Monthly Archives: October 2021

Centre and margin overview

McLuhan was familiar with the use of a variable center-margin relation in the work of Harold Innis. There it is used primarily as a way of looking at history1 and economics2. The later Innis came in addition to correlate center-margin dynamics with communication3 and — very importantly! — with time.4

But Innis was also unhappily familiar with the feedback of this notion on research and the individual researcher. If a centre-margin relation were implicated in all human experience, how could some variety of it not be assumed in any and all research? And, in an attempt to defend that assumption, or, at least, to ameliorate its acceptance, how could it itself be studied absent further assumption? Do we not always come too late to do so? How bend back to study what has always been deployed already? For Innis this knot implied a “solipsism” from which he did not see an exit for the researcher or, indeed, for “western civilization” at large.5

In the latter 1950s McLuhan began to see that specification of the center-margin relation might allow the sort of collective investigation into human experience that was necessary for human survival in an age of nuclear weapons — and this especially when “the present time [of] the instantaneity of communication between all parts of the world has brought into involuntary juxtaposition the whole diversity of human cultures”.6 This implied investigation into the possibility beyond solipsism of such study (which McLuhan had called the missing “esthetic” dimension in Innis’ work even in his 1951 letter to Innis himself) and then, on the basis of that newly specified possibility, the detailed deployment of the center-margin relation in analysis.

In the period 1957-1962 McLuhan particularly investigated the centre-margin relation in relation to the possibilities of human experience in the following sequence of writings:

CM 1 – Coleridge as Artist, 19577

CM 2 – Letters from 19608

CM 3 – Humanities in the Electronic Age, 19619

CM 4 – Inside the Five Sense Sensorium, 196110

CM 5 – The Electronic Age – The Age of Implosion, 196211

Each of these will be examined in detail in posts to follow.


  1. The rise and fall of the Roman Empire provided a ready example of the multifold dynamics of centre-margin relations.
  2. The contrasting economies of Canada and the US in relation to England could be understood as strikingly different forms of centre-margin relations.
  3. Communication media correlated with “empire” since empire requires an enduring relation between centre and margin and this depends on communication.
  4. Communication in stone implied an enduring present not subject to easy revision, while communication in, say, paper implied a fleeting present subject to instant change. The first had a virtually unalterable relation to the margin of changing events, the second had a flexible relation to marginal events. The first implicated a theocratic state in which a vertical relation to the divine was all important relative to secular circumstances, the second implied a more fluid relation between the divine and the worldly that could vary widely between the two. Time itself varied with all these centre-margin relationships.
  5. For discussion, see Innis, McLuhan and “the “power of metamorphosis”.
  6. ‘Coleridge as Artist’, 1957.
  7. In ‘The Major English Romantic Poets: a symposium in reappraisal‘, ed Clarence D. Thorpe, Carlos Baker & Bennett Weaver, 1957.
  8. In December 1960 McLuhan wrote letters to Serge Chermayeff and to Jackie Tyrwhitt (Letters 278) that focused on the centre-margin relationship(s).
  9. In the Humanities Association of Canada Bulletin1961.
  10. In Canadian Architect, 6:6, 1961.
  11. In Mass Media in Canada, ed. John A Irving, 1962.

Optophone 3: “carry everywhere the reflection of its delight”

As retaled by Plato in the Phaedrus,1 the Egyptians attributed the invention of writing to Thoth:

Writing effected the transformation of sound into sight which may have been considered analogous to the transformations of the moon, Greek σελήνη.2 And it may have been attributed to Thoth for just this reason, since he was first of all the god of the moon. Hence the moon icon that represented Thoth — or that he represented! — and that was regularly depicted above him. Four or five millennia later, selenium, from σελήνη, would be used to effect the reverse process of sight into sound.

The transformations of the moon are not linear. They do not lead away into an undefined distance. Instead they always lead back in a circular process to the same. So with writing. It is different from spoken language in multiple ways and yet it points back to the same. So again with the sounds of the optophone. In all three cases, a linear process expresses in a mirrored way an underlying possibility of identity in difference. Writing, for example, would not work unless it were possible to express the same (oral language) in something that is utterly different (visual figures).

