Monthly Archives: November 2022

Escape from the cul-de-sac

Was ist dein Ziel in der Philosophie? Der Fliege den Ausweg aus dem Fliegenglas zeigen. (Wittgenstein, Philosophische Untersuchungen, §309)1


I no longer hesitated what to do. I resolved to lash myself securely to the water cask upon which I now held, to cut it loose from the counter, and to throw myself with it into the water. (…) The result was precisely what I had hoped it might be. As it is myself who now tell you this tale — as you see that I did escape — and as you are already in possession of the mode in which this escape was effected, and must therefore anticipate all that I have farther to say — I will bring my story quickly to conclusion. (Edgar Poe, Descent into the Maelstrom)2

Here is the key to the sleuth.  He is that part of Poe which eluded the strom3 by studious detachment. (McLuhan to Brinley Rhys4, June 16, 1946)

Footprints in the Sands of Crime 1946
The sailor in his story
The Maelstrom is at first paralyzed with horror. But in his very paralysis there is another fascination which emerges, a power of detached observation which becomes a “scientific” interest in the action of the strom. And this provides the means of escape.

to get out of the wire cage (…) Vico5 provides both the techniques of observation and exegesis as well as the only method of escape. (McLuhan to John Palmer, December 9, 1949)

Tennyson and Picturesque Poetry 1951
The couplet in [Alexander] Pope’s hands escaped from the conditions imposed by univocal discourse which had developed in the Cartesian milieu.6

Radio and Television vs. The ABCED-Minded 1955
The simplest way to get at Joyce’s technique in language, as well as to see its relation to TV, is to consider the principle of the electronic tube. The paradox of the electronic tube is that it is the means of
breaking the conductor of an electric circuit. The tube permits the electrons to escape from the wire that ordinarily conveys them. But the tube controls the conditions of escape.7 

Effects of Improvement of Communication Media 1960
If adjustment (economic, social, or personal)8
to information movement at electronic speeds is quite impossible
, we can always change our models and metaphors9 of organization, and escape into sheer understanding. Sequential analysis and adjustment natural to low speed information movement becomes irrelevant and useless even at telegraph speed. But as speed increases, the understanding of process in all kinds of structures and situations becomes relatively simple.10 We can literally escape into understanding when the patterns of process become manifest.

Gutenberg Galaxy, 1962
The strategy any culture must resort to in a period like this was indicated by Wilhelm von Humboldt: “Man lives with his objects chiefly — in fact, since his feeling and acting depends on his perceptions, one may say exclusively — as language presents them to him. By the same process whereby he spins language out of his being, he ensnares himself in it; and each language draws a magic circle round the people to which it belongs, a circle from which there is no escape save by stepping out of it into another.11
Such awareness as this has generated in our time the technique of the suspended judgment by which we can transcend the limitations of our own assumptions by a critique of them. We can now live, not just amphibiously in divided and distinguished worlds, but pluralistically in many worlds and cultures simultaneously. We are no more committed to one culture — to a single ratio among the human senses — any more than to one book or to one language or to one technology. Our need today is, culturally, the same as the scientist’s who seeks to become aware of the bias of the instruments of research in order to correct that bias. (30-31)

Gutenberg Galaxy, 1962
the influence of unexamined assumptions derived from technology leads quite unnecessarily to maximal determinism in human life. Emancipation from that trap is the goal… (247)

The Electronic Age – The Age of Implosion 1962
Many are now disposed to reject the entire achievement of literate Western man in an effort to recover integral values.  But surely this [urge to merge] temper is not very different from that which emerged in the early phases of literacy, when leaders were prepared to dismantle and detribalize their world in favour of a visual, lineal, individualistic stress in the organization of experience. To embark now on a reverse course is the immediate suggestion and mandate of electric technology. And to pro or con this reverse course is merely to accept the mechanical fate of a new technology. Is there no third course? How can we elude the merely technical closure in our inner lives and recover autonomy? What if any is the cultural strategy of the suspended judgment, of the open-ended proposition? Is there the possibility of new freedom in the aesthetic response to the models of perception outered from us into our technology? If we contemplate the technological forms that we set outside ourselves as art objects, rather than as the inevitable patterns of utility, can we escape the swift12 closure of our senses?

Functions of Art 1963
One theme that pervades the book [of Leo Lowenthal]13 
is stated at the outset, in a chapter on “Diversion and Salvation in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries.” (…) So stating the issues (…) gives new relevance to the ancient quarrel14 between the party of Montaigne and the party of Pascal (…) For Montaigne the hope is to escape from immediate miseries15, while for Pascal the hope is for ultimate escape, by using the more austere forms of art as a means of spiritual grace. It would be hard to decide how much semantics and how much temperament goes to the making of such a polarity, but the distinction has proved sufficient to provide a deep division of attitudes ever since their time. (…) So far as English literature is concerned, the great monument to this crisis [“between the party of Montaigne and the party of Pascal”] is Pope’s Dunciad, in which Pope asserts the responsibility of the author to be a guide and corrective to perception rather than to provide an anodyne for anxieties. In this view the author must inevitably take the side of the language itself, as the accumulated store of perception to which the writer owes the deepest responsibility. That is why Pope made such an issue of dullness, for he saw the hack writers as people not only without perception, but as creators of a collective opacity in language, which is the very instrument of perception.16

Media and Cultural Change, 1964
[Harold] Innis taught us how to use the bias of culture and communication as an instrument of research. By directing attention to the bias or distorting power of the dominant imagery and technology of any culture, he showed us how to understand cultures.17

Playboy Interview, 1969
Today, in the electronic age of instantaneous communication, I believe that our survival, and at the very least our comfort and happiness, is predicated on understanding the nature of our new environment, because unlike previous environmental changes, the electric media constitute a total and near-instantaneous transformation of culture, values and attitudes. This upheaval generates great pain and identity loss, which can be ameliorated only through a conscious awareness of its dynamics. If we understand the revolutionary transformations caused by new media, we can anticipate and control them; but if we continue in our self-induced subliminal trance, we will be their slaves.
Because of today’s terrific speed-up of information moving, we have a chance to apprehend, predict and influence the environmental forces shaping us — and thus win back control of our own destinies. The new extensions of man and the environment they generate are the central manifestations of the evolutionary process, and yet we still cannot free ourselves of the delusion that it is how a medium is used that counts, rather than what it does to us and with us. This is the zombie stance of the technological idiot. It’s to escape this Narcissus trance that I’ve tried to trace and reveal the impact of media on man, from the beginning of recorded time to the present.

