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.