Monthly Archives: September 2019

Quantum communications (the implications of essential plurality)

All media are active metaphors in their power to translate experience into new forms. The spoken word was the first technology by which man was able to let go of his environment in order to grasp it in a new way. (Understanding Media)1

the ratio2 among sight and sound, and touch3 (…) offer[s] precisely that place to stand which Archimedes asked for: “Give me a place to stand, and I will move the world.” The media [as defined by the elementary structure of this ratio] offer exactly such a place to stand, for they are extensions of our senses, if need be into outer space. (Effects of the Improvements of Communication Media, 1960)

inputs are never the same as (…) outputs! This pattern of non-lineality is evident in every human activity. (Take Today, 137).4

Reading Heisenberg has made me feel that my media studies are at the state that nuclear studies had reached in 1924. But my heart sinks, because those nuclear studies were being urged forward by eager teams, and media studies enjoys no such support at all. But I am bold [enough] to say that many of the same techniques and concepts are needed for advancing media studies as were used for nuclear studies. But there is the huge difference, that media studies involve human lives far more profoundly than nuclear studies ever have done, or ever can do. (McLuhan to E.T. Hall)5

The signature suggestion of McLuhan’s undergraduate mentor at the University of Manitoba, Rupert Lodge, was that philosophy — and by extension truth and reality6 — comes in three irreducible flavors: realism, idealism and pragmatism:7

If philosophers are to come down from their ivory tower and be of some practical use in the world — as is so often demanded nowadays — one great difficulty which they must somehow surmount is the difficulty occasioned by their internecine differences. There are, roughly speaking, three schools of philosophy (…): realism, idealism, and pragmatism. Each has many branches, concerning which, qualifications might have to be introduced; but taken as wholes, the three are fundamentally distinct. (…) Each of these schools exploits a particular kind of explanatory hypothesis. Realism exploits what Aristotle called the “material cause,” idealism the “formal cause” and pragmatism the “efficient cause”. These lines of explanation as followed by the three philosophical schools, are not only different. They are divergent. The methods, backgrounds, and outlooks of the three schools become increasingly different. Even where they all use the same words, they understand them in distinctive senses. They compete with each other over the whole field of experience, and, as far as they can, negate each other’s explanatory efforts. To the practical mind, philosophers appear to be engaged in a sort of triangular duel.8

Lodge was interested in the “practical use” of his ideas in education, business and throughout society, taking his three different possibilities more or less at face value. The central questions for him were: how to recognize the basic forms? how to interrogate their influence throughout the life of the individual and society?  how to put to use the ever-present possibility of other approaches? McLuhan took over the importance of these questions, but also intuited that the further exploration of the implications of such pluralism might be of critical importance in a global village where truths and worldviews were increasingly in deadly conflict with one another and with the physical environment. This would lead him in the direction of what might be termed a quantum theory of information and communication.

The central implication of Lodge’s threefold proposal, McLuhan eventually found, was that no human experience can be continuous on its preceding moment or input. As he recorded in Project in Understanding New Media: “Early in 1960 it dawned on me that the sensory impression proffered by a medium like movie or radio, was not the sensory effect obtained.”9

If input and output were connected in some continuum, a plurality of different fundamental approaches to experience would not be possible.

No fundamental approach can be based on a previous one since in this case it would no longer be primary — it would be secondary on that earlier basis and itself not basic at all. Instead, a fundamental approach must be able to bootstrap itself as its own cause on its own base or ground. Further, this possibility of bootstrap auto-ignition must be synchronic — always available and always active — since, were this not the case, experience would at least sometimes be continuous on previous moments. At such hypothetical times, the activation of the supposedly fundamental approaches would be repressed or cancelled by continuity. Here again they would not be fundamental at all.

The upshot is that human experience, at its deepest level, must take place as a kind of perpetual auto-ignited sparking of some one of the fundamental possibilities of approach. Above this level, just as in the physical universe, there may be all sorts of predictable regularities having to do with, say, the typical compound formations of the fundamental possibilities and their properties. But at the level of contesting fundamentals, constraints comparable to those of quantum physics must be in force.  For example, it must always be uncertain in principle what sort of experience will follow on a chronologically prior one. So experience at any moment may be specified, but not its trajectory. Or typical trajectories may be identified, but the particular moments constituting them cannot be specified without interrupting the continuity of those linear trajectories (aka, ‘world lines’).

