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.