Author Archives: McEwen

Classroom without walls

We have in our post-literacy come to the age of the classroom without walls. (1969 Counterblast)

As described in First contact with the NAEB, McLuhan’s initial step towards work with the National Association of Educational Broadcasters took place in April 1957. But in the 3 years before this, he had renewed the interest in educational theory and practice that he had pursued in the 1940s (as seen in his 1943 PhD thesis, his 1944 lecture on ‘An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America’ and his 1947 education proposal to Robert Hutchins).1

A decade later, in the mid 1950s, he began to speak of the revolutionary effects of the new media on education, as marked by the catch-phrase “classroom without walls”.

Part of McLuhan’s impetus in this direction was doubtless his discontent with the situation of the humanities and social sciences — and with his own situation in that situation. More and more books, essays, theses, lectures, meetings and courses were flooding the world from these ‘disciplines’: but to what end? Hence his attraction to the work at MIT on cybernetics and to the communications research at Bell Labs. With these there was an objective engagement in stark contrast to the merely subjective, merely personal accumulation of benefits in the academy.

At the same time, and hardly unrelated to that situation in the academy, he saw that among the effects of the new media from comics to LPs to TV was the corrosion of the very foundations of education.  Teachers from kindergarten to grad school lacked direction and students correspondingly sensed a disproportion between what they were learning in school and the world outside it. As a teacher himself, McLuhan felt called to address this confused situation and to do so by taking the sort of field approach that had proved so fruitful in the hard sciences from physics to cybernetics.  

The idea, following Giedion, was to apply a kind of homeopathy where the very thing that was overturning the world — the electric revolution — would be interrogated for a way to right it again.

“Classrooms without walls” passages are given below in chronological order from McLuhan’s writings between 1954 and 1957. These paved the way for his life-changing engagement with the NAEB from 1958 to 1960 (just before McLuhan turned 50):

Erasmus was perhaps the first to grasp the fact that the [print] revolution was going to occur above all in the classroom. He devoted himself to the production of textbooks and to the setting up of grammar schools. The printed book soon liquidated two thousand years of manuscript culture. It created the solitary student. It set up the rule of private interpretation against public disputation. It established the divorce between “literature and life”.2 It created a new and highly abstract culture because it [print] was itself a mechanized form of culture. Today, when the [print] textbook has yielded to the classroom project and [to] the classroom as social workshop and discussion group, it is easier for us to notice what was going on in 1500 [namely, an educational revolution]. (…) Today, [again], when power technology has taken over the entire global environment to be manipulated as the material of art, nature has disappeared [along] with nature-poetry. And the effectiveness of the classroom has diminished with the decline of the monopoly of book-culture. If Erasmus saw the classroom as the new stage for the drama of the printing press, we can see today that the new situation for young and old alike is classrooms without walls. The entire urban environment has become aggressively pedagogic. Everybody and everything has a message to declare, a line to plug.3 (Sight, Sound, and the Fury, 1954)4

What Erasmus saw was that the printed book was to revolutionize education. He saw that the book gave new scope and power to the classroom. What we have to see is that the new media have created classrooms without walls. Just as power technology has abolished ‘nature’ in the old sense and brought the globe within the scope of art, so the new media have transformed the the entire environment into an educational affair. (Notes on the Media as Art Forms, 1954)5

The METROPOLIS today is a classroom6 (…) The [school] classroom [by contrast] is an obsolete detention home, a feudal dungeon. (Counterblast, 1954)

With the arrival of [book] print [around 1500], Erasmus and his humanist colleagues saw exactly what had to be done in the classroom. They did it at once. [By comparison,] with the arrival [300 years later] of the [newspaper] press, nothing was done. (…) Keeping in mind the extraordinary complexity and range of impact of the mere mechanization of writing by Gutenberg and measuring that impact merely by the total change of procedure in the sixteenth century classroom, I think we should try to imagine how sweeping a revolution should have taken place in our classrooms a century ago [with the arrival in the 1800s of the newspaper and its supporting social infrastructure (media) like the steam press and roads]. (An Historical Approach to Media, 1955)7 

Writing was a visualizing of the acoustic which split off or abstracted one aspect of speech, setting up a cultural disequilibrium of great violence. The dynamism of the Western World may well proceed from the dynamics of that disequilibrium. If so, our present stage of media development suggests the possibility of a new equilibriumOur craving today for balance and an end to ever-accelerating change may quite possibly be related to the very possibility of achieving that balance. (…) But it is plain that our new culture is not going to lean (…) on any one means of encoding experience or of representing reality. Already we are accustomed to a concert [or orchestration] of the arts, of the sensuous channels and of the media. And in this respect we shall resemble preliterate and prehistoric societies in the inclusiveness of our awareness.8 That means also that we shall tend as they did toward homogeneity of experience and organization [between individual and society, between subject and object]. Perhaps, therefore, we have in our post-literacy come to the age of the classroom without walls.
It was very hard at first for the contemporaries of Erasmus to grasp that the printed book meant that the main channel of information and discipline was no longer the spoken word or the single language. Erasmus was the first to act on the awareness that part of the new revolution was going to be felt in the classroom. He decided to direct the revolution from the classroom. I think the same situation confronts us. We are already experiencing the discomfort and challenge of classrooms without walls, just as the modern painter has to modify his techniques in accordance with art reproduction and museums without walls. We can decide either to move into the new wall-less classroom in order to act upon our total environment, or to look on it as the last dike holding back the media flood. (…) In such an age with such resources [as ours], the walls of the classroom disappear if only because everybody outside the classroom is consciously engaged in national and international educational campaigns. Education today is totalitarian because there is no corner of the globe or of inner experience which we are not eager to subject to scrutiny and processing. So that if the old-style educator feels that he lives in an ungrateful world, he can also consider that never before was education so much a part of commerce and politics. Perhaps it is not that the educator has been shouldered aside by men of action so much as that he has been swamped by high-powered imitators. If education has now become the basic investment and activity of the electronic age, then the classroom educator can recover his role only by enlarging it beyond anything it ever was in any previous culture. (Educational Effects of Mass Media of Communication, 1956)9

Print evoked the walls of the classroom. (…) The movie and TV [evoked the] classroom without wallsBefore print the community at large was the centre of education. Today, information-flow and educational impact outside the classroom is so far in excess of anything occurring inside the classroom that we must reconsider the educational process itself. The [school] classroom is now a place of detention, not attention. Attention is elsewhere [engaged with the classroom without walls, aka the world outside the school]. (The Media Fit the Battle of Jericho, 1956)10

If “mass media” should serve only to weaken or corrupt our previously achieved levels of verbal and pictorial culture, it will not be because there is anything inherently wrong with these media. It will be because we have failed to master them as new languages in time to assimilate them to our total cultural heritage. (…) All of the new media are so many poetic means of packaging the age-old offerings of human culture. Sooner or later we shall recognize the need to study press, radio, movies, and TV as poetic forms in the classroom. (Classroom TV, 1956)11 

The ways of official literacy do not equip the young to know themselves, the past, or the present. In the schoolroom officialdom suppresses all their natural experience; children of technological man are divorced from their culture, they cease to respond with untaught delight to the poetry of trains, ships, planes, and to the beauty of machine products. They are not permitted to approach the traditional heritage of mankind through the door of technological awareness; this [is the] only possible door for them [and it] is slammed in their faces. The only other door is that of the high-brow.12 Few find it, and fewer [still] find their way back [from it] to popular culture, and to the classrooms without walls that the new languages [of media] have created.13 (The New Languages, 1956)14

Before the printing press, the young learned by listening, watching, doing. So, until recently, our own rural children learned the language and skills of their elders. Learning took place outside the classroom.15 Only those aiming at professional careers went to school at all. Today in our cities, most learning occurs outside the classroom. The sheer quantity of information conveyed by press-magazines-film-TV-radio far exceeds the quantity of information conveyed by school instruction and texts. This challenge has destroyed the monopoly of the book as a teaching aid and cracked the very walls of the classroom so suddenly that we’re confused, baffled. (Classrooms Without Walls, 1957)16  


  1. The twin sources of McLuhan’s early interest in education were Rupert Lodge and Sigfried Giedion. McLuhan had worked closely with Lodge at the University of Manitiba on the latter’s 1934 ‘Philosophy and Education‘ paper and his Cambridge Nashe thesis from 1943 represented a very extended development of its central idea — namely, that education is always in-formed by one of three mutually exclusive foundational structuring principles. Giedion’s Space, Time and Architecture, which McLuhan read just after he had submitted that thesis, argued that modern culture in all its manifestations suffered from a lack of ‘orchestration’. As McLuhan combined these notions from Lodge and Giedion in his 1954 ‘Notes on the Media as Art Forms’: “Every medium is in some sense a universal, pressing towards maximal realization. But its expressive pressures disturb existing balances and patterns in other media of culture. The increasing inclusiveness of our sense of such repercussions leads us today hopefully to investigate the possibilities of orchestral harmony in the multi-levelled drive towards pure human expressiveness.” This need for ‘orchestration’ fit with McLuhan’s notion that modernity suffered from the decline of ‘grammar’ among the foundational trivial arts — a notion he was still developing with ‘Grammars of the Media‘  in 1958.
  2. The divorce between literature and life had already occurred in a relatively minor key with the advent of literacy in Greece. Indeed, some such ‘divorce’ is necessarily implicated whenever an area of life is isolated for focused attention and conceptualization. This cannot be achieved via the ‘rear-view mirror’.
  3. In a way never seen before, everything in 20th century social and political life from motherhood to patriotism had become a product to be manufactured and sold. This introduced a bifurcation between ‘education’ outside the school, where everything was ‘up in the air’, subject to the suspicion of being only “a line to plug”, and inside the school, where everything — what to study and how to study it — was supposedly ‘grounded’. More, any attempt to heal this breach was necessarily seen as one more “line to plug”, thereby introducing a characteristic modern and postmodern complication to the care for social health.
  4. Commonweal, 60:1, April 9, 1954.
  5. Explorations 2April 1954.
  6. As cited above from ‘Sight, Sound, and the Fury’ (1954): “The entire urban environment has become aggressively pedagogic. Everybody and everything has a message to declare, a line to plug. the ads are its teachers.”
  7. Teachers College Record, November 1955.
  8. Much of this passage would later be used in the 1969 Counterblast: “Writing was probably the greatest cultural revolution known to us because it broke down the walls between sight and sound. Writing was a visualizing of the acoustic which split off or abstracted one aspect of speech, setting up a cultural disequilibrium of great violence. The dynamism of the Western world may well proceed from the dynamics of that disequilibrium. If so, our present stage of media development suggests the possibility of a new equilibrium. Our craving today for balance and an end of ever accelerating change, may quite possibly point to the possibility thereof. (…) But it is plain that our new culture is not going to lean very heavily on any one means of encoding experience or of representing reality. Already we are accustomed to a concert of the arts, of the sensuous channels and of the media. And in this respect we shall resemble pre-literate and pre-historic societies in the inclusiveness of our awareness.”
  9. Teachers College Record, March 1956.
  10. Explorations 6,  July 1956.
  11. Study Pamphlets in Canadian Education, #12, 1956.
  12. This was McLuhan’s way, of course.
  13. The first lines of this same paper on ‘The New Languages’: “English is a mass medium. All languages are mass media. The new mass media — film, radio, television — are new languages, their grammars as yet unknown. Each codifies reality differently; each conceals a unique metaphysics.”
  14. Chicago Review, Spring, 1956, also in Explorations 7.
  15. In the 1930s Eric Havelock at UT was describing education in pre-classical Greece in this way. See Havelock, McLuhan & the history of education.
  16. Explorations 7, March 1957.

Classroom TV (1956)

In the early and middle 1950s, the Copp Clark Publishing Company issued a series of ‘Study Pamphlets in Canadian Education’. The 12th of these, issued in 1956 and titled ‘Classroom TV’, was written written by McLuhan.

Classroom TV1

It is very natural today to speak of “audio and Visual aids” to teaching, for we still think of the book as the norm and of other media of sight and sound as incidental.  We also speak of the new media of the press, movies, radio, and TV as “mass media” and think of the book as an individualistic form.

We have good reasons for thinking of the book as individualistic. It is a form which isolates the reader or learner in silence. Yet the printed book was the first product of mass-production — the modern mechanization of an ancient handicraft. This achievement meant that more or less everybody could have the same books. In medieval times it was out of the question for different institutions to have the same books or for students to have copies of the same book for study. Manuscripts, as well as explanations of the text, were dictated to students, and the students memorized as much as possible of both text and commentary.

Under these conditions instruction was almost entirely oral and was done in groups. Before the advent of printing, solitary study was reserved for the advanced scholar. In its beginnings the printed book must have appeared as a visual aid to oral instruction.

Before the printing press made its great revolution in the teaching and learning process, the young learned mostly by listening, watching, and doing. Until recent years, children in our own rural communities learned the language and the lore and skills of their elders in much the same way. Most learning took place outside school and classroom, and only the very few aiming at professional careers ever went to school at all.2

Again today in our highly technological cities a great deal of learning occurs outside the school. The sheer quantity of information conveyed by press, picture magazines, movies, radio, and TV far exceeds the quantity of information conveyed by school books or school instruction. This situation has challenged the monopoly of the book as a teaching aid, and in fact has challenged the very role of the school. It has come upon us so suddenly that we are confused and baffled about what to do. 

In this violently upsetting social situation many teachers naturally view the offerings of the new media as entertainment rather than education. But this view carries no conviction to the student. It is hard to find a classic on our curricula which wasn’t in an earlier time regarded as light entertainment. Nearly all vernacular works were so regarded until the nineteenth century. Many movies on historical subjects are obviously handled with a degree of insight and maturity at least equal to the level permitted in texts for social studies today. Movies such as Olivier’s productions of Henry V and Richard III assemble a wealth of scholarly and artistic skill which reveal Shakespeare at a very high level, yet in a way easy for the young to enjoy. Could it not be said that the movie is to dramatic [stage] representation what the printed book is to the manuscript? It makes available to many people and at many times and places what otherwise would have been restricted to few people at few times and places. The movie, like the book, is a ditto device. TV can show to fifty million people simultaneously the same movie which in theatres would reach only a series of small audiences.

Some people feel that the value of experiencing a book is diminished by its being extended to many minds. This notion is always implicit in the phrase “mass medium” or “mass entertainment”. But it is not a very useful phrase since it obscures the fact that the English language itself is essentially a mass medium. If a language is not the means of inter-personal communication for millions of people, we regard it as unimportant.3 Today we are beginning to realize that the new media are not just mechanical gimmicks for creating worlds of illusion, but new languages with new and unique powers of expression.

One does not require a very extensive acquaintance with English literature to see how profoundly the resources of our language have been shaped and expressed in constantly new and changing ways. Mass-production by the printing press changed not only the quantity of writing, but also the character of language and the relations between author and public. Habits of word order in grammatical construction were changed by the printed form, and with the coming of the power press and the modern newspaper the structure of English syntax was modified even more rapidly.

Radio, talking pictures, and TV have pushed written English towards the spontaneous shifts and freedom of the spoken idiom. And the poets, from Hopkins and Hardy to Eliot and Dylan Thomas, have insisted on bringing the resources of Spoken English to the foreground of poetic effect.

The great voice of Dylan Thomas heard over microphone and LP disc provided the first real experience of poetry for millions of people. These people did not mind that his erudite and witty verse was incomprehensible to them at first. They listened to his poetry as they might have listened to Casals’ cello. Microphone and disc have added a great new dimension to the printed or written word, just as movies and TV have recovered intense awareness of the language of facial and bodily gesture. If these “mass media” should serve only to weaken or corrupt our previously achieved levels of verbal and pictorial culture, it will not be because there is anything inherently wrong with these media. It will be because we have failed to master them as new languages in time to assimilate them to our total cultural heritage.

As these new developments come under a quiet analytic survey, the evidence points to a basic strategy of culture for the classroom. When the printed book appeared, it threatened the oral procedures of teaching. Yet the [book created the classroom as we know it and enabled every student to have the same authors before him simultaneously. Instead of making his own text, his own dictionary, and his own grammar; he could start out with these tools. He could study not one ‘but several languages. But there is a real sense in which the new media today threaten the procedures of this traditional classroom instead of merely reinforcing them. It is customary to answer this threat with denunciations of the unfortunate character and effect of movie and TV entertainment. In the same way comic books were feared and scorned and rejected from the classroom. Their good and had features in form and content, when carefully set beside other kinds of art and narrative, could have become a major asset to the teacher. Where the student interest is already intensely focused is the natural point at which to begin the elucidation of other problems and interests. The educational task is not only to provide basic tools of perception, but also to develop judgement and discrimination to deal with ordinary social experience.

Few students have ever acquired  skill in analysis of newspaper or magazine offerings. Even fewer have any ability to discuss a movie intelligently. To be articulate and discriminating about ordinary affairs and information is the mark of an educated person. Whatever we do about TV in the classroom, we cannot forever dodge the responsibility of training students to evaluate this medium. 

As we face the prospect of TV in the school, it would be misleading to suppose that there is any basic difference between educational and entertainment programmes. This distinction merely relieves people of the responsibility of looking into the matter. It is like setting up a distinction between didactic and lyric poetry on the ground that one teaches and the other pleases. It has always been true that whatever pleases teaches much more effectively. In his great Apologia for Poetrie Sir Philip Sidney wrote that, as opposed to the philosopher, the poet

dooth not only show the way, but giveth so sweet a prospect into the way, as will intice any man to enter into it. . . . He beginneth not with obscure definitions, which must blur the margent4 with interpretations, and load the memory with doubtfulnesse: but he cometh to you with words set in delightful proportion, either accompanied with, or prepared for the well inchaunting skill of musicke; and with a tale forsooth he commeth unto you: with a tale which holdeth children from play, and old men from the chimney corner.

Sidney’s argument is that poetry is not merely an attractive coating for the core disciplines, but that it alone can enlist the appetite for knowledge. And knowledge without appetite for the same is null.

Today, all of the new media are so many poetic means of packaging the age-old offerings of human culture. Sooner or later we shall recognize the need to study press, radio, movies, and TV as poetic forms.5

It is too much to expect that this need will be faced at once. Accordingly we must look at the intermediate state in which there will be occasional use of TV in the classroom.

In Canada the C.B.C. has made two experiments in classroom TV. The first was in 1954 and was described in a published report. Two years earlier, the B.B.C. had offered to selected classrooms twenty programmes dealing with science, geography, current affairs, and industry. The resulting study of their reception and effect led to the recommendation of a regular service of this kind which was then scheduled for 1957-58.

From 1945 to 1951 the British Ministry of Education experimented with school telecasts and then in 1951 began regular programmes (aimed for the most part at secondary schools) four days a week. In the United States the Federal Communications Commission reserved mere than 250 TV channels for educational stations. Some dozens of these channels are now in use providing school and university instruction. Most of the school programmes in the U.S.A. are the result of the collaboration of teachers and students on an amateur basis. The professional services of script-writers, actors, and se-designers have so far been little used.

The two Canadian experiments, in 1954 and in 1956, were inspired both by the earlier experiments outside Canada and by the recognition of “the tremendous impact that television is making on the minds and tastes of the rising generation of viewers. Its effects have been felt in every field of juvenile life — hobbies, homework, sport, reading, social intercourse, manners, and family relations.”

The aim of the experiment was “to determine whether, and to what extent, television could help the teacher in her daily classroom work. Thus it was hoped to find out whether television could take its place alongside the other teaching aids such as radio, films, film strips, and slides, which are already so widely used in Canadian schools.”

Towards this end it was decided to focus on the Ontario curriculum and select two levels, grades 5 and 6 on one hand and grades 7 and 8 on the other. For grades 5 and 6 a programme on How Columbus Navigated was prepared. Next a traffic-safety programme, Look Alert–Stay Unhurt, was brought out, followed by Surface Patterns and Starbuck Valley Winter.

For grades 7 and 8 there was The House of History, a tour of the home of William Lyon Mackenzie, and also Iran from the North, Save Our Soil, and Current Events. The standard of production was professional, using the full resources of the C.B.C. staff and studios.

These programmes were viewed in ordinary classroom conditions, and questionnaires for teachers were prepared to assist in evaluating the experiment. There was a generally favourable response to the broadcasts. The teachers’ comments made such points as these: “Television can help teachers create a climate for learning.” “The lesson was dead — more animation required.” “Leaves pupils with a healthy curiosity.” “Topic did not warrant the time on it.” 

The report mentions that “no attempt was made to survey pupils’ reactions to the programmes, apart from general questions on teachers’ evaluation forms.” This may well have been a mistake since these programmes were in direct competition with the many other TV programmes already familiar to students. These programmes were not regular class instruction but incidental to such instruction. An experiment in direct instruction in some curriculum topic should be made under the same conditions, so that teacher and student reactions could be evaluated. After all, so far as providing a climate for instruction, press, radio, movies, magazines, and TV already constitute a new tropical jungle within which the classroom teacher attempts to carry on teaching as usual. Our classrooms may be said to provide a tenderfoot training for students who are obliged to cope with sabre-tooth problems in their ordinary environment.

Alternatives to the CBC experiments are rapidly being explored in the United States. One of these is closed-circuit TV, which can be used to make the instructor in one class simultaneously available to all the classes in the city, or can be used on a continent-wide service, as the Medical Association used it to instruct doctors about the Salk vaccine. Another alternative is the new technique of recording sight and sound on a single tape; it will make any TV programme or film almost as available and as inexpensive as an LP disc.

In any estimate, TV in the classroom means that the instructors presented will have a classroom of huge scope. Only the most expert teachers will be called on, and they will be obliged to prepare and to process their lessons with a care and consideration that is seldom found or expected in the preparation for a single class. Theoretically one teacher might do all the arithmetic teaching for grade 6 for the whole country. In this way some teachers could become national figures as much as current celebrities of stage and screen. As one wit pointed out, TV is the biggest log ever invented, and Mark Hopkins can now sit at one end and all the students at the other.6

It is also characteristic of the TV medium that instead of leaving the student twenty or thirty feet from the teacher, TV picks him up and puts him in the teacher’s lap where he has a quiet, easy voice speaking right into his ear. Moreover, the minute expressiveness of eye and face becomes much more visible than in the ordinary classroom.

This means that the talents and powers of the individual teacher will have to be carefully studied by the TV producer just as movie producers have always considered the individual excellences and weaknesses of their actors. And this again presents problems to teachers using such TV programmes. Will their own efforts begin to appear, by comparison, trite and puny to their pupils? Will the TV programmes fit into or disrupt their own teaching? Will the pupils become careless about their homework? From these and similar questions and problems of TV in the classroom there emerges the obvious need for close teamwork between the schools and the producers.7

Within the classroom in which the TV programmes occur, it would seem likely that the teacher will be drawn more and more from the blackboard to the student’s elbow. As TV takes up the visual job, the teacher will assume more and more the psychological job of assisting the individual learning process. TV could, then, in one sense take the teacher out of the classroom into a larger world; and in another sense, restore him to a much closer relation to the individual student.

Does TV instruction mean that education will be extended much farther than ever attempted in the present classroom? Does it mean that by virtue of having a higher quality of instruction at the studio end there will be a richer educational result? Does it mean that child and parent will be able to share the same instruction? If the instruction is broadcast to the present type of classroom, will the room teachers become person-to-person tutors rather than lecturers? How far would such changes affect the present supply and quality of teachers? Would high-level instruction received simultaneously by teacher and student enable the room teacher to achieve a higher personal standard?

It would seem that the number of room teachers required would not be affected, but the demands made of their physical and nervous energies might be lessened. Moreover, the opportunities of the teacher to follow TV programme instruction with personal supervision of individual work would increase to the point of becoming the main mode of teaching. And many parents would be able to follow at home the daily broadcast instruction to their children in school.

It may be a great while before any significant proportion of essential and initial instruction is transferred to TV presentation, even in the U.S.A. The purpose of this essay is not to advocate any changes but merely to survey the situation. For those who wish to look further into these matters some pertinent discussions are listed [in the bibliography] on the next page.


  1. Bolding has been added to some passages.
  2. A decade before this, when McLuhan first arrived at UT, he probably saw Eric Havelock’s description of Greek education in just these same terms.  For discussion see Havelock, McLuhan & the history of education.
  3. Therefore the ongoing wholesale destruction of ‘minority’ languages by us mindless modern ‘humans’.
  4. Presumably the margin between ignorance and learning.
  5. McLuhan adds here: “in the classroom”. But the point of such study was, of course, to take the classroom out of the school into the world at large — “classrooms without walls”.
  6. Referring to one of the foremost educators of the day, President James Garfield (1831-1881) expressed his concept of an ideal university as “Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other”. McLuhan returns to the ideal of one-on-one education (which he himself had experienced at Cambridge) later in his essay: “will the room teachers become person-to-person tutors rather than lecturers?
  7. McLuhan was well aware that the presence or absence of “close teamwork” between the academy and the outside world was exactly one of the most important differences between the humanities and social sciences, on the one hand, and the physical sciences on the other.

NAEB grant for “understanding media”

The NAEB “Understanding Media” project, which would commence in September 1959, was notified of its funding by the HEW Office of Education in a letter from May 15, 1959:

‘Schooley’ in the top left referred to Frank E Schooley (1906-1987), professor at the University of Illinois, and the past president of the NAEB. The current NAEB president, William G Harley (1911-1998), was also at the University of Illinois and the director of its radio station.

The note on the right top is from H J (Harry) Skornia (1910-1991), McLuhan’s great supporter and friend, who was the NAEB Executive Director. Skornia, who was cc’d on the letter, directed  that copies go to the NAEB board, to the NAEB research committee and to McLuhan. “Work to be done”!

“Imagine that?”, he asks, ‘what about that’! But with that question mark instead of an exclamation, Harry may also have been addressing those who had doubted that a grant could be won, perhaps including McLuhan and surely including Harry himself to some extent as well. Time unspecified between the past and present, the exfoliated message was: ‘you couldn’t imagine that this could be done? Can you imagine it now’? 

It is noteworthy that the Office of Education apparently had a ‘New Educational Media Branch’ to whom Skornia had persuaded McLuhan to direct the funding request. McLuhan had argued that new media could not be understood alone, but only as first of all belonging to the general field of all media, past, present and future. But he gave way to Skornia’s practical advice to target ‘new media’ — at least in their proposal.

On May 18, presumably the day the letter was received, Skornia wrote McLuhan of the award: “Let’s make this the finest thing to hit North American education in a century.”



Connubium of Being 3




These are the last words of Take Today which are taken from the near last words of Finnegans Wake — just before its gapped last/first sentence.

[Note: Aside from the Burroughs essay in 1964, and Take Today in 1972, McLuhan discussed Joyce’s The keys to. Given! also in the 1974 ‘Medium Meaning Message’ (coauthored by Barrington Nevitt) — treatment forthcoming in Connubium 4. Cunnubium 2 discusses the Burroughs essay in aspects which are not repeated here: reference should be made to its footnote #2. Connubium 5 will discuss the Burroughs essay in yet another respect. (The footnote app broke in this post. So notes that would have been footnotes are included in the text in square brackets with double indentation — like this note).]  

In his 1964 ‘Notes on Burroughs’, which amounts to a kind of prospect of his ‘connubium’ texts later in the decade, as well as of the retrospect of these same texts in Take Today, McLuhan discussed this donative — given! — gesture of the universe (dual genitive!!) as follows:

Finnnegans Wake provides the closest literary precedent to Burroughs’ work. From the beginning to end it [FW] is occupied with the theme of ‘the extensions’ of man — weaponry, clothing, languages, number, money, and media in toto. Joyce works out in detail the sensory shifts involved in each extension of man, and concludes with the resounding boast: The keys to. Given! Like Burroughs, Joyce was sure he had worked out the formula for total cultural understanding and control. The idea of art as total programming for the environment is tribal, mental, Egyptian.

[Note: What McLuhan means here by ‘Egyptian’ may stem from Sigfried Giedion’s ‘space conception’ presentation to the Explorations seminar: “Egyptian art, in which several different aspects of the same object are depicted upon horizontal and vertical planes.” Published in Explorations 6. Also see McLuhan’s letter to Wilfred Watson in October 1964 (discussion in Connubium 5): “Lewis (…) wanted to be Pontifex maximus of a magical priesthood. I suppose Yeats, Joyce and Pound had similar aspirations. Their priesthood was to create new worlds of perception. They were to be world engineers who shaped the totality of human awareness.  Their pigments and materials were not to be paint or words but all the resources of the age. Such were the Pharaohs.”]

It is, also, an idea of art to which electric technology leads quite strongly. We live science fiction. The bomb is our environment. The bomb is of higher learning all compact, the ‘extension’ division of the university.

[Note: Pun very much intended with ‘extension’ division. McLuhan’s complex suggestion here is not just that the term ‘extension division’ captures the university’s ‘extension’ to all the other areas of modern life, like commerce and the military, but also and more, that all these activities are constituted by, and as, ‘extensions’ of human faculties. It is the latter which enables the former.]

The university has become a global environment. The university now contains the commercial world, as well as the military and government establishments. To reprogram the cultures of the globe becomes as natural an undertaking as curriculum revision in a university. Since new media are new environments that reprocess psyche and society in successive ways, why not bypass instruction in fragmented subjects meant for fragmented sections of the society and reprogram the environment itself? Such is Burroughs’ vision (…) he is trying to point to the shut-off button of an active and lethal environmental process.

[Note: McLuhan’s text has ‘shut-on’, not ‘shut-off’ or ‘shut-down’. As always with his writing, it is impossible to say if this was intended to provoke thought or was a typo. And if it was a typo, was it seen and approved by McLuhan, like ‘the medium is the massage’, or was it unseen and so comes to us, not from McLuhan, or not directly from McLuhan, but via McLuhan indirectly as a channeled message/massage from the unconscious beyond? This question suggests an important reason McLuhan was so enamored of talk.]

One way to perceive the extent of what was at stake here for McLuhan’s consideration (see next note for the reach of the term ‘con-sideration’) of “the environment itself” is to look at a presentation given by Sigfried Giedion to the Explorations seminar in 1955 in which he discussed “universal space” or “sidereal space” in terms of prehistoric and contemporary art:

[Note: The word ‘sidereal’ stems from Latin, sidus/sideris = star. Interestingly, this is also the root of the word ‘con-sider‘, which is to ponder, beyond the parameters of the solar system and the local galaxy, to the ‘star’ systems of the All. Giedion in ‘space conception’: “It is possible to give physical limits to space, but by its nature space is limitless and intangible. Space dissolves in darkness and evaporates in infinity.” This throws an interesting new light on the title The Gutenberg Galaxy which may be read as the Gutenberg ‘local ontology’! This explains the great success of that ontology in solving scientific and industrial problems. Forget the larger picture, concentrate on the smaller! The method of calculus! Forget the circle and concentrate instead on manageable straight-line segments! The death of God!] 

Prehistoric Space Conception and Contemporary Art

[Note: This is the title of the concluding section of Giedion’s paper. Its overall title was ‘Space Conception in Prehistoric Art’. In the remaining 25 years of McLuhan’s life, he never tired of referring to Giedion’s ‘space conception’ (often in the context of ‘acoustic space’). These references to Giedion by McLuhan should be read as implicating univers-all or ontological ‘space’. Importantly, Giedion’s exploration of relative spaces was already central to the Explorations seminar in 1954 in the very session where ‘acoustic space’ emerged.]

Abstraction, transparency, and symbolization are constituent elements of prehistoric and of contemporary art. The space in which they evolve has many things in common. Differences exist, but (…) at the moment only their inner relationship is what interests us. Their space is a space without background, a universal space. We are indebted to artists like Kandinsky and Klee for slowly being able to grasp the space conception of primeval art. They have opened our eyes to the pictorial [Giedion has pictured’ here.] organization, which is not exclusively dependent on the [fixed] vertical. In Kandinsky ‘s early work — e.g., The White Edge (1913) — we find a passion to exploit the newly gained freedom of lines and color set in sidereal space.

[Note: Kandinsky’s astonishing work formulates the exfoliation of ontology into and as the ontic via the color white (especially in the central thrusting — edge mirroring — burst) and the mass of colors which is white “pregnant with possibilities” (in Kandinsky’s words). Ontology does not lose itself in the ontic, but presents itself in it. Kandinsky re-presents that presentation (just as the red wavy lines in his painting re-present the white ones).] 

Paul Klee followed the same path, but in his own way. In one of his popular and most frequently reproduced paintings — The Landscape with Yellow Birds (1923) — the birds are sitting on fantastic plants, which defy botanical definition. On the upper rim of the picture one of the yellow birds is represented upside-down, indicating the spatial fluidity. One is reminded of underwater landscapes, where the body may move in all directions, unhindered by gravity.

Developed even further is the cosmic atmosphere in the far less known Ad Marginem (1930).

A planet hovers in the middle of a greenish undetermined background. Fantastic figurations grow along the margin. Plants, animals, eyes are forms in statu nascendi, polyvalent in their significance. Like primeval hybrid figures, they too cannot be confined to a definite zoological species. Here and there a calligraphically precise letter is inscribed in one of these forms, suddenly losing its everyday aspect and being re-transformed into a magic symbol from which it originated. From the upper rim, the naked stem of a plant is thrust down, and a bird with a long beak marches upside-down in a space without gravity. The forms reveal not even the remotest similarity with prehistoric motifs. Only the problem of constancy — as we understand it — comes to the fore, not in the sense of a rational, direct continuation [as in the Gutenberg galaxy], but rather as that property of the human mind which has been submerged for years in fathomless depths, suddenly reappearing on the surface. This happened in our time(Explorations 6, 1955)

[Note: Giedion defined “the problem of constancy” or “question of the continuity” at the very start of his presentation: “The problem of space conception is everywhere under discussion. Scholars ask themselves, for example, What things have changed and what have remained unchanged in human nature throughout the course of human history? What is it that separates us from other periods? What is it that, after having been suppressed and driven into the unconscious for long periods of time, is now reappearing in the imagination of contemporary artists?” Giedion’s suggestion here is that human history is a matter of identity (what remains unchanged in it) and difference (what changes in it). Now when Giedion and McLuhan met in St Louis in 1943, McLuhan had just finished writing his PhD thesis on Nashe. Its central concern was with what remains unchanged in history — the trivium — and what changes in it — emphasis on one or other of the trivial arts. The immediate attraction between the two men may have turned on just this fulcrum.]

More than a decade before McLuhan’s discussions of the “macrocosm or connubium of a supraterrestrial nature” in the late 1960s (for texts and discussion see Connubium of Being 1), he and the Explorations seminar were already engaged with the question of making sense in a ‘macrocosmic’ or univers-all context. His ever-repeated attempts to specify a ‘strategy for survival’ by locating “the shut-off button of an active and lethal environmental process” must be seen as circling around the question of how to reinstate a sense for a grounding ontology in a world given over to an exclusive, purely ontic ‘reality’ — a ‘realty’ or ‘local ontology’ which, as Nietzsche specified, crumbles into nothing as soon as it is deeply ‘considered’:

The true world — we have abolished. What world has remained? The apparent one perhaps? But no!! With the true world we have also abolished the apparent one.

[Note:  How the “True World” Finally Became a Fable: The History of an Error’, The Twilight of the Idols (1888). For the original text and various discussions of it see the Nietzsche posts.]

Connubium of Being 2

Increasingly, I feel that Catholics must master C.G. Jung. (…) Modern anthropology and psychology are more important for the Church than St. Thomas to-day. (1944)1


KEYS to GIVEN (1939 Joyce; 1964, 1972, 1974 McLuhan)2  


trying to point to the shut-off button of an active and lethal environmental process (1964)3


The conclusion of War and Peace in the Global Village (discussed in Connubium of Being 1) was revisited by McLuhan in Take Today.4

Compare the two:

War and Peace in the Global Village, 190
Biologists use two (…) categories that are helpful for
perceiving the relation between the end of nature today and the problem of understanding the future of media and technology. They speak of ‘outbreeding’ and ‘inbreeding’. As Mayr puts it: “Most animals are essentially outbreeders, most microorganisms inbreeders.”5
With electricity, all this has changed totally. At present the entire mammalian world has become the microorganismic. It is the total individual cultures of the world, linguistically and politically, that have become the mammals, according to the old classifications of evolutionary hypothesis. It is the cultural habitat in which we have long been accustomed to think that people were contained that has now become the mammal itself, now contained in a new macrocosm or ‘connubium’ of a super-terrestrial kind. Our technologies, or self-amputations, and the environments or habitats which they create must now become [informed by] that matrix of that macrocosmic connubial bliss derided by the evolutionist. 

Take Today, 294

The moment of Sputnik extended the planet. Something happened to the stellar system at that moment. The possibility of “retuning the sky” was born. Previously, the “extensions of man” related to his body, anything from his skin (clothing) to his central nervous system (electric circuitry). Each and all of these extensions affected the transactions between men and their previous environment. The extension of the planet itself meant that the technology was not transported [anymore] by individual or collective man but by his previous environment — the Earth. It became a totally new game with new ground rules. Our ground now was literally in the sky. (…) Whereas previous extensions had altered the speed of human motions in a great variety of ways, freely hybridizing with one another, the new extension of the planet seemed to call despotically for a new harmonizing of the spheres of action, influence, and knowledge. 

The problem posed here, and indeed by the whole history of humans on this earth, is how to understand our place in the “generalized environment” (Mayr)6, that is, in the “super-terrestrial” environment, that is, in the “macrocosm” of the entire universe. 

For hundreds of thousands of years before Sputnik,7 answers to this question were formulated within all the different “individual cultures of the world” — “the cultural habitat[s] in which we have long been accustomed to think”. All the cosmic interpretations of humans were “transported” between contemporaries in space and between generations in time via their ‘collective representations‘ of (dual genitive!) the spacetimes of the Earth. Of course all these representations were technologically modulated. But now, “with electricity all this has changed totally”. Now, with “the moment of Sputnik”, we exist within “a totally new game with new ground rules. Our [new] ground [no longer the Earth] now is literally (…) the Sky.”

But just how would this trans-formation work?8 By practicing outbreeding in Mayr’s sense of the “maximum of ecological plasticity and  evolutionary flexibility”,9 humans might (indeed can) learn to theorize their total “cultural habitat” (consisting of all their myriad of actual and potential habitats “freely hybridizing with one another”) by isolating its dominants.

Such, indeed, is the only way a domain may be brought into focus and investigated: through discrimination of its dominants.10 The medium is the message.

Humans have learned to theorize all sorts of other domains in this way, so the general ability is not in question — only (only!) its application to ourselves! To the interior landscape!

In the Take Today passage, McLuhan suggests that “the new extension of the planet seemed to call despotically”. This is a very com-plicated matter, a very knotted matter. For McLuhan does not say that the extension into outer space called “despotically”; rather he says that it “seemed to call despotically”. That is, looked at from the Earth, this was the impression. But how on earth can a call be “despotic” absent “despotic” formation? Absent “despotic” in-formation?

No, as McLuhan states baldly, the new impetus came not from the Earth at all, but from the Sky: “Our ground now was literally in the Sky.” Hence, “the new extension of the planet [was able] to call despotically for a new harmonizing” only as a re-call of such a “despotic” possibility. This was to be a celestial dominant exposed as such for the first time by “the new extension of the planet” into outer space.  Then, as a re-turn from the Sky to the Earth, this would expose, also here, how “the spheres of action, influence, and knowledge” might be harmonized via the study and application of the new domain.11

It’s not a question of planning but of receiving inspiration and allowing it to gradually invade your own being. You’re not thinking about inspiration, inspiration is thinking about you. (Federico Fellini)12

The goal is to learn how to come from the archetypal dominants or despots — in the Sky as this may be characterized — back to their expression on the Earth.13  

McLuhan’s career may be seen as the struggle to bring Jung’s archetypes into demonstrable focus — which in Jung’s work constitute a vast phantasmagoria14 of gods and forces. Just as human experience in all its different manifestations can be interrogated as to its dominants, so can the archetypal realm of dominants be interrogated for its dominants. The medium is the message.

As McLuhan specified in his ‘Notes on Burroughs’:

why not bypass instruction in fragmented subjects meant for fragmented sections of the society and reprogram the environment itself?

But to enter into this questionable realm, this question of the real, this real(m) of the question (dual genitive!), is to descend chaotically into the maelstrom with Poe’s mariner. How to ascend again to the surface — a surface we are — is the riddle hanging over history like the sword of Damocles

As with Jung, archetypes are for McLuhan literally dominants or lords (dominus = ‘lord’). We are the expression of these dominants and just as they maintain themselves in and through their extension into us, so our extension is able to maintain itself, and in fact to first find itself, in the mirroring action of our reaching out to them and retracting back from them: ὁδὸς άνω κάτω.

Such a ‘play’ of dominants and dominated, which is first of all simultaneous and only (only!) secondarily sequential,15 is McLuhan’s “global theatre”:

An everyday roundabout with intrusions from above and below.16


  1. McLuhan to Walter Ong and Clement McNaspy, December 23, 1944, Letters 166.
  2. These are the last words of Take Today which are taken from the near last words of Finnegans Wake — just before its gapped last/first sentence. In his 1964 ‘Notes on Burroughs’, McLuhan discussed this gesture of the universe (dual genitive!) as follows: “Finnnegans Wake provides the closest literary precedent to Burroughs’ work. From the beginning to end FW is occupied with the theme of ‘the extensions’ of man — weaponry, clothing, languages, number, money, and media in toto. Joyce works out in detail the sensory shifts involved in each extension of man, and concludes with the resounding boast: The keys to. Given! Like Burroughs, Joyce was sure he had worked out the formula for total cultural understanding and control. The idea of art as total programming for the environment is tribal, mental, Egyptian. It is, also, an idea of art to which electric technology leads quite strongly. We live science fiction. The bomb is our environment. The bomb is of higher learning all compact, the extension division of the university. The university has become a global environment. The university now contains the commercial world, as well as the military and government establishments. To reprogram the cultures of the globe becomes as natural an undertaking as curriculum revision in a university. Since new media are new environments that reprocess psyche and society in successive ways, why not bypass instruction in fragmented subjects meant for fragmented sections of the society and reprogram the environment itself? Such is Burroughs’ vision (…) he is trying to point to the shut-off button of an active and lethal environmental process.” (McLuhan’s text has ‘shut-on’, not ‘shut-off’. As always with his writing, it is impossible to say if this was intended to provoke thought or was a typo. And if it was a typo, was it seen and approved by McLuhan, like ‘the medium is the massage’, or was it unseen and so comes to us, not from McLuhan, or not directly from McLuhan, but via McLuhan indirectly as a channeled message/massage from the unconscious beyond?) Aside from the Burroughs essay in 1964, and Take Today in 1972, McLuhan discussed Joyce’s The keys to. Given! also in the 1974 ‘Medium Meaning Message’ coauthored with Barrington Nevitt. 
  3. See the passage in the previous note from ‘Notes on Burroughs’.
  4. Bob Dobbs has drawn attention to this replay by citing the two passages in his Trump pamphlet. The War and Peace passage is given on his page 81-82 and the Take Today passage on his page 88-89. The close parallels between the passages may be set out as follows, where small changes in aid of clarity have been made to McLuhan’s phrasing (but the original texts are given in the main post above). (1) War and Peace: “the totality of the individual cultures of the world (…) is the (collective) cultural habitat in which we have long been accustomed to think that people are contained”; Take Today: “Previously, the ‘extensions of man’ related to his body, anything from his skin (clothing) to his central nervous system (electric circuitry). Each and all of these extensions affected the transactions between men and their previous (psychological and social) environments (on) the Earth.” (2) War and Peace: “the cultural habitat (…) has now become (…) contained in a new macrocosm or ‘connubium’ of a super-terrestrial kind”; Take Today: “The extension of the planet itself (beyond the Earth) meant (…) a totally new game with new ground rules. Our ground now was literally in the Sky”. (3) War and Peace: our “environments or habitats (…) must now become informed by that (…) macrocosmic connubial bliss derided by the evolutionist”; Take Today: “the new extension of the planet calls (…) for a new harmonizing of the spheres of action, influence, and knowledge”. In sum, “a new harmonizing” is needed whose possibility in the widest scheme of things — the universe itself — is its provision of “connubial bliss” (dual genitive!) as ground. The possibility here would not follow from the need, however, but rather the need from the possibility. As Heidegger has it in SZ: “Higher than actuality stands possibility” (Höher als die Wirklichkeit steht die Möglichkeit).
  5. Ernst Mayr, Animal Species and Evolution (1963): “Outbreeders and inbreeders differ from each other in numerous ways. The entire breeding system of outbreeders is so organized as to accumulate and preserve genetic variation in order to have a maximum of ecological plasticity and  evolutionary flexibility, but at a price — the production of many inferior recombinants. (…) At the other end is the extreme inbreeder which has found a lucky genotypic combination that permits it to flourish in a specialized environmental situation, but again at a price — inability to cope with a sudden change of the environment. A species thus has the choice between (1) optimal contemporary fitness combined with considerable evolutionary vulnerability and (2) maximal evolutionary flexibility combined with the wasteful production of inferior genotypes. No species can combine the two advantages into a single system. Every species makes its own particular compromise between the two extremes and every species has its own set of devices for achieving this compromise. (…) Outbreeding, that is, genetic flexibility (…) is favored by large, structurally complex, slow-growing organisms that have low numbers of offspring and live in a generalized environment. Inbreeding, that is, genetic fixity, is favored by small, structurally simple, fast-growing organisms that have large numbers of offspring and are more or less adapted to special situations. Most animals are essentially outbreeders, most microorganisms essentially inbreeders.” (421)
  6. See the previous note for Mayr’s use of this phrase.
  7. For McLuhan, Sputnik made manifest what was already implied by industrialization, electrification, mass media and anthropology: namely, the “global village” in which all human cultures of all times and places formed a collective (not to say a unity). In his War and Peace text McLuhan called this collective a new “mammal”, in fact “the mammal itself”, which would have to practice a new type of ‘outbreeding’ in order to establish Mayr’s “maximum of ecological plasticity and  evolutionary flexibility”. The admonition was that it is this sort of exploration, and this sort of exploration alone, which can sustain human survival.
  8. This transformation amounts to nothing less than the one way to exit the cul-de-sac in which modern humans have become trapped!
  9. Such “plasticity and  (…) flexibility” amounts to the exploration of ignorance through the process of flipping between candidates for archetypal dominance. The practice amounts to jumping off a crumbing cliff (the old environments which will not hold) to see if one can land on one which does hold. Of course this is a risky business. But so is any birth!
  10. Discrimination of dominants: in geometry: points, lines, circles, squares, triangles; in physics: mass, time, space; in chemistry: elements, atomic weight, valence. Domains are assemblies of dominants together with the properties of those dominants.
  11. It is the harmonious “connubium of a supraterrestrial nature” (Playboy Interview) that first provides the possibility of harmonies here on Earth!
  12. Fellini Racconta: Passeggiate nella memoria, 2000, 24:24ff.
  13. For McLuhan, responding to in-coming in-formation is attending to ‘light through‘ and is akin to listening; while imposing information from some point of view amounts to ‘light on’ and is akin to seeing. Now humans always stand at some intersection of these lights — light through and light on — and the great need is to obtain insight with a sufficient lack of imposition that reception of it truly occurs, while at the same time there is a sufficient presence of imposition that exposition of it in knowledge and communication may be achieved. The dialectic between reception and exposition is just what science is.
  14. Phantasmagoria as the meeting place (ἀγορά) of the phantasms (φάντασμα) may be considered as the connubium of Being.
  15. The Global Village (1989): “time considered as sequential (left hemisphere) is figure and time considered as simultaneous (right hemisphere) is ground”.
  16. McLuhan frequently paraphrased Frank Budgen in this way from Budgen’s ‘Joyce’s Chapters on Going Forth by Day’, Horizon, September 1941.

