Monthly Archives: January 2022

Connubium of Being 1

In two 1968 texts, the Playboy Interview1 and War and Peace in the Global Village, McLuhan repeated much the same sentence twice over:

Our whole cultural habitat, which we once viewed as a mere container of people, is being transformed by these media and by space satellites into a living organism2, itself contained within a new macrocosm or connubium of a supraterrestrial nature. (Playboy)

It is the cultural habitat, in which we have long been accustomed to think that people were contained, that (…) itself [is] now contained in a new macrocosm or ‘connubium’ of a superterrestrial kind. (War and Peace in the Global Village)

The next year, ‘connubium’ appeared twice again in the 1969 Counterblast:

Number, said the ancients, is the sounding of space. Geometry is visual space. An enormous effort of collective abstraction precedes the disentangling of these elements from the total matrix of living relations. Today an even greater energy is needed (…) to understand in a connubium, the unity of all the elements which men have abstracted by their codes from the primordial matrix. (62)

Each culture, each period has its bias which intensifies [and] distorts some feature of the total social process. The bias of our culture is precisely to isolate the bias of all others in an effort at orchestration. Social connubium? The anthropologist is a connoisseur3 of cultures as art forms. The student of communications is a connoisseur of media as art forms. (64)

The War and Peace passage receives particular emphasis through its place in the concluding paragraph of the book.4 With it, McLuhan might be taken to deliver an admonishment in regard to the world’s ultimate fate hanging between war and peace: if we want to survive as a species, this is what we need to do/know.5

But in these difficult passages what exactly is McLuhan’s message?

The medium?

The medium is the message?


‘Connubium’ is Latin. McLuhan would have come across its English derivative, ‘connubial’, in an essay by Innis, ‘The Penetrative Powers of the Price System’:6

Connubial alliances are the best security we can have of the goodwill of the natives.7

‘Connubial’ in English — ‘having to do with marriage’ — follows from its strict Latin sense, ‘con’ + ‘nubium’ (hence our ‘nuptial’ and ‘nubile’). Indeed in War and Peace McLuhan’s next sentence — the concluding sentence of the book — uses the word with this nuptial sense explicitly in mind:

Our technologies (…)8 and the environments or habitats which they create must now become [informed by]9 that matrix of that macrocosmic connubial bliss derided by the evolutionist.10

Now ‘connubium’, as opposed to ‘connubial’, was used by McLuhan in the wider sense of ‘a complex civic association’ (of which ‘marriage’ is, of course, an archetype). In this broader sense ‘connubium’ is almost ‘oppidum’ (town or village)11 such that a “macrocosm or connubium of a superterrestrial kind” is the ‘global village’ in a remarkable new sense which, to anticipate, is ‘civic association’ at an ontological level.12

The ‘connubium’ put forward by McLuhan is an association that is “inclusive”13 — a term used by him to denote ‘integral difference’ as opposed to the Gutenbergian ‘integral indifference’.14 But in the context of the two head passages from Playboy and War and Peace, these terms were used by McLuhan in a ‘macrocosmic’ or “supraterrestrial” or ontological sense: the contrast is between fundamental  ‘integral difference’ as opposed to the Gutenbergian fundamental ‘integral indifference’. 

But — all importantly! — integral or inclusive difference at the ontological level cannot exclude fundamental ‘integral indifference’ without ceasing to be itself — without ceasing to be “inclusive” and instead being “exclusive”. 

It is this fundamental integrity of the absolutely different that is the medium15 — to which McLuhan’s message would recall our attention. The medium is the message.

It is this fundamental integrity of the absolutely different that (1) underlies and supervenes the possibility of the discrete harmony of different cultures and so of peace — and (2) of the making mind with ‘macrocosmic’ or “supraterrestrial” truth — but which (3) first of all underlies and supervenes the possibility of the discrete harmony of the ontological and the ontic.16 It is (3) the latter, alone, which (2) enables the making of genuine truth which (1) is the ongoing perception of the real harmony that is possible between different cultures in “psychic communal integration” — aka, “the universality of consciousness” — aka, PEACE.

