Monthly Archives: December 2019

Culture Without Literacy

In the inaugural issue of Explorations at the end of 1953, McLuhan set out a series of problems that he would investigate for the rest of the decade. These were problems which stood between him and the founding of science in the humanities and social disciplines, which, he sensed, was the only means through which the multiple potentially fatal directions of the planet might be reoriented.1

The first of these problems was relativity and the implicated disappearance — or at least the veiling — of truth.

In a global village the brute fact of multiple possible approaches to experience could not be avoided:  

every page of [our] newspapers and magazines, like every section of our cities, is a jungle of multiple, simultaneous perspectives(Culture Without Literacy, 1953)2

We are now compelled to develop new techniques of perception and judgement, new ways of reading the languages of our environment with its multiplicity of cultures and disciplines.

Given unavoidable “multiple, simultaneous perspectives”, our every perception might be different and no one perception could, any longer, claim to provide access to truth on the basis of its supposed singularity or traditional privilege.

We are all of us persons of divided and subdivided sensibility through failure to recognize [the essence of] the multiple languages with which our world speaks to us

In characteristic fashion, McLuhan compressed contradictory insights here which must be teased apart to understand his intentions. He wrote that we are “divided and subdivided” by our “failure to recognize the multiple languages with which our world speaks to us.” It is not the failure of recognition, however, but the unavoidable onslaught of that plurality that renders us “divided” and “ineffectual”! Indeed this is exactly what is asserted in the immediately following sentence:

Above all it is the multiplicity of messages with which we are hourly bombarded by our environment that renders us ineffectual.

What McLuhan telescoped here was that our “divided and subdivided sensibility” results not from an outright absence of recognition of the “multiple languages” of the environment, but from a deficient mode of recognition of them. We recognize them in a dissembling and disabling way instead of an enabling one. 

Perhaps the terrifying thing about the new media for most of us is their inevitable evocation of irrational response. The irrational has become the major dimension of experience in our world. And yet this is a mere byproduct of the instantaneous character in communication.3

The Gutenberg era, although coming to an end as a dominant technology, remained in nostalgic command of our “techniques of perception and judgement” precisely through an apotropaic reaction to the “multiplicity of messages with which we are hourly bombarded”. 

It is the perfection of the means which has so far defeated the end

That is, the achieved success of the new media has brought about an unavoidable exposure to multiple perspectives; but this exposure has had the contrary effect of turning us from that multiplicity to a desperate and “irrational” singularity:

The printed page (…) has (…) become the main bridge for the inter-awareness of spiritual and mental states. 

Precisely against such a reversion to the singularity of print, McLuhan suggested that it was only through “new techniques of perception and judgement, new ways of reading” the multiple languages of the environment, that our sensibility could become, not “divided and subdivided” but wholesome and effectual. It then followed that our “divided and subdivided sensibility” resulted from a “failure to recognize [those] multiple languages”, first of all as a fact, and then in the scientific conceptualization of that fact (via the induction of its dynamic essence).


All the types of linear approach to situations past, present or future [associated with the printed page] are useless. Already in the sciences there is recognition of the need for a unified field theory which would enable scientists to use one continuous set of terms by way of relating the various scientific universes. Thus the basic requirement of any system of communication [from language as learned by an infant to the hard sciences] is that it be circular, with, of course, the possibility of self-correction.4 That is why (…) the human dialogue is and must ever be the basic form of all civilization. For the dialogue compels each participant to see and recreate his own vision through another sensibility.5

The key was a turn from the one to the many as the only way to conceptualize the one for its investigation:

the radical imperfection in mechanical media is that they are not circular. So far they have become one-way affairs with audience research taking the place of the genuine human vision (…) and response. There is [as a result] not only the anonymity of press, movies and radio but [also] the factor of scale. The individual cannot discuss a problem with a huge, mindless bureaucracy like a movie studio or a radio corporation [and for that reason is not an individual at all but an anonymous cipher].

Total global coverage in space, instantaneity in time. Those are the two basic characters that I can detect in a mechanical mass medium. There are other characteristics derivative from these, namely anonymity of those originating the messages (…)6, and anonymity in the recipients.

An effectual reading of “the multiple languages with which our world speaks to us” (aka, as McLuhan would put it a few years later, a grammar of media) could provide a new sense of truth based on open collective investigation, but also a new sense of identity (vs anonymity) and new ways of addressing the otherwise insuperable disparities of scale in a technological world. More, this seemed to be the only way to address the dire problems of freedom and power which are precipitated in such a world:

the instantaneity of communication makes free speech and thought difficult if not impossible and for many reasons. Radio extends the range of the casual speaking voice, but it forbids that many should speak. And when what is said has such range of control it is forbidden to speak any but the most acceptable words and notions. Power and control are in all cases paid for by loss of freedom and flexibility.

Everything from politics to bottle-feeding, global landscape, and the subconscious of the infant is subject to the manipulation of conscious [and potentially malicious] control.

The promise of “the end of the Gutenberg era” — sometimes called by McLuhan the advent of “the Marconi era”7 — was that it might energize the needed turn from the one to the many:

One’s vernacular is best seen and felt through another tongue. And for us, at least, society is only appreciated by comparing and contrasting it with others. (…) Whereas the written vernaculars have always locked men up within their own cultural monad, the language of technological man, while drawing on all the cultures of the world, will necessarily prefer those media which are least national.

This hope marked a return by McLuhan to his meeting with Sigfried Giedion ten years earlier in St Louis and his resulting exposure to Giedion’s Space, Time and Architecture (1941).8 This return was a central inspiration of the Ford Foundation seminar (1953-1956) as emphatically expressed by the presence of Giedion’s close friend and translator, Jackie Tyrwhitt, as one of the seminar’s five sponsors and editors (of the seminar’s Explorations journal). But this was a return enriched for McLuhan by the intervening decade in which he had continued his studies of Eliot, Pound, Lewis and Joyce, initiated study of Mallarmé and Innis, and encountered cybernetics. Meanwhile, on top of all this, Giedion had published a second great work, Mechanization Takes Command, in 1948 and McLuhan had immediately reviewed it.

Here is Giedion at the start of Space, Time and Architecture:

In spite of seeming confusion, there is nevertheless a true, if hidden, unity, a secret synthesis, in our present civilization. To point out why this synthesis has not become a conscious and active reality has been one of my chief aims. (…) Unity, for us, will have to come about through the unintended parallelisms in methods that are springing up in the specialized sciences and the equally specialized arts. There are the indications that we are nearing a spontaneously established harmony of emotional and intellectual activities. In both contemporary science and contemporary art it is possible to detect elements of the general pattern which our culture will embody. The situation is a curious one: our culture is like an orchestra where the instruments lie ready tuned, but where every musician is cut off from his follows by a soundproof wall. 

And here is McLuhan in ‘Culture Without Literacy’:

[Our] situation can be snapshotted from many angles. But it always adds up to the need to discover [some] means for translating the experience of one medium or one culture into another, of translating Confucius into Western terms and Kant into Eastern terms.9 Of seeing our old literary culture in the new plastic terms in order to enable it to become a constitutive part of the new culture created by the orchestral voices and gestures of new media. Of seeing that modern physics and painting and poetry speak a common language and of acquiring that language (…) in order that our world may possess consciously the coherence that it really has in latency, and which for lack of our recognition has created not new orchestral harmonies but mere noise.

For the rest of the decade McLuhan would work away on “the need to discover means for translating the experience of one medium or one culture into another.” This would ultimately eventuate in the understanding media project beginning in 1960.


