Author Archives: McEwen

Contesting for Athens


Athena and Poseidon on the Parthenon 432 BC.1


Seth and Horus binding upper and lower Egypt together, c1950 BC.2

*

The excellent Theoi Project site has a selection of texts describing the contest of Athens and Poseidon over which of the two would name Athens and be its paramount god. With some modifications and additions, notably the oldest passage from Herodotus,3 and the revealing use of Athena and Poseidon as geographical and economic markers by Plutarch, these are:

Herodotus, Histories, 8.55 (c425 BC)
In that acropolis is a shrine of Erechtheus (…) and in the shrine are an olive tree and a pool of salt water. The story among the Athenians is that they were set there by Poseidon and Athena as tokens when they contended for the land. It happened that the olive tree was burnt by the barbarians with the rest of the sacred precinct, but on the day after its burning, when the Athenians ordered by the king to sacrifice went up to the sacred precinct, they saw a shoot of about a cubit’s length sprung from the stump.

Plato, Menexenus 237c (c390 BC):
Our country [Athens] is deserving of praise, not only from us but from all men, on many grounds, but first and foremost because she is god-beloved. The strife of the gods who contended over her [i.e. Athena and Poseidon] and their judgement [through the Olympians] testify to the truth of our statement.

Callimachus, Hecale Fragment 1.2 (3rd century BC)
The land [Attika] which she [Athena] had newly obtained by vote of Zeus and the other immortals and the witness of the Snake [Kekrops]4.

Ovid, Metamorphoses 6.70 ff (1st century BC – 1st century AD):
The rock of Mavors [= Mars = Ares] in Cecrops’ citadel is [in] Pallas [Athena’s] picture [in her weaving contest with Arakhne] and that old dispute about the name of Athens. Twelve great gods, Jove [Zeus] in their midst, sit there on lofty thrones, grave and august, each pictured with his own familiar features: Jove in regal grace, the Sea-God [Poseidon] standing, striking the rough rock with his tall trident, and the wounded rock gushing sea-brine, his proof to clinch his claim. [In the picture, Athena] herself she gives a shield, she gives a spear sharp-tipped, she gives a helmet for her head; the aegis guards her breast, and from the earth struck by her spear, she shows an olive tree, springing pale-green with berries on the boughs; the gods admire; and Victoria [Nike] ends the work.

Statius, Thebaid, VII: 185 (1st century AD)
Minerva banished Neptune’s fount from her citadel

Plutarch, Parallel Lives: Themistocles (1st-2nd century AD)
Themistocles equipped the Piraeus, because he had noticed the favorable shape of its harbors, and wished to attach the whole city to the sea; thus in a certain manner counteracting the policies of the ancient Athenian kings. For they, as it is said, in their efforts to draw the citizens away from the sea and accustom them to live not by navigation but by agriculture, disseminated the story about Athena, how when Poseidon was contending with her for possession of the country, she displayed the sacred olive-tree of the Acropolis to the judges, and so won the day. 

Plutarch. Morals: Quaestiones Convivales (1st-2nd century AD)
For you [Hylas] are wont to recount unto us how he [Neptune] has been oftentimes overcome — here [in Athens] by Minerva, in Delphi by Apollo, in Argos by Juno, in Aegina by Jupiter, in Naxos by Bacchus — and yet has borne himself always mild and gentle in all his repulses. In proof whereof, there is even in this city a temple common to him and Minerva, in which there is also an altar dedicated to Oblivion. Then Hylas (…) replied: You have omitted, Menephylus, that we have abolished the second day of September, not in regard of the moon [to coordinate the solar and lunar calendars], but because it was thought to be the day on which Neptune and Minerva contended for the seigniory of Attica.

Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 3.14.1 (2nd century AD):
Kekrops, a son of the soil, with a body compounded of man and serpent, was the first king of Attika (…) In his time, they say, the gods resolved to take possession of cities in which each of them should receive his own peculiar worship. So Poseidon was the first that came to Attika, and with a blow of his trident on the middle of the acropolis, he produced a sea5 which they now call Erekhtheis6. After him came Athena, and, having called on Kekrops to witness her act of taking possession, she planted an olive tree, which is still shown in the Pandrosion.7 But when the two strove for possession of the country, Zeus parted them and appointed arbiters, not, as some have affirmed, Kekrops and Kranaus, nor yet Erysikhthon,8 but the twelve gods (Δωδεκάθεοι). And in accordance with their verdict the country was adjudged to Athena, because Kekrops bore witness that she had been the first to plant the olive. Athena, therefore, called the city Athens after herself, and Poseidon in hot anger flooded the Thriasian plain and laid Attika under the sea9.

Pausanias, Description of Greece 1.24.2 (2nd century AD):
[On the Akropolis is a] group [of statues] dedicated by Alkamenes.10 Athena is represented displaying the olive plant, and Poseidon the wave.

Pausanias, Description of Greece 1.24.5:
As you enter the temple that they name the Parthenon, all the sculptures you see on (…) the rear pediment represent the contest for the land between Athena and Poseidon.

Pausanias, Description of Greece 1.27.1:
About the olive tree they have nothing to say except that it was testimony the goddess produced when she contended for their land. Legend also says that when the Persians set fire to Athens the olive tree was consumed, but on the very day it was burnt it grew again to the height of two cubits.

Hyginus, Fabulae 164 (2nd century AD):
When there was a contest between Neptunus [Poseidon] and Minerva [Athena] as to who should be the first to found a town in the Attic land, they took Jove [Zeus] as judge. Minerva won because she first planted the olive in that land, said to be there to this day. But Neptunus, in anger, wanted to have the sea flood that land. Mercurius [Hermes], at Jove’s command, forbade his doing that. And so Minerva in her own name founded Athens, a town said to be the first established in the world.

The ultimate result11 of the contest between Athena and Poseidon over Athens, and of the interest taken in it by the Olympian gods in council, was that Athena and Poseidon came to be worshipped in the same temple on the acropolis, the Erechtheion. It was here that Athena’s primary cult statue was housed, an ancient figure carved from olive wood, which seems to have been saved from her original temple when it was destroyed by the Persians in 480 BC. The chief priestess of Athena was stationed at the Erechtheion to serve at the altar where civic sacrifices to the goddess were made. Furthermore, this temple of the two together was where the great procession on the last day12 of the Panathenia festival terminated — not at the later-named Parthenon. So the intense contest between these two of the 12 chief Greek gods led to a reconciliation brought about by the intervention of the other 10 of the Olympians led by Zeus.


The Erechtheum on the acropolis with Athena’s olive tree, 406 BC.

Hegel called Greece the heir of Egypt and there are many parallels between this contest of Athena and Poseidon with the millennia earlier Egyptian contestings of Horus and Seth.13

In the mythology of ancient Egypt, Horus the hawk god and Seth, the desert animal god, fought each other in mortal combat over the lordship of the land. Horus was usually taken to be the god of lower Egypt to the north, Seth of upper Egypt to the south (although there were temples to both in both areas). Their reconciliation brought about by a council of the nine great gods was the founding event of the combined Egyptian nation.

Seth was the god of the arid desert as opposed to Horus of the fertile fields of the Nile valley and delta. Similarly in Greece, Poseidon was the god of desiccating salt water as opposed to Athena of the fertile olive tree.14 Athena was awarded Athens on the basis of this difference, but Athens, like Egypt, required both. Egypt obtained products from the desert, especially stone and metals, and required its vast extent as protection for its center. Above all, it was it was from the southern desert that the Nile brought water and life to the Egyptians. Athens, too, required many products from the salt water sea, especially food and trade, and relied on it for protection (as demonstrated particularly at Salamis).

In Greece the story of the contesting of Athena and Poseidon was told not only of Athens but also of Troizen in the Argolid , where the Athenians fled during the Persian sack of their city.15   And similar stories were told (with Athena being substituted by other protagonists) of Hera and Poseidon in Argos (where Poseidon caused the fresh water rivers to dry up and the land to be flooded with salt water from the sea),16 Helios and Poseidon in Corinth,17 Zeus and Poseidon in Aegina, Apollo and Poseidon in Delphi, and Dionysus and Poseidon in Naxos.18 Even in Sparta, Pausanias reports (3.17.3) that the largest figures on the temple of Athena along with Athena herself were Poseidon and his consort, Amphitrite. Additionally, the Greek national epic of the Odyssey is, of course, in large part a tale of the enmity of Athena and Poseidon.19

Athena and Poseidon, c 530 BC.20

All this matched Egypt where stories of Seth’s struggles not only with Horus but also with Osiris and other gods were already proverbial from the time of its earliest records — two millennia and more before classical Athens. There, too, Seth was seen as ultimately losing conflict after conflict, though with intermittent triumphs in them, before becoming integrated in the community of the gods (with an important place in the boat of the sun god’s daily journey) and in the worship of the Egyptians. 

The contests of Horus-Seth and of Athena-Poseidon were both settled by councils of the gods, councils which represented the triumph of justice both in their balanced assembly and in their rulings.

Both cases are examples of the threefold of Being as seen also in Plato’s γιγαντομαχία περὶ τῆς οὐσίας with its (1) gods, (2) giants and (3) philosophical child ‘begging for both’.21 All these conflicts involve divine beings who are rival ontologies that are equally epistemologies. Being itself is knowledgeable in fundamentally different ways (as polytheisms have always insisted), although it is much more than this as well of course — the inertial power of manifestation, for example.

Horus (1) versus Seth (2) is a fundamentally different matter from Horus and Seth together (3), just as Athena (1) versus Poseidon (2) is a fundamentally different matter from Athens and Poseidon together (3) — and just as Plato’s gods (1) versus the giants (2) is a fundamentally different matter from ‘both together’ as perceived by the philosophical child (3).22 In parallel fashion in Egypt, the peace between Horus and Seth was often said to have been mediated by Thoth (3), the philosophical Ibis god who invented letters.23

The great difficulty to this third position is that it cannot be taken as singular truth or reality without reducing it to the first or second.  The third can be the third only by embracing that first and second to which it is fundamentally opposed. But fundamental difference of course characterizes the relation of every possibility of Being to every other possibility in its astonishing plurality of fundaments.

Difference within the plurality of Being is necessarily also a belonging together ‘there’ and the very archetype of peace. Otherwise, as seen in gnosticisms and heresies of all sorts, opposition that is merely antagonistic inevitably leads to a demand for singularity and, ultimately, to the denial of any sort of plurality at all.

The central question at stake in all these contestings concerns two twofolds: that of either-or (Athena or Poseidon, Horus or Seth, gods or giants) and that of both-together (Athena and Poseidon, Horus and Seth, gods and giants). The former dynamic implicates a demand for unilateral hegemony and singularity; the latter, a recourse to reconciliation and harmonious plurality.

The fundamentality of the plurality option to the Egyptians and Greeks is shown in the accounts of the reconciliation of Horus and Seth, and of Athena and Poseidon, by its institution through — and as a reflection of! — the assembly of the nine great gods of Egypt and of the twelve Olympians in Greece. 

Another sign of the fundamentality of the difference between the warring and the reconciled twofolds was that the Athenians omitted the day from the calendar on which the antagonistic contest between Poseidon and Athena was said to have taken place.24 The action of antagonistic contest was, so to say, denied time and space — perhaps this is what was behind the altar dedicated to Oblivion? — in favor of a calendrical round grounded in mutual recognition. Here is Plutarch (MoralsDe fraterno amore, 11):

But let them observe with caution that day above all others, as it may be to them the beginning either of mortal enmity or of friendship and concord.25 

 

  1. This is a reconstruction of the west pediment of the Parthenon showing the contest of Athena and Poseidon.  The olive tree of Athena is in the background between the gods. Is this a sign of Athena’s victory over Poseidon? Or is it a sign of their reconciliation in the worship of both gods in the Erechtheum on the acropolis? For the olive tree, like all trees, is planted in the ground but reaches to the heavens — a representation of the peace of earth and sky and of the possibility of the reconciliation of all things.
  2. Relief now in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo. The plants below Seth (papyrus) and Horus (lotus) symbolize the upper and lower parts of the combined nation.
  3. The Wikipedia entry for the ‘Erechtheion‘ notes that there are passages in Homer referencing the home of Athena in the Erechtheion in the form of her ancient olive wood statue. But the references given there (Iliad VII 80–81 and Odyssey II 546–551) seem to be reversed and should be Iliad II 546–551 and Odyssey VII 80–81.
  4. For Kekrops-Cecrops see the passage from Apollodorus’ Bibliotheca above and note 8 below.
  5. The salt water well of Poseidon in the Erechtheum was called a ‘sea’ (θάλασσα).
  6. For the connection of ‘Erekhtheis’ with Poseidon, see ‘Erysikhthon’ below.
  7. The Πανδρόσειον was a quadrangle just west of the Erechtheum dedicated to one of the daughters of Kekrops, Πάνδροσος. The olive tree of Athena growing here served to tie a kind of knot in which Kekrops and his sons served as kings of Athens under the aegis of Athena, but Athena herself was identified with the daughter of Kekrops, Pandrosos.
  8. Kekrops, Kranaus and Erysikhthon were the mythical early kings of Athens. Their rites and saga were closely bound to that of Athena and Poseidon for Athens issued from them in the same way as it did from the contest and reconciliation of the two Olympians. Kekrops was half man and half serpent and both the city of Athens and Kekrops’ sons were the manifestation of the fertility of the resolution of the conflict between the two species he embodied. The line of the kings represented continuing order, while its descent from the snake represented the celebrated Athenian autochthony or ‘earthborn ancestry’. All this again reflected Egypt since Seth was often portrayed as a snake and it was his reconciliation with the ‘higher’ power of the hawk god, Horus, that was the founding event of the nation. The resulting civilization owed everything to the periodically replenished soil of the Nile valley and delta. ‘Erysikhthon’ = ‘Earthshaker’ was named after Poseidon, the god of earthquakes.
  9. See note 5.
  10. Alkamenes — the great Greek sculptor a generation before Plato.
  11. Phrases like ‘the ultimate result’ place the contest between Athena and Poseidon in narrative time: first this happened, then that. But this is a mythological telling of the question between enmity and conciliation that is ‘always now’ (see note 24).
  12. The 28th day of Hekatombaion.
  13. The most complete early versions of the Horus and Seth cycle found in the coffin texts (c2000 BC) are discussed by Jan Assmann in many of his books. See, for example Tod und Jenseits im Alten Ägypten, 2001, 374 (trans, Death And Salvation In Ancient Egypt, 2005, 283). But the contestings of Horus and Seth are already central to the pyramid texts (c2400 BC). A much later account from c1145 BC is found in the Chester Beatty PapyrusFor further discussion of the contestings of Horus and Seth, see The ancient bond of guest-host-enemy and Assmann on the battle between Horus and Seth.
  14. Seth and Poseidon were gods of the perimeter, of sterility and of general disorder (such as Poseidon’s storms and earthquakes). By contrast, Horus and Athena were gods of the center, of fertility and of order. In the end there is no summary balance to the contest of these fundamental powers, only forever outstanding questions.
  15. Pausanias, Description of Greece, 2.30.6: “They say that Athena and Poseidon disputed about the land (of Troizen) and after disputing held it in common, as Zeus commanded them to do. For this reason they worship both Athena (…) also Poseidon. (…) Moreover their old coins have as device a trident and a face of Athena.”
  16. Pausanias: “Here (in Argos) is a sanctuary of Poseidon, surnamed Prosclystius (flooder), for they say that Poseidon inundated the greater part of the country because Inachus (the god of the main Argos river) and his (fellow) assessors decided that the land belonged to Hera and not to him. Now it was Hera who induced Poseidon to send the sea back, but the Argives made a sanctuary to Poseidon Prosclystius at the spot where the tide ebbed.” (2.22.4) Again in Pausanias: “Inachus (…) was not a man but the river. This river, with the rivers Cephisus and Asterion, judged concerning the land between Poseidon and Hera. They decided that the land belonged to Hera, and so Poseidon made their waters disappear. For this reason neither Inachus nor either of the other rivers I have mentioned provides any water except after rain. In summer their streams are dry” (2.15.5). The contest between fertility and aridity appears here together with flooding — all seemingly a reflex from Egypt. There the flooding of the Nile valley brought life, the flooding of the Nile delta from the sea brought death (both metaphorically in reference to the sea peoples and literally in the destruction of crops and soil by the intrusion of salt). Always in the background was the great question of fertility and/or aridity, with Nile flooding bringing the two together and sea flooding driving them apart. Pausanias (2.32.8) records just this question in regard to Poseidon at Troizen: “Outside the wall there is also a sanctuary of Poseidon Nurturer (Phytalmios). For they say that, being wroth with them, Poseidon smote the land with barrenness, brine (halme) reaching the seeds and the roots of the plants (phyta) until, appeased by sacrifices and prayers, he ceased to send up the brine upon the earth.”
  17. Pausanias, 2.1.6.
  18. See the passage from Plutarch’s Morals:  Quaestiones Convivales above.
  19. A further reflex of the Athena-Poseidon contest and reconciliation through the gods may be the legendary war between Eleusis and Athens. The king of Eleusis, Eumolpos, was a son of Poseidon with African roots. Here again, Athens was victorious, but Eumolpus retained his position as priest of the Eleusinian rites. Pausanias: “When the Eleusinians fought with the Athenians (…) these were the terms on which they concluded the war: the Eleusinians were to have independent control of the mysteries, but in all things else were to be subject to the Athenians.” (1.38.3)
  20. Here the Amasis vase painter from a century before Herodotus shows Athena and Poseidon together. But in enmity (as Athena’s snakes might signal) or reconciled (as the relaxed spear and triton might show)? The central script says in its archaic alphabet that ‘Amasis made me’ (Άμασις μ’ εποιεσεν) which is interesting in its language and placement for McLuhan’s contention that the making of experience, not matching, occurs in an ‘aesthetic moment’ that is gapped from ‘before and after’ (see note 21 below). It is here in a moment that is ‘always now’ that the question of the contesting twofolds is decided.
  21. Plato Sophist 246-249. See McLuhan and Plato 8 – Gigantomachia.
  22. The fundamental difference between (1) vs (2) and the both together of (3) was central to Hegel: “Daß an jedem Falschen etwas Wahres sei – in diesem Ausdrucke gelten beide, wie Öl und Wasser, die unmischbar nur äußerlich verbunden sind. Gerade um der Bedeutung willen, das Moment des vollkommenen Andersseins zu bezeichnen, müssen ihre Ausdrücke da, wo ihr Anderssein aufgehoben ist, nicht mehr gebraucht werden. So wie der Ausdruck der Einheit des Subjekts und Objekts, des Endlichen und Unendlichen, des Seins und Denkens usf. das Ungeschickte hat, daß Objekt und Subjekt usf. das bedeuten, was sie außer ihrer Einheit sind, in der Einheit also nicht als das gemeint sind, was ihr Ausdruck sagt (Phänomenologie des Geistes, ‘Vorrede’, 1807).
  23. See Thoth: “the third ends the discord of the two”.
  24. The 2nd day of Boedromion. See the passage from Plutarch’s Morals: Quaestiones Convivales above. This is a day that is outside normal time (Eliot’s ‘time, not our time’) and yet is ‘always now’:
    And the end and the beginning were always there
    Before the beginning and after the end.
    And all is always now.
    (…)
    Quick now, here, now, always—
    Ridiculous the waste sad time
    Stretching before and after.
    (Eliot, Four Quartets, ‘Burnt Norton’)
  25. Πλούταρχοςἀλλὰ μάλιστα δεῖ τὴν ἡμέραν ἐκείνην φυλαττομένους, ὡς τοῖς μὲν ἔχθρας ἀνηκέστου καὶ διαφορᾶς τοῖς δὲ φιλίας καὶ ὁμονοίας οὖσαν ἀρχήν.

