Monthly Archives: April 2020

The Beginnings of Gutenberg Galaxy 7

McLuhan’s Understanding Media project with the NAEB was approved for funding through Title VII of the National Defense Education Act in May 1959. At the end of that month, on May 29, McLuhan wrote Harry Skornia:

Shall spend much of the summer getting things lined up for your [NAEB research] committee so that they can give us maximum aid.  Shall send many memos and suggestions of possible procedures.  Also, the Gutenberg Era can be circulated in mimeo to all of them. Macmillan just wrote asking for it.  I don’t think any better approach to [the] Understanding Media [project] could be developed than the Gutenberg Era MSS.

As shown by references in The Gutenberg Galaxy with dates later than this letter, McLuhan would still do considerable work on the manuscript before it was published in 1962. But by the spring of 1959 The Gutenberg Era — what was to become The Gutenberg Galaxy1 — existed in manuscript form that was complete enough, or at least within sight of being complete enough, for McLuhan to consider showing it to potential publishers and to the NAEB committee that would, at least in prospect, be guiding his project.

In regard to that project, the twin topics of the Gutenberg book were:

  • what happened in history that led to the dis-covery of the understanding of media (including the imperative need for that discovery)?
  • what happened in history that assisted in that dis-covery?

The first was a diachronic or horizontal story, the second a synchronic or vertical one. Like two eyes estimating a distance, or two I’s participating in a dialogue, or two ayes confirming a contract, the two together would both be needed to bring McLuhan’s project into focus.2

  1. The change in title from ‘Era‘ to ‘Galaxy‘ signaled McLuhan’s growing awareness of the question of time to the project of understanding media. He came to see that it was a question of rival mosaics whose relation, although not without a historical dimension, was first of all one of contemporaneous rivalry. An ancient quarrel. All at once. The great trick was to assume by a kind of backwards flip that mosaic which was necessary to ‘put on’ in order to begin an investigation of mosaics. The NAEB research committee, like the McLuhan industry today 40 years after his death, was unable to subject itself to this demand.
  2. The parallel with chemistry is exact. For billions of years, the history of the planet took place, so to say, chemically. But even when humans came to learn how to manipulate that chemistry through cooking, tanning, brewing, etc, and eventually through smelting, they did not understand what they were doing except in terms of practical results: to achieve such and such an end, follow these steps. Ultimately, however, both through evolving practical experience and theoretical considerations taking off from the Greek miracle, the field of chemistry was dis-covered and became subject to investigation. This happened only two centuries ago. Chemistry had always been a possible object of understanding, but this possibility had to be unearthed through a laborious historical process lasting, as it now seems, hundreds of thousand of years. Then, once chemistry was born in our understanding, it could be understood through it both what had always been going on in the world, including in our own bodies, and even beyond our world in the stars — and what in particular had gone on leading to that eventual birth. Understanding media, in McLuhan’s estimation, could be achieved in an analogous way — and had to be achieved if the fruits of civilization where not to be destroyed by our insouciance.

The goal of science 6/25/59

What is especially needed is not so much a theory of advertising and its effects as a critical study of a great variety of particular ads by a diversity of minds using multiple approaches. (Advertising as a Magical Institution, 1952)1

When Alanbrooke discussed strategy with the Americans he was baffled by their preference for global strategy: “again discussion of global strategy which led us nowhere. The trouble is that the American mind likes proceeding from the general to the particular whilst in the problems we have to solve we cannot evolve any sort of general doctrine until we have carefully examined the particular details of each problem.” (Item #21, Explorations 8, 1957)2

like Poe, Mr. Eliot insists on precision achieved by experiment with the art-form used as pilot model. The ultimate causes are tapped in the audience by the art model, the model being used as a control mechanism. The artist here, like the scientist, experiments with the effects of a model until the exact causes are discovered and brought to bear. This method might be called the method of invention itself. And A. N. Whitehead, in Science and the Modern World, pointed out that this fact was the prime discovery of the nineteenth century rather than the discovery of any applied process. For communicators in any medium this method is now indispensable, whether in advertising, in politics, in education, in art. Because a general scattering of shots may not only be wasteful, but it may, in an electronic world of simultaneous effects, touch off unforeseen chains of reaction. The Poe-Eliot method is not only efficient, it is now necessary, and anything less is in fact irresponsible. [For only] in periods or areas when information moved at a pre-electronic pace, [could] the effects of the through-put of information with reference to any given social structure of knowledge and attitudes be counted on to be manageable.3 (Media Alchemy in Art and Society, 1958)4 

In a handwritten letter to Harry Skornia from June 25, 1959, McLuhan put forward some thoughts on science. Part of his point was to locate his NAEB ‘Understanding Media’ project in relation to the sort of ‘normal science’ the NAEB research committee (and on some days also Skornia)5 hoped that the project would quickly begin to practice. For McLuhan, in fundamental contrast, normal science was the goal of the exercise which could not be reached if the assumption were made that its requirements were already in place.

Dear Harry
Perhaps I can clarify a bit more my recently stated questionnaire approach [within the Understanding Media project] in reference to grammars of the media.  [The idea is] to ask in written and oral form:
what is the most obvious and striking power or advantage possessed by your medium (lead pencil, typewriter, radio station) over all other means?
what has your medium done to other media?
what have other media done to yours?
These by way of eliciting observation and anecdote that will reveal the various lines and levels of force operative in any field of relations set up by any medium.
[The ability] to discern and to spell out the lines of force in the world gives us [ordinary] speech, statement, syntax in the first place.  To do this for various segments of reality (physics, chemistry, logic, rhetoric) in a more detailed way is science.  And science in turn produces new media or modes of handling information which like the older languages have their own lines of force and impact for which grammars [of such media]6 or [a] science [of them] can be discerned.
To codify these grammars [in an initial way] or lines of force [as they are unreflectively manifested] in new media must be done by contact with those who are nearest to these media.  But the technicians have no unified procedure of verbalized handling of their experience.  Nor do those closest to the new media have much awareness of the interpenetration of media in man and society.
So Harry, I’m suggesting a descriptive “unified field” approach via particular [unfocused]7 observation and anecdote as the preliminary basis for later [focused] experiment and testing.8

McLuhan made a series of explicit and implicit points:

  • the required science of media was yet to be initiated and would not be initiated at all if the science we have in the rear-view mirror is presupposed as applicable to media
  • one sign of the absence of science was that existing “technicians have no unified procedure of verbalized handling of their experience”
  • conversely, one way to proceed toward science would be to attempt to find a vocabulary which would enable the required unification of designation and so the collective investigation that would be enabled by it
  • since “science in turn produces new media or modes of handling information” and since there is profound “interpenetration of [such] media in man and society” producing revolutionary change in both, the potential of the project to solve currently unsolvable problems was vastly more far-reaching than the NAEB imagined — a prospect that should act as a spur to brave the unfamiliarities on the way to science9
  • another problem that could give direction to the project — like the  designation problem — was the hall of mirrors effect in the fact that “science in turn produces new media or modes of handling information which like the older languages have their own lines of force and impact” (and so on, ad infinitum). The potential for such infinite regress is never absent from human activity, but at the same time does not present an insuperable problem for it. We simply go about our business. A science of media, and particularly a science of sciences, must acknowledge such regress — and endure the finitude which is its motor! We never get to some one fixed foundation for our investigations both because other views are always possible and because our own views are never definitive. Hence, what stands in the way of science can either be too little consciousness of imperfection (like the NAEB notion that the requirements for a science of media were already in place) or too much consciousness of imperfection (like the supposition that while sciences of nature are possible, sciences of human nature are not). McLuhan’s central point to the NAEB was that the passage between this Scylla and Charybdis had to be taken and that it therefore gave an unmistakable signpost of the required way.10
  1. ‘Advertising as a Magical Institution’, Commerce Journal, 1952.
  2.  ‘Churchill Mobilizes English Language’, Explorations 8, item #21, 1957, citing Arthur Bryant, The Turn of the Tide (based on the War Diaries of Field Marshal Viscount Alanbrooke), 1957.
  3. McLuhan: “In periods or areas when information moved at a pre-electronic pace, the effects of the through-put of information with reference to any given social structure of knowledge and attitudes could be counted on to be manageable.”
  4. ‘Media Alchemy in Art and Society’, Journal of Communication, 8:2, 63-67, 1958.
  5. Skornia to William Harley, NAEB President, May 26, 1959: “Still can’t get any 1,2,3 steps out of McLuhan.” This was a month before McLuhan’s June 25 letter discussing different takes on science.
  6. See Grammars of the Media.
  7. McLuhan’s point that the roots of science lie in ordinary speech is to say that focus is so natural to humans that they cannot be without it. There is no language even of gesture without focus. “Particular observation” is, then, unfocused only in relation to the finer focus that is science.
  8. Bold and italics have been added. The underlining is McLuhan’s.
  9. Cf ‘Grammars of the Media‘: “Print (…) quickly invested the minds and attitudes of educators with a new vision and grasp of many problems and possibilities which had been inaccessible to awareness or solution before print.” The same thing happens with the introduction of any medium from spoken language and the use of fire to the internet and nuclear fusion.”
  10. McLuhan’s 1934 UM master’s thesis, 25 years before McLuhan’s note to Skornia, repeated four (!) different times a passage from George Meredith’s Diana of the Crossways (1885): “speeding of us, compact of what we are, between the ascetic rocks and the sensual whirlpools, to the creating of certain nobler races now very dimly imagined” (see Scylla and Charybdis for references and discussion). The man had second sight.

