Extra sensory perception

Like his attention to Pretribal Awareness, McLuhan’s thoughts on ESP were concentrated around 1970.1 The connection between the two, and the allied connection with ‘pattern recognition’, is highly important for a fitting understanding of his work.

Explorations 8 #3, 1957
Extra sensory perception is normal perception.2 Today electronics are extra sensory, Gallup polls and motivation research are also. Therefore people get all steamed up about E.S.P. as something for the future. It is already past and present.3

McLuhan to Harry Skornia, March 24 19604
Subliminal characteristics are group dynamics. Consciousness will always be the area of the individual and freedom, but of course most of those who talk about such things may be merely subliminally misguided people. Is it not strange that as we push into the areas of awareness of our own mechanisims people should shrill “determinism” when all they mean is that they are becoming conscious of their own mechanism. Consciousness can never Itself be mechanical. Therefore the more consciousness the less mechanism. Thus the whole of the educational enterprise may pass into ESP hands and the only possible consequence would be liberation.

The Humanities in the Electronic Age, 1961
But what has happened with the electronic advent is not [only] that we
move the products of human knowledge or labour to all corners of the earth more quickly. Rather we dilate the very means and processes of discourse to make a global envelope of sense and sensibility for the earth. From the moment of the telegraph, extra-sensory perception became a daily factor in shaping the human community and private perception alike. It is not the products of perception and judgment which now reach us by electric media, but involvement in the entire communal process of interfused co-existence. Each one of us, actively or passively, includes every other person on earth. The world no longer offers the possibility of the separatist, centre-margin structure which is featured in all our institutions, legal, educational, political. Centres-without-margins, inclusive consciousness, inclusive organization, these alone are viable or relevant to the new electric age.

Understanding Media, 1964, 130
It is (…) conceivable that the electric extension of the process of collective consciousness, in making
consciousness-without-walls, might render language walls obsolescent. Languages are stuttering extensions of our five senses, in varying ratios and wavelengths. An immediate simulation of consciousness would by-pass speech in a kind of massive extrasensory perception, just as global thermostats could by-pass those extensions of skin and body that we call houses.

Understanding Media, 1964, 265-266
With the telephone, there occurs the extension of ear and voice that is a kind of extra sensory perception. With television came the extension of the sense of touch or of sense interplay that even more intimately involves the entire sensorium.

The Role of New Media in Social Change, 19645
It is an ancient observation, that was repeated by Henri Bergson, that speech is a technology of extension that amplified man’s power to store and exchange perceptual knowledge; but it interrupted the sharing of a
unified collective consciousness experienced by pre-verbal man. Before speech, it is argued, men possessed a large measure of extra sensory perceptions which was fragmented by speech technology.6

All of the Candidates are Asleep, 19687
The radio age turned Oriental and inward. It became tuned to the cosmic and to ESP.

Playboy Interview, 1969
Tribal man is tightly sealed in an integral collective awareness that transcends conventional boundaries of time and space. As such, the new society will be one mythic integration, a resonating world akin to the old tribal echo chamber where magic will live again: a world of ESP.

Counterblast, 1969, 23
The content of writing is speech; but the content of speech is mental dance, non-verbal ESP.8

Counterblast, 1969, 83
Today the return to oral conditions of communication is not merely to be noted in the strictly acoustic sphere. The oral is the world of the non-linear, of all-at-onceness and ESP. There 
are no lines or directions in acoustic space, but rather a simultaneous field. It is non-Euclidean.

The Hardware/Software Mergers, 1969
When you put a software information environment around a hardware environment, you scrap hardware. But, there’s another feature. When you scrap an old service environment you retrieve a still older one. When we put electricity around the old mechanical hardware, we retrieved ESP; the most primitive forms of society and occultisms were dumped into the Western lap in vast quantity. Five hundred years ago with Gutenberg, the manuscript culture of the Middle Ages was scrapped overnight — and they retrieved antiquity.  Manuscript culture was not powerful enough to retrieve antiquity. Gutenberg was able to bring Greece and Rome back and dump it into the Renaissance lap. Electric circuitry scrapped industrialism, and along with that, it rendered ineffective all forms of specialism. All forms of fragmentation, all forms of classified data were scrapped by electrical circuitry. Everything you call “subjects” — “sex”,  “curriculum” — all these forms were scrapped by the new instantaneous electric networks, which represent our own nervous systems outside us; but while scrapping recent procedures we have retrieved the most primitive forms of culture from the most remote pasts. In fact, there is no “past” now. All cultures are simultaneous; all pasts are here.

