Author Archives: McEwen

Hominization of the planet 2

It is man who has become both figure and ground via the electro-technical extension of his awareness.1

In Hominization 1, McLuhan was seen to replay Lucretius on human creativity:

that freewill, wrenched away From the fates, by which we each proceed to follow pleasure’s sway, So that we swerve our motions…

In fact, McLuhan did one better than Lucretius in that creativity is seen by him not, or not only, in the conscious exercise of will, but in all human experience whatsoever — even when the genesis of experience in creativity remains almost entirely unconscious:

In ordinary perception men perform the miracle of recreating within themselves, in their interior faculties, the exterior world. This miracle is the work of the nous poietikos or of the agent intellect — that is, the poetic or creative process. The exterior world in every instant of perception is interiorized and recreated in a new matter. Ourselves. (Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters, 1954)

The great question is: what does the actuality of such ubiquitous creativity2 indicate about possibility?

Strangely (since on reflection what could be more obvious?), it has occurred less and less to our purported thinking in the last two centuries that what is actual must also be possible! One of the explicit aims of Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit (Being and Time) was to address this thought-provoking oversight. The last sentences of the ‘Introduction’ to SZ3 reads:

Higher than actuality stands possibility. The understanding of phenomenology [dual genitive!] lies entirely in the grasping of it [dual genitive!] as a possibility.4

What happens when creativity is recognized as actual and therefore also as possible is that the structural leap or gap expressed in creativity must be rooted in the ground of human being (dual genitive!). Hence McLuhan’s insight that “it is man who has become both figure and ground”. That is, human creativity points to the conditions of creativity in possibility — namely, plurality and the bordering gaps that are necessary for that plurality, gaps that are manifested in the creative leaps we make in actuality. In this way humans re-present ‘ground’: “men perform the miracle of recreating (…) in every instant”. But in re-presenting ‘ground’ in their actual circumstances, humans cannot enact plural fundamental possibilities at once, any more than physical material can be more than one chemical formula at a time.5 So at the very instant when humans re-present ground, they do so as a dynamic figure of that ground. “It is man who has become both figure and ground”.

Hominization of the planet 3 will further unpack this insight by considering a passage in From Cliché to Archetype that was “quoted” in Laws of Media:

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 (…) In fact, whenever we ‘quote’ one consciousness, we also ‘quote’ the archetypes we exclude.6



  1. Take Today, p11. Humans becoming “both figure and ground” is not a matter that first becomes possible in some chronological time like the “electro-technical” era. Instead, what becomes possible today is a new “awareness” of this perennial condition. As McLuhan said of the objects of the new awareness made possible by literacy in classical Greece: “The functions and processes were not new. But the means of arrested visual analysis, namely the phonetic alphabet, was as new to the Greeks as the movie camera in our century.” (The Gutenberg Galaxy, 23)
  2. Creativity is most manifest, perhaps, in the arts and sciences. But we properly recognize it as well, of course, throughout the whole range of human activity: in child-rearing, cooking, hunting, sewing, telling jokes, etc etc. And the often startling creativity of animals manifests it as well!
  3. Since SZ was never completed, there is an important sense in which these concluding sentences of the ‘Introduction’ represent Heidegger’s ‘last word’ on the SZ project. Not to say that there are not other ‘last words’ on it as well, of course — such as ‘Zeit und Sein’ from 1962!
  4. Sein und Zeit, ‘Einleitung’: “Höher als die Wirklichkeit steht die Möglichkeit. Das Verständnis der Phänomenologie liegt einzig im Ergreifen ihrer als Möglichkeit.”
  5. Not to say that human being or physical being cannot be some highly complicated combination of fundamental possibilities! In fact, with both human being and physical being it is disappearingly rare for a singular elemental possibility to be manifested on its own.
  6. From Cliché to Archetype, p21 = Laws of Media, p104.

Multi-space dialogue in Greece

Toward a Spatial Dialogue…1

To say that Homer and Hesiod were “nonvisual” poets is to explain in a phrase every problem of the world of Greek scholarship since Lessing and Schliemann. The Greeks never [fully] entered pictorial or visual space. They tended to use all their senses at once. They approached [ie, anticipated]2 the [later] European [more emphatically visual] modes of awareness by a gradual playing down of acoustic space, of kinetic space, of tactual and visceral spaces, in favor of a heightened visual organization of experience.
The change from multi-spaces to a single, uniform, rational space is often associated with the Euclidean breakthrough. [However:] In Art and Geometry William Ivins explains that Euclid never freed himself from kinetic space. In The Beginnings of Architecture, Siegfried Giedion says that the Greeks no more managed to achieve the visual enclosure of space than did the Incas. The new space breakthrough [to visual enclosure] was left for the Romans. (Through the Vanishing Point)3

Plato and Aristotle, the representatives of the new literate culture of Greece in philosophy, had this same doubleness. They straddled the written and oral traditions. They translated the tribal encyclopedia of the preceding culture into the written, classified form, and they too [like Bacon]4 produced an (…) encyclopedic philosophy. (Toward an Inclusive Consciousness, 1967)5

  1. This is a section heading in Through the Vanishing Point, 1968, p33.
  2. Later on the same TVP 225 page: “Bruno Snell’s The Discovery of the Mind: The Greek Origins of European Thought marshals the available conventional evidence, apropos Greek poetry, to show how the Greeks succeeded in sloughing off most of their nonvisual experience in order to anticipate European rationalism.”
  3. Through the Vanishing Point, p225.
  4. The sentences immediately prior to this passage concern such “doubleness”, or “inclusiveness”, in Francis Bacon: “What Bacon did was to take the Book of Nature, which had been the medieval image of the natural world, and to this he added the Book of Scripture, the Sacred Page. He took both these pages (together) and directed to them a kind of analytic gaze of comprehensive inclusiveness. I’m suggesting that the very components that make for a divided consciousness also can (…) become the means of an inclusive consciousness such as Bacon took for granted in his own case.”
  5. Toward an Inclusive Consciousness’, Lecture of March 17, 1967 at the University of Toronto, in Understanding Me, pp124-138.

Through the vanishing point with Nietzsche

Throughout McLuhan’s New Sciences, appeal has been made to Nietzsche’s ‘History of an Error’ from Twilight of the Idols (1889) and especially to its final stage:

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!!1

Compare in McLuhan:

Whereas mechanical “dehumanization” wrecked the person, electric super-“humanization” wrecks the entire system. (Take Today, p221)2


  1. Nietzsche (1844-1900), Götzen-Dämmerung, ‘Geschichte eines Irrtums — Wie die »wahre Welt« endlich zur Fabel wurde’, 1889: “Die wahre Welt haben wir abgeschafft: welche Welt blieb übrig? die scheinbare vielleicht?… Aber nein! mit der wahren Welt haben wir auch die scheinbare abgeschafft!!” For discussion, see  Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters 2: What Mallarmé saw.
  2. Later in Take Today:The rim spin of the electric world annihilates the very image of one’s self” (p259); “The UNPERSON is the inevitable result of improved communication, all barriers of private consciousness are overcome, the resulting collective form of awareness is a tribal dream. Western man experiences it only in his sleep. (…) We all become unpersons at night” (p269).

Hominization of the planet 1

This is page 34 of the 1969 Counterblast. The missing bottom “phase” of “creation” is original.1

In the posthumous The Global Village, the same thoughts appear again in only slightly modified form:

The media extensions of man are the hominization of the planet; it is the second phase of the original creation.2 

McLuhan saw satellites as that particular ‘extension of man’ best illustrating such hominization:

Satellites (…) transform the planet into a work of art by placing it inside a man-made environment… (Take Today, 294)

When the planet was suddenly enveloped by a man-made artifact, “Nature” flipped into art form. (The End of the Work Ethic, Address to The Empire Club of Canada, November 16, 1972)

A satellite was a kind of mini-planet that could support life, like the planet beneath our feet, but one that was entirely “man-made”. It thereby prompted a different take on Earth itself and ecological consciousness was born:3

The moment of Sputnik was the moment of creating Spaceship Earth… (The End of the Work Ethic)

But even before Sputnik’s launch in 1957, McLuhan had seen the same phenomenon already at work since the scientific and industrial revolutions. Here he is in Explorations 2 in 1954:

Technology has abolished ‘nature’ in the old sense and brought the globe within the scope of art. (Notes on the Media as Art Forms)

In fact, once technology was conceived as the domain of human extensions, the abolition of nature and hominization of the planet must have already occurred with those first extensions of paleolithic “humanoids”, speech and stone tools:

The first humanoid uttering his first intelligible grunt, or “word,” outered himself and set up a dynamic relationship with himself, other creatures, and the world outside his skin. Speech (…) is (…) a tool to reconstitute nature (…) to translate one form [nature] into another [human experience and its collective expression in culture].4 (…) The pre-neolithic [= paleolithic] art of making stone tools [like the art of making speech tools] moved man out of the process of [natural] evolution and into a world of his own making. (The Global Village, 1989, p93)

Humans qua humans — humans as humans — are fundamentally creative in this way:

In ordinary perception men perform the miracle of recreating within themselves, in their interior faculties, the exterior world. This miracle is the work of the nous poietikos or of the agent intellect — that is, the poetic or creative process. The exterior world in every instant of perception is interiorized and recreated in a new matter. Ourselves. (Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters, 1954)

Hence, even with paleolithic “humanoids”, or especially with paleolithic “humanoids” (since a beginning exceeds the development it enables and shapes), a ‘new’ factor is operative in the world. Things no longer follow a purely ‘natural’ course. Through the exercise of creativity even, or especially, in “ordinary perception”, ever repeated leaps of creativity punctuate nature in such a way that the physical course of events is inter/rupted. 

“In every instant” ruptures occur. The gap is where the action is.

Here McLuhan is close to the Epicurean view of Lucretius (c99 BC – c55 BC) in De rerum natura:

Where do we get that freewill, wrenched away
From the fates, by which we each proceed to follow pleasure’s sway,
So that we swerve our motions not at a designated spot
And fixed time, but the very place we will it in our thought?
Without a doubt these motions have their beginning in the whims
Of each, and from that will these motions trickle into the limbs.5

With all animals (libera per terras (…) haec animantibus exstat),6 but especially with humans, a decided clinamen (swerve) is seen to operate in the world alongside, in some way, the world of nature.


  1. Harley Parker’s fontwork here is well conceived. The labyrinthine shape of the ‘2’ traces the complications of creation and the analogous complications of thought that would ‘follow’ it. Meanwhile the halving of ‘creation’ illustrates that “original creation” is not the full story. As McLuhan says, a “second phase” is essential to it. Furthermore, creation in both its divine and human iterations takes place across a gap — amounting to an absence that is essential to creation. The very heart of creativity is is a gap “where the action is”. This gap is what must be retraced and retrieved today after centuries in which it has been largely ‘overlooked‘ (as the top half of Parker’s “creation” overlooks its missing bottom “phase”).
  2. The Global Village, 1989, p93.
  3. Compare ‘At the moment of Sputnik the planet became a global theatre in which there are no spectators but only actors’, 1974: “At the moment that the earth went inside this new artifact, Nature ended and Ecology was born.”
  4. ‘Speech is a tool to reconstitute nature, to translate one form into another’. Compare ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’ (cited in part above): “In ordinary perception men perform the miracle of recreating within themselves, in their interior faculties, the exterior world. This miracle is the work of the nous poietikos or of the agent intellect — that is, the poetic or creative process. The exterior world in every instant of perception is interiorized and recreated in a new matter. Ourselves. And in this creative work that is perception and cognition, we experience immediately that dance of Being within our faculties which provides the incessant intuition of Being.”
  5. Bk2.257ff:
    unde est haec, inquam, fatis avolsa voluntas,
    per quam progredimur quo ducit quemque voluptas,
    declinamus item motus nec tempore certo
    nec regione loci certa, sed ubi ipsa tulit mens?
    nam dubio procul his rebus sua cuique voluntas
    principium dat et hinc motus per membra rigantur.
  6. Bk2.256.

McLuhan’s communication problem

In 1968 McLuhan was in Tony Schwartz’s studio in NY with Harley Parker talking about art illustrations for Through the Vanishing Point.1 Presumably they had an upcoming meeting in NY with Harper & Row, the publisher of TVP, to finalize its contents and layout. 

In a recording of the studio proceedings, McLuham put one of his central problems regarding communication in clear terms:2 

I don’t know how to estimate the meaning of the fact that all the philosophers, all the scientists now living, are unaware that there is such a thing as visual space and that they have been living in it for 25 centuries and that is suddenly dissolving and leaving them — causing a considerable disorientation in their world. But how the hell do you start talking to these big shots and explaining the ABC’s of their world to them without creating an impression of megalomania or some utter nonsense?3

Also mentioned by McLuhan: the need for communications analysis to situate itself ‘beyond good and evil’…

have no values as regards anything I talk about.4

Here are online5 pictures of the studio, the first with Tony Schwartz, the second with Schwartz, McLuhan and John Culkin. McLuhan looks surprisingly well after his brain tumor operation (mentioned in the recording), but he had obviously lost a lot of weight. The old Marshall looked more like Culkin in body style.



  1. Also mentioned in the recording as present along with McLuhan, Parker and Schwartz: George (Thompson?) and Suzy (?).
  2. Other related problems: McLuhan’s words (like any words) were read or heard via the rear-view mirror, thereby fundamentally distorting them and preventing the perception of the new that he was attempting to foster. Letting go of one’s frame of reference is not easy. Perception of the new requires a step back ‘through the vanishing point’ to another identity and another world and there is no identity between identities and no world between worlds. These problems strongly motivate the “megalomania” and “utter nonsense” assessments.
  3. McLuhan adds: “It’s like Alice in Wonderland.”

The vortex of the living community

McLuhan uses the thought-provoking phrase, “the vortex of the living community” in Take Today (p5), in a section of the book titled ‘VERTEX v VORTEX’.

If every “living community” has the vortex form, escape from it would be possible only to another vortex and not to some supposedly vortex-free condition.1 McLuhan suggests as much in The Gutenberg Galaxy (pp 30-31) where he cites Wilhelm von Humboldt via Ernst Cassirer:

By the same process whereby he spins language out of his own being, he ensnares himself in it; and each language draws a magic circle round the people to which it belongs, a circle from which there is no escape save by stepping out of it into another.2

This image of the social vortex recalls the fundamental role attributed to it by Empedocles of Acragas (Agrigento) who lived in the fifth century BC, a generation or two before Socrates:

When Strife was fallen to the lowest depth of the vortex, and Love had reached to the centre of the whirl, in it do all things come together (…) and, as they mingled, strife began to pass out to the furthest limit (…) but in proportion as it kept rushing out, a soft, immortal stream of blameless Love kept running in, and straightway those things became mortal which had been immortal before, those things were mixed that had before been unmixed, each changing its path. (Diels fr 35-36)3

For Empedocles ‘the medium is the message’ since the message of ‘mortal’ versus ‘immortal’, or of ‘mixed’ versus ‘unmixed’, depends on the middle or medium between such pairs, namely on the relative strength of Strife and Love. Further, the ratio between these is one of inverse correlation: as the one goes down or out, the other comes up or in. McLuhan saw the dynamic relationship of the visual and the audile, the left and right hemispheres, dialectic and rhetoric, etc, in just this way. His tactility, one might say was equal to Love divided by Strife and Strife divided by Love.4 And, just as with McLuhan, the image Empedocles proffers for the world where this dynamic is writ large, and for the individual where it is writ small, is the vortex or maelstrom.  

McLuhan was not so much saying something new as he was attempting to communicate what has been seen forever, but has never been communicated in such a way as to ground a fitting prudence either in the polis at large or in the individual soul:

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….5

In his ‘Foreword’ to the reprinting of Harold Innis’ Empire and Communications that appeared in the same year as Take Today, 1972, McLuhan elaborated on the ‘VERTEX v VORTEX’ contrast:

Innis, in the spirit of the new age of information, sought for patterns in the very ground of history and existence. He saw media, old and new, not as mere vertices at which to direct his point of view, but as living vortices of power creating hidden environments that act abrasively and destructively on older forms of culture.6

A vertex is a point where a line or a surface turns. It derives from Latin vertere, ‘to turn’, as does ‘vortex’. In fact, vertex and vortex were once a doublet with both meaning a ‘whirl’ and especially a ‘whirlpool’. Vertex then became separated from vortex and today is used almost exclusively in mathematical and biological applications.7 McLuhan assimilated the vertex to the Gutenberg galaxy where both the subjective viewer and objective extreme are taken as vanishing points belonging to perspective. Hence the post-Gutenbergian journey ‘through the vanishing point’.

McLuhan saw that humans never have their being apart from “living vortices of power creating hidden environments”.8 The great question was: can we become conscious of these vortex environments in order to subject them to shared investigation?

technology has abolished ‘nature’ in the old sense and brought the globe within the scope of art, so the new media have transformed the entire environment into an educational affair. (Notes on the Media as Art Forms, 1954)

“Nature in the old sense” was some unquestioned environment which gave definition to the society within it. Today any such a ‘natural setting’ has disappeared:

the natural round of seasonal and biological cycles [has been] supplanted by vehement new intensities of man-made “rim spins” (Take Today, p150)

The result is confusion and disorder to such an extent that survival itself is threatened.

In War and Peace in the Global Village the principal theme is the quest for identity through violence in a world of rapidly shifting technologies. A sudden change of environment through major technical innovations blurs the identity image of generations old and new. They then begin a tragic agon of redefinition of their image of identity. (From Cliché to Archetype, p114)9

It was McLuhan’s proposal that the world as “an educational affair”, as a “classroom without walls”, could establish a new form of shared identity:  

The old separation of art and nature we now see to have been based on an ignorance of nature. So that art today we apply to cities and to whole regions. Art is no longer for the few nor for the studio. And the learning process and the creative process which we had once reserved for scholars and geniuses we now know to be a character of all human perception. (New Media in Arts Education, 1956)

the next extension of man will be the simulation of the process of consciousness itself. (…) It does not mean the end of private awareness, rather a huge heightening of same via involvement in corporate energies. Corporate awareness, of course, is iconic, inclusive, Not an aspect, not a moment out of a total life, but all moments of that life simultaneously. That is the meaning of tactual involvement.10 (McLuhan to Harry Skornia, October 4, 1963)

When everything happens at once, when everybody becomes totally involved in everybody, how is one to establish identity? For the past century people have been working at that problem. Quest for identity is a central aspect of the electric age. Naturally, we’re looking for identity in the old rear-view mirror where it was before. Perhaps we should be looking for it in [the] corporate… (Toward an Inclusive Consciousness, 1967)

The central idea is that ‘second nature’, specifically including all the individual and collective ways of human being, is as intelligible as any other field — or even more so, as Vico argued:

the world of civil society has certainly been made by men [unlike the material things of ‘first nature’], and (…) its principles are therefore to be found within the modifications of our own human mind. Whoever reflects on this cannot but marvel that the philosophers should have bent all their energies to the study of the world of nature (…) and that they should have neglected the study of the world of nations or civil world, which, since men made it, men could hope to know.” (New Science, §331)

Investigation of this ‘new’ corporate domain — one that is just as much ‘ancient’ as it is ‘new’ — could serve as a collectively recognized and approved rudder in the defining maelstroms of our human being. 


  1. Cf Heidegger in Was heißt Denken? — Was z.B. Schwimmen »heißt«, lernen wir nie durch eine Abhandlung über das Schwimmen kennen. Was Schwimmen heißt, sagt uns nur der Sprung in den Strom. Die Frage »Was heißt Denken«? läßt sich niemals dadurch beantworten, daß wir eine Begriffsbestimmung über das Denken, eine Definition, vorlegen…”
  2. “Spins” and the “circle” suggest the vortex form, of course. The same passage from Wilhelm von Humboldt cited in The Gutenberg Galaxy also appears in Laws of Media, p226.
  3. McLuhan, too, saw the medium that is the message as defined by an “ancient quarrel” of Strife and Love: ‘exclusive’ vs ‘inclusive’ consciousness bound together in an inverse ratio, the more of one, the less of the other, but never One alone. And a striking result of this perennial quarrel for McLuhan was that “every process pushed far enough tends to reverse or flip suddenly” into its opposite (Take Today, p6)  — just as Empedocles observed “each changing its path” as the ratio of Strife and Love varied.
  4. See note 2 and McLuhan to Skornia in the post above: “Corporate awareness, of course, is iconic, inclusive, Not an aspect, not a moment out of a total life, but all moments of that life simultaneously. That is the meaning of tactual involvement.”
  5. Eliot, ‘East Coker‘, Four Quartets.
  6. The fact that vertex/vortex appears in this way in two texts from 1972 may suggest that the construction of both took place as selections from McLuhan’s unpublished writing and/or dictations and/or recorded conversations. Perhaps a single consideration of vertex/vortex got pulled apart and its pieces then used in these different places. Certainly the posthumous  Laws of Media (1988) and The Global Village (1989) were assembled in this way from McLuhan’s leavings. In fact, it seems that this method of composition may have gone back at least to Understanding Media in 1964, for which Ted Carpenter claimed to have made much input. McLuhan’s subsequent books — The Medium is the Massage (1967) with ‎Quentin Fiore and ‎Jerome Agel, War And Peace In The Global Village (1968) again with Fiore and ‎Agel, Through the Vanishing Point (1968) with Harley Parker, Counterblast (1969) with George Thompson (although Thompson is not named as co-author), From Cliché to Archetype (1970) with Wilfred Watson, Take Today (1972) with Barry Nevitt and The City as Classroom (1977) with Eric McLuhan and Kathryn Hutchon (published as Media Messages and Language: The World As Your Classroom in the US in 1980) — were all products of this same method. McLuhan loved to talk and write, but lost patience with book and article composition and was happy when this could be handed over to others. Naturally this involved the danger that content sometimes appeared that was contrary to McLuhan’s own views and intentions. But he seems to have been unconcerned about this compared to the worry that disorderly work might never appear at all — and he was certainly not going to order it himself! Coauthors were the only answer.
  7. Such as the vertex form in calculus which is used to specify the extreme turning point of the graphed parabola of an equation.
  8. ‘Foreword’ to Innis’ Empire and Communications — another echo of this text with Take Today and especially with the passage cited above: “the vortex of the living community”.
  9. There is no identity between identities.
  10. For ‘tactual involvement’ see the discussion of Strife divided by Love in the post above marked by Note 3.

A whole new genus of sciences

Just as with a child, which after a long still gestation draws its first breath, breaking off the continuity of only gradual growth -– a qualitative leap — and it is born, so too the spirit, in ripening itself slowly and quietly towards a new form, dissolves bit by bit the structure of its previous world, whose tottering condition is intimated only by isolated symptoms — the frivolity as much as the boredom which enter into the established order, the  indeterminate presentiment of some unknown, all are harbingers of the coming of something new. This gradual process of dissolution, which does not alter the physiognomy of the whole, is suddenly undermined by a supervening insight that — a lightning bolt! — at once reveals the prospect of a new world. (Hegel, Phänomenologie des Geistes, ‘Preface’, 1807)1

The basis of all paradox, Christian and secular, is to be found in the sixth book of the Physics of Aristotle, to which Aquinas refers in his Summa Theologica I.II.q 113.a.7, ad quintum. The question for Aquinas is whether justification by faith occurs instantly or gradually. Aquinas says it occurs instantly because — ­here he appeals to Aristotle’s Physics  — “the whole preceding time during which anything moves towards its form, it is under the opposite form”. (McLuhan, From Cliché to Archetype)2

McLuhan foresaw3 a whole new genus of sciences. Not another species of science within the existing genus,4 but a new genus of sciences entirely. 

This would not be “old science” which studies “first nature” excluding (as far as possible) the bias of human observation and its instrumentation,5 but “new science” which would study what McLuhan called “second nature” — a “second nature” specifically including the spectrum of biases which humans enact, at present nearly always utterly unconsciously, in all their different ways of being.6

The central problem is that the whole environment defined by “new science” was and is invisible: its workings take place unconsciously behind our own backs even as we enact them. But environments in general are invisible, McLuhan argued, until they are not — only consider that 200 years ago the environment defined by the chemical elements was invisible and unknown. This did not mean that it was not very much already there and already at work everywhere (including in our own bodies and brains)! It had always been at work and always will be at work  — but 200 years ago it was as if it were not there at all.

All of the sciences and manufacturing processes that have consequently been established in that newly dis-covered environment, indeed on the basis of that new environment, from chemistry itself to medicine and our whole industrial society — all modern life! — could appear only after it had appeared.7 The medium is the message.

However, once a new environment has emerged, at first always only tentatively of course, and against the resistance of the whole old world for whom it remains invisible, humans are inherently able to investigate it in a process which never stops generating new knowledge and even whole new sciences. As McLuhan said of this new genus of sciences, and of his attempt to initiate it, in the Introduction to his 1964 Understanding Media:

It explores the contours of our own extended beings in our technologies, seeking the principle of intelligibility in each of them. In the full confidence that it is possible to win an understanding of these forms that will bring them into orderly service, I have looked at them anew, accepting very little of the conventional wisdom concerning them. 

Two decades before this, already in his Cambridge PhD thesis from 1943, McLuhan had proffered how it is that humans as humans relate to “the principle of intelligibility” in things:

Just as language offers an extensive and complex apprehension of the structure of beings [by situating us in a defined natural and social world], so that faculty which produced this state of language is perpetually operative — an intuitive perception of essentials.8 (The Classical Trivium, 1943, 51)

And then in ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’ in 1954:

In this creative work that is perception and cognition, we experience immediately that dance of Being within our faculties which provides the incessant intuition of Being.9

And in From Cliché to Archetype in 1970:

The Expressionists had discovered that the creative process is a kind of repetition of the stages of apprehension, somewhat along the lines that relate Coleridge’s Primary and Secondary imagination. In the same way there would seem to be an echo of the formative process of consciousness in the entire content of the unconscious. This, in turn, implies a close liaison between private and corporate awareness.10


Here is McLuhan writing to his former student at St Louis University, Walter Ong, in 1961:11

My theory is acceptable only to Thomists for whom consciousness as analogical proportion among the senses from moment to moment is quite easy to grasp. But print technology actually smashes that analogical awareness in society and the individual. (…) I can now explain these matters very much better than I did in Understanding Media.12 But no more evidence is needed of the hypnotic aspect of all media in human history than the absence of awareness among those who underwent [subjection to] them. Each is invested with a cloak of invisibility. I am naturally eager to attract many people to such study as this and see in it the hope of some rational consensus for our externalized senses. A sensus communis for external senses is what I’m trying to build.13

Similarly a few years later in Understanding Media:14

The Greeks had the notion of a consensus or a faculty of “common sense” that translated each sense into each other sense, and conferred consciousness on man. Today, when we have extended all parts of our bodies and senses by technology, we are haunted by the need for an outer consensus of technology and experience that would raise our communal lives to the level of a world-wide consensus.15 When we have achieved a world-wide fragmentation, it is not unnatural to think about a world-wide integration. Such a universality of conscious being for mankind was dreamt of by Dante, who believed that men would remain mere broken fragments until they should be united in an inclusive consciousness.

McLuhan contrasted the “exterior landscape”16 and “first nature”, with the “interior landscape” and “second nature”. The difference between them, between the “exterior landscape” or “first nature”, on the one hand, and the “interior landscape” or “second nature”, on the other, was not that the former are outside and material while the latter are inside and mental. Instead, McLuhan’s “second nature” is “first nature” plus all the varieties of sensibility through which humans experience that “first nature” and relate to it in ways that alter both it and them:

  • Consciousness (…) may be thought of as a projection to the outside of an inner synesthesia (War and Peace in the Global Village, 1968, p62)
  • Second nature consists entirely in our artefacts and extensions (Laws of Media, posthumous, p116)17
  • Technology — second nature — recapitulates first nature in new forms. (Laws of Media, p118)
  • Second nature is [first] nature made and remade by man (Laws of Media, p222)

In short, the “second nature” investigated by “new science” consists of “the entire material of the globe as well as the thoughts and feelings of its human inhabitants“. (Culture Without Literacy, 1953)

Sensibility is not something inside our skulls. Sensibilities are extensions that inherently express themselves in and as relations to the “exterior landscape” of “first nature”. McLuhan’s technical name for these extensions was ‘media’. The subtitle of Understanding Media is: “the extensions of man”. 

The task of the investigation of “second nature” is to investigate it not only as including the biases of the human ways of being, so to say objectively, but to understand it also subjectively on the basis of our inevitable biases:

[Harold] Innis taught us how to use the bias of culture and communication as an instrument of research. By directing attention to the bias or distorting power of the dominant imagery and technology of any culture, he showed us how to understand cultures. (Media and Cultural Change, 1964)18 

The bias of our culture is precisely to isolate the bias of all others in an effort at orchestration(Counterblast, 1969, p64)

McLuhan’s claim was that we are currently in the same relation to “second nature” as we were to “first nature” before, say, 1800. Only as the chemical elements were specified in the century leading up to Mendeleev’s table in 1869 was it gradually recognized that there was such a thing as the “first nature” of chemical nature — and of all the further sciences and disciplines enabled by chemistry (biology, genetics, modern medicine, materials science, etc). 

We are currently blind to “second nature” for the same reason that “first nature” was once unknown: because environments are invisible until we find a way to investigate them through collectively recognized focus. And as the old scientific revolution showed, this in turn requires the identification of elements that serve to supply that focus.

the crucial study that remains is that of working out in precise detail the relations19 between second and first nature (Laws of Media, p117)20 

The goal of science and the arts and of education for the next generation must be to decipher not the genetic [first nature] but the perceptual [second nature] code. (Laws of Media, p239).

“It is not the bamboo in the wind [ first nature] that we are representing but all the thought and emotion in the painter’s mind at a given instant [second nature] when he looked upon a bamboo spray and suddenly identified his life with it for a moment.” (Laws of Media, p82)21

The artist is the person who invents the means to bridge between biological inheritance [first nature] and the environments created by technological innovation [second nature]. (Laws of Media, p98)

Aristotle first noted that the Greeks’ invention of nature was made possible when they had left behind a savage or barbaric state (first nature) by putting on an individualized and civilized one (second nature).22 (Laws of Media, p116)

Second nature consists entirely in our artefacts and extensions and the grounds and narcoses they impose23 (Laws of Media, p116)

Technology — second nature — recapitulates first nature in new forms; that is, it translates from one nature to another.24 (Laws of Media, p118)

Speech (…) and our technologies, as other [forms of] speech25(…) have enacted our two natures, effectively hoicking us out of servitude to [first] nature [via ‘old science’], but leaving us slaves to the vagaries of second nature [since we unnecessarily continue to lack ‘new science’]. (Laws of Media, p118)

Vico aimed to heal the rift (…) between the Ancients and the Moderns. (…) In the end, it eluded him for he was caught in a dilemma that had been building for centuries before him [but] that was then [invisible because] environmental. (…) Vico simply had not distinguished between first and second nature for separate study: nothing in his experience suggested such a distinction would be of any use. Second nature is nature made and remade by man as man remakes himself with his extensions. Separate them: the first is the province of traditional grammar [and of the ‘old science’ from physics and chemistry to biology and genetics]; the second, that of Bacon, Vico, and Laws of Media. (Laws of Media, p222)26

McLuhan’s new genus of sciences accorded with the views of Vico and Joyce:

There must, in the nature of human things be a mental language common to all nations, which uniformly grasps the substance of things feasible in human social life, and expresses it with as many diverse modifications as these same things may have diverse aspects. (Vico, New Science, §161, cited verbatim by McLuhan in Laws of Media, p221.)

