Monthly Archives: February 2019

Planet polluto, garbage apocalypse

New life is born from garbage and ashes. (Innovation is Obsolete, 1971)

Apropos of recent telephone comment about my “philosophical approach”.  Remember that when one approaches the intelligible aspects of media patterns one is in danger of philosophy.  But my concern is with light through the media onto our situation, not light on the media from our theories. But unified field of awareness of inter-action of media does need some verbalized articulation [through what might be called ‘philosophy’]. Has not the effect of media over the centuries been kept at the sub-verbal level precisely by (…) philosophical assumptions [of a certain kind]…? (McLuhan to Harry Skornia, March 30, 1959)1

As described by McLuhan in the CKLN tapes, humans have enclosed themselves and their planet in a “human box”:

Since 1957 when Sputnik went up and ever since that satellite arch went around the planet, the planet ceased to be nature. What we used to call nature is gone. The planet is now contained inside a human box. There is no more nature. What remains is simply whatever we make of this planet by programming. There is no nature anymore.  (23:51ff)

With Harold Innis, McLuhan saw this as a problem both of world-subjugating “empire building” and world-annihilating solipsism. Indeed, it is distinctive of the Toronto school (including John O’Neill along with Innis, Havelock and McLuhan) to have seen solipsism, not only as the effect of a profound crisis of soul, but also as the strange opening to the only possible unloosening of the death grip of empire.2

In the view of the Toronto school, if we are to turn away from global war and the looming annihilation of the biosphere, solipsism must be deeply probed as the one way to recover the possibility of peace. Solipsism was at once the greatest of all dangers, the death of life itself, and the threshold to the one possibility of a reversal out of our political, social and spiritual catastrophes.

McLuhan brought imperialism and ecological disaster together with solipsism as the “eco-box”3 in his frequent recourse (concentrated between 1968 and 1973) to a series of overlapping images: the “satellite surround”, the “garbage apocalypse” and “planet polluto”:

The McLuhan DEW-LINE, 1:5, November 1968
From the first moment of the satellite, the earth ceased to be the human “environment”.
Satellites automatically enclose the old Darwinian “Nature” environment by putting the planet inside a man-made environment. They are just as much an extension of the planet as is clothing an extension of the skin.
Satellites are equivalent to enclosing the Earth in a Bucky Fuller “dome” of acoustic space.
The consequent process of archetypalization of Nature ensures that the Earth is now an old “booster-stage”. . . a quaint form of Camp. . . a sort of archaeological museum affording immediate access to all past cultures simultaneously on a classified-information basis.4
The Satellite Decides For Us That Our Future Relation To The Planet Is One Of “Program”.
The satellite is also the shift from the planet as a homogeneous continuum or visual space, to the planet as a “chemical bond” or mosaic of resonating components.
Thus, the Earth has become a “national” or tribal park. It is already a teaching machine, a universal playground for advertisers and teenagers.

Address to Author’s Luncheon, 19695
Put a fast rim spin around a slow one and the slow one disintegrates. Put a satellite ring around the planet and all arrangements on the planet disintegrate. It becomes garbage. Garbage means clothing [‘garb‘] — look up the Random House dictionary and you’ll find the fifth definition of garbage is old nose cones and capsule boosters. The new clothing of this planet is that sort of [space] garbage. (…) Satellites as a new garbage or climate surround around the planet are moving information at speeds that the planet cannot cope with and have created not a global village but a global theatre.6

From Cliché to Archetype, 1970
The classification of “garbage” concerns a host of misconcep­tions. The term itself literally signifies clothing. The cultures of the world have been clad in and constituted by retrieved castoffs: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” (…) The
Random House Dictionary of the English Language (1966) assigns the fifth meaning of “garbage” to that new global environment of cast-off nose cones, boosters, and other ballistic flotsam and jetsam.7

McLuhan On Russia, 19718
The new surround of 
satellites, beginning with Sputnik in 1957, scrapped Nature itself. The planet went inside a man-made environment. Art replaced Nature. The total programming of the earthly environment is all that remained. It’s planet Polluto from here on. The giant rimspin impels all.

Innovation is Obsolete, 1971
The latest technology in our world is the satellite. The satellite is the first man-made environment to encompass the planet. The earth has become the content of a human artifact. The satellite surround is the new artistic mask worn by the earth itself. It is a kind of proscenium arch, turning the globe into a theater. With Sputnik, Earth became an eco-box. (…) The satellite environment has transformed the planet itself into an art form. The total scrapping of the old Nature, and the planet itself, has created a garbage apocalypse, turning the earth into Planet PollutoThe computer programmer is naturally concerned with the task of tackling the entire planetary environment as a problem in programming. Nothing less now confronts us as the immediate task. 

