Monthly Archives: January 2020

Eisenstein 5 (the time of ‘epoch’)

[René] Guilleré‘s article gains added interest through its description, not only of the correspondence between musical and graphic arts, but also through its presentation of the idea that these arts, fused together [as they are in film], correspond to the very image of an epoch and the image of the reasoning process of those who are linked to the epoch. (Eisenstein, Film Sense)1

In reading this passage from Eisenstein, it is essential to consider the time of an epoch. Is this a bracketed period in chronological (diachronic) time? Or is an epoch the time of one sort of reasoning process which is always (synchronically) available to every human being? And which is bracketed exactly because other reasoning processes are equally available?

The former implies what is all too often silently assumed — that everyone in a chronological epoch shares an identifiable “reasoning process”. But this seems absurd! Do you or I ever exercise the same “reasoning process” as we each did, individually, five minutes ago? Let alone as everybody else did ‘at the time’?

If “reasoning process” is essentially plural — “reasoning processes” — the implication is that human beings ex-ist not only within bracketed epochs, but also between them. Inside and outside the brackets. Between the brackets in at least three fundamentally different senses.2 But in order for this to be the case, it must be that reality itself supports such education, such induction, such metaphor, such communication — between “reasoning processes”.


  1. Film Sense, 99-100. For René Guilleré‘s article, see Eisenstein 4 (1951).
  2. Three senses of between the brackets: (1) inside the brackets defining any one process at any one time; (2) outside and between the brackets of two processes (which must be traversed when an individual changes from one of them to the other, through education, say, or just a change of mood); (3) between persons in their communication where each exemplifies some reasoning process within its defining brackets and communication ‘takes place’ between these. Understanding one other requires such a transitive movement between their respective brackets.

Epoch: Dostoevsky

In 1864/65, Dostoevsky and his brother, Mikhail, published a magazine titled Epocha (Epoch) in which Notes from Underground first appeared:

Epocha replaced their suppressed earlier magazine Vremya (Time), in which House of the Dead and The Humiliated and Injured were first published:


Dostoevsky knew that the topic of time and times was the great task confronting future thought — as it always had been the great task confronting past thought. Indeed, it is the great task confronting thought of any time that is genuinely contemporary.

The Russian word vremya (time) seems to belong to the Indo-Euopean *wer (2) complex which includes words such English vertigo, convert, versus, etc, German werden (become), Russian vreteno (spindle), Old English wyrd (fate, destiny). In the sense of this complex, time moves as a gyre with a complex threefold movement: around and around in a whirl, but ‘at the same time’ also up and down vertically and along a serial path horizontally. Modernity may be the time in which times are simplified to the third of these alone. This would be our epoch.

The Greek fates, the Moirai (Μοῖραι), were collectively termed the Klothes (Κλῶθες, spinners) after the first of them, Klotho (Κλωθώ, the spinner), who spins the thread of life (το νήμα της ζωής) onto her spindle (κλωστήρ). The second, Lachesis (Λάχεσις, the alotter) measures out the thread of life to every individual person and thing. The third, Atropos (Ἄτροπος, the inexorable one) cuts the thread of life with her terrible shears (ψαλίδια) when its appointed length has been reached.

The consideration of time is inevitably a consideration of the working of the fates — the determination of the epoch (ἐποχή) of every individual and thing which comes to be. As the Wiktionary definition has it, the epoch is a check, cessation, stop, pause, epoch of a star, i.e., the point at which it seems to halt after reaching the highest, and generally the place of a star; hence, a historical epoch”.

McLuhan’s ever-repeated adversion to, or into, the vortex of the maelstrom may be seen as an incessant descent into the turbulences of time. Dostoevsky, too, descended into the rings of the vortex1  — in fact, some of Poe’s stories were published in Russian for the first time in Vremya.

This I-E complex of vremya includes ‘worm’ and ‘vermin’, so that Calvin Watkin’s monumental How To Kill A Dragon must be consulted in considering the vast topic at stake here. As Watkins shows, the topic incorporates the gigantomachia in multiple ways.

McLuhan to Innis 1951 (3)

McLuhan’s 1951 letter1 to Innis proposed “the possibility of organizing an entire school of studies” dedicated to “communication study in general” where “the organizing concept would naturally be ‘Communication Theory and Practice’.” 

But how to start?

McLuhan’s suggestion was that the school should be based on “the potencies of language”:

the esthetic discoveries of the symbolists since Rimbaud and Mallarmé (developed in English by Joyce, Eliot, Pound, Lewis and Yeats) (…) have served to recreate in contemporary consciousness an awareness of the potencies of language…

The school would replicate in the humanities and social sciences what was already operative in the hard sciences, namely, the study of phenomena in terms of their underlying “potencies” like the chemical elements and physical laws.

But there were obvious problems. First, since those “potencies’ remained to be defined, a start with them presupposed the result of what was yet to be achieved — “points of departure but also return“:

Arts here used as providing criteria, techniques of observation, and bodies of recorded, achieved, experience. Points of departure but also returnFor example the actual techniques of common study today seem to me to be of genuine relevance to anybody who wishes to grasp the best in current poetry and music. And vice versa.

As illustrated in chemistry and physics, the circularity here was both a problem and a solution to that problem.  The problem was: how get to an end along a way that must be based on that end? (Can you get to the correct “potencies” of language by exercising the wrong ones?) The solution was: since that end and that way are already in place all around us, the more closely we study the phenomena of communication, the more we necessarily engage with their existing “potencies”. In this respect, the study of language and communication would be no different than the study of chemistry and physics: the “potencies” of them all are already (and have always been) active in the environment around us.  We are, so to say, directed in advance, and against our own “opposite” consciousness, to the required result — which is also the beginning.

