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? (You can’t get to the correct “potencies” of language by presupposing 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 learns 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.”
  4. “Referring to the previously existent, not to the present” points to the “paradox” cited above from Cliché to Archetype, 160.