Monthly Archives: August 2020

“A genus of homicidal puppets, sure enough” (de Kerckhove 2)

The vision flogged by Prof de Kerckhove (see de Kerckhove’s Digital Transformation 1), in jest, one hopes, in an attempt at indirect communication, one prays, but in decided earnest, one fears, is clear at least in this respect: it sets out exactly what McLuhan spent a lifetime thinking against.

Here is McLuhan in his 1944 essay, ‘Lewis: Lemuel in Lilliput’:1   

Anybody who has had the opportunity to observe the workings of a modern university need not be told how the “administrative policy of a great teaching body” (such is the ludicrous terminology) is a brainless submission to the currents of technological (not human) change.2 (…) This [anonymous] class of men is not really detached from the ideologic machine. (…) The rulers of modern society are increasingly identified with these technicians who control “scientifically” [via] educational experiment and the Gallup poll: “In reality they are another genus of puppets, a genus of homicidal puppets, sure enough. And they bear a strange resemblance to the misanthropic masters of the doctrine of What the Public Wants.”3 This sort of revolutionary simpleton, this beaming child of the Zeitgeist is precisely the sort of ruler the modern world cannot afford to have at the head of its enormous machinery.4

The embedded quotation is from Lewis’ The Art of Being Ruled and ‘de Kerckhove 3’ will take up McLuhan’s extended references to this 1926 434 page “pamphlet” (as McLuhan put it to Innis). Suffice it to note here only that 75 years ago McLuhan addressed in horrified detail what de Kerckhove seemingly approvingly describes as the emerging present of today and tomorrow. Something is fundamentally amiss here, something that points beyond the understanding of McLuhan, beyond academic politics, to the very working of the age. 

  1. McLuhan, ‘Lewis: Lemuel in Lilliput’, reprinted in The Medium and the Light, 178-197. References below are to this M&L version.
  2. 188n21.
  3. 189n22.
  4. 188-189.

de Kerckhove’s Digital Transformation 1

The man speaks:

case specific data driven verdicts are already superior to human judgment in many critical sectors, medical, legal, financial and military (de Kerckhove, 13)

The man continues: 

When I announce my “data driven verdicts” in any of these areas (to mention just these) you must give me your mind, your purse, your life, your child.

McLuhan to Harold Innis, March 14, 1951:

The diagnosis of [t]his type [of authoritarian political manipulation] is best found, so far as I know, in Wyndham Lewis’s The Art of Being Ruled. That pamphlet is probably the most radical political document since Machiavelli’s Prince. But whereas Machiavelli was concerned with the use of society as raw material for the arts of power, Lewis reverses the perspective and tries to discern the human shape once more in a vast technological landscape which has been ordered on Machiavellian lines. (Letters 222)

In the 18 months Innis had to live, he found time to read Lewis’ book and to reference it in his last work, The Changing Concepts of Time (1952). But Prof de Kerckhove, the head of the UT McLuhan Centre for 25 years, appears not to have received the memo. 


Prof de Kerckhove’s essay1 gives a snapshot of the digital present (often presented in the mode of the foreseeable future) — which is, however, entirely a replay of past times as seen in the RVM. 

A series of posts here will delineate 3 points in regard to it:

  1. how far the man is already in our heads and speaks through us;
  2. how the multilevel historical dimension (as opposed to the RVM single surface level) is completely absent from de Kerckhove’s essay so that (for example) no note is made of how Lewis already found such “a new social order” (6-7) menacing, crazy and comical all at once (and so became McLuhan’s Virgilian guide into the new inferno whose circles become radio waves were already bending minds and the whole social environment for the man);
  3. how de Kerckhove’s descriptions point via Socratic eristics to the sort of answer McLuhan attempted unsuccessfully to communicate.


That the man is firmly lodged in de Kerckhove’s descriptions of our Digital Transformation2 may be seen in citations from his essay which are so dystopian and yet so funny at the same time that it is hard to know what he was thinking. Surely not what he himself was writing! So, for example, where he opines that our

a new social order will self-organize and fall into place. It will be driven by survival to respond first to the threat of environmental annihilation and second, by the need to protect humans from rampant terrorism, tax evasion and utter poverty. (de Kerckhove, 6-7)

“The need to protect humans from (…) tax evasion” as “driven by survival”! That is, you must become your own thought police as regards your taxes (to mention just these) — if the planet is to survive! So pay up! And while you are at it, sniff out whether your neighbour is paying up! Or we will all die! (Lower on the list of threats, apparently, are nuclear war and mind-death through incessant virtue signalling.) 


