Monthly Archives: May 2020

Psycho-dynamics (the medium is the message)

It is not easy to convince a literary man that an interest in the psycho-dynamics of the printed form of codification of information is anything but malice toward literature. Moreover, he is likely to feel personal humiliation at finding that he is, in fact, quite unaware of some of the basic effects of the print form upon many of his most cherished ideas and attitudes. (…) Personally I am not trying to upset such people. I am really trying to understand media and to discover their unique dynamics. (The Medium is the Message, 1960)1

If there is one dominating theme to McLuhan’s 24 ‘items’ in Explorations 8, it is that of “psycho-dynamics”.2 When he states in #3 that “extra sensory perception is normal perception” he means that in “normal perception” there is more going on than “sensory” reception and deployment. The additional “extra sensory” factor at work in perception is the medium in terms of which any and all experience is always already structured. Both the working and corresponding study of such media may be called “psycho-dynamics”.

In #8 he compares such “psycho-dynamics” to modern physics and medicine:

the rise of field theory in physics now has its medical counterpart in Dr. Hans Selye’s stress view3 (…) The Selye theory (…) that “all vital phenomena depend merely upon quantitative variations in the activation of pre-existent elementary targets.”4 is not a superficial view5 (…) The analogical drama of being and perception needs no more than the quantitative terms postulated by Selye. With these the living word constitutes and manifests itself in all mental and spiritual complexity.6

“The living word constitutes and manifests itself in all mental and spiritual complexity”7: such constitution/manifestation is the work of “psycho-dynamics” and is further specified in #6:

The most obvious feature of any (…)8 situation is extreme flexibility in immediate foreground and extreme persistence or rigidity in overall pattern. 

Compare this to Selye from Explorations 1 as cited (see above) by McLuhan in Explorations 8: “all vital phenomena depend merely upon quantitative variations in the activation of pre-existent elementary targets”. Selye’s “vital phenomena” = McLuhan’s “extreme flexibility in immediate foreground”; and Selye’s “pre-existent elementary targets” = McLuhan’s “persistence (…) in overall pattern”. If the former may be taken as the message or figure and the latter as the medium or ground9, a central implication of “the medium is the message” is that — just as in chemistry — understanding depends on a specification the underlying elements (= media grounds) and of their expression in the production (pro-duction) of the experienced world (whether material or mental).

Again just like chemistry, “the literal level was held to include all levels” (#22) since the literal level was to be investigated as the law-governed expression of the levels below it terminating in elements/media.10

The dynamic model at work here is further described in #16 as “the contrapuntal stacking of themes” and is fleshed out there as follows:

In Chaucer the realism never detracts from the polyphony of character themes or contrapuntal melodies all simultaneously heard.  Until about 1600 in art, literature and music, the only way of organizing a structure was the song technique of superimposed or parallel themes and melodies. (…) All of Shakespeare exists in auditory depth. The complexity of any of his characters is enforced by all of the others being simultaneously present.

The narrative of characters as figures driven by grounding external forces or internal drives is reversed here. Now characters are to be taken as ground and external and internal circumstances to be produced from “quantitative variations in the activation of [such characters as] pre-existent elementary targets”. 

In this reversal, as stressed by McLuhan, time is the critical factor: the model posits “the polyphony of character themes or contrapuntal melodies all simultaneously heard” — “all (…) simultaneously present”. 

The result:

all the arts approach a condition of music; for in music all parts tend to be simultaneous in the sense that narrative progress in musical composition must constantly recapitulate and unify…” (#10)

Time is not only “simultaneous” or only “narrative progress”, but both together. And it is just our inability to conceive time in this complex way that prevents our understanding media (and all the complex problems to which understanding media is the key):

Our present conceptions of what constitutes social cause, effect, and influence are quite unable to cope with this electronic simultaneity of conspicuous co-existence. (#14, italics added)

Real control [of our out-of-control world] comes [only] by study of the grammars of all the media at once. (#16, italics added)

Just as there is no such thing as some chemistry that would apply only to a part of the world but not to other parts, so a general investigation of “all the media at once” is needed “to understand the psycho-dynamics of these totally new conditions of culture” (#17). Or to preserve the many derivatives of the Gutenberg galaxy that we should not allow to be overwhelmed by the electric tsunami:

the old set-up may be saved [only] by an understanding of the new one [as a necessary piece of “all the media at once”]. (#24)


  1. ‘The Medium is the Message’, Forum magazine, spring 1960. This is the lead paragraph of McLuhan’s influential essay. But it may have been the last time McLuhan employed the term ‘psycho-dynamics’ after using it repeatedly between 1957 and 1960.
  2. The term itself appears in #6, #15 and #17 (twice). For an overview of McLuhan’s 24 ‘items’ in Explorations 8, see Birthpains of the new: “an arduous metamorphosis”.
  3. McLuhan specifies here that Selye “becomes at once intelligible and acceptable in our twentieth century oral awareness”. This is problematic in that McLuhan habitually — not to say always — confounded four different sorts of “oral awareness”: 1) the (the?) “oral awareness” of pre- and post-literate peoples; 2) “oral awareness” as one medium of perception among others; 3) “oral awareness” as implicating “all the media at once” (#16); 4) “oral awareness” as dynamically related to ‘literate awareness’ in some ratio of the two in every moment of all experience whatsoever. An important demand made in the observation/admonition that “the medium is the message” (an admonition first of all to McLuhan himself) was that these ambiguities needed to be sorted out. He was still working on this when he died twenty years later.
  4. Two McLuhan sentences have been spliced together here. The Selye citation is from his paper in Explorations 1 (1953), ‘Stress’.
  5. “Not a superficial view” intends both (1) that the theory is profound and (2) that its profundity lies in seeing through the superficial level of perception to its “psycho-dynamic” springs. McLuhan continues this sentence with “in terms of auditory space”. But “auditory space” in McLuhan has all the problems of “oral awareness” as discussed above.
  6. McLuhan continues here: “Analogical proportion is a basic aspect of auditory space and of oral culture. It is the oral equivalent of the golden section in architecture and design.” This adds a further complication to his use of the terms “auditory space” and “oral culture”, for he was well aware that not all auditory or oral experience exemplifies “the golden section”. The questions arise: What level (message or medium, figure or ground) is intended here? At this level (whichever it is), how to account for the presence or absence of “the golden section”? And how to specify all this for education and all other practical applications extending from governance to entertainment?
  7. From earlier in #8: “In the old lineal terms, quantitative relations mean the exclusion of (…) all spiritual complexity.”
  8. McLuhan has “oral situation” here. For the implicated problems see the discussions above.
  9. McLuhan was not yet using figure/ground at this time. He would later consider the figure/ground contrast as essential to the understanding of his work.
  10. McLuhan came to this view from poetry and theology, in both of which he had long recognized interlocking levels of significance. His path to science from the arts and religion came via Whitehead and, especially, Giedion.

Birthpains of the new: “an arduous metamorphosis”

Poets and artists literally turned their own psyches into laboratories where they practiced the most austere experiments in total disregard of their personal happiness. (Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters, 1954)1

Ezra Pound says “Poetry is news that stays news.” He invaded the oral sphere and became [lasting] news — an arduous metamorphosis. (Explorations 8, #5, 1957)

Every headache is the attempt of a creative idea to get born. (Explorations 8, #24, 1957)2

It is not strange, therefore, that we should feel an especial fascination for Oedipus Rex and its companion Oedipus at Colonus at this time. There is much that is relevant for us in these plays. Oedipus, the corporate image or mask of tribal Thebes, sets forth on an individual quest for private identity. Plunging into the collective tribal unconscious to discover himself, he discovers a web of guilt and horror. His corporate tribal mask is rent asunder. He is fragmented out of Thebes by the force of his private explosion of insight, and goes to detribalized or civilized Athens, seeking peace of mind and a lessening of the collective guilt weighing on his now private consciousness.3 In Athens he discovers a private absolution from guilt, and the means to a corporate, hero death.4 The tormented and fragmented self that his life quest had fashioned from his sleuthing in the collective mind, is united once more with the corporate mask of his culture. (Masks And Roles And The Corporate Image, Explorations 10, 1964)

In Explorations 8, on top of a short article on Wyndham Lewis, ‘Third Program in the Human Age’, McLuhan published 24 unpaginated ‘items’ amounting to around half the volume. They averaged 2 or 3 pages in length. These were notes he had assembled on a variety of topics and were now included in the penultimate issue of the original Explorations series and the last of that series to which he would contribute.5

Explorations 8 appeared in October 1957, a month after McLuhan and Harry Skornia first met at an MLA conference in Madison and a month before McLuhan attended the first NAEB ‘research seminar’ in Columbus. His ‘Understanding Media’ project with the NAEB would be conceived the next year and begun in September 1959. These Explorations 8 ‘items’, along with his other 1957 publications, therefore provide a snapshot of McLuhan’s thinking just as he was beginning the intense research he would under-take for the NAEB.

This research relationship would represent the single most insightful period of McLuhan’s half century intellectual career. As he entered it, McLuhan knew that it would require a difficult transformation — one that would, in fact, all but kill him when he suffered a stroke in 1960 severe enough that he was given the last rites.6

The ‘items’ he published in Explorations 8 record the pointers he would follow in interrogating media as the message to our time — but also the stress he was feeling in anticipation of the “arduous metamorphosis”, or trial, he would have to under-go in an attempt to win the new conception he sought. For what was in question was no purely objective matter requiring only (only!) a new perspective, but an intensely subjective riddle in which perspective on perspective was at stake. In the implicated exploration of “the interior landscape” all ground threatened to give way. For a plurality of media grounds had to be interrogated — but between grounds there was, and is, no ground.

Amplifying these personal struggles, none of which could be resolved in less than a lifetimes’s unremitting work, was McLuhan’s clear recognition of two looming social catastrophes. First, the freedoms, rights and bonds that had been won in the Gutenberg era were now threatened with implosion along with it. Second, the new Marconi era could unleash a tsunami of war and other violences if we failed to understand its potential for destruction. 

In ‘item #15’ (‘The Organization Man’) McLuhan described the “fight [he had before him] to loosen [all] the older social bonds”:

You have to struggle alone and in silence against a distracting social environment which looks askance at your solitary quest. This quest engenders psychological powers [in and against the self] of an intensely dedicated and aggressive kind. From the point of view of the solitary quester with his inner direction and self-appointed goals and standards, it is society that is THE LONELY CROWD.7 

In the same item, McLuhan specified the task of the contemporary executive (standing in, as McLuhan would repeat in Take Today, for everyman): “though it is painful8 he is sufficiently the realist to accept the new social ethic of electronic communication.” This was an ethic that at once split him off from his social past and that could be investigated only through an internalization of that same split in himself. 

