Monthly Archives: September 2021

Voegelin letters background

As recorded in the published correspondence between Cleanth Brooks and Allen Tate, McLuhan visited Brooks in Baton Rouge and Tate and in Sewanee in 1945.1 In a postscript to a June 27, 1945 letter to Allen Tate, Brooks wrote: “Marshall McLuhan has written of seeing you and the pleasant time that he had at Sewanee. We were delighted with him here.” (124) It was during this visit with Brooks at LSU that McLuhan met Eric Voegelin and others in Voegelin’s circle like Robert Heilman (to whom along with Voegelin McLuhan often sent greetings through Brooks). If Wilmoore Kendall was not away from Baton Rouge then, McLuhan would surely have met him at the same time. The two had long known of each other through their mutual friend, Felix Giovanelli.

Prior to this visit, Brooks and McLuhan had gradually become close friends in the early 1940s through two channels.

In the first place, through his reading of G.K. Chesterton McLuhan had been an ardent distributist2 since his undergraduate and MA years at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. When he won a scholarship to Cambridge and studied there from 1934 to 1936, his interest in distributism only grew through friends he made in the movement there and through the link he identified with it in the work of F.R.Leavis, a Cambridge don and editor of the influential journal of English literature, Scrutiny. While at Cambridge, McLuhan attended a distributist dinner in London with Chesterton himself in attendance, and wrote a letter that appeared in G.K.’s Weekly, the movement’s unofficial organ. McLuhan published his first academic article, ‘G.K. Chesterton: A Practical Mystic’ early in 1936 while he was still in the UK, and then, in the spring of 1937 during his first part-time teaching job for one year at the University of Wisconsin, he followed Chesterton in converting to Catholicism. Distributism was clearly a matter of fundamental importance to him.

When McLuhan obtained his first fulltime teaching position at St Louis University in the fall of 1937, one of his colleagues there was John Rawe, S.J., the head of the American branch of the distributist movement. The year before, in 1936, a convention had been held in Nashville where the distributists led by Rawe had met with the southern agrarians, including John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson, Allen Tate and Cleanth Brooks. The express purpose of the convention had been to explore the possibility of forming a united front between the two movements. Although the convention decided in favor of the idea, it did not succeed, perhaps in good part on account of the serious (ultimately fatal) illness Rawe contracted around 1940. However, a loose association had been identified between distributist/agrarian social policy and the ‘new criticism’ group in literature. Since this association had already been formed in McLuhan’s mind in England with his combined allegiances to Chesterton and Leavis, it was natural for him to fall in with the parallel American manifestation and particularly with Brooks, whose interest in the history of criticism was close to his own. In the two volume Literary Criticism: A Short History (1957) by Brooks and his Yale colleague, William Wimsatt , a pointer to McLuhan’s 1943 PhD thesis appears in its preface: “A more or less pervasive debt in several chapters to a manuscript book by H. M. McLuhan concerning the ancient war between dialecticians and rhetoricians is here gratefully acknowledged and is underscored by the quotation, following chapter 4, of two substantial excerpts from published essays by Mr. McLuhan.”

In the second place, one of McLuhan’s closest friends at SLU was Felix Giovanelli who began to teach in the Romance Language department there in 1940 after obtaining his PhD from the University of Illinois. A good friend of Giovanelli in grad school at Illinois had been Wilmoore Kendall.3

 While the interests of the agrarians overlapped with McLuhan’s in multiple ways, establishing personal relationships with them was another matter. It is highly probable that the first personal contact between McLuhan and the great cohort of minds then at LSU (Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren and Bob Heilman in the English department, along with Voegelin and Kendall in political science) came about through the mediation of Giovanelli and Kendall. Perhaps the two arranged a meeting between McLuhan and Brooks at some English association meeting? In any case, starting around 1943, McLuhan and Brooks became lifelong friends and frequent correspondents.

Now when McLuhan met Voegelin in 1945, this was the third time in short succession he had met great European scholars who would have decisive influence in his career.4 In 1943 McLuhan had met, separately, Wyndham Lewis and Sigfried Giedion and his relationship with them would in both cases last until their deaths in 1957 and 1968 respectively.5

In the context of the 1953 exchange with Voegelin, McLuhan’s association with Giedion was particularly important. Giedion’s 1941 Space, Time and Architecture: The Growth of a New Tradition was based on lectures he gave at Harvard in 1938 and is still in print today. In his introduction to the first edition, Giedion brilliantly observed :

Unity, for us, will have to come about through the unintended parallelisms in methods that are springing up in the specialized sciences and the equally specialized arts. There are indications that we are nearing a spontaneously established harmony of emotional and intellectual activities. In both contemporary science and contemporary art it is possible to detect elements of the general pattern which our culture will embody. The situation is a curious one: our culture is like an orchestra. where the instruments lie ready tuned. but where every musician is cut off from his fellows by a soundproof wall. It is impossible to foretell the events that will have to come before these barriers are broken down. The only service the historian can perform is to point out this situation, to bring it into consciousness.

Giedion’s answer to this problem of communicating orchestral harmony, proposed in the midst of a world war that would culminate in the use of nuclear weapons on civilian populations, was given in the title of an essay which he published in a series of different journals between 1942 and 1944: ‘A Faculty of Interrelations’.6 This was an answer which functioned on a series of theoretical and practical levels at once. On a theoretical level, “the unintended parallelisms in methods that are springing up in the specialized sciences and the equally specialized arts” were based on dynamics. That is, they were based on the Aristotelian explication of Plato’s forms as dynamic possibilities that unfold in the multifold shapes of actuality. The implication was that there is ‘a faculty of interrelations’ common to all physical nature and to human beings (though with complications in the latter that are absent in the former) between possibility and actuality and that it is this ‘faculty’ that allows for, and is the key to, the intelligibility of all actual forms.

In 1927 in his introduction to Sein und Zeit Heidegger had stated that phenomenology must begin with the principle that “higher than actuality stands possibility”. The year before, Born and Heisenberg had seen that the mathematics of quantum mechanics were graphs of possibilities. For decades before that, Freud and Jung had been reading psychopathologies as expressions of underlying unconscious possibilities. And for decades before that, in turn, painters, musicians and poets had been probing the ‘abstract’ parameters of their arts as possibilities that were manifested in some fashion in every actual work (so, eg, color and form in art, scale and rhythm in music). In science, the interrelation between the chemical elements and their expression in physical materials particularly exemplified such dynamics. Today, genetics is grounded in an analogous understanding of the role of DNA.

A faculty of dynamic interaction between possibility and actuality was the “general pattern” that had already “tuned” modern society — but only in chaotic fashion where the various disciplines based on it did not know of their mutual “established harmony” and so were unable to explicate the general possibility of peace which could be formulated on its foundation.

How the required recognition might be brought about lay, in Giedion’s view, in another reading of the phrase, ‘A Faculty of Interrelations’. Namely, a new faculty was needed in universities and research institutes that would be dedicated to this interrelation of possibility and actuality and to the further interrelation grounded in it between the institution’s various other ‘faculties’ (like the arts and sciences). As had been seen at least as far back as Plato, such a general faculty might ground truth in a new way and so provide the basis in society, and between societies, in the δικαιοσύνη (justice, mutual recognition) described in Plato’s Republic.

McLuhan would later state that his meeting with Giedion in St Louis in 1943 was one of the great events in his life. In fact, it is not too much to see the remainder of his career as dedicated to the further explication and communication of Giedion’s “faculty of interrelations” in such guises as ‘culture and technology’, ‘communications and society’, etc.

