Author Archives: McEwen

McLuhan on “dichotomizing” in 1944

McLuhan’s first sentence in ‘Kipling and Forster’ (1944)1 named its chief matter: “facile dichotomizing”. He returned to it again and again in the essay:

  • The glib assumption that art and life stand apart, and that either one is a substitute for the other, suggests a reversible, inversible mechanism of mentality not at all friendly to artistic production. (332)
  • To take only the Plain Tales From the Hills, it is easy to see that Kipling is amphibiously living in divided and distinguished worlds. (333)
  • The ‘double vision’ (…) is admittedly the vision of all Forster’s novels. It is the vision of action vs feeling, England vs India, youth vs age. (339)
  • Is it not possible, however, that an essential intellectual obtuseness lurks behind the dichotomizing habit of Forster’s mind? In accepting as absolutes such well-worn clichés as art vs reality, spontaneity vs caution, pedantry vs experience, courage vs respectability, highbrow vs lowbrow, intelligence vs stupidity, hasn’t Forster really swallowed his own world, making an act of faith of an unconsidered bolus? No artist is bound to accept his world as the material of his art in this way; but having done so he has no resource beyond a whimsical and ironical espousal now of one of the absolutes, now of another. (337-338)
  • Of course, the conflicts and cleavages of melodrama can never yield new insight because they are mechanically predetermined. In fact, melodrama, like the split man, is not an artistic achievement but the by-product of cultural neurosis. The hypnotized acceptance of rigid distinctions is necessary to any kind of violent clash between characters in such a world — characters which are always stiffly and stupidly dull because born of a bogus parentage. With such counters as he accepts from the ready-made dichotomies of his world, Forster, like Kipling, can only go through the motions of testing, assaying and judging, because everything has really been decided in advance. The sheep and the goats carry well-known brands. (343)

There is little analysis in McLuhan’s essay.  But it looks backward and forward in his career and therefore provides a useful vantage over it.

Looking backward, in its suggestion of the possibility and need for a genuine criticism of “testing, assaying and judging”, where everything would not be “decided in advance”, it recalls his work with Lodge and Wright in Winnipeg and with Richards and Leavis in Cambridge. All were attempting to understand “the interior landscape” of human being (verbal) in a rigorous way and this would be the goal of McLuhan’s lifework in his turn.

Looking forward, the essay raises questions which McLuhan would have to address along his future way. For example, ‘world’ is used strangely in it as something which seems to be both given (“living in divided and distinguished worlds”, “ready-made dichotomies”and constructed (“own world”, “his world”). But how to consider these without “espousal now of one of the absolutes, now of another”? How avoid the reduction of world to an objectively given singularity without setting loose an endless series of mirrored ‘worlds’ in which even the “apparent world” is abolished?  Or, conversely, how put a stop to the endless mirroring of worlds without the arbitrary assertion of one ‘true world’?

Again, how was “the dichotomizing habit” to be rigorously understood without implicating one more dualism between that “habit” and the understanding of it?  

Further, the observation that “hypnotized acceptance of rigid distinctions is necessary to any kind of violent clash” looks ahead two decades to McLuhan’s ever-repeated warning in the 1960s that disturbed identity precipitates violence.  On the one hand, threats to identity can lead to a hardened “dichotomizing” between ‘them’ and ‘us’ — and to violence based on this perception. On the other, the dissolution of identity (self-dichotomizing?) can itself be expressed in violence in a some kind of anguished attempt to regain it.

Finally, the suggestion that there is something suspicious in “dichotomizing”, something unthought in it, would prove to be a fertile line of inquiry for McLuhan and, beyond McLuhan, for quantum physics. For McLuhan, the questions were: how did this “split” first arise and develop? how was it then multiplied in the Gutenberg era and with what effects in education, science, commerce, politics, warfare and religion? and how was it transformed again with the symbolists in the arts and with new technologies like the telegraph and electric lighting? These were the questions which would animate his two great books in the early 1960s, The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media.

For quantum physics, these questions were generalized — the medium is the message — as concerning the range of possible values between zero and one. The formulation zero or one was found to apply neither in the domain of the very small nor of the very large. Instead of such bare opposition, a superposition needed to be considered that covered the entire range of the possibilities of zero and one. 

Now a superposition was exactly what McLuhan in common with the New Criticism was attempting to define as both what great art can achieve and as what criticism should expose as present or absent in particular works.

The merger of art and science foreseen by McLuhan was no soft image, but an exacting need of each for the other.

In the ‘Kipling and Forster’ essay this need was hardly mentioned, let alone defined. But it was indicated:

The ‘two world’ view (…) is especially useful to the artist who cannot localize or understand his dissatisfactions nor overcome the dualism of his experience.  Santayana pointed out that Henry James overcame the crude split and limitations of the genteel tradition in the classic way — by understanding them.  (332-333)

it is noteworthy that both men [Kipling and Forster] regarded as insurmountable the contradictions and cleavages between art and action. Neither man penetrated his data nor resolved his experience. (336-337)

In ‘Kipling and Forster’ McLuhan did not attempt to provide the required understanding, penetration and resolution. But he ended his essay by promising them elsewhere:

Another essay will attempt to peer behind these blind conflicts to which Kipling and Forster bring their characters and from which they find no escape. (343)

McLuhan was probably thinking here of ‘Poetic and Rhetorical Exegesis:  The Case for Leavis against Richards and Empson’, which was published that same year (1944) in the same journal (Sewanee Review).2 But in January 1943, in a UTQ article on Keats3, he had already identified the position (or superposition) that he would spend the next 20 years looking for a way to specify and to communicate.

  1.  Sewanee Review, 52(3), 332-343, 1944.
  2.  Sewanee Review, 52(2), 266–76, 1944
  3. Aesthetic Pattern in Keats’ Odes,  University of Toronto Quarterly, XII:2, 167-179, 1943, reprinted in The Interior Landscape, 99-113.

Lévi-Strauss on method in anthropology

the emotion of multitude (…) is a state in which we live constantly, that is, on the border. We live constantly in two worlds… (Canada: the Borderline Case, 1967)

the principle of poetic organization is not narrative but interface based on the resonant interval. Yeats refers to it as the “emotion of multitude”, and Joyce calls (…) language the mirror of the mind of man, the square wheel without spokes which encompasses all cycles of human experience in a simultaneous present. (McLuhan, Discontinuity and Communication in Literature, 1970)

In 1903, W. B. Yeats, meditating on the “emotion of multitude,” explained that it is achieved by a discontinuous parallel between two actions (…) Depth awareness is created by parallel suggestion, not by connected statement. (McLuhan to The Listener, 1971)1

Here is Claude Lévi-Strauss in 1949:2

anthropology cannot remain indifferent to historical processes and to the most highly conscious expressions of social phenomena. But if the anthropologist brings to them the same scrupulous attention as the historian, it is in order to eliminate, by a kind of backward course, all that they owe to the historical process and to conscious thought. His goal is to grasp, beyond the conscious and always shifting images which men hold, the complete  range of unconscious possibilities. These are not unlimited, and the relationships of compatibility or incompatibility which each maintains with all the others provide a logical framework for historical  developments, which, while perhaps unpredictable, are never arbitrary. In this sense, the famous statement by Marx, “Men make their own history, but they do not know that they are making it,” justifies, first, history and, second, anthropology. At the same time, it shows that the two approaches are inseparable. (…)
It would be inaccurate, therefore, to say that on the road toward the understanding of man, which goes from the study of conscious content to that of unconscious forms, the historian and the anthropologist travel in opposite directions. On the contrary, they both go the same way. The fact that their journey together appears to each of them in a different light — to the historian, transition from the explicit to the implicit; to the anthropologist, transition from the particular to the universal — does not in the least alter the identical character of their fundamental approach. They have undertaken the same journey on the same road in the same direction; only their orientation is different. (…) A true two-faced Janus, it is the solidarity of the two disciplines that makes it possible to keep the whole road in sight.

Lévi-Strauss put his finger here on a series of fundamental points which were basic also to McLuhan (despite the seeming wide disparity of their work) and at exactly this same time around 1950 (when McLuhan was fascinated by the multi-leveled epyllion3 form):

  • There are two realms each with their own time (one particular-historical-conscious-actual and the other universal-logical-unconscious-possible) which must be understood both in their difference and in their interconnection — the latter realm supplying the “framework” for the former and the former realm being the always particular expression of the latter.  A science of human being — Lévi-Strauss’s “anthropology” — cannot have a different structure from the physical sciences, all of which have this same “two-faced Janus” relationship between levels of theory and factual instance which are yet knotted in their mutual “solidarity”.
  • Because there cannot be an understanding of a ‘part’ aside from the ‘whole’ of which it is a part, both history and its “framework” must be grasped in their “complete range”. To compare, chemistry approaches all of material being with a complete theory of its elements and their interactions. But both this chemical theory and the material being which is the object of its investigations remain radically open. Indeed, it is a central aspect of the birth of any science to revise for its domain just what ‘complete’ and ‘incomplete’ entail in it and how they relate to each other there. A ‘complete’ explanation is suddenly seen — but the investigation of that ‘complete’ explanation, if it turns out to be valid, can and will go on forever.
  • Because reality itself has this dynamic possible/actual structure, so must investigation of it be correspondingly “structural” (relational, doubled, a ratio). And this is especially the case in the sciences of human being where the study always amounts to some representation of an individual or collective representation.   

Now McLuhan was aware4 of these points very early — in his late twenties and early thirties around 1940 when he was teaching at St Louis University. In his first publication there, in 1938, describing ‘The Cambridge English School’ he was explicit about the plurality and multiple levels of time:

Donne, and the later Shakespeare, on the one hand, and the Romantics on the other, have been read at Cambridge as though they were contemporaries of Mr. Eliot — which of course they are. For the continuing life of the language itself is such as to constitute a medium in which they are all contemporary.

Here “language itself” as a “medium” which is always “contemporary” is just Lévi-Strauss’s “complete range of unconscious possibilities” supplying “a logical framework for historical  developments”. 

A couple years later (probably in 1941, although publication followed only in 1944) he ended his paper on ‘Poetic and Rhetorical Exegesis: The Case for Leavis against Richards and Empson’5 by characterizing Leavis’ work as implementing:

the program which Mr. Eliot (…) indicated but relinquished (…) the arduous stage of the journey which remains to be accomplished before winning an overall view, which is plenary critical judgment.

Here again, then, is to be seen the need for “overall” or “plenary” specification of the “complete range of unconscious possibilities” which would supply “a logical framework for historical  developments” — and hence the springboard for the sort of “critical judgment” made, constantly and universally, in every science.6

McLuhan did not know it at the time, but he would come to see W.B. Yeats as the modern progenitor of this insight in his 1903 ‘Emotion of Multitude’.7 In a 1970 lecture, ‘Discontinuity and Communication in Literature’,8 McLuhan read the complete 2-page text of ‘Emotion of Multitude’ by way of saying, ‘Here is the font — consider it well’: 

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

How early McLuhan had first set off on this way may be seen in texts we have from 1934:

There are (…) in all times and places, definite types of temperament displaying consistency of conformation. (McLuhan’s University of Manitoba M.A. thesis on Meredith)

This is Lévi-Strauss’s “transition from the particular to the universal”.

Of late I have been wayfaring among the work of T.S. Eliot (…) the poems I am reading have the unmistakable character of greatness. They transform, and diffuse and recoalesce the commonest every day occurrences of 20th century city life till one begins to see double indeed — the extremely unthinkable character, the glory and the horror of the reality in life… (McLuhan letter to his family from Cambridge, Dec 5, 1934)9

The need, specified by here by McLuhan when he was 23, is just that of Lévi-Strauss: “to grasp, beyond the conscious and always shifting images which men hold, the complete range of unconscious possibilities”, extending from “glory” to “horror”. But this not in some spectrum separated from life, but is exactly “the reality in life”, as perceived through a near “unthinkable” focus that is “double indeed” yet “recoalesce[d]”:

A true two-faced Janus, it is the solidarity of the two disciplines that makes it possible to keep the whole road in sight.

  1. Oct 8, 1971, Letters, 444.
  2. ‘History and Anthropology’, the first chapter of Structural Anthropology (1963), originally published as “Histoire et Ethnologie,” in Revue de Metaphysique et de Morale, LIV:3-4, 363-91, 1949. Structural Anthropology was one of the books on the reading list for McLuhan’s communications seminar.
  3. See The Road to Xanadu for discussion and references.
  4. Being aware and requiring further investigation go together. Awareness is never definitive, but may be — though rarely — originary.
  5.  Sewanee Review, 52:2, 266–76, 1944.
  6. Not that sciences cannot make errors (of course).  But it is exactly because every observation and prediction made in a science is supposed to be a universally valid example of ‘critical judgment’ that any failure is revelatory!
  7. Originally in Ideas Of Good And Evil (1903); usually cited by McLuhan from Essays and Introductions (1961).
  8. Originally a lecture given at University College, Nov 21, 1970, published in P. R. Leon, ed, Problèmes de L’Analyse Textuelle/Problems of Textual Analysis, 189-199, 1971.
  9.  Letters 41; emphasis on ‘in’ is original.

Heine on ‘Plato’ and ‘Aristotle’

Heinrich Heine, On the History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany (1835):1

Plato and Aristotle! These are not merely two systems, they are types of two distinct human natures, which from time immemorial, under every sort of disguise, stand more or less inimically opposed. The whole medieval world in particular was riven by this conflict, which persists down to the present day, and which forms the most essential content of the history of the Christian Church. Although under other names, it is always of Plato and Aristotle that we speak. Visionary, mystical, Platonic natures disclose Christian ideas and the corresponding symbols from the fathomless depths of their souls. Practical, orderly, Aristotelian natures build out of these ideas and symbols a fixed system, a dogma and a cult. Finally the Church embraces both natures, one of them entrenched in the clergy and the other in monasticism, but both keeping up a constant feud. 

In his 1934 M.A. thesis McLuhan noted Coleridge’s remark in his table talk “that all men (…) are born either Platonists or Aristotelians”2 and, shortly thereafter, he referred to ‘the’ contrast between them in discussing religion in letters to his family from Cambridge.3

But this sort of typology is useless for purposes of rigorous investigation and this for many reasons:

  • Figures like Plato and Aristotle, or Goethe and Schiller — or Shakespeare by himself — are no singulars. Like everybody — but more consciously than us mortals — they are massive conglomerates of types, whole worlds. What cannot be said to be ‘Shakespearean’?  Styling something according to such types is similar to saying of physical materials that they are ‘air’ or ‘water’ or ‘earth’ or ‘fire’. The great need is to break through such congeries to the underlying elements.
  • Further, such great figures were well aware of the type problem and considered it in various ways. While they of course exemplified psychological types like every human being at every moment, they were also the greatest theoreticians of it. It is upside down when we attempt to use them as types. Instead, they use us.
  • Since we cannot function aside from psychological type, what we take to be ‘Plato’ or ‘Aristotle’ (or ‘the whole medieval world’ or ‘the Christian Church’ or ‘the clergy’ or ‘monasticism’) remains arbitrary so long as the elements of psychological being (verbal) remain undefined and uninvestigated. It was exactly such arbitrary groundlessness that Nietzsche exposed as our ‘longest error’ that would necessarily terminate in nihilism. For the cogency of anything decided by fiat depends upon the prior authority of the fiat. Can the truth and reality of the fiat of arbitrary will be certified by — the fiat of arbitrary will?
  • As has been exposed by centuries of consideration of the ‘interior landscape’, it is not less complicated than the exterior one. No human activity exemplifies a single type over time (or even at any moment?) any more than a sample of physical material ever exemplifies a single element.  Here, too, it may be expected that compound complexes are the invariable rule and that these are as subject to dynamic change as any weather system or the body of any plant or animal. Even if ‘Plato’ and ‘Aristotle’ were in fact “two distinct human natures” (which of course they are not), the question of the dynamics of these types would remain. As can be seen in chemistry (or any science), elements by themselves explain little or nothing: it is equally important to understand the valence of their relations.4 
  1.  Jung used this passage from Heine as the epigraph for Psychological Types.
  2. See On the “necessary conjoint” of Platonists and Aristotelians.
  3. See McLuhan’s realism 5: Cambridge 1934-1935.
  4. The elements of any language might be taken as the always limited number of phonemes used by it in the construction of its meaningful sounds (like words, but not only words). Grammar is the consideration of how those sounds are compounded into complexes (like conjugations or sentences) carrying meaning. Comparative grammar is, of course, much more revealing than comparative phonetics.

McLuhan’s course books

At the back of Who Was Marshall McLuhan there is a list of books he used in his seminar. Students were told to read 3 of them and to report back what they had learned.  They were not to report what was in the books, but the effect on them from the books.

Here is the list from 1966-67 “with additions” presumably from later seminars (marked below with an asterisk).  The printed list has no information other than author and title; publishing information has been added here.

Noteworthy for their absence are any titles from T.S. Eliot, Etienne Gilson, James Joyce, I.A. Richards, A.N. Whitehead and Bernard Muller-Thym, all of whom influenced McLuhan himself significantly. It may be that many of these were felt more fitting to McLuhan’s English courses.

Ruth Nanda Anshen, ed, Language: An Enquiry into Its Meaning and Function, 19571
Silvio A BediniThe scent of time: a study of the use of fire and incense for time measurement in Oriental countries, 1963
Claude BernardAn introduction to the study of experimental medicine, translation 1949, orig. 1865
Norman O. Brown, Life against Death, 19592
Elias CanettiCrowds and Power, translation 1962, orig. 1960
Milic CapekThe Philosophical Impact Of Contemporary Physics, 1961
H.J. Chaytor, From Script To Print, 1945
Colin Cherry, On Human Communication, 1957
C.W. Churchman and P. RatooshMeasurement: Definitions and Theories, 1959
H.F. Sloan and H.S. ClarkClassrooms In The Factories, 1958
Tobias Dantzig, Number: The Language of Science, 1930
Karl W. Deutsch, The Nerves of Government: Models of Political Communication and Control, 1966
Alexander Dorner
, The Way Beyond Art, 1958
Constantinos Doxiadis, Architecture in Transition, 1963
Peter F. Drucker, The Age of Discontinuity: Guidelines to Our Changing Society, 1966
Hugh D. Duncan, Language and Literature in Society, 1953
J. T. Dunlop , ed, Automation and Technological Change, 19623
Anton EhrenzweigPsychoanalysis of Artistic Vision and Hearing: an Introduction to a Theory of Unconscious Perception, 1953
Jacques EllulThe Technological Society, 1964
Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, 1962
Pedro Entralgo, Mind and Body, Psychosomatic Pathology: A short history of the evolution of medical thought, 1955
Pedro EntralgoThe Therapy of the Word in Classical Antiquity, 1970*
Jack Fincher, Human intelligence, 1976*
Michel FoucaultMadness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, translation 1964, orig 1960
Sigmund FreudThe Interpretation of Dreams, 1900
Erich Fromm, The Forgotten Language, 1951
R. Buckminster FullerUtopia or Oblivion, 1963
R. Buckminster Fuller, Ideas and Integrities, 1963
R. Buckminster Fuller, Operating Manual For Spaceship Earth, 1968*
Sigfried GiedionSpaceTime and Architecture: The Growth of a New Tradition, 1941
Sigfried GiedionMechanization Takes Command, 1948
Sigfried Giedion
The Beginnings of Architecture, 1964
E.H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion, A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation, 1960
E. T. HallThe Silent Language, 1959
E. T. Hall, The Hidden Dimension, 1966
E. A. Havelock, Preface to Plato, 1963
E. A. Havelock, Prologue to Greek Literacy, 1971
E. A. Havelock, Origins of Western Literacy, 1976
W. HeisenbergThe Physicist’s Conception of Nature, translation 1958, orig, 1955
J. HuizingaHomo Ludens, translation 1949, orig. 1938
Harold Innis, The Bias of Communication, 1951
W. IvinsArt and Geometry: A Study in Spatial Intuitions, 1946
Julian JaynesThe Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, 1976*
T.S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1962
Frank Leavis, New Bearings in English Poetry, 1932
Claude Lévi-StraussStructural Anthropology, translation 1963, orig. 1958
Wyndham Lewis, Time and Western Man, 1927
Jacques Lusseyran, And There was Light, translation 1963, orig. 1953
George Mandler and William Kessen, The Language Of Psychology, 1959
Bruce Mazlish, ed, The Railroad and the Space Program: An Exploration in Historical Analogy, 19654
Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization, 1934
J.R. Pierce, Symbols, Signals and Noise, 1961
Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation, 1944
Ezra PoundThe ABC of Reading, 1934
Edgar Rubin, Visual Figures, 19155
Donald A. Schon, The Displacement of Concepts, 1963
Hans Selye, The Stress of Life, 1956
A.T.W. Simeons, Man’s Presumptuous Brain: An Evolutionary Interpretation of Psychosomatic Disease, 1961
Erwin StraussThe Primary World of Senses: a vindication of sensory experience, 1963
A.P. Usher, A History of Mechanical Inventions, 1929
J.Z. Young, Doubt and Certainty in Science: A Biologist’s Reflections on the Brain, 1951
Lynn White, jr, Medieval Technology and Social Change, 1962

  1. Essays included in the volume: Part 1 — The Principle. Language as idea / Ruth Nanda Anshen; The nature of language / Kurt Goldstein; The origin of language / N.H. Tur-Sinai; Aum: the word of words / Swami Nikhilananda; Language and the theory of sign / Jacques Maritain; Symbols and history / George Boas; The word of God / Paul Tillich; The language of silence / Richard P. Blackmur. Part 2 — The Application. The cardinal dichotomy in language / Roman Jakobson; Squares and oblongs / W.H. Auden; Mysticism and its language / Charles W. Morris; Symbolic language of dreams / Erich Fromm; Language of poetry / Leo Spitzer; Language of jurisprudence / Huntington Cairns; Language of politics / Harold D. Lasswell; Language of the theater / Francis Fergusson; Art as symbolic speech / Margaret Naumburg; A philosophy of translation / Jean P. de Menasce; Language as communication / Ruth Nanda Anshen.
  2. Brown was doing his PhD in classics in Madison when McLuhan was a teaching assistant there in English in 1935-1936.  It is not known if they met.
  3.  Essays included in the volume: Introduction — Problems and potentials / John T. Dunlop; The impact of technology: the historic debate / Robert L. Heilbroner; Educational and social consequences / Lee A. DuBridge; Psychological and organizational impacts / Floyd C. Mann; Managerial decisions / Melvin Anshen; Collective bargaining / George W. Taylor; Some economic considerations / W. Allen Wallis; Employment / Ewan Clague and Leon Greenberg; International aspects / Richard N. Cooper; The technology behind productivity / Francis Bello; Perspective / Henry M. Wriston.
  4. Essays included in the volume: Historical analogy: the railroad and the space program and their impact on society / Bruce Mazlish; A technological frontier: the railway / Thomas Parke Hughes; Railroads as an analogy to the space effort: some economic aspects / Robert William Fogel; The economic impact of the railroad innovation / Paul H. Cootner; The railroads: innovators in modern business administration / Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., and Stephen Salsbury; The social impact of the railroad / Thomas C. Cochran; Political impact: a case study of a railroad monopoly in Mississippi / Robert L. Brandon; The impact of the railroad on the American imagination, as a possible comparison for the space impact / Leo Marx.
  5. There does not seem to be an English translation of Rubin’s 1915 thesis in Danish, Synsoplevede Figurer. It may be that McLuhan had some kind of handout for his students. The 1949 publication of Rubin’s Experimenta psychologica: collected scientific papers in German, English & French included two papers in English: ‘Taste’ and ‘Some Elementary Time Experiences’.

“If it can be done,  it must be done.”

We can, if we choose, think things out before we put them out. (Understanding Media, 1964, 49) 

a burning would is come to dance inane. (FW 250 and the title of McLuhan’s 1970 documentary directed against the Spadina expressway.)1

Starting in the 1960s, both McLuhan and George Grant criticized what McLuhan called the “technological imperative” and Grant “the autonomy of technique”. This is the imperative that ‘If something can be done, it must be done’.

It is unclear which of the two first came up with the phrase or if both of them got it from someone else.2 Harold Innis, for example,  must have formulated something of the sort decades before.

George Grant, ‘Protest and Technology’, 1966

The supreme example of the autonomy of technique is surely the space program. Vast resources of brains, money, materials are poured out in the US and in the USSR to keep this fantastic program proliferating. And it is accepted by the masses in both societies not only as necessary but as one of man’s crowning glories. One leader of the United States’ space program said that as we cannot change the environment of space, we will have to change man, and therefore we will have to produce beings with organs, half-flesh and half-electronic. If it can be done,  it must be done and it surely will be done. This is what I mean by the autonomy of technique. The question whether technique serves human good is no longer asked; it has become an end in itself.3

McLuhan cited on ABC News in 1969

Bill Moyers: Mr. McLuhan said earlier that if something can be done it will be done.4 

McLuhan, ‘Liturgy and the Microphone’, 19745

The ordinary evolutionary and developmental attitude towards innovation assumes that there is a technological imperative: “If it can be done, it has to be done”; so that the emergence of any new means must be introduced, for the creation of no matter what new ends, regardless of the consequences.

  1. McLuhan: “Joyce’s phrase ‘a burning would is come to dance inane’ is the essential theme of the Wake” (From Cliché to Archetype, 73). Joyce’s phrase was cited over and over again by McLuhan, four times in From Cliché to Archetype alone. A “burning would” is, perhaps, a ‘can’ presenting itself forcibly as a ‘must’?
  2. Perhaps it was simply in the air. Charles Coulston Gillispie uses the phrase, apparently positively, to describe Galileo and his predecessors in his 1977 ‘The Liberating Influence of Science in History’: “knowledge finds its purpose in action and action its reason in knowledge, that if a problem can be solved, it should be solved, that if something can be  done it should be done.”
  3. Note from Grant’s CW3, 393: This address was entitled ‘Revolution, Responsibility, and Conservatism’ when it was delivered at the Toronto International Teach-ln held at Varsity Arena 8-10 October 1965. The CBC broadcast the speech on 10 October as ‘Revolution and Response’ on the radio series CBC Sunday Night; the Globe and Mail published excerpts on 12 October under the title ‘Stand on Guard for Independence’; and the entire speech appeared under the title ‘Realism in Political Protest’ in Christian Outlook 21:2 (Nov. 1965), later appearing with minor alterations as ‘Critique of the New Left’ in Our Generation 3:4-4:1 (May 1966): 46-51. The full text of the original address appeared again as ‘A Critique of the New Left’ in Canada and Radical Social Change, edited by Dimitrios l. Roussopoulos (Montreal: Black Rose Books 1973), 55, 57-61, and finally in William Christian and Sheila Grant, eds, The George Grant Reader (Toronto: University of Toronto Press 1998), 84-90.
  4. Apollo 11: As it Happened, ABC News Panel on Moon Landing at 02:09f. Discussion panel in July 1969 with Howard K. Smith, Bill Moyers, Marshall McLuhan, and Ian McHarg, introduced by ABC News anchor Frank Reynolds.
  5. The Medium and the Light, 114.

Jung on Schiller 2

Jung identifies Schiller as a representative of “the psychology of the introverted thinking type”.  He then asks the reader:

to remember that the hypothesis I have just advanced underlies my whole argument. This reminder seems to me necessary because Schiller approaches the problem from the angle of his own inner experience. In view of the fact that another psychology, i.e., another type of man, would have approached the same problem in quite another way, the very broad formulation which Schiller gives might be regarded as a subjective bias or an ill-considered generalization. But such a judgment would be incorrect, since there actually is a large class of men for whom the problem of the separated functions [in this configuration] is exactly the same as it was for Schiller. If, therefore, in the ensuing argument I occasionally emphasize Schiller’s one-sidedness and subjectivity, I do not wish to detract from the importance and general validity of the problem he has raised, but rather to make room for other formulations. Such criticisms as I may occasionally offer have more the character of a transcription into another language which will relieve Schiller’s formulation of its subjective limitations. (CW6, 69)

Several points in this passage are of great importance.

First, Jung notes that the identification of a certain type “underlies my whole argument”.  Just as in chemistry in the realm of material being, so analysis of any sample in the realm of psychology/experience/human being (understood verbally) must begin with the identification of its elementary type or compound types. It is this identification which brings the analysis (so to say) ‘into science’. On this basis, other scientists can know what kind of stuff is at stake (or claimed to be at stake) and how investigation of the sample can be expected to relate to other work in the field. What Kuhn called ‘normal science’ can begin. This is collective work done on the basis of a properly assumed “general validity”.1

Second, although the notion of elementary types underlying all  experience seems, as Jung says, to limit it in advance to some or other variety of  “subjective bias”, this “bias” itself now becomes subject to open collective research. And once “bias” itself becomes subject to research on the basis of an acknowledged classification, the relativity of all possible human being (verbal) ceases to be disabling and becomes instead the very source of a whole new sort of knowledge concerning humans and their universe.2 Relativity becomes an illuminating object of study instead of its disabling subject.

Third, types of human being (verbal) themselves make sense only within a certain “species” (Schiller) or table or spectrum. A type is inherently one unit of a collective — McLuhan’s cliché. This is what is at stake in Jung’s requirement of “a transcription into another language which will relieve Schiller’s formulation of its subjective limitations.” In chemistry, an elementary type is one expression of the general series formulated in Mendeleev’s table.  The table represents a formula which can be expressed over a defined range (EnPn, say, where ‘n’ represents some matching number of electrons and protons from 1 to 118). What makes any specification of type in chemistry true, in the end, is its anchorage in the general table. Because it is true, so also are its expressions. Similarly, in regard to human being (verbal), its various types must be anchored in the range of a general formula representing the basic truth of the field.

Fourth, Jung notes that “another psychology” amounts to “another type of (hu)man”. This applies as much to the ‘same individual’ as it does to family, social and national groups. The implication is that there is something to human being (verbal) that is deeper than psychological type, something that permits ‘identity’ across types even when those types are ‘elementary’. This medium below fundamental types has critical implications for morals (since as grounded on this medium there is nothing human that is ultimately foreign to me) and for ontology (since this medium must be).

Fifth, just as important as what Jung says in this passage is what he does not say — what remains unspoken. Namely, that the types of human being (verbal) are its ‘basic truth’ — its being.  This at once introduces a new way to interrogate types and to assess their “general validity”, for ontology has powerful laws of its own. Considered ontologically, Jung’s types remain subjective and hence defective in a way that Schiller’s do not. This is a decided limitation in a series of ways to be explored elsewhere.  Suffice it to note here only that the world now clings to a precipice defined by its nihilism — by a suffocating subjectivity that explodes all value and truth and ends by imploding itself.  And perhaps the world along with it. The specification of the types of human being (verbal) may represent the one way out of this dead end.


  1. In science, “general validity” is, of course, questionable. But this is rarely done and, even less rarely, successfully done. In any case, the questionability of basic propositions is an aspect of science and does not at all contradict its possibility.
  2. Since the physical sciences are examples of human being (verbal), the study of the types of human being introduces a new way to address problems in physics and, in fact, in all the physical sciences.

Jung on Schiller 1

Jung’s long commentary on Schiller’s Aesthetic Letters (in CW6, 67-135) is valuable for an assessment of both — and of their relative contributions to an understanding of the drame intérieur. 

Schiller belongs to the introverted type (…) Because of this identification, an inevitable limitation is imposed on his formulations, a fact we must never lose sight of if we wish to gain a fuller understanding [of psychological types and their interactions]. It is owing to this limitation that the one function is presented by Schiller in richer outline than the other, which is still imperfectly developed in the introvert, and just because of its imperfect development it must necessarily have certain inferior characteristics attached to it. At this point the author’s exposition requires our criticism and correction. It is evident, too, that this limitation of Schiller’s impelled him to use a terminology which lacks general applicability [allgemeiner Verwendbarkeit]. (CW6, 68)

Jung has put his finger on a series of critical points here:1 

  • any attempt to specify the types and dynamics of the drame intérieur must account for its own type and for the solution it brings forward, implicitly or explicitly, to the self-reference inherent in this requirement
  • the demand for “general applicability” cannot be gainsaid. A fitting beginning to the investigation of the interior landscape can be made only when anyone following explicit rules can identify the type or types at play in any given sample (just as chemistry was finally initiated when the rules governing the identification of its elements became defined in the course of the nineteenth century)
  • at the same time the demand for “general applicability” implies that any sample of psychological activity whatsoever be subject to the suggested analysis (just as chemistry would not be chemistry if some material samples were excluded from its analysis)
  • further, “general applicability” applies to time and space. There can be no time or space in which the analysis has not, is not and will not be applicable.

These requirements stand before a new science of human being (verbal), or sciences, both as hurdles and as path markers.

  1. It is another question how far Jung himself met the requirements set out by him for the specification of psychological types. His typology is notoriously complicated and hardly unambiguous even as deployed by Jung himself. However, to make a decisive contribution to the rigorous investigation of the drame intérieur it is not necessary to solve all of its difficulties at once. It is enough to shed further light on some area of great potential importance.

The “new level” of art

A 2012 film Nema Aviona za Zagreb (No Flights to Zagreb) by Louis van Gasteren includes a scene shot in 1964 in which McLuhan opens an exhibit of ‘tele-creation’ art by van Gasteren. The exhibit in Amsterdam was opened by McLuhan in Toronto via ‘tele-vision’.

A blurb for the film informs that “van Gasteren began filming Nema Aviona in 1964 but did not complete it until 2012, making it the longest film in production of all time.” Further: “The film includes the only professional color sound motion picture footage ever filmed of Meher Baba.”

McLuhan’s remarks opening the exhibit were featured on the cover of Tele-Creation, Auto-Sculpture by Louis van Gasteren, the catalogue for the exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. These remarks were captured on film and presumably were part of the ‘tele-creation’ exhibition in 1964.

In the film McLuhan stands in an elevator before television cameras and says:

Painting now moves from representation to a direct encounter with the environment. The environment itself is just as mobile as the old easel painting was at one time. As new environments form around old environments, the old environments become art forms.
The whole mechanical technology, including the motorcar on the road, the whole mechanical technology now has an electronic environment around it which turned these old forms into art forms.
The planet itself has a satellite information environment which turned our planet into an art form. The planet is now being programmed as a teaching machine, as an art form. This kind of revolution is reflected now in painting, too.  The direct encounter with the environment as art form, is a formal violence, that helps us to discover our identity.
The artist by his direct facing of the present environment creates a kind of interface that is somewhat startling and violent and this helps us in turn to develop a sense of identity, which we would otherwise not have a chance of doing.1

The elevator door then closes on McLuhan: he is moving on to ‘another level’ and another identity, leaving the exhibit he has just opened to the crowd.

  1. Aske Land, proprietor of Antiquariaat Gemilang in Bredevoort, The Netherlands, kindly provided a rare copy of the catalogue for the 1964 tele-creation exhibit at the Stedelijk Museum. Many thanks, Aske!

Jung’s drame intérieur

In the 1935 preface to the second edition of a 1916 paper, Jung noted that:

The present essay (…) is (…) the expression of a long-standing endeavour to grasp and — at least in its essential features — to depict the strange character and course of that drame intérieur, the transformation process of the unconscious psyche. This idea of the independence of the unconscious, which distinguishes my views so radically from those of Freud, came to me as far back as 1902…(CW7, 123)

In a slightly earlier piece from 1932, Jung used this same phrase of a drame intérieur in an essay on Picasso:

The descent into ancient times has been associated ever since Homer’s day with the Nekyia. (…) Seldom or never have I had a patient who did not go back to neolithic art forms or revel in evocations of Dionysian orgies. [Picasso’s] Harlequin wanders like Faust through all these forms, though sometimes nothing betrays his presence but his wine, his lute, or the bright lozenges of his jester’s costume. And what does he learn on his wild journey through man’s millennial history? What quintessence will he distill from this accumulation of rubbish and decay, from these half-born or aborted possibilities of form and colour? What symbol will appear as the final cause and meaning of all this? In view of the dazzling versatility of Picasso, one hardly dares to hazard a guess, so for the present I would rather speak of what I have found in my patients’ material. The Nekyia is no aimless and purely destructive fall into the abyss, but a meaningful katabasis eis antron, a descent into the cave of initiation and secret knowledge. The journey through the psychic history of mankind has as its object the restoration of the whole man (…) This man stands opposed to the man of the present, because he is the one who ever is as he was,1 whereas the other is what he is only for the moment. With my patients, accordingly, the katabasis and katalysis are followed by a recognition of the bipolarity of human nature and of the necessity of [an encounter with] conflicting pairs of opposites. After the symbols of madness experienced during the period of disintegration there follow images which represent the coming together of the opposites: light/dark, above/below, white/black, male/female, etc. (…) This state of things in the psychic development of a patient is neither the end nor the goal. It represents only [the stage of] a broadening of his outlook, which now embraces the whole of man’s moral, bestial, and spiritual nature without as yet shaping it into a living unity.  Picasso’s drame intérieur has developed up to this last point before the dénouement. (CW15, 139-140)

McLuhan began to read Jung along with Freud and Adler in the 1930’s in Cambridge. He does not seem to have used the phrase le drame intérieur himself, but le paysage intérieur appears very frequently in his writings in both French and English2  — most prominently as the title of the 1969 collection of his essays in criticism, The Interior Landscape. And recourse to ‘drama’ and the ‘dramatic’ is, of course, even more common in his work.

McLuhan traced the attempt to specify the interior world of the psyche to nineteenth century France:

The first Romantics sought to recover the oral tradition of the ballad form as part of their program of moderating the extreme development of the picturesque. Yet, their use of the outer landscape as a means of defining and expressing emotion gave further stress to visual continuity and perspective. It led inevitably to the isolation of single emotions and single feelings as the basis of organizing  a work of art. It was only with the second Romantic Movement (Baudelaire and after) that the artist emancipated the Western world from the uniformities and specialisms of outer visual space by a sudden shift to what [the French physiologist] Claude Bernard called “le milieu intérior“. It is strange indeed that both poetry and medicine shifted their attention from outer to inner at the same time. T.S. Eliot’s familiar opening lines of Prufrock capture both of these events [of the first and second Romantic Movements]:
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table.
The first line leads to the cult of the romantic landscape, and the second to the precise activities of the surgeon exploring the interior of the patient.3

As cited above, Jung asked in this context: “What quintessence will [Picasso] distill from this accumulation of rubbish and decay, from these half-born or aborted possibilities of form and colour?” Comparatively, McLuhan saw the contemporary world as reduced to garbage4 and over and over again cited Yeats:

Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start,
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.

McLuhan repeatedly cited these lines from Yeats’ The Circus Animals’ Desertion (1938) in his late texts: in Take Today, in ‘Man as the Medium’ (the introduction to his 1975 commentary on Sorel Etrog’s film, Spiral) and, especially, in From Cliché to Archetype where they are cited twice, along with the first lines of this poem:

I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,
I sought it daily for six weeks or so.
Maybe at last, being but a broken man,
I must be satisfied with my heart, although
Winter and summer till old age began
My circus animals were all on show,
Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot,
Lion and woman and the Lord knows what.

No specification of human being or of being itself can ignore “the foul rag-and-bone shop” the former “broken man” unaccountably represents within the latter. On the one hand, this is a proofstone against which any attempt to formulate the truth of these must be tried. No sleight of hand can force lipstick on this pig. On the other, since their truth would inescapably infold this “mound of refuse”, the stunning wonder would be that even this, even the stench and horror trailed along by us, would be enfolded in that strange “quintessence”. More yet, as Yeats discerned, it would even turn out that this “mound of refuse” equally embraced that  “quintessence” as the place “where all the ladders start”. There would thus be a double infolding, Dante’s “forma universal di questo nodo”…5

  1. Jung repeatedly has recourse to the plurality of time in this passage. He begins by referring to “the descent into ancient times” and to “man’s millennial history”. Then the contrast between “the whole man” and the split “man of the present” is described as the difference between “the one who ever is as he was” and “the other (who) is what he is only for the moment”. Time as times is the great path marker followed in the twentieth century by Einstein, Husserl, Jung, Heidegger and others, including Innis and McLuhan, in the attempt to understand the possibility of truth — and only so the truth of human beings and their surrounding cosmos.
  2. McLuhan usually translated le paysage intérieur as the interior landscape, but in ‘Tennyson and Picturesque Poetry’ from 1951 he has “le paysage interieur or the psychological landscape”.
  3. ‘Discontinuity and Communication in Literature’, in P. R. Leon, ed, Problèmes de L’Analyse Textuelle, Problems of Textual Analysis, 1971, 189-199. This was a lecture given by McLuhan at University College, UT, on Nov 21, 1970.
  4. For references and discussion, see Planet polluto, garbage apocalypse.
  5. The modern human being is defined by the inability to believe in such truth. In the decision between our own importance, even if only negative, and what would be the strangest and most marvelous power of being itself, we insist on us.

Reading Schiller (and others)

On the road to science (the times of science #3) the nature of the domain to be explained remains unclear, as does, of course, just how the new science will go about its explaining — with what units acting and interacting in what ways. These questions get answered — progressively answered — only when the new science finally takes off as an open collective enterprise.

In the event, decisive advances made along that road must be read as oracular prophesies delivered in a kind of code.  The expositor does not know the goal, or the way by which it is to be reached or, of course, what particular steps might lead along that way. She quite literally does not know what she is talking about. And yet, through a kind of second sight, through some sort of strange intuition, decisive perceptions are attained which anticipate that goal and can even make contributions that will prove to be important when the new science eventually is able to undertake its investigations in the unknown future.

As an example, consider this sentence from Schiller’s sixth aesthetic letter:

Einseitigkeit in Übung der Kräfte führt zwar das Individuum unausbleiblich zum Irrthum, aber die Gattung zur Wahrheit.

One-sided exercise of its energies leads the individual inevitably into error, but the species into truth.

As may particularly be seen in countless absurd readings of Schiller (and even more of Hegel), it is tempting (as more than two centuries of responses to Schiller and Hegel amply demonstrate) to read Schiller here as characterizing the human species as some kind of mystical ‘world spirit’. The relation of the erring individual to that specter is imagined as if the species, so conceived, were to come into its truth through us erring individuals, or as it being already in truth but somehow requiring our recognition of this, or as it somehow finding its truth despite us, behind our backs, so to say, in a kind of ruse — etc etc etc.1

But Schiller was no more accurately seeing the actions of some mega-spirit here than were alchemists accurately investigating dragons and green lions. What Schiller was seeing through a glass darkly was rather the elementary structure of experience whose range or species is composed of ‘individual’ expressions of it — just as the table of chemical elements is composed of individual instances of the same basic structure (or ‘species’). Further, he was seeing that it is through identification and specification of that elementary structure alone that the factual level of individual and collective experience can at last be understood (through ongoing collective investigation).

Of course, if experience comes in different units of the same basic structure, the question must be posed how one of these, or a compound of these, comes at any moment to be the form of my experience — or the form of anyone’s experience. This has to do with the difference between the elements of physical nature and the elements of experiential nature. And here, too, Schiller exercised great penetration:

Der Wille des Menschen steht aber vollkommen frei zwischen Pflicht und Neigung, und in dieses Majestätsrecht seiner Person kann und darf keine physische Nöthigung greifen. Soll er also dieses Vermögen der Wahl beibehalten und nichts desto weniger ein zuverlässiges Glied in der Causalverknüpfung der Kräfte sein, so kann dies nur dadurch bewerkstelligt werden, daß die Wirkungen jener beiden Triebfedern [Pflicht und Neigung] im Reich der Erscheinungen vollkommen gleich ausfallen und, bei aller Verschiedenheit in der Form, die Materie seines Wollens dieselbe bleibt, daß also seine Triebe mit seiner Vernunft übereinstimmend genug sind, um zu einer universellen Gesetzgebung zu taugen. (Aesthetische Briefe, # 4)2

Schiller seems to be talking in quasi-Kantian terms here about concrete human beings and the conditions of their acting morally. But what may be discerned between the lines of this passage is the elementary form of experience which can be expressed as the range over which the ratio of A to B (here inclination and duty) extends, as marked by a relative preference for the one and/or the other. It is such differentiated weighting that Schiller calls ‘the human will’, the ‘magisterial (right of) personality’, and the ‘power of (re)solution’: these mark the elementary forms of human experience in a way that the elementary forms of physical nature are not marked. What differentiates the individual expressions of the general A/B ratio — unlike the difference in number of electron/proton which differentiates the chemical elements — is exactly the different marking or weighting or valorizing that may be exercised on that ratio in the spectrum between A at one of its ends and B at the other where all of the points between these ends are co-variable A/B ratios.

Again, when Schiller speaks of ‘universal legislation’, he is using Kantian language. But what is at stake is a whole new way of humans understanding themselves and deciding on their individual and collective actions through open research. Once the elementary structure of experience is exposed for collective investigation, humans will understand their actions —  and thereby pursue their actions — in a whole new way. They will know in advance the predictable effects of their experience, know it to be optional (ie, variable through the ‘magisterial right of personality’) and know its available alternatives along with their effects: 

Er kommt zu sich aus seinem sinnlichen Schlummer, erkennt sich als Mensch eine Wahl, deren er damals nicht fähig war, und verfährt nun nicht anders, als ob er von vorn anfinge und den Stand der Unabhängigkeit aus heller Einsicht und freiem Entschluß mit dem Stand der Verträge vertauschte. (Aesthetische Briefe, # 3)

The human being [both individual and collective] comes to itself out of its waking sleep, recognizes a choice which it could not make before, and sets to work as if beginning anew, exchanging the state of bondage by and for one of insight and free determination…

  1.  Such ‘dialectic’ may then be taken to represent the relation of the individual to God since the question arises whether the species, you and me and all the rest of us, might not actually be God. As a PhD project, somebody at some point will audit how much money has been spent over the last couple centuries paying professors to excogitate upon such idiocies. Such an accounting will demonstrate the enormous resources we have dedicated, not only to drivel, but to attacking ourselves and driving ourselves nuts.
  2.  Bartleby translation (with corrections and clarifications in brackets): “But the will of man is perfectly free between inclination and duty, and no physical necessity (can or ought to interfere) in this magisterial (right of) personality. If therefore he is to retain this power of (re)solution, and yet (also be an admitted) link in the causal concatenation of (internal and external) forces, this can only be effected when the operations of both these impulses (of inclination and duty) are (equally subject to expression) in the world of appearances. (And this) is only possible when, with every difference of form (in the relation of inclination and duty), the (differentiating) matter of man’s volition (so) remains the same (that the relation of these three factors is) sufficient (to give birth to the possibility of) a universal legislation.”

The Toronto school and Schiller

The relevance of Schiller to an investigation of the Toronto school does not have to do with its consideration of his work. There was no such consideration. Instead, the relevance has to do with the fact that Schiller, particularly in his Aesthetische Briefe, took up themes — and investigated those themes deeply — which the Toronto school would later also do. On the one hand, this gives an indication of a tradition within which the Toronto school participated, consciously or unconsciously1; on the other, Schiller’s work supplies clues for ways in which the Toronto school may usefully be examined. It is often the case in intellectual history, or always, that what can be found in a particular work or collective movement depends upon what is first of all brought to it.2

Here is Schiller in the sixth of the Aesthetische Briefe:3

Die mannigfaltigen Anlagen im Menschen zu entwickeln, war kein anderes Mittel, als sie einander entgegen zu setzen. Dieser Antagonism der Kräfte ist das große Instrument der Kultur, aber auch nur das Instrument; denn so lange derselbe dauert, ist man erst auf dem Wege zu dieser. Dadurch allein, daß in dem Menschen einzelne Kräfte sich isolieren und einer ausschließenden Gesetzgebung anmaßen, gerathen sie in Widerstreit mit der Wahrheit der Dinge und nöthigen den Gemeinsinn, der sonst mit träger Genügsamkeit auf der äußern Erscheinung ruht, in die Tiefen der Objekte zu dringen. Indem der reine Verstand eine Autorität in der Sinnenwelt usurpiert und der empirische [Verstand] beschäftigt ist, ihn den Bedingungen der Erfahrung zu unterwerfen, bilden beide Anlagen sich zu möglichster Reife aus und erschöpfen den ganzen Umfang ihrer Sphäre. (…) Sollte uns die Natur durch ihre Zwecke eine Vollkommenheit rauben können, welche uns die Vernunft durch die ihrigen [Zwecke] vorschreibt? Es muß also falsch sein, daß die Ausbildung der einzelnen Kräfte das Opfer ihrer Totalität nothwendig macht; oder wenn auch das Gesetz der Natur noch so sehr dahin strebte, so muß es bei uns stehen, diese Totalität in unsrer Natur, welche die Kunst zerstört hat, durch eine höhere Kunst wieder herzustellen.

That “the manifold aptitudes” of human being were set at odds by the Greeks and that this opposition was the motor of the whole western tradition was, of course, exactly the position reached by the Toronto school (along with I.A. Richards) by the late 1940s.4 So, too, the idea that the undoubted positive results of this tradition had brought with them fundamental problems which that tradition now had to solve (or potentially perish). As Schiller put these two points, the “rival directions [unloosed by the Greeks] arrive at the highest possible development, and exhaust the whole extent of their sphere”. McLuhan, for his part, had already been considering this constellation as an undergraduate at the University of Manitoba, particularly in his work with Rupert Lodge. As he wrote in his master’s thesis on Meredith:

In his table talk, Coleridge noted that all men (…) are born either Platonists or Aristotelians. There are similarly, in all times and places, definite types of temperament displaying consistency of conformation. The literary or artistic expression of such temperaments has properly the same validity as has the philosophizing of the Idealist and the Realist.

These “Idealist” and “Realist” positions were just Schiller’s “pure understanding [which] usurps authority in the world of sense, and empiricism [which] attempts to subject this intellect [of pure understanding] to the conditions of [sense] experience”. As Lodge had insisted, and as Schiller explicitly stated, “it must be false that the Ausbildung of particular faculties [eg, of “understanding” and “sense”] renders the sacrifice of their totality necessary”. This must be false, that is, if it is true that these form a complex totality and not an unthinkable seamless singularity of some sort of one of them alone. It then followed for the Toronto school, as much as it did for Schiller, that the outstanding goal of western civilization must be to “re-form” (reformulate and thereby reinstitute) the “totality of our being” — especially including the medium enabling this complex.

This was what McLuhan called going ‘from the ivory tower to the control tower’. Not ‘control tower’ in the sense of some center manipulating lesser marginal entities through management from above, however, but ‘control tower’ in the sense of having an overview of independent entities each requiring attention and respect on its own, but just as much requiring communication between and among the ensemble. McLuhan expressed this notion to Jackie Tyrwhitt in this way:

With electronics, any marginal area can become centre, and marginal experiences can be had at any centre.  Perhaps the city needed to coordinate and concert the distracted sense programs of our global village will have to be built by computers in the way in which a big airport has to coordinate multiple flights.5

For Schiller, the demand was to understand “play” as the initial condition of such independence and coordination.  The overview depended upon an ability to allow “play” this priority.  Otherwise it would degrade into management via the rear-view mirror: a superiority would be assumed for which marginal entities could have neither genuine independence nor, as a result, effective coordination among themselves.6 

For McLuhan this priority of Schiller’s “play” was “the medium [that] is the message”. 

  1. The Toronto school was hardly unconscious of tradition and traditions. But as it itself was acutely aware, the great question was how to identify traditions and define them for further investigation. History played a major role in Innis’ economics; Innis named the subject of his work the “History of the Greek Mind”; and the single topic of McLuhan’s lifetime labor was the history of human communication. All realized that the cogency of their efforts depended upon the theorization deployed in their work; but they all equally realized that theory had to arise from the facts under study and could never be simply imposed on them.  All struggled with the chicken and egg problem implicated here. The suggestions of this blog is that there is a tradition of the consideration of this chicken and egg problem and that examination of it can supply interesting ways to approach both the contributions and the limitations of the Toronto school. Schiller was an important link in this further tradition whose foundation was laid by its two greatest representatives, Plato and Aristotle.
  2. The chicken and egg problem again — see the previous note.
  3. The translation at Bartleby: “There was no other way to develop the manifold aptitudes of man than to bring them in opposition with one another. This antagonism of forces is the great instrument of culture, but it is only an instrument; for as long as this antagonism lasts, man is only on the road to culture. It is only because these special forces are isolated in man, and because they take on themselves to impose an exclusive legislation, that they enter into strife with the truth of things, and oblige common sense, which generally adheres imperturbably to external phænomena, to dive into the essence of things. While pure understanding usurps authority in the world of sense, and empiricism attempts to subject this intellect (= pure understanding) to the conditions of experience (= the world of sense), these two rival directions arrive at the highest possible development, and exhaust the whole extent of their sphere.  (…) (But) can nature snatch from us, for any (particular) end whatever, the perfection (Vollkommenheit) which is prescribed to us by the (end) of reason (as opposed to understanding)? It must be false that the perfecting (Ausbildung) of particular faculties renders the sacrifice of their totality necessary; and even if the law of nature had imperiously this tendency, we must have the power to reform (re-form) by a superior art this totality of our being, which (inferior) art has destroyed.”
  4. This antagonism was formulated as sight versus sound, dialectic vs rhetoric, literacy vs orality, etc. Compare Schiller: “Der todte Buchstabe vertritt den lebendigen Verstand, und ein geübtes Gedächtniß leitet sicherer als Genie und Empfindung.” (Aesthetische Briefe, #6)
  5. McLuhan to   Tyrwhitt,  December 23, 1960, Letters 277–278.
  6. If speech were enforced along these lines, it would never have been initiated in history and could not be learned by a child today.

Lodge, Richards and Schiller’s Aesthetic Letters

Here is McLuhan’s mentor at the university of Manitoba, Rupert Lodge, at the beginning of his ‘Comparative Method in Philosophy’:1

Human knowledge is the product of two factors, sensation and intelligence. From sensation we derive the ultimate constituents of experience, its elementary qualities, its reds and blues, louds and softs, roughs, smooths, and the rest. These are not invented or originated by us, but are pure discoveries, sought after by us with interest, as gifts from the hand of nature which we may learn to use wisely and with discrimination. From the intellect with its spontaneous demand for unity, order, and system, we derive the formal patterns of logic and mathematics, in terms of which we seek to compare, distinguish. and arrange the sensory content of experience in such elementary relationships as apart or together, before or after, larger or smaller, more or less intense, to the right or to the left of, etc. These two factors are not found in complete isolation from one another, separated as if with a hatchet. In the simplest sensory experience there is at least a minimum of inference, as when we “separate” and “contrast” red and blue and “identify” this or that quality as belonging to the visual or auditory “system”. So, too, intellectual elaboration occurs only on the occasion of some stimulus which is sensory in origin and in its associations. Yet, since they differ in function, the one factor being essentially receptive and the other essentially originative, it is convenient as well as usual to regard them as distinct. While both are present in concrete knowing, each of these factors shows a considerable range of variation. At the one extreme it is possible for the sensory factor so to predominate as completely to overshadow the presence of intellectual factors. (…) At the other extreme it is possible for the intelligence (…) to predominate…


McLuhan’s library preserved at the University of Toronto does not have Ogden and Richards’ 1922 Foundations Of Aesthetics, which they co-authored with the painter James Wood. But he would certainly have read it at Cambridge along with its closely related Meaning of Meaning (Ogden and Richards, 1923), which McLuhan’s library has in a first edition copy with his marginal annotations. Given his training with Rupert Lodge at the University of Manitoba, immediately before his studies at Cambridge with Richards, he would have found the discussion of Schiller in the Foundations of great interest. For Lodge’s method, which set the program for McLuhan’s entire career, was a variation on Schiller’s as described in the Aesthetische Briefe of 1794.2

Here are Ogden and Richards on Schiller in The Foundations Of Aesthetics:

it was Kant’s view of the relations of Art and Play which led Schiller in his Briefe Uber die Aesthetische Erziehung der Menschen to elaborate a theory of harmonious activity in which a balance or equipoise is maintained. There are, according to Schiller (Letter 2), two opposing demands in man — that of the sense-impulse, and that of the form-impulse.3 (…) Harmony can be attained without diminution of either. And here the function of Play is introduced. The object of the sense-impulse is life, the object of the form-impulse, shape (Letter 15). The object of the play-impulse, expressed in a general proposition, can then be called living shape, or in its widest signification, Beauty.

Beauty, then (Letter 16), results from the reciprocity of two opposite impulses, and from the union of the opposite principles: we must seek its highest ideal in the most perfect possible equipoise.