Hence, the ‘location’ and the ‘momentum’ deriving from the fundamental dominants of human experience — media — may be specified, but not both together and at once.

McLuhan’s vocabulary can be understood only in this context. Thus, ‘probing’ and ‘exploring’ in his work have to do with an exercise of thought that is exactly not continuous. They arise freely out of the ineluctable “gap” in every moment of human experience between input and output, “the medium [that] is the message”, and represent the attempt to find a new way to consider, and perhaps to solve, suddenly, some problem.

Because McLuhan saw that quantum physics had encountered these sorts of problems, he foresaw that the conceptualities deployed in it could be helpful in the investigations of quantum communications.  As he said in his letter to Hall cited above:

many of the same techniques and concepts are needed for advancing media studies as were used for nuclear studies.

The reverse is also possible:

many of the same techniques and concepts are needed for advancing nuclear studies as were used for media studies.

But the potential synergies between quantum physics and quantum communications go far beyond “techniques and concepts”. Especially, the inter-working of the two could establish truth once again as the ground and calling of human beings and so put an end to the reign of nihilism.

Nihilism would be ended by demonstration that quantum communications can aid in the specification of physical reality (from quarks to the universe).10 For such demonstration in the hard science of physics would rebound on the domain of communications in the supposedly soft social sciences and humanities to reveal their capacity for truth.

Life in truth would be re-established on this earth — only now on “the authority of knowledge“.

  1. Understanding Media, 61. Cf: “So it is with the emergence of language in the child. In the first months grasping is reflexive, and the power to make voluntary release comes only toward the end of the first year. Speech comes with the development of the power to let go of objects. It gives the power of detachment from the environment that is also the power of great mobility in knowledge of the environment” (Understanding Media, 132). In these passages from Understanding Media McLuhan does not explicitly raise the issue if ‘man’ may properly be said to have existed before being “able to let go of his environment in order to grasp it in a new way” through language. The implication of “the spoken word was the first technology” is that there was indeed something like ‘pre-technological man’. But elsewhere McLuhan was clear that humanity and language use are coextensive. Or even that language as logos is prior to humans and that the beginning of human being (verbal) and learning the use of language were simultaneous in origin — no humanity absent language. This event, in turn, would have been the inauguration of an unaccountable accord between humans and that prior logos.
  2. The ratio, singular, “among sight and sound, and touch”, names a spectrum of ratios, plural, in the same way as the singular elementary structure in chemistry names a table of elementary structures, plural.
  3. McLuhan’s hypothesis was that all media are based in an elementary ratio “among sight and sound, and touch”. This ratio extends over a spectrum with 3 main types: predominantly sight, predominantly sound, and sight/sound balance in which touch predominates. These 3 types recapitulate Lodge’s 3 types, just as did the “ancient quarrel” of the 3 arts of the trivium in McLuhan’s work in the 1940s.
  4. See “Food for the mind is like food for the body”.
  5. McLuhan to Edward T. Hall, April 5, 1962, Papers of Edward Twitchell HallUniv of Arizona Special Collections.
  6. As Lodge says in the extended passage cited above from ‘Balanced Philosophy and Eclecticism’: “They (the 3 forms of philosophy) compete with each other over the whole field of experience“. As cannot be emphasized enough, it is precisely the relation of philosophy, experience and thought, on the one hand, to truth and reality, on the other, that is the question at stake in the ‘ancient quarrel’ of the 3 forms. Wherever this quarrel is decided in favor of one of them, the primacy of the quarrel has been abrogated. The central insight of Lodge, inherited from a long tradition, and bequeathed to McLuhan, was that the quarrel is deeper than its forms — although it exists through its forms.
  7. This notion of a 3-fold beat to reality was hardly original to Lodge — it goes back at least 2500 years to Heraclitus and Plato. See Gigantomachia, triangular duel, siamese triplets.
  8.  ‘Balanced Philosophy and Eclecticism’, Rupert C. Lodge, The Journal of Philosophy, 41:4, February, 1944, 85-91, here 85. This article is in McLuhan’s papers in Ottawa, but misnamed in the finding aid as ‘Balanced Philosophy and Scholasticism’.
  9. This insight occurred 25 years after McLuhan was explicitly exposed to the idea in 1936 books by Francis Yates and Muriel Bradbrook (see “Food for the mind is like food for the body”) and 40 or so years after he was implicitly exposed to it in the work of his mother as an impersonator. Elsie’s whole art was founded on the notion that sensibility is founded, knowingly or unknowingly, on a creative decision among possible options. It followed that any particular exercise of sensibility could be acted out by reproducing that decision.
  10.  For example, all theory in quantum physics is, of course, just that — theory. Quantum communications might provide quantum physics with a new way, or ways, to test and evaluate competing theories. Or quantum communications might provide a formulation of ontology — creative autonomous sparking of a spectrum of possibilities in both the physical and psychological domains — and so provide a kind of target conceptual map for (and of) investigations in physics. Above all, communications and the humanities in general have explored the implications of entanglement (under a series of different names) for centuries, indeed for millennia.  These can supply new questions and new answers for the interrogations of physics (dual genitive).

