‘A Federal Offense!’

McLuhan published ‘A Federal Offense!’ ithe December 17, 1951 issue of The Varsity, the University of Toronto student newspaper: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. Emphasis added throughout.
  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)