Playboy Interview, 1969
The central purpose of all my work is to convey this message, that by understanding media as they extend man, we gain a measure of control over them. And this is a vital task, because the immediate interface between audile-tactile and visual perception is taking place everywhere around us. No civilian can escape this environmental blitzkrieg, for there is, quite literally, no place to hide. But if we diagnose what is happening to us, we can reduce the ferocity of the winds of change and bring the best elements of the old visual culture, during this transitional period, into peaceful coexistence with the new retribalized societyIf we persist, however, in our conventional rearview-mirror approach to these cataclysmic developments, all of Western culture will be destroyed and swept into the dustbin of history.


  1. What is your aim in philosophy? To show the fly the way out of the flybottle.
  2. This passage from Poe’s A Descent into the Maelstrom is quoted verbatim by McLuhan in ‘Art as Survival in the Electric Age’ (1973).
  3. See McLuhan on Poe’s Maelstrom.
  4. As ‘Editorial Assistant’ at the Sewanee Review, Brinley Rhys filled in as its editor in 1946 after Allen Tate resigned and before John Palmer was appointed as the new editor.
  5. For McLuhan’s take on Vico see McLuhan on Vico and Bacon and Vico.
  6. McLuhan ended the historical portion of The Gutenberg Galaxy with an extended quotation from Pope’s Dunciad and reprinted this one section of GG in The Interior Landscape. His point was that Pope’s couplet took “the side of the language itself”, a ‘side’ that includes all possible sides, ‘against’ (through inclusion) the trademark dualism cum monism of the ‘dullards’ of the press and book trades. See notes 14 and 16 below regarding essential plurality.
  7. McLuhan’s suggestion is that humans can become a vacuum tube or transistor for their own actions by instituting a scientific investigation of them. McLuhan is thinking of the “electronic tube” here in 1955 in terms of the vacuum tube which in the meantime has almost entirely been replaced by transistors (the Nobel prize for the development of the transistor was awarded in 1956). But it is interesting to read this passage when “the tube” is read as ‘TV’ (as McLuhan frequently did in later writings like ‘A Last Look at the Tube’ in 1978). Especially to be noted is the continuation of the 1955 text here: “the tube controls the conditions of escape. It liberates (viewers from their old contexts and selves) but (in  doing so) it provides a new context in which they can be (and are) repatterned”! Such was the power of TV to remake the whole world — which was ignored in 1955 and is still being ignored today, more than 65 years later, at a time when everybody everywhere has their face glued to a screen. In this regard, here is McLuhan from the previous year of 1954 in ‘Notes on the Media as Art Forms’: “The TV screen is not the movie screen. In some sense the (TV) spectator is (…) the screen”! (All bracketed additions throughout this note are editorial interventions.
  8. McLuhan’s bracketed insertion.
  9. The whole history of western civilization is testimony to the difficulties implicated in the attempt to “change our models and metaphors”. In the first place, since identity is established and exercised through “models and metaphors”, such change inherently involves identity-loss. Second, between “models and metaphors” there are no “models and metaphors” giving orientation. Such change is necessarily blind. Third, recognition of a model or metaphor that provides ground and understanding is itself dependent on some model or metaphor. In sum, the way of ‘ascent from the maelstrom’ is the most difficult question human beings face or, far more usually, refuse to face.
  10. McLuhan seems to have felt that owning up to the difficulties he himself had gone through would put people off from the process he was recommending. So it was said to be “relatively simple”. But this idea has proved to be off-putting, misdirecting and fruitless.
  11. Von Humboldt is quoted by McLuhan here from Ernst Cassirer, Language and Myth, p. 9. The question for humans is not to find an escape from ‘magic circles’, but to find escape in the ‘magic circle’ of collective investigation.
  12. With an “escape (from) the swift” a break in time is prescribed or, at least, seen to exist. And a break in time implicates another time or times in that breakage. Indeed, the existing plurality of times is one of the fundamental tenets of McLuhan’s work: “We can correct the bias of the present time only by coming to know it is a time, not the time.” But the unitemporal or Gutenbergian environment of ‘research’ into his work is constitutionally unable to grasp this. A “quantum leap” is required to perceive this alternate possibility and this is not wagered. So we remain, as Beckett has it, a dog chained to its vomit.
  13. Leo Lowenthal, Literature, Popular Culture, and Society, 1961.
  14. McLuhan used the phrase “the ancient quarrel” in his Nashe PhD thesis from 1943 to refer to the perennial battle of the trivial arts. It appeared again in the title of his 1944 lecture ‘An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America’ (published in 1946) which brought his thesis into a contemporary context. His use of the same phrase 20 years later, between the 1962 publication of The Gutenberg Galaxy and the 1964 Understanding Media is significant. It suggests that the ground of both books lies in a plurality of reals and of times. If we are to understand the message of these books, we need first of all to understand that pluralizing medium!
  15. Eliot’s “distracted from distraction by distraction” (‘Burnt Norton’, the first of the Four Quartets).
  16. McLuhan sets out three forms of perception here, not two: that of Montaigne, that of Pascal, and that of Pope’s “language”, where language is inclusive of the other two. This 3-fold is the “ancient quarrel” or ontological battle which was McLuhan’s ‘one thought’. See note 14 above.
  17. ‘Media and Cultural Change’ was McLuhan’s introduction to the 1964 edition of Innis’ The Bias of Communication. But McLuhan had this method of understanding cultures very early in his career, before he was much influenced by Innis, if at all. (But see Innis and McLuhan in 1936.) Here he is in his 1947 proposal to Robert Hutchins: “Every age has its reigning analogy (‘dominant imagery and technology of any culture’) in terms of which it orients itself with respect to the past and directs its energies through the present to the future. To be contemporary in the good sense is to be aware of this (‘reigning’) analogy. To be ‘ahead of the time’ is to be critically aware of the analogy. That is, to be aware that it is only one analogy” (in a spectrum of analogies). The parallel with time as times is explicit: “We can correct the bias of the present time only by coming to know it is a time, not the time” (see note 12 above).