Eliot’s bread

For Baker Beck…

In the 1930s T.S. Eliot often lived in the country at Frank Morley’s farm in Sussex.1 He learned to bake bread there and is pictured here with one of his loaves.

The life-long inspiration of Eliot for McLuhan is already reflected in his letter to his family in Canada during his first term at Cambridge in 1934 (when McLuhan was 23):

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 (ed. Faber & Faber: Poems 1909-1925) have the unmistakable character of greatness. They transform, and diffuse and recoalesce the commonest every day occurrences of 20th cent, city life till one begins to see double indeed — the extremely unthinkable character, the glory and the horror of the reality in life yet, to all save the seer, [only, if at all] behind life, is miraculously suggested. (Eliot is an anglo-Catholic, a theologian and philosopher and one of the best critics who ever wrote in English) Now there is something ineffably exciting in reading a man, a genius and a poet, who has by the same stages, in face of the same circumstances, (he is an American) come to the same point of view concerning the nature of religion and Christianity, the interpretation of history, and the value of industrialism. There is scarcely a modern “intellectual” who has the background of opinion necessary to enjoy Eliot — yet they have one and all heralded him and ranted about him; while he has necessarily been amused by their efforts to show that his poetry “dispenses with all creeds and beliefs”!
[Eliot’s] poems (…) use the method of dramatic monologue with its swift ranging over every sort of experience. But Eliot’s “consciousness” is not that of a lover, a count, or a distinct individual — it is impersonal and universal and instead of (…) individual associations he ranges over all history and all modern society…2

 44 years later, one of McLuhan’s last public lectures3 would be given on Eliot as the Pound Lecture in the Humanities at the University of Idaho: ‘The Possum and the Midwife’.4

  1. Frank Morley was a director of Faber & Faber, where Eliot worked as an editor. Both were Americans.
  2. Letter to Elsie, Herbert & Maurice McLuhan from December 6, 1934 in Letters 41-43.
  3. The Pound Lecture was given April 25, 1978. The next year McLuhan suffered the stroke from which he would die in 1980.
  4. McLuhan’s Pound Lecture was published in somewhat altered form in 1979 as ‘Pound, Eliot, and the Rhetoric of The Waste Land’ (New Literary History, 10:3).

Connubium of Being 1

In two 1968 texts, the Playboy Interview1 and War and Peace in the Global Village, McLuhan repeated much the same sentence twice over:

Our whole cultural habitat, which we once viewed as a mere container of people, is being transformed by these media and by space satellites into a living organism2, itself contained within a new macrocosm or connubium of a supraterrestrial nature. (Playboy)

It is the cultural habitat, in which we have long been accustomed to think that people were contained, that (…) itself [is] now contained in a new macrocosm or ‘connubium’ of a superterrestrial kind. (War and Peace in the Global Village)

The next year, ‘connubium’ appeared twice again in the 1969 Counterblast:

Number, said the ancients, is the sounding of space. Geometry is visual space. An enormous effort of collective abstraction precedes the disentangling of these elements from the total matrix of living relations. Today an even greater energy is needed (…) to understand in a connubium, the unity of all the elements which men have abstracted by their codes from the primordial matrix. (62)

Each culture, each period has its bias which intensifies [and] distorts some feature of the total social process. The bias of our culture is precisely to isolate the bias of all others in an effort at orchestration. Social connubium? The anthropologist is a connoisseur3 of cultures as art forms. The student of communications is a connoisseur of media as art forms. (64)

The War and Peace passage receives particular emphasis through its place in the concluding paragraph of the book.4 With it, McLuhan might be taken to deliver an admonishment in regard to the world’s ultimate fate hanging between war and peace: if we want to survive as a species, this is what we need to do/know.5

But in these difficult passages what exactly is McLuhan’s message?

The medium?

The medium is the message?


‘Connubium’ is Latin. McLuhan would have come across its English derivative, ‘connubial’, in an essay by Innis, ‘The Penetrative Powers of the Price System’:6

Connubial alliances are the best security we can have of the goodwill of the natives.7

‘Connubial’ in English — ‘having to do with marriage’ — follows from its strict Latin sense, ‘con’ + ‘nubium’ (hence our ‘nuptial’ and ‘nubile’). Indeed in War and Peace McLuhan’s next sentence — the concluding sentence of the book — uses the word with this nuptial sense explicitly in mind:

Our technologies (…)8 and the environments or habitats which they create must now become [informed by]9 that matrix of that macrocosmic connubial bliss derided by the evolutionist.10

Now ‘connubium’, as opposed to ‘connubial’, was used by McLuhan in the wider sense of ‘a complex civic association’ (of which ‘marriage’ is, of course, an archetype). In this broader sense ‘connubium’ is almost ‘oppidum’ (town or village)11 such that a “macrocosm or connubium of a superterrestrial kind” is the ‘global village’ in a remarkable new sense which, to anticipate, is ‘civic association’ at an ontological level.12

The ‘connubium’ put forward by McLuhan is an association that is “inclusive”13 — a term used by him to denote ‘integral difference’ as opposed to the Gutenbergian ‘integral indifference’.14 But in the context of the two head passages from Playboy and War and Peace, these terms were used by McLuhan in a ‘macrocosmic’ or “supraterrestrial” or ontological sense: the contrast is between fundamental  ‘integral difference’ as opposed to the Gutenbergian fundamental ‘integral indifference’. 

But — all importantly! — integral or inclusive difference at the ontological level cannot exclude fundamental ‘integral indifference’ without ceasing to be itself — without ceasing to be “inclusive” and instead being “exclusive”. 

It is this fundamental integrity of the absolutely different that is the medium15 — to which McLuhan’s message would recall our attention. The medium is the message.

It is this fundamental integrity of the absolutely different that (1) underlies and supervenes the possibility of the discrete harmony of different cultures and so of peace — and (2) of the making mind with ‘macrocosmic’ or “supraterrestrial” truth — but which (3) first of all underlies and supervenes the possibility of the discrete harmony of the ontological and the ontic.16 It is (3) the latter, alone, which (2) enables the making of genuine truth which (1) is the ongoing perception of the real harmony that is possible between different cultures in “psychic communal integration” — aka, “the universality of consciousness” — aka, PEACE.

  1. Conducted in 1968 but published in 1969.
  2. McLuhan in Counterblast: “In the age of electricity and automation, the globe becomes a community of continuous learning, a single campus in which everybody, irrespective of age, is involved in learning a living.” Headline in the NYT 1/30/2022: “The James Webb Space Telescope and a Quest Every Human Shares”. So the “living organism” in the Playboy passage is the science, or sciences, of human being: the ongoing attempt, to be established at last in the electric age, “to understand (…) the primordial matrix” of the universe itself — to understand that matrix enough, finally, that all our other understandings of ourselves can be understood from it. Compare McLuhan in the Playboy Interview 54 years ago in 1968 where the aim of the age is said to be to further “the process of discovery and orchestrate terrestrial — and eventually galactic — environments and energies.” (See note #10 for the full passage.) The enormous difficulty of such an attempt is that it must itself, first of all, consciously be based on, or in, that “primordial matrix”. (Otherwise it would be a partial understanding imposed on the whole.) Since all linear movement only goes away from that matrix, and has already begun with contrary suppositions, it can never be reached through extension. So it is that this first of all is the very matter of thinking — the great question is how to start again, how to start again with what is truly first?
  3. With ‘connoisseur’ McLuhan is punning on ‘connubium’. A con-noisseur is one whose knowledge (gnoscere) moves with (con) the con-nubium.
  4. Bob Dobbs deserves credit for having long stressed the importance of this concluding  paragraph of War and Peace and of ‘connubium’ generally in McLuhan’s work. See, eg, ‘McLuhan and Holeopathic Quadrophrenia: The Mouse-That-Roared Syndrome’.
  5. McLuhan imagined the future as a time of “learning a living” (see note #2 above). If ‘living’ is thought in terms of ‘surviving’, the phrase tales on a whole new meaning.
  6. Of course McLuhan may have come across ‘connubium’ and ”connubial’ elsewhere as well. The Innis essay, ‘The Penetrative Powers of the Price System’, appeared in  JEPS, 4:3, 1938. McLuhan cited the title of this essay as follows: “the work of the later Innis was a shift in attention from the trade-routes of the external world to the trade routes of the mind. Technology, he saw, had solved the problem of production of commodities and had already turned to the packaging of information. And the penetrative powers of the pricing system were as nothing beside the power of the new media of communication to penetrate and transform all existing institutions and patterns of thought.” (‘The Later Innis’, The Queen’s Quarterly, 1953.)
  7. That is, marriage alliances between natives and colonizers establishing intermediary metis groups is “the best security we can have of the goodwill of the natives”. Innis cited the sentence from Sir George Simpson in Parliament via Frederick Merk in Fur Trade and Empire (1931) — so McLuhan, a tongue in cheek concatenationist, was citing Innis citing Merk citing Simpson.
  8. McLuhan has “technologies or self-amputations” here. This is a reference to Adolphe (actually David) Jonas’ Irritation and Counterirritation (1962) in which defensive solutions to bodily “irritations” are said to give rise to “counterirritations”, one type of which is “self-amputation”. McLuhan’s take-away from Jonas was that, since technologies arise to solve irritating problems, the chair to carry the weight of the body, for example, they may be considered as “counterirritations”, and, ultimately, as “self-amputations”. Here is McLuhan in the 1969 Counterblast: “The fixing of the human posture in solid matter (namely, a chair) is a great saver of toil and tension. This is true of all media and tools and technologies.” The chair acts as a counterirritant to the irritant of squatting (and its implicated manner of life). In this way, the chair implicates a whole new environment for living and thereby an amputation of the old environment. Only when the new environment itself becomes an irritant (as cars have become today) does the old environment and its advantages become conscious. Jonas’ language of counterirritant and self-amputation were further appealing to McLuhan since all technologies amount to an emphasis of a certain sense or senses, hence a de-emphasis or even amputation of another senses or senses. Interestingly, this same line of thought led McLuhan to a surprising consideration in regard to the “numb” of the world — its inability or refusal even to acknowledge (let along investigate) the massive effects of technological change. Since “self-amputation” was one way to envision technology, and since the numb of the world amounted to a massive “self-amputation” from reality, it followed that our numb is actually itself a technology, with all the environmental ‘setup’ which any technology requires for its existence and use (like hotels, gas stations and roads for cars, where each of these in turn require their own setup, like oil exploration and refineries for gas stations). Conclusion: We don’t see technologies and their effects because we employ the technology of numb and its setup (‘news’, ‘entertainment’, ‘life’) to blind ourselves to them. Numb is a strange technological ‘blindfold’ for our slumber vis-à-vis technology, where technology uses itself to ex-tend itself in ways that may ultimately imply ex-tinction. (Here may be a thought-provoking context to understand McLuhan’s  remark in the Playboy Interview (immediately following the passage given in note #10 below) that “Christ, after all, is the ultimate extension of man”. Christ on the cross: extension  > extinction? “After all”?)
  9. McLuhan’s bare ‘become’ is explained in his ‘Notes on Burroughs’ as follows: “The central theme of Naked Lunch is the strategy of bypassing the new electric environment by becoming an environment oneself. The moment one achieves this environmental state all things and people are submitted to you to be processed.” Apparently McLuhan wanted to emphasize that the environments or habitats of the future — if there is a future — will be completely different from the existing ones. So, not merely ‘become informed by’ (with something remaining the same that would be informed), but ‘become’ utterly new via this revolutionary and transformative process in which all would be changed. Hegel: “Dies allmähliche Zerbröckeln, das die Physiognomie des Ganzen nicht veränderte, wird durch den Aufgang unterbrochen, der, ein Blitz, in einem Male das Gebilde der neuen Welt hinstellt.”
  10. Playboy Interview: “This is the real use of the computer, not to expedite marketing or solve technical problems, but to speed the process of discovery and orchestrate terrestrial — and eventually galactic — environments and energies. Psychic communal integration, made possible at last by the electronic media, could create the universality of consciousness foreseen by Dante when he predicted that men would continue as no more than broken fragments until they were unified into an inclusive consciousness. In a Christian sense, this is merely a new interpretation of the mystical body of Christ”. Compare ‘orchestrate’ here to the Counterblast passage above: “The bias of our culture is precisely to isolate the bias of all others in an effort at orchestration.”
  11. Oppidum‘ appears related to many IE words having to do with the footprint, plain and level. By 1968 McLuhan had been advocating and exercising ‘multilevel’ analysis for a quarter century.
  12. Once plurality of a ‘global village’ sort is admitted at the level of ontology — as polytheisms do and as Christianity does (a key feature that enabled the latter to subsume many varieties of the former) — gaps must be admitted to structure reality itself. No fundamental gaps, no fundamental plurality. Hence the derivative power of gaps between the ontological and ontic levels and, indeed, in ‘purely’ ontic contexts! (Note: There is no such thing as a supposedly pure ontic level. This supposition falls through itself as soon as it is authentically probed — as Nietzsche demonstrated. The whole story of the modern world may be put: we have learned to ‘harness’ the power of the gap in thermonuclear weapons, but because we do not re-cognize the origin of this power in the integral inclusivity of the global village connubium, the world is given over to exclusivity. Hence, we have the possibility of the bomb in a world where peace is literally — that is, according to its literal presuppositions — impossible.)
  13. See note 10 above for a citation illustrating McLuhan’s use of “inclusive”.
  14. ‘Integral indifference’ — like the vanishing point of perspective, the end product of an assembly line, the destination of a railway journey, the sum Σ in calculus. All leave the differential process needed to produce them — behind.
  15. The fundamental integrity of the absolutely different is what electricity and magnetism ARE. Hence the possibility, in an age in which electric and magnetic forces are dis-covered and put to use everywhere, to imagine the integrity of absolutely different cultures — that is, to imagine PEACE.
  16. The ontological and the ontic may be understood as big-B Being and little-b being. The great secret is that both of these are plural, Beings and beings, and that the second is plural, hence is at all, only because the first is plural.

Elsie on the move

A rolling stone gathers no moss.

My mother (…) travelled from coast to coast from year to year putting on plays and acts. (McLuhan interview with Nina Sutton, 1975)

Like her father, Henry Hall, Elsie Hall could never stay in one place for long. After she followed her family to Alberta from Nova Scotia in 1907, she married Herbert McLuhan in 1909 and then moved to Edmonton with him in 1911 — six months or so before Marshall would be born there in July of that year.

During the war, when Herbert was in service, she took her two young boys back to her relatives in Nova Scotia for a year. Then she moved to Winnipeg where her mother lived and where Marshall would start his schooling.

After the war beginning in the early 1920s she began her stage career and for the next decade toured Canada, from Victoria to Halifax, putting on her single woman show as an elocutionist and impersonator.

Elsie left the family home in Winnipeg for good in 1933 and set up shop in Toronto. Sometime in the middle of that decade she moved to Detroit where, in 1939 she was living at 616 Pallister (Letters 117). She was in Pasadena for the summer in 1938, of course, where she introduced Marshall and Corinne. And for a brief time that decade, between stints in Detroit, she lived and worked in Cleveland. A letter to her from Marshall from September 24, 1938 ends:

Cleveland is probably a vast improvement on Detroit — Best luck there Mother. (Letters 97)

Another from June 1939, however, asks:

What do you plan on? Is Cleveland a dead issue? (Letters 111)

It was while she was back in Detroit again from Cleveland that she was instrumental in bringing McLuhan and Wyndham Lewis together in 1943.

In the middle 1940s she was in Pittsburgh. Marshall’s letters to her from Assumption College in Windsor (where he was from 1944 to 1946) indicate that she was not just across the river in Detroit. But her time in Pittsburgh did not work out. Here are the concluding lines of a letter from Marshall to her from May 14, 1946:

Wish you could get out of Pittsburgh before it gets you down entirely. Your fatigue is owing to suppressed anger. (Letters 185)

She later (in the late 40’s and early 1950s) lived and worked in New Jersey in association (among others) with the Perkins School of the Blind. Apparently she directed plays for fund-raising events as a self-styled “promoter” (as she appears in the 1948 ‘Oranges Directory’).1

In 1941 she had done at least one previous show of this sort in Lansing, outside of Detroit, for the Leader Dog League for the Blind:

Perhaps it was this experience in Lansing which got her into this line of ‘promotional’ work.2

Elsie returned to Toronto in the 1950s to be near Marshall and his family and died there in 1961.



  1. This ‘city directory’ covered the western suburbs of Newark. Elsie is listed as a “promoter” working in Newark but with her residence at 430 New England Terrace in Orange.

  2. Lansing State Journal, June 15, 1941. McLuhan would have followed Elsie’s work with the blind with several different actual and developing interests in mind, beyond that of his filial concern and love. In the first place, his notion of the world was that it was increasingly blind in the sense of being asleep, senseless, directionless, stumbling ‘blindly’ into disaster. The world was blind in an entirely negative sense, unable to gather its wits and reason as it could do — but refused to do. How to wake the sleepers to their external and internal environments was a constant theme in McLuhan’s work from very early on. Secondly, against this negative notion of blindness there was another which Elsie’s work with organizations dedicated to the advancement of the blind may have first sown the seeds. As explicitly first captured in the phrase “acoustic space” in 1954, McLuhan only slowly came to understand the standing potential of radically different sorts of human orientation (which he had always known about theoretically through anthropology, psychology and, indeed, through literature and the humanities generally — but not genuinely comprehended as competing existential possibilities). In the last decade of his life, furthermore, his standing reference to these competing possibilities was the remarkable book of the blind by Jacques Lusseyran (1924-1971) And There Was Light (translation 1963, original Et la lumière fut. Romanciers d’audjourd’hui, 1953). In the third place, and most important of all, McLuhan had to come to internalize the understanding that blindness is not only negative as the stultification of the world, nor decidedly positive as described by Lusseyran, but is also, and essentially, a never-to-be-obviated aspect of all individual and collective experience. It is a limitation — but one that is constitutively revealing. That is, the inexorable blindness to all human experience is what at the same time illuminates — a difficult and inexhaustible notion! Now the importance to McLuhan of these interrelating insights can hardly be overestimated. So just as Elsie had done in introducing Marshall to literature as a young boy, and in introducing him to Corinne as a rather stilted bachelor, so in her work with the blind she may have covertly, but decisively, nudged him along his way.

East & west, horizontal & vertical

In his Playboy interview, McLuhan reflected back on his transformation, almost 20 years previously in the early 1950s (a transformation amounting to a “second conversion”) from “visual bias” to an appreciation of the interior landscapeas means of unifying and digesting any kind of experience“:1

MCLUHAN: I once shared visual bias.
PLAYBOY: What changed your mind?
MCLUHAN: Experience. For many years, until I wrote my first book, The Mechanical Bride, I adopted an extremely moralistic approach to all environmental technology. (…) But gradually I perceived how sterile and useless this attitude was, and I began to realize that the greatest artists of the 20th Century — Yeats, Pound, Joyce, Eliot — had discovered a totally different approach, based on the identity of the processes of cognition and creation.2 I realized that artistic creation is the playback of ordinary experience3 — from trash to treasures. I ceased being a moralist and became a student. As someone committed to literature and the traditions of literacy, I began to study the new environment that imperiled literary values, and I soon realized that they could not be dismissed by moral outrage or pious indignation. Study showed that a totally new approach was required, both to save what deserved saving in our Western heritage and to help man adopt a new survival strategy. I adapted some of this new approach in The Mechanical Bride by attempting to immerse myself in the advertising media in order to apprehend its impact on man, but even there some of my old literate “point of view” bias crept in. The book, in any case, appeared just as television was making all its major points irrelevantI soon realized that recognizing the symptoms of change was not enough; one must understand the cause of change, for without comprehending causes, the social and psychic effects of new technology cannot be counteracted or modified. But I recognized also that one individual cannot accomplish these self-protective modifications; they must be the collective effort of society, because they affect all of society; the individual is helpless against the pervasiveness of environmental change: the new garbage — or mess-age — induced by new technologies. Only the social organism, united and recognizing the challenge, can move to meet it.

McLuhan describes two sorts of changes in his orientation here. One was individual and, so to say, elemental: a totally different approach. The other was collective and meteorological: environmental change. It was the first change that enabled his perception of the second.

In the ‘East & west, horizontal & vertical’ series of posts to follow, the first sort of personal — elemental — change is at stake. The central question posed by these posts is therefore: what sort of change in basic approach did McLuhan personally have to undergo in order to begin to appreciate the second sort of meteorological change — “the social and psychic effects of new technology“?

  1. McLuhan to Ezra Pound, January 5, 1951, Letters 216:  “Have discovered the meaning and value of (the interior) landscape (…) Paysage intérieur à la Rimbaud Pound Joyce as means of unifying and digesting any kind of experience. Should have got to it 20 yrs ago if I hadn’t the rotten luck to bog down in English lit”. This discovery amounted to an appreciation of the dynamics of experience (objective genitive!) as the unconscious process of sparking possibilities of sense (dual genitive!) moment to moment to moment. Of course no experience can be privileged in such analysis any more than some material stuff might be privileged in chemistry.
  2. After their meeting in 1943 in St Louis, Sigfried Giedion suggested to McLuhan that he needed to study modern French poetry. McLuhan did so, eventually concentrating on Mallarmé in the late 1940s. Mallarmé led McLuhan to a rereading of “Yeats, Pound, Joyce, Eliot” which then recast his mind in the 1951-1954 period. Many of his essays in this period studied “the identity of the processes of cognition and creation”.
  3. “Artistic creation is the playback of ordinary experience” — that is, all human experience is already subject to the dynamics that artistic creation inevitably both deploys (as a variety of human experience) and probes (as a special dimension of human activity). So humans do not need new capabilities. Instead, they need a new appreciation of their existing capabilities: “from (disregarded) trash to treasures”.

End/beginning of FW

Peter Chrisp’s great Finnegans Wake blog, From Swerve of Shore to Bend of Bay, reads the last page of FW — ALP’s emptying into the ocean — as a “contemplation of the mystery of death”. No doubt it is that, too. But it is also a contemplation of the mystery of birth, the coming forth by day, as recorded in these comments to PC’s post:

The take here, or takes rather, seem strangely unambiguated. For is this page only Budgen’s “contemplation of the mystery of death”? Or is it not decidedly also “contemplation of the mystery of birth”? Where ALP as the soul must pass away from all the collective possibilities of life, hence all the great and small events of world history that express those possibilities, into the cold light of day as the animation of a particular individual like HCE.
“And the clash of our cries till we spring to be free (…) I am passing out (…) till the near sight of the mere size of him, the moyles and moyles of it, moananoaning, makes me seasilt saltsick and I rush, my only, into your arms. I see them rising! Save me from those therrble prongs! Two more. Onetwo moremens more (…) Carry me along (…) to washup. Yes, tid. There’s where. First. We pass through grass behush the bush to. Whish! A gull. Gulls. Far calls. Coming, far! End here. Us then. Finn, again! Take. Bussofthlee, mememormee! Till thousendsthee. Lps. The keys to. Given! A way a lone a lost a last a loved a long the…”
Is this not the way of the birth canal where a familiar warmth in collective life (or Liffey) must be left behind for isolated individuality: “My leaves have drifted from me. All. But one clings still. I’ll bear it on me. To remind me of. Lff!” What might be called a first gift of life in the collective leaves/lives of the Liffey — relived-relieved-releafed-releaved every night in dream — leads to a second gift, individualized “mememormee”, via the kiss/keys(kees)/buss from the parting portal lips,  πύλη τοῦ οὐρανοῦ. Yes, the cause of death is birth but this is not a linear fate, but one of a “yes tid” where life and death like night and day are primordially caught up in the other in a sort of tide-time, each knotted to the other — Kevin’s “sacrament of baptism or the regeneration of man by water”.



St Kevin’s tub

I obey laws I have not chosen. (Joyce to Jacques Mercanton on FW)1

Danis Rose’s edition of Finn’s Hotel is controversial regarding the question of whether Joyce ever had the notion of building its ‘little epics’ into a self-standing work. But there is no question that these notes from 1923, after Ulysses and before the Wake (as Rose says), are critical for an understanding of the transition between the two.

The third of its epyllia concerns Kevin, the patron saint of Dublin, who founded a monastery in Glendalough, ‘the valley of two lakes’, in the seventh century. The name ‘Kevin’ goes back to Cóemgein, ‘the handsomely born’, that is to say, ‘the appropriately born’, that is to say ‘the reborn’, ‘the regenerated’. The crossing of the two in the valley, whether of lakes or births or generations, is the matter at stake and questions arise as to how this occurs and what relation it has to what is before it and what is around it.

Joyce’s retaling (formulated in free verse, alone among the episodes)2 situates these questions as concerning a ‘tub’ — namely Ireland or here-comes-everybody’s head3 — and its relation to a prior surrounding ‘ocean’:

A Tale of a Tub

KEVIN BORN on the island of Ireland in the Irish ocean

having been granted privilege of a portable altar cum bath goes to Lough Glendalough between rivers

where pious Kevin lives alone on an isle in the lake

on which isle, a plot perimetered with three watercourses, is a pond

in which is an islet whereon holy Kevin builds a beehivehut the floor of which most holy Kevin excavates to a depth of one foot

which done venerable Kevin goes to the lakeside and fills time after time the tub with water which time after time most venerable Kevin empties into the cavity of his hut thereof creating a pool

having done which blessed Kevin half fills the tub once with water which tub then most blessed Kevin sets in the centre of the pool

after which saint Kevin girds up his frock to his loins and seats himself, blessed saint Kevin, in his circumferential hiptubbath

where, doctor solitarius, he meditates with ardour the sacrament of baptism or the regeneration [gein] of man by water.

The ninth episode in the Finn’s Hotel series of eleven epiclets is ‘Here Comes Everybody‘ — “concerning the genesis of Harold or Humphrey“, and his ancestry, or not, from “the Earwickers“:

Discarding once for all those theories from older sources which would link him back with such pivotal ancestors as the Glues, the Gravys and the Earwickers of Sidham in the Hundred of Manhood or proclaim him a descendant of vikings…4

The episode would explicate his origins instead, or at least first of all, as going back to Eden and to:

the grand old gardener [who] was saving daylight one sabbath afternoon in prefall paradise peace by following his plough for rootles in the rere garden of ye olde marine hotel when royalty was announced…

The tendency of these notes to Finnegans Wake is clear and the central question would appear to concern the roots — and also the rootles(sness) — of genesis.

The crux of the matter has to do with the subjective genitive at stake here. Roots and rootles(sness) belong first of all to genesis, not to us.5 Just so, water is re-generative for Kevin exactly and only because it is not his! He needs to retrieve it — in his tub.6

McLuhan put the matter in negative mode — that is, in terms of our cul-de-sac or “opaque prison” — in ‘Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press’ in 1954:

For that school of thought for which the external world is an opaque prison, art can never be regarded as a source of knowledge but only as a moral discipline and a study of endurance. The artist is not a reader of radiant signatures on materia signata but the signer of a forged check on our hopes and sympathies.

It had earlier appeared in positive mode in ‘Mr. Eliot’s Historical Decorum’ in 1949 where the “reader of radiant signatures” has the calling to re-turn to “source” and

To read not in the book of the self but in the book of the existent and subsistent world…

Our home in an “existent and subsistent world” is original. Once fallen away from that birth-right, it may not be re-won by reading further into “the book of the self” (an absorption that leads nowhere but deeper and deeper into the “opaque prison”), but only (only!) through a re-version to origin. From there, and only from there, is a “re-generation” to be experienced along with St Kevin, in reception of its amniotic embrace and power. This is a gift — actually the gift above all other gifts — enabling a “radiant” relation to an “existent and subsistent world”.

  1. Jaques Mercanton, ‘The Hours of James Joyce, in Portraits of the Artist in Exile (ed Willard Potts), pp 209-221. Cited at Peter Crisp’s fine FW blog along with the Joyce to Hoffmeister quotation in note 4 below.
  2. The spacing of the verses points to the spacing at stake in the tale between plural waters and plural tubs and plural births.
  3. One of the further questions raised by the episode is whether the riot of our tubshead’s consciousness/unconsciousness sits in us and/or we in it.
  4. And yet, as both a particular individual and as ‘everybody’, Harold/Humphrey — Haromphrey — proves to be an Earwicker after all. (Joyce to Adolf Hoffmeister: “Everyone is anyone and every instant is any instant.”) When asked by the “sailor king” what he was up to, “honest blunt Haromphreyld answered in no uncertain tones (…) Naw, magersty, aw war jist a cotchin on thon bluggy earwugs. Our sailor king, remarked (…) we have for trusty bailiwick a turnpiker who is by turns a pikebailer no less than an earwicker!” Now bailiwick and pikebailer (bailiff) are collective designations, earwicker as ‘earwuger’ or ‘earwigger’, a very particular one — like Haromphrey’s dialect. In fact, Haromphrey is “a turnpiker who is by turns” the collective figure “no less than” the particular one. (Joyce to Arthur Power: “I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal.”) “Comes the question: are these the facts as recorded in both or either of the collateral andrewpomurphyc narratives? We shall perhaps not so soon see. The great fact remains that after that historic date all holographs so far exhumed initialled by Haromphrey bear the sigla H.C.E. and, while he was only and long and always good duke Umphrey for the hungerlean spalpeens of Lucalizod and Chimbers to his cronies, it was equally certainly a pleasant turn of the populace which gave him as sense of those normative letters the nickname Here Comes Everybody.” All human beings, like “Haromphreyld”, but each one differently, are de-rey-ld and de-railed and the question is whether the cost of this ‘de-fall-t’ can be de-phreyld — where defray goes back to broken (‘to pay for damages caused by breakage’) and/or to peace (among the fragments).
  5. At the same time, however, the rootlessness ‘of genesis’ is also an objective genitive since rootlessness is not later than genesis or subsequent to it: rootlessness is what genesis ‘is’.
  6. These notes would seem to show Joyce as situating his narratives in an ontological context characterized by the cul-de-sac of modernity defined by Nietzsche and repeatedly depicted by Joyce’s friend and compatriot, Samuel Beckett. The central question is how far our tales obscure and/or reveal the real. (Persse O’Reilley, one concretion of HCE, refers on to perce-oreille, French for earwig. Both Persse/perce (as per se) and O’Reilley/oreille refer on to the real.) This question, in turn, has always reverted to the further one of origins. What journey have we already started ‘off on‘ and what other journeys might be possible for us and how does one go between journeys? The sun and moon appear to be impelled by just these questions when they rise and fall and rise and fall again and again in some regenerative relation to the surrounding ocean — a pattern that Kevin, as Cóemgein and the patron saint of doublin’, would re-trieve and re-establish.

Poetic vs Rhetorical Exegesis 2: a question of ontology

Bacon upon occasion used both [Ciceronian and Senecan] styles and so does Mr. Eliot. Quarrels between Senecans and Ciceronians are inevitably the result of the triumph of specialized temperament over general intelligence. (From Eliot to Seneca, 1953)

‘Poetic and Rhetorical Exegesis’ is a critical statement of McLuhan’s position in 1944 and of his future orientation as seen from there. One of its aims was to coordinate that position with his PhD thesis on Nashe and the history of the trivium which had just been approved late in 1943.

Just as Korzybski offers us a correlation of knowledge by an extension of the modes of grammar (and in this respect belongs to an ancient tradition headed by Cratylus and carried on by Pliny, Philo-Judaeus, Origen, St. Bonaventura, and the later alchemists), so Mr. Richards, whose Meaning of Meaning is a treatise of speculative grammar of curiously scholastic stamp, offers us a method for interpreting and manipulating our lives by an extension of the devices of rhetoric. In this respect Mr. Richards is a true nominalist son of Ockham, Agricola, and Ramus; (…) Mr. Richards’ rediscovery of the functional rhetorical relationships in speech and prose was timely, indeed, after three centuries of Cartesian contempt for metaphor and rhetoric in all its modes [as an extension of the modes of dialectic]. (Poetic vs Rhetorical Exegesis)

In this paragraph from his essay McLuhan offers a summary of his thesis. It sets out its three trivial arts and names, as the thesis had attempted to detail, their ‘extensions’ in historical figures and traditions. The great question, actually questions, precipitated by it may be seen in his observation that each of these arts represents a self-standing “correlation of knowledge” or a method for interpreting and manipulating our lives”.1 

Ten years before at the University of Manitoba McLuhan had encountered a similar situation in Rupert Lodge’s “comparative method“. There, too, there were three “method[s] for interpreting and manipulating our lives” and a kind of meta-method of critical comparison that would study them and their application (or “extension”) in the history of philosophy. Some of the questions implicated in Lodge’s work were:

  • was the ‘comparative method’ one of the three methods defining all of philosophy or was it a fourth method (somehow both within and without that ‘all’)?
  • if it were a fourth method, what was its status relative to the other three and how could that status be specified and justified?
  • if a fourth method could be specified and justified, how could it be communicated and put to general use in philosophy and beyond?2

These questions arising from Lodge’s work also applied to McLuhan’s studies of the trivium. His attraction to Eliot and Leavis in literary criticism was that they pointed to ways (he sensed) in which these questions might be addressed.

The first sentence of ‘Poetic vs Rhetorical Exegesis’ introduces the need to undertake “a critical journey to the full act of plenary critical judgment”. The paper then frequently sets out how such a journey may not be made. In this vein McLuhan writes in regard to Richards and Empson as rhetoricians, what he might equally well have said of Cratylus and Pliny as grammarians or Descartes and his followers as dialecticians:

It may seem simply absurd to say that neither Richards nor Empson [nor Cratylus nor Pliny nor Descartes] is a fully equipped critic.3 That, however, is not to say (…) that the [meta-]critic [equipped with an “overall view” of the three trivial modes] can dispense with their techniques. The fallacy consists in supposing that [any one of] their excellent devices for observing and describing (…) is a technique of evaluation.4

To be able to re-cognize a “dramatic structure” (that is, a dynamic plural structure) which is yet “self-contained” (that is, which is unified in its plurality) is the proper exercise of such “a technique of evaluation“.5 This is a “technique” does not arise on its own but somehow comes back from a prior structure that is before it (‘before’ especially in time): hence the need for “re-trieval” and “re-cognition”.6 In effect, this technique is just Lodge’s “comparative method” which arises from insight into the threefold play of the forms before it — but now under-stood not as a methodological technique but as an ontological response.

Over and over again McLuhan insists that there is no way that rhetoric (and by implication also not grammar or dialectic) can — “within the limits of their method” — be ‘extended’ in such a way as to reach reality and truth, “what (…) actually is“.7 Extension is always bound to the past, what McLuhan will later call ‘the rear-view mirror’. But what “what (…) actually is” stands on its own and instead of being generated out of some past is — as the beginning(s) — what must responsively be understood as already generating all past, present and future.8

A speaker or a writer of [rhetorical] prose has an intention related to an audience of some sort, but a poet’s intention is entirely absorbed in the nature of the thing he is making. The thing made [the poem]9 will stand in relation to an audience but this, while important, is only per accidens. (…) Thus rhetoric is essentially an affair of external (…) relations, while a poem has external relations only accidentally. (…) A poem (…) may contain any number of rhetorical and political components needing exegesis, and yet be wholly poetic — that is, be entirely organized with reference to a dramatic structure or movement which is self-contained. A rhetorical work is for the sake of producing action. A poetic work is an action produced for the sake of contemplation. This is an irreducible functional distinction between rhetoric and poetic10 which it is the business of the critic to manifest point by point in judging [any]  particular work.  This brings us to the crucial point. Faced with a work full of rhetorical and, therefore, political and psychological complexity, the rhetorician-psychologist can perform prodigies of ingenious and helpful exegesis but cannot possibly, within the limits of his method, determine whether the work IS a poem or not.


The utmost extension and refinement of the methods for observing speaker-audience relations brings one no nearer the problem of deciding whether a particular work IS a poem, and if so, whether it IS a significant or an insignificant one.

It is not (…) possible to arrive at a critical evaluation of a poem (…) from the point of view of rhetorical exegesis, as one can see in the work of Richards and Empson. Basically a rhetorical exegesis is concerned with indicating the “strategy” employed by a writer in bringing to bear the available means of persuasion. One can go on indefinitely describing the situation from which the strategy emerges, elaborating whole psychological and political treatises without ever reaching the point of critical evaluation.

Later, of course, McLuhan will articulate this point as the difference between lineality and simultaneity, between the literary and the electric. There is no linear way to simultaneity since lineality is exactly what simultaneity is not — and also, and chiefly, because simultaneity, as such, must already be in effect in order to be what it is.

There is a play of times here — hence McLuhan’s later appeal to Aristotle and Thomas:

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.” (From Cliché to Archetype, 1970)

Turning from the negative way (“the opposite form”) to the positive response may be seen in the following citations. But careful note must always be made of the basic difference between a “fusion” that is first of all ours and that receives its objectivity through us — versus one that is first of all ‘before’ us and whose prior objectivity it is that elicits our subjective response to it. McLuhan is pointing to this difference with his vocabulary of “contemplation”, “moral perception” and “critical evaluation”.

  • “it is (…) the intensity of the artistic process, the pressure, so to speak, under which the fusion takes place, that counts.” (McLuhan citing Eliot’s 1919 ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’)
  • Richards and Empson offer no clues whatever for approaching evaluation of this sort (…) which would help to determine whether the components (…) are merely an aggregate (…) or whether they are genuinely fused in a unifying vision which makes of them a dramatic integrity.
  • In The Philosophy of Literary Form Mr. [Kenneth] Burke (…) appears for a moment to emerge as a [genuine] critic of poetry: “We should watch for the dramatic alignment: what IS vs what“.11
  • [The matter at stake is always] the dramatic unity, if any.
  • the quality or precise degree of intensity among diverse components (…) is the index to the (…) quality
  • the rhetorical exegetist (…) has no available technique for directing attention to one of the most essential facts which the critic (…) must be able to focus at all times. Naturally, this elusive trait resides in the inevitable dramatic character12
  • The reader as spectator or contemplator is compelled to “a precise complex response.” However, this compulsion is dictated not by any rhetorical persuasiveness or strategy but simply [Thomas’ “instantly”] by the exigencies of a dynamic dramatic moment
  • [a rebound is made from] the way in which the fusion of the elements occurred
  •  A poem in itself functions dramatically, not strategically or persuasively. It is for contemplation, and functions for the spectator or reader as a means of extending and refining moral perception or dramatic awareness

Put in Lodge’s terms, the great question is whether the components at stake (in his case, the three “channels” of philosophy) are beheld in their irreducible plurality (“diverse components”) but also in their unity (“fusion”) within the comparative method. Outside that unity, there is only one-sidedness; inside it, absent fundamental distinction, there is only a formless merging. The point of the method is to avoid, at once, both one-sidedness and merger.

Such a meth-od13 or medium as the middle road is the message.

So with McLuhan. The three trivial arts must be seen in their plurality and in their unity. Absent unity, there is inevitable one-sidedness. Absent plurality, there is formless merger. Here he is a decade later in his 1955 ‘Nihilism Exposed’…

On one-sidedness or “whim”:

These [gnostic] views flooded into Europe in the fifteenth century. They underlie all the mechanic-materialisms from Descartes to John Dewey, since it is the merest whim whether these views are used to structure a Berkleyan idealism or a Darwinian mechanism.14 

On formless merger or “illusion”:

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!”


  1. Poetic vs Rhetorical Exegesis’. All citations in this post, unless otherwise identified, are from this essay. Preliminary note may be made here that if each of the trivial arts represents “a method for interpreting and manipulating our lives”, it would seem that everybody must be exercising such a method all the time and therefore must be exercising one of the trivial arts (or, perhaps, some combination of them) — unconsciously, of course. So one way of putting the problematic of the essay is to pose the question: how get to where one already is? The epigraph to Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo: Wie man wird, was man ist — How one becomes what one is. — For ‘everybody must be exercising such a method all the time’: “The artist no longer suggests that art is something that you can take or leave, that it’s for some people and not for other people: the artist insists on his absolute relevance. I’m sure this note was never heard in the Renaissance, or at any time before now. The concept of relevance is a twentieth-century concept.” (Communications and the Word of God, 1959)
  2. One of the many seminal notions McLuhan took from Lodge was the practical applicability of critical philosophy. Lodge published books on ethics, on logic, and on art, but also The Philosophy of Education (1937), The Philosophy of Business (1945) and Applied Philosophy (1951).
  3. By “fully equipped” McLuhan means that such thinkers represent “a method for interpreting and manipulating our lives” (like everybody) and that they articulate it (as few do). They are representative in multiple senses (especially in the sense that they re-present a prior form). The questions for each of them, however, are: 1) how “fully” do they actually represent the fulness of life? Are they one-sided abstractions or multi-sided dramas? 2) how able are they to articulate real and true value? In sum: how far do they actually provide full access to reality?
  4. By “a technique of evaluation”, McLuhan means the ability to discern true or real worth. So where Lodge criticized one-sidedness from a methodological perspective, McLuhan did so from an ontological one. Then the critical question became: how do reality and truth belong together with plurality? That is, might Lodge’s comparative method, as a variety of perspectivism, instead of revealing true reality, cut us off from ‘it’ as described above all by Nietzsche? Or, if this were not the case, how was perspectivism compatible or even essential to ontology?
  5. Although McLuhan does not describe his essay as a prolegomena to ontology, this is what this specification of “a technique of evaluation” amounts to. For by “evaluation” McLuhan means anything but a relative one. He means one that would be true and real.
  6. For discussion of the peculiar circularity implicated here see Poetic vs Rhetorical Exegesis 1. For the complications of time, see McLuhan’s times in particular and the Time and Times posts in general. For “re-trieval”, note the etymological connection with ‘trouver’ — ‘refinding’, ‘recovering’, ‘re-establishing’.
  7. Leavis in Revaluation.
  8. This is the metaphysical ground for McLuhan’s later statements regarding the already present of the future.
  9. Throughout this passage McLuhan uses ‘poem’ as meaning ‘something real and true’, ‘something self-standing’.
  10. The title of McLuhan’s paper, ‘Poetic vs Rhetorical Exegesis’, derives, of course, from this “irreducible functional distinction” between these two types of exegesis.
  11. “What” is the content of some view or opinion. As such, it begs the question of the propriety of that view or opinion. That is, it begs the question of its reality and truth.
  12. McLuhan is writing throughout of “the critic of poetry” and of “the inevitable dramatic character of poems” (subjective genitives!) . But his point has to do with criticism in general, not only of poems, so “the inevitable dramatic character” characterizes a poem, or  anything at all, which really and truly IS.
  13. Meth-od is from Greek ‘odos, way.
  14. “A Berkleyan idealism or a Darwinian mechanism” = Lodge’s idealism or realism. McLuhan’s point about the “merest whim” between them was made by Lodge as follows: “Both realism and idealism are one-sided. Experience has been split up into two aspects, and then the whole has been interpreted exclusively in terms of one of its aspects. It is all nature, or all mind.” Since the two are isomorphic in this way, their difference turns on “merest whim”. For the passage from Lodge, see The Comparative Method of Rupert Lodge.

Poetic vs Rhetorical Exegesis 1

In McLuhan’s 1944 essay ‘Poetic vs Rhetorical Exegesis: The Case for Leavis against Richards and Empson’1, an involuted set of ideas may be seen which dominated McLuhan’s intellectual life from start to finish — not in a straight line, of course, but as a kind of complex formula persisting through maelstroms and flips.

  • The loss of tradition has left the world rudderless and it is the resulting general confusion that is responsible for our international, social and intra-individual wars.
  • The loss of tradition has resulted first of all from a loss of acuity among what should be our intellectual elite (but in the event we have only the blind leading the blind). This situation can be put right if, and only if, intellectual acuity is regained.
  • Intellectual acuity can be regained because the fundamental dynamic underlying tradition is the two-way fit between right thinking and reality, between acuity and truth, between logos and Logos.2
  • The demand made on acuity (a demand resulting from its nature, on the one hand — acuity demands acuity about acuity3 — and from the extent of our problems, on the other) is to come back from reality, truth and Logos to right thinking, acuity and logos.4 
  • Once this backwards flip to the beginning(s) is realized it must be articulated for “for general recognition and experience”.5

There are two great riddles to these ideas which McLuhan had to solve. First, how does thinking work towards where it must come back from? Second, how does acuity as it ‘sharpens’ itself become more “general” and exoteric rather than more specialized and esoteric? The answer to both riddles is: communication. But it would be 15 years after 1944, when McLuhan was almost 50, before the second became clear to him. And the first continued to elude him (despite his insight into the “gap” and “discontinuity” and the “flip” and “resonance”) just as it has forever eluded everyone else as well.

The journey to/from the beginning(s) is the way, the only way, out of the cul-de-sac in which the world today — the global village with nukes — finds itself. Or loses itself.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning.
(Eliot, ‘Little Gidding’, Four Quartets)6

All these ideas and problems may be seen —  articulated, half-articulated. and awaiting articulation — in two passages from the 1944 ‘Poetic vs Rhetorical Exegesis’:

The entire effort of Mr. Leavis has been to realize (…) insight in such a way as to make it available for general recognition and experience among intelligent readers.7 It represents not only a major critical effort but the extension and refinement of sensibility as the very8 mode of critical activity and of discriminatory reading and response.

Leavis (…) without any chance of popular recognition [has been] engaged in executing the program which Mr Eliot (…) indicated but relinquished.9 Just how well he succeeded the reader [McLuhan himself, of course] who has worked for six years with Revaluation is best able to say.

In the wake of Eliot and Leavis, McLuhan took it upon himself “to realize (…) insight” in its “very mode” and to do so in “such a way as to make it available for general recognition and experience”.  Fifteen years later later he would come to see that this was the path the physical sciences had taken and that the “very mode” of insight needed to instigate science in a similar way in the humanities and social was focus on the medium.

  1. Sewanee Review, 52:2, 1944.
  2. McLuhan in ‘James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial’ (1953): “There was a ‘nominalist’ school in antiquity but the main tradition was via the Stoics or analogists for whom speech was a specific level of communication in the divine Logos which distinguished men from brutes.”
  3. Leavis in Revaluation: “It is salutary then, to remind ourselves (…) that (it is in) Keats’s poetry, the poetry he actually wrote (…) in its qualities, in what it actually is, (that there) must reside the chief grounds for a high estimate of his potentialities. So stated, the last proposition would seem to be axiomatic. Yet there is a common tendency to shirk literary criticism; to prefer, where creative genius is in question, some freer and looser approach, as if relevance were an easy matter, and by evading the chief relevant discipline one could attain to delicacy and inwardness.
  4. The circularity at stake here may be seen in the first sentence of McLuhan’s paper which broaches the need to undertake “a critical journey to the full act of plenary critical judgment”. How “journey” towards what must already be in place? How be “critical” on the way to the “critical”? McLuhan’s last sentence confirms the difficulty by specifying that “the arduous stage of the journey (namely, its beginning) remains to be accomplished”!
  5. McLuhan continues the last sentence of the paper: “the arduous stage of the journey (…) remains to be accomplished before winning an overall view, which is plenary critical judgment”.
  6. ‘Little Gidding’, the last of Four Quartets appeared in 1942. These lines would, then, have been an important aspect of McLuhan’s observation in his essay: “How profoundly Mr. Eliot has since interpreted this dramatic vision of history the reader of Four Quartets need not be told.”
  7. The notion of an intellectual elite of “intelligent readers” that would reinstitute tradition was central to McLuhan from, roughly, 1930 to 1950. Around 1950 he came to see this as a literary idea (along with “discriminatory reading”, “contemplation”, “refinement”, etc) that was imploding in the electric age. But how, then, could tradition be survive and revive? Was it simply gone? Understanding media was his answer to this question, one which came to crystallize for him only around 1960.
  8. “The very mode”, along with many other constructions in McLuhan’s essay implicates ontology — ie, access to, and articulation of, reality. See the etymology of ‘very‘ and ‘‘Poetic vs Rhetorical Exegesis’: a question of ontology.
  9. McLuhan sharply differentiates in his essay between Eliot’s early criticism and his later criticism and between his later criticism and his poetry: “He (Eliot) has ceased to function as a critic (…) (but) since his poetry has in no way suffered from this fact, it can be dismissed as a matter of little consequence.”