  1. As cited and discussed below from ‘Culture Without Literacy’: “All the types of linear approach to situations past, present or future  are useless. Already in the sciences there is recognition of the need for a unified field theory which would enable scientists to use one continuous set of terms by way of relating the various scientific universes. Thus the basic requirement of any system of communication is that it be circular, with (…) the possibility of self-correction.”
  2. Explorations 1, 1953. Unless otherwise indicated, all citations in this post are from this essay.
  3. The irrational singular reaction to the “instantaneous character in communication” is “a mere byproduct” in multiple senses.  First of all, it itself is realized only as one possibility from amongst the range of possibilities which are instantaneously or synchronically available before every moment of perception. It is a “byproduct” of this dynamic situation. Secondly, it is a reaction against just this situation and its implication of radical finitude (in being ‘only’ one out of a foundational many). It is “a mere byproduct” of this fear. Thirdly, as an assertion of superiority that is ultimately comical in its pretension, it is a mode of perception that demands reorientation through recognitiojn that it is, after all, “a mere byproduct”.
  4. McLuhan’s unstated central point here was that essence and truth in the electric age were now to be understood (as they were in already in quantum physics), not as points requiring matching definition, but as dynamic particulars within a field of possibilities. The former requires some kind of more than mortal insight into fixed forms; the latter requires only (only!) the sort of natural insight — or common sense — that characterizes humans from infancy on.
  5. How something seems to another is exactly what an infant must recognize in learning to speak and what drives science to understand any matter whatsoever. Differences in perception are revelatory. Hence, after Kant defined differences between observers as phenomenology, or the science of seeming, Hegel saw that the phenomenology of spirit was a dual genitive in which seeming was not only an open question but also the native land of the interrogation of that question.
  6. McLuhan has “messages or forms” here, indicating that he was not yet clear about the distinction of medium and message  — nor, of course, about the importance of this distinction. It would be five years before he would begin to insist that “the medium is the message”.
  7. See The Beginnings of Gutenberg Galaxy 6.
  8. Stearn interview: “Giedion influenced me profoundly. Space, Time and Architecture was one of the great events of my lifetime.”
  9. In his better moments, McLuhan did not see East and West as geographical regions — Confucius vs Kant — but as structural variations liable to expression anywhere on the planet. It was from such literalisms that he was struggling at this time to free himself.

The Beginnings of Gutenberg Galaxy 6

In letters to Ezra Pound in July 1952 and to Walter Ong in January 1953,1 McLuhan wrote that he was working on a book titled ‘The End of the Gutenberg Era’. 

In an earlier article in The Varsity,2the University of Toronto student newspaper, McLuhan used the ‘end of the Gutenberg era’ phrase in December 1951, indicating that the project had already taken seed at that time:

At the Renaissance the printing press gave the entire [humanist] program greater vitality by the new possibility of transferring eloquence and literary skill to the unexploited vernaculars. And from the fifteenth to the twentieth centuries the humanities have depended on the careers made possible by literary training as projected by the printed word. But we have now come to the end of the Gutenberg era owing to the advent of a variety of audio-visual forms of communication. (…) So that there is no question but that the centuries-old literary basis of the humanities is so far disestablished by current developments that the real problem of humanists is to decide how much the values associated with their disciplines can be cultivated in a revolutionary situation.

In the same article he referred to “the Marconi era”3 as if it were part of his original idea to juxtapose ‘eras’. Indeed, six years later, these two eras were still on his mind:

Of course, had we had any awareness of the psycho-dynamics of our Gutenberg era before it began to yield to the Marconi era we would have been less surprised and much better able to effect a proper transition to the new culture without total jettisoning of the educational and social values of print and lineality. Instead of understanding these matters we have tended to substitute moral denunciation and recrimination, alarm and complacency. (Explorations 8, 1957)

The crucial problem that McLuhan had with this conception of successive eras has bedeviled scholarship on his work ever since. Namely, serial order of one-thing-after-another — the printed line, the assembly line, the rail line — is an essential characteristic of the Gutenberg galaxy: as McLuhan said in Explorations 8, this galaxy was just the expression of “the  educational and social values of print and lineality. To describe the relationship of eras as a chronological series was therefore to install that galaxy as basic to the order of all possible galaxies, each one coming after a previous one, like moments in time or numbers in sequence. But the assertion of this ultimately ontological claim is just what the “Gutenberg galaxy” was — and is! To suggest that it might be “coming to the end of its era” was, therefore, actually only to extend its dominion immeasurably! Beyond its end!

At the start of 1952 McLuhan had a knot of central problems to solve: how to come loose from the Gutenberg era at all? how come loose from it in a way that was not simply subsequent and oppositional?4 how come loose from it but ‘at the same time’ preserve important values from it?  

At this time McLuhan was already underway to his first article in Explorations, ‘Culture Without Literacy’ (1953) and, ultimately, a decade in the future, to The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media:

When we juxtapose news items from Tokyo, London, New York, Chile, Africa and New Zealand we are not just manipulating space. The events so brought together [in the news] belong to cultures widely separated in time. The modern world abridges all historical times as readily as it reduces space. Everywhere and every age have become here and now. History has been abolished by our new media. If prehistoric man is simply preliterate man living in a timeless world of seasonal recurrence, may not posthistoric man find himself in a similar situation? May not the upshot of our technology be the awakening from the historically conditioned [= Gutenberg] nightmare of the past into a timeless present? Historic man [situated between the prehistoric and the posthistoric] may turn out to have been literate man. An episode. (Culture Without Literacy, Explorations 1)

But if “the upshot of our technology [may] be the awakening from the historically conditioned nightmare of the past into a timeless present”, when would these variations on time, these “eras” or “episodes”, have been? Or, indeed, be

The mechanical clock (…) created a wholly artificial image of time as a uniform linear structure. This artificial form gradually changed habits of work, feeling and thought which are only being rejected today.5 We know that in our own lives each event exists in its own time. (…) Ultimately the medieval clock made Newtonian physics possible. It may also have initiated those orderly linear habits which made possible the rectilinear page of print created from movable type, as well as the methods of commerce. (Culture Without Literacy, Explorations 1)


  1. See The Beginnings of Gutenberg Galaxy 1.
  2. ‘A Federal Offense!’, The Varsity, 71:55, p 8, December 17, 1951. See A Federal Offense!
  3. If somebody totally ignorant Canada were asked what a Victorian colony would be likely to think about cultural matter, in the Marconi Era, he could pretty well provide the profile sketched by the Massey report.”
  4. Unmediated opposition was another characteristic of the Gutenberg galaxy along with serial order. Indeed, the two would seem to imply each other. But how then account for its other central characteristic — ‘continuity’? The twentieth century gnawed on these problems across many fields from music to linguistics to physics — and McLuhan’s enterprise must be understood in this ‘being and time’ context.
  5. With the placement of the word ‘only’ here, did McLuhan mean that these habits were meeting ‘only’ rejection today or that it was ‘only’ today that they were finally meeting rejection?

‘A Federal Offense!’

McLuhan published ‘A Federal Offense!’ ithe December 17, 1951 issue of The Varsity, the University of Toronto student newspaper. Here is a transcript with added bolding:1

“The report of the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences” contains no surprises. Royal Commissions are, of course, a principal form of Canadian culture. If somebody totally ignorant Canada were asked what a Victorian colony would be likely to think about cultural matter, in the Marconi Era, he could pretty well provide the profile sketched by the Massey report. 

Immigrant humility paralyzes Canadian perception, so that native energies can only find full expression in areas remote from official conceptions of “culture.” Walt Disney is our only contribution to world culture, a fact which recalls to mind that more than a century ago European audiences were addicted to American frontier wit and fantasy. Edgar Poe’s technical inventiveness revolutionized European art and Pound and Eliot have advanced what Poe began.