Bacon and Vico

In his ‘Preface’ to Laws of Media, Eric McLuhan records:

My father died before we could work out in detail how his new discoveries related to the labours of Vico and Bacon. He knew the relations were there, and his intuitions had never played him false. It fell to me to do the tidying-up and to ready the book for the press. The key to the whole business is sensibility, as the serious poets and artists (and grammarians) have always maintained. Vico in particular targeted ‘the modification of our own human minds’ as the crucial area, while he cast about for a way to read and write the ‘mental dictionary’. Then the relation between Bacon’s Idols and Vico’s Axioms surfaced1bias of perception — and the job was near done. Bacon called his book the Novum Organum (…), the New Science; Vico called his the Scienza Nuova, the New Science; I have subtitled ours The New Science. On reflection, I am tempted to make that the title (…) for it should stand as volume three of a work begun by Sir Francis Bacon and carried forward a century later by Giambattista Vico. (x-xi)

Laws of Media details the Bacon-Vico relation as follows:

When determining the principles on which his Scienza Nuova would rest, Giambattista Vico, the last great pre-electric grammarian, decided to use cultures themselves as his text: “We must reckon as if there were no books in the world.”2 In shunning conventional science and returning to direct observation of the page of Nature, Vico pursued the same course Francis Bacon had charted in the Novum Organum..(Laws of Media, posthumous, 215)

Vico (…) begins by reiterating and updating Bacon’s [four] Idols as his own first four Axioms. The first four axioms constitute the basis of Vico’s elements and, says Vico, “give us the basis for refuting all opinions hitherto held about the principles of humanity” (New Science, §163). “These four axioms express a theory of ignorance which we need in order to acquire a doctrine of truth concerning the nature of humanity.”3 (Laws of Media, 11)

The ‘myth of objectivity’, a result of visual bias, belongs to the ‘Idols of the Theatre’ or what Giambattista Vico termed ‘the conceit of scholars’ in his fourth axiom. Vico was merely following [Bacon’s previous] instructions when, at the outset of his Scienza Nuova, he set out his [four] ‘elements’ or ‘axioms’, for Bacon had prefaced his account of his [four] ‘Idols’ with these words: “The formation of ideas and axioms by true induction is no doubt the proper remedy to be applied for the keeping off and clearing away of idols. To point them out, however, is of great use for the doctrine of idols is to the interpretation of nature what the doctrine of the refutation of sophisms is to common logic.”4 (Laws of Media, 83-84)

[The first of Bacon’s Idols,] the Idols of the Tribe, and Vico’s first axiom, specify the general bias of sensibility (…) as a pollution of exact observation which must be allowed for. (…) “The Idols of the Tribe have their foundation in human nature itself, and in the tribe or race of men. For it is a false assertion that the sense of man is the measure of things. On the contrary, all perceptions, as well of the sense as of the mind, are according to the measure of the individual and not according to the measure of the universe. And the human understanding is like a false mirror, which, receiving rays irregularly, distorts and decolors the nature of things by mingling its own nature with it.”5 (Laws of Media, 84)

Vico’s [corresponding] first axiom is this: “Because of the indefinite nature of the human mind, wherever it is lost in ignorance, man makes himself the measure of all things. This axiom explains those two common human traits, on the one hand that rumor grows in its course (fama crescit eundo). On the other that rumor is deflated by the presence of the thing itself (minuit praesentia famam). In the long course that rumor has run from the beginning of the world it has been the perennial source of all the exaggerated opinions which have hitherto been held concerning remote antiquities unknown to us, by virtue of that property of the human mind noted by Tacitus in his Life of Agricola, where he says that everything unknown is taken for something great (omne ignotum pro magnifico est).”6 (Laws of Media, 84)

[The second of Bacon’s Idols], the Idols of the Cave, and Vico’s second axiom, pinpoint intellectual laziness and conceptual dogmatism as distorting influences (…) “The Idols of the Cave are the idols of the individual man. For everyone (besides the errors common to human nature in general) has a cave or den of his own. which refracts and discolors the light of nature, owing either to his own proper and peculiar nature or to his education and conversation with others, or to the reading of books, and the authority of those whom he esteems and admires or the like. So that the spirit of man (according as it is meted out to different individuals) is in fact a thing variable and full of perturbation, and governed as it were by chance. Whence it was well observed by Heraclitus that men look for sciences in their own lesser worlds, and not in the greater or common world.”7 This Idol takes its name from the cave in the Republic of Plato (Book VII). Vico notes (axiom two): “It is another property of the human mind that whenever men can form no idea of distant and unknown things they judge them by what is familiar and at hand. This axiom points to the inexhaustible source of all the errors about the beginnings of humanity that have been adopted by entire nations and by the scholars For when the former began to take notice of them and the latter to investigate them, it was on the basis of their own enlightened, cultivated and magnificent times that they judged the origins of humanity, which must nevertheless by the nature of things have been small, crude and quite obscure.”8  (Laws of Media, 84)

[The third of Bacon’s Idols], the idols of the Marketplace — Vico’s ‘conceit of nations’ — arise in the ‘intercourse and association of men with each other’ (…): “There are also idols formed by the intercourse and association of men with each other, which I call Idols of the Market-place, on account of the commerce and consort of men there. For it is by discourse that men associate and words are imposed according to the apprehension of the vulgar. And therefore the ill and unfair choice of words wonderfully obstructs the understanding. Nor do the definitions or explanations wherewith in some things learned men are wont to guard and defend themselves, by any means set the matter right. But words plainly force and overrule the understanding, and throw all into confusion, and lead men away into numberless empty controversies and idle fancies.”9 Vico translates this into his third axiom as follows: “As for the conceit of the nations, we have heard that golden saving of Diodorus Siculus. Every nation, according to him, whether Greek or barbarian, has had the same conceit that it before all other nations invented the comforts of human life and that its remembered history goes back to the very beginning of the world.”10 (Laws of Media, 84-85)

Fourth and last, Bacon cites the Idols of the Theatre ‘which have immigrated into men’s minds from the various dogmas of philosophies’ — Old Science. These Vico terms ‘conceit of scholars’ whose sciences have neither real antiquity of knowledge nor knowledge of antiquity, being cut off from tradition This conceit shores up its own narrow version of thought by claiming that what it knows is what all learning has always been about. (…) [Bacon]: “Lastly, there are the Idols which have immigrated Into men’s minds from the various dogmas of philosophies, and also from wrong laws of demonstration These I call Idols of the Theater; because in my judgment all the received systems are but so many stage-plays, representing worlds of their own creation after an unreal and scenic fashion. Nor is it only of the systems now in vogue, or only of the ancient sects and philosophies, that I speak, for many more plays of the same kind may yet be composed and in like artificial manner set forth; seeing that errors the most widely different have nevertheless causes for the most part alike. Neither again do I mean this only of entire systems, but also of many principles and axioms in science, which by tradition, credulity, and negligence have come to be received”11 Vico renders this in his fourth axiom: “To this conceit of the nations there may be added that of the scholars, who will have it that whatever they know is as old as the world. This axiom disposes of all the opinions of the scholars concerning the matchless wisdom of the ancients”.12 (Laws of Media, 85)