“The scales of a balance stand poised”, he proceeds (Letter 20), “when they are empty; but also when they contain equal weights. Thus the mind passes from perception to reflection by an intermediate state (Stimmung) in which sense and reason are active at the same time, but thus mutually destroy their [one-sided] determining power and effect a [potentially positive] negation through an opposition [in which mere opposition is countered by relation] (…) if we call the condition of sensuous determination the physical, and that of reflective determination the logical and moral condition, we must call the condition of real and active [mutual] determinableness [Bestimmbarkeit]4 the aesthetic condition.”5

Modernity for Schiller, and then for Nietzsche a century later, and the Toronto school a half century later again, is the time when the balanced pans of a scale before a weighing (the precondition of any trustworthy weighing) are perceived as being only empty; and the difference between the two pans is perceived only as an antagonism. The great question posed by them all was how to restore perception, as McLuhan put it over and over again (including to the Ontario Dental Association), that “the gap is where the action is”.

It is here in the precondition of balance, and in the precondition of balance alone, that the play of the Spieltrieb is to be found already at work.


  1. In Manitoba Essays, ed Lodge, 405-432, 1937. For further citation and discussion, see The Comparative Method of Rupert Lodge and Rupert Lodge: Synthesis or Comparison?
  2. Schiller is mentioned by Lodge, but only in an off-hand manner, and seems never to have been discussed (or considered?) by him in detail. But this makes the parallels between them that much more remarkable.
  3. John Paul Russo in his detailed study of Richards has pointed out that the treatment of Schiller in The Foundations of Aesthetics is not entirely fair (I.A. Richards: His Life and Work, 106-107, but cf 712n62).  Indeed, it is particularly misleading to suggest, as Ogden and Richards do at this point in Foundations, that Schiller attributed “antagonism” to a prevalence of the sensuous drive over the rational one: “Whenever the form-impulse prevails (Letter 12) ‘there is the highest amplitude of being’. But if we subordinate (Letter 13) the sensuous to the rational, we get mere antagonism and no harmony.” Instead, Schiller was clear that “antagonism” results from the prevalence of either drive over against the other. “Antagonism” is exactly the absence, or at least the diminution, of mutual “play”. Ogden and Richards apparently did not see in this context how Schiller played off “highest amplitude” with “subordinate”: that is, in essential contrast to Heraclitus’ way up and down — “play” — he took “antagonism” to be the way up or down.  Schiller put this crucial point in the same Letter 13 cited by Ogden and Richards as follows: “The office of culture is to watch over them (the sensuous and rational drives) and to secure to each one its proper limits; therefore culture has to give equal justice to both, and to defend not only the rational impulsion against the sensuous, but also the latter against the former. Hence she has to act a twofold part: first, to protect sense against the attacks of freedom; secondly, to secure personality (“freedom”) against the power of sensations.”
  4. Schiller here plays off his earlier Stimmung (translated as “intermediate state” by Ogden and Richards, but in German has meanings ranging from ‘mood’ to ‘tuning’ and could even be ‘medium’ in this context) with Bestimmbarkeit. While it is not entirely mistaken to offer ‘determinableness’ as a translation of Bestimmbarkeit, the key move made by Schiller with his use of this term is to suggest that Stimmung is inherently plural such that any example of it has undergone a process of limitation and definition and only so has become distinct (bestimmt in German). The conclusion follows that any attempt to understand the role of play and beauty in human life, hence the role of any medium at all, must first of all be to assess that plurality and the ways in which it can become particularized. The same point concerning essential plurality is made by Schiller’s repeated use of the word ‘Gemüth’ (disposition) in this letter: ‘müth’ is cognate with English ‘mood’ and ‘Ge’ marks a collective.
  5. Die Schalen einer Wage stehen gleich, wenn sie leer sind; sie stehen aber auch gleich, wenn sie gleiche Gewichte enthalten. Das Gemüth geht also von der Empfindung zum Gedanken durch eine mittlere Stimmung über, in welcher Sinnlichkeit und Vernunft zugleich thätig sind, eben deswegen aber ihre bestimmende Gewalt gegenseitig aufheben und durch eine Entgegensetzung eine Negation bewirken. (…) wenn man den Zustand sinnlicher Bestimmung den physischen, den Zustand vernünftiger Bestimmung aber den logischen und moralischen nennt, so muß man diesen Zustand der realen und aktiven Bestimmbarkeit den ästhetischen heißen.”

Schiller’s Aesthetic Letters and nihilism

As soon as man is only form, he has no form, and the [autonomous] personality vanishes with the condition. In a word, it is only inasmuch as he is [genuinely] autonomous, that there is reality [also] out[side] of him, that he is receptive; and it is only inasmuch as he is receptive that there is reality in him…1 (Schiller, Aesthetic Letters, #13)2

At the midway point of his 1794 Aesthetic Letters (letter 13 of 27), Schiller foresaw what Nietzsche would specify almost a century later in his ‘History of an Error: How the true world became a fable’ (in Twilight of the Idols). When a human being becomes trapped in a hall of mirrors (all form or image, no outside reality), or, worse, a whole society (if that word can still be said to apply), or even a whole world (ditto), reality is lost — the ‘person’ as much as the ‘world’:

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!!3

The only way out of the hall of mirrors is finally to understand that it, too, is merely “apparent” and utterly vacuous.

In this way, such nihilism functions, or can function, as a direction marker. When the abysmal emptiness of a way of thinking and living is exposed, a new way can, at last, be discerned. What is lacking in most modern scholarship (if that word can still be said to apply) is the passion required for this exposure — and for the implicated dissolution of its own vacuity. Undergoing4 dissolution, alone, makes it possible to turn away from the hall of mirrors and to take another way — a way that may lead to reality, external and internal and, first of all, to the way between the two.5

Nihilism is the prompt exposing a new (though most ancient) ‘first of all’: the way between. Schiller’s play.

  1. Schiller’s point is that a psychotic (or an associate professor) who is unable to recognize the claims of an external reality has just to that extent also lost itself.
  2. Emphasis added. Translation is from Bartleby. The original (with emphasis added) reads: Sobald der Mensch nur Form ist, so hat er keine Form, und mit dem Zustand ist folglich auch die (selbständige) Person aufgehoben. Mit einem Wort: nur insofern er selbständig ist, ist Realität außer ihm, ist er empfänglich; nur, insofern er empfänglich ist, ist Realität in ihm…
  3.  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.
  4. Cf, “Zarathustra’s Untergang”: “Als Zarathustra dreissig Jahr alt war, verliess er seine Heimat und den See seiner Heimat und ging in das Gebirge.” Here away from his personal and geographical Heimat he addresses the sun as follows: “Du grosses Gestirn! Was wäre dein Glück, wenn du nicht Die hättest, welchen du leuchtest! (…) Ich möchte verschenken und austheilen, bis die Weisen unter den Menschen wieder einmal ihrer Thorheit und die Armen einmal ihres Reichthums froh geworden sind. Dazu muss ich in die Tiefe steigen: wie du des Abends thust, wenn du hinter das Meer gehst und noch der Unterwelt Licht bringst, du überreiches Gestirn! Ich muss, gleich dir, untergehen, wie die Menschen es nennen, zu denen ich hinab will. So segne mich denn, du ruhiges Auge, das ohne Neid auch ein allzugrosses Glück sehen kann! Segne den Becher, welche überfliessen will, dass das Wasser golden aus ihm fliesse und überallhin den Abglanz deiner Wonne trage! Siehe! Dieser Becher will wieder leer werden, und Zarathustra will wieder Mensch werden.”
  5. In order to be found, this way must first be taken.  This is the knot of thinking and time and being itself. See The times of science for discussion. Here is Heidegger: “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…” (Was heißt Denken).

The times of science

In regard to the object, the working, the realization and the precondition of science, it is necessary to differentiate between a series of different times:

  1. the time of physical and psychological events in history (Voegelin’s “factual level of history”1) as the explanandum of science.2
  2. the time of laws below history that account for such events as their explanans (Voegelin’s “level of essence”) — eg, H + O => H20, which is always the case at the level of essence, but at the factual level will be expressed only within a complex of other factors which may or may not modify that expression.3
  3. the time of the discovery of such laws, which is a different time from the expression of laws at the factual and essential levels (even though the discovery happens in factual time and consists of insight into the essential level) — eg, all physical events have always obeyed the laws of chemistry, but chemistry itself was discovered only in the nineteenth century.
  4. the time of reality itself that enables such correlations between the factual and essential levels as well as the discovery of the laws of those correlations. The latter is another sort of correlation — between human insight and the correlations of the factual and essential levels of history. Now in order for these different sorts of correlations to be, they must themselves first of all be real possibilities. That is, such dynamics must be rooted in the nature of reality itself and this implicates another sort of time, since it cannot be the case that reality either holds seamlessly to itself or that it only fragments away from itself. In the first case, nothing else would be. In the second, correlation would not be. Reality itself is both irreducibly plural and integral, such that its very form is this dynamic knot of going out from itself while remaining correlated to itself. But dynamically going out from itself while staying correlated to itself is just what time is. Time ‘marches on’ as time. All time goes out from itself as its way of remaining itself. There is, then, a fundamental relation between being and time — both go out to go in — and it is this dynamic figure that underlies all the other times of science together with their correlations.4 

The time of the “factual level of history” is ever-changing or horizontal; the time of the “level of essence” is always the case or vertical; the time of discovery is horizontal/vertical, the moment in horizontal time when insight into timeless laws is achieved; the time of reality is the expression of all of these senses at once in a knot that is at once ‘on its own’ and yet tied through a possibility that is anything but its own. 

The history of philosophy, and of all the human sciences, might be told in terms of confusions between these different times. This is particularly to be seen in the reading of Hegel where the third level has nearly always been confused with the fourth, leading to the supposition that he either properly, or absurdly, foresaw “the end of history”. Instead, what Hegel foresaw is that the laws of the psychological/spiritual field would come to be known in a similar fashion to the way the chemical laws of physical materials began to be uncovered in his lifetime. What would end would not be all history, but the history of our ignorance of the interlocked factual and essential levels of spiritual reality. Not only would history not end, but a whole new history turning on this discovery would thereby begin. This would lead to ever-increasing insight into these spiritual levels and this, in turn, would lead to ever-increasing insight into all of the levels of time(s), but especially into level four — since our reflections about reality itself would at last be open to collective research.5

The times of the developments foreseen by Hegel are particularly knotted (hence also his exposition of them) since the eventual actualization of insight into the laws of spiritual reality depends on the prior possibility of this event in reality itself.  But this prior possibility in reality itself can be seen only after the actualization of such insight. As McLuhan often remarked, the effect comes before the cause. Such is the knot of time(s).

In fact, the Greeks had already come across these abysmal questions (perhaps in train of millennia-old traditions) and attempted to formulate them. When Whitehead observed that the history of western philosophy was a series of footnotes to Plato, he might equally have said that the dire history of our wars and social problems is a history of our continuing failure to understand the complications of times and therefore of our continuing inability to investigate that history scientifically.

The very existence of the human species, and perhaps even of the biosphere itself, may depend, as Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus remarks, on our awaking at last from the nightmare of this — correlated? — history of ignorance.

  1.  See Voegelin and the question of “intelligible units” for citation and discussion. See this same post for explanandumexplanans and Voegelin’s “level of essence”.
  2. All of the times considered here are knotted. At the factual level, for example, everything that happens is an expression of laws at the essential level.  But these are never known completely and may remain without theoretical elaboration for great stretches of time: most modern sciences have been known only for a small fraction of the time the human species has existed. And, indeed, how many undiscovered disciplines may be implicated in the factual level of events without our knowledge of them? As DNA-based genetics did until recently. And this complex of times could itself not exist except as something in being. The identity of times, their knot, must therefore always be borne in mind as their differences are interrogated.
  3. This is the difference between Saussure’s “langue” vs “parole”.
  4. Cf Schiller’s Aesthetic Letters (letter 11): “It is only in the absolute subject alone that its external determinations remain with it even as they flow out of it.” Original: “In dem absoluten Subjekt allein beharren mit der Persönlichkeit auch alle ihre Bestimmungen, weil sie aus der Persönlichkeit fließen.”
  5. Hans-Georg Gadamer used to call this imperatively needed collective research into fundamentals the “Dialog der Weltreligionen” or, in short, “die Sprache”.

The breakthrough insight at “the level of essence”

My own approach, following Harold Innis, is a transformation theory, thus homeostasis of the perceptual factors (…) requir[ing] much redistribution of emphasis among the senses.1

Throughout the 1950s (hence his delay in completing The Gutenberg Galaxy that whole decade), McLuhan was puzzled by the fact that the movement in new media analyzed by Havelock, Innis, Richards and himself beyond the eye and back towards the ear, somehow seemed to have occurred through intensely visual innovations like photography, film, comics and, above all, television. How had the eye come to trump the eye?

An answer came to him at last at the start of the following decade. As he reported in Project in Understanding New Media: “Early in 1960 it dawned on me that the sensory impression proffered by a medium like movie or radio, was not the sensory effect obtained.” That is, the effects of media were not to be found in their sensory input toward us (eg, of television or telephone), but in the shape of the subsequent sensory output from us (eg, a demand or even a need in an electric age for participation).2

This revolution in focus from input to output implicated3 the notion that media had to be understood on two fundamentally different (though interconnected) levels, the literal level (Voegelin’s “factual level of history”4) where media were found objects (like newspapers and computers, or like spoken languages, or even like abstractions such as orality and literacy) and the level of formal cause (Voegelin’s “level of essence”5). The former was the level of the explanandum, that which required explanation, as opposed to the latter level of the explanans, that which would explain.

Since studying with Rupert Lodge at the University of Manitoba in the early 1930’s, McLuhan had had the idea that human experience was differentiated into three fundamentally different types and that the multilevel study of these types as explanans could solve the explanandum of practical problems in education, commerce and politics.6 His PhD thesis awarded in 1943 put forward the notion that these types could be identified and investigated in terms of the three arts of the trivium. But through his exposure to the ‘synaesthesia’ of I.A. Richards at Cambridge, then study of Catholic theology7 and finally by wrestling with the work of Harold Innis (itself also influenced by I.A. Richards), he came to think by 1950 that the dynamic order of the senses was the best way to characterize the “level of essence” and therefore also the “factual level of history” via the linked working of these explanans/explanandum strata. 

In 1974 he wrote to Hans Selye:

My own approach, following Harold Innis, is a transformation theory, thus homeostasis of the perceptual factors in a rapidly changing environment requires much redistribution of emphasis among the senses. For example, a blind or deaf person compensates for the loss of one sense by a heightening of activity in the others.  It seems to me that this also occurs in whole populations when new technologies create new sensory environments.8

Communication via media did not occur through the ‘transportation’ of some meaning through a ‘pipeline’ or linear chain, but though instantaneous “transformation” as when a child first learns to speak.9  In this understanding, all mental activity may be imagined as a series of Gestalts10 which displace each other so completely from moment to moment that there is little or no explanatory power to be derived from looking at their series.11  Instead, understanding came from investigation of the Gestalts themselves and the key here was to define what Voegelin called “theoretically justifiable units”12. In his note to Selye, McLuhan called the unit of experiential Gestalts the “homeostasis of the perceptual factors” and the dynamism accounting for differences between the units, the “redistribution of emphasis among the senses”. That is, the unit of experience which is expressed at the “factual level of history” as explanandum, and which explains at the “level of essence” as explanans, is the constant but dynamic relation of “the perceptual factors” — the elementary structure of the senses together in some “distribution of emphasis among the senses, the variable Gestalt of communal or “common sense”.13

To compare, the explanans in chemistry is the constant relation, or “homeostasis”, of electrons and protons which expresses itself in Mendeleev’s table as a “redistribution” between the two. This “redistribution” takes place in chemistry through the increasing number of the two which yet always remains in homeostatic balance.14 Meanwhile the explanandum of chemistry is the entire universe of physical materials.

In the case of media, the  constant (though dynamic) relation or “homeostasis” between the eye and the ear, as the elementary structure of communication, varies not through a changing  matching number (as the chemical elements do), but through the co-variance of the two.15 Here, although their total does not change, the relative contribution between the eye and ear varies over a spectrum stretching between all eye at the extreme end on one side of the spectrum and all ear at the other extreme. Along the spectrum between these extremes each point is defined by a different “redistribution of emphasis among the senses”, but is always equal to 1 (= the dynamic constant of the Gestalt of “common sense”). The full spectrum, in similar fashion to Mendeleev’s table, defines the range of the possible forms of elementary media. Meanwhile the explanandum of McLuhan’s “new science”, or sciences, is the entire universe of human experience.

  1. McLuhan to Hans Selye, cited in full and discussed in this post.
  2. Nevertheless, McLuhan all too often confused (or at least disguised) this insight by talking about the input from media: the 360 degree field of sound, the assembly line of letters on the printed page, the ‘charge of the light brigade’ of television, etc. His purpose in doing so was doubtless to help along the closer inspection of all media as surrounds, as directives, as dynamic formal causes. Thus, sound as a surrounding field in ordinary experience could be taken as exemplifying any medium considered at the level of formal cause, even print. However that may have been, so far at least, 40 years on from McLuhan’s death, this purpose has gone unrealized and the technique has proved to be only misleading and counter-productive.
  3. The implication here was triggered by the idea that the “factual level” did not provide satisfactory explanation either through “the units thrown up in the stream of history” (Voegelin) or through their sequence in that stream. Therefore the implication that other units at another level had to be isolated. And this seemed further to imply that instead of one “stream of history” there must be at least three: the “stream of history”, the stream of “essential units”, and the stream of their interconnection.
  4. See Voegelin and the question of “intelligible units” for citation and discussion.
  5. Ibid.
  6. See The Comparative Method of Rupert Lodge and, in general, these Lodge posts.
  7. Here McLuhan was prompted especially through his study with Muller-Thym of Muller-Thym’s ‘Common Sense, Perfection of the Order of Pure Sensibility’ (1940), but also through his reading of Maritain, Gilson and Phelan.
  8. McLuhan to Selye, July 25, 1974, cited in Gordon, Escape into Understanding, 150.
  9.  McLuhan to Marshall Fishwick: “I have the only communication theory of transformation — all the other (communication) theories are theories of transportation.” (July 31, 1974, Letters 505)
  10. Similarly, quantum physics is based on the notion that momentary Gestalts at the quantum level and their series in time are so fundamentally incompatible that it is impossible to have both at once.
  11. Voegelin: “the self-formation of movements in history, institutionally and ideologically, is not (the same thing as) theoretical formation. The investigation inevitably will start from the phenomena, but the question of theoretically justifiable units in political science cannot be solved (simply) by accepting the units thrown up in the stream of history at their face value.” See Voegelin and the question of “intelligible units” for citation and discussion. Study of historical series is necessarily study mainly of the past and is therefore an exercise of what McLuhan called the “rear-view mirror”.
  12. See the preceding note.
  13. Just as the electron and proton are only two of many different particles in the atom, but are central for investigation and explanation, so the eye and the ear are only two of the five senses — but are central for investigation and explanation.
  14. The “homeostasis” of electrons and protons is always preserved in elements. But ions, of course,  are constituted by its loss.
  15. For discussion, see Relativity and topology.

Voegelin and the question of “intelligible units”

the epiphany of structures in reality — be they atoms, molecules, genes, biological species, races, human consciousness, or language — is a mystery inaccessible to explanation.  (Voegelin, In Search of Order)1

McLuhan and Voegelin exchanged four letters in 1953.2 But the most important aspect of their brief correspondence may have been what they did not discuss (at least not directly). For the two of them, although on separate tracks, were pursuing a strategy that was then, and remains today, almost 70 years later, what may be the one way out of the global crisis in which the planet was and is ensnared.3 This is a crisis that expresses itself everywhere along the whole register of human activity — extending to our alienated relation with God.

As indicated in the titles of Voegelin’s 1953 New Science of Politics and McLuhan’s (posthumous) 1988 Laws of Media: The New Science, both saw that science could and should be pursued in the social sciences. And both saw this possibility as crucial to human survival in a planetary condition of “continuous  warfare” (as  Voegelin already observed in his New Science and as has been hideously maintained ever since).4 Regarding our situation in “continuous warfare”, Voegelin specified:

The causes of this phenomenon will receive careful attention in the course of these lectures; but their critical exploration presupposes a clearer understanding of the relation between theory and reality.5 

Voegelin’s New Science originated in his 1951 Walgreen lectures entitled ‘Truth and Representation’.  Now the key in any area of inquiry to the relationship of theory and reality or of representation and truth (relations which are not necessarily the same)6 is, as may be seen particularly in the birth and development of chemistry in the nineteenth century after the identification of its elements, the specification of what Voegelin called “theoretically justifiable units” . He made this point particularly in an exchange with Hannah Arendt early in 1953 — the very year in which Voegelin and McLuhan conducted their brief correspondence — concerning her 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism:

I shall do no more than draw attention to what we agree is the question at stake, though Arendt’s answer differs from mine. It is the question of essence in history, the question of how to delimit and define phenomena of the class of political movements. Dr. Arendt draws her lines of demarcation on what she considers the factual level of history; arrives at well-distinguished complexes of phenomena of the type of “totalitarianism”; and is willing to accept such complexes as ultimate, essential units. I take exception to this method because it disregards the fact that the self-formation of movements in history, institutionally and ideologically, is not [the same thing as] theoretical formation. The investigation inevitably will start from the phenomena, but the question of theoretically justifiable units in political science cannot be solved [simply] by accepting the units thrown up in the stream of history at their face value. What a unit is will emerge when the principles furnished by philosophical anthropology are applied to historical materials. It then may happen that political movements, which on the scene of history are bitterly opposed to one another, will prove to be closely related on the level of essence.7

In 1981, almost thirty years later, a few years before his death in 1985, Voegelin again commented on “theoretically justifiable units”, here called “intelligible units”, in a letter to Gerhart Niemeyer:

Now let me thank you…for your contribution to the Festschrift8 on ‘intelligible units’ of history. (…) While I agree with your condemnation of the misuse of ‘intelligible units’, I wonder whether one can9, and perhaps must, use the concept without misusing it. What shall we do with ethnic cultures, empires, religions, sects, ideological movements, national states? Are they not intelligible units? Did Augustine not treat the Roman Empire as an intelligible unit in history? And what, after all, is Christianity?10 The problem seems to be [that of] a critically tenable conception of intelligibility…11

The characterization of “the question of theoretically justifiable units” as that of “a critically tenable conception of intelligibility” pointed to a logical and temporal circularity in the question at stake: what was to be achieved later, as a goal, namely “a critically tenable conception of intelligibility”, had to be already active earlier in order to make ‘a critically tenable’ beginning of the required process to that goal. Voegelin: “this invisible harmony is difficult to find, and it will not be found at all unless the soul be animated by an anticipating urge in the right direction” (NSP, 103); “the openness of the soul is experienced through the opening of the soul itself” (101). This was at once confounding and potentially indicative. For the fact that discovery of “a critically tenable conception of intelligibility” would itself require the exacting exercise of “intelligibility” (otherwise, the conception could hardly be “critically tenable” and could certainly not reach its goal) served to illuminate the requirement that that discovery be at once sudden and revolutionary in effecting a decisive break in time and yet also applicable to the whole chronological experience of human beings, especially to the past as the laboratory in which any proposed intelligibility would have to demonstrate itself.12 

In the same way, the discovery of the elementary structure in chemistry and of the structure of DNA in genetics served to break inquiry into a definitive ‘before’ and ‘after’ in their respective fields, and yet did so in a manner that was just as applicable to the ‘before’ as to the ‘after’. At such a moment, illumination is suddenly and for the first time possible — of what has always taken place and always will take place.13 It is the stupendous reach of such conceptions somehow occurring to utterly finite minds that underlies Voegelin’s wonder at “the epiphany of structures in reality” as “a mystery inaccessible to explanation”.  

What was ultimately at stake in Voegelin’s remarks to Arendt and Niemeyer, then, was just such a break in the history of the social sciences that would reveal itself as being “critically tenable” through its application as much to the past as to the present and future. Furthermore, this was a break that would occur as much subjectively (in the before and after of the discoverer) as objectively (in the before and after in research in the domain).14

What happens to our knowledge in such a case is that it goes through a kind of wormhole, only to emerge on the other side with a revolutionary new appreciation of what had always been going on, on the other side of the wormhole, leading up to it. The implicated figure is

A >< B

where a real knowledge of A (representing the entire cultural history of the world to this point) is obtained only through the exponentially expanding findings of the new science, or sciences, suddenly enabled in B.15

The enormous practical effects of this sort of scientific breakthrough may be seen by comparing the world in 1800 to the world today after only two centuries of chemistry and the derivative sciences chemistry has enabled. It is, indeed, just such revolutionary effects — resulting from collective open research — which at once offer hope in the face of the contemporary world crisis and account for the intense resistance to such science from the bellicose partisans of the status quo. 

Certain indications for authentic contemporary research in the humanities and social sciences seem to follow. First, history and commentary should be abandoned except as they are pursued as modes of searching for “theoretically justifiable units”.  As is plain from the genesis and development of sciences like chemistry and genetics, all history and commentary will have to be recast on the basis of such units when they are, at last, isolated and demonstrated.16 In the event that units of this sort remain manifestly lacking (since the practice of science they would enable is manifestly lacking), history and commentary are at best premature and at worst  themselves part of the “crisis of Western civilization” they often purport to address.17 Second, the primary focus of research in the humanities should be on candidates for “theoretically justifiable units” that have been suggested in the past, particularly by its single greatest mind, Plato.18 The “recovery”19 that is fundamental to science involves, as Voegelin was clear in his reply to Arendt, a complete reformulation of history and this would necessarily  include a reassessment of whether or not Plato (for example) did indeed put forward “a valid formulation of principles”.20 To compare, once chemistry received its proper conceptualization in the course of the nineteenth century, it became possible to sort out for the first time who in the past had had genuine insights into chemical processes and who had not. The central questions here are: if proposals for “theoretically justifiable units” have been made, what was deficient in them that they failed to yield the required intelligibility? how might these deficiencies be cured? Further, were there deficiencies in the appreciation of such proposals? And how might these be cured?21 If “theoretically justifiable units” can be isolated for the humanities and social sciences, dedicated work on these two fronts of definition and appreciation offer the one hope for doing so.22

The history of the physical sciences shows that crises can be revelatory. An essential step is acknowledgement of the crisis and of the need to address it with adjusted subjective and objective presuppositions. A kind of subjective-objective Rubik’s cube needs to be manipulated with a passion until, at last, the tesserae reveal their pattern and, with it, the way to and from it.

Both because of the inherent interest of such a breakthrough in the investigation of human being and of its potential importance in addressing the dire situation of the contemporary world, intense focus on the question of “theoretically justifiable units” is indicated.


  1.  Order and History 5, CW18, 31. As McLuhan was very much aware, such an epiphany is already operative in the first use of language, phylogenetic or ontogenetic. Language is nothing other than the recognition of “structures in reality”. In fact, Voegelin’s list of structures has application to language but little to science. Scientifically, structural comparison between “atoms” and “biological species” or “races” is misleading at best.
  2. For discussion, see McLuhan and Voegelin 1953.
  3. The one way out of the crisis — that is, the one way out that is in our control. Heidegger, for one, saw only the possibility of a divine solution: Nur noch ein Gott kann uns retten.
  4. The full passage at this point in NSP is eerily prescient of the state of the world today almost 70 years latter: “Our own foreign policy was a factor in aggravating international disorder through its sincere but naive endeavor of curing the evils of the world by spreading representative institutions (…) to areas where the existential conditions for their functioning were not given. Such provincialism, persistent in the face of its consequences, is in itself an interesting problem for the scientist. One cannot explain the odd policies of Western democratic powers leading to continuous warfare, with weaknesses of individual  statesmen — though such weaknesses are strongly in evidence. They are rather symptomatic of a massive resistance to face reality, deeply rooted in the sentiments and opinion of the broad masses of our contemporary Western societies. Only because they are symptoms of a mass phenomenon is it justified to speak of a crisis of Western civilization” (NSP, 1987 ed, 81). As for McLuhan, he wrote to Ezra Pound in 1951 (the same year Voegelin delivered the lectures behind NSP) as follows: “2nd (World) War produced great discovery of war as new way of life. Financial pages simply chortling these days over prosperity rooted in 3rd (World) War. Ordinary guy eats this up. Total war = total security he figures. THAT is the scale of imbecility now current.” (McLuhan to Pound, Jan 1951, Letters 219, emphatic ‘THAT’ in original.) See McLuhan and Voegelin 1953 for further citation and discussion.
  5. Ibid.
  6. The relations of “theory and reality” and of “truth and representation” may be considered as the same or as different. They are the same when “reality” and “truth” are brought together and contrasted to the “theory” or “representation” that would give access to them and so enable their collective study. They are different when truth is considered as a potential property of theory and representation in their relation to reality. The important thing in this context is only that the question of the relation between the two relations be left open and not decided in advance.
  7. Voegelin, Concluding Remark‘ (to Arendt), The Review of Politics, 15:1 (Jan., 1953), pp. 84-85. Voegelin included an offprint of his initial review of Arendt in his second letter to McLuhan. It appears that he did not include Arendt’s reply to his review or his reply to her reply. But McLuhan may, of course, have gone on from Voegelin’s review to look into the further pieces by Arendt and Voegelin that continued from it.
  8. The Philosophy of order: essays on history, consciousness, and politics (For Eric Voegelin on His Eightieth Birthday January 3, 1981), ed Peter J. Opitz and Gregor Sebba, 1981.
  9. Voegelin (not improperly, but strangely in combination with “perhaps must”): “cannot”.
  10. This late letter seems to show that Voegelin may never have seen the fundamentally important distinction broached in note #1 above between linguistic and scientific units — even though his own reply to Arendt in 1953 was prescient in differentiating historical or linguistic units from essential ones!
  11. Voegelin letter to Gerhart Niemeyer, February 24, 1981, Selected Correspondence 1950-1984, CW30, 862-863. This reference was kindly supplied by Fritz Wagner.
  12. At least at this point in his career, Voegelin seems also to have argued that such discovery is oriented only to the future: “this center (of the human psyche) is not found (by the Greeks) as if it were an object that had been present all the time and only escaped notice. The psyche as the region in which transcendence is experienced must be differentiated out of a more compact structure of the soul; it must be developed and named. With due regard for the problem of compactness and differentiation, one might almost say that before the discovery of the psyche man had no soul. Hence, it is a discovery which produces its experiential material along with its explication” (NSP, 101). Just what was at stake in this passage would, however, have to be gleaned in comparison with his statement later in NSP that “we must distinguish between the opening of the soul as an epoch in experiential differentiation and the structure of reality which remains unchanged” (208).
  13. The isolation of definitive structures in a scientific discipline does not at all entail that research into those structures is no longer required. Far rather, research is only now properly grounded and guided. Future research might well, indeed, require modification or even overthrow of those ‘definitive’ structures at some point — such is ‘the structure of scientific revolutions’.
  14. In the early 1950s, at least, Voegelin himself may not have realized the implications of his own insight into “theoretically justifiable units” as effecting a scientific revolution. As previously noted above, he began NSP by observing that the field of politics will “prove amenable to theoretization as an intelligible succession of phases in a historical process” (NSP, 1987 ed, 21). A process was postulated “through (…) degrees (!) of compactness and differentiation — from rite, through myth, to theory” (52). But this is exactly how a new theoretization in science does not take place. Instead, the possibility of “theoretically justifiable units” must first of all be ontologically based. This entails the presence of abysmal borders or gaps in the deepest level of reality that accounts for real plurality (“essential units”) and that prohibits gnostic conflation into seamlessness. A scientific revolution occurs when research aligns itself, at last, with the transitive borders of reality so as to formulate revolutionary insight into a field (which only now becomes rigorously identifiable). Such insight does not result from “an intelligible succession of phases in a historical process”, but from an unaccountable leap, “a mystery inaccessible to explanation” (as Voegelin himself would put it 30 years later). Strangely, however, in just this same context at the start of NSP, Voegelin correctly saw the ontological crux of the matter: his “new science” was to arise from “the principles of order in general” (21). Hence his definition of “science as a truthful account of the structure of reality” (26). It may be that the remainder of Voegelin’s long career amounted to an attempt to understand the problems and opportunities which arise at this point where the “mystery” of “the epiphany of structures in reality” crosses with “historical process”. His 5-volume main work would begin to be published in 1956, a few years after NSP, and would be called Order and History.
  15. The information available in B increasingly exceeds that in A, both because B’s research into every aspect of A always increases while at the same time new events occur in B with research into these new events always increasing as well.  This increase in entropy accords with the second law of thermodynamics and correlates closely with Voegelin’s and McLuhan’s arguments against gnosticism. Whereas gnosticism always attempts to compress complexities into simplicities (eg, historical time and eschatological time into the end of history), the scientific figure of A >< B obviates this possibility through an ever increasing complexity — ie, through entropic resistance to compression. Cf, Voegelin: “Can the monadism of such representation not be broken by questioning the validity of the truth in each case?” (NSP, 92)
  16. As cited above from his reply to Arendt, Voegelin was clear about this: “What a unit is will emerge when the principles furnished by philosophical anthropology are applied to historical materials. It then may happen that political movements, which on the scene of history are bitterly opposed to one another, will prove to be closely related on the level of essence.”
  17. See the preceding note.
  18. With a counterfactual faith in “advancing articulation” (67) through “the very historicity of human existence” (22), Voegelin maintained in NSP: “One cannot restore political science today through Platonism, Augustinianism, or Hegelianism. Much can be learned, to be sure, from the earlier philosophers concerning the range of problems, as well as concerning their theoretical treatment; but the very historicity of human existence, that is, the unfolding of the typical in meaningful concreteness, precludes a valid reformulation of principles through return to a former concreteness” (22). But this was to make the very mistake of confusing historical with essential units that Voegelin rightly found in Arendt. Essential units may well have been formulated in the past by Plato, and/or by others, but then not have been appreciated as such and thereby conformed to historical ones.
  19. A restoration of political science to its principles implies that the restorative work is necessary because the consciousness of principles is lost. The movement toward re-theoretization must be understood, indeed, as a recovery” (NSP, 3-4). For discussion see McLuhan and Voegelin 1953.
  20. As cited above, Voegelin’s phrase is “a valid reformulation of principles”.
  21. It may be that Aristotle should be read as addressing exactly these questions in reference especially (but not only) to the work his mentor, Plato.
  22. On account of the circularity of the deployment of intelligibility in the specification of “a critically tenable conception of intelligibility”, it is inevitable that definition and appreciation work together —  first of all in the individual researcher working toward such definition. The moment of insight comes only when each of these, intelligibility and appreciation, come together to inform the other.

Lodge and Wright in Faces of Reason

In The Faces of Reason, their 1981 history of philosophy in Canada, Leslie Armour and Elizabeth Trott include a chapter on ‘The Fragmentation of Reason: Rupert Lodge and Henry Wright’.1 They begin:

Lodge and Wright arrived at the University of Manitoba in the same year, 1920, and served as joint heads of the Manitoba philosophy department for fourteen years. Both spent their whole careers there, though after 1934 Lodge became sole head of the philosophy department while Wright went to the [newly established] psychology department.
Lodge had come to Manitoba from England [graduating from Oxford], by way of Germany, [the University of] Minnesota, and [the University of] Alberta. He had already distinguished himself as the author of a work on modern logic 2, was an expert on Locke3, and the translator of the now largely forgotten Italian Bernardino Varisco. Despite this array of interests, he continued to be a proponent of the Oxford idealism.
Wright had been educated at Cornell, taught there briefly, and then became professor of philosophy [and acting president] at Lake Forest College in Illinois where he had written books on ethics and religion and distinguished himself as an expert on self-realization theories.4 He, too, had been reared on the moderate kind of idealism, sustained at Cornell by Jacob Gould Schurman.5 

Armour and Trott comment in regard to Wright’s move from the Chicago to Winnipeg: “in a way, Schurman’s idealism had come home” (405) to Canada from Cornell. Jacob Gould Schurman was born in PEI and, after studying in England and Europe, taught at Acadia and Dalhousie before becoming the chair of philosophy at Cornell, the founding editor of Philosophical Review there and eventually the longtime Cornell University president.6 To compare, Wright was born in Michigan on the Canada/US border and reversed Schurman’s itinerary by studying at Cornell7, teaching in the US, and ultimately becoming acting president at Lake Forest University in Chicago — before ending up in Winnipeg. 

Armour and Trott remark further:

Both [Lodge and Wright] wrote continuously and extensively and remained amongst the most productive philosophers in Canada for nearly thirty years. (405)

McLuhan took courses from both Lodge and Wright at the University of Manitoba and, in fact, his whole career may well be seen as a combination of the work of the two of them. From Wright he took the notion that modes of “intercommunication” — aka media — are decisive across the spectrum of human activity from psychology to sociology, politics and religion. Further, that the mechanical media of communication necessarily build on the foundation of the complex human psyche.8 From Lodge he took the notion that the forms of human experience are fundamentally plural and that it is the business of the humanities and social sciences to probe that plurality.9 Arising from both Wright and Lodge are the great questions: if experience is irreducibly plural, what experience is fitted to study it? how arrive at this enabling experience?  how demonstrate its suitability to the task? how communicate its findings? and what do these questions have to do with the media deployed by humans, from oral language to electronic devices?

Both Lodge and Wright emphasized the practicality of these questions for non-academic life. This is particularly to be seen in what Armour and Trott call Lodge’s “practical philosophy books”: The Philosophy of Education (1937), The Philosophy of Business (1945) and Applying Philosophy (1951). McLuhan, too, would come to see practical problems in education and business as keys to his enterprise. Unlike the academy, especially business had no incentive to leave problems unsolved. Furthermore and all importantly, solving actual problems there could serve to establish the study of communication beyond mere argumentation. And this, in turn, might solve the world-historical problem of how to communicate about communication.

  1.  It might well be asked what sort of genitive is in play in the phrase ‘the fragmentation of reason’. Is this a fragmentation affecting reason as an object? Fragmentation of what? Or is fragmentation in some sense fundamental to reason itself as a subject? Fragmentation belonging to whom? While both Lodge and Wright were hardly oblivious to historical and sociological effects on human experience, both treated the types of reason as inherently plural and hence as fundamentally fragmented in this subjective way. But this was a fragmentation for both that did not contradict communication across its divide (or divides). Further, given that analysis (to break down) and synthesis (to bring together) are central to the deployment of reason, fragmentation might be thought to be inherent to reason in other senses as well, both methodological and creative.
  2.  An Introduction to Modern Logic, 1920.
  3. Lodge published The Meaning and Function of Simple Modes in the Philosophy of John Locke in 1918. Meanwhile Wright’s 1899 BPh thesis at Cornell was on Locke’s Theory of Knowledge.
  4. Henry Wilkes Wright, Self-Realization: An Outline of Ethics (1913).
  5. A preview of The Faces of Reason is available in googlebooks. This passage is from p 405 there.
  6. Cf, ‘Hegel in Canada’ by John Burbidge in Hegel and Canada: Unity of Opposites? (2017): “There is some evidence, indeed, that this Canadian tradition (of Scottish Hegelianism) spilled over into the United States. Jacob Gould Schurman, born in Prince Edward Island and educated in Nova Scotia and London, England, was offered the chair of philosophy at the recently founded Cornell University in 1885 on the strength of his Kantian Ethics and the Ethics of Evolution: A Critical Study (1882). A comment in his Belief in God: Its Origin, Nature, and Basis (1890 as cited by Armour and Trott) noted that Hegel was right to insist ‘that identity and difference are both necessary to the being of the infinite spirit’. In 1892 Schurman became president of Cornell, and, in due course, American ambassador to (in succession) Greece-Macedonia,  China, and Germany. One of his graduate students, James Edwin Creighton from Nova Scotia, became first co-editor with him, and then editor of the Philosophical Review, which provided a forum for a number of Canadian authors.” (52)
  7. One of Wright’s teachers at Cornell was James Edwin Creighton, who was born in Pictou NS and was was the founding president of the American Philosophical Association. The 1917 Festschrift for Creighton, Philosophical Essays in Honor of James Edwin Creighton, has an introduction by Schurman and an essay by Wright: ‘Is the Dualism of Mind and Matter Final?’.
  8. For citations and discussion, see Henry Wilkes Wright and Henry Wilkes Wright 2.
  9. For citations and discussion, see The Comparative Method of Rupert Lodge and Rupert Lodge: Synthesis or Comparison?

Communications Programme at UBC

McLuhan participated in a ‘Communications Programme’ at UBC in 1958 and in 1959. In May 1958 he delivered the keynote address at a conference sponsored by the programme on ‘Radio in the Future of Canada’. In the summer of 1959, he led an extended ‘Communications Seminar’ there.

Aside from McLuhan, the programme included Wilbur Schramm from Stanford and the participation of national and international advertising agencies, Cockfield-Brown and Foote Cone & Belding. The NAEB supplied some materials and local and national broadcasters were involved both in funding the programme and participating in it.

This was a critical time in McLuhan’s career when the foundations for “Understanding Media” were being laid. It was in 1958 that he began work with the NAEB and in 1959 he was already at work on the research project with the NAEB that would be published the next year as a ‘report on new media’. With this report, the parameters were set for McLuhan’s work over the remaining 20 years of his life.

In his UBC President’s Report for 1959, Norman MacKenzie described this programme as follows:

Communications Programme

ALTHOUGH IT SEEMS INEVITABLE that the major means of communication between scholars will remain human contacts,  books and journals, it may well be that communication between scholars and the general public will take other forms. Believing that popularization is important and that the newer media of radio and television are worth studying in themselves, the University was happy to begin in 1957 an experimental communications programme, financed by a grant from the B.C. Association of Broadcasters.

The grant was intended to enable the University to investigate its own role in the field of broadcasting and, more particularly, to explore means by which those in the broadcasting industry could improve their services to the public. Initially the programme had three objectives: (a) To provide a regular series of night classes, conferences, short courses and seminars for broadcasting personnel in British Columbia; (b) to develop the facilities of the University for working in all kinds of mass communications; (c) to begin work in such areas as audience research, media studies, and the communication of the fine arts.

The whole programme was designed with one principle in mind, that the handling of the technical means of broadcasting such as television cameras, broadcasting schedules, film production, etc., should not become separated from the more theoretical kinds of investigation. 

Under the programme, we have organized a considerable number of lecture series, seminars, etc. The following is a representative rather than a complete list, but it does give some idea of the scope of our activities and the degree to which we have been able to work with various university departments on the one hand and the broadcasting industry on the other.


Introduction to Television — Mr. James Patterson (CBC)
Film Production — Mr. Robin Pearce (UBC Extension)
Speech for Broadcasting — Dr. P. Read Campbell (UBC Faculty of Education)
Introduction to Radio — Mr. John Ansell (CKWX)
Research Methods and Measurement — Dr. D. T. Kenney (UBC Psychology)
Commercial Writing for Broadcasting — 
Mr. Sam Fogel (Cockfield-Brown [Advertising Agency])
News for Broadcasting — Mr. Dorwin Baird

Summer School, 1959

Communications Seminar — Dr. Marshal McLuhan, Department of English, St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto
Speech for Broadcasting — Dr. P. Read Campbell
Film Production — Mr. Ronald Kelly

Conferences and Short Courses

Radio in the Future of Canada — Financed by the grant previously mentioned and the Koerner Foundation, the Conference was attended by representatives of the CBC, BBC, American broadcasting agencies and Canadian private stations.
Short Course on Communications — Conducted by Dr. W. S. Schramm, Director of the Institute of Communications Research, Stanford University; Mr. Albert Shea, Canadian Research Agency, Toronto; and Mr. Gene Duckwall, Foote Cone Belding, Los Angeles.

In cooperation with the Extension Department and with other departments in the University, we have provided a series of lectures on the CBC and have helped private stations use material prepared by the National Association of Educational Broadcasters.


The University continues to take a serious interest in broadcasting, in view of the profound influence it has on our lives and society. We hope that U.B.C. can become a major centre for the study of communications. Already we have learned much about the history and operation of broadcasting in Canada and have developed with members of the industry relationships which we expect to be profitable both to them and to us.

The medium is the message in 1958

McLuhan seems to have begun using his trademark slogan, “the medium is the message”, at a conference in Vancouver on  Radio in the Future of Canada’. This was early in May 1958:

Print, by permitting people to read at high speed and, above all, to read alone and silently, developed a totally new set of mental operations. What I mentioned earlier [although not in these same words] becomes very relevant here: the medium is the message. The medium of print is the message, more than any individual writer could say.1

He continued to develop the point at the end of the same month at an educational TV meeting in Washington DC:

We should long ago have discovered that the medium is the message. The effect of reading is far more decisive than anything that gets said from moment to moment on the page. The page is not a conveyor belt for pots of message; it is not a consumer item so much as a producer of unique habits of mind and highly specialized attitudes to person and country, and to the nature of thought itself (…) Let us grant for the moment that the medium is the message. It follows that if we study any medium carefully we shall discover its total dynamics and its unreleased powers.2

McLuhan stressed this notion over and over again in his many public and private interactions with the NAEB (National Association of Educational Broadcasters) which began that year, perhaps as a direct result of the Washington meeting.  For the meeting was co-sponsored by the NAEB and attended by Harry Skornia, the president of the NAEB who would become the moving force in the conception, funding and organization of McLuhan’s project with the NAEB on “Understanding New Media”.3 It may well be that McLuhan and Skornia first met at this May 1958 event. Furthermore, the funding for that project would come from the other sponsor of this meeting in Washington, the US Office of Education.

In that same year of 1958, Otis Pease, a professor of history at Stanford, published his Yale PhD thesis, The Responsibilities of American Advertising, Private Control and Public Influence, 1920-1940. The cover of the book edition shortened the title to American Advertising.  Although McLuhan had written extensively on this topic, especially in The Mechanical Bride (1951) and ‘The Age of Advertising’ (1953), his work was not mentioned by Pease. But McLuhan wrote an unpublished review of Pease’s book which is preserved in his papers in Ottawa. In it he continued to flesh out the notion that “the medium is the message”.

Professor Pease states a basic fact, namely that the techniques of advertising and politics have never been separate from each other. (…) It is one of the prime qualities of this book that it sees advertising as having scope and affect far beyond the mere conveying of information about available goods.

In his review McLuhan concentrated on these wider implications of advertising: its “scope and affect far beyond the mere conveying of information”. The question was, how does advertising function, not as an informational message, but as a medium.4

Now the affects and effects of a medium are variously located. In the first place, they express themselves in and on the external landscape. Just as cars require an extensive infrastructure of factories producing their components and assembly, roads, gasoline production and distribution, roadside amenities like restaurants and hotels, etc, etc, and just as it is this whole medium of implicated infrastructure that constitutes the real message of the automobile, so advertising exists in “scope and affect far beyond the mere conveying of information” by functioning within a broad nexus including politics, economics and culture.5 It is this nexus — or medium — which advertising at once enables and is enabled by.

Secondly, that external landscape could not be constituted and could not continue to function aside from a parallel manipulation of society’s “interior landscape”:

It has been the task of the ad men, as Professor Pease puts it, “to persuade the individual citizen to conceive of himself primarily as a consumer of goods.” This, he shows, was not an easy task in a semi-frontier world of self-reliance and contempt for sissie comforts. Moreover, there was the huge establishment of Puritan asceticism to be liquidatedIt is the feeling of Professor Pease that the attitudes of American Protestantism were deeply modified by the ad campaigns for consumer goods: “Advertising… is almost the only force at work against puritanism in consumption. (…) In the 1920s the business leaders of America were still steeped, it appeared, in the ethic of producers, who considered thrift and frugality to be virtues.

Advertising worked to convert the dominating impulses in the internal landscape as an essential factor in the transformation of the external one. As McLuhan further cited Pease: 

“National advertising in the period 1920-1940 became a continuous powerful technique for mass persuasion, employed to inculcate specific goals and values. It grew in response to the needs of an industrial society which had achieved efficient methods of mass production and distribution, but which had not yet developed standards of consumption sufficiently lavish to maintain that production.” 

McLuhan concluded:

Of course this meant that the manufacturer sought control of the politics and social ends of the whole society as the natural reward of his technological ascendancy.

Advertising was an essential means — or medium — toward that end.

  1.  Radio in the Future of Canada, UBC, May 5-9, 1958. For information on UBC’s communications programme at this time, see  Communications Programme at UBC.
  2. McLuhan’s talk at the Conference on Educational Television, sponsored by the US Office of Education and the NAEB, Washington, D.C., 26 May 1958, was titled ‘The Role of Mass Communication in Meeting Today’s Problems’. It was issued in mimeograph by the Office of Education and then printed as ‘Our New Electronic Culture’ in the NAEB Journal, 18:1, October 1958.
  3. McLuhan wanted the project to be called “Understanding Media” and, indeed, some copies of the research report were issued with this title. (For an image of this cover see McLuhan on ‘effect’ in 1946.) His argument was that the identification of a medium depended on identification of the class of media. To study any one medium it was necessary to study more than one. But Skornia at the NAEB argued that the Office of Education was specifically interested in new media and that the application to it for a research grant should be aimed at that interest. Without changing his mind on the methodological point, McLuhan agreed.
  4. As McLuhan came increasingly to stress, concentration on the message of advertising, or of any medium, served to hide awareness of its effects as a medium: “Professor Pease provides a well-documented account of the complicated story of public criticism of the ad industry. (…) It is here that we learn the pathetic story of the muckrakers and their exposure of dishonesty in ads and adulteration of products. (This is a ‘pathetic story’, not because such dishonesty and adulteration do not occur, but) because the concentration on this Simple Simon approach to the ad world has rendered literate people quite helpless in the face of the icon power of the ad world.  For that power is non-verbal and subliminal.”
  5. McLuhan as regards advertising and culture: “It has perhaps escaped the attention of Professor Pease that not only does no ad have its meaning alone, but that the advertising industry would have been a puny thing these past forty years were it not for the movies. The drama of consumption staged by the magic of the movie camera in the name of entertainment has been far more effective in boosting consumption [than advertising in the strict sense.”

McLuhan and Voegelin 1953

…the beginning will reveal itself only if the paradox is taken seriously… (Voegelin, In Search of Order)1

In the spring of 1953 McLuhan read Eric Voegelin’s New Science of Politics (1952) and, as was not uncommon for him, immediately wrote to Voegelin. He had done the same thing  with Harold Innis in 1951 after he had read Empire and Communications, and with Norbert Wiener in 1952 after reading Wiener’s The Human Use of Human Beings. In the summer of 1952, McLuhan and Voegelin exchanged four letters, two on each side, and then the correspondence ceased, a month or so after it had begun.2 Unlike the case with Wiener, however, McLuhan and Voegelin knew each other (they had met when McLuhan visited Cleanth Brooks at LSU in 1945) and had many essential convictions in common, especially the determination that religion was not only not opposed to modernity and to science, but remained, in fact, fundamental to them.

This precipitated the question for both Voegelin and McLuhan of just how this insight were to be communicated to a civilization (if this remained the applicable term) in which it had generally been lost. Built into all their incessant work (both wrote hundreds of thousands of pages over their careers, much of it unpublished during their lifetimes) was therefore always a double task: how to communicate about anything, in such a way as to re-establish communication at the same time?

Voegelin made this point plainly enough in The New Science:

A restoration of political science to its principles implies that the restorative work is necessary because the consciousness of principles is lost. The movement toward re-theoretization must be understood, indeed, as a recovery… (3-4)

For his part McLuhan was, if anything, even more possessed by this problem than was Voegelin. He had been writing about the eclipse of principles for more than a decade and now in the early 1950’s was intensely focused on the double problem of communication about the loss of communication — especially concerning the loss of consciousness that “the consciousness of principles is lost”. As he wrote in letters to Ezra Pound in 1951 (describing a situation that remains in potentially fatal effect today, 70 years later!):

Current illusion is that science has abolished all natural laws. Nature now pays 5 million %. Applied science now the master usurer. To hell with our top soil. We can grow potatoes on the moon tomorrow. How you goan3 to expose that while there is still human “life” on the planet? 2nd [World] War produced great discovery of war as new way of life. Financial pages simply chortling these days over prosperity rooted in 3rd War. Ordinary guy eats this up. Total war = total security he figures. THAT is the scale of imbecility now current. (McLuhan to Pound, Jan 1951, Letters 219, emphatic ‘THAT’ in original)

The word has been used to effect a universal hypnosis. How are words to be used to unweave the spell of print?4 Of radio commercials and ‘news’-casts?5 I’m working on THAT problem. The word is now the cheapest and the most universal drug. Consider the effect of modern machinery in imposing rhythm on human thought and feeling. Archaic man got inside the thing that terrified him — tiger, bear, wolf — and made it his totem god. To-day we get inside the machine. It is inside us. We in it. Fusion. Oblivion. Safety. Now the human machines are geared to smash one another. You can’t shout warnings or encouragement to these machines.6 (June 22, 1951, Letters 227, emphatic ‘THAT’ in original)

Voegelin ended his New Science lectures with the admonition that our “fate is in the balance”. McLuhan certainly agreed.  But, as he wrote to Voegelin, everything depended on finding a way out of a global environment in which communication had been lost — via communication:

all is clear now. Except what to do!7

there are strategies which need to be adopted in these affairs. And I’m floundering at present.

Voegelin took McLuhan to be making a personal complaint. As he wrote to Robert Heilman on the same day that he replied to McLuhan’s second letter to him:

In recent weeks I had two letters from McLuhan. Rather touching—because apparently he too has found out about the all-pervasive Gnosis in literature, and runs into the difficulty that the vast majority of his colleagues does not care in the least about his discovery. He seems to be rather isolated; and has not yet adjusted himself to the consequences of being more intelligent than other people. He wails about the twenty years of his life that he has wasted in the pursuit of wrong ideas. I must write him a comforting letter that he is not the only one to whom it happens; and that a life is not wasted if one sees the light in the end.8

But McLuhan was far too busy to wail about his personal fate. He and his wife had just had their sixth child (hardly a sign of needing “comforting”, at least in the sense contemplated by Voegelin). Beside his normal teaching load he was leading a weekly interdisciplinary seminar on culture and technology sponsored by the Ford Foundation and co-editing its Explorations journal. And, finally, he was publishing an extraordinary amount of work. In 1953, aside from many book reviews and shorter contributions to journals and magazines, McLuhan published major essays on ‘The Later Innis’ (Queen’s Quarterly), ‘James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial’ (Thought), ‘Culture Without Literacy’ (Explorations), ‘Wyndham Lewis: His Theory of Art and Communication’ (Shenandoah), ‘Maritain on Art’ (Renascence) and ‘The Age of Advertising’ (Commonweal). Through all this, he was casting about for a way to re-establish communication which he saw as nothing less than a matter of survival. It was in regard to this general world-historical issue, not personally, that he was “floundering” and could not see “what to do”.  It was in regard to it that he hoped Voegelin might have some helpful pointers. 

McLuhan’s turn toward “understanding media” was just beginning and it would be another six or seven years before he would perceive how this might work to restore communication.  But it was a turn he could not have made — as Voegelin noted 30 years later in the passage cited from In Search of Order at the top of this post — without utterly “floundering” away from his previous work.9

  1. Order and History 5, CW18, 31.
  2. With the permission of the Voegelin and McLuhan estates, the four letters between the two — only one of which is currently available in Voegelin’s Selected Correspondence 1950-1984 — will be published in VoegelinView.
  3. In his letters to Pound, and occasionally to others who also knew Pound, McLuhan affected Pound’s epistolary style.
  4. McLuhan was already thinking of print as a medium here, a medium evoking its own characteristic “spell”.  But he was thinking at the same time that print is a technology for the multiplication of words.  So his question was: how unweave the spell of words by words?
  5. Radio was another medium with a “spell” of it own.  But it, too, represented a technology to disseminate words and therefore raised the same question as did print: how unweave the spell of words by words?.
  6. “You can’t shout warnings or encouragement to these machines” because (a) they are machines, not human beings, (b) words have lost their meanings, (c) words of “warnings or encouragement” cannot be heard in the din of warnings and encouragements.
  7. This and the following snippet are from McLuhan’s two letters to Voegelin in June and July, 1953.
  8. Voegelin to Heilman, July 17, 1953 in Selected Correspondence 1950-1984, CW30, 2007, 172 and in Robert B. Heilman and Eric Voegelin: A Friendship in Letters, 1944-1984, 2004, 120.
  9. McLuhan was well aware of this critical point: “Managing The ‘Ascent’ from the Maelström today demands awareness that can be achieved only by going ‘Through the Vanishing Point’.” (Take Today, 13) ‘The Ascent from the Maelström’ was, of course, McLuhan’s ano-kato play on Poe’s ‘A Descent into the Maelström’.

