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.