Monthly Archives: March 2019

“Ancient quarrel” and its synonyms (1940’s)

The central matter in McLuhan’s work from start to finish was “an ancient quarrel” he identified as enabling “an overall view, which [enables]1 plenary critical judgment.”2

The Classical Trivium (PhD thesis on Nashe) (1943)

the history of the trivium is largely a history of the rivalry among [its three disciplines] for ascendancy. The war between these literary camps is basically the opposition between dialectics and rhetoric3 to control the modes of literary composition; and the ramifications of this opposition stretch into the realms of ethics and politics, both in antiquity and in the Renaissance.  For example, the ethical, political, and stylistic opposition between Machiavelli and Castiglione, between Harvey and Nashe, are at bottom and on the surface, owing to a reconstitution of ancient rivalries between dialectics and rhetoric. (…) The essential opposition between the arts of the trivium being such, then, as frequently to pit the one against the other, with results of the greatest importance…(41-42)

the points at issue in these prolonged quarrels are ineradicable. The controversies stirred up in America by President Hutchins and Professor Adler, and the educational theories which have been put into practice at St. John’s, Annapolis, have given us a contemporary taste of these ancient disputes. (Ibid, 62)

The quarrel between the ancients and the moderns is a revival, or continuation, of the quarrel which Cicero waged with the philosophers, and which the medieval dialecticians waged against the grammarians. So deeply ingrained is the Ciceronian ideal in the pattern of our culture that even Wordsworth can be seen in relation to it. His antipathy to the Ciceronian, Dr. Johnson, and his emphasis upon the feelings, rather than the words, of poetry led him to range himself on the side of the moderns and scientists. A consideration of the Ciceronian ideal and tradition, therefore, has claims to being one of basic importance in the history of Western culture, and its comparative neglect must be ascribed to the impercipience of the ubiquitous…  (Ibid, 68)

Nashe was thus a fulIy enlightened protagonist in an ancient quarrel (…) It was not a quarrel between Catholic and Protestant, but a dispute about methods of exegesis in theology and preaching, concerning which some Catholics and Protestants held patristic views and some held to scholastic positions. (Ibid, 226)

(To be continued through all of McLuhan’s work.)

  1. McLuhan: “which is”.
  2. ‘Poetic and Rhetorical Exegesis: The Case for Leavis against Richards and Empson’, Sewanee Review, 52(2), 1944.
  3. The two extremes of the three-part or trivial “quarrel” do not recognize the possibility of their peace, which is the third party to it. Therefore the frequent manifestation of the quarrel as involving only two powers: “dialectics and rhetoric”, “ancients and the moderns”, etc. Further, the two extreme powers, although fundamentally opposed to each other, share a common structure of “opposition” to the other extreme. Hence McLuhan sometimes speaks of another sort of two-party “dispute” between the two of them ( “dialectics and rhetoric”), exemplifying that common monolithic structure, and the third “grammatical” power with its polylithic structure embracing the extremes despite their difference: “specialized temperament” vs “general intelligence”.

Review of Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism

Have with You to Madison Avenue or The Flush-Profile of Literature by Marshall McLuhan [Unpublished review of Northrop Frye’s 1957 Anatomy of Criticism]1

It is natural for the literary man to underestimate the relevance of Professor Frye’s archetypal approach to literature. The man of letters expects the literary form to offer a good deal of private consumer satisfaction, and there is nothing private or consumer-oriented in Professor Frye’s approach. The Frye’s approach to criticism as a science turns from the training of taste and discrimination by literary means to the collective producer-orientation of the new mass media of the electronic age. The archetypal approach is the groove of collective conformity and of group-dynamics, which may explain why a uniquely opaque and almost unreadable book should have become a book-of-the-month choice.

In the same way, the off-Madison Avenue of the run-of-the-mill graduate student finds it quite unimportant that he does not understand Professor Frye. He knows that Frye is “with it” and that group participation or togetherness in the aura of such leadership is far more satisfying than private interpretation.

Professor Frye has interpreted the message of the new media aright. Print had in the sixteenth century commanded private interpretation. The fixed stance of the private silent reader, identical with perspective in painting, suggested subliminally the need for an individual viewpoint in all matters. Hamlet confronted by his father’s ghost asserts that “thy commandment all alone shall live within the book and volume of my brain.” Then he snatches his “tables”: “Meet it is I set it down, that one may smile and smile and be a villain; At least I’m sure it may be so in Denmark.”