Kenner on McLuhan, the universal sage

In the frontmatter of his early books, Hugh Kenner briefly noted his time with McLuhan in the late 1940s:

The poetry of Ezra Pound, 1951
To Marshall McLuhan
‘A catalogue, his jewels of conversation’1

Dublin’s Joyce, 1955
Dr. H. M. McLuhan of the University of Toronto has permitted me free use of his unpublished History of the Trivium, on which my thirteenth chapter depends heavily, and afforded the continual stimulus of letters and conversation.

The Invisible Poet, 1959
Ten years ago Marshall McLuhan and I planned an “Eliot book” and spent some weeks reading through the poems and essays, conversing and annotating as we went. Though this book is very different from the one we projected and abandoned, it owes more than I can unravel to those weeks of association.

The Art of Poetry, 1959
Several friends and colleagues have been indirect contributors to this book, notably Professor H. M. McLuhan, who extricated from Aristotle the conception of the “plot” of a lyric poem, and first suggested to me the method of exposition by questioning.

Then, after McLuhan’s death at the end of 1980, Kenner remembered him more expansively in a series of written pieces and broadcasts:

Marshall McLuhan R.I.P. (January 23, 1981)
The media sage of the sixties was created, he surely knew, by the media. The Marshall McLuhan I began to know in the mid-forties was a tall, trim pipe-smoker (“Cigarette smokers are not interested in tobacco”) whose passion was aiding people such as me to knit up what he considered unexamined lives.
Our trouble — yours and mine — was insufficient attention to what we were doing. We smoked, but weren’t interested in tobacco. We flipped through magazines, but didn’t adequately ponder half their content, which was ads. We drove cars — he didn’t — but failed to reflect that our cars were driving us. Twenty years later his famous slogan, “The Medium is the Message,” simply generalized that order of preoccupation. What you’re taking for granted, it says, is always more important than whatever you have your mind fixed on. On that principle, Marshall would undertake benign regulation of any life that came near.
Precisely because my mind was fixed on teaching, I had but to reflect that it was not what I was doing. Like it or not, I was embarked on a survival game, for which to begin with I needed a Ph. D. Most of my Toronto instructors had been content with the Oxford M. A. For my part I had a Toronto M. A. Did that not suffice? I had been told it did. No, said  Marshall, your mentors inhabit a backwater. The fields of force no longer emanate from Oxford. A Ph.D., and it had better be from Yale, where his friend Cleanth Brooks had just been installed as doyen of the New Criticism.
Twenty-four hours later we were headed south from Toronto in my car. In New York we paused to ascertain what anyone less rash would have checked before starting out, whether in that particular June week Cleanth Brooks was even to be found at Yale. He was not. We had five days to put in. Just time for a side trip to Washington, D.C., where (a passer-through had indicated) the allegedly mad Ezra Pound was accessible to visitors. (Half of my subsequent life was derived from that visit.) Then to New Haven where the bemused but unfailingly courteous Cleanth Brooks undertook to see what could be done about getting Marshall’s new protégé admitted now. Three months later I was in New Haven again, a doctoral candidate.
Having since been a director of graduate admissions, I am in a better position than most to be awestruck at the prodigies Cleanth must have accomplished: one more gauge of Marshall’s imperious persuasiveness.
And all those dozens of hours on the road — before freeways, remember, we puttered New York-Washington and return on U.S. 1, poking block by block through every obstacle, even Baltimore — he saw tirelessly to my education, which my profs had (of course) neglected shamefully. They had not even told me, for example, about T. S. Eliot, his sanity, his centrality.
Eliot was Marshall’s talisman in those years. We started to collaborate on an Eliot book and read through the canon together, Marshall pontificating, I annotating. As to why that book never got written: its plan got lost, because as you can see (back to the principle) if you are thinking Eliot is important, why, he can’t be.
That was a problem with the McLuhan system: its emphases were by definition self-destructive. Eliot, he came to think, was fencing insights stolen from Mallarmé. If you objected that Eliot barely mentioned Mallarmé, that merely proved what an old slyboots he was.
Later he had decided that Mallarmé in turn was retailing Buddhism, and later still everybody you can think of was feeding the world hidden Buddhism at the prompting of a fraternity of Freemasons. That was dangerous knowledge, and he even came to think the Freemasons had a contract out on him. By that time we were out of touch.
A few years later he discovered media, and became famous, rightly. I don’t know of anyone else who has sucked himself down into a conspiracy theory and come triumphantly out of it. Conspiracy theories are normally terminal. But Marshall was unique.
What always saved him was his ability to get interested in something else. Nothing was too 
trivial. “Let us check on this,” he would say, and steer the two of us into a movie house, where we stayed for twenty minutes. “Enough.” Out in the light he extemporized an hour of analysis.
I think he did get a television, finally. I know he read books and books and books. (Marshall McLuhan reads books ran a bumper sticker in the sixties.) He read them especially on Sunday afternoons: long demanding books like Lancelot Andrewes’ Sermons. He would nap at two, wake up at three, and start reading, pausing to pencil numerous tiny notes on the flyleaves.
A last glimpse: Marshall’s unappeasable mother, in the back seat of the car, is sampling the Pisan Cantos. She is baffled, and means her bafflement to be a reproach. “What you have to understand, Mother,” he improvises, “is that in the poetry you are used to things happen one after another. Whereas in that poetry everything happens at once.” It served to quell her. As it stands it’s not a good formula, but you can think how to go on from it, if you don’t get flypapered. I’ve been going on from extemporizations of Marshall’s for thirty years. (Mazes, 295-297)

McLuhan Redux (Marshall McLuhan was my first mentor. I met him in 1946, saw him for the last time in 1972, and in 1984 was grateful to Harper’s for an invitation to resurrect his memory. This appeared in November 1984.)
“Computer literacy,” we keep repeating, meaning doubtless something or other. We surely forget to mean the most obvious thing about time spent at a computer terminal, that it is used in two supremely literate activities, typing and reading. Marshall McLuhan noticed long ago that the “content” of a medium is always a previous medium. I’ve also remarked that we don’t see a medium itself, save as packaging for its content. That helps ease new media into acceptability. Genteel folk once learned to tolerate movies by thinking of them as packaged plays or packaged books. Likewise, we sidle up to the computer, saying over and over that it’s nothing but an electrified filing system . “Word processing” is another incantation. Souls are safe in proximity to words.
Yet something is altering. Here is Byte, a fat and glossy computer journal put out by no bunch of hackers but by staid McGraw-Hill. The July 1984 issue contains a long software review, tied to intricate fact in a way manifestly more responsible than anything likely to turn up in the New York Review of Books. Reviewers for Byte are not at liberty to be cranky or erratically informed. This piece undertakes an overview of the difficult language LISP before comparing two “implementations,” as they are called, in detail. For a rough analogy, imagine a point-for-point evaluation of two Sanskrit grammars, such as the American Journal of Philology might entrust to a senior professor. Imagine it, further, prefaced by a guide to Sanskrit for novices, the whole kept clear and readable throughout, and you get an idea of the Byte piece. So who wrote this paradigm? A computer-engineering major at Case Western Reserve, in collaboration with “a recent graduate of Sycamore High School” who designs relational database systems for a living.
In blunt archaic language: Byte‘s authorities turn out to be an undergraduate and a system dropout who has traded his place in the educational queue for something more challenging. Computerist, dropout: a not unfamiliar linking. No reader of newsmagazines will fail to remember how Bill Gates (Harvard dropout) founded Microsoft, how Steven Jobs (Reed dropout) and Stephen Wozniak (Berkeley dropout) founded Apple. No, the filing-system model lacks explanatory power. Passion for filing systems, even electrified ones, does not bring about such a transformation of hierarchies . Yes, something has altered. Marshall McLuhan again: “The drop-out situation in our schools at present has only begun to develop. The young student today grows up in an electrically configured world . . . not of wheels but of circuits, not of fragments but of integral patterns. . . . At school, however, he encounters a situation organized by means of classified information. The subjects are unrelated. They are visually conceived in terms of a blueprint. The student can find no possible means of involvement for himself, nor can he discover how the educational scene relates to the “mythical” world of electronically processed data and experience that he takes for granted.”
In 1964 that seemed one of McLuhan’s wilder remarks. No longer. Today we find it pertinent that even when computers were far from ubiquitous he was observing the medium instead of its content, “files.” He was foreseeing, moreover, a dramatic effect of the medium. And instances of his prescience multiply. Once brushed off by The New Yorker as a “pop philosopher,” the author of Understanding Media is starting to look like a prophet.
That is all the more remarkable since “the oracle of the electric age” (a phrase coined by Life) wouldn’t drive a car, never turned on a radio, barely glanced at television, and checked out movies by popping in on them for twenty minutes . Apart from the Olivier Henry V, at which he’d been trapped on a social occasion, I don’t know of a movie he saw from beginning to end. “Marshall McLuhan Reads Books,” said a bumper sticker, graffito of the scandalous truth. He did indeed read books, and, other than talk and scribble, he did little else.
Such 
disdain for inconvenient fact could erode your confidence . “The horse that’s headed for a can of Gro-Pup” — climax of one of his merry perorations — lost force if you knew that Gro-Pup was not processed meat and did not come in cans. Useless to tell him. He had picked up the name from an ad, and if Gro-Pup wasn’t canned horse, as his metaphor required, its purveyors simply didn’t know their business. His world was full of people who didn’t know their business, such as nearly all of his fellow English professors. But though he was often wrong himself, as when he discerned “the abrupt decline of baseball,” he never had the patience to sit through a ball game.
In those days he countered 
nigglingly sheer assertion. It was after my time that he discovered a generic answer. People who raised objections were detailists, specialists, locked into local patterns: instances of what had happened to the Western psyche after Gutenberg gave his coup de grace to the old oral culture by persuading everybody that one thing must follow another the way each printed word follows, on its line, the word that precedes it. Nigglers were confined to “the neutral visual world of lineal organization,” and the specialist was one who “never makes small mistakes while moving toward the grand fallacy.”
I have sometimes wondered if Marshall didn’t evolve his whole theory of media as a way to explain why there seemed to be people who tried to interrupt his monologues . What cataclysm of history had
 spawned  them? Why, literacy, with its first-things-first-let’s-keep-it-all-straight syndrome. Were they not the very people who kept wincing at somebody’s grammar? The word “grammar” itself derives from the Greek word for a written remark. That would have been enough to get him started. Much as Saul found a kingdom while out hunting for his father’s asses, Marshall McLuhan found his skeleton key to the social psyche. Thereafter, he kept it hanging on a hook labeled “Media” and never bothered to explain what Media were.

