Monthly Archives: July 2021

Easterbrook on Innis and McLuhan in 1960

In September 1960 McLuhan and Tom Easterbrook presented papers at the annual meeting of the Economic History Association. Their section of the meeting seems to have been a commemoration of Harold Innis organized by Arthur Cole (1889-1974) of Harvard. Cole had been a longtime friend and correspondent of Innis1 and the two were founding members together of the Economic History Association in 1940.2 Meanwhile Easterbrook, working under Innis as his adviser, had, in 1938, obtained the first PhD in Political Economics ever granted by the University of Toronto.3 After WW2 he returned to Toronto, rejoined the Political Economy department, now headed by Innis,4 and then worked closely with him as a colleague and increasingly close friend until Innis’ death in 1952. It was Easterbrook who first brought Innis and McLuhan together in 1947 or 1948. Thereafter McLuhan was decisively influenced by Innis in his turn to media and claimed that his work in that area could be considered a footnote to Innis’ pioneering. 

It seems that Cole introduced the session with remarks that were, however, not reproduced with the Easterbrook and McLuhan papers in the December Journal of Economic History. But Easterbrook gives some indication of them in his paper:

Present interest in communication research in the social and physical sciences raises some interesting and difficult questions for the economic historian. Arthur Cole, who claims that he is merely trying to carry further the work of Harold Innis (…)5 at Toronto, but who is [himself] surely the moving spirit in this session, has suggested that we might begin by pin-pointing a few leading questions for examination. Is this comparatively recent development [viz, interest in communication] to be regarded as merely a passing phase in the history of fashions in thought? Is the process of relating communication to economic change mainly a process of [increasing] sophistication (…)? Or, on the other hand, does it in fact amount to a major breakthrough in scientific and historical analysis?6

Arthur Cole’s challenge — to move beyond ‘increasing sophistication’ — remains unanswered. This session, I take it, is designed to explore prospects of meeting this challenge.

the informational [or content] approach7 (…) represents a many-sided attack on communication problems (…) and for the economic historian it is useful and occasionally exciting stuff. On the other hand, it is difficult to see any indication here of a major break-through of the sort that Arthur Cole — with his talk about “transcendental” aspects of business, and his appeal to an analogy with the human nervous system — appears to be seeking, and I doubt that it will come this way, if in fact it comes at all. Most of us, I think, will be inclined to take the view that this is as far as we can go, at least until much of the research underway goes beyond the speculative, hypotheses-to-be-tested stage. [But] Innis would have disagreed with this point of view, and McLuhan most certainly does. 

Beyond the light it throws on Cole’s continuing concern with the work of Innis, Easterbrook’s paper is interesting in many additional respects. It reflects his close relationship with both Innis and McLuhan and, in regard to the latter, sets out a view of McLuhan’s early media work as few others could have known it in 1960 — that is, before Gutenberg Galaxy, before Understanding Media and before McLuhan’s celebrity. By that point Easterbrook had been an intimate friend of McLuhan for over 30 years, had toured England with McLuhan one summer when the two of them were undergraduates and had been a founding member with McLuhan in the Ford Foundation Culture and Communication seminar in the mid 1950s.8 Outside of McLuhan’s family, Easterbrook probably knew McLuhan better than anybody else on earth.

Easterbrook mentions in his paper his own thesis that “uncertainty or imperfect knowledge as to the outcome of future events” is a, or the, central factor in political economy and in the social sciences generally.9 This view made him an endless opponent10 and perfect foil for McLuhan, of course, and he recognized (as explicitly stated in the passage from his paper cited immediately above) that both Innis and McLuhan sharply disagreed with him on it. But they naturally did not disagree that our “knowledge as to the outcome of future events” is “imperfect”. Rather, they posited that a focus on “the bias of communication” might present a way to investigate “events” that could leverage our inevitably “imperfect” knowledge to enable a new understanding of them in the past, present and, indeed, in the future.11 In the same way, chemistry understands physical events as they always have been and always will be. But it does not understand them ‘perfectly’! Instead, it probes our existing understanding for its ‘imperfections’ and finds in those ‘imperfections’ ways to further our understanding endlessly. We have had such a self-conscious12 knowledge of chemistry only for a couple centuries, however. And the key to its discovery was the increasing specification of the structure of the chemical element in the nineteenth century. Easterbrook saw that Innis and McLuhan had such a development in mind for the humanities and social sciences: 

there are indications that a major shift in thought, or approach, may be underway. Whereas communication has been regarded in the main as merely one element in a large complex, one thread in the web of history [= Cole’s “increasing sophistication”], there is a growing tendency to place it at the center of analysis and to make it the focal point of interest. Innis was convinced that he had found [a] unifying theme13 in communication change, and it has been suggested recently that [media]14 be made the independent variable, economic magnitudes the dependent variables, in the study of economic growth. This would indicate a pronounced shift in vantage point, one which would provide a common core of analysis across the disciplines.

The proposal of an “independent variable” that “would provide a common core of analysis across the disciplines” was indeed the thrust of the work of both Innis and McLuhan — although Innis was never sure it could outweigh our “uncertainty or imperfect knowledge” of events. In this respect, Easterbrook and McLuhan might be seen as the two sides of Innis, the one coming down on the side of ultimate “uncertainty” and the other coming down on the side of truthful insight despite, or on the very basis of, “uncertainty” and “bias”.

What we have here is not an advance on many fronts [= Cole’s “increasing sophistication”], but a concentrated attack on a single front or sector. The interest is in the medium itself, its physical characteristics, its formal, material aspect, seen as a tool with independent qualities of its own and as the key to analysis of total situations. As such, it appears as a resource, one transformed by technology and making its impact over the whole range of human action. The study of change becomes the study of the impact of changes in media and their consequences in terms of the structuring of societies along the lines of force of dominant media. In this view, priority in change is assigned to change in media in its material aspect and to the impact of shifts in media on patterns of human association.

Easterbrook’s description of the medium in McLuhan’s work as having “independent qualities of its own” and “making its impact over the whole range of human action” and “patterns of human association” is not mistaken. The common structure of chemical elements might be described in the same way as regards its “impact” on the whole range of physical nature. But Easterbrook’s repeated references to the medium’s “physical characteristics, its formal, material aspect” is not only untidy (“formal, material aspect”?), it also threatens to make our understanding of media subject to underlying “physical characteristics” rather than our understanding of these subject to media.15 Which is figure and which is ground? Are media to be understood in terms of physical ‘forms’ like roads and books? Or are these phenomena common across media, like properties in the physical sciences, and are to be understood in any given case in terms of the media mix underlying them?16 

It would seem that Easterbrook had understood McLuhan only up to the point where a transformation of the bias of the researcher was called for and, indeed, essential. Only so could “uncertainty” and “bias” be thought together with truth.