It had occurred to Montaigne that the snap-shotting of the impressions of the mind was the real message of the printed and written form. Shakespeare certainly made that point in this scene, even joking over the Montaigne technique of doubt, “At least I’m sure it may be so in Denmark.” For four centuries we have been conditioned by the printed word as snap-shot of the postures of the individual mind. Segmental analysis of all motion, mental and industrial, has long been for us the norm of education and of civilized life.

But in recent decades Western culture has spawned totally new techniques of snap-shotting the postures of the group-mind. Statistical charts of group postures reached a kind of lyric pause or “moment out of time” with the discovery of the “flush-profile” which put the shaky intuitions of individual students of public attitudes on a scientific basis. The flush-profile which hoicks the poet out of his ivory tower and puts him in the partners’ room of B.B.D. and O., as it were, is derived from the data of the city water engineer. At program breaks the additional water used in toilet-flushing was seen to provide a reliable archetype of the group posture of mind for that program.

Now it is obvious that such an archetype or profile of collective awareness offers small consumer satisfaction in itself. And Professor Frye would disclaim the notion that even the most diaphanous archetype could afford consumer satisfaction to a reader. These profiles or nuclear models of collective postures are not literary bon-bons for passive savoring but rather scientific data suited to the austere producer-oriented mind, data necessary to the public relations engineer and the shaper and ruler of societies. Like Sputnik they have a hook in outer space whence they relay signals to us, blip calling unto blip in the universe of the pictorialized word.2

It is natural, therefore, that Professor Frye should have betaken himself to the anthropologist and to the folk-lorist for his profiles of literature. These students of pre-literate man provide the scientific archetypes or snapshots of the postures of collective man which now recommend themselves to many keen spirits in the post-literate age of conformity and of global stereotypes. For the characteristic mode of learning and knowing since the telegraph offers a pattern of instantaneous inter-cultural x-ray, very different from the enclosed spaces of literature. Man is no longer monad but nomad.

A literary man describing a people past or present adopts a slant, a point of view. He selects. He structures his image with syntactical bonds of perspective in the style of Hume, Gibbon, or Macaulay. But a century ago, with the photograph, there came new presentation. The photo, as William Ivins explains in Prints and Visual Communication, permits total statement without syntax. And the student of pre-literate man found this kind of non-personal recording of collective social behaviour very needful. Not the personal point of view, nor the partiality of perspective and self-expression, but the catalyst role of the non-personal chemical medium became the natural bias of the social sciences and symbolist artists alike.

That is why the archetypal profiles of literature offered as a new science of criticism may strike literary people as too much like the world of Mighty Mouse, of Space Cadet, and of the Madison Avenue portraitist of public postures. They are not quick to see that Professor Frye has devised a kind of nomadic bookcase for the cosmic man of today who is inevitably a mental D.P. A bedouin’s rug of timeless patterns which include all possible arrangements of human experience is indispensable equipment today.

Seen from the split-level picture-window House of Archetypes, the receding world of Western literature may look appallingly like a silent movie on a late TV show. But for those who recognize the importance of aligning all education with the dynamics of the new mass media, the deft and decent burial of literature provided by the Anatomy of Criticism will come as an exhilirating climax to the slower-paced preliminaries of the literary centuries.

Professor Frye is not, perhaps, sufficiently cognizant of one major resource adjacent to his enterprise. The world of ancient and medieval rhetoric was vibrant with archetypes referred to as “the figures of rhetoric.” These figures are, it is true, postures only of the individual mind which had become accessible to observation and control after phonetic writing. The written word arrested the mental and verbal flux of the fast-talking Mediterraneans and gave them the means of classifying hundreds of mental postures such as chiasmus, catachresis, and scatalogie. These figures or postures of the mind were like so many whales left immobilized amidst the shallows and sands of the written word. And in due time their odor began to be abroad in the land. Writing, however, as a means of capturing, or perhaps of fashioning, the postures of the individual mind has proved to be fatally committed to the fostering of individual expression and eloquence. It is flawed by preference for the humanistic and might well prove to be but a feeble prop for a scientific enterprise such as that of Professor Frye. As it is, even without the aid of such a pipe-line of natural gas from the farther shores of rhetoric, Frye has secured a vehicle which by-passes all rhetorical expression of this personal type, and makes possible the deploying of the total resources of pre-literate culture on to the Madison Avenue testing ground. This in turn will greatly hasten the mopping up of remnants of private awareness and expression such as now give a confused and unsettled character to the literary and educational scene. So that what has here begun as a momentary flush-profile of literary postures will develop into a genuine chain reaction, and the remnants of a decadent form of personal expression can be dispatched down the drain.