In his 1955 Explorations 4 essay ‘Space, Time, and Poetry’ McLuhan cited Dante from Canto 1 of the Purgatorio:

We paced along the lonely plain, as one who returning to his lost road, and, till he reached it, seems to go in vain.

McLuhan repeatedly drew attention to this ‘paradox’ as described by Aristotle and Aquinas:

The basis of all paradox, Christian and secular, is to be found in the sixth book of the Physics of Aristotle, to which Aquinas refers in his Summa Theologica I.II.q 113.a.7, ad quintum. The question for Aquinas is whether justification by faith occurs instantly or gradually. Aquinas says it occurs instantly because — ­here he appeals to Aristotle’s Physics  — “the whole preceding time during which anything moves towards its form, it is under the opposite form”.2

The “paradox” consists first of all in the fact that a sudden gestalt-switch to an “opposite form” is even possible; but, secondly, it consists in the further fact that it is definitive of humans as occurring already with in the first use language — an event repeated whenever an in-fant begins to speak.

A second difficulty was that the required “esthetic discoveries”, however available they might be in the very nature of things, and however “awareness” of them had been established in the “contemporary consciousness”of a handful of French and English poets, were in ordinary consciousness becoming less and less perceptible, not more:

One immediate consequence [of the rise of the new media], it seems to me, has been the decline of literature. The hypertrophy of letter-press, at once the cause and effect of universal literacy, has produced [in the end] a spectacular decline of attention to the printed or written word.3

In the event it was far from clear just how “a transfer of its [= literature’s] techniques of perception and judgement to these new media” was to be achieved at a time when literature in general and these techniques in particular were increasingly in eclipse. The lamented ‘difficulty’ of all modern art was an index of the problem.

How come to “establish a focus of the arts and sciences” (objective genitive) where this could be accomplished only through the “focus of the arts and sciences” (subjective genitive)?

NOBODY yet knows the language inherent in the new technological culture; we are all deaf-blind mutes in terms of the new situation. Our most impressive words and thoughts betray us by referring to the previously existent, not to the present.4 (Counterblast, 1954)


  1. Letters 220-224. All citations in this post are from this letter unless otherwise identified.
  2. From Cliché to Archetype, 160.
  3. Throughout the 1950s, McLuhan would pursue the implications of this observation both as regards the teaching of literature and the study of the new media: “If literature is to survive as a scholastic discipline except for a very few people, it must be by a transfer of its techniques of perception and judgement to these new media. The new media, which are already much more constitutive educationally than those of the class-room, must be inspected and discussed in the class-room if the class-room is to continue at all except as a place of detention. As a teacher of literature it has long seemed to me that the functions of literature cannot be maintained in present circumstances without radical alteration of the procedures of teaching.” (Letter to Innis, 222)
  4. “Referring to the previously existent, not to the present” points to the “paradox” cited above from Cliché to Archetype, 160.

Eisenstein 4 (1951)

McLuhan appears to have read Eisenstein’s 1949 Film Form in 1950, if not already in 1949. His ‘heavily annotated’ copy (mostly consisting of notes at the end of the book) remains in the Fisher Library McLuhan collection in Toronto. Eisenstein’s earlier Film Sense (1947) was read and cited by McLuhan as well, but it is not in the Fisher collection.

Beginning early in 1951, and continuing throughout the year, McLuhan mentioned Eisenstein in many different contexts:

Mechanical Bride1
it is easy to see that the basic techniques of both high and popular arts are now the same. Eisenstein is certainly of this opinion in his Film Sense, when he quotes René Guilleré2 on the close relation between jazz and cubism: ” (…) In jazz all elements are brought to the foreground. This is an important law which can be found in painting, in stage design, in films, and in the poetry of this period.” For the purposes of the present book it is also important to detect this “law” at work all around us because of the intelligibility it releases from such diverse situations. As the unity of the modern world becomes increasingly a technological rather than a social affair, the techniques of the arts provide the most valuable means of insight into the real direction of our own collective purposes. Conversely, the arts can become a primary means of social orientation and self-criticism.3

To Ezra Pound, January 5 19514
Eisenstein’s Film Form (Harcourt Brace 1949) [is] excellent on importance of Jap NOH [theatre] for cinema and of ideogram as basic grammar of montage.5 (…) My object is to learn the grammar and general language of major 20 fields in order to help on an orchestra among the arts. Cf. S. Giedion’s Mechanization Takes Command as a sample of how I should like to set up a school of literary studies. (…) You and Eisenstein have shown me how to make use of Chinese ideogram to elicit the natural modes of American sensibility. But I’ve just begun. Feeling my way.

McLuhan to Harold Innis, March 14, 19516
Mallarmé saw the modern press as a magical institution born of technology. The discontinuous juxtaposition of unrelated items made necessary by the influx of news stories from every quarter of the world, created, he saw, a symbolic landscape of great power and importance. (He used the word “symbol” in the strict Greek sense sym-ballein, to pitch together, physically and musically). He saw at once that the modern press was not a rational form but a magical one so far as communication was concerned. Its very technological form was bound to be efficacious far beyond any informative purpose.7 Politics were becoming musical, jazzy, magical.
The same symbolist perception applied to cinema showed that the montage of images was basically a return via technology to age-old picture language. S. Eisenstein’s Film Forum and Film [Sense]8 explore the relations between modern developments in the arts and Chinese ideogram, pointing to the common basis of ideogram in modern art, science and technology.
One major discovery of the symbolists which had the greatest importance for subsequent investigation was their notion of the learning process as a labyrinth of the senses and faculties whose retracing provided the key to all arts and sciences.

Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press9
just how valid were the impressionist techniques of the picturesque kind familiar to the news reporter appears in the notable essay of Eisenstein in Film Form where he shows the impact of Dickens on the art of DW GriffithsHow deeply English artists had understood the principles of picturesque art by 1780 appears from the invention of cinema at that time. In 1781 De Loutherbourg, the theatrical scene-painter, contrived in London a panorama which he called the “Eidophusikon” so as “to realize pictures in all four dimensions”. His “Various Imitations of Natural Phenomena, Represented by Moving Pictures” were advertised in these words and caused a sensation. Gainsborough, we are told by a contemporary, “was so delighted that for a time he thought of nothing else, talked of nothing else, and passed his evenings at the exhibition in long succession.” He even made one of these machines for himself capable of showing sunrise and moonrise as well as storms and ships at sea. Gainsborough through this cinema was experiencing the novelty of cubism with “lo spettatore nel centro del quadro“. (…) Once picturesque art, following the spectroscope, had broken up the continuum of linear art and narrative the possibility of cinematic montage emerged at once. And montage has to be arranged forwards or backwards. Forwards it yields narrative. Backwards it is reconstruction of events. Arrested it consists of the static landscape of the press, the co-existence of all aspects of community life. This is the image of the city presented in Ulysses.

To Ezra Pound, August 2, 195110
Landscape as a means of unifying inner and outer, strict observation plus erudition, leading to perfect control of states of mind — zoning device etc. Inclusive consciousness. Mosaic of precise juxtapositions in mutual irritation and tension generating power greatly in excess of mere sum of parts.
Eisenstein’s Film Form has the best treatment I know of this in relation to Chinese ideogram.
Cinema was immediate consequence of discovery of discontinuity as principle of picturesque landscape. MOVING PICTURES were made and shown in Naples and London in 1770. Painted scenes on rollers projected by lantern. This led at once to discovery of principle of reconstruction of situation by intellectual retracing. Retracing conditions leading to moment of aesthetic apprehension and arrest was Poe’s discovery. Led to detective story and symbolist poem. Detective story as reconstruction of crime by cinematic projection within the mind. Crime not explained but revealed.

  1. The Mechanical Bride was published in January 1951, but it was written in the 1940s, perhaps with some limited input in 1950.
  2. Guilleré (1878-1931) is cited at great length (5 pages!) by Eisenstein in Film Sense from Guilleré’s posthumously published essay ‘Il n’y a plus de perspective’, Le Cahier bleu, no 4, 1933. Cf, Film Sense, 94-99.
  3. MB, 87. Compare McLuhan to Innis in his March 14, 1951, letter: “Arts here used as providing criteria, techniques of observation, and bodies of recorded, achieved (archived?), experience. Points of departure but also return.”
  4. Letters, 218.
  5. Eisenstein’s ‘The Cinematic Principle and the Ideogram’ (in Film Form): “Cinematography is, first and foremost, montage. (…)  the “copulation” (perhaps we had better say, the combination) of two hieroglyphs of the simplest series is to be regarded not as their sum, but as their product, ie, as a value of another dimension, another degree; each separately, corresponds to an object, to a fact, but their combination corresponds to a concept. From separate hieroglyphs has been fused — the ideogram. By the combination of two “depictables” is achieved the representation of something that is graphically undepictable. For example: the picture of water and the picture of an eye signifies to weep; the picture of an ear near the drawing of a door = “to listen” (…) But this is montage! Yes. It is exactly what we do in the cinema, combining shots that are depictive, single in meaning, neutral in content, into intellectual contents and series.” Compare the principles of Chinese writing set out by Ernest Fenollosa in his essay, edited by Pound, on The Chinese Written Character: “So far we have exhibited the Chinese characters and the Chinese sentence chiefly as vivid shorthand pictures of actions and processes in nature. These embody the poetry as far as they go. Such actions are seen, but Chinese would be a poor language and Chinese poetry but a narrow art, could they not go on to represent also what is unseen. The best poetry deals not only with natural images but with lofty thoughts, spiritual suggestions, and obscure relations (…) You will ask, how could the Chinese have built up a great intellectual fabric from mere picture writing? To the ordinary western mind (…) this feat seems quite impossible. Yet the Chinese language with its peculiar materials has passed over from the seen to the unseen by exactly the same process which all ancient races employed. The process is metaphor, the use of material images to suggest immaterial relations.”
  6. Letters 221. McLuhan’s letter to Innis of March 14, 1951, was a rewrite of an earlier letter that Innis answered in February with apologies for his delay in doing so. It is not known when that earlier letter was written, but it must have been early in 1951 or even late in 1950.
  7. “Its very technological form was bound to be efficacious far beyond any informative purpose.” This is “the medium is the message” already in 1951.
  8. Instead of ‘Film Sense‘, McLuhan has ‘Film Technique‘ here, which was a volume on film theory not by Eisenstein, but by his fellow film director and friend, Vsevolod Pudovkin.
  9. ‘Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press’, Sewanee Review, 62(1), 38-55, 1954. This paper was written and submitted to Sewanee in 1951 but took three years to appear. McLuhan apparently made some minor modifications to it just before it was finally published.
  10. Letters, 224.

Eisenstein 3 (Balázs)

In the wake of his encounter with Eisenstein, another film theorist read by McLuhan along with Cesare Zavattini1 was Béla Balázs (1884-1949). The three together — Eisenstein, Zavattini and Balázs — exercised enormous influence on all of his subsequent work. It is no exaggeration to say that it would not have been possible without them.