On nisus

In a 1933 paper for a philosophy seminar with Rupert Lodge at the University of Manitoba, McLuhan wrote:

In a universe constituted by inclusion, exclusion, limitation and participation,1 there can be no principle of value; but if there is a nisus2 of which these forms are an empirical expression and which is prior or superior to them, then it alone could be the principle of value or the unifying impulse of the universe.3

Almost 50 years later, in the last year of McLuhan’s life, here is Barry Nevitt (speaking as always more or less in McLuhan’s name) in ABC of Prophecy:

things properly understood are the visible manifestations of their invisible harmony.4

Empirical expression’ and ‘visible manifestations’ remain the same.  But a movement has been made away from the striving of nisus, or at least from a certain understanding of the striving of nisus, to perception of an existing “harmony”.

Nisus as a horizontal striving reveals no harmony, visible or invisible, precisely because it would reach something that remains outstanding and unrealized. However, nisus as a vertical striving, as the essential dynamic of all possibilities to realize themselves, is an existing harmony of possibility and actuality, of new and old, of creativity and reality. Nisus in these two senses is isomorphic with diachronic and synchronic times and the need (in general, but McLuhan’s in particular) was to move from the first of these to the second. Not to the second alone, however, but to the second in essential relation with the first — where the first would be the “empirical expression” of the second.

The great question is hinted at in McLuhan’s 1933 paper with its phrase, “a nisus (…) which is prior”. But “prior” in what sense? Diachronic or synchronic?5

 

  1. McLuhan considered these (“inclusion, exclusion, limitation and participation”) as types of judgment and maintained that “the fundamental error committed by Mr. Demos is to (…) erect a metaphysics on a foundation of elementary judgment.” Instead, he thought, the reverse had to obtain: judgments and values had to follow on a foundation of elementary metaphysics.
  2. Nisus was a central notion of Rupert Lodge which he treated especially in the books he published in the 1930s: “But in all milieus, and whatever the particular medium in which mind expresses itself, the inward and spiritual nisus is essentially the same and exhibits the same laws of operation. It happens that language is peculiarly important as (such) a medium of expression (…) in the intercommunication of experiences in our ordinary social living” (The Philosophy of Education, 1937, 136). McLuhan would soon leave off thinking about nisus, but he would never, of course, leave off thinking about media, language and intercommunication. (‘Intercommunication’ was a central topic also in the work of Henry Wright, Lodge’s colleague in the University of Manitoba philosophy department and another great early influence on McLuhan.)
  3. The Non/Being of Non-Being (A Reply to Mr. Demos)’ is preserved in the McLuhan papers in Ottawa. Raphael Demos was a longtime professor of philosophy at Harvard and the author of ‘Non-being’, Journal of Philosophy, 30:4, Feb. 16, 1933, 85-102. McLuhan included this paper, along with another seminar paper on ‘Creative Thought Versus Pragmatism’, in his applications for a teaching position in 1936 with this note: “These two essays in philosophy were products of ordinary seminar work which I did for Prof. R.C. Lodge — the well-known Platonist. I kept them because he considered them to be worthy of publication.” With this note, McLuhan was apparently signalling that anyone wanting to know of his potential as a teacher and researcher should contact Rupert Lodge. He was also saying, what he would later openly admit, that in his two years at Cambridge he had failed to impress anybody sufficiently to use as a reference.
  4.  ABC of Prophecy, preview edition, 1980, 44.
  5. One answer might be ‘both’, once the diachronic is consider as “an empirical expression” of the synchronic. But this answer is wrong where the diachronic is considered on its own. In this case, nisus at the diachronic or factual level implies a continuity which is one of the signatures of the Gutenberg galaxy only. Such continuity is not the case, is broken, once a rival form of representation (‘medium’) is considered (like the preliterate or the electronic) and especially not where plural forms are considered.