Becker on NDEA Title VII funding

A month after the signing into law of the National Defense Education Act in September 1958, Sam Becker, chairman of the NAEB research committee, attended a Washington conference on the implementation of its Title VII “funding for research in the more effective use of technology for educational purposes”. On October 22 he reported back to Harry Skornia as follows:

This will be a rather hurried exposition of the conference on implementation of Title VII, but I believe there is little time to waste. I believe the NAEB should act as quickly as possible to get a proposal into the works. They have all this money (though only $1.5million rather than the $3million for the first year [as] we discovered only at the last minute. $3million were authorized in the facilitating legislation — however only 1/2 of this was appropriated.) (…) They have all this money and they want to be sure and get it spent by June or they have little chance of getting the $5million for next year. Also they want to give some of their first grants to projects which have some assurance of success and publicity value — again to help assure the $5million for the following year. (…) There were a number of suggestions for research proposals which were made at the meeting. (…) 1. The research proposal should be aimed at answering a significant educational problem — it should deal with central educational matters. 2. Research should promise a conceptual leap in how students learn. (There was constant talk of a “breakthrough” in our knowledge. Again, I think this is important for future dealings with Congress.) 3. Ideally, research projects should grow out of something those proposing it are already doing. 4. In the research proposal it is important to show that it is a cooperative effort of decision makers and researchers — rather than simply one or the other — decision makers who should know their goals and problems, researchers who can do a good job of testing whether the goals are achieved. 5. In the proposal be sure to include a rationale for why it is important to research the particular problem proposed.

The day after the conference, Becker had lunch with one of its HEW organizers, Roy Hall:

He [Hall] had two specific things which he finally told me he would like NAEB to do. Both are research projects for which formal proposals should be made if you wish to do them. The first was to discover the blocks to acceptance of the new media.

Many of Becker’s points must have confirmed Skornia’s existing hunch that a proposal with McLuhan as its lead researcher might obtain a nice piece of the Title VII funding. McLuhan was working on problems that he was sure were of world-historical import, he had breakthroughs several times a day, he had long been working and publishing on the sort of program to be proposed, and he was particularly known for his work on new media and the problems associated with their definition, study and use.

Becker, in contrast, was already leery of McLuhan (the need was for “researchers who can do a good job of testing”) and therefore spent far more of his note on the second idea Hall put forward for the NAEB:

The second project, which I believe that the NAEB is far more able to do, is to do research aimed at discovering the best kinds of equipment, production, performance, etc, for instructional broadcasting. 

Becker would eventually come to mock McLuhan’s project as anything but scientific and that was impossible to understand.1 But it would be a couple years before he ran out of patience and in the meantime he worked with Skornia, the research committee and McLuhan himself to try to bring him into Gutenbergian harness.

  1.  When Becker was contracted in 1960 to do abstracts of projects submitted to HEW, he wrote his friend Warren Siebert, who was a Senior Research Coordinator there and who seems to have been in charge of the work Becker was doing for the department: “I did the best I could to make them (the proposals) sound sensible. I thought that sending me the McLuhan proposal to abstract was an especially low blow!!”

McNamee and Ong remember McLuhan

In 1997, Maurice McNamee, SJ, then 88, and Walter Ong, SJ, 84, sat for an interview with Jeff Daniel of the The St Louis Post-Dispatch. He reported their recollections of Marshall McLuhan from over 50 years before in ‘McLuhan’s Two Messengers’.1

“He had precocious insights,” Ong recalled, “but he didn’t always know entirely what he was saying.” (…) He was a pleasant guy, his two former students remember, one who always seemed to be performing, but never in a self-conscious way. Pleasant, yet intense. Always in control. “Always looking for pay dirt,” Ong recalled. “We would do things with him socially, but even then, he would dominate everything around him,” continued Ong, whose master’s thesis was directed by McLuhan. He broke into a laugh. “Everything was at loose ends when he was around — everything was kind of tentative.” McNamee also had McLuhan as a dissertation director, and he soon found out just what the Canadian-born, Cambridge-educated “Mac” meant by “direction.” “Mac’s directing of my dissertation consisted of coming into that building right over there, plopping himself down on the bed, and talking for three hours a night about his own studies,” McNamee said through a fit of laughter.”He was working on his own dissertation, but he encouraged me to use his methods on my work. So in the end, it was a perfect pairing.”2 (…) Like Ong, McNamee realizes that the relationship with McLuhan was often reciprocal. Although they were mentor and student, they were often peers in many instances. (If McLuhan — who died in 1980 — were still living, he’d fall right between Ong and McNamee in age.) He would listen to you, but he was exactly like my dissertation subject, Francis Bacon — he would never acknowledge his sources,” McNamee said. “When he was speaking, it was if all of this had come from divine inspiration directly to Mac,” he continued. “He had this tremendous ability to synthesize information, but he would sometimes use something he got from us when presenting his insights [back to us]. And I honestly don’t think he ever even realized it.” (…) As Ong remembers it, McLuhan had incredible abilities, such as approaching any subject, from Socrates to Herbert Hoover, with intense resolve. His understanding was intuitive, but never easily explained. “He never cared to explain most things,” Ong said.


  1. ‘McLuhan’s Two Messengers — Maurice McNamee and Walter Ong, world-class interpreters of his message’, St Louis Post-DispatchAugust 10, 1997, 4C. The McLuhan recollections of McNamee and Ong accord closely with those of their Jesuit colleague, R.C. Williams: see Assessment of McLuhan.
  2. McNamee in his autobiography: “what he (McLuhan) had done on Thomas Nashe’s background and on the consequences of this background on Nashe’s several prose styles was precisely what he wanted me to do on Francis Bacon. It worked out perfectly. I followed up on the primary and secondary sources he recommended, and he came back each week for another chat on what I had absorbed. But whether my work on Bacon did or did not add much to a better understanding of his work, I am very grateful to Marshall McLuhan for pushing me into the study and guiding me throughout it”, Maurice McNamee, SJ, Reflections in Tranquility, 2001.

R.C. Williams’ Assessment of McLuhan

A June 19, 1959, letter to Harry Skornia from Sam Becker, the chair of the NAEB research committee, consisted almost entirely of a quoted assessment of McLuhan by “a man who knows McLuhan quite well”. Skornia noted on its head: Essential! — showing that he agreed with the assessment and with its take on McLuhan’s virtues and vices.

It may be that it came from R.C. Williams, SJ, and that it reflected the experience and judgement of the remarkable group of Jesuits1 who studied with McLuhan in the early 1940s in St Louis — Williams (1906-1975) along with Clement McNaspy2 (1915-1995), Walter Ong3 (1912-2003), and Maurice McNamee4 (1909-2007). The assessment calls McLuhan ‘Mac’ and speaks of his “original brilliance” — both pointing to his time at SLU.5 Further, it came from a person long friendly with McLuhan who was a member of the NAEB and a professor of media well aware of McLuhan’s “lack of concern for most of the things we teach in our media courses”. Few beyond Williams might be thought to fit this profile.