McLuhan indicates a way to understand this point in his paper at the conference:

The type of visualizing fostered by high intensity print technology is quite natural and habitual to highly literate populations, putting them at great disadvantage in a nuclear age, since nuclear structures are non-visualizable.17

Not that a “nuclear age” knows no “visualizing”! Only that its “type of visualizing” is fundamentally different from that of a “high intensity print” age! 

In fact, what is “fundamentally different” between the two ‘ages’ is exactly the relation of visuality to their understanding of ground. For the one, this relation is “high intensity”, for the other it is low. If a “totally new form of science”18 of communication (dual genitive) were possible, it would have to understand the whole range of such relations — including the one best suited for the investigators carrying it out.19  

In an address in Vancouver in 1958, two years before his appearance with Easterbrook at the Economic History Association meeting, McLuhan specified the issue at stake here in terms of problems that were  encountered in the Ford Culture and Communication seminar even with its founding members like Easterbrook:

The psychologists could study what the effects of radio are on the structure of human perception: what new habits of perception come from just listening to radio, or watching movies or television, or reading. They’ve never done these studies because they are mutational and psychology has tended to be static and non-mutational in its studies so far. That‘s why when we began those studies, the media studies at Toronto under the Ford grant, we didn’t know how to go about it because the members of our group were all trained in the static non-mutational terms of science. We had gradually, groping around, to discover certain ways whereby we could talk about these things, since they don’t satisfy the ordinary scientific procedures at all. It calls for a totally new form of science.20

Media research is “mutational” exactly because it raises the figure/ground question universally — and specifically in regard to its investigators themselves. In 1960 Easterbrook did not understand — or at least he did accept — the “mutational” figure/ground demands of this “totally new form of science” on himself. Indeed, given his standing reliance on “uncertainty or imperfect knowledge”, he never would. 

Easterbrook continues:

Innis (…) in his search for a more universal theme [than staples] (…) turned to communication in its time aspect. McLuhan, if I judge correctly, is building on his work. If we turn to (…) the dynamics of Iong-period change, it is evident that the media approach lends itself to a more comprehensive analysis of change than the staples thesis permits. Stages [historical periods] are marked out by shifts from one staple or medium to another, but in the latter [media approach] the simple linear sequence that [changes in staples]21 mark out gives way to a more complex array of clashing communication structures (configurations)22. The instability associated with these shifts is again more broadly defined in communication terms [than in staples terms], as each dominant medium is in turn challenged, then replaced by the marginal thrust of a later and more compelling rival.

Easterbrook’s use of “structures” and “configurations” here points to his fitting sense of what McLuhan was up to. But at the end of the day, he could not bring himself to — could not allow himself to be mutated to — a scientific investigation that would bring into question (bring into investigation) his existing point of view. As McLuhan was to write to Jacques Maritain in 1969:

There is a deep-seated repugnance in the human breast against understanding the processes in which we are involved. Such understanding involves far too much responsibility for our actions. (Letters, 370)

Much more, there is another “repugnance” at work on the way to under-standing media as proposed by McLuhan, a kind of repugnance2 (repugnance squared). Between the identities of a researcher who cannot see the new science and one who can, there is no identity! This gap, this dark night of the soul, this cloud of unknowing, this pathless path, must be ventured and somehow navigated in order to reach a destination which cannot be seen until it is seen:23

Without knowing it, you are questing for a new identity (…) which cannot be known until it has actually been made. (Adopt a College)24

As McLuhan was well aware, Eliot25 has the point wonderfully in Four Quartets:

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing
(East Coker)

And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment.
(Little Gidding)

Not in the scheme of generation.
Where is the summer, the unimaginable
Zero summer?26
(Little Gidding)

 

 

