Monthly Archives: May 2022

Plenary consciousness (McLuhan and Hegel)

Two decades apart, the final lines of McLuhan essays from 1944 and 1964 called for “plenary critical judgment” and for the acquisition of “plenary consciousness”.1

1944:

the arduous stage of the journey (…) remains to be accomplished before winning an overall view, which is plenary critical judgment. (Poetic vs Rhetorical Exegesis: The Case for Leavis against Richards and Empson)2

1964:

The overwhelming trend of film is toward involvement in the creative and social processes alike. Film is now able to digest any kind of theme and to handle it in the mode of an inclusive awareness. The “phantom city phaked of philim pholk” is acquiring the character of plenary consciousness. (A Phantom City Phaked of Philim Pholk [FW 264.19–20] or Where the Hand of Man Never Set Foot [FW 203.15-16])3

These concluding lines from McLuhan age 33 and age 53 serve to plot the continuity of the strategy he pursued over his 50-year intellectual life from 1930 (age 19) to 1980 (age 69). Namely, if humans are to survive the technological environment they have created, they must achieve decisive clarity about themselves (the interior landscape) in analogous fashion to the clarity achieved (but only in the last two centuries) about the physical world (the exterior landscape). This, in turn, requires identification of a new field, or fields, defined by the totality, or plenum, of the elements constituting it/them.4 But ‘totality’ here is open, not closed — just as chemistry posits the totality of Mendeleev’s table but is still uncovering ‘new’5 elements constituting that totality as we speak.

McLuhan took over this strategy, and the implicated need to communicate it by instigating its investigation, from his two philosophy teachers at the University of Manitoba, Henry Wright and Rupert Lodge. They, in turn, continued a line running back through John Watson (1847–1939) and Edward Caird (1835–1908) to Hegel (1770-1832). 

Wright and Lodge were two of the contributors (out of eleven) to the Festschrift volume dedicated to Watson on the occasion of the 50th anniversary (1872-1922) of his teaching career at Queen’s University: Philosophical Essays Presented to John Watson. Their essays (‘A Plea for Eclecticism’ by Wright and ‘Moral  Validity: A Study in Platonism’ by Lodge) must be studied in detail to understand the context of the philosophical theory in which McLuhan’s English studies at the University of Manitoba were cultured.6

To indicate this line from Hegel to McLuhan in preliminary fashion it suffices to note in regard to its two ends that McLuhan’s “medium is the message” from 1958 was central to Hegel’s proposed philosophical science from 1807 — 150 years earlier. 

Phänomenologie des Geistes, ‘Vorrede’   (1807)
Daß an jedem Falschen etwas Wahres sei – in diesem Ausdrucke gelten beide, wie Öl und Wasser, die unmischbar nur äußerlich verbunden sind. Gerade um der Bedeutung willen, das Moment des vollkommenen Andersseins zu bezeichnen, müssen ihre Ausdrücke da, wo ihr Anderssein aufgehoben ist, nicht mehr gebraucht werden. So wie der Ausdruck der Einheit des Subjekts und Objekts, des Endlichen und Unendlichen, des Seins und Denkens usf. das Ungeschickte hat, daß Objekt und Subjekt usf. das bedeuten, was sie außer ihrer Einheit sind, in der Einheit also nicht als das gemeint sind, was ihr Ausdruck sagt…

In the expression that in everything false there is something of the truth, the two of them [the true and the false] are understood like oil and water, which can only outwardly be brought together [and not inwardly bound]. Precisely in order to designate the specificity [das Moment] of such absolute difference [between such ‘unmixable’ truth and falsehood], when that difference is cancelled or transcended [aufgehoben], the same designation of them cannot still be used. Similarly, the expression of the unity of subject and object, the finite and infinite, being and thought, etc, is problematic in that subject and object, etc, seem to mean what they do outside their unity, but in their unity they do not have the sense [anymore] of that designation…

Hegel’s point is that the poles of an opposition — like truth/falsehood, subject/object, finitude/infinitude, being/thought — depend for their meaning on their relation; and that such relation varies according to the degree of difference vs unity represented by it. The specification of meaning therefore turns on the prior specification of the range of possible unity/difference ratios or media. “The medium is the message.”7