Address to NYC Author’s Luncheon, 1969
The coming year has been dubbed ‘
the year of the witch’ in book publishing because it is the world of the occult. Alice. I mean of the inner trips of numerology and general mysticism. ESP. The world of the witch. The book of the future. The inner trip. The outer trip of civilized man is finished.

From Cliché to Archetype, 1970, 40
The new cult of ESP is a natural adjunct to telecommunications. When you put your nervous system outside as a world environment, ESP would seem to be rather “Plurabelle”. Edward T. Hall’s The Silent Language stresses the new awareness of languages as struc­tures of awareness and patterns of gesture.

Culture is our Business, ‘Author’s Note’, 1970, 7-8
Ads are the cave art of the twentieth century. While the Twenties talked about the caveman, and the people thrilled to the art of the Altamira caves, they ignored (as we do now) the hidden environment of magical forms which we call “ads”. Like cave paintings, ads are not intended to be looked at or seen, but rather to exert influence at a distance, as though by ESP. Like cave paintings, they are not means of private but of corporate expression. They are vortices of collective power, masks of energy invented by new tribal man. 

Culture is our Business, 1970, 82
The present electric ESP age of multiple interfaces finds no problem in metamorphosis or transubstantiation such as baffled abcede-minded culture of the sixteenth century and after.

Electric Consciousness and the Church, 1970
we live in post-history in the sense that all pasts that ever were are now present to our consciousness and that all the futures that will be are here now. In that sense we are post-history and timeless. Instant awareness of all the varieties of human expression constitutes the sort of mythic type of consciousness of ‘once-upon-a-timeness’ which means all time, out of time. It is possible that our new technologies can bypass verbalising. There is nothing inherently impossible in the computer, or that type of technology, extending consciousness itself as a universal environment. There is a sense in which the surround of information that we now experience electrically is an extension of consciousness itself. What effect this might have on the individual in society is very speculative. But it has happened, it isn’t something that’s going to happen. Many people simply resort instantly to the occult, to ESP and every form of hidden awareness, in answer to this new surround of electric consciousness.

Innovation is Obsolete, 1971
The electric service environments of telegraph, telephone, radio, and TV have literally junked the nineteenth-century industrial hardware, and all the assembly-line processes and organization charts born of specialism and fragmentation of functions. At the same time, these same environmental services have recovered, or recuperated the entire world of the occult and ESP.

Take Today, 1972, 7
The world of man’s artifacts was considered neutral until the electric age
. As the electric environment increasingly engulfed the old Greek “Nature,” it became apparent that “Nature” was a figure abstracted from a ground of existence that was far from “natural.” Greek “Nature,” which sufficed until Einstein, excluded most of the chaotic resonance of the great Sound-Light Show of existence itself. Most of the pre-Socratic magic and ESP and all the Oriental and “Primitive” Natures were pushed into the “subconscious.” Civilized man exists by dumping most of his experience into that convenient bin. Electric man has discovered that it is his major resource center.

Take Today1972,14
When a man-made environment circumvents the entire planet, moon, and galaxy, there is no alternative to total knowledge programming of all human enterprise.
Any form of imbalance proves fatal at electric speeds with the superpowers released by the new technological resources representing the full spectrum of the human senses and faculties. Survival now would seem to depend upon the extension of consciousness itself as an environment. This extension of consciousness has already begun with the computer and has been anticipated in our obsession with ESP and occult awareness.

Take Today, 1972, 39
the world of ESP-rit

Take Today, 1972, 100
The tribal outlook of the young TV kids is as anti-innovation and anti- growth as in any tribal society of the past. Those who “play it by ear” are instantly aware of the effects of change. The same electric technology that has retrieved ESP and the occult for many levels and areas of American life has turned the kids away from “moreness,” from glossy consuming to homespun and “camp” and “found” art. They are finished with both job goals and market values This change of outlook is not ideological but psychological. These children are very much their own “fathers,” in that their early man-made environment
programmed their sensory and perceptual lives for a totally different range of satisfactions than those of their parents and teachers. 

Take Today, 1972, 115-116
All religions
have recognized a social bond (resonance) between the world of numbers, names, and hidden divinity.  Much of what we call the occult or ESP today is simply the recovery of awareness of nonvisual ground for the figures and configurations of our visual civilization. The visual ground of literacy provides the rationale of connectedness and goals, without which “performance” and “progress” would be meaningless. But in today‘s new hidden surround of information flow, the old visual ground of hookups and hang-ups is transformed by electric speeds into a new acoustic ground of resonant interfaces. All boundaries become porous, the opaque becomes pervious, and goals move faster than measures of performance can. What is your telephone number for today

Globe & Mail Review of Julian Jaynes, 19779
Contemporary schizophrenia, says Jaynes, affords a partial reply [replay?] to the bicameral mind. Just as contemporary mediums and faith-healers raise the subject (…) This reminds us that Women’s Lib in the nuclear age is as normal a development as E.S.P. and Parapsychology.


