Monthly Archives: March 2020

McLuhan in Nova Scotia

In his 2-page ‘Autobiography’, McLuhan mentions

a year of early childhood spent on the Bay of Fundy. The scent and action of the sea has permeated my being ever since.1

This would have been in 1915-1916 since Elsie, Marshall and Maurice visited Herb in Montreal, where he briefly served as a recruiter in the the military from August to November 1916.2 Elsie had spent the first two decades of her life in the Annapolis Valley and had many close relatives and friends there; but the particular occasion of the Nova Scotia stay may have been the 1915 death of her paternal grandfather, John Henry Hall (1836-1915). In addition, her maternal grandmother, Susan Starratt Marshall (1835-1914) had died the year before that. Her maternal grandfather, Theodore Harding Marshall (1837-1934) and paternal grandmother, Naomi Ogilvie Hall (1834-1928)3 remained alive and Elsie and the boys, almost certainly also with Elsie’s mother, Margaret Marshall Hall (1861-1931), would have stayed with both over the course of their long visit.

It must have been in happy remembrance of that time in his childhood, along with his Distributist convictions, that led McLuhan to write to Elsie 20 years later from Cambridge:

I am eager for some mundane experience simply that I may use it as a weapon to call the bluff of the “practical”, “no-nonsense”, cads and grafters who have put us where we are. (…) If I felt no vocation in this direction I could think of no more pleasing alternative than to take a 30 acre orchard-dairy farm in the Maritimes. (…) As soon as I have a job I intend to purchase such a small farm (near the sea) which shall have a worthy tenant who shall pay no rent beyond partly providing board and lodging for me and my family (if any) during the holiday months. (McLuhan to Elsie, June 8, 1935, Letters 71)


  1. Eliot’s Four Quartets were an important part of McLuhan’s intellectual life and of his courses for three decades and more. Here he may have been thinking of ‘The Dry Salvages’, the third of the four:
    the sea is all about us;
    The sea is the land’s edge also, the granite
    Into which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses
    Its hints of earlier and other creation
    (…) The salt is on the briar rose,
    The fog is in the fir trees.
  2. At the LDS Family Search site, there is a picture of Herb in uniform with his two boys labeled ‘Montreal 1916’. Herb was discharged from the army in November 1916 due to illness, although he had served only a few months.
  3. Elsie Naomi Hall was named after her Naomi Hall grandmother.

The McLuhans move to Winnipeg

Henry Selden Hall (1862-1926), Elsie McLuhan’s father and Marshall’s maternal grandfather, was a complex man. In Nova Scotia he had repeatedly uprooted his family from one small farm to another; then homesteaded in Alberta where he could finally possess some sizable acreage; then immediately sold the place as soon as he had fulfilled the homestead conditions of building it into a workable farm with a new house, barn, and out-buildings; then managed other farms in Alberta and Manitoba for hire; and finally, in 1915, enlisted in the war effort at age 53 along with his two sons, Ray and Reg.1

It was this latter event, combined with her husband’s own pending enlistment, which precipitated Elsie McLuhan’s 1915 move with her two young sons, Marshall and Maurice, from Edmonton to her relatives in Nova Scotia.2 Although most of the large McLuhan family remained in Edmonton,3 with some of them apparently renting her house there (it wasn’t sold until 1923), Elsie’s mother had been left alone in the Winnipeg area where she and Henry (sometimes with one or both of their sons) had been living since 1912.4 In 1915 Margaret Hall must have accompanied Elsie and the boys back to her birthplace and remaining family there. 

At the end of 1916, or the beginning of 1917, Elsie, her mother and her two boys moved from Nova Scotia back west — to Winnipeg. Herb may have already been with them. In any case the five of them were all living together in 1918 at 314 Rosedale in Winnipeg (Fort Rouge), waiting the return of Henry Hall and of Elsie’s two brothers from the war.

Since they continued to own their Edmonton house, the McLuhans were apparently undecided about eventually moving back to it. Again it may have been Henry who decided the issue. In 1919, he bought land south of Winnipeg in Elm Creek and farmed there, sometimes with one or other of his sons, until he began to sicken in 1924. This precipitated a move back to Winnipeg, where he and Elsie mother’s lived with the McLuhans at 507 Gertrude. Henry died there in 1926, as did Elsie’s mother, Margaret, in 1931.5

Here is a picture of Elsie with her two boys, Marshall (b 1911) and Maurice (b 1913), taken beside their house in Edmonton, not long before they moved away in 1915:6

The house must have been rented soon thereafter since the 1916 census has Herbert living with his parents and two of his siblings elsewhere in Edmonton.


