McLuhan on “dichotomizing” in 1944

McLuhan’s first sentence in ‘Kipling and Forster’ (1944)1 named its chief matter: “facile dichotomizing”. He returned to it again and again in the essay:

  • The glib assumption that art and life stand apart, and that either one is a substitute for the other, suggests a reversible, inversible mechanism of mentality not at all friendly to artistic production. (332)
  • To take only the Plain Tales From the Hills, it is easy to see that Kipling is amphibiously living in divided and distinguished worlds. (333)
  • The ‘double vision’ (…) is admittedly the vision of all Forster’s novels. It is the vision of action vs feeling, England vs India, youth vs age. (339)
  • Is it not possible, however, that an essential intellectual obtuseness lurks behind the dichotomizing habit of Forster’s mind? In accepting as absolutes such well-worn clichés as art vs reality, spontaneity vs caution, pedantry vs experience, courage vs respectability, highbrow vs lowbrow, intelligence vs stupidity, hasn’t Forster really swallowed his own world, making an act of faith of an unconsidered bolus? No artist is bound to accept his world as the material of his art in this way; but having done so he has no resource beyond a whimsical and ironical espousal now of one of the absolutes, now of another. (337-338)
  • Of course, the conflicts and cleavages of melodrama can never yield new insight because they are mechanically predetermined. In fact, melodrama, like the split man, is not an artistic achievement but the by-product of cultural neurosis. The hypnotized acceptance of rigid distinctions is necessary to any kind of violent clash between characters in such a world — characters which are always stiffly and stupidly dull because born of a bogus parentage. With such counters as he accepts from the ready-made dichotomies of his world, Forster, like Kipling, can only go through the motions of testing, assaying and judging, because everything has really been decided in advance. The sheep and the goats carry well-known brands. (343)

There is little analysis in McLuhan’s essay.  But it looks backward and forward in his career and therefore provides a useful vantage over it.

Looking backward, in its suggestion of the possibility and need for a genuine criticism of “testing, assaying and judging”, where everything would not be “decided in advance”, it recalls his work with Lodge and Wright in Winnipeg and with Richards and Leavis in Cambridge. All were attempting to understand “the interior landscape” of human being (verbal) in a rigorous way and this would be the goal of McLuhan’s lifework in his turn.

Looking forward, the essay raises questions which McLuhan would have to address along his future way. For example, ‘world’ is used strangely in it as something which seems to be both given (“living in divided and distinguished worlds”, “ready-made dichotomies”and constructed (“own world”, “his world”). But how to consider these without “espousal now of one of the absolutes, now of another”? How avoid the reduction of world to an objectively given singularity without setting loose an endless series of mirrored ‘worlds’ in which even the “apparent world” is abolished?  Or, conversely, how put a stop to the endless mirroring of worlds without the arbitrary assertion of one ‘true world’?

Again, how was “the dichotomizing habit” to be rigorously understood without implicating one more dualism between that “habit” and the understanding of it?  Between assertions “born of a bogus parentage” and ‘legitimate’ ones?

Aside from problems like these requiring novel consideration, the observation that “hypnotized acceptance of rigid distinctions is necessary to any kind of violent clash” looks ahead two decades to McLuhan’s ever-repeated warning in the 1960s that disturbed identity precipitates violence.  On the one hand, threats to identity can lead to a hardened “dichotomizing” between ‘them’ and ‘us’ — and to violence based on this perception. On the other, the dissolution of identity (self-dichotomizing?) can itself be expressed in violence in an anguished attempt to regain it.

Finally, the suggestion that there is something suspicious in “dichotomizing”, something unthought in it, would prove to be a fertile line of inquiry for McLuhan and, beyond McLuhan, for quantum physics. For McLuhan, the questions were: how did this “split” first arise and develop? how was it then multiplied in the Gutenberg era and with what effects in education, science, commerce, politics, warfare and religion? and how was it transformed again in the nineteenth century with the symbolists in the arts and with new technologies like the telegraph and electric lighting? These were the questions which would animate his two great books in the early 1960s, The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media.

For quantum physics, these questions were generalized — the medium is the message — as concerning the range of possible values between zero and one. The “dichotomizing” formulation zero or one was found to apply neither in the domain of the very small nor of the very large. Instead of such bare opposition, a superposition needed to be considered that covered the entire range of the possibilities between zero and one. 

Now a superposition was exactly what McLuhan in common with the New Criticism was attempting to define as both what great art can achieve and as what criticism should expose as present or absent in particular works.

The merger of art and science foreseen by McLuhan was no soft image, but an exacting need of each for the other.

In the ‘Kipling and Forster’ essay this need was hardly mentioned, let alone defined. But it was indicated:

The ‘two world’ view (…) is especially useful to the artist who cannot localize or understand his dissatisfactions nor overcome the dualism of his experience.  Santayana pointed out that Henry James overcame the crude split and limitations of the genteel tradition in the classic way — by understanding them.  (332-333)

it is noteworthy that both men [Kipling and Forster] regarded as insurmountable the contradictions and cleavages between art and action. Neither man penetrated his data nor resolved his experience. (336-337)

In ‘Kipling and Forster’ McLuhan did not attempt to provide the required understanding, penetration and resolution. But he ended his essay by promising them elsewhere:

Another essay will attempt to peer behind these blind conflicts to which Kipling and Forster bring their characters and from which they find no escape. (343)

McLuhan was probably thinking here of ‘Poetic and Rhetorical Exegesis:  The Case for Leavis against Richards and Empson’, which was published that same year (1944) in the same journal (Sewanee Review).2 But in January 1943, in a UTQ article on Keats3, he had already identified the position (or superposition) that he would spend the next 20 years looking for a way to specify and to communicate.

  1.  Sewanee Review, 52(3), 332-343, 1944, reprinted in E.M. Forster: critical assessments, ed John Henry Stape, vol 1, 1998, 131-139.
  2.  Sewanee Review, 52(2), 266–76, 1944
  3. Aesthetic Pattern in Keats’ Odes’,  University of Toronto Quarterly, XII:2, 167-179, 1943, reprinted in The Interior Landscape, 99-113.