I hope you and NAEB know Mac well. He‘s an authentic genius, I’m sure. He is also a poet in temperament, given to insight as a technique of research, and on him it fits well. He sometimes leaves out all the middle steps in stating conclusions, offering only outrageous (at first) generalizations, which anger many people. Remember always that he cares almost only about the intrinsic form of the various media (as an artist) and has only superficial patience (or understanding) of the likes of statistics, financial structure and even content analysis. He believes that form of the media is greater than anything, that print is not film is not radio is not television, etc. But only half a dozen people I know sense the urgency of this idea with him. They speak of the role of the advertiser, [but] Mac says in effect, ‘the nature of the medium as an art form, makes the role of the advertiser nearly incidental, and, besides, the advertiser is, in a sense, a contemporary artist.’ And he means it, no nonsense.
I [agree with]6 this view because I have seen people tire of Mac after an initial love affair, lose faith and conclude that he is an opportunist. He isn’t. He may well be the most important asset the media have, because he believes with a profundity which most of us only mouth that they are the most important factors in the modern world, not because they are propagandistic, but because they determine perceptual processes (not merely content) of people. Print, by its form, creates a way of thinking, not only a store of content; so do all other media. Few people really understand this message.
Then there is this: Mac needs a translator, an assistant or friend or backer if he is to assume an administrative role (…) I advise you most seriously as a friend, and as his good friend, that he has never been able to speak the heart of his message successfully to most professional media men, and he hates detail, skipping all middle steps, as he generally does. He needs people of proper temperament.
I think NAEB has made a daring and fine decision. I ask you and colleagues in NAEB to remember the original brilliance (which still persists) and to be prepared for Mac’s ignorance and lack of concern for most of the things we teach in our media courses. He could learn them, but he doesn’t care to, particularly, for the important thing [for him] is [only the] inherent form of the media, not control structure, content, audience, etc.
When the doubts arise in NAEB, perhaps you can be Mac’s friend and translator. You’re (NAEB) way ahead of your time in doing this. With understanding Mac can perform beyond expectation, which is beyond the thinking of most of us, by far. He can also be frustrated by the shoe clerks among us.
Also, he can be wrong in factual detail that you carry in your hip pockets. Forget it. Rely on his insight.
He’s an artist, a poet — we need them in the media.

In the finalized NAEB funding proposal to the US Office of Education, March 27, 1959, Williams was among the 6 people singled out for special thanks by the initiator (Skornia) and consultant (McLuhan): 

  1. These were men, some older than McLuhan, like Williams and McNamee, with broad training and experience and who were able to give McLuhan as much as they got from him in return. Ong did his MA thesis on Hopkins — McLuhan did a 1944 paper on Hopkins for the Kenyon Review (‘The Analogical Mirrors’). McNamee did his SLU thesis on Francis Bacon — McLuhan included much on Bacon in his 1943 Nashe thesis and wrote and lectured on him extensively in the 1940s. Perhaps Williams with his early interest in television was eventuallly able to contribute even more decisively than his colleagues to McLuhan’s later development with its focus on media. See McLuhan and Father R.C. Williams.
  2. See McNaspy remembers McLuhan.
  3. See McNamee and Ong remember McLuhan.
  4. See previous note.
  5. It is striking how closely the 1959 assessment, apparently from Williams, agrees with the recollections 40 years later of McNamee and Ong (cited in the previous notes).
  6. Williams: ‘unite in’

Marshall, Harry and Baudelaire

In a letter to Harry Skornia from the last week of February, 1959, McLuhan described

Break-through in class today.  Talking about Baudelaire’s famous line1

Hypocrite lecteur, — mon semblable, — mon frère!

his address to his readers — point is that it is voice through reader to poet not voice of poet to reader. This reversal borne out in all subsequent poetry — same as TV image reversal of light through, not on. Takes whole stress off private, personal role of reader and poet alike.  Both now come to share a common creative action.
Can explain all this in detail.  But you can see my point here about the ease with which the student of the most popular forms can be given either casual or intense introduction to highest art forms of his time. e.g. all poets since Rimbaud have used telegraph-press form of juxtaposed items — no linkages, just mosaic of proportions.  Again a form of light through, not private editorial perspective of light on items.

McLuhan would repeat the point for the rest of his career, endlessly. It was part of the armamentum he employed teaching modern art: allow communication to come to you, don’t force you on it; look for figure and ground — and allow these to flip into the reverse configuration; imagine the images as shots in a movie and ask why they have the place they do; consider the composition as a newspaper page; see what happens when a text is read backwards or a picture seen upside down; ask what the artist is trying to elicit from the audience in general and you in particular; pull out the connections! These were techniques he had picked up in learning to read himself and Mallarmé and the French moderns had been critical in this process.

Skornia answered with a short note on March 2, 1959:

Dear Marshall: From your letter, discovery: You’re a Baudelaire fan too! As a literature and language professor spent nearly a year on him and other French moderns. Also, at other times, Dante, Cervantes, Browning,  etc. 

Skornia was a rare bird, an academic with a practical understanding of organizations from the very large like the federal government to the very small like university radio stations. And who at one time had taught Dante, Cervantes and Baudelaire. This unusual background and eclectic range of interests enabled Skornia to value McLuhan’s potential for the NAEB when many in the organization could not. Further, Skornia was in a position — one he was willing to risk — to give McLuhan practical assistance with recognition, encouragement and funding at a — or the — decisive point in his life. 

  1. Au Lectuer’, Les Fleurs du mal, 1857.

Defining the Understanding Media project

At the end of 1958 or, more likely, early in 1959,1 McLuhan wrote an overview of a contemplated major NAEB research project to be titled2 Understanding Media. As in his December 1, 1958 letter to Skorina he highlighted the need to bring together “in-school and out-of-school experience” with media both as the definitive goal of the needed medium of understanding media3 and as a ready test of movement towards that goal. He concluded the overview by defining the aim of the project as a contribution towards the dis-covery of the elemental structure of media (their “lines of force”) which, alone, might inaugurate that medium: “To provide ways of discerning these lines of force, these currents not of opinion but of perception,4 is the aim of the Project in Understanding New Media.”

Project in Understanding New Media

In the broadest sense, the object is to devise a means of bridging between in-school and out-of-school experience. Since the sheer flow of information outside of school is out of all proportion to the in-school information flow, this fact alone without regard to the forms and modes in which this flow occurs indicates a new educational need.

A possible new strategy presents itself from the fact of the interaction of multiple media today. In teaching writing and language, the great changes in recent decades have arisen from the fact that print now exists as only one among several major media. Photography, film, audio tapes, radio and television have all x-rayed, as it were, the older medium of print, enabling us to see its structure as a form of experience. This structure was not visible in the ages of printing but what the new media have done to print they have also done to one another, rendering themselves structurally luminous from within.

To understand media in this over-all structural way offers a real short cut to the education of perception and judgment. For the various media exert a direct non-verbal pressure upon all habits of perception and judgment. It has not been sufficiently noticed that these powers exercise an almost exclusively non-verbal and subliminal pressure upon the assumptions within our experience.

For example, the telephone has changed the patterns of decision-making to such a degree as to make the older structure of delegated authority in business and management not only obsolete, but a threat to the continued existence of management functions. This clash between telephone and typewriter has received only incidental appraisal in Parkinson‘s Law. It has caused the sudden rise of many management centers which attempt decentralization by means of over-all training of specialists.

The impact of new structures such as photography and film upon habits of learning and judgment are, of course, far greater than that exerted by the telephone. Obsession with “content” seems infallibly to obscure the structural changes effected by media.

The future of navigation in education at any level depends upon an exact knowledge of ever-changing lines of forces exerted by new media structures, and beamed irresistibly into our personal and social modes of awareness.

