The Art of Being Ruled (de Kerckhove 3)

Lewis conducts an elaborate survey of the art, entertainment, science, and philosophy of the contemporary Western world to determine what is going on. (193)1 


McLuhan’s appeal to the work of Wyndham Lewis was founded on Lewis’ critique of modernity, not on Lewis’ attempts to answer that critique. Ultimately, indeed, McLuhan saw Lewis as falling prey to the very trends Lewis specified so well.2 But the farsightedness and accuracy of Lewis’ critique from the 1920s, and arguably from a decade and more before in his Blast writings, together with McLuhan’s appreciation of that critique from the early 1940s, should not be gainsaid. They saw, defined and criticized matters then which de Kerckhove describes as the latest news now.

Consider, for example, de Kerckhove’s thoughts on the “digital twin” as compared to McLuhan in his 1944 essay from 75 years ago — citing Lewis from his 1926 pamphlet written 20 years before that:

The intensity of mass-control and exploitation is increased by the multiplication of superficial differences: “Thus, if a man can be made to feel himself acutely (a) an American; (b) a young American; (c) a middle-west young American; (d) a “radical and enlightened” middle-west young American; (e) a “college-educated” etc etc; (f) a “college-educated” dentist who is an etc etc; (g) college-educated’ dentist of such-and-such a school of dentistry, etc, etc, — the more inflexible each of these links is, the more powerful, naturally, is the chain. Or he can be locked into any of these compartments as though by magic by anyone understanding the wires.”3 (The Art of Being Ruled)

The stupendous value of the FAANG stocks records nothing else, of course, than their “understanding the wires”.

It goes without saying that spying has always gone on, as has the appreciation of customer taste by men and women, in the most ancient professions, and even by singers of tales. What was new in modern times was partly the efficiency of the means of gathering such information, but above all it was the specification of human life as having its meaning and worth in the terms of that information. For Lewis this meant that “the human being is no longer the unit”4 — a condition which McLuhan attributed to Lewis’ “dehumanizing forces of the Magnetic City”.5 The central concern of Lewis, and McLuhan in turn, was first of all to illuminate that and how this had happened — and then to investigate if the sleepers might wake.

Before computers, before the internet, before cookies, before AI, the twin through whom economic and political control could and would be exercised was already precisely identified. That we have nevertheless marched in lockstep into our present dystopia tells us everything we need to know about the “ideologic machine” asteaching machine”: it tells us — who we are and what we are for.


Looking back from the late 1960s, entering his last decade of life, McLuhan described what he had received from Lewis:

In The Art of Being Ruled [Lewis] revealed the vast new Lumpenproletariat of the affluent who have since become so painfully obvious as the successors to the Marxist proletariat. In The Doom of Youth he explained the idiocy of the child cult long before Dr. Spock undertook to sponsor permissiveness. [In The Human Age, his last work, he presents the dehumanizing forces of the Magnetic City. He starts with the telegraph press and its power to generate cosmic political disturbances as a means of selling advertising copy. He concludes with TV and its power to alter the images of self-identity on a world-wide scale.]6 (…) Is it any wonder that his analysis of the political, domestic, and social effects of the new technological environments had a great deal to do with directing my attention to these events? (McLuhan, ‘My Friend Wyndham Lewis’, Atlantic Monthly, December 1969)

Two years earlier, McLuhan can be heard crediting Lewis with his interest in “the new technological environments” on a flexidisc recording included with the November 1967 issue of artscanada.7 Asked what influence Lewis had had on him, McLuhan answered:

Good Heavens — that’s where I got it! It was Lewis who put me on to all this study of the environment as an educational — as a teaching machine. To use our more recent terminology, Lewis was the person who showed me that the manmade environment was a teaching machine — a programmed teaching machine. Earlier, you see, the Symbolists had discovered that the work of art is a programmed teaching machine. It’s a mechanism for shaping sensibility. Well, Lewis simply extended this private art activity into the corporate activity of the whole society in making environments that basically were artifacts or works of art and that acted as teaching machines upon the whole population.8


In fact, even as an undergraduate at the University of Manitoba, a full 35 years before the artscanada recording, years before he had ever read a line of Lewis, and before he was soon to encounter Leavis and Thompson’s Culture and Environment at Cambridge,9 McLuhan already perceived the larger social world as a “classroom without walls”. Here he is as an undergraduate in the UM student newspaper, The Manitoban:

It is, of course, mistaken to suppose that education in any important sense is connected with the schoolroom. Education is the sum total of all those ideas and objects pressing in on the mind every hour of the waking day. (‘Public School Education’, October 17, 1933)

we lift up our eyes to the signboards whence cometh our help (‘Morticians and Cosmeticians’, March 2, 1934)

[Interviewer:] These men have enabled us to control nature. [Johnson:] Yes, sir, and it controls you. When men pride themselves on the mastery of a thing, they are the slaves of that thing. (‘An Interview with Dr Johnson’, March 16, 1934)

While McLuhan was greatly taken by the attempts in the Cambridge English school to investigate the structures of language as the key to understanding social life in general (hence his PhD thesis on the trivium as the backbone of western history from 400 BC to 1600 AD), his long-standing interest in the economic and political implications of the “classroom without walls” led him in the 1940s to the writings of Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis in which they addressed the whole social environment.

