Monthly Archives: June 2020

McLuhan to Skornia 6/8/59

McLuhan continued his torrid pace of notes to Harry Skornia in June 1959 with this on the 8th:

Basically the trouble with the tests that isolate factors and fragment situations is that they are derivatives of Gutenberg (albeit subliminal).  These procedures won’t touch the realities of the all-at-once electronic world of configurations. Our Ford seminar simulcast was a crude sample of new approach but via older method, like skis on grass. The whole subliminal side of the Gutenberg era now comes home to roost, as it were, in the tester’s hay mow. (…) You see, the [Dewey] general theory leads to batch of mechanical model experiments. Can we get from my general theory that medium is the message to a similar set of mechanical models?1 Why not?2     

McLuhan was working his way here to the point he would make explicitly in his letter to Skornia two weeks later on June 25, namely, that investigation of the interior landscape required new science and would only be distorted if approached within the old science of “mechanical model experiments”. However, perhaps his “dynamic model” could be illuminated by considering exactly how and why it was not fitted to “mechanical model experiments”. If not, “why not?” How and why did such experiments get ‘mowed’ down?

Another possible tack towards open collective investigation was to focus on the difference between the Gutenberg era and the Marconi era in regard to the subliminal: 

A project to bring all aspects of our old and new media technology out of the subliminal into the levels of intellectual day? You see, the all-at-once dynamic of the electronic doesn’t permit any subliminal side any more. Print had a huge subliminal side just because it favored one level of meaning at a time; applied knowledge equals one scrap at a time.

Behind these suggests was the notion that media could be compared structurally. The subliminal aspects of the Gutenberg era which were unconscious and excluded could be considered as a negative property, while the conscious and included subliminal of the Marconi era could be considered as a positive one. The sign between the era/medium and the subliminal would vary, as could the relation to the conscious and unconscious, but the medial +/- structure would not. Just as the dis-covery of the common elementary structure had been the key to chemistry, and DNA structure to genetics, McLuhan’s suggestion was that media require comparable structural definition and that it, too, must be formulated as a variable ratio. 

“The medium is the message” in this way had two structural meanings. First, that everything depended on specification of “the medium” as a single but variable structure. The message to researchers was the need to establish such medial specification. Second, that such specification must be derived from the structure of the electric medium now dominating all contemporary life. The message to researchers was that this medium was already everywhere in force and that its signature was the digital (0/1) ratio.

  1. McLuhan’s question “Can we get from (…) to” implicates the “paradox” that he would note repeatedly in his later writings: “The basis of all paradox, Christian and secular, is to be found in the sixth book of the Physics of Aristotle, to which Aquinas refers in his Summa Theologica (…) The question for Aquinas is whether justification by faith occurs instantly or gradually. Aquinas says it occurs instantly because — ­here he appeals to Aristotle’s Physics  — “the whole preceding time during which anything moves towards its form, it is under the opposite form”. (CA, 160) His earlier assertion that “these (mechanical) procedures won’t touch the realities” goes to the same point. Ultimately, the question at stake here and throughout McLuhan’s work concerns if and how the world can transition (as he himself had done around 1950) from meaning anchored in the book to meaning implicated in the interplay of all media.
  2. In his following letter to Skornia 2 days later (June 10, 1959), McLuhan set out the same point, again in relation to Dewey: “These matters are easy of test and valid for investigation. But they are not mechanical models of testing. They are nearer to Dewey’s ‘learning by doing’ pattern” (than to mechanical models).

McLuhan to Skornia 6/7/59: “We can’t assume that we understand media already!”

McLuhan’s note to Skornia from 6/7/59 made the all important point that “We can’t assume that we understand media already!” This was the chief meaning, addressed above all to McLuhan himself, of “the medium is the message”. This had many implications for the NAEB Understanding Media project he was then working on, not least in regard to the testing and demonstration of his general proposal to educational broadcasters. But it also captured the question at the heart of his life’s work: how to initiate open collective investigation of the shaping forces of the interior landscape?1

We are going to have to devise some new types of testing for non-verbal factors in attitude change resulting from various media. But isn’t this what the project is all about? We can’t assume that we understand media already! Exciting types of testing are [already available] via [such mechanical means as] the abstraction and isolating of single factors by segmental analysis and static snapshotting. I’m prepared to go into this bald-headed, Harry, and to push back frontiers in psychological testing just as much as we have done in other areas already. But I’ll gladly use all the available talent and savvy.

Later in the same note in its handwritten ending:

we are going to invent new forms of revealing and testing media uses. (…) We are not going to be content with existing methods of testing but won’t ignore them [either].2 

  1. Strangely, McLuhan research has failed to follow his lead into a new research area, or areas, not because it is not collective enough, but because it is not open enough. It has established itself as Kuhn’s ‘normal science’ with professorial chairs, grad departments and journals, without going through the required first step of Gestalt-switch through which its focus would be established. It has not been able to attend his admonition that “we can’t assume that we understand media already” which would direct us through the RVM looking glass and “through the vanishing point”. Hence, instead of participating in the new world of Marconi, it is one of the forces attempting to perpetuate the tottering world of Gutenberg. This is no service to him. Far more important, it is no service to a world in desperate need of a “survival strategy”.
  2. “What you can assure Walter Stone (of the US Office of Education) and (the NAEB Research) Committee is that we are going to invent new forms of revealing and testing media uses. We are in for as big a campaign as Dewey undertook. We are not going to be content with existing methods of testing but won’t ignore them (either).”

McLuhan to Skornia 6/5/59

A few days after his May 29 and early June notes to Harry Skornia, and a single day after his June 4 note, McLuhan followed up on June 5 with another reflection on their upcoming project:

One new concept for us: media are “ideas” in action.1 That is, any technological pattern or grouping of human know-how has the mark of our minds built-into it. The media dynamics are, therefore, parallel2 to those of our ideas. But many of our ideas are feed-back subliminally from media. Jeep calling unto jeep.3 Another basic fact: Men never have conscious grasp of any medium until it has been translated into another medium. The Gutenberg era behind us was the subliminal phase of print. Now that we have translated print into the electronic modes we begin to be conscious of what had been subliminal. Yet we have to deal with a professoriat that remains subliminal in respect to print; ergo blocked in respect to new media perception. This is not just a nuisance, or regrettable. It is dangerous to our civilization.4 The business world is more alert to dangers to Its interests than we [professors] are. They would help us if they knew what we were up to. (…) What about motto: “Let’s get the media out of the subliminal gulch“? Let’s articulate ’em, hoick ’em up into daylight of consciousness. Let’s harness them, TVA style, instead of letting them flood and gouge and brainwash us.  Let’s make ’em deliver music. Let’s orchestrate them like the sections of a symphony. Let’s teach them the score. Let’s score the media instead of letting them score.