  1. But even at the start of his career, in his 1943 PhD thesis, McLuhan had already posited something like “pre-tribal awareness” or ESP as a native facility of human being: “Just as language offers an extensive and complex apprehension of the structure of beings, so that faculty which produced this state of language is perpetually operative — an intuitive perception of essentials.” (The Classical Trivium, 51)
    An early example of the use of E.S.P. in a negative sense (thus demonstrating its positive potential) appears in the 1951
    Mechanical Bride (p31):
    “Writing in the New York Herald Tribune (January 25, 1948), John J. O’Neill gave an account of Professor Joseph B. Rhine’s views on the possibility of E.S.P. (Extrasensory Perception) as a means of wiping out crime. E.S.P. turns out to be even more pretentiously totalitarian than the Hopkins Televoter mechanism. Using mechanically controlled telepathic powers to probe into the subconscious of individual and society alike, it follows, in the view of Professor Rhine, that ‘Crime on any scale could hardly exist with its cloak of invisibility thus removed; graft, exploitation and suppression could not continue if the dark plots of wicked men were to be laid bare’.
    Neither crime nor human consciousness could exist in the scientific circumstances Professor Rhine outlines in his book, The Reach of Mind. A single mechanical brain, of the sort developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by Professor Norbert Wiener, when hitched to the telepathic mechanism of Professor Rhine, could tyrannize over the collective consciousness of the race exactly in comic-book and science-fiction style. The means envisaged for this purpose are complex, but the kind of wish for unlimited power over men which evokes such means is moronic. From the point of view of civilized values, it is obvious that, as our powers of crime detection have advanced, the power to define vice or virtue has declined. In the same way, as market-research tyranny has developed, the object and ends of human consumption have been blurred. Know-how has obliterated the why, what, and when.
    The dream of E.S.P. has stirred the minds and hopes of the top brass of the executive world much as the comic books stir the passions of the very young. If any measure in addition to that of ridicule and satire could be effective in recalling such adult minds to a sense of the true proportions and dignity of human life, it should be invoked at once.”
  2. In his essay ‘Cloning ESP’, Bob Dobbs points out helpfully: “ESP as pattern-recognition is a perceptual complex of mental and non-verbal dance — the tactile sense. However, tactility, as used here, is not one of the senses, but the interplay of the senses, evoking ordinary consciousness. Electric technologies, from the telegraph on, when they became generally used and environmental, simulated that ordinary consciousness, the tactile ESP, collectively. So, personal ESP now existed parallel with a collective, ongoing, dynamic ESP.” For illustrative passages from McLuhan see Tactility.
  3. In this note McLuhan brings together ESP with synesthesia: “SYNESTHESIA the new sin of the nineteenth century roused as much misunderstanding as E.S.P. today. Extra sensory perception is normal perception. Today electronics are extra sensory, Gallup polls and motivation research are also. Therefore people get all steamed up about E.S.P. as something for the future. It is already past and present. Synesthesia is simply totalism in the use of the senses. After centuries of abstract, printed lineality the Baudelaires and Rimbauds revolted into synesthesia because the telegraphic and photographic resources of the earlier nineteenth century had suddenly revealed the possibility of simultaneous experience at many levels. Wagner leapt at the possibilities. The Bauhaus gave institutional form to the same developments. Today we take the entire Bauhaus program of Synesthesia for granted as normal suburban living.”
  4. https://archive.org/details/naeb-b067-f01/page/n133/mode/1up.
  5. The Role of New Media in Social Change’, Address to Canadian Orthopsychiatric Association, March 1964. Printed posthumously in the Antigonish Review, no. 74-75, summer-autumn, 1988.
  6. McLuhan to Wilfred Watson, summer 1965: “Eric has worked out that the sin committed by HCE in Phoenix park is language itself i.e. the ultimate self-exhibitionism, the ultimate uttering”. ‘The Role of New Media in Social Change’ comes from the previous year, 1964. At this time in the mid-1960s, at least in these two instances, McLuhan may have deviated from his usual position that human being and language are coextensive: “man is language” (GG 231).
  7. ‘All of the Candidates are Asleep’, Saturday Evening Post., v241, August 10, 1968, 34-36.
  8. UM (8): “If it is asked, ‘What is the content of speech?’, it is necessary to say, ‘It is an actual process of thought, which is in itself nonverbal’.
  9. Review of Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, 1977, in the The Globe & Mail, Toronto, June 18, 1977.