In fact, colonies and provinces on the periphery of a core culture have always tended to be prolific in radical inventions in the arts and sciences.2 Unsettled modes of existence call constantly on resourcefulness and encourage sharpness of observation. So that when the social anthropologists turn to Canada they will give special attention to the cultural contribution of the  Massey-Harris Farm Implement industries to unique solutions to a new way of life. Looking at the present Massey Report, they will deplore a conception of culture which forbade the Commission to consider Walt Disney or ice-hockey as Canadian culture, and which, in fact, relegates culture to a “blue law” area. In this way “Culture” becomes attached to the realm of moral obligation and is thus deprived of all spontaneous impulse. Culture is transferred from the intelligence to the will. The consequent anaemia which invades the body of “the humanities” was far advanced in that Victorian England which still provides us with our archetypes of the “higher” things. For English Canada acquired its concepts of culture from England at a most unfortunate time. French Canada is similarly indebted to nineteenth century France. But that period in French life was. in the arts, as magnificently first-rate as the Victorian period was moralistic and uninventive

Technological change, in short, had upset the balance of English society by 1850, producing a large degree of moral, intellectual, and of emotional “illiteracy” which amounted to a critical breakdown of communication at all social levels. This situation was faced by Arnold in Culture and Anarchy. But Arnold’s report on culture in England while deploring the “besetting faith in machinery” was based on no analysis of the changes that had actually occurred. Had he had the insights and tools of analysis employed by a Siegfried Giedion in Mechanization Takes Command, Arnold might not have fallen into the trap of moralizing about the plight of culture in terms of an antecedent situation. He might have substituted precise diagnosis for moral alarm and exhortation. He might even have seen that the arts, at first banished to an ivory tower by an industrial age, were going, for good or ill, to transform the ivory tower into a control tower with the help of the very technology which had begun by being so unfriendly to them. 

Very little reflection will serve to establish that esthetic experience on this continent, as contrasted with Europe, has technically been acquired not from contemplation and analysis of linguistic and elastic forms but from landscape. And the landscapes of this continent are at once a challenge to ingenuity and a promise of power. The eventual control of the geography has brought into existence a great variety of roads, vehicles, factories, and dams which are themselves the main objects of esthetic appeal to young and old. So that our central esthetic satisfactions are related to the precise contours of engineered objects which must be regarded as works of collective art as much as a newspaper or a movie. 

Yet all these objects, as well as the human organization necessary for their creation and maintenance, are officially regarded as non-cultural.  And the humanities as such are fenced off from these vulgar and popular concerns. Nobody, therefore, can question “the plight of the humanities.” The wonder is that anybody can be induced to feel any concern for the plight of so insignificant an entity. For the real plight of the humanities is not the result of ungrateful neglect by benevolent foundations, but is due to their having been cut off from all nutriment to the culture they inhabit. And this starvation is not owing to lack of food but to an inner failure of the assimilative process.

A little historical perspective serves to suggest that the humanities have most flourished when they have provided the skills indispensable to practical careers. The Greek sophists established that encyclopedic training in the arts, and especially in eloquence, which became the royal road to political power. Cicero was in their tradition, and through St, Augustine Ciceronian conceptions of speech culture were cultivated not only during the Dark and Middle ages but during the Renaissance. But the traditions of linguistic discipline were maintained by the Church for the very practical consideration that Scriptural exegesis and pulpit eloquence were built on the same base upon which Cicero had developed the career of the orator.

At the Renaissance the printing press gave the entire program greater vitality by the new possibility of transferring eloquence and literary skill to the unexploited vernaculars. And from the fifteenth to the twentieth centuries the humanities have depended on the careers made possible by literary training as projected by the printed word. But we have now come to the end of the Gutenberg era owing to the advent of a variety of audio-visual forms of communication. And for some decades even the character of printed words has profoundly altered because of changes in the aims and methods of printed communication. 

So that there is no question but that the centuries-old literary basis of the humanities is so far disestablished by current developments that the real problem of humanists is to decide how much the values associated with their disciplines can be cultivated in a revolutionary situation. In practise that means that humanists to survive must make themselves indispensable to the dominant new culture. For both the origin and the continuance of the humanities have depended on that; and with no cynical asperity it must be said that no other possibility exists. Thus English has quite recently supplanted Latin and Greek as the general humanistic discipline because our business and professional world still demands a modicum of literary proficiency. But the tape-recorder, for example has begun to whittle down even that area of demand. 

Perhaps it is time to reflect that the values of civilization cannot be said to depend on either the printed word or on literary skill. To argue that they do would the one hand, unduly depress the claims of other times before printing to be regarded as civilized; and. on the other hand, would be to adopt an unnecessary desponding view of current actualities. However, it can be argued that civilization depends on the human dialogue of which all past and present audio-visual mechanisms of communication are only specialized derivatives. And to the dialogue the humanist has necessarily to address himself as a technological age enfolds the great audience in passive sleep and entertainment. The tower of sleep or Babel is the negative feature of our culture against which the humanist must struggle as those lost in snow and cold.

But there are many positive features of the new culture which command astonishing vistas for those who can keep awake. The mistake is to suppose that either alertness or immunity to the new situations is to be purchased by regarding these developments as merely deplorable or vulgar. The humanist has either to enter technological culture as a new patrimony, to be transformed from within, or else to accept the sentence of effacement. That is, he cannot maintain antecedent values except by unprecedented modes of activity. But the new culture will accept the old values when they are presented in technical terms. Ours is an intellectual age as much as the period of medieval scholasticism which was also unfriendly to the humanities from the twelfth to the fifteenth century and, therefore, it does not take kindly to the moralistic wrappings in which the humanities got involved in the past century. So that the arts must now be restored to their formal technical basis if they are to recover their appeal and function in a technological age

It is the merit of the Massey Report that it focusses a variety of the new developments with reference to Canadian life, albeit, with the hope that Ottawa will establish a Maginot Line to protect our Victorian values.

These notes, however, are intended as a review of the contents of the Massey Report, but only as an indication of its unrealistic assumptions about the nature of culture and social communication. Therapy based on a mistaken or inadequate diagnosis will merely contribute to our present discontents.

  1. The Varsity, 71:55, p8.
  2. McLuhan revisited the Massey Royal Commission report the next year in ‘Defrosting Canadian Culture’: “The only possible strategy for the Canadian writer, poet, artist (as it was for Joyce, Pound, and Eliot when they found themselves in cultural back-waters) is to conquer the old traditions through the most revolutionary artistic techniques suggested by the current modes of science and technology. This is the really great advantage enjoyed by any provincial in a time of rapid change. He cannot come to the new through the old, but must discover and master the old through what is most recent. By the very nature of his situation, he is familiar with the new and somewhat at a loss in the presence of the traditional.” (The American MercuryMarch 1952, 91-97)

The Beginnings of Gutenberg Galaxy 5

The University of Toronto Presidents Report for 1952 records an address by McLuhan that year given at Hart House:

With singular timeliness, one of the two Library Evenings arranged by the [Library] Committee had [as] its speaker Professor H. M. McLuhan of St. Michael’s College whose subject was ‘The End of the Gutenberg Press Era’.

It may be that the word ‘Press’ here is a typo and that the address was actually titled ‘The End of the Gutenberg Era’. This was McLuhan’s working title for The Gutenberg Galaxy until shortly before its publication ten years later in 1962.1 

  1. See The Beginnings of Gutenberg Galaxy 1 and The Beginnings of Gutenberg Galaxy 4. Importantly, the move from “end” to “galaxy” represented an attempt ‘to move beyond’ serial to dynamic order.

“Canadians” as McLuhan mirror

Canadians (…) have reached the end of the Gutenberg era of the printed word before (…) they have had anything very important to print. They are, therefore, free to exploit the new media without the exhausting effort of self-extrication from the old. Once Canadians adopt that attitude they will drop their defensive tactics against the “threat” from English and American culture and welcome such contacts. (‘Defrosting Canadian Culture’, 1952)1

At the start of the 1950s McLuhan was coming loose from his own snobbish attachment to book culture and opening himself to the rival possibilities exposed by the new media.