The Hardware/Software Mergers, 19729
Sputnik — 1957. Nature was junked. Result was planet polluto. When you put one environment around another, the outer one scraps the inner one, as the suburb scraps the city. (…) When you scrap nature, then everything looks like pollution, including nature. When you go into spaceship Earth, anything that is not programmed is pollution. (…) The spaceships were the first totally programmed human environments. You had to take “nature” with you if you were going to leave this planet. We have thus learned how to program environments totally. When you begin to program the total human environment it is like restoring a ruined Rembrandt. All the previous tinkerings look like defacements. Since Sputnik, the new information environment supersedes hardware and experience alike. Only knowledge remains. That is another simple corollary of moving into the software environment of information: experience is useless. (…) Every technological innovation creates an extension of our bodily senses that translates all our inputs of experience into its specific new form. That literal fact is what is meant by “the medium is the message.” Thus, the new environment of satellites around the planet processes the entire human situation anew. The planet itself is “transplanted” through the new satellite surround, and the new message is “pollution.” Nature itself is now seen to be an utter mess.

The Planet as Art Form, 197210
When Sputnik went around the planet, nature disappeared. Nature was hijacked right off this planet. Nature was enclosed in a man made environment and art took the place of nature. This was one of the biggest hijack jobs conceivable. When you put a new service environment around, say TV, with hologram or what-not, you will find that TV has been completely hijacked, that a new service environment has come in. It isn’t in yet. But, when you put TV around the movies, movies were hijacked. The whole service industry of movies was hijacked and another service industry went around it. When Sputnik went around the planet, the planet became an art form. Nature disappeared overnight and planet polluto took the place of the old nature. Planet polluto, discovered to be in a very bad state, needing a great deal of human attention – art form.

Take Today, 1972
Since the satellite surround, beginning with Sputnik in 1957, there has come the sudden awareness that
nature itself has dropped out. Old experience is no longer relevant, and man must now assume responsibility for the total programming of his planetary environment through new knowledge. “Experience,” said Erasmus, “is the schoolmaster of fools.” That is, the rates charged by this ruthless pedagogue are outrageous, and few have ever survived his instruction. As the criminal said on his way to execution: “This will teach me a lesson!”11

Take Today, 1972
At High Speeds Art Replaces Nature, And Nature Goes To School. To The Artist On Planet Eco-Polluto Nothing Exceeds Like Excess12

The Argument: Causality in the Electric World, 1973:
There are no more spectators in lab or life, only participants in the Global Electric Theatre. Sputnik created a new proscenium arch that transformed our awareness of planet Polluto — a limited figure against the ground of limitless space. The Apollo age has scrapped Greek Nature as we assume full responsibility for orchestrating our total environment on human scales beyond ideologies.

The problem of solipsism is that of the fly in the flybottle.13 If “what remains is simply whatever we make (…) by programming”, what can we “make by programming” of that “programming”? What can we “make by programming” of this “we”?

From “inside a human box” there is no access to ground and to reality, only to the confines of the box: “what we used to call nature is gone”.

the new information environment supersedes hardware and experience alike. Only knowledge remains.14

The stipulation of the real and the true can be made only through the knowledge of a “we” whose own ground and reality can be stipulated by nothing other than the knowledge of that same “we”.15 This vicious and ultimately vacuous circle is the solipsistic box in which we are locked. Deeply considered (a rare enough occurrence) the box itself utterly “disintegrates”, together with its contents: the “we” and all of its “knowledge” => the “we” and all of its “knowledge”.

All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned. (Marx)16

The true world — we have abolished. What world has remained? The apparent one perhaps? But no! With the true world we also have abolished the apparent one!! (Nietzsche)17

McLuhan described this implosion as follows: 

In King Lear Shakespeare opens his play with the King himself launching a program of fragmentation of his external kingdom.  The reverberation of this deed quickly reduces all the social roles of his society to chaos. Finally, the inner kingdom and pattern of his own consciousness feel the same disruption of fragmented functions.18 

The problem the Toronto school set for itself was how to penetrate solipsism to establish contact with demonstrable reality and truth. “Nothing less now confronts us as the immediate task.”19 This was the same question for the Toronto school of how the planet and the human species belonging to it might be rescued from the explosive effects of empire in which we are ensnared.  The root cause of the imperial attempt at limitless inflation was seen to lie in the implosive deflation of solipsism.20 Hence it was in the “garbage” of the “eco-box” of planet polluto that the required solution had to be sought.