Media included not only magazines and television but also roads, wheels, railways, electricity, numbers, clocks, money — they all did things we had once tried to do with our senses and our bodies; that was why he called them “extensions of man.” Adjusting to any new medium, since it strained what had been a bodily and sensual relationship (his word was “ratio”), meant anguish and anxiety. So “the mediaeval world grew up without uniform roads or cities or bureaucracies, and it fought the wheel, as later city forms fought the railways; and as we, today, fight the automobile.”
Media came in two flavors, “hot” and “cool.” The hot ones saturate you with information; paradoxically, you are then passive, uninvolved, as when you half-listen to the radio. The cool ones draw back and leave you filling in. TV, with its inferior picture detail, is cool; hence, its viewer’s rapt involvement.
Though his pronouncements on the electronic age and its global village made him briefly famous, what he really knew was literacy, and what he developed most fully was his insight into its consequences. What literacy achieves is the “hot” storage and retrieval of words only, as though their choice and sequence constituted the whole of human communication. But in the heat of conversation, relatively little is communicated by words. Silences, intonations, advances and withdrawals, smiles, and the whole repertory of body language — these in their elaborate dance enact most of what is happening.
Screen them out, leave only the silent words on a page, and your first requirement is more words. The dialogue Henry James’s people exchange is wordier by a factor of at least three than any speech human ears have ever heard. James was making up for the absence from printed pages of what normal grammar and diction do little to convey,  the  ballet of interaction. (He brought written prose to its extreme of articulation just before radio took over.)
The next thing you need is a fairly strict one-two-three order, because written words exist only in space, and can presuppose only the words that came before them. Things on a line of print cannot overlap. This is the “linearity”, on which McLuhan harped. Talkers allude to what they’ve not said, or have said on another occasion, or will say later, or needn’t say save by gesture or dawdle or pause; but once discourse is controlled by writing, as even the spoken discourse of literates tends to be, its syntax (think of James again) grows fairly elaborate, out of need for strict systems of subordination among items that can be produced only one after another. Examine the sentence you’ve just read.
Finally, literates come to believe that controlled linearity is order, all else disorder: that the cosmos itself is structured like a Jamesian utterance, with primary, secondary, tertiary clauses. If any sentence of Understanding Media might have turned up without irrelevance anywhere in any chapter, that was because McLuhan thought that prose should work like the mind, not the other way round. Whatever he was thinking of grew in iconic power the more rapidly he could relate it to a dozen other things, if possible in the same breath. So he got called “the professor of communications who can’t communicate/’ an academic Harpo unable to stick to a point. His point was that there is never a “point.” Points are Euclidean junctures in such sentences as come to life only in diagrams.
There are aspects of his plight Beckett might have invented . What language may say in a literate society McLuhan deemed of little importance compared with what literacy had done to the literate. I once heard him deny that anything Plato wrote could match in importance the fact that in a given classroom all copies of The Republic have the same word at the same place on the same numbered page. Hence “The Medium Is the Message”, his most quoted and most suicidal oversimplification. For it was precisely what he said that he wanted understood; moreover, what he said in writing. Using writing to expound the effects of writing was like explaining water to a school of fish. Fish   understand nothing of water, but they judge you by the way you move your flippers. He got snubbed by print-swimmers who deemed measured prose a measure of character.
So obsessed was his readership by “content” that detractor and disciple alike tended to think he was talking about the effect of the medium on the message it carries: TV is highly visual, for instance, hence its 
fondness for crowds and confrontations. But that barely concerned him. (He said TV was “tactile”.) What obsessed him is clearer after twenty years: the effect of the mere availability of new media on people’s sense of who and what they are.
The medium called “money” presents a ready example. True, once money had been invented it changed bread and butter into commodities keyed to prices, a message that affected shopper and speculator alike. But in making subsistence by barter nearly impossible, money could also deform the life of a man who never touched it. Even so print, yes, structures its message; but McLuhan deemed it of far more moment that life in a print-oriented culture restructures the soul of even a total illiterate. Not only does he know that other people know things he doesn’t, but he also picks up ambient assumptions about first-things-first. In not being felt at all, the latter effect reaches deeper than any felt deprivation.
Likewise, said McLuhan, all of us have been reconstituted by TV, whether we choose to watch the tube or not: “The utmost purity of mind is no defense against bacteria.” If TV has a propensity for street happenings (which get staged for its benefit); if its pundits earn their welcome into our living rooms by coming on populist, hence chummily “liberal”; if TV is so “cool” that Bill Buckley — a man whose meaning even devotees have to construct — has been on it longer than almost anyone else; if it’s Paul Harvey (strident, rightist, “hot”) who is left to fulminate in the Hot Ghetto of Radio Gulch while George Will (“cool,” puckish, bow-tied) gets welcomed as ABC’s ticket-balancing House Conservative, still it’s not because of someone’s adroitness at packaging that Ronald Reagan sits in the Oval Office but Richard Nixon in itchy exile, Jimmy Carter in limbo. Articulate opinion of Nixon and of Carter got formed in print, still our only medium of articulate opinion. And yet, it was the omnipresence of television that determined what kind of opinions the older medium — print — could form and seem credible.
This means that in the television age even non-watchers
 gravitate toward “cool” personalities. Nixon was too jowly and affirmative to pass muster, Carter too morally opinionated. (Mondale? He’s an Identi-Kit. Only TV could have made him a viable candidate.) The prevalent perception of “wake-me-when-it’s-over” Reagan is that he falls asleep: a caricature that affirms his ultimate “cool”. When you have to tell the President what’s happening, that is your ultimate participation.
Reagan’s successor might be 
Kermit the Frog. The night Kermit filled in for Johnny Carson, no one noticed.
Yes, we’re governed by caricatures, because we perceive by them. There’s no better instance than the regnant caricature of McLuhan, shared by print-folk who thought they were attending to his text and bypassing the electronic media, the wrong thing to do. For he was presupposing TV’s cool collaboration, not print’s hot “specialist,” “fragmented” reading. Like another guide to the future, Bucky Fuller, McLuhan was discarded as unintelligible. Willy-nilly, trapped in hot print in an age of cool TV, he was taken at his (printed) word, just as if in his outrageous one-liners he hadn’t intended audience participation, or hadn’t counted on his audience to fill out and correct all those comic book formulations. The apostle of “cool” came on “hot,” a blunderbuss Nixon of the Media Era, and coolness made a joke of him and discarded him. 
(Mazes, 223-229)

The Poetry of Ezra Pound, 1985 (reprint of 1951 edition)
Retrospect: 1985 (New Preface to the Bison Book Edition)

Marshall McLuhan and I had visited Pound at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington on 4 June 1948. Pound wrote the date, and his name, on the flyleaf of the copy of Personae I’d brought along. The Pisan Cantos had just been published — he inscribed it for Marshall — and its Bollingen Prize lay many months ahead. We had not come there as special fans of his. Joyce’s was the only twentieth-century work I knew at all well, and Marshall, at that time pretty much a New Critic, believed with F. R. Lea vis that the one major poet of our time was Eliot. To a degree impossible to reconstitute now, those were the Eliot Years. Even my interest in Joyce was eccentric then, a vagary Marshall was sure I’d get over. The passion, meanwhile, with which we two (and many others) studied Eliot! We penciled notes on the yellow postwar paper of a Faber Four Quartets

Mazes, a 1989 collection of Kenner essays, has the two pieces specifically on McLuhan given above, but also has tidbits about him elsewhere:

It was in 1947, under Marshall McLuhan’s informal tutelage, that I first became aware of my own century. (38)

The chain of accidents that brought Marshall McLuhan and me into [Pound’s] presence on 4 June 1948 I’ll detail some other time [see below]. The Pisan Cantos were then newly published. Later I reviewed them for the Hudson Review, another connection masterminded by Marshall. I’d read them, ecstatic, with Pound’s remembered voice in my ear. Soon, thanks to New Directions’ well-timed one-volume reprint, I could read to the surge of the same spoken cadences the rest of the poem he’d begun in 1916 or before. Its authority, after what my Toronto mentors used to call poetry, was as if great rocks were rolling. I was twenty-five, and about to become a Yale graduate student under Cleanth Brooks’s mentorship. That fall the dismal Bollingen fuss broke — a forgotten minor poet named Robert Hillyer assembling three installments of invective in the equally forgotten Saturday Review — and literati in pulpit after pulpit would do no more than affirm the purity of their own political motives. Enthralled by the master, I resolved that if no one else would make the case for Ezra Pound the poet, then I would. Having no reputation whatever, I had nothing to lose. I was naive enough not to guess that I was mortgaging my future; it is sometimes liberating not to know how the world works. So in six weeks in the summer of 1949, on a picnic table in Canada, aided by books from the University of Toronto library, I banged out on a flimsy Smith Corona the 308 typescript pages of The Poetry of Ezra Pound, which to my wonderment was instantly accepted by New Directions and by Faber & Faber. By 1951 they got it out. Though most of the reviews were put-downs, Pound before long was a stock on the academic exchange: a safe “subject.” What that means is not that I’d “discovered” him, or been magnetically persuasive concerning his virtues. What I’d done, unwittingly, at the threshold of two decades’ academic expansion — people peering under every cabbage leaf for “topics” — was show how this new man with his large and complex oeuvre might plausibly be written about. (39-40)

The late Marshall McLuhan, media guru, personified an earlier array of biases. He fastidiously did not own a typewriter. A fountain pen, yes, because he liked the nib, but he wouldn’t fill it, he dipped it. From the little pump on its glorified eyedropper, he shied as from the devil. Useless to cite the simplicity of the process. “That kind of knowledge,” he would say, “has been so dearly bought it behooves you to have as little of it as possible.” (176)

As the oldest living ex-McLuhanite (disciple in 1946, defected circa 1951), I approached Gary Gumpert’s Talking Tombstones and Other Tales of the Media Age (Oxford University Press, 1987) with special anxieties: “Mushall McGloom” a mutual friend used to say in those years. Was Gary Gumpert going to tell us what Marshall McLuhan took to saying some time after I lost faith, that the “medium is the message” ? Or — Mushall’s next reckless extension — the “massage”? (230)

Gary Gumpert, unlike Marshall McLuhan, hasn’t transcended moral judgments . About some things, he avers, we just should not be so bland. McLuhan used to think likewise, back when his first book was still called “Guide to Chaos.” Rewritten and published as The Mechanical Bride, though, it said, “Let ‘er rip.” He was coming to believe in the “global village,” perhaps because he liked the way the phrase sounded. (233-234)

The Elsewhere Community (2000), which was originally talks on CBC in 1998, has this description of Kenner’s time with McLuhan:

In 1956, I made a journey. (…) Its purpose was simple: to meet some half-dozen people, mostly writers, whom I’d decided I simply must visit. And that constellation of visits quickly became an Elsewhere Community of mine, so much so that it’s altered everything I’ve done and written in the four decades since. (…)  I want to tell vou about the man who advised me to make [that journey]. Through the years, he gave much other valuable advice, to many other people as well as to me. He remains, to my mind, the Elsewhere Community personified. Let me start by telling you how I chanced to meet him.
I was born a Canadian and remain a Canadian citizen, and as to what I’m now doing in the United States, where I’ve been a green-carded Permanent Resident since 1948, well, the story is intricate and I’ll keep it short. In 1946, with a University of Toronto B.A. and M.A. in English, I supposed my academic future was secure. Almost all my instructors had held no degree higher than a British Master of Arts, and so, with a Canadian M.A. of my own, I surely could feel empowered to teach. But that vear, thanks to a friend2 who thought we’d hit it off, I met the universal sage Marshall McLuhan, who convinced me otherwise.
Marshall had just arrived in Toronto and was to be a presence there for the next three decades. His sense of practical reality was then far more acute than mine. He informed me that without a Ph.D. I had no future in this postwar world. So I should obtain one; moreover, I should obtain it at Yale, where his old friend the critic Cleanth Brooks had just arrived. (Marshall did tend to take charge of anyone he was advising.) So in midsummer 1948, he and I set off in my car to visit Cleanth at Yale. And in September, I began my Ph.D. program there. Having since been a director of graduate admissions, I can guess what prodigies of persuasion Cleanth must have performed to get me admitted that late, moreover as an applicant from a foreign country. Hence the green card.
But I’ve shortened that story by omitting another one. For it was typical of Marshall that we’d driven from Toronto as far as New York before it occurred to him to see whether Cleanth Brooks was in fact in New Haven. A phone call ascertained that he wasn’t at present, but would be in three davs. So, we had time to put in. And then a chance acquaintance informed us over dinner that it was now possible to visit Ezra Pound.  He’d been imprisoned a year previously in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the criminally insane, Washington D.C. Our man, to whom I’m forever indebted, even knew the procedure for setting up a visit. So, en route from New York to New Haven we’d loop through Washington.
On June 4, 1948, Marshall and I pulled in to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. We presented our credentials at the office, saw our names entered in a book labelled “Ezra Pound’s Company,” then were ushered up two stories to the Chestnut Ward. Pound had recently been promoted from the Dangerously Insane so to speak to the Slightiy Cracked; that was the news our New York informant was responding to when he’d told us Pound could now be visited. Still, the staircases we climbed were affixed to the outside of the building; inside, floor was sealed from floor. We rang; a guard opened the door; we showed credentials; the door was locked behind us.
Pound in his new status, had a room of his own, though guests weren’t allowed to enter it. Still, he and his wife, Dorothy, an Englishwoman who now used a Washington address, could receive visitors in, well, relative privacy. We all met in an alcove at the intersection of two corridors.
One low armchair for E.P., who had back problems; three more chairs for Dorothy and the two of us. I seem to remember visitors being limited to two. E.P. advised us to pull our chairs in close. He indicated a fellow patient in the corridor, with a carpet-sweeper from which the works had been removed. The man was acting out an obsession about visitors, who tracked in, from the outer world, unspeakable corruption. Pound’s old friend and disciple, the poet T.S. Eliot, had recently visited, and owing to a failure to gather the chairs in close, Eliot had spent much of the afternoon with his feet in the air, while the sweeper poked and probed after filth beneath him. That was especially funny if you knew about Eliot’s ultra-fastidiousness.
What did Ezra Pound look like? Grey moustache, short grey goatee, grey swept-back hair. His presence could fill a room, or even a makeshift space such as we occupied. (…) And yet, on the day I met him, June 4, 1948, I barely knew who he was. It was one of the two or three turning points of my life.

Philip Marchand’s The Medium and the Messenger has passages from a letter, dated March 18, 1987, that Hugh Kenner wrote to him about McLuhan as Marchand was preparing his book: 

What Marshall always really needed was a stooge. (…) I think he liked to have someone else in the room while he thought aloud. (Marchand, Random House edition, 58) 

He pushed at me T. S. Eliot, who’d been the type of unintelligibility to my Toronto profs. And he had me read Richards’ Practical Criticism, Leavis’ New Bearings in English Poetry, and (eventually) the entire file of Scrutiny. He kept mentioning Wyndham Lewis, whom I’d never heard of, notwithstanding that for two years I’d lived half a mile away from him. (…) So many windows opened! (Marchand, Random House edition, 93) 

McLuhan despised [Joyce] as merely ‘mechanical,’ a ‘contriver.’ McLuhan in those days took the Leavis line on nearly everything, though he did smuggle in Wyndham Lewis. He told a mutual friend (Pauline Bondy) that I was ‘wasting my time’ on Joyce. (Marchand, Random House edition, 94) 

 

 

 

  1. “A catalogue, his jewels of conversation” is from Pound’s Canto III which, as the Poetry Foundation has it, appeared in the July, 1917 issue of Poetry: Originally part of what scholars call the “Ur-Cantos,” this version of Canto III was later edited by Pound to become Canto I of his collected Cantos.
  2. This must have been Fr Gerald Phelan.

Reborn from ruin

Perhaps the single most important thing to be understood about Marshall McLuhan is his self-described transformation from moralist to student:

For many years, until I wrote my first book, The Mechanical Bride, I adopted an extremely moralistic approach to all environmental technology. I loathed machinery, I abominated cities, I equated the Industrial Revolution with original sin and mass media with the Fall. In short, I rejected almost every element of modern life in favor of a Rousseauvian utopianism. But gradually I perceived how sterile and useless this attitude was, and I began to realize that the greatest artists of the 20th Century — Yeats, Pound. Joyce, Eliot — had discovered a totally different approach, based on the identity of the processes of cognition and creation. I realized that artistic creation is the playback of ordinary experience — from trash to treasures. I ceased being a moralist and became a student.1 (Playboy Interview, 1969)

This transformation to “a totally different approach” has been characterized in many different ways in this blog — for example, as McLuhan’s ‘second conversion’ and as his confrontation with Pope’s “Universal Darkness”. It might also be described in terms of his later formulation of “breakdown as breakthrough”. Or, as he said in the Playboy passage above, “from trash to treasures.”