Irish Bull

McLuhan was Scotch-Irish and the son of two great raconteurs.  He came to the topic of the Irish bull frequently in Take Today:

Our fathers sometimes encountered paradox in the jocular form of the “Irish Bull”: “When you see three cows standing in a pasture, the one that is sitting is the Irish Bull.” (106)

One of the chapter headings shortly before this reads:

If you Take the Bull by the Horns You’ll Get a Lot of Bull (93)

Later, giving what is surely the formal cause of these bull stories, he refers to the “ebullient Bucky Fuller”. (117)

In the same year that Take Today was published, 1972,  McLuhan presented more Irish bull in ‘End of the Work Ethic’:

We live in a world of paradoxes because at electric speed all facets of situations are presented to us simultaneously. It used to be the specialty of “the Irish bull” to do this. For example, a recent example mentions an exchange between two chiropodists. One says: “I have taken the corns off half the crown heads of Europe.” 

As detailed in Lodge on ‘Science and Literature’, McLuhan’s mentor in the early 1930s at the University of Manitoba, Rupert Lodge, told the story about the Irishman who asked whether a fight were private or if he might join in. This was repeated 40 years later by McLuhan in Take Today (212):

Is this a private fight, or may anyone join in?
– An Irishman

McLuhan had remembered Lodge in his Speaking of Winnipeg interview with Tom Easterbrook in 1970 and it may be that these Irish bull stories written shortly thereafter came to mind in this way.  But McLuhan had cited Harold Innis on Irish bull long before this in The Gutenberg Galaxy:

Improvements in communication, like the Irish bull of the bridge which separated the two countries, make for increased difficulties of understanding. (216, citing ‘Minerva’s Owl’ from The Bias of Communication, 28)

And much earlier still, in a letter to Allen and Caroline Tate in 1951, he had complained of Vanguard Press, the publisher of The Mechanical Bride, as having “suspected my Irish bulls to be Papal ones.”1

  1.  McLuhan to Allen and Caroline Tate, October 2, 1951. For the full passage, see On The Mechanical Bride.

Ransom to Tate and Guerry on McLuhan

The Selected Letters of John Crowe Ransom1 has an April 1946 letter from Ransom to Allen Tate concerning McLuhan:

Marshall McLuhan now at Assumption College, Windsor Canada2 ought to make a good editor for the Sewanee Review. Brooks, who was here for three days not long ago, knows him personally and thinks he has a lot and “is one of us” — though he’s Catholic. I believe he wants to get back into this country, but I am sure his status financially is a modest one, as he must be young. You saw his Hopkins piece with us, I suppose. (…)
PS Would Heilman of LSU be up to the mark?3

Tate had been the editor of the Sewanee Review for a couple years but was leaving the post. The “Hopkins piece” was ‘Analogical Mirrors’  which appeared in the Kenyon Review, edited by Ransom, in the summer of 1944. Heilman at LSU was Robert Heilman, a close friend of Eric Voegelin and a member of the English department there along with Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren. McLuhan met Heilman and Voegelin when he visited Brooks at LSU in 1945. 

A few months later, Ransom wrote a similar letter to Alexander Guerry, vice-chancellor of the University of the South (where The Sewanee Review was published):

I am flattered by your invitation to advise as to the right editor of the Sewanee Review in Allen Tate’s place; I only wish I could reply with some certainty. There’s a good man who has written for this Review [Kenyon] and yours [Sewanee] too, if I’m not mistaken, and is excellent — Marshall McLuhan, now visiting professor at Assumption College, Windsor, Canada. He is an American, either a Catholic or ex-Catholic, but a thinker of his own; studied at Cambridge, England, among other places; and Cleanth Brooks knows him personally and thinks very highly of him.  He is as good in the general prose field and the field of ideas as he is in the criticism of poetry. I would suggest that you write Brooks at Louisiana State for full information about him if you are interested. I have an idea McLuhan wants to get back into this country, and I predict he will have a distinguished career.4 

  1. The Selected Letters of John Crowe Ransom, ed T.D. Young and G. Core, 1985.
  2. Ransom’s letter has ‘Conn’ here, perhaps as a typo for ‘Can’ or for ‘Ca-On'(tario).
  3. Letter from April 22, 1946, Selected Letters of John Crowe Ransom, 324-325.
  4. Letter from June 28, 1946, Selected Letters of John Crowe Ransom, 328.

Planet as art-form before the satellite

McLuhan frequently attributed to satellites the translation of the physical environment of the earth into an art-form:

The McLuhan DEW-LINE, 1:5, November 1968
From the first moment of the satellite [in 1957], 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.

But he himself had seen this transformation before the satellite:

Culture Without Literacy, 19531
But the fact that with 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 and of man’s factive intelligence means that there is no more nature. At least there is no more external nature. Everything from politics to bottle-feeding (…) is subject to the manipulation of conscious artistic control.

Notes on the Media as Art Forms, 19542
technology has abolished ‘nature’ in the old sense and brought the globe within the scope of art…

Nihilism Exposed, 19553
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.”

  1. In Explorations 1.
  2. In Explorations 2.
  3. In Renascence, 8, Winter 1955.

Past the vanishing point

Muriel Bradbrook was a friend of McLuhan during his first stint in Cambridge (1934-1936) and was an adviser on his PhD thesis when he returned for a year in 1939-1940. A review of her School of Night (1936) in the NYT (June 6, 1937) may have caught McLuhan’s attention for a series of reasons. Beside his friendship with Bradbrook and his deep interest in her book, the review in the paper of record repeatedly refers to her as ‘Mr Bradbrook’ and uses ‘he’ and ‘his’ throughout. This would have prompted considerable merriment among her friends.

McLuhan almost certainly had already read her book when it was first issued in the spring of 1936. He was still in Cambridge then and may have attended an event, or events, celebrating its appearance. Indeed, he seems to have taken Nashe as the subject for his PhD thesis in good measure from it.1 For Bradbrook writes in her introduction: 

there has been a growing interest in the literary activities of Ralegh, and in particular in the society founded by him, and known now by Shakespeare’s nickname “The School of Night”. There appears to have been a kind of literary “war” between this school and the faction of Essex, not unlike the dramatists’ “war” of 1598-9, or the earlier one between Harvey and Nashe.2 

McLuhan’s PhD thesis, The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of his Time was completed 7 years later with Bradbrook as his unofficial adviser. Nominally focused on Nashe, it would actually be an extended examination of the history of just such “wars”, characterized as occurring between the arts of the trivium, over the two millennia from 400 BC to 1600. 

McLuhan would consider wars of this sort for the rest of his life.3 One of the puzzles about them was the nature of the borders or gaps between the contesting parties.  For if such a “quarrel” were fundamental, as deep as it gets, what kind of ground could such gaps have if they were neither a contesting party themselves (these were what they separated) nor based upon anything deeper (since there was nothing deeper)? 

As McLuhan would later insist in 1972:

Managing The Ascent from the Maelstrom4 today demands awareness that can be achieved only by going Through the Vanishing Point. (Take Today, 13)

Going Through the Vanishing Point was the condition of considering the contest of fundamentals in its plurality.5

The first sentence of the School of Night review in the NYT, 35 years before Take Today, was:

There are some historical characters who dwindle in perspective as time goes by until they have passed the vanishing point.


  1. The last chapter of Bradbrook’s book is titled ‘Shakespeare, the School (of Night), and Nashe‘. But Nashe was generally in the air at this time in Cambridge. McLuhan read Lewis’ Time and Western Man during his first period in Cambridge and ‘Nash’ has more than passing mention in it.
  2. The School of Night, 1936, 7.
  3. See “Ancient quarrel” and its synonyms (1940’s) and “Ancient quarrel” and its synonyms (1950’s). It will take some point to complete the documentation for these decades and then to add it for the ’60s and ’70s as well. Suffice it to note here only that appreciation and study of the plurality of foundations is a red thread running through McLuhan’s work from start to finish.
  4. The Ascent from the Maelstrom is, of course, McLuhan’s ano kato play on Poe’s The Descent into the Maelstrom.
  5. The contest of fundamentals in its plurality => the fundamental contest of fundamentals in its fundamental plurality.

“Ancient quarrel” in Lewis

Lewis in The Lion and the Fox (1927):

tragedy is not the purest art. The contests of pure art would be like the battles of the norse heroes in heaven. They would ride back after the battle to Valhalla or some more congenial Elysium, the wounds and deaths abolished by magic at the termination of each day. Only heroes would participate; and no reality would mar their vigorous joys.1

Lewis was favorably disposed to Catholicism, but never converted. The reason may have been given in this passage with “no reality would mar their vigorous joys”.

Lewis’ “battles (…) in heaven”, like McLuhan’s “ancient quarrel”, was a reflex of Plato’s gigantomachia in the Sophist. There, too, an unending battle of superhuman forces is always taking place.  But the third ancient power in Plato’s telling is the philosophical child “begging for both” who would join the other two endlessly warring parties in a basic harmony.  Similarly with McLuhan:

Paul Claudel, of course, is not bound by these dichotomies of space and time, the vertical and horizontal. (…) Claudel’s thought and poetry obviously move freely in both (…) He values equally [ie, grammatically] the resources of dialectic and continuous discourse [ie, rhetoric]. He can therefore be both (…) for [him] Time and Space are not sectarian problems.2

Lewis apparently thought that the unending force and beauty of the fundamental powers could be preserved only through their isolation and complete separation from “reality”. In fundamental contrast, the “both” of Plato, and of Claudel in McLuhan’s telling, was not restricted to one power of the three in the “ancient quarrel”, but instead also characterized the essential outpouring of that quarrel and of all its protagonists into crass “reality”. It was exactly this fundamental urge to manifestation linking possibility with actuality that Aristotle expressed in his dynamics and that was carried over into Christianity as “incarnation”.

  1.  The Lion and the Fox , 1951 ed, 198.
  2. ‘Eliot and The Manichean Myth As Poetry’, 1954. For the full passage see “Ancient quarrel” and its synonyms (1950’s).

“Ancient quarrel” and its synonyms (1950’s)

From Eliot to Seneca (Review of The Senecan Amble: A Study in Prose from Bacon to Collier) (1953)

Professor Williamson has written a technical discussion of the battle of the prose styles from Bacon to Collier.

the natural and age-old antipathy of Senecan and Ciceronian is rooted in diversity of aim and method in communication.

Quarrels between Senecans and Ciceronians are inevitably the result of the triumph of specialized temperament over general intelligence.1 

Eliot and The Manichean Myth As Poetry (1954)

The crime of Professor Cleanth Penn Ransom is to attempt to invent a machine for reducing the time-world of the arts to the space-world of the sciences.  Time and space thus appear as two gods, one light, the other dark. Time is heavenly, space is infernal.  Since this is not and never has been a Catholic quarrel, the shifting terms in which the quarrel has been conducted through the centuries seem both familiar and unreal to Catholic ears.  Socrates abandoned the outer world of Ionian science and sophistic rhetoric for the inner world of the dialectical quest.  The division between inner and outer, between astrology and alchemy, between philosophy and magic is a familiar one.(…) Naturally the roots of these divisions are Light and Dark, Spirit and Matter.

If we grant that human existence is the state of damnation, two possibilities follow.  Either we can learn to retrace the stages of our fall into matter [in order to extricate our individual personality from it], and so escape, or we can devise some means of extinction of [individual] personality.  The pagan art and culture of the world, past and present, is divided in the pursuit of these alternatives. On one hand art is followed as a continuous labyrinth in which by blind, dogged persistence we may struggle upward by means of will power and ethical struggle. On the other hand there is the intellectual course presented by Mr. Eliot, in which we move from one intensity to another, towards a final flash of awareness and extinction [of mere individuality]. In the one art — that linked with Plato’s cave man — time, continuity, dialectic, are of the essence. In the other, time is lost in simultaneities and juxtapositions. (…)  The one proceeds by linked statement in time, the other by discontinuous arrangement in space.  In the broader cultural terms, the one view tends to locate human value in the [individual] will, the other in the [common] intellect. (…)  Generally speaking, both of these positions are Manichean so far as they postulate not just a Fallen Man, but a Fallen World.

Basic, however, for the understanding of vertical and horizontal, time and space, as these terms structure and agitate philosophy, aesthetics, anthropology and sociology, is the peculiar Manichean theory of communication. (…)  Vertical symbolism is of the dualistic variety, setting the sign or the work of art as a link between two worlds, between Heaven and Hell. It is concerned with the world as Time process, as becoming, and with the means of escape from Time into eternity by means of art and beauty. Vertical symbolism asserts the individual will against the hoi polloi. (…) Horizontal symbolism, on the other hand, sets the work of art and the symbol a collective task of communication (…) the horizontal, or space school, appeals to intuition, emotion and collective participation in states of mind as a basis for communication and of transformation of the self. The vertical school seeks to elevate the [existing] self above mere existence. The  horizontal symbolists seek to transform the self…

A Catholic poet like Paul Claudel, of course, is not bound by these dichotomies of space and time, the vertical and horizontal. (…) Claudel’s thought and poetry obviously move freely in both time and space. As a symbolist he avails himself to the utmost degree of the spatial techniques of inner and outer landscape for fixing particular states of mind. This procedure makes available to him all the magical resources invoked by the Romantics for using particular emotions as immediate windows onto Being, as techniques of connatural union with reality. But he values equally the resources of dialectic and continuous discourse [ie, rhetoric]. He can therefore be both Senecan or symbolist — and temporal. That would seem to be an inevitable program for any Catholic for whom Time and Space are not sectarian problems. 

(To be continued through all of McLuhan’s work.)

“Ancient quarrel” and its synonyms (1940’s)

The central matter in McLuhan’s work from start to finish was “an ancient quarrel” he identified as enabling “an overall view, which [enables]1 plenary critical judgment.”2

The Classical Trivium (PhD thesis on Nashe) (1943)

the history of the trivium is largely a history of the rivalry among [its three disciplines] for ascendancy. The war between these literary camps is basically the opposition between dialectics and rhetoric3 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.  For example, the ethical, political, and stylistic opposition between Machiavelli and Castiglione, between Harvey and Nashe, are at bottom and on the surface, owing to a reconstitution of ancient rivalries between dialectics and rhetoric. (…) The essential opposition between the arts of the trivium being such, then, as frequently to pit the one against the other, with results of the greatest importance…(41-42)

the points at issue in these prolonged quarrels are ineradicable. The controversies stirred up in America by President Hutchins and Professor Adler, and the educational theories which have been put into practice at St. John’s, Annapolis, have given us a contemporary taste of these ancient disputes. (Ibid, 62)

The quarrel between the ancients and the moderns is a revival, or continuation, of the quarrel which Cicero waged with the philosophers, and which the medieval dialecticians waged against the grammarians. So deeply ingrained is the Ciceronian ideal in the pattern of our culture that even Wordsworth can be seen in relation to it. His antipathy to the Ciceronian, Dr. Johnson, and his emphasis upon the feelings, rather than the words, of poetry led him to range himself on the side of the moderns and scientists. A consideration of the Ciceronian ideal and tradition, therefore, has claims to being one of basic importance in the history of Western culture, and its comparative neglect must be ascribed to the impercipience of the ubiquitous…  (Ibid, 68)

Nashe was thus a fulIy enlightened protagonist in an ancient quarrel (…) It was not a quarrel between Catholic and Protestant, but a dispute about methods of exegesis in theology and preaching, concerning which some Catholics and Protestants held patristic views and some held to scholastic positions. (Ibid, 226)

(To be continued through all of McLuhan’s work.)

  1. McLuhan: “which is”.
  2. ‘Poetic and Rhetorical Exegesis: The Case for Leavis against Richards and Empson’, Sewanee Review, 52(2), 1944.
  3. The two extremes of the three-part or trivial “quarrel” do not recognize the possibility of their peace, which is the third party to it. Therefore the frequent manifestation of the quarrel as involving only two powers: “dialectics and rhetoric”, “ancients and the moderns”, etc. Further, the two extreme powers, although fundamentally opposed to each other, share a common structure of “opposition” to the other extreme. Hence McLuhan sometimes speaks of another sort of two-party “dispute” between the two of them ( “dialectics and rhetoric”), exemplifying that common monolithic structure, and the third “grammatical” power with its polylithic structure embracing the extremes despite their difference: “specialized temperament” vs “general intelligence”.

Review of Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism

Have with You to Madison Avenue or The Flush-Profile of Literature by Marshall McLuhan [Review of Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism]1

It is natural for the literary man to underestimate the relevance of Professor Frye’s archetypal approach to literature. The man of letters expects the literary form to offer a good deal of private consumer satisfaction, and there is nothing private or consumer-oriented in Professor Frye’s approach. The Frye’s approach to criticism as a science turns from the training of taste and discrimination by literary means to the collective producer-orientation of the new mass media of the electronic age. The archetypal approach is the groove of collective conformity and of group-dynamics, which may explain why a uniquely opaque and almost unreadable book should have become a book-of-the-month choice.

In the same way, the off-Madison Avenue of the run-of-the-mill graduate student finds it quite unimportant that he does not understand Professor Frye. He knows that Frye is “with it” and that group participation or togetherness in the aura of such leadership is far more satisfying than private interpretation.

Professor Frye has interpreted the message of the new media aright. Print had in the sixteenth century commanded private interpretation. The fixed stance of the private silent reader, identical with perspective in painting, suggested subliminally the need for an individual viewpoint in all matters. Hamlet confronted by his father’s ghost asserts that “thy commandment all alone shall live within the book and volume of my brain.” Then he snatches his “tables”: Meet it is I set it down, that one may smile and smile and be a villain; At least I’m sure it may be so in Denmark.”

It had occurred to Montaigne that the snap-shotting of the impressions of the mind was the real message of the printed and written form. Shakespeare certainly made that point in this scene, even joking over the Montaigne technique of doubt, “At least I’m sure it may be so in Denmark.” For four centuries we have been conditioned by the printed word as snap-shot of the postures of the individual mind. Segmental analysis of all motion, mental and industrial, has long been for us the norm of education and of civilized life.

But in recent decades Western culture has spawned totally new techniques of snap-shotting the postures of the group-mind. Statistical charts of group postures reached a kind of lyric pause or “moment out of time” with the discovery of the “flush-profile” which put the shaky intuitions of individual students of public attitudes on a scientific basis. The flush-profile which hoicks the poet out of his ivory tower and puts him in the partners’ room of B.B.D. and O., as it were, is derived from the data of the city water engineer. At program breaks the additional water used in toilet-flushing was seen to provide a reliable archetype of the group posture of mind for that program.

Now it is obvious that such an archetype or profile of collective awareness offers small consumer satisfaction in itself. And Professor Frye would disclaim the notion that even the most diaphanous archetype could afford consumer satisfaction to a reader. These profiles or nuclear models of collective postures are not literary bon-bons for passive savoring but rather scientific data suited to the austere producer-oriented mind, data necessary to the public relations engineer and the shaper and ruler of societies. Like Sputnik they have a hook in outer space whence they relay signals to us, blip calling unto blip in the universe of the pictorialized word.

It is natural, therefore, that Professor Frye should have betaken himself to the anthropologist and to the folk-lorist for his profiles of literature. These students of pre-literate man provide the scientific archetypes or snapshots of the postures of collective man which now recommend themselves to many keen spirits in the post-literate age of conformity and of global stereotypes. For the characteristic mode of learning and knowing since the telegraph offers a pattern of instantaneous inter-cultural x-ray, very different from the enclosed spaces of literature. Man is no longer monad but nomad.

A literary man describing a people past or present adopts a slant, a point of view. He selects. He structures his image with syntactical bonds of perspective in the style of Hume, Gibbon, or Macaulay. But a century ago, with the photograph, there came new presentation. The photo, as William Ivins explains in Prints and Visual Communication, permits total statement without syntax. And the student of pre-literate man found this kind of non-personal recording of collective social behaviour very needful. Not the personal point of view, nor the partiality of perspective and self-expression, but the catalyst role of the non-personal chemical medium became the natural bias of the social sciences and symbolist artists alike.

That is why the archetypal profiles of literature offered as a new science of criticism may strike literary people as too much like the world of Mighty Mouse, of Space Cadet, and of the Madison Avenue portraitist of public postures. They are not quick to see that Professor Frye has devised a kind of nomadic bookcase for the cosmic man of today who is inevitably a mental D.P. A bedouin’s rug of timeless patterns which include all possible arrangements of human experience is indispensable equipment today.

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

Professor Frye is not, perhaps, sufficiently cognizant of one major resource adjacent to his enterprise. The world of ancient and medieval rhetoric was vibrant with archetypes referred to as “the figures of rhetoric.” These figures are, it is true, postures only of the individual mind which had become accessible to observation and control after phonetic writing. The written word arrested the mental and verbal flux of the fast-talking Mediterraneans and gave them the means of classifying hundreds of mental postures such as chiasmus, catachresis, and scatalogie. These figures or postures of the mind were like so many whales left immobilized amidst the shallows and sands of the written word. And in due time their odor began to be abroad in the land. Writing, however, as a means of capturing, or perhaps of fashioning, the postures of the individual mind has proved to be fatally committed to the fostering of individual expression and eloquence. It is flawed by preference for the humanistic and might well prove to be but a feeble prop for a scientific enterprise such as that of Professor Frye. As it is, even without the aid of such a pipe-line of natural gas from the farther shores of rhetoric, Frye has secured a vehicle which by-passes all rhetorical expression of this personal type, and makes possible the deploying of the total resources of pre-literate culture on to the Madison Avenue testing ground. This in turn will greatly hasten the mopping up of remnants of private awareness and expression such as now give a confused and unsettled character to the literary and educational scene. So that what has here begun as a momentary flush-profile of literary postures will develop into a genuine chain reaction, and the remnants of a decadent form of personal expression can be dispatched down the drain.

  1. This review has been published online in a post called Frye‑McLuhan Rivalry? in The Educated Imagination – A Website Dedicated to Northrop Frye. It is given here simply as a backup.

Lewis citing Hutton’s Aretino on calumny

Predicting the present with pinpoint accuracy, Lewis in The Lion and the Fox (1927) cites from Edward Hutton’s Pietro Aretino: The Scourge of Princes (1922):

Something evil and corrupt had entered into the civilisation of all Europe at this time, and not least of Italy. The Middle Age which had held out to humanity so great a promise, had in some inexplicable way and for some inexplicable reason failed, failed in endurance and in life. The fifteenth century had been full of disaster almost everywhere save only in Venice, and even Venice could not escape the spiritual disaster which that century made apparent. For with the sixteenth century we are face to face with the spiritual break-up of Europe and European society. Something evil, depraved, venal and mean appears. The pen is bought and sold, futile praise and blame are purchased by popes, kings and prelates, and we see a monster appear, a monster of genius blackmailing and blackmailing successfully every authority, every power. (…) An epoch had appeared which was an anarchy, in which everything was questioned, everything doubtful; in which anything might happen and anything might be thought to be true; an epoch without principles and without authority; in which a charlatan of genius might do anything, might destroy the unity of Europe or the spiritual and philosophical basis upon which Europe stood, by one multiple weapon — calumny. (74/75)

Statement by Pound signed by McLuhan

In 1953 a statement appeared in the Montreal journal CIV/n with the notation from the signatories to it: “As our means of disseminating this statement are limited, we ask those who receive it to give it what publicity they can, especially by reprinting in full, and to express their agreement or dissent in as lively a manner as possible.”1 

ALARMED by the neglect of Greek and Latin classics, milleniar source of light and guide in judgment of ideas and forms in the Occident; by lack of curiosity concerning what is current in contemporary foreign languages both in the west and in the orient; by growing carelessness in the use of language both private and public, and insensitiveness to the values of the literary arts which serve to maintain language in a healthy condition for civilized use; by the torpor of a pseudo-scholarship which does not mean any activity of the mind but mere retrospect.

WE URGE, TOWARD A REORIENTATION, that instead of hunting out the provenience of every bit of rubble used in the construction of literary works, the student of literature ask, and answer on the basis of evidence supplied by the works themselves, these three questions:

  1. To what degree of awareness has the given author attained?
  2. What was his aim and purpose in writing at all?
  3. What part of his discoveries is of use now, or is likely to be of use tomorrow, in maintaining the life of the mind here or elsewhere?


Clark Emery (University of Miami)
Ashley Brown (Washington and Lee University)
Hugh Kenner (University of California)
Rudd Fleming (University of Maryland)
L.R. Lind (University of Kansas)
Amiya Chakravarty (University of Kansas)
H.M. McLuhan (University of Toronto)
W.F. Stead (Trinity College)
Margaret Bates (Catholic University of America)
Robert Stallman (University of Connecticut)


  1. CIV/n published 7 issues between 1953 and 1955. Pound’s statement appeared in #4 from October 1953.  The same statement later appeared in Poetry, 84:2, p 119, May 1954. Both the CIV/n and Poetry statements were accompanied by this note: “Any communications regarding this manifesto should go to W. James, P. 0. Box 6964, Washington, D.C.” But the Poetry reprinting did not include the request for reprinting. The address given for inquiries was also the address of Pound’s ‘Square Dollar Series’.

Lewis on the fate of the West

The Lion and the Fox (1927!):

To-day, as though the never-properly-silenced paradoxes of the greek sophists had been released once more, or all the perplexing questions of the mind (allied with new forces of nature and their troubling physical interpretations) had been marshalled for its overthrow, the imposing newtonian structure is no longer secure. Quite another type of order has set about charting the universe and its world-ways. On the one hand to-day we have Newton’s superseded structure (still there and still useful, though nothing more, or a “beautiful myth” if you like) — a material universe ruled by immutable grandly conceived roman laws of absolute space and time. In opposition to it rises a universe far more vivid, co-ordinated from the infinite facets of individual experience. In the first, the newtonian system of classical mechanics, each man is ruled by the changeless laws of the revolving suns. A musical ride of the spheres (with music by Kepler) is in progress. In the second, the system of the relativity theory, to a  complex geodesic frame of flowering events each man contributes his widow’s mite of necessary reality. So the fine order of our civilized ideas is in disarray. The façade put up by our very  practical, very roman grandfathers is cracked from top to bottom. With the triumph of this subtler science the day of anglo-saxon, and generally of west european, ascendancy is finished. (48-49)

Reversal 1

In The Lion and the Fox (1927) Lewis observed:

the modern Irishman, led by Shaw, repudiates both the sentimental and the ineffectual, unpractical imputations [cast upon the Irish]. The irish-american business man is pointed to, his great energy and success, to controvert this picture. The tables are turned, the sentimentalism of the Saxon or German is contrasted with the good sense and unemotional wit of the Irish. The difference is maintained in its full integrity, but its qualities reversed.1  

McLuhan cited The Lion and the Fox frequently in his 1944  ‘Lemuel in Lilliput’ essay on Lewis.  Presumably he read it along with other Lewis books after first meeting Lewis in Windsor in 1943. But he may, of course, have read it before this in connection with his work on Shakespeare. However this may have been, in another 1944 essay, ‘Edgar Poe’s Tradition’, McLuhan wrote (at the very acme of his rhetorical game):

The inverted Byronic dandyism of Whitman is evident enough as soon as one applies the cipher of reversal. Put uncritical embrace of all social facts in place of fastidious scorn and withdrawal. Put pose of noble and omnivorous yokel for pose of satiated aestheticism of the worldling. Put tones of “barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world” for the elegant scorn of a Byronic hero excoriating mankind from a midnight crag. Put boisterous adolescent athleticism for the world-weary flaneur, and the pattern is complete. That is why Whitman was so eagerly accepted by the aesthetes who had only to make one simple adjustment, that of reversal, in order to fraternize with him.

Now McLuhan certainly didn’t first discover “the cipher of reversal” in Lewis, since this was more or less exactly what his mother exercised in her one-woman plays and impersonations. He grew up with this. But Lewis may well have reinforced his consciousness of a problematic which was implicated not only in his mother’s theatrics but in Rupert Lodge’s “comparative method” and, as doubtless carried over from Lodge, in McLuhan’s M.A. (Manitoba) and Ph.D. (Cambridge) theses.  Namely, if (as he wrote in his Manitoba thesis on Meredith) “there are (…) in all times and places, definite types of temperament displaying consistency of conformation”, types he characterized by the arts of the trivium in his Cambridge thesis on Nashe, what is the mechanism through which people ‘put on’ one of these types?  And what is the mechanism through which one type is ‘put off’ and another ‘put on’ in the ‘same’ individual or group over time?

If the agent of this “cipher of reversal” might be called the ‘hero’2, and the “definite types of temperament displaying consistency of conformation” her ‘roles’, then the subtitle of The Lion and the Fox — ‘the role of the hero in the plays of Shakespeare’ — might be taken to define an important problem in the arts, social sciences and, indeed, in “the presentation of self in everyday life”.3 But with this, the meaning of ‘role’ is doubled (or more).  For now it seems to be a role, namely that of the hero, that manages roles. So who is it that puts on “the role of the hero”?4 


  1. The Lion and the Fox, 1951 edition, 325. Earlier in the book Lewis cites Machiavelli’s Prince as follows: “it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And (…) to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite” (82). Lewis’ citation is from chapter XVIII of The Prince.
  2. Lewis and McLuhan use Shakespeare’s ‘hero’ and ‘king’ interchangeably. On the first page of The Lion and the Fox Lewis says that his study will treat “the role of the hero or king in Shakespeare’s plays” and later he writes of “the king-hero with which Shakespeare’s dramatic work had so much to do” (100).
  3. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life is, of course, the title of one of the major works of Erving Goffman, a central figure in the Winnipeg school of communications. Like McLuhan, Goffman was born in Alberta, grew up in Manitoba and attended the University of Manitoba. Like Elsie McLuhan, Goffman’s mother was active in the theatre. Both McLuhan and Goffman took with them from Winnipeg to their careers in the east the notion that everything humans do is staged. This gave both of them new ways to approach perennial questions in their respective fields of literature/media and sociology.
  4. Cf, The Lion and the Fox: “what was the nature of Shakespeare’s identification — if such existed — with that of his characters? (…) Such a complicated person as he, would be in hourly danger of disappearing into nothingness and becoming a ghost, haunting, without dimension, only the glimpses of the moon. (…) He is, if anything, too much everything to be any particular man; and sees round and behind things so much that he presents them too completely, too universally.” (18, 20) Compare McLuhan: “In his study The Lion and the Fox Lewis considers the process of desacralizing the King.  The process of desacralizing the King, of reducing the charismatic and corporate image of the monarch to secular, individual status — this is a familiar theme in Shakespeare.  The process by which the corporate lion is destroyed by the private and individual fox is one of fragmentation. (…) The private wits or senses of man were unleashed from their corporate restraints. The Fox was pitted against the Lion. The individual found new means of rivalry with collectively organized energies.”(‘The Lewis Vortex: Art and Politics as Masks of Power’, in Letteratura/Pittura, ed G. Cianci, 1982, prepared around 1970 for a L’Herne volume but never published there. Most of ‘The Lewis Vortex’ was published as ‘Masks and Roles and the Corporate Image’, University of Toronto Varsity Graduate, 11:2, 61-64, May 1964.)

On The Mechanical Bride

McLuhan to Elsie McLuhan, undated from 1951 or 1952:

[The Mechanical Bride] is really a new form of science fiction, with ads and comics cast as characters. Since my object is to show the community in action rather than prove anything, it can indeed be regarded as a new kind of novel. (Letters, 217)

McLuhan to Ezra Pound, January 1951

Current illusion is that science has abolished all natural laws. Nature now pays 5 million %. Applied science now the master usurer. To hell with our top soil. We can grow potatoes on the moon tomorrow. How you goan to expose that while there is still human “life” on the planet?
2nd War produced great discovery of war as new way of life. Financial pages simply chortling these days over prosperity rooted in 3rd War. Ordinary guy eats this up. Total war = total security he figures. THAT is the scale of imbecility now current. (…) I have tried, in forthcoming (March ) Mechanical Bride to devise a technique for elucidating this scene. It can’t be satirized. (Letters, 219)

McLuhan to Allen and Caroline Tate, October 2, 1951

The Folklore book is a youthful indiscretion held over till my middle age.  I hope it pays off better than most indiscretions. But Vanguard has made it nauseous to me.  The book would have appeared 6 years ago in more lively and timely guise had it not been for their bungling and boggling.  The suspected my Irish bulls to be Papal ones.1

McLuhan to Elsie McLuhan, January 22, 1952

Apropos of getting Gilson to write a plug for The Bride. He said to Fr Shook, you write it, I’ll sign it. So I wrote [for Shook for Gilson]: “An important and entertaining analysis of the effects of technology on daily life.” (Letters, 230)

McLuhan to Walter Ong, January 23, 1953:

Your review2 of the Bride literally the only review that made any sense. You were generous, but you saw what was up. The absence of serious study of these matters is total, ie, universal emotional and intellectual illiteracy. And so unnecessary. (Letters, 234)

McLuhan to Wyndham Lewis, December 9, 1953:

As for my book. It owes much to you of course. But it was so long in the publishing (6 years) that I had lost interest in its approach before it appeared. Now I see that I was trying to prop up the standards of book culture when we have passed out of the Gutenberg era.3 (Letters, 241)

McLuhan to Wyndham Lewis, February 7, 1954

our group [in the culture and technology seminar] is split over time and space. We have both the vertical and horizontal doctrinaires to contend with. Only a year ago did I find out the religious basis of these, to me, almost meaningless quarrels. The Mechanical Bride was written in all innocence of such knowledge. The world of the arts and of science has taken on a much more intelligible character for me since this self-initiation. For the present, at any rate, it has simplified but not ennobled the scene. (Letters 242)

Unpublished Review of Pease’s American Advertising, 19584

it is doubtful whether it will ever be possible to write a book about the ads of radio and television. (…) The literate world today is quite unable to cope with the electronic forms of information pattern. Professor Pease has written a book about a departed era in terms acceptable to the victims of culture-lag.5

Stearn Interview, 1967

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.6

  1. For McLuhan and Irish bull see The Irish Bull.
  2.  In Social Order, II:2, February 1952, 79-85. Reprinted with revisions in McLuhan: Hot and Cool, 1967, 82-92.
  3. The critique made here by McLuhan of himself was fleshed out by him a few years later in an unpublished review of Northrop Frye’s 1957 Anatomy of Criticism: “The world of ancient and medieval rhetoric was vibrant with archetypes referred to as “the figures of rhetoric.” These figures are, it is true, postures only of the individual mind which had become accessible to observation and control after phonetic writing. The written word arrested the mental and verbal flux of the fast-talking Mediterraneans and gave them the means of classifying hundreds of mental postures such as chiasmus, catachresis, and scatalogie. These figures or postures of the mind were like so many whales left immobilized amidst the shallows and sands of the written word. And in due time their odor began to be abroad in the land. Writing, however, as a means of capturing, or perhaps of fashioning, the postures of the individual mind has proved to be fatally committed to the fostering of individual expression and eloquence. It is flawed by preference for the humanistic and might well prove to be but a feeble prop for a scientific enterprise such as that of Professor Frye. As it is, even without the aid of such a pipe-line of natural gas from the farther shores of rhetoric, Frye has secured a vehicle which by-passes all rhetorical expression of this personal type, and makes possible the deploying of the total resources of pre-literate culture (…) to (those of) Madison Avenue (…). This in turn will greatly hasten the mopping up of remnants of private awareness and expression such as now give a confused and unsettled character to the literary and educational scene. So that what has here begun as a momentary flush-profile of literary postures will develop into a genuine chain reaction, and the remnants of a decadent form of personal expression can be dispatched down the drain.”
  4. Otis A Pease, The Responsibilities of American Advertising, Private Control and Public Influence, 1920-1940 (1958). McLuhan’s review is in his papers in Ottawa.
  5. McLuhan’s review does not mention The Mechanical Bride, but it is clear that his remarks apply to it and highly probable that he had it at least as much in mind as Pease’s book.
  6.  Gerald Stearn, ed., McLuhan Hot and Cool , 1967, 285.

Media definition

McLuhan to Harry Skornia, Sept 3, 19601

Media are the parameters of all enterprises, whether private or collective. They impose, they are the assumptions. Mostly, therefore, they are subliminal just because they are constitutive and pervasive.  But to a number-sodden age, it may be more effective to say “Media are the parameters” rather than that “the medium is the message”.2 

Media are not things like books or devices. Neither are they  physical senses or combinations of senses.  Neither are they a form of language use like orality or literacy. Neither are they a mode of technology like the mechanical or the electrical.  However much they may be like these (just as some physical materials are like chemical elements) they are, instead, “assumptions” or “basic structures” that give shape to “the sending and receiving of information”, the “pattern[s] in which the components [of communications] co-exist”.3

Earlier exchanges within the NAEB project throw further light on McLuhan’s notion of just what media are:

McLuhan to Harry Skornia, January 1, 1959

I am not an apriorist in these matters — not committed to any doctrinaire approach beyond the assumption that man’s reasoning equipment is what we are seeking to elicit and strengthen in education.4 But I don’t think of reason as divorced from our total sensibilities.5

McLuhan to Harry Skornia March 30, 1959

Apropos of recent telephone comment about my “philosophical approach”.  Remember that when one approaches the intelligible aspects of media patterns one is in danger of philosophy.  But my concern is with light through the media onto our situation, not light on the media from our theories. But unified field of awareness of inter-action of media does need some verbalized articulation. Has not the effect of media over the centuries been kept at the sub-verbal level precisely by such philosophical assumptions [as underlie the Gutenberg galaxy]…?

McLuhan speaking to the NAEB ‘research committee’ in September 1959

it is (…) confusing at first for some to learn that the mosaic of a [visual] page of telegraph press is ‘auditory’ in basic structure. That, however, is only to say that any pattern in which the components co-exist without direct lineal hook-up or connection, creating a field of simultaneous relations, is auditory, even tho some of its aspects can be seen.

  1. All citations in this post are taken from the McLuhan folders in the Unlocking the Airwaves project.
  2. McLuhan added: “I do not revoke the latter formula.”
  3. The phrase “the sending and receiving of information” is from McLuhan’s letter to Harry Skornia, January 1, 1959; “basic structure” and “pattern in which the components co-exist” are from McLuhan speaking to the NAEB ‘research committee’ in September 1959. All these passages are cited in full above.
  4. When the human “reasoning equipment is what we are seeking to elicit and strengthen”, this can be accomplished in no other way, of course, than by deploying our “reasoning equipment”. A difficult circularity is thereby introduced into the task, since it appears that the object at stake — namely, “reasoning equipment” that has been elicited and strengthened — must already be active in the subject in any appropriate approach to that object. Beyond this knotted problem of a ‘future perfect’ time, where a future finding must already be active in the initial way to it, a further problem is constellated. Through this same circularity of the exercise of our “reasoning equipment” on our “reasoning equipment”, all our experience would appear to be locked “inside a human box” (as McLuhan put the point). See Planet polluto, garbage apocalypse for the reference and further discussion.
  5. The association of “our total sensibilities” with our “reasoning equipment” is not a “doctrinaire approach” because, according to McLuhan, it can be demonstrated. But it is all important in this context to note that “our total sensibilities” cannot be understood literally — any more than the discovery of the chemical elements could have been based on a literal understanding of physical materials.

Unlocking the Airwaves

A decisive contribution to McLuhan research, and to media research in general, has been made by a massive project called “Unlocking the Airwaves: Revitalizing an Early Public and Educational Radio Collection.” This admirable project is a collaboration among the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Communication Arts, and the Wisconsin Historical Society. It is supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities through a Humanities Collections and Reference Resources grant. Four folders posted to the Internet Archive by this project have particular relevance McLuhan studies: Project in Understanding New Media. These folders detail the genesis and development of the NAEB (National Association of Educational Broadcasters) project with McLuhan which began in 1959 and eventuated in the publication of the Report on Project in Understanding New Media in 1960.

Planet polluto, garbage apocalypse

New life is born from garbage and ashes. (Innovation is Obsolete, 1971)

Apropos of recent telephone comment about my “philosophical approach”.  Remember that when one approaches the intelligible aspects of media patterns one is in danger of philosophy.  But my concern is with light through the media onto our situation, not light on the media from our theories. But unified field of awareness of inter-action of media does need some verbalized articulation [through what might be called ‘philosophy’]. Has not the effect of media over the centuries been kept at the sub-verbal level precisely by (…) philosophical assumptions [of a certain kind]…?1

As described by McLuhan in the CKLN tapes, humans have enclosed themselves and their planet in a “human box”:

Since 1957 when Sputnik went up and ever since that satellite arch went around the planet, the planet ceased to be nature. What we used to call nature is gone. The planet is now contained inside a human box. There is no more nature. What remains is simply whatever we make of this planet by programming. There is no nature anymore.  (23:51ff)

With Harold Innis, McLuhan saw this as a problem both of world-subjugating “empire building” and world-annihilating solipsism. Indeed, it is distinctive of the Toronto school (including John O’Neill along with Innis, Havelock and McLuhan) to have seen solipsism, not only as the effect of a profound crisis of soul, but also as the strange opening to the only possible unloosening of the death grip of empire.2

In the view of the Toronto school, if we are to turn away from global war and the looming annihilation of the biosphere, solipsism must be deeply probed as the one way to recover the possibility of peace. Solipsism was at once the greatest of all dangers, the death of life itself, and the threshold to the one possibility of a reversal out of our political, social and spiritual catastrophes.

McLuhan brought imperialism and ecological disaster together with solipsism as the “eco-box”3 in his frequent recourse (concentrated between 1968 and 1973) to a series of overlapping images: the “satellite surround”, the “garbage apocalypse” and “planet polluto”:

The McLuhan DEW-LINE, 1:5, November 1968
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 archetypalization of Nature ensures 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.4
The Satellite Decides For Us That Our Future Relation To The Planet Is One Of “Program”.
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.
Thus, the Earth has become a “national” or tribal park. It is already a teaching machine, a universal playground for advertisers and teenagers.

Address to Author’s Luncheon, 19695
Put a fast rim spin around a slow one and the slow one disintegrates. Put a satellite ring around the planet and all arrangements on the planet disintegrate. It becomes garbage. Garbage means clothing [‘garb‘] — look up the Random House dictionary and you’ll find the fifth definition of garbage is old nose cones and capsule boosters. The new clothing of this planet is that sort of [space] garbage. (…) Satellites as a new garbage or climate surround around the planet are moving information at speeds that the planet cannot cope with and have created not a global village but a global theatre.6

From Cliché to Archetype, 1970
The classification of “garbage” concerns a host of misconcep­tions. The term itself literally signifies clothing. The cultures of the world have been clad in and constituted by retrieved castoffs: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” (…) The
Random House Dictionary of the English Language (1966) assigns the fifth meaning of “garbage” to that new global environment of cast-off nose cones, boosters, and other ballistic flotsam and jetsam.7

McLuhan On Russia, 19718
The new surround of 
satellites, beginning with Sputnik in 1957, scrapped Nature itself. The planet went inside a man-made environment. Art replaced Nature. The total programming of the earthly environment is all that remained. It’s planet Polluto from here on. The giant rimspin impels all.

Innovation is Obsolete, 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 an eco-box. (…) The satellite environment has transformed the planet itself into an art form. The total scrapping of the old Nature, and the planet itself, has created a garbage apocalypse, turning the earth into Planet PollutoThe computer programmer is naturally concerned with the task of tackling the entire planetary environment as a problem in programming. Nothing less now confronts us as the immediate task. 

The Hardware/Software Mergers, 19729
Sputnik — 1957. Nature was junked. Result was planet polluto. When you put one environment around another, the outer one scraps the inner one, as the suburb scraps the city. (…) When you scrap nature, then everything looks like pollution, including nature. When you go into spaceship Earth, anything that is not programmed is pollution. (…) The spaceships were the first totally programmed human environments. You had to take “nature” with you if you were going to leave this planet. We have thus learned how to program environments totally. When you begin to program the total human environment it is like restoring a ruined Rembrandt. All the previous tinkerings look like defacements. Since Sputnik, the new information environment supersedes hardware and experience alike. Only knowledge remains. That is another simple corollary of moving into the software environment of information: experience is useless. (…) Every technological innovation creates an extension of our bodily senses that translates all our inputs of experience into its specific new form. That literal fact is what is meant by “the medium is the message.” Thus, the new environment of satellites around the planet processes the entire human situation anew. The planet itself is “transplanted” through the new satellite surround, and the new message is “pollution.” Nature itself is now seen to be an utter mess.

The Planet as Art Form, 197210
When Sputnik went around the planet, nature disappeared. Nature was hijacked right off this planet. Nature was enclosed in a man made environment and art took the place of nature. This was one of the biggest hijack jobs conceivable. When you put a new service environment around, say TV, with hologram or what-not, you will find that TV has been completely hijacked, that a new service environment has come in. It isn’t in yet. But, when you put TV around the movies, movies were hijacked. The whole service industry of movies was hijacked and another service industry went around it. When Sputnik went around the planet, the planet became an art form. Nature disappeared overnight and planet polluto took the place of the old nature. Planet polluto, discovered to be in a very bad state, needing a great deal of human attention – art form.

Take Today, 1972
Since the satellite surround, beginning with Sputnik in 1957, there has come the sudden awareness that
nature itself has dropped out. Old experience is no longer relevant, and man must now assume responsibility for the total programming of his planetary environment through new knowledge. “Experience,” said Erasmus, “is the schoolmaster of fools.” That is, the rates charged by this ruthless pedagogue are outrageous, and few have ever survived his instruction. As the criminal said on his way to execution: “This will teach me a lesson!”11

Take Today, 1972
At High Speeds Art Replaces Nature, And Nature Goes To School. To The Artist On Planet Eco-Polluto Nothing Exceeds Like Excess12

The Argument: Causality in the Electric World, 1973:
There are no more spectators in lab or life, only participants in the Global Electric Theatre. Sputnik created a new proscenium arch that transformed our awareness of planet Polluto — a limited figure against the ground of limitless space. The Apollo age has scrapped Greek Nature as we assume full responsibility for orchestrating our total environment on human scales beyond ideologies.

The problem of solipsism is that of the fly in the flybottle.13 If “what remains is simply whatever we make (…) by programming”, what can we “make by programming” of that “programming”? What can we “make by programming” of this “we”?

From “inside a human box” there is no access to ground and to reality, only to the confines of the box: “what we used to call nature is gone”.

the new information environment supersedes hardware and experience alike. Only knowledge remains.14

The stipulation of the real and the true can be made only through the knowledge of a “we” whose own ground and reality can be stipulated by nothing other than the knowledge of that same “we”.15 This vicious and ultimately vacuous circle is the solipsistic box in which we are locked. Deeply considered (a rare enough occurrence) the box itself utterly “disintegrates”, together with its contents: the “we” and all of its “knowledge” => the “we” and all of its “knowledge”.

All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned. (Marx)16

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!! (Nietzsche)17

McLuhan described this implosion as follows: 

In King Lear Shakespeare opens his play with the King himself launching a program of fragmentation of his external kingdom.  The reverberation of this deed quickly reduces all the social roles of his society to chaos. Finally, the inner kingdom and pattern of his own consciousness feel the same disruption of fragmented functions.18 

The problem the Toronto school set for itself was how to penetrate solipsism to establish contact with demonstrable reality and truth. “Nothing less now confronts us as the immediate task.”19 This was the same question for the Toronto school of how the planet and the human species belonging to it might be rescued from the explosive effects of empire in which we are ensnared.  The root cause of the imperial attempt at limitless inflation was seen to lie in the implosive deflation of solipsism.20 Hence it was in the “garbage” of the “eco-box” of planet polluto that the required solution had to be sought.

How to elicit creativity from these middenheaps has become the problem of modem culture.21

Metro Garbage May One Day Be Used As Building Blocks22

Scrap is a useful resource but you have to start from scratch.23

The imperative “to start from scratch” was the great clue. Following the method of phenomenology as exercised across multiple disciplines from philosophy and linguistics to physics, namely, to “start with output and ask what input leads to such output”24, the need was to start with solipsism as output “and ask what input leads to such output”. For solipsism, too, was first of all a possibility.  And if possibilities were inherently plural, retracing solipsism to its root would equally expose other roots with other outputs.25 A different output than solipsism was exactly the imperative need.26

Only solipsism as output was fitted to this end because there is nothing actual or possible between actuality and possibility, just as there is no possibility between possibilities. These borders between actuality and possibility and between possibilities are the “new frontier” and “the new frontier is pure opacity”.27 Solipsism along with the garbage to which it reduced the planet and everything on it exposed this “new frontier”. It was this no man’s land of universal nihilism, the disintegrated precipitate of solipsism, and this alone, that gave access to the required life-renewing possibility:

it is precisely the courage of [Wyndham] Lewis in pushing the Cartesian and Plotinian angelism to the logical point of the extinction of humanism and personality that gives his work such importance28 

Managing The ‘Ascent’ from the Maelstrom today demands awareness that can be achieved only by going ‘Through the Vanishing Point’. (Take Today)29

  1. McLuhan to Harry Skornia, March 30, 1959 in Unlocking the Airwaves.
  2. For the death grip of empire and the term “empire building”, see ‘The subjugation of the human spirit‘. In the Toronto school, it was Harold Innis, of course, who first placed “empire” in question.
  3. See the passage from ‘Innovation is Obsolete’ above: “With Sputnik, Earth became an eco-box.”
  4. “A classified-information basis” leads inevitably to solipsism since it is impossible to get outside of ‘classifications’ in order to know for any sample of knowledge how much comes from the classification and how much from its object. When the unknowable object is the nature of classifications themselves, the whole procedure, as McLuhan said, “disintegrates”. Nietzsche had, of course, detailed the problem as precipitating nihilism almost a century before this.
  5. YouTube recording 12:50ff. The date given for this address is 1966. But as is clear from many references in it — like McLuhan mentioning The Love Machine by Jacqueline Susann, which was published in 1969, or describing his return from the May 1969 Bilderberg conference in Denmark — this date is mistaken and should be 1969.
  6. The global theatre is a “box” with a “proscenium arch” where everybody plays only some “role”
  7. From Cliché to Archetype, 183. McLuhan continues this passage to cite from a New York magazine article titled “The Garbage Apocalypse”.
  8. ‘McLuhan On Russia: An Interview’, Abraxas, A Journal for the Theoretical Study of Philosophy, the Humanities and the Social Sciences, 1:2, Winter 1971.
  9. ‘The Hardware/Software Mergers: How Successful Have They Been?’, Educational Technology, Hearings, Ninety-second Congress, second session, on H.R. 4916, House of Representatives, Committee on Education and Labor, Select Subcommittee on Education, September 13, 1972.
  10. McLuhan on the David Frost Show, ABC Television, 30 May 1972, video and transcript at Marshall McLuhan Speaks.
  11. Take Today, 1972, 6.
  12. Take Today is composed of aphoristic segments. This is the title of a segment on p 81.
  13. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, #309: “What is your aim in philosophy?—To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.”
  14. ‘The Hardware/Software Mergers’, 1972, full passage cited above.
  15. Cf, ‘Notes on the Media as Art Forms’, Explorations 2, 1954: “The habitual contemplation of the media of communication as art forms necessarily invokes the principle that the instruments of research are also art forms, magically distorting and controlling the objects of investigation. Critical awareness of this fact has saved the modern scientist from many blunders, but such awareness has arrived tardily in the popular sphere.” McLuhan saw “the popular sphere” here as including everything outside of the research of “the modern scientist”, so not only politics, commerce and entertainment, but education as well — and especially the humanities and social sciences.
  16. The Manifesto of the Communist Party. The original reads: “Alles Ständische und Stehende verdampft, alles Heilige wird entweiht…”.
  17. Twilight of the Idols. The original reads: “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!!
  18. The Lewis Vortex: Art and Politics as Masks of Power’, in Letteratura/Pittura, ed G. Cianci, 1982. Written around 1970 for a L’Herne volume but never published there.
  19. ‘Innovation is Obsolete’, full passage cited above.
  20. We may end ourselves (…) because we think we have nothing left in ourselves to respect.” Havelock, The Crucifixion of Intellectual Man, 1950, 6.
  21. From Cliché to Archetype, 1970, 184.
  22. Headline from the Toronto Telegram of March 5, 1969 cited in From Cliché to Archetype, 1970, 182.
  23. ‘The Hardware/Software Mergers: How Successful Have They Been?’. See note 9 above for the reference.
  24. McLuhan to Harry Skornia, Sept 3, 1960 in Unlocking the Airwaves.
  25. Cf, McLuhan, ‘The Role of Mass Communication in Meeting Today’s Problems’, NAEB Journal, vol 18 (Oct, 1958): “Let us grant for the moment that the medium is the message. It follows that if we study any medium carefully we shall discover its total dynamics and its unreleased powers.”
  26.  What McLuhan called “media dynamics”, with its explicit reference to Aristotle’s investigations of possibility, was the field dedicated to the investigation of such root assumptions. For media as root assumptions, see Media definition.
  27. Take Today, 1972, 90. See McLuhan on Malthus and “unpopulous margins”: “It seemed obvious to Malthus that population pressed outward upon the means of subsistence. (…) For an industrializing England the means of subsistence were increasingly at the margins of the population structure. But the awareness of margins was itself a novelty of an exploding or expanding economy. To have identified the remote and unpopulous margins of an economy with the limits of the means of subsistence was a stroke of artistic genius” (‘The Electronic Age – The Age of Implosion’, 1962).
  28. ‘Nihilism Exposed’, Renascence, Vol.8, Winter, 1955
  29. Take Today, 13. “The ‘Ascent’ from the Maelstrom” is, of course, McLuhan’s ano-kato play on Poe’s ‘A Descent into the Maelström’.

The Beginnings of Gutenberg Galaxy 4

In letters written in the context of the NAEB1 project to research new media, McLuhan reported news of what was then titled The Gutenberg Era:2

December 1, 1958 to Harry Skornia3:

Do you think I should put in for a second year?4 For two years right off? I could then put out The Gutenberg Era as preliminary volume to the [project] Handbook.  I have even toyed with the thought of writing down that material (on which I have spent ten years and more) in the first three months anyway.  I work very fast once I start to roll.

April 12, 1959 to Harry Skornia:

I have been given a full time private secretary for the next 3 months, so hope to finish up that book: The Gutenberg Era, which is indispensable as a general public introduction to the [Understanding New Media] project.

May 29, 1959 to Harry Skornia:

Shall spend much of the summer getting things lined up for your committee so that they can give us maximum aid.  Shall send many memos and suggestions of possible procedures. Also, the Gutenberg Era can be circulated in mimeo to all of them.  (…) I don’t think any better approach to Understanding Media could be developed than the Gutenberg Era mss.

June 5, 19595 to Harry Skornia:

Gutenberg Era going fast now. Let’s hope it will bulldoze aside most of the 19th century movie lot set mentalities that surround us. I can guarantee that it will contain more new ideas, more new perceptions of old situations and present problems than any book I’ve had the luck to encounter in my life. I shall take pains to make it acceptable in mode to the literary and conventional mind.

June 23, 1959 to Samuel Becker6:

I think my Gutenberg book will offer a sufficient quantity and continuity of testimony on the effects of the forms of writing and printing to make this completely convincing, because one has only to consult the changes in the arts of poetry, and prose, and painting under the impact of various developments in print technology, to trace the exact lines of force which that technology exerts. This raises a very basic question about media research. I mean the factor of translation from one language into another as revealing7 the properties of both.

  1. National Association of Educational Broadcasters.
  2. All of the letters cited below from McLuhan’s correspondence with Harry Skornia and Sanuel Becker in the context of their NAEB project are to be found in the Unlocking the Airwaves project. For reference see Unlocking the Airwaves.
  3. Skornia was a professor at the University of Illinois and the president of the NAEB
  4. That is, as part of the NAEB project grant application.
  5. McLuhan’s letter is undated, but it was received at the NAEB on June 5. Presumably it was written a few days before.
  6. Samuel Becker was a professor at the University of Iowa and a member of the NAEB research committee overseeing McLuhan’s project.
  7. McLuhan: “as a revealer of the properties of both.”