To provide ways of discerning these lines of force, these currents not of opinion but of perception, is the aim of the Project in Understanding New Media.5

  1. This undated one-page overview appears as the last page in a 1958 NAEB file immediately after a draft proposal wrongly dated to January 1958 (instead of January 1959). This may have led to its misfiling, but it was not in any case unusual at the NAEB for letters or documents to be misfiled in the wrong year folder. While there is nothing in the overview that could not have been written by McLuhan at the end of 1958, it was more probably written as part of the process in the first months of 1959 to put together a proposal for funding under Title VII of the National Defense Education Act which had been signed into law in September 1958. As will be detailed in future posts, the NAEB closely followed developments leading to this NDEA. It may well have contributed to some of its language and it courted the Office of Education assiduously (to the point of sponsoring a joint conference with it in Washington in May 1958 at which McLuhan was an invited speaker). When the law was finally signed into effect by President Eisenhower on September 2, 1958, the NAEB was well aware that an application under Title VII had to be made quickly if funding were to be secured. (See Becker on NDEA Title VII funding.) Harry Skornia seems to have decided already in early 1958, if not even in late 1957, that McLuhan’s writings and energies presented the best opportunity for such a proposal. He therefore promoted McLuhan within the NAEB by inviting him to speak at two NAEB conferences in 1958, republishing McLuhan’s talks on those occasions in issues of the NAEB Journal and frequently mentioning McLuhan favorably in his columns in the NAEB Newsletter. Opposition to McLuhan as a newcomer and wild thinker was never absent in the NAEB, but it did not find its voice until the project had already been defined, submitted and approved. It was then too late to do much but grumble.
  2. This title was first proposed in a McLuhan letter to Skornia of December 16, 1958.
  3. See The chemistry of the interior landscape.
  4. The genitive in play here in the phrase ‘of perception’ must be considered closely. On the one hand, all human experience is ‘of perception’ as a subjective genitive. Such bias as we inevitably bring to our experience is not to be overcome — all experience necessarily belongs to our take on it. On the other hand, perception according to McLuhan is subject to media such that an objective genitive is also operative here — lines of force of what? of perception! As usual with McLuhan, then, the genitive is dual and misunderstanding will result if this complexity is not followed.
  5. Skornia pushed the understanding of new media as a key to the approval of the funding proposal. McLuhan agreed to this as a tactic, but insisted at the same time that new media could not be understood aside from an understanding of media per se. The (elementary nature of the) medium is the message.

Charge of the light brigade

Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
(Tennyson, The Charge of the Light Brigade, 1854)

When in late 1958 McLuhan via André Girard first came upon the notion of TV as “light through” as opposed to “light on“,1 he had already been writing for some years about “the charge of the light brigade” used by Joyce in characterizing TV: 

The TV camera is not the movie camera. It does not arrest the flow of action in a series of still shots. Its continuous pick-up is like the radio mike with respect to the voice. Again the TV screen is not the movie screen. In some sense the spectator is himself the screen. The cathode tube carries ‘the charge of the light brigade’. The tube carries both the charge and the answering barrage.2 The result is the painting of images by the ballet of electrons. (Notes on the Media as Art Forms, Explorations 2, 1954)

Joyce saw TV as the fateful charge of the Light Brigade made possible by the ‘abnihilisation of the etym’. (…) With TV the spectator is the screen. The world external to the TV camera is interiorized in the TV watcher. (Radio and TV vs. the Abced-Minded, Explorations 5, 1955)

The “abnihilisation of the etym” — the dismantling of the atom — as the cutting of the uncuttable is, taken as an objective genitive, the freeing of the electron for its “charge” and resulting “ballet”. Its bullet and resulting bulletin.

On the other hand, this technology, like all others, is enabled by what it at the same time veils, namely the gap or “abnihilisation” at its heart.  And since “the medium is the message” as the ‘root’ or “etym” of all possible messages, this gap is the “abnihilisation of the etym” as a subjective genitive, the gap belonging to the medium-root-etym as its defining structural characteristic. Hence Joyce’s “ab” (from) and not merely “nihilisation”.

In the third place, the “abnihilisation of the etym” taken as a dual genitive, both objective and subjective, is the ‘death of Adam’ (subjective as well as objective because brought about by himself). Joyce brings together ‘atom’ and ‘Adam’ throughout FW: “from atoms to ifs” (455), “adomic structure” (615).  Among the points being made is that ‘objective’ insight is never without ‘subjective’ ramification: “both the charge and the answering barrage”.3 Human extension ends, as McLuhan would repeatedly insist, in implosion.

  1. See From world to worlds.
  2. “The answering barrage” in Tennyson describing the Russian response to the English charge:
    Cannon to right of them,
    Cannon to left of them,
    Cannon in front of them
    Volleyed and thundered.
  3. See The chemistry of the interior landscape for McLuhan to Skornia: “the actual lines of force generated by any medium as it expands, making its own world, yet reciprocally modifying existing forms and being modified by them as well”.

Richard Hughes on media and the senses

R.C. Williams’ 1948 television paper cites an article by Richard Hughes from the  year before: ‘The Second Revolution: Literature and Radio‘.1 Hughes raises a number of issues that I.A. Richards and Eric Havelock were discussing around the same time and therefore shows how these were in the air prior to McLuhan’s detailed treatment of them beginning in Explorations, but especially in The Gutenberg Galaxy, some 15 years later:

  • Before the printing-press was invented, the writer reached the majority of his public not through their eyes but through their ears. Poetry was sung or recited; prose books, too, were recited or read aloud. Not only primitive communal literatures such as the Homeric cycle, the Sagas, and the Mabinogion; at a much later stage than that, long after the poet took to composing with stylus or pen in hand instead of drum or lyre, he still wrote not to be read but to be heard. (34)
  • The lovely illuminated manuscripts of the medieval monasteries were meant to delight the eye, but to be looked at rather than to be read— at least, not read in the sense of passing round the monastery from hand to hand. Their text was read aloud in the refectories, or sung in the Churches, rather than pored over in the cells. The language of King James’s Bible (as well as the English Prayer Book) was so intended. For the effect of the printing press on literary on literary style was profound but it was not sudden. It was a slow development, culminating only in our own century.  (34-35)
  • Gradually, in the intervening time, poetry acquired a subtler intricacy as the poet found he need no longer rely on the immediate aural impact of word added one by one to measured word. (…) By the same token, such poetry had to be banished from the stage. In earlier days poetry had seemed the natural mode for the stage, since the poetic was par excellence the mode of utterance aloud, In Caxton’s own day, John Skelton described himself as “Poet” and “Orator” almost interchangeably. (34-35)
  • Prose likewise developed a greater elaboration of structure, rolling out interminable periods, gorgeous and majestic to the eye, which on the tongue would have taxed the lungs of Aeolus, In short, there grew a split in style between the art of the spoken and of the read word: between oratory, an art which has extension only in time, and literature, which has extension in space coupled with a time-dimension which the reader can manipulate at will… (35)
  • Reading aloud died hard, barely a generation ago. (…) Thus the last echoes of heard literature had died away, but had only just died away, when a second revolutionary invention, wireless broadcasting, set the pendulum swinging again in the opposite direction. The Voice had come back. (35)
  • It may be argued, not implausibly, that radio will be the only literature of the future; that the present age of universal literacy is only a passing phase; that in a generation or two reading and writing will be dead like Greek and Latin, and dead for the same reason — that they will no longer be necessary for daily life. (42)
  1. ‘The Second Revolution: Literature and Radio’, Virginia Quarterly Review, 23:1, 1947, 34-44.

McLuhan and Father R.C. Williams

Harry Skornia in the November 1958 NAEB Newsletter:

After reading many of his articles and his fine magazine, Explorations, and hearing him at our Washington Conference [May 1958], I had suggested Dr. Marshall McLuhan of the University of Toronto as one of the speakers for the [October 1958 NAEB] convention [in Omaha]. This was roundly seconded by Father Williams of Creighton, who had studied under Professor McLuhan, and [by] the rest of the [convention program] committee. 

