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, Mechanism 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.