The representative ferment

media are ‘ideas’ in action (McLuhan to Harry Skornia, June 5, 1959)1

As epigraphs to his 1944 ‘Wyndham Lewis: Lemuel in Lilliput’, McLuhan set out two citations from Lewis’ Time and Western Man. The second of these reads:

I unmask the will that is behind the Time-Philosophy, by displaying it in the heart of the representative ferment produced by it — in the full, instinctive indulgence and expansion of the artistic impulse, and imposing its values upon the impressionable material of life. p. xv, Time and Western Man.2

Lewis’ “representative ferment” must be read in at least two ways. First, ‘representative’ is intended in the sense of ‘characteristic’, ‘identifying’, ‘distinctive’. That is, what Lewis terms “Time-Philosophy” may be identified by the particular type of ‘ferment’ it reveals and, as he attempts to demonstrate, that it in fact derives from. The implication is that there are not only different types of ferment, but that these types are original. Fundamentally different sorts of Philosophy — but also of Art and even of Society — are, he claims, grounded in these various kinds of ferment as the effects of these ferments. According to Lewis, ‘Time’ is one sort of these representational or effect-producing ferments, one that has come to dominate “western man”. 

Secondly, ‘representative’ is used in the sense of a ‘drive to represent’, ‘to manifest’, ‘to go forth’: ‘to ex-press’. As Lewis has it, it is the “expansion of the artistic impulse” — ‘re-presentative’ as itself a “ferment” in all its etymological implications:

from Old French fermenter (13c.) and directly from Latin fermentare “to leaven, cause to rise or ferment,” from fermentum “substance causing fermentation, leaven, drink made of fermented barley,” perhaps contracted from *fervimentum, from root of fervere “to boil, seethe” (from PIE root *bhreu “to boil, bubble, effervesce, burn”).

‘Ferment’, then, considered with all its Indo-European cognates deriving from *bhreu:

Sanskrit bhurnih “violent, passionate”, Greek phrear “well, spring, cistern”, Latin fervere “to boil, foam”, Thracian Greek brytos “fermented liquor made from barley”, Russian bruja “current”, Old Irish bruth “heat”, Old English breowan “to brew”, beorma “yeast”, Old High German brato “roast meat.”

It is remarkable that a “representative ferment” is at work both physically and etymologically in the sacraments of bread and fermented drink.


On the one hand, this 1944 citation by McLuhan from Lewis’ TWM reaches back a decade to McLuhan’s 1934 M.A. thesis on George Meredith at the University of Manitoba:

The poet plants himself upon his instincts and permits his temperament sovereign sway. And he has quite as much right to do this as the philosopher has to trust his thought processes. In his table talk, Coleridge noted that all men (…) are born either Platonists or Aristotelians. There are similarly, in all times and places, definite types of temperament displaying consistency of conformation. The literary or artistic expression of such temperaments has properly the same validity as has the philosophizing of the Idealist and the Realist.3

With “the philosophizing of the Idealist and the Realist” McLuhan was explicitly gesturing to the ‘comparative method‘ of his University of Manitoba mentor, Rupert Lodge. And at the same time, with “literary or artistic expression”, he was silently pointing to the third elementary form in that method which Lodge usually called ‘pragmatism’ or ‘pragmatist’. 

a third type of philosophy has tended to develop: a philosophy which tries to be true to experience, and to avoid all (…) one-sided theorizings [such as those of the Idealist and the Realist]. This attempt at interpretation has taken many forms. One of the best known is called “pragmatism” (…) Here, then, we have three typical directions in which philosophers move when they attempt to master experience: the realist, the idealist, and the pragmatist direction.4

McLuhan’s contention in his M.A. thesis was that the “third type” must be taken to exceed philosophy if it is “to avoid all abstract and one-sided theorizings” (Lodge) — the “theorizings”, that is, of “the philosophizing of the Idealist and the Realist” (McLuhan). Hence his appeal to “the poet” as opposed to “the philosopher”, to temperaments” as opposed to “thought processes” and to “instincts” as opposed to “philosophizing”. More than this, McLuhan seems to have been intuiting the further point against Lodge,5 that the very key to a ‘comparative method’ lies in what Lewis termed the “instinctive (…) expansion of the artistic impulse”; what Lodge himself termed the “tende[ncy] to develop” and what McLuhan termed “sway”. 6 7 That is, the “third type” was not only (only!) one of three fundamental forms of expression, it was also and above all the dynamism or inherent “will” to ex-pression in each of these three — the original/originating drive in each not to remain abstract, but to represent or manifest or ex-tend itself concretely. 