Pound’s Guide to Kulchur

Sometime in his later career after 1960, McLuhan wrote out a short description of Pound’s Guide to Kulchur. Perhaps it was for discussions with grad students working with him on The Cantos. Or he may have thought of using Pound in what was to be a new section on the history of Senecanism in his never-ending reconstruction of his PhD thesis. For McLuhan’s take on Pound was that he was a modern Seneca directing attention “to the idea of production and to the creative process rather than to consumer values and attitudes.”1 

Make It New!2

The note was left in McLuhan’s copy of Pound’s Spirit of Romance (now among McLuhan’s books preserved at Fisher Library, University of Toronto) and recently recovered from it after a gap of 50 years or so.

Guide to K

One way of stating the effect of Guide to Kulchur is to say that it is entirely related to the idea of production and to the creative process rather than to consumer values and attitudes. This directive is far more radical to our time than, say, Empson’s Seven Types [of Ambiguity]. Mathematical training had taught Empson that the homogeneities of Euclidean space were easy to translate into the pluralisms of nuclear space-time. Empson hoicked us out of the single level, lineal world of print culture. 

But in Guide to Kulchur Pound grappled with the entire cultural transition of the West. Faced with an electronic revolution which reduced the world to a global village as early as the telegraph, Pound sought for the structural dynamics of this change in Chinese culture. Centuries ago, the Chinese had discovered a basis of equilibrium between sight and sound, between the world of one-thing-at-a-time and the world of all-at-once. This inclusive unity of the senses and of consciousness was denied to the West whose abstract technologies began with the translation of sound into sight by the fragmentation of the phonetic alphabet. 

Guide to Kulchur is at all points a navigational chart for getting the west out of the segmental and static impasse molded by phonetic alphabet and print culture. Wyndham Lewis in all his work fought against this Pound strategy for culture. Lewis correctly diagnosed the trend of our time as being toward ear orientation and away from the eye-organization of experience.3  One major effect of the Guide to Kulchur was to intensify and clarify the Lewis polemic against his time. At the same time Pound enabled Joyce to shape his multisensuous world with more assurance of his bearings. The Guide is just what it insists that it is: a basic chart for the periplum of the cultural coasts of our time. It is of course the ultimate and indispensable handbook to the Cantos, and as such cannot readily be detached from the Pound corpus.

  1. McLuhan was very much aware that all thinkers worth our attention, like Pound, were both Senecan and Ciceronian. The key considerations are: 1) what is the ratio between the two? 2) how does that ratio change in different contexts? 3) how do these changing ratios build larger structures which demand focused investigation as much as, say, organic compounds and genes do as independent fields of physical science? (The deep ground of the complex structures studied in organic chemistry and genetics of course consists of elements, that is, of electrons and protons in varied ratios. But the movement from the study of the elementary structures of ground to the study of more complex combinations of elements is an essential feature of the physical sciences. Intelligibility is multi-levelled and multidimensional!)
  2. As McLuhan was very much aware, ‘new’ for Pound did not mean something fashionable à la mode, but something perennial: “Ezra Pound says ‘Poetry is news that stays news’. He invaded the oral sphere and became (lasting) news — an arduous metamorphosis.” (Explorations 8, #5, 1957)
  3. On the issue (actually issues, plural) of eye/ear interrelation McLuhan deeply disagreed with Lewis. As set out in his 1955 review of Hugh Kenner’s book on Lewis, he saw that Lewis’ position amounted to a kind of gnosticism. But he nevertheless took from Lewis the critical notion that ear orientation, if uncorrected, and especially when multiplied through technology, led to a dangerous irrationality, to totalitarianism and to wars. This sort of complex response characterized McLuhan’s reading of all thinkers — including Pound.


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.” (From Cliché to Archetype, 1970).

McLuhan, at least from the time of his graduate studies around 1940, was interested in Seneca and the question of how learning eventuates. But this (as McLuhan himself came to specify only in the late 1950s) is the same question as: what is communication?

Here is McLuhan on Seneca in chronological order with added bold and commentary in footnotes.

The war between the dialecticians and rhetoricians began as soon as the Sophists attempted to make dialectics subordinate to the art of persuasion. Plato and Aristotle were the greatest enemies of the rhetoricians, not so much in rejecting rhetoric, as in asserting that as an art it had no power to control dialectics.  The Stoics, however, are the main defenders of dialectics against rhetoric after [Plato and] Aristotle.1 It was they who made Cicero very uncomfortable on many occasions, and against them he, as rhetorician, directs the main force of his attack. It is in terms of the Stoic contempt of persuasion [rhetoric] and their love of cryptic and compressed utterance that one is  able to understand the ancient rivalry between the Attic and Asiatic styles — later, between the Senecans and Ciceronians. The war between these literary camps is basically the opposition between dialectics and rhetoric to control the modes of literary composition; and the ramifications of this opposition stretch into the realms of ethics and politics, both in Antiquity and in the Renaissance. (The Place Of Thomas Nashe In The Learning Of His Time)

Donne is quite explicit about his rhetorical aims in preaching. His intention was to arrange his rhetorical effects in such a way as “to trouble the understanding, to displace, and discompose and disorder the judgement (…) or to empty it of former apprehensions, and to shake beliefe, with which it had possessed it self before, and then, when it is thus melted to poure it into new molds, when it is thus mollified, to stamp and imprint new formes, new images, new opinions in it.” Donne is here stating the Attic or anti-Ciceronian concept of style espoused by the Senecans. His words describe the aims set themselves by Montaigne and Bacon in their essays. In The Advancement Bacon contrasts the two modes of delivering knowledge as the modes of aphorism and orderly method: “But the writing in aphorisms hath many excellent virtues, whereto the writing in Method doth not approach. For first, it trieth the writer, whether he be superficial or solid: for Aphorism, except they should be ridiculous, cannot be made but of the pith and heart of sciences; for discourse illustration is cut off: recitals of examples are cut off; discourse of connection and order cut off; descriptions of practice are cut off (…) And lastly, Aphorisms, representing a knowledge broken do invite men to inquire farther; whereas Methods, carrying the show of a total do secure men, as if they were at farthest.” Both Montaigne and Bacon made compromises, gradually admitting examples, authorities, and descriptions, but persisting in their original intention of employing an aphoristic style in order to dislocate the mind from its customary courses(The Place Of Thomas Nashe In The Learning Of His Time)

It is easy to see how the aphorism was indispensable to this mode of composition employed by Bacon, Burton, Donne, and Browne. It is equally important to recognize that a statecraft, or theory of politics, as well as rhetoric, was the mainstay of the Attic style.2  As [M.W.] Croll3 says: “The negligence of the anti-Ciceronian masters, their disdain of revision, their dependence upon casual and emergent devices of construction, might sometimes be mistaken for mere indifference to art or contempt of form4 (…) Yet even their extravagances are purposive, and express a creed that is at the same time philosophical and artistic. Their purpose was to portray, not a thought, but a mind thinking, or, in Pascal’s words,
la peinture de la pensée. Thus the ‘cutted period,’ asymmetry of members, sudden shifts from plain to metaphorical statement, or from one metaphor to another, is the result of a style “always tending toward the aphorism, or pensée, as its ideal form“.5 In brief, it is a Senecan style. (The Place Of Thomas Nashe In The Learning Of His Time)

Seneca was for Roger [Bacon], and many others, a Christian worthy, and the relative claims of his eloquence and that of Cicero was a dispute which uninterruptedly split the learned world from the beginning until after the time of Montaigne and [Francis] Bacon. (Francis Bacon’s Patristic Inheritance)6

Elocution, like invention, is of two kinds: [according to Francis Bacon] “it is either magistral or initiative. (…) I call that doctrine initiative (borrowing the term from the sacred ceremonies) which discloses and lays bare the very mysteries of the sciences.7 The magistral method teaches; the initiative intimates. The magistral requires that what is told should be believed; the initiative [requires] that it should be examined. The one transmits knowledge to the crowd of learners; the other to the sons, as it were, of science.” 
In a word, the one style is Ciceronian, the other Senecan. (Francis Bacon’s Patristic Inheritance)

Landscape offered several attractive advantages to the poets of the mid-eighteenth century. It meant for one thing an extension of the Baroque interest in la peinture de la pensée, which the study of Seneca had suggested to Montaigne and Bacon and Browne — an interest which reached a maximal development, so far as the technique of direct statement permitted, in Pascal, Racine, and Alexander Pope. Pope especially deserves study from this point of view since he first developed the couplet to do the complex work of the double-plot of the Elizabethans. He discovered how to make a couplet achieve a symbolic vision. That is, to effect
an instant of inclusive consciousness by the juxtaposition without copula of diverse and even paradoxical situations or states of mind.8 (Tennyson and Picturesque Poetry)

The conflicting claims of dialectic and rhetoric or private and public communication account for a good deal of subsequent intellectual and social history. The Roman world divided the dispute in accordance with the position of Seneca and of Cicero, and the mediaeval world opposed the methods of study and teaching of the [Ciceronian] Fathers and the [Senecan] Schoolmen.9 (Technology and Political Change)

Because the function of the exegete is to reveal the hidden and the obscure, he naturally resorts to those forms of expression which arrest the flow of the mind by sudden turns, or dislocate it from its usual channels. (…) By juxtaposing well-known styles [from classical rhetoric] with contemporary themes and controversies, Lyly and Nashe were exercising the art of the continuous parallel so strikingly used in [Joyce’s] Ulysses and in the Senecanism of [Eliot’s] Gerontion and Sweeney Agonistes.10 (From Eliot to Seneca)

The Church Fathers are always close to Seneca for the same reason they are close to Pliny. Seneca provided the stylistic means of psychological manipulation of the inner world [just as]11 Pliny exercised the same effects via the objects of the outer world. Montaigne, interested above all in arresting and painting thought, uses the quick conversational turns of Senecan style and the wide variety of stances provided by [Pliny’s]12 world of natural history to snap-shot the various postures of the mind. (From Eliot to Seneca)

The natural and age-old antipathy of Senecan and Ciceronian is rooted in diversity of aim and method in communication. The Senecan cares only to reveal the thing. He is an instrument to be set aside the moment that the reader has been helped to see.
 (From Eliot to Seneca)

The [Senecan] circuit represents not a narratio or a record of events, but the stages of the learning process.
 The discontinuities of Senecan style, whether in Bacon’s Essays or Mr. Eliot’s poetry, are not attempts to take the reader by the hand or to unfold a tale, but attempts to reveal exactly discriminated states of mind by devices geared to inner vision. The Ciceronian, however, is engaged not in revelation but self-expression. He takes up the task not of discovery and learning but of transmission and accumulation of data, and the inculcation of moral attitudes. (From Eliot to Seneca)

Bacon upon occasion used both [Ciceronian and Senecan] styles and so does Mr. Eliot.
Quarrels between Senecans and Ciceronians are inevitably the result of the triumph of specialized temperament over general intelligence. (From Eliot to Seneca) 

The Senecan schools of declamation in the Roman world elaborated all those terms and procedures which the twelfth-century Senecans revived and elaborated. The Sic et Non of Abelard, like the antitheta of Bacon, is a technique of juxtaposition of texts for the purpose of sudden illumination. Scholasticism was Senecan in origin and temper, and opposed to the Ciceronian humanism of medieval philology and pedagogy. This perspective would have helped Professor Williamson [in his Senecan Amble] to locate the line of wit.14 (From Eliot to Seneca)

Seen in the light of its close historical relation with scholasticism, the [seemingly inexplicable] Senecan link with scientific method, on one hand, and with Puritan theological procedure, on the other, becomes explicable. (From Eliot to Seneca) 

It was the distinction of Pope to have perfected the Senecan essay in verse as a precise instrument of dramatic moral dissection. The return to Senecan style in our time has been made possible by means of the technique of the interior landscape in poetry. The great impetus which Newton gave to the elaboration of external landscape lasted until this century. But the Senecal world, concerned with the postures of mind and the figures on the inner psychological stage, was mainly suppressed by Newtonian physics and optics. There was something revolutionary, therefore, about Mr. Eliot’s directing his exegesis to the Senecal techniques of the Elizabethan and Jacobean drama and his incorporating these via Laforgue and Rimbaud in his early poems. (From Eliot to Seneca) 

In rewriting my doctoral dissertation I am going to include a history of Senecanism as the opponent of Ciceronianism. (…) Seneca is the way of gnosis. Cicero of expression. Senecans stress connatural [innate], irrational [not continuous] knowing via the passions. (McLuhan letter to Eric Voegelin)15

You know my theory of the origin of the technique of scholastic philosophy out of Senecan antitheta. (McLuhan letter to Archie Malloch)

Scholasticism, like Senecanism, was directly related to the oral traditions of aphoristic learningWhen it is understood how entirely oral [scholastic] thesis defenses were, it is easier to see why the students of such arts would need to have memories furnished with a large repertory of aphorisms and sententiae. This is a factor in the prevalence of Senecan stylistic in later Roman times and for the long association of Senecan style with “scientific method” both in the middle ages and in the Renaissance. For Francis Bacon, as much as for Abelard, “writing in aphorisms” rather than in “methods” was the difference between keen analysis and mere public persuasion. In The Advancement of Learning, which is itself shaped as a public oration, Bacon prefers, on intellectual grounds, the scholastic technique of aphorism to the Ciceronian method of explicit spelling out of information in the form of continuous prose. (…) We find it hard to grasp that the Senecan Francis Bacon was in many respects a schoolman. (Gutenberg Galaxy)

Attention to Senecanism and scholasticism in ancient Rome will help [the reader] to understand how oral tradition in Western literature is transmitted by the Senecan vogue,16 and was gradually obliterated by the printed page in the later eighteenth century. The paradox that Senecanism is both highbrow in medieval scholasticism and lowbrow in the Elizabethan popular drama will be found to be resolved by this oral factor. But for Montaigne, as for Burton, Bacon, and Browne, there was no enigma. Senecan antithesis and “amble” (as described in Senecan Amble by George Williamson) provided the authentic means of scientific observation and experience of mental process. When only the eye is engaged, the multi-levelled gestures and resonances of Senecan oral action are quite impertinent. (Gutenberg Galaxy)

  1. See McLuhan on Logos.
  2. Elsewhere, of course, McLuhan describes “the Stoic contempt of persuasion”, that is, of rhetoric. Here rhetoric is supposedly a “mainstay of the Attic style”. This is testimony both to McLuhan’s “disdain of revision” and to inherent problems of ambiguity with the Senecan/Ciceronian classification and, indeed, with the dialectic/rhetoric one.
  3. ‘Baroque Style in Prose’, in Studies in English Philology, ed K. Malone and M. B. Ruud, 1929.
  4. Croll’s description of the Senecans here applies very well to McLuhan’s own “casual” style of composition.
  5. Ibid.
  6.  McLuhan Studies 1, 1999, 7-27.
  7. Bacon’s insight here is fundamental to McLuhan’s enterprise. Unpacked, the notion is that “initative” qua “initative” cannot be derived from the “rear-view mirror”. Understanding communication (= understanding how “initiative intimates”) therefore requires the “retracing” of ‘ordinary human perception’ back to its initiatory springs in dynamic possibilities. The ‘dialectical’ problem then arises as to the existence and the right of some particular sort of human perception, itself inevitably ‘sprung’ from some one such dynamic possibility, to achieve an “an overall view” of those possibilities “which is plenary critical judgment” (‘Poetic and Rhetorical Exegesis’, 1944). As described in Plato’s seventh letter (341c-d), only something like “sacred ceremonies” is able to reveal this. “There does not exist, nor will there ever exist, any treatise of mine dealing therewith. For it does not at all admit of verbal expression like other studies, but, as a result of continued application to the subject itself and communion therewith, it is brought to birth in the soul on a sudden, as light that is kindled by a leaping spark, and (only) thereafter it nourishes itself.” McLuhan’s take on this ‘ancient’ insight (with roots in Plato’s myth of Er) is that a ‘sacred ceremony’ of this sort is always taking place in the human soul, moment to moment to moment — but behind our own backs. What is first of all required is therefore to re-call that “sacred” action that is already always taking place. And this, in turn, requires seeing through modern ‘culture’ to what it attempts above all to suppress and conceal.
  8. McLuhan’s closely allied interests in literary composition and education may be seen at work here. When a poet like Pope achieves “an instant of inclusive consciousness by the juxtaposition without copula of diverse and even paradoxical situations or states of mind“, he is instantiating what it takes to learn anything — that is, to appreciate something new. Learning anything new necessarily brings together “diverse and even paradoxical situations or states of mind” — an old state of mind and a new one. Learning anything new is, therefore, necessarily “without copula”. Furthermore, if every moment of experience whatsoever presents us with new in-formation, a link is revealed — one insisted upon by McLuhan over and over and over again — between ‘ordinary perception’ and artistic practice. The basic equation is: artistic practice = ordinary perception = education. But any of these, or more probably all three of them together, can become misperceived and misunderstood and misused. The great question is how to re-veal them fittingly once again to re-vitalize life and to re-solve unsolvable problems?
  9. It is typical of McLuhan’s mind to cross in a single sentence Seneca and Cicero and then Cicero and Seneca. He had a kind of built-in chiasmus.
  10. The attempt to e-ducate is a linear desire: the hope is to lead (ducare) out (ex) from an old mindset to a new one. This takes time. But the instant of learning is momentary: suddenly something new is born. “Juxtaposing” or the use of “continuous parallel” in education or art attempts to achieve the former linear ambition through the latter simultaneity. In this respect, Senecanism might be thought to be a style located at the crossroads of time(s). See the passage on Aristotle and Aquinas at the head of this post.
  11. McLuhan: ‘and’.
  12. McLuhan: ‘the’.
  13. ‘Circuit’ and ‘stages’ have fundamentally different meanings in Ciceronian versus Senecan contexts. At bottom, the differences in meaning of these words between the two depend on time (linear vs simultaneous) and momentary integrity (simple vs complex).
  14. ‘What are the lines of wit’ is the question to which “the medium is the message’ is the answer. The phrase “line of wit” is from Leavis, who adopted it from Eliot’s use of ‘wit’ to characterize the line of English poetry from Dryden to Pope.
  15. McLuhan to Voegelin June 10, 1953.
  16. McLuhan’s transition from literary classification to media and technology classification is clear here. It was the breakdown of the former in its “attempts to reveal exactly discriminated states of mind by devices geared to inner vision” that precipitated him into the latter (like one returned from the maelstrom). Since Nietzsche and Beckett offer the two most articulate descriptions of the breakdown of literary classification, the question posed by McLuhan to his interpreters may be put: does he or does he not offer a way on (backwards, forwards and both together, ‘odos ano kato) from Nietzsche and Beckett?


In his use of wheel and axis imagery starting around 1970 (so in the last decade of his life), McLuhan described what he variously called “the very principle of mobility” in and between moments of experience (1972), “the principle of the dynamic at work in a[ny] new kind of situation” (1973), “the basis of human communication” (LoM posthumous).1

A central name for this basic principal in McLuhan’s work is ‘tactility’. It is “the interplay among the senses”, “that steady ratio among the senses which is the norm of human consciousness”, “the bond among the other senses”, the “unconscious inference or mental action [at work] even in the most basic sense experience”, “the very crux of the interplay of the senses”, the “agent of unified perceptionthe world of the interval”, “the space of the significant bounding line, of pressure, and of the interval”.

These snap-shot characterizations of ‘tactility’ are taken from the following citations of McLuhan describing tactility, given in chronological order, with an emphasis on 1960-1961. It was at this time that he appears to have begun stressing its importance:

From Visual To Tactile Experience, 19602
Externalizations of our senses, such as the wheel, the phonetic alphabet, radio and photography, also constituted closed systems which invaded the open systems of our senses with tremendous transforming power. 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.

From Visual To Tactile Experience, 1960
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.

Letter to Serge Chermayeff, December 19, 19603
Is not tactility and the mode of creative process that very interplay of the senses which we call synesthesia?

Inside the Five Sense Sensorium, 1961
Just at the end of the nineteenth century Bernard Berenson had begun a crusade ‘to endow the retinal impression with tactile values‘. There was wide awareness that photography and other technological change had abstracted the retinal impression, as it were, from the rest of the sensorium. Thus, in 1893 Adolf Hildebrand the sculptor published a small book called ‘The Problem of Form. He insisted that true vision must be much imbued with tangibility, and that creative, aesthetic awareness was touching and making. Such was the timeliness of his insistence, that the theme of artistic vision as tangible, tactile, and based on the interplay of the sense[s] began to enjoy acceptance in poetry and painting alike. The art historian Heinrich Wölfflin taught the Hildebrand stress on visual forms as haptic or tangible-tactile — and his pupil Sigfried Giedion embodied it in his Space, Time and ArchitectureHow little these men foresaw television as the fulfillment of their program! Photography gave separate and, as it were, abstract intensity to the visual, a development which called for and received swift compensating strategy in the arts. Movies and photo-engraving created a further revolution in Western sensibilities, tending to high stress on pictorial quality in all aspects of human association. And I am bold [enough] to say that there has been no respite from this growing pictorial stress till the advent of television. (…) The television image is, in effect, a haptic, tactile, or synesthetic mode of interplay among the senses, a fulfillment on a popular plane of the aesthetic program of Hildebrand, Berenson, Wölfflin, Paul Klee, and Giedion.

Inside the Five Sense Sensorium, 1961
When Hildebrand conducted his campaign for tactility against mere retinal pictorial impression, he was in the centre of a great cultural current which, from Cezanne in painting to Conrad in literature, swept up all into the ‘Heart of Darkness’ or ‘the Africa within’.

Inside the Five Sense Sensorium, 1961
actility is less a separate sense than it is the interplay among the senses. When, therefore, I speak of the tactility of the television image, I mean this stepped-up interplay of the senses which the nineteenth century artists and polemicists struggled to foster in an aesthetically starved milieu. That nineteenth century program makes no sense to anybody who fails to understand the peculiar monopoly and separation of visual experience, at the expense of the other senses, which is imposed by print and its industrial, organizational extensions. Television, then, is not part of the nineteenth century art program for the reconquest of synesthesia. Television is rather the overwhelming and technological success of that program after its artistic exponents have retired.

Inside the Five Sense Sensorium, 1961
A cartoon or an abstract painting offers sparse data and demands much of the viewer by way of
‘closure’ or completion and fill-in. The television image, then, demands much participation from the audience compared to movie, radio, or photo. Its two-dimensional, contoured character fosters the tactile interplay of the senses which painters since Cezanne had stressed as needful. And this sculptural, contoured image with its tactile stress is, in the case of the television medium, given a scope and extent of vulgarization unknown even to movie, photo or newspaper.

Inside the Five Sense Sensorium, 1961
Our technical media, since writing and printing, are extensions of our senses. The latest such extension, television, I am suggesting, is an extension, not just of sight and sound, but of that very synesthesia which the artists 
of the past centuries have stressed as accessible via the tangible-tactile values of the new vision. Television is not just sight and sound, but tangibility in its visual, contoured, sculptural mode.

Care and Feeding of Communication Innovation, 1961
he senses never operate in isolation. If one sense is suppressed, the other senses compensate in various ways in order to maintain that steady ratio among the senses which is the norm of human consciousness. If one sense is isolated by stress or intensity we are in the state of hypnosis at once. Pushed a bit further, the isolation of sense leads swiftly to insanity (…) the tactile sense (…) appears to be the bond among the other senses.

Care and Feeding of Communication Innovation, 1961
The TV image is the first technology to project or externalize our tactile sense
. The externalizing of our tactility has brought great change in the ratios between sight and sound. Sight and sound had reached some degrees of stability in relation to one another, thanks to the evenly divided empires of radio and film, of press and photography. The sudden project[ion] of touch itself changed everything.  The human senses were suddenly given an altogether new diet, and a new ratio or proportion among our senses was set up as soon as TV began.

Care and Feeding of Communication Innovation, 1961
tactility — or what the psychologists call “closure”.

The Gutenberg Galaxy, 1962
Gombrich records the stages of nineteenth-century discussion and analysis of “sense data” leading to the Helmholtz case for “unconscious inference” or mental action even in the most basic sense experience. “Tactility” or interplay among all the senses was felt to be the very mode of this “inference”.

The Gutenberg Galaxy, 1962
An oral manuscript culture had no fear of tactility, the very crux of the interplay of the senses.

The Gutenberg Galaxy, 1962
It was not till the pre-Raphaelites and Hopkins that a deliberate campaign for Saxon tactile values in language was to begin in English. Yet tactility is the mode of interplay and of being rather than of separation and of lineal sequence.

The Gutenberg Galaxy, 1962
This interplay or synesthesia is a kind of tactility such as Blake sought in the bounding line of sculptural form and in engraving. (…) Blake, at least, had understood the Berkeleyan critique [of vision] and had restored tactility to its prime role as agent of unified perception.

Humpty Dumpty, Automation and TV, 1962
For tactility is not so much the isolated sense of touch as it is the interplay of all the senses.

Understanding Media, 1964
The TV image requires each instant that we “close” the spaces in the mesh by a convulsive sensuous participation that is profoundly kinetic and tactile, because tactility is the interplay of the senses, rather than the isolated contact of skin and object.4

Understanding Media, 1964
tactile participation (…) is sex

McLuhan to Wilfred Watson, 1965
Tactility is directly related to Thomism and St. Thomas. It is explicitly the inclusive circle of the sense in interplay.

Through the Vanishing Point, 1968
tactility includes all the senses as white light incorporates all colors

Include Me Out: Reversal Of Overheated Image, 1968
tactile space is the space of the interval, the icon, the contour.

Counterblast, 1969
Tactility is not a sense but an interplay of all senses.

The Hardware/Software Mergers, 1969
The electric world is the world of discontinuity, the world of resonating intervals, the world of involvement, the world of touch. Tactility is the world of interval. When you touch something, you do not create a connection; you create a space between you and it. It echoes, there’s the base of musical “beat.” That is ‘where it’s at’, this is the interface of change resulting from interval. The “missing link” was  the greatest discovery of the 19th Century. But it was not missing at all ; it was an interface; it was where the new evolution began. 

The Hardware/Software Mergers, 1969
The TV image is not visual at all (…) there are no connections in it. It is all iconoscope or iconic action of the scanning finger. The TV image resembles the painting technique developed by Seurat around the 1880’s. It was pointillism: a mesh of luminous dots creating a tactile bounding line.

Discontinuity and Communication in Literature, 1970
The double plot structure (…) presents no connection or continuity, but only an interface or continuous parallel between two actions. This interface is tactility itself, the metamorphic moment of the resonant interval such as occurs between the wheel and the axle.

Last Look at the Tube, 1978
It was the symbolists who had stressed the character of the discontinuous as the key to tactility and involvement: their structures were never continuous or connected statements so much as suggestive juxtapositions. As Mallarmé 
put it: “To define is to kill. To suggest is to create.” The simultaneous world of electric information is always lacking in visual connectedness and always structured by resonant intervals. The resonant interval, as Heisenberg explains, is the world of touch, so that acoustic space is simultaneously tactile. 

Laws of Media, posthumous
each configuration of senses creates a unique form of space
— figure and ground are in dynamic equilibrium, each exerting pressure on the other across the interval separating them. Intervals, therefore, are resonant and not static. (…) Tactility is the space of the significant bounding line, of pressure, and of the interval.5


  1. For extended passages, sources and discussion of the citations in this paragraph, see Wheel and Axle.
  2. This short essay, which was published in the first volume of Canadian Communications, might be considered as one more of McLuhan’s ‘Canadian’ announcements. His specification of the importance of the tactile here is comparable to his initial use of “the medium is the message” in Vancouver in 1958 and “global village” in Winnipeg in 1959.
  3. Full letter given at Letter to Serge Chermayeff.
  4. “The TV image” here stands in for “all experience”:  all experience “requires each instant that we ‘close’ (…) by a convulsive sensuous participation that is profoundly kinetic and tactile”. And it was no accident, in McLuhan’s view, that television and the possibility of the collective investigation of human being emerged in the same “Marconi era”. Each represented in their different ways an ‘outering’ of the human sensorium. See the Opto( )phone posts for further discussion.
  5. The LOM text here is: “Resonance is the mode of acoustic space, tactility is the space of the significant bounding line…”. But “resonance” is the mode of all space, not just of “acoustic space”. Especially in the years just after “acoustic space” was dis-covered in the culture and technology seminar, McLuhan tended to equate it with something like ‘underlying space’ — as if “acoustic space” were more basic than “visual space”. But this was a linear perspective (since “acoustic space” may be imagined to have come first in time) he later corrected himself to acknowledge that: “in our desire to illumine the differences between visual and acoustic space, we have undoubtedly given a false impression: and that is that the normal brain, in its everyday functioning, cannot reconcile the apparently contradictory perceptions of both sides of the mind” (GV 48). Again: “visual and acoustic space are always present in any human situation, even if Western civilization has (…) tamped down our awareness of the acoustic” (GV 55). McLuhan’s emphasis on “acoustic space” was an attempt to rebalance that “awareness” and to show the possibilities that emerged with that rebalancing. As regards what is ‘first’, careful note should be made of McLuhan’s recourse to ‘allatonceness’ here: “visual and acoustic space are always present in any human situation“.


McLuhan occasionally used the term ‘membrane’ in his later work:

People of literary and critical bias find the shrill vehemence of de Chardin as disconcerting as his uncritical enthusiasm for the cosmic membrane that has been snapped round the globe by the electric dilation of our various senses. (GG 32)

Electricity has wrapped the planet in a single cohesive field or membrane that is organic rather than mechanical in nature. (The Electronic Age – The Age of Implosion)


All men are totally involved in the insides of all men. 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. (Notes on Burroughs)

Government had begun in a modest way as the figure of the helmsman. The ship represented the entire human community. Today, the rudder has become much larger than the ship. The number of helmsmen are coextensive with the community. (…) The stretching of the bounds of government has coincided with the contraction of the social membrane. (TT, 217)

Finnegans Wake is very much concerned with the resonance in the ‘tribal membrane‘ and the drama among the instincts and the artifacts of language and technology, leading to the awareness of the electric role in ‘waking’ or retrieving the old tribal man. (‘The Implications of Cultural Uniformity’,  1973)1

  1. In Superculture: American Popular Culture and Europe (1975). With “tribal membrane” McLuhan was citing from William Empson’s great poem ‘Arachne’: “King spider, walks the velvet roof of streams: / Must bird and fish, must god and beast avoid: / Dance, like nine angels, on pin-point extremes. / His gleaming bubble between void and void, / Tribe-membrane, that by mutual tension stands, / Earth’s surface film, is at a breath destroyed.”

“Anybody can now be famous”

TV in the classroom means that the instructors presented will have a classroom of huge scope. (…) Theoretically one teacher might do all the arithmetic teaching for grade 6 for the whole country. In this way some teachers could become national figures as much as current celebrities of stage and screen. (…) TV could, then, in one sense take the teacher out of the classroom into a larger world. (Classroom TV, 1956)1

Although it is universally accepted that the idea of making McLuhan famous stemmed from San Francisco advertising and public relations gurus, Howard  Gossage and Gerald Feigen, in 1965, in fact McLuhan had precisely defined the ‘Kim Kardashian’ process already in 1962:2

In the mechanical age a man was famous for having done something. Today he is famous for being well known. In an age of information movement, fame is literally being known for being well known. The Graphic Revolution, by which a private image can be showered on the world overnight, scrambles and confuses all pre-electric categories of fame and greatness. But it also increases the demand for big names and big images. Let us keep in mind that the new reality is in the image and not [anything] behind it. (…) With photography and electronics it became possible to bypass the consumer phase in fame.3 One could simply become famous or celebrated for being famous or celebrated, without going through the tedious process of [actually doing something].4 It was now possible to shift the commodity fame from the consumer to the producer phase. Anybody or anything can now be made famous.5 (The Electronic Age – The Age of Implosion, 1962)6

McLuhan doubtless had a better idea of this process than Gossage and Feigen, particularly as regards his own ideas and goals. Indeed, it seems far more likely, instead of them promoting him for some vague purpose of theirs, that he used their skills for a precise purpose of his.

Decades before this, in a letter to Clement McNaspy, S.J., who had been one of his students at St Louis University, McLuhan wrote of his “increasing awareness”

of the ease with which Catholics can penetrate and dominate secular concerns — thanks to an emotional and spiritual economy denied to the confused secular mind. (Letters, 180)

This was from the turn of the year, 1945/1946, twenty years before McLuhan’s San Francisco ‘take-off’. One of his central ideas from early on was that contemporary society had no notion of its own nature and destiny. Its “emotional and spiritual economy” was witless. This emptiness at its core robbed it of direction and persistence even in practical matters.

In his 1967 interview with with Gerald Stearn, he put his notion of taking on the media, in the senses of taking it on as a challenge, taking it on in battle and taking it on as a put-on, as follows:

I am not in awe of media or their contents. For example: When you talk back to ads as I did in The Mechanical Bride, they become your servants. Since you cannot survive the effects of media if you huddle or hide, you must rush out and kick them in the guts — give them what for — right in  the midriff. And they respond very well to this treatment. Media, after all, are only extensions of ourselves. The road to understanding media effects begins with arrogant superiority. If one lacked this sense of superiority — this detachment — it would be quite impossible to write about them. It would be like an octopus attacking the great pyramids.7

Perhaps Gossage and Feigen were McLuhan’s means of ‘taking off’ by ‘taking on’ the media?

  1. Study Pamphlets in Canadian Education #12.
  2. An argument could be made that McLuhan had an intuition of this process of fame-making back in 1934 (when he was 23). He wrote to his mother from Cambridge that year: “Now it is my firm belief that if you had the time to study carefully some of his (Eliot’s) poetry and some of Yeats and Gerard Manley Hopkins (…) you could take the elite London by storm. (…) There is really an amazing opportunity for you Mother (…) You would be GIVEN the air by the B.B.C.”. (Letters, 42-43)
  3. By the “consumer phase in fame” McLuhan meant a type of fame determined by the estimation by observers of a real event, not necessarily at first hand, that something remarkable and therefore worthy of fame had been achieved in it. In contrast, a ‘producer phase in fame’ would mean fame as a “commodity” manufactured to supply its producer with the image of fame made for, not from, its consumers.
  4. McLuhan has: “without going through the tedious process of discovering and peddling some marketable commodity or entertaining stereotype”. The phrase ‘actually doing something’ is modeled on “having done something” from the first line of this same passage.
  5. Andy Warhol is famous for the quip, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” This was made in 1968, at least 6 years after McLuhan’s insight into the phenomenon appeared in print. Since Warhol is known to have been reading McLuhan in the 1960s, this “most famous” of all of Warhol’s quips was probably not his at all, but an illustration of his famous borrowing of ideas from famous others — illustrating another of McLuhan’s insights that “the new reality is in the image and not (anything) behind it”.
  6. In Mass Media in Canada, ed. John A Irving, 179-205, 1962.
  7. Compare the Playboy Interview: “I derive no joy from observing the traumatic effects of media on man, although I do obtain satisfaction from grasping their modes of operation. Such comprehension is inherently cool, since it is simultaneously involvement and detachment. This posture is essential in studying media. One must begin by becoming extra-environmental, putting oneself beyond the battle in order to study and understand the configuration of forces. It’s vital to adopt a posture of arrogant superiority; instead of scurrying into a corner and wailing about what media are doing to us, one should charge straight ahead and kick them in the electrodes. They respond beautifully to such resolute treatment and soon become servants rather than masters. But without this detached involvement, I could never objectively observe media; it would be like an octopus grappling with the Empire State Building. So I employ the greatest boon of literate culture: the power of man to act without reaction — the sort of specialization by dissociation that has been the driving motive force behind Western civilization.”

Centre and margin — Coleridge

In 1957 McLuhan had not yet formulated that “the medium is the message”. He would do so the next year and the main impetus in this direction from his previous work was supplied by the notion of a variable dynamic relation between centre and margin. His description of this developing idea in ‘Coleridge as Artist’1 from that year of 1957 represents a kind of threshold to his later work.2

Indeed, as will be seen, everything depends on the question of the ‘threshold’ to human experience. How is it initiated such that a collective investigation can be initiated into it in turn?

As broached in Centre and margin overview, McLuhan’s attention to centre-margin relations as the collective focus for the investigation of human consciousness and its life-worlds had necessarily first of all to encounter the question of its own possibility. Was it not so entangled in endless assumption that it necessarily led, as Innis feared, into solipsism?3 Where the examination of assumption always had assumption(s) of its own? And so on in infinite regress?

McLuhan’s answer to this question reached back to his studies beginning around 1950 into the “interior landscape”.  There he had repeatedly detailed the “aesthetic moment” of “arrest” and its exploration in poetry and literature and, indeed, painting since the eighteenth century — culminating 300 years later in Joyce. Now in 1957 he proposed that this “moment in and out of time” (as Eliot has it in ‘The Dry Salvages’ in Four Quartets) was ‘before’ experience in such wise as to give “scientific basis” for the investigation of experience even when that experience were “utterly alien to our own”.4

The basic idea which was not yet fully developed in McLuhan’s mind (and would not be until early in 1960)5 was that all experience whatsoever is mediated (“the medium is the message”) and that this (so to say) natural mediation6 not only does not lead into a solipsistic cul-de-sac, but rather, properly considered,7 leads into the sort of open collective investigation that has propelled the physical sciences for centuries now.

‘Coleridge as Artist’ will be examined in detail in this and in a series of following posts. Commentary is supplied in footnotes. Bold and italics have been added to emphasize passages of particular importance.

Poe put crime detection on a scientific basis by bringing into play the poetic process of retracing the stages of human apprehension.8 It is likewise the procedure of Wordsworth’s Prelude [begun in 1798] and Sterne’s Tristram Shandy [1759-1767]. And this process of arrest and retracing (…)9 provides the very technique of empathy10 which permits intimate insight into the processes and impulses behind [experiential] products utterly alien to our own immediate experience.11 In fact, the Coleridgean awareness of the modes of the imagination as producer12 represents an enormous extension of the bonds of human sympathy and understanding, socially and historically. Coleridge wrote to Wordsworth On the Night After His Recitation of a Poem On the Growth of An Individual Mind: “The truly Great/Have all one age, and from one visible space/Shed influence!” This has more than a neo-Platonic doctrinal interest at the present time when the instantaneity of communication between all parts of the world has brought into involuntary juxtaposition the whole diversity of human cultures. What century is it today in Peking or Jerusalem or Moscow? Yet the very speed of communication between these entities so discontinuous in space, time, and experience makes for a simultaneity in which lineal history is abolished by becoming present.13 Coleridge, a myriad-minded man living in a most tumultuous age (…) was forced to invent a great deal of conceptual equipment which is indispensable to an intellectual of today.

Shortly thereafter in the ‘Coleridge’ essay:

Writing in Shelley and the Thought of His Time [1947], Joseph Barrell (…) continues: “The Greek way, which is Shelley’s way and on the whole the Western way,14 is to take the reader or listener, by the hand and lead him step by step from the old position to the new position. It seeks to explain and to demonstrate. Its logic might be described as linear and transitional. (…) The Oriental way is different. Its logic might be described not as linear but as radial. The recurring statements do not progress, but return to their center as the spokes of a wheel to their hub.”15 The dichotomy between linear and radial expression is not really as radical as might appear,16 but it has in such terms as “continuous” versus “discontinuous” or “statement” versus “suggestion” divided the allegiance of poets, critics, and readers from the time of Coleridge to the present. It certainly had much to do with the intellectual divergence between Coleridge and Wordsworth, between Browning and Tennyson, and between Pound and Eliot.17 In general, it seems to be felt that the Greek way of continuous transition in a poem makes for a habitable world of homely realities, whereas the Oriental way is inhuman in its austere demands of unflagging and unremitting intensity of contemplation and participation.18 In one case the poet leads us through the labyrinth of his work, and in the other we are left bewildered to multiply variety in an illusory world of mirrors. In actual fact the quarrel is pointless so far as art goes since both kinds are inevitably dynamic, following the stages of cognition, which are equally the base of religious ritual and [all] human creation.


  1. In ‘The Major English Romantic Poets: a symposium in reappraisal‘, ed Clarence D. Thorpe, Carlos Baker & Bennett Weaver, 1957. McLuhan had already studied Coleridge at the University of Manitoba and cited him in his MA thesis. Then at Cambridge he heard I.A. Richards lecture on Coleridge in connection with Richards’ book, Coleridge on Imagination, which was published at just that time. In his letter to Richards more than 30 years later, from July 12, 1968, Letters 355, McLuhan wrote: “I owe you an enormous debt since Cambridge days. I also owe a great deal to S.T.C.” What did McLuhan mean here? That McLuhan had a debt to Coleridge in some way similar to the debt he had to Richards? That McLuhan had a debt to Coleridge that was in large part occasioned by Richards? That Richards, like McLuhan, “also” was indebted to Coleridge? Perhaps he meant all of the above. Indeed, McLuhan’s mind always moved on multiple tracks which made him a natural punster — but ‘also’ often difficult to follow.
  2. All quotations below, unless otherwise identified, are from ‘Coleridge as Artist’.
  3. See The bubble of life in Tolstoy, Nietzsche, Havelock and Innis.
  4. McLuhan has “alien to our own immediate experience” here. By “immediate” he did not meant ‘unmediated’, however, but ‘accustomed’ or ‘usual’. See note #6 below on ‘natural mediation’.
  5. For discussion see McLuhan’s #1 breakthrough.
  6. There are many echoes in ‘Coleridge’ of McLuhan’s 1954 ‘Catholic Humanism’ lecture. Re ‘natural mediation’: the revelation of the poetic process which is involved in ordinary cognition“. Again: “as we trace the rise of successive communication channels or links, from writing to movies and TV, it is borne in on us that in order for their exterior artifice to be effective it must partake of the character of that interior artifice by which in ordinary perception we incarnate the exterior world. Because human perception is literally incarnation. So that each of us must poet the world or fashion it within us as our primary and constant mode of awareness.”
  7. ‘Properly considered’ is, of course, a highly loaded phrase — but it is critical to McLuhan’s work from start to finish. Shortly put, for him ‘consideration‘ always entailed distance, complication, variation, dynamics, plurality. From this vantage, the entire problematic of modernity resides in an inability to move away from singularity-consolidation-simplicity as the known or, more usually, unknown basis of consideration. Hence McLuhan’s  conviction that it is necessary to wrestle with a perennial gnosticism that is as much an institutional as an intellectual force. Hence his appeal to “Coleridge, a myriad-minded man”.
  8. McLuhan engaged with Poe already in his essays from the early 1940s, perhaps through Cleanth Brooks. He began appealing to Poe’s Maelstrom in 1946 and here the impetus was certainly from Brooks. See  Cleanth Brooks on the Maelstrom“Retracing” leads back to “arrest” since it is with “arrest” that all experience, moment to moment to moment, begins. It is the moment in the maelstrom when ‘going down’ reverses to ‘coming back up’ — ‘odos ano kato. Of course, this “moment” is generally unconscious. But so is the moment of choice of vocabulary, grammar and accent studied by linguists. Indeed, it belongs to the science(s) of human being to dis-cover and study matters which are just as unknown as elements, electricity, radiation, genes, etc, were in the physical sciences only two hundred years ago.
  9. The omitted passage here recaptures McLuhan’s intellectual biography from literature to a kind of phenomenological anthropology and sociology: “this process of arrest and retracing, which has been consciously followed by poets since the end of the eighteenth century (when used by a cultural historian and analyst like Siegfried Giedion) provides the very technique of empathy”.
  10. ‘Catholic Humanism’: “By repeating this process of participation several times we are liberated both from past and present. We don’t arrive at a simple unifying concept but are put on the road to achieving a wisdom. And the road to this wisdom is by way of sympathetic reconstruction, involving the abeyance of personal prejudice and preconception.”
  11. For “immediate experience”, see note #4 above. A little later in his essay McLuhan will come to a more extensive consideration of the centre-margin relation. But it is already in play here. The question is, what is our relation to experience that is marginal to our own? McLuhan’s answer is that, starting from the moment of arrest considered as centre, we can develop sympathy and understanding for all such ‘marginal’ experience. It was just such ‘understanding of the marginal’ that he saw at work in contemporary psychoanalysis, anthropology, even music, painting and poetry. Hence, instead of being marginal in the sense of bizarre and off-putting and opaque, the ‘marginal’ is considered only in the sense of being a “product” of the centre — just as our own is. Moreover, as McLuhan would stress in a letter to Serge Chermayeff in 1960, a centre requires such a margin in order to be a centre at all: “In the field of attention which we call perception, when the center enlarges and the margin diminishes beyond a certain point, we are in that induced state called hypnosis. The dialogue has ended. (…) the problem is the creation of margin that there may be dialogue.” For ‘a “product” of the centre’, see the next note.
  12. “The modes of the imagination as producer” will become, only some months later in 1958, “the medium is the message”. See The medium is the message in 1958. In ‘Christian Humanism’ already in 1954: “In ordinary perception men perform the miracle of recreating within themselves, in their interior faculties, the exterior world. This miracle is the work of the nous poietikos or of the agent intellect — that is, the poetic or creative process. The exterior world in every instant of perception is interiorized and recreated in a new matter. Ourselves. And in this creative work that is perception and cognition, we experience immediately that dance of Being within our faculties which provides the incessant intuition of Being.”
  13. The notion that “simultaneity” is “discontinuous”, especially that it is “discontinuous in (…) time”, is difficult. But it is the very key to an understanding of McLuhan and of genuine thinking wherever it is found.
  14. “The Western way” as a monolithic classification will not do. McLuhan had been contrasting ‘east vs west’ for most of the decade behind him. He would now have to understand that this characterization was too gross for his purposes. It did not yield the open verifiable recognition necessary for collective investigation. More, it implied a continuity to “the Western way”, which he knew to be false, and which veiled fundamental discontinuity, which he knew to be true. See note #17 below.
  15. McLuhan mentions reading Barrell’s book to Archie Malloch in a letter from 1952, but it is not in his library at Fisher. McLuhan had been contrasting east and west along these lines since the early 1950s (and had already showed his interest in the topic by reading authors like Pound and Northrop on east and west in the 1940s), so it is possible that Barrell on Shelley contributed, perhaps markedly, to his repeated appeal to the classification of east vs west beginning around that time. Appeal to the variable relations of the wheel and axle would become common in McLuhan’s later writings and may have started here with this citation from Barrell.
  16. McLuhan is not maintaining here that the distinction between linear and radial expression is not radical. Nor, even, that the “dichotomy” between them is not radical. Instead he is saying that the radicality of their dichotomy is not alone — “is not really as (singularly) radical as might appear” — but is, rather, contested at origin such that we need to consider other radical possibilities that rival it.
  17. These are all “western” thinkers, of course. So their “intellectual divergence” at least problematizes and at most disables, the use of “western” as a useful classification of human experience.
  18. That “the Greek way: is “homely” and “the Oriental way is inhuman” is another notion that McLuhan would extensively revise in the following decades. Perhaps this turn of phrase describes the “inhuman” process McLuhan himself was undergoing at the time — at age 46 and with 6 children — in his attempt to answer a call to reamalgamerge (FW) ‘east and west’ without losing their distinction. The required somersault exacted what he terms in the closing words of this same essay “exhausting demands on mind and heart”. In ‘Christian Humanism’: “Poets and artists literally turned their own psyches into laboratories where they practised the most austere experiments in total disregard of their personal happiness.” In McLuhan’s own case, these “exhausting demands” would lead to a stroke in 1960 in the course of which he received the last rites.