Future posts will deal with the analytic import of this insight — the idea, familiar in the physical sciences, that negative findings (breakdown, trash) are critical to scientific advance (breakthrough, treasures). McLuhan himself was greatly buoyed by the implicated hope that also in the artefactual realm such negative aspects of the modern world as perpetual war and pervasive propaganda might be investigated as “effects” and thereby reveal — at last! —  ways of mitigating them. 

But this second conversion also had significant biographical import since McLuhan could not have had the breakthrough of becoming a “student” without the breakdown of his being a “moralist”.

Now any such transformation has a definitive temporal signature which was specified already by Aristotle and Aquinas and cited on multiple occasions by McLuhan:

the basis of all paradox, Christian and secular, is to be found in the sixth book of the Physics of Aristotle, to which Aquinas refers in his Summa Theologica I.II.q 113.a.7, ad quintum. The question for Aquinas is whether justification by faith occurs instantly or gradually. Aquinas says it occurs instantly because — ­here he appeals to Aristotle’s Physics  — “the whole preceding time during which anything moves towards its form, it is under the opposite form”. (From Cliché to Archetype, 160)2

Being “under the opposite form” of the “sterile and useless (…) attitude” of the moralist must have been the extended occasion of much personal suffering for McLuhan. After all, he was almost 40 before he saw the liberating possibility of becoming a student and in the meantime he had converted to Catholicism, gotten married and sired 4 children. All this while he was frequently penniless and living in an environment which he “loathed” and “equated (…) with original sin”. The contrast between the responsibilities he had assumed and the resources he had to meet those responsibilities — especially his own psychological resources — could hardly have been greater. No wonder he was frequently ill and known even to close friends as “Mushall McGloom”.3  

McLuhan’s frequent avowal that he had no problems and more or less skated over life’s difficulties must be taken with a grain of salt. In typical Canadian fashion, he was pointing away from himself. But in fact his experience of a late second conversion, critical as this was for him personally, may also be taken as exemplary of a transformation that is desperately needed by the world at large.

Here are some characterizations of “breakdown as breakthrough” by McLuhan which, if considered at all, have not been taken as autobiographical statements (nor, of course, as indications of the potential transformation that lies within all the crises of the contemporary, 2024, world):

Every breakdown in any field is a breakthrough in disguise (Fordham lecture, ‘The Medium is the Message’, February 26, 1968)

Every world must be reborn from its own ruins. Every discovery rises from the trauma of breakdown and ignorance. (Take Today, 1972, 111)

“a hero must pass through an experience which opens his eyes to an error of his own. He must learn through suffering (…) The essence of a tragedy (…) is the spiritual awakening, or regeneration, of the hero.”4

The mystery of creativity is the paradox of how beauty is created from ruin. After a long career of stylistic invention and triumph, W.B. Yeats deliberately scrapped his entire enterprise in order to begin again: “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.” (The Circus Animals’ Desertion) It is the mystery of how life succeeds in that it seems to fail, the paradox of how beauty is born out of despair, art out of the garbage and sweepings of the street. (‘Declaration of Delos Ten’, 1972)5

Less familiar as “bridge” is the “tragic flaw” (hamartia), of which Aristotle speaks in the Poetics. Without this interval of ignorance or awareness in his character, the tragic hero cannot bridge one state to another. The flaw is an area of interface and mutation, without which he cannot get better, but can only be hung up. (Take Today, 9)

Breakdown as Breakthrough
The principle of this action is stated by Aristotle in his description of the tragic hero. The hero’s suffering or agon or struggle for new identity is made possible by a “tragic flaw” or defect. That is the classical case of breakdown as breakthrough. Without this flaw or gap, he could not make the discovery that changes both himself and his actions. As Charles Olson explains in his book Proprioception: “
The fault can be a very simple one — a mere unawareness, for example — but if he has no fault he cannot change for the better, but only for the worse (…) He must pass through an experience which opens his eyes to an error of his own.” (…) The “flaw” is the needed gap that permits “interface” and change. When the individual is entirely at one with his world or organization, he is headed for a hang-up of merging and unconsciousness, which is sterility in life or in business. (Take Today, 282)

The breakdown or hang-up is always in the [continuous] connection whereas the breakthrough or discovery is inside the problem itself, not outside but “in the [discontinuous] gap.” Breakdown is the old cause in action, the extension of the old figure to a6 new ground.  Breakthrough is the effect of understanding as a6 new cause [is revealed]. (The Argument: Causality in the Elec World 1973)

“Breakdown as breakthrough” characterizes research that is confident in the intelligibility of its domain. It welcomes negative findings as signposts to discovery. But in order to initiate research of this sort in a new domain of the artefactual, McLuhan had to undergo a “breakdown as breakthrough” of his own.

 

  1. That McLuhan “became a student” meant that he  ‘became a scientist’ — that is, he became a person who interrogates experience in order to learn its dynamics.
  2. Cited by McLuhan in Latin in his letter to Jacques Maritain (May 6, 1969, Letters 371) and in ‘The Medieval Environment’ (1974).
  3. “Mushall McGloom” is recalled by Hugh Kenner in Mazes, 230.
  4. Maxwell Anderson, ‘The Essence of Tragedy’, in Aristotle’s Poetics and English Literature; a collection of critical essays, ed Elder Olson, 1965, p 118. A copy of this page with these passages underlined, and McLuhan’s handwritten reference to Elder, is preserved in the ‘added material‘ found in McLuhan’s books donated to the Fisher Library at UT, # 04304-8. There is a comical aspect to McLuhan’s careful reference here — Olson’s book was published in a series for which McLuhan himself was the nominal editor. See Patterns of Literary Criticism.
  5. Ekistics v203, October 1972, 291. This was the ‘declaration’ McLuhan made in 1972 on Delos, the sacred island of Apollo and Artemis, during his second ‘ekistics’ tour of the Aegean with C.A. Doxiadis.
  6. McLuhan: ‘the’.
  7. McLuhan: ‘the’.

First words on the moon

In anticipation of Neil Armstrong’s moon landing on July 20, 1969, Esquire magazine for that month asked a group of luminaries led off by Marshall McLuhan, and featuring Tiny Tim, Sal Mineo and Mohammad Ali, “what words should the first man on the moon utter that will ring through the ages?”

McLuhan offered two suggestions. Both were from Finnegans Wake but their source was not identified.

 l) The thickest mud that was ever heard dumped. (FW 296)
2) Spitz on the iern while it’s hot. (FW 207)

The first quotation was somewhat mangled from Joyce’s “the muddest thick that was ever heard dump”.  

What did McLuhan have in mind with his suggestions?

The second seems to have been a comment on the occasion of Esquire‘s question and feature article about it (Le Mot Juste for the Moon‘ by William H Honan).1 Perhaps he was playing up the extreme contrast between Esquire‘s hope to capture the public’s momentary interest and “words that will ring through the ages”: Spitz on the iern while it’s hot. ‘Spitz’ (German ‘spike’ or ‘summit’) as the acme of interest in this story to be captured before the next big (Spitz) story in the next issue of Esquire. ‘Spits’ as the quality of thought being given to the event, as well as the vaporous-vacuous result of its meeting with the hot iron of public opinion. (The hot iron of Irish public opinion = iern.)

The first must have been intended as a comment both on what Armstrong would have to say (again as Spitz on the iern while it’s hot) and on Esquire‘s speculation about it: The thickest mud that was ever heard dumped — aka, pure bullshit.2

 

  1. Pages 53-55 and 138. McLuhan’s suggestions appear on 138. McLuhan’s name was played up on the Esquire cover and his comments played down, buried, in the article. Esquire obviously had no idea at all what McLuhan had in mind with his suggestions. On his side, McLuhan seems to have thought: OK, you want something to help your circulation, try chewing on this for a while.
  2. McLuhan began his career with a deep faith in language as defining human being and, in particular, the Christian tradition. What he saw in his lifetime was that language had become the thickest mud that was ever heard dumped.

McLuhan’s contributions

In the heights of thought, contributing anything new is extremely rare. But McLuhan made several contributions.

First, that the elements or archetypes or ontologies or media in the artefactual domain are ratios. Now Plato had suggested as much in maintaining that the ontological battle of the idealist gods and materialist giants was ‘always going on’ (Sophist 246).1 So the two were always actively engaged with one another and this could be understood as a constantly varying relation or ratio between them. But did Plato or Aristotle (who did indeed set out tables of binary oppositions) specify that the ratio between oppositions is the key to investigation of the artefactual domain? That the medium is the message?2

Second, that elements or archetypes or ontologies or media, as ratios, can be expressed either as varying emphases of their numerator/denominator poles or as manifestations of their mediating middles — media in another sense. That is, any elementary form can be defined by the “resonating interval” (or mode of relative emphasis) between its poles.3 The medium is the message.

Third, that the elementary media as ratios are not only two or three, say, but are likely to be quite numerous, like the chemical elements, once the possible configurations of their ratios begin to be understood.4 For the ratios of gods/giants or giants/gods (for example) would seem to have a great many permutations depending on the dynamic relations between them: the medium is the message.5

Forth, that the resulting investigations, if they amount to a ‘new science’, do not constitute a sister species to the existing domains of the physical sciences, but are integral to a new genus of sciences.6 This idea has often enough been suggested either by denying that artefactual inquiries are scientific at all or by insisting on their fundamental difference from those of the physical sciences. But McLuhan’s ‘new science’, which he took to be implicit in Francis Bacon and Vico, is explicitly an entirely new genus of investigations with its own laws.7

Taken together, these contributions  could and should instigate a new understanding of human being, one whose ongoing explorations would, according to McLuhan, amount to a “survival strategy” — this at a time when human folly threatens civilization and even the entire biosphere. 

 

  1. Plato’s great insight that ontology is plural as ontologies may have been taken over from the polytheistic mythologies which had been around forever before his time. McLuhan quoted an observation from Rachel Levy’s Gate of Horn (1948)  both in ‘Wyndham Lewis: His Theory of Art and Communication’ and in ‘Maritain on Art’ (both 1953): “Plato’s theory of Ideas constitutes a gigantic effort to establish the mystic doctrine upon an intellectual basis.” The same insight implicates the fundamentality of an abysmal gap, since ontologies could not be plural unless bordered by a nontological groundlessness. Furthermore, if such an abysmal gap holds together gigantic ontological powers, how not also our relatively meager ontic ones?
  2. Usually when something is supposed to be absent from the thought of Plato or Aristotle it will be found to be there after all — once specification of the missing piece is far enough along for us to find it there! Perhaps Plato’s ‘philosophical child’ who ‘begs for both’ (Sophist 249) is exactly the medium that is the message?
  3. In chemistry, to compare, the different elements can be conceived as physical proton/electron structures or as different expressions of (p-e)n, where ‘n’ is that varying but always equal number which dictates the specific form they have in any particular case. With the artefactual elements or media, however, there cannot be any such defining “particles of being” (Take Today, 10) because the domain is exactly that of the range of experience — including the range of experience of any “particle”. It follows that media as the elements of artefactual science must be completely abstract. If they were not, experience would ultimately be tied to some ‘particular’ (unambiguous) object and thereby reduced to physical science.
  4. When chemistry was inaugurated around 1800 there was no idea how many elements there were to it. Now over 200 years later their final number is still unknown — for elements are not only only to be found, but can also be constructed.
  5. Take Today, 10: “There are no connections among ‘particles of being’ such as appear in mechanical models. Instead, there is a wide range of resonating intensities…”
  6. Integral to a new genus of sciences — in the same way as chemistry is integral to further physical sciences like biology and genetics.
  7. See A whole new genus of sciences.

Dobbs: Hand signals for the blind

Bob:

One Spring Day in 1976 I was walking with McLuhan in Queen’s Park, across the street from his Coach House, on our way to the subway. I mentioned the title of a play I had just written: “THE DIRECTOR OF THE CENTRE FOR CULTURE AND TECHNOLOGY”. He didn’t react.

Later I changed the play considerably and gave it a new title: “HAND SIGNALS FOR THE BLIND”.

Editor’s comment:

Bob’s identification of McLuhan as the “Director of the Centre for Culture and Technology” with “Hand Signals for the Blind” is an exacting insight. But what is the meaning, or meanings, of “Hand Signals for the Blind”?

Whenever McLuhan is read as evoking literalisms — ‘media’ as literal speech or books or television, ‘senses’ as literal sight or hearing or touch — his work is transported back into the Gutenberg galaxy, into the reign of literalisms, the reign of the rear-view mirror. The great question posed by him, indeed by thinkers since the dawn of time, is how to signal — communicate — aside from the already-known literalisms in that mirror? Absent this possibility, there could, of course, be no real teaching nor real learning. Especially there could be no language learning by in-fants in the first place.

“HAND SIGNALS FOR THE BLIND” nicely gestures toward that great question. Although the phrase may be taken literally as indicating the problem at stake — how to signal something new that by definition is unknown — and which is unknowable as long as the media between the interlocutors remain incompatible, like visual signaling to the blind — it may also be read as specifying how such communication does indeed take place.

Read aside from the rear-view mirror, “HAND SIGNALS FOR THE BLIND” concerns no literal ‘hand’, no literal ‘blindness’, no literal ‘signal’. It concerns tactility.

In his 1954 lecture, ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’,1 McLuhan spoke of “the poetic process which is involved in ordinary cognition”.2 That is, all cognition, specifically including the most “ordinary cognition”, implicates the exercise of creativity (“the poetic process”) in the navigation of the possibilities through which it will come to be as this or that particular instance of experience. Cognition of every sort is always some effect of such a prior process, however unconscious that process may be.

Moment to moment this process of possibility-sifting is entirely free — “poetic” as McLuhan says. Experience comes from it, not it from experience. The upshot is that communication between possibilities, and between the realm of possibilities and “ordinary cognition”, is so little problematic (however mysterious and, indeed, wondrous it is) that human being cannot in any way be without it. It — the “fecund interval” — is always already there.

HAND SIGNALS”, understood non-literally, may be taken to be that incessant exercise of tactility upon which all expressions of human being originally spring. (For discussion and citations from McLuhan’s work see Tactility.)

On this reading of Bob’s title, “HAND SIGNALS FOR THE BLIND” raises the question of how the “blind” artefactual process, the unknown process in which we yet have a “hand”, can be exposed (“signaled”) for investigation. The possibility of that exposure rests on the prior tactility — the resonant interval — that first of all characterizes the relation of possibilities to each other as well as the perpetual, moment to moment, relation of humans to that deep drama.

Here is the etymology of “signal” > sign from the great Online Etymology  site:

early 13c., signe, “gesture or motion of the hand,” especially one meant to express thought or convey an idea, from Old French signe “sign, mark,” from Latin signum “identifying mark, token, indication, symbol; proof; military standard, ensign; a signal, an omen; sign in the heavens, constellation.”

 

  1. ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’ has been reprinted in The Medium and the Light, 160ff.
  2. Note the title of McLuhan’s 1951 ‘‘Joyce, Aquinas, and the Poetic Process’.

Dobbs: McLuhan on Nam June Paik

Here’s Bob: 

I met Nam June Paik in New York City in the middle of May, 1975. I told him I would be seeing Marshall McLuhan in Toronto in a couple of days.
He immediately handed me a copy of the May 5 NEW YORKER which featured a long profile of Paik, and asked me to give it to McLuhan as a gift.
When I gave it to McLuhan compliments of Paik, McLuhan said he would read it that evening.
The next day I asked him if he had read the article.
He replied he had.
Then after a pause, he said: “But it’s all just CONTENT.”

Dobbs: McLuhan on copy and original

Bob Dobbs:
McLuhan often quoted a mother showing her new baby to a friend who was expressing the appropriate delight:
“That’s nothing, wait til you see the photograph.”

Some questions from the editor…

We learned in the 1950s that the framed reality on the TV screen was superior to the unframed one outside. But today (2024) everyone is glued to their screens even or especially when they are outside. What did the iPhone do? Put the screen on wheels? Take away the house?