The question, as in all political systems, would be how to counter efficiently or prevent human abuse of the system. (de Kerckhove, 14)

Not system abuse of the human but human abuse of the system! Yikes! Help!

And finally: 

assuming that data analysis steered by Artificial General Intelligence (AGI), including mood and sentiment [assessment]would focus on the community, instead of addressing mainly [typo for ‘merely’?] individuals (…) Automated policymaking, regulation and execution of different measures would guarantee increased social good [just ask us!] and thereby reach a higher consensus in the community [whereby alien thought and alien individuals would have to be corrected or eliminated — despite what McLuhan may have said on the artist as outlaw!]. In a political system that is yet to be invented,[but fervently to be desired] for anyone to be entitled to participate  [entitled to participate!] in any policy-making, voters would have to provide evidence [provide evidence! to whom? or, rather, to what machine controlled by whom?] that they were informed, competent and ethical [informed, competent and ethical!]. This could be assessed by analytics. [Miracolo divino!] Access to decision-making would be given [given!] according to the level of competence every citizen achieved [the level of competence achieved!]. (…) In a political system grounded in AGI, [Artificial General Intelligence!] a mature SAS [Symbiotic Autonomous Systems] environment (local or global) would have to emulate for the whole system in real time the kind of survival alertness and opportunity awareness [survival alertness and opportunity awareness!] that each one of us possess[es] individually. [Or might possess individually if these had not been assigned/alienated to the man and his “analytics” team.] That would mean, for example, not recommending [“not recommending”! wink, wink!] a decision that would harm the environment in the long term or identifying and presenting opportunities for improvements to (…) personal processes. (de Kerckhove, 15-16)

This is Plato’s φύλακες (guardians), la Inquisición española, Rousseau’s volonté générale, Marx’s Diktatur des Proletariats and the FAANG stock brotherhood all rolled into one! And now algorithmized! “Automated policy-making, regulation and execution of different measures would guarantee increased social good“. Yes, sir!

Side note: Any problems with this vision may be taken up with the citizen feedback facility. Thank you for calling. Our menu has recently changed so listen carefully to the following options. Push 1 at any time to return to the main menu; push 2 for your options (push ‘1’ for yes and ‘0’ for no); push 3 for further options (push ‘1’ for yes and ‘0’ for no); push 4 if you wish to leave a message for our attention; push 5 if you wish to hang up now to answer your door where the gentlemen there will assist you with your further options. 

But surely I have wildly misunderstood de Kerckhove’s essay and associated interview! Surely I have missed the irony at play here! Surely this is the indirect communication manoeuvre described by Kierkegaard as ‘dropping the guitar’! Surely this is a dire warning and not enthusiastic anticipation!


  1. Page numbers without other identification refer to “de Kerckhove, D. (2020), ‘Three Looming Figures of the Digital Transformation’, New Explorations: Studies in Culture and Communication1(1). Retrieved from“. (The outrageously detailed citation information at the New Explorations site tells us everything we need to know about academic writing as subject to a kind of Nielson rating for hiring, promotion, tenure, salary, benefits, travel, pension and emeritus purposes, all adding up to Who I Am. Against this, Carpenter and McLuhan intended the Old Explorations exactly against this sort of ludicrous packaging of the self and distortion of what it might be to attempt — thought.)
  2. Digital Transformation — is this the DTs or Delirium Tremens?

The Beginnings of Gutenberg Galaxy 8

In the summer of 1959 McLuhan took his family out to Vancouver where he taught in a communications program at UBC. At the end of it he sent a telegram to Harry Skornia in which, among other matters having to do with the announcement of his upcoming NAEB project, he mentioned that “GUTTENBERG [sic] BOOK RACING AHEAD BY MEANS OF TAPE RECORDING”.