  1. It would seem that Elsie’s itinerant lifestyle and multi-character one-woman theatre must have derived in some part from her father’s impulsive ways and frequent life changes.
  2. Herbert McLuhan’s real estate firm, McLuhan, Sullivan & McDonald, collapsed in 1914 or 1915. (It is still listed in Polk’s Real Estate Register and Directory of the United States and Canada for 1915.) What role this event played in Elsie leaving Edmonton may only be guessed.
  3. James McLuhan, Marshall’s paternal grandfather, died in Edmonton in 1919. Here is his obituary: “Friends of Miss Ethel McLuhan will be sorry to hear of the death of her father, Mr. James McLuhan, 11339 95a street, who passed away Saturday morning (December 7) at the ripe age of eighty-three. Mr. McLuhan was a native of Ireland, but came to Ontario with his parents when nine years of age. He was one of the pioneer farmers of Ontario and farmed for over forty years at Mount Forest, only coming to Mannville about 1900. For some years past Mr and Mrs McLuhan have resided in Edmonton where several members of the family are located. Mr McLuhan was a man of an exceptionally high order of intellect, a genial personality and one who took a broad interest in the affairs of the community and of the world at large. He was a man of wide reading, fond of good music, and keenly interested in astronomy. Those of his family who are left to mourn his passing are his wife, Mrs. James McLuhan (Margaret Grieve), daughters Mrs. Edwin Williams (Jennie McLuhan), Mrs. Peter Mackay (Rita McLuhan), Miss Ethel McLuhan; and sons, John McLuhan, Wallace McLuhan, and Roy McLuhan of this city; and Herbert McLuhan of Winnipeg. (Edmonton Journal, December 13, 1919)
  4. Before he enlisted in the army, Henry worked farms near Winnipeg, first in the Lilyfield and Meadows areas northwest of the city and then in Arnaud to the south.
  5. Elsie left Winnipeg and her family in 1933. (For discussion, see Elsie McLuhan on the Mastery of Life.) Presumably she would have done so earlier if her mother had not been living out the last years of her life with them.
  6. For this picture and others of the house, see the website of the architect in charge of its restoration at

Herb McLuhan in Maclean’s

In 1929 McLuhan’s father, Herbert Ernest McLuhan (1879-1966), writing with W.S. Newman1, published an article in Maclean’s magazine, ‘Our Population Problem’.2

A version of the article, without its last section, appeared earlier in the The Winnipeg Evening Tribune.3

The article reviewed proposals intended to help farmers made by Ernest Charles Drury, the Premier of Ontario from 1919 to 1923. Drury had been Premier as the leader the United Farmers of Ontario party. The Newman-McLuhan piece rejected Drury’s contention that tariffs imposed to encourage Canadian manufacturing were an unsupportable burden on agriculture. At the same time (as indicated by the title, ‘Our Population Problem’) they argued that it was Canada’s small population which limited its manufacturing potential and that tariffs were not decisive for it, either. 

The article anticipates a point that would be at the heart of Marshall McLuhan’s work throughout his career. The authors regret the lack of understanding of the west by the easterner, Drury. Similarly, they detail a lack of understanding of farm life by a politician — even a United Farmers politician. Like his future UT colleague, Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan would treat problems of this sort as imbalances between centre and margin. And he would argue that such imbalance was a defining characteristic of the analog Gutenberg galaxy, while centre-margin balance was the essence of the digital Marconi era. The concluding lines of the Newman-McLuhan Maclean’s article nicely illustrate the principle at stake:

solutions are doomed to failure which are based upon the continued hostility of Canada’s two premier industries — agriculture and manufacturing. These industries are absolutely interdependent and therefore the only policy which can ever hope to succeed is one which replaces friction with harmony and has co-operation for its keynote.4

A lack of balance, aka friction, causes practical problems which cannot be put right by policies which themselves lack balance. Both practice and theory must instead be grounded in harmony. Ultimately, all such questions concern the nature of reality for it is the fundamental characteristic of all oppositions to be “absolutely interdependent”. Absolutely — that is, at the end of day, all things considered, ontologically.

The great problem, of course, concerns the nature of the relation of friction and harmony themselves: are these, too, “absolutely interdependent”?  How not, if their relation is ultimately a matter of reality itself? But how so, when friction so often overwhelmingly asserts itself against harmony?5 How, then, get a handle on such a deep and perplexing problem, especially when it has enormous practical implications?

Herb McLuhan’s 1929 article, and doubtless his thinking in general, may be taken as a springboard from which Marshall McLuhan’s intellectual life took off. He would investigate how the tradition had considered the friction/harmony riddle and how communication about it had broken down in modern times — even awareness that such consideration existed at all. The imperative question was how communication of the two with each other and of the riddle of their relation with our contemporary lives might be repaired and the riddle considered once more.6

  1. Newman, apparently a pal of Herb McLuhan, appeared frequently in the conservative newspaper in Winnipeg, The Tribune, with poems lampooning the Liberals. Marshall McLuhan was a paperboy for the Tribune in the 1920s, but later developed a relation with the Winnipeg Liberal newspaper, The Free Press.
  2. ‘Our Population Problem’, W.S. Newman and H.E. McLuhan, Maclean’s, March 1 1929, 34 & 38. Thanks to Jarrett Cole for the tip.
  3. Ex-Premier Drury and His Tilt Against Tariff Bogey‘, W.S. Newman and H.E. McLuhan, The Winnipeg Evening Tribune, January 5, 1929, 5.
  4. ‘Our Population Problem’, 38.
  5. McLuhan’s appreciation of James Joyce must be situated in this context, for the relation of Stephen to Bloom turns on it, as does the ebb and flow of Finnegans Wake.
  6. Of course, the question is itself an instance of the riddle. For if the relation with the tradition has become one of friction, how is that to be considered harmoniously without fundamental distortion?