Here is McLuhan in late 1953:

[McLuhan] Béla Balázs in his Theory of the Film (1952)2 notes some of the changes in visual habits resulting from the printing press on one hand and the camera on the other:
[Balázs as cited by McLuhan] “The discovery of printing gradually rendered illegible the faces of men. So much could be read from paper that the method of conveying meaning by facial expression fell into desuetude. Victor Hugo wrote once that the printed book took over the part played by the cathedral in the Middle Ages and became the carrier of the spirit of the people. But the thousands of books tore the one spirit . . . into thousands of opinions (…) tore the church into a thousand books. The visual spirit was thus turned into a legible spirit and visual culture into a culture of concepts. (…) But we paid little attention to the fact that, in conformity with this, the face of individual men, their foreheads, their eyes, their mouths, had also of necessity and quite correctly to suffer a change.
“At present a new discovery, a new machine is at work to turn the attention of men back to a visual culture and to give them new faces. This machine is the cinematographic camera. Like the printing press it is a technical device for the multiplication and distribution of products of the human spirit; its effect on human culture will not be less than that of the printing press. (…) The gestures of visual man are not intended to convey concepts which can be expressed in words, but such (…) non-rational emotions which would still remain unexpressed when everything that can be told has been told (…) Just as our musical experiences cannot be expressed in rationalized concepts, what appears on the face and in facial expression is a spiritual experience which is rendered immediately visible without the intermediary of words.”
[McLuhan] The printed page in rendering the language of the face and gesture illegible has also caused the abstract media of printed words to become the main bridge for the inter-awareness of spiritual and mental states.3 In the epoch of print and word culture the body ceased to have much expressive value and the human spirit became audible but invisible. The camera eye has reversed this process in reacquainting the masses of men once more within the grammar of gesture. Today commerce has channelled much of this change along sex lines. But even there the power of the camera eye to change physical attitudes and make-up is familiar to all. (‘Culture Without Literacy’, Explorations 1, 1953)

In 1954 the culture and communication seminar would take new direction from the topic of ‘acoustic space’. But the shock of recognition registered there through the comments of Carl Williams,4 together with suggestions in the work of McLuhan’s mentor, Sigfried Giedion,5 was surely (given the acquaintance of McLuhan and Theall with Theory of the Film)6 mediated through the chapter on ‘Sound’ in Balázs:

The Acoustic World7
It is the business of the sound film to reveal for us our acoustic environment, the acoustic landscape in which we live, the speech of things and the intimate whisperings of nature; all that has speech beyond human speech, and speaks to us with the vast conversational powers of life and incessantly influences and directs our thoughts and emotions, from the muttering of the sea to the din of a great city, from the roar of machinery to the gentle patter of autumn rain on a window pane. The meaning of a floorboard creaking in a deserted room, a bullet whistling past our ear, the death-watch beetle ticking in old furniture, and the forest spring tinkling over the stones. Sensitive lyrical poets always could hear these significant sounds of life and describe them in words. It is for the sound film to let them speak to us more directly from the screen. (Theory of the Film, 198)8

Balázs continued this passage in a way that not only would have recalled Giedion’s Space, Time and Architecture to McLuhan, but that may well have first sparked Giedion’s own thoughts along these lines (presumably from the original German of Balázs) sometime before the appearance of STA in 1941:

The sounds of our day-to-day life [continued Balázs] we hitherto perceived merely as a confused noise, as a formless mass of din, rather as an unmusical person may listen to a symphony; at best he may be able to distinguish the leading melody, the rest will fuse into a chaotic clamour. The sound film will teach us to analyse even chaotic noise with our ear and read the score of life’s symphony. Our ear will hear the different voices in the general babble and distinguish their character as manifestations of individual life. It is an old maxim that art saves us from chaos. The arts differ from each other in the specific kind of chaos which they fight against. The vocation of the sound film is to redeem us from the chaos of shapeless noise by accepting it as expression, as significance, as meaning.9

Here is Giedion from the start of STA:

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. 


  1. See Eisenstein 2 (Zavattini).
  2. Theory of the Film is a translation of essays which appeared over three decades from the 1920s to the 1940s. Like McLuhan’s exposure to Eisenstein’s Film Form, the influence on McLuhan of these Balázs essays can hardly be overstated. For example, Theory of the Film has chapters on ‘Sound’, in which “the acoustic world” is named and discussed, and on ‘Dialogue’ — topics repeatedly treated by McLuhan for the rest of his life. An annotated copy of Theory of the Film, given to McLuhan by Don Theall and his wife in 1953, is preserved in the University of Toronto Fisher Library McLuhan collection (#02464).
  3. See Bridges of spiritual and mental states.
  4. See Autobiography 1954: McLuhan & Williams on discovering ‘auditory space’ and Ted Carpenter on discovering ‘auditory space’.
  5. Autobiography 1954: McLuhan & Williams on discovering ‘auditory space’.
  6. See note 2 above. Theall participated in the culture and communication seminar as a junior faculty member.
  7. The title here, ‘The Acoustic World’, is from Balázs. Carl Williams criticized McLuhan’s use of the term ‘acoustic space’ saying that it was properly ‘auditory space’. McLuhan paid no attention to Williams’ point and continued with ‘acoustic’ forever. It may be that his attachment to the term was indication of a continuing allegiance to Balázs.
  8. This passage in Balázs — “It is the business of the sound film to reveal for us our acoustic environment, the acoustic landscape in which we live, the speech of things and the intimate whisperings of nature; all that has speech beyond human speech, and speaks to us with the vast conversational powers of life…” — has clear affinities with Zavattini: “Now it has been perceived that reality is hugely rich, that to be able to look directly at it is enough; and that the artist’s task is not to make people moved or indignant at metaphorical situations, but to make them reflect (and, if you like, to be moved and indignant too) on what they and others are doing, on the real things, exactly as they are.”
  9. In Theory of the Film this passage is cited by Balázs from himself from “two decades ago”. But the original source is not identified and is apparently not included in Theory of the Film.