McLuhan specifies two levels of the subliminal here. There is subliminal action at the level of elementary structure — medium — and there is the associated subliminal action at the level of the properties of elementary media: the “subliminal phase of [media like] print” vs “ideas [which] are feed-back subliminally from media”. Both together are what he calls here the “technological pattern or grouping of human know-how“, “the mark of our minds” and “media dynamics“. 

The great question — formulated at the time by McLuhan as “the medium is the message” — was how to begin the general investigation of the field defined by such elements and their properties? 


  1. From McLuhan’s note to Skornia a day or two before: “the electronic is not static bits but live field”.
  2. “Parallel” here apparently means something like “an alternative mode of explication” to that of the ‘history of ideas’.
  3. “Jeep calling unto jeep” — one mechanical notion giving rise to another — is the sort of precise-telling-funny formulation that came naturally to McLuhan before his 1960 stroke. After it, and especially after his brain tumor afflictions throughout the 1960s and his 1970 heart attack, this facility became less and less forthcoming. Rote expressions more and more took their place. The man burnt himself out for what will, as one hopes, become recognized as a great cause.
  4. “Dangerous to our civilization” in two directions. Dangerous to our civilization built upon print foundations and dangerous to all future civilization since blocking access to survival.

McLuhan to Skornia 6/4/59

Following his end of May 1959 trip to NAEB headquarters at the University of Illinois in Urbana, McLuhan wrote back to Harry Skornia, the NAEB executive director, on a near daily basis. His June 4 note raised the prospect of coordinated action with the newly (1958) established Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania:

Had hearty letter from Gilbert Seldes about his taking directorship of Annenberg School and asking me to come regularly to seminars.  I hope we can get [to] those soon, Harry, both to help and to get help.  Because they may not only be able to use the grammars approach but may be disposed to help with kinescope [films] etc for teaching.  Do you plan to look over his set-up soon?  Could we go at the same time — sometime before July 4 say?  Might help with my plans for the Vancouver procedure for summer-school. Since we can be of genuine aid in the large scope of the Annenberg school, and since we need all the allies we can discover or create, let us see what we can do at once.1 

McLuhan proposed similar associative relations to Skornia with businesses like GE, ATT and IBM, with the television networks and with ad agencies. These suggestions were largely ignored by Skornia and especially by his NAEB colleagues.2 They openly expressed that McLuhan already had more work and more ambitious plans than he could possibly handle — without getting into relationships they did not understand and could not even imagine. This turned out to be unfortunate for the businesses and networks which are now dwarfed by new businesses and networks which have been built on McLuhan’s insights into an electric world of information. Whether this was yet a larger disaster for the planet remains an open question.  

In the same note McLuhan further reflected on the nature and method of his project:

I would much like to talk to you under those conditions Harry, in the company of Seldes.  Because you would find that we made lots of headway while actually talking, saving years of work, and error.  I learn fastest while talking; making discoveries that way — mode of organized ignorance, light through vs light on.
Look at Peter Drucker’s Landmarks of Tomorrow, early section on organized ignorance.  I understand this principle better than he does because of its art bearings.  But in a word, if you take a total field you have to get light through, because the areas you can reach with a few organized data (light on) are too spotty to be relevant.  Heisenberg explains the principle in A Physicist’s Concept of Nature pointing out that what we call a law of science is organized ignorance. 

  1. The next day, June 5, 1959, McLuhan in another letter to Skornia, brought up the possibilities with Seldes again: “I do think we ought to confer soon with Gilbert Seldes, who is a good friend of mine. I respect his work, and he does mine. He could use our whole approach, and we could use his staff and facilities for shaping teaching materials collaterally to huge advantage. We need allies. I know we are going to put this job right out in front of national attention– where it belongs.”
  2. For example, in his letter to Skornia from 6/7/59, McLuhan wrote that “once we get rolling in this new kind of media testing, the biggest dough on Madison Avenue will be ours if we want it.” He was right, of course, and of course it would be a great thing if Madison Avenue were engaged in an open collective investigation of media. But Skornia crossed out the suggestion and wrote ‘Delete’ in the margin beside it.

McLuhan to Skornia early June 1959

In the last week of May 1959 McLuhan visited Harry Skornia at the NAEB headquarters for a couple days.1 The funding of the Understanding Media project had been obtained, but not yet announced. The project would begin in September and in the meantime McLuhan and his family were headed to UBC where he would teach in its summer session.2

Back from Urbana in Toronto in early June, McLuhan reflected on the project in an undated note to Skornia, received on June 5, 1959, as follows:

the electronic is not static bits but live field.  That’s why the artist comes back into the control tower (out of ivory tower) in modern industry and town-planning.  That’s why us language men can move up to vanguard in many enterprises today.

The transactional psychologists
The structural linguists
The anthropologists en masse

Those are the 3 main groups who already are moving our way in re media.  But they don’t know it yet.  Also all those in all the arts are on our side though concepts about the spiritual status of individual art vs. the materialist condition of group art (mass media) prevent perception of actualities for the time [being]. (…) Ours must be mobile war not positional, if we are to salvage an appreciable proportion of our establishment, educational and political.  We must waste no time or strength in opposition or diatribe.

  1. McLuhan was back in Toronto by May 29 when he wrote Skornia. See Present as history, history as present.
  2. See Communications Programme at UBC.

Present as history, history as present 5/29-59

Soon after hearing the news that the Understanding Media project was to be funded, McLuhan wrote Harry Skornia in a May 29, 1959, letter describing his excitement about the task before them:

for the first time in history we are setting out to discover the patterns of subliminal action resulting from media — and since all of them are simultaneously operative in our midst today we can use the present as history, as lab for tests etc.