  1. This unpublished review has now been published online in a post on Frye‑McLuhan Rivalry? in The Educated Imagination – A Website Dedicated to Northrop Frye. It is given here as a backup since that blog appears to be no longer active: regular posts ceased in 2013.
  2. McLuhan to Skornia, June 5, 1959: “One new concept for us: media are ‘ideas’ in action. That is, any technological pattern or grouping of human know-how has the mark of our minds built-into it. The media dynamics are, therefore, parallel to those of our ideas. But many of our ideas are feed-back subliminally from media. Jeep calling unto jeep.”

Lewis citing Hutton’s Aretino on calumny

Predicting the present with pinpoint accuracy, Lewis in The Lion and the Fox (1927) cites from Edward Hutton’s Pietro Aretino: The Scourge of Princes (1922):

Something evil and corrupt had entered into the civilisation of all Europe at this time, and not least of Italy. The Middle Age which had held out to humanity so great a promise, had in some inexplicable way and for some inexplicable reason failed, failed in endurance and in life. The fifteenth century had been full of disaster almost everywhere save only in Venice, and even Venice could not escape the spiritual disaster which that century made apparent. For with the sixteenth century we are face to face with the spiritual break-up of Europe and European society. Something evil, depraved, venal and mean appears. The pen is bought and sold, futile praise and blame are purchased by popes, kings and prelates, and we see a monster appear, a monster of genius blackmailing and blackmailing successfully every authority, every power. (…) An epoch had appeared which was an anarchy, in which everything was questioned, everything doubtful; in which anything might happen and anything might be thought to be true; an epoch without principles and without authority; in which a charlatan of genius might do anything, might destroy the unity of Europe or the spiritual and philosophical basis upon which Europe stood, by one multiple weapon — calumny. (74/75)

Statement by Pound signed by McLuhan

In 1953 a statement appeared in the Montreal journal CIV/n with the notation from the signatories to it: “As our means of disseminating this statement are limited, we ask those who receive it to give it what publicity they can, especially by reprinting in full, and to express their agreement or dissent in as lively a manner as possible.”1 

ALARMED by the neglect of Greek and Latin classics, milleniar source of light and guide in judgment of ideas and forms in the Occident; by lack of curiosity concerning what is current in contemporary foreign languages both in the west and in the orient; by growing carelessness in the use of language both private and public, and insensitiveness to the values of the literary arts which serve to maintain language in a healthy condition for civilized use; by the torpor of a pseudo-scholarship which does not mean any activity of the mind but mere retrospect.

WE URGE, TOWARD A REORIENTATION, that instead of hunting out the provenience of every bit of rubble used in the construction of literary works, the student of literature ask, and answer on the basis of evidence supplied by the works themselves, these three questions:

  1. To what degree of awareness has the given author attained?
  2. What was his aim and purpose in writing at all?
  3. What part of his discoveries is of use now, or is likely to be of use tomorrow, in maintaining the life of the mind here or elsewhere?


Clark Emery (University of Miami)
Ashley Brown (Washington and Lee University)
Hugh Kenner (University of California)
Rudd Fleming (University of Maryland)
L.R. Lind (University of Kansas)
Amiya Chakravarty (University of Kansas)
H.M. McLuhan (University of Toronto)
W.F. Stead (Trinity College)
Margaret Bates (Catholic University of America)
Robert Stallman (University of Connecticut)


  1. CIV/n published 7 issues between 1953 and 1955. Pound’s statement appeared in #4 from October 1953.  The same statement later appeared in Poetry, 84:2, p 119, May 1954. Both the CIV/n and Poetry statements were accompanied by this note: “Any communications regarding this manifesto should go to W. James, P. 0. Box 6964, Washington, D.C.” But the Poetry reprinting did not include the request for reprinting. The address given for inquiries was also the address of Pound’s ‘Square Dollar Series’.