  1. After his father’s death as he was getting Laws of Media ready for publication, but alerted by Marshall’s long attention to Bacon and Vico, Eric seems to have discovered the detailed parallels between Bacon’s Idols and Vico’s Axioms in Croce and Verene. He explicitly credits them as follows: “Benedetto Croce first noted the parallels (between Bacon’s Idols and Vico’s Axioms) in his Philosophy of Giambattista Vico, tr RG Collingwood (pages 155-157). Donald Philip Verene presents the parallels in his essay Vico’s Science of the Imagination (pages 128-133).” (Laws of Media, 11)
  2. New Science, §330.
  3. Verene, Vico’s Science of the Imagination, 1981, 128-129.
  4. Novum Organum, Book I, aphorism xl.
  5. Novum Organum, Book I, aphorism xli.
  6. New Science, §120.
  7. Novum Organum, Book I, aphorism xlii.
  8. New Science, §122-§123.
  9. Novum Organum, Book I, aphorism xliii.
  10. New Science, §125.
  11. Novum Organum, Book I, aphorism xliv.
  12. New Science, §127.

McLuhan on Vico

The stand should (…) have been taken (…) on plenary philology. That is, letters understood as the complete education in thought and feeling which fosters an integral humanitas. That is Viconian ground. The only fertile soil in the modern world. (McLuhan to John Palmer,1 November 4, 1946)

To get out of the wire cage (…) Vico provides both the techniques of observation and exegesis as well as the only method of escape. (McLuhan to John Palmer, December 9, 1949)


When man understands, he extends his mind and takes in the things, but when he does not understand, he (…) becomes them by transforming himself into them. (Vico, The New Science, §405, 1744)

Consider the effect of modern machinery in imposing rhythm on human thought and feeling. Archaic man got inside the thing that terrified him — tiger, bear, wolf — and made it his totem god. To-day we get inside the machine.2 It is inside us. We in it. Fusion. Oblivion. Safety. (McLuhan to Ezra Pound, January 1951, Letters p219)


Giambattista Vico is an example of a linguistic analogist in the eighteenth century (…) he held that all language was basically expressive of universal concepts. Says Croce: “Vico also looked forward to a universal system of etymology, a dictionary of mental words common to all nations.” (McLuhan, Francis Bacon’s Patristic Inheritance, 1944)3

At the moment I’m reading Vico… (McLuhan to Cleanth Brooks, October 8, 1946)

Incidentally, the suggestion about intellectual self-portraits came to me from reading Vico’s autobiography.4 With him the problem of intellectual growth had been imposed by the struggle to free himself from Descartes. To-day, the problem is the same. To get free of technological modes which have invaded every aspect of education, of thought and feeling(McLuhan to John Palmer, November 4, 1946)

the metaphor of simple linear perspective (…) yields in Vico to a complex genetic metaphor that becomes the intellectual means of being simultaneously present in all periods of the past and all mental climates of the modern world as well. (McLuhan, Inside Blake and Hollywood, 1947)

That great positivist synthesis [in Britain]5 lasted until the time of Herbert Spencer and petered out in the popular fantasies of the encyclopedic H.G. Wells. Meantime it was increasingly challenged by the more speculative synthesis which stemmed from Vico and Hegel and was carried on through Marx on the economic side and through Nietzsche on the psychological and philological fronts. However, it has never been understood that the second-rate character of the English and American nineteenth century as compared with the German and French was owing to the German and French having adopted psychological rather than the biological experience as the source of the guiding analogies for (…) social study and discussion. Adam Smith introduced into the intellectual currency the analogy of a vague evolutionary providence operating through both human and animal appetites. This analogy fructified the minds of Malthus and Darwin. But it was analogy quite incapable of stimulating the great anthropological and cultural histories which, under Viconian and Hegelian inspiration, appeared on the continent. Sir James Frazer and Arnold Toynbee are by-products of Max Muller and Oswald Spengler rather than of their own traditions.
Every age has its reigning analogy in terms of which it orients itself with respect to the past and directs its energies through the present to the future. To be contemporary in the good sense is to be aware of this [reigning] analogy. To be “ahead of the time” is to be critically aware of the [reigning] analogy. That is, to be aware that it is only one analogy. To be creative and directive of the currents of the age is, while admitting the limitations of the dominant analogy, to carry out as complete as extension and synthesis of the arts and sciences as it will permit. But also to explore as much new terrain in each art and science as it will allow. To recover as much of the past as can be made creatively relevant to the present. To be aware of the past as presently useful and of much of the present as already irrelevant — this is to be a contemporary mind. And this mode of awareness is itself based on an analogy derived from relativity physics (…) whose usefulness to a society faced with the problems of world government and international community is as immense as it is as yet unexploited. (McLuhan’s Proposal to Robert Hutchins, 1947)

To [Vico] goes the credit for having maintained the autonomy of all the practical sciences of rhetoric, poetic, and history against the nullifying effects (so far as the practical intellectual arts are concerned) of mathematical speculation. (…) Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious presents, like Vico’s, a similar multiplicity of simultaneous perspectives which has the effect (…) of conferring the sense of permanent and perpetual availability of the entire past in the present. (…) The (…) entirely relativist and Whiteheadian (…) bias of a contemporary sensibility (…) began perhaps with Vico’s sense of the simultaneous presence in men of the “three ages”. (McLuhan, Eliot’s Cubist Aesthetic, unpublished, c1947) 

Vico’s great discovery of a psychological method for interpreting historical periods and cultural patterns is rooted in his perception that the condition of man is never the same but his nature is unchanging. (…) Vico (…) invented an instrument of historical and cultural analysis of the utmost use for the discovery of psychological and moral unity in the practical order… (McLuhan, Where Chesterton Comes In, 1948)6

Finnegan as civilization hero. Purger of the crap of the tribe. Hercules and the Augean Stables. Diverted a river. Hence one reason for river importance in Finnegan. Hook up with Euripides’ Alcestis. Drunken Hercules descends to underworld. River of unconscious purging via puns. Puns technique of dislocation, irrigation, interpenetration of all levels of society and experience. All heading for bright sea of intelligibility. Hercules in this sense right out of Vico. (McLuhan to Cleanth Brooks, October 16, 1948)

