Monthly Archives: November 2021

Pound’s Guide to Kulchur

Sometime in his later career after 1960, McLuhan wrote out a short description of Pound’s Guide to Kulchur. Perhaps it was for discussions with grad students working with him on The Cantos. Or he may have thought of using Pound in what was to be a new section on the history of Senecanism in his never-ending reconstruction of his PhD thesis. For McLuhan’s take on Pound was that he was a modern Seneca directing attention “to the idea of production and to the creative process rather than to consumer values and attitudes.”1 

Make It New!2

The note was left in McLuhan’s copy of Pound’s Spirit of Romance (now among McLuhan’s books preserved at Fisher Library, University of Toronto) and recently recovered from it after a gap of 50 years or so.

Guide to K

One way of stating the effect of Guide to Kulchur is to say that it is entirely related to the idea of production and to the creative process rather than to consumer values and attitudes. This directive is far more radical to our time than, say, Empson’s Seven Types [of Ambiguity]. Mathematical training had taught Empson that the homogeneities of Euclidean space were easy to translate into the pluralisms of nuclear space-time. Empson hoicked us out of the single level, lineal world of print culture. 

But in Guide to Kulchur Pound grappled with the entire cultural transition of the West. Faced with an electronic revolution which reduced the world to a global village as early as the telegraph, Pound sought for the structural dynamics of this change in Chinese culture. Centuries ago, the Chinese had discovered a basis of equilibrium between sight and sound, between the world of one-thing-at-a-time and the world of all-at-once. This inclusive unity of the senses and of consciousness was denied to the West whose abstract technologies began with the translation of sound into sight by the fragmentation of the phonetic alphabet. 

Guide to Kulchur is at all points a navigational chart for getting the west out of the segmental and static impasse molded by phonetic alphabet and print culture. Wyndham Lewis in all his work fought against this Pound strategy for culture. Lewis correctly diagnosed the trend of our time as being toward ear orientation and away from the eye-organization of experience.3  One major effect of the Guide to Kulchur was to intensify and clarify the Lewis polemic against his time. At the same time Pound enabled Joyce to shape his multisensuous world with more assurance of his bearings. The Guide is just what it insists that it is: a basic chart for the periplum of the cultural coasts of our time. It is of course the ultimate and indispensable handbook to the Cantos, and as such cannot readily be detached from the Pound corpus.

  1. McLuhan was very much aware that all thinkers worth our attention, like Pound, were both Senecan and Ciceronian. The key considerations are: 1) what is the ratio between the two? 2) how does that ratio change in different contexts? 3) how do these changing ratios build larger structures which demand focused investigation as much as, say, organic compounds and genes do as independent fields of physical science? (The deep ground of the complex structures studied in organic chemistry and genetics of course consists of elements, that is, of electrons and protons in varied ratios. But the movement from the study of the elementary structures of ground to the study of more complex combinations of elements is an essential feature of the physical sciences. Intelligibility is multi-levelled and multidimensional!)
  2. As McLuhan was very much aware, ‘new’ for Pound did not mean something fashionable à la mode, but something perennial: “Ezra Pound says ‘Poetry is news that stays news’. He invaded the oral sphere and became (lasting) news — an arduous metamorphosis.” (Explorations 8, #5, 1957)
  3. On the issue (actually issues, plural) of eye/ear interrelation McLuhan deeply disagreed with Lewis. As set out in his 1955 review of Hugh Kenner’s book on Lewis, he saw that Lewis’ position amounted to a kind of gnosticism. But he nevertheless took from Lewis the critical notion that ear orientation, if uncorrected, and especially when multiplied through technology, led to a dangerous irrationality, to totalitarianism and to wars. This sort of complex response characterized McLuhan’s reading of all thinkers — including Pound.


The basis of all paradox, Christian and secular, is to be found in the sixth book of the Physics of Aristotle, to which Aquinas refers in his Summa Theologica I.II.q 113.a.7, ad quintum. The question for Aquinas is whether justification by faith occurs instantly or gradually. Aquinas says it occurs instantly because — ­here he appeals to Aristotle’s Physics  — “the whole preceding time during which anything moves towards its form, it is under the opposite form.” (From Cliché to Archetype, 1970).

McLuhan, at least from the time of his graduate studies around 1940, was interested in Seneca and the question of how learning eventuates. But this (as McLuhan himself came to specify only in the late 1950s) is the same question as: what is communication?

Here is McLuhan on Seneca in chronological order with added bold and commentary in footnotes.

The war between the dialecticians and rhetoricians began as soon as the Sophists attempted to make dialectics subordinate to the art of persuasion. Plato and Aristotle were the greatest enemies of the rhetoricians, not so much in rejecting rhetoric, as in asserting that as an art it had no power to control dialectics.  The Stoics, however, are the main defenders of dialectics against rhetoric after [Plato and] Aristotle.1 It was they who made Cicero very uncomfortable on many occasions, and against them he, as rhetorician, directs the main force of his attack. It is in terms of the Stoic contempt of persuasion [rhetoric] and their love of cryptic and compressed utterance that one is  able to understand the ancient rivalry between the Attic and Asiatic styles — later, between the Senecans and Ciceronians. The war between these literary camps is basically the opposition between dialectics and rhetoric to control the modes of literary composition; and the ramifications of this opposition stretch into the realms of ethics and politics, both in Antiquity and in the Renaissance. (The Place Of Thomas Nashe In The Learning Of His Time)

Donne is quite explicit about his rhetorical aims in preaching. His intention was to arrange his rhetorical effects in such a way as “to trouble the understanding, to displace, and discompose and disorder the judgement (…) or to empty it of former apprehensions, and to shake beliefe, with which it had possessed it self before, and then, when it is thus melted to poure it into new molds, when it is thus mollified, to stamp and imprint new formes, new images, new opinions in it.” Donne is here stating the Attic or anti-Ciceronian concept of style espoused by the Senecans. His words describe the aims set themselves by Montaigne and Bacon in their essays. In The Advancement Bacon contrasts the two modes of delivering knowledge as the modes of aphorism and orderly method: “But the writing in aphorisms hath many excellent virtues, whereto the writing in Method doth not approach. For first, it trieth the writer, whether he be superficial or solid: for Aphorism, except they should be ridiculous, cannot be made but of the pith and heart of sciences; for discourse illustration is cut off: recitals of examples are cut off; discourse of connection and order cut off; descriptions of practice are cut off (…) And lastly, Aphorisms, representing a knowledge broken do invite men to inquire farther; whereas Methods, carrying the show of a total do secure men, as if they were at farthest.” Both Montaigne and Bacon made compromises, gradually admitting examples, authorities, and descriptions, but persisting in their original intention of employing an aphoristic style in order to dislocate the mind from its customary courses(The Place Of Thomas Nashe In The Learning Of His Time)