A further icon of Thoth was the wadjet eye:

It is remarkable that the wadjet image links the eye to the labyrinth of the ear. In paintings the lesser circle in the bottom right of this stone engraving was rendered as a spiral.

The implication was not only that the eye leads to the labyrinth of the ear, but also that labyrinth of the ear leads back to the eye — revealing that it, too, is a labyrinth. The greater circle of the stone engraving is the eye’s pupil. Perhaps it appears as a solid only because its labyrinthine rings are so many and so tightly packed together?

Millennia apart, the translations of sound to sight and then of sight to sound were intimately linked with the moon. The curve linking the twin labyrinths of the eye and the ear in the stone engraving might be taken to represent, for both these translations, in Egypt and England, 5000 years apart, the moon’s special power of metamorphosis. And just as much, perhaps, between our metamorphoses between body and mind, subject and object, word and thing, man and woman, old and young — and so on.  Eye and ear.

This shared underlying structure, this underlying structure of sharing, this sensus communis, allows, or enforces, conversion between the experience of the different senses such that it is only by abstraction that we speak in terms of the visual, aural or tactile. Perception itself, via any of the  senses, is a multifold labyrinth both in the receptive interpretation of its experience and in the combination of the senses contributing to it.

Now if the source of this transformative power of the moon is to be investigated, the answer must be sought in the fact that it is a superlative mirror of the power that is before it (in all the senses of ‘before’). Indeed, the moon has fascinated humans as long as the species has existed on the planet: a riddle that can be guessed at forever. And here is Fournier D’Alba on selenium:

if anyone were to strike a match on the Moon, we could discover the fact on Earth by means of selenium, even without a telescope. And that feat could be accomplished in one second!3

This power of re-flection was portrayed by the Egyptians with Thoth in that his wadjet eye was the mirror image of Ra’s, the sun god’s, wadjet eye:

Just as the moon derives its light from the Sun, and just as Thoth’s eye is the derivative image of the Sun’s eye, so is his power as a magician and scribe a moon-like reflection of that fundamental power of transformation and re-presentation ‘before’ it — that of the Sun, Being itself.

Being itself presents itself, outers itself, utters itself4 — in and to beings. The moon re-represents this originating ex-pression, not by retaining the light it receives only as an im-pression, but by expressing it, reflecting it, in turn. Thoth’s invention of writing turning sound into sight, and Fournier D’Alba’s optophone invention converting writing back into sound, further express in their turn this uttering that is, at once, a going forth and a circling back.

Being does not lose itself in outering itself. Instead its οδός άνω κάτω process as ex-pression gives its im-pression to all beings — while maintaining itself without loss . It is this fundamental dynamic that both enabled and in turn was expressed by the inventions writing and of the optophone. Like the moon, both were a reflection of a power before them that they were able to reflect through the further reflection of written or musical signs to an underlying de-signation.

Now ‘flect’ is already bent as ‘flex’. So ‘re-flect’ is a double bending. This double bending is the signature of Being. It is best re-flected, turn and turn about, re-flected squared, by the moon.

  1. See McLuhan and Plato 6 – Theuth.
  2. In both cases, that of the moon and writing, something held changes in their configurations together. Each constantly changed, but remained itself. Further, something enabled them to refer beyond themselves to an original referent, the sun for the moon, spoken speech for writing.
  3. Moon Element, 56.
  4. Nietzsche put the kenosis (’emptying out’, hence ‘cenotaph’, the empty tomb of the unknown) of the sun (and by extension of Being) (dual genitives!) in the aptly named ‘Zarathustra’s Prologue‘: “One morning Zarathustra rose with the dawn, stepped before the sun, and spoke to it thus: ‘You great star, what would your happiness be had you not those for whom you shine? For ten years you have climbed to my cave: you would have tired of your light and of the journey had it not been for me and my eagle and my serpent. But we waited for you every morning, took your overflow from you, and blessed you for it. Behold, I am weary of my wisdom, like a bee that has gathered too much honey; I need hands out-stretched to receive it. I would give away and distribute, until the wise among men find joy once again in their folly, and the poor in their riches. For that I must descend to the depths, as you do in the evening when you go behind the sea and still bring light to the underworld, you over-rich star. Like you, I must go under”. In the same place: “Bless the cup that wants to overflow, that the water may flow from it golden and carry everywhere the reflection of its delight.”