What we symbolize in black the Chinaman may symbolize in yellow; each has his own tradition. Greek beauty laughs at Coptic beauty and the American Indian derides them both. It is almost impossible to reconcile all tradition whereas it is by no means impossible to find the justification of every form of beauty which has been adored on the earth by an examination into the mechanism of esthetic apprehension whether it be dressed in red, white, yellow or black. We have no reason for thinking that the Chinaman has a different system of digestion from that which we have though our diets are quite dissimilar. The apprehensive faculty must be scrutinized in action. (James Joyce, Stephen Hero, cited verbatim by McLuhan in ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’)


Personally, I have a great faith in the resiliency and adaptability of man, and I tend to look to our tomorrows with a surge of excitement and hope. I feel that we’re standing on the threshold of a liberating and exhilarating world in which the human tribe can become truly one family and man’s consciousness can be freed from the shackles of mechanical culture and enabled to roam the cosmos. I have a deep and abiding belief in man’s potential to grow and learn, to plumb the depths of his own being and to learn the secret songs that orchestrate the universe. We live in a transitional era of profound pain and tragic identity quest, but the agony of our age is the labor pain of rebirth. (Playboy Interview)


The task confronting contemporary man is to live with the hidden ground of his activities as familiarly as our predecessors lived with the figure-minus-ground. (The Global Village, p26)27


Knowledge of the creative process in art, science, and cognition shows us the way either to the earthly paradise or to complete madness. It is to be either the top of Mount Purgatory or the abyss. (Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters)28


  1. “Aber wie beim Kinde nach langer stiller Ernährung der erste Atemzug jene Allmählichkeit des nur vermehrenden Fortgangs abbricht – ein qualitativer Sprung – und das Kind geboren ist, so reift der sich bildende Geist langsam und stille der neuen Gestalt entgegen, löst ein Teilchen des Baues seiner vorgehenden Welt nach dem andern auf, ihr Wanken wird nur durch einzelne Symptome angedeutet; der Leichtsinn wie die Langeweile, die im Bestehenden einreißen, die unbestimmte Ahnung eines Unbekannten sind Vorboten, daß etwas anderes im Anzuge ist. Dies allmähliche Zerbröckeln, das die Physiognomie des Ganzen nicht veränderte, wird durch den Aufgang unterbrochen, der, ein Blitz, in einem Male das Gebilde der neuen Welt hinstellt.” Pinkard’s translation has been used with considerable changes.
  2. From Cliché to Archetype, p160.
  3. McLuhan wanted not only to foresee such science, of course, but actually to initiate it. His last 20 years, after the start of his blackouts in 1959 and his first serious stroke in 1960, must be seen as a repeated attempt to communicate his findings through writing, lecturing, teaching, media interviews and the cultivation of co-workers who might be his intellectual heirs. But none of this worked — at least not yet.
  4. The Gutenberg Galaxy was McLuhan’s attempt to explicate the foundations of the existing genus of ‘old science’ as defined by a certain kind of subjectivity related to a certain kind of objectivity within a certain kind of space-time.
  5. Like Hegel 200 years ago, McLuhan saw that the goal of conducting investigation somehow aside from the instruments supplying its data, and from the mentalities supplying its experimental design and conclusions, is ultimately senseless and self-defeating. McLuhan: “The old separation of art and nature we now see to have been based on an ignorance of nature.” (New Media in Arts Education, 1956). How so? Because art and nature belong to each other and can be separated only artificially (in a fruitless Gutenbergian attempt to install some One). ‘Nature’ is always ‘nature as experienced in some way’, ‘nature as mediated’. And ‘experience’ (aka ‘art’) is always the ‘experience of natural beings living in a natural world’. (The equation of ordinary experience and art was the central object of McLuhan’s research for the 10 years or so after WW2. See note 24.)
  6. Terms such as ‘old’ and ‘new’ science, and ‘first’ and ‘second’ nature, must, of course, be specified. McLuhan repeatedly tried to do so. He recognized that “the crucial study that remains is that of working out in precise detail the relations between second and first nature” (Laws of Media, 117).
  7. For many reasons McLuhan thought that “new science” could emerge ‘now’ — 70 years ago and counting! — from its previous invisibility. One was that we already apply much of this “new science” in cybernetics, advertising, entertainment, politics, in fact everywhere. These are all much more than chemical constructions! They all implicate a practical knowledge of the workings of human being (understood verbally). What was and is needed: to become conscious of what we already live! Nietzsche’s motto for Ecce Homo “How one becomes what one is” (Wie man wird, was man ist).
  8. Without such “perception of essentials”, how could infants learn language in the first place? Decades later, in 1970, McLuhan termed this “perpetually operative” faculty “pre-tribal awareness” (since being a member of a tribe entails that its language — including its languages of gesture, story-telling, taste, etc, be understood): “Havelock’s Preface to Plato shows how the phonetic alphabet scrapped tribal man but retrieved the primordial role of individual and pre-tribal awareness.” (McLuhan to Joe Keogh, July 6,1970, Letters 413) Again: “The liquidating of the tribal encyclopaedia of the bards (…) was done by phonetic literacy, but there was retrieved something of great antiquity, namely pre-tribal metaphysical man. (McLuhan to Lynn White, August 17, 1970)
  9. By ‘Being’ here McLuhan does not mean some kind of cloud of unknowing. He means that humans ‘incessantly’ interrogate their surroundings for the being of things. This has eventuated in our understanding of the being of the physical universe. Nothing occurs in it aside form its being in (or being from) the chemical and physical laws we have learned to identity and further investigate.  This same power can also come to an understanding of ourselves in all our various ‘extensions’. In turn, the possibility of these understandings tells us about the central characteristic of Being itself. As Aristotle has it: ἀλλ᾽ οὔτε τὸ θεῖον φθονερὸν ἐνδέχεται εἶναι
    “it is impossible for the Deity to be jealous”. (Met. 1.983a).
    Being extends itself in multiple ways and one of these is the possibility of knowing it.
  10. From Cliché to Archetype, 1970, p200. In ‘Towards an Inclusive Consciousness’ from 1967 McLuhan speaks of “an inclusive consciousness that is at the same time private and tribal”. The “liaison between private and corporate awareness” consists in the fact that “an intuitive perception of essentials”, aka “pre-tribal awareness”, is required in order to learn language and so to become a member of a tribe. Every human is exposed to an enormous variety of sounds and gestures. A tribe is structured by which of these it considers meaningful or “essential” — just as a word is a meaningful sound, not a meaningless one. A tribe can therefore be described as “the formative process of consciousness” in action, whose basis lies in the “incessant” “repetition” of this “creative process” of identifying what is “essential” and what is not. Finally, that this process not only has happened, but is happening even now in “repetition”, implies, since we are not aware of what we are doing at this moment, that it remains in our “unconscious” (somewhat like our absence of awareness of the hormonal interactions in our bodies). McLuhan’s whole point is that this “incessant” action need not remain unconscious (just as the specification and study of hormones has not). 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.” (‘Recommendations’, Project in Understanding New Media, 1960) (“Non-verbal” = ‘essentially pre-verbal’, in one sense, and ‘accidentally not-yet-verbal’, in another sense.)
  11. November 18, 1961, Letters, 280-281.
  12. McLuhan is referring here to his NAEB report, Project in Understanding New Media from 1960, not to his later Understanding Media from 1964.
  13. Such a sensus communis would be a ‘new science’ — in fact a whole new genus of sciences.  This science would not operate like our subjective sensus communis (or, at least, as we currently imagine it to operate), but conversely, with new science we would come to understand ourselves through it. Not it like us, then, but us like it.
  14. Understanding Media, p108.
  15. When did everybody, especially the French, start talking about the ‘haunting’ of our thought? Was it before this passage from McLuhan in 1964 — or after?
  16. Coleridge as Artist’ (1957): The (study of the) exterior landscape serves very well for (…) some areas of experience. But it is necessarily (…) ill-suited to the variety and compression of the modern city.”
  17. This is ‘consists in‘, not ‘consists of‘! Since 1953, if not earlier, McLuhan had seen: “the fact that with modern technology the entire material of the globe as well as the thoughts and feelings of its human inhabitants have become the matter of art (…) means that (…) there is no more external nature.” (Culture Without Literacy, 1953)
  18. ‘Media and Cultural Change’ was McLuhan’s introduction to the 1964 reprinting of Innis’ 1951 The Bias of Communication.
  19. ‘Relations’ here has two important significations: (1) “second and first nature” must be perceived as complementary fields of investigation — they are fundamentally different, but also fundamentally related since everything known about “first nature” is also an object within “second nature” exactly as something known; (2) all of the phenomena studied in the field of “second nature” are relations between knowers and what they know.
  20. McLuhan’s posthumous book, Laws of Media, was assembled by his son, Eric, out of materials (published and unpublished papers, drafts, dictations, fragmentary notes, sound recordings and video tapes) from the last 10 or so years of Marshall’s life,1970-1980. Eric knew how crucial and how difficult was the task he had been given by his father. After Marshall’s death he spent a decade of his life putting together Laws of Media and then the remaining three decades of his life after that, continuing his attempt to think through his father’s work and to communicate its importance. In the end he left all the materials he had used for Laws of Media to the University of Toronto for future investigators to work through for themselves. This act of donation and preservation for future research reflected the heart of Marshall’s enterprise which lay in the ever-repeated attempt to communicate about communication with the object of “working out in precise detail the relations between second and first nature” (Laws of Media, p117). The book amounts to Eric’s understanding of a kind of prolonged last will and testament whispered to his first born from a man who was often gravely ill in those years and who deeply suffered from the knowledge that he had not discovered how to communicate what he had discovered about communication — and this to a world in desperate need of his discovery and one that, he feared, might well not survive without it.
  21. McLuhan’s Citation from Chiang Yee, The Chinese Eye, 1964.
  22. The specifications of ‘first nature’ and ‘second nature’ in round brackets here are from McLuhan.
  23. See note #17 above: consists in, not consists of.
  24. Compare ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’ (1954): “In ordinary perception men perform the miracle of recreating within themselves, in their interior faculties, the exterior world. This miracle is the work of the nous poietikos or of the agent intellect — that is, the poetic or creative process. The exterior world in every instant of perception is interiorized and recreated in a new matter. Ourselves. And in this creative work that is perception and cognition, we experience immediately that dance of Being within our faculties which provides the incessant intuition of Being.”
  25. Laws of Media simply has ‘other speech’ here and notes in the same place: “technology, as extension/outering, is speech (…) we speak our selves”.
  26. As detailed in McLuhan on Vico and Bacon and Vico, McLuhan thought Vico pointed to “the only method of escape” from our enormous intellectual and practical difficulties. He especially agreed with Vico that:The human mind is naturally inclined by the senses to see itself externally in the body (‘first nature’ and ‘old science’), and only with great difficulty does it come to attend to itself by means of reflection” (second nature’ and ‘new science’) (New Science, §236), further “that the world of civil society has certainly been made by men (unlike the things of ‘first nature’), and that its principles are therefore to be found within the modifications of our own human mind. Whoever reflects on this cannot but marvel that the philosophers should have bent all their energies to the study of the world of nature (…) and that they should have neglected the study of the world of nations or civil world, which, since men made it, men could hope to know.” (New Science, §331).
  27. Compare: “Electronics and automation make mandatory that everyone adjust to the vast global environment as if it were his little home town. (War and Peace in the Global Village, p11)
  28. In The Medium and the Light, 160.

McLuhan & Peterson: competing fundamental myths 2

As Bob Dobbs has nicely articulated, McLuhan was a literary figure who put on tribalism, while Peterson is a tribal figure who puts on literary values. These mixed media were/are1 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“.2

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)3

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)4

A world of multiple individual and collective identities could not be organized through a heroically maintained focus without distortion and even violence.5 The need was therefore to learn “how not to have a point of view6 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 not be only ‘figure absent ground’.7

Put differently, Peterson’s hero would need to undergo complete immersion in Nietzsche’s nihilism and Beckett’s solipsism8 in order to turn away from misleading pathways like brain materialism9 and the postulation of a “thing in itself”.10 Both of these typically Gutenbergian attempts at anchoring would uselessly attempt to provide “a rock-solid foundation”11 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. The past tense will often be used in this post to describe McLuhan and Peterson, although Peterson is very much with us. In such cases, the present should be understood as implicated in the past.
  2. Peterson, ‘Religion, sovereignty, natural rights, and the constituent elements of experience’, 2006.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.”
  5. The problem, of course, is that such heroic focus is part of the class it purports to organize. Whence its privilege?
  6. Often called by McLuhan ‘the technique of the suspended judgement’.
  7. For extended discussion of this point, see the further Peterson posts in this blog.
  8. 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.
  9. 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 verbiage!
  10. 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.”
  11. Peterson, ‘Religion, sovereignty, natural rights, and the constituent elements of experience’, Archive for the Psychology of Religion, v28, 2006.

McNamara’s band

Tennyson, like the Romantics before him, was limited by the science of his time to external landscapes. We had to wait for a post-Newtonian science to free us to create the interior landscapes of the Symbolists. The “aesthetic moment” of arrested cognition, a moment in and at once out of time, of simultaneity, could only exist [in our understanding today] when cinema [composed in discrete frames] was technologically possible. McLuhan (…) thus sees the artistic process itself as a deliberate movement backward from a moment of insight (…) [ascribable] to music, to painting, to (…) science and technology (…) The original aesthetic moment [as retraced and delimited in this way] will then become [experientially and so conceptually] possible for us in our own prison of space and time. (The Interior Landscape, 1969)

This is a note from Eugene McNamara, the editor of The Interior Landscape, introducing its second section of McLuhan essays, ‘The Beatrician Moment’. It gestures in the direction of McLuhan’s method and intent. But it is clear that McNamara did not understand McLuhan on “simultaneity” and especially not the difference between the perennial exercise of creativity in the “original aesthetic moment” that is the spring of all human perception1 and its theoretical elaboration. The first is always at work; the second takes place only in discrete regimes of ideation: “the medium is the message”.

Further, he seems not have understood the difference between an aid in understanding the “original aesthetic moment” and a necessity for understanding it. “Post-Newtonian science” and cinema can indeed point to an understanding of the “original aesthetic moment” for our time — but they are not necessary for it. Many different understandings of that moment already exist — in Plato, Dante, Shakespeare and many others. Some of these explications far exceed our capabilities today. But we are just as cut off from them as we are from it.

Illumination of the perennial “original aesthetic moment” in all perception necessarily occasions a revisioning not only of — and away from! — “our own prison of space and time”, but of all the spaces and times that humans have ever lived or will ever live.2

  1. Not just artistic perception! Or, as this may also be put: all perception is artistic perception! “The most poetic thing in the world is the most ordinary human consciousness.” (‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’, 1954)
  2. The inauguration of a domain that is valid for all time does not entail definitive conclusion. Compare the physical sciences where no event, past, present or future, has or will ever unfold aside from physics and chemistry — but physics and chemistry are so fundamentally open-ended that they are liable even to the paradigm change of scientific revolution. So with the domain of media.

McLuhan’s advice to Leary

Timothy Leary, Flashbacks, 1990, p251-253:

  • The lunch with Marshall McLuhan at the Plaza [Hotel in New York, apparently in the summer of 1966]1 was informative. “Dreary Senate hearings and courtrooms are not the platforms for your message, Tim. You call yourself a philosopher, a reformer. Fine. But the key to your work is advertising. You’re promoting a product. The new and improved accelerated brain. You must use the most current tactics for arousing consumer interest. Associate LSD with all the good things that the brain can produce — beauty, fun, philosophic wonder, religious revelation, increased intelligence, mystical romance. Word of mouth from satisfied consumers will help, but get your rock and roll friends to write jingles about the brain.” He sang: “Lysergic acid hits the spot / Forty billion neurons, that’s a lot.”
  • “Your advertising must stress the religious. Find the god within. This is all frightfully interesting. Your competitors are naturally denouncing the brain as an instrument of the devil. Priceless!”
  • “To dispel fear you must use your public image. You are the basic product endorser. Whenever you are photographed, smile. Wave reassuringly. Radiate courage. Never complain or appear angry. It’s okay if you come off as flamboyant and eccentric. You’re a professor, after all. But a confident attitude is the best advertisement. You must be known for your smile.”2
  • “You’re going to win the war, Timothy. Eventually. But you’re going to lose some major battles on the way. You’re not going to overthrow the Protestant Ethic in a couple of years. This culture knows how to sell fear and pain. Drugs that accelerate the brain won’t be accepted until the population is geared to computers. You’re ahead of your time. They’ll attempt to destroy your credibility.”
  • The conversation with Marshall McLuhan got me thinking further along these lines: the successful philosophers were also advertisers who could sell their new models of the universe to large numbers of others, thus converting thought to action, mind to matter. I devoted several days and one acid trip to analysis of the packaging of previous American revolutions: “Give Me Liberty Or Give Me Death,” “A Nation Cannot Exist Half Slave and Half Free,” “We Have Nothing to Fear But Fear Itself.” “Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco.” One morning, while I was ruminating in the shower about what kind of slogan would succinctly summarize the tactics for increasing intelligence, six words came to mind. Dripping wet, with a towel around my waist, I walked to the study and wrote down this phrase: “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out.” Later it became very useful in my function as cheerleader for change.
  • Turn On meant go within to activate your neural and genetic equipment. Become sensitive to the many and various levels of consciousness and the specific triggers that engage them. Drugs were one way to accomplish this end. Tune In meant interact harmoniously with the world around you — externalize, materialize, express your new internal perspectives. Drop Out suggested an active, selective, graceful process of detachment from involuntary or unconscious commitments. Drop Out meant self-reliance, a discovery of one’s singularity, a commitment to mobility, choice, and change.

A report in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, ‘Liddy vs Leary‘, from Aril 9, 1982, has this:

Leary, invoking the ideas of Marshall McLuhan, expressed the view that “education, entertainment and advertising must go together.” “Entertainment means holding someone’s attention,” he said. “It means making my position more attractive.”


  1. Leary describes his meeting with McLuhan in a section of his book titled ‘Summer 1966’.
  2. A review of Flashbacks in the London Sunday Times by Jonathan Raban reported of McLuhan’s advice: “Leary did as he was told. Photographs of him show a dazzling crescent moon of upper canines and incisors, as if his teeth had taken leave of his jaw and gone out for a smile on their own.”

Ian Hacking and the Toronto School of Communication

Ian Hacking (born 1936) shares a surprising number of commonalities with Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980):

  • both western Canadians, McLuhan born in Edmonton, Hacking in Vancouver
  • both received their initial undergraduate degrees in their local universities, McLuhan at the University of Manitoba1, Hacking at UBC2
  • both then went to Cambridge where they each obtained another BA and then MA and PhD degrees there3
  • In Cambridge McLuhan studied at Trinity Hall (est 1350), Hacking at the nearby Trinity College (est 1546, but constituent King’s Hall in 1317)
  • both their careers developed through the combination of their Cambridge experience with a particular French author: Mallarmé in McLuhan’s case, Foucault in Hacking’s
  • both first taught in the US and married American women
  • both came to direct their Cambridge training in language studies (McLuhan’s in literary criticism, Hacking’s in analytic philosophy) to questions of social change and the relation of science to life
  • both ended their careers as decades-long University of Toronto professors, but with prestigious interim positions in New York (McLuhan) and Paris (Hacking)

Future posts will detail the similarities and differences in their work. Shortly put, McLuhan found a way to specify the focal (elementary) structure of ‘new science’ (“the medium is the message”) in the humanities and social sciences, whereas Hacking specified the problems the initiation of any new science in these areas would encounter and have to overcome (which he deemed impossible).4 It would seem that the second should proceed the first. But as Plato was already very aware, and as Heidegger specified from Schiller, all genuine thought requires a ‘step back’ (einen Schritt zurück) to a ‘new beginning’ (einem neuen Anfang). Hacking’s work therefore provides critical considerations from which the ‘step back’ to McLuhan may cogently be attempted and investigated.5


  1. McLuhan’s family moved from Edmonton to Winnipeg during WW1 and he received all his education there from primary school to his first MA.
  2. UBC, Hacking’s alma mater, has played an important role in the history of the Toronto School. McLuhan first announced that “the medium is the message” there in 1958 (see The medium is the message in 1958). And more than two decades earlier, in May 1935, Innis gave his important lecture, ‘‘The Role of Intelligence’, at UBC. This may have been one of the first writings of Innis that came to McLuhan’s attention and already pointed to Innis’ work in communications in the 1940s (for discussion see Innis and McLuhan in 1936 and Innis multiplying Hugo.
  3. McLuhan had an IODE scholarship which together with family funds maintained him in Cambridge for two years, 1934-1936; he returned on sabbatical in 1939 for his PhD residence year. Hacking had a much longer stay in Cambridge in the 1950s and early 1960s, and doubtless at least originally, and perhaps continually, also had a scholarship, or scholarships, enabling him to do so.
  4. Hacking in ‘Between Michel Foucault and Erving Goffman’ (2004): “There is no single underlying structure according to which looping occurs. More generally (…) I see no reason to suppose that we shall ever tell two identical stories about making up people. There is no one process, but only a motley.” Compare Innis’ analogous doubts based on the “looping” or self-reference implicated in a science of human experience as discussed in Innis and McLuhan in 1936 (where Innis is cited as declaring “the impossibility of building a science on a basis on which the observer becomes the observed”).
  5. It is unclear how much Hacking engaged with McLuhan. In his 1975 book, Why does language matter to philosophy?, he gestured towards him as follows: “Evidently I have no quarrel with students of technology like Marshall McLuhan who think that the so-called scientific revolution of the seventeenth century is only a spin-off from the invention of printing, and who forecast comparable mutations when the locus of the sentence passes from the book to the computer printout via the technology of semiconductors.” This is prescient as regards one aspect of McLuhan’s ‘s work. But McLuhan was much more than a ‘student of technology’. (For discussion, see What was McLuhan up to?) In a word, McLuhan was not an analyst of chronological events or a literalist, he was a synchronist (“allatonce”) and a structuralist — so that the significance or message of ‘printing’, say, or of ‘semiconductors’, depends in each case on the background structure or medium against which it is understood. For example: ” What is to be the new nature and form of the book against the new electronic surround?” (The Future of the Book, 1972) How to solve the implicated infinite regress (once a structure or medium like ‘the electronic surround’ is itself taken as a message) is fundamental to his contribution. (For illustrative texts see Escape from the cul-de-sac.)

Innis or Havelock?

It is an interesting question whether it was Innis or Havelock who first formulated the idea for the Toronto school that the medium of communication might be regarded as a, or the, central force in history. It is certainly the case that Innis saw, already in 1936, that “improvements in facilities for discussion” beginning in the nineteenth century and continuing apace in the twentieth had had great influence:1 

the possibilities of discussion have increased immeasurably.2 The character of discussion (…) has been tremendously influenced by recent industrialism and inventions (…) the development of the printing press (…) and (…) particularly the radio (‘Discussion in the Social Sciences’, Dalhousie Review, January 1936, 404)3

If “the nineteenth century, with the development of the printing press, economic expansion and the growth of literacy”, together with later “improvements in facilities for discussion, particularly the radio”, precipitated a new “era of discussion”4 in the twentieth century, when and where have such ‘eras’ arisen in the past and what could their study tell us about the overall course of history and about our present situation?

It may be that Havelock thought along these lines from Innis in his consideration of the role of literacy in the the development of Greek thought from the pre-Socratics to Plato and in the associated foundation of schools of higher learning like Plato’s Academy.5 By the early 1940’s, at least, he was explicitly considering the question of “the great transition from the oral to the written word”.6

Several strands in this idea may be differentiated: (1) the notion that changes in communication has been influential to the evolution of modernity; (2) the notion that modes of communication, oral and literate, were central to the birth of classical Greece (and of all that has followed from that birth); (3) the notion that communication has repeatedly shaped history for the last 5000 years.

The first was broached by Innis in the 1930s.7 The second was formulated by Havelock in the 1940s on the basis particularly of Milman Parry’s orality research, but doubtless nudged in this direction also by Innis’ work.8 The third was central to Innis’ research on communication beginning in the middle 1940s as decisively influenced by Havelock.9 

McLuhan became the heir of these ideas when he moved to Toronto in 1946. In the 1950s he would hammer away at the question of how to specify the domain of communication (dual genitive) in order to facilitate collective investigation of the subject.

Around 1960 he would begin thinking of ‘galaxies’ of communication rather than ‘eras’ to get away from a chronological framework for such investigation. But already in his PhD thesis from 1943 he was investigating the closely related question of how to define recurrent dominants, particularly in the history of education, but also of the humanities in general, which he saw as constituting a perennial “ancient quarrel”.


  1. Having ‘influence’ in historical change and being the focus for the study of historical change are fundamentally different things. The first is alchemy, the second is chemistry. It may be that Innis and Havelock, even McLuhan, never fully realized the ‘gestalt switch’ or “quantum leap” (McLuhan) that is needed to e-merge from the former into the latter. But since the point of such paradigm change is to start differently, if it is not ‘fully realized’ it has not been realized at all. Linear progress cannot be made in this context: a start cannot be made in the middle of a project that is already ongoing — except by ‘beginning again’. However, the need to start differently, and the reasons that support a different start, may well be realized short of making the new start itself. Indeed, a start to “new science” can hardly be made by individuals since science is inherently a social enterprise. So what is at stake here is the question of how close Innis and Havelock respectively were to the launching of new science in the 1940s when both began to investigate how communication media might be investigated and what that investigation might show.
  2. Innis was clear that “change which has so profoundly influenced discussion” necessarily reflects back on the discussion of the individual intellectual so that one who “has failed to realize the significance of the change (…) remains as a vestige of an era of discussion which has passed.” (‘Discussion in the Social Sciences’, 405)
  3. The subject of Innis’ 1936 Dalhousie Review essay is called ‘discussion’ (even in its title, ‘Discussion in the Social Sciences’). But his 1937 Encyclopedia of Canada article on the ‘Pulp-and-Paper Industry’ replaces the term ‘discussion’ with ‘communication’: “Expansion of press services and of advertising agencies has accompanied the marked improvements in communication”. Innis himself was, of course, deeply skeptical of these “improvements”.
  4. See note #1.
  5. See note #8 below.
  6. ‘The Technique of Exposition’, an unpublished essay in Havelock’s papers at Yale. The essay was intended as a chapter on the history of the pre-Socratics which Havelock developed out of his extended study of Socrates. Havelock later wrote (in ‘The Oral-Literate Equation: A Formula for the Modern Mind’, 1987) that he began to read Milman Parry (1902-1935) in 1943 and that he then lectured on oral composition in Toronto before moving to Harvard. Here he was apparently thinking of his 1946 UT lecture on ‘The Sophistication of Homer’. Meanwhile at Harvard, I.A. Richards reported in a BBC lecture that “Professor Havelock has suggested that we may see in Plato’s rejections of Homer the revolt of the writing mind’s mode of apprehension against the pre-literate mind’s other, less abstract and intellectual, ways of ordering itself.” For further discussion see Richards and Havelock before 1947 and Havelock, Innis and Richards in 1947.
  7. Innis, in turn, knew of the notion from Hugo and Bulwer from the 1830s. For discussion, see Innis multiplying Hugo (PEMS 6).
  8. Innis’ work was well known to Havelock. For discussion see Innis and Havelock – 1930 and beyond.
  9. See the previous note for references. Also Sirluck on Innis, Owen and Havelock and Havelock, Innis and Richards in 1947.

3 types of space

Toward a Spatial Dialogue (Through the Vanishing Point)1

  • To talk about my work without showing the centrality of (…) the totally diverse character of visual, audile, and tactile spaces is to have no apprehension of my observations about the media.2 (McLuhan to Bill Kuhns, December 6, 1971, Letters p448)
  • Thought, thing and language are aspects of one reality. (Classical Trivium, 1943, p53)3

All experience is4 some ratio of visual-audile space where the hyphen or frontier or resonant interval is tactility:

  • The world of touch, whether passive or active, creates a relation not of connectedness but of interval. (Through the Vanishing Point p221)
  • The resonant interval may be considered an invisible borderline between visual and acoustic space. (Global Village p4)
  • Touch [tactility] is the “resonant interval” or frontier of change and process, and is indispensable for the study of technological effects. (Global Village p13)

The play of this three-fold un-folds as follows:

  • The tetrad, as a right-hemisphere visualization, helps us to see both figure and ground at a time when the latent effects of the mechanical age tend to obscure the ground subliminally. Its chief utility is that it raises the hidden ground to visibility, enabling the analyst to perceive the double action of the visual (left hemisphere) and the acoustic (right hemisphere) in the life of the artifact or idea.5 (Global Village p9)
  • The tetrad illumines the borderline between acoustic and visual space as an arena of spiraling repetition and replay, both of input and feedback, interlace and interface in the area of an imploded circle of rebirth and metamorphosis. (Global Village p9)
  • Acoustic and visual space structures may be seen as incommensurable, like history and eternity, yet, at the same time, as complementary (Global Village p45)
  • In our desire to illumine the differences between visual and acoustic space, we have undoubtedly given a false impression: and that is that the normal brain, in its everyday functioning, cannot reconcile the apparently contradictory perceptions of both sides of the mind. (Global Village p48)
  • There are a variety of factors which can give salience or mastery either to the right (simultaneous and acoustic) hemisphere of the brain, or to the left (lineal and visual) hemisphere. [But] no matter how extreme the dominance of either hemisphere in a particular culture, there is always some degree of interplay between the hemispheres. (Global Village p62)

It might therefore seem that “the totally diverse character of visual, audile, and tactile spaces” could be characterized as follows: (1) Visual space is space where the visual has salience, mastery or dominance over the audile in their “interplay”; (2) Audile space is space where the audile has salience, mastery or dominance over the visual in their “interplay”; (3) Tactile space is the space of the in-between “interplay” — the resonant interval, the invisible borderline, the hidden ground of interlace and interface, of relationship, reconciliation and complementarity

In this case, “the totally diverse character” would chiefly be between visual and audile spaces as figures, on the one hand, and tactile space as ground on the other. Since “no matter how extreme the dominance of either hemisphere in a particular culture, there is always some degree of interplay between the hemispheres”, it would be the particular “degree of interplay” that would structure each and every momentary6 variety of human experience as some form along the spectrum of visual-audile ratios.

  • Interface is the basis of the relationship between visual and acoustic space.” (Global Village p13) 
  • “It is the gap itself that has become the bond of being.” (Cliché to Archetype p113) 
  • The medium is the message.” (McLuhan from 1958 onwards)

But with “tactile space” McLuhan had something else of fundamental importance in mind as well. Consider a spectrum stretching between the overwhelming dominance of the visual over the audile at one end of its range and the overwhelming dominance of the audile over the visual at the other end. Between the two extremes, dominance would gradually diminish along the spectrum getting less and less until switching over at the midpoint to the dominance of the other (which would then gradually increase again). At the precise midpoint of the spectrum, the visual and the audile would be poised in balance, with neither one having dominance over the other. Here the relationship of complementarity would have dominance, not the visual or the audile.7 This midpoint could therefore be called “tactile space” since it would be the dominance neither of visual nor of audile space, but of their mutual “interface” in discontinuous8, indeed “incommensurable”, “interlace”.

McLuhan’s “new science” is situated in the “tactile space” of this midpoint. Since every other point on the spectrum represents a particular dominance either of the visual (on one side) or of the audile (on the other), no one of these lateral points is able to assess the virtues of other points along the spectrum. Its established bias prevents a ‘balanced’ assessment of their established biases.9 McLuhan’s determination to proceed like Nietzsche ‘beyond good and evil’ is based on this determination.10 Just as chemistry cannot favor any element or any material over any other, so the analysis and investigation of experience must work on the basis of the entire field.

The claim is not that tactile space has no bias. Rather, it indeed has bias, but it is an enabling bias11 — it is a bias on the basis of which collective investigation of the worlds of experience (the worlds of a myriad biases) may at last be initiated.

The bias of our culture is precisely to isolate the bias of all others in an effort at orchestration. (1969 Counterblast p64)

And it is “the medium [that] is the message”, aka the “interface [that] is the basis”, aka “the gap itself that [is] the bond of being”, aka “tactile space”, that, according to McLuhan, provides the focus needed to spark this inaugurating event.

every medium of communication is a unique art form which gives salience to one set of human [visual-audile] possibilities [as determined by the tactile interface of their hyphen] at the expense of another set. Each medium of expression profoundly modifies human sensibility in mainly unconscious and unpredictable ways. (Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press)12

The moment man accepts himself as an object, he is free to encounter a multiplicity of (…) spaces (…) created by himself and his technologies. It is the environments and unique spaces created by man’s own technologies that have [to]13 become especially the concern of the present age of ecology. (Innovation is Obsolete 1971) 


  1. Section head on p33.
  2. All bullet points in this post are citations from McLuhan.
  3. If “thought” may be taken as visual space, and “thing” as audile space, then “language” may usefully be taken as tactile space, the connection of the discontinuous (dual genitive).
  4. There are great complications to the word ‘is’ here. What McLuhan means by ‘space’ is a multilevel dynamic event with both an underlying synchronic structure and the correlated manifestation of that structure in the diachronic phenomenal world. (See the quote from ‘Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press’ at the end of this post.) It is like ‘silver’ which is both an elementary structure that is part of Mendeleev’s table and material we can perceive and manipulate. Similarly, in McLuhan’s view, experience is a phenomenal manifestation of underlying structure which can be, and is, manipulated by the press, advertising, entertainment and, in fact, all media (taken in its phenomenal sense). The word ‘is’ names the underlying structure and its manifested expression and the dynamic impulse of the one to the other. The ongoing revolution of the electric age, according to McLuhan, particularly concerns our use and understanding of this ‘is’.
  5. The tetrad crosses “the visual (left hemisphere)” with “the acoustic (right hemisphere)” to produce “a right-hemisphere visualization”. It is therefore an archetypal example of the hendiadys, the one-through-two, which McLuhan describes in From Cliché to Archetype as follows: “The artist cannot dispense with the principle of doubleness and interplay since this kind of hendiadys-dialogue is essential to the very structure of consciousness, awareness, and autonomy.” (p99)
  6. For McLuhan all experience is grammatical in the same way as language is. Not only is there a comparable underlying structure, but this structure is subject to moment by moment manipulation by subjects who are usually entirely unconscious of their constitutive actions — of their work with an underlying ‘grammar’.
  7. I.A. Richards In his 1968 book, So Much Nearer, concerning the “Principle of Complementarity”: “This immensely important topic — publicized recently by Marshall McLuhan”.
  8. Since “no matter how extreme the dominance of either hemisphere (…) there is always some degree of interplay between the hemispheres”, there is never a point — and especially not at the point of their balanced complementarity — where they collapse into a merged One.
  9. The birth of chemistry from alchemy might be described in these terms. A great many elements were well known to the alchemists (and blacksmiths, tanners, medical doctors, etc) of the pre-chemical world: copper, tin, iron, sulphur, mercury, lead, etc. But they were not known as elements. Chemistry was the introduction of the collectively identifiable distinction between the elementary and phenomenal manifestation and hence of the field characterized by this distinction. This might be imagined as the withdrawal of special status from any particular material or materials and to accord it instead to their common structure. It is just McLuhan’s suggestion that our different perspectival stances analogously be analyzed (broken up) into their elements and their manifestations — and that “the medium is the message” as “tactile space” provides the key to this achievement.
  10. Understanding Media, 245: “A moral point of view too often serves as a substitute for understanding in technological matters.”
  11. ‘Enabling bias’ as “making” is a key aspect to McLuhan’s work. Humans are finite creatures whose insight never achieves a “matching” with the objects of their concern. All things are and will always remain — gapped. But as seen especially in the physical sciences, irremedial finitude does not bar access to truth. This is the great mystery to whose truth finite humans are especially called to witness via contemplation and investigation.
  12. This essay was submitted to The Sewanee Review in 1951 through Cleanth Brooks. But it was published in the Review, lightly revised, only in 1954. Thanks to Mandi Johnson, Director of the University Archives and Special Collections at The University of the South (which publishes The Sewanee Review) for her expert help in this matter!
  13. McLuhan simply has ‘have become’ here, not ‘have to become’. He was thinking chiefly the concern in anthropology to understand cultures from the inside. At the same time, however, he was acutely aware that the methods and understandings of the social sciences remained chaotically unfocused. That concern with the inside of culture had been initiated was very important, even a condition for further advance . But such concern could not genuinely advance without collective in-sight into the elements and phenomenal manifestations of that ‘inside’ — nor without the ongoing investigation that would result from that insight.

Genitives, times and essential types

[The imperative need today is] to understand the techniques and functions of the traditional arts as the essential type of all human communication. (McLuhan to Innis, 1951)

Joyce (…) saw that the change of our time (…) was occurring as a result of the shift from superimposed myth1 to awareness of the character of the creative process itself. (…) The very process of human communication, Joyce saw, would afford the natural base2 for all the future operations and strategies of culture. (Notes on the Media as Art Forms 1954)

Mallarmé (…) saw, like Joyce, that the basic forms of communication — whether speech, writing, print, press, telegraph, or photography — necessarily were fashioned in close accord with man’s cognitive activity.(Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters, 1954)

the central fact [of the identity] of human cognition and the artistic process (…) [is] the key to the modern world. (Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters)


the Symbolists [took] aesthetic experience as an arrested moment (…) for which (…) they sought the art formula by retracing the stages of apprehension which led to this moment. (Tennyson and Picturesque Poetry, 1951)

Compare from ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’ (1954):

The poetic process is a reversal, a retracing of the stages of [ordinary]3 human cognition. It has and will always be so; but with Edgar Poe and the symbolists this central human fact was taken up to the level of conscious awareness. It then became the basis of modern science and technology. That is what Whitehead meant when he said that the great event of the nineteenth century was the discovery of the technique of discovery.

 Hence (in the same place): 

The rational notes (…) traced by St. Thomas were actual stages of apprehension in every moment of human awareness.

It is imperative to pay close attention to the action of genitives in McLuhan’s work, especially in regard to their relations with time. “The stages of apprehension” in the above passage from ‘Tennyson and Picturesque Poetry’ is a subjective genitive, not an objective one. That is, the “stages” belong to “apprehension” as their possessing subject (like ‘the ball of the boy’); they are not the reverse where “apprehension” would be the genitive object of the “stages” (like ‘the manufacture of the car’).

“Apprehension” is inclusive of its temporal stages and has actively organized them, it is not organized by them passively in an external or exclusive manner.

The claim is that “apprehension” is not fabricated through some assembly line process (as if it were the object resulting from compositional “stages”), although this linear notion has been assumed by most philosophy and psychology since Descartes. The supposition has been that experience ‘begins’ with some or other sensory input (external or internal) and then is individually and culturally shaped in a kind of customizing process through the application of categories or filters. This is so with Kant as much as with Freud. Instead, says McLuhan, while experience is indeed generated through a temporal process, the time of its genesis is not “sequential” or diachronic, but “simultaneous” or synchronic:

Time considered as sequential (…) is figure and time considered as simultaneous (…) is ground. (The Global Village)4

Hence, as cited above from ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’, he could refer to:

stages of apprehension in every moment of human awareness.

The whole “apprehension” with its “stages” is already composed, and is already available, but must be selected (so to say) from the panoply of other whole apprehensions which are equally already composed and already available. To compare: when we speak, our words are not fabricated in “stages” of one sound or one syllable added to another in a chronological process, but are available as already composed in their complex “stages” — along with all sorts of alternate words and expressions with their complex “stages”. Below and before the chronological sequence of our spoken words, there is a synchronic constitution of grammar and a selective operation on it that recognizably expresses both individual personality and social membership (age-group, education, class, region, nationality, etc), in addition (it may be) to some or other semantic intention. 