How communicate the presupposition to communication?

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. (McLuhan to Innis in 1951, Letters 221)

“We paced along the lonely plain, as one who returning to his lost road, and, till he reached it, seems to go in vain.” (Dante, Purgatorio, Canto 1, cited ‘Space, Time, and Poetry’, 1955)

As discussed in Shaw & medium as the message, McLuhan from the very outset of his intellectual life was aware of the circular problem posed by the attempt to communicate what must already be in place in order to communicate at all

This cannot be done lineally. Zeno’s paradoxes are generated by the attempt and, as those paradoxes may be taken to indicate, you cannot advance lineally to get to where you need to be in order to start advancing.1 In order to initiate investigation of this topic, at last, McLuhan’s suggestion was that we study successful examples of communication (as seen, say, in language learning or advertising) and to do so by “retracing” how they come about.

For human beings do communicate. The infant’s ability to learn language is archetypal. With time it learns to communicate with others, but first of all2 it must somehow have learned to receive communication from them. Such successful prior reception of language is manifested in the passive understanding of infants, which precedes its active use and is the first indication that the ignition of the latter is in process.3 

An infant never learns language in general. It learns the particular language spoken by those around it — otherwise it would never be able to communicate at all. This unremarkable fact reveals the precedence of the reception of form before there is any understanding of information coded in that form.

Such attention to the presuppositions to communication throws new light on McLuhan’s lifelong concerns with such matters as folk practices, advertising and subliminal processes. Although you would never know it from the McLuhan industry, it is not the case that he was motivated by the enlightenment project to illuminate and control these things.4 His interest lay in what can never be illuminated or controlled (in the Gutenberg sense of these) because it is what must be in place before illumination and control are possible in the first place.

In 1976, a few years before his disabling 1979 stroke and 1980 death, McLuhan addressed this topic at a UNESCO conference:

advertising is in every sense a Folk Art, because it concentrates in its activities all of the skills of the community. All of the activities of the advertising people are anonymous. All of their activities they wish to keep at a subliminal level. All advertising is subliminal when effective. If you become conscious of an advertisement, it is a failure. This is probably true of Art, [for]5 great Art communicates without being understood and communicates most powerfully, perhaps, when not understood, by shaping the deepest awareness, subliminal awareness.6

McLuhan returned here to his concerns as a young teacher at St Louis University (1937-1944) when he began to collect ads and to question how they worked. A decade later, the idea of advertising as subliminal folk art was captured in the subtitle of The Mechanical Bride, the Folklore of Industrial Man.7 In fact. even as a teenager, McLuhan’s interest in education and the cultural environment had been directed to the questions of where education really takes place (not in the classroom) and how it does so (apparently through social processes we don’t understand or even try to understand). Advertising always seemed a natural place to pursue these questions since the amount of money spent on it and the central role played by it in the distribution of goods were clear indications that it worked. McLuhan at 22: “we lift up our eyes to the signboards whence cometh our help”.8

When he reached Cambridge in 1934, he found broader contexts for these questions in the Catholic tradition and in the concern with ‘continuity’ in the work of F.R. Leavis and his Scrutiny school. McLuhan’s adherence to Chesterton’s Distributism straddled both. The great question was: what is it that allows communication over time and across space? Work especially on Eliot over the next 15 years (augmented by study of the French symbolists, Lewis, Joyce and Pound) led to the conclusion (which he would not be able to specify in these terms for a further decade) that communication works as a medium and not as a message:

Thomas [can] communicate a great deal even before he is much understood. (Joyce, Aquinas, and the Poetic Process, 1951)

Joyce’s confidence in the mimetic powers of language itself to communicate before and beyond ordinary understanding. (Survey of Joyce Criticism, 1951)

Compare Eliot (‘Dante’, 1929):9

poetry can communicate before it is understood.10

Communication turns on something that is before understanding! Hence McLuhan’s attention to the question of time. A sort of backwards somersault must be effected to ‘reach’ the capability that must already be in place in order to communicate at all. It is this backwards somersault towards communication that must be taught to an infant — via communication!

According to McLuhan, it is the essential feature of a medium that it has this trans-formative power to effect integration into the social environment required by it. He characterized this power as “magical”.

Following Aristotle and Aquinas, McLuhan saw that a sudden knot in time was the key structural feature of such “magic”:

We have to repeat what we were about to say (‘The Be-Spoke Tailor’, Explorations 8, 1957, #4)

The basis of all paradox, Christian and secular, is to be found in the sixth book of the Physics of Aristotle [235b-241b], 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.” (From Cliché to Archetype, 1970, 160)11

In a postscript to his May 6, 1969 letter to Jacques Maritain (Letters, 371), McLuhan cited all of this same text, in Latin, and included its continuation:

et in ultimo instanti illius temporis, quod est primum instans… (and in the last instant of that [preceding] time, which is the [succeeding time’s] first instant …)

McLuhan was clear that an understanding of the complications of such time is central to understanding social being — aka PEACE — with other human beings, with our fellow creatures and with the earth itself.

