Comments on Elder’s comments on Barilli 2

For all inferences from experience suppose, as their foundation, that the future will resemble the past. . . . If there be any suspicion, that the course of nature may change, and that the past may be no rule for the future, all experience becomes useless, and can give rise to no inference or conclusion. (Hume’s 1748 Enquiry as cited by Elder in his comments on Barilli)

Strangely, Elder seems to have missed how the observation from Hume cited by him exactly captures the working of McLuhan’s RVM, the rear-view mirror. Recourse to it presupposes “as foundation, that the future will resemble the past”.

In one important respect, however, the future will really be like the past, namely, that the two will be entirely different after a media revolution like those of the institution of literacy in Athens or of print two millennia later in Europe. In such cases, our understanding of “the course of nature may change, and [we will find] that the past may be no rule for the future, [for] all [past] experience becomes useless, and can give rise to no inference or conclusion” about anything at all in a new media environment (including about our own selves and everything we hold dear).

Elder nevertheless puts forward the hope that refinement of the RVM can reveal what McLuhan was up to. “A little more background will help us appreciate the richness of Barilli’s commentary on McLuhan’s notion of holism and its parallels with Kant’s epistemology and metaphysics.”

Against this it must be said that what McLuhan was trying to indicate cannot be seen!  By definition!  For through the sort of revolution he foresaw, as illustrated by past Gestalt-switch events like the advents of literacy and printing, “all experience [of the preceding type] becomes useless, and can give rise to no inference or conclusion” about the new world now dis-closed.1 This was the great point detailed by Eric Havelock in Preface to Plato which McLuhan championed from the moment it appeared in 1963 (as acknowledged and much appreciated by Havelock). McLuhan did so exactly because it revealed the sort of change 2500 years ago that he saw as both possible and necessary today. His own Gutenberg Galaxy had the same impulse. The unrealized hope was that pointing out revolutionary Gestalt-switch in the past might help its recognition in the present. Mais au contraire!

What is at stake in McLuhan (namely, the medium that is the message) is necessarily unknown, partly because it cannot appear in the RVM at all (when the RVM is all we have absent originary insight!) and partly because, when it “paradoxically” is seen, at last, through and behind the RVM, its nature will then forever be subject to scientific investigation. Only consider the dis-covery of the chemical element by Lavoisier and Priestley. Their breakthrough into a whole new world was astonishing. But what did they know of it? What could they know of it? So it is with us in face of McLuhan’s not unrelated demand (above all to himself) that “the medium is the message”. It is both presently almost entirely unknown and forever subject to future revision (whatever it is).

What McLuhan was attempting to indicate is itself necessarily subject to what he called the “paradox” of sudden awareness — and all appreciable awareness is sudden! We always and only experience through Aristotle’s “opposite form”, aka the RVM: “the whole preceding time during which anything moves towards its form, it is under the opposite form”.2 This is why, as McLuhan endlessly repeated, breakthrough absolutely depends upon breakdown. No breakdown, no breakthrough.

Now, as broached above, one of the aims of Elder’s comments on Barilli is to flesh out Barilli’s view that McLuhan’s achievement may be illuminated by the study of Kant as its background. So Elder would further illuminate Kant, in turn, by study of his background, particularly in Hume. But this is to revert to the RVM in two different ways. First, McLuhan is located against what we know or, at least, what we can and should know — as if his suggestions were intended as contributions to ‘normal science’. Second, this linear and progressive view with its focal objects like ‘Hume’ and ‘Kant’, even ‘Wolff’, is itself an instance of the Gutenberg galaxy whose idea of the ‘past’ in these senses has, according to McLuhan, ‘passed’ away.

Refinement of the RVM not only won’t work, it is counter-productive! (Hence McLuhan’s turn away from explanatory prose to something like comedy.)