Percept and concept 1

In Science and the Modern World (SMW below) Whitehead cites Francis Bacon from his posthumous Silva Silvarum (ca 1625):

It is certain that all bodies whatsoever, though they have no sense, yet they have perception: for when one body is applied to another, there is a kind of election to embrace that which is agreeable, and to exclude or expel that which is ingrate; and whether the body be alterant or altered, evermore a perception precedeth operation; for else all bodies would be alike one to another. (52)

Whitehead comments repeatedly on this passage in SMW:1

[in the Silva Silvarum passage] note the careful way in which Bacon discriminates between perception, or taking account of, on the one hand, and sense, or cognitive experience, on the other hand. (52)

The word ‘perceive’ [along with ‘percept’ and ‘perception’] is, in our common usage, shot through and through with the notion of cognitive apprehension. So is the word ‘apprehension’ even with the adjective ‘cognitive’ omitted. [Therefore, instead of ‘perceive’/’percept’/’perception’,] I will use the word ‘prehension’ for uncognitive apprehension (86)

Bacon’s words, “all objects would be alike one to another” (…) really means that (…) what each (…) object is in itself becomes relevant to the one limited value emergent in the guise of the event.2 (130)

The great point made by Bacon, and by Whitehead in turn, is that all things have inherent form “for else all bodies would be alike one to another” such that the ‘world’ would be an undistinguished and undistinguishable uniformity. Instead, the world fits together through universal differentiation that is inherent (but not, of course, necessarily known). And it is this inherent differentiation in form from the smallest particles to whole galaxies which is at work, or which expresses itself, in their interaction — and everything is in differentiated interaction.

What characterizes the particularity (“limited value” in the mathematical sense) of any and all events whatsoever is the interaction of inherent forms. They exist, as Whitehead has it, by “taking account” of one another and only in this way. 

Leibniz put the same point a century after Bacon in his stipulation that each and every thing — as a distinguished/distinguishing monad — is a mirror of the universe since its inherent form takes part in the complete complex of all the events that are. Each monad therefore informs both about itself and about the surrounding universe into which it must fit in its own particular way in order to exist at all.

Bacon and Whitehead — and McLuhan in his turn — call this inherent form in all things “perception” (though not without notable inconsistently, ie, not without sometimes themselves using it to imply or even outright mean ‘conscious apprehension’).3

This facility is not “cognitive” by nature, but humans are never without at least a vague self-consciousness that there is something variable ‘behind’ experience, like moods. And because humans have an inherent ability to grasp the general being of things, possibly including the being of perception (dual genitive) as this variable ‘behind’ experience, it might become “cognitive” in the same way as geometric forms and chemical elements and biological genes have become cognitive.

Of course such cognition is always “limited” in a great number of ways (only hence, the truly wondrous progress of science), but the initiation of cognitive awareness in any area is always noteworthy and some initiative events are so consequential that history is never the same again. This is true of the infant’s history after it learns to speak and it is just as true of history at large after such seminal events as the species beginning to speak — or its learning to represent speech in letters — or its learning to print letters mechanically — or its learning to print (and do everything else) with electricity — or its learning the general application of electric digitality in cybernetics (and, according to McLuhan in all literature via the epyllion structure) — or its learning (perhaps! — this is the great question posed by McLuhan) how such digitality4 might in turn illuminate even perception itself and so initiate a whole series of new sciences of the human “interior landscape”.5

In 1958, the same year as McLuhan began admonishing that “the medium is the message”, he also began insisting that media give “light through [towards us] not light on [from us]”. That is, media first of all in-form our cognition and experience generally — like light coming through a stained glass window — and have done so in some fashion ‘always already’. In this metaphor, the colors and shapes of the stained glass window may be taken to represent the existing form of perception — subjective genitive! — that human beings can never be without and that is therefore necessarily already in place when the light of some medium comes through it toward us.6

Media illuminate us,7 not we them. Hence, they are not in the first instance conceptual stances taken up by us to understand external or even internal matters. They are prior to this. They are perceptual forms (Bacon) or prehensive forms (Whitehead), not cognitive forms!

For McLuhan, similarly, media are perceptual forms, plural, and his admonition that “the medium is the message” would have us perceive media in their plurality as such perceptual forms. The circularity here, like the plurality, is essential: media are perceptual forms that must be perceived in order to be known. The question is only whether this kaleidoscope can be turned in such a way that these forms become subject to cognitive investigation.