The new organization man is an oral man with a heart of type. (Item #7)9

In item #5 he concluded by noting that “the split between the two worlds [of irreducibly plural media] has grown wider in the hearts” of those attempting to understand it.  Further, that this attempt at understanding, this trial, necessitated “an arduous metamorphosis“. For what was demanded was no healing or amelioration of fundamental rift, but a new appreciation of it as the inalienable situation of human being.

Humans had always been faced with this demand and had responded to it in many ways. Now it had to be faced again under the unprecedented circumstance that we considered ourselves somehow beyond it (either positively and negatively).10 McLuhan’s arguments against “lineality” in favor of an appreciation of “simultaneity” carried an existential demand that research on his work hurries over on its way to the next conference. “It is the anguished effort of the bureaucrat to keep the new oral demands of electronic simultaneity in the groove of lineality.” (Explorations 8, item #1, ‘Brain Storming’) It is the moment of wrong-doing, the moment of death and loss, the moment of missed opportunity to do the right thing that is, as Eliot has it, “always now”.11

At the same time as his Explorations 8 items, McLuhan concluded his essay on ‘Coleridge as Artist’ (1957) by noting the unavoidable psycho-physical ordeal of the required trial:

as with Rimbaud, the very magnitude of the change he [Coleridge] experienced in his own modes of thought and feeling (…) made (…) exhausting demands on mind and heart.


  1. McLuhan made this observation a few years before entering into the depths of his own “most austere experiments” in the context of his NAEB project. He had always known what it demands, and what it feels like, to think against one’s time — and against one’s self.
  2. No Upside Down in Eskimo Art’. With his blackouts, brain tumor and congenital disposition to stroke, McLuhan had frequent headaches. His association of them with “creative ideas” was grim humor.
  3. Substituting Winnipeg and UM for Thebes, and England and Cambridge for “civilized Athens”, compare McLuhan speaking with Nina Sutton:I first encountered the work of I.A. Richards at Manitoba University (…) at first it was shattering. I thought it was the end.” Passages like this (and the others in this post) expose a need to rethink two acceptances. First, that McLuhan had no existential problems (as he himself often claimed — perhaps as a kind of shield for others against them?). Second, that in the early 1930s Winnipeg and UM were cut off from modernity. For additional discussion of the second point, see T.S. Eliot in Winnipeg.
  4. “Hero death” is a strange phrase in this context where it might be thought that Oedipus had to lose his heroic asperations and accustom himself to the wisdom of the sphinx. Perhaps McLuhan intended something more like “meaningful death”?
  5. The original series concluded with #9 in which Carpenter’s ‘Eskimo’ was the only contribution. Explorations would start up again in the 1960s, but as a part of the UT Varsity magazine, not as a free-standing publication.
  6. Corinne McLuhan recorded that he began to have blackouts in 1959. See the note on Letters 175 which must have stemmed from her. For information on McLuhan’s 1960 stroke — suffered at a time when his mother was dying from one — see note 13 of McLuhan’s new sciences: “only the authority of knowledge”.
  7. McLuhan’s use of masculine pronouns in regard to human beings in general (“the solitary quester with his inner direction and self-appointed goals”) is retained here because of its implication of his own situation. His use of ‘you’ has the same effect.
  8. Compare Heidegger from a few years earlier in ‘Die Sprache im Gedicht’: “Alles, was lebt, ist schmerzlich.” Everything that lives is in pain.
  9. ‘Bathroom Baritone and Wide Open Spaces’.
  10. Somehow beyond it either positively and negatively: positively, because humans considered themselves to be the new gods of the universe and didn’t need to consider it; negatively, because the fate of humans was so “absurd” that no resolution were possible for them.
  11. Eliot, Four Quartets (Burnt Norton): “And the end and the beginning were always there/Before the beginning and after the end./And all is always now.” The cross had functioned as the sign of this fallen situation of human beings for almost two millennia. But now we had left it behind us as we raced ‘ahead’ on the lineal freeway of progress.

What is the basis of prediction?

Why did Marx miss the communication bus? (American Model 1795, 1957)

In Explorations 8 (unpaginated ‘item’ #2) McLuhan foresaw the breakup of the USSR that would occur thirty years later:

Now launched on a program entirely antithetic to their oral culture, the Russians (…) ignore and discount all that is basic in their own make-up.1 (…) The intense individualism and even more ferocious nationalism that is born out of (…) print-processing is just now being discovered in the Soviet area. It will eventually splinter the Soviet area as effectively as it splintered England and Europe in the sixteenth century. Is it not strange that the Marxists should have no awareness of the means of communication as the constitutive social factor? That Marx should not have noticed that English and American industry were merely projections of print technology?2  

McLuhan’s foresight was remarkable and is increasingly recognized today, 40 years after his death in 1980. What he could see then, we are just beginning to see now. But the most important implication of his foresight is ignored today as much as it was during his lifetime. Namely, if he could perceive what would unfold in the future,3 the seemingly obvious question is: how did he do it? On what basis was he able to foresee so accurately?

If a chemist were able to make reliable predictions about the consequences of reactions that other chemists did not understand, there would be enormous interest in trying to replicate her results and to tease out their implications for the field. With McLuhan, however, although his predictions themselves are beginning to win some recognition, there is still inexplicably no interest in the question of just how he was able to make them.  

McLuhan himself was fully conscious that this was the case and he had many explanations for it: specialists protecting their turf (ie, their reputations, salaries, bennies, and especially their self-importance); the lineal bias against revision and starting again; the ‘free’ individual’s reluctance to admit subliminal determination — und so weiter! But this was exactly the case when chemistry was first securing its foundations 200 years ago. Most contemporary researchers were not interested in the findings of Priestley and Lavoissier because they had their own findings and these findings had roots in their education and current practices which they were unwilling to give up. Only slowly in the first half of the nineteenth century was it possible for new investigators to establish the field of element-based chemistry, above all by discovering practical applications for it.

What is remarkable about McLuhan’s NAEB Understanding Media project in 1959-1960 (within a wider frame stretching roughly from 1957 to 1964) is that this was the time when McLuhan investigated questions like these in regard to his own thinking. “The medium is the message” was an admonition addressed above all to himself! He had to turn himself inside out in a ‘through the looking glass’ attempt to understand where he himself was coming from.4 Thanks to the remarkable Unlocking the Airwaves project, with its comprehensive NAEB files, this is a process we can now follow in great detail.

  1. McLuhan enlarged on “all that is basic” in the Russian “make-up” as follows: “For many centuries the Soviet area has been as oral as a pre-literate society. The Greek Orthodox Church has an oral tradition compared to the legalistic and individual Roman tradition. As Geoffrey Gorer puts it in The People of Great Russia: ‘The central sacrament of Western Christianity is Communion, the intimate connexion between the individual worshipper and Jesus Christ; in the Orthodox Church the central experience is Sobornost, the Pentecostal descent of the Holy Ghost on the whole congregation simultaneously.’
  2. ‘American Model 1795’. The order of these sentences has been reversed.
  3. McLuhan always maintained, of course, that the future was the present if you knew how to look.
  4. See Birthpains of the new: “an arduous metamorphosis”.

McLuhan NAEB presentation 9/23/59

Dedicated to my dear sister, MJCB, on the occasion of her 72nd birthday!

When McLuhan’s Understanding Media research project with the National Association of Educational Broadcasters began in September 1959, one of the first things he did was to meet with the NAEB research committee at the LaSalle Hotel in Chicago. The talk he gave on that occasion is preserved in the NAEB files posted online as part of the great Unlocking the Airwaves project. From a note sent to Harry Skornia on Sept 5, 1959, it seems that the talk was carefully crafted beforehand and circulated to the committee in advance of the meeting. 

Let me apologise right off for all the distress which my media project will cause specialists in many subjects. I wish I knew some way of avoiding this discomfort, but how is it possible to do the cross subject study that this purports to be without disturbing the convictions and the acquired knowledge of many people?

If I explain that radio and TV are not really consumer media in the full sense that photography and film are, Madison Avenue gets upset. So do many people in film and in radio and television skills.

They are eager to prove me wrong before they have the faintest idea of what I mean. Personally I am not trying to upset such people. I am really trying to understand media and to discover their unique dynamics.

But it is not easy to convince a literary man that your interest in the psycho-dynamics of the printed form of codification of information is anything but malice towards literature. Moreover, he is likely to feel personal humiliation that he is, in fact, quite unaware of some of the basic effects of the print form upon many of his most cherished ideas and attitudes.

The mere recognition of the existence of the subliminal in ordinary human experience seems of itself to create fear and insecurity. Since every moment of perception is loaded with subliminal intake, all of us are unaware of most of the factors that shape our experience.

Personally, I should greatly welcome any suggestions as to how to diminish the discomfort of other people when their subliminal lives are involved. But media study must go on! And so far the only advice is to shut up.

It is sometimes said that my approach to media is philosophical. I hope it may soon be seen to be scientific. For a long time philosophy has been associated with systems, with world-views, Weltanschauungen, and general pictures of things. Since the Renaissance most methods and procedures have strongly tended toward stress on the visual organization and application of knowledge. Printing gave enormous stress to such visual process, to differential calculus, and to statistics.

But since the early nineteenth century with the arrival of electrical problems and processes, mathematics and physics have moved away from visual organization and statistics towards dynamics, time organization, and what psychologists refer to as “auditory space.” (Auditory space is that sphere of simultaneous relations created by the act of hearing. We hear from all directions at the same instant. This creates a unique unvisualisable space.)

To ask whether either the Renaissance achievement of statics or our modem conquest of dynamics is a good thing or a bad thing seems to mean: “what will this do to me?” The question seems to be a request for applied knowledge, but knowledge applied on one level, and for one person at a time.

The modern world of dynamics is an all-at-once world in which there cannot be single levels or one-thing-at-a-time awareness. This change is a very bad thing, indeed, for the previous technology and for all of us whose education represents a heavy investment of precious years in acquiring what may now be irrelevant modes of knowledge.

The Affluent Society by Kenneth Galbraith opens with a discussion of the “vested interests in acquired knowledge,” “the bland leaders of the bland” whose discourse and perception move evenly in the single lines and the single planes of “conventional wisdom.” By taking an all-at-once view of our economic world Galbraith has so shocked the one-at- time people that the American Journal of Economics has reviewed the book on the assumption that it is a hoax.

