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).