His first concrete attempt to implement Giedion’s strategy was made with Brooks. In the mid 1940s the University of Chicago attempted to recruit Brooks from LSU and he spent the academic year 1945-46 there as a visiting scholar. By this time McLuhan had already been in contact with UC because Giedion, immediately after their meeting in 1943, had written to his friend John Nef, a close lieutenant of Robert Hutchins and one of the founders of the UC Committee on Social Thought (after whom it is now named), to recommend McLuhan for Chicago.7

The result had been some correspondence between McLuhan and UC, including with Chancellor Hutchins, and the submission of some of McLuhan’s papers for review there. But the result was negative, apparently because McLuhan’s Catholicism, on the one hand, and his ‘the academy is full of idiots’ attitude, on the other, somehow did not sit well with the overwhelmingly secular academics there. No doubt this was especially the case when McLuhan’s scorn extended to the Great Books program which was intended, at least, to address the very oblivion of principles that concerned Giedion and McLuhan. Its proponents, like Mortimer Adler, might have been thought to be natural allies of McLuhan’s ideas and potentially also of McLuhan himself. But he had been a sharp critic of Adler for years and apparently found it impossible to adjust his course for strategic purpose.

Brooks’ presence at UC as a prized recruit apparently gave McLuhan a second chance there two years later. Brooks set up a meeting between McLuhan and Chancellor Hutchins in 1946. Now McLuhan’s aim was no longer the seemingly hopeless one of him joining the UC faculty (particularly when Brooks had decided not to accept the offer to remain there). Instead, he had a far more important and far more ambitious goal. He hoped to elicit Hutchins’ help in financing, at UC or elsewhere, “a faculty of interrelations” that would implement Giedion’s strategy of a practical “editorial” interrelation between scholars in the different faculties of learning. Could whole nations be expected to exercise themselves in some sort of mutual harmony with each other if individual academics and their respective disciplines could not?

In his proposal to Hutchins, McLuhan put forward only two scholars whose participation he saw as essential to it: Voegelin and Etienne Gilson (now McLuhan’s colleague in Toronto and yet another of the great Europeans McLuhan met in the 1940’s.8

McLuhan’s proposal went nowhere with Hutchins, but he did not give up the ambition formulated in it. It even reached a sort of concrete realization in the ‘Culture and Technology’ seminar funded by the Ford Foundation at the University of Toronto starting in 1953 — the year of McLuhan’s correspondence with Voegelin.





  1. This visit is recorded in Cleanth Brooks and the Rise of Modern Criticism by Mark Royden Winchell (1996) as follows: “Friends of Cleanth and (his wife) Tinkum remember seeing the Canadian scholar Marshall McLuhan at the Brooks home. Born and reared in the western provinces of Canada, McLuhan could claim a background every bit as rural as that of the Agrarians. Although McLuhan identified himself with the social vision of the Nashville group, his literary views were a bit too moralistic for him to be considered a formalist critic (among the Cambridge literati, he was far closer to F. R. Leavis than to I. A. Richards). Upon returning from Cambridge in 1936, McLuhan taught for the next decade at the Catholic University in St. Louis. Although Missouri is not a southern state, it was close enough to the South that McLuhan could travel in the Old Confederacy and become a kind of honorary Fugitive-Agrarian.” (114) Winchell does not mention that McLuhan’s wife, Corinne, was a Texan from Fort Worth who retained her southern accent all her long life. Furthermore, Winchell’s description has a number of small factual errors, only one of which has any real importance. It concerns the fact that McLuhan was already back in Canada when he made his visit to Baton Rouge and to Sewanee. That he went to considerable trouble and expense to make these visits testifies to the importance he saw in them. As regards his teaching experience after graduating from Cambridge, McLuhan taught a year at the University of Wisconsin before obtaining a position at St Louis University where he remained for seven years from 1937 to 1944.
  2. Distributism was an economic ideology asserting that the world’s productive assets should be widely owned rather than concentrated. Since the animus against concentration in this context meant not only ‘not in a few hands’, but also ‘not only in urban hands’, the fit with the Agrarians was close.
  3. Letters from Kendall to Giovanelli dating from 1941-1943 are preserved in the Giovanelli papers at the University of Illinois archive. It is possible that there are letters from Giovanelli to Kendall preserved at the Hoover Institute archive in Kendall’s papers there.
  4. The influence of Voegelin on McLuhan’s work can hardly be compared to that of Lewis and Giedion. However, the title of the book McLuhan was preparing when he died at the end of 1980, and that eventually appeared posthumously in 1988, The Laws of Media: The New Science, echoed Voegelin’s New Science from their encounter in 1953. Both, in turn, echoed the proposals for scientia nova in the work of Bacon, Leibniz and Vico.
  5. McLuhan’s relationship with Lewis had its ups and downs – like everyone else’s with Lewis.
  6. This short paper appeared in Education in 1942, in the Weekly Bulletin of the Michigan Society of Architects in 1943 and in Architect And Engineer in 1944. Giedion plainly thought it formulated essential concerns for a time of world war.
  7. See Giedion to Nef re a “promising young scholar”.
  8. Before meeting Gilson in person, presumably in 1947 at St Michael’s college of UT (where the two were colleagues), McLuhan had already studied his work closely. Gilson is the single most cited authority in McLuhan’s PhD thesis on Nashe and the classical trivium from 1943.

McLuhan’s “secret societies” problem

Writing to Eric Voegelin in 1953 McLuhan registered his shock concerning what he called “secret societies”.1 This was 70 years ago. He clearly meant something like what is called the ‘deep state’ today in which “secrecy and power [are] intertwined”. He perceived a condition of “an Elite” dictating to a “vulgar” mass, “the bulk of mankind”, which was “to be swamped with lies” — lies in which “the cynical contempt for the bulk of mankind should co-exist and even be expressed by fanatical assertions of universal benevolence.”2

McLuhan had always recognized that publishers have their agendas and that these agendas control not only what content was published, but also how that content was presented. For example, he had analyzed the Luce publications in these terms in his ‘Time, Life and Fortune’ paper in 1947.3 But now he realized that ‘publishing’ was taking place on a scale he had not hitherto imagined: what was being published, and how, was nothing less than the ‘facts‘ of the ‘world’ — ‘reality’ itself.

As shown in his letters to Voegelin, he had come to think:

(a) that all human activity including politics, the news, “historical scholarship” and the entirety of the arts had been reduced to a kind of Potemkin village — a “vulgar or exoteric façade” — which was presented as a seemingly complex “battleground” of different views and opinions,4 but was really the endlessly reiterated repetition of the same (“everything is everything else”);

(b) that the core impulse of the control that was being exercised ever more broadly and ever more tightly was a “falsification of the entire linguistic currency” of western civilization — “everything is everything else” in a more fundamental sense —  an impulse that could be called, along with Voegelin, “gnosis” or gnosticism;

(c) that this assault on the word was both intentional and disguised and therefore amounted to “the secret sectarian organization of intellectual life”;

(d) that, in-formed by this “sectarian organization”, life in the modern world was unwittingly carried out as “somebody else’s ritual”, as a “theological” exercise masked as secularism — “the entire technique of the ‘secret’ societies is to conduct their controversies5 as if the terms of reference were historical” (aka, “secular”);

(e) that the central difference between the “linguistic currency” of western civilization and the ‘theology’ of the “secret societies” turned on the fundamental worth, on the one hand, or the utter worthlessness, on the other, of freedom — “for the gnostic there are no autonomies in art, life, politics or anything else”;

(f) that freedom essentially implicates limitations6 — and “there are, it seems, no such limits in the gnostic world”;7

(g) that the return to western civilization and to freedom would therefore have to focus on the basic difference between “making” — a free though inherently limited activity — but one fully capable of the perception of truth (as all the sciences testify);  and matching, a purportedly unlimited activity which, exactly as unlimited, as seamlessly amalgamated with truth, had no qualms about licensing and enforcing “fanatical assertions of universal benevolence”.8