Wakese 3: “A word is a single shot of a process”

In a letter to Harry Skornia, December 1, 1958, McLuhan wrote:

An image of an entire process is a myth.  Myth (e.g., Cadmus, Gorgon, Trojan Horse) is a single image of an entire process.  A word is a single shot of a process. A language or medium is a macro-myth which may include all sorts of derivative myths, etc.1

Every word is a “derivative myth” within the “macro-myth” of some language. An “entire process” lies behind its appearance and activity there. This is the process through which — but not in clock time! — that word has come to be selected out of all the other words which might have been used in its place.  Moreover, as McLuhan described, every word selected in this process has multiple meanings and here, too, selection must be exercised:

every word has a hidden ground of many many layers under every single word you utter (…) Every single word you use whether it is ‘cat’ or ‘dog’ or whatever has layer after layer of hidden meanings that are not [all] used, but when you use the word, all of them are put into resident activity. Whenever you use the word it doesn’t matter whether you know the [complete range of its] meaning or not, the whole word is in resident activity. It echoes. The totality of the word is put into action by just using it. You don’t have to know [all] that it means — just hearing it is enough. So this again is an example of the hidden ground as part of our ordinary perceptual lives. (45:50ff)2

In fact, even individual letters and sounds must be selected in a process that precedes every use of a word (but does not precede them in clock-time).

to the structural linguist the fact that the letter “k,” for example, as written, may suggest a single sound, does not hide from him the fact that there are several quite distinct “k” sound-structures mastered by every child by two or three years of age. For the “k” in “quick” Is not the “k” in “chalk.” Using the fill-at-once approach of electronic tape, the linguist becomes aware of the interpenetration of the alphabetic sounds and the consequent modification of letters that look alike in the one-thing-at-a-time world of the written word. So he doesn’t hesitate to say that written letters, insofar as they pretend to point to distinct sounds, are a very crude gimmick for reducing couples and subtle qualities of sound to mere averages.3

On the way to speaking or writing, ‘run’ may be selected as against ‘ran’ and even ‘rune’ in order to express one sort of action (running not rune-ing) and when that action took place and whether it was finished (perfected) or not. Nearly always, this grammatical process is entirely ignored as it is made. But it need not be ignored and Wakese never does so. The sort of vague touch ‘rune’ has with ‘run’ is always implicated. But this sort of implication need not be explicitly marked and, indeed, usually is not in Wakese — just as it is not explicit in ordinary language use. The difference is that Wakese works with the constant admonition that this sort of implicated history may be in play at any moment and therefore must always be considered even if Joyce did not bother to do so! The lesson is that language works through an implicated range of interpretation and the business of Wakese is nothing other than to magnify this range as a way of revealing its necessary presence in any language use at all.

What is always overlooked in the usual uses of language simply cannot be overlooked in Wakese because, absent such attention to its synchronic process of selection, its words and hence its lumpy narrative — make no sense. Tellingly, the etymology of ‘sense’ has to do with ‘direction’ and ‘pathway’, as in ‘send’ (in English) or ‘sens unique’, ‘senso unico’, ‘sentiero’ and ‘sendero’ (in French, Italian and Spanish). ‘Sense’ is always and only arrived at by following a pathway whose usually subliminal understanding is what it is to know a language.

  1. This letter is in the Project in Understanding New Media folders posted to the Internet Archive by the massive project called “Unlocking the Airwaves: Revitalizing an Early Public and Educational Radio Collection.” This admirable project is a collaboration among the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Communication Arts, and the Wisconsin Historical Society. It is supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities through a Humanities Collections and Reference Resources grant.
  2. For further discussion, see Wakese 2: McLuhan on the “potencies” of language.
  3.  Unlocking the Airwaves — see note 1 above.

The subjugation of the human spirit

McLuhan from the CKLN tapes1:

We don’t understand information movement and image making as warfare at all: we call this ‘advertising’. Actually Madison Avenue is a major military operation vastly aggressive and out to conquer empires, territories, within the human heart and human senses. It is a huge military operation of empire building and icon making. If we had the slightest consciousness of social responsibility instead of this sort of a private subconscious totally inadequate to our technology, we would teach our children in our schools how to protect themselves against media fallout and advertising fallout. It is simply fantastic the unconsciousness of our western world with regard to the forces that we release upon it. The little areas in which we permit ourselves any consciousness or responsibility are minute compared to the real areas of impact. Advertising is a vast military operation intended openly and advisedly intended to conquer the human spirit. The critics of advertising miss the bus entirely by complaining about false claims. Nothing could be less important than the false claims of advertising. It is the total icon making activity that matters. (31:16ff)

This was from the 1970s, the last decade of McLuhan’s life.  But he had had something of this view from the beginning. Here he is in 1938 in one of his first published papers:

What sort of motive, what complexion of intelligence is likely to be concerned with the output and control of Little Men? For almost a century now, the intelligence of the ablest men has been systematically bought and set to work to exploit the weakness and stupidity of the rest of mankind. This is the exact reverse of the traditional procedure of all civilizations. Hitherto the ablest men have been selected to govern, to educate, rather than to exploit, the others.2

Or again in the ‘preface’ to The Mechanical Bride, which was written in 1950 at the latest and more probably in the late 1940s:

Ours is the first age in which many thousands of the best-trained individual minds have made it a full-time business to get inside the collective public mind. To get inside in order to manipulate, exploit, control is the object now. And to generate heat not light is the intention. To keep everybody in the helpless state engendered by prolonged mental rutting is the effect of many ads and much entertainment alikeSince so many minds are engaged in bringing about this condition of public helplessness, and since these programs of commercial education are so much more expensive and influential than the relatively puny offerings sponsored by schools and colleges, it seemed fitting to devise a method for reversing the process.3

And again from 1953 in ‘The Age of Advertising’:

The ads are a form of magic which have come to dominate a new civilization. 

  1. For details on these CKLN tapes, see Wakese 2: McLuhan on the “potencies” of language.
  2. ‘Peter or Peter Pan’, Fleur de Lis, 37:4, 1938.
  3. The Mechanical Bride, Preface, p v.

Wakese 2: McLuhan on the “potencies” of language

start with output and ask what input leads to such output (McLuhan to Harry Skornia, Sept 3, 1960)

On November 19, 1984, a radio broadcast from CKLN in Toronto  presented a collage of audio recordings of McLuhan in which “language [a]s the metamorphic power” was discussed by him from a variety of different angles.1 The key to this power as considered by McLuhan in respect to its internal2 reach within language was the relation of words and sounds to their underlying possibilities. Every aspect of language could be different and therefore could be understood as a choice made on the way to its expression (whether orally or in some other medium).  In recent history, this notion went back to Saussure and raised the questions of when and where and how such choices were made (since they were certainly not made consciously in ordinary time and space in the course of our normal activities).

Shortly after Saussure, but with explicit roots in Aristotle and implicit ones in many of Aristotle’s predecessors, the importance of a consideration of possibility was recognized in many fields. For Heidegger in Sein und Zeit (1927) possibility ‘stands higher’ than actuality so that the project of phenomenology needed to explicate itself as one possibility among others.  To begin, it needed to account for itself as not being what it otherwise might be. In that same year of 1927 Born and Heisenberg recognized the mathematics of quantum physics as probability waves, as graphs of possibilities. Explorations of color and form in art and of different scales and rhythms in music were likewise attempts to probe underlying possibilities of those areas.

Finnegans Wake was begun in the middle 1920s and the strange Wakese it employs is a language in which possibilities intrude on its surface level in a way they do not in everyday life — so far as we notice. But by this time, Freud and Jung had been looking at the ‘psychopathology of everyday life’ in similar fashion for decades.

In the context of this broad return to Aristotelian dynamics3, McLuhan’s remarks in the tapes broadcast over CKLN provide an introduction to Wakese as a language in which possibilities are highlighted in what McLuhan termed their “resident activity”:4

one reason that you have to guess when you’re looking at any word whatever is that it has dozens of meanings that are not being used at that particular moment. When you look up the word ‘read’ you’ll find many columns of meanings for the word and beside the word ‘read’ is the word ‘run’. He who runs may read; well, ‘run’ means ‘rune’, ‘run’ comes from ‘rune’, which means a cryptic puzzle and reading and rune-ing are close. (39:50ff)

Reading and rune-ing in this passage are used in the double sense of words in the dictionary and the skills necessary to access a dictionary (or, in fact, to carry out any human activity). McLuhan was doing what he was talking about and talking about what he was doing.  He was using his wits in a consideration of wit. Media study, just like phenomenology according to Heidegger, had to account for its actuality in terms of its underlying possibilities.

the fact that reading is guessing means that every word has a hidden ground of many many layers under every single word you utter (the word ‘utter’ is a very good example of
this multilevel of hidden meanings [like ‘outer’ in English and ‘uttar’ in Hindi]). Every single word you use whether it is ‘cat’ or ‘dog’ or whatever has layer after layer of hidden meanings that are not [all] used, but when you use the word, all of them are put into resident activity. Whenever you use the word it doesn’t matter whether you know the [complete range of its] meaning or not, the whole word is in resident activity. It echoes. The totality of the word is put into action by just using it. You don’t have to know [all] that it means — just hearing it is enough. So this again is an example of the hidden ground as part of our ordinary perceptual lives. Now under conditions of electronic technology the hidden acoustic ground of language has awakened enormously. Words are much more in the level of consciousness [now] than they ever were for many centuries thanks to our living in an acoustic age. (45:48ff)5

the sounds6 of the environment are filtered through the language or transformed in the language: language is the metamorphic power (6:20ff)

all art forms really resonate from hidden grounds that are there in depth all the time. All the possible musics are latent (…) in the acoustic forms of the language itself and are just waiting [to be expressed] (12:08ff)

there is a hidden ground that makes possible any technological change (5:35)7

Visual man can suppress nearly all the meanings of a word. A highly literate person is offended when you pun using some other meaning of a word. He groans merely to hear the acoustic dimension of a word put into play: “Jung and easily Freudened”; “Though he might have been more humble there’s no police like Holmes” — James Joyce,  I’m quoting him from Finnegans Wake. (47:47ff)

  1. Most of these audio tapes came from seminars, lectures and interviews held in the 1970s, some later even than the publication of City as Classroom in 1977.
  2. Internal — that is, not considered in terms of the intimately related external reach of language in its manifest communication with others.
  3. It is not at all the case, as is usually assumed, that Aristotle’s dynamics represented a turn away from Plato. Instead Plato himself argued that forms were not mere abstractions and dynamics were Aristotle’s attempt to understand the metaphorical life of forms as an inherent urge to expression. Hence — ‘en-ergy’. McLuhan in a June 5, 1959 letter to Harry Skornia: “One new concept for us: media are ‘ideas’ in action.” This was exactly Aristotle’s notion of the dynamics of Plato’s forms or ideas. In fact, in a letter to Skornia two days later, and then repeatedly in letters to him thereafter, McLuhan calls this notion the “generalized theory of the dynamic-model” (June 7, 1959). (Both letters are in the NAEB materials referenced in Wakese 3.)
  4. All citations below are taken from the CKLN recordings referenced above. For “resident activity” see the segment cited from 45:48ff.
  5. Compare McLuhan’s letter to Innis from a quarter century earlier where possibilities are rendered as “potencies”: “Many of the ancient language theories of the Logos type which you (Innis) cite for their bearings on government and society have recurred and amalgamated themselves today under the auspices of anthropology and social psychology. Working concepts of ‘collective consciousness’ in advertising agencies have in turn given salience and practical effectiveness to these ‘magical’ notions of language. But it was most of all the esthetic discoveries of the symbolists since Rimbaud and Mallarmé (developed in English by Joyce, Eliot, Pound, Lewis and Yeats) which have served to recreate in contemporary consciousness an awareness of the potencies of language such as the Western world has not experienced in 1800 years.”
  6. Not only the sounds, but the sights, smells, tastes and felt tactility of the environment are all filtered though language. But ‘language’ here has multiple meanings. It might be taken to refer (as McLuhan often took it to refer) to a particular language like English.  He often discussed rock, for example, as a distillation from the particular language of English. Or it might be taken to refer to “language itself”, language in general, and this again in two senses: first, language as it is used to communicate in some fashion and, second, ‘language’ as the dynamic power generating actual expression out of a manifold of possibilities. It was this latter dynamism which is not restricted to language, but which is particularly to be seen in language, that he termed the “metamorphic power”.
  7. In this context it must be recalled that language itself, for McLuhan, is a technology. So not only any technological change in the narrow sense, but any change in human history whatsoever, individual or collective, has its hidden grounds. Just as the once hidden ground of chemistry makes possible (now and in the past and in the future) all the changes in the material world, or the once hidden ground of genetics makes possible (now and in the past and in the future) all the changes in the genesis of living beings, so all individual and collective cultural changes have their (still hidden) ground which it is the business of media study to probe and to attempt to bring to light.

Lodge in W.O. Mitchell’s Who Has Seen the Wind

In Who Has Seen the Wind1W.O Mitchell’s best-selling novel from 1947, Mr Hislop is the local minister, the “herder of God’s Presbyterian sheep”. Hislop’s thoughts record questions precipitated in Mitchell by his mentor2 at the University of Manitoba, Rupert Lodge:

Self and not-self; what was the relationship?3 He had separated himself from the phenomena of his experience. He could say to himself, “I see the yard — John Hislop sees the yard and the lawn-mower.” But — who was John Hislop? What was seeing? Was the chipped greenness of the mower a quality inherent in the mower, or was it only an element tied up with others that went to make up John Hislop? Was there a lawn-mower independent of his consciousness? And if there were, could his senses make the jump to it? Could there be an external world if there wasn’t something of the stuff John Hislop was made of, already in that outer world?

Later Hislop evinces further views that McLuhan, too, found in Lodge:

A gentle wind stirred the leaves on the poplars, setting disks of shadow dancing over Hislop’s earnest face. “They were no different from men today,” he was saying. “Just as imaginative – as sensitive. There hasn’t been any advance in the things that count – not in generalization — it was all there with Plato — with Christ.”

Compare McLuhan in his University of Manitoba M.A. thesis on George Meredith from 1933/34, a time when he was working closely with Lodge:

In his table talk, Coleridge noted that all men (…) are born either Platonists or Aristotelians. There are similarly, in all times and places, definite types of temperament displaying consistency of conformation. The literary or artistic expression of such temperaments has properly the same validity as has the philosophizing of the Idealist and the Realist.

In his 1943 PhD thesis and 1945 ‘Ancient Quarrel in Modern America’, McLuhan went on to develop the notion further that there were “definite types of temperament displaying  consistency of conformation” in human experience “in all times and places”. This implicated the conclusions that the ancients “were no different from men today”; that they were “just as imaginative — as sensitive”; that “there hasn’t been any advance in the things that count”; that “it was all there with Plato — with Christ”.

Later in Who Has Seen the Wind, Hislop’s successor as the local minister, Mr Powelly, is interrogated with questions straight from Lodge:

Is yours the Utilitarian viewpoint —the greatest happiness for the greatest number? Is it Stoic — the smallest? Do you follow Plato? Aristotle? Which side of the fence are you on? The empirical? The ideal? Do you perhaps sit on the top of it as a dualist? [Or] do you [doubt4] that there is a continuous fence at all — pragmatist?  

Compare Lodge:

Here, then, we have three typical directions in which philosophers move when they attempt to master experience: the realist, the idealist, and the pragmatist direction. In the nature of the case, these directions are divergent. To take one pathway, of itself precludes taking either of the others. If any one pathway is right, then the others are certainly wrong. So much is clear. But is any pathway right, and, if so, which? How are we to tell?5

Mitchell’s wind that no one has seen was McLuhan’s Logos6, a force as operative with the Stoics in 300 BC, in his view, as with Christianity.7 

After he left Manitoba for Cambridge in 1934, McLuhan began to discount what he considered to be the Platonism of Lodge’s views, especially his view of religion. But McLuhan never gave up the ideas that history is not, or is not only, “lineal”, that human experience is structured by identifiable ever-repeated types and that the Logos was operative “in all times and places” in and across those types.

Could there be an external world if there wasn’t something of the stuff John Hislop was made of, already in that outer world?

  1. Mitchell’s title came from Christina Rossetti’s poem from Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book (1872):
    Who has seen the wind?
    Neither I nor you.
    But when the leaves hang trembling,
    The wind is passing through.
    Who has seen the wind?
    Neither you nor I.
    But when the trees bow down their heads,
    The wind is passing by.
    In the novel the last lines of Rossetti’s poem are recited by three of its boys. But instead of ‘But when the trees bow down their heads/The wind is passing by’ the boys give ‘But when the trees bow down their heads/Nobody gives a damn’.
  2. For documentation and discussion, see W.O. Mitchell on Rupert Lodge.
  3. McLuhan wrote a paper for Lodge on ‘The Non-Being of Non-Being’ that he submitted to the University of Wisconsin in 1936 as part of his successful application for a teaching assistantship there. It is in his papers in Ottawa. Lodge regarded logic as integral to his comparative method: questions like the relation of self to non-self and of being to non-being served to expose the fundamental differences between irreducible philosophical positions or (as McLuhan put the point in his 1934 M.A. thesis specifically to include art along with philosophy) “definite types of temperament”.
  4. Mitchell: “feel”.
  5. See The Comparative Method of Rupert Lodge for discussion and reference.
  6. Often designated by McLuhan as ‘water’, which we human fish are the last to notice.
  7. For documentation, see Pre-Christian Logos.

McLuhan vs Richards, Transformation vs Transportation

I.A. Richards in the ‘Introduction’ to his 1950 translation of Homer’s Iliad:

I have been haunted by the engineer’s diagram of a communication system [from The Mathematical Theory of Communication by Claude E. Shannon and Warren Weaver, University of Illinois Press, 1949]:

Here Homer (…) is the information source. I (…) am the transmitter. I encode certain things my information source seems to give me in a signal which [is sent] through the printed pages that follow. You (…) are the receiver. You take in the marks on the paper which you recode again as sentences and hand on to the destination [= understanding the source]. (…) Further reflection on this diagram makes us aware that its great central gap [of noise] is repeated; that between the information source and the transmitter [on the left-hand side of the diagram], between the receiver and the destination [on the right], as between the transmitter and the receiver [in the middle], come the noises (…) It has been my hope that by a certain simplification imposed on what I took from Homer, [i.e.,] by a certain generality imposed upon my signal [in its  language], I might diminish these noises.

Compare McLuhan in his 1974 lecture ‘Living in an Acoustic World’:

my kind of study in communication is a study of transformation, whereas information theory and all the existing theories of communication that I know of are theories of transportation. All the official theories of communication studied in the schools of North America are theories of how you move data from point A to point B to point C with minimal distortion. That is not what I study at all. Information theory I understand and I use, but information theory is a theory of transportation, and it has nothing to do with the effects which these forms have on us. It’s like a railway train concerned with moving goods along a track. The track may be blocked, may be interfered with. The problem in the transportation theory of communication is to get the noise, get the interference off the track and let [the goods, aka the message] go through. Many educators think that the problem in education is just to get the information through, get it past the barrier, the opposition of the young, just to move it and keep it going. I don’t have much interest in that theory. My theory or concern is what these media do to the people who use them. What did writing do to the people who invented it and used it? What do the other media of our time do to the people who use them? Mine is a transformation theory, how people are changed by the instruments they employ. I wish there were a lot more people in this field of transformation, but there are extremely few, and I would be embarrassed to mention more than two or three.1 

  1. McLuhan’s lecture is available online:
    The ‘1970’ date in the URL is mistaken.

3 forms of Being in Havelock’s Crucifixion

McLuhan read Havelock’s Crucifixion of Intellectual Man soon after it was published in 1951.1

In it Havelock pointed to 3 forms which contest as an “ancient quarrel” in the human soul, in society and in all history. McLuhan described a similar contest of 3 ‘trivial’ forms in his 1943 Nashe thesis and continued to do so all his life as, eg, the ear versus the eye and their integration in the sensus communis. Or, in a variation which confusingly cut across the former, as the antithetical dualism of the eye and the integration of such dualism in the ear.

The notion of the 3 forms of Being is at least as old as Plato2 (and was arguably many millennia old even then3).  Neither Havelock not McLuhan originated the idea, no did either of them first find it in the other.

Here is Havelock in Crucifixion:

If Prometheus be the [1] intelligence of man, the enemy he confronts bears a close resemblance to that other spiritual force, man’s [2] will to power. It [intelligence] is an influence equally operative along with [2] technology and [3] philanthropy in the history of human societies. (58)

for the dramatist, this creed of [2] power and force [in Zeus] is [also] an element in man himself, which shares with his [1] intelligence the responsibility for making his history. It is consistent with this view of Zeus [as exemplifying power, but not only power] that Prometheus should be able to foresee a [3] reconciliation with his tormentor [Zeus]. In this he imaginatively recognizes the principle that is, historically speaking, his other half, and can look forward to the day when the two sides of man’s nature [1: intelligence and 2: power] will be [3] harmonized. (58-59)

while the [2] practical present which decides what we do, what we vote, what we say, is treated as one closed system, the past, [1] explored, analyzed, interpreted, is treated as another closed system, which can be abstractly related to ourselves without ever [3] interpenetrating us. (…) Does this suggest that [1] historical science is self-defeating? That the more we know, the more foolishly we act? The equation is not quite so frustrating as that, but its terms can be calculated only when we are prepared to revise our notions of what the [1] intelligence of man really is, what procedures activate his brain in [3] harmony with his [2] living pattern, and what do not. (74) 

Whether it be the Greek [1] intellect or the Semitic [1] soul that is offered up [to crucifixion], the enemy is still the [2] will to power, as it exists in all men. And the solution to the conflict is foreshadowed, by Greek as by Hebrew insight, as an act of [3] reconciliation. (108)

The crucifixion [of Prometheus and of the foresight he personifies] remains true in spirit to the tragic humanism of the Greeks. Though the task of intellect as such is utopian and clean-cut, in actual history no utopia is offered to man, but a prolonged historical agony4 which arises out of the  [3]  dialectic between  [1] science and [2] power. This becomes a discipline for man, the logic of which he cannot escape. For neither can his soul be satisfied with relationships of [2]  force, nor can it surely attain, as the nineteenth century thought it could, the relationships of freedom, grounded in a liberal mood of [1] scientific humanism. (…) But the [1]  Promethean in man [namely, intelligence and foresight] cannot die. Once he has learned to face his universe without delusions (…) he may discover [3] new resources of moral strength in and for himself. If he reinforce the [3] courage of his [1] intellect, he may yet achieve a better [3] reconciliation between his  [2] will to power and his [1] scientific vision. (108-109)

  1. For references and discussion, see McLuhan reading Havelock’s Crucifixion.
  2. See McLuhan and Plato 8 – Gigantomachia.
  3. See Assmann on the battle between Horus and Seth.
  4. Compare Richards on Mill and Coleridge: “What Mill says is still true (…) a person is either a (2) Materialist or an (1) Idealist. It may be argued that these two opposite-seeming types of outlook are (3) complementary to one another: that, in the history of thought they have been dependent upon one another so that the death of one would lead by inanition to the death of the other; that as expiration is only one phase in (3) breathing (out and in), so the two (Materialist and Idealist) philosophies in their endless antagonism are a necessary conjoint self-critical process.”

Richards’ existential demand

I.A. Richards’ materialism did not impress McLuhan when he began his study in the Cambridge English school in 1934.1

But he very much did agree with Richards on the demand for self-examination implicated in great criticism:

It comes to this : Coleridge’s criticism is of a kind that requires us, if we are to study it seriously, to reconsider our most fundamental conceptions, our conceptions of man’s being — [including2] the nature of his mind and its knowledge. It is a chief merit of Coleridge’s work that it forces us to do this and it is no defect that he forces us to do so more evidently than other critics. Our aim is to understand his opinions, if we can, and in so doing to understand our own. Whether we agree or not with them is, in comparison3, of no importance.4

  1. For discussion see On the “necessary conjoint” of Platonists and Aristotelians.
  2. Richards specifies the mental aspects of human being here because he read Coleridge as “an extreme Idealist”. For reference and discussion see On the “necessary conjoint” of Platonists and Aristotelians.
  3. Richard’s meaning here was clearly that agreement with an opinion was of little value “in comparison” to understanding it. But for McLuhan, with his background in Rupert Lodge’s ‘comparative method‘, Richard’s admonition might be taken in an additional sense: “Whether we agree or not with them is, in comparison (as practiced by Lodge), of no importance.”
  4.  Coleridge on Imagination, 19. Richards continued this passage: “This is not an easy aim,  and it will be well, before proceeding, to recall another sentence from Mill (from his 1840 essay on Coleridge): ‘Were we to search among men’s recorded thoughts for the choicest manifestations of human imbecility and prejudice, our specimens would be mostly taken from their opinions of the opinions of one another’.” It would be necessary, therefore, to proceed slowly and carefully in the formulation of opinions about Coleridge’s opinions.

On the “necessary conjoint” of Platonists and Aristotelians

In his 1934 University of Manitoba M.A. thesis on George Meredith, McLuhan, then 22, defined the problem to which he would dedicate himself for the rest of his life: 

In his table talk, Coleridge noted that all men (…) are born either Platonists or Aristotelians. There are similarly, in all times and places, definite types of temperament displaying consistency of conformation. The literary or artistic expression of such temperaments has properly the same validity as has the philosophizing of the Idealist and the Realist.

This was a topic — that “there are (…), in all times and places, definite types of temperament displaying consistency of conformation” — which McLuhan would develop at length ten years later in his 1943 Cambridge Ph.D. thesis on Thomas Nashe. In it he would characterize the three fundamental types of temperament as dialectic, rhetoric and grammar from the classical trivium and describe the “ancient quarrel” they enact “in all times and places”.1

These two theses were submitted for English degrees, but both reflected the deep influence of Rupert Lodge in the Manitoba philosophy department. Looking for a university teaching job before his last term in Cambridge, McLuhan wrote to E.K Brown, then the new chair of the Manitoba English Department, on  December 12, 1935:

I wish merely to introduce myself as one of the products of some of the leanest years of the Manitoba English Department. The last year was somewhat relieved by the presence of Dr. Wheeler2, but I had directed my energies to philosophy, and did my best work for Professor Lodge. (Letters 79) 

For the rest of his life McLuhan would gnaw away at the question of temperaments — aka media3 — which he located as much in “artistic expression” as in “the philosophizing of the Idealist and the Realist”.

In the fall of 1934, beginning his two years in Cambridge, McLuhan encountered closely comparable views to those set out in his Meredith thesis in the work of I.A. Richards. Richards’ Coleridge on Imagination was published that same year. In it, Richards cited John Stuart Mill from his 1840 essay on Coleridge:

Whoever could master the principles and combine the methods of both [Bentham and Coleridge] would possess the entire English philosophy of his age. Coleridge used to say that everyone is born either a Platonist or an Aristotelian: it may similarly be affirmed that every Englishman of the present day is by implication either a Benthamite or a Coleridgean; [that he or she] holds views of human affairs which can only be proved true on the principles either of Bentham or of Coleridge.

Richards elaborated on this passage as follows:

What Mill says is still true — though we might change the labels again and say, that a person is either a Materialist or an Idealist. It may be argued that these two opposite-seeming types of outlook are complementary to one another: that, in the history of thought they have been dependent upon one another so that the death of one would lead by inanition to the death of the other; that as expiration is only one phase in breathing, so the two [Materialist and Idealist] philosophies in their endless antagonism are a necessary conjoint self-critical process. (18-19)

McLuhan would have immediately recognized a familiar pattern here. For his mentor in Manitoba, Lodge, characterized his ‘comparative method’ as founded on the notion of three fundamental views of reality, Materialist (or Realist), Idealist and Pragmatist — with the latter being some kind of “conjoint” of the first two that would “avoid all [such] abstract and one-sided theorizings”:

How many philosophical alternatives are there? Theoretically it looks as though the number of -isms [realism, idealism, etc] might be infinite. (…) The history of such speculation, however, (…) indicates that philosophical theorizings (…) flow in one of three well-defined channels. (…) Realism interprets experience as a kind of being, idealism as a kind of knowing. It is easy to see that, as indicated, 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. The extreme forms of these views have always invited criticism. To interpret the whole in terms of one of its parts, whichever part we take as fundamental, can hardly be sound. Obviously the only sound method is to interpret the whole in terms of the whole. Consequently a third type of philosophy has tended to develop: a philosophy which tries to be true to experience, and to avoid all abstract and one-sided theorizings. This attempt at interpretation has taken many forms. One of the best known is called “pragmatism”.4

Remarkably, however, Richards’ development of this view was exactly contrary to Lodge’s ever-repeated admonition that “to interpret the whole in terms of one of its parts, whichever part we take as fundamental, can hardly be sound.” For he, Richards, unaccountably continued his observation here (“as expiration is only one phase in breathing [with inspiration], so the two philosophies in their endless antagonism are a necessar[ily] conjoint (…) process”) as follows:

But, since to hold neither [one of “these two opposite-seeming types of outlook”] is to have no view [at all] to offer, exposition requires a temporary choice between them. I write then as a Materialist trying to interpret before you the utterances of an extreme Idealist [Coleridge] and you, whatever you be by birth or training, Aristotelian or Platonist, Benthamite or Coleridgean, Materialist or Idealist, have to reinterpret my remarks again in your turn. (19)

Lodge denied in principle that such a choice was required in order to have an informed view. In fact his method was exactly to ‘mind the gap’ between equally valorized views in a fundamental pluralism where even a position attempting “to avoid all abstract and one-sided theorizings”, like “pragmatism”, was treated only as a view among other possible ones. As discussed further in Rupert Lodge: Synthesis or Comparison? the heart of Lodge’s method lay in this admonition:

Comparative philosophy preserves, in its original purity, each of the three schools. (…) Comparison is not synthesis. What it objects to is the negation of any school, whether by (…) external condemnation, or by some form of synthesis which would radically emasculate all three.5

In a January 18, 1935 letter, at the end of his first term in Cambridge, McLuhan complained to his mother about Richards’ materialism:

Richards is a humanist who regards all experience as relative to certain conditions of life. There are no permanent, ultimate, qualities such as Good, Love, Hope, etc., and yet he wishes to discover objective, ultimately permanent standards of criticism. He wants to discover those standards (what a hope!) in order to establish intellectualist culture as the only religion worthy [of] a rational being and in proportion to their taste for which all people are “full sensitive, harmonious personalities” or “disorganized, debased fragments of unrealized potentiality”. When I see how people swallow such ghastly atheistic nonsense, I could join a bomb-hurling society.6

But McLuhan’s problem was not only that Richards did not see with such paragons of his like Chesterton and Eliot how “a rational being” could and should hold to traditional religion. He objected at the same time that Richards had no account for the possibility of what Richards himself had described so well:

these two opposite-seeming types of outlook are complementary to one another (…) in the history of thought they have been dependent upon one another so that the death of one would lead by inanition to the death of the other (…) as expiration is only one phase in breathing [with inspiration], so the two philosophies in their endless antagonism are [just as much] a necessar[ily] conjoint (…) process.

Richards had no account for this complementarity in “the history of thought”, only for the “endless antagonism” somehow joined to it. For he argued that, whatever might be the silent possibility of complementarity in history, humans had no access to it — in their case “exposition requires a (…) choice” between “the two philosophies”. He saw no third possibility. If there were a “necessary conjoint (…) process” between the two that was omnipresent in history, like breathing in and breathing out, this was not a possibility a human being might activate individually. While history did not need to choose between them, or could not, humans apparently did. As a result, a gulf was opened between humans and their larger historical environment which McLuhan saw as deeply implicated in Richards’ irreligion.

In contrast to Richards’ twofold either-or which obligated a fundamental singularity, Lodge’s threefold ‘comparative method’ supplied a “complementary” ontology that was fully compatible with McLuhan’s religion. At the same time it provided a framework for historical, social, psychological — even media — analysis. Going far beyond Lodge, but decidedly in tune with his ‘comparative method’, McLuhan would work for the rest of his life to understand its vast implications.

Strangely, Richards himself seems to have well understood this thrust in McLuhan’s work.  In his 1967 book, So Much Nearer, he would write:

Principle [!] of Complementarity: This immensely important topic— publicized recently by Marshall McLuhan… (63)7



  1. The Nashe thesis covered the 2000 year period from 400 B.C to 1600 A.D. A paper published early in 1945, ‘An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America’ brought the narrative into the present. The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) then extended it backwards from 400 B.C. to the presocratics, Homer and the ancient near east.
  2.  Lloyd Wheeler was a junior member of the Manitoba English department and a good friend of McLuhan. The two remained in touch when McLuhan left Manitoba for Cambridge and it was Wheeler who helped McLuhan to his first teaching position at the University of Wisconsin, Wheeler’s alma mater.
  3. As indicated by McLuhan’s early statement that “in all times and places, definite types of temperament display consistency of conformation”, he never considered “types of temperament” as belonging to subjects; instead, subjects belonged to them. Similarly with media, in what is often styled McLuhan’s ‘technological determinism’. In both cases, McLuhan’s demand was that we come to understand just what temperaments/media are and how we come to embody them.
  4. See The Comparative Method of Rupert Lodge for references and discussion.
  5. ‘Synthesis or Comparison?’, The Journal of Philosophy, 35:16, 1938, 432-440, here 440.
  6.  Letters 50-51.
  7. In a letter to Richards dated July 12, 1968, McLuhan thanked Richards for mentioning his work in So Much Nearer and for the stimulation Richards had given him in Cambridge and “since”. For discussion, see McLuhan to Richards July 1968. Notably, McLuhan directly associated Richards and Coleridge, presumably via Coleridge on Imagination: “I owe you an enormous debt since Cambridge days. I also owe a great deal to S.T.C.”

Wakese 1: On the quintessential extraction of language

The style [of FW] is exploded blarney. (Wm Irwin Thompson)1

As cited in Ellmann’s 1959 biography of Joyce, Stefan Zweig recalled a conversation in which Joyce said:

I’d like a language that is above all languages…2

Joyce may have had in mind that he wanted to write in a language which would be elevated “above all languages”, like a god above the world. For he continued his observation: “a language to which all will do service”. But if he played with the sense of an elevated language in the phrase “above all” —  perhaps referencing the logos tradition for which “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” — he also and mainly wanted to write in a language which was “above all languages” in the sense of being a language which was somehow also, and fundamentally, plural languages

I’d like a language that is above all languages, a language to which all will do service.

He imagined a language that would first of all be “languages” as expressing what it was that enabled any language — to be language. Hence, as he further continued the passage:

I cannot express myself in English without enclosing myself in a tradition.3

The key problem here lay in the word ‘a’.  Against this, the language and tradition Joyce imagined would “above all”, first of all, be the essence of languages and traditions, plural.

Beckett put the point in reference to Work in Progress as follows:

This writing that you find so obscure is a quintessential extraction of language…4

The goal in Finnegans Wake was to write in a language which would expose the roots of all language(s), just as PIE (proto Indo-European) exposes the roots of its daughter languages from India to Ireland. Such a language would be made, dreamed up, as Volapük and Esperanto were, but it would not be rule-governed in their manner of transparently forming a kind of linguistic crystal palace. Instead it would be idiosyncratically particular and limitlessly associative in order to demonstrate the idiosyncratic particularity and limitless associativity of any and all language — which are somehow combined with a power to communicate.

It is just this combination of ineradicable particularity with communication that is the quintessence of language.

Thompson went on in his essay to opine that:

It is dubious whether [Joyce’s] symbolist technique compensates for the symbolic inadequacies of the work. The difficulty is that most of the references are not to experience (and therefore capable of exciting imaginative participation in the mind of the reader); they are [references] to other parts of the book, or to Joyce’s life.5

When an infant first learns to speak, or when humans first spoke, ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny, what “experience” could elicit “imaginative participation in the mind” of the speaker? What could be present at all other than the inexplicable self-reference of the speaker, of the speaker’s language and, indeed, of the hearer’s understanding? And yet — language speaks. 

In this early essay,6 Thompson seems to have confused grad school hermeneutics with language.7 But these are far from the same thing. Language, all language, is somehow deeper than the idiosyncratic particularity, limitless associativity and ineluctable self-reference that characterize it. Unlimited in its outward and inward expansiveness, inevitably particular as regards the speaker, the hearer and the words between them, language yet communicates at such a deep level that it can be learned. Its communication can be communicated — even to babes in arms and to the rudest of rude savages, like you and me.

  1.  W. I. Thompson, ‘The Language of Finnegans Wake‘, Sewanee Review, 72:1, 1964, 81.
  2.  Quoted in Thompson, ibid, 73, from Ellmann, 1959, 410. Joyce’s ambition to express himself in “a language that is above all languages, a language to which all will do service” was anticipated, somewhat, in a letter Coleridge wrote to Humphry Davy on February 3, 1801: “what my heart within me burns to do, that is, to concentre my free mind to the affinities of the feelings with words and ideas under the title of ‘Concerning Poetry, and the nature of the Pleasures derived from it’. I have faith that I do understand the subject, and I am sure that if I write what I ought to do on it, the work would supersede all the books of metaphysics, and all the books of morals too.” I.A. Richards discussed this letter in Coleridge on Imagination, a book that was published in the year McLuhan arrived in Cambridge to study with Richards in the Cambridge English school.
  3. Such constriction would be ‘anal-phabetic’ without, however, being ‘an-alphabetic’.
  4. ‘Dante…Bruno. Vico…Joyce’, in Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress, 1929.
  5. ‘The Language of Finnegans Wake‘, 86.
  6. Thompson’s essay appeared in The Sewanee Review in 1964, twenty years after McLuhan began publishing essays there in 1944.
  7. Thompson was studying at Cornell at this time.  He obtained his M.A. and Ph.D. there in 1964 and 1966.

Bohm on times

In March 1984 a conference was held at the Claremont Center for Process Studies on ‘Physics and the Ultimate Significance of Time’. David Bohm’s reply to the papers of John Cobb and David Griffin treated time as times as follows:

the notion of an implicate order underlying [chronological] time is suggested by modern quantum mechanical field theory in several ways. In particular, the quantum mechanical behavior of the gravitational potential implies that neither the distinction between past and future nor that between cause and effect can be maintained unambiguously at distances as short as 10-33. So presumably there would be no objection to introducing “timelessness” at such short distances, since these may represent the shortest possible actual occasions. (…) Because of this, it is possible to establish a relationship between time and the timeless. (…) In this new approach, one no longer implies that the ordinary level of experience has no fundamental kind of significance, nor does one imply that the timeless or the eternal is the only basic reality. Rather, what is crucial is the relationship between the two. (In religious terms, this would be the relationship between what has been called the “secular” and what has been called the “sacred”.) The quantum theory as seen through the implicate order has given an important clue here, in that such a relationship is possible because [diachronic or chronological] explicate structures are seen to have [synchronic or ‘allatonce’] implicate counterparts. 
In establishing such a relationship, it is clear that eternity or the timeless should not be considered as [purely] absolute. Rather, one may think in terms of what may be called “relative eternity.” For example, a moment may have the quality of eternity and yet not cover the whole of reality in full detail. For example, it has been said that Mozart was able to perceive the whole of a composition in such a moment, which was then unfolded in time [first in its detailed composition and then in its performance] in all its detail. The proposal is that a similar relationship between time and the timeless may be universal and that we may see it in many areas of experience. Such a relationship may then be the very essence of what is to be meant by freedom and creativity.1


  1.  Physics and the Ultimate Significance of Time, ed David R Griffin, 1986, 174-175. For the implication of freedom and creativity with times see Bohm on percept and concept.

Heisenberg on possibility

In his 1958 lecture, ‘Planck’s discovery and the philosophical problems of atomic physics’,1 Heisenberg traces the quantum physics doctrine of probability waves back to Aristotle:

the essence of matter [concerns] (…) the Greek philosophers’ old question of how it is possible to reduce to simple principles the motley and manifold phenomena surrounding matter and thus make [those phenomena]2 intelligible.3

the work of Bohr, [Hans] Kramers and [John Clarke] Slater contained the decisive concept, that the laws of nature determine not the occurrence of an event, but the probability that an event will take place, and that the probability must be related to a wave field that obeys a mathematically formulable wave equation.
This was a decisive step away from classical physics; basically a concept that played an important part in Aristotle’s philosophy was used. The probability waves of Bohr, Kramers and Slater can be interpreted as a quantitative formulation of the concept of “possibility” in Aristotle’s philosophy, Greek dynamis (potentia in the later Latin version).4 The concept that events are not determined in a peremptory manner, but that the possibility or “tendency” for an event to take place has a kind of reality — a certain intermediate layer of reality, halfway between the massive reality of matter and the intellectual reality of the idea or the image — this concept plays a decisive role in Aristotle’s philosophy. In modern quantum theory this concept takes on a new form; it is formulated quantitatively as probability and subjected to mathematically expressible laws of nature. The laws of nature formulated in mathematical terms no longer determine the phenomena themselves, but the possibility of happening, the probability that something will happen. (16-17)

  1. Die Plancksche Entdeckung und die philosophischen Probleme der Atomphysik’, lecture from the 13th conference of the Rencontres Internationales de Genève, September 4, 1958. Translation in On Modern Physics, 1962, 9-28.
  2. Translation: ‘them’.
  3. The circularity implicated in this passage is highly important to note. The Aristotelian tradition maintained that the answer to the question, ‘how it is possible to reduce to simple principles the motley and manifold phenomena surrounding matter and thus make them intelligible’, was to appeal to the range of possibilities underlying those phenomena. But how is it possible to access possibilities without already having done so? without having activated that possibility from the range of available possibilities that first gives access to that range?
  4. The translation reads: “interpreted as a quantitative formulation of the concept of dynamis, “possibility”, or in the later Latin version, potentia, in Aristotle’s philosophy.”

Heisenberg on ‘an ancient quarrel’

In his PhD thesis from the early 1940’s, The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of His Time, McLuhan formulated the notion of “an ancient quarrel” which had played out in European cultural history over the two millennia between classical Athens and the end of the Elizabethan era. This ‘quarrel’ was depicted as arising between the three disciplines of the trivium: rhetoric, grammar and dialectic. In his paper from 1945, ‘An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America’, McLuhan then extended this description over the succeeding 400 years into our own time.

McLuhan’s three ‘trivial’ types1 were isomorphic with materialism (rhetoric), idealism (dialectic) and the interplay of these two (grammar). And like materialism and idealism, McLuhan’s forms were treated as fundamental types of reality — as ontologies.

Werner Heisenberg described a similar “ancient quarrel” which had been reborn in contemporary quantum physics:2

our purpose [in quantum physics] today is to solve problems that have faced humanity for a very long time [such] that the theoretical work of our era is related to the efforts undertaken by mankind3 thousands of years ago. (9)

It is remarkable that this old question of materialism and idealism [and of “a certain intermediate layer of reality, halfway between the massive reality of matter and the intellectual reality of the idea”]4 has again been raised in a very definite form by modern atomic physics and particularly by the quantum theory. (12)

the possibility or “tendency” for an event to take place has a kind of reality — a certain intermediate layer of reality, halfway between the massive reality of matter and the intellectual reality of the idea (16)

the science of nature does not deal with nature itself but in fact with the science of nature as mankind thinks and describes itThis does not introduce an element of subjectivity into natural science. We do not by any means pretend that occurrences in the universe depend on our observations, but we point out that natural science stands between nature and mankind (20)

It seems to me fascinating to think that there is today a struggle in the most diverse countries of the world and with the most powerful means5 at the disposal of modern technology to solve together problems posed two and a half millennia ago by the Greek philosophers (27-28)

  1. See McLuhan’s ‘James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial’ (1953).
  2. The cited passages are all from ‘Die Plancksche Entdeckung und die philosophischen Probleme der Atomphysik’, lecture from the 13th conference of the Rencontres Internationales de Genève, September 4, 1958. Translation in On Modern Physics, 1962 as ‘Planck’s discovery and the philosophical problems of atomic physics’.
  3. ‘Man’ in the translation of Heisenberg’s essay has been changed to ‘mankind’ throughout.
  4. See the next passage from p 16.
  5. Plato was clear in his depiction of the gigantomachia (Sophist 246-249) that the unending struggle of gigantic first principles in their gigantic differences with one another is the most gigantic of all disputes.

Ontology and physics

Machiavelli stands at the gate of the modern age, divorcing technique from social purpose. (The Mechanical Bride, 87)

The interrelation (or ratio) of ontology and physics may be imagined along a spectrum with the two as the extreme poles at its ends.  On one extreme, only ontology and no physics; at the other, only physics and no ontology. Along the spectrum between the two extremes towards its midpoint, the ratio of the two would represent decreasing exclusive emphasis until, at the midpoint, the two would be equally weighted. 

Between the extreme ontology end of the spectrum and its middle, the ratio between ontology and physics would always be weighted to ontology but, as the midpoint were approached, with decreasing relative importance accorded to ontology and increasing relative importance to physics . The physics side would exhibit the same configuration in reverse, with the ratio between the two always weighted to physics but tending to balance with ontology towards the middle of the spectrum.

Historically, it would seem that most societies have located themselves close to the ontology end of the range. Although it is probably impossible to have no inkling of physics (since a practical understanding of it is implicated in tasks like cooking), the overwhelming majority of societies have not attempted to develop a knowledge of physics independent of such practical activities and of their cultural tradition. In the history of mankind, the dominance of ontology over physics  has been by far the usual case.

Only in what is styled as ‘western civilization’ has the notion of a physics that would be independent of ontology taken root (from the seed of the ‘Greek miracle’) and then developed chiefly after Copernicus (1473–1543) and, not incidentally, his close contemporary, Luther (1483–1546). Copernicus himself (like many of his relatives) took orders in the church and may have been a priest (so the relative weight of ontology was preserved in his family and person).

With Galileo (1564-1642), a century later, and Newton (1642–1726)1, a century after that, the mutual implication of ontology and physics remained as something desirable, but not such that ontology was allowed to influence research in physics. Far rather, especially to be seen in Newton’s alchemy and religious writings, the hope was to develop or uncover a new formulation of ontology, using an analogous sort of scientific investigation to that of physics. Only gradually in the following two centuries did the notion arise that ontology was nothing but a hindrance to the proper discipline of science. What is called ‘the death of God’ is the sociological fact that all the tasks of life, and especially science, come to be practised with the explicit rejection of even the possibility of ontological input.

Now in the 21st century, this sociological and methodological fact appears to have led into a cul de sac. Problems at the individual and social level, exacerbated by discoveries in science, threaten to overwhelm civilization and even the biosphere itself.  And even in science, it may be that problems particularly in quantum physics cannot be solved absent a renewed consideration of ontology (dual genitive!).

Kurt Riezler (in Physics and Reality) and David Bohm with Basil Hiley (especially in The Undivided Universe: An Ontological Interpretation of Quantum Theory) have raised this possibility explicitly.  While their particular suggestions must of course be subject to rigorous testing, the idea that physics may be informed by ontology has a number of appeals.

In the first place, if humans were to have the possibility of ontological knowledge, physics (like any area of human life) could only gain by including input from it in its work. Werner Heisenberg has put the point as follows: “the physicist, too, can observe certain governing principles [= ontological principles] that allow a valuable insight into present problems”.2 

Secondly, and more importantly, if physics can genuinely (ie, demonstrably) be aided or even guided by ontology, this would constitute a new way to formulate ontology and, therefore, a new way to understand the relation of human beings to it. The bubble of nihilism would be popped. If Riezler (1882-1955), McLuhan (1911-1980) and Bohm (1917-1993) were correct, such a scientific formulation of ontology may represent the one way out of the potentially fatal problems in which the planet is currently ensnared.

  1. These are the old style dates of Newton’s birth and death. In the new style, 1643-1727.
  2. ‘Planck’s discovery and the philosophical problems of atomic physics’, 1958, in On Modern Physics, 1962, p 9. For further discussion see Heisenberg on ‘an ancient quarrel’ and Heisenberg on possibility. The translation of Heisenberg’s remarks has been slightly altered from “the physicist, too, can observe certain governing principles (= ontological principles) that allow him a valuable insight into his own present problems.”

Bohm and Hiley on “active information”

McLuhan was greatly struck by an observation in Norbert Wiener’s 1950 The Human Use Of Human Beings  concerning “the electron valve “:

it is no longer necessary to control a process at high energy-levels by a mechanism in which the important details of control are carried out at these levels. (173)

He had read Wiener’s book soon after it was published and then immediately wrote to Wiener relating this observation to his own field of English literature:

Your account of the uses of the vacuum tube in heavy industry is an exact description of the poetic techniques of Joyce and Eliot in constructing their works. Their use of allusion as situational analogy effects an enormous amplification of power from small units, at the same time that it permits an unrivalled precision. (McLuhan to Norbert Wiener, March 28, 1951, Norbert Wiener Papers M.I.T.)

In essays from the early 1950s1 McLuhan went on to specify further both how “a tiny amount of energy can be exactly controlled or stepped up instantly to very high potentials”2 and how this principle applied to language and communication in general. Wiener had traced the idea back to Edison3, but for McLuhan it could be seen at work throughout “the whole history of culture”:

When current is too weak for direct flow, it can, in a vacuum tube, be used as signal voltage on the grid of the tube. Then every variation in the shape of the wave will be faithfully reproduced in the output wave of the tube. Thus a tiny amount of energy can be exactly controlled or stepped up instantly to very high potentials. Now metaphor has always had the character of the cathode-anode circuit, and the human ear has always been a grid, mesh, or, as Joyce calls it in Finnegans Wake, Earwicker. But Joyce was the first artist to make these aspects of language and communication explicit. In so doing, he applied the principles of electronics to the whole history of culture.2

The central point was that control of an electric circuit or of sense requires a break through a repurposing takes place. As McLuhan would later put it: “the gap is where the action is”.

With electronification the flow is taken out of the wire and into the vacuum tube circuit, which confers freedom and flexibility such as are in metaphor and in words themselves.5

Such a break in flow occurs in all language and communication:

Metaphor means a carrying across. All speech is metaphoric because any oral sound is a gesture towards externalizing an inner gesture of the mind. (…) [Likewise] writing is metaphor for sound. It translates, or metamorphizes the audible into the visual. There is necessarily discontinuity in metaphor. There has to be a leap from one situation to another. (‘Radio and Television vs. The ABCED-Minded’, Explorations 5, 1955) 

Now Bohm and Hiley offer comparable considerations of what they call “active information” in The Undivided Universe:6

  • new properties of matter (…) are revealed by the quantum theory. The first of these new properties can be seen by noting that the quantum potential is not changed when we multiply the field ψ by an arbitrary constant.(…) This means that the effect of the quantum potential is independent of the strength (i.e. the intensity) of the quantum field but depends only on its form.
  • consider a ship on automatic pilot being guided by radio waves. Here, too, the effect of the radio waves is independent of their intensity and depends only on their form. The essential point is that the ship is moving with its own energy, and that the form of the radio waves is taken up to direct the much greater energy of the ship.
  • The basic idea of active information is that a form having very little energy enters into and directs a much greater energy. The activity of the latter is in this way given a form similar to that of the smaller energy.
  • consider a radio wave whose form carries a signal. The sound energy we hear in the radio does not come directly from the radio wave itself which is too weak to be detected by our senses. It comes from the power plug or batteries which provide an essentially unformed energy that can be given form (i.e. in-formed) by the pattern carried by the radio wave. This process is evidently entirely objective and has nothing to do with our knowing the details of how this happens. The information in the radio wave is potentially active everywhere, but it is actually active, only where and when it can give form to the electrical energy which, in this case, is in the radio.
  • in the process of cell growth it is only the form of the DNA molecule that counts, while the energy is supplied by the rest of the cell (and indeed ultimately by the environment as a whole). Moreover, at any moment, only a part of the DNA molecule is being ‘read’ and giving rise to activity. The rest is potentially active and may become actually active according to the total situation in which the cell finds itself. While we are bringing out (…) the objective aspects of [active] information, we do not intend to deny its importance in subjective human experience. [On the contrary]7, we wish to point out that even in this domain, the notion of active information still applies.
  • it seems that the general idea of something like active information is (…) needed for an ontological explanation of quantum theory.
  • The wave function is defined in the configuration space of all the particles. (…) Information is ordered in the configuration space rather than in the ordinary space of three dimensions.  The fact that the wave function is in configuration space implies that we have to look more carefully into the meaning of active information in such a context. First of all we may consider its implications for all the motions of the particles. These now respond in a correlated way to what is, in effect, a common pool of information. 

“Configuration space” considered as “a common pool of information” and as differentiated from three dimensional space is closely related to Bohm’s notion of the “implicate order” of possibility.8



  1.  Documented in Poetry as circuit control.
  2.  ‘Radio and Television vs. The ABCED-Minded’,  Explorations 5, 1955.
  3. The Human Use Of Human Beings: “The most flexible universal apparatus for amplifying small energy-levels into high energy-levels is the vacuum tube, or electron valve. The history of this is interesting, though it is too complex for us to discuss here. It is however amusing to reflect that the invention of the electron valve originated in Edison’s greatest scientific discovery and perhaps the only one which he did not capitalize into an invention.” (173)
  4.  ‘Radio and Television vs. The ABCED-Minded’,  Explorations 5, 1955.
  5. Historical Approach to the Media, 1955.
  6. The selections here are from The Undivided Universe, sections 3.2, 3.3 and 3.4.
  7. Bohm and Hiley: “however”.
  8. For further discussion of this important jigsaw piece, see The keyboards of existenceBohm on the spacetimes of consciousness  and Riezler on possibility.

Riezler on possibility

Kurt Riezler’s considerations of ontology and of possibility are closely bound together. He conceives of Being as the urge to realize particular form from out of the range of possible forms: “Being is intrinsically mobile”. It is this dynamic urge that is fundamental to all movement, especially the movement of creative insight.1 For this is insight which is creative just to the extent that it aligns itself, knowingly or not, with the prior urge of Being itself. Both are essentially unmotivated by anything prior to them.2

The selections below are from Riezler’s 1940 Physics and Reality  In them Riezler speaks in the name of Aristotle to modern physicists.3 The selections are given here in the order in which they appear in Riezler’s text.

Being is intrinsically mobile, changing. What does that mean?

Before we attempt an answer [to the question of Being and its mobility], we shall have to agree upon the meaning of the [word] ‘is’.4 Perhaps here at the very beginning lies the source of our dissension. Your meaning of this ‘is’ may not be mine, mine not yours. If I am not mistaken you recognize only one possible meaning of that ‘is’.

I see, however, discontent and resistance in your faces. I can guess what annoys you — that dangerous word ‘is’. You fear to get entangled with its secret. You have worked out a thesis intended to elude it. You do not want to (…) hear that this ‘is’ is doubtful.

You admit perceptions only if they can be confirmed by any possible perceiver. [But] you eliminate the particular individuality of the perceiving subject. You have taken great pains to cast out the individual. You assume one ever present anonymous observer [as] the [only] possible observer. Statements relative to him are for you ‘objective’ statements about reality. By such statements you establish your order of nature. You have, as a consequence of this assumption5, no right to pretend that you coordinate a totality of all possible or real perceptions with your model of nature [or] that your design of this model is confirmed by the totality of your perceptions. You have made a selection [from the range of possible perceptions and perceivers] and a very narrow one at that.

You have not eliminated the subject; you have eliminated merely the individual differences [of subjects] in favor of an [undifferentiated] anonymous subject (…) an odd creature, a robot without blood and heart, whose only being consists in reading numbers from the pointers of your instruments.  Your ‘objective’ reality is merely an (…) order relative to this robot observer. All that is not measurement is closed to him. Your most intimate and impressive experiences mean nothing to him. He has no part in the colorful fullness of Being.

So your objective world has become a strange world relative to a strange observer.

Everything [in your view] is unequivocally determined — [your] Real is the only Possible [one] and the [only] Necessary [one]. There is [for you] only one modality of Being.

Where is your criterion (…) that permits one world line and forbids another (…)? You have no such criteria.

Let us look at the relation between [your] kind of causality and the principium rationis. This causality [of yours] presupposes an axiomatic order that underlies the successions [you posit] in time and is built in a very particular way. From this (…) follows the causal relation [you investigate] between events or states. Thus [your] law of causality presupposes a specific axiomatic system. [But we] may deny6 this specific order and yet maintain the principium rationis. If there are other axiomatic systems able to cover the order of physical happenings the law of causality [you posit] would have to give way to another kind of determination. The principium rationis would not be shattered. 

In every moment the possibility of motion, even if not actualized, is present, inherent in your reality, as something lacking.7

Between moving and being moved, between the possibility and actuality of either, life is suspended. The absent mode is silently present as danger or as need. In the interplay of all these modes of motion you have your life — in their concordance, tension, disunity. All these emotions are knotted together. By their being so knotted they and you are concrete.