Now I see that I was trying to prop up the standards of book culture when we have passed out of the Gutenberg era. (McLuhan to Wyndham Lewis, December 9, 1953)2

Often enough he portrayed his own evolving sympathies and the self-criticism implicated in that process in terms of criticisms of others.3 What he characterizes here as “defensive tactics against the ‘threat’ from English and American culture” had been his own preoccupation for decades. Against this moralist crusade,4 he had begun, starting in the late 1940s, to undertake an exhausting5 effort of self-extrication from the old”. And his advice to Canadians to realize themselves “free to exploit the new media” is just what he was now attempting himself.

  1. The American MercuryMarch 1952, pp. 91-97, here 97.
  2. Letters 241.
  3. See Bacon in McLuhan 7 (Lewis 2) and Lewis in McLuhan 3 (‘Nihilism Exposed’) for McLuhan critiques of Lewis that were at least as much about himself.
  4. Playboy interview: “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 (…) I ceased being a moralist and became a student.”
  5. McLuhan in a letter to Ong from January 23, 1953: “After 5 years of miserable health I am suddenly recovered and full of energy again. It was a gall bladder condition. Not serious. Just debilitating.” (Letters, 234)

Bacon in McLuhan 8 (Induction = Metaphor)

The theory of Induction is the despair of philosophy — and yet all our activities are based upon it. (Whitehead, Science and the Modern World)1

In Stephen Hero Joyce wrote: “For Stephen art was neither a copy nor an imitation of nature. The artistic process was a natural process (…) a veritably sublime process of one’s own nature which had a right to examination and open discussion.” (McLuhan, ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’, 1954, 171-172)2

Here is McLuhan further from this 1954 lecture given at St Joseph College in Hartford:

As a teacher of literature I have frequently to explain the nature of metaphor. (…) When we look at any situation through another situation we are using meta-phor. This is an intensely intellectual process. And all language arises by this means. So that it is a commonplace of the poetic and critical discussion of the last 100 years to note that human languages themselves are the greatest of all works of art beside which the works of Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Shakespeare are minor variations. English or any other language is itself a massive organization of traditional experience providing a complex view of the world. Today our increasing knowledge of the languages of primitive cultures has made it easy to observe how language itself is the principal channel and view-maker of experience for men everywhere.3 (154)

Later in the same lecture:

In ordinary perception men perform the miracle of recreating within themselves, in their interior faculties, the exterior world. This miracle is the work of the nous poietikos or of the agent intellect — that is, the poetic or creative process. The exterior world in every instant of perception is interiorized and recreated in a new matter. Ourselves. And in this creative work that is perception and cognition, we experience immediately that dance of Being within our faculties which provides the incessant intuition of Being. (165)


as we trace the rise of successive communication channels or links, from writing to movies and TV, it is borne in on us that in order for their exterior artifice to be effective it must partake of the character of that interior artifice by which in ordinary perception we incarnate the exterior world. Because human perception is literally incarnation. So that each of us must poet the world or fashion it within us as our primary and constant mode of awareness (…) each of us in perception or cognition incarnates the external world of experience. (169) 


every word uttered by man requires a large measure of the poetic ability. Our words are analogies of the miracle by which we incarnate and utter the world. (169)

In sum:

[our every] cognition provides [an instance and a demonstration of] that dance of the intellect which is the analogical sense of Being. (165)

McLuhan’s ‘metaphor’ is Bacon’s ‘induction’. Both implicate a transitive movement which ‘carries across’ and ‘leads into’. The great question is what first of all underlies and supports this movement? Not the movement itself in some kind of Baron Münchhausen manoeuvre!

Here is the Baron extricating his horse and himself from a mire by pulling on his own braid.

McLuhan asserts that “all language arises by this [metaphoric or inductive] means.” When an infant first learns to understand language, it “looks at [the] situation [= what is said around it] through another situation”, namely its own (lack of) understanding. Somehow these poles get bridged and aligned. Indeed, language never stops bridging and aligning diverse ‘points of view’ such that this miracle is never superseded as long as we live — it simply gets overlooked because ubiquitous. “We don’t know who discovered water but we are pretty sure it wasn’t a fish!”

For both Bacon and McLuhan the most important fact about the world is this underlying foundation on the basis of which humans are able to ‘carry across’ and ‘in-duce’: the “dance of Being”. It is what enables all language and science and, in fact, all in-sight whatsoever. And now, whether this be 1620 or 2020, this in-sight must itself be ‘looked into’. 


  1. McLuhan was exposed to Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World through Rupert Lodge while he was still in Winnipeg. One of his lifetime tasks was the attempt to understand, enlarge upon and apply this great 1925 lecture series.
  2. Reprinted in The Medium and the Light, 1999, 153-174. Page numbers unless otherwise identified are from this edition of the lecture.
  3. Compare from the previous year (1953) in ‘James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial’ citing Paul Valéry: “in considering these things from the highest point of view, one cannot but see Language itself as the supreme literary masterpiece, since every creation in this order reduces itself to a combination of forces in a given vocabulary, according to forms instituted once and for all.” And in the same lecture from McLuhan himself: “For these new studies ( archaeology and anthropology) directed attention to the role of language and writing in the formation of societies and the transmission of culture.”

Lewis in McLuhan 3 (‘Nihilism Exposed’)

In 1955 McLuhan published ‘Nihilism Exposed‘, a review of Hugh Kenner’s 1954 book, Wyndham Lewis.1  It had been McLuhan who first introduced Kenner to Lewis’ work less than a decade before. But his appreciation of Lewis had radically changed in the meantime,2 such that his review amounted to a critical interrogation not only of Lewis, but also of himself. What it worked to set out was an ontology whose transformational implications were new to McLuhan at this time;3 but it was not at all new in history and had roots going back millennia to classical Greece4 and even millennia before that to old dynasty Egypt.5 Perhaps humans have always had some sense of it.6

In the review, McLuhan first traced modern nihilism to the late 1500’s when the effects of Gutenberg revolution were beginning to be felt and even to be theorized by a thinker like Bacon:

Lewis has this kind of representative importance. To an exceptional degree his work has raised to the level of intelligibility what Eliot described as the “dissociation of sensibility” that set in late in the sixteenth century

Such “dissociation” or unmediated duality implicates a monism, exactly because its opposing terms are held to be ultimately incompatible:

it is precisely the courage of Lewis in pushing the Cartesian and Plotinian angelism to the logical point of the extinction of humanism and personality that gives his work such importance in the new age of technology. For, on the plane of applied science we have fashioned a Plotinian world-culture which implements the non-human and superhuman doctrines of neo-Platonic angelism to the point where the human dimension is obliterated by [the exclusive privilege of] sensuality at one end of the spectrum, [or]7 by [the exclusive privilege of] sheer abstraction at the other.

now the gnostic and neo-Platonist and Buddhist can gloat: “I told you so! This gimcrack mechanism is all that there ever was in the illusion of human existence. Let us rejoin the One“. 

Structurally, these pointed monisms (despite seemingly as different as graphite and diamonds) are identical:

it is the merest whim whether these views are used to structure [the abstract monism of] a Berkeleyan idealism or [the sensuous monism of] a Darwinian mechanism.