Optophone 2

The frontpiece of E. E. Fournier D’Albe’s 1924 The Moon-Element: An Introduction to the Wonders of Selenium is a picture of him, on the left, and the first iteration of the optophone in 1912:

In those years around 1912 Fournier D’Albe (1868-1933) was working in Oliver Lodge’s laboratory in Birmingham. He repeatedly noted the interest and support of Lodge in his research and, indeed, there is a notable influence of Lodge in The Moon-Element itself. Namely, Fournier D’Albe combines Lodge’s notion of an all-conveying medium of ether with the possibility of the transformation or metamorphosis of the human senses.

In the year 1910 the Author was appointed Assistant-Lecturer in Physics in the University of Birmingham. (…) With the active encouragement of the [physics] Professor1 as well as the Principal of the University (Sir Oliver Lodge)2, the Author started a research [program] on the properties of selenium (…) He [the Author] particularly investigated the manner in which selenium violates Ohm’s law…3

The element selenium (from Greek σελήνη, moon, discovered 1817) has its name due to its perceived relation to tellurium (from Latin tellus, earth, discovered 1782). Strangely, as set out by Fournier D’Albe, it was discovered only much later (in 1873) that selenium, like the moon, has a marked receptivity to light. And this, in the case of selenium, even when the light source is at a fantastic distance from it.

the Moon-element is unsurpassed in its function of producing [variable] electric currents from [variable] light. It is the supreme bridge between [these] two of the most vital forms of energy.4 

This gave Fournier D’Albe the notion of

utilisation of the action of light on selenium for the purpose of recording star transits. He [the Author] succeeded in making Aldebaran [located at 65 light years from Earth!], a first-magnitude star,5 ring a bell in its passage across the meridian.6  (…) The fact that light could be made to ring a bell [in this way] showed conclusively that in one respect, at least, the ear could be substituted for the eye.7

The twin actions at stake here, the conversion of light to sound and the implicated conversion to eyesight to ear-hearing could both be considered as enabled by the medium of Lodge’s “ether”:

The influences [like light or magnetism] thus exerted “across space” (…) irresistibly suggest that there must be a medium through which they are propagated, a medium whose properties  determine that speed of propagation. This hypothetical medium is called [notably by Lodge.] “the ether of space”. Every movement of an electric charge, whether it consists of electrons, protons, larger ions, or charged bodies, sets up some sort of “strain” in the ether, which is propagated in all directions with the speed of light.8

It is just as if every electron were connected with every other by invisible elastic fibres, so that none of them could start in any direction without the help of all the rest.9

Fournier D’Albe then got the idea got the idea that an analogous set up might allow the blind to read through the selenium enabled conversion of reflected light from a page of print into musical tones.

our optical resources, which for centuries have developed along the same grooves, are capable of entirely new departures.10

Sight had been extended since Galileo through analog means or “grooves” by devices that sharpened focus or gathered more light. Now Fournier D’Albe was suggesting a digital means of extension through conversion. Such a revolution would soon overtake everything from wristwatches on up. 

Last year (1912) I described and exhibited at the London Optical Convention an apparatus for converting light into sound by means of electrical effects, and proposed the name ‘optophone’ for such an instrument, as its primary object is not to transmit sound by means of light (photophone)11 but to ‘see’ by means of sound.12

This was to “read by the ear”.13 “The form of each letter causes it to sing its own little tune.”14  

Since the number of books (not to speak of newspapers, magazines, journals, invoices, etc) in print is enormously greater than these in brail, the potential benefit to the blind was very great.