  1. For the complete four letters exchanged between McLuhan and Eric Voegelin in 1953, see Ships Passing in the Night: Voegelin and McLuhan. All citations in this post are from the letters from McLuhan to Voegelin given there.
  2. The citations in this paragraph are all taken from the end of McLuhan’s July 1953 letter to Voegelin”: “Secrecy and power seem to be intertwined. Also the very conditions of gnosis postulate secrecy, an Elite, and a vulgar who are to be swamped with lies. That the cynical contempt for the bulk of mankind should co-exist and even be expressed by fanatical assertions of universal benevolence”.
  3. This paper was taken from McLuhan’s work on The Mechanical Bride  (1951), in which one of the first sections of the book is titled “The Ballet Luce” (playing on Les Ballets Russes).
  4. For the “battleground” of different views and opinions, see the following note.
  5. “Controversies” were a “façade” since the aim of the ‘secret’ societies — the deep state — was to impose a gnostic dualism and the question between the sides was of vanishing importance to them compared to the promotion of an underlying structure of fundamental antagonism.
  6. The mutual implication of freedom and limitation is the heart of Harold Innis’ work.
  7. In 1953 McLuhan had been studying the works of his colleague at the University of Toronto, Harold Innis, for 5 years. One of McLuhan’s oldest and closest friends, Tom Easterbrook, was also an intimate friend of Innis and had brought the two together when Easterbrook returned to teach in Innis’ political economy department at UT in 1947. After Innis died in 1952, McLuhan published a kind of intellectual memoir of him, ‘The Later Innis’. He was well aware that Innis saw the twentieth century, a century of war, as the collapse of western civilization and that he attributed that collapse to a loss of the sort of balance that had enabled the nineteenth century to be one of peace. Since only limited powers can balance (a person with unlimited weight cannot play on a teeter-totter) this was to attribute war, as Innis explicitly did, to a loss of the ability to valorize limitation. McLuhan took over this insight. Or, rather, his existing sense of this notion was extended and reinforced by Innis.
  8. Innis documented how nineteenth and early twentieth century thinkers warned unsuccessfully about the rise and spread of “fanatical assertions” enabled by communications revolutions associated especially with newspapers, telegraph and radio. This merger of technology, communications and fanaticism would become a central concern in McLuhan’s life work. But since he saw that academic work had little or no effect on the complex, he turned to extra-academic avenues like TV appearances and even self-styled ‘comedian’ presentations.

Innis on thought and its eclipse (PEMS 7)

What is “initiative in thought” in Innis? Perspective.

What is perspective? It is a position that is: Long-term. Limited. Open. Balanced. Stable. Anchored.

In fundamental contrast, the loss of thought and perspective in the contemporary world (beginning in the late nineteenth century) is: Short-term. Unrestricted. Closed. Unbalanced. Unstable. Ungrounded.

The task of thought (dual genitive!) is to indicate the way from the first to the second.

The task is to indicate the way from one beginning to another beginning, from one origin to another origin.

The history of the twentieth century is testimony to the difficulty of this transformation. 

Her [the university’s] traditions and her [proper] interest demand an obsession with balance and perspective — an obsession with the Greek tradition of the humanities. The search for truth assumes a constant avoidance of extremes and extravagance. Virtue is in the middle way. There are no cures. Always we are compelled to be sceptical of the proposal to cure the world’s ills. We cannot tolerate the dominance of any individual or of any group. (A Plea for the University Tradition, 1944)

In the words of Cobden, political economy is “the highest exercise of the human mind, and the exact sciences require by no means so hard an effort.” 1 (The Economic Significance of Culture, 1944)

the [contemporary] study of economic history emphasizes short-run points of view acceptable to the price system rather than long-term points of view which necessitate perspective. An equilibrium of approaches to the study of economic phenomena becomes exceedingly difficult to achieve with the insistence on short-run interests and the obsession with the present. (A Plea for the University Tradition, 1944)

The modern tendency to find mental satisfaction in measuring everything by a fixed rational standard, and the way it takes for granted that everything can be related to everything else, certainly receives from the apparently objective value of money, and the universal possibility of exchange which this involves, a strong psychological impulse to become a fixed habit of thought, whereas the purely logical process itself, when it only follows its own course, is not subject to these influences, and it then turns these accepted ideas into mere probabilities.2 (The Economic Significance of Culture, 1944)

Cartels and formalism in commerce paralleled ecclesiasticism in religion and in both cases initiative in thought was weakened. (The Economic Significance of Culture, 1944)

Machine industry through printing dispenses with thought or com­pels it to move in certain channels. The dispersion of thought through the printing industry makes attacks on monopoly increasingly difficult.3 (The Economic Significance of Culture, 1944)

economic history should contribute to stability. Not only should it supplement political and social history, it should in supplementing them check the tendency in itself and in them to bias and fanaticism. Within the narrower range of the social sciences it should provide a check against the specialization of mathematical systems peculiar to a monetary and a machine age and should indicate the extent and significance of the irrational as contrasted with the rational.4 (The Economic Significance of Culture, 1944)

The circulation of printed matter cheapened thought and destroyed the prestige of the great works of the past which were collected and garnered before the introduction of movable type. Rational thought [in the sense of narrowly defined fields fenced off from “the mysteries of life and death”] and art [in the event that the other ‘absolute’ pursuits of philosophy and religion had ‘given up the ghost’] conse­quently had more influence.  (The Economic Significance of Culture, 1944)

economic history (…) should indicate the extent and significance of the irrational as contrasted with the rational.  (The Economic Significance of Culture, 1944)

recognition of factors affecting [consideration of] irrationality is a beginning. (The Economic Significance of Culture, 1944)

religion is an effort to organize irrationality and as such appears in all (…) organizations of knowl­edge. (The Economic Significance of Culture, 1944)

language is deliberately [manipulated]5 as a framework for hocus pocus and unintelligibility (…) with no possibility of a common approach through rationality. Irrationality assumes fresh importance as a means of capitalizing the necessity of unintelligibility and deliberately avoiding rational contacts.6 (The University In The Modern Crisis)

Man as a biological phe­nomenon has been unable to sustain the excessive demands of rationalism evident in the mathematics of the price system and of technology.7 (The Economic Significance of Culture)

Rationality which accompanies the price system brings its own handicaps in the formation of monopolies.8 (The Economic Significance of Culture, 1944)

  1. Innis citing John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden (1887).
  2. “Mere probabilities” sound negative. But they are what thought and perspective deal with. To compare, nothing in the hard sciences exceeds “mere probabilities”. Compare Innis’ negative use of ” fixed rational standard” here to notes #4 and #6 below.
  3. Concern with “monopoly” is a good example of the constant attention paid by Innis at once to structure and to real world economics. His chief point is that the latter must be understood via the former.
  4. “The irrational as contrasted with the rational”, in this context, means ‘extra-systematic’ factors like “the mysteries of life and death” (The Economic Significance of Culture). In this sense, thought and perspective, like religion, are vitally concerned with “the irrational”.
  5. Innis: “built up”.
  6. Here “rationality” and “irrationality” are used in the opposite sense discussed in note #4 above. Here “rationality” is equated with thought and perspective and “irrationality” with a closed system with “no possibility of a common approach”.
  7. For “rationalism” as “system and of technology” here, compare notes #2, #4 and #6.
  8. “Rationality” is brought together with both economics and structuralism here. Since “rationality” is treated in fundamentally different ways by Innis, it, as well as “economics”, may be imagined to name positions on a spectrum stretching between “monopolies” .

