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.”