It is easy to see how the aphorism was indispensable to this mode of composition employed by Bacon, Burton, Donne, and Browne. It is equally important to recognize that a statecraft, or theory of politics, as well as rhetoric, was the mainstay of the Attic style.2  As [M.W.] Croll3 says: “The negligence of the anti-Ciceronian masters, their disdain of revision, their dependence upon casual and emergent devices of construction, might sometimes be mistaken for mere indifference to art or contempt of form4 (…) Yet even their extravagances are purposive, and express a creed that is at the same time philosophical and artistic. Their purpose was to portray, not a thought, but a mind thinking, or, in Pascal’s words,
la peinture de la pensée. Thus the ‘cutted period,’ asymmetry of members, sudden shifts from plain to metaphorical statement, or from one metaphor to another, is the result of a style “always tending toward the aphorism, or pensée, as its ideal form“.5 In brief, it is a Senecan style. (The Place Of Thomas Nashe In The Learning Of His Time)

Seneca was for Roger [Bacon], and many others, a Christian worthy, and the relative claims of his eloquence and that of Cicero was a dispute which uninterruptedly split the learned world from the beginning until after the time of Montaigne and [Francis] Bacon. (Francis Bacon’s Patristic Inheritance)6

Elocution, like invention, is of two kinds: [according to Francis Bacon] “it is either magistral or initiative. (…) I call that doctrine initiative (borrowing the term from the sacred ceremonies) which discloses and lays bare the very mysteries of the sciences.7 The magistral method teaches; the initiative intimates. The magistral requires that what is told should be believed; the initiative [requires] that it should be examined. The one transmits knowledge to the crowd of learners; the other to the sons, as it were, of science.” 
In a word, the one style is Ciceronian, the other Senecan. (Francis Bacon’s Patristic Inheritance)

Landscape offered several attractive advantages to the poets of the mid-eighteenth century. It meant for one thing an extension of the Baroque interest in la peinture de la pensée, which the study of Seneca had suggested to Montaigne and Bacon and Browne — an interest which reached a maximal development, so far as the technique of direct statement permitted, in Pascal, Racine, and Alexander Pope. Pope especially deserves study from this point of view since he first developed the couplet to do the complex work of the double-plot of the Elizabethans. He discovered how to make a couplet achieve a symbolic vision. That is, to effect
an instant of inclusive consciousness by the juxtaposition without copula of diverse and even paradoxical situations or states of mind.8 (Tennyson and Picturesque Poetry)

The conflicting claims of dialectic and rhetoric or private and public communication account for a good deal of subsequent intellectual and social history. The Roman world divided the dispute in accordance with the position of Seneca and of Cicero, and the mediaeval world opposed the methods of study and teaching of the [Ciceronian] Fathers and the [Senecan] Schoolmen.9 (Technology and Political Change)

Because the function of the exegete is to reveal the hidden and the obscure, he naturally resorts to those forms of expression which arrest the flow of the mind by sudden turns, or dislocate it from its usual channels. (…) By juxtaposing well-known styles [from classical rhetoric] with contemporary themes and controversies, Lyly and Nashe were exercising the art of the continuous parallel so strikingly used in [Joyce’s] Ulysses and in the Senecanism of [Eliot’s] Gerontion and Sweeney Agonistes.10 (From Eliot to Seneca)

The Church Fathers are always close to Seneca for the same reason they are close to Pliny. Seneca provided the stylistic means of psychological manipulation of the inner world [just as]11 Pliny exercised the same effects via the objects of the outer world. Montaigne, interested above all in arresting and painting thought, uses the quick conversational turns of Senecan style and the wide variety of stances provided by [Pliny’s]12 world of natural history to snap-shot the various postures of the mind. (From Eliot to Seneca)

The natural and age-old antipathy of Senecan and Ciceronian is rooted in diversity of aim and method in communication. The Senecan cares only to reveal the thing. He is an instrument to be set aside the moment that the reader has been helped to see.
 (From Eliot to Seneca)

The [Senecan] circuit represents not a narratio or a record of events, but the stages of the learning process.
 The discontinuities of Senecan style, whether in Bacon’s Essays or Mr. Eliot’s poetry, are not attempts to take the reader by the hand or to unfold a tale, but attempts to reveal exactly discriminated states of mind by devices geared to inner vision. The Ciceronian, however, is engaged not in revelation but self-expression. He takes up the task not of discovery and learning but of transmission and accumulation of data, and the inculcation of moral attitudes. (From Eliot to Seneca)

Bacon upon occasion used both [Ciceronian and Senecan] styles and so does Mr. Eliot.
Quarrels between Senecans and Ciceronians are inevitably the result of the triumph of specialized temperament over general intelligence. (From Eliot to Seneca) 

The Senecan schools of declamation in the Roman world elaborated all those terms and procedures which the twelfth-century Senecans revived and elaborated. The Sic et Non of Abelard, like the antitheta of Bacon, is a technique of juxtaposition of texts for the purpose of sudden illumination. Scholasticism was Senecan in origin and temper, and opposed to the Ciceronian humanism of medieval philology and pedagogy. This perspective would have helped Professor Williamson [in his Senecan Amble] to locate the line of wit.14 (From Eliot to Seneca)

Seen in the light of its close historical relation with scholasticism, the [seemingly inexplicable] Senecan link with scientific method, on one hand, and with Puritan theological procedure, on the other, becomes explicable. (From Eliot to Seneca) 

It was the distinction of Pope to have perfected the Senecan essay in verse as a precise instrument of dramatic moral dissection. The return to Senecan style in our time has been made possible by means of the technique of the interior landscape in poetry. The great impetus which Newton gave to the elaboration of external landscape lasted until this century. But the Senecal world, concerned with the postures of mind and the figures on the inner psychological stage, was mainly suppressed by Newtonian physics and optics. There was something revolutionary, therefore, about Mr. Eliot’s directing his exegesis to the Senecal techniques of the Elizabethan and Jacobean drama and his incorporating these via Laforgue and Rimbaud in his early poems. (From Eliot to Seneca) 