  1. Innis and Cole corresponded regularly throughout the 1940s. John Bonnett’s Emergence and Empire: Innis, Complexity, and the Trajectory of History ably discusses their exchanges.
  2. Innis and Cole were the second and third presidents of the Economic History Association respectively.
  3. Easterbrook’s PhD thesis, Farm Credit in Canada, was published by the University of Toronto Press in 1938 with a foreword by Innis.
  4. Easterbrook himself would become the head of this large department a decade later and serve in that capacity from 1961 to 1970.
  5. Easterbrook has “the work of Harold Innis and others at Toronto” here, but it is unclear what is meant by “others”. Was he referring to the subsequent work of McLuhan and himself after Innis’ death? Or was he thinking also of the early work in Toronto of Eric Havelock, who was now a colleague of Cole at Harvard?
  6. W.T. Easterbrook, Problems in the Relationship of Communication and Economic History’, Journal of Economic History, 20:4, December, 1960. All otherwise unidentified passages in this post are from this paper.
  7. Easterbrook differentiates in his paper between an informational approach to communications and a media one. In his paper, McLuhan offers “a comment on Easterbrook’s allusion to the difference between information and media approaches to problems today. The information theory approach, based on statics, is probably self-liquidating by virtue of the electric speeds available to it. It seems to me involuntarily and unnecessarily limited by a “content” concept. Wherever one meets the “content” concept, it is reasonably certain that there has been insufficient structural analysis. Phonetic writing and printing, for example, have content only in the sense that they “contain” another medium, namely, speech. But since the origin of writing, the simultaneous presence of the medium of speech, albeit in low definition, has fostered this habit of dichotomy and content-postulating, which in fact obscures major components in the situations with which we must deal.”
  8. As evidence of the exploding interest in communications, Easterbrook recalls in his paper how, “following a modest experiment in testing the comparative efficiency of various media, a Toronto communication group in which I participated with McLuhan and others, found itself swamped with a deluge of enquiries from communication centers previously unknown to us.”
  9. See his paper ‘Uncertainty and Economic Change‘, The Journal of Economic History, 14:4, 1954 and the recollections of Easterbrook by his friend and colleague, Mel Watkins: “Easterbrook was at heart a pluralist”.
  10. McLuhan in Speaking of Winnipeg: “We (Easterbrook and McLuhan) had an absolute agreement between ourselves to disagree about everything and this kept up (…) a very hot dialogue from morning to night for years in Winnipeg”.
  11. It is critical to note that by “events” (and, indeed, by “communication”, knowledge”, the ‘imperfect”, etc) Easterbrook, Innis and McLuhan did not mean the ‘same thing’. Indeed, one way of putting the differences between them would be to ask how each of them understood these words and things. McLuhan’s insistence that the arts provide the best way to illuminate such differences, and potentially to move beyond them, reflected his training in the Cambridge English School and its focus on “ambiguity”. Another way of putting the point would be to consider the differences between, say, 1750 and 1850 as to what was meant by ‘air’ and ‘water’ and all other physical substances. Everything had changed and yet at the same time, nothing had changed. Ordinary intercourse with ‘air’ and ‘water’ remained ‘the same’.
  12. Humans have had a unconscious knowledge of chemistry forever — in cooking, for example.
  13. Easterbrook: “his unifying theme”. Easterbrook’s formulation suggests that Innis’ work was driven by a search for such a “unifying theme” in history.
  14. Easterbrook: “information flow”. It is unclear if Easterbrook confused his contrast between media and “information flow” at this point or if he was thinking of the former here as one of the many varieties of the latter.
  15. Easterbrook speaks in his paper of the need for communication studies to be “brought down to earth”.
  16. McLuhan is his presentation at the conference: “the formal characteristics of the medium, recurring in a variety of material situations”. In regard to ‘media mix’, McLuhan emphasized throughout his work that media are never expressed singularly, but only and always in some form of “rapport” (between speech and writing, say, or ear and eye). See note 18 below.
  17. McLuhan, ‘Effects of the Improvements of Communication Media’, Journal of Economic History, 20:4, December, 1960.
  18. For a “totally new form of science”, see the citation in this post from McLuhan’s 1958 presentation in Vancouver and its discussion at McLuhan on media science in 1958.
  19. What is somehow still not understood in regard to McLuhan’s work is that an investigation of media requires research that would understand both of these ‘ages’ in their individuality and in their commonality as media. In an important paper from 1970, which was typeset but apparently never published, ‘Libraries: Past, Present and Future’, McLuhan described Innis’ importance in this respect as follows: “Innis understood that acoustic and visual space were antithetic and complementary. like the written and oral traditions. That is why he has such relevance (…) His work is founded on recognition of the fact that there must be some rapport between the written and the oral traditions — between the visual and the auditory — for any society to persist in a state of health.”
  20. When McLuhan was talking off the cuff, he tended to express himself in very long run-on sentences with his thoughts joined (or disjoined) by conjunctives like ‘and’ and ‘but’. In the transcript his last sentence here reads: “That‘s why when we began those studies, the media studies at Toronto under the Ford grant, we didn’t know how to go about it because the members of our group were all trained in the static non-mutational terms of science, and we had gradually, groping around, to discover certain ways whereby we could talk about these things and they don’t satisfy the ordinary scientific procedures at all; but I think it calls for a totally new form of science.” See The medium is the message in 1958 and McLuhan on media science in 1958 for discussions of the Vancouver conference.
  21. Easterbrook: “staples changes”.
  22. The bracketed “configurations” here is from Easterbrook.
  23. The unknowing described by McLuhan, and by the tradition at least since Plato, cannot be appreciated aside from the personal experience of it. McLuhan as the man without difficulties and anxieties must be revisioned as a kind of Zen threshold which cannot be crossed without seeing through the untroubled mask of the doorkeeper.
  24. McLuhan, ‘Adopt a College’, This magazine is about schools, 2:4, 1968. There are four different senses implicated in “without knowing it” here. First, “without knowing it” the world is on the way to the new science and associated new identity that must be achieved if it, the world, is not to destroy itself. Second, which of the two possibilities contesting here will dis-place the other cannot be known. We must live in the space or gap of this question “without knowing it” — namely “without knowing” the answer to this outstanding question of science or doom. Third, the “new identity” needed to begin the new science cannot be known as a goal “without knowing it”. That is, it “cannot be known until it has actually been made” (achieved). Fourth, because the goal cannot be known, neither can the way to the goal be known. This way must be ventured “without knowing it” —  without any orientation upon it. Easterbrook was hardly alone in avoiding this “worldpool” of uncertainties!
  25. Eliot has the point — but so did Plato. In fact the point at stake has been made throughout the tradition by its best minds. Therefore: “And what there is to conquer / By strength and submission, has already been discovered / Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope / To emulate—but there is no competition— / There is only the fight to recover what has been lost / And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions / That seem unpropitious.” (East Coker)
  26. Like ‘spring’, which in Four Quartets is first and mainly the vertical moment by moment action of humans of springing forth into their being and only secondarily a horizontal time of year, so ‘summer’ is first of all the realization of ‘spring time’ by humans — at last! — and only secondarily the ‘following’ time of year to ‘spring’. It is “unimaginable” because it cannot be known until it is known: “not in the scheme of generation”. It can be designated as “zero” because it is the ever repeated beginning that can be found, at last, as McLuhan repeatedly insisted, only (only!) through a ‘retracing’: “the learning process as a labyrinth of the senses and faculties whose retracing provided the key to all arts and sciences” (Letter to Innis, 1951). Eliot has it this way in Little Gidding: “And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time. / Through the unknown, remembered gate / When the last of earth left to discover / Is that which was the beginning.”

McLuhan on media science in 1958

It was in his May 5, 1958 opening address to the ‘Radio in the Future of Canada’ conference in Vancouver that McLuhan first used his signature slogan, ‘the medium is the message’. Then, after his talk, he fielded questions from conference attendees. In the course of his responses he came to speak of media science, a topic that would be much on his mind in his ‘Understanding Media’ project with the NAEB over the following two years.

In the talk itself McLuhan noted that in the face of profound social and educational crises “we need types of observation, prediction and control that are totally new“. He would repeat the phrase “totally new” many times in the course of his remarks that day. And the possibility of such discontinuous innovation he saw in the fact that media revolutions in the past, especially those of literacy and then of print (the multiplier of literacy), had in their time produced “a totally new set of mental operations”. A repetition of the media revolutionary process had now to be made again on the basis of electricity — but this time consciously. The imperative need was, first, to avoid the thoughtless destruction of the hard-won achievements of literacy, like private identity, democracy and human rights, at a time when literacy itself seemed doomed. Then, second1, to identify the elements of media (dual genitive!) so that an open investigation could be made of them such as had followed the identification of the chemical elements of physical nature (dual genitive!) in the course of the nineteenth century. This was one of the central meanings of ‘the medium is the message’ — one that has been completely overlooked, in a kind of unconscious abstention, in our continuing “numb”.

No one in 1800 could have foreseen the “types of observation, prediction and control” that had become possible by 1900 — not to speak of 2000! These were and are “totally new” types of “mental operations” that generated, and/or were generated by, manufacturing processes, university, business and military research, the world-wide exchange of ideas and experimental results, new inventions, not least of new media — and so on. It was just such an explosion of insight in and of the interior landscape that McLuhan saw as the only possible answer to the implosion of the exterior landscape. Hence his frequent characterization of his work as a “strategy for survival”.2  

In his remarks after his talk McLuhan continued:

it seems to me that it’s possible to put this thing on an entirely predictable scientific basis. That you can analyze the properties of any given medium to the point where you can say ”All right, if you mix [it]3 with that particular [other medium]4, you will get this [new] kind of complex. or cluster of events, that you don’t have if [they are] not [mixed].” You could predict.

This possibility was, however, very far from being actualized:

psychologists could study what the effects of radio [and other media] are on the structure of human perception: what new habits of perception come from just listening to radio, or watching movies or television, or reading. They’ve never done these studies because they are mutational5 and psychology [as a result] has tended to be static and non-mutational in its studies so far. That‘s why when we began those studies, the media studies at Toronto under the Ford grant, we didn’t know how to go about it because the members of our group were all trained in the static non-mutational terms of science, and we had gradually, groping around, to discover certain ways whereby we could talk about these things. They don’t satisfy the ordinary scientific procedures at all; but I think it calls for a totally new form of science.