Innis multiplying Hugo (PEMS 6)

The printing press and new methods of communication have been developed as methods of division rather than co-operation. (The Economic Significance of Culture, 1944)

Enormous improvements in communication have made understanding more difficult. (Innis, Minerva’s Owl, 1947)

Probably via Edward Bulwer, Innis read the expository chapter on Gutenberg in Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1943 or 1944.1 Taking off from Hugo Innis proposed:

As [the international Church and its Latin culture] was crushed by the book, so the book [and its culture] was crushed by the newspaper. In turn the newspaper was destined to feel the effects of the radio.2

Similarly in ‘This Has Killed That’:

The power of the [newspaper] press, more recently supported by the radio, [announced that] the day of the printed [book] word (…) was over.3

In these passages Innis was explicitly invoking Hugo’s model of the communications revolution brought about by Gutenberg. For Hugo this had been a revolution that was “indestructible”, one that had passed into “immortality” as “definitive”: “the invention of printing is the greatest event in history.” But Innis applied Hugo’s “definitive” singular model to multiple communications revolutions subsequent to print such as those originated by the newspaper and by radio.

Here is Hugo’s model of a communication revolution:4

  • human thought, in changing its form, was about to change its mode of expression; (…) the dominant idea of each [succeeding] generation would no longer be written with the same matter, and in the same manner
  • everything changes. Human thought discovers a [new] mode of perpetuating itself
  • it is human thought stripping off one form and donning another; it is the complete (…) change of skin of that symbolical serpent which, since the days of Adam, has represented intelligence

Bulwer put Hugo’s “definitive” notion this way:

The magic of Gutenberg (…) hath conjured a wide chasm between the past and the future history of mankind: the people of one side of the gulf are not the people on the other…5

Now there was not one “chasm”, however, but a whole series of them and their repeated appearance was accelerating. Hugo had supposed that “human thought”, “intelligence”, indeed “the human race”, were not only preserved through Gutenberg’s revolution, they were enhanced. But as the “gulf” produced by each communications revolution was multiplied by subsequent iterations, the thread holding these together, providing their coherence, was increasingly cut through and threatened to unravel completely — if it had not already done so. It could well be doubted if there were such a thing as “the human race” anymore, let alone “thought” and “intelligence”.6

Such revolutions do not ‘take place’ only in the interior landscape.  Instead, “everything changes” in a process where the interior and the exterior landscapes interactively affect and effect one another. The process is therefore “economic”, as Innis would have it, or “environmental”, as McLuhan would come to say. Changes in the interior landscape of humans result from exterior technological developments and exterior technological developments result from changes in the interior landscape of humans.

Innis saw that three great interrelated problems resulted from the ever more quickly repeated communications revolutions constituting this “second tower of Babel of the human race“.7

First, since further communications revolutions could be anticipated, or at least not ruled out, it was impossible to specify any order as “definitive”. A “complete (…) change of skin” of the psychological or social landscape could happen at any moment, the one then overturning the other, such that ‘reality’ itself, along with ‘truth’ and ‘justice’ and ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, could be specified only by insistence — by dint of force. But, then, by what right could such force be exercised? Only by dint of force. As a result, as Nietzsche was the first to see, or, at least, the first to see clearly along with its cause and its effect, ‘reality’ fell through itself like a black hole:

The true world — we have abolished. What world has remained? The apparent one perhaps? But no! With the true world we also have abolished the apparent one!!8

Or, as Innis repeatedly specified :

the collapse of Western civilization (…) begins with the present [twentieth] century (The Economic Significance of Culture, 1944)

The central internal problem was that repeated communications revolutions though which “everything changes” had eradicated foundation:

the purely logical process itself, when it only follows its own course (…) turns these accepted ideas into mere probabilities… (Ibid)

[we have lost] an anchorage or a point of view from which to approach the problem of European civilization. (Ibid)

Second, when what Innis termed “the Platonic  tradition” had collapsed, and with it the very possibility of specifying truth and reality, international institutions no longer had a basis from which to maintain peace among the nations:

We have seen the effects of the disappearance of the Platonic tradition in the necessity of appealing to force as the unifying and dominating factor9 (University In The Modern Crisis, 1945)

[ours is] a period in which we have been unable to find a solution to the problem of law and order, and have re­sorted to force rather than to persuasion, bullets rather than ballots. (The Economic Significance of Culture)

[repeated wars reflect] the inability of the twentieth century to find a solution to the eternal problem of freedom and power (Ibid)


The basic post-war problem is that of stopping the loss of blood or the problem of peace. Plans of the new world or of the new international order can be purchased in large quantities at low price. The question remains as to why there are so many plans for the new world. What is the source of the confusion? Why has a century of comparative peace such as prevailed from the end of the Napoleonic Wars to the beginning of the last war been followed by the breakdown of Western Civilization? Why has European civilization turned from persuasion to force or from ballots to bullets? What has brought about a change of such disastrous consequence? (Problems of Rehabilitation, 1946)10

The need for force in the specification  of ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ at the individual psychological level — in the interior landscape — was inevitably reflected in the need for force at the international level — in the exterior landscape — to ‘settle’ any matter of contention. No other method of settlement — that is, of justice — was recognized.

Third, the collapse of accepted standards in the interior and exterior landscapes inevitably characterized the national economy as well — “the fabric of human institutions”.11 Weapons manufacturing became the major national industry and war became an economic necessity.

the phenomenal rise in the standard of living (…) and the prosecution of major wars were a result of increasing efficiency of machine industry (Political Economy in the Modern State, 1943)

Weapons manufacturing was no longer a requisite of war; war was a requisite of weapons manufacturing.12

Has commercial development been effective in destroying religious centralization as a stabilizing influence to the point that new sources of power such as nationalism and autarchy with subordination to militarism have taken their place?  (The Economic Significance of Culture)

At the same time, war fever in ever-varying flavors became the staple product of the news. Here again, news did not follow war, but war followed the news.

The Spanish-American War and the South African War came at the beginning of the new journalism and were exploited to the full in efforts to increase circulation in New York particularly and in London; the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, the Journal, and the World pushed circulation to new levels. They were ideal newspaper wars. To Mr. Hearst was attributed the telegram to [Frederic] Remington, “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” (The Newspaper in Economic Development, 1942)

in both Great Britain and the United States the Boer War and the Spanish American War enabled sensational journalism to reach new peaks. Wemyss Reid wrote of the Boer War, “It has been said that this has been a war made by newspapers. Evidently the newspapers are [also] capable of carrying it on.” (An Economic Approach to English Literature in the Nineteenth Century, 1945)

The mind of the individual, together with the family and society as a whole, were all taken over to serve collective forces no one saw, let alone understood and controlled. Indeed, life and death themselves were put to work somehow — two world wars, with fifty million deaths, or so, were symbols of a fall into a fatal robotism that did not end with those wars. Furthermore, these repeated communication revolutions with their implicated militarism were inevitably styled as ‘progress’ — the ‘rise of freedom’! — so that the first casualty in them was the word.