  1. McLuhan uploaded SMW into his brain when he was around 20. It remained there as a largely undigested but fertile source of illumination for the rest of his life. In background mode he never stopped processing it and attempting to unriddle its suggestions, such that his entire intellectual history might be told in terms of his gradual understanding — and sometimes misunderstanding — and sometimes critique — of it.
  2. Whitehead’s “relevant to the one limited value emergent in the guise of the event” may be read simply as ‘relevant to any fact’ or ‘relevant to any state of affairs’. He had his reasons for the more complicated expression, of course, but the heart of his intention may be seen in the chemical analysis of any physical material. Without exception, any material at all is the “limited” interaction of elements in a certain “limited” situation. Even 99.99% gold is along with other elements (constituting gold’s inevitable impurities and its very slow but always ongoing interaction with its environment) of which it necessarily “takes account”. In every case, such a configuration “emerges” from the elementary nature of the materials and the possibilities of their interactions as defined in chemical theory. Furthermore, such a state of affairs always ‘takes place’ in the physical context of variables like temperature and pressure which may or may not be controlled.  Whitehead: “The actual world is a manifold of prehensions” (89).
  3. This lack of consistency may almost be required for the treatment of ‘perception’. Its use as ‘fundamental taking account of’ is constantly threatening to fall into one of its extremes: the ‘perception” of quarks to other quarks, on the one hand, and the ‘perception’ of humans on the other. It teeters between the two — as a medium. Treating ‘perception’ is a slippery business whose slipperiness cannot be gainsaid either in its own specification or in what it implies about the nature of the universe in which it exists.
  4. For thoughts on the analog/digital difference, see The digital Wittgenstein.
  5. McLuhan does not use the word complex around ‘digitality’ for the figure/ground approach he hoped would characterize “perception” enough to initiate its collective investigation. In fact, perhaps prompted by the earliest editions of Dantzig’s Number (1930), he sometimes used ‘digital’ to mean counting by using ‘digits’ or fingers — which is an analog procedure! But his insight into ‘the digital’ was nevertheless quite acute. He saw clearly the “principle of a continuous dual structure for achieving order” (‘Spiral — Man as the Medium’, 1976) and, in fact, had been analyzing literature since the early 1930s in terms of the presence or absence of an inherent complexity. Hence his lifelong emphasis on “multilevel” awareness and his fascination beginning in the late 1940s with the epyllion structure of plot and subplot. In regard to having enough insight to initiate science, McLuhan’s most important thought may have been the idea that it literally doesn’t matter how science starts! Perfection of insight is not needed! Aside from being not possible in any case! In fact, as may be seen in any of the existing sciences, cybernetic self-correction is constantly at work in them as long as the investigation is open. What is most questionable in any science is exactly how it has begun. For the last 20 years of his life, after 1958, a repeated question from McLuhan was: why can’t we get started? Since any start will do? Especially when there is so much at stake! Even survival!
  6. Many problems are knotted at this point. They will be treated in future posts.
  7. ‘Illuminate us’ = give us some particular way to illuminate in turn.

Pugen’s time

In a recent post at New Explorations, Intimations of “Secondary Literacy” in McLuhan and Ong, Adam Pugen unabashedly corrects McLuhan.  He has every right to do so, of course, and may even be correct in doing so. But it is critically important to understand the issues at stake between the two. For not only are these issues at the very heart of McLuhan’s project, especially after 1958, but their specification may serve to illuminate the arguably unique contribution McLuhan made towards solutions of the great problems of his and our time. Since that contribution has been lost, even while the need for it has vastly increased, Pugen’s post may work to indicate the required way towards Understanding Media — in reverse. Conversely, if it is Pugen who is correct between the two, understanding McLuhan’s mis-takes may serve to illuminate Pugen’s corrective insights.

The central issue between McLuhan and Pugen is the question of time. Is it singular or plural? If plural, at least ‘sometimes’, which time is figure and which is ground?