Such new science could not be systematic in the Gutenbergian manner:

I don’t think it’s possible to produce a systematic account of all these things. You have to jump in here, and cut in there, look down, look up and so on simultaneously to get any sort of a full coverage, so there’s no use apologising for the lack of system.

The new interior landscape science, or sciences, would be more like quantum physics than, say, Euclidian geometry. It, or they, would mime the new aesthetics of the poetry, painting, sculpture, dance and music that had emerged around 1900 in which the characteristic structural element was discontinuity.6 

A science of media would be “totally new”, then, not only as a new discipline studying new content, but in its form. This in turn raised questions concerning the shape and number (singular or plural) of time. For if the discipline studied the forms of media, it — as itself a form — would have to begin with the results of that study.7 This feedback imperative was exactly why such study was inevitably “mutational”. But if this somersault were possible, this sort of circling back from the end to the beginning, time could not be only linear nor singular. And identity could not be static, but would have to be fundamentally gapped:

In my end is my beginning.8

 

  1. Second only in the order of explication here. The required elements are of course first in many senses, not least in the fact that they would have to be already in unconscious operation — just as the chemical elements isolated in the nineteenth century had been active since the beginning of time.
  2. It is a measure of the implosion of the exterior landscape that McLuhan’s “strategy for survival” has become a ‘strategy for publication’ and a ‘strategy for tenure’ and other bennies.
  3. McLuhan: “them”.
  4. McLuhan has “wire element” here instead of ‘other medium’. Apparently he was thinking of the particular other medium of radio and of how it even as a ‘wireless’ medium was first taken as a variety of ‘wire’ communication devices such as the telegraph and telephone — like the automobile at first appearing as a ‘horseless carriage’.
  5. By ‘mutational’ McLuhan meant that such study unavoidably reflects back on the researchers pursuing it with the potential of ‘mutating’ their own ‘habits of perception’ and their own correlated identities. But better to leave that sort of radioactive possibility alone, of course, no matter the cost!
  6. McLuhan to Innis in 1951: “it was most of all the esthetic discoveries of the symbolists since Rimbaud and Mallarmé (developed in English by Joyce, Eliot, Pound, Lewis and Yeats) which have served to recreate in contemporary consciousness an awareness of the potencies of language such as the Western world has not experienced in 1800 years. Mallarmé saw the modern press as a magical institution born of technology. The discontinuous juxtaposition of unrelated items made necessary by the influx of news stories from every quarter of the world, created, he saw, a symbolic landscape of great power and importance. (He used the word “symbol” in the strict Greek sense sym-ballein, to pitch together, physically and musically). He saw at once that the modern press was not a rational form but a magical one so far as communication was concerned. Its very technological form was bound to be efficacious far beyond any informative purpose. Politics were becoming musical, jazzy, magical.”
  7. Were the study of media to begin with a form that was inherently incapable of science, it would, of course, never achieve it. It would look exactly like the McLuhan industry as it operates today. It would be a kind of pseudo-aesthetic activity where practitioners could do no more than paste found snippets into a collage. There would be no feedback or “mutation”. Both the media ecologists, as they might call themselves, and their objects would be and would remain just what they were — in the RVM. “It is the natural bias of print culture to be past-oriented, and above all to be consumer-oriented.” (‘Effects of the Improvements of Communication Media’, 1960) But how start with what is yet to be realized? Such a question goes unasked — must indeed be avoided at all cost — because of its impossible demand for initial “mutation”, metamorphosis, transformation — that is, exactly what McLuhan is all about.
  8. Eliot, Four Quartets, East Coker, echoing Mary, Queen of Scots: “En ma Fin gît mon Commencement”. Among the meanings of gît (related to English ‘gist’), aside from ‘to be situated’, is ‘to be hidden’, ‘to be buried’. Eliot, of course, also emphasized the reverse insight: “In my beginning is my end” (East Coker), since “that which is only living / Can only die” (Burnt Norton).

Peterson on Eliot’s knot

Oh abbondante grazia ond’ io presunsi
ficcar lo viso per la luce etterna,
tanto che la veduta vi consunsi!
Nel suo profondo vidi che s’interna,
legato con amore in un volume,
ciò che per l’universo si squaderna:
sustanze e accidenti e lor costume
quasi conflati insieme, per tal modo
che ciò ch’i’ dico è un semplice lume.
La forma universal di questo nodo
credo ch’i’ vidi (Dante, Paradiso, 33.85-92)

O grace abounding, through which I presumed
to set my eyes on the Eternal Light
so long that I spent all my sight on it!1
In its profundity I saw — ingathered

and bound by love into one single volume —
what, in the universe, seems separate, scattered:
substances, accidents, and [their mutual] dispositions2
as if conjoined — in such a way that what
I tell is only rudimentary.3
I think I saw the universal shape
which that knot takes4

These are close to the last lines of the last canto of the last section of Dante’s Commedia, the Paradiso, in which Dante tells of his beatific vision there. The last lines of the last section of the last Quartet of Eliot’s Four Quartets, ‘Little Gidding’, cited by Peterson and discussed below, were written in modest echo of Dante’s unsurpassable vision.

*****

There was no one McLuhan wrote about more in his published and unpublished work than T.S Eliot. Hugh Kenner has described “the passion (…) with which we two (…) studied Eliot! We penciled notes on the yellow postwar paper of a Faber Four Quartets.5 This was in the late 1940s when McLuhan and Kenner were planning a book on Eliot together. The project came to fruition, however, only in separate publications by both men.6 While Kenner was already expert in tracing the narrative of literary figures like Pound7 and Eliot, McLuhan was fixated on understanding discontinuity in Eliot, but also in cybernetics, the epyllion and in his own life. He was undergoing his second conversion at just that time. His investigation of Eliot then continued for the rest of his life such that one of his last literary essays and one of his last public lectures would be on Eliot.8

Jordan Peterson has paid far less attention to Eliot than McLuhan, and — as a psychology professor — with far less training to do so, but he does discuss Eliot briefly in 12 Rules for Life (p 57-58). He begins by citing the last lines of ‘Little Gidding’, the fourth of the Four Quartets. These last lines of the last Quartet bring the Four Quartets to its close and represent a wonderful coda of the whole work:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

Characteristically, Peterson takes this culminating passage to describe heroic “exploration” and especially the heroic exploration of consciousness (dual genitive9):

The beginning of conscious history, the rise of the state and all its pathologies of pride and rigidity, the emergence of great moral figures who try to set things right, culminating in the Messiah Himself — that is all part of humanity’s attempt, God willing, to set itself right. And what would that mean? (…) The answer is already implicit in Genesis 1: to embody the Image of God — to speak out of chaos the Being that is Good — but to do so consciously, of our own free choice. Back is the way forward — as T. S. Eliot so rightly insisted — but back as awake beings, exercising the proper choice of awake beings, instead of back to sleep. (58)

Peterson makes a series of assumptions here which control his reading of Eliot’s coda — and lead him to mis-take it fundamentally. More importantly, these misguided assumptions disable Peterson’s own project and actually rehearse the grounds of the distress of the world rather than (as he of course intends) tending to its relief. Some of these assumptions are:

  • time is singular, linear and progressive (no matter, strangely enough, if it is considered forward or backward)10
  • time is only horizontal, not also vertical
  • a beginning is to be located at the start of a horizontal timeline
  • a beginning is less than what it generates, not more11
  • consciousness is the motor of history and the great need is to have more of it12
  • there are two states of consciousness, being awake or asleep, light and dark, and the imperative is to enhance the former and reduce the latter

Now the Four Quartets disputes all these assumptions and wonderfully rehearses its contrary acceptances in those very closing lines of ‘Little Gidding’ cited by Peterson. Here “beginning” is not to be found at some singular point at the start of an historical sequence, but is “here, now, always”.