  1. Conducted in 1968 but published in 1969.
  2. McLuhan in Counterblast: “In the age of electricity and automation, the globe becomes a community of continuous learning, a single campus in which everybody, irrespective of age, is involved in learning a living.” Headline in the NYT 1/30/2022: “The James Webb Space Telescope and a Quest Every Human Shares”. So the “living organism” in the Playboy passage is the science, or sciences, of human being: the ongoing attempt, to be established at last in the electric age, “to understand (…) the primordial matrix” of the universe itself — to understand that matrix enough, finally, that all our other understandings of ourselves can be understood from it. Compare McLuhan in the Playboy Interview 54 years ago in 1968 where the aim of the age is said to be to further “the process of discovery and orchestrate terrestrial — and eventually galactic — environments and energies.” (See note #10 for the full passage.) The enormous difficulty of such an attempt is that it must itself, first of all, consciously be based on, or in, that “primordial matrix”. (Otherwise it would be a partial understanding imposed on the whole.) Since all linear movement only goes away from that matrix, and has already begun with contrary suppositions, it can never be reached through extension. So it is that this first of all is the very matter of thinking — the great question is how to start again, how to start again with what is truly first?
  3. With ‘connoisseur’ McLuhan is punning on ‘connubium’. A con-noisseur is one whose knowledge (gnoscere) moves with (con) the con-nubium.
  4. Bob Dobbs deserves credit for having long stressed the importance of this concluding  paragraph of War and Peace and of ‘connubium’ generally in McLuhan’s work. See, eg, ‘McLuhan and Holeopathic Quadrophrenia: The Mouse-That-Roared Syndrome’.
  5. McLuhan imagined the future as a time of “learning a living” (see note #2 above). If ‘living’ is thought in terms of ‘surviving’, the phrase tales on a whole new meaning.
  6. Of course McLuhan may have come across ‘connubium’ and ”connubial’ elsewhere as well. The Innis essay, ‘The Penetrative Powers of the Price System’, appeared in  JEPS, 4:3, 1938. McLuhan cited the title of this essay as follows: “the work of the later Innis was a shift in attention from the trade-routes of the external world to the trade routes of the mind. Technology, he saw, had solved the problem of production of commodities and had already turned to the packaging of information. And the penetrative powers of the pricing system were as nothing beside the power of the new media of communication to penetrate and transform all existing institutions and patterns of thought.” (‘The Later Innis’, The Queen’s Quarterly, 1953.)
  7. That is, marriage alliances between natives and colonizers establishing intermediary metis groups is “the best security we can have of the goodwill of the natives”. Innis cited the sentence from Sir George Simpson in Parliament via Frederick Merk in Fur Trade and Empire (1931) — so McLuhan, a tongue in cheek concatenationist, was citing Innis citing Merk citing Simpson.
  8. McLuhan has “technologies or self-amputations” here. This is a reference to Adolphe (actually David) Jonas’ Irritation and Counterirritation (1962) in which defensive solutions to bodily “irritations” are said to give rise to “counterirritations”, one type of which is “self-amputation”. McLuhan’s take-away from Jonas was that, since technologies arise to solve irritating problems, the chair to carry the weight of the body, for example, they may be considered as “counterirritations”, and, ultimately, as “self-amputations”. Here is McLuhan in the 1969 Counterblast: “The fixing of the human posture in solid matter (namely, a chair) is a great saver of toil and tension. This is true of all media and tools and technologies.” The chair acts as a counterirritant to the irritant of squatting (and its implicated manner of life). In this way, the chair implicates a whole new environment for living and thereby an amputation of the old environment. Only when the new environment itself becomes an irritant (as cars have become today) does the old environment and its advantages become conscious. Jonas’ language of counterirritant and self-amputation were further appealing to McLuhan since all technologies amount to an emphasis of a certain sense or senses, hence a de-emphasis or even amputation of another senses or senses. Interestingly, this same line of thought led McLuhan to a surprising consideration in regard to the “numb” of the world — its inability or refusal even to acknowledge (let along investigate) the massive effects of technological change. Since “self-amputation” was one way to envision technology, and since the numb of the world amounted to a massive “self-amputation” from reality, it followed that our numb is actually itself a technology, with all the environmental ‘setup’ which any technology requires for its existence and use (like hotels, gas stations and roads for cars, where each of these in turn require their own setup, like oil exploration and refineries for gas stations). Conclusion: We don’t see technologies and their effects because we employ the technology of numb and its setup (‘news’, ‘entertainment’, ‘life’) to blind ourselves to them. Numb is a strange technological ‘blindfold’ for our slumber vis-à-vis technology, where technology uses itself to ex-tend itself in ways that may ultimately imply ex-tinction. (Here may be a thought-provoking context to understand McLuhan’s  remark in the Playboy Interview (immediately following the passage given in note #10 below) that “Christ, after all, is the ultimate extension of man”. Christ on the cross: extension  > extinction? “After all”?)
  9. McLuhan’s bare ‘become’ is explained in his ‘Notes on Burroughs’ as follows: “The central theme of Naked Lunch is the strategy of bypassing the new electric environment by becoming an environment oneself. The moment one achieves this environmental state all things and people are submitted to you to be processed.” Apparently McLuhan wanted to emphasize that the environments or habitats of the future — if there is a future — will be completely different from the existing ones. So, not merely ‘become informed by’ (with something remaining the same that would be informed), but ‘become’ utterly new via this revolutionary and transformative process in which all would be changed. Hegel: “Dies allmähliche Zerbröckeln, das die Physiognomie des Ganzen nicht veränderte, wird durch den Aufgang unterbrochen, der, ein Blitz, in einem Male das Gebilde der neuen Welt hinstellt.”
  10. Playboy Interview: “This is the real use of the computer, not to expedite marketing or solve technical problems, but to speed the process of discovery and orchestrate terrestrial — and eventually galactic — environments and energies. Psychic communal integration, made possible at last by the electronic media, could create the universality of consciousness foreseen by Dante when he predicted that men would continue as no more than broken fragments until they were unified into an inclusive consciousness. In a Christian sense, this is merely a new interpretation of the mystical body of Christ”. Compare ‘orchestrate’ here to the Counterblast passage above: “The bias of our culture is precisely to isolate the bias of all others in an effort at orchestration.”
  11. Oppidum‘ appears related to many IE words having to do with the footprint, plain and level. By 1968 McLuhan had been advocating and exercising ‘multilevel’ analysis for a quarter century.
  12. Once plurality of a ‘global village’ sort is admitted at the level of ontology — as polytheisms do and as Christianity does (a key feature that enabled the latter to subsume many varieties of the former) — gaps must be admitted to structure reality itself. No fundamental gaps, no fundamental plurality. Hence the derivative power of gaps between the ontological and ontic levels and, indeed, in ‘purely’ ontic contexts! (Note: There is no such thing as a supposedly pure ontic level. This supposition falls through itself as soon as it is authentically probed — as Nietzsche demonstrated. The whole story of the modern world may be put: we have learned to ‘harness’ the power of the gap in thermonuclear weapons, but because we do not re-cognize the origin of this power in the integral inclusivity of the global village connubium, the world is given over to exclusivity. Hence, we have the possibility of the bomb in a world where peace is literally — that is, according to its literal presuppositions — impossible.)
  13. See note 10 above for a citation illustrating McLuhan’s use of “inclusive”.
  14. ‘Integral indifference’ — like the vanishing point of perspective, the end product of an assembly line, the destination of a railway journey, the sum Σ in calculus. All leave the differential process needed to produce them — behind.
  15. The fundamental integrity of the absolutely different is what electricity and magnetism ARE. Hence the possibility, in an age in which electric and magnetic forces are dis-covered and put to use everywhere, to imagine the integrity of absolutely different cultures — that is, to imagine PEACE.
  16. The ontological and the ontic may be understood as big-B Being and little-b being. The great secret is that both of these are plural, Beings and beings, and that the second is plural, hence is at all, only because the first is plural.