In 1944 McLuhan published an essay on Lewis, ‘Lemuel in Lilliput’, which he apparently wrote in some kind of consultation or even collaboration with Lewis.10 Here appeal to The Art of Being Ruled is made repeatedly:

men (…) no longer understand the world they have made and which, as robots, they operate day by day. Such is the situation into which Lewis shot his pamphlet breezily entitled The Art of Being Ruled.11 

The Art of Being Ruled is a study of the major dichotomy of modern life. There is the romanticized machine on one hand [with its] the vulgarized spawn of speculative science committed to perennial and ever-accelerated revolution.12 On the other hand are the traditional human and political values. (…) Against the pseudo-impersonality and supposed [ever-better] “drift of events”, Lewis asserts the prerogatives of human intelligence and control. He unmasks the long-preserved anonymity of supposedly unwilled and irresistible forces in modern life. The atomization of consciousness, the attack on the continuity of personal experience, whether by the medicine man of the laboratory or the dionysiac ecstasies of advertisement and high-finance, are alike shown to be the products of deliberate [contrivance].13 The worship of the dialectic of history or of the “dynamic aspect of reality” in Hegel, Marx, and Bergson has its natural corollary on the “practical” plane: “Dynamical, as the most ‘hurried’ of men is aware, means the bustle and rush of action — of Big Business, Armaments, Atlantic ‘hops’, Wall Street and Mussolini. A ‘dynamic personality’ means, in journalism, an iron-jawed oil-king in an eight-cylinder car, ripping along a new motor-road, with a hundred-million-dollar deal in a new line of poison-gas bombs blazing in his super-brain, his eye aflame with the lust of battle — of those battles in which others fight and die.”14

Science is often described as the religion of industrialism. It is said to have provided man with ‘a new world-soul’. Its (…) function is actually (…) to conceal the human mind that manipulates it, or that manipulates through it (…) For in its impersonality and its ‘scientific detachment’15 it is an ideal cloak for the personal human will. Through it that will can operate with a godlike inscrutability that no other expedient can give. It enables man to operate as though he were nature on other men. In the name of science people can be almost without limit bamboozled and managed.”16 (The Art of Being Ruled

the modern state is necessarily an educationalist state owing to the huge impassivity of the urban masses on the one hand and to the closely centralized control of all agencies of  communication on the other17 

Consider again how the press of the world imitates and promotes “scientific detachment” in its methods of “impersonal” news coverage. Yet nothing is more hysterically personal than “news” in its reflection of the human will. Time, Life and Fortune put up an enormous front of “detachment” which upon slight examination proves to be violently emotional and interested. (…) It is therefore, politically and humanly speaking, a matter of the utmost concern for us to know from what sources and by what means the rulers of the modern world determine what they will do next.  How do they determine the ends for which, as means, they employ the vast machines of government, education, and amusement?18 

[Lewis emphasizes] the pathological blindness of the modern world to anything but itself: “It is naturally, for itself, the best that has ever been — it is for it that the earth has laboured for so long”19 (The Art of Being Ruled)

The Heir of all the Ages20…stands by the death-bed — penniless.”21 (The Art of Being Ruled)

Finally, under the circumstances, it is able to do what no former society has been able to do. It is able to dispense with (…) art…”22 (The Art of Being Ruled)

Paradoxically, the machine has not stiffened but melted life. Mechanism has imposed universal fashions of primitivism. It has rendered all the conditions of experience so fluid and frothy that men now are swimming in another Flood: “It is because our lives are so attached to and involved with the evolution of our machines that we have grown to see and feel everything in revolutionary terms”23 (…) “it is the first genuine philosophy of slaves that has ever been formulated … it consists in an exploitation of the joys of slavery and submission.”24 (The Art of Being Ruled)

Science makes us strangers to ourselves. (…) It instills a principle of impersonality in the heart of life that is anti-vital. In its present vulgarized condition science represents simply the principle of destruction: it is more deadly than a thousand plagues, and every day we perfect it, or our popular industrially applied version of it.” (The Art of Being Ruled)25 

Modern man, philosophically committed and conditioned to sensation and its twin, action, is automatically manifesting the fruits of that philosophy [of slaves] in a multitude of ways. (…) The [supposed or imposed] constitution of created being guarantees modern man that in seeking sensation and thrills, all his acts will uniformly possess a character of accelerated imbecility: “(…) the religion of merging, or mesmeric engulfing”. 26

