Dating key terms (alpha)

To understand the trajectory of McLuhan’s work, it is necessary to understand when key terms appeared in it. Only with such a skeletal map in hand can questions properly be asked about the overall shape of that work or of its status at any moment in its course.

Naturally, some of these terms appeared in McLuhan’s writings before he realized how they might be used in a more technical way. For example, as early as 1951, in ‘The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape Poetry’, he cited a passage from Ruskin in Modern Painters

A fine grotesque is the expression, in a moment, by a series of symbols thrown together in bold and fearless connection, of truths which it would have taken a long time to express in any verbal way, and of which the connection is left for the beholder to work out for himself; the gaps, left or overleaped by the haste of the imagination, forming the grotesque character.1

There is so much here anticipating his later work — regarding time and times, the consumer as producer, the do-it-yourself ethic and the transitive gap — that the passage might well be read as Ruskin addressing McLuhan with the demand: Think about all this! This is the way to go!

More, since it was McLuhan who was citing Ruskin, it might just as well be read as some part of McLuhan, his second sight perhaps, addressing himself with this admonition — here is what you need!

The aim below is to identify not when bare terms or phrases were first mentioned by McLuhan, but when he realized their systematic importance for his project. But no pretense is made to finality. Further key terms will doubtless have to be introduced from time to time and dates may have to be adjusted as new findings come to light.


Note: Updates are made to the chrono list first. Updates to the alpha list may be delayed.

acoustic space: late 1954 in the Culture and Technology seminar2

classroom without walls: 1956 in ‘Media Fit the Battle of Jericho’ and ‘Educational Effects of Mass Media of Communication’.

concept vs percept: 1969 in ‘Hardware/Software Mergers’3

consumers as producers: 1958 in ‘Myth and Mass Media’4

environment (as medium): October 3 1964 in a letter to Harry Skornia5

figure/ground: 1964 in letters from July 10 to Harry Skornia and to Bascom St John.6