Elsie on the move

A rolling stone gathers no moss.

My mother (…) travelled from coast to coast from year to year putting on plays and acts. (McLuhan interview with Nina Sutton, 1975)

Like her father, Henry Hall, Elsie Hall could never stay in one place for long. After she followed her family to Alberta from Nova Scotia in 1907, she married Herbert McLuhan in 1909 and then moved to Edmonton with him in 1911 — six months or so before Marshall would be born there in July of that year.

During the war, when Herbert was in service, she took her two young boys back to her relatives in Nova Scotia for a year. Then she moved to Winnipeg where her mother lived and where Marshall would start his schooling.

After the war beginning in the early 1920s she began her stage career and for the next decade toured Canada, from Victoria to Halifax, putting on her single woman show as an elocutionist and impersonator.

Elsie left the family home in Winnipeg for good in 1933 and set up shop in Toronto. Sometime in the middle of that decade she moved to Detroit where, in 1939 she was living at 616 Pallister (Letters 117). She was in Pasadena for the summer in 1938, of course, where she introduced Marshall and Corinne. And for a brief time that decade, between stints in Detroit, she lived and worked in Cleveland. A letter to her from Marshall from September 24, 1938 ends:

Cleveland is probably a vast improvement on Detroit — Best luck there Mother. (Letters 97)

Another from June 1939, however, asks:

What do you plan on? Is Cleveland a dead issue? (Letters 111)

It was while she was back in Detroit again from Cleveland that she was instrumental in bringing McLuhan and Wyndham Lewis together in 1943.