In the same way Parkinson’s Law (by Parkinson) in taking an all-at-once view of the operation of written forms in bureaucratic organization today, has appeared as a sort of Marx Bros entertainment. It is a multi-leveled analysis of a complex dynamic.

Conventional sobriety as it affects scholarly decorum would seem to be merely the accidental result of the static procedure of taking one-thing-at-a-time. Such procedure in media analysis is as incapable of getting at the dynamics of a medium as are statistics in motivation study or social dynamics.

Statistics can tell of a trend, provide a picture or a view, or a perspective but cannot reveal causes. In fact, it is only in our century that over-all data and all-at-once knowledge have so increased that we have moved toward the study of causes in personal and social operations. That is, we are now concerned with causes, not on a single plane or in mere sequence but as a total field of interaction and inter-penetration. This leads us to feel about statistics as the beatnik about bikinis: “Man, they seem to reveal all, but they really withhold vital data.”

It is important for us in media work to understand the statics of the medium of statistics and their relation to differential calculus and the older Newtonian picture. For the problems we face are not static but dynamic, because of their nuclear origin and focus. Likewise, the means at our disposal are no longer mechanical but electronic. And the dominant impress which the young today receive (non-verbally) from our new technology is not mechanical or print-oriented but electronic and dialogue-oriented.

The world of production and management is today grappling with the changes in the patterns of command and of production resulting from the telephone, on the one hand, and from the complex synchronization in production resulting from the use of electronic tapes. The latter have ended the centuries-old regime of the assembly-line. The end of the assembly-line in the outer-world could well be a portent for the entire educational establishment. Because Gutenberg provided the prototypical assembly-line

basis for all that followed. So that we may now be in the position, so far as literacy is concerned, of propping a superstructure without a base.

During the recent centuries we seem to have been as oblivious of this overall pattern of our Western culture as the humble tortoise is of the articulate design on its shell. It is hard to see how anybody could have been more subliminal than Western man since Gutenberg.

But the electronic age is becoming alert to the dangers of the subliminal whether in psychology or politics and education. The all-at-once, many-leveled awareness of the electronic age discourages the continuation of the single-plane depths of unexamined subliminal back-log of literate man.

In this time of coexistence, itself resulting from instantaneous movement of information, we are confronted predominantly by oral cultures like the Chinese and the Russian. These oral peoples take to electronic and nuclear modes of organisation more readily than we do with our centuries of linear and sequential training of perception. The nuclear physicists have to master the non-visual and non-Euclidean modes of order today. But since the telegraph, the press has presented a non-lineal mosaic, and so have radio and television.

All of my work has tended more and more to center on the misunderstandings and clashes that occur between these two basic types of order in experience and organisation; namely, the visual and the auditory.

For the basic patterns of eye and ear are typically non-verbal in their message in most of their media occurrence. And it is even more confusing at first for some to learn that the mosaic of a page of telegraph press is ‘auditory’ in basic structure. That, however, is only to say that any pattern in which the components co-exist without direct lineal hook-up or connection, creating a field of simultaneous relations, is auditory, even though some of its aspects can be seen. The items of news and advertising that exist under a dateline are inter-related only by that dateline. They have no inter-connection of logic or statement. Yet they form a mosaic whose parts are interpenetrating. Such is also the kind of order that tends to exist in a city or a culture. It is a kind of orchestral, resonating unity, not a logical unity of discourse. It is not necessary to be satisfied with such a state of affairs once it is understood.

Personally, I feel none of the fervor in favor of such order, as an ideal to be sought for, that is not uncommon among anthropologists. My notion is that this kind of order is inseparable from electronic technology and that such auditory order quickly wipes out or brainwashes visual kinds of order by subliminal action. As a teacher of language and literature I am aware of the values to be had from these in their printed form. But I am also aware that the artists, poets and musicians of the past century have unanimously abandoned visual structure in their

work in favor of auditory all-at-onceness. It would seem that artists, of all media, respond soonest to the challenge of new pressures. I would like to suggest that they also show us ways of living with new technology without destruction of earlier achievement and form.

If there is one theme in all the arts of the past century it is that of the need for relevance in the patterns of human interests. To be out-of-touch with one’s time, they have not ceased to urge, is to be irrelevant.

To cultivate irrelevant attitudes and rhythms and order is to be not only futile but to be an enemy of one’s fellows.

Prior to the cry for relevance was the idea of steadiness of perspective and consistency of point-of-view. This was the visual man’s strategy and bias from Gutenberg and the Renaissance onwards. But since Baudelaire and Cezanne such individual perspective has been held to be as irrelevant as “self-expression.”

It needs no insistence to show that “relevance” is an all-at-once, inclusive, and total affair, and that as an attitude it is born of the ear mode of awareness; whereas individual point-of-view is the eye mode and is born of a technology in which mechanical and animal forms are dissociated.

(The wheel, for example is referred to as the classic instance of the separation of mechanical and animal form; whereas today, with rocket and air-cushioned saucers and electronic circuits in which there are no moving parts, there is a transmutation of mechanical into animal again, as it were. We move towards the post-mechanical.)

The ear mode of all-at-once or total-field awareness seems naturally to prepare the climate of opinion to welcome organic and ecological approaches to problems of education and society, of the arts and industrial production alike.

If my diagnosis is on the beam, does it not afford a means of isolating causal factors and relations in our open society of over-all coexistence? Will it not be possible to test my diagnosis by careful checking, for example, of the impact of one medium upon another? Just as electronic nuclei can only be reached or probed by other accelerated electrons, cannot we not use the action of the media themselves upon one another to reveal their powers and properties?

When radio is released in a widely and long-literate area like the U.S. its effect on social and psychological structures would seem to be quite different from the effects of radio in Japan, or Germany or Spain. But the effect of radio on non-literate areas like India, Iran, or Africa would seem to be quite different again.

This approach of mine is structuralist but is not derived from the recent field of structural linguistics. Rather it derives from the practice and criticism in the field of poetry and painting during the last 100 years. However, the electronic tapes which are ending the assembly-line in industry also made possible structural linguistics. And this new field, as it clashes with older language study and teaching, affords another instance of the clash of ear and eye structures of knowledge. For to the structural linguist the fact that the letter “k,” for example, as written, may suggest a single sound, does not hide from him the fact that there are several quite distinct “k” sound-structures mastered by every child by two or three years of age. For the “k” in “quick” Is not the “k” in “chalk.” Using the fill-at-once approach of electronic tape, the linguist becomes aware of the interpenetration of the alphabetic sounds and the consequent modification of letters that look alike in the one-thing-at-a-time world of the written word. So he doesn’t hesitate to say that written letters, insofar as they pretend to point to distinct sounds, are a very crude gimmick for reducing couples and subtle qualities of sound to mere averages.

But the ear order of the structural linguist finds a clash when he turns to the visual order of words on the page. What has long passed as “grammar” to the visual and literary person seems crude and arbitrary to the ear perception of the structural linguist. Here he could be mistaken.

The eye-order of the printed page and of the written word, as sponsored by the grammarian, may lack the organic unity and delicacy of spoken idiom. But eye-order may here have a validity imperceptible to the structural linguist with his subliminally-espoused ear-order via electronic tape.

But the pros and cons can more easily be tested when the real nature of the clash is clarified.

The eye man in this order of observation is satisfied that film and TV images are roughly alike. Yet just as small children can make the most delicate distinctions of subtle sound structures, so do they receive and react to the distinction between movie and TV imagery. That is, between the still shot and the continuous pick-up, between light on and light through an image, etc.

This illustration may serve to introduce a theme that could be crucial to the Understanding Media project. Professor Johnson of McGill’s department of Psychology has been working on what can be called a “saturation theory” of learning. I look forward to conferences with him. Because if a child can learn a language by three or four in the sense of being at home with its sounds, gestures, and syntax, how long does it take a child to be at home in the same way with the structure of print, photo, film, TV, radio, and grammaphone?

This question includes another: Can familiarity or saturation with one medium block introduction to others? The child who learns one language before another will have only one mother-tongue. He will not learn the second In the same total way as the first. Carl Orff, the Viennese composer, has a music school in which he seeks to train his pupils before they can read or write. His view is after literacy nobody can really master the modes of music.

This approach, quite apart from the validity of the particular case, suggests that in understanding media we might check whether the current familiarity of children with photo and TV, for example, before they read and write may really be an unfortunate sequence. I am sure that if a more natural and fruitful sequence of media experience exists, it can be discovered and demonstrated. This approach is related to the now accepted idea that some media are especially indicated for some kinds of learning. But Ferguson’s theory that saturation in language and media experience occurs very early may prove of major aid in study. It certainly points to a variety of procedures and controls in observation that have been lacking.

Speaking casually to a member of the Institute of Child Psychology in Washington D.C., I just happened to inquire, “What is the effect of the telephone on children?” The reply was this: “We know one thing; namely, that neurotic children are normal when using the telephone.”

That remark suggests, to me at least, a basic aspect of all media: that experience in one is transmuted and translated into a different experience in another. Some people stutter in English but not in French or Spanish.

Would it not interest Bell Telephone to use their research laboratories to consider some aspects of their medium in relation to other media and to the training and education of children? That is, can we not enlist the resources of all the communication industries to concentrate on discovering the inter-relation of media in terms of experience and education?

Can we not reasonably expect to interest Remington Rand and Underwood, etc, in investigating the effect of composing on the typewriter? What is the effect of publishing oneself, as it were, while composing at the typewriter? What has been the effect of the typewriter in structuring decision-making in our world? How has the typewriter been affected by tape-recorders? What has been the effect of the typewriter on the writing and publishing of books and newspapers? On the short-story? On poetry? On reading habits?

Speaking to top executives of General Electric at Crotonville about their attitude toward media study, I was assured, “We will help you in every way we can,for whatever raises the general level helps us, too.”

That was also the reply of the NBC.

I am sure it will be the reply of the big research divisions of Madison Ave. publishing and advertising, including Time, Life, and Fortune.

The question, then, arises: Should I, or should I not, seek the co-operation of these great enterprises? If Understanding Media is from one point of view a project to inter-relate in-school and out-of-school experience by educational articulation of areas that are common to both, would it be seriously compromising to ask the aid and counsel of the out-of-school areas?