How to elicit creativity from these middenheaps has become the problem of modem culture.21

Metro Garbage May One Day Be Used As Building Blocks22

Scrap is a useful resource but you have to start from scratch.23

The imperative “to start from scratch” was the great clue. Following the method of phenomenology as exercised across multiple disciplines from philosophy and linguistics to physics, namely, to “start with output and ask what input leads to such output”24, the need was to start with solipsism as output “and ask what input leads to such output”. For solipsism, too, was first of all a possibility.  And if possibilities were inherently plural, retracing solipsism to its root would equally expose other roots with other outputs.25 A different output than solipsism was exactly the imperative need.26

Only solipsism as output was fitted to this end because there is nothing actual or possible between actuality and possibility, just as there is no possibility between possibilities. These borders between actuality and possibility and between possibilities are the “new frontier” and “the new frontier is pure opacity”.27 Solipsism along with the garbage to which it reduced the planet and everything on it exposed this “new frontier”. It was this no man’s land of universal nihilism, the disintegrated precipitate of solipsism, and this alone, that gave access to the required life-renewing possibility:

it is precisely the courage of [Wyndham] Lewis in pushing the Cartesian and Plotinian angelism to the logical point of the extinction of humanism and personality that gives his work such importance28 

Managing The ‘Ascent’ from the Maelstrom today demands awareness that can be achieved only by going ‘Through the Vanishing Point’. (Take Today)29

  1. In Unlocking the Airwaves.
  2. For the death grip of empire and the term “empire building”, see ‘The subjugation of the human spirit‘. In the Toronto school, it was Harold Innis, of course, who first placed “empire” in question.
  3. See the passage from ‘Innovation is Obsolete’ above: “With Sputnik, Earth became an eco-box.”
  4. “A classified-information basis” leads inevitably to solipsism since it is impossible to get outside of ‘classifications’ in order to know for any sample of knowledge how much comes from the classification and how much from its object. When the unknowable object is the nature of classifications themselves, the whole procedure, as McLuhan said, “disintegrates”. Nietzsche had, of course, detailed the problem as precipitating nihilism almost a century before this.
  5. YouTube recording 12:50ff. The date given for this address is 1966. But as is clear from many references in it — like McLuhan mentioning The Love Machine by Jacqueline Susann, which was published in 1969, or describing his return from the May 1969 Bilderberg conference in Denmark — this date is mistaken and should be 1969.
  6. The global theatre is a “box” with a “proscenium arch” where everybody plays only some “role”
  7. From Cliché to Archetype, 183. McLuhan continues this passage to cite from a New York magazine article titled “The Garbage Apocalypse”.
  8. ‘McLuhan On Russia: An Interview’, Abraxas, A Journal for the Theoretical Study of Philosophy, the Humanities and the Social Sciences, 1:2, Winter 1971.
  9. ‘The Hardware/Software Mergers: How Successful Have They Been?’, Educational Technology, Hearings, Ninety-second Congress, second session, on H.R. 4916, House of Representatives, Committee on Education and Labor, Select Subcommittee on Education, September 13, 1972.
  10. McLuhan on the David Frost Show, ABC Television, 30 May 1972, video and transcript at Marshall McLuhan Speaks.
  11. Take Today, 1972, 6.
  12. Take Today is composed of aphoristic segments. This is the title of a segment on p 81.
  13. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, #309: “What is your aim in philosophy?—To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.”
  14. ‘The Hardware/Software Mergers’, 1972, full passage cited above.
  15. Cf, ‘Notes on the Media as Art Forms’, Explorations 2, 1954: “The habitual contemplation of the media of communication as art forms necessarily invokes the principle that the instruments of research are also art forms, magically distorting and controlling the objects of investigation. Critical awareness of this fact has saved the modern scientist from many blunders, but such awareness has arrived tardily in the popular sphere.” McLuhan saw “the popular sphere” here as including everything outside of the research of “the modern scientist”, so not only politics, commerce and entertainment, but education as well — and especially the humanities and social sciences.
  16. The Manifesto of the Communist Party. The original reads: “Alles Ständische und Stehende verdampft, alles Heilige wird entweiht…”.
  17. Twilight of the Idols. The original reads: “Die wahre Welt haben wir abgeschafft: welche Welt blieb übrig? die scheinbare vielleicht?… Aber nein! mit der wahren Welt haben wir auch die scheinbare abgeschafft!!
  18. The Lewis Vortex: Art and Politics as Masks of Power’, in Letteratura/Pittura, ed G. Cianci, 1982. Written around 1970 for a L’Herne volume but never published there.
  19. ‘Innovation is Obsolete’, full passage cited above.
  20. We may end ourselves (…) because we think we have nothing left in ourselves to respect.” Havelock, The Crucifixion of Intellectual Man, 1950, 6.
  21. From Cliché to Archetype, 1970, 184.
  22. Headline from the Toronto Telegram of March 5, 1969 cited in From Cliché to Archetype, 1970, 182.
  23. ‘The Hardware/Software Mergers: How Successful Have They Been?’. See note 9 above for the reference.
  24. McLuhan to Harry Skornia, Sept 3, 1960 in Unlocking the Airwaves.
  25. Cf, McLuhan, ‘The Role of Mass Communication in Meeting Today’s Problems’, NAEB Journal, vol 18 (Oct, 1958): “Let us grant for the moment that the medium is the message. It follows that if we study any medium carefully we shall discover its total dynamics and its unreleased powers.”
  26.  What McLuhan called “media dynamics”, with its explicit reference to Aristotle’s investigations of possibility, was the field dedicated to the investigation of such root assumptions. For media as root assumptions, see Media definition.
  27. Take Today, 1972, 90. See McLuhan on Malthus and “unpopulous margins”: “It seemed obvious to Malthus that population pressed outward upon the means of subsistence. (…) For an industrializing England the means of subsistence were increasingly at the margins of the population structure. But the awareness of margins was itself a novelty of an exploding or expanding economy. To have identified the remote and unpopulous margins of an economy with the limits of the means of subsistence was a stroke of artistic genius” (‘The Electronic Age – The Age of Implosion’, 1962).
  28. ‘Nihilism Exposed’, Renascence, Vol.8, Winter, 1955
  29. Take Today, 13. “The ‘Ascent’ from the Maelstrom” is, of course, McLuhan’s ano-kato play on Poe’s ‘A Descent into the Maelström’.

