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.