Vertical and horizontal times in Saussure and Nevitt

In ABC of Prophecy: understanding the environment,1 Barry Nevitt cites Ferdinand de  Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics:

All sciences would profit by indicating more precisely the co-ordinates along which their subject matter is aligned. Everywhere distinctions should be made, between (1) the axis of simultaneities (vertical), which stands for the relations of existing things and from which the intervention of time is excluded; and (2) the axis of successions (horizontal), on which only one thing can be considered at a time but upon which are located all the things on the first axis with their changes.2

As noted by Nevitt, the bracketed designations of “vertical” and “horizontal” were added to Saussure’s passage by him.

McLuhan had this notion3 of crossing vertical and horizontal times very early from T.S. Eliot (and even earlier by implication from Lodge in Winnipeg), and of course knew of Saussure, but apparently did not read him until the late 1960’s, perhaps as prompted by Nevitt. Here he is in the posthumously published The Global Village: 

time considered as sequential4 (left hemisphere) is figure and time considered as simultaneous5 (right hemisphere) is ground. (10)

  1. Preview edition, 1980, publication 1985. The reference for the following citation is taken from the preview edition, which was the edition used by Eric McLuhan and may even have been known to Marshall.
  2.  Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, ed Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye with Albert Riedlinger, orig 1916, translated by Wade Baskin, 1959 (later 1966 paperback edition used by Nevitt), 80. Saussure’s three courses in general linguistics were given in 1906-7, 1908-9 and 1910-11 and were not published in his lifetime. The Bally-Sechehaye edition used by Nevitt in the Baskin translation brought all three courses together mostly on the basis of students’ notes.
  3. It is a very different thing to ‘have a notion’ and to understand it and its implications. McLuhan continued to think about the plurality of time as times for his entire life, but was arguably as much in the dark about it when he died in 1980 as when he began to think about it in the 1930’s. (‘In the dark’, as used here, does not mean that no progress has been made.  It means that whatever progress has been made has not been understood internally.  It can be seen only by an external observer.)
  4. Diachronic.
  5. Synchronic.

S.D. Neill on Innis and McLuhan

S.D. Neill1 provides one more example of mistakenly taking McLuhan at his word regarding how and when he “felt the influence of H. A. Innis”:

The Mechanical Bride (…) was written before McLuhan felt the influence of H. A. Innis (1951), whose Bias of Communication was published the same year as the Bride. (115)

McLuhan claimed in the late 1970’s — almost 30 years after the event — that he became interested in Innis only after Innis put The Mechanical Bride on his communication course reading list in 1951. This supposedly then prompted McLuhan to seek out Innis and to read The Bias of Communication. But, as detailed in McLuhan on first meeting Innis, McLuhan’s memory of this sequence of events was mistaken in multiple ways.

However, most if not all of the Bride was probably indeed written before McLuhan met Innis and certainly before Innis became much of an influence on his work. McLuhan sometimes claimed that the Bride was finished by 1946 and then required five years’ work with publishers to see the light of day early in 1951. Even if this were an exaggeration, by 1947 McLuhan was able to publish two papers based on the book:

Neill was correct, then, that the great influence of Innis on McLuhan’s work would become evident only after 1951. But, like most researchers, following McLuhan’s own memory, he was mistaken as to when and how this influence came about.

  1. S.D. Neill’s 1993 book, Clarifying McLuhan, was published posthumously — he died in 1992. It incorporated as an appendix an earlier article of his, ‘McLuhan’s Media Charts Related to the Process of Communication’, AV Communication Review, 21:3, 1973, 277-97. The citation from his book comes from that earlier paper.

