias of communication’…”.
  3.  Jacques Lusseyran, And There Was Light, 1963.

McLuhan on ‘effect’ in 1946

In the first half of 1946, or perhaps already in 1945, McLuhan wrote a short essay titled ‘Time, Life, and Fortune’.1 The following passage from the essay has a number of remarkable anticipations of ideas McLuhan would develop over the next 15 years: 

Time, Life, and Fortune represent three levels of irresponsible politics in much the same sense as Hollywood is willy-nilly a political force. That is, neither T.L.F. nor Hollywood attempts to hold up any kind of object or program for detached observation or appraisal. But both arrange their exhibits in suchwise as to manipulate the standardized reflexes of a semi-hypnotized and mentally helpless audience. So that the art of the movie is not to be judged by the invention and arrangement of images but by the effect which those images have on the contents of the mind or guts of a spectator. Likewise with T.L.F. It isn’t the worth or character of the image or statement presented which is of any political significance but the effect [on its “semi-hypnotized and mentally helpless audience”] which it is observed to have [by]2 a [“detached” yet] sharply focussed reader [who would thereby be capable of “appraisal”]. Needless to say, the [“semi-hypnotized and mentally helpless”] reader is not the one to do the focussing. He is held in position.

McLuhan first used the phrase “the medium is the message” in print in 19583 (although Carl Williams improbably recalls it already from 1953-1954)4. However that may be, as seen in the passage from his ‘Time, Life, and Fortune’ article cited above, the basic idea was already present to him 10 or 15 years before:

the art of the movie is not to be judged by the invention and arrangement of images but by the effect which those images have on the (…) mind or guts of a spectator. Likewise with T.L.F. It isn’t the worth or character of the image or statement presented which is of any political significance but the effect…

What the movie and the magazine were, namely media, had not yet come into focus at this time. This would soon come through McLuhan’s exposure at UT to the work of Harold Innis and of Eric Havelock and, beginning around the same time, his study of Stéphane Mallarmé. But it was already plain to McLuhan what these forms of entertainment and instruction were not, namely, they were not “image or statement” —  that is, they were not content or message.

Further, while the phrase, “the medium is the massage“, would first appear more than twenty years later, that notion, too, is already clear here:

both [T.L.F. and Hollywood] arrange their exhibits in suchwise as to manipulate the (…)  audience. So that the art of the movie is not to be judged by the invention and arrangement of images but by the effect which those images have (…). Likewise with T.L.F. It isn’t the worth or character of the image or statement presented which is of any political significance but the effect

Further still, as McLuhan recorded in Report on the Project in Understanding New Media:

Early in 1960 it dawned on me that the sensory impression proffered by a medium like movie or radio, was not the sensory effect obtained.5 Radio, for example, has an intense visual effect on listeners. But then there is the telephone which also proffers an auditory impression, but has no visual effect. In the same way television is watched but has a very different effect from movies. These observations led to a series of studies of the media, and to the discovery of basic laws concerning the sensory effects of various media. These will be found in this report.  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“…6

Moving beyond focus on media and their massaging effects, the great leap made by McLuhan here in January 19607 (however inchoate it may have been at the time and, indeed, may largely have remained for McLuhan despite another twenty years of probing it) was the notion that what a medium is — is “the sensory effect obtained” (“outputs”) and not “the sensory impression proffered” (inputs).8  Hence, in one of the examples given by him in this passage, while “the sensory impression proffered” by radio is plainly auditory, “the sensory effect obtained” is at least partly “visual” or even “intensely” so. Moreover, it is this “sensory effect obtained” that accounts for “the penetrative powers” (a notion borrowed by McLuhan from Innis9) of media. Hence McLuhan began his 1953 memorial essay on Innis, who died at the end of 1952, as follows:

Often misunderstood or ignored by those who had admired his classic study of the Fur Trade, the work of the later Innis was a shift in attention from the trade-routes of the external world to the trade routes of the mind. Technology, he saw, had solved the problem of production of commodities and had already turned to the packaging of information. And the penetrative powers of the pricing system were as nothing beside the power of the new media of communication to penetrate and transform all existing institutions and patterns of thought. (‘The Later Innis’, Queen’s Quarterly, 60:3, 1953, 385-394)