In his 1976 UNESCO presentation McLuhan called this presupposition “the Third World”, “preliteracy”, “non-literate”, “mythic”, “oral”, the “state” of being “intensely aware of the public”, “the Mississippi”:

Mr. Eliot said, for example: “I would prefer to have an illiterate audience”. (…) [Even] as a very highly literate and sophisticated man,12 he saw his job as an artist to open the doors of perception in the First World on to the Third World. He said of Mark Twain, whose great work Huckleberry Finn was abominated by literate and fastidious people, as the work of a non-literate man: “He updated the English language and purified the dialect of the tribe”. The phrase is from Mallarmé: “Il a donné un sens plus pur aux mots de la tribu”. Mark Twain purified the dialect of the tribe by returning English to the conditions of preliteracy. His hero is completely non-literate. Huckleberry Finn has a huge mythic structure based upon the main character, which is the river, the Mississippi. The corporate awareness of Mark Twain in this work was achieved by returning to the conditions of oral culture; in that state, people are intensely aware of the public.

It is plain, however, that the terms used here to describe the presupposition to communication cannot be taken ‘literally’ or ‘lineally’.13 McLuhan cited Eliot’s Sweeney Agonistes: “I gotta use words when I talk to you.”14 And his words at the UNESCO conference (“the Third World”, “preliteracy”, etc) must not be taken as historical or geographical references. Instead, the object was to point up the presupposition to communication — what must come before it (somewhat as “preliteracy” comes before literacy, but in a different order of time!). The need was to become “aware of the public”, of “the main character, which is the river, the Mississippi”, of that whole interior landscape which is always already dynamically operative in all the ways of human being — but unremarked and unstudied.

It was McLuhan’s fate to attempt to change this situation into one of active investigation. Whether he will have contributed to such a transformation remains an open question today, some 40 years after his death.



  1. For example, in the Achilles and the tortoise paradox, Achilles is never able to make a real advance on the tortoise — ie, one that would overtake it — because he can never cover more than some fraction of the distance between the two. In this light, Zeno’s paradoxes may be taken as a demonstration that new conceptions of spacetime and of process are needed to understand even seemingly obvious things (like Achilles winning a race with a tortoise). In the 2500 years since Zeno’s time, although many great minds have been aware of the problem complex broached by him, decisive ‘advance’ has not been made on it (as predicted by Zeno!).
  2. First of all: what time is this? what is its shape?
  3.  The practice of communication can be communicated and is communicated — not only with human beings, but with animals, plants, minerals and the whole physical environment. Humans learn the secrets of all these things and so are able to interact successfully with them. The result today is the astonishing knowledge that has been developed in the hard sciences about the exterior landscape. But the beginnings of this process stretch far back into the prehistory of the species, highlighted particularly by the domestication of plants and animals and the processing of materials (like foodstuffs, stones, hides, ceramics and metals).
  4. McLuhan certainly did speak of the transition of the disciplines of the interior landscape ‘from the ivory tower to the control tower’.  But the key to this idea was a revolution in the meaning of ‘control’: the required transition from the Gutenberg galaxy to the Marconi era turned on the difference between action directed at the environment and action directed by feedback from it.
  5. McLuhan: “that”
  6.  Place and Function of Art in Contemporary Life (Report of an International Symposium organized by UNESCO, 6 to 10 September 1976, McLuhan’s contribution 18-30).
  7. The Folklore of Industrial Man was one of the titles McLuhan considered for his book before settling on The Mechanical Bride. In correspondence he often referred to his ongoing work on ‘Folklore’.
  8. Morticians and Cosmeticians’, The ManitobanMarch 2 1934.
  9.  In the late 1940s McLuhan and Kenner were intensely studying Eliot for a book they were writing on him. It was never completed. The Dante essay by Eliot originally appeared in the Spectator, 19th October 1929.
  10. Cited by McLuhan both in Take Today (1972) and ‘The Argument: Causality in the Electric World’ (1973).
  11.  The passage from Aristotle and Thomas is cited again by McLuhan, but in Latin, in ‘The Medieval Environment’ from 1974. The fact that during “the whole preceding time during which anything moves towards its form, it is under the opposite form” is exactly Achilles’ problem in his attempt to overtake the tortoise. Unless he is able to shed the form of ‘reducing the distance between him and the tortoise’, Achilles can never catch the tortoise, let alone win the race. An infant learning language has the same problem. ‘Hearing noise’ must somehow become ‘hearing words’: a flip into a different form is implicated — and achieved!
  12. The transcript of McLuhan’s remarks has “As a very highly literate and sophisticated man” here.
  13. Ong seems to have done so along with most of the McLuhan industry. When this is done, lineal time is implicated as foundational and the whole perspective on McLuhan is insistently returned to the Gutenberg galaxy!
  14. T S Eliot’, Canadian Forum 44, February 1965, 243-244, originally a talk broadcast on the CBC’s “Critically Speaking” January 10, 1965.

