Poetic vs Rhetorical Exegesis 2: a question of ontology

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, 1953)

‘Poetic and Rhetorical Exegesis’ is a critical statement of McLuhan’s position in 1944 and of his future orientation as seen from there. One of its aims was to coordinate that position with his PhD thesis on Nashe and the history of the trivium which had just been approved late in 1943.

Just as Korzybski offers us a correlation of knowledge by an extension of the modes of grammar (and in this respect belongs to an ancient tradition headed by Cratylus and carried on by Pliny, Philo-Judaeus, Origen, St. Bonaventura, and the later alchemists), so Mr. Richards, whose Meaning of Meaning is a treatise of speculative grammar of curiously scholastic stamp, offers us a method for interpreting and manipulating our lives by an extension of the devices of rhetoric. In this respect Mr. Richards is a true nominalist son of Ockham, Agricola, and Ramus; (…) Mr. Richards’ rediscovery of the functional rhetorical relationships in speech and prose was timely, indeed, after three centuries of Cartesian contempt for metaphor and rhetoric in all its modes [as an extension of the modes of dialectic]. (Poetic vs Rhetorical Exegesis)

In this paragraph from his essay McLuhan offers a summary of his thesis. It sets out its three trivial arts and names, as the thesis had attempted to detail, their ‘extensions’ in historical figures and traditions. The great question, actually questions, precipitated by it may be seen in his observation that each of these arts represents a self-standing “correlation of knowledge” or a method for interpreting and manipulating our lives”.1 

Ten years before at the University of Manitoba McLuhan had encountered a similar situation in Rupert Lodge’s “comparative method“. There, too, there were three “method[s] for interpreting and manipulating our lives” and a kind of meta-method of critical comparison that would study them and their application (or “extension”) in the history of philosophy. Some of the questions implicated in Lodge’s work were:

  • was the ‘comparative method’ one of the three methods defining all of philosophy or was it a fourth method (somehow both within and without that ‘all’)?
  • if it were a fourth method, what was its status relative to the other three and how could that status be specified and justified?
  • if a fourth method could be specified and justified, how could it be communicated and put to general use in philosophy and beyond?2

These questions arising from Lodge’s work also applied to McLuhan’s studies of the trivium. His attraction to Eliot and Leavis in literary criticism was that they pointed to ways (he sensed) in which these questions might be addressed.

The first sentence of ‘Poetic vs Rhetorical Exegesis’ introduces the need to undertake “a critical journey to the full act of plenary critical judgment”. The paper then frequently sets out how such a journey may not be made. In this vein McLuhan writes in regard to Richards and Empson as rhetoricians, what he might equally well have said of Cratylus and Pliny as grammarians or Descartes and his followers as dialecticians:

It may seem simply absurd to say that neither Richards nor Empson [nor Cratylus nor Pliny nor Descartes] is a fully equipped critic.3 That, however, is not to say (…) that the [meta-]critic [equipped with an “overall view” of the three trivial modes] can dispense with their techniques. The fallacy consists in supposing that [any one of] their excellent devices for observing and describing (…) is a technique of evaluation.4

To be able to re-cognize a “dramatic structure” (that is, a dynamic plural structure) which is yet “self-contained” (that is, which is unified in its plurality) is the proper exercise of such “a technique of evaluation“.5 This is a “technique” does not arise on its own but somehow comes back from a prior structure that is before it (‘before’ especially in time): hence the need for “re-trieval” and “re-cognition”.6 In effect, this technique is just Lodge’s “comparative method” which arises from insight into the threefold play of the forms before it — but now under-stood not as a methodological technique but as an ontological response.

Over and over again McLuhan insists that there is no way that rhetoric (and by implication also not grammar or dialectic) can — “within the limits of their method” — be ‘extended’ in such a way as to reach reality and truth, “what (…) actually is“.7 Extension is always bound to the past, what McLuhan will later call ‘the rear-view mirror’. But what “what (…) actually is” stands on its own and instead of being generated out of some past is — as the beginning(s) — what must responsively be understood as already generating all past, present and future.8

