Poetic vs Rhetorical Exegesis 1

In McLuhan’s 1944 essay ‘Poetic vs Rhetorical Exegesis: The Case for Leavis against Richards and Empson’1, an involuted set of ideas may be seen which dominated McLuhan’s intellectual life from start to finish — not in a straight line, of course, but as a kind of complex formula persisting through maelstroms and flips.

  • The loss of tradition has left the world rudderless and it is the resulting general confusion that is responsible for our international, social and intra-individual wars.
  • The loss of tradition has resulted first of all from a loss of acuity among what should be our intellectual elite (but in the event we have only the blind leading the blind). This situation can be put right if, and only if, intellectual acuity is regained.
  • Intellectual acuity can be regained because the fundamental dynamic underlying tradition is the two-way fit between right thinking and reality, between acuity and truth, between logos and Logos.2
  • The demand made on acuity (a demand resulting from its nature, on the one hand — acuity demands acuity about acuity3 — and from the extent of our problems, on the other) is to come back from reality, truth and Logos to right thinking, acuity and logos.4 
  • Once this backwards flip to the beginning(s) is realized it must be articulated for “for general recognition and experience”.5

There are two great riddles to these ideas which McLuhan had to solve. First, how does thinking work towards where it must come back from? Second, how does acuity as it ‘sharpens’ itself become more “general” and exoteric rather than more specialized and esoteric? The answer to both riddles is: communication. But it would be 15 years after 1944, when McLuhan was almost 50, before the second became clear to him. And the first continued to elude him (despite his insight into the “gap” and “discontinuity” and the “flip” and “resonance”) just as it has forever eluded everyone else as well.

The journey to/from the beginning(s) is the way, the only way, out of the cul-de-sac in which the world today — the global village with nukes — finds itself. Or loses itself.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning.
(Eliot, ‘Little Gidding’, Four Quartets)6

All these ideas and problems may be seen —  articulated, half-articulated. and awaiting articulation — in two passages from the 1944 ‘Poetic vs Rhetorical Exegesis’:

The entire effort of Mr. Leavis has been to realize (…) insight in such a way as to make it available for general recognition and experience among intelligent readers.7 It represents not only a major critical effort but the extension and refinement of sensibility as the very8 mode of critical activity and of discriminatory reading and response.

Leavis (…) without any chance of popular recognition [has been] engaged in executing the program which Mr Eliot (…) indicated but relinquished.9 Just how well he succeeded the reader [McLuhan himself, of course] who has worked for six years with Revaluation is best able to say.

In the wake of Eliot and Leavis, McLuhan took it upon himself “to realize (…) insight” in its “very mode” and to do so in “such a way as to make it available for general recognition and experience”.  Fifteen years later later he would come to see that this was the path the physical sciences had taken and that the “very mode” of insight needed to instigate science in a similar way in the humanities and social was focus on the medium.

  1. Sewanee Review, 52:2, 1944.
  2. McLuhan in ‘James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial’ (1953): “There was a ‘nominalist’ school in antiquity but the main tradition was via the Stoics or analogists for whom speech was a specific level of communication in the divine Logos which distinguished men from brutes.”
  3. Leavis in Revaluation: “It is salutary then, to remind ourselves (…) that (it is in) Keats’s poetry, the poetry he actually wrote (…) in its qualities, in what it actually is, (that there) must reside the chief grounds for a high estimate of his potentialities. So stated, the last proposition would seem to be axiomatic. Yet there is a common tendency to shirk literary criticism; to prefer, where creative genius is in question, some freer and looser approach, as if relevance were an easy matter, and by evading the chief relevant discipline one could attain to delicacy and inwardness.
  4. The circularity at stake here may be seen in the first sentence of McLuhan’s paper which broaches the need to undertake “a critical journey to the full act of plenary critical judgment”. How “journey” towards what must already be in place? How be “critical” on the way to the “critical”? McLuhan’s last sentence confirms the difficulty by specifying that “the arduous stage of the journey (namely, its beginning) remains to be accomplished”!
  5. McLuhan continues the last sentence of the paper: “the arduous stage of the journey (…) remains to be accomplished before winning an overall view, which is plenary critical judgment”.
  6. ‘Little Gidding’, the last of Four Quartets appeared in 1942. These lines would, then, have been an important aspect of McLuhan’s observation in his essay: “How profoundly Mr. Eliot has since interpreted this dramatic vision of history the reader of Four Quartets need not be told.”
  7. The notion of an intellectual elite of “intelligent readers” that would reinstitute tradition was central to McLuhan from, roughly, 1930 to 1950. Around 1950 he came to see this as a literary idea (along with “discriminatory reading”, “contemplation”, “refinement”, etc) that was imploding in the electric age. But how, then, could tradition be survive and revive? Was it simply gone? Understanding media was his answer to this question, one which came to crystallize for him only around 1960.
  8. “The very mode”, along with many other constructions in McLuhan’s essay implicates ontology — ie, access to, and articulation of, reality. See the etymology of ‘very‘ and ‘‘Poetic vs Rhetorical Exegesis’: a question of ontology.
  9. McLuhan sharply differentiates in his essay between Eliot’s early criticism and his later criticism and between his later criticism and his poetry: “He (Eliot) has ceased to function as a critic (…) (but) since his poetry has in no way suffered from this fact, it can be dismissed as a matter of little consequence.”