These three failures of understanding, along with the implicated death of language, all reinforced each other in a planetary mesh and the great question was (and is): how to get out? where is the exit?13 

McLuhan took over this problem complex from Innis. Here he is to Pound in a letter of June 22, 1951:

the word has been used to effect a universal hypnosis. How are words to be used to unweave the spell of print?  Of radio commercials and ‘news’-casts?  I’m working on THAT problem.  The word is now the cheapest and the most universal drug.
Consider the effect of modern machinery in imposing rhythm on human thought and feeling. Archaic man got inside the thing that terrified him — tiger, bear, wolf — and made it his totem god. To-day we get inside the machine. It is inside us. We in it. Fusion. Oblivion. Safety. Now the human machines are geared to smash one another. You can’t shout warnings or encouragement to these machines. First there has to be a retracing process. A reduction of the machine to human form. Circe only turned men into swine. Our problem is tougher.14 


  1. Innis first mentioned Hugo’s chapter from Hunchback, at least in published form, in ‘The Economic Significance of Culture’ (1944): “The restraining influence of religious institutions has limitations, and dis­senting groups and philosophical systems emerge on their fringes. Centrali­zation is followed by decentralization. The printing press and commerce implied far-reaching changes in the role of religion. In Victor Hugo’s famous chapter in the Notre Dame de Paris, entitled ‘This Has Killed That’, he writes: ‘During the first six thousand years of the world (…) architecture was the great handwriting of the human race.’ (…)  As the ‘ancient Gothic genius, that sun which sets behind the gigantic press of Mayence’ (Mainz) was crushed by the book, so the book was crushed by the newspaper. In turn the newspaper was destined to feel the effects of the radio. With Victor Hugo we can say, ‘It is the second tower of Babel of the human race’.” Similarly in ‘Minerva’s Owl’ (1947): “The monopoly position of the Bible and the Latin language in the church was destroyed by the press and in its place there developed a wide-spread market for the Bible in the vernacular and a concern with its literal interpretation. To quote Jefferson, ‘The printers can never leave us in a state of perfect rest and union of opinion.’ In the words of Victor Hugo the book destroyed the ‘ancient Gothic genius, that sun which sets behind the gigantic press of Mayence.’ Architecture which for six thousand years had been ‘the great handwriting of the human race’ was no longer supreme.” Around that same time in the middle 1940s Innis prepared notes for an address with the title, taken from Hugo, ‘This Has Killed That’. It was published from his papers only 25 years after his death in the Journal of Canadian Studies (Winter 1977): “I have not been able to suggest a title sufficiently broad to cover the material I propose to put before you but the title of the famous chapter in Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris, ‘This has killed that’, will probably cover it more adequately than any other. Some of you may remember that he discusses the impact of printing on architecture. ‘During the first six thousand years of the world… architecture was the great handwriting of the human race.’ But the book destroyed the edifice (of that great handwriting) and, in the French revolution, not only did it destroy architecture but the fabric of human institutions as well. The last sentence of Victor Hugo’s chapter is: ‘It is the second tower of Babel of the human race‘; and this may well serve as the subject of this paper.”
  2. ‘The Economic Significance of Culture’, 1944. See the previous note for the full passage.
  3. See note #1 for the full passage.
  4. See Hugo on Gutenberg in 1831 for the full passage of these snippets.
  5. Edward Lytton Bulwer, England and the English, 1833, as cited by Innis in ‘An Economic Approach to English Literature in the Nineteenth Century’.
  6. “Man as a biological phe­nomenon has been unable to sustain the excessive demands of rationalism evident in the mathematics of the price system and of technology” (The Economic Significance of Culture). Here “rationalism” means a closed system encapsulated from “the mysteries of life and death”. But, depending on context, it could also mean the opposite: a structure open to these mysteries. For discussion see Innis on thought and its eclipse.
  7. See note #1 for Innis’ repeated citation of this phrase from Hugo.
  8. Twilight of the Idols, 1889.
  9. Nietzsche’s ‘History of an Error’ also couches Western civilization as the decline and fall of “the Platonic tradition”.
  10. First published in PEMS.
  11. ‘This Has Killed That’ — see note#1 for the full passage.
  12. McLuhan to Pound, January 1951: “2nd War produced great discovery of war as new way of life. Financial pages simply chortling these days over prosperity rooted in 3rd War. Ordinary guy eats this up. Total war = total security he figures. THAT is the scale of imbecility now current.” (Letters, 219)
  13. Innis would term this mesh “the fundamental solipsism of Western civilization” (Empire and Communications, 1950 edition, 67, 1972 edition, 56). Empire and Communications was first given as a lecture series at Oxford in 1948.
  14. Letters, 227. McLuhan’s capitalized ‘THAT’ was a reference back to his letter to Pound earlier in the year. It was a marker for the “imbecility” of the contemporary mind — and of the loss of the word. See note #12 for the earlier letter.

Hugo on Gutenberg in 1831: the second tower of Babel

As set out in McLuhan reads Innis (PEMS 1), Innis cited Edward Bulwer and Thomas Carlyle on the world-changing event of Gutenberg in their writings in 1833 and 1834 respectively.1 Bulwer at least must have obtained the idea from Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame which appeared in 1831 and which Bulwer and his brother, Henri, both mentioned in their writings in the 1830s.

Innis went back from Bulwer to read Hugo’s account for himself and was immensely influenced by it.2 Here are the relevant portions of Hugo’s long expository chapter (Hunchback, Book 5, Chapter 2):

We pause for a moment to seek what could have been the thought concealed beneath those enigmatic words of the archdeacon [earlier in the novel]: “This will kill that.3 The book will kill the edifice.”
To our mind, this thought had two faces. In the first place, it was a priestly thought. It was the fright of the priest in the presence of a new agent, the printing press. It was the terror and dazzled amazement of the men of the sanctuary, in the presence of the luminous press of Gutenberg.4 It was the pulpit and the manuscript taking the alarm at the printed word (…) the cry of the prophet who already hears emancipated humanity roaring and swarming; who beholds in the future, intelligence sapping faith, opinion dethroning belief, the world shaking off Rome. It was the prognostication of the philosopher who sees (…)  that one power was about to succeed another power. It meant, “The press will kill the church.”
But underlying this thought, the first and most simple one, no doubt, there was in our opinion another, newer one, a corollary of the first, less easy to perceive and more easy to contest, a view as philosophical and belonging no longer to the priest alone but to the savant and the artist. It was a presentiment that human thought, in changing its form, was about to change its mode of expression; that the dominant idea of each generation would no longer be written with the same matter, and in the same manner; that the book of stone, so solid and so durable, was about to make way for the book of paper, more solid and still more durable [yet]. In this connection the archdeacon’s vague formula had a second sense. It meant, “Printing will kill architecture.”
In fact, from the origin of things down to the fifteenth century of the Christian era, inclusive, architecture is the great book of humanity, the principal expression of man in his different stages of development, either as a force or as an intelligence.
When the memory of the first races felt itself overloaded,5 when the mass of [spoken] reminiscences of the human race became so heavy and so confused that speech, naked and flying, ran the risk of losing them on the way, men transcribed them on the soil6 in a manner which was [then] at once the most visible, most durable, and most natural.
The generating idea, the word, was not only at the foundation of all these [stone] edifices, but also in the form. The temple of Solomon, for example, was (…) the holy book itself.
Thought written in stone [was] a privilege exactly comparable to our present liberty of the press.
Thus, down to the time of Gutenberg, architecture is the principal writing, the universal writing.
In the fifteenth century everything changes. Human thought discovers a mode of perpetuating itself, not only more durable and more resisting than architecture, but still more simple and easy. Architecture is dethroned. Gutenberg’s letters of lead [type] are about to supersede Orpheus’s letters of stone
The book is about to kill the edifice.
The invention of printing is the greatest event in history. It is the mother of revolution (…) it is human thought stripping off one form and donning another; it is the complete and definitive change of skin of that symbolical serpent which since the days of Adam has represented intelligence.
In its printed form, thought is more imperishable than ever; it is volatile, irresistible, indestructible. It is mingled with the air. In the days of architecture it made a mountain of itself, and took powerful possession of a century and a place. Now it converts itself into a flock of birds, scatters itself to the four winds, and occupies all points of air and space at once. We repeat, who does not perceive that in this form [thought] is far more indelible [than in stone]? It was solid, [now] it has become alive. It passes from duration in time to immortality. One can demolish a mass; but can one extirpate ubiquity?
Before the invention of printing, reform [of the Church] would have been merely a schism; printing converted it into a revolution. Take away the press; heresy is enervated. Whether it be Providence or Fate, Gutenberg is the precursor of Luther.7
Thus, to sum up what we have hitherto said, in a fashion which is necessarily incomplete and mutilated, the human race has two books, two registers, two testaments: masonry and printing; the Bible of stone and the Bible of paper
No doubt, when one contemplates these two Bibles, laid so broadly open in the centuries, it is permissible to regret the visible majesty of the writing of granite, those gigantic alphabets formulated in colonnades, in pylons, in obelisks, those sorts of human mountains which cover the world and the past, from the pyramid to the bell tower, from Cheops to Strasburg. The past must be reread upon these pages of marble. This book, written by architecture, must be admired and perused incessantly; but the grandeur of the edifice which printing erects in its turn must not be denied.
This [new] edifice [of print] is colossal. Some compiler of statistics has calculated, that if all the volumes which have issued from the press since Gutenberg’s day were to be piled one upon another, they would fill the space between the earth and the moon; but it is not that sort of grandeur of which we wished to speak.
The press, that giant machine, which incessantly pumps all the intellectual sap of society, belches forth without pause fresh materials for its work. The whole human race is on the scaffoldings [of this new towering edifice]. Each mind is a mason (…) Every day a new course [of this new edifice] rises. (…)  Assuredly, it is a [towering] construction which increases and piles up in endless spirals; there also are confusion of tongues, incessant activity, indefatigable labor, eager competition of all humanity, refuge promised to intelligence, a new Flood against an overflow of barbarians. It is the second tower of Babel of the human race.