The Beginnings of Gutenberg Galaxy 4

In letters written in the context of the NAEB1 project to research new media, McLuhan reported news of what was then titled The Gutenberg Era:2

December 1, 1958 to Harry Skornia3:

Do you think I should put in for a second year?4 For two years right off? I could then put out The Gutenberg Era as preliminary volume to the [project] Handbook.  I have even toyed with the thought of writing down that material (on which I have spent ten years and more) in the first three months anyway.  I work very fast once I start to roll.

April 12, 1959 to Harry Skornia:

I have been given a full time private secretary for the next 3 months, so hope to finish up that book: The Gutenberg Era, which is indispensable as a general public introduction to the [Understanding Media] project.

May 29, 1959 to Harry Skornia:

I don’t think any better approach to [the] Understanding Media [research project for the NAEB] could be developed than the Gutenberg Era mss.

June 5, 19595 to Harry Skornia:

Gutenberg Era going fast now. Let’s hope it will bulldoze aside most of the 19th century movie lot set mentalities that surround us. I can guarantee that it will contain more new ideas, more new perceptions of old situations and present problems than any book I’ve had the luck to encounter in my life. I shall take pains to make it acceptable in mode to the literary and conventional mind.

June 23, 1959 to Samuel Becker6:

I think my Gutenberg book will offer a sufficient quantity and continuity of testimony on the effects of the forms of writing and printing to make this completely convincing, because one has only to consult the changes in the arts of poetry, and prose, and painting under the impact of various developments in print technology, to trace the exact lines of force which that technology exerts. This raises a very basic question about media research. I mean the factor of translation from one language into another as revealing7 the properties of both.

  1. National Association of Educational Broadcasters.
  2. All of the letters cited below from McLuhan’s correspondence with Harry Skornia and Sanuel Becker in the context of their NAEB project are to be found in the Unlocking the Airwaves project. For reference see Unlocking the Airwaves.
  3. Skornia was a professor at the University of Illinois and the president of the NAEB
  4. That is, as part of the NAEB project grant application.
  5. McLuhan’s letter is undated, but it was received at the NAEB on June 5. Presumably it was written a few days before.
  6. Samuel Becker was a professor at the University of Iowa and a member of the NAEB research committee overseeing McLuhan’s project.
  7. McLuhan: “as a revealer of the properties of both.”