Instead of [merely] consulting your [set] scheme of nature [objectively] (…) question your own reality in your actions: your own selves as possibility are the ‘Whence’ [of] yourselves as actuality, the ‘Whither’ of your actions.8  The Whence and the Whither are different modalities of Being. The two modes are interconnected in a unity that is not to be divided. In between the two you are at every moment of your life. You are both. You are what you  are able to be.9 Your potentialities, even if not actualized now or ever, are nonetheless part of you. From your potentiality you reach out toward your actuality; from your actuality you are bent back to your potentiality. That is the to and fro motion and tension ever present, at every moment. When we pose the one without the other we disrupt the living reality. 

Your actuality at any given time is real in its relation to your potential actions10, all your possibilities being mutely present. But this potential Being is diversely articulated: [its range includes all] the possibilities of your own selves (…) and [all] the possibilities of the external world constituting11 your environment. One might say: internal and external  possibility. They too are interrelated. They move between harmony and discord. (…)  We have to consider the logos that conjoins them. You cannot comprehend one of its members by tearing it from the others. The detached part would cease to be. The parts exist only as a whole articulated within itself, only together. Each is silently present in the others.

Being is nothing without a world in which it is actualized,  vain is a world that does not reveal Being.

We can say that living beings are always ‘on the way’ from a Whence to a Whither — and that not because Time goes on. Forget Time for a while. In acting and being acted on this ‘being on the way’ has a different meaning. In pure acting the self-constituent being is ‘on the way’ from itself to itself, from its innermost potentiality to the actualization of this potentiality (…) In pure acting the Whence of Motion is somewhat like your inner nature, the Whither somewhat like its fulfilment. In my terminology the Whence is dynamis, the Whither the energeia of this dynamis. This motion is self-movement. It is the joy of all your joy. 

Measured and judged by that self~movement, undergoing action means to be moved. But we are finite beings. Pure acting is not our lot. In undergoing action we move not from ourselves to ourselves, but from one something to another something, neither of which is entirely ‘we’. We are acted on in so far as we are moved aside from the way we are on; in our acting, we are [at once] deprived of our possibilities [and] our actualities are stunted and shattered. Thus I say: in acting and being acted on the Whence and the Whither are not the same Whence and Whither. In acting they are yours, in being acted on they are not. But keep in mind that both acting and being acted on are only modes of one and the same Being, that we are always on both [these] ways. We are able to act only because we are beings who are acted on. And we are acted on only as beings able to act.

All (…) your actions imply undergoing action. Suffering may even be the larger part of your acting.

When our acting is pure acting, which it never is, we move from a potential self to an actual self. This is one of the two modes of our ‘being on the way’. We are all at every moment ‘in between’ our potentiality and our actuality. Do not, please, think of these two termini of our acting as cause and effect, or apply Time to them. (…) Put your mind on the  logical structure linking the two terms together in yourselves so that each is the one of the other. If the first term, the Whence, appears to be prior to the Whither, it is certainly not prior in Time, as is cause to effect. Its priority, if there is priority, is by nature not by time. 

In this reading the two terms [potentiality and actuality, dynamis and energeia] would be related as ‘reason’ to ‘consequence’. (…) This ‘reason’ is, as it were, the soil, the
ground, out of which the action grows. It is ratio essendiDisregard your ratio cognoscendi.

From Sappho come forth sweet sounds. Only in singing is Sappho what she is; her own actuality. Sappho silent, the potential singer, is not yet quite what she is: the fullness of her Being. Or better still, consider her language. This language, as [the] pure potentiality of singing, certainly is and [yet] is not [yet] something real. Only in singing does it become wholly itself, its very own reality become sure of itself and enjoying being real. Potentiality thirsts for actuality [= “Being is intrinsically mobile”]. Language wants to be spoken, to sound, Sappho wants to sing.

Sappho’s singing will make clearer what I mean when I speak of pure action: the actualizing of Sappho’s inner nature, passing from potentiality to actuality. In her singing Sappho moves herself, from herself to herself. In this kind of motion singing, not the song, is the Whither, the end.

Consider the kind of Being you must attribute to your language, when you are not actually speaking it. It exists in that mode of Being I call possibility. The essence of language is that it can be spoken. But language is not a mere sum of possible utterances, of vocabulary, and grammar. It is all [an] organized whole, a system, embracing an immensity of possible phrases, styles, all manner of good and bad speaking. This mode of Being, I confess, is not altogether easy to grasp. In its innermost life language seems to be animated and governed by something you call its spirit, a thing to be neither denied nor understood clearly. As beings capable of speech you can conceive of yourselves as being ‘in’ your language as in a field of possibilities. You yourselves are this field. Its inner life, its hidden spirit is part of you. When you speak you pass from possibility to actuality. You actualize the language and yourselves. 

The basis of what you call your inner nature, your Whence, is such a field of possibilities. A field of possibilities is a kind of axiomatic system, like one of your spaces, the three dimensional space of Euclid, for instance. The axioms govern the figures that can be actualized in such a space. In the same way the immanent axioms — which, taken together, are what [one may]12 call the spirit of your language — rule your speech. Of course you do not know these axioms of your inner nature; they remain secluded. They limit your possibilities; they also guide your actualizing. You may again note for later, that a moment ago I used the term ‘space’, [but this is] not yet your space of the order of the Many…

This field of possibilities has nothing to do with your electrodynamic and gravitational fields. We are dealing with something far more fundamental. In your view of reality there is no such thing as a field of possibilities or even possibility at all. You deal with actualities after having deprived reality of its reach into the realm of the possible. But the possible too is real in its way.

When you regard your inner nature you will recognize that something like a field of possibilities is part of your reality and that this field is endowed with a dynamic force. You yourselves as [related to] such a field are a ‘dynamic agens‘. There is something urging you from possibility into actuality. This very urge is the lifeblood of your existence.

Before leaving [discussion of] the Whence I should mention that it has to do with what I called matter. Matter is potentiality. It is not your matter.

Applying the concept or the Whence as a field of possibilities to our being among others in a common world we may say that your inner nature as a field of possibilities governed by an unseen system of laws or norms or axioms or codes, and endowed with that dynamic urge for actuality, is merely a field in a field or [a] space in space. (…) Your individual field of possibilities stands in a more general space, common to you and to others. You may think of this general space too as governed by laws, ordered by axioms valid for you as well as for others. There may even be, as in your geometry, a hierarchy of spaces of increasing generality leading to the odd conception of the still undetermined space of unlimited possibility, which awaits fashioning: a receptacle of axioms. That I call ultimate matter, but I do not mean your matter. It is this space Plato speaks of in the Timaeus

In this general space, which is neither your space nor your matter, you and the others-to-you are begotten. The  different individual fields are not side by side, unconnected.  They are in a more general field. It is in this field that you actualize yourselves as individual fields, and so do the others. Thus your moving changes the fields of the others [and] their moving changes yours. Referring to your possibilities you must distinguish between an inner and an outer possibility, the first expressing your inner nature, the other representing the situation that permits you to do A and restrains you from doing B.

Pure possibility is an abstraction. Possibility is nothing in itself. It is what it is through its relation to actuality. Your possibility is a momentum of your reality.

Your present individual actuality (…) may be [conceived as] your possibility actualized at the moment. It is by no means all your possibilities or the best. It is never quite your own. In this present actuality you ‘are’ all you are [currently] capable of, [but at the same time] you ‘are’ somehow [also] your not yet actualized possibilities. At any moment you may be said to be acting in so far as you move from yourselves to yourselves, actualizing and continuing to actualize your innermost possibility [from the range of possibilities]. Acting you enjoy your own selves — and the world.

Your potential being holds more than one actuality. Choosing means a movement from more than one to one.

To you [modern physicists] possibilities are not real. An observer who happened to be of your cast of mind would insist that the actuality expanded in actual space-time is the whole of reality. He would try desperately to connect the actualities located at different points of this space-time by means of your straight-line causality.

[We] move from the possible to the actual within the range of [our] possibilities, actualizing one of them, be it germane or more remote. In their action these two modes of being on the way [from the the possible to the actual and between actualities] are intermeshed.

The movement from actuality to actuality includes another movement from the potential to the actual. (…) This beginning [in the potential] and this end [in the actual], the Whence and the Whither of acting, are not separated by a stretch of time. They must be thought of as synchronous.

Your world is the plane of actuality. Your laws relate  actualities to one another. They are verified by experience in a stratum detached by the anonymous observer from the totality of phenomena. (…) But the plane of actuality is not the entire body of reality. Reality embraces both actuality and potentiality; the surface and the depth, in which the [identities we experience] are engendered [and] from which they strive to emerge. These [identities], called substances, relate [potentiality to actuality and] actuality to potentiality.  At every moment they are in between the concord and discord [of potentiality and actuality]. They move and are moved, act and are acted on.

There is only one foundation. Possibilities progress to  actuality. This is the primary movement.

The past is the actualized part of possibilities, the future the part waiting to be actualized. The past ever increases, the future decreases. It is beyond your power to change the past, an absolute impotence; you may be able13 to change the future, a relative weakness [but also a relative potency].

A certain movement is concealed that connects not only present with past and future actualities but also your potentiality with your actuality. In remembering you do not merely go back to past actualities. You remember what you were from the beginning, your potentiality, your inner nature with its secret rules and tendencies. The learning child remembers what he never knew. That is Plato’s Anamnesis. [When] you go back to the ‘Whence’ of your acting in every moment you are fully alive; when not, you lose yourselves.

You will never be able to comprehend the concrete interplay of past and future by merely connecting past and future as parts of your straight-line time of actualities. You must draw in possibility. Then you transcend your concept of time as a line of now points, to each of which belongs a given actuality.

Differentiate actual fields and fields of possibility, which are [fundamentally to be distinguished but are] related to each other. Perhaps that would help physics too and make it easier for you to deal with matter.

When you take hold of Matter — a bit of Matter here and now — it becomes to you nothing but a physical field of force. Thinking about the physical field of force and its changes you feel you need something that produces and agitates such a field: Matter reappears as a ‘dynamic agent’. So you endow Matter with a kind of double nature. In that you are right. But note: this double nature is not contradictory, nor is it something to get free from. The doubleness is unity, articulated within itself. The field of force is the present actuality of a field of possibilities which strive to actualize themselves. That is ‘matter’.

  1. ‘The movement of creative insight’ — a dual genitive!
  2. See Bohm on making and matching.
  3. Occasionally clarifications of Riezler’s words have been inserted — his English was very good, but it was not his mother tongue. The first word of a selection has sometimes been capitalized where it is not capitalized in the original. Reference page numbers have been omitted since the book is very short (121 pages) and several of the formats of the book available at the Internet Archive are searchable. Finding the original passages is very easy at the Archive site or by downloading the book in one of the searchable formats.
  4. Riezler: “We shall have to agree, before we attempt an answer, upon the meaning of the ‘is’.”
  5. Instead of ‘as a consequence of this assumption’, Riezler has ‘then’.
  6. Riezler: ‘You may deny’.
  7. Something lacking: Aristotle’s steresis (στέρησις).
  8. The two instances of ‘actions’ in this sentence have been substituted for Riezler’s ‘acting’.
  9. Instead of ‘what you are able to be’, Riezler has ‘what you are able to do’.
  10. Riezler has ‘acting’ here, not ‘actions’.
  11. Riezler: ‘concerning’.
  12. Riezler: ‘you’.
  13. Riezler: ‘unable’.

Riezler on ontology

Kurt Riezler was Kurator (regent) and professor of philosophy at the University of Frankfurt from 1928 to 1933, where he assembled an outstanding faculty including Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Max Wertheimer, Herbert Marcuse, Karl Mannheim, Paul Tillich and others. Riezler attempted to recruit Heidegger as well and although he did not succeed, the two became good enough friends that Heidegger stayed with Riezler when he visited Frankfurt.

As seen in his 1940 Physics and Reality lectures, given in New York after Riezler’s emigration from Germany, he was greatly influenced by Heidegger’s appeal to a renewed consideration of Being and to do so especially with Aristotle. Indeed, in these lectures, Riezler spoke in the name of Aristotle.  First person constructions in the selections below therefore relate to the Stagirite, while second person constructions refer to contemporary physicists.

The nature you talk about as scientists is not the nature you mean when you say ‘l am’. Nature is one, immutable,  eternally varying — the way of Being in all beings, revealed as eternal movement, formation, deformation, and transformation. You yourselves, [with] your desire for knowledge, you are Nature. And yet you have opened between your comprehension of yourselves and your knowledge of Nature a chasm that engulfs in darkness your common being.  

You cannot (…) find the way back to the unity of Being, to that one Nature in which you are kin to all beings, the eternally equal, which, imperturbable, conceals and reveals itself in all that is

You dispense with ‘is’.

A statistical law does not state anything about the nature of elementary events. It is from their inherent nature, preliminary to all aggregates, that the arrow of Time springs. Here must be its source. This source you cannot find.

The answer the world gives to your way of questioning is an order of [instrumental] pointer readings. (…) This answer is an answer neither of the world nor of your own Being. You can make it pass neither as one nor the other. You have not examined the ‘Being’ of the subject. Maybe from its knowledge of its own Being the subject would have given [and been given] an entirely different answer. [But] you have lost the ability to inquire in that way: you no longer even know that such a way of inquiry is possible and still less that you could obtain an objective answer to such questions. 

You know and accomplish a great deal, yet you have no picture of Nature, no total design of Being. 

You have cut science into parts. I am aghast, seeing that in your hands the specialization of sciences has resulted in dissecting the world into many worlds. I cannot make myself believe that this satisfies you. The world is one. Nature is one. One tie links all Being. That uniting logos of Being must be unearthed. My name for this task, ontology, has acquired ill fame. But what’s in a name? The task remains — soluble or not — yours [today] as [much as] it was mine [yesterday].

Thought, even when proceeding  without contradiction, remains empty unless it refers to Being. We must question Reality and listen patiently to what it condescends to tell us.

The logos of Being revealed in you and in the world surrounding you — that is the kind of knowledge Man by his very nature longs for.

In putting this question you must step back1 — far, perhaps so far as to revise the meaning of the’ is’ in your questions. 

I must go behind your very first assumptions. I return to the meaning of the tiny word ‘is’.

There is in your subjectivity an objective reality by virtue of which you ‘are’. That is what I am speaking of. It is the soil all beings are rooted in.

I court Being in this sense. On this quest you must not start from an order of the Many in space and time. 

The inward denseness, not the outward breadth, has to be grasped. What l am searching for I call ‘Being’, concreteness, [the] Being of beings so far as they ‘are’

Empty is this cosmos and all within it futile unless it is founded in this Being of Being. 

Only the whole ‘is’. In this whole the inner density of Being resides. 

My master and friend, Plato, said: all Nature is ‘born together’ [Menon 81d]. This statement, interpreted as a statement about the order of the cosmos, would mean: all the different beings that exist — stones, animals, plants, stars — were born together.2 That is not the primary sense of Plato’s words. Not the Many, distributed in time and space, were born together, but that logos by virtue of which every one of these Many has its being is a unity of ‘momenta’ that are born together.3 The body of this unity cannot be disjointed. Physis means the nature of Being qua Being. This nature is the same in all beings that ‘are’.

It is not the Many of the world ordered in space and time, but the oneness of Being folded within itself. It is this One that needs to be inquired into and comprehended before the Many can be brought into an order.

You must seek in a quite unaccustomed way. Nature is one. The little word ‘is’ [here] has a double meaning. Corresponding to this double meaning are two senses of the word ‘nature’. First yours: the order of the Many in time and space, Nature as world. Then mine: nature as  ‘Physis‘, the structure of concreteness so far as the concrete is concrete; Nature as Being.

Nature as world is ‘given’ as a compound of phenomena in the breadth of space and in the length of time. Nature as Physis is revealed to you in yourselves as [the] inner density of your existing, as [the] substantiality of your Being. Either is [= ‘can be’] experience. To each kind of experience corresponds a way of putting questions: To the first, the question concerning the order of the Many, the frame of this order, the relations connecting the Many, the laws governing these relations. To the second corresponds another way of questioning: inquiry into ‘Being as far as it is’, into that logos and that community of momenta in which reality is really real. To me the second question is the one to be put first. You lost sight of this question when you separated subject and object. Thus the double meaning of ‘is’ cleaves in two the meaning of the word ‘nature’, of experience, the framing of the question, the logos of an answer, and [of all] knowledge. And yet Nature is one in both senses of ‘is’, in both kinds of revelation, in both ways of putting questions. This unity is Nature’s own secret. To distinguish the two senses is not a whimsy of human thought and speech; the realness of reality imposes it. A Mystery divides and unites the two. It will not do to put the one question without also putting the other.

Being is nothing without a world in which it is actualized, vain is a world that does not reveal Being. Either reading of Nature remains devoid of meaning without the other. Only in each other ‘are’ they both. 

Being is a logical unity, the unity of a structure. (…) Each [particular one] is a One, however, not only by virtue of being countable as one but by that very unity of modes united in a logos whose wholeness is antecedent to its articulations.

Nature antecedes your separating subject and object. She embraces both. Their correlation is what is ‘given’ first. If you separate the two and break their unity she will elude you.

You receive reality from others as well as give it to others. In give and take, in to and fro, in the concord and discord of both, has your Being the wholeness of Being.

In between all these momenta, in their unity, tension, conflict, Substance ‘is’ and confers Being on things through relating them to itself. 

The order of the Many, called ‘world’, is a plurality of Ones. These Ones are Ones by nature not by human thought. They are autonomous Ones, substances. In Substance the substantiality of the One and of the Many is tethered. Substance unites World and Being. Through Substance World becomes Being, Being becomes World. All other categories are related to Substance. Like Substance they must (…) play a double role: they must order the Many and articulate the logos of Being. Charged with erecting the frame of the order of the Many, these categories should have a meaning in that logos of Being qua Being that is able to cover the inner concreteness [of all things]. 

Being includes the correlation between Subject and Object that is antecedent to your separating. 

I inquire into ‘Being’ — into the structure of the logos by virtue of which a being essentially ‘is’. 

Consider the kind of Being you must attribute to your language, when you are not actually speaking it. It exists in that mode of Being I call possibility. The essence of language is that it can be spoken. But language is not a mere sum of possible utterances, of vocabulary, and grammar. It is an organized whole, a system, embracing an immensity of possible phrases, styles, manners of good and bad speaking. This mode of Being, I confess, is not altogether easy to grasp. In its innermost life language seems to be animated and governed by something you call its spirit: a thing to be neither denied nor understood clearly. (…) You may think and speak of the different styles of a language as of spaces in space, fields in a field. (…) In this general apace, which is neither your space nor your matter, you and the others to you are begotten. The different individual fields are not side by side, unconnected. They are in a more general field. It is in this field that you actualize yourselves as individual fields, and so do the others. Thus your moving changes the fields of the others [and] their moving changes yours.

All these momenta of time, however, are ‘born together’; none can be isolated. Thus in articulating Substance we articulate Motion; in articulating Motion we articulate Time; but in all this articulating we meet one and the same logos of momenta, interconnected by an eternal necessity: the logos of Being. Nature’s very nature.

The logos of substance uniting the creator and the creature,  natura naturans and natura naturata, is the logos of Being — to be enjoyed and to be endured.

Relation is prior to the relata. You actually do not define one by means of the other but each by means of a whole that is articulated within itself.

The One is folded within itself.

Being is immortal; all beings die.

Reality has both an outward breadth and an inward density.4 (…) The two are correlated. They must be seen together. The one must help you to decipher the other. Their relation  precedes the relata.

So you [must learn to] know Being — the realness of reality. Try to grasp the iron logos welding together the inseparable joints of this Being; you will find it at the bottom of whatever you choose to look into.

  1. The step back — der Schritt zurück in German — has been considered in Germany at least since Schiller’s ästhetische Briefe and was an important topic for Heidegger.
  2. Riezler seems to have intended the phrase “born together” in the sense of ‘born joined’, not (or not primarily) as ‘born at the same time’.
  3. See the previous note. Logos for Riezler is the joint of things.
  4. See Riezler on possibility.

Riezler on the situation of the world

Kurt Riezler (1882-1955) may or may not have been read by McLuhan or Bohm.  But even if they did not, his 1940 Physics and Reality is important to consider in the context of their work in multiple perspectives.

Riezler’s short book is a consideration in the name of Aristotle of modern physics. Both for the sake of the dire situation of the world (not only on account of the then raging WW2) and for the sake of physics itself, Riezler recommended a return to the Greeks and to the notion (particularly developed by Aristotle) of the implication of possibility with actuality — or, in Bohm’s terms, of the implicate with the explicate order. Indeed, in the course of the book, Riezler raised a series of issues which are close to those found in McLuhan and Bohm and which, therefore, may be considered as additional jigsaw pieces for comparison to theirs. Further, Riezler had been close to Heidegger before emigrating to the US so that his work served to introduce little appreciated aspects of Heidegger’s thought without weighting them with Heidegger’s name or with the further complications of Heidegger’s difficult texts. Further yet, by applying Aristotle and Heidegger to modern physics, Riezler placed them in a context outside of philosophy where verification or falsification might be possible in a way, or ways, that are impossible within it.

Riezler’s analysis of the contemporary world closely matched those of McLuhan and Bohm:1

You are caught in a maze, snared by habits and trapped by methods from which you cannot free yourselves. (…) You have the most ingenious instruments, you use the most efficient methods, you know the most astounding laws. Your ships, automobiles, airplanes, and radios unite the globe and connect events. Your catapults pull down cities and upturn stones from the bottoms of your fields. You endow your rulers with superior technical means that choke all possibilities of opposition. (…) The most intense of all your experiences is your desire for knowledge; [but] in vain do I look for the place of this experience in your scheme of the Universe. There is no place [for it]. This, not your successes, is what astonishes me most. This experience has not and cannot have a place in your scheme. You have shut yourselves off from Nature. The further you penetrate into what you call nature the more elusive you become to yourselves. What, by Zeus, have you been doing? (…) You have opened between your comprehension of yourselves and your knowledge of Nature a chasm that engulfs in darkness your common being. You realize it. In all the splendor of your inventions this is your secret grief and the scandal of your science. (…) I must confess a tinge of admiration in my horror. This world [of yours], however, is merely the world of your anonymous observer: a world of [instrumental] pointer readings. (…) It is bleak and barren  and lacks sun despite its lucidity.  (…) I have been wondering how you are able to live in this world without freezing. (…) Your science is a mirror inadequate to the object to be reflected. There is something to which it is and must be blind. You are not able even to name this something, let alone detach it from the qualities of the mirror and separate the object from its reflection. (…) In this mirror neither everything that is can appear nor can everything appear as it is. The mirror both fails to reflect and distorts. This is its nature. In the image you cannot separate the qualities of the thing reflected from those of the mirror. You cannot know what is omitted and what distorted. Your mirror has begotten the image with the thing. You cannot distinguish the qualities of the [thing] parent in the [image] child. This inadequacy of the mirror to reflect the thing has led you up to now to conclude that the mirror must be ·transformed. From Newton to Einstein you have done this successfully. Now [today with quantum mechanics] there seems to be a limit beyond which you cannot go. (…) By the wonder of the harmony between calculation and observation Nature has led you astray from the reality you are yourselves into a net of concepts, in which you yourselves are futile, your weal and woes dumb, your experience a paper of ciphers you are neither able nor willing to read: World and Being are disconnected. You have no way of understanding the nature of yourselves in the light of Nature outside yourselves, no way of comprehending Nature as one and the same in ruling yourselves and in ruling the myriads of beings. Thus you feel homeless and isolated wherever you are. Amid your vast knowledge you miss the very knowledge you were born to desire. (…) You deal with abstractions, no longer with physical things. (…) Again and again just that in which the realness of reality resides will elude you. It must. (…) Here you are blocked, fenced in by your own procedure. (…) Your cosmos is a void. Reality has evaporated into numbers (…) into the void of bodiless abstractions. (…) When rulers of another breed run the enormous machines of your states and use your discoveries as means for their ends, and everywhere thought is banished into secret societies, you may one day be disposed to ask my question and ponder my answer [as proferred in this book].2 


  1. As well as those of Innis and Havelock.
  2.  Physics and Reality: pages 3, 3, 4, 4, 14, 14, 14, 28, 35, 61, 105, 105, 112, 115, 117.

Bohm on “the wrong turn”

Bohm’s 1980 dialogues with Krishnamurti published in 1985 as The Ending of Time begin as follows:

Krishnamurti: How shall we start? I would like to ask if humanity has taken a wrong turn.
Bohm: A wrong turn? Well it must have done so, a long time ago, I think.
K: That is what I feel. A long time ago… It appears that way —why? You see, as I look at it, mankind has always tried to become something.
B: Well possibly. I was struck by something I once read about man going wrong about five or six thousand years ago, when he began to be able to plunder and take slaves. After that, his main purpose of existence was just to exploit and plunder.
K: Yes, but there is the sense of inward becoming.
B: Well, we should make it clear how this is connected. What kind of becoming was involved in doing that? Instead of being constructive, and discovering new techniques and tools and so on, man at a certain time found it easier to plunder his neighbours. Now what did they want to become?
K: Conflict has been the root of all this.
B: What was the conflict? If we could put ourselves in the place of those people of long ago, how would you see that conflict?
K: What is the root of conflict? Not only outwardly, but also this tremendous inward conflict of humanity? What is the root of it?

McLuhan contemplated something like such a wrong turn in terms of the neolithic revolution and the institutionalization of visual space. For Innis and Havelock, too, the ascendancy of the eye relative to the ear introduced a dynamic of change in human history which has never yet been deeply understood.  Verstand in Hegel and Metaphysik in Heidegger introduce comparable concerns.

In all of these investigations, a key requirement is to understand what Krishnamurti calls “the root of conflict”. If there was some great change in human history, that change must have been rooted in some existing capacity for change, some dynamic as Aristotle put the point, that was already present in humans and that then came to particular emphasized expression. 

Not only outwardly, but also this tremendous inward conflict of humanity…

Indeed, time itself must have such possibility within it.  Or is time nothing other than such dynamic possibility for change?

K: …as I look at it, mankind has always tried to become something. (…)
What kind of becoming was involved?

The fundamental demand is to understand humans beings and their history in terms of potentials. What was — or is — already the case such that human history has unfolded as it has unfolded? As McLuhan wrote to Innis in 1951: 

I think there are lines appearing in Empire and Communications, for example, which suggest the possibility of organizing an entire school of studies. Many of the ancient language theories of the Logos type which you cite for their bearings on government and society have recurred and amalgamated themselves today under the auspices of anthropology and social psychology. Working concepts of “collective consciousness” in advertising agencies have in turn given salience and practical effectiveness to these “magical” notions of language. But it was most of all the esthetic discoveries of the symbolists since Rimbaud and Mallarmé (developed in English by Joyce, Eliot, Pound, Lewis and Yeats) which have served to recreate in contemporary consciousness an awareness of the potencies of language such as the Western world has not experienced in 1800 years.

McLuhan Bohm jigsaw pieces

Seemingly with no connection between each other, McLuhan and Bohm set out an astonishing number of parallel thoughts.1

These comparable thoughts may be taken to exemplify “the unintended parallelisms in methods” that Sigfried Giedion described in his introduction to the 1941 first edition of Space, Time & Architecture as “springing up” in the twentieth century between “the specialized sciences and the equally specialized arts”:

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

A number of questions ensue:

  • considered as similar pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, or puzzles, how do the individual pieces compare?2 how do they serve to augment or to modify or to clarify one another?
  • once one of these jigsaw pieces is put forward, is there a red thread which then leads an investigator on to others in the series?3
  • what pieces were taken by McLuhan on the one hand and Bohm on the other as particularly significant for putting the whole puzzle together?
  • how do the final ‘wholes’ compare?
  • what can be concluded from the repeated appearance of these pieces and their compound wholes throughout history?
  • how do these pieces and their compound wholes compare to other notions of the whole and their pieces?4 
  • how does this way of investigating compound wholes relate to the “comparative philosophy” of Paul Masson-Oursel5, Rupert Lodge (McLuhan’s first mentor) and others?


  1. A start on setting out these parallels has been made in posts on Bohm. Furthermore, many of these thoughts have recurred throughout the tradition in roughly similar form since the time of Plato and Aristotle (and arguably before them with the pre-Socratics). In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries,  many have been highly elaborated in the work of Hegel, Husserl and Heidegger. These comparable (not to say identical) further jigsaw pieces in philosophy must ultimately be examined with those of McLuhan and Bohm in the ways described in this post. In this context, see also the posts on Plato and on Riezler.
  2. As referenced in the preceding note, a start on this question in reference to Riezler and Bohm has been instituted elsewhere in this blog.
  3. Such a red thread might be considered as a kind of self-replication procedure belonging to the series itself. Or, in any case, as the activity of a kind of organic compound.
  4. This comparison of discrete ‘wholes’ — or galaxies — might be thought to be the question to which The Gutenberg Galaxy is an attempted answer.
  5. Paul Masson-Oursel published La philosophie comparée dedicated to his mentor, Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, in 1923. It was translated into English in 1926 by F.G. Crookshank, who contributed an essay, along with one by Bronisław Malinowski, to Ogden and Richards’ The Meaning of Meaning (also from 1923).

Bohm on the spacetimes of consciousness

What is is always a totality of ensembles, all present together, in an orderly series of stages of enfoldment and unfoldment, which intermingle and inter-penetrate each other in principle throughout the whole of space. (183-184)1

one moment gives rise to the next, in which content that was previously implicate is now explicate while the previous explicate content has become implicate… (205)

  Here is Bohm’s description of the electron according to this model:

the electron is (…) to be understood through a total set of enfolded ensembles, which are generally not localized in space2. At any given moment one of these may be unfolded and therefore localized [in ‘normal’ space], but in the next moment, this [unfolded] one enfolds [= resumes its status as only enfolded] to be replaced by the [next unfolded] one that follows. The notion of continuity of existence is  approximated by that of very rapid recurrence of similar forms, changing in a simple and regular way…(183)3

In this representation, an electron can be said to be a series of (so to say) sparks4 where each spark is a certain position in spacetime. Below such “unfolded” spacetime is another space and another time, in which all possible spacetime positions are enfolded. The ‘path’ of the electron is a “very rapid recurrence of similar forms”, that is, it is the sequence of possibilities that are sparked into “unfoldment”, one after the other, such that a path of an electron appears (for a certain kind of measurement). Compare the keyboard of a piano that enfolds the possible notes of an infinite series of unfolded melodies. A particular melody results from the activation in a particular way of a particular order of particular keys. 

Here the “continuity of [the electron’s] existence” is the result of a particular sort of measurement or experience.5  Measured differently 

sequences of moments that ‘skip’ intervening spaces are just as allowable forms of time as those which seem continuous. (211)6

For Bohm, consciousness, like everything else, exhibits such an ontological movement between “enfoldment” in an implicit order and “unfoldment” in an explicit one.

each moment of consciousness has a certain explicit content, which is a foreground, and an implicit content, which is a corresponding background. We now propose that not only is immediate experience best understood in terms of the implicate order, but that thought also is basically to be comprehended in this order. Here we mean not just the content of thought (…) we also mean that the actual structure, function and activity of thought is [grounded] in the implicate order. The distinction between implicit and explicit in thought is thus being taken here to be essentially equivalent to the distinction between implicate  and explicate in matter in general. (204)

Consciousness exercised in what Bohm calls the mechanical order (= McLuhan’s “visual space”), restricted as it is to ‘one thing at a time’, is unaware of such multiple synchronic levels of reality. Or, more precisely, it is aware of them, but only as a fearsome and inexplicable “emptiness” that haunts it:

Whatever may be the nature of these inward depths of consciousness, they are the very ground, both of the explicit content and of that content which is usually called implicit. Although this ground may not appear in ordinary consciousness, it may nevertheless be present in a certain way. Just as the vast ‘sea’ of energy in space is present to our perception as a sense of emptiness or nothingness so the vast ‘unconscious’ background of explicit consciousness with all its implications is present in a similar way. That is to say, it may be sensed as an emptiness, a nothingness, within which the usual content of consciousness is only a vanishingly small set of facets. (210)


  1.  Wholeness and the Implicate Order (1980) was immediately reprinted with corrections in 1981 (UK) and 1982 (US). Page references are to the 1982 edition.
  2. This is ‘space’ as normally conceived. In Bohm’s conception, space, like time, is inherently plural. “Evidently, this leads to a fundamentally new notion of the meaning of time. Both in common experience and in physics, time has generally been considered to be a primary, independent and universally applicable order, perhaps the most fundamental one known to us. Now, we have been led to propose that it is secondary and that, like space, it is to be derived from a higher-dimensional ground.” (211)
  3. Cf, Bohm, Causality and Chance in Modern Physics, 1957: “if a free electron of high energy passes through a photographic plate, it leaves a record of its track in the form of small grains of silver (…) These grains of silver are deposited as a result of the interaction of the electron with atoms near which it passes (…) Thus, the grains of silver approximately localize the path of the electron. (…) According to our customary way of reasoning, we would suppose that the track of grains of silver indicates that a real electron moves continuously through space in a path somewhere near these grains, and by interaction caused the formation of the grains. But according to the usual interpretation of the quantum theory, it would be incorrect to suppose that this really happened. All that we can say is that certain grains appeared, but we must not try to imagine that these grains were produced by a real object moving through space in the way in which we usually think of objects moving through space. For although this idea of a continuously moving object is good enough for an approximate theory, we would discover that it would break down in a very exact theory. Moreover, if we tried to see by experiment whether an electron really moved between the points on the track, for example, by means of a very precise microscopic observation of the position as it passed some point, say P, we would discover that, because of the transfer of a quantum (in the process of observation), the track would change in an unpredictable and uncontrollable way and become another track. Thus, according to this view, the notion of a moving electron which supplies a continuous connection between the points at which a track is observed is at best a purely metaphysical one that could never be subjected to experimental verification.” (89-90)
  4. Cf, Bohm on the atom: “an atom is said to ‘jump’ from one state to another without passing through intermediate states and in doing this to emit an indivisible quantum of light energy” (David Bohm, ‘A new theory of the relationship of mind and matter’, Philosophical Psychology, 3:2, 1990, 271-286).
  5. The recording of a melody is subject to speed-up and other sorts of manipulation. The result is to change the temporal relationship of the notes so that they sound as (say) a linear measure or as a simultaneous chord.
  6. See the passages from Bohm in notes 3 and 4 above.

Bohm on the ratio of ratios

McLuhan saw the ratio of ratios, aka, the analogy of proper proportionality, as fundamental:

Perhaps the most precious possession of man is his abiding awareness of the Analogy of Proper Proportionality, the key to all metaphysical insight, and perhaps the very condition of consciousness itself. This analogical awareness is constituted of a perpetual play of ratios among ratios. A is to B, what C is to D, which is to say the ratio between A and B, is proportionable to the ratio between C and D, there being a [third] ratio between these [first two] ratios, as well. This lively awareness (…) depends upon there being no connection whatsoever between the components [of these various ratios]. If A were linked to B, or C to D, [or A:B to C:D], mere logic would take the place of analogical perception, thus one of the penalties paid for literacy and a high visual culture is a [loss of such perception through its] strong tendency to encounter all things through a rigorous [connecting] storyline… (Through the Vanishing Point , 1968)1

Twenty years before, in 1948, McLuhan had made the same point in a letter to Ezra Pound:

the principle of metaphor and analogy – the basic fact that as A is to B so is C to D – AB:CD (McLuhan to Pound, December 21, 1948, Letters 207)

Bohm’s 1980 explication of the ratio of ratios in Wholeness and the Implicate Order accords closely with McLuhan’s:

ratio is not necessarily merely a numerical proportion (though it does, of course, include such proportion). Rather, it is in general a qualitative sort of universal proportion or relationship. Thus, when Newton perceived the insight of universal gravitation, what he saw could be put in this way: ‘As the apple falls, so does the moon, and so indeed does everything.’ To exhibit the form of the ratio yet more explicitly, one can write:
A : B :: C : D :: E : F
where A and B represent successive positions of the apple at successive moments of time, C and D those of the moon, and E and F those of any other object.2
Whenever we find a theoretical reason for something, we are exemplifying this notion of ratio, in the sense of implying that as the various aspects are related in our idea, so they are related in the thing that the idea is about. The essential reason or ratio of a thing is then the totality of inner proportions in its structure, and in the process in which it forms, maintains itself, and ultimately dissolves. In this view, to understand such ratio is to understand the ‘innermost being’ of that thing.3
It is thus implied that measure is a form of insight into the essence of everything, and that man’s perception, following on (…) such insight (…) will thus bring about generally orderly action and harmonious living. In this connection, it is useful to call to mind Ancient Greek notions of  measure in music and in the visual arts. These notions emphasized that a grasp of measure was a key to the understanding of harmony in music (e.g., measure as rhythm, right proportion in intensity of sound, right proportion in tonality, etc.). Likewise, in the visual arts, right measure was seen as essential to overall harmony and beauty (e.g., consider the ‘Golden Mean’). All of this indicates how far the notion of measure went beyond that of comparison with an external standard, to point to a universal sort of inner ratio or proportion, perceived both through  the senses and through the mind. (21)4

  1. TVP, 240. This passage is from ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, the second of two essays that frame TVP at its beginning and end.
  2. Later in Wholeness and the Implicate Order: “Within this new Cartesian order of perception and thinking that had grown up after the Renaissance, Newton was able to discover a very general law. It may be stated thus: ‘As with the order of movement in the fall of an apple, so with that of the Moon, and so with all.’ This was a new perception of law, i.e., universal harmony in the order of nature, as described in detail through the use of coordinates.” (114)
  3. See Bohm on formal cause.
  4.  Wholeness and the Implicate Order (1980) was immediately reprinted with corrections in 1981 (UK) and 1982 (US). Page reference is to the 1982 edition.

Bohm on making and matching

The principle of complementarity is indispensable to understanding the unconscious effects of technologies on human sensibility since the response is never the same as the input. This is the theme of The Gutenberg Galaxy where it is explained that the visually oriented person stresses matching rather than making in all experience. It is this matching that is often mistaken for truth in general. (McLuhan to Robert J Leuver, July 30, 1969, Letters 388)

… “testing the truth” is not merely matching by congruence or classification; it is making sense out of the totality of experience (…) Making sense is never matching or mere one-to-one correspondence which is an assumption of visual bias. (…) matching the old excludes making the new. (McLuhan, ‘The Argument: Causality in the Electric World’, 1973)

In Wholeness and the Implicate Order1 Bohm contrasts ‘making’ with ‘matching’ in much the same way as did McLuhan:

it is crucial that man be aware of the activity of his thought as such; i.e. as a form of insight, a way of looking, rather than as a ‘true copy of reality as it is’. It is clear that we may have any number of different kinds of insights. What is called for is not an integration of thought, or a kind of imposed unity, for any such imposed point of view would itself be merely another fragment. Rather, all our different ways of thinking are to be considered as different ways of looking at the one reality, each with some domain in which it is clear and adequate. (…) When we deeply understand that our theories also work in this way, then we will not fall into the habit of seeing reality and acting toward it as if it were constituted (…) corresponding to how it appears in our thought and in our imagination when we take our theories to be ‘direct descriptions of reality as it is’. (7-8)

to say: ‘This is a fact’ implies that the content of the statement in question is true. However, the root meaning of the word ‘fact’ is ‘that which has been made’ (e.g., as in ‘manufacture’). This meaning does have bearing here because, as is evident, in some sense we actually do ‘make’ the fact: for this fact depends not only on the context that is being  observed and on our immediate perception, it also depends on how our perceptions are shaped by our thoughts, as well as on what we do, to test our conclusions, and to apply them in practical activities. (43)

it is commonly believed that the content of thought is in some kind of reflective correspondence with ‘real things’, perhaps being a kind of copy, or image, or imitation of things, perhaps a kind of ‘map’ of things, or perhaps (along lines similar to those suggested by Plato) a grasp of the essential and innermost forms of things. Are any of these views correct? Or is the question itself not in need of further clarification? For it presupposes that we know what is meant by the ‘real thing’ and by the distinction between reality and thought. But this is just what is not properly understood… (53-54)

What, then, is the origin of the word ‘reality’? This comes from the Latin ‘res’, which means ‘thing’. To be real is to be a ‘thing’. ‘Reality’ in its earlier meaning would then signify (…) ‘the quality of being a thing’. It is particularly interesting that ‘res’ comes from the verb ‘reri’, meaning ‘to think’, so that literally, ‘res’ is ‘what is thought about’. It is of course implicit that what is thought about has an existence that is independent of the process of thought, or in other words, that while we create and sustain an idea as a mental image by thinking about it, we do not create and sustain a ‘real thing’ in this way. Nevertheless, the ‘real thing’ is  limited by conditions that can be expressed in terms of thought. Of course, the real thing has more in it than can ever be implied by the content of our thought about it, as can always be revealed by further observations. Moreover, our thought is not in general completely correct, so that the real thing may be expected ultimately to show behaviour or properties contradicting some of the implications of our thought about it. These are, indeed, among the main ways in which the real thing can demonstrate its basic independence from thought. The main indication of the relationship between thing and thought is, then, that when one thinks correctly about a certain thing, this thought can, at least up to a point, guide one’s actions in relationship to that thing to produce an overall situation that is harmonious and free of contradiction and confusion. (54)

Within this new Cartesian order of perception and thinking that had grown up after the Renaissance, Newton was able to discover a very general law. It may be stated thus: ‘As with the order of movement in the fall of an apple, so with that of the Moon, and so with all.’ This was a new perception of law, i.e., universal harmony in the order of nature, as described in detail through the use of coordinates.2 Such perception is a flash of very penetrating insight, which is basically poetic. Indeed, the root of the word ‘poetry’ is the Greek ‘poiein’, meaning ‘to make’ or ‘to  create’. Thus, in its most original aspects, science takes on a quality of poetic communication of creative perception of new order. (114)

The process of thought is not, however, merely a representation of the  manifest world; rather, it makes an important contribution to how we experience this world… (205)


  1. Wholeness and the Implicate Order (1980) was immediately reprinted with corrections in 1981 (UK) and 1982 (US). Page references are to the 1982 edition.
  2. See Bohm on the ratio of ratios.

McLuhan interview on The City as Classroom

In 1977, McLuhan did an “informal interview” with his student and chronicler, Carl Scharfe, about The City as Classroom, which had just been published. The interview is available in Youtube with a transcript. The transcript is given here in lightly edited form.


MM: The City as Classroom began out of Ivan Illich. Deschooling Society [1971] had challenged me. Illich was quite right in suggesting that we live in a new environment in which all the answers are now outside the school room and therefore he suggests, why don’t we close the schools?  I say, why not put the questions in the classroom? If the answers are now outside, let’s get the questions inside and set up a dialogue between the outside and the inside. So our book The City as Classroom [1977] is really designed to get students in small teams to go outside, to study the setup of the situations that they live with every day and to discover what they’re made of. I call it the figure-ground approach — to study sort of Ralph Nader style what is developing in this environment.

CS: What if we go back to to the word ‘school’ in ‘education’ — the roots of that — what were those words originally attended to mean?

MM: That’s what we have right at the beginning of the book. School,  scholia, among other things meant ‘leisure’ and so the persons who go to school are really the people who don’t have to work. On the other hand we have increasingly tended to turn the classroom into a place of work. We consider that the people in the classroom are workers. However the fact is that in the information environment outside, the workers are more engaged in learning than the people in the school room are. This is a paradox. There is more learning going on outside the classroom then there is inside the classroom, I mean a hundred times more.

CS: How has that situation come about?

MM: This has come about through the electronic environment. The information environment of the electric circuits and so on carry enormous quantities of information which are available to everybody outside the school room. Inside the school room not very much of this is available. The schools are committed to a form of learning which does not permit very much use of the electronic circuits. However, they’re aware of this now increasingly and aware that they might be able to take up some of the uses of the electric environment in the school. It however is merely a quantity approach and as a matter of fact I don’t think Illich in his de-schooling book made a very good analysis of the situation. He didn’t do a structural analysis, he merely noticed that the environment was now loaded with information.

CS: How would you suggest that the structure he put forth as a solution be [improved]?

MM: I don’t think he put forth any solution, he did a diagnosis. He said the situation is this and this and he suggested of course that the whole idea of the student in the school room is obsolete: that the student in the environment had been originally the form of learning. He was talking about a relatively non-man-made environment — the sort of environment he used as his model was pre-electronic and he saw that in the human past typically children and the young people were educated by simply working along with grown-up people in the community. Which is certainly true. Today the same thing is happening, we’re returning, rather. In the 17th and 18th centuries as the bourgeoisie got going they tended to pull their kids out of the environment and put them in school rooms where they could be given highly specialized training of what is now called literacy. But that sort of training had been alien to the studies of, say, the Middle Ages. Young people [then] became workers from the age of seven — they were fully qualified workmen, up to a point, by the age of seven. Today in the electronic environment a person of three years of age can be senile,  grey, with excess information.

CS: How did that come about?

MM: Just electronically. A child of three today has been around the world  thousands of times with advertisements. He has traveled to every corner of the earth with advertisements and other shows. So that he knows more  than Methuselah. Methuselah at the age of nine hundred had known very  little about this planet. He had never been around the world. But any infant today of three has been around the world many times in every corner of the world and this incredible situation is not recognized in the schools and not  taken advantage of. The phrase ‘grey at three’ comes out of James Joyce’s  Finnegans Wake but Finnegans Wake is quite aware that anybody who learns to speak a proper tongue or dialect has acquired vast information and vast skill. A child who at the age of one speaks English or his native tongue has learned more than he will ever learn again in all his life put together. That is because the language itself is a vast store of information and when a child has learned to speak English or Polish he has learned more than he will ever learn again in all his life put together. Well that is because language has this  peculiar character: it is a storehouse, it’s like a databank. Language is a vast databank stored with the impressions and knowledge of countless millions of people. Anybody who can speak any language has access to this huge databank of a language. Now electronically we are more and more aware of this and we’re more and more trying to simulate these databanks. We’re trying now mechanically as it were to store in databanks things which are  already inherent in any language.

CS: One of the things that occur to a lot of people is, if you take people out of the classroom, how much out of the classroom? What about thinking about that scheme through from high school all the way through to university into adult education. Is there a balance that you should have between inside and outside or should we totally do away [with school]?

MM: Well you can see that the book is loaded with projects which would take teams of students out of the classroom, two or three at a time. They would case the joint, size up their problem, and they’d have to do this by dialogue. They’d have to do a great deal of talking among themselves before, and then interviewing people, before they could go back to the classroom and report what they found. When they go back to the classroom there’s more and more and more dialogue with the people in the classroom and with the teacher of what they [had found].

Bohm on percept and concept

pattern re-cognition (…) requires not only concepts but active perception (…) Concepts always follow percepts.1 In fact they are a kind of ossification of percepts — endlessly repeated percepts [ossified into concepts] which frequently obscure invention and innovation. (McLuhan, ‘The Argument: Causality in the Electric World’, 1973)

In Wholeness and the Implicate Order (1980)2 Bohm discusses ‘percept’ in a way that illuminates McLuhan’s contrast of percept to concept:

we have to emphasize (…) the possibility of free movement and change in our general notions of reality as a whole, so as to allow for a continual fitting to new experience, going beyond the limits of fitting of older notions of this kind [what McLuhan termed ‘the rear-view mirror’]. (42)

There is in (…) mechanical [mental] process no inherent reason why the thoughts that arise should be relevant or fitting to the actual situation that evokes them.3 The perception of whether or not any particular thoughts are relevant or fitting requires the operation of an energy that is not mechanical, an energy that we shall call intelligence. This latter is able to perceive a new order or a new structure, that is not just a modification of what is already known or present in memory. For example, one may be working on a puzzling problem for a long time. Suddenly, in a flash of understanding, one may see the irrelevance of one’s whole way of thinking about the problem, along with a different approach in which all the elements fit in a new order and in a new structure. Clearly, such a flash is essentially an act of perception, rather than a process of thought. (51, Bohm’s italics)

it is necessarily implied, in any statement [being communicated], that the speaker is capable of talking from intelligent perception, [and the hearer of listening from intelligent perception,] which [intelligent perception] is in turn capable of a truth that is not merely the result of a mechanism based on meaning or skills acquired in the past. So we see that no one can avoid implying, by his mode of communication, that he accepts at least the possibility of that free, unconditioned perception that we have called intelligence. (52) 

Within this new Cartesian order of perception and thinking that had grown up after the Renaissance, Newton was able to discover a very general law. It may be stated thus: ‘As with the order of movement in the fall of an apple, so with that of the Moon, and so with all.’ This was a new perception of law, i.e., universal harmony in the order of nature, as described in detail through the use of coordinates. Such perception is a flash of very penetrating insight, which is basically poetic. Indeed, the root of the word ‘poetry’ is the Greek ‘poiein’, meaning ‘to make’ or ‘to create’. Thus, in its most original aspects, science takes on a quality of poetic communication of creative perception of new order. (114)

Bohm associates intelligent perception with communication as does McLuhan. For if it were not possible to begin anew in one’s understanding, how could a child (or the species for that matter) ever learn to speak?  Or learn anything (ie, learn anything new) in the continuing process of e-ducation?

  1. Concepts are percepts which have forgotten what they are.
  2.  Wholeness and the Implicate Order (1980) was immediately reprinted with corrections in 1981 (UK) and 1982 (US). Page references are to the 1982 edition.
  3. For both McLuhan and Bohm, this thought was closely tied to the question of how communication is possible at all, especially that first communication of the species or a child. “Mechanical  process” as “just a modification of what is already known or present in memory” cannot account for such novelty. So the further questions were prompted for both McLuhan and Bohm: how to explicate this possibility of communication (dual genitive!) and how to relate it to that other possibility (and predominance) of “mechanical process”?

Bohm on formal cause

McLuhan in a letter to Peter Drucker from December 15, 1959 (Letters, 259):

I refer to formal cause not in the sense of the classification of forms, but to their operation upon us and upon one another [of the forms themselves]. (…) Had a fascinating evening with Bernie Muller-Thym, last week, discussing these matters. He agreed with [the notion that] the entire order of existence and change becomes unintelligible if formal causality is banished from the center of study and awareness. At any rate, my media studies have gravitated toward the centre of formal causality, forcing me to re-invent it.

In Wholeness and the Implicate Order (1980)1 Bohm discusses ‘formal cause’ in a way that illuminates McLuhan’s recourse to it:

It is of crucial significance (…) to understand (…) formal cause. Unfortunately, in its modern connotation, the word ‘formal’ tends to refer to an outward form that is not very significant (e.g. as in ‘formal dress’ or ‘a mere formality’). However, in the ancient Greek philosophy, the word form meant, in the first instance, an inner forming activity which is the cause of the growth of things, and of the development and differentiation of their various essential forms. For example, in the case of an oak tree, what is indicated by the term ‘formal cause’ is the whole inner movement of sap, cell growth, articulation of branches, leaves, etc., which is characteristic of that kind of tree and different from that taking place in other kinds of trees. In more modern language, it would be better to describe this as formative cause, to emphasize that what is involved is not a mere form imposed from without, but rather an ordered and structured inner movement that is essential to what things are. Any such formative cause must evidently have an end or product which is at least implicit. Thus, it is not possible to refer to the inner movement from the acorn giving rise to an oak tree, without simultaneously referring to the oak tree that is going to result from this movement. So formative cause always implies final cause.2(12-13, Bohm’s italics)

  1. Wholeness and the Implicate Order (1980) was immediately reprinted with corrections in 1981 (UK) and 1982 (US). Page references are to the 1982 edition.
  2. Just as “formative cause always implies final cause”, so does it also imply material cause and efficient cause. The “structured inner movement that is essential to what things are and that tends to a particular final end must be embodied in some material (which need not be physical matter) and must be initiated in its movement by some impetus (which need not be physical force).

Verbi-Voco-Visual note on the chemistry of experience

Explorations 8 was published in October 1957 and then republished in 1967 as Verbi-Voco-Visual Explorations. More than half of the volume (76 pages) is comprised of notes, apparently written by McLuhan, under 24 separate titles (and so averaging around 3 pages each). It may be that Explorations 8 was mostly given over to McLuhan (who had an additional separate essay in it, ‘Third Program in the Human Age’) since Explorations 9 was to be given over entirely to Ted Carpenter for his Eskimo.

McLuhan’s notes provide an overview of the ‘chemical’ theory of communication he was developing at the time and would announce at length a couple years later in his Project 69. In a note titled ‘Stress’, McLuhan has:

The [Hans] Selye theory becomes at once intelligible and acceptable in our twentieth century of oral awareness. That “all vital phenomena depend merely upon quantitative variations in the activation of preexistent elementary targets” is not a superficial view in terms of auditory space. In the old lineal terms, quantitative relations mean the exclusion of most meaning and of all spiritual complexity. A mere sequence of such effects can contain no vital or analogical drama of proportions. But analogy is itself field theory (…) [and] the analogical drama of being and perception needs no more than the quantitative terms postulated by Selye.  With these the living word constitutes and manifests itself in all mental and spiritual complexity. 

The quotation in this passage (“all vital phenomena depend…”) was identified earlier in McLuhan’s note as coming from a Hans Selye article that appeared 4 years earlier in Explorations 1.  Selye’s piece was titled, like McLuhan’s note, ‘Stress’. The full passage there, given emphasis by its placement at the conclusion of Selye’s contribution, read:

As I see it, the basic task is now to find objective means to test the validity of the principal deduction, namely, that all vital phenomena depend merely upon quantitative variations in the activation of preexistent elementary targets.

When McLuhan claimed here that “the analogical drama of being and perception needs no more than the quantitative terms postulated by Selye”, he was nodding at the same time to cybernetics. For all three (Selye, cybernatics and McLuhan) the exclusive opposition of the quantitative and the qualitative was a remnant of a failed metaphysics and the revised formulation of the two in an inclusive relation an essential aspect of the overcoming of that failed system.









Poetry as circuit control

As further discussed in Bohm and Hiley on “active information“, McLuhan, prompted in different ways in the late 1940s by Innis, Havelock, Giedion and the cybernetics work at MIT of Wiener and Deutsch, began to investigate how literature and contemporary science might illuminate each other. Here are a texts from 1951 to 1955 discussing this notion:

the electron valve you [Norbert Wiener] describe [in The Human Use Of Human Beingsrepresents a principle discovered in 1870 by Arthur Rimbaud and applied to poetry and painting since that time. Your account of the uses of the vacuum tube in heavy industry is an exact description of the poetic techniques of Joyce and Eliot in constructing their works. Their use of allusion as situational analogy effects an enormous amplification of power from small units, at the same time that it permits an unrivalled precision. Their stripping of rhetoric and statement corresponds to your observation that “it is no longer necessary to control a process at high-energy-levels by a mechanism in which the important details of control are carried out at these levels.” Stephane Mallarmé made this observation about his own poetic technique in 1885. (McLuhan to Norbert Wiener,  March 28, 1951, Norbert Wiener Papers M.I.T.)