  1. For Bulwer, see note 7 below. For Carlyle, in ‘The Economic Significance of Culture’ (1944) Innis cited his 1834 Sartor Resartus: “He who first shortened the labor of copyists by device of movable types was disbanding hired armies and cashiering most kings and senates, and creating a whole new democratic world; he had in­vented the art of printing.
  2. For discussion, see Innis multiplying Hugo (PEMS 6).
  3. Innis prepared an address with the title ‘This Has Killed That’ sometime during WW2. It was published from his papers, 25 years after his death, in the Journal of Canadian Studies12:5 (Winter 1977).
  4. Throughout this passage, in ways the translator may not have entirely followed, Hugo both equates and sharply differentiates architecture and the book. Here the first is “dazzled” and the second is “luminous”. Later both will be called an “edifice”, the old edifice and the new edifice: both are said to be “indelible” and “solid”. Similarly, both are called a “book” and even a “Bible”. The central idea is that both are world-structuring powers and in that sense are equal; but at the same time the two are fundamentally incompatible — where the one is, the other cannot be.
  5. McLuhan has this same idea that technology is a kind of compensation or “counter-irritant” to a condition that has become inefficient, difficult and even threatening. He did not have it from Hugo, of course, or from Innis, but probably from Jonas’ 1962 Irritant and Counter-Irritant.
  6. Innis would have seen ‘clay’ for ‘soil’ here, of course. And once he had three points for a map of communications media — stone, clay and paper — it was easy to populate it further with papyrus, parchment, telegraph and radio.
  7. Bulwer: “The magic of Gutenberg (…) hath conjured a wide chasm between the past and the future history of mankind: the people of one side of the gulf are not the people on the other (…) In the primal and restless consciousness of the new spirit, Luther appealed to the people”. (England and the English, 1833)

Innis on limitation (PEMS 5)

A science of the archive must include the theory of [its] institutionalization, that is to say, at once of the law which begins by inscribing itself there and of the right which authorizes it. This right imposes or supposes a bundle of limits which have a history, a deconstructable history (…) the limits, the borders, and the distinctions have been shaken by an earthquake from which no classificational concept and no implementation of the archive can be sheltered. Order is no longer assured…(Derrida, Archive Fever, 1994, 50 years after Innis’ 1944 lecture.)1

In his presidential address to the Economic History Association in September 1944, ‘The Economic Significance of Culture’,2 Innis began by setting out a series of limitations to economic thought — limitations,  that is, to any attempt to formulate an ‘account’ (nomos) of the ‘household’ (eco). At bottom, the central problem to this part of the address was to engage the questionability of both of these components of ‘eco-nomics‘: what is it to render an ‘account’? what limitations must be considered in doing so (if, that is, the account is to be made comprehensively and conscientiously)? and just what is the human ‘household’?3

In addressing “the limitations of economic history or of the social sciences“, more generally, Innis specified that we must focus on “the ques­tion of their [limiting] boundaries or what cannot be done” in them:

In attempting to answer this question perhaps we can improve our perspective regarding the place of the field of economic history, and in turn of the social sciences, in Western civilization. We need a sociology or a philosophy of the social sciences, and particularly of economics, an economic history of knowledge, or an economic history of economic history. Economic history may enable us to understand the background of economic thought, or of the organization of economic thought, or of thought in the social sciences.4

Inquiry into this question complex immediately precipitates the problem that it is located within the tradition about which it proposes to inquire. It is delimited by the circularity of attempting “a sociology (…) of the social sciences” or an “economic history of economic history”.5

The inherently limited “application of scarce means” to “the vast range of social phenomena” demands that any “weakness for omniscience6 be jettisoned at the outset.

Further, according to Innis, the investigation of economic history (dual genitive) must recognize other limitations, both internal and external, beyond that of its inherent circularity:

  • the pecuniary approach, when all pervasive (…) has threatened to make economics a branch of higher accountancy.7
  • As slot machines have been built up around the sizes and weights of various denominations of coins so there has been a tendency for economics to be built up around the monetary structure.8  
  • statistics has been particularly dangerous to modern society by strengthening the cult of economics and [thereby] weakening other social sciences and the humanities.
  • Left to themselves all find their level price / Potatoes, verses, turnips, Greek, and rice.”9
  • administrative machinery and preservation of records have impressed on historical writing the imprint of the state and fostered the bias which [has] made history the handmaid of politics.10
  • the modern tendency to find mental satisfaction in measuring everything by a fixed rational standard, and the way it takes for granted that everything can be related to everything else [like potatoes and verses, and turnips and Greek].11 
  • scholarship is harassed by the demands of pressure groups.
  • concentration on the price system, driven by mathematics (…) emphasizes short-run points of view (…) rather than long-term (…) an equilibrium of approaches to the study of economic phenomena becomes exceedingly difficult to achieve with (…) the obsession with the present.12 
  • [there is] neglect of the technological conditions under which prices operate.
  • such work must emphasize not only technical changes but [also] their significance.
  • the important contributions of geography (…) have not been incorporated effectively in economic history (…) Geography provides the grooves which determine the course and to a large extent the character of economic life. (…) Geography has been effective in determining the grooves of economic life through its effects on transportation and communication.13
  • Disturbances to (…) regular trends were a result of sudden developments (…) of cyclonic activities such as accom­panied the gold rushes.14 

Innis concluded his barrage of observations on the fundamental limitations of the social sciences (objective genitive!) with this attestation:

[It is] the influence of the Greeks [that] compels us to raise [such] questions about the limitations of the social sciences.15

“The influence of the Greeks” does not only not turn away from limitations, according to Innis, it urges and even needs and welcomes them. Our ‘household’ as defined by “Western civilization” through “the influence of the Greeks” would therefore be founded on limitation — limitation not as dis-abling, or not only as dis-abling, but also as en-abling.

