McLuhan at the crossroads

In 1953 McLuhan, now in his 40s, was turning from the literary views that had defined his way for the previous two decades to a new way that would remain indistinct and tentative for most of the remainder of the decade.1 Here he is in letters that year to Wyndham Lewis:

For Shenandoah magazine Lewis number I’ve attempted to present your Theory of Art and Communication. Mainly in your own words. Only in the past year have I become fully aware of the reality of the secret societies in the arts, philosophy and politics. Your own work has consequently taken on a much different significance for me. (April 15, 1953, Letters 236)

Re-reading Snooty [Baronet] (1922) recently I realized my own situation is not unlike his (…) The range and character of the “cultic twalette” has just dawned on me in the past year. Like Snooty I’m trying to get my bearings. (July 14, 1953, Letters 239)

As for my book. It owes much to you of course. But it was so long in the publishing (6 years) that I had lost interest in its approach before it appeared. Now I see that I was trying to prop up the standards of book culture when we have passed out of the Gutenberg era. (December 9, 1953, Letters 241)

As an indicator of that new way, first of all to himself — “trying to get my bearings” — he twice over in 1953 cited the same passage, word for word, from G. Rachel Levy’s Gate of Horn, once in ‘Wyndham Lewis: His Theory of Art and Communication’ and again in ‘Maritain on Art‘:

Plato’s theory of Ideas constitutes a gigantic effort to establish the mystic doctrine upon an intellectual basis. The relation of created things to the “‘pattern laid up in heaven” is, as we saw, that methexis, or participation, which Aristotle equated with mimesis, the “imitation” by which the living world was built upon the Pythagorean numbers. Thus the relationship created by earliest man, and the means of his growth as already described; the vehicle of the first-known religion is now made articulate. The wheel has come full-circle.2

McLuhan’s work for the whole remainder of his career is captured here in nuce.  But it would take McLuhan himself years and sometimes decades to realize these implications.

To “Plato’s theory of Ideas constitutes a gigantic effort to establish the mystic doctrine upon an intellectual basis” compare McLuhan almost 10 years later at the end of his 1961 ‘Humanities in the Electronic Age’:

The ideal Marriage of Mercury and Philology, of spiritual values and perfected method, will be consummated, if ever, in the electronic age.

What Plato’s “gigantic effort” had been unable to accomplish — even with Aristotle’s further specification of the dynamic “methexis or participation” of the forms (the “pattern laid up in heaven”) in constituting “the living world”  — might now “in the electronic age”, at last, be realized or “consummated”.

The notion at stake is just that of chemistry or genetics where a “pattern laid up in heaven” (the elements in the first, the DNA structure of genes in the second) expresses itself dynamically in and as “the living world”. There is, of course, a fundamental difference between such structures and the physical materials they constitute (even when they are of utmost purity), but the two levels, while maintaining their distinction, are one in any given sample. The answer to the question, ‘what is this?’, must always be given in terms of those elementary structures, but is always also some particular expression of them. Theory and instance are never simply identical, but each mirrors the other in a re-flection that is essential. First starting in 1958, McLuhan would term the necessity of this sort of specification, “the medium is the message”.3

Inherent to this idea even in Plato and Aristotle was a “multilevel” approach. Only so could focus be directed to “methexis, or participation, which Aristotle equated with mimesis“. These are all terms or actions which seek to explicate how differences like form and matter or experience and world are dynamically inter-related and so mediated. No such multilevel approach, no possibility of insight into the medium as focal message. In fact, McLuhan seems to have come to the former multilevel approach before the latter medium as message insight and arguably to the latter only by way of the former. Here he is some years before his insistence, beginning in 1958, that “the medium is the message”:

anybody can test for himself the fact that sixteenth-century prose [like that of Nashe, McLuhan’s PhD thesis subject from 12 years before] still retains many of the rapidly shifting perspectives of multiple levels of tone and meaning which characterize group speech. It took two centuries of print to create prose on the page which maintained the tone and perspective of a single speaker. (Historical Approach to the Media, 1955)

Oral disputation and multi-level comment on texts were the natural result of oral teaching. Multi-level awareness of linguistic phenomena and of audience structure held up during print’s first century [eg, with Nashe], but swiftly declined thereafter, since the speedy linear flow of printed language encouraged single perspective in word use and word study. (The Effect of the Printed Book on Language, Explorations 7, 1957)

McLuhan would incessantly insist on “multi-level awareness” in his writings after 1960, particularly (after reading Wolfgang Kohler’s Gestalt Psychology in 1964)4 in terms of figure and ground. But he became aware of the fundamental importance of this awareness5 only when he began to explore the differences between orality and literacy in the 1950s. 