Gigantomachia, triangular duel, siamese triplets

ὁδὸς ἄνω κάτω μία καὶ ὡυτή (Heraclitus)1  

It seems that only one course is open to the philosopher who values knowledge and truth above all else. He must refuse to accept from the champions of the forms2 the doctrine that all reality is changeless, and he must turn a deaf ear to the other party3 who represent reality as everywhere changing. Like a child begging for ‘both’, he must declare that reality or the sum of things is both at once. (Plato, Sophist 249c)

Philosophers appear to be engaged in a sort of triangular duel (Rupert Lodge)4

when each of these [three arts of the trivium] is viewed not singly but as one of a set of Siamese triplets, the perspective changes enormously as does the entire significance of every development in their histories. (Eric McLuhan)5

The notion that there is a kind of triple beat to reality itself and, therefore, to all philosophy and to all human experience whatsoever, goes back at least to Heraclitus. But the notion is common in mythologies and is probably much older, stretching far back into pre-history.

The third position is what is called a superposition in quantum physics. It accounts for all of the possible subpositions but also, and this is one of its mysteries, it itself appears in the spectrum of possible subpositions. Other great mysteries are: why are there subpositions at all?  And once they come to be somehow, how do they hold out against the overwhelming power of the superposition?

  1.  The way up and the way down are one and the same (B60). This is one of the two epigrams from Heraclitus to Eliot’s Four Quartets.
  2. The gods in the heights above.
  3. The giants in the depths below.
  4.  ‘Balanced Philosophy and Eclecticism’, Rupert C. Lodge, The Journal of Philosophy, 41:4, February, 1944, 85-91. This article is in McLuhan’s papers in Ottawa, but misnamed in the finding aid as ‘Balanced Philosophy and Scholasticism’. Lodge’s “triangular duel” is that of the three fundamental assumptions — realism, idealism and pragmatism — which he saw as basic, always in one of these modes, to all human experience. McLuhan was very familiar with Lodge’s hypothesis from his work with him between 1931 and 1934 at the University of Manitoba and especially from Lodge’s 1934 paper, ‘Philosophy and Education‘. See Taking Lodge to Cambridge and beyond and McLuhan and Lodge (‘Philosophy and Education’) for citations and discussion.
  5. ‘Introduction’ to The Medium and the Light, 1999, xii. The full passage (beginning on xi): “He (McLuhan) decided that he had to master and then draw the outlines of the trivium, which had for many centuries been the traditional Western system for organizing intellectual activity. The trivium compressed all knowledge into three streams: rhetoric (communication), dialectic (philosophy and logic), and grammar (literature, both sacred and profane, including modes of interpretation). Grammar included written texts of all sorts, as well as the world and the known universe, which were considered as a book to be read and interpreted, the famous ‘Book of Nature’. Incredible as it may seem, the job had never before been done. Certainly, there were — and are — plenty of histories of philosophy, for example, and histories of literature as well as accounts of rhetoric. But when each of these (arts of the trivium) is viewed not singly but as one of a set of Siamese triplets, the perspective changes enormously as does the entire significance of every development in their histories.” Eric probably got the phrase ‘Siamese triplets’ from a caption in the University of Toronto Varsity newspaper, October 5, 1979, 6.

Taking Lodge to Cambridge and beyond

Rupert Lodge’s 1934 ‘Philosophy and Education1 gave McLuhan a series of deep ideas which he took with him to Cambridge. All would remain with him his whole life, but it would take him decades to understand their implications. Better, since understanding is not a momentary individual event, but an ongoing collective enterprise, it would take him decades to perceive how it might be possible to ignite such investigation of their implications.

On the plurality of truth and its practical effects:

Our conclusion then is that realism, idealism, and pragmatism remain fundamentally distinct [approaches to experience]2, and that the positions constructed by philosophers [reflecting and analyzing these distinctions] are of direct concern to educationists in the pursuit of their profession [along with everybody else in pursuit of their professions].3

On the object of philosophy:

[Philosophical] “speculations” seem remote, but are merely technical formulations of those backgrounds which affect our outlook in every detail of class-room and laboratory procedure [in education — and similarly in every other field]. Philosophers merely try to bring these [backgrounds] out into the open, so as to focus attention upon them. It is surely better to realize how they affect our thoughts and actions, than to leave them to work obscurely in the background.