Wakese 3: “A word is a single shot of a process”

a single word (…) is (…) a (…) snapshot of a complex process (Myth and Mass Media, 1959) 

In a letter to Harry Skornia, December 1, 1958, McLuhan wrote:

An image of an entire process is a myth.  Myth (e.g., Cadmus, Gorgon, Trojan Horse) is a single image of an entire process.  A word is a single shot of a process. A language or medium is a macro-myth which may include all sorts of derivative myths, etc.1

Every word is a “derivative myth” within the “macro-myth” of some language. An “entire process” lies behind its appearance and activity there. This is the process — but not one in clock time! — through which that word has come to be selected out of all the other words which might have been used in its place.  Moreover, as McLuhan described, every word selected in this process has multiple meanings and here, too, selection must be exercised:

every word has a hidden ground of many many layers under every single word you utter (…) Every single word you use whether it is ‘cat’ or ‘dog’ or whatever has layer after layer of hidden meanings that are not [all] used, but when you use the word, all of them are put into resident activity. Whenever you use the word it doesn’t matter whether you know the [complete range of its] meaning or not, the whole word is in resident activity. It echoes. The totality of the word is put into action by just using it. You don’t have to know [all] that it means — just hearing it is enough. So this again is an example of the hidden ground as part of our ordinary perceptual lives. (45:50ff)2

In fact, even individual letters and sounds must be selected in a process that precedes every use of a word (but does not precede them in clock-time).

to the structural linguist the fact that the letter “k,” for example, as written, may suggest a single sound, does not hide from him the fact that there are several quite distinct “k” sound-structures mastered by every child by two or three years of age. For the “k” in “quick” Is not the “k” in “chalk.” Using the fill-at-once approach of electronic tape, the linguist becomes aware of the interpenetration of the alphabetic sounds and the consequent modification of letters that look alike in the one-thing-at-a-time world of the written word. So he doesn’t hesitate to say that written letters, insofar as they pretend to point to distinct sounds, are a very crude gimmick for reducing couples and subtle qualities of sound to mere averages.3

On the way to speaking or writing, ‘run’ may be selected as against ‘ran’ and even ‘rune’ in order to express one sort of action (running not rune-ing) and when that action took place and whether it was finished (perfected) or not. Nearly always, this grammatical process is entirely ignored as it is made. But it need not be ignored and Wakese never does so. The sort of vague touch ‘rune’ has with ‘run’ is always implicated. But this sort of implication need not be explicitly marked and, indeed, usually is not in Wakese — just as it is not explicit in ordinary language use. The difference is that Wakese works with the constant admonition that this sort of implicated history may be in play at any moment and therefore must always be considered even if Joyce did not bother to do so! The lesson is that language works through an implicated range of interpretation and the business of Wakese is nothing other than to magnify this range as a way of revealing its necessary presence in any language use at all.

What is always overlooked in the usual uses of language simply cannot be overlooked in Wakese because, absent such attention to its synchronic process of selection, its words and hence its lumpy narrative — make no sense. Tellingly, the etymology of ‘sense’ has to do with ‘direction’ and ‘pathway’, as in ‘send’ (in English) or ‘sens unique’, ‘senso unico’, ‘sentiero’ and ‘sendero’ (in French, Italian and Spanish). ‘Sense’ is always and only arrived at by following a pathway whose usually subliminal understanding is what it is to know a language.

  1. This letter is in the Project in Understanding New Media folders posted to the Internet Archive by the massive project called “Unlocking the Airwaves: Revitalizing an Early Public and Educational Radio Collection.” This admirable project is a collaboration among the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Communication Arts, and the Wisconsin Historical Society. It is supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities through a Humanities Collections and Reference Resources grant.
  2. For further discussion, see Wakese 2: McLuhan on the “potencies” of language.
  3. McLuhan’s presentation to the NAEB research committee, September 23, 1959.