McLuhan is clear that time is inherently plural and that synchronic time grounds diachronic time:1

time considered as sequential (left hemisphere) is figure and time considered as simultaneous (right hemisphere) is ground. (Global Village, 10)

Pugen is equally clear that ‘time considered as sequential is ground and time considered as simultaneous is figure’:

the inclusive “all-at-onceness” of electric media [aka] the simultaneous structure of electric communication [aka] the non-linear collectivistic resonance of electricity [aka] the simultaneous electromagnetism of telegraph, radio, and television signals — has been superseded.2

For Pugen, synchronic time is a ‘sometime’ thing while the supersession of diachrony goes on forever.

Pugen specifies our situation as one of “secondary literacy”. This is put forward as a kind of Hegelian Aufheben3 of the literary ground of the Gutenberg galaxy whereby its virtues would be retained even while its defects would be cured. What Pugen terms “the rise [!] of the digital” — “reaching a kind of fulfillment [!] in digital media” — would on the one hand “retrieve the literate characteristics of ‘visual space’ from within the oral characteristics of ‘acoustic space’.” On the other hand, “the very extension of consciousness in electronic media -– an extension that is especially evident with respect to properly digital media -– retrieves the multisensuous or ‘tactile’ awareness of manuscript culture in a self-reflexive form”. In the first instance, the literary is figure to acoustic ground, in the second the acoustic is figure to literate ground. Such dynamic inter-communication is the heart of the matter for Pugen — as it is, in very different ways, for McLuhan:4

the visual and tactile nature of the (…) word5 is vital…6

At bottom this happy result is grounded for Pugen in the very lineality on the basis of which he openly breaks with McLuhan. First there was “primary literacy” and then, later, through chronological evolution and development there is “secondary literacy”. It may be that a third, fourth and fifth literacy are foreseeable and should, in turn, be even better.

In fact, as illustrated in this retreat to such a nineteenth century perspective on time (without the least notice of ‘missing links’ and potentially catastrophic ‘developments’),7 our precarious state today is a horrendous amplification of the Gutenberg galaxy which we have never left despite all the revolutionary art and science and technological innovations — and world wars — that have marked the last century and this.8 As McLuhan often said in regard to books and cars, for example, and that has truly terrible application today in regard to the engines of war, obsolescence does not mean disappearance, but super-abundance and superfluity.

The great question is: did McLuhan indicate a way out of the Gutenberg galaxy that is currently killing us? Or is Pugen correct that McLuhan’s attempt to do so was a failure (even while supplying helpful “intimations”) such that we must seek an exit elsewhere?

One way to approach this critical difference would be to specify how Pugen’s reading of McLuhan itself exemplifies the Gutenberg galaxy and is therefore subject to the logical and ontological problems (not to speak of the psychological, sociological, political and environmental problems) of the print mindset. The matter of time is only one of the markers of this. Future posts will detail others.

Meanwhile, it may be wondered if Pugen’s reading would not “immerse ourselves again in the destructive element of the Time flux” (aka) “the swoon upon death, the connatural merging in the indiscriminate flux of life, the reflexive feeling and expressing of [merely] one’s [own] time” — where “one’s time” may be read not only as “one’s time” in chronological lineality, but also as “one’s [own conception of] time” and as “one’s [own conception of] time” as an endless series of “ones [as] time”.

  1. The question of time in McLuhan is treated extensively at New Sciences.
  2. Hence, as Pugen remarks, “the artist and theorist of today (…) does not live in the same media environment as Jung, Freud, or the Bauhaus group of artists.” But the nature of a “media environment” (and therefore how we would recognize one) is just as questionable here as the assumption of the fundamental lineality of time.
  3. Aufheben is notoriously untranslatable since it can mean, at least as used by Hegel, cancel, retain and enhance all at once. It may be illustrated in Pugen’s remark that “the detached visuality of manuscript literacy does not suppress – but, rather, complements – the immersive orality of pre-literate sensibility.” McLuhan’s tetrads are a kind of Aufheben of Hegel’s Aufheben.
  4. McLuhan would agree with the centrality of “inter-communication” (which was already stressed by one of his earliest mentors, Henry Wright, at the University of Manitoba). But he would urge a very different specification of the matter in regard to: (1) how and when this comes about (in dynamic synchrony vs Pugen’s diachrony); and (2) what this fundamental difference implicates (in a host of ways, but especially as regards the groundings of human experience).
  5. Pugen has “the written word” here. But the nature of the word is exactly what is most questionable and such questionability ought not to be forestalled at any stage of investigation by, for example, stipulating it as “written”. The “inerrancy” of some particular text and the presuppositions of the Gutenberg galaxy may all too easily be claimed or assumed at this point, obstructing science where it is most needed.
  6. Pugen continues: “vital for the interpretive awareness sustaining McLuhan’s body of insights.” In fact, as Pugen would agree, it is ‘vital for the interpretive awareness sustaining anybody’s insights.’
  7. Admittedly, Pugen’s other work may well take notice of these gaps and catastrophes.
  8. Some of the great difficulties in the specification of media environments may be seen here. As McLuhan was well aware and often cautioned about, new media can be, and in fact are, directed to old media goals. This serves to prolong and amplify the dominance of the old media, not to replace them.