For McLuhan it was just this language process in simultaneous depth which is the elementary form, or “essential type”, constituting the unperceived environment to all human action.5

In regard to our own experience and behavior, individual and social, we remain in the same situation as was the world between whenever it was that human being6 originated and 1800 (say), when it began to dawn on us that we live in a physical environment constituted by chemical elements. This was an environment that had always and everywhere been active, and that always and everywhere will remain active, but had never before been perceived. It was a total environment of the farthest reaches of the universe, and of the nearest reaches of our own bodies, that had never before been known to exist. The revolutionary changes to the planet in the last 200 years have resulted from this new consciousness of our perennial physical environment, the ‘exterior landscape’.

It was McLuhan’s hope and prediction that an analogous new consciousness of our perennial ‘interior landscape’ could lead to changes of a similar scope.7 And it was here alone, he thought, that the way to peace might be found for a world currently shaped by an unknown and out of control interior environment8 (perilously combined with an exterior environment that had become capable of nuclear war). 

the esthetic discoveries of the symbolists since Rimbaud and Mallarmé (developed in English by Joyce, Eliot, Pound, Lewis and Yeats) (…) have served to recreate in contemporary consciousness an awareness of the potencies of language9 (McLuhan to Harold Innis, 1951)

[The imperative need today is] to understand the techniques and functions of the traditional arts as the essential type of all human communication. (ibid)

One major discovery of the symbolists which had the greatest importance for subsequent investigation was their notion of the learning process as a labyrinth of the senses and faculties whose retracing provided the key to all arts and sciences (…) Retracing becomes (…) the technique of reconstruction.10 (…) From the point of view of the artist (…) the business of art is no longer the communication of thoughts or feelings which are to be conceptually ordered, but [to facilitate] a direct participation in an experience. The whole tendency of modern communication whether in the press, in advertising, or in the high arts is toward participation in a process, rather than apprehension of concepts. And this major revolution, intimately linked to technology, is one whose consequences have not begun to be studied although they have begun to be felt. (ibid)

It is popular (…) to attack advertising. But is is unheard of to take it seriously as a form of art. Personally I see it as a form of art. And like symbolist art it is created to produce an effect rather than to argue or discuss the merits of a product. Baron Wrangel, the man in the Hathaway shirt [advertisement] — white shirt and black eye-patch: what did it mean? Out of the millions who bought Hathaway shirts, how many could say what the ad meant? It was a piece of magic: irrational, meaningless. But it had a definite effect. The advertiser proclaims to his clients that his pictorial and verbal magic is linked to the assembly line. No pictorial magic, no mass production. The primitive witch-doctor had spells which controlled the elements. The modern advertiser concocts spells which compel the customer. What the advertisers have discovered is simply that the new media of communication are themselves magical art forms. All art is in a sense magical in that it produces a change or metamorphosis in the spectator. It refashions his experience. In our slap-happy way we have released a great deal of this magic on ourselves today. We have been changing ourselves about at a great rate like Alley Oop. Some of us have been left hanging by our ears from the chandeliers. (Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters, 1954)


  1. Nineteenth century figures like Feuerbach,  Stirner and Nietzsche had already seen western culture as “superimposed myth”. This type of analysis was then applied to other cultures by anthropologists and to individual personality by psychoanalysts.
  2. At this same time in the early 1950’s McLuhan was declaring that “technology has abolished ‘nature’ in the old sense” (‘Notes on the Media as Art Forms’, Explorations 2, 1954). “The natural base” was not be to be found in “nature in the old sense”, therefore, but in a relativized nature, what McLuhan called “second nature” (Laws of Media, 116ff). This was a ‘nature’ beyond “superimposed myth”.
  3. The word ‘ordinary has been added here. But throughout ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’ McLuhan uses phrases like this with ‘ordinary’ included in them. For example: “The most poetic thing in the world is the most ordinary human consciousness”. Again: “In ordinary perception men perform the miracle of recreating within themselves, in their interior faculties, the exterior world”. And again: “in ordinary perception we incarnate the exterior world”. And again: “this sublime process is that of ordinary apprehension”. And finally: “the drama of ordinary perception (…) is the prime analogatethe magic casement opening on the secrets of created being.
  4. Page 10.
  5. Like Eliot’s Sweeney, McLuhan had to use words to talk to us. In reading his work it is imperative to differentiate between expressions used in an attempt to communicate (like ‘media’ as books, newspapers, radio, television, etc) and words used in a technical sense (like ‘media’ as the elementary structures of the human environment). This is to understand media, as McLuhan wrote to Innis (and is cited more fully above), “as the essential type of all human communication“. There is an fundamental reversal here. Not an understanding of books (say) leading to an understanding of media, but an understanding of media leading to an understanding of books — and of all other communication technologies.
  6. Throughout this post and blog, ‘human being’ is used as a verbal expression, not a substantive or nominal one: ‘human being’ as ‘human action’, ‘human perception’, ‘human experience’, etc.
  7. In the long ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’ passage cited above, McLuhan observes that “the primitive witch-doctor had spells which controlled the elements (while) the modern advertiser concocts spells which compel the customer.” Through the birth of chemistry and its associated sciences, we have learned to ‘control the (physical) elements’ in a fundamentally different way. Through a ‘new science’ of human bias, says McLuhan, we can learn to control the “spells which compel the customer” in a comparably revolutionary way.
  8. The ‘interior environment’ is not inside our skulls. It is the exterior physical environment plus the interior psychological one.
  9. For McLuhan ‘language’ was not one of the array of human tools used for communication, but the underlying ‘type’ of all communication, indeed of all human being. (For ‘type’ see McLuhan’s 1951 letter to Harold Innis cited at the start of this post; for human being, see note #4 above.)
  10. What McLuhan termed ‘reconstruction’ is close to what Heidegger termed ‘deconstruction’.

What was McLuhan up to?

Satellites automatically enclose the old Darwinian “Nature” environment by putting the planet inside a man-made environment.1 

This sentence is from Dew-Line 1.5 (November 1968) but it could be from any number of McLuhan’s books and essays in the last two decades of his life after 1960. Here he is, for example, in 1971:

The latest technology in our world is the satellite. The satellite is the first man-made environment to encompass the planet. The earth has become the content of a human artifact. The satellite surround is the new artistic mask worn by the earth itself. It is a kind of proscenium arch, turning the globe into a theater. With Sputnik, Earth became (…) echo-land… (Innovation is Obsolete)

Are these reports of an historical event and its effects ? Namely, the launching of satellites which began in 1957 and the effects this has had in creating a new “man-made environment” across many fields from warfare to weather forecasting to resource mapping? In this case (1) McLuhan would have been doing a history of modern technology and its effects with an emphasis on new media.

Or (2) are these passages a figurative description of a ‘new science’ of human experience in which all of its data would be “man-made” in the sense of being an “artefact” of some or other subjective perspective or bias? A science, that is, where every object would be correlated with a subjective ‘take’ somewhat as a bat navigates by sonar signals which it sends and receives in a back and forth “echo-land” environment? “Blip calling unto blip” as McLuhan wrote in his 1957 review of Northrop Frye.

The satellite is also the shift from the planet as a homogeneous continuum or visual space, to the planet as a “chemical bond” or mosaic of resonating components. (Dew-Line 1.5)

In this case McLuhan would have been characterizing the domain of a potential new type of scientific investigation.2 Not ‘old science’ which takes its objects as much as possible exclusive of subjective bias, but ‘new science’ which would take its objects always inclusive of a correlated bias.3 Hence McLuhan’s observation that his work was a footnote to that of Harold Innis:

Innis taught us how to use the bias of culture and communication as an instrument of research. By directing attention to the bias or distorting power of the dominant imagery and technology of any culture, he showed us how to understand cultures.4

But already in 1944, years before he met Innis,5 McLuhan could speak in relation to Hopkins of our need to “keep ever sharply focused the stereoscopic gaze at the work itself”.6

Or (3) are these texts a description of how such a science might first come into view as a possibility? Just as satellites provided new imagery of the globe and thereby revealed the possibility and the need for environmental action, so could this same imagery suggest the idea that all of nature — all possible experience of nature — might be investigated in a new science or sciences:

The (…) archetypal-isation of Nature ensures that the Earth is now (…) a sort of archaeological museum affording immediate access to all past cultures simultaneously on a classified-information basis. (Dew-Line 1:5)

The first snippet given above is from this same Dew-Line issue. In it McLuhan brought together the new satellite environment with the possibility of ‘new science’ as follows:

The inability to perceive the “Emperor’s New Clothes” technological environments (…) needs no more illustration than Sputnik.
From the first moment of the satellite, the earth ceased to be the human “environment”.
Satellites automatically enclose the old Darwinian “Nature” environment by putting the planet inside a man-made environment. They are just as much an extension of the planet as is clothing an extension of the skin.
Satellites are equivalent to enclosing the Earth in a Bucky Fuller “dome” of acoustic space.
The consequent process of archetypal-isation of Nature ensure that the Earth is now an old “booster-stage”. . . a quaint form of Camp. . . a sort of archaeological museum affording immediate access to all past cultures simultaneously on a classified-information basis.

In this case McLuhan would have been crafting a real-time history of science, in which the birth of a ‘new science’ of human culture would be traced and thereby announced.   

Or (4) was McLuhan actually doing ‘new science’? That is, was McLuhan talking about the possibility of investigating human culture as “programming” — or was he attempting to perform cultural programming, as far as he was able as an isolated individual, back to us from the actualization of that possibility? Was he fulfilling Hegel’s acute observation that the only convincing proof of the possibility of a science would be its actuality?

Or (5), by continually jumping between all these different aims, was McLuhan attempting to provoke that “quantum leap” which is required to obviate our “inability to perceive” and thereby to come to see the “Emperor’s New Clothes” of new science?

My canvases are surrealist, and to call them ‘theories’ is to miss my satirical intent  altogether. As you will find in my literary essays, I can write the ordinary kind of rationalistic prose any time I choose to do so.7

Was he jumping between different audiences — in the academy, government, commerce and entertainment — in such different modes — from scientific to analytic to comedic — as a strategy of communication?8 

Or was he always doing all of these different things (and perhaps others as well) together and at once?

  1. McLuhan saw this development prior to the first satellites: “power technology has abolished ‘nature’ in the old sense and brought the globe within the scope of art“. (‘Notes on the Media as Art Forms’, Explorations 2, 1954)
  2. In this same Dew-Line 1.5, McLuhan described the appearance of the domain investigated by new science: “A TOTAL FIELD (…) OF MULTIPLE CONGLOMERATES AND INTERVALS WHOSE INTERFACES CREATE A VAST FERMENT OF RAPIDLY CHANGING PATTERNS.” Like old science in this respect, new science would not engage with pure elements at the level of the phenomenal world. Here it would instead find “conglomerates” of various sorts. But, again as was the case with old science, the prerequisite of such study would be the dis-covery of the underlying elements composing those “conglomerates”: media.
  3. Western Old Science approaches the study of media in terms of linear, sequential transportation of data as detached figures (content); the New Science approach is via the ground of users and of environmental media effects.” (Laws of Media, posthumous, 85, the bracketed insertion of ‘(content)’ is original.) The word ‘inclusive’ is one of the most important in McLuhan’s vocabulary — it designates the need to take subject and object together, as well as the related need to take all the varieties of human experience together.
  4. ‘Media and Cultural Change’, McLuhan’s introduction to the reprinting of Innis’ The Bias of Communication in 1964.
  5. See Innis and McLuhan in 1936 for the question of when McLuhan first read Innis.
  6. ‘The Analogical Mirrors’, Kenyon Review, 6:3, 1944.
  7. McLuhan to Bill Kuhns, December 6, 1971, Letters 448.
  8. McLuhan must be understood in the context of the fact that western civilization knows ever less about fundamental matters. Plato knew far more about the human situation than we do, although we have the means to destroy ourselves, and all life along with us, and the classical Greeks did not. Our problem is, then, not to learn more. It is to learn what has long been available to us — to achieve communication at last, with what is already there. As McLuhan said of the man who in his view provided “the only method of escape”: “Vico aimed to heal the rift (…) between the Ancients and the Moderns.” (See McLuhan on Vico.)

Escape from the cul-de-sac

Was ist dein Ziel in der Philosophie? Der Fliege den Ausweg aus dem Fliegenglas zeigen. (Wittgenstein, Philosophische Untersuchungen, §309)1


I no longer hesitated what to do. I resolved to lash myself securely to the water cask upon which I now held, to cut it loose from the counter, and to throw myself with it into the water. (…) The result was precisely what I had hoped it might be. As it is myself who now tell you this tale — as you see that I did escape — and as you are already in possession of the mode in which this escape was effected, and must therefore anticipate all that I have farther to say — I will bring my story quickly to conclusion. (Edgar Poe, Descent into the Maelstrom)2

Here is the key to the sleuth.  He is that part of Poe which eluded the strom3 by studious detachment. (McLuhan to Brinley Rhys4, June 16, 1946)

Footprints in the Sands of Crime 1946
The sailor in his story
The Maelstrom is at first paralyzed with horror. But in his very paralysis there is another fascination which emerges, a power of detached observation which becomes a “scientific” interest in the action of the strom. And this provides the means of escape.

to get out of the wire cage (…) Vico5 provides both the techniques of observation and exegesis as well as the only method of escape. (McLuhan to John Palmer, December 9, 1949)

Tennyson and Picturesque Poetry 1951
The couplet in [Alexander] Pope’s hands escaped from the conditions imposed by univocal discourse which had developed in the Cartesian milieu.6

Radio and Television vs. The ABCED-Minded 1955
The simplest way to get at Joyce’s technique in language, as well as to see its relation to TV, is to consider the principle of the electronic tube. The paradox of the electronic tube is that it is the means of
breaking the conductor of an electric circuit. The tube permits the electrons to escape from the wire that ordinarily conveys them. But the tube controls the conditions of escape.7 

Effects of Improvement of Communication Media 1960
If adjustment (economic, social, or personal)8
to information movement at electronic speeds is quite impossible
, we can always change our models and metaphors9 of organization, and escape into sheer understanding. Sequential analysis and adjustment natural to low speed information movement becomes irrelevant and useless even at telegraph speed. But as speed increases, the understanding of process in all kinds of structures and situations becomes relatively simple.10 We can literally escape into understanding when the patterns of process become manifest.

Gutenberg Galaxy, 1962
The strategy any culture must resort to in a period like this was indicated by Wilhelm von Humboldt: “Man lives with his objects chiefly — in fact, since his feeling and acting depends on his perceptions, one may say exclusively — as language presents them to him. By the same process whereby he spins language out of his being, he ensnares himself in it; and each language draws a magic circle round the people to which it belongs, a circle from which there is no escape save by stepping out of it into another.11
Such awareness as this has generated in our time the technique of the suspended judgment by which we can transcend the limitations of our own assumptions by a critique of them. We can now live, not just amphibiously in divided and distinguished worlds, but pluralistically in many worlds and cultures simultaneously. We are no more committed to one culture — to a single ratio among the human senses — any more than to one book or to one language or to one technology. Our need today is, culturally, the same as the scientist’s who seeks to become aware of the bias of the instruments of research in order to correct that bias. (30-31)

Gutenberg Galaxy, 1962
the influence of unexamined assumptions derived from technology leads quite unnecessarily to maximal determinism in human life. Emancipation from that trap is the goal… (247)

The Electronic Age – The Age of Implosion 1962
Many are now disposed to reject the entire achievement of literate Western man in an effort to recover integral values.  But surely this [urge to merge] temper is not very different from that which emerged in the early phases of literacy, when leaders were prepared to dismantle and detribalize their world in favour of a visual, lineal, individualistic stress in the organization of experience. To embark now on a reverse course is the immediate suggestion and mandate of electric technology. And to pro or con this reverse course is merely to accept the mechanical fate of a new technology. Is there no third course? How can we elude the merely technical closure in our inner lives and recover autonomy? What if any is the cultural strategy of the suspended judgment, of the open-ended proposition? Is there the possibility of new freedom in the aesthetic response to the models of perception outered from us into our technology? If we contemplate the technological forms that we set outside ourselves as art objects, rather than as the inevitable patterns of utility, can we escape the swift12 closure of our senses?

Functions of Art 1963
One theme that pervades the book [of Leo Lowenthal]13 
is stated at the outset, in a chapter on “Diversion and Salvation in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries.” (…) So stating the issues (…) gives new relevance to the ancient quarrel14 between the party of Montaigne and the party of Pascal (…) For Montaigne the hope is to escape from immediate miseries15, while for Pascal the hope is for ultimate escape, by using the more austere forms of art as a means of spiritual grace. It would be hard to decide how much semantics and how much temperament goes to the making of such a polarity, but the distinction has proved sufficient to provide a deep division of attitudes ever since their time. (…) So far as English literature is concerned, the great monument to this crisis [“between the party of Montaigne and the party of Pascal”] is Pope’s Dunciad, in which Pope asserts the responsibility of the author to be a guide and corrective to perception rather than to provide an anodyne for anxieties. In this view the author must inevitably take the side of the language itself, as the accumulated store of perception to which the writer owes the deepest responsibility. That is why Pope made such an issue of dullness, for he saw the hack writers as people not only without perception, but as creators of a collective opacity in language, which is the very instrument of perception.16

Media and Cultural Change, 1964
[Harold] Innis taught us how to use the bias of culture and communication as an instrument of research. By directing attention to the bias or distorting power of the dominant imagery and technology of any culture, he showed us how to understand cultures.17

Playboy Interview, 1969
Today, in the electronic age of instantaneous communication, I believe that our survival, and at the very least our comfort and happiness, is predicated on understanding the nature of our new environment, because unlike previous environmental changes, the electric media constitute a total and near-instantaneous transformation of culture, values and attitudes. This upheaval generates great pain and identity loss, which can be ameliorated only through a conscious awareness of its dynamics. If we understand the revolutionary transformations caused by new media, we can anticipate and control them; but if we continue in our self-induced subliminal trance, we will be their slaves.
Because of today’s terrific speed-up of information moving, we have a chance to apprehend, predict and influence the environmental forces shaping us — and thus win back control of our own destinies. The new extensions of man and the environment they generate are the central manifestations of the evolutionary process, and yet we still cannot free ourselves of the delusion that it is how a medium is used that counts, rather than what it does to us and with us. This is the zombie stance of the technological idiot. It’s to escape this Narcissus trance that I’ve tried to trace and reveal the impact of media on man, from the beginning of recorded time to the present.

Playboy Interview, 1969
The central purpose of all my work is to convey this message, that by understanding media as they extend man, we gain a measure of control over them. And this is a vital task, because the immediate interface between audile-tactile and visual perception is taking place everywhere around us. No civilian can escape this environmental blitzkrieg, for there is, quite literally, no place to hide. But if we diagnose what is happening to us, we can reduce the ferocity of the winds of change and bring the best elements of the old visual culture, during this transitional period, into peaceful coexistence with the new retribalized societyIf we persist, however, in our conventional rearview-mirror approach to these cataclysmic developments, all of Western culture will be destroyed and swept into the dustbin of history.


  1. What is your aim in philosophy? To show the fly the way out of the flybottle.
  2. This passage from Poe’s A Descent into the Maelstrom is quoted verbatim by McLuhan in ‘Art as Survival in the Electric Age’ (1973).
  3. See McLuhan on Poe’s Maelstrom.
  4. As ‘Editorial Assistant’ at the Sewanee Review, Brinley Rhys filled in as its editor in 1946 after Allen Tate resigned and before John Palmer was appointed as the new editor.
  5. For McLuhan’s take on Vico see McLuhan on Vico and Bacon and Vico.
  6. See notes 15 and 17 below. McLuhan ended the historical portion of The Gutenberg Galaxy with an extended quotation from Pope’s Dunciad and reprinted this one section of GG in The Interior Landscape. His point was that Pope’s couplet took “the side of the language itself”, a ‘side’ that includes all possible sides, ‘against’ (through inclusion) the trademark dualism cum monism of the ‘dullards’ of the press and book trades.
  7. McLuhan’s suggestion is that humans can become a vacuum tube or transistor for their own actions by instituting a scientific investigation of them. McLuhan is thinking of the “electronic tube” here in 1955 in terms of the vacuum tube which in the meantime has almost entirely been replaced by transistors (the Nobel prize for the development of the transistor was awarded in 1956). But it is interesting to read this passage when “the tube” is read as ‘TV’ (as McLuhan frequently did in later writings like ‘A Last Look at the Tube’ in 1978). Especially to be noted is the continuation of the 1955 text here: “the tube controls the conditions of escape. It liberates (viewers from their old contexts and selves) but (in  doing so) it provides a new context in which they can be (and are) repatterned”! Such was the power of TV to remake the whole world — which was ignored in 1955 and is still being ignored today, more than 65 years later, at a time when everybody everywhere has their face glued to a screen. In this regard, here is McLuhan from the previous year of 1954 in ‘Notes on the Media as Art Forms’: “The TV screen is not the movie screen. In some sense the (TV) spectator is (…) the screen”! (All bracketed additions throughout this note are editorial interventions.
  8. McLuhan’s bracketed insertion.
  9. The whole history of western civilization is testimony to the difficulties implicated in the attempt to “change our models and metaphors”. In the first place, since identity is established and exercised through “models and metaphors”, such change inherently involves identity-loss. Second, between “models and metaphors” there are no “models and metaphors” giving orientation. Such change is necessarily blind. Third, recognition of a model or metaphor that provides ground and understanding is itself dependent on some model or metaphor. In sum, the way of ‘ascent from the maelstrom’ is the most difficult question human beings face or, far more usually, refuse to face.
  10. McLuhan seems to have felt that owning up to the difficulties he himself had gone through would put people off from the process he was recommending. So it was “relatively simple”. But this idea has proved to be fruitless.
  11. Von Humboldt is quoted by McLuhan here from Ernst Cassirer, Language and Myth, p. 9. The question for humans is not to find an escape from ‘magic circles’, but to find escape in the ‘magic circle’ of collective investigation.
  12. With an “escape (from) the swift” a break in time is prescribed or, at least, seen to exist. And a break in time implicates another time or times in that breakage. Indeed, the existing plurality of times is one of the fundamental tenets of McLuhan’s work: “We can correct the bias of the present time only by coming to know it is a time, not the time.” But the unitemporal or Gutenbergian environment of ‘research’ into his work is constitutionally unable to grasp this. A “quantum leap” is required to perceive this alternate possibility and this is not wagered. So we remain, as Beckett has it, a dog chained to its vomit.
  13. Leo Lowenthal, Literature, Popular Culture, and Society, 1961.
  14. McLuhan used the phrase “the ancient quarrel” in his Nashe PhD thesis from 1943 to refer to the perennial battle of the trivial arts. It appeared again in the title of his 1944 lecture ‘An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America’ (published in 1946) which brought his thesis into a contemporary context. His use of the same phrase 20 years later, between the 1962 publication of The Gutenberg Galaxy and the 1964 Understanding Media is significant. It suggests that the ground of both books lies in a plurality of reals and of times. If we are to understand the message of these books, we need first of all to understand that medium!
  15. Eliot’s “distracted from distraction by distraction” (‘Burnt Norton’, the first of the Four Quartets).
  16. McLuhan sets out three forms of perception here, not two: that of Montaigne, that of Pascal, and that of Pope’s “language”, where language is inclusive of the other two. This 3-fold is the “ancient quarrel” or ontological battle which was McLuhan’s ‘one thought’. See note 15 above.
  17. ‘Media and Cultural Change’ was McLuhan’s introduction to the 1964 edition of Innis’ The Bias of Communication. But McLuhan had this method of understanding cultures very early in his career, before he was much influenced by Innis, if at all. (But see Innis and McLuhan in 1936.) Here he is in his 1947 proposal to Robert Hutchins: “Every age has its reigning analogy (‘dominant imagery and technology of any culture’) in terms of which it orients itself with respect to the past and directs its energies through the present to the future. To be contemporary in the good sense is to be aware of this (‘reigning’) analogy. To be ‘ahead of the time’ is to be critically aware of the analogy. That is, to be aware that it is only one analogy.”

Bacon and Vico

In his ‘Preface’ to Laws of Media, Eric McLuhan records:

My father died before we could work out in detail how his new discoveries related to the labours of Vico and Bacon. He knew the relations were there, and his intuitions had never played him false. It fell to me to do the tidying-up and to ready the book for the press. The key to the whole business is sensibility, as the serious poets and artists (and grammarians) have always maintained. Vico in particular targeted ‘the modification of our own human minds’ as the crucial area, while he cast about for a way to read and write the ‘mental dictionary’. Then the relation between Bacon’s Idols and Vico’s Axioms surfaced1bias of perception — and the job was near done. Bacon called his book the Novum Organum (…), the New Science; Vico called his the Scienza Nuova, the New Science; I have subtitled ours The New Science. On reflection, I am tempted to make that the title (…) for it should stand as volume three of a work begun by Sir Francis Bacon and carried forward a century later by Giambattista Vico. (x-xi)

Laws of Media details the Bacon-Vico relation as follows:

When determining the principles on which his Scienza Nuova would rest, Giambattista Vico, the last great pre-electric grammarian, decided to use cultures themselves as his text: “We must reckon as if there were no books in the world.”2 In shunning conventional science and returning to direct observation of the page of Nature, Vico pursued the same course Francis Bacon had charted in the Novum Organum..(Laws of Media, posthumous, 215)

Vico (…) begins by reiterating and updating Bacon’s [four] Idols as his own first four Axioms. The first four axioms constitute the basis of Vico’s elements and, says Vico, “give us the basis for refuting all opinions hitherto held about the principles of humanity” (New Science, §163). “These four axioms express a theory of ignorance which we need in order to acquire a doctrine of truth concerning the nature of humanity.”3 (Laws of Media, 11)

The ‘myth of objectivity’, a result of visual bias, belongs to the ‘Idols of the Theatre’ or what Giambattista Vico termed ‘the conceit of scholars’ in his fourth axiom. Vico was merely following [Bacon’s previous] instructions when, at the outset of his Scienza Nuova, he set out his [four] ‘elements’ or ‘axioms’, for Bacon had prefaced his account of his [four] ‘Idols’ with these words: “The formation of ideas and axioms by true induction is no doubt the proper remedy to be applied for the keeping off and clearing away of idols. To point them out, however, is of great use for the doctrine of idols is to the interpretation of nature what the doctrine of the refutation of sophisms is to common logic.”4 (Laws of Media, 83-84)

[The first of Bacon’s Idols,] the Idols of the Tribe, and Vico’s first axiom, specify the general bias of sensibility (…) as a pollution of exact observation which must be allowed for. (…) “The Idols of the Tribe have their foundation in human nature itself, and in the tribe or race of men. For it is a false assertion that the sense of man is the measure of things. On the contrary, all perceptions, as well of the sense as of the mind, are according to the measure of the individual and not according to the measure of the universe. And the human understanding is like a false mirror, which, receiving rays irregularly, distorts and decolors the nature of things by mingling its own nature with it.”5 (Laws of Media, 84)

Vico’s [corresponding] first axiom is this: “Because of the indefinite nature of the human mind, wherever it is lost in ignorance, man makes himself the measure of all things. This axiom explains those two common human traits, on the one hand that rumor grows in its course (fama crescit eundo). On the other that rumor is deflated by the presence of the thing itself (minuit praesentia famam). In the long course that rumor has run from the beginning of the world it has been the perennial source of all the exaggerated opinions which have hitherto been held concerning remote antiquities unknown to us, by virtue of that property of the human mind noted by Tacitus in his Life of Agricola, where he says that everything unknown is taken for something great (omne ignotum pro magnifico est).”6 (Laws of Media, 84)

[The second of Bacon’s Idols], the Idols of the Cave, and Vico’s second axiom, pinpoint intellectual laziness and conceptual dogmatism as distorting influences (…) “The Idols of the Cave are the idols of the individual man. For everyone (besides the errors common to human nature in general) has a cave or den of his own. which refracts and discolors the light of nature, owing either to his own proper and peculiar nature or to his education and conversation with others, or to the reading of books, and the authority of those whom he esteems and admires or the like. So that the spirit of man (according as it is meted out to different individuals) is in fact a thing variable and full of perturbation, and governed as it were by chance. Whence it was well observed by Heraclitus that men look for sciences in their own lesser worlds, and not in the greater or common world.”7 This Idol takes its name from the cave in the Republic of Plato (Book VII). Vico notes (axiom two): “It is another property of the human mind that whenever men can form no idea of distant and unknown things they judge them by what is familiar and at hand. This axiom points to the inexhaustible source of all the errors about the beginnings of humanity that have been adopted by entire nations and by the scholars For when the former began to take notice of them and the latter to investigate them, it was on the basis of their own enlightened, cultivated and magnificent times that they judged the origins of humanity, which must nevertheless by the nature of things have been small, crude and quite obscure.”8  (Laws of Media, 84)

[The third of Bacon’s Idols], the idols of the Marketplace — Vico’s ‘conceit of nations’ — arise in the ‘intercourse and association of men with each other’ (…): “There are also idols formed by the intercourse and association of men with each other, which I call Idols of the Market-place, on account of the commerce and consort of men there. For it is by discourse that men associate and words are imposed according to the apprehension of the vulgar. And therefore the ill and unfair choice of words wonderfully obstructs the understanding. Nor do the definitions or explanations wherewith in some things learned men are wont to guard and defend themselves, by any means set the matter right. But words plainly force and overrule the understanding, and throw all into confusion, and lead men away into numberless empty controversies and idle fancies.”9 Vico translates this into his third axiom as follows: “As for the conceit of the nations, we have heard that golden saving of Diodorus Siculus. Every nation, according to him, whether Greek or barbarian, has had the same conceit that it before all other nations invented the comforts of human life and that its remembered history goes back to the very beginning of the world.”10 (Laws of Media, 84-85)

Fourth and last, Bacon cites the Idols of the Theatre ‘which have immigrated into men’s minds from the various dogmas of philosophies’ — Old Science. These Vico terms ‘conceit of scholars’ whose sciences have neither real antiquity of knowledge nor knowledge of antiquity, being cut off from tradition This conceit shores up its own narrow version of thought by claiming that what it knows is what all learning has always been about. (…) [Bacon]: “Lastly, there are the Idols which have immigrated Into men’s minds from the various dogmas of philosophies, and also from wrong laws of demonstration These I call Idols of the Theater; because in my judgment all the received systems are but so many stage-plays, representing worlds of their own creation after an unreal and scenic fashion. Nor is it only of the systems now in vogue, or only of the ancient sects and philosophies, that I speak, for many more plays of the same kind may yet be composed and in like artificial manner set forth; seeing that errors the most widely different have nevertheless causes for the most part alike. Neither again do I mean this only of entire systems, but also of many principles and axioms in science, which by tradition, credulity, and negligence have come to be received”11 Vico renders this in his fourth axiom: “To this conceit of the nations there may be added that of the scholars, who will have it that whatever they know is as old as the world. This axiom disposes of all the opinions of the scholars concerning the matchless wisdom of the ancients”.12 (Laws of Media, 85)

  1. After his father’s death as he was getting Laws of Media ready for publication, but alerted by Marshall’s long attention to Bacon and Vico, Eric seems to have discovered the detailed parallels between Bacon’s Idols and Vico’s Axioms in Croce and Verene. He explicitly credits them as follows: “Benedetto Croce first noted the parallels (between Bacon’s Idols and Vico’s Axioms) in his Philosophy of Giambattista Vico, tr RG Collingwood (pages 155-157). Donald Philip Verene presents the parallels in his essay Vico’s Science of the Imagination (pages 128-133).” (Laws of Media, 11)
  2. New Science, §330.
  3. Verene, Vico’s Science of the Imagination, 1981, 128-129.
  4. Novum Organum, Book I, aphorism xl.
  5. Novum Organum, Book I, aphorism xli.
  6. New Science, §120.
  7. Novum Organum, Book I, aphorism xlii.
  8. New Science, §122-§123.
  9. Novum Organum, Book I, aphorism xliii.
  10. New Science, §125.
  11. Novum Organum, Book I, aphorism xliv.
  12. New Science, §127.