formal cause: 1959 in ‘Communications and the Word of God’7

input/output difference: 1960 in a January 25 letter to Harry Skornia8

interval: 1964 in ‘Notes on Burroughs’9 

light through vs light on: 1958 in a November 18 letter to Harry Skornia.10 

media ecology: 1976 in ‘Violence of the Media’11

medium is the message: May 1958 in ‘Radio in the Future of Canada’12

nobody: 1969 in ‘Hardware/Software Mergers’13

satellite surround: 1964 in October 3 letter to Skornia14 

structure: 1958 in ‘Media Alchemy in Art and Society’15

tactility: 1960 in ‘From Visual To Tactile Experience’16

the unconscious: 1962 in ‘Prospect’17

  1. Modern Painters, vol 3, 1856. After his 1951 citation of it, McLuhan quoted this passage from Ruskin repeatedly in, eg, ‘Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press’ (1954), ‘Media Log II’ (1959), The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), and ‘Notes on Burroughs’ (1964). The insistent question to himself, apparently, was: did you get this yet?
  2. See Autobiography 1954: McLuhan & Williams on discovering ‘auditory space’ and Ted Carpenter on discovering ‘auditory space’.
  3. From Concept To Percept — Havelock, describing the tribal encyclopedia of pre-Plato man, describes the world of percept. Today we are moving  rapidly out of the world of concepts, which came in with Plato, back into a world of perception.  Our school systems are not yet programmed for training perception, but only for concepts and classified data. Concepts end with electric circuitry and percepts take over. (…) . After 2500 years of concepts: back to perception and discovery. We enter again the age of the hunter, the searcher, and the comprehensivist. It is a return to the age of the Cyclops, the data banker, the man who gathers data about his fellow man as a full time living.”
  4. “The mythmaking power of a medium (…) appears now in the post-literate age as the rejection of the consumer in favor of the producer. The movie now can be seen as the peak of the consumer-oriented society, being in its form the natural means both of providing and of glorifying consumer goods and attitudes. But in the arts of the past century the swing has been away from packaging for the consumer to providing do-it-yourself kits. The spectator or reader must now be co-creator. (…) The ‘form’ and ‘content’ dichotomy is as native to the abstract, written, and printed forms of codification as is the ‘producer’ and ‘consumer’ dichotomy. (…) Edgar Allen Poe, both in his symbolist poems and in his detective stories, had anticipated this new mythic dimension of producer orientation by taking the audience into the creative process itself.” ‘Myth and Mass Media’ was published in 1959, but was given as a lecture at Harvard in the spring of 1958.
  5. Letters 311: “Harry me boy, it works. Over and over I’ve talked to groups and individuals about new technology as new environment. Content of new environment is old environment. The new environment is always invisible. Only the content shows, and only the environment is really active as shaping force. As Drucker shows in his Management for Results in every situation 10% of the events cause 90% of the events. The 10% area is the sector of opportunity. The 90% area is the area of problems. The opportunity or environmental and innovational area is ignored. All sensible people deal first with problems, that is, the dead issues. To deal with the environmental directly is my strategy, Harry, to attack the new environment as if it were an artefact capable of being molded. Today Telstar is about to create a new environment. It’s content will be not only TV and computer but the planet itself. TV will become an art form just as movie has done  since TV.  But in order to have autonomy we must push the unconscious and environmental parameters right up into consciousness.  All that I’ve said about the medium is the message is sound.  But it becomes acceptable when put as ‘new technology is new environment’.  Everybody knows that environment is a force. The principle works in many ways. e.g. at what point does the supply of any item become environmental?  Answer:  ‘when it creates demand’.  It works also for all modes of perception.  Can now put the entire Gutenberg Galaxy on a single page.” Before 1964 McLuhan had certainly discussed what might be termed the global implications of media, but now his focus became explicitly on media as environments.
  6. Both letters mention McLuhan reading Wolfgang Kohler’s Gestalt Psychology — after Understanding Media had appeared. In his conversations with Nine Sutton a decade later, McLuhan noted “I was not using figure-ground (…) when I wrote that book (Understanding Media) (…) Now I have switched completely to figure/ground. It was implied there but it was not explicit.”
  7. Artists took up the cause of formal causality about 1800 after the philosophers had abandoned it (…) Formal causality disappeared (…) about Descartes’ time as an object of serious interest. (…) Artists, with the romantics, in a most earnest manner took up the cause of formal causality. Only, they talked about formal causality as if it were art in which the forms of things began to be insisted upon as having something to say to man and, above all, that they had the power to train human sensibility. Not the power to impose systems of thought but to train human sensibility. (…) a formal cause exerts its pressure non-verbally and non-conservatively. Any substantial form impresses itself upon you without benefit of awareness or conscious attention on your part. You can be conscious about it if you like, but (…) the world of forms in which we live impresses us steadily and constantly without intermission, without benefit of words or thoughts. They are total in their action upon us. It doesn’t matter what theory we may have about them: their effect upon is quite independent of any thought we may have about them. (…) In terms of formal causality, the dialogue is a necessity of education today. The old idea of presenting packaged information one-thing-at-a-time, visually-ordered, is completely at variance with our electronic media. I’m talking about their formal structure.” Later that year in a letter to Peter Drucker, December 15, 1959: “my media studies have gravitated toward the centre of formal causality, forcing me to re-invent it.” (Letters 259)

    gap: 1964 in ‘Cybernetics and Human Culture’:[1. “Yet this strange gap between the specialist, visual world and the integral, auditory world needs to be understood today above all, for it contains the key to an understanding of what automation and cybernetics imply.” In that same year Understanding Media has a passage which pointed McLuhan to the idea of ‘the gap is where the action is’: “The discovery of calculation by positional numbers rather than by merely additive numbers led, also, to the discovery of zero. Mere positions for 3 and 2 on the board created ambiguities about whether the number was 32 or 302. The need was to have a sign for the gaps between numbers. It was not till the thirteenth century that sifr, the Arab word for “gap” or “empty,” was Latinized and added to our culture as “cipher” (ziphirum) and finally became the Italian zero. Zero really meant a positional gap. It did not acquire the indispensable quality of “infinity” until the rise of perspective and “vanishing point” in Renaissance painting. The new visual space of Renaissance painting affected number as much as lineal waiting had done centuries earlier.” The phrase, “the gap is where the action is”, seems to appear first in Take Today (60 and 81). Take Today begins: “The art and science of this century reveal and exploit the resonating bond in all things. All boundaries are areas of maximal abrasion and change. The interval or gap constitutes the resonant or musical bond in the material universe. This is where the action is. To naïve classifiers a gap is merely empty. They will look for connections instead of bonds. (…) But by directing perception on the interfaces of the processes in ECO-land, all gaps become prime sources of discovery.”