Ignatov on Maritain on Bergson 2

According to Maritain in the first 1913 passage from him cited by Ignatov, in the face of anti-intellectualism (aka, materialism, etc) and hyper-intellectualism (aka, idealism, etc)

there is only one means, only one remedy: authentic intellectualism — submission to the real — which measures thought upon being.

In McLuhan’s later career the very fate of the earth would come to be seen in these terms. For modern media have so transported us that we no longer have contact even with our own bodies, let alone the bodies of others or the body of the earth itself. We have become free floating satellites1 — no-bodies — in a way we cannot consider or even register because we have no experience of what it would be like to have contact — to know ground.

It was around 1950 that McLuhan began to stress the critical importance of real contact with the real.

Mr. Eliot’s Historical Decorum, 1949

  • To read not in the book of the self but in the book of the existent and subsistent world, the world of the incarnate logos, where the least letter is resplendent with intellectual radiance, that was the esthetic task of Mallarmé, but of Joyce especially.
  • Existence is opaque to the rationalist. He seeks essences, definitions, formulas. He lives in the concept and the conceptualizable. Ideally, in a world of essences, actually, in a state of complete inanition. Cut off from the nutriment of existence, his very postulates discourage him from that loving and disciplined contemplation of existence, of particulars.

Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters, 1954

  • The dreaming eye of the movie god casting his images on the dark screen corresponds to that image of [degraded] human life offered to us by Plato in the Republic: [such] existence is a kind of cave or cellar on the back wall of which we watch [only] the shadows of real things from the outside world of reality.
  • the mechanical medium has tended to provide merely a dream world which is a substitute for reality…
  • “neorealism [in Italian film] (…) realised that the necessity of the ‘story’ was only an unconscious way of disguising a human defeat, and that the kind of imagination it involved was simply a technique of superimposing dead formulas over living social facts. Now it has been perceived that reality is hugely rich, that to be able to look directly at it is enough; and that the artist’s task is not to make people moved or indignant at metaphorical situations, but to make them reflect (and, if you like, to be moved and indignant too) on what they and others are doing, on the real things, exactly as they are.” (McLuhan citing Cesare Zavattini)2 
  • “I saw at last what lay in front of me, and I understood that to have evaded reality had been to betray it.” (Zavattini)
  • We have passed [with neo-realism] from an unconsciously rooted mistrust of reality, an illusory and equivocal evasion, to an unlimited trust in things, facts and people. Such a position requires us, in effect, to excavate reality, to [show in]3 it a power, a communication, a series of reflexes, which until recently we had never thought it had.” (Zavattini)
  • The [neo-realistic] cinema’s overwhelming desire to see, to analyse, its hunger for reality, is an act of concrete homage towards other people, towards what is happening and existing in the world.” (Zavattini)
  • Substantially, then, the question today is, instead of turning imaginary situations into ‘reality’ and trying to make them look ‘true’, to [take]4 things as they are,5 almost by themselves, [to free them to] create their own special significance. Life is not what is invented in ‘stories’; life is another matter. To understand it involves a minute, unrelenting, and patient search.” (Zavattini)
  • “the world goes on getting worse because we are not truly aware of reality. The most authentic position anyone can take up today is to engage oneself in tracing the roots of this problem. The keenest necessity of our time is ‘social attention’.” (Zavattini)
  • “The cinema only affirms its moral responsibility when it approaches reality in this way. The moral, like the artistic, problem lies in being able to observe reality, not to extract fictions from it.” (Zavattini)6