Much of the data about the effect of one medium on another is to be found only in the experience of the big industries. I spent a week at a radio conference in Vancouver in the spring of 1958. The theme was: What has happened in radio since TV? The answers were most helpful. Radio has changed in its uses and programming since TV. It has switched from a group to a private form, etc.

What happened to the book after the newspaper? To the book after the movie? To the book after radio and TV? Nobody seems to know.

But what has happened to the movie since TV is much better known, and if studied not as a change in our view of the movies but as a change in the uses and forms of the movie, much can be learned about the movie, and about TV and movie at the same time; i.e., much that could not be learned by inspecting merely one-at-a-time.

To Illuminate media from within by noting their effect upon one another is a procedure that I should like to have criticised pro and con. It also appears, as I have pointed out, to be the current method in the discovery of nuclear structures in physics.

The “content” approach to media and to the testing of media efficacy in teaching and in public relations and politics is, I am reasonably satisfied, derivative from the habit of literacy itself. We would not talk about the “content” of a tune or a melody. But as soon as man learned how to encode the audible in visible terns (writing) he easily began to make divisions between ”form” and “content,” and between thought and feeling, individual and state, and so on. Insofar as these separations correspond to real modes of being we should try to retain them. Insofar as they are fictions and illusions fostered by the subliminal action of media, they need to be considered and criticised with a view to their permanent value. Perhaps we shall learn to cherish some of the fruits of literacy as we might do with precious artifacts of vanished societies. Whether it be possible to retain the fruits of literacy without the soil and tree of literacy would appear to be the test we are now undergoing in the Western world. Certainly we shall learn many new aspects of literacy as we study its intact on the ancient cultures of India and China. For literacy in the West did not slice into ancient civilisations, but struck into tribal societies which wilted under its impact.

This raises a major issue for us all to study: Namely, when does a mechanical code of transmission of information itself become a language? Under what conditions does a language revert to a code of transmission? With our new coding devices today such as movies and TV, tapes, discs, radio, teletype and so on, we are setting about to establish whether these means of transmission have themselves so deeply altered human sensibilities and re-shaped human institutions and attitudes as to have acquired the status of new languages. For to an infant, English is not a language but a mechanical code. To an adult beginning Russian, that, too, is at first a mechanical code. It becomes a language only when it has become subliminal to him. English in its totality becomes a code again to the structural linguist who begins to translate the whole structure into auditory terms alone. To the same man as a speaker of English, it exists in all his senses at the same time.

Is a code the translation of one sense into another single sense; e.g.. Morse code? Morse reduces the multi-leveled structure of English into one sense — the ear. It is at once translated into a code for the eye.

When writing was invented it was a visual code for a many-leveled auditory thing. Phonetic writing has proved much the most powerful of written instruments for it abstracted “all” meaning from the visual code. Other kinds of writing did not attempt to divorce the code from meaning. Once this divorce had been effected, it was possible to translate any sound structure into phonetic alphabetic form. The phonetic alphabet gave to the Graeco-Roman world the power of conquest of all cultures it contacted. We see that aggressive power today at work in India and China.

Today by means of “translating machines” we are setting out to do with entire languages what once was done in divorcing meaning from visual written forms. When by frequency counts we have averaged out the lexical meanings of all words in a language we can use that language as a mechanical code such as it is for a beginner. When the same has been done for other languages they can be translated into one another lexically and semantically, just as they formerly were reduced from auditory to visual state by means of the phonetic alphabet.

What I am saying is that new media may at first appear as mere codes of transmission for older achievement and established patterns of thought. But nobody could make the mistake of supposing that phonetic writing merely made It possible for the Greeks to set down in visual order what they had thought and known before writing. In the same way printing made literature possible. It did not merely encode literature.

That is what I mean when I say that (in the not-so-long run) the medium is the message. So that what we have to study now is what totally new curricula and modes of organisation are inherent in our current new media

Let us step aside from teaching a moment and notice what the telephone and other electronic means have done to well-established patterns of management and decision-making:

We still express the structure of authority, responsibility, function and rank in organisation in the typical organization chart, which shows the chief executive at the top and the lesser executives as exercising authority delegated by him. It is still customary to explain the existence of organisation by the fact that there Is more work to be done than any man can do, so that he has to delegate to others what is really part of his job.
But this is nonsense in modern organization. The individual people of skill, knowledge and judgment cannot exercise somebody else’s authority or somebody else’s knowledge. They exercise their own knowledge and should have the authority that befits their contribution. It is the job that determines the authority and responsibility of the holder — and this is original authority grounded in the needs and objective requirements for performance rather than in the power of the man above. The only power the top man must have is that of deciding whether a certain contribution is needed — and even that, increasingly, must be an objective decision according to objective needs of the organization rather than a power decision.

That is Peter Drucker writing in Landmarks of Tomorrow (p. 96) (Harpers, 1959). Delegated authority cannot in the long run be transmitted or used by telephone. The decentralization of industry that has followed upon the break-down of delegated authority has compelled industry to give to all its executives an overall training in the entire operation of their companies and also compelled the study of the entire relation of business to society. In Nazi Germany the clash between delegated authority and electronic transmission was given a brief moment of attention by Albert Speer at the Nuremberg trials:

The telephone, the teleprinter and the wireless made it possible for orders from the highest levels to he given direct to the lowest levels, where, on account of the absolute authority behind them, they were carried out uncritically; or brought it about that numerous offices and command centres were directly connected with the supreme leadership from which they received their sinister orders without any intermediary; or resulted in a widespread surveillance of the citizen, or in a high degree of secrecy surrounding criminal happenings. To the outside observer this governmental apparatus may have resembled the apparently chaotic confusion of lines at a telephone exchange, but like the latter it could be controlled and operated from one central source. Former dictatorships needed collaborators of high quality even in the lower levels of leadership, men who could think and act independently. In the era


of modern technique an authoritarian system cm do without this. The means of communication alone permit it to mechanize the work of subordinate leadership. As a consequence a new type develops: the uncritical recipient of orders.” (Albert Speer, German Armaments Minister in 1942, in a speech at the Nuremberg trials, quoted in Hjalmar Schacht, Account Settled, London, 1949, p. 240.)

Speer does not dissociate the effect of electronic media from some of the special features of German cultural organisation. And, for example, what he notes about the older type of organisation as calling for “men who could think and act independently” is quite the reverse of the situation seen in U.S. business by Peter Drucker. For the new situation in America is precisely the one that calls for such “authority of knowledge.” Whereas the older literacy, at least in the U.S., fostered the pattern of delegated authority. What seems to have occurred in Germany and Japan under electronic impact was the brainwashing of a recently assumed literacy and reversion to tribal cohesion and pre-individualist patterns of thought.

I have said (and I hope I am wrong) at various times that we ought to expect a steady trend toward irrational tribal behavior in North America, as our youngsters get saturated with the all-at-once auditory experience of our new media. Such tribal experience was still intact and available to the Jap and the German. But for us to retribalize would be quite a different matter. And in the global village created by our electronics there would, of course, be room for only one tribe — the human family itself.

It would seem obvious that our responsibilities as educators and broadcasters is to understand our media and their effects just as an X-ray expert should understand the effects of his medium and not permit patients to receive an overdose. X-rays units can get “hot” but they do not make good space-heaters. And we must learn how far we can safely proceed in applying new media to older educational purposes without destruction of older goals and achievements.

Moreover, since the saturation in a medium may occur outside school contexts before any school use is attempted, we must know what are the relevant educational uses of such media. “Saturation” in English as the mother-tongue occurs by three or four years of age and the traditional educational superstructure is based upon that prior saturation. Have we used a similar wisdom in relation to the new media? As they cease to be codes, and invade and structure our entire beings and all areas of our sensibility, they become “languages” themselves. Pictorial media tend to be non-verbal it is true.

But so are writing and printing non-verbal in their primary phases. Only gradually do they permeate the verbal and spoken areas. The Morse

code if known and experienced daily by everybody would quickly cease to be a code. The African drum and whistle languages are not codes but languages to African natives. So with their dances. Ads, comics, and movies are not codes in North America but basic languages. That we have not yet begun to teach their grammars is as natural as it is for preliterate man to ignore the written or visual mode of his language. Grammar comes from the Greek “written.” And education would seem to involve the translation of experience into a new mode.

We can begin, then, to consider the relevance of grammars for media which have become languages all within our own century. Whatever may be the educational advantages of traditional grammars now apply to our new media. Yet one of the effects of the new auditory media has been to dissuade people from the cultivation of grammar. May it not be that the translation of the auditory structure of a language into a grammar or visual structure is ultimately necessary in order to confer personal adequacy of control over experience? But as we regain auditory space via the electronic revolution, we fail to see the relevance of visual grammar?

May not the translation of one sense into another, and of one language into another be the irreducible modality of education, just as it is the irreducible mode of nuclear investigation? May not this training confer the detachment and criticism necessary for viable civilized man anywhere, anytime?

For the Greeks numbers were indications of auditory structure not visual structure. Ernst Cassirer in The Problem of Knowledge tells us how the vogue of Euclidean geometry depressed and retarded the study of numbers and arithmetic for centuries. Today the effect of new auditory modes on the young will naturally sensitize them to number theory in a way which is taken for granted in old oral cultures like Russia, Hungary, Poland, etc.

Today it is impossible to predict at what moment one may make a large break-through into new dimensions of awareness. Because such a casual fact as that the sound waves on the wings of a jet plane become visible just a moment before breaking through the sound-harrier, such a fact may be encountered for the first time in a newspaper or in overheard chat. It has profound implications for the dynamics of sight and sound and tells us much about their power and habit of transmutation. The radio tube principle, pushed far enough, led to TV.

It was Flaubert in the middle of the last century who first alerted his time to the subliminal power of bad pictorial forms. His people are all shown as victims of atrocious commercial art and communication. His own concept of le mot juste (which our age translates as The Most Juice) is auditory, not pictorial. For it implies an all-at-once order of words,

any slightest change in which obliterates the whole effect. But Flaubert taught us that there was no neutral area in human communications, and there is no more merit in tolerating hideous and tendentious forms of pictorial arrangement than putting up with polluted drinking water. Before Pasteur, Flaubert Introduced the germ theory into social communication. That is, he entered the electronic age at the same time as Sam Morse. But he had his eyes open for the full consequences as Sam Morse, perhaps, did not. However, it might well be no accident that the painter Sam Morse should have been the first to introduce us to auditory or all-at-once space; that is, the space which is a simultaneous field of relations such as we create in each moment of hearing. For we hear from all directions at once. We do not see that way at all.