Once Mallarmé had detached poetic act and knowledge from that rhetorical activity in which the poet quarrelled with his age, poetic knowledge was free to enter into the most intimate analogical relations with all phases of social consciousness and processes. A Viconian revolution in which a seeming impoverishment led to the final enrichment.7 (McLuhan, American Criticism and the Demons of Analogy, unpublished, c1948) 

One major discovery of the symbolists which had the greatest importance for subsequent investigation was their notion of the learning process as a labyrinth of the senses and faculties whose retracing provided the key to all arts and sciences (basis of myth of Daedalus, basic for the dreams and schemes of Francis Bacon, and, when transferred by Vico to philology and history of culture (…) forms the basis of modern historiography, archaeology, psychology and artistic procedures alike). (McLuhan to Harold Innis, March 14, 1951, Letters p221)

Often noted from Montaigne onward is the growing interest in the anatomy of states of mind which in Giambattista Vico reached the point of stress on the importance of reconstructing by vivisection the inner history of one’s own mind. A century separates Vico’s Autobiography and Wordsworth’s Prelude, but they are products of the same impulse. Another century, and Joyce’s Portrait carries the same enterprise a stage further. Vico generalized the process as a means of reconstructing the stages of human culture by the vivisection and contemplation of language itself. (McLuhan, The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape Poetry, 1951)

At the time when Joyce was studying the trivium with the Jesuits there had occurred in the European world a rebirth of interest in the traditional arts of communication. Indirectly, this had come about through the reconstruction of past cultures as carried on by nineteenth-century archaeology and anthropology. For these new studies had directed attention to the role of language and writing in the formation of societies and the transmission of culture. And the total or gestalt approach natural in the study of primitive cultures had favored the study of language as part of the entire cultural network. Language was seen as inseparable from the tool-making and economic life of these peoples. It was not studied in abstraction from the practical concerns of society.
It was at this time that Vico came into his own. At the beginning of the eighteenth century Vico’s Scienza Nuova had proposed language as the basis for anthropology and a new science of history. Extant languages, he argued, could be regarded as working models of all past culture, because language affords an unbroken line of communication with the totality of the human past. The modalities of grammar, etymology and word-formation could be made to yield a complete account of the economic, social and spiritual adventures of mankind. If geology could reconstruct the story of the earth from the inert strata of rock and clay, the scienza nuova could do much better with the living languages of men.8 (McLuhan, James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial, 1953)

James Joyce certainly thought he had found in Vico a philosopher who had some better cultural awareness than those moved by the “Cartesian spring.” And Vico, like Heidegger, is a philologist among philosophers. His time theory of “ricorsi” has been interpreted by lineal minds to imply “recurrence.” A recent study of him brushes this notion aside.9 Vico conceives the time-structure of history as “not linear, but contrapuntal. It must be traced along a number of lines of development”. For Vico all history is contemporary or simultaneous, a fact given, Joyce would add, by virtue of language itself, the simultaneous storehouse of all experience. And in Vico, the concept of recurrence cannot “be admitted at the level of the course of the nations through time”: “The establishment of providence establishes universal history, the total presence of the human spirit to itself in idea.10 In this principle, the supreme ‘ricorso’ is achieved by the human spirit in idea, and it possesses itself, past, present, and future, in an act which is wholly consonant with its own historicity.”11 (McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy, 1962, p249-250)

Vico was the first to spot language itself as a memory theatre. Finnegans Wake is such a memory theatre for the entire contents of human consciousness and unconsciousness. With the arrival of the printed word, the whole fabric of these theatres collapsed quickly. The medieval cathedrals were memory theatres. The Golden Bough is a memory theatre of the corporate rather than the private consciousness and marks a major transition toward the retribalizing of human consciousness. (McLuhan to William Jovanovich, December 1, 1966, Letters p339)

James Joyce put the matter very simply in Finnegans Wake (81:1): “As for the viability of vicinals, when invisible they are invincible.” By “vicinals” Joyce alludes to Vico whose Scienza Nuova asserts the principle of the sensory and perceptual change resulting from new technologies throughout human history. Hence the ancients attributed god-like status to all inventors since they alter human perception and self-awareness.  (McLuhan to Jacques Maritain, May 6, 1969, Letters p369-370)

There seems to be a general unwillingness to consider the impact of technological innovation on the human sensibility. The reason that Joyce considered Vico’s new science so important for his own linguistic probes, was that Vico was the first to point out that a total history of human culture and sensibility is embedded in the changing structural forms of language. (McLuhan to Robert J. Leuver, July 30, 1969, Letters p384-385)

Like Isadore of Seville, Vico saw the history of cultural evolution in the etymologies of words as recording responses to technological innovations. (McLuhan, From Cliché to Archetype, 1970, p127)

The Etymologiae of Isidore of Seville in the sixth century a.d. was a compendium of the arts and sciences. Etymology was understood to include the secret principles of all forms of being, physical and spiritual. In the seventeenth century Vico’s Scienza Nuova reasserted those ancient principles of verbal resonance as comprising the keys to all scientific and humanist mysteries. James Joyce, who incorporated not only Vico, but all the ancient traditions of language as science, alludes to the principal feature of this kind of “new science” in Finnegans Wake: “As for the viability of vicinals, when invisible they’re invincible.” The allusion to Vico is environmental (vicus: Latin for neighborhood), indicating the irresistible operation of causes in the new environments issuing from new technologies. Since these environments are always invisible, merely because they are environments, their transforming powers are never heeded in time to be moderated or controlled. (McLuhan, Take Today, 1972, p150-151) 

In 1725 Giambattista Vico explained in his Scienza Nuova (§331): “But in the night of thick darkness enveloping the earliest antiquity. so remote from ourselves, there shines the eternal and never-failing light of a truth beyond all question, that the world of civil society has certainly been made by men, and that its principles are therefore to be found within the modifications of our own human mind.” (McLuhan, Laws of Media, posthumous, 1988, p4)12

Vico (…) begins by reiterating and updating Bacon’s [four] Idols as his own first four Axioms. The first four axioms constitute the basis of Vico’s elements and, says Vico, “give us the basis for refuting all opinions hitherto held about the principles of humanity” (New Science, §163). “These four axioms express a theory of ignorance which we need in order to acquire a doctrine of truth concerning the nature of humanity.”13 (Laws of Media, p11)

