Point and circumference in 1939

Electric speeds create centers everywhere1

In 1938 Bernard Muller-Thym returned to St Louis University, where he had obtained his MA in 1933. In the meantime he and his growing family of eventually eight children had been in Toronto where Muller-Thym received his licentiate from the IMS2 and his PhD from the university. At SLU, he taught in the philosophy department and immediately began publishing a whole series of important papers.3

Muller-Thym and McLuhan quickly became very close friends — Muller-Thym was the best man in the McLuhans’ 1939 marriage ceremony and the Godfather to two of their first three children, Eric (b 1942) and Mary (b 1944 with twin Teri).

In Toronto Muller-Thym had been a favorite of Etienne Gilson. Both were family men in a sea of single priests and seminarians at St Michael’s. Both loved music — in fact Muller-Thym and his wife, Mary, the daughter of the conductor of the Kansas City symphony, were very accomplished musicians who performed in public concerts.4 Muller-Thym was also an extraordinarily skilled linguist who wrote his MA thesis in Latin; and Gilson must have particularly appreciated Muller-Thym’s knowledge of German and Dutch,5 where Gilson felt his own knowledge was limited.

Gilson saw to it that Muller-Thym’s PhD thesis on the Establishment of the University of Being in the doctrine of Meister Eckhart of Hochheim was immediately published in 1939. In the Preface he wrote to the book, Gilson expressed his high regard for Muller-Thym and his hopes for him as a Christian philosopher:

My (…) reason for introducing Professor B. J. Muller-Thym to the learned world of mediaevalists is that I want to thank him publicly for having so well done something that I had long hoped to undertake, and for having done it at the very time when I was beginning to realize that I could never do it. After reading his interpretation of Meister Eckhart’s doctrine of the university of being, I feel myself quite close to the final answer to one of the most intricate problems that arises in the field of mediaeval philosophy,6 and anybody who reads his book will probably agree that Professor B. J. Muller-Thym is now better qualified than anybody else to carry the study of that problem forward to its complete elucidation. (…) Historians have spared no effort in parallelling a large number of Eckhart’s statements with similar statements culled from the writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas. It is beyond doubt that still more text, materially similar, could be quoted to the same effect. Yet, when all is said and done, it remains true that, as the author of this book aptly says, “If we should take these texts with their genuine Thomistic import, and then put them with all the texts of Eckhart, it is simply impossible to find Eckhart making sense with Eckhart.” For having so clearly realized the true nature of his own historical problem, Professor B. J. Muller-Thym has finally succeeded where his predecessors failed. Here, at last, is an historical interpretation of Meister Eckhart’s philosophical thought; and, because Meister Eckhart is a philosopher worthy of the name, we are now able, thanks to Professor B. J. Muller-Thym, not only to understand his doctrine in its historical setting, but also to pursue a definite metaphysical position to its ultimate implications. (…) The great artist, Corot, used to say: “A painter is a man who knows where to sit.” The same can be said of the true historian. Because he has singled out the only spot from which Meister Eckhart can be seen in his full intelligibility, Professor B. J. Muller-Thym has proved himself to be a thoroughbred historian of philosophy.  It is most gratifying to reflect that such a book as this, complete in itself though it be, is at the same time an earnest of those further explorations in the same field, promised by the author in his foreword.7  (ix, xii-xiii)

Between 1938 and 1942 Muller-Thym introduced McLuhan to his own work, but also to the work of his mentor, Gilson. Gilson became the single most cited source for McLuhan’s 1943 PhD thesis on the classical trivium and Thomas Nashe.  Muller-Thym’s influence was slower to unfold, but was very deep. A footnote in the Eckhart thesis, which McLuhan must have read closely with Muller-Thym, observes in passing:

God in His unity, the esse absolutum, is the point which is everywhere; His circumference, the creature, is nowhere. (University of Being, 105n)

This observation captured Muller-Thym’s critique of Eckhart in nuce. At the end of the day, Eckhart’s esse could not account for, or valorize, either plurality or difference: his esse absolutum” was only a “point”. Hence “God in His unity (…) is everywhere [and] His circumference (…) is nowhere”.8

Now McLuhan would come to use the figure of point and circumference, usually in the form of ‘centre and margin’, over and over and over again. Indeed, he was still doing so in one of his last essays, ‘Ma Bell Minus the Nantucket Gam’, which was published posthumously in 1981. Significantly, he began to discuss the critical importance of the ‘centre and margin’ form about the same time that he started to insist, in the late 1950’s, that “the medium is the message”.9 Arguably, it was exactly this ‘centre and margin’ form that was the medium that is the message. The revolution his thinking underwent at the time10 resulted in the idea that it might be possible to “move the world” through the specification of the spectrum of possible centre-margin forms.