Roswell Clinton Williams, SJ, 1906-1975, was in the English Deparment faculty at St Louis University in the late 1930s and early 1940s. He had obtained his MA1 from SLU in 1932 and so did not study ‘under’ McLuhan in the same way as did his Jesuit colleagues, Walter Ong, Clement McNaspy, and Maurice McNamee. The department head at the time was William H. McCabe, SJ, McLuhan’s fellow graduate of Cambridge, mentor and friend. When McCabe left to head Rockhurst College in Kansas City (alma mater of Bernie Muller-Thym and Walter Ong), Williams joined him there. Then, when McCabe moved again to become president of the much larger Creighton University in Omaha, Williams once again went with him and spent the remainder of his teaching career there, eventually becoming its Director of Communications.2

Williams was a pioneer in the use of educational TV. Through his interest, Creighton appears to have been the first university in the country, and probably first in the world, to teach courses using television. Already in 1948 he published ‘Present and Future Television in Our Colleges‘.3 While there is no evidence, yet, that McLuhan knew of this article, he may well have. He certainly remained in touch with Ong and McNaspy and could have seen it through them or through Williams himself. But however that may have been, Williams’ article is noteworthy in making many points McLuhan would repeatedly take up in the 1950s:

  • Our [Jesuit’s] most legitimate claim to a place in the ancestry of television is through the scientific side of the family. For it was Father Athanasius Kircher [SJ], one of our greatest scientists, who invented the magic lantern or slide projector which paved the way for the motion picture and thus eventually for television.4 (142)
  • This statement [concerning the magic lantern] is, of course, a vast oversimplification. All that is meant is that the rapid succession of images which creates the illusion of movement in the motion picture is also employed in television, though the images in the latter are produced in a totally different fashion. (142)
  • No television camera takes a picture on film; what it does is to translate an image into electrical impulses… (143)
  • Within individual stations and networks of both radio and television there are men and women trained directly or indirectly in the philosophia perennis who are fully aware of their potential ability to help preserve the core of Christian civilization in a world where the issue with5 materialism and dualism (to use general terms)6 is perhaps more in the open than it has ever been before in history — due in no small measure to the global scope of communications. (149-150)
  • if there was ever a time when it was possible to supply “true principles to popular enthusiasm” (to quote Newman on the benefits of university education), that time would seem to be now.7 (150)
  • But today the doctor, or lawyer, or merchant, or priest may be called upon to communicate his ideas through radio, tomorrow through television. Are we even now equipping him to use these media effectively? We have taken into account the first revolution in communication — brought about by the printing press, which shifted the emphasis from ear to eye — a revolution emerging in St. Ignatius’ own lifetime. But have we sufficiently adverted to the second revolution — brought about by radio, which shifted the emphasis in communication from the eye back to the ear? And what adjustment must now be made for television?8 (151)
  • If the ideal of eloquentia perfecta is not altogether dead, and we should hesitate to say that it was, then in the contemporary world it surely must include some acquaintance with radio and television.9(152)
  • Rather than joining the chorus of those who now carp at radio and will carp at television for commercialization, would it not be wiser to train students who will help to improve the industries from within? Historically, culture has always been wedded to commerce to a certain extent…10 (155)
  1. Williams’ MA thesis on “The Ancient Tragic Chorus and Its Modern Counterparts” recalls Yeats ‘Emotion of Multitude’ and would have led easily to his later media studies.
  2. Further on Williams: R.C. Williams’ Assessment of McLuhan.
  3. ‘Present and Future Television in Our Colleges’, Jesuit Educational Quarterly, January 1948, 141-155.
  4. Williams’ attribution of the invention of the magic lantern to Kircher was mistaken. McLuhan did not repeat the mistake but often treated the early history of photography and cinema in the camera oscura.
  5. Williams: “between”.
  6. Williams qualifies his language here with an aside. But the problem with his remarks is not so much with the general terms “materialism and dualism”, but with the preposition “between” — as if Christian civilization ever came down on either one of these.
  7. McLuhan in 1961: “The ideal Marriage of Mercury and Philology, of spiritual values and perfected method, will be consummated, if ever, in the electronic age.” (Humanities in the Electronic Age)
  8. Williams cited Richard Hughes here — see Richard Hughes on media and the senses.
  9. The ideal of eloquentia perfecta was highlighted in McLuhan’s PhD thesis on Nashe, which he was writing in the early 1940s when Williams and McLuhan were both in the SLU English department.
  10. ‘Culture is our Business’ was the title of McLuhan’s talk at the 1958 NAEB annual meeting in Omaha 10 years later. Williams was on the program committee for the conference since he was both very active in the NAEB and resident in Omaha at Creighton.

Chemistry of the interior landscape

Not the personal point of view, nor the partiality of perspective and self-expression, but the catalyst role of the non-personal chemical medium became the natural bias of the social sciences and symbolist artists alike. (McLuhan on Frye, 1957/58)1 

The media of communication (…) have their own physics and chemistry which enter into every moment of social (…) change. (Explorations 8, #14, 1957)2

In a letter to Harry Skornia from December 1, 1958, McLuhan set out his thoughts on the project of researching the ‘grammars’ or ‘languages’ of the media:

My own approach to this project (…) follows (…) the actual lines of force generated by any medium as it expands, making its own world, yet reciprocally modifying existing forms and being modified by them as well. (…) I consider my task to be to reduce such data to manageable syntactical forms [that are yet] of compendious scope. (…) My project is (…) designed to make possible in-school training of a sort which makes out-of-school contacts (…) with the physicist, the engineer, the studio men, the program men, and the audience, all at once (…) available as educational resource. (…) All of their actions in relation to [such a theory of media]3 are given a kind of organic unity of which they may be but little aware. (…) And this does re-constitute (…) the Little Red Schoolhouse, where everything was taught at once. Only it is the Little Red Schoolhouse at large, turned inside out, and expanded to global size. (…) We must secure (…) all (…) in concert.4

Consciously or not,5 one of the models McLuhan was deploying for the contemplated investigation of media with the NAEB was chemistry.6 For any chemical substance exists in a dynamic equilibrium with all the materials around it: “making its own world, yet reciprocally modifying existing forms and being modified by them as well” — “everything (…) at once”, “all (…) in concert”.7

Because chemistry has come to understand this “compendious” situation through the dis-covery of how to focus it via the elements — an ongoing event that is only 200 years old — chemical theory taught as a subject in school is not different from the practice of chemistry in the world outside it in, say, manufacturing: “in-school training of a sort which makes out-of-school contacts (…) available as educational resource”. Indeed, the “out-of-school” world of chemistry is just the “in-school” world “turned inside out, and expanded to global size”.

Each of these (the “in-school” and the “out-of-school”) is able to inform the other exactly and only because “the actual lines of force” in the workings of the world itself — the world that exists before8 any chemical theory — have been identified for on-going investigation. Strangely, at least for those unable to swim, it is only because this identification is never perfect, is imperfect in principle, that it is able to progress, usually gradually, sometimes revolutionarily.

As seen in chemistry (but also in genetics and linguistics, and as long ago as Euclid’s geometry), the inaugurating task facing the investigation of any complex of this sort is therefore “to reduce such data” of “global size” to “syntactical forms” which are “manageable” — but are also, however, through rules of their combination and transformation, “of compendious scope”. The aim is enable everyone “in-school” or “out-of-school” (“the physicist, the engineer, the studio men, the program men, and the  audience, all at once”) to set to mental and/or physical work on the same things and the same problems.

As seen everywhere in the history of science, feedback from theory to practice and from practice to theory can become the norm and progress in both is assured as long as the back and forth flow between them is maintained.

Here too, then, the medium is the message. For chemistry exists in a complex global medium of labs and journals and manufacturing plants and mines and educational institutions and much else, including solitary thinkers. McLuhan’s notion was that the same sorts of transformations as inaugurated the sciences of the exterior world are possible — and are imperatively needed! — in regard to the interior one. Further, that the effect of such transformations would be a whole new medium of information exchange in which new possibilities for solving the world’s palpable problems would thereby be founded.

We have to know in advance the effect, on all the cultures of the world, of any change whatever. This is necessity not ideal. It is also a possibility. There was never a critical situation created by human ingenuity which did not contain its own solution. The same technology which has made instantaneous information-flow a chemical danger to every culture in the world has also created the power of total re-construction and pre-construction of models of situations. (Explorations 8, #14, 1957)9

Seen in this way, the task McLuhan took on in 1958 with the NAEB and Harry Skornia was to isolate the elementary structure of media, what he called in this December 1 letter, their structural “lines of force”. Much else might follow of great importance. But this was the essential beginning that had to be dis-covered:10

This was the fundamental aim of the NAEB proposal (given in its abstract) submitted to the US Office of Education on March 27, 1959.