The subjugation of the human spirit

McLuhan from the CKLN tapes1:

We don’t understand information movement and image making as warfare at all: we call this ‘advertising’. Actually Madison Avenue is a major military operation vastly aggressive and out to conquer empires, territories, within the human heart and human senses. It is a huge military operation of empire building and icon making. If we had the slightest consciousness of social responsibility instead of this sort of a private subconscious totally inadequate to our technology, we would teach our children in our schools how to protect themselves against media fallout and advertising fallout. It is simply fantastic the unconsciousness of our western world with regard to the forces that we release upon it. The little areas in which we permit ourselves any consciousness or responsibility are minute compared to the real areas of impact. Advertising is a vast military operation intended openly and advisedly intended to conquer the human spirit. The critics of advertising miss the bus entirely by complaining about false claims. Nothing could be less important than the false claims of advertising. It is the total icon making activity that matters. (31:16ff)

This was from the 1970s, the last decade of McLuhan’s life.  But he had had something of this view from the beginning. Here he is in 1938 in one of his first published papers:

What sort of motive, what complexion of intelligence is likely to be concerned with the output and control of Little Men? For almost a century now, the intelligence of the ablest men has been systematically bought and set to work to exploit the weakness and stupidity of the rest of mankind. This is the exact reverse of the traditional procedure of all civilizations. Hitherto the ablest men have been selected to govern, to educate, rather than to exploit, the others.2

Or again in the ‘preface’ to The Mechanical Bride, which was written in 1950 at the latest and more probably in the late 1940s:

Ours is the first age in which many thousands of the best-trained individual minds have made it a full-time business to get inside the collective public mind. To get inside in order to manipulate, exploit, control is the object now. And to generate heat not light is the intention. To keep everybody in the helpless state engendered by prolonged mental rutting is the effect of many ads and much entertainment alikeSince so many minds are engaged in bringing about this condition of public helplessness, and since these programs of commercial education are so much more expensive and influential than the relatively puny offerings sponsored by schools and colleges, it seemed fitting to devise a method for reversing the process.3

And again from 1953 in ‘The Age of Advertising’:

The ads are a form of magic which have come to dominate a new civilization. 

  1. For details on these CKLN tapes, see Wakese 2: McLuhan on the “potencies” of language.
  2. ‘Peter or Peter Pan’, Fleur de Lis, 37:4, 1938.
  3. The Mechanical Bride, Preface, p v.

Wakese 2: McLuhan on the “potencies” of language

start with output and ask what input leads to such output (McLuhan to Harry Skornia, Sept 3, 1960)

On November 19, 1984, a radio broadcast from CKLN in Toronto  presented a collage of audio recordings of McLuhan in which “language [a]s the metamorphic power” was discussed by him from a variety of different angles.1 The key to this power as considered by McLuhan in respect to its internal2 reach within language was the relation of words and sounds to their underlying possibilities. Every aspect of language could be different and therefore could be understood as a choice made on the way to its expression (whether orally or in some other medium).  In recent history, this notion went back to Saussure and raised the questions of when and where and how such choices were made (since they were certainly not made consciously in ordinary time and space in the course of our normal activities).

Shortly after Saussure, but with explicit roots in Aristotle and implicit ones in many of Aristotle’s predecessors, the importance of a consideration of possibility was recognized in many fields. For Heidegger in Sein und Zeit (1927) possibility ‘stands higher’ than actuality so that the project of phenomenology needed to explicate itself as one possibility among others. To begin, it needed to account for itself as not being what it otherwise might be. In that same year of 1927 Born and Heisenberg recognized the mathematics of quantum physics as probability waves, as graphs of possibilities. Ongoing explorations of color and form in art and of different scales and rhythms in music were likewise attempts to probe underlying possibilities.

Finnegans Wake was begun in the middle 1920s and the strange Wakese it employs is a language in which possibilities intrude on its surface level in a way they do not in everyday life — so far as we notice. But by this time, Freud and Jung had been looking at the ‘psychopathology of everyday life’ in similar fashion for decades.