In rewriting my doctoral dissertation I am going to include a history of Senecanism as the opponent of Ciceronianism. (…) Seneca is the way of gnosis. Cicero of expression. Senecans stress connatural [innate], irrational [not continuous] knowing via the passions. (McLuhan letter to Eric Voegelin)15

You know my theory of the origin of the technique of scholastic philosophy out of Senecan antitheta. (McLuhan letter to Archie Malloch)

Scholasticism, like Senecanism, was directly related to the oral traditions of aphoristic learningWhen it is understood how entirely oral [scholastic] thesis defenses were, it is easier to see why the students of such arts would need to have memories furnished with a large repertory of aphorisms and sententiae. This is a factor in the prevalence of Senecan stylistic in later Roman times and for the long association of Senecan style with “scientific method” both in the middle ages and in the Renaissance. For Francis Bacon, as much as for Abelard, “writing in aphorisms” rather than in “methods” was the difference between keen analysis and mere public persuasion. In The Advancement of Learning, which is itself shaped as a public oration, Bacon prefers, on intellectual grounds, the scholastic technique of aphorism to the Ciceronian method of explicit spelling out of information in the form of continuous prose. (…) We find it hard to grasp that the Senecan Francis Bacon was in many respects a schoolman. (Gutenberg Galaxy)

Attention to Senecanism and scholasticism in ancient Rome will help [the reader] to understand how oral tradition in Western literature is transmitted by the Senecan vogue,16 and was gradually obliterated by the printed page in the later eighteenth century. The paradox that Senecanism is both highbrow in medieval scholasticism and lowbrow in the Elizabethan popular drama will be found to be resolved by this oral factor. But for Montaigne, as for Burton, Bacon, and Browne, there was no enigma. Senecan antithesis and “amble” (as described in Senecan Amble by George Williamson) provided the authentic means of scientific observation and experience of mental process. When only the eye is engaged, the multi-levelled gestures and resonances of Senecan oral action are quite impertinent. (Gutenberg Galaxy)

  1. See McLuhan on Logos.
  2. Elsewhere, of course, McLuhan describes “the Stoic contempt of persuasion”, that is, of rhetoric. Here rhetoric is supposedly a “mainstay of the Attic style”. This is testimony both to McLuhan’s “disdain of revision” and to inherent problems of ambiguity with the Senecan/Ciceronian classification and, indeed, with the dialectic/rhetoric one.
  3. ‘Baroque Style in Prose’, in Studies in English Philology, ed K. Malone and M. B. Ruud, 1929.
  4. Croll’s description of the Senecans here applies very well to McLuhan’s own “casual” style of composition.
  5. Ibid.
  6.  McLuhan Studies 1, 1999, 7-27.
  7. Bacon’s insight here is fundamental to McLuhan’s enterprise. Unpacked, the notion is that “initative” qua “initative” cannot be derived from the “rear-view mirror”. Understanding communication (= understanding how “initiative intimates”) therefore requires the “retracing” of ‘ordinary human perception’ back to its initiatory springs in dynamic possibilities. The ‘dialectical’ problem then arises as to the existence and the right of some particular sort of human perception, itself inevitably ‘sprung’ from some one such dynamic possibility, to achieve an “an overall view” of those possibilities “which is plenary critical judgment” (‘Poetic and Rhetorical Exegesis’, 1944). As described in Plato’s seventh letter (341c-d), only something like “sacred ceremonies” is able to reveal this. “There does not exist, nor will there ever exist, any treatise of mine dealing therewith. For it does not at all admit of verbal expression like other studies, but, as a result of continued application to the subject itself and communion therewith, it is brought to birth in the soul on a sudden, as light that is kindled by a leaping spark, and (only) thereafter it nourishes itself.” McLuhan’s take on this ‘ancient’ insight (with roots in Plato’s myth of Er) is that a ‘sacred ceremony’ of this sort is always taking place in the human soul, moment to moment to moment — but behind our own backs. What is first of all required is therefore to re-call that “sacred” action that is already always taking place. And this, in turn, requires seeing through modern ‘culture’ to what it attempts above all to suppress and conceal.
  8. McLuhan’s closely allied interests in literary composition and education may be seen at work here. When a poet like Pope achieves “an instant of inclusive consciousness by the juxtaposition without copula of diverse and even paradoxical situations or states of mind“, he is instantiating what it takes to learn anything — that is, to appreciate something new. Learning anything new necessarily brings together “diverse and even paradoxical situations or states of mind” — an old state of mind and a new one. Learning anything new is, therefore, necessarily “without copula”. Furthermore, if every moment of experience whatsoever presents us with new in-formation, a link is revealed — one insisted upon by McLuhan over and over and over again — between ‘ordinary perception’ and artistic practice. The basic equation is: artistic practice = ordinary perception = education. But any of these, or more probably all three of them together, can become misperceived and misunderstood and misused. The great question is how to re-veal them fittingly once again to re-vitalize life and to re-solve unsolvable problems?
  9. It is typical of McLuhan’s mind to cross in a single sentence Seneca and Cicero and then Cicero and Seneca. He had a kind of built-in chiasmus.
  10. The attempt to e-ducate is a linear desire: the hope is to lead (ducare) out (ex) from an old mindset to a new one. This takes time. But the instant of learning is momentary: suddenly something new is born. “Juxtaposing” or the use of “continuous parallel” in education or art attempts to achieve the former linear ambition through the latter simultaneity. In this respect, Senecanism might be thought to be a style located at the crossroads of time(s). See the passage on Aristotle and Aquinas at the head of this post.
  11. McLuhan: ‘and’.
  12. McLuhan: ‘the’.
  13. ‘Circuit’ and ‘stages’ have fundamentally different meanings in Ciceronian versus Senecan contexts. At bottom, the differences in meaning of these words between the two depend on time (linear vs simultaneous) and momentary integrity (simple vs complex).
  14. ‘What are the lines of wit’ is the question to which “the medium is the message’ is the answer. The phrase “line of wit” is from Leavis, who adopted it from Eliot’s use of ‘wit’ to characterize the line of English poetry from Dryden to Pope.
  15. McLuhan to Voegelin June 10, 1953.
  16. McLuhan’s transition from literary classification to media and technology classification is clear here. It was the breakdown of the former in its “attempts to reveal exactly discriminated states of mind by devices geared to inner vision” that precipitated him into the latter (like one returned from the maelstrom). Since Nietzsche and Beckett offer the two most articulate descriptions of the breakdown of literary classification, the question posed by McLuhan to his interpreters may be put: does he or does he not offer a way on (backwards, forwards and both together, ‘odos ano kato) from Nietzsche and Beckett?