Centre and margin overview

McLuhan was familiar with the use of a variable center-margin relation in the work of Harold Innis. There it is used primarily as a way of looking at history1 and economics2. The later Innis came in addition to correlate center-margin dynamics with communication3 and — very importantly! — with time.4

But Innis was also unhappily familiar with the feedback of this notion on research and the individual researcher. If a centre-margin relation were implicated in all human experience, how could some variety of it not be assumed in any and all research? And, in an attempt to defend that assumption, or, at least, to ameliorate its acceptance, how could it itself be studied absent further assumption? Do we not always come too late to do so? How bend back to study what has always been deployed already? For Innis this knot implied a “solipsism” from which he did not see an exit for the researcher or, indeed, for “western civilization” at large.5

In the latter 1950s McLuhan began to see that specification of the center-margin relation might allow the sort of collective investigation into human experience that was necessary for human survival in an age of nuclear weapons — and this especially when “the present time [of] the instantaneity of communication between all parts of the world has brought into involuntary juxtaposition the whole diversity of human cultures”.6 This implied investigation into the possibility beyond solipsism of such study (which McLuhan had called the missing “esthetic” dimension in Innis’ work even in his 1951 letter to Innis himself) and then, on the basis of that newly specified possibility, the detailed deployment of the center-margin relation in analysis.

In the period 1957-1962 McLuhan particularly investigated the centre-margin relation in relation to the possibilities of human experience in the following sequence of writings:

CM 1 – Coleridge as Artist, 19577

CM 2 – Letters from 19608

CM 3 – Humanities in the Electronic Age, 19619

CM 4 – Inside the Five Sense Sensorium, 196110

CM 5 – The Electronic Age – The Age of Implosion, 196211

Each of these will be examined in detail in posts to follow.


  1. The rise and fall of the Roman Empire provided a ready example of the multifold dynamics of centre-margin relations.
  2. The contrasting economies of Canada and the US in relation to England could be understood as strikingly different forms of centre-margin relations.
  3. Communication media correlated with “empire” since empire requires an enduring relation between centre and margin and this depends on communication.
  4. Communication in stone implied an enduring present not subject to easy revision, while communication in, say, paper implied a fleeting present subject to instant change. The first had a virtually unalterable relation to the margin of changing events, the second had a flexible relation to marginal events. The first implicated a theocratic state in which a vertical relation to the divine was all important relative to secular circumstances, the second implied a more fluid relation between the divine and the worldly that could vary widely between the two. Time itself varied with all these centre-margin relationships.
  5. For discussion, see Innis, McLuhan and “the “power of metamorphosis”.
  6. ‘Coleridge as Artist’, 1957.
  7. In ‘The Major English Romantic Poets: a symposium in reappraisal‘, ed Clarence D. Thorpe, Carlos Baker & Bennett Weaver, 1957.
  8. In December 1960 McLuhan wrote letters to Serge Chermayeff and to Jackie Tyrwhitt (Letters 278) that focused on the centre-margin relationship(s).
  9. In the Humanities Association of Canada Bulletin1961.
  10. In Canadian Architect, 6:6, 1961.
  11. In Mass Media in Canada, ed. John A Irving, 1962.

Optophone 3: “carry everywhere the reflection of its delight”

As retaled by Plato in the Phaedrus,1 the Egyptians attributed the invention of writing to Thoth:

Writing effected the transformation of sound into sight which may have been considered analogous to the transformations of the moon, Greek σελήνη.2 And it may have been attributed to Thoth for just this reason, since he was first of all the god of the moon. Hence the moon icon that represented Thoth — or that he represented! — and that was regularly depicted above him. Four or five millennia later, selenium, from σελήνη, would be used to effect the reverse process of sight into sound.

The transformations of the moon are not linear. They do not lead away into an undefined distance. Instead they always lead back in a circular process to the same. So with writing. It is different from spoken language in multiple ways and yet it points back to the same. So again with the sounds of the optophone. In all three cases, a linear process expresses in a mirrored way an underlying possibility of identity in difference. Writing, for example, would not work unless it were possible to express the same (oral language) in something that is utterly different (visual figures).

A further icon of Thoth was the wadjet eye:

It is remarkable that the wadjet image links the eye to the labyrinth of the ear. In paintings the lesser circle in the bottom right of this stone engraving was rendered as a spiral.

The implication was not only that the eye leads to the labyrinth of the ear, but also that labyrinth of the ear leads back to the eye — revealing that it, too, is a labyrinth. The greater circle of the stone engraving is the eye’s pupil. Perhaps it appears as a solid only because its labyrinthine rings are so many and so tightly packed together?

Millennia apart, the translations of sound to sight and then of sight to sound were intimately linked with the moon. The curve linking the twin labyrinths of the eye and the ear in the stone engraving might be taken to represent, for both these translations, in Egypt and England, 5000 years apart, the moon’s special power of metamorphosis between the senses. And just as much, perhaps, between body and mind, subject and object, word and thing, man and woman, old and young — and so on.  

This shared underlying structure, this underlying structure of sharing, this sensus communis, allows, or enforces, conversion between the experience of the different senses such that it is only by abstraction that we speak in terms of the visual, aural or tactile. Perception itself, via any of the  senses, is a multifold labyrinth both in the receptive interpretation of its experience and in the combination of the senses contributing to it.

Now if the source of this transformative power of the moon is to be investigated, the answer must be sought in the fact that it is a superlative mirror of the power that is before it (in all the senses of ‘before’). Indeed, the moon has fascinated humans as long as the species has existed on the planet: a riddle that can be guessed at forever. And here is Fournier D’Alba on selenium:

if anyone were to strike a match on the Moon, we could discover the fact on Earth by means of selenium, even without a telescope. And that feat could be accomplished in one second!3

This power of re-flection was portrayed by the Egyptians with Thoth in that his wadjet eye was the mirror image of Ra’s, the sun god’s, wadjet eye:

Just as the moon derives its light from the Sun, and just as Thoth’s eye is the derivative image of the Sun’s eye, so is his power as a magician and scribe a moon-like reflection of that fundamental power of transformation and re-presentation ‘before’ it — that of the Sun or of Being itself.

Being itself presents itself, outers itself, utters itself4 — in and to beings. The moon re-represents this originating ex-pression, not by retaining the light it receives only as an im-pression, but by expressing it, reflecting it, in turn. Thoth’s invention of writing turning sound into sight, and Fournier D’Alba’s optophone invention converting writing back into sound, further express in their turn this uttering that is, at once, a going forth and a circling back.

Being does not lose itself in outering itself. Instead its οδός άνω κάτω process as ex-pression gives its im-pression to all beings — while maintaining itself without loss . It is this fundamental dynamic that both enabled and in turn was expressed by the inventions writing and of the optophone. Like the moon, both were a reflection of a power before them that they were able to reflect through the further reflection of written or musical signs to an underlying de-signation.

Now ‘flect’ is already bent as ‘flex’. So ‘re-flect’ is a double bending. This double bending is the signature of Being. It is best re-flected, turn and turn about, re-flected squared, by the moon.

  1. See McLuhan and Plato 6 – Theuth.
  2. In both cases, that of the moon and writing, something held changes in their configurations together. Each constantly changed, but remained itself. Further, something enabled them to refer beyond themselves to an original referent, the sun for the moon, spoken speech for writing.
  3. Moon Element, 56.
  4. Nietzsche put the kenosis (’emptying out’, hence ‘cenotaph’, the empty tomb of the unknown) of the sun (and by extension of Being) (dual genitives!) in the aptly named ‘Zarathustra’s Prologue‘: “One morning Zarathustra rose with the dawn, stepped before the sun, and spoke to it thus: ‘You great star, what would your happiness be had you not those for whom you shine? For ten years you have climbed to my cave: you would have tired of your light and of the journey had it not been for me and my eagle and my serpent. But we waited for you every morning, took your overflow from you, and blessed you for it. Behold, I am weary of my wisdom, like a bee that has gathered too much honey; I need hands out-stretched to receive it. I would give away and distribute, until the wise among men find joy once again in their folly, and the poor in their riches. For that I must descend to the depths, as you do in the evening when you go behind the sea and still bring light to the underworld, you over-rich star. Like you, I must go under”. In the same place: “Bless the cup that wants to overflow, that the water may flow from it golden and carry everywhere the reflection of its delight.”

Optophone 2

The frontpiece of E. E. Fournier D’Albe’s 1924 The Moon-Element: An Introduction to the Wonders of Selenium is a picture of him, on the left, and the first iteration of the optophone in 1912:

In those years around 1912 Fournier D’Albe (1868-1933) was working in Oliver Lodge’s laboratory in Birmingham. He repeatedly noted the interest and support of Lodge in his research and, indeed, there is a notable influence of Lodge in The Moon-Element itself. Namely, Fournier D’Albe combines Lodge’s notion of an all-conveying medium of ether with the possibility of the transformation or metamorphosis of the human senses.

In the year 1910 the Author was appointed Assistant-Lecturer in Physics in the University of Birmingham. (…) With the active encouragement of the [physics] Professor1 as well as the Principal of the University (Sir Oliver Lodge)2, the Author started a research [program] on the properties of selenium (…) He [the Author] particularly investigated the manner in which selenium violates Ohm’s law…3

The element selenium (from Greek σελήνη, moon, discovered 1817) has its name due to its perceived relation to tellurium (from Latin tellus, earth, discovered 1782). Strangely, as set out by Fournier D’Albe, it was discovered only much later (in 1873) that selenium, like the moon, has a marked receptivity to light. And this, in the case of selenium, even when the light source is at a fantastic distance from it.

the Moon-element is unsurpassed in its function of producing [variable] electric currents from [variable] light. It is the supreme bridge between [these] two of the most vital forms of energy.4 

This gave Fournier D’Albe the notion of

utilisation of the action of light on selenium for the purpose of recording star transits. He [the Author] succeeded in making Aldebaran [located at 65 light years from Earth!], a first-magnitude star,5 ring a bell in its passage across the meridian.6  (…) The fact that light could be made to ring a bell [in this way] showed conclusively that in one respect, at least, the ear could be substituted for the eye.7

The twin actions at stake here, the conversion of light to sound and the implicated conversion to eyesight to ear-hearing could both be considered as enabled by the medium of Lodge’s “ether”:

The influences [like light or magnetism] thus exerted “across space” (…) irresistibly suggest that there must be a medium through which they are propagated, a medium whose properties  determine that speed of propagation. This hypothetical medium is called [notably by Lodge.] “the ether of space”. Every movement of an electric charge, whether it consists of electrons, protons, larger ions, or charged bodies, sets up some sort of “strain” in the ether, which is propagated in all directions with the speed of light.8

It is just as if every electron were connected with every other by invisible elastic fibres, so that none of them could start in any direction without the help of all the rest.9

Fournier D’Albe then got the idea got the idea that an analogous set up might allow the blind to read through the selenium enabled conversion of reflected light from a page of print into musical tones.

our optical resources, which for centuries have developed along the same grooves, are capable of entirely new departures.10

Sight had been extended since Galileo through analog means or “grooves” by devices that sharpened focus or gathered more light. Now Fournier D’Albe was suggesting a digital means of extension through conversion. Such a revolution would soon overtake everything from wristwatches on up. 

Last year (1912) I described and exhibited at the London Optical Convention an apparatus for converting light into sound by means of electrical effects, and proposed the name ‘optophone’ for such an instrument, as its primary object is not to transmit sound by means of light (photophone)11 but to ‘see’ by means of sound.12

This was to “read by the ear”.13 “The form of each letter causes it to sing its own little tune.”14  

Since the number of books (not to speak of newspapers, magazines, journals, invoices, etc) in print is enormously greater than these in brail, the potential benefit to the blind was very great.

We shall have “converted light into sound” through the medium of an electric current. That this “conversion” is symbolical rather than actual is evident when we consider the enormous disproportion of sound-waves and light-waves. Sound-waves are measured in feet, and are represented by the lengths of organ pipes. Light-waves are from forty thousand to seventy thousand to the inch, according to their colour.15

By “symbolical” Fournier D’Albe meant that sound and light were not continuous on each other as physical phenomena. They were not analog. Instead they were definitively discrete16 and yet were convertible, presumably via the fundamental enabling action of “the ether of space”.17

Today we know the name of this “space” or pervading power: digitality. 


  1. J.H. Poynting, 1852-1914.
  2. Fournier D’Albe’s bracketed insertion.
  3. Moon Element, 95. Selenium violates Ohm’s law by introducing a third factor, light, to the Ohm’s twofold of current x resistance = voltage.
  4. Moon Element, 159.
  5. Aldebaran is one of the brightest stars in the night sky and is the single brightest star in the constellation of Taurus. It is called (incredibly enough, given the next use Fournier D’Albe would find for selenium) “the eye of Taurus”.
  6. A block of Selenium could detect the change in light from a sector of the sky when Aldebaran was present. This detection would be registered through a change in its electrical conductivity. A bell was then set to ring when current of a voltage enabled only by that particular conductivity was enabled through the detecting block.
  7. Moon Element, 95-96.
  8. Moon Element, 26.
  9. Moon Element, 24-25.
  10. Moon Element, 86.
  11. The possibility of a photophone was discovered and patented by Graham Bell in 1880. It conveyed sound over a short distance by means of light. In contrast, what Fournier D’Albe proposed was not the same sense transported by a medium through space, but the instantaneous transportation of one sense, namely sight, into another, namely hearing.
  12. Moon Element, 103. Strangely, Fournier D’Albe shows no consciousness of how just this transformation, but in the reverse direction, sound into sight, had already occurred with the invention of writing 2500 years ago (the alphabet in Greece) or even 5000 years ago (hieroglyphics in Egypt and cuneiform in Mesopotamia). In contrast, at the same time that McLuhan was urging consideration of the “optophone principle” in the early 1950s, he was clear that the reverse metamorphosis had been made millennia before. In a letter to Pound at this time, he referred to the “invention of writing-alphabet” as the “transfer of auditory to visual” (July 16, 1952, Letters 231). Indeed, something of the sort marked the first moment of human speech and therefore of human being itself. A transformation occurred from an unimaginable idiosyncrasy to a linguistic sociability. And since, in the absence of language, this could hardly have been planned, its possibility must have been ‘something in the air’ — Lodge’s “ether”, perhaps?
  13. Moon Element, 105.
  14. Moon Element, 132. A joke in Punch noted that an optophone was needed by the man reported in a Scottish newspaper: “Not by straining his eyes to the utmost could he catch a sound” (Moon Element, 127). Compare Joyce: “where the hand of man has never set foot”.
  15. Moon Element, 90.
  16. “The ear is sensitive to ten or eleven octaves of the scale of notes. The eye does not cover even one octave of light waves.” Moon Element, 30.
  17. See note 12 above.

Optophone 1

The optophone was not a figure of Joyce’s creative imagination — Tis optophone which ontophanes  (FW 13:15) — but a real instrument described in a Royal Society notice in 1914 as follows:

On a type-reading optophone
E. E. Fournier D’Albe
Communicated by Sir Oliver Lodge, F.R.S.1
The production of sounds directly or indirectly due to the incidence of light is the general function of instruments of the type of Graham Bell’s “photophone.” An instrument designed to solve the more special problem of substituting the sense of hearing for the sense of sight is more appropriately termed an “optophone.” Having concerned myself for a number of years with this special problem (…) an instrument has resulted which should, with some practice, enable totally blind persons to read 
ordinary books and newspapers through the sense of hearing. (…) I wish to thank (…) especially Sir Oliver Lodge for the kind interest he has taken in the whole investigation.2

A short description of a somewhat later iteration of the optophone is given in the Genetic Joyce online journal:

The apparatus consisted of a vertical arrangement of five light sources and detectors that was scanned across printed characters, each detector corresponding to a note on the musical stave with the amplitude indicating the amount of reflected light. In this way a blind person could interpret the tone as a letter and piece together words.

For McLuhan the “optophone principle”, the power of translation of one sense into another — in human beings and now in machines — pointed backwards to his study of ‘the common sense’ with Bernard Muller-Thym when they both were teaching at St Louis University. In 1940 Muller-Thym published ‘Common Sense, Perfection of the Order of Pure Sensibility’ which focused particularly on the notion of ‘common sense’ in Aristotle and Thomas.3 And behind that were McLuhan’s sessions at Cambridge in the middle 1930s with Arthur Quiller-Couch, the doyen of the English school, on Aristotle’s Poetics.4 At the same time it pointed forwards to “the medium is the message” where the medium is the fulcrum or crossroads of the senses as the generator of experiential life-worlds: Tis optophone which ontophanes

Human history had come to a decisive juncture (and not only for humans, but for all the beings unhappily sharing the biosphere with humans). By outering the power of “the common sense”, but doing so only in the physical sciences and not at the same time also in the social sciences, humankind had created a danger that was potentially suicidal for itself and murderous for all its fellow species. This was the background to McLuhan working on a “survival strategy” and the key to this strategy was guessed in 1954 with the “opto( )phone principle”.5


  1. Notices in the  Proceedings seem to have been limited to Fellows of the Royal Society (F.R.S.) or to “communications” from them.
  2. E. E. Fournier D’Albe, Proceedings of the Royal Society Avol 90 issue 619, 373-375, July 1914. Fournier D’Albe was the author  of Two New Worlds: I. The Infra-World; II. The Supra-World (1907) and The Moon-Element: an Introduction to the Wonders of Selenium (1924), in which the optophone is extensively described. He also wrote Quo Vadimus? Glimpses of the Future (1925) which Joyce is known to have read (or heard read!) early in the composition of FW. Furthermore, in 1923 Fournier D’Albe was the first person to transfer a photograph by wireless telegraphy — an important step towards television: “There is, however, nothing in the way of ‘coding’ a picture, i.e. dividing it into a large number of dots and indicating the average shading of each dot or patch by a letter, which is telegraphed in the usual way. Such a transmission of a coded picture was made by the Author on May 24, 1923. It was, however, not transmitted by telegraph wire, but by wireless radiotelephony (…) It was the first attempt ever made to broadcast a picture (…) Such rapid transmission of pictures bring us within measurable distance of the solution of what is known as the problem of ‘television’ or electric vision at a distance. Let us state the problem. A scene or object to be transmitted may be regarded as a changing picture. In order to reproduce it at the receiving end, the picture must be then presented as rapidly as a kinema picture, which changes some twenty times per second. If we can, therefore, transmit a picture in a twentieth of a second, we have solved the problem of ‘television’.” (The Moon-Element, 77, 81, 82).
  3. Muller-Thym published his essay when he and McLuhan were best friends and Muller-Thym was giving McLuhan a crash course in Catholic theology and its Greek background. McLuhan’s copy of the paper, or one of them, is still to be found in his library at Fisher Library, University of Toronto. Its notations do not date from his SLU years, however. They appear to have been made in the 1960s. But the fact that he was rereading the paper then is telling.
  4. See McLuhan’s letter to his family from February 7, 1935: “just returned from the Divinity School where ‘Q’ recommenced his course on the Poetics of Aristotle” (Letters, 57). In his letter McLuhan notes that only one other student attended Q’s course that day and that the session ended up discussing Shakespeare. So the ‘course’ was practically a tutorial with one of the great literary figures of the time on the question of the foundations of the tradition in figures like Aristotle and Shakespeare. The superb quality of McLuhan’s training at Cambridge as a relatively mature student has never yet been properly appreciated (nor his preparation for it in his work with Rupert Lodge in Winnipeg).
  5. Fournier D’Albe saw, a century ago, at the same time of his work on the optophone, that “the energies of ‘civilised’ humanity were concentrated on mutual destruction”. (Moon Element, 111).

Tis optophone which ontophanes

At the beginning of his 1954 essay ‘New Media as Political Forms’ (Explorations 3), written six months or more before the Culture and Technology seminar stumbled on the notion of acoustic space,1 McLuhan revealed how ready he was for such a discovery:

For the lineal procedure of individual awareness, Joyce, in his last work, substituted an everyday roundabout with intrusions from above and below.2 For those locked in the metallic and rectilinear embrace of the printed page, Joyce appears as a surrealist magician or clown. But his optophone principle (…)3 provides the key for future literary and social education. The optophone is an instrument for turning images into sounds. Surrounded by a vast new imagery, technological man has yet to learn how to interpret this imagery verbally or sociallyUntil he learns its language it will continue to act on him like the new liquid meat tenderizers.4

In advance of  ‘acoustic space’, this was already to suggest that we are “surrounded by a vast new imagery” of sound. Here in embryo was (a) McLuhan’s turn from literary works to interior and exterior environments (b) as specified by their dominating sense within the range of the sensorium. The rest of his life would be spent attempting to investigate into, and communicate about, this insight.

Furthermore, the new surround or environment, specifically of sound (dual genitive!) was translated from a previous surround of visual images (dual genitive!). Visual images, too, had once created “a vast new imagery”, one that began with the alphabet — the translation of sounds into visual letters — but received its decisive impetus from Gutenberg — the translation of letters into print.  Now that “imagery” of print was to be displaced, turn and turn about, by a renewed surround of sound — just as the optophone apparatus translated visual images into auditory sounds.5

The “optophone principle” captures in a single phrase McLuhan’s reading of Joyce and the dynamic basis of his own life’s work. ‘Opto’ as eye/sight and ‘phone’ as sound/ear are correlated over a range of ratios between the two — a range whose one extreme is the overwhelming emphasis on the eye relative to the ear, while the other extreme is the overwhelming emphasis on the ear relative to the eye. In the middle of the range, the two are in relative harmony.

The great question concerns the middle — the middle of the range, on the one hand, and, on the other, the changing middle of the eye/ear ratios constituting the extensive range of their relative emphases and valorizations. Not surprisingly, it is only from the middle of the range, where eye/ear are equally valorized, that the changing middle between the two over their range may be observed and investigated. Absent such a situation in the mean,6 hence assuming a position on one of the two sides of the range of sensory ratios, the virtues of the other side can never be appreciated. Indeed, such an inability to appreciate (in all its senses) is exactly what it means to be on one of the sides of the range of ratios.

McLuhan called this dynamic middle or mean or medium — ‘tactility‘:

tactility is not so much the isolated sense of touch as it is the interplay of all the senses. (Humpty Dumpty, Automation and TV, 1962)7

Tactility may be imagined as a kind of elastic band, fixed at its middle (Pound’s “unwobbling pivot”) that can be stretched in one direction or the other. This dynamic band of tactility (dual genitive!) as the mean governs all the values the two sides of the band, the visual and the aural, can take — relative to one another“The medium is the message”.

When the band is relaxed, its ends or poles are close together and have a kind of natural repose or poise. Stretched in one direction, the poles are pulled apart in an action that distorts that natural repose but cannot overwhelm it. So with the other direction, in a mirrored way. The relation of the two sides of the band is dynamic, is not constant, but the fact of some relation (dual genitive!) is a constant — or, rather, relationship itself is the constant. “The ‘meaning of meaning’ is relationship.” (Take Today, 3)

Among other terms McLuhan used for this dynamic middle are ‘the gap’, “the interval”, ‘no-man’s land’ and “membrane”.8 This elastic structure must therefore be further imagined as an invisible, inaudible and intangible power like magnetism/electricity/gravity in which poles are dynamically related to each other by attraction and repulsion, by contesting centrifugal and centripetal forces.  

Now the range of these ratios is principial, it is first in multiple senses, the most important of which is that it defines the possible elements, or elementary possibilities, of human experience. That is, human experience is built from these elementary possibilities similarly, but not identically, to the way in which physical materials are built from the range of elements in Mendeleev’s table. (It is highly important to note, however, that different sciences focus on different levels of combinations of elements. Thus organic chemistry, for example, of course deals with the chemical elements. But it does so as these are ‘already’ combined into complex compounds. Similarly with genetics and medicine and all the other physical sciences except for basic chemistry. Now in the humanities it has generally been assumed that explanation should or must be, so to say, atomic. But this is not necessarily the case and the history of failure in the area suggests that it is probably not the case. Indeed, why should experiential structures be any less complicated than those of, say, proteins?)

It may therefore be suggested that McLuhan’s life-goal was to specify in an exoteric manner (= via open ongoing investigation) what he found already described esoterically in Finnegans Wake: namely, the “octophone principle” as a dynamic generatoror medium — of environments. Of experiential life-worlds.

Humans somehow have, or are, this principle. Tis Optophone Which Ontophanes. The shining forth (phanes) of realities (onto) ‘takes place’ via the  “optophone principle“. This can be termed the principle of the energizing ’tis’ — the principle of the dynamic coming forth by day of the ‘it is’.

The heart of the matter was, and is, to ask after the axis of such transformations between realities — plural —  and of its operation. What is the working, or phenomenology, of the repressed gap of the opto( )phone9 principle (as a dual genitive)? McLuhan’s answer in 1958: The medium is the message.

All this fell into place for McLuhan in the late 1950s. But the first steps he took in this direction were made at the start of the decade. A decisive moment came with the uncovering of “acoustic space” as differentiated from “visual space” in the Culture and Technology seminar in late 1954. But earlier that year McLuhan had already guessed the riddle with his announcement from Joyce of the “opto( )phone principle” governing our surrounds.

  1. See McLuhan & Williams on discovering ‘auditory space’ and Ted Carpenter on discovering ‘auditory space’The 1954 mimeographed Counterblast concludes its first section (of three) as follows: “BLESS the locomotives WHISTLING on the prairies proclaiming the SEPARATENESS Of Man — BLESS FOTOPRINT able to modulate the printed visual image to the full range of acoustic space.” This self-publication was apparently issued at the very end of 1954. In a letter to Wyndham Lewis from December 18 that year, McLuhan mentions that “I have coming out a new version of BLAST” (Letters 245).
  2. McLuhan was paraphrasing Frank Budgen here.
  3. “Optophone” is from FW 13:15: Tis optophone which ontophanes. The omitted words in the citation from McLuhan are “in art”. In the course of the 1950s McLuhan would move away from an emphasis on art and literature towards an investigation of the general terra incognita of communications media and society. Strangely, an important part of this shift away from literary and art works would be played by theoreticians of art like Heinrich Wölfflin and Ernst Gombrich.
  4. Explorations 3,  August 1954, reprinted as McLuhan Unbound #14.
  5. Further optophone posts to follow (Octophone 1, Optophone 2, etc) will continue to deal with it in the detail its importance demands.
  6. Plato’s Republic 619: “A man must take with him into the world below an adamantine faith in truth and right, that there too he may be undazzled by the desire of wealth or the other allurements of evil, lest, coming upon (such lots as) tyrannies and similar villainies, he do (in the life that results from the choice of such a lot) irremediable wrongs to others and suffer yet worse himself (both in that life and in the other world after it); but let him know how to choose the mean and avoid the extremes on either side, as far as possible, not only in this life but in all that which is to come.” And here is Innis in ‘A Plea for the University Tradition‘: “Her (the university’s) traditions and her interest demand an obsession with balance and perspective — an obsession with the Greek tradition of the humanities. The search for truth assumes a constant avoidance of extremes and extravagance. Virtue is in the middle way. There are no cures. Always we are compelled to be sceptical of the proposal to cure the world’s ills. We cannot tolerate the dominance of any individual or of any group.”
  7. University of Toronto Varsity Graduate, 10:1, December 1962. This short piece indicates McLuhan’s interest at the time in David Jonas’ Irritation and Counter-irritation: “With the advent of electro-magnetism Western man put his central nervous system outside himself in a global embrace. For many centuries he had been engaged in extending this or that part of his physical organism as ‘new technology’. One extension seemed to encourage another by a kind of exasperation and counter-irritation.” The dynamic elastic band of tactility can be seen at work in this passage. It had always been at work, but only behind our backs as a kind of puppet master with humans “becoming servo-mechanisms of their own technology” (ibid). “Tactility Means not Contact of Skin but Interplay of All Senses” was already a section of McLuhan’s 1960 ‘From Visual To Tactile Experience’.
  8. Bob Dobbs has called attention to McLuhan’s use of the term ‘membrane‘. It should perhaps be considered as the elasticity whose permutations structure the internal and external expressions of human being. It is another way of imaging ‘tactility‘ but on a more explicitly “cosmic” level.
  9. The gap in opt( )phone is tactility.

Illusion and Reality

The debts of Marshall McLuhan to Harold Innis were many and are generally not well known. One of the more obscure ones must be a reference in Empire and Communications to Illusion and Reality (1937) by Christopher Caudwell (pseudonym of Christopher St John Sprigg). As was not unusual for McLuhan, he followed up Innis’ reference by reading Illusion and Reality and referenced it himself in ‘Notes on the Media as Art Forms’ (Explorations 2, 1954).

At least three things were highly important for McLuhan in Caudwell. First he reinforced the idea McLuhan was developing, perhaps especially from Joyce, that ‘language itself‘ is the decisive ground of experience (such that media had to be understood as languages). These are the  first lines of Illusion and Reality

This is a book not only about poetry but also about the sources of poetry. Poetry is written in language and therefore it is a book about the sources of languages. Language is a social product, the instrument whereby men communicate and  persuade each other; thus the study of poetry’s sources cannot be separated from the study of society.

Compare McLuhan in the same essay in which Caudwell is mentioned:

There has been very little discussion of any of these questions, thanks to the gratuitous assumption that communication is a matter of transmission of information, message or idea. This assumption blinds people to the aspect of communication as participation in a common situation. And it leads to ignoring the form of communication as the basic (…)1 situation which is more significant than the information or idea ‘transmitted’. (…) The well-established view of culture which assumes that it filters down from élites to popular levels will not stand up for a moment to the facts of linguistic history and formation. Yet language is the great collective work (…)2 transcending all individual works. Today this naive content-view of culture prevents us from directing serious critical attention to the media, old and new, as art forms. It is a charley horse inhibiting all education in a technological society. (‘Notes on the Media as Art Forms’)

Secondly, the citation from Caudwell reads as follows:

There is a poetic instant and as time vanishes, space enters; the horizon expands and becomes boundless.

That time and space might be related inversely (“as time vanishes, space enters”) became an increasingly important idea for McLuhan.3 Here Caudwell helped along what McLuhan already had from Innis. As well, the notion of the spatial horizon expanding and becoming boundless would come to serve McLuhan as a definition of Gutenbergian perspective and hence of the Gutenberg galaxy itself. 

Thirdly, Caudwell’s book was the first of a whole series read by McLuhan in the course of the 1950s dealing with ‘illusion and reality’. Ernst Gombrich’s Art and illusion was probably the most important of these, but all contributed to his notion of the difference between making and matching. If ‘matching’ were not even a possible goal on account of presence of illusion in all perception, what was the status of ‘making’? Did making produce only illusion? Or were making and truth somehow correlate despite an inevitable absence of matching? And were even truth and illusion somehow correlate themselves for ineluctably finite beings — who can yet figure things out?4 


  1. McLuhan has ‘art’ here: “communication as the basic art situation”. One of the ways his ideas would develop in the 1950s was to get away from ‘art’ as a way of illustrating the forms at stake. For a professor of English with a consciously elite view of the world this was no easy matter!
  2. McLuhan again has ‘art’ here”: ” the great collective work of art  transcending all individual works”. For McLuhan on language, see Language Itself.
  3. See Relativity and Typology.
  4. The dynamic correlation of truth and illusion is — science. Here are the last lines of Etienne Gilson’s (1971, translation 1984) From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again: “Instead of trying to make us take as scientific truths the long train of reveries over which their imagination dallies, scientists would render us the greatest service by warning us as precisely as possible, each time, of the point where their thought, impatient of the rigors of proof, grants itself the pleasure of intelligently imagining what it no longer hopes to know. But perhaps it is necessary to imagine much, in order to know a little.” Gilson and McLuhan were colleagues at St Michael’s in Toronto for a quarter century.

Voegelin letters background

As recorded in the published correspondence between Cleanth Brooks and Allen Tate, McLuhan visited Brooks in Baton Rouge and Tate and in Sewanee in 1945.1 In a postscript to a June 27, 1945 letter to Allen Tate, Brooks wrote: “Marshall McLuhan has written of seeing you and the pleasant time that he had at Sewanee. We were delighted with him here.” (124) It was during this visit with Brooks at LSU that McLuhan met Eric Voegelin and others in Voegelin’s circle like Robert Heilman (to whom along with Voegelin McLuhan often sent greetings through Brooks). If Wilmoore Kendall was not away from Baton Rouge then, McLuhan would surely have met him at the same time. The two had long known of each other through their mutual friend, Felix Giovanelli.

Prior to this visit, Brooks and McLuhan had gradually become close friends in the early 1940s through two channels.

In the first place, through his reading of G.K. Chesterton McLuhan had been an ardent distributist2 since his undergraduate and MA years at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. When he won a scholarship to Cambridge and studied there from 1934 to 1936, his interest in distributism only grew through friends he made in the movement there and through the link he identified with it in the work of F.R.Leavis, a Cambridge don and editor of the influential journal of English literature, Scrutiny. While at Cambridge, McLuhan attended a distributist dinner in London with Chesterton himself in attendance, and wrote a letter that appeared in G.K.’s Weekly, the movement’s unofficial organ. McLuhan published his first academic article, ‘G.K. Chesterton: A Practical Mystic’ early in 1936 while he was still in the UK, and then, in the spring of 1937 during his first part-time teaching job for one year at the University of Wisconsin, he followed Chesterton in converting to Catholicism. Distributism was clearly a matter of fundamental importance to him.

When McLuhan obtained his first fulltime teaching position at St Louis University in the fall of 1937, one of his colleagues there was John Rawe, S.J., the head of the American branch of the distributist movement. The year before, in 1936, a convention had been held in Nashville where the distributists led by Rawe had met with the southern agrarians, including John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson, Allen Tate and Cleanth Brooks. The express purpose of the convention had been to explore the possibility of forming a united front between the two movements. Although the convention decided in favor of the idea, it did not succeed, perhaps in good part on account of the serious (ultimately fatal) illness Rawe contracted around 1940. However, a loose association had been identified between distributist/agrarian social policy and the ‘new criticism’ group in literature. Since this association had already been formed in McLuhan’s mind in England with his combined allegiances to Chesterton and Leavis, it was natural for him to fall in with the parallel American manifestation and particularly with Brooks, whose interest in the history of criticism was close to his own. In the two volume Literary Criticism: A Short History (1957) by Brooks and his Yale colleague, William Wimsatt , a pointer to McLuhan’s 1943 PhD thesis appears in its preface: “A more or less pervasive debt in several chapters to a manuscript book by H. M. McLuhan concerning the ancient war between dialecticians and rhetoricians is here gratefully acknowledged and is underscored by the quotation, following chapter 4, of two substantial excerpts from published essays by Mr. McLuhan.”

In the second place, one of McLuhan’s closest friends at SLU was Felix Giovanelli who began to teach in the Romance Language department there in 1940 after obtaining his PhD from the University of Illinois. A good friend of Giovanelli in grad school at Illinois had been Wilmoore Kendall.3

 While the interests of the agrarians overlapped with McLuhan’s in multiple ways, establishing personal relationships with them was another matter. It is highly probable that the first personal contact between McLuhan and the great cohort of minds then at LSU (Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren and Bob Heilman in the English department, along with Voegelin and Kendall in political science) came about through the mediation of Giovanelli and Kendall. Perhaps the two arranged a meeting between McLuhan and Brooks at some English association meeting? In any case, starting around 1943, McLuhan and Brooks became lifelong friends and frequent correspondents.

Now when McLuhan met Voegelin in 1945, this was the third time in short succession he had met great European scholars who would have decisive influence in his career.4 In 1943 McLuhan had met, separately, Wyndham Lewis and Sigfried Giedion and his relationship with them would in both cases last until their deaths in 1957 and 1968 respectively.5

In the context of the 1953 exchange with Voegelin, McLuhan’s association with Giedion was particularly important. Giedion’s 1941 Space, Time and Architecture: The Growth of a New Tradition was based on lectures he gave at Harvard in 1938 and is still in print today. In his introduction to the first edition, Giedion brilliantly observed :

Unity, for us, will have to come about through the unintended parallelisms in methods that are springing up in the specialized sciences and the equally specialized arts. There are indications that we are nearing a spontaneously established harmony of emotional and intellectual activities. In both contemporary science and contemporary art it is possible to detect elements of the general pattern which our culture will embody. The situation is a curious one: our culture is like an orchestra. where the instruments lie ready tuned. but where every musician is cut off from his fellows by a soundproof wall. It is impossible to foretell the events that will have to come before these barriers are broken down. The only service the historian can perform is to point out this situation, to bring it into consciousness.

Giedion’s answer to this problem of communicating orchestral harmony, proposed in the midst of a world war that would culminate in the use of nuclear weapons on civilian populations, was given in the title of an essay which he published in a series of different journals between 1942 and 1944: ‘A Faculty of Interrelations’.6 This was an answer which functioned on a series of theoretical and practical levels at once. On a theoretical level, “the unintended parallelisms in methods that are springing up in the specialized sciences and the equally specialized arts” were based on dynamics. That is, they were based on the Aristotelian explication of Plato’s forms as dynamic possibilities that unfold in the multifold shapes of actuality. The implication was that there is ‘a faculty of interrelations’ common to all physical nature and to human beings (though with complications in the latter that are absent in the former) between possibility and actuality and that it is this ‘faculty’ that allows for, and is the key to, the intelligibility of all actual forms.

In 1927 in his introduction to Sein und Zeit Heidegger had stated that phenomenology must begin with the principle that “higher than actuality stands possibility”. The year before, Born and Heisenberg had seen that the mathematics of quantum mechanics were graphs of possibilities. For decades before that, Freud and Jung had been reading psychopathologies as expressions of underlying unconscious possibilities. And for decades before that, in turn, painters, musicians and poets had been probing the ‘abstract’ parameters of their arts as possibilities that were manifested in some fashion in every actual work (so, eg, color and form in art, scale and rhythm in music). In science, the interrelation between the chemical elements and their expression in physical materials particularly exemplified such dynamics. Today, genetics is grounded in an analogous understanding of the role of DNA.

A faculty of dynamic interaction between possibility and actuality was the “general pattern” that had already “tuned” modern society — but only in chaotic fashion where the various disciplines based on it did not know of their mutual “established harmony” and so were unable to explicate the general possibility of peace which could be formulated on its foundation.

How the required recognition might be brought about lay, in Giedion’s view, in another reading of the phrase, ‘A Faculty of Interrelations’. Namely, a new faculty was needed in universities and research institutes that would be dedicated to this interrelation of possibility and actuality and to the further interrelation grounded in it between the institution’s various other ‘faculties’ (like the arts and sciences). As had been seen at least as far back as Plato, such a general faculty might ground truth in a new way and so provide the basis in society, and between societies, in the δικαιοσύνη (justice, mutual recognition) described in Plato’s Republic.

McLuhan would later state that his meeting with Giedion in St Louis in 1943 was one of the great events in his life. In fact, it is not too much to see the remainder of his career as dedicated to the further explication and communication of Giedion’s “faculty of interrelations” in such guises as ‘culture and technology’, ‘communications and society’, etc.

His first concrete attempt to implement Giedion’s strategy was made with Brooks. In the mid 1940s the University of Chicago attempted to recruit Brooks from LSU and he spent the academic year 1945-46 there as a visiting scholar. By this time McLuhan had already been in contact with UC because Giedion, immediately after their meeting in 1943, had written to his friend John Nef, a close lieutenant of Robert Hutchins and one of the founders of the UC Committee on Social Thought (after whom it is now named), to recommend McLuhan for Chicago.7

The result had been some correspondence between McLuhan and UC, including with Chancellor Hutchins, and the submission of some of McLuhan’s papers for review there. But the result was negative, apparently because McLuhan’s Catholicism, on the one hand, and his ‘the academy is full of idiots’ attitude, on the other, somehow did not sit well with the overwhelmingly secular academics there. No doubt this was especially the case when McLuhan’s scorn extended to the Great Books program which was intended, at least, to address the very oblivion of principles that concerned Giedion and McLuhan. Its proponents, like Mortimer Adler, might have been thought to be natural allies of McLuhan’s ideas and potentially also of McLuhan himself. But he had been a sharp critic of Adler for years and apparently found it impossible to adjust his course for strategic purpose.

Brooks’ presence at UC as a prized recruit apparently gave McLuhan a second chance there two years later. Brooks set up a meeting between McLuhan and Chancellor Hutchins in 1946. Now McLuhan’s aim was no longer the seemingly hopeless one of him joining the UC faculty (particularly when Brooks had decided not to accept the offer to remain there). Instead, he had a far more important and far more ambitious goal. He hoped to elicit Hutchins’ help in financing, at UC or elsewhere, “a faculty of interrelations” that would implement Giedion’s strategy of a practical “editorial” interrelation between scholars in the different faculties of learning. Could whole nations be expected to exercise themselves in some sort of mutual harmony with each other if individual academics and their respective disciplines could not?

In his proposal to Hutchins, McLuhan put forward only two scholars whose participation he saw as essential to it: Voegelin and Etienne Gilson (now McLuhan’s colleague in Toronto and yet another of the great Europeans McLuhan met in the 1940’s.8

McLuhan’s proposal went nowhere with Hutchins, but he did not give up the ambition formulated in it. It even reached a sort of concrete realization in the ‘Culture and Technology’ seminar funded by the Ford Foundation at the University of Toronto starting in 1953 — the year of McLuhan’s correspondence with Voegelin.





  1. This visit is recorded in Cleanth Brooks and the Rise of Modern Criticism by Mark Royden Winchell (1996) as follows: “Friends of Cleanth and (his wife) Tinkum remember seeing the Canadian scholar Marshall McLuhan at the Brooks home. Born and reared in the western provinces of Canada, McLuhan could claim a background every bit as rural as that of the Agrarians. Although McLuhan identified himself with the social vision of the Nashville group, his literary views were a bit too moralistic for him to be considered a formalist critic (among the Cambridge literati, he was far closer to F. R. Leavis than to I. A. Richards). Upon returning from Cambridge in 1936, McLuhan taught for the next decade at the Catholic University in St. Louis. Although Missouri is not a southern state, it was close enough to the South that McLuhan could travel in the Old Confederacy and become a kind of honorary Fugitive-Agrarian.” (114) Winchell does not mention that McLuhan’s wife, Corinne, was a Texan from Fort Worth who retained her southern accent all her long life. Furthermore, Winchell’s description has a number of small factual errors, only one of which has any real importance. It concerns the fact that McLuhan was already back in Canada when he made his visit to Baton Rouge and to Sewanee. That he went to considerable trouble and expense to make these visits testifies to the importance he saw in them. As regards his teaching experience after graduating from Cambridge, McLuhan taught a year at the University of Wisconsin before obtaining a position at St Louis University where he remained for seven years from 1937 to 1944.
  2. Distributism was an economic ideology asserting that the world’s productive assets should be widely owned rather than concentrated. Since the animus against concentration in this context meant not only ‘not in a few hands’, but also ‘not only in urban hands’, the fit with the Agrarians was close.
  3. Letters from Kendall to Giovanelli dating from 1941-1943 are preserved in the Giovanelli papers at the University of Illinois archive. It is possible that there are letters from Giovanelli to Kendall preserved at the Hoover Institute archive in Kendall’s papers there.
  4. The influence of Voegelin on McLuhan’s work can hardly be compared to that of Lewis and Giedion. However, the title of the book McLuhan was preparing when he died at the end of 1980, and that eventually appeared posthumously in 1988, The Laws of Media: The New Science, echoed Voegelin’s New Science from their encounter in 1953. Both, in turn, echoed the proposals for scientia nova in the work of Bacon, Leibniz and Vico.
  5. McLuhan’s relationship with Lewis had its ups and downs – like everyone else’s with Lewis.
  6. This short paper appeared in Education in 1942, in the Weekly Bulletin of the Michigan Society of Architects in 1943 and in Architect And Engineer in 1944. Giedion plainly thought it formulated essential concerns for a time of world war.
  7. See Giedion to Nef re a “promising young scholar”.
  8. Before meeting Gilson in person, presumably in 1947 at St Michael’s college of UT (where the two were colleagues), McLuhan had already studied his work closely. Gilson is the single most cited authority in McLuhan’s PhD thesis on Nashe and the classical trivium from 1943.

McLuhan’s “secret societies” problem

Writing to Eric Voegelin in 1953 McLuhan registered his shock concerning what he called “secret societies”.1 This was 70 years ago. He clearly meant something like what is called the ‘deep state’ today in which “secrecy and power [are] intertwined”. He perceived a condition of “an Elite” dictating to a “vulgar” mass, “the bulk of mankind”, which was “to be swamped with lies” — lies in which “the cynical contempt for the bulk of mankind should co-exist and even be expressed by fanatical assertions of universal benevolence.”2

McLuhan had always recognized that publishers have their agendas and that these agendas control not only what content was published, but also how that content was presented. For example, he had analyzed the Luce publications in these terms in his ‘Time, Life and Fortune’ paper in 1947.3 But now he realized that ‘publishing’ was taking place on a scale he had not hitherto imagined: what was being published, and how, was nothing less than the ‘facts‘ of the ‘world’ — ‘reality’ itself.