I’m interested in such analogies with modern poetry as that provided by the vacuum tube. The latter can tap a huge reservoir of electrical energy, picking it up as a very weak impulse. Then it can shape it and amplify it to major intensity. Technique of allusion as you use it (situational analogies) seems comparable to this type of circuit. Allusion not as ornament but as precise means of making available total energy of any previous situation or culture. Shaping and amplifying it for current use. (McLuhan to Pound, June 12, 1951, Letters 224)

As a vacuum tube is used to shape and control vast reservoirs of electric power, the artist can manipulate the low current of casual words, rhythms, and resonances to evoke the primal harmonies of existence or to recall the dead. (Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press, 1954)

The technique of an Eliot poem is a direct application of the method of the popular radio-tube grid circuit to the shaping and control of the charge of meaning. An Eliot poem is one instance of a direct means of experiencing, under conditions of artistic control, the ordinary awareness and culture of contemporary man. (Counterblast, 1954)

If print was the mechanization of the handicraft of writing, the telephone was the electrification of speech itself, a big step past the telegraph. Gramophone and movie were merely the mechanization of speech and gesture. But the radio and TV were not just the electrification of speech and gesture but the electronification of the entire range of human personal expressiveness. With electronification the flow is taken out of the wire and into the vacuum tube circuit, which confers freedom and flexibility such as are in metaphor and in words themselves. (Historical Approach to the Media, 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 in 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. It liberates electrons from the wire but it provides a new context in which they can be repatterned. The cathode inside the tube is one end of the broken conductor and the anode is the other. The anode attracts and receives the billions of electrons that are “boiled” off the surface of the cathode. When a tube is connected into an alternating-current circuit, the anode is positive during half of each cycle. During the half cycle when the anode is negative, electrons cannot reach the anode. It is this characteristic of an electronic tube which enables it to act as a rectifier, changing alternating currents into direct current.
The grid is the controlling or “valve” electrode of the tube. It is located between the cathode and the anode in the path of the electrons. By voltage control the grid acts as trigger for the electronic flow. Grid bias blocking electronic flow is recentralized by signal voltage. Signal voltage is a trigger that releases full flow of current through the tube. But this flow stops when anode voltage becomes negative. Cycle then repeats. The load of current on this cycle is a motor.
When current is too weak for direct flow, it can, in a vacuum tube, be used as signal voltage on the grid of the tube. Then every variation in the shape of the wave will be faithfully reproduced in the output wave of the tube. Thus a tiny amount of energy can be exactly controlled or stepped up instantly to very high potentials.
Now metaphor has always had the character of the cathode-anode circuit, and the human ear has always been a grid, mesh, or, as Joyce calls it in Finnegans Wake, Earwicker. But Joyce was the first artist to make these aspects of language and communication explicit. In so doing, he applied the principles of electronics to the whole history of culture. The entire cyclic body of Finnegans Wake is suspended between a predicate and a subject. The cathode-anode aspect of metaphor and language Joyce first extended to syntax. He took the charge of meaning out of the wire of direct statement into the vacuum-tube of the self-contained poetic drama of his “all nights newsery reel.” (FW 489)
Metaphor means a carrying across. All speech is metaphoric because any oral sound is a gesture towards externalizing an inner gesture of the mind. The auditory situation is a carrying across from a silent situation. Writing is metaphor for sound. It translates, or metamorphizes the audible into the visual. There is necessarily discontinuity in metaphor. There has to be a leap from one situation to another. (‘Radio and Television vs. The ABCED-Minded’, Explorations 5, 1955)

Charles Cochrane and “problems of time”

When Charles Cochrane died prematurely in 1945, age 56, his obituary in The Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science1 was written by Harold Innis, Cochrane’s friend and colleague at UT.2

Many of the stations in Cochrane’s life described by Innis were also true of Innis himself: born in Ontario, served in WW1, returned to teach at UT and to participate in its administration, active in organizations of his field. More, it is clear that Innis fully shared many of Cochrane’s intellectual persuasions, especially what he called “the philosophic approach.

The first text cited by Innis in the obituary came from one of Cochrane’s last publications, published in 1944 at a time of intense discussions between the two of them3:

[Cochrane] outlined the importance of [Thucydides] in discovering the “dynamic or principle of motion . . . in history itself, i.e., in the relationship between the aspirations and ideals of men, on the one hand, and, on the other, the material circumstances upon which their satisfaction depends”4

Since both “the aspirations and ideals of men” and their “material circumstances” are subject to incessant change, often in complex interaction with each other, and since the historian cannot extract herself from these contexts and is therefore necessarily “biased” by her situation in them, how could a “dynamic or principle of motion” be formulated for history that would not be merely a reflection of the “wills or personalities” of the formulators?5  How could it not be arbitrary and therefore not a “principle” at all?

Innis never claimed to have solved this riddle. But he knew where its nub was located:

this paper [‘The Newspaper in Economic Development’ from 1942] is designed to emphasize the importance of a change in the concept of the dimension of time, and to argue that it cannot be regarded as a straight line but as a series of curves depending in part on technological advances. (…) The concepts of time and space must be made relative and elastic and the attention given by the social scientists to problems of space should be paralleled by attention to problems of time.6

Time “cannot be regarded as a straight line but as a series of curves”. That is, time, like space, is plural. On the one hand it is “a series” that, if not “a straight line”, is perpetually different.  On the other hand, it demonstrates repeated cycles or “curves” which are perpetually the same.

The philosophic approach of Cochrane” amounted, for Innis, to the attempt to discover the  “dynamic or principle of motion in human history” as the consideration of this plurality. The obituary, short as it is, returns to this notion over and over again:

History written from the philosophical background of classicism differs sharply from history written from the Augustinian point of view with its emphasis on will, personality, and unpredictability. Paradoxically classicism assumed the unpredictable in the incalculable, in fortune or in chance, whereas Augustine admitted the possibility of understanding the unpredictable by emphasizing personality or individuality. A society dominated by Augustine will produce a fundamentally different type of historian, who approaches his problem from the standpoint of change and progress, from classicism with its emphasis on cyclical [repetition]7 and the tendency to equilibrium.

He [Cochrane] has traced the problem of weaving [together] the major strands of Graeco-Roman civilization, namely order and progress. (…) His contribution to the philosophy of history is shown in the development of general concepts at the basis of progress and the adjustment of order to meet the demands of change…

The great question was whether the historian, in “the study of toxins and antitoxins of the body politic”, has done justice to the plurality of time as both “order and progress”.

He [Cochrane] “ventured to defy the accepted convention [Innis: of dissociating classical and Christian studies] and to attempt a transition from the world of Augustus and Vergil to that of Theodocius and Augustine…”8

The history of western civilization could not be in the business of merely “dissociating”, but neither could an “attempt [at] a transition” ignore that “the philosophical background of classicism  differs sharply from (…) the Augustinian point of view”. The demand was to do justice to both identity and difference.  Moreover, this demand applied first of all to the historian’s own situation:

The social scientist is asked to check [ie, both stop and proof] his [own] course and to indicate his [own] role in western civilization. His answer must stand the test of the philosophic approach of Cochrane.

Absent such proof, Cochrane’s work stood as an indictment:

To the social scientist, he [Cochrane] might have said, your cycles, your theories of civilization, and your “creative” politics are the new fantastica fornicatio.

“Such perversions of intellectual activity,” Augustine called, “fantastica fornicatio, the prostitution of the mind to its own fancies.”9



  1. ‘Charles Norris Cochrane, 1889-1945’, Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, 12:1, 1946, pp. 95-9. All citations in this post come from this obituary, unless otherwise noted.
  2. Seven years later, Innis himself would die prematurely at age 58.
  3. See Grant on Innis and Cochrane and Cochrane on “an all-pervasive change in outlook” in Athens.
  4. ‘Charles Norris Cochrane, 1889-1945’, originally in Cochrane’s review of Thucydides, by John H. Finley, Jr, 1942, in Classical Philology, 39:1, January 1944, 57-59. For discussion, see Cochrane on “an all-pervasive change in outlook” in Athens.
  5. “Christian realism meant an emancipation from the moral and intellectual difficulties of classical antiquity. To Augustine man was ‘the efficient cause of his own activity’. History became the history of wills or personalities.” (Innis in ‘Charles Norris Cochrane, 1889-1945’, citing Christianity and Classical Culture.
  6.  ‘The Newspaper in Economic Development’, originally 1942, the first chapter of Political Economy in the Modern State, 1946.
  7. Innis has “change” here, not “repetition”.  The substitution has been made to clarify the contrast at stake in this passage between Augustinian “progress” and classical “order”. Of course, both are types of “change”, but, as Innis says in this same passage, each “differs sharply” from the other.
  8. Innis in his obit citing Cochrane’s ‘Preface’ to Christianity and Classical Culture (1940, revised and corrected 1944) with the interpolation by Innis “of dissociating classical and Christian studies”.
  9. Innis citing Cochrane’s Christianity and Classical Culture again. Cochrane has “prostitution of mind”, not “of the mind”.

Lindberg before and after Foundations

McLuhan was very taken with John Lindberg’s 1953 Foundations of Social Survival. He reviewed it at length early in 1954 and discussed it in two important lectures that same year.1

In considering Lindberg’s book, it is helpful to look at essays he wrote 10 years before and 10 years after it. In 1944 he published ‘The Long Sleep: An Essay on Swedish Nationalism‘.2 and in 1964 ‘The Secret Life of Dag Hammarskjöld’.3

The central thesis of the 1944 ‘Long Sleep’ essay was carried forward to Lindberg’s book a decade in the future and even to his 1964 Hammarskjöld article :

  • if we wish to understand the dilemma on the horns of which [Swedes] were tossed, we must examine Sweden’s relationships to the nineteenth-century world. This is a deep problem which has a bearing in the last analysis on the international conflicts which plague us today. Persons sensitive to the signs of the times, who lived at the end of the nineteenth century, were often haunted by unformulated fears. They were aware of certain distress signals, but they could not see the relation between their own acts and philosophy and the threatening misfortunes.
  • the dominant philosophy of the nineteenth century was essentially a belief in benevolent automatisms conceived as world-wide in scope.  As a matter of fact, the great achievement of that century was the striving for something which could truly be called a universal economic order.  While this world order affected the cultural and social fields as well as the political, its hard core remained economic.
  • the gradual growth of the system led to a break-down of old institutions and habits of life and the gradual emergence of similar, if not common, institutions and patterns of life all over the world. For our present purpose we need only to recall that the operation of this system required the international movement of merchandise, capital, and men, as well as of ideas. Its balance wheel, its unifying force so to speak, was what is loosely known as the “profit motive.” The movement of merchandise, capital, and men was considered as determined (…) by the general system of prices. Merchandise and/or the factors of production  would flow to places or occupations with higher remuneration until an “equilibrium” was reached, an equilibrium which also was alleged to achieve the maximum world income. National and international measures interfering with the intricate flow and counter-flow within this system were regarded as evil, in as much as they decreased income and hampered world integration.
  • The technical improvements of the new world system in production and transportation raised population and wealth to levels never previously approached. In the meanwhile, the classical economists watched from their Olympian heights the rise and fall of the well-being of individuals or groups. This was looked upon as part and parcel of the beneficial operation of “economic law”; “in the long run” the world would become a richer and fairer place in which to live. The enduring success of such a system ultimately rested upon the the explicit or implicit assumption of a common world economy, the interests of which overrode those of any individual interest or country.
  • Historically speaking, the underlying idea of [such a] universalism was as old as or older than Christianity itself. The Western heritage contained, however, another element no less potent than that of [economic] universalism— its name is brotherhood. From this root, many stems in the plant of social ideas had grown. To a true liberal economist, however, nobody could be said to be his brother’s keeper. On the contrary, hardened still further by arguments drawn from Darwinism he would argue that no good purpose would be served by protecting the weak whose lawful lot it was to be eliminated in the struggle for life by the normal processes of competition, starvation, and illness. Malthusianism was not without guilt in this growth of moral callousness.  It had assisted at the birth of Darwinism and had supplied the rationalizations needed by Western man to adopt a meager-hearted philosophy alien to his tradition. This suppression of an organic part of the Western tradition [namely, brotherhood] was more than ignoble; it was unwise and, in the end, tragic.
  • Almost from its birth the liberal world-economy had to contend with Western conscience as an enemy. This conscience whispered: if society makes us our brothers’ executioners, let us then change society and build anew. The movements of revolt against the liberal order drew their strength from this reaction, and civilization became increasingly a house divided against itself. The artificial separation of the two fundamental ideals contained in a common tradition, created tensions which (…) threatened both with frustration and psychopathic  conflicts.
  • From the beginning, the Western heritage had been characterized by a double allegiance of the individual symbolized by the Prince and the Church. Although history is filled with examples of the struggle between temporal and spiritual powers, the principle of dual allegiance was rarely, if ever, disputed. The Western world from the very beginning accepted the idea of a dual citizenship
  • Nineteenth-century internationalism was a development in the right direction. The  mistake was not in applying internationalism in the economic sphere but in limiting it to this sphere, for a true balance could have been achieved only by extending internationalism to social and other fields as well. 

McLuhan certainly did not know of this 1944 essay. Nonetheless, it is important to make note of it and not only for the light it throws on Lindberg’s 1953 book which McLuhan did know and closely studied. It is also important as an early illustration of the sort of structural thinking to which McLuhan’s work itself would increasingly tend.

Lindberg posited a plurality of “basic” or “fundamental” “ideals” and was interested in their “balance” — or lack thereof.  Balance fails when one side of the “double allegiance of the individual” to such “ideals” is subject to “suppression” or “separation” relative to the other (“suppression” and “separation” both describing difference in relative value between related terms). In turn, according to Lindberg, it was just such imbalance that led to social conflicts within nations and to the two world wars of the twentieth century between nations: “The artificial separation of the two fundamental ideals contained in a common tradition, created tensions which (…)  threatened both” and have eventuated in “the international conflicts which plague us today” (in 1944).

The silent idea was that the ratio of economics and “brotherhood” extended over an axis stretching between extreme “separation” between them at the two ends of the axis to their “balance” in its middle.  At one end of the axis, “brotherhood” would be suppressed relative to economics; at the other end, economics would be suppressed relative to  “brotherhood”.  Lindberg’s claim was that social and international conflicts would be found to correlate with the extreme ratio positions near the end of the axis where “brotherhood” was relatively suppressed. Presumably poverty and stagnation would correlate with the contrasting extreme positions near the other end where economics were relatively suppressed.

Writing in the middle of WW2, Lindberg could see only a single solution: “extending internationalism [beyond that of a “common world economy”] to social and other fields as well”. This, he proposed, would achieve “a true balance” between our economic and technological developments, on the one hand, and our spiritual needs, on the other. McLuhan agreed. Where McLuhan parted company with Lindberg, however, was in McLuhan’s insistence that such “true balance” could not be achieved through the sort of broad social programs imagined by Lindberg. Instead, McLuhan thought, the structural balances and imbalances which mediate human psychology and sociology must be subjected to detailed investigation so that exactly this scientific study of their working might supply that spiritual “internationalism” (aka, an “external sensus communis”) needed to balance the economic one.4

McLuhan described this idea in direct reference to Lindberg in his 1954 lecture on ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’:

in the modern world we have through the very perfection and instantaneity of our means of communication made it impossible to resolve the conflicting claims of the numerous societies and cultures which are now in close association. Neither can we hope to impose any one culture on all the others and reduce them to a single form. But (…) we now have the key to the creative process which brings all cultures into existence (namely the extension5 into social institutions of the central form and mystery of the human cognitive process).6 

The notion had been set out for Harold Innis in a letter from McLuhan early in 1951:

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… (Letters, 221)

In fact nearly all of McLuhan’s writings between 1949 and 1954 were focused on the problem of defining “the central form and mystery of the human cognitive process” as reflected in the arts, especially literature.  Like Lindberg, McLuhan found that ratios were key: between experience and world, eye and ear, innovation and tradition. But central problems remained.  How to specify such “ideals” and their balances and imbalances to enable their objective identification? On this basis, how to probe their interaction with one another and their “extension” into society and the environment? And how to communicate these ideas to bring their study into collective investigation? Questions like these would dominate the remaining quarter century of McLuhan’s life.

Lindberg’s 1964 article7 on Dag Hammarskjöld applies these same ideas to his countryman and erstwhile friend who became the General Secretary of the UN.  Here it is not the world or the tradition that has become unbalanced between an international system and the demands of conscience, but Dag Hammarskjöld as a person (and, by extension, the UN itself):

We all carry masks, but in Dag the cleavage of personality went deeper (…) to understand his need for a mask is to move close to the core of his personality.

Both in conversations with Lindberg8 and in his published writings, Hammarskjöld is said to have argued that

the civil servant had the obligation to cut the lifeline between private conviction and public action (…) Private convictions could not stand in the way of expediency (…) [since] Hammarskjöld was convinced of the [overriding] need of an integrated world community as a condition of survival.

Hammarskjöld, says Lindberg, “never reconciled his beautiful sayings of humility and love with his exercise of power.” This pushed him, in Lindberg’s view, to an extreme imbalance between the “ideals” of power and brotherhood:

The man who believed in the “meaninglessness of killing” became nevertheless a prototype of the savior with the sword. He became a man who led the peace organization to armed intervention and to deeds of lawless violence, well knowing that that world integration because of nuclear progress is no longer possible by means of arms, but only by moral leadership.

The danger was that Hammarskjöld’s “extreme” solution might set a precedent:

In Hammarskjöld’s case, we had the savior[with the sword] hidden behind the mask of the peace-loving, level-headed and clever diplomat, dying in pursuit of peace; although next time it may well be a madman or worse masquerading as savior.

Samantha Power and Nikki Haley have meanwhile demonstrated how prescient were Lindberg’s fears concerning “a madman or worse”.  As personified by them, the UN has become the very archetype of “expediency” pursuing “armed intervention and (…) deeds of lawless violence” through the “suppression” of “moral leadership”. 

Matthew 5:13… 

 ἐὰν δὲ τὸ ἅλας μωρανθῇ, ἐν τίνι ἁλισθήσεται;

but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted?

  1. For details, see John Lindberg.
  2. ‘The Long Sleep: An Essay on Swedish Nationalism‘, American Swedish Historical Museum Yearbook for 1944.
  3.  ‘The Secret Life of Dag Hammarskjöld’, Look Magazine, 28:13, 30 June 1964.
  4. For discussion, see McLuhan’s new sciences: “only the authority of knowledge”.
  5. “Extension into social institutions” is what McLuhan, following Innis, characterized as “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).
  6. In his lecture McLuhan attributed this idea regarding “the central form and mystery of the human cognitive process” to Lindberg.  But it is instead the notion at the heart of all of McLuhan’s writings between (roughly) 1949 and 1954.
  7.  ‘The Secret Life of Dag Hammarskjöld’, Look Magazine, 28:13, 30 June 1964. The citations which follow are selections from this article. It is possible that McLuhan knew of this article. Compare Lindberg, 1964, “The problem (for Hammarskjöld) became, fundamentally, one of how to create success out of failure, and of making failure a criterion of success” with McLuhan, 1972, “Failure Through Success and Success Through Failure” (Take Today, 279).
  8. “Dag and I had (…) bitter discussions about the relations between state and individual, and, more particularly, the primacy of human conscience.”

Cochrane on “an all-pervasive change in outlook” in Athens

In 1944 Charles Cochrane reviewed Thucydides by John Findley.1 Cochrane’s review is noteworthy in the context of Eric Havelock’s ongoing work on the Sophists and Socrates at that time, and of the close relationship at UT between Cochrane and Harold Innis2. The short review characterized in some detail Finley’s description of “an all-pervasive change in outlook” in Athens in the fifth century BC, which Findley attributed to the deep influence of the Sophists:

Professor Finley now proceeds to examine the intellectual and spiritual atmosphere of the
period covered by [Thucydides’] History — a period which, as he remarks, the historian relived with such intensity.3  This he depicts as a time when the “realistic” thinking of the Sophists made its first and deepest impression on Athens; and he attributes to the impact of Sophism an all-pervasive change in outlook, best described perhaps as the victory of conceptual over symbolic or poetic modes of thought. In this connection Mr. Finley has much of interest and value to say, especially with regard to the so-called antithetic style of discourse in relation to the contemporary mind. Sophistic influence, as he sees it, operated in two ways. In the first place, it provided a fresh impulse to scientific investigation and, therewith, to the “search for causes” in terms of which to understand characters and events. Secondly, it invented in rhetoric a vehicle for “logical” expression, i.e., for identifying and defining the concepts which, according to the findings of contemporary reason, constitute the pattern of things. Both these influences, which are to be discerned in the dramas of Sophocles and Euripides, as well as in the earliest extant samples of Athenian prose literature, are also, as Mr. Finley argues, fully illustrated in the work of the historian.4

Just what had occasioned this “all-pervasive change in outlook” was a question on everybody’s mind. For the Toronto school — Innis, Havelock and McLuhan — the emerging answer was: literacy.

In fact, a hint of this answer appears in Cochrane’s review in a phrase intended by him to suggest mediation only in the vague sense of a middle term. The mind of Thucydides was shaped, says Cochrane, by the “attempt to discover a via media between earlier theories of historical causation, based on religious and philosophical principles, and the rank mechanistic or sensationalistic materialism” of some of the Sophists.

For Cochrane, Thucydides’ work was therefore an attempt:

to develop a position in the light of which man, while denied all capacity to
transcend the world of nature or the material world, might still be regarded as in some sense a genuine agent, the “maker” of his own history. To see Thucydides in this context is, we feel, essential to an adequate appreciation of his work and of the claim that it would live as a “possession forever”. Like most of his “advanced” contemporaries — the Sophists of the Periclean age — the historian was strictly and consistently ἄθεος; as such, he rejected in toto the element of myth which had so far dominated the writing of history. But, unlike the majority, he refused to throw the old gods overboard only to deify “fate” or “chance”. Accordingly, he discovered the hormé — dynamic or principle of motion in human history — not in any general hypothetical principle but in history itself, i.e., in the relationship between the aspirations and ideals of men, on the one hand, and, on the other, the material circumstances upon which their satisfaction depends.5  

It would be this “relationship” between mind and environment, each at work on the other, that the Toronto school would thematize as the research field of “communications”.


  1. John H. Findley, Thucydides, HUP, 1942. Cochrane had published his own Thucydides book in 1929, Thucydides and the Science of History, OUP, 1929.
  2. See Grant on Innis and Cochrane.
  3. Thucydides lived from c 460 BC to c 400. His History covers the three decades following the start of the war between Athens and Sparta in 431 BC.
  4. Charles N. Cochrane, Review of Thucydides, by John H. Finley, Jr, 1942, in Classical Philology, 39:1, January 1944, 57-59. The citations in the remainder of this post come from this same review.
  5. Part of this passage — “the “dynamic or principle of motion in human history . . . in history itself, i.e., in the relationship between the aspirations and ideals of men, on the one hand, and, on the other, the material circumstances upon which their satisfaction depends” — was cited by Harold Innis in his obituary for Cochrane (‘Charles Norris Cochrane, 1889-1945’, Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, 12:1, 1946, pp. 95-97).

John Lindberg

McLuhan came across John Lindberg’s The Foundations of Social Survival shortly after its publication in 1953. After reviewing it in Commonweal magazine early in 1954, he continued to refer to it frequently in his writings and lectures in the following months:

The God-Making Machines of the Modern World
John Lindberg is a Swedish nobleman long associated with the League of Nations and now with the United Nations.1 (…) Himself a Manichean resigned to the ordinary necessity of rule by myth and lie, Lindberg argues in his concluding chapter that the new conditions of global inter-communication2 compel us to scrap the rationalist Manichean hypothesis in favor of a plunge into faith and the City of Love. His march towards this city of the future is headed by a banner quote from Bergson’s Two Sources of Morality and Religion: “The essential function of the universe which is a machine for the making of gods.”The revolutionary situation which faces us would appear to have suggested to Lindberg that the man-made machine is the new universe for the making of gods. And whereas the machine of Nature made whatever gods it chose, the machines of man have abolished Nature and enable us to make whatever gods we choose. Perhaps a better way of saying this would be to suggest that modern technology is so comprehensive that it has abolished Nature. The order of the demonic has yielded to the order of art.
Lindberg speaks as one who has spent his life inside the great god-making machines of the modern world. He speaks also from inside the great classical tradition of European rationalist culture and scholarship. He does not write as a Christian. But Lindberg does write as a pagan for whom the Christian doctrine is now, for the first time in history, a plausible and even indispensable hypothesis for social survival. As an analysis of the pagan theology underlying dominant political theory since Plato, Lindberg’s testimony is of first importance. Most readers would find Fustel de Coulange’s classic, The Ancient City, a valuable preface to Lindberg’s book. Jane Harrison’s Themis and Rachel Levy’s Gate of Horn are likewise filled with detailed information about the pagan theory of the universe and the city as a machine for the making of gods. And Lindberg assumes to some extent a reader who is at home in pagan ritual and theology.
So far as these concern politics, he also provides a good deal of information himself. For example, most of the first chapters are taken up with a discussion of vertical and horizontal conditions of society. The golden age of primitive man is horizontal socially because there are no institutions. Men are related laterally by kinship but there are no hierarchies and no authority. Moreover the horizontal metaphor (which provides the sleeping giant Finn McCool of Finnegans Wake) indicates a state of collective consciousness. A state of homogeneity and non-differentiation which in pagan theory proceeded the fall of man. Vertical man, self-conscious man, rational and civilized man is in this view the result of a spiritual fall. Lindberg agrees with Karl Marx that this fall resulted from the first attempt to transfer or exploit a food or property surplus for private purposes. Horizontal man, pre-historic man, in this view, was innocent of “mine” and “thine.” He was without individual self-consciousness. Technological man or post-historic man is rapidly approximating the same state. Instantaneity of global communication plus the abundance of mass-produced goods has created a situation of mental and social collectivism.
It is to tracing the social and political consequences of the “fall” that Lindberg devotes much of his book. Paradoxically, the fall brings about the rise of individual reason and the invention of the instruments of culture and civilization. Reason, the tool-making faculty, is the fruit of evil. And reason is the myth-making power which produces the ruler.The ruler rules by the myth or lie which intimidates men to the point of social obedience. It is important to grasp Lindberg’s idea of myths and norms since they have characterized all civilization till now. But henceforth they must have new functions. Myths are for Lindberg the traditional religions imposed on men. They are products of reason. They are expedient lies. They are the means of curbing the monsters bred of men’s passions. Norms or moral conventions, on the other hand, are merely a cinematic projection on the screen of the city of the passions and preferences of men. Myths are vertical affairs imposed by ruling authority on the ruled. Norms are horizontal developments spreading outwards in accordance with men’s desires. Myths are static. The authoritarian myth-built city is local, brittle, easily susceptible of shock. If one myth falls, all will tend to fall. But the norm-structured society is open, elastic, malleable, receptive of change. Under current conditions of communication the static, myth-built cities of the Western world are doomed, says Lindberg.
The foundations of social survival are, however, to be found in a switch from reason to passion, from fear to love. And the possibility of the switchover resides in our capacity today to discover the creative dynamics of norm-making. Norm, the region of passion and flux, was no basis for any past city. But norm seen as a product of an individual and collective creative activity may be a clue to a new social dynamics.  If we can discover by observation of many societies past and present the principles of creativity in morals, we shall have the master-clue to all future government of huge inter-cultural associations of men.
It is the conviction that such a possibility is realizable today that prompts Lindberg to espouse the idea of Christian charity in a spirit of positivism. Not belief but necessity urges him to a Christian idea of society and government. It is the same conviction which leads him to abandon the Manichean principles of realpolitik.
One tires today of hearing of “important” books. This book provides many striking perspectives on the theological principles underlying the practice of classical politics and economics in the past. (‘The God-Making Machines of the Modern World’, Review of John Lindberg, The Foundations of Social SurvivalCommonweal, 59:24, 606-607, March 19, 1954)

Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters
For anybody concerned with the subject of Catholic humanism in modern letters I should think that Joyce’s insight, which was marvellously realized in his work, is the most inspiriting development that is possible to conceive. But we must ask, what happens when this insight occurs even in a fragmentary way to the secular minds of our age?  The answer can be found in The Foundations of Social Survival a recent book by John Lindberg, a Swedish noble man associated with the United Nations. His proposal for social survival is that we adopt the Christian doctrine of brotherly love. He is not a Christian but he thinks Christianity might be made to work by non-Christians. Perhaps he has in mind that it appears to be unworkable when left to Christians. In short, he proposes practical Christianity as a sort of Machiavellian strategy of culture and power. And his reasons are directly linked to the developments I have outlined in modern [arts and] letters. Namely that in the modern world we have through the very perfection and instantaneity of our means of communication made it impossible to resolve the conflicting claims of the numerous societies and cultures which are now in close association. Neither can we hope to impose any one culture on all the others and reduce them to a single form. But, he argues, we now have the key to the creative process which brings all cultures into existence (namely the extension into social institutions of the central form and mystery of the human cognitive process). And it is this key which he proposes to deliver into the hands of a world government. (‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’, a lecture given at 
St. Joseph College, West Hartford, Connecticut, on March 23, 1954)

Eliot and The Manichean Myth As Poetry
John Lindberg’s recent Foundations of Social Survival is devoted to an elucidation of the political and social consequences of these two positions [viz, “the theology behind vertical and horizontal”]. And for the purposes of explaining Mr. Eliot’s use of the Manichean myth, Mr. Lindberg is helpful, because he attaches the term ‘myth’ to the Manichean or dualist position from Plato to Bergson. Myth, he considers to be that necessary or salutary lie which any governing class must tell the governed in order to arrest and control the daemonic movement of the passions in ordinary men. Opposed to myth is the area of norms and value, says Mr. Lindberg, speaking out of the Platonic tradition. Human values are all demonic, because they are mere expressions of irrational appetite and tempermental preference. The  realm of norms and values is the realm of the brutish. But casting a twentieth-century eye over the untamed jungle of norms and values, Mr. Lindberg sees reason for preferring it to the dust on bowl of rose-leaves which is about all that remains of myth in an age of rapid inter-communication and change. If the governing elites have previously been rationalist, Platonic and Averroist in their strategy for power and culture, they now see the possibility of a more thorough-going control. Instead of imposing a brittle myth on the ordinary levels of human consciousness, why not occupy its creative centre? Why not install oneself at the point where the norms and values are born and control this process? Instead of governing men’s appetites, why not govern men through their appetites? The shift is basic. It is the shift from the dualism of the time school to the monism of the space men. It is a magical shift to the centre of the poetic process, which Mr. Eliot, among others, has revealed in our time. (‘Eliot and The Manichean Myth As Poetry’, Address to the spring symposium of the Catholic Renascence Society in Philadelphia on April 19, 1954)

Poetry and Society
John Lindberg’s recent
Foundations of Social Survival does go into the theology behind vertical and horizontal, but in the sphere of politics only. (‘Poetry and Society’, Poetry Magazine, May 1954, 93-95)

  1. In the American Swedish Historical Museum 1944 Yearbook biographical information about John Lindberg is provided as follows: “John Lindberg, Ph.D., is a member of the Mission of the Economic Department of the Secretariat of the League of Nations, Princeton. He has been instructor at the University of Stockholm, Assistant Secretary to the Swedish Unemployment Commission,  member of the Statistical and Economic sections of the International Labor Office, and since 1937 member of the Economic and Financial Section of the League Secretariat. He spent 1925-28 in the United States as Laura Spelman Rockefeller fellow.  He has written numerous books, articles and reports; he is a member of our Museum Board.” This was contributor information for Lindberg’s paper in that 1944 Yearbook, ‘The Long Sleep: An Essay on Swedish Nationalism‘.  During his Laura Spelman Rockefeller fellowship, Lindberg wrote The Background of Swedish Migration to the United States (1930). Following WW2, he remained in Princeton as a member of “the Economic, Financial and Transit Department of the League of Nations on mission at the Institute for Advanced Study. In 1946, apparently just before its demise in March of that year, the League of Nations issued his Food, Famine and Relief, 1940-1946. Lindberg then joined the UN within the United Nations Technical Assistance Administration. He was chief economist for an assistance mission to Libya in 1951. This resulted in a brochure authored by Lindberg and published by the UN: A General Economic Appraisal of Libya. Later he was the UN economic adviser to Jordan. In 1964, Lindberg published ‘The Secret Life of Dag Hammarskjöld’ in Look Magazine, 28:13, 30 June 1964. As described in the Look essay, Lindberg (1901-1991) and Hammarskjöld (1905-1961) had known each other in Sweden at Stockholm University in the early 1930s, long before both became UN officials (Hammarskjöld as its Secretary-General from 1953 to 1961).
  2. McLuhan’s use of “inter-communication” here, and in the passage below from ‘Eliot and The Manichean Myth As Poetry’, recalls the frequent use of the phrase by his University of Manitoba teacher, Henry Wright. See Henry Wilkes Wright and Henry Wilkes Wright 2 for examples and discussion.

“Perpetuity of collective harmony” as judo

In the beginning was the Word: a spoken word, not the visual one of literate man.1

The post below treats a passage in Understanding Media from its chapter 8. The title of this chapter is:

The Spoken Word – Flower of Evil?2

This was a question McLuhan treated with some frequency:

The golden age of primitive man (…) indicates a state of collective consciousness. A state of homogeneity and non-differentiation which in pagan theory proceeded the fall of man. Vertical man, self-conscious man, rational and civilized man is in this view the result of a spiritual fall. [John] Lindberg agrees with Karl Marx that this fall resulted from the first attempt to transfer or exploit a food or property surplus for private purposes. Horizontal man, pre-historic man, in this view, was innocent of “mine” and “thine.” He was without individual self-consciousness. Technological man or post-historic man is rapidly approximating the same state. Instantaneity of global communication plus the abundance of mass-produced goods has created a situation of mental and social collectivism. (…)  Paradoxically, the fall brings about the rise of individual reason and the invention of the instruments of culture and civilization. Reason, the tool-making faculty, is the fruit of evil. (‘The God-Making Machines of the Modern World’, 1954)3

But how to specify the question at stake when it involves not some object of perception or of consideration, but rather the source from which perception and consideration arise in the first place? In Understanding Media, chapter 8, McLuhan attempted to use judo on this problem.

In several places McLuhan waxed lyrical about the possibility, enabled by technology, of “a perpetuity of collective harmony and peace“.  This phrase appears in Understanding Media (80) and was then repeated five years later, verbatim, in his Playboy interview.4

Critics (and even some admirers!) of McLuhan recur to these passages to demonstrate in his own words that he was a technological Utopian.

There are very good reasons to take it, however, that McLuhan was practising “intellectual judo” in these passages:

a procedure in tackling problems which resembles the “negative capability” of Keats — a sort of intellectual judo. Instead of straining all available effort on a visible goal or problem, let the solution come from the problem itself. If you can’t keep the cow out of the garden, keep the garden out of the cow. (Technology, the Media, and Culture, 1960)

In the first place, as illustrated in his review of John Lindberg (cited above), written a full ten years before the publication of Understanding Media, McLuhan had long seen such “a situation of mental and social collectivism” as a product and sign of “pagan theory”.

Moreover, immediately before the extended passage in Understanding Media where McLuhan treats “the bliss of union in the collective unconscious” he observed:

It helps to appreciate the nature of the spoken word to contrast it with the written form. (UM, 79) 

What then follows is McLuhan contrasting “the spoken word”, not with “the written form”, at least not directly, but with “the condition of speechlessness” aka “the preverbal condition of men” :

the process of consciousness itself (…) without any verbalization whatever

to by-pass languages in favor of a general cosmic consciousness which might be very like the collective unconscious dreamt of by Bergson

“Consciousness (…) without (…) verbalization”! A “cosmic consciousness” that is “unconscious”! How many readers of McLuhan have testified to their own idiocy by swallowing, in appreciation of his supposed view, or in derision of it, such “dreamt” idiocies?

What is at stake here, then, is a way “to appreciate the nature of the spoken word” (aka the logos) in contrast to “the written form” as “a human technology”5 — exactly through the sort of idiotic non-sequiturs that can be generated only via premises typical of the Gutenberg galaxy.  This is the judo move of turning the momentum of one’s opponents back against them.

Henri Bergson, the French philosopher, lived and wrote in a tradition of thought [nota bene: “in a tradition of thought”! cf, “in this view” in the Lindberg review above] in which it was and is considered that language is a human technology that has impaired and diminished the values of the collective unconscious. It is the extension of man in speech [according to this tradition] that enables the intellect to detach itself from the vastly wider reality. [“In this view”, to attach oneself to the world and to other human beings in speech is actually to “detach” from them. Keep your eye on the pea in this shell game!] Without language, Bergson suggests, human intelligence would have remained totally involved in the objects of its attention. [“Objects of (…) attention” aside from language? And even from consciousness?]
Language [considered as a “human technology”] does for intelligence what the wheel does for the feet and the body. It enables them to move from thing to thing with greater ease and speed and ever less involvement.
Language extends and amplifies man but it also divides his faculties. His collective consciousness or intuitive awareness is diminished [according to this tradition] by this technical extension of consciousness that is speech.
Bergson argues in Creative Evolution that even consciousness is an extension of man that dims the bliss of union in the collective unconscious. [“The bliss of union in the collective unconscious”!] Speech acts to separate man from man, and mankind from the cosmic unconscious. [“the cosmic unconscious”!]
The power of the voice to shape air and space into verbal patterns may well have been preceded [as all things must be “preceded” in Gutenbergian serial chronology] by a less specialized expression [“A less specialized expression” — a language that was “expression”, but was not yet language!] of cries, grunts, gestures, and commands, of song and dance [“song and dance”!]. (…)
Our new electric technology that extends our senses and nerves in a global embrace has large implications for the future of language. [Language subject to serial time again!  What happened to “allatonceness”?] Electric technology does not need words [according to this “tradition of thought”] any more than the digital computer needs numbers [“any more than the digital [number] computer needs numbers”!]6. Electricity points the way to an extension of the process of consciousness itself, on a world scale, and without any verbalization whatever [“extension of the process of consciousness itself and without any verbalization whatever”!]. Such a state of collective awareness [aka, unawareness] may [may!] have been [according to this “tradition of thought”] the preverbal condition of men. [“The preverbal condition of men” who are men, as McLuhan repeatedly insisted, only in and through language!] Language as the technology of human extension, whose powers of division and separation we know so well, may [may!] have been the “Tower of Babel” by which men sought to scale the highest heavens. Today computers hold out the promise of a means of instant translation of any code or language into any other code or language. The computer, in short, promises by technology a Pentecostal condition of universal understanding and unity. The next logical step would seem to be, not to translate, but to by-pass languages in favor of a general cosmic consciousness [“to by-pass languages in favor of a general cosmic consciousness”!] which might [might!] be very like the collective unconscious dreamt of by Bergson [“a cosmic consciousness which might be (…) unconscious”!]. The condition of “weightlessness” [“by which men sought to scale the highest heavens”?], that [Teilhardian?] biologists [in this “tradition of thought”] say promises a physical immortality, may [may!] be paralleled by the condition of speechlessness that could confer a perpetuity of collective harmony and peace. (UM, 79-80)

Any reference to this idiocy, positive or negative, as if McLuhan didn’t have his tongue firmly planted in his cheek when he translated pure gnosticism into his own characteristic terms, betrays, via judo, a corresponding idiocy of approach.  And a tin ear. The only proper response to such “secret escape hatches from the sunken submarine or the unguided missile of existence” is, according to McLuhan, “wild laughter at its arrogant confusion”.7 

Finally, it must be remembered that the issues at stake in this passage were repeatedly treated by McLuhan elsewhere:

  • language not as “a human technology” but as the primary characteristic of human being and of civilization and, first of all, of being itself: “it is language itself that embodies and performs the dance of being.”8
  • time not as a linear one-way arrow, but as plural and as fundamentally simultaneous with the sequential as a figure upon it9
  • primitive life not as “bliss of union in (…) the cosmic unconscious” but as “the human dark” and perpetual terror10
  • “weightlessness” as the cause and symptom of an animus against life in war, abortion and euthanasia
  • monism as the goal and sign of gnosticism: “Let us rejoin the One”!11
  • Bergson as lacking “the courage of his own philosophical position”12
  • The global village not as “a Pentecostal condition of universal understanding and unity” but as irresolvable conflict13 
  • Electric technology as potentially Luciferian14 

There is no need to guess what McLuhan thought about these matters — as opposed to how they appeared in “a tradition of thought” which was utterly foreign to him.

At the end of his Playboy interview, McLuhan may have had both of the iterations of “a perpetuity of collective harmony” in mind.  

PLAYBOY: Despite your personal distaste for the upheavals induced by the new electric technology, you seem to feel that if we understand and influence its effects on us, a less alienated and fragmented society may emerge from it. Is it thus accurate to say that you are essentially optimistic about the future?

MCLUHAN: There are grounds for both optimism [the Playboy interview iteration] and pessimism [the Understanding Media iteration]. The extensions of man’s consciousness induced by the electric media could conceivably usher in the millennium [the Playboy  interview iteration], but it also holds the potential for realizing the Anti-Christ [the Understanding Media iteration] — Yeats’ rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouching toward Bethlehem to be born. Cataclysmic environmental changes such as these are, in and of themselves, morally neutral; it is how we perceive them and react to them that will determine their ultimate psychic and social consequences. If we refuse to see them at all, we will become their servants. It’s inevitable that the world-pool of electronic information movement will toss us all about like corks on a stormy sea, but if we keep our cool during the descent into the maelstrom, studying the process as it happens to us and what we can do about it, we can come through.
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. I expect to see the coming decades transform the planet into an art form; the new man, linked in a cosmic harmony that transcends time and space, will sensuously caress and mold and pattern every facet of the terrestrial artifact as if it were a work of art, and man himself will become an organic art form. 

  1. Carpenter and McLuhan, ‘Accoustic Space’, Explorations In Communication, 1960, 65.
  2. This is the title of Understanding Media chapter 8 in which the “perpetuity of collective harmony and peace” passage appears. Its question mark is a sign of the interrogation its judo is intended to provoke.
  3. Review of The Foundations of Social Survival by John Lindberg, Commonweal magazine, 59:24, 606-607, March 19, 1954.
  4. The partially parallel passage in the Playboy interview will be treated further in future posts.  Suffice it to note here that McLuhan used the same “perpetuity of collective harmony and peace” phrase from Understanding Media in it, but to fundamentally different purpose — as if he needed to say in reference to the Understanding Media passage that “harmony and peace” were not only laughing matters. The Playboy passage reads: “The computer thus holds out the promise of a technologically engendered state of universal understanding and unity, a state of absorption in the logos that could knit mankind into one family and create a perpetuity of collective harmony and peace. 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 (ed: in fundamental contrast to the gnostic “tradition of thought” unfolded in the Understanding Media passage), this is merely a new interpretation of the mystical body of Christ; and Christ, after all, is the ultimate extension of man.” Here “consciousness” that “enables the intellect to detach itself from (…) reality” (Understanding Media) and “divides (our) faculties” (ditto), so doubly alienated both externally and internally, finds “peace” not by attaining “the cosmic unconscious” (attaining “the cosmic unconscious”!), but by “escape into understanding” — an understanding that works only because it “divides”.  And dividing, in turn, can and does yield understanding because “in the beginning” the extension of logos (subjective genitive!), which was “with God”, as John has it, provides the ground and archetype for “the ultimate extension of man” (objective genitive!) into his multiple insanities (these being in humans also the “ultimate extension” of creation away from God). Hence it is that the divisions of humans (subjective and objective genitive!) may be healing (since healed) because, prior to them (in all senses), in an original belonging in even greater difference, there is the “ultimate extension” of Christ. This is an “extension” which is “ultimate” exactly and only because it is already operative “in the beginning”: hence, “the gap is where the action is”! So it is that “harmony and peace” are possible for humans, despite their mad warring on themselves and the rest of creation, because there is, prior to them and their divisions, a belonging together of fundamental difference (call it ‘logos‘) which forever exceeds even their crazed centrifugal flight into “weightlessness” and purported “physical immortality”. (That this passage and this reasoning appeared in Playboy provides another great example of “intellectual judo”!)
  5. Nietzsche: “Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of the universe (…) there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing.” See The bubble of life in Tolstoy, Nietzsche, Havelock and Innis. Many different paths go out from this crossroads. Like Tolstoy, McLuhan took it that the multiple absurdities of this supposition required a new start elsewhere: “The gap (between this supposition and others) is where the action is.” For Nietzsche it required the admission of nihilism since the story of the “clever beasts (who) invented knowing” was itself invented. For Bergson, according to McLuhan, it was an indication of a prior and perhaps still possible conscious/unconscious “bliss of union”. For Havelock it precipitated a crisis of faith and, eventually, insight into rival possibilities. For Innis this idea threw mankind reactively into short-term thinking that, in turn, led to war as a way of life. For Hegel this whole topic was important in his dryly humorous consideration of what it means to take away an instrument from objects which are accessible only through that instrument.
  6. Understanding Media, 114: “long before literate technology, the binary factors of hands and feet sufficed to launch man on the path of counting. Indeed, the mathematical Leibniz saw in the mystic elegance of the binary system of zero and 1 the image of Creation. The unity of the Supreme Being operating in the void by binary function would, he felt, suffice to make all beings from the void.”
  7. Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters: “Art and poetry are regarded as private religions, secret escape hatches from the sunken submarine or the unguided missile of existence. The Catholic alone can laugh at these antics.” Later in the same lecture: “Joyce is the single poet voice in our century raised not not merely against this view but in wild laughter at its arrogant confusion.” Compare The Mechanical Bride: “The human person who thinks, works, or dreams himself into the role of a machine is as funny an object as the world provides. And, in fact, he can only be freed from this trap by the detaching power of wild laughter. (…)  Finnegans Wake by James Joyce (…) being a great intellectual effort aimed at rinsing the Augean stables of speech and society with geysers of laughter.” (100-101)
  8. Empedocles and T. S. Eliot, 1976.
  9.  The Global Village: “time considered as sequential (left hemisphere) is figure and time considered as simultaneous (right hemisphere) is ground.” (10)
  10. Counterblast: “Until WRITING was invented, we lived in acoustic space, where all backward peoples still live: boundless, directionless, horizonless, the dark of the mind, the world of emotion, primordial intuition, mafia-ridden. Speech is a social chart of this dark bog. SPEECH structures the abyss of mental and acoustic space, shrouding the race; it is a cosmic, invisible architecture of the human dark.” (1954 and 1969)
  11.  Nihilism Exposed, 1955. From the start of his career onwards, McLuhan equated merger with the cosmos as suicide: “The Dagwoods and the billionaire power-gluttons are equally rushing to the suicide of total immersion in the chaos of matter.” (Lemuel in Lilliput, 1944) Earlier in Understanding Media itself, McLuhan characterized the human merger with the cosmos not as “bliss”, but as “suicidal auto-amputation”: “With the arrival of electric technology, man extended, or set outside himself, a live model of the central nervous system itself. To the degree that this is so, it is a development that suggests a desperate and suicidal auto-amputation, as if the central nervous system could no longer depend on the physical organs to be protective buffers against the slings and arrows of outrageous mechanism. It could well be that the successive mechanizations of the various physical organs since the invention of printing have made too violent and super-stimulated a social experience for the central nervous system to endure.” (43)
  12.  Nihilism Exposed, 1955.
  13. Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters: ” in the modern world we have through the very perfection and instantaneity of our means of communication made it impossible to resolve the conflicting claims of the numerous societies and cultures which are now in close association.”
  14. See the Playboy interview passage at the end of this post: “The extension of man’s consciousness induced by the electric media (…) holds the potential for realizing the Anti-Christ”.

Heinrich Wölfflin and the laws of media

Heinrich Wölfflin, together with Adolf HildebrandWilliam Ivins and Ernst Gombrich, solved a problem for McLuhan in the late 1950s that had been nagging him for most of the decade.  During that time he held (following on Innis, Havelock and Richards) that the introduction of the Greek alphabet, as gigantically reinforced by the advent of printing two millennia later, effected an extreme emphasis on the eye relative to the ear in human experience and communication. Further, he proposed, like Richards if not Innis, that modern devices like the telephone, phonograph and radio were rebalancing that emphasis back towards the ear. At the same time, however, he postulated that photography, comics and advertising were active with such auditory media in revolutionizing visually weighted Gutenbergian experience — but this through the introduction of new visual elements into printed material:

in our own time technology has restored pictorial communication to a public which is completely untrained in pictorial discrimination. (Comics and Culture, 1953) 

I suggest that the real reversal which has overtaken print technology is to be found in the photograph and the movie, and that these forms of total ‘statement without syntax,’ as William Ivins describes it, are utterly unlike telegraph, radio, and TV. Somehow we must unriddle the complex of new messages involved in this new situation which has been created by print technology itself. So far nothing has been done to explicate the situation because we still imagine that these forms of codifying information can co-exist [as atomic units in successive time and space] without transforming one another. This attitude, now suicidal, is yet a natural legacy of print culture. (Printing and Social Change, 1959)

The problem was: how could such increased emphasis on the visual produce (or at least cooperate in producing) a decreased emphasis on the visual?  How could photography, comics,  and advertising (augmented by the movies) have a leading role in a pictorial “age of advertising” that yet “somehow” marked “the end of the Gutenberg era” (a phrase McLuhan was already using in the early 1950s1)? This when “the Gutenberg era” seemed to represented the very acme of visuality?2

The answer that McLuhan discovered late in the 1950s through the art historians was twofold.3  

On the one hand, he found especially in Hildebrand and Wölfflin that tactility characterized all experience. This tactility was not touch in the normal sense but was rather the coordination of the senses — a notion that linked up with McLuhan’s discussions with Bernie Muller-Thym starting already around 1940 concerning the sensus communis in Aristotle and Thomas.

sense of touch is not skin, not direct contact. It is rather the interplay of the senses. (‘Prospect’, 1962)4

Hildebrand had shown how tactility was a kind of synesthesia or interplay among the senses, and as such, was the core of the richest art effects. (The Gutenberg Galaxy, 41, full passage given at ‘Heinrich Wölfflin)

“Tactility” or interplay among all the senses… (The Gutenberg Galaxy, 81, full passage given at ‘Heinrich Wölfflin‘)

In this understanding, the visual was never absent from experience but its presence was subject to a dynamic emphasis and de-emphasis relative to the other senses as structured by ‘tactility’. As McLuhan could already state in an Explorations article in 1957:

No sense operates in isolation [from the rest of the senses]. Vision is partly structured by ocular and bodily movement; hearing, by visual and kinesthetic experience. (The Effect of the Printed Book on Language in the 16th Century)

Hence McLuhan’s rather strange statements that “the (…) visual (…) is in effect very tactile, resonant, and auditory” and that “Wölfflin taught the Hildebrand stress on visual forms as haptic or tangible-tactile”.5

In this way, McLuhan came to understand that the visual could be implicated in opposite effects (like Gutenbergian and post-Gutenbergian experience) for the simple reason that visuality was always implicated in some fashion in all effects. Media were complex structures and visuality was a component in those variable structures like, say, the electron in every atom. The great need, as McLuhan put the point in the ‘Printing and Social Change’ passage above, was to “unriddle the complex of new messages involved in this new situation which has been created by print technology itself”. That is, it was necessary to “unriddle” just what ‘implicated in some fashion‘ amounted to.

On the other hand, he found from the art historians that such “interplay among all the senses”  had to be understood not from experiential input (like the visual appearance of a newspaper or the auditory impression of a symphony) but from experiential output or effect:  

In 1915 Heinrich Wölfflin published his Principles of Art History which has since then revolutionized the study of many matters besides art. His entire approach confirms what I discovered about media: “the effect is the thing that counts, not the sensuous facts“. (Report on Project in Understanding New Media, 1960, full passage given at ‘Heinrich Wölfflin‘)

This meant that “laws of media” had to be formulated (if they were to be formulated at all) from investigative focus on their effects on individual and social experience and not at all on how they happened to present themselves and be sensed.  So, as McLuhan repeatedly illustrated the matter after encountering the work of J.C Carothers in 1959, radio might always be heard by anyone exposed to it, but its effects depended upon the inter-relation between it and the socio-cultural environment into which it was introduced: “the Bedouin with his battery radio on board the camel”, as McLuhan put the point in Understanding Media (16).  And since media were never absent from human history and society, those socio-cultural environments themselves might be investigated as media effects as well. 

The promise was of a new way, or ways, of studying human history and society that would at once avoid problems of relativity (since these, too, could be considered as effects) and supply new ways to address such pressing social and political problems as automation and war.

The upshot of these two points in McLuhan’s own career was that he began to think of media as as future perfect forms subject to their own dynamics. In the 1970s this would lead to the formulation of “laws of media” as an overview of the types of interaction that eventuate between media.  But already in The Gutenberg Galaxy he expressed this insight  as follows:

The relation of tactility to the visual, so necessary to an understanding of the fortunes of the phonetic alphabet, only became starkly defined after Cezanne. Thus Gombrich makes tactility a central theme of Art and Illusion, as does Heinrich Wölfflin in his Principles of Art History. And the reason for this new stress was that in an age of photography the divorce of the visual from the interplay of the other senses was pushed all the way into reaction.  (The Gutenberg Galaxy, 81, full passage given at ‘Heinrich Wölfflin‘)

Much as Harold Innis had pioneered, McLuhan was focusing here on media as a new field of explanation within which “basic laws” (so McLuhan already in 1960)6 might be discovered to be at work at work in human psychology and society — or, rather, discovered to have always been at work in human psychology and society. “Reaction” or reversal would be one of such “laws of media” —  one of such laws of media interaction — along with obsolescence, retrieval and  amplification. These were types of effect of media on media through which our “forms of codifying information co-exist [by] transforming one another” (Printing and Social Change, 1959, full passage given above).


  1. See  McLuhan to Ezra Pound July 16, 1952.
  2. How to understand the working of visuality was hardly McLuhan’s only problem in the 1950s.  He also had to learn how to differentiate the auditory from the tactile (he frequently ran the two together in these years) and to understand how Gutenberg (for example) could lead to simultaneity but itself be fundamentally linear: “Gutenberg made all history SIMULTANEOUS: the transportable book brought the world of the dead into the space of the gentleman’s library…” (Counterblast, 1954).
  3. Ivins on prints played a central role in this development which future posts will need to delineate. It may have been first through Ivins that McLuhan in the late 1950s turned, with revolutionary effect, to the art historians.
  4. Canadian Art Magazine, # 81, 363-366, September/October, 1962.
  5. The full passages for these snippets are given at ‘Heinrich Wölfflin‘. Most McLuhan scholarship has yet to allow the frequent strangeness of his suggestions to register and thereby to occasion the sort of probing consideration his language was intended to spark. As Heidegger noted, the most thought-provoking thing is that nothing provokes our thought.
  6. Report on Project in Understanding New Media, ‘General Introduction to the Languages and Grammars of the Media’: “Early in 1960 it dawned on me that the sensory impression proffered by a medium like movie or radio, was not the sensory effect obtained. Radio, for example, has an intense visual effect on listeners. But then there is the telephone which also proffers an auditory impression, but has no visual effect. In the same way television is watched but has a very different effect from movies. These observations led to a series of studies of the media, and to the discovery of basic laws concerning the sensory effects of various media.”

Winnipeg Free Press obituary of R.C. Lodge

Rupert Lodge died on March 1,1961.  The following obituary appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press, March 9, 1961, p. 21:

Rupert Clendon Lodge 

Although it is well over a decade since Professor Rupert C. Lodge presided over his last class at the University of Manitoba, the legend of him, both as man and philosopher, lives on. It will continue to live on despite the news of his death in St. Petersburg, Florida, earlier this month. Indeed, among former students during the past week, he has come more alive than ever. In death he has become for them more than a topic of conversation — he has become what they had always sensed he was, a part of their lives. 

Though he taught elsewhere before coming to Winnipeg, and was visiting lecturer at Long Island University for four years after leaving here in 1947, it was with the University of Manitoba that Professor Lodge had his longest association. 

He was with the department of philosophy here for 27 years. He made his reputation not only as teacher but as author. To a host of former students and friends, however, he will live on as a winning, puckish, provocative personality whose impact on their personalities has not become less with the years. There will be regret at his passing.  

McLuhan on first meeting Innis

Although a great deal has been written on ‘the Toronto school’, little has been done on what might seem to be a prerequisite to the topic, namely, the questions of who read what by whom? And when? This post looks at the question of when Innis and McLuhan began to read texts of each other (aside from the probability that McLuhan first read Innis already in 1936 when his first published essay on Chesterton appeared in the same issue of The Dalhousie Review as an essay by Innis).1  Previous posts have looked at the same question in regard to Innis and Havelock and Havelock and McLuhan.2

But a very great deal remains to be done in this area: these posts should be regarded only as initial approaches to its investigation.

On a number of occasions in the last years of his life, McLuhan described how he had come to meet Harold Innis thirty years before:

Harold Innis — I was very lucky to encounter him. It was through The Mechanical Bride that I met him. and when I heard he had put it on his reading list, I was fascinated to find out what sort of an academic would put a book like The Mechanical Bride on a reading list. So that’s when I went around and met him and we became acquainted for the few years that remained of his life. (Marshall McLuhan in conversation with Mike McManus, TVOntario, Dec 28, 1977 = ‘Violence as a Quest for Identity’, Understanding Me, 265-276)

My own acquaintance with Innis began when I heard that he had put my book, The Mechanical Bride, on his course reading list. It intrigued me to know what sort of academic would take an interest in this book. I read his Bias of Communication and became a follower of Harold innis from that time. (‘The Fecund Interval’, Preface to Eric Havelock, Harold A Innis: A Memoir1982, written by McLuhan in 1979 on the basis of his talk with Havelock in memory of Innis held at Innis College, October 14, 1978.)