Shaw & the hurdles of communication

The long review1 of Shaw’s Complete Plays which appeared in the Manitoba Free Press in 1931 is astonishing in setting out the problems and potential solutions which would define McLuhan’s intellectual life for the following half century. It would be even more astonishing if McLuhan himself — then only 19! — did not write the piece, but some unknown mentor instead who was to be forever decisive for his work.

McLuhan2 highlights Shaw’s critique of contemporary ‘originality’.

“what the world calls originality is only an unaccustomed method of tickling it” (Shaw, Preface to Three Plays for Puritans)

“I am a crow who has followed many ploughs.” (Preface to Three Plays for Puritans)

Everything [Shaw] says points back to Nietzsche, to Ibsen, to Plato, and always he is swift to affirm his debt: “No doubt I seem prodigiously clever to those who have never hopped (…) across the fields of philosophy, politics and art.” (Preface to Three Plays for Puritans)

Our attempts at originality are superficial because they completely overlook its central problem. McLuhan calls it the “constitutional inability to look below the surface”. Our inability to understand Plato and, especially, his considerations of originality — as well as his genial demonstrations of it — are entailed by this deeper deficiency.3

[Shaw] would have us look for the “underlying will”4 that governs ideals, the unconscious desires that urge them into being.

Our very ideals are masks which hide the springs of ideals and, therefore, also the different ideals which would be prompted from different springs.

Mr. Shaw’s philosophy is not away with all ideals, but: “The ideal is dead: long live the ideal.”

That we cannot understand Plato’s originality necessarily rebounds on Shaw and McLuhan themselves. For if they attempt to follow on after him, how should their thoughts be any more intelligible to us than his?  Admittedly, McLuhan does nod to Shaw’s hope that we might see through his joking to his underlying intent to prompt thought:

the whole tenor of his plays is impatience with us because we never think; but he can give us a premonition of thinking. He drives the comfortable fogs out of our minds as the prophets of old drove demons out of the possessed, not with rites and incantations, but with railleries and caustic jesting.

Exactly on account of our “constitutional inability to look below the surface”, however, McLuhan emphasizes Shaw’s contrary resignation to “the extreme improbability of anybody seeing anything in my treatise but a paradoxical joke.” Hence:

the device contrived to attract the crowd to the entrance [the “paradoxical joke”, the “railleries and caustic jesting”] now covers the whole show. Its creator cannot get free of it, cannot speak through it to those he is trying to reach. When he leaves off capering and speaks directly, with serious passion and therapeutic wrath, what he gets is an idle clapping of the hands.5

McLuhan emphasizes the point, which of course follows directly from our “constitutional inability to look below the surface”, by repeating it, verbatim, in the concluding lines of the review where he speaks of audiences

greeting [Shaw’s] stern wraths as well as his gay frivolities with polite laughter and an idle clapping of the hands.

This “constitutional” superficiality, the fact that “we never think”, may be termed “legend”:

legend obscures the real Shaw, not only from the idealists, who protest that they do not understand him, but from the Shavians, who protest that they do. Shavianism (…) suffers from its ardent converts as well as from its ardent enemies.6

We have come to be defined by a lack of communication with the tradition and its greatest minds. At the same time, this is a lack of communication with the springs of our own experience, including our experience of minds like Plato’s. It is the latter deficiency that entails the former one. The problem, then, is one of remedying our “constitutional inability to look below the surface” of our own selves to begin to reconnoiter those springs which are already active in us, but, somehow, only behind our own backs (a remedial process McLuhan would later come to call “retracing”)7. McLuhan therefore cites Shaw as follows:

To me the tragedy and comedy of life lie in the consequences, sometimes terrible, sometimes ludicrous, of our persistent attempts to found our institutions on the ideals suggested to our imaginations by our half-satisfied passions, instead of on a genuinely scientific natural history. (Preface to Plays Pleasant)

“A genuinely scientific” investigation of our own “natural history” — of what McLuhan came to term, following the French, “the interior landscape” — was McLuhan’s solution to the question of how to reestablish communication with the tradition and with its greatest minds. Of course this remained barely an intimation in 1931. But prompted by his mother’s work as an “impersonator” (which turned on character types), and by the teaching of his Manitoba philosophy professors, Lodge and Wright, that thinking is structured by persistent forms like idealism and realism, and by his beginning acquaintance with Coleridge and his ‘born’ Platonists and Aristotelians, McLuhan’s idea, even at nineteen, was that the investigation of such types might provide a way back to an appreciation of originality (beginning with our own).8

McLuhan’s reading of Shaw (which could be applied to anybody) was plainly derived from his mother’s one-woman theatre:

[Shaw] divides his personality into a hundred appallingly articulate Proteuses (…) so that the entire stage of our time is populated with bits and multiples and off-shoots of Shaw9

It is a small step (one that McLuhan’s mother consciously suggested in her “impersonations”) to wonder how each of these characters might think about virtue and religion, or organize a state, or consider “being itself”. But this was, of course, just what Plato portrayed over and over again in his dialogues. The tradition itself, then, would teach how access to it is first of all possible and how this access must be cultivated — if it were not exactly this access that has been lost!

