McLuhan’s “flush-profile” review of Frye

As detailed in Dating McLuhan’s “flush-profile” review of Frye, this unpublished review of Anatomy of Criticism, probably written by McLuhan in the fall of 1958, has been discussed by Philip Marchand in his bio, in a post at the Frye blog, The Educated Imagination (in which Marchand’s treatment is cited at some length), and by Bruce Elder in an extended footnote to his comments on Barilli at New Explorations. The first two agree that the paper amounts to a rather petty attack on Frye by a supposed UT English department rival. But the review is, in fact, an enthusiastic endorsement of Frye’s work by McLuhan, who had the hope that he and Frye together, through “a genuine chain reaction”, might inaugurate a new investigative approach, not only to literature and its criticism — but to all human experience.

If it is asked how such wildly mistaken readings could have arisen, the answer is that McLuhan’s review has been read in various settings of the rear-view mirror, the RVM, and it has been found there to be both largely unintelligible and regrettable. There is a certain tension between these findings, of course. But the Marchand and Frye post discussions (relying on the recollections of the then grad student Frederick Flahiff) leave the matter there: the review is an obscure attack that reflects badly on McLuhan.

Elder engages with the review more extensively. His determination to find a setting of the RVM fitted to the task is explicit:

McLuhan highlights (…) the importance for the era of holistic (group) consciousness of the rhetorical understanding of communication.

However, Elder also has

electric media, with their holistic nisus, might help restore their original power to rhetorical devices.

Which is figure and which is ground? McLuhan’s answer, in Elder’s reading at any rate, was that “rhetorical devices” are ground:

Holistic (cosmic consciousness) should be understood through rhetoric, McLuhan avers.

Elder doesn’t say so outright, but his notion here may be that McLuhan allowed his concerns from the 1940s to contaminate his investigation of “electromagnetism”. Instead of probing the former through the latter, he probed the latter through the former. The charge is familiar from Jonathan Miller and others.

In his explanation of McLuhan’s purported averral that “holistic (cosmic consciousness) should be understood through rhetoric”, Elder begins by taking another look in the RVM: “McLuhan’s interest in rhetoric dates back to his university days and his dissertation (The Classical Trivium: The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of His Time, 1942)”.1 It may be that Elder’s misdating of the “flush-profile” review to 1947 has to do with the connection he supposes of McLuhan’s thesis with it.

In any case, Elder unrolls the following series of observations regarding that thesis:

[McLuhan] treats grammar and rhetoric as positive expressions of a mentalité,2 while the [the?] dialectic, logic, he sees as menacing: logic rejects the patterns that are sown into the fabric of the world.3 Thus, in his unpublished commentary on Anatomy of Criticism, McLuhan essentially recommends that Frye pay heed to this topic.

Deploying paradigmatically and paying heed are two different things, of course, and Elder seems to water down his suggestion from the first to the second as he goes along. But it is exactly paradigmatic or archetypal deployment that is at stake both in Anatomy itself and in McLuhan’s review. So when Elder corrects the threefold trivial grounds of McLuhan’s thesis to a singularity (by running its grammar and rhetoric together as “a mentalité” and then rejecting the remaining art of dialectic as supposedly “menacing”), it is clear how and why earlier in his post he has asserted that “there is no bifurcation of reality, no ontological gap”. In a word, Elder’s reality is not a plural three, per McLuhan,4 requiring abysmal “bifurcations”, but a singular One, per the RVM setting employed by Elder, for which this is a, arguably the, favorite metaphysical cum nihilist move of all time.

“Let us rejoin the One”, writes McLuhan, in ‘Nihilism Exposed5, recapitulating this central urge of the gnostic persuasion, where ‘rejoin’ must be read both as a merger with the One (in a submission of our subjectivity) and as putting the One back together (in an assertion of our subjectivity). “Holistic (cosmic consciousness)” seems close at hand. 