Just as present investigation in chemistry or genetics throws new light on what has happened in the past, so would exploration of media serve to illuminate human history. Study of possibility now can be applied to actuality then — “the present as history”.

Five years later, in another note to Skonia from July 6, 1964, he set out the obverse point: 

I only realized today that 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. Such a vision requires the historical dimension as the laboratory in which to observe to change. (…) By showing the effect of a medium upon a diversity of institutions, you gain the historical dimension of the present. (Letters, 305)

Just as present questions in chemistry can be suggested by historical events , so contemporary understanding of media can be prompted by past developments. Actuality then points to present possibility now — “the historical dimension of the present”.

McLuhan to Skornia 3/14/59

The funding application for McLuhan’s Understanding Media project with the NAEB was finalized early in 1959. During this time, after McLuhan’s very long letter to Harry Skornia in January, he wrote another to him in March — this on top of the short letters McLuhan was sending to Skornia weekly or even more frequently. Here are highlights from his long letter of March 14, 1959:

  • Our media now must be contact-oriented, rather than protective devices for private prestige.  
  • Detribalization of backward countries we carry out via (…) industrial culture. Result is individualism and nationalism in these [formerly tribalized] areas, as it was with us in the 16th century, etc. Meantime we, via electricity [= beyond industrial culture], are retribalizing ourselves. That is, we create a global village in which every event vibrates with every other event — including the violent effects of swift detribalization. But retribalization [also has its own “violent effects” since it] evokes new yearning for stability, security, and equilibrium in the old centers of technological innovation [the formerly detribalized areas].1   
  • “Transaction” amounts to simultaneous interacting field. Let me suggest that we keep in mind that the impact of media forms has always been subliminal and nonverbal until hoicked up into daylight by artists. Most people seem to feel “safe” so long as their assumptions are unspoken and non-verbal. Artists as blabs and revealers of inner postures and attitudes used to be a nuisance. Now they are indispensable. From ivory-tower-to-control- tower…  
  • One theme, Harry, of which I am increasingly aware is the new problem of [maintaining] continuity in a world of accelerating change.
  • [Peter] Drucker points out that in the business world the awareness that technological change could put them, any of them, out of action in a few years has led to capital investment in research as by far the heaviest item of expenditure. In other words, don’t wait for change, rather become change and control it from within.
  • We shall have to institutionalize change educationally just as business has done. And this means spending perhaps ten times our total present budgets on research. We must effect a means of (…) transition2 at all levels and in all age groups simultaneously. So that we must abolish our present idea of education as that done for the young. In our kind of electric technology education becomes inclusive of all ages and all interests. The global community of learning can be nothing less than that literally. For hundreds of years we have gloried in the discontinuities and destruction caused in society and its institutions by innovation. In the age of simultaneity this becomes intolerable.
  • Everybody can see the advantages and excellence, however limited, of that which is to be scrapped. So they begin to want inclusive [both-and] rather than exclusive [either-or] modes of experience. 
  • As Peter Drucker insists at the outset in his recent Landmarks of Tomorrow, in the past two decades we have moved out of the modern age into one for which we have yet no name or concept. The new media are themselves the image and motive-power of this new age. So that Understanding Media must become a book by the same means and procedures that necessitate such a book, following the contours of the new reality. In the electric age of simultaneous data from many fields, there is an overwhelming drive back to the human dialogue as the instrument of discovery and awareness. Understanding Media will show what we already know about media and their action upon human institutions by setting up the basis for dialogue between student and teacher, student and student, expert and expert. Since most of us live in and through the new media all our waking lives, we already share with all age groups the implicit non-verbal knowledge and experience which education seeks always to make articulate, verbal and explicit. The discovery of the wealth of such shared experience via dialogue and utterance is a perennial creative experience which, since the fifteenth century, book culture may have done something to diminish. But Understanding Media will proceed to show the unique properties of older media including the book in a variety of ways. For example, the older media of book and press are now detribalizing many backward countries where it is easy to study the effect some of these media once had on ourselves in the Western world. Our contemporary world is, from a technological point of view, almost a continuous historical movie of episodes from the Western past, and our own past achievements are revealing monuments to the shaping powers of phonetic script and print in the development of human freedoms and our own patterns of culture. The transforming effect of the TV image on habits of reading in depth, the relation of radio to habits of study, and of the typewriter upon habits of thought, speech and writing, are nowhere gathered together in one place for thoughtful inspection. But they have been known to scattered students for some time. To get most of this kind of knowledge and insight into Understanding Media would entail a variety of procedures in presentation…
  • The co-existence and inter-action of media both in the past and especially today offers the richest and most natural procedure of study and evaluation of the powers and bias of each of the media.  
  • Today, the co-existence of all media easily reveals their quite unique properties and also calls for a new kind of many-levelled training in perception for the young.
  • it would seem necessary to devise a means of making Understanding Media an occasion of two-way discovery via dialogue and discussion. Few teachers know anything about the subliminal effects of print which they could teach to a class. But both teacher and class can discover, explicate, and verbalize a great deal about the nature of print, photography, movies, telephone, television, radio, and typewriter.
  1. Although a whole market niche has been created around the notion of McLuhan as a Pollyanna optimist, in fact he was very much aware of the unprecedented dangers posed in the “global village’ by electric culture. A great part of this danger, as already foreseen by Nietzsche in the 1880s, had, indeed has, to do with attempts at “security”. As he immediately went on to note to Skornia: “One theme, Harry, of which I am increasingly aware is the new problem of continuity in a world of accelerating change.”
  2. McLuhan has “continuous transition” here. The problem, of course, is that he usually deploys “continuous” to designate Gutenbergian perception and practice. Here he has in mind unity in diversity, hendiadys, as indicated by his specification at the end of the sentence of “simultaneously”.

McLuhan on dialogue February 1959

Understanding Media must become a book by the same means and procedures that necessitate such a book, following the contours of the new reality.1

In an undated 1959 letter to Harry Skornia, apparently from early February that year, McLuhan described what was both the goal of his Understanding Media project and the only means of working towards that goal and even of communicating about it. Since these were the same, the implicated circularity was exactly the problem that had to be solved: the goal had to be already in effect in order to advance toward the goal.

