McLuhan versus The Prison House of Language 1

Fredric Jameson’s Prison House of Language (PHL below) is a detailed consideration of the roots of French structuralism (especially in Saussure) and of its multiple exfoliations (especially in the work of Lévi-StraussLacan, Barthes, Foucault and Derrida) — all of which, according to Jameson, terminates in a cul de sac or “prison house” in which real contact with reality is lost. In Jameson’s telling, this break with reality is particularly evident in two ways: first, the synchrony/diachrony opposition inherited from Saussure cannot be bridged, so that synchronic explanation fails to account for the diachrony of concrete history;1 second, the language model applied to itself precipitates an infinite regress of self-consumption where every purported ground must be grounded in its turn.2 

In a word, language fails as a model of explanation in Jameson’s view and, when it itself is considered via its own means, it dissipates into the utter insubstantiality of infinite regress.

Now McLuhan, too, from first to last, relies on language both as a model of explanation and as the foundation of his work.3 Indeed there are many parallels between his work and that of the contemporary French Structuralists which serve to situate it in that  rarified intellectual atmosphere — although it is universally believed that he was not serious enough, and particularly not precise enough, genuinely to belong in that company. But what if his linguistic model successfully engages reality and does so exactly in the face of the twin aporia set out by Jameson, the synchronic/diachronic gap and the infinite regression precipitated by that gap? His work could then emerge against the structuralist background as opening the way to a new science of human experience — or sciences. And this at a time of truly desperate need for such foundational investigation. For investigation as foundation.

Just such a demonstration will be attempted here in a series of posts on Jameson’s PHL.

Indeed, PHL presents an excellent background against which McLuhan’s project may be understood. Jameson writes clearly about highly complicated issues with which McLuhan sometimes agrees and sometimes disagrees — but in both cases, a consideration of them may serve to indicate what McLuhan was up to.

For example, here is Jameson at the start of PHL setting out “the temporal model proposed by Saussure”:

language as a total system is complete at every moment, no matter what happens to have been altered in it a moment before. This is to say that the temporal model proposed by Saussure is that of a series of complete systems succeeding each other in time; (…) language is for him a perpetual present, with all the possibilities of meaning implicit in its every moment. (PHL 5-6)


what Saussure would have called a vertical level of association (…) is constantly in play along the syntagmatic [horizontal] axis of the narrative itself. (PHL 150)

McLuhan certainly agreed with considerable parts of this complex. So, for example:

Each of us forms a body percept, from moment to moment4

We create a body percept from minute to minute, or second to second5

we have to make sense from moment to moment. This activity is inseparable from consciousness.6

Furthermore, such a “body percept”, or consciousness, or sense-making, is assembled, according to McLuhan, from

the human unconscious [which] is the total experience of mankind, stored without any story line7

Lacking a narrative story line, “the total experience of mankind” or “the human unconscious” is “all-at-once“.8 And since “the total experience of mankind” is “all-at-once” — Jameson’s “perpetual present” — of course “the future of the future is the present” (as McLuhan repeatedly insisted).

For tv (…) there is no past. What it retrieves is the eternal present.6

If every temporal present implicates “the total experience of mankind”, it is no more possible for past or future experience to exceed it than it is for past or future natural events to exceed physics or chemistry.  

Like Saussure and the French Structuralists, McLuhan held that individual and collective experience must be investigated as the momentary junction of vertical and horizontal axes, where the vertical axis gives exposure to the “total system” of realizable possibilities.10 Now his famous “pattern recognition” was exactly of this “total system”. That is, just as the elementary structure of the physical world, the exterior landscape, was gradually dis-covered in the course of the nineteenth century, now the elementary structure, or pattern, of the experienced world, the interior landscape, has been exposed for gradual dis-covery in the twentieth. For the first time (if they had the courage to grasp the nettle) humans would be able to live history on the basis of an investigative knowledge of the effects of their actions. The living of history would become the work of a new art — an art of living according to the progressive investigation of the interior landscape — and the planet itself would become, therefore, an ‘art work’.