On the spectrum of the forms of experience as defined by its extreme ends and middle:

when the realist sets up Einstein’s position in place of Newton’s, he shows how and why Einstein’s is better as a picture of the physical world. With the idealist, what looks at first like realist logic and objective information becomes transformed into (…) dialectic and (…) the transcendental realms of the spirit (…) The pragmatist avoids both extremes [of “the physical world” vs “the transcendental realms of the spirit”]

On the community as the multitude of these forms and their permutations:

The community (…) is never wholly realist, idealist, or pragmatist in type (…) the community [includes] all differences of background and outlook (…) all powers of insight and initiative (…) every alternative4

  1. Dalhousie Review, 14:3, 1934, 281-290. The citations below are taken from this essay.
  2. It is impossible to formulate what “realism, idealism, and pragmatism” are without deploying one of them in doing so. Hence they may variously be termed ‘approaches to experience’, ‘forms of reality’, ‘kinds of truth’, ‘sorts of hypotheses’, etc. This self-referential circularity is an essential aspect of the problem complex at stake here.
  3. Lodge wrote books on The Philosophy of Education (1937), The Philosophy of Business (1945) and Applying Philosophy (1951).
  4. Decades later McLuhan would come to call this the “emotion of multitude” after Yeats’ 1903 little essay of this title. See Lévi-Strauss on method in anthropology for citation and discussion.

McLuhan and Lodge (‘Philosophy and Education’)

In 1933 McLuhan obtained his bachelor’s degree from the university and won a University Gold Medal in Arts and Science. (…)  McLuhan’s gold medal along with recommendations from professors such as R.C. Lodge — who called McLuhan his “most outstanding” student — ensured that he would have no problem being accepted at Cambridge. (Marchand, Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger, 32 and 34.)

From the very first note included in his published Letters — McLuhan to his mother, Elsie, on February 19, 1931 — it appears that McLuhan had decided as a nineteen year-old that Rupert Lodge was an exceptional talent1 at the University of Manitoba and that he needed to work with him:

Next year2 I shall throw myself into Philosophy and leave the English for the summers. I shall certainly attend very few lectures in English. (Letters 9)

Then, in his job-seeking letter from December 1935 to E.K. Brown, the new head of the UM English department (appointed after McLuhan had left Winnipeg in 1934), McLuhan would write from Cambridge: 

I wish merely to introduce myself as one of the products of some of the leanest years of the Manitoba English Department. The last year was somewhat relieved by the presence of Dr. Wheeler3, but I had directed my energies to philosophy, and did my best work for Professor Lodge. (Letters 79)

The two letters were written almost five years apart and yet they show a remarkable continuity. Halfway through his third year at UM (second in English), McLuhan had identified the path that he would follow over the next three years as he completed his B.A. and M.A. degrees there — namely, he would work chiefly with a professor outside his major, Rupert Lodge in philosophy.

A close personal and intellectual relationship grew up between the two.4 Since both had a strong theoretical bent, their personal and intellectual relations could hardly have been strictly compartmentalized, but McLuhan (as he came to realize himself at Cambridge) had further to grow personally in order to understand (and thereby to share) Lodge’s intellectual insights.

A remarkable portrait of McLuhan is preserved in a paper which Lodge published in 1934 in the Dalhousie Review, ‘Philosophy and Education‘. In the paper Lodge characterized what he held to be the three basic forms of all human experience — realism, idealism and pragmatism5 — in terms of education. Some one of these basic forms must always already be in place to the exclusion of the other two, he held, whenever any sort of human experience unfolds. His idea in ‘Philosophy and Education’ was to illustrate these three forms in terms of the fundamentally different kinds of pupils, teachers and education administrators which are pro-duced from their varying assumption.

Here is Lodge describing what he termed “the idealist pupil” (as contrasted with “the realist pupil” and “the pupil with a pragmatist outlook”):

He feels drawn toward persons rather than subjects, and has a tendency toward hero-worshipMerely to associate with some of the teachers, altogether apart from taking courses with them, seems to help him.6 Others, he avoids.7 However great their objective knowledge, he feels that he has “nothing to learn” from them. When he looks back over his school life, in later years, he finds that the books which were “vital” were not the painfully accurate, up-to-the-last-minute textbooks which bristled with objective footnotes, but the books which, whatever their objective shortcomings, had about them some touch of greatness.