Lewis on the fate of the West

The Lion and the Fox (1927!):

To-day, as though the never-properly-silenced paradoxes of the greek sophists had been released once more, or all the perplexing questions of the mind (allied with new forces of nature and their troubling physical interpretations) had been marshalled for its overthrow, the imposing newtonian structure is no longer secure. Quite another type of order has set about charting the universe and its world-ways. On the one hand to-day we have Newton’s superseded structure (still there and still useful, though nothing more, or a “beautiful myth” if you like) — a material universe ruled by immutable grandly conceived roman laws of absolute space and time. In opposition to it rises a universe far more vivid, co-ordinated from the infinite facets of individual experience. In the first, the newtonian system of classical mechanics, each man is ruled by the changeless laws of the revolving suns. A musical ride of the spheres (with music by Kepler) is in progress. In the second, the system of the relativity theory, to a  complex geodesic frame of flowering events each man contributes his widow’s mite of necessary reality. So the fine order of our civilized ideas is in disarray. The façade put up by our very  practical, very roman grandfathers is cracked from top to bottom. With the triumph of this subtler science the day of anglo-saxon, and generally of west european, ascendancy is finished. (48-49)

Reversal 1

In The Lion and the Fox (1927) Lewis observed:

the modern Irishman, led by Shaw, repudiates both the sentimental and the ineffectual, unpractical imputations [cast upon the Irish]. The irish-american business man is pointed to, his great energy and success, to controvert this picture. The tables are turned, the sentimentalism of the Saxon or German is contrasted with the good sense and unemotional wit of the Irish. The difference is maintained in its full integrity, but its qualities reversed.1  

McLuhan cited The Lion and the Fox frequently in his 1944  ‘Lemuel in Lilliput’ essay on Lewis.  Presumably he read it along with other Lewis books after first meeting Lewis in Windsor in 1943. But he may, of course, have read it before this in connection with his work on Shakespeare. However this may have been, in another 1944 essay, ‘Edgar Poe’s Tradition’, McLuhan wrote (at the very acme of his rhetorical game):

The inverted Byronic dandyism of Whitman is evident enough as soon as one applies the cipher of reversal. Put uncritical embrace of all social facts in place of fastidious scorn and withdrawal. Put pose of noble and omnivorous yokel for pose of satiated aestheticism of the worldling. Put tones of “barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world” for the elegant scorn of a Byronic hero excoriating mankind from a midnight crag. Put boisterous adolescent athleticism for the world-weary flaneur, and the pattern is complete. That is why Whitman was so eagerly accepted by the aesthetes who had only to make one simple adjustment, that of reversal, in order to fraternize with him.

Now McLuhan certainly didn’t first discover “the cipher of reversal” in Lewis, since this was more or less exactly what his mother exercised in her one-woman plays and impersonations. He grew up with this. But Lewis may well have reinforced his consciousness of a problematic which was implicated not only in his mother’s theatrics but in Rupert Lodge’s “comparative method” and, as doubtless carried over from Lodge, in McLuhan’s M.A. (Manitoba) and Ph.D. (Cambridge) theses.  Namely, if (as he wrote in his Manitoba thesis on Meredith) “there are (…) in all times and places, definite types of temperament displaying consistency of conformation”, types he characterized by the arts of the trivium in his Cambridge thesis on Nashe, what is the mechanism through which people ‘put on’ one of these types?  And what is the mechanism through which one type is ‘put off’ and another ‘put on’ in the ‘same’ individual or group over time?

If the agent of this “cipher of reversal” might be called the ‘hero’2, and the “definite types of temperament displaying consistency of conformation” her ‘roles’, then the subtitle of The Lion and the Fox — ‘the role of the hero in the plays of Shakespeare’ — might be taken to define an important problem in the arts, social sciences and, indeed, in “the presentation of self in everyday life”.3 But with this, the meaning of ‘role’ is doubled (or more).  For now it seems to be a role, namely that of the hero, that manages roles. So who is it that puts on “the role of the hero”?4 