Elder continues:

Discerning the meaning of the transformation of rhetoric from pre-Classical6 times to the early renaissance is the kernel7 from which McLuhan’s histoire de mentalités8 developed. We might conjecture that McLuhan, even in 1947, had a sense of the importance that study [of rhetoric] would come to have and was hoping that his University of Toronto colleague might come to share his interest. After all Anatomy of Criticism gave evidence that Frye had at least glimpsed the significance of new media and new ideas about language.9

Despite the non-sense in the penultimate sentence regarding McLuhan’s supposed “sense” of rhetoric (see the detailed consideration below), Elder’s last sentence is on the verge of coming to a fitting understanding of McLuhan’s review. The reading of it that follows here shows how he might have, not ended with that observation, but started from it.


McLuhan begins the review by noting:

It is natural for the literary man [ie, Frye]10 to underestimate the relevance of Professor Frye’s11 archetypal approach to literature.

The rest of the review is at work to show how this “quarrel” within Frye himself (and as reflected within Anatomy of Criticism itself) might be investigated and potentially resolved. First, the Janus-face of the backward looking Frye is specified:

For four centuries we have been conditioned by the printed word as snap-shot of the postures of the individual mind. Segmental analysis of all motion, mental and industrial, has long been for us the norm of education and of civilized life.12

In fundamental contrast, the other Janus-face of Frye can see, or almost see, not only how this “norm” is changing, but that this trans-formation is of enormous consequence:

These profiles or nuclear models of collective postures are not literary bon-bons for passive savoring but rather scientific data suited to the austere producer-oriented mind, data necessary to the public relations engineer and the shaper and ruler of societies.

Part of Frye and all of Flahiff may think that literary work relates to library carrels and obscure journals, but for McLuhan a great deal more is at stake — as it was for Plato in his various attempts to educate “the shaper and ruler of societies”. How this is now possible (when it was not for Plato and for the two and a half millennia after him) McLuhan then sets out in the truly wonderful sentence:

Like Sputnik they [these “nuclear models of collective postures”] have a hook in outer space whence they relay signals to us, blip calling unto blip in the universe of the pictorialized word.

The visual sounding “pictorialized word” (referring especially to comics and advertisements) was used by McLuhan in the 1950s to mark, rather confusedly, a difference from the visual book world of the Gutenberg era. The point at stake is that our models of minding in regard to the interior landscape can now be as universal as our models in chemistry and physics in regard to the exterior landscape. Like satellites (enabled by those very models in chemistry and physics), such ‘universals’ see the entire world. If we are to survive, it was McLuhan’s contention, we must investigate and otherwise subject ourselves to the “signals” which such models “relay to us”, as MRI images (say) signal information to us to which we gladly and profitably subject ourselves: “blip calling unto blip”13.

The universality of these models is, like chemistry or physics, applicable to any place or time:

It is natural14, therefore, that Professor Frye should have betaken himself to the anthropologist and to the folklorist for his profiles of literature15. (…) For the characteristic mode of learning and knowing since the telegraph offers a pattern of instantaneous inter-cultural x-ray, very different from the enclosed spaces of literature. (…)

The one Frye is

literary man describing a people past or present [who] adopts a slant, a point of view. He selects. He structures his image with syntactical bonds of perspective in the style of Hume…

The other Frye, however, Professor Frye, is capable of “statement without syntax”:

Not the personal point of view, nor the partiality of perspective and self-expression, but the catalyst role of the non-personal  chemical medium…16

This “non-personal chemical medium” is

A bedouin’s rug of timeless patterns which include all possible arrangements of human experience…

And it “is indispensable equipment today” when our news and entertainment have assumed the role of being “the shaper and ruler of societies” and when humans guided by them have thrown their own survival into doubt.

The two Fryes with their Janus-faces looking in different directions are summed up in a single paragraph as follows:

Seen from the split-level17 picture-window House of Archetypes, the receding world of Western literature may look [to the Gutenbergian Frye] appallingly like a silent movie on a late TV show. But for those who recognize the importance of aligning all education with the dynamics of the new mass media, the deft and decent burial of literature provided by [the Marconian Frye in some aspects of] the Anatomy of Criticism will come as an exhilarating climax to the slower-paced preliminaries of the literary centuries.

It is at this point in the review when McLuhan enters into his concluding paragraph that Elder’s reading goes off the rails, leading him to mis-take the review and, in fact, to reveal his misunderstanding of McLuhan’s work as a whole.18 McLuhan begins the paragraph by stating that:

Professor Frye is not, perhaps, sufficiently cognizant of one major resource adjacent to his enterprise. The world of ancient and medieval rhetoric was vibrant with archetypes referred to as “the figures of rhetoric”.