In his 1964 ‘Phantom City Phaked of Philim Pholk’ lecture, McLuhan set out these same steps as follows (where his visual/auditory ratio stands in for Hegel’s unity/difference)8:

  • “some basic sensory reorganization has occurred in our corporate lives in recent decades. Indeed, one need have looked no further than the movies to have encountered extraordinary signs of change in sensory (…) preference
  • “With the lowering of the visual level the other senses came up, automatically, with a complete change of outlook and attitude as a consequence”9
  • “The better we can grasp the properties of the components in this dynamic interaction, the more we can cope”
  • “It is perhaps overdue that we should abandon mere reaction or acquiescence in favour of due understanding of these great archetypal forces
  • “The only viable strategy in learning today [= the pursuit of ‘due understanding’] is to resort to (…) to pattern recognition” [of the particular structures of these individual ratios and of the spectrum of these ratios in relation to each other]
  • “It is possible to read the (…) level of the sensory usage in any society or individual by the degree of stress manifested[in the ratio of the visual/auditory poles to each other]10

 

  1. McLuhan evidently liked to close his writings in this “plenary” fashion. Here are the final sentences of his 1947 review ‘Inside Blake and Hollywood’: “There has been no lack of critics who have proclaimed the uplifting qualities of the movies without having noticed anything whatever of what was going on in them. Mr. Tyler (in Magic and Myth of the Movies, 1947) is right, therefore, to concentrate attention on the complexity and eminent snideness of movie art as preliminary to opening up a plenary critique.” (Sewanee Review 55:4)
  2. Sewanee Review,  52:2, 1944. Compare the first sentence of this essay: “American critics once alerted to the new movements in English criticism would probably bog down in the rhetorical exegesis of Richards and Empson rather than adapt it, as FR Leavis did, as a means in a critical journey to the full act of plenary critical judgment.” The entire essay unfolds within the brackets set by this phrase of “plenary critical judgment”. For further discussion see Poetic vs Rhetorical Exegesis 1Poetic vs Rhetorical Exegesis 2, and Plenary Judgement.
  3. Lecture at the National Film Board of Canada symposium, ‘The Future of Film in Canada’, August 5, 1964. Published posthumously in The Book of Probes, ed Eric McLuhan, William Kuhns and David Carson, 2003.
  4. The circularity of this notion is plain. Only judgement which itself has “the character of plenary consciousness” can authentically identify and investigate the required “plenary” field. Such circularity is one more way in which the image of maelstrom is fitting to the problematic at stake.
  5. ‘New’ in the order of consciousness, not in the order of nature.
  6. For detailed discussion see the posts on Wright and Lodge.
  7. “The medium is the message” has a number of readings, all of which must be heard together in it. (1) The medium is what first of all makes a message possible. So, eg, a word does not make communication possible, but communication makes something like a word possible. (2) The medium is what determines the meaning of the message (considered as some articulation of the structural poles of that medium). (3) The medium must be the focus of the open collective investigation of communication, aka, “understanding media”. (4) ‘The medium is the message’ just as ‘culture is our business’. The medium (media) as the basis of sustainable culture (cultures) is the key to human survival. The medium is the coherence of such pluralities, the ontological condition of their peace. Cf, ‘James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial (1953): “the plenary scope of patristic exegesis (…) can perhaps be taken as a mark of the profound coherence of modern culture when viewed at its best levels.”
  8. It is characteristic of McLuhan’s formulation of the tradition to suggest that focus on the visual/auditory ratio as defining both individual psychologies and social cultures may be more fruitful than focus on unity/difference. However, his frequent recourse to “inclusive awareness” (in, eg, the head citation above from his ‘Phantom City’ lecture), vs exclusive awareness, illustrates his recurrent attention to unity/difference as well. “Inclusive awareness” is awareness of unity in difference; exclusive awareness is awareness of (subjective genitive!) the ultimate incompatibility of unity and difference. The riddle posed by the tradition is how these two basic types of awareness can be fundamentally different without collapsing into exclusivity. “The gap is where the action is.”
  9. The “automatic” inverse relation (Heraclitus’ ‘οδός) of up and down (Heraclitus’ άνω κάτω) is what McLuhan in the same essay calls “the degree of stress manifested” (see the following note).
  10. McLuhan: “It is possible to read the visual level of the sensory usage in any society or individual by the degree of stress manifested in favour of neatness and classification” — which also yields, ‘automatically’, a reading of the inversely related auditory level of (dual genitive) untidiness and disorder.

