Author Archives: McEwen

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. 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 or diachronic process expresses in a different/same way — in a mirrored way — an underlying synchronicity.

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 to the eye — revealing that it, too, is a labyrinth. The greater circle of the engraving is the eye’s labyrinthine pupil.

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 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!2

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 reflection of that fundamental power of transformation and re-presentation ‘before’ it — that of the Sun or of Being itself.3

Being itself presents itself, outers itself, utters itself — 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 going 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. 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. And it is best re-flected, in turn, re-flected squared, by the moon.

  1. See McLuhan and Plato 6 – Theuth.
  2. Moon Element, 56.
  3. Nietzsche put the kenosis (’emptying out’, hence ‘cenotaph’, the empty tomb of the unknown soldier) 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).
  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 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.

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 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( )phone 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’.
  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.”

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 published. 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 and where 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, 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” again —  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 “theological” experience masked as secularism — “the entire technique of the ‘secret’ societies is to conduct their controversies as if the terms of reference were historical”;

(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 limitations4 — and “there are, it seems, no such limits in the gnostic world”;5

(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”.6

McLuhan to Eric Voegelin June 10, 1953

For the past two years my own studies in esthetics and criticism have opened up a great deal of the role of Manichean doctrine in the arts. I had previously had no inkling of the Manichean postulates of the major secret societies, on the one hand, nor of the role these societies played in the manipulation of the arts and of philosophy and criticism on the other. Long and detached familiarity with the work of P. Wyndham Lewis should have made these matters clear to me years ago, since he has been engaged in a life-long campaign to expound these relationships. But all is clear now. Except what to do! (…) Since the arts in a very special way are the focus of all the esoteric speculation of the cults I am baffled to know what attitude to take up toward them. For me, of course, art is no channel of grace or gnosis, but an activity of making — analogous to the act of cognition itself. As such, art is a humanist, not a religious, affair.

McLuhan to Eric Voegelin July, 1953

Over and over again I have written to persons who seem to be in good faith in adopting an attitude of objective analysis towards the sectarian activities of the cults in art and literature. Not once before your letter have I ever received a reply that displayed a frank or dispassionate mind. Very few people, I gather, are innocent of any hook-up with these cults and secret societies. They explain that nobody can get anywhere unless he is initiated.7 And this is strictly true. I wish that 15 years ago I had known that it was impossible to get a hearing for one’s ideas unless one was an initiate. (…) It was only last summer, while doing some work on S.T. Coleridge that I discovered the complete rapport between the arts and the secret societies. (…) The entire technique of the “secret” societies is to conduct their controversies as if the terms of reference were historical. Historical scholarship and criticism in the arts is as much their field of present battle as the news, poem, play, novel, painting or musical composition. (…) But such books I had always read as merely archaeological accounts. Now I know that these matters are accepted as living Theological truths. Modern anthropology is a battleground of the cults.8(…) But a person feels like an awful sucker to have spent 20 years of study on an art which turns out to be somebody else’s ritual. To have studied it as an art is to have been taken in by the vulgar or exoteric façade. For the gnostic there are no autonomies in art, life, politics or anything else. A Christian cultivates these things as particular disciplines having a limited importance. There are, it seems, no such limits in the gnostic world. Everything is everything else. When I said I wish I had penetrated these matters 15 or 25 years ago I meant that there are strategies which need to be adopted in these affairs. And I’m floundering at present. (…) Need I say that a great deal that is involved in gnostic speculation appears to me as quite valid? That it should flourish side by side with diabolism, the secret sectarian organization of intellectual life, and the falsification of the entire linguistic currency — that is the deplorable thing. 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, does not appear to them as disturbing.9

