McLuhan and Voegelin 1953

In the spring of 1953 McLuhan read Eric Voegelin’s New Science of Politics (1952) and, as was not uncommon for him, immediately wrote to Voegelin. Just as had occurred with Norbert Wiener the year before, McLuhan and Voegelin exchanged four letters, two on each side, and then the correspondence ceased, a month or so after it had begun.1 Unlike the case with Wiener, however, McLuhan and Voegelin knew each other (they had met when McLuhan visited Cleanth Brooks at LSU in 1945) and had many essential convictions in common, especially the determination that religion was not only not opposed to modernity and to science, but remained, in fact, fundamental to them.

This precipitated the question for both Voegelin and McLuhan of just how this insight were to be communicated to a civilization (if this remained the applicable term) in which it had generally been lost. Built into all their incessant work (both wrote hundreds of thousands of pages over their careers, much of it unpublished during their lifetimes) was therefore always a double task: how to communicate about anything, in such a way as to re-establish communication at the same time?

Voegelin made this point plainly enough in The New Science:

A restoration of political science to its principles implies that the restorative work is necessary because the consciousness of principles is lost. The movement toward re-theoretization must be understood, indeed, as a recovery… (3-4)

the meaning of science as a truthful account of the structure of reality, as the theoretical orientation of man in his world, and as the great instrument for man’s understanding of his own position in the universe is lost. (5)

For his part McLuhan was, if anything, even more possessed by this problem than was Voegelin. He had been writing about the eclipse of principles for more than a decade and now in the early 1950’s was intensely focused on the double problem of communication about the loss of communication — especially concerning the loss of consciousness that “the consciousness of principles is lost”. As he wrote in letters to Ezra Pound in 1951 (describing a situation that remains in potentially fatal effect today, 70 years later!):

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 goan2 to expose that while there is still human “life” on the planet? 2nd [World] 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. (McLuhan to Pound, Jan 1951, Letters 219, emphatic ‘THAT’ in original)

The word has been used to effect a universal hypnosis. How are words to be used to unweave the spell of print?3 Of radio commercials and ‘news’-casts?4 I’m working on THAT problem. The word is now the cheapest and the most universal drug. Consider the effect of modern machinery in imposing rhythm on human thought and feeling. Archaic man got inside the thing that terrified him — tiger, bear, wolf — and made it his totem god. To-day we get inside the machine. It is inside us. We in it. Fusion. Oblivion. Safety. Now the human machines are geared to smash one another. You can’t shout warnings or encouragement to these machines.5 (June 22, 1951, Letters 227, emphatic ‘THAT’ in original)

Voegelin ended his New Science lectures with the admonition that our “fate is in the balance”. McLuhan certainly agreed.  But, as he wrote to Voegelin, everything depended on finding a way out of a global environment in which communication had been lost — via communication:

all is clear now. Except what to do!6

there are strategies which need to be adopted in these affairs. And I’m floundering at present.

Voegelin took McLuhan to be making a personal complaint. As he wrote to Robert Heilman on the same day that he replied to McLuhan’s second letter to him:

In recent weeks I had two letters from McLuhan. Rather touching—because apparently he too has found out about the all-pervasive Gnosis in literature, and runs into the difficulty that the vast majority of his colleagues does not care in the least about his discovery. He seems to be rather isolated; and has not yet adjusted himself to the consequences of being more intelligent than other people. He wails about the twenty years of his life that he has wasted in the pursuit of wrong ideas. I must write him a comforting letter that he is not the only one to whom it happens; and that a life is not wasted if one sees the light in the end.7

But McLuhan was far too busy to wail about his personal fate. He and his wife had just had their sixth child (hardly a sign of needing “comforting”, at least in the sense contemplated by Voegelin). Beside his normal teaching load he was leading a weekly interdisciplinary seminar on culture and technology sponsored by the Ford Foundation and co-editing its Explorations journal. And, finally, he was publishing an extraordinary amount of work. In 1953, aside from many book reviews and shorter contributions to journals and magazines, McLuhan published major essays on ‘The Later Innis’ (Queen’s Quarterly), ‘James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial’ (Thought), ‘Culture Without Literacy’ (Explorations), ‘Wyndham Lewis: His Theory of Art and Communication’ (Shenandoah), ‘Maritain on Art’ (Renascence) and ‘The Age of Advertising’ (Commonweal). Through all this, he was casting about for a way to re-establish communication which he saw as nothing less than a matter of survival. It was in regard to this general world-historical issue, not personally, that he was “floundering” and could not see “what to do”.  It was in regard to it that he hoped Voegelin might have some helpful pointers. 

McLuhan’s turn toward “understanding media” was just beginning and it would be another six or seven years before he would perceive how this might work to restore communication.  But it was a turn he could not have made without “floundering” away from his previous work.8

  1. With the permission of the Voegelin and McLuhan estates, the four letters between the two — only one of which is currently available in Voegelin’s Selected Correspondence 1950-1984 — will be published in VoegelinView.
  2. In his letters to Pound, and occasionally to others who also knew Pound, McLuhan affected Pound’s epistolary style.
  3. McLuhan was already thinking of print as a medium here, a medium evoking its own characteristic “spell”.  But he was thinking at the same time that print is a technology for the multiplication of words.  So his question was: how unweave the spell of words by words?
  4. Radio was another medium with a “spell” of it own.  But it, too, represented a technology to disseminate words and therefore raised the same question as did print: how unweave the spell of words by words?.
  5. “You can’t shout warnings or encouragement to these machines” because (a) they are machines, not human beings, (b) words have lost their meanings, (c) words of “warnings or encouragement” cannot be heard in the din of warnings and encouragements.
  6. This and the following snippet are from McLuhan’s two letters to Voegelin in June and July, 1953.
  7. Voegelin to Heilman, July 17, 1953 in Selected Correspondence 1950-1984, CW30, 2007, 172 and in Robert B. Heilman and Eric Voegelin: A Friendship in Letters, 1944-1984, 2004, 120.
  8. McLuhan was well aware of this critical point: “Managing The ‘Ascent’ from the Maelstrom today demands awareness that can be achieved only by going ‘Through the Vanishing Point’.” (Take Today, 13) ‘The Ascent from the Maelstrom’ is, of course, McLuhan’s ano-kato play on Poe’s ‘A Descent into the Maelström’.