McLuhan’s presentation of self until around 1958 was a put-on of neo-Thomism and neo-realism. He participated in a broad current of thought — a medium — in which Maritain and Zavattini were brilliantly active. But McLuhan, like Zavattini in this respect, was interested in two problems which the neo-Thomists, in the main, either didn’t see at all, or saw but didn’t address effectively. Namely, what were the ramifications in the world that contact with the real was being lost — and what could be done about this? It was in 1958 with the insight that “the medium is the message” that McLuhan finally saw a way of actually doing something about our ‘inflated’ or groundless situation. As he put it in summary of his 1958-1962 investigations:

When raising these themes, one is beset by queries of the “Was it a good thing?” variety. Such questions seem to mean: “How should we feel about these matters?” They never suggest that anything could be done about them. Surely, understanding the formal dynamic or configuration of such events is the prime concern. That is really doing something. (Gutenberg Galaxy, 212-213)7

  1. Satellites of what?
  2. Cesare Zavattini, ‘Interview’ in Sight and Sound, Oct-Dec 1953, pp 64-65. Translated from the Italian, originally in La Revista del Cinema Italiano, December 1952. See Eisenstein 2 (Zavattini).
  3. Translation: ‘give’.
  4. Translation: ‘make’.
  5. Phenomenology shared this imperative with neo-realism: zur Sache selbst!
  6. The passages given here are only a small fraction of the multiple pages of Zavattini McLuhan read in his lecture, without pause, before his captive audience. This was to anticipate by a quarter century Andy Kaufman’s routine of reading long passages from The Great Gatsby. Indeed, almost twenty years after his ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’ lecture, in his Arts Festival presentation at USC in Los Angeles, McLuhan self-identified as a comedian. This was 1972 — the year of Kaufman’s first TV appearance.
  7. See the home page of McLuhan’s New Sciences.

Ignatov on Maritain on Bergson 1

A highly interesting post in the New Explorations blog by Clinton Ignatov, ‘Bergson on Machinery‘, cites passages from Maritain’s early (1913) critique of Bergson.1 Ignatov does not tackle the critical question of what these 1913 passages have to with the topic of ‘Bergson on Machinery’, which Ignatov broaches in his post only in relation to much later Bergson and Maritain texts. But these 1913 passages do indeed have clear parallels with the work of Marshall McLuhan — suggesting that a relation with machinery and technology must exist.

This post will examine the first passage from Maritain on Bergson as cited by Ignatov and attempt to show some of its connections to the work of McLuhan. These connections are clear even though McLuhan may never have read anything at all of Bergson — other than snippets in the work of others.2 Nor, despite his great interest in Maritain, does he appear to have read Maritain’s 1913 critique, which forms the backbone of Ignatov’s post.

Two passages from Maritain’s early critique are cited in the post, each of which serves to indicate the tradition which supplied McLuhan’s explanans until he was almost 50 and which then continued for the remainder of his life as the critical explanandum.3 Put otherwise, Maritain’s two passages indicate a certain medium within which McLuhan’s work functioned until 1958. With his admonition that year, above all to himself, that “the medium is the message”, what had been the ground of his thought became figure or effect. His efforts would henceforth be dedicated to the specification of this figure/effect by working back from it in detective fashion to dis-cover and specify its ground and cause. But since this was a question of communication, this meant that he had to ‘put on’ the role of his reader or audience — “the multitude” — and ask with it, or them, how the required retracing and retrieval might be achieved. Achieved, that is to say, by and for us!4   

Ignatov’s first citation from Maritain’s 1913 critique reads as follows:

Here we have it then; the most thorough-going, most intelligent anti-intellectualism, — Bergsonian anti-intellectualism, — compromises and destroys man’s freedom just as much as the [hyper] intellectualism of Parmenides, Spinoza, Leibnitz and Hegel. Let us realize that intelligence alone can correct intelligence and that if we wish to cure the soul of the false intellectualism of Spinoza and Hegel, which measures being upon thought and to which the dogmatism of our pseudo-savants bears but a faint and crude resemblance, there is only one means, only one remedy: authentic intellectualism — submission to the real — which measures thought upon being.