  1. The Lion and the Fox, 1951 edition, 325. Earlier in the book Lewis cites Machiavelli’s Prince as follows: “it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And (…) to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite” (82). Lewis’ citation is from chapter XVIII of The Prince.
  2. Lewis and McLuhan use Shakespeare’s ‘hero’ and ‘king’ interchangeably. On the first page of The Lion and the Fox Lewis says that his study will treat “the role of the hero or king in Shakespeare’s plays” and later he writes of “the king-hero with which Shakespeare’s dramatic work had so much to do” (100).
  3. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life is, of course, the title of one of the major works of Erving Goffman, a central figure in the Winnipeg school of communications. Like McLuhan, Goffman was born in Alberta, grew up in Manitoba and attended the University of Manitoba. Like Elsie McLuhan, Goffman’s mother was active in the theatre. Both McLuhan and Goffman took with them from Winnipeg to their careers in the east the notion that everything humans do is staged. This gave both of them new ways to approach perennial questions in their respective fields of literature/media and sociology.
  4. Cf, The Lion and the Fox: “what was the nature of Shakespeare’s identification — if such existed — with that of his characters? (…) Such a complicated person as he, would be in hourly danger of disappearing into nothingness and becoming a ghost, haunting, without dimension, only the glimpses of the moon. (…) He is, if anything, too much everything to be any particular man; and sees round and behind things so much that he presents them too completely, too universally.” (18, 20) Compare McLuhan: “In his study The Lion and the Fox Lewis considers the process of desacralizing the King.  The process of desacralizing the King, of reducing the charismatic and corporate image of the monarch to secular, individual status — this is a familiar theme in Shakespeare.  The process by which the corporate lion is destroyed by the private and individual fox is one of fragmentation. (…) The private wits or senses of man were unleashed from their corporate restraints. The Fox was pitted against the Lion. The individual found new means of rivalry with collectively organized energies.”(‘The Lewis Vortex: Art and Politics as Masks of Power’, in Letteratura/Pittura, ed G. Cianci, 1982, prepared around 1970 for a L’Herne volume but never published there. Most of ‘The Lewis Vortex’ was published as ‘Masks and Roles and the Corporate Image’, University of Toronto Varsity Graduate, 11:2, 61-64, May 1964.)

On The Mechanical Bride

McLuhan to Elsie McLuhan, undated from 1951 or 1952:

[The Mechanical Bride] is really a new form of science fiction, with ads and comics cast as characters. Since my object is to show the community in action rather than prove anything, it can indeed be regarded as a new kind of novel. (Letters, 217)

McLuhan to Ezra Pound, January 1951

Current illusion is that science has abolished all natural laws. Nature now pays 5 million %. Applied science now the master usurer. To hell with our top soil. We can grow potatoes on the moon tomorrow. How you goan to expose that while there is still human “life” on the planet?
2nd War produced great discovery of war as new way of life. Financial pages simply chortling these days over prosperity rooted in 3rd War. Ordinary guy eats this up. Total war = total security he figures. THAT is the scale of imbecility now current. (…) I have tried, in forthcoming (March ) Mechanical Bride to devise a technique for elucidating this scene. It can’t be satirized. (Letters, 219)

McLuhan to Allen and Caroline Tate, October 2, 1951

The Folklore book is a youthful indiscretion held over till my middle age.  I hope it pays off better than most indiscretions. But Vanguard has made it nauseous to me.  The book would have appeared 6 years ago in more lively and timely guise had it not been for their bungling and boggling.  They suspected my Irish bulls to be Papal ones.1

McLuhan to Elsie McLuhan, January 22, 1952

Apropos of getting Gilson to write a plug for The Bride. He said to Fr Shook, you write it, I’ll sign it. So I wrote [for Shook for Gilson]: “An important and entertaining analysis of the effects of technology on daily life.” (Letters, 230)

McLuhan to Walter Ong, January 23, 1953:

Your review2 of the Bride literally the only review that made any sense. You were generous, but you saw what was up. The absence of serious study of these matters is total, ie, universal emotional and intellectual illiteracy. And so unnecessary. (Letters, 234)

McLuhan to Wyndham Lewis, December 9, 1953:

As for my book. It owes much to you of course. But it was so long in the publishing (6 years) that I had lost interest in its approach before it appeared. Now I see that I was trying to prop up the standards of book culture when we have passed out of the Gutenberg era.3 (Letters, 241)

