Monthly Archives: February 2023

Hominization of the planet 2

It is man who has become both figure and ground via the electro-technical extension of his awareness.1

In Hominization 1, McLuhan was seen to replay Lucretius on human creativity:

that freewill, wrenched away From the fates, by which we each proceed to follow pleasure’s sway, So that we swerve our motions…

In fact, McLuhan did one better than Lucretius in that creativity is specified by him not, or not only, in the conscious exercise of will, but in all human experience whatsoever — even when the genesis of experience in creativity remains almost entirely unconscious:

In ordinary perception men perform the miracle of recreating within themselves, in their interior faculties, the exterior world. This miracle is the work of the nous poietikos or of the agent intellect — that is, the poetic or creative process. The exterior world in every instant of perception is interiorized and recreated in a new matter. Ourselves. (Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters, 1954)

McLuhan continued to emphasize the point 15 years later in his Playboy Interview:

I began to realize that the greatest artists of the 20th Century — Yeats, Pound. Joyce, Eliot — had discovered a totally different approach, based on the identity of the processes of cognition and creation. I realized that artistic creation is the playback of ordinary experience

The notion is that all human experience, the most ordinary to the most artistic, begins in momentary exposure to the range of the available possibilities together with all the possible combinations of those possibilities. A free or swerved or creative choice must ‘then’ be made between them in the momentary activation of some one of them. So conceived, human being is Aristotle’s energeia, the incessant sparking activation of particular linguistic and experiential forms.

“The gap is where the action is” in that the gap between conscious life and the unconscious domain of possibilities is crossed at every instant and then, in the unconscious, the gaps between the possibilities there are crossed, too, as those possibilities are surveyed and assessed. It is like language use where all possible sounds, words and grammatical markers are available to speakers, moment to moment to moment.2 They must choose between these possibilities and their words are the activated result, or effect, of this discriminatory process. Thus conceived, language is the “playback” of preexisting forms. And, according to McLuhan, so is experience.

In both processes, in the generation of language and in the isomorphic generation of experience, there is a complication of space and time and of the speaking/experiencing subject. The space-time of these processes is not that of the ‘regular world’. They do not unfold in ordinary three-dimensional space nor in chronological time. And identity is more the effect of these processes than its cause. These fundamentally obscure processes are therefore the actions of McLuhan’s nomad/no-man/nobody.3

A kind of “artistic creation” where “we swerve our motions” is implicated, since the ‘rearview mirror’ of previous enunciation or of previous experience does not bind the spoken word or the experiential perception to follow. There is an essentially exploratory aspect to every moment of experience that consists in a sort of reconnaissance of the possibilities before it, forcing a swerved choice between them.

Perception is exploration and you do not know from one moment to the next what you’re going to discover.4

The space, time and subjectivity of ‘ordinary’ life is incessantly left behind for this ‘upside down world’ (as Hegel styled it).

We have to repeat what we were about to say.5

a way of living as if every moment were your next.6

A central question here: what does the actuality of such ubiquitous creativity7 indicate about possibility?

Strangely (since on reflection what could be more obvious?), it has occurred less and less to our purported thinking in the last two centuries that what is actual must also be possible! One of the explicit aims of Heidegger’s 1927 Sein und Zeit (Being and Time) was to address this thought-provoking oversight. The last sentences of its ‘Introduction’8 reads:

Higher than actuality stands possibility. The understanding of phenomenology [dual genitive!] lies entirely in the grasping of it [dual genitive!] as a possibility.9

What happens when creativity is recognized as actual and therefore also as possible is that the structural leap or gap expressed in creativity must be rooted in the ground of human being (dual genitive!).10 Hence McLuhan’s insight that “it is man who has become both figure and ground”. That is, human creativity points to the conditions of creativity in possibility — namely, plurality and the bordering gaps that are necessary for that plurality, gaps that are re-played in the re-creative leaps we make in actuality. In this way humans re-present ‘ground’: “men perform the miracle of recreating (…) in every instant”. But in re-presenting ‘ground’ in their actual circumstances, humans cannot enact plural fundamental possibilities at once, any more than physical material can be more than one chemical formula at once.11 So at the very instant when humans re-present ground, they do so as a dynamic figure of that ground.12 “It is man who has become both figure and ground”.

