Author Archives: McEwen

Nihilism stands at the door

What I relate is the history of the next two centuries. I describe what is coming, what can no longer come differently: the advent of nihilism. This history can be related even now; for necessity itself is at work here. This future speaks even now in a hundred signs, this destiny announces itself everywhere; for this music of the future all ears are cocked even now. For some time now, our whole European culture has been moving as toward a catastrophe, with a tortured tension that is growing from decade to decade: restlessly, violently, headlong, like a river that wants to reach the end1

Since Copernicus man has been rolling from the center toward X….2

What does nihilism mean? That the highest values devaluate themselves. The aim is lacking; “why?” finds no answer.3

Why has the advent of nihilism become necessary? Because the values we have had hitherto thus draw their final consequence; because nihilism represents the ultimate logical conclusion of our great values and ideals; because we must experience nihilism before we can find out what value these “values” really had.4

Radical nihilism is the conviction of an absolute untenability of existence when it comes to the highest values (…) — the realization that we lack the least right to posit a beyond or an in-itself of things (…). This realization is a consequence of the cultivation of “truthfulness” — thus itself a consequence of the faith in morality.5

The Will to Power is a collection of Nietzsche’s notes published after his death (he lived from 1844 to 1900 but was incapacitated after 1889) in a series of different renditions.6 In it, as in a number of the books Nietzsche published in his lifetime, problems are posed concerning the logical, psychological, social, political and war and peace consequences of nihilism.

The potential significance of any work published after Nietzsche hangs on the question of whether or not it addresses the problems of nihilism specified by him

Now McLuhan was, of course, a Catholic convert. If his conversion and his work generally are to have significance for us today, 120 years after Nietzsche’s death and 40 years after McLuhan’s, it can only be because he, like Nietzsche, “lost his way (…) in every labyrinth of the future” and so “lived through the whole of nihilism, to the end, leaving it behind, outside himself”. It is such a past that has been passed through, and such a passed past alone, that could provide McLuhan with a methodical basis for his work — if that work is to command our attention today.7 The great question is whether he, too, was “a soothsayer (…) who looks back [to the threading of those labyrinths] when relating what will come” — whether in his work, too, “a countermovement [to nihilism] finds expression, regarding both principle and task; a movement that in some future will take the place of this perfect nihilism — but presupposes it, logically and psychologically, and certainly can come only after and out of it.”8

The first aphorism in The Will to Power is one of Nietzsche’s many drafts of an outline for a book he never came to write. He delineates this outline in 8 points:9

  1. Nihilism stands at the door: whence comes this uncanniest of all guests? Point of departure: it is an error to consider “social distress” or “physiological degeneration” or, worse, corruption, as the cause of nihilism. Ours is the most decent and compassionate age. Distress, whether of the soul, body, or intellect, cannot of itself give birth to nihilism (…). Such distress always permits a variety of interpretations. Rather: it is one particular interpretation [of reality], the Christian-moral one, in which nihilism is rooted.10 (…)
  2. The end of Christianity — at the hands of its own morality. (…)
  3. Skepticism regarding morality is what is decisive. The end of the moral interpretation of the world, which no longer has any sanction after it has tried to escape into some beyond, [all this] leads to nihilism. [Nihilism as both a rigorous philosophical conclusion (by some) and a social whirlwind (of all) is the finding that] “Everything lacks meaning”  the untenability of one interpretation of the world, upon which a tremendous amount of energy has been lavished, awakens the suspicion that all interpretations of the world are false.11 (…)
  4. [Hence any new beginning must be made] against “meaninglessness” on the one hand, [but also] against moral value judgments on the other. (…)
  5. The nihilistic consequences of contemporary natural science [must be demonstrated:] (…) [It must be shown how] the industry of its pursuit eventually leads to self-disintegration [and thence to] an antiscientific mentality [in society generally and even in science itself]. (…)
  6. The nihilistic consequences of the ways of thinking in politics and economics, where all “principles” are (…) histrionic: the [general] air of mediocrity, wretchedness, dishonesty, etc [all this, too, must be set out]. 
  7. (…) The position of art (…) in the modern world [must be shown as] absolutely lacking in originality. (…)
  8. [The key:] Art and the preparation of nihilism: romanticism.12

Many of Nietzsche’s points here are familiar in McLuhan’s work. For example, from his earliest essays onward he argued that the intellectual tenability and even the historical survival of Catholicism depended upon the depth investigation of the Church’s own roots — by the Church itself and its faithful. Such an investigation entailed a familiarity with contemporary art and science13 and, as McLuhan began to see somewhat later, also with the evolving technological environments in and through which the Church attempted to express its message. 

McLuhan’s conversion is therefore the crucial question at the bottom of all his work.14 After the insight of Nietzsche — and after all those McLuhan haphazardly lumped in Nietzsche’s company (Hegel, Marx, Darwin, Sorel, Proudhon, Freud, Bergson, Spengler, Joyce, Stein, Proust, Eliot, Pound, Picasso, Rodin, Benda, Einstein, Lewis and Jung)15 — how was conversion possible in an intellectually cogent manner? In an authentic manner? In a manner we can respect and learn from today? And — most importantly — what has such a possibility to do with our desperate need to extricate ourselves from the cul-de-sac in which we find ourselves in extremis even now?

As insistently described by Nietzsche, the great necessity was to enter and to thread “every labyrinth”. And, indeed, from start to finish, McLuhan never tired of pointing to the significance of Poe’s Maelstrom16, of the vortices of Pound and Lewis and of the ubiquitous labyrinths in modern art, especially in Joyce.17

Further, again like Nietzsche, McLuhan repeatedly insisted that values had no place in his analysis. If they appeared at all, they did so as explanandum, not explanans18 — as what had to be investigated, not as providing any sort of accepted basis from which investigation might be initiated.

Crucially, for both Nietzsche and McLuhan, the cul-de-sac in which the western tradition has eventuated is no merely logical or psychological event. It is above all a global social event in which commerce and government are even more caught up than are the arts. Analyses of the labyrinths exposed at the end of the western tradition are therefore consequential first of all for our community, national and international lives, and especially for war and peace, as no analysis has ever been before.

We have no choice. We have either to surpass any previous age or to collapse into a new Babel. For our problems, like our means and opportunities, are of a scope beyond those of any previous age. (Symbolist Communication 1953)

Lastly, the very key to this social event which has come to dominate the world like a cloud of poisonous gas, was, for both Nietzsche and McLuhan — romanticism! Nietzsche ends his 8-part aphorism above with references to this fact (and therefore to his many discussions of it in his published work19). For his part, McLuhan saw in romanticism an “automatic closure or involuntary fixing of attitude”20, which necessarily disintegrated when that “fixing” was exposed and could not account for the privilege implicated in “fixing” whatever it had fixed!21 As a result, he fully agreed with Nietzsche “that we lack the least right to posit a beyond or an in-itself of things” since these could not be anything but Gutenberg galaxy “fixings” whose legitimacy passed away with it.

All the art and science of any consequence following romanticism could be seen as documenting this disintegration, as can the millions upon millions of deaths in the unending wars waged in its continuing wake. 

The great question, which cannot be repeated often enough, was whether a “counterblast” or “countermovement [to nihilism] finds [open!] expression, regarding both principle and task; a movement that in some future will take the place of this perfect nihilism — but presupposes it, logically and psychologically, and certainly can come only after and out of it.” Any other “movement”, one with a different presupposition, could not withstand the force of nihilism, could not be true,22 and could not win and hold our acceptance.

  1.  Preface #2. The Preface to The Will to Power has its own short series of numbered aphorisms. After the Preface, the aphorism number sequence starts again and is continued for the remainder of the book. Aphorisms from the Preface are therefore specifically noted as such.
  2. #1. Compare from The Genealogy of Morals III:25: “Since Copernicus, man seems to have got himself on an inclined plane — now he is slipping faster and faster away from the center into — what? into nothingness?”
  3. #2.
  4. Preface #4.
  5. #3. See note #10 below for a discussion of the overlap between Nietzsche’s “morality” and McLuhan’s ‘literality’.
  6. See Walter Kaufmann’s history of the different editions in the translation of Wille zur Macht by him and R.J. Hollingdale, xxvii-xxvix.
  7. In this consideration, McLuhan’s way might be said to be just that of Nietzsche. But of course he also de-viated from Nietzsche in crucial ways. The great question concerns those deviations. How did they arise? Where and when did they take place? By what right were they taken? How can they be specified relative to Nietzsche? And what is their potential role in helping us regain our bearings today?
  8. All of the citations in this paragraph come from Preface #3 and #4.
  9. The outline of Nietzsche’s outline given here necessarily reflects an interpretation of it at several levels. For one thing, there is the selection of it by the editors of Nietzsche’s notes as the first aphorism of the book. other outlines or other beginnings could have been selected. For another, there is an outline here of Nietzsche’s outline. What is given here should therefore carefully be compared to Nietzsche’s text  — in German if possible. “Against positivism, which halts at phenomena — ‘There are only facts’ — I would say: No, facts are precisely what there is not, only interpretations. We cannot establish any fact ‘in itself’: perhaps it is folly (even) to want to do such a thing. ‘Everything is subjective’, you say; but even this is interpretation” (The Will to Power #481).
  10. As noted by Nietzsche in this same aphorism: “This realization is a consequence of the cultivation of “truthfulness” — thus itself a consequence of the faith in morality.” It is crucial for a fitting reading of McLuhan to note that there is a significant overlap between Nietzsche’s “morality” and McLuhan’s ‘literality’. For both, these intellectual/technical forces have dominated civilization for two and a half millennia and have produced much good. But they have also terminated in a cul-de-sac from which humans must extricate themselves if we are to survive our own genius.
  11. The Gutenberg galaxy is just such a “one interpretation of the world, upon which a tremendous amount of energy has been lavished” — and which has now terminated in nihilism.
  12.  #1.
  13. McLuhan in 1944: “Lewis (…) assumes that people who have grown up since 1918 are perfectly acquainted not only with such writers as Hegel, Marx, Darwin, Nietzsche, Sorel, Proudhon, Freud, Bergson and Spengler, but also with such artists as Joyce, Stein, Proust, Eliot, Pound, Picasso, Rodin and Benda. This is a heavy demand to make on anybody. But the time-lag in the Catholic reading public is such that although Catholics necessarily live in the world of Eliot, Stein and Einstein, their emotional organization is done for them by Kipling, Galsworthy, Shaw and Chesterton” (‘Lemuel in Lilliput’). McLuhan in 1946: “Increasingly, I feel that Catholics must master C.G. Jung. The little self-conscious (…) area in which we live today has nothing to do with the problems of our faith. Modern anthropology and psychology are more important for the Church than St. Thomas today.” (McLuhan to his former SLU Jesuit students, Walter Ong and Clement McNaspy, December 23, 1944, Letters 166.)
  14. McLuhan’s conversion took place in 1937. He often described the event as sudden, but in fact it was the culmination of a long process begun years before, probably in 1931, when he started to read Chesterton. Then at some point he came into contact with Fr Gerald Phelan and (through him?) with the writings of Jacques Maritain. At the same time, that is during his first Cambridge years, McLuhan was reading Hopkins and Eliot intently. And before all that he had, of course, been brought up in a church-going family for which religion was a serious business. His brother Maurice became a United Church minister. But McLuhan’s conversion was a long process also after it was professed, since he admittedly remained caught up in the Gutenberg galaxy for another decade or so afterwards. During this time, in line with the galaxy’s presupposition that truth is necessarily singular, he thought of the Church as uniquely true. What is so significant about McLuhan’s conversion is what happened next, around 1950: he continued to hold to it after he recognized the ‘reconfiguration’ of that galaxy under electric conditions. The ‘electric’ plurality of truth did not undermine faith and the Church, he found, but provided another foundation for it which was certainly less stable than the one the Gutenbergian Church purported to specify and to rest upon (although that one was strangely subject to ongoing debate). This other foundation was, in its own peculiar way, more tenable than any such literary “fixing”. (‘Tenable’ is derived from French ‘tenir’, Latin ‘tenere’: ‘to hold’. For McLuhan’s purposes, ‘tenability’ can be related to ‘tactility’ as the integrating middle between truths and between ways of being.) It would refuse any one-sided “fixing” on the subject or the object, the ideal or the real, etc, to focus instead on the dynamic relation of the two. Exactly on account of such a valorization of plurality, however, this new foundation was able also to value the Gutenberg galaxy and the Church’s deep roots in it rather than merely to disparage them. They now had to be seen as relative, yes, but as relatively good. And so as well with McLuhan’s own first conversion. For further discussion, see Autobiography – the experience of the second conversion.
  15. See the previous note.
  16. See McLuhan on Poe’s Maelstrom.
  17. See Vivisection.
  18. See Breakthrough insight at “the level of essence” and McLuhan’s new sciences: “only the authority of knowledge”.
  19. For example: “Classical and romantic. The classically disposed spirits no less than those romantically inclined — as these two species always exist — carry a vision of the future: but the former out of a strength of their time; the latter, out of its weakness” (The Wanderer and His Shadow #217.)
  20. ‘The Humanities in the Electronic Age’ (1961) which is cited at length and further discussed in Taking Flight. In a 1979 Q&A session on Australian television McLuhan noted in this regard: “Jane Austen of all people (…) said that people go outside to be alone just to prove their inner resources, to prove that they don’t need people. We can make it alone. The Romantic movement was based upon this psychic development.”
  21. This theme is often treated in this blog in terms of Baron Münchhausen and his wondrous extrication of both himself and his horse by pulling on his own pigtail. He is a perfect illustration of the fixer fixing his right to fix. Etymologically, ‘fix’ is related to ‘dike’; it is to set a limit.
  22. Beyond nihilism, a new sense of ‘truth’ emerges, one that is essentially plural. It is such plurality of truth that allows (for example) conversion to Catholicism, without the need for it to be ‘the one singular truth’. The ideal or the demand for singularity in this sense is grounded in the Gutenberg galaxy and necessarily terminates with it. In a global village of different faiths and different social and political commitments, it is insight into the plurality of truth that first enables dialogue and peace between them. As McLuhan never tired of repeating, ‘the gap (at once enabling the plurality of truth and its coherence) is where the action is’.

Meaning as an arrow

I remember a phrase, “Meaning is an arrow that best reaches its mark when least encumbered with feathers”. What’s wrong with that remark? Without feathers there wouldn’t be any arrow. (…) At what stage do feathers become an encumbrance? At what stage do they become a necessity?1 (McLuhan  to Nina Sutton)

McLuhan’s remarks here (reminiscent of Wittgenstein) are both a statement of his method and an illustration of it.

In regard to any observation McLuhan wants to know where it may be situated on the f/g < > g/f spectrum. Here with “Meaning is an arrow that best reaches its mark when least encumbered with feathers”, feathers as figure are seen on the ground of the arrow of meaning and this figure is situated near the end of the f/g side of the spectrum.2 The arrow of meaning is taken as having exclusive, or near exclusive, worth relative to feathers: “best (…) when least encumbered”. 

But, says McLuhan, the arrow of meaning is possible only on account of feathers: “without feathers there wouldn’t be any arrow”. Now feathers are seen as ground and the arrow of meaning seen as a figure on it. Here the previous f/g relation or ratio has flipped to a g/f one and the new ratio of the two is now situated somewhere on the opposite side of the spectrum between its middle and g/f end.3

McLuhan’s next move is to try to specify where on the spectrum this flipped g/f ratio should be situated. He does so by further inquiry into the spectrum itself. “At what stage do feathers become an encumbrance? At what stage do they become a necessity?” On the one hand, if an arrow were to have too many feathers, it might fly badly or not at all. On the other hand, if it had too few feathers, it would again fly badly or not at all.

McLuhan’s unstated conclusion is that the ratio between arrow and feathers, between ground and meaning, between medium and message, must be situated at the middle of the spectrum: neither too many feathers nor too few. (In the middle of the spectrum — that is, the point where not only g/f obtains, but also f/g. As Heraclitus put it 2500 years ago, but with communication of the insight still not achieved today, ὁδὸς ἄνω κάτω μία καὶ ὡυτή, ‘the way up is the way down’. Here ‘up’ and ‘down’ or ‘f’ and ‘g’ are definitively different, but also bound together in a fundamental structure just as are, say, electron and proton in the chemical element or 0 and 1 in the binary bit.) This midpoint is the ‘superposition’ of quantum physics.

The further implication has truly vast importance. If statements (a) may collectively be investigated on the basis of the f/g < > g/f spectrum (b) with cumulative results (thus enacting ‘science’), this might serve (c) to show the carrying power (so to speak) of the spectrum and particularly of its middle position.  

Consider the relation of homelessness to being at home. If the f/g < > g/f spectrum is able to demonstrate itself as science through collective investigation, the decided homelessness of modern civilization (if this may still be termed ‘civilization’) could be seen as balanced at the middle position of the spectrum by ‘being at home’.4 

McLuhan traced violence to a lack of identity aka ‘homelessness’. The extreme danger of nuclear war (‘extreme danger’ in multiple senses) might therefore be ameliorated through this method. Perhaps only through his method?

The newfound possibility of science in and of the humanities would supply the ground for a new sense of identity for humans beings in a global village where particular identities were, dangerously, no longer possible. Or, better put, where particular identities once seemed to be no longer possible (“when least encumbered with feathers”), but could now be re-evaluated and rejuvenated and reinstituted through their repositioning on the f/g < > g/f spectrum.

McLuhan’s conversion was an illustration of this universal possibility5 and a kind of second sight or pre-conclusion of a method he would not be able to articulate until two decades later.

  1. McLuhan continued: “Meaning is never a thing. It is a relation between something and you. Meaning is a relation is not a thing. It is a relationship. It is a relationship between something and you, the user. (…) So it’s different for everybody. Meaning is never the same twice…”.
  2. The spectrum of f/g<>g/f relations is defined by increased tension going out in both directions from its centre — between the numerator and denominator, say, of each of the points of the spectrum. When feathers are seen as having little significance relative to the arrow of meaning, or only negative significance as an “encumbrance” to it, the difference between the two has become extreme and their relation threatens to collapse into a monism of the arrow only, with no feathers. Hence, the supreme reality of the arrow, isolated from feathers, is not to be an arrow at all. The same dynamic occurs on the other side of the spectrum where the increasing value/truth/reality of feathers relative to the arrow tends to the isolation of the feathers from the arrow. In the end, the supreme reality of the feathers as an essential navigation device for arrows is no longer to be such feathers at all.
  3. One of the problems in formulating McLuhan’s method is that there are no constants to it other than the range of change itself. What was figure can (and does) become ground and vice versa. Similarly with centre and margin and eye and ear and all such ratios. Seen in this light, McLuhan may be thought to have taken up the quest of the Cambridge English School to define ambiguity (as seen in Richards’ turn to ‘basic English’ and Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity). The great question is how to do this without ambiguity undermining definition or definition undermining ambiguity?
  4. Ratios of being-at-home to homelessness may be situated at all points along the f/g < > g/f spectrum. On the one side homelessness (like that of the prodigal son in the Bible) may be seen as grounded in a more fundamental being-at-home (as the prodigal son comes to realize). On the flip side, any particular identity as a sense of being-at-home may be seen as increasingly challenged by an unavoidable homelessness. What was f/g is now g/f: the homelessness that was figure is now ground and the being-at-home which was ground is now figure. The contemporary world is dangerously tilted in the latter direction, of course. But to be tilted in any one direction is to come down against the fact of the spectrum itself and its cohesive array of possible determinations. Hence, the more a science based on the spectrum demonstrates itself in on-going findings. the more the difficult middle position of being-at-home and homelessness together suggests itself. And this is the one way, it may be, that humans can again find themselves at home in a universe in which the inevitable limitations of every particular stance can once more hold out against their dissolution. Where omnis determinatio est negatio the need is to take up determination and its bound twin, limitation, in a new elucidation of the interior landscape — one that is based on them and is not possible without them. See The technique of flight for further discussion of these questions.
  5. Universal possibility: a possibility open to anyone to assume any identity. But precisely since this would be a universal possibility situated at any position along the f/g < > g/f spectrum, each particular possibility would be subject to investigation on the basis of that spectrum. Such investigation would doubtless show that many purported identities no longer made sense given their instability — that is, their tendency to flip to the opposite side of the spectrum.

First meeting with Wyndham Lewis

In the spring of 1943 McLuhan was alerted by his Mother (then living in Detroit) to the presence of Wyndham Lewis in the area. McLuhan was already in touch with Fr Stanley Murphy at the time in the hope of moving from his St Louis University position to one at Assumption College in Windsor — a hope that would be realized the next year when McLuhan assumed the post at Assumption that he would occupy for two years, 1944-1946.

A job at Assumption would bring McLuhan closer to his Mother, would bring him back to Canada, would bring him within the orbit of Basilian institutions headquartered at St Michael’s College (University of Toronto) and would therefore bring him one step closer to a job at St Mike’s — McLuhan’s vocational goal. McLuhan’s mentor, Fr Gerald Phelan, President of the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies at St Mike’s, was the genial hand behind this chain of moves, all of which would culminate in McLuhan obtaining a position at St Michael’s starting in 1946 — where he would remain for the rest of his life.

Here are the first letters exchanged between McLuhan and Lewis leading to their meeting in person at the end of July or start of August, 1943.1

McLuhan to Wyndham Lewis, July 24, 19432

Dear Mr Lewis, Father Murphy said that he had mentioned me to you as one who was much interested in your work. When our summer-school winds up here in a few days I have to go to Detroit. If you are not too busy or too exhausted by our heat, there is nothing I should more enjoy than a chat with you. Yours Sincerely,  Marshall McLuhan

Wyndham Lewis to McLuhan, July 26, 19433

Dear Mr. McLuhan. Thank you for your letter and I include hope that when you are up here you will let me know.

  1. McLuhan was accompanied in his meeting with Lewis by his SLU colleague and close friend, Felix Giovanelli. Giovanelli wrote to Lewis on August 3, 1943: “Dear Mr. & Mrs. Lewis: I wish to thank you for having received and entertained us so graciously.” (Wyndham Lewis collection, Cornell (Box 109, Folder 3) Fr. Murphy was also at the meeting, which he describes in ‘Wyndham Lewis at Windsor’ in Canlit #35, Winter 1968.
  2.  Letters 129.
  3.  Wyndham Lewis collection, Cornell (Box 73, Folder 45).

Medium in America and Cosmic Man

In his programmatic letter to Ezra Pound from June 22, 1951,1  McLuhan recorded his reaction to Wyndham Lewis’ America and Cosmic Man:

In a mindless age every insight takes on the character of a lethal weapon. Every man of good will is the enemy of society. Lewis saw that years ago. His America and Cosmic Man2 was an H-bomb let off in the desert. Impact nil. We resent or ignore such intellectual bombs. We prefer to compose human beings into bombs and explode political and social entities. Much more fun. Lewis clears the air of fug. We want to get rid of people entirely. And it is necessary to admire the skill and thoroughness with which we have made our preparations to do this.  I am not of the ‘we’ party.  I should prefer to defuse this gigantic human bomb by starting a dialogue somewhere on the sidelines to distract the trigger-men, or to needle the somnambulists.3

It may be that Lewis’ pointers to “the medium” in Cosmic Man acted as a spur to McLuhan’s eventual appeal to the notion ten years later — and for the rest of his career thereafter. The most important of Lewis’ observations in this book concerning “the medium”, at least for McLuhan’s purposes, were these:

Until you know something of the medium — the political and social atmosphere — in which these great figures live and have their being, it would be useless to attempt to delineate them for you4… (34)

Water is a very different medium from air: and if you had never seen water in any but minute quantities, it would not be easy to explain to you about the life of a fish.5 (35)

Human societies are engaged in a perpetual struggle to disengage themselves from a chaos of superannuated laws. The accelerated tempo of mechanical evolution makes things much worse. (…) A bundle of old statutes, or the medium of exchange hallowed by long use, has us bewitched. A superstitious fixation makes of our political and economic life one vast “bottleneck”.6 (154-155)

Lewis was discussing “political and economic life” life here, but McLuhan would have seen an excellent description of our social, cultural, familial and individual predicaments as well. The Gutenberg Galaxy, begun not long after McLuhan’s letter to Pound, but completed only a decade later, could well be described in the terms set out here by Lewis: “Human societies [and all individual human beings] are engaged in a perpetual struggle7 to disengage themselves from a chaos of superannuated laws. The accelerated tempo of mechanical evolution makes things much worse. (…) A bundle of old statutes [governing first of all our perceptual patterns], or the medium of exchange hallowed by long use, has us bewitched. A superstitious fixation makes of our political and economic life (and our social and individual lives) one vast “bottleneck”.

And now today, more than 70 years after Lewis’ Cosmic Man, the planet remains fixated before this “vast bottleneck” — while it juggles nuclear bombs at an ever-increasing number of ‘flashpoints’….

  1. Letters 218.
  2. London 1946, NY 1949.
  3. It might be said that Lewis and Pound defined the cultural-social-political problem that McLuhan felt called upon to solve and that Sigfried Giedion gave him the potential solution to it: “to defuse this gigantic human bomb by starting a dialogue”. See Sigfried Giedion — A Faculty of Interrelations. In the 1940s with his Proposal to Robert Hutchins and still in the 1950s with the Culture and Communication seminar, McLuhan took “starting a dialogue” to be the practical problem of bringing together people with expertise and good will in a way that would fuse their individual and professional  perspectives into an ongoing collective program. This thought was also at the heart of McLuhan’s ideas for educational reform even in primary school where (for example) multiple teachers might teach dialogue to students by embodying it between themselves. However, bitter experience taught McLuhan that practical arrangements promoting interdisciplinary work (even in the rare circumstance when they could be financed and organized) did not achieve the desired result — any more than did his own teaching even to graduate students or, worst of all, in his own family life (where he was unable to pass on his religious convictions to his children). Having hammered away at this problem for a quarter century, McLuhan experienced a ‘breakthrough’ at the end of the 1950s that he would attempt to define and communicate in the remaining two decades of his life. That breakthrough was the idea that human beings in all their social, political, economic, educational and cultural activities could achieve a comparable sort of collective investigation as that in the physical sciences by defining the elementary structure of human experience: “the medium is the message”. Here, he intuited, could be the solution to the “impact nil” problem.
  4. The medium as “the political and social atmosphere” would have recalled Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World for McLuhan. (See McLuhan on Whitehead.) Whitehead uses hundreds of phrases like “the political and social atmosphere” in his book without defining what such a thing as a “political and social atmosphere” is or how such a thing might be recognized. Using Lewis’ terminology, the resulting question could be put: what is such a “medium”? Or, formulated in the imperative, “the medium is the message!”
  5. Following his friend John Culkin (in turn following Einstein and others), McLuhan often explained the difficulty of communicating his ideas on “the medium” by appeal to the difficulty a fish might have in recognizing water.
  6. Bottlenecks are one of Lewis’ chief interests in Cosmic Man. For example: “America stands out as the one great community in which race has been thrown out, and the priests of many cults have been brought together, in relative harmony — in a world in which obstinate  bottlenecks of racial and religious passion, whether in Europe, Asia, or Africa, are in process of being overcome, or at least have reached the showdown stage. The United States is for Europe as well as for India, for instance, not to mention Palestine, an object lesson in how to make the lion lie down with the lamb.” (31) Here may be seen why Lewis remained unimpressed with McLuhan’s religious ideas, despite McLuhan’s attempts to interest him in them. Unlike McLuhan who had grown up with it and knew its eviscerating effects in his bones, Lewis conceived American rootlessness as a potentially good thing.
  7. McLuhan had been writing repeatedly about an “ancient quarrel” since 1942 — the year before he met Lewis.

Taking flight

An aerial view of a territory to be occupied by subsequent toil. (McLuhan to Felix Giovanelli, Aug 1948)

His [Aquinas’] “articles” can be regarded as vivisections of the mind in act. The skill and wit with which he selects his objections constitute a cubist landscape, an ideal landscape of great intellectual extent seen from an airplane. (Joyce, Aquinas, and the Poetic Process, 1951)

In his 1951 ‘Tennyson and Picturesque Poetry’ essay,1  McLuhan set out the subject matter of his investigations for the following decade. They would focus on the specification of the technique of flight:

If anybody ever consciously cultivated2 a move camera eye it was Tennyson. But if one asks what it was of landscape art that the Romantics and the Victorians did not achieve, it must be replied, [it was] le paysage intérieur which had to wait for Baudelaire, Laforgue and Rimbaud. It was this discovery that gave the later poets and painters alike, the power to be much more subjective and also more objective than the Romantics. For all their skill in discovering and manipulating external-nature situations by which to render states of mind, the Romantics remained tied to the object3 (…) So they repeatedly bog down (…)4 just at the moment when they are ready to soar. They could not discover the technique of flight. It would be interesting to inquire how far the cessation of the poetic activity of Wordsworth and Coleridge was connected with this technical frustration. By means of the interior landscape, however, Baudelaire could not only range across the entire spectrum of the inner life, he could transform the sordidness and evil of an industrial metropolis into a flower. With this technique he was able to accept the city as his central myth, and see it as the enlarged shape of a man, just as Flaubert did in The Sentimental Education, Joyce in Ulysses and Eliot in The Waste Land.5 Moreover, the technique of inner landscape not only permits the use of any and every kind of experience and object, it insures a much higher degree of control over the effect  (…) The picturesque artists [= the Romantics]6 saw the wider range of experience that could be managed by discontinuity and planned irregularity, but they kept to the picture-like single perspective.7 The interior landscape, however, moves naturally towards the principle of multiple perspectives as in the first two lines of The Waste Land where the Christian Chaucer, Sir James Frazer and Jessie Weston are simultaneously present. This is ‘cubist perspective’ which renders, at once, a diversity of views with the spectator [including both the author and her reader/audience]8 always in the centre of the picture

The great question was how to domesticate this “technique of flight”? How could it be specified and thereby applied to crises not only (only!) in the humanities, but in education, economics, politics and war and peace?9

Ten years later, in 1961, McLuhan set out his progress in this quest in ‘The Humanities in the Electronic Age’:

Bertrand Russell pointed to the great achievement of the twentieth century as the technique of suspended judgement. That is, [it made] the discovery of the process of insight itself, the technique of avoiding the automatic closure or involuntary fixing of attitudes that so easily results from any given [individual or] cultural situation – [the discovery of] the technique of open field perception. (…) The technique of insight itself is a natural phase to succeed the nineteenth-century discovery of the technique of invention, because it is the means of abstracting oneself from the bias and consequence of one’s own [individual and social] culture. (…) Innis’ concern in the Bias of Communication10 is with the technique of the suspended judgement. That means, not the willingness to admit other points of view, but the technique of how not to have a point of view. This is identical with the problem facing physicists in correcting the bias of the instruments of research, and it draws attention to the fact that the historian, the poet, the critic, and the philosopher, now as always, face exactly the same situations as the scientist.11

  1. First published in Essays in Criticism 1:3 in 1951. Reprinted in Critical Essays on the Poetry of Tennyson, ed. John Killham, 1960, and in The Interior Landscape in 1969.
  2. McLuhan: “ever had and consciously cultivated”.
  3. See the 1961 citation in this post for “the automatic closure or involuntary fixing of attitudes”. Also note ‘Eliot’s Historical Decorum’ (1949): “Symbol means to throw together, to juxtapose without copula. And it is a work that cannot be undertaken nor understood by the univocalizing, single plane, rationalist mind. (…) Analogy institutes tension, polarity, a flow of intellectual perception set up among two sets of particulars. To merge those two sets by an attempt to reduce a metaphor situation to some single view or proposition is the rationalist short circuit”. In his 1974 interview with Louis Forsdale, ‘Technology and the Human Dimension’, McLuhan describes this “short circuit” as applied to identity in the electric age: “The ordinary man can feel so pitiably weak that, like a skyjacker, he’ll reach for a superhuman dimension of world coverage in a wild desperate effort for fulfillment”. Here again: the attempt “to merge (…) two sets” — the “pitiably weak” and the “superhuman” — into “some single view or proposition” of “world coverage”. The comical absurdity of this merger (which yet cannot not be made) entails that it can be achieved and maintained only by force. And it is this centripetal implosion into merger which is expressed in centrifugal explosion whenever that merger is threated: “violence is engendered by the need to recover identity” (as McLuhan says to Forsdale in the same interview).
  4. McLuhan has “bog down in reflection”, which is strange since the spur for “closure” might well be said to be the felt need to put an end to “reflection”. But it may be that McLuhan was thinking of “reflection” in a technical sense here as narcissism in which fixation on the ‘one’ is the structural form even of its mirrored “reflection”.
  5. McLuhan has a bracketed note here: “It is noteworthy that the English novel also preceded English poetry in the management of the city as ‘myth’. Dickens was the first to make London a character or a person. And James and Conrad in their different modes preceded Joyce and Eliot in assimilating the urban to the stuff of poesy.”
  6. In ‘The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape Poetry’ (1951) McLuhan uses the phrase “romantic or picturesque poetry”.
  7. For example, Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818) decisively introduces a discontinuity between the wanderer and the rest of mankind. His whole being might be said to be a “planned irregularity”. But as McLuhan observes about the Romantics, the discontinuity and irregularity here with Friedrich’s Wanderer are captured (in multiple senses) in a single frame (in multiple senses). In remarkable contrast, Juan Gris’ Portrait of Jossette (1916), a century later, demonstrates how discontinuity and irregularity can destabilize both the subject of the painting and the artistic vision itself. Now romanticism might be said in one respect to be the forcible attempt to ward off these multiple instabilities (although of course it had great virtues in other respects). But for McLuhan and for any genuine thinking, these discontinuities must be assumed (in multiple senses) as the very presupposition and gateway to discovery.
  8. Since “the technique of flight” self-consciously takes off from “the entire spectrum of the inner life” of human being, all possible perspectives of the author and of her audience are of course inclusive to her “analogical awareness”. This is “the technique of how not to have a point of view”, as McLuhan would put it a decade later (full passage cited above).
  9. An indication of how McLuhan would integrate the “technique of flight” into his media investigations is given in a 1959 letter to Edward S Morgan, a Maclean-Hunter executive, that recapitulated a speech given at the Winnipeg Ad and Sales Club on May 11, 1959, ‘New Business Rules In Our Electronic Age’: “My theme was simply that the Electronic Age is one in which information comes to everybody in any job, in any social or personal activity, information comes from all directions at the same time. This creates a very peculiar field, as it were, ‘field’ in the sense that the physicists use the word, or the psychologists. A field of instantaneous interrelationships — which causes decision makers to play it by ear, as we say. In the Jet Age, for example, an airplane pilot can no longer navigate by the old method of intersecting bearings or lines because the speed of the plane takes him past the point so established too fast. In the same way, he has to rely on a continuously picked-up electronic beam on which to fly. He has to have a continuous and instantaneous flow of information in order to navigate.” (Letters 252) Ten years later still, McLuhan would begin to use the hi-jacking of airplanes as the master narrative of modern business, politics and entertainment. All represented a reversion to the Romantic “fixing of attitudes” — or altitudes.
  10. McLuhan has “the Bias of Communication and later” here. But, sadly, there was very little “later” then for Innis. McLuhan must have been thinking of his own celebration of Innis in 1953, ‘The Later Innis’, which appeared shortly after Innis’ death at the end of 1952.
  11. This essay appeared in the Humanities Association Bulletin for 1961. It was one of McLuhan’s self-consciously ‘Canadian’ pieces where he set out to identify something essential to his countrymen. To compare, it was two years before this, in 1959, that he introduced the notion of the “global village” in a speech to businessmen in his hometown of Winnipeg: ‘New Business Rules In Our Electronic Age’ (Letters 252-255; see note 10 above and the report in the Winnipeg Free Press from May 12, 1959). McLuhan made a whole series of such ‘Canadian’ pronouncements which require particular attention as signposts he emphasized along his way.

Jung on praeceptores mundi

For Gerry Fialka and Clinton Ignatov, and with a tip of the hat to Søren Kierkegaard1….

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 others, and this retrieval recurs in infinite regress. In fact, whenever we ‘quote’ one [archetype of] consciousness [objective genitive]2, we also ‘quote’ [all] the archetypes we exclude; and this quotation of excluded archetypes has been called by Jung (…) ‘the archetypal unconscious’. (From Cliché to Archetype, 21-22)

[Freud’s] conception of man, considered historically, is a reaction against the Victorian tendency to see everything in a rosy light and yet to describe everything sub rosa. It was an age of mental “pussyfooting” that finally gave birth to Nietzsche, who was driven to philosophize with a hammer. So it is only logical that ethical motives as determining factors in human life do not figure in Freud’s teaching. He sees them in terms of conventional morality, which he justifiably supposes would not have existed in this form, or not have existed at all, if one or two bad-tempered patriarchs had not invented such precepts to protect themselves from the distressing consequences of their impotence. Since then these precepts have unfortunately gone on existing in the super-ego of every individual. This grotesquely depreciative view is a just punishment for the historical fact that the ethics of the Victorian age were nothing but conventional morality, the creation of curmudgeonly praeceptores mundi. (Jung on Freud)3

In ‘Sigmund Freud in His Historical Setting’, Jung considered how something like a ‘galaxy’ of experience operates:

even the most original and isolated idea does not drop down from heaven, but grows out of an objective network of thought which binds all contemporaries together whether they recognize it or not.

Such an “objective network” is manifested both individually (in a person like Freud for the purposes of Jung’s essay) and collectively (“which binds all contemporaries together”). But “all contemporaries” here should not be understood to mean ‘everybody alive at the same time’ and especially not to mean ‘everybody alive at the same time who all experience the world in the same way’. The human community (or comedy) is far more various than that.4 Some singular form of experience certainly did not dominate individuals like Freud all the time (let alone whole groups of individuals all the time) and it did not dominate in any way at all many other individuals who were alive at the same time as Freud and in that sense were ‘contemporary’ with him.5

It would seem that human experience, individual or collective, must be understood more finely — that is, with greater attention to its phenomenology, to its breaks and variations and assumptions (on the sides both of the observed and observer!). Descriptions in terms of persons (Freud) or groups of persons (Freud’s ‘contemporaries’) or ages (the nineteenth century!) will not do. These are air balloons. But while they fail in categorizing experience in a rigorous way, they do show that categorizing experience is always going on in one way or another. We can’t do without it! These air balloons therefore demonstrate both a need and attempts to answer that need. Determined investigation is called for to retrieve what is at once signaled by them and obscured by them.

Instead of such easy and misleading understandings, “contemporaries” may be taken to name, as the word itself indicates, a group whose shared experience has its root in a certain acceptance of time (dual genitive)6: con-temporaries. In the case of the Gutenberg galaxy (the phenomenon, not the book), the acceptance was (and is) of time as singular and linear. But since this particular acceptance of time is anything but unanimous across the extended record of human cultures, it must be asked where and when and by whom such a determination is reached.  Apparently there is another space and time (McLuhan termed it the ‘interior landscape’), in which the specification of such acceptances is incessantly at stake (McLuhan termed it ‘the drama of cognition’) involving some sort of ghostly actor (McLuhan termed it the ‘nobody’7 behind the dramatic masks).

The resulting implication is that time and space are fundamentally plural, not singular, and, at least in the first instance, vertical, not linear. ‘Con-temporaries’ thus takes on a further meaning as the fundamental task of human individuals and societies in determining, moment by moment, space, time and identity. This is a task that is going on ceaselessly, yet with no notice at all, behind our own backs. Penelope unweaving by night what she wove by day is an image of this definitive activity of humans — an essential activity like breathing that is yet, remarkably enough, unknown and uninvestigated.8   

McLuhan would initiate investigation of this activity as the path to potential survival in an age in which the ‘advance’ of human activity has come to threaten its own destruction: the Tower of Babel revisited. But just as with the ‘exterior landscape’, preliminary “pattern recognition” must first be achieved9 in order to initiate collective investigation of this “landscape” based on common focus. This is what happened with chemistry in the exterior landscape and what must now also happen in the interior one — if its investigation is finally to take off.10

A ‘galaxy’ of experience covers a loosely defined group in the same way that ‘organic’ names an enormous variety of carbon-based compounds. A timeless structure like carbon is at the base of such a group, but that structure has “innumerable variants”11 and is in any case only one elementary possibility amongst a whole ‘table’ of others.12 Exactly therefore, “when we consciously set out to retrieve one archetype, we unconsciously retrieve [all the] others” — that is, we cannot understand the particular structure of one of them without understanding the general structure of all of them.

To take an example, electric media expose old media, like the book or the car, as obsolete. Unconsciously (in the vast majority of cases) or consciously (at least potentially), this exposure implicates the medium as such. We are able to judge old media on the basis of new media only because we have some implicit notion of the medium and of the range of its expression — as plural media.

McLuhan’s quest was to bring these implicit understandings to explicit collective investigation — hence his constant appeal to “the grammars of the media“. For just as we follow the rules of language without knowing that we are doing so, so (in McLuhan’s view) we follow the ‘laws of media’ — but unconsciously.13 And this quest would be no mere conceptual exercise. It would eventuate in the study of dynamic media structures both in themselves and in their phenomenal expression — just as chemistry studies the elements both in themselves and in their phenomenal expression.

The phenomenon of the Gutenberg galaxy was a multifarious collection of individuals and groups.  When it was in operation, this form issued from a principle that was be-fore in time14 (but not clock-time, of course) in such a way as to “fore-ordain” experience — regardless of “whether they [those dominated by it] recognize it or not”:  

the matrix out of which Freud grew, and its mental characteristics have shaped him along foreordained lines

he is under compulsion from the Zeitgeist 

Zeitgeist15, like “contemporary”, is ambiguous. It can refer to a rather vague epoch in chronological time or to the underlying possibility out of which such temporal phenomena are issued — like the outburst of a geyser16 into diachronic time (Zeit #2) from out of its “ancient”, perennial or synchronic time (Zeit #1). Jung makes the point nicely:

The human psyche, however, is not simply a product of the Zeitgeist [narrowly construed as an historical epoch], but is a thing of far greater constancy and immutability. The nineteenth century is a merely local and passing phenomenon, which has deposited but a thin layer of dust on the age-old psyche of mankind.17 Once this layer is wiped off and our professional eye-glasses are cleaned, what shall we see? 

Jung therefore comments as regards Freud that:

A general psychological theory that claims to be scientific should not be based on the malformations of the nineteenth century, and a theory of neurosis must also be capable of explaining hysteria among the Maori.18

In the same way, media may not be understood literally as modern communication devices or even as all such devices, modern and historical. Instead, media as the abysmal patterns of the weaving and unweaving of experience19 are ‘contemporaneous’ with human being: it cannot be understood aside from them and they cannot be understood aside from it.20 In fact, neither can be at all without the other. Hence the very great difficulties involved in the investigation of media by human beings.

A check on any discussion of McLuhan and media may therefore be made simply by asking if it has overlooked, or not, what it means (and what it always has meant) to be human.21

Universal abdication of human motive is now plain. (McLuhan to Pound, July 30, 1948, Letters 198)



  1. Kierkegaard’s great virtue lies in reminding us over and over again how strange it is, indeed how ridiculously comical it is, for us to overlook human being in our investigations of individual and collective human phenomena.
  2. See note 6.
  3. Jung, ‘Sigmund Freud als kulturhistorische Erscheinung’ (1932). The first English translation appeared in the same year as the German original. The official translation of the essay is now included in CW15 and it is this translation which is cited in the quotations below that are not otherwise identified. The praeceptores mundi are the preceptors of world, which is one way of describing the archetypes.
  4. Does a person at breakfast experience the world in the same way and as she will paying her bills that afternoon?
  5. ‘Contemporary’ is used here in its usual sense of ‘at the same time’ — but only by way of posing the question: just what does ‘at the same time’ mean? As developed in this post, it would seem that it is no more straightforward in regard to human existence than it is to quantum particles.
  6. A subjective genitive denotes possession: the ball of the boy; an objective genitive denotes some quality of an object: a recommendation of the boy; a dual genitive is to be understood in both ways: ‘acceptance of time‘, where the genitive is ambiguous between time as the determined object and time as the determining subject.
  7. Compare Jung on the “ineffable something”: “This something is the desired ‘mid-point’ of the personality, that ineffable something betwixt the opposites (…) the product of energic tension” (CW7: Two Essays in Analytic Psychology).
  8. Neither the exterior landscape nor the interior landscape is, of course, some molar singularity. Both are vast multifarious realms. But while the multifariousness of the exterior one has been subject to increasingly rigorous investigation for centuries now in a whole series of sciences, the interior one, when acknowledged at all, remains subject to guesses and pretenses. Its basic patterns — whose recognition would work to spark collective investigation in parallel fashion to the sciences of the exterior landscape — remain unknown. The extreme peril of the world is the result of this imbalance between exterior ‘success’ and interior ignorance. Hence the imperative of McLuhan’s ‘the medium is the message’!
  9. Before being achieved in confirmed recognition, patterns must of course first be sought, by weaving and unweaving across all possibilities. This is what McLuhan was doing from, roughly, 1930 to 1960. Working his way through this labyrinth, or these labyrinths, he finally came to recognize the pattern in his attempts at pattern recognition: the medium that is the message!
  10. See The technique of flight.
  11. See Take Today 22: “There are only two basic extreme forms of human organization. They have innumerable variants or ‘parti-colored’ forms.” In the same place McLuhan specifies the “two basic extreme forms” as “eye and ear”. The distinct parallel with carbon (one type of the “two basic extreme forms” of the electron and proton) lies in the fact that carbon’s manifestations include not only molecules like graphite and diamond, but also “innumerable” compounds with other elements. It can hardly be the case that the exterior landscape is composed of such enormously complex structures and the interior landscape only of simple monolithic ones like ‘Freud’ or ‘the western tradition’.
  12. Elementary structures like carbon are, of course, not ‘timeless’ as regards our understanding of them nor as regards their own dynamics (their impetus to expression). They are ‘timeless’ only in not being single level diachronic phenomena. The achievement of chemistry lay in  differentiating the elementary from the phenomenal levels of the material universe while also relating the two by way of demonstrable ‘properties’.
  13. This is the condition according to McLuhan of our having mass media at all: “the mechanical or mass media of communication must at least parrot the world (as we know it in our ordinary experience) in order to hold our attention” (‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’, 1954). The bracketed clarification has been added.
  14.  The root of the particular Gutenberg galaxy form of experience thus contradicts that experience itself. Where it would be single-leveled and linear (diachronic), its archetypal form, like all archetypal forms, is multi-leveled and all-at-once (synchronic).
  15. Zeitgeist = Zeit (time) + Geist (spirit), so ‘the spirit of a time’. Like ‘contemporary’, Zeitgeist poses the question of how human being and time belong together. What is a time anyway? And what is spirit? And how do they operate in some kind of concert? And how does this concert break down?
  16. Geist‘ and ‘geyser‘ seem not to be cognates, but the association is interesting to contemplate, especially where the dynamic action of Geist is considered as  synchronic and not (at least not in the first instance) as diachronic.
  17. Compare McLuhan on ‘allatonceness’ and on the “ageless mysteries in the relations of men” in note 20 below.
  18. Compare McLuhan in From Cliché to Archetype: “For the literary archetypalist there is always a problem of whether Oedipus Rex or Tom Jones would have the same effect on an audience in the South Sea Islands as in Toronto.” The Maori of Jung are, of course, a South Sea Island people. Examples like this suggest to me that Jung was a slow and deep-seeded influence on McLuhan, but not one that he developed to any extent — perhaps on account of Frye’s use of Jung.
  19. In the citation from The Grammars of the Media in the next note, ‘the weaving and unweaving of experience’ is called our “habits of perception and judgement”.
  20. Media are “ancient” and “quarrel” among themselves exactly because they are both original (always already there) and plural. Their primordial combination provides what McLuhan terms “a complex view of the world” (‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’). Put historically, there was never a time when humans were not already shaped by contesting multiple media like language, gesture, material culture, mythology, etc. What has happened in the electric age is that this multiplicity of media has become explicit as never before and so has emerged as a potential new field of study: “Educators have used these (new media) as audio-visual aids in varying degrees but without specific attention to their effects on the habits of perception and judgement. Today, however, we cannot afford this easy-going unconcern because the peculiar powers of print, telegraph, photo, TV, movie, typewriter, gramophone, and tape are in strong and jarring conflict. Their constant co-presence has created a situation unknown before, a situation far richer educationally than ever before, yet so confused that the danger is that we smother all the media by their unstudied and uncoordinated expressions.” (The Grammars of the Media)
  21. McLuhan in his 1951 Dos Passos essay: “Joyce manipulates a continuous parallel at each moment between naturalism and symbolism to render a total spectrum of outer and inner worlds. The past is present not in order to debunk Dublin but to make Dublin representative of the human condition. The sharply-focussed moment of natural perception in Joyce floods the situation with analogical awareness of the actual dimensions of human hope and despair. In Ulysses a brief glimpse of a lapidary at work serves to open up ageless mysteries in the relations of men and in the mysterious qualities of voiceless objects. The most ordinary gesture linked to some immemorial (…) situation sets reverberating the whole world of the book and flashes intelligibility into long opaque areas of our own experience.”

Jung on the interior landscape

Man, the wanderer within the labyrinthine ways at once of his psyche and of the world… (McLuhan, ‘Dos Passos: Technique vs. Sensibility’, 1951)

I’ve been doing some work on the development of landscape technique — exterior and interior landscape — before and since Rimbaud. (McLuhan to Pound, 1951)

McLuhan attributed the notion of the interior landscape to the French, to Claude Bernard (1813-1878) and to the symbolist poets who were contemporary with him. It was Bernard who coined the phrase, “le milieu intérior” in his physiology studies. But it may have been Jung who gave McLuhan the geographical direction, so to speak, to the new territories whose contours it was necessary to explore and to specify.

In my picture of the world there is a vast outer realm and an equally vast inner realm, between these two stands man, facing now one and now the other (Jung, Modern Man In Search Of A Soul, 1933)1

An interior spiritual world whose existence we never suspected opens out and displays contents which seem to stand in sharpest contrast to all our former ideas. (Two Essays in Analytic Psychology, 1928)2

Failure to adapt to this inner world is a negligence entailing just as serious consequences as ignorance and ineptitude in the outer world. (Two Essays in Analytic Psychology, 1928)3



  1. 1933 is the date of the English compilation and translation, not the dates of the lectures and essays included in the book. McLuhan cited the book in 1946.
  2. 1928 is the date of the first English translation with this title. The two essays dated back to 1912 and 1916 and were continually revised by Jung until their final form was achieved three decades later. The translation here is from that final form in CW7.
  3. See note 2.

Jung on “the energetics of the life process”

As rhetorician, Mr. Empson has brilliantly availed himself of the new insights of Freud and Jung into traditional speaker-audience relations. The Seven Types of Ambiguity is an ingenious and valid application of Freud’s analysis of wit and of dreams to some of the material of poetry. Insofar as political and social myth-making is inevitably part of the material of poetry, as it is of language, it too can be subjected to psychoanalytic scrutiny with fascinating results. (Poetic and Rhetorical Exegesis, 1944)

Increasingly, I feel that Catholics must master C.G. Jung. The little self-conscious — unearned — area in which we live to-day has nothing to do with the problems of our faith. Modern anthropology and psychology are more important for the Church than St. Thomas today. (McLuhan to Ong and McNaspy, December 23, 1944)1

La trahison des clercs has been to subordinate detached critical intelligence to the servile functions of ‘political’ evangelism. They are thus the inheritors of the sectarian enthusiasms of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries presenting a scientific demonstration of Jung’s social principle: “No psychic value can disappear without being replaced by another of equivalent intensity.”2 (Footprints in the Sands of Crime, 1946)

As Father Victor White wrote concerning ‘Jung and the Supernatural’3: “A living symbol does something to us; it moves us, shifts our center of awareness, changes our values. Whether it is just looked at, or heard, acted out, painted out, written out, or danced out, it arouses not only thought, but delight, fear, awe, horror, perhaps a deeper insight.” That is, (…) symbols are not just referential signs. They don’t just say something. They do something. And saying is also symbolic action. We are moving very rapidly today to a grasp of scriptural, poetic and social communication which promises to take up all the wealth of patristic insight and to go far beyond it. But we have no choice. We have either to surpass any previous age or to collapse into a new Babel. For our problems, like our means and opportunities, are of a scope beyond those of any previous age. (Symbolist Communication, 1953)4

McLuhan read Jung in the early 1940s, if not already in the 1930s,5 and at the time valued his work very highly indeed (as evidenced in his 1944 letter to Ong and McNaspy above). But the eventual influence of Jung on McLuhan’s work may have been more unconscious than conscious and taken decades to unfold. It was above all in that perpetually indistinct area of what Jung termed the “energetics6 of consciousness7aka, the “enantiodrama8 of consciousness — where that influence, appropriately enough, would eventually set to work. That is, McLuhan, having ‘put on’ role after role after role in three decades of tireless talking and writing, finally found one that could be ‘set to work’ to focus communication problems — and this in that very figure/ground “enantiodrama” that had previously stumped him.9

Jung himself set out his take on “energetics” especially in Two Essays on Analytical Psychology:10

  • Life is born only of the spark11 of opposites.
  • Heraclitus (…) discovered the most marvelous of all psychological laws: the regulative function of opposites. He called it enantiodromia, a running contrariwise, by which he meant that sooner or later everything runs into its opposite.
  • There comes [at some point in an individual’s life]12 the urgent need to appreciate the value of the opposite of our former ideals, to perceive the error in our former convictions, to recognize the untruth in our former truth, and to feel how much antagonism and even hatred lay in what, until now, had passed for love. Not a few of those who are drawn into the conflict of opposites jettison everything that had previously seemed to them good and worth striving for; they try to live in complete opposition to their former ego. Changes of profession, divorces, religious convulsions, apostasies of every description, are the symptoms of this swing over to the opposite. The snag about a radical conversion into one’s opposite is that one’s former life suffers repression and thus is produced just as unbalanced a state as existed before (…) Just as neurotic disorders once arose13 because the opposing fantasies were unconscious, so now a different set of disorders arise through the repression of the former ideals. It is of course a fundamental mistake to imagine that when we see the non-value in a value or the untruth in a truth, the value or the truth ceases to exist. It has only become relative.
  • Everything human is relative, because everything rests on an inner polarity; for everything is a phenomenon of energy. Energy necessarily depends on a preexisting polarity, without which there could be no energy. There must always be high and low, hot and cold, etc, so that the equilibrating process — which is energy — can take place. Therefore the tendency to deny all previous values in favour of their opposites is just as much of an exaggeration as the earlier onesidedness. And in so far as it is a question of rejecting universally accepted and indubitable values, the result is a fatal loss. One who acts in this way [also] empties himself out with his values, as Nietzsche has already said.
  • The tragic counter play between inside and outside (depicted in Job and Faust as the wager with God) represents, at bottom, the energetics of the life process, the polar tension that is necessary for self-regulation. However different to all intents and purposes these opposing forces may be, their fundamental meaning and [felt intent]14 in the life of the individual always fluctuate round this centre of balance. Just because they are inseparably related through opposition, they also unite in a mediatory meaning, which, willingly or unwillingly, is born out of the individual and is therefore divined by it [alone and only when] it has a strong feeling of what could be and what should be.15 To depart from this [mediatory] divination means error, aberration, illness. 
  • From a consideration of the claims of the inner and outer worlds, or rather, from the conflict between them, the possible and the necessary follows. Unfortunately our Western mind, lacking all culture in this respect, has never yet devised a concept, nor even a name, for the union of opposites through the middle path, that most fundamental item of inward experience, which could respectably be compared with 16 the Chinese concept of Tao. It is at once the most individual fact and the most universal, [and represents] the most legitimate [possible] fulfilment of the meaning of the individual’s life.
  • For the primitive anything strange is hostile and evil. This line of division serves a purpose, which is why the normal person feels under no obligation to make (…) projections conscious, although they are dangerously illusory (…) Because the [neurotic] individual has this same primitive psychology, every attempt to bring these age-old projections to consciousness is felt as irritating. Naturally one would like to have better relations with one’s fellows, but only on the condition that they live up to our expectations — in other words, that they become willing carriers of our projections. Yet if we make ourselves conscious of these projections, it may easily act as an impediment to our relations with others, for there is then no bridge of illusion across which love and hate can stream off so relievingly, and no way of disposing so simply and satisfactorily of all those alleged virtues [of ours] that, [in our manifest altruism], are intended [only] to edify and improve others.
  1. Letters, 166.
  2. From Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul, 1933. It may have been this book of mostly translated essays of Jung that set McLuhan to thinking about the relation of gnosticism to the varieties of human experience and expression — thoughts he would begin to define only a decade after this 1944 citation.
  3. In Commonweal, March 14, 1952
  4. McLuhan continued to refer to Jung, sporadically, for the rest of his life, for example in The Gutenberg GalaxyThe work of Jung and Freud is a laborious translation of non-literate awareness into literary terms, and like any translation distorts and omits. The main advantage in translation is the creative effort it fosters, as Ezra Pound spent his life in telling and illustrating. And culture that is engaged in translating itself from one radical mode such as the auditory, into another mode like the visual, is bound to be in a creative ferment, as was classical Greece or the Renaissance. But our own time is an even more massive instance of such ferment, and just because of such ‘translation’.” (72) But it was not until the 1970 From  Cliché to Archetype that the extent and the acuity of his reading of Jung emerged: The archetype is retrieved awareness or consciousness (of a past consciousness). It is consequently a retrieved cliché – an old cliché retrieved by a new cliché. Since a cliché is a unit extension of man, an archetype is a quoted (cliché), a (prior) extension, medium, technology, or environment — an old ground (now) seen as figure through a new ground. 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 others, and this retrieval recurs in infinite regress. In fact, whenever we ‘quote’ one (archetype of) consciousness (objective genitive!), we also ‘quote’ (all) the archetypes we exclude; and this quotation of excluded archetypes has been called by (…) Jung (…) ‘the archetypal unconscious’ (…Jung and his disciples have been careful to insist that the archetype is to be distinguished from its expression (in cliché). Strictly speaking, a Jungian archetype is a power or capacity of the psyche (objective genitive!)”. (21-22) In the same way, a chemical element is “a power or capacity” of physical matter.  In both cases, the underlying spectrum or table of potential forms “is to be distinguished from its (dynamic) expression” — but it is equally to be related to it! (In this footnote, all bolding and all text in round brackets has been added.
  5. From his correspondence, it is known that McLuhan read Freud and Adler in the 1930s. It is likely that he also read some Jung then. Essays by Jung had been available in English translation since the first world war and his Modern Man in Search of a Soul appeared in 1933, just as McLuhan was about to begin his studies at Cambridge and was intensely in search of his soul. Both Freud and Jung are both named in McLuhan’s 1943 Nashe thesis and, as reproduced in this post, McLuhan cited Jung’s Modern Man in 1944.
  6. The setting into work, ἐν + ἔργον, of consciousness.
  7. This and the succeeding genitive, the “enantiodrama” of consciousness, are, of course, both objective genitives!
  8. The “regulative function of opposites”, ἐνάντιος + δρόμος, of consciousness.
  9. Thereafter he would repeatedly maintain that solutions are to be found in the problems that are probed, in our ignorance.
  10. CW7. Two Essays appeared in English translation in 1928 — though not in its definitive form which Jung would publish only in 1943 and which is cited in  this post.
  11. Jung’s language of ‘spark’ and ‘energy’ is interestingly comparable to McLuhan’s ‘electric’.
  12. Jung specifies this point as coming at “the transition from morning to afternoon” in a person’s life. But this point can, of course, come very early for some and for others never eventuates at all. “Sooner or later”, as Jung says.
  13. Translation: “Just as before, perhaps, neurotic disorders arose”…
  14. Translation: “desire”
  15. Translation: “what should be and what could be”.
  16. The translation of Two Essays has ‘set against’ here, not ‘compared with’.