In the face of such enabling limitations, the first demand on economic history is what Innis called “an equilibrium of approaches” — for there are bordering limitations also between different “approaches”, marking their plurality:

Economic history can point to the dangers of bias and the necessity for a broader perspective (…) an equilibrium of approaches (…) the integration of basic approaches (…) a broader synthesis…

This would, however, be no mere matter of capaciousness: “a recognition of factors affecting irrationality is [only] a beginning”.16 Much more, or much less, any such “broader synthesis” would have to take upon itself the demand implicated in “the collapse of Western civilization” for a new “solution to the problem of law and order”, for “an anchorage or a point of view from which to approach the problem of European civilization” — namely its exposure to “cyclonic” or catastrophic destabilization:

  • In all this we can see at least a part of the background of the collapse of Western civilization which begins with the present century. The compara­tive peace of the nineteenth century is followed by a period in which we have been unable to find a solution to the problem of law and order, and have re­sorted to force rather than to persuasion, bullets rather than ballots.
  • The inability of the twentieth century to find a solution to the eternal problem of freedom and power is basically significant to the study of economic history.
  • [we have lost] an anchorage or a point of view from which to approach the problem of European civilization.17

When a field is subject to general destabilization, the unavoidable inference is that it is subject to forces larger than it — to forces outside of it.  At their broadest, these forces might be termed “the mysteries of life and death”:

  • economic history (…) should indicate the extent and significance of the irrational18 as contrasted with the rational
  • religion is an effort to organize irrationality and as such appears in all (…) organizations of knowl­edge.19
  • economic history may provide grappling irons with which to lay hold of areas on the fringe of economics, whether in religion or in art 
  • By drawing attention to the limitations of the social sciences and of the price system, [economics] can show the importance of religion20

The “collapse of Western civilization” in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries reflects a general inability to relate to “the mysteries of life and death” and, consequently, to respond to them as we must — if we are to survive. This amounts to — or results from — the death of religion since within Western civilization it is “religion [that] has been vitally related to the mysteries of life and death”. This, too, is through “the influence of the Greeks”.

Innis would have economic history and the social sciences generally begin their investigations with an acknowledgement of their situation (situation?) in the general collapse of the tradition within which they would have their ground and their possibility of significance — if, that is, they had ground and the possibility of significance. This is, he maintained, the abysmal groundlessness in which today, and in which alone today, authentic ‘account’ may be rendered. At the same time, he would on no account forget what former ages knew, and knew accountably, concerning those very “mysteries of life and death” and which gave them “anchorage” within “European civilization”. A renewed sense of ‘household’ would need to embrace both that abysmal groundlessness and that accountable hold.21



  1. Derrida’s ‘Archive Fever’ is cited throughout this post since the parallels between it and Innis’ lecture 50 year before are remarkable.
  2. Originally in The Journal of Economic History, 4:Supplement (‘The Tasks of Economic History’), 1944. Reprinted in PEMS. All indented and bullet-point passages in this post are citations from this paper.
  3. Derrida: “An eco-nomic archive in this double sense: it keeps, it puts in reserve, it saves, but in an unnatural fashion, that is to say in making the law (nomos) or in making people respect the law. A moment ago we called it nomological. It has the force of law, of a law which is the law of the house (oikos), of the house as place, domicile, family, lineage or institution” (Archive Fever).
  4. Compare Derrida on Freud’s heritage: “I wish to speak of the impression (…) that Sigmund Freud will have made on anyone, after him (…) in his or her culture and discipline, whatever it may be, in particular philosophy, medicine, psychiatry (…) the history of texts and of discourses, political history, legal history, the history of ideas or of culture, the history of religion and religion itself, the history of institutions and of sciences, in particular the history of this institutional and scientific project called psychoanalysis. Not to mention the history of history, the history of historiography.” (Archive Fever) The question raised by Innis and Derrida, along with the great thinkers as far back as we can trace them, concerns: how far does circularity belong to truth?
  5. Derrida in ‘Archive Fever’: “Even a classical historian of science should know from the inside the content of the sciences of which he does the history. And if this content concerns in fact historiography, there is no good method or good epistemology for authorizing oneself to put it into parentheses.”
  6. Innis citing Leslie Stephen, History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century (1876). The full passage of the scarce/vast quotations from Innis reads: “Economics implies the application of scarce means to given ends, and the vast range of social phenomena compels a similar strategy of approach.”
  7. For this limitation, and many of the others specified by Innis, consider Derrida from La Carte Postale (1980): “The day when I was talking about all these pp (private picture postcard and penny post), I was first struck by this: prepayment institutes a general equivalent which regulates the tax according to the size and weight of the support and not the number, tenor or quality of the ‘marks’, even less on what they call the meaning. It’s unjust and stupid, it’ s barbarous, even, but immensely important. Whether you put one word or one hundred in a letter, a hundred-letter word or one hundred seven-letter words, it’s the same price; it’s incomprehensible, but this principle is capable of accounting for everything.” Derrida’s ‘”accounting” here has multiple meanings of course, as does Innis’ “accountancy”.
  8. That is, it must be inquired if “the pecuniary approach” should be the measure of economics or if economics should be the measure of it.
  9. That is, “the pecuniary approach” brings everything into its net, not only economics. This is particularly perverse where the figure of economics as a social science is taken to ground what in fact grounds all the social sciences, “the influence of the Greeks”. Innis’ citation is taken from A. S. Collins, The Profession of Letters: A Study of the Relation of Author to Patron, Publisher, and Public, 1780-I832 (1928).
  10. “The state and other organizations of centralized power have had a vital interest in records of their activities and have (thereby) given powerful direction to the study of political, legal, constitutional, and ecclesiastical history.” Compare Derrida, Archive Fever, fifty years later: “There is no political power without control of the archive”.
  11. This is the Gutenberg galaxy that McLuhan would attempt to specify almost 20 years later.
  12. “Economic history may (be able) to rescue economics from the present-mindedness which pulverizes (all) other subjects and makes a broad approach almost impossible”.
  13. “The significance of basic geographic features has been suggested by Mahan from the standpoint of the sea and by Mackinder from the standpoint of continental land masses”.
  14. That is, economics and economic history must implicate, or be implicated in, the possibility of “cyclonic” or catastrophic events. Innis in 1929: “Veblen (…) attempted to outline the economics of dynamic change and to work out a theory not only of dynamics but of cyclonics (…) the study of cyclonics (…) (must be) worked out and incorporated in a general survey of the effects of the industrial revolution such as Veblen has begun” (‘A Bibliography of Thorstein Veblen’).
  15. Innis: The influence of the Greeks on philosophy and in turn on universities compels us to raise questions about the limitations of the social sciences.
  16. “Irrationality” here means “the vast range” which lies beyond the limited rationalities of defined fields.
  17. Perhaps Innis must be read as worrying, like Derrida, about the possibility of “a writing about which it is no longer possible to decide if it still calculates, calculates better and more, or if it transcends the very order of calculable economy, or even of an incalculable or an undecidable which would still be homogeneous with the world of calculation?” (‘Two Words for Joyce’, 1982)
  18. For ‘the irrational’ see the previous note.
  19. Re “religion (…) appears”, the great questions are  ‘appears to whom’? and ‘how’? Certainly the implication of religion does not appear to most individual or collective “organizations of knowledge” today. Perhaps it appears only to those for whom limitation is revealing? For further on “organizations of knowl­edge”, see Innis on the archive above. The full passage here reads: “religion is an effort to organize irrationality and as such appears in all large-scale organizations of knowl­edge. Commerce follows the general trends of organized religious bodies as does thought in the social sciences.” Such “follows the general trends” might amount to an inverse relation, since, as Innis cites Eric Gill: “Where religion is strong, commerce is weak.”
  20. Full passage: “Economics tends to become a branch of political history and it is neces­sary to suggest alternative approaches and their limitations, to emphasize sociology with its concern with institutions, geography, and technology. By drawing attention to the limitations of the social sciences and of the price system it can show the importance of religion and of factors hampering the efficiency of the price system.”
  21. If ‘account’ as logos is deeper than tradition and deeper than the rendering of it we make from time to time, then the ‘rendering of it’ would be a subjective genitive, and not, at least not in the first instance, an objective one.