We shall have “converted light into sound” through the medium of an electric current. That this “conversion” is symbolical rather than actual is evident when we consider the enormous disproportion of sound-waves and light-waves. Sound-waves are measured in feet, and are represented by the lengths of organ pipes. Light-waves are from forty thousand to seventy thousand to the inch, according to their colour.15

By “symbolical” Fournier D’Albe meant that sound and light were not continuous on each other as physical phenomena. They were not analog. Instead they were definitively discrete16 and yet were convertible, presumably via the fundamental enabling action of “the ether of space”.17

Today we know the name of this “space” or pervading power: digitality. 


  1. J.H. Poynting, 1852-1914.
  2. Fournier D’Albe’s bracketed insertion.
  3. Moon Element, 95. Selenium violates Ohm’s law by introducing a third factor, light, to the Ohm’s twofold of current x resistance = voltage.
  4. Moon Element, 159.
  5. Aldebaran is one of the brightest stars in the night sky and is the single brightest star in the constellation of Taurus. It is called (incredibly enough, given the next use Fournier D’Albe would find for selenium) “the eye of Taurus”.
  6. A block of Selenium could detect the change in light from a sector of the sky when Aldebaran was present. This detection would be registered through a change in its electrical conductivity. A bell was then set to ring when current of a voltage enabled only by that particular conductivity was enabled through the detecting block.
  7. Moon Element, 95-96.
  8. Moon Element, 26.
  9. Moon Element, 24-25.
  10. Moon Element, 86.
  11. The possibility of a photophone was discovered and patented by Graham Bell in 1880. It conveyed sound over a short distance by means of light. In contrast, what Fournier D’Albe proposed was not the same sense transported by a medium through space, but the instantaneous transportation of one sense, namely sight, into another, namely hearing.
  12. Moon Element, 103. Strangely, Fournier D’Albe shows no consciousness of how just this transformation, but in the reverse direction, sound into sight, had already occurred with the invention of writing 2500 years ago (the alphabet in Greece) or even 5000 years ago (hieroglyphics in Egypt and cuneiform in Mesopotamia). In contrast, at the same time that McLuhan was urging consideration of the “optophone principle” in the early 1950s, he was clear that the reverse metamorphosis had been made millennia before. In a letter to Pound at this time, he referred to the “invention of writing-alphabet” as the “transfer of auditory to visual” (July 16, 1952, Letters 231). Indeed, something of the sort marked the first moment of human speech and therefore of human being itself. A transformation occurred from an unimaginable idiosyncrasy to a linguistic sociability. And since, in the absence of language, this could hardly have been planned, its possibility must have been ‘something in the air’ — Lodge’s “ether”, perhaps?
  13. Moon Element, 105.
  14. Moon Element, 132. A joke in Punch noted that an optophone was needed by the man reported in a Scottish newspaper: “Not by straining his eyes to the utmost could he catch a sound” (Moon Element, 127). Compare Joyce: “where the hand of man has never set foot”.
  15. Moon Element, 90.
  16. “The ear is sensitive to ten or eleven octaves of the scale of notes. The eye does not cover even one octave of light waves.” Moon Element, 30.
  17. See note 12 above.

Optophone 1

The optophone was not a figure of Joyce’s creative imagination — Tis optophone which ontophanes  (FW 13:15) — but a real instrument described in a Royal Society notice in 1914 as follows:

On a type-reading optophone
E. E. Fournier D’Albe
Communicated1 by Sir Oliver Lodge, F.R.S.2
The production of sounds directly or indirectly due to the incidence of light is the general function of instruments of the type of Graham Bell’s “photophone.” An instrument designed to solve the more special problem of substituting the sense of hearing for the sense of sight is more appropriately termed an “optophone.” Having concerned myself for a number of years with this special problem (…) an instrument has resulted which should, with some practice, enable totally blind persons to read 
ordinary books and newspapers through the sense of hearing. (…) I wish to thank (…) especially Sir Oliver Lodge for the kind interest he has taken in the whole investigation.3

A short description of a somewhat later iteration of the optophone is given in the Genetic Joyce online journal:

The apparatus consisted of a vertical arrangement of five light sources and detectors that was scanned across printed characters, each detector corresponding to a note on the musical stave with the amplitude indicating the amount of reflected light. In this way a blind person could interpret the tone as a letter and piece together words.