  1. Unpublished review of Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism.
  2. ‘The Alchemy of Social Change’.
  3. McLuhan: “in relation to TV”.
  4. The sentences in this passage follow the rough order of McLuhan’s letter. But some of them are given out of sequence and capital letters have been introduced in a couple places to aid comprehension. For “concert”, see note 7 below.
  5. Full consciousness of anything is hardly possible. But breakthrough ideas in particular are not the sort of thing, according to McLuhan, that may properly be described in terms of individual consciousness. Instead, as he thought had happened with electric technology and media (“Electric media compel us to consider light through as the norm of knowledge and experience”, Media Log #2), it can become possible (a strange enough construction) for models to be articulated which are already at work in various ways in the environment. It is the aim of the resulting investigation to specify and investigate those ways. Consciousness is an effect of that investigation, not its cause. McLuhan in Explorations 8, #17: “Sensibility is inclusive and precedes analytic awareness.”
  6. Along with grammar, literary criticism, aesthetics, management theory, relativity physics, etc etc.
  7. Since encountering Sigfried Giedion in 1943 in St Louis, and reading his Space, Time and Architecture as a result, McLuhan had taken up Giedion’s image of the world as a symphony or concert where the musicians were cut off from each other and could not hear their overall production. Restoring the music of the world was one way of putting Giedion’s aim and became so as well for McLuhan.
  8. It is eminently questionable what time or times are indicated with this ‘before’. On the one hand, chemical elements have always been at work from the beginning of the world, but they are also at work today, in some other sense of ‘before’, in all the manifestations of the world around us and, indeed, in us. Furthermore, human beings have ‘done’ chemistry, albeit unconsciously, ever since they learned to control fire, started cooking, learned to prepare hides, etc.
  9. See note #2 above.
  10. “A break-through in understanding media is needed to cope with, and devise controls of these media in a manner to match the break-through already achieved in their technical phases.” That McLuhan was on his way to the beginning meant that he was subject to a paradox: “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”. (CA, 160) McLuhan mentioned this paradox as early as 1955, a couple years before he became engaged with Skornia and the NAEB: “Everywhere in his work Joyce follows the classical philosophical principle that during ‘the whole of previous time wherein anything is moving towards its form, it is under the opposite form’.” (‘Radio and Television vs. The ABCED-Minded’, Explorations 5.) And in the same year in ‘Space, Time, and Poetry’ he 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 and Skornia 1957 and 1958

According to Jerry Landay, ‘The Cradle of PBS‘,1 for which he interviewed Harry Skornia:

It was as a communications researcher that Skornia met Marshall McLuhan — an encounter that helped establish the reputation of the Canadian scholar. The first contact was a scrawled note from McLuhan at the University of Toronto in April 1957 to NAEB headquarters promoting a subscription to his periodical on culture and communications, Explorations, along with a personal testimonial to “a magazine of great relevance.” The following year, Skornia heard McLuhan lecture at a meeting of the Modern Language Association. The obscure Canadian scholar impressed him. Skornia recruited him as principal investigator on an NAEB research project funded by the U.S. [Office]2 of Education, Understanding Media. (40-41)

Landay seems to have been working with Skornia’s excellent memory of events more than 30 years in the past rather than the underlying documents. McLuhan’s “scrawled note” is given in First contact with the NAEB. It was not much of a promotion for a subscription to Explorations. But that Skornia remembered it decades later as the first step that he and McLuhan took together is indeed noteworthy. The note must have been referred to him and, through some kind of premonition, he must have followed up by looking into Explorations and being impressed enough by it to want to meet McLuhan. 

A note in McLuhan’s Letters (288) agrees with Skornia that the two first met in person at an MLA meeting, but this cannot have been “the following year”. That MLA meeting of 1958, “the following year”, was held in New York and took place in December. By that time, Skornia and McLuhan had already established their frequent correspondence and intense collaboration. The MLA event where they first met in person, then, following Skornia’s attention to McLuhan’s April “scrawled note”, McLuhan’s invitation to the 1957 NAEB research conference and McLuhan’s acceptance note to Skornia that August,3 must instead have been the unusually early MLA meeting (September) held in that same year of 1957. This was indeed the “following” MLA, but not “the following year”. And it was held in Madison — close to Skornia in Illinois and the location of McLuhan’s first teaching job twenty years before.

It seems from the MLA Proceedings for that Madison meeting that Skornia (or Landay) was also mistaken in reporting that McLuhan lectured there. Instead, perhaps through discussions between Skornia and McLuhan at the MLA meeting in September and/or at the research seminar in December, McLuhan was an invited speaker at the NAEB ‘Conference on Educational Television’ in Washington, D.C., at the end of May 1958, co-sponsored (just like McLuhan’s future NAEB project on research in new media), by the US Office of Education. McLuhan’s talk there was titled ‘The Role of Mass Communication in Meeting Today’s Problems’ — a topic close to Skornia’s heart and perhaps designedly so. It along with the other conference papers were issued in mimeograph by the Office of Education and then McLuhan’s paper there was republished in slightly altered form as ‘Our New Electronic Culture: The Role of Mass Communication in Meeting Today’s Problems’ in the NAEB Journal.4

This version of the progress of the relationship between McLuhan and Skornia seems to have been confirmed by Skornia himself. In his ‘Memo from the Executive Director’ column of the NAEB Newslatter for November 1958, Skornia recorded:

After reading many of his articles and his fine magazine, Explorations, and hearing him at our Washington Conference [May 1958], I had suggested Dr. Marshall McLuhan of the University of Toronto as one of the speakers for the [NAEB] convention [in Omaha in October 1958]. This was roundly seconded by Father [R.C.] Williams of Creighton who had studied under Professor McLuhan,5 and the rest of the [convention program] committee.


  1. ‘The Cradle of PBS’, Illinois Quarterly, 3:1, Winter 1991, 35 – 41.
  2.  Landay: “Department”.
  3. See NAEB seminar December 1957.
  4.  NAEB Journal, 18:1, 1958.
  5. See McLuhan and Father R.C. WilliamsWilliams was an MA student of McLuhan at SLU along with Walter Ong. After graduating from SLU, Williams taught at Rockhurst College (when William McCabe, SJ, was the President there), then moved to Creighton University in Omaha when McCabe became its President in turn. Williams remained at Creighton for the rest of his long career, eventually becoming its Director of Communications.

NAEB seminar December 1957

The NAEB held its first ever research seminar at Ohio State University Dec 9-13, 1957.1 Harry Skornia, the NAEB Executive Director, described the seminar in a note to its invitees dated November 11, 1957, as follows:

This Seminar, which we hope will be only the first in this essential area, seeks to bring together the top twenty or so research people active in and concerned about educational broadcasting, particularly educational television. It will, we hope , help plot research efforts for the future to help insure that research is provided in essential areas, in responsible and adequately supervised form…

The invitees were chosen by the NAEB research committee in a process in which each of its members was asked to rank a list of some 66 candidates (with ‘1’ as the top mark, the results list was ordered like a golf score with the lowest number being best). The clear favorite was Wilbur Schramm of Stanford (formerly of the University of Illinois, where the NAEB was headquartered) who did not, however, accept the NAEB invitation. McLuhan came in at number 4 and did attend the conference.2

McLuhan’s high ranking with the NAEB at this point in his career is thought provoking. He had published two essays in the Columbia Teacher’s College Record — ‘A Historical Approach to the Media’ (1955) and ‘Educational Effects of Mass Media of Communication’ (1956) — and these, given the national prestige of the Teacher’s College, served to certify him as a recognized scholar of media in education.3 But it seems to have been as an editor of Explorations that McLuhan had come to the attention of the NAEB. In a note added to McLuhan’s handwritten acceptance letter of his invitation to the December research seminar, this association was emphasized:4

Similarly in a list of nominations for the seminar:

And again in the title of McLuhan’s presentation to the May 1958 NAEB conference in Washington on educational TV:

In the space of a few years in the middle 50’s McLuhan was able to establish himself as a recognized researcher in education and media. There were, of course, many factors in his past that contributed to this possibility: his work in the early 1930’s at the University of Manitoba with Rupert Lodge on ‘Philosophy and Education’;5 his Cambridge PhD thesis on Thomas Nashe and the trivium which in large part was a two-thousand-year history of education;6 his appeal to Robert Hutchins to establish a new sort of academy based on Sigfried Giedion’s ideas on “interrelation”;7 his turn to Mallarmé and Joyce around 1950 as artists of “cultural communication”;8 and his broadcast work as an academic with the CBC going back to the late 1940s. It was Explorations, however, working as testimony to McLuhan’s engagement with media, that brought him to the attention, not of the general public certainly, but of the cultural cognoscenti in the US and, to a limited extent, in Europe. Through this attention, McLuhan was able to gain a foothold with the NAEB, in particular with its research committee and with its executive director, Skornia, which would then quickly (in the space of only 3 years!)9 lead to the realization of the Understanding Media project in 1960.