If we are to approach McLuhan as a consequential thinker, indeed if we are to approach Hume and Kant as consequential thinkers, we need to do so subject to the proviso that they inform us, not we them. They can’t be put to use! Applying such a method won’t work for McLuhan — but it also won’t work for Hume and Kant! The entire procedure breaks down.3

Here, again, background is helpful only as something to be broken through, as forty or fifty years of McLuhan ‘scholarship’ amply reveals — negatively. He wanted to dis-cover a new mode of investigation into the entirety of human experience. In determined opposition, the McLuhan industry, supported by many $millions a year in Canada alone, will have anything but that — for it would require a break with the established (ie, ‘passed on’) past in which one’s reputation, identity and understanding are firmly anchored. 

In McLuhan’s view, there is no such thing as, say, ‘Kant’. This is the alchemical green dragon. Instead ‘Kant’ is like an immensely complicated chemical solution with (eg) propylene glycol (CH3CH(OH)CH2OH) suspended in it. It is impossible to get anywhere at all with such an identification until you understand C and H and O — and to do that, you have to understand the elements and how they work: “the medium is the message”.4 

If we are to survive what McLuhan approvingly cited from Sheila Watson, “the intrusion of the mechanical foot into the electric desert”,5 it will be only because we have learned to understand at last: (a) how everything we currently experience, from our own identity to world issues threatening nuclear war, are subliminal effects of as yet imprecisely known media structures — effects which are insuperable as unknown, but optional once dis-covered and investigated:

All of my recommendations, therefore, can be reduced to this one: study the modes of the media, in order to hoick all assumptions out of the subliminal, non-verbal realm for scrutiny and for prediction and control of human purposes. (Report on Project in Understanding New Media, ‘Recommendations’, 1960)

(b) that we do not have to know definitively how to specify these media structures prior to initiating research into them. Rather, just what such media are and how they operate is exactly the central question of the proposed investigations. Therefore McLuhan’s emphatic remark in 1959 to Harry Skornia in the course of his NAEB project to research new media: “We can’t assume that we understand media already!” And therefore as well his constant admonition: “Organize the ignorance!”

Did Priestley and Lavoisier understand chemical elements? Mostly not. But they understood enough to spark a change in our investigation of physical nature — the exterior landscape — through which the world has been utterly revolutionized. Between 1800 and 2020 the entire world has been through a kind of worm hole which has left almost nothing the same. And yet the chemistry through which much of this change has come about is just as applicable to materials from a million years ago as it is to materials today. Everything has changed and nothing has changed.

The “survival strategy” urged by McLuhan turns on the notion that the interior landscape is subject to a comparable revolutionary change in investigation, one that has already been deployed so to say objectively (especially in the development and use of mass media, ironically enough), but has not yet been deployed subjectively in investigations of the interior landscape. Civilization and perhaps the species as a whole will survive, in his view, only through a  revolution in our knowledge of human being (dual genitive!) where we finally apply what we already know to what we already experience — but have somehow failed so far to activate.


  1. It may be that McLuhan should be seen as giving the opposite answer to Hume as did Kant. Namely, that Hume was exactly right in an Enquiry passage cited by Elder in asserting that “the first imagination or invention of a particular effect, in all natural operations, is arbitrary, where we consult not experience”. What was needed to account for scientific law from here was only Kuhn’s distinction between revolutionary and normal science. The former is “arbitrary”, while it is exactly the role of the latter to weave such arbitrary insight back into our accepted experience. Nearly all existing readings of McLuhan, it may be noted, have silently assumed the second function, which amounts to taking him exclusively as he appears in this or that RVM. Understandably, the idea that he might have been an original thinker has not occurred to those who are not original thinkers themselves and have no idea that such thinkers even exist — nor, naturally, how they might be recognized if they did exist.
  2. See Comments on Elder’s comments on Barilli for reference and discussion.
  3. There is one aspect of a study of figures like Hume and Kant that is indeed helpful to an understanding of someone like McLuhan. Namely, experience in subjecting oneself to the originary insight of any thinker at all reveals, or can reveal, the subjection demanded in regard to any other. ‘Subjection’ is such a case is not sycophancy, but the putting in play one’s subjectivity or identity sufficiently to experience beyond one’s existing capability.
  4. It is well to remember that such understanding of the physical world is less than two centuries old. Propylene glycol, for example, was first synthesized in 1859.
  5. Given in the last paragraph of ‘My Friend Wyndham Lewis’, Atlantic Monthly, December 1969.