For McLuhan the “optophone principle”, the power of translation of one sense into another — in human beings and now in machines — pointed backwards to his study of ‘the common sense’ with Bernard Muller-Thym when they both were teaching at St Louis University. In 1940 Muller-Thym published ‘Common Sense, Perfection of the Order of Pure Sensibility’ which focused particularly on the notion of ‘common sense’ in Aristotle and Thomas.4 And behind that were McLuhan’s sessions at Cambridge in the middle 1930s with Arthur Quiller-Couch, the doyen of the English school, on Aristotle’s Poetics.5 At the same time it pointed forwards to “the medium is the message” where the medium is the fulcrum or crossroads of the senses as the generator of experiential life-worlds: Tis optophone which ontophanes

Human history had come to a decisive juncture (and not only for humans, but for all the beings unhappily sharing the biosphere with humans). By outering the power of “the common sense”, but doing so only in the physical sciences and not at the same time also in the social sciences, humankind had created a danger that was potentially suicidal for itself and murderous for all its fellow species. This was the background to McLuhan working on a “survival strategy” and the key to this strategy was guessed in 1954 with the “opto( )phone principle”.6


  1. Notices in the  Proceedings seem to have been limited to Fellows of the Royal Society (F.R.S.) or to “communications” from them.
  2. Sir Oliver was the uncle of McLuhan’s University of Manitoba mentor, Rupert Lodge. It may be that McLuhan was able to follow Oliver Lodge’s stellar scientific career through his nephew, who would certainly have followed it closely. 
  3. E. E. Fournier D’Albe, Proceedings of the Royal Society Avol 90 issue 619, 373-375, July 1914. Fournier D’Albe was the author  of Two New Worlds: I. The Infra-World; II. The Supra-World (1907) and The Moon-Element: an Introduction to the Wonders of Selenium (1924), in which the optophone is extensively described. He also wrote Quo Vadimus? Glimpses of the Future (1925) which Joyce is known to have read (or heard read!) early in the composition of FW. Furthermore, in 1923 Fournier D’Albe was the first person to transfer a photograph by wireless telegraphy — an important step towards television: “There is, however, nothing in the way of ‘coding’ a picture, i.e. dividing it into a large number of dots and indicating the average shading of each dot or patch by a letter, which is telegraphed in the usual way. Such a transmission of a coded picture was made by the Author on May 24, 1923. It was, however, not transmitted by telegraph wire, but by wireless radiotelephony (…) It was the first attempt ever made to broadcast a picture (…) Such rapid transmission of pictures bring us within measurable distance of the solution of what is known as the problem of ‘television’ or electric vision at a distance. Let us state the problem. A scene or object to be transmitted may be regarded as a changing picture. In order to reproduce it at the receiving end, the picture must be then presented as rapidly as a kinema picture, which changes some twenty times per second. If we can, therefore, transmit a picture in a twentieth of a second, we have solved the problem of ‘television’.” (The Moon-Element, 77, 81, 82).
  4. Muller-Thym published his essay when he and McLuhan were best friends and Muller-Thym was giving McLuhan a crash course in Catholic theology and its Greek background. McLuhan’s copy of the paper, or one of them, is still to be found in his library at Fisher Library, University of Toronto. Its notations do not date from his SLU years, however. They appear to have been made in the 1960s. But the fact that he was rereading the paper then is telling.
  5. See McLuhan’s letter to his family from February 7, 1935: “just returned from the Divinity School where ‘Q’ recommenced his course on the Poetics of Aristotle” (Letters, 57). In his letter McLuhan notes that only one other student attended Q’s course that day and that the session ended up discussing Shakespeare. So the ‘course’ was practically a tutorial with one of the great literary figures of the time on the question of the foundations of the tradition in figures like Aristotle and Shakespeare. The superb quality of McLuhan’s training at Cambridge as a relatively mature student has never yet been properly appreciated (nor his preparation for it in his work with Rupert Lodge in Winnipeg).
  6. Fournier D’Albe saw, a century ago, at the same time of his work on the optophone, that “the energies of ‘civilised’ humanity were concentrated on mutual destruction”. (Moon Element, 111).