Dobbs: McLuhan on what’s the difference

Another great anecdote from Bob:

McLuhan occasionally would state the wrong date when he was discussing the effects of the Russian/Soviet Sputnik launch in 1957.

He seemed to favor October 17, rather than the correct date, October 4.

I once pointed this out to him.

He replied, “What’s the difference?”

Dobbs: a telling problem

Another memory from Bob Dobbs:

After the end of the formal part of a Monday Night “performance” in 1978, I was eavesdropping on Marshall McLuhan engaging in some intellectual banter with a Professor. 
They were getting into the dialogue deeper and deeper when McLuhan all of a sudden said to his “colleague”:
“You’re trying to TELL me something.”

This was the end of their exchange. 

Bio statement from 1944

In 1944 McLuhan began to publish in Sewanee Review1 and Kenyon Review.2 Both were edited by close friends of McLuhan’s close friend, Cleanth Brooks — Andrew Lyttle at Sewanee and John Crowe Ransom at Kenyon — and it is probable that McLuhan gained entry to these journals through Brooks. In fact, Brooks was himself an ‘associate editor’ with Sewanee at this time. 

McLuhan’s second Sewanee piece, ‘Poetic vs Rhetorical Exegesis’, featured the following biographical statement:

H.M. McLuhan teaches at St Louis University,3 worked for three years in Cambridge,4 part of this time with Richards and Leavis.5 He is a former contributor to Sewanee Review.  

The last sentence is rather comical since McLuhan’s ‘former’ contribution to the Sewanee Review had appeared only in the immediately previous number. The importance of this connection with the Sewanee Review for McLuhan lay in the facts that it paid for contributions and added weight to his CV at a time when he was searching for a more lucrative position than he had at SLU. Both reflected McLuhan’s virtually penniless state in 1944 when his wife was pregnant for the second time with what would turn out later that year to be twin girls.6

  1. ‘Edgar Poe’s Tradition’, Sewanee Review, 52:1, 1944; ‘Poetic vs Rhetorical Exegesis’, Sewanee Review, 52:2, 1944; ‘Kipling and Forster’, Sewanee Review, 52:3, 1944.
  2. ‘The Analogical Mirrors’, Kenyon Review, 6:3, 1944.
  3. When this issue of Sewanee Review appeared in the spring of 1944, McLuhan was in the process of leaving SLU for Assumption College in Windsor where he taught from 1944 to 1946. Father Gerald Phelan had set up McLuhan’s job at SLU (as he had done for many Canadians) and was now, it may be supposed, behind the step by step process of bringing McLuhan to Toronto via Windsor.
  4. McLuhan was in Cambridge from 1934 to 1936 as an undergraduate and 1939-1940 as a graduate student.
  5. Describing the time he and McLuhan were working together a few years later, Hugh Kenner wrote in his 1985 ‘Preface’ to the reprinting of The Poetry of Ezra Pound from 1951 that “Marshall, at that time (was) pretty much a New Critic”.
  6. In January 1951 McLuhan wrote to the then editor of the Sewanee Review, John Palmer, complaining that he had to publish elsewhere because his work was not appearing often enough at Sewanee. “Trouble is, he (the other editor) don’t pay, and it’s quite a problem finding hamburger for our five kids these days.” (Between 1944 and 1951 the McLuhans had  two more girls after the twins and their older brother, Eric.) If Palmer didn’t much like McLuhan’s work, despite Brooks’ prompting, perhaps he would be more sympathetic to it in consideration of his hungry children?

Dobbs: McLuhan on how much truth you got

Bob Dobbs has a lot of great memories of McLuhan from the 1970s. The hope is to feature many of them here.

The first is one that Bob says he has subsequently used many times himself.

*

In the Spring of 1979, during one of Marshall McLuhan’s last Monday night “Open House” discussions before his stroke later that year on September 26, somebody said that his statement, “the medium is the message”, was just a half-truth.
 
McLuhan’s response: “Yes, but for most people that’s a lot of truth!”

Yeats’ rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem

McLuhan ended his 1969 Playboy interview with a vision of the world at a crossroads — “its [decisive] hour come round at last” — where there is potential to usher in the millennium, but also of realizing the Anti-Christ: the two possibilities together as captured in “Yeats’ rough beast (…) slouching toward Bethlehem to be born”:

There are grounds for both optimism and pessimism. The extensions of man’s consciousness induced by the electric media could conceivably usher in the millennium, but it also holds the potential for realizing the Anti-Christ — 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.1 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 humans2, 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 the potential of human beings3
to grow and learn, to plumb the depths of their4 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 humans,5 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 human themselves6 will become an organic art form. There is a long road ahead, and the stars are only way stations, but we have begun the journey. To be born in this age is a precious gift, and I regret the prospect of my own death only because I will leave so many pages of man’s destiny — if you will excuse the Gutenbergian image — tantalizingly unread. But perhaps, as I’ve tried to demonstrate in my examination of the postliterate culture, the story begins only when the book closes.

Fifteen years before, in his 1954 St Joseph College lecture on ‘Christian Humanism and Modern Letters’:

Today with the revelation of the poetic process which is involved in ordinary cognition we stand on a very different threshold from that wherein Machiavelli stood. His was a door into negation and human weakness. Ours is the door to the positive powers of the human spirit in its natural creativity. This [2-fold] door opens on to psychic powers comparable to the physical powers made available via nuclear fission and fusion.7 Through this door men have seen a possible path to the totalitarian remaking of human nature. Machiavelli showed us the way to a new circle of the Inferno. Knowledge of the creative process in [the artefactual domain of] art, science, and cognition shows us the way either to the earthly paradise or to complete madness. It is to be either the top of Mount Purgatory or the abyss.

 

  1. Earlier in the Playboy interview: “our survival, and at the very least our comfort and happiness, is predicated on understanding the nature of our new environment, because unlike previous environmental changes, the electric media constitute a total and near-instantaneous transformation of culture, values and attitudes. This upheaval generates great pain and identity loss, which can be ameliorated only through a conscious awareness of its dynamics. If we understand the revolutionary transformations caused by new media, we can anticipate and control them; but if we continue in our self-induced subliminal trance, we will be their slavesBecause of today’s terrific speed-up of information moving, we have a chance to apprehend, predict and influence the environmental forces shaping us — and thus win back control of our own destinies.”
  2. McLuhan has ‘man’ here, not ‘humans’. It has been edited to accommodate the wokesters who will see division in his vision, ignoring his appeal to the “human tribe” as “one family”.
  3. McLuhan: ‘man’s potential’.
  4. McLuhan: ‘his’.
  5. McLuhan: ‘the new man’.
  6. McLuhan: ‘man himself’.
  7. According to McLuhan, the modern world — the last 500 years, say — has been shaped by the extraordinary application of elementary forces in both the factual and artefactual realms. Consciousness of the physical elements reached its take-off stage with Lavoisier around 1790. It then took almost a century before Mendeleev was able to formulate his table. But the physical elements had been active, of course, always and everywhere, throughout the cosmos, since the beginning of time; and in the centuries immediately before 1790 their laws and properties had increasingly been applied with great success in many different sorts of manufacturing. But before Lavoisier those applications remained unconscious of the elementary processes they themselves were manipulating. In the parallel field of the artefactual (the domain not of physical facts aside from human perception, but the artifacts of human perception), a comparable application of elementary forces has enabled the great ‘successes’ of our information environment: news, entertainment, advertising, global commerce and politics — all tending increasingly to crass propaganda. The elementary forces manipulated so successfully in these ways remain unconscious to this day, however, just as were the chemical elements before Lavoisier. It is just this ‘successful’ use grounded in unconscious elementary forces that defines the great dangers of our time: nuclear war, environmental degradation, political tyranny, social disintegration, psychical madness. Therefore McLuhan’s “survival strategy” as formulated in the Playboy interview: “man (see note 1 above) must, as a simple survival strategy, become aware of what is happening to him (see note 1 above) (…) But despite our self-protective escape mechanisms, the total-field awareness engendered by electronic media is enabling us — indeed, compelling us — to grope toward a consciousness of the unconscious (…) We live in the first age when change occurs sufficiently rapidly to make such pattern recognition possible for society at large.” Just as the world was revolutionized following the discovery of the physical elements, so might it be revolutionized again by discovery of the artefactual elements. It was in such a revolution based on collective research that McLuhan saw a potential “survival strategy” and, therefore, grounds for “a surge of excitement and hope”. Now this “strategy” would remain abstract and only a “hope”, of course, unless these “artefactual  elements” were dis-covered and increasingly specified. But it was just such dis-covery that McLuhan attempted to communicate following on the prior truly great (but ultimately unsuccessful) attempts by Plato, Aristotle, and many others — especially, in McLuhan’s case, Vico and Joyce. See A whole new genus of sciences.

Dilworth: McLuhan on The Waste Land

McLuhan on The Waste Land
Introduced and edited by Thomas Dilworth1

Introduction
In 1968/9 I [Tom Dilworth] was a student in Marshal McLuhan’s fourth-year class in Modern Poetry — together with about 25 others in the Honours English Programme at St Michael’s College in the University of Toronto. At the time, he was at the height of his fame, and I for one was excited to have him as our prof. He co-taught the course with his former graduate student, Sheila Watson, the author of the novel The Double Hook, who was on sabbatical leave from the University of Alberta in Edmonton. She was deferential to him and warmly personal to students, whereas he was entirely interested in his ideas on media and the poetry. Sometimes grumpy, he was still recovering from a prolonged brain operation he had undergone the year before while at Fordham. (He gradually improved — I subsequently was in a graduate seminar he taught and audited his seminar on media.) His hearing was hypersensitive, and the sound of construction nearby in the city irritated him.
The class took place in the former dining room of what is now called Founders House, which had originally been a family home. During the first class he sat on the edge of a table, dangling his long legs as he spoke. He began with the aesthetic of Modernism, which is that of fragments and incompletion and which involves the reader (or viewer or listener), who co-creates the work. For that reason, he said, buildings were more interesting when in ruins or not yet complete.
Halfway into the class a student named Terry Edgar arrived clutching in one hand a can of Coke, and McLuhan announced, ‘Here is a representation of the current shallow art.’ (None of us then had any knowledge of Andy Warhol.)
He never prepared for class but, speaking spontaneously, was usually interesting, often brilliant. After hearing him differentiate between visual and acoustic or tactile space and how radio was so effective for Hitler, Roosevelt, and Churchill, I could think of nothing else for the next four days. (He did not mention Conrad, but what he said illuminated Heart of Darkness for me.) I remember him during the course praising Hopkins, whose ‘The Windhover’ is, he said, ‘the greatest modern sonnet’ and referring dismissively to Dylan Thomas’ ‘monism’. He played for us a record of Wallace Stevens reading his own poetry, despite Stevens being a dreary reader.
During the course, he taught T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), which clearly meant a lot to him because of its affinity with reality perceived as different, i.e., ‘modern’, owing to the revolution in media and human experience brought about by electricity.
When McLuhan taught he monologued. Not in these notes is an analogy he at other times made between Eliot’s poem and the newspaper, which juxtaposed incongruous reports, stories, features, and advertisements, all unified solely by the dateline.
Slightly expanded and clarified, here are my notes for the class or classes on The Waste Land. They include nothing said by Sheila Watson, if she was present, nor anyone else other than McLuhan.

*****

McLuhan on The Waste Land
The Waste Land is a non-visual poem, fragmented, yet the people of the poem live in a visual continuum — a 9 to 5 world. That world is unlike the tactile reality of the poem. Touch is the experience of the blind, which is full of shock, surprise, and demands maximum alertness.
Living in visual space, the lives of these people are rootless, without tradition, with no sense of the past (no seeing the past in the present), no depth. But the reader experiences the poem differently, in symbols, non-visually, in tactile or acoustic space.
Dead, the people in the poem are all together without a deeper memory. They flow over London Bridge — ‘I had not thought death had undone so many.’
‘April is the cruelest month’ refers to the opening of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: ‘Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote’2 The Waste Land is the opposite of Chaucer’s world of joy. By the 18th Century the city was seen as an enclosure, a prison — by Fielding, and later Dickens — the human community had changed since the world of Chaucer. Now there is a need for spiritual roots. This is implied by the allusions to scripture.
‘You gave me Hyacinths” — the Roman death flower. The descent into the underworld —‘The Burial of the Dead’.
Madame Sosostris ‘had a bad cold’, slang for v.d. She is a poor attempt at salvation since her ‘wisdom’ cannot avoid v.d.
The ’Unreal City’ — a change — organized along visual lines, people walking with eyes before feet in strait lines.
‘The Dog’ — now man’s enemy because of hypercritical friendliness, the dog beneath the skin. ‘Hypocrite’ — Greek for mask. The mask is the language, the poem, a way to present self to the world, but also a way of seeing — you look through a mask — a style — a composite, a way to power, ‘the cool one’ — we pick and choose whom we will resemble.
‘The Game of Chess’ — the treachery women exact on each other for power.
The people are dead now, all systematically deprived of a spiritual life or meaning of life.
The dressing of the dead. The artificial perfumes — not natural — drugs, LSD, the inner trip — preview of formaldehyde. Metal imagery — cold, inhospitable — line 138: ‘lidless eyes’. ‘Those are pearls that were his eyes’. Jazz, ‘O that Shakespeherian Rag’, change for the sake of change. Cold — money, teeth — artificial.
‘The Fire Sermon’. Meeting of East and West, Augustine and Buddha.
The ironic hunter-fisher — rat, slimy canal, gashouse, not very rustic or natural.
‘Horns and motors’ — 1922, the world of Gatsby. People like children in the fiery furnace.
‘She puts another record on’. The discotheque, mechanical sounds. Prostitution, cold, the go-go girl. The go-go girl in a cage — a widely participated in ritual — a pre-act act. The mechanical canary, sterile, unproductive. Sex — no touch because of cage — Playboy. Elizabeth and Leicester — lovers — ‘Beating oars’ — the vulgarity and triviality of the Queen in the same situation as the girl in a canoe. The same even then.
Augustine and Buddha, the collision of worlds, the moving together. LSD is a huge step eastward. Japan a huge step west. China — Marxism — another step west.
‘Death by Water’ — drowning of the possibility of baptism.
 Phlebas: Ulysses steers, man knocked by tiller overboard3 — free boat, loose, ‘the barges drift’ (line 268), turning east.
‘What the Thunder Said’. 1st line, allusion to the Passion. The Third beside you — Xt on road to Emmaus. The rock, the Church.
Swarming over endless plains — the Russian Revolution.
Then oriental responses to the human position — compassion. The Spanish Tragedy, Heironimo — everyone dies at the hand of his neighbour.
Uniform standardized repetitive life. Eliot reads the poem in an Anglican-pulpit equitone, the potent mask of the Establishment. Wendell Berry writes on the voice and how it effects the way they wrote — the effect of Dylan Thomas’s voice on his poetry.
In The Waste Land all the boundaries of all the cells merge into a whole. Like Siddhartha.
An LSD dispensation. The human Teiresias-man-woman merges at the end.
Unconsciousness, which LSD is for some people. For Eliot the soul is not an oversoul, a mass whole.
The poem is inclusive — unconsciousness includes tradition. Exclusive conscious — visual — excludes tradition.
Poets—masters in depth of their present, seers, 60 years ahead. The future, as the past, is included in the present. Seers see the present. The latest is always old hat to a knower. We are all unified in a drastic inability to see the present. Only a whole man can look at the present without blinking.

*****

Afterword (Tom Dilworth)
On a gray November day during the year that I was in his Modern Poetry class, after leaving St Mike’s library, I joined McLuhan in crossing St Joseph Street. He recognized me as a student in his class, and by the time we reached the far curb, he had begun a conversation with me that finished on that curb a half-hour later. He told me that the conventional Western linear conception of time is mistaken, that a circular sense of time was better, and that Aquinas was right in conceiving God as the ground of being. His taking the time to talk to one of his students like that exemplified 1) his compelling interest in what he was thinking, and 2) his generosity as a teacher.