This is a moment (as Eliot has it earlier in LG13) “suspended in time” or, if a “moment” must be said to implicate some sort of time, this is a moment in

time not our time
(…)
a time
Older than the time of chronometers (DS).

This “moment”, although specifically not chronological, yet has vast implication:

Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered. (EC)

This is a time that is at the heart of chronological time

in the stillness
between two waves of the sea (LG)

Yet also precedes and succeeds it:

Or say that the end precedes the beginning,
And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.
And all is always now. (BN)

But as ‘Burnt Norton’ already has it near the very beginning of the Four Quartets:

If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

For in this “time not our time”,

time future [is] contained in time past (BN)

Such that: 

In my beginning is my end (EC)

And this is why:

that which is only living
Can only die. (BN)

More, when “all is always now”, the shameful hurt we have inflicted on others is incessantly exposed:

And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been. (EC)  

Such that:

We are only undeceived
Of that which, deceiving, could no longer harm. (EC)

In short, there is no heroic way of redemption: its progressive “exploration” is undermined from the start. “The end of all our exploring”, as those last lines of LG distil from all the Quartets, is not a matter of being more, but of being less:

costing not less than everything

“Everything” must be lost — including, or especially, heroic identity and its lights.

The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.
    The houses are all gone under the sea.
    The dancers are all gone under the hill. (EC)

BN, the first Quartet of the Four Quartets, introduces images which will be taken up again, transformed, at the end of the last Quartet, in its coda in LG:

Sudden in a shaft of sunlight
Even while the dust moves
There rises the hidden laughter
Of children in the foliage
Quick now, here, now, always—
Ridiculous the waste sad time
Stretching before and after.

“The waste sad time stretching before and after” is Peterson’s linear history, the time of heroic exploration:

Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after (…)
Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs
Time before and time after. (BN)

It is exactly this assumed notion of progressive capability that must be jettisoned14 through submission to another time — “Quick now, here, now, always” — as “that which was [and is and will be] the beginning”:

And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

 

 

  1. The 1964 French translation of Alexandre Cioranescu is given at the Dartmouth Dante site: “Ô grâce généreuse où j’ai pris le courage / de plonger mon regard dans la Clarté suprême, / jusqu’au point d’épuiser la faculté de voir!” Since determinatio est negatio, Dante here loses his sight and at the same time comes to see how it is that there is something like a faculty of sight. This occurs, however, in sight of the knot of Being that is also the ‘not’ of Being — “jusqu’au point d’épuiser la faculté de voir!”
  2. The modern Italian paraphrase at Weschool gives: “e sostanze, gli accidenti e il loro rapporto“. Mandelbaum captures this in the next line: “as if conjoined”.
  3. Mandelbaum does not give indication of Dante’s contrast here between ‘un semplice lume’ and ‘la luce etterna’ seven lines above. The Longfellow translation at the Dartmouth site is a “simple light”. Cioranescu in the same place: “un pâle reflet”.
  4. Mandelbaum translation given at the Columbia Digital Dante site.
  5. Kenner’s new ‘Preface’ to the 1985 reprinting of his The Poetry of Ezra Pound from 1951.
  6. Kenner, ‘Eliot’s Moral Dialectic’, Hudson Review 2 (1949); McLuhan, ‘Mr. Eliot’s Historical Decorum’, Renascence 2:1, 1949.
  7. See note 5.
  8. ‘Rhetorical Spirals in Four Quartets‘ (1978) which appeared in a volume of essays dedicated to McLuhan’s student and friend, Sheila Watson, and ‘The Possum and the Midwife’ (McLuhan’s 1978 Pound Lecture at the University of Idaho).
  9. A dual genitive is both objective (where, in this case,  consciousness is the object of the exploration) and subjective (where, in this case, consciousness carries out the exploration). A world-historical riddle is, of course, posed by the internal relation of this duality.
  10. Peterson writes quickly with intentional risk. Here he writes of “the beginning of conscious history” followed by a further “rise” and an “emergence” — and then says that “back is the way forward”. “Back” against the “beginning”, “rise” and “emergence”? An attempt to rescue some sense here would take it that another “rise” or “emergence” must be in play at this point as a new appreciation (“but back as awake beings”) of Genesis and other comparable texts and mythologies. What was only “implicit” in them is now to be made explicit through the “conscious” insight of “awake beings”: “part of humanity’s attempt, God willing, to set itself right.” But lost in the fog here are the great questions of the singularity/plurality of time(s) and the sort of com-plicated figure time/times makes in, or rather as, history — that is, just what Eliot’s coda (specifically recalling the “nodo” of the last canto Dante’s Paradiso) describes in its very culminating lines as “the crowned knot of fire” when “the fire and the rose are one”.
  11. Compare Heidegger’s concluding sentence to his Introduction to Sein und Zeit (1927): “Higher than actuality stands possibility. The understanding of phenomenology (dual genitive!) lies entirely in the grasping of it (dual genitive!) as a possibility.” (Höher als die Wirklichkeit steht die Möglichkeit. Das Verständnis der Phänomenologie liegt einzig im Ergreifen ihrer als Möglichkeit.)
  12. The heroic “rise” according to Peterson goes on from “the beginning of conscious history” (dual genitive!) to the attempt “to set things right (…) consciously (…) as awake beings, exercising the proper choice of awake being”.
  13. Eliot’s Quartets are identified here as BN = ‘Burnt Norton’, EC = ‘East Coker’, DS = ‘Dry Salvages’ and LG = ‘Little Gidding’.
  14. EC: “not in movement / But abstention from movement; while the world moves / In appetency, on its metalled ways / Of time past and time future.” Compare Heidegger in ‘Das Wesen der Sprache’: “Die verweilende Rückkehr da-hin, wo wir schon sind, ist unendlich schwerer als die eiligen Fahrten dorthin, wo wir noch nicht sind und nie sein werden.”