A monistic world that is fundamentally lacking in critical differentiation and judgement has no impediment to manipulation and degradation:

It just happens that in the new age of technology when all human arrangements from the cradle to the grave have taken on the hasty extravaganza aspect of a Hollywood set, the nihilist philosophies of neo-Platonism and gnosticism have come into their own. Existence is an empty machine, a cheap art work, they have always said.(…) And now in the twentieth century (…) nature has been abolished by art and engineering, (…) government has become entertainment and entertainment has become the art of government 

Unfortunately, however, Lewis’ “representative” attention to this great matter was itself dissociated resulting in “double talk”. This worked against the penetrating insight of his theoretical work since its force against dualism-cum-monism was expressed only in dualistic opposition to his own art work

This situation became so evident to Lewis in 1920 that he devoted the next two decades to warning us about and explaining the anti-human nihilism emanating from modern philosophy and physics, as well as our everyday activities in commerce and social engineering in this century. His political and social analysis pursued a humanist course but his art remained on the plane of the doctrinaire super-human level of abstract art and neo-Platonic “spirit”. His uncompromising exposés of nihilism, in the time-philosophers and positivists, went parallel with an artistic nihilism (…) The result was (…) double talk

In its allegiance to such a gnostic-cum-nihilist monism, Lewis’s art was radically anti-incarnational:8

Lewis (…) assumes the Pythagorean and neo-Platonic doctrine of spirit and imagination as a divine or superhuman power. This power is no part of the human soul or intellect but [is] merely imprisoned there. The tragedy and comedy of the human condition is a result of the juxtaposition of this divine spark with matter, sense, and intellect…

for Lewis, as for the great pagan tradition of neo-Platonism and gnosticism, existence as such is the ultimate sham. To exist is damnation

Differentiated (but not simply opposed) to this dualism-cum-monism is the Christian tradition of incarnation:

The Catholic doctrine of the body-soul composite confers a substantiality on the existent.

That is, the Christian tradition, instead of privileging one pole of an oppositional dualism (body≠soul), valorized instead the dialogue or resonance between such poles: body and soul are fundamentally different (body≠soul), it held, but yet also and at the same time they are fundamentally reconciled (body=soul). Although such poles were fundamentally distinguished, it was the very principle of the universe that they should also and at once be coupled. They were held, and be-held, to interpenetrate and to form a complex “composite”.9 And such was the case with all such fundamental differences beginning with the Persons of the Trinity and extending throughout creation precisely through the willed interpenetration of it by the power of its necessarily distinguished God.10 

In an essay from the previous year, ‘James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial’ (1953), McLuhan made these points explicitly:

Dante, like Joyce and Eliot, employs grace to reconcile East and West. Reconciliation is not merging, however.11 

As a true analogist Joyce attempts no reduction of these realities, but orders their ineluctable modalities to the reconciliation of vision rather than of fusion.

Remarkably, however, McLuhan’s own work for the past twenty years had itself been guilty of just such Lewisian “double talk” — despite his first conversion and the traditional Christian lifestyle of him and his family:12

I may not be untypical of most Catholics in having been slow to apprehend this matter.

Beginning already in Winnipeg, McLuhan, like Lewis, had described how:

in the twentieth century (…) nature has been abolished by art and engineering, [while] government has become entertainment and entertainment has become the art of government.

He, too, had spent:

two decades (…) warning (…) about and explaining the anti-human nihilism emanating from modern philosophy and physics, as well as our everyday activities in commerce and social engineering..

But again just like Lewis (at least in McLuhan’s reading which was doubtless as much about himself as about Lewis), despite his prescient social and cultural observations, McLuhan’s metaphysics had “remained on the plane of the doctrinaire super-human level”. To cease such “double talk”, what he now had to do was to find a way to relate “his political and social analysis [that] pursued a humanist course” to a new metaphysics that was not a variety of a singular “super-human” dualism-cum-monism, but instead recognized non-evaluatively all possible varieties of human perception:

What we have to defend today is not the values developed in any particular culture or by any one mode of communication. (‘Sight, Sound and the Fury’, 1954)13

But in order to do that — ie, to initiate the understanding media project — he would have to investigate how it had first of all happened to him and to the world at large to fall into such “double talk” — and to communicate its cure:

I was trying to prop up the standards of book culture when we have passed out of the Gutenberg era. (McLuhan to Wyndham Lewis, December 9, 1953)14


  1. In Renascence, 8:2. 1955, 97-99. All citations in this post that are not otherwise identified are taken from this short review.
  2. McLuhan to Lewis, April 15, 1953: “For Shenandoah magazine Lewis number I’ve attempted to present your ‘Theory of Art and Communication’. Mainly in your own words. Only in the past year have I become fully aware of the reality of the secret societies in the arts, philosophy and politics. Your own work has consequently taken on a much different significance for me.” (Letters, 236)
  3. McLuhan had been fascinated by triple forms of reality ever since working with Rupert Lodge in the early 1930s at the University of Manitoba. A decade later, his PhD thesis on Nashe carried this fascination forward with its focus on the trivium. But it was not until the early 1950s that McLuhan realized that he had to apply the consideration of these forms first of all to himself. This was the bottom-line meaning of the need to ‘pass out of the Gutenberg era’.
  4. See McLuhan and Plato 8 – Gigantomachia.
  5. See Assmann on the battle between Horus and Seth.
  6. See The ancient bond of guest-host-enemy.
  7. McLuhan: ‘and’.
  8. Thereby illustrating the inevitable reduction of an unmediated dualism to an ultimate monism.
  9. Everything depends on the time of the “reconciliation” of this composite. Where it is held to be subsequent to ‘previous’ forms, some sort of ontological monism is eventually implicated through the reduction of any and all complexes to a prior simplicity. In deep contrast, where “reconciliation” is held to be primitive, everything that is — including monisms — becomes subject to dialogue.
  10. Distinguished God — both internally and externally, the immanent Trinity and the economic Trinity.
  11. ‘James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial’, 1953.
  12. For discussion, see Bacon in McLuhan 7.
  13. In that same year, 1954, McLuhan delivered his ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’ lecture at St. Joseph College. (See Bacon in McLuhan 8 (Induction = Metaphor.) It represented his attempt to define, as he said in the very first sentence of the lecture, how it is possible “to understand all (…) men through (…) Catholic faith.” The goal was to define Catholicism not on the basis of “any particular culture or (…) any one mode of communication”, but instead through investigation of the complete range of cultural and communication possibilities in what would become the understanding media project. Compare Bacon in his 1592 Burghley letter: “And I do easily see, that place of any reasonable countenance doth bring commandment of more wits than of a man’s own; which is the thing I greatly affect.” (The Letters and the Life, 109)
  14. Letters, 241.

Bacon in McLuhan 7 (Lewis 2)

[Wyndham] Lewis wants nothing less for Art than the power to create total environments for Life and Death. (…) I find it a bit staggering to confront Lewis as a man who really wanted to be pontifex maximus of a magical priesthood. I suppose Yeats, Joyce and Pound had similar aspirations. Their priesthood was to create new worlds of perception. They were to be world engineers who shaped the totality of human awareness. (…) The [total] environment as ultimate artefact. (McLuhan to Wilfred Watson, Oct 4, 1964)1

In Bacon in McLuhan 3 it was suggested that the renewed attention to Bacon in The Gutenberg Galaxy (20 years after McLuhan’s first treatment of him in his PhD thesis and the related unpublished Bacon essays from the early 1940s) reflected McLuhan’s growing appreciation during the 1950s of what Bacon had nicely formulated as: 

no empire, no sect, no star seems to have exerted greater power and influence in human affairs than these mechanical inventions. (Bacon, Novum Organum, aphorism 129, Works VIII, 162).

Whether Bacon contributed to McLuhan’s new sense of the centrality of technological media in human experience (language being the first and archetype of these), or this new sense led him to see in Bacon what he had previously missed, may be left an open question. But however that may have been, Bacon’s insight into the significance of mechanical inventions was only one factor in the extensive treatment of him in The Gutenberg Galaxy;2 another was Bacon’s recognition of the defining function of essential perception (“the ancient doctrine […] of the Cratylus of Plato”) for human being.3 But a further insight in Bacon amounting to a needed revision of McLuhan’s previous understanding of such essential perception4 was more important, both for McLuhan himself and generally.

