Monthly Archives: July 2020

Maelstrom in Ertrog and Yeats


In 1976 McLuhan wrote a short commentary (‘Spiral — Man as the Medium’) to the film, Spiral, of his friend, Sorel Etrog.1 In it he reverted once again to some of his favorite images, the spiral or maelstrom, and the labyrinth:

The film Spiral (…) presents the oscillation of two simultaneous and complementary cones or spirals, constituting the synchronique worlds of birth and death. Spiral is not a diachronique or lineal structure, but a synchronique and contrapuntal interplay in a resonating structure whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. The opening [of the film] is a labyrinthine highway and the ambivalent and parallel ambulances set birth and death on wheels. In the interval between time, the preserver, and time, the destroyer, is the creative interval which constitutes both continuity and arrest, both real and imaginary. By grounding his work in the archetype of the spiral, Etrog awakens echoes of the spiral archetype in some of the most celebrated artists of our time. Yeats [for example] explained the process of this unending form of experience…

Elsewhere McLuhan explicitly mentioned “the interlocking cones and gyres of Yeats’ vision” (‘Discontinuity and Communication in Literature’, 1970) and in Take Today, on its key page 22, he cited Yeats from The Second Coming:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned…



  1. The commentary appeared posthumously in the 1987 book, Images from the Film Spiral.

McLuhan on Whitehead

McLuhan began studying the work of Alfred North Whitehead with Rupert Lodge in Winnipeg. One of the essays he did for Lodge, ‘The Being of Non-Being’, is preserved in the Ottawa papers as part of his successful application for a teaching assistant position at the University of Wisconsin in 1936. It is a consideration of a Raphael Demos article on ‘Non-Being’.1  Demos, in turn, was an assistant to Whitehead at Harvard. Whitehead’s ‘Preface’ to Science and the Modern World ends: “My most grateful thanks are due to my colleague Mr Raphael Demos for reading the proofs and for the suggestion of many improvements in expression.” For the rest of his life, when McLuhan referred to Whitehead, it was nearly always to Science and the Modern World (1926), although he also cited Adventures of Ideas (1933) occasionally.2

The Classical Trivium [Thomas Nashe in the Learning of his Time], 1943

Lest it should be imagined that modern science has no respect for the techniques and the insights of St. Bonaventure, one might instance the doctrines of A.N. Whitehead. Like Bergson, in full revolt against the long monopoly of Cartesian and Newtonian mathematical physics in the interpretation of the universe. Whitehead says that on the materialistic theory “there can merely be change, purposeless and unprogressive. But the whole point of the modern doctrine is the evolution of the complex organisms from antecedent states of less complex organisms. The doctrine thus cries aloud for a conception of organism as fundamental for nature. (…) The organism is a unit of emergent value, a real fusion of the characters of eternal objects, emerging for its own sake.” (Science and the Modern World, 135) For the ‘forms’ of Bonaventure, Whitehead substitutes “events”. “Events” are patterns of universal being. Mental cognition, he says, “knows the world as a system of mutual relevance, and thus sees itself as mirrored in other things.” (SMW, 184-185)3 The metaphor of the mirror comes as naturally to Whitehead as to Bonaventure, of whom Whitehead knows nothing. All specialism in knowledge disappears4 for Whitehead as for Philo or Hugh of St. Victor: “We can now see the relation of psychology to physiology and to physics. The private psychological field is merely5 the event considered from its own standpoint.” (SMW, 186) The difference between Whitehead and Bonaventure is that between a man taking his first uncertain steps into a new world of inexhaustible significance, and a man born into that world. The concepts in terms of which Whitehead falteringly apprehends his brave non-Newtonian world are crudely makeshift and tentative. Bonaventure’s are delicately and complexly poised, deftly touching his world at innumerable points. (143n32)

The Mechanical Bride, 1951

artistic discovery for achieving rich implication by withholding the syntactical connection is stated as a principle of modern physics by A.N. Whitehead in Science and the Modern World:

In being aware of the bodily experience, we must thereby be aware of aspects of the whole spatio-temporal world as mirrored within the bodily life (…) my theory involves the entire abandonment of the notion that simple location is the primary way in which things are involved in space-time. (SMW113)

Which is to say, among other things, that there can be symbolic unity among the most diverse and externally unconnected facts or situations. (81)