McLuhan to Wyndham Lewis, February 7, 1954

our group [in the culture and technology seminar] is split over time and space. We have both the vertical and horizontal doctrinaires to contend with. Only a year ago did I find out the religious basis of these, to me, almost meaningless quarrels. The Mechanical Bride was written in all innocence of such knowledge. The world of the arts and of science has taken on a much more intelligible character for me since this self-initiation. For the present, at any rate, it has simplified but not ennobled the scene. (Letters 242)

Unpublished Review of Pease’s American Advertising, 19584

it is doubtful whether it will ever be possible to write a book about the ads of radio and television. (…) The literate world today is quite unable to cope with the electronic forms of information pattern. Professor Pease has written a book about a departed era in terms acceptable to the victims of culture-lag.5

Myth and Mass Media, 1959

My book, The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man, is a case in point. Turning literary guns on the new iconology of the Madison Avenue world is easy. It is easy to reveal mechanism in a post-mechanical era. But I failed at that time to see that we had already passed out of the mechanistic age into the electronic, and that it was this fact that made mechanism both obtrusive and repugnant.

Stearn Interview, 1967

When you talk back to ads as I did in The Mechanical Bride, they become your servants. Since you cannot survive the effects of media if you huddle or hide, you must rush out and kick them in the guts — give them what for — right in the midriff. And they respond very well to this treatment. Media, after all, are only extensions of ourselves. The road to understanding media effects begins with arrogant superiority. If one lacked this sense of superiority — this detachment — it would be quite impossible to write about them. It would be like an octopus attacking the great pyramids.6

Playboy Interview, 1969

For many years, until I wrote my first book, The Mechanical Bride, I adopted an extremely moralistic approach to all environmental technology. I loathed machinery, I abominated cities, I equated the Industrial Revolution with original sin and mass media with the Fall. In short, I rejected almost every element of modern life in favor of a Rousseauvian utopianism. But gradually I perceived how sterile and useless this attitude was, and I began to realize that the greatest artists of the 20th Century — Yeats, Pound. Joyce, Eliot — had discovered a totally different approach, based on the identity of the processes of cognition and creation. I realized that artistic creation is the playback of ordinary experience — from trash to treasures. I ceased being a moralist and became a student.
As someone committed to literature and the traditions of literacy, I began to study the new environment that imperiled literary values, and I soon realized that they could not be dismissed by moral outrage or pious indignation. Study showed that a totally new approach was required, both to save what deserved saving in our Western heritage and to help man adopt a new survival strategy. I adapted some of this new approach in The Mechanical Bride by attempting to immerse myself in the advertising media in order to apprehend its impact on man, but even there some of my old literate “point of view” bias crept in. The book, in any case, appeared just as television was making all its major points irrelevant.

  1. For McLuhan and Irish bull see The Irish Bull.
  2.  In Social Order, II:2, February 1952, 79-85. Reprinted with revisions in McLuhan: Hot and Cool, 1967, 82-92.
  3. The critique made here by McLuhan of himself was fleshed out by him a few years later in an unpublished review of Northrop Frye‘s 1957 Anatomy of Criticism: “The world of ancient and medieval rhetoric was vibrant with archetypes referred to as ‘the figures of rhetoric’. These figures are, it is true, postures only of the individual mind which had become accessible to observation and control after phonetic writing. The written word arrested the mental and verbal flux of the fast-talking Mediterraneans and gave them the means of classifying hundreds of mental postures such as chiasmus, catachresis, and scatalogie. These figures or postures of the mind were like so many whales left immobilized amidst the shallows and sands of the written word. And in due time their odor began to be abroad in the land. Writing, however, as a means of capturing, or perhaps of fashioning, the postures of the individual mind has proved to be fatally committed to the fostering of individual expression and eloquence. It is flawed by preference for the humanistic and might well prove to be but a feeble prop for a scientific enterprise such as that of Professor Frye. As it is, even without the aid of such a pipe-line of natural gas from the farther shores of rhetoric, Frye has secured a vehicle which by-passes all rhetorical expression of this personal type, and makes possible the deploying of the total resources of pre-literate culture (…) to (those of) Madison Avenue (…). This in turn will greatly hasten the mopping up of remnants of private awareness and expression such as now give a confused and unsettled character to the literary and educational scene. So that what has here begun as a momentary flush-profile of literary postures will develop into a genuine chain reaction, and the remnants of a decadent form of personal expression can be dispatched down the drain.”
  4. Otis A Pease, The Responsibilities of American Advertising, Private Control and Public Influence, 1920-1940 (1958). McLuhan’s review is in his papers in Ottawa.
  5. McLuhan’s review does not mention The Mechanical Bride, but it is clear that his remarks apply to it and highly probable that he had it at least as much in mind as Pease’s book.
  6.  Gerald Stearn, ed., McLuhan Hot and Cool , 1967, 285.

