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).