None of this makes sense. Innis would have been able to include The Mechanical Bride on a reading list only sometime in 1951 since McLuhan’s first book was published, at last, only early that year. Then, after that, so later in 1951 at the earliest, McLuhan’s memory was that “I went around and met him and we became acquainted”. In fact, however, McLuhan and Innis had met years earlier, by 1948 at the latest. In a letter to Lewis Mumford (December 28, 1948)3 he mentions having a meal with Innis and Tom Easterbrook. And McLuhan and Innis participated in a seminar together early in 1949. Further, after both The Mechanical Bride and The Bias of Communication were published in 1951, it was sadly not the case then that a “few years (…) remained of [Innis’] life”: Innis would die the next year in November 1952.  Further yet, in a letter from early 1951, or even from late 1950 (since the copy we have from March 1951 is a “rewrite” of a letter Innis answered in February and apologized for his delay in doing so), McLuhan discussed Innis’ 1950 Empire and Communications.  This was six months or so before The Bias of Communication was publishedSo The Bias of Communication was with certainty not the first book from Innis that McLuhan read.

McLuhan’s memory in the late 1970s of his meeting with Innis thirty years before was plainly confused. But it was not simply made up out of whole cloth.  Instead, it seems that he remembered events that were indeed very important for both Innis and himself, but he associated them with the wrong texts and, therefore, with the wrong dates.

A clue to the correct story is given in the footnote in The Bias of Communication to a passage in  ‘Adult Education and Universities’: “The advertiser has created distrust through his power of penetration in the field of education”. There is no footnote to “the advertiser has created distrust” in its original appearance in the Manitoba Royal Commission of Adult Education (1947).  But in its reprinting Innis added a reference here to McLuhan’s The Mechanical Bride.  When The Bias of Communication appeared in 1951, Innis was able to add this reference to The Mechanical Bride only because McLuhan’s first book had finally appeared earlier that year after having been largely composed in the 1940s. It is not impossible that Innis had seen parts of it in typescript through Tom Easterbrook who was a close friend of both men. Still, Innis would not have been able to put such unpublished material on a reading list for a course.  But he would indeed have been able to assign one or both of two papers that derived from the ongoing composition process of The Mechanical Bride and that McLuhan published in 1947 

More than three decades after the event, McLuhan seems to have confused these papers  derived from his first book with the book itself. 

On his side, by the end of this same year of 1947, Innis had already published three of the nine papers which would later be collected in The Bias of Communication:

  • Minerva’s Owl (Presidential Address, Royal Society of Canada, 1947)4 
  • The English Publishing Trade in the Eighteenth Century (Manitoba Arts Review, iv, 1945)
  • Adult Education and Universities (Innis’ contribution to The Manitoba Royal Commission on Adult Education, 1947)

And a fourth of the nine was published as an appendix in the 1948 reprinting of Minerva’s Owl:

  • A Critical Review5

Two of these papers would have been particularly significant to McLuhan and Easterbrook as having been published in Winnipeg, their hometown.6 In addition, ‘The English Publishing Trade in the Eighteenth Century’ bridged their academic specialties in English and Economics.

In his ‘Introduction’ to the 1964 republication of The Bias of Communication McLuhan recalled his first meeting Innis somewhat differently than he was to do 15 years later (as detailed above):  

Flattered by the attention that Innis had directed to some work of mine, I turned for the first time to his work. It was my good fortune to begin with the first essay in this book [that McLuhan was introducing, namely The Bias of Communication]: “Minerva’s Owl.” How exciting it was to encounter a writer whose every phrase invited prolonged meditation and exploration: “Alexandria broke the link between science and philosophy. The library was an imperial instrument to offset the influence of Egyptian priesthood.”

Here McLuhan does not refer to The Mechanical Bride, but to “some work of mine”, and he names the first essay he read from Innis as Minerva’s Owl — a lecture Easterbrook would have been able to share with McLuhan in any of the multiple forms in which it appeared in 1947 and 1948.7 

As seems to have been the case with The Mechanical Bride, so also with The Bias of CommunicationMcLuhan’s memory thirty years after the event appears to have confused texts later included in it with the book itself.

On the basis of these qualifications to McLuhan’s descriptions of his first acquaintance with Innis, a reconstruction of the event may be made along the following lines.

A year after McLuhan joined the English faculty at St Michael’s (UT) in the fall of 1946, Tom Easterbrook rejoined the UT political economy department headed by Innis. Easterbrook and McLuhan were decades-old close friends from Winnipeg — the two had even toured England together in the summer of 1932 when they were still undergraduates at UM. In the middle 1930s, when McLuhan was in Cambridge, Easterbrook did graduate work in political economy in Toronto and wrote his PhD thesis there with Innis as his adviser. Easterbrook and Innis were close even then: Innis had seen to the publication of Easterbrook’s thesis by UTP with a preface by himself (Farm Credit in Canada, 1938). On his return to Toronto, Easterbrook immediately began to work closely with Innis again, in a relationship that continued to grow until, by the time of Innis’ death 5 years later, Easterbrook was one of his most intimate friends. 

In 1947 Easterbrook must have immediately been impressed (if he did not already carry this impression with him from before) by the many parallels between the lives and views of Innis and McLuhan.8 Both had lived and worked in university communities in the US midwest, both had married remarkable American women and both had sizable families (Innis and his wife had four children, the McLuhans’ fourth child, of an eventual six, was born in 1947). Both had grown up in a Baptist environment which they had come fundamentally to question; but both remained obsessed by the spiritual and social question of what had happened to religion in the modern world. Both believed that education and the transmission of tradition were shaped primarily by culture and environment and that culture and environment, hence also education and the transmission of tradition, had been transmogrified (and not for the better) by the industrial revolution. Both had long been extremely critical of the academy. And both held that the disruptions of modernity were unavoidably reflected in internal conflict in the individual between intellect and emotion.9 Finally, both had a strong interest in business and the economy: Innis, naturally, as an economist by profession; and McLuhan through his friendships, established while he was still in St Louis in the early 1940s, with Bernard Muller-Thym, a corporate consultant in New York (then, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, with McKinsey & Company), and with Peter Drucker, who was on his way to becoming one of the leading theoreticians of business of his generation.10 

Other themes may have been further preexisting commonalities or they may have been adopted by Innis from McLuhan.  So, for example, Innis in his 1947 ‘The Church in Canada’: 

Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People is a symptom of a widespread interest in the technique of pushing people around.

Innis doesn’t further enlarge on the topic, but McLuhan, since the early 1940s, had been working on an essay, or essays, variously called ‘Dale Carnegie: America’s Machiavelli’, ‘Dale Carnegie in the American Grain’ and ‘Dale Carnegie’s Moral Arithmetic’. McLuhan was in the habit of sharing work in progress like this and may well have done so in this case with Easterbrook — and, through Easterbrook, with Innis. 

Similarly, Innis drew repeated attention in this same address to the “the basic problem of character”:

The Church is in part responsible for a tendency in the social sciences to neglect the importance of training and character. With great pretentiousness they pronounce on questions of exceeding complexity in the social sciences and belittle the necessity of a long period of intense training and the development of character essential to an appreciation of the danger of interfering in other people’s lives. (…) we would do well to follow the example of the medical profession based on centuries of experience and tradition in emphasizing the importance of respect for the individual, evident as early as the oath of Hippocrates, and to realize that decisions affecting the lives of individuals should be made only on the basis of intensive training and on character.  (The Church in Canada, 1947)

Innis certainly did not require McLuhan’s help to note the central importance of character in education and life generally.  Still, McLuhan had by this time written a sizable manuscript called ‘Character Anthology’ which he had begun while still at Cambridge and was in circulation with friends. It is quite possible that Innis knew of the work through Easterbrook and was prompted by it to revert to the issue of character, repeatedly, in his United Church address.

Further, Innis began this same address by observing in language more typical of McLuhan than himself:

Modern civilization, characterized by an enormous increase in the output of mechanized knowledge with the newspaper, the book, the radio, and the cinema, has produced a state of numbness, pleasure, and self-complacency perhaps only equalled by laughing-gas.

Further yet, as detailed elsewhere11, it seems that Innis had seen McLuhan’s 1947 proposal to Robert Hutchins on university innovation and reform and was impressed enough by it to put forward some of the same suggestions in his 1948 address in Oxford to a conference of commonwealth university educators.12 In this same address Innis remarked on “the pervasive influence of discontinuity, which is, of course, the characteristic of the newspaper” — surely reflecting one of McLuhan’s central thoughts at this time about Mallarmé and the relation of the form of the newspaper to discontinuity in modern poetry, art, music and science.13

Finally, Innis read and used in his work at least two books of Wyndham Lewis: The Art of Being Ruled (1926) and Time and Western Man (1927).14 McLuhan was a friend and admirer of Lewis and treated both of these works at length in his 1943 essay, ‘Lemuel in Lilliput’. Aside from access to McLuhan’s essay through Easterbrook, it seems very unlikely that Innis would have turned to Lewis and especially to The Art of Being Ruled.

In summary, it seems that Innis beginning at the latest in 1947 read some of the published and unpublished work of McLuhan. And by 1948 at the latest the two had become personally acquainted. But for Innis, at least, the meeting with McLuhan was not of decisive significance. He remained unconvinced for the few years remaining to him that the inevitable bias and relativity implicated in communications study could be overcome or, at least, turned to use in a new investigative discipline.  At the most, he seems to have been cheered to learn of someone in the next generation who was thinking along similar lines to his own.15 And, perhaps as a sign of this, he seems to have included one or both of ‘American Advertising’ and ‘Time, Life and Fortune’ on the reading list when he first began to offer a course in communication in 1947 or 1948.

As regards McLuhan’s access to Innis’ work, beyond the published essays from the 1940s later collected in The Bias of Communication — especially the long-remembered ‘Minerva’s Owl’ — and the two Michigan University lectures included in that book which Innis previewed in the 1949 ‘values seminar‘ (‘Bias of Communication’ and ‘Technology and Public Opinion in the United States’)16, Easterbrook doubtless prompted McLuhan to read Political Economy in the Modern State. This was the bridge between Innis’ work in mostly political economics of the preceding decades and the communications research he would pursue in the few years remaining to him. Political Economy in the Modern State had just been published in 1946 as McLuhan arrived in Toronto. Apart from its essays on culture, media and society17, which were grist for McLuhan’s mill, McLuhan seems to have been transformatively impressed by three great topics in Innis’ book concerning the history and working of media.

First, Innis quoted in his ‘Preface’ the story of the invention of writing by the Egyptian god Theuth (now usually rendered ‘Thoth’) from Plato’s Phaedrus (274ff). As detailed in previous posts18, this same tale from Plato was then cited by I.A. Richards in discussing Havelock’s work in 1947, by Innis again in Empire and Communications (1950, but based on lectures delivered at Oxford in 1948), and repeatedly by McLuhan throughout his career.19 It was understood by all of them to illustrate not only the social and psychological effects of the introduction of writing in Greece, but also the analogous effects from the introduction of any medium of communication in any society at any time.

Second, one of Innis’ seemingly more strictly economic essays in the volume was ‘The Penetrative Powers of the Price System‘ from 1938. The notion (better, the question) of such  “penetrative power” was to become one of the motors of McLuhan’s intellectual life for the next 30 years. Here is how he began his memorial essay on ‘the late’ Harold Innis in the year following Innis’ premature death in 1952:

Often misunderstood or ignored by those who had admired his classic study of the Fur Trade, 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)

The great questions were: are media the fundamental engines of historical change? are they the underlying forces which work to “transform (…) existing institutions and patterns of thought”? if so, just how does such media penetration work?20 how is it to be investigated in a collective discipline? and does such collective investigation, alone, offer a way in which the often catastrophic effects of media innovation might be ameliorated?21

Third, Innis ended the first chapter of Political Economy in the Modern State, ‘The Newspaper in Economic Development’ (originally 1942) with this admonition: 

Finally this paper is designed to emphasize the importance of a change in the concept of the dimension of time, and to argue that it cannot be regarded as a straight line but as a series of curves depending in part on technological advances. (…) The concepts of time and space must be made relative and elastic and the attention given by the social scientists to problems of space should be paralleled by attention to problems of time.

The whole rest of McLuhan’s career could be said to be a series of probes of these two sentences.  Ultimately he would come to perceive media as fundamentally multiple time-space matrices whose understanding in a relativity theory for the humanities and social sciences depended upon insight into the plurality of time and especially into the relation of diachronic history as figure to the synchronic keyboard of existence as ground:

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

Combined at just this time in the late 1940s with McLuhan’s fascination with the theory and poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé (closely connected to his on-going study of Eliot, Joyce and Pound) and his discovery of cybernetics (apparently through Sigfried Giedion), these themes from Innis (and in part also from Havelock) concerning media and their “power (…) to penetrate and transform” served to advance, decisively, McLuhan’s life’s work.  He would set out the stage he had reached at that time in programmatic letters to Innis in 1951 and to Pound in 1952 and then reach definitive clarity on the topic of ‘Understanding Media’ after a further decade in 1960.22



  1. Of course, Innis might have read McLuhan on Chesterton at the same time.
  2. See Innis and Havelock – 1930 and beyondSirluck on Innis, Owen and HavelockNef on McLuhan’s proposalHavelock, Innis and Richards in 1947 , “The formula of Virgil’s poetic chemistry” and The Journey of Aeneas through the Waste Land.
  3.  Letters  208
  4. This lecture was published in 1947 by the Royal Society of Canada both in its Proceedings and in a separate offprint. The UT Press then reissued it in 1948. In the 1948 printing by UTP, furthermore, another text that would later be included in The Bias of Communication,  ‘A Critical Review’, appeared as an appendix.
  5. See previous note.
  6. The Innis paper in the Manitoba Arts Review undoubtedly owed its presence to Roy Daniells who had taught at Victoria college (UT) for years before replacing E.K. Brown as the head of the English department at the University of Manitoba. As described in the Daniells biography, Professing English by Sandra Djwa (2002), Daniells was actively involved with the Manitoba Arts Review (first published in 1938) during his whole tenure at UM from 1937 to 1946. McLuhan and Daniells knew each other, apparently from meetings of various English associations, and exchanged a few letters in the mid 1940s, which are now in the Roy Daniells papers at UBC.
  7. See note 4 above.
  8. Such parallels should not be taken to exclude deep differences.  Marchand and others, particularly among Innis researchers, are not wrong in noting fundamental divides between Innis and McLuhan regarding, eg, the Catholic church and the civil war in Spain. As must have struck Innis at some point, however, this did not mean that McLuhan was less liberal or less tolerant than him.  On the contrary, McLuhan’s Catholicism was compatible with a much wider range of individual intellectual and personality type and of cultural expression from advertising, comics and baseball to modern film and art than Innis was able to relate to. Contemporary research on both men continues to dodge this truly basic issue, however, since it is just as incapable of understanding it, and for the same reasons, as was Innis.
  9.  Innis refers to “the inability to secure a proper agreement between desire and intellect” in his ‘Preface’ to Political Economy in the Modern State’ (1946, p. x); McLuhan, also in 1946, in a Christmas letter to Clement McNaspy, S.J., refers to the “emotional and spiritual economy denied to the confused secular mind” and goes on to state in regard to the University of Chicago: “Hutchins and Adler (…) are emotional illiterates. Dialectics and erudition are needed, but, without the sharp focussing of training in moral sensibility, futile.” (Letters 180).
  10.  Muller-Thym was the best man at the McLuhans’ wedding in 1939 and the Godfather of their first child. He and his wife and their large family of eight children provided a prototype of the Catholic family to the McLuhans, both of whom were Catholic converts. Peter Drucker’s books were already recommended to two of McLuhan’s Jesuit friends from SLU, Walter Ong and Clement McNaspy, in a Christmas 1944 letter (Letters 166).
  11. See Nef on McLuhan’s 1947 proposal.
  12. A Critical Review’, address before the Conference of Commonwealth Universities, 1948.  First published as an appendix to Minerva’s Owl (1948) and included in The Bias of Communication (1951).
  13. See ‘Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press’ (1954).
  14. Innis referenced The Art of Being Ruled in ‘A Plea for Time’ (included in The Bias of Communication, 1951) and in ‘Great Britain, United States, and Canada‘ (included in The Changing Concept of Time, 1952). Time and Western Man is cited in ‘A Plea for Time’.
  15. See Innis to McLuhan January 12, 1952: “I was immensely pleased to get your warm letter particularly as it is the first I have had which indicated that the reader had taken the trouble to understand what it (= The Bias of Communication) is all about.”
  16. By the spring of 1949, therefore, McLuhan had probably been exposed to six of the nine essays later (in the middle of 1951) published in The Bias of Communication.
  17.  Political Economy in the Modern State begins with six essays on the interface of culture and the economy: ‘The Newspaper in Economic Development’ (1942), ‘An Economic Approach to English Literature in the Nineteenth Century’ (1945), ‘The Problem of Rehabilitation’, ‘A Plea for the University Tradition’ (1944), ‘The University in the Modern Crisis’ (1945) and ‘On the Economic Significance of Cultural Factors’, (1944).
  18. See ‘McLuhan and Plato 6 – Theuth‘ and ‘Havelock, Innis and Richards in 1947‘.
  19. Research is needed on the question if it was through McLuhan in his 1953 ‘Culture Without Literacy’ (in the first issue of Explorations) that this story in Plato came to assume its enormous importance for Jacques Derrida (variously said to have been a subscriber or at least a reader of Explorations).
  20. See McLuhan’s ‘Foreword’ to the 1972 reprinting of Empire and Communications: “The mere classification of the innumerable patterns of energy arising from specific human organizations such as speech and writing and weaponry, as well as all the means of accelerating work and travel, avoids the effort of understanding the actual processes involved.”
  21. See McLuhan’s new sciences: “only the authority of knowledge”.
  22. For his 1952 position, see  The Beginnings of Gutenberg Galaxy; for 1960, see McLuhan’s #1 breakthrough and  McLuhan’s new sciences: “only the authority of knowledge”.

Rupert Lodge: Synthesis or Comparison?

The gap is where the action is. (Take Today, 81)1

McLuhan inherited the ideal of a “comparative method” from Rupert Lodge whose classes in philosophy he took at the University of Manitoba in the early 1930s.  One of the tasks to which he would dedicate his life was to probe the problems and potential of this meth-od, this complex way (‘odos) of thought and life. And perhaps the deepest of these problems was that any conclusion reached through the method could not exclude, in principle, what was fundamentally opposed to it. For any such exclusion would evince an “external condemnation” and/or a “synthesis” and these, as Lodge emphasized over and over again, were “out of the question”.

The year after the appearance of his ‘Comparative Method in Philosophy‘ in Manitoba Essays, 1937, Rupert Lodge published a follow-up dialogue, ‘Synthesis or Comparison?’ in The Journal of Philosophy (35:16, 1938, 432-440).  Here he (as author and as one of the participants in the dialogue) observed:

as long as realists remain realists, and idealists idealists, and pragmatists pragmatists, how can there possibly be a ‘synthesis’? The differences are so extreme that no agreement seems possible. The three schools have no common ground. They differ in principle as well as in detail. We have three complete antinomies. Sympathetic understanding is the most we can look for. But any sort of compromise or synthesis is surely out of the question. (434-435)

Similarly at the conclusion of the piece:

Comparative philosophy preserves in its original purity, each of the three schools. (…) Comparison is not synthesis. What it objects to is the negation of any school, whether by (…) external condemnation, or by some form of synthesis which would radically emasculate all three. (440)

McLuhan never gave up this intuition of his first mentor of a comparative discipline that would refuse to attenuate the irreducible plurality of the fundamental structures of its analysis (either through external critique or consuming synthesis). Some of the great implicated questions to be faced were:

  • how does the “psychogenetic process”2 of all human perception and experience work if its ground(s) is (are) plural?
  • what kind of spacing must be native to human being before such fundamental plurality?
  • how would the investigative study of such “psychogenetic process” work if it must have its own genesis in this same “psychogenetic process”? 
  • what kind of augmented spacing must characterize such analysis if it is to avoid on principle all “external condemnation” and “synthesis” of its ground(s)?
  • how can the possibility of such a discipline be communicated across such multiple  spacing(s)?

McLuhan reflected on the need and difficulties of such investigation in his ‘Foreword’ to the reprinting of Innis’ Empire and Communications in 1972:

Innis learned from historical analysis that what Lusseyran [in And There Was Light3] describes as the private re-ordering of all the components of experience, as a result of a single sensory shift, occurs on a massive social scale with the introduction of technological innovation and the resulting new service environments thus created. Though Innis hit upon this Lusseyran perception of perceptual metamorphosis quite early, he had as little success in communicating his insights as Lusseyran. What Innis indicates as a basis for social survival is nothing less than a reorganization of our perceptual lives and a recognition that the environments we witlessly or involuntarily create by our innovations are both services and disservices that make very heavy demands of our awareness and understanding. (‘Foreword’ to Empire and Communications, 1972)

The self-reflexive knot of such thought was clear enough — even as mirrored in McLuhan’s involuted language in this passage. On the one hand there was the problem: the “re-ordering of all the components of experience” that “occurs on a massive social scale with the introduction of technological innovation” and that results in the creation of “environments” with deep “disservices”; on the other hand was the only solution for “social survival”: “reorganization of our perceptual lives” enabling a new kind of “recognition” of such “environments”. 

The problem and the solution were the same: a “re-ordering of all the components of experience” (that leads to “disservices”) vs “a reorganization of our perceptual lives” (that leads to “recognition”). 

McLuhan frequently noted this seeming paradox of the fundamental inter-relation of problem and solution “that make[s] very heavy demands of our awareness and understanding”:

In his Landmarks of Tomorrow, Peter F. Drucker has pointed to Operations Research as “organized ignorance”. It is a procedure in tackling problems which resembles the “negative capability” of Keats — a sort of intellectual judo. Instead of straining all available effort on a visible goal (…), let the solution come from the problem itself. (Technology, the Media, and Culture, 1960)

All solutions are in the very words by which people confuse and hide their problems. (Take Today, 1972, 103)

Failure Through Success and Success Through Failure  (Take Today, 1972,  279)

More than 20 years after his study with Lodge, McLuhan would define nihilism as the fatal attraction to “external condemnation” and “synthesis”, a fatal attraction that did not recognize the comparative originality of our problems and solutions and failures and successes:

It just happens that in the new age of technology when all human arrangements from the cradle to the grave have taken on the hasty extravaganza aspect of a Hollywood set, the nihilist philosophies of neo-Platonism and gnosticism have come into their own. Existence is an empty machine, a cheap art work, they have always said. The soul is a shabby mechanism, the body a monstrous one. The [nihilistic] spirit or artist says to body and soul, a plague on both your prisons. 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”. (Nihilism Exposed, 1955)


  1. Also Take Today, 60-61: “That the gap is where the action is, is now acknowledged as the basis of chemical and physical change.”  And: McLuhan, ‘The Gap is Where the Action is’, Ontario Dentist (The Journal of the Ontario Dental Association), 53:6, 1976.
  2.  ‘Foreword’ to the reprinting of Empire and Communications (1972): “The kind of psychogenetic process that Innis describes as ‘the bias of communication’…”.
  3.  Jacques Lusseyran, And There Was Light, 1963.

McLuhan on ‘effect’ in 1946

In the first half of 1946, or perhaps already in 1945, McLuhan wrote a short essay titled ‘Time, Life, and Fortune’.1 The following passage from the essay has a number of remarkable anticipations of ideas McLuhan would develop over the next 15 years: 

Time, Life, and Fortune represent three levels of irresponsible politics in much the same sense as Hollywood is willy-nilly a political force. That is, neither T.L.F. nor Hollywood attempts to hold up any kind of object or program for detached observation or appraisal. But both arrange their exhibits in suchwise as to manipulate the standardized reflexes of a semi-hypnotized and mentally helpless audience. So that the art of the movie is not to be judged by the invention and arrangement of images but by the effect which those images have on the contents of the mind or guts of a spectator. Likewise with T.L.F. It isn’t the worth or character of the image or statement presented which is of any political significance but the effect [on its “semi-hypnotized and mentally helpless audience”] which it is observed to have [by]2 a [“detached” yet] sharply focussed reader [who would thereby be capable of “appraisal”]. Needless to say, the [“semi-hypnotized and mentally helpless”] reader is not the one to do the focussing. He is held in position.

McLuhan first used the phrase “the medium is the message” in print in 19583 (although Carl Williams improbably recalls it already from 1953-1954)4. However that may be, as seen in the passage from his ‘Time, Life, and Fortune’ article cited above, the basic idea was already present to him 10 or 15 years before:

the art of the movie is not to be judged by the invention and arrangement of images but by the effect which those images have on the (…) mind or guts of a spectator. Likewise with T.L.F. It isn’t the worth or character of the image or statement presented which is of any political significance but the effect…

What the movie and the magazine were, namely media, had not yet come into focus at this time. This would soon come through McLuhan’s exposure at UT to the work of Harold Innis and of Eric Havelock and, beginning around the same time, his study of Stéphane Mallarmé. But it was already plain to McLuhan what these forms of entertainment and instruction were not, namely, they were not “image or statement” —  that is, they were not content or message.

Further, while the phrase, “the medium is the massage“, would first appear more than twenty years later, that notion, too, is already clear here:

both [T.L.F. and Hollywood] arrange their exhibits in suchwise as to manipulate the (…)  audience. So that the art of the movie is not to be judged by the invention and arrangement of images but by the effect which those images have (…). Likewise with T.L.F. It isn’t the worth or character of the image or statement presented which is of any political significance but the effect

Further still, as McLuhan recorded in Report on the Project in Understanding New Media:

Early in 1960 it dawned on me that the sensory impression proffered by a medium like movie or radio, was not the sensory effect obtained.5 Radio, for example, has an intense visual effect on listeners. But then there is the telephone which also proffers an auditory impression, but has no visual effect. In the same way television is watched but has a very different effect from movies. These observations led to a series of studies of the media, and to the discovery of basic laws concerning the sensory effects of various media. These will be found in this report.  In 1915 Heinrich Wölfflin published his Principles of Art History which has since then revolutionized the study of many matters besides art. His entire approach confirms what I discovered about media: “the effect is the thing that counts, not the sensuous facts“…6

Moving beyond focus on media and their massaging effects, the great leap made by McLuhan here in January 19607 (however inchoate it may have been at the time and, indeed, may largely have remained for McLuhan despite another twenty years of probing it) was the notion that what a medium is — is “the sensory effect obtained” (“outputs”) and not “the sensory impression proffered” (inputs).8  Hence, in one of the examples given by him in this passage, while “the sensory impression proffered” by radio is plainly auditory, “the sensory effect obtained” is at least partly “visual” or even “intensely” so. Moreover, it is this “sensory effect obtained” that accounts for “the penetrative powers” (a notion borrowed by McLuhan from Innis9) of media. Hence McLuhan began his 1953 memorial essay on Innis, who died at the end of 1952, as follows:

Often misunderstood or ignored by those who had admired his classic study of the Fur Trade, 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’, Queen’s Quarterly, 60:3, 1953, 385-394)

The key to this insight into the being and power of media was simultaneity or synchronicity. Electric technology introduced “allatonceness” where cause and effect were not sequential but instantaneous. So the effect of a medium (subj gen) could now be seen as the cause of that medium (subj gen) since the two were interlocked not in chronological if-then fashion, but in simultaneous time.  The very being of a medium was the translation or metamorphosis it effected into an altered psychological and physical environment. As such, this was not an effect or outcome which a medium could fail to impose!  Rather, exactly this psycho-physical-environmental im-position was what a medium was! As McLuhan remarked in Understanding Media:

extension [of any sense] also demands new ratios or new equilibriums among the other [sense] organs and [previous] extensions of the body. There is, for example, no way of refusing to comply with the new sense ratios or sense “closure” evoked by the TV image. (45)

Now all this from the 1950s, culminating in his breakthrough writings in 1960-1964, was very close to what McLuhan could already see in 1946!

the art of the movie is not to be judged by the invention and arrangement of images but by the effect which those images have on the contents of the mind or guts of a spectator. (…) He is held in position.

Media, he would increasingly come to see, were position binders (another Innis notion) or variable time-space matrices. It followed that a general relativity theory covering the range of their possible forms was required which could therefore be called Understanding Media.

This is the cover of McLuhan’s 1960 Report on the Project in Understanding New Media:10



  1. Although ‘Time, Life, and Fortune’ appeared in View magazine in the spring of 1947 when McLuhan was in his first year at UT, the contributor information given with the essay has him at Assumption. Presumably it took a year or more for the piece to proceed from composition to publication. Especially in the 1940s and 1950s McLuhan frequently complained about such delays in the appearance of his work. He had often lost interest in it by the time some work of his was finally published. ‘Time, Life, and Fortune’ appeared in print at least three different times: as ‘Time, Life, and Fortune’ in View magazine in its spring issue, 1947, 33-37; as ‘The Psychopathology of Time and Life‘ in Neurotica 5, Fall 1949, 5-16; and again as ‘The Psychopathology of Time and Life‘ in The Scene Before You: a new approach to American culture, ed Chandler Brossard, 1955, 147-160.
  2. McLuhan has ‘on’ here, not ‘by’. The ambiguity of ‘on’ and ‘by’ goes to the heart of McLuhan’s lifetime project since what is often enough styled his “technological determinism” did not at all exclude human freedom and, indeed, human freedom fully capable of “understanding media”. The effect ‘on’ us of media could and must be understood ‘by’ us.
  3. See The medium is the message in 1958.
  4. Cf, Williams’ address at the Memorial Tribute to Marshall McLuhan, January 27, 1981, reprinted in The University of Toronto Bulletin, February 9, 1981, and again in Who Was Marshall McLuhan, ed Barrington Nevitt and Maurice McLuhan, 1994, 286-288.
  5.  This is the first sentence of the most important section of Report on the Project in Understanding New Media: ‘General Introduction to the Languages and Grammars of the Media’. More than a decade later, in Take Today, McLuhan would again emphasize “the continual transformation of sensory inputs into outputs of quite different kinds. Food for the mind is like food for the body; the inputs are never the same as the outputs!” (137)
  6.  Wölfflin, Principles of Art History, Dover edition, 62.
  7. See McLuhan’s #1 breakthrough.
  8. For “inputs” and “outputs” see the citation in note 4.
  9. ‘The Penetrative Power of the Price System’, CJEPS 4:3, 1938, reprinted in Political Economy in the Modern State, 1946 — a book McLuhan almost certainly read via his old friend Tom Easterbrook after Easterbrook joined the UT faculty in 1947.
  10. Not all copies of the Report had this cover, but it seems to have been its cover as submitted to the US Office of Education.

What Havelock knew in 1938

In 1938 Eric Havelock published a short (7 page) essay, ‘The Significance of the Greek Sophist’.  It appeared in successive May-June numbers of The School, a magazine published at the time in elementary and secondary school versions by the Ontario College of Education. How far the then 34 year old Havelock had advanced to his life’s topic may be seen from these excerpts from this essay:

Athens, when the sophists came to her, lacked not merely the institutions of secondary and university training, but also the necessary curriculum. Here again we have implications which need an effort of historical imagination to grasp. Let us begin with the fundamental fact that the habit of reading was uncommon. There were very few books, and they were nearly all copies of the poets.1 (…) But there were literally no prose books of grammar or history or criticism or economics, the written apparatus, that is to say, which serves any modern lecturer or teacher as the indispensable tools of his craft. (…) [The sophists] naturally used the oral technique, which was the only one familiar to those that heard them. What we style prose composition and essay writing had to be oral composition, which they introduced as a substitute [in instruction] for the mere memorization and recitation of the poets. As a by-product of teaching this oral composition, they naturally began to explore the structure of the language itself, as orally used. Thus what we know today as language study began in Europe on an organized scale as rhetoric, but, when we use this term rhetoric to describe the field of sophistic effort, we think of it as the art of public speaking, in opposition to the written word which has become the vehicle of ideas and history and language study. Thus we unconsciously fall into the error of interpreting the significance of the early sophists too narrowly, They cannot be understood until we realize that their rhetoric comprehended the total of Greek culture.

Havelock was already focused on the fact that Greek culture before Pisistratus (608-527), was produced and preserved orally and that that oral culture was then replaced over the space of a century or two by a related but significantly altered literate culture. His idea at the time was that this new culture was the result of revolutionary changes in education and social relations:

if the sophists excited violent feelings at the time of their first success (…) we may be sure that they had collided somehow with social habits and institutions of long standing. The clue is offered early in the Apology where Socrates, describing the success of the sophistic lectures, says that of course the youthful element in the cities could associate in the usual way with such of their elders as they might choose, but preferred to flock to sophistic lectures and pay fees for the privilege. (…) The offence of the sophists consisted simply in this, that they offered to organize this adolescent training into an educational system. (…) Receipt of fees became a concrete symbol of the revolution that was being forced upon Athens, for by systematizing and professionalizing higher education the sophists began to break the unconscious but effective monopoly of the governing class. The way became clear for any lawyer or demagogue to win social and political success, provided he had the ability and training [and the latter was now available in a new way via the sophists]. We may therefore sum up the effect of the educational revolution under three aspects. It replaced elder statesmen and heads of families with paid technicians. It seemed to dislodge “character” in favour of mere “brains”. And it threatened to dissolve conservative political and social traditions by abolishing the monopoly exercised by the aristocracy over the arts of leisure and leadership. It now becomes clear why, when Socrates was attacked as a convenient scapegoat for the sophistic movement, being selected for this purpose because of his eccentricities, the main charge against him was of “demoralizing young men”.

But was the media revolution noted by Havelock from orality to literacy only incidental to these educational and social changes — or might it have been what motivated them in the first place? When Havelock’s ideas began circulating at UT in the 1930s, this question must have particularly occurred to Harold Innis. For Innis was already looking at the remarkable influence of media like newspaper and radio in modern societies and, in any case, was suspicious of Marxist ideas and of the sort of activism some of his UT colleagues (including Havelock) derived from them. Why not look at the relations between media and culture/society directly? Without the importation of theory from elsewhere?

However this may have been, Havelock was plainly already close in 1938 to two further interlocked questions which he would begin to investigate in the 1940s. First, how had these different media, orality and literacy, functioned to produce and preserve the high oral culture of Greece before 550 as well as the related but very different high literary culture that was gradually implemented thereafter? And, second, how had both orality and literacy affected (or even effected) the minds of those living in the cultures structured by them?2 These questions would involve Havelock in the Homeric question in new ways so that, for example, he began to read Milman Parry for the first time in the early 1940s. And on January 31, 1946, he gave his last public lecture as a member of the UT faculty before transferring to Harvard: ‘The Sophistication of Homer’.3


  1. Havelock notes in this essay that “Homer had been codified under Pisistratus (608-527), in order to serve as a text for the elementary schools.” This was a century or so before the time when sophists from around the Mediterranean began to teach in Athens in the age of Pericles (494-429).
  2. These questions were very close to questions Innis was already asking at this time concerning the effects of mass media, particularly newspapers, on the modern politics and economics of England, the United States and Canada. Probably Havelock helped Innis generalize this work to concern all media at all times. For if Havelock’s Greece could be aligned with Innis’ work on the press in modern north Atlantic countries, why not Egypt and Babylonia? See Havelock’s observation on Innis in the next note.
  3.  “During the summer of 1943 I read Parry’s  work — I should have read it earlier — and later gave one or two public lectures on Homer and oral composition at the University of Toronto. Innis came to hear them and at once connected what I was saying with what he had been contemplating in a different context” (‘The Oral-Literate Equation: A Formula for the Modern Mind’, 1987, in Olson and Torrance eds., Literacy and Orality, 1991). Along with his 1946 lecture, Havelock may have been recalling his review of E.T. Owen, The Story of the Iliad, in UTQ, January 1948, which, like his lecture,  treated the question of Homer and oral composition.

Dialogue and ethics

McLuhan often noted that a rigorous investigation of media and communication could not be based on particular values.  For particular values were rooted in prior media and, because media study was essentially comparative, it could not presuppose the privilege of some one of them.

This did not mean, however, that he had no ethical position. He had converted to Catholicism as a young man and as he aged he became more and more engaged with issues surrounding war and peace, abortion and euthanasia.

The basis of his ethics was comparativism itself:

the greatly increased speed of action and reaction (…) of electronic information movement compels organizations to assume an ethical character in the sense of having inclusive rather than exclusive purposes. Specialized lines of development are intolerable, when every line crosses every line. That is to say, that the dialogue now characterizes the interplay of things themselves, and any effort to understand or control such situations by any means less inclusive than the dialogue will scarcely work. (McLuhan to Claude Bissell,  May 6, 1960, Letters 273)

The environment as a processor of information is propaganda. Propaganda ends where dialogue begins. (The Medium is the Massage, 1967)1

  1. The passage in The Medium is the Massage continues: “You must talk to the media, not to the programmer. To talk to the programmer is like complaining to a hot dog vendor at a ballpark about how badly your favorite team is playing.”

William H. Allen

W.H. Allen appears as the co-author with McLuhan of ‘Title VII Research Abstract’ (for Report on Project in Understanding New Media), Audio Visual Communication Review, 9:4, 1961. Allen might have appeared with McLuhan in this way for several reasons.

First and most simply, Allen was the founding editor of this journal and may have helped McLuhan put the abstract into the required form for it.

Second, as recorded in the ‘Itinerary and Summary of the Activities of the Consultant’ section of the Report:

February 28-March 5 (1960): The DAVI [Department of  Audiovisual Instruction of the National Education Association] Convention in Cincinnati where I was a member of a continuing panel. The major effect of this conference for my  studies was the sudden awareness that my approach to the media is close to the Systems Development type of effort. I owe this discovery to William Allen, Rand Corporation [and editor of the DAVI journal, Audio Visual Communication Review], and James Finn, DAVI President. As a result I have begun to work with our electrical engineering department here at Toronto.

With the shared by-line, McLuhan may have been expressing his appreciation of Allen’s help with his thinking more broadly.

Third, since Allen’s influence in the educational AV community was second to none, this might have been a way on his part to promote consideration of McLuhan’s work in that community. In fact, in the 1959-1964 period, discussion of McLuhan was nowhere as prevalent as it was in the Audio Visual Communication Review.

Fourth, Allen was both an academic (at USC) and an associate with the Rand Corporation. As was the case with Bernard Muller-Thym and Peter Drucker, McLuhan appreciated scholars who worked outside of the academy and who attempted to apply their ideas in real life.  As he repeatedly expressed, he had this ambition for himself.

Fifth, Allen combined his technology and education research with an intense concern with Christianity.  Also this sort of multiple avocation greatly appealed to McLuhan. It was one of the reasons for his longtime friendship with Muller-Thym and may well have been a factor in his relation with Allen.

The description of the papers of Andrew Christian Lohr (

This material was collected by William Homer Allen (1914-2009). Raised in Glendale, California, and in Arizona, he received an AB from UCLA (1941); MA, Claremont Graduate School (1948); and EdD, UCLA (1950). He was a captain in the Army, serving from 1941 to 1946.
Allen taught at San Diego State College, University of Wisconsin and the University of Southern California. He worked for the RAND Corporation from 1957 to 1960. He founded and edited the journal, AV Communication Review, published by the Department of Audiovisual Instruction [DAVI] of the National Education Association. (…)1 He retired from USC as professor in the education department in 1978.
Allen’s parents were Christian Scientists and then members of the Unity Church. They met Andrew Christian Lohr (1880-1960) in the early 1930s and became part of the group who met with him on a regular basis. They held teachings at their house in Glendale.
After he retired, Allen transcribed and organized Lohr’s teachings, leading to a self-published book, Born of Water and Spirit: Teachings in Mystic Christianity (1990). The book is organized into four parts: The Realm of God, The Realm of Man, Aspects of Man’s Regeneration, and Ways to Spiritual Attainment. Additional books with Lohr’s talks were planned but never published. Allen also painted and wrote an unpublished book on the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus. He died in 2009.

  1. The description of Allen has “After 18 years” here, but this number seems mistaken since Allen was at USC already in the 1950s.  His career there lasted easily over 20 years. It may well be, however, that he became “professor in the education department” in 1960 and then retired from that position “after 18 years”.

“Factual means of avoiding disaster”

The so-called new criticism (…) followed after the new poetry which followed after the new [scientific and industrial] developments in our Western world [in the first half of the 19th century]  (…) It was the new media themselves, from the telegraph (1830) onward which created the situation which the poets and painters tried to explain to us by “prophetic” new art forms. (…) For the past century, the artist has been our only navigator in social and political terms. The models which he makes are not wishful dreams (…) but urgent factual (…) means of avoiding disaster. (Report on Project in Understanding New Media: ‘What I Learned On The Project’)

As McLuhan already affirmed to Harold Innis in 1951, he saw techniques developed in the arts  as eminently practical.1 What was needed was application of them to our looming social, political and ecological problems.

In one of his few publications in 19582, Knowledge, Ideas, Information and Communication (A Canadian View)’, just prior to the explosion of communications he would issue between 1959 and 1964, McLuhan “attempted to sketch a strategy of observation and exploration by which it would be possible to apply some of the recent information concepts to (…) teaching and learning in the age of the new media.”3 Given the context of his essay in a Yearbook of Education, McLuhan naturally directed his remarks here to “teaching and learning”.  But he was increasingly clear that that human beings were facing catastrophe especially in war and ecology and that the one “means of avoiding disaster” at our disposal was the application of ideas that had been developed in the century between 1850 and 1950 — above all in the seemingly remote realms of poetry and criticism.

Knowledge, Ideas, Information and Communication (A Canadian View):

  • We welcome the non-Euclidean spaces of modern physics which are not visualizable. And in these fields of relations we find it easy to recognize that any new factor of information (…) will somewhat modify the entire field of relations.  This admission from the world of mathematics and physics was introduced into literary discussion by T. S. Eliot in 1917 in his Tradition and the Individual Talent when he indicated that for the twentieth century it was natural to consider “that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order”. This type of perception, so natural to a world in which all kinds of information flow with electronic velocity, involves the obvious corollary which Mr. Eliot at once pointed out: “The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (…) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new.” To the literary mind, accustomed to the lineal arrangement of language on the page, the notions of simultaneity and of transformation by mutual interaction are very difficult concepts. They are alien and repugnant ideas. But even the literary person has no trouble recognizing the way in which a musical theme or harmony simultaneously modifies all the portions of a musical work. In a musical structure it is easy to observe the total relevance of every phrase to the entire work. The gradual admission of this organic criterion of ‘total relevance’ has come about in all fields of discussion in this century. It is equally the basis of anthropological study of cultures and of critical method in literature. The so-called ‘new criticism’ is, in the main, a recognition of the validity of the ‘total relevance’ attitude to all forms of speech and composition.
  • The work of F. R. Leavis and the Scrutiny group at Cambridge has been the most notable effort to meet the new situation. They diagnosed the problem as one resulting from failure to notice the exact verbal arrangement of words on the page. Training in attention to the nuances of tone and rhythm as a key to the total response indicated was excellent both in intention and in result. However, this strategy, though brilliantly carried out, merely propped up a sagging literary culture. It assumed that literary training was inevitably the norm of all educational effort. In their Culture and Environment, Leavis and Thompson turned  the trained literary eye upon the non-literary scene, revealing at once how vulgar that scene was. But the poets of our time have used press and cinema, radio, television as new techniques for organizing experience. They have learned the grammars of these new media and assimilated them to (…) the tasks of poetry.
  • If we are to retain the values of book-trained perception and judgment, it can only be by learning how to incorporate the former lineal and analytic habits of mind into the new patterns of mind already being established by the new media, which are not at all lineal in their modes of arranging and presenting information. (…) We have to consider that we can no longer teach reading to-day, with its slow, eye-dropper mode of verbal flow, as if we were teaching students who lived in a world which took such a form of information and experience as predominant and normal. It [“book-trained perception”] is to-day a secondary rather than a constitutive form. And if it is to be taught it has to be done realistically, as the presentation of a specialized and somewhat alien type of experience.
  • To-day, our new media compel us to notice that English is a mass medium (…) and that the new media are new languages with unique powers and deficiencies. Not to recognize this situation is to encourage the rise of a new tower of Babel. That the new media, with their non-lineal means of presenting complex information and attitudes, have already had a strong influence even on older modes of literary study appears in the great vogue of Mr. William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity. Previously, literary people had encouraged the assumption that meaning was something that could be obtained from the page by a single-minded pursuit of the plain sense offered by words in sequence; (…) Hobbes abandoned art and history in favour of Euclidean rationalism, saying: “The Light of humane minds is Perspicuous Words but by exact definitions first snuffed, and purged from ambiguity.” Mr. Empson demonstrated that this aim was sheer illusion. We had been taught [in the Gutenberg era] to ignore the complexities of verbal experience, and [now] the twentieth century (…) was eager to explore the non-lineal aspects [and other complexities] of language and experience. It is this situation which has brought into vogue the concern of the ‘new criticism’ (…) with the ‘total relevance’ of word and phrase4 — much to the chagrin of the true bookmen who continue to insist on the ‘one plain meaning’ coming off the assembly-lines of print.
  1. McLuhan to Innis, March 1951: “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 language such as the Western world has not experienced in 1800 years. (…) this major revolution, intimately linked to technology, is one whose consequences have not begun to be studied although they have begun to be felt. (…)  I have been considering an experiment in communication (…) linking a variety of specialized fields by what may be called a method of esthetic analysis (…) the organizing concept would naturally be “Communication Theory and Practice.” (…) Arts here used as providing criteria, techniques of observation, and bodies of recorded, achieved, experience.” (Letters, 220, 221, 223)
  2. McLuhan’s Letters includes no correspondence at all from 1958.
  3. Knowledge, Ideas, Information and Communication (A Canadian View)’, Yearbook of Education for 1958225-232.
  4. McLuhan: “It is this situation which has brought the methods of the ‘new criticism’, with all their concern in any composition into vogue with the ‘ total relevance ‘ of word and phrase, much to the chagrin”…

Project 69: What I Learned On The Project

With the exception of its Bibliography and Appendices, Report on Project in Understanding New Media concludes with a section on ‘What I Learned On The Project (1959-1960)’.1 The final sentences of this final section read:

Another basic aspect of the electronic is this: it telescopes centuries of development and evolution into weeks or months. In speeding up actual change, it makes the understanding of change much more feasible just as a movie of an organic process may reveal years of growth in seconds. But such acceleration of growth in no way prepares the human community to adapt to it. Suddenly there is a nine foot redwood where in the morning you had experienced a bedroomOur educational, political and legal establishments are scarcely contrived to cope with such change. There is no mercy for culture-lag in our new technology. There is no possibility of human adaption. Yet in all these situations we confront only ourselves and extensions of our own senses. There is always the possibility of escape into understanding. We can live around these new situations, even if we cannot live with them. (…) In purely realistic terms, I feel that the associated power of specialist and vested interest of many kinds definitely insures that we shall fail to meet any and every challenge that is offered to us in the electronic age. Why should we [come to] understand [our] new media when no generation of the Western past has understood [its]2 media? However, now that we have begun to [try to] understand all media for the first time (see H.A. Innis, Empire and  Communications) there is the outside possibility that we might decide to consider them as fit objects of study and control.3

McLuhan ended his Report in this way by implicating the great problem of time plural, namely, the problem of understanding the relation4 of “development and evolution” (aka “adaption”), on the one hand, to what can come only “suddenly”, on the other. This was a labyrinthine question which had been raised by great minds for millennia and never solved intellectually or socially (“study and control”). McLuhan was plainly divided as to the prospects5, but knew that in either case, utter disaster or understanding at last, “we confront only ourselves”.

In fact, McLuhan’s lifelong enterprise might be put as the question of what is to become of human extension? Will it continue only outward to oblivion or turn back inward to what is already there, namely, the underlying prior possibility of such extension? And of its potential return?

On the way to these concluding thoughts, ‘McLuhan made a series of related points:

Correction for Lasswell formula6 [Who (says) What (to) Whom (in) What Channel (with) What Effect] — not who is speaking to whom, but what is speaking to whom. Lasswell ignores the media, except speech; but obviously if a person is speaking into a P.A. system or into a radio microphone, etc., the who and the what are profoundly transformed.

McLuhan’s observation here is indeed obvious enough: media do transform who we are, what we communicate and to whom we communicate. Yet this massive field has been virtually ignored even while its world-transforming effects have gigantically accumulated.  Now in 2018, almost 40 years after McLuhan’s death, in an age of grossly inflated fake news and unforgivably inflated real deaths, his observations about information war ring more true than ever:

Today, when the largest commodity of all is information itself, war means no longer the movement of hardware [like weapons], but of information. What had previously been “a peace time” activity within our own boundaries now becomes the major “cold-war” activity across frontiers.


Today, civil defence would seem to consist in protection against media fallout.

But beyond the pressing practical need for the investigation of media in matters of war and peace, there was also the prior question of just who we are as human beings:

Media are extensions of the human senses. They modify the patterns of human association while remaining rooted in this or that sense, and these staples are not limited to any geographical area, but are co-extensive with the human family itself.

  1. Presumably this section (and others like ‘Purpose of the Project’, ‘Materials Developed by the Project’, ‘Itinerary And Summary Of Activities Of The Consultant’, etc) was required by the terms of the research grant.
  2. McLuhan has “all media” here, a phrase evidently intended to contrast with Innis studying “all media” in the next sentence. But behind this matter of vocabulary and style lay his conviction that we can come to understand any medium at all only by understanding media per se.
  3. It would seem that McLuhan wrote ‘What I Learned On The Project’ hurriedly and with little or no revision.  Awkward phrasing and repetitions are common in it.  The apparent explanation for such haste is given in the ‘Itinerary and Summary of Activities of the Consultant’ section: “Project 69 travel was amply rewarding in insight and friendship. Unfortunately, it had adverse effects on my health, requiring hospitalization and a long period of rest, delaying the conclusion of these reports and the summarizing of the results of this project.”
  4. “Relation”: both the fundamental difference and the equally fundamental harmony of the two.
  5. Soon after this, in 1962, McLuhan would publish two papers on our dim prospects: ‘Prospect’ in Canadian Art magazine and ‘Prospect of America’, a review in UTQ of The Image: What Happened to the American Dream by Daniel Boorstin.
  6. Harold Lasswell (1902-1978) and his communication model. Lasswell already appears in the references of Harold Innis — both had their PhDs from the University of Chicago in the early 1920s. Lasswell’s concerns with the political, social and psychopathological implications of communications might usefully be compared and contrasted to those of McLuhan.

Kenneth Boulding

Unlike most of the authors and investigators McLuhan studied in his crucial 1958-1962 period (such as Adolf HildebrandHeinrich WölfflinWilliam IvinsGeorg von Békésy and Tobias Dantzig), Kenneth Boulding’s work continued to be cited by McLuhan into the 1970s. Furthermore, he had come to know of Boulding’s work earlier than these others — Boulding contributed ‘The Information Concept’ to Explorations 5 in 1955.

Media Alchemy in Art and Society, 1958

  • Kenneth Boulding’s The Image [1956] is an important event in advancing our knowledge of alchemical change in all types of structure. And we achieve this advance by seeing every kind of structure, from the botanical to the animal and human, as a knowledge structure subject to information in-put. The structure is the image: “We must distinguish carefully between the image and the messages that reach it. The messages consist of information in the sense that they are structured experiences. The meaning of the message is the change which it produces in the image.” Boulding is disposed to regard some information as neutral (“We may imagine that the message is going straight through without hitting it.”). Such neutral messages bombarding the inattentive image or structure have tended in our time to be cut down almost to zero. Modern psychology is here in accord with the arts in thinking that subliminally received messages (what used to be called cultural conditioning) are much the most effective as shaping powers. Massive achievements like Siegfried Giedion’s Space, Time, and Archiitecture or his Mechanization Takes Command offer as it were a vivisectional awareness of the living inter-relational current of forms and information.

McLuhan to Claude Bissell, May 6, 19601

  • At the very high level of information movement in which to-day we are involved, we find ourselves less in a university of subjects than in what Meister Eckhart called the university of being. For in each subject concerned with method and creative insight tends to bring each subject directly into the mode of contemplation of its relation to Being. For example, Ken Boulding in The Organizational Revolution, on p. 66, mentions that “the idea that a theory of organization is possible is one of the important ideas of our time“. Notice that if information moves so fast that the causes and effects of any action are felt almost together — then it becomes indispensable to have a theory of organization, but it also becomes possible. It is the telescoping of actions and consequences which makes understanding of principles easier. Another way of putting this, Claude, is to say that control is only possible through acceleration of change. A ship that is moving at the same speed as the current has no steerageway. What is ordinarily called planning is, in effect, acceleration. In the same way, the greatly increased speed of action and reaction, because of electronic information movement, compels organizations to assume an ethical character in the sense of having inclusive rather than exclusive purposes. Specialized lines of development are intolerable, when every line crosses every line. That is to say, that the dialogue now characterizes the interplay of things themselves, and any effort to understand or control such situations by any means less inclusive than the dialogue will scarcely work. Should be able to get the Meier paper to you late on Monday. Between him and Boulding2, you should be able to manage very well indeed with the Manufacturers’ Association. By the way Ken Boulding’s book. The Image, 1959, is small and richly nourished. It has lots of economic tie-ins.

Understanding Media, 1964

  • Kenneth Boulding put this matter in The Image by saying, “The meaning of a message is the change which it produces in the image.” Concern with effect rather than meaning is a basic change of our electric time, for effect involves the total situation, and not a single level of information movement. (26)
  • …in any medium or structure there is what Kenneth Boulding calls a “break boundary at which the system suddenly changes into another or passes some point of no return in its dynamic processes“… (38)3

Take Today, 1972

  • NOTHING EXCEEDS LIKE EXCESS. Writing on the “Failures and Successes of Economics” (THINK, May- June, 1965), Kenneth E. Boulding cites “Phillips Curve” to the effect that beyond a certain point “the more employment the more inflation”. Boulding, in The Image, was one of the first to note that the gist of economic life had moved into the information or “software” orbit. Political economy had, in fact, become economic politics. The trend to what he calls THE GRANTS ECONOMY is a reversal of an age-old and opposite trend of the separation of work and residence. The increase of “software” and information as industries become knowledge-oriented can have only one terminal, namely, the restoration of the decentralized “cottage economy”. So far this development has been called “moonlighting” and “starlighting.” “Do-it-yourself” now permits use of the total environment as a private resource. Earlier, it had been an elite that exploited the “public benefits for private vices.” Now it is everybody who gets in on the act. This, naturally, via Hertz Law of Complementarity brings the flip or reversal of effect. In Boulding’s words, “grants may be made out of fear rather than out of love.” The grant as tribute, levied on a puzzled public, becomes a feature of the “threat system,” as in Speenhamland. (81-82)

  1.  Letters 273
  2. “Between him (Meier) and Boulding” —  at this time Richard Meier and Boulding were colleagues at the University of Michigan.
  3. This passage from Understanding Media is cited in Laws of Media, 107.

McLuhan’s #1 breakthrough

the (…) way in which the lines of force in any medium are structured. (McLuhan to Harry Skornia, 25 January 1960)1

When stress moves from product to process… (McLuhan to Claude Bissell, May 6, 1960)2

Understanding Media [= Report on Project in Understanding New Media] postulates the basic hypothesis that any means of codification of experience in terms of any sense whatever inevitably transforms the ratio among the other senses and thereby alters patterns of thought, feeling, and action. (‘Title VII Research Abstract’, 1961)3  

McLuhan experienced enough self-styled breakthroughs in his career that he sometimes complained that he didn’t have time to write them down.  The single most important one of these occurred in January 1960:

Early in 1960 it dawned on me that the sensory impression proffered by a medium like movie or radio, was not the sensory effect obtained.4 Radio, for example, has an intense visual effect on listeners. But then there is the telephone which also proffers an auditory impression, but has no visual effect. In the same way television is watched but has a very different effect from movies. These observations led to a series of studies of the media, and to the discovery of basic laws concerning the sensory effects of various media. These will be found in this report.  In 1915 Heinrich Wölfflin published his Principles of Art History which has since then revolutionized the study of many matters besides art. His entire approach confirms what I discovered about media: “the effect is the thing that counts, not the sensuous facts5… (Report on the Project in Understanding New Media)

The last few days have seen a major breakthrough in media study. Working with the fact that each medium embodies one or more of the human senses, it struck me that we are impelled in perceiving each medium to complete the scale or spectrum of our sensorium. So that, radio impels us to provide a visual world moment by moment, and photography, which is so adequate in visual terms, compels us to complete the tactual and kinesthetic part of the sensorium. Thus the degree of sensuous completion is one way in which the lines of force in any medium are structured. (McLuhan to Harry Skornia, 25 January 1960)6

The break-through in media study has come at last, and it can be stated as the principle of complementarity: that the structural impact of any situation is subjectively completed as to the cycle of the senses. (McLuhan to Bernard Muller-Thym, February 19th, 1960)7

As far as the project goes, rather large developments and discoveries have occurred in the last few weeks which will enable me to complete it in a very satisfactory manner while, at the same time, opening a new phase of media study… (McLuhan to John Wain, March 11, 1960)8

Some large breakthroughs have occurred in communication study…9 (McLuhan to Peter Drucker, April 18, 1960)10

At first following Innis, Havelock and Richards in the late 1940s11, and then working with the Explorations seminar group in the middle 1950s, McLuhan by 1960 had considered for more than a decade how media shape experience through the manipulation of the senses — particularly the ear in illiterate cultures and the eye in literate ones. But now, in January 1960, he came to the idea that media — and therefore all human experience (since all human experience is media-ted at the very least by language and culture) — that media and all human experience might be characterized by specifiable structure.12 Furthermore, he saw that such a specifiable structure, once tentatively accepted for collective investigation, could represent the “opening [of] a new phase of media study” leading to “the discovery of basic laws”.