In his use of wheel and axis imagery starting around 1970 (so in the last decade of his life), McLuhan described what he variously called “the very principle of mobility” in and between moments of experience (1972), “the principle of the dynamic at work in a[ny] new kind of situation” (1973), “the basis of human communication” (LoM posthumous).1

A central name for this basic principal in McLuhan’s work is ‘tactility’. It is “the interplay among the senses”, “that steady ratio among the senses which is the norm of human consciousness”, “the bond among the other senses”, the “unconscious inference or mental action [at work] even in the most basic sense experience”, “the very crux of the interplay of the senses”, the “agent of unified perceptionthe world of the interval”, “the space of the significant bounding line, of pressure, and of the interval”.

These snap-shot characterizations of ‘tactility’ are taken from the following citations of McLuhan describing tactility, given in chronological order, with an emphasis on 1960-1961. It was at this time that he appears to have begun stressing its importance:

From Visual To Tactile Experience, 19602
Externalizations of our senses, such as the wheel, the phonetic alphabet, radio and photography, also constituted closed systems which invaded the open systems of our senses with tremendous transforming power. But the TV image is the first technology by which man has outered his haptic, or tactile, powers. It affects, therefore, the balance or ratio among our senses. Since at all times consciousness involves a ratio resulting in the immediate “closure” or completion of pattern, such new “closure” or completion is, in fact, a new posture of mind charged with new preferences and desires, as well as with new patterns of perception. 
Tactility means not contact of skin but interplay of all senses.

From Visual To Tactile Experience, 1960
For the tactile image involves not so much the touch-of skin as the interplay or contact of sense with sense, of touch with sight, with sound, with movement.

Letter to Serge Chermayeff, December 19, 19603
Is not tactility and the mode of creative process that very interplay of the senses which we call synesthesia?

Inside the Five Sense Sensorium, 1961
Just at the end of the nineteenth century Bernard Berenson had begun a crusade ‘to endow the retinal impression with tactile values‘. There was wide awareness that photography and other technological change had abstracted the retinal impression, as it were, from the rest of the sensorium. Thus, in 1893 Adolf Hildebrand the sculptor published a small book called ‘The Problem of Form. He insisted that true vision must be much imbued with tangibility, and that creative, aesthetic awareness was touching and making. Such was the timeliness of his insistence, that the theme of artistic vision as tangible, tactile, and based on the interplay of the sense[s] began to enjoy acceptance in poetry and painting alike. The art historian Heinrich Wölfflin taught the Hildebrand stress on visual forms as haptic or tangible-tactile — and his pupil Sigfried Giedion embodied it in his Space, Time and ArchitectureHow little these men foresaw television as the fulfillment of their program! Photography gave separate and, as it were, abstract intensity to the visual, a development which called for and received swift compensating strategy in the arts. Movies and photo-engraving created a further revolution in Western sensibilities, tending to high stress on pictorial quality in all aspects of human association. And I am bold [enough] to say that there has been no respite from this growing pictorial stress till the advent of television. (…) The television image is, in effect, a haptic, tactile, or synesthetic mode of interplay among the senses, a fulfillment on a popular plane of the aesthetic program of Hildebrand, Berenson, Wölfflin, Paul Klee, and Giedion.

Inside the Five Sense Sensorium, 1961
When Hildebrand conducted his campaign for tactility against mere retinal pictorial impression, he was in the centre of a great cultural current which, from Cezanne in painting to Conrad in literature, swept up all into the ‘Heart of Darkness’ or ‘the Africa within’.

Inside the Five Sense Sensorium, 1961
actility is less a separate sense than it is the interplay among the senses. When, therefore, I speak of the tactility of the television image, I mean this stepped-up interplay of the senses which the nineteenth century artists and polemicists struggled to foster in an aesthetically starved milieu. That nineteenth century program makes no sense to anybody who fails to understand the peculiar monopoly and separation of visual experience, at the expense of the other senses, which is imposed by print and its industrial, organizational extensions. Television, then, is not part of the nineteenth century art program for the reconquest of synesthesia. Television is rather the overwhelming and technological success of that program after its artistic exponents have retired.

Inside the Five Sense Sensorium, 1961
A cartoon or an abstract painting offers sparse data and demands much of the viewer by way of
‘closure’ or completion and fill-in. The television image, then, demands much participation from the audience compared to movie, radio, or photo. Its two-dimensional, contoured character fosters the tactile interplay of the senses which painters since Cezanne had stressed as needful. And this sculptural, contoured image with its tactile stress is, in the case of the television medium, given a scope and extent of vulgarization unknown even to movie, photo or newspaper.

Inside the Five Sense Sensorium, 1961
Our technical media, since writing and printing, are extensions of our senses. The latest such extension, television, I am suggesting, is an extension, not just of sight and sound, but of that very synesthesia which the artists 
of the past centuries have stressed as accessible via the tangible-tactile values of the new vision. Television is not just sight and sound, but tangibility in its visual, contoured, sculptural mode.

Care and Feeding of Communication Innovation, 1961
he senses never operate in isolation. If one sense is suppressed, the other senses compensate in various ways in order to maintain that steady ratio among the senses which is the norm of human consciousness. If one sense is isolated by stress or intensity we are in the state of hypnosis at once. Pushed a bit further, the isolation of sense leads swiftly to insanity (…) the tactile sense (…) appears to be the bond among the other senses.

Care and Feeding of Communication Innovation, 1961
The TV image is the first technology to project or externalize our tactile sense
. The externalizing of our tactility has brought great change in the ratios between sight and sound. Sight and sound had reached some degrees of stability in relation to one another, thanks to the evenly divided empires of radio and film, of press and photography. The sudden project[ion] of touch itself changed everything.  The human senses were suddenly given an altogether new diet, and a new ratio or proportion among our senses was set up as soon as TV began.