The ‘myth of objectivity’, a result of visual bias, belongs to the ‘Idols of the Theatre’ or what Giambattista Vico termed ‘the conceit of scholars’ in his fourth axiom. Vico was merely following [Bacon’s] instructions when, at the outset of his Scienza Nuova, he set out his [four] ‘elements’ or ‘axioms’, for Bacon had prefaced his account of his [four] ‘Idols’ with these words: “The formation of ideas and axioms by true induction is no doubt the proper remedy to be applied for the keeping off and clearing away of idols. To point them out, however, is of great use for the doctrine of idols is to the interpretation of nature what the doctrine of the refutation of sophisms is to common logic.”14 (Laws of Media, p83-84)

Summing his great chapter on Poetic Wisdom. Vico reiterates: “We have shown that poetic wisdom justly deserves two great and sovereign tributes. The one, clearly and constantly accorded to it, is that of having founded gentile mankind, though the conceit of the nations on the one hand, and that of the scholars on the other, the former with ideas of an empty magnificence and the latter with ideas of an impertinent philosophical wisdom, have in effect denied it this honour by their very efforts to affirm it. The other, concerning which a vulgar tradition has come down to us, is that the wisdom of the ancients made its wise men, by a single aspiration, equally great as philosophers, lawmakers, captains, historians, orators and poets, on which account it has been so greatly sought after.”15 (Laws of Media, p85)

Western Old Science approaches the study of media in terms of linear, sequential transportation of data as detached figures (content); the New Science approach is via the ground of users and of environmental media effects(Laws of Media, p85)

When determining the principles on which his Scienza Nuova would rest, Giambattista Vico, the last great pre-electric grammarian, decided to use cultures themselves as his text: “We must reckon as if there were no books in the world.”16 In shunning conventional science and returning to direct observation of the page of Nature, Vico pursued the same course Francis Bacon had charted in the Novum Organum..(Laws of Media, p215)

Vico’s technique is set forth in the second of his five books as the practical heuristic application of not philosophical but poetic wisdom. For method: “We must therefore go back with the philologians and fetch it from the stones of Deucalion and Pyrrha,17 from the rocks of Amphion,18 from the men who sprang from the furrows of Cadmus19 or the hard oak20 of Vergil.”21 Vico’s Science went one essential step beyond Bacon’s. Meditating on the relations between the two books, he found a new correspondence, an interplay that raised a new ‘text’ for grammatical scrutiny. “But in the night of thick darkness enveloping the earliest antiquity, so remote from ourselves, there shines the eternal and never-failing light of a truth beyond all question: that the world of civil society has certainly been made by men, and that its principles are therefore to be found within the modifications of our own human mind. Whoever reflects on this cannot but marvel that the philosophers should have bent all their energies to the study of the world of nature, which, since God made it, He alone knows, and that they should have neglected the study of the world of nations or civil world, which, since men made it, men could hope to know. This aberration was a consequence of that infirmity of the human mind, noted in the Axioms, by which, immersed and buried in the body, it naturally inclines to take notice of bodily things, and finds the effort to attend to itself too laborious; just as the bodily eye sees all objects outside itself but needs a mirror to see itself.”22 The new text is man’s social artefacts… (Laws of Media, p220-221)

Vico brings to bear all of the resources of grammar, both as regards exegesis of the two books and as regards the processes of etymology: “The human mind is naturally inclined by the senses to see itself externally in the body, and only with great difficulty does it come to attend to itself by means of reflection. This axiom gives us the universal principle of etymology in all languages: words are carried over from bodies and from the properties of bodies to express the things of the mind and spirit“.23 (Laws of Media, p221)

This passage puts on display the standard grammatical awareness of the correspondence of words and things, though seldom has it been made so explicit. As poetic (rhetorical) wisdom focuses on the sensibilities as crucial, Vico asserts that there must exist a mental dictionary, not of abstract philosophical ideas, but of concrete poetic-philological sensibilities conformal to the things and artefacts of common experience: “There must, in the nature of human things be a mental language common to all nations, which uniformly grasps the substance of things feasible in human social life, and expresses it with as many diverse modifications as these same things may have diverse aspects. A proof of this is afforded by proverbs or maxims of vulgar wisdom, in which substantially the same meanings find as many diverse expressions as there are nations ancient and modern. This common mental language is proper to our Science, by whose light linguistic scholars will be enabled to construct a mental vocabulary common to all the various articulate languages living and dead (…) As far as our small erudition will permit, we shall make use of this vocabulary in all the matters we discuss.24 (Laws of Media, p221-222) 

Concluding his discussion of poetic wisdom, Vico accorded it ‘two great and sovereign tributes’. One is ‘that of having founded gentile mankind’; the other concerned the ‘wisdom of the ancients’ as sketched in the fables: “And it may be said that in the fables the nations have in a rough way and in the language of the human senses, described the beginnings of this world of sciences, which the specialized studies of scholars have since clarified for us by reasoning and generalization. From this we may conclude what we set out to show in this (second) book: that the theological poets were the sense and the philosophers the intellect of human wisdom.”25 (Laws of Media, p222) 

Vico aimed to heal the rift in the trivium between the Ancients and the Moderns. He sought to avoid the faults that had accumulated in both philology and philosophy, since they were split in the twelfth and sixteenth centuries, by blending them: “Philosophy contemplates reason, whence comes knowledge of the true; philology observes the authority of human choice, whence comes consciousness of the certain. This axiom by its second part defines as philologians all the grammarians, historians, critics, who have occupied themselves with the study of the languages and deeds of peoples both their domestic affairs, such as customs and laws, and their external affairs, such as wars, peaces, alliances, travels and commerce. This same axiom shows how the philosophers failed by half in not giving certainty to their reasonings by appeal to the authority of the philologians, and likewise how the latter failed by half in not taking care to give their authority the sanction of truth by appeal to the reasoning of the philosophersIf they had both done this they would have been more useful to their commonwealths and they would have anticipated us in conceiving this Science.”26 (Laws of Media, p222-223)

Vico’s contemporaries were no more able to carry forward his work than were their successors, and so the problem has remained to this day (…) In the end, it eluded him for he was caught in a dilemma that had been building for centuries before him and that was then [invisible27 because] environmental. (…) Vico simply had not distinguished between first and second nature for separate study: nothing in his experience suggested such a distinction would be of any use. Second nature is nature made and remade by man as man remakes himself with his extensions. Separate them: the first is the province of traditional grammar;28 the second, that of Bacon, Vico, and Laws of Media. (Laws of Media, p223)