As shown in his letters to Voegelin, he had come to think:

(a) that all human activity including politics, the news, “historical scholarship” and the entirety of the arts had been reduced to a kind of Potemkin village — a “vulgar or exoteric façade” — which was presented as a seemingly complex “battleground” of different views and opinions,4 but was really the endlessly reiterated repetition of the same (“everything is everything else”);

(b) that the core impulse of the control that was being exercised ever more broadly and ever more tightly was a “falsification of the entire linguistic currency” of western civilization — “everything is everything else” in a more fundamental sense —  an impulse that could be called, along with Voegelin, “gnosis” or gnosticism;

(c) that this assault on the word was both intentional and disguised and therefore amounted to “the secret sectarian organization of intellectual life”;

(d) that, in-formed by this “sectarian organization”, life in the modern world was unwittingly carried out as “somebody else’s ritual”, as a “theological” exercise masked as secularism — “the entire technique of the ‘secret’ societies is to conduct their controversies5 as if the terms of reference were historical” (aka, “secular”);

(e) that the central difference between the “linguistic currency” of western civilization and the ‘theology’ of the “secret societies” turned on the fundamental worth, on the one hand, or the utter worthlessness, on the other, of freedom — “for the gnostic there are no autonomies in art, life, politics or anything else”;

(f) that freedom essentially implicates limitations6 — and “there are, it seems, no such limits in the gnostic world”;7

(g) that the return to western civilization and to freedom would therefore have to focus on the basic difference between “making” — a free though inherently limited activity — but one fully capable of the perception of truth (as all the sciences testify);  and matching, a purportedly unlimited activity which, exactly as unlimited, as seamlessly amalgamated with truth, had no qualms about licensing and enforcing “fanatical assertions of universal benevolence”.8

  1. For the complete four letters exchanged between McLuhan and Eric Voegelin in 1953, see Ships Passing in the Night: Voegelin and McLuhan. All citations in this post are from the letters from McLuhan to Voegelin given there.
  2. The citations in this paragraph are all taken from the end of McLuhan’s July 1953 letter to Voegelin”: “Secrecy and power seem to be intertwined. Also the very conditions of gnosis postulate secrecy, an Elite, and a vulgar who are to be swamped with lies. That the cynical contempt for the bulk of mankind should co-exist and even be expressed by fanatical assertions of universal benevolence”.
  3. This paper was taken from McLuhan’s work on The Mechanical Bride  (1951), in which one of the first sections of the book is titled “The Ballet Luce” (playing on Les Ballets Russes).
  4. For the “battleground” of different views and opinions, see the following note.
  5. “Controversies” were a “façade” since the aim of the ‘secret’ societies — the deep state — was to impose a gnostic dualism and the question between the sides was of vanishing importance to them compared to the promotion of an underlying structure of fundamental antagonism.
  6. The mutual implication of freedom and limitation is the heart of Harold Innis’ work.
  7. In 1953 McLuhan had been studying the works of his colleague at the University of Toronto, Harold Innis, for 5 years. One of McLuhan’s oldest and closest friends, Tom Easterbrook, was also an intimate friend of Innis and had brought the two together when Easterbrook returned to teach in Innis’ political economy department at UT in 1947. After Innis died in 1952, McLuhan published a kind of intellectual memoir of him, ‘The Later Innis’. He was well aware that Innis saw the twentieth century, a century of war, as the collapse of western civilization and that he attributed that collapse to a loss of the sort of balance that had enabled the nineteenth century to be one of peace. Since only limited powers can balance (a person with unlimited weight cannot play on a teeter-totter) this was to attribute war, as Innis explicitly did, to a loss of the ability to valorize limitation. McLuhan took over this insight. Or, rather, his existing sense of this notion was extended and reinforced by Innis.
  8. Innis documented how nineteenth and early twentieth century thinkers warned unsuccessfully about the rise and spread of “fanatical assertions” enabled by communications revolutions associated especially with newspapers, telegraph and radio. This merger of technology, communications and fanaticism would become a central concern in McLuhan’s life work. But since he saw that academic work had little or no effect on the complex, he turned to extra-academic avenues like TV appearances and even self-styled ‘comedian’ presentations.

Innis on thought and its eclipse (PEMS 7)

What is “initiative in thought” in Innis? Perspective.

What is perspective? It is a position that is: Long-term. Limited. Open. Balanced. Stable. Anchored.

In fundamental contrast, the loss of thought and perspective in the contemporary world (beginning in the late nineteenth century) is: Short-term. Unrestricted. Closed. Unbalanced. Unstable. Ungrounded.

The task of thought (dual genitive!) is to indicate the way from the first to the second.

The task is to indicate the way from one beginning to another beginning, from one origin to another origin.

The history of the twentieth century is testimony to the difficulty of this transformation. 

Her [the university’s] traditions and her [proper] interest demand an obsession with balance and perspective — an obsession with the Greek tradition of the humanities. The search for truth assumes a constant avoidance of extremes and extravagance. Virtue is in the middle way. There are no cures. Always we are compelled to be sceptical of the proposal to cure the world’s ills. We cannot tolerate the dominance of any individual or of any group. (A Plea for the University Tradition, 1944)

In the words of Cobden, political economy is “the highest exercise of the human mind, and the exact sciences require by no means so hard an effort.” 1 (The Economic Significance of Culture, 1944)

the [contemporary] study of economic history emphasizes short-run points of view acceptable to the price system rather than long-term points of view which necessitate perspective. An equilibrium of approaches to the study of economic phenomena becomes exceedingly difficult to achieve with the insistence on short-run interests and the obsession with the present. (A Plea for the University Tradition, 1944)

The modern tendency to find mental satisfaction in measuring everything by a fixed rational standard, and the way it takes for granted that everything can be related to everything else, certainly receives from the apparently objective value of money, and the universal possibility of exchange which this involves, a strong psychological impulse to become a fixed habit of thought, whereas the purely logical process itself, when it only follows its own course, is not subject to these influences, and it then turns these accepted ideas into mere probabilities.2 (The Economic Significance of Culture, 1944)

Cartels and formalism in commerce paralleled ecclesiasticism in religion and in both cases initiative in thought was weakened. (The Economic Significance of Culture, 1944)

Machine industry through printing dispenses with thought or com­pels it to move in certain channels. The dispersion of thought through the printing industry makes attacks on monopoly increasingly difficult.3 (The Economic Significance of Culture, 1944)

economic history should contribute to stability. Not only should it supplement political and social history, it should in supplementing them check the tendency in itself and in them to bias and fanaticism. Within the narrower range of the social sciences it should provide a check against the specialization of mathematical systems peculiar to a monetary and a machine age and should indicate the extent and significance of the irrational as contrasted with the rational.4 (The Economic Significance of Culture, 1944)

The circulation of printed matter cheapened thought and destroyed the prestige of the great works of the past which were collected and garnered before the introduction of movable type. Rational thought [in the sense of narrowly defined fields fenced off from “the mysteries of life and death”] and art [in the event that the other ‘absolute’ pursuits of philosophy and religion had ‘given up the ghost’] conse­quently had more influence.  (The Economic Significance of Culture, 1944)

economic history (…) should indicate the extent and significance of the irrational as contrasted with the rational.  (The Economic Significance of Culture, 1944)

recognition of factors affecting [consideration of] irrationality is a beginning. (The Economic Significance of Culture, 1944)

religion is an effort to organize irrationality and as such appears in all (…) organizations of knowl­edge. (The Economic Significance of Culture, 1944)

language is deliberately [manipulated]5 as a framework for hocus pocus and unintelligibility (…) with no possibility of a common approach through rationality. Irrationality assumes fresh importance as a means of capitalizing the necessity of unintelligibility and deliberately avoiding rational contacts.6 (The University In The Modern Crisis)

Man as a biological phe­nomenon has been unable to sustain the excessive demands of rationalism evident in the mathematics of the price system and of technology.7 (The Economic Significance of Culture)

Rationality which accompanies the price system brings its own handicaps in the formation of monopolies.8 (The Economic Significance of Culture, 1944)

  1. Innis citing John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden (1887).
  2. “Mere probabilities” sound negative. But they are what thought and perspective deal with. To compare, nothing in the hard sciences exceeds “mere probabilities”. Compare Innis’ negative use of ” fixed rational standard” here to notes #4 and #6 below.
  3. Concern with “monopoly” is a good example of the constant attention paid by Innis at once to structure and to real world economics. His chief point is that the latter must be understood via the former.
  4. “The irrational as contrasted with the rational”, in this context, means ‘extra-systematic’ factors like “the mysteries of life and death” (The Economic Significance of Culture). In this sense, thought and perspective, like religion, are vitally concerned with “the irrational”.
  5. Innis: “built up”.
  6. Here “rationality” and “irrationality” are used in the opposite sense discussed in note #4 above. Here “rationality” is equated with thought and perspective and “irrationality” with a closed system with “no possibility of a common approach”.
  7. For “rationalism” as “system and of technology” here, compare notes #2, #4 and #6.
  8. “Rationality” is brought together with both economics and structuralism here. Since “rationality” is treated in fundamentally different ways by Innis, it, as well as “economics”, may be imagined to name positions on a spectrum stretching between “monopolies” .

Innis multiplying Hugo (PEMS 6)

The printing press and new methods of communication have been developed as methods of division rather than co-operation. (The Economic Significance of Culture, 1944)

Enormous improvements in communication have made understanding more difficult. (Innis, Minerva’s Owl, 1947)

Probably via Edward Bulwer, Innis read the expository chapter on Gutenberg in Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1943 or 1944.1 Taking off from Hugo Innis proposed:

As [the international Church and its Latin culture] was crushed by the book, so the book [and its culture] was crushed by the newspaper. In turn the newspaper was destined to feel the effects of the radio.2

Similarly in ‘This Has Killed That’:

The power of the [newspaper] press, more recently supported by the radio, [announced that] the day of the printed [book] word (…) was over.3

In these passages Innis was explicitly invoking Hugo’s model of the communications revolution brought about by Gutenberg. For Hugo this had been a revolution that was “indestructible”, one that had passed into “immortality” as “definitive”: “the invention of printing is the greatest event in history.” But Innis applied Hugo’s “definitive” singular model to multiple communications revolutions subsequent to print such as those originated by the newspaper and by radio.

Here is Hugo’s model of a communication revolution:4

  • human thought, in changing its form, was about to change its mode of expression; (…) the dominant idea of each [succeeding] generation would no longer be written with the same matter, and in the same manner
  • everything changes. Human thought discovers a [new] mode of perpetuating itself
  • it is human thought stripping off one form and donning another; it is the complete (…) change of skin of that symbolical serpent which, since the days of Adam, has represented intelligence

Bulwer put Hugo’s “definitive” notion this way:

The magic of Gutenberg (…) hath conjured a wide chasm between the past and the future history of mankind: the people of one side of the gulf are not the people on the other…5

Now there was not one “chasm”, however, but a whole series of them and their repeated appearance was accelerating. Hugo had supposed that “human thought”, “intelligence”, indeed “the human race”, were not only preserved through Gutenberg’s revolution, they were enhanced. But as the “gulf” produced by each communications revolution was multiplied by subsequent iterations, the thread holding these together, providing their coherence, was increasingly cut through and threatened to unravel completely — if it had not already done so. It could well be doubted if there were such a thing as “the human race” anymore, let alone “thought” and “intelligence”.6

Such revolutions do not ‘take place’ only in the interior landscape.  Instead, “everything changes” in a process where the interior and the exterior landscapes interactively affect and effect one another. The process is therefore “economic”, as Innis would have it, or “environmental”, as McLuhan would come to say. Changes in the interior landscape of humans result from exterior technological developments and exterior technological developments result from changes in the interior landscape of humans.

Innis saw that three great interrelated problems resulted from the ever more quickly repeated communications revolutions constituting this “second tower of Babel of the human race“.7

First, since further communications revolutions could be anticipated, or at least not ruled out, it was impossible to specify any order as “definitive”. A “complete (…) change of skin” of the psychological or social landscape could happen at any moment, the one then overturning the other, such that ‘reality’ itself, along with ‘truth’ and ‘justice’ and ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, could be specified only by insistence — by dint of force. But, then, by what right could such force be exercised? Only by dint of force. As a result, as Nietzsche was the first to see, or, at least, the first to see clearly along with its cause and its effect, ‘reality’ fell through itself like a black hole:

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!!8

Or, as Innis repeatedly specified :

the collapse of Western civilization (…) begins with the present [twentieth] century (The Economic Significance of Culture, 1944)

The central internal problem was that repeated communications revolutions though which “everything changes” had eradicated foundation:

the purely logical process itself, when it only follows its own course (…) turns these accepted ideas into mere probabilities… (Ibid)

[we have lost] an anchorage or a point of view from which to approach the problem of European civilization. (Ibid)

Second, when what Innis termed “the Platonic  tradition” had collapsed, and with it the very possibility of specifying truth and reality, international institutions no longer had a basis from which to maintain peace among the nations:

We have seen the effects of the disappearance of the Platonic tradition in the necessity of appealing to force as the unifying and dominating factor9 (University In The Modern Crisis, 1945)

[ours is] a period in which we have been unable to find a solution to the problem of law and order, and have re­sorted to force rather than to persuasion, bullets rather than ballots. (The Economic Significance of Culture)

[repeated wars reflect] the inability of the twentieth century to find a solution to the eternal problem of freedom and power (Ibid)


The basic post-war problem is that of stopping the loss of blood or the problem of peace. Plans of the new world or of the new international order can be purchased in large quantities at low price. The question remains as to why there are so many plans for the new world. What is the source of the confusion? Why has a century of comparative peace such as prevailed from the end of the Napoleonic Wars to the beginning of the last war been followed by the breakdown of Western Civilization? Why has European civilization turned from persuasion to force or from ballots to bullets? What has brought about a change of such disastrous consequence? (Problems of Rehabilitation, 1946)10

The need for force in the specification  of ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ at the individual psychological level — in the interior landscape — was inevitably reflected in the need for force at the international level — in the exterior landscape — to ‘settle’ any matter of contention. No other method of settlement — that is, of justice — was recognized.

Third, the collapse of accepted standards in the interior and exterior landscapes inevitably characterized the national economy as well — “the fabric of human institutions”.11 Weapons manufacturing became the major national industry and war became an economic necessity.

the phenomenal rise in the standard of living (…) and the prosecution of major wars were a result of increasing efficiency of machine industry (Political Economy in the Modern State, 1943)

Weapons manufacturing was no longer a requisite of war; war was a requisite of weapons manufacturing.12

Has commercial development been effective in destroying religious centralization as a stabilizing influence to the point that new sources of power such as nationalism and autarchy with subordination to militarism have taken their place?  (The Economic Significance of Culture)

At the same time, war fever in ever-varying flavors became the staple product of the news. Here again, news did not follow war, but war followed the news.

The Spanish-American War and the South African War came at the beginning of the new journalism and were exploited to the full in efforts to increase circulation in New York particularly and in London; the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, the Journal, and the World pushed circulation to new levels. They were ideal newspaper wars. To Mr. Hearst was attributed the telegram to [Frederic] Remington, “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” (The Newspaper in Economic Development, 1942)

in both Great Britain and the United States the Boer War and the Spanish American War enabled sensational journalism to reach new peaks. Wemyss Reid wrote of the Boer War, “It has been said that this has been a war made by newspapers. Evidently the newspapers are [also] capable of carrying it on.” (An Economic Approach to English Literature in the Nineteenth Century, 1945)

The mind of the individual, together with the family and society as a whole, were all taken over to serve collective forces no one saw, let alone understood and controlled. Indeed, life and death themselves were put to work somehow — two world wars, with fifty million deaths, or so, were symbols of a fall into a fatal robotism that did not end with those wars. Furthermore, these repeated communication revolutions with their implicated militarism were inevitably styled as ‘progress’ — the ‘rise of freedom’! — so that the first casualty in them was the word.

These three failures of understanding, along with the implicated death of language, all reinforced each other in a planetary mesh and the great question was (and is): how to get out? where is the exit?13 

McLuhan took over this problem complex from Innis. Here he is to Pound in a letter of June 22, 1951:

the word has been used to effect a universal hypnosis. How are words to be used to unweave the spell of print?  Of radio commercials and ‘news’-casts?  I’m working on THAT problem.  The word is now the cheapest and the most universal drug.
Consider the effect of modern machinery in imposing rhythm on human thought and feeling. Archaic man got inside the thing that terrified him — tiger, bear, wolf — and made it his totem god. To-day we get inside the machine. It is inside us. We in it. Fusion. Oblivion. Safety. Now the human machines are geared to smash one another. You can’t shout warnings or encouragement to these machines. First there has to be a retracing process. A reduction of the machine to human form. Circe only turned men into swine. Our problem is tougher.14 


  1. Innis first mentioned Hugo’s chapter from Hunchback, at least in published form, in ‘The Economic Significance of Culture’ (1944): “The restraining influence of religious institutions has limitations, and dis­senting groups and philosophical systems emerge on their fringes. Centrali­zation is followed by decentralization. The printing press and commerce implied far-reaching changes in the role of religion. In Victor Hugo’s famous chapter in the Notre Dame de Paris, entitled ‘This Has Killed That’, he writes: ‘During the first six thousand years of the world (…) architecture was the great handwriting of the human race.’ (…)  As the ‘ancient Gothic genius, that sun which sets behind the gigantic press of Mayence’ (Mainz) was crushed by the book, so the book was crushed by the newspaper. In turn the newspaper was destined to feel the effects of the radio. With Victor Hugo we can say, ‘It is the second tower of Babel of the human race’.” Similarly in ‘Minerva’s Owl’ (1947): “The monopoly position of the Bible and the Latin language in the church was destroyed by the press and in its place there developed a wide-spread market for the Bible in the vernacular and a concern with its literal interpretation. To quote Jefferson, ‘The printers can never leave us in a state of perfect rest and union of opinion.’ In the words of Victor Hugo the book destroyed the ‘ancient Gothic genius, that sun which sets behind the gigantic press of Mayence.’ Architecture which for six thousand years had been ‘the great handwriting of the human race’ was no longer supreme.” Around that same time in the middle 1940s Innis prepared notes for an address with the title, taken from Hugo, ‘This Has Killed That’. It was published from his papers only 25 years after his death in the Journal of Canadian Studies (Winter 1977): “I have not been able to suggest a title sufficiently broad to cover the material I propose to put before you but the title of the famous chapter in Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris, ‘This has killed that’, will probably cover it more adequately than any other. Some of you may remember that he discusses the impact of printing on architecture. ‘During the first six thousand years of the world… architecture was the great handwriting of the human race.’ But the book destroyed the edifice (of that great handwriting) and, in the French revolution, not only did it destroy architecture but the fabric of human institutions as well. The last sentence of Victor Hugo’s chapter is: ‘It is the second tower of Babel of the human race‘; and this may well serve as the subject of this paper.”
  2. ‘The Economic Significance of Culture’, 1944. See the previous note for the full passage.
  3. See note #1 for the full passage.
  4. See Hugo on Gutenberg in 1831 for the full passage of these snippets.
  5. Edward Lytton Bulwer, England and the English, 1833, as cited by Innis in ‘An Economic Approach to English Literature in the Nineteenth Century’.
  6. “Man as a biological phe­nomenon has been unable to sustain the excessive demands of rationalism evident in the mathematics of the price system and of technology” (The Economic Significance of Culture). Here “rationalism” means a closed system encapsulated from “the mysteries of life and death”. But, depending on context, it could also mean the opposite: a structure open to these mysteries. For discussion see Innis on thought and its eclipse.
  7. See note #1 for Innis’ repeated citation of this phrase from Hugo.
  8. Twilight of the Idols, 1889.
  9. Nietzsche’s ‘History of an Error’ also couches Western civilization as the decline and fall of “the Platonic tradition”.
  10. First published in PEMS.
  11. ‘This Has Killed That’ — see note#1 for the full passage.
  12. McLuhan to Pound, January 1951: “2nd War produced great discovery of war as new way of life. Financial pages simply chortling these days over prosperity rooted in 3rd War. Ordinary guy eats this up. Total war = total security he figures. THAT is the scale of imbecility now current.” (Letters, 219)
  13. Innis would term this mesh “the fundamental solipsism of Western civilization” (Empire and Communications, 1950 edition, 67, 1972 edition, 56). Empire and Communications was first given as a lecture series at Oxford in 1948.
  14. Letters, 227. McLuhan’s capitalized ‘THAT’ was a reference back to his letter to Pound earlier in the year. It was a marker for the “imbecility” of the contemporary mind — and of the loss of the word. See note #12 for the earlier letter.

Hugo on Gutenberg in 1831: the second tower of Babel

As set out in McLuhan reads Innis (PEMS 1), Innis cited Edward Bulwer and Thomas Carlyle on the world-changing event of Gutenberg in their writings in 1833 and 1834 respectively.1 Bulwer at least must have obtained the idea from Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame which appeared in 1831 and which Bulwer and his brother, Henri, both mentioned in their writings in the 1830s.

Innis went back from Bulwer to read Hugo’s account for himself and was immensely influenced by it.2 Here are the relevant portions of Hugo’s long expository chapter (Hunchback, Book 5, Chapter 2):

We pause for a moment to seek what could have been the thought concealed beneath those enigmatic words of the archdeacon [earlier in the novel]: “This will kill that.3 The book will kill the edifice.”
To our mind, this thought had two faces. In the first place, it was a priestly thought. It was the fright of the priest in the presence of a new agent, the printing press. It was the terror and dazzled amazement of the men of the sanctuary, in the presence of the luminous press of Gutenberg.4 It was the pulpit and the manuscript taking the alarm at the printed word (…) the cry of the prophet who already hears emancipated humanity roaring and swarming; who beholds in the future, intelligence sapping faith, opinion dethroning belief, the world shaking off Rome. It was the prognostication of the philosopher who sees (…)  that one power was about to succeed another power. It meant, “The press will kill the church.”
But underlying this thought, the first and most simple one, no doubt, there was in our opinion another, newer one, a corollary of the first, less easy to perceive and more easy to contest, a view as philosophical and belonging no longer to the priest alone but to the savant and the artist. It was a presentiment that human thought, in changing its form, was about to change its mode of expression; that the dominant idea of each generation would no longer be written with the same matter, and in the same manner; that the book of stone, so solid and so durable, was about to make way for the book of paper, more solid and still more durable [yet]. In this connection the archdeacon’s vague formula had a second sense. It meant, “Printing will kill architecture.”
In fact, from the origin of things down to the fifteenth century of the Christian era, inclusive, architecture is the great book of humanity, the principal expression of man in his different stages of development, either as a force or as an intelligence.
When the memory of the first races felt itself overloaded,5 when the mass of [spoken] reminiscences of the human race became so heavy and so confused that speech, naked and flying, ran the risk of losing them on the way, men transcribed them on the soil6 in a manner which was [then] at once the most visible, most durable, and most natural.
The generating idea, the word, was not only at the foundation of all these [stone] edifices, but also in the form. The temple of Solomon, for example, was (…) the holy book itself.
Thought written in stone [was] a privilege exactly comparable to our present liberty of the press.
Thus, down to the time of Gutenberg, architecture is the principal writing, the universal writing.
In the fifteenth century everything changes. Human thought discovers a mode of perpetuating itself, not only more durable and more resisting than architecture, but still more simple and easy. Architecture is dethroned. Gutenberg’s letters of lead [type] are about to supersede Orpheus’s letters of stone
The book is about to kill the edifice.
The invention of printing is the greatest event in history. It is the mother of revolution (…) it is human thought stripping off one form and donning another; it is the complete and definitive change of skin of that symbolical serpent which since the days of Adam has represented intelligence.
In its printed form, thought is more imperishable than ever; it is volatile, irresistible, indestructible. It is mingled with the air. In the days of architecture it made a mountain of itself, and took powerful possession of a century and a place. Now it converts itself into a flock of birds, scatters itself to the four winds, and occupies all points of air and space at once. We repeat, who does not perceive that in this form [thought] is far more indelible [than in stone]? It was solid, [now] it has become alive. It passes from duration in time to immortality. One can demolish a mass; but can one extirpate ubiquity?
Before the invention of printing, reform [of the Church] would have been merely a schism; printing converted it into a revolution. Take away the press; heresy is enervated. Whether it be Providence or Fate, Gutenberg is the precursor of Luther.7
Thus, to sum up what we have hitherto said, in a fashion which is necessarily incomplete and mutilated, the human race has two books, two registers, two testaments: masonry and printing; the Bible of stone and the Bible of paper
No doubt, when one contemplates these two Bibles, laid so broadly open in the centuries, it is permissible to regret the visible majesty of the writing of granite, those gigantic alphabets formulated in colonnades, in pylons, in obelisks, those sorts of human mountains which cover the world and the past, from the pyramid to the bell tower, from Cheops to Strasburg. The past must be reread upon these pages of marble. This book, written by architecture, must be admired and perused incessantly; but the grandeur of the edifice which printing erects in its turn must not be denied.
This [new] edifice [of print] is colossal. Some compiler of statistics has calculated, that if all the volumes which have issued from the press since Gutenberg’s day were to be piled one upon another, they would fill the space between the earth and the moon; but it is not that sort of grandeur of which we wished to speak.
The press, that giant machine, which incessantly pumps all the intellectual sap of society, belches forth without pause fresh materials for its work. The whole human race is on the scaffoldings [of this new towering edifice]. Each mind is a mason (…) Every day a new course [of this new edifice] rises. (…)  Assuredly, it is a [towering] construction which increases and piles up in endless spirals; there also are confusion of tongues, incessant activity, indefatigable labor, eager competition of all humanity, refuge promised to intelligence, a new Flood against an overflow of barbarians. It is the second tower of Babel of the human race.


  1. For Bulwer, see note 7 below. For Carlyle, in ‘The Economic Significance of Culture’ (1944) Innis cited his 1834 Sartor Resartus: “He who first shortened the labor of copyists by device of movable types was disbanding hired armies and cashiering most kings and senates, and creating a whole new democratic world; he had in­vented the art of printing.
  2. For discussion, see Innis multiplying Hugo (PEMS 6).
  3. Innis prepared an address with the title ‘This Has Killed That’ sometime during WW2. It was published from his papers, 25 years after his death, in the Journal of Canadian Studies12:5 (Winter 1977).
  4. Throughout this passage, in ways the translator may not have entirely followed, Hugo both equates and sharply differentiates architecture and the book. Here the first is “dazzled” and the second is “luminous”. Later both will be called an “edifice”, the old edifice and the new edifice: both are said to be “indelible” and “solid”. Similarly, both are called a “book” and even a “Bible”. The central idea is that both are world-structuring powers and in that sense are equal; but at the same time the two are fundamentally incompatible — where the one is, the other cannot be.
  5. McLuhan has this same idea that technology is a kind of compensation or “counter-irritant” to a condition that has become inefficient, difficult and even threatening. He did not have it from Hugo, of course, or from Innis, but probably from Jonas’ 1962 Irritant and Counter-Irritant.
  6. Innis would have seen ‘clay’ for ‘soil’ here, of course. And once he had three points for a map of communications media — stone, clay and paper — it was easy to populate it further with papyrus, parchment, telegraph and radio.
  7. Bulwer: “The magic of Gutenberg (…) hath conjured a wide chasm between the past and the future history of mankind: the people of one side of the gulf are not the people on the other (…) In the primal and restless consciousness of the new spirit, Luther appealed to the people”. (England and the English, 1833)

Innis on limitation (PEMS 5)

A science of the archive must include the theory of [its] institutionalization, that is to say, at once of the law which begins by inscribing itself there and of the right which authorizes it. This right imposes or supposes a bundle of limits which have a history, a deconstructable history (…) the limits, the borders, and the distinctions have been shaken by an earthquake from which no classificational concept and no implementation of the archive can be sheltered. Order is no longer assured…(Derrida, Archive Fever, 1994, 50 years after Innis’ 1944 lecture.)1

In his presidential address to the Economic History Association in September 1944, ‘The Economic Significance of Culture’,2 Innis began by setting out a series of limitations to economic thought — limitations,  that is, to any attempt to formulate an ‘account’ (nomos) of the ‘household’ (eco). At bottom, the central problem to this part of the address was to engage the questionability of both of these components of ‘eco-nomics‘: what is it to render an ‘account’? what limitations must be considered in doing so (if, that is, the account is to be made comprehensively and conscientiously)? and just what is the human ‘household’?3

In addressing “the limitations of economic history or of the social sciences“, more generally, Innis specified that we must focus on “the ques­tion of their [limiting] boundaries or what cannot be done” in them:

In attempting to answer this question perhaps we can improve our perspective regarding the place of the field of economic history, and in turn of the social sciences, in Western civilization. We need a sociology or a philosophy of the social sciences, and particularly of economics, an economic history of knowledge, or an economic history of economic history. Economic history may enable us to understand the background of economic thought, or of the organization of economic thought, or of thought in the social sciences.4

Inquiry into this question complex immediately precipitates the problem that it is located within the tradition about which it proposes to inquire. It is delimited by the circularity of attempting “a sociology (…) of the social sciences” or an “economic history of economic history”.5

The inherently limited “application of scarce means” to “the vast range of social phenomena” demands that any “weakness for omniscience6 be jettisoned at the outset.

Further, according to Innis, the investigation of economic history (dual genitive) must recognize other limitations, both internal and external, beyond that of its inherent circularity:

  • the pecuniary approach, when all pervasive (…) has threatened to make economics a branch of higher accountancy.7
  • As slot machines have been built up around the sizes and weights of various denominations of coins so there has been a tendency for economics to be built up around the monetary structure.8  
  • statistics has been particularly dangerous to modern society by strengthening the cult of economics and [thereby] weakening other social sciences and the humanities.
  • Left to themselves all find their level price / Potatoes, verses, turnips, Greek, and rice.”9
  • administrative machinery and preservation of records have impressed on historical writing the imprint of the state and fostered the bias which [has] made history the handmaid of politics.10
  • the modern tendency to find mental satisfaction in measuring everything by a fixed rational standard, and the way it takes for granted that everything can be related to everything else [like potatoes and verses, and turnips and Greek].11 
  • scholarship is harassed by the demands of pressure groups.
  • concentration on the price system, driven by mathematics (…) emphasizes short-run points of view (…) rather than long-term (…) an equilibrium of approaches to the study of economic phenomena becomes exceedingly difficult to achieve with (…) the obsession with the present.12 
  • [there is] neglect of the technological conditions under which prices operate.
  • such work must emphasize not only technical changes but [also] their significance.
  • the important contributions of geography (…) have not been incorporated effectively in economic history (…) Geography provides the grooves which determine the course and to a large extent the character of economic life. (…) Geography has been effective in determining the grooves of economic life through its effects on transportation and communication.13
  • Disturbances to (…) regular trends were a result of sudden developments (…) of cyclonic activities such as accom­panied the gold rushes.14 

Innis concluded his barrage of observations on the fundamental limitations of the social sciences (objective genitive!) with this attestation:

[It is] the influence of the Greeks [that] compels us to raise [such] questions about the limitations of the social sciences.15

“The influence of the Greeks” does not only not turn away from limitations, according to Innis, it urges and even needs and welcomes them. Our ‘household’ as defined by “Western civilization” through “the influence of the Greeks” would therefore be founded on limitation — limitation not as dis-abling, or not only as dis-abling, but also as en-abling.

In the face of such enabling limitations, the first demand on economic history is what Innis called “an equilibrium of approaches” — for there are bordering limitations also between different “approaches”, marking their plurality:

Economic history can point to the dangers of bias and the necessity for a broader perspective (…) an equilibrium of approaches (…) the integration of basic approaches (…) a broader synthesis…

This would, however, be no mere matter of capaciousness: “a recognition of factors affecting irrationality is [only] a beginning”.16 Much more, or much less, any such “broader synthesis” would have to take upon itself the demand implicated in “the collapse of Western civilization” for a new “solution to the problem of law and order”, for “an anchorage or a point of view from which to approach the problem of European civilization” — namely its exposure to “cyclonic” or catastrophic destabilization:

  • In all this we can see at least a part of the background of the collapse of Western civilization which begins with the present century. The compara­tive peace of the nineteenth century is followed by a period in which we have been unable to find a solution to the problem of law and order, and have re­sorted to force rather than to persuasion, bullets rather than ballots.
  • The inability of the twentieth century to find a solution to the eternal problem of freedom and power is basically significant to the study of economic history.
  • [we have lost] an anchorage or a point of view from which to approach the problem of European civilization.17

When a field is subject to general destabilization, the unavoidable inference is that it is subject to forces larger than it — to forces outside of it.  At their broadest, these forces might be termed “the mysteries of life and death”:

  • economic history (…) should indicate the extent and significance of the irrational18 as contrasted with the rational
  • religion is an effort to organize irrationality and as such appears in all (…) organizations of knowl­edge.19
  • economic history may provide grappling irons with which to lay hold of areas on the fringe of economics, whether in religion or in art 
  • By drawing attention to the limitations of the social sciences and of the price system, [economics] can show the importance of religion20

The “collapse of Western civilization” in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries reflects a general inability to relate to “the mysteries of life and death” and, consequently, to respond to them as we must — if we are to survive. This amounts to — or results from — the death of religion since within Western civilization it is “religion [that] has been vitally related to the mysteries of life and death”. This, too, is through “the influence of the Greeks”.

Innis would have economic history and the social sciences generally begin their investigations with an acknowledgement of their situation (situation?) in the general collapse of the tradition within which they would have their ground and their possibility of significance — if, that is, they had ground and the possibility of significance. This is, he maintained, the abysmal groundlessness in which today, and in which alone today, authentic ‘account’ may be rendered. At the same time, he would on no account forget what former ages knew, and knew accountably, concerning those very “mysteries of life and death” and which gave them “anchorage” within “European civilization”. A renewed sense of ‘household’ would need to embrace both that abysmal groundlessness and that accountable hold.21



  1. Derrida’s ‘Archive Fever’ is cited throughout this post since the parallels between it and Innis’ lecture 50 year before are remarkable.
  2. Originally in The Journal of Economic History, 4:Supplement (‘The Tasks of Economic History’), 1944. Reprinted in PEMS. All indented and bullet-point passages in this post are citations from this paper.
  3. Derrida: “An eco-nomic archive in this double sense: it keeps, it puts in reserve, it saves, but in an unnatural fashion, that is to say in making the law (nomos) or in making people respect the law. A moment ago we called it nomological. It has the force of law, of a law which is the law of the house (oikos), of the house as place, domicile, family, lineage or institution” (Archive Fever).
  4. Compare Derrida on Freud’s heritage: “I wish to speak of the impression (…) that Sigmund Freud will have made on anyone, after him (…) in his or her culture and discipline, whatever it may be, in particular philosophy, medicine, psychiatry (…) the history of texts and of discourses, political history, legal history, the history of ideas or of culture, the history of religion and religion itself, the history of institutions and of sciences, in particular the history of this institutional and scientific project called psychoanalysis. Not to mention the history of history, the history of historiography.” (Archive Fever) The question raised by Innis and Derrida, along with the great thinkers as far back as we can trace them, concerns: how far does circularity belong to truth?
  5. Derrida in ‘Archive Fever’: “Even a classical historian of science should know from the inside the content of the sciences of which he does the history. And if this content concerns in fact historiography, there is no good method or good epistemology for authorizing oneself to put it into parentheses.”
  6. Innis citing Leslie Stephen, History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century (1876). The full passage of the scarce/vast quotations from Innis reads: “Economics implies the application of scarce means to given ends, and the vast range of social phenomena compels a similar strategy of approach.”
  7. For this limitation, and many of the others specified by Innis, consider Derrida from La Carte Postale (1980): “The day when I was talking about all these pp (private picture postcard and penny post), I was first struck by this: prepayment institutes a general equivalent which regulates the tax according to the size and weight of the support and not the number, tenor or quality of the ‘marks’, even less on what they call the meaning. It’s unjust and stupid, it’ s barbarous, even, but immensely important. Whether you put one word or one hundred in a letter, a hundred-letter word or one hundred seven-letter words, it’s the same price; it’s incomprehensible, but this principle is capable of accounting for everything.” Derrida’s ‘”accounting” here has multiple meanings of course, as does Innis’ “accountancy”.
  8. That is, it must be inquired if “the pecuniary approach” should be the measure of economics or if economics should be the measure of it.
  9. That is, “the pecuniary approach” brings everything into its net, not only economics. This is particularly perverse where the figure of economics as a social science is taken to ground what in fact grounds all the social sciences, “the influence of the Greeks”. Innis’ citation is taken from A. S. Collins, The Profession of Letters: A Study of the Relation of Author to Patron, Publisher, and Public, 1780-I832 (1928).
  10. “The state and other organizations of centralized power have had a vital interest in records of their activities and have (thereby) given powerful direction to the study of political, legal, constitutional, and ecclesiastical history.” Compare Derrida, Archive Fever, fifty years later: “There is no political power without control of the archive”.
  11. This is the Gutenberg galaxy that McLuhan would attempt to specify almost 20 years later.
  12. “Economic history may (be able) to rescue economics from the present-mindedness which pulverizes (all) other subjects and makes a broad approach almost impossible”.
  13. “The significance of basic geographic features has been suggested by Mahan from the standpoint of the sea and by Mackinder from the standpoint of continental land masses”.
  14. That is, economics and economic history must implicate, or be implicated in, the possibility of “cyclonic” or catastrophic events. Innis in 1929: “Veblen (…) attempted to outline the economics of dynamic change and to work out a theory not only of dynamics but of cyclonics (…) the study of cyclonics (…) (must be) worked out and incorporated in a general survey of the effects of the industrial revolution such as Veblen has begun” (‘A Bibliography of Thorstein Veblen’).
  15. Innis: The influence of the Greeks on philosophy and in turn on universities compels us to raise questions about the limitations of the social sciences.
  16. “Irrationality” here means “the vast range” which lies beyond the limited rationalities of defined fields.
  17. Perhaps Innis must be read as worrying, like Derrida, about the possibility of “a writing about which it is no longer possible to decide if it still calculates, calculates better and more, or if it transcends the very order of calculable economy, or even of an incalculable or an undecidable which would still be homogeneous with the world of calculation?” (‘Two Words for Joyce’, 1982)
  18. For ‘the irrational’ see the previous note.
  19. Re “religion (…) appears”, the great questions are  ‘appears to whom’? and ‘how’? Certainly the implication of religion does not appear to most individual or collective “organizations of knowledge” today. Perhaps it appears only to those for whom limitation is revealing? For further on “organizations of knowl­edge”, see Innis on the archive above. The full passage here reads: “religion is an effort to organize irrationality and as such appears in all large-scale organizations of knowl­edge. Commerce follows the general trends of organized religious bodies as does thought in the social sciences.” Such “follows the general trends” might amount to an inverse relation, since, as Innis cites Eric Gill: “Where religion is strong, commerce is weak.”
  20. Full passage: “Economics tends to become a branch of political history and it is neces­sary to suggest alternative approaches and their limitations, to emphasize sociology with its concern with institutions, geography, and technology. By drawing attention to the limitations of the social sciences and of the price system it can show the importance of religion and of factors hampering the efficiency of the price system.”
  21. If ‘account’ as logos is deeper than tradition and deeper than the rendering of it we make from time to time, then the ‘rendering of it’ would be a subjective genitive, and not, at least not in the first instance, an objective one.

‘The Later Innis’ and quantum mechanics

In ‘The Later Innis’1 from 1953, McLuhan described Innis’ social vision in terms reminiscent of quantum mechanics. He compared Innis’ apprehension to an apparatus like a cloud chamber or a radar screen:2

The later Innis had no position. He had become a roving mental eye, an intellectual radar screen, on the alert for objective clues to the inner spirit or core of our times.

…in his later prose the linear development of paragraph perspectives is abandoned almost entirely in favour of the rapid montage of single shots. He juxtaposes one condensed observation with another, mounts one insight or image on another in quick succession to create a sense of the multiple relationships in process… 

What was recorded on that “intellectual radar screen” were “single shots” of momentary traces, momentary lines of force, that illuminated, although never without considerable limitations, some historical epoch. Just as physical nature is the sum product at any instant of time of the interactions of innumerable entities at multiple strata, a sum that is in principle as uncertain as the quantum particles comprising its lowest stratum, so the social scene is such an assemblage of a myriad psychological actions and interactions. Bias, as Innis emphasized, even in the title of his most important book, is of course inevitable in any “shot” recording  a momentary impression of such kaleidoscopic action:

The technique of total presentation or reconstruction led [Innis] swiftly to the vision of the total inter-relatedness of social existence. It is quite evident that Innis was not prepared for all this. No individual can ever be adequate to grappling with the vision of what Siegfried Giedion calls ‘anonymous history’. That is to say, the vision of the significance of the multitude of personal acts and artefacts which constitute the total social process which is human communication or participation [in multiple interacting strata]. For in this kind of awareness ‘commerce’ or ‘technology’ are tools of extremely limited usefulness in discussion. Behind such concepts are the [interactions of a dynamic cloud of]3 human attitudes, preferences and decisions.4 

This notion of the social context or ‘interior landscape’5 may somewhat have been prompted by findings in twentieth century physics, but McLuhan was doubtless thinking of Innis for the most part in terms of Finnegans Wake and of “language itself”.

As he put the point simply in The Later Innis’:

Language itself [is] at once the greatest mass medium of communication and also the greatest time-builder of cultures and civilizations.6

And in the initial issue of Explorations that year:

Language itself is the greatest of all mass media. The spoken word instantly (…) reverberates with the total history of its own experience with man.7

Then again in the same year in ‘James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial’:

“Every letter is a godsend,” wrote Joyce. And, much more, every word is an avatar, a revelation, an epiphany. For every word is the product of a complex mental act with a complete learning process involved in it. In this respect words can be regarded not as signs but as existent things, alive with a physical and mental life which is both individual and collective. The conventional meanings of words can thus be used or disregarded by Joyce, who is concentrating on the submerged metaphysical drama which these meanings often tend to overlay. His puns in the Wake are a technique for revealing this submerged drama of language, and Joyce relied on the quirks, “slips,” and freaks of ordinary discourse to evoke the fullness of existence in speech.8

Then. finally, early in 1954 in ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’:

it is a commonplace of the poetic and critical discussion of the last 100 years to note that human languages themselves are the greatest of all works of art beside which the works of Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Shakespeare are minor variations. The 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. This reverent attitude to the human world which has unexpectedly sprung up in symbolist, existential and positivistic circles alike is not unrelated to numerous other attitudes and procedures which are common today to the scientist, the historian and the sociologist. 

Although Innis himself had no background or training in contemporary art, this was the context, according to McLuhan, in relation to which he needed to be read:

This prose calls for steady contemplation of what is happening on the page. It is not intended to deliver an idea or a concept in a formula or in a package. It is an ideogrammic prose…

The question of how to conceptualize the interactional social cloud indicated by Innis, and as depicted in Finnegans Wake, would lead McLuhan a few years later to propose the idea of ‘Grammars of Media‘. Innis had been correct to see communication as the key to the comparison and analysis of different cultures, and to have seen media, in turn, from stone engravings to radio waves, as the keys to communication. And he had of course been right to emphasize bias as an unavoidable factor in any sort of intervention in the estimation of such a maze. Now McLuhan submitted that it was necessary to define media not in material terms (“in this kind of awareness (…) technology [is] of extremely limited usefulness”),9 but as languages.

Put otherwise — McLuhan twisting Innis’ kaleidoscope — all social phenomena might be seen as linguistic messages through which their enabling media expressed themselves: “the medium is the message”. But in this case, media themselves had to be defined though a specification of their elementary forms and of their laws of combination and interaction. These could be termed their ‘grammars’. And if each medium were a language with its own grammar, the goal of ‘understanding media’ would be to uncover a kind of grammar of those grammars — “grammars of all media in concert”:

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. (…) 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. (…) Grammars of all media in concert (including the medium of print)10 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.11

  1. ‘The Later Innis’, Queen’s Quarterly, 60:3, 1953. All citations in this post are from this essay unless otherwise identified.
  2. McLuhan, ‘Introduction’ to the reissue of The Bias of Communication (1964): “He explored his source material with a ‘Geiger counter’ (…) Innis had hit upon the means of using history as the physicist uses the cloud chamber.”
  3. McLuhan: “existing”.
  4. McLuhan, ‘Introduction’ to the reissue of The Bias of Communication (1964): Innis invites us (…) to consider the formalities of power exerted by these structures in their mutual interaction. He approaches each of these forms of organized power as exercising a particular kind of force upon each of the other components in the complex. All of the components exist by virtue of processes going on within each and among them all.”
  5. The ‘exterior’ and ‘interior’ landscapes are not to be differentiated as ‘located’ in contrasting ‘positions’ in space like ‘outer’ and ‘inner’. For one thing, ‘space’ is no constant and no singular. For another, human being is that peculiar type of being capable of systematically outering what is inner and of internalizing what another human beings outer. Furthermore, the physical stuff of the exterior landscape is present and active in the human brain and senses — just as human actions are present and active in physical nature. What is different between the two is the sort of ‘stuff’ constituting them and the laws of interaction of that ‘stuff’.
  6. McLuhan read Innis as implicating this insight, but as missing it at the same time: “Language itself, however, he failed to observe, was at once the greatest mass medium of communication and also the greatest time-builder of cultures and civilizations.”
  7. ‘Culture Without Literacy’, 1953.
  8. ‘James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial’, 1953.
  9. For in this kind of awareness ‘commerce’ or ‘technology’ are tools of extremely limited usefulness in discussion.” Full passage given above.
  10. McLuhan’s bracketed notation.
  11. Grammars of Media‘. McLuhan’s image of the X-ray unit as a space heater was criticized as incomprehensible from the first moment he used it and continually thereafter. It is difficult to see why — unless it was seen as a hook on which to hang an indistinct feeling of antagonism to McLuhan’s undertakings. The rather unexceptional idea was that an X-ray unit is a great invention, but its deployment depends upon an understanding of its proper use — and of its improper use. Media, in McLuhan’s view, and perhaps especially electronic media — given our ‘numb’ to the present — were just like this.

Innis on the eclipse of truth (PEMS 4)

Innis’ May 1944 convocation address at the University of New Brunswick, ‘A Plea for the University Tradition’1 included warnings he was to reiterate at a similar occasion in 1945 at McMaster.2 But it also specified what the McMaster address only intimated: the fundamental link between force in the determination of truth and force in the determination of the international order between war and peace.

The 1945 McMaster address — given May 14, a week after VE day, May 8  — would repeatedly declare that “western civilization has collapsed”. His apparently more hopeful admonition the year before at UNB, as the war in Europe continued, was that “we [must] commit ourselves afresh to the maintenance of a tradition without which western culture disappears.”

Innis concluded that UNB address as follows: 

Universities have grown beyond the high-school stage of development (…) and [their] maturity involves (…) proper recognition of the role of the scholar and of the university in the nation’s life. The efforts to maintain the traditions of the university are in themselves a testimony to these traditions. As recent graduates, we commit ourselves afresh to the maintenance of a tradition without which western culture disappears. (…) These [convocation] ceremonies — peculiar to an institution which has played the leading role in the flowering of western culture — remind us of the obligation of maintaining traditions concerned with the search for truth for which men have laid down (…) their lives.3 

It is critical to appreciate the multiple circularities at play here in Innis’ famous “obscurity”. It was, he said, essential to the vocation of the university to maintain its own calling: “The efforts to maintain the traditions of the university are in themselves a testimony to these traditions.” The present and future of the university must be dedicated to the fresh cultivation of its own past traditions. Those traditions must be passed on. Those traditions, in turn, were focused on “the search for truth”. It was through this search that the “institution [of the university] has played the leading role in the flowering of western culture”. But this “leading role”, in its turn, was a “testimony” to that “flowering”. That is, the most important way in which the university could maintain its own traditions and so help to maintain the “tradition without which western culture disappears” was to function as an image of that “flowering”. As a “testimony” to it. Only this would constitute, “afresh”, the “proper recognition of the role of the scholar and of the university in the nation’s life.” 

The calling of “the scholar and of the university” was to continue to cultivate the essential tradition of western culture by, first of all, being shaped by it. Their fundamental activity of “the search for truth” required a prior receptivity.4 

Earlier in his address Innis specified the dynamic form to which the university community was called upon receptively to con-form:

Her traditions and her interest demand an obsession with balance and perspective — an obsession with the Greek tradition of the humanities. The search for truth assumes a constant avoidance of extremes and extravagance. Virtue is in the middle way. There are no cures. Always we are compelled to be sceptical of the proposal to cure the world’s ills. We cannot tolerate the dominance of any individual or of any group.5 (UNB)

The search for truth could not terminate in any “proposal to cure the world’s ills”. But neither could it terminate in an empty scepticism. Both were extravagant extremes. Instead “the scholar and of the university” had to cleave to “the middle way” ac-cording to which truth itself is essentially limited — but is nevertheless truth. As seen in all the physical sciences, “the search for truth” is the way truth truly manifests itself to human investigation. It is never fully present (so the search goes on), but it is also never fully absent (so the search goes on).