Care and Feeding of Communication Innovation, 1961
tactility — or what the psychologists call “closure”.

The Gutenberg Galaxy, 1962
Gombrich records the stages of nineteenth-century discussion and analysis of “sense data” leading to the Helmholtz case for “unconscious inference” or mental action even in the most basic sense experience. “Tactility” or interplay among all the senses was felt to be the very mode of this “inference”.

The Gutenberg Galaxy, 1962
An oral manuscript culture had no fear of tactility, the very crux of the interplay of the senses.

The Gutenberg Galaxy, 1962
It was not till the pre-Raphaelites and Hopkins that a deliberate campaign for Saxon tactile values in language was to begin in English. Yet tactility is the mode of interplay and of being rather than of separation and of lineal sequence.

The Gutenberg Galaxy, 1962
This interplay or synesthesia is a kind of tactility such as Blake sought in the bounding line of sculptural form and in engraving. (…) Blake, at least, had understood the Berkeleyan critique [of vision] and had restored tactility to its prime role as agent of unified perception.

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

Understanding Media, 1964
The TV image requires each instant that we “close” the spaces in the mesh by a convulsive sensuous participation that is profoundly kinetic and tactile, because tactility is the interplay of the senses, rather than the isolated contact of skin and object.4

Understanding Media, 1964
tactile participation (…) is sex

McLuhan to Wilfred Watson, 1965
Tactility is directly related to Thomism and St. Thomas. It is explicitly the inclusive circle of the sense in interplay.

Through the Vanishing Point, 1968
tactility includes all the senses as white light incorporates all colors

Include Me Out: Reversal Of Overheated Image, 1968
tactile space is the space of the interval, the icon, the contour.

Counterblast, 1969
Tactility is not a sense but an interplay of all senses.

The Hardware/Software Mergers, 1969
The electric world is the world of discontinuity, the world of resonating intervals, the world of involvement, the world of touch. Tactility is the world of interval. When you touch something, you do not create a connection; you create a space between you and it. It echoes, there’s the base of musical “beat.” That is ‘where it’s at’, this is the interface of change resulting from interval. The “missing link” was  the greatest discovery of the 19th Century. But it was not missing at all ; it was an interface; it was where the new evolution began. 

The Hardware/Software Mergers, 1969
The TV image is not visual at all (…) there are no connections in it. It is all iconoscope or iconic action of the scanning finger. The TV image resembles the painting technique developed by Seurat around the 1880’s. It was pointillism: a mesh of luminous dots creating a tactile bounding line.

Discontinuity and Communication in Literature, 1970
The double plot structure (…) presents no connection or continuity, but only an interface or continuous parallel between two actions. This interface is tactility itself, the metamorphic moment of the resonant interval such as occurs between the wheel and the axle.

Last Look at the Tube, 1978
It was the symbolists who had stressed the character of the discontinuous as the key to tactility and involvement: their structures were never continuous or connected statements so much as suggestive juxtapositions. As Mallarmé 
put it: “To define is to kill. To suggest is to create.” The simultaneous world of electric information is always lacking in visual connectedness and always structured by resonant intervals. The resonant interval, as Heisenberg explains, is the world of touch, so that acoustic space is simultaneously tactile. 

Laws of Media, posthumous
each configuration of senses creates a unique form of space
— figure and ground are in dynamic equilibrium, each exerting pressure on the other across the interval separating them. Intervals, therefore, are resonant and not static. (…) Tactility is the space of the significant bounding line, of pressure, and of the interval.5


  1. For extended passages, sources and discussion of the citations in this paragraph, see Wheel and Axle.
  2. This short essay, which was published in the first volume of Canadian Communications, might be considered as one more of McLuhan’s ‘Canadian’ announcements. His specification of the importance of the tactile here is comparable to his initial use of “the medium is the message” in Vancouver in 1958 and “global village” in Winnipeg in 1959.
  3. Full letter given at Letter to Serge Chermayeff.
  4. “The TV image” here is an example of “all experience”:  all experience “requires each instant that we ‘close’ (…) by a convulsive sensuous participation that is profoundly kinetic and tactile”. Cf, McLuhan in The Little Epic from the late 1950s, an unpublished manuscript in the Ottawa archive: “Language itself and every department of human activity would in this view be a long succession of ‘momentary deities’ or epiphanies.  And such indeed is the view put forward in the Cratylus of Plato: ‘I believe, Socrates, the true account of the matter to be, that a power more than human gave things their first names, and that the names which are thus given are necessarily their true names. In this way etymology becomes a method of science and theology. ‘William Wordsworth called these momentary deities ‘spots of time’, Hopkins called them ‘inscapes’ and Browning built his entire work on the same concept of the esthetic of the ‘eternal moment’.” It is highly important to note that this “convulsive sensuous participation” occurs both in “each instant” and between instants. The first is synchronic, the latter diachronic. It was no accident, in McLuhan’s view, that television and the possibility of the collective investigation of human experience emerged in the same “Marconi era”. Each represented in their different ways both an ‘outering’ of the full human sensorium and its moment-to-moment ‘closure’ via “participation” . See the Opto( )phone posts for further discussion.
  5. The LOM text here is: “Resonance is the mode of acoustic space, tactility is the space of the significant bounding line…”. But “resonance” is the mode of all space, not just of “acoustic space”. Especially in the years just after “acoustic space” was dis-covered in the culture and technology seminar, McLuhan tended to equate it with something like ‘underlying space’ — as if “acoustic space” were more basic than “visual space”. But this was a linear perspective (since “acoustic space” may be imagined to have come first in time) he later corrected himself to acknowledge that: “in our desire to illumine the differences between visual and acoustic space, we have undoubtedly given a false impression: and that is that the normal brain, in its everyday functioning, cannot reconcile the apparently contradictory perceptions of both sides of the mind” (GV 48). Again: “visual and acoustic space are always present in any human situation, even if Western civilization has (…) tamped down our awareness of the acoustic” (GV 55). McLuhan’s emphasis on “acoustic space” was an attempt to rebalance that “awareness” and to show the possibilities that emerged with that rebalancing. As regards what is ‘first’, careful note should be made of McLuhan’s recourse to ‘allatonceness’ here: “visual and acoustic space are always present in any human situation“.