Hominization of the planet 3 will further unpack this insight by considering a passage in From Cliché to Archetype that was later “quoted” in Laws of Media:

The cliché (…) is incompatible with other clichés, but the archetype is extremely cohesive, the residues of other archetypes adhere to it. When we consciously set out to retrieve one archetype, we unconsciously retrieve [all the] others (…) In fact, whenever we ‘quote’ one consciousness, we also ‘quote’ the archetypes we exclude.13


  1. Take Today, p11. Humans becoming “both figure and ground” is not a matter that first becomes possible in some chronological time like the “electro-technical” era. Instead, what becomes possible today is a new “awareness” of this perennial condition. As McLuhan said of the objects of the new awareness made possible by literacy in classical Greece: “The functions and processes were not new. But the means of arrested visual analysis, namely the phonetic alphabet, was as new to the Greeks as the movie camera in our century.” (The Gutenberg Galaxy, 23)
  2. For ‘language’ as McLuhan’s central metaphor see Language itself and Grammars of the Media.
  3. For Plato’s description of the journey of this “nomad”, see McLuhan and Plato 1 – Phaedrus and Er.
  4. McLuhan, Interview with Kenneth AllsopBBC ’24 Hours’, August 19, 1971.
  5. ‘The Be-Spoke Tailor’, Explorations 8, 1957, #4.
  6. McLuhan, ‘A Media Approach to Inflation’, NYT, September 21, 1974.
  7. Creativity is most manifest, perhaps, in the arts and sciences. But we properly recognize it as well, of course, throughout the whole range of human activity: in child-rearing, cooking, hunting, sewing, telling jokes, etc etc. And the often startling creativity of animals manifests it as well!
  8. Since SZ was never completed, there is an important sense in which these concluding sentences of the ‘Introduction’ represent Heidegger’s ‘last word’ on the SZ project. Not to say that there are not other ‘last words’ on it as well, of course — such as ‘Zeit und Sein’ from 35 years later in 1962.
  9. Sein und Zeit, ‘Einleitung’: “Höher als die Wirklichkeit steht die Möglichkeit. Das Verständnis der Phänomenologie liegt einzig im Ergreifen ihrer als Möglichkeit.”
  10. For both Lucretius and McLuhan, the creative freedom of human being is grounded in prior possibility that is ontological.
  11. Not to say that human being or physical being cannot have the form of some highly complicated combination of fundamental possibilities! In fact, it is probable that with human being, as much as with physical being, it is disappearingly rare for a singular elemental possibility to be manifested purely and simply on its own.
  12. Dual genitive.
  13. From Cliché to Archetype, p21 = Laws of Media, p104.

Multi-space dialogue in Greece

Toward a Spatial Dialogue…1

To say that Homer and Hesiod were “nonvisual” poets is to explain in a phrase every problem of the world of Greek scholarship since Lessing and Schliemann. The Greeks never [fully] entered pictorial or visual space. They tended to use all their senses at once. They approached [ie, anticipated]2 the [later] European [more emphatically visual] modes of awareness by a gradual playing down of acoustic space, of kinetic space, of tactual and visceral spaces, in favor of a heightened visual organization of experience.
The change from multi-spaces to a single, uniform, rational space is often associated with the Euclidean breakthrough. [However:] In Art and Geometry William Ivins explains that Euclid never freed himself from kinetic space. In The Beginnings of Architecture, Siegfried Giedion says that the Greeks no more managed to achieve the visual enclosure of space than did the Incas. The new space breakthrough [to visual enclosure] was left for the Romans. (Through the Vanishing Point)3

Plato and Aristotle, the representatives of the new literate culture of Greece in philosophy, had this same doubleness. They straddled the written and oral traditions. They translated the tribal encyclopedia of the preceding culture into the written, classified form, and they too [like Bacon]4 produced an (…) encyclopedic philosophy. (Toward an Inclusive Consciousness, 1967)5

  1. This is a section heading in Through the Vanishing Point, 1968, p33.
  2. Later on the same TVP 225 page: “Bruno Snell’s The Discovery of the Mind: The Greek Origins of European Thought marshals the available conventional evidence, apropos Greek poetry, to show how the Greeks succeeded in sloughing off most of their nonvisual experience in order to anticipate European rationalism.”
  3. Through the Vanishing Point, p225.
  4. The sentences immediately prior to this passage concern such “doubleness”, or “inclusiveness”, in Francis Bacon: “What Bacon did was to take the Book of Nature, which had been the medieval image of the natural world, and to this he added the Book of Scripture, the Sacred Page. He took both these pages (together) and directed to them a kind of analytic gaze of comprehensive inclusiveness. I’m suggesting that the very components that make for a divided consciousness also can (…) become the means of an inclusive consciousness such as Bacon took for granted in his own case.”
  5. Toward an Inclusive Consciousness’, Lecture of March 17, 1967 at the University of Toronto, in Understanding Me, pp124-138.