Hayakawa to McLuhan in 1968

After McLuhan’s brain surgery in 1967, while he was gradually recovering from it in 1968, Hayakawa wrote him a note:

July 7, 1968
Dear Marshall —
I heard to my sorrow that you have been ill, and I heard more recently that you are well again. I hope you have received an invitation from St Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Ind., to take part in a philosophical symposium. They wanted me, and I accepted in the hope that you too would accept so that our paths might cross again.
What’s this I hear about a McLuhan Newsletter? How do I get on the mailing list?
Best wishes, as always.
Yrs etc1, Don
I was in Winnipeg June 13-19. My 1st visit in  35 years! My gosh, how we have all changed!

  1. Hayakawa was the founding editor of ‘etc’, the journal of the International Society for General Semantics. And he remained the editor for almost thirty years (1943-1970). He named the journal during WW2 after the WW1 poem (published in 1926) by e.e. cummings (given here without cumming’s complex spacings):
    my sweet old etcetera
    aunt lucy during the recent
    war could and what
    is more did tell you just
    what everybody was fighting
    for,
    my sister
    isabel created hundreds
    (and
    hundreds) of socks not to
    mention shirts fleaproof earwarmers
    etcetera wristers etcetera, my
    mother hoped that

    i would die etcetera
    bravely of course my father used
    to become hoarse talking about how it was
    a privilege and if only he
    could meanwhile my
    self etcetera lay quietly
    in the deep mud et
    cetera
    (dreaming,
    et
    cetera, of
    Your smile
    eyes knees and of your Etcetera)

McLuhan and Hayakawa in Louisville 1954

McLuhan and S.I. Hayakawa were on the program together at a conference at the University of Louisville in October 1954. Both spoke on its first day. When they met there, how many meetings with other and commonalities of interest they able to recount to each other since the time, almost thirty years before, when they were students and neighbors in Winnipeg? Had they met in Madison in the mid-1930s when they both worked there?1 Did their separate associations with Sigfried Giedion in the 1940s bring them together personally at all?2 

The introductory notes to the reprint of Explorations include this information:

In November [should be October] 1954, the Explorations researchers attended  the “Institute on Culture and Communication” organised by Ray Birdwhistell3 at the University of Louisville‘s Interdisciplinary Committee on Culture and Communication. A number of the contributions to Explorations 3 are essays or early drafts of contributions related to this conference (Birdwhistell, Lee, Trager & Hall).

On October 17, 1954, the Louisville Courier-Journal announced the event as follows:

Films on Child Rearing Slated at Institute Here
A film by a British psychologist and a film by an American psychologist on “How To Rear Children” will be presented during the program of the Institute on Culture and Communication, Friday [Oct 22, 1954] and Saturday [Oct 23, 1954] at the Brown Hotel. The Institute is sponsored by the University of Louisville Interdisciplinary Committee on Culture’ and Communication and the Division of Adult Education of U. of L. Registrations for the two-day sessions may be made with the Division of Adult Education. The fee is $5.
Dr. Ray Lee Birdwhistell, coordinator of the interdisciplinary committee, said the films will serve three purposes. The subject matter itself will be valuable. They will also demonstrate the method of analyzing films and will illustrate the extent that cultures of different countries affect their own psychologists. 
Prominent Speakers Due
Several prominent speakers will discuss the part played by the written and spoken word, actions, and sounds in communication. Dr. Henry Lee Smith, chief of the language-training branch, Foreign Service Institute, Department of State, and chairman of the meeting, will open the institute at 9:30 a.m. Speakers on the first-day program include Dr. George Trager, Georgetown University; Dr. Birdwhistell, and Dr. Smith, who will speak on “Tactilism and Communication.” Dr. Margaret Mead of  the American Museum of Natural History will speak on “Communication and Culture,” the second day of the institute. Semantics will be the subject of an address by Prof. S. I. Hayakawa, University of Chicago. Others on the program will be Dr. John Broderius, chairman of the department of modern languages at U. of L.; Dr. Dorothy Lee, director of graduate studies at Merrill-Palmer School, Detroit, and Prof. Reuel Denney, University of Chicago, coauthor with David Reisman of The Lonely Crowd.