These two lengthy sentences might well be taken to describe McLuhan’s developing intellectual position from around 1930 to around 1960 — roughly, from age 20 to age 50. For just as Maritain sets out three fundamental positions —  “anti-intellectualism”, hyper intellectualism and “authentic intellectualism” — so McLuhan knew of comparable threefold classifications in two other figures he studied intensively in his university years. Rupert Lodge, his mentor at the University of Manitoba, proposed a “comparative method” for philosophy that would work with three fundamental types — realism, idealism and pragmatism. Meanwhile A.N. Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World, a book McLuhan studied with Lodge, put forward a similar typology of realism, idealism and organism. For Lodge everything depended on a bracketing of the question of the relative validity of the three kinds so that the typology itself could be studied methodically. Whitehead, in contrast, emphasized study of the third type as the required key to unlock the world of human experience in comparable fashion to the unlocking of nature that had been achieved since 1600. Broadly speaking, McLuhan leaned more to Whitehead’s emphasis until 1958 and thereafter more to Lodge’s.5

McLuhan’s Cambridge PhD thesis from 1943 traced a related threefold to those of Maritain, Lodge and Whitehead. By compiling secondary sources, he described the complicated history of and between the three trivial arts of rhetoric, dialectic and grammar over the 2000 years from classical Greece in 400 BC to Elizabethan England in 1600 AD.

In all four cases — Maritain, Lodge, Whitehead and McLuhan — the threefold classification turned on the relation of mind to fact, hence on the questions of whether human beings can know truth and, if so, just how. But McLuhan had always been suspicious that philosophy was too narrow a field for the investigation of human experience. Hence his decision to major in English at Manitoba, rather than philosophy with Lodge, and his attraction to the Cambridge English School where the attempt was being made to understand the ambiguities of language as the key to understanding human life in general. Hence also his choice to examine the trivial arts in his Cambridge PhD thesis rather than philosophical classifications like those of Maritain, Lodge and Whitehead.

That 1943 thesis, together with its immediately following ‘An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America’ (originally a 1944 lecture), summed up his progress in developing this line of thought. The idea was to investigate the possibilities of a ‘trivial’ threefold approach to education (very broadly conceived as “the classroom without walls”) in an attempt to illuminate both the methodical classification itself and the objects of its investigation ranging from individual works to historical periods.

Of course McLuhan’s work greatly expanded and somewhat transformed over the three decades between 1930 and 1960 through his exposure to — and continuing rumination on — Giedion and Lewis, French symbolist poetry, Eliot and Pound, cybernetics, film theory and Joyce. But how was all this to apply to life and, perhaps, transform the world as the world had, for good and ill, repeatedly been transformed by, in turn, language, literacy, printing and electricity? This was the great question embedded in the 1958 admonition, “the medium is the message”, and the potential answer to it — although never without the shadow of that other potential of global disaster — offered a unique hope that McLuhan would pursue for the remaining 20 years of his life:

The ideal Marriage of Mercury and Philology, of spiritual values and perfected method, will be consummated, if ever, in the electronic age. (The Humanities in the Electronic Age, 1961)


  1. Translated in 1955 as Bergsonian Philosophy and Thomism — more than 40 years after its original publication in France.
  2. Almost comically, but not untypically, the most telling passage from Bergson ever cited by McLuhan is to be found in Laws of Media where McLuhan is cited by Eric McLuhan as citing Lewis Feuer’s Einstein and the Generations of Science (1974). In the cited passage, Feuer cites Louis de Broglie citing Bergson: in quantum theory, according to de Broglie, “each instant (of) nature is described as if hesitating between a multiplicity of possibilities (…) as in The Creative Mind (where Bergson observes) that ‘time is this very hesitation or it’s nothing’.” (LOM, 55) So: Eric McLuhan > Marshall McLuhan > Feuer > de Broglie > Bergson > the hesitation of time!
  4. See The put-on and Lévi-Strauss on method in anthropology.
  5. This movement might be considered as a deeper look into ‘the main question‘.