But Jameson’s description exhibits some noteworthy imprecision at just this juncture. He writes that “language as a total system is complete at every moment, no matter what happens to have been altered in it a moment before”. But the “total system” is by definition not altered: “language as a total system is complete at every moment”. What is altered consists in some rule-based limitation of that totality in the generation of particular instances of it — an alteration exactly not “in it”. 

But where, when and how does such ‘alteration’ occur? Consider chemistry. The “total system” of Mendeleev’s table is of course exemplified in physical nature everywhere in space and at every moment in time. Implicated in that table are laws of valence which describe the ways its elements express themselves, usually in combination, in a myriad particular configurations. Now are Jameson’s ‘alterations’ such laws of interaction of the “total system” of possibilities (like the laws of valence in chemistry)? Or are they the particular exemplifications of such laws (like physical things which are the expression of Mendeleev’s table and its implicated laws)? Jameson does not say. But this imprecision goes directly to his many discussions of  synchronic/diachronic relations. Of course the linguistic model cannot investigate synchronic/diachronic conjunction until exactly this multi-temporal moment of the genesis of particularly is brought into investigative focus!


  1. Jameson properly specifies “the basic problem of reuniting diachrony together with synchrony within a single system” (PHL 21). But he holds that this problem cannot be solved since “real diachrony, therefore, real history, falls outside the mind as a land of Ding-an-sich, unattainable directly: time becomes an unknowable” (188-189). As will be shown in future posts, the specification of time singular here is the Gutenbergian presupposition which wrecks Jameson’s analysis.
  2. Jameson charges that structuralism “cannot perform the most basic function of genuine self-consciousness, which is to buckle the buckle, to reckon the place of the observer into the experiment, to put an end to the infinite regression” (PHL 207-208). The foundational problem is the “peculiar regressive structure of the concept of metalanguage” (PHL 208), the fact that “a theory of models cannot recognize itself for a model without undoing the very premises on which it is itself founded” (ibid). This “undoing” lies in the fact that any model can explain only by itself being explained by a further model “in a kind of infinite regression” (PHL 145). Hence, as Jameson is correct in specifying: “Such a discipline, insofar as it takes the very production of meaning as its object, finds itself obliged to come to terms with that infinite regress from signifier to signified, from linguistic object to metalanguage” (PHL 215). Suffice it to note here only that McLuhan from 1946 to 1980 situated his work in the maelstrom of such regression.
  3. See, for example, Pre-Christian LogosMulti-levels of simultaneous presentation and Grammars of the Media.
  4. McLuhan’s Contribution to Technology and World Trade, Session — Technology: Its Influence on the Character Of World Trade and Investment, November 16. 1966. See “Body percept” – identity, space and time for the complete passage and discussion.
  5. ‘Education in the Electric Age’, 1967. See “Body percept” – identity, space and time for the complete passage and discussion.
  6. ‘McLuhan Views the News’, Television/Radio Age, 19:3, Sept 6 1971.
  7. McLuhan’s Contribution to Technology and World Trade, Session — Technology: Its Influence on the Character Of World Trade and Investment, November 16. 1966.
  8. Of course, if identity is the result of such assemblage, it must be wondered who does this and how. As the future PHL posts will show, both the structuralists and McLuhan were driven through such consideration towards strange notions of selfhood.
  9. ‘McLuhan Views the News’, Television/Radio Age, 19:3, Sept 6 1971.
  10. In the early 1950s McLuhan wrote extensively on what he called vertical and horizontal symbolism. This topic must be seen as falling, at least in part, within the context described by Jameson. In fact McLuhan’s work may already have been influenced then by Lévi-Strauss (although the first explicit reference to his work by McLuhan occurred only at the end of decade in his 1959 ‘Electronic Revolution: Revolutionary Effects of New Media’). Now this reference to Lévi-Strauss at the end of the 1950s came just the time when things came together for McLuhan and the catalyst of Lévi-Strauss may have been pivotal for him — McLuhan’s ‘Myth and Mass Media’ appeared in that same year of 1959.