After the event, the Courier-Journal reported it as follows:

About 80% of All Conversations Unnecessary, Anthropologist Says
Some very learned speakers did here yesterday about people who do a lot of talking. And it was agreed that about 80 per cent of all natural communication could be dispensed with. It’s redundant. Take telephone conversations, for example, said Dr. Margaret Mead, anthropologist, author, and representative of the American Museum of Natural History. A person who wants to tell another person something might dial his number and merely say, “Twenty-five.” That would be sufficient, Dr. Mead said, to convey the intended information. Instead, she said, the conversation usually goes something like this: “Hello, Joe.” “Hi, Bill.” “How you doin’?” “Okay. How you doin’?” “Okay.” “You know that figure I was supposed to give you?” “Yeah.” “Well, it’s 25.” “Twenty-five, huh?” “Year.” “Okay. Fine.” “Okay.” “What you doin for lunch . . . “, etc.
Too Much Brevity May Be Bad
Now that isn’t necessarily bad, Dr. Mead said. It is possible to strip communications too far. Too cryptic a message could lead to tension and a fear that the message has not been understood. And redundancy, she said, may be viewed as a safety factor, insuring that the speaker is understood. The same situation may be applied to different cultures, different nations, she said.
All cultures are comparable, she said, if we learn to evaluate them with all the sensory modalities at a human’s disposal. And all are compatible, she suggested, if we communicate long enough and often enough and “learn to listen for the different ways that other people are as human as we are.”
Dr. Mead’s discussion closed a two-day meeting at the Brown Hotel of the Institute on Culture and Communication sponsored by the University of Louisville Interdisciplinary Committee on Culture and Communication.
TV Making Hostesses Anxious
Other speakers yesterday were Reuel Denney, University of Chicago sociologist; Marshall McLuhan, of the University of Toronto; Dr. John Broderius, chairman of the department of modern languages at the University of Louisville; Dr. Dorothy Lee, director of graduate studies at the Merrill-Palmer School, Detroit, and S. I. Hayakawa, of the University of Chicago. Denney suggested that television has given Americans a new awareness of sociability and has made them anxious over their own social shortcomings. There is a tendency, he said, for a hostess to be more concerned over whether her party is properly run than whether her guests had a good time. “But what good is sociability,” he asked, “if you’re not a little bit anxious about it?”

  1. McLuhan was a teaching assistant in the English Department at UW Madison in 1936-1937. See Lloyd Wheeler. Hayakawa, after obtaining his PhD in English at UW in 1935, began his fulltime teaching career there from 1936 to 1939. Hayakawa, too, had been a teaching assistant in Madison from 1930 to 1935, but in 1936 was promoted to instructor. During McLuhan’s time in Madison, however, Hayakawa may have been away the whole time.
  2. See Hayakawa — The Revision of Vision and Moholy-Nagy 2 (Hayakawa).
  3. Birdwhistell had been at the University of Toronto in the anthropology department in the mid 1940s and McLuhan may already have met him there. One of Birdwhistell’s students at UT was Erving Goffman, another Winnipigeon, who later became a colleague of Birdwhistell when both taught at the University of Pennsylvania.

Moholy-Nagy 2 (Hayakawa)

S.I. (Don) Hayakawa and McLuhan were neighbors in Winnipeg in the 1920s.1 And they attended conferences together in the 1950s.2

It is not known if they had any contact in the intervening decades, although both taught English at the University of Wisconsin in the mid 1930s.

During WW2 Hayakawa taught at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. He was a colleague there of Moholy’s friend and fellow Hungarian Gyorgy Kepes.3 When Hayakawa took courses at the near-by Institute of Design, perhaps introduced by Kepes, he became friends with Moholy-Nagy — a friendship he described for a University of California oral history project.