  1. Tom Dilworth is University Professor in the Department of English and Creative Writing at the University of Windsor. His excellent essay, ‘McLuhan as Medium‘, is included in At The Speed Of Light There Is Only Illumination (ed, Linda Morra and John Errington Moss, 2004).
  2. Chaucer’s ‘Prologue’ to Canterbury Tales begins ‘Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote / The droughte of March hath perced to the roote’. ‘Soote’ is ‘sweet‘, akin to Danish sød and Middle Dutch soete.
  3. A kind of holy drowning, life by water, baptism is the antithesis of physical drowning (‘death by water’), which is the culmination of a secular orientation, the steersman knocked “by tiller overboard”.

McLuhan and Kenner (the plotline of Dublin’s Joyce)

moving self-consciously from the alone to the alone… 

Kenner’s phrase here (from the first page of chapter 7, Dublin’s Joyce95) speaks to his reading of Joyce, but through it, as with a palimpsest, may be read the action of “the permanent mind of Europe” (from the last page of chapter 6, Dublin’s Joyce94).

Earlier in Dublin’s Joyce Kenner had compared Joyce with Pope and recalled how that “mind of Europe” with “intellectual traditions running back through St. Augustine to Cicero and Homer” now “entered the (…) night-world”:1 

If we want an English analogue for Joyce, it is Pope; their orientations and procedures are surprisingly similar. Pope is conscious of intellectual traditions running back through St. Augustine to Cicero and Homer; and the universal darkness that he predicted at the end of the Dunciad fell exactly as he foretold; the mind of Europe entered the Romantic night-world. (Dublin’s Joyce23

Here is the passage in Pope from the end of the 1725 Dunciad:

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

McLuhan ended his unpublished Typhon in America,2 written at a time in the late 1940s when he and Kenner were in intense communication, with this passage. The last sentence of his typescript runs:

In this darkness we must learn to see.

Around 15 years later, he ended The Gutenberg Galaxy3 with this same passage from Pope but with a changed summary sentence:

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

Compare Kenner:

In Finnegans Wake (…) Joyce reversed for the western world that current that has flowed from Milton’s exile-myth4 into the romantic night-world.5 (Dublin’s Joyce90)

McLuhan’s revision in the Gutenberg Galaxy to reference Joyce and FW does indeed seem to have come about through the reconsideration he made of Joyce in the late 1940s together with Kenner.6 On the other hand, Kenner’s reading of Joyce, as it came to be formulated over the decade leading to Dublin’s Joyce in 1955, owed to McLuhan this plotline of “the mind of Europe enter[ing] the (…) night-world”.7 The great question was, how to go from an isolated perspective — “moving self-consciously from the alone to the alone” (Dublin’s Joyce95) — to the common life of Dublin and doublin?8

This plotline goes back in “the permanent mind of Europe” at least to Plato, and arguably to Parmenides and Heraclitus. The central question is, again, how is thinking to break from captivity in “the alone to the alone” and instead join itself with the ‘common world’ (κόσμος κοινός)?

An abysmal circularity is implicated here, since joining is an act of ‘bringing together’ and cannot even be attempted unless the possibility of it is already at hand. But how to get to what is already at hand, especially when a start has long since been made elsewhere with what is equally but fundamentally differently also at hand? Having started with the ‘alone’, how start again with another possibility? Especially with another possibility that is hardly known or even utterly unknown?

A peculiar kind of backwards somersault through the dark is required — a Gestalt switch or paradigm shift in accord with which the action of mind is to be reordered from the start (at a time when it has already started, and been deeply ordered, elsewise).

In “the permanent mind of Europe” it was just such a break with linearity that Plato’s ‘dialectic’ aimed, if not to accomplish — for to accomplish would privilege a student’s chain of thought and the point was to break with that chain, certainly not to reinforce it. Instead, a new start was to be prompted through such a backward break — to ‘occasion’ it somehow.

Dublin’s Joyce traces one more attempt in the action of “the mind of Europe”, this time by Joyce, to relocate itself to where it already is.

τοῦ λόγου δὲ ἐόντος ξυνοῦ ζώουσιν οἱ πολλοί ὡς ἰδίαν ἔχοντες φρόνησιν
Heraclitus DK B29

Although logos is common to all, the many live as if they had a wisdom of their own.

Although the logos is shared, most men live as though their thinking were a private possession

τοῖς ἐγρηγορόσιν ἕνα καὶ κοινὸν κόσμον εἶναι τῶν δὲ κοιμωμένων ἕκαστον εἰς ἴδιον ἀποστρέφεσθαι
Heraclitus DK B89

The waking have one common world, but the sleeping turn aside each into a world of his own.

The waking have one world in common; sleepers have each a private world of his own.

 

  1. Kenner writes of “the Romantic night-world”. But this threatens to place in an historic era what is a “permanent” possibility. Or did Kenner consider “the Romantic” a “permanent” possibility which the Romantic age may have particularly realized, though not exclusively?
  2. See Typhon/Minotaur/Dionysus parallels.
  3. The Gutenberg Galaxy book, as opposed to ‘The Gutenberg Galaxy’ main section of the book, has a kind of appendix, ‘The Galaxy Reconfigured’. But that McLuhan considered ‘Pope’s Dunciad’ (pages 255-263 of GG) to be the chief conclusion of The Gutenberg Galaxy follows from the inclusion of this section of GG in The Interior Landscape in 1969.
  4. Kenner’s phrase “Milton’s exile-myth” recalls his quotation a few pages before from William Empson’s Some Versions of Pastoral: “Milton uses (the myth) to give every action a nightmare importance, to hold every instant before the searchlight of the conscious will. It is a terrific fancy, the Western temper at its height; the insane disproportion of the act to its effects implies a vast zest for heroic action.” Kenner comments: “Joyce chose to construct his drama (around) beings inadequate to the Miltonic holding of every instant before the searchlight of the conscious will. He chose that image because it was the inadequacy of that formulation to mankind that he sought to display”. (Dublin’s Joyce88-89)
  5. With “the romantic night-world” Kenner is referring to Pope’s Dunciad. As cited above from Dublin’s Joyce23: ” the universal darkness that (Pope) predicted at the end of the Dunciad fell exactly as he foretold; the mind of Europe entered the romantic night-world.”
  6. This is not to say that that revision itself came from Kenner! Although Dublin’s Joyce appeared in 1955, seven years before the 1962 Gutenberg Galaxy, the latter had been under construction since at least 1952. It is entirely possible, therefore, that the impetus here came from McLuhan and not from Kenner.
  7. Dublin’s Joyce does not have only a single plotline. Kenner’s own plotline follows Joyce through two “cycles” of the Aristotelian lyric-epic-drama progression: Chamber Music, Dubliners, Exiles; Portrait, Ulysses, FW. Against this, McLuhan had became fascinated with the epyllion or “little epic” form after encountering it in the work of Eric Havelock in the mid 1940s. (For discussion see The Road to Xanadu.) This cut across Kenner’s progression of genres. In his 1960 ‘Tennyson and the Romantic Epic’ McLuhan referred succinctly to “the little epic fusion of lyric, epic, and dramatic”. Here was not only a further complicating genre, but also a whole different notion of time. (For detailed exposition see McLuhan’s Times.)
  8. Doublin’ is the action of participation in the ‘common world’ (κόσμος κοινός). Using a phrase from Jacques Maritain, Kenner describes Dublin as “the world of generality” (Dublin’s Joyce88).
  9. This is one of the two epigraphs from Heraclitus to Eliot’s Four Quartets. Kenner has recorded in regard to McLuhan and himself in the late 1940s: “the passion (…) with which we two (…) studied Eliot! We penciled notes on the yellow postwar paper of a Faber Four Quartets.” (1985 ‘Preface’ to the reprinting of Kenner’s The Poetry of Ezra Pound from 1951.)

McLuhan and Kenner (Dublin’s Joyce, chap 6)

Kenner’s long chapter 6 treats Joyce’s Exiles

Exiles frees Joyce from Ibsen (…) whose (…) pseudo-rigours of revolt had for some years compromised a portion of his spirit. The repudiation of the Norwegian (…) is explicit. (Dublin’s Joyce69)

Kenner’s Joyce thinks progressively against himself though his fiction:

The artist lives in two worlds, the world he understands and the world his characters understand (…) he defines the former by disdaining the latter… (Dublin’s Joyce75)

“Naturalism”, as Joyce saw instantly, is an essentially ambivalent convention. It parades an ironic obsession with what the characters see in order to express what they ignore. (Dublin’s Joyce76)

Joyce’s works are read by Kenner as stages of liberation from “worlds” that make equally for limited art and limited polity — limited polity at all levels from that of the soul to that of the city.1 In this way “worlds” are conceived as in “battle” with one another and growth in art or life amounts to turns or shifts in that battle. The thought goes back at least to Plato, but the imagery goes back to wars of the gods in mythology that was already ancient in Plato’s time and was frequently represented on the most important Greek temples like the Parthenon in Athens and the Altar of Zeus at Pergamon.  

The theme of Exiles is Richard’s agon2 (Dublin’s Joyce85)

[in Exiles] Robert Hand (…) proposes to Richard (…) “a battle of (…) souls (…) against all that is false in them and in the world”:
“All life is a conquest, the victory of human passion over the commandments of cowardice. Will you, Richard? Have you the courage? (…) The blinding instant of passion alone — passion, free, unashamed, irresistible — that is the only gate by which we can escape from the misery of what slaves call life.” (Dublin’s Joyce70)

Two matters are fused here which must be detached from one another and considered separately. There is the “agon“, the “battle of (…) souls (…) against all that is false in them and in the world”; and there is “the blinding instant of passion (…) that is the only gate by which we can escape”. Joyce’s language is precise. The “instant of passion alone” is “blinding” in multiple senses. It succeeds, so far as it succeeds, only because it is “blinding”. The claim is that it exactly thereby achieves the “conquest” and “victory” in the aforesaid “battle of (…) souls”. The “battle” is to be won by being put one-sidedly to rest by “escape” through “the only gate” of “the blinding instant of passion alone“.

But the notion that “blinding” can represent “victory” in the “battle of (…) souls” in this way is itself blinding. It does not see that this supposed resolution of the battle does not work in multiple respects — respects Kenner describes Joyce at work recognizing and rejecting in Exiles. And yet it remains very much with us as McLuhan unsuccessfully attempted to explain to Norman Mailer, a modern champion of this “only gate”.

Joyce always weighs the parody against the parody(Dublin’s Joyce70)

That is, he insists that the battle actually be a battle. All “worlds” are to be retained for investigation and the resulting information they exhibit. No world is simply to be cancelled. Further, strictures applied against any one world must be applied against all, “parody against (…) parody”.

We must not be misled (…) into supposing that this [talk of “the sea, music and death”] is any less “faded green plush” than the armchairs of the (…) drawing-room. Ibsen imagined talk like this to be an absolute and a defiance of the drawing-room. Joyce exhibits them as continuous modes. (Dublin’s Joyce71)

“Continuous” here means that the “worlds” at stake must not be lifted somehow out of the “battle of (…) souls” through some or other “gate”. They must be left in contesting “agon” with each other. In this context, Joyce found cant as much in existential declaration as in drawing-room cocktail conversation. The test was always how open was any such “world” to the complex real.

Joyce the citizen-exile confronting the dual Dublin, the Dublin of “sordid and deceptive details” and that of civic intelligibility (…) had “all but decided to consider the two worlds as aliens to one another”. (Dublin’s Joyce, 72-73, citing Stephen Hero)3

The real consists ineluctably of multiple “worlds”, both collectively and individually, and the great question concerns the relations of these worlds. When they are conceived exclusively as “aliens to one another”, any resolution of their antagonism will necessarily be one-sided. Since there is no middle that could account for the orchestration of their plurality, a solution to their “battle” can lie only in their dissolution into some variety of supervening singularity.

Conversely, “in his best work, Ibsen achieved ‘the syllogism of art’, the mediation between the two worlds“. (Dublin’s Joyce, 75)

Kenner is very much alive to the differing ratios “between (…) worlds” and to their present or absent mediations accounting for those differences: 

A few weeks after his eighteenth birthday [Joyce] published in the Fortnightly Review (April 1, 1900) an account of [Ibsen’s] recently-issued When We Dead Awaken; the opening paean indicates how, in his4 mind, the stress came to fall: “Seldom, if at all, has he consented to join battle with his enemies. It would appear as if the storm of fierce debate rarely broke in upon his wonderful calm. The conflicting voices have not influenced his work in the very smallest degree.”5 (Dublin’s Joyce, 74)

The “battle” of “debate” between “conflicting voices” and differing “worlds” had been put to rest by Ibsen in a “wonderful calm”. This is achieved through a displacement of emphasis — how “the stress came to fall” — between voices and worlds. Ibsen’s solution, admired by the young Joyce, was to move “stress” from multiple “worlds as alien to one another” to “only” one singular world “alone”. The “battle” was to be stilled in a singularizing move Kenner designates as “the vehemence of uneasiness”. (Dublin’s Joyce, 75)

In his 6 March, 1901 letter to Ibsen Joyce was explicit:

“how your battles inspired me — not the obvious material battles but those that were fought and won behind your forehead, how your willful resolution to wrest the secret from life gave me heart and how in your absolute indifference to public canons of art, friends, and shibboleths you walked in the light of your inward heroism.” (Dublin’s Joyce, 74)

There is an essential parallel between the agon of the individual soul and the artist’s ‘use of words’. Each requires (but seldom acknowledges) what Kenner treats as “the syllogism of art, the mediation between the two worlds” (Dublin’s Joyce75):

[In Exiles] Joyce chose to construct his drama of beings inadequate to the Miltonic holding of every instant before the searchlight of the conscious will. He chose that image because it was the inadequacy of that formulation to mankind that he sought to display, not just the inadequacy of mankind to the formulation. (…) The battle that Robert proposes to Richard is irrelevant to the context of their plight. It is not “a victory of human passion over (…) cowardice” that will solve their exile. It is not (…) cowardice that inhibits a repetition of the act of love. The conventional marriage into which Bertha and Richard are settling down is not a retreat but as much of a fulfilment as is allowed. As the family, so the City. The City is not a refuge from the demands of alert living but the context of meaningful life. (Dublin’s Joyce89-90)

Kenner closes his chapter on Exiles with a summary of his reading of Joyce’s progress through the play:

Hence Joyce drew off the rebellious heroics and cast them as a running sub-plot to his later works: first Richard Rowan, then Stephen Dedalus, then Shem the Penman; a metamorphosis of sham personae containing and controlling all the errors implicit in the relation between Dublin and its “liberated” victim. These figures, impurities from the chemical process to which the artist was submitting Dublin, prove to be of permanent interest, just as Dublin is; the emancipated victim is not only the nineteenth-century tragic hero, he [also] has affinities, through Prometheus and Oedipus, with the permanent mind of Europe. That is why Joyce directed so much labour to the purification of what he had taken from Ibsen. Ibsen was both a catalyst and a heresiarch: a warning. He understood as did no one else in his time the burden of the dead past and the wastefulness of any attempt to give it spurious life:6 his “I think we are sailing with a corpse in the cargo!” corresponds to Stephen Dedalus’ apprehension of the nightmare of history from which H. C. Earwicker strains to awake. But he had never known, and could not know amid the frontier vacuum of the fiords, the traditions of the European community of richly-nourished life; and the lonely starvation of his ideal of free personal affinity in no context save that of intermingling wills inspired Joyce with [both] a fascination that generated Exiles and a repulsion that found its objective correlative when Leopold Bloom, reversing Gabriel Conroy’s lust for snow,7 shuddered beneath “the apathy of the stars”, U 719/694. (Dublin’s Joyce, 93-94)