In the middle 1940s she was in Pittsburgh. Marshall’s letters to her from Assumption College in Windsor (where he was from 1944 to 1946) indicate that she was not just across the river in Detroit. But her time in Pittsburgh did not work out. Here are the concluding lines of a letter from Marshall to her from May 14, 1946:

Wish you could get out of Pittsburgh before it gets you down entirely. Your fatigue is owing to suppressed anger. (Letters 185)

She later (in the late 40’s and early 1950s) lived and worked in New Jersey in association (among others) with the Perkins School of the Blind. Apparently she directed plays for fund-raising events as a self-styled “promoter” (as she appears in the 1948 ‘Oranges Directory’).1

In 1941 she had done at least one previous show of this sort in Lansing, outside of Detroit, for the Leader Dog League for the Blind:

Perhaps it was this experience in Lansing which got her into this line of ‘promotional’ work.2

Elsie returned to Toronto in the 1950s to be near Marshall and his family and died there in 1961.



  1. This ‘city directory’ covered the western suburbs of Newark.

    Elsie is listed as a “promoter” working in Newark but with her residence at 430 New England Terrace in Orange.

  2. Lansing State Journal, June 15, 1941. McLuhan would have followed Elsie’s work with the blind with several different actual and developing interests in mind, beyond that of his filial concern and love. In the first place, his notion of the world was that it was increasingly blind in the sense of being asleep, senseless, directionless, stumbling ‘blindly’ into disaster. The world was blind in an entirely negative sense, unable to gather its wits and reason as it could do — but refused to do. How to wake the sleepers to their external and internal environments was a constant theme in McLuhan’s work from very early on. Secondly, against this negative notion of blindness there was another which Elsie’s work with organizations dedicated to the advancement of the blind may have first sown the seeds. As explicitly first captured in the phrase “acoustic space” in 1954, McLuhan only slowly came to understand the standing potential of radically different sorts of human orientation (which he had always known about theoretically through anthropology, psychology and, indeed, through literature and the humanities generally — but not genuinely comprehended as competing existential possibilities). In the last decade of his life, furthermore, his standing reference to these competing possibilities was the remarkable book of the blind by Jacques Lusseyran (1924-1971) And There Was Light (translation 1963, original Et la lumière fut. Romanciers d’audjourd’hui, 1953). In the third place, and most important of all, McLuhan had to come to internalize the understanding that blindness is not only negative as the stultification of the world, nor decidedly positive as described by Lusseyran, but is also, and essentially, a never-to-be-obviated aspect of all individual and collective experience. It is a limitation — but one that is constitutively revealing. That is, the inexorable blindness to all human experience is what at the same time illuminates — a difficult and inexhaustible notion! Now the importance to McLuhan of these interrelating insights can hardly be overestimated. So just as Elsie had done in introducing Marshall to literature as a young boy, and in introducing him to Corinne as a rather stilted bachelor, so in her work with the blind she may have covertly, but decisively, nudged him along his way.

East & west, horizontal & vertical

In his Playboy interview, McLuhan reflected back on his transformation, almost 20 years previously in the early 1950s (a transformation amounting to a “second conversion”) from “visual bias” to an appreciation of the interior landscapeas means of unifying and digesting any kind of experience“:1

MCLUHAN: I once shared visual bias.
PLAYBOY: What changed your mind?
MCLUHAN: Experience. For many years, until I wrote my first book, The Mechanical Bride, I adopted an extremely moralistic approach to all environmental technology. (…) But gradually I perceived how sterile and useless this attitude was, and I began to realize that the greatest artists of the 20th Century — Yeats, Pound, Joyce, Eliot — had discovered a totally different approach, based on the identity of the processes of cognition and creation.2 I realized that artistic creation is the playback of ordinary experience3 — from trash to treasures. I ceased being a moralist and became a student. As someone committed to literature and the traditions of literacy, I began to study the new environment that imperiled literary values, and I soon realized that they could not be dismissed by moral outrage or pious indignation. Study showed that a totally new approach was required, both to save what deserved saving in our Western heritage and to help man adopt a new survival strategy. I adapted some of this new approach in The Mechanical Bride by attempting to immerse myself in the advertising media in order to apprehend its impact on man, but even there some of my old literate “point of view” bias crept in. The book, in any case, appeared just as television was making all its major points irrelevantI soon realized that recognizing the symptoms of change was not enough; one must understand the cause of change, for without comprehending causes, the social and psychic effects of new technology cannot be counteracted or modified. But I recognized also that one individual cannot accomplish these self-protective modifications; they must be the collective effort of society, because they affect all of society; the individual is helpless against the pervasiveness of environmental change: the new garbage — or mess-age — induced by new technologies. Only the social organism, united and recognizing the challenge, can move to meet it.