Tis optophone which ontophanes

At the beginning of his 1954 essay ‘New Media as Political Forms’ (Explorations 3), written six months or more before the Culture and Technology seminar stumbled on the notion of acoustic space,1 McLuhan revealed how ready he was for such a discovery:

For the lineal procedure of individual awareness, Joyce, in his last work, substituted an everyday roundabout with intrusions from above and below.2 For those locked in the metallic and rectilinear embrace of the printed page, Joyce appears as a surrealist magician or clown. But his optophone principle (…)3 provides the key for future literary and social education. The optophone is an instrument for turning images into sounds. Surrounded by a vast new imagery, technological man has yet to learn how to interpret this imagery verbally or sociallyUntil he learns its language it will continue to act on him like the new liquid meat tenderizers.4

In advance of  ‘acoustic space’, this was already to suggest that we are “surrounded by a vast new imagery” of sound. Here in embryo was (a) McLuhan’s turn from literary works to interior and exterior environments (b) as specified by their dominating sense within the range of the sensorium. The rest of his life would be spent attempting to investigate into, and communicate about, this insight.

Furthermore, the new surround or environment, specifically of sound (dual genitive!) was translated from a previous surround of visual images (dual genitive!). Visual images, too, had once created “a vast new imagery”, one that began with the alphabet — the translation of sounds into visual letters — but received its decisive impetus from Gutenberg — the translation of letters into print.  Now that “imagery” of print was to be displaced, turn and turn about, by a renewed surround of sound — just as the optophone apparatus translated visual images into auditory sounds.5

The “optophone principle” captures in a single phrase McLuhan’s reading of Joyce and the dynamic basis of his own life’s work. ‘Opto’ as eye/sight and ‘phone’ as sound/ear are correlated over a range of ratios between the two — a range whose one extreme is the overwhelming emphasis on the eye relative to the ear, while the other extreme is the overwhelming emphasis on the ear relative to the eye. In the middle of the range, the two are in relative harmony.

The great question concerns the middle — the middle of the range, on the one hand, and, on the other, the changing middle of the eye/ear ratios constituting the extensive range of their relative emphases and valorizations. Not surprisingly, it is only from the middle of the range, where eye/ear are equally valorized, that the changing middle between the two over their range may be observed and investigated. Absent such a situation in the mean,6 hence assuming a position on one of the two sides of the range of sensory ratios, the virtues of the other side can never be appreciated. Indeed, such an inability to appreciate (in all its senses) is exactly what it means to be on one of the sides of the range of ratios.

McLuhan called this dynamic middle or mean or medium — ‘tactility‘:

tactility is not so much the isolated sense of touch as it is the interplay of all the senses. (Humpty Dumpty, Automation and TV, 1962)7

Tactility may be imagined as a kind of elastic band, fixed at its middle (Pound’s “unwobbling pivot”) that can be stretched in one direction or the other. This dynamic band of tactility (dual genitive!) as the mean governs all the values the two sides of the band, the visual and the aural, can take — relative to one another“The medium is the message”.

When the band is relaxed, its ends or poles are close together and have a kind of natural repose or poise. Stretched in one direction, the poles are pulled apart in an action that distorts that natural repose but cannot overwhelm it. So with the other direction, in a mirrored way. The relation of the two sides of the band is dynamic, is not constant, but the fact of some relation (dual genitive!) is a constant — or, rather, relationship itself is the constant. “The ‘meaning of meaning’ is relationship.” (Take Today, 3)

Among other terms McLuhan used for this dynamic middle are ‘the gap’, “the interval”, ‘no-man’s land’ and “membrane”.8 This elastic structure must therefore be further imagined as an invisible, inaudible and intangible power like magnetism/electricity/gravity in which poles are dynamically related to each other by attraction and repulsion, by contesting centrifugal and centripetal forces.  

