The spectacle of redemption

The apprehensive faculty must be scrutinized in action. (James Joyce, Stephen Hero)1

Subliminal characteristics are group dynamics. (McLuhan to Harry Skornia, March 24 1960)2

In the early 1950s, marking his way from individual literary analysis to collective multimedia investigation, McLuhan repeatedly cited a passage from Joyce’s Stephen Hero:

The modern spirit is vivisective. Vivisection is the most modern process one can conceive. The ancient method investigated law with the lantern of justice, morality with the lantern of revelation, art with the lantern of tradition. But all these lanterns have magical  properties: they transform and disfigure. The modern method examines its territory by the light of day. (…) All modern political and religious criticism dispenses with presumptive states (…)3 It examines the entire community in action and reconstructs the spectacle of redemption.4

The passage appears in ‘Joyce, Aquinas, and the Poetic Process’ (1951),  ‘Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press’ (1954)5 and ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’ (1954). The two Joyce essays, in turn, were then republished in the 1960s — ‘Joyce, Aquinas, and the Poetic Process’ in 1962 in  Joyce’s Portrait: Criticisms and Critiques;6 and ‘Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press’ both in McLuhan Hot and Cool (1967) and in The Interior Landscape (1969). The net effect was to cite the passage 6 different times over a period of almost 20 years — McLuhan age 40 to 60.7

In sum, and leaving aside his own repeated discussions of these same notions, especially of “the entire community in action” as language and/or as the unconscious, McLuhan on six separate occasions marked out his way, both in anticipation and in retrospect, by citing and reciting this passage from Joyce’s Stephen Hero.


  1. See note #4 below for the full passage.
  3. Only ‘Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press’ includes “All modern political and religious criticism dispenses with presumptive states” which was Joyce’s clarification of the preceding “The modern method examines its territory by the light of day.” Tellingly, Joyce, but not McLuhan, then continued “dispenses with presumptive states” with “presumptive Redeemers and Churches”.
  4. Another passage from Stephen Hero was also cited repeatedly: “What we symbolize in black the Chinaman may symbolize in yellow; each has his own tradition. Greek beauty laughs at Coptic beauty and the American Indian derides them both. It is almost impossible to reconcile all tradition whereas it is by no means impossible to find the justification of every form of beauty that has ever been adored on earth by an examination of the mechanism of esthetic apprehension whether it be dressed in red, white, yellow or black. We have no reason for thinking that the Chinaman has a different system of digestion from that which we have though our diets are quite dissimilar. The apprehensive faculty must be scrutinized in action.” McLuhan has this passage both in ‘Joyce, Aquinas, and the Poetic Process’ (1951) and ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’ (1954).
  5. This essay was submitted to The Sewanee Review in 1951, but published there only in 1954.
  6. Edited by Thomas Connolly. For this reprinting McLuhan added a new section on The Problem of Form (1893) by Adolf Hildebrand.
  7. A related passage from McLuhan himself appears in his ‘Introduction’ to Tennyson: Selected Poetry (1955): “Whereas the cyclic epic, as in Homer, moves on the single narrative plane of individual spiritual quest, the little epic (epyllion) as written by Ovid, Dante, Joyce, and Pound is ‘the tale of the tribe‘. That is to say, it is not so much a story of the in­dividual quest for perfection as it is a history of collective crime and punishment, an attempt to justify the ways of God to man.” This passage from McLuhan himself was also repeated/reprinted — in the 1970 From Cliché to Archetype.