The key to Vico’s science was the mental dictionary (…) the dictionary of real words (…) is, as he anticipated, a ‘mental’ dictionary in that it displays patterns and transformations of sensibility.29 (Laws of Media, p223)

  1. Palmer was the editor of The Sewanee Review from 1946 to 1952.
  2. As detailed in McLuhan’s The Mechanical Bride (1951), the ‘machine’ here is just as much news, advertising, entertainment, sports…
  3. This paper was unpublished in McLuhan’s lifetime but has appeared posthumously. The Croce citation is from History of Aesthetic, trans. D. Ainslie, 1929, 226. At this date, 1944, McLuhan had not yet begun to read Vico himself.
  4. The Autobiography of Giambattista Vico, trans. T. G. Bergin and M. H. Fisch, Ithaca, NY,1944. Presumably (given his association of Vico with Bacon) McLuhan had been alerted to Vico by his Jesuit students in St Louis (particularly Maurice McNamee who wrote his doctorate on Bacon working initially with McLuhan) with the result that he read the Autobiography shortly after the publication of its translation. For McLuhan’s association of Vico with Bacon, see Bacon and Vico. As regards “intellectual self-portraits”, in the mid-1940s McLuhan wrote a series of portraits (of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey, Byron, Shelley and Keats) for a volume which he titled Character Anthology. Never published, it is to be found in his papers in Ottawa.
  5. McLuhan is thinking of the 200 year consensus reflected in the Royal Society in London and the Edinburgh Review in Scotland.
  6. McLuhan’s Introduction to Hugh Kenner, Paradox in Chesterton, 1948.
  7. The “seeming impoverishment” here was Mallarmé’s insight (going back to Aristotle and Thomas, as Joyce saw) that ‘poetic’ creativity is not special and limited to the arts, but is implicated in all ‘ordinary cognition’ whatsoever.
  8. McLuhan continues: “Previously, historians had attempted to create working models of some segment of the human past in their narratives. These (historical narratives) were necessarily hypothetical structures eked out by scraps of recorded data. The new historian need never attempt again to revivify the past by imaginative art, because it is all present in language. And it is present, Joyce would add, as a newsreel re-presents actual events. We can sit back and watch the “all night news reel” of Finnegans Wake reveal as interfused the whole human drama past and present. This can be done by directing an analytical camera-eye upon the movements within and between words.”
  9. A. Robert Caponigri, Time and Idea: The Theory of History in Giambattista Vico, 1953.
  10. Re “the total presence of the human spirit to itself” note that the physical sciences study the total material events of the universe, past, present and future. This does not mean, however, that these events are perfectly known without possibility of correction. Far rather, the perpetual possibility of correction is the very motor of science. So with the proposed new science. No human experience will lie outside its purview, but its investigations will never be final.
  11. Time and Idea, p. 142. See the previous note for pertinent commentary.
  12. Laws of Media was composed by McLuhan’s son, Eric, in the decade after his death drawing on materials from the 1970s. The underlying drafts, audio recordings and videos have been deposited with the University of Toronto:
  13. The citation here via McLuhan’s son, Eric, is from Donald P. Verene, Vico’s Science of the Imagination, 1981.
  14. Novum Organum, Book I, aphorism xl.
  15. New Science, §779.
  16. New Science, §330.
  17. As recorded by Apollodorus and Ovid, Deucalion and Pyrrha, the only survivors of the flood visited upon mankind by Zeus, were able to repopulate the earth by casting stones, ‘the bones of the earth’, behind them.
  18. Building the fortification walls of Thebes with his brother, Zethus, Amphion was able to sing his stones into their place.
  19. In a myth often recalled by McLuhan as signaling the effect of literacy, Cadmus sowed dragon’s teeth and from this emerged his army.
  20. In Vergil’s golden age, the “tough oak” will “drip with dew-wet honey”.
  21. New Science, §338.
  22. New Science, §331.
  23. New Science, §236-§237.
  24. New Science, §161-§162.
  25. New Science, §779.
  26. New Science, §138.
  27. “Environments are always invisible, merely because they are environments” (full passage from Take Today, 1972, given above).
  28. And of all the physical sciences.
  29. Here, with his last note on Vico, McLuhan returned to his first in 1944 (given above), 35 years before, at a time when he had not yet begun to study him: “Vico (…) held that all language was basically expressive of universal concepts. Says Croce: “Vico also looked forward to a universal system of etymology, a dictionary of mental words common to all nations.” Here, too, is to be seen McLuhan’s later reading of Finnegans Wake as “a universal system of etymology, a dictionary of (…) words common to all nations.”

McDonald on McLuhan’s utopianism

A passage on McLuhan from Peter McDonald’s Artefacts of Writing: Ideas of the State and Communities of Letters from Matthew Arnold to Xu Bing has been discussed previously. Here a second passage will be examined (with running commentary in footnotes):1

Read alongside [Goody and Watt’s] ‘The Consequences of Literacy’, Marshall McLuhan’s The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), which appeared a year earlier, seems like an uncannily preemptive rebuke. For one thing, McLuhan rejected the idea that oral cultures show no ‘capacity or opportunity for independent and original thought’;2 for another, he saw the advent of ‘phonetic writing’ as a cultural catastrophe.3 ‘Literate man, when we meet him in the Greek world’, he insisted, ‘is a split man, a schizophrenic, as all literate men4 have been since the invention of the phonetic alphabet’.5 He did not use the word ‘schizophrenic’ lightly or entirely metaphorically. ‘Only the phonetic alphabet makes a break between eye and ear, between semantic meaning and visual code’, thereby instituting6 a wholly new set of ‘ratios or proportions among the senses’, rupturing the primal integrity of the ‘human sensorium’.7
As we have seen, given the evidence for the ongoing interconnectedness
of the phonological, the orthographic, and the lexical in the literate brain, this sensory-cognitive version of the Judeo-Christian Fall narrative makes no sense in contemporary neuroscientific terms, though for McLuhan it was central.8 The dissociation the Greeks effected was not just psychic, however: it was cultural, since ‘only phonetic writing has the power to translate man from the tribal to the civilized sphere’. In McLuhan’s primitivist lexicon ‘civilized’ was synonymous with ‘schizophrenic’, ‘abstract’, and ‘visual’, whereas ‘tribal’ signified ‘wholeness’, ‘concreteness’, and the ‘audile-tactile’, associative patterns he had no hesitation in projecting onto his own idiosyncratic cultural map of the world.9 While ‘areas like China and India are all still audile-tactiIe in the main’, he claimed, ‘Africa’ epitomized ‘the implicit, magical world of the resonant oral word’.10 In the end, however, McLuhan’s analysis was less an anticipatory repudiation of the world according to Goody and Watt, than a direct inversion of it.11 Like them, he saw Greek ‘phonetic writing’ as an exclusively ‘visual code for speech’, but he recast their positive account of its transformative effects in starkly negative terms.12 In his view, the future lay in the new ‘post-literate’ media of the ‘electronic age’ — namely the telegraph, radio, film, and television — that promised13 to overcome ‘the detribalizing power of the phonetic alphabet’, cure Western ‘schizophrenia’ by reclaiming the repressed ‘Africa within’, and unite ‘the entire human family into a single global tribe’—hence his utopian vision of the ‘global village’ to come.14