My suggested approach [to the NAEB project], the one entirely natural to me, is the dialogue form of movement of information between teacher and student [and, indeed, between any interlocutors].  I came across this quote on the dialogue: “The purpose of the dialogue seems to be, first of all, mutual creativeness.  It is not merely the expression of a finished truth, to be exchanged like goods in the market place.  Dialogue is more [an ongoing] shaping2 than a communication of ideas.  But this [ongoing] birth of truth is at the same time an encounter of persons (…) awakening truly creative values in us that lead us to the freedom of self-acceptance.”3 You can see that the electronic media above all, since they are shaped by student and teacher alike, call for this kind of dialogue [or] (…) shared quiz approach.4

  1.  McLuhan to Harry Skornia 3/14/59.
  2. The word “ongoing” has been introduced here and in the following sentence.
  3. The source of this citation is yet to be discovered.
  4. Bold has been added to this passage, but the underlining is original. In another letter to Skornia, later that same month of February 1959, McLuhan stressed the same point: “This reversal (ie, from statement to dialogue) takes whole stress off private, personal role of reader and poet alike.  Both now come to share a common creative action (…) not private editorial perspective.” See the  discussion in Marshall, Harry and Baudelaire.

Media Log II

McLuhan’s ‘Media Log II’ was written as part of his Understanding Media project with the NAEB in 1959-1960. It is included in the NAEB files which the great Unlocking the Airwaves has posted online.

Media Log II

Sir Arthur Eddington, in his New Pathways in Science (Cambridge University Press 1935) makes a statement of relevance to those who are trying to understand why “the medium is the message”:

Out of the unknown activities of unknown agents1 mathematical numbers emerge. The processes of the external world cannot be described in terms of familiar images; whether we describe them by words or by symbols their intrinsic nature remains unknown. But they are the vehicle of a scheme of relationship which can be described by numbers, and so give rise to those numerical measures (pointer-readings) which are the data from which all knowledge of the external universe is inferred.
Our account of the external world (when purged of the Inventions of the story teller In consciousness) must necessarily be a “jabberwocky” of unknowable actors executing unknowable actions. How in these conditions can we arrive at any knowledge at all? We must seek a knowledge which is neither of actors nor of actions, but of which the actors and actions are a vehicle. The knowledge we can acquire is knowledge of a structure or pattern contained In the actions. I think that the artist may partly understand what I mean. (p 256).

After 3000 years of writing, and 500 years of printing. Western man is not surprisingly devoted to the idea of knowledge as a static, repeatable aspect or item, Eddington is saying that all along we have never had any knowledge of content or component, But he is not saying that we have not had knowledge. We have really had a higher form of knowledge than our theories, our speculative instruments and our instructional materials would permit us to recognize. Our knowledge is of the dynamic

symmetries, and the inexhaustible proportionalities among the actors and actions of sense, sensibility, and consciousness. Light through these proportionalities may be quite undetectable when the bias of a medium like writing, or print, sets up a powerful pressure for light on, directed from a rigid, private vantage point. But electric media compel us to consider light through as the norm of knowledge and experience.


What Eddington here says about our not being able to know content or components, but only structure and patterns applies to verbal structure. Recent studies make clear that so great is the semantic variation in ordinary discourse, that communication between people cannot be accounted for by the notion of agreement on meanings of words. That we communicate at all seems to be the result of sharing an action that is made possible by words and persons as actors and actions. The pattern or structure of meaning is communicable, not the “content” in the sense of some detachable, fixable set of data. This older idea of meaning, originating in the Cartesian age, is strikingly captured in the absurd statements

“Meaning is an arrow which best reaches its mark when least encumbered with feathers.”

But the idea of meaning as a pellet or arrow shooting along in a line toward a target is still embedded in some prominent

“encoding and decoding” theories of communication. As soon as the artists liberated us from lineality into field theory, a century ago, the idea of meaning as package or capsule assumed a grotesque aspect. The idea of art as self-expression faded out at the same time; and the idea of the artist as working with and through the media of public language and group awareness, took over in Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé. Yeats, Eliot, Joyce and Pound made the same assumptions. And these assumptions hoick the artist from the Ivory tower to the control tower. He becomes an indispensable person, not a luxury. In quite the same way that higher education has become a necessity of production.


It may well be that the artist will now merge with the media, rather than staying outside as ironic spectator and commentator. Certainly the avant gardism of yesterday is more evident in the public than the private arts to-day.


The role of the newspaper in structuring the habits and assumptions of human association Is obviously complex. For example, in a recent Ph.D. dissertation on methods of teaching media in Grade XI, the writer mentioned, casually, that he assumed as the basis of all media teaching that the student should become alert to the factors of program control. Thus, who owned the station, or the movie studio, would be Important for studying the type of programs emanating therefrom.

Further, the student can Influence programming decisions by knowing who to write to about such matters. This “content” approach to the media has real meaning for the newspaper as a medium. Its relevance outside the newspaper, for radio or movie or TV, is very small.


Was it the newly achieved power of press technology that led Marx, in the same way, to assume that the important thing about the means of production was who owned them? It is puzzling to know how Marx managed to ignore the media of communication, as the major factor in the process of social change. For the means of production, especially since Gutenberg, are so many footnotes, or appendages, of the printing press Itself. This fact appears, clearly, at present, when the assembly-line is obsolete by reason of electric tapes entering and altering the production patterns. Print from movable types was the archetype of all assembly-lines, and of all static analysis of movement.


The form of the newspaper changed many times, as various changes were made in the speed of type-setting, and of the presses. These changes in turn affected the process of news-gathering and news-distribution. As Innis showed, the newspaper hastened and paid for the development of highways, and was inseparable from the development of modern postal services.

However, it was the telegraph that made the greatest change in the role and format of the newspaper. Here, a century before electronic tapes repatterned the meaning of production, information from everywhere-at-once, by wire, repatterned English prose and verse. Private “point of view” disappeared from the newspaper at the same time as Cezanne, Seurat, Baudelaire and Rimbaud abandoned it in poetry and painting. “Point-of-view” in the perspective sense came in with printing, but not directly because of printing. Rather, the same kinds of visual analysis that occurred in fifteenth century logic, philosophy and science made common cause with art technology and the printed book to produce fixed point of view or single perspective. (See a book by Walter Ong, S, J., devoted to these themes: Ramus: Method and Decay of Dialogue – Harvard 1958.)