The as yet inchoate (but somehow obvious) notion was — “the medium is the message”. What ideal or unconscious desire or spring would it take to enable us to get ‘in touch’, once more, with our “potencies” (as McLuhan would call them in his letter to Harold Innis in 1951) and, through them, with the entire tradition? McLuhan would come to his signature expression, “the medium is the message”, in 1958, more than a quarter century in the future from 1931. And yet the notion is already there in germ in his Shaw review waiting, even demanding, to be clarified and developed.

Further, McLuhan already knew what it is that cuts us off from the imperatively needed investigations of “potencies”:

The whole point and substance of Shaw’s teaching are that he is content, that he is in favor of this whirlgig process [of time] that will inevitably bring him to negation.

The reason for our “constitutional inability to look below the surface” is that “negation” stands (if negation may be said to stand or in any way to be!)10 between us and the potentialities or “potencies” of the subterranean “interior landscape”.11 It is possible to investigate possibilities, plural, only by letting go of the singularity of the presently activated one:12

[Ideals aka “potencies”] must conform, not to the arbitrary shape our self-full longings would impose upon them, but to the nature of things. And “nature does not dance to moralist-made tunes.”13

“Negation” is the border, or “no man’s land” (as McLuhan will later say), between any individual point of view or character or part (in a play) or “put-on” and the whole range of views, characters, parts and put-ons which are available for human beings and constitute, in McLuhan’s terminology, the unconscious. Being able to to immerse oneself in the question posed by this range is what McLuhan took to be the “negative capability” of Keats. In his 1943 ‘Aesthetic Pattern in Keats Odes’ he described this capability as:

a mode of being which Keats himself called “negative capability“. Keats’ definition of this phrase (…): “. . . when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”

“Fact & reason” presuppose some ground determined (consciously or not) by some singular point of view.14 To consider the range of points of view therefore requires a tolerance of “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason”.

More, between such basic “potencies” is further “negation” — for the borders between fundamentals cannot themselves be fundamentals. They must be abysmal gaps of “negation” in the range of possibilities — the unconscious — itself.

Already in 1931, it seems, McLuhan had his project (“understanding media”) and a clear view of the role “negation” — or “the gap” — must have on the way to its realization.15 Somehow “content[ment]” and “favor” would have to be communicated in regard to our ineluctable confrontation with that “negation” in order to expose its transitivity or metaphoricity. This was the precondition of his and our entering into the project at all.16

He never succeeded with us, of course. But perhaps he was not wrong that the fate of the world hung on this matter?

  1. See McLuhan and George Bernard Shaw for the review and discussion. All citations here, unless otherwise attributed, are from the review.
  2. The presumption here is that McLuhan wrote the review. The arguments for this presumption have been set out in the post linked in the previous note. Unfortunately, the Free Press has not preserved its correspondence from the time and the correspondence of its editor, J.W. Dafoe, which has partially been preserved at the University of Manitoba, has no letters to or from McLuhan. But McLuhan’s own correspondence is at least four or five times as large as that in the published Letters volume and may yet throw some light on the question.
  3. A “deeper deficiency” that produces our superficiality!
  4. McLuhan takes the phrase from Shaw’s The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891).
  5. The fate of the “creator” who “cannot speak through (his work) to those he is trying to reach” may be compared to Innis’ “fundamental solipsism of Western civilization” (Empire and Communications, 1950 edition, 67; 1972 edition, 56). It is thought provoking how much of these two great ‘media theorists’ remains unknown to those in the business of their explication!
  6.  This would be McLuhan’s fate as well, of course.
  7. McLuhan to Innis in 1951: “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.” (Letters 221)
  8.  McLuhan was already clear that such investigation was a matter of ‘making not matching’. He quotes Shaw approvingly from the Preface to Plays Pleasant as specifying “I manufactured the evidence.”
  9. It may be seen here why Jung became so important to McLuhan in the 1940’s. He wrote to Jesuit friends, having first specified the need to “master C.G. Jung”, that “anthropology and psychology are more important for the Church than St Thomas”! (McLuhan to Ong and McNaspy, December 23, 1944, Letters 166)
  10. The etymology of ‘existence’ is ‘to stand out’.
  11. The subterranean “interior landscape” is just as much submarine, of course. Hence McLuhan’s repeated appeal to Poe’s ‘descent into the Maelstrom’. But the connection to “potencies” was never far from his mind: “Poe invented the symbolist interval or gap that became the bridge between the structures of art and science in the twentieth century.” (Take Today 10)
  12. NB: The singularity of the presently activated possibility is just who I am! Hence the requirement of an encounter with radical “negation”. The Gutenberg galaxy is the imposition of some single ‘point of view” — or the denial of rival possibilities. The ‘electric age’ is the impossibility of continuing this denial. The denial itself is usually unconscious, of course, and what it obscures is the unconscious.
  13. McLuhan cites the Preface to Three Plays for Puritans, but misplaces the quotation marks only around “moralist-made tunes”.
  14. McLuhan: “We are all trapped in assumption about the nature of reality” (Global Village, 77).
  15. Forty years later (a measure of the forward cast of the Shaw review), McLuhan and Nevitt would put this point in the opening lines of Take Today: “The art and science of this century reveal and exploit the resonating bond in all things. All boundaries are areas of maximal abrasion and change. The interval or gap constitutes the resonant or musical bond in the material universe. This is where the action is.”
  16. Hence McLuhan’s concentration over the next six years on the nature of faith and his eventual conversion in 1937. Hence also his lifelong interrogation of time as times, since the time of precondition is not clock-time.