As indeed noted by Elder, McLuhan immediately specifies:

These figures are, it is true, postures only of the individual mind which had become accessible to observation and control after phonetic writing. The written word arrested the mental and verbal flux of the fast-talking Mediterraneans and gave them the means of classifying hundreds of mental postures such as chiasmus, catachresis, and scatalogie.

But this remains an important technique in Anatomy! Or, better put, it is the technique of Anatomy as advanced by the literary or “humanistic” Frye. The Gutenbergian one. It is doubtless the “odor” of such “individual expression and eloquence”, the “pipe-line of natural gas from the farther shores of rhetoric”, that renders the book “uniquely opaque and almost unreadable”:

These figures or postures of the mind were like so many whales left immobilized amidst the shallows and sands of the written word. And in due time their odor began to be abroad in the land. Writing, however, as a means of capturing, or perhaps of fashioning, the postures of the individual mind [has missed the lesson of these reeking carcasses and therefore] has proved to be fatally committed to the fostering of individual expression and eloquence [just like them]. It is flawed by preference for the humanistic…

This obtuse Frye, says McLuhan, should go to school from “Professor Frye”:

a scientific [not “humanistic”] enterprise such as that of [the Marconian] Professor Frye (…) has secured a vehicle which by-passes all rhetorical expression of this personal type, and makes possible the deploying of the total resources of [all time from] pre-literate culture on to the Madison Avenue testing ground. This in turn will greatly hasten the mopping up of [the Gutenbergian Frye’s] remnants of private awareness and expression such as now give a confused and unsettled character to the literary and educational scene [as instanced both in Anatomy and in the grad student panel discussing it]. So that what has here begun as a momentary flush-profile of literary profiles [in one side of Anatomy of Criticism] will develop [better: flip] into a genuine chain reaction [of its other scientific side, propagating to McLuhan’s work and then beyond the two into a whole new field of analysis], and the remnants of a decadent form of personal expression [in the obtuse Frye and the whole “mechanical” world he instances] can be dispatched down the drain.

The “major resource” of “the world of ancient and medieval rhetoric (…) vibrant with archetypes” could and should show both Fryes where his Gutenbergian Janus-face, “vibrant with [its] archetypes”, has gone fundamentally wrong.19 But getting down to fundamentals is a major achievement, regardless of Frye’s Janus-faced ambiguities, since through his work a way appears that “makes possible [at last] the deploying of [mankind’s] total resources of [all time from] pre-literate culture on to the Madison Avenue testing ground”. This would constitute “a bedouin’s rug of timeless patterns which include all possible arrangements of human experience”, hence a “non-personal  chemical medium” in which the abysmal problems of the present would be subject to the sort of unforeseeable solutions as revealed themselves after those other media revolutions of literacy and of print.