When information began to flow electrically, field supplanted “point-of-view” in the arts, and in technology alike. And when information began to arrive at the newspaper at electric speed the newspaper mosaic, or format, changed very much.


Browning’s The Ring and the Book is a conscious abandoning of “point-of-view” in favor of multi-levelled perception. It is a newspaper epic, as it were. What Browning did in that work, Ruskin was hoping could be done. He put it this way, in Volume III of Modern Painters:


A fine grotesque Is the expression, in a moment, by a series of symbols thrown together in bold and fearless connection, of truths which it would have taken a long time to express in any verbal way, and of which the connection is left to the beholder to work out for himself; the gaps left or over leaped by the haste of the imagination, forming the grotesque character,


This do-it-yourself stress and character is as typical of the arts, after 1860, as of the post-telegraph newspaper. Even now, the sober and serious newspapers retain a good deal of perspective or fixed point-of-view, compared with the popular press with its mosaic of grotesque juxtapositions of unrelated data. And it is the sober press that is passively and consumer-oriented, whereas the popular press provides no single-perspectives upon any event at all, save on editorial pages,


Speaking technically then, not appraisingly, the ready-made packaged views of the sober press are consumer goods. Whereas, the grotesque mosaic of the popular press, a sort of Marx Brothers charade, is a do-it-yourself form, “Make your own meanings.” It is producer-oriented, like symbolist poetry,


Another aspect of “point-of-view”, as it rose in all its technical novelty, appears in the satisfaction which the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries took in the new power of enclosing space in painting and architecture. But also the

craze for methods and systems was the discovery of the enclosing power of single, fixed perspectives, applied to law and politics and economics, as well as to art and poetry.


The simple fact is, as sense psychologists have shown, that the awareness of fixed perspective or of vanishing points, is not a visual experience of which man is capable. The illusion of visual perspective is a mix of sensuous components, tactual and kinesthetic, but to “see” at a distance is a form of prediction, not of sensation. Thus what we see is flat. What the cubists painted as spatial form is far closer to pure unaided visual experience than what Western men have for centuries supposed to be visual experience.


It is worth dwelling on this matter, since it directly concerns the powers of media to modify our sensuous lives without benefit of concepts or of indoctrination. Printing fostered visual perspective subliminally. Yet, already with the Romantics, and their drive towards unconstrained spontaneity of vision and sensuous impression, the matrix of Gutenberg culture was dissolving. The Romantic vision moved steadily towards cinematic illusion. And the achievement of the cinematic conveyor belt of still shots superseded the line of verbal-visual still shots that is printing. The photo superseded the print, and engraving, in the same way. The words of William Ivins, Jr. (Prints and Visual Communication – Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1953) are of great relevance.


On page 122 he reports the invention of photography by Talbot who, in 1839, gave to the Royal Society an account of “the Art of Photogenic Drawing, or the Process by which Natural Objects may be made to delineate themselves without the aid of the Artist’s Pencil.” Ivins’ comment:

Here were exactly repeatable visual images made without any of the syntactical elements implicit in all hand made pictures. Had Talbot been a competent draughtsman instead of an incompetent one he would probably not have recognized this fact, even if he had discovered how to make the images.


Here, Ivins is vividly aware of traditional competence, and of acquired knowledge and skill as blocks to new perception. It would be possible to build an art of media study on this passage alone. For he also points to the primacy of the repeatability factor in all printing, from book and engraving to photo and movie. Even more important is the awareness that, in the shift from engraving to photo, there is a reversal from light on to light through. (The kaleidoscope was almost simultaneous with Talbot’s photos.) Also, there is key perception in Ivins’ noting the absence of syntax in the photo. The paradox of statement without syntax rides herd on our world now. It is stated by Ivins on page 28:

The great importance of the half-tone lay in its syntactical difference from the older handmade processes of printing pictures in printer’s ink. In the old processes the report started by a syntactical analysis of the thing seen, which was followed by its symbolic statement in the language of drawn lines. (Known in the trade as “the network of rationality.) This translation was then translated into the very


different analysis and syntax of the process. The lines and dots in the old report were not only insistent in claiming visual attention, but, they, their character, and their symbolism of statement, had been determined more by the two superimposed analyses and syntaxes than by the particularities of the thing seen. In the improved half-tone process there was no preliminary syntactical analysis of the thing seen into lines and dots, and the ruled lines and dots or the process had fallen below the threshold of normal vision. Such lines and dots as were to be seen in the report had been provided by the thing seen and were not those of any syntactical analysis. At least men had discovered a way to make visual reports in printer’s ink without syntax, and without the distorting analyses of form that syntax necessitated.


Ivins’ work provides one of the best guides to all media study, Just because he is working in a relatively neutral territory. To make statements like the above about the book, movie, press, radio, and TV, is to assault the largest vested interests of acquired knowledge and power.


In his book on Painting and Reality (Pantheon Books, New York 1957) Etienne Gilson pointed out that until Giotto a painting had not been a report about things, but a thing [itself]. From Giotto till Cezanne, painting became increasingly reportorial and representational. Since Cezanne, paintings have become things again, (pp.284-5). That is, perspective and reporting from a single point-of-view co-exist in various media for centuries, and disappear from those media at much the same time — that is, from about 1860 onwards.


A further point, related to the rise and fall of perspective, is made by Mircea Eliade in his The Sacred and the Profane (Harcourt Brace New York, 1959). He points to the rise in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries of the new concepts of time and space as “continuous and homogeneous.” Modern man abandoned these notions of time and space, at the same time as he “abandoned” perspective. The artists are the radar screen whose invented models and explorations report new lines of force in our culture decades before the scientists and engineers achieve them.


The educational establishment, however, is not able to achieve rapport with lines of force, even after the scientists and engineers have projected them into our daily tasks.


Now, in the time of accelerated change, this lag is critical. We have now to institutionalise change itself. Business is trying to do this via its research centers. The largest educational expenditure must now be for research also, if public education is to have any further relevance. Educational irrelevance is not waste only, but sheer destruction of new potential.