Translating McLuhan to McLuhan

McLuhan often requires translation from himself to himself. As will be illustrated here with reference to ‘Why the TV Child Cannot See Ahead’1, there are a variety of reasons for this.

In the first place, McLuhan wrote amazingly quickly, but paid little attention to correcting his work. Unclear and potentially misleading constructions were often left standing. Second, he frequently used passages written at different times and for different purposes in composing ‘new’ texts.2 This could lead to conflicting emphases or contradictions. Third, he habitually used abbreviated designations in place of more complicated ones even when this created inevitable confusion. For example, in the text given below, he contrasts “mosaic form” to “visual order”. But are ‘form’ and ‘order’ strictly comparable? Maybe yes, maybe no. More, what about ‘mosaic’ and the ‘visual’ themselves? Surely these belong to very different categories whose alignment is questionable? More yet, he says of “mosaic form” that it “is not just to be seen [like ‘visual order’], but to be perceived by all our senses”. Later in the same essay, however, it is said that “all forms whether of art or technology (…) involve all the senses”. But if everything “involves all the senses”, if nothing is “just to be seen”, where does this leave “visual order”? Or its supposed contrary, “mosaic form”?

Here is the passage in question:

a mosaic is not just to be seen, but to be perceived by all our senses. Highly literate people in our Western world are naturally confused whenever they move across the boundaries of visual order and arrangement. But mosaic form, although it can be seen, is not visual in its organizing principle.

‘TV Child’ later supplies some clarification of the matter at stake:

The effect of phonetic literacy in extending and amplifying the visual component in Western experience and social organization was to create a sort of hypertrophy in our visual lives at the expense of the other senses.

That is, there is in fact nothing at all that is “just to be seen”. Instead, “visual order” like “mosaic form”, involves “all our senses”. The two are not differentiated by the one visual sense versus all the other senses, but by the emphasis or weight or stress accorded, in the case of “visual order”, to the visual relative to the other senses. Hence the characterization of “visual order and arrangement” as “a sort of hypertrophy in our visual lives at the expense of the other senses“. Presumably the “mosaic form” is a more balanced configuration of these same senses and may therefore loosely be said to be “perceived by all our senses”.

But, then, is “mosaic form” something objective (something “to be seen”) or subjective (Involving “all our senses”)? Or is it both of these? And if both, is this not a ‘matching’, which McLuhan routinely rejected? Or if it is not a ‘matching’, but a differentiated ‘making’, where does this leave the point or points at stake in McLuhan’s text?  

The underlying conception is of sensory ‘form’ or ‘order’ as a topological matrix of “all our senses” with an undefined number of configurations, each depending on the emphases accorded the various senses relative to one another:

The tribal drum extends hearing in a specialist mode. Clothing extends skin and heat control [hence ‘tactility’?] in a specialist way. Each of these extensions or amplifications, in turn, involves all the other senses, modifying their relation to each other. (…) All forms whether of art or technology, if not for their impact then in our reactions, involve all the senses… (TV Child) 

Even appeal to different configurations of all the senses is itself misleading, however, since, at the end of the day, it is not the senses that are at stake in the investigation of experience. Instead it is the “organizing principle”, “form”, “mode”, “order”, or “medium” that is at stake — and the senses, alone or together, are but one way of designating these. 

Here is McLuhan to Harold Rosenberg, March 1, 1965:

As soon as you begin to deal with the sensory modalities, you quickly discover that the visual mode may occur in situations that are quite unvisualizable. For example, central heating structures the thermal space of a room visually. That is, a centrally heated room has a thermal space that is uniform, and continuous, and connected. That is visuality as such. (Letters 318)

A few days later he wrote similarly to Claude Bissell:

Sensory levels are really quite useless without knowledge of sensory modalities. (March 4, 1965, Letters 319)

The great question is how to characterize “modalities” such that they become openly and uncontentiously identifiable. On this basis, the shared investigation of all human experience could (and must) be initiated: “the medium is the message”.

‘TV Child’ points to this possibility as follows:

the instant character of electricity introduces the principle of interrelation that is antithetic to all earlier technologies which in effect had fragmented and extended the body by way of specialism and amplification

This passage has much to say between the lines. Taken at face value, it seems to parallel the earlier contrast between “visual order” (“just to be seen”, the eye “fragmented (…) by way of specialism and amplification”) and the “mosaic form” (“perceived by all our senses” according to “the principle of interrelation”). However, if “all forms whether of art or technology (…) involve all the senses”, it must be that “the principle of interrelation” is actually a constant — a highly variable constant, to be sure — in all human experience, individual or collective, at any time whatsoever. Hence the famous “allatonceness”. 

Once this is clear (if that is the right word), it may be seen (ditto) that McLuhan’s text here moves on two different levels at once. There is the obvious diachronic contrast between earlier forms or orders, ones that amplified a single sense relative to the others, and the later electric order that is said to introduce3 a more balanced approach. Read closely, however, this ubiquitous reading falls apart. In the first place, McLuhan emphasizes that it is “the instant character of electricity” that “introduces the principle of interrelation”. But how is instantaneity to be squared with a diachronically ordered understanding of the passage? Instantaneous but also before-and-after? Likewise with “the principle of interrelation”. If this is the signature of the electric form, would McLuhan have us step away from it — presumably back to the Gutenberg galaxy — in order to behold “all earlier technologies” not in principled “interrelation”, but as “antithetic” to one another and to us today?

McLuhan’s contention is far different. Between the lines (“the medium is the message”) he is saying that with electricity “the principle of interrelation”, which is always active in human experience (what might be termed its implicit or “instant character”), becomes (or can become) explicit.4 What is “antithetic” between electricity and “all earlier technologies” is not their basic common form of interrelation, but their ability to explicate that basic common form. This is what he called, amongst a raft of other designations, the ‘exteriorization of consciousness’.5

When chemistry took off in the nineteenth century, it marked no difference in the physical makeup of the world. That exterior landscape was what it always had been and what it always would be. What was new was the increasing ability to explicate that world. Just so, according to McLuhan, with the “interior landscape” in the electric age.

However, this new possibility remains hidden from us by our own presupposition — “the viable is always invisible” (Take Today, 285).6 Here is McLuhan further in ‘TV Child’:

The effect of phonetic literacy in extending and amplifying the visual component in Western experience and social organization was to create a sort of hypertrophy in our visual lives at the expense of the other senses. This situation exists even among our scientists [today] who make assumptions about the natural order of things as if this order were primarily visual in respect to uniformity and continuity and connectiveness.

Instead of ‘our scientists’ this passage might be read as ‘this situation exists even among all our McLuhan scholars’. For without exception,7 all are locked in “assumptions about the natural order of things” which it was the explicit purpose of McLuhan’s lifelong labors — to unlock. His revolutionary suggestion of a “new science” goes begging because the unwavering assumption of “uniformity and continuity and connectiveness” by his readers binds their understandings of him to a past in which there was no such science and, indeed, could not be one. They cannot make the required “flip” out of this unavailing “uniformity and continuity and connectiveness” of unscience.

This would be hilarious — indeed, it is in fact hilarious — but for one small problem. Namely, McLuhan conceived his work as a ‘survival strategy’. Here he is speaking to Nina Sutton and Barbara Rowes:

McLuhan: when you invade one [group’s] culture with a totally different [cultural] strategy from theirs, naturally they regard you as an enemy.
Barbara Rowes: And how do you personally take this?
I simply consider that this particular form of enmity or creation [of mine that elicits it] is necessary for [our] survival. That’s all. If you want to survive, you had better pay attention. But in paying attention [and who pays attention to McLuhan other than McLuhan scholars?], they get quite angry because they are enraged to think that all these years we have been manipulated by our own culture without knowing it. This is what enrages [the McLuhan scholar]8 — to think that he has been put through all these paces9 like a trained seal, like a blooming robot.

Of course, few McLuhan scholars regard themselves as “enraged” or, even less, as “trained seals”. Most of them are doubtless hail fellows, well met. What with their tenure, travel grants and great bennies, how not? But perhaps it is not so easy or obvious to know what it is to be “trained” to be “enraged”? And perhaps it is just this obscurity at the foundation of our experience, one that prevents the perception of a deep rage, even or especially in oneself, that above all places the question of our survival in grave doubt?

  1.  ‘TV Child’ first appeared posthumously in a special McLuhan issue of The Antigonish Review (#74-75, October 1988) and then in a selection from that issue as a standalone book, Marshall McLuhan: The Man and His Message (ed George Sanderson and Frank Macdonald, 1989). But most of the essay was written in the 1960s — extended portions of it appeared in ‘Murder by Television’ (Canadian Forum, January 1964), and in Understanding Media that same year.
  2. As described in note #1 above in regard to ‘TV Child’, this was common with McLuhan. The 1969 Counterblast, for example, not only includes the 1954 Counterblast, but also whole sections from other essays from the 1950s.
  3. Or, as McLuhan specifies elsewhere, reintroduces from paleolithic times.
  4. McLuhan’s “new science” (which, if the chemical model is any guide, would soon be plural sciences) would be founded on definition of the “the principle of interrelation” in terms of the spectrum of its possible range. He outlined the idea for Nina Sutton as follows: “The wheel and the axle is figure/ground. They can change roles. The axle can be figure. The wheel can be ground. Or vice versa. They can change roles. (…) They flip all the time. Anything can become a figure to a ground and any ground can become a figure to another ground. They interrelate.” The spectrum ranges from all figure at one extreme to all ground at the other. All the f/g and g/f points between these extremes are the ratios of possible perception (objective genitive!). What is interesting about the electric middle point of the spectrum is that here and here alone it becomes possible to define its whole range. This midpoint where f/g is equipoised is “the instant character of electricity (that) introduces the principle of interrelation”. Once introduced, the principle can be applied to the understanding the full spectrum — ie, the project of understanding media can be initiated on this basis.
  5. Consciousness becomes exteriorized when its investigation has become subject to Kuhn’s ‘normal science’. It would then no longer be merely implicit inside us operating as a kind of surd. And just as chemistry soon developed all sorts of ‘exterior’ manifestations like new manufacturing methods, new products, new university courses, new journals, new modes of medicine, etc etc, so (it may be expected) would the explicit investigation of all human experience be exteriorized in comparable ways. The world would be changed — and hence conceivably saved from itself!
  6. “The viable is always invisible” has multiple interpretations. That the viable cannot be seen from within an order of perception is the very presupposition for the hang-ups of that order. But these hang-ups invariably relate to some dominating variety of visibility (including its suppression by other sensory factors) such that any viable solution to them is necessarily in-visible. Finally, the viable way away from any problematic order of experience requires descent into the spectrum of its possible orders and transition ‘there’ into another one. All of these movements between the levels of experience and between the different possibilities of its order are necessarily invisible since all are gaps between what is subject to experience at all. In these gaps we are all nobodies on the frontier, somehow aside from all experienceable context.
  7. If there were even a single exception among McLuhan scholars, the scientific investigation of human experience foreseen by him could take off. We could do it! But instead of entering that silent sea McLuhan’s new science remains landlocked as an untried possibility.
  8. McLuhan: “Western Man”.
  9. “Paces” => today’s typical academic CV with its 1001 papers, conference presentations, panel discussions, etc etc.

Citadel of inclusive awareness

we live in a global village and the job is to create a global city
(McLuhan to Tyrwhitt, 1960)1

Bob Dobbs has emphasized the importance in McLuhan’s work of “the citadel of individual consciousness”.2 Indeed, McLuhan himself marked this importance by repeating in the 1969 Counterblast this same phrase from 13 years earlier in the 1956 ‘Educational Effects of Mass Media of Communication’.

What may be the deepest questions probed by McLuhan are: who, when and where is this citadel? what does it do? how does it go wrong? how might its function as a kind of gyroscope be put right?

‘Citadel’ derives from Latin ‘civis’, city, and McLuhan explicitly drew on this etymology in the passages below culminating in the idea of the citadel/city as “the central nervous system” (aka, as we might say today, the operating system). In a letter to Jackie Tyrwhitt in 1960 he set out a notion of the city as the social sensus communis against which his ‘citadel’ texts should be read:

Now that by electricity we have externalized all of our senses [in technologies like tele-phone and tele-vision], we are in the desperate position of not having any sensus communis. Prior to electricity, the city was the sensus communis for such specialized and externalized senses as technology had developed. From Aristotle onward, the traditional function of the sensus communis is to translate each sense into the other senses, so that a unified, integral image is offered at all times to the mind. The city performs that function for the scattered and distracted senses, and spaces and times, of agrarian cultures. Today with electronics we have discovered that we live in a global village and the job is to create a global city, as center for the village margins. The parameters of this task are by no means positional [= geographical]. With electronics, any marginal area can become centre, and marginal experiences can be had at any center. (…) The problem of [Tyrwhitt’s area of] urban planning today (in the field of nuclei that is the global village) is assuming more and more the character of language itself, in which all words at all times comprise all the senses, but in evershifting ratios which permit ever new light to come through them. Is not this the problem that we have now to face in the management of inner and outer space — not fixed but ever new-made ratios, shifting always to maintain a maximal focal point of consciousness? Thus the human community would assume the same integral freedom and awareness as the private person?3

Here are McLuhan’s ‘citadel’ passages in chronological order:

Ever since Burckhardt saw that the meaning of Machiavelli’s method was to turn the state into a work of art by the rational manipulation of power, it has been an open possibility to apply the method of art analysis to the critical evaluation of society. That is attempted here [in The Mechanical Bride]. The Western world, dedicated since the sixteenth century to the increase and consolidation of the power of the state, has developed an artistic unity of effect which makes artistic criticism of that effect quite feasible. Art criticism is free to point to the various means employed to get the effect, as well as to decide whether the effect was worth attempting. As such, with regard to the modern state, it [art criticism] can be a citadel of inclusive awareness amid the dim dreams of collective consciousness. (‘Preface’ to The Mechanical Bride, 1951)

No longer is it possible for modern man, individually or collectively, to live in any exclusive segment of human experience or achieved social pattern. The modern mind, whether in its subconscious collective dream or in its intellectual citadel of vivid awareness, is a stage on which is contained and re-enacted the entire experience of the human race. There are no more remote and easy perspectives, either artistic or national. Everything [possible] is present in the foreground [of our consciousness]. That fact is stressed equally in current physics, jazz, newspapers, and psychoanalysis. And it is not a question of preference or taste. This flood has already immersed us. And whether it is to be a benign flood, cleansing the Augean stable of speech and experience, as envisaged in Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, or a merely destructive element, may to some extent depend on the degree of exertion and direction which we elicit in ourselves. (The Mechanical Bride, 1951, 87)

What we have to defend today is not the values developed in any particular culture or by any one mode of communication. Modern technology presumes to attempt a total transformation of man and his environment. This calls in turn for an inspection and defense of all human values. And so far as merely human aid goes, the citadel of this defense must be located in analytical awareness of the nature of the creative process involved in human cognition. For it is in this citadel that science and technology have already established themselves in their manipulation of the new media. (Closing lines of ‘Sight, Sound, and the Fury’, 1954)

we must substitute an interest in the media for the previous interest in subjects. This is the logical answer to the fact that the media have substituted themselves for the older world. Even if we should wish to recover that older world we can do so only by an intensive study of the ways in which the media have swallowed it. But4 no matter how many walls have fallen, the citadel of individual consciousness has not fallen, nor is it likely to fall. For it is not accessible to the mass media(Closing lines of ‘Educational Effects of Mass Media of Communication’, 1956, that were repeated in the 1969 Counterblast.)

The literate man is one who is accustomed to the inner translation of sight into sound and of sound into sight, a complex activity for which he pays by psychic withdrawal, a weakening of sensuous life and a considerable lessening of the power of recall. But in return he obtains analytic mastery of specific areas of knowledge, and especially the power of applied science for social purposes. The increase of inner self-awareness resulting from the incessant translation of sound into sight and sight into sound also enhances his sense of individual identity and fosters that inner dialogue or conscience within, which we rightly associate with the very citadel [< civis] of civilized [< civis] awareness. (Printing and Social Change, 1959)

Historians see the forms of the great cities in the ancient world as manifesting all facets of human personality. Institutions, architectural and administrative, as extensions of our physical beings necessarily tend toward world-wide similarities. The central nervous system of the city [< civis] was the citadel [< civis]… (Understanding Media, 1964)

The 1959 passage from ‘Printing and Social Change’ continued:

In the new time which must be one of co-existence and pluralism there will be a basis for the simultaneous use of print and of all other media as well. To discover that basis now before we exhaust ourselves in moral denunciation and pointless clashes is urgently indicated. (Printing and Social Change, 1959)

The 1960 letter to Jackie Tyrwhitt cited above augmented these thoughts on “basis” from the previous year as follows:

By electricity, Jackie, we have not been driven out of our senses so much that our senses have been driven out of us. Before we can return to one another, a good deal of clarification is needed for the purposes of reconciliation. (…) Noise [in a communication system] is of course just any kind of irrelevance, and yet irrelevance is a needed margin for any kind of attention or center. In the field of attention, a center without a margin is the formula for hypnosis, stasis and paralysis. Again, when our senses are external to us, it becomes natural to regard a perpetual flow of programs5 through all media as indispensable to the community,6 just as much as the private individual considers that all of his senses should be receiving impressions all the time, even in sleep. 

In McLuhan’s view, “reconciliation” required the reconstruction of the “citadel of individual consciousness”, and of the analogous social “central nervous system of the city”, as a dynamic yet ordered site of “evershifting ratios”. The need was for ‘pattern recognition’ of the spectrum of figure/ground relations through and as which that citadel both received and managed its formations. The great riddle was and is how to under-stand ‘management’ as something received:7

The problem (…) is assuming more and more the character of language itself, in which all words at all times implicate8 all the senses, but in evershifting ratios which permit ever new light to come through them. Is not this the problem that we have now to face in the management of inner and outer space — not fixed but ever new-made ratios, shifting always to maintain a maximal focal point of consciousness?9

“Of conscious” — an objective genitive!10

  1. McLuhan’s 1960 letter to Tyrwhitt is cited at length in this post.
  2. In McLuhan and Holeopathic Quadrophrenia: The Mouse-That-Roared Syndrome, Dobbs has the following fine insight — or insights: “humanity’s technological evolution had ended with television as all “hardware” had flipped and fused into “software” and what remained was a complex collective ESP, the patterns of which would be invoked by constant audience research, polling and surveillance. These new “weather” patterns, since they were multi-sensuous and abstract, McLuhan called “pollstergeists“. These are what plagued the human citadel of consciousness as it stared from its cave at the newly-retrieved quantum fluctuations of a still-born “astoneaged” society. The content of this situation, the human users and “media” themselves, imploded into a rapid, Sisyphean, and tetradic oscillation through the states of metaphor, metonymy, synechdoche, and irony which registered emotionally as states of paranoia, schizophrenia, hysteria, panic, and ecstasy. This is the condition I have designated as quadrophrenia in which the living metaphoric coherence of the collective consciousness appears to be usurped.”
  3. McLuhan to Jackie Tyrwhitt, December 23, 1960, Letters 277-278.
  4. McLuhan has ‘And’ here.
  5. ‘Programs’ should not be understood here in the sense of ‘computer programs’. McLuhan must have been thinking of something like radio or television ‘programs’. That he equates ‘programs’ with ‘impressions’ should be be noted. The idea is that impressions are already a complicated story as exemplified in our dreams.
  6. Cf, McLuhan to Harry Skornia, November 18 1958: “Big break-through in insight into TV came in NYC via Andre Girrard (sic, Girard) the painter who works for CBS and NBC. In a word, key fact about TV is that image is defined not by light on but by light through, exactly as stained glass principle of art form.  Makes me tingle all over just to see those words because very big matters hinge on this fact.  Opens up understanding fast.”
  7. Take Today may be read as an inquiry into this riddle.
  8. McLuhan has ‘comprise’ here instead of ‘implicate’.
  9. McLuhan to Tyrwhitt, December 23, 1960, full passage cited above.
  10. Consciousness is the always already having been achieved dynamic — as the always being achieved dynamic — of these “evershifting ratios”. The German word Gewesenheit captures the dynamic of this plurality (Ge-Wesen) as past (gewesen) and present (Gewesenheit).

Dating key terms

To understand the trajectory of McLuhan’s work, it is necessary to understand when key terms appeared in it. Only with such a skeletal map in hand can questions properly be asked about the overall shape of that work or of its status at any moment in its course.

Naturally, some of these terms appeared in McLuhan’s writings before he realized how they might be used in a more technical way. For example, as early as 1951, in ‘The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape Poetry’, he cited a passage from Ruskin in Modern Painters

A fine grotesque is the expression, in a moment, by a series of symbols thrown together in bold and fearless connection, of truths which it would have taken a long time to express in any verbal way, and of which the connection is left for the beholder to work out for himself; the gaps, left or overleaped by the haste of the imagination, forming the grotesque character.1

There is so much here anticipating his later work — regarding time and times, the consumer as producer, the do-it-yourself ethic and the transitive gap — that the passage might well be read as Ruskin addressing McLuhan with the demand: Think about all this! This is the way to go! Or, since it was McLuhan who was citing Ruskin, it might just as well be read as some part of McLuhan, his second sight perhaps, addressing himself with this admonition: Here is what you need!

The aim below is to identify not when bare terms or phrases were first mentioned by McLuhan, but when he realized their systematic importance for his project. But no pretense is made to finality. Further key terms will doubtless have to be introduced from time to time and dates will have to be adjusted as new findings come to light.


epyllion: 1951 ‘A Survey of Joyce Criticism’2

eye and ear: 1951 in ‘Joyce, Aquinas, and the Poetic Process’3

acoustic space: late 1954 in the Culture and Technology seminar4

classroom without walls: 1956 in ‘Media Fit the Battle of Jericho’ and ‘Educational Effects of Mass Media of Communication’5.

medium is the message: May 1958 in ‘Radio in the Future of Canada’6

consumers as producers: 1958 in ‘Myth and Mass Media’7

structure: 1958 in ‘Media Alchemy in Art and Society’8

light through vs light on: 1958 in a letter to Harry Skornia9 

all-at-once: May 11, 1959 in a speech to the Winnipeg Ad and Sales Club10

global village: May 11, 1959 in a speech to the Winnipeg Ad and Sales Club11

formal cause: 1959 in ‘Communications and the Word of God’12

input/output difference: 1960 in a letter to Harry Skornia13

multilevel: 1960 in ‘Technology, the Media, and Culture’14

tactility: 1960 in ‘From Visual To Tactile Experience’15

the unconscious: 1962 in ‘Prospect’16

figure/ground: 1964 in letters from July 10 to Harry Skornia and to Bascom St John.17

interval: 1964 in ‘Notes on Burroughs’18 

gap: 1964 in ‘Cybernetics and Human Culture’:19

environment (as medium): October 1964 in a letter to Harry Skornia20

satellite surround: October 1964 in a letter to Harry Skornia21 

concept vs percept: 1969 in ‘Hardware/Software Mergers’22

nobody: 1969 in ‘Hardware/Software Mergers’23

media ecology: 1976 in ‘Violence of the Media’24

  1. Modern Painters, vol 3, 1856. After his 1951 citation of this passage from Ruskin, McLuhan quoted it again repeatedly in, eg, ‘Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press’ (1954), ‘Media Log II’ (1959), The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), and ‘Notes on Burroughs’ (1964). The insistent question to himself, apparently, was: did you get this yet?
  2. ‘A Survey of Joyce Criticism’: “The Waste Land is epyllion to the epic Ulysses“. In his 1955 ‘Introduction’ to Tennyson: Selected Poetry (apparently written some years earlier) McLuhan specified his use of the epyllion term: The so-called art of the little epic (the idyll and epyllion) was a late Greek form associated with magical rituals. It was especially cultivated by Theocritus, who was Tennyson’s favorite poet. Theocritus and the Alexandrian school were directly responsible for “the new poetry” of Catullus, Ovid, and Virgil. The work of Theocritus, Catullus, Ovid, and Virgil, masters of the epyllion, needs to be known for any deep understanding of Tennyson’s technique in narrative poetry. But the discontinuous technique of the epyllion is equally the clue to the art form of Dubliners, of The Waste Land, and of The Cantos. (…) In practice the epyllion was closely linked to the Alexandrian art of the idyll or little picture, the little epic being frequently a series of such pictures with narrative links. When these links are suppressed, the mere juxtaposition or parataxis of scenes tends (as in The Waste Land) to establish a dramatic mode for the poem. (…) ln antiquity the cyclic epic of Homer and Hesiod moved away from primitive magic toward a rational and limited social function. (…) The little epic, on the other hand, was a deliberate return to religious ritual and magic. Virgil was the first to fuse the solar or cyclic epic with the magical form of the little epic. In this fusion Virgil was followed by Dante, Milton, and Tennyson. In Four Quartets T.S. Eliot has effected a new kind of fusion of cyclic and little epic, as have Joyce and Pound in even more complex ways. Whereas the cyclic epic, as in Homer, moves on the single narrative plane of individual spiritual quest, the little epic 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. (…) Ritualistic form, great erudition, and artistic sophistication often disguised by a folk theme or casual irony, obscurity, and concentration of allusion and expression — these are some of the most obvious features of the idyll and epyllion as practiced in antiquity and as followed by Tennyson, Joyce, and Eliot. Inseparable from these features are the omnipresent devices of discontinuity, flashback, digressions, and subplots. Dramatic parallelism, multileveled implication, and symbolic analogy, rather than linear perspective or narrative, characterize the little epic at all times.”
  3. ‘Joyce, Aquinas, and the Poetic Process’: “Traditionally there are two kinds of labyrinth, stone and sea, eye and ear. Joyce uses both constantly.”. In ‘Notes on the Media as Art Forms’ (1954): “Many people have noted how ours is an ‘eye-minded’ culture. But we do not have educated eyes. Similarly our ears are assailed by messages as no ears have ever been assailed, but we do not have educated ears.”
  4. See Autobiography 1954: McLuhan & Williams on discovering ‘auditory space’ and Ted Carpenter on discovering ‘auditory space’.
  5. ‘Media Fit the Battle of Jericho’: “Let’s now take a quick tour of the walls knocked over by media change. Writing was the break-through from sound to sight. But with the end of the acoustic wall came chronology, tick-tock time, architecture. (…) With writing on paper came the road. The road and paper meant organization at a distance: armies, empires, and the end of city walls. (…) Print knocked down the monastic walls of social and corporate study. The (Gutenberg) Bible: religion without walls. (…) Print evoked the walls of the classroom. (…) It fostered the vernaculars and enlarged the walls between nations. It speeded up language, thereby setting new walls between speech and song, and song and instrumentation. (…) In America print and book-culture became the dominant form from the beginning, setting walls between literature and art, and art and life (…) In America print was a technological matrix of all subsequent invention. Its assembly-lines finally reached expression in Detroit and the motor-car: the home without walls. (…) With telegraph only vernacular walls remain. All other cultural walls collapse under the impact of its instantaneous flash. With the wire-photo the vernacular walls are undermined. (…) The telephone: speech without walls. The phonograph: music hall without walls. The photograph: museum without walls. The movie and TV: classroom without walls.”
  6. ‘Radio in the Future of Canada’: “Print, by permitting people to read at high speed and, above all, to read alone and silently, developed a totally new set of mental operations. What I mentioned earlier (although not in these same words) becomes very relevant here: the medium is the message. The medium of print is the message, more than any individual writer could say.” But in 1956 in ‘Educational Effects of Mass Media of Communication’ he already declared: “we must substitute an interest in the media for the previous interest in subjects“. In fact, the whole passage concluding this ‘Educational Effects’ essay is eminently noteworthy: “Yes, we must substitute an interest in the media for the previous interest in subjects. This is the logical answer to the fact that the media have substituted themselves for the older world. Even if we should wish to recover that older world we can do so only by an intensive study of the ways in which the media have swallowed it. But no matter how many walls have fallen, the citadel of individual consciousness has not fallen nor is it likely to fall. For it is not accessible to the mass media.” (McLuhan has ‘and’ instead of ‘but’ at the start of the penultimate sentence here.)
  7. ‘Myth and Mass Media’: “The mythmaking power of a medium (…) appears now in the post-literate age as the rejection of the consumer in favor of the producer. The movie now can be seen as the peak of the consumer-oriented society, being in its form the natural means both of providing and of glorifying consumer goods and attitudes. But in the arts of the past century the swing has been away from packaging for the consumer to providing do-it-yourself kits. The spectator or reader must now be co-creator. (…) The ‘form’ and ‘content’ dichotomy is as native to the abstract, written, and printed forms of codification as is the ‘producer’ and ‘consumer’ dichotomy. (…) Edgar Allen Poe, both in his symbolist poems and in his detective stories, had anticipated this new mythic dimension of producer orientation by taking the audience into the creative process itself.” ‘Myth and Mass Media’ was published in 1959, but was given as a lecture at Harvard in the spring of 1958.
  8. ‘Media Alchemy in Art and Society’: “Kenneth Boulding’s The Image is an important event in advancing our knowledge of alchemical change in all types of structure. And we achieve this advance by seeing every kind of structure, from the botanical to the animal and human, as a knowledge structure subject to information in-put.” (For “information in-put” see light through.) Later in 1963 in ‘We need a new picture of knowledge’: “It was about 1870 that Claude Bernard instituted the structural approach in experimental medicine, showing that the knowledge of separate organs could be advanced by their ablation or suppression. Then by observing the overall effect of this ablation on the changed relations by among all the other organs, the properties of the suppressed organ became automatically manifest. This total or structural approach to the interplay of functions and properties is called ‘closure’ or ‘completion’ in current psychology. ‘Closure’, in fact, is new balance or recovery after the shock of ablation or suppression of some organ or function.”
  9.  November 18 1958 to Harry Skornia: “Big break-through in insight into TV came in NYC via Andre Girrard (sic, Girard) the painter who works for CBS and NBC. In a word, key fact about TV is that image is defined not by light on but by light through, exactly as stained glass principle of art form.  Makes me tingle all over just to see those words because very big matters hinge on this fact.  Opens up understanding fast.” Light through brought McLuhan to what he would call “iconic mode”: percepts, media, rhetorical figures, the arts of the trivium and quadrivium, myths, formal causes — all were now conceived as incoming. As he would have it the next year in ‘Communications and the Word of God’: “the world of forms in which we live impresses us steadily and constantly without intermission, without benefit of words or thoughts. They are total in their action upon us. It doesn’t matter what theory we may have about them: their effect upon us is quite independent of any thought we may have about them.” See formal cause. The plurality of these incoming forms was critical since it implicated a transitive gap or interval which was necessary to preserve their plurality and which then could account for the possibility of revolution between outgoing Gutenbergian perspective and incoming Marconian mosaic.
  10. Recorded in a May 14 1959 letter to  Edward S Morgan: “It is important to understand that the Global Village pattern is caused by the instantaneous movement of information from every quarter to every point at the same time. (…) We are retribalizing, after centuries of detribalizing; and (…) whereas we accomplished detribalization by literacy and segmental analysis of all thought, action, and production, we are accomplishing our retribalization by the simultaneous, by the electronic, which tends to put us in a kind of auditory world, or field, of simultaneous sound in which the Intuitive Man takes precedence over the Analytic Man.” (Letters 254, 255)
  11. Recorded in a May 14 1959 letter to  Edward S Morgan: “The tribe is a unit, which, extending the bounds of the family to include the whole society, becomes the only way of organizing society when it exists in a kind of Global Village pattern. It is important to understand that the Global Village pattern is caused by the instantaneous movement of information from every quarter to every point at the same time.” (Letters 254) A few months later in ‘Communications and the Word of God’: “Let us start directly with a mention of what I consider to be an experience which we all share, all the time — the global-village atmosphere of the twentieth century.” Ten years before McLuhan had read Lewis’ America and Cosmic Man: “the earth has become one big village, with telephones laid on from one end to the other, and air transport (…) there is no disunion any more on earth (…) the air-age has closed up the ocean gaps (…) America (…) is not any longer  across the seas. Instead, it is a time, not a place: namely, the cosmic era”. (Cosmic Man 21, 188, 189)
  12. ‘Communications and the Word of God’: “Artists took up the cause of formal causality about 1800 after the philosophers had abandoned it (…) Formal causality disappeared (…) about Descartes’ time as an object of serious interest. (…) Artists, with the romantics, in a most earnest manner took up the cause of formal causality. Only, they talked about formal causality as if it were art in which the forms of things began to be insisted upon as having something to say to man and, above all, that they had the power to train human sensibility. Not the power to impose systems of thought but to train human sensibility. (…) a formal cause exerts its pressure non-verbally and non-conservatively. Any substantial form impresses itself upon you without benefit of awareness or conscious attention on your part. You can be conscious about it if you like, but (…) the world of forms in which we live impresses us steadily and constantly without intermission, without benefit of words or thoughts. They are total in their action upon us. It doesn’t matter what theory we may have about them: their effect upon is quite independent of any thought we may have about them. (…) In terms of formal causality, the dialogue is a necessity of education today. The old idea of presenting packaged information one-thing-at-a-time, visually-ordered, is completely at variance with our electronic media. I’m talking about their formal structure.” Later that year in a letter to Peter Drucker, December 15, 1959: “my media studies have gravitated toward the centre of formal causality, forcing me to re-invent it.” (Letters 259)
  13.  January 25 letter to Harry Skornia: “The last few days have seen a major breakthrough in media study. Working with the fact that each medium embodies one or more of the human senses, it struck me that we are impelled in perceiving each medium to complete the scale or spectrum of our sensorium. So that, radio impels us to provide a visual world moment by moment, and photography, which is so adequate in visual terms, compels us to complete the tactual and kinesthetic part of the sensorium. Thus the degree of sensuous completion is one way in which the lines of force in any medium are structured.” In his NAEB project report later that year, McLuhan would describe thus insight as follows: “Early in 1960 it dawned on me that the sensory impression proffered by a medium like movie or radio, was not the sensory effect obtained. Radio, for example, has an intense visual effect on listeners. But then there is the telephone which also proffers an auditory impression, but has no visual effect. In the same way television is watched but has a very different effect from movies. These observations led to a series of studies of the media, and to the discovery of basic laws concerning the sensory effects of various media. These will be found in this report.  In 1915 Heinrich Wölfflin published his Principles of Art History which has since then revolutionized the study of many matters besides art. His entire approach confirms what I discovered about media: “the effect is the thing that counts, not the sensuous facts“. (Report on the Project in Understanding New Media)
  14.  ‘Technology, the Media, and Culture’: “Let us be quite clear that electric technology supplants and dissolves Euclidean rational space. As educators and responsible citizens, we have to inquire  whether we choose to pay the price for a technological change which not only substitutes multiple spaces and times for our long-held Euclidean world, but which also pulls the rug out from under all the legal, political, and educational procedures of the past three thousand years of the Western world. (…) As information levels rise, fixed point of view yields to inclusive multi-dimensional awareness. (…) It was only a generation ago that the literary world was startled by the rediscovery of multiple levels of statement in the simplest words and syntax. (…) What we today can see very easily is that the departure of the Greek world into pictorial and Euclidean space was anything but natural. Preliterate, natural man then and now lived in a world of scheme which we encounter in child and primitive art. Such art allows no dominance to the eye. The multiple levels and modes of sound and tactility are favored in cave art above the visual.” What McLuhan made explicit in this way in 1960 he had long known implicitly. Here he is in a 1934 letter to his family from Cambridge: “Of late I have been wayfaring among the work of T.S. Eliot. He is easily the greatest modern poet, and just how great he is remains to be seen, because he has not produced his best yet. However the poems I am reading (Poems 1909-1925) have the unmistakable character of greatness. They transform, and diffuse and recoalesce the commonest every day occurrences of 20th century city life till one begins to see double indeed — the extremely unthinkable character, the glory and the horror of the reality in life (…) is miraculously suggested.” (Letters 41)
  15. ‘From Visual To Tactile Experience’: “But the TV image is the first technology by which man has outered his haptic, or tactile, powers. It affects, therefore, the balance or ratio among our senses. Since at all times consciousness involves a ratio resulting in the immediate “closure” or completion of pattern, such new “closure” or completion is, in fact, a new posture of mind charged with new preferences and desires, as well as with new patterns of perception. Tactility Means not Contact of Skin but Interplay of All Senses. The elementary and basic fact about the TV image is that it is a mosaic or a mesh, continuously in a state of formation by the “scanning finger”.  Such mosaic involves the viewer in a perpetual act of participation and completion.  The intensely dramatic character of this image is shared in no way by the photograph or by the movie image. The TV image is not a shot, nor a view of anything so much as an experience. Its primarily tactile, rather than visual, character is a quality familiar to art historians in connection with mosaic work and with abstract art. These also, like the TV image, foster an intense experience of structure and interrelation of form for which the visual experience of Western man since the Renaissance has prepared us not at all. For the tactile image involves not so much the touch of skin as the interplay or contact of sense with sense, of touch with sight, with sound, with movement.” Here is McLuhan to Walter Ong, Feb 27, 1962 (Letters 287): “Walter it’s about time that we did something for philosophy in regard to “touch”, that “interface” transforming moment when the sensus communis translates one mode into another. Our media now do this outside us and thus calls urgently for an outer consensus of media proportioned to the proportional ratios of consciousness.”
  16. ‘Prospect’: “we live in the unconscious. This is the age of the unconscious because it is the age when the nervous system is totally exposed.” Later in ‘The Memory Theatre’ (1967): “The unconscious, the greatest of all possible memory theatres, goes outside into the external environment by means of electric technology.” And in ‘Environment As Programmed Happening’ (1968): “To say that we live mythically today while continuing to think conventionally may help to draw attention to the technological gap in our ordinary experience. Electric technology, simply because it is all at once, is also discontinuous. It tends therefore to create exterior situations that have all the structural characteristics of the human unconsciousTo the rational observer who seeks to find connectedness and uniformity in the spaces of his world, the new situation presents an extreme form of the irrational.”
  17. Both letters mention McLuhan reading Wolfgang Kohler’s Gestalt Psychology. In his conversations with Nine Sutton a decade later, McLuhan noted “I was not using figure-ground (…) when I wrote that book (Understanding Media) (…) Now I have switched completely to figure/ground. It was implied there but it was not explicit.” Indeed, the implication was already present 30 years before in a letter to his family discussing T S Eliot (cited in multilevel above).
  18. ‘Notes on Burroughs’: “The art of the interval, rather than the art of the connection, is not only medieval but Oriental; above all, it is the art mode of instant electric culture.” But already in ‘James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial’ (1953) McLuhan’s second sight had already spotted the importance of the interval: “one of the most persistent and deeply embedded motifs in Ulysses is that of the ‘series of empty fifths’ which Stephen plays on Bella Cohen’s piano, expounding their ritual perfection ‘because the fundamental and the dominant are separated by the greatest possible interval which (…) is the greatest possible ellipse. Consistent with the ultimate return. (…) What went forth to the ends of the world to traverse not itself. God, the sun, Shakespeare, a commercial traveller (…) The longest way round is the shortest way home.’ The musical chord is a means of linking with the stages of human apprehension, the growth of the soul, the movement of the sun through the zodiacal signs, the Incarnation and Ascension, the mental labyrinth of art and the cloacal labyrinth of commerce. Nor are these diverse themes merely introduced casually in the Circe episode. They pervade this epic which unites the trivial and quadrivial arts by means of the same solar ritual which underlies Homeric and other epic structures.” See also gap and tactility.
  19. ‘Cybernetics and Human Culture’: “Yet this strange gap between the specialist, visual world and the integral, auditory world needs to be understood today above all, for it contains the key to an understanding of what automation and cybernetics imply.” In that same year Understanding Media has a passage which pointed McLuhan to the idea of ‘the gap is where the action is’: “The discovery of calculation by positional numbers rather than by merely additive numbers led, also, to the discovery of zero. Mere positions for 3 and 2 on the board created ambiguities about whether the number was 32 or 302. The need was to have a sign for the gaps between numbers. It was not till the thirteenth century that sifr, the Arab word for “gap” or “empty,” was Latinized and added to our culture as “cipher” (ziphirum) and finally became the Italian zero. Zero really meant a positional gap. It did not acquire the indispensable quality of “infinity” until the rise of perspective and “vanishing point” in Renaissance painting. The new visual space of Renaissance painting affected number as much as lineal waiting had done centuries earlier.” The phrase, “the gap is where the action is”, seems to appear first in Take Today (60 and 81). Take Today begins: “The art and science of this century reveal and exploit the resonating bond in all things. All boundaries are areas of maximal abrasion and change. The interval or gap constitutes the resonant or musical bond in the material universe. This is where the action is. To naïve classifiers a gap is merely empty. They will look for connections instead of bonds. (…) But by directing perception on the interfaces of the processes in ECO-land, all gaps become prime sources of discovery.”
  20. McLuhan to Skornia, October 3, 1964 (Letters 311): “Harry me boy, it works. Over and over I’ve talked to groups and individuals about new technology as new environment. Content of new environment is old environment. The new environment is always invisible. Only the content shows, and only the environment is really active as shaping force. As Drucker shows in his Management for Results in every situation 10% of the events cause 90% of the events. The 10% area is the sector of opportunity. The 90% area is the area of problems. The opportunity or environmental and innovational area is ignored. All sensible people deal first with problems, that is, the dead issues. To deal with the environmental directly is my strategy, Harry, to attack the new environment as if it were an artefact capable of being molded. Today Telstar is about to create a new environment. It’s content will be not only TV and computer but the planet itself. TV will become an art form just as movie has done  since TV.  But in order to have autonomy we must push the unconscious and environmental parameters right up into consciousness.  All that I’ve said about the medium is the message is sound.  But it becomes acceptable when put as ‘new technology is new environment’.  Everybody knows that environment is a force. The principle works in many ways. e.g. at what point does the supply of any item become environmental?  Answer:  ‘when it creates demand’.  It works also for all modes of perception.  Can now put the entire Gutenberg Galaxy on a single page.” Before 1964 McLuhan had certainly discussed what might be termed the global implications of media, but now his focus became explicitly on media as environments.
  21. McLuhan to Skornia, October 3, 1964 (Letters 311). See environment (as medium) above: “Today Telstar is about to create a new environment. It’s content will be not only TV and computer but the planet itself.” A premonition of the satellite surround was already present in McLuhan’s 1956 ‘Educational Effects of Mass Media of Communication’: “Yes, we must substitute an interest in the media for the previous interest in subjects. This is the logical answer to the fact that the media have substituted themselves for the older world. Even if we should wish to recover that older world we can do so only by an intensive study of the ways in which the media have swallowed it.” But Wyndham Lewis 15 years before in Cosmic Man, a book McLuhan knew and learned from, already foresaw: “The enormously increased velocity of the time-machine confounds the historian. His thinking is geared to time-tables which contemporary techniques have made suddenly obsolete. Even a revolutionary weapon like the rocket-bomb alters the conservative picture entirely. The atomic bomb just blasts it to pieces. The aerial platforms, two-hundred miles up, of tomorrow, which, it seems, the rocket-men were turning over in their minds, while engaged in the perfecting of their’doodlebugs’ will, in combination with the new nuclear principle, write an even more comprehensive finis to history as it up to now has been conceived.”
  22. ‘Hardware/Software Mergers’: “From Concept To Percept — Havelock, describing the tribal encyclopedia of pre-Plato man, describes the world of percept. Today we are moving  rapidly out of the world of concepts, which came in with Plato, back into a world of perception.  Our school systems are not yet programmed for training perception, but only for concepts and classified data. Concepts end with electric circuitry and percepts take over. (…) After 2500 years of concepts: back to perception and discovery. We enter again the age of the hunter, the searcher, and the comprehensivist. It is a return to the age of the Cyclops, the data banker, the man who gathers data about his fellow man as a full time living.”
  23. ‘Hardware/Software Mergers’: “He was on a frontier, and like anybody else on a frontier he was a nobody. When you are a nobody, you have to prove who you are. All frontiers are violent because nobody is anybody or everybody is a nobody.” McLuhan was close to this notion in ‘Television in a New Light’  in 1966: “a mass audience is an audience in which everyone experiences and participates with everybody and in which nobody has a private identity. So the psychiatrist’s couches today are groaning with the weight of people asking, ‘Who am I? Please tell me who I am.’ There is no identity left. At electric speeds nobody has a private identity. Don’t ask whether this is good or bad. It is an inevitable function of electric speeds (…) The electronic world rubs out all barriers, all partitions, all classifications. (See classroom without walls above.)That is why the existentialist discovers the difficulty of having a personality in the modern world. Electrically, you cannot have a private personality. It belongs to an older technology of data classification: for example, ‘I’m a Hungarian, I’m a dentist, I’m 35, I have three kids, that’s me.’ Under electric conditions that’s nobody!”
  24. ‘Violence of the Media’: “Violence exerted by private individuals tends to have limited results, whereas the violence exerted by groups knows no bounds. Media are always and necessarily corporate or group activities, whether they are the mother tongues or the father images of big corporations. With the proliferation of multi-media in our time, there is a new consensus that some manner of  media ecology and control be put into action…”

Burroughs on ‘Literary Techniques’

the environment itself becomes educator as it was for primitive man, the hunter (McLuhan, A Garbage Apocalypse)

In the TLS August 6 1964 issue with McLuhan’s Statement of Culture and Technology, William Burroughs contributed a piece on ‘The Literary Techniques of Lady Sutton-Smith‘. McLuhan’s ‘Notes on Burroughs‘ which appeared a few months later signaled that he had found Burroughs’ article highly interesting and suggestive. 

Since late 1958, closely contemporaneous with his admonition that ‘the medium is the message’, McLuhan had been emphasizing the difference between light through towards us in contrast to light on from us.1 Now he found that same distinction in Burroughs along with its corollaries of the organic nature of words and the imperative to perceive behind and below the surface level of things — especially of ourselves.

The great matter lay in Burroughs’ question: “Your words spelt out whose words?”

Our own words are light through towards us, not light on from us!2

In order to hear our own words we must, as Burroughs says over and over again, learn to listen. That is, we (whoever this ‘we’ is!) must first of all learn to re-cognize and inhabit an acoustic world, not (or not only) a visual one! Marconi, not only Gutenberg!3

In an acoustic world, all of our words are retrievals and replays: “muttering voices looking for a role”.

We are always in some role, always wearing some mask, always running some “errand”, always repeating some prior “muttering”; but roles and masks and errands and mutterings are not mine, are not me. As Burroughs directs twice over: “forget [your] me”!

The great matter at stake is just which role and which mask is fitting: You only use the ones that fit you know.” A question of the put-on. At this “intersection point”, who am I? And who should I be?

…”muttering voices looking for a role”…


The Literary Techniques of Lady Sutton-Smith

I do not present the techniques I use in writing as a solemn new literary movement but rather as amusing exercises so introducing Lady Sutton-Smith who ‘haunted’ as she put it a villa in the Marshan (Tangier) overlooking the sea, Lady Sutton-Smith trailing spectral bouganvillia and thin stray cats: “I think of writing as something that is fun to do. Out here we have to make our own fun you know crippled with arthritis I hardly walk so I write my walks. I write my walks in columns.” Every day her servant went to the market to buy food and Lady Sutton- Smith wrote the walk before she sent her servant, wrote what he would see, who he would meet and what would be said. She plotted and timed his walk on her map of Tangier…”Now he is just here by the bouganvillia where the old junky doctor used to live”. When her servant returned from the market she questioned him to see how close she had come and entered the corrections in a separate column. Then she filled a third column with cross column readings and observations . . ledgers she kept stacked up in a dusty room each page divided neatly in three columns. Lady Sutton-Smith is here to answer your questions. Please remember she also has stray cats to feed, that she must organize benefit slave auctions for the SPCA and the Anti-Fluoride Society and teach a class in flower arranging at the leprosarium which is another of the civic things she did.

“Cut ups? but of course. I have been a cut up for years and why not? Words know where they belong better than you do. I think of words as being alive like animals. They don’t like to be kept in pages. Cut the pages and let the words out. Sometimes I take all my old Tuesday walks and fill a column on some future Tuesday with old Tuesday cut ups and see how close that comes when I get there. You would be surprised how I can write a future Tuesday from old Tuesday cut ups or any other day as well I use pictures too in my books…Oh not just any picture…The picture…”

Now back on a 1957 Sunday I wrote : “An old junky selling Christmas seals on North Clark St…’The Priest’ they called him”…And just here is a picture from Newsweek, May 18, 1964…plane wreck .. the priest there hand lifted: “Last rites for 44 airliner dead including Captain Clark (left).” Left an old junky on North Clark St dim jerky far away Lady Sutton-Smith Lady Sutton brings you an article I wrote once for the uplift magasines…My Advice to Young Writers: I had an old city editor once who used to tell his young reporters: “You will never get anywhere sitting on your dead tail. Go out and get that story. Go out and get that picture. Not just any story. Not just any picture. The story. The picture. And that goes double for young writers. Now look at your typewriter. Your words spelt out whose words?“…phantom tape playing over your typewriter, sad muttering voices looking for a role. Listen and record. Before you can write you must learn to listen. Now look beyond your typewriter. Pick up your soft typewriter and walk. Sit down in a cafe somewhere drink a coffee read the papers and listen don’t talk to yourself. (‘How do I look? What do they think of me?’) Forget me. Don’t talk. Listen and look out as you read (Any Private Eye knows how to look and listen as he rather ostentatiously reads The Times)…Note what you see and hear as you read what words and look at what picture. These are intersection points. Note these intersection points in the margin of your paper. Listen to what is being said around you and look at what is going on around you. Cast yourself as a secret agent in constant danger of assassination or enemy torture chambers all your senses on total alert sniffing quivering down streets of fear like an electric dog this is an amusing little literary exercise bringing to the writer what he needs namely: Action. Camera. You will find that a walk, a few errands, a short trip will provide pages of copy when you learn to look listen and read. Yes how many of you know how to read ? Look at Time or Newsweek. Hold a page up to the light and see what is on the other side. Just here in Newsweek, July 6, 1964 page 5 is a picture of a loaf of bread in some obscure way advertising Esso Petroleum Co. On the other side page 6 is devoted to Banking Service American Express. Now ‘bread’ in hip lingo used by old time ‘Yegg Men’ means money. How many of you saw that money behind the ‘bread’? When you read a novel look and listen out. I recently took The Quiet American by Mr. Graham Greene on a short trip from Tangier to Gibraltar so sitting in the saloon of the Mons Calpe cold mist outside fog horns blowing I read ‘Pyle looked dreamily at the milk bar across the street. Was that a grenade? he said’, No that was not a grenade. That was a fog horn . . cold mist through the milk bar. (Note in the margin). Now look around and see if you can find ‘Pyle’ in the saloon. Yes there he is . . bottle of beer . . quiet American eyes. So take any book on a trip and make a reading diary. Now arrange your reading diary in one column. In another column the so called events: arrivals and departures . . hotels . . (‘I wondered peevishly if I might not find every hotel on the Rock full of Swedes’)… incidents …(waiter there with the wrong wine). In a third column enter all the thoughts and memories stirred by the trip…Tangier Gibraltar… Gibraltar Tangier…’Captain Clark welcomes you aboard…Set your clocks forward an hour…Set your clocks back an hour…’ Now read cross column and see what an interesting trip you have made and how much there is to write about really because any intersection point in present time contains all your past times and maybe your future time as well…What’s that? I’m a little hard of hearing…Oh no of course you don’t use all your cross column readings any more than you use all your cut ups or fold ins. You only use the ones that fit you know. Yes it is a lot of work picking them out and putting them just here in the right place. I have often thought much of the opposition to cut ups was perhaps a premonition of the amount of work and precision required to use them properly. So look at a page you have written and move the lines around why not? Read from line one down to line anything: ‘I do not present just any picture…All your senses on Milk Bar Alert’…you can write on North Clark St intersection points…The ‘Priest’ there, quiet hand lifted brings you my advice to young writers…Forget me from old Tuesday intersection pointsI on the other sidesad muttering voices…a few errands…An old junky writes in the margin dim jerky far away — Get that picture? You know how to read behind a novel? Future fog across arrivals and departures? Smell of ashes rising from the typewriter? Fear like this is an amusing literary exercise put away in some remote file…The Nova Police Gazette. Yes I keep all my papers in files and the title of the file tells me what is there already and what belongs there. Inspector J. Lee of The Nova Police like everyone who does a job works to make himself obsolete. I keep files on all my characters with identikit pictures. When I see a picture in a newspaper or magasine that seems to have something of Doctor Benway, AJ or Inspector J. Lee I cut it out and return it to the appropriate file with all the intersection readings from novels newspapers and magasines its all here in the files stacked up in a dusty room and that’s about the closest way I know to tell you and papers rustling across city desks. Always tell my young reporters…”Get the name and address.” Lady Sutton- Smith returned to a cool Sunday file. Fresh southerly winds stir papers on the city desk.

Note: The first cut ups were made by Mr. Brion Gysin Summer of i960 and appeared in Minutes To Go September i960. There are many ways to do cut ups: 1. Take a page of text and draw a line down the middle and cross the middle. You now have four blocks of text 1234. Now cut along the lines and put block 1 with block 4 and block 2 with block 3. Read the rearranged page. 2. Fold a page of text down the middle lengthwise and lay it on another page of text. Now read across half one text and half the other. 3. Arrange your texts in three or more columns and read cross column. 4. Take any page of text and number the lines. Now shift permutate order of lines 1 3 6 9 12 etcetera. There are of course many other possibilities. A throw of the words gives you new combos. Selection and use is up to the writer.

  1. See From world to worlds and Charge of the light brigade.
  2. McLuhan had been thinking of this matter since reading Jung in the early 1940s around the same time that he was finishing up his Nashe thesis. If the trivial arts think us, not we them, how does this all work? See Jung and Dagwood and the ineradicable roots of our being.
  3.  So: Marconi and Gutenberg!

McLuhan reads Burroughs

For Andrew…

The same TLS issue1 of August 6, 1964 with McLuhan’s ‘Statement on Culture and Technology’ featured a piece by William Burroughs: ‘The Literary Techniques of Lady Sutton-Smith‘. There is good evidence that McLuhan read Burroughs’ piece and was impressed by it. 

In the first place, McLuhan wrote an article on Burroughs in The Nation2 that appeared only a few months after their joint appearance in the TLS. Presumably McLuhan was prompted to write his ‘Notes on Burroughs‘ for The Nation after reading Burroughs’ TLS note on ‘Literary Techniques’. 

