The vortex of the living community

McLuhan uses the thought-provoking phrase, “the vortex of the living community” in Take Today (p5), in a section of the book titled ‘VERTEX v VORTEX’.

If every “living community” has the vortex form, escape from it would be possible only to another vortex and not to some supposedly vortex-free condition.1 McLuhan suggests as much in The Gutenberg Galaxy (pp 30-31) where he cites Wilhelm von Humboldt via Ernst Cassirer:

By the same process whereby he spins language out of his own 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.2

This image of the social vortex recalls the fundamental role attributed to it by Empedocles of Acragas (Agrigento) who lived in the fifth century BC, a generation or two before Socrates:

When Strife was fallen to the lowest depth of the vortex, and Love had reached to the centre of the whirl, in it do all things come together (…) and, as they mingled, strife began to pass out to the furthest limit (…) but in proportion as it kept rushing out, a soft, immortal stream of blameless Love kept running in, and straightway those things became mortal which had been immortal before, those things were mixed that had before been unmixed, each changing its path. (Diels fr 35-36)3

For Empedocles ‘the medium is the message’ since the message of ‘mortal’ versus ‘immortal’, or of ‘mixed’ versus ‘unmixed’, depends on the middle or medium between such pairs, namely on the relative strength of Strife and Love. Further, the ratio between these is one of inverse correlation: as the one goes down or out, the other comes up or in. McLuhan saw the dynamic relationship of the visual and the audile, the left and right hemispheres, dialectic and rhetoric, etc, in just this way. His tactility, one might say was equal to Love divided by Strife and Strife divided by Love.4 And, just as with McLuhan, the image Empedocles proffers for the world where this dynamic is writ large, and for the individual where it is writ small, is the vortex or maelstrom.  

McLuhan was not so much saying something new as he was attempting to communicate what has been seen forever, but has never been communicated in such a way as to ground a fitting prudence either in the polis at large or in the individual soul:

And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate — but there is no competition —
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again….5

In his ‘Foreword’ to the reprinting of Harold Innis’ Empire and Communications that appeared in the same year as Take Today, 1972, McLuhan elaborated on the ‘VERTEX v VORTEX’ contrast:

Innis, in the spirit of the new age of information, sought for patterns in the very ground of history and existence. He saw media, old and new, not as mere vertices at which to direct his point of view, but as living vortices of power creating hidden environments that act abrasively and destructively on older forms of culture.6

A vertex is a point where a line or a surface turns. It derives from Latin vertere, ‘to turn’, as does ‘vortex’. In fact, vertex and vortex were once a doublet with both meaning a ‘whirl’ and especially a ‘whirlpool’. Vertex then became separated from vortex and today is used almost exclusively in mathematical and biological applications.7 McLuhan assimilated the vertex to the Gutenberg galaxy where both the subjective viewer and objective extreme are taken as vanishing points belonging to perspective. Hence the post-Gutenbergian journey ‘through the vanishing point’.

McLuhan saw that humans never have their being apart from “living vortices of power creating hidden environments”.8 The great question was: can we become conscious of these vortex environments in order to subject them to shared investigation?

technology has abolished ‘nature’ in the old sense and brought the globe within the scope of art, so the new media have transformed the entire environment into an educational affair. (Notes on the Media as Art Forms, 1954)

“Nature in the old sense” was some unquestioned environment which gave definition to the society within it. Today any such a ‘natural setting’ has disappeared:

the natural round of seasonal and biological cycles [has been] supplanted by vehement new intensities of man-made “rim spins” (Take Today, p150)

The result is confusion and disorder to such an extent that survival itself is threatened.

In War and Peace in the Global Village the principal theme is the quest for identity through violence in a world of rapidly shifting technologies. A sudden change of environment through major technical innovations blurs the identity image of generations old and new. They then begin a tragic agon of redefinition of their image of identity. (From Cliché to Archetype, p114)9

It was McLuhan’s proposal that the world as “an educational affair”, as a “classroom without walls”, could establish a new form of shared identity:  

The old separation of art and nature we now see to have been based on an ignorance of nature. So that art today we apply to cities and to whole regions. Art is no longer for the few nor for the studio. And the learning process and the creative process which we had once reserved for scholars and geniuses we now know to be a character of all human perception. (New Media in Arts Education, 1956)

the next extension of man will be the simulation of the process of consciousness itself. (…) It does not mean the end of private awareness, rather a huge heightening of same via involvement in corporate energies. Corporate awareness, of course, is iconic, inclusive, Not an aspect, not a moment out of a total life, but all moments of that life simultaneously. That is the meaning of tactual involvement.10 (McLuhan to Harry Skornia, October 4, 1963)