In this portrait of “the idealist pupil” there seems to have been a two-way influence between Lodge and McLuhan. For Lodge almost certainly formulated his description of how an ‘idealist” student thought and behaved taking McLuhan as his model. And McLuhan eventually accepted this description from Lodge as an accurate depiction of how he had experienced the world at the University of Manitoba. At the same time, Lodge’s insistence on the plurality of truth served as a way-marker to McLuhan of how he would have to grow if he were to overcome his provincial limitation to a singular “idealist” bent of mind and become e-ducated — that is, be ex-posed to multiple truths.8

Confirmation of these rather surprising claims may be found in letters McLuhan wrote to his mother, Elsie, and to E.K. Brown (already cited above) in the fall of 1935 when he had entered his second and last undergraduate year at Cambridge.

The great difficulty about Truth is that it is not simple [he wrote to Elsie] except to those who can attain to see it whole [that is, in its fundamental plurality]. The very definition of an enthusiast is that he has seized a truth which he cannot and would not if he could, relate to other truths of life. He is invariably unsympathetic and lacking in humanity. l have some elements of enthusiasm which have been more than occupied in hero-worship —- e.g. Macaulay and Chesterton. Them days is gone forever but I shall always think that my selection of heroes was fortunate. Both were calculated to suppress effectively any tendency I had towards harping on one truth at a time. (McLuhan letter to his mother, September 5, 1935, Letters 72)

McLuhan returned again and again in this letter to Lodge’s view that “truth (…) is not simple”, that there are always “other truths of life”, that there is something both blind and wrong about “harping on one truth”.  Further, in specifying that he had “some elements of enthusiasm which have been more than occupied in hero-worship” he was identifying the way he had been at UM  (now “gone forever”) with Lodge’s portrait of “the idealist pupil” and its “tendency toward hero-worship”.

He made a similar admission in his letter to Brown three months later:

until I came to the Cambridge English School, my principal qualification was a boundless enthusiasm for great books, great events, and great men. Dr. Richards and Dr. Leavis have proved to be a useful supplement and corrective to that attitude.  (McLuhan letter to E.K. Brown, December 12, 1935, Letters 79)

At Manitoba McLuhan had self-admittedly been Lodge’s “idealist pupil”, with “a tendency toward hero-worship“, for whom the books which were ‘vital’ (…) had about them some touch of greatness“. Indeed, in articles he wrote in the Manitoban, only months before he would leave UM for Cambridge, he gave clear evidence of this “idealist” commitment:

Shakespeare (…) no more questioned the health and value of the great traditions that he inherited than a flower disputes the value of the ambient air or the nature of the soil beneath. Men become great only when they accept with gusto a great tradition made by millions before them. (‘George Meredith, Feminist?‘, Manitoban, Nov 21,1933)

Two years ago certain active and noble-spirited students voluntarily undertook to make a comprehensive report of the state of that vital community within the [general] community which is our university. It [“that vital community”] is to the [general] community what the head is to the body. (‘Stupid Student Apathy‘, Manitoban, February 13, 1934)

Whoever reads Newman or “Q”9 on education will discover the simplicity that is the effect of  profundity in the minds of a few great men.  (‘Adult Education‘, Manitoban, Feb 16, 1934)10

According to Lodge, such emphasis on the “vital” and on “greatness” and “hero-worship” was typical of “idealism” — but “idealism” was only one of multiple possible basic approaches to experience. So when McLuhan began at Cambridge to appreciate other manners of experience11 as a “supplement and corrective to that attitude” he had had at Manitoba, it was actually first of all Lodge, not Richards or Leavis or anyone else there, who was his mentor and spur in this process.12

Whether McLuhan appreciated the fundamental role played by Lodge in his education is questionable (although correspondence in the Ottawa papers shows that the two remained in touch until at least 1945). But Lodge and McLuhan himself frequently argued that the dominants of our experience are rarely conscious.