In the second place, there are passages in Burroughs’ piece which would have impressed McLuhan as giving off a whiff of central aspects of his own thoughts — or, indeed, as something he needed to consider further thanks to Burroughs:

  • Words know where they belong better than you do. I think of words as being alive like animals. They don’t like to be kept in pages.3
  • Your words spelt out whose words?
  • muttering voices looking for a role…4
  • Before you can write you must learn to listen (…) don’t talk to yourself  (…) forget [the] me
  • I’m a little hard of hearing 
  • Any intersection point in present time contains all your past times and maybe your future time as well.

In the third place, the cut-up method that Burroughs’ TLS piece both describes and illustrates was a way (Gk οδός, hence meth-od) of deploying the com/plexity of language — its exfoliations and infoldings —  and the gaps which are required for such com/plexity.

Forget me from old Tuesday intersection points…I on the other side…sad muttering voices…a few errands…An old junky writes in the margin dim jerky far away…Get that picture? You know how to read behind a novel? Future fog across arrivals and departures? Smell of ashes rising from the typewriter? 

The cut-up method is a practical application of “the gap is where the action is”:

Burroughs uses what he calls “Brion Gysin’s cut-up method” (…) To read the daily newspaper in its entirety is to encounter the method in all its purity. Similarly, an evening watching television programs is an experience in a corporate form — an endless succession of impressions and snatches of narrative. Burroughs is unique only in that he is attempting to reproduce in prose what we accommodate every day as a commonplace aspect of life in the electric age. If the corporate life is to be rendered on paper, the method of discontinuous nonstory must be employed. (McLuhan, Notes on Burroughs)

In the fourth place, it must have been a very rare (and presumably much appreciated) event in McLuhan’s life to encounter a word he didn’t know. In earlier times he had delighted in using words which no one had ever heard of. Now Burroughs offered him one: “Yegg Men”.5 Burroughs had gone to Chicago to hear a course of Korsbinski lectures in 1939 and then lived there on the near north side in 1942-1943.6 He must have had these years in Chicago on his mind when he wrote the TLS piece since he mentions North Clark St three times in the course of its few pages. And ‘Yegg Man’ was Chicago slang for “hobo burglar, safe-breaker, criminal beggar”.

McLuhan would have been the all more delighted with this new word since he could identify with it: he himself was a self-professed “safe-breaker”:

Most of my work in the media is like that of a safe-cracker. In the beginning I don’t know what’s inside. I just set myself down in front of the problem and begin to work. I grope, I probe, I listen, I test — until the tumblers fall and I’m in. That’s the way I work with all these media. (Stearn interview, 1967)

I grope, I listen, I test, I accept and discard; I try out different sequences — until the tumblers fall and the doors spring open. (Playboy interview, 1969)

Hence it was, when Eric McLuhan came to describe ‘Marshall McLuhan’s Theory of Communication‘ — this was in 2008, almost thirty years after his father’s death and 44 years after the Burroughs and McLuhan TLS pieces — that he called his essay ‘The Yegg’. And the definition he offered there for the word was “an itinerant professional safe-cracker”.


  1. Reprinted with the McLuhan and Burroughs articles in Astronauts of Inner-Space in 1966.
  2. Notes on Burroughs‘, The Nation, 199:21, December 1964, pp. 517-519.
  3. Compare McLuhan from over a decade before: “words can be regarded not as signs but as existent things, alive with a physical and mental life which is both individual and collective” (‘James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial’, 1953).  In that same essay McLuhan commented on puns like Burroughs’ on cages/pages — “puns in the Wake are a technique for revealing the submerged drama of language, and Joyce relied on the quirks, ‘slips’, and freaks of ordinary discourse to evoke the fullness of existence in speech. All his life he played the sleuth with words, shadowing them and waiting confidently for some unexpected situation to reveal their hidden signatures and powers. For his view of the poet was that he should read, not forge, the signatures of things.”
  4. Burroughs “muttering voices” would have put McLuhan in mind of FW, of course. In Through the Vanishing Point, he writes of “the auditory mumble” (63). That all human being might be considered as “put-on”, masks and roles was a central feature of McLuhan’s lifetime method.
  5. Eric McLuhan was back from his stint on the US Air Force at this time and would certainly have shared in his father’s discovery.
  6. Burroughs chronology 

Statement on Culture and Technology

The Aug 6, 1964 issue of the TLS was dedicated to the question of the avant garde. McLuhan appeared in it as did such figures such as William Burroughs and Allan Ginsberg. McLuhan’s ‘Statement on Culture and Technology’ is available on YouTube read by Andrew McLuhan. Along with other contributions to the TLS issue, it was reprinted in Astronauts of Inner-Space (1966). 


Statement on Culture and Technology
TLS, Aug 6, 1964 

The work of Adolf von Hildebrand (Problem of Form 1893) and of Remy de Gourmont was typical of a great deal of new awareness concerning the nature of materials and their relation to the modalities of human perception and creativity. The new art and architecture and poetry of the 20th century had their roots in a new kind of perceptual discipline that centers in the awareness of style. In 1922 Middleton Murray’s The Problem of Style made quite explicit the relationship between style and perception as well as the relation between art and the active training of sensibility. Recognition of technique became a program of discovery.

In 1920 T.S. Eliot’s essay on [Philip] Massinger brought new stress to bear upon the language of a period in order to make it a means of perceiving the entire structure and values of a civilization: 

These lines of Tourneur and of Middleton exhibit that perpetual slight alteration of language, words perpetually juxtaposed in new and sudden combinations, meanings perpetually eingeschachtelt into meanings, which evidences a very high development of the senses, a development of the English language which we have perhaps never equalled. 

This is the kind of approach to language as the material of poetry that launched many of the artistic experiments of the 1920s as well as the critical programs of the Calendar of Modern Letters and of Scrutiny. It is not only an attitude but a method and a technique of grappling with all the materials and technologies of any human environment so that if politics is the art of the possible, its scope must now in the electric age include the shaping and programming of the entire sensory environment as a luminous work of art. 

From the neolithic age men had been engaged in creating technological extensions of their bodies in various fragmented and specialist forms whether of script or wheel or housing or money. These extensions serve to amplify but also to fragment human powers in faculties in order to store and to expedite knowledge and materials and processes. Naturally such amplifications of human powers greatly enlarge the means and incentives to violence and foster the enlargement of bureaucracy and enterprise alike. The break with the neolithic age comes with electromagnetism and its derivative technologies. The electronic age is distinct from any other age. The numerous extensions of hands and feet in the various forms of spindles and wheels and roads now begin to yield to the circuit in the loop “where the hand of man never set foot”. The immediate extensions of our nervous system by telegraph and telephone and radio and television not only usher us into a period when the codifying and movement of information supersede all other tasks in scope and in the creation of wealth, but they involve us totally in one another’s lives. The extensions of our nerves and senses as they constitute a new man-made environment also require a wholly new kind of understanding of the sensory materials of this new environment and of the learning processes to which they are so deeply related. 

One of the discoveries of Baudelaire and his followers concerned the means of relating the creative process in poetry to the stages of apprehension of human knowledge. Since  Baudelaire art has become co-extensive with discovery and knowledge in every sphere of action and at every possible range of human development. The gap between art and technology has now ceased to exist as we come as we become cognizant of our art and technology as immediate extensions of ourselves. We have also acquired the responsibility of heeding the psychic and social consequences of such extensions. It is now many years since Mr Eliot pointed to the effects of the internal combustion engine on poetic rhythms. Many forms of technology far more potent than the internal combustion engine have been assimilated to the rhythms of art and poetry and social life since that time.

With the extension of the nervous system in electric technology, information not only moves in much greater quantity than ever before but at very much greater speed than ever before. Paradoxically the acceleration of information movement restores us to the habit of mythical and inclusive perception. Whereas data were previously fragmented by earlier forms of codifying information the electric circuit has restored us to the world of pattern recognition and to an understanding of the life of forms which had been denied to all but the artists of the now receding mechanical age. Our main concern today is with the patterns of the learning process itself — patterns which we can now see to be correlative with the processes of creativity in the world of the organization of work. The electric revolution means the end of jobs.

That is, electric circuitry eliminates the fragmentation and specialization of the work process which created the job type of work in the renaissance and after. The elimination of the job in the work process means a return to the depth involvement in role-playing formerly associated only with arts and crafts. But now in the age of information the work process and the learning process become interfused. Automation is learning a living. Precisely the same kind of a revolution is taking place in the world of learning as in the world of work. Numerous centers such as the center for culture and technology at the University of Toronto have recently come into existence. They are the response not so much to a theory as to a need and even to a pressure.

It has long been known that in graduate studies a research student crosses departmental boundaries as a matter of course. As access to all kinds of information becomes swifter, so does involvement in the pattern of every type of information. As an example the center for culture and technology which exists by cross appointments within the University of Toronto is concerned to establish ways of quantifying the psychic and social consequences of every type of technology. It is natural that the extensions of our senses technologically should have a direct effect upon the sensory usage and preference of any community. Many of these effects are quite incompatible with the continuance of older values. Once a sensory typology has been established for a given population therefore it is possible to predict the effect on that sensory typology of any given new artifact such as the motor car or television. That is to say it becomes possible to control or to avoid kinds of innovation that are destructive of such established values as we prefer to retain. However a large measure of personal and social autonomy thus becomes possible across the entire spectrum of culture and technology, much in the way that we now have the means of thermostatic control of the thermal environment.

A full understanding of the sensory typology of cultures on one hand and sensory order and impact of art and technology on the other affords the possibility of a human environment centrally programmed for the maximal use of the human powers of learning.



Garbage Apocalypse

McLuhan’s talk, ‘A Garbage Apocalypse’, given at a 1970 conference on art criticism in Ottawa is available online in the Critique d’Art archives.1 Here it is in text and with added emphasis: 


A Garbage Apocalypse

We live in an age of innovation when we are surrounded by so many scrapped cultures that ruins, junk, and garbage have become a new kind of environment. Every innovation scraps the preceding environments created by preceding innovations and this prepares the ground for new cultural figures to emerge. The Greeks abstracted phusis2 as a visual figure from the ground of the surrounding barbaric cultures, sunk in their non-visual existential modes.

Thanks to the new art of phonetic writing, the Greeks were able to establish a new order of classified and conceptualized art structures which gradually became consolidated as Nature.

To the Greeks, phusis or “Nature” was abstracted from the huge existential mass of oral culture and magical practises by which the pre-Socratic world had established its relations with the ground of existence. The pre-platonic world was auditory, tactile, and kinetic, anything but visual in its patterns of order. The entelechies of man and society in the pre-Socratic world were resonant and auditory rather than visually classified. With the new phonetic writing, with its drastic separation of sign and semantics, the Greeks were able to make a complete divorce between the old pre-literate cultures and their own Euclidean order. Euclid himself had consolidated the new abstract, visual space, retaining as little as possible of the old kinetic aspects of land measurement in the organization of his formal structures. It was not, however, until printing that geometers were able to reduce the kinetic character of geometry to an absolute visual minimum. (See Art and Geometry by Wm. Ivins Jr.)

To the Greek of this early time it seemed plain enough that he was creating an order of phusis, or physics, or “Nature” from the huge midden-heap of confused barbaric cultures. What eventually emerged from this “garbage” of destroyed cultures was a highly selective abstraction of classified conformities and patterns which the Greeks called phusis, or physics, and which gradually became familiarized in the Western world as “Nature.”

In the age of non-Euclidean geometries (later 19th century and since), it is quite easy to see that the Greeks had separated out visual space from the many other kinds of space in setting up geometry. Visual space has the unique properties of uniformity, continuity and connectedness. These properties do not belong to the kinetic or auditory or tactile spaces. Only phonetically literate man has ever sufficiently separated out the visual sense from the perplex of all the other senses in order to create a merely visual order in art and knowledge. Pre-literate man lives primarily in the audile-tactile world of the resonant interval which is now familiar to us from the new quantum mechanics. (See The Nature of the Chemical Bond by Linus Pauling.)  

The world of play, celebrated in the study Homo Ludens by J Huizinga, is a world of the resonating interval such as we experience in the relation between wheel and axle. It is play rather than connection or logic that makes possible both wheel and axle. Logic is known only to the visual man who looks for connections rather than for play and metamorphosis. The artist, however, must always prefer the world of play and metamorphosis to the world of visual continuity and logical connection.

The Greeks, having created phusis from the huge midden-heap of surrounding barbaric cultures, proceeded to study the entelechies of their newly invented “Nature.” The processes within the structure of classified data and which they had included in their rigorous selections from the existential world outside themselves, they studied as vortices of power which they called energeia, or entelechy. Somewhat strangely, they excluded from this entelechizing process of observation and formulation all those forms of energy generated by the extension of man’s own being. Even language, itself the divine Logos as resonant in human speech, was given scant attention as a form of magical energy. The pre-Socratics seem to have been much more aware of the entelechies of language than the literate Greeks. It was surely writing itself that dictated this preference for the visual rather than the auditory manifestations of the word. Civilization has been reared upon techniques that suppressed the resonant and the magical forms of language and other technologies.

May it not have been their Greek satisfaction with the massive artefact of their phusis that made them feel exempt from the task of discerning the entelechies of human technologies? How else is it possible to account for this huge hiatus in Western philosophy and science? 3 Oriental, and also pre-literate societies around the world have always felt awe in the presence of the entelechies swarming from and around human artefacts. Only visual man has stood aloof and scornful of all the magical powers exerted upon us by our own ingeneous innovations, whether weapons, clothing, utensils, or vehicles.

Today in the age of Sputnik when the planet itself has been enclosed in a human artefact, Nature, whether the nature of Euclid, Plato and the Greeks, or that of Newton and Adam Smith and Marx, has been scrapped. The planet, enclosed in a human artefact, has become itself a vast garbage apocalypse. The instant environment of electric information made possible by the “wired” planet, has restored the pre-literate ecology of the pre-Socratics to the Western world. The Orient never did abandon the non-visual modes of magic and ecology. It is only visual, logical, and abstract Western man who has preferred to have “a place for everything”, and everything in it’s place”, and “one thing at a time.” Such an order, and the processes that are compatible with such an order, can scarcely co-exist with the electric all-at-once patterns of awareness.

It was in the mid nineteenth century that poets and artists began to explore the entelechies of human arts and technologies. Edgar Allan Poe and Baudelaire and Mallarme were foremost among those who began a new approach to the arts and artefacts of man. They proposed the strategy of studying not causes, but effects. With Poe this meant the study of every kind of process, but especially the artistic and cognitive processes. In the art of poetic making, Poe recognized that order was related to effect and considered it necessary to start with effects rather than causes, with perceptions rather than concepts. This had been the hiatus of the preceding centuries since the Greeks. Concepts and classifications had been the supreme mode of studying Nature. Systems of thought and philosophy stood out as figures against the ground of “Nature.” Today when “Nature” has simply been scrapped by electric technology, it is obvious that we have returned from the ground of Nature to the ground of existence itself. Existence is enormously greater than anything included in any philosophical system, since a system, as such, must be exclusive rather than inclusive.

For most people the return from the Greco-Roman visual order of Nature to the audile-tactile resonance of existence, is nothing less than a garbage apocalypse.

Question from Laurent Lamy: You said something about American Telephone and Telegraph. I wonder if we let the AT&T people do the news, and listen to the telephone and telegraph all the time, that might be more fun.

McLuhan: I am not sure what is involved there, in your mind. I am not sure what you mean by AT&T doing the news. They do it now. What do you want them to do? It is their technology that does it now. They are the ones who have wired the planet.

Incidentally, when you have wired the planet for this type of service it becomes mandatory to make sure that your wire installations remain unviolated by other political forces so that the wires have to remain clear. You could say that the United States, or whatever powers have undertaken this wiring, feel obliged to keep other people out of the way of their wiring system. This, I think, may help to account for the strange contradictory policies, so that what is really a technological precaution for protecting a huge wiring system, seems utterly inconsistent with the old hardware, weaponry, goals, territorial and other objectives from a previous age. I think the United States is probably caught completely between these technologies, and has not a clue what to do with the new in terms of the old anymore than our postal department knows what to do with the old hardware technology in relation to the new software.

What would happen, for example, if video phones were to come in. You would scrap the old telephone. If you brought in video phone you would scrap the person-to-person character of the telephone, and you would bring in everybody. The video phone would not permit a person-to-person call but everybody would be there. Here comes everybody instead of just the person you want to speak to. The telephone is famous for this person-to-person character. It enabled people to speak person-to-person for the first time in the world. You were there, they are here, whereas the old letter, which you would send to correspondents, did not permit you or they to transfer your position. You stayed in your corner and the sender stayed in his. The telephone enables you to be there and the person to whom you are speaking to be with you. Now with video phone. the person to-person character of telephone would disappear instantly. The whole environment would be there, the whole surrounding in which you were speaking would be there, and all the people in the room with you would be there, and the person at the other end would be with you. You can imagine the chaos that the telephone system would undergo with video phone. The telephone people are terrified of the video phone possibility, just as the educational establishment is paralyzed by cassette ideas.

It is too much to make this transition from classrooms in which people stay in one position to a world in which everybody can be everywhere, instantly and simultaneously. Nobody has ever tried to devise a curriculum where everybody can be everywhere.  The answer, by the way, to those types of problems is that the answer is already here. In fact, the curriculum that takes over at that point is that the environment itself becomes educator as it was for primitive man, the hunter.

The primitive hunter used the environment itself as a trainer of4 perception, not concepts.

That is why under electric conditions concepts become useless. For example, the man who is up against the telephone problem or the mail strike problem, is up against a technological problem that has nothing to do with unions. Nothing to do with salaries. The educator who is up against an electric environment suddenly discovers that concepts are no use. He has to use percepts instead. The man who is trying to solve the video phone problem will find concepts, ideas, of just no use at all. He has to know what is happening and what is going to happen.

In the environment of the hunter of the new Paleolithic age in which we live, percepts are prior. Concepts are pushed into the background again, as nuisance. in the way of percepts. That is what I meant earlier when I said that we had moved into the age of the hunter again. The hunter is a man who cannot afford concepts, he has to use his senses. He has to perceive his world immediately and directly as a survival kit.

I do not think there are very many concepts that have the slightest relevance under these new instant conditions. The concepts that were built up laboriously over centuries of literacy, all the concepts turn out to be classifications. Filing Systems for information, and they are of no use in an age of instant retrieval and instant exposure to everybody.

I do not know whether this has any relevance to the question about AT&T, but AT&T has wired the world, they have already done the job referred to superbly and perhaps irresponsibly in the sense that they are not answerable to anybody. Nobody asked them to do it. People have not taken enough interest in what is going on to know what is involved and what was done. Those sounds which we just heard, I do not know whence they come, but they remind me of the primitive sort of animal cries. When you are at a loss for words you tend to resort to gestures, and grunts, and ‘like I mean, man’. Have you not noticed that language is disappearing very rapidly?5 In the new electric age the Marcel Marceaus have it all over us. We have returned to the age of mime, gesture, the verbal universe has been scrapped too.

It is part of the junk heap, witness Finnegans Wake. Finnegan is one of the great testimonies to the scrapping of the languages of the world, tossing them onto a junk heap as new resource material for poets. All of the languages of the world are now available simultaneously as poetic resource. We know more about languages than ever, but we have not decided what to make of them. Finnegan takes language as itself, material to be manipulated into art, possessing all the clues as to the inner structures of our own beings and also the inner history of our psyche. Finnegan is a new electronic use of language as gesture, language as resonant interval, pun. Joyce uses the pun to release the enormous stored perceptions of language. Every word ever introduced into any language represents millions of perceptions of millions of people, over long periods of time. Language as codified experience of many, many generations can be released only by puns. The pun is a kind of interface or interval which enables the stored perception of words to be released. Literary people who are accustomed to imposing semantic definitions on words are baffled by this use of the pun as a trigger for releasing experience in language. All language resonates with total perception of the race.6 The artist7 is a person who seeks to arrange it in forms which will release that power.

In our time advertising slogan-makers and label makers have spent more energy trying to release the magical powers of language than any other group in the community. They are, to our shame, the most active artists in the verbal field that we have. The rock bands do not make very many syntactical statements. They, too, are mainly concerned with rubbing words together to see what they are made of. They do not have much semantic or intellectual curiosity about them at all. Somatic rather than semantic, is the new thing, where it is at.

I am very interested in the phrase “where it is at”. It is a new dimension of perception in English because “it” does not refer to anybody or anything. It means everybody and everything, and “at” is a very strange word indeed. There is a kind of consensus and a consensuality, everybody and all our senses simultaneously concentrated in a single moment of awareness in that phrase. There is a new – it is not avant garde at all – there is a new feeling of need to know where it is at– and I would toss that one to Mr. Rosenberg.

I would suggest that ‘where it is at’ is a very much more complex and difficult approach to human awareness than anything that the artist had ever thought of in the avant garde period.

It certainly is not a task for a private artist to tackle, to discover where it is at.

Desvergnes: Vous avez dit un jour qu’un de vos amis, ingénieur du son newyorkais a rapporté cette remarque d’un policier de New York, qui lui disait, “Lorsque vous avez des problèmes, n’apellez pas à l’aide mais apellez au feu parce que l’aide est une chose froide qui ne donne pas envie de s’en mêler, alors que le feu est chaud, en donnant l’impression qu’on peut faire quelque chose très vite”. Je veux vous poser la question, dans cette idée de critique d’art et de ‘hunter’ et de ‘hunted’ la question de savoir si le critique d’art va être, tandis que vous vous êtes créé une situation prophète un peu dans le domaine, avec tous les alias que ça comporte, est-ce que vous croyez que le critique d’art va être du froid ou du feu, de l’aide ou du feu, “of the outer trip or the inner trip?”

McLuhan: A critic after all, like anybody else, thinks of himself as speaking to somebody. Montaigne, when the book was new, said there was nobody to speak to. It is very interesting to go back to the 1500s and see the strange efforts that people made in that period to find a public. Now, the medieval writers had tiny little publics, maybe a few dozen people at most, because the manuscript could not be read very quickly and it could not be read by very many people. But with print came the possibility at least of hundreds of readers and then thousands, and so on. There was nobody who knew how to write for the printing press for a long time. Montaigne thought of himself as putting messages in bottles and throwing them in the ocean. Montaigne thought of the book as a message in a bottle, he did not believe that it could actually reach anybody, except by chance.

Think of what your problem would be if in some African community you were the only person who could read and write and you had a great masterpiece in mind and you wrote it and got it published, in English or in your own African dialect. Who would it be for? Actually, you cannot even begin to write until you have in mind a public. The public is a producer, not a consumer. For the painter, too, and for the art critic, the public is a producer, not a consumer. Today we are in a very good position to realize that. We have scrapped all the publics and the consumers have all become producers by virtue of Gallup polls and various investigatory committees. The whole world audience is now being used as a resource for research and this is one function of the computer, to store data about everybody, and to make it available to anybody, for a small fee.

When you [are] asked about the art critic then, you have to say, who was the public for whom the painter worked, and then again, in a very subsidiary sense, who was the public for whom those art critics wrote about those painters? Mr. Rosenberg can answer those questions very well, having worked in that field for a long time. Notice that the New Yorker and Esquire, for which he wrote, were fun magazines, and that light-hearted magazines of that sort should be the vehicles of serious art criticism is itself rather strange. Where else would you print serious art criticism except in a comic magazine? This is one of the hang-ups of the art critic.

When you asked the question about the art critic, who is the art critic for the rock bands today, who are the people who do the evaluating and the standard making for the big bands?

This is worth looking into because what function these bands perform for their audiences, artistically, is certainly an important question. They do a profound amount of educating of the young. Their credentials as educators have never been examined except by — whom? I do not know. I am not sure that the art critic has a future in that kind of world. On the other hand, notice that you have a very high level of virtuosity, of discrimination and awareness among the consumers of rock music. The audiences are very critical. They are many of them participants. This is a new situation.

It is like the old Homeric rhapsodists who were the professional performers of the poems, the harpists, the bards, their audiences were participants too, and knew every trick in the game.

I think art criticism, in the sense of high standards of awareness of what is going on, probably is going to go up, up, up, in the pop art world but just what that might portend, I am not sure.

Mrs Weelen: Mr. McLuhan, earlier in your talk you said that the camera is an eye turned towards the world and that the television eye can be compared to the eye of the blind man turned in an inner quest. I wonder if you would mind elaborating on that because, of course, at first sight [at first sight!] it seems very contradictory since the journey made inwardly by the blind man would seem to be rather the opposite of what takes place with a spectator watching television. I would like to ask if you can elaborate on that.

McLuhan: It is not an easy matter.  I referred already to this book of Lusseyran. Jacques Lusseyran wrote a book called And There Was Light. It is in English and was published8 about 1964, I think. Having gone blind he became intensely conscious of the change in his sensory life and it is one of the best studies of the inner trip undergone by a blind man9 that I have ever read. In the ancient world, the seer, the one who knew, was portrayed as a blind person and he [ Lusseyran] explains that sort of thing very well in this book. He also explains the enormous stepping up of the senses of touch and hearing resulting from blindness. So, in a sense, in the television age of the inner trip, the other senses have become enormously more keen. The visual sense has gone down but the other senses have come up into a higher [relative intensity].

Weelen: You mean the watcher? The senses of the watcher of the television?

McLuhan: Yes. His touch and taste and smell and hearing have got much more sensitive than they had been before. The watcher of television, of course is mostly watching old movies but the fact is that they are translated into a television form of experience by the medium. That is, a movie put on television is not a movie anymore, it is television, and television goes into you. It is like a drug. It is an immediate injection into your system, your nervous system. That is not a figure of speech. It is literally an injection into your nervous system and the Krugman experiments revealed this.

Weelen: Yes. But surely all thought process is stopped there, whereas the blind man presumably…

McLuhanThought is again something subject to amazing varieties depending upon cultural set-ups. The idea that the body itself might be turned into a means of intellectual awareness is now an everyday fact under electric conditions. Now again, it is very difficult to evaluate these things but it is very different from the sort of thinking that went on in the age of concepts. I can only suggest that that might be one place at which to begin to study it, study the nature of preconceptual thought, you might go back to the pre-Socratics, or preliterate thinkers, and see how they encountered their world. But we are post-literate and more primitive than the pre-Socratics ever dreamed of being.

  1. PDF image pages 150-167.
  2. It is evident from McLuhan’s references to phusisentelechies and energeia, together with his later thoughts in the lecture on ‘language itself’ and on the pre-Socratics, that he was processing some recent acquaintance with Heidegger. Probably he had been reading translations with his friend and UT colleague, Tom Langan (author of The Meaning of Heidegger). As usual in McLuhan’s thoughts about Heidegger, the details are often wrong but the common central thrust is right.
  3. This huge hiatus — of no hiatus!
  4. ‘Trainer of perception’: a subjective genitive!
  5. This is a good example of McLuhan’s second sight, since he himself would be “at a loss for words” at the end of the decade and would be reduced to “gestures, and grunts, and like I mean, man“. McLuhan would soon find his own “language (…) disappearing very rapidly”. Typical of second sight, McLuhan could see this looming fate, but he could not see the who, when, where, or how that would be implicated in it.
  6. Hence Heidegger’s “die Sprache spricht”. We have to listen to language, not language to us (“Literary people (…) are accustomed to imposing semantic definitions on words”).
  7. Strangely, McLuhan has “The literary artist” here. He must have meant something like: ‘the artist even in literary times’.
  8. McLuhan: “is”.
  9. “The inner trip undergone by a blind man”: compare to note 4 above on McLuhan’s second sight.

Harry Skornia, peace activist

Television and Society has the necessary components to make it the classical study of television as a social institution. The natural authority with which Dr Skornia explores the complexities of the institutional character of TV was earned during the years of his unselfish devotion in proving the potential of TV in education and in social liberation. (McLuhan’s blurb for the back cover of Skornia’s 1965 Television and Society)

 Robert Rutherford Smith in Beyond the Wasteland: The Criticism of Broadcasting (1976) gives this capsule portrait of Skornia:

It has been charged that television and radio news, as the activity of corporations with vested interests in defense and other economic activities, is influenced by what is thought to be the corporate well-being. Anti-war activists were particularly enamored of this argument. Harry Skornia, author of Television and the News [1968] is perhaps the most eloquent advocate of this point of view. (65)

A note at the Veterans For Peace website memorializes “Dr Harry Skornia, the ardent peace activist who founded PBS, but is virtually unknown, even to those who work in public broadcasting.” Skornia died in 1991. And yet ‘World Storytelling Day‘ (“If I can hear your story, it’s harder for me to hate you.”), held around the world almost 30 years later on March 30, 2018, was dedicated to him in its Minneapolis iteration. Veterans For Peace was one of the sponsors of the event there.

Texas Senator Ralph Yarborough1 cited Skornia in remarks to the Senate from September 12, 1969:

Consider for a moment the rigors of qualifying as a third grade teacher. The applicant must have a college degree from a school of education. She must be qualified under standards established by the state for a teachers’ certificate. She must meet the standards of the local school board. She must have spent some time as a “practice teacher.” She may continue to take in-service training. She must meet these standards because she is going to spend time with a group of perhaps 25 children for a few hours a day for a few months out of the year. She will be giving them ideas, information, opinions, attitudes, and behavior patterns that must hold them in good stead throughout life. We don’t want to trust their minds to any but the most skillful and responsible of hands. Contrast these concerns and standards, if you will, with those we associate with broadcasters, with their access to millions of young minds for far more hours every year. As Harry Skornia has said, “Although broadcasting is one of the most powerful forces shaping social values and behavior, broadcast staffs and management in the United States generally have no specific professional standards to meet.” There are exceptions. But of the NAB Code Skornia says, “A document so vaguely worded, so defensive, and so flagrantly violated, can hardly be seriously considered a real code of either ethics or practices.” He believes that the mass media “should be entrusted only to professionals, who study their effects as carefully as new drug manufacturers are expected to test new drugs before putting them on the market.” News is, of course, a special concern: “It must be recognized that news, like medicine or education, is too important to be entrusted to people without proper qualifications.” Let me hasten to make clear that I do not urge that the FCC is the most appropriate agency to establish such professional standards, or to engage in licensing. But I do urge that the American people have the right to expect professional standards from those who instruct millions of young people Saturday morning that are at least as high as those it imposes upon the teachers who instruct a classroom of 25 on Monday morning. And I share Harry Skornia’s concern that: “In news and public affairs, particularly, the fact that there is no national academic standard prerequisite to practice, and that neither the names of the schools from which newsmen graduate, nor their diplomas or degrees, if indeed they are even considered necessary to employment, represent any definitive standard of intellectual accomplishment, morality, character qualification, or even technical skill, is disturbing if not shocking.” (25286) 

That same year Skornia was quoted extensively by Congressman William D Hathaway of Maine in his “extended remarks” from Monday, December 1, 1969 on “censorship of the broadcast media”.

Professor Harry Skornia has alleged: “In case after case it appears that the broadcast industry itself has firmly blocked release to the public of certain facts. Although this blockage sometimes has been on behalf of the political party in power, or the military, with which large corporations are closely allied, most of it seems related to the financial and profit interests of corporations controlling broadcasting, either as station or network operators, sponsors, or a part of the business community generally, as opposed to the over-all national interest.”
Here’s another comment from Mr. Skornia: “The press might render a great service if it let the public know how things stand between say, the copper companies and Central America. Or the oil companies and the Middle East. In the broadcast area, questions might be raised regarding the pressures exerted on the United States government by fruit, oil, sugar, tobacco, and other companies with investments in Cuba since Castro’s rise to power. Why are these enormous problems so little discussed in view of the overwhelming importance they have in making United States foreign policy?” (36300)

  1. From his Wiki bio: “Yarborough was known as “Smilin’ Ralph” and used the slogan “Let’s put the jam on the lower shelf so the little people can reach it” in his campaigns. He staunchly supported the “Great Society” legislation that encompassed Medicare and Medicaid, the War on Poverty, federal support for higher education and veterans, and other programs. He also co-wrote the Endangered Species Act and was the most powerful proponent of the Big Thicket National Preserve. Yarborough criticized the Vietnam War and supported Robert F. Kennedy in the 1968 presidential election until the latter’s assassination.”

McLuhan in UT President’s Report 1973-1974

Claude Bissell’s tenure as UT president ended in 1971. By 1973-1974 the new president, John Robert Evans, had decided that a new form was needed for the President’s Report, one with less print and many more pictures, McLuhan had foreseen the development twenty years before, of course.

The Report has no description from McLuhan of the activities of the Centre for Culture and Technology. But it does have an extensive list of publications stemming from it:

McLuhan, H.M. “El camino a seguir en la investigacion de las communica- ciones” (Dossier Mundo, no. 32, April 1974, pp. 6-8. Interviewer: Jose-Luis Gomez. Barcelona: Ediciones Meridiano, S.A.

“Changing Nature of Communications” (Detroit News, part of a series commemorating the 100th anniversary of the newspaper, Oct. 28, 1973, pp. IE and 2E) . 284

“Communication Crisis in Our Global Village” (from an interview by G.A. Vitiello in Pegasus, Jan. 1974, pp. 1-5).

“Communication needs human scale” (Nursing Management, published by Kendall Co. of Canada, vol. 1, 1971, pp. 1-2).

“Company we keep – Trudeau and Nixon in the TV Vortex” (Saturday Night, Dec. 1972, p. 17).

“Do Americans go to church to be alone?” (The Critic, vol. 3, Jan/Feb. 1973, pp. 14-23).

“End of the Work Ethic”; in The Empire Club Addresses 1972-73, pp. 105-25. Toronto: The Empire Club Foundation, 1973.

“English Literature as Control Tower in Communication Study” (The English Quarterly, vol. 7, spring 1974, pp. 3-7).

“Future of the Book”; chapter in Do Books Matter? published papers of seminar of The National Book League, 1972, pp. 31-41. London: Dunn & Wilson (Leeds) Ltd., 1973.

“International Motley and Religious Costume” (Christian Communications, newsletter published by St. Paul Society, Sherbrooke, Quebec, issue #39, Dec. 1972, pp. 1-2).

Interview with Professor McLuhan, by Derrick de Kerckhove (Vie des Arts, autumn 1973, pp. 19-23 (French) and 91-3 (English)).

Interview with Professor McLuhan, by Jean Pare (Forces, no. 22, 1973, published by Hydro Quebec, pp. 4-25).

Introduction to Empedocles, by Helle Lambridis. University of Alabama Press, 1974.

“Letter to the Editor” (The Listener, vol. 86, Aug. 26, 1971, pp. 272-3).

“Letter to the Editor” (ibid., vol. 86, Oct. 28, 1971, p. 273).

“Letter to the Editor” (ibid., vol. 89, Jan. 4, 1973, p. 19).

“Liturgy and Media” (The Critic, vol. 31, March/April 1973, pp. 69-70).

“McLuhan – McLuhan – McLuhan” (New York Times, May 10, 1974).

“The Medieval Environment: Yesterday or Today?” (Listening, vol. 9, winter/spring 1974, pp. 9-27).

“Mr. Eliot and the St. Louis Blues” (Antigonish Review, vol. 18, summer 1974, pp. 23-7).

“New Technology is changing human identity” (Toronto Star, Dec. 29, 1973, p. B-5).

“Patterns emerging in the new politics” (Globe and Mail, Oct. 20, 1972, p. 7).

Preface to Empire and Communications, by Harold Innis, pp. 7-10. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, vol. 3, 1971.

Preface to Subliminal Perception, by Wilson Bryan Key. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1973.

“Private Individual vs. Global Village”; in Abortion and Social Justice, by Thomas Hilgers and Denni9 Horan, pp. 245-8. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1973.

“Understanding McLuhan – and fie on any who don’t” (Globe and Mail, Sept. 10, 1973, p. 7).

“Watergate as Theatre” (Performing Arts, vol. 10, winter 1973, pp, 14-15) .

“The Yestermorrow of the Book” (The UNESCO Courier, 25th year, Jan. 1972, pp. 16-21). McLuhan, H.M. (with Forsdale, L.)

“Making Contact with Marshall McLuhan” (an interview); in Electric Media, pp. 148-58. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1974.

McLuhan, H.M. and Nevitt, H.J.B. “Cybernetics and Management”; in Kybernetes, vol. 2, p. 1. London: Gordon & Breach, 1973.

“Everybody into Nobody” (New York Times, July 16, 1972, p. 3).

“Medium – Meaning – Message” (Communication, vol. 1, 1974, pp. 27-33).

Parker, H. “The Beholder’s Share and the Problem of Literacy”; in Media and Symbols: The Forms of Expression, Communication and Education, ed. David E. Olson, pp. 81-98. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974.

McLuhan in UT President’s Report 1963

The 1963 report has no information on the new Centre for Culture and Technology other than an odd picture of McLuhan captioned as the Director of the Centre. McLuhan has one leg on a chair and is holding  a copy of The Gutenberg Galaxy, which won the Governor General’s award that year for academic non-fiction:

The background is the original office of the Centre which Marchand describes as “an office in a seedy Victorian house on the St. Michael’s campus, with wooden floors that creaked and a door leading to the street”. McLuhan and his Centre would remain there until 1968.

There was, in fact, little to report of the Centre in 1963 — or in 1964, 1965 and 1966 — since it was only in 1967 that it received the right to offer an accredited course from the faculty of Graduate Studies and, with it, the right to designate itself as an official Centre at the University of Toronto.



McLuhan in UT President’s Report 1964

The 1964 President’s Report alludes to the Centre for Culture and Technology but has no separate section for it. However, McLuhan did issue a Statement on Culture and Technology which seems to have originally been intended for internal University of Toronto use as a kind of self-portrait of the Centre concerning the need for it and its intended studies.  

The President’s Report does list some of McLuhan’s outside lectures during 1964:

Dr. H. M. McLuhan, on “Art Becomes Reality”; on “Changing Attitudes to Space in Poetry, Painting and Architecture Since Television” (co-author) ; on “Jobs to Roles in the Age of Automation”; on “The Europeanizing of the American Way of Life Since Television”; and on “The Strange Tendency of the Popular Arts to Go Iconic and Highbrow” at the Vancouver Festival in the Fine Arts Gallery; on “Changing Patterns of Decision-Making in the Electric Age” at the Executive Training Seminar of the Bell Telephone Company, Toronto.


McLuhan in UT President’s Report 1965

McLuhan’s 1965 report for the Centre for Culture and Technology is especially interesting in providing information about its initial advisory committee. Just as had been the case a decade earlier with the Ford Foundation seminar, the bulk of the committee was composed by a Winnipeg mafia of Easterbrook, Williams and McLuhan. Malcolm Ross was an old friend whom McLuhan had known for decades (beginning when Ross taught at the University of Manitoba in the late 1940s) and was then the Dean of Arts at UT. Easterbrook and Porter were the heads of their respective departments. Williams was a close confederate of UT president, Claude Bissell, and J.H. Sword was Bissell’s Executive Assistant. So McLuhan had managed to assemble a crew which at once featured friendships going back even 40 years in Winnipeg and yet was also very well connected politically within the contemporary UT community. (The image of McLuhan as a Lone Ranger academic outsider may be both constructed and mostly untrue.)

The Centre for Culture and Technology was founded in 1963 to advance the study of the effects of technology on society and culture. During the first two years the concern of the Centre has been to establish means of observing and measuring the psychic and social consequences of technologies old and new. During the first year much work was done on experimental designs. During the second year research funds were obtained to carry out an experiment based on these designs.

At the present time a team of researchers, under the direction of Dr. Daniel Cappon, has begun to measure the sensory preferences of the Toronto population. Having determined the existing levels (and, if possible, the changes in these during the past thirty years), they expect to shift their attention to Athens in order to determine the sensory levels of that population just before the advent of television. At present the function of the Centre must continue to be experimental rather than instructional. The probing of hypotheses concerning culture and technology naturally lends itself to interdepartmental dialogue. In this respect the Centre has been richly nourished by the participation of: Professors J. W. Abrams, Department of Industrial Engineering; A. Bernholtz, Department of Architecture; B. Bernhollz, Department of Industrial Engineering; Dr. Daniel Cappon, Department of Psychiatry; Professor Brian Carpendale, Department of Mechanical Engineering; Professor A. J. Dakin, Town & Regional Planning Department; Professor W. T. Easterbrook, Department of Political Economy; Professor J. M. Ham, Department of Electrical Engineering; Principal R. S. Harris, Innis College; Dr. John A. Hrones, Provost, Case Institute of Technology, Cleveland; Professor R. A. Lucas, Department of Sociology; Professor Thomas McFeat, Department of Anthropology; Dr. Richard Meier, Mental Health Research Institute, University of Michigan; Professor N. M. Meltz, Department of Political Economy; Professor D. M. Nowlan, Department of Political Economy; Mr. Harley Parker, Display Chief, Royal Ontario Museum; Professor Arthur Porter, Department of Industrial Engineering; Dr. Alan Thomas, Canadian Association for Adult Education.

The Centre has been strongly encouraged by a large enrolment of able graduate students from many fields.

A considerable subsidy (non-academic) has been given to the Centre to advance research and to aid in its publication. This subsidy has made it possible to consider a programme of student term projects directed toward annual publication.

The organizing theme of study in the Centre this past year has been “The Recognition of Change.” It is a theme that made it possible to carry on a dialogue with many other areas within the University. This was actually carried out with the co-operation of several departments. The great success of these occasions suggests the advantage of choosing similar themes in the future.

The advisory committee of the Centre is Professor W. T. Easterbrook, chairman, Department of Political Economy; Professor Arthur Porter, head, department of Industrial Engineering; Professor Malcolm Ross, Department of English, Trinity College; Dr. D. C. Williams, Vice-President, Scarborough and Erindale Colleges; J. H. Sword, Executive Assistant to the President; and Professor Marshall McLuhan, Director. The Committee met twelve times during the year.

McLuhan in UT President’s Report 1966

McLuhan’s Centre for Culture and Technology report for 1966 was brief:

Last year the theme of the seminar for the Centre had been “The recognition of Change.” This year the theme was “Future Changes in the Man-Made Environments” of work, advertising, technical education, politics, science, money, language, the motion picture, the city, the school, consciousness and the unconscious.

Our sessions were graced by people from various fields of study and work, such as L. H. Freiser of the Electronics Information Services of the Board of Education, Graeme Cropley, Australian architect, and Barry Nevitt from the Ontario Department of Economics and Development.

The first phase of our sensory research project nears completion under the direction of Professor Daniel Cappon. This work has been made possible by a grant from I.B.M. of Canada. The second phase of the study concerns the production of a sensory profile of the Toronto population.

The 1966 President’s Report does not include listings of lectures by McLuhan (or others), but it does include a surprising observation about McLuhan from his friend, Claude Bissell, the UT president: 

The key to attracting staff is a reputation for scholarship. This University enjoys such a reputation, even more widely outside than inside the country. The constricting domesticity of Canadian comment frowns upon claims of excellence. Marshall McLuhan was a colleague with a few amusing and provocative ideas until the journals in New York and London began to put him in the company of the great social critics.

This could be interpreted in several ways and was probably intended by Bissell to be ambiguous. He was doubtless unhappy with McLuhan’s departure for Fordham and the possibility that McLuhan might continue there or take one of the many other offers he had from US institutions.

Patterns of Literary Criticism 

Patterns of Literary Criticism was a series of ten (?) publications edited by McLuhan along with his UT colleagues, R. J. Schoeck and Ernest Sirluck. The series was originally issued jointly by University of Toronto Press and University of Chicago Press, but was eventually continued by UCP alone.

Beginning in 1965, titles appearing in the series included:

Aristotle’s Poetics and English Literature

Shakespeare: The Tragedies

Russian Literature and Modern English Fiction

American Drama and Its Critics

Images of the Negro in American Literature

Bibliography and Textual Criticism: English and American literature, 1700 to the present

Italian Poets and English Critics, 1755-1859

The Seventeenth-Century Stage

English Literature and British Philosophy

Contexts of Canadian Criticism


McLuhan in UT President’s Report 1967

In the 1967 UT President’s Report there is no separate report from McLuhan on the Centre for Culture and Technology, presumably because McLuhan was busy that spring getting ready to decamp for Fordham. However the Report, as usual, does record the lectures he gave during that school year outside of his courses:

The Marfleet Lectures [at UT] were given by Professor Marshall McLuhan, on “Canada, the Borderline Case” and “Towards an Inclusive Consciousness.”1

Professor H. M. McLuhan, on “Technology: Its Influence on the Character of World Trade and Investment” at the U.S. Department of Commerce, National Bureau of Standards, Gaithersburg, Md.; on “Film and Poem and the Interface of Landscapes” to the Modern Language Association meeting in New York City; the Purves Memorial Lecture at the American Institute of Architects’ convention in New York; on “The Museum as an Educational Institution” to the American Association of Museums meeting, Toronto.2


  1. These lectures were published in Understanding Me.

Porter in UT President’s Report 1968

As acting director of the Centre for Culture and Technology, while McLuhan was at Fordham for the 1967-1968 school year, Arthur Porter contributed to the 1968 UT President’s Report as follows

During the current session, Professor Marshall McLuhan, Director of the Centre, has occupied the Schweitzer Chair in the Humanities at Fordham University, New York. He will return to the University of Toronto in July 1968.

Following the pattern established in previous years, a major activity of the Centre during the current session has been the weekly interdisciplinary seminar. The theme during this session has been “The Communication of Values.” As in the past, the object has been to bring together a group of scholars and scientists to introduce topics associated with the theme and to lead subsequent discussions. The Centre has been encouraged by the consistently good attendance at the seminars — an average of 25 faculty members and students drawn from several disciplines have attended each Monday evening. The Centre is particularly grateful to the following scholars and scientists who presented seminars during 1967-68: Professor J. W. Abrams, Department of Industrial Engineering, and Department of History, U. of T. ; Mr. Ray Affleck, Architect (Montreal) ; Professor D. E. Berlyne, Department of Psychology, U. of T.; Mr. Milton Carman, Province of Ontario Council for the Arts; Professor W. T. Easterbrook, Department of Political Economy, U. of T.; Rev. A. G. Gibson, St. Michael’s College; Professor T. A. Goudge, Department of Philosophy, U. of T.; Professor Michael Gregory, Department of English, York University; Professor Ian J Jarvie, Department of Philosophy, York University; Dr. D. V. LePan, Principal of University College; Dr. Warren McCulloch, Research Laboratory of Electronics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Mr. Wm. McElcheran, Artist; Professor T. F. S. McFeat, Department of Anthropology, U. of T.; Professor H. J. Olnick, Faculty of Music, U. of T.; Professor Brian Parker, Department of English, Trinity College; Mr. Ronald Ritchie, Director, Imperial Oil Limited; Professor Edward Safarian, Department of Political Economy, U. of T.; Dr. E. Llewellyn Thomas, Institute of Bio-Medical Electronics, U. of T.

Professor J. W. Abrams, Department of Industrial Engineering and Director of the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, and Professor T. A. Goudge, Department of Philosophy, have been appointed members of the Advisory Committee of the Centre. 


McLuhan in UT President’s Report 1969

McLuhan’s report:

The overall theme of the Centre for Culture and Technology in 1968-69 concerned the changing forms of cultural perception and organization now occurring East and West. The advent of the world-wide service environment of electric information is naturally attended by huge disservices of previously existing environments and organizations.

The programme of presentations began with the visit of Louis Van Gastern, Dutch film maker. He had just completed a film on Biafra which he screened for us. It was later shown on the CTV television network. There were other distinguished visitors during the year including Jane Jacobs, Dr. A. J. Kirshner, Jacqueline Tyrwhitt, and Dr. Arthur Porter. Barrington Nevitt was also a frequent visitor. Such, however, was the richness of talent and enthusiasm among the twenty-five students that there was no need to seek for enrichment outside the group. As always, there was an irrepressible fringe of senior citizens from a diversity of fields who greatly enhanced the proceedings.

Following is a list of the graduate students who participated in the programme : Jo-Ann Baernstein (English), “Image by Icon”; Edward Bridge (English), “Theory of Oral Composition in Old English Poetry and Modern Culture”; W. Michael Brooke (Educational Theory), “Inventory Method of Cliché Procedures in Remedying All Kinds of Illiteracy”; Barry Cole (Music), “Clichés in Music Education”; D. de Kerckhove (French), “Decadence via Hertz Law”; Glen Eyford (English), “Changes in Radio since TV”; Donald Forgie (School of Library Science), “Obsolescence of Libraries as Hardware in the Age of Instant Retrieval”; Dr. John Godden (Psychiatry), “Editor as Probe”; Mary A. Griggs (Sociology), “Current Relationship Between Dress and Popular Culture Generally”; Chalmers Hardenberg (Astronomy), “Models of Perception used in Astronomy”; Polly Henninger (Educational Theory), “Clichés in Media in Education of Children”; Olivia Jacobs (Adult Education), “Changing Images of Self in Various Psychologies”; Louis LeGall (Special Student), “Advertising Clichés in English and French”; Richard Mackie (Educational Theory), “Clichés in Small Group Theory”; Raphael P. Martin (English), “Blake’s Way of Fighting Print”; John Morris (Industrial Engineering), “A Computer Garden”; Sister Noreen O’Neill (English), “Changing Religious Clichés”; Dallard Runge (Architecture), “Perception as a Clue to Knowledge of and Use of Functionalism” ; Ronald D. Schwartz (Sociology), “Changing Structure of the Rock and Roll Universe”; Joan Sherwood (Special Student), “Effect of technology in 16th Century Spain”; Fred Thompson (Architecture), “Japanese Concept of ma”; Arthur Van Diepen (Business), “Conglomerates”; Robert Wiele (Adult Education), “New Directions for Adult Education”; Arnold Wise (Urban and Regional Planning), “City Planning: Principles, Clichés and Roots.”

McLuhan talks

Professor H. M. McLuhan, on “War and Peace in the World Village,” the inaugural address, College of Communications, Ohio University; on “Modern Nationalism” at the Irish Studies seminar on theatre and nationalism in twentieth-century Ireland at St. Michael’s College; on “The Computer and the Mini-State” to the Systems and Procedures Association in Toronto; on “The Stunning Observations form the Astoneaged Muse” to the National Packaging conference in Toronto; on “One Touch of Nature makes the Whole World Tin” to the Young Men’s Ad and Sales Club in Toronto; on “Media and the Unstructured Society” to the Media Directors’ Council seminar in Toronto; on “The Executive as Drop-Out” to the International Council of Industrial Editors in Boston; the Commencement Address at St. John Fisher College, Rochester, NY; addresses to the Advertising Age Group and the American Booksellers Association in Washington, DC and the Institute of Canadian Advertising in Toronto; Liberal Party seminar with Prime Minister Trudeau and his Cabinet for the purpose of improving communication between government and people.


McLuhan in UT President’s Report 1971

Perhaps the high points of the year were the seminars addressed by Dr. Claude Bissell, Professor Lynn White of the University of California at Los Angeles, Walter Starkie of Trinity College, Dublin, and Etienne Gilson. We were able to make video tape recordings of Gilson, Starkie, Fr. Stan Murphy, Dr. Bissell, and Madame Sarraute, the French novelist, interviewed by Mile. Riese.

The general level of dialogue during the year was enhanced by the regular attendance of Professor Eric Jorgensen, Professor Ross Hall (Chairman, Department of Biochemistry, McMaster University), Professor A.P. Bernhart, Department of Engineering, Professor J. Edwards, Centre of Criminology, and Mr. R.A.K. Richards of the University Planning Division. The theme of the 1970-71 seminars was “Obsolescence as the Matrix of Innovation“. This theme involves study of the effects of innovation as themselves rendering many earlier forms of organization merely part of the neutral ground. There was a general consensus that an inventory of effects relating to any innovation reveals a pattern that points to the new processes that supplant antecedent causality.

One of the principal efforts of the Director of the seminars was the completion of a book on Changing Patterns of Power: The Executive as Dropout. This volume (to be published by Harcourt, Brace & Jovanovich next spring) was co-authored by McLuhan and Barrington Nevitt. Nevitt is an electrical engineer and management consultant who has been associated with the seminar for the past three years. He has addressed many international bodies on the work of the seminar. Being fluent in several languages, including Russian, he has been able to make available to our discussions experience gathered from working on four continents. The book he has written with McLuhan concerns the training of present perception in an environment of innovation.

The increasing rim-spin of the information environment insures not only the dissolution of the organization chart and the disappearance of all monopolies of knowledge, but also the decentralizing of all human organization. Under these conditions, obsolescence becomes the biggest product next to the abundance of ignorance generated by new knowledge. As Michael Polanyi says in The Tacit Dimension: It is a commonplace that all research must start from a problem. Research can be successful only if the problem is good; it can be original only if the problem is original. In view of the proliferation of exciting problems arising in a period of rapid change, the seminar looks forward to an even more fruitful year in 1971-2.1

Talks given by the McLuhan brothers in 1971:

Professor H.M. McLuhan, on “The switch from dress to costume in the twentieth century” at Webster College, St. Louis University; on “The concept of space in art” to the International Association of Art Critics at the National Gallery of Canada; on “The horse that’s known by touch alone” to the CNIB National Public Relations Conference; on “Television and its effect on the nation” at the University of San Francisco; on “The inner and outer reorganization of current society” to the Certified General Accountants’ Association of Ontario; on “Alternatives in communication media” at Syracuse University and at Auburn Community College; on “Discontinuity and communication in literature” to the colloquium on the Problems of Textual Analysis; on “The software revolution” to the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation; on “Relevant to our Electric Age” at the Christian Culture series at the University of Windsor; on “Patterns of teaching for the wired planet” at Queens College, City University of New York; on “The user as the content of technology” to the American Society of Medical Technologists.

The Reverend M. McLuhan, on “The New Education” to the Grimsby School Conference; on “Megalopolis begins with me” to the Toronto Principals’ Association; on “Humanism and the New Education” at the University of California, Riverside; on “The Medium is the Message” at Glendon College, York University; also to the Department of Political Economy, University of Toronto, and to the Data Processing Management; on “McLuhan Ideas” at Huronia College; on “A leap into the future” to the YMCA National Staff Conference.

Talk by Harley Parker (apparently a co-presentation with McLuhan):

H. Parker on “The horse that’s known by touch alone” to the CNIB National Public Relations Conference.2



  1.  McLuhan reporting as Director of the Centre for Culture and Technology, President’s Report for the Year Ended June 1971, 118.
  2. McLuhan and Parker reporting on “The horse that’s known by touch alone” to the CNIB (Canadian National Institute for the Blind) might be compared to McLuhan presenting on “the gap where the action is” to the Ontario Dental Association. Presumably he asked himself in both instances where he might find people for whom his ideas would seem obvious.

McLuhan in UT President’s Report 1970

The overall theme of the Centre for Culture and Technology in 1969-70 concerned technology as creative action. All technology comes into a new configuration against an existing ground of institutions and social goals. The new technology, since Sputnik in 19571, has put a figure around the planet itself. This literally creates a monster, since the planet has been the ground of all previous human figures and operations. The planet is now a figure within a man-made ground of satellites and information. This is the formula for the monster, when figure merges into ground, or ground merges into figure. This is the formula used by Hieronymus Bosch in his paintings. It is also the formula of the surrealists – Dali and the fur-lined tea cup, and Mona Lisa’s moustache. The consequent loss of all human bearings and identity in this switch of traditional figure-ground, is accompanied by the familiar release of violent emotion and frustration. Violence, like the tragic agon, seeks new divisions, new patterns, and new equilibrium in a disrupted situation. Environmentalism becomes an obsession in a world in which Nature has “ended” and human programming of the space-ship earth becomes mandatory.

The seminar devoted a good portion of its time to ecological interests, as these were prompted by new technologies from Sputnik onwards. We studied the scrapping of the preceding technologies as well as the retrieval of ancient ones. In Viet Nam the elephant and tiger traps are ancient paleolithic devices now pitted against helicopter and radar warfare. Every new technology prompts a recall of a much older one. The young today are adept in the occult. The last two centuries of rationalism have been swept into the dustbin with much dispatch. These themes enabled full play for the wide diversity of interest represented in the seminar group.

A very large demand for speakers from the Centre has been met in part by the Centre Associate, Harley Parker, who is presently in South Africa consulting with government personnel on the effects of media on apartheid, and other matters. (A list of talks given by Mr. Parker during the past year is given elsewhere.)2

Centre studies on the effect of colour TV, for example, in upgrading the black image and downgrading the white image, have pointed to the great dangers latent in colour TV in many ethnic areas. In the same way, the effects of radio in intensifying tribal passions, especially in preliterate areas, has been the basis for considerable seminar discussion this year. Likewise, the effects of radio in creating the booze panic of the twenties, and the effects of television in creating the drug panic of the sixties have been canvassed in various seminar discussions during which psychologists and drug investigators were present.

The Rev. Maurice McLuhan, a new Research Associate of the Centre, has devoted much of his time to study of the nature and causes of student unrest. He attended a White House Conference in Washington on this subject a few months ago and has been in much request from various places since then. He has decided to concentrate on understanding student activism in relation to the new information environment.

