Medium in America and Cosmic Man

In his programmatic letter to Ezra Pound from June 22, 1951,1  McLuhan recorded his reaction to Wyndham Lewis’ America and Cosmic Man:

In a mindless age every insight takes on the character of a lethal weapon. Every man of good will is the enemy of society. Lewis saw that years ago. His America and Cosmic Man2 was an H-bomb let off in the desert. Impact nil. We resent or ignore such intellectual bombs. We prefer to compose human beings into bombs and explode political and social entities. Much more fun. Lewis clears the air of fug. We want to get rid of people entirely. And it is necessary to admire the skill and thoroughness with which we have made our preparations to do this.  I am not of the ‘we’ party.  I should prefer to defuse this gigantic human bomb by starting a dialogue somewhere on the sidelines to distract the trigger-men, or to needle the somnambulists.3

It may be that Lewis’ pointers to “the medium” in Cosmic Man acted as a spur to McLuhan’s eventual appeal to the notion ten years later — and for the rest of his career thereafter. The most important of Lewis’ observations in this book concerning “the medium”, at least for McLuhan’s purposes, were these:

Until you know something of the medium — the political and social atmosphere — in which these great figures live and have their being, it would be useless to attempt to delineate them for you4… (34)

Water is a very different medium from air: and if you had never seen water in any but minute quantities, it would not be easy to explain to you about the life of a fish.5 (35)

Human societies are engaged in a perpetual struggle to disengage themselves from a chaos of superannuated laws. The accelerated tempo of mechanical evolution makes things much worse. (…) A bundle of old statutes, or the medium of exchange hallowed by long use, has us bewitched. A superstitious fixation makes of our political and economic life one vast “bottleneck”.6 (154-155)

Lewis was discussing “political and economic life” life here, but McLuhan would have seen an excellent description of our social, cultural, familial and individual predicaments as well. The Gutenberg Galaxy, begun not long after McLuhan’s letter to Pound, but completed only a decade later, could well be described in the terms set out here by Lewis: “Human societies [and all individual human beings] are engaged in a perpetual struggle7 to disengage themselves from a chaos of superannuated laws. The accelerated tempo of mechanical evolution makes things much worse. (…) A bundle of old statutes [governing first of all our perceptual patterns], or the medium of exchange hallowed by long use, has us bewitched. A superstitious fixation makes of our political and economic life (and our social and individual lives) one vast “bottleneck”.

And now today, more than 70 years after Lewis’ Cosmic Man, the planet remains fixated before this “vast bottleneck” — while it juggles nuclear bombs at an ever-increasing number of ‘flashpoints’….

  1. Letters 218.
  2. London 1946, NY 1949.
  3. It might be said that Lewis and Pound defined the cultural-social-political problem that McLuhan felt called upon to solve and that Sigfried Giedion gave him the potential solution to it: “to defuse this gigantic human bomb by starting a dialogue”. See Sigfried Giedion — A Faculty of Interrelations. In the 1940s with his Proposal to Robert Hutchins and still in the 1950s with the Culture and Communication seminar, McLuhan took “starting a dialogue” to be the practical problem of bringing together people with expertise and good will in a way that would fuse their individual and professional  perspectives into an ongoing collective program. This thought was also at the heart of McLuhan’s ideas for educational reform even in primary school where (for example) multiple teachers might teach dialogue to students by embodying it between themselves. However, bitter experience taught McLuhan that practical arrangements promoting interdisciplinary work (even in the rare circumstance when they could be financed and organized) did not achieve the desired result — any more than did his own teaching even to graduate students or, worst of all, in his own family life (where he was unable to pass on his religious convictions to his children). Having hammered away at this problem for a quarter century, McLuhan experienced a ‘breakthrough’ at the end of the 1950s that he would attempt to define and communicate in the remaining two decades of his life. That breakthrough was the idea that human beings in all their social, political, economic, educational and cultural activities could achieve a comparable sort of collective investigation as that in the physical sciences by defining the elementary structure of human experience: “the medium is the message”. Here, he intuited, could be the solution to the “impact nil” problem.
  4. The medium as “the political and social atmosphere” would have recalled Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World for McLuhan. (See McLuhan on Whitehead.) Whitehead uses hundreds of phrases like “the political and social atmosphere” in his book without defining what such a thing as a “political and social atmosphere” is or how such a thing might be recognized. Using Lewis’ terminology, the resulting question could be put: what is such a “medium”? Or, formulated in the imperative, “the medium is the message!”
  5. Following his friend John Culkin (in turn following Einstein and others), McLuhan often explained the difficulty of communicating his ideas on “the medium” by appeal to the difficulty a fish might have in recognizing water.
  6. Bottlenecks are one of Lewis’ chief interests in Cosmic Man. For example: “America stands out as the one great community in which race has been thrown out, and the priests of many cults have been brought together, in relative harmony — in a world in which obstinate  bottlenecks of racial and religious passion, whether in Europe, Asia, or Africa, are in process of being overcome, or at least have reached the showdown stage. The United States is for Europe as well as for India, for instance, not to mention Palestine, an object lesson in how to make the lion lie down with the lamb.” (31) Here may be seen why Lewis remained unimpressed with McLuhan’s religious ideas, despite McLuhan’s attempts to interest him in them. Unlike McLuhan who had grown up with it and knew its eviscerating effects in his bones, Lewis conceived American rootlessness as a potentially good thing.
  7. McLuhan had been writing repeatedly about an “ancient quarrel” since 1942 — the year before he met Lewis.