In the context of this broad return to Aristotelian dynamics3, McLuhan’s remarks in the tapes broadcast over CKLN provide an introduction to Wakese as a language in which possibilities are highlighted in what McLuhan termed their “resident activity”:4

one reason that you have to guess when you’re looking at any word whatever is that it has dozens of meanings that are not being used at that particular moment. When you look up the word ‘read’ you’ll find many columns of meanings for the word and beside the word ‘read’ is the word (…) ‘rune’, which means a cryptic puzzle and reading and rune-ing are close. (39:50ff)

Reading as rune-ing is the skill required to carry out any human activity. McLuhan was doing what he was talking about and talking about what he was doing.  He was using his wits in a consideration of wit. Media study, just like phenomenology according to Heidegger, had to account for its actuality in terms of its underlying possibilities.

the fact that reading is guessing means that every word has a hidden ground of many many layers under every single word you utter (the word ‘utter’ is a very good example of this multilevel of hidden meanings [like ‘outer’ in English and ‘uttar’ in Hindi]). Every single word you use whether it is ‘cat’ or ‘dog’ or whatever has layer after layer of hidden meanings that are not [all] used, but when you use the word, all of them are put into resident activity. Whenever you use the word it doesn’t matter whether you know the [complete range of its] meaning or not, the whole word is in resident activity. It echoes. The totality of the word is put into action by just using it. You don’t have to know [all] that it means — just hearing it is enough. So this again is an example of the hidden ground as part of our ordinary perceptual lives. Now under conditions of electronic technology the hidden acoustic ground of language has awakened enormously. Words are much more in the level of consciousness [now] than they ever were for many centuries thanks to our living in an acoustic age. (45:48ff)5

language is the metamorphic power (6:20ff)

all art forms really resonate from hidden grounds that are there in depth all the time. All the possible musics are latent (…) in the acoustic forms of the language itself and are just waiting [to be expressed] (12:08ff)

there is a hidden ground that makes possible any technological change (5:35)6

Visual man can suppress nearly all the meanings of a word. A highly literate person is offended when you pun using some other meaning of a word. He groans merely to hear the acoustic dimension of a word put into play: “Jung and easily Freudened”; “Though he might have been more humble there’s no police like Holmes” — James Joyce, I’m quoting him from Finnegans Wake. (47:47ff)7 

  1. Most of these audio tapes came from seminars, lectures and interviews held in the 1970s, some later even than the publication of City as Classroom in 1977.
  2. Internal — that is, not considered in terms of the intimately related external reach of language in its manifest communication with others.
  3. It is not at all the case, as is often assumed, that Aristotle’s dynamics represented a turn away from Plato. Instead Plato himself argued that forms were not mere abstractions and dynamics were Aristotle’s attempt to understand the metaphorical life of forms as an inherent urge to expression. Hence — ‘en-ergy’. McLuhan in a June 5, 1959 letter to Harry Skornia: “One new concept for us: media are ‘ideas’ in action.” This was exactly Aristotle’s notion of the dynamics of Plato’s forms or ideas. In fact, in a letter to Skornia two days later, and then repeatedly in letters to him thereafter, McLuhan calls this notion the “generalized theory of the dynamic-model” (June 7, 1959). (Both letters are in the NAEB materials referenced in Wakese 3.)
  4. All citations below are taken from the CKLN recordings referenced above. For “resident activity” see the segment cited from 45:48ff.
  5. Compare McLuhan’s letter to Innis from a quarter century earlier where possibilities are rendered as “potencies”: “Many of the ancient language theories of the Logos type which you (Innis) cite for their bearings on government and society have recurred and amalgamated themselves today under the auspices of anthropology and social psychology. Working concepts of ‘collective consciousness’ in advertising agencies have in turn given salience and practical effectiveness to these ‘magical’ notions of language. But it was most of all the esthetic discoveries of the symbolists since Rimbaud and Mallarmé (developed in English by Joyce, Eliot, Pound, Lewis and Yeats) which 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.”
  6. In this context it must be recalled that language itself, for McLuhan, is a technology. So not only any technological change in the narrow sense, but any change in human history whatsoever, individual or collective, has its hidden grounds. Just as the once hidden ground of chemistry makes possible (now and in the past and in the future) all the changes in the material world, or the once hidden ground of genetics makes possible (now and in the past and in the future) all the changes in the genesis of living beings, so all individual and collective cultural changes have their (still hidden) ground which it is the business of media study to probe and to attempt to bring to light.
  7. The Holmes pun is not from FW but from Conan Doyle’s brother-in-law, E.W. Hornung. See Doyle’s autobiography, Memories and Adventures (1924). But Joyce does pun on Holmes in FW as “Shedlock Homes”.