The studies of Dr. Herbert E. Krugman, which were prompted by the McLuhan media hypothesis, constitute a welcome aid and enlargement to the studies at the Centre. Backed by a large staff of psychologists, and large funds for research, Dr. Krugman has begun a series of diversified tests. His initial report substantiated the proposition that the medium is indeed the message. He found that the content of media had little effect on the neurological responses of the subjects, although the various media had very pronounced effects, independent of their content. Dr. Krugman concludes his studies by saying:

In short, television man, the passive media audience, is an active but clumsy participant in life, while print man, the active media audience, is a selective, less active and more mature participant in life. Never mind now which is better. McLuhan was aware of the difference while none of our mass communication theory was relevant.
What then is the new theory of mass communication, not just for television but for video-phone, GE’s Video Projector and other and newer devices of the future? I suggest that communication theory is still a transportation theory, but with a difference. The old theory was concerned with the fact that the message was transported. The new theory must be concerned with the fact that the viewer is transported, taken on a trip, an instant trip — even to the moon and beyond.

Dr. Krugman’s study makes a very satisfactory extension to the Gappon-Banks experiments on media and changing sensory quotients done at the Centre for Culture and Technology in 1966-67 with a grant from IBM.3


  1. McLuhan (or at least the President’s Report) has ‘1956’ here.
  2. See the President’s Report, 77: Mr. H.W. Parker, on “The new technological society and the retrieval of all primitive modes of human awareness” to the student body at Lakehead University; on “The role of tactility in the educational process” to Sheridan College of Applied Arts and Technology; on “The new satellite environment creates a totally new political and educational climate” to the Liberal Party annual national conference; on “The end of bricks and mortar in the new education: the student can now use the city as a classroom” to the Association of School Boards, Des Moines, Iowa; on “Roles vs. jobs, costumes vs. dress, in the new Age of Involvement” to the San Jose Students’ Association, University of California; on “Our unknown environments” to the College Union, Fresno State College, University of California; on “Some of the unrecognized factors in student unrest” to the Monterey Peninsula College; on “The artist as the antenna of the race: the artist is engaged in writing a detailed history of the future because he lives in the present” to the International Culture Center conference at Punta Ala, Italy; on “Art as a means of knowing ‘where it’s at.’ Art as a consensual probe for social invectors” to the Center for Continuing Education, University of Southern Florida; on “A world view of the impact of communications” at Loyola University, Montreal; on “The Global Theatre. The new problems facing the plain clothes priests and nuns in the global theatre” to the Seminar Seventy conference on Youth, the Church and the World at Buck Hill Falls, Pa.; on “Images of violence” to the student organization, University of Utah; on “Good taste is the first refuge of the witless: a refugee camp for frightened Philistines” to the Design Society of America; on “Technology as creative action” to the Conference on Communication in Action, University of Natal, South Africa.
  3.  McLuhan reporting as Director of the Centre for Culture and Technology, President’s Report for the Year Ended June 1970, 86-87.

McLuhan in UT President’s Report 1972

The central theme of the seminars this year was “Critique of Satisfactions, Private and Corporate, Individual and Social.” Relating to our study of media and society and politics, there was a timely visit from Mr. Joseph Foyle of Dublin who has opened a Centre for Understanding Media in Dublin. He has asked for, and been granted, the right of association with the Centre for Culture and Technology here at the University of Toronto. (Similar association has been asked for by other groups, notably in Denver, Colorado, and in Paris, France.) Mr. Foyle, having studied the work of Harold Innis and the work of the Centre for Culture and Technology, had proceeded with some surveys of politics and media in Ireland, North and South. He is planning to expand this greatly and has already published some papers on the subject.

A major project which has been one of the underlying themes of Centre seminars for the past four years has finally been completed. This consists of the book Take Today: The Executive as Dropout (Marshall McLuhan and Barrington Nevitt, published by Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, Inc., N.Y.). This book was made possible by teamwork with Barrington Nevitt, engineering and management consultant for the Ontario Government. Mr. Nevitt is an electrical engineer whose contributions to the work of the Centre have been very great indeed. Many people come regularly to the seminars to hear him and to chat with him about many of the current problems in telecommunications. Since he has been a life-long specialist in precisely this field, he has added a great and important dimension to the activities of the Centre by his enthusiastic work with everybody associated with the Centre. A great linguist, with an extensive background in many countries of the world, he is also a humanist with an avid interest in contemporary art and poetry and literature. In a word, his encyclopedism constitutes a sort of ideal for any contemporary person.

A good deal of discussion during the year related to the problems encountered in the exercise of power and the dissatisfactions relating to the possession of great wealth. The Howard Hughes case came pat to the topic and the discussions on the problem of privacy and identity in a world in which mobility has destroyed community. Directly bearing on these problems came the Clifford Irving affair which brought into prominence the entire question of media coverage as constitutive rather than as reportorial. Clifford Irving brought out the fact that the media have more power to make than to report news. Coverage itself has become the new reality, and fact and fiction merge.

Phil Pendry, a CBC cameraman, visited the seminar and presented films to illustrate a strange development in political news coverage. In the North of Ireland the participants in violence carefully timed their public actions to synchronize with the TV and news cameras. They then adjourned indoors to watch themselves on TV and to hear themselves on radio. Until the cameras were in position, all was quiet in the streets.

The factor of massive public participation in on-going events presents a special problem with regard to public trials, whether in the Eichmann affair, or the Lieutenant Calley affair, or Angela Davis, or the Manson-Tate affair. As the defendants’ lives and motives are deployed, the public identifies more and more with the defendants simply by virtue of the coverage. There always seems to be the point at which the public suddenly feels that it has become the defendant itself, and at this moment the initial defendants flip into the role of public heroes, with the public saying: “I would have done the same thing myself under these conditions.” We studied violence as both the loss of identity and the means of regaining identity, whether private or corporate. This process raises that aspect of the social organism whereby its need for pervasive encounters in order to maintain identity and momentum is now fed by its consumption of its own image in the mirror of the mass media.

The decision to limit the graduate enrolment to fifteen students has worked out very well. It had become impossible to direct or to follow the projects of thirty or more students. Monday evening sessions from 8:00 to 10:00 were also held all year. Unexpectedly, this proved an ideal way of providing a platform for the fifteen graduate students on which to meet a wide range of faculty and community representatives. These representatives were always eager to initiate dialogue on many issues relating to the entire community. So natural and pervasive did the ensuing dialogue become that it was merely enriched by unexpected visitors, of whom there were many. This, in turn, prompted the idea of an “Airport University” to be conducted as an on-going seminar at major airports. This seminar could be a sponsored show on network or cable TV. Any major airport contains numerous key figures from almost all fields of social action and administration. These people sit for varying periods awaiting transport to their ultimate destinations. Many of them would welcome the opportunity to gather around a table to share food and drink and dialogue with their fellows.

Perhaps the highlight of the Monday evening seminars was one in the spring when Dean Safarian, Dr. Doug Wright and Father John Kelly, President of St. Michael’s College, shared their interests and problems with the other participants of the seminar. By its very nature, the Centre for Culture and Technology attracts a great many visitors from East and West throughout the entire year.1


  1. McLuhan reporting as Director of the Centre for Culture and Technology, President’s Report for the Year Ended June 1972, 126-128.

Wheel and Axle

The art and science of this century reveal and exploit the resonating bond in all things. All boundaries are areas of maximal abrasion and change. The interval or gap constitutes the resonant or musical bond in the material universe. This is where the action is. (…) Nothing has its meaning alone. Every figure must have its ground or environment. A single word, divorced from its linguistic ground, would be useless. A note in isolation is not music. (…) The “meaning of meaning” is relationship. (The opening lines of Take Today.]

Around 1970 McLuhan began using the relation between the wheel and axle to illustrate the focus he advocated for media analysis. Here in chronological order are some of his observations around this image:

Where lt’s At — or the Garbage Apocalypse, 19701

The world of play, celebrated in the study Homo Ludens by Huizinga, is a world of the resonating interval such as we experience in the relation between wheel and axle. It is play rather than connection or logic that makes possible both wheel and axle.2

McLuhan to Frank Kermode, 1971

As you know from many sources (eg, Linus Pauling’s The Nature of the Chemical Bond), there are no connections in matter, only resonant intervals. Such is the nature of touch. It is like the space between the wheel and the axle.3

Take Today, 1972

Touch, as the Japanese know best of all, is created by space between the wheel and axle where both action and “play” are one.4

The End of the Work Ethic, 1972

All are familiar with the play between the wheel and the axle as the very principle of mobility, and we seek to avoid the up-tight, on one hand, or the too slack, on the other hand. But it could be argued that the dropout is a victim of the up-tight situation and that he drops out in order to regain “touch”. When the wheel and the axle get too close, they, too, lose touch. When they are too distant, they collapse. To be “in a bind” is to lose touch as much as when we become too remote.5

Media and the inflation CROWD, 1973

It is necessary to recognize the principle of the dynamic at work in a new kind of situation — one in which there is an interface or abrasive action between two unconnected spheres (…) Is the gap or interval (…) itself the hidden causal “connection”In current physics and chemistry the resonant interval is where the action and abrasive interface is found. Between the wheel and the axle is an interval of “play” which is where the action is, but without this “play” there is no action at all. (…) the interface of parallel but unconnected actions creates the sense of universality in poetry and drama, the sense of the crowd. Between the parallel actions (…) is an interface which renders the sense of the situations as indicative of the human condition in general.6 

Technology and the Human Dimension, 19747

Well, the new physics tells us that touch is not connection but a gap where things rub, like the gap between the wheel and the axle . There has to be “play” here, if they are to “keep in touch”. When the wheel and axle get too close together, they “seize up” in a bind. When they get too far apart, they collapse.

Foreword to Abortion in Perspective, 1974

Let us consider for the moment one of our conquerors, the TV image itself. This image is constituted by innumerable pulsations of bits of light. What makes the image so enthralling and compelling is precisely the intervals or gaps between these pulsations. It is in these intervals, which people feel urged to fill, that their involvement with the action occurs.  Just as action is in the play between a wheel and the axle, so too, our psychic and social lives find their action in the play between our identities and the surrounding world. As long as there is the interval of “play” between man and his world, there is action and life; but when the interval between the spirit and the world closes, there is no more play but the fusion of stasis and death

Man and Media, 1975

The dropout is the figure of our times. He is the person who is trying to get in touch. When you get uptight you have to let go in order to get back in touch. “To get in touch” is a strange phrase. When a wheel and an axle are playing along together, as long as there is a nice interval between wheel and axle, they are in touch. When the interval gets too big or too small, they lose touch, the wheel is either uptight, or seized up, or else falls apart. Keeping in touch requires this interplay, this interface, which is a kind of interval of resonance. Touch is actually not connection but interval. When you touch an object there is a little space between yourself and the object, a space which resonates. This is play, and without play there cannot be any creative activity in any field at all.8

Nina Sutton Interview, 1975

The resonant interval is where the action is. And so the dropout is a person who is trying to restore the resonant interval. The dropout is one who finds out that the interval is too small or too big, and loses his grip. (…) He gets up tight. When you get up tight, there’s no interval. (…) There’s many ways of getting up tight. Or of losing touch by getting things too wide apart. Like the wheel and the axle. When it gets too far apart, it falls off. If it gets too tight it stops. So it can go both ways. But the wheel and the axle is figure/ground. They can change roles.9 The axle can be figure. The wheel can be ground. Or vice versa. (…) They flip all the time. Anything can become a figure to a ground and any ground can become a figure to another ground. They interrelate.

Empedocles and T. S. Eliot, 1976

Each of the Empedocles passages stresses “a double truth.” This is a matter central to Eliot, but it is also closely involved in the work of Yeats, who, as I have suggested, has elucidated the procedure in his brief essay on “The Emotion of Multitude”. This emotion, or sense of the universal in the particular, is born of “a double truth,” somewhat in the mode of Quantum Mechanics where the chemical bond is the result not of a connection but of a “resonant interval” such as must obtain between the wheel and the axle.10

Laws of Media, posthumous

Interface, or the resonant interval, is ‘where the action is’ in all structures, whether chemical, psychic, or social, involves touchTouch, as the resonant interval or frontier of change and process, is indispensable to the study of structures. It involves also the idea of ‘play‘, as in the action of the interval between wheel and axle, as the basis of human communication.11



  1. See Where lt’s At — or the Garbage Apocalypse. Also the Ottawa Journal report: “Junk, Garbage Key To Art — McLuhan (By The CP) – All art is born from garbage or destruction, communications expert Marshall McLuhan told the International Association of Art Critics here Sunday. The University Of Toronto professor, scheduled to speak on ‘Space in Art’, instead chose the topic ‘Where lt’s At or the Garbage Apocalypse’. Garbage becomes a new art form on a massive scale, he said. ‘As we introduce new services, we scrap the preceding services. The preceding services then take on the character of art form.’ He said art forms are derived from junk or old garbage. Old locomotives that have been scrapped suddenly become art forms. Art works (originate) in an ‘environment of garbage’, he said. ‘The artist uses ruins as a resource pile’. He said that as soon as man put a satellite into orbit, he scrapped nature itself. Art used to involve the reproduction of nature but the new material available now makes this superfluous since nature is now the material for art itself. However, he said, the old criteria are sill being considered. Turning to a more conventional discussion of art, Rudolph Arnheim, professor of psychology of art at Harvard University, told the conference art depends on how you look at it. Arnheim demonstrated with slides how different people see different images in a painting. To say different people see the same object but with different interpretations is not correct, he said.. Many things affect the way you perceive an image: the environment around you, memories of things related to the image, even reading a critic’s interpretation, he said. ‘It’s amazing what an art teacher can make a student see in a painting . . . things that aren’t even there.’ One of the biggest problems of an art critic in deciphering an image in a painting is to ‘try to peel off the context that each beholder or group of beholders brings’. In another address, Harold Rosenberg told the conference art and culture have had to pay for the new universality that has dominated them since the Second World War by ‘an impoverishment in content’. The art critic for the New Yorker magazine said today’s artists tend to select from the vast menu of the ‘global art gallery’ for their inspirations rather than from the ‘unique experience of one’s living time and place’. Reproductions, slides, art publications and the worldwide circulation of accredited works draw the artist toward an immediate response to the many styles available in the global art gallery, he said. “Works of art related exclusively to other works of art fail to engage themselves with the historical movement in which the artist lives. The artist as an individual becomes possessed by ‘the tyrannical grasp of world art and his fear of falling behind’. ‘Released from place and from the sensual, political and cultural ties imposed by local tradition, art Increasingly derives from the scrutiny of other art.”
  2. Here and in the McLuhan passages to follow, italics have been added throughout.
  3. March 4, 1971, Letters 426. For ‘touch’ see the following note.
  4. Take Today, 4. McLuhan’s equation of touch, the “generating gap” and “space” may have originated with research by Fred Thompson, who wrote a paper for McLuhan in 1969 on the idea and practical consequences of Japanese MA. See McLuhan in UT President’s Report 1969Thompson was an architecture student especially interested in Japan. He later published on these topics: Fudo: An Introduction (1986) and Ritual and Space (1988).
  5. ‘The End of the Work Ethic’ was an address to the Empire Club of Canada, November 16, 1972.
  6. Further in ‘Media and the inflation CROWD’: “May it not be that inflation is engendered in this gap, in the resonant and abrasive interval between the rim spin of global credit and electric information, and the laborious motions and mechanisms of commodity supply and demand in the old markets of packaged goods and services? Between this system of instant information, on one hand, and a slow system of fragmentary transportation of commodities, on the other, is there not so great a disparity of action as to create the enormous noise and anarchy of sheer crowd dynamics? May it not be the very lack of connection between these two separate spheres that is itself the cause of the inflationary commotion? It is precisely where there is no connection that there will occur a resonant and potentially violent interface of mounting intensity.”
  7. Interview with Louis Forsdale in Marshall McLuhan: The Man and His Message (1989).
  8. Man and Media’, 1975, in Understanding Me. ‘Man and Media’ is wrongly assigned to 1979 in Understanding Me.
  9. Take Today: “Everything must become figure, or everything must become ground. The interface or interplay of figure and ground (is) necessary to community, or social dialogue and diversity” (33).
  10. ‘Empedocles and T. S. Eliot’, Introduction to Empedocles by Helle Lambridis.
  11. Laws of Media, 102. The text has ‘Interface, of the resonant interval, as‘ which I take to be a typos.

McLuhan 1974 letter to Murray Schafer

As shown in Schafer — The Tuning of the World, McLuhan described Murray Schafer’s work at some length in a presentation to UNESCO in 1976. He and Schafer had long been aware of one another (ever since Schafer studied at the University of Toronto in the early 1950s)1 and then got back in touch decades later as illustrated in a December 16, 1974 letter from McLuhan to Schafer:

Dear Murray,
Naturally I approve entirely your approach in soundscape. We are living in an acoustic age for the first time in centuries, and by that I mean that the electric environment is simultaneous. Hearing is structured by the experience of picking up information from all directions at once. For this reason, even the telegraph gave to news the simultaneous character which created the “mosaic” press of disconnected events under a single date-line. At this moment, the entire planet exists in that form of instant but discontinuous co-presence of everything.2 One hidden dimension of the soundscape is to be found in Rock music, which pours the sounds of the city through the rhythms of the English language as a means of humanizing metropolitan cacophony . The role of music as humanizing technological noise by processing it through the regional dialects, seems to have been ignored by all musicologists. Rock can only be sung in English , and for that reason the Chinese and the Africans and the Hindu learn English so they can sing Rock. The radio soundscape, earlier, had brought forth jazz, which also depends entirely on the rhythms of the English language, especially its Southern and oral manifestations.
In a magazine called Listening (University of Chicago Press, vol. 9, nos. 1 & 2, Winter/Spring, 1974, p 9-27 ), I have a recent essay explaining in what senses the medieval period was acoustic right up to the edge of the Gutenberg, or visual, revolution. Huizinga, in The Waning of the Middle Ages (1954), explains some of it, and Siegfried Giedion in Mechanization Takes Command has a section on medieval comfort, in which he explains that a medieval space was furnished even when empty, because of its acoustic properties.

If you can manage to interest psychologists in the nature of acoustic space, you would be doing a good work. What they, and all scientists, call “space” is simply visual space, which is continuous and connected and static. Scientists and architects alike refer to this as “physical” space. It is the space which can be divided and quantified, measured and tabulated. Acoustic space cannot be divided or connected, and it is certainly not static but dynamic. Clinging to the remnants of visual space in this new acoustic age has become a kind of a paranoiac state. Personally, I think I prefer visual to acoustic space, but this should not be a matter of either/or. In his Responsive Chord, Tony Schwartz explains how the TV image uses the eye as an ear (on page 14). (Incidentally the book was published by Doubleday, N.Y. in 1973.) The rapid disappearance of literature is directly related to this factor.
Had you ever thought of surveying the poets for some of their awareness of the soundscape, starting with the opening of Chaucer’s Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, and onwards? I think you will find direction and perception in this matter. Let me urge you to put some of this material into your Tuning of the World . Would be glad to help.3 

  1. As described in My Life on Earth and Elsewhere (p 21-23), Schafer was prompted to attend some of McLuhan’s lectures (and may have had a course with him), after McLuhan filled in for Lister Sinclair in a course Schafer was taking on ‘Poetry and Music’.
  2. In his 1985 essay, ‘McLuhan and Acoustic Space’ (Antigonish Review v 62-63, 105-113) Schafer cites the 4 sentences beginning, “We are living in an acoustic age for the first time in centuries” and ending in “instant but discontinuous co-presence of everything.” (106).
  3. McLuhan, Letters 507-508.

The Beginnings of Gutenberg Galaxy 9

McLuhan in unpublished letter to Archie Malloch, April 18, 1954:

But this summer I would like to write my book on the Gutenberg Era.  Shouldn’t take too long. Would appreciate any texts or quotes you meet that bear on effect of print on human habits of learning and attention generally.  Donne key case.  Switch from poetry geared to music and oral delivery (as song) to poetry as read or spoken to oneself.  But he was transition in this respect.  The real trend developed after him.  

A year later to Malloch on July 11, 1955:

Hope to get on with book on Gutenberg Era.


The Law of Media 1

The epigraph to Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Les Structures élémentaires de la parenté (1949)1 is taken from Primitive Culture (1871) by E. B. Tylor:

The tendency of modern inquiry is more and more towards the conclusion that if law is anywhere, it is everywhere.2

McLuhan’s question, explicitly from the time of his Nashe thesis onwards (but implicitly from the time of his work with Rupert Lodge at the University of Manitoba a decade before), was: what are the basic structures of human experience and how do they interrelate?3 “The medium is the message” marked his realization, 15 years after his thesis, that the first step towards an answer to this question had to lie in the specification of those basic structures.4 Only so could the open collective investigation into human experience at last be initiated –- through which survival might be yet be achieved.



  1. English translation, The Elementary Structures of Kinship, 1969. 
  2. McLuhan often expressed his confidence that human ingenuity could successfully grapple with any difficulty on which it set its sights: “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). His “survival strategy” lay in the question: how can we so exercise our “intuitive perception of essentials” in the study of human experience itself to realize in it the sorts of revolutionary dis-coveries achieved (only recently in human history) in sciences like physics, chemistry, biology and genetics? 
  3. For example, if human experience may be taken to fall into the types represented by the three trivial arts, how do these mutually combine, or dissociate, to form the complicated fabric of the tradition? 
  4. For example, if human experience may be taken to fall into the types represented by the three trivial arts, how are these to be recognized such that collective investigation of ‘them’ first becomes possible? 

The Law of Media 2

[The Law of Media 2 is an internal expansion of The Law of Media 1. The two versions have been retained as indicating the current of thought exercised in this blog. Its flow-through. That current should be open to critique as much as any factual assertion in the blog’s posts. McLuhan named this current at play here in his 1962 ‘Prospect’ rumination: “There are endless popular phrases (…) that are really questions.”]

The epigraph to Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Les Structures élémentaires de la parenté (1949)1 is taken from Primitive Culture (1871) by E. B. Tylor:

The tendency of modern inquiry is more and more towards the conclusion that if law is anywhere, it is everywhere.2 

Earlier in the same decade as Lévi-Strauss’s Kinship tome, McLuhan, in his 1943 PhD thesis on The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of his Time, expressed a slightly offset agreement with Tyler as follows:

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.3

Tyler in 1871 located the “conclusion” that “law is (…) everywhere” as following from a “tendency of modern inquiry”. On its surface, Tyler’s observation concerned an objective condition (the ubiquity of law) to which subjective inquiry found itself increasingly constrained. This was its “tendency“. But what was the nature of this constraint on the subjective side and just how grounded was its conclusion of the lawful condition of the objective side?

Like the concern in phenomenology with Wesensschau4 in the first decades of the twentieth century, McLuhan’s formulation, 70 years after Tyler, shifted the matter at stake towards the conditions of reliable perception”. The assertion was that both sides of Tyler’s equation are subject to an “intuitive” — unconditional — consolidation. That is, the essential nature of the object is revealed as that without which it could not be that object; while for the subject, its “perception” is bound to that essence — focused on it — since only so could it be the “perception” of it.    

But just who was doing this looking? And exactly why should her perception of [just these] essentials” be trusted?

“The medium is the message” marked McLuhan’s decided realization, 15 years after his Nashe thesis, that the first steps towards open collective investigation into these questions had yet to be taken — namely, agreed identification of those purported essentials.5 Such ‘agreement’ had to do not only with the question of the object to be investigated collectively, but also with the question of the ‘who’ doing the investigation. For once an agreed object were in place — the ‘medium’ — subjectivity would be constrained to findings about it and could no longer freely hypothecate (except in the rare circumstance of scientific revolution).

Moreover, here the object to be investigated was just that of subjectivity itself. As a result, the subject would find itself doubly bound: on the one hand, within the new investigation, by its agreed parameters and findings (Kuhn’s ‘normal science’); on the other hand, outside that investigation, by feedback from it to human deportment everywhere. Where before actions and beliefs had been the effects of unknown causes or (as McLuhan preferred to say after he read Kohler’s Gestalt Psychology in 1964) figures on unknown grounds, now those causes and grounds, along with their effects and figures, would be exposed in and by the newly inaugurated field of interrogation. Within the field, just as in any other science, findings would continually lead to further findings through the working of scientific interrogation. Outside of the field, formerly subliminal actions and beliefs would now increasingly be exposed and illuminated.

This double binding of subjective action and belief would introduce a new sort of freedom to individual and collective behavior. But would humans be capable of exercising it? The old freedom had been grounded in the caprice of ignorance. It expressed itself in the ungrounded figures of that vast range of individual and collective action comprising the historical record.6 Now a new freedom was possible, comparable to the new ways of behavior both within and without such relatively new sciences as physics and chemistry7 — but now applicable to social and political behavior in ways they were not.

With “the medium is the message”, it had become clear to McLuhan that only agreed definition could at last initiate the open collective investigation into human experience  — through which survival might be yet be achieved.8 But he was also increasingly aware that the possibility of such agreement was subject to a strange and potentially ominous knot in time — a ‘knot’ that could eventuate (and indeed always had eventuated) in a ‘not’ of refusal. 

The problem was that the promised future feedback9 between figured thoughts and actions and their grounds had to be activated (or pre-activated, as might be said) in the present — in order for that future to be initiated. This knot in time meant that, at a minimum, investigators would have to expose themselves to the uncertainties of a rigorous investigation into the unknown grounds of their existing thoughts and behaviors.

McLuhan knew that few would understand this requirement, let alone submit themselves to it. Therefore, the prospect of such agreed collective identification of the ‘medium’ to be interrogated in the new field was uncertain in multiple respects: it was uncertain if investigators would submit themselves to the uncertainties entailed by the peculiar initiation required for such investigation. And, if McLuhan were right that the survival of civilization and perhaps of the species depended upon this achievement, it, too, was uncertain.

McLuhan reflected on these problems in his 1962 ‘Prospect’ essay:

Man is now in a somnambulant state because this offers him [what seems to him as] his only possibility of survival and sanity [whereas it is really exactly what threatens survival]. He couldn’t bear a fully conscious existence under the frenetic conditions that he is exposed to by his own technology. He could not register these terrible shocks directly and survive. He’d go mad. I think that all human technology and invention has occurred under this kind of anxious pressure. You don’t outer anything [original]10 (…) until you’re under some dire pressure and fear. But when you put the nervous system outside [with the innovations of electric technology], fear is no longer the problem. Anxiety is the problem. Fear is specific, anxiety is total. As in Kierkegaard’s Concept of Dread, a book that appeared in the year of the telegraph.11 You don’t know now precisely what you’re dreading, rather it’s a pervasive state. The condition of man is what you dread. You no longer dread [things or possibilities in the environment like] that animal [or] that famine, and so on, but this [unprecedented] condition [of human being subject to “a fully conscious existence” in dread.] (…) Anxiety means utmost alertness, utmost watchfulness, involvement and therefore of course a very heightened kind of existence, a sort of nightmare (…) This [all] terrifies mechanical man because he does not know what to do about the transition that is taking place [within and without him].

In the 1950s McLuhan himself had gone through the “transition” he described here. Now he wondered about the prospect of anyone following him in the required complete trans-formation of turning oneself inside-out. The operative inside-out of the electric environment where “our nerves [are] outside ourselves” made both possible and impossible12 a science which would treat the human insides, at last, in an outward conscious manner.






  1. English translation: The Elementary Structures of Kinship, 1969.
  2. This is the concluding sentence of Lévi-Strauss’s quotation from Tyler. The preceding part of the citation reads: “Few who will give their minds to master the general principles of savage religion will ever again think it ridiculous, or the knowledge of it superfluous to the rest of mankind. Far from its beliefs and practices being a rubbish-heap of miscellaneous folly, they are consistent and logical in so high a degree as to begin, as soon as even roughly classified, to display the principles of their formation and development; and these principles prove to be essentially rational, though working in a mental condition of intense and inveterate ignorance.”
  3.  The Classical Trivium, 51. McLuhan’s enduring thought, explicitly from the time of his thesis onwards, but implicitly from the time of his work with Rupert Lodge at the University of Manitoba a decade before, concerned the identification of the basic structures of human experience and the investigation of how these structures interrelate to constitute the very complicated fabric of the historical record. See Take Today 22 for his formulation of this complex thirty years after his Nashe thesis.
  4. The Nashe thesis phrase “perception of essentials” supplies a fitting translation of Wesensschau — if the phrase is taken as a dual genitive. That is, Wesensschau is both essential perception and the perception of essence.
  5. The nature of such agreement at the start of a science requires close consideration. As set out in a previous post: If we are to survive what McLuhan approvingly cited from Sheila Watson, ‘the intrusion of the mechanical foot into the electric desert’, it will be only because we have learned to understand at last: (a) how everything we currently experience, from our own identity to world issues threatening nuclear war, are subliminal effects of as yet imprecisely known media structures — effects which are insuperable as unknown, but optional once dis-covered and investigated: ‘All of my recommendations, therefore, can be reduced to this one: study the modes of the media, in order to hoick all assumptions out of the subliminal, non-verbal realm for scrutiny and for prediction and control of human purposes.’ (Report on Project in Understanding New Media, ‘Recommendations’, 1960) (b) that we do not have to know definitively how to specify these media structures prior to initiating research into them. Rather, just what such media are and how they operate is exactly the central question of the proposed investigations. Therefore McLuhan’s emphatic remark in 1959 to Harry Skornia in the course of his NAEB project to research new media: ‘We can’t assume that we understand media already!‘ (Therefore as well his constant admonition that we need to organize our ignorance.) (c) that the imperative is therefore for researchers, in particular media researchers, to abandon their specialist perspectives in order to initiate open collective research into the nature of media and their effects as guided by a series of clues supplied for the first time by the electric environment: the digital (multilevel, figure/ground, eye/ear) structure of media (and, indeed, of all that is); the variable emphasis or weighting or valorization that may be made of all such structures (eg, more eye than ear or more ear than eye); the covariable nature of such variation (the more eye, the less ear and vice versa); the fundamental reversibility of all such structures at the extremes of emphasis (eye collapsing into ear or ear collapsing into eye); the plurality of time (diachronic/synchronic) in the horizontal/vertical unfolding of these structures in a myriad combinations. (d) that findings in the existing sciences should be used as indications of complications to be expected in media investigations — eg, that a given sample may be a compound or compounds rather than an element, or that it may be subject to some further as yet unknown science, not chemistry but organic chemistry or genetics, etc. (e) In sum: no science is more needed than the rigorous investigation of the internal landscape and more than enough clues and guidelines exist to initiate it. If it is asked what is preventing the initiation of such science(s), despite the great need and the existing clues, the chief answer seems to be that the will is lacking to subsume individual point of view to collective questioning. This will cannot be taught or otherwise urged into existence, however, since these would be grounded when the very point at stake is to question ground. The beginning of a science of the interior landscape can have no other origin than the abysmal unaccountable will to enter its maelstrom. See note 9 below.
  6. Compare this to the fact that all physical reactions for millions, indeed billions, of years have always been grounded in the interactions of the elements. But this was unknown until chemistry exposed those grounds in the course of the nineteenth century.
  7. Physics and chemistry, especially in their applications to transportation and commerce, revolutionized the world. Of course, these sciences were also revolutionized internally. But the latter changes, although they caused the former, were as nothing, taken quantitively, compared to the former.
  8. McLuhan’s “survival strategy” lay in the question: how can we so exercise our “intuitive perception of essentials” in the study of human experience to realize in it the sorts of revolutionary dis-coveries achieved (only recently in human history) in sciences like physics, chemistry, biology and genetics?
  9. McLuhan concluded his 1968 letter to I.A. Richards with this short paragraph: ” Your wonderful word, ‘feedforward’, suggests to me the principle of the probe, the technique of the ‘suspended judgement’ which has been called the greatest discovery of the 20th century.” (Letters, 355) ‘Feedforward’ captured both how the proposed science might operate and the great problem of initiating it. ‘Suspended judgement’ in this context entailed ‘suspended identity’ and ‘no one’ (strangely enough) was willing to wager this.
  10. McLuhan’s suggestion here is very compact and requires teasing apart. The component premises are: (a) originality from the infant learning language to revolutionary insight in art or science represents a resetting of perception; (b) the resetting of perception requires a descent into the possibilities of human being; (c) descent into the possibilities of human being implicates a loss of previous identity and orientation; (d) the loss of previous identity and orientation occurs only under “dire pressure” (like fusion in physics); (e) dire pressure implicates “fear”. In sum, what is most human about human beings is a continual retreat into their essence which is a spectrum of possibilities. This essential descent is yet fearsome because of the threat it implies to identity and orientation and for the most part it is therefore cloaked and forgotten. Original insight pulls away the cloak and consciously experiences the turbulence within. The great question posed by McLuhan, and by all original thinkers, is whether human beings can learn to live consciously who (and where and when) they are.
  11. McLuhan immediately qualified this statement a few sentences later in ‘Prospect’: Kierkegaard came out with the concept of dread in 1844 which was when commercial telegraph began in America, about ten years after the development of the telegraph.”
  12. Instead of the carapace of the “somnambulant state”, the required transition would feel “like living without a skin” (‘Prospect’).

Frye’s References to McLuhan in Correspondence

The following is a post at the Northrop Frye blog, The Educated Imagination, which is archived here since that blog is now largely inactive.


From Northrop Frye: The Selected Letters, 1934-1991, ed. Robert D. Denham (Jefferson, NC, and London: McFarland & Co., 2009)

Letter to Robert Heilman, 29 October 1951

. . . I am very deeply obliged to you for being responsible for my having a wonderful summer.  I have seldom enjoyed a summer so much.  We topped it off with ten days in San Francisco and two weeks in New York—one at the English institute, which turned out to be a very good one.  I got Marshall McLuhan down to give a paper [“The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape Poetry,” in Alan Downer, ed., English Institute Essays (New York: Columbia University Press, 1952), 168–81; rpt. in The Interior Landscape: The Literary Criticism of Marshall McLuhan 1943-1962, ed. Eugene McNamara (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1969), 91–7].

Letter to Richard Schoeck, 24 November 1965

You may know that Marshall and Ernest have asked me to do a collection of comments on myth and criticism as one of the Gemini books.  I gather that their original idea was to collect contemporary essays on the subject, but I thought it might be more interesting and useful to go back into the history of the tendency.  Things like Raleigh’s History, the opening of Purchas, Camden, Reynolds’ Mythomystes, Bacon’s Wisdom of the Ancients, Sandys’ Ovid, from that period; some of the “Druid” stuff from around Blake’s time; some of the material used by Shelley and Keats, and so on down to Ruskin’s Queen of the Air, but without incorporating anything much later than The Golden Bough and the turn of the century.  An introductory essay would of course indicate the relevance of this to what came after Frazer.  I’ve spoken about this to Marshall and he suggested that I might consult the other editors.  [Frye wrote a preface for the proposed collection, but the project was for some reason aborted.  His preface was published forty years later in CW 25:326–8.]

Letter to John Garabedian, 12 September 1967 [In reply to an letter by Garabedian (1 September 1967), a feature writer for the New York Post, wanting Frye to expand on a comment quoted in an article in Time magazine that hippies were inheritors of the “outlawed and furtive social ideal known as the ‘Land of Cockaigne.’” The Time article also referred to Frye as a disciple of McLuhan.]

Thank you for your letter.  I am not sure that I can be of much help to you, as I did not have hippies in mind when I spoke of the Land of Cockaigne as one form of Utopia.  The association was due to the Time writer, and I doubt very much that the Land of Cockaigne is really what the hippies are talking about.  Neither was it correct to describe me as a disciple of McLuhan, although he is a colleague and a good personal friend.

Letter to Walter Miale, 18 February 1969

. . . Korzybsky was, because of his anti‑literary bias, a person I was bound to have reservations about, but there was still the possibility that he might be, like Marshall McLuhan today, probing and prodding in directions that might turn out to be useful.

Letter to Walter J. Ong, S.J., 28 March 1973

. . . I saw Marshall [McLuhan] the other day at a meeting on Canadian Studies, where we were discussing the question of how difficult it is for students in this bilingual country to acquire a second language when they don’t possess a first one.

Letter to William Harmon,  13 August 1974

Harmon had requested (8 July 1974) the source of Joyce’s referring to Eliot as “the Bishop of Hippo,” which Frye quotes in his book on T.S. Eliot (pp. 67–8).  Frye replied that he wasn’t certain as he was quoting “orally from someone who had been working in the Joyce papers at Buffalo.”  Harmon responded with a note of thanks, which prompted Frye to write again to say “Marshall McLuhan was present when this tag from Joyce was quoted, and his memory of it may be more accurate than mine.”

Letter to Richard Kostelanetz, 7 January 1976

. . . Please don’t make me an enemy of Marshall McLuhan: I am personally very fond of him, and think the campus would be a much duller place without him.  I don’t always agree with him, but he doesn’t always agree with himself.

The statement of Colombo’s on page 16 strikes me as curious, but it’s your article. [John Robert Colombo had said that “McLuhan and Frye are Canada’s Aristotle and Plato.  McLuhan is the scientist, and Frye the mystical theorist, with the eternal paradigms and everlasting forms” (qtd. by Kostelanetz, Three Canadian Geniuses, 131).]

Letter to Andrew Foley, 20 April 1976

. . . I think psychologists are now moving away from the Freudian metaphors about an unconsciousness buried below a conscious mind, and are thinking more in terms of the division in the brain between the hemisphere controlling a linear and verbal activity and the one that is more spatially oriented.  It seems to me that the most important aspect of McLuhan is his role in the development of this conception.

Letter to Fr. Walter Ong, December 1977

. . . I saw something of your student Patrick Hogan this year, but he left early.  I don’t know whether he was disappointed in what we did or didn’t do for him.  He was very keen, and one of his proposals was that he and Marshall and I should form a seminar to discuss Finnegans Wake, which hardly fitted my working schedule or, I should imagine, Marshall’s.

Letter to Barrington Nevitt, 20 September 1988

This is in connection with your letter about your proposed book on Marshall McLuhan.  I am sorry if I am unhelpful on this subject, but I doubt that I have anything very distinctive to say on the subject.  What I could say I said at the teacher’s awards meeting you referred to [Distinguished Teacher Awards, December 1987], but unfortunately I had no text for that talk.  I think I remember saying that Marshall was an extraordinary improviser in conversation, that he could take fire instantly from a chance remark, and that I have never known anyone to equal him on that score.  I also feel, whether I said it or not, that he was celebrated for the wrong reasons in the sixties, and then neglected for the wrong reasons later, so that a reassessment of his work and its value is badly needed.  I think what I chiefly learned from him, as an influence on me, was the role of discontinuity in communication, which he was one of the first people to understand the significance of.  Beyond that, I am afraid I am not much use.

McLuhan’s “flush-profile” review of Frye

As detailed in Dating McLuhan’s “flush-profile” review of Frye, this unpublished review of Anatomy of Criticism, probably written by McLuhan in the fall of 1958, has been discussed by Philip Marchand in his bio, in a post at the Frye blog, The Educated Imagination (in which Marchand’s treatment is cited at some length), and by Bruce Elder in an extended footnote to his comments on Barilli at New Explorations. The first two agree that the paper amounts to a rather petty attack on Frye by a supposed UT English department rival. But the review is, in fact, an enthusiastic endorsement of Frye’s work by McLuhan, who had the hope that he and Frye together, through “a genuine chain reaction”, might inaugurate a new investigative approach, not only to literature and its criticism — but to all human experience.

If it is asked how such wildly mistaken readings could have arisen, the answer is that McLuhan’s review has been read in various settings of the rear-view mirror, the RVM, and it has been found there to be both largely unintelligible and regrettable. There is a certain tension between these findings, of course. But the Marchand and Frye post discussions (relying on the recollections of the then grad student Frederick Flahiff) leave the matter there: the review is an obscure attack that reflects badly on McLuhan.

Elder engages with the review more extensively. His determination to find a setting of the RVM fitted to the task is explicit:

McLuhan highlights (…) the importance for the era of holistic (group) consciousness of the rhetorical understanding of communication.

However, Elder also has

electric media, with their holistic nisus, might help restore their original power to rhetorical devices.

Which is figure and which is ground? McLuhan’s answer, in Elder’s reading at any rate, was that “rhetorical devices” are ground:

Holistic (cosmic consciousness) should be understood through rhetoric, McLuhan avers.

Elder doesn’t say so outright, but his notion here may be that McLuhan allowed his concerns from the 1940s to contaminate his investigation of “electromagnetism”. Instead of probing the former through the latter, he probed the latter through the former. The charge is familiar from Jonathan Miller and others.

In his explanation of McLuhan’s purported averral that “holistic (cosmic consciousness) should be understood through rhetoric”, Elder begins by taking another look in the RVM: “McLuhan’s interest in rhetoric dates back to his university days and his dissertation (The Classical Trivium: The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of His Time, 1942)”.1 It may be that Elder’s misdating of the “flush-profile” review to 1947 has to do with the connection he supposes of McLuhan’s thesis with it.

In any case, Elder unrolls the following series of observations regarding that thesis:

[McLuhan] treats grammar and rhetoric as positive expressions of a mentalité,2 while the [the?] dialectic, logic, he sees as menacing: logic rejects the patterns that are sown into the fabric of the world.3 Thus, in his unpublished commentary on Anatomy of Criticism, McLuhan essentially recommends that Frye pay heed to this topic.

Deploying paradigmatically and paying heed are two different things, of course, and Elder seems to water down his suggestion from the first to the second as he goes along. But it is exactly paradigmatic or archetypal deployment that is at stake both in Anatomy itself and in McLuhan’s review. So when Elder corrects the threefold trivial grounds of McLuhan’s thesis to a singularity (by running its grammar and rhetoric together as “a mentalité” and then rejecting the remaining art of dialectic as supposedly “menacing”), it is clear how and why earlier in his post he has asserted that “there is no bifurcation of reality, no ontological gap”. In a word, Elder’s reality is not a plural three, per McLuhan,4 requiring abysmal “bifurcations”, but a singular One, per the RVM setting employed by Elder, for which this is a, arguably the, favorite metaphysical cum nihilist move of all time.

“Let us rejoin the One”, writes McLuhan, in ‘Nihilism Exposed5, recapitulating this central urge of the gnostic persuasion, where ‘rejoin’ must be read both as a merger with the One (in a submission of our subjectivity) and as putting the One back together (in an assertion of our subjectivity). “Holistic (cosmic consciousness)” seems close at hand. 

Elder continues:

Discerning the meaning of the transformation of rhetoric from pre-Classical6 times to the early renaissance is the kernel7 from which McLuhan’s histoire de mentalités8 developed. We might conjecture that McLuhan, even in 1947, had a sense of the importance that study [of rhetoric] would come to have and was hoping that his University of Toronto colleague might come to share his interest. After all Anatomy of Criticism gave evidence that Frye had at least glimpsed the significance of new media and new ideas about language.9

Despite the non-sense in the penultimate sentence regarding McLuhan’s supposed “sense” of rhetoric (see the detailed consideration below), Elder’s last sentence is on the verge of coming to a fitting understanding of McLuhan’s review. The reading of it that follows here shows how he might have, not ended with that observation, but started from it.


McLuhan begins the review by noting:

It is natural for the literary man [ie, Frye]10 to underestimate the relevance of Professor Frye’s archetypal approach to literature.

The rest of the review is at work to show how this “quarrel” within Frye himself, the literary Frye vs Professor Frye11 — a quarrel reflected in Anatomy of Criticism — might be investigated and potentially resolved. First, the Janus-face of the backward looking Frye is specified:

For four centuries we have been conditioned by the printed word as snap-shot of the postures of the individual mind. Segmental analysis of all motion, mental and industrial, has long been for us the norm of education and of civilized life.12

In fundamental contrast, the other Janus-face of Frye can see, or almost see, not only how this “norm” is changing, but that this trans-formation is of enormous consequence:

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.

Part of Frye and all of Flahiff may think that literary work relates to library carrels and obscure journals, but for McLuhan a great deal more is at stake — as it was for Plato in his various attempts to educate “the shaper and ruler of societies”. How this is now possible (when it was not for Plato and for the two and a half millennia after him) McLuhan then sets out in the truly wonderful sentence:

Like Sputnik they [these “nuclear models of collective postures”] have a hook in outer space whence they relay signals to us, blip calling unto blip in the universe of the pictorialized word.

The visual sounding “pictorialized word” (referring especially to comics and advertisements) was used by McLuhan in the 1950s to mark, rather confusedly, a difference from the visual book world of the Gutenberg era. The point at stake is that our models of minding in regard to the interior landscape can now be as universal as our models in chemistry and physics in regard to the exterior landscape. Like satellites (enabled by those very models in chemistry and physics), such ‘universals’ see the entire world. If we are to survive, it was McLuhan’s contention, we must investigate and otherwise subject ourselves to the “signals” which such models “relay to us”, as MRI images (say) signal information to us to which we gladly and profitably subject ourselves: “blip calling unto blip”13.

The universality of these models is, like chemistry or physics, applicable to any place or time:

It is natural14, therefore, that Professor Frye should have betaken himself to the anthropologist and to the folklorist for his profiles of literature15. (…) For the characteristic mode of learning and knowing since the telegraph offers a pattern of instantaneous inter-cultural x-ray, very different from the enclosed spaces of literature. (…)

The one Frye is

literary man describing a people past or present [who] adopts a slant, a point of view. He selects. He structures his image with syntactical bonds of perspective in the style of Hume…

The other Frye, however, Professor Frye, is capable of “statement without syntax”:

Not the personal point of view, nor the partiality of perspective and self-expression, but the catalyst role of the non-personal  chemical medium…16

This “non-personal chemical medium” is

A bedouin’s rug of timeless patterns which include all possible arrangements of human experience…

And it “is indispensable equipment today” when our news and entertainment have assumed the role of being “the shaper and ruler of societies” and when humans guided by them have thrown their own survival into doubt.

The two Fryes with their Janus-faces looking in different directions are summed up in a single paragraph as follows:

Seen from the split-level17 picture-window House of Archetypes, the receding world of Western literature may look [to the Gutenbergian Frye] appallingly like a silent movie on a late TV show. But for those who recognize the importance of aligning all education with the dynamics of the new mass media, the deft and decent burial of literature provided by [the Marconian Frye in some aspects of] the Anatomy of Criticism will come as an exhilarating climax to the slower-paced preliminaries of the literary centuries.

It is at this point in the review when McLuhan enters into his concluding paragraph that Elder’s reading goes off the rails, leading him to mis-take the review and, in fact, to reveal his misunderstanding of McLuhan’s work as a whole.18 McLuhan begins the paragraph by stating that:

Professor Frye is not, perhaps, sufficiently cognizant of one major resource adjacent to his enterprise. The world of ancient and medieval rhetoric was vibrant with archetypes referred to as “the figures of rhetoric”.

As indeed noted by Elder, McLuhan immediately specifies:

These figures are, it is true, postures only of the individual mind which had become accessible to observation and control after phonetic writing. The written word arrested the mental and verbal flux of the fast-talking Mediterraneans and gave them the means of classifying hundreds of mental postures such as chiasmus, catachresis, and scatalogie.

But this remains an important technique in Anatomy! Or, better put, it is the technique of Anatomy as advanced by the literary or “humanistic” Frye. The Gutenbergian one. It is doubtless the “odor” of such “individual expression and eloquence”, the “pipe-line of natural gas from the farther shores of rhetoric”, that renders the book “uniquely opaque and almost unreadable”:

These figures or postures of the mind were like so many whales left immobilized amidst the shallows and sands of the written word. And in due time their odor began to be abroad in the land. Writing, however, as a means of capturing, or perhaps of fashioning, the postures of the individual mind [has missed the lesson of these reeking carcasses and therefore] has proved to be fatally committed to the fostering of individual expression and eloquence [just like them]. It is flawed by preference for the humanistic…

This obtuse Frye, says McLuhan, should go to school from “Professor Frye”:

a scientific [not “humanistic”] enterprise such as that of [the Marconian] Professor Frye (…) has secured a vehicle which by-passes all rhetorical expression of this personal type, and makes possible the deploying of the total resources of [all time from] pre-literate culture on to the Madison Avenue testing ground. This in turn will greatly hasten the mopping up of [the Gutenbergian Frye’s] remnants of private awareness and expression such as now give a confused and unsettled character to the literary and educational scene [as instanced both in Anatomy and in the grad student panel discussing it]. So that what has here begun as a momentary flush-profile of literary profiles [in one side of Anatomy of Criticism] will develop [better: flip] into a genuine chain reaction [of its other scientific side, propagating to McLuhan’s work and then beyond the two into a whole new field of analysis], and the remnants of a decadent form of personal expression [in the obtuse Frye and the whole “mechanical” world he instances] can be dispatched down the drain.

The “major resource” of “the world of ancient and medieval rhetoric (…) vibrant with archetypes” could and should show both Fryes where his Gutenbergian Janus-face, “vibrant with [its] archetypes”, has gone fundamentally wrong.19 But getting down to fundamentals is a major achievement, regardless of Frye’s Janus-faced ambiguities, since through his work a way appears that “makes possible [at last] the deploying of [mankind’s] total resources of [all time from] pre-literate culture on to the Madison Avenue testing ground”. This would constitute “a bedouin’s rug of timeless patterns which include all possible arrangements of human experience”, hence a “non-personal  chemical medium” in which the abysmal problems of the present would be subject to the sort of unforeseeable solutions as revealed themselves after those other media revolutions of literacy and of print.

  1. McLuhan’s thesis did not have the title, The Classical Trivium, of course, and while it may have been largely composed in 1942, it was submitted in April 1943 and approved in December 1943.
  2. Is this an objective genitive? So that the aforesaid mentalité is an expression of “grammar and rhetoric” together? Or is it a subjective genitive? So that “grammar and rhetoric” are “positive expressions” generated by that mentalité? The plural “positive expressions” would seem to indicate the latter. In this case, however, “rhetorical devices” would no longer be ground, but figures with a deeper ground in this mentalité. What, then, would be its ground? An endless regress seems to open up before us here…
  3. This assertion could hardly be more mistaken. See Pre-Christian Logos for McLuhan’s life-long appreciative treatment of the different facets of the Logos. Contra Elder, for McLuhan and, indeed, for traditions as old as history itself, the word was — or is — “the fabric of the world”.
  4. See Ignatov on Maritain on Bergson 1 for discussion of this point.
  5. Renascence 8.2, 1955, 97-99.
  6. Against the use of “pre-Classical” here, Elder himself correctly notes: “McLuhan acknowledges that the humanistic study of rhetorical figures developed only after written language and private modes of thinking had developed.” The specification of “pre-Classical times” is therefore mistaken both in regard to rhetoric and in regard to the development traced in the thesis. Only in The Gutenberg Galaxy, twenty years later, did McLuhan consider “pre-Classical times” and not in terms of their rhetoric.
  7. Note the singular!
  8. As suggested above in note 2, the question of the ground of mentalité (now mushroomed to mentalités) threatens an endless regress for which the number one cure has always been the conjuring of some or other unregressable One. “The kernel”!
  9. Brackets have been removed from Elder’s comments to forestall any question of where editorial interjections have been made here.
  10. Behind Frye, McLuhan intended the whole Gutenberg galaxy including Flahiff and his fellow grad student panelists, the University of Toronto and a world determined to end itself (in a subliminal quest for the One). Flahiff is included in the assemblage almost by name: “the run-of-the-mill graduate student”, one of the “keen spirits in the post-literate age of conformity and of global stereotypes” who “does not understand Professor Frye. (All) he (Flahiff) knows (is) that Frye is ‘with it’ and that group participation or togetherness in the aura of such leadership is far more satisfying than private interpretation” (thus exemplifying the point at stake even while mis-taking it at the same time). Note the required sequence: unconscious conformity > “private interpretation” > “the austere producer-oriented mind” that is no longer unconsciously conformist nor private.
  11. Throughout the review, McLuhan uses “Professor Frye” to designate Frye’s forward looking Janus-face, the one expressing “not the personal point of view, nor the partiality of perspective and self-expression”.
  12. Flahiff’s mind as “run-of-the-mill” here receives further specification as a “mental and industrial” setting.
  13. See the post of this name forthcoming at New Sciences. One reading of the phrase “blip calling unto blip” is ‘bit by bit’ which is, of course, the very ground of the digital world, enabling things like satellites and the communications we have with and through them.
  14. McLuhan also uses the phrase “natural bias” in his review. The great point is that assessment, while never without bias, yet has a “natural” inclination to truth. The sciences would seem to demonstrate this point conclusively and obviously, but many, apparently including Elder, don’t get it: “McLuhan was convinced that perception, thought (conception), and language relied on a divine dispensation to humanity that ensured there is a relation of some sort between signs, ideas, and reality.” Not “divine dispensation”, that stupid idea of our grandparents and their grandparents going back forever, but, says Elder, it is “the holism of the theory of electromagnetism (that) guarantees thought and spatial reality will be related”. Really? Is this really what celebrated folks have come to cogitate and to teach our children? Have we come to this? Our theory is the guarantee?
  15. The whole point at stake for McLuhan in regard to Anatomy is the turn, or not, from “profiles of literature” as a subjective genitive to “profiles of literature” as an objective genitive! Not lit as the organizing centre (ultimately of nothing) but lit as an organized margin (amongst everything).
  16. Elsewhere McLuhan retracts the secondary characterization of media as a “catalyst”. What he had in mind here is that while media do not determine us (exactly because they are plural), they are yet determinative once installed. This determinative but not determining function might well be described as “catalytic”.
  17. As McLuhan discusses in Nihilism Exposed, it is the “dissociation of sensibility” as manifested in a manifold of different “split” conditions that eventuates in an “annihilation pattern” — an “annihilation pattern” that would remedy any given split by ‘taking sides’ with One of its sides. This all-too-real “annihilation pattern” is exactly an unquenchable — except in annihilation — thirst for the One. McLuhan: “in the new age of technology when all human arrangements from the cradle to the grave have taken on the hasty extravaganza aspect of a Hollywood set, the nihilist philosophies of neo-Platonism and gnosticism have come into their own. Existence is an empty machine, a cheap art work, they have always said. The soul is a shabby mechanism, the body a monstrous one. (…) And now in the twentieth century when nature has been abolished by art and engineering, when government has become entertainment and entertainment has become the art of government, now the gnostic and neo-Platonist and Buddhist can gloat: “I told you so! This gimcrack mechanism is all that there ever was in the illusion of human existence. ‘Let us rejoin the One’.”
  18. Elder: “McLuhan highlights, by way of contrast with the (the!) discursive or propositional conception of language, the importance for the era of holistic — group — consciousness of the (the!) rhetorical understanding of communication”. Yikes!
  19. Not Elder’s — gone right!

Comments on Elder’s comments on Barilli 2

For all inferences from experience suppose, as their foundation, that the future will resemble the past. . . . If there be any suspicion, that the course of nature may change, and that the past may be no rule for the future, all experience becomes useless, and can give rise to no inference or conclusion. (Hume’s 1748 Enquiry as cited by Elder in his comments on Barilli)

Strangely, Elder seems to have missed how the observation from Hume cited by him exactly captures the working of McLuhan’s RVM, the rear-view mirror. Recourse to it presupposes “as foundation, that the future will resemble the past”.

In one important respect, however, the future will really be like the past, namely, that the two will be entirely different after a media revolution like those of the institution of literacy in Athens or of print two millennia later in Europe. In such cases, our understanding of “the course of nature may change, and [we will find] that the past may be no rule for the future, [for] all [past] experience becomes useless, and can give rise to no inference or conclusion” about anything at all in a new media environment (including about our own selves and everything we hold dear).

Elder nevertheless puts forward the hope that refinement of the RVM can reveal what McLuhan was up to. “A little more background will help us appreciate the richness of Barilli’s commentary on McLuhan’s notion of holism and its parallels with Kant’s epistemology and metaphysics.”

Against this it must be said that what McLuhan was trying to indicate cannot be seen!  By definition!  For through the sort of revolution he foresaw, as illustrated by past Gestalt-switch events like the advents of literacy and printing, “all experience [of the preceding type] becomes useless, and can give rise to no inference or conclusion” about the new world now dis-closed.1 This was the great point detailed by Eric Havelock in Preface to Plato which McLuhan championed from the moment it appeared in 1963 (as acknowledged and much appreciated by Havelock). McLuhan did so exactly because it revealed the sort of change 2500 years ago that he saw as both possible and necessary today. His own Gutenberg Galaxy had the same impulse. The unrealized hope was that pointing out revolutionary Gestalt-switch in the past might help its recognition in the present. Mais au contraire!

What is at stake in McLuhan (namely, the medium that is the message) is necessarily unknown, partly because it cannot appear in the RVM at all (when the RVM is all we have absent originary insight!) and partly because, when it “paradoxically” is seen, at last, through and behind the RVM, its nature will then forever be subject to scientific investigation. Only consider the dis-covery of the chemical element by Lavoisier and Priestley. Their breakthrough into a whole new world was astonishing. But what did they know of it? What could they know of it? So it is with us in face of McLuhan’s not unrelated demand (above all to himself) that “the medium is the message”. It is both presently almost entirely unknown and forever subject to future revision (whatever it is).