Bloom, “reversing Gabriel Conroy’s lust for snow”, is yet “continuous” (Dublin’s Joyce71) with him. The demand is thus set for a depiction of the City as “the mediation between the two worlds” (Dublin’s Joyce, 75), where a “battle of (…) souls” can play itself out in, or as, “the context of meaningful life”. (Dublin’s Joyce90)

Ibsen confused the impercipient inertia of much human conduct with the matrix of convention and artifice in which social and familial relationships are necessarily enacted(Dublin’s Joyce72)

The guidance of a habitual communal order is not an evasion but a human necessity. (Dublin’s Joyce87)

 

  1. The central question at stake in these Dublin’s Joyce posts may be put: how far did Kenner’s account of Joyce’s liberation help to spark McLuhan’s liberation from “moralist” to “student”? Further clarification of this question depends upon an investigation of the stages undergone by Kenner’s Joyce book between its initiation in the mid 1940s to its eventual publication as Dublin’s Joyce in 1955. See note 1 to McLuhan and Kenner (Dublin’s Joyce, chap 1.
  2. Kenner continues here concerning the other characters in Exiles: “Robert, Beatrice, and Bertha may be said to exist to explicate aspects of his (Richard’s agonistic) mode of being and phases of his plight”.
  3. Stephen Hero has ‘detail’, not Kenner’s  ‘details’ and ‘one to another’, not Kenner’s ‘to one another’.
  4. Whose mind is this? Ibsen’s? Joyce’s? Both?
  5. In a note in regard to Joyce learning Norwegian to read Ibsen in the original, Kenner references Muriel Bradbrook’s Ibsen the Norwegian(Dublin’s Joyce, 74n) Now Bradbrook was a friend and sometime advisor of McLuhan dating back to his undergraduate years in Cambridge a decade before Kenner and McLuhan met in 1946. This reference to Bradbrook would certainly have come from McLuhan. Similarly, Kenner’s thoughts on Sigfried Giedion’s Mechanization Takes Command (Dublin’s Joyce, 76would have been prompted by McLuhan. Giedion and McLuhan had been acquainted and in correspondence since 1943. And McLuhan reviewed Mechanization Takes Command in 1949 in Hudson Review, where Kenner was also publishing at the time.
  6. Kenner’s Joyce with its emphasis on an imperfect yet best-we-are-allowed sociality may have worked with Corinne McLuhan’s 1946 conversion to suggest the brittleness of McLuhan’s Catholicism to that point. Corinne’s conversion would certainly not have been so ‘theological’ as his own 10 years before. Whatever the complicated motivation, McLuhan’s ‘second conversion‘ from “moralist” to “student” took place in this 1946-1951 period.
  7. This “lust for snow” from the last sentence of the chapter returns to its first sentence: “Gabriel Conroy (from ‘The Dead’ in Dubliners) yearned for the snows. Exiles — an austere ungarnished play — inspects that pseudo-liberation; its Richard Rowan is a Gabriel Conroy liberated by Ibsen.” Kenner seems to have in mind the transition from a pseudo-liberation in what is “yearned for” to its possession — however much dispossession might be implicated in that possession. And however much such a liberation turns out itself to be one more pseudo-liberation. Here is Kenner’s description of Ibsen’s ‘liberation’: “Ibsen unbound Prometheus by dismissing all human bonds as sentiment. The myth that contains his life-work was projected in a (1859) poem, ‘On the Vidda’ (…) In the poem a young man from the valley (…) is visited on holiday in the mountain uplands (the Vidda) by a strange hunter ‘with cold eyes like mountain lakes’ who induces him to stay (…) The youth takes to heart this lesson in detachment. (…) ‘Self-steeled he looks on at joy (in the valley) from above life’s snow-line. The Strange Hunter reappears and tells him he is now free’…” (Dublin’s Joyce, 78).

Chaos and confusion in 1948

McLuhan wrote a short ‘Introduction’ — ‘Where Chesterton Comes In’ — to Hugh Kenner’s 1948 Paradox in Chesterton. It is an interesting document in many respects,1 not least in the context of McLuhan’s conversion from “moralist” to “student” over the course of his first 5 years at the University of Toronto (1946-1951).2 That McLuhan’s mind was in painful flux at the time3 can be seen in his fixation in the piece on “chaos” and “confusion”:

  • The specific contemporary relevance of Chesterton is this, that his metaphysical intuition of being was always in the service of the search for moral and political order in the current chaos. He was a Thomist by connaturality with being, not by study of St. Thomas. And unlike the neo-Thomists his unfailing sense of the relevance of the analogy of being directed his intellectual gaze not to the schoolmen but to the heart of the chaos of our time.
  • That is where Chesterton comes in. His unfailing sense of relevance and of the location of the heart of the contemporary chaos carried him at all times to attack the problem of morals and psychology. He was always in the practical order.4 It is important, therefore, that (…) the reader (…) feel Chesterton’s powerful intrusion into every kind of confused moral and psychological issue of our time.
  • It is time to abandon the literary and journalistic Chesterton (…) to see him as a master of analogical perception and argument who never failed to focus a high degree of moral wisdom on the most confused issues of our age.

It might seem that McLuhan was reacting to the immediate post-WW2 world which had seen the first use of atomic weapons and the accelerating “mechanization” of all aspects of life. He writes of “the current chaos”, “the chaos of our time” and the “confused issues of our age”. But he goes on to write of “the universal confusion” and, indeed, as his Introduction proceeds it emerges that all the times he considers were chaotic and confused as well:

  • St. Thomas was sustained by a great psychological and social order in an age of dialectical confusion.
  • Shakespeare wrote when this great symbolic and psychological synthesis [of the middle ages] was really destroyed.
  • What Descartes really did was to make explicit the fact which had been prepared by centuries of decadent scholastic rationalism: the fact that a complete divorce had been achieved between abstract intellectual and specifically psychological order.  Henceforth men would seek intellectually only for the kind of order they could readily achieve by rationalistic means: a mathematical and mechanistic order which precludes a human and psychological order. Ethics and politics were abandoned as much as metaphysics. But both society and philosophy were in a state of great confusion by the time this desperate strategy was adopted. Since the time of Descartes (…) moral, psychological, and political chaos has steadily developed, with its concurrent crop of fear and anger and hate.
  • that world of adult horror into which Baudelaire gazed with intense suffering and humility.

‘Universal confusion’ results from the constant exposure of the world to a foundational ‘untuning’ — a kind of underlying continental drift that always threatens individual and social order. As he was often to continue to do in his later work,5 McLuhan brings Shakespeare forward to witness his point:

The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre
Observe degree, priority and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office and custom, in all line of order.6

Shakespeare’s rich passage is cited unbroken (though with some omissions) in McLuhan’s piece. But it will be separated into segments here to highlight the movement between its parts.

O, when degree is shak’d,
Which is the ladder of all high designs,
The enterprise is sick!

For:

How could communities,
(…)7
But by degree, stand in authentic place?

And then:

Take but degree away, untune that string
(…)8
Then everything includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself. (Troilus and Cressida, 1:3)

Against this background of chaos and universal confusion, McLuhan’s Introduction has two short sentences which look ahead to the course he will come to take for the rest of his life:

The artist offers us not a [conceptual] system but a world. An inner world is explored and developed and then projected as an object

‘World’ is used here in 2 different senses. There is a new world of experience which “the artist offers us” in an artwork. And there is the “inner world” — the ‘interior landscape’ as McLuhan will later say — through which that artwork is “developed and then projected”.

He was on his way to seeing, as a “student”, that no “moralist” position can hold out by dint of force against other positions held on the same basis.9 Indeed, the “chaos” of only forcibly held positions is the “universal confusion”. It followed, as he did not yet see clearly, that the only way to confront “moral, psychological, and political chaos” was through the collective scientific investigation of all experience without exception. And this, as he would shortly come to understand, by 1951 at the latest, was possible only through examination of just how that “inner world is explored and developed and then projected as an object” — not only in artistic production but in all cognition whatsoever

Here he is to 1951, on the other side of his ‘second conversion’ in ‘The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape Poetry’:

Helped by Rimbaud and Mallarmé, Joyce arrived quickly at the formula of the aesthetic moment and its attendant landscape as consisting in a retracing of the stages of ordinary apprehension. The poetic process he discovered and states in Stephen Hero is the experience of ordinary cognition, but it is that labyrinth reversed, retraced, and hence epiphanized. 

Every “object” in the artifactual order, whether of artistic production or “ordinary apprehension”, was to be treated as an “effect” — an “effect” of some “creative (…) reconstruction” carried out through exploration in the “inner world” or “interior landscape”. Again in ‘The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape Poetry’:

This secret [generative action both of art and of “ordinary apprehension”] consists in nothing less than fusion of the learning and the creative processes

All experience is momentary, it is generated moment by moment through a “learning” process (where the range of possibilities ‘before’ it are cognized) followed by a ‘creative’ process (where some one possibility is selected and “developed” out of that range). Compare in language use where moment by moment some particular word with some particular grammar is selected and uttered (outered) out of all the possible words and grammatical markers that might have been “developed”. In both cases, these processes are, of course, largely unconscious. And the time of these “processes” is not horizontal and chronological, it is vertical and synchronic.10 But in the potential consciousness of these unconscious processes is to be dis-covered, according to McLuhan, the possibility of a new science and, with it, the resulting possibility of exoteric orientation — one no longer esoteric via willful insistence.11

In the unpublished Typhon in America,12 dating from this same 1947-1948 period, having quoted Pope how “Universal Darkness buries All”,13 McLuhan concludes his manuscript with this admonition:

In this darkness we must learn to see.

Similarly in The Gutenberg Galaxy, 15 years later, having cited the same passage from Pope, he then immediately concludes:

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

Another decade later still, at the end of Take Today (297):

For the best part of a century, we have been programming human consciousness with retrievals and replays of the tribal unconscious. The complementary of this process would seem to be the natural program for the period ahead: programming the unconscious with the recently achieved forms of consciousness. This procedure would evoke a new form of consciousness.

In his Playboy Interview McLuhan spoke in the same way of the need “to grope toward a consciousness of the unconscious”. This “new form of consciousness” would serve, as he said in the same interview, for a “survival strategy”.

 

  1. Other contexts implicated in the document include McLuhan’s relations with Kenner and Fr Gerald Phelan and McLuhan’s Thomism. Of course all these different aspects are closely related with one another.
  2. “For many years, until I wrote my first book, The Mechanical Bride (published in 1951, but largely written by 1948), I adopted an extremely moralistic approach (…) But gradually I perceived how sterile and useless this attitude was (…) I ceased being a moralist and became a student.” (Playboy interview, 1969)
  3. McLuhan to Walter Ong, Jan 23, 1953, Letters, 234: “After 5 years of miserable health I am suddenly recovered and full of energy again.”
  4. Indicating a continuity in McLuhan’s concerns, his first published paper from 1936, more than a decade before his Introduction to Kenner’s book, emphasized Chesterton’s commitment to “the practical order” in its title: ‘G.K. Chesterton: A Practical Mystic’.
  5. See Through the vanishing point 2 – Shakespeare.
  6. Omitted by McLuhan here:
    And therefore is the glorious planet Sol
    In noble eminence enthroned and sphered
    Amidst the other; whose medicinable eye
    Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil,
    And posts like the commandment of a king,
    Sans check to good and bad: but when the planets
    In evil mixture to disorder wander,
    What plagues and what portents, what mutiny,
    What raging of the sea, shaking of earth,
    Commotion in the winds, frights, changes, horrors,
    Divert and crack, rend and deracinate
    The unity and married calm of states
    Quite from their fixture!
  7. McLuhan includes the following lines here:
    Degrees in schools, and brotherhoods in cities,
    Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
    The primogenitive and due of birth,
    Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels.
  8. Here McLuhan strangely omits the great lines from Shakespeare:
    And hark what discord follows! Each thing melts
    In mere oppugnancy.
    When he cited the same passage again in The Gutenberg Galaxy, these lines were retained and, indeed, emphasized.
  9. See note 11 below.
  10. See McLuhan’s times.
  11. Here is Joyce in his 6 March, 1901, letter to Ibsen: “how your battles inspired me — not the obvious material battles but those that were fought and won behind your forehead, how your wilful resolution to wrest the secret from life gave me heart” (Dublin’s Joyce, 74). Such “wilful resolution” is where both Joyce and McLuhan came from. (Kenner has ‘wilful’ in his citation of the letter, but other transcriptions have ‘willful’.)
  12. See Typhon/Minotaur/Dionysus parallels.
  13. McLuhan cites the same passage from Pope’s 1725 Dunciad in Typhon in America and in The Gutenberg Galaxy:
    She comes! she comes! the sable Throne behold
    Of Night Primaeval, and of Chaos old!
    Before her, Fancy’s gilded clouds decay,
    And all its varying Rain-bows die away.
    Wit shoots in vain its momentary fires,
    The meteor drops, and in a flash expires.
    As one by one, at dread Medea’s strain,
    The sick’ning stars fade off th’ethereal plain;
    As Argus’ eyes by Hermes’ wand opprest,
    Clos’d one by one to everlasting rest;
    Thus at her felt approach, and secret might,
    Art after Art goes out, and all is Night.
    See skulking Truth to her old Cavern fled,
    While the Great Mother bids Britannia sleep,
    And pours her Spirit o’er the Land and Deep.
    She comes! she comes! The Gloom rolls on,
    Mountains of Casuistry heap’d o’er her head!
    Philosophy, that lean’d on Heav’n before,
    Shrinks to her second cause, and is no more.
    Physic of Metaphysic begs defence,
    And Metaphysic calls for aid on Sense!
    See Mystery to Mathematics fly!
    In vain! they gaze, turn giddy, rave, and die.
    Religion blushing veils her sacred fires,
    And unawares Morality expires.
    Nor public Flame, nor private, dares to shine;
    Nor human Spark is left, nor Glimpse divine!
    Lo! thy dread Empire, CHAOS! is restor’d;
    Light dies before thy uncreating word:
    Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
    And Universal Darkness buries All.

McLuhan and Kenner (Dublin’s Joyce, chap 5)

Kenner’s chapter 5 treats Dubliners and does so mostly through textual commentary.

The human cogs and levers of the story [‘Counterparts’] whirr and jerk as the rebuke administered by the employer passes through them and emerges at the other end as the flailing of a cane on the thighs of a small boy. (Dublin’s Joyce57)

In 1968 McLuhan wrote a review of Erich Fromm, The Revolution of Hope: Toward a Humanized Technology (Book World, November 10, 1968). It was titled, ‘Noble Purpose but to What End?’ But the original title of McLuhan’s review, perhaps rejected by Book World, seems to have been: ‘Ye Shall Be As Cogs’.

Its1 layers of meaning are numerous. It is the paralysis of the City, at one level; the rhythm of the Dubliners’ lives rises to no festivity and is sustained by no community; (…) It is the paralysis of the person, at another level, though it is seldom evident that these persons are so circumstanced that they might have chosen differently. But at the most important level it is metaphysical…

McLuhan reverted to “layers of meaning” over and over again his work — see Multi-levels of simultaneous presentation.

