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.