The Mechanical Bride, 1951

No culture will give popular nourishment and support to images or patterns which are alien to its dominant impulses and aspirations. And among the multifarious forms and images sustained by any society it is reasonable to expect to find some sort of melodic curve. There will be many variations, but they will tend to be variations on certain recognizable themes. And these themes will be the “laws” of that society, laws which will mould its songs and art and social expression. A.N. Whitehead states the procedures of modern physics somewhat in the same way in Science and the Modern World. In place of a single mechanical unity in all phenomena, “some theory of discontinuous existence is required”.6 (SMW, 169) But discontinuity, whether in cultures or physics, unavoidably invokes the ancient notion of harmony. And it is out of the extreme discontinuity of modern existence, with its mingling of many cultures and periods, that there is being born today the vision of a rich and complex harmony. We do not have a single, coherent present to live in, and so we need a multiple vision in order to see at all.7 (96-97)

Tennyson and Picturesque Poetry, 1951

As A.N. Whitehead showed, the great discovery of the nineteenth century was not this or that fact about nature, but the discovery of the technique of invention so that modern science can now discover whatever it needs to discover. And Rimbaud and Mallarmé, following the lead of Edgar Poe’s aesthetic, made the same advance in poetic technique that Whitehead pointed out in the physical sciences. The new method is to work backwards from the particular effect to the objective correlative or poetic means of evoking that precise effect, just as the chemist begins with the end product and then seeks the formula which will produce it. Mr. Eliot states this discovery, which has guided his own poetic activity since 1910 or so, in his essay on Hamlet [‘Hamlet and His Problems’, 1919]: “The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.” 

Network 2, 1953

Poe discovered a new method of precision, economy and control in writing backwards.  To start with the effect and to invent the cause, to move from emotion to the formula of that particular emotion. This is what Whitehead in Science and the Modern World refers to as the discovery of the technique of discovery.

Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters, 1954

As language itself is an infinitely greater work of art than the Iliad or the Aeneid, so is the creative act of ordinary human perception a greater thing and a more intricate process than any devised by philosophers or scientists. The poetic process is a reversal, a retracing of the stages of human cognition8. It has and will always be so; but with Edgar Poe and the symbolists this central human fact was taken up to the level of conscious awareness. It then became the basis of modern science and technology. That is what Whitehead meant when he said that the great event of the nineteenth century was the discovery of the technique of  discovery. Because the drama of ordinary perception seen as the poetic process is the prime analogatethe magic casement opening on the secrets of created being.

Media Alchemy in Art and Society, 1958

Eliot insists on precision achieved by experiment with the art-form used as pilot model. The ultimate causes are tapped in the audience by the art model, the model being used as a control mechanism. The artist here, like the scientist, experiments with the effects of a model until the exact causes are discovered and brought to bear. This method might be called the method of invention itself. And A.N. Whitehead, in Science and the Modern World, pointed out that this fact was the prime discovery of the nineteenth century rather than the discovery of any [particular] applied process.

The Humanities in the Electronic Age, 1961

We are all familiar with the computation based on a survey of present-day scientific development: that of all the greatest scientists who have ever lived, 95% are living right now. Does this mean that there is more human intelligence now than before? Not at all. But it does mean that we have hit upon some means of activating intelligence that is new. A.N. Whitehead pointed to the discovery of the nineteenth century as the discovery of the technique of invention.(…) At least in Science and the Modern World, where he makes this statement, Whitehead does not explain his point. Edgar Allen Poe, whom Baudelaire and Valéry regarded as the nineteenth-century Leonardo da Vinci, did explain the point in his “Philosophy of Composition” [1846]. The technique of invention is to begin with the effect one wishes to achieve and then to go backward to the point from which to begin to produce that effect, and only that effect. In a sense this technique of starting with the effect before seeking the causes and means for the effect, is the perfection of the assembly-line method [via its reversal]. It is a method of organized ignorance. Because, whether one wishes to make a car or a poem, a guided missile or a detective story, it is necessary to begin with the solution or effect.9

The Gutenberg Galaxy, 1962

Today, then, it is easy to understand the invention of the alphabet because, as A.N. Whitehead pointed out in Science and the Modern World (p. 141) the great discovery of the nineteenth century was the discovery of the method of discovery:

The greatest invention of the nineteenth century was the invention of the method of invention. A new method entered into life. In order to understand our epoch, we can neglect all the details of change, such as railways, telegraphs, radios, spinning machines, synthetic dyes. We must concentrate on the method in itself; that is the real novelty which has broken up the foundations of the old civilization. (…) One element in the new method is just the discovery of how to set about bridging the gap between the scientific ideas, and the ultimate product. It is a process of disciplined attack upon one difficulty after another. (SMW, 120-121)