What McLuhan was attempting to indicate is itself necessarily subject to what he called the “paradox” of sudden awareness — and all appreciable awareness is sudden! We always and only experience through Aristotle’s “opposite form”, aka the RVM: “the whole preceding time during which anything moves towards its form, it is under the opposite form”.2 This is why, as McLuhan endlessly repeated, breakthrough absolutely depends upon breakdown. No breakdown, no breakthrough.

Now, as broached above, one of the aims of Elder’s comments on Barilli is to flesh out Barilli’s view that McLuhan’s achievement may be illuminated by the study of Kant as its background. So Elder would further illuminate Kant, in turn, by study of his background, particularly in Hume. But this is to revert to the RVM in two different ways. First, McLuhan is located against what we know or, at least, what we can and should know — as if his suggestions were intended as contributions to ‘normal science’. Second, this linear and progressive view with its focal objects like ‘Hume’ and ‘Kant’, even ‘Wolff’, is itself an instance of the Gutenberg galaxy whose idea of the ‘past’ in these senses has, according to McLuhan, ‘passed’ away.

Refinement of the RVM not only won’t work, it is counter-productive! (Hence McLuhan’s turn away from explanatory prose to something like comedy.)

If we are to approach McLuhan as a consequential thinker, indeed if we are to approach Hume and Kant as consequential thinkers, we need to do so subject to the proviso that they inform us, not we them. They can’t be put to use! Applying such a method won’t work for McLuhan — but it also won’t work for Hume and Kant! The entire procedure breaks down.3

Here, again, background is helpful only as something to be broken through, as forty or fifty years of McLuhan ‘scholarship’ amply reveals — negatively. He wanted to dis-cover a new mode of investigation into the entirety of human experience. In determined opposition, the McLuhan industry, supported by many $millions a year in Canada alone, will have anything but that — for it would require a break with the established (ie, ‘passed on’) past in which one’s reputation, identity and understanding are firmly anchored. 

In McLuhan’s view, there is no such thing as, say, ‘Kant’. This is the alchemical green dragon. Instead ‘Kant’ is like an immensely complicated chemical solution with (eg) propylene glycol (CH3CH(OH)CH2OH) suspended in it. It is impossible to get anywhere at all with such an identification until you understand C and H and O — and to do that, you have to understand the elements and how they work: “the medium is the message”.4 

If we are to survive what McLuhan approvingly cited from Sheila Watson, “the intrusion of the mechanical foot into the electric desert”,5 it will be only because we have learned to understand at last: (a) how everything we currently experience, from our own identity to world issues threatening nuclear war, are subliminal effects of as yet imprecisely known media structures — effects which are insuperable as unknown, but optional once dis-covered and investigated:

All of my recommendations, therefore, can be reduced to this one: study the modes of the media, in order to hoick all assumptions out of the subliminal, non-verbal realm for scrutiny and for prediction and control of human purposes. (Report on Project in Understanding New Media, ‘Recommendations’, 1960)

(b) that we do not have to know definitively how to specify these media structures prior to initiating research into them. Rather, just what such media are and how they operate is exactly the central question of the proposed investigations. Therefore McLuhan’s emphatic remark in 1959 to Harry Skornia in the course of his NAEB project to research new media: “We can’t assume that we understand media already!” And therefore as well his constant admonition: “Organize the ignorance!”

Did Priestley and Lavoisier understand chemical elements? Mostly not. But they understood enough to spark a change in our investigation of physical nature — the exterior landscape — through which the world has been utterly revolutionized. Between 1800 and 2020 the entire world has been through a kind of worm hole which has left almost nothing the same. And yet the chemistry through which much of this change has come about is just as applicable to materials from a million years ago as it is to materials today. Everything has changed and nothing has changed.

The “survival strategy” urged by McLuhan turns on the notion that the interior landscape is subject to a comparable revolutionary change in investigation, one that has already been deployed so to say objectively (especially in the development and use of mass media, ironically enough), but has not yet been deployed subjectively in investigations of the interior landscape. Civilization and perhaps the species as a whole will survive, in his view, only through a  revolution in our knowledge of human being (dual genitive!) where we finally apply what we already know to what we already experience — but have somehow failed so far to activate.


  1. It may be that McLuhan should be seen as giving the opposite answer to Hume as did Kant. Namely, that Hume was exactly right in an Enquiry passage cited by Elder in asserting that “the first imagination or invention of a particular effect, in all natural operations, is arbitrary, where we consult not experience”. What was needed to account for scientific law from here was only Kuhn’s distinction between revolutionary and normal science. The former is “arbitrary”, while it is exactly the role of the latter to weave such arbitrary insight back into our accepted experience. Nearly all existing readings of McLuhan, it may be noted, have silently assumed the second function, which amounts to taking him exclusively as he appears in this or that RVM. Understandably, the idea that he might have been an original thinker has not occurred to those who are not original thinkers themselves and have no idea that such thinkers even exist — nor, naturally, how they might be recognized if they did exist.
  2. See Comments on Elder’s comments on Barilli for reference and discussion.
  3. There is one aspect of a study of figures like Hume and Kant that is indeed helpful to an understanding of someone like McLuhan. Namely, experience in subjecting oneself to the originary insight of any thinker at all reveals, or can reveal, the subjection demanded in regard to any other. ‘Subjection’ is such a case is not sycophancy, but the putting in play one’s subjectivity or identity sufficiently to experience beyond one’s existing capability.
  4. It is well to remember that such understanding of the physical world is less than two centuries old. Propylene glycol, for example, was first synthesized in 1859.
  5. Given in the last paragraph of ‘My Friend Wyndham Lewis’, Atlantic Monthly, December 1969.

Maritain on Phelan

In his Foreword to the 1958 reissue of his Degrees of Knowledge (orig 1932) Jacques Maritain wrote the following tribute to Gerald Phelan:

I am happy to extend my very special gratitude to the captain of the [translation] team, Dr. Gerald B. Phelan, who directed, supervised and revised the whole work. I deeply appreciate the great testimony he bore to our long and affectionate collaboration in spending thus so much of his time for my book’s sake, and allowing this new translation to profit not only by his mastery of the subject matter but also by his mastery of the French and English languages. I avail myself of the present opportunity to pay my tribute of loving gratitude to this incomparable friend. When I first came to this continent, some twenty-five years ago, it was because, in his capacity as President of the Institute of Mediaeval Studies, he had invited me to give a series of lectures. I was immediately captivated by the eminent qualities of his mind and the charity of his heart and by the way in which were united in him love for truth and philosophical wisdom, in all their objectivity, and evangelic love of one’s neighbour. This was the beginning of an intellectual fellowship which has been especially dear to me. And from that time on, I cannot count the proofs of steadfast support and generous cooperation I have received from him. The last, and not the least, is the present translation.



Comments on Elder’s comments on Barilli

Elder’s comments on Barilli at New Explorations immediately raise noteworthy difficulties.

First and foremost, when gaps are to be removed or solved or declared absent from McLuhan’s thought, we are no longer dealing with McLuhan. “There is no bifurcation of reality, no ontological gap”, writes Elder. “The barrier, the gap, the hiatus that exists between the two poles [of subject and object or word and thing], denying any possibility of communication (…) was the main feature of all modern philosophical positions as they anxiously awaited an audacious solution that would be able to bypass the obstacle”, writes Barilli, thumbing his notice at Hegel, but presumably pointing to McLuhan’s great gap-obviating contribution.

But McLuhan insisted that “gaps are where the action is” (not least to the Ontario Dental Association), and it or its equivalents featured prominently in his work and were meant very seriously. And this for a series of reasons (quite aside from the fact that the man was a Catholic convert for whom the dead God on the cross symbolized, or was, the condition of a definitively gapped reality).

Creativity, beginning with the infant’s learning of language, does not take place through x number of steps of linear sequence to produce “matching” (by conquering the gap), but through a “paradox” resulting in “making” (on the basis of the gap):

The basis of all paradox, Christian and secular, is to be found in the sixth book of the Physics of Aristotle, to which Aquinas refers in his Summa Theologica I.II.q 113.a.7, ad quintum. The question for Aquinas is whether justification by faith occurs in­stantly or gradually. Aquinas says it occurs instantly because — ­here he appeals to Aristotle’s Physics — “the whole preceding time during which anything moves towards its form, it is under the opposite form”.1

Shortly put, no gap, no paradox. And if no paradox, no language and no creativity. (Hence McLuhan’s full agreement with Hume, as cited by Elder, in the supposed obstacle that “the first imagination or invention of a particular effect, in all natural operations, is arbitrary” — but not for that reason, for McLuhan at least, necessarily false or unaccountable!)

Furthermore, what gives for McLuhan the unique revelatory power of the electric form (which Barilli and Elder decidedly want to celebrate, if not apotheosize) is exactly its ineluctable gap between negative and positive poles in electricity and magnetism which, generalized, became the ineluctable gap between yes/no gates and 0/1 binary digits in computers and other computing machines.

But this did not mean previous thought was thereby overcome (as though McLuhan or anyone else could out-Kant Kant, or out-Plato Plato). Instead it meant that the same sort of value free analysis as chemistry can make of materials at any time anywhere could now be made (if McLuhan were right) of all experience anywhere anytime. As Elder himself cites in his extended discussion in this same post of McLuhan’s unpublished review of Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism:

A bedouin’s rug of timeless patterns which include all possible arrangements of human experience is indispensable equipment today.

Right or wrong was not the issue; the issue was how to approach “all possible arrangements of human experience” in a new medium such that collective investigation became possible — with, it was McLuhan’s great hope, the same sort of revolutionary insights and solutions as followed upon those other media revolutions — the instigation of literacy in Athens 2500 ago and again after printing 500 years ago.

Moreover, the key to understanding space, time and media was exactly to understand their inherent plurality and, therefore, the “bifurcation” or “ontological gap” between (!) their instances. “Understanding media”, in particular, posed the problem of this plurality and of its gaping borders (since media cannot be separated and differentiated by media), for here the spectrum of medial gaps was itself gapped.

Finally, McLuhan recognized what might be termed existential gaps. Here he is in his Nina Sutton interview with Barbara Rowes sitting in:

BR: What is the fascination with identity ?
MM: Because it’s gone [under electric conditions]. You are always aware of the thing that’s disappeared. It’s a gap. It’s like a lost tooth, an aching void — you feel it all the time.

In a word, gaps, plural, are what are to be understood in understanding media. They are McLuhan’s topic. They are his one thought, as Heidegger might put it.

The other great difficulty posed by Elder and Barilli is what seems for all the world to be a far too one-sided evaluation of the electric form and electric environment,2 despite the unique dangers they pose (of which McLuhan was well aware early on). It may be that enthusiastic assessment is where Prof de Kerckhove gets his notion of the saving power of digital ID. In any case, however the electric may have solved various problems, it has also created more of its own and more ominous ones to boot. Forgetting this means to overlook the up-down dynamic of Heraclitus’ way of which McLuhan’s tetrads are a modern iteration. For humans there is no up that does not implicate an ever-present down and this gapped-gaping-chaotic3 implication is — the medium that is the message.

  1. From Cliché to Archetype, 160. The passage from Aristotle used by Thomas is cited by McLuhan in Latin in ‘The Medieval Environment’ from 1974 and appears as well in letters to Maritain and others. For discussion see The “magical” essence of communication.
  2. Berilli: “For where else do we find the force in which all the synthetic, holistic and structuralist principles of our age are based, if not in the electromagnetic field with all its features and laws? This is the unifying notion from which no one and nothing can be removed. In itself, holism might be considered a fallacious theoretical, quasi-mystical or religious concept. It might even provoke a degree of suspicion. Yet the notion of the electromagnetic field constitutes an indisputable, physical and material reality that immerses us all at every moment of our lives. This is the link, the ultimate warrant of our present unitary, structuralist condition”.  Elder: “Thinking is electric; spatial reality is electric. There is no bifurcation of reality, no ontological gap (…) The holism of the theory of electromagnetism guarantees thought and spatial reality will be related”.
  3. Cf, the shared etymology of gap-gape-chaos.

Dating McLuhan’s “flush-profile” review of Frye

In his Comments on Renato Barilli post at New Explorations, Bruce Elder has a long footnote on McLuhan’s unpublished “flush-profile” review of Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism. In what is either a simple typo or a confusion of McLuhan’s published review of Frye’s Blake in 1947 with his unpublished review of Frye’s Anatomy a decade or more later, Elder gives 1947 as the date of the latter paper. Since Anatomy was published only in 1957, and since McLuhan mentions Sputnik (which launched in October 1957), the earliest possible date for the “flush-profile” review would be the last couple months of 1957.

As indicated by Elder, McLuhan’s review is reproduced along with a discussion of it in a post, Frye-McLuhan Rivalry?, at the Northrop Frye blog, The Educated Imagination. Philip Marchand is cited there from his McLuhan bio as dating the UT panel discussion on Anatomy, for which the paper is said to have been written, to “shortly after its publication”. Here again, then, the review would date to the last months of 1957 or, perhaps, to early in 1958. But Marchand gives no source for this dating and he goes on to cite Fred Flahiff concerning McLuhan’s paper as saying that Flahiff and McLuhan “went out and walked around and around Queen’s Park” discussing it. While this is not impossible in winter in Toronto, it is unlikely.

Absent other evidence, dating the paper must rely on its vocabulary and style. Tellingly, McLuhan notes in it that “Professor Frye has devised a kind of nomadic bookcase for the cosmic man of today who is inevitably a mental D.P.” The same image of “a mental D.P.” appears in a passage in McLuhan’s address to the NAEB Annual Convention in Omaha in October, 1958, ‘Culture Is Our Business: The meaning of the new electronic media’.1 In his address McLuhan observed:

One of the great problems in pedagogy, I think, is a kind of process of translation from one culture to another culture that we are undergoing; and an extensive medium revolution, such as the electronic one, turns us all into mental DP’s. We are all displaced persons today, whether we like it or not; and we are all confronted with huge undeveloped countries of the mind where we hardly know what to do first.

Since the image of our being displaced persons is very rare2 in McLuhan’s work,3 this would provisionally date his “flush-profile” review to 1958, probably in the early fall when the university was back in session, at the same time as McLuhan was drafting notes for his NAEB convention address in October.4

  1. Published in the NAEB Journal, Volume 18:3, December 1958, 3-5 and 30-4.
  2. The topic of displacement, on the other hand, could be said to be all that McLuhan ever talked about. The Gutenberg Galaxy gives its history, Understanding Media and Take Today its present objective and subjective applications.
  3. It appears also in Take Today, 276: “The rich man becomes the displaced person” — written more than a decade after his NAEB convention address, at a time, admittedly, when the tone of the “flush-profile” review was more common than it was earlier.
  4. Flahiff’s dates in Toronto supply some confirmation to this supposition. From his obituary, it appears that he was a grad student at UT in the late 1950s before beginning his teaching career in Saskatoon in 1960. In Marchand’s recounting of the incident, “a panel of graduate English students was organized by the Graduate English Association at the University of Toronto to discuss Frye’s book shortly after its publication.  One of the panellists (was) Frederick Flahiff”. It seems certain, then, that the review was written at the end of the 1950s, following publication of Frye’s book in 1957 and before Flahiff graduated to begin teaching in 1960. The strange behavior of McLuhan reported by Flahiff, it should be noted, was that observed by a grad student who was bolted to his RVM and determined to report of Frye — and McLuhan — only what he saw in it. That McLuhan might have been trying to spark revolutionary insight in his bean, and through it perhaps also in the beans of the other panelists and their audience, never occurred to Flahiff then or later. This is the McLuhan we have ever since: an odd guy ‘researched’ by folks who know better.

McLuhan at the crossroads

In 1953 McLuhan, now in his 40s, was turning from the literary views that had defined his way for the previous two decades to a new way that would remain indistinct and tentative for most of the remainder of the decade.1 Here he is in letters that year to Wyndham Lewis:

For Shenandoah magazine Lewis number I’ve attempted to present your Theory of Art and Communication. Mainly in your own words. Only in the past year have I become fully aware of the reality of the secret societies in the arts, philosophy and politics. Your own work has consequently taken on a much different significance for me. (April 15, 1953, Letters 236)

Re-reading Snooty [Baronet] (1922) recently I realized my own situation is not unlike his (…) The range and character of the “cultic twalette” has just dawned on me in the past year. Like Snooty I’m trying to get my bearings. (July 14, 1953, Letters 239)

As for my book. It owes much to you of course. But it was so long in the publishing (6 years) that I had lost interest in its approach before it appeared. Now I see that I was trying to prop up the standards of book culture when we have passed out of the Gutenberg era. (December 9, 1953, Letters 241)

As an indicator of that new way, first of all to himself — “trying to get my bearings” — he twice over in 1953 cited the same passage, word for word, from G. Rachel Levy’s Gate of Horn, once in ‘Wyndham Lewis: His Theory of Art and Communication’ and again in ‘Maritain on Art‘:

Plato’s theory of Ideas constitutes a gigantic effort to establish the mystic doctrine upon an intellectual basis. The relation of created things to the “‘pattern laid up in heaven” is, as we saw, that methexis, or participation, which Aristotle equated with mimesis, the “imitation” by which the living world was built upon the Pythagorean numbers. Thus the relationship created by earliest man, and the means of his growth as already described; the vehicle of the first-known religion is now made articulate. The wheel has come full-circle.2

McLuhan’s work for the whole remainder of his career is captured here in nuce.  But it would take McLuhan himself years and sometimes decades to realize these implications.

To “Plato’s theory of Ideas constitutes a gigantic effort to establish the mystic doctrine upon an intellectual basis” compare McLuhan almost 10 years later at the end of his 1961 ‘Humanities in the Electronic Age’:

The ideal Marriage of Mercury and Philology, of spiritual values and perfected method, will be consummated, if ever, in the electronic age.

What Plato’s “gigantic effort” had been unable to accomplish — even with Aristotle’s further specification of the dynamic “methexis or participation” of the forms (the “pattern laid up in heaven”) in constituting “the living world”  — might now “in the electronic age”, at last, be realized or “consummated”.

The notion at stake is just that of chemistry or genetics where a “pattern laid up in heaven” (the elements in the first, the DNA structure of genes in the second) expresses itself dynamically in and as “the living world”. There is, of course, a fundamental difference between such structures and the physical materials they constitute (even when they are of utmost purity), but the two levels, while maintaining their distinction, are one in any given sample. The answer to the question, ‘what is this?’, must always be given in terms of those elementary structures, but is always also some particular expression of them. Theory and instance are never simply identical, but each mirrors the other in a re-flection that is essential. First starting in 1958, McLuhan would term the necessity of this sort of specification, “the medium is the message”.3

Inherent to this idea even in Plato and Aristotle was a “multilevel” approach. Only so could focus be directed to “methexis, or participation, which Aristotle equated with mimesis“. These are all terms or actions which seek to explicate how differences like form and matter or experience and world are dynamically inter-related and so mediated. No such multilevel approach, no possibility of insight into the medium as focal message. In fact, McLuhan seems to have come to the former multilevel approach before the latter medium as message insight and arguably to the latter only by way of the former. Here he is some years before his insistence, beginning in 1958, that “the medium is the message”:

anybody can test for himself the fact that sixteenth-century prose [like that of Nashe, McLuhan’s PhD thesis subject from 12 years before] still retains many of the rapidly shifting perspectives of multiple levels of tone and meaning which characterize group speech. It took two centuries of print to create prose on the page which maintained the tone and perspective of a single speaker. (Historical Approach to the Media, 1955)

Oral disputation and multi-level comment on texts were the natural result of oral teaching. Multi-level awareness of linguistic phenomena and of audience structure held up during print’s first century [eg, with Nashe], but swiftly declined thereafter, since the speedy linear flow of printed language encouraged single perspective in word use and word study. (The Effect of the Printed Book on Language, Explorations 7, 1957)

McLuhan would incessantly insist on “multi-level awareness” in his writings after 1960, particularly (after reading Wolfgang Kohler’s Gestalt Psychology in 1964)4 in terms of figure and ground. But he became aware of the fundamental importance of this awareness5 only when he began to explore the differences between orality and literacy in the 1950s. 

Another implication of the Levy citation, one that McLuhan would broach in his 1962 ‘Prospect’ piece for Canadian Art Magazine, and then endlessly repeat, was the return to the paleolithic, to Levy’s “wheel [that] has come full-circle” back to “earliest man, and (…) the first-known religion”:

When we put our central nervous system outside us we returned to the primal nomad state. We have become like the most primitive paleolithic man, once more a global information-gatherer instead of a food-gatherer. The source of man’s food, and wealth, and daily life from now on, is just information.6

Finally, the most important implication of Levy’s passage, one that McLuhan himself did not see clearly until the 1970s, was the plurality of time. Levy indicates at least three different workings of time: 1) the linear “effort to establish” intellectual clarification on some newly specified “basis” — “the means of (…) growth”; 2) the synchronic or simultaneous working of that ‘new’ basis via “methexis, or participation” by which the living world [is] built”; 3) the revolutionary time-flip or “paradox” through which (1) culminates in recognition both of itself and of the oldest of the old as constituted by way of (2) — “the relationship created by earliest man, and the means of his growth [up to the present insight] (…) is now7 made articulate. The wheel has come full-circle.” The linear finds itself in the synchonic:

And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.
And all is always now. (Four Quartets, Burnt Norton, v)8 


  1. McLuhan’s way can therefore roughly be put as 20 years spent as a literary theorist (1930 to 1950, age 20 to 40), 10 years spent in transition from literary theory in search of a new ground and discipline (1950 to 1960, age 40 to 50), and 20 years again as an investigator of — dual genitive — the electric, 1960 to 1980, age 50 to 70.
  2. Parts of this passage from Levy were actually cited twice in McLuhan’s 1953 Lewis essay — for a total of three times that year. In doing so, he was saying to himself something like: “get this into your head and figure it out not for Plato’s 400 BC, but for now!”
  3. Although it would be absurd to insist that color or smell must be considered along with the elements in specifying physical materials, champions and foes of McLuhan have never ceased insisting that the message must be considered along with the medium in some way. One of the chief things the intelligibility sought by McLuhan had to explain as a “survival strategy” was this universal obtuseness.
  4. See McLuhan’s letter to Bascom St John, July 10, 1964, Letters 306. He had earlier reported reading Kohler to Harry Skornia in an unpublished letter.
  5. As opposed to practising it, which he had done forever.
  6. McLuhan continues ‘Prospect’ as follows: “The transforming of this information into usable products is now an automation problem, a thing no longer calling for the utmost division of human labour and skill. Automation no longer calls for personnel. This terrifies mechanical man because he does not know what to do about the transition that is taking place.” This was a “transition” McLuhan himself had made in the preceding decade, presumably not without its accompanying ‘terrors’. Here was a reason, namely a lack of courage and perseverance in the face of such “terrors”, along with constitutional intellectual limitations, practical concerns with one’s position in every sense and the workings of Kuhn’s ‘normal science’, that might account for the universal obtuseness noted above.
  7. When is this ‘now’? It is the moment when linear insight ‘paradoxically’ finds simultaneous “basis”. ‘At the same time’, however, this is no satori flash of supreme illumination. Instead it is the initiation of investigation on a ‘timeless’ basis that will not only exercise that basis but also subject it to question. As Kuhn has detailed, the working of ‘normal science’ culminates in a revolution through which its previous ‘basis’ is overthrown — the timeless becomes subject to time.
  8. Eliot, and particularly Four Quartets, was one of the central texts giving orientation to McLuhan’s way. Hugh Kenner has reported McLuhan’s fascination with it in the late 1940s and some of McLuhan’s last published work focused on it thirty years later. In McLuhan’s unpublished work, there seems to be more writing on Eliot than on anybody else. A constant background topic for him after 1950 or so was: what is the central difference between Eliot and Joyce and what does this difference implicate?

The Art of Being Ruled (de Kerckhove 3)

Lewis conducts an elaborate survey of the art, entertainment, science, and philosophy of the contemporary Western world to determine what is going on. (193)1 


McLuhan’s appeal to the work of Wyndham Lewis was founded on Lewis’ critique of modernity, not on Lewis’ attempts to answer that critique. Ultimately, indeed, McLuhan saw Lewis as falling prey to the very trends Lewis specified so well.2 But the farsightedness and accuracy of Lewis’ critique from the 1920s, and arguably from a decade and more before in his Blast writings, together with McLuhan’s appreciation of that critique from the early 1940s, should not be gainsaid. They saw, defined and criticized matters then which de Kerckhove describes as the latest news now.

Consider, for example, de Kerckhove’s thoughts on the “digital twin” as compared to McLuhan in his 1944 essay from 75 years ago — citing Lewis from his 1926 “pamphlet” written 20 years before that:

The intensity of mass-control and exploitation is increased by the multiplication of superficial differences: “Thus, if a man can be made to feel himself acutely (a) an American; (b) a young American; (c) a middle-west young American; (d) a “radical and enlightened” middle-west young American; (e) a “college-educated” etc etc; (f) a “college-educated” dentist who is an etc etc; (g) college-educated’ dentist of such-and-such a school of dentistry, etc, etc, — the more inflexible each of these links is, the more powerful, naturally, is the chain. Or he can be locked into any of these compartments as though by magic by anyone understanding the wires.”3 (The Art of Being Ruled)

The stupendous value of the FAANG stocks records nothing else, of course, than their “understanding the wires”.

It goes without saying that spying has always gone on, as has the appreciation of customer taste by men and women, in the most ancient professions, and even by singers of tales. What was new in modern times was partly the efficiency of the means of gathering such information, but above all it was the specification of human life as having its meaning and worth in the terms of that information. For Lewis this meant that “the human being is no longer the unit”4 — a condition which McLuhan attributed to Lewis’ “dehumanizing forces of the Magnetic City”.5 The central concern of Lewis, and McLuhan in turn, was first of all to illuminate that and how this had happened — and then to investigate if the sleepers might wake.

Before computers, before the internet, before cookies, before AI, the twin through whom economic and political control could and would be exercised was already precisely identified. That we have nevertheless marched in lockstep into our present dystopia tells us everything we need to know about the “ideologic machine” asteaching machine”: it tells us — who we are and what we are for.


Looking back from the late 1960s, entering his last decade of life, McLuhan described what he had received from Lewis:

In The Art of Being Ruled [Lewis] revealed the vast new Lumpenproletariat of the affluent who have since become so painfully obvious as the successors to the Marxist proletariat. In The Doom of Youth he explained the idiocy of the child cult long before Dr. Spock undertook to sponsor permissiveness. [In The Human Age, his last work, he presents the dehumanizing forces of the Magnetic City. He starts with the telegraph press and its power to generate cosmic political disturbances as a means of selling advertising copy. He concludes with TV and its power to alter the images of self-identity on a world-wide scale.]6 (…) Is it any wonder that his analysis of the political, domestic, and social effects of the new technological environments had a great deal to do with directing my attention to these events? (McLuhan, ‘My Friend Wyndham Lewis’, Atlantic Monthly, December 1969)

Two years earlier, McLuhan can be heard crediting Lewis with his interest in “the new technological environments” on a flexidisc recording included with the November 1967 issue of artscanada.7 Asked what influence Lewis had had on him, McLuhan answered:

Good Heavens — that’s where I got it! It was Lewis who put me on to all this study of the environment as an educational — as a teaching machine. To use our more recent terminology, Lewis was the person who showed me that the manmade environment was a teaching machine — a programmed teaching machine. Earlier, you see, the Symbolists had discovered that the work of art is a programmed teaching machine. It’s a mechanism for shaping sensibility. Well, Lewis simply extended this private art activity into the corporate activity of the whole society in making environments that basically were artifacts or works of art and that acted as teaching machines upon the whole population.8


In fact, even as an undergraduate at the University of Manitoba, a full 35 years before the artscanada recording, years before he had ever read a line of Lewis, and before he was soon to encounter Leavis and Thompson’s Culture and Environment at Cambridge,9 McLuhan already perceived the larger social world as a “classroom without walls”. Here he is as an undergraduate in the UM student newspaper, The Manitoban:

It is, of course, mistaken to suppose that education in any important sense is connected with the schoolroom. Education is the sum total of all those ideas and objects pressing in on the mind every hour of the waking day. (‘Public School Education’, October 17, 1933)

we lift up our eyes to the signboards whence cometh our help (‘Morticians and Cosmeticians’, March 2, 1934)

[Interviewer:] These men have enabled us to control nature. [Johnson:] Yes, sir, and it controls you. When men pride themselves on the mastery of a thing, they are the slaves of that thing. (‘An Interview with Dr Johnson’, March 16, 1934)

While McLuhan was greatly taken by the attempts in the Cambridge English school to investigate the structures of language as the key to understanding social life in general (hence his PhD thesis on the trivium as the backbone of western history from 400 BC to 1600 AD), his long-standing interest in the economic and political implications of the “classroom without walls” led him in the 1940s to the writings of Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis in which they addressed the whole social environment.

In 1944 McLuhan published an essay on Lewis, ‘Lemuel in Lilliput’, which he apparently wrote in some kind of consultation or even collaboration with Lewis.10 Here appeal to The Art of Being Ruled is made repeatedly:

men (…) no longer understand the world they have made and which, as robots, they operate day by day. Such is the situation into which Lewis shot his pamphlet breezily entitled The Art of Being Ruled.11 

The Art of Being Ruled is a study of the major dichotomy of modern life. There is the romanticized machine on one hand [with its] the vulgarized spawn of speculative science committed to perennial and ever-accelerated revolution.12 On the other hand are the traditional human and political values. (…) Against the pseudo-impersonality and supposed [ever-better] “drift of events”, Lewis asserts the prerogatives of human intelligence and control. He unmasks the long-preserved anonymity of supposedly unwilled and irresistible forces in modern life. The atomization of consciousness, the attack on the continuity of personal experience, whether by the medicine man of the laboratory or the dionysiac ecstasies of advertisement and high-finance, are alike shown to be the products of deliberate [contrivance].13 The worship of the dialectic of history or of the “dynamic aspect
of reality” in Hegel, Marx, and Bergson has its natural corollary on the “practical” plane: “Dynamical, as the most ‘hurried’ of men is aware, means the bustle and rush of action — of Big Business, Armaments, Atlantic ‘hops’, Wall Street and Mussolini. A ‘dynamic personality’ means, in journalism, an iron-jawed oil-king in an eight-cylinder car, ripping along a new motor-road, with a hundred-million-dollar deal in a new line of poison-gas bombs blazing in his super-brain, his eye aflame with the lust of battle — of those battles in which others fight and die.”14

Science is often described as the religion of industrialism. It is said to have provided man with ‘a new world-soul’. Its (…) function is actually (…) to conceal the human mind that manipulates it, or that manipulates through it (…) For in its impersonality and its ‘scientific detachment’15 it is an ideal cloak for the personal human will. Through it that will can operate with a godlike inscrutability that no other expedient can give. It enables man to operate as though he were nature on other men. In the name of science people can be almost without limit bamboozled and managed.”16 (The Art of Being Ruled

the modern state is necessarily an educationalist state owing to the huge impassivity of the urban masses on the one hand and to the closely centralized control of all agencies of  communication on the other17 

Consider again how the press of the world imitates and promotes “scientific detachment” in its methods of “impersonal” news coverage. Yet nothing is more hysterically personal than “news” in its reflection of the human will. Time, Life and Fortune put up an enormous front of “detachment” which upon slight examination proves to be violently emotional and interested. (…) It is therefore, politically and humanly speaking, a matter of the utmost concern for us to know from what sources and by what means the rulers of the modern world determine what they will do next.  How do they determine the ends for which, as means, they employ the vast machines of government, education, and amusement?18 

[Lewis emphasizes] the pathological blindness of the modern world to anything but itself: “It is naturally, for itself, the best that has ever been — it is for it that the earth has laboured for so long”19 (The Art of Being Ruled)

The Heir of all the Ages20…stands by the death-bed — penniless.”21 (The Art of Being Ruled)

Finally, under the circumstances, it is able to do what no former society has been able to do. It is able to dispense with (…) art…”22 (The Art of Being Ruled)

Paradoxically, the machine has not stiffened but melted life. Mechanism has imposed universal fashions of primitivism. It has rendered all the conditions of experience so fluid and frothy that men now are swimming in another Flood: “It is because our lives are so attached to and involved with the evolution of our machines that we have grown to see and feel everything in revolutionary terms”23 (…) “it is the first genuine philosophy of slaves that has ever been formulated … it consists in an exploitation of the joys of slavery and submission.”24 (The Art of Being Ruled)

Science makes us strangers to ourselves. (…) It instills a principle of impersonality in the heart of life that is anti-vital. In its present vulgarized condition science represents simply the principle of destruction: it is more deadly than a thousand plagues, and every day we perfect it, or our popular industrially applied version of it.” (The Art of Being Ruled)25 

Modern man, philosophically committed and conditioned to sensation and its twin, action, is automatically manifesting the fruits of that philosophy [of slaves] in a multitude of ways. (…) The [supposed or imposed] constitution of created being guarantees modern man that in seeking sensation and thrills, all his acts will uniformly possess a character of accelerated imbecility: “(…) the religion of merging, or mesmeric engulfing”.26

The answer then to the question of ‘cui bono‘ is ultimately this. Everybody loses. Society has been made into a machine (…) There are no beneficiaries. The Dagwoods and the billionaire power-gluttons are equally rushing to the suicide of total immersion in the chaos of matter.27  However, they are not equally responsible. There is moral accountability in the profound cynicism of the Hollywood tycoons and of the Hearsts and Henry Luces who toboggan us down to the lowest levels (and biggest profits) of What the Public Wants. But, as the “public” becomes more deeply bored with “what it wants” it turns not in wrath but with envy towards its tormentors. (…)28 Corruptio optimi pessima.29 “But with all the resources of his fabulous wealth, the democratic magnate is able to drag the poor into depths of spiritual poverty undreamed of by any former proletariat or former ruling class. The rich have achieved this awful brotherhood with the poor by bleeding them of all character, spirituality, and mental independence. That accomplished, they join them spiritually or unspiritually in the servant’s hall.” (The Art of Being RuledThe exploited and the exploiter coalesceThus it comes about that the attack on the family, for example, which develops first (in the eighteenth century) as an attack on reason and the concept of authority, is conducted very thoroughly on the economic front as well. (…) The destruction of family life, in theory and in practice, the flight from adulthood, the obliteration of masculine and feminine has all gone ahead — by means of a glorification of those things. Never was sex so much glorified, children and motherhood so idolized and advertised in theory as at this present hour when the arrangements for their internment have been completed30  

Again, no plan or plot or super-brain is needed for the full inter-meshing and exfoliation of all these things to proceed through innumerable changes, and ever-increasing violence and intensity, to their natural term — the “dialectic” of matter31 itself guides the brutalized mind into the labyrinth.32 

What Lewis gave McLuhan were not answers but questions: if modern human beings were losing their social and individual lives, and were actually complicit in casting these away, how was this death process to be stopped and these irreplaceable treasures regained? Since these machinations were the effects of education — of the “classroom without walls” of “art, entertainment, science, and philosophy” — they could hardly be countered by these same means, at least as presently conceived and configured. What lever was there, then, that might be applied against the mad rush to war and more war and to potential oblivion?




  1. ‘Lewis: Lemuel in Lilliput’, 1944, reprinted in The Medium and the Light, 178-197. All page references not otherwise identified are to this M&L version of McLuhan’s essay.
  2. See especially ‘Nihilism Exposed‘, Renascence 8:2, 1955, 97-99.
  3. 196.
  4. Cited in ‘Lewis: Lemuel in Lilliput’, 185, from Time and Western Man.
  5. McLuhan’s June 1, 1969 letter to Robert Manning, Letters 374.
  6. The bracketed sentences here appeared in the original version of this paragraph in McLuhan’s June 1, 1969 letter to Robert Manning, editor of The Atlantic Monthly, in which he proposed his essay on Lewis for the magazine. Letters 374. But in the published version of this same paragraph these sentences were omitted.
  7. A special issue on Lewis edited by Sheila Watson.
  8. Transcription and recording link from See also Andrew McLuhan’s post:
  9. In his interview with Nina Sutton, McLuhan specifically credited Culture and Environment as an important milestone on his way. It combined all his interests: literary analysis, concern for tradition, environmental education and the manufacture of culture through business and entertainment.
  10. McLuhan to Robert Manning, June 1, 1969, Letters 374: “I enclose a wee essay (‘Lemuel in Lilliput’) I wrote on Lewis years ago when he was visiting us in St . Louis.”
  11. 182.
  12. ‘Revolution’, ‘managerial revolution’, ‘revolutionary terms’, etc, are used in McLuhan’s essay to designate change as desirable in itself, change as both necessary and as necessarily good.
  13. McLuhan: “of deliberate will”.
  14. 184-185 citing Time and Western Man.
  15. The typo “scientific attachment” here was already present in the 1944 printing of McLuhan’s essay and was not corrected for the Medium and the Light version.
  16. 187.
  17. 187n20.
  18. 188.
  19. 191-192n26.
  20. Lewis facetiously cites Tennyson’s Locksley Hall (1835) here: “The heir of all the ages, in the foremost files of time”.
  21. 186.
  22. 192n26.
  23. See note 12 above.
  24. 192.
  25. 192-193.
  26. 194 citing Time and Western Man.
  27. By “the chaos of matter” McLuhan does not mean material stuff, but that which is unformed or at least unformulated. It is mind death.
  28. Part of the omission here is the sentence: “This is not a question of either-or, but of both-and.” (195n31) With it McLuhan characterized our tycoons both as villains and as fools. But the phrase should be noted as a directive (to McLuhan himself) concerning the structural difference between the Gutenberg and Marconi eras.
  29. Corruption of the best is the worst.
  30. 194-195.
  31. See note 27 above.
  32. 196. In regard to this labyrinth, a couple years after this Lewis essay McLuhan would begin consideration of Poe’s maelstrom that he would then maintain for the rest of his life.

“A genus of homicidal puppets, sure enough” (de Kerckhove 2)

The vision flogged by Prof de Kerckhove (see de Kerckhove’s Digital Transformation 1), in jest, one hopes, in an attempt at indirect communication, one prays, but in decided earnest, one fears, is clear at least in this respect: it sets out exactly what McLuhan spent a lifetime thinking against.

Here is McLuhan in his 1944 essay, ‘Lewis: Lemuel in Lilliput’:1   

Anybody who has had the opportunity to observe the workings of a modern university need not be told how the “administrative policy of a great teaching body” (such is the ludicrous terminology) is a brainless submission to the currents of technological (not human) change.2 (…) This [anonymous] class of men is not really detached from the ideologic machine. (…) The rulers of modern society are increasingly identified with these technicians who control “scientifically” [via] educational experiment and the Gallup poll: “In reality they are another genus of puppets, a genus of homicidal puppets, sure enough. And they bear a strange resemblance to the misanthropic masters of the doctrine of What the Public Wants.”3 This sort of revolutionary simpleton, this beaming child of the Zeitgeist is precisely the sort of ruler the modern world cannot afford to have at the head of its enormous machinery.4

The embedded quotation is from Lewis’ The Art of Being Ruled and ‘de Kerckhove 3’ will take up McLuhan’s extended references to this 1926 434 page “pamphlet” (as McLuhan put it to Innis). Suffice it to note here only that 75 years ago McLuhan addressed in horrified detail what de Kerckhove seemingly approvingly describes as the emerging present of today and tomorrow. Something is fundamentally amiss here, something that points beyond the understanding of McLuhan, beyond academic politics, to the very working of the age. 

  1. McLuhan, ‘Lewis: Lemuel in Lilliput’, reprinted in The Medium and the Light, 178-197. References below are to this M&L version.
  2. 188n21.
  3. 189n22.
  4. 188-189.

de Kerckhove’s Digital Transformation 1

The man speaks:

case specific data driven verdicts are already superior to human judgment in many critical sectors, medical, legal, financial and military (de Kerckhove, 13)

The man continues: 

When I announce my “data driven verdicts” in any of these areas (to mention just these) you must give me your mind, your purse, your life, your child.

McLuhan to Harold Innis, March 14, 1951:

The diagnosis of [t]his type [of authoritarian political manipulation] is best found, so far as I know, in Wyndham Lewis’s The Art of Being Ruled. That pamphlet is probably the most radical political document since Machiavelli’s Prince. But whereas Machiavelli was concerned with the use of society as raw material for the arts of power, Lewis reverses the perspective and tries to discern the human shape once more in a vast technological landscape which has been ordered on Machiavellian lines. (Letters 222)

In the 18 months Innis had to live, he found time to read Lewis’ book and to reference it in his last work, The Changing Concepts of Time (1952). But Prof de Kerckhove, the head of the UT McLuhan Centre for 25 years, appears not to have received the memo. 


Prof de Kerckhove’s essay1 gives a snapshot of the digital present (often presented in the mode of the foreseeable future) — which is, however, entirely a replay of past times as seen in the RVM. 

A series of posts here will delineate 3 points in regard to it:

  1. how far the man is already in our heads and speaks through us;
  2. how the multilevel historical dimension (as opposed to the RVM single surface level) is completely absent from de Kerckhove’s essay so that (for example) no note is made of how Lewis already found such “a new social order” (6-7) menacing, crazy and comical all at once (and so became McLuhan’s Virgilian guide into the new inferno whose circles become radio waves were already bending minds and the whole social environment for the man);
  3. how de Kerckhove’s descriptions point via Socratic eristics to the sort of answer McLuhan attempted unsuccessfully to communicate.


That the man is firmly lodged in de Kerckhove’s descriptions of our Digital Transformation2 may be seen in citations from his essay which are so dystopian and yet so funny at the same time that it is hard to know what he was thinking. Surely not what he himself was writing! So, for example, where he opines that our

a new social order will self-organize and fall into place. It will be driven by survival to respond first to the threat of environmental annihilation and second, by the need to protect humans from rampant terrorism, tax evasion and utter poverty. (de Kerckhove, 6-7)

“The need to protect humans from (…) tax evasion” as “driven by survival”! That is, you must become your own thought police as regards your taxes (to mention just these) — if the planet is to survive! So pay up! And while you are at it, sniff out whether your neighbour is paying up! Or we will all die! (Lower on the list of threats, apparently, are nuclear war and mind-death through incessant virtue signalling.) 


The question, as in all political systems, would be how to counter efficiently or prevent human abuse of the system. (de Kerckhove, 14)

Not system abuse of the human but human abuse of the system! Yikes! Help!

And finally: 

assuming that data analysis steered by Artificial General Intelligence (AGI), including mood and sentiment [assessment]would focus on the community, instead of addressing mainly [typo for ‘merely’?] individuals (…) Automated policymaking, regulation and execution of different measures would guarantee increased social good [just ask us!] and thereby reach a higher consensus in the community [whereby alien thought and alien individuals would have to be corrected or eliminated — despite what McLuhan may have said on the artist as outlaw!]. In a political system that is yet to be invented,[but fervently to be desired] for anyone to be entitled to participate  [entitled to participate!] in any policy-making, voters would have to provide evidence [provide evidence! to whom? or, rather, to what machine controlled by whom?] that they were informed, competent and ethical [informed, competent and ethical!]. This could be assessed by analytics. [Miracolo divino!] Access to decision-making would be given [given!] according to the level of competence every citizen achieved [the level of competence achieved!]. (…) In a political system grounded in AGI, [Artificial General Intelligence!] a mature SAS [Symbiotic Autonomous Systems] environment (local or global) would have to emulate for the whole system in real time the kind of survival alertness and opportunity awareness [survival alertness and opportunity awareness!] that each one of us possess[es] individually. [Or might possess individually if these had not been assigned/alienated to the man and his “analytics” team.] That would mean, for example, not recommending [“not recommending”! wink, wink!] a decision that would harm the environment in the long term or identifying and presenting opportunities for improvements to (…) personal processes. (de Kerckhove, 15-16)

This is Plato’s φύλακες (guardians), la Inquisición española, Rousseau’s volonté générale, Marx’s Diktatur des Proletariats and the FAANG stock brotherhood all rolled into one! And now algorithmized! “Automated policy-making, regulation and execution of different measures would guarantee increased social good“. Yes, sir!

Side note: Any problems with this vision may be taken up with the citizen feedback facility. Thank you for calling. Our menu has recently changed so listen carefully to the following options. Push 1 at any time to return to the main menu; push 2 for your options (push ‘1’ for yes and ‘0’ for no); push 3 for further options (push ‘1’ for yes and ‘0’ for no); push 4 if you wish to leave a message for our attention; push 5 if you wish to hang up now to answer your door where the gentlemen there will assist you with your further options. 

But surely I have wildly misunderstood de Kerckhove’s essay and associated interview! Surely I have missed the irony at play here! Surely this is the indirect communication manoeuvre described by Kierkegaard as ‘dropping the guitar’! Surely this is a dire warning and not enthusiastic anticipation!


  1. Page numbers without other identification refer to “de Kerckhove, D. (2020), ‘Three Looming Figures of the Digital Transformation’, New Explorations: Studies in Culture and Communication1(1). Retrieved from“. (The outrageously detailed citation information at the New Explorations site tells us everything we need to know about academic writing as subject to a kind of Nielson rating for hiring, promotion, tenure, salary, benefits, travel, pension and emeritus purposes, all adding up to Who I Am. Against this, Carpenter and McLuhan intended the Old Explorations exactly against this sort of ludicrous packaging of the self and distortion of what it might be to attempt — thought.)
  2. Digital Transformation — is this the DTs or Delirium Tremens?

The Beginnings of Gutenberg Galaxy 8

In the summer of 1959 McLuhan took his family out to Vancouver where he taught in a communications program at UBC. At the end of it he sent a telegram to Harry Skornia in which, among other matters having to do with the announcement of his upcoming NAEB project, he mentioned that “GUTTENBERG [sic] BOOK RACING AHEAD BY MEANS OF TAPE RECORDING”.

Percept and concept 1

In Science and the Modern World (SMW below) Whitehead cites Francis Bacon from his posthumous Silva Silvarum (ca 1625):

It is certain that all bodies whatsoever, though they have no sense, yet they have perception: for when one body is applied to another, there is a kind of election to embrace that which is agreeable, and to exclude or expel that which is ingrate; and whether the body be alterant or altered, evermore a perception precedeth operation; for else all bodies would be alike one to another. (52)

Whitehead comments repeatedly on this passage in SMW:1

[in the Silva Silvarum passage] note the careful way in which Bacon discriminates between perception, or taking account of, on the one hand, and sense, or cognitive experience, on the other hand. (52)

The word ‘perceive’ [along with ‘percept’ and ‘perception’] is, in our common usage, shot through and through with the notion of cognitive apprehension. So is the word ‘apprehension’ even with the adjective ‘cognitive’ omitted. [Therefore, instead of ‘perceive’/’percept’/’perception’,] I will use the word ‘prehension’ for uncognitive apprehension (86)

Bacon’s words, “all objects would be alike one to another” (…) really means that (…) what each (…) object is in itself becomes relevant to the one limited value emergent in the guise of the event.2 (130)

The great point made by Bacon, and by Whitehead in turn, is that all things have inherent form “for else all bodies would be alike one to another” such that the ‘world’ would be an undistinguished and undistinguishable uniformity. Instead, the world fits together through universal differentiation that is inherent (but not, of course, necessarily known). And it is this inherent differentiation in form from the smallest particles to whole galaxies which is at work, or which expresses itself, in their interaction — and everything is in differentiated interaction.

What characterizes the particularity (“limited value” in the mathematical sense) of any and all events whatsoever is the interaction of inherent forms. They exist, as Whitehead has it, by “taking account” of one another and only in this way. 

Leibniz put the same point a century after Bacon in his stipulation that each and every thing — as a distinguished/distinguishing monad — is a mirror of the universe since its inherent form takes part in the complete complex of all the events that are. Each monad therefore informs both about itself and about the surrounding universe into which it must fit in its own particular way in order to exist at all.

Bacon and Whitehead — and McLuhan in his turn — call this inherent form in all things “perception” (though not without notable inconsistently, ie, not without sometimes themselves using it to imply or even outright mean ‘conscious apprehension’).3

This facility is not “cognitive” by nature, but humans are never without at least a vague self-consciousness that there is something variable ‘behind’ experience, like moods. And because humans have an inherent ability to grasp the general being of things, possibly including the being of perception (dual genitive) as this variable ‘behind’ experience, it might become “cognitive” in the same way as geometric forms and chemical elements and biological genes have become cognitive.

Of course such cognition is always “limited” in a great number of ways (only hence, the truly wondrous progress of science), but the initiation of cognitive awareness in any area is always noteworthy and some initiative events are so consequential that history is never the same again. This is true of the infant’s history after it learns to speak and it is just as true of history at large after such seminal events as the species beginning to speak — or its learning to represent speech in letters — or its learning to print letters mechanically — or its learning to print (and do everything else) with electricity — or its learning the general application of electric digitality in cybernetics (and, according to McLuhan in all literature via the epyllion structure) — or its learning (perhaps! — this is the great question posed by McLuhan) how such digitality4 might in turn illuminate even perception itself and so initiate a whole series of new sciences of the human “interior landscape”.5

In 1958, the same year as McLuhan began admonishing that “the medium is the message”, he also began insisting that media give “light through [towards us] not light on [from us]”. That is, media first of all in-form our cognition and experience generally — like light coming through a stained glass window — and have done so in some fashion ‘always already’. In this metaphor, the colors and shapes of the stained glass window may be taken to represent the existing form of perception — subjective genitive! — that human beings can never be without and that is therefore necessarily already in place when the light of some medium comes through it toward us.6

Media illuminate us,7 not we them. Hence, they are not in the first instance conceptual stances taken up by us to understand external or even internal matters. They are prior to this. They are perceptual forms (Bacon) or prehensive forms (Whitehead), not cognitive forms!

For McLuhan, similarly, media are perceptual forms, plural, and his admonition that “the medium is the message” would have us perceive media in their plurality as such perceptual forms. The circularity here, like the plurality, is essential: media are perceptual forms that must be perceived in order to be known. The question is only whether this kaleidoscope can be turned in such a way that these forms become subject to cognitive investigation.


  1. McLuhan uploaded SMW into his brain when he was around 20. It remained there as a largely undigested but fertile source of illumination for the rest of his life. In background mode he never stopped processing it and attempting to unriddle its suggestions, such that his entire intellectual history might be told in terms of his gradual understanding — and sometimes misunderstanding — and sometimes critique — of it.
  2. Whitehead’s “relevant to the one limited value emergent in the guise of the event” may be read simply as ‘relevant to any fact’ or ‘relevant to any state of affairs’. He had his reasons for the more complicated expression, of course, but the heart of his intention may be seen in the chemical analysis of any physical material. Without exception, any material at all is the “limited” interaction of elements in a certain “limited” situation. Even 99.99% gold is along with other elements (constituting gold’s inevitable impurities and its very slow but always ongoing interaction with its environment) of which it necessarily “takes account”. In every case, such a configuration “emerges” from the elementary nature of the materials and the possibilities of their interactions as defined in chemical theory. Furthermore, such a state of affairs always ‘takes place’ in the physical context of variables like temperature and pressure which may or may not be controlled.  Whitehead: “The actual world is a manifold of prehensions” (89).
  3. This lack of consistency may almost be required for the treatment of ‘perception’. Its use as ‘fundamental taking account of’ is constantly threatening to fall into one of its extremes: the ‘perception” of quarks to other quarks, on the one hand, and the ‘perception’ of humans on the other. It teeters between the two — as a medium. Treating ‘perception’ is a slippery business whose slipperiness cannot be gainsaid either in its own specification or in what it implies about the nature of the universe in which it exists.
  4. For thoughts on the analog/digital difference, see The digital Wittgenstein.
  5. McLuhan does not use the word complex around ‘digitality’ for the figure/ground approach he hoped would characterize “perception” enough to initiate its collective investigation. In fact, perhaps prompted by the earliest editions of Dantzig’s Number (1930), he sometimes used ‘digital’ to mean counting by using ‘digits’ or fingers — which is an analog procedure! But his insight into ‘the digital’ was nevertheless quite acute. He saw clearly the “principle of a continuous dual structure for achieving order” (‘Spiral — Man as the Medium’, 1976) and, in fact, had been analyzing literature since the early 1930s in terms of the presence or absence of an inherent complexity. Hence his lifelong emphasis on “multilevel” awareness and his fascination beginning in the late 1940s with the epyllion structure of plot and subplot. In regard to having enough insight to initiate science, McLuhan’s most important thought may have been the idea that it literally doesn’t matter how science starts! Perfection of insight is not needed! Aside from being not possible in any case! In fact, as may be seen in any of the existing sciences, cybernetic self-correction is constantly at work in them as long as the investigation is open. What is most questionable in any science is exactly how it has begun. For the last 20 years of his life, after 1958, a repeated question from McLuhan was: why can’t we get started? Since any start will do? Especially when there is so much at stake! Even survival!
  6. Many problems are knotted at this point. They will be treated in future posts.
  7. ‘Illuminate us’ = give us some particular way to illuminate in turn.

Pugen’s time

In a recent post at New Explorations, Intimations of “Secondary Literacy” in McLuhan and Ong, Adam Pugen unabashedly corrects McLuhan.  He has every right to do so, of course, and may even be correct in doing so. But it is critically important to understand the issues at stake between the two. For not only are these issues at the very heart of McLuhan’s project, especially after 1958, but their specification may serve to illuminate the arguably unique contribution McLuhan made towards solutions of the great problems of his and our time. Since that contribution has been lost, even while the need for it has vastly increased, Pugen’s post may work to indicate the required way towards Understanding Media — in reverse. Conversely, if it is Pugen who is correct between the two, understanding McLuhan’s mis-takes may serve to illuminate Pugen’s corrective insights.

The central issue between McLuhan and Pugen is the question of time. Is it singular or plural? If plural, at least ‘sometimes’, which time is figure and which is ground?

McLuhan is clear that time is inherently plural and that synchronic time grounds diachronic time:1

time considered as sequential (left hemisphere) is figure and time considered as simultaneous (right hemisphere) is ground. (Global Village, 10)

Pugen is equally clear that ‘time considered as sequential is ground and time considered as simultaneous is figure’:

the inclusive “all-at-onceness” of electric media [aka] the simultaneous structure of electric communication [aka] the non-linear collectivistic resonance of electricity [aka] the simultaneous electromagnetism of telegraph, radio, and television signals — has been superseded.2

For Pugen, synchronic time is a ‘sometime’ thing while the supersession of diachrony goes on forever.

Pugen specifies our situation as one of “secondary literacy”. This is put forward as a kind of Hegelian Aufheben3 of the literary ground of the Gutenberg galaxy whereby its virtues would be retained even while its defects would be cured. What Pugen terms “the rise [!] of the digital” — “reaching a kind of fulfillment [!] in digital media” — would on the one hand “retrieve the literate characteristics of ‘visual space’ from within the oral characteristics of ‘acoustic space’.” On the other hand, “the very extension of consciousness in electronic media -– an extension that is especially evident with respect to properly digital media -– retrieves the multisensuous or ‘tactile’ awareness of manuscript culture in a self-reflexive form”. In the first instance, the literary is figure to acoustic ground, in the second the acoustic is figure to literate ground. Such dynamic inter-communication is the heart of the matter for Pugen — as it is, in very different ways, for McLuhan:4

the visual and tactile nature of the (…) word5 is vital…6

At bottom this happy result is grounded for Pugen in the very lineality on the basis of which he openly breaks with McLuhan. First there was “primary literacy” and then, later, through chronological evolution and development there is “secondary literacy”. It may be that a third, fourth and fifth literacy are foreseeable and should, in turn, be even better.

In fact, as illustrated in this retreat to such a nineteenth century perspective on time (without the least notice of ‘missing links’ and potentially catastrophic ‘developments’),7 our precarious state today is a horrendous amplification of the Gutenberg galaxy which we have never left despite all the revolutionary art and science and technological innovations — and world wars — that have marked the last century and this.8 As McLuhan often said in regard to books and cars, for example, and that has truly terrible application today in regard to the engines of war, obsolescence does not mean disappearance, but super-abundance and superfluity.

The great question is: did McLuhan indicate a way out of the Gutenberg galaxy that is currently killing us? Or is Pugen correct that McLuhan’s attempt to do so was a failure (even while supplying helpful “intimations”) such that we must seek an exit elsewhere?

One way to approach this critical difference would be to specify how Pugen’s reading of McLuhan itself exemplifies the Gutenberg galaxy and is therefore subject to the logical and ontological problems (not to speak of the psychological, sociological, political and environmental problems) of the print mindset. The matter of time is only one of the markers of this. Future posts will detail others.

Meanwhile, it may be wondered if Pugen’s reading would not “immerse ourselves again in the destructive element of the Time flux” (aka) “the swoon upon death, the connatural merging in the indiscriminate flux of life, the reflexive feeling and expressing of [merely] one’s [own] time” — where “one’s time” may be read not only as “one’s time” in chronological lineality, but also as “one’s [own conception of] time” and as “one’s [own conception of] time” as an endless series of “ones [as] time”.