Innis drew ramifications for contemporary action and for historical perspective from this circular dynamic of reaction and action: “In our time [the university] must resist the tendencies to bureaucracy and dictatorship of the modern state.” (UNB) Elsewhere, Innis depicted these tendencies in terms of the burgeoning of irrationalism at the end of the nineteenth century.2  Since rationalism in Innis’ view “demand[ed] an obsession with balance”, these tendencies to irrationalism were specified in his UNB address as the turn to the extremes of imbalance:

In our time, unfortunately, the power of resistance to extremes has been greatly weakened. (…) the university has largely ceased as a vital force (…) by this ordeal of militarism. (UNB)

In 1944 the “ordeal of militarism” was, of course, the second world war. But it was also, and in Innis’ mind more fundamentally, an “ordeal of militarism” in regard to the university’s essential activity — the pursuit of truth. In his McMaster address, Innis cited Oliver Wendell Holmes to the effect that “truth is the majority vote of the nation that can lick all the others.” Where the essential receptivity required for truth was eclipsed by a militaristic activity “that can lick all the others”, truth, too, would be eclipsed — and freedom and democracy along with it. The balance required for all of these, beginning with truth, would disappear in favor of the one-sided —  unbalanced — exercise of force.

Doubtless reflecting his close ties with classicists at the University of Toronto, Innis made the point at issue by citing Jacob Burckhardt on the society of classical Athens and its importance to the work of Plato:7

Festivals were a regular feature of life not a strain. Hence it was possible to develop that social intercourse which is the background of Plato’s dialogues.(…) People had something to say to each other and said it. Thus a general understanding was created. Orators and dramatists could reckon with an audience such as had never before existed.8 (UNB)

It is imperative to under-stand that “social intercourse” for Plato, and for Innis in turn, was not, first of all, a matter of what human beings happen to do in the market place. It was a matter, first of all, of truth itself, of what Innis called the “equilibrium of approaches” to “the mysteries of life and death”. Truth is internally limited and hence plural in itself. Submission to this plurality might be termed ‘internationalism’ and its refusal ‘isolationism’.

It was the “collapse” of that “general understanding” that led to the extremes of irrationalism and, ultimately, to the “century of war”:9

If we agree with Professor Whitehead that “The safest generalization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists in a series of footnotes to Plato,” we are forced to conclude that its power succumbed in the face of the Industrial Revolution and machine industry and the rise of romanticism. We have seen the effects of the disappearance of the Platonic tradition in the necessity of appealing to force as the unifying and dominating factor.10

The turn to force in the international order — or disorder — was the result, according to Innis, of the turn to force in a fundamentally misguided or unbalanced “search for truth”.11 It was the calling of the university to refresh its own traditions in the effort to return western culture to “the Greek tradition of the humanities” and to the required “obsession with balance” originated by it.

McLuhan specified this precisely in ‘The Later Innis’:

True social equilibrium, [Innis] saw, consisted in the simultaneous adjustment of the claims of space and time, power and knowledge. In the modern world the divorce between the between the city and the university reflects the loss of such equilibrium.



  1. Dalhousie Review 24:3, 1944, included in Political Economy in the Modern State. Citations from this address will be signaled by ‘(UNB)’.
  2. See ‘Innis on the state of the world in 2021‘.
  3. This passage from Innis offers a good illustration of what McLuhan termed his “ideographic prose”: “For in his later prose the linear development of paragraph perspectives is abandoned almost entirely in favour of the rapid montage of single shots. He juxtaposes one condensed observation with another, mounts one insight or image on another in quick succession to create a sense of the multiple relationships in process (…) This prose calls for steady contemplation of what is happening on the page. It is not intended to deliver an idea or a concept in a formula or in a package. It is an ideogrammic prose…” (‘The Later Innis’, Queen’s Quarterly, 60:3, 1953).
  4. A decade later McLuhan would come to designate this necessary receptivity as response to “light through” toward us, not the exercise of “light on” from us. Not that “light through” was without intentional activity, however. Instead, like the painting of an icon, intentional activity in this mode was to be awaked and exercised as in-formed.
  5. McLuhan in ‘The Later Innis’: “his deeply conscientious recognition of the just claims of both factors”.
  6. See ‘Innis on the state of the world in 2021‘.
  7. Innis was especially close with his UT classicist colleague, Charles Cochrane, with whom he famously took long walks around the Toronto campus in any weather. In addition, Innis’ mentor, and predecessor as head of the political economy department, E.J. Urwick (1867-1945), had written The Message of Plato, a Re-Interpretation of the Republic (1920).
  8. Jacob Burckhardt (1818-1898) cited from Force and Freedom. These were notes drafted by Burckhardt in 1868 and published posthumously as Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen in 1910. The translation used by Innis appeared during the war in 1943 accounting for the forceful change in the title.
  9. An Economic Approach to English Literature in the Nineteenth Century’: “And so we entered the open seas of democracy in the twentieth century with nothing to worship but the totalitarianism of the modern state. A century of peace gave way to a century of war.” In his UNB address, Innis associated this turn to irrationalism with Gutenberg, nationalism and racism: “The printing press destroyed internationalism, and accentuated the importance of differences in language; these differences were widened by propaganda and by the use of such terms as ‘race’.” That is, printing effected imbalance by weakening the offsets to local nationalism and racism once supplied by the Church and by international Latin scholarship.
  10. University In The Modern Crisis‘, 1945. Cf, Innis on the state of the world in 2021.
  11. If it is asked how force and imbalance are mutually implicating, an answer must begin with the fundamentality of “balance”. In order to deviate in either direction from this natural fulcrum, force must be exercised.

Innis on the state of the world in 2021 (PEMS 3)

A description of the world in 2021 could hardly be done better than Harold Innis was able to provide in 1945. With new technology Innis could not have dreamed of, the world has careened, faster and faster, along a path he could see before it — 75 years ago!

Here he is in a May 1945 convocation address at McMaster, ‘The University In The Modern Crisis’1, an address that begins and ends with the same declaration:

  • western civilization has collapsed
  • [we live] in a century which has witnessed a major collapse of civilization

The address is a description of this “major collapse of civilization” in relation to the university in particular and to society in general:

  • [We] have seen the disappearance of freedom of speech and freedom of the press, to say nothing of academic freedom.
  • The technological advantages in communication shown in the newspaper, the cinema and the radio [and on to TV and the internet] demand the thinning out of knowledge to the point where it interests the lowest intellectual levels and brings them under the control of totalitarian propaganda.
  • We need a study of the professor as sandwich man.2
  • the universities will be (…) one of the kept institutions of capitalism. The attempt (…) to dictate appointments, type of research, conditions under which the results of research shall be made available, and course[s] of instruction (…) is an attempt to twist the use of public funds in particular directions and to destroy the confidence in, and the prestige of, universities. For all universities it is a crime against the traditions of western civilization for which men have been asked to lay down, and have laid down, their lives.
  • The impression that universities can be bought and sold, held by business men and fostered by university administrators trained in playing for the highest bid, is a reflection of the deterioration of western civilization.
  • The descent of the university into the marketplace reflects the lie in the soul of modern society.
  • We can agree with [John Stuart] Mill that (…) “Where power extends in advance of education, the art of organizing delusion threatens to keep pace with the agencies which aim at diffusing enlightenment.”
  • language is deliberately [manipulated]3 as a framework for hocus pocus and unintelligibility (…) with no possibility of a common approach through rationality. Irrationality assumes fresh importance as a means of capitalizing the necessity of unintelligibility and deliberately avoiding rational contacts.
  • The blight of Oriental despotism which has ever threatened the western world becomes evident in bureaucracy and in turn in militarism. The interest in peace of an intelligent commercial (…) society is displaced by the control of the state in bureaucracy, militarism and war.
  • If we agree with Professor Whitehead that “The safest generalization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists in a series of footnotes to Plato,” we are forced to conclude that its power succumbed in the face of the Industrial Revolution and machine industry and the rise of romanticism. We have seen the effects of the disappearance of the Platonic tradition in the necessity of appealing to force as the unifying and dominating factor. In the words of the late Justice Holmes, “Truth is the majority vote of the nation that can lick all the others.”4


  1. Included in Innis’ 1946 Political Economy in the Modern State. All citations in this post — given as bullet points — are from this same address.
  2. Sandwich man advertising:
  3. Innis: “built up”.
  4. Innis may have seen this citation from Oliver Wendell Holmes in The Mind and Faith of Justice Holmes: His Speeches, Essays, Letters, and Judicial Opinions, edited by Max Lerner, 1943. Holmes has “that nation” rather than Innis’ “the nation”.

Innis on media revolutions (PEMS 2)

At the end of ‘An Economic Approach to English Literature in the Nineteenth Century’ (1943), Innis cited Edward Lytton Bulwer1 on the world-altering event of the invention of printing:

The magic of Gutenberg (…) hath conjured a wide chasm between the past and the future history of mankind: the people of one side of the gulf are not the people on the other; the physical force is no longer separated from the moral; mind has by slow degrees crept into the mighty mass — the popular Cymon [as personification of the rude crowd] has received a soul! In the primal and restless consciousness of the new spirit, Luther appealed to the people (…) From that moment, all the codes of classic dogmatists were worthless — the expired leases to an estate just let to new tenants, and upon new conditions(Innis citing Edward Lytton Bulwer, England and the English, 1833)

In ‘Political Economy in the Modern State2, a lecture before the American Philosophical Society from later that same year of 1943, Innis began his presentation, more or less taking off from the end of ‘An Economic Approach‘, by enlarging on the same theme. He started with repeated citations from Lord Acton3:

Lord Acton has outlined the historical background of modern freedom essential to the social sciences. The lesson of Athenian experience taught that “government by the whole people, being the government of the most numerous and powerful class is an evil of the same nature as unmixed monarchy and requires for nearly the same reasons institutions that shall protect it against arbitrary revolutions of opinion.”4 (…) “The ancient writers saw very clearly that each principle of government standing alone is carried to excesses and provokes a reaction. Monarchy hardens into despotism, aristocracy contracts into oligarchy, democracy expands into the supremacy of numbers.5 (…) “When Christ said Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s, those words gave (…) to the civil power (…) bounds it had never acknowledged; and they were the repudiation of absolutism and the inauguration of freedom. For (…) to reduce all political authority within defined limits ceased to be an aspiration (…) and was made the perpetual charge and care of the most energetic institution and the most universal association in the world. The new law, the new spirit, the new authority gave to liberty a meaning and a value it had not possessed (…) before”.5 

With Acton, Innis equates “historical background of modern freedom essential to the social sciences” with the development of “bounds” and “limits” protecting against the “unmixed” or unrestricted exercise of power. But it is unclear, perhaps purposely, if Innis were referring here to the historical and contemporary facts analyzed by social science or also to the essential nature of social science itself. “The state was circumscribed in its authority by a force external to its own”, concluded Acton, and in this circumscription lay the “inauguration of freedom”. But for Innis, social science itself “was circumscribed in its authority by a force external to its own”, namely, its own internal limitations: “the social sciences have been disastrously weakened by the neglect of a study of their limitations”.7 (“External” was used by Acton here in the sense of ‘independent’. Such externality or independence could therefore also be ‘internal’.)

These considerations from Acton and from Innis himself provide clear illustration of Innis’ structuralism. Like Acton,8 he conceived of freedom as determined by the balance of opposed powers like those of church and state.9 Either of the two sides acting alone, or even in preponderant power relative to the other, was a formula for disaster. The essential thing was to realize the fundamental need for a plurality of competing forces — including the plurality of that plurality. That is, the twofold plurality of independent factors in ratio — like church and state — itself has a plurality of different forms depending on the multifold configurations of those ratios. The imperative for the analysis of political economy (dual genitive!) was therefore to investigate social realities, like freedom or war, in terms of the range of ratios whose numerator and denominator10 each required acknowledgement of its self-standing reality — but only in some kind of dynamic homeostatic relation to the other.11

The balance of church and state arose through the bounds each gave to the other and it was through this mutual limitation that social and political freedom was first born. This happy homeostatic situation in history did not long endure, however, since, as Innis wrote, “the downfall of the Roman empire was followed by the rise of the Roman church” to a preponderant power relative to the weak political states into which the empire fragmented.12

However, since “each principle (…) standing alone is carried to excesses and provokes a reaction”,13 the Church, in turn, also met its inevitable limitation14 and the resulting metamorphosis of the whole social and cultural environment:15 

[The Church’s] centralizing tendencies were followed after the invention of printing by the protests of Martin Luther, reinforced by the opposition of [the likewise empowered] political states. He was compelled [!] to take up the position that authority was more dependent on [individual] divine revelation and less on [collective Catholic] ecclesiasticism. His position and the translation and printing of the Bible opened the way, on the one hand, to the growth of the Calvinistic state, as in Switzerland and in Scotland, and on the other, to the growth of Puritanism as it flourished among the sects in Holland and in England. “The substitution of the Book for the Church was the essence of [the] Protestant revolt” (Morley16). Calvin evaded the dangers of the Reformation [as found] in [the renewed] ecclesiasticism under Luther, by enforcing two cardinal laws of human society, [individual] self-control as the foundation of virtue, [collective] self-sacrifice as the condition of the common weal, and created a new centre of union.17 

The relation of structuralism and media revolution is on full display in Innis’ passage here. In it, Gutenberg technology is seen as bringing about, even ‘compelling’, a flip in the ratios of church/state and in all the associated ratios like collective/individual. The cybernetic goal, as always, was to find “a new centre of union”, a renewed balance or homeostasis between independently existent forces in tensoral ratio.

History is seen as the play of such ratios, always momentarily constellating themselves in some variety of homeostasis, with the media of communication at times compelling a sudden catastrophic change in them, Then would arise a “new spirit [and] new authority [with] a meaning and a value (…) not possessed (…) before”:18

The magic of [these media revolutions] hath conjured a wide chasm between the past and the future history of mankind: the people of one side of the gulf are not the people on the other…19


  1. Edward Lytton Bulwer’s mother was Elizabeth Lytton, hence his middle name. After his mother’s death in 1843, in accordance with a provision in her will, Bulwer changed his last name to Bulwer-Lytton, thus becoming Edward Lytton Bulwer-Lytton. When Innis cited him as Edward Lytton Bulwer for his 1833 England and the English he was doing so correctly, therefore, since Bulwer would not become Bulwer-Lytton for another decade.
  2. ‘Political Economy in the Modern State’ is the title essay in PEMS and its longest contribution. All passages not otherwise identified in this post are from this essay.
  3. John Dalberg-Acton, 1834-1902.
  4. Innis citing Acton, The History of Freedom and Other Essays (1922).
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. The University In The Modern Crisis‘, in PEMS.
  8. Elsewhere in ”Political Economy in the Modern State’ Innis followed Acton’s severe criticism of the Catholic Church. But as Innis knew, Acton was a Catholic himself. The frequently cited antipathy of Innis to McLuhan’s Catholicism is simplistic since his actual antipathy was to a thoughtlessness in the exercise of the Church’s authority which was fully shared by Acton and, indeed, by McLuhan.
  9. Innis on the university in ‘A Plea for the University Tradition‘: “Her traditions and her interest demand an obsession with balance and perspective — an obsession with the Greek tradition of the humanities. The search for truth assumes a constant avoidance of extremes and extravagance. Virtue is in the middle way. There are no cures. Always we are compelled to be sceptical of the proposal to cure the world’s ills. We cannot tolerate the dominance of any individual or of any group.”
  10. Like church/state, but also state/church — and all other ratios in what McLuhan would come to call the fundamental “figure/ground” configuration of all things.
  11. Structural analysis was therefore itself a species of the genus of its own investigations. It arose only as an expression of respect for balanced ratios — including its own balanced ratio between truth and inevitable limitation. Its communication, both of its method and its results, hung on the involuted knot in play here. In order to understand its mode of investigation, an observer had first to be able to see — its mode of investigation!
  12. The way up is the way down‘ according to Heraclitus. This law may be seen, as Innis does here, as expressing a topological relation where increase in one pole or one direction correlates with the decrease in the other. The constant in the dynamic action of the two is the sum total of each of their momentary positions. That is, the sum of the two can never vary (=1), although each of its components can vary over the range (0>1) with the other always varying in the corresponding way of (1>0).
  13. Acton — full passage from The History of Freedom and Other Essays cited above.
  14. Innis in ‘The Economic Significance of Culture’ (1944) included in PEMS: “Centralized religious institutions checked fanaticism but their limi­tations were evident in the emergence of dissent. (…) The restraining influence of religious institutions has limitations, and dis­senting groups and philosophical systems emerge on their fringes. Centrali­zation is followed by decentralization.” As broached in note 12, the way up is the way down. But now focus is on the dynamic flip of ratios.
  15. McLuhan fully followed Innis’ structuralism and its various laws like the stability of dynamic balance and the ‘flip’ of extremes. He did not not have this only from Innis, of course, but Innis certainly helped bring McLuhan to focus on structural ratios as a central factor in historical change. Cybernetics, which McLuhan was studying in the work of Wiener and Deutsch at this same time, held a similar message, as did the epyllion form described by Havelock. In all these, structural analysis of ratios and communication — or such ratios as communication — was at stake. Investigation into this nexus became McLuhan’s life work.
  16. The bracketed insertion of ‘Morley’ is from Innis but is otherwise unidentified. This was John Morley, 1838-1923, cited from his 1899 Oliver Cromwell.
  17. Italics added throughout.
  18. Cited in full above from Acton, The History of Freedom and Other Essays. See note 4.
  19. This is Innis in ‘An Economic Approach to English Literature in the Nineteenth Century’ citing Edward Lytton Bulwer from England and the English, 1833. Full passage given above at the head of this post.

The Electronic Revolution and the Undeveloped Countries of the Mind

In the summer of 1958, the whole McLuhan family drove to Fort Worth to see Corinne’s family, then went on to the University of California, Santa Barbara. The trip seems to have taken 3 months, with 2 months spent at the summer session of UCSB. The UCSB newsletter, El Gauchito, for June 21, 1958, included the following information:

Four of our distinguished visiting professors will give public lectures during July on Tuesday afternoons at 3 p.m. for both the campus community and campus visitors. The series will be given in the lecture hall of the New Classroom Bldg.
The summer lectures will open July 1 with the distinguished Canadian critic and author, Marshall McLuhan, professor of English Literature, University of Toronto, speaking on “The Electronic Revolution and the Undeveloped Countries of the Mind.” A brilliant wit as well as an intellectual leader, Prof. McLuhan is the founder of the Canadian journal, “Exploration”, and is interested in the problems of communication in this century.

The announcement was repeated later in the newsletter:

Important Coming Events, on campus:
July 1 ALL-COLLEGE LECTURE by Marshall McLuhan, Professor of English Literature, University of Toronto, on “The Electronic Revolution and the Undeveloped Countries of the Mind,” at 3 p.m., New Classroom Building Lecture Hall. No admission charge.  

Earlier that year, on March 31, McLuhan had lectured at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee campus, on “TV and the Undeveloped Countries of  the Mind”.

Innis citing Trollope on CV-building

All those who are struggling for success have forced upon them the idea that their strongest effort should be made in touting for praise. Those who are not familiar with the lives of authors will hardly believe how low will be the forms which their struggles will take: — How little presents will be sent to men who write little articles; how much flattery may be expended even on the keeper of a circulating library; with what profuse and distant genuflexions approaches are made to the outside railing of the temple which contains within it that great thunderer of some metropolitan periodical publication! The evil here is not only that done to the public when interested council is given to them, but extends to the debasement of those who have at any rate considered themselves fit to provide literature to the public. (Harold Innis citing Anthony Trollope in ‘An Economic Approach to English Literature in the Nineteenth Century’1 from Trollope’s 1883 Autobiography)

Legal notice: Any resemblance of this passage to the machinations of contemporary academic publishing, and to “the debasement of those who have (…) considered themselves fit to provide literature to the public” by submitting themselves to it, are purely coincidental.

  1. Included in Political Economy in the Modern State. Renamed in PEMS from ‘The English Press in the Nineteenth Century: An Economic Approach’, UTQ. 15:1, October 1945.

McLuhan reads Innis (PEMS 1)

Harold Innis’ 1945 An Economic Approach to English Literature in the Nineteenth Century’1  was read by McLuhan in the late 1940’s, probably in 1948, along with the rest of Political Economy in the Modern State (PEMS).2 Here a series of nuggets are to be found, often in citations by Innis from other authors — augmented and reinforced by the rest of PEMS and by further writings of Innis from The Fur Trade in Canada (1930) to ‘Minerva’s Owl’ (1947) — whose extended investigation could not unfairly be said to have informed McLuhan’s whole career for the next thirty years.3

Of course there were other major influences on McLuhan at this time — his first 5 years at the University of Toronto — including French poetry, Pound, cybernetics, Joyce, Havelock and the tradition of the epyllion form. And behind him since his undergraduate and masters degrees in English lay his study of Maritain and Gilson in theology, Richards and Leavis in criticism, Eliot and Lewis in modern literature, as well as — only a few years before — his PhD thesis on the history of the trivium. But all these interests and further influences were often correlate with what was to be found in Innis and all were subject to Innis’ historical analysis based on political economy calculations of opportunity and cost and on the then available means of communication.4

The specialties of Innis and McLuhan in history and literature were different. But Innis had a theory of historical change which illuminated McLuhan’s interests in new and surprising ways. This lent it a sort of independent verification, on the one hand, and supplied a fundamental factor to McLuhan’s work, on the other hand, which it had hitherto lacked.5

The following excerpts from ‘An Economic Approach to English Literature in the Nineteenth Century’, must have particularly struck McLuhan as coming, not from a scholar of literature, but from an economic historian:

  • we shall (…) concentrate on technological developments affecting communication.6
  • London was like a newspaper“Everything is there and everything is disconnected.” (Innis citing Walter Bagehot, ‘Charles Dickens’, National Review 7, 1858)
  • The stage was used to appeal to the eye rather than to the ear
  • Spectacles (…) were the fashion. “At present the English instead of finding politics in the stage, find their stage in politics.” (Innis citing Edward Lytton Bulwer, England and the English, 1833)7
  • I  would have the paper address itself to the quarter-educated, that is to say, the great new generation that is being turned out by the Board schools, the young men and women who can just read, but are incapable of sustained attention. People of this kind want something to occupy them in trains and on buses and trams. As a rule (…) what they want is the lightest and frothiest of chit-chatty information — bits of stories, bits of description, bits of scandal, bits of jokes. bits of statistics, bits of foolery.8 Am I not right? Everything must be very short, two inches at the utmost; their attention can’t sustain itself beyond two inches.9 Even chat is too solid for them: they want chit-chat…” (Innis citing George Gissing, The New Grub Street, London, 1904)10
  • The new literature followed the new journalism
  • “The modern editor (…)  explores the nature of the demand to be met as patiently and  thoroughly as a German manufacturer. The public, which hitherto had accepted meekly what the publisher provided, found itself elevated to a throne.” (Innis citing Arnold Bennett, Fame and Fiction, 1901.)11
  • “With a mixture of logic and cynicism [the modern editor] states boldly that what people ought to want is no affair of his; and in ascertaining precisely what they in fact do want he never loses sight of the great philosophic truth that man is a frail creature. He assiduously ministers to human infirmities. The public would like to read, to instruct itself, educate itself, amuse itself, elevate itself, but no effort and no sacrifice must be involved in the process.” (ibid)
  • The magic of Gutenberg (…) hath conjured a wide chasm between the past and the future history of mankind: the people of one side [of] the gulf are not the people on the other (…) In the primal and restless consciousness of the new spirit (…) all the codes of classic dogmatists were worthless — the expired leases to an estate just let to new tenants, and upon new conditions.” (Innis citing Edward Lytton Bulwer, England and the English, 1833)12

In Innis’ essay, this “magic of Gutenberg” quotation is given in a footnote. But it is the last footnote in the essay on its last page and in this way constitutes its final word.

The last words of the essay proper, however, were these:

And so we entered the open seas of democracy in the twentieth century with nothing to worship but the totalitarianism of the modern state. A century of peace gave way to a century of war.

Here Innis expressed his foresight into the fate of the modern world. At the same time he exposed the grounding impetus of his ceaseless attempts to analyze the course of that fate and, perhaps, to indicate a way out of its hunger for disaster. The great question was and is: what does the “magic of Gutenberg” have to do with our robotic pursuit of annihilation?13



  1. Renamed in PEMS from ‘The English Press in the Nineteenth Century: An Economic Approach’, UTQ. 15:1, October 1945.
  2. It is not impossible, of course, that Easterbrook shared an offprint of the article with McLuhan or that he saw it first in the UTQ itself. However that may have been, McLuhan would have regarded the essay as a kind of challenge as to whether Innis, an economic historian, could teach him anything new in what was his specialty — not only English Literature in general, but ‘English Literature in the Nineteenth Century’ in particular. For McLuhan had written his master’s thesis on just this topic focused on George Meredith whose life — 1828-1909 — spanned it.
  3. Here is how McLuhan concluded his memorial for Innis in 1953, ‘The Later Innis’: “In moving towards this harmonizing of the arts and sciences, the later Innis appears as one of the indisputable pioneers whose work will for long remain not only a standard reference but a source of ever renewed insight.”
  4. Innis’ famous ‘staples theory’ might be read as a species of opportunity and cost calculation. Its basic law might be put: the more difficult the geographic conditions, and the more undeveloped the economic conditions, the more opportunity and cost calculation tends to the exploitation of a single staple. Canada, in Innis’ view, was a conglomeration of various difficult conditions in which a series of staples — fish, fur, timber, metals, wheat — dominated its fragmented economic environments.
  5. McLuhan’s PhD thesis was indeed a history. It showed the interplay of the three arts of the trivium over 2000 years, much as McLuhan’s mentor at the University of Manitoba, Rupert Lodge, categorized the history of philosophy as the expression of three basic forms. But what was the impetus behind changes among these forms through time? It was just here, as much in the question as in the answer, that Innis’ work proved fundamental to the whole remainder of McLuhan’s career.
  6. Everything in this section in bold, such as we shall (…) concentrate on technological developments affecting communication, is a citation from Innis himself in ‘An Economic Approach to English Literature in the Nineteenth Century’. The passages in quotation marks are citations from others given by Innis in that same essay.
  7. Many ideas in Innis lay dormant in McLuhan for decades. It was only a quarter century later that he would begin to talk of the “global theatre” and “all the stage is a world”. Of course these did not arise in McLuhan’s work only from Innis, any more than their appearance in Innis came only from Bulwer. But (as it is the main point of this post to document in regard to only a single paper from Innis) the work of Innis was studded with interesting ideas for further investigation. McLuhan put it this way in ‘The Later Innis’: “Innis had no position. He had become a roving mental eye, an intellectual radar screen, on the alert for objective clues to the inner spirit or core of our times.”
  8. This perfect description of Twitter was made more than a century before its founding — on the technical basis of ‘bits’!
  9. Cited by Innis earlier from Gissing: “No article In the paper is to measure more than two inches in length, and every inch must be broken into at least two paragraphs.”
  10. Innis cited Coleridge in related fashion: “For as to the devotees of the circulating libraries, I dare not compliment their pass-time, or rather kill-time, with the name of reading. Call it rather a sort of beggarly daydreaming, during which the mind of the dreamer furnishes for itself nothing but laziness, and a little mawkish sensibility; while the whole material and imagery of the dose is supplied ab extra by a sort of mental camera obscura manufactured at the printing office, which pro tempore fixes, reflects, and transmits the moving phantasms of one man’s delirium, so as to people the barrenness of a hundred other brains afflicted with the same trance or suspension of all common sense and all definite purpose. We should therefore transfer this species of amusement (…) from the genus reading, to that comprehensive class characterized by the power of reconciling the two contrary yet co-existing propensities of human nature, namely indulgence of sloth, and hatred of vacancy.” (Biographia Literaria, 1817)
  11. In Bennett, and in Innis following Bennett, these sentences are given in the opposite order. They have been reversed here to emphasize McLuhan’s later maxim that the public must be ‘put-on’.
  12. This idea must have been in the air in the 1830s. The very next year, 1834, as cited by Innis in ‘On the Economic Significance of Culture (1944 and included in PEMS), Carlyle wrote in Sartor Resartus: “He who first shortened the labor of copyists by the device of movable types was disbanding hired armies and cashiering most kings and senates, and creating a whole new democratic world”.
  13. One cause of the modern disaster suggested by Innis is given in the sentence immediately preceding his concluding words: “popular clamour made rapid headway. And so we entered (…) a century of war“. Much of Innis’ essay is given over to a description of such “popular clamour” and its rise, namely of how a “quarter-educated” public found itself “elevated to a throne”. At the beginning of his 1944 essay “Political Economy in the Modern State”, included in PEMS, Innis cited Acton to the effect that “government by the whole people, being the government of the most numerous and powerful class, is an evil of the same nature as unmixed monarchy.” Here the problem was government by an unchecked single power, whether it be a king or a public. In the 1833 “magic of Gutenberg” passage from Bulwer, the related point was suggested that such an externally unbalanced power could also be ‘unbalanced’ internally. Via Gutenberg, wrote Bulwer, “the mind has by slow degrees crept into the mighty mass — the popular Cymon has received a soul!” Indeed, animated by the brain of a lunatic, since the glass jar with the intended brain of a genius was dropped by the clumsy Igor, Frankenstein — “in the primal and restless consciousness of the new spirit” — looks around, wild-eyed, and begins to take his first fateful steps…. 

    In Goya’s astonishing painting, El Coloso (1808-1812), special note should be made of how man and beast flee in every direction from the stupendous apparition.

Easterbrook on Innis and McLuhan in 1960

In September 1960 McLuhan and Tom Easterbrook presented papers at the annual meeting of the Economic History Association. Their section of the meeting seems to have been a commemoration of Harold Innis organized by Arthur Cole (1889-1974) of Harvard. Cole had been a longtime friend and correspondent of Innis1 and the two were founding members together of the Economic History Association in 1940.2 Meanwhile Easterbrook, working under Innis as his adviser, had, in 1938, obtained the first PhD in Political Economics ever granted by the University of Toronto.3 After WW2 he returned to Toronto, rejoined the Political Economy department, now headed by Innis,4 and then worked closely with him as a colleague and increasingly close friend until Innis’ death in 1952. It was Easterbrook who first brought Innis and McLuhan together in 1947 or 1948. Thereafter McLuhan was decisively influenced by Innis in his turn to media and claimed that his work in that area could be considered a footnote to Innis’ pioneering. 

It seems that Cole introduced the session with remarks that were, however, not reproduced with the Easterbrook and McLuhan papers in the December Journal of Economic History. But Easterbrook gives some indication of them in his paper:

Present interest in communication research in the social and physical sciences raises some interesting and difficult questions for the economic historian. Arthur Cole, who claims that he is merely trying to carry further the work of Harold Innis (…)5 at Toronto, but who is [himself] surely the moving spirit in this session, has suggested that we might begin by pin-pointing a few leading questions for examination. Is this comparatively recent development [viz, interest in communication] to be regarded as merely a passing phase in the history of fashions in thought? Is the process of relating communication to economic change mainly a process of [increasing] sophistication (…)? Or, on the other hand, does it in fact amount to a major breakthrough in scientific and historical analysis?6

Arthur Cole’s challenge — to move beyond ‘increasing sophistication’ — remains unanswered. This session, I take it, is designed to explore prospects of meeting this challenge.

the informational [or content] approach7 (…) represents a many-sided attack on communication problems (…) and for the economic historian it is useful and occasionally exciting stuff. On the other hand, it is difficult to see any indication here of a major break-through of the sort that Arthur Cole — with his talk about “transcendental” aspects of business, and his appeal to an analogy with the human nervous system — appears to be seeking, and I doubt that it will come this way, if in fact it comes at all. Most of us, I think, will be inclined to take the view that this is as far as we can go, at least until much of the research underway goes beyond the speculative, hypotheses-to-be-tested stage. [But] Innis would have disagreed with this point of view, and McLuhan most certainly does. 

Beyond the light it throws on Cole’s continuing concern with the work of Innis, Easterbrook’s paper is interesting in many additional respects. It reflects his close relationship with both Innis and McLuhan and, in regard to the latter, sets out a view of McLuhan’s early media work as few others could have known it in 1960 — that is, before Gutenberg Galaxy, before Understanding Media and before McLuhan’s celebrity. By that point Easterbrook had been an intimate friend of McLuhan for over 30 years, had toured England with McLuhan one summer when the two of them were undergraduates and had been a founding member with McLuhan in the Ford Foundation Culture and Communication seminar in the mid 1950s.8 Outside of McLuhan’s family, Easterbrook probably knew McLuhan better than anybody else on earth.

Easterbrook mentions in his paper his own thesis that “uncertainty or imperfect knowledge as to the outcome of future events” is a, or the, central factor in political economy and in the social sciences generally.9 This view made him an endless opponent10 and perfect foil for McLuhan, of course, and he recognized (as explicitly stated in the passage from his paper cited immediately above) that both Innis and McLuhan sharply disagreed with him on it. But they naturally did not disagree that our “knowledge as to the outcome of future events” is “imperfect”. Rather, they posited that a focus on “the bias of communication” might present a way to investigate “events” that could leverage our inevitably “imperfect” knowledge to enable a new understanding of them in the past, present and, indeed, in the future.11 In the same way, chemistry understands physical events as they always have been and always will be. But it does not understand them ‘perfectly’! Instead, it probes our existing understanding for its ‘imperfections’ and finds in those ‘imperfections’ ways to further our understanding endlessly. We have had such a self-conscious12 knowledge of chemistry only for a couple centuries, however. And the key to its discovery was the increasing specification of the structure of the chemical element in the nineteenth century. Easterbrook saw that Innis and McLuhan had such a development in mind for the humanities and social sciences: 

there are indications that a major shift in thought, or approach, may be underway. Whereas communication has been regarded in the main as merely one element in a large complex, one thread in the web of history [= Cole’s “increasing sophistication”], there is a growing tendency to place it at the center of analysis and to make it the focal point of interest. Innis was convinced that he had found [a] unifying theme13 in communication change, and it has been suggested recently that [media]14 be made the independent variable, economic magnitudes the dependent variables, in the study of economic growth. This would indicate a pronounced shift in vantage point, one which would provide a common core of analysis across the disciplines.

The proposal of an “independent variable” that “would provide a common core of analysis across the disciplines” was indeed the thrust of the work of both Innis and McLuhan — although Innis was never sure it could outweigh our “uncertainty or imperfect knowledge” of events. In this respect, Easterbrook and McLuhan might be seen as the two sides of Innis, the one coming down on the side of ultimate “uncertainty” and the other coming down on the side of truthful insight despite, or on the very basis of, “uncertainty” and “bias”.

What we have here is not an advance on many fronts [= Cole’s “increasing sophistication”], but a concentrated attack on a single front or sector. The interest is in the medium itself, its physical characteristics, its formal, material aspect, seen as a tool with independent qualities of its own and as the key to analysis of total situations. As such, it appears as a resource, one transformed by technology and making its impact over the whole range of human action. The study of change becomes the study of the impact of changes in media and their consequences in terms of the structuring of societies along the lines of force of dominant media. In this view, priority in change is assigned to change in media in its material aspect and to the impact of shifts in media on patterns of human association.

Easterbrook’s description of the medium in McLuhan’s work as having “independent qualities of its own” and “making its impact over the whole range of human action” and “patterns of human association” is not mistaken. The common structure of chemical elements might be described in the same way as regards its “impact” on the whole range of physical nature. But Easterbrook’s repeated references to the medium’s “physical characteristics, its formal, material aspect” is not only untidy (“formal, material aspect”?), it also threatens to make our understanding of media subject to underlying “physical characteristics” rather than our understanding of these subject to media.15 Which is figure and which is ground? Are media to be understood in terms of physical ‘forms’ like roads and books? Or are these phenomena common across media, like properties in the physical sciences, and are to be understood in any given case in terms of the media mix underlying them?16 

It would seem that Easterbrook had understood McLuhan only up to the point where a transformation of the bias of the researcher was called for and, indeed, essential. Only so could “uncertainty” and “bias” be thought together with truth.

McLuhan indicates a way to understand this point in his paper at the conference:

The type of visualizing fostered by high intensity print technology is quite natural and habitual to highly literate populations, putting them at great disadvantage in a nuclear age, since nuclear structures are non-visualizable.17

Not that a “nuclear age” knows no “visualizing”! Only that its “type of visualizing” is fundamentally different from that of a “high intensity print” age! 

In fact, what is “fundamentally different” between the two ‘ages’ is exactly the relation of visuality to their understanding of ground. For the one, this relation is “high intensity”, for the other it is low. If a “totally new form of science”18 of communication (dual genitive) were possible, it would have to understand the whole range of such relations — including the one best suited for the investigators carrying it out.19  

In an address in Vancouver in 1958, two years before his appearance with Easterbrook at the Economic History Association meeting, McLuhan specified the issue at stake here in terms of problems that were  encountered in the Ford Culture and Communication seminar even with its founding members like Easterbrook:

The psychologists could study what the effects of radio are on the structure of human perception: what new habits of perception come from just listening to radio, or watching movies or television, or reading. They’ve never done these studies because they are mutational and psychology has tended to be static and non-mutational in its studies so far. That‘s why when we began those studies, the media studies at Toronto under the Ford grant, we didn’t know how to go about it because the members of our group were all trained in the static non-mutational terms of science. We had gradually, groping around, to discover certain ways whereby we could talk about these things, since they don’t satisfy the ordinary scientific procedures at all. It calls for a totally new form of science.20

Media research is “mutational” exactly because it raises the figure/ground question universally — and specifically in regard to its investigators themselves. In 1960 Easterbrook did not understand — or at least he did accept — the “mutational” figure/ground demands of this “totally new form of science” on himself. Indeed, given his standing reliance on “uncertainty or imperfect knowledge”, he never would. 

Easterbrook continues:

Innis (…) in his search for a more universal theme [than staples] (…) turned to communication in its time aspect. McLuhan, if I judge correctly, is building on his work. If we turn to (…) the dynamics of Iong-period change, it is evident that the media approach lends itself to a more comprehensive analysis of change than the staples thesis permits. Stages [historical periods] are marked out by shifts from one staple or medium to another, but in the latter [media approach] the simple linear sequence that [changes in staples]21 mark out gives way to a more complex array of clashing communication structures (configurations)22. The instability associated with these shifts is again more broadly defined in communication terms [than in staples terms], as each dominant medium is in turn challenged, then replaced by the marginal thrust of a later and more compelling rival.

Easterbrook’s use of “structures” and “configurations” here points to his fitting sense of what McLuhan was up to. But at the end of the day, he could not bring himself to — could not allow himself to be mutated to — a scientific investigation that would bring into question (bring into investigation) his existing point of view. As McLuhan was to write to Jacques Maritain in 1969:

There is a deep-seated repugnance in the human breast against understanding the processes in which we are involved. Such understanding involves far too much responsibility for our actions. (Letters, 370)

Much more, there is another “repugnance” at work on the way to under-standing media as proposed by McLuhan, a kind of repugnance2 (repugnance squared). Between the identities of a researcher who cannot see the new science and one who can, there is no identity! This gap, this dark night of the soul, this cloud of unknowing, this pathless path, must be ventured and somehow navigated in order to reach a destination which cannot be seen until it is seen:23

Without knowing it, you are questing for a new identity (…) which cannot be known until it has actually been made. (Adopt a College)24

As McLuhan was well aware, Eliot25 has the point wonderfully in Four Quartets:

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing
(East Coker)

And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment.
(Little Gidding)

Not in the scheme of generation.
Where is the summer, the unimaginable
Zero summer?26
(Little Gidding)



  1. Innis and Cole corresponded regularly throughout the 1940s. John Bonnett’s Emergence and Empire: Innis, Complexity, and the Trajectory of History ably discusses their exchanges.
  2. Innis and Cole were the second and third presidents of the Economic History Association respectively.
  3. Easterbrook’s PhD thesis, Farm Credit in Canada, was published by the University of Toronto Press in 1938 with a foreword by Innis.
  4. Easterbrook himself would become the head of this large department a decade later and serve in that capacity from 1961 to 1970.
  5. Easterbrook has “the work of Harold Innis and others at Toronto” here, but it is unclear what is meant by “others”. Was he referring to the subsequent work of McLuhan and himself after Innis’ death? Or was he thinking also of the early work in Toronto of Eric Havelock, who was now a colleague of Cole at Harvard?
  6. W.T. Easterbrook, Problems in the Relationship of Communication and Economic History’, Journal of Economic History, 20:4, December, 1960. All otherwise unidentified passages in this post are from this paper.
  7. Easterbrook differentiates in his paper between an informational approach to communications and a media one. In his paper, McLuhan offers “a comment on Easterbrook’s allusion to the difference between information and media approaches to problems today. The information theory approach, based on statics, is probably self-liquidating by virtue of the electric speeds available to it. It seems to me involuntarily and unnecessarily limited by a “content” concept. Wherever one meets the “content” concept, it is reasonably certain that there has been insufficient structural analysis. Phonetic writing and printing, for example, have content only in the sense that they “contain” another medium, namely, speech. But since the origin of writing, the simultaneous presence of the medium of speech, albeit in low definition, has fostered this habit of dichotomy and content-postulating, which in fact obscures major components in the situations with which we must deal.”
  8. As evidence of the exploding interest in communications, Easterbrook recalls in his paper how, “following a modest experiment in testing the comparative efficiency of various media, a Toronto communication group in which I participated with McLuhan and others, found itself swamped with a deluge of enquiries from communication centers previously unknown to us.”
  9. See his paper ‘Uncertainty and Economic Change‘, The Journal of Economic History, 14:4, 1954 and the recollections of Easterbrook by his friend and colleague, Mel Watkins: “Easterbrook was at heart a pluralist”.
  10. McLuhan in Speaking of Winnipeg: “We (Easterbrook and McLuhan) had an absolute agreement between ourselves to disagree about everything and this kept up (…) a very hot dialogue from morning to night for years in Winnipeg”.
  11. It is critical to note that by “events” (and, indeed, by “communication”, knowledge”, the ‘imperfect”, etc) Easterbrook, Innis and McLuhan did not mean the ‘same thing’. Indeed, one way of putting the differences between them would be to ask how each of them understood these words and things. McLuhan’s insistence that the arts provide the best way to illuminate such differences, and potentially to move beyond them, reflected his training in the Cambridge English School and its focus on “ambiguity”. Another way of putting the point would be to consider the differences between, say, 1750 and 1850 as to what was meant by ‘air’ and ‘water’ and all other physical substances. Everything had changed and yet at the same time, nothing had changed. Ordinary intercourse with ‘air’ and ‘water’ remained ‘the same’.
  12. Humans have had a unconscious knowledge of chemistry forever — in cooking, for example.
  13. Easterbrook: “his unifying theme”. Easterbrook’s formulation suggests that Innis’ work was driven by a search for such a “unifying theme” in history.
  14. Easterbrook: “information flow”. It is unclear if Easterbrook confused his contrast between media and “information flow” at this point or if he was thinking of the former here as one of the many varieties of the latter.
  15. Easterbrook speaks in his paper of the need for communication studies to be “brought down to earth”.
  16. McLuhan is his presentation at the conference: “the formal characteristics of the medium, recurring in a variety of material situations”. In regard to ‘media mix’, McLuhan emphasized throughout his work that media are never expressed singularly, but only and always in some form of “rapport” (between speech and writing, say, or ear and eye). See note 18 below.
  17. McLuhan, ‘Effects of the Improvements of Communication Media’, Journal of Economic History, 20:4, December, 1960.
  18. For a “totally new form of science”, see the citation in this post from McLuhan’s 1958 presentation in Vancouver and its discussion at McLuhan on media science in 1958.
  19. What is somehow still not understood in regard to McLuhan’s work is that an investigation of media requires research that would understand both of these ‘ages’ in their individuality and in their commonality as media. In an important paper from 1970, which was typeset but apparently never published, ‘Libraries: Past, Present and Future’, McLuhan described Innis’ importance in this respect as follows: “Innis understood that acoustic and visual space were antithetic and complementary. like the written and oral traditions. That is why he has such relevance (…) His work is founded on recognition of the fact that there must be some rapport between the written and the oral traditions — between the visual and the auditory — for any society to persist in a state of health.”
  20. When McLuhan was talking off the cuff, he tended to express himself in very long run-on sentences with his thoughts joined (or disjoined) by conjunctives like ‘and’ and ‘but’. In the transcript his last sentence here reads: “That‘s why when we began those studies, the media studies at Toronto under the Ford grant, we didn’t know how to go about it because the members of our group were all trained in the static non-mutational terms of science, and we had gradually, groping around, to discover certain ways whereby we could talk about these things and they don’t satisfy the ordinary scientific procedures at all; but I think it calls for a totally new form of science.” See The medium is the message in 1958 and McLuhan on media science in 1958 for discussions of the Vancouver conference.
  21. Easterbrook: “staples changes”.
  22. The bracketed “configurations” here is from Easterbrook.
  23. The unknowing described by McLuhan, and by the tradition at least since Plato, cannot be appreciated aside from the personal experience of it. McLuhan as the man without difficulties and anxieties must be revisioned as a kind of Zen threshold which cannot be crossed without seeing through the untroubled mask of the doorkeeper.
  24. McLuhan, ‘Adopt a College’, This magazine is about schools, 2:4, 1968. There are four different senses implicated in “without knowing it” here. First, “without knowing it” the world is on the way to the new science and associated new identity that must be achieved if it, the world, is not to destroy itself. Second, which of the two possibilities contesting here will dis-place the other cannot be known. We must live in the space or gap of this question “without knowing it” — namely “without knowing” the answer to this outstanding question of science or doom. Third, the “new identity” needed to begin the new science cannot be known as a goal “without knowing it”. That is, it “cannot be known until it has actually been made” (achieved). Fourth, because the goal cannot be known, neither can the way to the goal be known. This way must be ventured “without knowing it” —  without any orientation upon it. Easterbrook was hardly alone in avoiding this “worldpool” of uncertainties!
  25. Eliot has the point — but so did Plato. In fact the point at stake has been made throughout the tradition by its best minds. Therefore: “And what there is to conquer / By strength and submission, has already been discovered / Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope / To emulate—but there is no competition— / There is only the fight to recover what has been lost / And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions / That seem unpropitious.” (East Coker)
  26. Like ‘spring’, which in Four Quartets is first and mainly the vertical moment by moment action of humans of springing forth into their being and only secondarily a horizontal time of year, so ‘summer’ is first of all the realization of ‘spring time’ by humans — at last! — and only secondarily the ‘following’ time of year to ‘spring’. It is “unimaginable” because it cannot be known until it is known: “not in the scheme of generation”. It can be designated as “zero” because it is the ever repeated beginning that can be found, at last, as McLuhan repeatedly insisted, only (only!) through a ‘retracing’: “the learning process as a labyrinth of the senses and faculties whose retracing provided the key to all arts and sciences” (Letter to Innis, 1951). Eliot has it this way in Little Gidding: “And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time. / Through the unknown, remembered gate / When the last of earth left to discover / Is that which was the beginning.”

McLuhan on media science in 1958

It was in his May 5, 1958 opening address to the ‘Radio in the Future of Canada’ conference in Vancouver that McLuhan first used his signature slogan, ‘the medium is the message’. Then, after his talk, he fielded questions from conference attendees. In the course of his responses he came to speak of media science, a topic that would be much on his mind in his ‘Understanding Media’ project with the NAEB over the following two years.