Media definition

McLuhan to Harry Skornia, Sept 3, 19601

Media are the parameters of all enterprises, whether private or collective. They impose, they are the assumptions. Mostly, therefore, they are subliminal just because they are constitutive and pervasive.  But to a number-sodden age, it may be more effective to say “Media are the parameters” rather than that “the medium is the message”.2 

New Media and the New Education, 19603

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

Media are not things like books or devices. Neither are they physical senses or combinations of senses. Neither are they a form of language use like orality or literacy. Neither are they a mode of technology like the mechanical or the electrical.  However much they may be like these (just as some physical materials are like chemical elements) media are, instead, “parameters”, “assumptions” or “basic structures” that give shape to “the sending and receiving of information”, the “pattern[s] in which the components [of any communication] co-exist”: “operative principles and lines of force”.4

Earlier exchanges within the NAEB project throw further light on McLuhan’s notion of just what media are:

McLuhan to Harry Skornia, January 1, 1959

I am not an apriorist in these matters — not committed to any doctrinaire approach beyond the assumption that man’s reasoning equipment is what we are seeking to elicit and strengthen in education.5 But I don’t think of reason as divorced from our total sensibilities.6

McLuhan to Harry Skornia March 30, 1959

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. Has not the effect of media over the centuries been kept at the sub-verbal level precisely by such philosophical assumptions [as underlie the Gutenberg galaxy]…?

McLuhan speaking to the NAEB ‘research committee’ in September 1959

it is (…) confusing at first for some to learn that the mosaic of a [visual] page of telegraph press is ‘auditory’ in basic structure. That, however, is only to say that any pattern in which the components co-exist without direct lineal hook-up or connection, creating a field of simultaneous relations, is auditory, even tho some of its aspects can be seen.

  1. Except where otherwise identified, all citations in this post are taken from the McLuhan folders in the Unlocking the Airwaves project.
  2. McLuhan added: “I do not revoke the latter formula.”
  3. This essay appeared in a series of different publications and was included as an appendix to McLuhan’s 1960 Report on Project in Understanding New Media.
  4. The phrase “the sending and receiving of information” is from McLuhan’s letter to Harry Skornia, January 1, 1959; “basic structure” and “pattern in which the components co-exist” are from McLuhan speaking to the NAEB ‘research committee’ in September 1959. All these passages are cited in full above. “Operative principles and lines of force” is from the Playboy Interview.
  5. When the human “reasoning equipment is what we are seeking to elicit and strengthen”, this can be accomplished in no other way, of course, than by deploying our “reasoning equipment”. A difficult circularity is thereby introduced into the task, since it appears that the object at stake — namely, “reasoning equipment” that is to be elicited and strengthened — must already be active in the subject in any appropriate approach to that objective. Beyond this knotted problem of a ‘future perfect’ time, where a future finding must already be active in the initial way to it, a further problem is constellated. Through this same circularity of the exercise of our “reasoning equipment” on our “reasoning equipment”, all our experience would appear to be locked “inside a human box” (as McLuhan put the point). See Planet polluto, garbage apocalypse for the reference and further discussion.
  6. The association of “our total sensibilities” with our “reasoning equipment” is not a “doctrinaire approach” because, according to McLuhan, it can be demonstrated. But it is all important in this context to note that “our total sensibilities” cannot be understood literally — any more than the discovery of the chemical elements could have been based on a literal understanding of physical materials.

Unlocking the Airwaves

A decisive contribution to McLuhan research, and to media research in general, is being made by a 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. Four folders posted to the Internet Archive by this project have particular relevance McLuhan studies: Project in Understanding New Media. These folders detail the genesis and development of the NAEB1 project with McLuhan which began officially in 1959 and eventuated in the publication of the Report on Project in Understanding New Media in 1960.

  1. National Association of Educational Broadcasters.