McLuhan on Vico

To get out of the wire cage (…) Vico provides both the techniques of observation and exegesis as well as the only method of escape. (McLuhan to John Palmer,1 December 9, 1949)


When man understands, he extends his mind and takes in the things, but when he does not understand, he (…) becomes them by transforming himself into them. (Vico, The New Science, §405, 1744)

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.2 It is inside us. We in it. Fusion. Oblivion. Safety. (McLuhan to Pound, January 1951, Letters p219)


Giambattista Vico is an example of a linguistic analogist in the eighteenth century (…) he held that all language was basically expressive of universal concepts. Says Croce: “Vico also looked forward to a universal system of etymology, a dictionary of mental words common to all nations.” (Francis Bacon’s Patristic Inheritance, 1944)3

At the moment I’m reading Vico… (McLuhan to Cleanth Brooks, October 8, 1946)

Incidentally, the suggestion about intellectual self-portraits came to me from reading Vico’s autobiography.4 With him the problem of intellectual growth had been imposed by the struggle to free himself from Descartes. To-day, the problem is the same. To get free of technological modes which have invaded every aspect of education, of thought and feeling(McLuhan to John Palmer, November 4, 1946)

plenary philology (…) is letters understood as the complete education in thought and feeling which fosters an integral humanitas.  That is Viconian ground.  The only fertile soil in the modern world. (McLuhan to John Palmer, November 4, 1946)

the metaphor of simple linear perspective (…) yields in Vico to a complex genetic metaphor that becomes the intellectual means of being simultaneously present in all periods of the past and all mental climates of the modern world as well. (Inside Blake and Hollywood, 1947)

That great positivist synthesis [in Britain]5 lasted until the time of Herbert Spencer and petered out in the popular fantasies of the encyclopedic H.G. Wells. Meantime it was increasingly challenged by the more speculative synthesis which stemmed from Vico and Hegel and was carried on through Marx on the economic side and through Nietzsche on the psychological and philological fronts. However, it has never been understood that the second-rate character of the English and American nineteenth century as compared with the German and French was owing to the German and French having adopted psychological rather than the biological experience as the source of the guiding analogies for (…) social study and discussion. Adam Smith introduced into the intellectual currency the analogy of a vague evolutionary providence operating through both human and animal appetites. This analogy fructified the minds of Malthus and Darwin. But it was analogy quite incapable of stimulating the great anthropological and cultural histories which, under Viconian and Hegelian inspiration, appeared on the continent. Sir James Frazer and Arnold Toynbee are by-products of Max Muller and Oswald Spengler rather than of their own traditions.
Every age has its reigning analogy in terms of which it orients itself with respect to the past and directs its energies through the present to the future. To be contemporary in the good sense is to be aware of this [reigning] analogy. To be “ahead of the time” is to be critically aware of the analogy. That is, to be aware that it is only one analogy. To be creative and directive of the currents of the age is, while admitting the limitations of the dominant analogy, to carry out as complete as extension and synthesis of the arts and sciences as it will permit. But also to explore as much new terrain in each art and science as it will allow. To recover as much of the past as can be made creatively relevant to the present. To be aware of the past as presently useful and of much of the present as already irrelevant — this is to be a contemporary mind. And this mode of awareness is itself based on an analogy derived from relativity physics (…) whose usefulness to a society faced with the problems of world government and international community is as immense as it is as yet unexploited. (McLuhan’s Proposal to Robert Hutchins, 1947)

Vico’s great discovery of a psychological method for interpreting historical periods and cultural patterns is rooted in his perception that the condition of man is never the same but his nature is unchanging. (…) Vico (…) invented an instrument of historical and cultural analysis of the utmost use for the discovery of psychological and moral unity in the practical order… (Where Chesterton Comes In, 1948)6

One major discovery of the symbolists which had the greatest importance for subsequent investigation was their notion of the learning process as a labyrinth of the senses and faculties whose retracing provided the key to all arts and sciences (basis of myth of Daedalus, basic for the dreams and schemes of Francis Bacon, and, when transferred by Vico to philology and history of culture (…) forms the basis of modern historiography, archaeology, psychology and artistic procedures alike). (McLuhan to Harold Innis, March 14, 1951, Letters p221)

Often noted from Montaigne onward is the growing interest in the anatomy of states of mind which in Giambattista Vico reached the point of stress on the importance of reconstructing by vivisection the inner history of one’s own mind. A century separates Vico’s Autobiography and Wordsworth’s Prelude, but they are products of the same impulse. Another century, and Joyce’s Portrait carries the same enterprise a stage further. Vico generalized the process as a means of reconstructing the stages of human culture by the vivisection and contemplation of language itself. (The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape Poetry, 1951)

At the time when Joyce was studying the trivium with the Jesuits there had occurred in the European world a rebirth of interest in the traditional arts of communication. Indirectly, this had come about through the reconstruction of past cultures as carried on by nineteenth-century archaeology and anthropology. For these new studies had directed attention to the role of language and writing in the formation of societies and the transmission of culture. And the total or gestalt approach natural in the study of primitive cultures had favored the study of language as part of the entire cultural network. Language was seen as inseparable from the tool-making and economic life of these peoples. It was not studied in abstraction from the practical concerns of society.
It was at this time that Vico came into his own. At the beginning of the eighteenth century Vico’s Scienza Nuova had proposed language as the basis for anthropology and a new science of history. Extant languages, he argued, could be regarded as working models of all past culture, because language affords an unbroken line of communication with the totality of the human past. The modalities of grammar, etymology and word-formation could be made to yield a complete account of the economic, social and spiritual adventures of mankind. If geology could reconstruct the story of the earth from the inert strata of rock and day, the scienza nuova could do much better with the living languages of men.7 (James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial, 1953)

James Joyce certainly thought he had found in Vico a philosopher who had some better cultural awareness than those moved by the “Cartesian spring.” And Vico, like Heidegger, is a philologist among philosophers. His time theory of “ricorsi” has been interpreted by lineal minds to imply “recurrence.” A recent study of him brushes this notion aside.8 Vico conceives the time-structure of history as “not linear, but contrapuntal. It must be traced along a number of lines of development”. For Vico all history is contemporary or simultaneous, a fact given, Joyce would add, by virtue of language itself, the simultaneous storehouse of all experience. And in Vico, the concept of recurrence cannot “be admitted at the level of the course of the nations through time”: “The establishment of providence establishes universal history, the total presence of the human spirit to itself in idea.9 In this principle, the supreme `ricorso’ is achieved by the human spirit in idea, and it possesses itself, past, present, and future, in an act which is wholly consonant with its own historicity.”10 (The Gutenberg Galaxy, 1962, p249-250)

Vico was the first to spot language itself as a memory theatre. Finnegans Wake is such a memory theatre for the entire contents of human consciousness and unconsciousness. With the arrival of the printed word, the whole fabric of these theatres collapsed quickly. The medieval cathedrals were memory theatres. The Golden Bough is a memory theatre of the corporate rather than the private consciousness and marks a major transition toward the retribalizing of human consciousness. (McLuhan to William Jovanovich,  December 1, 1966, Letters p339)

There seems to be a general unwillingness to consider the impact of technological innovation on the human sensibility. The reason that Joyce considered Vico’s new science so important for his own linguistic probes, was that Vico was the first to point out that a total history of human culture and sensibility is embedded in the changing structural forms of language. (McLuhan to Robert J. Leuver, July 30, 1969, Letters p384-385)

Like Isadore of Seville, Vico saw the history of cultural evolution in the etymologies of words as recording responses to technological innovations. (From Cliché to Archetype, 1970, p127)

The Etymologiae of Isidore of Seville in the sixth century a.d. was a compendium of the arts and sciences. Etymology was understood to include the secret principles of all forms of being, physical and spiritual. In the seventeenth century Vico’s Scienza Nuova reasserted those ancient principles of verbal resonance as comprising the keys to all scientific and humanist mysteries. James Joyce, who incorporated not only Vico, but all the ancient traditions of language as science, alludes to the principal feature of this kind of “new science” in Finnegans Wake: “As for the viability of vicinals, when invisible they’re invincible.” The allusion to Vico is environmental (vicus: Latin for neighborhood), indicating the irresistible operation of causes in the new environments issuing from new technologies. Since these environments are always invisible, merely because they are environments, their transforming powers are never heeded in time to be moderated or controlled. (Take Today, 1972, p150-151) 

In 1725 Giambattista Vico explained in his Scienza Nuova (§331): “But in the night of thick darkness enveloping the earliest antiquity. so remote from ourselves, there shines the eternal and never-failing light of a truth beyond all question, that the world of civil society has certainly been made by men, and that its principles are therefore to be found within the modifications of our own human mind.” (Laws of Media, posthumous, p4)

Vico (…) begins by reiterating and updating Bacon’s [four] Idols as his own first four Axioms. The first four axioms constitute the basis of Vico’s elements and, says Vico, “give us the basis for refuting all opinions hitherto held about the principles of humanity” (New Science, §163). “These four axioms express a theory of ignorance which we need in order to acquire a doctrine of truth concerning the nature of humanity.”11 (Laws of Media, posthumous, p11)

The ‘myth of objectivity’, a result of visual bias, belongs to the ‘Idols of the Theatre’ or what Giambattista Vico termed ‘the conceit of scholars’ in his fourth axiom. Vico was merely following [Bacon’s] instructions when, at the outset of his Scienza Nuova, he set out his [four] ‘elements’ or ‘axioms’, for Bacon had prefaced his account of his [four] ‘Idols’ with these words: “The formation of ideas and axioms by true induction is no doubt the proper remedy to be applied for the keeping off and clearing away of idols. To point them out, however, is of great use for the doctrine of idols is to the interpretation of nature what the doctrine of the refutation of sophisms is to common logic.”12 (Laws of Media, posthumous, p83-84)

Summing his great chapter on Poetic Wisdom. Vico reiterates: “We have shown that poetic wisdom justly deserves two great and sovereign tributes. The one, clearly and constantly accorded to it, is that of having founded gentile mankind, though the conceit of the nations on the one hand, and that of the scholars on the other, the former with ideas of an empty magnificence and the latter with ideas of an impertinent philosophical wisdom, have in effect denied it this honour by their very efforts to affirm it. The other, concerning which a vulgar tradition has come down to us, is that the wisdom of the ancients made its wise men, by a single aspiration, equally great as philosophers, lawmakers, captains, historians, orators and poets, on which account it has been so greatly sought after.”13 (Laws of Media, posthumous, p85)

Western Old Science approaches the study of media in terms of linear, sequential transportation of data as detached figures (content); the New Science approach is via the ground of users and of environmental media effects(Laws of Media, posthumous, p85)

When determining the principles on which his Scienza Nuova would rest, Giambattista Vico, the last great pre-electric grammarian, decided to use cultures themselves as his text: “We must reckon as if there were no books in the world.”14 In shunning conventional science and returning to direct observation of the page of Nature, Vico pursued the same course Francis Bacon had charted in the Novum Organum..(Laws of Media, posthumous, p215)

Vico’s technique is set forth in the second of his five books as the practical heuristic application of not philosophical but poetic wisdom. For method: “We must therefore go back with the philologians and fetch it from the stones of Deucalion and Pyrrha,15 from the rocks of Amphion,16 from the men who sprang from the furrows of Cadmus17 or the hard oak18 of Vergil.”19 Vico’s Science went one essential step beyond Bacon’s. Meditating on the relations between the two books, he found a new correspondence, an interplay that raised a new ‘text’ for grammatical scrutiny. “But in the night of thick darkness enveloping the earliest antiquity, so remote from ourselves, there shines the eternal and never-failing light of a truth beyond all question: that the world of civil society has certainly been made by men, and that its principles are therefore to be found within the modifications of our own human mind. Whoever reflects on this cannot but marvel that the philosophers should have bent all their energies to the study of the world of nature, which, since God made it, He alone knows, and that they should have neglected the study of the world of nations or civil world, which, since men made it, men could hope to know. This aberration was a consequence of that infirmity of the human mind, noted in the Axioms, by which, immersed and buried in the body, it naturally inclines to take notice of bodily things, and finds the effort to attend to itself too laborious; just as the bodily eye sees all objects outside itself but needs a mirror to see itself.”20 The new text is man’s social artefacts… (Laws of Media, posthumous, p220-221)

Vico brings to bear all of the resources of grammar, both as regards exegesis of the two books and as regards the processes of etymology: “The human mind is naturally inclined by the senses to see itself externally in the body, and only with great difficulty does it come to attend to itself by means of reflection. This axiom gives us the universal principle of etymology in all languages: words are carried over from bodies and from the properties of bodies to express the things of the mind and spirit“.21 This passage puts on display the standard grammatical awareness of the correspondence of words and things, though seldom has it been made so explicit. As poetic (rhetorical) wisdom focuses on the sensibilities as crucial, Vico asserts that there must exist a mental dictionary, not of abstract philosophical ideas, but of concrete poetic-philological sensibilities conformal to the things and artefacts of common experience: “There must, in the nature of human things be a mental language common to all nations, which uniformly grasps the substance of things feasible in human social life, and expresses it with as many diverse modifications as these same things may have diverse aspects. A proof of this is afforded by proverbs or maxims of vulgar wisdom, in which substantially the same meanings find as many diverse expressions as there are nations ancient and modern. This common mental language is proper to our Science, by whose light linguistic scholars will be enabled to construct a mental vocabulary common to all the various articulate languages living and dead (…) As far as our small erudition will permit, we shall make use of this vocabulary in all the matters we discuss.22  (Laws of Media, posthumous, p221-222) 

Concluding his discussion of poetic wisdom, Vico accorded it ‘two great and sovereign tributes’. One is ‘that of having founded gentile mankind’; the other concerned the ‘wisdom of the ancients’ as sketched in the fables: “And it may be said that in the fables the nations have in a rough way and in the language of the human senses, described the beginnings of this world of sciences, which the specialized studies of scholars have since clarified for us by reasoning and generalization. From this we may conclude what we set out to show in this (second) book: that the theological poets were the sense and the philosophers the intellect of human wisdom.”23 (Laws of Media, posthumous, p222) 

Vico aimed to heal the rift in the trivium between the Ancients and the Moderns. He sought to avoid the faults that had accumulated in both philology and philosophy, since they were split in the twelfth and sixteenth centuries, by blending them: “Philosophy contemplates reason, whence comes knowledge of the true; philology observes the authority of human choice, whence comes consciousness of the certain. This axiom by its second part defines as philologians all the grammarians, historians, critics, who have occupied themselves with the study of the languages and deeds of peoples both their domestic affairs, such as customs and laws, and their external affairs, such as wars, peaces, alliances, travels and commerce. This same axiom shows how the philosophers failed by half in not giving certainty to their reasonings by appeal to the authority of the philologians, and likewise how the latter failed by half in not taking care to give their authority the sanction of truth by appeal to the reasoning of the philosophersIf they had both done this they would have been more useful to their commonwealths and they would have anticipated us in conceiving this Science.”24(Laws of Media, posthumous, p222-223)

Vico’s contemporaries were no more able to carry forward his work than were their successors, and so the problem has remained to this day (…) In the end, it eluded him for he was caught in a dilemma that had been building for centuries before him and that was then [invisible25 because] environmental. (…) Vico simply had not distinguished between first and second nature for separate study: nothing in his experience suggested such a distinction would be of any use. Second nature is nature made and remade by man as man remakes himself with his extensions. Separate them: the first is the province of traditional grammar;26 the second, that of Bacon, Vico, and Laws of Media. (Laws of Media, posthumous, p223)

The key to Vico’s science was the mental dictionary (…) the dictionary of real words (…) is, as he anticipated, a ‘mental’ dictionary in that it displays patterns and transformations of sensibility.27 (Laws of Media, posthumous, p223)

  1. Palmer was the editor of The Sewanee Review from 1946 to 1952.
  2. As detailed in McLuhan’s The Mechanical Bride (1951), the ‘machine’ here is just as much news, advertising, entertainment, sports…
  3. The Croce citation is from History of Aesthetic, trans. D. Ainslie, 1929, 226.
  4. The Autobiography of Giambattista Vico, trans. T. G. Bergin and M. H. Fisch, Ithaca, NY,1944. Presumably (given his association of Vico with Bacon) McLuhan had been alerted to Vico by his Jesuit students in St Louis (particularly Maurice McNamee who wrote his doctorate on Bacon working initially with McLuhan) with the result that he read the Autobiography shortly after the publication of its translation. For McLuhan’s association of Vico with Bacon, see Bacon and Vico. As regards “intellectual self-portraits”, in the mid-1940s McLuhan wrote a series of portraits (of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey, Byron, Shelley and Keats) for a volume which he titled Character Anthology. Never published, it is to be found in his papers in Ottawa.
  5. McLuhan is thinking of the 200 year consensus reflected in the Royal Society in London and the Edinburgh Review in Scotland.
  6. McLuhan’s Introduction to Hugh Kenner, Paradox in Chesterton, 1948.
  7. McLuhan continues: “Previously, historians had attempted to create working models of some segment of the human past in their narratives. These (historical narratives) were necessarily hypothetical structures eked out by scraps of recorded data. The new historian need never attempt again to revivify the past by imaginative art, because it is all present in language. And it is present, Joyce would add, as a newsreel re-presents actual events. We can sit back and watch the “all night news reel” of Finnegans Wake reveal as interfused the whole human drama past and present. This can be done by directing an analytical camera-eye upon the movements within and between words.”
  8. A. Robert Caponigri, Time and Idea: The Theory of History in Giambattista Vico, 1953.
  9. Re “the total presence of the human spirit to itself” note that the physical sciences study the total events of the universe, past, present and future. This does not mean, however, that they are perfectly known without possibility of correction. Far rather, the perpetual possibility of correction is the very motor of science. So with the proposed new science. No human experience will lie outside its purview, but investigation of it will never be final.
  10. Time and Idea, p. 142. See the previous note for pertinent commentary.
  11. McLuhan is citing here from Donald P. Verene, Vico’s Science of the Imagination, 1981.
  12. Novum Organum, Book I, aphorism xl.
  13. New Science, §779.
  14. New Science, §330.
  15. As recorded by Apollodorus and Ovid, Deucalion and Pyrrha, the only survivors of the flood visited upon mankind by Zeus, were able to repopulate the earth by casting stones, ‘the bones of the earth’, behind them.
  16. Building the fortification walls of Thebes with his brother, Zethus, Amphion was able to sing his stones into their place.
  17. In a myth often recalled by McLuhan as signaling the effect of literacy, Cadmus sowed dragon’s teeth and from this emerged his army.
  18. In Vergil’s golden age, the “tough oak” will “drip with dew-wet honey”.
  19. New Science, §338.
  20. New Science, §331.
  21. New Science, §236-§237.
  22. New Science, §161-§162.
  23. New Science, §779.
  24. New Science, §138.
  25. “Environments are always invisible, merely because they are environments” (full passage from Take Today given above).
  26. And of all the physical sciences.
  27. Here, with his last note on Vico, McLuhan returned to his first in 1944 (given above), 35 years before, at a time when he had not yet begun to study him: “Vico (…) held that all language was basically expressive of universal concepts. Says Croce: “Vico also looked forward to a universal system of etymology, a dictionary of mental words common to all nations.” Here, too, is to be seen McLuhan’s later reading of Finnegans Wake as “a universal system of etymology, a dictionary of (…) words common to all nations.”

McDonald on McLuhan’s utopianism

A passage on McLuhan from Peter McDonald’s Artefacts of Writing: Ideas of the State and Communities of Letters from Matthew Arnold to Xu Bing has been discussed previously. Here a second passage will be examined (with running commentary in footnotes):1

Read alongside [Goody and Watt’s] ‘The Consequences of Literacy’, Marshall McLuhan’s The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), which appeared a year earlier, seems like an uncannily preemptive rebuke. For one thing, McLuhan rejected the idea that oral cultures show no ‘capacity or opportunity for independent and original thought’;2 for another, he saw the advent of ‘phonetic writing’ as a cultural catastrophe.3 ‘Literate man, when we meet him in the Greek world’, he insisted, ‘is a split man, a schizophrenic, as all literate men4 have been since the invention of the phonetic alphabet’.5 He did not use the word ‘schizophrenic’ lightly or entirely metaphorically. ‘Only the phonetic alphabet makes a break between eye and ear, between semantic meaning and visual code’, thereby instituting6 a wholly new set of ‘ratios or proportions among the senses’, rupturing the primal integrity of the ‘human sensorium’.7
As we have seen, given the evidence for the ongoing interconnectedness
of the phonological, the orthographic, and the lexical in the literate brain, this sensory-cognitive version of the Judeo-Christian Fall narrative makes no sense in contemporary neuroscientific terms, though for McLuhan it was central.8 The dissociation the Greeks effected was not just psychic, however: it was cultural, since ‘only phonetic writing has the power to translate man from the tribal to the civilized sphere’. In McLuhan’s primitivist lexicon ‘civilized’ was synonymous with ‘schizophrenic’, ‘abstract’, and ‘visual’, whereas ‘tribal’ signified ‘wholeness’, ‘concreteness’, and the ‘audile-tactile’, associative patterns he had no hesitation in projecting onto his own idiosyncratic cultural map of the world.9 While ‘areas like China and India are all still audile-tactiIe in the main’, he claimed, ‘Africa’ epitomized ‘the implicit, magical world of the resonant oral word’.10 In the end, however, McLuhan’s analysis was less an anticipatory repudiation of the world according to Goody and Watt, than a direct inversion of it.11 Like them, he saw Greek ‘phonetic writing’ as an exclusively ‘visual code for speech’, but he recast their positive account of its transformative effects in starkly negative terms.12 In his view, the future lay in the new ‘post-literate’ media of the ‘electronic age’ — namely the telegraph, radio, film, and television — that promised13 to overcome ‘the detribalizing power of the phonetic alphabet’, cure Western ‘schizophrenia’ by reclaiming the repressed ‘Africa within’, and unite ‘the entire human family into a single global tribe’—hence his utopian vision of the ‘global village’ to come.14

Here is McLuhan over 50 years ago with “an uncannily preemptive rebuke” to McDonald’s reading :

Many are now disposed to reject the entire achievement of literate Western man in an effort to recover integral values.15 But surely this temper is not very different from that which emerged in the early phases of literacy, when leaders were prepared to dismantle and detribalize their world in favour of a visual, lineal, individualistic stress in the organization of experience.16 To embark now on a reverse course [with an aural, simultaneous, crowd stress] is the immediate suggestion and mandate of electric technology. And to pro or con this reverse course is merely to accept the mechanical fate of a new technology. Is there no third course? How can we elude the merely technical closure in our inner lives and recover autonomy? What if any is the cultural strategy of the suspended judgment, of the open-ended proposition? (The Electronic Age – The Age of Implosion, 1962)


  1. McDonald, Artefacts of Writing, 10. Phrases in single quotation marks are citations from McLuhan’s Gutenberg Galaxy.
  2. McDonald is importantly correct here. McLuhan took it that all human experience, oral or literate, is the result of a creative encounter with the range of possibilities before it — much as language may be considered after Saussure as the result of a selective encounter with the range of sounds and grammatical forms before it. (‘Before’ in both these cases is to be understood temporally, but also implicates a non-physical ‘space of generation’.) So although oral and literate experience differ fundamentally, the process through which both sorts of experience is generated is the same. In a comparable way, elements like hydrogen and gold differ fundamentally, but exhibit the same elementary structure. Mendeleev’s table sets out the spectrum of ways in which that one structure can be expressed.
  3. In McLuhan’s view, ‘catastrophe’ here should be understood in its etymological sense, as a ‘turning over’ (like a furrow of soil) to expose and promote new possibility. Regarding the negative sense of ‘catastrophe’ as apparently intended by McDonald, the advent of writing for McLuhan was, in fact, like all human events, neither only bad nor only good. It was both. But just how it was both requires detailed study — study that might equally be applied to the advent of new media today.
  4. Regarding ‘all literate men’ it must be noted that nobody is ‘literate’ all the time. Not in sleep, for example. The need is therefore for specific identification which would then enable ongoing collective study in a ‘classroom without walls’.
  5. ‘Schizophrenic’ here is used to indicate the extent of the split that characterizes the Gutenberg galaxy in all its dimensions. All humans, including preliterate humans, generate their experience through the relative emphasis on ‘split’ ear/eye ratios of possibility.
  6. The ratios institute us, not we them. The exposure of new ratios occurs through literacy, but the reality and vitality of those ratios is synchronic, not diachronic.
  7. ‘Primal integrity’ here is McDonald’s phrase. While McLuhan does use phrases like this at times, they should be taken to indicate a relative ‘integrity’ along a ‘primal’ synchronic spectrum, not an absolute integrity along a chronological course.
  8. There are two great problems to McDonald’s explication here. First, McLuhan explicitly rejected this ‘Fall’ narrative: “For many years, until I wrote my first book, The Mechanical Bride (1951), I adopted an extremely moralistic approach to all environmental technology. I loathed machinery, I abominated cities, I equated the Industrial Revolution with original sin and mass media with the Fall. In short, I rejected almost every element of modern life in favor of a Rousseauvian utopianism. But gradually I perceived how sterile and useless this attitude was…” (Playboy Interview). Second: as seen in McDonald’s doubling of “sensory-cognitive” and “makes no sense”, it is anything but clear just what ‘sense’ is (let alone “sensory-cognitive”!). McLuhan’s suggestion was to focus not on supposedly well-known units, like the individual senses, or like the sense of some proposition, but on ratios and, in focusing on ratios, specifically on their middles or media: ‘the medium is the message’. Sense was to be understood through ratios, not ratios through sense.
  9. McLuhan also associated ‘tribal’ with violence and unconsciousness. This considerably complicates McDonald’s purported “primitivist lexicon”!
  10. McDonald does not wonder if the “resonant (…) word” is an object, a subject, or a medium. Perhaps it might be considered in all three ways, separately and together. But then the imperative would be actually to carry out the consideration!
  11. Leaving aside the questions if ‘the world according to Goody and Watt’ is anything more than a turn of phrase, and if it is something subject to “inversion”, McLuhan would like to know if the ratio reported by McDonald between Goody/Watt and McLuhan has a range of possible realization. If yes, what is that range and how does it work? If no, how account for this singularity?
  12. McLuhan never tired of pointing out the obvious fact that he was a teacher of literature. His own values were entirely caught up with letters. In attempting to defend those values, he was accused of attacking them. As he repeatedly noted, he was like a man sounding a fire alarm who is charged with arson.
  13. Elsewhere, McDonald offhandedly refers to the “deterministic aspects of McLuhan’s thesis” (12). Presumably the “promised” “utopian” future has this basis. But McDonald does not explain this characterization which bears no relation to McLuhan’s work. In fact, McLuhan took it that the electric environment would place human beings in a sink-or-swim situation where they would either figure out at last how to study their own actions in the world — or perish from them.
  14. It is hard to see these purported goals as “starkly negative”. And it is simply mistaken to read McLuhan as having “utopian” expectations of the ongoing media revolution or revolutions. He thought survival of the human species and of the planet itself was now at stake. But this was a “starkly negative” view entirely at variance with McDonald’s reading of the man.
  15. Exactly what McDonald attributes to McLuhan!
  16. The constant “temper”, or temptation, is to allow or encourage the takeover of our inner and outer lives by new technology without consideration of the cost.

G.S. Brett

G.S. Brett (1879-1944), longtime University of Toronto professor and Harold Innis’ predecessor as Dean of Graduate Studies, had died by the time McLuhan got to Toronto in 1946. But Brett’s Psychology Ancient and Modern was familiar to McLuhan, perhaps through Carl Williams who knew of Brett’s work from his grad studies in psychology at UT in the 1930s.1

Brett’s book is cited in The Gutenberg Galaxy (p 74):

Only one third of the history of the book in the Western world has been typographic. It is not incongruous, therefore, to say as G. S. Brett does in Psychology Ancient and Modern:

The idea that knowledge is essentially book learning seems to be a very modern view, probably derived from the mediaeval distinctions between clerk and layman, with additional emphasis provided by the literary character of the rather fantastic humanism of the sixteenth century. The original and natural idea of knowledge is that of “cunning” or the possession of wits. Odysseus is the original type of thinker, a man of many ideas who could overcome the Cyclops and achieve a significant triumph of mind over matter. Knowledge is thus a capacity for overcoming the difficulties of life and achieving success in this world.2

Brett here specifies the natural dichotomy which the book brings into any society, in addition to the split within the individual of that society.

The image of the Cyclops appears frequently in McLuhan’s work, usually signifying unipolar ‘thinking’ that is lacking in depth perception (because lacking the bipolarity necessary for it). 

A further passage in Brett concerning the “spontaneous act of the soul” may have contributed to McLuhan’s idea that the “power of detached observation” provides an escape from the media maelstrom.3 

The mystics were always more or less Platonic; mediaeval Platonism handed on to modern times the one indispensable principle that every fragment of knowledge, though it may be conditioned by the sense, involves a spontaneous act of the soul. Platonism thus became the natural creed of all who believed that consciousness cannot be reduced to physiological terms.4


  1. Williams obtained his MA (1937) and PhD (1940) in psychology from UT. He took at least one seminar with E.A. Bott (see D.C. Williams, ‘Bott’s “Systematic” Seminar: Some Recollections‘, Canadian Psychologist / Psychologie canadienne, 15:3, 1974, 299–301), who would be credited with Williams’ ideas on ‘auditory space’ in the culture and technology seminar. Williams’ undergraduate degree came from the University of Manitoba, where he and McLuhan continued their high school friendship. At that time the University of Manitoba had not yet separated the Philosophy and Psychology departments. But William’s decision to take advanced degrees in psychology at UT must have been  influenced by Henry Wright, who was the head of the psychology subsection within the Philosophy department at UM and would become the first head of the separated department of Psychology when it finally came into independent existence in 1945.
  2. Psychology, Ancient and Modern, 36.
  3. Footprints in the Sands of Crime’ (1946): “The sailor in his (Poe’s) story The Maelstrom is at first paralyzed with horror. But in his very paralysis there is another fascination which emerges, a power of detached observation which becomes a “scientific” interest in the action of the strom. And this provides the means of escape.”
  4. Psychology, Ancient and Modern, 150.

McDonald on Humboldt and McLuhan

In his 2017 book, Artefacts of Writing: Ideas of the State and Communities of Letters from Matthew Arnold to Xu BingPeter McDonald makes a series of observations on McLuhan which are utterly mis-taken — but which yet may be taken to point (in the mode of Wittgenstein’s arrows)1 to central aspects of McLuhan’s project. Here is a sample of McDonald’s take with a running commentary given in the footnotes:2

McLuhan looked back to the Prussian idealist philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt, citing the following key statement from On the Diversity of Human Language (1836) via Ernst Cassirer and in Susanne K. Langer’s translation:

Man lives with his objects chiefly — in fact, since his feeling and acting depends on his perceptions, one may say exclusively — as language presents them to him. By the same process whereby he spins language out of his own being, he ensnares himself in it; and each language draws a magic circle round the people to which it belongs, a circle from which there is no escape save by stepping out of it into another.3

(…) Humboldt saw this as a phenomenon in and of language; whereas McLuhan, like Goody and Watt,4 believed that the effects of print were social and political as well as cognitive.5 If the ‘Gutenberg revolution’ instituted the ‘fixed point of view’ characteristic of nationalist thinking (…) McLuhan, it should be said, did not appeal to Humboldt merely as an exemplar of nation-centred linguistic relativity.6 In keeping with his Utopian vision,7 he saw the passage from the Diversity of Human Language as an endorsement of his own ambition to ‘transcend the limitations of our own assumptions by a critique of them’.8 Humboldt’s relativism, as he saw it, was fundamentally emancipatory, since he showed9 ‘we can now live, not just amphibiously in divided and distinguished worlds, but pluralistically in many worlds and cultures simultaneously’.10 For him, the ‘global village’ to come was, in other words, not just post-literate but post-national.11 Like many commentators, he ignored the fact that Humboldt, for all his relativism, always insisted on seeing languages as open-ended rather than ‘closed systems’, the expressive potential of which is endlessly extendable…12 

What McDonald says McLuhan ignored in von Humboldt — “the expressive  potential [of language] which is endlessly extendable” — is actually what McDonald “like many commentators” ignores in McLuhan: namely, the all important distinction between ‘making’ and ‘matching’ (or ‘merging’). Making is “open-ended”, while matching/merging aims at being ‘closed-ended’ — but can never actually be ‘closed-ended’ given the multiple ramifications of human finitude. 

The “endlessly extendable” nature of all human enterprise operates despite the fact that we are always situated in some or other “magic circle” — “from which there is no escape save by stepping out of it into another”. This may be seen as negative or positive — or both — depending upon context. For McLuhan, the great point is that real communication and real knowing occur despite — or exactly thereby — the fact that no ultimate closure is possible. “The gap is where the action is.” This is most clearly to be seen in language learning by in-fants. Somehow they step from one magic circle to another. But something of the sort occurs in all great art and in all scientific discovery.

As regards the field of media theory, which is no less than the field of all human experience which is never unmediated, never not situated in some or other “magic circle”, the “endlessly extendable” nature of language implicates the possibility that this field, too, may be investigated and mapped. McLuhan’s insistent question: why don’t we get on with the job when so much, even our survival, may depend on it?

Here he is in his Playboy interview:

our survival (…)  is predicated on understanding the nature of our new environment, because unlike previous environmental changes, the electric media constitute a total and near-instantaneous transformation of culture, values and attitudes. This upheaval generates great pain and identity loss, which can be ameliorated only through a conscious awareness of its dynamics. If we understand the revolutionary transformations caused by new media, we can anticipate and control them; but if we continue in our self-induced subliminal trance, we will be their slaves.
Because of today’s terrific speed-up of information moving, we have a chance to apprehend, predict and influence the environmental forces shaping us — and thus win back control of our own destinies. The new extensions of man and the environment they generate are the central manifestations of the evolutionary process, and yet we still cannot free ourselves of the delusion that it is how a medium is used that counts, rather than what it does to us and with us. This is the zombie stance of the technological idiot. It’s to escape this Narcissus trance that I’ve tried to trace and reveal the impact of media on man, from the beginning of recorded time to the present.


  1. PU #454: “Der Pfeil zeigt nur in der Anwendung, die das Lebewesen von ihm macht.” An arrow has meaning only in the application made of it within some exercise of life. McLuhan: the message of an arrow has meaning only in the context of some prior medium.
  2. McDonald, p 11. Single quotation marks in the passage signal McDonald’s citations from The Gutenberg Galaxy, the great majority of which are from its first 40 pages.
  3. Cited from von Humboldt in The Gutenberg Galaxy30-31.
  4. In ‘The Consequences of Literacy’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 5:3 (April, 1963), pp. 304-345.
  5. McLuhan would reject this “whereas” since for him the “social and political” were fundamentally also “in and of language”. Like everything in possible human experience, they had their “grammars”. For McLuhan’s discussion of the point see, eg, his 1958 Grammars of the Media.
  6. Are “nationalist thinking” and “nation-centred linguistic relativity” offered here as figures or grounds? Do they make sense either way? Especially, are independent investigators able to specify these proposed objects and to investigate them in common? By implicating questions like these, the Gutenberg mentality points beyond itself (cf Wittgenstein’s arrows above) and is, therefore, not at all merely negative in McLuhan’s view (as McDonald would have it). More, McLuhan often characterized his whole project as an attempt to defend such undoubted goods such as individual identity, privacy, human rights, law and science, all of which he saw as priceless products of the Gutenberg galaxy and as gravely threatened in a world gone electric. Today in 2022, over 40 years after McLuhan’s death, it is plain that he was all too prophetic about that threat.
  7. As if wishing to illustrate McLuhan’s description of the literary outlook as “schizophrenic”, McDonald characterizes McLuhan’s work in successive sentences as “starkly negative” and as “utopian” in its desire to “unite the entire human family” (10). The same taste for stark dissociation may be seen in operation immediately before this where McDonald describes McLuhan as “a direct inversion” of the “world according to Goody and Watt”. In fundamental contrast, McLuhan’s enterprise attempted to liberate us from such conceptualizations as “direct inversion” by insisting on the prior range of such ratios.
  8. The word “endorsement” here is strange. Far rather, McLuhan saw von Humboldt’s observation as precipitating basic problems which, once deeply considered, might lead to needed new ground. The central problem in von Humboldt’s passage is the threat of infinite regress from one “magic circle” to another and to another after that — and so on indefinitely. Moreover, as Nietzsche was to show later that century, such regress leads to the loss, not only of the ‘true world’, but of the ‘apparent world’ along with it. Hence his nihilism. Put in McLuhan’s terms, if the medium is the message, how is any medium to be specified except via some further medium? And if the medium can never be specified strictly (because always begging the question of its medium), how can it be that ‘the medium is the message’? What medium? And, therefore, what message? Here Beckett is the great expositor.
  9. McDonald omits explication of just how what “ensnares” might “show” at the same time — especially how it might show something “fundamentally emancipatory”. But precisely this is the heart of the matter!
  10. Here is the fundamental medium (or elementary structure) proposed by McLuhan: “live, not just (…) in (…) distinguished worlds, but pluralistically in many worlds and cultures simultaneously”. That is, we may now live not just in one “distinguished world” structured by a singular (usually molecular) configuration of ear/eye ratio, but “in many worlds and cultures simultaneously” — by always judging against the background of all possible ear/eye ratios and their combinations at once.
  11. McDonald’s linear language here (“to come”, “post-“) fails to appreciate the synchronic axis of McLuhan’s work (“simultaneously”) and therefore also fails to appreciate the crossing in it of the synchronic and diachronic axes. The underlying problem is a failure to appreciate the inherent plurality of times. ‘Time’s arrow’, like Wittgenstein’s, is not unidirectional.
  12. Or was McLuhan one of the few people in the world who took this open/closed question with deep seriousness by insisting on the range of their ratios? Indeed, how a “magic circle” that “ensnares” might also be “open-ended (…) the expressive potential of which is endlessly extendable” is the great question — one McLuhan engaged for 35 years as that of a possible “ascent from the maelstrom”.

The entire range of human expressiveness

In the 1969 Counterblast McLuhan writes of the “total matrix of living relations”, the “primordial matrix”, from which humans via an “enormous effort of collective abstraction” can ‘disentangle’ a new understanding of discrete areas of life (such as geometry):

Geometry is visual space. An enormous effort of collective abstraction [as occurred in Greece 2500 years ago in the founding of geometry] precedes the disentangling of these [focal] elements from the total matrix of living relations. Today an even greater energy is needed (…) to understand in a connubium [in a complex singularity like a city], the unity of all the elements which men have abstracted by their codes from the primordial matrix. 