  1. Excerpts from McLuhan’s 2 letters to Voegelin in 1953 are given above. All citations in this post are from these excerpts.
  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. This is the heart of Innis’ work.
  5. 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 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, he found his existing sense of this notion extended and reinforced by Innis.
  6. Innis documented how nineteenth century thinkers warned unsuccessfully about the rise and spread of “fanatical assertions” enabled by communications revolutions associated especially with newspapers, telegraph and radio. This, too, of course, was a great impetus to McLuhan.
  7. An obscure sentence like this, where it is unclear what the word “they” refers to, is typical of McLuhan’s mind at work. A way forward was indicated by the need to specify what was at stake in it. Implicated issues were: how far were “people” (one possible reference of “they”) conscious of their participation in “cults”? just what was meant by a “hook-up” for the “initiated”? how open were the “secret societies” (another possible reference of “they”) about the practical advantages of “hook-up”? And so on. Complaints about the obscurity or infelicity of McLuhan’s writing usually amount to a refusal to think with him the issues at stake.
  8. The “exoteric façade” of modernity is one of complication and opposed choices. But this is a “battleground of the cults” as a subjective genitive. The secret of the control “of the cults” lay in disguising control as freedom. What seemed to be opposed choices were all one for their purposes — “everything is everything else”. For example, if the goal were to impose a dualistic structure — the “controversies” of the cults — what would it matter which side of the dualism  people happened to valorize?
  9. The McLuhan letters to Voegelin are given here with the permission of the McLuhan estate.

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. 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.2 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.3 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, 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 soil4 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.5
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 5 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. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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 knowss.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 both the author and her reader/audience]8 always in the centre of the picture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few days later he wrote similarly to Claude Bissell:

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

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

‘TV Child’ points to this possibility as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Citadel of inclusive awareness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of conscious” — an objective genitive!10

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

Dating key terms

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

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

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

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

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


epyllion: 1951 ‘A Survey of Joyce Criticism’2

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

acoustic space: late 1954 in the Culture and Technology seminar4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the unconscious: 1962 in ‘Prospect’16

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

interval: 1964 in ‘Notes on Burroughs’18 

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

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

satellite surround: October 1964 in a letter to Harry Skornia21 

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

nobody: 1969 in ‘Hardware/Software Mergers’23

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

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

Burroughs on ‘Literary Techniques’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…”muttering voices looking for a role”…


The Literary Techniques of Lady Sutton-Smith

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

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

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

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

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

McLuhan reads Burroughs

For Andrew…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Statement on Culture and Technology

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


Statement on Culture and Technology
TLS, Aug 6, 1964 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Garbage Apocalypse

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


A Garbage Apocalypse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harry Skornia, peace activist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

McLuhan in UT President’s Report 1973-1974

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

McLuhan in UT President’s Report 1963

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

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

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



McLuhan in UT President’s Report 1964

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

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

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


McLuhan in UT President’s Report 1965

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

McLuhan in UT President’s Report 1966

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patterns of Literary Criticism 

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

Beginning in 1965, titles appearing in the series included:

Aristotle’s Poetics and English Literature

Shakespeare: The Tragedies

Russian Literature and Modern English Fiction

American Drama and Its Critics

Images of the Negro in American Literature

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

Italian Poets and English Critics, 1755-1859

The Seventeenth-Century Stage

English Literature and British Philosophy

Contexts of Canadian Criticism


McLuhan in UT President’s Report 1967

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

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

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


  1. These lectures were published in Understanding Me.

Porter in UT President’s Report 1968

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

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

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

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


McLuhan in UT President’s Report 1969

McLuhan’s report:

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

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

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

McLuhan talks

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


McLuhan in UT President’s Report 1971

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

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

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

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

Talks given by the McLuhan brothers in 1971:

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

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

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

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



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

McLuhan in UT President’s Report 1970

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

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

A very large demand for speakers from the Centre2 has been met in part by the Centre Associate, Harley Parker, who is presently in South Africa consulting with government personnel on the effects of media on apartheid, and other matters. (A list of talks given by Mr. Parker during the past year is given elsewhere.)3

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

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

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

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

Dr. Krugman’s study makes a very satisfactory extension to the Gappon-Banks experiments on media and changing sensory quotients done at the Centre for Culture and Technology in 1966-67 with a grant from IBM.4


