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 published. 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 and where 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, 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” again —  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 “theological” experience masked as secularism — “the entire technique of the ‘secret’ societies is to conduct their controversies as if the terms of reference were historical”;

(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 limitations4 — and “there are, it seems, no such limits in the gnostic world”;5

(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”.6

McLuhan to Eric Voegelin June 10, 1953

For the past two years my own studies in esthetics and criticism have opened up a great deal of the role of Manichean doctrine in the arts. I had previously had no inkling of the Manichean postulates of the major secret societies, on the one hand, nor of the role these societies played in the manipulation of the arts and of philosophy and criticism on the other. Long and detached familiarity with the work of P. Wyndham Lewis should have made these matters clear to me years ago, since he has been engaged in a life-long campaign to expound these relationships. But all is clear now. Except what to do! (…) Since the arts in a very special way are the focus of all the esoteric speculation of the cults I am baffled to know what attitude to take up toward them. For me, of course, art is no channel of grace or gnosis, but an activity of making — analogous to the act of cognition itself. As such, art is a humanist, not a religious, affair.

McLuhan to Eric Voegelin July, 1953

Over and over again I have written to persons who seem to be in good faith in adopting an attitude of objective analysis towards the sectarian activities of the cults in art and literature. Not once before your letter have I ever received a reply that displayed a frank or dispassionate mind. Very few people, I gather, are innocent of any hook-up with these cults and secret societies. They explain that nobody can get anywhere unless he is initiated.7 And this is strictly true. I wish that 15 years ago I had known that it was impossible to get a hearing for one’s ideas unless one was an initiate. (…) It was only last summer, while doing some work on S.T. Coleridge that I discovered the complete rapport between the arts and the secret societies. (…) The entire technique of the “secret” societies is to conduct their controversies as if the terms of reference were historical. Historical scholarship and criticism in the arts is as much their field of present battle as the news, poem, play, novel, painting or musical composition. (…) But such books I had always read as merely archaeological accounts. Now I know that these matters are accepted as living Theological truths. Modern anthropology is a battleground of the cults.8(…) But a person feels like an awful sucker to have spent 20 years of study on an art which turns out to be somebody else’s ritual. To have studied it as an art is to have been taken in by the vulgar or exoteric façade. For the gnostic there are no autonomies in art, life, politics or anything else. A Christian cultivates these things as particular disciplines having a limited importance. There are, it seems, no such limits in the gnostic world. Everything is everything else. When I said I wish I had penetrated these matters 15 or 25 years ago I meant that there are strategies which need to be adopted in these affairs. And I’m floundering at present. (…) Need I say that a great deal that is involved in gnostic speculation appears to me as quite valid? That it should flourish side by side with diabolism, the secret sectarian organization of intellectual life, and the falsification of the entire linguistic currency — that is the deplorable thing. 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, does not appear to them as disturbing.9

  1. Excerpts from McLuhan’s 2 letters to Voegelin in 1953 are given above. All citations in this post are from these excerpts.
  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. This is the heart of Innis’ work.
  5. 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 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, he found his existing sense of this notion extended and reinforced by Innis.
  6. Innis documented how nineteenth century thinkers warned unsuccessfully about the rise and spread of “fanatical assertions” enabled by communications revolutions associated especially with newspapers, telegraph and radio. This, too, of course, was a great impetus to McLuhan.
  7. An obscure sentence like this, where it is unclear what the word “they” refers to, is typical of McLuhan’s mind at work. A way forward was indicated by the need to specify what was at stake in it. Implicated issues were: how far were “people” (one possible reference of “they”) conscious of their participation in “cults”? just what was meant by a “hook-up” for the “initiated”? how open were the “secret societies” (another possible reference of “they”) about the practical advantages of “hook-up”? And so on. Complaints about the obscurity or infelicity of McLuhan’s writing usually amount to a refusal to think with him the issues at stake.
  8. The “exoteric façade” of modernity is one of complication and opposed choices. But this is a “battleground of the cults” as a subjective genitive. The secret of the control “of the cults” lay in disguising control as freedom. What seemed to be opposed choices were all one for their purposes — “everything is everything else”. For example, if the goal were to impose a dualistic structure — the “controversies” of the cults — what would it matter which side of the dualism  people happened to valorize?
  9. The McLuhan letters to Voegelin are given here with the permission of the McLuhan estate.