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 the fall of that year, 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 space? Work especially on Eliot over the next 15 years (augmented by study of the French symbolists, Lewis, Giedion, 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 — McLuhan’s ‘light on’ versus ‘light through’.
  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.