As regards the still un-dis-covered (or, at least, uncommunicated) field of human perception, this “total matrix” or “primordial matrix” is “the entire range of human personal expressiveness”1, the “complete a range of expressiveness”2, the “medium itself”3, from which any particular perception of an individual or a society may be regarded as abstracted. In this same sense, any sample of physical material may be studied as abstracted from the “total matrix” or “complete range” of chemical possibilities (which “range” or Mendeleev’s table is of course just what chemistry is).4

In the passages below, McLuhan points to this matrix or range of expressiveness that amounts to the spectrum of possibilities out of which human experience may be specified — and thereby investigated — as generated:

Technology and Political Change (1952)
If the new reality of our time is in the main a collective dream or nightmare brought about by the mechanization of speech (television takes the final step of mechanizing the expressiveness of the human figure and gesture) then we must learn the art of using all our wits in a dream world, as did James Joyce in FINNEGANS WAKE. 

Technology and Political Change (1952)
Seen as communication networks, all cultures past or present represent a uniquely valuable response to specific problems in interpersonal and inter-social communication. This position amounts to no more than saying that any known language possesses qualities of expressiveness not to be found in any other language [just as any sample of physical material must be investigated as a unique product of the elements composing it].

Notes on the Media as Art Forms (1954)
Andre Malraux came up with the news of ‘museums-without-walls’. The main force making in that direction he saw was the clarification of the painter’s medium itself. The canvas gradually freed from anecdote and narrative became in our time not a vehicle but sheer expression.

Notes on the Media as Art Forms (1954)
Every medium is in some sense a universal, pressing towards maximal realization. But its expressive pressures disturb existing balances and patterns in other media of culture. The increasing inclusiveness of our sense of such repercussions le
ads us today hopefully to investigate the possibilities of orchestral harmony in the multi-levelled drive towards pure human expressiveness.5

Historical Approach to the Media (1955)
Radio and TV were not just the electrification of speech and gesture but the electronification of the entire range of human personal expressiveness.

Nihilism Exposed (1955)
On the plane of applied science we have fashioned a Plotinian world-culture which implements the non-human and superhuman doctrines of neo-Platonic angelism to the point where the human dimension is obliterated by sensuality at one end of the spectrum, and by sheer abstraction at the other

Educational Effects of Mass Media of Communication (1956)
If our new media constitute so complete a range of expressiveness as both to enhance and almost to supplant speech itself, then we have moved into the period of post-literacy. If our present means of exploring and presenting the human past are such as to make simultaneously present all kinds of human pasts, then we have moved into the period of post-history.

Prospect (1962)
The fact that we have many media now enables us to leap across the barriers from one form or one set of rules to another. And I think it is this multiplicity of media that is now enabling man to free himself from media for the first time in history. He has been the victim, the servo-mechanism of his technologies, his media from the beginning of time, but now because of the sheer multiplicity of them he is beginning to awaken.

Counterblast (1969)
Our craving today for balance and an end of ever accelerating change, may quite possibly point to the possibility thereof. But the obvious lesson of all this development for education seems to me both simple and startling. If our new media constitute so complete a range of expressiveness as both to enhance and almost to supplant speech itself, then we have moved into the period of post-literacy. If our present means of exploring and presenting the human past are such as to make simultaneously present all kinds of human pasts, then we have moved into the period of post-history. Not that we are to be deprived of books any more than of ancient manuscripts. But it is plain that our new culture is not going to lean very heavily on any one means of encoding experience or of representing reality.6

  1. Historical Approach to the Media’ (1955), cited above.
  2. Educational Effects of Mass Media of Communication’ (1956) cited above.
  3. ‘Notes on the Media as Art Forms’ (1954), cited above.
  4. Sciences are both discovered and invented. Dis-covery is made of existing structures. What is invented is a way of focusing on those structures such that collective identification and investigation of them becomes possible.
  5. In this same essay, McLuhan calls the culmination of this “drive towards pure human expressiveness” a “day of emancipation” for “each channel of expression (even press, radio, cinema)”.
  6. Most of this passage is taken from the 1956 ‘Educational Effects of Mass Media of Communication’, some of which is given above.

Thoth: “the third ends the discord of the two”

We have fashioned a Plotinian world-culture which implements the non-human and superhuman doctrines of neo-Platonic angelism to the point where the human dimension is obliterated by sensuality at one end of the spectrum, and by sheer abstraction at the other. (Nihilism Exposed, 1955)

It’s to escape this Narcissus trance that I’ve tried to trace and reveal the impact of media on man, from the beginning of recorded time to the present. (Playboy Interview, 1969)

Thoth played a central role in the ancient Egyptian narrative of The Contendings of Horus and Seth. Their battles were said to have been put to rest through his intervention.1

However, it is important to read such narratives as a kind of diachronic description of a synchronic condition. Taken in this way, the contendings of Horus and Seth, along with the mediation of Thoth, sets out a gigantomachia peri tes ousias (the battle of the gods and giants over the nature of reality) that is structurally parallel to that of Plato 2500 years later — and to our contemporary versions 2500 years later still.2

Horus was the hawk god of the sky and the representative of the Egyptian council of the gods, the Ennead. He was the eye of the world. Seth was the desert animal of the earth — the testicles of the world. Like the gods and giants in the Greek gigantomachia, their battle of the above and the below, the Nile and the desert, the black and the red, abstraction and sensuality, was ‘always going on’ — but so was their peace as brought about by, and as represented in, Thoth.3   

The perennial situation of humans is to be the effect of this complex of times and spaces before them: the dynamic contest of Being itself. Such is human being.

The fate of humans is to have increasingly lost a sense of this definitive situation, a loss that amounts to a tower of Babel assault on the divine. But the tower of Babel assault is itself a mode of the gigantomachia! Hence the rejection and forgetfulness of the gigantomachia takes place, and can take place, only by a mimicking of what it would reject.

Of course there is no escape for beings from Being.

Herman te Velde’s Seth, God of Confusion (1967) sets out the figure of Thoth relative to Horus and Seth as follows:4

Thoth: “the son of the two rivals” (44)5

The moon [Thoth] comes forth out of Seth, who has devoured the seed of Horus. (51)

Thoth: “I am he who limits the flood, who separates the two men.” (60)

“I am he who separated the two brothers” (44)

Thoth: “the cutter” [of the “two brothers” apart from one another], “the sickle” [of the moon and as “cutter”] (44)6

The separating of Horus and Seth is equalled to setting a boundary between the cosmos and the chaos surrounding it like a flood. The separation, indeed, has creative significance, for it is a decisive mythical event. The Egyptians could link all kinds of distinctions or contrasts in contemporary reality with the separation of Horus and Seth: heaven and earth, earth and underworld, right and left, black and red, to be born and to be conceived, rulership and strength, life and dominion. The separation also means a dividing of the world. In the Pyramid texts there are mentioned the places of Horus and the places of Seth. This horizontal division is traversed by a vertical one, that of above and below. (60)

A hymn to Thoth says: “come and behold Thoth, who has appeared in his crown, which the two lords [Horus and Seth] have made fast for him in Hermopolis” [= city of Hermes = city of Thoth] (…) Horus and Seth are not usually imagined as working together in concord. The two combatants bring forth the god of peace [Thoth]. He appears and places himself between the two gods, thereby interceding in the struggle and ending their homosexual relationship.7 He makes separation between the two gods. The third ends the discord of the two gods. (45)

In sacrificial liturgies where the offering is termed the eye of Horus, lapidary sentences enumerate what may happen. Seth seizes the eye; he treads it underfoot; he has stolen it, etc. (…) All texts in which one can read open combat and a militant conflict [between Horus and Seth], are to be placed in this setting of myth and not elsewhere [eg, in historical events]. Yet even here it is not always necessary to imagine a violent fight. Together with the cause of the conflict, peace also becomes apparent: the mediator, Thoth. (45) 

Thoth has constructed the eye [of Horus] in such a way, that he has designed a new image of reality, which takes account of the existence of Seth. According to the Egyptians, reality is not only being, but being and non-being [together]. (48)

Van Baaren remarks “… the originator of confusion, like the creator who sets in order, is an aspect of total reality which cannot be spared.” This aspect of reality in cosmic, social and personal life, which finds expression in the key words ‘storm’, ‘tumult’, ‘illness’, the Egyptians could typify by means of [the hieroglyph of] a Seth-animal with a curved snout and a straight tail. Thus this disturber of the peace became an element of order in the Egyptian system of writing… (31)8

Van Baaren remarks: “In Egypt sacrifice is not so much a gift from men to the gods, as a sacred act whereby man can contribute to the  restoring or the maintaining of cosmic harmony.” (…) This harmony is attained when both Horus and Seth have received their attributes, eye and testicles respectively. (50)

Kerenyi said in [his commentary to Paul Radin’s The Trickster]: ”Disorder belongs to the totality of life, and the spirit of this disorder is the trickster. His function in an archaic society, or rather the function of his mythology, of the tales told about him, is to add disorder to order and so make a whole, to render possible, within the fixed bounds of what is permitted, an experience of what is not permitted”. The testicle symbol is the counterpart of the wedjat-eye, that [Egyptian] symbol of all good and holy things in sound and unimpaired condition. This other aspect of reality could not be ignored. The symbol of the testicles played a part in Egyptian religion from the time the Pyramid texts were composed until Graeco-Roman times [3000 years later]. Horus is appeased with his eye, but Seth must also be appeased with his testicles. Thus he is recognised and worshipped as the “spirit of disorder”, as the lord of the unbridled forces in nature and in civilisation. (56)

Kerenyi called the trickster: “the spirit of disorder, the enemy of boundaries”. (56)

Thoth, like Plato’s philosophical child or childish philosopher as portrayed in the Sophist, will have ‘both together’. But this is an ontological force, not an ontic one. It is therefore a real and perpetual possibility for humans, if we will submit ourselves to it; but at the same time it is a ‘contested’ possibility, not a singular one. Moreover, exactly on account of this plurality, its recognition requires the paradoxical recognition of its equally powerful siamese rivals, Horus and Seth in Egypt, the gods and the giants in Greece. It is this ontological plurality of the fundamentally different which then grounds the both together of ontology and the ontic in their fundamental difference!

In art as in physics fission preceded fusion.9


  1. In other tellings, Isis played this intermediary role: “the great Isis who renders the two men contented” (te Velde, 48).
  2. Of course these dates are very rough. The first hieroglyphic writing in Egypt is attested around 5000 years ago. The contendings of Horus and Seth are evidenced in the pyramid texts only five or six centuries later. But the mythological cycle seems to have been common knowledge then and doubtless had its origins far back in pre-historic (pre-scriptural) time. It may be a story that is as old and as various as mankind. In McLuhan this 3-fold is to be seen in many different forms, ear-eye-tactility, for example, or in the two wings of the Gutenberg era and the both together of the electric Marconi one.
  3. Along with the Egyptians and the Greeks, McLuhan insisted that an understanding of peace depends upon an understanding the antagonists who would be brought together in that peace: “In art as in physics fission preceded fusion.” (The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape,1951). ‘Understanding’ in this sense begins by allowing the antagonists their independent place in reality — peace does not confuse and annul, but brings together in the third possibility of respected difference.
  4. Page numbers in brackets refer to Herman te Velde, Seth, God of Confusion (1967).
  5. In Plato’s Sophist, the third figure is a child “begging for both” sides of the gods/giants battle.
  6. Compare Plato’s third gender in the Symposium which is said to be descended from the moon on account of the ‘mixed’ nature of the two.
  7. The “homosexual relationship” of Horus and Seth mirrors their shared identity as universal monists and exactly therefore as antagonists. As with Plato, it is the role of the third to introduce sexual generation based on the combination of the two as a complex synchronic alternative to the asserted monism of the contesting gods and giants: “the third ends the discord of the two”. (Re ‘alternative‘: *al — Proto-Indo-European root meaning “beyond.” It is the hypothetical source of/evidence for its existence is provided by: Sanskrit anya “other, different,” arana- “foreign;” Avestan anya-, Armenian ail “another;” Greek allos “other, different, strange;” Latin alius “another, other, different,” alter “the other (of two),” ultra “beyond, on the other side;” Gothic aljis “other,” Old English elles “otherwise, else,” German ander “other”.)
  8. Th.P. Van Baaren is cited here, and in the next passage, from Menschen wie Wir, 1964.
  9. ‘The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape’,1951. See note 3 above.

Olympus, Pelion and Ossa in Hamlet

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (Act 5, Scene 1)

LAERTES: O, treble woe
Fall ten times treble on that cursed head,
Whose wicked deed thy most ingenious sense
Deprived thee of! Hold off the earth awhile,
Till I have caught her once more in mine arms:
[Leaps into Ophelia’s grave]
Now pile your dust upon the quick and dead,
Till of this flat a mountain you have made,
To o’ertop old Pelion, or the skyish head
Of blue Olympus.
HAMLET: ‘Swounds, show me what thou’lt do:
Woo’t weep? woo’t fight? woo’t fast? woo’t tear thyself?
Woo’t drink up eisel? eat a crocodile?
I’ll do’t. Dost thou come here to whine?
To outface me with leaping in her grave?
Be buried quick with her, and so will I:
And, if thou prate of mountains, let them throw
Millions of acres on us, till our ground,
Singeing his pate against the burning zone,
Make Ossa like a wart!

These references in the last act of Hamlet to the gigantomachia of the Aloadai1 are reinforced by the earlier exchange of Laertes with Claudius:

CLAUDIUS: What is the cause, Laertes,
That thy rebellion looks so giant-like?
(Act 4, Scene 5)

Shakespeare’s Hamlet, like the gigantomachia, concerns the rights of rulership, of fatherhood and of inheritance, as these are fought over between generations. In the end, Hamlet and Laertes kill each other with foils in a dénouement recalling the end of the rebellion of the twin Aloadai giants against the gods: “Artemis finished off the Aloadai in Naxos by means of a trick: in the likeness of a deer she darted between them, and in their desire to hit the animal they speared each other.” (Apollodorus, Library 1.53)

Just before their final duel Hamlet says to Laertes:

Let my disclaiming from a purposed evil
Free me so far in your most generous thoughts,
That I have shot mine arrow o’er the house,
And hurt my brother.
(Act 5, Scene 1)

Later in the same scene:

I’ll be your foil, Laertes: in mine ignorance…. 


  1. Apollodorus describes the war of the Aloadai on the gods as follows: “Aloeus married Triops’ daughter Iphimedeia, who, however, was in love with Poseidon. She would go down to the sea, gather the waves in her hands, and pour the water on her vagina. Poseidon mated with her and fathered two sons, Otos and Ephialtes, who were known as Aloadai. Each year these lads grew two feet in width and six feet in length. When they were nine years old and measured eighteen feet across by fifty four feet tall, they decided to fight the gods. So they set Mount Ossa on top of Mount Olympos, and then placed Mount Pelion on top of Ossa, threatening by means of these mountains to climb up to the sky; and they also said that they would dam up the sea with mountains and make it dry, and make the dry land a sea. Ephialtes paid amorous attention to Hera, as did Otos to Artemis. And they also bound up Ares. But Hermes secretly snatched Ares away, and Artemis finished off the Aloadai in Naxos by means of a trick: in the likeness of a deer she darted between them, and in their desire to hit the animal they speared each other.” (Apollodorus, Library 1.53)

McLuhan and Plato 8½ – Gigantomachia in the Symposium

Plato’s treatment of the gigantomachia peri tes ousias (the battle of the gods and giants over the nature of reality) in the Sophist is discussed in McLuhan and Plato 8 – Gigantomachia. In the Symposium, Plato repeatedly reverts to the topic but more allusively:

You must begin your lesson with the nature of man and its development. For our original nature was by no means the same as it is now. In the first place, there were three kinds of human beings, not merely the two sexes, male and female, as [we have] at present: there was a third kind as well, which had equal shares of the other two…

The number and features of these three sexes were owing to the fact that the male was originally the offspring of the sun, and the female of the earth; while that which partook of both sexes was born of the moon, for the moon also partakes of both.1 They were globular in their shape (…) since they took after their [spherical] parents. Now, they were of surprising strength and vigor, and so lofty in their notions that they even conspired against the gods; and the same story is told of them as Homer relates of Ephialtes and Otus,2 that, scheming to assault the gods in battle, they essayed to mount to high heaven.3 Zeus and the other gods debated what they should do (…) Then Zeus, putting all his wits together, spoke at length and said: ‘I can contrive [a way] that [this now spherical mankind], without ceasing to exist, shall give over their iniquity through a lessening of their strength. I propose now to slice every one [of the three kinds] of them in two, so that while making them weaker we shall find them more useful by reason of their multiplication; and they shall walk erect upon two legs [instead of circulating].4

Our original form was [spherical and of three kinds] as I have described, and we were entire [whole]; and the craving and pursuit of that [now lost] entirety is called Love [Eros]. Formerly, as I have said, we were one; but now for our sins we are all dispersed [cut in ½ by the gods] (…) and we may well be afraid that if we are [again] disorderly towards Heaven we may once more be cloven asunder [down to ¼].

Diotima: ‘You are a person who does not consider Love [Eros] to be a god.’
Socrates: ’What then can Love be? A mortal?’
‘Anything but that.’
‘Well what?’
‘As I previously suggested, between a mortal and an immortal.’
‘And what is that, Diotima?’
‘A great spirit, Socrates: for the whole of the spiritual is between divine and mortal.’
‘Possessing what power?’ I asked.
‘Interpreting and transporting human things to the gods and divine things to men; entreaties and sacrifices from below, and ordinances and requitals from above: being midway between, it makes each to supplement the other, so that the whole is combined in one. (…) God with man does not mingle: but the spiritual is the means of all society and converse of men with gods and of gods with men, whether waking or asleep. Whosoever has skill in these affairs is a spiritual man; to have it in other matters, as in common arts and crafts, is for the mechanical. Many and multifarious are these [interrelating] spirits, and one of [the greatest of] them is Love.’

Notable characteristics of Plato’s thoughts on the gigantomachia are displayed in these passages:

  • Being — reality — is 3. In the Symposium: sun-earth-moon; male-female-hermaphrodite; immortals-mortals-spirits. In the Sophist: gods-giants-child. The 3rd is always the fundamental mixture or bond of the other 2, the ‘both together’.
  • The main question‘ concerns the relation of 3 to 2. On the one hand, the 3 cannot do without the two: it is their combination or harmony and without them it itself would not be.5 On the other hand, the fall into 2 represents the loss and even the death of the 3. The 3rd lives through death.
  • Human beings have an original relation to the 3 even under the reign of the 2 (“as in common arts and crafts”). For the 2 and the 3 imply each other. The 2 requires relation (a 3rd factor!) in order to be 2 — “the medium is the message” — and the 3 requires the 2 in order to be 3 (both because it is their harmony and to avoid falling into an undifferentiated 1) — “the medium is the message”.
  • Division — 2 — is the mark of revolt against the original configuration of the 3. The amelioration of the revolt consists in the re-version or re-turn from the point to the sphere, from linearity to circularity, from the mechanical iteration of the limit, the πέρας, in search of the ultimate limit, to the end-less circular generation of the original forms (subj gen!): the ἄπειρον.6 
  • The possibility of reversion and retrieval is original due to the interrelating power of the third form. Humans are this power — and its denial. Zeus: “I propose now to slice every one [of the three kinds] of them in two, so that while making them weaker we shall find them more useful by reason of their multiplication; and they shall walk erect upon two legs’…7

What is at stake in and through these 3-fold descriptions is ontological perception — the perception of Being (dual genitive!). The transition to this perception cannot succeed by way of beings — even by piling Ossa and Pelion on Olympus. Instead, a flip or Gestalt-switch must be made to come from Being — ‘where’ we always already are, of course — to beings.

The means or medium of relation to Being is first of all at work in Being. Otherwise it could not be. It is through this dynamic third that beings first of all eventuate from Being. It is on the same pathway of ‘from’ that beings are able to take the course of ontological perception.

Ontology as big-B Being and the ontic as little-b being are linked by the 3rd which is at work in Being, and in being, and in-between Being and being.

Plato in describing Being itself is at the same time describing the way to  Beings for beings. But the way to = the way from.

Ontological perception situates itself in the 3rd through what McLuhan designated as “pattern recognition”. 

The pattern recognized is that of the prior 3-fold. Dual genitive.


  1. The moon partakes of both the sun and the earth, since it illuminates like the sun, but does not do so from itself, like the earth.
  2. Ἐφιάλτης (“nightmare”, literally “he who jumps upon”) and Ὦτος (“insatiate”) were the Aloadae, the sons of Aloeus. Their plan was to pile 3 mountains (Olympus, Ossa and Pelion) on top of one another to gain access to the heavens and to confront the gods in battle there. This version of the gigantomachia joins it to the story of Babel and the resulting disbursement of the sexes by Zeus in the Symposium version of the gigantomachia is cognate with God’s disbursement of language through the destruction of the tower of Babel. The three mountains of the Aloadae are mentioned in Hamlet (Act 5, Scene 1) before the ‘brothers’, Hamlet and Laertes, kill each other in a similar way to the mutual slaying of Otus and Ephialtes brought about by the gods.
  3. A surprising variation on the Aloadae cycle had them, instead of rude giants, as culture bringers in the role usually assigned to Prometheus. Here they were priests of the muses, founders of cities and teachers of culture. This variation of the Aloadae myth serves to bring Prometheus into the context of the gigantomachia.
  4. The result of Zeus cutting each of the 3 original sexes in half was that only 2 sexes remained. The halves of the third sex of the ‘both together’ gender were now either male or female, just like the halves of the all-male and all-female ones. In this way, the originally 3 kinds of humans lost their family relation with the sun, earth and moon, in regard to their shape, mode of motion and number. But notably, what Zeus decreed in this way merely reiterated what the 3 genders of humans had already de-cided on their own, namely, to cast aside their original relation with the gods, as expressed in rites and sacrifices, and to attack them instead.
  5. “In art as in physics fission preceded fusion.” (‘The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape’,1951)
  6. The ‘unlimited’ is end-less circularity, the ‘limited’ is repetitive linearity attempting to find its de-finitive end. What is at stake is the nature of the πέρας. Is it transitive or, in the end, intransitive?
  7. The transition from 4 legs (‘supports’ or ‘grounds’, as well as ‘modes of motion’) to 2 amounts to a denial or forgetting or slaying of the mediating 3! Hence it is a denial of the 3-fold gigantomachia form of Being — even while carrying a gigantomachia out!

Mac to Lewis, 1944

McLuhan’s first contribution to The Sewanee Review was ‘Edgar Poe’s Tradition’ which appeared in the Winter Number of 1944 (52:1, pp. 24-33).

McLuhan gave an offprint of his essay to Wyndham Lewis with the inscription: “For Lewis with the most friendly esteem – from Mac”.

In it, describing both Poe’s situation, and his own, McLuhan wrote:

While the New England dons primly turned the pages of Plato and Buddha beside a tea-cozy, and while Browning and Tennyson were creating a parochial fog for the English mind to relax in, Poe never lost contact with the terrible pathos of his time. Coevally with Baudelaire, and long before Conrad and Eliot, he explored the heart of darkness.

A couple years later, also in Sewanee, he would begin a lifelong characterization of such exploration of the heart of darkness, again with Poe, as ‘A Descent into the Maelstrom’.1

  1. ‘Footprints in the Sands of Crime’ (Sewanee Review, 54:4, 1946): “The sailor in (Poe’s) story The Maelstrom is at first paralyzed with horror. But in his very paralysis there is another fascination which emerges, a power of detached observation which becomes a “scientific” interest in the action of the strom. And this provides the means of escape.” For discussion see Cleanth Brooks on the Maelstrom.

McLuhan versus The Prison House of Language 1

Fredric Jameson’s Prison House of Language (PHL below) is a detailed consideration of the roots of French structuralism (especially in Saussure) and of its multiple exfoliations (especially in the work of Lévi-StraussLacan, Barthes, Foucault and Derrida) — all of which, according to Jameson, terminates in a cul de sac or “prison house” in which real contact with reality is lost. In Jameson’s telling, this break with reality is particularly evident in two ways: first, the synchrony/diachrony opposition inherited from Saussure cannot be bridged, so that synchronic explanation fails to account for the diachrony of concrete history;1 second, the language model applied to itself precipitates an infinite regress of self-consumption where every purported ground must be grounded in its turn.2 

In a word, language fails as a model of explanation in Jameson’s view and, when it itself is considered via its own means, it dissipates into the utter insubstantiality of infinite regress.

Now McLuhan, too, from first to last, relies on language both as a model of explanation and as the foundation of his work.3 Indeed there are many parallels between his work and that of the contemporary French Structuralists which serve to situate it in that  rarified intellectual atmosphere — although it is universally believed that he was not serious enough, and particularly not precise enough, genuinely to belong in that company. But what if his linguistic model successfully engages reality and does so exactly in the face of the twin aporia set out by Jameson, the synchronic/diachronic gap and the infinite regression precipitated by that gap? His work could then emerge against the structuralist background as opening the way to a new science of human experience — or sciences. And this at a time of truly desperate need for such foundational investigation. For investigation as foundation.

Just such a demonstration will be attempted here in a series of posts on Jameson’s PHL.

Indeed, PHL presents an excellent background against which McLuhan’s project may be understood. Jameson writes clearly about highly complicated issues with which McLuhan sometimes agrees and sometimes disagrees — but in both cases, a consideration of them may serve to indicate what McLuhan was up to.

For example, here is Jameson at the start of PHL setting out “the temporal model proposed by Saussure”:

language as a total system is complete at every moment, no matter what happens to have been altered in it a moment before. This is to say that the temporal model proposed by Saussure is that of a series of complete systems succeeding each other in time; (…) language is for him a perpetual present, with all the possibilities of meaning implicit in its every moment. (PHL 5-6)


what Saussure would have called a vertical level of association (…) is constantly in play along the syntagmatic [horizontal] axis of the narrative itself. (PHL 150)

McLuhan certainly agreed with considerable parts of this complex. So, for example:

Each of us forms a body percept, from moment to moment4

We create a body percept from minute to minute, or second to second5

we have to make sense from moment to moment. This activity is inseparable from consciousness.6

Furthermore, such a “body percept”, or consciousness, or sense-making, is assembled, according to McLuhan, from

the human unconscious [which] is the total experience of mankind, stored without any story line7

Lacking a narrative story line, “the total experience of mankind” or “the human unconscious” is “all-at-once“.8 And since “the total experience of mankind” is “all-at-once” — Jameson’s “perpetual present” — of course “the future of the future is the present” (as McLuhan repeatedly insisted).

For tv (…) there is no past. What it retrieves is the eternal present.6

If every temporal present implicates “the total experience of mankind”, it is no more possible for past or future experience to exceed it than it is for past or future natural events to exceed physics or chemistry.  

Like Saussure and the French Structuralists, McLuhan held that individual and collective experience must be investigated as the momentary junction of vertical and horizontal axes, where the vertical axis gives exposure to the “total system” of realizable possibilities.10 Now his famous “pattern recognition” was exactly of this “total system”. That is, just as the elementary structure of the physical world, the exterior landscape, was gradually dis-covered in the course of the nineteenth century, now the elementary structure, or pattern, of the experienced world, the interior landscape, has been exposed for gradual dis-covery in the twentieth. For the first time (if they had the courage to grasp the nettle) humans would be able to live history on the basis of an investigative knowledge of the effects of their actions. The living of history would become the work of a new art — an art of living according to the progressive investigation of the interior landscape — and the planet itself would become, therefore, an ‘art work’.

But Jameson’s description exhibits some noteworthy imprecision at just this juncture. He writes that “language as a total system is complete at every moment, no matter what happens to have been altered in it a moment before”. But the “total system” is by definition not altered: “language as a total system is complete at every moment”. What is altered consists in some rule-based limitation of that totality in the generation of particular instances of it — an alteration exactly not “in it”. 

But where, when and how does such ‘alteration’ occur? Consider chemistry. The “total system” of Mendeleev’s table is of course exemplified in physical nature everywhere in space and at every moment in time. Implicated in that table are laws of valence which describe the ways its elements express themselves, usually in combination, in a myriad particular configurations. Now are Jameson’s ‘alterations’ such laws of interaction of the “total system” of possibilities (like the laws of valence in chemistry)? Or are they the particular exemplifications of such laws (like physical things which are the expression of Mendeleev’s table and its implicated laws)? Jameson does not say. But this imprecision goes directly to his many discussions of  synchronic/diachronic relations. Of course the linguistic model cannot investigate synchronic/diachronic conjunction until exactly this multi-temporal moment of the genesis of particularly is brought into investigative focus!


  1. Jameson properly specifies “the basic problem of reuniting diachrony together with synchrony within a single system” (PHL 21). But he holds that this problem cannot be solved since “real diachrony, therefore, real history, falls outside the mind as a land of Ding-an-sich, unattainable directly: time becomes an unknowable” (188-189). As will be shown in future posts, the specification of time singular here is the Gutenbergian presupposition which wrecks Jameson’s analysis.
  2. Jameson charges that structuralism “cannot perform the most basic function of genuine self-consciousness, which is to buckle the buckle, to reckon the place of the observer into the experiment, to put an end to the infinite regression” (PHL 207-208). The foundational problem is the “peculiar regressive structure of the concept of metalanguage” (PHL 208), the fact that “a theory of models cannot recognize itself for a model without undoing the very premises on which it is itself founded” (ibid). This “undoing” lies in the fact that any model can explain only by itself being explained by a further model “in a kind of infinite regression” (PHL 145). Hence, as Jameson is correct in specifying: “Such a discipline, insofar as it takes the very production of meaning as its object, finds itself obliged to come to terms with that infinite regress from signifier to signified, from linguistic object to metalanguage” (PHL 215). Suffice it to note here only that McLuhan from 1946 to 1980 situated his work in the maelstrom of such regression.
  3. See, for example, Pre-Christian LogosMulti-levels of simultaneous presentation and Grammars of the Media.
  4. McLuhan’s Contribution to Technology and World Trade, Session — Technology: Its Influence on the Character Of World Trade and Investment, November 16. 1966. See “Body percept” – identity, space and time for the complete passage and discussion.
  5. ‘Education in the Electric Age’, 1967. See “Body percept” – identity, space and time for the complete passage and discussion.
  6. ‘McLuhan Views the News’, Television/Radio Age, 19:3, Sept 6 1971.
  7. McLuhan’s Contribution to Technology and World Trade, Session — Technology: Its Influence on the Character Of World Trade and Investment, November 16. 1966.
  8. Of course, if identity is the result of such assemblage, it must be wondered who does this and how. As the future PHL posts will show, both the structuralists and McLuhan were driven through such consideration towards strange notions of selfhood.
  9. ‘McLuhan Views the News’, Television/Radio Age, 19:3, Sept 6 1971.
  10. In the early 1950s McLuhan wrote extensively on what he called vertical and horizontal symbolism. This topic must be seen as falling, at least in part, within the context described by Jameson. In fact McLuhan’s work may already have been influenced then by Lévi-Strauss (although the first explicit reference to his work by McLuhan occurred only at the end of decade in his 1959 ‘Electronic Revolution: Revolutionary Effects of New Media’). Now this reference to Lévi-Strauss at the end of the 1950s came just the time when things came together for McLuhan and the catalyst of Lévi-Strauss may have been pivotal for him — McLuhan’s ‘Myth and Mass Media’ appeared in that same year of 1959.

WSCM 6: Reading Wright

Sometime soon after McLuhan transferred from Engineering to Honours English in 1929, in 1930-31 perhaps, he took the UM introductory philosophy course which was given in two halves, one taught by Rupert Lodge, and the other by Henry Wright. Presumably Lodge concentrated on Plato and Wright on modern authors.

One of the books studied in Wright’s part of the course was his own 1925 volume, The Moral Standards of Democracy:

McLuhan’s “heavily annotated” copy of Moral Standards remains in his library which the McLuhan family has donated to the rare book collection at Fisher Library of the University of Toronto.

The museum will feature blowups of pages from Wright’s book and of  McLuhan’s notes in it.

Here is Wright on pages 86-87 of Moral Standards (all emphasis added):

In modern society, association by direct personal contact has been supplemented and, so far as social organization is concerned, has been largely replaced by impersonal association and indirect contact. Now these activities of indirect contact and communication proceed through the intermediation and instrumentality of mechanical agencies. And these agencies themselves are extensions in the physical world of those bodily organs of inter-communication and personal association (…) possessed by every human being; namely, those of oral and written speech, of practical contrivance and construction, and of aesthetic perception and artistic creation. Hence these three activities of intercommunication (…) are fundamental in the double sense of determining both the direct personal association of human individuals with one another, and also the indirect association of millions of individuals as fellow citizens and fellow workers. (…) Moreover such chance as there is of giving personal value to indirect and impersonal contacts brought about by modern large scale social organization, and thereby making it a MEANS for realizing that comprehensive social community for which democracy stands, depends altogether upon our understanding this social machinery as an extension into the physical world of the three activities of personal intercommunication: [1] discussion [“oral and written speech“], and [2] cooperation [“of practical contrivance and construction”], and [3] imaginative sympathy [“aesthetic perception and artistic creation“].

Here is Wright again in 1937 in ‘Mechanism and Mind in Present-Day Social Life’, which he contributed to Manitoba Essays: Written in Commemoration of the Sixtieth Anniversary of the University of Manitoba (ed Rupert Lodge):

  • Machine technology and the mechanical instruments it has devised for facilitating the outward activities and inter-play of human individuals on a large scale have had the effect of externalizing the interests and activities of man to such a degree that his inner, personal life is becoming impoverished and his spiritual faculties atrophied through disuse.
  • The enormous enlargement which radio and film have given to the scope and range and diversity of sensory stimulation is too obvious to need illustration. The same may be said of the effect of automobile, aeroplane, machine tools, electrical appliances, etc., upon man’s powers of outward action and motor performance. But no such adventitious aids have been supplied by the arts of technological invention to the inner interpretative processes of rational reflection and creative imagination. Thus, in a generation preoccupied with new ranges of sight and hearing, and fascinated by a variety of new mechanical tools and toys, these inner activities have for the time at least been relegated to the background and allowed to wither from neglect.
  • No more urgent or pressing problem confronts modern society than [the question] of the influence of mechanism and mechanical intermediaries upon the character and relations of men.
  • What measures it is practically wise to adopt, however, will depend upon the relation of mechanism and mechanical instrumentalities to the nature of man.
  • The characteristic activity of the human organism is not mechanical, topographical, and aggregative, but is rather dynamical, configurational and organismic.
  • The question [must be posed] of the influence on present-day social life and personal development of the newly invented machinery of social interaction and inter-communication.
  • The question [must further be posed] of how the technological instruments which in their great and amazing variety dominate our civilization and differentiate it from every previous stage of human history are related to human nature and the personal associations of men.
  • These technological instruments which have revolutionized the social life of man, from telephone and radio to automobile and aeroplane, from electrical household appliances to automatic machinery for (…) manufacture of economic goods and the reproduction of art products, are extensions through physical forces and mechanical intermediaries of man’s bodily organs.
  • Consider in the first place all mechanical devices for the transmission of fact and opinion: telegraph and telephone and radio, the newspaper and colour-press, billboard, illuminated sign, and news-reel. These are all of them MEANS of increasing through physical intermediaries the range both in space and time, and the social influence, of man’s powers of articulate speech, oral and written.
  • These are one and all mechanical MEANS for making available for popular appreciation and enjoyment on a practically unlimited scale the products of man’s powers of emotional expression and aesthetic perception. Now if this is a fact, and I do not see how it can be denied, there follow from it consequences of genuine, far-reaching social importance. The products of modern science and invention are not correctly understood as belonging to another, alien world, a world of matter and mechanism, forever separate and divorced by essential nature from that other inner realm in which alone are realized the distinctively human and truly personal values, such as truth, practical goodness and beauty, the “imponderables” of the spirit. On the contrary, they, like the organic agencies whose power and range they enormously augment, are in veritable fact projections of human personality itself and [the potential] MEANS of satisfying the distinctively personal interests of man.
  • These mechanical instruments and devices which dominate the modern social scene (…) are veritable extensions of the powers of human personality and effective [potential] MEANS for the co-operative realization of the most comprehensive and enduring values of personal and social life.