Eisenstein 2 (Zavattini)

One of the signs of the gravitational pull exercised by Eisenstein on McLuhan was the close attention he came to pay to other theoreticians of film once he had been exposed to Eisenstein. One of the most important of these was Cesare Zavattini, 1902-1989, who was cited by McLuhan at amazing length in his 1954 ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’ lecture:1

[McLuhan:] Another way of seeing this mysterious medium [of film] for transforming experience is to consider it as the exact embodiment of Plato’s Cave. The dreaming eye of the movie god casting his images on the dark screen corresponds to that image of human life offered to us by Plato in the Republic: existence is a kind of cave or cellar on the back wall of which we watch the shadows of real things from the outside world of reality.
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. I can only regard the movie as the mechanization and distortion of this cognitive miracle by which we recreate within ourselves the exterior world. [It is potentially distorting, because]2 whereas cognition provides that dance of the intellect which is the analogical sense of Being, the mechanical medium has tended to provide merely a dream world which is a substitute for reality rather than a means of [probing]3 reality.
The camera, however, in the hands of a realist is capable of quite different effects, and I should like to offer some remarks of Cesare Zavattini, the famous Italian movie-artist as suggesting a humanist rather than an aspirin approach to the film:

[Zavattini:] No doubt one’s first and most superficial reaction to everyday reality is that it is tedious. Until we are able to overcome some moral and intellectual laziness, in fact, this reality will continue to appear uninteresting. One shouldn’t be astonished that the cinema has always felt the natural, unavoidable necessity to insert a “story” in the reality to make it exciting and “spectacular.” All the same, it is clear that such a method evades a direct approach to everyday reality, and suggests that it cannot be portrayed without the intervention of fantasy or artifice.
The most important characteristic, and the most important innovation, of what is called neorealism, it seems to me, is to have realised that the necessity of the “story” was only an unconscious way of disguising a human defeat, and that the kind of imagination it involved was simply a technique of superimposing dead formulas over living social facts. Now it has been perceived that reality is hugely rich, that to be able to look directly at it is enough; and that the artist’s task is not to make people moved or indignant at metaphorical situations, but to make them reflect (and, if you like, to be moved and indignant too) on what they and others are doing, on the real things, exactly as they are.
For me this has been a great victory. I would like to have achieved it many years earlier. But I made the discovery only at the end of the war. It was a moral discovery, an appeal to order. I saw at last what lay in front of me, and I understood that to have evaded reality had been to betray it.
Example: Before this, if one was thinking over the idea of a film on, say, a [workers’] strike, one was immediately forced to invent a plot. And the strike itself became only the background to the film. Today, our attitude wouId be one of “revelation”: we would describe the strike itself, try to work out the largest possible number of human, moral, social, economic, poetic values from the bare documentary fact.
We have passed from an unconsciously rooted mistrust of reality, an illusory and equivocal evasion, to an unlimited trust in things, facts and people. Such a position requires us, in effect, to excavate reality, to give it a power, a communication, a series of reflexes, which until recently we had never thought it had. It requires, too, a true and real interest in what is happening, a search for the most deeply hidden human values; which is why we feel that the cinema must recruit not only intelligent people, but, above all, “living” souls, the morally richest people.
The cinema’s overwhelming desire to see, to analyse, its hunger for reality, is an act of concrete homage towards other people, towards what is happening and existing in the world. And, incidentally, it is what distinguishes “neorealism” from the American cinema. (…)
What effects on narrative, then, and on the portrayal of human character, has the neorealist style produced?
To begin with, while the cinema used to make one situation produce another situation, and another, and another, again and again, and each scene was thought out and immediately related to the next (the natural result of a mistrust of reality), today, when we have thought out a scene, we feel the need to “remain” in it, because the single scene itself can contain so many echoes and reverberations, can even contain all the situations we may need. Today, in fact, we can quietly say: give us whatever “fact” you like, and we will disembowel it, make it something worth watching.
While the cinema used to portray life in its most visible and external moments — and a film was usually only a series of situations selected and linked together with varying success — today the neorealist affirms that each one of these situations, rather than all the external moments, contains in itself enough material for a film.
Example: In most films, the adventures of two people looking for somewhere to live, for a house, would be shown externally in a few moments of action, but for us it could provide the scenario for a whole film, and we would explore all its echoes, all its implications.
Of course, we are still a long way from a true analysis of human situations, and one can speak of analysis only in comparison with the dull synthesis of most current production. We are, rather, still in an “attitude” of analysis; but in this attitude there is a strong purpose, a desire for understanding, for belonging, for participating — for living together, in fact.
Substantially, then, the question today is, instead of turning imaginary situations into “reality” and trying to make them look “true,” [rather] to take things as they are, almost by themselves, [as they] create their own special significance. Life is not what is invented in “stories”; life is another matter. To understand it involves a minute, unrelenting, and patient search.
Here I must bring in another point of view. I believe that the world goes on getting worse because we are not truly aware of reality. The most authentic position anyone can take up today is to engage himself in tracing the roots of this problem. The keenest necessity of our time is “social attention”.
Attention, though, to what is there, directly: not through an apologue, however well conceived. A starving man, a humiliated man, must be shown by name and surname; no fable [is fit] for a starving man, because that is something else, less effective and less moral. The true function of the cinema is not to tell fables, and to a true function we must recall it.
Of course, reality can be analysed by ways of fiction. Fictions can be expressive and natural; but neorealism, if it wants to be worthwhile, must sustain the moral impulse that characterised its beginnings, in an analytical documentary way. No other medium of expression has the cinema’s original and innate capacity for showing things, that we believe worth showing, as they happen day by day — in what we might call their “dailiness“, their longest and truest duration. The cinema has everything in front of it, and no other medium has the same possibilities for getting it known quickly to the greatest number of people.
As the cinema’s responsibility also comes from its enormous power, it should try to make every frame of film count, by which I mean that it should penetrate more and more into the manifestations and the essence of reality.
The cinema only affirms its moral responsibility when it approaches reality in this way.
The moral, like the artistic, problem lies in being able to observe reality, not to extract fictions from it.4