A speaker or a writer of [rhetorical] prose has an intention related to an audience of some sort, but a poet’s intention is entirely absorbed in the nature of the thing he is making. The thing made [the poem]9 will stand in relation to an audience but this, while important, is only per accidens. (…) Thus rhetoric is essentially an affair of external (…) relations, while a poem has external relations only accidentally. (…) A poem (…) may contain any number of rhetorical and political components needing exegesis, and yet be wholly poetic — that is, be entirely organized with reference to a dramatic structure or movement which is self-contained. A rhetorical work is for the sake of producing action. A poetic work is an action produced for the sake of contemplation. This is an irreducible functional distinction between rhetoric and poetic10 which it is the business of the critic to manifest point by point in judging [any]  particular work.  This brings us to the crucial point. Faced with a work full of rhetorical and, therefore, political and psychological complexity, the rhetorician-psychologist can perform prodigies of ingenious and helpful exegesis but cannot possibly, within the limits of his method, determine whether the work IS a poem or not.


The utmost extension and refinement of the methods for observing speaker-audience relations brings one no nearer the problem of deciding whether a particular work IS a poem, and if so, whether it IS a significant or an insignificant one.

It is not (…) possible to arrive at a critical evaluation of a poem (…) from the point of view of rhetorical exegesis, as one can see in the work of Richards and Empson. Basically a rhetorical exegesis is concerned with indicating the “strategy” employed by a writer in bringing to bear the available means of persuasion. One can go on indefinitely describing the situation from which the strategy emerges, elaborating whole psychological and political treatises without ever reaching the point of critical evaluation.

Later, of course, McLuhan will articulate this point as the difference between lineality and simultaneity, between the literary and the electric. There is no linear way to simultaneity since lineality is exactly what simultaneity is not — and also, and chiefly, because simultaneity, as such, must already be in effect in order to be what it is.

There is a play of times here — hence McLuhan’s later appeal to Aristotle and Thomas:

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)

Turning from the negative way (“the opposite form”) to the positive response may be seen in the following citations. But careful note must always be made of the basic difference between a “fusion” that is first of all ours and that receives its objectivity through us — versus one that is first of all ‘before’ us and whose prior objectivity it is that elicits our subjective response to it. McLuhan is pointing to this difference with his vocabulary of “contemplation”, “moral perception” and “critical evaluation”.

  • “it is (…) the intensity of the artistic process, the pressure, so to speak, under which the fusion takes place, that counts.” (McLuhan citing Eliot’s 1919 ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’)
  • Richards and Empson offer no clues whatever for approaching evaluation of this sort (…) which would help to determine whether the components (…) are merely an aggregate (…) or whether they are genuinely fused in a unifying vision which makes of them a dramatic integrity.
  • In The Philosophy of Literary Form Mr. [Kenneth] Burke (…) appears for a moment to emerge as a [genuine] critic of poetry: “We should watch for the dramatic alignment: what IS vs what“.11
  • [The matter at stake is always] the dramatic unity, if any.
  • the quality or precise degree of intensity among diverse components (…) is the index to the (…) quality
  • the rhetorical exegetist (…) has no available technique for directing attention to one of the most essential facts which the critic (…) must be able to focus at all times. Naturally, this elusive trait resides in the inevitable dramatic character12
  • The reader as spectator or contemplator is compelled to “a precise complex response.” However, this compulsion is dictated not by any rhetorical persuasiveness or strategy but simply [Thomas’ “instantly”] by the exigencies of a dynamic dramatic moment
  • [a rebound is made from] the way in which the fusion of the elements occurred
  •  A poem in itself functions dramatically, not strategically or persuasively. It is for contemplation, and functions for the spectator or reader as a means of extending and refining moral perception or dramatic awareness

Put in Lodge’s terms, the great question is whether the components at stake (in his case, the three “channels” of philosophy) are beheld in their irreducible plurality (“diverse components”) but also in their unity (“fusion”) within the comparative method. Outside that unity, there is only one-sidedness; inside it, absent fundamental distinction, there is only a formless merging. The point of the method is to avoid, at once, both one-sidedness and merger.

Such a meth-od13 or medium as the middle road is the message.