To return then to relate the mosaic of the telegraph press to all this. The Ruskin passage focused the issue of symbolism and mosaic pattern. A bit further on (p 96) he points


to the possibility of a new kind of popular epic which James Joyce was to write (Ulysses). But the newspaper is actually such a daily epic as Raskin describes, though he would have been embarrassed to hear it:

Hence it is an infinite good to mankind when there is full acceptance of the grotesque, slightly sketched or expressed; and, if field for such expression be frankly granted, an enormous mass of intellectual power is turned to everlasting use, which, in this present century of ours, evaporates in street gibing or vain revelling; all the good wit and satire expiring in daily talk, (like foam on wine,) which in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries had a permitted and useful expression in the arts of sculpture and. Illumination, like foam fixed Into chalcedony.


The nineteenth century drive towards gothic, Raskin explains, as it were, was to get away from fixed, private points-of-view back to group dynamic expression, back to the field and the folk. Of course, there was much self-deception in all this. But, at least, the Romantics strove to revive a period of culture which preceded perspective. And to this extent Gothic was truly avant garde, just as is Chinese art in our time.


The newspaper mosaic is a collectively achieved photo of the world2 and its inter-associations, hour by hour. To teach the understanding of what such a medium Is, and what it does to our association with ourselves and with one another, can scarcely be achieved by noticing the ownership, or policy, of the paper. Even Its contents, item by item, are not much help.


Why Is big news bad news? Why is advertising good news?


How much bad news is needed to sell advertising?


Why is the exposure of public motives and morals, in the daily press, such an Intense concern? Is this owing to medium or to policy?


Why are radio and television less concerned with the public mosaic of actions? Is this owing to medium or to policy?


Why must television elections be devoid of Issues? Why must all points-of-view be excluded, or included (the result is the same) in TV elections?


Why does the television image say so little, and imply so much, as contrasted with photo and film?


Why does television in politics neutralise the role and structure of the press? Why do electric media inevitably neutralise private concepts at all levels of sensibility, of education, of legal Institutions and politics?


If everybody were aware and agreed upon the nature and effect of media structures upon private and public structures of experience and action, would anything be done to moderate or to control the impact of such structures upon life and Institutions?3

  1. Bolding has been added throughout.
  2. Cf above in regard to this “photo”: (1) “a way to make visual reports in printer’s ink without syntax, and without the distorting analyses of form that syntax necessitated” and (2) “the paradox of statement without syntax rides herd on our world now“.
  3. Bolding and underlining have been added to McLuhan’s text.

Report on Washington Educational TV conference (May 1958)

The US Office of Education1 and the NAEB co-sponsored a conference on Educational Television in Washington DC, May 26-28, 1958.2 A week after the conference, the president of the NAEB, Burton Paulu, reported on it to the NAEB board and officers: 

It was a significant meeting! We of NAEB can take pride in having initiated it!
Being mailed under separate cover (to those of you who were not there) is some material which describes what went on, such as the program, a list of participants, and copies of several of the principal speeches.3
The quality of the talks was up to the very best I have heard anywhere at a conference, convention or institute. We got off to an excellent start Monday morning [May 26, 1958] with fine statements by Novice G Fawcett, President of Ohio State University, and William G Carr, executive secretary of the NEA4. Marshall McLuhan of Toronto University threw us a couple of fast curves with his distinctions between ideas expressed in print and through the electronic media. Whether or not one agreed with his point, though, the overall effect was highly stimulating.
Press coverage of the conference was good. We made the New York Times twice (copies are enclosed for your information). I think this meeting achieved its main objectives, among which I would include the following:
To outline America’s basic educational problems.
To review the status of educational broadcasting today.
To bring together people of different backgrounds to get acquainted and to exchange ideas.
To point the way for future developments in educational broadcasting.
To advance the status and prestige of NAEB.5 

Significantly, Paulu went on in the same report to describe his failure to secure funding for the NAEB from the Fund for the Advancement of Education, a specialized arm of the Ford Foundation, or from the Ford Foundation itself. Since NAEB support from the Kellogg Foundation was due to expire in 1959, the organization needed to secure funding if it were to remain in existence as more than a loose group of university broadcasters. The combined conference with the US Office of Education was part of its attempt to gain greater visibility, especially in Washington.

In this context, it may be that Harry Skornia saw McLuhan’s energy and growing notoriety as one possible tool in tackling the NAEB funding problem.

Another connection with the NAEB quest for funding, and with McLuhan, is provided by a further section of Paulu’s report:

The Magnuson Bill
The Senate passed the Magnuson Bill on May 29. The final text of the bill, together with the discussion which preceded its passage, may be found in the Congressional Record, Senate, for May 29, pp. 8779-8782. Congratulations to our committee (headed by Bob Schenkkan)6 for its good work! We are already in touch with Lenny Marks7 about the bill’s future in the House. 8 

Senator Warren Magnuson (Washington) played a central role in federal education funding for a quarter century. This 1958 bill passed as part of the National Defense Education Act in September 1958. It was through this Act that McLuhan’s Understanding Media project with the NAEB was funded in 1959.

In these years, especially through its work with Marks, the NAEB was learning how to lobby the federal government for favorable legislation and for monetary support. The passage of the Education Act marked the start of its great success in this area which eventually led to the founding of NPR and PBS. As part of this process, the NAEB would move its headquarters from Illinois to Washington in 1960. 


  1. The Office of Education was part of the federal Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW).
  2. For context and discussion, see McLuhan and Skornia 1957 and 1958.
  3. McLuhan’s talk (‘The Role of Mass Communication in Meeting Today’s Problems’) was immediately issued in mimeograph by the US Office of education and reprinted later that year as ‘Our New Electronic Culture’ in the NAEB Journal for October 1958.
  4. National Education Association.
  6. Robert Schenkkan was a board member of the NAEB and the president and general manager of station KLRN in Austin TX. He headed the NAEB legislative committee.
  7. Leonard H. Marks, 1916-2006, Washington communications attorney and legal counsel for the National Association of Educational Broadcasters.

McLuhan to Skornia 1/25/59 (Cassirer)

The second part of McLuhan’s 1/25/59 letter to Harry Skornia discusses points raised in a letter to Skornia from Henry Cassirer.1 Skornia had asked Cassirer to comment on the first (December 1958) draft of the NAEB funding proposal for its Understanding Media project with McLuhan. Cassirer did so in a typed 2-page letter to Skornia dated 1/20/59.