In the early 1950s, and as was completely clear to him at the latest by 19555McLuhan came to see that his previous understanding had rested on an individual elitist position that was ultimately gnostic, unchristian and even (examined seriously enough) senseless. It had been, he said, in what amounted to a veiled self-criticism, insight that was Gutenbergian or literary when it ought to have been post-Gutenbergian or electric:6  

Now I see that I was trying to prop up the standards of book culture when we have passed out of the Gutenberg era. (McLuhan to Wyndham Lewis, December 9, 1953)7

When I wrote The Mechanical Bride some years ago I did not realize that I was attempting a defense of book-culture against the new media. I can now see that I was trying to bring some of the critical awareness fostered by literary training to bear on the new media of sight and sound. My strategy was wrong, because my obsession with literary values blinded me to much that was actually happening for good and ill. What we have to defend today is not the values developed in any particular culture or by any one mode of communication. (‘Sight, Sound and the Fury’, 1954)

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 (…) I ceased being a moralist and became a student. (Playboy Interview, 1969)

This was especially manifested in his understanding of essential perception8 which he explicated in Gutenbergian mode as late as 1953 (probably based largely on old notes) in one of his many publications that year, ‘Wyndham Lewis: His Theory of Art and Communication’.9 Here he reported, without obvious criticism, that Lewis was “seeking to arrest the flux of existence in order that the mind may be united with that which is permanent…”10 (84). 

The dualism between “the flux of existence” and “that which is permanent” was repeated throughout the 1953 Lewis essay as between above and below, the individual and the collective, the artist and society, and mind and body:

The artist, gifted with mania from above, is always confronted with the great collective mania from below (88)

this war of the collective puppetry against the individual (88)

the sense of disproportion between our mental and our physical dimensions… (89)

moving toward the pole of intelligibility instead of that of feeling. (91)

All of this “disproportion” had been implied in the title of McLuhan’s essay on Lewis from a decade before in 1944: ‘Wyndham Lewis: Lemuel in Lilliput’.11

Since the subject of the 1953 essay was the work of Lewis as writer and artist, this pronounced dualism was particularly evidenced in the essay’s discussion of the work of art: 

“It [art] therefore pauses at [some] particular thing: the course of time stops: the relations vanish for it: only the essential, the idea, is its object. (…) A sort of immortality descends upon these objects.” (89, citing Lewis in Wyndham Lewis the Artist, 1939, in turn citing Schopenhauer’s World as Will and Idea, 1819)

Lewis (…) adopts the Schopenhauer intellectualism in seeing the movements of vision as an arrest and detachment [from]12 the great mechanism of the world… (91)

The moment of art is not a moment of time’s covenant. And art emotion is specifically that experience of arrest in which we pause before a particular thing or experience. (89)

art for Lewis appears as a natural vortex of patterned energy, presenting us with creative cores or vortices of causality. In the heart of these cores or vortices there is an absolute calm, but at the periphery there is violence and the unmistakable character of great energy. These “untumultuous vortices of power”13 are at the center of every vital work of art as they are in any vital civilization. And it is presumably the view of Lewis that the role of the artist in society is to energize it by establishing such intellectually purified images of the entelechy of nature. (94)

It may be that McLuhan was able to express these essential dualisms so starkly only when he was beginning to perceive their difficulties and to come away from them himself. As he wrote to Lewis about his essay on him:

For Shenandoah magazine Lewis number I’ve attempted to present your ‘Theory of Art and Communication’. Mainly in your own words. Only in the past year have I become fully aware of the reality of the secret societies in the arts, philosophy and politics. Your own work has consequently taken on a much different significance for me. (McLuhan to Wyndham Lewis, April 15, 1953)14

Just what McLuhan meant by “secret societies in the arts, philosophy and politics” has been a matter of some conjecture and controversy, even within the McLuhan family.15 Suffice it to note here only that it seems at a minimum to have meant “secret” at least to McLuhan himself until 1952 (“the past year”). The “secret societies” meme was “consequently” a marker of his own second thoughts and evolving second conversion.16

By 1955, if not before a year or two before, McLuhan was clear that the universal nihilism resulting from “the Gutenberg era” was structured by an unmediated dualism which, in turn, forced a monistic ontology.17 Dualism could not obtain at the level of ontology since the co-presence of two fundamentally opposed factors at that level necessarily implicated some third factor through which, alone, such gigantic opposition could be maintained ‘there’. It followed that every differentiated perception ultimately (or ontologically) implied either a monism (McLuhan’s ‘gnosticism’ or ‘visual perception’) that renounced such dualism, or it implied a complex ontology of three or more factors (McLuhan’s ‘resonance’, ‘dialogue’, ‘tactility’, etc), that could account for such dualisms. Moreover, a second conversion was demanded by this ‘essential perception’ of the field of human experience since it could not be realized without applying first of all to its proponent, in this case McLuhan himself. As he wrote at the time (as cited above): “What we have to defend today is not the values developed in any particular culture or by any one mode of communication.” “I ceased being a [dualistic cum monistic] moralist and became a student [in complex dialogue with the entire range of human perception].

In fact, correctives to such dualistic formulations in Lewis — and, if less systematically, in McLuhan himself18 — were to be found in Bacon and it may well be that this is exactly why Bacon came to have such a central place in The Gutenberg Galaxy:

Bacon’s allusion to scientific discovery as a children’s game brings us close to another of his basic notions, that as man lost his Eden through pride he must regain it by humility:
“So much concerning the several classes of Idols, and their equipage: all of which must be renounced and put away with a fixed and solemn determination, and the understanding thoroughly freed and cleansed; the entrance into the kingdom of man, founded on the sciences, being not much other than the entrance into the kingdom of heaven, where into none may enter except as a little child.” [Gutenberg Galaxy, 190, citing Novum Organum, aphorism 48, Works VIII, 99.]

Bacon insisted in the same way that “the course I propose for the discovery of sciences is such as leaves but little to the acuteness and strength of wits, but places all wits and understandings nearly on a level.” [Gutenberg Galaxy, 190, citing Novum Organum, aphorism 41, Works VIII, 89.]

Bacon’s “natural knowledge of creatures”19 (dual genitive, but first of all a subjective genitive) in which “all wits and understandings [are] nearly on a level” and where the scientific stance before nature was one of “humility”, could hardly contrast more sharply with Lewis’ acceptance that “the artist, gifted with mania from above, is always confronted with the great collective mania from below” (88) and that it is “the role of the artist in society (…) to energize it by establishing such intellectually purified images of the entelechy of nature” (94).

Indeed, McLuhan had already cited Bacon to such corrective effect in his early (but only posthumously published) essay on ‘Francis Bacon’s Patristic Inheritance’20:

“For God forbid that we should give out a dream of our own imagination for a pattern of the world; rather may He graciously grant to us to write an apocalypse or true vision of the footsteps of the Creator imprinted on His creations.” (Works VIII, 53)21

Before his second conversion in the middle 1950s, McLuhan’s mind was muddled between observations of the world and of literature which were true enough, but which were based, as he supposed, on a superior insight akin to that of Wyndham Lewis. This resulted in the sort of “double talk” that he specified and critiqued in Lewis in 1955.22 Now he came to see that true perception was a natural, even childish, characteristic of human being operating on the basis of finitude and not at all on some supposed, indeed ultimately ludicrous, overcoming of our inevitable limitations.

The understanding media project was born out of McLuhan’s new-found sense that it is exactly the finitude of every moment of human experience that enables essential insight. Just as the infant perpetually shuffles its processing of the input it receives from the world around it, until it arrives at some rough notion of its information environment enabling it to begin to speak, so with human beings always and everywhere — such that they come to find all sorts of further rough correlations culminating in what we call scientific laws (although these, too, are always  paradigmatic acceptances inherently subject to revision and and even revolution).

As set out largely through citations in The Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan found in Bacon the correctives and corresponding prescriptions he and the world at large needed in order to aim at new — potentially saving — sciences of the interior landscapes of human nature. But since it is ultimately from these interior landscapes that the theories of the so-called hard sciences emerge in their attempts to understand the exterior landscapes of physical nature, it may be, as Bacon conjectured, that it will be findings and demonstrations in the latter that at last bring us to the former.