McLuhan & Peterson: competing fundamental myths 1

Imagine that the human environment might be better considered as “what is and has always been common to all domains of human experience, regardless of spatial locale or temporal frame.” The environment, construed in such a manner, consists not of objects [in the first place], but of phenomenological constants… (Jordan Peterson)1

Very early in his career McLuhan had a notion of what Jordan Peterson calls the “constituent elements of experience”. His undergraduate philosophy mentor at the University of Manitoba, Rupert Lodge, argued that all philosophy is built from three fundamental forms, acting alone or together: idealism, realism and pragmatism.2 Although McLuhan was always more interested in literature than philosophy, as a more concrete expression of human “types of temperament”, this did not mean that he considered literature as lacking comparable fundamental forms. The “artistic expression of such temperaments”, he argued, exhibits a “consistency of conformation” at least equal to that of the “thought processes” of philosophy:

The poet plants himself upon his instincts and permits his temperament sovereign sway. And he has quite as much right to do this as the philosopher has to trust his thought processes. In his table talk, Coleridge noted that all men (…) are born either Platonists or Aristotelians. There are similarly, in all times and places, definite types of temperament displaying consistency of conformation. The literary or artistic expression of such temperaments has properly the same validity as has the philosophizing of the Idealist and the Realist.

This is from McLuhan’s 1933-4 M.A. thesis at the University of Manitoba on the English novelist, George Meredith. McLuhan was 22. Ten years later in his Cambridge PhD thesis, he described 2000 years of intellectual history, from classical Greece to Elizabethan England, in terms of the interplay of the three forms of the trivium — dialectic, rhetoric and grammar. Their constant interplay, he submitted, constitutes an “ancient quarrel” underlying and accounting for the formation of the surface level of human experience across all the areas of its expression in (say) literature, philosophy, theology and education generally.3

In his thesis McLuhan did not yet consider just how these constants come to concrete expression in an individual and in groups. Known or unknown to themselves, humans must somehow come to their experience via a process played out aside from (or inside of?) historical time — for there is no delay in our experience of the world while we consider its possibilities. There must be another time in which these constants are surveyed and then one of them, or a combination of them, ‘selected’ (through submission) for adoption/adaption as experience.4 Humans are the beings of (subjective genitive) such multi-dimensionality.5 Over the next decade McLuhan would come to characterize this process as a ‘descent into the maelstrom’ (aka the ‘worldpool’). But like everyone else since at least Plato, he would fail in the attempt to explicate this process enough to spark its collective investigation — despite the fact that during his lifetime we all came to mime the process by ‘going to the movies’.6  

By his early 30’s, then, McLuhan saw human experience as multilevel (surface and depth) and multi-chronological (history with its underlying dynamic “quarrel”). He would spend the next four decades investigating this “whirling phantasmagoria” (as he called it in the ‘Preface’ to The Mechanical Bride) and attempting to communicate what he more and more believed was its potential contribution — a potential contribution that conceivably was unique — to human survival.

Now, although explicitly referenced by McLuhan mainly in its derivative form of the attack on the heavens represented by the tower of babel,7 what was at stake in his whole career from the 1930s to 1980 was a myth described in Plato’s Sophist as the gigantomachia peri tes ousias,8 the originary battle of the gods and giants over reality:

What we shall see is something like a battle of gods and giants going on between them over their quarrel about reality (…) One party [the giants] is trying to drag everything down to earth [their mother] out of heaven and the unseen, literally grasping rocks and trees in their hands, for they lay hold upon every stock and stone and strenuously affirm that real existence belongs only to that which can be handled and offers resistance to the touch. They define reality as the same thing as body, and as soon as one of the opposite party asserts that anything without a body is real, they are utterly contemptuous and will not listen to another word. (…) 
Their adversaries [the gods] are very wary in defending their position somewhere in the heights of the unseen  [their father], maintaining with all their force that true reality consists in certain intelligible and bodiless forms. In the clash of argument they shatter and pulverize those bodies which their opponents wield, and what those others allege to be true reality they call, not real being, but a sort of moving process of becoming. On this issue an interminable battle is always going on between the two camps. (…)
It seems that only one course is open to the philosopher who values knowledge and truth above all else. He must refuse to accept from the champions of the forms the doctrine that all reality is changeless and exclusively immaterial, and he must turn a deaf ear to the other party who represent reality as everywhere changing and as only material. Like a child begging for ‘both’, he must declare that reality or the sum of things is both at once. (Sophist 246a-249c)

The same story was told in Egypt as many years before Plato as we are after him. This was at the very beginning of written history, but there is no reason not to suppose that humans have always known this story and always recounted it in one way or another.9 In the Egyptian version, Horus, the hawk son and/or reincarnation of Osiris, battled his snake brother, Seth, for domination of the land (always divided between the arable riverside ‘overseen’ by Horus and the always threatening desert of Seth). Their battle laid the earth to waste — in particular it stirred up the holy pool before the temple of Atum in Heliopolis so that it no longer served to reflect the above in the below. The nine great gods then met in council to decide how the rift in the divine family might be healed. The council of the gods was headed by Atum, the sun, who was the grandfather of Geb (the earth) and Nut (the sky) and great-grandfather of  Osiris-Horus and Seth. The conciliar decision was to anoint Thoth (god of letters and sometimes called a further brother of Horus and Seth) with the authority and the power to settle their dispute — which he was thereby able to achieve to the satisfaction of the two warring combatants. This action of reconciliation, first within the council of the nine gods in reaching its decision, and then in the work of Thoth in reconciling Horus-Osiris and Seth, became the model of justice ‘before Geb’, that is, both in the place and time of the gods and in the place and time of Egypt (where the pharaohs of Egypt occupied the ‘throne of Geb’).10  

The parallels between the Greek and Egyptian myths are plain. A familial battle of originary forces takes place concerning domination of above and below. The contest is settled in a philosophical way through a reconciliation of both together. In neither case, however, is the action linear such that reconciliation would simply do away with strife (or strife simply do away with reconciliation). Instead the action is, as Plato says, “an interminable battle [that] is always going on between them”.11 “Going on”, this is to say, in another time from chronological time in the depths of both ontology and psychology — where the imperative need of the latter (currently in indescribably dangerous eclipse) is to retrieve the reconciliation of the former. The possibility of this retrieval is grounded, in turn, exactly in that reconciliation which is ‘before’ it, a priori.12

Most important of all to under-stand concerning this contest is that it is not ‘about’ reality, as if the contesting figures disputed at some remove from it. Rather, this gigantic agon ‘is’ reality.13  

Reality itself — “real existence” or “true reality”, as Plato says — is plural and, therefore, abysmally gapped in the borders between its multiple contestants.

