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 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)