 

  1. Lodge and Henry Wright were the two professors in the UM philosophy department and co-taught some of its offerings, each taking one semester of a year-long course. As well as from Lodge, McLuhan certainly learned much from Wright, especially concerning the centrality of communication and environment for human beings, in ways that would profoundly affect him for the rest of his life. But McLuhan’s relation with Lodge was more personal and even more influential.
  2. “Next year” — probably the next school year beginning in the fall of 1931.
  3. See Lloyd Wheeler.
  4. In his letter to Brown, McLuhan clearly suggests that Lodge is the person at UM Brown should contact about him.
  5. For discussion of Lodge’s philosophy, see The Comparative Method of Rupert Lodge.
  6. Marchand: “McLuhan (…) noted in his diary that Lodge did not try to slip away from him after lectures” (20).
  7. McLuhan in the letter to Elsie cited above: “I shall certainly attend very few lectures in English.”
  8. It is indicative of how much work McLuhan had yet to do on himself and on his thinking that at Cambridge he directed Lodge’s critique of monolithic living (“one truth at a time”) back against Lodge himself: “Lodge is a decided Platonist and I learned (to think) that way as long as I was trying to interpret Christianity in terms of comparative religion. Having perceived the sterility of that process, I now realize that Aristotle is the soundest basis for Xian doctrine” (McLuhan to his family, February 1935, Letters 53). In fact, however, McLuhan never grew away from Lodge’s ideas and continued to investigate them, consciously and unconsciously, for the rest of his life.
  9. Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863–1944), the doyen of the Cambridge English School, about whom McLuhan frequently reported in letters home from Cambridge. Reference to him in this Manitoban article shows that McLuhan was boning up on the school before leaving UM to study there. It may be that McLuhan was referring here to Q’s 1920 book, On the Art of Reading and particularly to its chapter ‘On a School of English‘.
  10. A few months before this ‘Adult Education’ article in the Manitoban, McLuhan had another piece on education, ‘Public School Education’ (Oct 17,1933). His work with Lodge at a time when Lodge was writing ‘Philosophy and Education’ can hardly have been incidental to McLuhan’s interest in these topics.
  11. McLuhan to Elsie from Cambridge only a few months into his career there: “How rapidly my ideas have been shifting and rearranging themselves to make room for others!” (January 18, 1935, Letters 51)
  12. McLuhan’s religious conversion in 1937 surely resulted in part from this e-ducational process in which he learned, personally, that fundamental assumptions are plural and are therefore subject to transformational change.

Lloyd Wheeler

McLuhan knew Lloyd Wheeler as a professor in the English Department at the University of Manitoba only for a year or two. Some sources say he came to UM in 1931, but Wheeler’s obituary has him coming to UM in 1933 and in a 1935 letter (cited below) McLuhan specified that he knew him only in his “last year” there, 1933-1934. In any case, it was Wheeler who helped McLuhan to his first job in 1936-1937 as a teaching assistant at the University of Wisconsin, where Wheeler had done his doctoral work and begun his own teaching career.1

When McLuhan was looking for a job at the end of his undergraduate career at Cambridge, he mentioned Wheeler in a letter to E.K. Brown, then the new head of the English Department at Manitoba:

I wish merely to introduce myself as one of the products of some of the leanest years of the Manitoba English Department. The last year was somewhat relieved by the presence of Dr. Wheeler, but I had directed my energies to philosophy, and did my best work for Professor Lodge. (…) I should be very happy indeed to work under you and Dr. Wheeler. (December 12, 1935, Letters 79)

Here is Wheeler’s obituary in the Winnipeg Free Pressage 34:

Arthur Lloyd Wheeler, formerly of Winnipeg, died in Halifax on June 7, 1970. Professor Wheeler was born in Victoria [in 1898], served in the First World War, taught school in Barkerville, B.C., and studied in Vancouver, Toronto and Madison, Wisconsin, where he began lecturing in English literature. He came to Winnipeg with his wife, the late Helen Bennett of Victoria, in 1933 to join the Department of English at the University of Manitoba. He was chairman of the department from 1946 to 1963 at which time he retired from his post and became Visiting Professor of English at Dalhousie University until 1969. He was laid to rest on Lynn Island, Lake of the Woods.

For a time Wheeler was Chairman of the Radio Broadcasting Committee of the University of Manitoba. A report from him in this capacity was included in The University of Manitoba President’s Report for the Year Ending 30th April, 1946, 106-107.

  1. McLuhan to his mother from Cambridge, September 5, 1935 (Letters 72): “I am waiting advice from Wheeler at present regarding what U’s in Canada and U.S.A. to apply to, and how to apply to them.”