One of the foremost implications of this mythological ontology is that justice is possible among individuals and states because it is first of all a possibility in reality itself. It is ‘true’ — where the etymology relates to ‘tree’ and has to do with ‘deep roots’ and ‘steadfastness’. Justice as ‘truce’ (another cognate), even among original powers in their unsurpassable power (like the gods and giants, and Horus and Seth), is grounded in a reconciliation that is just as original and mighty as they are.14

In the course of the 1950s McLuhan became increasingly clear about the practical ramifications of this background “quarrel” and hence of our need to initiate collective investigation of it. Here he is in Network #2 from 1953:

The area of spatial communication is that of politics, business and power. Time is the sphere of language and knowledge. Equilibrium between these interests means social viability. Divorce between them is the breakdown of communication — the jamming of the social networkNineteenth century development of spatial communication widened the gap between knowledge and power, [between] poetry (all the arts) [on the one hand] and politics [and] business [on the other]. The withdrawal of the arts to an ivory tower and of politics and business to a tower of Babel is the figurative way of citing the current divorce between knowledge and know-how. Irresponsibility and loss of bearings occurred in both domains. Yet major developments in each sphere were strikingly parallel, and even belated recognition of common problems and solutions may help mend the broken network.

From his Cambridge English School training McLuhan was well aware, of course, that ‘space’ and ‘time’, the ‘arts’ and ‘business’, and so on, are utterly ambiguous and could never be used to define the archetypal struggle between “divorce” and “equilibrium”. Instead, they needed to be defined by it. But he didn’t yet realize, apparently, just how important this distinction was and is. Hence it was only a full 5 years later in 1958 that he first declared that “the medium is the message”.

His guess was that a definition of media along a spectrum, characterized at its two extremes by “divorce” and at its centre by “equilibrium”, might enable investigation of human experience in a new — but “ancient” — way. Through such investigation, the rift “between knowledge and know-how” might be healed and the demonstrable power of “know-how”, after two centuries of its unbridled domination of the planet and all the endless disasters resulting from that domination, might now itself be turned to our desperately needed reconciliation. As McLuhan already noted in his ‘Preface’ to The Mechanical Bride

Since so many minds are engaged in bringing about this condition of public helplessness, and since these programs of commercial education [like the news and advertising in the general environment and all based on “know-how”] are so much more expensive and influential than the relatively puny offerings sponsored by schools and colleges [in the classroom], it seemed fitting to devise a method for reversing the process. Why not use the new commercial education as a means to enlightening its intended prey? Why not assist the public to observe consciously the drama which is intended to operate upon it unconsciously?

In short (in the same place):

Where visual symbols have been employed [via “know-how”] in an effort to paralyze the mind, they are here used as a means of energizing it.

Now Jordan Peterson, too, appeals to a myth which he terms “the most basic of plots”15 and “the oldest and most fundamental story that mankind possesses.”16

Here are some of his accounts of this myth:

  • The Sumerians, ancient Egyptians and Old Testament Hebrews settled by all accounts17 on a world-story that made of existence and experience the eternal battleground of order and chaos, mediated by the heroic aspect of consciousness –- the Logos, the Word, truth, light, enlightenment, illumination.18
  • the categories offered by traditional myths and religious systems (…) present the world as a place of constant moral striving, conducted against a background of interplay between the “divine forces” of order and chaos. (…) The capacity for creative exploration –- embodied in mythology in the form of the “ever-resurrecting hero” -– serves as the eternal mediator between these fundamental constituent elements of experience.19
  • Human beings, “made in the image of God”, construct their familiar territory, their cosmos, out of chaos -– the unknown -– and then strive to maintain the dynamic equilibrium of what they have constructed and now inhabit. The capacity to engage in such activity is “incarnation of the divine Logos”, embodiment of the creative, exploratory “Word”, whose activity finds eternal dramatic representation in the figure of the hero, the dragon-slaying savior.20
  • The story of the hero is the most basic of plots, therefore, because it deals with the most basic of encounters [between order and chaos].21
  • the elder [Mesopotamian] gods elect Marduk, god of exploration, vision and speech, as King, top of the sacred dominance hierarchy, and send him out to voluntarily confront Chaos (…). This is the oldest and most fundamental story that mankind possesses.22 It echoes through ancient Egypt, and that state’s conceptions of Horus, the redemptive, attentive eye; Isis, the goddess of chaos; and Osiris, the god of the state. It serves as the source for the creation story in the Hebrew bible, and profoundly influences Christianity; it is the story of St. George, and of Christ, the perfect man, the second Adam, and the deadliest enemy of death, and the eternal serpent.23

There are, of course a great many parallels between Peterson’s hero myth and the mythological ontologies of Plato’s gigantomachia and the Egyptian Horus-Thoth-Seth proceedings. He describes some of them himself. In all three cases “a world-story [is recounted] that made of existence and experience the eternal battleground of order and chaos, mediated by (…) Logos, the Word”.24

But the most important part of the Peterson’s “willingness to risk”25 is his assumption of the contemporary state of the world’s mind. That is, he ‘puts on’ an understanding of this “world-story” that largely26 dis-places it from multi-dimensional spaces and times, and from a phenomenological or dynamic ontology, to an “evolutionary/historical perspective” with a unidimensional space-time. This displacement may be observed in many features of Peterson’s account of the myth:

  • the hero is sometimes said to be “eternal” and so seemingly a third archetypal power with “order and chaos”; but this implication constantly elides into heroic action that human beings do or, at least, might do if only they had “willingness to risk”. It is a matter of (subjective genitive!) “consciousness”, “enlightenment”, “creative exploration”: “Human beings, (…) construct their familiar27 territory, their cosmos, out of chaos.”
  • myth as explanation (explanans) constantly elides into a matter to be explained (explanandum) — where ‘to be explained’ is understood as bringing it into a unidimensional framework that Peterson terms “the adoption of a much broader evolutionary/historical perspective”.28 Here “our culture” is said to be “an emergent consequence of an ancient process”20 that may be reflected in myth, but that is ultimately not only not mythological-ontological, and not even specifically human, but biological.30
  • the originary power of myth constantly elides in Peterson’s telling into something secondary, something that is only a representation of something else, something that is “embodied in mythology” but is subject to further “enlightenment” — “developing more and more coherence over stretches of time” through our “creative exploration”.
  • hence, instead of experience always deriving from the multiple possibilities of mythological ontology, Peterson would investigate that mythology as “imaginative roadmaps to being”.31

It is exactly because Peterson ‘puts on’ the dire state of the contemporary world that he turns mythology-ontology around to where it might indicate something (existence itself!) — if only we could “illuminate” it more brightly via further heroic investigation. The result is just that of Nietzsche’s “History of an Error” which Beckett so nicely capsulated in Three Dialogues: “There is more than a difference of degree between being short –- short of the world, short of self -– and being without these esteemed commodities.”

For Peterson’s hero, the quest is an eternal matter of linear degree — the “thing-in-itself” is to be reached through its refractive object. He is unable to take on the thought of eternal recurrence which Zarathustra endured as the condition of his ‘convalescence‘. In the circularity of eternal recurrence the arrow of time is not linear and does not point to the goal of reality and truth. In this fundamental circularity we are “without these esteemed commodities” as conceived in Gutenbergian perspective.

Peterson’s project has led him into the cul-de-sac of the contemporary world disaster in which humans know nothing — but know enough to terminate life on earth. The latter possibility is of course infinitely more dangerous given the former actuality.