Consider any chemical element, say, carbon. It is not to be located only as the ‘abstract’ element ‘C’ in Mendeleev’s table. It is just as much graphite or diamond or a component in the myriad compounds in which carbon plays an essential role. So the element ‘C’ is re-presented in diamonds and elsewhere. But it is not only any one of these — or even all of these manifestations together. ‘C’ is both all those representative manifestations and also itself one ‘representative’ manifestation of the common elementary structure set out in Mendeleev’s table. 

Diamonds re-present ‘C’ because it has an essential drive to manifestation. But this drive does not terminate in ‘matching’ or ‘merging’; instead it is more like ‘making’ in the later sense of McLuhan (which he explicitly contrasted with ‘matching’). ‘Making’ is ‘to manifest justly’, ‘to represent appropriately’, ‘to reveal truly if not absolutely’ — leaving open the possibility in the future for some surprisingly different objective manifestation of ‘C’ and/or for improved subjective insight into ‘C’. 

McLuhan saw with Lewis that finite ‘making’ is not a bar to truthful apprehension but a condition of it. Just as manifestation does not exhaust a chemical element or a physical law, but does re-present truly.

However, there is a great problem to these passages from Lewis and Lodge. Lewis talks of “imposing (…) values upon the impressionable material of life” and Lodge of the “attempt to master experience”. The supposition is that the “material of life” and of “experience” is in some way prior to the forms in which they, life and experience, appear. Their “material” is portrayed as raw stuff that is yet somehow “impressionable” — as capable of being impressed upon. But imagine how far chemistry would get, were it to focus on “the impressionable material” of the physical world, like sub-atomic particles, say, rather than the elements of Mendeleev’s table!

One of McLuhan’s most important tasks was to attempt to recall this mis-taken focus on some supposedly prior material. Unfortunately he did not succeed in this task any more than did Plato and Aristotle 2500 years ago. He himself was always (or at least al too often) trying to find some underlying substrate like the hemispheres of the brain.


On the other hand, it is exactly Plato that this passage from TWM most deeply recalls. As Aristotle, Plato’s great friend and pupil, repeatedly tried to communicate, particularly with his treatments of dynamis, Plato’s forms are not static abstractions. They fundamentally enact a “representative ferment” through which they manifest themselves in “extensions”. 

The subtitle of Understanding Media is “the extensions of man”. The genitive here, ‘of man’, is first of all objective. Human being is what is extended as effect, it is not the creator or possessor of extensions as subjective cause.

Like Plato’s forms or ideas, McLuhan’s media are prior to human being and are what first of all engender it in all its manifestations.


  1. whole paragraph here is very important: “One new concept for us: media are ‘ideas’ in action. That is, any technological pattern or grouping of human know-how has the mark of our minds built-into it. The media dynamics are, therefore, parallel to those of our ideas. But many of our ideas are feed-back subliminally from media. Jeep calling unto jeep.” It is possible that “jeep calling unto jeep” here is a dictation error for “beep calling unto beep” — but error or not, the phrase is telling and funny. Around the same time in the late 1950s McLuhan’s unpublished review of of Northrop Frye’s 1957 Anatomy of Criticism has the related “blip calling unto blip”: “an archetype or profile of collective awareness offers small consumer satisfaction in itself. And Professor Frye would disclaim the notion that even the most diaphanous archetype could afford consumer satisfaction to a reader. These profiles or nuclear models of collective postures are not literary bon-bons for passive savoring but rather scientific data suited to the austere producer-oriented mind, data necessary to the public relations engineer and the shaper and ruler of societies. Like Sputnik they have a hook in outer space whence they relay signals to us, blip calling unto blip in the universe of the pictorialized word.”
  2. McLuhan’s citation is a slight abbreviation. Lewis has: “I, at the outset, unmask the will that is behind the time-philosophy…”. “At the outset” here is not only an off-hand phrase marking the initial stage of Lewis’ composition. It may also be taken as ‘situating myself at the origin of things’, hence giving him the possibility of seeing into “the heart” of their genesis.
  3. See The essential plurality of the forms of being.
  4. Lodge, ‘The Comparative Method in Philosophy’. For reference and discussion see The Comparative Method of Rupert Lodge.
  5. Intuiting the point — it would require much further thought until McLuhan could formulate the subtitle to Understanding Media, a full thirty years after his M.A, thesis, as “the extensions of man”.
  6. McLuhan would later have many other terms for this sort of outreach, of course. Above all: ‘extension’.
  7. All these terms appear in the citations from Lewis, Lodge and McLuhan given in the body of the post above.