Taking flight

An aerial view of a territory to be occupied by subsequent toil. (McLuhan to Felix Giovanelli, Aug 1948)

His [Aquinas’] “articles” can be regarded as vivisections of the mind in act. The skill and wit with which he selects his objections constitute a cubist landscape, an ideal landscape of great intellectual extent seen from an airplane. (Joyce, Aquinas, and the Poetic Process, 1951)

In his 1951 ‘Tennyson and Picturesque Poetry’ essay,1  McLuhan set out the subject matter of his investigations for the following decade. They would focus on the specification of the technique of flight:

If anybody ever consciously cultivated2 a move camera eye it was Tennyson. But if one asks what it was of landscape art that the Romantics and the Victorians did not achieve, it must be replied, [it was] le paysage intérieur which had to wait for Baudelaire, Laforgue and Rimbaud. It was this discovery that gave the later poets and painters alike, the power to be much more subjective and also more objective than the Romantics. For all their skill in discovering and manipulating external-nature situations by which to render states of mind, the Romantics remained tied to the object3 (…) So they repeatedly bog down (…)4 just at the moment when they are ready to soar. They could not discover the technique of flight. It would be interesting to inquire how far the cessation of the poetic activity of Wordsworth and Coleridge was connected with this technical frustration. By means of the interior landscape, however, Baudelaire could not only range across the entire spectrum of the inner life, he could transform the sordidness and evil of an industrial metropolis into a flower. With this technique he was able to accept the city as his central myth, and see it as the enlarged shape of a man, just as Flaubert did in The Sentimental Education, Joyce in Ulysses and Eliot in The Waste Land.5 Moreover, the technique of inner landscape not only permits the use of any and every kind of experience and object, it insures a much higher degree of control over the effect  (…) The picturesque artists [= the Romantics]6 saw the wider range of experience that could be managed by discontinuity and planned irregularity, but they kept to the picture-like single perspective.7 The interior landscape, however, moves naturally towards the principle of multiple perspectives as in the first two lines of The Waste Land where the Christian Chaucer, Sir James Frazer and Jessie Weston are simultaneously present. This is ‘cubist perspective’ which renders, at once, a diversity of views with the spectator [including both the author and her reader/audience]8 always in the centre of the picture

The great question was how to domesticate this “technique of flight”? How could it be specified and thereby applied to crises not only (only!) in the humanities, but in education, economics, politics and war and peace?9

Ten years later, in 1961, McLuhan set out his progress in this quest in ‘The Humanities in the Electronic Age’:

Bertrand Russell pointed to the great achievement of the twentieth century as the technique of suspended judgement. That is, [it made] the discovery of the process of insight itself, the technique of avoiding the automatic closure or involuntary fixing of attitudes that so easily results from any given [individual or] cultural situation – [the discovery of] the technique of open field perception. (…) The technique of insight itself is a natural phase to succeed the nineteenth-century discovery of the technique of invention, because it is the means of abstracting oneself from the bias and consequence of one’s own [individual and social] culture. (…) Innis’ concern in the Bias of Communication10 is with the technique of the suspended judgement. That means, not the willingness to admit other points of view, but the technique of how not to have a point of view. This is identical with the problem facing physicists in correcting the bias of the instruments of research, and it draws attention to the fact that the historian, the poet, the critic, and the philosopher, now as always, face exactly the same situations as the scientist.11