In the talk itself McLuhan noted that in the face of profound social and educational crises “we need types of observation, prediction and control that are totally new“. He would repeat the phrase “totally new” many times in the course of his remarks that day. And the possibility of such discontinuous innovation he saw in the fact that media revolutions in the past, especially those of literacy and then of print (the multiplier of literacy), had in their time produced “a totally new set of mental operations”. A repetition of the media revolutionary process had now to be made again on the basis of electricity — but this time consciously. The imperative need was, first, to avoid the thoughtless destruction of the hard-won achievements of literacy, like private identity, democracy and human rights, at a time when literacy itself seemed doomed. Then, second1, to identify the elements of media (dual genitive!) so that an open investigation could be made of them such as had followed the identification of the chemical elements of physical nature (dual genitive!) in the course of the nineteenth century. This was one of the central meanings of ‘the medium is the message’ — one that has been completely overlooked, in a kind of unconscious abstention, in our continuing “numb”.

No one in 1800 could have foreseen the “types of observation, prediction and control” that had become possible by 1900 — not to speak of 2000! These were and are “totally new” types of “mental operations” that generated, and/or were generated by, manufacturing processes, university, business and military research, the world-wide exchange of ideas and experimental results, new inventions, not least of new media — and so on. It was just such an explosion of insight in and of the interior landscape that McLuhan saw as the only possible answer to the implosion of the exterior landscape. Hence his frequent characterization of his work as a “strategy for survival”.2  

In his remarks after his talk McLuhan continued:

it seems to me that it’s possible to put this thing on an entirely predictable scientific basis. That you can analyze the properties of any given medium to the point where you can say ”All right, if you mix [it]3 with that particular [other medium]4, you will get this [new] kind of complex. or cluster of events, that you don’t have if [they are] not [mixed].” You could predict.

This possibility was, however, very far from being actualized:

psychologists could study what the effects of radio [and other media] are on the structure of human perception: what new habits of perception come from just listening to radio, or watching movies or television, or reading. They’ve never done these studies because they are mutational5 and psychology [as a result] has tended to be static and non-mutational in its studies so far. That‘s why when we began those studies, the media studies at Toronto under the Ford grant, we didn’t know how to go about it because the members of our group were all trained in the static non-mutational terms of science, and we had gradually, groping around, to discover certain ways whereby we could talk about these things. They don’t satisfy the ordinary scientific procedures at all; but I think it calls for a totally new form of science.

Such new science could not be systematic in the Gutenbergian manner:

I don’t think it’s possible to produce a systematic account of all these things. You have to jump in here, and cut in there, look down, look up and so on simultaneously to get any sort of a full coverage, so there’s no use apologising for the lack of system.

The new interior landscape science, or sciences, would be more like quantum physics than, say, Euclidian geometry. It, or they, would mime the new aesthetics of the poetry, painting, sculpture, dance and music that had emerged around 1900 in which the characteristic structural element was discontinuity.6 

A science of media would be “totally new”, then, not only as a new discipline studying new content, but in its form. This in turn raised questions concerning the shape and number (singular or plural) of time. For if the discipline studied the forms of media, it — as itself a form — would have to begin with the results of that study.7 This feedback imperative was exactly why such study was inevitably “mutational”. But if this somersault were possible, this sort of circling back from the end to the beginning, time could not be only linear nor singular. And identity could not be static, but would have to be fundamentally gapped:

In my end is my beginning.8


  1. Second only in the order of explication here. The required elements are of course first in many senses, not least in the fact that they would have to be already in unconscious operation — just as the chemical elements isolated in the nineteenth century had been active since the beginning of time.
  2. It is a measure of the implosion of the exterior landscape that McLuhan’s “strategy for survival” has become a ‘strategy for publication’ and a ‘strategy for tenure’ and other bennies.
  3. McLuhan: “them”.
  4. McLuhan has “wire element” here instead of ‘other medium’. Apparently he was thinking of the particular other medium of radio and of how it even as a ‘wireless’ medium was first taken as a variety of ‘wire’ communication devices such as the telegraph and telephone — like the automobile at first appearing as a ‘horseless carriage’.
  5. By ‘mutational’ McLuhan meant that such study unavoidably reflects back on the researchers pursuing it with the potential of ‘mutating’ their own ‘habits of perception’ and their own correlated identities. But better to leave that sort of radioactive possibility alone, of course, no matter the cost!
  6. McLuhan to Innis in 1951: “it was most of all the esthetic discoveries of the symbolists since Rimbaud and Mallarmé (developed in English by Joyce, Eliot, Pound, Lewis and Yeats) which have served to recreate in contemporary consciousness an awareness of the potencies of language such as the Western world has not experienced in 1800 years. Mallarmé saw the modern press as a magical institution born of technology. The discontinuous juxtaposition of unrelated items made necessary by the influx of news stories from every quarter of the world, created, he saw, a symbolic landscape of great power and importance. (He used the word “symbol” in the strict Greek sense sym-ballein, to pitch together, physically and musically). He saw at once that the modern press was not a rational form but a magical one so far as communication was concerned. Its very technological form was bound to be efficacious far beyond any informative purpose. Politics were becoming musical, jazzy, magical.”
  7. Were the study of media to begin with a form that was inherently incapable of science, it would, of course, never achieve it. It would look exactly like the McLuhan industry as it operates today. It would be a kind of pseudo-aesthetic activity where practitioners could do no more than paste found snippets into a collage. There would be no feedback or “mutation”. Both the media ecologists, as they might call themselves, and their objects would be and would remain just what they were — in the RVM. “It is the natural bias of print culture to be past-oriented, and above all to be consumer-oriented.” (‘Effects of the Improvements of Communication Media’, 1960) But how start with what is yet to be realized? Such a question goes unasked — must indeed be avoided at all cost — because of its impossible demand for initial “mutation”, metamorphosis, transformation — that is, exactly what McLuhan is all about.
  8. Eliot, Four Quartets, East Coker, echoing Mary, Queen of Scots: “En ma Fin gît mon Commencement”. Among the meanings of gît (related to English ‘gist’), aside from ‘to be situated’, is ‘to be hidden’, ‘to be buried’. Eliot, of course, also emphasized the reverse insight: “In my beginning is my end” (East Coker), since “that which is only living / Can only die” (Burnt Norton).

Peterson on Eliot’s knot

Oh abbondante grazia ond’ io presunsi
ficcar lo viso per la luce etterna,
tanto che la veduta vi consunsi!
Nel suo profondo vidi che s’interna,
legato con amore in un volume,
ciò che per l’universo si squaderna:
sustanze e accidenti e lor costume
quasi conflati insieme, per tal modo
che ciò ch’i’ dico è un semplice lume.
La forma universal di questo nodo
credo ch’i’ vidi (Dante, Paradiso, 33.85-92)

O grace abounding, through which I presumed
to set my eyes on the Eternal Light
so long that I spent all my sight on it!1
In its profundity I saw — ingathered

and bound by love into one single volume —
what, in the universe, seems separate, scattered:
substances, accidents, and [their mutual] dispositions2
as if conjoined — in such a way that what
I tell is only rudimentary.3
I think I saw the universal shape
which that knot takes4

These are close to the last lines of the last canto of the last section of Dante’s Commedia, the Paradiso, in which Dante tells of his beatific vision there. The last lines of the last section of the last Quartet of Eliot’s Four Quartets, ‘Little Gidding’, cited by Peterson and discussed below, were written in modest echo of Dante’s unsurpassable vision.


There was no one McLuhan wrote about more in his published and unpublished work than T.S Eliot. Hugh Kenner has described “the passion (…) with which we two (…) studied Eliot! We penciled notes on the yellow postwar paper of a Faber Four Quartets.5 This was in the late 1940s when McLuhan and Kenner were planning a book on Eliot together. The project came to fruition, however, only in separate publications by both men.6 While Kenner was already expert in tracing the narrative of literary figures like Pound7 and Eliot, McLuhan was fixated on understanding discontinuity in Eliot, but also in cybernetics, the epyllion and in his own life. He was undergoing his second conversion at just that time. His investigation of Eliot then continued for the rest of his life such that one of his last literary essays and one of his last public lectures would be on Eliot.8

Jordan Peterson has paid far less attention to Eliot than McLuhan, and — as a psychology professor — with far less training to do so, but he does discuss Eliot briefly in 12 Rules for Life (p 57-58). He begins by citing the last lines of ‘Little Gidding’, the fourth of the Four Quartets. These last lines of the last Quartet bring the Four Quartets to its close and represent a wonderful coda of the whole work:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

Characteristically, Peterson takes this culminating passage to describe heroic “exploration” and especially the heroic exploration of consciousness (dual genitive9):

The beginning of conscious history, the rise of the state and all its pathologies of pride and rigidity, the emergence of great moral figures who try to set things right, culminating in the Messiah Himself — that is all part of humanity’s attempt, God willing, to set itself right. And what would that mean? (…) The answer is already implicit in Genesis 1: to embody the Image of God — to speak out of chaos the Being that is Good — but to do so consciously, of our own free choice. Back is the way forward — as T. S. Eliot so rightly insisted — but back as awake beings, exercising the proper choice of awake beings, instead of back to sleep. (58)

Peterson makes a series of assumptions here which control his reading of Eliot’s coda — and lead him to mis-take it fundamentally. More importantly, these misguided assumptions disable Peterson’s own project and actually rehearse the grounds of the distress of the world rather than (as he of course intends) tending to its relief. Some of these assumptions are:

  • time is singular, linear and progressive (no matter, strangely enough, if it is considered forward or backward)10
  • time is only horizontal, not also vertical
  • a beginning is to be located at the start of a horizontal timeline
  • a beginning is less than what it generates, not more11
  • consciousness is the motor of history and the great need is to have more of it12
  • there are two states of consciousness, being awake or asleep, light and dark, and the imperative is to enhance the former and reduce the latter

Now the Four Quartets disputes all these assumptions and wonderfully rehearses its contrary acceptances in those very closing lines of ‘Little Gidding’ cited by Peterson. Here “beginning” is not to be found at some singular point at the start of an historical sequence, but is “here, now, always”.

This is a moment (as Eliot has it earlier in LG13) “suspended in time” or, if a “moment” must be said to implicate some sort of time, this is a moment in

time not our time
a time
Older than the time of chronometers (DS).

This “moment”, although specifically not chronological, yet has vast implication:

Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered. (EC)

This is a time that is at the heart of chronological time

in the stillness
between two waves of the sea (LG)

Yet also precedes and succeeds it:

Or say that the end precedes the beginning,
And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.
And all is always now. (BN)

But as ‘Burnt Norton’ already has it near the very beginning of the Four Quartets:

If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

For in this “time not our time”,

time future [is] contained in time past (BN)

Such that: 

In my beginning is my end (EC)

And this is why:

that which is only living
Can only die. (BN)

More, when “all is always now”, the shameful hurt we have inflicted on others is incessantly exposed:

And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been. (EC)  

Such that:

We are only undeceived
Of that which, deceiving, could no longer harm. (EC)

In short, there is no heroic way of redemption: its progressive “exploration” is undermined from the start. “The end of all our exploring”, as those last lines of LG distil from all the Quartets, is not a matter of being more, but of being less:

costing not less than everything

“Everything” must be lost — including, or especially, heroic identity and its lights.

The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.
    The houses are all gone under the sea.
    The dancers are all gone under the hill. (EC)

BN, the first Quartet of the Four Quartets, introduces images which will be taken up again, transformed, at the end of the last Quartet, in its coda in LG:

Sudden in a shaft of sunlight
Even while the dust moves
There rises the hidden laughter
Of children in the foliage
Quick now, here, now, always—
Ridiculous the waste sad time
Stretching before and after.

“The waste sad time stretching before and after” is Peterson’s linear history, the time of heroic exploration:

Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after (…)
Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs
Time before and time after. (BN)

It is exactly this assumed notion of progressive capability that must be jettisoned14 through submission to another time — “Quick now, here, now, always” — as “that which was [and is and will be] the beginning”:

And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.



  1. The 1964 French translation of Alexandre Cioranescu is given at the Dartmouth Dante site: “Ô grâce généreuse où j’ai pris le courage / de plonger mon regard dans la Clarté suprême, / jusqu’au point d’épuiser la faculté de voir!” Since determinatio est negatio, Dante here loses his sight and at the same time comes to see how it is that there is something like a faculty of sight. This occurs, however, in sight of the knot of Being that is also the ‘not’ of Being — “jusqu’au point d’épuiser la faculté de voir!”
  2. The modern Italian paraphrase at Weschool gives: “e sostanze, gli accidenti e il loro rapporto“. Mandelbaum captures this in the next line: “as if conjoined”.
  3. Mandelbaum does not give indication of Dante’s contrast here between ‘un semplice lume’ and ‘la luce etterna’ seven lines above. The Longfellow translation at the Dartmouth site is a “simple light”. Cioranescu in the same place: “un pâle reflet”.
  4. Mandelbaum translation given at the Columbia Digital Dante site.
  5. Kenner’s new ‘Preface’ to the 1985 reprinting of his The Poetry of Ezra Pound from 1951.
  6. Kenner, ‘Eliot’s Moral Dialectic’, Hudson Review 2 (1949); McLuhan, ‘Mr. Eliot’s Historical Decorum’, Renascence 2:1, 1949.
  7. See note 5.
  8. ‘Rhetorical Spirals in Four Quartets‘ (1978) which appeared in a volume of essays dedicated to McLuhan’s student and friend, Sheila Watson, and ‘The Possum and the Midwife’ (McLuhan’s 1978 Pound Lecture at the University of Idaho).
  9. A dual genitive is both objective (where, in this case,  consciousness is the object of the exploration) and subjective (where, in this case, consciousness carries out the exploration). A world-historical riddle is, of course, posed by the internal relation of this duality.
  10. Peterson writes quickly with intentional risk. Here he writes of “the beginning of conscious history” followed by a further “rise” and an “emergence” — and then says that “back is the way forward”. “Back” against the “beginning”, “rise” and “emergence”? An attempt to rescue some sense here would take it that another “rise” or “emergence” must be in play at this point as a new appreciation (“but back as awake beings”) of Genesis and other comparable texts and mythologies. What was only “implicit” in them is now to be made explicit through the “conscious” insight of “awake beings”: “part of humanity’s attempt, God willing, to set itself right.” But lost in the fog here are the great questions of the singularity/plurality of time(s) and the sort of com-plicated figure time/times makes in, or rather as, history — that is, just what Eliot’s coda (specifically recalling the “nodo” of the last canto Dante’s Paradiso) describes in its very culminating lines as “the crowned knot of fire” when “the fire and the rose are one”.
  11. Compare Heidegger’s concluding sentence to his Introduction to Sein und Zeit (1927): “Higher than actuality stands possibility. The understanding of phenomenology (dual genitive!) lies entirely in the grasping of it (dual genitive!) as a possibility.” (Höher als die Wirklichkeit steht die Möglichkeit. Das Verständnis der Phänomenologie liegt einzig im Ergreifen ihrer als Möglichkeit.)
  12. The heroic “rise” according to Peterson goes on from “the beginning of conscious history” (dual genitive!) to the attempt “to set things right (…) consciously (…) as awake beings, exercising the proper choice of awake being”.
  13. Eliot’s Quartets are identified here as BN = ‘Burnt Norton’, EC = ‘East Coker’, DS = ‘Dry Salvages’ and LG = ‘Little Gidding’.
  14. EC: “not in movement / But abstention from movement; while the world moves / In appetency, on its metalled ways / Of time past and time future.” Compare Heidegger in ‘Das Wesen der Sprache’: “Die verweilende Rückkehr da-hin, wo wir schon sind, ist unendlich schwerer als die eiligen Fahrten dorthin, wo wir noch nicht sind und nie sein werden.”

McLuhan & Peterson: competing fundamental myths 1

Imagine that the human environment might be better considered as “what is and has always been common to all domains of human experience, regardless of spatial locale or temporal frame.” The environment, construed in such a manner, consists not of objects [in the first place], but of phenomenological constants… (Jordan Peterson)1

Very early in his career McLuhan had a notion of what Jordan Peterson calls the “constituent elements of experience”. His undergraduate philosophy mentor at the University of Manitoba, Rupert Lodge, argued that all philosophy is built from three fundamental forms, acting alone or together: idealism, realism and pragmatism.2 Although McLuhan was always more interested in literature than philosophy, as a more concrete expression of human “types of temperament”, this did not mean that he considered literature as lacking comparable fundamental forms. The “artistic expression of such temperaments”, he argued, exhibits a “consistency of conformation” at least equal to that of the “thought processes” of philosophy:

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

This is from McLuhan’s 1933-4 M.A. thesis at the University of Manitoba on the English novelist, George Meredith. McLuhan was 22. Ten years later in his Cambridge PhD thesis, he described 2000 years of intellectual history, from classical Greece to Elizabethan England, in terms of the interplay of the three forms of the trivium — dialectic, rhetoric and grammar. Their constant interplay, he submitted, constitutes an “ancient quarrel” underlying and accounting for the formation of the surface level of human experience across all the areas of its expression in (say) literature, philosophy, theology and education generally.3

In his thesis McLuhan did not yet consider just how these constants come to concrete expression in an individual and in groups. Known or unknown to themselves, humans must somehow come to their experience via a process played out aside from (or inside of?) historical time — for there is no delay in our experience of the world while we consider its possibilities. There must be another time in which these constants are surveyed and then one of them, or a combination of them, ‘selected’ (through submission) for adoption/adaption as experience.4 Humans are the beings of (subjective genitive) such multi-dimensionality.5 Over the next decade McLuhan would come to characterize this process as a ‘descent into the maelstrom’ (aka the ‘worldpool’). But like everyone else since at least Plato, he would fail in the attempt to explicate this process enough to spark its collective investigation — despite the fact that during his lifetime we all came to mime the process by ‘going to the movies’.6  

By his early 30’s, then, McLuhan saw human experience as multilevel (surface and depth) and multi-chronological (history with its underlying dynamic “quarrel”). He would spend the next four decades investigating this “whirling phantasmagoria” (as he called it in the ‘Preface’ to The Mechanical Bride) and attempting to communicate what he more and more believed was its potential contribution — a potential contribution that conceivably was unique — to human survival.

Now, although explicitly referenced by McLuhan mainly in its derivative form of the attack on the heavens represented by the tower of babel,7 what was at stake in his whole career from the 1930s to 1980 was a myth described in Plato’s Sophist as the gigantomachia peri tes ousias,8 the originary battle of the gods and giants over reality:

What we shall see is something like a battle of gods and giants going on between them over their quarrel about reality (…) One party [the giants] is trying to drag everything down to earth [their mother] out of heaven and the unseen, literally grasping rocks and trees in their hands, for they lay hold upon every stock and stone and strenuously affirm that real existence belongs only to that which can be handled and offers resistance to the touch. They define reality as the same thing as body, and as soon as one of the opposite party asserts that anything without a body is real, they are utterly contemptuous and will not listen to another word. (…) 
Their adversaries [the gods] are very wary in defending their position somewhere in the heights of the unseen  [their father], maintaining with all their force that true reality consists in certain intelligible and bodiless forms. In the clash of argument they shatter and pulverize those bodies which their opponents wield, and what those others allege to be true reality they call, not real being, but a sort of moving process of becoming. On this issue an interminable battle is always going on between the two camps. (…)
It seems that only one course is open to the philosopher who values knowledge and truth above all else. He must refuse to accept from the champions of the forms the doctrine that all reality is changeless and exclusively immaterial, and he must turn a deaf ear to the other party who represent reality as everywhere changing and as only material. Like a child begging for ‘both’, he must declare that reality or the sum of things is both at once. (Sophist 246a-249c)

The same story was told in Egypt as many years before Plato as we are after him. This was at the very beginning of written history, but there is no reason not to suppose that humans have always known this story and always recounted it in one way or another.9 In the Egyptian version, Horus, the hawk son and/or reincarnation of Osiris, battled his snake brother, Seth, for domination of the land (always divided between the arable riverside ‘overseen’ by Horus and the always threatening desert of Seth). Their battle laid the earth to waste — in particular it stirred up the holy pool before the temple of Atum in Heliopolis so that it no longer served to reflect the above in the below. The nine great gods then met in council to decide how the rift in the divine family might be healed. The council of the gods was headed by Atum, the sun, who was the grandfather of Geb (the earth) and Nut (the sky) and great-grandfather of  Osiris-Horus and Seth. The conciliar decision was to anoint Thoth (god of letters and sometimes called a further brother of Horus and Seth) with the authority and the power to settle their dispute — which he was thereby able to achieve to the satisfaction of the two warring combatants. This action of reconciliation, first within the council of the nine gods in reaching its decision, and then in the work of Thoth in reconciling Horus-Osiris and Seth, became the model of justice ‘before Geb’, that is, both in the place and time of the gods and in the place and time of Egypt (where the pharaohs of Egypt occupied the ‘throne of Geb’).10  

The parallels between the Greek and Egyptian myths are plain. A familial battle of originary forces takes place concerning domination of above and below. The contest is settled in a philosophical way through a reconciliation of both together. In neither case, however, is the action linear such that reconciliation would simply do away with strife (or strife simply do away with reconciliation). Instead the action is, as Plato says, “an interminable battle [that] is always going on between them”.11 “Going on”, this is to say, in another time from chronological time in the depths of both ontology and psychology — where the imperative need of the latter (currently in indescribably dangerous eclipse) is to retrieve the reconciliation of the former. The possibility of this retrieval is grounded, in turn, exactly in that reconciliation which is ‘before’ it, a priori.12

Most important of all to under-stand concerning this contest is that it is not ‘about’ reality, as if the contesting figures disputed at some remove from it. Rather, this gigantic agon ‘is’ reality.13  

Reality itself — “real existence” or “true reality”, as Plato says — is plural and, therefore, abysmally gapped in the borders between its multiple contestants.

One of the foremost implications of this mythological ontology is that justice is possible among individuals and states because it is first of all a possibility in reality itself. It is ‘true’ — where the etymology relates to ‘tree’ and has to do with ‘deep roots’ and ‘steadfastness’. Justice as ‘truce’ (another cognate), even among original powers in their unsurpassable power (like the gods and giants, and Horus and Seth), is grounded in a reconciliation that is just as original and mighty as they are.14

In the course of the 1950s McLuhan became increasingly clear about the practical ramifications of this background “quarrel” and hence of our need to initiate collective investigation of it. Here he is in Network #2 from 1953:

The area of spatial communication is that of politics, business and power. Time is the sphere of language and knowledge. Equilibrium between these interests means social viability. Divorce between them is the breakdown of communication — the jamming of the social networkNineteenth century development of spatial communication widened the gap between knowledge and power, [between] poetry (all the arts) [on the one hand] and politics [and] business [on the other]. The withdrawal of the arts to an ivory tower and of politics and business to a tower of Babel is the figurative way of citing the current divorce between knowledge and know-how. Irresponsibility and loss of bearings occurred in both domains. Yet major developments in each sphere were strikingly parallel, and even belated recognition of common problems and solutions may help mend the broken network.

From his Cambridge English School training McLuhan was well aware, of course, that ‘space’ and ‘time’, the ‘arts’ and ‘business’, and so on, are utterly ambiguous and could never be used to define the archetypal struggle between “divorce” and “equilibrium”. Instead, they needed to be defined by it. But he didn’t yet realize, apparently, just how important this distinction was and is. Hence it was only a full 5 years later in 1958 that he first declared that “the medium is the message”.

His guess was that a definition of media along a spectrum, characterized at its two extremes by “divorce” and at its centre by “equilibrium”, might enable investigation of human experience in a new — but “ancient” — way. Through such investigation, the rift “between knowledge and know-how” might be healed and the demonstrable power of “know-how”, after two centuries of its unbridled domination of the planet and all the endless disasters resulting from that domination, might now itself be turned to our desperately needed reconciliation. As McLuhan already noted in his ‘Preface’ to The Mechanical Bride

Since so many minds are engaged in bringing about this condition of public helplessness, and since these programs of commercial education [like the news and advertising in the general environment and all based on “know-how”] are so much more expensive and influential than the relatively puny offerings sponsored by schools and colleges [in the classroom], it seemed fitting to devise a method for reversing the process. Why not use the new commercial education as a means to enlightening its intended prey? Why not assist the public to observe consciously the drama which is intended to operate upon it unconsciously?

In short (in the same place):

Where visual symbols have been employed [via “know-how”] in an effort to paralyze the mind, they are here used as a means of energizing it.

Now Jordan Peterson, too, appeals to a myth which he terms “the most basic of plots”15 and “the oldest and most fundamental story that mankind possesses.”16

Here are some of his accounts of this myth:

  • The Sumerians, ancient Egyptians and Old Testament Hebrews settled by all accounts17 on a world-story that made of existence and experience the eternal battleground of order and chaos, mediated by the heroic aspect of consciousness –- the Logos, the Word, truth, light, enlightenment, illumination.18
  • the categories offered by traditional myths and religious systems (…) present the world as a place of constant moral striving, conducted against a background of interplay between the “divine forces” of order and chaos. (…) The capacity for creative exploration –- embodied in mythology in the form of the “ever-resurrecting hero” -– serves as the eternal mediator between these fundamental constituent elements of experience.19
  • Human beings, “made in the image of God”, construct their familiar territory, their cosmos, out of chaos -– the unknown -– and then strive to maintain the dynamic equilibrium of what they have constructed and now inhabit. The capacity to engage in such activity is “incarnation of the divine Logos”, embodiment of the creative, exploratory “Word”, whose activity finds eternal dramatic representation in the figure of the hero, the dragon-slaying savior.20
  • The story of the hero is the most basic of plots, therefore, because it deals with the most basic of encounters [between order and chaos].21
  • the elder [Mesopotamian] gods elect Marduk, god of exploration, vision and speech, as King, top of the sacred dominance hierarchy, and send him out to voluntarily confront Chaos (…). This is the oldest and most fundamental story that mankind possesses.22 It echoes through ancient Egypt, and that state’s conceptions of Horus, the redemptive, attentive eye; Isis, the goddess of chaos; and Osiris, the god of the state. It serves as the source for the creation story in the Hebrew bible, and profoundly influences Christianity; it is the story of St. George, and of Christ, the perfect man, the second Adam, and the deadliest enemy of death, and the eternal serpent.23

There are, of course a great many parallels between Peterson’s hero myth and the mythological ontologies of Plato’s gigantomachia and the Egyptian Horus-Thoth-Seth proceedings. He describes some of them himself. In all three cases “a world-story [is recounted] that made of existence and experience the eternal battleground of order and chaos, mediated by (…) Logos, the Word”.24

But the most important part of the Peterson’s “willingness to risk”25 is his assumption of the contemporary state of the world’s mind. That is, he ‘puts on’ an understanding of this “world-story” that largely26 dis-places it from multi-dimensional spaces and times, and from a phenomenological or dynamic ontology, to an “evolutionary/historical perspective” with a unidimensional space-time. This displacement may be observed in many features of Peterson’s account of the myth:

  • the hero is sometimes said to be “eternal” and so seemingly a third archetypal power with “order and chaos”; but this implication constantly elides into heroic action that human beings do or, at least, might do if only they had “willingness to risk”. It is a matter of (subjective genitive!) “consciousness”, “enlightenment”, “creative exploration”: “Human beings, (…) construct their familiar27 territory, their cosmos, out of chaos.”
  • myth as explanation (explanans) constantly elides into a matter to be explained (explanandum) — where ‘to be explained’ is understood as bringing it into a unidimensional framework that Peterson terms “the adoption of a much broader evolutionary/historical perspective”.28 Here “our culture” is said to be “an emergent consequence of an ancient process”20 that may be reflected in myth, but that is ultimately not only not mythological-ontological, and not even specifically human, but biological.30
  • the originary power of myth constantly elides in Peterson’s telling into something secondary, something that is only a representation of something else, something that is “embodied in mythology” but is subject to further “enlightenment” — “developing more and more coherence over stretches of time” through our “creative exploration”.
  • hence, instead of experience always deriving from the multiple possibilities of mythological ontology, Peterson would investigate that mythology as “imaginative roadmaps to being”.31

It is exactly because Peterson ‘puts on’ the dire state of the contemporary world that he turns mythology-ontology around to where it might indicate something (existence itself!) — if only we could “illuminate” it more brightly via further heroic investigation. The result is just that of Nietzsche’s “History of an Error” which Beckett so nicely capsulated in Three Dialogues: “There is more than a difference of degree between being short –- short of the world, short of self -– and being without these esteemed commodities.”

For Peterson’s hero, the quest is an eternal matter of linear degree — the “thing-in-itself” is to be reached through its refractive object. He is unable to take on the thought of eternal recurrence which Zarathustra endured as the condition of his ‘convalescence‘. In the circularity of eternal recurrence the arrow of time is not linear and does not point to the goal of reality and truth. In this fundamental circularity we are “without these esteemed commodities” as conceived in Gutenbergian perspective.

Peterson’s project has led him into the cul-de-sac of the contemporary world disaster in which humans know nothing — but know enough to terminate life on earth. The latter possibility is of course infinitely more dangerous given the former actuality.

Peterson’s task is to under-go the reversals and involutions of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra in order to find that incipet the world so desperately needs. The outstanding question is whether he will fulfill his mission.


  1. Peterson, ‘Religion, sovereignty, natural rights, and the constituent elements of experience’,  Archive for the Psychology of Religion, v28, 2006, emphasis added. It is unclear why Peterson uses quotation marks in this passage. Is it a citation of some sort? Or does he mean to mark out this part of his text for special attention — more or less like italics?
  2. For discussion see The Comparative Method of Rupert Lodge.
  3. The echo is clear here of McLuhan’s idea, from 10 years before at the University of Manitoba, of applying Lodge’s work outside of philosophy. But all important further questions are raised. First, how to identify and hence to name (or vice versa) the “types of temperament”? Second, what are the times of the “ancient quarrel” of those forms and of their dynamic expression? One of the profound difficulties of these questions is that they are knotted together and cannot be answered separately.
  4. A similar ‘process’ takes place in speaking a language. Only some possibilities of sound and grammar make sense in any given language. And only some of these make sense in a given situation. Humans must decide these questions, but, of course, they mostly do so unconsciously and, seemingly, im-mediately.
  5. See the previous note.
  6. McLuhan’s debt to filmmakers/theoreticians like Eisenstein and Zavattini cannot be overemphasized. See ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’ (1954): “The movie reconstructs the external daylight world and in so doing provides an interior dream world. (…) Another way of seeing this mysterious medium for transforming experience is to consider it as the exact embodiment of Plato’s Cave. The dreaming eye of the movie god casting his images on the dark screen corresponds to that image of human life offered to us by Plato in the Republic: existence is a kind of cave or cellar on the back wall of which we watch the shadows of (…) reality.”
  7. This not to mention Christianity which may be understood as a form of this “ancient” myth — or as the realization and consummation of it. For McLuhan, of course, the latter was the case. For discussion of some of the implicated issues here, see Pre-Christian Logos and Babel.
  8. Plato: γιγαντομαχία τις εἶναι διὰ τὴν ἀμφισβήτησιν περὶ τῆς οὐσίας: the great battle of the gods and giants in their dispute about reality. Sophist 246a.
  9. It is, after all, the story of the first spoken word. At that originary moment, two isolated figures came into communication through a third figure, the Word, ‘combining’ both.
  10. For ancient Egypt generally, and the proceedings of Horus, Seth and Thoth in particular, see the great works of Jan Assmann.
  11. ἐν μέσῳ δὲ περὶ ταῦτα ἄπλετος ἀμφοτέρων μάχη τις (…) ἀεὶ συνέστηκεν. Sophist 246c.
  12. How to reach what is already at hand is the great question.
  13. The rise and spread of Christianity depended in large part upon its ability to absorb variations of this complex ontology and phenomenology (the ‘shining forth’ or dynamics or ‘incarnation’ of ontology) (dual genitive!!!) into its multiple forms of an archetypal threefold: God-Spirit-Son, Joseph-Jesus-Mary, God-Jesus/Christ-world, God-Mary-world, God-Saints-world, etc. ‘World’ in these cases was usually a specific locality, much as there had once been a Zeus or an Apollo of different localities. The death of Christianity occurred at that moment when politicians felt themselves able to give away its superlative localities, Bethlehem and Jerusalem, as one-dimensional pieces of a purely secular world checkerboard.
  14. Peterson certainly understands and indeed emphasizes the explanatory power of myth. But he fails to discern, or at least he fails to accept, it’s more fundamental ontological bearing. But this undercuts its explanatory power leaving its claims, as he himself says in describing ‘rights’ in the contemporary world, no more than “castles in the air, historically and philosophically speaking” (‘Religion, sovereignty, natural rights’, 2006).
  15. ‘Religion, sovereignty, natural rights, and the constituent elements of experience’, Archive for the Psychology of Religion, v28, 2006.
  16. Peterson’s emphasis in ‘Three Forms of Meaning and the Management of Complexity’, in K. Markman, T. Proulx & M. Lindberg (eds), The Psychology of Meaning, 2013.
  17. “By all accounts” = on Peterson’s own insistent singular account. Here as always, and intentionally, Peterson plays a ‘risky’ game since “in scientific endeavour, as elsewhere, the willingness to risk Is everything.”
  18. ‘Maps Of Meaning: The Architecture Of Belief (Precis)’, Psycoloquy 10, 1999.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid.
  21. ‘Religion, sovereignty, natural rights, and the constituent elements of experience’, Archive for the Psychology of Religion, v28, 2006.
  22. Peterson’s emphasis.
  23. ‘Three Forms of Meaning and the Management of Complexity’, ed. K. Markman, T. Proulx & M. Lindberg, The Psychology of Meaning, 1-23, 2013.
  24. The full passage here (” a world-story that made of existence and experience the eternal battleground of order and chaos, mediated by the heroic aspect of consciousness –- the Logos, the Word, truth, light, enlightenment, illumination”) illustrates how Peterson tends to equate “existence and experience” and therefore the actions of the mythological (“existence” or being itself) and historical (“experience”) hero. But even where the two are properly differentiated, it remains the case that an “eternal battleground” characterizes both — although in fundamentally different ways. The hero of Peterson confronts the battleground as an eternal antagonism that in some way is older than him. He does so, so to say, from the outside. The philosophical-child of reconciliation (subjective genitive!), in deepest contrast, is itself just as original as the other contestants and represents a recasting of the “eternal battleground” into a more ‘familial’ dispute. Its confrontation is internal.
  25. See note 17 above.
  26. Because the  “world-story” at stake (en jeu) is so powerful and originary, neither Peterson nor the contemporary world he bears with him can entirely shut out its shining forth. McLuhan already knew this at 23 and so was able to see it then as the distinctive genius of Eliot’s poetry: “the (Eliot) poems I am reading 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 — yet, to all save the seer, (only) behind life (if at all) — is miraculously suggested,” Letters, 41, emphasis, bracketed clarifications and punctuation added.
  27. The ‘riskiness’ of this suggestion may be seen in the word ‘familiar’, which of course is from ‘family’.  Absent an existing family, how construct familiar territory?
  28. ‘Religion, sovereignty, natural rights, and the constituent elements of experience’, 2006.
  29. Ibid.
  30. In this same essay, Peterson notes that “chimpanzees, ever so closely related to human beings, live in dominance hierarchies, like their human cousins.” Behind chimpanzees, in turn, the explanatory trail leads back to unicellular lifeforms. The familiar Gutenbergian form of the argument here is that of calculus: if you make the pebbles (calculi) small enough and extensive enough, you can explain anything you want! The mind faints at some point along the infinitely long trail!
  31. ‘Three Forms of Meaning and the Management of Complexity’, 2013.

Peterson: time or times?

Jordan Peterson cannot make up his mind if time is singular or plural. Or, perhaps better put, he cannot make up his mind about which of two singular times is more basic than the other. True to his sometimes commitment to Gutenbergian perspective,1 truth and reality must conflate at some point. So in this mode, Peterson’s usual but not exclusive one, his consideration of anything must come down to the question of — which singularity? Which one?

The passages below are from a single paper, but the views it expresses on time are plainly at odds with each other. Moreover, the same ambiguity about time appears in all his work. 

Over and over again he references our need for a “broader evolutionary/historical perspective”:

  • The most cherished presumptions of the West remain castles in the air, historically and philosophically speaking. This perceived weakness of foundation makes societies grounded on conceptions of natural right vulnerable to criticism and attack in the most dangerous of manners. The adoption of a much broader evolutionary/historical perspective with regards to the development of human individuality and society allows for the generation of a deep solution to this problem.2
  • What we have in our culture is much more profound and solid and deep than any mere rational construction. We have a form of [association]3, an equilibrated state, which is an emergent consequence of an ancient process. The process undergirding the development of this [associational]4 form stems much farther back even than the Egyptians, even than the Mesopotamians — stems back to behavioral ritual and oral tradition. (…) Our political presuppositions — our notion of “natural rights” — rest on a cultural foundation that is unbelievably archaic. That foundation, in turn, rests on something even more fundamental. Chimpanzees, ever so closely related to human beings, live in dominance hierarchies, like their human cousins.5
  • These unbelievably archaic ideas (…) first acted out, first embodied in ritual, first dramatized, then told as stories, developing more and more coherence over stretches of time of thousands of years — they serve to ground our self-evident notions in something that is much more than mere opinion, [and than] mere arbitrary supposition.5

But just as frequently he reverts to an ‘eternal’ drama underlying human experience involving three figures/principles/orders/archetypes/gods:

  • The old king never dies, the villain never dies, and the hero never dies. This is because there is always “the old king” (…) there is always “the villain,” and [and there is always] “the hero.” These entities are transcendent, transpersonal, because they represent aspects of experience that never change.5
  • Imagine that the human environment might be better considered “what is and has always been common to all domains of human experience, regardless of spatial locale or temporal frame.” The environment, construed in such a manner, consists not of objects, but of phenomenological constants (although it still contains objects).8

At its base, the problem at stake in this ambiguity is Peterson’s inability to let go of his heroic persona. Absent this persona and its typical demand for foundational singularity, he might be exposed to the possibility that time is plural and that its central riddle is not, ‘which of historical time and eternity and history is more real?’, but instead, ‘how are equally real time and eternity knotted together?’.9   

The hero comes to experience with a predetermined10 notion of the form of reality and truth — including his own reality and truth. In order to consider the full range of possibilities that such predetermination might take, the hero must of course jettison the one already in effect, the one shaping his experience and identity, and therefore abdicate that identity — for identity must be allowed to result from the range of such predetermination, cannot be allowed to dictate to it. 

All the misfortunes of humans (and of all the creatures so unhappily subject to us) are the consequence of the insistence to judge reality and truth rather than being judged by them. Now Peterson would heroically address our misfortunes and attempt to heal them. This is a great thing. But his heroism only reinforces our misfortune and certainly cannot administer to it.

  1. That Peterson has multiple takes on time and many other matters, like a cubist, is already a deviation from Gutenbergian perspective. He seems to be fighting against himself as if to say, I know that time is plural, but I just can’t bring myself to consider its plurality as fundamental. To do that I would also have to recognize the abysmal gap between plural times as fundamental as well. But rather that pursue the labyrinthine path his own work indicates in this way, Peterson silently accepts what he explicitly seems to reject: “The most cherished presumptions of the West remain castles in the air, historically and philosophically speaking.” With this resigned acceptance he stands in for the contemporary consternation of the world which is lost in the cul-de-sac of fake news — and fake everything else per Nietzsche’s “History of an Error”.
  2. ‘Religion, sovereignty, natural rights, and the constituent elements of experience’, Archive for the Psychology of Religion, v28, 2006.
  3. Peterson: “of government”. Peterson is correct, of course, that the term ‘government’ can be used to cover many different types of association and these are not limited to political forms. Ideas or delusions or DNA can ‘govern’. But ‘association’ is a less committed term and has been substituted here as better conveying Peterson’s notion of “an equilibrated state”.
  4. Peterson: “governmental”
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid. The quotation marks in this passage are Peterson’s. Are they are meant to signify an unidentified reference? Or perhaps some special status for the suggestion?
  9. This question is at least 2500 years old and is doubtless much much older than that. Dynamics were Aristotle’s attempt to explicate the forms of his great teacher and friend, Plato. According to this notion, eternal forms dynamically express themselves in time. Chemistry was born when it at last became clear that elements express themselves in just this way. To the great misfortune of the world, the humanities and social sciences have been unable to submit themselves to such wondrous predetermination — for in this case the gapped range of possibilities or elements does not predetermine material things, it predetermines us. Now McLuhan never stopped questioning how and why this fixation against explication and investigation of ourselves arises. He thought it was the key to our survival. But he never figured it out, so deep is this “numb”. (Fpr ‘wondrous’, see the next note.)
  10. It must be wondered (in Aristotle’s sense of wonder as giving birth to philosophy) just when and where and how this ‘pre-determination’ occurs.

Peterson and the fabled ‘thing in itself’

I desire that your conjectures should be limited by what is thinkable. Could you think a god? But this is what the will to truth should mean to you: that everything be changed into what is thinkable for man, visible for man, feelable by man. (Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra)

Nietzsche would reduce everything to “what is thinkable for man” and then show that “what is thinkable for man” — self-destructs, falls through itself, utterly collapses like a black hole into….nothing. Hence nihilism and through nihilism and only through nihilism: INCIPIT ZARATHUSTRA!1

Supposing there were no self-identical “A”, such as is presupposed by every proposition of logic (and of mathematics), and the “A” were already mere appearance, then logic would have a merely apparent world as its condition. In fact, we believe in this proposition under the influence of ceaseless experience which seems continually to confirm it. The “thing”— that is the real substratum of “A”; our belief in things is the precondition of our belief in logic. The “A” of logic is, like the atom, a reconstruction of the thing — If we do not grasp this, but make of logic a criterion of true being, we are on the way to positing as realities all those hypostases: substance, attribute, object, subject, action, etc.; that is, to conceiving a metaphysical world, that is, a “real world” — this, however, is the apparent world2 once more… (Nietzsche, Will to Power)

In his 2013 essay, ‘Three Forms of Meaning and the Management of Complexity’3, Jordan Peterson repeatedly registers his attachment to the fabled ‘thing in itself’ and does so through what Nietzsche calls “our belief in things”. But Peterson begins his essay by setting out a preliminary overview of perception4 which would seem to rule out any such access:

Most psychological models (…) are based on the assumption that the world is made of objects, existing independently and given — or, more abstractly, of stimuli. That assumption is incorrect: the boundaries between objects or stimuli are largely situation-dependent and subjectively-determined. Half our brain is devoted to vision. This indicates that we do not simply see what is there. The “frame problem”5 (…) looms over all other current psychological concerns. We live in a sea of complexity. The boundaries of the objects we manipulate are not simply given by those objects. Every object or situation can be perceived, in an infinite number of ways, and each action or event has an infinite number of potential consequences.6

  • The boundaries between objects or stimuli7 are (…) subjectively-determined
  • we do not simply see what is there
  • objects (…) are not simply given
  • Every object or situation can be perceived in an infinite number of ways

Still, Peterson is somehow able to stipulate how things are with the thing-in-itself, indeed with “all things-in-themselves”: 

Intelligible arrays have been identified at many levels of resolution: from that of the quark, 1/10,0002 as large as an atom, to the supra-galactic, at 1025 meters. All things-in-themselves exist simultaneously at all those levels, and partake in multiple arrays, at each level. A perceptible object is thus an array segregated, arbitrarily and for subjective purposeful reasons, from its participation in endless other arrays. However, some aspect of the original array [the original array!] must be retained. Otherwise, the object cannot be said to truly exist, and must be regarded as fantasy. (…) The perceived object is simpler than the thing-in-itself (a prerequisite to comprehension) -– while remaining importantly related8 to the actual thing.9 (…) The perceived object is thus a low-resolution image of the thing-in-itself.10

Compare Nietzsche (from a late note included in the posthumously assembled Will to Power):

Radical nihilism is (…) the realization that we lack the least right to posit a beyond or an in-itself of things.

Nietzsche agreed with Peterson that absent certain presuppositions (aka, needs) “the object cannot be said to truly exist”. But exactly contrary to Peterson, Nietzsche denied those presuppositions and even those needs. All was indeed a “fantasy” — except that, absent subject and object, “fantasy”, too, must be dispensed with as self-cancelling => fantasy.

A footnote in Peterson’s essay continues his stipulation that the thing-in-itself is available for our manipulation:11

What is axiomatic about the object is that it is a representation of the thing-in-itself, sufficient for some delimited purpose.12

Given this stipulated axiom, as Peterson claims in the same place, “the object is less than the thing-in-itself and (…) can [yet] still be empirically ‘real’.”13 The enabling assumptions here are that the thing-in-itself and reality are coterminous and that the thing-in-itself can somehow lend that reality to a representation of it in and as a perceived object. Hence, the thing-in-itself is real and its object, while at an unaccountable psychological remove from it, is also ‘real’. 

Now Nietzsche took the same view as Peterson that the thing-in-itself and reality are coterminous. But he concluded, since we lack any access to the thing-in-itself, that we must do also without that “esteemed commodity”14 of “reality”. He set out the history of the dissolution of our access to reality in a famous aphorism from Twilight of the Idols:

How The “True World” Finally Became A Fable: The History of an Error

1. The true world — attainable for the sage, the pious, the virtuous man; he lives in it, he is it.  (The oldest form of the idea, relatively sensible, simple, and persuasive. A circumlocution for the sentence, “I, Plato, am the truth.”)
2. The true world — unattainable for now, but promised for the sage, the pious, the virtuous man (“for the sinner who repents”).  (Progress of the idea: it becomes more subtle, insidious, incomprehensible — it becomes female, it becomes Christian. )
3. The true world — unattainable, indemonstrable, unpromisable; but the very thought of it — a consolation, an obligation, an imperative.
(At bottom, the old sun, but seen through mist and skepticism. The idea has become elusive, pale, Nordic, Königsbergian [ie, Kantian].)
4. The true world — unattainable? At any rate, unattained. And being unattained, also unknown. Consequently, not consoling, redeeming, or obligating: how could something unknown obligate us?  (Gray morning. The first yawn of reason. The cockcrow of positivism.)
5. The “true” world — an idea which is no longer good for anything, not even obligating — an idea which has become useless and superfluous — consequently, a refuted idea: let us abolish it! (Bright day; breakfast; return of bon sens and cheerfulness; Plato’s embarrassed blush; pandemonium of all free spirits.)
 6. The true world — we have abolished. What world has remained? The apparent one perhaps? But no! With the true world we have also abolished the apparent one. (Noon; moment of the briefest shadow; end of the longest error; high point of humanity; INCIPIT ZARATHUSTRA.)

Peterson has written and lectured on Nietzsche a great deal, including on Zarathustra. But his heroic reading has not taken that step beyond “the thing-in-itself”, “beyond good and evil” (another of Nietzsche’s books often discussed by Peterson), where Zarathustra — starts!

Point #6 is of critical importance for Peterson. For not only is it not the case that we have some sort of inexplicable access to the thing-in-itself, we also have no access to the apparent world — exactly because we lack of access to the thing-in-itself. The apparent world, including our apparent selves, is, unfortunately, sadly enough, along with the real world and our real selves — missing.

