Inclusive consciousness

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 and directed to these pages 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. 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] produced an (…) encyclopedic philosophy. (Toward an Inclusive Consciousness, 1967)1

McLuhan differentiated between exclusive and inclusive consciousness. But at first he identified “inclusive consciousness” with the “auditory organization of many-layered and interpenetrating experiences”. Here he is to this effect in 1960:

The theme of Romantic Image by [Frank] Kermode [1957] is that the quest for the means of an inclusive consciousness drove artists away from discourse of reason and even from language. (…) Romantic poetry developed a one-thing-at-a-time kind of vision and awareness which had succeeded an all-at-once sort of auditory and simultaneous order: “The decline of the aristocratic world of the eighteenth century with its hierarchy of ordered values had sent the Romantic poets scurrying into their own souls in search of a new scale of values. (…) Each created his own order, in terms usually of the vision of love or the journey of life, and each was able to oppose to the flux of a world of broken values, to the anarchy of individualism, symbols of that order in the beauty and permanence of the natural world” (p. 166). Foakes here [in The Romantic Assertion: A Study of the Language of Nineteenth Century Poetry, 1958] reminds us that the image of order that became dominant in the age of Newton was visual. Poetry, too, succeeded in achieving a new visual order based on the correspondence between the inner faculties and the natural scene outside. But this new order was exclusive rather than inclusive in its very nature. It had to deal with one emotion at a time and one level of experience at a time. It could not include erudition and accumulated past experience in the single perspectives of visual space that were devised in order to isolate and to control single emotions. But, above all, it could not fulfill the human craving for an inclusive auditory organization of many-layered and interpenetrating experiences.2

By 1967, as indicated by the lead passage from Toward an Inclusive Consciousness’ he realized that this identification of the inclusive with the auditory had been an error. Now he saw that “inclusive consciousness” demanded balance between “the written and oral traditions”, aka the visual the auditory.

He seems to have come to this awareness in the years immediately following the 1960 review.

The 1962 Gutenberg Galaxy notes:

The speculators of our time can as easily fall unawares into the auditory bias of “field” theory as the Greeks leapt into the flatland of abstract visuality and one-way lineality. (p57-58)

And here he is in a October 4, 1963 letter to Harry Skornia, his partner in crime at the NAEB:

My central idea, as you know, since the GALAXY [1962], is that of electro-magnetism as an extension of the central nervous system. Closely related to this is my insistence that the next extension of man will be the simulation of the process of consciousness itself.3 (…) 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. It is the interplay of sense, all the senses, not the isolation of any one sense

‘Tactility’ was not used by McLuhan as the single sense of touch, but as the junction or switchyard or “interplay” of “all the senses”. So in this passage the “inclusive” is specifically withdrawn from “any one sense”, like the “auditory”, and instead is expressly assigned to “the interplay of (…) all”.  

The great difficulty here (but at the same time is the key to McLuhan’s whole enterprise),4 is the fact that the inclusive cannot exclude the exclusive without itself becoming exclusive! This is why McLuhan notes in the 1967 passage: “the very components that make for a divided [or exclusive] consciousness also can (…) become the means of an inclusive consciousness”

Here “of an inclusive consciousness” must be taken in the first instance as a subjective genitive like ‘the ball of the boy’ — not as an objective genitive like ‘the punishment of the boy’. Hence “the very components that make for a divided [or exclusive] consciousness” belong to “inclusive consciousness” — even as they on their side contradict it!

McLuhan’s insistence that “language itself” is the model and means of “inclusive consciousness” is at work here: 

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.5

Language brings together in dialogue different persons who never match or merge with each other. It enables the expression of all points of view. And nothing at all happens among humans absent this environment which is, however, neither singular nor still.