Through the vanishing point with Nietzsche

Throughout McLuhan’s New Sciences, appeal has been made to Nietzsche’s ‘History of an Error’ from Twilight of the Idols (1889) and especially to its final stage:

The true world — we have abolished. What world has remained? The apparent one perhaps? But no! With the true world we also have abolished the apparent one!!1

Compare in McLuhan:

Let us keep in mind that the new reality is in the image and not behind it.2

Nietzsche’s conclusion about the loss of the “apparent world” — aka, the loss of the image — is precipitated from McLuhan’s observation as soon as it is asked if an image is still an image if it is not an image of something? If its reality is only in it “and not behind it”?

McLuhan did indeed appreciate this utter loss:

Put a fast rim spin around a slow one and the slow one disintegrates. Put a satellite ring around the planet and all arrangements on the planet disintegrate. It becomes garbage. (Address to Author’s Luncheon in NYC, 1969)3

Whereas mechanical “dehumanization” wrecked the person, electric super-“humanization” wrecks the entire system. (Take Today, p221)4


  1. Nietzsche (1844-1900), Götzen-Dämmerung, ‘Geschichte eines Irrtums — Wie die »wahre Welt« endlich zur Fabel wurde’, 1889: “Die wahre Welt haben wir abgeschafft: welche Welt blieb übrig? die scheinbare vielleicht?… Aber nein! mit der wahren Welt haben wir auch die scheinbare abgeschafft!!” For discussion, see Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters 2: What Mallarmé saw.
  2. ‘The Electronic Age – The Age of Implosion’, in Mass Media in Canada, ed. John A Irving, 1962.
  3. YouTube recording 12:50ff. The date given at YouTube for this address is 1966. But it is clear from many references in it — like McLuhan mentioning The Love Machine by Jacqueline Susann, which was published in 1969, or describing his return from the May 1969 Bilderberg conference in Denmark — that this date is mistaken and should be 1969.
  4. Later in Take Today: The UNPERSON is the inevitable result of improved communication, all barriers of private consciousness are overcome, the resulting collective form of awareness is a tribal dream. Western man experiences it only in his sleep. (…) We all become unpersons at night” (p269).

Hominization of the planet 1

This is page 34 of the 1969 Counterblast. The missing bottom “phase” of “creation” is original.1

In the posthumous The Global Village, the same thoughts appear again in only slightly modified form:

The media extensions of man are the hominization of the planet; it is the second phase of the original creation.2 

McLuhan saw satellites as that particular ‘extension of man’ best illustrating such hominization:

Satellites (…) transform the planet into a work of art by placing it inside a man-made environment… (Take Today, 294)

When the planet was suddenly enveloped by a man-made artifact, “Nature” flipped into art form. (The End of the Work Ethic, Address to The Empire Club of Canada, November 16, 1972)

A satellite was a kind of mini-planet that could support life, like the planet beneath our feet, but one that was entirely “man-made”. It thereby prompted a different take on Earth itself and ecological consciousness was born:3

The moment of Sputnik was the moment of creating Spaceship Earth… (The End of the Work Ethic)

But even before Sputnik’s launch in 1957, McLuhan had seen the same phenomenon already at work since the scientific and industrial revolutions. Here he is already in Explorations 2 in 1954:

Technology has abolished ‘nature’ in the old sense and brought the globe within the scope of art. (Notes on the Media as Art Forms)4

In fact, once technology was conceived as the domain of human extensions, the abolition of nature and hominization of the planet must have occurred already with those first extensions of paleolithic “humanoids”, speech and stone tools:

The first humanoid uttering his first intelligible grunt, or “word,” outered himself and set up a dynamic relationship with himself, other creatures, and the world outside his skin. Speech (…) is (…) a tool to reconstitute nature (…) to translate one form [nature] into another [human experience and its collective expression in culture].5 (…) The pre-neolithic [= paleolithic] art of making stone tools [like the art of making speech tools] moved man out of the process of [natural] evolution and into a world of his own making. (The Global Village, 1989, p93)

Humans qua humans — humans as humans — are fundamentally creative in this way:

In ordinary perception men perform the miracle of recreating within themselves, in their interior faculties, the exterior world. This miracle is the work of the nous poietikos or of the agent intellect — that is, the poetic or creative process. The exterior world in every instant of perception is interiorized and recreated in a new matter. Ourselves. (Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters, 1954)

Hence, even with paleolithic “humanoids”, or especially with paleolithic “humanoids” (since a beginning exceeds the development it enables and shapes), a ‘new’ factor is operative in the world. Things no longer follow a purely ‘natural’ course. Through the exercise of creativity even, or especially, in “ordinary perception”, ever repeated leaps of creativity punctuate nature in such a way that the physical course of events is inter/rupted. 