McLuhan describes two sorts of changes in his orientation here. One was individual and, so to say, elemental: a totally different approach. The other was collective and meteorological: environmental change. It was the first change that enabled his perception of the second.

In the ‘East & west, horizontal & vertical’ series of posts to follow, the first sort of personal — elemental — change is at stake. The central question posed by these posts is therefore: what sort of change in basic approach did McLuhan personally have to undergo in order to begin to appreciate the second sort of meteorological change — “the social and psychic effects of new technology“?

  1. McLuhan to Ezra Pound, January 5, 1951, Letters 216:  “Have discovered the meaning and value of (the interior) landscape (…) Paysage intérieur à la Rimbaud Pound Joyce as means of unifying and digesting any kind of experience. Should have got to it 20 yrs ago if I hadn’t the rotten luck to bog down in English lit”. This discovery amounted to an appreciation of the dynamics of experience (objective genitive!) as the unconscious process of sparking possibilities of sense (dual genitive!) moment to moment to moment. Of course no experience can be privileged in such analysis any more than some material stuff might be privileged in chemistry.
  2. After their meeting in 1943 in St Louis, Sigfried Giedion suggested to McLuhan that he needed to study modern French poetry. McLuhan did so, eventually concentrating on Mallarmé in the late 1940s. Mallarmé led McLuhan to a rereading of “Yeats, Pound, Joyce, Eliot” which then recast his mind in the 1951-1954 period. Many of his essays in this period studied “the identity of the processes of cognition and creation”.
  3. “Artistic creation is the playback of ordinary experience” — that is, all human experience is already subject to the dynamics that artistic creation inevitably both deploys (as a variety of human experience) and probes (as a special dimension of human activity). So humans do not need new capabilities. Instead, they need a new appreciation of their existing capabilities: “from (disregarded) trash to treasures”.

End/beginning of FW

Peter Chrisp’s great Finnegans Wake blog, From Swerve of Shore to Bend of Bay, reads the last page of FW — ALP’s emptying into the ocean — as a “contemplation of the mystery of death”. No doubt it is that, too. But it is also a contemplation of the mystery of birth, the coming forth by day, as recorded in these comments to PC’s post:

The take here, or takes rather, seem strangely unambiguated. For is this page only Budgen’s “contemplation of the mystery of death”? Or is it not decidedly also “contemplation of the mystery of birth”? Where ALP as the soul must pass away from all the collective possibilities of life, hence all the great and small events of world history that express those possibilities, into the cold light of day as the animation of a particular individual like HCE.
“And the clash of our cries till we spring to be free (…) I am passing out (…) till the near sight of the mere size of him, the moyles and moyles of it, moananoaning, makes me seasilt saltsick and I rush, my only, into your arms. I see them rising! Save me from those therrble prongs! Two more. Onetwo moremens more (…) Carry me along (…) to washup. Yes, tid. There’s where. First. We pass through grass behush the bush to. Whish! A gull. Gulls. Far calls. Coming, far! End here. Us then. Finn, again! Take. Bussofthlee, mememormee! Till thousendsthee. Lps. The keys to. Given! A way a lone a lost a last a loved a long the…”
Is this not the way of the birth canal where a familiar warmth in collective life (or Liffey) must be left behind for isolated individuality: “My leaves have drifted from me. All. But one clings still. I’ll bear it on me. To remind me of. Lff!” What might be called a first gift of life in the collective leaves/lives of the Liffey — relived-relieved-releafed-releaved every night in dream — leads to a second gift, individualized “mememormee”, via the kiss/keys(kees)/buss from the parting portal lips,  πύλη τοῦ οὐρανοῦ. Yes, the cause of death is birth but this is not a linear fate, but one of a “yes tid” where life and death like night and day are primordially caught up in the other in a sort of tide-time, each knotted to the other — Kevin’s “sacrament of baptism or the regeneration of man by water”.