Another implication of the Levy citation, one that McLuhan would broach in his 1962 ‘Prospect’ piece for Canadian Art Magazine, and then endlessly repeat, was the return to the paleolithic, to Levy’s “wheel [that] has come full-circle” back to “earliest man, and (…) the first-known religion”:

When we put our central nervous system outside us we returned to the primal nomad state. We have become like the most primitive paleolithic man, once more a global information-gatherer instead of a food-gatherer. The source of man’s food, and wealth, and daily life from now on, is just information.6

Finally, the most important implication of Levy’s passage, one that McLuhan himself did not see clearly until the 1970s, was the plurality of time. Levy indicates at least three different workings of time: 1) the linear “effort to establish” intellectual clarification on some newly specified “basis” — “the means of (…) growth”; 2) the synchronic or simultaneous working of that ‘new’ basis via “methexis, or participation” by which the living world [is] built”; 3) the revolutionary time-flip or “paradox” through which (1) culminates in recognition both of itself and of the oldest of the old as constituted by way of (2) — “the relationship created by earliest man, and the means of his growth [up to the present insight] (…) is now7 made articulate. The wheel has come full-circle.” The linear finds itself in the synchonic:

And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.
And all is always now. (Four Quartets, Burnt Norton, v)8 


  1. McLuhan’s way can therefore roughly be put as 20 years spent as a literary theorist (1930 to 1950, age 20 to 40), 10 years spent in transition from literary theory in search of a new ground and discipline (1950 to 1960, age 40 to 50), and 20 years again as an investigator of — dual genitive — the electric, 1960 to 1980, age 50 to 70.
  2. Parts of this passage from Levy were actually cited twice in McLuhan’s 1953 Lewis essay — for a total of three times that year. In doing so, he was saying to himself something like: “get this into your head and figure it out not for Plato’s 400 BC, but for now!”
  3. Although it would be absurd to insist that color or smell must be considered along with the elements in specifying physical materials, champions and foes of McLuhan have never ceased insisting that the message must be considered along with the medium in some way. One of the chief things the intelligibility sought by McLuhan had to explain as a “survival strategy” was this universal obtuseness.
  4. See McLuhan’s letter to Bascom St John, July 10, 1964, Letters 306. He had earlier reported reading Kohler to Harry Skornia in an unpublished letter.
  5. As opposed to practising it, which he had done forever.
  6. McLuhan continues ‘Prospect’ as follows: “The transforming of this information into usable products is now an automation problem, a thing no longer calling for the utmost division of human labour and skill. Automation no longer calls for personnel. This terrifies mechanical man because he does not know what to do about the transition that is taking place.” This was a “transition” McLuhan himself had made in the preceding decade, presumably not without its accompanying ‘terrors’. Here was a reason, namely a lack of courage and perseverance in the face of such “terrors”, along with constitutional intellectual limitations, practical concerns with one’s position in every sense and the workings of Kuhn’s ‘normal science’, that might account for the universal obtuseness noted above.
  7. When is this ‘now’? It is the moment when linear insight ‘paradoxically’ finds simultaneous “basis”. ‘At the same time’, however, this is no satori flash of supreme illumination. Instead it is the initiation of investigation on a ‘timeless’ basis that will not only exercise that basis but also subject it to question. As Kuhn has detailed, the working of ‘normal science’ culminates in a revolution through which its previous ‘basis’ is overthrown — the timeless becomes subject to time.
  8. Eliot, and particularly Four Quartets, was one of the central texts giving orientation to McLuhan’s way. Hugh Kenner has reported McLuhan’s fascination with it in the late 1940s and some of McLuhan’s last published work focused on it thirty years later. In McLuhan’s unpublished work, there seems to be more writing on Eliot than on anybody else. A constant background topic for him after 1950 or so was: what is the central difference between Eliot and Joyce and what does this difference implicate?