  1. The seminar was funded by the Kellogg Foundation.
  2. See the list of attendees.
  3. It may be that McLuhan’s relationship with Louis Forsdale at the Columbia Teacher’s College was critical for his  work with the NAEB and hence for his subsequent success and fame in the 1960s. In remarks at the start of his dialogue with McLuhan in July 1978, Forsdale speaks of their friendship going back 30 years, that is to the late 1940s. Forsdale invited McLuhan to speak at Columbia in 1955 (See Marchand, 141-142) and must have been influential in McLuhan’s appearances in the Teacher’s College Record around that same time.
  4. McLuhan’s August 20, 1957, note to Skornia refers to “last time I was there it was Ford funds”. It may be, then, that his initial contact with the NAEB — apparently not with Skornia — went back to the time of the Ford Foundation grant, 1953-1956. But another reading of the same sentence could take McLuhan’s “I was there” as referring not to the NAEB in Urbana, Illinois, but to Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, where the NAEB research seminar was to take place. Future research will have to resolve this question.
  5. See McLuhan and Lodge (‘Philosophy and Education’).
  6. See Havelock, McLuhan & the history of education.
  7. See Proposal to Robert Hutchins 1947.
  8. See ‘James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial’: “In an important book, Communication, the Social Matrix of Psychology, a psychologist and an anthropologist, Jurgen Ruesch and Gregory Bateson, have recently followed the method of Ulysses in attempting to convey the working image of cultural communication.”
  9. Hegel: “Es ist übrigens nicht schwer, zu sehen, daß unsre Zeit eine Zeit der Geburt und des Übergangs zu einer neuen Periode ist. Der Geist hat mit der bisherigen Welt seines Daseins und Vorstellens gebrochen und steht im Begriffe, es in die Vergangenheit hinab zu versenken, und in der Arbeit seiner Umgestaltung. Zwar ist er nie in Ruhe, sondern in immer fortschreitender Bewegung begriffen. Aber wie beim Kinde nach langer stiller Ernährung der erste Atemzug jene Allmählichkeit des nur vermehrenden Fortgangs abbricht – ein qualitativer Sprung – und jetzt das Kind geboren ist, so reift der sich bildende Geist langsam und still der neuen Gestalt entgegen, löst ein Teilchen des Baues seiner vorhergehenden Welt nach dem anderen auf; ihr Wanken wird nur durch einzelne Symptome angedeutet; der Leichtsinn, wie die Langeweile, die im Bestehenden einreißen, die unbestimmte Ahnung eines Unbekannten sind Vorboten, daß etwas Anderes im Anzug ist. Dieses allmälige Zerbröckeln, das die Physiognomie des Ganzen nicht veränderte, wird durch den Aufgang unterbrochen, der, ein Blitz, mit einem Male das Gebilde der neuen Welt hinstellt.” PhG, Vorrede. Compare McLuhan: “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”. (CA, 160) Without yet fully grasping the paradoxical transformation at stake in the insight, McLuhan mentioned it already in 1955: “Everywhere in his work Joyce follows the classical philosophical principle that during ‘the whole of previous time wherein anything is moving towards its form, it is under the opposite form’.” (‘Radio and Television vs. The ABCED-Minded’, Explorations 5)

First contact with the NAEB

McLuhan’s work with the National Association of Educational Broadcasters in the late 1950’s was central to his subsequent career and fame. But the first personal contact he had with the organization1 may have been a seemingly inconsequential billing reminder, dated April 8, 1957, that he received from the NAEB secretary, Judith Gans. 

McLuhan appears to have returned the Gans reminder correcting the address it had for him, and presumably enclosing his payment, with the following handwritten note:2

Dear Mrs Gans,
Please note that our mag Explorations is of great relevance to NAEB affairs — especially no7.
There is in no7 report of new media experiment which you will want to report to your readers.
University of Toronto
Toronto 5
Sincerely yours
H M McLuhan

McLuhan’s reference in Explorations 7 must have been to ‘The New Languages’, pages 4-21, which lists McLuhan’s close friend, Edmund (Ted) Carpenter, as its author at its end.3 The “media experiment” is reported on pages 16-21. But this essay had previously been published in the Chicago Review4 and there McLuhan was listed as Carpenter’s co-author. Indeed, much of the language of the paper plainly stems from McLuhan.

McLuhan’s “scrawled” note was remembered by Harry Skornia over 30 years later5 as igniting the intense collaboration the two would come to have over the next 4 or 5 years.6 With it, McLuhan had correctly sensed the felt need within the NAEB community for a ‘scientific basis’ to ground its commitment to new media in education.7

  1. But see McLuhan’s handwritten letter to Harry Skornia from August 20, 1957, which may indicate an earlier contact. The letter and discussion of it are given in NAEB seminar December 1957.
  2. The Gans letter with its McLuhan note is preserved in the NAEB archive that is steadily being posted to the internet in the great Unlocking the Airwaves project.
  3. Unlike other issues of Explorations, there is no Table of Contents for #7.
  4. ‘The New Languages’, Chicago Review, 10:1, Spring, 1956, 46-52.
  5. Skornia recalled the note in an interview reported in ‘The Cradle of PBS‘ by Jerry Landay (Illinois Quarterly, 3:1, Winter 1991, 35 – 41). For discussion see McLuhan and Skornia 1957.
  6. The two then remained in correspondence until McLuhan’s death.
  7. As reported by Josh Shepperd in ‘Medien miss-verstehen. Marshall McLuhan und die National Association of Educational Broadcasters, 1958-1960‘ (Zeitschrift für Medienwissenschaft, 3:5:2 (2011), 25–43), there was a great gulf between how McLuhan and many members of the NAEB, not least its research committee, understood ‘scientific basis’ (with Harry Skornia caught in the middle between the two sides). For the committee members, the procedures of science were already well known and the need was to apply them to media, especially radio and television, as these might be deployed in education. For McLuhan, in fundamental contrast, the initiation of a scientific investigation of media (dual genitive!) would necessarily require the sort of revolutionary Gestalt-switch as seen in the advent of writing in 5th century Athens: “Writing is the translation of the audible into the visible. The translation is literally, metaphor. Recorded history is thus set upon a metaphor” (‘Space, Time, and Poetry’, Explorations 4, 1955). Now Shepperd recognizes the sharp difference between these views of ‘scientific basis’ and sets it out neatly in the concluding remarks of his paper: “Nur selten in der Wissenschaftsgeschichte kommen zwei wichtige paradigmatische Impulse so eng miteinander in Berührung und scheitern doch daran, eine echte dialektische Wechselwirkung einzugehen. (…) Eher als in einem Verhältnis der wechselseitigen Beeinflussung aber verhielten sie sich zueinander in einem Verhältnis der wechselseitigen Abstoßung.” (43)  For McLuhan, however, such a gap was no “Scheitern” or “wechselseitige Abstoßung”, or it was not only these, but instead was an indication of the elementary structure of media in general: “the gap where the action is”. Indeed, this was precisely the spine-tingling discovery he reported to Skornia in December 1958 in terms of the contrast between light on and light through. While light on had dominated history for 2500 years and produced the entire world as we know it, including the notion of science of the NAEB research committee, as well as Shepperd’s “echte dialektische Wechselwirkung”, it could now, with the electric revolution, be recognized as only (only!) a remarkable species of the genus of light through. As McLuhan would spend the rest of his life upacking, the utterly transformative movement backwards and downwards from the former to the latter was exactly what was at stake in Understanding Media.

McLuhan on phenomenology in LOM

Phenomenology is treated ambiguously in McLuhan’s posthumous Laws of Media, which was edited and co-authored by his son, Eric. On the one hand, it is seen as an abstract attempt1 to achieve what could not, in McLuhan’s view, be achieved in this way:

the root problem of phenomenology [is] that it is an all-out attempt by dialectic to invent — or turn itself into — grammar, to force some sort of ground to surface. (10-11)

Phenomenology is dialectic in ear-mode — a massive and decentralized quest for roots, for ground. (62)

From Hegel to Heidegger, phenomenologists have engaged in an attempt to get at the hidden properties or hidden effects of language and technology alike. In other words, they have tackled a right-hemisphere problem using left-hemisphere techniques and modes of cognition. (126)

On the other hand, phenomenology is seen, at least in Heidegger, as anticipating, however abstractly, just the sort of investigation that McLuhan himself was attempting:  

Heidegger’s language (…) in the German (…) is witty and concise, and his discussions pay close attention to the play of etymologies in [the] terms [he employs]2, in an evident attempt to retrieve grammatical stress as a new mode of dialectic (…) [His work amounts in this way to] a special technique of perception that reveals the ground.3 Since ‘the actual’ emerges as a figure from the ground of [a] ‘standing reserve’ [of possibilities], it is the latter realm that becomes for him the phenomenologist’s quarry. Heidegger is using Husserl’s rubric that ‘the possible precedes the actual,’ which is to observe abstractly that ground comes before figure. (63)

Leaving aside the misuse of some of Heidegger’s terminology here,4 the notion that “the actual emerges as a figure from the ground” of possibilities (= from what McLuhan sometimes termed the ‘unconscious’), is exactly McLuhan’s basic contention. In this context it can well be said that “the possible precedes the actual” and that “ground comes before figure” (even though in our normal experience it is usually figures, effects and other such actualities that come before grounds, causes and possibilities).