So with McLuhan. The three trivial arts must be seen in their plurality and in their unity. Absent unity, there is inevitable one-sidedness. Absent plurality, there is formless merger. Here he is a decade later in his 1955 ‘Nihilism Exposed’…

On one-sidedness or “whim”:

These [gnostic] views flooded into Europe in the fifteenth century. They underlie all the mechanic-materialisms from Descartes to John Dewey, since it is the merest whim whether these views are used to structure a Berkleyan idealism or a Darwinian mechanism.14 

On formless merger or “illusion”:

And now in the twentieth century when nature has been abolished by art and engineering, when government has become entertainment and entertainment has become the art of government, now the gnostic and neo-Platonist and Buddhist can gloat: “I told you so! This gimcrack mechanism is all that there ever was in the illusion of human existence. Let us rejoin the One!”


  1. Poetic vs Rhetorical Exegesis’. All citations in this post, unless otherwise identified, are from this essay. Preliminary note may be made here that if each of the trivial arts represents “a method for interpreting and manipulating our lives”, it would seem that everybody must be exercising such a method all the time and therefore must be exercising one of the trivial arts (or, perhaps, some combination of them) — unconsciously, of course. So one way of putting the problematic of the essay is to pose the question: how get to where one already is? The epigraph to Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo: Wie man wird, was man ist — How one becomes what one is. — For ‘everybody must be exercising such a method all the time’: “The artist no longer suggests that art is something that you can take or leave, that it’s for some people and not for other people: the artist insists on his absolute relevance. I’m sure this note was never heard in the Renaissance, or at any time before now. The concept of relevance is a twentieth-century concept.” (Communications and the Word of God, 1959)
  2. One of the many seminal notions McLuhan took from Lodge was the practical applicability of critical philosophy. Lodge published books on ethics, on logic, and on art, but also The Philosophy of Education (1937), The Philosophy of Business (1945) and Applied Philosophy (1951).
  3. By “fully equipped” McLuhan means that such thinkers represent “a method for interpreting and manipulating our lives” (like everybody) and that they articulate it (as few do). They are representative in multiple senses (especially in the sense that they re-present a prior form). The questions for each of them, however, are: 1) how “fully” do they actually represent the fulness of life? Are they one-sided abstractions or multi-sided dramas? 2) how able are they to articulate real and true value? In sum: how far do they actually provide full access to reality?
  4. By “a technique of evaluation”, McLuhan means the ability to discern true or real worth. So where Lodge criticized one-sidedness from a methodological perspective, McLuhan did so from an ontological one. Then the critical question became: how do reality and truth belong together with plurality? That is, might Lodge’s comparative method, as a variety of perspectivism, instead of revealing true reality, cut us off from ‘it’ as described above all by Nietzsche? Or, if this were not the case, how was perspectivism compatible or even essential to ontology?
  5. Although McLuhan does not describe his essay as a prolegomena to ontology, this is what this specification of “a technique of evaluation” amounts to. For by “evaluation” McLuhan means anything but a relative one. He means one that would be true and real.
  6. For discussion of the peculiar circularity implicated here see Poetic vs Rhetorical Exegesis 1. For the complications of time, see McLuhan’s times in particular and the Time and Times posts in general. For “re-trieval”, note the etymological connection with ‘trouver’ — ‘refinding’, ‘recovering’, ‘re-establishing’.
  7. Leavis in Revaluation.
  8. This is the metaphysical ground for McLuhan’s later statements regarding the already present of the future.
  9. Throughout this passage McLuhan uses ‘poem’ as meaning ‘something real and true’, ‘something self-standing’.
  10. The title of McLuhan’s paper, ‘Poetic vs Rhetorical Exegesis’, derives, of course, from this “irreducible functional distinction” between these two types of exegesis.
  11. “What” is the content of some view or opinion. As such, it begs the question of the propriety of that view or opinion. That is, it begs the question of its reality and truth.
  12. McLuhan is writing throughout of “the critic of poetry” and of “the inevitable dramatic character of poems” (subjective genitives!) . But his point has to do with criticism in general, not only of poems, so “the inevitable dramatic character” characterizes a poem, or  anything at all, which really and truly IS.
  13. Meth-od is from Greek ‘odos, way.
  14. “A Berkleyan idealism or a Darwinian mechanism” = Lodge’s idealism or realism. McLuhan’s point about the “merest whim” between them was made by Lodge as follows: “Both realism and idealism are one-sided. Experience has been split up into two aspects, and then the whole has been interpreted exclusively in terms of one of its aspects. It is all nature, or all mind.” Since the two are isomorphic in this way, their difference turns on “merest whim”. For the passage from Lodge, see The Comparative Method of Rupert Lodge.