“A medium is the sum total of all its impact”

We cannot transcend our “flat earth” view of media so long as we rely on private impressions at a particular time and place. The meaning and effect of a medium is the sum total of all its impact upon psyche and society. (McLuhan to Harry Skornia, July 6, 1964, Letters 305)

In chemistry, the sum total of the impact of any reaction on the physical world is — chemistry!

Impact radiates out from a physical reaction1 in an endless series of waves like a stone dropped in a pond. But it is useless to try to trace those endless repercussions, since the overwhelming majority of them are inconsequential. Besides, they are indeed endless and an account of them, too, could never end.2 Instead, we are able to repose in the knowledge that all of the endless impacts of any reaction are covered by the field of chemistry — and if any one of them turns out to be consequential, it may be illuminated in turn within that field. (Occasionally, of course, some peculiar reaction forces us to revise our notion of the field in what amounts to a ‘scientific revolution’. But this, too, belongs to chemistry and, far from undermining it, is one of its great motors. Or, findings in a field may lead to the founding of a new field like organic chemistry from chemistry. But this, too, is simply the way science works and amounts to no disruption of it. On the contrary!)

McLuhan had a comparable notion of media. His idea was that media have an endless impact on individuals and societies, but our study of those impacts need not be exhaustive. Indeed, it cannot be exhaustive!3 Instead a field must be established within which any impact can be studied in a limited way and which would be illuminating only because so limited! The main thing was simply to start and then to allow the normal workings of science to deal with problems, imprecisions, contradictions, and unknowns — etc etc.4 Hence — a signpost indicating an impending advance in understanding — “You mean my whole fallacy is wrong?”


  1. Everything that exists is in constant interaction with its environment and so is part of a reactive event, actually events. Nothing exists aside from such ‘reaction’ events.
  2. See Chemistry of the interior landscape 2 for the absurdity of a map with a scale of 1 mile to 1 mile.
  3. See previous note.
  4. See Und so weiter! (the gap).

Chemistry of the interior landscape 2

Philosophic agreement is not necessary among those who are agreed that the insistent operation of media-forms on human sensibility and awareness is an observable, intelligible, and controllable situation. (‘Myth and Mass Media‘, 1959)

We can, perhaps we must, become the masters of cultural and historical alchemy. (‘Myth and Mass Media‘)

In his 1960 review of American Folklore by Richard Dorson, ‘Myth, Oral and Written’ (Commentary, 30:1), McLuhan reflected on the reversal he proposed from the analysis of human experience in all its forms by philosophy1 — to the analysis of philosophy by human experience in all its forms.2

He did so by recounting with deadpan humor how Dorson put him in mind of Lewis Carroll:

The scientific folklorist seeks out, observes, collects, and describes the inherited traditions of the community, whatsoever forms they take.”3 Such is Professor Dorson’s undertaking [in American Folklore], and it is a broad program [a broad program!] which has my own sympathies and interests deeply involved. Yet such a program might easily parallel Lewis Carroll’s idea of a map of the scale of one mile to the mile. Carroll pointed out that since such a map would inevitably rouse the hostility of farmers [whose fields would be covered over by the map], we might alternatively [just] use the earth itself as a map of itself. And is not this what folklorists have hit upon as a strategy of culture — with the ordinary citizen in the role of the farmer about to be blanketed by an earth map?4 If so, can we find some means of awareness that will not obliterate the cultural scene, some way to get enough light through and still prevent a general brainwashing by putting too much light on?5

The question was, and is, how bring to bear an understanding of human experience in all its forms6 on the analysis of particular examples of experience? A series of notions are implicated in McLuhan’s thinking here:

  1. The understanding of any cultural phenomenon can be achieved only by an analysis, like that of chemistry regarding the material world, that applies to all such phenomena, regardless of where or when they are found.7 
  2. The understanding of anything must involve an equal understanding of what it is not — but might have been. Actualities must be understood in relation to their possibilities.8 This implicated what McLuhan called “multi-levels of simultaneous presentation“.
  3. The understanding of the complete universe of psychological phenomena cannot be made by taking it entire (“Lewis Carroll’s idea of a map of the scale of one mile to the mile”), or by the reduction of the whole to some simplicity (as has been attempted forever, like Thales’ water) — the two extremes of ‘matching‘.9 Instead, an understanding of the complete universe of psychological phenomena must be ‘made‘ through a self-conscious reduction that is acknowledged from the outset as less than ‘fully true’ (and exactly therefore, subject to future investigation). For such an understanding, the necessary reduction it makes — like the reduction of a liquid by boiling that may be stopped at different points with different results — is necessarily questionable. “Philosophic agreement is not necessary” — or permitted!
  4. The initiation of such investigation does not depend on truth (although individual thinkers may well mistakenly believe that they are discovering truth), but only on the collective determination to begin and continue investigation on some agreed basis — an agreed basis that approaches every individual or social act of human being as “an observable, intelligible, and controllable situation.”
  5. Truth in this case (as exemplified in all the hard sciences) is just the open collective investigation of what are known to be finite samples by finite methods. Some final consolidation (whatever that might be) is neither possible nor desired.
  6. Nostalgia for finality (which is manifested also by regret at its loss) tracks the continuing grip of the Gutenberg galaxy on our innards (a variation of inwards) — which extend, as always, also outwards.
  1. ‘Philosophy’ here and in the following instance stands in for all the disciplines (psychology, anthropology, sociology, etc) that undertake to ‘understand’ human being.
  2. For further discussion, see A medium is the sum total of all its impact. The field of chemistry is the physical world in all its forms. McLuhan contemplated a similar field of media that would cover human experience in all its forms.
  3. McLuhan citation from Dorson’s American Folklore.
  4. About to be blanketed — since nothing at all of human being falls outside the blanket of “the inherited traditions of the community, whatsoever forms they take.”
  5. See The goal of science for some thoughts on the Scylla and Charybdis of this too little light (“obliterate the cultural scene”) vs “too much light”.
  6. See A medium is the sum total of all its impact.
  7. Regardless of where and when = spacetime independence. Chemical elements in the early universe, billions of light years away in time and space, are not different from elements here and now (although subject to very different conditions, of course).
  8. Heidegger’s Introduction to Sein und Zeit (1927) concludes: “Higher than actuality stands possibility. We can understand phenomenology only by seizing it as a possibility.” (Höher als die Wirklichkeit steht die Möglichkeit. Das Verständnis der Phänomenologie liegt einzig im Ergreifen ihrer als Möglichkeit.)
  9. The two extremes: all is all (and nothing less) vs all is one (and nothing more).

“Understanding is not a point of view”

Sensibility is inclusive and precedes analytic awareness (Explorations 8, #17, 1957)

We cannot transcend our “flat earth” view of media so long as we rely on private impressions at a particular time and place. The meaning and effect of a medium is the sum total of all its impact upon psyche and society. (McLuhan to Harry Skornia, July 6, 1964Letters 305)

 In McLuhan’s letter to The Listener, August 11, 1971 (Letters 435):

The private point of view (…) is detached and non-corporate. (…)  Understanding is not a point of view.1 

Similarly in ‘The Argument: Causality in the Electric World’ (1973):

Understanding Is Neither a Point of View nor a Value Judgment

The Gestalt switch or paradigm shift that has to be made to initiate (an) Understanding (of) Media is captured here and can well be described as “the medium is the message”. The individual point of view as the de-tached stand-ard of truth must be give up in favor of the corporate medium. This involves a triple fundamental change at once: (1) change in what is understood as “the medium as such”, (2) change in what is understood of the range of “the medium as such” and (3) change in the place of the individual within that range.

Understanding Media cannot be initiated, this is to say, without the fitting (1) objective and (3) subjective focus — with ‘fitting’ understood (2) within the complete range of its possibilities. Since “understanding is not a point of view”, the required focus cannot be achieved except by the whole person in the whole medium.

Focus is not a point, but a complex. The medium is the message. The gap is where the action is. Understanding is not a point of view.

While some few individuals have long been able to achieve this tour de force, this exemplary turning,2 establishing it within a general program of education and social being has proved fatally beyond us. The tower of babel (la tour de Babel).3 No one is about to out-think Plato and yet how far have we advanced in 2500 years in the practical application of his insights? Meanwhile untold millions have died in the throes of the resulting horrors. Saturno devorando a su hijo

The astonishing amount of energy expended in McLuhan’s incessant speaking, writing and traveling must be understood as a passion engaged in this age-old educational struggle, the “ancient quarrel” that is implicated in the attempt to initiate, at last, a general understanding among humans of human being. The medium that is the message.

  1. A March 24, 2020 tweet from Andrew McLuhan shows an annotation of this maxim made by McLuhan on the first page (‘Preface to the Third Printing’) of Corinne McLuhan’s copy of Understanding Media:
    Since McLuhan’s other uses of the phrase date from the early 1970s, this one probably does as well.
  2. Tour‘ in tour de force is from French tourner, ‘to turn’.
  3. Tour‘ in tour de Babel is from Latin/Greek turris/τύρρις, ‘tower’.

On the subliminal 1

Electronic media (…) abridge space and time and single-plane relationships, returning us to the confrontation of multiple[-plane] relationships at the same moment. (…) The multilayered montage or “transparency,” with its abridgement of [sequential] logical relationships, is as familiar in the cave painting as in cubism. (Myth and Mass Media, 1959)1 

this fusion and telescoping of phases of process becomes a kind of explanation or mode of intelligibility. (Myth and Mass Media)

McLuhan had always been interested in the subliminal working of advertising and of other sorts of education outside the classroom like comics and the movies. This was the “classroom without walls”. But in the later 1950’s he became interested in the subliminal in a new way.

For 500 years our idea of efficacy and efficiency was rooted in the technology of explicitness. To make happen and to explain scientifically have both meant the consecutive spelling out of consequences, one at a time. In the electronic age we enter the phase of the technology of implicitness in which by grasp of total field relationships we package information and deliver messages on many levels, all in an instant. (‘The Subliminal Projection Project’, The Canadian ForumDecember, 1957)

He now realized that the subliminal was not only something we needed to become aware of throughthe consecutive spelling out of consequences”. This latter sort of investigation could certainly expose subliminal messages suggested by ads (for example) and could therefore contribute to consumer insight. But such ‘subliminal’ messages were potentially fully conscious and this was, indeed, just what study of them aimed to bring about: the conversion or “spelling out” of the subliminal into the “consequence” of conscious awareness.

But the subliminal could also to be investigated as being part of “total field relationships (…) on many levels, all in an instant.” And this was an entirely different matter.