McKeon, Gilson and Rorty

Richard Rorty studied with Richard McKeon as an undergraduate and master’s student at the University of Chicago. 

Richard McKeon, an admirer of Aristotle, dominated the philosophy department at Chicago in those days. A committee he headed had dreamt up a nonstandard introductory philosophy course called “Observation, Interpretation and Integration.” I was anxious to start studying philosophy, so I signed up to take OII in my second year at Chicago. (5)1

Rorty then did his PhD at Yale, but continued to consider McKeon:

[Paul] Weiss was my dissertation advisor, but the dissertation owed less to his influence than to McKeon’s. An ungainly six hundred pages, it was titled “The Concept of Potentiality” and discussed Aristotle’s account of dynamis in the ninth book of his Metaphysics, Descartes’s dismissive treatment of the Aristotelian potency-act distinction, and Carnap’s and Goodman’s treatment of subjunctive conditionals and of nomologicality2. McKeon had specialized in such comparisons and contrasts between philosophers of different epochs. At Yale I was applying techniques I had learned at Chicago. (8)

McKeon’s 1935 paper offered two contrasting ways of advancing from the  “debate” of the three arts of the trivium (dialectic, grammar and rhetoric). Both ways emerged from the determination that the quarrel of the trivial arts is foundational and therefore “persistent”. It was forever irreducible to any one of the three. McKeon remarked, “controversies (…) did not go out of the world” (95) and, indeed, could not go out of the world. 

One pathway from this crossroads could be illustrated from Luther:

Here the extreme of value is put upon uncertainty. This humble despair of all human powers is behind Luther’s strictures against the scholastics for their too great confidence in reason: no reason of man can be taken as certain, for the wisdom of the world is made stupid by God… (McKeon, 1935, 104-105)

Quite aside from God (if anything can be said to be quite aside from God), “no reason of man can be taken as certain” in relation to the debate of the trivial arts because the working of the “debate” is deeper than human beings. As the precondition to what McKeon termed “verbal expression in general”, it is already there before we express anything at all in word or deed, is then variously at work in every expression we attempt, and it remains always there again after we have done so. It may well be said, then, that the “extreme of value is put upon uncertainty”, since all human expression stands before this prior multiplicity and is never determined beforehand in only one of its contesting directions.  

However this might inculcate a fitting humility, it would be wrong to conclude any necessary “despair” from it. Hence, if Rorty (for example) took this “uncertainty” track out of McKeon’s work, he certainly did not do so out of despair, but from the determination that dogged persistence in thought and action in an attempt to put things right was indicated — and that this was enough for beings who are finite in every way. The aspiration to an organized discipline could, he apparently thought, only detract from the required uncertain assessment of the human situation and of our responses in and to it.3

The other pathway was Gilson’s4 ‘philosophy’.5 This ‘nomological’ option was broached at the end of McKeon’s essay in conclusion to it:

when the distinctions [between the arts of the trivium] which have been employed in this essay have been fortified by (…) further materials, it will be time to consider dialectical resolutions, the problems of philosophy and their evolution and finally the character of philosophic truth. (110)

When, however, two [or more] theories [deriving from different arts of the trivium] are set one against the other, when the question of (…) truth (…)6 is raised, the technique of the dialectician is needed. So long as there is no two-voiced controversy, the question may remain on the grammatical or on the rhetorical level. (112-113)7

though each interpretation [of each the three trivial arts] is impregnable within its own limits,8 when brought into controversy [between them] the debate is ultimately dialectical.9 (111)

Once that philosophic view has been established, however, it may not be impossible to show that there are canons of criticism for history according to which one manner of interpretation is preferable to another. (113)

in segregating the philosophic problems involved in history, the character of philosophic problems themselves might be shown more clearly for the examination of what is involved in the making of statements. (113-114)  

McLuhan shared with Gilson, at least,10 the notion that the interior landscape of human beings was just as subject to scientific investigation as the external one. But this would be based, like all sciences, not on some absolute insight (whatever that might be), but on collective investigation focused on central organizing conceptions (like Gilson’s and McKeon’s trivial arts) — which conceptions would always remain, however, perpetually open in principle to scientific revision and even revolution (as articulated by Rorty’s friend and longtime colleague at Princeton, Thomas Kuhn).11 

Here is how McLuhan described this nomological possibility from Gilson in his 1954 ‘Catholic Humanism’ lecture:

