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”.