Compare brain chemistry.2 The subliminal working of molecules in the brain is not something to be brought into consciousness in the same way as the exposure of hidden messages in ads. Instead, that molecular working can certainly be investigated in labs, and even be imaged through microscopy or MRI, but the object of this sort of highly conscious endeavor is not at all to bring that brain activity into the consciousness with which we go about our daily business. Indeed, the former can never become part of the latter because its working takes place, instantaneously, on a different level. As McLuhan put it, we have to deal here with “many levels, all in an instant”.  The different level of brain biochemistry is essentially subliminal — but not for that reason hidden from fully conscious investigation. Indeed, it is open to investigation only as subliminal.

At roughly the same time that he began to reconceptualize the subliminal in this way as “implicitness”, McLuhan formulated the phrase (or the admonition): “the medium is the message”. And these were closely linked. The electric medium (“a new codification of experience collectively achieved by new work habits and inclusive collective awareness”) through which we have particle physics, genetics and modern medicine is inherently multi-level, simultaneous and therefore (combining these two) ‘all at once’. In many different sciences, this model of understanding — this medium, this “mode of intelligibility” — is taken for granted. Of course our bodies and brains work through biochemical interactions, and of course they do so simultaneously with our every action and thought, and of course this takes place on a different level from our conscious attention, and of course this does not mean that this molecular work cannot be investigated consciously but instead means that it can. But this is a new sense of the subliminal that is only a few centuries old (at least as a practical matter), which has in that time revolutionized every field into which it has been introduced.3

Now in the later 1950’s McLuhan proposed that this multilevel simultaneous electric medium of explanation be brought to bear also in the humanities and the social sciences. Further, he proposed that we initiate this transformation first of all by — Understanding Media.

  1. The order of these sentences from ‘Myth and Mass Media‘ has been reversed. McLuhan enlarged on new media in this essay as follows: “Any one of our new media is in a sense a new language, a new codification of experience collectively achieved by new work habits and inclusive collective awareness. (…) The collective skills and experience that constitute both spoken languages and such new languages as movies or radio can also be considered (…) as static models of the universe. But do they not tend, like languages in general, to be dynamic models of the universe in action? As such, languages old and new would seem to be for participation rather than for contemplation or for reference and classification.” Both “static” and “dynamic” at once, the new media, like the new sciences of the last two centuries, have learned how to build upon the multiplicity of time.
  2. Explorations 8, #8: “the rise of field theory in physics now has its medical counterpart in Dr. Hans Selye’s stress view.”
  3. Only a few centuries old at least as a practical matter — because one would have to look carefully at figures like Aristotle and Leibniz (for example) to see how they understood “implicitness” long ago. Centuries or millennia before such insight could be put to practical use, they may well have understood it better than we do.

Und so weiter! (the gap)

In his handwritten letter to Harry Skornia from November 21, 1958, McLuhan used the German phrase “und so weiter!”

This followed on from the sentence: “TV image is not contained in space but makes its own.”

“Und so weiter” is German for ‘and so on’ or ‘et cetera’. In fact, a few weeks later in another letter to Skornia, from December 16, 1958, McLuhan concluded a list of points with “etc., etc., etc……..”.

The point he was making in both these instances was both funny and profound.

Funny, because he was using the very formula for the Gutenberg era, as seen in lines of print, assembly lines, railway lines — namely, ‘und so weiter’, ‘etc., etc., etc……..’ — to implicate the very formula of the Marconi era, as seen in bits of data, namely:

0-space-1/space/1-space-0/space/0-space-1/ — und so weiter!1

Profound, because he was indicating that the Gutenberg era could not have arisen without an implicit understanding of the spatial notion of the Marconi era that would overthrow it.2 

the visual lineality of scribal and print cultures really includes the anal-oral axis, with strong anal stress, of course. (Explorations 8, #9)

Lines of print cannot function without the implicit understanding that any unit is both different from and related to the units before and after it. But the space of this ‘identity and difference’ between units was not theorized or even recognized in the Gutenberg era. It was “the missing link”. Recognition and theorization would come only with the Marconi era and particularly with the development of digital technologies. 

The distinctive difference between the ‘eras’ — or ‘galaxies’ as McLuhan came to call them to get away from the chronological time implicated in ‘eras’ — lay in their understanding (or not) of the nature and time (Sein und Zeit!) of the ineluctable intervening space. As McLuhan would come repeatedly to insist: “the gap is where the action is!”


  1. McLuhan, Myth and Mass Media (1959): “the spot news of the telegraph press really acts like the yes-no, black-white dots of the wirephoto in creating an inclusive world image.”
  2. One all important implication to this suggestion was that all chronological ‘eras’ are always subject, consciously or not, to all of the galaxies of the interior landscape — “all at once”!

From world to worlds

Rimbaud invented the newspaper landscape poem in 1870, giving the world a new art-form which provided luminous interpretation of the new technology. (McLuhan, ‘The Subliminal Projection Project’, Canadian Forum, December, 1957)1 

McLuhan in a handwritten letter of 21 November, 1958, to Harry Skornia:

Big insight in New York recently talking with André Girard, painter who works with CBS and NBC.  Pointed out how TV image resembles stained glass image — Image is defined by light through not light on.  This all came home fast to my work on space changes in poetry and painting from 12th century to the present. TV image is not contained in space but makes its own.2

The work McLuhan was referencing here was his 1955 essay in Explorations 4‘Space, Time, and Poetry’3 and particularly this passage from it:

The revolutionary switch from the outer space of Romantic poetry to the inner spaces of symbolist art meant the discovery of the simultaneity of many times and many spaces in the inner landscapes of the mind.

Combined with McLuhan’s November notes to Skornia, a series of reversals were recorded. Not media in world, but worlds of media. Not singular space but plural spaces. Not the “outer space” of the exterior landscape but the “inner spaces” of the interior landscape. Not one time after another in  chronological time, but “the simultaneity of many times”. And all these “revolutionary switch[es]” were captured for McLuhan in the reversal of perception determined “not by light on but by light through“. 

These inversions had enormous appeal to McLuhan — “makes me tingle all over” — because they hinted at a possible way out of the cul-de-sac into which humanity had stumbled. In ‘Space, Time, and Poetry’ he described this fate as follows:

Has technology adopted as its province the entire human psyche and the earth which it inhabits? Are there [not] sufficient signs that technological man is prepared to manipulate, as his matter, both earth and spirit? Have the ancient boundaries between art and nature been erased? Since the mass production of the book began in the 16th century and with the later arrival of the popular press, magazine, movie, radio and television, it has been a tendency for the media to act less as a bridge between the individual and various segments of the outer world than for them to usurp4 the function of that outer world. The new media have blurred the boundaries of inner and outer. The omnipresence of news and views has merged man’s inner and outer life. Uninhibited mechanization is totalitarian at many levels.5

The totalitarian grasp of the media was manifested in many areas: the control of consumption and therefore of distribution through advertising; the control of news and therefore of politics through propaganda; above all, control of reality and therefore of access to religion and art and tradition — since these function (if at all) only as treating ‘reality’.6

McLuhan’s programmatic response to this totalitarian threat amounted to a restatement of the goal he had taken up from Sigfried Giedion in 1943, namely, the need to specify the symphonic interplay animating the humanities and the technological sciences in their seemingly only antagonistic contemporary manifestations. As he continued in ‘Space, Time, and Poetry’

A few Europeans like Le Corbusier and Giedion have undertaken to verbalize our technology for us. A few of our artists such as Poe, Henry James, Pound, and Eliot have in reverse order undertaken to technologize7 the traditional verbal world of the European.
There does exist, then, a two-way bridge between the traditional and technological worlds which are at war in Western culture. But it has been officially ignored or condemned. To travel this bridge requires of the traveller an acquaintance with the language and techniques of [the tradition] on the one hand, and of the language and techniques of [technology] on the other.8 Few are prepared to acquire both languages and so the war between these worlds continues, waged witlessly in classroom and market-place alike (…) As technology advances, verbalization declines — verbalization, that is to say, of the esthetic or human meaning and implications of technology. It needed a great poet-painter [on the “two-way bridge” between oral poetry and and the visual painting] like Wyndham Lewis to bring the English mind ([at least] some of it) to the verbal level of awareness of [the technology of] this century.9 

However, none of the attempts of Le Corbusier, Giedion, Poe, Henry James, Pound, Eliot, Lewis, Dostoevsky and Dickens, all named in the essay, and doubtless many others who might have been named, beginning already with Heraclitus and Plato, had succeeded in delineating the required bridge. Or, at least, of communicating its delineation. A new campaign to this end needed to be mounted in some new direction.

In this 1955 essay McLuhan made several suggestions to be probed: 

Poe and Dickens, however, made their move not at the privileged level of [individual] art consciousness (…) [but] in the new conditions of collective consciousness from which sharp individual articulation had disappeared or in which it was insignificant

This was to replay an assertion from his ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’ lecture from the previous year:

human languages themselves are the greatest of all works of art beside which the works of Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Shakespeare are minor variations. English or any other language is itself a massive organization of traditional experience providing a complex view of the world. Today our increasing knowledge of the languages of primitive cultures has made it easy to observe how language itself is the principal channel and view-maker of experience for men everywhere.

But in this 1954 passage McLuhan still appealed to “the world”, apparently singular, even if he was clear that access to ‘it’ was mediated by “languages”, plural, as “the principal channel[s] and view-maker[s] of experience for men everywhere.” To understand the “organization of traditional experience”, or any experience, it was therefore necessary to understand the functioning of “languages” or, as this might be put, of “language itself” (just as the key to an understanding of the chemical elements is to perceive the structure of the ‘element itself’).

With the reversals recorded in 1958, McLuhan would now suggest that consideration should be made, not of the mediations of world engendered by language, but instead the engendering of worlds through media working as languages. So he now conceived that the medium was the message such that the great need was to isolate “the medium itself”. And the way to do this might lie in the analysis of media as languages having a new kind of “grammar”. Hence: “Grammars of the Media“.    

McLuhan was making a series of recommendations, above all to himself: come away from world singular; come away from the exterior world; come away from one sense (the eye or the ear); come away from one tradition (the humanities or technology); come away from individual cognition to “the new conditions of collective consciousness from which sharp individual articulation ha[s] disappeared”. These indicated a pathway he would attempt to follow leading up to the publication of Understanding Media in 1964.

