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.