To ‘precede’ and to ‘come before’ are temporal designations. But they are plainly questionable in this context (in the sense of provoking questions), since normally we have no experience of any such dealing between the possible and the actual. It was for just this reason that Heidegger gave his Hauptwerk the title of Being — and Time. Whatever the process may be between the possible and the actual and between figure and ground, it is their relationship in time that must above all be elucidated — and this not in some presupposed singular time, but in complicated times, plural, that are allowed to be just as questionable as what they would bind together (the possible and the actual, figure and ground) in some sense or senses of precedence and subsequence. 

Furthermore, as McLuhan pointed out in his 1978 conversation with Louis Forsdale, “the ground comes through the figure or the figure comes through the ground, it can be both ways“. Our usual experience of figure and ground, if we have one at all, is that figure comes first and ground later: lines and circles were familiar before geometry and physical materials before chemistry. Hence, what requires elucidation is not only (only!) the logic of the possible and the actual in their synchronicity (namely no physical material absent its elements and no message absent its medium), but just as much our peculiar diachronic experience of them (as a kind of laboratory) and, above all, the knotted relation of these com-plicated relations of the synchronic and diachronic.

The ambiguity of the treatment of phenomenology in LOM might be taken to reflect changes in McLuhan’s mind over time in his assessment of it. His declaration to Forsdale’s class in 1978 that he would rename LOM as The Phenomenology of Media would seem to indicate that he had overcome his ambiguity about phenomenology at the end of his career and had come to embrace it. Against this, however, it is necessary to consider the generally favorable assessment already made of Heidegger almost twenty years before. Here he is in The Gutenberg Galaxy:

Heidegger surf-boards along on the electronic wave as triumphantly as Descartes rode the mechanical wave.
The5 kind of ballet of mind choreographed by Gutenberg by means of the isolated visual sense, is about as philosophical as Kant’s assumption of Euclidean space as a priori. But the alphabet and kindred gimmicks have long served man as a subliminal source of philosophical and religious assumptions. Certainly Martin Heidegger would seem to be on better ground in using the totality of language itself6 as philosophical datum. (248)

And at the same time as The Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan concluded his 1961 ‘Humanities in the Electronic Age’ as follows:

The concept of history of the philosopher Heidegger recommends itself as a natural model for the humanities in the electric age. It is the idea of the poetic of history, of history as a kind of unified language, the inner key to the creation of which can be grasped by a deepening sense of the spiritual energy encompassed in the ceaselessly growing life of words. The ideal Marriage of Mercury and Philology, of spiritual values and perfected method, will be consummated, if ever, in the electronic age.

It would seem that the multifold relations of McLuhan to phenomenology await much future consideration. Especially, what did he have in mind proposing a title for what he hoped would be his crowning achievement that unmistakably suggested connection with Hegels Phänomenologie des Geistes (1807), Husserl’s Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie und phänomenologischen Philosophie (1913) and Merleau-Ponty’s Phénoménologie de la perception (1935)? And especially to Heidegger’s notion of philosophy as phenomenological ontology?

  1. ‘Abstract attempt’: that is, a dialectical, conceptual, left-hemisphere attempt.
  2. McLuhan: “in his terms”.
  3. Compare Take Today: “Philology and etymology have become once more the basis for the metaphysical in Martin Heidegger.” (151)
  4. ‘Standing reserve’, presumably ‘Bestand’ in the German, has to do in Heidegger with ‘availability for use’, the conception of the planet as an asset whose value is a matter for our economic or aesthetic development. Heidegger was, of course, extremely critical of such a view (like McLuhan). So possibilities for Heidegger are what put us to use, not we them. In addition, that ‘the possible precedes the actual’ is a citation from the end of the Introduction to Heidegger’s Being and Time, not some “rubric” from Husserl.
  5. McLuhan: ‘this’ (referring not to Heidegger but to ‘mechanistic’ philosophy).
  6. At the end of his career McLuhan was beginning to consider how the range of possible phonemes in relation to the restricted range of them employed in any particular language might provide an interesting parallel to the relation of unconscious possibilities to the actualities of particular experience. As suggested by Terrence Gordon, this may well have resulted from his engagement in the 1970s with Saussure.

McLuhan on phenomenology in 1978

In July 1978, as part of Louis Forsdale’s course on communication at Columbia1, McLuhan and Forsdale conducted a dialogue of sorts (with McLuhan doing nearly all the talking, of course). McLuhan’s remarks on phenomenology are particularly worthy of note:

mentioned this peeping through — the light coming through the situation — that is called (…) ‘phenomenology’. It took me a long time to discover [this correlation with my own work], the phenomenologists manage to cover their tracks pretty well. They like to make out that they are very serious bunch, hard-headed logical people, the Heideggers and the Husserls and so on. All they’re telling you — and this has been so ever since Hegel and his phenomenological stuff — ever since Hegel, all they’ve been telling you is that behind every situation there’s another situation that peeps through. That peeping through is phenomenology. I call it simply the medium is the message or the figure and the ground. The ground comes through the figure or the figure comes through the ground, it can be both ways. It’s that process of light through that is phenomenology. (…)2 My Understanding Media is phenomenology of the media. (74:55-76:55

I have a book sort of ready to appear and I think I’ll now call it the Phenomenology of the Media — but it’s called Laws of the Media at the present time (87:54-88:05)

McLuhan says that “behind every situation there’s another situation that peeps through and that peeping through is phenomenology.” Hence, the complex relation or ratio of a figured “situation” to its grounding “situation” is constant. The fact of this relation does not result from diachronic development, but is something that is always the case. Just as in chemistry where elements always ‘peep through’ all physical materials, expressing themselves in them, so, according to McLuhan, in every psychological or spiritual event its ground is always “peeping through” — and it was the aim of the new science he wanted to found to learn how to read this:

To provide ways of discerning these lines of force, these currents not of opinion but of perception, is the aim of the Project in Understanding New Media3

At the same time, this constant (or synchronic) relation of figure to ground and of ground to figure is never the same. It is subject to a myriad variations over time. Hence, time is no singular. It is both synchronic and diachronic at once, so that it, too, appears only in a variable figure/ground co-relation: 

time considered as sequential (left hemisphere) is figure and time considered as simultaneous (right hemisphere) is ground. (Global Village, 10)

The claim is that neither figure nor ground can be understood unless each of them is seen in its essential relation to the other. This essential relation of mutual expression is the medium that is the message (of their “mutual expression”): 

I call it simply the medium is the message or the figure and the ground. The ground comes through the figure or the figure comes through the ground, it can be both ways. (75:48-76:02)

Together these complex points define where consideration of McLuhan’s work must begin: the fundamental plurality of time and the essential relation between figure and ground. It itself is able to be the investigation of figures in their grounds only as a figure itself, one that comes through its own grounding in these interrelated points.

  1. The dialogue is incorrectly titled on YouTube as taking place at Cambridge. As noted by Forsdale at its beginning, it took place July 17, 1978, as part of Forsdale’s ‘topics in communication’ course.
  2. The omitted passage here: “Now when you think of the thousands of books that have been written without even getting close to saying that (viz, the “process of light through that is phenomenology”) — why are they motivated to conceal their credentials? I’ve discovered this in most of the highbrow activities of our world — the jealous guarding of the sacred territory, the specialty, But there is no specialty that is not quite easily understood (when it is stated) in simple terms. If you know enough you can translate it into very simple terms.”
  3. See Defining the Understanding Media project.