  1. McLuhan (or at least the President’s Report) has ‘1956’ here.
  2. McLuhan’s own talks away from UT are listed in the Report as follows: “The audience as actor and the priesthood of the laity” to the National Religious Broadcasters in Washington, DC; on “Agnew Agonistes” at the Congressional Breakfast, Washington, DC; on “Changing patterns of management and ad- ministration in the electric age” and on “The consumer as producer in the electric age,” the Gillette Lectures at the University of Western Ontario; on “The South by-passes the nineteenth century in entering the twentieth century” and on “A stroll down Sesame Street with the producers” to the South Carolina ETV Convention; on “Libraries: past, present and future” at Albright College, Reading, Pa.; on “Culture has become our business” to the Association of Industrial Advertisers, Montreal; on “The End of Sex” to the Comprehensive Medical Society, Chicago; on “Changeover from the age of hardware to the magnetic city” to the Society of Industrial Realtors, Toronto; on “Collective criminality and/or collective responsibility” to the Lawyers Club, Osgoode Hall, Toronto; on “Old and new media and student unrest” at Towson State College, Baltimore; on “The hardware/software mergers: Why haven’t they been successful?” to the Urban Research Corporation conference at the University of Chicago; on “General Booth enters Heaven minus his uniform” to the Salvation Army Association annual meeting in New York. (72)
  3. See the President’s Report, 77: Mr. H.W. Parker, on “The new technological society and the retrieval of all primitive modes of human awareness” to the student body at Lakehead University; on “The role of tactility in the educational process” to Sheridan College of Applied Arts and Technology; on “The new satellite environment creates a totally new political and educational climate” to the Liberal Party annual national conference; on “The end of bricks and mortar in the new education: the student can now use the city as a classroom” to the Association of School Boards, Des Moines, Iowa; on “Roles vs. jobs, costumes vs. dress, in the new Age of Involvement” to the San Jose Students’ Association, University of California; on “Our unknown environments” to the College Union, Fresno State College, University of California; on “Some of the unrecognized factors in student unrest” to the Monterey Peninsula College; on “The artist as the antenna of the race: the artist is engaged in writing a detailed history of the future because he lives in the present” to the International Culture Center conference at Punta Ala, Italy; on “Art as a means of knowing ‘where it’s at.’ Art as a consensual probe for social invectors” to the Center for Continuing Education, University of Southern Florida; on “A world view of the impact of communications” at Loyola University, Montreal; on “The Global Theatre. The new problems facing the plain clothes priests and nuns in the global theatre” to the Seminar Seventy conference on Youth, the Church and the World at Buck Hill Falls, Pa.; on “Images of violence” to the student organization, University of Utah; on “Good taste is the first refuge of the witless: a refugee camp for frightened Philistines” to the Design Society of America; on “Technology as creative action” to the Conference on Communication in Action, University of Natal, South Africa.
  4.  McLuhan reporting as Director of the Centre for Culture and Technology, President’s Report for the Year Ended June 1970, 86-87.

McLuhan in UT President’s Report 1972

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Wheel and Axle

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

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

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

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

McLuhan to Frank Kermode, 1971

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

Take Today, 1972

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

The End of the Work Ethic, 1972

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

Media and the inflation CROWD, 1973

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

Technology and the Human Dimension, 19747

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

Foreword to Abortion in Perspective, 1974

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

Man and Media, 1975

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

Nina Sutton Interview, 1975

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

Empedocles and T. S. Eliot, 1976

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

Laws of Media, posthumous

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



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

McLuhan 1974 letter to Murray Schafer

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

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

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

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

The Beginnings of Gutenberg Galaxy 9

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

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

A year later to Malloch on July 11, 1955:

Hope to get on with book on Gutenberg Era.