Near the end of his long December 16, 1958, letter to Skornia, he put the demands of this way — to which his own investigations would have to conform — as follows:

For the media as such are art forms shaped by collective skills and experience. They are new languages whose grammar and syntax we must learn and teach if we are to hoick ourselves out of the bathos of illiteracy into which their sudden onset has shoved us. 

  1. McLuhan’s second sight can be seen in action here: “luminous interpretation” looks ahead to “light through” a full year later, but at the time he probably had little notion what the phrase might mean or why he was deploying it. A further passage from the same Canadian Forum article, for all the world directed to the sleepers among us, may in this context be seen to apply in a different way to McLuhan himself: “A subject like subliminal projection is thus a red-herring which encourages the inattentive suddenly to snap to attention while they glimpse a cultural march-past of facts and figures which they should have mastered decades earlier.”
  2. Parts of this note replicated one sent to Skornia a few days earlier on November 18. The earler note may have been the first time McLuhan mentioned “light through“: “Big break-through in insight into TV came in NYC via André Girard, the painter who works for CBS and NBC. In a word, key fact about TV is that image is defined not by light on but by light through, exactly as stained glass principle of art form.  Makes me tingle all over just to see those words because very big matters hinge on this fact.  Opens up understanding fast. Painting of Rouault based on this subliminal awareness of new media.”
  3. This may have been the piece Sam Becker referenced a month later in a December 23 1958 letter to Skornia recommending that the NAEB funding proposal for the Understanding Media project include a bibliography of McLuhan’s writings “especially that wonderful paper he did in Explorations.” This was a month after McLuhan mentioned the essay to Skornia in his November 21 letter. Skornia may have followed up by circulating copies to the research committee headed by Becker.
  4. Typo in the Explorations text which has ‘usury’.
  5. Compare McLuhan in his 1957 Canadian Forum article: “Man has acquired a vast new inflated status but he has thereby become dirigible (steerable, directable) in several senses. As we take for granted knowledge not of segments but of total field relationships in personal and political existence alike, we also acquire directive or make-happen powers at many levels. (…) Automation means ultimate personal enslavement.” (The order of these sentences has been reversed.)
  6. McLuhan’s Catholicism must be understood in this context. God and religion have lost any claim to reality in a certain medium; but that medium is thoughtless in many ways — especially in its claim to be singular and therefore necessary. Other media entail other realities. McLuhan came to his conversion simply by seriously entertaining multiple realities and considering their grounds and entailments. But to do this demands going “through the vanishing point” (since between realities there is no reality) and McLuhan research, like the world in general, has been unable to meet this necessity.
  7. By “technologize” here McLuhan does not mean to transform into technology or even to transform by technology. He means something like ‘to formulate in terms that work as well for the arts as for technology’. This is the “reverse order” from the attempt of  Le Corbusier and Giedion ‘to formulate in terms that work as well for technology as for the arts’.
  8. McLuhan has: “To travel this bridge requires of the traveller an acquaintance with the language and techniques of (the oral world of) poetry on the one hand, and of the language and techniques of painting, architecture, and the visual world on the other.” This formulation was to come away from the tradition/technology contrast he was drawing in most of the essay to the isomorphic contrast between ear and eye and between oral poetry and “the visual world”. McLuhan’s pathway at this crucial decade of his career, 1955-1964, amounted to the ever-repeated twisting of the kaleidoscope of all these terms in the hope that they would come into focus. Later in Space, Time, and Poetry’ he would offer: “Book culture, which was all that came to America from Europe, was an excellent matrix for technological development, but proved mainly useless in educating eye and ear to emotional literacy about technology.” This brought eye and ear together from their opposition earlier in the essay (and as just cited in this note). A two-way bridge between them was just as possible as one between tradition and technology. Indeed, the last words of McLuhan’s essay named this possibility as “the union of the visual and acoustical space in a new space-time poetry.”
  9. An October 8, 1959, letter from McLuhan to his friend Wilfred Watson (co-author of From Cliché to Archetype), put the point at stake here nicely: “Is not the artist one who lives perpetually on this borderland (…) between technology and experience, between mechanical and organic form? And when a time or a culture is similarly poised between the new technology and traditional experience is not that the moment of maximal creativity for that culture?  And are not we today, in every field, so poised? And understanding such principles would it not be possible to perpetuate that moment of maximal poise by educational arrangement?” This would be to institutionalize, he continued, “the spirit of play which is necessary to maintain (such) poise between worlds of sensibility.” (Letters 257)

McLuhan on Burroughs

In 1964, the same year that Understanding Media appeared, McLuhan published a review of two of William Burroughs’ novels, Naked Lunch (1959) and Nova Express (1964).1 Here are excerpts from McLuhan’s review:

  • We have made our environment out of our own nervous systems.2    
  • Each technological extension involves an act of collective cannibalism. The previous environment with all its private and social values, is swallowed by the new environment and reprocessed for whatever values are digestible.3  
  • During the process of digestion of the old environment, man finds it expedient to anesthetize himself as much as possible. He pays as little attention to the action of the environment as the patient heeds the surgeon’s scalpel. The gulping or swallowing of Nature by the machine was attended by a complete change of the ground rules of both the sensory ratios of the individual nervous system and the patterns of the social order as well. Today, when the environment has become the extension of the entire mesh of the nervous system, anesthesia numbs our bodies into hydraulic jacks.4
  • The moment one achieves this environmental state all things and people are submitted to you to be processed. Whether a man takes the road of junk or the road of art, the entire world must submit to his processing. The world becomes his “content.”5
  • The vision of the city as a physiological and psychic extension of the body he [Baudelaire in Fleurs du Mal] experienced as a nightmare of illness and self-alienation. Wyndham Lewis, in his trilogy The Human Age, began with The Childermass. Its theme is the massacre of innocents and the rape of entire populations by the popular media of press and film.
  • There is no privacy and no private parts. In a world in which we are all ingesting and digesting one another there can be no obscenity or pornography or decency. Such is the law of electric media which stretch the nerves to form a global membrane of enclosure.
  • The power of the image to beget image, and of technology to reproduce itself via human intervention, is utterly in excess of our power to control the psychic and social consequences.
  • It is the medium that is the message because the medium creates an environment that is as indelible as it is lethal.
  1. ‘Notes on Burroughs’, Nation, 28 December 1964, pp 517-519. It is noteworthy that Burroughs’ grandfather, after whom he was named, made the Burroughs family fortune through the invention of the adding machine — a step on the way to the complete outering of the human nervous system. A newspaper article from 1890 reports: “William S Burroughs, a young St Louisan, who ten years ago did not know he had mechanical genius enough to use a file, has perfected in a strong, durable, compact machine of 2,165 pieces, an adjunct to the counting house that is already in successful operation in fifty banks. It is an adding-machine which is said to work more rapidly and more correctly than the most expert accountant.” Like T.S. Eliot (on whom McLuhan wrote many essays, including one on Eliot’s St Louis connection), Burroughs (1914-1997) was born in St Louis where McLuhan taught from 1937 to 1944.
  2. Before the last centuries, most tools — the great exception being language — extended the physical capabilities of humans. But with the new media ways were found to replicate the internal networks of the senses and of conscious and unconscious mentation. The effects of these innovations may still be too close to us for definitive study, but the irritation they introduce into the individual and social body is plain. Here is McLuhan in 1962: “In our time, instead of putting out this or that organ such as feet into wheels or (…) our skin into city walls, we have projected our brains and nerves outside. Telegraph, radio, television, telephone really are extensions of our central nervous system, not of our physical organs. We’re putting our central nervous system, our most intimate selves, outside (…) These new forms — television and radio — are new languages. They’re huge extensions of ourselves which enable us to participate in one another’s lives, much as a language does. But these forms lay down their own ground rules. (…) Now, when we put our nerves outside, we become of course vulnerable to the nth degree; in fact, we barely survive from day to day. Mere existence becomes one of perpetual anxiety. At least while we had our physical organs outside to protect the central nervous system, we had a relatively low-geared comfortable life which we like to call “the olden days.” We now have an unimaginably harassed one by putting our nerves outside ourselves; it is like living without a skin.” (‘Prospect’, Canadian Art, # 81, 1962) The order of the passages cited here has been changed.
  3. ‘Values’ here echoes ‘social values’ earlier in the sentence. McLuhan’s ever-repeated point was that social values are grounded in a specific environment and are in great danger when that environment is undermined and so disappears as ground. It would doubtless have been more accurate to say that the previous environment is reprocessed for whatever the new environment finds digestible in it, not only its values.  But as is not unusual in McLuhan, he sacrificed a general point for a particular one.
  4. Why “hydraulic jacks”? Because this is a “a world in which we are all ingesting and digesting one another”. As “hydraulic jacks” we enact the penetration and fragmentation of the old forms of identity which supported what each of us once were.
  5. When everything is “content”, a dissolution into nothing is precipitated. Nietzsche: “The true world — we have abolished. What world has remained? The apparent one perhaps? But no! With the true world we also have abolished the apparent one!!” (‘History of an Error’ in Twilight of the Idols). “The true world” was a world that was there before all consideration of how it was seen. That world no longer existed. There was nothing that was not what it was by being seen in some particular way. But with the destruction of “the true world”,  Nietzsche saw, also the “apparent” world is abolished — for how was it seen?

Grammars of the Media

Beyond general discussions, the first concrete step towards the NAEB Understanding Media funding proposal (submitted to the US Department of HE&W, Office of Education, March 27, 1959) was a short composition called ‘Grammars of the Media1 which McLuhan sent to Skornia on October 28, 1958:

Grammars of the Media

Having long been engaged in exploring the characters of the various media of communication, I have become convinced that what is needed is a series of Grammars of the Media. A “grammar of a medium” like English or Latin means a codified awareness of the powers and properties of the medium. And the advantage of such codification is its speed and precision in teaching and imparting the special powers of the medium.

Today the young are confronted daily with several media besides that of their mother tongue. The absence of any grammar or articulated awareness of these new media is a source of weakness and confusion both for teacher and student alike, for we are attempting the conscious articulation and instruction of formal education in only one medium — that is, English. More to the point, however, is the fact that the medium of English is recognized as existing only on the written or printed plane.

The fact of being confronted daily with several media has begun to impress upon observers the strange fact that the medium is itself the message. So that we are beginning to understand why a written message is so very different from the same information when spoken or when pictorialized. After four centuries of the virtual monopoly of the printed form, we are now in a situation in which more information is moved by electronic means than by the print medium. That is to say that on the one hand our existing educational establishment is faced with the threat of obsolescence, and on the other hand that our

educators are doing nothing at all to articulate or educate awareness of the newly dominant media.