Here is McLuhan over 50 years ago with “an uncannily preemptive rebuke” to McDonald’s reading :

Many are now disposed to reject the entire achievement of literate Western man in an effort to recover integral values.15 But surely this temper is not very different from that which emerged in the early phases of literacy, when leaders were prepared to dismantle and detribalize their world in favour of a visual, lineal, individualistic stress in the organization of experience.16 To embark now on a reverse course [with an aural, simultaneous, crowd stress] is the immediate suggestion and mandate of electric technology. And to pro or con this reverse course is merely to accept the mechanical fate of a new technology. Is there no third course? How can we elude the merely technical closure in our inner lives and recover autonomy? What if any is the cultural strategy of the suspended judgment, of the open-ended proposition? (The Electronic Age – The Age of Implosion, 1962)


  1. McDonald, Artefacts of Writing, 10. Phrases in single quotation marks are citations from McLuhan’s Gutenberg Galaxy.
  2. McDonald is importantly correct here. McLuhan took it that all human experience, oral or literate, is the result of a creative encounter with the range of possibilities before it — much as language may be considered after Saussure as the result of a selective encounter with the range of sounds and grammatical forms before it. (‘Before’ in both these cases is to be understood temporally, but also implicates a non-physical ‘space of generation’.) So although oral and literate experience differ fundamentally, the process through which both sorts of experience is generated is the same. In a comparable way, elements like hydrogen and gold differ fundamentally, but exhibit the same elementary structure. Mendeleev’s table sets out the spectrum of ways in which that one structure can be expressed.
  3. In McLuhan’s view, ‘catastrophe’ here should be understood in its etymological sense, as a ‘turning over’ (like a furrow of soil) to expose and promote new possibility. Regarding the negative sense of ‘catastrophe’ as apparently intended by McDonald, the advent of writing for McLuhan was, in fact, like all human events, neither only bad nor only good. It was both. But just how it was both requires detailed study — study that might equally be applied to the advent of new media today.
  4. Regarding ‘all literate men’ it must be noted that nobody is ‘literate’ all the time. Not in sleep, for example. The need is therefore for specific identification which would then enable ongoing collective study in a ‘classroom without walls’.
  5. ‘Schizophrenic’ here is used to indicate the extent of the split that characterizes the Gutenberg galaxy in all its dimensions. All humans, including preliterate humans, generate their experience through the relative emphasis on ‘split’ ear/eye ratios of possibility.
  6. The ratios institute us, not we them. The exposure of new ratios occurs through literacy, but the reality and vitality of those ratios is synchronic, not diachronic.
  7. ‘Primal integrity’ here is McDonald’s phrase. While McLuhan does use phrases like this at times, they should be taken to indicate a relative ‘integrity’ along a ‘primal’ synchronic spectrum, not an absolute integrity along a chronological course.
  8. There are two great problems to McDonald’s explication here. First, McLuhan explicitly rejected this ‘Fall’ narrative: “For many years, until I wrote my first book, The Mechanical Bride (1951), I adopted an extremely moralistic approach to all environmental technology. I loathed machinery, I abominated cities, I equated the Industrial Revolution with original sin and mass media with the Fall. In short, I rejected almost every element of modern life in favor of a Rousseauvian utopianism. But gradually I perceived how sterile and useless this attitude was…” (Playboy Interview). Second: as seen in McDonald’s doubling of “sensory-cognitive” and “makes no sense”, it is anything but clear just what ‘sense’ is (let alone “sensory-cognitive”!). McLuhan’s suggestion was to focus not on supposedly well-known units, like the individual senses, or like the sense of some proposition, but on ratios and, in focusing on ratios, specifically on their middles or media: ‘the medium is the message’. Sense was to be understood through ratios, not ratios through sense.
  9. McLuhan also associated ‘tribal’ with violence and unconsciousness. This considerably complicates McDonald’s purported “primitivist lexicon”!
  10. McDonald does not wonder if the “resonant (…) word” is an object, a subject, or a medium. Perhaps it might be considered in all three ways, separately and together. But then the imperative would be actually to carry out the consideration!
  11. Leaving aside the questions if ‘the world according to Goody and Watt’ is anything more than a turn of phrase, and if it is something subject to “inversion”, McLuhan would like to know if the ratio reported by McDonald between Goody/Watt and McLuhan has a range of possible realization. If yes, what is that range and how does it work? If no, how account for this singularity?
  12. McLuhan never tired of pointing out the obvious fact that he was a teacher of literature. His own values were entirely caught up with letters. In attempting to defend those values, he was accused of attacking them. As he repeatedly noted, he was like a man sounding a fire alarm who is charged with arson.
  13. Elsewhere, McDonald offhandedly refers to the “deterministic aspects of McLuhan’s thesis” (12). Presumably the “promised” “utopian” future has this basis. But McDonald does not explain this characterization which bears no relation to McLuhan’s work. In fact, McLuhan took it that the electric environment would place human beings in a sink-or-swim situation where they would either figure out at last how to study their own actions in the world — or perish from them.
  14. It is hard to see these purported goals as “starkly negative”. And it is simply mistaken to read McLuhan as having “utopian” expectations of the ongoing media revolution or revolutions. He thought survival of the human species and of the planet itself was now at stake. But this was a “starkly negative” view entirely at variance with McDonald’s reading of the man.
  15. Exactly what McDonald attributes to McLuhan!
  16. The constant “temper”, or temptation, is to allow or encourage the takeover of our inner and outer lives by new technology without consideration of the cost.