McLuhan certainly heard of Moholy-Nagy from Giedion. He reviewed Moholy’s 1947 Vision in Motion together with Giedion’s 1948 Mechanization Takes Command in 1949. But it is conceivable that he also heard of Moholy-Nagy from Hayakawa (if, say, they were keeping up with each other at meetings in the 1940s). Inversely, since Hayakawa and Giedion both contributed to Kepes’ 1944 The Language of Vision,3 and since that common appearance may have reflected some kind of acquaintance between the two, McLuhan may have heard something of Hayakawa, his old neighbor, from Giedion, his new mentor.

Moholy-Nagy 1 (Giedion on M-N in 1936)

In 1936 the first (double) issue of the journal Telehor1 was published — as it turned out, the only issue of the journal ever to appear. It was dedicated to the work of László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946) and included a ‘Foreword’ by Moholy-Nagy’s longtime close friend,2 Sigfried Giedion (1888-1968).

In the course of his ‘Foreword’, Giedion refers to “that long-term development, for which a few hundred people dispersed throughout the modern world are today preparing the foundations”. When he met the just-turned 33 year-old McLuhan in St Louis in the summer of 1943 (the same summer in which McLuhan met Wyndham Lewis) Giedion seems to have recognized him as one of these “few hundred people”. He immediately recommended him to the University of Chicago — in the immediate proximity to the Institute of Design where Moholy-Nagy was already at work. Since Giedion knew everybody who was anybody in the European avant garde — including James Joyce — this was a high compliment to the obscure English professor.

Here is Giedion’s contribution with comments added here in footnotes:

Foreword
Sigfried Giedion, Zürich

The Position in 1935
More than a third of the present century lies behind us. A retrospective glance shows us that at approximately the same period in the preceding century all the problems which were destined to determine the evolution of art up to and beyond its close had already manifested themselves.

Not withstanding that the conditions of today differ entirely from those of a hundred years ago, it is still possible to predict the general trend of future development. Such a prediction is based, not on mere guess-work, but on a critical estimation of the prognostic significance of the aims which have informed the technique of painters during the last three decades.

A long phase is ahead of us
Although the various movements in art that are of prime importance for us to-day may differ in origin, they are nevertheless inspired by a common aim: to bridge the fatal rift between reality and sensibility which the 19th century had tolerated, and indeed encouraged. The urge behind all of [these new movements in art] is the attempt to give an emotive content to the new sense of reality born of modern science and industry, and thereby restore the basic unity of all human experience. Neither temporary confusion nor momentary retrogression must blind us to the fact that we are witnessing the opening phase of what is bound to be a prolonged period in the evolution of art.

All these new tendencies in art have one thing in common: they seek to penetrate beyond its purely formal aspects, each in its own way is striving to create emotive symbols proper to our new conception of life and thus hopes to regain the power of contributing to the task of reshaping the modern world we live in. In other words they are all bent on restoring that essential reciprocity between art and life.3 The methods by which this transformation of our visual perception could be attained were discovered in the decade 1909-1923 (the war-years being naturally considered as inoperative, although developments were not entirely suspended during that interregnum). In most intellectual centres new movements began to emerge, all of which recognised in their several ways that the old conceptions of the three-dimensionality of space (perspective) and the naturalistic reproduction of objects that had held undisputed sway since the renaissance were inadequate for our new projection of the visible world. This advance will in all probability prove as decisive for the future as did the revolution in art which bears that name [namely, futurism]4 for the epoch immediately preceding our own.

Berlin in 1920
Like most other large capitals, Berlin was a focus of artistic activity about the year 1920. For those imbued with the desire to enlarge the field of our optical perceptions, most of the new movements in art were then coming to the fore there, although as a rule in relative obscurity; and many young artists who were unknown and without influence were beginning to reach maturity.