McLuhan’s entire intellectual life might well be understood as the extended interrogation of Wright’s observations:

  • “the inner interpretative processes” —  how are these to be specified? what field encompasses them? how does this field of Wright’s “inner realm”1 feed back into its own investigation? if all specification falls within the field, how begin it without already having begun it? how get out of the endless circularity that seems to be implied here? the maelstrom… 
  • our “inner, personal life is becoming impoverished and [our] spiritual faculties atrophied” — since humans can never not exercise their “inner interpretative processes”, their “spiritual faculties”, how could these “processes” ever become “impoverished” and “atrophied”? how is this even a possibility for humans? what does such a possibility imply about the complex nature of human being?2
  • and how does this possibility feed back into the investigation of such questions? could investigation itself become “impoverished”? is the “Waste Land” first of all a matter of our “inner interpretative processes”?
  • “the influence of mechanism and mechanical intermediaries” — can investigation into media (“understanding media”) prove to be an Ariadne’s thread for the labyrinth of these questions?



  1. McLuhan’s later “interior landscape”.
  2. Wright suggests that there are different “fundamental” possibilities that originally structure human experience: “The characteristic activity of the human organism is not mechanical, topographical, and aggregative, but is rather dynamical, configurational and organismic.” What does ‘characteristic’ mean here? How does an individual or society ‘switch’ between these modes? What sort of time or times is implicated here?

WSCM 5: Watson Kirkconnell

Watson Kirkconnell (1895-1977), a professor of English and Classics in Winnipeg, was a family friend of the McLuhans who is mentioned repeatedly in the Cambridge correspondence between McLuhan and his mother. McLuhan would have known him growing up in the 1920s. Later, Kirkconnell and McLuhan became correspondents themselves. Kirkconnell sent an offprint of his article ‘Icelandic-Canadian Poetry’ from the 1934 Dalhousie Review to McLuhan in Cambridge:

Published in the same issue was Rupert Lodge’s ‘Philosophy and Education‘, a paper on which McLuhan worked with Lodge (as Kirkconnell may well have known) — an essay providing a threefold theory of education that McLuhan would flesh out with a 2000 year history of the trivium in his PhD thesis a decade later.

At the Manitoba Historical Society website, Kirkconnell’s entry among ‘Memorable Manitobans‘ describes him as follows (click to enlarge):

He was Professor of English at Wesley College in Winnipeg from 1922 to 1930 and head of the classics department there from 1930 to 1940. He then led the federal government’s “Nationalities Branch” (which became the Citizenship Bureau) during the Second World War. He also headed the Humanities Research Council in 1943 and the Baptist Federation of Canada in 1944.
After a period at McMaster University [immediately after the war], he was President of Acadia University from 1948 to 1964. He wrote 40 books, 130 brochures, and 600 articles, as well as innumerable translations from some of the 50 languages with which he was familiar. He was particularly important in translating Ukrainian and Icelandic poets into English.

A NYT article from August 20, 2022, reported  on ‘Canada’s Growing Linguistic Diversity‘. But a full century before this, Kirkconnell, at Wesley College  (later United College and ultimately the University of Winnipeg) was already investigating and celebrating this mosaic.

Following his presidency of the Humanities Research Council of Canada, he remained an influential figure in the organization, authoring its 1947 history and contemporary overview, The Humanities in Canada, with A.S.P. Woodhouse, chair of the UT English department. Between 1937 and 1965 Kirkconnell contributed an annual review ‘Publications in Other Languages’ to the University of Toronto Quarterly.

The Kirkconnell room at the WSCM includes blowups of many of his books along with photos of him. Correspondence between Kirkconnell and McLuhan from the Kirkconnell papers at Acadia (some of which is cited in Gordon’s Escape into Understanding bio) and from the McLuhan letters at York is featured. The University of Manitoba also has some Kirkconnell materials.

One Hundred Poems Chosen and Translated from European Literatures in Fifty Languages. Watson Kirkconnell, 1928.

Canadian Overtones: An anthology of Canadian poetry written originally in Icelandic, Swedish,  Norwegian, Hungarian, Italian, Greek, and Ukrainian, and now translated and edited with biographical, historical, critical, and bibliographical notes by Watson Kirkconnell. Published in Winnipeg in 1935.

WSCM 4: Tom Easterbrook

McLuhan graduated from Kelvin in 1928:

He then entered the University of Manitoba School of Engineering, later reporting that he was looking for a way to support himself while he went about his real work of research and writing. But the deeper reason for his choice of Engineering may have been his need to extricate himself from his father’s impractical lyricism and his mother’s literary caricatures. However that may have been, McLuhan’s one year in Engineering brought him a lifelong friend in Tom Easterbrook.1

Tom and I both started off [university] in Engineering [in the fall of 1928] and because of our long periods of study during the summer, we were able to upgrade ourselves into Arts. I read myself out of Engineering by my long summer [of 1929].

This was McLuhan in 1970, forty years later, in Speaking of Winnipeg:

Again in Speaking of Winnipeg, the two described the argumentative rambles they took at the time:

We 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 which carried us on foot across town at night, late at night till three or four in the morning, back and forth across the city.

The McLuhans lived south of the Assiniboine River in Winnipeg, the Easterbrooks north.

It was during their UM days, apparently in 1931, that McLuhan came to read G.K Chesterton through Easterbrook. This provided one of the initial steps towards McLuhan’s conversion in 1937 and became the subject of his first academic paper in 1936: ‘G.K. Chesterton: A Practical Mystic‘:

Another contributor to the issue was Harold Innis — when the issue appeared Innis was Easterbrook’s adviser at Toronto and increasingly his good friend.

In 1932 McLuhan and Easterbrook toured England together, working their way across the Atlantic on a cattle boat. This mode of transportation seems to have been popular option for young Winnipigeons at the time, doubtless due to Winnipeg’s role as the collection point for rail shipments between eastern and western Canada. Five years earlier Hayakawa got to Montreal in the same way. As recounted in his oral history:

Soon after graduating with my B.A. from the University of Manitoba, Gerard, Professor Allison’s oldest son, and I decided to take a cattle train to Montreal for a summer adventure. I cannot reconstruct how or where we had our meals on that train or where we slept. The reason we were getting a free ride across the continent is that, in the event of a train derailment or wreck, the cattle would start running away and the railroad wanted a few extra men on the train to help recapture them. We really had nothing to do — no duties — except in the event of a train wreck and escaping cattle.

After their UM degrees, McLuhan and Easterbrook continued their studies, McLuhan at Cambridge and Easterbrook at the University of Toronto. That Easterbrook’s advisor was Harold Innis  decisively impacted McLuhan’s career when Easterbrook brought Innis and McLuhan together in 1948. Meanwhile,  McLuhan in Cambridge and Easterbrook in Toronto remained in close contact through McLuhan’s mother and brother, who had moved from Winnipeg to Toronto and knew Easterbrook well through Marshall in Winnipeg.2

The Innis connection via Easterbrook would prove essential to McLuhan’s later work. For it was Innis who brought McLuhan to concentrate, not on ideas as he had in his PhD thesis on the educational trivium, but on the embodied ideas of technology. He came to see how human beings live in their ideas through technology — beginning with language.

In the 1950s Easterbrook was one of the 5 professors leading the Culture and Communication seminar — three of them from Winnipeg (McLuhan, Easterbrook and Carl Williams) with their trilateral relationship going back a quarter of a century. McLuhan’s career as a communications guru may have started as a lark between them.

Perhaps incidentally, McLuhan offered this description of the prairie meadowlark in his conversation with Easterbrook in Speaking of Winnipeg:

We might as well have a few words about the superiority of the prairie meadowlark to all other songbirds (…) it has a much longer and almost melodic phrase. It isn’t a mere chirp; it has a melody. It talks to you. Besides it is extremely musical. It’s not just the solid glug-glug of the nightingale [championed by uninformed ornithologists like John Keats]. By comparison with the birds I’ve heard in Europe and England, it is enormously superior.

Like his friend and mentor, Harold Innis, Easterbrook went on to became chairman of the Political Economy department in Toronto.  In 1960 he and McLuhan lectured together at the annual meeting of the Economic History Association. Innis had been one of its founders in 1940 and its second president in 1942.

After McLuhan’s death at the end of 1980, Easterbrook expressed his regret that their relationship had been so argumentative. But their gapped complementarity on everything doubtless benefited them both in multiple ways and served as the cement in their half century friendship.


  1. In his oral history Easterbrook recalled that they actually met the next year, 1930, after both had quit engineering for Economics (Easterbrook) and English (McLuhan).
  2. Elsie and Maurice McLuhan left Winnipeg for Toronto at the same time that Easterbrook did. He began grad studies at UT in the fall of 1933 and Elsie and Maurice decamped in September that year.

    Elsie announced her departure with this press release. It appeared in the Winnipeg Evening Tribune for September 9, 1933, p4.

WSCM 3: Carl Williams & Kelvin

McLuhan and Carlton Williams were in the same year at Kelvin Technical High School in the mid 1920s. Displays include:

  • KTHS yearbook cover for 1927-1928
  • Pages from the yearbook of  McLuhan’s and Williams’ classes with student pictures

The two then attended the University of Manitoba together.

  • Pages from the University of Manitoba yearbook with graduation pictures of McLuhan and Williams

In the 1950s McLuhan and Williams were University of Toronto  professors, McLuhan in English and Williams  in Psychology. They were two of the 5 faculty group leading the Culture and Communication seminar between 1953 and 1955.

  • Blowup of Explorations journal page listing the seminar’s 5 faculty leaders

It was Williams who instigated the notion of ‘auditory space’ (McLuhan’s ‘acoustic space’) in a seminar session in 1954:

Williams became part of the University of Toronto administration and then President of the University of Western Ontario ( now Western University). His biography from the Western website:

McLuhan and Williams remained close friends until McLuhan’s death at the end of 1980. Williams’ obituary of McLuhan is included in the memorial volume Who Was Marshall McLuhan:


WSCM anteroom: peace in the global village?

The anteroom of the WSCM has only two displays. The first is a large poster (or posters) with a description of the museum:

The Winnipeg School of Communication has local importance recalling now forgotten chapters of Winnipeg’s twentieth century history:

  • The downtown University of Manitoba campus
  • The outstanding people who taught at UM in those days and their outstanding pupils like S.I. Hayakawa , Marshall McLuhan, Tom Easterbrook and Carlton Williams.

Hayakawa (later the President of San Francisco State University and US Senator for California) and McLuhan were neighbours in the 1920s in Fort Rouge and remained in intermittent touch for the next half century. McLuhan and Easterbrook (later chairman of the Political Economy Department at the University of Toronto) were University of Manitoba classmates who toured England together in 1932. Williams (later President of the University of Western Ontario) was in the same year as McLuhan at Kelvin and the two continued at UM together. The personal and professional relationship of McLuhan, Easterbrook and Williams lasted the rest of their lives. And they were 3 of the 5 professors — McLuhan in English, Easterbrook in Political Economy and Williams in Psychology — who led the Culture and Communication seminar at the University of Toronto in the 1950s. It was this seminar and its Explorations journal which provided the springboard for McLuhan’s renowned communications work in 1960s and ’70s.

This museum tells the multimedia story of these people, of their importance to communications theory and of their multiple interactions with one another.

But is the Winnipeg School of Communication of only local and historical interest?

McLuhan famously foresaw a world of generalized warfare, universal spying, cultural breakdown, and the hijacking of entire nations — a world in which human survival comes into question. Ominously, he was not mistaken. The global dystopia he predicted 70 years ago is increasingly upon us today.

At the same time, however, McLuhan attempted to describe an exit strategy, a ‘strategy for survival’. And it is here that the international — not local — and contemporary — not past — interest of the Winnipeg School is to be located. What is  the possibility of peace in the global village under nuclear conditions?

Seeds of an investigation of that question were planted in Winnipeg over 100 years ago. But its implementation has hardly started to this day, despite all the work of the Winnipeg School. Hence its development remains an urgent matter for the future — if we are to have a future.

Another poster cites McLuhan’s first mention of the ‘global village’ from a speech given in Winnipeg in 1959:

Another aspect of the (…) instantaneous flow of information from every part of a situation, from every quarter, is that we develop a new attitude to space, a new attitude to time. The globe becomes a very small village-like affair, under electronic conditions, in which whatever happens to anybody, happens to everybody; and living in this very small new space, as it were, causes us paradoxically to take very long views, in the matter of time. (‘New Business Rules In Our Electronic Age’, a speech before the Winnipeg Ad and Sales Club, May 11, 1959)


WSCM 2: Gertrude Avenue connection

  • Map showing 507 Gertrude and 600 Gertrude
  • Pictures of the two houses
  • Blowups of Henderson’s City Directory for Winnipeg in 1924 showing the McLuhans at 507 Gertrude and the Allisons at 600 Gertrude
  • Blowup of Hayakawa oral history (with sound?): “I had two close friends, Gerard and Carlyle Allison, and they had a little sister, Mary Josephine. Well, when Father [moved back to Japan and] established his head offices in Osaka, and Mother and my sisters were taken along afterwards to stay with him, I moved in with the Allisons. (…) Have I told you about the Allisons? He was professor of English, William Talbot Allison. (…) Did you enjoy staying with this family, the Allisons? I enjoyed it so much I’m still in touch with them. Papa and Mama [Allison] are dead long ago, but their — they had three children, two boys and a girl. I just talked within the last couple of days to one of the boys, who is long, long retired and quite ill. We’re still in touch [in 1988, over 60 years later!]. And the daughter, I was also on the phone with her a few days ago. How long did you live with them? About two years. Your nickname was Hak, then? Yes.”
  • Blowup of pages from In Thought and Action: The Enigmatic Life of S. I. Hayakawa: “In 1924, Ichiro Hayakawa [S.I. Hayakawa’s father] decided to relocate his firm’s main operation [from Canada] to Japan (…) Hayakawa’s two sons [Sam and Fred] remained in Canada, not only because it was their choice but because both parents recognized that Samuel [nicknamed ‘Hak’] and Fred weren’t culturally Japanese. (…) Hak, meanwhile, moved in with the family of one of his professors at the University of Manitoba, William Talbot Allison (…) Allison’s sons (…) had been two of Hak’s closest (…) friends (…) Another of his chums was the neighborhood paperboy, a youngster named Marshall McLuhan, whose path would cross Hayakawa’s several times in the decades to follow.”
  • Blowup of a Trib page from 1927 showing McLuhan as a paperboy. McLuhan is in the picture on the right, back left:
  • Blowup of a letter from Hayakawa to McLuhan in 1968, 40 years later:
  • July 7, 1968
    Dear Marshall —
    I heard to my sorrow that you have been ill, and I heard more recently that you are well again. I hope you have received an invitation from St Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Ind., to take part in a philosophical symposium. They wanted me, and I accepted in the hope that you too would accept so that our paths might cross again.
    What’s this I hear about a McLuhan Newsletter? How do I get on the mailing list?
    Best wishes, as always.
    Yrs etc, Don [Hak’s later nickname]
    I was in Winnipeg June 13-19. My 1st visit in  35 years! My gosh, how we have all changed!

WSCM 1: Winnipeg in 1920

The first room of a real and/or virtual Winnipeg School of Communication Museum has blowups of the following journal and newspaper reports:

There are pictures of Winnipeg at that time, particularly of the University of Manitoba downtown campus and a map showing the locations of the university buildings.

There is a picture of S.I. Hayakawa (identifying him as the future President of San Francisco State University and US Senator from California) and a blowup (potentially with sound) of his oral history recording at the University of California:

“I graduated from the University of Manitoba in 1926. (…) The University of Manitoba wasn’t much in those days (…) no building that we ever went to is part of the University of Manitoba now. In fact, all those buildings have probably been torn down. (…) It wasn’t really a campus at all. In the first place, many of the classes were held in what used to be law offices, but the lawyers had moved on to better sites, offices somewhere else. Some of the buildings we had at the University of Manitoba were — I don’t know if you call them quonset huts or something of that kind. They were temporary shelters, and the real building of the university with its own buildings didn’t happen until long after I left Winnipeg. (…) At that time, the University, having no buildings of its own, conducted its classes in abandoned law offices a block or two away from the provincial parliament buildings.”


Wright on matter and spirit in 1917

Henry Wright, three years away from the beginning of his long career at the University of Manitoba, wrote a short commentary that appeared  in the 1917 Journal of Philosophy.1 In it he broached topics he would continue to investigate throughout his  tenure in Winnipeg and that would recognizably shape the subsequent career of one of his students there, Marshall McLuhan2:

the distinction between spirit and matter— ontological dualism, as it may be — stands and is destined to stand as a reasonable inference from the most persistent and essential distinction that reveals itself in human experience. (…) In one department of (…) experience (…) human activity (…) is self-determined. (…) In the other department (…) activity [is] strictly limited, definitively circumscribed by conditions external to itself.3

Multiple questions are posed. What fundamental distinctions characterize ontology? Does it have two “departments” as “ontological dualism”? Or must an ontological 2 be at least 3 since a further “department” must be present that would both keep the 2 distinct and yet relate them to each other as equiprimordial? What are the relations of such ‘distinct’ ontological “departments” both ‘horizontally’ among themselves and ‘vertically’ to the experienced (ontic) world? And what are the relations of these “departments” as expressed within the ontic world itself?

Now the philosophical tradition, according to Wright, has admittedly opened itself to

the charge of intellectualism (…) which could yield nothing better than conceptual abstractions such as “the good” or “substance” or “the absolute”4

But behind this “intellectualism” and these “conceptual abstractions” was a proper aim at a needed goal:

not in making such distinctions as that of spirit from matter, but in attempting to reconcile the conflicting factors…5

The key to reconciliation, according to Wright, lies not in the opposed distinctions themselves but in their interrelation:

The true solution for the distinction of matter from spirit (…) is to be found through a study of (…) social life.6 The word “social” deserves emphasis…7

Now such study must not, says Wright, hold “the factor of originality in abeyance”. This remark, almost an aside,  implies many fundamental questions, but they were not developed here by Wright. What is “originality”? Is it singular or plural? How does it (or they) stand to the “ontological”? And to the ontic subject? Lastly: just what is “abeyance” and how does it stand to all the questions in play here?8

Further from Wright:

The reconciling experience which we seek can be found clearly revealed only in (…) social activities9 (…). Such an activity is that of verbal communication (…) Another (…) is (…) the intricate system of activities which engage [us] together in the work of the world (…) A third example of the kind of activity in question is that of esthetic appreciation (…) [at work in the] apprehension of new meanings and values…10

Wright raised these problems in a rambling old-fashioned sort of way that McLuhan would explicitly reject. But the problems themselves engaged him deeply such that his whole career may usefully be seen as an investigation into the questions precipitated by Wright’s issues.

  1. Henry Wilkes Wright, ‘Spirit and Matter: A Reply To Dr. Dashiell‘, Journal of Philosophy, 14:15, July 1917, 400-403.
  2. Comments on McLuhan’s takes on Wright are given in the notes below.
  3. Wright, some sentences later: “Two factors are operating in human experience. These two factors are (…) rational will and (…) objective reality.
  4. Nothing better than (…) “the good”!
  5. The great question, of course, is whether this is something we can accomplish with our limited means in chronological time or is it something we must attend in its already realized accomplishment before us? Or is it both of these together, where we can indeed accomplish important reconciliations in many areas, but are able to do so on the basis only (only!) of always already accomplished reconciliations before us?
  6. Wright has “(hu)man’s developing social life” here. McLuhan would come to see that the chronological aspect of ‘developing’ is highly questionable and, indeed, must be investigated as a figure against the ground of “allatonceness”. Further, “social life” itself must be probed. Is it purely ontic as “(hu)man’s developing social life”? Or is it first of all ontological as the abysmal principle of a thought-provoking plurality (or society) of distinctions in reality itself? Or is it both of these together as the primordial bond, or bonds, between ontological distinctions, AND the isomorphic bonds between ontological grounds and their ontic figures, AND the isomorphic bonds between the ontological distinctions as they are expressed ontically? In chemistry these same relations appear between elements in Mendeleev’s table and their expression in and as materials.
  7. Wright’s “social” will become, 40 years later, McLuhan’s “the medium (that) is the message”.
  8. The etymology of ‘abeyance’ traces back to ‘gape, open wide’ — as its cognate word ‘bay’ is to the sea. Ultimately, this will be McLuhan’s “gap where the action is”.
  9. Wright: “in our more highly developed social activities”. See note #6.
  10. Like Wright’s other areas of “reconciling” activity, language use and social activities, his “esthetic appreciation” as the “apprehension of new meanings and values” is a matter of the between — in this case the between bridging old and new “meanings” and old and new “values”. But what is the nature of this mediating between? Of this “medium“? Where and when does it arise, what is the manner of its operation and what is the variated range of its activity?

The earwig when bisected fights itself

A note left by McLuhan in a 1950 issue of UTQ1 has been transcribed by Andrew McLuhan. The note ends with the striking aperçu: “The earwig when bisected fights itself.”

The ultimate source of this observation must have been Eduard von Hartmann’s Philosophie des Unbewussten (Philosophy of the Unconscious) from 1869 (translation 1884):

the anterior part of one bisected insect continues the act of devouring, and the posterior part of another the act of propagation. (…) Crickets with their heads cut off even seek their females for days, find them and copulate, just as if they were unscathed. (…) The like independence of the will in the different ganglia of one and the same animal is observed, when the two halves of a divided earwig (…) turn against one another, and, under the unmistakable influence of the passion of anger and lust of fighting, contend furiously with their antennæ till exhaustion or death ensues. (trans 62)

Wyndham Lewis was particularly struck by this passage. He cited it in successive books in successive years (The Art of Being Ruled in 1926 and Time and Western Man in 1927) and, in the latter, on successive pages — at length on TWM 337 directly from von Hartmann:

and then again on TWM 338:

McLuhan’s note — “the earwig when bisected fights itself” — is particularly close to Lewis’ formulation on TWM 338 — “an earwig (…) cut in half engages in mortal combat with itself”. But von Hartmann’s  formulation (in translation) is also not far off — “the two halves of a divided earwig (…) turn against one another”.

Lewis referred to the same von Hartmann passage a year earlier than TWM in his 1926 Art of Being Ruled:

Continuity, in the individual as in the race, is the diagnostic of a civilized condition. If you can break this personal continuity in an individual, you can break him. For he is that continuity. It is against these joints and sutures of the personality that an able attack will always be directed. You can divide a person against himself, unless he is very well organized: as the two halves of a severed earwig become estranged and fight with each other when they meet.

McLuhan closely studied these two 1926/1927 books of Lewis after meeting him in the summer of 1943. His 1944 ‘Lemuel in Lilliput’ quotes from both of them extensively.

Although Lewis as the source of McLuhan’s awareness of the image of the divided earwig fighting with itself seems clear, it would be interesting to know more about the same question in regard to both Lewis and Joyce. Did Lewis get the image directly or indirectly from von Hartmann? If indirectly, from whom?

The case with Joyce is of the utmost interest. In 1923 he was already writing (in the so-called Finn’s Hotel) about ‘Earwicker’ and the earwig. At that time he surely knew, directly or indirectly, of the earwig image in von Hartmann. Was this the reason he was so struck by the ‘Earwicker’ name when he came across it on holiday in 1923 in Sussex?2 The whole genesis of Finnegans Wake seems to be at stake in these questions.

  1. University of Toronto Quarterly 19:2, January 1950. McLuhan himself had a contribution in this issue, a review of R.W. Stallman, Essays in Criticism 1920-1948.
  2. See Peter Chrisp’s wonderful post on ‘James Joyce in Bognor Regis‘.

Buick ad 1947

McLuhan’s early writings,  especially ‘American Advertising’ (1947), Typhon in America (1949, unpublished) and The Mechanical Bride (1951) reflect his detailed engagement with the popular environment, particularly with ads (but also with movies, radio, fashions, slang, etc). Here’s a Buick ad from 1947 that ran in newspapers nationally — McLuhan used it in Typhon II.1 along with other ads like MacLevy’s Figurama.

YOU know at first look that it’s the beginning of a wonderful friendship. You can picture yourself, with all that Fireball power to boss around, making the most of bright blue weather, trampling the miles into nothing and striding the hills like a Paul Bunyan on the loose. You feel like a kid with a new toy train handling controls that automatically send the top up or down, the front seat back and forth, the door windows to just the level you want. All of which is grand for a starter. But what means even more is that here you are stepping right square into tomorrow. Here in flowing fender lines, and neat, rich grille you travel in the eye-stopping style that is shaping the whole future of automobile design. You are not only style-right now, but are certain-sure to stay smartly in the swim for a long span of years to come. So what does it matter if the most we can assure you now is a spot on a Buick waiting list, you’ll still have the smartest, freshest thing on wheels when the happy day-of-delivery comes. But get this — you can place your order with or without a car to trade. You’ll pay no more than established prices that apply at delivery time, and you’ll find us just as courteously ready to talk business as if our showrooms were filled with cars rather than eager car-buyers. Come in, have a chat, and see if you don’t agree it’s smart to get your order in early.

McLuhan cited the underlined ad copy in Typhon:

This is from a car ad which might have been written for a super-matrimonial agency:

You know at first look that It’s the beginning of a wonderful friendship. You can picture yourself, with all that fireball power to boss around…. Here in flowing fenderlines, and neat rich grille you travel in the eye-stopping style…

Boy oh Boy! with bumpers that curve around your heart and a Hotchkiss drive! If one notices the catalogue of special engineering features which accompany many car ads it is as though one were reading the catalogue of design features for a girdle or bra. (Typhon in America, II.1)

The sheer number of ads referenced or quoted in any section of McLuhan’s writing in this period is noteworthy. But more important is the idea that is developing behind the scenes — the idea, namely, that everything in the human environment (= all experience)1 is the dynamic expression of underlying structural dominants which McLuhan would come to call, a full decade later, media.2

  1. “The human environment” has two aspects. There is physical nature, including the physical body of human beings, which is studied in the various physical sciences. This may be called the exterior landscape. Then there is the environment as experienced  — “the entire diversity of civilized interests”, as McLuhan wrote in his 1950 UTQ review of Stallman — which McLuhan termed the interior landscape. It is not yet subject to scientific investigation — but must become so if we are to survive our own folly. (This interior landscape is not ‘interior’ in any spatial sense. It is ‘interior’ in that its constitution is determined in ways that cannot be abstracted from the psyche. Furthermore, this interior landscape is an entirely different field, actually fields, from those of the physical sciences. It is decidedly not the case, therefore, that the interior landscape might be investigated scientifically by collapsing it into one or more of the physical sciences.)
  2. To compare, in physical sciences like chemistry and genetics, their elements (this was also Mendel’s name for what later were called ‘genes’) are inherently dynamic — they ex-press themselves as particular configurations in the experienced material environment with associated particular effects there. We come to understand it when we come to understand them — a process that took hundreds of thousands of years to be initiated consciously and  that is ongoing as we speak. The imperative is to learn about them excluding us; excluding, that is, the limitations and distortions we bring to our experience of them. The whole point of experiment is to put a check on these. But what about those limitations and distortions themselves? Is the experienced material environment including us — the interior landscape — subject to a similar sort of collective investigation to that which we exercise in and on the exterior landscape excluding us? (This question puts a whole new spin on media as “extensions of the senses”!) McLuhan’s answer was that this is entirely possible and, furthermore, that this sort of interrogation is desperately needed today in a nuclear environment as a, or the, ‘strategy for survival’. And just as with the exterior landscape, the demand in regard to the interior one is to initiate the required investigation by specifying the underlying structure of its field or fields: “the medium is the message”.

Typhon/Minotaur/Dionysus parallels

In Typhon in America,1 McLuhan brings together three mythological cycles, that of (1) Typhon, (2) the Minotaur and (3) Dionysus,2 without, however, specifying the structural parallels between them. He must have at least sensed their mutual implication in his emphatic use of all three of them in his titles. But just what is that mutual implication?

Francis Bacon’s retaling of the Typhon saga in Wisdom of the Ancients (1609) is used by McLuhan for the title of his book, for the title of its Book IV (SIXTY MILLION MAMA BOYS or TYPHON) and for its epigraph. Here is the epigraph:

Juno, being vexed, say the poets, that Jupiter had begotten Pallas by himself without her, earnestly pressed all the other gods and goddesses, that she might also bring forth of herself alone without him; and having by violence and importunity obtained a grant thereof, she smote the earth, and forthwith sprang up Typhon, a huge and horrid monster. This strange birth she commits to a serpent, as a foster-father, to nourish it; who no sooner came to ripeness of years but he provokes Jupiter to battle. In the conflict, the giant getting the upper hand, takes Jupiter upon his shoulders, carries him into a remote and obscure country, and, cutting out the sinews of his hands and feet, brought them away, and so left him miserably mangled and maimed; but Mercury recovering these nerves from Typhon by stealth, restored them again to Jupiter. Jupiter being again by this means corroborated, assaults the monster afresh, and at the first strikes him with a thunderbolt, from whose blood serpents were engendered. This monster at length fainting and flying, Jupiter casts on him the mount Aetna, and with the weight thereof crushes him.3

The second Minotaur cycle is used by McLuhan in the titles of the first two of the four books constituting Typhon in America:



Bacon’s retaling of the Minotaur cycle in Wisdom of the Ancients clearly struck McLuhan with its emphasis on “mechanic”. But unlike the Typhon saga, that of the Minotaur is not quoted by him.

DAEDALUS, OR MECHANIC. Mechanical wisdom and industry, and in it unlawful science perverted to wrong ends, is shadowed by the ancients under the person of Daedalus, a man ingenious, but execrable. This Daedalus, (…) being banished, was kindly entertained, during his exile, in many cities and princes courts: for indeed he was the raiser and builder of many goodly structures, as well in honour of the gods, as the beauty and magnificence of cities, and other public places, but for his works of mischief he is most notorious. It is he that framed the engine which Pasiphae used to satisfy herself in companying with a bull, so that by his wretched industry and pernicious device, that monster Minotaur, the destruction of so many hopeful youths, took his accursed and infamous beginning; and studying to cover and increase one mischief with another, for the security and preservation of this Monster he invented and built a Labyrinth, a work for intent and use most nefarious and wicked, for skill and workmanship famous and excellent. Afterwards, that he might not be noted only for works of mischief, but be sought after as well for remedies, as for instruments of destruction, he was the author of that ingenious device concerning the clue of thread, by which the Labyrinth was made passable without any let. (Wisdom of the Ancients)

The backstory to the Minotaur cycle begins with the gift by Poseidon of a white bull to Minos, the king of Crete, to be used for a divine sacrifice.4 But Minos, caught up by the bull’s beauty, substituted another bull for the sacrifice and thereby granted life to the white bull. Angered, Poseidon caused Pasiphae, Minos’ wife, to lust after the bull.5 Daedalus then crafted a kind of Trojan cow for her, through which Pasiphae was able to mate with the object of her frenzy. The child of this mechanical and unnatural union was the Minotaur.6

Both these myth cycles of Typhon and the minotaur concern monsters conceived without a human male. And in both there is a previous birth (in the case of Pallas) or gifting of life (in the case of the white bull) without a female. In both cycles, the above (Zeus Asterion, Jupiter [Zu-pater]) and below (earth, snake, depth of the labyrinth), or the light and the dark, come into violent conflict in which the dark below is momentarily victorious. Again in both, sinews/labyrinth/thread are the cause both of loss and recovery.

In the mythological cycle concerning Pasiphae, she is said to have married Dionysus, who is named in the title of Book III by McLuhan:


Across the various tellings of this cycle, it is not clear if this was an alternative tale to her marriage with Minos or as a prolongation of that tale, coming after it. And it is unclear if Dionysus’ wife was Pasiphae or her daughter, Ariadne. In any case, McLuhan’s association of Pasiphae with Dionysus was not fortuitous. The Greeks saw close implication between her fate and Dionysus and so did Bacon and McLuhan. Here is Bacon’s chapter on him in Wisdom of the Ancients:

OF DESIRE, ACCORDING TO THE FABLE OF DIONYSUS. They say that Semele, the mistress of Jupiter, having bound him by an inviolable oath to grant her a request whatever it might be, desired of him to come to her arms in the same form as he would to Juno; and so she was scorched to death in his embrace. The child which she bore in her womb was taken by his father and sewn up in his thigh, till the time of gestation was accomplished. And because the child, when in the thigh of Jupiter, pinched and galled him so as to make him limp, he received the name of Dionysus.7 After he was brought forth he was nursed for some years by Proserpine;8 and when he grew up his face was so like a woman’s that it seemed doubtful of which sex he was. He was likewise once dead and buried for a time, but came to life again not long after. In his early youth he was the first to invent and explain the culture of the vine, and the making of wine, and its use; whereby becoming renowned and illustrious, he subdued the whole world and advanced to the furthest parts of India. (…) He took to wife Ariadne [daughter of Pasiphae who can appear in the cycle in her stead], whom Theseus had deserted and abandoned. His sacred tree was the ivy. He was regarded likewise as the inventor and institutor of sacred rites and orgies ; but such as were fanatical and full of corruption and moreover cruel. He had also the power of exciting phrensy. At least it was by women excited to phrensy in his orgies that two renowned men, Pentheus and Orpheus, are said to have been torn to pieces ; the one having climbed into a tree out of curiosity to see what they were doing ; the other while playing sweetly and skilfully on the lyre. Moreover the actions of this god are often confounded with those of Jupiter.

The parallels of this cycle with those of Typhon and the Minotaur are clear. Outrageous feminine desire in all three sagas leads to an irregular birth without a human male. Furthermore, the birth occurs either without a male at all (Juno and Typhon) or with too much male (Pasiphae and the white bull, Semele and Zeus). The child coming from the unnatural union is as outrageous as the ‘phrensied’ desire that led to its generation. The resulting children in all three cases ‘confound’ themselves with Jupiter and cause him great pain.9 In all three, there is central emphasis on sinews/labyrinth/thread — Dionysus is the god of grape vines, ivy and labyrinthine ceremonies. All include reference to music via sinew strings, pipes and rites. All three lead to the death of god (Jupiter via Typhon or Dionysus via his own “phrensy”) or to the death of the divine rites (in the cases of both Minos and the Minotaur). The central matter of all the cycles concerns extreme disorder and the question of its relation to the order of the cosmos.10

McLuhan concludes Typhon — just as he will conclude the Gutenberg Galaxy11 more than a decade later — with the same extended quotation from Pope’s 1725 Dunciad:

She comes! she comes! the sable Throne behold
Of Night Primaeval, and of Chaos old!
Before her, Fancy’s gilded clouds decay,
And all its varying Rain-bows die away.
Wit shoots in vain its momentary fires,
The meteor drops, and in a flash expires.
As one by one, at dread Medea’s strain,
The sick’ning stars fade off th’ethereal plain;
As Argus’ eyes by Hermes’ wand opprest,
Clos’d one by one to everlasting rest;
Thus at her felt approach, and secret might,
Art after Art goes out, and all is Night.
See skulking Truth to her old Cavern fled,
While the Great Mother bids Britannia sleep,
And pours her Spirit o’er the Land and Deep.
She comes! she comes! The Gloom rolls on,
Mountains of Casuistry heap’d o’er her head!
Philosophy, that lean’d on Heav’n before,
Shrinks to her second cause, and is no more.
Physic of Metaphysic begs defence,
And Metaphysic calls for aid on Sense!
See Mystery to Mathematics fly!
In vain! they gaze, turn giddy, rave, and die.
Religion blushing veils her sacred fires,
And unawares Morality expires.
Nor public Flame, nor private, dares to shine;
Nor human Spark is left, nor Glimpse divine!
Lo! thy dread Empire, CHAOS! is restor’d;
Light dies before thy uncreating word:
Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
And Universal Darkness buries All.12

The Gutenberg Galaxy then immediately concludes:

This is the Night from which Joyce invites the Finnegans to wake.