‘The Later Innis’ and quantum mechanics

In ‘The Later Innis’1 from 1953, McLuhan described Innis’ social vision in terms reminiscent of quantum mechanics. He compared Innis’ apprehension to an apparatus like a cloud chamber or a radar screen:2

The later Innis had no position. He had become a roving mental eye, an intellectual radar screen, on the alert for objective clues to the inner spirit or core of our times.

…in his later prose the linear development of paragraph perspectives is abandoned almost entirely in favour of the rapid montage of single shots. He juxtaposes one condensed observation with another, mounts one insight or image on another in quick succession to create a sense of the multiple relationships in process… 

What was recorded on that “intellectual radar screen” were “single shots” of momentary traces, momentary lines of force, that illuminated, although never without considerable limitations, some historical epoch. Just as physical nature is the sum product at any instant of time of the interactions of innumerable entities at multiple strata, a sum that is in principle as uncertain as the quantum particles comprising its lowest stratum, so the social scene is such an assemblage of a myriad psychological actions and interactions. Bias, as Innis emphasized, even in the title of his most important book, is of course inevitable in any “shot” recording  a momentary impression of such kaleidoscopic action:

The technique of total presentation or reconstruction led [Innis] swiftly to the vision of the total inter-relatedness of social existence. It is quite evident that Innis was not prepared for all this. No individual can ever be adequate to grappling with the vision of what Siegfried Giedion calls ‘anonymous history’. That is to say, the vision of the significance of the multitude of personal acts and artefacts which constitute the total social process which is human communication or participation [in multiple interacting strata]. For in this kind of awareness ‘commerce’ or ‘technology’ are tools of extremely limited usefulness in discussion. Behind such concepts are the [interactions of a dynamic cloud of]3 human attitudes, preferences and decisions.4 

This notion of the social context or ‘interior landscape’5 may somewhat have been prompted by findings in twentieth century physics, but McLuhan was doubtless thinking of Innis for the most part in terms of Finnegans Wake and of “language itself”.

As he put the point simply in The Later Innis’:

Language itself [is] at once the greatest mass medium of communication and also the greatest time-builder of cultures and civilizations.6

And in the initial issue of Explorations that year:

Language itself is the greatest of all mass media. The spoken word instantly (…) reverberates with the total history of its own experience with man.7

Then again in the same year in ‘James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial’:

“Every letter is a godsend,” wrote Joyce. And, much more, every word is an avatar, a revelation, an epiphany. For every word is the product of a complex mental act with a complete learning process involved in it. In this respect words can be regarded not as signs but as existent things, alive with a physical and mental life which is both individual and collective. The conventional meanings of words can thus be used or disregarded by Joyce, who is concentrating on the submerged metaphysical drama which these meanings often tend to overlay. His puns in the Wake are a technique for revealing this submerged drama of language, and Joyce relied on the quirks, “slips,” and freaks of ordinary discourse to evoke the fullness of existence in speech.8

Then. finally, early in 1954 in ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’:

it is a commonplace of the poetic and critical discussion of the last 100 years to note that human languages themselves are the greatest of all works of art beside which the works of Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Shakespeare are minor variations. The English or any other language is itself a massive organization of traditional experience providing a complex view of the world. Today our increasing knowledge of the languages of primitive cultures has made it easy to observe how language itself is the principal channel and view-maker of experience for men everywhere. This reverent attitude to the human world which has unexpectedly sprung up in symbolist, existential and positivistic circles alike is not unrelated to numerous other attitudes and procedures which are common today to the scientist, the historian and the sociologist. 

Although Innis himself had no background or training in contemporary art, this was the context, according to McLuhan, in relation to which he needed to be read:

This prose calls for steady contemplation of what is happening on the page. It is not intended to deliver an idea or a concept in a formula or in a package. It is an ideogrammic prose…

The question of how to conceptualize the interactional social cloud indicated by Innis, and as depicted in Finnegans Wake, would lead McLuhan a few years later to propose the idea of ‘Grammars of Media‘. Innis had been correct to see communication as the key to the comparison and analysis of different cultures, and to have seen media, in turn, from stone engravings to radio waves, as the keys to communication. And he had of course been right to emphasize bias as an unavoidable factor in any sort of intervention in the estimation of such a maze. Now McLuhan submitted that it was necessary to define media not in material terms (“in this kind of awareness (…) technology [is] of extremely limited usefulness”),9 but as languages.

Put otherwise — McLuhan twisting Innis’ kaleidoscope — all social phenomena might be seen as linguistic messages through which their enabling media expressed themselves: “the medium is the message”. But in this case, media themselves had to be defined though a specification of their elementary forms and of their laws of combination and interaction. These could be termed their ‘grammars’. And if each medium were a language with its own grammar, the goal of ‘understanding media’ would be to uncover a kind of grammar of those grammars — “grammars of all media in concert”:

Having long been engaged in exploring the characters of the various media of communication, I have become convinced that what is needed is a series of Grammars of the Media. A “grammar of a medium” like English or Latin means a codified awareness of the powers and properties of the medium. And the advantage of such codification is its speed and precision in teaching and imparting the special powers of the medium. (…) The fact of being confronted daily with several media has begun to impress upon observers the strange fact that the medium is itself the message. So that we are beginning to understand why a written message is so very different from the same information when spoken or when pictorialized. (…) Grammars of all media in concert (including the medium of print)10 are needed, first, to protect and transmit our great stake in the forms and values of the printed word, and equally to foster enlightened use and control of the much more powerful electronic media. An X-ray unit can get very hot but is not a satisfactory space heater.11

  1. ‘The Later Innis’, Queen’s Quarterly, 60:3, 1953. All citations in this post are from this essay unless otherwise identified.
  2. McLuhan, ‘Introduction’ to the reissue of The Bias of Communication (1964): “He explored his source material with a ‘Geiger counter’ (…) Innis had hit upon the means of using history as the physicist uses the cloud chamber.”
  3. McLuhan: “existing”.
  4. McLuhan, ‘Introduction’ to the reissue of The Bias of Communication (1964): Innis invites us (…) to consider the formalities of power exerted by these structures in their mutual interaction. He approaches each of these forms of organized power as exercising a particular kind of force upon each of the other components in the complex. All of the components exist by virtue of processes going on within each and among them all.”
  5. The ‘exterior’ and ‘interior’ landscapes are not to be differentiated as ‘located’ in contrasting ‘positions’ in space like ‘outer’ and ‘inner’. For one thing, ‘space’ is no constant and no singular. For another, human being is that peculiar type of being capable of systematically outering what is inner and of internalizing what another human beings outer. Furthermore, the physical stuff of the exterior landscape is present and active in the human brain and senses — just as human actions are present and active in physical nature. What is different between the two is the sort of ‘stuff’ constituting them and the laws of interaction of that ‘stuff’.
  6. McLuhan read Innis as implicating this insight, but as missing it at the same time: “Language itself, however, he failed to observe, was at once the greatest mass medium of communication and also the greatest time-builder of cultures and civilizations.”
  7. ‘Culture Without Literacy’, 1953.
  8. ‘James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial’, 1953.
  9. For in this kind of awareness ‘commerce’ or ‘technology’ are tools of extremely limited usefulness in discussion.” Full passage given above.
  10. McLuhan’s bracketed notation.
  11. Grammars of Media‘. McLuhan’s image of the X-ray unit as a space heater was criticized as incomprehensible from the first moment he used it and continually thereafter. It is difficult to see why — unless it was seen as a hook on which to hang an indistinct feeling of antagonism to McLuhan’s undertakings. The rather unexceptional idea was that an X-ray unit is a great invention, but its deployment depends upon an understanding of its proper use — and of its improper use. Media, in McLuhan’s view, and perhaps especially electronic media — given our ‘numb’ to the present — were just like this.