What [Gilson’s Unity of Philosophical Experience] does is to elicit the image of truth from past errors and to confirm the unity of man’s quest from the jarring discords of unremitting debate. But what I wish to point out is that Gilson’s method is that of contemporary art and science (for contemporary poetry has healed the old breach between art and science). Gilson does not set out to produce a theory or view that will unify the philosophical disputes of the past. He reconstructs the disputes. He enables us to participate in them as though we were there. We see that they were real. (…) By repeating this process of participation (…) we are liberated both from past and present. We don’t arrive at a simple unifying concept but are put on the road to achieving a wisdom. And the road to this wisdom is by way of sympathetic reconstruction, involving the abeyance of personal prejudice and preconception.
the poetic process as it appears in the work of Poe, Baudelaire and Eliot, and by writers of detective fiction, is also the manifest principle of historical reconstruction as used by Gilson.
Gilson has used the method of reconstruction in the history of philosophy as a new creative technique which permits a new kind of communication between the present and the past. The reader of Gilson is typically given not a view or theory of the past but the experience of it. But the past as experience is present. It is available once more as nutriment. Previous theories of the past really amounted to a way of disowning it or of explaining it away.
the traditional errors of men become for the analogical artist precious matter for his structures even as Gilson has used historical error in philosophy to build a path to truth.

In 1954, McLuhan — now in his 40’s and the father of 6 children — was feeling utterly isolated even in the culture and technology seminar. He felt himself called to consider how a finite yet scientific discipline built out of the most unlikely of materials (“the traditional errors of men”) might be instigated and pursued — as a new (yet oldest of the old) “path to truth”.

The path has been known and traversed forever. Every child takes it in learning to speak. Every practical craft and theoretical discipline was and is established through it. However, its communication has never succeeded beyond a small circle and general investigation never initiated. But, McLuhan worried anxiously, was such communication perhaps the only way to avert disaster in a nuclear global village?

Somewhat like fusion in physics, McLuhan’s eventual breakthrough12 in 1960 must be understood as the product of enormous pressure. Its realization that year would all but kill him.13


  1. ‘Richard Rorty: Intellectual Autobiography’, in The Philosophy of Richard Rorty, ed Auxier & Hahn, The Library of Living Philosophers, vol xxxii, 2009, 3-23.
  2. Nomology. The Wikipedia article cites William Hamilton’s definition of nomology: “The Laws by which our faculties are governed, to the end that we may obtain a criterion by which to judge or to explain their procedures and manifestations (…) a science which we may call the Nomology of Mind (or) Nomological Psychology.” The ‘philosophical’ option broached by McKeon at the end of his 1935 essay might be termed nomological in this sense.
  3. Although Rorty was a great admirer of John Dewey, he rejected Dewey’s Quest for Certainty out of hand. He took it to have been a aberration on Dewey’s part that he, for one, found inexplicable.
  4. Surprisingly, Rorty mentions Gilson in his ‘Intellectual Autobiography’ and does so in high company: “Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, Whitehead’s Adventures of Ideas, and Lovejoy’s The Great Chain of Being gave me a taste for ambitious, swooshy, Geistesgeschichte that I have never lost. This taste was gratified in later years by such writers as Etienne Gilson, Hans Blumenberg, and, above all, the later Heidegger” (6). Gilson was undoubtedly suggested to Rorty by McKeon.
  5. See McKeon’s 1935 Trivium essay (what is philosophy?).
  6. McKeon has “the question of the truth of one of them” here. This is remarkable since the main thrust of his essay is to suggest that truth is necessarily plural and never “one”!
  7. McKeon seems to slide here between two different definitions of “the dialectician”. There is “the dialectician” who is one of the three corners of the trivial debate. And there is “the dialectician”, or philosopher, who considers that debate somehow aside from it. These two are fundamentally different in that the first is inherently ‘one-sided’, while the second (although itself inevitably one-sided, but in other ways belonging to all finite creatures) considers, as best it can, that irreducible multiplicity.
  8. McKeon in the same place: “the controversies (between the trivial arts) are persistent, since no fact can dislodge the historian from any of the three positions” (111).
  9. See previous note. Also, earlier in McKeon’s essay: “But herein lies the whole task of philosophy: the examination by reason of the various theories that have been advanced concerning the nature of things.” (68-69) This is pure Gilson.
  10. McKeon may have been less confident than his mentor, Gilson, in the possibility of such nomological science (although at the end of the 1935 essay, at least, he seems sure enough about it).
  11. It is difficult to see why Rorty should have been so determined against this possibility. Perhaps he saw even the aspiration to it not only as a waste of effort, but even as a barrier to the constant reconsideration he saw as necessary to right thought and action? To an undergraduate paper I once did for Rorty trying to make sense of C.S. Peirce’s ‘thirds’, his only comment was: “There are no thirds”. For Gilson and McLuhan, on the contrary, it might be said that there are only thirds: the medium is the message.
  12. See McLuhan’s #1 breakthrough.
  13. See footnote #12 in McLuhan’s new sciences: “only the authority of knowledge”.