Now the range of these ratios is principial, it is first in multiple senses, the most important of which is that it defines the possible elements, or elementary possibilities, of human experience. That is, human experience is built from these elementary possibilities similarly, but not identically, to the way in which physical materials are built from the range of elements in Mendeleev’s table. (It is highly important to note, however, that different sciences focus on different levels of combinations of elements. Thus organic chemistry, for example, of course deals with the chemical elements. But it does so as these are ‘already’ combined into complex compounds. Similarly with genetics and medicine and all the other physical sciences except for basic chemistry. Now in the humanities it has generally been assumed that explanation should or must be, so to say, atomic. But this is not necessarily the case and the history of failure in the area suggests that it is probably not the case. Indeed, why should experiential structures be any less complicated than those of, say, proteins?)

It may therefore be suggested that McLuhan’s life-goal was to specify in an exoteric manner (= via open ongoing investigation) what he found already described esoterically in Finnegans Wake: namely, the “octophone principle” as a dynamic generatoror medium — of environments. Of experiential life-worlds.

Humans somehow have, or are, this principle. Tis Optophone Which Ontophanes. The shining forth (phanes) of realities (onto) ‘takes place’ via the  “optophone principle“. This can be termed the principle of the energizing ’tis’ — the principle of the dynamic coming forth by day of the ‘it is’.

The heart of the matter was, and is, to ask after the axis of such transformations between realities — plural —  and of its operation. What is the working, or phenomenology, of the repressed gap of the opto( )phone9 principle (as a dual genitive)? McLuhan’s answer in 1958: The medium is the message.

All this fell into place for McLuhan in the late 1950s. But the first steps he took in this direction were made at the start of the decade. A decisive moment came with the uncovering of “acoustic space” as differentiated from “visual space” in the Culture and Technology seminar in late 1954. But earlier that year McLuhan had already guessed the riddle with his announcement from Joyce of the “opto( )phone principle” governing our surrounds.

  1. See McLuhan & Williams on discovering ‘auditory space’ and Ted Carpenter on discovering ‘auditory space’The 1954 mimeographed Counterblast concludes its first section (of three) as follows: “BLESS the locomotives WHISTLING on the prairies proclaiming the SEPARATENESS Of Man — BLESS FOTOPRINT able to modulate the printed visual image to the full range of acoustic space.” This self-publication was apparently issued at the very end of 1954. In a letter to Wyndham Lewis from December 18 that year, McLuhan mentions that “I have coming out a new version of BLAST” (Letters 245).
  2. McLuhan was paraphrasing Frank Budgen here.
  3. “Optophone” is from FW 13:15: Tis optophone which ontophanes. The omitted words in the citation from McLuhan are “in art”. In the course of the 1950s McLuhan would move away from an emphasis on art and literature towards an investigation of the general terra incognita of communications media and society. Strangely, an important part of this shift away from literary and art works would be played by theoreticians of art like Heinrich Wölfflin and Ernst Gombrich.
  4. Explorations 3,  August 1954, reprinted as McLuhan Unbound #14.
  5. Further optophone posts to follow (Octophone 1, Optophone 2, etc) will continue to deal with it in the detail its importance demands.
  6. Plato’s Republic 619: “A man must take with him into the world below an adamantine faith in truth and right, that there too he may be undazzled by the desire of wealth or the other allurements of evil, lest, coming upon (such lots as) tyrannies and similar villainies, he do (in the life that results from the choice of such a lot) irremediable wrongs to others and suffer yet worse himself (both in that life and in the other world after it); but let him know how to choose the mean and avoid the extremes on either side, as far as possible, not only in this life but in all that which is to come.” And here is Innis in ‘A Plea for the University Tradition‘: “Her (the university’s) traditions and her 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.”
  7. University of Toronto Varsity Graduate, 10:1, December 1962. This short piece indicates McLuhan’s interest at the time in David Jonas’ Irritation and Counter-irritation: “With the advent of electro-magnetism Western man put his central nervous system outside himself in a global embrace. For many centuries he had been engaged in extending this or that part of his physical organism as ‘new technology’. One extension seemed to encourage another by a kind of exasperation and counter-irritation.” The dynamic elastic band of tactility can be seen at work in this passage. It had always been at work, but only behind our backs as a kind of puppet master with humans “becoming servo-mechanisms of their own technology” (ibid). “Tactility Means not Contact of Skin but Interplay of All Senses” was already a section of McLuhan’s 1960 ‘From Visual To Tactile Experience’.
  8. Bob Dobbs has called attention to McLuhan’s use of the term ‘membrane‘. It should perhaps be considered as the elasticity whose permutations structure the internal and external expressions of human being. It is another way of imaging ‘tactility‘ but on a more explicitly “cosmic” level.
  9. The gap in opt( )phone is tactility.