There were working in Berlin at that time, among others, the Dadaists Kurt Schwitters, George Grosz, Raoul Hausmann, Hanna Hoch; the Swedish film-experimentalist, Viking Eggeling, who laid the foundations of the abstract film; the Russian Constructivists [El] Lissitzki and [Naum] Gabo, and the Russian sculptor [Alexander] Archipenko; the Hungarians [László] Moholy-Nagy and [László] Peri; the Dutch architects [J.J.P.] Oud, [Cornelis] van Eesteren, and [Theo] Doesburg; the Italian painter [Enrico] Prampolini; the Danish architect Lon Bergholm; and the editors of the American paper »Broom«. One of the most important studios in which these people were continually meeting, was that of Moholy-Nagy.

The emotive values latent in modern industry and in the realities of modern life in general were lost on the townsman in much the same way as the peasant of previous ages was irresponsive to the emotional appeal of the landscape. A steel bridge, an airplane-hangar, or the mechanical equipment of a modern factory is as a rule far more stirring to the imagination of those who do not see such things every day of their lives. It is not surprising, therefore, that most of the pioneers of the new vision hailed from agricultural countries with little industry of their own. Thus the  Constructivists came from Russia or Hungary. That great innovator Picasso spent his youth remote from the big towns, and it was only after he moved to Paris that he was able to vitalize his consciousness of our age with the qualities he derived from the Moorish tradition of Spain. He it was who bridged the gulf between the last great cultural epoch that had found expression In abstract forms and modern civilisation.

Coming from the outskirts of civilisation, the Russian and Hungarian Constructivists similarly brought fresh energy to the problem of interpreting the realities of to-day.

L. Moholy-Nagy
The Hungarians occupy an intermediate position between the volcanic energy and Slav fantasy of a Russian like Lissitzki and the purified tonal and plane harmonies of a Dutchman like Mondriaan. Among them was László Moholy-Nagy. This young painter had begun his career as a contributor to the activist paper published in Budapest called »Ma«, whose aims were resumed in »das Buch neuer Kunstler« (Vienna, 1922), which he wrote in collaboration with Kassak. In »Ma« a small group of young Hungarians had succeeded in giving a far more precise and coherent expression to their consciousness of our age than the Berlin artistic circles of that day, which were still fettered by expressionism. »Ma« was, in fact, working on parallel lines to »I’esprit nouveau«, in which Corbusier and Ozenfant had been revealing the interdependence of painting, sculpture and the technique of modern industry. After being wounded in the war, Moholy-Nagy came to Berlin in 1920. The paintings and sculpture he exhibited there so much impressed Walter Gropius that he appointed Moholy-Nagy to the staff of the Bauhaus in the spring of 1923. This appointment proved of cardinal importance for Moholy-Nagy’s evolution, since it offered the fullest scope to his gifts as a teacher.

The Bauhaus in 1923
The lasting value of what the Bauhaus achieved was due to its success in
evolving a new systematic method of art training based on recent discoveries in painting. All the most advanced artists in Germany were either attached to the Bauhaus or in close and regular contact with it.

After [Johannes] Itten left the Bauhaus, Moholy-Nagy was put in charge of the beginners’ course there, where he had the responsibility of preparing young students for the training they were about to embark on; and (on the strength of his metal sculpture) [he was put in charge] of the metallurgical workshop as well. It was only natural that Moholy-Nagy’s preoccupation with various problems connected with light should have led him to make practical experiments with various types of lamps. The manifold activities of the Bauhaus were coordinated by the comprehensive discipline of architecture; and architecture, no less than these more specialized branches of design, obviously called for direct contact with industry, thus the short step from a purely educational investigation of the new concept of optics to active collaboration in the technical improvement of lamp-manufacture was only a logical sequence of events.

The beginners’ course at the Bauhaus
Moholy-Nagy’s book »Vom Material zur Architektur«, which contains his lectures on the basic theories of the Bauhaus teaching during the period 1923-1928

(Bauhaus-Bücher no. 14, Munich, 1929; also published by Harcourt, Brace and Co, New York, under the title of »The New Vision«) explains the method he adopted. It was due to Moholy’s influence that all new movements based on fresh advances In technique were thoroughly investigated and embodied in the curriculum, in order to open the student’s eyes — for instance — to the entirely new effects in material that are implied in Picasso’s collages and only waiting to be discerned. The close concatenation between the artistic evolution of our age and the occult forces of the Zeitgeist which permeate our daily lives has rarely been so impressively demonstrated as in this book.