The method of invention, as Edgar Poe demonstrated in his “Philosophy of Composition,” is simply to begin with the solution of the problem or with the effect intended. Then one backtracks, step by step, to the point from which one must begin in order to reach the solution or effect. Such is the method of the detective story, of the symbolist poem, and of modern science. It is, however, the twentieth century step beyond this method of invention which is needed for understanding the origin and the action of such forms as the wheel or the alphabet. And that step is not [only] the backtracking from product to starting point, but the following of process in isolation from product.10 To follow the contours of process as in psychoanalysis provides the only means of avoiding the product of process, namely neurosis or psychosis. (45)

The Gutenberg Galaxy, 1962

A most luminous passage of A.N. Whitehead’s classic Science and the Modern World (p. 141 ) is one that was discussed previously 11 in another connection.

The greatest invention of the nineteenth century was the invention of the method of invention. A new method entered into life. In order to understand our epoch, we can neglect all the details of change, such as railways, telegraphs, radios, spinning machines, synthetic dyes. We must concentrate on the method in itself; that is the real novelty, which has broken up the foundations of the old civilisation. The prophecy of Francis Bacon has now been fulfilled; and man, who at times dreamt of himself as a little lower than the angels, has submitted to become the servant and the minister of nature. It still remains to be seen whether the same actor can play both parts(SMW, 120-121)

Whitehead is right in insisting that “we must concentrate on the method itself.” It was the Gutenberg method of homogeneous segmentation, for which centuries of phonetic literacy had prepared the psychological ground, that evoked the traits of the modern world. The numerous galaxy of events and products of that method of mechanization of handicrafts, are merely incidental to the method itself. It is the method of the fixed or specialist point of view that insists on repetition as the criterion of truth and practicality. Today our science and method strive not towards a point of view but to discover how not to have a point of view, the method not of closure and perspective but of the open “field” and the suspended judgment. Such is now the only viable method under electric conditions of simultaneous information movement and total human interdependence. (276)

The Electronic Age — The Age of Implosion, 1962

It was said by A. N. Whitehead, in Science and the Modern World, that “the greatest invention of the nineteenth century was the invention of the method of invention.” He develops the observation as follows:

The whole change has arisen from the new scientific information. Science, conceived not so much in its principles as in its results, is an obvious storehouse of ideas for utilisation. But, if we are to understand what happened during the [nineteenth] century, the analogy of a mine is better than that of a storehouse. Also, it is a great mistake to think that the bare scientific idea is the required invention, so that it has only to be picked up and used. An intense period of imaginative design lies between. One element in the new method is just the discovery of how to set about bridging the gap between the scientific ideas, and the ultimate product. It is a process of disciplined attack upon one difficulty after another. (SMW, 121)

We Need a New Picture of Knowledge, 1963

It was Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World that first drew wide attention to the close relations between art and science. Any structural approach in education has to take into account his observations about structural procedures of the nineteenth century.

Here McLuhan gave the same citation from Science and the Modern World as given above from The Gutenberg Galaxy (45): “The greatest invention of the nineteenth century was the invention of the method of invention…” etc.

Understanding Media, 1964

It was Bertrand Russell who declared that the great discovery of the twentieth century was the technique of the suspended judgment. A.N. Whitehead, on the other hand, explained how the great discovery of the nineteenth century was the discovery of the technique of discovery. Namely, the technique of starting with the thing to be discovered and working back, step by step, as on an assembly line, to the point at which it is necessary to start in order to reach the desired object. In the arts this meant starting with the effect and then inventing a poem, painting, or building that would have just that effect and no other.

Alarums in a Brave New World (Review of Cyborg),12 1965

It was A.N. Whitehead who pointed out that one of the great sources of confusion in our time is the illusion that the environment is stable and that all change and innovation occur within this unchanging environment. This illusion is a legacy of the Newtonian system. This system had no more place for change than it had for people.

Is It Natural That One Medium Should Appropriate and Exploit Another?13 1967

All that remains to study are the media themselves, as forms, as modes ever creating new assumptions and hence new objectivesThis basic change has already occurred in science and industry. Almost any natural resource has, with the rise in information levels, become substitutable for any other. In the order of knowledge this fact has given rise to Operations Research, in which any kind of problem can be tackled by nonspecialists. The technique is to work backward from effect or result to cause, not from cause to effect. This situation resulting from instantaneous information movement was referred to by A.N. Whitehead in Science and the Modern World, when he pointed out that the great discovery of the later nineteenth century was not the invention of this or that, but the discovery of the technique of discovery. We can discover anything we decide to discover.