Here are some centre-margin passages from the crucial period immediately following completion of his ‘understanding media’ project with the NAEB in the second half of 1960:

McLuhan to Serge Chermayeff, December 19, 1960:
Archimedes said, “Give me a place to stand and I’ll move the world.” (…) Must we not now expect every position whatever to be simultaneously a montage of all others? When there is no longer a center-margin interplay in a positional or spatial sense, is it not yet possible to have a more inclusive ecology [based on  center-margin interplay in a simultaneous temporal sense] than any previously envisaged, and would not such equilibrium or interplay be capable (…) of [bringing about] true freedom?

McLuhan to to Jackie Tyrwhitt, December 23, 1960 (Letters 278):
Noise [in a communication network] is of course just any kind of irrelevance, and yet irrelevance is a needed margin for any kind of attention or center. In the field of attention, a center without a margin is the formula for hypnosis, stasis and paralysis.

McLuhan to Harry Skornia, January 7, 1961:
New insight via center-margin interplay. In systems development (see Hans Selye’s Stress) any center creates a margin for itself. Any moment of perception has center-margin. When center swallows margin you are hypnotized, or mad. If center is ear (radio), margin is visual. Interplay between center-margin is need of any system.  

Inside the Five Sense Sensorium 1961:
We still imagine that politics can follow the pre-telegraph patterns of center-margin interplay.
With electric media any place is a center. No place is a margin. (…) Psychologists explain that when the field of attention has a center without a margin we are hypnotized. Such is the condition of tribal man, past or present. The problem of design is to understand the media forces in such wise that we need never sink into the zombie tribal state [while at the same time avoiding the Gutenberg “pre-telegraph patterns of center-margin interplay”].

The Electronic Age – The Age of Implosion 1962:
The new quantum physics is not much concerned with visual modes of perception, and least of all with the
centre-margin patterns that characterized the outward radiation of the baroque explosion and colonial expansion. Today physics confronts the phenomenon of fusion and implosion rather than the outward and analytic movement of explosion. (…) Habits and attitudes natural to centuries of expansion now yield with equal naturalness to the intense pressures of an electronically unified world.  Another way of stating the change is to say that when information movement speeds up a great deal, centre-margin patterns yield to centres-without-margins. (…) The new structure is not the old sponge pattern of intake from the margins and output from the centre, but of dialogue among centres.

McLuhan to Edward T. Hall, April 5, 1962:
Reading Heisenberg has made me feel that my media studies are at the state that nuclear studies had reached in 1924. But my heart sinks, because those nuclear studies were being urged forward by eager teams, and media studies enjoys no such support at all. But I am bold [enough] to say that many of the same techniques and concepts are needed for advancing media studies as were used for nuclear studies. But there is the huge difference, that media studies involve human lives far more profoundly than nuclear studies ever have done, or ever can do.
The Copenhagen school talks my language (…) Heisenberg’s distinction between rotational and non-rotational systems as creating quite distinct spatial configurations corresponds exactly to my divisions between centre-margins and centres without margin systems.

An important question emerges immediately. As illustrated in the two passages from 1962, McLuhan began at this time to champion “centres-without-margins” and continued to do so for the rest of his life. At times he even equated this form with God. But in the 1960 and 1961 passages he asserted: 

  • “any center creates a margin for itself. Any moment of perception has center-margin”
  • “a center without a margin is the formula for hypnosis, stasis and paralysis”
  • “when center swallows margin you are hypnotized, or mad”
  • “when the field of attention has a center without a margin we are hypnotized”

The glaring discrepancy between these characterizations and that of “centres-without-margins” (especially where the latter was held to be some kind of absolute or even God Himself) turned on the ambiguity of ‘margin’. On the one hand it could be taken as the differentiated relatum of a point or centre to its margin or circumference, where the nature of the relation between the two relata remained undefined. It is in this sense that “any center creates a margin for itself [and] any moment of perception has center-margin”. On the other hand, ‘margin’ could be taken to imply a relatum that was or should be ‘marginalized’. In this case the nature of the relation between the relata was defined, not undefined, and it was defined as negative. Hence the desire or need of the centre at least to control its margin and potentially to eliminate it in a fit of “hypnotized” madness.

At some point in 1961 or 1962, speaking historically but also autobiographically, McLuhan stipulated that “centre-margin patterns yield to centres-without-margins”. This was to move, at least in McLuhan’s own case, from the undefined sense of ‘margin’ to its defined negative sense.