McLuhan occasionally used the term ‘membrane’ in his later work:

People of literary and critical bias find the shrill vehemence of de Chardin as disconcerting as his uncritical enthusiasm for the cosmic membrane that has been snapped round the globe by the electric dilation of our various senses. (GG 32)

Electricity has wrapped the planet in a single cohesive field or membrane that is organic rather than mechanical in nature. (The Electronic Age – The Age of Implosion)


All men are totally involved in the insides of all men. There is no privacy and no private parts. In a world in which we are all ingesting and digesting one another there can be no obscenity or pornography or decency. Such is the law of electric media which stretch the nerves to form a global membrane of enclosure. (Notes on Burroughs)

Government had begun in a modest way as the figure of the helmsman. The ship represented the entire human community. Today, the rudder has become much larger than the ship. The number of helmsmen are coextensive with the community. (…) The stretching of the bounds of government has coincided with the contraction of the social membrane. (TT, 217)

Finnegans Wake is very much concerned with the resonance in the ‘tribal membrane‘ and the drama among the instincts and the artifacts of language and technology, leading to the awareness of the electric role in ‘waking’ or retrieving the old tribal man. (‘The Implications of Cultural Uniformity’,  1973)1

  1. In Superculture: American Popular Culture and Europe (1975). With “tribal membrane” McLuhan was citing from William Empson’s great poem ‘Arachne’: “King spider, walks the velvet roof of streams: / Must bird and fish, must god and beast avoid: / Dance, like nine angels, on pin-point extremes. / His gleaming bubble between void and void, / Tribe-membrane, that by mutual tension stands, / Earth’s surface film, is at a breath destroyed.”

“Anybody can now be famous”

TV in the classroom means that the instructors presented will have a classroom of huge scope. (…) Theoretically one teacher might do all the arithmetic teaching for grade 6 for the whole country. In this way some teachers could become national figures as much as current celebrities of stage and screen. (…) TV could, then, in one sense take the teacher out of the classroom into a larger world. (Classroom TV, 1956)1

Although it is universally accepted that the idea of making McLuhan famous stemmed from San Francisco advertising and public relations gurus, Howard  Gossage and Gerald Feigen, in 1965, in fact McLuhan had precisely defined the ‘Kim Kardashian’ process already in 1962:2

In the mechanical age a man was famous for having done something. Today he is famous for being well known. In an age of information movement, fame is literally being known for being well known. The Graphic Revolution, by which a private image can be showered on the world overnight, scrambles and confuses all pre-electric categories of fame and greatness. But it also increases the demand for big names and big images. Let us keep in mind that the new reality is in the image and not [anything] behind it. (…) With photography and electronics it became possible to bypass the consumer phase in fame.3 One could simply become famous or celebrated for being famous or celebrated, without going through the tedious process of [actually doing something].4 It was now possible to shift the commodity fame from the consumer to the producer phase. Anybody or anything can now be made famous.5 (The Electronic Age – The Age of Implosion, 1962)6

McLuhan doubtless had a better idea of this process than Gossage and Feigen, particularly as regards his own ideas and goals. Indeed, it seems far more likely, instead of them promoting him for some vague purpose of theirs, that he used their skills for a precise purpose of his.

Decades before this, in a letter to Clement McNaspy, S.J., who had been one of his students at St Louis University, McLuhan wrote of his “increasing awareness”

of the ease with which Catholics can penetrate and dominate secular concerns — thanks to an emotional and spiritual economy denied to the confused secular mind. (Letters, 180)

This was from the turn of the year, 1945/1946, twenty years before McLuhan’s San Francisco ‘take-off’. One of his central ideas from early on was that contemporary society had no notion of its own nature and destiny. Its “emotional and spiritual economy” was witless. This emptiness at its core robbed it of direction and persistence even in practical matters.

In his 1967 interview with with Gerald Stearn, he put his notion of taking on the media, in the senses of taking it on as a challenge, taking it on in battle and taking it on as a put-on, as follows:

I am not in awe of media or their contents. For example: When you talk back to ads as I did in The Mechanical Bride, they become your servants. Since you cannot survive the effects of media if you huddle or hide, you must rush out and kick them in the guts — give them what for — right in  the midriff. And they respond very well to this treatment. Media, after all, are only extensions of ourselves. The road to understanding media effects begins with arrogant superiority. If one lacked this sense of superiority — this detachment — it would be quite impossible to write about them. It would be like an octopus attacking the great pyramids.7

Perhaps Gossage and Feigen were McLuhan’s means of ‘taking off’ by ‘taking on’ the media?

  1. Study Pamphlets in Canadian Education #12.
  2. An argument could be made that McLuhan had an intuition of this process of fame-making back in 1934 (when he was 23). He wrote to his mother from Cambridge that year: “Now it is my firm belief that if you had the time to study carefully some of his (Eliot’s) poetry and some of Yeats and Gerard Manley Hopkins (…) you could take the elite London by storm. (…) There is really an amazing opportunity for you Mother (…) You would be GIVEN the air by the B.B.C.”. (Letters, 42-43)
  3. By the “consumer phase in fame” McLuhan meant a type of fame determined by the estimation by observers of a real event, not necessarily at first hand, that something remarkable and therefore worthy of fame had been achieved in it. In contrast, a ‘producer phase in fame’ would mean fame as a “commodity” manufactured to supply its producer with the image of fame made for, not from, its consumers.
  4. McLuhan has: “without going through the tedious process of discovering and peddling some marketable commodity or entertaining stereotype”. The phrase ‘actually doing something’ is modeled on “having done something” from the first line of this same passage.
  5. Andy Warhol is famous for the quip, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” This was made in 1968, at least 6 years after McLuhan’s insight into the phenomenon appeared in print. Since Warhol is known to have been reading McLuhan in the 1960s, this “most famous” of all of Warhol’s quips was probably not his at all, but an illustration of his famous borrowing of ideas from famous others — illustrating another of McLuhan’s insights that “the new reality is in the image and not (anything) behind it”.
  6. In Mass Media in Canada, ed. John A Irving, 179-205, 1962.
  7. Compare the Playboy Interview: “I derive no joy from observing the traumatic effects of media on man, although I do obtain satisfaction from grasping their modes of operation. Such comprehension is inherently cool, since it is simultaneously involvement and detachment. This posture is essential in studying media. One must begin by becoming extra-environmental, putting oneself beyond the battle in order to study and understand the configuration of forces. It’s vital to adopt a posture of arrogant superiority; instead of scurrying into a corner and wailing about what media are doing to us, one should charge straight ahead and kick them in the electrodes. They respond beautifully to such resolute treatment and soon become servants rather than masters. But without this detached involvement, I could never objectively observe media; it would be like an octopus grappling with the Empire State Building. So I employ the greatest boon of literate culture: the power of man to act without reaction — the sort of specialization by dissociation that has been the driving motive force behind Western civilization.”