[McLuhan:] That I think represents a point of view which can only be regarded as a major addition to Catholic humanism and letters. And 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. And the mechanical or mass media of communication must at least [likewise] poet5 the world in order to hold our attention.
The movie can teach us something more about perception and the poetic process. The characteristic dream world offered to the movie spectator occurs when we reverse the spool on which the camera has rolled up the carpet of the external world. So reversed, the carpet of the daylight world becomes the magic carpet of dreams carrying us instantly anywhere. Similarly, it would seem that the poet differs from other men only in his conscious ability to arrest the intake of experience and to reverse the flow. By this means he is able to externalize in a work the actual process by which each of us in perception or cognition incarnates the external world of experience. But 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.6

  1. Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’ was first printed by St Joseph College, West Hartford, in The 1954 McAuley Lectures: Christian Humaniam in Letters:

    It was reprinted in the collected McAuley Lectures 1953-1959; and then posthumously reprinted again in McLuhan, The Medium and the Light (1999). Page numbers here are taken from The Medium and the Light edition.

  2. Instead of ‘It is potentially distorting, because’, McLuhan has just ‘But’.
  3. McLuhan: ‘proving’ (probably a typo resulting from the repeated use of ‘provide’ in the preceding lines).
  4. Cesare Zavattini, ‘Interview’ in Sight and Sound, Oct-Dec 1953, pp 64-65. Translated from the Italian, originally in La Revista del Cinema Italiano, December 1952.
  5. The Medium and the Light text hasparrot’ here, not ‘poet’. This is doubtless a typo caused by the unusual construction “must poet” which McLuhan used here twice. As he has it in the following paragraph: “every word uttered by man requires a large measure of the poetic ability”.
  6. ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’, The Medium and the Light, 165-169.

Eisenstein 1

Eisenstein presents the case of someone McLuhan’s thought tended towards — simply because both Eisenstein and McLuhan were called to think — and someone whom McLuhan read and learned from. To compare, there are many parallels between McLuhan and Plato,1 but these did not derive from a serious engagement with Plato: they derived from the two taking similar paths on the way of thought (subj gen!). With Eisenstein, in contrast, McLuhan was shown ways in which his thought could be developed — and was developed.

This was, however, not a matter of read and thereby learn. Not right away. Confrontation with a thinker on the way of thought (subj gen!) takes a lifetime. Even to begin to understand Eisenstein’s thought took McLuhan a decade. And when he did finally see a way forward — the understanding media project — he probably was not more than vaguely aware (if that) of the importance Eisenstein’s way markers had been to him – and were still.

Most of McLuhan’s learning from Eisenstein was accomplished silently. He did not explicitly consider and digest points from him. Instead, as he made his way along the path of thought after encountering Eisenstein around the age of 40, he took turns in the subsequent decade which he may not have recognized even as turns, and almost certainly didn’t recognize as Eisenstein’s turns, but which had a kind of smell of potential to them deriving from Eisenstein (not without crucial impetus also from other thinkers like Eliot, Pound, Joyce and Mallarmé) and which prompted him to try them out.

The way of thought is necessarily an unknown way along which especially the crucial steps must be taken blindly. That this is native to human beings may be seen in the fact that infants follow this way in learning to speak. But the great majority of humans gradually unlearn this ability as they become bound to the opinions of others in the process of socialization. Advertising and propaganda are wagons hitched to this horse. But especially humour reveals that appreciation of the unexpected never disappears and is able to reassert itself from time to time even in the dullest of beans.

Every thinker must go along the same way of thought (subj gen!), but each must do so in his or her own way. The following posts on Eisenstein will attempt to illuminate how this took place in the case of Marshall McLuhan.

  1. See the Plato posts.

Bridges of spiritual and mental states

the abstract medium1 of printed words [has] become the main bridge for the inter-awareness of spiritual and mental states. (Culture Without Literacy)2

There are many important implications to this passage from McLuhan’s essay in the first issue of Explorations in 1953. Above all, it suggests, or demands, that mentality and spirituality are to be distinguished, and that they are to be distinguished in such a way that the subjection of mentality to spirituality is considered a live option. In an age of advertising and propaganda (which turn on the dominion of mentality), this is a radical and unheard of notion that has largely disappeared from western ‘culture’ after having been an important force in it for millennia. 

Unpacking the notion might include considerations like the following:

First, if the medium of print has “become the main bridge of inter-awareness”, there must be other bridges of such inter-awareness. Plural. One alone cannot be said to be the ‘main’ one.

Second, if “spiritual and mental states” need not only to be bridged, but also to be differentiated (since a bridge must have two ends)3, there must be a plurality of mental/spiritual ratios corresponding to the plural bridges of inter-awareness between them.

Third, if there are plural “spiritual and mental states” with plural bridges of the inter-awareness between them, it must be questionable which of them (spiritual or mental) is more basic than the other — ie, which one is figure and which one is ground. And if this question cannot be established apriori (which is what it means for something to be questionable)  it must be allowed that there is a range of possible ratios between the two of them stretching from the dominance of spirituality at one end of the range to the dominance of mentality at the other. 

Fourth, the values represented by the ratios along this range must amount to possible ontologies, plural, since each amounts to a constellation according to which the spiritual and the mental may be perceived, relative to each other, to be. At the same time, the range presents possible moralities (how they ought to be) and utilities (how and why they might aim).