  1. The question of time in McLuhan is treated extensively at New Sciences.
  2. Hence, as Pugen remarks, “the artist and theorist of today (…) does not live in the same media environment as Jung, Freud, or the Bauhaus group of artists.” But the nature of a “media environment” (and therefore how we would recognize one) is just as questionable here as the assumption of the fundamental lineality of time.
  3. Aufheben is notoriously untranslatable since it can mean, at least as used by Hegel, cancel, retain and enhance all at once. It may be illustrated in Pugen’s remark that “the detached visuality of manuscript literacy does not suppress – but, rather, complements – the immersive orality of pre-literate sensibility.” McLuhan’s tetrads are a kind of Aufheben of Hegel’s Aufheben.
  4. McLuhan would agree with the centrality of “inter-communication” (which was already stressed by one of his earliest mentors, Henry Wright, at the University of Manitoba). But he would urge a very different specification of the matter in regard to: (1) how and when this comes about (in dynamic synchrony vs Pugen’s diachrony); and (2) what this fundamental difference implicates (in a host of ways, but especially as regards the groundings of human experience).
  5. Pugen has “the written word” here. But the nature of the word is exactly what is most questionable and such questionability ought not to be forestalled at any stage of investigation by, for example, stipulating it as “written”. The “inerrancy” of some particular text and the presuppositions of the Gutenberg galaxy may all too easily be claimed or assumed at this point, obstructing science where it is most needed.
  6. Pugen continues: “vital for the interpretive awareness sustaining McLuhan’s body of insights.” In fact, as Pugen would agree, it is ‘vital for the interpretive awareness sustaining anybody’s insights.’
  7. Admittedly, Pugen’s other work may well take notice of these gaps and catastrophes.
  8. Some of the great difficulties in the specification of media environments may be seen here. As McLuhan was well aware and often cautioned about, new media can be, and in fact are, directed to old media goals. This serves to prolong and amplify the dominance of the old media, not to replace them.

Ignatov on Maritain on Bergson 2

According to Maritain in the first 1913 passage from him cited by Ignatov, in the face of anti-intellectualism (aka, materialism, etc) and hyper-intellectualism (aka, idealism, etc)

there is only one means, only one remedy: authentic intellectualism — submission to the real — which measures thought upon being.

In McLuhan’s later career the very fate of the earth would come to be seen in these terms. For modern media have so transported us that we no longer have contact even with our own bodies, let alone the bodies of others or the body of the earth itself. We have become free floating satellites1 — no-bodies — in a way we cannot consider or even register because we have no experience of what it would be like to have contact — to know ground.

It was around 1950 that McLuhan began to stress the critical importance of real contact with the real.

Mr. Eliot’s Historical Decorum, 1949

  • To read not in the book of the self but in the book of the existent and subsistent world, the world of the incarnate logos, where the least letter is resplendent with intellectual radiance, that was the esthetic task of Mallarmé, but of Joyce especially.
  • Existence is opaque to the rationalist. He seeks essences, definitions, formulas. He lives in the concept and the conceptualizable. Ideally, in a world of essences, actually, in a state of complete inanition. Cut off from the nutriment of existence, his very postulates discourage him from that loving and disciplined contemplation of existence, of particulars.

Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters, 1954

  • The dreaming eye of the movie god casting his images on the dark screen corresponds to that image of [degraded] human life offered to us by Plato in the Republic: [such] existence is a kind of cave or cellar on the back wall of which we watch [only] the shadows of real things from the outside world of reality.
  • the mechanical medium has tended to provide merely a dream world which is a substitute for reality…
  • “neorealism [in Italian film] (…) realised that the necessity of the ‘story’ was only an unconscious way of disguising a human defeat, and that the kind of imagination it involved was simply a technique of superimposing dead formulas over living social facts. Now it has been perceived that reality is hugely rich, that to be able to look directly at it is enough; and that the artist’s task is not to make people moved or indignant at metaphorical situations, but to make them reflect (and, if you like, to be moved and indignant too) on what they and others are doing, on the real things, exactly as they are.” (McLuhan citing Cesare Zavattini)2 
  • “I saw at last what lay in front of me, and I understood that to have evaded reality had been to betray it.” (Zavattini)
  • We have passed [with neo-realism] from an unconsciously rooted mistrust of reality, an illusory and equivocal evasion, to an unlimited trust in things, facts and people. Such a position requires us, in effect, to excavate reality, to [show in]3 it a power, a communication, a series of reflexes, which until recently we had never thought it had.” (Zavattini)
  • The [neo-realistic] cinema’s overwhelming desire to see, to analyse, its hunger for reality, is an act of concrete homage towards other people, towards what is happening and existing in the world.” (Zavattini)
  • Substantially, then, the question today is, instead of turning imaginary situations into ‘reality’ and trying to make them look ‘true’, to [take]4 things as they are,5 almost by themselves, [to free them to] create their own special significance. Life is not what is invented in ‘stories’; life is another matter. To understand it involves a minute, unrelenting, and patient search.” (Zavattini)
  • “the world goes on getting worse because we are not truly aware of reality. The most authentic position anyone can take up today is to engage oneself in tracing the roots of this problem. The keenest necessity of our time is ‘social attention’.” (Zavattini)
  • “The cinema only affirms its moral responsibility when it approaches reality in this way. The moral, like the artistic, problem lies in being able to observe reality, not to extract fictions from it.” (Zavattini)6

McLuhan’s presentation of self until around 1958 was a put-on of neo-Thomism and neo-realism. He participated in a broad current of thought — a medium — in which Maritain and Zavattini were brilliantly active. But McLuhan, like Zavattini in this respect, was interested in two problems which the neo-Thomists, in the main, either didn’t see at all, or saw but didn’t address effectively. Namely, what were the ramifications in the world that contact with the real was being lost — and what could be done about this? It was in 1958 with the insight that “the medium is the message” that McLuhan finally saw a way of actually doing something about our ‘inflated’ or groundless situation. As he put it in summary of his 1958-1962 investigations:

When raising these themes, one is beset by queries of the “Was it a good thing?” variety. Such questions seem to mean: “How should we feel about these matters?” They never suggest that anything could be done about them. Surely, understanding the formal dynamic or configuration of such events is the prime concern. That is really doing something. (Gutenberg Galaxy, 212-213)7

  1. Satellites of what?
  2. Cesare Zavattini, ‘Interview’ in Sight and Sound, Oct-Dec 1953, pp 64-65. Translated from the Italian, originally in La Revista del Cinema Italiano, December 1952. See Eisenstein 2 (Zavattini).
  3. Translation: ‘give’.
  4. Translation: ‘make’.
  5. Phenomenology shared this imperative with neo-realism: zur Sache selbst!
  6. The passages given here are only a small fraction of the multiple pages of Zavattini McLuhan read in his lecture, without pause, before his captive audience. This was to anticipate by a quarter century Andy Kaufman’s routine of reading long passages from The Great Gatsby. Indeed, almost twenty years after his ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’ lecture, in his Arts Festival presentation at USC in Los Angeles, McLuhan self-identified as a comedian. This was 1972 — the year of Kaufman’s first TV appearance.
  7. See the home page of McLuhan’s New Sciences.

Ignatov on Maritain on Bergson 1

A highly interesting post in the New Explorations blog by Clinton Ignatov, ‘Bergson on Machinery‘, cites passages from Maritain’s early (1913) critique of Bergson.1 Ignatov does not tackle the critical question of what these 1913 passages have to with the topic of ‘Bergson on Machinery’, which Ignatov broaches in his post only in relation to much later Bergson and Maritain texts. But these 1913 passages do indeed have clear parallels with the work of Marshall McLuhan — suggesting that a relation with machinery and technology must exist.

This post will examine the first passage from Maritain on Bergson as cited by Ignatov and attempt to show some of its connections to the work of McLuhan. These connections are clear even though McLuhan may never have read anything at all of Bergson — other than snippets in the work of others.2 Nor, despite his great interest in Maritain, does he appear to have read Maritain’s 1913 critique, which forms the backbone of Ignatov’s post.

Two passages from Maritain’s early critique are cited in the post, each of which serves to indicate the tradition which supplied McLuhan’s explanans until he was almost 50 and which then continued for the remainder of his life as the critical explanandum.3 Put otherwise, Maritain’s two passages indicate a certain medium within which McLuhan’s work functioned until 1958. With his admonition that year, above all to himself, that “the medium is the message”, what had been the ground of his thought became figure or effect. His efforts would henceforth be dedicated to the specification of this figure/effect by working back from it in detective fashion to dis-cover and specify its ground and cause. But since this was a question of communication, this meant that he had to ‘put on’ the role of his reader or audience — “the multitude” — and ask with it, or them, how the required retracing and retrieval might be achieved. Achieved, that is to say, by and for us!4   

Ignatov’s first citation from Maritain’s 1913 critique reads as follows:

Here we have it then; the most thorough-going, most intelligent anti-intellectualism, — Bergsonian anti-intellectualism, — compromises and destroys man’s freedom just as much as the [hyper] intellectualism of Parmenides, Spinoza, Leibnitz and Hegel. Let us realize that intelligence alone can correct intelligence and that if we wish to cure the soul of the false intellectualism of Spinoza and Hegel, which measures being upon thought and to which the dogmatism of our pseudo-savants bears but a faint and crude resemblance, there is only one means, only one remedy: authentic intellectualism — submission to the real — which measures thought upon being.

These two lengthy sentences might well be taken to describe McLuhan’s developing intellectual position from around 1930 to around 1960 — roughly, from age 20 to age 50. For just as Maritain sets out three fundamental positions —  “anti-intellectualism”, hyper intellectualism and “authentic intellectualism” — so McLuhan knew of comparable threefold classifications in two other figures he studied intensively in his university years. Rupert Lodge, his mentor at the University of Manitoba, proposed a “comparative method” for philosophy that would work with three fundamental types — realism, idealism and pragmatism. Meanwhile A.N. Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World, a book McLuhan studied with Lodge, put forward a similar typology of realism, idealism and organism. For Lodge everything depended on a bracketing of the question of the relative validity of the three kinds so that the typology itself could be studied methodically. Whitehead, in contrast, emphasized study of the third type as the required key to unlock the world of human experience in comparable fashion to the unlocking of nature that had been achieved since 1600. Broadly speaking, McLuhan leaned more to Whitehead’s emphasis until 1958 and thereafter more to Lodge’s.5

McLuhan’s Cambridge PhD thesis from 1943 traced a related threefold to those of Maritain, Lodge and Whitehead. By compiling secondary sources, he described the complicated history of and between the three trivial arts of rhetoric, dialectic and grammar over the 2000 years from classical Greece in 400 BC to Elizabethan England in 1600 AD.

In all four cases — Maritain, Lodge, Whitehead and McLuhan — the threefold classification turned on the relation of mind to fact, hence on the questions of whether human beings can know truth and, if so, just how. But McLuhan had always been suspicious that philosophy was too narrow a field for the investigation of human experience. Hence his decision to major in English at Manitoba, rather than philosophy with Lodge, and his attraction to the Cambridge English School where the attempt was being made to understand the ambiguities of language as the key to understanding human life in general. Hence also his choice to examine the trivial arts in his Cambridge PhD thesis rather than philosophical classifications like those of Maritain, Lodge and Whitehead.

That 1943 thesis, together with its immediately following ‘An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America’ (originally a 1944 lecture), summed up his progress in developing this line of thought. The idea was to investigate the possibilities of a ‘trivial’ threefold approach to education (very broadly conceived as “the classroom without walls”) in an attempt to illuminate both the methodical classification itself and the objects of its investigation ranging from individual works to historical periods.

Of course McLuhan’s work greatly expanded and somewhat transformed over the three decades between 1930 and 1960 through his exposure to — and continuing rumination on — Giedion and Lewis, French symbolist poetry, Eliot and Pound, cybernetics, film theory and Joyce. But how was all this to apply to life and, perhaps, transform the world as the world had, for good and ill, repeatedly been transformed by, in turn, language, literacy, printing and electricity? This was the great question embedded in the 1958 admonition, “the medium is the message”, and the potential answer to it — although never without the shadow of that other potential of global disaster — offered a unique hope that McLuhan would pursue for the remaining 20 years of his life:

The ideal Marriage of Mercury and Philology, of spiritual values and perfected method, will be consummated, if ever, in the electronic age. (The Humanities in the Electronic Age, 1961)


  1. Translated in 1955 as Bergsonian Philosophy and Thomism — more than 40 years after its original publication in France.
  2. Almost comically, but not untypically, the most telling passage from Bergson ever cited by McLuhan is to be found in Laws of Media where McLuhan is cited by Eric McLuhan as citing Lewis Feuer’s Einstein and the Generations of Science (1974). In the cited passage, Feuer cites Louis de Broglie citing Bergson: in quantum theory, according to de Broglie, “each instant (of) nature is described as if hesitating between a multiplicity of possibilities (…) as in The Creative Mind (where Bergson observes) that ‘time is this very hesitation or it’s nothing’.” (LOM, 55) So: Eric McLuhan > Marshall McLuhan > Feuer > de Broglie > Bergson > the hesitation of time!
  4. See The put-on and Lévi-Strauss on method in anthropology.
  5. This movement might be considered as a deeper look into ‘the main question‘.

Maelstrom in Ertrog and Yeats


In 1976 McLuhan wrote a short commentary (‘Spiral — Man as the Medium’) to the film, Spiral, of his friend, Sorel Etrog.1 In it he reverted once again to some of his favorite images, the spiral or maelstrom, and the labyrinth:

The film Spiral (…) presents the oscillation of two simultaneous and complementary cones or spirals, constituting the synchronique worlds of birth and death. Spiral is not a diachronique or lineal structure, but a synchronique and contrapuntal interplay in a resonating structure whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. The opening [of the film] is a labyrinthine highway and the ambivalent and parallel ambulances set birth and death on wheels. In the interval between time, the preserver, and time, the destroyer, is the creative interval which constitutes both continuity and arrest, both real and imaginary. By grounding his work in the archetype of the spiral, Etrog awakens echoes of the spiral archetype in some of the most celebrated artists of our time. Yeats [for example] explained the process of this unending form of experience…

Elsewhere McLuhan explicitly mentioned “the interlocking cones and ‘gyres’ of Yeats’ vision” (Discontinuity and Communication in Literature, 1970) and in Take Today, on its key page 22, he cited Yeats from The Second Coming:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned…



  1. The commentary appeared posthumously in the 1987 book, Images from the Film Spiral.

McLuhan on Whitehead

McLuhan began studying the work of Alfred North Whitehead with Rupert Lodge in Winnipeg. One of the essays he did for Lodge, ‘The Being of Non-Being’, is preserved in the Ottawa papers as part of his successful application for a teaching assistant position at the University of Wisconsin in 1936. It is a consideration of a Raphael Demos article on ‘Non-Being’.1  Demos, in turn, was an assistant to Whitehead at Harvard. Whitehead’s ‘Preface’ to Science and the Modern World ends: “My most grateful thanks are due to my colleague Mr Raphael Demos for reading the proofs and for the suggestion of many improvements in expression.” For the rest of his life, when McLuhan referred to Whitehead, it was nearly always to Science and the Modern World (1926), although he also cited Adventures of Ideas (1933) occasionally.2

The Classical Trivium [Thomas Nashe in the Learning of his Time], 1943

Lest it should be imagined that modern science has no respect for the techniques and the insights of St. Bonaventure, one might instance the doctrines of A.N. Whitehead. Like Bergson, in full revolt against the long monopoly of Cartesian and Newtonian mathematical physics in the interpretation of the universe. Whitehead says that on the materialistic theory “there can merely be change, purposeless and unprogressive. But the whole point of the modern doctrine is the evolution of the complex organisms from antecedent states of less complex organisms. The doctrine thus cries aloud for a conception of organism as fundamental for nature. (…) The organism is a unit of emergent value, a real fusion of the characters of eternal objects, emerging for its own sake.” (Science and the Modern World, 135) For the ‘forms’ of Bonaventure, Whitehead substitutes “events”. “Events” are patterns of universal being. Mental cognition, he says, “knows the world as a system of mutual relevance, and thus sees itself as mirrored in other things.” (SMW, 184-185)3 The metaphor of the mirror comes as naturally to Whitehead as to Bonaventure, of whom Whitehead knows nothing. All specialism in knowledge disappears4 for Whitehead as for Philo or Hugh of St. Victor: “We can now see the relation of psychology to physiology and to physics. The private psychological field is merely5 the event considered from its own standpoint.” (SMW, 186) The difference between Whitehead and Bonaventure is that between a man taking his first uncertain steps into a new world of inexhaustible significance, and a man born into that world. The concepts in terms of which Whitehead falteringly apprehends his brave non-Newtonian world are crudely makeshift and tentative. Bonaventure’s are delicately and complexly poised, deftly touching his world at innumerable points. (143n32)

The Mechanical Bride, 1951

artistic discovery for achieving rich implication by withholding the syntactical connection is stated as a principle of modern physics by A.N. Whitehead in Science and the Modern World:

In being aware of the bodily experience, we must thereby be aware of aspects of the whole spatio-temporal world as mirrored within the bodily life (…) my theory involves the entire abandonment of the notion that simple location is the primary way in which things are involved in space-time. (SMW113)

Which is to say, among other things, that there can be symbolic unity among the most diverse and externally unconnected facts or situations. (81)

The Mechanical Bride, 1951

No culture will give popular nourishment and support to images or patterns which are alien to its dominant impulses and aspirations. And among the multifarious forms and images sustained by any society it is reasonable to expect to find some sort of melodic curve. There will be many variations, but they will tend to be variations on certain recognizable themes. And these themes will be the “laws” of that society, laws which will mould its songs and art and social expression. A.N. Whitehead states the procedures of modern physics somewhat in the same way in Science and the Modern World. In place of a single mechanical unity in all phenomena, “some theory of discontinuous existence is required”.6 (SMW, 169) But discontinuity, whether in cultures or physics, unavoidably invokes the ancient notion of harmony. And it is out of the extreme discontinuity of modern existence, with its mingling of many cultures and periods, that there is being born today the vision of a rich and complex harmony. We do not have a single, coherent present to live in, and so we need a multiple vision in order to see at all.7 (96-97)

Tennyson and Picturesque Poetry, 1951

As A.N. Whitehead showed, the great discovery of the nineteenth century was not this or that fact about nature, but the discovery of the technique of invention so that modern science can now discover whatever it needs to discover. And Rimbaud and Mallarmé, following the lead of Edgar Poe’s aesthetic, made the same advance in poetic technique that Whitehead pointed out in the physical sciences. The new method is to work backwards from the particular effect to the objective correlative or poetic means of evoking that precise effect, just as the chemist begins with the end product and then seeks the formula which will produce it. Mr. Eliot states this discovery, which has guided his own poetic activity since 1910 or so, in his essay on Hamlet [‘Hamlet and His Problems’, 1919]: “The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.” 

Network 2, 1953

Poe discovered a new method of precision, economy and control in writing backwards.  To start with the effect and to invent the cause, to move from emotion to the formula of that particular emotion. This is what Whitehead in Science and the Modern World refers to as the discovery of the technique of discovery.

Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters, 1954

As language itself is an infinitely greater work of art than the Iliad or the Aeneid, so is the creative act of ordinary human perception a greater thing and a more intricate process than any devised by philosophers or scientists. The poetic process is a reversal, a retracing of the stages of human cognition8. It has and will always be so; but with Edgar Poe and the symbolists this central human fact was taken up to the level of conscious awareness. It then became the basis of modern science and technology. That is what Whitehead meant when he said that the great event of the nineteenth century was the discovery of the technique of  discovery. Because the drama of ordinary perception seen as the poetic process is the prime analogatethe magic casement opening on the secrets of created being.

Media Alchemy in Art and Society, 1958

Eliot insists on precision achieved by experiment with the art-form used as pilot model. The ultimate causes are tapped in the audience by the art model, the model being used as a control mechanism. The artist here, like the scientist, experiments with the effects of a model until the exact causes are discovered and brought to bear. This method might be called the method of invention itself. And A.N. Whitehead, in Science and the Modern World, pointed out that this fact was the prime discovery of the nineteenth century rather than the discovery of any [particular] applied process.

The Humanities in the Electronic Age, 1961

We are all familiar with the computation based on a survey of present-day scientific development: that of all the greatest scientists who have ever lived, 95% are living right now. Does this mean that there is more human intelligence now than before? Not at all. But it does mean that we have hit upon some means of activating intelligence that is new. A.N. Whitehead pointed to the discovery of the nineteenth century as the discovery of the technique of invention.(…) At least in Science and the Modern World, where he makes this statement, Whitehead does not explain his point. Edgar Allen Poe, whom Baudelaire and Valéry regarded as the nineteenth-century Leonardo da Vinci, did explain the point in his “Philosophy of Composition” [1846]. The technique of invention is to begin with the effect one wishes to achieve and then to go backward to the point from which to begin to produce that effect, and only that effect. In a sense this technique of starting with the effect before seeking the causes and means for the effect, is the perfection of the assembly-line method [via its reversal]. It is a method of organized ignorance. Because, whether one wishes to make a car or a poem, a guided missile or a detective story, it is necessary to begin with the solution or effect.9

The Gutenberg Galaxy, 1962

Today, then, it is easy to understand the invention of the alphabet because, as A.N. Whitehead pointed out in Science and the Modern World (p. 141) the great discovery of the nineteenth century was the discovery of the method of discovery:

The greatest invention of the nineteenth century was the invention of the method of invention. A new method entered into life. In order to understand our epoch, we can neglect all the details of change, such as railways, telegraphs, radios, spinning machines, synthetic dyes. We must concentrate on the method in itself; that is the real novelty which has broken up the foundations of the old civilization. (…) One element in the new method is just the discovery of how to set about bridging the gap between the scientific ideas, and the ultimate product. It is a process of disciplined attack upon one difficulty after another. (SMW, 120-121)

The method of invention, as Edgar Poe demonstrated in his “Philosophy of Composition,” is simply to begin with the solution of the problem or with the effect intended. Then one backtracks, step by step, to the point from which one must begin in order to reach the solution or effect. Such is the method of the detective story, of the symbolist poem, and of modern science. It is, however, the twentieth century step beyond this method of invention which is needed for understanding the origin and the action of such forms as the wheel or the alphabet. And that step is not [only] the backtracking from product to starting point, but the following of process in isolation from product.10 To follow the contours of process as in psychoanalysis provides the only means of avoiding the product of process, namely neurosis or psychosis. (45)

The Gutenberg Galaxy, 1962

A most luminous passage of A.N. Whitehead’s classic Science and the Modern World (p. 141 ) is one that was discussed previously 11 in another connection.

The greatest invention of the nineteenth century was the invention of the method of invention. A new method entered into life. In order to understand our epoch, we can neglect all the details of change, such as railways, telegraphs, radios, spinning machines, synthetic dyes. We must concentrate on the method in itself; that is the real novelty, which has broken up the foundations of the old civilisation. The prophecy of Francis Bacon has now been fulfilled; and man, who at times dreamt of himself as a little lower than the angels, has submitted to become the servant and the minister of nature. It still remains to be seen whether the same actor can play both parts(SMW, 120-121)

Whitehead is right in insisting that “we must concentrate on the method itself.” It was the Gutenberg method of homogeneous segmentation, for which centuries of phonetic literacy had prepared the psychological ground, that evoked the traits of the modern world. The numerous galaxy of events and products of that method of mechanization of handicrafts, are merely incidental to the method itself. It is the method of the fixed or specialist point of view that insists on repetition as the criterion of truth and practicality. Today our science and method strive not towards a point of view but to discover how not to have a point of view, the method not of closure and perspective but of the open “field” and the suspended judgment. Such is now the only viable method under electric conditions of simultaneous information movement and total human interdependence. (276)

The Electronic Age — The Age of Implosion, 1962

It was said by A. N. Whitehead, in Science and the Modern World, that “the greatest invention of the nineteenth century was the invention of the method of invention.” He develops the observation as follows:

The whole change has arisen from the new scientific information. Science, conceived not so much in its principles as in its results, is an obvious storehouse of ideas for utilisation. But, if we are to understand what happened during the [nineteenth] century, the analogy of a mine is better than that of a storehouse. Also, it is a great mistake to think that the bare scientific idea is the required invention, so that it has only to be picked up and used. An intense period of imaginative design lies between. One element in the new method is just the discovery of how to set about bridging the gap between the scientific ideas, and the ultimate product. It is a process of disciplined attack upon one difficulty after another. (SMW, 121)

We Need a New Picture of Knowledge, 1963

It was Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World that first drew wide attention to the close relations between art and science. Any structural approach in education has to take into account his observations about structural procedures of the nineteenth century.

Here McLuhan gave the same citation from Science and the Modern World as given above from The Gutenberg Galaxy (45): “The greatest invention of the nineteenth century was the invention of the method of invention…” etc.

Understanding Media, 1964

It was Bertrand Russell who declared that the great discovery of the twentieth century was the technique of the suspended judgment. A.N. Whitehead, on the other hand, explained how the great discovery of the nineteenth century was the discovery of the technique of discovery. Namely, the technique of starting with the thing to be discovered and working back, step by step, as on an assembly line, to the point at which it is necessary to start in order to reach the desired object. In the arts this meant starting with the effect and then inventing a poem, painting, or building that would have just that effect and no other.

Alarums in a Brave New World (Review of Cyborg),12 1965

It was A.N. Whitehead who pointed out that one of the great sources of confusion in our time is the illusion that the environment is stable and that all change and innovation occur within this unchanging environment. This illusion is a legacy of the Newtonian system. This system had no more place for change than it had for people.

Is It Natural That One Medium Should Appropriate and Exploit Another?13 1967

All that remains to study are the media themselves, as forms, as modes ever creating new assumptions and hence new objectivesThis basic change has already occurred in science and industry. Almost any natural resource has, with the rise in information levels, become substitutable for any other. In the order of knowledge this fact has given rise to Operations Research, in which any kind of problem can be tackled by nonspecialists. The technique is to work backward from effect or result to cause, not from cause to effect. This situation resulting from instantaneous information movement was referred to by A.N. Whitehead in Science and the Modern World, when he pointed out that the great discovery of the later nineteenth century was not the invention of this or that, but the discovery of the technique of discovery. We can discover anything we decide to discover.

Take Today, 1972

It has been said by A.N. Whitehead that the greatest discovery of the nineteenth century was the discovery of the technique of discovery. That technique consists in the retracing of any process of generation or cognition. Bertrand Russell noted as complementarity [to Whitehead] that the greatest discovery of the twentieth century was the technique of “the suspended judgement” — not single but multiple models of experimental exploration. The need to suspend points of view and private value judgments is indispensable to the programming of total environments. (97)

Laws of Media (posthumous)

Alfred North Whitehead mentions in Science and the Modern World that the great discovery of the nineteenth century was that of the technique of discovery. The art of discovery, the art of acoustic, probing awareness, is now a cliché, and creativity has become a stereotype of the twentieth century. Dis-covery, or uncovering, is a form of retrieval. The archetype is retrieved awareness of consciousness.14 It is consequently a retrieved cliché — an old cliché retrieved by a new cliché. Since a cliché is a unit extension of man, an archetype is a quoted extension, medium, technology, or environment, an old ground seen as figure through a new ground. The cliché, in other words, is incompatible with other cliches, 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 others (…) In fact, whenever we ‘quote’ one consciousness, we also ‘quote’ the archetypes we exclude15 (103-104)


  1. Raphael Demos, ‘Non-Being’, Journal of Philosophy 30:4, February 1933.
  2. In the McLuhan books collection housed in Fisher Library at the University of Toronto, there are two copies of Science and the Modern World (1926: ‘annotated’; 1938: ‘lightly annotated’) and an ‘annotated’ copy of Adventures of Ideas.
  3. Whitehead ties (or at least points to) a not-able (k)not here. If the ontological structure of the world is one of “mutual relevance”, then “mental cognition” must have this deep structure simply as being. More, the relation between “mental cognition” and world must also be one of “mutual relevance”, again simply as being something that is. Lastly, all beings must be “mirrored” in one another both because they are grounded in common in this structure of “mutual relevance” and because mirroring itself, even while it necessarily exhibits this same structure in its particular being, also functions as the signature of this complex commonality of being (dual genitive!) in general. The great problem, of course, is that “mutual relevance” as ground can hardly exclude essential relation to limitation and error. That is, “mutual relevance” must somehow implicate its own failure and rejection. How to articulate this difficult figure is exactly “the main question“.
  4. McLuhan criticized such an “urge to merge” throughout his career. That “the gap is where the action is” would become a central insistence of his later work.
  5. Merely!
  6. See notes 2 and 3.
  7. McLuhan immediately thereafter: “And it is here that the ad agencies are so very useful. They express for the collective society that which dreams and uncensored behavior do in individuals. They give spatial form to hidden impulse and, when analyzed, make possible bringing into reasonable order a great deal that could not otherwise be observed or discussed. Gouging away at the surface of public sales resistance, the ad men are constantly breaking through into the Alice in Wonderland territory behind the looking glass which is the world of subrational impulse and appetites. Moreover, the ad agencies are so set on the business of administering major wallops to the buyer’s unconscious, and have their attention so concentrated on the sensational effect of their activities, that they unconsciously reveal the primary motivations of large areas of our contemporary existence. In this respect the ad agencies function in relation to the commercial world much as Hollywood does in respect to the world of entertainment.”(97)
  8. A re-cognition of cognition.
  9. Text: “solution of effect”.
  10. “The following of process in isolation from product” implicates the paradox that “the whole of previous time wherein anything is moving towards its form, it is under the opposite form” (Aristotle as cited by Thomas). For references and discussion, see the “paradox” posts.
  11. Gutenberg Galaxy, p 45 cited above.
  12. Winnipeg Free Press, December 11, 1965, p73.
  13. McLuhan Hot or Cool, 1967,
  14. LoM text: “or consciousness”. If ‘of consciousness’ is correct, it is a dual genitive — an awareness ‘of consciousness’ both as perceived object and as pro-ducing subject.
  15. Compare chemistry. Properties of materials are “incompatible” in that they can  be compared only via their different underlying chemical elements. The ‘white’ of snow cannot be compared directly with the ‘white’ of a baseball (a problem that took many millennia to solve). Exactly as properties, they have no grounding common structure. In contrast, the chemical elements are “cohesive” since any one of them is a particular example of their common elementary structure — we therefore “quote” them all via that structure when we cite any one of them. The ‘table of elements’ is the ground or being of all the elements figured in it.

McLuhan to Skornia 6/8/59

McLuhan continued his torrid pace of notes to Harry Skornia in June 1959 with this on the 8th:

Basically the trouble with the tests that isolate factors and fragment situations is that they are derivatives of Gutenberg (albeit subliminal).  These procedures won’t touch the realities of the all-at-once electronic world of configurations. Our Ford seminar simulcast was a crude sample of new approach but via older method, like skis on grass. The whole subliminal side of the Gutenberg era now comes home to roost, as it were, in the tester’s hay mow. (…) You see, the [Dewey] general theory leads to batch of mechanical model experiments. Can we get from my general theory that medium is the message to a similar set of mechanical models?1 Why not?2     

McLuhan was working his way here to the point he would make explicitly in his letter to Skornia two weeks later on June 25, namely, that investigation of the interior landscape required new science and would only be distorted if approached within the old science of “mechanical model experiments”. However, perhaps his “dynamic model” could be illuminated by considering exactly how and why it was not fitted to “mechanical model experiments”. If not, “why not?” How and why did such experiments get ‘mowed’ down?

Another possible tack towards open collective investigation was to focus on the difference between the Gutenberg era and the Marconi era in regard to the subliminal: 

A project to bring all aspects of our old and new media technology out of the subliminal into the levels of intellectual day? You see, the all-at-once dynamic of the electronic doesn’t permit any subliminal side any more. Print had a huge subliminal side just because it favored one level of meaning at a time; applied knowledge equals one scrap at a time.

Behind these suggests was the notion that media could be compared structurally. The subliminal aspects of the Gutenberg era which were unconscious and excluded could be considered as a negative property, while the conscious and included subliminal of the Marconi era could be considered as a positive one. The sign between the era/medium and the subliminal would vary, as could the relation to the conscious and unconscious, but the medial +/- structure would not. Just as the dis-covery of the common elementary structure had been the key to chemistry, and DNA structure to genetics, McLuhan’s suggestion was that media require comparable structural definition and that it, too, must be formulated as a variable ratio. 

“The medium is the message” in this way had two structural meanings. First, that everything depended on specification of “the medium” as a single but variable structure. The message to researchers was the need to establish such medial specification. Second, that such specification must be derived from the structure of the electric medium now dominating all contemporary life. The message to researchers was that this medium was already everywhere in force and that its signature was the digital (0/1) ratio.

  1. McLuhan’s question “Can we get from (…) to” implicates the “paradox” that he would note repeatedly in his later writings: “The basis of all paradox, Christian and secular, is to be found in the sixth book of the Physics of Aristotle, to which Aquinas refers in his Summa Theologica (…) The question for Aquinas is whether justification by faith occurs instantly or gradually. Aquinas says it occurs instantly because — ­here he appeals to Aristotle’s Physics  — “the whole preceding time during which anything moves towards its form, it is under the opposite form”. (CA, 160) His earlier assertion that “these (mechanical) procedures won’t touch the realities” goes to the same point. Ultimately, the question at stake here and throughout McLuhan’s work concerns if and how the world can transition (as he himself had done around 1950) from meaning anchored in the book to meaning implicated in the interplay of all media.
  2. In his following letter to Skornia 2 days later (June 10, 1959), McLuhan set out the same point, again in relation to Dewey: “These matters are easy of test and valid for investigation. But they are not mechanical models of testing. They are nearer to Dewey’s ‘learning by doing’ pattern” (than to mechanical models).

McLuhan to Skornia 6/7/59: “We can’t assume that we understand media already!”

McLuhan’s note to Skornia from 6/7/59 made the all important point that “We can’t assume that we understand media already!” This was the chief meaning, addressed above all to McLuhan himself, of “the medium is the message”. This had many implications for the NAEB Understanding Media project he was then working on, not least in regard to the testing and demonstration of his general proposal to educational broadcasters. But it also captured the question at the heart of his life’s work: how to initiate open collective investigation of the shaping forces of the interior landscape?1

We are going to have to devise some new types of testing for non-verbal factors in attitude change resulting from various media. But isn’t this what the project is all about? We can’t assume that we understand media already! Exciting types of testing are [already available] via [such mechanical means as] the abstraction and isolating of single factors by segmental analysis and static snapshotting. I’m prepared to go into this bald-headed, Harry, and to push back frontiers in psychological testing just as much as we have done in other areas already. But I’ll gladly use all the available talent and savvy.

Later in the same note in its handwritten ending:

we are going to invent new forms of revealing and testing media uses. (…) We are not going to be content with existing methods of testing but won’t ignore them [either].2 

  1. Strangely, McLuhan research has failed to follow his lead into a new research area, or areas, not because it is not collective enough, but because it is not open enough. It has established itself as Kuhn’s ‘normal science’ with professorial chairs, grad departments and journals, without going through the required first step of Gestalt-switch through which its focus would be established. It has not been able to attend his admonition that “we can’t assume that we understand media already” which would direct us through the RVM looking glass and “through the vanishing point”. Hence, instead of participating in the new world of Marconi, it is one of the forces attempting to perpetuate the tottering world of Gutenberg. This is no service to him. Far more important, it is no service to a world in desperate need of a “survival strategy”.
  2. “What you can assure Walter Stone (of the US Office of Education) and (the NAEB Research) Committee is that we are going to invent new forms of revealing and testing media uses. We are in for as big a campaign as Dewey undertook. We are not going to be content with existing methods of testing but won’t ignore them (either).”

McLuhan to Skornia 6/5/59

A few days after his May 29 and early June notes to Harry Skornia, and a single day after his June 4 note, McLuhan followed up on June 5 with another reflection on their upcoming project:

One new concept for us: media are “ideas” in action.1 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, parallel2 to those of our ideas. But many of our ideas are feed-back subliminally from media. Jeep calling unto jeep.3 Another basic fact: Men never have conscious grasp of any medium until it has been translated into another medium. The Gutenberg era behind us was the subliminal phase of print. Now that we have translated print into the electronic modes we begin to be conscious of what had been subliminal. Yet we have to deal with a professoriat that remains subliminal in respect to print; ergo blocked in respect to new media perception. This is not just a nuisance, or regrettable. It is dangerous to our civilization.4 The business world is more alert to dangers to Its interests than we [professors] are. They would help us if they knew what we were up to. (…) What about motto: “Let’s get the media out of the subliminal gulch“? Let’s articulate ’em, hoick ’em up into daylight of consciousness. Let’s harness them, TVA style, instead of letting them flood and gouge and brainwash us.  Let’s make ’em deliver music. Let’s orchestrate them like the sections of a symphony. Let’s teach them the score. Let’s score the media instead of letting them score.

McLuhan specifies two levels of the subliminal here. There is subliminal action at the level of elementary structure — medium — and there is the associated subliminal action at the level of the properties of elementary media: the “subliminal phase of [media like] print” vs “ideas [which] are feed-back subliminally from media”. Both together are what he calls here the “technological pattern or grouping of human know-how“, “the mark of our minds” and “media dynamics“. 

The great question — formulated at the time by McLuhan as “the medium is the message” — was how to begin the general investigation of the field defined by such elements and their properties? 


  1. From McLuhan’s note to Skornia a day or two before: “the electronic is not static bits but live field”.
  2. “Parallel” here apparently means something like “an alternative mode of explication” to that of the ‘history of ideas’.
  3. “Jeep calling unto jeep” — one mechanical notion giving rise to another — is the sort of precise-telling-funny formulation that came naturally to McLuhan before his 1960 stroke. After it, and especially after his brain tumor afflictions throughout the 1960s and his 1970 heart attack, this facility became less and less forthcoming. Rote expressions more and more took their place. The man burnt himself out for what will, as one hopes, become recognized as a great cause.
  4. “Dangerous to our civilization” in two directions. Dangerous to our civilization built upon print foundations and dangerous to all future civilization since blocking access to survival.

McLuhan to Skornia 6/4/59

Following his end of May 1959 trip to NAEB headquarters at the University of Illinois in Urbana, McLuhan wrote back to Harry Skornia, the NAEB executive director, on a near daily basis. His June 4 note raised the prospect of coordinated action with the newly (1958) established Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania:

Had hearty letter from Gilbert Seldes about his taking directorship of Annenberg School and asking me to come regularly to seminars.  I hope we can get [to] those soon, Harry, both to help and to get help.  Because they may not only be able to use the grammars approach but may be disposed to help with kinescope [films] etc for teaching.  Do you plan to look over his set-up soon?  Could we go at the same time — sometime before July 4 say?  Might help with my plans for the Vancouver procedure for summer-school. Since we can be of genuine aid in the large scope of the Annenberg school, and since we need all the allies we can discover or create, let us see what we can do at once.1 

McLuhan proposed similar associative relations to Skornia with businesses like GE, ATT and IBM, with the television networks and with ad agencies. These suggestions were largely ignored by Skornia and especially by his NAEB colleagues.2 They openly expressed that McLuhan already had more work and more ambitious plans than he could possibly handle — without getting into relationships they did not understand and could not even imagine. This turned out to be unfortunate for the businesses and networks which are now dwarfed by new businesses and networks which have been built on McLuhan’s insights into an electric world of information. Whether this was yet a larger disaster for the planet remains an open question.  

In the same note McLuhan further reflected on the nature and method of his project:

I would much like to talk to you under those conditions Harry, in the company of Seldes.  Because you would find that we made lots of headway while actually talking, saving years of work, and error.  I learn fastest while talking; making discoveries that way — mode of organized ignorance, light through vs light on.
Look at Peter Drucker’s Landmarks of Tomorrow, early section on organized ignorance.  I understand this principle better than he does because of its art bearings.  But in a word, if you take a total field you have to get light through, because the areas you can reach with a few organized data (light on) are too spotty to be relevant.  Heisenberg explains the principle in A Physicist’s Concept of Nature pointing out that what we call a law of science is organized ignorance. 

  1. The next day, June 5, 1959, McLuhan in another letter to Skornia, brought up the possibilities with Seldes again: “I do think we ought to confer soon with Gilbert Seldes, who is a good friend of mine. I respect his work, and he does mine. He could use our whole approach, and we could use his staff and facilities for shaping teaching materials collaterally to huge advantage. We need allies. I know we are going to put this job right out in front of national attention– where it belongs.”
  2. For example, in his letter to Skornia from 6/7/59, McLuhan wrote that “once we get rolling in this new kind of media testing, the biggest dough on Madison Avenue will be ours if we want it.” He was right, of course, and of course it would be a great thing if Madison Avenue were engaged in an open collective investigation of media. But Skornia crossed out the suggestion and wrote ‘Delete’ in the margin beside it.

McLuhan to Skornia early June 1959

In the last week of May 1959 McLuhan visited Harry Skornia at the NAEB headquarters for a couple days.1 The funding of the Understanding Media project had been obtained, but not yet announced. The project would begin in September and in the meantime McLuhan and his family were headed to UBC where he would teach in its summer session.2

Back from Urbana in Toronto in early June, McLuhan reflected on the project in an undated note to Skornia, received on June 5, 1959, as follows:

the electronic is not static bits but live field.  That’s why the artist comes back into the control tower (out of ivory tower) in modern industry and town-planning.  That’s why us language men can move up to vanguard in many enterprises today.

The transactional psychologists
The structural linguists
The anthropologists en masse

Those are the 3 main groups who already are moving our way in re media.  But they don’t know it yet.  Also all those in all the arts are on our side though concepts about the spiritual status of individual art vs. the materialist condition of group art (mass media) prevent perception of actualities for the time [being]. (…) Ours must be mobile war not positional, if we are to salvage an appreciable proportion of our establishment, educational and political.  We must waste no time or strength in opposition or diatribe.

  1. McLuhan was back in Toronto by May 29 when he wrote Skornia. See Present as history, history as present.
  2. See Communications Programme at UBC.

Present as history, history as present 5/29-59

Soon after hearing the news that the Understanding Media project was to be funded, McLuhan wrote Harry Skornia in a May 29, 1959, letter describing his excitement about the task before them:

for the first time in history we are setting out to discover the patterns of subliminal action resulting from media — and since all of them are simultaneously operative in our midst today we can use the present as history, as lab for tests etc.

Just as present investigation in chemistry or genetics throws new light on what has happened in the past, so would exploration of media serve to illuminate human history. Study of possibility now can be applied to actuality then — “the present as history”.

Five years later, in another note to Skonia from July 6, 1964, he set out the obverse point: 

I only realized today that we cannot transcend our “flat earth” view of media so long as we rely on private impressions at a particular time and place. The meaning and effect of a medium is the sum total of all its impact upon psyche and society. Such a vision requires the historical dimension as the laboratory in which to observe to change. (…) By showing the effect of a medium upon a diversity of institutions, you gain the historical dimension of the present. (Letters, 305)

Just as present questions in chemistry can be suggested by historical events , so contemporary understanding of media can be prompted by past developments. Actuality then points to present possibility now — “the historical dimension of the present”.

McLuhan to Skornia 3/14/59

The funding application for McLuhan’s Understanding Media project with the NAEB was finalized early in 1959. During this time, after McLuhan’s very long letter to Harry Skornia in January, he wrote another to him in March — this on top of the short letters McLuhan was sending to Skornia weekly or even more frequently. Here are highlights from his long letter of March 14, 1959:

  • Our media now must be contact-oriented, rather than protective devices for private prestige.  
  • Detribalization of backward countries we carry out via (…) industrial culture. Result is individualism and nationalism in these [formerly tribalized] areas, as it was with us in the 16th century, etc. Meantime we, via electricity [= beyond industrial culture], are retribalizing ourselves. That is, we create a global village in which every event vibrates with every other event — including the violent effects of swift detribalization. But retribalization [also has its own “violent effects” since it] evokes new yearning for stability, security, and equilibrium in the old centers of technological innovation [the formerly detribalized areas].1   
  • “Transaction” amounts to simultaneous interacting field. Let me suggest that we keep in mind that the impact of media forms has always been subliminal and nonverbal until hoicked up into daylight by artists. Most people seem to feel “safe” so long as their assumptions are unspoken and non-verbal. Artists as blabs and revealers of inner postures and attitudes used to be a nuisance. Now they are indispensable. From ivory-tower-to-control- tower…  
  • One theme, Harry, of which I am increasingly aware is the new problem of [maintaining] continuity in a world of accelerating change.
  • [Peter] Drucker points out that in the business world the awareness that technological change could put them, any of them, out of action in a few years has led to capital investment in research as by far the heaviest item of expenditure. In other words, don’t wait for change, rather become change and control it from within.
  • We shall have to institutionalize change educationally just as business has done. And this means spending perhaps ten times our total present budgets on research. We must effect a means of (…) transition2 at all levels and in all age groups simultaneously. So that we must abolish our present idea of education as that done for the young. In our kind of electric technology education becomes inclusive of all ages and all interests. The global community of learning can be nothing less than that literally. For hundreds of years we have gloried in the discontinuities and destruction caused in society and its institutions by innovation. In the age of simultaneity this becomes intolerable.
  • Everybody can see the advantages and excellence, however limited, of that which is to be scrapped. So they begin to want inclusive [both-and] rather than exclusive [either-or] modes of experience. 
  • As Peter Drucker insists at the outset in his recent Landmarks of Tomorrow, in the past two decades we have moved out of the modern age into one for which we have yet no name or concept. The new media are themselves the image and motive-power of this new age. So that Understanding Media must become a book by the same means and procedures that necessitate such a book, following the contours of the new reality. In the electric age of simultaneous data from many fields, there is an overwhelming drive back to the human dialogue as the instrument of discovery and awareness. Understanding Media will show what we already know about media and their action upon human institutions by setting up the basis for dialogue between student and teacher, student and student, expert and expert. Since most of us live in and through the new media all our waking lives, we already share with all age groups the implicit non-verbal knowledge and experience which education seeks always to make articulate, verbal and explicit. The discovery of the wealth of such shared experience via dialogue and utterance is a perennial creative experience which, since the fifteenth century, book culture may have done something to diminish. But Understanding Media will proceed to show the unique properties of older media including the book in a variety of ways. For example, the older media of book and press are now detribalizing many backward countries where it is easy to study the effect some of these media once had on ourselves in the Western world. Our contemporary world is, from a technological point of view, almost a continuous historical movie of episodes from the Western past, and our own past achievements are revealing monuments to the shaping powers of phonetic script and print in the development of human freedoms and our own patterns of culture. The transforming effect of the TV image on habits of reading in depth, the relation of radio to habits of study, and of the typewriter upon habits of thought, speech and writing, are nowhere gathered together in one place for thoughtful inspection. But they have been known to scattered students for some time. To get most of this kind of knowledge and insight into Understanding Media would entail a variety of procedures in presentation…
  • The co-existence and inter-action of media both in the past and especially today offers the richest and most natural procedure of study and evaluation of the powers and bias of each of the media.  
  • Today, the co-existence of all media easily reveals their quite unique properties and also calls for a new kind of many-levelled training in perception for the young.
  • it would seem necessary to devise a means of making Understanding Media an occasion of two-way discovery via dialogue and discussion. Few teachers know anything about the subliminal effects of print which they could teach to a class. But both teacher and class can discover, explicate, and verbalize a great deal about the nature of print, photography, movies, telephone, television, radio, and typewriter.
  1. Although a whole market niche has been created around the notion of McLuhan as a Pollyanna optimist, in fact he was very much aware of the unprecedented dangers posed in the “global village’ by electric culture. A great part of this danger, as already foreseen by Nietzsche in the 1880s, had, indeed has, to do with attempts at “security”. As he immediately went on to note to Skornia: “One theme, Harry, of which I am increasingly aware is the new problem of continuity in a world of accelerating change.”
  2. McLuhan has “continuous transition” here. The problem, of course, is that he usually deploys “continuous” to designate Gutenbergian perception and practice. Here he has in mind unity in diversity, hendiadys, as indicated by his specification at the end of the sentence of “simultaneously”.

McLuhan on dialogue February 1959

Understanding Media must become a book by the same means and procedures that necessitate such a book, following the contours of the new reality.1

In an undated 1959 letter to Harry Skornia, apparently from early February that year, McLuhan described what was both the goal of his Understanding Media project and the only means of working towards that goal and even of communicating about it. Since these were the same, the implicated circularity was exactly the problem that had to be solved: the goal had to be already in effect in order to advance toward the goal.

My suggested approach [to the NAEB project], the one entirely natural to me, is the dialogue form of movement of information between teacher and student [and, indeed, between any interlocutors].  I came across this quote on the dialogue: “The purpose of the dialogue seems to be, first of all, mutual creativeness.  It is not merely the expression of a finished truth, to be exchanged like goods in the market place.  Dialogue is more [an ongoing] shaping2 than a communication of ideas.  But this [ongoing] birth of truth is at the same time an encounter of persons (…) awakening truly creative values in us that lead us to the freedom of self-acceptance.”3 You can see that the electronic media above all, since they are shaped by student and teacher alike, call for this kind of dialogue [or] (…) shared quiz approach.4

  1.  McLuhan to Harry Skornia 3/14/59.
  2. The word “ongoing” has been introduced here and in the following sentence.
  3. The source of this citation is yet to be discovered.
  4. Bold has been added to this passage, but the underlining is original. In another letter to Skornia, later that same month of February 1959, McLuhan stressed the same point: “This reversal (ie, from statement to dialogue) takes whole stress off private, personal role of reader and poet alike.  Both now come to share a common creative action (…) not private editorial perspective.” See the  discussion in Marshall, Harry and Baudelaire.

Media Log II

McLuhan’s ‘Media Log II’ was written as part of his Understanding Media project with the NAEB in 1959-1960. It is included in the NAEB files which the great Unlocking the Airwaves has posted online.

Media Log II

Sir Arthur Eddington, in his New Pathways in Science (Cambridge University Press 1935) makes a statement of relevance to those who are trying to understand why “the medium is the message”:

Out of the unknown activities of unknown agents1 mathematical numbers emerge. The processes of the external world cannot be described in terms of familiar images; whether we describe them by words or by symbols their intrinsic nature remains unknown. But they are the vehicle of a scheme of relationship which can be described by numbers, and so give rise to those numerical measures (pointer-readings) which are the data from which all knowledge of the external universe is inferred.
Our account of the external world (when purged of the Inventions of the story teller In consciousness) must necessarily be a “jabberwocky” of unknowable actors executing unknowable actions. How in these conditions can we arrive at any knowledge at all? We must seek a knowledge which is neither of actors nor of actions, but of which the actors and actions are a vehicle. The knowledge we can acquire is knowledge of a structure or pattern contained In the actions. I think that the artist may partly understand what I mean. (p 256).

After 3000 years of writing, and 500 years of printing. Western man is not surprisingly devoted to the idea of knowledge as a static, repeatable aspect or item, Eddington is saying that all along we have never had any knowledge of content or component, But he is not saying that we have not had knowledge. We have really had a higher form of knowledge than our theories, our speculative instruments and our instructional materials would permit us to recognize. Our knowledge is of the dynamic

symmetries, and the inexhaustible proportionalities among the actors and actions of sense, sensibility, and consciousness. Light through these proportionalities may be quite undetectable when the bias of a medium like writing, or print, sets up a powerful pressure for light on, directed from a rigid, private vantage point. But electric media compel us to consider light through as the norm of knowledge and experience.


What Eddington here says about our not being able to know content or components, but only structure and patterns applies to verbal structure. Recent studies make clear that so great is the semantic variation in ordinary discourse, that communication between people cannot be accounted for by the notion of agreement on meanings of words. That we communicate at all seems to be the result of sharing an action that is made possible by words and persons as actors and actions. The pattern or structure of meaning is communicable, not the “content” in the sense of some detachable, fixable set of data. This older idea of meaning, originating in the Cartesian age, is strikingly captured in the absurd statements

“Meaning is an arrow which best reaches its mark when least encumbered with feathers.”

But the idea of meaning as a pellet or arrow shooting along in a line toward a target is still embedded in some prominent

“encoding and decoding” theories of communication. As soon as the artists liberated us from lineality into field theory, a century ago, the idea of meaning as package or capsule assumed a grotesque aspect. The idea of art as self-expression faded out at the same time; and the idea of the artist as working with and through the media of public language and group awareness, took over in Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé. Yeats, Eliot, Joyce and Pound made the same assumptions. And these assumptions hoick the artist from the Ivory tower to the control tower. He becomes an indispensable person, not a luxury. In quite the same way that higher education has become a necessity of production.


It may well be that the artist will now merge with the media, rather than staying outside as ironic spectator and commentator. Certainly the avant gardism of yesterday is more evident in the public than the private arts to-day.


The role of the newspaper in structuring the habits and assumptions of human association Is obviously complex. For example, in a recent Ph.D. dissertation on methods of teaching media in Grade XI, the writer mentioned, casually, that he assumed as the basis of all media teaching that the student should become alert to the factors of program control. Thus, who owned the station, or the movie studio, would be Important for studying the type of programs emanating therefrom.

Further, the student can Influence programming decisions by knowing who to write to about such matters. This “content” approach to the media has real meaning for the newspaper as a medium. Its relevance outside the newspaper, for radio or movie or TV, is very small.


Was it the newly achieved power of press technology that led Marx, in the same way, to assume that the important thing about the means of production was who owned them? It is puzzling to know how Marx managed to ignore the media of communication, as the major factor in the process of social change. For the means of production, especially since Gutenberg, are so many footnotes, or appendages, of the printing press Itself. This fact appears, clearly, at present, when the assembly-line is obsolete by reason of electric tapes entering and altering the production patterns. Print from movable types was the archetype of all assembly-lines, and of all static analysis of movement.


The form of the newspaper changed many times, as various changes were made in the speed of type-setting, and of the presses. These changes in turn affected the process of news-gathering and news-distribution. As Innis showed, the newspaper hastened and paid for the development of highways, and was inseparable from the development of modern postal services.

However, it was the telegraph that made the greatest change in the role and format of the newspaper. Here, a century before electronic tapes repatterned the meaning of production, information from everywhere-at-once, by wire, repatterned English prose and verse. Private “point of view” disappeared from the newspaper at the same time as Cezanne, Seurat, Baudelaire and Rimbaud abandoned it in poetry and painting. “Point-of-view” in the perspective sense came in with printing, but not directly because of printing. Rather, the same kinds of visual analysis that occurred in fifteenth century logic, philosophy and science made common cause with art technology and the printed book to produce fixed point of view or single perspective. (See a book by Walter Ong, S, J., devoted to these themes: Ramus: Method and Decay of Dialogue – Harvard 1958.)


When information began to flow electrically, field supplanted “point-of-view” in the arts, and in technology alike. And when information began to arrive at the newspaper at electric speed the newspaper mosaic, or format, changed very much.


Browning’s The Ring and the Book is a conscious abandoning of “point-of-view” in favor of multi-levelled perception. It is a newspaper epic, as it were. What Browning did in that work, Ruskin was hoping could be done. He put it this way, in Volume III of Modern Painters:


A fine grotesque Is the expression, in a moment, by a series of symbols thrown together in bold and fearless connection, of truths which it would have taken a long time to express in any verbal way, and of which the connection is left to the beholder to work out for himself; the gaps left or over leaped by the haste of the imagination, forming the grotesque character,


This do-it-yourself stress and character is as typical of the arts, after 1860, as of the post-telegraph newspaper. Even now, the sober and serious newspapers retain a good deal of perspective or fixed point-of-view, compared with the popular press with its mosaic of grotesque juxtapositions of unrelated data. And it is the sober press that is passively and consumer-oriented, whereas the popular press provides no single-perspectives upon any event at all, save on editorial pages,


Speaking technically then, not appraisingly, the ready-made packaged views of the sober press are consumer goods. Whereas, the grotesque mosaic of the popular press, a sort of Marx Brothers charade, is a do-it-yourself form, “Make your own meanings.” It is producer-oriented, like symbolist poetry,


Another aspect of “point-of-view”, as it rose in all its technical novelty, appears in the satisfaction which the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries took in the new power of enclosing space in painting and architecture. But also the

craze for methods and systems was the discovery of the enclosing power of single, fixed perspectives, applied to law and politics and economics, as well as to art and poetry.


The simple fact is, as sense psychologists have shown, that the awareness of fixed perspective or of vanishing points, is not a visual experience of which man is capable. The illusion of visual perspective is a mix of sensuous components, tactual and kinesthetic, but to “see” at a distance is a form of prediction, not of sensation. Thus what we see is flat. What the cubists painted as spatial form is far closer to pure unaided visual experience than what Western men have for centuries supposed to be visual experience.


It is worth dwelling on this matter, since it directly concerns the powers of media to modify our sensuous lives without benefit of concepts or of indoctrination. Printing fostered visual perspective subliminally. Yet, already with the Romantics, and their drive towards unconstrained spontaneity of vision and sensuous impression, the matrix of Gutenberg culture was dissolving. The Romantic vision moved steadily towards cinematic illusion. And the achievement of the cinematic conveyor belt of still shots superseded the line of verbal-visual still shots that is printing. The photo superseded the print, and engraving, in the same way. The words of William Ivins, Jr. (Prints and Visual Communication – Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1953) are of great relevance.