Centre and margin — Coleridge

In 1957 McLuhan had not yet formulated that “the medium is the message”. He would do so the next year and the main impetus in this direction from his previous work was supplied by the notion of a variable dynamic relation between centre and margin. His description of this developing idea in ‘Coleridge as Artist’1 from that year of 1957 represents a kind of threshold to his later work.2

Indeed, as will be seen, everything depends on the question of the ‘threshold’ to human experience. How is it initiated such that a collective investigation can be initiated into it in turn?

As broached in Centre and margin overview, McLuhan’s attention to centre-margin relations as the collective focus for the investigation of human consciousness and its life-worlds had necessarily first of all to encounter the question of its own possibility. Was it not so entangled in endless assumption that it necessarily led, as Innis feared, into solipsism?3 Where the examination of assumption always had assumption(s) of its own? And so on in infinite regress?

McLuhan’s answer to this question reached back to his studies beginning around 1950 into the “interior landscape”.  There he had repeatedly detailed the “aesthetic moment” of “arrest” and its exploration in poetry and literature and, indeed, painting since the eighteenth century — culminating 300 years later in Joyce. Now in 1957 he proposed that this “moment in and out of time” (as Eliot has it in ‘The Dry Salvages’ in Four Quartets) was ‘before’ experience in such wise as to give “scientific basis” for the investigation of experience even when that experience were “utterly alien to our own”.4

The basic idea which was not yet fully developed in McLuhan’s mind (and would not be until early in 1960)5 was that all experience whatsoever is mediated (“the medium is the message”) and that this (so to say) natural mediation6 not only does not lead into a solipsistic cul-de-sac, but rather, properly considered,7 leads into the sort of open collective investigation that has propelled the physical sciences for centuries now.

‘Coleridge as Artist’ will be examined in detail in this and in a series of following posts. Commentary is supplied in footnotes. Bold and italics have been added to emphasize passages of particular importance.

Poe put crime detection on a scientific basis by bringing into play the poetic process of retracing the stages of human apprehension.8 It is likewise the procedure of Wordsworth’s Prelude [begun in 1798] and Sterne’s Tristram Shandy [1759-1767]. And this process of arrest and retracing (…)9 provides the very technique of empathy10 which permits intimate insight into the processes and impulses behind [experiential] products utterly alien to our own immediate experience.11 In fact, the Coleridgean awareness of the modes of the imagination as producer12 represents an enormous extension of the bonds of human sympathy and understanding, socially and historically. Coleridge wrote to Wordsworth On the Night After His Recitation of a Poem On the Growth of An Individual Mind: “The truly Great/Have all one age, and from one visible space/Shed influence!” This has more than a neo-Platonic doctrinal interest at the present time when the instantaneity of communication between all parts of the world has brought into involuntary juxtaposition the whole diversity of human cultures. What century is it today in Peking or Jerusalem or Moscow? Yet the very speed of communication between these entities so discontinuous in space, time, and experience makes for a simultaneity in which lineal history is abolished by becoming present.13 Coleridge, a myriad-minded man living in a most tumultuous age (…) was forced to invent a great deal of conceptual equipment which is indispensable to an intellectual of today.

Shortly thereafter in the ‘Coleridge’ essay:

Writing in Shelley and the Thought of His Time [1947], Joseph Barrell (…) continues: “The Greek way, which is Shelley’s way and on the whole the Western way,14 is to take the reader or listener, by the hand and lead him step by step from the old position to the new position. It seeks to explain and to demonstrate. Its logic might be described as linear and transitional. (…) The Oriental way is different. Its logic might be described not as linear but as radial. The recurring statements do not progress, but return to their center as the spokes of a wheel to their hub.”15 The dichotomy between linear and radial expression is not really as radical as might appear,16 but it has in such terms as “continuous” versus “discontinuous” or “statement” versus “suggestion” divided the allegiance of poets, critics, and readers from the time of Coleridge to the present. It certainly had much to do with the intellectual divergence between Coleridge and Wordsworth, between Browning and Tennyson, and between Pound and Eliot.17 In general, it seems to be felt that the Greek way of continuous transition in a poem makes for a habitable world of homely realities, whereas the Oriental way is inhuman in its austere demands of unflagging and unremitting intensity of contemplation and participation.18 In one case the poet leads us through the labyrinth of his work, and in the other we are left bewildered to multiply variety in an illusory world of mirrors. In actual fact the quarrel is pointless so far as art goes since both kinds are inevitably dynamic, following the stages of cognition, which are equally the base of religious ritual and [all] human creation.


