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.