On page 122 he reports the invention of photography by Talbot who, in 1839, gave to the Royal Society an account of “the Art of Photogenic Drawing, or the Process by which Natural Objects may be made to delineate themselves without the aid of the Artist’s Pencil.” Ivins’ comment:

Here were exactly repeatable visual images made without any of the syntactical elements implicit in all hand made pictures. Had Talbot been a competent draughtsman instead of an incompetent one he would probably not have recognized this fact, even if he had discovered how to make the images.


Here, Ivins is vividly aware of traditional competence, and of acquired knowledge and skill as blocks to new perception. It would be possible to build an art of media study on this passage alone. For he also points to the primacy of the repeatability factor in all printing, from book and engraving to photo and movie. Even more important is the awareness that, in the shift from engraving to photo, there is a reversal from light on to light through. (The kaleidoscope was almost simultaneous with Talbot’s photos.) Also, there is key perception in Ivins’ noting the absence of syntax in the photo. The paradox of statement without syntax rides herd on our world now. It is stated by Ivins on page 28:

The great importance of the half-tone lay in its syntactical difference from the older handmade processes of printing pictures in printer’s ink. In the old processes the report started by a syntactical analysis of the thing seen, which was followed by its symbolic statement in the language of drawn lines. (Known in the trade as “the network of rationality.) This translation was then translated into the very


different analysis and syntax of the process. The lines and dots in the old report were not only insistent in claiming visual attention, but, they, their character, and their symbolism of statement, had been determined more by the two superimposed analyses and syntaxes than by the particularities of the thing seen. In the improved half-tone process there was no preliminary syntactical analysis of the thing seen into lines and dots, and the ruled lines and dots or the process had fallen below the threshold of normal vision. Such lines and dots as were to be seen in the report had been provided by the thing seen and were not those of any syntactical analysis. At least men had discovered a way to make visual reports in printer’s ink without syntax, and without the distorting analyses of form that syntax necessitated.


Ivins’ work provides one of the best guides to all media study, Just because he is working in a relatively neutral territory. To make statements like the above about the book, movie, press, radio, and TV, is to assault the largest vested interests of acquired knowledge and power.


In his book on Painting and Reality (Pantheon Books, New York 1957) Etienne Gilson pointed out that until Giotto a painting had not been a report about things, but a thing [itself]. From Giotto till Cezanne, painting became increasingly reportorial and representational. Since Cezanne, paintings have become things again, (pp.284-5). That is, perspective and reporting from a single point-of-view co-exist in various media for centuries, and disappear from those media at much the same time — that is, from about 1860 onwards.


A further point, related to the rise and fall of perspective, is made by Mircea Eliade in his The Sacred and the Profane (Harcourt Brace New York, 1959). He points to the rise in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries of the new concepts of time and space as “continuous and homogeneous.” Modern man abandoned these notions of time and space, at the same time as he “abandoned” perspective. The artists are the radar screen whose invented models and explorations report new lines of force in our culture decades before the scientists and engineers achieve them.


The educational establishment, however, is not able to achieve rapport with lines of force, even after the scientists and engineers have projected them into our daily tasks.


Now, in the time of accelerated change, this lag is critical. We have now to institutionalise change itself. Business is trying to do this via its research centers. The largest educational expenditure must now be for research also, if public education is to have any further relevance. Educational irrelevance is not waste only, but sheer destruction of new potential.


To return then to relate the mosaic of the telegraph press to all this. The Ruskin passage focused the issue of symbolism and mosaic pattern. A bit further on (p 96) he points


to the possibility of a new kind of popular epic which James Joyce was to write (Ulysses). But the newspaper is actually such a daily epic as Raskin describes, though he would have been embarrassed to hear it:

Hence it is an infinite good to mankind when there is full acceptance of the grotesque, slightly sketched or expressed; and, if field for such expression be frankly granted, an enormous mass of intellectual power is turned to everlasting use, which, in this present century of ours, evaporates in street gibing or vain revelling; all the good wit and satire expiring in daily talk, (like foam on wine,) which in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries had a permitted and useful expression in the arts of sculpture and. Illumination, like foam fixed Into chalcedony.


The nineteenth century drive towards gothic, Raskin explains, as it were, was to get away from fixed, private points-of-view back to group dynamic expression, back to the field and the folk. Of course, there was much self-deception in all this. But, at least, the Romantics strove to revive a period of culture which preceded perspective. And to this extent Gothic was truly avant garde, just as is Chinese art in our time.


The newspaper mosaic is a collectively achieved photo of the world2 and its inter-associations, hour by hour. To teach the understanding of what such a medium Is, and what it does to our association with ourselves and with one another, can scarcely be achieved by noticing the ownership, or policy, of the paper. Even Its contents, item by item, are not much help.


Why Is big news bad news? Why is advertising good news?


How much bad news is needed to sell advertising?


Why is the exposure of public motives and morals, in the daily press, such an Intense concern? Is this owing to medium or to policy?


Why are radio and television less concerned with the public mosaic of actions? Is this owing to medium or to policy?


Why must television elections be devoid of Issues? Why must all points-of-view be excluded, or included (the result is the same) in TV elections?


Why does the television image say so little, and imply so much, as contrasted with photo and film?


Why does television in politics neutralise the role and structure of the press? Why do electric media inevitably neutralise private concepts at all levels of sensibility, of education, of legal Institutions and politics?


If everybody were aware and agreed upon the nature and effect of media structures upon private and public structures of experience and action, would anything be done to moderate or to control the impact of such structures upon life and Institutions?3

  1. Bolding has been added throughout.
  2. Cf above in regard to this “photo”: (1) “a way to make visual reports in printer’s ink without syntax, and without the distorting analyses of form that syntax necessitated” and (2) “the paradox of statement without syntax rides herd on our world now“.
  3. Bolding and underlining have been added to McLuhan’s text.

Report on Washington Educational TV conference (May 1958)

The US Office of Education1 and the NAEB co-sponsored a conference on Educational Television in Washington DC, May 26-28, 1958.2 A week after the conference, the president of the NAEB, Burton Paulu, reported on it to the NAEB board and officers: 

It was a significant meeting! We of NAEB can take pride in having initiated it!
Being mailed under separate cover (to those of you who were not there) is some material which describes what went on, such as the program, a list of participants, and copies of several of the principal speeches.3
The quality of the talks was up to the very best I have heard anywhere at a conference, convention or institute. We got off to an excellent start Monday morning [May 26, 1958] with fine statements by Novice G Fawcett, President of Ohio State University, and William G Carr, executive secretary of the NEA4. Marshall McLuhan of Toronto University threw us a couple of fast curves with his distinctions between ideas expressed in print and through the electronic media. Whether or not one agreed with his point, though, the overall effect was highly stimulating.
Press coverage of the conference was good. We made the New York Times twice (copies are enclosed for your information). I think this meeting achieved its main objectives, among which I would include the following:
To outline America’s basic educational problems.
To review the status of educational broadcasting today.
To bring together people of different backgrounds to get acquainted and to exchange ideas.
To point the way for future developments in educational broadcasting.
To advance the status and prestige of NAEB.5 

Significantly, Paulu went on in the same report to describe his failure to secure funding for the NAEB from the Fund for the Advancement of Education, a specialized arm of the Ford Foundation, or from the Ford Foundation itself. Since NAEB support from the Kellogg Foundation was due to expire in 1959, the organization needed to secure funding if it were to remain in existence as more than a loose group of university broadcasters. The combined conference with the US Office of Education was part of its attempt to gain greater visibility, especially in Washington.

In this context, it may be that Harry Skornia saw McLuhan’s energy and growing notoriety as one possible tool in tackling the NAEB funding problem.

Another connection with the NAEB quest for funding, and with McLuhan, is provided by a further section of Paulu’s report:

The Magnuson Bill
The Senate passed the Magnuson Bill on May 29. The final text of the bill, together with the discussion which preceded its passage, may be found in the Congressional Record, Senate, for May 29, pp. 8779-8782. Congratulations to our committee (headed by Bob Schenkkan)6 for its good work! We are already in touch with Lenny Marks7 about the bill’s future in the House. 8 

Senator Warren Magnuson (Washington) played a central role in federal education funding for a quarter century. This 1958 bill passed as part of the National Defense Education Act in September 1958. It was through this Act that McLuhan’s Understanding Media project with the NAEB was funded in 1959.

In these years, especially through its work with Marks, the NAEB was learning how to lobby the federal government for favorable legislation and for monetary support. The passage of the Education Act marked the start of its great success in this area which eventually led to the founding of NPR and PBS. As part of this process, the NAEB would move its headquarters from Illinois to Washington in 1960. 


  1. The Office of Education was part of the federal Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW).
  2. For context and discussion, see McLuhan and Skornia 1957 and 1958.
  3. McLuhan’s talk (‘The Role of Mass Communication in Meeting Today’s Problems’) was immediately issued in mimeograph by the US Office of education and reprinted later that year as ‘Our New Electronic Culture’ in the NAEB Journal for October 1958.
  4. National Education Association.
  6. Robert Schenkkan was a board member of the NAEB and the president and general manager of station KLRN in Austin TX. He headed the NAEB legislative committee.
  7. Leonard H. Marks, 1916-2006, Washington communications attorney and legal counsel for the National Association of Educational Broadcasters.

McLuhan to Skornia 1/25/59 (Cassirer)

The second part of McLuhan’s 1/25/59 letter to Harry Skornia discusses points raised in a letter to Skornia from Henry Cassirer.1 Skornia had asked Cassirer to comment on the first (December 1958) draft of the NAEB funding proposal for its Understanding Media project with McLuhan. Cassirer did so in a typed 2-page letter to Skornia dated 1/20/59.

Here is McLuhan’s discussion of Cassirer’s letter:

Now, about Cassirer’s letter. On his second page under “Project Title”, he makes what strikes me as an excellent statement of our project plan and strategy.

Cassirer’s statement:

Project Title: The nature of audio-visual media. To develop through theoretical analysis and practical experimentation a clear notion of the peculiar style, structure and impact of the principal audio-visual media (Radio, Film, Television, Photography) which are changing a civilization based primarily on the printed word, profoundly influencing the mind of young people, and offering new challenges to educational methodology. The objective of obtaining a fresh understanding of these media is to contribute to their better utilization in the educational process and to the critical training of student audiences so they may experience them profitably while avoiding their many pitfalls.

McLuhan then considers in some detail the 5 points (a-e) raised by Cassirer about the project proposal and the project itself:

  • (a) His doubt about our ability to isolate the electronic media2 [aside from media in general] points to [the] need for a bit of further clarification in our statement. We appear to be, willy-nilly, drafters of a new educational constitution suited to the oligarchic rule of the new media which have taken over power formerly exercised by the monarchy of print. I take it we do not wish to isolate electronic media [from other media] but to focus relevant attention on their unique properties and powers in shaping the learning and teaching procedures and also in giving special configuration to information and data used in these procedures. So great is the shift here that our educational establishment, the entire context of culture, of judiciary and legislative [functioning], as well, are in danger of dissolution. This danger is not apparent to the merely print-minded who are naturally impervious to the awareness of the degree to which the medium is the message. [Similarly, but inversely]3 the young do not get the message of the old media save as translated and transformed via the new media.  
  • Cassirer’s insistence on the global dimension of media is valid precisely for the electronic media. Can we satisfy his UNESCO [global] stress while moving toward a [particularized] school program? (…) Let us consider that our text can easily take account of the global impact of old media today, as well as of new media on both developed and undeveloped countries.
  • the widely different effect of telegraph on news stories, and press format, as well as on diplomacy, investment banking, and the structure of decision-making in management, offers the method of revealing the nature of the medium via its effects, which is central in our project. Because this stress [on method] leads to prediction and control of our destinies as social beings. It is because of the telescoping of effects, and also the speed-up of the means of noting effects simultaneously in scattered times and places, which confers on media study a primacy today which they could not have won for themselves before.
  • It seems to me, Harry, that we can overcome the problem of electronic vs older media simply by stressing the fact of the co-existence of all media today, old and new, and therefore the fact that they are in process of modifying one another even now. Film is being changed by TV, but so is print and the book. New powers and roles for all media constantly emerge as a result of their inter-action. This basic principle can surely be made to satisfy the [NAEB research] committee about the need for studying the new media in closest relation to the old.4
  • (b) Cassirer’s second point I thought we had made fairly clear.5 Not only is the teacher to be trained while teaching the student these matters, but the student in conversation as with the teacher will be as much teacher and student. Where the essential data are possessed as much by class as by teacher, teaching ceases to be a one-way flow of potted Information. But this is true in the highest degree of poetry and language as has been realized finally by the teaching revolution of the “new criticism”. For twenty- five years I have been active in the ”new criticism”, and it is from this area of discovery that I derive my interest in the media as art forms. But don’t bring up the “new criticism” among people who cannot be expected to be familiar with it. It itself derives from Coleridge, Baudelaire, Eliot, etc, and those concerned with learning as itself part of the creative process. There is nothing specialized about this “new criticism” except that it is, accidentally, known mostly to specialists.
  • Print produced specialist categories. Electronics knocks out these older walls.
  • (c) Cassirer’s third point also good.6 But apart from such acquaintance as I have with the interest taken by other cultures in the new media (and it goes back over 20 years), it seemed unnecessary to stress such global savvy in our brief. Certainly it would be most important to use this kind of lore in the text [to be produced by the project]; eg, [as] says [Rudolf] Arnheim in Film as Art, the Americans stress ”shot”; the Russians stress montage. ”Shot” or statics is easy for [the] print cultured; montage is easy for an oral culture. Same goes for differences between our nuclear physics and the Russians’. So let us stress the UNESCO help we could rally here, if you think fit.
  • (d) Note how Cassirer assumes here in his fourth point7 that the “use of these media for the purposes of education” would leave these purposes much as they now are. The sense in which the media transform the purposes and goals he ignores, but it is our concern to ascertain.
  • (e) As for his last point,8 I shall try me hand at another sample or two that may strengthen the image of procedure. I shall sketch these in a way that can leave you a free hand, Harry, in adapting them as you see fit to a text for any level of education that you think we ought to stress. I can’t see from here just why to press harder at one level than another for the purpose of a preliminary text. After such [a] text is achieved, it can be up-graded or down-graded at will.

At the end of his letter McLuhan added:

At this late stage of briefing, you [= Skornia] must feel entirely free to include or omit what you wish or to commit me to any program of action that will get this project rolling.
Am enclosing an uncorrected galley of an essay [‘Myth and Mass Media‘]I read at Harvard last spring and which is to appear in their Daedalus in the next few weeks. Re-reading it, I realize that the particularized example is the only procedure. Talk about is no good.
One impression I should like to avoid giving is that I’m setting out to produce a text [through the NAEB project] that encapsulates what I know already. Everyday I learn more about these media. So that if I were to spend 2 years of closer study I should come up with a mass of new insight. But the more insight, the easier to communicate, the easier to teach.9

  1. Henry R Cassirer (1911-2004) was a naturalized American (originally German) journalist and diplomat who worked for CBS news in the 1940s and then became a longtime official with UNESCO.
  2. Cassirer: “I doubt that it is practicable to isolate the ‘electronic’ media for study and to contrast them with print. This leaves out film, photography and to a certain extent graphics. It is significant that much of your bibliography refers to film. I think that one must take these “new” media globally and then analyse them separately in greater detail; but that any study which leaves out film, in particular, will fail to build on acquired knowledge and be arbitrarily partial.”
  3. Instead of “Similarly, but inversely” McLuhan has “So that”.
  4. McLuhan runs together here two matters which are distinct. “The need for studying the new media in closest relation to the old” may be taken as a conceptual point, namely, that the definition of media must of course apply to all of them. But this “need for studying the new media in closest relation to the old” also arises in the investigation in the phenomenology of media — in the ways media express themselves and in doing do interact with one another. Running these together distorts both.
  5. Cassirer: “study of these media is essential from an educational point of view not merely to teach the student to appreciate them, but to teach the teacher how to use them. In other words, the project should have two objectives: proper media utilization and proper media appreciation.”
  6. Cassirer: “Any study of this kind should take note of considerable thought and experience on this subject in other countries.”
  7. Cassirer: “A distinction should be made in the use of these media for the purposes of education, their utilization as tools of the learning process and the appreciation (…) of these media when used for general communication (entertainment, information, advertising etc).”
  8. Cassirer: “I would have welcomed a very concrete passage under a separate section entitled: Method. There are references to this under Procedure and Facilities, and elsewhere, but method is neither one nor the other, and the project is liable to be judged to a considerable degree on the convincing explanation of the practical work it implies.”

McLuhan to Skornia 1/25/59

In the course of his work with the NAEB, McLuhan wrote a series of long letters to Harry Skornia — somewhat to Skornia’s chagrin. For while he was flattered suddenly to find himself as a kind of sounding-board for McLuhan, he could not see the use of such extended meditations to the immediate task of refining a funding application for the proposed NAEB project on Understanding Media. 

McLuhan’s 12 page letter from January 25, 1959, has a note at the top of its first page, apparently made by Skornia:

Point – length of letter – 11 [typed] pages + long-hand on back

This seems to have been a note to Skornia himself to take up this matter with McLuhan. Another note at the bottom of the page, again by Skornia, seems to record McLuhan’s answer to the question:

Such letters are “trial balloons”, later expanded 

Here are the highlights from the first 7 pages of McLuhan’s letter.1 The remainder of the letter will be treated in a separate post.2

  • Unconscious media bias and misunderstanding of electronic media is something I take for granted as natural, normal, and universal today. Just how to set about providing a means of self-correction for such bias is the problem of Understanding Media. You can’t simply stuff such corrections into people. It is necessary to devise a means of discovery and self-enlightenment3
  • the new media in education are going to do, not the old jobs, but jobs that couldn’t have been tackled or conceived of without the new media. Understanding Media, therefore, is not to be a capsule of existing views about the media, but a series of procedures with specific materials and exercises which will in turn generate many new insights and exercises when it gets into use. I know from long experience that it is not helpful to have a lot of views about poems, ads, or other art forms to heave at a class. The fruitful thing is for teacher and student together to get into the poem, ad, etc. Remember the TV syndrome: light through, not light on. In learning and teaching this implies that the subject reveals itself, is defined or revealed in the very act of being creatively perceived.
  • This mode of learning and teaching which our age has seen developing in all fields is also one which reduces the former gap between child and adult to a great degree. So, [the] question4 about what level the book is aiming at can be answered (a) in terms of the conventional and accepted educational patterns, or (b) in terms of the new media. In conventional terms I conceive that we might aim at dual versions of the text for elementary and secondary school use. But in new media terns a text perfectly adapted to elementary school use might well be a revelation to adults, as well.
  • I have no a priori ideas about procedures, Harry. I know that I can work with you and learn from anybody in these fields. If we decide that the first text simply must follow old media and classroom patterns in order to gain acceptance, then I shall be glad to go that road.
  • I have in mind approaches to the media, rather than textual capsules of existing views. Tried and tested notions of unique powers of radio or television can be tossed into the discussion and exercises as observation stations. But we can afford to keep in mind, Harry, that media inter-act, and that radio and movie are steadily being changed by television; that is, new potential is always revealed in an old medium after the advent of a rival medium. But the rival may knock out the old one for quite a spell. You can see how important it is to establish what new potential has emerged in the form [of experience] over the centuries, as a result of the power press, photography, telegraph, etc. Our sense of spatial form, for example, is radically altered by such new forms. Our sense of language is constantly changing as a result of such development.5 And it is the poets and the painters who are the best radar controls through these changing relations. The sense of language as “a network of tentacular roots reaching down into the deepest terrors and desires” (Eliot,1917) heralded an auditory breakthrough and the end of the dictionary and grammatical approaches to language with their exclusively visual ideas of order.
  • Their [Jurgen Ruesch and Weldon Kees on Nonverbal Communication] main head for their first sections is ‘The Frame of Reference’. Nowhere do they seem to understand how the frame itself is modified6 by the action of media on each other. For them a medium is a frame of reference. And a “frame” is a kind of Newtonian mechanical model which is incapable of itself communicating with other models. Here is where the work of Ken Boulding in The Image takes over, and makes possible “a frame of reference” which is a live model capable of constant growth and metamorphosis, of emanation and feedback. So that a medium can be a frame of reference, and [at the same time] a constantly operative model of method in perception.7
  • But, Harry, let us use these data about the media clash involved in the present bias toward static and mechanical models — let us use our knowledge of this clash to avoid clash at this stage of project presentation. Lots of time to clear up these subliminal biases if we get the grant.
  1. See
  2. See
  3. The self-conscious circularity of McLuhan’s point here is notable. The medium of the new media is “a means of discovery and self-enlightenment” — so the means (medium) of understanding new media is to understand their means (medium). “The very act of being creatively perceived” can itself be perceived only creatively.
  4. McLuhan has “Sam’s question” here, a reference to Sam Becker, the chair of the NAEB research committee.
  5. In everyone’s lifetime this occurs naturally: “Our sense of language is constantly changing”. What technology does, as McLuhan repeatedly insisted, is to make explicit what is implicit.
  6. “The frame itself is modified” — that is, what is modified is both our understanding of the “frame itself” and our understanding by the “frame itself”.
  7. It may be wondered if McLuhan were not thinking beyond himself here and muddying the water. It is as if a proto-chemist were to insist that elements must be used to focus investigation of the material world and, at the same time, to observe that there are a myriad complications to the interaction of elements and that even the definition of elements is subject to scientific revolution. Of course there are and of course it is.  But would this help establish chemistry in the first place? As he himself immediately pointed out, there was “lots of time to clear up” these issues once investigation were underway.

Psycho-dynamics (the medium is the message)

It is not easy to convince a literary man that an interest in the psycho-dynamics of the printed form of codification of information is anything but malice toward literature. Moreover, he is likely to feel personal humiliation at finding that he is, in fact, quite unaware of some of the basic effects of the print form upon many of his most cherished ideas and attitudes. (…) Personally I am not trying to upset such people. I am really trying to understand media and to discover their unique dynamics. (The Medium is the Message, 1960)1

If there is one dominating theme to McLuhan’s 24 ‘items’ in Explorations 8, it is that of “psycho-dynamics”.2 When he states in #3 that “extra sensory perception is normal perception” he means that in “normal perception” there is more going on than “sensory” reception and deployment. The additional “extra sensory” factor at work in perception is the medium in terms of which any and all experience is always already structured. Both the working and corresponding study of such media may be called “psycho-dynamics”.

In #8 he compares such “psycho-dynamics” to modern physics and medicine:

the rise of field theory in physics now has its medical counterpart in Dr. Hans Selye’s stress view3 (…) The Selye theory (…) that “all vital phenomena depend merely upon quantitative variations in the activation of pre-existent elementary targets.”4 is not a superficial view5 (…) The analogical drama of being and perception needs no more than the quantitative terms postulated by Selye. With these the living word constitutes and manifests itself in all mental and spiritual complexity.6

“The living word constitutes and manifests itself in all mental and spiritual complexity”7: such constitution/manifestation is the work of “psycho-dynamics” and is further specified in #6:

The most obvious feature of any (…)8 situation is extreme flexibility in immediate foreground and extreme persistence or rigidity in overall pattern. 

Compare this to Selye from Explorations 1 as cited (see above) by McLuhan in Explorations 8: “all vital phenomena depend merely upon quantitative variations in the activation of pre-existent elementary targets”. Selye’s “vital phenomena” = McLuhan’s “extreme flexibility in immediate foreground”; and Selye’s “pre-existent elementary targets” = McLuhan’s “persistence (…) in overall pattern”. If the former may be taken as the message or figure and the latter as the medium or ground9, a central implication of “the medium is the message” is that — just as in chemistry — understanding depends on a specification the underlying elements (= media grounds) and of their expression in the production (pro-duction) of the experienced world (whether material or mental).

Again just like chemistry, “the literal level was held to include all levels” (#22) since the literal level was to be investigated as the law-governed expression of the levels below it terminating in elements/media.10

The dynamic model at work here is further described in #16 as “the contrapuntal stacking of themes” and is fleshed out there as follows:

In Chaucer the realism never detracts from the polyphony of character themes or contrapuntal melodies all simultaneously heard.  Until about 1600 in art, literature and music, the only way of organizing a structure was the song technique of superimposed or parallel themes and melodies. (…) All of Shakespeare exists in auditory depth. The complexity of any of his characters is enforced by all of the others being simultaneously present.

The narrative of characters as figures driven by grounding external forces or internal drives is reversed here. Now characters are to be taken as ground and external and internal circumstances to be produced from “quantitative variations in the activation of [such characters as] pre-existent elementary targets”. 

In this reversal, as stressed by McLuhan, time is the critical factor: the model posits “the polyphony of character themes or contrapuntal melodies all simultaneously heard” — “all (…) simultaneously present”. 

The result:

all the arts approach a condition of music; for in music all parts tend to be simultaneous in the sense that narrative progress in musical composition must constantly recapitulate and unify…” (#10)

Time is not only “simultaneous” or only “narrative progress”, but both together. And it is just our inability to conceive time in this complex way that prevents our understanding media (and all the complex problems to which understanding media is the key):

Our present conceptions of what constitutes social cause, effect, and influence are quite unable to cope with this electronic simultaneity of conspicuous co-existence. (#14, italics added)

Real control [of our out-of-control world] comes [only] by study of the grammars of all the media at once. (#16, italics added)

Just as there is no such thing as some chemistry that would apply only to a part of the world but not to other parts, so a general investigation of “all the media at once” is needed “to understand the psycho-dynamics of these totally new conditions of culture” (#17). Or to preserve the many derivatives of the Gutenberg galaxy that we should not allow to be overwhelmed by the electric tsunami:

the old set-up may be saved [only] by an understanding of the new one [as a necessary piece of “all the media at once”]. (#24)


  1. ‘The Medium is the Message’, Forum magazine, spring 1960. This is the lead paragraph of McLuhan’s influential essay. But it may have been the last time McLuhan employed the term ‘psycho-dynamics’ after using it repeatedly between 1957 and 1960.
  2. The term itself appears in #6, #15 and #17 (twice). For an overview of McLuhan’s 24 ‘items’ in Explorations 8, see Birthpains of the new: “an arduous metamorphosis”.
  3. McLuhan specifies here that Selye “becomes at once intelligible and acceptable in our twentieth century oral awareness”. This is problematic in that McLuhan habitually — not to say always — confounded three different sorts of “oral awareness”: 1) the (the?) “oral awareness” of pre- and post-literate peoples; 2) “oral awareness” as one medium of perception among others; 3) “oral awareness” as implicating “all the media at once” (#16). An important demand made in the observation/admonition that “the medium is the message” (an admonition first of all to McLuhan himself) was that these ambiguities needed to be sorted out. He was still working on this when he died twenty years later.
  4. Two McLuhan sentences have been spliced together here. The Selye citation is from his paper in Explorations 1 (1953), ‘Stress’.
  5. “Not a superficial view” intends both (1) that the theory is profound and (2) that its profundity lies in seeing through the superficial level of perception to its “psycho-dynamic” springs. McLuhan continues this sentence with “in terms of auditory space”. But “auditory space” in McLuhan has all the problems of “oral awareness” as discussed above.
  6. McLuhan continues here: “Analogical proportion is a basic aspect of auditory space and of oral culture. It is the oral equivalent of the golden section in architecture and design.” This adds a further complication to his use of the terms “auditory space” and “oral culture”, for he was well aware that not all auditory or oral experience exemplifies “the golden section”. The questions arise: What level (message or medium, figure or ground) is intended here? At this level (whichever it is), how to account for the presence or absence of “the golden section”? And how to specify all this for education and all other practical applications extending from governance to entertainment?
  7. From earlier in #8: “In the old lineal terms, quantitative relations mean the exclusion of (…) all spiritual complexity.”
  8. McLuhan has “oral situation” here. For the implicated problems see the discussions above.
  9. McLuhan was not yet using figure/ground at this time. He would later consider the figure/ground contrast as essential to the understanding of his work.
  10. McLuhan came to this view from poetry and theology, in both of which he had long recognized interlocking levels of significance. His path to science from the arts and religion came via Whitehead and, especially, Giedion.

Birthpains of the new: “an arduous metamorphosis”

Poets and artists literally turned their own psyches into laboratories where they practiced the most austere experiments in total disregard of their personal happiness. (Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters, 1954)1

Every headache is the attempt of a creative idea to get born. (Explorations 8, #24, 1957)2

In Explorations 8, aside from his short article on Wyndham Lewis, ‘Third Program in the Human Age’, McLuhan published 24 unpaginated ‘items’ amounting to around half the volume. They averaged 2 or 3 pages in length. These were notes he had assembled on a variety of topics and were now included in the penultimate issue of the original Explorations series and the last to which he would contribute.3

Explorations 8 appeared in October 1957, a month after McLuhan and Harry Skornia first met at an MLA conference in Madison and a month before McLuhan attended the first NAEB ‘research seminar’ in Columbus. His ‘Understanding Media’ project with the NAEB would be initiated the next year beginning in September 1958. These Explorations 8 ‘items’, along with his other 1957 publications, therefore provide a snapshot of McLuhan’s thinking just as he was beginning the intense research he would under-take for the NAEB.

This research relationship would represent the single most insightful period of McLuhan’s half century intellectual career. As he entered it, McLuhan knew that it would require a difficult transformation — one that would, in fact, all but kill him when he suffered a stroke in 1960 severe enough that he was given the last rites.4

The ‘items’ he published in Explorations 8 record the pointers he would follow in interrogating media as the message to our time — but also the stress he was feeling in anticipation of the “arduous metamorphosis”, or trial, he would have to under-go in an attempt to win the new conception he sought. For what was in question was no purely objective matter requiring only (only!) a new perspective, but an intensely subjective riddle in which perspective on perspective was at stake. In the implicated exploration of “the interior landscape” all ground threatened to give way. For a plurality of media grounds had to be interrogated — but between grounds there was no ground.

Amplifying these personal struggles, none of which could be resolved in less than a lifetimes’s unremitting work, was McLuhan’s clear recognition of two looming social catastrophes. First, the freedoms, rights and bonds that had been won in the Gutenberg era were now threatened with loss along with it. Second, the new Marconi era could unleash a tsunami of war and other violences if we failed to understand its potential for destruction. 

In ‘item #15’ (‘The Organization Man’) McLuhan described the “fight [he had before him] to loosen [all] the older social bonds”:

You have to struggle alone and in silence against a distracting social environment which looks askance at your solitary quest. This quest engenders psychological powers [in and against the self] of an intensely dedicated and aggressive kind. From the point of view of the solitary quester with his inner direction and self-appointed goals and standards, [all] society is [felt as] THE LONELY CROWD.5 

In the same item, McLuhan specified the task of the contemporary executive (standing in, as McLuhan would repeat in Take Today, for everyman): “though it is painful6 he is sufficiently the realist to accept the new social ethic of electronic communication.” This was an ethic that at once split him off from his social past and that could be investigated only through an internalization of that same split in himself. 

The new organization man is an oral man with a heart of type. (Item #7)7

In item #5 he concluded by noting that “the split between the two worlds [of irreducibly plural media] has grown wider in the hearts” of those attempting to understand it.  Further, that this attempt at understanding, this trial, necessitated “an arduous metamorphosis“. For what was demanded was no healing or amelioration of fundamental rift, but a new appreciation of it as the inalienable situation of human being.

Humans had always been faced with this demand and had responded to it in many ways. Now it had to be faced again under the unprecedented circumstance that we considered ourselves somehow beyond it (either positively and negatively).8 McLuhan’s arguments against “lineality” in favor of an appreciation of “simultaneity” carried an existential demand that research on his work hurries over on its way to the next conference. “It is the anguished effort of the bureaucrat to keep the new oral demands of electronic simultaneity in the groove of lineality.” (Explorations 8, item #1, ‘Brain Storming’) The moment of wrong-doing, the moment of death and loss, the moment of missed opportunity to do the right thing is, as Eliot has it, “always now”.9

At the same time as his Explorations 8 items, McLuhan concluded his essay on ‘Coleridge as Artist’ (1957) by noting the unavoidable psycho-physical ordeal of the required trial:

as with Rimbaud, the very magnitude of the change he [Coleridge] experienced in his own modes of thought and feeling (…) made (…) exhausting demands on mind and heart.


  1. McLuhan made this observation a few years before entering into the depths of his own “most austere experiments” in the context of his NAEB project. He had always known what it demands, and what it feels like, to think against one’s time — and against one’s self.
  2. No Upside Down in Eskimo Art’. With his blackouts, brain tumor and congenital disposition to stroke, McLuhan had frequent headaches. His association of them with “creative ideas” was grim humor.
  3. The original series concluded with #9 in which Carpenter’s ‘Eskimo’ was the only contribution. Explorations would start up again in the 1960s, but as a part of the UT Varsity magazine, not as a free-standing publication.
  4. Corinne McLuhan recorded that he began to have blackouts in 1959. See the note on Letters 175 which must have stemmed from her. For information on McLuhan’s 1960 stroke — suffered at a time when his mother was dying from one — see note 12 of McLuhan’s new sciences: “only the authority of knowledge”.
  5. McLuhan: “it is society that is THE LONELY CROWD.” McLuhan’s use of masculine pronouns in regard to human beings in general is retained here because of its implication of his own situation.
  6. Compare Heidegger from a few years earlier in ‘Die Sprache im Gedicht’: “Alles, was lebt, ist schmerzlich.” Everything that lives is painful.
  7. ‘Bathroom Baritone and Wide Open Spaces’.
  8. Somehow beyond it either positively and negatively: positively, because humans were the new gods of the universe and didn’t need to consider it; negatively, because the fate of humans was so “absurd” that no resolution were possible for them.
  9. Eliot, Four Quartets (Burnt Norton): “And the end and the beginning were always there/Before the beginning and after the end./And all is always now.” The cross had functioned as the sign of this fallen situation of human beings for almost two millennia. But now we had left it behind us, as well, as we raced ‘ahead’ on the lineal freeway of progress.

What is the basis of prediction?

Why did Marx miss the communication bus? (American Model 1795, 1957)

In Explorations 8 (unpaginated ‘item’ #2) McLuhan foresaw the breakup of the USSR that would occur thirty years later:

Now launched on a program entirely antithetic to their oral culture, the Russians (…) ignore and discount all that is basic in their own make-up.1 (…) The intense individualism and even more ferocious nationalism that is born out of (…) print-processing is just now being discovered in the Soviet area. It will eventually splinter the Soviet area as effectively as it splintered England and Europe in the sixteenth century. Is it not strange that the Marxists should have no awareness of the means of communication as the constitutive social factor? That Marx should not have noticed that English and American industry were merely projections of print technology?2  

McLuhan’s foresight was remarkable and is increasingly recognized today, 40 years after his death in 1980. What he could see then, we are just beginning to see now. But the most important implication of his foresight is ignored today as much as it was during his lifetime. Namely, if he could perceive what would unfold in the future,3 the seemingly obvious question is: how did he do it? On what basis was he able to foresee so accurately?

If a chemist were able to make reliable predictions about the consequences of reactions that other chemists did not understand, there would be enormous interest in trying to replicate her results and to tease out their implications for the field. With McLuhan, however, although his predictions themselves are beginning to win some recognition, there is still inexplicably no interest in the question of just how he was able to make them.  

McLuhan himself was fully conscious that this was the case and he had many explanations for it: specialists protecting their turf (ie, their reputations, salaries, bennies, and especially their self-importance); the lineal bias against revision and starting again; the ‘free’ individual’s reluctance to admit subliminal determination — und so weiter! But this was exactly the case when chemistry was first securing its foundations 200 years ago. Most contemporary researchers were not interested in the findings of Priestley and Lavoissier because they had their own findings and these findings had roots in their education and current practices which they were unwilling to give up. Only slowly in the first half of the nineteenth century was it possible for new investigators to establish the field of element-based chemistry, above all by discovering practical applications for it.

What is remarkable about McLuhan’s NAEB Understanding Media project in 1959-1960 (within a wider frame stretching roughly from 1957 to 1964) is that this was the time when McLuhan investigated questions like these in regard to his own thinking. “The medium is the message” was an admonition addressed above all to himself! He had to turn himself inside out in a ‘through the looking glass’ attempt to understand where he himself was coming from.4 Thanks to the remarkable Unlocking the Airwaves project, with its comprehensive NAEB files, this is a process we can now follow in great detail.

  1. McLuhan enlarged on “all that is basic” in the Russian “make-up” as follows: “For many centuries the Soviet area has been as oral as a pre-literate society. The Greek Orthodox Church has an oral tradition compared to the legalistic and individual Roman tradition. As Geoffrey Gorer puts it in The People of Great Russia: ‘The central sacrament of Western Christianity is Communion, the intimate connexion between the individual worshipper and Jesus Christ; in the Orthodox Church the central experience is Sobornost, the Pentecostal descent of the Holy Ghost on the whole congregation simultaneously.’
  2. ‘American Model 1795’. The order of these sentences has been reversed.
  3. McLuhan always maintained, of course, that the future was the present if you knew how to look.
  4. See Birthpains of the new: “an arduous metamorphosis”.

McLuhan NAEB presentation 9/23/59

Dedicated to my dear sister, MJCB, on the occasion of her 72nd birthday!

When McLuhan’s Understanding Media research project with the National Association of Educational Broadcasters began in September 1959, one of the first things he did was to meet with the NAEB research committee at the LaSalle Hotel in Chicago. The talk he gave on that occasion is preserved in the NAEB files posted online as part of the great Unlocking the Airwaves project. From a note sent to Harry Skornia on Sept 5, 1959, it seems that the talk was carefully crafted beforehand and circulated to the committee in advance of the meeting. 

Let me apologise right off for all the distress which my media project will cause specialists in many subjects. I wish I knew some way of avoiding this discomfort, but how is it possible to do the cross subject study that this purports to be without disturbing the convictions and the acquired knowledge of many people?

If I explain that radio and TV are not really consumer media in the full sense that photography and film are, Madison Avenue gets upset. So do many people in film and in radio and television skills.

They are eager to prove me wrong before they have the faintest idea of what I mean. Personally I am not trying to upset such people. I am really trying to understand media and to discover their unique dynamics.

But it is not easy to convince a literary man that your interest in the psycho-dynamics of the printed form of codification of information is anything but malice towards literature. Moreover, he is likely to feel personal humiliation that he is, in fact, quite unaware of some of the basic effects of the print form upon many of his most cherished ideas and attitudes.

The mere recognition of the existence of the subliminal in ordinary human experience seems of itself to create fear and insecurity. Since every moment of perception is loaded with subliminal intake, all of us are unaware of most of the factors that shape our experience.

Personally, I should greatly welcome any suggestions as to how to diminish the discomfort of other people when their subliminal lives are involved. But media study must go on! And so far the only advice is to shut up.

It is sometimes said that my approach to media is philosophical. I hope it may soon be seen to be scientific. For a long time philosophy has been associated with systems, with world-views, Weltanschauungen, and general pictures of things. Since the Renaissance most methods and procedures have strongly tended toward stress on the visual organization and application of knowledge. Printing gave enormous stress to such visual process, to differential calculus, and to statistics.

But since the early nineteenth century with the arrival of electrical problems and processes, mathematics and physics have moved away from visual organization and statistics towards dynamics, time organization, and what psychologists refer to as “auditory space.” (Auditory space is that sphere of simultaneous relations created by the act of hearing. We hear from all directions at the same instant. This creates a unique unvisualisable space.)

To ask whether either the Renaissance achievement of statics or our modem conquest of dynamics is a good thing or a bad thing seems to mean: “what will this do to me?” The question seems to be a request for applied knowledge, but knowledge applied on one level, and for one person at a time.

The modern world of dynamics is an all-at-once world in which there cannot be single levels or one-thing-at-a-time awareness. This change is a very bad thing, indeed, for the previous technology and for all of us whose education represents a heavy investment of precious years in acquiring what may now be irrelevant modes of knowledge.

The Affluent Society by Kenneth Galbraith opens with a discussion of the “vested interests in acquired knowledge,” “the bland leaders of the bland” whose discourse and perception move evenly in the single lines and the single planes of “conventional wisdom.” By taking an all-at-once view of our economic world Galbraith has so shocked the one-at- time people that the American Journal of Economics has reviewed the book on the assumption that it is a hoax.

In the same way Parkinson’s Law (by Parkinson) in taking an all-at-once view of the operation of written forms in bureaucratic organization today, has appeared as a sort of Marx Bros entertainment. It is a multi-leveled analysis of a complex dynamic.

Conventional sobriety as it affects scholarly decorum would seem to be merely the accidental result of the static procedure of taking one-thing-at-a-time. Such procedure in media analysis is as incapable of getting at the dynamics of a medium as are statistics in motivation study or social dynamics.

Statistics can tell of a trend, provide a picture or a view, or a perspective but cannot reveal causes. In fact, it is only in our century that over-all data and all-at-once knowledge have so increased that we have moved toward the study of causes in personal and social operations. That is, we are now concerned with causes, not on a single plane or in mere sequence but as a total field of interaction and inter-penetration. This leads us to feel about statistics as the beatnik about bikinis: “Man, they seem to reveal all, but they really withhold vital data.”

It is important for us in media work to understand the statics of the medium of statistics and their relation to differential calculus and the older Newtonian picture. For the problems we face are not static but dynamic, because of their nuclear origin and focus. Likewise, the means at our disposal are no longer mechanical but electronic. And the dominant impress which the young today receive (non-verbally) from our new technology is not mechanical or print-oriented but electronic and dialogue-oriented.

The world of production and management is today grappling with the changes in the patterns of command and of production resulting from the telephone, on the one hand, and from the complex synchronization in production resulting from the use of electronic tapes. The latter have ended the centuries-old regime of the assembly-line. The end of the assembly-line in the outer-world could well be a portent for the entire educational establishment. Because Gutenberg provided the prototypical assembly-line

basis for all that followed. So that we may now be in the position, so far as literacy is concerned, of propping a superstructure without a base.

During the recent centuries we seem to have been as oblivious of this overall pattern of our Western culture as the humble tortoise is of the articulate design on its shell. It is hard to see how anybody could have been more subliminal than Western man since Gutenberg.

But the electronic age is becoming alert to the dangers of the subliminal whether in psychology or politics and education. The all-at-once, many-leveled awareness of the electronic age discourages the continuation of the single-plane depths of unexamined subliminal back-log of literate man.

In this time of coexistence, itself resulting from instantaneous movement of information, we are confronted predominantly by oral cultures like the Chinese and the Russian. These oral peoples take to electronic and nuclear modes of organisation more readily than we do with our centuries of linear and sequential training of perception. The nuclear physicists have to master the non-visual and non-Euclidean modes of order today. But since the telegraph, the press has presented a non-lineal mosaic, and so have radio and television.

All of my work has tended more and more to center on the misunderstandings and clashes that occur between these two basic types of order in experience and organisation; namely, the visual and the auditory.

For the basic patterns of eye and ear are typically non-verbal in their message in most of their media occurrence. And it is even more confusing at first for some to learn that the mosaic of a page of telegraph press is ‘auditory’ in basic structure. That, however, is only to say that any pattern in which the components co-exist without direct lineal hook-up or connection, creating a field of simultaneous relations, is auditory, even though some of its aspects can be seen. The items of news and advertising that exist under a dateline are inter-related only by that dateline. They have no inter-connection of logic or statement. Yet they form a mosaic whose parts are interpenetrating. Such is also the kind of order that tends to exist in a city or a culture. It is a kind of orchestral, resonating unity, not a logical unity of discourse. It is not necessary to be satisfied with such a state of affairs once it is understood.

Personally, I feel none of the fervor in favor of such order, as an ideal to be sought for, that is not uncommon among anthropologists. My notion is that this kind of order is inseparable from electronic technology and that such auditory order quickly wipes out or brainwashes visual kinds of order by subliminal action. As a teacher of language and literature I am aware of the values to be had from these in their printed form. But I am also aware that the artists, poets and musicians of the past century have unanimously abandoned visual structure in their

work in favor of auditory all-at-onceness. It would seem that artists, of all media, respond soonest to the challenge of new pressures. I would like to suggest that they also show us ways of living with new technology without destruction of earlier achievement and form.

If there is one theme in all the arts of the past century it is that of the need for relevance in the patterns of human interests. To be out-of-touch with one’s time, they have not ceased to urge, is to be irrelevant.

To cultivate irrelevant attitudes and rhythms and order is to be not only futile but to be an enemy of one’s fellows.

Prior to the cry for relevance was the idea of steadiness of perspective and consistency of point-of-view. This was the visual man’s strategy and bias from Gutenberg and the Renaissance onwards. But since Baudelaire and Cezanne such individual perspective has been held to be as irrelevant as “self-expression.”

It needs no insistence to show that “relevance” is an all-at-once, inclusive, and total affair, and that as an attitude it is born of the ear mode of awareness; whereas individual point-of-view is the eye mode and is born of a technology in which mechanical and animal forms are dissociated.

(The wheel, for example is referred to as the classic instance of the separation of mechanical and animal form; whereas today, with rocket and air-cushioned saucers and electronic circuits in which there are no moving parts, there is a transmutation of mechanical into animal again, as it were. We move towards the post-mechanical.)

The ear mode of all-at-once or total-field awareness seems naturally to prepare the climate of opinion to welcome organic and ecological approaches to problems of education and society, of the arts and industrial production alike.

If my diagnosis is on the beam, does it not afford a means of isolating causal factors and relations in our open society of over-all coexistence? Will it not be possible to test my diagnosis by careful checking, for example, of the impact of one medium upon another? Just as electronic nuclei can only be reached or probed by other accelerated electrons, cannot we not use the action of the media themselves upon one another to reveal their powers and properties?

When radio is released in a widely and long-literate area like the U.S. its effect on social and psychological structures would seem to be quite different from the effects of radio in Japan, or Germany or Spain. But the effect of radio on non-literate areas like India, Iran, or Africa would seem to be quite different again.

This approach of mine is structuralist but is not derived from the recent field of structural linguistics. Rather it derives from the practice and criticism in the field of poetry and painting during the last 100 years. However, the electronic tapes which are ending the assembly-line in industry also made possible structural linguistics. And this new field, as it clashes with older language study and teaching, affords another instance of the clash of ear and eye structures of knowledge. For to the structural linguist the fact that the letter “k,” for example, as written, may suggest a single sound, does not hide from him the fact that there are several quite distinct “k” sound-structures mastered by every child by two or three years of age. For the “k” in “quick” Is not the “k” in “chalk.” Using the fill-at-once approach of electronic tape, the linguist becomes aware of the interpenetration of the alphabetic sounds and the consequent modification of letters that look alike in the one-thing-at-a-time world of the written word. So he doesn’t hesitate to say that written letters, insofar as they pretend to point to distinct sounds, are a very crude gimmick for reducing couples and subtle qualities of sound to mere averages.

But the ear order of the structural linguist finds a clash when he turns to the visual order of words on the page. What has long passed as “grammar” to the visual and literary person seems crude and arbitrary to the ear perception of the structural linguist. Here he could be mistaken.

The eye-order of the printed page and of the written word, as sponsored by the grammarian, may lack the organic unity and delicacy of spoken idiom. But eye-order may here have a validity imperceptible to the structural linguist with his subliminally-espoused ear-order via electronic tape.

But the pros and cons can more easily be tested when the real nature of the clash is clarified.

The eye man in this order of observation is satisfied that film and TV images are roughly alike. Yet just as small children can make the most delicate distinctions of subtle sound structures, so do they receive and react to the distinction between movie and TV imagery. That is, between the still shot and the continuous pick-up, between light on and light through an image, etc.

This illustration may serve to introduce a theme that could be crucial to the Understanding Media project. Professor Johnson of McGill’s department of Psychology has been working on what can be called a “saturation theory” of learning. I look forward to conferences with him. Because if a child can learn a language by three or four in the sense of being at home with its sounds, gestures, and syntax, how long does it take a child to be at home in the same way with the structure of print, photo, film, TV, radio, and grammaphone?

This question includes another: Can familiarity or saturation with one medium block introduction to others? The child who learns one language before another will have only one mother-tongue. He will not learn the second In the same total way as the first. Carl Orff, the Viennese composer, has a music school in which he seeks to train his pupils before they can read or write. His view is after literacy nobody can really master the modes of music.

This approach, quite apart from the validity of the particular case, suggests that in understanding media we might check whether the current familiarity of children with photo and TV, for example, before they read and write may really be an unfortunate sequence. I am sure that if a more natural and fruitful sequence of media experience exists, it can be discovered and demonstrated. This approach is related to the now accepted idea that some media are especially indicated for some kinds of learning. But Ferguson’s theory that saturation in language and media experience occurs very early may prove of major aid in study. It certainly points to a variety of procedures and controls in observation that have been lacking.

Speaking casually to a member of the Institute of Child Psychology in Washington D.C., I just happened to inquire, “What is the effect of the telephone on children?” The reply was this: “We know one thing; namely, that neurotic children are normal when using the telephone.”

That remark suggests, to me at least, a basic aspect of all media: that experience in one is transmuted and translated into a different experience in another. Some people stutter in English but not in French or Spanish.

Would it not interest Bell Telephone to use their research laboratories to consider some aspects of their medium in relation to other media and to the training and education of children? That is, can we not enlist the resources of all the communication industries to concentrate on discovering the inter-relation of media in terms of experience and education?

Can we not reasonably expect to interest Remington Rand and Underwood, etc, in investigating the effect of composing on the typewriter? What is the effect of publishing oneself, as it were, while composing at the typewriter? What has been the effect of the typewriter in structuring decision-making in our world? How has the typewriter been affected by tape-recorders? What has been the effect of the typewriter on the writing and publishing of books and newspapers? On the short-story? On poetry? On reading habits?

Speaking to top executives of General Electric at Crotonville about their attitude toward media study, I was assured, “We will help you in every way we can,for whatever raises the general level helps us, too.”

That was also the reply of the NBC.

I am sure it will be the reply of the big research divisions of Madison Ave. publishing and advertising, including Time, Life, and Fortune.

The question, then, arises: Should I, or should I not, seek the co-operation of these great enterprises? If Understanding Media is from one point of view a project to inter-relate in-school and out-of-school experience by educational articulation of areas that are common to both, would it be seriously compromising to ask the aid and counsel of the out-of-school areas?

Much of the data about the effect of one medium on another is to be found only in the experience of the big industries. I spent a week at a radio conference in Vancouver in the spring of 1958. The theme was: What has happened in radio since TV? The answers were most helpful. Radio has changed in its uses and programming since TV. It has switched from a group to a private form, etc.

What happened to the book after the newspaper? To the book after the movie? To the book after radio and TV? Nobody seems to know.

But what has happened to the movie since TV is much better known, and if studied not as a change in our view of the movies but as a change in the uses and forms of the movie, much can be learned about the movie, and about TV and movie at the same time; i.e., much that could not be learned by inspecting merely one-at-a-time.

To Illuminate media from within by noting their effect upon one another is a procedure that I should like to have criticised pro and con. It also appears, as I have pointed out, to be the current method in the discovery of nuclear structures in physics.

The “content” approach to media and to the testing of media efficacy in teaching and in public relations and politics is, I am reasonably satisfied, derivative from the habit of literacy itself. We would not talk about the “content” of a tune or a melody. But as soon as man learned how to encode the audible in visible terns (writing) he easily began to make divisions between ”form” and “content,” and between thought and feeling, individual and state, and so on. Insofar as these separations correspond to real modes of being we should try to retain them. Insofar as they are fictions and illusions fostered by the subliminal action of media, they need to be considered and criticised with a view to their permanent value. Perhaps we shall learn to cherish some of the fruits of literacy as we might do with precious artifacts of vanished societies. Whether it be possible to retain the fruits of literacy without the soil and tree of literacy would appear to be the test we are now undergoing in the Western world. Certainly we shall learn many new aspects of literacy as we study its intact on the ancient cultures of India and China. For literacy in the West did not slice into ancient civilisations, but struck into tribal societies which wilted under its impact.

This raises a major issue for us all to study: Namely, when does a mechanical code of transmission of information itself become a language? Under what conditions does a language revert to a code of transmission? With our new coding devices today such as movies and TV, tapes, discs, radio, teletype and so on, we are setting about to establish whether these means of transmission have themselves so deeply altered human sensibilities and re-shaped human institutions and attitudes as to have acquired the status of new languages. For to an infant, English is not a language but a mechanical code. To an adult beginning Russian, that, too, is at first a mechanical code. It becomes a language only when it has become subliminal to him. English in its totality becomes a code again to the structural linguist who begins to translate the whole structure into auditory terms alone. To the same man as a speaker of English, it exists in all his senses at the same time.

Is a code the translation of one sense into another single sense; e.g.. Morse code? Morse reduces the multi-leveled structure of English into one sense — the ear. It is at once translated into a code for the eye.

When writing was invented it was a visual code for a many-leveled auditory thing. Phonetic writing has proved much the most powerful of written instruments for it abstracted “all” meaning from the visual code. Other kinds of writing did not attempt to divorce the code from meaning. Once this divorce had been effected, it was possible to translate any sound structure into phonetic alphabetic form. The phonetic alphabet gave to the Graeco-Roman world the power of conquest of all cultures it contacted. We see that aggressive power today at work in India and China.

Today by means of “translating machines” we are setting out to do with entire languages what once was done in divorcing meaning from visual written forms. When by frequency counts we have averaged out the lexical meanings of all words in a language we can use that language as a mechanical code such as it is for a beginner. When the same has been done for other languages they can be translated into one another lexically and semantically, just as they formerly were reduced from auditory to visual state by means of the phonetic alphabet.

What I am saying is that new media may at first appear as mere codes of transmission for older achievement and established patterns of thought. But nobody could make the mistake of supposing that phonetic writing merely made It possible for the Greeks to set down in visual order what they had thought and known before writing. In the same way printing made literature possible. It did not merely encode literature.

That is what I mean when I say that (in the not-so-long run) the medium is the message. So that what we have to study now is what totally new curricula and modes of organisation are inherent in our current new media

Let us step aside from teaching a moment and notice what the telephone and other electronic means have done to well-established patterns of management and decision-making:

We still express the structure of authority, responsibility, function and rank in organisation in the typical organization chart, which shows the chief executive at the top and the lesser executives as exercising authority delegated by him. It is still customary to explain the existence of organisation by the fact that there Is more work to be done than any man can do, so that he has to delegate to others what is really part of his job.
But this is nonsense in modern organization. The individual people of skill, knowledge and judgment cannot exercise somebody else’s authority or somebody else’s knowledge. They exercise their own knowledge and should have the authority that befits their contribution. It is the job that determines the authority and responsibility of the holder — and this is original authority grounded in the needs and objective requirements for performance rather than in the power of the man above. The only power the top man must have is that of deciding whether a certain contribution is needed — and even that, increasingly, must be an objective decision according to objective needs of the organization rather than a power decision.

That is Peter Drucker writing in Landmarks of Tomorrow (p. 96) (Harpers, 1959). Delegated authority cannot in the long run be transmitted or used by telephone. The decentralization of industry that has followed upon the break-down of delegated authority has compelled industry to give to all its executives an overall training in the entire operation of their companies and also compelled the study of the entire relation of business to society. In Nazi Germany the clash between delegated authority and electronic transmission was given a brief moment of attention by Albert Speer at the Nuremberg trials:

The telephone, the teleprinter and the wireless made it possible for orders from the highest levels to he given direct to the lowest levels, where, on account of the absolute authority behind them, they were carried out uncritically; or brought it about that numerous offices and command centres were directly connected with the supreme leadership from which they received their sinister orders without any intermediary; or resulted in a widespread surveillance of the citizen, or in a high degree of secrecy surrounding criminal happenings. To the outside observer this governmental apparatus may have resembled the apparently chaotic confusion of lines at a telephone exchange, but like the latter it could be controlled and operated from one central source. Former dictatorships needed collaborators of high quality even in the lower levels of leadership, men who could think and act independently. In the era


of modern technique an authoritarian system cm do without this. The means of communication alone permit it to mechanize the work of subordinate leadership. As a consequence a new type develops: the uncritical recipient of orders.” (Albert Speer, German Armaments Minister in 1942, in a speech at the Nuremberg trials, quoted in Hjalmar Schacht, Account Settled, London, 1949, p. 240.)

Speer does not dissociate the effect of electronic media from some of the special features of German cultural organisation. And, for example, what he notes about the older type of organisation as calling for “men who could think and act independently” is quite the reverse of the situation seen in U.S. business by Peter Drucker. For the new situation in America is precisely the one that calls for such “authority of knowledge.” Whereas the older literacy, at least in the U.S., fostered the pattern of delegated authority. What seems to have occurred in Germany and Japan under electronic impact was the brainwashing of a recently assumed literacy and reversion to tribal cohesion and pre-individualist patterns of thought.