Four hundred years ago, a path was taken, definitively signaled by Descartes, but prepared for him by developments in Bacon’s lifetime and before, that have led into a cul-de-sac. McLuhan saw that the crossroads had to be regained from which that mistaken path took its start and another path going out from it taken in its stead. Bacon may have been — and may yet be seen even by us to have been — a way marker on that alternate route.


  1. Cited in Andrew Chrystall, The New American Vortex: Explorations of McLuhan, Massey University PhD thesis, p 79.
  2. For citations and discussion see Bacon in McLuhan 3 (Gutenberg Galaxy).
  3. For citations and discussion see Bacon in McLuhan 2 (‘Bacon’s Patristic Inheritance’).
  4. See Bacon in McLuhan 2 for citations and discussion: “Just as language offers an extensive and complex apprehension of the structure of beings, so that faculty which produced this state of language is perpetually operative — an intuitive perception of essentials. There is no room for error in our intuitive grasp of nature…” (The Classical Trivium, 51). In fact there is a great deal of “room for error in our intuitive grasp of nature” and it exactly in this room that further insight is to be gained, sometimes leading to the need for revolution in our prior grasp.
  5.  This evolution must have occurred gradually, beginning in the late 1940s, and seems to have been associated with physical symptoms as well as mental agitation. As the latter began to ebb, McLuhan reported to Ong (mistakenly said by Gordon to be to Pound in Escape p158): “After 5 years of miserable health I am suddenly recovered and full of energy again. It was a gall bladder condition. Not serious. Just debilitating.” (January 23, 1953, Letters, 234)
  6. Two fundamental mistakes are near universally made in the reading of McLuhan at just this point. First, it is imagined that the relation of Gutenbergian to post-Gutenbergian insight is one of so-called ‘historical development’. But time’s singular arrow is a characteristic acceptance of Gutenbergian experience as seen in lines of print, railroads, assembly lines — and so on. Such a reading of McLuhan therefore reinstalls Gutenbergian determinations exactly where they are to be exposed to question! Second, since electric experience for McLuhan is synchronic, not diachronic, such that it implicates all experience, not some particular privileged mode of it, post-Gutenbergian perception decisively includes the Gutenbergian and does at all not replace or otherwise exclude it.
  7. Letters 241. As treated in the previous note, this diachronic movement in McLuhan’s thought was to a synchronic understanding of different mentalities (such as the literary and the electric) as possibilities. This enabled him to perceive new ways to investigate the past as well as to navigate the present — exactly through recognition of the essentially plural ways of human being.
  8. See Bacon in McLuhan 2.
  9. Shenandoah, 4:2/3, 1953, 77-88. Page numbers here, unless otherwise identified, are to the reprinting of this essay in The Interior Landscape (83-94).
  10. Since just such “arrest” had been appreciatively examined in a number of earlier literary essays like ‘The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape Poetry’ (1951), McLuhan’s developing critique of Gutenberg era perception was plainly self-criticism.
  11. See Lewis in McLuhan 1 (‘Lemuel in Lilliput’).
  12. McLuhan has ‘of’ here instead of ‘from’. The phrase ‘detachment of’ is usually used as a subjective genitive, but McLuhan uses it here objectively.
  13. Francis Thompson, ‘Contemplation‘.
  14.  Letters 236.
  15. McLuhan’s biographer, W.T. Gordon, mentions a letter Eric McLuhan wrote to his parents on September 22, 1976, criticizing his father’s ideas on the subject (Escape, 394n193).
  16. The personal application of McLuhan’s “secret societies” ruminations may clearly be seen in letters to Ezra Pound at the end of 1952 and beginning of 1953: “I was a Fool. Now that I have found out all about the umpteen liturgies as revealed in all the “schools” of art, I’m just a wee bit disgusted with many things. I can’t take the arts very seriously for the time being.” (December 3, 1952, Letters 233) — Last year has been spent in going through rituals of secret societies with fine comb. As I said before I’m in a bloody rage at the discovery that the arts and sciences are in the pockets of these societies.” (February 28, 1953, Letters 235) — Was McLuhan not “disgusted” that he himself had been “in the pockets of these societies” when it came to the structure of his essential perceptions?
  17.  See Bacon in McLuhan 3 (‘Nihilism Exposed’). At the time McLuhan termed this dualism ‘gnosticism’ and saw that it necessarily manifested itself in two different basic forms, depending on which monism (above or below, mind or body, individual or society, etc) it privileged. He called these ‘east’ and ‘west’ gnosticism. These ideas amounted to a fundamental self-criticism since McLuhan himself had worked tirelessly “attempting a defense of book-culture” (which he now saw as powered by a “secret” dualism-cum-monism). He himself had been an unwitting nihilist. The great question he now took up was how to communicate the insight that allowed, or forced, or that accompanied, or followed from, the sort of transformation he had come to experience personally. After 5 more years, in 1960, it was this question that would eventuate into the project of understanding media.
  18. As a practising Catholic and father of 6 children, McLuhan could hardly understand himself only within the context of a “war of the collective puppetry against the individual”. In fact his ideas remained fundamentally jumbled until his “breakthrough” in 1960 when McLuhan was almost 50.  See McLuhan’s #1 breakthrough for citations and discussion.
  19. Advancement of Learning, Bk 1,Works VI, 137-138.
  20. McLuhan Studies I, 1991, 7-26. See Bacon in McLuhan 2 (‘Bacon’s Patristic Inheritance’).
  21. Bacon has ‘creatures’ here, not ‘creations’. McLuhan references in this context also Works VIII 46-47358-361 and 369.
  22. See Bacon in McLuhan 3 (‘Nihilism Exposed’).

Lewis in McLuhan 1 (‘Lemuel in Lilliput’)

From early on in Winnipeg McLuhan was clear about the critical role played by the environment in education:

It is, of course, mistaken to suppose that education in any important sense is connected with the schoolroom. Education is the sum total of all those ideas and objects pressing in on the mind every hour of the waking day. (‘Public School Education’, Manitoban, October 17, 1933)

But in 1967, in answer to a question about the influence of Wyndham Lewis on his own work, McLuhan observed how it was Lewis who had supplied the critical impetus towards an environmental analysis in which the programming of culture was the central component:

Good heavens, that’s where I got it, it was Lewis who put me onto all this (…) Lewis was the person who showed me that the man-made environment was a teaching machine – a programmed teaching machine. But earlier, you see, the symbolists had discovered that the work of art was a programmed teaching machine. It’s a mechanism for shaping sensibility. Well Lewis simply extended this private art activity to the corporate activity of the whole society in making environments that basically were artifacts, or works of art, and that acted as teaching machines on the whole population.1

McLuhan’s point about the importance of Lewis to this aspect of his work may be documented in his 19442 essay, ‘Wyndham Lewis: Lemuel in Lilliput’,3 where his remarks are as applicable today, 75 years later, as they were then — “only more so”4:

To read (…) Lewis is to become aware not only of the scope of the forces arrayed against reason and art, but it is [also] to have anatomized before one’s eyes every segment of the contemporary scene of glamorized commerce and advertising… (181)

[Words today] have no meaning. They are spoken in a trance of inattention while the reason is in permanent abeyance. They are typical of men who no longer understand the world they have made and which, as robots, they operate day by day. (182)

Everything in our life today conspires to thrust most people into prescribed tracks, in what can be called a sort of trance of action. Hurrying, without any significant reason, from spot to spot at the maximum speed obtainable . . . how is the typical individual of this epoch to do some detached thinking for himself? All his life is disposed with a view to banishing reflection.” (183, citing Lewis, Time and Western Man)

This “trance of inattention” was and is no accidental happenstance:

[Lewis] unmasks the long-preserved anonymity of supposedly unwilled and irresistible forces in modern life. The atomization of consciousness, the attack on the continuity of personal experience, whether by the medicine man of the laboratory or the dionysiac ecstasies of advertisement and high-finance, are alike shown to be the products of deliberate will. (185)

“Science is often described as the religion of industrialism. (…) Its public function is actually (…) to conceal the human mind that manipulates it, or that manipulates through it (…) For in its impersonality and its ‘scientific detachment’ it is an ideal cloak for the personal human will. Through it, that will can operate with a godlike inscrutability that no other expedient can give. It enables man to operate as though he were nature on other men. In the name of science people can be almost without limit bamboozled and managed.” (187, citing Lewis, The Art of Being Ruled)

nothing is more hysterically personal than ‘news’ in its reflection of the human will. Time, Life and Fortune put up an enormous front of ‘detachment’ which upon slight examination proves to be violently emotional and interested. (188)

it is impossible (…) to exercise [such] power openly (…) it is necessary [for the manipulators] to pretend to be merely private citizens when in reality they are the rulers of the world” (180, citing Lewis, The Art of Being Ruled.)