  1. First published in Essays in Criticism 1:3 in 1951. Reprinted in Critical Essays on the Poetry of Tennyson, ed. John Killham, 1960, and in The Interior Landscape in 1969.
  2. McLuhan: “ever had and consciously cultivated”.
  3. See the 1961 citation in this post for “the automatic closure or involuntary fixing of attitudes”. Also note ‘Eliot’s Historical Decorum’ (1949): “Symbol means to throw together, to juxtapose without copula. And it is a work that cannot be undertaken nor understood by the univocalizing, single plane, rationalist mind. (…) Analogy institutes tension, polarity, a flow of intellectual perception set up among two sets of particulars. To merge those two sets by an attempt to reduce a metaphor situation to some single view or proposition is the rationalist short circuit”. In his 1974 interview with Louis Forsdale, ‘Technology and the Human Dimension’, McLuhan describes this “short circuit” as applied to identity in the electric age: “The ordinary man can feel so pitiably weak that, like a skyjacker, he’ll reach for a superhuman dimension of world coverage in a wild desperate effort for fulfillment”. Here again: the attempt “to merge (…) two sets” — the “pitiably weak” and the “superhuman” — into “some single view or proposition” of “world coverage”. The comical absurdity of this merger (which yet cannot not be made) entails that it can be achieved and maintained only by force. And it is this centripetal implosion into merger which is expressed in centrifugal explosion whenever that merger is threated: “violence is engendered by the need to recover identity” (as McLuhan says to Forsdale in the same interview).
  4. McLuhan has “bog down in reflection”, which is strange since the spur for “closure” might well be said to be the felt need to put an end to “reflection”. But it may be that McLuhan was thinking of “reflection” in a technical sense here as narcissism in which fixation on the ‘one’ is the structural form even of its mirrored “reflection”.
  5. McLuhan has a bracketed note here: “It is noteworthy that the English novel also preceded English poetry in the management of the city as ‘myth’. Dickens was the first to make London a character or a person. And James and Conrad in their different modes preceded Joyce and Eliot in assimilating the urban to the stuff of poesy.”
  6. In ‘The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape Poetry’ (1951) McLuhan uses the phrase “romantic or picturesque poetry”.
  7. For example, Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818) decisively introduces a discontinuity between the wanderer and the rest of mankind. His whole being might be said to be a “planned irregularity”. But as McLuhan observes about the Romantics, the discontinuity and irregularity here with Friedrich’s Wanderer are captured (in multiple senses) in a single frame (in multiple senses). In remarkable contrast, Juan Gris’ Portrait of Jossette (1916), a century later, demonstrates how discontinuity and irregularity can destabilize both the subject of the painting and the artistic vision itself. Now romanticism might be said in one respect to be the forcible attempt to ward off these multiple instabilities (although of course it had great virtues in other respects). But for McLuhan and for any genuine thinking, these discontinuities must be assumed (in multiple senses) as the very presupposition and gateway to discovery.
  8. Since “the technique of flight” self-consciously takes off from “the entire spectrum of the inner life” of human being, all possible perspectives of the author and of her audience are of course inclusive to her “analogical awareness”. This is “the technique of how not to have a point of view”, as McLuhan would put it a decade later (full passage cited above).
  9. An indication of how McLuhan would integrate the “technique of flight” into his media investigations is given in a 1959 letter to Edward S Morgan, a Maclean-Hunter executive, that recapitulated a speech given at the Winnipeg Ad and Sales Club on May 11, 1959, ‘New Business Rules In Our Electronic Age’: “My theme was simply that the Electronic Age is one in which information comes to everybody in any job, in any social or personal activity, information comes from all directions at the same time. This creates a very peculiar field, as it were, ‘field’ in the sense that the physicists use the word, or the psychologists. A field of instantaneous interrelationships — which causes decision makers to play it by ear, as we say. In the Jet Age, for example, an airplane pilot can no longer navigate by the old method of intersecting bearings or lines because the speed of the plane takes him past the point so established too fast. In the same way, he has to rely on a continuously picked-up electronic beam on which to fly. He has to have a continuous and instantaneous flow of information in order to navigate.” (Letters 252) Ten years later still, McLuhan would begin to use the hi-jacking of airplanes as the master narrative of modern business, politics and entertainment. All represented a reversion to the Romantic “fixing of attitudes” — or altitudes.
  10. McLuhan has “the Bias of Communication and later” here. But, sadly, there was very little “later” then for Innis. McLuhan must have been thinking of his own celebration of Innis in 1953, ‘The Later Innis’, which appeared shortly after Innis’ death at the end of 1952.
  11. This essay appeared in the Humanities Association Bulletin for 1961. It was one of McLuhan’s self-consciously ‘Canadian’ pieces where he set out to identify something essential to his countrymen. To compare, it was two years before this, in 1959, that he introduced the notion of the “global village” in a speech to businessmen in his hometown of Winnipeg: ‘New Business Rules In Our Electronic Age’ (Letters 252-255; see note 9 above and the report in the Winnipeg Free Press from May 12, 1959). McLuhan made a whole series of such ‘Canadian’ pronouncements which require particular attention as signposts he emphasized along his way. Another instance: his introduction in May 1958 of the phrase ‘the medium is the message‘ at UBC in Vancouver.