I have said (and I hope I am wrong) at various times that we ought to expect a steady trend toward irrational tribal behavior in North America, as our youngsters get saturated with the all-at-once auditory experience of our new media. Such tribal experience was still intact and available to the Jap and the German. But for us to retribalize would be quite a different matter. And in the global village created by our electronics there would, of course, be room for only one tribe — the human family itself.

It would seem obvious that our responsibilities as educators and broadcasters is to understand our media and their effects just as an X-ray expert should understand the effects of his medium and not permit patients to receive an overdose. X-rays units can get “hot” but they do not make good space-heaters. And we must learn how far we can safely proceed in applying new media to older educational purposes without destruction of older goals and achievements.

Moreover, since the saturation in a medium may occur outside school contexts before any school use is attempted, we must know what are the relevant educational uses of such media. “Saturation” in English as the mother-tongue occurs by three or four years of age and the traditional educational superstructure is based upon that prior saturation. Have we used a similar wisdom in relation to the new media? As they cease to be codes, and invade and structure our entire beings and all areas of our sensibility, they become “languages” themselves. Pictorial media tend to be non-verbal it is true.

But so are writing and printing non-verbal in their primary phases. Only gradually do they permeate the verbal and spoken areas. The Morse

code if known and experienced daily by everybody would quickly cease to be a code. The African drum and whistle languages are not codes but languages to African natives. So with their dances. Ads, comics, and movies are not codes in North America but basic languages. That we have not yet begun to teach their grammars is as natural as it is for preliterate man to ignore the written or visual mode of his language. Grammar comes from the Greek “written.” And education would seem to involve the translation of experience into a new mode.

We can begin, then, to consider the relevance of grammars for media which have become languages all within our own century. Whatever may be the educational advantages of traditional grammars now apply to our new media. Yet one of the effects of the new auditory media has been to dissuade people from the cultivation of grammar. May it not be that the translation of the auditory structure of a language into a grammar or visual structure is ultimately necessary in order to confer personal adequacy of control over experience? But as we regain auditory space via the electronic revolution, we fail to see the relevance of visual grammar?

May not the translation of one sense into another, and of one language into another be the irreducible modality of education, just as it is the irreducible mode of nuclear investigation? May not this training confer the detachment and criticism necessary for viable civilized man anywhere, anytime?

For the Greeks numbers were indications of auditory structure not visual structure. Ernst Cassirer in The Problem of Knowledge tells us how the vogue of Euclidean geometry depressed and retarded the study of numbers and arithmetic for centuries. Today the effect of new auditory modes on the young will naturally sensitize them to number theory in a way which is taken for granted in old oral cultures like Russia, Hungary, Poland, etc.

Today it is impossible to predict at what moment one may make a large break-through into new dimensions of awareness. Because such a casual fact as that the sound waves on the wings of a jet plane become visible just a moment before breaking through the sound-harrier, such a fact may be encountered for the first time in a newspaper or in overheard chat. It has profound implications for the dynamics of sight and sound and tells us much about their power and habit of transmutation. The radio tube principle, pushed far enough, led to TV.

It was Flaubert in the middle of the last century who first alerted his time to the subliminal power of bad pictorial forms. His people are all shown as victims of atrocious commercial art and communication. His own concept of le mot juste (which our age translates as The Most Juice) is auditory, not pictorial. For it implies an all-at-once order of words,

any slightest change in which obliterates the whole effect. But Flaubert taught us that there was no neutral area in human communications, and there is no more merit in tolerating hideous and tendentious forms of pictorial arrangement than putting up with polluted drinking water. Before Pasteur, Flaubert Introduced the germ theory into social communication. That is, he entered the electronic age at the same time as Sam Morse. But he had his eyes open for the full consequences as Sam Morse, perhaps, did not. However, it might well be no accident that the painter Sam Morse should have been the first to introduce us to auditory or all-at-once space; that is, the space which is a simultaneous field of relations such as we create in each moment of hearing. For we hear from all directions at once. We do not see that way at all.

“A medium is the sum total of all its impact”

We cannot transcend our “flat earth” view of media so long as we rely on private impressions at a particular time and place. The meaning and effect of a medium is the sum total of all its impact upon psyche and society. (McLuhan to Harry Skornia, July 6, 1964, Letters 305)

In chemistry, the sum total of the impact of any reaction on the physical world is — chemistry!

Impact radiates out from a physical reaction1 in an endless series of waves like a stone dropped in a pond. But it is useless to try to trace those endless repercussions, since the overwhelming majority of them are inconsequential. Besides, they are indeed endless and an account of them, too, could never end.2 Instead, we are able to repose in the knowledge that all of the endless impacts of any reaction are covered by the field of chemistry — and if any one of them turns out to be consequential, it may be illuminated in turn within that field. (Occasionally, of course, some peculiar reaction forces us to revise our notion of the field in what amounts to a ‘scientific revolution’. But this, too, belongs to chemistry and, far from undermining it, is one of its great motors. Or, findings in a field may lead to the founding of a new field like organic chemistry from chemistry. But this, too, is simply the way science works and amounts to no disruption of it. On the contrary!)

McLuhan had a comparable notion of media. His idea was that media have an endless impact on individuals and societies, but our study of those impacts need not be exhaustive. Indeed, it cannot be exhaustive!3 Instead a field must be established within which any impact can be studied in a limited way and which would be illuminating only because so limited! The main thing was simply to start and then to allow the normal workings of science to deal with problems, imprecisions, contradictions, and unknowns — etc etc.4 Hence — a signpost indicating an impending advance in understanding — “You mean my whole fallacy is wrong?”


  1. Everything that exists is in constant interaction with its environment and so is part of a reactive event, actually events. Nothing exists aside from such ‘reaction’ events.
  2. See Chemistry of the interior landscape 2 for the absurdity of a map with a scale of 1 mile to 1 mile.
  3. See previous note.
  4. See Und so weiter! (the gap).

Chemistry of the interior landscape 2

Philosophic agreement is not necessary among those who are agreed that the insistent operation of media-forms on human sensibility and awareness is an observable, intelligible, and controllable situation. (‘Myth and Mass Media‘, 1959)

We can, perhaps we must, become the masters of cultural and historical alchemy. (‘Myth and Mass Media‘)

In his 1960 review of American Folklore by Richard Dorson, ‘Myth, Oral and Written’ (Commentary, 30:1), McLuhan reflected on the reversal he proposed from the analysis of human experience in all its forms by philosophy1 — to the analysis of philosophy by human experience in all its forms.2

He did so by recounting with deadpan humor how Dorson put him in mind of Lewis Carroll:

The scientific folklorist seeks out, observes, collects, and describes the inherited traditions of the community, whatsoever forms they take.”3 Such is Professor Dorson’s undertaking [in American Folklore], and it is a broad program [a broad program!] which has my own sympathies and interests deeply involved. Yet such a program might easily parallel Lewis Carroll’s idea of a map of the scale of one mile to the mile. Carroll pointed out that since such a map would inevitably rouse the hostility of farmers [whose fields would be covered over by the map], we might alternatively [just] use the earth itself as a map of itself. And is not this what folklorists have hit upon as a strategy of culture — with the ordinary citizen in the role of the farmer about to be blanketed by an earth map?4 If so, can we find some means of awareness that will not obliterate the cultural scene, some way to get enough light through and still prevent a general brainwashing by putting too much light on?5

The question was, and is, how bring to bear an understanding of human experience in all its forms6 on the analysis of particular examples of experience? A series of notions are implicated in McLuhan’s thinking here:

  1. The understanding of any cultural phenomenon can be achieved only by an analysis, like that of chemistry regarding the material world, that applies to all such phenomena, regardless of where or when they are found.7 
  2. The understanding of anything must involve an equal understanding of what it is not — but might have been. Actualities must be understood in relation to their possibilities.8 This implicated what McLuhan called “multi-levels of simultaneous presentation“.
  3. The understanding of the complete universe of psychological phenomena cannot be made by taking it entire (“Lewis Carroll’s idea of a map of the scale of one mile to the mile”), or by the reduction of the whole to some simplicity (as has been attempted forever, like Thales’ water) — the two extremes of ‘matching‘.9 Instead, an understanding of the complete universe of psychological phenomena must be ‘made‘ through a self-conscious reduction that is acknowledged from the outset as less than ‘fully true’ (and exactly therefore, subject to future investigation). For such an understanding, the necessary reduction it makes — like the reduction of a liquid by boiling that may be stopped at different points with different results — is necessarily questionable. “Philosophic agreement is not necessary” — or permitted!
  4. The initiation of such investigation does not depend on truth (although individual thinkers may well mistakenly believe that they are discovering truth), but only on the collective determination to begin and continue investigation on some agreed basis — an agreed basis that approaches every individual or social act of human being as “an observable, intelligible, and controllable situation.”
  5. Truth in this case (as exemplified in all the hard sciences) is just the open collective investigation of what are known to be finite samples by finite methods. Some final consolidation (whatever that might be) is neither possible nor desired.
  6. Nostalgia for finality (which is manifested also by regret at its loss) tracks the continuing grip of the Gutenberg galaxy on our innards (a variation of inwards) — which extend, as always, also outwards.
  1. ‘Philosophy’ here and in the following instance stands in for all the disciplines (psychology, anthropology, sociology, etc) that undertake to ‘understand’ human being.
  2. For further discussion, see A medium is the sum total of all its impact. The field of chemistry is the physical world in all its forms. McLuhan contemplated a similar field of media that would cover human experience in all its forms.
  3. McLuhan citation from Dorson’s American Folklore.
  4. About to be blanketed — since nothing at all of human being falls outside the blanket of “the inherited traditions of the community, whatsoever forms they take.”
  5. See The goal of science for some thoughts on the Scylla and Charybdis of this too little light (“obliterate the cultural scene”) vs “too much light”.
  6. See A medium is the sum total of all its impact.
  7. Regardless of where and when = spacetime independence. Chemical elements in the early universe, billions of light years away in time and space, are not different from elements here and now (although subject to very different conditions, of course).
  8. Heidegger’s Introduction to Sein und Zeit (1927) concludes: “Higher than actuality stands possibility. We can understand phenomenology only by seizing it as a possibility.” (Höher als die Wirklichkeit steht die Möglichkeit. Das Verständnis der Phänomenologie liegt einzig im Ergreifen ihrer als Möglichkeit.)
  9. The two extremes: all is all (and nothing less) vs all is one (and nothing more).

“Understanding is not a point of view”

Sensibility is inclusive and precedes analytic awareness (Explorations 8, #17, 1957)

We cannot transcend our “flat earth” view of media so long as we rely on private impressions at a particular time and place. The meaning and effect of a medium is the sum total of all its impact upon psyche and society. (McLuhan to Harry Skornia, July 6, 1964Letters 305)

 In McLuhan’s letter to The Listener, August 11, 1971 (Letters 435):

The private point of view (…) is detached and non-corporate. (…)  Understanding is not a point of view.1 

Similarly in ‘The Argument: Causality in the Electric World’ (1973):

Understanding Is Neither a Point of View nor a Value Judgment

The Gestalt switch or paradigm shift that has to be made to initiate (an) Understanding (of) Media is captured here and can well be described as “the medium is the message”. The individual point of view as the de-tached stand-ard of truth must be give up in favor of the corporate medium. This involves a triple fundamental change at once: (1) change in what is understood as “the medium as such”, (2) change in what is understood of the range of “the medium as such” and (3) change in the place of the individual within that range.

Understanding Media cannot be initiated, this is to say, without the fitting (1) objective and (3) subjective focus — with ‘fitting’ understood (2) within the complete range of its possibilities. Since “understanding is not a point of view”, the required focus cannot be achieved except by the whole person in the whole medium.

Focus is not a point, but a complex. The medium is the message. The gap is where the action is. Understanding is not a point of view.

While some few individuals have long been able to achieve this tour de force, this exemplary turning,2 establishing it within a general program of education and social being has proved fatally beyond us. The tower of babel (la tour de Babel).3 No one is about to out-think Plato and yet how far have we advanced in 2500 years in the practical application of his insights? Meanwhile untold millions have died in the throes of the resulting horrors. Saturno devorando a su hijo

The astonishing amount of energy expended in McLuhan’s incessant speaking, writing and traveling must be understood as a passion engaged in this age-old educational struggle, the “ancient quarrel” that is implicated in the attempt to initiate, at last, a general understanding among humans of human being. The medium that is the message.

  1. A March 24, 2020 tweet from Andrew McLuhan shows an annotation of this maxim made by McLuhan on the first page (‘Preface to the Third Printing’) of Corinne McLuhan’s copy of Understanding Media:
    Since McLuhan’s other uses of the phrase date from the early 1970s, this one probably does as well.
  2. Tour‘ in tour de force is from French tourner, ‘to turn’.
  3. Tour‘ in tour de Babel is from Latin/Greek turris/τύρρις, ‘tower’.

On the subliminal 1

Electronic media (…) abridge space and time and single-plane relationships, returning us to the confrontation of multiple[-plane] relationships at the same moment. (…) The multilayered montage or “transparency,” with its abridgement of [sequential] logical relationships, is as familiar in the cave painting as in cubism. (Myth and Mass Media, 1959)1 

this fusion and telescoping of phases of process becomes a kind of explanation or mode of intelligibility. (Myth and Mass Media)

McLuhan had always been interested in the subliminal working of advertising and of other sorts of education outside the classroom like comics and the movies. This was the “classroom without walls”. But in the later 1950’s he became interested in the subliminal in a new way.

For 500 years our idea of efficacy and efficiency was rooted in the technology of explicitness. To make happen and to explain scientifically have both meant the consecutive spelling out of consequences, one at a time. In the electronic age we enter the phase of the technology of implicitness in which by grasp of total field relationships we package information and deliver messages on many levels, all in an instant. (‘The Subliminal Projection Project’, The Canadian ForumDecember, 1957)

He now realized that the subliminal was not only something we needed to become aware of throughthe consecutive spelling out of consequences”. This latter sort of investigation could certainly expose subliminal messages suggested by ads (for example) and could therefore contribute to consumer insight. But such ‘subliminal’ messages were potentially fully conscious and this was, indeed, just what study of them aimed to bring about: the conversion or “spelling out” of the subliminal into the “consequence” of conscious awareness.

But the subliminal could also to be investigated as being part of “total field relationships (…) on many levels, all in an instant.” And this was an entirely different matter.

Compare brain chemistry.2 The subliminal working of molecules in the brain is not something to be brought into consciousness in the same way as the exposure of hidden messages in ads. Instead, that molecular working can certainly be investigated in labs, and even be imaged through microscopy or MRI, but the object of this sort of highly conscious endeavor is not at all to bring that brain activity into the consciousness with which we go about our daily business. Indeed, the former can never become part of the latter because its working takes place, instantaneously, on a different level. As McLuhan put it, we have to deal here with “many levels, all in an instant”.  The different level of brain biochemistry is essentially subliminal — but not for that reason hidden from fully conscious investigation. Indeed, it is open to investigation only as subliminal.

At roughly the same time that he began to reconceptualize the subliminal in this way as “implicitness”, McLuhan formulated the phrase (or the admonition): “the medium is the message”. And these were closely linked. The electric medium (“a new codification of experience collectively achieved by new work habits and inclusive collective awareness”) through which we have particle physics, genetics and modern medicine is inherently multi-level, simultaneous and therefore (combining these two) ‘all at once’. In many different sciences, this model of understanding — this medium, this “mode of intelligibility” — is taken for granted. Of course our bodies and brains work through biochemical interactions, and of course they do so simultaneously with our every action and thought, and of course this takes place on a different level from our conscious attention, and of course this does not mean that this molecular work cannot be investigated consciously but instead means that it can. But this is a new sense of the subliminal that is only a few centuries old (at least as a practical matter), which has in that time revolutionized every field into which it has been introduced.3

Now in the later 1950’s McLuhan proposed that this multilevel simultaneous electric medium of explanation be brought to bear also in the humanities and the social sciences. Further, he proposed that we initiate this transformation first of all by — Understanding Media.

  1. The order of these sentences from ‘Myth and Mass Media‘ has been reversed. McLuhan enlarged on new media in this essay as follows: “Any one of our new media is in a sense a new language, a new codification of experience collectively achieved by new work habits and inclusive collective awareness. (…) The collective skills and experience that constitute both spoken languages and such new languages as movies or radio can also be considered (…) as static models of the universe. But do they not tend, like languages in general, to be dynamic models of the universe in action? As such, languages old and new would seem to be for participation rather than for contemplation or for reference and classification.” Both “static” and “dynamic” at once, the new media, like the new sciences of the last two centuries, have learned how to build upon the multiplicity of time.
  2. Explorations 8, #8: “the rise of field theory in physics now has its medical counterpart in Dr. Hans Selye’s stress view.”
  3. Only a few centuries old at least as a practical matter — because one would have to look carefully at figures like Aristotle and Leibniz (for example) to see how they understood “implicitness” long ago. Centuries or millennia before such insight could be put to practical use, they may well have understood it better than we do.

Und so weiter! (the gap)

In his handwritten letter to Harry Skornia from November 21, 1958, McLuhan used the German phrase “und so weiter!”

This followed on from the sentence: “TV image is not contained in space but makes its own.”

“Und so weiter” is German for ‘and so on’ or ‘et cetera’. In fact, a few weeks later in another letter to Skornia, from December 16, 1958, McLuhan concluded a list of points with “etc., etc., etc……..”.

The point he was making in both these instances was both funny and profound.

Funny, because he was using the very formula for the Gutenberg era, as seen in lines of print, assembly lines, railway lines — namely, ‘und so weiter’, ‘etc., etc., etc……..’ — to implicate the very formula of the Marconi era, as seen in bits of data, namely:

0-space-1/space/1-space-0/space/0-space-1/ — und so weiter!1

Profound, because he was indicating that the Gutenberg era could not have arisen without an implicit understanding of the spatial notion of the Marconi era that would overthrow it.2 

the visual lineality of scribal and print cultures really includes the anal-oral axis, with strong anal stress, of course. (Explorations 8, #9)

Lines of print cannot function without the implicit understanding that any unit is both different from and related to the units before and after it. But the space of this ‘identity and difference’ between units was not theorized or even recognized in the Gutenberg era. It was “the missing link”. Recognition and theorization would come only with the Marconi era and particularly with the development of digital technologies. 

The distinctive difference between the ‘eras’ — or ‘galaxies’ as McLuhan came to call them to get away from the chronological time implicated in ‘eras’ — lay in their understanding (or not) of the nature and time (Sein und Zeit!) of the ineluctable intervening space. As McLuhan would come repeatedly to insist: “the gap is where the action is!”


  1. McLuhan, Myth and Mass Media (1959): “the spot news of the telegraph press really acts like the yes-no, black-white dots of the wirephoto in creating an inclusive world image.”
  2. One all important implication to this suggestion was that all chronological ‘eras’ are always subject, consciously or not, to all of the galaxies of the interior landscape — “all at once”!

From world to worlds

Rimbaud invented the newspaper landscape poem in 1870, giving the world a new art-form which provided luminous interpretation of the new technology. (McLuhan, ‘The Subliminal Projection Project’, Canadian Forum, December, 1957)1 

McLuhan in a handwritten letter of 21 November, 1958, to Harry Skornia:

Big insight in New York recently talking with André Girard, painter who works with CBS and NBC.  Pointed out how TV image resembles stained glass image — Image is defined by light through not light on.  This all came home fast to my work on space changes in poetry and painting from 12th century to the present. TV image is not contained in space but makes its own.2

The work McLuhan was referencing here was his 1955 essay in Explorations 4‘Space, Time, and Poetry’3 and particularly this passage from it:

The revolutionary switch from the outer space of Romantic poetry to the inner spaces of symbolist art meant the discovery of the simultaneity of many times and many spaces in the inner landscapes of the mind.

Combined with McLuhan’s November notes to Skornia, a series of reversals were recorded. Not media in world, but worlds of media. Not singular space but plural spaces. Not the “outer space” of the exterior landscape but the “inner spaces” of the interior landscape. Not one time after another in  chronological time, but “the simultaneity of many times”. And all these “revolutionary switch[es]” were captured for McLuhan in the reversal of perception determined “not by light on but by light through“. 

These inversions had enormous appeal to McLuhan — “makes me tingle all over” — because they hinted at a possible way out of the cul-de-sac into which humanity had stumbled. In ‘Space, Time, and Poetry’ he described this fate as follows:

Has technology adopted as its province the entire human psyche and the earth which it inhabits? Are there [not] sufficient signs that technological man is prepared to manipulate, as his matter, both earth and spirit? Have the ancient boundaries between art and nature been erased? Since the mass production of the book began in the 16th century and with the later arrival of the popular press, magazine, movie, radio and television, it has been a tendency for the media to act less as a bridge between the individual and various segments of the outer world than for them to usurp4 the function of that outer world. The new media have blurred the boundaries of inner and outer. The omnipresence of news and views has merged man’s inner and outer life. Uninhibited mechanization is totalitarian at many levels.5

The totalitarian grasp of the media was manifested in many areas: the control of consumption and therefore of distribution through advertising; the control of news and therefore of politics through propaganda; above all, control of reality and therefore of access to religion and art and tradition — since these function (if at all) only as treating ‘reality’.6

McLuhan’s programmatic response to this totalitarian threat amounted to a restatement of the goal he had taken up from Sigfried Giedion in 1943, namely, the need to specify the symphonic interplay animating the humanities and the technological sciences in their seemingly only antagonistic contemporary manifestations. As he continued in ‘Space, Time, and Poetry’

A few Europeans like Le Corbusier and Giedion have undertaken to verbalize our technology for us. A few of our artists such as Poe, Henry James, Pound, and Eliot have in reverse order undertaken to technologize7 the traditional verbal world of the European.
There does exist, then, a two-way bridge between the traditional and technological worlds which are at war in Western culture. But it has been officially ignored or condemned. To travel this bridge requires of the traveller an acquaintance with the language and techniques of [the tradition] on the one hand, and of the language and techniques of [technology] on the other.8 Few are prepared to acquire both languages and so the war between these worlds continues, waged witlessly in classroom and market-place alike (…) As technology advances, verbalization declines — verbalization, that is to say, of the esthetic or human meaning and implications of technology. It needed a great poet-painter [on the “two-way bridge” between oral poetry and and the visual painting] like Wyndham Lewis to bring the English mind ([at least] some of it) to the verbal level of awareness of [the technology of] this century.9 

However, none of the attempts of Le Corbusier, Giedion, Poe, Henry James, Pound, Eliot, Lewis, Dostoevsky and Dickens, all named in the essay, and doubtless many others who might have been named, beginning already with Heraclitus and Plato, had succeeded in delineating the required bridge. Or, at least, of communicating its delineation. A new campaign to this end needed to be mounted in some new direction.

In this 1955 essay McLuhan made several suggestions to be probed: 

Poe and Dickens, however, made their move not at the privileged level of [individual] art consciousness (…) [but] in the new conditions of collective consciousness from which sharp individual articulation had disappeared or in which it was insignificant

This was to replay an assertion from his ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’ lecture from the previous year:

human languages themselves are the greatest of all works of art beside which the works of Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Shakespeare are minor variations. English or any other language is itself a massive organization of traditional experience providing a complex view of the world. Today our increasing knowledge of the languages of primitive cultures has made it easy to observe how language itself is the principal channel and view-maker of experience for men everywhere.

But in this 1954 passage McLuhan still appealed to “the world”, apparently singular, even if he was clear that access to ‘it’ was mediated by “languages”, plural, as “the principal channel[s] and view-maker[s] of experience for men everywhere.” To understand the “organization of traditional experience”, or any experience, it was therefore necessary to understand the functioning of “languages” or, as this might be put, of “language itself” (just as the key to an understanding of the chemical elements is to perceive the structure of the ‘element itself’).

With the reversals recorded in 1958, McLuhan would now suggest that consideration should be made, not of the mediations of world engendered by language, but instead the engendering of worlds through media working as languages. So he now conceived that the medium was the message such that the great need was to isolate “the medium itself”. And the way to do this might lie in the analysis of media as languages having a new kind of “grammar”. Hence: “Grammars of the Media“.    

McLuhan was making a series of recommendations, above all to himself: come away from world singular; come away from the exterior world; come away from one sense (the eye or the ear); come away from one tradition (the humanities or technology); come away from individual cognition to “the new conditions of collective consciousness from which sharp individual articulation ha[s] disappeared”. These indicated a pathway he would attempt to follow leading up to the publication of Understanding Media in 1964.

Near the end of his long December 16, 1958, letter to Skornia, he put the demands of this way — to which his own investigations would have to conform — as follows:

For the media as such are art forms shaped by collective skills and experience. They are new languages whose grammar and syntax we must learn and teach if we are to hoick ourselves out of the bathos of illiteracy into which their sudden onset has shoved us. 

  1. McLuhan’s second sight can be seen in action here: “luminous interpretation” looks ahead to “light through” a full year later, but at the time he probably had little notion what the phrase might mean or why he was deploying it. A further passage from the same Canadian Forum article, for all the world directed to the sleepers among us, may in this context be seen to apply in a different way to McLuhan himself: “A subject like subliminal projection is thus a red-herring which encourages the inattentive suddenly to snap to attention while they glimpse a cultural march-past of facts and figures which they should have mastered decades earlier.”
  2. Parts of this note replicated one sent to Skornia a few days earlier on November 18. The earler note may have been the first time McLuhan mentioned “light through“: “Big break-through in insight into TV came in NYC via André Girard, the painter who works for CBS and NBC. In a word, key fact about TV is that image is defined not by light on but by light through, exactly as stained glass principle of art form.  Makes me tingle all over just to see those words because very big matters hinge on this fact.  Opens up understanding fast. Painting of Rouault based on this subliminal awareness of new media.”
  3. This may have been the piece Sam Becker referenced a month later in a December 23 1958 letter to Skornia recommending that the NAEB funding proposal for the Understanding Media project include a bibliography of McLuhan’s writings “especially that wonderful paper he did in Explorations.” This was a month after McLuhan mentioned the essay to Skornia in his November 21 letter. Skornia may have followed up by circulating copies to the research committee headed by Becker.
  4. Typo in the Explorations text which has ‘usury’.
  5. Compare McLuhan in his 1957 Canadian Forum article: “Man has acquired a vast new inflated status but he has thereby become dirigible (steerable, directable) in several senses. As we take for granted knowledge not of segments but of total field relationships in personal and political existence alike, we also acquire directive or make-happen powers at many levels. (…) Automation means ultimate personal enslavement.” (The order of these sentences has been reversed.)
  6. McLuhan’s Catholicism must be understood in this context. God and religion have lost any claim to reality in a certain medium; but that medium is thoughtless in many ways — especially in its claim to be singular and therefore necessary. Other media entail other realities. McLuhan came to his conversion simply by seriously entertaining multiple realities and considering their grounds and entailments. But to do this demands going “through the vanishing point” (since between realities there is no reality) and McLuhan research, like the world in general, has been unable to meet this necessity.
  7. By “technologize” here McLuhan does not mean to transform into technology or even to transform by technology. He means something like ‘to formulate in terms that work as well for the arts as for technology’. This is the “reverse order” from the attempt of  Le Corbusier and Giedion ‘to formulate in terms that work as well for technology as for the arts’.
  8. McLuhan has: “To travel this bridge requires of the traveller an acquaintance with the language and techniques of (the oral world of) poetry on the one hand, and of the language and techniques of painting, architecture, and the visual world on the other.” This formulation was to come away from the tradition/technology contrast he was drawing in most of the essay to the isomorphic contrast between ear and eye and between oral poetry and “the visual world”. McLuhan’s pathway at this crucial decade of his career, 1955-1964, amounted to the ever-repeated twisting of the kaleidoscope of all these terms in the hope that they would come into focus. Later in Space, Time, and Poetry’ he would offer: “Book culture, which was all that came to America from Europe, was an excellent matrix for technological development, but proved mainly useless in educating eye and ear to emotional literacy about technology.” This brought eye and ear together from their opposition earlier in the essay (and as just cited in this note). A two-way bridge between them was just as possible as one between tradition and technology. Indeed, the last words of McLuhan’s essay named this possibility as “the union of the visual and acoustical space in a new space-time poetry.”
  9. An October 8, 1959, letter from McLuhan to his friend Wilfred Watson (co-author of From Cliché to Archetype), put the point at stake here nicely: “Is not the artist one who lives perpetually on this borderland (…) between technology and experience, between mechanical and organic form? And when a time or a culture is similarly poised between the new technology and traditional experience is not that the moment of maximal creativity for that culture?  And are not we today, in every field, so poised? And understanding such principles would it not be possible to perpetuate that moment of maximal poise by educational arrangement?” This would be to institutionalize, he continued, “the spirit of play which is necessary to maintain (such) poise between worlds of sensibility.” (Letters 257)

McLuhan on Burroughs

In 1964, the same year that Understanding Media appeared, McLuhan published a review of two of William Burroughs’ novels, Naked Lunch (1959) and Nova Express (1964).1 Here are excerpts from McLuhan’s review:

  • We have made our environment out of our own nervous systems.2    
  • Each technological extension involves an act of collective cannibalism. The previous environment with all its private and social values, is swallowed by the new environment and reprocessed for whatever values are digestible.3  
  • During the process of digestion of the old environment, man finds it expedient to anesthetize himself as much as possible. He pays as little attention to the action of the environment as the patient heeds the surgeon’s scalpel. The gulping or swallowing of Nature by the machine was attended by a complete change of the ground rules of both the sensory ratios of the individual nervous system and the patterns of the social order as well. Today, when the environment has become the extension of the entire mesh of the nervous system, anesthesia numbs our bodies into hydraulic jacks.4
  • The moment one achieves this environmental state all things and people are submitted to you to be processed. Whether a man takes the road of junk or the road of art, the entire world must submit to his processing. The world becomes his “content.”5
  • The vision of the city as a physiological and psychic extension of the body he [Baudelaire in Fleurs du Mal] experienced as a nightmare of illness and self-alienation. Wyndham Lewis, in his trilogy The Human Age, began with The Childermass. Its theme is the massacre of innocents and the rape of entire populations by the popular media of press and film.
  • There is no privacy and no private parts. In a world in which we are all ingesting and digesting one another there can be no obscenity or pornography or decency. Such is the law of electric media which stretch the nerves to form a global membrane of enclosure.
  • The power of the image to beget image, and of technology to reproduce itself via human intervention, is utterly in excess of our power to control the psychic and social consequences.
  • It is the medium that is the message because the medium creates an environment that is as indelible as it is lethal.
  1. ‘Notes on Burroughs’, Nation, 28 December 1964, pp 517-519. It is noteworthy that Burroughs’ grandfather, after whom he was named, made the Burroughs family fortune through the invention of the adding machine — a step on the way to the complete outering of the human nervous system. A newspaper article from 1890 reports: “William S Burroughs, a young St Louisan, who ten years ago did not know he had mechanical genius enough to use a file, has perfected in a strong, durable, compact machine of 2,165 pieces, an adjunct to the counting house that is already in successful operation in fifty banks. It is an adding-machine which is said to work more rapidly and more correctly than the most expert accountant.” Like T.S. Eliot (on whom McLuhan wrote many essays, including one on Eliot’s St Louis connection), Burroughs (1914-1997) was born in St Louis where McLuhan taught from 1937 to 1944.
  2. Before the last centuries, most tools — the great exception being language — extended the physical capabilities of humans. But with the new media ways were found to replicate the internal networks of the senses and of conscious and unconscious mentation. The effects of these innovations may still be too close to us for definitive study, but the irritation they introduce into the individual and social body is plain. Here is McLuhan in 1962: “In our time, instead of putting out this or that organ such as feet into wheels or (…) our skin into city walls, we have projected our brains and nerves outside. Telegraph, radio, television, telephone really are extensions of our central nervous system, not of our physical organs. We’re putting our central nervous system, our most intimate selves, outside (…) These new forms — television and radio — are new languages. They’re huge extensions of ourselves which enable us to participate in one another’s lives, much as a language does. But these forms lay down their own ground rules. (…) Now, when we put our nerves outside, we become of course vulnerable to the nth degree; in fact, we barely survive from day to day. Mere existence becomes one of perpetual anxiety. At least while we had our physical organs outside to protect the central nervous system, we had a relatively low-geared comfortable life which we like to call “the olden days.” We now have an unimaginably harassed one by putting our nerves outside ourselves; it is like living without a skin.” (‘Prospect’, Canadian Art, # 81, 1962) The order of the passages cited here has been changed.
  3. ‘Values’ here echoes ‘social values’ earlier in the sentence. McLuhan’s ever-repeated point was that social values are grounded in a specific environment and are in great danger when that environment is undermined and so disappears as ground. It would doubtless have been more accurate to say that the previous environment is reprocessed for whatever the new environment finds digestible in it, not only its values.  But as is not unusual in McLuhan, he sacrificed a general point for a particular one.
  4. Why “hydraulic jacks”? Because this is a “a world in which we are all ingesting and digesting one another”. As “hydraulic jacks” we enact the penetration and fragmentation of the old forms of identity which supported what each of us once were.
  5. When everything is “content”, a dissolution into nothing is precipitated. Nietzsche: “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!!” (‘History of an Error’ in Twilight of the Idols). “The true world” was a world that was there before all consideration of how it was seen. That world no longer existed. There was nothing that was not what it was by being seen in some particular way. But with the destruction of “the true world”,  Nietzsche saw, also the “apparent” world is abolished — for how was it seen?

Grammars of the Media

Beyond general discussions, the first concrete step towards the NAEB Understanding Media funding proposal (submitted to the US Department of HE&W, Office of Education, March 27, 1959) was a short composition called ‘Grammars of the Media1 which McLuhan sent to Skornia on October 28, 1958:

Grammars of the Media
Having long been engaged in exploring the characters of the various media of communication, I have become convinced that what is needed is a series of Grammars of the Media. A “grammar of a medium” like English or Latin means a codified awareness of the powers and properties of the medium. And the advantage of such codification is its speed and precision in teaching and imparting the special powers of the medium.

Today the young are confronted daily with several media besides that of their mother tongue. The absence of any grammar or articulated awareness of these new media is a source of weakness and confusion both for teacher and student alike, for we are attempting the conscious articulation and instruction of formal education in only one medium — that is, English. More to the point, however, is the fact that the medium of English is recognized as existing only on the written or printed plane.

The fact of being confronted daily with several media has begun to impress upon observers the strange fact that the medium is itself the message. So that we are beginning to understand why a written message is so very different from the same information when spoken or when pictorialized. After four centuries of the virtual monopoly of the printed form, we are now in a situation in which more information is moved by electronic means than by the print medium. That is to say that on the one hand our existing educational establishment is faced with the threat of obsolescence, and on the other hand that our

educators are doing nothing at all to articulate or educate awareness of the newly dominant media.

Grammars of all media in concert (including the medium of print)2 are needed, first, to protect and transmit our great stake in the forms and values of the printed word, and equally to foster enlightened use and control of the much more powerful electronic media.  An X-ray unit can get very hot but is not a satisfactory space heater.

Perhaps the overall situation can be expressed this way. About 7500 years ago the phonetic alphabet enabled men to arrest, observe, and spell out a great variety of mental and verbal motions. Yet the peculiar powers and properties of the phonetic technology have in themselves gotten about as little educational attention as have the unique powers and properties of print or the TV image. Educators have used these things as audio-visual aids in varying degrees but without specific attention to their effects on the habits of perception and judgement. Today, however, we cannot afford this easy-going unconcern because the peculiar powers of print, telegraph, photo, TV, movie, typewriter, gramophone, and tape are in strong and jarring conflict. Their constant co-presence has created a situation unknown before, a situation far richer educationally than ever before, yet so confused that the danger is that we smother all the media by their unstudied and uncoordinated expressions.

Right off, this situation amounts to a sort of national and even global classroom without walls. It had been the glory of

Gutenberg that he gave us a class-room with walls and curricula with boundaries. Until his mechanization of the handicraft of writing it had been unthinkable that students and readers everywhere could have almost simultaneous access to exactly repeatable data. 
It was this exactly repeatable character that made possible the modern classroom, so remote in kind from the student pattern of antiquity and the middle ages.

Print, moreover, had a lineal and segmental bias which quickly invested the minds and attitudes of educators with a new vision and grasp of many problems and possibilities which had been inaccessible to awareness or solution before print. And as we marched on to a realisation of these new goals the antecedent forms of awareness and education simply collapsed and were forgotten. Today, however, we are scarcely ready to accept a similar collapse of all that has been achieved by print and segmental analysis. For our legal and legislative institutions, as well as our schools and colleges, stand on the foundations built by the printed word. Yet the nuclear and electronic forms of imparting information today are wholly destructive of the mechanized and industrial civilization that we have so painfully achieved via print.

At present we are aware of the nuclear clash with lineal education only in the form of the decline of attention in the classroom and in the intense rivalry created by the out-of-class offerings. This, of course, is immediately the area of challenge to educational broadcasting. It needs the most careful study in media terms rather than in the form of program and curriculum content. Exact knowledge

of the educational power exerted by a medium, quite apart from any particular content, becomes necessary when a society is using widely a variety of media at the same time. So long as educational procedures are conducted in only one or two media, such analysis is less insistently indicated. Or so long as the young are not exposed to such a variety of media the formal stress of educational procedure can be effectively confined to one or two media.

Formal education in the middle ages was confined to a few people and to the medium of Latin. But after print Latin could not contain even the basic information flow. And as soon as codified information moved into the vernacular media it became necessary to educate the student in the grammar and powers of these media.

Such is, in an unexpectedly new manner, the case again today. Highly codified and patterned information is available ’round-the- globe’ and ’round-the-clock’ in a variety of media. Most decisive of all factors in lending character to this new information structure is the basic fact of the simultaneous, which is inevitable in any electronic structure. And as any business organization is aware, the time factor in the information flow entirely determines the inter-personal patterns of the organization. A slow-moving memorandum set-up will enclose each member of the personnel in a private office space. Telephone and telegraph will tend to send all personnel out into a common space such as “the partners room” in a stock brokerage. For the speed of decision calls for constant face-to-face processing of data.

Electronic information-flow strongly impels people to assume oral and face-to-face relations at all times in teaching and learning. Moreover, it just as strongly throws the load of communication in a do-it-yourself direction. The natural and discriminating consumer habits of patient attention fostered by print and reading, get short shrift from the electronic media which cast the “viewer” increasingly in a “do-it-yourself” role. 
Here, for example, is the explanation why the new poetry, music, and painting are so unintelligible to those trained in the earlier consumer habits. For the new arts , like the new media, expect the audience to be co-author, and co-producer. And students now refuse the docile consumer role in the classroom.

Until, therefore, the psychic geography, as it were, of the world of the new media has been discerned and described, educators are going to be an elite corps without maps or strategy. The first step towards this goal could be a manual of grammars of the media.

  1. In a letter to Walter Ong from September 21, 1957, McLuhan noted: “Am giving a private course this Fall to 30 secondary school teachers on the Grammars of the Media.” (Letters, 251)
  2. The bracketed insertion of “including the medium of print” is original to McLuhan.

Defending the print medium in 1958

One theme, Harry, of which I am increasingly aware is the new problem of [maintaining] continuity in a world of accelerating change.1

Grammars of all media in concert (including the medium of print)2 are needed, first, to protect and transmit our great stake in the forms and values of the printed word, and equally to foster enlightened use and control of the much more powerful electronic media. (Grammars of the Media, October 1958) 

It is all too common to find McLuhan dismissed or praised as an uncritical champion of electric culture. This is often combined with the view that he rejected the book medium out of hand. In fact, however, McLuhan went from being a champion of the book3 as the foundation of culture (into the late 1940s) to being a champion of culture via the simultaneity of all media including the book.4

He expressed this view many times in the later 1950s, the time when he was attempting to get clear what “the medium is the message” implied for education, business, research, and, indeed, for all facets of life without exception. (McLuhan first used the phrase “the medium is the message” in May 1958.)

The dis-covery of elementary structure had occurred in chemistry in the course of the nineteenth century in regard to the exterior landscape. Now McLuhan saw the possibility of a similar revolutionary transformation in the investigation of the interior one. Just as chemistry as the language of elements had spread from a few isolated laboratories in England and France to manufacturing, medicine and education around the globe, so McLuhan predicted — and tried desperately to inaugurate himself — “universal education in the languages and values of the media themselves“.5

At the end of May, 1958, McLuhan was an invited speaker at a Conference on Educational Television sponsored jointly by the US Office of Education (a division of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare) and the NAEB. His lecture was titled ‘The Role of Mass Communication in Meeting Today’s Problems‘ and it was immediately published as a Circular (number 574) by HEW.6

Today our natural temptation is to regard the new media as aids or distractions to the older studies. We have not dared to see them as themselves, new art forms which can become direct objects of study.
In his Film as Art, Rudolf Arnheim notes: “The history of human ingenuity shows that almost every innovation goes through a preliminary phase in which the solution is obtained by the old method, modified or amplified by some new feature.”
For us to do this with press, radio and TV would be fatal to our earlier achievement in writing and print, because it leaves to the dynamics of the new media untrammelled license to disintegrate our existing values. If one lesson has emerged in recent decades it is that the Ivory Tower of the artist has [to] become the Control Tower of society. Only by exercising the fullest artistic awareness of these vulgar forms can we maintain the integrity of the earlier forms.

Again, in McLuhan’s October 1958 ‘Grammars of the Media‘:

  • The fact of being confronted daily with several media has begun to impress upon observers the strange fact that the medium is itself the message. So that we are beginning to understand why a written message is so very different from the same information when spoken or when pictorialized. After four centuries of the virtual monopoly of the printed form, we are now in a situation in which more information is moved by electronic means than by the print medium. That is to say that on the one hand our existing educational establishment is faced with the threat of obsolescence, and on the other hand that our educators are doing nothing at all to articulate or educate awareness of the newly dominant media. Grammars of all media in concert (including the medium of print) are needed, first, to protect and transmit our great stake in the forms and values of the printed word, and equally to foster enlightened use and control of the much more powerful electronic media.  An X-ray unit can get very hot but is not a satisfactory space heater.
  • Print, moreover, had a lineal and segmental bias which quickly invested the minds and attitudes of educators with a new vision and grasp of many problems and possibilities which had been inaccessible to awareness or solution before print. And as we marched on to a realisation of these new goals the antecedent forms of awareness and education simply collapsed and were forgotten. Today, however, we are scarcely ready to accept a similar collapse of all that has been achieved by print and segmental analysis. For our legal and legislative institutions, as well as our schools and colleges, stand on the foundations built by the printed wordYet the nuclear and electronic forms of imparting information today are wholly destructive of the mechanized and industrial civilization that we have so painfully achieved via print.

Finally, here he is in a letter to Harry Skornia from December 16, 1958:

  • Outside of the classroom students are faced with a phalanx of technologies which convey great quantities of information with global range and content. The prestige and power of these media are greater by far than those of the older form of printing. And in the presence of these media students are on their own. A world of global educational scope comes disguised as “entertainment”.
  • For the perception and judgement of this new world of experience students receive no training. They are warned that it is passive and vulgar and conformist, and they value it the more accordingly. During the first decades of the Gutenberg era the custodians of manuscript culture sat on a Maginot Line and deplored printing. Printing in turn released the power of the vernaculars as new media and classical humanists deplored these vulgar tongues.
  • This period of lament provides just the time and the tone to inter [ie, bury] the older culture.
  • But today we cannot afford to liquidate and inter the huge establishment of the social and political achievement represented by printing. Yet if we fail to disentangle the dynamics and motivations of the medium of print from the new media we shall have aided in the destruction of the culture and institutions based on printing. It is possible and necessary today to embark on a new educational venture, namely universal education in the languages and values of the media themselves.
  • For teachers to use movie and television in the classroom without awareness of the power these media have to reform our entire sensibilities, is to ape the Trojans in fetching within their walls the wooden horse. We are faced with universal illiteracy with regard to the powers of media as media, and of media as message. (…) For the media as such are art forms shaped by collective skills and experience. They are new languages7 whose grammar and syntax we must learn and teach if we are to hoick ourselves out of the bathos of illiteracy into which their sudden onset has shoved us.
  1. McLuhan to Harry Skornia, March 14, 1959, p 2.
  2. The bracketed insertion of “including the medium of print” was made by McLuhan.
  3. The book = the kind of social and intellectual interaction which the best uses of the book supports and, indeed, demands: the medium is the message.
  4. All media = the kind of social and intellectual interaction which an understanding of all media supports and, indeed, demands: the medium is the message.
  5. Letter to Harry Skornia from December 16, 1958, which is extensively cited in this post above.
  6. Later that same year it was republished in the NAEB Journal for October (18:1), now slightly retitled as ‘Our New Electronic Culture: The Role of Mass Communication in Meeting Today’s Problems’.
  7. Compare ‘Catholic Humanism in Modern Letters’ (1954): “human languages themselves are the greatest of all works of art beside which the works of Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Shakespeare are minor variations. English or any other language is itself a massive organization of traditional experience providing a complex view of the world. Today our increasing knowledge of the languages of primitive cultures has made it easy to observe how language itself is the principal channel and view-maker of experience for men everywhere.”

The Beginnings of Gutenberg Galaxy 7

McLuhan’s Understanding Media project with the NAEB was approved for funding through Title VII of the National Defense Education Act in May 1959. At the end of that month, on May 29, McLuhan wrote Harry Skornia:

Shall spend much of the summer getting things lined up for your [NAEB research] committee so that they can give us maximum aid.  Shall send many memos and suggestions of possible procedures.  Also, the Gutenberg Era can be circulated in mimeo to all of them. Macmillan just wrote asking for it.  I don’t think any better approach to [the] Understanding Media [project] could be developed than the Gutenberg Era MSS.

As shown by references in The Gutenberg Galaxy with dates later than this letter, McLuhan would still do considerable work on the manuscript before it was published in 1962. But by the spring of 1959 The Gutenberg Era — what was to become The Gutenberg Galaxy1 — existed in manuscript form that was complete enough, or at least within sight of being complete enough, for McLuhan to consider showing it to potential publishers and to the NAEB committee that would, at least in prospect, be guiding his project.

In regard to that project, the twin topics of the Gutenberg book were:

  • what happened in history that led to the dis-covery of the understanding of media (including the imperative need for that discovery)?
  • what happened in history that assisted in that dis-covery?

The first was a diachronic or horizontal story, the second a synchronic or vertical one. Like two eyes estimating a distance, or two I’s participating in a dialogue, or two ayes confirming a contract, the two together would both be needed to bring McLuhan’s project into focus.2

  1. The change in title from ‘Era‘ to ‘Galaxy‘ signaled McLuhan’s growing awareness of the question of time to the project of understanding media. He came to see that it was a question of rival mosaics whose relation, although not without a historical dimension, was first of all one of contemporaneous rivalry. An ancient quarrel. All at once. The great trick was to assume by a kind of backwards flip that mosaic which was necessary to ‘put on’ in order to begin an investigation of mosaics. The NAEB research committee, like the McLuhan industry today 40 years after his death, was unable to subject itself to this demand.
  2. The parallel with chemistry is exact. For billions of years, the history of the planet took place, so to say, chemically. But even when humans came to learn how to manipulate that chemistry through cooking, tanning, brewing, etc, and eventually through smelting, they did not understand what they were doing except in terms of practical results: to achieve such and such an end, follow these steps. Ultimately, however, both through evolving practical experience and theoretical considerations taking off from the Greek miracle, the field of chemistry was dis-covered and became subject to investigation. This happened only two centuries ago. Chemistry had always been a possible object of understanding, but this possibility had to be unearthed through a laborious historical process lasting, as it now seems, hundreds of thousand of years. Then, once chemistry was born in our understanding, it could be understood through it both what had always been going on in the world, including in our own bodies, and even beyond our world in the stars — and what in particular had gone on leading to that eventual birth. Understanding media, in McLuhan’s estimation, could be achieved in an analogous way — and had to be achieved if the fruits of civilization where not to be destroyed by our insouciance.

The goal of science 6/25/59

What is especially needed is not so much a theory of advertising and its effects as a critical study of a great variety of particular ads by a diversity of minds using multiple approaches. (Advertising as a Magical Institution, 1952)1

When Alanbrooke discussed strategy with the Americans he was baffled by their preference for global strategy: “again discussion of global strategy which led us nowhere. The trouble is that the American mind likes proceeding from the general to the particular whilst in the problems we have to solve we cannot evolve any sort of general doctrine until we have carefully examined the particular details of each problem.” (Item #21, Explorations 8, 1957)2

like Poe, Mr. Eliot insists on precision achieved by experiment with the art-form used as pilot model. The ultimate causes are tapped in the audience by the art model, the model being used as a control mechanism. The artist here, like the scientist, experiments with the effects of a model until the exact causes are discovered and brought to bear. This method might be called the method of invention itself. And A. N. Whitehead, in Science and the Modern World, pointed out that this fact was the prime discovery of the nineteenth century rather than the discovery of any applied process. For communicators in any medium this method is now indispensable, whether in advertising, in politics, in education, in art. Because a general scattering of shots may not only be wasteful, but it may, in an electronic world of simultaneous effects, touch off unforeseen chains of reaction. The Poe-Eliot method is not only efficient, it is now necessary, and anything less is in fact irresponsible. [For only] in periods or areas when information moved at a pre-electronic pace, [could] the effects of the through-put of information with reference to any given social structure of knowledge and attitudes be counted on to be manageable.3 (Media Alchemy in Art and Society, 1958)4 

In a handwritten letter to Harry Skornia from June 25, 1959, McLuhan put forward some thoughts on science. Part of his point was to locate his NAEB ‘Understanding Media’ project in relation to the sort of ‘normal science’ the NAEB research committee (and on some days also Skornia)5 hoped that the project would quickly begin to practice. For McLuhan, in fundamental contrast, normal science was the goal of the exercise which could not be reached if the assumption were made that its requirements were already in place.

Dear Harry
Perhaps I can clarify a bit more my recently stated questionnaire approach [within the Understanding Media project] in reference to grammars of the media.  [The idea is] to ask in written and oral form:
what is the most obvious and striking power or advantage possessed by your medium (lead pencil, typewriter, radio station) over all other means?
what has your medium done to other media?
what have other media done to yours?
These by way of eliciting observation and anecdote that will reveal the various lines and levels of force operative in any field of relations set up by any medium.
[The ability] to discern and to spell out the lines of force in the world gives us [ordinary] speech, statement, syntax in the first place.  To do this for various segments of reality (physics, chemistry, logic, rhetoric) in a more detailed way is science.  And science in turn produces new media or modes of handling information which like the older languages have their own lines of force and impact for which grammars [of such media]6 or [a] science [of them] can be discerned.
To codify these grammars [in an initial way] or lines of force [as they are unreflectively manifested] in new media must be done by contact with those who are nearest to these media.  But the technicians have no unified procedure of verbalized handling of their experience.  Nor do those closest to the new media have much awareness of the interpenetration of media in man and society.
So Harry, I’m suggesting a descriptive “unified field” approach via particular [unfocused]7 observation and anecdote as the preliminary basis for later [focused] experiment and testing.8

McLuhan made a series of explicit and implicit points:

  • the required science of media was yet to be initiated and would not be initiated at all if the science we have in the rear-view mirror is presupposed as applicable to media
  • one sign of the absence of science was that existing “technicians have no unified procedure of verbalized handling of their experience”
  • conversely, one way to proceed toward science would be to attempt to find a vocabulary which would enable the required unification of designation and so the collective investigation that would be enabled by it
  • since “science in turn produces new media or modes of handling information” and since there is profound “interpenetration of [such] media in man and society” producing revolutionary change in both, the potential of the project to solve currently unsolvable problems was vastly more far-reaching than the NAEB imagined — a prospect that should act as a spur to brave the unfamiliarities on the way to science9
  • another problem that could give direction to the project — like the  designation problem — was the hall of mirrors effect in the fact that “science in turn produces new media or modes of handling information which like the older languages have their own lines of force and impact” (and so on, ad infinitum). The potential for such infinite regress is never absent from human activity, but at the same time does not present an insuperable problem for it. We simply go about our business. A science of media, and particularly a science of sciences, must acknowledge such regress — and endure the finitude which is its motor! We never get to some one fixed foundation for our investigations both because other views are always possible and because our own views are never definitive. Hence, what stands in the way of science can either be too little consciousness of imperfection (like the NAEB notion that the requirements for a science of media were already in place) or too much consciousness of imperfection (like the supposition that while sciences of nature are possible, sciences of human nature are not). McLuhan’s central point to the NAEB was that the passage between this Scylla and Charybdis had to be taken and that it therefore gave an unmistakable signpost of the required way.10
  1. ‘Advertising as a Magical Institution’, Commerce Journal, 1952.
  2.  ‘Churchill Mobilizes English Language’, Explorations 8, item #21, 1957, citing Arthur Bryant, The Turn of the Tide (based on the War Diaries of Field Marshal Viscount Alanbrooke), 1957.
  3. McLuhan: “In periods or areas when information moved at a pre-electronic pace, the effects of the through-put of information with reference to any given social structure of knowledge and attitudes could be counted on to be manageable.”
  4. ‘Media Alchemy in Art and Society’, Journal of Communication, 8:2, 63-67, 1958.
  5. Skornia to William Harley, NAEB President, May 26, 1959: “Still can’t get any 1,2,3 steps out of McLuhan.” This was a month before McLuhan’s June 25 letter discussing different takes on science.
  6. See Grammars of the Media.
  7. McLuhan’s point that the roots of science lie in ordinary speech is to say that focus is so natural to humans that they cannot be without it. There is no language even of gesture without focus. “Particular observation” is, then, unfocused only in relation to the finer focus that is science.
  8. Bold and italics have been added. The underlining is McLuhan’s.
  9. Cf ‘Grammars of the Media‘: “Print (…) quickly invested the minds and attitudes of educators with a new vision and grasp of many problems and possibilities which had been inaccessible to awareness or solution before print.” The same thing happens with the introduction of any medium from spoken language and the use of fire to the internet and nuclear fusion.”
  10. McLuhan’s 1934 UM master’s thesis, 25 years before McLuhan’s note to Skornia, repeated four (!) different times a passage from George Meredith’s Diana of the Crossways (1885): “speeding of us, compact of what we are, between the ascetic rocks and the sensual whirlpools, to the creating of certain nobler races now very dimly imagined” (see Scylla and Charybdis for references and discussion). The man had second sight.

Becker on NDEA Title VII funding

A month after the signing into law of the National Defense Education Act in September 1958, Sam Becker, chairman of the NAEB research committee, attended a Washington conference on the implementation of its Title VII “funding for research in the more effective use of technology for educational purposes”. On October 22 he reported back to Harry Skornia as follows:

This will be a rather hurried exposition of the conference on implementation of Title VII, but I believe there is little time to waste. I believe the NAEB should act as quickly as possible to get a proposal into the works. They have all this money (though only $1.5million rather than the $3million for the first year [as] we discovered only at the last minute. $3million were authorized in the facilitating legislation — however only 1/2 of this was appropriated.) (…) They have all this money and they want to be sure and get it spent by June or they have little chance of getting the $5million for next year. Also they want to give some of their first grants to projects which have some assurance of success and publicity value — again to help assure the $5million for the following year. (…) There were a number of suggestions for research proposals which were made at the meeting. (…) 1. The research proposal should be aimed at answering a significant educational problem — it should deal with central educational matters. 2. Research should promise a conceptual leap in how students learn. (There was constant talk of a “breakthrough” in our knowledge. Again, I think this is important for future dealings with Congress.) 3. Ideally, research projects should grow out of something those proposing it are already doing. 4. In the research proposal it is important to show that it is a cooperative effort of decision makers and researchers — rather than simply one or the other — decision makers who should know their goals and problems, researchers who can do a good job of testing whether the goals are achieved. 5. In the proposal be sure to include a rationale for why it is important to research the particular problem proposed.

The day after the conference, Becker had lunch with one of its HEW organizers, Roy Hall:

He [Hall] had two specific things which he finally told me he would like NAEB to do. Both are research projects for which formal proposals should be made if you wish to do them. The first was to discover the blocks to acceptance of the new media.

Many of Becker’s points must have confirmed Skornia’s existing hunch that a proposal with McLuhan as its lead researcher might obtain a nice piece of the Title VII funding. McLuhan was working on problems that he was sure were of world-historical import, he had breakthroughs several times a day, he had long been working and publishing on the sort of program to be proposed, and he was particularly known for his work on new media and the problems associated with their definition, study and use.

Becker, in contrast, was already leery of McLuhan (the need was for “researchers who can do a good job of testing”) and therefore spent far more of his note on the second idea Hall put forward for the NAEB:

The second project, which I believe that the NAEB is far more able to do, is to do research aimed at discovering the best kinds of equipment, production, performance, etc, for instructional broadcasting. 

Becker would eventually come to mock McLuhan’s project as anything but scientific and that was impossible to understand.1 But it would be a couple years before he ran out of patience and in the meantime he worked with Skornia, the research committee and McLuhan himself to try to bring him into Gutenbergian harness.

  1.  When Becker was contracted in 1960 to do abstracts of projects submitted to HEW,