Grammars of all media in concert (including the medium of print)2 are needed, first, to protect and transmit our great stake in the forms and values of the printed word, and equally to foster enlightened use and control of the much more powerful electronic media.  An X-ray unit can get very hot but is not a satisfactory space heater.

Perhaps the overall situation can be expressed this way. About 7500 years ago the phonetic alphabet enabled men to arrest, observe, and spell out a great variety of mental and verbal motions. Yet the peculiar powers and properties of the phonetic technology have in themselves gotten about as little educational attention as have the unique powers and properties of print or the TV image. Educators have used these things as audio-visual aids in varying degrees but without specific attention to their effects on the habits of perception and judgement. Today, however, we cannot afford this easy-going unconcern because the peculiar powers of print, telegraph, photo, TV, movie, typewriter, gramophone, and tape are in strong and jarring conflict. Their constant co-presence has created a situation unknown before, a situation far richer educationally than ever before, yet so confused that the danger is that we smother all the media by their unstudied and uncoordinated expressions.

Right off, this situation amounts to a sort of national and even global classroom without walls. It had been the glory of

Gutenberg that he gave us a class-room with walls and curricula with boundaries. Until his mechanization of the handicraft of writing it had been unthinkable that students and readers everywhere could have almost simultaneous access to exactly repeatable data. 
It was this exactly repeatable character that made possible the modern classroom, so remote in kind from the student pattern of antiquity and the middle ages.

Print, moreover, had a lineal and segmental bias which 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. And as we marched on to a realisation of these new goals the antecedent forms of awareness and education simply collapsed and were forgotten. Today, however, we are scarcely ready to accept a similar collapse of all that has been achieved by print and segmental analysis. For our legal and legislative institutions, as well as our schools and colleges, stand on the foundations built by the printed word. Yet the nuclear and electronic forms of imparting information today are wholly destructive of the mechanized and industrial civilization that we have so painfully achieved via print.

At present we are aware of the nuclear clash with lineal education only in the form of the decline of attention in the classroom and in the intense rivalry created by the out-of-class offerings. This, of course, is immediately the area of challenge to educational broadcasting. It needs the most careful study in media terms rather than in the form of program and curriculum content. Exact knowledge

of the educational power exerted by a medium, quite apart from any particular content, becomes necessary when a society is using widely a variety of media at the same time. So long as educational procedures are conducted in only one or two media, such analysis is less insistently indicated. Or so long as the young are not exposed to such a variety of media the formal stress of educational procedure can be effectively confined to one or two media.

Formal education in the middle ages was confined to a few people and to the medium of Latin. But after print Latin could not contain even the basic information flow. And as soon as codified information moved into the vernacular media it became necessary to educate the student in the grammar and powers of these media.

Such is, in an unexpectedly new manner, the case again today. Highly codified and patterned information is available ’round-the- globe’ and ’round-the-clock’ in a variety of media. Most decisive of all factors in lending character to this new information structure is the basic fact of the simultaneous, which is inevitable in any electronic structure. And as any business organization is aware, the time factor in the information flow entirely determines the inter-personal patterns of the organization. A slow-moving memorandum set-up will enclose each member of the personnel in a private office space. Telephone and telegraph will tend to send all personnel out into a common space such as “the partners room” in a stock brokerage. For the speed of decision calls for constant face-to-face processing of data.

Electronic information-flow strongly impels people to assume oral and face-to-face relations at all times in teaching and learning. Moreover, it just as strongly throws the load of communication in a do-it-yourself direction. The natural and discriminating consumer habits of patient attention fostered by print and reading, get short shrift from the electronic media which cast the “viewer” increasingly in a “do-it-yourself” role. 
Here, for example, is the explanation why the new poetry, music, and painting are so unintelligible to those trained in the earlier consumer habits. For the new arts , like the new media, expect the audience to be co-author, and co-producer. And students now refuse the docile consumer role in the classroom.

Until, therefore, the psychic geography, as it were, of the world of the new media has been discerned and described, educators are going to be an elite corps without maps or strategy. The first step towards this goal could be a manual of grammars of the media.

  1. In a letter to Walter Ong from September 21, 1957, McLuhan noted: “Am giving a private course this Fall to 30 secondary school teachers on the Grammars of the Media.” (Letters, 251) It is not impossible that this letter should be dated to 1958 instead of 1957.
  2. The bracketed insertion of “including the medium of print” is original to McLuhan.

Defending the print medium in 1958

One theme, Harry, of which I am increasingly aware is the new problem of [maintaining] continuity in a world of accelerating change.1

Grammars of all media in concert (including the medium of print)2 are needed, first, to protect and transmit our great stake in the forms and values of the printed word, and equally to foster enlightened use and control of the much more powerful electronic media. (Grammars of the Media, October 1958) 

It is all too common to find McLuhan dismissed or praised as an uncritical champion of electric culture. This is often combined with the view that he rejected the book medium out of hand. In fact, however, McLuhan went from being a champion of the book3 as the foundation of culture (into the late 1940s) to being a champion of culture via the simultaneity of all media including the book.4

He expressed this view many times in the later 1950s, the time when he was attempting to get clear what “the medium is the message” implied for education, business, research, and, indeed, for all facets of life without exception. (McLuhan first used the phrase “the medium is the message” in May 1958.)

The dis-covery of elementary structure had occurred in chemistry in the course of the nineteenth century in regard to the exterior landscape. Now McLuhan saw the possibility of a similar revolutionary transformation in the investigation of the interior one. Just as chemistry as the language of elements had spread from a few isolated laboratories in England and France to manufacturing, medicine and education around the globe, so McLuhan predicted — and tried desperately to inaugurate himself — “universal education in the languages and values of the media themselves“.5

At the end of May, 1958, McLuhan was an invited speaker at a Conference on Educational Television sponsored jointly by the US Office of Education (a division of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare) and the NAEB. His lecture was titled ‘The Role of Mass Communication in Meeting Today’s Problems‘ and it was immediately published as a Circular (number 574) by HEW.6

Today our natural temptation is to regard the new media as aids or distractions to the older studies. We have not dared to see them as themselves, new art forms which can become direct objects of study.
In his Film as Art, Rudolf Arnheim notes: “The history of human ingenuity shows that almost every innovation goes through a preliminary phase in which the solution is obtained by the old method, modified or amplified by some new feature.”
For us to do this with press, radio and TV would be fatal to our earlier achievement in writing and print, because it leaves to the dynamics of the new media untrammelled license to disintegrate our existing values. If one lesson has emerged in recent decades it is that the Ivory Tower of the artist has [to] become the Control Tower of society. Only by exercising the fullest artistic awareness of these vulgar forms can we maintain the integrity of the earlier forms.

Again, in McLuhan’s October 1958 ‘Grammars of the Media‘:

  • The fact of being confronted daily with several media has begun to impress upon observers the strange fact that the medium is itself the message. So that we are beginning to understand why a written message is so very different from the same information when spoken or when pictorialized. After four centuries of the virtual monopoly of the printed form, we are now in a situation in which more information is moved by electronic means than by the print medium. That is to say that on the one hand our existing educational establishment is faced with the threat of obsolescence, and on the other hand that our educators are doing nothing at all to articulate or educate awareness of the newly dominant media. Grammars of all media in concert (including the medium of print) are needed, first, to protect and transmit our great stake in the forms and values of the printed word, and equally to foster enlightened use and control of the much more powerful electronic media.  An X-ray unit can get very hot but is not a satisfactory space heater.
  • Print, moreover, had a lineal and segmental bias which 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. And as we marched on to a realisation of these new goals the antecedent forms of awareness and education simply collapsed and were forgotten. Today, however, we are scarcely ready to accept a similar collapse of all that has been achieved by print and segmental analysis. For our legal and legislative institutions, as well as our schools and colleges, stand on the foundations built by the printed wordYet the nuclear and electronic forms of imparting information today are wholly destructive of the mechanized and industrial civilization that we have so painfully achieved via print.

Finally, here he is in a letter to Harry Skornia from December 16, 1958:

  • Outside of the classroom students are faced with a phalanx of technologies which convey great quantities of information with global range and content. The prestige and power of these media are greater by far than those of the older form of printing. And in the presence of these media students are on their own. A world of global educational scope comes disguised as “entertainment”.
  • For the perception and judgement of this new world of experience students receive no training. They are warned that it is passive and vulgar and conformist, and they value it the more accordingly. During the first decades of the Gutenberg era the custodians of manuscript culture sat on a Maginot Line and deplored printing. Printing in turn released the power of the vernaculars as new media and classical humanists deplored these vulgar tongues.
  • This period of lament provides just the time and the tone to inter [ie, bury] the older culture.
  • But today we cannot afford to liquidate and inter the huge establishment of the social and political achievement represented by printing. Yet if we fail to disentangle the dynamics and motivations of the medium of print from the new media we shall have aided in the destruction of the culture and institutions based on printing. It is possible and necessary today to embark on a new educational venture, namely universal education in the languages and values of the media themselves.
  • For teachers to use movie and television in the classroom without awareness of the power these media have to reform our entire sensibilities, is to ape the Trojans in fetching within their walls the wooden horse. We are faced with universal illiteracy with regard to the powers of media as media, and of media as message. (…) For the media as such are art forms shaped by collective skills and experience. They are new languages7 whose grammar and syntax we must learn and teach if we are to hoick ourselves out of the bathos of illiteracy into which their sudden onset has shoved us.
  1. McLuhan to Harry Skornia, March 14, 1959, p 2.
  2. The bracketed insertion of “including the medium of print” was made by McLuhan.
  3. The book = the kind of social and intellectual interaction which the best uses of the book supports and, indeed, demands: the medium is the message.
  4. All media = the kind of social and intellectual interaction which an understanding of all media supports and, indeed, demands: the medium is the message.
  5. Letter to Harry Skornia from December 16, 1958, which is extensively cited in this post above.
  6. Later that same year it was republished in the NAEB Journal for October (18:1), now slightly retitled as ‘Our New Electronic Culture: The Role of Mass Communication in Meeting Today’s Problems’.
  7. Compare ‘Catholic Humanism in Modern Letters’ (1954): “human languages themselves are the greatest of all works of art beside which the works of Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Shakespeare are minor variations. English or any other language is itself a massive organization of traditional experience providing a complex view of the world. Today our increasing knowledge of the languages of primitive cultures has made it easy to observe how language itself is the principal channel and view-maker of experience for men everywhere.”