The Law of Media 1

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

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

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



  1. English translation, The Elementary Structures of Kinship, 1969. 
  2. McLuhan often expressed his confidence that human ingenuity could successfully grapple with any difficulty on which it set its sights: “Just as language offers an extensive and complex apprehension of the structure of beings, so that faculty which produced this state of language is perpetually operative — an intuitive perception of essentials.” (The Classical Trivium, 51). His “survival strategy” lay in the question: how can we so exercise our “intuitive perception of essentials” in the study of human experience itself to realize in it the sorts of revolutionary dis-coveries achieved (only recently in human history) in sciences like physics, chemistry, biology and genetics? 
  3. For example, if human experience may be taken to fall into the types represented by the three trivial arts, how do these mutually combine, or dissociate, to form the complicated fabric of the tradition? 
  4. For example, if human experience may be taken to fall into the types represented by the three trivial arts, how are these to be recognized such that collective investigation of ‘them’ first becomes possible? 

The Law of Media 2

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

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

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

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

Just as language offers an extensive and complex apprehension of the structure of beings, so that faculty which produced this state of language is perpetually operative — an intuitive perception of essentials.3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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






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

Frye’s References to McLuhan in Correspondence

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


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

Letter to Robert Heilman, 29 October 1951

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

Letter to Richard Schoeck, 24 November 1965

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

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

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

Letter to Walter Miale, 18 February 1969

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

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

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

Letter to William Harmon,  13 August 1974

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

Letter to Richard Kostelanetz, 7 January 1976

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

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

Letter to Andrew Foley, 20 April 1976

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

Letter to Fr. Walter Ong, December 1977

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

Letter to Barrington Nevitt, 20 September 1988

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

McLuhan’s “flush-profile” review of Frye

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

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

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

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

However, Elder also has

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elder continues:

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

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


McLuhan begins the review by noting:

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

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

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

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

These profiles or nuclear models of collective postures are not literary bon-bons for passive savoring but rather scientific data suited to the austere producer-oriented mind, data necessary to the public relations engineer and the shaper and ruler of societies.

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

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

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

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

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

The one Frye is

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

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

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

This “non-personal chemical medium” is

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

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

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

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

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

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

As indeed noted by Elder, McLuhan immediately specifies:

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. McLuhan’s thesis did not have the title, The Classical Trivium, of course, and while it may have been largely composed in 1942, it was submitted in April 1943 and approved in December 1943.
  2. Is this an objective genitive? So that the aforesaid mentalité is an expression of “grammar and rhetoric” together? Or is it a subjective genitive? So that “grammar and rhetoric” are “positive expressions” generated by that mentalité? The plural “positive expressions” would seem to indicate the latter. In this case, however, “rhetorical devices” would no longer be ground, but figures with a deeper ground in this mentalité. What, then, would be its ground? An endless regress seems to open up before us here…
  3. This assertion could hardly be more mistaken. See Pre-Christian Logos for McLuhan’s life-long appreciative treatment of the different facets of the Logos. Contra Elder, for McLuhan and, indeed, for traditions as old as history itself, the word was — or is — “the fabric of the world”.
  4. See Ignatov on Maritain on Bergson 1 for discussion of this point.
  5. Renascence 8.2, 1955, 97-99.
  6. Against the use of “pre-Classical” here, Elder himself correctly notes: “McLuhan acknowledges that the humanistic study of rhetorical figures developed only after written language and private modes of thinking had developed.” The specification of “pre-Classical times” is therefore mistaken both in regard to rhetoric and in regard to the development traced in the thesis. Only in The Gutenberg Galaxy, twenty years later, did McLuhan consider “pre-Classical times” and not in terms of their rhetoric.
  7. Note the singular!
  8. As suggested above in note 2, the question of the ground of mentalité (now mushroomed to mentalités) threatens an endless regress for which the number one cure has always been the conjuring of some or other unregressable One. “The kernel”!
  9. Brackets have been removed from Elder’s comments to forestall any question of where editorial interjections have been made here.
  10. Behind Frye, McLuhan intended the whole Gutenberg galaxy including Flahiff and his fellow grad student panelists, the Universi