Problems of light and colour
From his earliest articles in »Ma«, Moholy-Nagy’s contribution has been characterized by a persistent endeavour to fathom the creative potentialities of light and colour. All the same he has always been eager to apply his discoveries to the practical problems of life. There is hardlv any field of artistic creation that Moholy-Nagy has not investigated. In many of them his influence has proved authoritative, his exhibitions, typographical work, publicity lay-outs, light-displays and stage-sets (»the tales of Hoffmann«, 1929; »Madame Butterfly«, 1931; and Piscator’s »Kaufmann von Berlin«, 1931) amply substantiate this claim.

Photography, film
Moholy-Nagy has exercised a decisive influence on photography, where he has systematised its potentialities and in some directions actually extended its scope. From the first he recognised that light in itself must be regarded as a medium of form. It is from this angle that his whole preoccupation with photography and the film should be judged. Moholy-Nagy saw that photography offered the possibility of expanding the existing limits of natural reproduction, and that in spite of its imperfections the camera was a means of increasing the range and precision of visual perception (i.e. in the arresting of movement, bird’s-eye and worm’s-eye views, etc). I well remember how, during a holiday we spent together at Belle-Ile-en-Mer in 1925, Moholy-Nagy consistently ignored the usual perspectives and took all his snapshots upwards or downwards. A few years later the surprising artistic effects of foreshortening and of converging vertical lines had become part of the stock-in-trade of every up-to-date photographer. In »Malerei, Fotografie, Film« (Bauhaus-Bücher no. 8, Munich, 1925) Moholy-Nagy developed many stimulating suggestions, and defined the whole province of creative work in light-sensitive media, from ordinary [photography] to camera-less photography (which enables the concrete shapes of objects to be disintegrated into graduations of light and shade), and reflectional light-displays to photo-montage and film (»Dynamik der Großstadt« 1921; »Marseilles Vieux Port« 1929; »Lichtspiel Schwarz-Weiß-Grau« 1931; »Großstadtzigeuner« 1932; »Kongreß für neues Bauen«, Athens 1933).

Moholy-Nagy’s painting is the vital thread linking all his manifold activities. There is no break in its development proceeding in a consistent line from his first publications up to the present day. Nor is this all, for today he is feeling the need to resort more and more to this spontaneous fixation of
artistic vision.

These pictures with their clear, optimistic attitude are the harbingers of that long-term development, for which a few hundred people dispersed throughout the modern world are today preparing the foundations.

The vital significance of modern art
The selection of any one single artist for separate study cannot hope to indicate the creative strength of our age, since this resides paramountly in its manifold manifestations, which despite their diversity share the same fundamental consciousness of modern civilization. Nevertheless, the editor of this review was right in choosing Moholy-Nagy as an outstanding example, since his work serves as an admirable reminder to the public that the basic laws of abstract — i.e. non-representational — art have their root in the bed-rock of contemporary realities.

  1. This was the name of a 1919 television construction made by the Hungarian Dénes Mihály (1894-1953), which could transmit still pictures over a distance of some kilometers. He later founded a company with this name, Telehor A.G., to produce television sets. It is not known if McLuhan heard of Telehor (the 1919  television construction and/or the 1936 journal) from Giedion. In any case he would have enjoyed the combination in the word Telehor of tele-vision and tele-hear (hören = to hear in German).
  2. The two had vacationed together in 1925 as described in Giedion’s article.
  3. Giedion’s use of the phrase “formal aspects” here does not mean ‘essential aspects’. Instead it must be associated with his designations of “sensibility”, “emotive” and even “art”.  All have to do with the isolation of the subject (“art”, “formal aspects”) from the object (“reality”, “life”). It was to the transcendence of this isolation or alienation which Giedion saw all contemporary arts directed: “they are all bent on restoring that essential reciprocity between art and life”.
  4. One of the figures associated (in disputed fashion) with the futurists was Guillaume Apollinaire — whose 1913 Alcools was recommended to McLuhan by Giedion shortly after their meeting in 1943. See Giedion on simultaneity.