    global village: May 11 1959 in a speech to the Winnipeg Ad and Sales Club[1. Recorded in a May 14 1959 letter to  Edward S Morgan: “The tribe is a unit, which, extending the bounds of the family to include the whole society, becomes the only way of organizing society when it exists in a kind of Global Village pattern. It is important to understand that the Global Village pattern is caused by the instantaneous movement of information from every quarter to every point at the same time.” (Letters 252) A few months later in ‘Communications and the Word of God’: “Let us start directly with a mention of what I consider to be an experience which we all share, all the time — the global-village atmosphere of the twentieth century.”

  8. “The last few days have seen a major breakthrough in media study. Working with the fact that each medium embodies one or more of the human senses, it struck me that we are impelled in perceiving each medium to complete the scale or spectrum of our sensorium. So that, radio impels us to provide a visual world moment by moment, and photography, which is so adequate in visual terms, compels us to complete the tactual and kinesthetic part of the sensorium. Thus the degree of sensuous completion is one way in which the lines of force in any medium are structured.” (McLuhan to Harry Skornia, 25 January 1960) In his NAEB project report later that year, McLuhan would describe thus insight as follows: “Early in 1960 it dawned on me that the sensory impression proffered by a medium like movie or radio, was not the sensory effect obtained. Radio, for example, has an intense visual effect on listeners. But then there is the telephone which also proffers an auditory impression, but has no visual effect. In the same way television is watched but has a very different effect from movies. These observations led to a series of studies of the media, and to the discovery of basic laws concerning the sensory effects of various media. These will be found in this report.  In 1915 Heinrich Wölfflin published his Principles of Art History which has since then revolutionized the study of many matters besides art. His entire approach confirms what I discovered about media: “the effect is the thing that counts, not the sensuous facts“.(Report on the Project in Understanding New Media)
  9. The art of the interval, rather than the art of the connection, is not only medieval but Oriental; above all, it is the art mode of instant electric culture.” But already in ‘James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial’ (1953) McLuhan’s second sight had already spotted the importance of the interval: “one of the most persistent and deeply embedded motifs in Ulysses is that of the ‘series of empty fifths’ which Stephen plays on Bella Cohen’s piano, expounding their ritual perfection ‘because the fundamental and the dominant are separated by the greatest possible interval which (…) is the greatest possible ellipse. Consistent with the ultimate return. The Octave . (…) What went forth to the ends of the world to traverse not itself. God, the sun, Shakespeare, a commercial traveller (…) The longest way round is the shortest way home.’ The musical chord is a means of linking with the stages of human apprehension, the growth of the soul, the movement of the sun through the zodiacal signs, the Incarnation and Ascension, the mental labyrinth of art and the cloacal labyrinth of commerce. Nor are these diverse themes merely introduced casually in the Circe episode. They pervade this epic which unites the trivial and quadrivial arts by means of the same solar ritual which underlies Homeric and other epic structures.” See also gap and tactility.
  10. “Light through” brought McLuhan to what he would call “iconic mode”: percepts, media, rhetorical figures, the arts of the trivium and quadrivium, myths, formal causes — all were now conceived as incoming. As he would have it the next year in ‘Communications and the Word of God’: “the world of forms in which we live impresses us steadily and constantly without intermission, without benefit of words or thoughts. They are total in their action upon us. It doesn’t matter what theory we may have about them: their effect upon is quite independent of any thought we may have about them.” See formal cause. The plurality of these incoming forms was critical since it implicated a transitive gap or interval which was necessary to preserve their plurality and which then could account for the possibility of revolution between outgoing Gutenbergian perspective and incoming Marconian mosaic.
  11. Violence exerted by private individuals tends to have limited results, whereas the violence exerted by groups knows no bounds. Media are always and necessarily corporate or group activities, whether they are the mother tongues or the father images of big corporations. With the proliferation of multi-media in our time, there is a new consensus that some manner of  media ecology and control be put into action…”