He immediately saw that collective study along these lines, with the promise of the sorts of progressive and sometimes revolutionary findings that other sciences such as chemistry and genetics had made once an elementary structure had been identified for common focus in their fields, could have enormous effect on the great questions of the contemporary world. And, given the state of the world with the threat of nuclear weapons in war, of pervasive automation in the economy, and environmental disaster in the biosphere, this effect could hardly be for the worse. Indeed, the accumulative result of the new investigation was its promise finally to lift the automata-like slavery of humans to the media control of their experience.

Once he began looking at media as structures, McLuhan saw various possibilities for scientific investigation. For example, he saw that different media stimulated the human sensorium with different intensities: what he called High Definition (HD) and Low Definition (LD). Already in 1960 this would lead him to the famous typology of hot (HD) and cool (LD) media. Then, given some such input, he hypothesized that “we are impelled in perceiving each medium to complete the scale or spectrum of our sensorium”. The initial idea (never fulfilled in practice, but perhaps never yet fully appreciated) was that it might be possible to establish that the ratio between the sensory input of a medium and the inverse (high response to low input and vice versa) ‘subjective completion’ (SC)13 of a perceiver would maintain itself according to some dynamic constant or, at least, might prove to have predictable action somewhat as valence does in chemistry. Comparable to the action of valence, the hypothetical goal of all experience would be to convert an unstable initial situation into a subsequent stable one.14 On this model, human being would ceaselessly function as a kind of gyroscope working to keep the changing inputs of experience in balance.  As McLuhan wrote to Jackie Tyrwhitt on December 23, 1960:

Is not this the problem that we have now to face in the management of inner and outer space, [a question] not [of] fixed but [of] ever new-made ratios, shifting always to maintain a maximal focal point of consciousness?15

Or again in the 1961 ‘Care and Feeding of Communication Innovation’:

the senses never operate in isolation [from one another]. 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 [relatively] isolated by stress or intensity we are in the state of hypnosis at once. Pushed a bit further, the [more extreme] isolation of [a] sense [relative to the others] leads swiftly to insanity.

This implicated the further idea that scientific investigation might focus on the senses themselves in their attempt “to maintain that steady ratio among the senses which is the norm of human consciousness“. This facility dynamically seeking sensory stability was called by McLuhan ‘tactility’ — or ‘kinesthesia’ or ‘synesthesia’ or ‘equilibrium’ or ‘the sensus communis‘ — and he postulated that it could be defined in terms of the ratio between the visual and the aural:

There are only two basic extreme forms of human organization. They have innumerable variants or “parti-colored” forms. The extreme forms are the (…) eye and ear… (Take Today, 22)

The idea was not that the eye and the ear ever function aside from the ‘synesthesia’ of the five senses, but that they have a specialized role in the investigation of human experience comparable to the specialized role of the electron (which in practice never functions aside from a host of other particles in the atom) in the investigations of chemistry (particularly in regard to valence). Moreover, the visual and the aural were to be defined, not in terms of either sent or received sense data — “the sensory impression” — but in terms of “the effect”.16 And the effects of media were the “variants” of time-space experience: 

each sense actually makes its own space with its own distinctive perceptual structure. (Take Today, 137)

The elements of experience would then be the plenary spectrum of time-space configurations specifiable as variations of the basic ear-eye ratio. The hope would be that they would prove as fertile for new discoveries, and indeed even for whole new sub-sciences, as was the case following the definition of elementary structures in chemistry and genetics. And this, in turn, might provide an answer to the “threat to continued existence and to sanity”17 posed to the planet, then and now, by the limitless assertion of unconsidered assumptions.18


  1. See note 6 below.
  2. Letters, 273
  3. McLuhan and AllenTitle VII Research Abstract’ for Report on Project in Understanding New Media, in Audio Visual Communication Review, 9:4, A25-A26, 1961.
  4. This is the first sentence of the most important section of Report on the Project in Understanding New Media: ‘General Introduction to the Languages and Grammars of the Media’. More than a decade later, in Take Today, McLuhan continued to emphasize “the continual transformation of sensory inputs into outputs of quite different kinds. Food for the mind is like food for the body; the inputs are never the same as the outputs!” (137)
  5. Wölfflin, Principles of Art History, Dover edition, 62.
  6. Cited in Gordon,  Escape into Understanding 399-400, n99.
  7. Cited in Gordon, Escape into Understanding, 313-314.
  8. Letters, 266
  9. This passage continued: ” pushing media (study) towards Systems Development and I am now working with the (UT) Electrical Engineering Dept.” The idea of investigating media as systems in an electrical engineering sense may have come to McLuhan as a result of hearing Richard Meier at Michigan earlier than same month. In his 1960 paper, ‘Technology, the Media, and Culture’, McLuhan quoted Meier as follows: “With the elaboration of electrical engineering, and the fusing of many strands of chemical knowledge, a field that was evolving rapidly in a mainstream of its own that led from mass reactions to molecular, to atomic, and most recently to nuclear reactions, the possibility of a flexible, quick-acting, autonomous economy emerged. It is capable of substituting one set of raw materials by others so as to meet virtually all foreseeable emergencies which reduce or cut off supplies”. But see the next note for a slightly earlier source for a Systems Development approach.
  10. Letters, 269; the Systems Development approach (see previous note) apparently came from William Allen — see Project 69: Purpose, note 8.
  11. At the same time in the late 1940s McLuhan was following developments in the then-new field of cybernetics, particularly in the work of Norbert Wiener and his colleagues at MIT. In the 1969 UT President’s Report, Claude Bissell noted that McLuhan “received the British Institute of Public Relations’ Presidential Medal for 1969 and while in London was the guest of honour at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet, proposing the main toast of the evening to the 21st anniversary of the formal birth of cybernetics!”
  12. McLuhan to Peter Drucker, April 26, 1960: “As with me in media study, he (“my friend, Tom Easterbrook”) has reached the structuralist stage where content is indifferent. He has isolated the dynamics of the inter-relation between power centers and marginal areas, and momentarily we have a bond in the matter of media as staples.”
  13. The concept of closure or completion is basic in understanding media, since it becomes possible to see why no sense can operate in isolation from all the others and no medium can exist by itself.” (‘Title VII Research Abstract’ for Report on Project in Understanding New Media, in Audio Visual Communication Review, 9:4, A25-A26, 1961)
  14. A fundamental question here would be in what time this ‘initial-subsequent’ process takes place? Clearly it does not occur in clock time: our experience of the world does not wait upon the completion of such an action. But if that is the case, when and where and how does the action take place?
  15. Letters, 277-278
  16. As he first attested in Report on Project in Understanding New Media, McLuhan learned (or confirmed what he already suspected) from Heinrich Wölfflin’s  Principles of Art History that the effect is the thing that counts, not the sensuous facts. See McLuhan on ‘effect’ in 1946.
  17.  Report on Project in Understanding New Media: ‘Purpose
  18.  For further discussion of these issues, see McLuhan’s new sciences: “only the authority of knowledge”.

Richard L Meier and “substitutability”

I would like to draw attention to the fine paper of Richard L. Meier on “Information, Resource Use, and Economic Growth,” (read at Ann Arbor, Michigan, April 1960). Not only does he point to the media of communication as staples or natural resources, and to our senses as the climate of information, but [also to the fact that] the natural effect of the electric is to substitute  information movement for transportation of things. As information movement increases, “machines can be designed which normally make for [far?] fewer mistakes than humans.” That is, as information moves into very high level phases there occurs (…) reversal and substitution of forms (…). Above all, information movement at electric speeds results in a society “capable of substituting one set of raw materials by others“. “Now, however, it is impossible to specify any set of resources which are crucial”. (Report on Project in Understanding New Media: ‘General Introduction to Charts’)

McLuhan heard Meier’s paper at a conference on Natural Resources and Economic Growth held at Ann Arbor, Michigan, April 7-9, 1960.1 Apparently on account of its ontological implications, McLuhan immediately began to discuss Meier’s notion in his correspondence and papers: 

I want to mention some aspects of the Richard Meier script which came to mind yesterday. A propos of his theme of substitutability, notice that when information flow reaches a sufficient level almost any resource material can be substituted for any other, then the situation closely resembles the activity of the sensus communis in translating one sense into another. (…) I am exceedingly grateful to Richard Meier, but I understand what he is saying so much better than he does that I am really in some doubt as to what sort of credit to hand him when these things come to publication. (McLuhan to Bernard Muller-Thym, Letters 270-272, May 5, 1960)

Now, from your point of view, it seems to me that some of these points directly concern the university. The principle, that at very high levels of information movement  substitutability  occurs, (this by the way applies also to our own sense lives in which each sense typically translates itself into each of the other five senses) applies to the studies of the university. When stress moves from product to process, all of the subjects in the university also become substitutable for one another. At the very high level of information movement in which to-day we are involved, we find ourselves less in a university of subjects [or disciplines] than in what Meister Eckhart called the university of being. For (…) method and creative insight [today] tends to bring each subject directly into the mode of contemplation of its relation to Being. (McLuhan to Claude Bissell, May 6, 1960, Letters 273)

Richard Meier, in a paper given at Ann Arbor this past April, formulated a natural law for media when he pointed out that increased levels of information flow result in substitutability: “With the elaboration of electrical engineering, and the fusing of many strands of chemical knowledge, a field that was evolving rapidly in a mainstream of its own that led from mass reactions to molecular, to atomic, and most recently to nuclear reactions, the possibility of a flexible, quick-acting, autonomous economy emerged. It is capable of substituting one set of raw materials by others so as to meet virtually all foreseeable emergencies which reduce or cut off supplies. (…) The task that remains is one of redesigning social institutions so that they are consonant with the revealed potentials of resource availability and technological efficiency.” (Technology, the Media, and Culture, 1960)

information theory is able to reveal in the person and the paper of Richard Meier that “the degree of substitutability of one resource for another increases when either the stock of knowledge or the flow of communications increases.” (…) Meier, in the paper already referred to, notes: “We are forced to conclude that natural resources have an informational aspect, in addition to the bulk and utility features mentioned earlier.” But if media as extensions of our senses offer ready access to our inmost lives, putting the lever of Archimedes in the hands of bureaucrat and entrepreneur alike, natural resources can also be seen as media of communication. (…) To put it in Meier’s terms again, with the rise of information levels and speeds, war may cease to be the exchange of bulk or heavy goods, and may become an information exchange before a global public. If adjustment (economic, social, or personal) to information movement at electronic speeds is quite impossible, we can always change our models and metaphors 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. We can literally escape into understanding when the patterns of process become manifest. (Effects of the Improvements of Communication Media, 1960)

The theme appears a few years later in Understanding Media as follows:

Our new concern with education follows upon the changeover to an interrelation in knowledge, where before the separate subjects of the curriculum had stood apart from each other. Departmental sovereignties have melted away as rapidly as national sovereignties under conditions of electric speed. (Understanding Media, 35–36)

McLuhan wrote to Walter Ong:

A sensus communis for external senses is what I’m trying to build. (McLuhan to Walter Ong. Nov. 18, 1960? 1961?, Letters 281)

Meier’s principle of the substitutability of “one set of raw materials by others” seemed to give him a concrete illustration of the objectivity of the sensus communis. As he wrote to Muller-Thym in the letter from May 5, 1960 already cited above:

when information flow reaches a sufficient level almost any resource material can be substituted for any other, then the [external] situation closely resembles the activity of the [internal] sensus communis in translating one sense into another. 

And as he wrote the next day to Claude Bissell:

today (…), we find ourselves (…) in what Meister Eckhart called the university of being. (…) dialogue now characterizes the interplay of things themselves… (McLuhan to Claude Bissell, May 6, 1960, Letters 273)2

Indeed, two years before, in 1958, he had already seen that some kind of “knowledge structure subject to information in-put” was characteristic not only of the human mind but of everything in nature:

Kenneth Boulding’s The Image [1956] is an important event in advancing our knowledge of alchemical change in all types of structure. And we achieve this advance by seeing every kind of structure, from the botanical to the animal and human, as a knowledge structure subject to information in-put. (Media Alchemy in Art and Society)

  1. The papers presented at the conference, including Meier’s, were published in 1961 in Natural Resources and Economic Growth, ed J.J. Spengler.
  2. McLuhan continued this passage: “and any effort to understand or control such situations by any means less inclusive than the dialogue will scarcely work.”

Project 69: Purpose of Project

Report on Project in Understanding New Media: ‘Purpose of Project’1

  • Project 69 in Understanding Media proposed (…) a new tactic (…), namely to consider not so much the constituents nor the “content” of media, as their effects. I therefore raise the question at once: “Why have the effects of media, whether speech, writing, photography or radio, been overlooked by social observers through the past 3500 years of the Western world?” The answer to that question (…) is in the power of the media themselves to impose their own assumptions upon our modes of perception. Our media have always constituted the parameters and the framework for the objectives of our Western world.
  • In top-management study and planning today assumptions and objectives are recognized to be distinct (…) “Now, the primary difference between an assumption and an objective, is that an assumption pertains to things that are beyond your control, and an objective pertains to things that are achieved through your own effort.”2  What the writer of this brief does not know is that assumptions can also come within the range of prediction and control just as soon as it is recognized that the new media of communication in any age, as they penetrate and transform the older media, are the source of new assumptions and consequently the causes of change in our objectives.
  • Media study has not begun to approach such awareness because it has not established the sort of “self-sustained growth” enabled by the “take-off mechanism”3 of social change involved in the shaping and speeding of information for eye and for ear and for touch and kinetics.4 Project 69 set out to bring media study within the range of [such] expanding awareness here indicated by Rostow5 in economics. My assumptions, then, were (…) that such understanding was quite possible [and that] media assumptions do not have to remain subliminal…

In these passages from his short (965 words on 3.5 typed pages) introductory overview of Project 69, McLuhan makes a series of points which remain startlingly unconsidered today — almost 60 years later. These points may be summarized as follows:

  1. It is necessary to differentiate between conscious and (currently) unconscious (or “subliminal”) factors in experience, corresponding to objectivesachieved through your own effort” and assumptions “beyond your control”.
  2. But “assumptions do not have to remain subliminal” and, consequently, “assumptions can also come within the range of prediction and control”.
  3. Assumptions as “the causes of change in our objectives” must be investigated through “a new tactic (…) to consider (…) their effects“, aka through the objectives they engender.
  4. Media are the vectors of assumptions and therefore are the vectors of the effects and objectives of assumptions: “media have always constituted the parameters and the framework for (…) objectives”.6
  5. “In these circumstances Understanding Media must mean the understanding of the effects of media.”
  6. However, media as the vectors of assumptions can as much obscure assumptions as illuminate them. Everything depends on making the transition from the former to the latter.
  7. New media can illuminate through being “the source of new assumptions and  consequently the causes of change in our objectives”.
  8. The new media of today can enable the needed illumination of assumptions (dual genitive!) only if their study is revolutionized through the sort of “social change involved in the shaping and speeding of information” as described for economics by Rostow in The Stages of Economic Growth (and, two years later in 1962 by Thomas Kuhn for the physical sciences in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions7).  As McLuhan cited from Rostow’s Stages in The Gutenberg Galaxy, this is the metamorphosis in thought and practice initiating “that decisive interval in the history of a society when [“self-sustained”8 economic or scientific] growth becomes its normal condition” (Gutenberg Galaxy, 90).

In sum:

The globe has become on one hand a community of learning [but so far only in fields other than media], and at the same time, with regard to the tightness of its inter-relationships, the globe has become a tiny village. Patterns of human association based on slower media have become overnight not only irrelevant and obsolete, but a threat to continued existence and to sanity.

This mortal threat even to our “continued existence” has its ground in the retention of pre-nuclear assumptions and their objectives in a nuclear age, and, at the same time, in the impediment by those pre-nuclear assumptions of the sort of media study that might alone bring assumptions “within the range of prediction and control“. This blockage occurs because recognition, let alone study, of underlying assumptions (especially its own underlying assumptions) necessarily remains “subliminal” within the Gutenberg galaxy. For this is that epoch whose very world-altering success depends upon its proceeding in principle upon a single level only: “the single-plane approach of the older literacy“.9 Within the terms of pre-nuclear objectives there is, therefore, not only no defence against their fatal implications, there is their limitless assertion. As McLuhan noted in the same year as Project 69:

the subliminal legacy of print can have strange effects in the highest scientific quarters of the post-print age. (Effects of the Improvements of Communication Media)

A peculiarly insidious example of this point is provided by all current McLuhan ‘research’. But  McLuhan himself summed up his work as follows: 

All the recommendations 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.10

McLuhan ‘research’ thus far has had — and has today — no other objective than to hoick his work back into the Gutenberg galaxy where assumptions are once again subject to “blackout”. In this way, McLuhan has been — and continues to this day to be — harnessed to the very forces he desperately attempted to combat.

  1. All citations in this post, unless otherwise identified, are taken from this introductory ‘Purpose of Project’ section of McLuhan’s Report.
  2. Citation from “a Westinghouse ‘Long Range Planning’ brief of August 3, 1960″. This is one of many references in the Report which are later than the June 30, 1960 date given on its cover.
  3. Citation from W. W. Rostow, The Stages of Economic Growth (Cambridge University Press, 1960) — one of the many 1960 books extensively cited in Project 69 (like Gombrich, Art and Illusion and Békésy, Experiments in Hearing). Despite the date on its cover of June 30, 1960, McLuhan seems to have completed the Report only late in 1960 or even in 1961.
  4. “Eye (…) ear and (…) touch and kinetics” is the formula for McLuhan’s proposed elementary structure of media and experience: the ratio of eye to ear as modulated by touch and kinetics.
  5. See note 3 above.
  6. McLuhan in a 1961 review of Edward Hall’s The Silent Language wrote of “the effects of media in setting the assumptions of cultures”. There is a circularity here of the highest importance: media have the effect of resetting what is prior to effects!  It is this unaccountable temporal power of media which McLuhan wanted to direct towards — understanding media.
  7. Kuhn’s study was cited infrequently by McLuhan in the last decade of his life beginning with From Cliché to Archetype in 1970. He seems to have been alerted to it by Barrington Nevitt in ‘Predicting Scientific Prediction’ which appeared in the new series of Explorations in the University of Toronto Varsity Graduate, 13:3, 49-64, May, 1967.
  8. Full passage quoting Rostow cited above from Report on Project in Understanding New Media: “Media study has not begun to approach such awareness because it has not established the sort of “self-sustained growth” enabled by the “take-off mechanism” of social change involved in the shaping and speeding of information”.
  9. See ‘Multi-levels of simultaneous presentation‘.
  10. Report on Project in Understanding New Media: ‘Recommendations’. Also in W.H. Allen and H.M. McLuhan, Title VII Research Abstract’ (for Report on Project in Understanding New Media), Audio Visual Communication Review, 9:4, 1961.

Georg von Békésy

Georg von Békésy’s Experiments in Hearing was published in 1960 and immediately put to use by McLuhan in his own writings that year, especially in Report on Project in Understanding New Media. Two years later, in The Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan continued to cite von Békésy extensively.

Report on Project in Understanding New Media (1960)

  • Switching attention to effects away from “the sensuous facts” high-lighted (…) that the two-dimensional in visual presentation is in effect very tactile, resonant, and auditory. Three dimensional representation on the other hand remains primarily visual, pictorial, retinal, abstract and exclusive of the non-retinal. (…) In direct connection with this, it is most illuminating, at the very beginning of Georg von Békésy’ s Experiments in Hearing (McGraw-Hill, 1960), to find him contrasting two-dimensional and three-dimensional  paintings. His purpose is to explain how in the study of hearing, “mosaic” methods of research are more effective than “perspective” methods. Acoustical research is necessarily “depth” study since hearing is from all directions at once. Two-dimensional mosaic structures with their multi-levelled effects are therefore of great relevance to auditory research. There can be no fixed point of view with perspective and vanishing point, in such study. But Békésy is naturally apologetic in abandoning the conventional “perspective” patterns of research (such as are still used in audio-visual media study): “It is possible to distinguish two forms of approach to a problem. One, which may be called the theoretical approach, is to formulate the problem in relation to what is already known, to make additions or extensions on the basis of accepted principles, and then to proceed to test these hypotheses experimentally. Another, which may be called the mosaic approach, takes each problem for itself with little reference to the field in which it lies, and seeks to discover relations and principles that hold within the circumscribed area.”1 Békésy then proceeds to introduce his two paintings: “A close analogy to these two approaches may be found in the field of art. In the period between the eleventh and seventeenth centuries the Arabs and the Persians developed a high mastery of the arts of description and portrayal and they used the mosaic style (…) Later, during the Renaissance, a new form of representation was developed in which the attempt was made to give unity and perspective to the picture and to represent the atmosphere (…) When in the field of science a great deal of progress has been made and most of the pertinent variables are known, a new problem may most readily be handled by trying to fit it into the existing framework [or perspective]. When, however, the framework is uncertain and the number of variables is large the mosaic approach is much the easier.”
  • Just as Békésy found perspective irrelevant to acoustical research, so today by virtue of electric information movement all of us live globally in a kind of tribal drum of simultaneous resonance. When information moves to and from all directions and locations at the same moment, we return to a mode of experience that is structured as an auditory field of simultaneous relations. Even our visual experience is now a mosaic of items assembled from every part of the globe, moment by moment. Lineal perspective and pictorial organization cannot cope with this situation.
  • in concluding this general introduction I want to revert to Georg von Békésy’s discovery that you can’t investigate auditory problems by conventional scientific methods of  perspective. The auditory must be handled on its own terms, and these call for a mosaic approach, not a three-dimensional perspective approach. The auditory forbids perspective if only because it is inaccessible to any fixed position.
  • Edison once laid down a general rule for aspiring inventors: “When you are experimenting and you come across anything you don’t understand, don’t rest until you run it down; it may be the very thing you are looking for or it may be something far more important.” The technique of research that Edison here points to is the “mosaic” one described by Georg von Békésy at the opening of his Experiments in Hearing. “The very thing you are looking for” is the natural way of referring to our standard method in research in which we try to get everything into a single consistent picture or perspective. The exploratory “mosaic” pattern of research is the one referred to by Edison when he says: or it may be something far more important.”

Effects of the Improvements of Communication (1960)

  • Perspective, with arbitrarily fixed point of view and its vanishing point, is natural to the reader of uniform lines of repeatable type. It is not natural at all in our nuclear age when information does not move exclusively in such patterns any more. And Georg von Békésy, in his Experiments in Hearing finds it necessary to criticize the perspective techniques in scientific research, as compared with the mosaic techniques needed in field theory and non-visualizable problems. 

McLuhan to Serge Chermayeff Dec 19, 1960

  • it is equally observable in preliterate societies, as in our own post-literate global village, that we begin to note a heightening of auditory values after centuries of neglect through [visual]2 stress. (Georg von Békésy in the Psychological Review for January 1959 has an article on ‘The Similarities between Hearing and Skin Sensations‘.) But in preliterate societies where the auditory is supreme as the mode of organizing experience, there is a deprivation of value in the other senses equivalent to the worst excesses of abstract visuality and pictorial space.

The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962)

  • A recent work by Georg von Békésy, Experiments in Hearing, offers an exactly reverse answer to the problem of space to the one which Carothers and Wilson have just given us. Whereas they are trying to talk about the perception of non-literate people in terms of literate experience, Professor von Békésy chooses to begin his discussion of acoustical space on its own terms. As one proficient in auditory spaces, he is keenly aware of the difficulty of talking about the space of hearing, for the acoustical is necessarily a world in “depth.” It is of the utmost interest that in trying to elucidate the nature of hearing and of acoustic space, Professor von Békésy should deliberately avoid viewpoint and perspective in favour of mosaic field. And to this end he resorts to two-dimensional painting as a means of revealing the resonant depth of acoustic space. Here are his own words: “It is possible to distinguish two forms of approach to a problem. One, which may be called the theoretical approach, is to formulate the problem in relation to what is already known, to make additions or extensions on the basis of accepted principles, and then to proceed to test these hypotheses experimentally. Another, which may be called the mosaic approach, takes each problem for itself with little reference to the field in which it lies, and seeks to discover relations and principles that hold within the circumscribed area.” Von Békésy then proceeds to introduce his two paintings: “A close analogy to these two approaches may be found in the field of art. In the period between the eleventh and seventeenth centuries the Arabs and the Persians developed a high mastery of the arts of description (…) Later, during the Renaissance, a new form of representation was developed in which the attempt was made to give unity and perspective to the picture and to represent the atmosphere (…) When in the field of science a great deal of progress has been made and most of the pertinent variables are known, a new problem may most readily be handled by trying to fit it into the existing framework. When, however, the framework is uncertain and the number of variables is large the mosaic approach is much the easier.” The mosaic approach is not only “much the easier” in the study of the simultaneous which is the auditory field; it is the only relevant approach. For the “two-dimensional” mosaic or painting is the mode in which there is muting of the visual as such, in order that there may be maximal interplay among all of the senses. Such was the painterly strategy “since Cezanne,” to paint as if you held, rather than as if you saw, objects. (GG 41-42)
  • The paradox presented by Professor von Békésy is that the two-dimensional mosaic is, in fact, a multidimensional world of interstructural resonance. It is the three-dimensional world of pictorial space that is, indeed, an abstract illusion built on the intense separation of the visual from the other senses.  (GG 43)
  • the suppression of the visual sense in favour of the audile-tactile complex, produces the distortions of tribal society, and of the configuration of jazz and primitive art imitations which broke upon us with radio, but not just “because” of radio. [McLuhan’s footnote: “Georg von Békésy’s article on “Similarities between Hearing and Skin Sensations”, (Psychological Review, Jan., 1959, pp. 1-22) provides a means of understanding why no sense can function in isolation nor can be unmodified by the operation and diet of the other senses.]  (GG 53)
  • Coexistence and interplay among the figures in the flat field create a multilevelled and multi-sensuous awareness. This mode of approach tends to partake of the character of auditory, inclusive, and unenclosed space, as Georg von Békésy has shown in his Experiments in Hearing.  (GG 63)

Cybernetics and Human Culture (1964)

  • Sculpture itself, which today is manifesting such vigor and development, is a kind of spatial organization that deserves close attention. Sculpture does not enclose space. Neither is it contained in any space. Rather, it models or shapes space. It resonates. In his Experiments in Hearing, Georg von Békésy found it expedient to explain the nature of sound and of auditory space by appealing to the example of Persian wall painting. The world of the flat iconic image, he points out, is a much better guide to the world of sound than three-dimensional and pictorial art. The flat iconic forms of art have much in common with acoustic or resonating space. Pictorial three-dimensional art has little in common with acoustic space because it selects a single moment in the life of a form, whereas the flat iconic image gives an integral bounding line or contour that represents not one moment or one aspect of a form, but offers instead an inclusive integral pattern. This is a mysterious matter to highly visual and literate people who associate visual organization of experience with the real world and who say, “Seeing is believing.” Yet this strange gap between the specialist, visual world and the integral, auditory world needs to be understood today above all, for it contains the key to an understanding of what automation and cybernetics imply.


  1. A note is inserted in square brackets at this point in the typescript. It reads simply: “light through”.
  2. McLuhan has a typo here: “auditory”.

Multi-levels of simultaneous presentation

The meaning of the New Criticism today is not just literacy but a shift to reading in depth (…) rather than the single-plane approach of the older literacy. (Electronic Revolution: Revolutionary Effects of New Media, 1959)

A passage from McLuhan’s 1953 ‘Trivial and Quadrivial’ essay tells us everything we need to know about his project: 

Joyce underlines the skill of Bloom’s social decorum in a peculiarly witty way. Homer’s Odysseus learns from Circe that after passing the Sirens there were two courses open to him. One is by way of the Wandering Rocks, which Jason alone had passed in the Argo. The other is the way of Scylla and Charybdis, rock and whirlpool. Odysseus avoids the labyrinth of the Wandering Rocks. But Bloom navigates both labyrinths safely, thus excelling Odysseus. The Rocks are citizens and society seen in abstraction as mindless, Martian mechanisms. The “stone” men are children of the sun, denizens of space, exempt from time (…) Opposed to them are “The Dead” (see last story in Dubliners) children of the moon, the Celtic twilight (“cultic twalette”), moving in the aquacities of time, memory, and sentiment. On these dual labyrinths of stone and water Joyce has built almost every line he has written. (emphasis added) 

There are two courses” or dual labyrinths” to all human action and experience. Known or unknown, all human beings constantly “navigate” each of the two and between the two in every present moment of their lives. These two courses are arrayed vertically in synchronic time such that each of us perpetually traverses also a third labyrinth between them. This is the famous ‘gap where the action is’.  As Eliot has it in one of his two epigrams from Heraclitus for his Four Quartets‘odos ano kato. The way between (odos as in ‘meth-od’) and above (ano as in ‘an-ode’) and below (kato as in ‘cath-ode’): one, two, three.

Those who do not know of this constant back and forth of katabasis and anabasis are

citizens and society seen in abstraction as mindless, Martian mechanisms. The “stone” men are children of the sun, denizens of space, exempt from time.

But these are “mindless Martian mechanisms” only “in abstraction”, as McLuhan notes, because navigating these courses cannot not be done by humans. And so also these “citizens”, who conceive themselves as living only in the sun, have in fact made the “twilight” journey from their everyday lives above, to and within the dark below: “the aquacities of time, memory, and sentiment”. Indeed, their deportment above as “mechanisms” always reflects this action below — but only behind their own backs. Each one of them has reconnoitered these nether regions over and over again — but in blackout mode and utterly unconsciously.

It seems necessary to postulate a profound motivation for such universal somnambulism. (Take Today, 192, emphasis added)

This watery environment is therefore the last thing that human fish of this ilk can come to know.  But they can come to know it1 and exactly as the spectrum of sensory thresholds through which all their experience, individually and collectively, is ordered.2

Now McLuhan had this tiered model of human being in mind, at lest vaguely, from the very start of his career. A letter to his family from Cambridge on Dec 6, 1934 records:

Of late I have been wayfaring among the work of T.S. Eliot (…) the poems I am reading [Poems 1909-1925] have the unmistakable character of greatness. They transform, and diffuse and recoalesce the commonest every day occurrences of 20th 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, [obscured and unknown] behind life… (Letters 41, emphasis added)

Eliot’s Norton lectures at Harvard (The Use of Poetry and The Use of Criticism, 1933) had just been published at this time, doubtless to enormous interest in Cambridge (where repeated attempts had been made to add Eliot to the English School faculty, especially by Eliot’s friend, I.A. Richards). McLuhan’s letter to his family had perhaps already been influenced by a passage from the lectures that he would never stop citing for the rest of his career:

What I call this “auditory imagination” is the feeling for syllable and rhythm, penetrating far below the conscious levels of thought and feeling, invigorating every word; sinking to the most primitive and forgotten, returning to the origin and bringing something back, seeking the beginning and the end. It works through meanings, certainly, or not without meanings in the ordinary sense, and fuses the old and obliterated and the trite, the current, and the new and surprising, the most ancient and the most civilized mentality.3

For McLuhan, this dynamic ano-kato movement (“returning to the origin and bringing something back“) was “the centre of the poetic process [and of the cognitive process in general that all great art mirrors in some way4], which Mr. Eliot, among others, has revealed in our time.”5

McLuhan’s 1943 Ph.D. thesis on Nashe told the story of these tiers or levels of life in terms of a background “quarrel” of the three disciplines of the trivium between 400 BC and 1600 AD. His 1946 paper on ‘An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America’ brought the story into the present day.  And for the following 35 years of his lifetime he would continue in a whole series of ways to investigate this notion of the synchronic dynamic of experience and to attempt to communicate his findings to the world.

The most direct of these ways (although nothing in this area is properly said to be direct) was to describe, over and over and over again, this “multi-level” perception of human being (dual gen!):

the awareness of the unity of mythopoeic activity in history and art (…) has given modern man a sense once more of the simultaneity of all history seen at the psychological and intellectual level, as well as of the close bonds between all members of the human family past and present. (Inside Blake and Hollywood )

Even [Etienne] Gilson (…) has no developed sensibility in contemporary art. I heard him on the puns in St Aug’s
Confessions. He noted that they were inseparable from the multi-levels of simultaneous presentation without seeing that this is precisely our contemporary “cubist” sensibility. (McLuhan to Walter Ong, December 1947)6

This secret [of Dante] consists in nothing less than a fusion of the learning and the creative processes in the analysis and reconstruction of the aesthetic moment of arrested awareness. This peculiar fusion of the cognitive and the creative by an act of retracing the stages of apprehension was arrived at by Joyce as a result of the prior discovery for the technique of fission [aka the discernment of plural levels] of the moment of aesthetic awareness. (…) In art as in physics fission preceded fusion. (The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape Poetry)

this kind of single-level awareness [of Dos Passos] is not possible to anybody seriously manipulating the multiple keyboards of Joyce’s art. (Dos Passos: Technique vs. Sensibility)

The multi-leveled consciousness fostered by modern physics and anthropology is matched in the contemporary arts of music, poetry, and painting. 
The unilateral perspectives of nineteenth century biological theory cannot be imposed even in an academic milieu any longer. (Review of Auden: An Introductory Essay)

The theme of this admirable work is that Herbert’s work is embedded in the matrix of orthodox Christian experience.  St. Thomas pointed out that all levels of meaning are contained in the literal. Miss Tuve says of Herbert that “he reads the spirit in the letter. Not into but in: he writes in symbols because he thus sees it as a web of significance not as a collection of phenomena (…) He writes not of events and facts, but of meanings. and values, and he uncovers rather than creates these meanings.” This sort of approach, now widely accepted, really speIls the end of the Cartesian era of culture. (Symbolist Communication, review of A Reading Of George Herbert, by Rosemond Tuve)

[Bloom’s bar of] soap is a sign of grace uniting earthly and stellar, hermetic and astrologic, East and West labyrinths. These two levels of reality, which are in conflict all during Bloomsday, are thus reconciled among the stars. In the same context Dante is invoked obliquely as another sign of the reconciliation of Bloom and Stephen. For Dante, like Joyce and Eliot, employs grace to reconcile East and West. Reconciliation is not merging, however. (James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial)

the trivium and quadrivium represent seven crossroads for
the meeting of the various degrees and levels of reality.  (James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial)

The trick is in finding the principle of intelligibility (…) in active relationships in existing dynamic situations
. (The Later Innis)

a passage of Greene, Lyly, or Nashe is not prose in the 18th or 19th century sense. The focus of attention has to be readjusted for changes of tone and attitude in every sentence. Print had not yet imposed its massive mechanical weight to level off the oral and colloquial features of prose. (New Media as Political Forms)

Sixteenth-century prose still retains many of the rapidly shifting perspectives of multiple levels of tone and meaning which characterize group speech. It took two centuries of print to create prose on the page which maintained the tone and perspective of a single speaker. The individual scholar, alone with his text, had to develop habits of self-reliance which we still associate with the virtues of book culture. (Historical Approach to the Media )

the poem [The Ancient Mariner] achieves a kind of
continuous parallel between two levels of action, as does Joyce’s Ulysses in moving simultaneously in modern Dublin and ancient Ithaca. And it is in this same way that Tiresias in The Waste Land moves “between two lives.

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

For 500 years our idea of efficacy and efficiency was rooted in the technology of explicitness. To make happen and to explain scientifically have both meant the consecutive spelling out of consequences, one at a time. In the electronic age we enter the phase of the technology of implicitness in which by grasp of total field relationships we package information and deliver messages on many levels, all in an instant. (The Subliminal Projection Project)

Electronic media are not mechanical but post-mechanical, and they evoke very different attitudes of mind from the mechanical age. On all sides we can see the rise of the “oral man” once more, the man whose awareness is shaped by the simultaneous flow of information from every quarter at once, a man who takes for granted that any situation has many levels at once. (Media Alchemy in Art and Society) 

The multilayered montage or “transparency,” with its abridgement of logical relationships, is as familiar in the cave painting as in cubismOral cultures are simultaneous in their modes of awareness. Today we come to the oral condition again via the electronic media, which abridge space and time and single-plane relationships, returning us to the confrontation of multiple relationships at the same moment. (Myth and Mass Media)

A low definition form like ordinary speech operates on many levels at once, and manuscripts were close to speech in offering a multi-leveled discourse to the reader. But print being of high visual definition did not exact the degree of participation that the manuscript did and does. Print could be read fast on one level… (Supplement to ‘Electronics and the Changing Role of Print’)

The modern world of dynamics is an all-at-once world in which there cannot be single levels or one-thing­-at-a-time awareness. (The Medium is the Message)

Automation depends upon an exactly syncronized information flow from electronic tapes, and substitutes the multi-levelled complex for the single-plane assembly line. (Report on Project in Understanding New Media)

dialogue  (…) depends upon an everyway simultaneous flow which is a very far cry indeed from the one direction, one level flow of the printed page, or of the lecture platform. Electronic technology instructs the world again with simultaneous, every direction information flow. We cannot choose but live this way under electronic conditions. (Report on Project in Understanding New Media)

With radio it is easy to notice one of the major features of electronic m
edia, namely the powerful drive toward the extension of human dialogue into all levels of human affairs. (Report on Project in Understanding New Media)

The barbarian plays it by ear. The civilized man plays it by eye. The 
barbarian lives in the all-at-once world of many directions and many levels of meaning at a single moment. Whereas the literate man lives by the eye, one-thing-at-a-time, one direction at a time, one level at a time. (Report on Project in Understanding New Media)

mythic forms of explanation explicated all levels of any situation at the same time.  (‘Introduction’ to Explorations in Communication)

Multi-levelled exegesis of7 Ovid or Virgil or the Scriptures was not only a medieval mode of reading and writing. It preceded Christianity and was the norm among ancient “grammarians.” To-day it is again the norm in physics, in psychology, in poetry and the arts. (Grammars for the Newer Media)

there is nothing subliminal in non-literate cultures. The reason we find myths difficult to grasp is just this fact, that they do not exclude any facet of experience as literate cultures do. All the levels of meaning are simultaneous. (Gutenberg Galaxy, 72)

Senecan antithesis and “amble” (…) 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, 103)

To the oral man the literal is inclusive, contains all possible meanings and levels. So it was for Aquinas. But the visual man of the sixteenth century is impelled to separate level from level, and function from function, in a process of specialist exclusion. The auditory field is simultaneous, the visual mode is successive. (Gutenberg Galaxy, 111)

The study of the Bible in the Middle Ages achieved conflicting patterns of expression which the economic and social historian is also familiar with. The conflict was between those who said that the sacred text was a complex unified at the literal level, and those who felt that the levels of meaning should be taken one at a time in a specialist spirit. (Gutenberg Galaxy, 112)

The scholastic method was a simultaneous mosaic, a dealing with many aspects and levels of meaning in crisp simultaneity. (Gutenberg Galaxy, 129)

Structuralism as a term does not much convey its idea of inclusive synesthesia, an interplay of many levels and facets in a two-dimensional mosaic. But it is a mode of awareness in art language and literature which the West took great pains to eliminate by means of Gutenberg technology. It has returned in our time, for good or ill…  (Gutenberg Galaxy, 230-231)

It is important to observe that the quality of the new “structural,” as opposed to the old lineal, sequential and mechanical, is the quality of the simultaneous. It is the simultaneous “field” of multitudinous events in equipoise or interplay that constitutes the awareness of causality that is present in ecological and nuclear models of perception today. Our electric mode of shaping the new patterns of culture and information movement is not mechanical but biological. (We Need a New Picture of Knowledge)

In obtaining an eye for an ear, Western man clearly abandoned depth or structural knowledge in favor of applied knowledge. For the phonetic alphabet gave him the means of translating and reducing the complexities of the ear world to the flat retinal level of visually organized data. With Gutenberg came a further stage of this transfer of multi-leveled awareness into the typographic forms of exactly repeatable data. This very large step of transferring a manual craft into a mechanical form was done strictly within the compass of phonetic technology; that is, the further analysis of functions into uniform segments of movable and replaceable kind was the step that created at once the infinitesimal calculus, the uniform citizen armies of Napoleon, and the assembly lines of mechanical industry. (We Need a New Picture of Knowledge)

he Gutenberg era of our Western world saw the suppression of dialogue in favor of visual systems and blueprints of knowledge laid out in “subjects” and “fields” packaged in varying degrees of processing and predigestion. Our Gutenberg technology enabled us to “apply” knowledge freely; that is, we learned how to translate every sort of knowledge into single planes of homogeneous kind. Applied knowledge is a process of translation and reduction of varied forms into a single form. This process of homogenization, as it gathered momentum, struck panic into the nineteenth century mind, but it greatly increased property and wealth and made the first consumer society. (We Need a New Picture of Knowledge)

Concern with effect rather than meaning is a basic change of our electric time, for effect involves the total situation, and not a single level of information movement. (Understanding Media, 26)

The first great change in [prose] style came early in the eighteenth century, when the famous Tatler and Spectator of Addison and Steele discovered a new prose technique to match the form of the printed word. It was the technique of equitone. It consisted in maintaining a single level of tone and attitude to the reader throughout the entire composition. (Understanding Media, 206)

As early as 1830 the French poet Lamartine had said, “The book arrives too late,” drawing attention to the fact that the book and the newspaper are quite different forms. (…) The mosaic of the [ newspaper] press manages to effect a complex many-leveled function of group-awareness and participation such as the book has never been able to perform. (Understanding Media, 205, 216)

“depth” means “in interrelation”, not “in isolation”. Depth means insight, not point of view; and insight is a kind of mental involvement in process that makes the content of the item seem quite secondary. Consciousness itself is an inclusive process not at all dependent on content. Consciousness does not postulate consciousness of anything in particular. (Understanding Media, 282-283)

The new stories tend to be much more compressed and on two levels at once, like the sort of Finnegans Wake phrase: “though he might have been more humble, there’s no police like Holmes.” That kind of compressed double-plot story is a  very interesting development… (Address at Vision 65)

Highly literate people speak on one level, in a monotone. “Good” prose is spoken this way. A level of form, one plane. You cannot discuss multi-relationships on a single plane, in a single form. That’s why the poets of our time have broken all the planes and sequences, forming a cubist prose. (Hot & Cool Interview with Gerald Stearn)

Consciousness (…) is a specialist and fragmentary operation which works by exclusion rather than inclusion. The subconscious by contrast is inclusive rather than exclusive  It accepts all things and all times and all places, and accepts them all-at-once. (The Future of Morality: inner vs outer quest)

The seventeenth-century interassociation of varied levels of fact had begun to appear incompatible with the new science of the time. (Through the Vanishing Point, 10)

Much of A Preface to Chaucer by D. W. Robertson (Princeton University Press, 1962) is concerned with explaining how the world of space and  time in the art of Chaucer is discontinuous and multileveled. For the modern scholar, the discovery of discontinuity creates dismay since it disrupts his ordinary procedures and classifications. Robertson, for example, declares that the principles of conventional philology are quite inadequate to the task of  establishing an encounter with the Medieval habits of multileveled exegesis. (Through the Vanishing Point, 238)

Depth requires perception on many levels and, therefore, an absence of single purpose or direction. (All of the Candidates are Asleep)

The mechanical enthroned the “point of view”, the static position with its vanishing point. The electric age favors a total field approach, a kind of X-ray in depth which not only avoids a point of view but avoids looking at situations from any single level.  (Environment As Programmed Happening)

The same speed of access to many kinds of data has given us the power to X-ray all the cultures and subcultures in the world
. We no longer approach them from any point of view or for the purpose of taking a picture of them. The new approach is the X-ray approach of penetration in depth to achieve awareness on many levels at once. It is natural that we should adapt this approach to our own condition. The psychiatrists have done so for the individual, and comparable analysis is now available for the corporate or group condition. (Environment As Programmed Happening)

The simultaneous interrelations between many levels of meaning of the word have to be sacrificed in keeping everything moving on a single plane on one level. (The Medium Is The Massage LP)

L. P. Smith in Words and Idioms draws attention to a mysterious property of language, namely, the ineradicable power of doublets. The Greek word for these structures [is] hendiadys, “one through two”… (From Cliché to Archetype, 108)

consciousness is (…) a multileveled event (From Cliché to Archetype, 117)

How about the adman’s rip-off?  He must move on more than one level in order to obtain the the interplay that involves the public. (‘Introduction’ to Subliminal Seduction)

There was for many centuries [up to the end of the middle ages] a decorum in dress and costume as much as in speech and levels of rhetorical style. The structuralism upon which these distinctions was based was not visual but acoustic, and [when this ended] the same process of levelling in dress or in costume proceeded by the same means as the levelling of rhetorical styles and exegetical levels of interpretation of scripture. Those means were, of course, the advent of [Gutenbergian] technologies which stepped up visual stress to new levels of intensity, just as today the advent of powerful new acoustic structures in the environment have disposed human perception towards an easy understanding and acceptance of complex non-visual structures once more. (The Medieval Environment)

Bacon’s organic approach, I suggest, is derived from the multi-levelled exegesis of the book of nature and Scripture alike. The simultaneity of all levels in ancient grammatica coincides with twentieth century quantum mechanics which is concerned with the physical and chemical bond of nature as the “resonant interval.” The acoustic simultaneity of the new physics co-exists with “synchrony” and structuralism in language and literature and anthropology as understood in Ferdinand de Saussure and Levi-Strauss. (Bacon, Ancient or Modern?)

Contemporary linguistics [ie, Saussure] has recovered the multileveled study of language in our time. (Pound, Eliot, and the Rhetoric of The Waste Land )


  1. “If man, by his ingenious extensions of himself, creates new dimensions and new environments, he also has another creative power for making himself aware of these new forms, and of giving himself cognizance of their effect upon him.” (Alarums in a Brave New World, 1965)
  2. These “thresholds” are the elementary media of human experience and action. They are the message that is constantly expressed but seldom heard. The riddle lies in finding the one medium among the media through which these media might first be perceived in their dynamic action.
  3.  Leaving aside McLuhan’s great many bare references to “auditory imagination”, this passage from Eliot is cited in full in all of the following essays and books: ‘Coleridge As Artist’ (1957), ‘Environment As Programmed Happening’ (1968), From Cliche to Archetype (1970), Culture is Our Business (1970), Take Today (1972), ‘Media Ad-vice: An Introduction’ (1973), ‘Liturgy and Media’ (1973), ‘The Medieval Environment’ (1974), ’English Literature as Control Tower in Communication Study’ (1974), ‘At the Flip Point of Time’ (1975), ‘Empedocles and T. S. Eliot’ (1976), ’Pound, Eliot, and the Rhetoric of The Waste Land’ (1979). In her thesis (59), Liss Jeffrey cites it from McLuhan’s unpublished note ‘My Last Three Books’. Further citations of it will doubtless be found as McLuhan’s papers continue to be vetted.
  4. See, eg,  the citation above from the 1951 ‘Aesthetic Moment in Landscape Poetry’.
  5. Eliot and The Manichean Myth As Poetry’, Address to Spring symposium of the Catholic Renascence Society, April 19, 1954.
  6.  Letters 190.
  7. Dual genitive!

Tobias Dantzig

McLuhan discovered the work of Tobias Dantzig (1884-1956) during his travel for Project 69 (as he styled his ‘Project in Understanding New Media’):

This book [Tobias’ Number: The Language Of Science], which Einstein proclaimed “the most interesting book on the evolution of mathematics that has ever fallen into my hands”, fell into my hands at the Washington, D. C. airport. This is relevant to the present report since I was then in Washington in connection with Project 69. (Report)

This must have been in November 1959 or January 1960, since McLuhan’s itinerary for the project (included in his Report) showed him in Washington at these times.

Dantzig then joined the art historians, Hildebrand, Wölfflin, Ivins and Gombrich, as a major resource for the Report — and for papers and books prepared by McLuhan over the next few years extending to the 1964 Understanding Media (which was based on the Report).

Report on Project in Understanding New Media (1960)

  • Since we consider that our way of life is rooted in literacy it concerns us deeply to know why our children will increasingly spurn it, just as our artists and physicists rejected perspective a century ago. I think the best way (…) to explain this matter further is to cite the evidence of Tobias Dantzig in his Number: The Language Of Science. (…) Pages 139-147 provide all that is needed to understand why phonetic writing created Euclidean space, or the Greek miracle of perspective and naturalistic illusion. The same pages also explain why the Western world since Newton has steadily dissolved Euclidean space and pictorial illusion, and shifted to non-Euclidean geometries and non-objective art. In a word, here are all the clues to the mystery of the rise and fall of Western man, the mystery of his detribalization by literacy and his retribalization by electric communication.
  • More than anybody else, the mathematician is aware of the arbitrary and fictional character of this continuous, homogeneous visual space. Why? Because number, the language of science, is a fiction for re-translating the Euclidean space fiction back into auditory and tactile space. The example Dantzig uses on page 139 concerns the measurement of the length of an arc: “Our notion of the length of a curve may serve as an illustration. The physical concept rests on that of a bent wire We imagine that we have straightened the wire without stretching it; then the segment of the straight line will serve as the measure of the length of the arc. Now what do we mean by ‘without stretching?’ We mean without a change in length. But this term implies that we already know something about the length of the arc. Such a formulation is obviously a petitio principii and could not serve as a mathematical definition. The alternative is to inscribe in the arc a sequence of rectilinear contours of an increasing number of sides. The sequence of these contours approaches a limit, and the length of the arc is defined as the limit of this sequence.  And what is true of the notion of length is true of areas, volumes, masses, movements, pressures, forces, stresses and strains, velocities, accelerations, etc., etc. All these notions were born in a linear, ‘rational’ world where nothing takes place but what is straight, flat and uniform. Either, then, we must abandon these elementary rational notions — and this would mean a veritable revolution, so deeply are these concepts rooted in our minds; or we must adapt these rational notions to a world which is neither flat, nor straight, nor uniform.” (…) The invaluable demonstration of Dantzig is that in order to protect our vested interest in Euclidean space (i. e. literacy), Western man devised the parallel but antithetic mode of number in order to cope with all of the non-Euclidean dimensions of daily experience. He continues: “But how can the flat and the straight and the uniform be adapted to its very opposite, the skew and the curved and the non-uniform? Not by a finite number of steps, certainly! The miracle can be accomplished only by that miracle-maker, the infinite. Having determined to cling to the elementary rational notions, we have no other alternative than to regard the ‘curved’ reality of our senses as the ultra-ultimate step in an infinite sequence of flat worlds which exist only in our imagination. The miracle is that it works!”
  • The Graeco-Roman galaxy had a one-way road of conquest of all other cultures in the phonetic alphabet. But (…) this one-way road led from sound to sight. This was the road that hoicked Western man from the tribal space of ear and tactility to the civilized visual space of the straight, the flat and the uniform. [Two millennia later,] print, of course, gave [even]1 greater stress and emphasis to the pictorial space of the straight, the flat and the uniform. The phonetic alphabet was the first technological medium that gave obvious salience to the fact that all media are natural resources or staples. Number, as Dantzig implies, is subservient to letters and meaningless without a civilized, pictorial culture to support it
  • Letters translated us out of the all-at-once auditory and tactile world of pre-literate man, while Numbers: The Language of Science (…) developed parallel with letters as a means of translating the visual and the literate back into the non-visual and the tactile. The artist faces the problem of responding to this type of awareness with new forms of relevance for mankind. Pre-literate society enthroned the artist as medicine man. Post-literate society (the electronic) must enthrone the artist as navigator.

Technology, the Media, and Culture (1960)

  • In his book Number: The Language of Science, Tobias Dantzig tells us that “The attempt to apply rational arithmetic to a problem in geometry resulted in the first crisis in the history of mathematics.” Today, that crisis is occurring on a massive cultural scale. Our rational Euclidean world of continuous and homogeneous space, extrapolated by the phonetic alphabet from the resonating tribal world, has now to face the electronic challenge of its own irrelevance and superfluousness. l think Dantzig can help us some more to get our bearings here. Just before the passage already quoted he is explaining the crucial use made in mathematics of the Renaissance concept of the “infinite process.” If this concept does not derive from the new perception of perspective or vanishing point, it is at least parallel to it. “The prototype of all infinite processes,“ says Dantzig, “is repetition.” And this is a facet of the concept of convergence, recession, vanishing point, perspective, infinity which is inseparable from Gutenberg technology. For uniformity and repeatability are as basic to print as visuality to the phonetic alphabet. 
  • Dantzig continues: “The importance of infinite processes for the practical exigencies of technical life can hardly be overemphasized. Practically all applications of arithmetic to geometry, mechanics, physics and even statistics involve these processes directly or indirectly. . . . Banish the infinite process, and mathematics pure and applied is reduced to the state in which it was known to the pre-Pythagoreans.” That is to say, without the minute segmentation, whether of alphabet or of the infinitesimal calculus, there can be no translation, no bridge from the tactile, resonating, tribal world, to the rational, flat, visual world. Dantzig simply points out that number aided by infinite process can measure our world by translating visual, Euclidean space created by the phonetic alphabet back into the tactile modalities of touch and sound. One of the many prices we paid for abstracting ourselves from the tribal, multi-sensuous world was that we came to rely more and more on number to get us back into relation to that tribal world. It is not surprising therefore that number, the servant of letters, finally outgrew its  master, civilization. For pushed all the way, number or tactile measurement gave us the new electric media which restore the resonating, tactile world as an immediate datum and all-embracing matrix of culture. 
  • “Our notion of the length of an arc of a curve,” says Dantzig, “may serve as an illustration. The physical concept rests on that of a bent wire. We imagine that we have straightened the wire without stretching it; then the segment of the straight line will serve as the measure of the length of the arc. Now what do we mean by “without stretching?” We mean without a change in length. But this term implies that we already know something about the length of the arc. Such a formulation is obviously a petitio principii and could not serve as a mathematical definition. The alternative is to inscribe in the arc a sequence of rectilinear contours of an increasing number of sides. The sequence of these contours approaches a limit, and the length of the arc is defined as the limit of this sequence.” Calculus, that is to say, is a means of translation of one kind of space into another — especially of visual into tactile and auditory fields of measurement. “And what is true of the notion of length is true of areas, volumes, masses, moments, pressures, forces, stresses, and strains, velocities, accelerations, etc., etc. All these notions were born in a “linear,” “rational” world where nothing takes place but what is straight, flat, and uniform. Either, then, we must abandon these elementary rational notions — and this would mean a veritable revolution, so deeply are these concepts rooted in our minds; or we must adapt those rational notions to a world which is neither flat, nor straight, nor uniform. But how can the flat and the straight and the uniform be adapted to its very opposite, the skew and the curved and non-uniform? Not by a finite number of steps, certainly! The miracle can be accomplished only by that miracle-maker, the infinite. Having determined to cling to the elementary rational notions, we have no other alternative than to regard the “curved” reality of our senses as the ultra-ultimate step in an infinite sequence of flat worlds which exist only in our imagination.” The same navigational techniques of adaptation, compensation, and correction for distortion, which the mathematician provides for the sciences, the artist provides for sensibilities distorted by social technologies and media change.

The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962)

  • Tobias D. Dantzig points out in his Number: The Language of Science (pp. 141-2): “The attempt to apply rational arithmetic to a problem in geometry resulted in the first crisis in the history of mathematics. The two relatively simple problems, the determination of the diagonal of a square and that of the circumference of a circle, revealed the existence of new mathematical beings for which no place could be found within