While modern technology may not necessitate this bamboozling management, it certainly is what makes it possible:

The dehumanization of life by means of centralized methods of “communication”… (180)

the modern state is necessarily an educationalist state owing to the huge impassivity of the urban masses on the one hand and to the closely centralized control of all agencies of communication on the other. (187)

Huge impassivity” was the result; “the closely centralized control of all agencies of communication”, the means.

Such a ‘society’ is operated by “technicians who control ‘scientifically’ [the] educational experiment” (188) — an “educational experiment” which was and is the modern environment as the “educationalist state”. An essential aspect of the machine operated by these “technicians” is that it works to obviate any consciousness of this condition:

The life of free intelligence has never, in the Western World, encountered such anonymous and universal hostility before. (181)

The scientist and the stock-broker today are alike (…) in that they have no detachment, they make no effort to criticize the total situation in which they find themselves. So with the ordinary artist and politician — they are immersed. (189)

Paradoxically, the machine has not stiffened but melted life. Mechanism has imposed universal fashions of primitivism. It has rendered all the conditions of experience so fluid and frothy that men now are swimming in another Flood. (192)

“Science makes us strangers to ourselves. (…) It instills a principle of impersonality in the heart of life that is anti-vital. In its present vulgarized condition science represents simply the principle of destruction: it is more deadly than a thousand plagues, and every day we perfect (…) our popular industrially applied version of it.” (192-193, citing Lewis, The Art of Being Ruled)

So powerful and so essentially lacking in discrimination is this machine that the manipulators themselves come to share the fate of the manipulated:

“with all the resources of his fabulous wealth, the democratic magnate is able to drag the poor into depths of spiritual poverty undreamed of by any former proletariat or former ruling class. The rich have achieved this awful brotherhood with the poor by bleeding them of all character, spirituality, and mental independence. That accomplished, they join them (…) in the servant’s hall.” (195, citing Lewis, The Art of Being Ruled)

The exploited and the exploiter coalesce. (195)

Who are the beneficiaries of the modern world?  Are they that tiny handful of people such as Lord Beaverbrook and Henry Luce [or Bezos or Zuckerberg] who exercise absolute control over the thoughts and emotions of many millions of people? (…) The answer then to the question of ‘cui bono‘ is ultimately this. Everybody loses. (…) There are no beneficiaries. The [mass of] Dagwoods and the billionaire power-gluttons are equally rushing to the suicide of total immersion… (193-194)

If “no detachment” and “total immersion” were the problem, the way out of the cul-de-sac, if there were one, could be found only in the “toil of detachment” (178). 

We want a new race of philosophers, instead of hurried men, speed-cranks, simpletons, or robots” (178, citing Lewis, Time and Western Man)

The first object of such “philosophers” would be to lift the veil obscuring the exercise of “deliberate will” in the deployment of “the ideologic machine”.5 They would expose what lies behind its ideal cloak for the personal human will” that “operate[s] as though [it] were nature on other men”.

It is therefore, politically and humanly speaking, a matter of the utmost concern for us to know from what sources and by what means the rulers of the modern world determine what they will do next.  How do they determine the ends for which, as means, they employ the vast machines of government, education, and amusement?  (188)

This sort of revolutionary simpleton, this beaming child of the Zeitgeist, is precisely the sort of ruler the modern world cannot afford to have at the head of its enormous machinery. Lewis presents a massive documentation and analysis of the art and science and philosophy which manufacture the Zeitgeist. (188-189)

To read (…) Lewis is to become aware (…) of the bogus science, philosophy, art, and literature which has been the main instrument in producing the universal stupefaction. (181)

Much of McLuhan’s work for the remainder of the 1940s would, of course, be dedicated to just “this toil of detachment” (178) and to the description of what was exposed through it. He would closely “consider how the ‘ideologic machine’ has gone to work” (189). His labors would eventuate in The Mechanical Bride, which was published, at last, in January 1951. Here he would document such matters as:

the pathological blindness of the modern world to anything but itself: “It is naturally, for itself, the best that has ever been — it is for it that the earth has laboured so long…” (191, citing Lewis, The Art of Being Ruled)

the spurious reverence of the modern world. Man, the master of things, is about to enter the terrestrial paradise of gadgets. (186)

The destruction of family life, in theory and in practice, the flight from adulthood, the obliteration of masculine and feminine has all gone ahead — by means of a glorification of those things. Never was sex so much glorified, children and motherhood so idolized and advertised in theory as at this present hour when the arrangements for their internment have been completed. (195)

But there were some inherent instabilities to McLuhan’s analysis which would act, consciously and unconsciously, as spurs to his work going forward. Especially, he was a family man and a convert. How was this compatible with the sort of internal exile prescribed by Lewis and by many other writers and artists at that time like Camus and Beckett? Further, the sort of cultural collapse he described with Lewis had eventuated in two world wars, one of which was ongoing. And yet McLuhan could write:

Maritain is perfectly at home amidst modern art and letters. He has a contemporary sensibility. This in turn has energized and directed his philosophical activity, and given a precise, contemporary relevance to the philosophia perennis. (180)

How could anyone be “perfectly at home” amidst the debacle set out by Lewis and McLuhan? And in regard to the philosophia perennis, it would seem either that it was not “perennis” at all (given what had become of modern ‘culture’) or, if it were in fact “perennis“, its peculiar relation to that ‘culture’ would have to lie in factors which remained unidentified and undefined in McLuhan’s essay:

The Art of Being Ruled is a study of the major dichotomy of modern life. There is the romanticized machine on one hand, the vulgarized spawn of speculative science committed to perennial and ever-accelerated revolution. On the other hand are the traditional human and political values… (184)

What was the relation, if there were one, between these hands?


  1. ‘Recollections of Wyndham Lewis’flexidisk recording with Marshall McLuhan included with arts/canada No. 114, November 1967: side 1, side 2. Side 1 until 3:50 (of 6:20) is a recording of Lewis reading his own work; Side 2 again has a Lewis reading from 2:45 until the end. McLuhan’s recollections of Lewis begin at 3:50 of Side 1 and continue until 2:32 of Side 2. The cited passage from McLuhan begins at 0:09 of Side 2.
  2. McLuhan encountered the work of Lewis during his first years at Cambridge between 1934 and 1936. Then he met Lewis personally in 1943 when he, McLuhan, was teaching at St Louis University.
  3. Included in Key Thinkers and Modern Thought (St. Louis University studies in honor of St. Thomas Aquinas), Volume 2,  1944, 58-72; reprinted in The Medium and the Light, 1999, 178-198. All page numbers below, unless otherwise identified, refer to ‘Wyndham Lewis: Lemuel in Lilliput’ as reprinted in The Medium and the Light.
  4. McLuhan liked to use the phrase “only more so” with superlatives or comparisons that were already weighted positively or negatively.
  5. McLuhan uses this phrase repeatedly in his essay on 188, 189, 190 and 192. It is from Lewis’ Art of Being Ruled.