Just as Typhon in America, 13 years before The Gutenberg Galaxy, immediately concludes: 

In this darkness we must learn to see.


  1. McLuhan sometimes called his manuscript simply Typhon and at other times, Typhon in America. In the latter case, the parallel should be noted with his 1944 lecture (published in 1946): ‘An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America’. With both, the intent was to indicate a recurrent synchronic drama below the level of contemporary diachronic events. The same impulse was at work with Freud and Jung and with Yeats, Pound, Eliot and Joyce. It was also the great question of McLuhan’s Nashe thesis, one inherited from Rupert Lodge in Winnipeg — and one that McLuhan spent the rest of his life interrogating.
  2. A fourth cycle concerning MERCURY is cited by McLuhan in Book IV of Typhon from Bacon’s PAN or NATURE chapter of Wisdom of the Ancients: “Mercury, that is, the Word of God, which the Holy Scriptures without all controversy affirm, and such of the philosophers as had any smack of divinity assented unto (…) Whereas Pan is said to be, next unto Mercury, the messenger of the gods, there is in that a divine mystery contained; for, next to the word of God, the image of the world proclaims the power and wisdom divine, as sings the sacred poet. Psalm xix: “Caeli enarrant gloriam Dei et opera manuum eius adnuntiat firmamentum.” The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth the works of his hands.” Mercury as “messenger of the gods” plays the role of logos or medium or sinews/labyrinth/thread both between the gods themselves and between the gods and the historical order. That this logos or medium or thread reveals both as word and as the intelligible order of nature, especially of the stars, is the explicit topic of McLuhan’s Nashe thesis.
  3. Spedding edition. In his citation McLuhan does not include Bacon’s chapter heading, ‘TYPHON OR A REBEL’. In the parallel passage from Bacon’s Minotaur chapter (cited in this post), the heading, ‘DAEDALUS, OR MECHANIC’, is retained given its great importance for McLuhan’s purposes.
  4. Other tellings of the cycle simply say that the best bull of the king’s herd was supposed to be sacrificed each year. But one year Minos could not bring himself to offer a particularly fine bull and substituted another…
  5. Poseidon unmistakably identifies the sacrilegious character of Minos’ affection for the white bull by causing his wife’s affection for it in, so to say, another register. Minos’ affection leads (or seems to lead) to life, Pasiphae’s to repeated death. The message to Minos: ‘You have mistaken life for death.’ (The same message was delivered in the subsequent history of the spared bull itself which, once granted life, went on to bring death to all of Greece through its uncontrollable rampaging.)
  6. There are many variations to this myth. For example, sometimes the bull is not a gift from Poseidon, but from his brother, Zeus. Hence, the Minotaur’s name, ‘Asterion’ or ‘starry one’, which was also a name under which Zeus was worshipped. But ‘Asterion’ was the name of Minos’ ‘father’ as well — or, at least, of his predecessor as king. So in this telling, in which Zeus could equally be considered the ‘father’ of the white bull, ‘Asterion’ was the Minotaur’s ‘grandfather’ on both of its divine and human ancestral lines (Zeus-bull-minotaur; King Asterion-Minos/Pasiphae-minotaur). The constants across the variations of these myth cycles are not identities of who did what to whom, however, but questions: what is paternity? what is maternity? what is it to give life? And especially, what is it to receive life?
  7. Bacon was referencing Nonnus of Panopolis here, the 5th century AD composer of the Dionysiaca. Nonnus held that the name Dionysus meant ‘Zeus-limp’ and that Hermes named the new born Dionysus in this way, “because Zeus while he carried his burden (of the baby) lifted one foot with a limp from the weight of his thigh, and ‘nysos in Syracusan language means limping”. Modern etymologies, however, believe the name to be pre-Greek, It appears already in Minoan B tablets.
  8. Proserpine was queen of the underworld. The nursing of Dionysus by her at once relates Dionysus to the labyrinth of the Minotaur and reinforces the ‘later’ event of Dionysus’ death and resurrection. ‘He is risen’ of Christian Easter was once also cried every ‘spring’ of Dionysus.
  9. In the case of the Minotaur, the challenge to Zeus’ order is primarily made by his father, the Cretan bull, which, even after being subdued by Herakles, continued to rampage throughout the Greek world. But the Minotaur itself challenged Zeus by implementing an improper sacrifice namely, the annual sacrifice to himself of Athenian children.
  10. The death of God is the supreme disorder that can befall the universe. It is repeatedly at stake in the mythological cycles at stake in Bacon and McLuhan — and, of course, in the Christian cross.
  11. The book — The Gutenberg Galaxy — includes as a kind of epilogue an additional section: ‘The Galaxy Reconfigured’. The conclusion at stake here is that of the preceding major portion of the book describing the syndrome of the ‘Gutenberg galaxy’ itself.
  12. Dunciad (B), IV, 11.627-56.

MacLevy’s Figurama

In his unpublished Typhon in America, aka, Guide to Chaos, McLuhan cites many different news reports and ads from the late 1940s to illustrate the link between mechanization and sex.1 One of these, in Typhon Book II2, chapter i3, runs as follows:

Do you like my figure?
MacLevy’s have been keeping it slim and trim.

Monty MacLevy offered books

and home kits to help housewives shape themselves  up. His ‘Figurama salon-at-home slenderizing plan’ must have particularly caught McLuhan’s eye:


  1. Typhon can be considered a footnote to Giedion’s Mechanization Takes Command which McLuhan reviewed in 1949.
  3. “Announcing the birth of a petunia”.

McLuhan and Winters 2

In 1948 McLuhan was in correspondence with The Hudson Review, about reviews he wrote for the new journal that appeared in its second (summer 1948)1 and fourth (winter 1949)2 issues.

Perhaps alerted in this correspondence to the scathing criticism made of him in Yvor Winters’ forthcoming essay in Hudson Review on Gerard Manley Hopkins3, McLuhan quickly drafted a counter-critique of Winters and submitted it to The Sewanee Review.

The story of this counter-critique, which was never published, may be seen in correspondence between McLuhan and the editor of The Sewanee Review, John E. Palmer.

Following the resignation of Allen Tate in 1946 from his 2-year editorship of Sewanee, Palmer had been appointed as his replacement. He held the position until 1952. The correspondence between Palmer and McLuhan concerning Winters took place in the fall of 1948, but already in 1946 in one of McLuhan’s first letters to Palmer he set out the central issue which was at stake in his criticism of Winters:

McLuhan to John Palmer, November 4, 1946
With him [Vico] the problem of intellectual growth had been imposed by the struggle to free himself from DescartesTo-day, the problem is the same. To get free of technological modes which have invaded every aspect of education, of thought and feeling.4 The Lewis piece on De Tocqueville5 illustrates the failure of a great man to face and solve that problem. Lewis has finally submitted to lick the robot’s behind.6 

Jumping ahead to the fall of 1948, the continuing McLuhan-Palmer exchange clarifies what happened to the never published Winters essay.

McLuhan to Palmer, September 21, 1948
The present [enclosed] item [on Winters] you might think better, strategically speaking, if the last five pages (in which an example of Winters at work on metaphor is presented)7 were put before the general discussion of the cause of his troubles. (…) I have no idea what you think of Winters.  He is a god for the Hudson. They are to have his things from time to time.8 But if anybody can produce more howlers per page, then S.J. Perelman had better move over.9

Palmer to McLuhan, 22 September 1948
Your Winters paper has just arrived (…) but in view of your letter I thought I had best give you an advance tip about the contents of our Winter issue: we are carrying, no less, an essay by Winters on Robert Frost.10 It has been in our backlog, awaiting publication, for well over a year, and I’ve only now been able to schedule it. Now, I carry no general brief for Winters, and the fact that I am carrying this essay will certainly not prejudice me in my reading of yours.  I am somewhat acquainted with his strange combination of the critically erratic, cantankerous, and naive.11 And the essay I am running is not altogether free from these qualities.  But it happened that in this instance I agreed for the most part with what Winters had to say, and so I couldn’t see turning him down simply because it was the work of Winters.  I’ll be interested to hear your reaction to it.

Palmer to McLuhan, 19 October 1948
How do you feel about public exchanges on such matters as you deal with in your Winters paper? I certainly don’t go in for bickering for its own sake; but I do think that where two such gentlemen as yourself and Mr. Winters can be directly confronted on such crucial terms as you have introduced, the spectacle might well prove instructive for us all. Now, I’ve written Winters to learn his attitude;  but even though he should be willing to engage, I’ll not proceed with the arrangements unless I have your consent also.

McLuhan to Palmer, October 20, 1948
Did you find Harold Rosenberg’s ‘Herd of Independent Minds’12 interesting? (…) It’s an approach not unlike mine to the Winters type of critic. Prisoners of the concept. (…) But if a writer thinks his job is self-expression, that means he sets himself the job of inventing an order for his experience.13 He must then have ruling ideas, and these will inevitably be the ones most common in his own time. But a Flaubert needed no ideas at all. Nor a Joyce. The world was enough for them.
I’ve no objection to your proposal about getting Winters to reply. Perhaps some of the semi-personal notes should be removed from my essay.
As you see, Winters is, from my point of view, only a representative of an almost universal situation.14

Palmer to McLuhan, 27 October 1948
I heard from Winters this morning, and he begs off:  “I have never been greatly interested in Kant, and I am too busy right now to study him for the purpose of arguing with McLuhan. My literary theories are largely Aristotelian and Thomistic, but did not derive from Aristotle and Thomas so much as they simply agree with them.  They derived from a careful examination of a good many hundreds of poems.”  Characteristic, is it not? Then he went on to tell how overburdened he was in his teaching, etc. And now, at the risk of appearing editorially spineless, I’m inclined to give up the project, because it would seem to me too lopsided as a one-way affair. For this decision I shall hope that to so old an editorial friend as yourself no elaborate apologies are necessary.

McLuhan to Palmer, November 4, 1948
Naturally I’m not happy to see Winters the swashbuckler suddenly putting on the wily act and so escaping unscathed. The device of running up just any old colors to the masthead has not, I hope, taken you in.  His confessed ignorance of Kant is as nothing compared to his actual ignorance of Aristotle and Aquinas. In this respect he is precisely like the Chicago “Aristotelians” who [also] adopted the colors of the Stagirite (…) The Kantianism of Winters, like that of Richards, Empson, Ransom, affects his work the more deeply for being unconscious. The only way not to be a Kantian critic is to know Kant, since his language and attitudes are universal.15
But I don’t give a hoot about Winters as such. I merely hung my paper on him for dramatic reasons, thinking how desperately we need a bit of Menckensian dash in our dreary literary reflections these days. (…) Would you be interested in the paper expanded apropos of metaphor and with Winters omitted from central focus?

Palmer to McLuhan, November 15, 1948
I’m sorry to say that I still don’t take too strongly to the suggestion.  Not that I don’t see in it all sorts of likely possibilities; but I’ll have to tell you frankly that I’m leery of committing myself in advance to any piece designed to exhibit a Menckensian dash.  Such I think are quite all right now and then, as a break in the routine. But permit me the liberty to urge you, for your sake as well as for our own, not to continue to work indefinitely in this rare a vein.16



  1. ‘Tradition and the Academic Talent’, a review by McLuhan of Elizabethan and Metaphysical Imagery: Renaissance Poetic and Twentieth-Century Critics by Rosemond Tuve, Hudson Review 1:2.
  2. ‘Encyclopaedic Unities’, a review by McLuhan of two books, one by his friend and mentor, Sigfried Giedion (Mechanization Takes Command), and the other by Giedion’s longtime close friend, the late László Moholy-Nagy (Vision in Motion), Hudson Review 1:4.
  3. See McLuhan and Winters 1. Winters’ essay on Hopkins appeared in consecutive Winter and Spring 1949 issues (1.4 and 2.1) of The Hudson Review.
  4. In a note to Palmer from December 9, 1949: “to get out of the wire cage (…) Vico provides both the techniques of observation and exegesis as well as the only method of escape.”
  5. De Tocqueville and Democracy’, The Sewanee Review 54:4, 1946, had just appeared.
  6. It may be that Palmer found it unseemly for McLuhan to castigate Lewis to him in this fashion. For the article by Lewis appeared in Sewanee itself and only months into Palmer’s editorship of the journal. Furthermore, it had been McLuhan who first broached the idea (to Allen Tate) of publishing Lewis in Sewanee. In any case, relations between Palmer and McLuhan did not work out well. When McLuhan submitted ‘Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press’ to him in 1951, it had to wait for a new editor, Monroe Spears, before appearing at last in 1954 (in Sewanee 62:1). And Palmer turned down ‘Joyce, Aquinas, and the Poetic Process’ as well in 1951, leading McLuhan to publish it later that year in Renascence (4:1).
  7. McLuhan’s bracketed insertion.
  8. This aside seems to reflect  correspondence between McLuhan and Hudson Review as muted above.
  9. McLuhan began this note: “What a pity that the Hudson is selling out so stodgily.”
  10. Yvor Winters, ‘Robert Frost’, Sewanee Review, 56:4, 1948.
  11. Palmer was, of course, referring here to Cleanth Brooks’ discussion of Winters in ‘Cantankerous and Other Critics’ (The Kenyon Review, Spring 1944). In fact, Brooks was an old friend of Palmer — the two of them had worked closely together on the Southern Review at LSU.
  12. Rosenberg’s ‘Herd of Independent Minds: Has the Avant-Garde Its Own Mass Culture?’ appeared in Commentary for September, 1948.
  13. McLuhan considered the idea of “inventing an order for (…) experience” to be crazed. And yet it was “universal”! Among other questions that needed to be addressed to it, how could “an order for (…) experience” be ‘invented’ without the inventing subject already having instituted some such “order”? In this light, modernity was a gigantic case of a question, or questions, gone begging. A decade in the future, McLuhan would begin the put his critique in terms of the deficiencies of ‘light on’ from us as contrasted with ‘light through’ toward us. As McLuhan immediately noted here to Palmer, the supposed inventor of an “order for (…) experience (…) must then have ruling ideas, and these will inevitably be the ones most common in his own time.” The inventor thinks he is freely initiating ‘light on’, but in fact is unconsciously only reflecting ‘light through’!
  14. In a later note to Palmer from December 9, 1949 McLuhan referred to this “universal situation” asa mechanistic juggling with identical counters.”
  15. In a note from April 27, 1953 to Monroe Spears, Palmer’s successor as editor of Sewanee, McLuhan wrote that the “the model basis is indispensable” — an early version of “the medium is the message”. McLuhan agreed with mentors like Rupert Lodge in Winnipeg and Harold Innis in Toronto that it is not possible for human beings to think and experience aside from some or other model. What might be termed ‘model-dependence’ is “universal”. But he disagreed with Innis that this necessarily led to solipsism. Instead, “the key” to human freedom was to dis-cover the structure of models so that they might be subject to open collective research — and thereby to retrieve sustaining relation with the world.
  16. A later exchange between Palmer and McLuhan had this criticism from Palmer: “You’ve again brought together too much in too little space, with resulting moments of confusion and oversimplification.” (November 27, 1950) McLuhan’s reply: “Trouble is I make so many discoveries and have so few outlets, that when I write ‘em up I can’t help cramming much into one essay.  If I could publish an essay once a week (not once in 3 months or 3 years) I could spread the stuff thinner and achieve some degree of transparency.” (January 15, 1951)

McLuhan and Winters 1

The critic, Yvor Winters [1900-1968] published a long essay on Gerard Manley Hopkins in the first two issues of the Hudson Review in 1949.1 In the second section of his essay, Winters mocked McLuhan’s 1944 essay on Hopkins’ Windhover:

M.H. McLuhan, in an essay in which interpretation is often carried so far from the actual text as to approach pure fantasy…

This prompted McLuhan to draft a letter to the Editor of The Hudson Review, which he left in an issue of the review now to be found among his books at Fisher Library in Toronto:2 

Sir, It has long been the practice of Mr. Winters to paddle his critical canoe into white waters and there to complain that, by his powers, this was no mill pond. So long, however, as he stays with the literature of simple statement and naive sentiment, his method will bear him up even when it can’t possibly carry him forward.3
Instead, therefore, of rescuing him from the dramatic and turbulent mill-race of Hopkins (he had the same harrowing experience with Joyce and Eliot), it will be more useful to explain why Mr. Winters should above all avoid poets who have a radically analogical outlook
Analogies are not concepts, nor are they reducible to concepts. They are proportions between congeries of various forms, facts, concepts. Such proportions are for contemplation. They are inexhaustible and irreducible. When Wordsworth presents Lucy in the ratio of “a violet by a mossy stone”, he renders his world. Every conflict, pathos, paradox of his entire vision is there. A violet needs the stone, it needs the moss, and the converse is both true and untrue at different levels.
In short, even this simple statement is not the poetry of concepts or of statements.  Poetry is never merely or primarily an affair of essences and concepts. It is in the order of existence and experience. Yet Mr. Winters asserts that poetry is statement about experience. And poetic order must be, he holds, logical coherence of concepts or judgements about experience. This notion of poetry is not as uncommon today as Mr. Winters claims. If anything it is the conventional nineteenth century view inherited from Cartesian and Kantian notions of language as merely conceptual signs. And it is a view which compels the critic to view with distaste all the complex art of our or any other time. Let us recall Rhymer4 and les règles5.
Even Pope is not as much the poet of simple statement as was once supposed. Wherever there is serious poetry, analogy will be present. Wherever there is analogy, Mr. Winters will prove helpless as a critic. And yet it was the discovery of that very eighteenth century, to which Mr. Winters so often appeals for his criteria, that all four terms of an analogy could be managed in a single couplet. That is, a couplet could contain a compressed drama containing both plot and subplot, comprising within itself metaphors as well. Yet every metaphor is itself an analogy in four terms, only two of which need be expressed.

The hungry judges soon the sentence sign
And wretches hang that jurymen may dine.

“As hungry judges are to justice, so are the victims of justice to the appetites of their fellow men.” Within this ratio is included the same tragic vision as that of Lear on the heath and of Swift’s Modest Proposal [1729]. It is a vision of treachery and cannibalism occurring independently at various social levels and it cannot be reduced to a logical order of concepts and retain the dramatic conflict. It is true that judges are hungry, but not for justice. And it is true that wretches are fed into the social machine to feed other wretches. Meat must be hung before it is eaten.6 But from these observations neither Shakespeare, Pope nor Swift concluded anything logically. (The merely conceptual mind would say that, if only the judge could have a sandwich brought in, then justice would supplant injustice.) They set their observations in a ratio, proportion or analogy which is for contemplation and not to be reduced to a univocal order of conceptual awareness or causal connection.
It is not only Mr. Winters, therefore, who finds himself in difficulties in the presence of analogical awareness. It is still the typical intellectual difficulty of our world as can be seen, for example, in the current efforts to reduce Eliot’s notes on the analogy of culture to a univocal conceptual scheme.

The summer 1949 issue (2:2) of The Hudson Review featured two reviews of ‘Mr. Eliot’s New Book‘, Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, by Herbert Read and by Hugh Kenner. It may be that the last sentence of McLuhan’s draft refers to these reviews, or at least to Read’s, and thereby gives an indication of the “current” date of the draft’s composition.



  1. The Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins (I)‘, The Hudson Review, 1:4 (Winter, 1949) and ‘The Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins (II)‘, The Hudson Review, 2:1 (Spring, 1949). McLuhan’s review of Sigfried Gideon’s Mechanization Takes Command and László Moholy-Nagy’s Vision in Motion appeared in the first of these.
  2. The letter does not seem to have been published in Hudson Review and may never have been sent to it. The draft is in longhand.
  3. McLuhan attempted another start to this letter but abandoned it. It read: “Mr. Winters seems to regard my comments on the Windhover as a more formidable concoction than the poem itself. What is it that compels Mr. Winters to find reasons (any reasons will do) for assigning only minor value and interest to all the major literary talents of our time? I have no wish to bring Mr. Winters to accept my views on Hopkins or on anybody else. But the very serious difficulties which he invariably encounters in the presence of any but the poetry of naive statement and sentiment…”.
  4. Thomas Rhymer (1641-1713) was called by Macaulay “the worst critic that ever lived”. And since Macaulay was an early ‘hero’ of McLuhan, he may have known of Macaulay’s critique of Rhymer since the early 1930s. But however that may have been, McLuhan certainly knew of Cleanth Brooks’ comparison of Winters with Rhymer in his 1944 ‘Cantankerous and Other Critics’ (Kenyon Review, Spring 1944). Brooks and McLuhan were close in the 1940s, and McLuhan  published his own Hopkins essay (the one mocked by Winters) in the Kenyon Review that same year.
  5. Contemporary with Rhymer, these were ‘rules’ set down in the seventeenth century in France for literature and especially for the theatre.
  6. This section of McLuhan’s 1949 draft was used in his 1951 ‘Tennyson and Picturesque Poetry’: “Pope especially deserves study from this point of view since he first developed the couplet to do the complex work of the double-plot of the Elizabethans. He discovered how to make a couplet achieve a symbolic vision. That is, to effect an instant of inclusive consciousness by the juxtaposition without copula of diverse and even paradoxical situations or states of mind: ‘The hungry judges soon the sentence sign/And wretches hang that jurymen may dine.’ The judges are hungry but not for justice; yet there is no suggestion that they would be better judges if they had dined. The stark confrontation of this human condition is enforced by the second line or ‘sub-plot’ which is parallel but inferior. The suggestion that meat must hang before it is edible, and that jurymen are merely promoting the proper business of society in seeing that it gets hung is analogous to the vision of society in Swift’s Modest Proposal and to Lear’s vision on the heath. The couplet in Pope’s hands escaped from the conditions imposed by univocal discourse which had developed in the Cartesian milieu.”

Plenary consciousness 2

Plotinus was surely justifiable in his exegesis in the fifth Ennead when he held as platonic doctrine that the One and the Good are identical, and that this is beyond being and beyond knowledge; Proclus taught the same. But whenever a Christian tried to adopt the same pattern of unity among things, [he or she] could not but regard the unique source of all, God, as Creator, that is, as
Being in the plenary sense of the name, the source of being to beings… (Bernard J. Muller-Thym)1 

Perhaps at first following his close friend and mentor, Bernie Muller-Thym, McLuhan deployed the term ‘plenary’ over and over again throughout his career. He seems to have meant by it, not ‘full’ or ‘fullness’ in some exclusive ontic sense,2 but the ‘fullness’ of the natural and spiritual together, in an inclusive ontological sense. As McLuhan said of the symbolists (cited in full below), they effected “the plenary elucidation of [the] verbal landscape, [the] psychological with [the] metaphysical“. Or as he characterized Joyce: “Punning on ‘Dublin’, he constantly invites us to regard his drama as the story of “doublends joined“. Irremediably analogical, Joyce’s work moves as naturally on the metaphysical as on the naturalistic plane.”3

Here are examples of his use of the term in chronological order from the early 1940s to the late 1970s:

American critics once alerted to the new movements in English criticism would probably bog down in the rhetorical exegesis of Richards and Empson rather than adapt it, as F.R. Leavis did, as a means in a critical journey to the full act of plenary critical judgment.4 

the arduous stage of the journey (…) remains to be accomplished before winning an overall view, which is 
plenary critical judgment.5

As I have often said to [Cleanth] Brooks, the Southern tradition has intense value to-day.  But the agrarian program was a mistaken strategy because rooted in a failure to see the Southern tradition in its intellectual relevance.  The stand should not have been taken on Dixie
land.  But on plenary philology.  That is letters understood as the complete education in thought and feeling which fosters an integral humanitas.  That is Viconian ground.  The only fertile soil in the modern world.6

There has been no lack of critics who have proclaimed the uplifting qualities of the movies without having noticed anything whatever of what was going on in them. Mr. Tyler [in Magic and Myth of the Movies, 1947] is right, therefore, to concentrate attention on the complexity and eminent snideness of movie art as preliminary to opening up a plenary critique.7

English [studies] took over the former functions of Greek and Latin after these had been narrowed to philology. (…) So that the formal teaching of English began and has continued along the lines which first destroyed classical education. The present volumes [under review, Moholy-Nagy’s Vision in Motion and Giedion’s Mechanization Takes Command] suggest a variety of means whereby English might in large measure resume the plenary functions of the older classical education.8

Eliot has always insisted on the technical innovations of Laforgue and Rimbaud as basic for his own development. What these poets effected after Baudelaire was the plenary elucidation of verbal landscape, psychological with Laforgue, metaphysical in Rimbaud. They discovered landscape as the formula of a particular emotion of the mind, greatly extending and sharpening the earlier Romantic use of landscape. [James] Thomson [1700-1748], [William] Collins [1721-1759], and even Wordsworth immersed themselves in actual landscapes in pursuit of emotion. Laforgue and Rimbaud invented erudite urban landscapes to control and release precise and complex emotions. [In this way] the Romantics began with the vague search for new art emotions amidst natural conditions and ended with the discovery and precise control of these emotions in art conditions. (…) But the new emotions and the new techniques or formulas for these emotions are inseparable. That is why Eliot always mentions technique and sensibility together, while his commentators discuss only his sensibility.9

The impressionists began with sensation, discovered ‘abstraction’, and achieved, finally, a metaphysical art. The picturesque begins with work like Thomson’s Seasons, in the search for significant art-emotion amid natural scenes and it achieved plenary realization in Rimbaud’s metaphysical landscapesLes Illuminations. The early Romantics sought aesthetic emotion in natural scenes; the later Romantics confidently evoked art-emotion from art-situations.10

On the labyrinth of the ear, organ of the Incarnation, Joyce built those metaphysical analogies which enabled him to restore the orchestra of the seven liberal arts to its plenary functions. He is never less than the artist of the word. (…) Joyce was at home in all labyrinths because of his original conquest of the stages of apprehension, of the mind in act.11

Such a thought-world [set out in the biblical Book of Revelation]12 is entirely congenial to the twentieth century as its art and criticism testify. (…) Return to the plenary scope of patristic exegesis (…) can perhaps be taken as a mark of the profound coherence13 of modern culture when viewed at its best levels.14

[Following Innis] every medium of communication has its peculiar bias or limitation. Each one distorts the plenary functions of human oral expression. Writing extends the spatial range of speech but creates mental passivity. Writing fixes traditions but evokes large armies, roads and empires. Seen, however, as a special art form the alphabet refashioned all human experience. The translation of auditory into visual terms set up an inner life in man which separated him from the external world and, in part, from his own senses, as we know from the study of pre-literate societies. The psychic withdrawal caused by the complex process of literacy presents the individual with a train of maladjustments unknown to pre-literate societies. But the fixation of the processes of thought in writing permits that analysis of thought which brings into existence the structures of science and philosophy. Alphabetic writing is itself a radical re-ordering of experience, as we know by contrast with the pictorial or ideogrammic writing of China, which releases a totally different set of of human possibilities in contrast to the unconscious preferences of alphabetic societies. In this sense, an art form establishes basic human attitudes and becomes the very mode of [all human] experience.15

Pictographic Chinese culture (…) would seem to stand midway between the extremes of our abstract written tradition and the plenary oral tradition with its stress on speech as gesture and gesture as “phatic communion”. And it is perhaps this medial position between the non-communicating extremes of print and pictorial technology which attracts us today to the Chinese ideogram.16

TV deals with the visual image as radio with the auditory image. That is, there is immediacy or instantaneity of pick-up, projection, and reception. Joyce was entirely aware of these differences in choosing TV as the basic modality of the collective human drama of Finnegans Wake. As immediate sight plus sound, TV permits a full use of the plenary materials of the human drama, namely speech itself, a “verbivocovisual presentment”.17

[Hugh Kenner] differs from all other commentators in stressing the total relevance of Joyce’s Roman Catholicism to his art. The stress (…) implies Joyce’s radical use of reason as a spiritual faculty and not as a mere instrument. It is Joyce’s awareness of reason in this plenary sense that determines his attitude to the verbal universe. Like Pound and Eliot, Joyce assumed that verbal art in the electronic age had to assume the responsibility of precision and power equivalent to the physical sciences. His work simply shoulders the burden both of the alchemy of the word and of the alchemy of history in an act of inclusive consciousness.18

[E.T.] Hall’s concept of “the organizing pattern” concerns the fact that “there is no such thing as ‘experience’ in the abstract, as a mode separate and distinct from culture.” Hall is saying here, in effect, what I formulate as “the medium is the message.” (…) Since speech is itself a master technology, it goes without saying that the Sapir, Whorf, Hall, Trager, Lee axis have long followed this line of study. Not being perhaps particularly familiar with the types of cultural analysis directed by the artists of this century toward human technologies as art forms, the social scientists have been unduly shy of a plenary art approach to technology. (…) The problem for the artists in our time is to say everything at once, and this is the problem in a variety of ways for every kind of person in an electronic age.19

Let us suppose for a moment that a team of present-day testers had been available in the year 1500 to find out whether the new book or reading machines and instructional materials were capable of doing the plenary traditional job of education in the future. Would not this team, even as it would today, ask whether the privately read word could measure up as a means of teaching and learning to the memorized manuscript and its formidable extension in oral exegesis and group disputation?20

As the entire globe becomes a single computer or what de Chardin calls a noosphere, the advent of satellite broadcasting makes every one of the more than two hundred and fifty cultures of the globe as immediately present to each other as are the telephone subscribers of a single town. The dialogue between cultures will become as pervasive as back-fence gossiping. But, as information movement  expands in this plenary way, the business and politics and diversions of mankind fuse into a single uninterrupted action.21

The overwhelming trend of film is toward involvement in the creative and social processes alike. Film is now able to digest any kind of theme and to handle it in the mode of an inclusive awareness. The “phantom city phaked of philim pholk” is acquiring the character of plenary consciousness.22

With the new means of plenary cultural retrieval, ancient clichés are taking their place as transcendental or archetypal forms(…) It is the process by which new clichés or new technological probes and environments have the effect of liquidating or scrapping the preceding clichés of cultures and environments created by pre­ceding technologies. The world of archaeology and musicology today is entirely concerned with classifying these rejected frag­ments of obsolete and broken cultures.23  

Just as the plenary retrieval techniques of Gutenberg print created the Puritan ideal of a recovery of a purified and primitive Christianity, so the modern anthropologist, using plenary methods of retrieval, has rejected the traditional humanistic or literary view of the gods in favor of a complete resacralizing of pagan art and ritual. The resacralizing of the ancient clichés of ancient technology by an­thropologists places the literary archetypalist in a very embarrass­ing position. The archetypalist, having come to regard the gods as a neutered or “spayed” bunch of moralized entities, now [is confronted by] the anthropologist, who insists on accepting them as real environmental forces completely beyond literary occurrence or control. The gods as cliché technologies are not susceptible to literary classification.24 

Plenary Indulgences in the Affluent Society
Parkinson stated his law about the nature of  administrations to the effect that any task, however insignificant, will automatically expand to use all the available time and resources of all the available personnel of any operation whatever.25

Shifting “Grounds” Transform “Figures”.
The complicated question of whether authority rested in the pope or in the laity or in the church in plenary council fluctuated wildly with the conditions of travel and information movement from the beginnings of the church to the present. This fact becomes apparent today when there is no more geography in the world as far as verbal intercommunication is concerned. The telegraph, telephone, radio and teletype have caused the disappearance of physical space and national and cultural boundaries, and have restored the most primal conditions of primitive Christianity. At the same time, this instantaneous character brings down an avalanche of historical, bureaucratic confusion upon the new oral church. The electric technology that abolishes central bureaucracy and organization also retrieves the entire past of the church — oral, written, bureaucratic, and historical. We begin to live a kind of Dantesque vision that merges all pasts and presents.26

Posthumous (from the 1970s)
All the extensions of man, verbal or non-verbal, hardware or software, are essentially metaphoric in structure, and that they are in the plenary sense linguistic (…) A “metaphor” means literally “carrying across” from Greek metapherein and was translated into Latin as “translatio”. In a word, metaphor is a kind of bridging process, a way of getting from one kind of experience to another.27


  1. Of History as a Calculus Whose Term Is Science’, Modern Schoolman, 19:4 & 19:5, 1942. Muller-Thym was the best man at the McLuhans’ wedding in 1939 and the Godfather of their first two children, Eric and Mary. His influence on McLuhan’s career, in St Louis and subsequently, cannot be overstated.
  2. McLuhan used the term ‘exclusive’ in a technical sense, namely, to designate the ultimate incompatibility of the one and the many. In fundamental contrast, the ‘inclusive’ designated their ultimate compatibility or complementarity.
  3. ‘James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial’,  Thought, 27:1, 1953.
  4. ‘Poetic vs Rhetorical Exegesis: The Case for Leavis against Richards and Empson’, Sewanee Review,  52:2, 1944.
  5. Ibid.
  6. McLuhan to John E. Palmer, November 4, 1946. Palmer became the editor of the Sewanee Review following the resignation of Allen Tate.
  7. ‘Inside Blake and Hollywood’, review of Northrop Frye, Fearsome Symmetry and Parker Tyler, Magic and Myth of the Movies, Sewanee Review, 55:4, 1947.
  8. Encyclopaedic Unities’, Review of Vision in Motion (László Moholy-Nagy) and Mechanization Takes Command (Siegfried Giedion), Hudson Review 1:4, 1949.
  9. ‘T S Eliot’ (review of 11 books on TSE), Renascence 3:1, 1950.
  10. Tennyson and Picturesque Poetry’, Essays in Criticism 1:3, 1951.
  11. Joyce, Aquinas, and the Poetic Process’, Renascence 4:1, 1951.
  12. McLuhan’s discussion here concerns Austin Farrer’s A Rebirth of Images, 1949.
  13. “Return” as envisioned here must itself already be situated within such “coherence” in order to start to ‘retrieve’ it. “In my end is my beginning”, as Eliot cited Mary, Queen of Scots in ‘East Coker’: “En ma Fin gît mon Commencement”.
  14. ‘James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial’, Thought 27:1, reprinted in The Interior Landscape.
  15. ‘The Later Innis’, Queen’s Quarterly, 60:3, 1953.
  16. ‘Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press, Sewanee Review, 62:1, 1954. This essay was written, and submitted to Sewanee, in 1951.
  17. ‘Radio and Television vs. The ABCED-Minded’, Explorations 51955.
  18. ‘Compliment Accepted’, Renascence 10:2, 1957.
  19. Project 69, ‘Materials Developed by Project’, 1960. McLuhan cites FW in the middle of this passage: “Amongst other things Finnegans Wake is a history of writing. We begin with writing on ‘A bone, a pebble, a ramskin . . . leave them to cook (FW: ‘terracook’) in the mutthering pot (FW: ‘muttheringpot’): and Gutenmorg with his cromagnon (FW: ‘cromagnom’) charter’…”. The same passage with the same misquotations is repeated in GG.
  20. ‘New Media and the New Education’, Canadian Communications, 1:1, 1960. Also appeared as: ‘Electronics and the Changing Role of Print’, AudioVisual Communication Review 8:5, 1960. Also appeared as: ‘New Media and the New Education’, Christianity and Culture1960. Also included in Project 69 as ‘Exhibit 1’.
  21. ‘The Electronic Age – The Age of Implosion’, 1962.
  22. ‘A Phantom City Phaked of Philim Pholk (FW 264.19–20) or Where the Hand of Man Never Set Foot’ (FW 203.15-16).
  23. Cliché to Archetype, 1970.
  24. Ibid: Cliché to Archetype, 1970.
  25. Advertising blurb for Take Today headlined ‘Management as Comedy of Errors’.
  26. Take Today, 1970
  27. Laws of Media, 1988. “Getting from one kind of experience to another” is, of course, exactly what speech is, and presumably this is what McLuhan had in mind with “in the plenary sense linguistic“. “Plenary” speech would therefore be both poles or interlocutors in conversation and that which unites them across their difference. Indeed, McLuhan continued this passage with: “This reaching out always involves a resonating interval rather than a mere connection.”