Stipulation of any access to the real or even the apparent world is dependent on some ground (hence Peterson’s various appeals to the thing-in-itself, or to brain materialism15, or to the hero’s penetration to “the constituent elements of experience”16 and, throughout his work, to uralt mythology17). But none of these stipulations can succeed, for reasons that Nietzsche already made clear 150 years ago, since all remain, in Peterson’s words, “mere arbitrary supposition”.18 

What has happened is that Peterson has made the human, all-too-human error of mistaking the strange threshold of the way we need to go — for an endpoint. It is, he thinks, a problem to be solved through the stipulation of some ground. Or waved at as an eternally ventured and eternally indistinct heroic quest. In any case, he has refused in various ways the labyrinthine path to Zarathustra’s incipit

The central demand at this threshold is that “the constituent elements of experience” be identified — as indeed Peterson knows.19 But the hero cannot knowthe constituent elements of experience” absent the possibility of doing so. That is, before he can know “the constituent elements of experience” the hero must have visited “the constituent elements of experience” and activated or “put on” (as McLuhan would say) that one of them, or that one combination of them perhaps, through which knowledge of “the constituent elements of experience” is first of all possible. Unfortunately the hero cannot accomplish this somersault in time without losing himself in the process. Only the ‘nobody’ can follow Zarathustra into that ‘convalescence‘ which is so desperately needed by the world.



  1. See ‘The History of an Error’ below.
  2.  For “the apparent world”, see ‘The History of an Error’ below.
  3. In K. Markman, T. Proulx & M. Lindberg (eds), The Psychology of Meaning, 1-23.
  4. “Overview of perception”: is this a subjective or an objective genitive?
  5. Peterson does not reference Erving Goffman’s classic Frame Analysis and may not be aware of it. This is all the more astonishing since Goffman is one of the big 3 of Alberta-born scholars (along with McLuhan and Peterson) and, again like McLuhan and Peterson, but less so, was associated with the University of Toronto as a grad student.
  6. ‘Three Forms of Meaning’, 2.
  7. Note that Peterson does not say “the boundaries between objects AND stimuli”! The implication of “objects OR stimuli” is that “stimuli” swallow “objects”.
  8. “Importantly related” — for what and for whom?
  9. “The actual thing”!
  10. ‘Three Forms of Meaning’, 3.
  11. Beyond the critiques of perception (objective genitive!) of Nietzsche and Beckett, Peterson’s “available for our manipulation” is also subject to Heidegger’s critique of the notion of the world as a kind of standing reserve to be mined “sufficient for some delimited purpose” of ours.
  12. ‘Three Forms of Meaning’, 3n5.
  13. ‘Three Forms of Meaning’, 3.
  14. Samuel Beckett in Three Dialogues: “There is more than a difference of degree between being short –- short of the world, short of self -– and being without these esteemed commodities. The one is a predicament, the other not.”
  15. See the attempt to specify a “mechanistic explanation” in the brain for the varieties of experience in Hirsh, Mar, & Peterson, ‘Psychological Entropy: A Framework for Understanding Uncertainty-Related Anxiety’, Psychological Review, 119(2), 304-20, 2012.
  16.  ‘Religion, sovereignty, natural rights, and the constituent elements of experience’, Archive for the Psychology of Religion, v28, 2006.
  17. “These unbelievably archaic ideas (…) serve to ground our self-evident notions in something that is much more than mere opinion, mere arbitrary supposition” (‘Religion, sovereignty, natural rights, and the constituent elements of experience’).
  18. Ibid.
  19. See note 16 above. But he also says that “only functionally relevant objects ‘exist’ at any given moment — constituting figure, so to speak, instead of ground” (‘Awareness May Be Existence’, BBS, 2000). Note the doubling of constituent/constituting. The “constituent elements of experience” must be grounds, however, not figures — exactly aselements“.

Nietzsche on the emotion of multitude

Tremendous self-examination: becoming conscious of oneself, not as individuals but as mankind. Let us reflect, let us think back; let us follow the highways and byways! (Will to Power, Book 3)

“Becoming conscious of oneself, not as individuals but as mankind” was reverted to again and again by McLuhan in terms of Yeats’ ’emotion of multitude’. He (McLuhan) thought of it as the unconscious range of possibility out of which actual experience emerges through a process we do not understand — but which we urgently need to understand as a matter of survival. It was a question of bringing to light the synchronic aspect of experience: “Let us reflect, let us think back; let us follow the highways and byways!”1

Here is Yeats’ 1903 note:

Emotion of Multitude

I [WBY] have been thinking a good deal about plays lately, and I have been wondering why I dislike the clear and logical construction which seems necessary it one is to succeed on the modern stage. It came into my head the other day that this construction, which all the world has learnt from France, has everything of high literature except the emotion of multitude. The Greek drama has got the emotion of the multitude from its chorus, which called up famous sorrows, even all the gods and all heroes, to witness as it were, some well-ordered fable, some action separated but for this from all but itself. The French play delights in the well-ordered fable, but by leaving out the chorus, it has created an art where poetry and imagination, always the children of far-off multitudinous things, must of necessity grow less important than the mere will. This is why, I said to myself, French dramatic poetry is so often a little rhetorical, for rhetoric is the will trying to do the work of the imagination. The Shakespearian drama gets the emotion of multitude out of the sub-plot which copies the main plot, much as a shadow upon the wall copies one’s body in the firelight. We think of KING LEAR less as the history of one man and his sorrows than as the history of a whole evil time. Lear’s shadow is in Gloucester, who also has ungrateful children and the mind goes on imagining other shadows, shadow beyond shadow, till it has pictured the world. In Hamlet, one hardly notices, so subtly is the web woven, that the murder of Hamlet’s father and the sorrow of Hamlet are shadowed in the lives of Fortinbras and Ophelia and Laertes, whose fathers, too, have been killed. It is so in all the plays, or in all but all, and very commonly the subplot is the main plot working itself out in more ordinary men and women and so doubly calling up before us the image of multitude. Ibsen and Maeterlinck have on the other hand created a new form, for they get multitude from the Wild Duck in the Attic, or from the Crown at the bottom of the Fountain, vague symbols that set the mind wandering from idea to idea, emotion to emotion. Indeed all the great masters have understood that there cannot be great art without the little limited life of the fable, which is always the better the simpler it is, and the rich far-wandering many imaged life of the half-seen world beyond it. There are some who understand that the simple unmysterious things living as in a clear noonlight are of the nature of the sun, and that vague, many-imaged things have in them the strength of the moon. Did not the Egyptian carve it on emerald that all living things have the sun for father and the moon for mother, and has it not been said that a man of genius takes the most after his mother?

  1. “Let us think back” is a matter of retracing vertically, so to speak, what has come to be horizontally. To designate this re-versal McLuhan used a series of ‘repetition’ verbs: ‘recur’, ‘retrace’, ‘recognize’, ‘retrieve’, ‘recollect’, ‘remember’, ‘replay’, ‘reflect’, etc.

Zarathustra: Listen to me even with your eyes!

Up, abysmal thought, out of my depth! I am your cock and dawn, sleepy worm. Up! Up! My voice shall yet crow you awake! Unfasten the fetters of your ears: listen! For I want to hear you. Up! Up! Here is thunder enough to make even tombs learn to listen. And wipe sleep and all that is purblind and blind out of your eyes! Listen to me even with your eyes: my voice cures even those born blind. (Zarathustra, Part 3)

This is  Zarathustra calling up his most “abysmal thought” immediately before he had to go down into the death experience (experience?) required for ‘the convalescent‘:

No sooner had Zarathustra spoken these words than he fell down as one dead and long remained as one dead. (Zarathustra, Part 3)

Jordan Peterson on the hero

However, in scientific endeavour, as elsewhere, the willingness to risk Is everything.1

Passages on the hero are given below from two of Jordan Peterson’s papers. Of course, a great many more could  be culled from his many other papers and from his books, but the passages cited here may be taken as representative of his position.

The epigraph above is the last line of his 1991 PhD thesis and sums up not only his take on the hero but also his own credo. Indeed, Peterson plainly identifies with the hero-savior which is an excellent thing in terms of his deeply felt need to answer the cries of the contemporary world in its manifold individual and social dangers; but it is also limiting as an effective remedy. Commentary in the footnotes attempts to show how and why this is so.2 The great point to be kept in mind was put in short form by one of Peterson’s great heroes, Nietzsche:

instead of the deification of man, his un-deification, the digging of the deepest chasm, which only a miracle, only prostration in deepest self-contempt can bridge…3

No man believes now in this absurd self-inflation: and we have sifted our wisdom through a sieve of contempt.4


Maps Of Meaning: The Architecture Of Belief (Precis), 19995

  • It is not clear that either the categories “given” to us by our senses, or those abstracted out for us by the processes of scientific investigation, constitute the most “real” or even the most “useful” modes of apprehending the fundamental nature of being or experience.6 It appears, instead, that the categories offered by traditional myths and religious systems might play that role, despite the initial unpalatability of such a suggestion.7 Such systems of apprehension present the world as a place of constant moral striving, conducted against a background of interplay between the “divine forces” of order and chaos.8 “Order” constitutes the natural category of all those phenomena whose manifestations and transformations are currently predictable. “Chaos” constitutes the natural category of “potential” -– the potential that emerges whenever an error in prediction occurs. The capacity for creative exploration –- embodied in mythology in the form of the “ever-resurrecting hero” -– serves as the eternal mediator between these fundamental constituent elements of experience.
  • the hero/king who establishes, embodies and updates the social world is also the same force that establishes, embodies and updates the intrapsychic world, the personality — and the one act of update cannot (…) be distinguished from the other. In “improving” the world, the hero improves himself; in improving himself, he sets an example for the world.9
  • The Sumerians, ancient Egyptians and Old Testament Hebrews settled by all accounts on a world-story that made of existence and experience the eternal battleground of order and chaos, mediated by the heroic aspect of consciousness –- the Logos, the Word, truth, light, enlightenment, illumination.10
  • Human beings, “made in the image of God”11, construct their familiar territory, their cosmos, out of chaos -– the unknown -– and then strive to maintain the dynamic equilibrium of what they have constructed and now inhabit.12 The capacity to engage in such activity is “incarnation of the divine Logos”, embodiment of the creative, exploratory “Word”, whose activity finds eternal dramatic representation in the figure of the hero, the dragon-slaying savior.13

Religion, sovereignty, natural rights, and the constituent elements of experience, 200614

  • What the hero actually encounters, at the most inclusive level of analysis, are the constituent elements of experience.15 
  • the hero also restructures what is known, widening the purview of culture or challenging and reconceptualizing its most fundamental axioms. Finally, no hero remains unchanged, as a consequence of such activity. He necessarily meets himself as an individual (…) broadened and extended as a consequence of the information so garnered and conceptualized. 
  • The story of the hero is the most basic of plots, therefore, because it deals with the most basic of encounters.16 
  • The hero states, “What we are all doing right now, thinking right now, presuming right now, is no longer working!”17
  • Out of the unknown, through exploration, springs reality: it is in this manner, through “incestuous” union with the hero, that the dragon of chaos gives birth to the world. (…) Thus the exploratory hero makes the world as a consequence of his encounter with the generative unknown.18
  • It is necessary to remain unconfused by the interchangeability of the Great Father and the Hero, with regards to the Mother of All Things, or the Dragon of Chaos. All three elements of experience are regarded by the mythological imagination as primary, in some sense, and any (…) pair of them can engender being. So the original creation might be the impregnation of nature by culture, or by the hero. The two element creation, however, remains partial and incomplete.19


  1. This is the final sentence of Peterson’s 1991 PhD thesis, Potential Psychological Markers for the Predisposition to Alcoholism. There is little connection between it and the rest of Peterson’s thesis. It functions as if to say, ‘OK, all that above was what I had to do for my degree, but here is what I’m really interested in….’
  2. Since some of the commentary is long and sometimes rather complicated, it may be best to read through Peterson’s texts before looking at the footnotes to them.
  3. Will to Power, Book 2.
  4. Will to Power, Book 2.
  5. Psycoloquy 10, 1999.
  6. Peterson speaks here of “being or experience” and later in this same paper of “existence and experience”. Now the equation of being/existence with human experience eventuates in nihilism and is the cul-de-sac in which the contemporary world is fixed and lost. See Peterson and the fabled ‘thing in itself’But that Peterson is serious about this equation is baldly stipulated in his note on ‘Awareness may be existence as well as (higher-order) thought’ in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 23:2, 2000: “Consciousness plays a fundamental unrecognized ontological role (…) conferring the status of ‘discriminable object’ on select aspects of otherwise indeterminate ‘being’. (…) Only functionally relevant objects ‘exist’ at any given moment — constituting figure, so to speak, instead of ground. So the very fact of discriminable things appears as something dependent upon consciousness.” Since “only functionally relevant objects ‘exist’ at any given moment”, and since heroic identity and its consciousness are such existing things, these two exist merely through the medium of self-stipulation — which collapses as soon as the ground of that stipulation is questioned. Here identity and its consciousness stipulate themselves — like Münchhausen extricating himself and his horse from a bog by pulling up on his own pigtail. The two great figures to be encountered at this critical juncture are Nietzsche and Beckett. Peterson’s hero needs to ‘under-go’ the utter dissolution of itself which would result if it followed them into the maelstrom — where the first thing to be lost is the stipulator. It, the maelstrom, is the great power, not the hero who is thrown about in it and utterly subject to its overwhelming might.
  7. The “unpalatability” of this suggestion derives not only from its ‘primitive’ source; it derives as well from the overwhelming plurality and complexity of the worlds of myth. Now Peterson argues, or at least stipulates, that this plurality may be reduced to a single story, that of the hero: “The story of the hero is the most basic of plots”, he claims. But this is a ‘risky’ and ‘heroic’ stipulation in regard to which Peterson’s words in his ‘Religion, Sovereignty, Natural Rights’ essay are entirely fitting: “it is impossible to make justifiable claim to a set of beliefs unless there is a rock-solid foundation under those beliefs”.  But Peterson makes little attempt to provide the necessary foundation for this heroic stipulation, especially given his lack of engagement with those great thinkers, foremost among them Lévi-Strauss, who have grappled with the question of how mythology is to be approached in the first place.
  8. It is imperative to note the two times at work in Peterson’s passage here: on the one hand, “moral striving” which is goal-oriented and operates chronologically; on the other, “a background of interplay” which Peterson terms “the eternal battleground of order and chaos” and which may be dynamic but is not goal-oriented or chronological — it is always at work as “eternal”. Indeed even the hero’s “moral striving” is said to be “constant”. Hence the hero is described in this same place as “the eternal mediator between these fundamental constituent elements of experience” of order and chaos. It may be concluded that Peterson’s work implicates a knot of times and that this plurality and interplay of times is the great question posed to his work — by his work! See Peterson: time or times?
  9. The great problem exposed by Peterson here is that the nature and direction of “improving” is dependent on “the intrapsychic world, the personality” of the hero. It’s representations “cannot (…) be distinguished” from the the world at large — and vice versa. In this way, “the hero/king” is trapped in a flybottle of his own making, which is exactly the ‘story’ of Eliot’s Waste Land, the central topic of Wittgenstein’s Investigations and the plot of Nietzsche’s “History of an Error“.
  10. A fundamental confusion may be seen here between (a) “existence” and “being” <=> “consciousness” — as something we accomplish in historical time, especially in the work of the hero, and (b) something that is done before us, apriori, in a “world-story” that is “eternal”. Now that “world-story” may well implicate an “heroic aspect” that mediates between its other “eternal” archetypes. Peterson would sometimes like to think that these two sorts of heroic actions and their respective space-times can be identified, but he is equally clear at other times that they cannot. In fact, the relationship is a knotted figure/ground riddle and is nothing less than the little door Peterson’s work needs to go through to reach his goals.
  11. “Made in the image of God” is another way of putting the figure/ground riddle: how are image and original fundamentally different? How ‘at the same time’ are they related?
  12. There is, of course, no human being who is not born into an existing family and society of some sort. No one ever “construct(ed) their familiar territory” on their own — as the word ‘familiar’ itself says. Indeed, the human infant cannot survive on its own, let alone go about heroic world-building “out of chaos”. What Peterson describes here, perhaps unconsciously, is not some action in historical time, but a synchronic activity that characterizes humans at every moment, always and everywhere. We are ‘always’ at work on world-building — that is what the human animal is — but not in diachronic time.  For the phenomenology of human being, it is therefore imperative to keep its times of world-building (ground) and and world-maintenance (figure) separate but related.
  13. The fundamental communication bridging the principles of human being, like order and chaos, cannot be constructed or even found by individual action, even when this action is undertaken by a divine actor — and especially not when it is undertaken by an historical one. No such hero can understand its task or carry it out absent the possibility of doing so. This possibility necessarily precedes and predates heroic activity and it is this preceding communication which is “the divine Logos” or “Word” — or “the medium (that) is the message”.
  14. Archive for the Psychology of Religion, v28, 2006.
  15. No, this is not the case and cannot be the case for reasons that Peterson himself sets out. The hero’s “consciousness plays a fundamental unrecognized (…) role (…) conferring the status of ‘discriminable object’ on select aspects of otherwise indeterminate ‘being’ (…) constituting figure (…) instead of ground.” (Full passage from Awareness may be existence’ in note 3 above.) The experience of the hero qua hero remains at the level of figure and cannot penetrate to ground exactly because the objects of his experience are his. They are “functionally relevant” — to him! They are what they are as a result of him “conferring the status of ‘discriminable object’ on (them as) select aspects of otherwise indeterminate ‘being’ (…) constituting figure, so to speak, instead of ground.” Now it is all important to note here — against what might seem to be our solipsistic prison — that humans do come to recognize “constituent elements” (although our recognition is never definitive). All of the sciences testify to this (both to the finding and to its never-ending need for refinement). But elements are exactly not purely constructed, they are found to be before us (in different senses of ‘before’). It is therefore exactly not “heroic” action that successfully isolates “constituent elements”, but a kind of ‘giving way’ before them. Letting them be. Just how this action of ‘giving way’ and ‘letting be’ might be exercised in regard to the “constituent elements of experience” is exactly THE great question of psychology and THE only answer to the world’s plight.
  16. This “most basic of encounters” is that of the infant with its new environment. But its most salient feature is not that the infant heroically reaches out to probe that environment, but that this reaching out succeeds. Communicative ground is what enables this success — a ground that is qualitatively beyond what the figure of the infant-hero can ever achieve on its own.
  17. This statement cannot be made, of course, in reference to an eternal background; it must be made in regard to historical time which alone has a “no longer”. This is an indication of Peterson’s repeated elision between figure and ground, between diachrony and synchrony, which is not necessarily wrong — but which cannot feature the same hero in both and cannot lead to coherent theory in this form.
  18. No, the world is always already there via the “eternal battleground of order and chaos”. What the historical hero has to do, somehow, is locate this eternality through a process that necessarily implicates his utter dissolution. The archetypal hero, on the other hand, while qualitatively different from the historical one, may indeed be said to be active in the “birth of the world” — but not through interaction with “the unknown” in the usual sense. Instead, in the eternal time of the dynamic interactions of first principles, the hero knows the “dragon of chaos” forever and “makes the world” in union with it, not as we make a hot dog, but as a generativity that precedes everything.
  19. Peterson puts his finger here on a central law of ontology. Namely, at the level of the most real, ‘two’ must always give way before ‘one’ or before ‘three or more’. Where there are ‘two’ first principles, either they must collapse into ‘one’ over the eternity of time; or, if they ‘hold out’ as two, there must be at least one another principle, a ‘third’, through which their eternal co-existence is possible. This is the medium that is the message. The explanatory power of this law is massive, but goes unacknowledged in the night of the world’s sleep of doom.

Jordan Peterson and Marshall McLuhan

It has not escaped notice that Jordan Peterson has recapitulated in the first decades of twenty-first century what Marshall McLuhan achieved in the mid-twentieth. Namely, these two longtime University of Toronto humanities professors became world famous through the then new electronic networks of television (McLuhan) and social media (Peterson). To the consternation and envy of their academic colleagues, especially at UT, both became in the process not only enormously influential in the extra-academic world, but also — horror of horrors — relatively wealthy. 

The talent of both was sharp insight into what might be called the surprisingly obvious. They could see against the tide and could and did trace individual and social problems to the utter obliviousness in which those individuals and whole societies went about their unhappy and dangerous business: “Distracted from distraction by distraction.”1 The surprise they elicited in making an observation partly came from the consternation people had in wondering how they had not seen it before; but there was also a vague sense of the catastrophic effect that would result in their lives if the observation were allowed its potential to decenter them. Their observations were made from and of a depth that was at once obvious and unseen — and powerful.

There are, however, many other parallels between the two men suggesting a kind of commonality of vocation that calls for thoughtful consideration:

  • both born in Alberta (McLuhan in 1911, Peterson in 1962 — almost 50 years apart)
  • both grew up as Protestants, but in their teens became alienated from it
  • both obtained their BA degrees from western Canadian universities (McLuhan from the University of Manitoba, Peterson from the University of Alberta)
  • both obtained their PhD degrees away from western Canada (McLuhan from Cambridge, Peterson from McGill)
  • both began their teaching careers in the US (McLuhan at St Louis University, Peterson at Harvard)
  • both returned to Canada to teach at the University of Toronto (McLuhan in 1946, age 35, Peterson in 1998, age 36 — almost 50 years apart)
  • both stressed the importance of Carl Jung2
  • both suffered near fatal health problems — almost 50 years apart — that disabled them for years in the middle of their careers (McLuhan had a large brain tumor removed in 1967, age 56, Peterson suffered a series of excruciating health issues culminating in 2019, age 56)
  • both developed akathisia as a result of their health problems3 
  • both studied ‘the meaning of meaning’ and suggested that the essence of it was to be found in the different configurations that relationship can take in (better: as) human experience
  • both therefore insisted that human identity was fluid and fundamentally plural — and that investigation of it had to be fluid and plural — exploratory — in turn
  • both therefore stressed that border crossing was essential to human being (vertically between actual and possible forms of experience, horizontally between different actual forms over time)
  • both employed a cross-disciple approach to their work in which literature was used to illuminate contemporary individual, social and political problems
  • both insisted that mythology and other forms of narrative (especially in religion) provided unique access to the range of human existence
  • both insisted that illumination comes to humans, or can come to them, and is not something that might be ‘made up’ by them
  • both insisted that tradition was not a properly discarded irrelevance but an active source providing the key to an understanding of the present
  • both turned to Gestalt psychology and to its signature appeal to figure and ground as critical to their investigations of human experience
  • both appealed to the left and right hemispheres of the brain in their explication of experience
  • both were led fundamentally astray by the demands of colleagues to supply a measurable ‘scientific basis’ for their work 
  • last but not least, both maintained their marriage and family life in the face of constant attempts to seduce them away from them4

Of course, the two also had fundamental differences. As Bob Dobbs has nicely articulated, McLuhan was a literary figure who put on tribalism, while Peterson was a tribal figure who put on literary values. These mixed messages were an important aspect of the success of each of them. But the great question in both cases was and is: what is the medium of these mixtures?

As will be detailed in later posts, Peterson would put the answer to this question in terms of the masculine hero who penetrates a feminine chaos. In doing so, the hero becomes illuminated by new possibilities through which both individual and social regeneration may be prompted.

Now while McLuhan saw a roughly similar need to go “through the vanishing point”, he knew that the hero could not do so and remain the hero. The hero would necessarily become a “nobody” in the process — in extreme opposition to Peterson’s hero who “as a consequence of such activity (…) necessarily meets himself (…) broadened and extended“.5

For McLuhan, it was only as the hero was utterly dispossessed that the search for meaning could take on the sort of hopelessness through which alone a new sort of identity might be found for our individual and social lives.

Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate (Dante Inferno, iii:9)6

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing;
– T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets (East Coker)7

A world of multiple individual and collective identities could not be organized through a heroically maintained focus without distortion and even violence.8 The need was therefore to learn “how not to have a point of view9 and the requisite trial by fire was to go through the dissolution of the hero into the nobody. Only the nobody could come upon new ground that would not be heroically stipulated — and therefore be only ‘figure’.10

Put differently, Peterson’s hero would need to undergo complete immersion in Nietzsche’s nihilism and Beckett’s solipsism11 in order to turn away from misleading pathways like brain materialism12 and the postulation of a “thing in itself”13. Both of these typically Gutenbergian attempts at anchoring would uselessly attempt to provide “a rock-solid foundation”14 for the understanding of human experience via a physical (“neural underpinnings”) or conceptual (“the perceived object is thus a low-resolution image of the thing-in-itself”) reduction of an irreducibly ‘gapped’ plurality to a merely stipulated ‘basis’ in singularity.


  1. T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets (Burnt Norton).
  2. McLuhan to his Jesuit friends, Walter Ong and Clement McNaspy, December 23, 1944: “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.” (Letters 166)
  3. In regard to McLuhan, see Judith Fitzgerald, Marshall McLuhan: Wise Guy: “In a note attached to the Report (on Understanding New Media, 1960), McLuhan reveals his health has broken under the stress of prolonged overwork on the project. (…) When McLuhan returns to teaching (…), however, he cavalierly pretends he never suffered a stroke. But his family and close friends can clearly see the toll it’s taken: the man who was a robust and animated specimen has turned into an old man overnight. His nervous intensity’s more pronounced. He’s incapable of relaxing for more than five minutes at a stretch.”
  4. Throughout this post the past tense has often been used referring to McLuhan and Peterson — although Jordan Peterson is very much with us. Readers should see in this past tense a kind of ‘also present’ as in ‘was/is’, ‘had/has’.
  5.  Peterson, ‘Religion, sovereignty, natural rights, and the constituent elements of experience’, 2006.
  6. A few lines before this:
    Per me si va ne la città dolente,
    per me si va ne l’etterno dolore,
    per me si va tra la perduta gente.
    “Lasciate ogne speranza” is a technical requirement to the understanding of the enormous range of human experience. Whereas Peterson sees in mythology and literature “
    imaginative roadmaps to being” (‘Three Forms of Meaning and the Management of Complexity’, 2013), McLuhan was clear that we must find in them ‘roadmaps from being’! Between ‘to’ and ‘from’ is a gap — the appreciation of whose significance lies on the other side of all heroism.
  7. Compare Little Gidding: And what you thought you came for / Is only a shell, a husk of meaning / From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled / If at all. Either you had no purpose / Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured / And is altered in fulfilment.”
  8. The problem, of course, is that such heroic focus is part of the class it purports to organize. But whence its privilege?
  9. Often called by McLuhan ‘the technique of the suspended judgement’.
  10. For extended discussion of this point, see the further Peterson posts in this blog.
  11. Nietzsche and Beckett were well aware that neither nihilism nor solipsism could withstand their own disintegrative force. They should therefore be understood as nihilism and solipsism , where the strikethroughs indicate that these strange conditions are nothing conceptual; they are black holes falling though themselves into the unknown and unknowable. Hence Beckett’s great closing text to his trilogy, The Unnamable.
  12. See Hirsh, J. B., Mar, R. A., & Peterson, J.B., ‘Psychological Entropy: A Framework for Understanding Uncertainty-Related Anxiety’, Psychological Review 119:2, 2012: “the need for an integrative theoretical framework to establish its psychological significance and provide a context for its neural underpinnings and behavioral consequences has become increasingly apparent”; “the probability of any given action or perceptual frame being employed p(x) is a function of the weighted neural input for its deployment, as influenced by the combination of sensory input, strength of memory representations, and goal-related attentional processes.” Imagine what Dostoevsky’s underground man would have made of this!
  13. See Peterson’s ‘Three Forms of Meaning and the Management of Complexity’ in K. Markman, T. Proulx & M. Lindberg (eds), The Psychology of Meaning, 2013: “Intelligible arrays have been identified at many levels of resolution: from that of the quark, 1/10,0002 as large as an atom, to the supra-galactic, at 1025 meters. All things-in-themselves exist simultaneously at all those levels, and partake in multiple arrays, at each level. A perceptible object is thus an array segregated, arbitrarily and for subjective purposeful reasons, from its participation in endless other arrays. However, some aspect of the original array must be retained. Otherwise, the object cannot be said to truly exist, and must be regarded as fantasy. (…) The perceived object is simpler than the thing-in-itself (a prerequisite to comprehension) -– while remaining importantly related to the actual thing. (…) The perceived object is thus a low-resolution image of the thing-in-itself.” Compare Nietzsche (who certainly agreed that “the object cannot be said to truly exist”): “Radical nihilism is (…) the realization that we lack the least right to posit a beyond or an in-itself of things.”
  14. Peterson, ‘Religion, sovereignty, natural rights, and the constituent elements of experience’, Archive for the Psychology of Religion, v28, 2006.

Global village in 1954

 McLuhan in his 1954 lecture, ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’:

The empires of Alexander and the Caesars were essentially built by paper routes. But today with instantaneous global communications the entire planet, is, for purposes of inter-communication, a village rather than a vast imperial network. 

“Inter-communication” was a favorite catch-phrase of Henry Wright, one of McLuhan’s mentors at the University of Manitoba — more than two decades before the ‘Catholic Humanism’ lecture.

Point and circumference in 1939

Electric speeds create centers everywhere1

In 1938 Bernard Muller-Thym returned to St Louis University, where he had obtained his MA in 1933. In the meantime he and his growing family of eventually eight children had been in Toronto where Muller-Thym received his licentiate from the IMS2 and his PhD from the university. At SLU, he taught in the philosophy department and immediately began publishing a whole series of important papers.3

Muller-Thym and McLuhan quickly became very close friends — Muller-Thym was the best man in the McLuhans’ 1939 marriage ceremony and the Godfather to two of their first three children, Eric (b 1942) and Mary (b 1944 with twin Teri).

In Toronto Muller-Thym had been a favorite of Etienne Gilson. Both were family men in a sea of single priests and seminarians at St Michael’s. Both loved music — in fact Muller-Thym and his wife, Mary, the daughter of the conductor of the Kansas City symphony, were very accomplished musicians who performed in public concerts.4 Muller-Thym was also an extraordinarily skilled linguist who wrote his MA thesis in Latin; and Gilson must have particularly appreciated Muller-Thym’s knowledge of German and Dutch5, where Gilson felt his own knowledge was limited.

Gilson saw to it that Muller-Thym’s PhD thesis on the Establishment of the University of Being in the doctrine of Meister Eckhart of Hochheim was immediately published in 1939. In the Preface he wrote to the book, Gilson expressed his high regard for Muller-Thym and his hopes for him as a Christian philosopher:

My (…) reason for introducing Professor B. J. Muller-Thym to the learned world of mediaevalists is that I want to thank him publicly for having so well done something that I had long hoped to undertake, and for having done it at the very time when I was beginning to realize that I could never do it. After reading his interpretation of Meister Eckhart’s doctrine of the university of being, I feel myself quite close to the final answer to one of the most intricate problems that arises in the field of mediaeval philosophy,6 and anybody who reads his book will probably agree that Professor B. J. Muller-Thym is now better qualified than anybody else to carry the study of that problem forward to its complete elucidation. (…) Historians have spared no effort in parallelling a large number of Eckhart’s statements with similar statements culled from the writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas. It is beyond doubt that still more text, materially similar, could be quoted to the same effect. Yet, when all is said and done, it remains true that, as the author of this book aptly says, “If we should take these texts with their genuine Thomistic import, and then put them with all the texts of Eckhart, it is simply impossible to find Eckhart making sense with Eckhart.” For having so clearly realized the true nature of his own historical problem, Professor B. J. Muller-Thym has finally succeeded where his predecessors failed. Here, at last, is an historical interpretation of Meister Eckhart’s philosophical thought; and, because Meister Eckhart is a philosopher worthy of the name, we are now able, thanks to Professor B. J. Muller-Thym, not only to understand his doctrine in its historical setting, but also to pursue a definite metaphysical position to its ultimate implications. (…) The great artist, Corot, used to say: “A painter is a man who knows where to sit.” The same can be said of the true historian. Because he has singled out the only spot from which Meister Eckhart can be seen in his full intelligibility, Professor B. J. Muller-Thym has proved himself to be a thoroughbred historian of philosophy.  It is most gratifying to reflect that such a book as this, complete in itself though it be, is at the same time an earnest of those further explorations in the same field, promised by the author in his foreword.7  (ix, xii-xiii)

Between 1938 and 1942 Muller-Thym introduced McLuhan to his own work, but also to the work of his mentor, Gilson. Gilson became the single most cited source for McLuhan’s 1943 PhD thesis on the classical trivium and Thomas Nashe.  Muller-Thym’s influence was slower to unfold, but was very deep. A footnote in the Eckhart thesis, which McLuhan must have read closely with Muller-Thym, observes in passing:

God in His unity, the esse absolutum, is the point which is everywhere; His circumference, the creature, is nowhere. (University of Being, 105n)

This observation captured Muller-Thym’s critique of Eckhart in nuce. At the end of the day, Eckhart’s esse could not account for, or valorize, either plurality or difference: his esse absolutum” was only a “point”. Hence “God in His unity (…) is everywhere [and] His circumference (…) is nowhere”.8

Now McLuhan would come to use the figure of point and circumference, usually in the form of ‘centre and margin’, over and over and over again. Indeed, he was still doing so in one of his last essays, ‘Ma Bell Minus the Nantucket Gam’, which was published posthumously in 1981. Significantly, he began to discuss the critical importance of the ‘centre and margin’ form about the same time that he started to insist, in the late 1950’s, that “the medium is the message”.9 Arguably, it was exactly this ‘centre and margin’ form that was the medium that is the message. The revolution his thinking underwent at the time10 resulted in the idea that it might be possible to “move the world” through the specification of the spectrum of possible centre-margin forms.

Here are some centre-margin passages from the crucial period immediately following completion of his ‘understanding media’ project with the NAEB in the second half of 1960:

McLuhan to Serge Chermayeff, December 19, 1960:
Archimedes said, “Give me a place to stand and I’ll move the world.” (…) Must we not now expect every position whatever to be simultaneously a montage of all others? When there is no longer a center-margin interplay in a positional or spatial sense, is it not yet possible to have a more inclusive ecology [based on  center-margin interplay in a simultaneous temporal sense] than any previously envisaged, and would not such equilibrium or interplay be capable (…) of [bringing about] true freedom?

McLuhan to to Jackie Tyrwhitt, December 23, 1960 (Letters 278):
Noise [in a communication network] 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.

McLuhan to Harry Skornia, January 7, 1961:
New insight via center-margin interplay. In systems development (see Hans Selye’s Stress) any center creates a margin for itself. Any moment of perception has center-margin. When center swallows margin you are hypnotized, or mad. If center is ear (radio), margin is visual. Interplay between center-margin is need of any system.  

Inside the Five Sense Sensorium 1961:
We still imagine that politics can follow the pre-telegraph patterns of center-margin interplay.
With electric media any place is a center. No place is a margin. (…) Psychologists explain that when the field of attention has a center without a margin we are hypnotized. Such is the condition of tribal man, past or present. The problem of design is to understand the media forces in such wise that we need never sink into the zombie tribal state [while at the same time avoiding the Gutenberg “pre-telegraph patterns of center-margin interplay”].

The Electronic Age – The Age of Implosion 1962:
The new quantum physics is not much concerned with visual modes of perception, and least of all with the
centre-margin patterns that characterized the outward radiation of the baroque explosion and colonial expansion. Today physics confronts the phenomenon of fusion and implosion rather than the outward and analytic movement of explosion. (…) Habits and attitudes natural to centuries of expansion now yield with equal naturalness to the intense pressures of an electronically unified world.  Another way of stating the change is to say that when information movement speeds up a great deal, centre-margin patterns yield to centres-without-margins. (…) The new structure is not the old sponge pattern of intake from the margins and output from the centre, but of dialogue among centres.

McLuhan to Edward T. Hall, April 5, 1962:
Reading Heisenberg has made me feel that my media studies are at the state that nuclear studies had reached in 1924. But my heart sinks, because those nuclear studies were being urged forward by eager teams, and media studies enjoys no such support at all. But I am bold [enough] to say that many of the same techniques and concepts are needed for advancing media studies as were used for nuclear studies. But there is the huge difference, that media studies involve human lives far more profoundly than nuclear studies ever have done, or ever can do.
The Copenhagen school talks my language (…) Heisenberg’s distinction between rotational and non-rotational systems as creating quite distinct spatial configurations corresponds exactly to my divisions between centre-margins and centres without margin systems.

An important question emerges immediately. As illustrated in the two passages from 1962, McLuhan began at this time to champion “centres-without-margins” and continued to do so for the rest of his life. At times he even equated this form with God. But in the 1960 and 1961 passages he asserted: 

  • “any center creates a margin for itself. Any moment of perception has center-margin”
  • “a center without a margin is the formula for hypnosis, stasis and paralysis”
  • “when center swallows margin you are hypnotized, or mad”
  • “when the field of attention has a center without a margin we are hypnotized”

The glaring discrepancy between these characterizations and that of “centres-without-margins” (especially where the latter was held to be some kind of absolute or even God Himself) turned on the ambiguity of ‘margin’. On the one hand it could be taken as the differentiated relatum of a point or centre to its margin or circumference, where the nature of the relation between the two relata remained undefined. It is in this sense that “any center creates a margin for itself [and] any moment of perception has center-margin”. On the other hand, ‘margin’ could be taken to imply a relatum that was or should be ‘marginalized’. In this case the nature of the relation between the relata was defined, not undefined, and it was defined as negative. Hence the desire or need of the centre at least to control its margin and potentially to eliminate it in a fit of “hypnotized” madness.

At some point in 1961 or 1962, speaking historically but also autobiographically, McLuhan stipulated that “centre-margin patterns yield to centres-without-margins”. This was to move, at least in McLuhan’s own case, from the undefined sense of ‘margin’ to its defined negative sense.

In McLuhan’s usage, “centres-without-margins” did not revert to Eckhart’s God in His unity (…) is everywhere [and] His circumference (…) is nowhere”, nor to his own “center without a margin”. Instead, “centres-without-margins” now came to mean centers whose relata were also centers such that their relation was one of “dialogue among centres”. Hence, “with electric media any place is a center [and] no place is a margin” and “electric speeds create centers everywhere”.

It may be that McLuhan’s turn to these confusing terms (confusing, perhaps, even to McLuhan himself) resulted from the abbreviations he began to use for these different forms. A notation (doubtless from Eric McLuhan) on p 3 of the McLuhan library spreadsheet explains McLuhan’s “short forms” including “c/m: Center Margin (i.e., fragmented)” and “c-m: Center Without Margin (i.e., inclusive)”. The slash in c/m indicated a negative relation between the relata that could be characterized as “fragmented”. The hyphen in c-m indicated the contrary relation of harmony between the relata that could be characterized as “inclusive”. But the hyphen in c-m might also be read as a minus sign and in this case it signified “c-m: Center Without [fragmented] Margin”. Less confusing abbreviations might surely have been c/m and c+c.

However all that may have been, the central point was that the nature of the relation between centre and margin was correlate with the nature of the relata themselves: where the relation changes, so do the relata; conversely, when the relata change, so does their relation.11 Here is McLuhan in his 1954 lecture ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’ where particular “forms or channels of communication” stand in for relations or media in general and “social and political consequences” stand in for the relata of those relations:

One generalization, popularized in the writings of HA Innis in view of the history of forms of communication since writing, is that any change in the forms or channels of communication, be it writing, roads, carts, ships, stone, papyrus, clay, or parchment, any change whatever has revolutionary social and political consequences.

McLuhan was very close here to the idea that the range of centre-margin relations (including that of centre-centre) might be the elementary form of experience aka “the medium [that] is the message”. The spectrum of such possibilities would stretch between all centre at one extreme and all margin at the other, and its mid- point would be the “inclusive” relation of both of them together. However, on account of the ambiguity of these terms (as described above) and the further ambiguity of ‘centre’ and ‘mid-point’ in regard to the spectrum of possibilities itself, much clearer terminology might be ‘ear’ and ‘eye’ as defined over a spectrum stretching between all ear and all eye with the centre of the spectrum being ear and eye in ‘inclusive” or ‘superposition’ relation. In this case, the spectrum of ear/eye relations would equally map the spectrum of the possible values of the “tactility” between them. And the result might be a kind of Mendeleev’s table of the elementary forms of all human experience.

McLuhan continued the passage from Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’ as follows:

Related to this fact is another one that any channel of communication has a distorting effect on habits of attention; it builds up a distinct form of culture.

That is, the insights of H.A. Innis concerning externalforms or channels of communication” and the “revolutionary social and political consequences” resulting from “any change whatever” in them, also have an internal analogue. Here the drama was that of the interior landscape and the need was to begin to investigate it as extensively as was the external landscape has been in the last two centuries. In fact application of a loose knowledge of the interior landscape had already begun in the arts, advertising and propaganda. As McLuhan continued in ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’:

It is not markets we now invade but the cultures and the minds of men.

The year before in his ‘Later Innis’ essay, McLuhan made this point in regard to Innis’ own work:

the work of the later Innis was a shift in attention from the trade-routes of the external world to the trade routes of the mind. Technology, he saw, had solved the problem of production of commodities and had already turned to the packaging of information. And the penetrative powers of the pricing system were as nothing beside the power of the new media of communication to penetrate and transform all existing institutions and patterns of thought.

But how to understand the interior landscape of thought, the trade routes of the mind, as extensively as the exterior landscape had been investigated beginning around 1800? What remained missing was specification of the elementary form of that internal landscape. McLuhan would realize the critical importance of this absence later in the 1950’s with his admonition that the specification of “the medium is the message”.

  1. Understanding Media. In the same place McLuhan calls this condition of ubiquitous centers “the new world of the global village”. NB: The “global village” is one, all time and all space allatonce, but it is not monolithic!  It is an assembly of centers, plural!
  2. The Institute for Mediaeval Studies (IMS) became the Pontifical Institute for Mediaeval Studies (PIMS) in 1939.
  3. Between 1938 and 1942, when he left SLU to join the Navy, Muller-Thym published the following papers (aside from his Eckhart book in 1939): The Aristotelianism of Plotinus Ennead V. 1. 4 and 7′, Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association, Vol. XIV (1938); ‘Review of St. Thomas and the Greeks (The Aquinas Lecture, 1939)’, Thought, 15:1, 1940; ‘The Common Sense, Perfection of the Order of Pure Sensibility’, The Thomist, 2 (1940); ‘The “To Be” Which Signifies the Truth of Propositions’, Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association, Vol. XVI (1940); ‘Review of Adler’s Problems for Thomists’, Fleur de Lis, October 1940, 40:1; ‘Adler’s Problem of Species, A Critical Review’, Modern Schoolman, XVIII:1, Nov 1940; ‘De Abbreviationibus Et Signis Scripturae Gothicae’ (a book review), The New Scholasticism 1940; ‘Review of A Catalogue Of Renaissance Philosophers (1350-1650)‘, The Modern Schoolman, 18, January 1941; ‘St Thomas and the Recapturing of Natural Wisdom’, Modern Schoolman, 18:4, 1941; ‘The Esse which signifies the Truth of Enunciation’ (abstract of  ‘The “To Be” Which Signifies the Truth of Propositions’), The New Scholasticism, 15:1, 1941; ‘Of History as a Calculus Whose Term Is Science’, Modern Schoolman, 19:4, 1942.
  4. The Alton Evening Telegraph for February 15, 1933 records a concert in which Handel’s Sonata In A Major was performed by “Bernard J. Muller-Thym, violinist, and Mrs. Bernard J. Muller-Thym, pianist”.
  5. It is possible that Dutch was spoken at home when Muller-Thym was growing up. His father had immigrated as a young man and English was not his mother tongue. Meanwhile, Gilson was increasingly interested in Erasmus at this time and his relative lack of Dutch would have hampered his study. While Gilson certainly did not lack German, he did not feel at home in it (as he admitted was a handicap in regard to his reading of Heidegger) and this may also have been true in regard to Eckhart’s works in 13th century German. This may be the background to Gilson’s remark in his Preface to Muller-Thym’s Eckhart (cited above) that “I want to thank him publicly for having so well done something that I had long hoped to undertake, and for having done it at the very time when I was beginning to realize that I could never do it.”
  6. The “intricate problem” broached by Gilson as arising in the field of mediaeval philosophy was probably that of the specification of the differences between the various philosophers of this millennium-long ‘middle’ period. Muller-Thym’s thesis was seen by Gilson as  contributing to the “final answer” to this problem in specification of the central difference between Eckhart and Thomas.
  7. Throughout this passage Gilson uses phrases like “final answer”, “complete elucidation”, “finally succeeded” and “ultimate implications”. But it should not be thought that he imagined research coming to an end. Instead what he saw potentially coming to an end was the elucidation of the parameters in terms of which never-ending research would begin to be possible. ‘Begin to be possible’ — strange phrase! But compare the elucidation of the elementary structure in chemistry beginning in the late eighteenth century.
  8. The defining perspective of the Gutenberg galaxy (the syndrome, not the book) necessarily terminates in a point. The discussion of this topic in the philosophy of the middle ages, including that of Eckhart, was one example of Gilson’s view that that philosophy had, across its span from Augustine to Ockham, set out the complete spectrum of “philosophical experience” — and this in anticipation, as it were, of all the “philosophical experience” that was yet to come in the Renaissance and beyond — up to today. The general point at stake was made by McLuhan to Tyrwhitt in his letter cited in this post above: “As always, when a serious problem emerges, the answer will be found to have been discovered somewhat earlier in an unexpected area.” (December 23, 1960, Letters 278)
  9. See The medium is the message in 1958.
  10. Corinne McLuhan has recorded that Marshall began to experience mini strokes and blackouts in 1959 (Letters 175). Carpenter and others have recorded a major stroke in 1960. So McLuhan’s revolution in thinking was accompanied by his brain being torn apart. The great task for the world is to find some other less destructive way of following his finding.
  11.  Further, beyond these proposed clarifications, “the main question” would always remain: what is the relation between these relations? Between the “fragmented” and the “inclusive”? It would seem that this relation between relational forms cannot itself be either “fragmented” or “inclusive” without negating one of the two sides and thereby returning to Eckhart’s formulation of the “esse absolutum” of the point. Or is a third “superposition” of the sides possible? One that could make sense of both of them together — in a whole new sense of sense? And might it be that such a superposition love between relations was exactly Thomas’ difference from Eckhart such that it was the use of Thomas by Eckhart that made it “impossible to find Eckhart making sense with Eckhart”?

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 communal, 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!19 Nietzsche ends his 8-part aphorism above with references to this fact (and therefore to his many discussions of it in his published work20). For his part, McLuhan saw in romanticism an “automatic closure or involuntary fixing of attitude”21, which necessarily disintegrated when that “fixing” was exposed and could not account for the privilege implicated in “fixing” whatever it had fixed!22 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,23 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. These 8 points are from The Will to Power #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. Compare Harold Innis, ‘The University In The Modern Crisis’ (1945), one of the essays included in Political Economy in the Modern State: “we are forced to conclude that its power (namely, the power of the Platonic tradition) succumbed in the face of the Industrial Revolution and machine industry and the rise of romanticism.” (PEMS, 79)
  20. 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.)
  21. ‘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.”
  22. 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.
  23. 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  the author or artist]8 always in the centre of the picture.9

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?10

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 Communication11 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.12

  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 given above).
  9. With “the spectator always in the centre of the picture” McLuhan means exactly not the romantic spectator with a defined perspective in which everything can be ‘in place’. Instead, “the spectator always in the centre of the picture” puts the spectator in question. The spectator is not outside the picture observing it, but is inside the picture being observed by it!
  10. 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.
  11. 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 in November 1952.
  12. 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 9 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. Another instance: his introduction in May 1958 of the phrase ‘the medium is the message‘ at UBC in Vancouver.

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.