When everything happens at once, when everybody becomes totally involved in everybody, how is one to establish identity? For the past century people have been working at that problem. Quest for identity is a central aspect of the electric age. Naturally, we’re looking for identity in the old rear-view mirror where it was before. Perhaps we should be looking for it in [the] corporate… (Toward an Inclusive Consciousness, 1967)

The central idea is that ‘second nature’, specifically including all the individual and collective ways of human being, is as intelligible as any other field — or even more so, as Vico argued:

the world of civil society has certainly been made by men [unlike the material things of ‘first nature’], and (…) 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 (…) 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.” (New Science, §331)

Investigation of this ‘new’ corporate domain — one that is just as much ‘ancient’ as it is ‘new’ — could serve as a collectively recognized and approved rudder in the defining maelstroms of our human being. 


  1. Cf Heidegger in Was heißt Denken? — Was z.B. Schwimmen »heißt«, lernen wir nie durch eine Abhandlung über das Schwimmen kennen. Was Schwimmen heißt, sagt uns nur der Sprung in den Strom. Die Frage »Was heißt Denken«? läßt sich niemals dadurch beantworten, daß wir eine Begriffsbestimmung über das Denken, eine Definition, vorlegen…”
  2. “Spins” and the “circle” suggest the vortex form, of course. The same passage from Wilhelm von Humboldt cited in The Gutenberg Galaxy also appears in Laws of Media, p226.
  3. McLuhan, too, saw the medium that is the message as defined by an “ancient quarrel” of Strife and Love: ‘exclusive’ vs ‘inclusive’ consciousness bound together in an inverse ratio, the more of one, the less of the other, but never One alone. And a striking result of this perennial quarrel for McLuhan was that “every process pushed far enough tends to reverse or flip suddenly” into its opposite (Take Today, p6)  — just as Empedocles observed “each changing its path” as the ratio of Strife and Love varied.
  4. See note 2 and McLuhan to Skornia in the post above: “Corporate awareness, of course, is iconic, inclusive, Not an aspect, not a moment out of a total life, but all moments of that life simultaneously. That is the meaning of tactual involvement.”
  5. Eliot, ‘East Coker‘, Four Quartets.
  6. The fact that vertex/vortex appears in this way in two texts from 1972 may suggest that the construction of both took place as selections from McLuhan’s unpublished writing and/or dictations and/or recorded conversations. Perhaps a single consideration of vertex/vortex got pulled apart and its pieces then used in these different places. Certainly the posthumous  Laws of Media (1988) and The Global Village (1989) were assembled in this way from McLuhan’s leavings. In fact, it seems that this method of composition may have gone back at least to Understanding Media in 1964, for which Ted Carpenter claimed to have made much input. McLuhan’s subsequent books — The Medium is the Massage (1967) with ‎Quentin Fiore and ‎Jerome Agel, War And Peace In The Global Village (1968) again with Fiore and ‎Agel, Through the Vanishing Point (1968) with Harley Parker, Counterblast (1969) with George Thompson (although Thompson is not named as co-author), From Cliché to Archetype (1970) with Wilfred Watson, Take Today (1972) with Barry Nevitt and The City as Classroom (1977) with Eric McLuhan and Kathryn Hutchon (published as Media Messages and Language: The World As Your Classroom in the US in 1980) — were all products of this same method. McLuhan loved to talk and write, but lost patience with book and article composition and was happy when this could be handed over to others. Naturally this involved the danger that content sometimes appeared that was contrary to McLuhan’s own views and intentions. But he seems to have been unconcerned about this compared to the worry that disorderly work might never appear at all — and he was certainly not going to order it himself! Coauthors were the only answer.
  7. Such as the vertex form in calculus which is used to specify the extreme turning point of the graphed parabola of an equation.
  8. ‘Foreword’ to Innis’ Empire and Communications — another echo of this text with Take Today and especially with the passage cited above: “the vortex of the living community”.
  9. There is no identity between identities.
  10. For ‘tactual involvement’ see the discussion of Strife divided by Love in the post above marked by Note 3.