Illusion and Reality

The debts of Marshall McLuhan to Harold Innis were many and are generally not well known. One of the more obscure ones must be a reference in Empire and Communications to Illusion and Reality (1937) by Christopher Caudwell (pseudonym of Christopher St John Sprigg). As was not unusual for McLuhan, he followed up Innis’ reference by reading Illusion and Reality and referenced it himself in ‘Notes on the Media as Art Forms’ (Explorations 2, 1954).

At least three things were highly important for McLuhan in Caudwell. First he reinforced the idea McLuhan was developing, perhaps especially from Joyce, that ‘language itself‘ is the decisive ground of experience (such that media had to be understood as languages). These are the  first lines of Illusion and Reality

This is a book not only about poetry but also about the sources of poetry. Poetry is written in language and therefore it is a book about the sources of languages. Language is a social product, the instrument whereby men communicate and  persuade each other; thus the study of poetry’s sources cannot be separated from the study of society.

Compare McLuhan in the same essay in which Caudwell is mentioned:

There has been very little discussion of any of these questions, thanks to the gratuitous assumption that communication is a matter of transmission of information, message or idea. This assumption blinds people to the aspect of communication as participation in a common situation. And it leads to ignoring the form of communication as the basic (…)1 situation which is more significant than the information or idea ‘transmitted’. (…) The well-established view of culture which assumes that it filters down from élites to popular levels will not stand up for a moment to the facts of linguistic history and formation. Yet language is the great collective work (…)2 transcending all individual works. Today this naive content-view of culture prevents us from directing serious critical attention to the media, old and new, as art forms. It is a charley horse inhibiting all education in a technological society. (‘Notes on the Media as Art Forms’)

Secondly, the citation from Caudwell reads as follows:

There is a poetic instant and as time vanishes, space enters; the horizon expands and becomes boundless.

That time and space might be related inversely (“as time vanishes, space enters”) became an increasingly important idea for McLuhan.3 Here Caudwell helped along what McLuhan already had from Innis. As well, the notion of the spatial horizon expanding and becoming boundless would come to serve McLuhan as a definition of Gutenbergian perspective and hence of the Gutenberg galaxy itself. 

Thirdly, Caudwell’s book was the first of a whole series read by McLuhan in the course of the 1950s dealing with ‘illusion and reality’. Ernst Gombrich’s Art and illusion was probably the most important of these, but all contributed to his notion of the difference between making and matching. If ‘matching’ were not even a possible goal on account of presence of illusion in all perception, what was the status of ‘making’? Did making produce only illusion? Or were making and truth somehow correlate despite an inevitable absence of matching? And were even truth and illusion somehow correlate themselves for ineluctably finite beings — who can yet figure things out?4 


  1. McLuhan has ‘art’ here: “communication as the basic art situation”. One of the ways his ideas would develop in the 1950s was to get away from ‘art’ as a way of illustrating the forms at stake. For a professor of English with a consciously elite view of the world this was no easy matter!
  2. McLuhan again has ‘art’ here”: ” the great collective work of art  transcending all individual works”. For McLuhan on language, see Language Itself.
  3. See Relativity and Typology.
  4. The dynamic correlation of truth and illusion is — science. Here are the last lines of Etienne Gilson’s (1971, translation 1984) From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again: “Instead of trying to make us take as scientific truths the long train of reveries over which their imagination dallies, scientists would render us the greatest service by warning us as precisely as possible, each time, of the point where their thought, impatient of the rigors of proof, grants itself the pleasure of intelligently imagining what it no longer hopes to know. But perhaps it is necessary to imagine much, in order to know a little.” Gilson and McLuhan were colleagues at St Michael’s in Toronto for a quarter century.