Lodge in W.O. Mitchell’s Who Has Seen the Wind

In Who Has Seen the Wind1W.O Mitchell’s best-selling novel from 1947, Mr Hislop is the local minister, the “herder of God’s Presbyterian sheep”. Hislop’s thoughts record questions precipitated in Mitchell by his mentor2 at the University of Manitoba, Rupert Lodge:

Self and not-self; what was the relationship?3 He had separated himself from the phenomena of his experience. He could say to himself, “I see the yard — John Hislop sees the yard and the lawn-mower.” But — who was John Hislop? What was seeing? Was the chipped greenness of the mower a quality inherent in the mower, or was it only an element tied up with others that went to make up John Hislop? Was there a lawn-mower independent of his consciousness? And if there were, could his senses make the jump to it? Could there be an external world if there wasn’t something of the stuff John Hislop was made of, already in that outer world?

Later Hislop evinces further views that McLuhan, too, found in Lodge:

A gentle wind stirred the leaves on the poplars, setting disks of shadow dancing over Hislop’s earnest face. “They were no different from men today,” he was saying. “Just as imaginative – as sensitive. There hasn’t been any advance in the things that count – not in generalization — it was all there with Plato — with Christ.”

Compare McLuhan in his University of Manitoba M.A. thesis on George Meredith from 1933/34, a time when he was working closely with Lodge:

In his table talk, Coleridge noted that all men (…) are born either Platonists or Aristotelians. There are similarly, in all times and places, definite types of temperament displaying consistency of conformation. The literary or artistic expression of such temperaments has properly the same validity as has the philosophizing of the Idealist and the Realist.

In his 1943 PhD thesis and 1945 ‘Ancient Quarrel in Modern America’, McLuhan went on to develop the notion further that there were “definite types of temperament displaying  consistency of conformation” in human experience “in all times and places”. This implicated the conclusions that the ancients “were no different from men today”; that they were “just as imaginative — as sensitive”; that “there hasn’t been any advance in the things that count”; that “it was all there with Plato — with Christ”.

Later in Who Has Seen the Wind, Hislop’s successor as the local minister, Mr Powelly, is interrogated with questions straight from Lodge:

Is yours the Utilitarian viewpoint —the greatest happiness for the greatest number? Is it Stoic — the smallest? Do you follow Plato? Aristotle? Which side of the fence are you on? The empirical? The ideal? Do you perhaps sit on the top of it as a dualist? [Or] do you [doubt4] that there is a continuous fence at all — pragmatist?  

Compare Lodge:

Here, then, we have three typical directions in which philosophers move when they attempt to master experience: the realist, the idealist, and the pragmatist direction. In the nature of the case, these directions are divergent. To take one pathway, of itself precludes taking either of the others. If any one pathway is right, then the others are certainly wrong. So much is clear. But is any pathway right, and, if so, which? How are we to tell?5

Mitchell’s wind that no one has seen was McLuhan’s Logos6, a force as operative with the Stoics in 300 BC, in his view, as with Christianity.7 

After he left Manitoba for Cambridge in 1934, McLuhan began to discount what he considered to be the Platonism of Lodge’s views, especially his view of religion. But McLuhan never gave up the ideas that history is not, or is not only, “lineal”, that human experience is structured by identifiable ever-repeated types and that the Logos was operative “in all times and places” in and across those types.

Could there be an external world if there wasn’t something of the stuff John Hislop was made of, already in that outer world?

  1. Mitchell’s title came from Christina Rossetti’s poem from Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book (1872):
    Who has seen the wind?
    Neither I nor you.
    But when the leaves hang trembling,
    The wind is passing through.
    Who has seen the wind?
    Neither you nor I.
    But when the trees bow down their heads,
    The wind is passing by.
    In the novel the last lines of Rossetti’s poem are recited by three of its boys. But instead of ‘But when the trees bow down their heads/The wind is passing by’ the boys give ‘But when the trees bow down their heads/Nobody gives a damn’.
  2. For documentation and discussion, see W.O. Mitchell on Rupert Lodge.
  3. McLuhan wrote a paper for Lodge on ‘The Non-Being of Non-Being’ that he submitted to the University of Wisconsin in 1936 as part of his successful application for a teaching assistantship there. It is in his papers in Ottawa. Lodge regarded logic as integral to his comparative method: questions like the relation of self to non-self and of being to non-being served to expose the fundamental differences between irreducible philosophical positions or (as McLuhan put the point in his 1934 M.A. thesis specifically to include art along with philosophy) “definite types of temperament”.
  4. Mitchell: “feel”.
  5. See The Comparative Method of Rupert Lodge for discussion and reference.
  6. Often designated by McLuhan as ‘water’, which we human fish are the last to notice.
  7. For documentation, see Pre-Christian Logos.