Here is McLuhan’s discussion of Cassirer’s letter:

Now, about Cassirer’s letter. On his second page under “Project Title”, he makes what strikes me as an excellent statement of our project plan and strategy.

Cassirer’s statement:

Project Title: The nature of audio-visual media. To develop through theoretical analysis and practical experimentation a clear notion of the peculiar style, structure and impact of the principal audio-visual media (Radio, Film, Television, Photography) which are changing a civilization based primarily on the printed word, profoundly influencing the mind of young people, and offering new challenges to educational methodology. The objective of obtaining a fresh understanding of these media is to contribute to their better utilization in the educational process and to the critical training of student audiences so they may experience them profitably while avoiding their many pitfalls.

McLuhan then considers in some detail the 5 points (a-e) raised by Cassirer about the project proposal and the project itself:

  • (a) His doubt about our ability to isolate the electronic media2 [aside from media in general] points to [the] need for a bit of further clarification in our statement. We appear to be, willy-nilly, drafters of a new educational constitution suited to the oligarchic rule of the new media which have taken over power formerly exercised by the monarchy of print. I take it we do not wish to isolate electronic media [from other media] but to focus relevant attention on their unique properties and powers in shaping the learning and teaching procedures and also in giving special configuration to information and data used in these procedures. So great is the shift here that our educational establishment, the entire context of culture, of judiciary and legislative [functioning], as well, are in danger of dissolution. This danger is not apparent to the merely print-minded who are naturally impervious to the awareness of the degree to which the medium is the message. [Similarly, but inversely]3 the young do not get the message of the old media save as translated and transformed via the new media.  
  • Cassirer’s insistence on the global dimension of media is valid precisely for the electronic media. Can we satisfy his UNESCO [global] stress while moving toward a [particularized] school program? (…) Let us consider that our text can easily take account of the global impact of old media today, as well as of new media on both developed and undeveloped countries.
  • the widely different effect of telegraph on news stories, and press format, as well as on diplomacy, investment banking, and the structure of decision-making in management, offers the method of revealing the nature of the medium via its effects, which is central in our project. Because this stress [on method] leads to prediction and control of our destinies as social beings. It is because of the telescoping of effects, and also the speed-up of the means of noting effects simultaneously in scattered times and places, which confers on media study a primacy today which they could not have won for themselves before.
  • It seems to me, Harry, that we can overcome the problem of electronic vs older media simply by stressing the fact of the co-existence of all media today, old and new, and therefore the fact that they are in process of modifying one another even now. Film is being changed by TV, but so is print and the book. New powers and roles for all media constantly emerge as a result of their inter-action. This basic principle can surely be made to satisfy the [NAEB research] committee about the need for studying the new media in closest relation to the old.4
  • (b) Cassirer’s second point I thought we had made fairly clear.5 Not only is the teacher to be trained while teaching the student these matters, but the student in conversation as with the teacher will be as much teacher and student. Where the essential data are possessed as much by class as by teacher, teaching ceases to be a one-way flow of potted Information. But this is true in the highest degree of poetry and language as has been realized finally by the teaching revolution of the “new criticism”. For twenty- five years I have been active in the ”new criticism”, and it is from this area of discovery that I derive my interest in the media as art forms. But don’t bring up the “new criticism” among people who cannot be expected to be familiar with it. It itself derives from Coleridge, Baudelaire, Eliot, etc, and those concerned with learning as itself part of the creative process. There is nothing specialized about this “new criticism” except that it is, accidentally, known mostly to specialists.
  • Print produced specialist categories. Electronics knocks out these older walls.
  • (c) Cassirer’s third point also good.6 But apart from such acquaintance as I have with the interest taken by other cultures in the new media (and it goes back over 20 years), it seemed unnecessary to stress such global savvy in our brief. Certainly it would be most important to use this kind of lore in the text [to be produced by the project]; eg, [as] says [Rudolf] Arnheim in Film as Art, the Americans stress ”shot”; the Russians stress montage. ”Shot” or statics is easy for [the] print cultured; montage is easy for an oral culture. Same goes for differences between our nuclear physics and the Russians’. So let us stress the UNESCO help we could rally here, if you think fit.
  • (d) Note how Cassirer assumes here in his fourth point7 that the “use of these media for the purposes of education” would leave these purposes much as they now are. The sense in which the media transform the purposes and goals he ignores, but it is our concern to ascertain.
  • (e) As for his last point,8 I shall try me hand at another sample or two that may strengthen the image of procedure. I shall sketch these in a way that can leave you a free hand, Harry, in adapting them as you see fit to a text for any level of education that you think we ought to stress. I can’t see from here just why to press harder at one level than another for the purpose of a preliminary text. After such [a] text is achieved, it can be up-graded or down-graded at will.

At the end of his letter McLuhan added:

At this late stage of briefing, you [= Skornia] must feel entirely free to include or omit what you wish or to commit me to any program of action that will get this project rolling.
Am enclosing an uncorrected galley of an essay [‘Myth and Mass Media‘]I read at Harvard last spring and which is to appear in their Daedalus in the next few weeks. Re-reading it, I realize that the particularized example is the only procedure. Talk about is no good.
One impression I should like to avoid giving is that I’m setting out to produce a text [through the NAEB project] that encapsulates what I know already. Everyday I learn more about these media. So that if I were to spend 2 years of closer study I should come up with a mass of new insight. But the more insight, the easier to communicate, the easier to teach.9