Fifth, entry into consideration of these questions must be made, if at all, freely and spontaneously since it would be thoughtless to consider the range of the ratios or bridges between “spiritual and mental states” on the presupposed basis of one of them. If such consideration is possible at all, therefore, it must be possible to initiate it, either completely absent such presupposition, or on the accepted basis of a presupposition that somehow does not decide in advance on the fundamentality question between them. (This either/or may itself be a both/and!

Sixth, however entry is made to such considerations, the enabled investigation must be aware that it is perpetually subject to recall and revision — since the object of its investigations implicates the question of its own reality and its own fitness to the task at hand. (McLuhan in ‘Culture Without Literacy’: “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.”)

Seventh, both because of the unavoidable circularity of such probing, and because of the related essential difference between range4 and instance of that range, investigations of these matters implicate a finitude which has been difficult or impossible for ‘thinkers’ in the propaganda era to admit. Or, even more, to accept as the very keystone of any authentic cum scientific investigation of the humanities and social disciplines.  

Eighth, there is therefore a necessary doubling5 between mentality at any time and its actual and possible spiritual states that introduces incessant questions of its ontology, morality and utility. Demanding (or at least supposing there is) a de-finitive answer to these questions defines the ‘Gutenberg era’. Balancing in the finite dynamics of these questions defines the ‘Marconi era’. (The ‘main question‘ of an understanding media project would be how to investigate both of these without privileging one of them — for privilege in either direction would be not to question.)

Ninth, as soon as the “doublin” of mentality and spirituality is admitted, a new context is identified for human being on this earth. Its implication is  that human beings reside by nature in the questionability of ontology, morality and utility. Known or unknown, intelligibility and action arise at every moment only in relation to these questions — each is always only one possible response among many equally possible other responses to them. Accordingly, human being would be that unique sort of being which is inexorably exposed to plurality in both its exterior and interior landscapes — it would be the offspring of, and witness to, this fecundity.



  1. McLuhan has ‘media’ here, not ‘medium’. At this point in his career he was still on his way to the need to focus on a medium through the range of media.
  2. Explorations 1, 1953.
  3. Joyce in Ulysses: a pier is “a disappointed bridge”.
  4. Range itself implicates finitude, since a range is necessarily a plurality and a plurality must include borders de-fining the units of that plurality.
  5. Joyce on the first page of FW: “doublin their mumper all the time” (where ‘mumper’ is both ‘number’ and ‘lout’ and therefore a multiple and hilarious example of the working of doublin/Dublin).

Early McLuhan on film

In a series of following posts on Sergei Eisenstein, the case will be made that McLuhan came to his topic — understanding media — through a consideration of film and particularly of Eisenstein on film technique.

By the time McLuhan encountered Eisenstein’s theoretical work in the late 1940s, he had been peripherally interested in film for at least 15 years.  Still in Winnipeg, anticipating what he would find at Cambridge in Culture and EnvironmentThe Training of Critical Awareness by F.R. Leavis and Denys Thompson1, he noted in a 1934 article in The Manitoban:

the radio and the movie are even more potent than “bread and circuses” to produce in men that fatigue which is fatal to a civilization.2

Later that same year, now in his first term at Cambridge, McLuhan sent his family a parody of Prospero’s famous lines from The Tempest (IV, 1):

This orgy now is ended. These mad hustlers
As I foretold you, were all bluff and
Are shown to be air, even hot air:
And like the baseless credit of their business
Their sign-capped towers and raucous newspapers,
Their film temples, great Hollywood itself,
And all that it doth breed on shall dissolve,
And like an insubstantial pageant faded
Leave not a rack behind. They were such stuff
Screen-stars are made on and their feverish life
Is quieted now in sleep.3

Then in 1940 in St Louis, McLuhan reviewed Mortimer Adler’s Art and Prudence (1937), a book that had for its subject (in Adler’s words cited by McLuhan) “the influence of motion pictures on human behavior”. Adler’s take was characterized by McLuhan as follows:

Democracy (…) is the result of the mechanization of society and the obliteration of all save economic distinctions between persons and social classes. Thus “one cannot live in a democracy and despise the popular arts”.4 Art in a democracy is an instrument in an instrumental society. And it is thus peculiarly fitting that the art form of a mechanized sub-human society should be highly mechanized. This is the movie. It alone provides for the masses a sense of mass participation in all the functions of society. [While this is a sense] at a very low level, it is true, it nevertheless constitutes a mode of communication between all the functional units of society (units which were formerly persons) without which it is scarcely possible to conceive of Democracy.5

McLuhan’s critique at the time was of course directed at the notion of such an “instrumental society” and its “functional units” — “units which were formerly persons”. This did not prevent him, however, from noting that Adler’s “absence of concern for the technical means (…) of the movie [form] is one of the most striking deficiencies of the volume under review”. Thus:

The trouble with Pudovkin’s Film Technique [1926; translation 1933] and its followers is, from Mr. Adler’s point of view, that they make a drastic critique of the movie (…) [from] within the limits of the art itself.6 Pudovkin and all the critics who speak from a knowledge of the artistic aims and the technical means of the movie are much more devastating and effective in their comment on the old bag of stage tricks which Hollywood serves up as film art…

Already in 1940 McLuhan had a vague sense that “artistic aims and (…) technical means” might not only not be inimitable to the sort of ethical society he championed as a committed distributist7, but might actually help reconstitute and maintain it. It was in pursuit of this notion, particularly in reference to film theory like that of Eisenstein, Zavattini and Balázs, that he would arrive at his topic, understanding media, two decades later.