“In every instant” ruptures occur. The gap is where the action is.

Here McLuhan is close to the Epicurean view of Lucretius (c99 BC – c55 BC) in De rerum natura:

Where do we get that freewill, wrenched away
From the fates, by which we each proceed to follow pleasure’s sway,
So that we swerve our motions not at a designated spot
And fixed time, but the very place we will it in our thought?
Without a doubt these motions have their beginning in the whims
Of each, and from that will these motions trickle into the limbs.6

With all living beings, but especially with humans, a decided clinamen (swerve) is seen to operate in the world alongside, but exceeding in some way, the world of nature, the world of the natural ‘course of events’.


  1. Harley Parker’s fontwork here is well conceived. The labyrinthine shape of the ‘2’ traces the complications of creation and the analogous complications of thought that would ‘follow’ it. Meanwhile the halving of ‘creation’ illustrates that “original creation” is not the full story. As McLuhan says, a “second phase” is essential to it. Furthermore, creation in both its divine and human iterations takes place across a gap — amounting to an absence that is essential to creation. The very heart of creativity is a gap “where the action is”. This gap is what must be retraced and retrieved today after centuries in which it has been largely ‘overlooked‘ (as the top half of Parker’s “creation” overlooks its missing bottom “phase”).
  2. The Global Village, 1989, p93.
  3. Compare ‘At the moment of Sputnik the planet became a global theatre in which there are no spectators but only actors’, 1974: “At the moment that the earth went inside this new artifact, Nature ended and Ecology was born.”
  4. In the same 1954 essay (‘Notes on the Media as Art Forms’): “The power of the machine to transform the character of work and living strongly invites us to transform every level of existence by art.”
  5. ‘Speech is a tool to reconstitute nature, to translate one form into another’. Compare ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’ (cited in part above): “In ordinary perception men perform the miracle of recreating within themselves, in their interior faculties, the exterior world. This miracle is the work of the nous poietikos or of the agent intellect — that is, the poetic or creative process. The exterior world in every instant of perception is interiorized and recreated in a new matter. Ourselves. And in this creative work that is perception and cognition, we experience immediately that dance of Being within our faculties which provides the incessant intuition of Being.”
  6. Bk2.257ff:
    unde est haec, inquam, fatis avolsa voluntas,
    per quam progredimur quo ducit quemque voluptas,
    declinamus item motus nec tempore certo
    nec regione loci certa, sed ubi ipsa tulit mens?
    nam dubio procul his rebus sua cuique voluntas
    principium dat et hinc motus per membra rigantur.

McLuhan’s communication problem

In 1968 McLuhan was in Tony Schwartz’s studio in NY with Harley Parker talking about art illustrations for Through the Vanishing Point.1 Presumably they had an upcoming meeting in NY with Harper & Row, the publisher of TVP, to finalize its contents and layout. 

In a recording of the studio proceedings, McLuhan voiced a central problem regarding communication of his work:2 

I don’t know how to estimate the meaning of the fact that all the philosophers, all the scientists now living, are unaware that there is such a thing as visual space and that they have been living in it for 25 centuries and that is suddenly dissolving and leaving them — causing a considerable disorientation in their world. But how the hell do you start talking to these big shots and explaining the ABC’s of their world to them without creating an impression of megalomania or some utter nonsense?3

Also mentioned by McLuhan: the need for communications analysis to situate itself ‘beyond good and evil’…

have no values as regards anything I talk about.4

Here are online5 pictures of the studio, the first with Tony Schwartz, the second with Schwartz, McLuhan and John Culkin. McLuhan looks surprisingly well after his brain tumor operation (mentioned in the recording), but he had obviously lost a lot of weight. The old Marshall looked more like Culkin in body style.



  1. Also mentioned in the recording as present along with McLuhan, Parker and Schwartz: George (Thompson?) and Suzy (?).
  2. Other related problems: McLuhan’s words (like any words) were read or heard via the rear-view mirror, thereby fundamentally distorting them and preventing the perception of the new that he was attempting to foster. Letting go of one’s frame of reference is not easy. Perception of the new requires a step back ‘through the vanishing point’ to another identity and another world and there is no identity between identities and no world between worlds. These problems strongly motivate the “megalomania” and “utter nonsense” assessments.
  3. McLuhan adds: “It’s like Alice in Wonderland.”