  1. Henry R Cassirer (1911-2004) was a naturalized American (originally German) journalist and diplomat who worked for CBS news in the 1940s and then became a longtime official with UNESCO.
  2. Cassirer: “I doubt that it is practicable to isolate the ‘electronic’ media for study and to contrast them with print. This leaves out film, photography and to a certain extent graphics. It is significant that much of your bibliography refers to film. I think that one must take these “new” media globally and then analyse them separately in greater detail; but that any study which leaves out film, in particular, will fail to build on acquired knowledge and be arbitrarily partial.”
  3. Instead of “Similarly, but inversely” McLuhan has “So that”.
  4. McLuhan runs together here two matters which are distinct. “The need for studying the new media in closest relation to the old” may be taken as a conceptual point, namely, that the definition of media must of course apply to all of them. But this “need for studying the new media in closest relation to the old” also arises in the investigation in the phenomenology of media — in the ways media express themselves and in doing do interact with one another. Running these together distorts both.
  5. Cassirer: “study of these media is essential from an educational point of view not merely to teach the student to appreciate them, but to teach the teacher how to use them. In other words, the project should have two objectives: proper media utilization and proper media appreciation.”
  6. Cassirer: “Any study of this kind should take note of considerable thought and experience on this subject in other countries.”
  7. Cassirer: “A distinction should be made in the use of these media for the purposes of education, their utilization as tools of the learning process and the appreciation (…) of these media when used for general communication (entertainment, information, advertising etc).”
  8. Cassirer: “I would have welcomed a very concrete passage under a separate section entitled: Method. There are references to this under Procedure and Facilities, and elsewhere, but method is neither one nor the other, and the project is liable to be judged to a considerable degree on the convincing explanation of the practical work it implies.”

McLuhan to Skornia 1/25/59

In the course of his work with the NAEB, McLuhan wrote a series of long letters to Harry Skornia — somewhat to Skornia’s chagrin. For while he was flattered suddenly to find himself as a kind of sounding-board for McLuhan, he could not see the use of such extended meditations to the immediate task of refining a funding application for the proposed NAEB project on Understanding Media. 

McLuhan’s 12 page letter from January 25, 1959, has a note at the top of its first page, apparently made by Skornia:

Point – length of letter – 11 [typed] pages + long-hand on back

This seems to have been a note to Skornia himself to take up this matter with McLuhan. Another note at the bottom of the page, again by Skornia, seems to record McLuhan’s answer to the question:

Such letters are “trial balloons”, later expanded 

Here are the highlights from the first 7 pages of McLuhan’s letter.1 The remainder of the letter will be treated in a separate post.2

  • Unconscious media bias and misunderstanding of electronic media is something I take for granted as natural, normal, and universal today. Just how to set about providing a means of self-correction for such bias is the problem of Understanding Media. You can’t simply stuff such corrections into people. It is necessary to devise a means of discovery and self-enlightenment3
  • the new media in education are going to do, not the old jobs, but jobs that couldn’t have been tackled or conceived of without the new media. Understanding Media, therefore, is not to be a capsule of existing views about the media, but a series of procedures with specific materials and exercises which will in turn generate many new insights and exercises when it gets into use. I know from long experience that it is not helpful to have a lot of views about poems, ads, or other art forms to heave at a class. The fruitful thing is for teacher and student together to get into the poem, ad, etc. Remember the TV syndrome: light through, not light on. In learning and teaching this implies that the subject reveals itself, is defined or revealed in the very act of being creatively perceived.
  • This mode of learning and teaching which our age has seen developing in all fields is also one which reduces the former gap between child and adult to a great degree. So, [the] question4 about what level the book is aiming at can be answered (a) in terms of the conventional and accepted educational patterns, or (b) in terms of the new media. In conventional terms I conceive that we might aim at dual versions of the text for elementary and secondary school use. But in new media terns a text perfectly adapted to elementary school use might well be a revelation to adults, as well.
  • I have no a priori ideas about procedures, Harry. I know that I can work with you and learn from anybody in these fields. If we decide that the first text simply must follow old media and classroom patterns in order to gain acceptance, then I shall be glad to go that road.
  • I have in mind approaches to the media, rather than textual capsules of existing views. Tried and tested notions of unique powers of radio or television can be tossed into the discussion and exercises as observation stations. But we can afford to keep in mind, Harry, that media inter-act, and that radio and movie are steadily being changed by television; that is, new potential is always revealed in an old medium after the advent of a rival medium. But the rival may knock out the old one for quite a spell. You can see how important it is to establish what new potential has emerged in the form [of experience] over the centuries, as a result of the power press, photography, telegraph, etc. Our sense of spatial form, for example, is radically altered by such new forms. Our sense of language is constantly changing as a result of such development.5 And it is the poets and the painters who are the best radar controls through these changing relations. The sense of language as “a network of tentacular roots reaching down into the deepest terrors and desires” (Eliot,1917) heralded an auditory breakthrough and the end of the dictionary and grammatical approaches to language with their exclusively visual ideas of order.
  • Their [Jurgen Ruesch and Weldon Kees on Nonverbal Communication] main head for their first sections is ‘The Frame of Reference’. Nowhere do they seem to understand how the frame itself is modified6 by the action of media on each other. For them a medium is a frame of reference. And a “frame” is a kind of Newtonian mechanical model which is incapable of itself communicating with other models. Here is where the work of Ken Boulding in The Image takes over, and makes possible “a frame of reference” which is a live model capable of constant growth and metamorphosis, of emanation and feedback. So that a medium can be a frame of reference, and [at the same time] a constantly operative model of method in perception.7
  • But, Harry, let us use these data about the media clash involved in the present bias toward static and mechanical models — let us use our knowledge of this clash to avoid clash at this stage of project presentation. Lots of time to clear up these subliminal biases if we get the grant.
  1. See
  2. See
  3. The self-conscious circularity of McLuhan’s point here is notable. The medium of the new media is “a means of discovery and self-enlightenment” — so the means (medium) of understanding new media is to understand their means (medium). “The very act of being creatively perceived” can itself be perceived only creatively.
  4. McLuhan has “Sam’s question” here, a reference to Sam Becker, the chair of the NAEB research committee.
  5. In everyone’s lifetime this occurs naturally: “Our sense of language is constantly changing”. What technology does, as McLuhan repeatedly insisted, is to make explicit what is implicit.
  6. “The frame itself is modified” — that is, what is modified is both our understanding of the “frame itself” and our understanding by the “frame itself”.
  7. It may be wondered if McLuhan were not thinking beyond himself here and muddying the water. It is as if a proto-chemist were to insist that elements must be used to focus investigation of the material world and, at the same time, to observe that there are a myriad complications to the interaction of elements and that even the definition of elements is subject to scientific revolution. Of course there are and of course it is.  But would this help establish chemistry in the first place? As he himself immediately pointed out, there was “lots of time to clear up” these issues once investigation were underway.