The answer then to the question of ‘cui bono‘ is ultimately this. Everybody loses. Society has been made into a machine (…) There are no beneficiaries. The Dagwoods and the billionaire power-gluttons are equally rushing to the suicide of total immersion in the chaos of matter.27  However, they are not equally responsible. There is moral accountability in the profound cynicism of the Hollywood tycoons and of the Hearsts and Henry Luces who toboggan us down to the lowest levels (and biggest profits) of What the Public Wants. But, as the “public” becomes more deeply bored with “what it wants” it turns not in wrath but with envy towards its tormentors. (…)28 Corruptio optimi pessima.29 “But with all the resources of his fabulous wealth, the democratic magnate is able to drag the poor into depths of spiritual poverty undreamed of by any former proletariat or former ruling class. The rich have achieved this awful brotherhood with the poor by bleeding them of all character, spirituality, and mental independence. That accomplished, they join them spiritually or unspiritually in the servant’s hall.” (The Art of Being RuledThe exploited and the exploiter coalesceThus it comes about that the attack on the family, for example, which develops first (in the eighteenth century) as an attack on reason and the concept of authority, is conducted very thoroughly on the economic front as well. (…) The destruction of family life, in theory and in practice, the flight from adulthood, the obliteration of masculine and feminine has all gone ahead — by means of a glorification of those things. Never was sex so much glorified, children and motherhood so idolized and advertised in theory as at this present hour when the arrangements for their internment have been completed30  

Again, no plan or plot or super-brain is needed for the full inter-meshing and exfoliation of all these things to proceed through innumerable changes, and ever-increasing violence and intensity, to their natural term — the “dialectic” of matter31 itself guides the brutalized mind into the labyrinth.32 

What Lewis gave McLuhan were not answers but questions: if modern human beings were losing their social and individual lives, and were actually complicit in casting these away, how was this death process to be stopped and these irreplaceable treasures regained? Since these machinations were the effects of education — of the “classroom without walls” of “art, entertainment, science, and philosophy” — they could hardly be countered by these same means, at least as presently conceived and configured. What lever was there, then, that might be applied against the mad rush to war and more war and to potential oblivion?

  1. ‘Lewis: Lemuel in Lilliput’, 1944, reprinted in The Medium and the Light, 178-197. All page references not otherwise identified are to this M&L version of McLuhan’s essay.
  2. See especially ‘Nihilism Exposed‘, Renascence 8:2, 1955, 97-99.
  3. 196.
  4. Cited in ‘Lewis: Lemuel in Lilliput’, 185, from Time and Western Man.
  5. McLuhan’s June 1, 1969 letter to Robert Manning, Letters 374.
  6. The bracketed sentences here appeared in the original version of this paragraph in McLuhan’s June 1, 1969 letter to Robert Manning, editor of The Atlantic Monthly, in which he proposed his essay on Lewis for the magazine. Letters 374. But in the published version of this same paragraph these sentences were omitted.
  7. A special issue on Lewis edited by Sheila Watson.
  8. Transcription and recording link from See also Andrew McLuhan’s post:
  9. In his interview with Nina Sutton, McLuhan specifically credited Culture and Environment as an important milestone on his way. It combined all his interests: literary analysis, concern for tradition, environmental education and the manufacture of culture through business and entertainment.
  10. McLuhan to Robert Manning, June 1, 1969, Letters 374: “I enclose a wee essay (‘Lemuel in Lilliput’) I wrote on Lewis years ago when he was visiting us in St . Louis.”
  11. 182.
  12. ‘Revolution’, ‘managerial revolution’, ‘revolutionary terms’, etc, are used in McLuhan’s essay to designate change as desirable in itself, change as both necessary and as necessarily good.
  13. McLuhan: “of deliberate will”.
  14. 184-185 citing Time and Western Man.
  15. The typo “scientific attachment” here was already present in the 1944 printing of McLuhan’s essay and was not corrected for the Medium and the Light version.
  16. 187.
  17. 187n20.
  18. 188.
  19. 191-192n26.
  20. Lewis facetiously cites Tennyson’s Locksley Hall (1835) here: “The heir of all the ages, in the foremost files of time”.
  21. 186.
  22. 192n26.
  23. See note 12 above.
  24. 192.
  25. 192-193.
  26. 194 citing Time and Western Man.
  27. By “the chaos of matter” McLuhan does not mean material stuff, but that which is unformed or at least unformulated. It is mind death.
  28. Part of the omission here is the sentence: “This is not a question of either-or, but of both-and.” (195n31) With it McLuhan characterized our tycoons both as villains and as fools. But the phrase should be noted as a directive (to McLuhan himself) concerning the structural difference between the Gutenberg and Marconi eras.
  29. Corruption of the best is the worst.
  30. 194-195.
  31. See note 27 above.
  32. 196. In regard to this labyrinth, a couple years after this Lewis essay McLuhan would begin consideration of Poe’s maelstrom that he would then maintain for the rest of his life.