  1. McLuhan’s thesis did not have the title, The Classical Trivium, of course, and while it may have been largely composed in 1942, it was submitted in April 1943 and approved in December 1943.
  2. Is this an objective genitive? So that the aforesaid mentalité is an expression of “grammar and rhetoric” together? Or is it a subjective genitive? So that “grammar and rhetoric” are “positive expressions” generated by that mentalité? The plural “positive expressions” would seem to indicate the latter. In this case, however, “rhetorical devices” would no longer be ground, but figures with a deeper ground in this mentalité. What, then, would be its ground? An endless regress seems to open up before us here…
  3. This assertion could hardly be more mistaken. See Pre-Christian Logos for McLuhan’s life-long appreciative treatment of the different facets of the Logos. Contra Elder, for McLuhan and, indeed, for traditions as old as history itself, the word was — or is — “the fabric of the world”.
  4. See Ignatov on Maritain on Bergson 1 for discussion of this point.
  5. Renascence 8.2, 1955, 97-99.
  6. Against the use of “pre-Classical” here, Elder himself correctly notes: “McLuhan acknowledges that the humanistic study of rhetorical figures developed only after written language and private modes of thinking had developed.” The specification of “pre-Classical times” is therefore mistaken both in regard to rhetoric and in regard to the development traced in the thesis. Only in The Gutenberg Galaxy, twenty years later, did McLuhan consider “pre-Classical times” and not in terms of their rhetoric.
  7. Note the singular!
  8. As suggested above in note 2, the question of the ground of mentalité (now mushroomed to mentalités) threatens an endless regress for which the number one cure has always been the conjuring of some or other unregressable One. “The kernel”!
  9. Brackets have been removed from Elder’s comments to forestall any question of where editorial interjections have been made here.
  10. Behind Frye, McLuhan intended the whole Gutenberg galaxy including Flahiff and his fellow grad student panelists, the University of Toronto and a world determined to end itself (in a subliminal quest for the One). Flahiff is included in the assemblage almost by name: “the run-of-the-mill graduate student”, one of the “keen spirits in the post-literate age of conformity and of global stereotypes” who “does not understand Professor Frye. (All) he (Flahiff) knows (is) that Frye is ‘with it’ and that group participation or togetherness in the aura of such leadership is far more satisfying than private interpretation” (thus exemplifying the point at stake even while mis-taking it at the same time). Note the required sequence: unconscious conformity > “private interpretation” > “the austere producer-oriented mind” that is no longer unconsciously conformist nor private.
  11. Throughout the review, McLuhan uses “Professor Frye” to designate Frye’s forward looking Janus-face, the one expressing “not the personal point of view, nor the partiality of perspective and self-expression”.
  12. Flahiff’s mind as “run-of-the-mill” here receives further specification as a “mental and industrial” setting.
  13. See the post of this name forthcoming at New Sciences. One reading of the phrase “blip calling unto blip” is ‘bit by bit’ which is, of course, the very ground of the digital world, enabling things like satellites and the communications we have with and through them.
  14. McLuhan also uses the phrase “natural bias” in his review. The great point is that assessment, while never without bias, yet has a “natural” inclination to truth. The sciences would seem to demonstrate this point conclusively and obviously, but many, apparently including Elder, don’t get it: “McLuhan was convinced that perception, thought (conception), and language relied on a divine dispensation to humanity that ensured there is a relation of some sort between signs, ideas, and reality.” Not “divine dispensation”, that stupid idea of our grandparents and their grandparents going back forever, but, says Elder, it is “the holism of the theory of electromagnetism (that) guarantees thought and spatial reality will be related”. Really? Is this really what celebrated folks have come to cogitate and to teach our children? Have we come to this? Our theory is the guarantee?
  15. The whole point at stake for McLuhan in regard to Anatomy is the turn, or not, from “profiles of literature” as a subjective genitive to “profiles of literature” as an objective genitive! Not lit as the organizing centre (ultimately of nothing) but lit as an organized margin (amongst everything).
  16. Elsewhere McLuhan retracts the secondary characterization of media as a “catalyst”. What he had in mind here is that while media do not determine us (exactly because they are plural), they are yet determinative once installed. This determinative but not determining function might well be described as “catalytic”.
  17. As McLuhan discusses in Nihilism Exposed, it is the “dissociation of sensibility” as manifested in a manifold of different “split” conditions that eventuates in an “annihilation pattern” — an “annihilation pattern” that would remedy any given split by ‘taking sides’ with One of its sides. This all-too-real “annihilation pattern” is exactly an unquenchable — except in annihilation — thirst for the One. McLuhan: “in the new age of technology when all human arrangements from the cradle to the grave have taken on the hasty extravaganza aspect of a Hollywood set, the nihilist philosophies of neo-Platonism and gnosticism have come into their own. Existence is an empty machine, a cheap art work, they have always said. The soul is a shabby mechanism, the body a monstrous one. (…) And now in the twentieth century when nature has been abolished by art and engineering, when government has become entertainment and entertainment has become the art of government, now the gnostic and neo-Platonist and Buddhist can gloat: “I told you so! This gimcrack mechanism is all that there ever was in the illusion of human existence. ‘Let us rejoin the One’.”
  18. Elder: “McLuhan highlights, by way of contrast with the (the!) discursive or propositional conception of language, the importance for the era of holistic — group — consciousness of the (the!) rhetorical understanding of communication”. Yikes!
  19. Not Elder’s — gone right!