In McLuhan’s usage, “centres-without-margins” did not revert to Eckhart’s God in His unity (…) is everywhere [and] His circumference (…) is nowhere”, nor to his own “center without a margin”. Instead, “centres-without-margins” now came to mean centers whose relata were also centers such that their relation was one of “dialogue among centres”. Hence, “with electric media any place is a center [and] no place is a margin” and “electric speeds create centers everywhere”.

It may be that McLuhan’s turn to these confusing terms (confusing, perhaps, even to McLuhan himself) resulted from the abbreviations he began to use for these different forms. A notation (doubtless from Eric McLuhan) on p 3 of the McLuhan library spreadsheet explains McLuhan’s “short forms” including “c/m: Center Margin (i.e., fragmented)” and “c-m: Center Without Margin (i.e., inclusive)”. The slash in c/m indicated a negative relation between the relata that could be characterized as “fragmented”. The hyphen in c-m indicated the contrary relation of harmony between the relata that could be characterized as “inclusive”. But the hyphen in c-m might also be read as a minus sign and in this case it signified “c-m: Center Without [fragmented] Margin”. Less confusing abbreviations might surely have been c/m and c+c.

However all that may have been, the central point was that the nature of the relation between centre and margin was correlate with the nature of the relata themselves: where the relation changes, so do the relata; conversely, when the relata change, so does their relation.11 Here is McLuhan in his 1954 lecture ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’ where particular “forms or channels of communication” stand in for relations or media in general and “social and political consequences” stand in for the relata of those relations:

One generalization, popularized in the writings of HA Innis in view of the history of forms of communication since writing, is that any change in the forms or channels of communication, be it writing, roads, carts, ships, stone, papyrus, clay, or parchment, any change whatever has revolutionary social and political consequences.

McLuhan was very close here to the idea that the range of centre-margin relations (including that of centre-centre) might be the elementary form of experience aka “the medium [that] is the message”. The spectrum of such possibilities would stretch between all centre at one extreme and all margin at the other, and its mid- point would be the “inclusive” relation of both of them together. However, on account of the ambiguity of these terms (as described above) and the further ambiguity of ‘centre’ and ‘mid-point’ in regard to the spectrum of possibilities itself, much clearer terminology might be ‘ear’ and ‘eye’ as defined over a spectrum stretching between all ear and all eye with the centre of the spectrum being ear and eye in ‘inclusive” or ‘superposition’ relation. In this case, the spectrum of ear/eye relations would equally map the spectrum of the possible values of the “tactility” between them. And the result might be a kind of Mendeleev’s table of the elementary forms of all human experience.

McLuhan continued the passage from Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’ as follows:

Related to this fact is another one that any channel of communication has a distorting effect on habits of attention; it builds up a distinct form of culture.

That is, the insights of H.A. Innis concerning externalforms or channels of communication” and the “revolutionary social and political consequences” resulting from “any change whatever” in them, also have an internal analogue. Here the drama was that of the interior landscape and the need was to begin to investigate it as extensively as was the external landscape has been in the last two centuries. In fact application of a loose knowledge of the interior landscape had already begun in the arts, advertising and propaganda. As McLuhan continued in ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’:

It is not markets we now invade but the cultures and the minds of men.

The year before in his ‘Later Innis’ essay, McLuhan made this point in regard to Innis’ own work:

the work of the later Innis was a shift in attention from the trade-routes of the external world to the trade routes of the mind. Technology, he saw, had solved the problem of production of commodities and had already turned to the packaging of information. And the penetrative powers of the pricing system were as nothing beside the power of the new media of communication to penetrate and transform all existing institutions and patterns of thought.

But how to understand the interior landscape of thought, the trade routes of the mind, as extensively as the exterior landscape had been investigated beginning around 1800? What remained missing was specification of the elementary form of that internal landscape. McLuhan would realize the critical importance of this absence later in the 1950’s with his admonition that the specification of “the medium is the message”.