  1. 1933.
  2. Tomorrow and Tomorrow?’, The Manitoban16 May 1934. Compare in Leavis and Thompson: “whatever play or film he attends for amusement, the pressure of the herd is brought to bear upon him.”
  3. McLuhan to his family, November 3, 1934, Letters 34.
  4. McLuhan cites Art and Prudence p. 114 here.
  5. McLuhan,  Review of Art and Prudence by Mortimer J. Adler, Fleur de Lis, 40:1, October 1940, 30-32.
  6. McLuhan: “they (= Pudovkin’s Film Technique and its followers) make a drastic critique of the movie (medium) he (= Adler) is defending within the limits of the art itself.”
  7. See Autobiography – encountering Chesterton.

Beyond the cultural monad

the written vernaculars have always locked men up within their own cultural monad…(Culture Without Literacy, 1953)1

One of McLuhan’s ever-repeated points was that the modern world has relentlessly and irreversibly exposed every particular culture (here called “vernaculars”) to other cultures in both space and time. The most important effect of this exposure (the message of this transformation of medium) has been to force reconsideration of everything that had previously been accepted only because it was not known to be potentially variable.

There is a close parallel, or parallels, between this social process and the process of individual education. Both require a sometimes difficult reconfiguration as they are exposed to new information. Digestion must be achieved that may or may not be successful. Indeed, complete success in digestion is doubtless not possible, or even conceivable, for entities which are irretrievably finite in multiple ways — unless ‘complete success’ is seen to implicate, somehow, a lack of completion.2

The great perennial relevance of this parallel lies in the fact that the social digestion required for peace and even survival must doubtless first be achieved in the simpler individual form. 

In fact, this process has already long been brought along by individuals like Plato or Confucius in ways we can hardly hope to emulate.

It would seem that we have two tasks. First, to retrieve what Plato and others have achieved by attempting to digest their digestion. Hard enough! But then, second, to work at what Plato and his great fellow thinkers have not been able to achieve, namely, the ignition of a successful social digestion incorporating that individual digestion.


  1. Explorations 1, 1953.
  2. This is exactly ‘the main question‘.

Analog and digital times

In the new translation of the Book of Knowledge into a two-bit language, only the gaps make sense.1

The Bells of Old Tokyo: Meditations on Time and a City (2019) by Anna Sherman:

Jesuit missionaries brought the first clocks to Japan; they were objects of wonder. Unlike temple bells, which sounded at intervals, the new clocks registered permanent time. The ceaseless and visible movement of the clocks’ hands was something altogether new. The idea of time itself changed… (69, emphasis in the original)

Mechanical clocks introduced a new analog sense of time that had previously everywhere, not only in Japan, been digital.  Before their introduction, time had never been without basic spatial and temporal intervals2 — and basic intervals define the digital in distinction from the analog.

Digitality seems to introduce unheard of uniformity — “two-bit” in the negative sense. But its “two-bit” basis brings with it the possibility of relating to the past in a way that does not require either one of the sides of the past/present divide to be privileged against the other.3 Further, the complicated times before mechanical clocks can only then be appreciated when they are understood as incorporating their own complex styles of intelligence — styles of intelligence that today are emerging even in the hard sciences like quantum physics, or particularly there, as capable of yielding more precise insight than analog uniformity (aka, the same ones in series).

McLuhan to Willem Oltmans in a 1974 interview ‘On Growth’:

literate man is a one-way character incapable of two-way dialogue with any other kind of culture.

The last lines of Sherman’s book (225) are:

Nothing ever rests.
Light and Shade.

It should not be thought that Sherman ends by saluting the reign of horizontal analog time. Instead, the well known restlessness of time (“nothing ever rests” — including restlessness) must be appreciated in its fundamentally divided complexity. The digital nature of time must be seen as a vertical or synchronic drive to expression as well as extinction that characterizes all things, like light and shade.4 Here is Anaximander in Nietzsche’s translation:

Woher die Dinge ihre Entstehung haben, dahin müssen sie auch zu Grunde gehen, nach der Notwendigkeit; denn sie müssen Buße zahlen und für ihre Ungerechtigkeiten gerichtet werden, gemäß der Ordnung der Zeit.5

Whence things have their origin, there they must also pass away according to necessity; for they must pay penalty and be judged for their injustice, according to the ordinance of time.

In the middle of her book (81), Sherman cites from the Avatamsaka Sutra:

Sudhana said, ‘Where has that magnificent display gone?’
Matreya said, ‘Where it came from.’6  


  1. See note 3 below.
  2. Spatial intervals: differences in time from place to place; temporal intervals: differences within time at any one place. Even with mechanical clocks these spatial and temporal intervals would not be overcome until uniform time was required by the railroads in the nineteenth century. And even then, communities that were isolated in some way would not easily be ‘integrated’ into what was termed the world economy.
  3. McLuhan began speaking and writing about “two-bits” in the last decade of his life: “Two bits, of course, has taken on a new meaning in the computer age.  It’s a two bit operation — programming a computer; it’s done by yes-no bits. I think when one begins to speak to any group at all he is somewhat in the position of a stripper, who must ‘put on’ her audience by taking off her clothes. This, of course, is an operation that could be reversed. You could come out nude and start dressing…” (‘Hardware/Software Mergers’, 1969); “Computer specialists go all out to reduce every human problem to yes or no questions demanding yes or no answers. In the new translation of the Book of Knowledge into a two-bit language, only the gaps make sense” (Take Today, 1972, 130).
  4. Exactly because time is itself fundamentally divided, and because extinction is as essential to it as expression, time is always also analog!
  5. Die Philosophie im tragischen Zeitalter der Griechen, 1873.
  6. The Flower Ornament Scripture, translated by Thomas Cleary.