McLuhan read Joyce as grappling with the problems and promise at stake here:

Joyce was all his life attempting to devise means of coping with the problems of inclusive consciousness that have been thrust on men by the simultaneous and instantaneous flow of information which results from electronic channels since the advent of the telegraph. Anybody who can look at Joyce and say, “It is all very confusing,” has not looked at the world he lives in. (One Wheel, All Square, 1958)

it was his mastery of the art process in terms of the stages of apprehension that enabled Joyce to install himself in the centre of the creative process. Whether it appears as mere individual sensation, as collective hope or phobia, as national myth-making or cultural norm-functioning, there is Joyce with cocked ear, eye and nose at the the centre of the action. He saw that the change of our time (‘wait till Finnegan wakes!’) was occurring as a result of the shift from superimposed myth to awareness of the character of the creative process itself. Here was the only hope for a world culture which would incorporate all previous achievements. The very process of human communication, Joyce saw, would afford the natural base for all the future operations and strategies of culture. Towards this vivisectional spectacle of the human community in action we have been led ever more swiftly in recent decades by increasing self-consciousness of the processes and effects of the various media of communication. Our knowledge of the modes of consciousness in pre-literate societies together with our sense of the processes of culture formation in many literate societies past and present, have sharpened our perceptions and led to wide agreement that communication itself is the common ground for the study of individual and society. To this study Joyce contributed not just awareness but demonstration of individual cognition as the analogue and matrix of all communal actions, political, linguistic and sacramental.6 (Notes on the Media as Art Forms 1954)

Every medium is in some sense a universal, pressing towards maximal realization. But its expressive pressures disturb existing balances and patterns in other media of culture. The increasing inclusiveness of our sense of such repercussions leads us today hopefully to investigate the possibilities of orchestral harmony in the multi-levelled drive towards pure human expressiveness. (Notes on the Media as Art Forms 1954)


  1. Toward an Inclusive Consciousness’, Lecture of March 17, 1967 at the University of Toronto, in Understanding Me, pp124-138.
  2. McLuhan review of The Romantic Assertion: A Study of the Language of Nineteenth Century Poetry by R. A. Foakes, 1958, in Modern Philology, 57:4 (May, 1960), pp279-280.
  3. This prediction of AI was made 60 years ago. But phrases like “the simulation of the process of consciousness itself” should not be taken as if McLuhan had in mind only a conscious machine of some sort. Certainly this was one aspect of his vision, the spectre of a monstrous take over of the planet by the machines we have created. But the “simulation” of consciousness would at the same time be analogous to the simulation of the material world that we have in chemistry and physics — and, before them and anticipating them, in language and in all human experience. Such physical sciences simulate the world even as the world simulates them. For McLuhan, then, “the simulation of the process of consciousness itself” would eventuate in and through a ‘new science’, in fact a new genus of sciences. This would be an ongoing science or sciences that would specifically include all the ways of human being, just as chemistry includes the ways of being of physical materials (including those of the human body).
  4. See Jackson Knight on “the main question” and related ‘main question’ posts.
  5. One sentence of the McLuhan October 4, 1963 letter to Harry Skornia cited above.
  6. McLuhan’s vision here is of “individual cognition” sparking different synchronic possibilities as its way of creating and maintaining a diachronic flow of life. This is a microcosmic figuration of the macrocosmic ground of “language itself” — an analogous sparking of possibilities, but playing out on a gigantic scale. Cf, McLuhan in The Little Epic from the late 1950s, an unpublished manuscript in the Ottawa archive: “Language itself and every department of human activity would in this view be a long succession of ‘momentary deities’ or epiphanies.  And such indeed is the view put forward in the Cratylus of Plato: I believe, Socrates, the true account of the matter to be, that a power more than human gave things their first names, and that the names which are thus given are necessarily their true names. In this way etymology becomes a method of science and theology. William Wordsworth called these momentary deities ‘spots of time’, Hopkins called them ‘inscapes’ and Browning built his entire work on the same concept of the esthetic of the ‘eternal moment’.” Compare ‘James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial’ from 1953: “every letter is a godsend“. These epiphanic moments consist of the ‘dynamic’ or ‘dramatic’ extension of pre-existing possibilities. In this way human experience expressing itself via media would be assimilated to the working of chemical elements or of DNA: all inherently express themselves in and as particulars to comprise the concrete world around us. The dynamic order is vertical and synchronic; the particular order is horizontal and diachronic. Human being is situated at the crossing of these vectors of space and time. (McLuhan, as seen in his famous letter to Innis in March of that year, had this vision by 1951 at the latest: “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.” (Letters, p221) By “retracing” human experience back to its sparking of discrete possibilities, McLuhan would follow the same path of dynamic expression that all experience takes, but in reverse direction. This would expose the underlying forms which express themselves in and as concrete awareness.)