Plenary consciousness (McLuhan and Hegel)

Two decades apart, the final lines of McLuhan essays from 1944 and 1964 called for “plenary critical judgment” and for the acquisition of “plenary consciousness”.1


the arduous stage of the journey (…) remains to be accomplished before winning an overall view, which is plenary critical judgment. (Poetic vs Rhetorical Exegesis: The Case for Leavis against Richards and Empson)2


The overwhelming trend of film is toward involvement in the creative and social processes alike. Film is now able to digest any kind of theme and to handle it in the mode of an inclusive awareness. The “phantom city phaked of philim pholk” is acquiring the character of plenary consciousness. (A Phantom City Phaked of Philim Pholk [FW 264.19–20] or Where the Hand of Man Never Set Foot [FW 203.15-16])3

These concluding lines from McLuhan age 33 and age 53 serve to plot the continuity of the strategy he pursued over his 50-year intellectual life from 1930 (age 19) to 1980 (age 69). Namely, if humans are to survive the technological environment they have created, they must achieve decisive clarity about themselves (the interior landscape) in analogous fashion to the clarity achieved (but only in the last two centuries) about the physical world (the exterior landscape). This, in turn, requires identification of a new field, or fields, defined by the totality, or plenum, of the elements constituting it/them.4 But ‘totality’ here is open, not closed — just as chemistry posits the totality of Mendeleev’s table but is still uncovering ‘new’5 elements constituting that totality as we speak.

McLuhan took over this strategy, and the implicated need to communicate it by instigating its investigation, from his two philosophy teachers at the University of Manitoba, Henry Wright and Rupert Lodge. They, in turn, continued a line running back through John Watson (1847–1939) and Edward Caird (1835–1908) to Hegel (1770-1832). 

Wright and Lodge were two of the contributors (out of eleven) to the Festschrift volume dedicated to Watson on the occasion of the 50th anniversary (1872-1922) of his teaching career at Queen’s University: Philosophical Essays Presented to John Watson. Their essays (‘A Plea for Eclecticism’ by Wright and ‘Moral  Validity: A Study in Platonism’ by Lodge) must be studied in detail to understand the context of the philosophical theory in which McLuhan’s English studies at the University of Manitoba and then at Cambridge were cultured.6

To indicate this line from Hegel to McLuhan in preliminary fashion it suffices to note in regard to its two ends that McLuhan’s “medium is the message” from 1958 was central to Hegel’s proposed philosophical science from 1807 — 150 years earlier. 

Phänomenologie des Geistes, ‘Vorrede’   (1807)
Daß an jedem Falschen etwas Wahres sei – in diesem Ausdrucke gelten beide, wie Öl und Wasser, die unmischbar nur äußerlich verbunden sind. Gerade um der Bedeutung willen, das Moment des vollkommenen Andersseins zu bezeichnen, müssen ihre Ausdrücke da, wo ihr Anderssein aufgehoben ist, nicht mehr gebraucht werden. So wie der Ausdruck der Einheit des Subjekts und Objekts, des Endlichen und Unendlichen, des Seins und Denkens usf. das Ungeschickte hat, daß Objekt und Subjekt usf. das bedeuten, was sie außer ihrer Einheit sind, in der Einheit also nicht als das gemeint sind, was ihr Ausdruck sagt…

In the expression that in everything false there is something of the truth, the two of them [the true and the false] are understood like oil and water, which can only outwardly be brought together [and are not already inwardly bound]. Precisely in order to designate the specificity [das Moment] of such absolute difference [between such ‘unmixable’ truth and falsehood], when that difference is cancelled or transcended [aufgehoben], the same designation of them cannot still be used. Similarly, the expression of the unity of subject and object, the finite and infinite, being and thought, etc, is problematic in that subject and object, etc, seem to mean what they do outside their unity, but in their unity they do not have the sense [anymore] of that [differentiated] designation…

Hegel’s point is that the poles of an opposition — like truth/falsehood, subject/object, finitude/infinitude, being/thought — depend for their meaning on their relation; and that such relation varies according to the degree of difference vs unity represented by it. The specification of meaning therefore turns on the prior specification of the range of possible unity/difference ratios or media. “The medium is the message.”7

In his 1964 ‘Phantom City Phaked of Philim Pholk’ lecture, McLuhan set out these same steps as follows (where his visual/auditory ratio stands in for Hegel’s unity/difference)8:

  • “some basic sensory reorganization has occurred in our corporate lives in recent decades. Indeed, one need have looked no further than the movies to have encountered extraordinary signs of change in sensory (…) preference
  • “With the lowering of the visual level the other senses came up, automatically, with a complete change of outlook and attitude as a consequence”9
  • “The better we can grasp the properties of the components in this dynamic interaction, the more we can cope”
  • “It is perhaps overdue that we should abandon mere reaction or acquiescence in favour of due understanding of these great archetypal forces
  • “The only viable strategy in learning today [= the pursuit of ‘due understanding’] is to resort to (…) to pattern recognition” [of the particular structures of these individual ratios and of the spectrum of these ratios in relation to each other]
  • “It is possible to read the (…) level of the sensory usage in any society or individual by the degree of stress manifested[in the ratio of the visual/auditory poles to each other]10


  1. McLuhan evidently liked to close his writings in this “plenary” fashion. Here are the final sentences of his 1947 review ‘Inside Blake and Hollywood’: “There has been no lack of critics who have proclaimed the uplifting qualities of the movies without having noticed anything whatever of what was going on in them. Mr. Tyler (in Magic and Myth of the Movies, 1947) is right, therefore, to concentrate attention on the complexity and eminent snideness of movie art as preliminary to opening up a plenary critique.” (Sewanee Review 55:4)
  2. Sewanee Review,  52:2, 1944. Compare the first sentence of this essay: “American critics once alerted to the new movements in English criticism would probably bog down in the rhetorical exegesis of Richards and Empson rather than adapt it, as FR Leavis did, as a means in a critical journey to the full act of plenary critical judgment.” The entire essay unfolds within the brackets set by this phrase of “plenary critical judgment”. For further discussion see Poetic vs Rhetorical Exegesis 1Poetic vs Rhetorical Exegesis 2, and Plenary Judgement.
  3. Lecture at the National Film Board of Canada symposium, ‘The Future of Film in Canada’, August 5, 1964. Published posthumously in The Book of Probes, ed Eric McLuhan, William Kuhns and David Carson, 2003.
  4. The circularity of this notion is plain. Only judgement which itself has “the character of plenary consciousness” can authentically identify and investigate the required “plenary” field. Such circularity is one more way in which the image of maelstrom is fitting to the problematic at stake.
  5. ‘New’ in the order of consciousness, not in the order of nature.
  6. For detailed discussion see the posts on Wright and Lodge.
  7. “The medium is the message” has a number of readings, all of which must be heard together in it. (1) The medium is what first of all makes a message possible. So, eg, a word does not make communication possible, but communication makes something like a word possible. (2) The medium is what determines the meaning of the message (considered as some articulation of the structural poles of that medium). (3) The medium must be the focus of the open collective investigation of communication, aka, “understanding media”. (4) ‘The medium is the message’ just as ‘culture is our business’. The medium (media) as the basis of sustainable culture (cultures) is the key to human survival. The medium is the coherence of such a multiple plurality, the ontological condition of their peace. Cf, ‘James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial (1953): “the plenary scope of patristic exegesis (…) can perhaps be taken as a mark of the profound coherence of modern culture when viewed at its best levels.”
  8. It is characteristic of McLuhan’s formulation of the tradition to suggest that focus on the visual/auditory ratio as defining both individual psychologies and social cultures may be more fruitful than focus on unity/difference. However, his frequent recourse to “inclusive awareness” (in, eg, the head citation above from his ‘Phantom City’ lecture), vs exclusive awareness, illustrates his recurrent attention to unity/difference as well. “Inclusive awareness” is awareness of unity in difference; exclusive awareness is awareness of (subjective genitive!) the ultimate incompatibility of unity and difference. The riddle posed by the tradition is how these two basic types of awareness can be fundamentally different without collapsing into exclusivity. “The gap is where the action is.”
  9. The “automatic” inverse relation (Heraclitus’ ‘οδός) of up and down (Heraclitus’ άνω κάτω) is what McLuhan in the same essay calls “the degree of stress manifested” (see the following note).
  10. McLuhan: “It is possible to read the visual level of the sensory usage in any society or individual by the degree of stress manifested in favour of neatness and classification” — which also yields, ‘automatically’, a reading of the inversely related auditory level of (dual genitive) untidiness and disorder.

Hayakawa to McLuhan in 1968

After McLuhan’s brain surgery in 1967, while he was gradually recovering from it in 1968, Hayakawa wrote him a note:

July 7, 1968
Dear Marshall —
I heard to my sorrow that you have been ill, and I heard more recently that you are well again. I hope you have received an invitation from St Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Ind., to take part in a philosophical symposium. They wanted me, and I accepted in the hope that you too would accept so that our paths might cross again.
What’s this I hear about a McLuhan Newsletter? How do I get on the mailing list?
Best wishes, as always.
Yrs etc1, Don
I was in Winnipeg June 13-19. My 1st visit in  35 years! My gosh, how we have all changed!

  1. Hayakawa was the founding editor of ‘etc’, the journal of the International Society for General Semantics. And he remained the editor for almost thirty years (1943-1970). He named the journal during WW2 after the WW1 poem (published in 1926) by e.e. cummings (given here without cumming’s complex spacings):
    my sweet old etcetera
    aunt lucy during the recent
    war could and what
    is more did tell you just
    what everybody was fighting
    my sister
    isabel created hundreds
    hundreds) of socks not to
    mention shirts fleaproof earwarmers
    etcetera wristers etcetera, my
    mother hoped that

    i would die etcetera
    bravely of course my father used
    to become hoarse talking about how it was
    a privilege and if only he
    could meanwhile my
    self etcetera lay quietly
    in the deep mud et
    cetera, of
    Your smile
    eyes knees and of your Etcetera)

McLuhan and Hayakawa in Louisville 1954

McLuhan and S.I. Hayakawa were on the program together at a conference at the University of Louisville in October 1954. Both spoke on its first day. When they met there, how many meetings with other and commonalities of interest they able to recount to each other since the time, almost thirty years before, when they were students and neighbors in Winnipeg? Had they met in Madison in the mid-1930s when they both worked there?1 Did their separate associations with Sigfried Giedion in the 1940s bring them together personally at all?2 

The introductory notes to the reprint of Explorations include this information:

In November [should be October] 1954, the Explorations researchers attended  the “Institute on Culture and Communication” organised by Ray Birdwhistell3 at the University of Louisville‘s Interdisciplinary Committee on Culture and Communication. A number of the contributions to Explorations 3 are essays or early drafts of contributions related to this conference (Birdwhistell, Lee, Trager & Hall).

On October 17, 1954, the Louisville Courier-Journal announced the event as follows:

Films on Child Rearing Slated at Institute Here
A film by a British psychologist and a film by an American psychologist on “How To Rear Children” will be presented during the program of the Institute on Culture and Communication, Friday [Oct 22, 1954] and Saturday [Oct 23, 1954] at the Brown Hotel. The Institute is sponsored by the University of Louisville Interdisciplinary Committee on Culture’ and Communication and the Division of Adult Education of U. of L. Registrations for the two-day sessions may be made with the Division of Adult Education. The fee is $5.
Dr. Ray Lee Birdwhistell, coordinator of the interdisciplinary committee, said the films will serve three purposes. The subject matter itself will be valuable. They will also demonstrate the method of analyzing films and will illustrate the extent that cultures of different countries affect their own psychologists. 
Prominent Speakers Due
Several prominent speakers will discuss the part played by the written and spoken word, actions, and sounds in communication. Dr. Henry Lee Smith, chief of the language-training branch, Foreign Service Institute, Department of State, and chairman of the meeting, will open the institute at 9:30 a.m. Speakers on the first-day program include Dr. George Trager, Georgetown University; Dr. Birdwhistell, and Dr. Smith, who will speak on “Tactilism and Communication.” Dr. Margaret Mead of  the American Museum of Natural History will speak on “Communication and Culture,” the second day of the institute. Semantics will be the subject of an address by Prof. S. I. Hayakawa, University of Chicago. Others on the program will be Dr. John Broderius, chairman of the department of modern languages at U. of L.; Dr. Dorothy Lee, director of graduate studies at Merrill-Palmer School, Detroit, and Prof. Reuel Denney, University of Chicago, coauthor with David Reisman of The Lonely Crowd.

After the event, the Courier-Journal reported it as follows:

About 80% of All Conversations Unnecessary, Anthropologist Says
Some very learned speakers did here yesterday about people who do a lot of talking. And it was agreed that about 80 per cent of all natural communication could be dispensed with. It’s redundant. Take telephone conversations, for example, said Dr. Margaret Mead, anthropologist, author, and representative of the American Museum of Natural History. A person who wants to tell another person something might dial his number and merely say, “Twenty-five.” That would be sufficient, Dr. Mead said, to convey the intended information. Instead, she said, the conversation usually goes something like this: “Hello, Joe.” “Hi, Bill.” “How you doin’?” “Okay. How you doin’?” “Okay.” “You know that figure I was supposed to give you?” “Yeah.” “Well, it’s 25.” “Twenty-five, huh?” “Year.” “Okay. Fine.” “Okay.” “What you doin for lunch . . . “, etc.
Too Much Brevity May Be Bad
Now that isn’t necessarily bad, Dr. Mead said. It is possible to strip communications too far. Too cryptic a message could lead to tension and a fear that the message has not been understood. And redundancy, she said, may be viewed as a safety factor, insuring that the speaker is understood. The same situation may be applied to different cultures, different nations, she said.
All cultures are comparable, she said, if we learn to evaluate them with all the sensory modalities at a human’s disposal. And all are compatible, she suggested, if we communicate long enough and often enough and “learn to listen for the different ways that other people are as human as we are.”
Dr. Mead’s discussion closed a two-day meeting at the Brown Hotel of the Institute on Culture and Communication sponsored by the University of Louisville Interdisciplinary Committee on Culture and Communication.
TV Making Hostesses Anxious
Other speakers yesterday were Reuel Denney, University of Chicago sociologist; Marshall McLuhan, of the University of Toronto; Dr. John Broderius, chairman of the department of modern languages at the University of Louisville; Dr. Dorothy Lee, director of graduate studies at the Merrill-Palmer School, Detroit, and S. I. Hayakawa, of the University of Chicago. Denney suggested that television has given Americans a new awareness of sociability and has made them anxious over their own social shortcomings. There is a tendency, he said, for a hostess to be more concerned over whether her party is properly run than whether her guests had a good time. “But what good is sociability,” he asked, “if you’re not a little bit anxious about it?”

  1. McLuhan was a teaching assistant in the English Department at UW Madison in 1936-1937. See Lloyd Wheeler. Hayakawa, after obtaining his PhD in English at UW in 1935, began his fulltime teaching career there from 1936 to 1939. Hayakawa, too, had been a teaching assistant in Madison from 1930 to 1935, but in 1936 he was promoted to instructor. During McLuhan’s tenure in Madison, however, Hayakawa may have been away from Madison the whole time. They may not have met in person there. But, as described in a talk McLuhan gave in New York in a panel discussion with Hayakawa in 1966, he certainly heard of Hayakawa then.
  2. See Hayakawa — The Revision of Vision and Moholy-Nagy 2 (Hayakawa).
  3. Birdwhistell had been at the University of Toronto in the anthropology department in the mid 1940s and McLuhan may already have met him there. One of Birdwhistell’s students at UT was Erving Goffman, another Winnipigeon, who later became a colleague of Birdwhistell when both taught at the University of Pennsylvania.

Moholy-Nagy 2 (Hayakawa)

S.I. (Don) Hayakawa and McLuhan were neighbors in Winnipeg in the 1920s.1 And they attended conferences together in the 1950s.2

It is not known if they had any contact in the intervening decades, although both taught English at the University of Wisconsin in the mid 1930s.

During WW2 Hayakawa taught at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. He was a colleague there of Moholy’s friend and fellow Hungarian Gyorgy Kepes.3 When Hayakawa took courses at the near-by Institute of Design, perhaps introduced by Kepes, he became friends with Moholy-Nagy — a friendship he described for a University of California oral history project.

McLuhan certainly heard of Moholy-Nagy from Giedion. He reviewed Moholy’s 1947 Vision in Motion together with Giedion’s 1948 Mechanization Takes Command in 1949. But it is conceivable that he also heard of Moholy-Nagy from Hayakawa (if, say, they were keeping up with each other at meetings in the 1940s). Inversely, since Hayakawa and Giedion both contributed to Kepes’ 1944 The Language of Vision,3 and since that common appearance may have reflected some kind of acquaintance between the two, McLuhan may have heard something of Hayakawa, his old neighbor, from Giedion, his new mentor.

Moholy-Nagy 1 (Giedion on M-N in 1936)

In 1936 the first (double) issue of the journal Telehor1 was published — as it turned out, the only issue of the journal ever to appear. It was dedicated to the work of László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946) and included a ‘Foreword’ by Moholy-Nagy’s longtime close friend,2 Sigfried Giedion (1888-1968).

In the course of his ‘Foreword’, Giedion refers to “that long-term development, for which a few hundred people dispersed throughout the modern world are today preparing the foundations”. When he met the just-turned 33 year-old McLuhan in St Louis in the summer of 1943 (the same summer in which McLuhan met Wyndham Lewis) Giedion seems to have recognized him as one of these “few hundred people”. He immediately recommended him to the University of Chicago — in the immediate proximity to the Institute of Design where Moholy-Nagy was already at work. Since Giedion knew everybody who was anybody in the European avant garde — including James Joyce — this was a high compliment to the obscure English professor.

Here is Giedion’s contribution with comments added here in footnotes:

Sigfried Giedion, Zürich

The Position in 1935
More than a third of the present century lies behind us. A retrospective glance shows us that at approximately the same period in the preceding century all the problems which were destined to determine the evolution of art up to and beyond its close had already manifested themselves.

Not withstanding that the conditions of today differ entirely from those of a hundred years ago, it is still possible to predict the general trend of future development. Such a prediction is based, not on mere guess-work, but on a critical estimation of the prognostic significance of the aims which have informed the technique of painters during the last three decades.

A long phase is ahead of us
Although the various movements in art that are of prime importance for us to-day may differ in origin, they are nevertheless inspired by a common aim: to bridge the fatal rift between reality and sensibility which the 19th century had tolerated, and indeed encouraged. The urge behind all of [these new movements in art] is the attempt to give an emotive content to the new sense of reality born of modern science and industry, and thereby restore the basic unity of all human experience. Neither temporary confusion nor momentary retrogression must blind us to the fact that we are witnessing the opening phase of what is bound to be a prolonged period in the evolution of art.

All these new tendencies in art have one thing in common: they seek to penetrate beyond its purely formal aspects, each in its own way is striving to create emotive symbols proper to our new conception of life and thus hopes to regain the power of contributing to the task of reshaping the modern world we live in. In other words they are all bent on restoring that essential reciprocity between art and life.3 The methods by which this transformation of our visual perception could be attained were discovered in the decade 1909-1923 (the war-years being naturally considered as inoperative, although developments were not entirely suspended during that interregnum). In most intellectual centres new movements began to emerge, all of which recognised in their several ways that the old conceptions of the three-dimensionality of space (perspective) and the naturalistic reproduction of objects that had held undisputed sway since the renaissance were inadequate for our new projection of the visible world. This advance will in all probability prove as decisive for the future as did the revolution in art which bears that name [namely, futurism]4 for the epoch immediately preceding our own.

Berlin in 1920
Like most other large capitals, Berlin was a focus of artistic activity about the year 1920. For those imbued with the desire to enlarge the field of our optical perceptions, most of the new movements in art were then coming to the fore there, although as a rule in relative obscurity; and many young artists who were unknown and without influence were beginning to reach maturity.

There were working in Berlin at that time, among others, the Dadaists Kurt Schwitters, George Grosz, Raoul Hausmann, Hanna Hoch; the Swedish film-experimentalist, Viking Eggeling, who laid the foundations of the abstract film; the Russian Constructivists [El] Lissitzki and [Naum] Gabo, and the Russian sculptor [Alexander] Archipenko; the Hungarians [László] Moholy-Nagy and [László] Peri; the Dutch architects [J.J.P.] Oud, [Cornelis] van Eesteren, and [Theo] Doesburg; the Italian painter [Enrico] Prampolini; the Danish architect Lon Bergholm; and the editors of the American paper »Broom«. One of the most important studios in which these people were continually meeting, was that of Moholy-Nagy.

The emotive values latent in modern industry and in the realities of modern life in general were lost on the townsman in much the same way as the peasant of previous ages was irresponsive to the emotional appeal of the landscape. A steel bridge, an airplane-hangar, or the mechanical equipment of a modern factory is as a rule far more stirring to the imagination of those who do not see such things every day of their lives. It is not surprising, therefore, that most of the pioneers of the new vision hailed from agricultural countries with little industry of their own. Thus the  Constructivists came from Russia or Hungary. That great innovator Picasso spent his youth remote from the big towns, and it was only after he moved to Paris that he was able to vitalize his consciousness of our age with the qualities he derived from the Moorish tradition of Spain. He it was who bridged the gulf between the last great cultural epoch that had found expression In abstract forms and modern civilisation.

Coming from the outskirts of civilisation, the Russian and Hungarian Constructivists similarly brought fresh energy to the problem of interpreting the realities of to-day.

L. Moholy-Nagy
The Hungarians occupy an intermediate position between the volcanic energy and Slav fantasy of a Russian like Lissitzki and the purified tonal and plane harmonies of a Dutchman like Mondriaan. Among them was László Moholy-Nagy. This young painter had begun his career as a contributor to the activist paper published in Budapest called »Ma«, whose aims were resumed in »das Buch neuer Kunstler« (Vienna, 1922), which he wrote in collaboration with Kassak. In »Ma« a small group of young Hungarians had succeeded in giving a far more precise and coherent expression to their consciousness of our age than the Berlin artistic circles of that day, which were still fettered by expressionism. »Ma« was, in fact, working on parallel lines to »I’esprit nouveau«, in which Corbusier and Ozenfant had been revealing the interdependence of painting, sculpture and the technique of modern industry. After being wounded in the war, Moholy-Nagy came to Berlin in 1920. The paintings and sculpture he exhibited there so much impressed Walter Gropius that he appointed Moholy-Nagy to the staff of the Bauhaus in the spring of 1923. This appointment proved of cardinal importance for Moholy-Nagy’s evolution, since it offered the fullest scope to his gifts as a teacher.

The Bauhaus in 1923
The lasting value of what the Bauhaus achieved was due to its success in
evolving a new systematic method of art training based on recent discoveries in painting. All the most advanced artists in Germany were either attached to the Bauhaus or in close and regular contact with it.

After [Johannes] Itten left the Bauhaus, Moholy-Nagy was put in charge of the beginners’ course there, where he had the responsibility of preparing young students for the training they were about to embark on; and (on the strength of his metal sculpture) [he was put in charge] of the metallurgical workshop as well. It was only natural that Moholy-Nagy’s preoccupation with various problems connected with light should have led him to make practical experiments with various types of lamps. The manifold activities of the Bauhaus were coordinated by the comprehensive discipline of architecture; and architecture, no less than these more specialized branches of design, obviously called for direct contact with industry, thus the short step from a purely educational investigation of the new concept of optics to active collaboration in the technical improvement of lamp-manufacture was only a logical sequence of events.

The beginners’ course at the Bauhaus
Moholy-Nagy’s book »Vom Material zur Architektur«, which contains his lectures on the basic theories of the Bauhaus teaching during the period 1923-1928

(Bauhaus-Bücher no. 14, Munich, 1929; also published by Harcourt, Brace and Co, New York, under the title of »The New Vision«) explains the method he adopted. It was due to Moholy’s influence that all new movements based on fresh advances In technique were thoroughly investigated and embodied in the curriculum, in order to open the student’s eyes — for instance — to the entirely new effects in material that are implied in Picasso’s collages and only waiting to be discerned. The close concatenation between the artistic evolution of our age and the occult forces of the Zeitgeist which permeate our daily lives has rarely been so impressively demonstrated as in this book.

Problems of light and colour
From his earliest articles in »Ma«, Moholy-Nagy’s contribution has been characterized by a persistent endeavour to fathom the creative potentialities of light and colour. All the same he has always been eager to apply his discoveries to the practical problems of life. There is hardlv any field of artistic creation that Moholy-Nagy has not investigated. In many of them his influence has proved authoritative, his exhibitions, typographical work, publicity lay-outs, light-displays and stage-sets (»the tales of Hoffmann«, 1929; »Madame Butterfly«, 1931; and Piscator’s »Kaufmann von Berlin«, 1931) amply substantiate this claim.

Photography, film
Moholy-Nagy has exercised a decisive influence on photography, where he has systematised its potentialities and in some directions actually extended its scope. From the first he recognised that light in itself must be regarded as a medium of form. It is from this angle that his whole preoccupation with photography and the film should be judged. Moholy-Nagy saw that photography offered the possibility of expanding the existing limits of natural reproduction, and that in spite of its imperfections the camera was a means of increasing the range and precision of visual perception (i.e. in the arresting of movement, bird’s-eye and worm’s-eye views, etc). I well remember how, during a holiday we spent together at Belle-Ile-en-Mer in 1925, Moholy-Nagy consistently ignored the usual perspectives and took all his snapshots upwards or downwards. A few years later the surprising artistic effects of foreshortening and of converging vertical lines had become part of the stock-in-trade of every up-to-date photographer. In »Malerei, Fotografie, Film« (Bauhaus-Bücher no. 8, Munich, 1925) Moholy-Nagy developed many stimulating suggestions, and defined the whole province of creative work in light-sensitive media, from ordinary [photography] to camera-less photography (which enables the concrete shapes of objects to be disintegrated into graduations of light and shade), and reflectional light-displays to photo-montage and film (»Dynamik der Großstadt« 1921; »Marseilles Vieux Port« 1929; »Lichtspiel Schwarz-Weiß-Grau« 1931; »Großstadtzigeuner« 1932; »Kongreß für neues Bauen«, Athens 1933).

Moholy-Nagy’s painting is the vital thread linking all his manifold activities. There is no break in its development proceeding in a consistent line from his first publications up to the present day. Nor is this all, for today he is feeling the need to resort more and more to this spontaneous fixation of
artistic vision.

These pictures with their clear, optimistic attitude are the harbingers of that long-term development, for which a few hundred people dispersed throughout the modern world are today preparing the foundations.

The vital significance of modern art
The selection of any one single artist for separate study cannot hope to indicate the creative strength of our age, since this resides paramountly in its manifold manifestations, which despite their diversity share the same fundamental consciousness of modern civilization. Nevertheless, the editor of this review was right in choosing Moholy-Nagy as an outstanding example, since his work serves as an admirable reminder to the public that the basic laws of abstract — i.e. non-representational — art have their root in the bed-rock of contemporary realities.

  1. This was the name of a 1919 television construction made by the Hungarian Dénes Mihály (1894-1953), which could transmit still pictures over a distance of some kilometers. He later founded a company with this name, Telehor A.G., to produce television sets. It is not known if McLuhan heard of Telehor (the 1919  television construction and/or the 1936 journal) from Giedion. In any case he would have enjoyed the combination in the word Telehor of tele-vision and tele-hear (hören = to hear in German).
  2. The two had vacationed together in 1925 as described in Giedion’s article.
  3. Giedion’s use of the phrase “formal aspects” here does not mean ‘essential aspects’. Instead it must be associated with his designations of “sensibility”, “emotive” and even “art”.  All have to do with the isolation of the subject (“art”, “formal aspects”) from the object (“reality”, “life”). It was to the transcendence of this isolation or alienation which Giedion saw all contemporary arts directed: “they are all bent on restoring that essential reciprocity between art and life”.
  4. One of the figures associated (in disputed fashion) with the futurists was Guillaume Apollinaire — whose 1913 Alcools was recommended to McLuhan by Giedion shortly after their meeting in 1943. See Giedion on simultaneity.

Classroom without walls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Classroom TV (1956)

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

Classroom TV1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

NAEB grant for “understanding media”

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

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

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

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

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

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



Connubium of Being 3




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prehistoric Space Conception and Contemporary Art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Connubium of Being 2

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


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


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


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

Compare the two:

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

Take Today, 294

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As McLuhan specified in his ‘Notes on Burroughs’:

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

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

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

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

An everyday roundabout with intrusions from above and below.16


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

Eliot’s bread

For Baker Beck…

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

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

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

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

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

Connubium of Being 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The medium?

The medium is the message?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elsie on the move

A rolling stone gathers no moss.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another from June 1939, however, asks:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



  1. This ‘city directory’ covered the western suburbs of Newark.

    Elsie is listed as a “promoter” working in Newark but with her residence at 430 New England Terrace in Orange.

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

East & west, horizontal & vertical

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

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

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

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

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

End/beginning of FW

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

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



St Kevin’s tub

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

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

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

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

A Tale of a Tub

KEVIN BORN on the island of Ireland in the Irish ocean

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

where pious Kevin lives alone on an isle in the lake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poetic vs Rhetorical Exegesis 2: a question of ontology

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

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

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

In this paragraph from his 1944 essay McLuhan offers a summary of his thesis. It sets out its three trivial arts and names, as the thesis had attempted to detail, their ‘extensions’ in historical figures and traditions. The great question, actually questions, precipitated by it may be seen in his observation that each of these arts represents a self-standing “correlation of knowledge” or a method for interpreting and manipulating our lives”.1 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

The basis of all paradox, Christian and secular, is to be found in the sixth book of the Physics of Aristotle, to which Aquinas refers in his Summa Theologica I.II.q 113.a.7, ad quintum. The question for Aquinas is whether justification by faith occurs instantly or gradually. Aquinas says it occurs instantly because — ­here he appeals to Aristotle’s Physics  — “the whole preceding time during which anything moves towards its form, it is under the opposite form.” (From Cliché to Archetype, 1970)

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

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

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

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

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

On one-sidedness or “whim”:

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

On formless merger or “illusion”:

And now in the twentieth century when nature has been abolished by art and engineering, when government has become entertainment and entertainment has become the art of government, now the gnostic and neo-Platonist and Buddhist can gloat: “I told you so! This gimcrack mechanism is all that there ever was in the illusion of human existence. Let us rejoin the One!”


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

Poetic vs Rhetorical Exegesis 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pound’s Guide to Kulchur

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

Make It New!2

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

Guide to K

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

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

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

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


The basis of all paradox, Christian and secular, is to be found in the sixth book of the Physics of Aristotle, to which Aquinas refers in his Summa Theologica I.II.q 113.a.7, ad quintum. The question for Aquinas is whether justification by faith occurs instantly or gradually. Aquinas says it occurs instantly because — ­here he appeals to Aristotle’s Physics  — “the whole preceding time during which anything moves towards its form, it is under the opposite form.” (From Cliché to Archetype, 1970).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

From Visual To Tactile Experience, 19602
Externalizations of our senses, such as the wheel, the phonetic alphabet, radio and photography, also constituted closed systems which invaded the open systems of our senses with tremendous transforming power. But the TV image is the first technology by which man has outered his haptic, or tactile, powers. It affects, therefore, the balance or ratio among our senses. Since at all times consciousness involves a ratio resulting in the immediate “closure” or completion of pattern, such new “closure” or completion is, in fact, a new posture of mind charged with new preferences and desires, as well as with new patterns of perception. 
Tactility means not contact of skin but interplay of all senses.

From Visual To Tactile Experience, 1960
For the tactile image involves not so much the touch-of skin as the interplay or contact of sense with sense, of touch with sight, with sound, with movement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Understanding Media, 1964
tactile participation (…) is sex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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


All men are totally involved in the insides of all men. There is no privacy and no private parts. In a world in which we are all ingesting and digesting one another there can be no obscenity or pornography or decency. Such is the law of electric media which stretch the nerves to form a global membrane of enclosure. (Notes on Burroughs)

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

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

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

“Anybody can now be famous”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Centre and margin — Coleridge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shortly thereafter in the ‘Coleridge’ essay:

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


  1. In ‘The Major English Romantic Poets: a symposium in reappraisal‘, ed Clarence D. Thorpe, Carlos Baker & Bennett Weaver, 1957. McLuhan had already studied Coleridge at the University of Manitoba and cited him in his MA thesis. Then at Cambridge he heard I.A. Richards lecture on Coleridge in connection with Richards’ book, Coleridge on Imagination, which was published at just that time. In his letter to Richards more than 30 years later, from July 12, 1968, Letters 355, McLuhan wrote: “I owe you an enormous debt since Cambridge days. I also owe a great deal to S.T.C.” What did McLuhan mean here? That McLuhan had a debt to Coleridge in some way similar to the debt he had to Richards? That McLuhan had a debt to Coleridge that was in large part occasioned by Richards? That Richards, like McLuhan, “also” was indebted to Coleridge? Perhaps he meant all of the above. Indeed, McLuhan’s mind always moved on multiple tracks which made him a natural punster — but ‘also’ often difficult to follow.
  2. All quotations below, unless otherwise identified, are from ‘Coleridge as Artist’.
  3. See The bubble of life in Tolstoy, Nietzsche, Havelock and Innis.
  4. McLuhan has “alien to our own immediate experience” here. By “immediate” he did not meant ‘unmediated’, however, but ‘accustomed’ or ‘usual’. See note #6 below on ‘natural mediation’.
  5. For discussion see McLuhan’s #1 breakthrough.
  6. There are many echoes in ‘Coleridge’ of McLuhan’s 1954 ‘Catholic Humanism’ lecture. Re ‘natural mediation’: the revelation of the poetic process which is involved in ordinary cognition“. Again: “as we trace the rise of successive communication channels or links, from writing to movies and TV, it is borne in on us that in order for their exterior artifice to be effective it must partake of the character of that interior artifice by which in ordinary perception we incarnate the exterior world. Because human perception is literally incarnation. So that each of us must poet the world or fashion it within us as our primary and constant mode of awareness.”
  7. ‘Properly considered’ is, of course, a highly loaded phrase — but it is critical to McLuhan’s work from start to finish. Shortly put, for him ‘c