The key to this insight into the being and power of media was simultaneity or synchronicity. Electric technology introduced “allatonceness” where cause and effect were not sequential but instantaneous. So the effect of a medium (subj gen) could now be seen as the cause of that medium (subj gen) since the two were interlocked not in chronological if-then fashion, but in simultaneous time.  The very being of a medium was the translation or metamorphosis it effected into an altered psychological and physical environment. As such, this was not an effect or outcome which a medium could fail to impose!  Rather, exactly this psycho-physical-environmental im-position was what a medium was! As McLuhan remarked in Understanding Media:

extension [of any sense] also demands new ratios or new equilibriums among the other [sense] organs and [previous] extensions of the body. There is, for example, no way of refusing to comply with the new sense ratios or sense “closure” evoked by the TV image. (45)

Now all this from the 1950s, culminating in his breakthrough writings in 1960-1964, was very close to what McLuhan could already see in 1946!

the art of the movie is not to be judged by the invention and arrangement of images but by the effect which those images have on the contents of the mind or guts of a spectator. (…) He is held in position.

Media, he would increasingly come to see, were position binders (another Innis notion) or variable time-space matrices. It followed that a general relativity theory covering the range of their possible forms was required which could therefore be called Understanding Media.

This is the cover of McLuhan’s 1960 Report on the Project in Understanding New Media:10



  1. Although ‘Time, Life, and Fortune’ appeared in View magazine in the spring of 1947 when McLuhan was in his first year at UT, the contributor information given with the essay has him at Assumption. Presumably it took a year or more for the piece to proceed from composition to publication. Especially in the 1940s and 1950s McLuhan frequently complained about such delays in the appearance of his work. He had often lost interest in it by the time some work of his was finally published. ‘Time, Life, and Fortune’ appeared in print at least three different times: as ‘Time, Life, and Fortune’ in View magazine in its spring issue, 1947, 33-37; as ‘The Psychopathology of Time and Life‘ in Neurotica 5, Fall 1949, 5-16; and again as ‘The Psychopathology of Time and Life‘ in The Scene Before You: a new approach to American culture, ed Chandler Brossard, 1955, 147-160.
  2. McLuhan has ‘on’ here, not ‘by’. The ambiguity of ‘on’ and ‘by’ goes to the heart of McLuhan’s lifetime project since what is often enough styled his “technological determinism” did not at all exclude human freedom and, indeed, human freedom fully capable of “understanding media”. The effect ‘on’ us of media could and must be understood ‘by’ us.
  3. See The medium is the message in 1958.
  4. Cf, Williams’ address at the Memorial Tribute to Marshall McLuhan, January 27, 1981, reprinted in The University of Toronto Bulletin, February 9, 1981, and again in Who Was Marshall McLuhan, ed Barrington Nevitt and Maurice McLuhan, 1994, 286-288.
  5.  This is the first sentence of the most important section of Report on the Project in Understanding New Media: ‘General Introduction to the Languages and Grammars of the Media’. More than a decade later, in Take Today, McLuhan would again emphasize “the continual transformation of sensory inputs into outputs of quite different kinds. Food for the mind is like food for the body; the inputs are never the same as the outputs!” (137)
  6.  Wölfflin, Principles of Art History, Dover edition, 62. Wölfflin was the mentor of McLuhan’s mentor, Sigfried Giedion.
  7. See McLuhan’s #1 breakthrough.
  8. For “inputs” and “outputs” see the citation in note 4.
  9. ‘The Penetrative Power of the Price System’, CJEPS 4:3, 1938, reprinted in Political Economy in the Modern State, 1946 — a book McLuhan almost certainly read via his old friend Tom Easterbrook after Easterbrook joined the UT faculty in 1947 and renewed his close association with Harold Innis.
  10. Not all copies of the Report had this cover, but it seems to have been its cover as submitted to the US Office of Education.