Take Today, 1972

It has been said by A.N. Whitehead that the greatest discovery of the nineteenth century was the discovery of the technique of discovery. That technique consists in the retracing of any process of generation or cognition. Bertrand Russell noted as complementarity [to Whitehead] that the greatest discovery of the twentieth century was the technique of “the suspended judgement” — not single but multiple models of experimental exploration. The need to suspend points of view and private value judgments is indispensable to the programming of total environments. (97)

Laws of Media (posthumous)

Alfred North Whitehead mentions in Science and the Modern World that the great discovery of the nineteenth century was that of the technique of discovery. The art of discovery, the art of acoustic, probing awareness, is now a cliché, and creativity has become a stereotype of the twentieth century. Dis-covery, or uncovering, is a form of retrieval. The archetype is retrieved awareness of consciousness.14 It is consequently a retrieved cliché — an old cliché retrieved by a new cliché. Since a cliché is a unit extension of man, an archetype is a quoted extension, medium, technology, or environment, an old ground seen as figure through a new ground. The cliché, in other words, is incompatible with other cliches, but the archetype is extremely cohesive, the residues of other archetypes adhere to it. When we consciously set out to retrieve one archetype, we unconsciously retrieve others (…) In fact, whenever we ‘quote’ one consciousness, we also ‘quote’ the archetypes we exclude15 (103-104)


  1. Raphael Demos, ‘Non-Being’, Journal of Philosophy 30:4, February 1933.
  2. In the McLuhan books collection housed in Fisher Library at the University of Toronto, there are two copies of Science and the Modern World (1926: ‘annotated’; 1938: ‘lightly annotated’) and an ‘annotated’ copy of Adventures of Ideas.
  3. Whitehead ties (or at least points to) a not-able (k)not here. If the ontological structure of the world is one of “mutual relevance”, then “mental cognition” must have this deep structure simply as being. More, the relation between “mental cognition” and world must also be one of “mutual relevance”, again simply as being something that is. Lastly, all beings must be “mirrored” in one another both because they are grounded in common in this structure of “mutual relevance” and because mirroring itself, even while it necessarily exhibits this same structure in its particular being, also functions as the signature of this complex commonality of being (dual genitive!) in general. The great problem, of course, is that “mutual relevance” as ground can hardly exclude essential relation to limitation and error. That is, “mutual relevance” must somehow implicate its own failure and rejection. How to articulate this difficult figure is exactly “the main question“.
  4. McLuhan criticized such an “urge to merge” throughout his career. That “the gap is where the action is” would become a central insistence of his later work.
  5. Merely!
  6. See notes 2 and 3.
  7. McLuhan immediately thereafter: “And it is here that the ad agencies are so very useful. They express for the collective society that which dreams and uncensored behavior do in individuals. They give spatial form to hidden impulse and, when analyzed, make possible bringing into reasonable order a great deal that could not otherwise be observed or discussed. Gouging away at the surface of public sales resistance, the ad men are constantly breaking through into the Alice in Wonderland territory behind the looking glass which is the world of subrational impulse and appetites. Moreover, the ad agencies are so set on the business of administering major wallops to the buyer’s unconscious, and have their attention so concentrated on the sensational effect of their activities, that they unconsciously reveal the primary motivations of large areas of our contemporary existence. In this respect the ad agencies function in relation to the commercial world much as Hollywood does in respect to the world of entertainment.”(97)
  8. A re-cognition of cognition.
  9. Text: “solution of effect”.
  10. “The following of process in isolation from product” implicates the paradox that “the whole of previous time wherein anything is moving towards its form, it is under the opposite form” (Aristotle as cited by Thomas). For references and discussion, see the “paradox” posts.
  11. Gutenberg Galaxy, p 45 cited above.
  12. Winnipeg Free Press, December 11, 1965, p73.
  13. McLuhan Hot or Cool, 1967,
  14. LoM text: “or consciousness”. If ‘of consciousness’ is correct, it is a dual genitive — an awareness ‘of consciousness’ both as perceived object and as pro-ducing subject.
  15. Compare chemistry. Properties of materials are “incompatible” in that they can  be compared only via their different underlying chemical elements. The ‘white’ of snow cannot be compared directly with the ‘white’ of a baseball (a problem that took many millennia to solve). Exactly as properties, they have no grounding common structure. In contrast, the chemical elements are “cohesive” since any one of them is a particular example of their common elementary structure — we therefore “quote” them all via that structure when we cite any one of them. The ‘table of elements’ is the ground or being of all the elements figured in it.