Peterson’s task is to under-go the reversals and involutions of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra in order to find that incipet the world so desperately needs. The outstanding question is whether he will fulfill his mission.

 

  1. Peterson, ‘Religion, sovereignty, natural rights, and the constituent elements of experience’,  Archive for the Psychology of Religion, v28, 2006, emphasis added. It is unclear why Peterson uses quotation marks in this passage. Is it a citation of some sort? Or does he mean to mark out this part of his text for special attention — more or less like italics?
  2. For discussion see The Comparative Method of Rupert Lodge.
  3. The echo is clear here of McLuhan’s idea, from 10 years before at the University of Manitoba, of applying Lodge’s work outside of philosophy. But all important further questions are raised. First, how to identify and hence to name (or vice versa) the “types of temperament”? Second, what are the times of the “ancient quarrel” of those forms and of their dynamic expression? One of the profound difficulties of these questions is that they are knotted together and cannot be answered separately.
  4. A similar ‘process’ takes place in speaking a language. Only some possibilities of sound and grammar make sense in any given language. And only some of these make sense in a given situation. Humans must decide these questions, but, of course, they mostly do so unconsciously and, seemingly, im-mediately.
  5. See the previous note.
  6. McLuhan’s debt to filmmakers/theoreticians like Eisenstein and Zavattini cannot be overemphasized. See ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’ (1954): “The movie reconstructs the external daylight world and in so doing provides an interior dream world. (…) Another way of seeing this mysterious medium for transforming experience is to consider it as the exact embodiment of Plato’s Cave. The dreaming eye of the movie god casting his images on the dark screen corresponds to that image of human life offered to us by Plato in the Republic: existence is a kind of cave or cellar on the back wall of which we watch the shadows of (…) reality.”
  7. This not to mention Christianity which may be understood as a form of this “ancient” myth — or as the realization and consummation of it. For McLuhan, of course, the latter was the case. For discussion of some of the implicated issues here, see Pre-Christian Logos and Babel.
  8. Plato: γιγαντομαχία τις εἶναι διὰ τὴν ἀμφισβήτησιν περὶ τῆς οὐσίας: the great battle of the gods and giants in their dispute about reality. Sophist 246a.
  9. It is, after all, the story of the first spoken word. At that originary moment, two isolated figures came into communication through a third figure, the Word, ‘combining’ both.
  10. For ancient Egypt generally, and the proceedings of Horus, Seth and Thoth in particular, see the great works of Jan Assmann.
  11. ἐν μέσῳ δὲ περὶ ταῦτα ἄπλετος ἀμφοτέρων μάχη τις (…) ἀεὶ συνέστηκεν. Sophist 246c.
  12. How to reach what is already at hand is the great question.
  13. The rise and spread of Christianity depended in large part upon its ability to absorb variations of this complex ontology and phenomenology (the ‘shining forth’ or dynamics or ‘incarnation’ of ontology) (dual genitive!!!) into its multiple forms of an archetypal threefold: God-Spirit-Son, Joseph-Jesus-Mary, God-Jesus/Christ-world, God-Mary-world, God-Saints-world, etc. ‘World’ in these cases was usually a specific locality, much as there had once been a Zeus or an Apollo of different localities. The death of Christianity occurred at that moment when politicians felt themselves able to give away its superlative localities, Bethlehem and Jerusalem, as one-dimensional pieces of a purely secular world checkerboard.
  14. Peterson certainly understands and indeed emphasizes the explanatory power of myth. But he fails to discern, or at least he fails to accept, it’s more fundamental ontological bearing. But this undercuts its explanatory power leaving its claims, as he himself says in describing ‘rights’ in the contemporary world, no more than “castles in the air, historically and philosophically speaking” (‘Religion, sovereignty, natural rights’, 2006).
  15. ‘Religion, sovereignty, natural rights, and the constituent elements of experience’, Archive for the Psychology of Religion, v28, 2006.
  16. Peterson’s emphasis in ‘Three Forms of Meaning and the Management of Complexity’, in K. Markman, T. Proulx & M. Lindberg (eds), The Psychology of Meaning, 2013.
  17. “By all accounts” = on Peterson’s own insistent singular account. Here as always, and intentionally, Peterson plays a ‘risky’ game since “in scientific endeavour, as elsewhere, the willingness to risk Is everything.”
  18. ‘Maps Of Meaning: The Architecture Of Belief (Precis)’, Psycoloquy 10, 1999.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid.
  21. ‘Religion, sovereignty, natural rights, and the constituent elements of experience’, Archive for the Psychology of Religion, v28, 2006.
  22. Peterson’s emphasis.
  23. ‘Three Forms of Meaning and the Management of Complexity’, ed. K. Markman, T. Proulx & M. Lindberg, The Psychology of Meaning, 1-23, 2013.
  24. The full passage here (” a world-story that made of existence and experience the eternal battleground of order and chaos, mediated by the heroic aspect of consciousness –- the Logos, the Word, truth, light, enlightenment, illumination”) illustrates how Peterson tends to equate “existence and experience” and therefore the actions of the mythological (“existence” or being itself) and historical (“experience”) hero. But even where the two are properly differentiated, it remains the case that an “eternal battleground” characterizes both — although in fundamentally different ways. The hero of Peterson confronts the battleground as an eternal antagonism that in some way is older than him. He does so, so to say, from the outside. The philosophical-child of reconciliation (subjective genitive!), in deepest contrast, is itself just as original as the other contestants and represents a recasting of the “eternal battleground” into a more ‘familial’ dispute. Its confrontation is internal.
  25. See note 17 above.
  26. Because the  “world-story” at stake (en jeu) is so powerful and originary, neither Peterson nor the contemporary world he bears with him can entirely shut out its shining forth. McLuhan already knew this at 23 and so was able to see it then as the distinctive genius of Eliot’s poetry: “the (Eliot) poems I am reading have the unmistakable character of greatness. They transform, and diffuse and recoalesce the commonest every day occurrences of 20th century city life till one begins to see double indeed — the extremely unthinkable character, the glory and the horror of the reality in life — yet, to all save the seer, (only) behind life (if at all) — is miraculously suggested,” Letters, 41, emphasis, bracketed clarifications and punctuation added.
  27. The ‘riskiness’ of this suggestion may be seen in the word ‘familiar’, which of course is from ‘family’.  Absent an existing family, how construct familiar territory?
  28. ‘Religion, sovereignty, natural rights, and the constituent elements of experience’, 2006.
  29. Ibid.
  30. In this same essay, Peterson notes that “chimpanzees, ever so closely related to human beings, live in dominance hierarchies, like their human cousins.” Behind chimpanzees, in turn, the explanatory trail leads back to unicellular lifeforms. The familiar Gutenbergian form of the argument here is that of calculus: if you make the pebbles (calculi) small enough and extensive enough, you can explain anything you want! The mind faints at some point along the infinitely long trail!
  31. ‘Three Forms of Meaning and the Management of Complexity’, 2013.