  1. In ‘The Major English Romantic Poets: a symposium in reappraisal‘, ed Clarence D. Thorpe, Carlos Baker & Bennett Weaver, 1957. McLuhan had already studied Coleridge at the University of Manitoba and cited him in his MA thesis. Then at Cambridge he heard I.A. Richards lecture on Coleridge in connection with Richards’ book, Coleridge on Imagination, which was published at just that time. In his letter to Richards more than 30 years later, from July 12, 1968, Letters 355, McLuhan wrote: “I owe you an enormous debt since Cambridge days. I also owe a great deal to S.T.C.” What did McLuhan mean here? That McLuhan had a debt to Coleridge in some way similar to the debt he had to Richards? That McLuhan had a debt to Coleridge that was in large part occasioned by Richards? That Richards, like McLuhan, “also” was indebted to Coleridge? Perhaps he meant all of the above. Indeed, McLuhan’s mind always moved on multiple tracks which made him a natural punster — but ‘also’ often difficult to follow.
  2. All quotations below, unless otherwise identified, are from ‘Coleridge as Artist’.
  3. See The bubble of life in Tolstoy, Nietzsche, Havelock and Innis.
  4. McLuhan has “alien to our own immediate experience” here. By “immediate” he did not meant ‘unmediated’, however, but ‘accustomed’ or ‘usual’. See note #6 below on ‘natural mediation’.
  5. For discussion see McLuhan’s #1 breakthrough.
  6. There are many echoes in ‘Coleridge’ of McLuhan’s 1954 ‘Catholic Humanism’ lecture. Re ‘natural mediation’: the revelation of the poetic process which is involved in ordinary cognition“. Again: “as we trace the rise of successive communication channels or links, from writing to movies and TV, it is borne in on us that in order for their exterior artifice to be effective it must partake of the character of that interior artifice by which in ordinary perception we incarnate the exterior world. Because human perception is literally incarnation. So that each of us must poet the world or fashion it within us as our primary and constant mode of awareness.”
  7. ‘Properly considered’ is, of course, a highly loaded phrase — but it is critical to McLuhan’s work from start to finish. Shortly put, for him ‘consideration‘ always entailed distance, complication, variation, dynamics, plurality. From this vantage, the entire problematic of modernity resides in an inability to move away from singularity-consolidation-simplicity as the known or, more usually, unknown basis of consideration. Hence McLuhan’s  conviction that it is necessary to wrestle with a perennial gnosticism that is as much an institutional as an intellectual force. Hence his appeal to “Coleridge, a myriad-minded man”.
  8. McLuhan engaged with Poe already in his essays from the early 1940s, perhaps through Cleanth Brooks. He began appealing to Poe’s Maelstrom in 1946 and here the impetus was certainly from Brooks. See  Cleanth Brooks on the Maelstrom“Retracing” leads back to “arrest” since it is with “arrest” that all experience, moment to moment to moment, begins. It is the moment in the maelstrom when ‘going down’ reverses to ‘coming back up’ — ‘odos ano kato. Of course, this “moment” is generally unconscious. But so is the moment of choice of vocabulary, grammar and accent studied by linguists. Indeed, it belongs to the science(s) of human being to dis-cover and study matters which are just as unknown as elements, electricity, radiation, genes, etc, were in the physical sciences only two hundred years ago.
  9. The omitted passage here recaptures McLuhan’s intellectual biography from literature to a kind of phenomenological anthropology and sociology: “this process of arrest and retracing, which has been consciously followed by poets since the end of the eighteenth century (when used by a cultural historian and analyst like Siegfried Giedion) provides the very technique of empathy”.
  10. ‘Catholic Humanism’: “By repeating this process of participation several times we are liberated both from past and present. We don’t arrive at a simple unifying concept but are put on the road to achieving a wisdom. And the road to this wisdom is by way of sympathetic reconstruction, involving the abeyance of personal prejudice and preconception.”
  11. For “immediate experience”, see note #4 above. A little later in his essay McLuhan will come to a more extensive consideration of the centre-margin relation. But it is already in play here. The question is, what is our relation to experience that is marginal to our own? McLuhan’s answer is that, starting from the moment of arrest considered as centre, we can develop sympathy and understanding for all such ‘marginal’ experience. It was just such ‘understanding of the marginal’ that he saw at work in contemporary psychoanalysis, anthropology, even music, painting and poetry. Hence, instead of being marginal in the sense of bizarre and off-putting and opaque, the ‘marginal’ is considered only in the sense of being a “product” of the centre — just as our own is. Moreover, as McLuhan would stress in a letter to Serge Chermayeff in 1960, a centre requires such a margin in order to be a centre at all: “In the field of attention which we call perception, when the center enlarges and the margin diminishes beyond a certain point, we are in that induced state called hypnosis. The dialogue has ended. (…) the problem is the creation of margin that there may be dialogue.” For ‘a “product” of the centre’, see the next note.
  12. “The modes of the imagination as producer” will become, only some months later in 1958, “the medium is the message”. See The medium is the message in 1958. In ‘Christian Humanism’ already in 1954: “In ordinary perception men perform the miracle of recreating within themselves, in their interior faculties, the exterior world. This miracle is the work of the nous poietikos or of the agent intellect — that is, the poetic or creative process. The exterior world in every instant of perception is interiorized and recreated in a new matter. Ourselves. And in this creative work that is perception and cognition, we experience immediately that dance of Being within our faculties which provides the incessant intuition of Being.”
  13. The notion that “simultaneity” is “discontinuous”, especially that it is “discontinuous in (…) time”, is difficult. But it is the very key to an understanding of McLuhan and of genuine thinking wherever it is found.
  14. “The Western way” as a monolithic classification will not do. McLuhan had been contrasting ‘east vs west’ for most of the decade behind him. He would now have to understand that this characterization was too gross for his purposes. It did not yield the open verifiable recognition necessary for collective investigation. More, it implied a continuity to “the Western way”, which he knew to be false, and which veiled fundamental discontinuity, which he knew to be true. See note #17 below.
  15. McLuhan mentions reading Barrell’s book to Archie Malloch in a letter from 1952, but it is not in his library at Fisher. McLuhan had been contrasting east and west along these lines since the early 1950s (and had already showed his interest in the topic by reading authors like Pound and Northrop on east and west in the 1940s), so it is possible that Barrell on Shelley contributed, perhaps markedly, to his repeated appeal to the classification of east vs west beginning around that time. Appeal to the variable relations of the wheel and axle would become common in McLuhan’s later writings and may have started here with this citation from Barrell.
  16. McLuhan is not maintaining here that the distinction between linear and radial expression is not radical. Nor, even, that the “dichotomy” between them is not radical. Instead he is saying that the radicality of their dichotomy is not alone — “is not really as (singularly) radical as might appear” — but is, rather, contested at origin such that we need to consider other radical possibilities that rival it.
  17. These are all “western” thinkers, of course. So their “intellectual divergence” at least problematizes and at most disables, the use of “western” as a useful classification of human experience.
  18. That “the Greek way: is “homely” and “the Oriental way is inhuman” is another notion that McLuhan would extensively revise in the following decades. Perhaps this turn of phrase describes the “inhuman” process McLuhan himself was undergoing at the time — at age 46 and with 6 children — in his attempt to answer a call to reamalgamerge (FW) ‘east and west’ without losing their distinction. The required somersault exacted what he terms in the closing words of this same essay “exhausting demands on mind and heart”. In ‘Christian Humanism’: “Poets and artists literally turned their own psyches into laboratories where they practised the most austere experiments in total disregard of their personal happiness.” In McLuhan’s own case, these “exhausting demands” would lead to a stroke in 1960 in the course of which he received the last rites.