  1. Understanding Media, p91. In the same place McLuhan calls this condition of ubiquitous centers “the new world of the global village”. NB: The “global village” is one, all time and all space allatonce, but it is not monolithic!  It is an assembly of centers, plural!
  2. The Institute for Mediaeval Studies (IMS) became the Pontifical Institute for Mediaeval Studies (PIMS) in 1939.
  3. Between 1938 and 1942, when he left SLU to join the Navy, Muller-Thym published the following papers (aside from his Eckhart book in 1939): The Aristotelianism of Plotinus Ennead V. 1. 4 and 7′, Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association, Vol. XIV (1938); ‘Review of St. Thomas and the Greeks (The Aquinas Lecture, 1939)’, Thought, 15:1, 1940; ‘The Common Sense, Perfection of the Order of Pure Sensibility’, The Thomist, 2 (1940); ‘The “To Be” Which Signifies the Truth of Propositions’, Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association, Vol. XVI (1940); ‘Review of Adler’s Problems for Thomists’, Fleur de Lis, October 1940, 40:1; ‘Adler’s Problem of Species, A Critical Review’, Modern Schoolman, XVIII:1, Nov 1940; ‘De Abbreviationibus Et Signis Scripturae Gothicae’ (a book review), The New Scholasticism 1940; ‘Review of A Catalogue Of Renaissance Philosophers (1350-1650)‘, The Modern Schoolman, 18, January 1941; ‘St Thomas and the Recapturing of Natural Wisdom’, Modern Schoolman, 18:4, 1941; ‘The Esse which signifies the Truth of Enunciation’ (abstract of  ‘The “To Be” Which Signifies the Truth of Propositions’), The New Scholasticism, 15:1, 1941; ‘Of History as a Calculus Whose Term Is Science’, Modern Schoolman, 19:4, 1942.
  4. The Alton Evening Telegraph for February 15, 1933 records a concert in which Handel’s Sonata In A Major was performed by “Bernard J. Muller-Thym, violinist, and Mrs. Bernard J. Muller-Thym, pianist”.
  5. It is possible that Dutch was spoken at home when Muller-Thym was growing up. His father had immigrated as a young man and English was not his mother tongue. Meanwhile, Gilson was increasingly interested in Erasmus at this time and his relative lack of Dutch would have hampered his study. While Gilson certainly did not lack German, he did not feel at home in it (as he admitted was a handicap in regard to his reading of Heidegger) and this may also have been true in regard to Eckhart’s works in 13th century German. This may be the background to Gilson’s remark in his Preface to Muller-Thym’s Eckhart (cited above) that “I want to thank him publicly for having so well done something that I had long hoped to undertake, and for having done it at the very time when I was beginning to realize that I could never do it.”
  6. The “intricate problem” broached by Gilson as arising in the field of mediaeval philosophy was probably that of the specification of the differences between the various philosophers of this millennium-long ‘middle’ period. Muller-Thym’s thesis was seen by Gilson as  contributing to the “final answer” to this problem in specification of the central difference between Eckhart and Thomas.
  7. Throughout this passage Gilson uses phrases like “final answer”, “complete elucidation”, “finally succeeded” and “ultimate implications”. But it should not be thought that he imagined research coming to an end. Instead what he saw potentially coming to an end was the elucidation of the parameters in terms of which never-ending research would begin to be possible. ‘Begin to be possible’ — strange phrase! But compare the elucidation of the elementary structure in chemistry beginning in the late eighteenth century.
  8. The defining perspective of the Gutenberg galaxy (the syndrome, not the book) necessarily terminates in a point. The discussion of this topic in the philosophy of the middle ages, including that of Eckhart, was one example of Gilson’s view that that philosophy had, across its span from Augustine to Ockham, set out the complete spectrum of “philosophical experience” — and this in anticipation, as it were, of all the “philosophical experience” that was yet to come in the Renaissance and beyond — up to today. The general point at stake was made by McLuhan to Tyrwhitt in his letter cited in this post above: “As always, when a serious problem emerges, the answer will be found to have been discovered somewhat earlier in an unexpected area.” (December 23, 1960, Letters 278)
  9. See The medium is the message in 1958.
  10. Corinne McLuhan has recorded that Marshall began to experience mini strokes and blackouts in 1959 (Letters 175). Carpenter and others have recorded a major stroke in 1960. So McLuhan’s revolution in thinking was accompanied by his brain being torn apart. The great task for the world is to find some other less destructive way of following his finding.
  11.  Further, beyond these proposed clarifications, “the main question” would always remain: what is the relation between these relations? Between the “fragmented” and the “inclusive”? It would seem that this relation between relational forms cannot itself be either “fragmented” or “inclusive” without negating one of the two sides and thereby returning to Eckhart’s formulation of the “esse absolutum” of the point. Or is a third “superposition” of the sides possible? One that could make sense of both of them together — in a whole new sense of sense? And might it be that such a superposition love between relations was exactly Thomas’ difference from Eckhart such that it was the use of Thomas by Eckhart that made it “impossible to find Eckhart making sense with Eckhart”?