  12. “Print, by permitting people to read at high speed and, above all, to read alone and silently, developed a totally new set of mental operations. What I mentioned earlier (although not in these same words) becomes very relevant here: the medium is the message. The medium of print is the message, more than any individual writer could say.” But in 1956 in ‘Educational Effects of Mass Media of Communication’ he already declared: “we must substitute an interest in the media for the previous interest in subjects”. The passage concluding this essay is noteworthy: “Yes, we must substitute an interest in the media for the previous interest in subjects. This is the logical answer to the fact that the media have substituted themselves for the older world. Even if we should wish to recover that older world we can do so only by an intensive study of the ways in which the media have swallowed it. And no matter how many walls have fallen, the citadel of individual consciousness has not fallen nor is it likely to fall. For it is not accessible to the mass media.
  13. He was on a frontier, and like anybody else on a frontier he was a nobody. When you are a nobody, you have to prove who you are. All frontiers are violent because nobody is anybody or everybody is a nobody.” McLuhan was close to this notion in ‘Television in a New Light’  in 1966: “a mass audience is an audience in which everyone experiences and participates with everybody and in which nobody has a private identity. So the psychiatrist’s couches today are groaning with the weight of people asking, ‘Who am I? Please tell me who I am.’ There is no identity left. At electric speeds nobody has a private identity. Don’t ask whether this is good or bad. It is an inevitable function of electric speeds (…) The electronic world rubs out all barriers, all partitions, all classifications. That is why the existentialist discovers the difficulty of having a personality in the modern world. Electrically, you cannot have a private personality. It belongs to an older technology of data classification: for example, ‘I’m a Hungarian, I’m a dentist, I’m 35, I have three kids, that’s me.’ Under electric conditions that’s nobody!”
  14. See environment (as medium): “Today Telstar is about to create a new environment. It’s content will be not only TV and computer but the planet itself. TV will become an art form just as movie has done  since TV.”
  15. Kenneth Boulding’s The Image is an important event in advancing our knowledge of alchemical change in all types of structure. And we achieve this advance by seeing every kind of structure, from the botanical to the animal and human, as a knowledge structure subject to information in-put.” (For “information in-put” see light through vs light on above.) Later in 1963 in ‘We need a new picture of knowledge’: “It was about 1870 that Claude Bernard instituted the structural approach in experimental medicine, showing that the knowledge of separate organs could be advanced by their ablation or suppression. Then by observing the overall effect of this ablation on the changed relations by among all the other organs, the properties of the suppressed organ became automatically manifest. This total or structural approach to the interplay of functions and properties is called ‘closure’ or ‘completion’ in current psychology. ‘Closure’, in fact, is new balance or recovery after the shock of ablation or suppression of some organ or function.”
  16. But the TV image is the first technology by which man has outered his haptic, or tactile, powers. It affects, therefore, the balance or ratio among our senses. Since at all times consciousness involves a ratio resulting in the immediate “closure” or completion of pattern, such new “closure” or completion is, in fact, a new posture of mind charged with new preferences and desires, as well as with new patterns of perception. Tactility Means not Contact of Skin but Interplay of All Senses. The elementary and basic fact about the TV image is that it is a mosaic or a mesh, continuously in a state of formation by the “scanning finger”.  Such mosaic involves the viewer in a perpetual act of participation and completion.  The intensely dramatic character of this image is shared in no way by the photograph or by the movie image. The TV image is not a shot, nor a view of anything so much as an experience. Its primarily tactile, rather than visual, character is a quality familiar to art historians in connection with mosaic work and with abstract art. These also, like the TV image, foster an intense experience of structure and interrelation of form for which the visual experience of Western man since the Renaissance has prepared us not at all. For the tactile image involves not so much the touch of skin as the interplay or contact of sense with sense, of touch with sight, with sound, with movement.”
  17. we live in the unconscious. This is the age of the unconscious because it is the age when the nervous system is totally exposed.” Later in ‘Environment As Programmed Happening’ (1968): “To say that we live mythically today while continuing to think conventionally may help to draw attention to the technological gap in our ordinary experience. Electric technology, simply because it is all at once, is also discontinuous. It tends therefore to create exterior situations that have all the structural characteristics of the human unconsciousTo the rational observer who seeks to find connectedness and uniformity in the spaces of his world, the new situation presents an extreme form of the irrational.”