But at the most important level it is metaphysical: the Exiles are exiled from the garden, and the key to their plight, as Finnegans Wake brings forward, is the Fall. (…) As the Rev. Walter Ong has written (…) “the great fiction of the West: the self-possessed man in the self-possessed world, the fiction which seeks to erase all sense of plight, of confusing weakness, from man’s consciousness, and which above all will never admit such a sense as a principle of operation.”2 (…) It is precisely this fiction of self-containment that Joyce defines in successively more elaborate images, from Mr Duffy’s careful control over every detail of life through the tightly-bounded ethical world of Exiles and Stephen’s “All or not at all” to HCE’s solipsistic nightmare. What beats against all these people is the evidence of otherness3…. (Dublin’s Joyce, 59-60)

Shared insight into some such vision of the Fall may have been one of the commonalities that drew McLuhan and Kenner closely together for 5 Years or so after they met in 1946. In the 30 years remaining to McLuhan’s life, they would never be close again. McLuhan thought Kenner used many of his ideas without attribution and, worse, without entirely understanding them. This grated in multiple ways especially given Kenner’s increasing influence as a critic which rapidly outpaced McLuhan’s. But McLuhan’s deepest disappointment was surely that Kenner might have been that colleague through whom collective work on a ‘new science’ could have begun — but didn’t. And this was no question of academic reputation but one of the greatest possible practical significance:

Today with the revelation of the poetic process which is involved in ordinary cognition we stand on a very different threshold4 from that wherein Machiavelli stood. His was a door into negation and human weakness. Ours is the door to the positive powers of the human spirit in its natural creativity. This door opens on to psychic powers comparable to the physical powers made available via nuclear fission and fusion. Through this door men have seen a possible path to the totalitarian remaking of human nature. Machiavelli showed us the way to a new circle of the Inferno. Knowledge of the creative process in art, science, and cognition shows us the way either to the earthly paradise or to complete madness. It is to be either the top of Mount Purgatory or the abyss. (Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters, 1954)

Walter Ong, SJ, was one of McLuhan’s students In the early 1940s at St Louis University and a good friend. Ong’s work and perhaps Ong himself would have been introduced to Kenner by McLuhan. Quoting Ong concerning self-possession as a “principle of operation” (McLuhan’s ‘technical means’ or ‘medium’) may be taken as a disguised acknowledgement of McLuhan’s contribution to Dublin’s Joyce beyond what Kenner openly avows:

Dr. H. M. McLuhan of the University of Toronto has permitted me free use of his unpublished History of the Trivium, on which my thirteenth chapter depends heavily, and afforded the continual stimulus of letters and conversation. (Dublin’s Joyce, vii)5

McLuhan and Ong (and others at SLU) would long have discussed the “fiction of self-containment” of human beings, indeed of being itself. This is the deep background to the subtitle of the 1964 Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. ‘The Extensions of Man’ is a dual genitive, but it is first of all an objective genitive. Humankind in all the myriad forms of its expression is the product or effect of media extensions beginning with language itself. Considered as a subjective genitive, in contrast, where extensions would belong to humans, ‘The Extensions of Man‘ define “the great fiction of the West: the self-possessed man in the self-possessed world” — the Fall itself. The unprecedented dangers of modernity derive from this confusion between genitives, which is equally a confused inversion between figure and ground. The figure of humankind arrogates itself to ground and consigns to figure and terrible use that very extension through which it is.

Kenner brings out the point through Joyce’s implied contrast of Dubliners at Mass with Dante’s vision in the last canto of the Com-media:

The gentlemen sat in the benches, having hitched their trousers slightly above their knees and laid their hats in security. They sat well back and gazed formally at the distant speck of red light which was suspended before the high altar. D219/195
O abbondante grazia, ond’ io presunsi
ficcar lo viso per la luce eterna
tanto che la veduta vi consunsi!6 (Dublin’s Joyce, 62)

Whereas “the gentlemen (…) gazed formally at the distant speck”, consuming it within the form of their gaze, hence its distance, Dante’s gaze is itself taken up by “la luce eterna” — “la forma universal”.

 

  1. Kenner seems to be referring to Joyce’s work in general here, but particularly to ‘A Painful Case’ in Dubliners.
  2. Walter Ong, SJ, ‘Kafka’s Castle in the West’, Thought, September 1947, 439-460.
  3. Kenner elaborates: “Man so constituted (…) cannot afford to give, since giving recognizes the fact of otherness, of a portion of being neither susceptible to his control nor violable to his gaze; this works out alike between man and man, and between man and God” (Dublin’s Joyce, 60).
  4. The threshold is the same but the access it gives is to 2 fundamentally different ways. The Machiavelli way was one of fission. The other way of “the positive powers of the human spirit in its natural creativity”, one of fusion.
  5. Some of this acknowledgement is repeated later in the book: “The documentation behind this exceedingly compressed account (of ‘The Trivium in Dublin’) was collected by Prof. H. M. McLuhan in his unpublished History of the Trivium, which he has generously placed at my disposal. (Dublin’s Joyce, 223n) McLuhan’s actual contribution to Kenner’s life (such as his job for 2 years at Assumption College taking McLuhan’s place, or his PhD work at Yale which McLuhan arranged through his close friend, Cleanth Brooks) and thought was much greater than this. And his potential contribution greater yet.
  6. Dante’s vision is given by Kenner, but only (only!) implied by Joyce.

McLuhan and Kenner (Dublin’s Joyce, chap 4)

Chapter 4 of Hugh Kenner’s Dublin’s Joyce is named ‘Dedalus Abolished’ and the whole first section of the book, chapters 1-7, is titled ‘Icarus’ after Daedalus’ son.1 McLuhan’s unpublished book-length typescript, Typhon in America, dating to 1947-1948, has this style of chapter headings from Bacon’s 1609 Wisdom of the Ancients, and its first two books (of three) have titles from the Daedalus-Minotaur cycle.2 There can be little question that Kenner took this manner of naming, not to say the topic itself, from McLuhan.

One of the epigraphs for Kenner’s chapter is from FW 344:

his face glows green, his hair greys white, his bleyes bcome broon to suite his cultic twalette (Dublin’s Joyce, 1955, 36)

McLuhan would later cite Joyce’s “cultic twalette” over and over again as a kind of Leitmotif for a Celtic style of Romantic ‘integrity’, Kenner’s “lyrical dream” (39).3 Kenner in the late 1940s was doubtless responsible for turning McLuhan to Joyce, or back to Joyce, at a time when he, McLuhan, was wrestling also with a whole series of other new interests: Harold Innis, Eric Havelock, the epyllion, Mallarmé, cybernetics, Giedion’s Mechanism Takes Command, Pound (again through, or at least with, Kenner), Eisenstein — and so on. By 1951, when he turned 40, he would emerge from this multiple confrontation a new man, a “student” rather than a “moralist”:4

For many years, until I wrote my first book, The Mechanical Bride [published in 1951, but largely written by 1948], I adopted an extremely moralistic approach (…) But gradually I perceived how sterile and useless this attitude was (…) I ceased being a moralist and became a student. (Playboy interview)

Compare, as broached below, the time of what Kenner calls Joyce’s “pain of depersonalization”, his “maturation” as “dissociation”.

After its epigraphs, Kenner’s chapter begins with a number of passages taken from Yeats’ The Tables of the Law from 1896.5 The first of these passages has:

I shall create a world where the whole lives of men shall be articulated and simplified as if seventy years were but one moment, or as if they were the leaping of a fish or the opening of a flower.6 (Dublin’s Joyce36)

This passage captures, and must indeed have helped to suggest, McLuhan’s notion of the momentary genesis of human experience as “articulated” artifact and effect. The idea is that every moment of human being (verbal, not nominal) is generated through a confrontation with the full range of the “potencies”7 of that being8 — a range which McLuhan found formulated in Yeats’ 1903 Emotion of Multitude as the background chorus in Greek tragedy “which called up famous sorrows, even all the gods and all heroes”. This is Saussure’s synchronic genesis of the diachronic expression of language, but applied to experience conceived as artifact (hence McLuhan’s interest in technology) and effect (ex-facere). Furthermore, these potencies are characterized as dynamic — ex — as captured in Yeats’ “leaping of a fish or the opening of a flower”.9 Thus conceived, “potencies” inherently ‘extend’ themselves such that experience comes from them (McLuhan’s “light through”) as the exfoliation of resulting effect, not (or at least not first of all) potencies through experience (McLuhan’s “light on”) as their purported occasion.

A further epigraph in Kenner’s chapter from Yeats’ Tables has the following:

Just as poets and painters and musicians labour at their works, building them with lawless and lawful things alike (…) these children of the Holy Spirit labour at their moments10 with eyes11 upon the shining [“light through”] substance on which Time12 has heaped the refuse of creation… (Dublin’s Joyce36)

Exactly as described by Yeats, McLuhan’s second conversion from “moralist” to “student” consisted in the realization that “lawful things” could not be isolated and protected from “lawless” ones through judgmental segregation in the style of F.R. Leavis.13 Hence, instead of the selected assertion of the “moralist”, the whole of the “refuse of creation” called for study by the “student”.14 Again:

For many years, until I wrote my first book, The Mechanical Bride, I adopted an extremely moralistic approach (…) But gradually I perceived how sterile and useless this attitude was (…) I ceased being a moralist and became a student. (Playboy interview)

On the one hand, this served to detach McLuhan from a strain of Catholicism that tends to gnosticism and that implicates a loss of divine power and providence through the apparently mistaken act of creation. On the other hand, as McLuhan may or may not have been aware,15 this amounted to a recovery of Hegel’s great point in the Preface to the 1807 Phenomenology:

Das Verschwindende16 ist vielmehr selbst als wesentlich zu betrachten, nicht in der Bestimmung eines Festen, das vom Wahren abgeschnitten, außer ihm, man weiß nicht wo, liegenzulassen sei, sowie auch das Wahre nicht als das auf der andern Seite ruhende, tote Positive. Die Erscheinung ist das Entstehen und Vergehen, das selbst nicht entsteht und vergeht, sondern an sich ist, und die Wirklichkeit und Bewegung des Lebens der Wahrheit ausmacht. Das Wahre ist so der bacchantische Taumel, an dem kein Glied nicht trunken ist… (Phänomenologie des Geistes, Vorrede, 1807)

The demand is to consider all experience as a ‘student”, not some selected supposedly standard experience as a “moralist”. And Kenner’s chapter goes on from this point to consider “multitude” in both Yeats and Joyce — without, however considering, or even broaching anywhere in his book, Yeats’ 1903 Emotion of Multitude.

“No man”, [Joyce] began, quoting the outcast Giordano Bruno, “can be a lover of the true or the good unless he abhors the multitude.” Abhorring the multitude, Yeats had done the finest Irish writing of Joyce’s time.17 (Dublin’s Joyce38)

But Kenner himself shows how Yeats, already five years before,18 far from simply “abhorring the multitude”, had offered a more complex slant:

Let the starry winds and the flame and the flood
Cover over and hide, for he has no part
With the lonely majestical multitude.
(To His Heart, Bidding It Have No Fear)

As Kenner justly comments:

it is the concluding couplet that turns the screw. Yeats’ “Lonely majestical multitude” manages to blunt lonely by multitude and turn flame, flood, and the winds of space from terrors to glories with majestical.  (Dublin’s Joyce41)

What Yeats had done, and what Joyce had yet to learn at that time when he was not yet twenty, was to expose the questionability of “multitude”. Such abysmal questions are forever implicated in it such as those raised in Kenner’s chapter 3 regarding “the first formal relationship among parts and whole”, P241/234 and “the first entelechy”, U425/413. For every individual is always already a part of a whole multitude, or a whole multitude of multitudes, and, beyond that, it is not clear just what multitude, or multitudes, should be acknowledged to embrace. In this way, a universal questionability descends on all things (“flame, flood, and the winds”) and it becomes uncertain how to start or who it is that might start:

It is a worthwhile guess that the writing-out of Stephen Hero was the crucially cathartic labour of [Joyce’s] life. The pain of depersonalization was undergone then once and for all. (Dublin’s Joyce44)

Kenner calls this period Joyce’s “time of maturation” and, in the same paragraph, “time of dissociation”. What he saw, it seems, even or especially in regard to his own “integrity”, was that a finitizing and hence pluralizing

snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling (…) faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead. D288/256

the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling. D287/255

There was something prior and in-between to all that could ever be said, or ever be, definitively pluralizing and relativizing it. It was “general all over Ireland” and to “all the living and the dead”. In fact, “it was falling (…) faintly through the universe” as a whole as its “first entelechy” and “last end”. 

Die Erscheinung ist das Entstehen und Vergehen, das selbst nicht entsteht und vergeht, sondern an sich ist, und die Wirklichkeit und Bewegung des Lebens der Wahrheit ausmacht.  

Hence, as Kenner’s chapter concludes, “the infinite number of ways of saying anything” (44/45) and the implicated call for “the uncompromising craftsman” (44).

  1. Joyce’s spelling of ‘Dedalus’ intentionally varied from the accepted one in English of ‘Daedalus’. McLuhan saw ‘dead are us’ in this, tying Ulysses to the last story in Dubliners, ‘The Dead’. Similarly with Kenner: “In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Joyce) excised the diphthong from the hero’s surname so that Dedalus chimed with ‘dead’.” (38) This seems more like a McLuhan idea than a Kenner one and therefore a further appearance of McLuhan in Kenner’s book.
  2. For discussion, see Typhon/Minotaur/Dionysus parallels.
  3. See McLuhan and Kenner (Dublin’s Joyce, chap 2), note 6, for further on ‘integrity’ in this context.
  4. The general importance of this ‘second conversion’ in relation to Kenner’s work on Joyce is discussed in McLuhan and Kenner (Dublin’s Joyce, chap 1).
  5. The Tables of the Law first appeared in issue 5:7 of The SavoyIn a typical McLuhan turn of phrase, ‘Tables of the Law’ became ‘fables of the law’: “the Mosaic fables of the law” (James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial’,1953).
  6. The Tables of the Law.
  7. “Potencies” is from McLuhan’s long 1951 letter to Harold Innis. Other terms used by McLuhan for these synchronic powers of formation include “archetype” and, all importantly, “medium”. The full range: Yeats’ “the whole lives of men”, “seventy years”.
  8. “Potencies of that being” is a dual genitive, but is first or all a subjective genitive: the multifold forms of human being are the objectivized (thrown forth) effects of a process through which the spectrum of possibilities is, in Yeats’ terms, “articulated and simplified”. The German Auseinandersetzung captures the required abysmal action of confrontation and sorting that is (ids!) at stake here. Regarding ‘ids’, in a letter to Archie Malloch from February 24, 1950, McLuhan writes: “Somewhere a vice is calling.  Once you begin reading F Wake you get into this mood e.g. Flying Sorcerers and a muddle of clearness etc. (…) Very finny (submarine).”
  9. Further on dynamism in McLuhan: The representative ferment.
  10. “Labour at their moments”! The momentary genesis of human experience is broached above.
  11. Whose eyes are these from whose observations our experience and its eyes derive as artifacts and effects?
  12. Time is both vertical and horizontal here. The vertical time of the “shining substance” of the potencies underlies what is “heaped” upon them through their inherent up-thrust, “lawless and lawful things alike”, “the refuse of creation”.
  13. Such dualistic cleavage as between the lawless and lawful McLuhan would come to see as typical of the Gutenberg galaxy (as described in his 1962 book of that name).
  14. McLuhan would later often cite Yeats’ “foul rag and bone shop of the heart” in this context.
  15. McLuhan’s two early mentors at the University of Manitoba, Henry Wright and Rupert Lodge, were ‘Hegelian’ enough that both were contributors to John Watson’s 50-year anniversary volume, Philosophical Essays Presented to John Watson. And McLuhan’s longtime colleague at St Michael’s College, University of Toronto, Etienne Gilson, was decisively influenced by Hegel in his readings of Augustine and Thomas. In McLuhan’s 1943 PhD thesis, Gilson is the single most referenced source.
  16. Das Verschwindende’ names the inability of any finite order to establish itself in itself (an sich), the inevitability of any finite order to ‘disappear’. And this is particularly true, of course, of any order or claim that is demonstrably false. The great question posed by Hegel is therefore how to conceive of what is fleeting and even false as essential. A clue to the answer may be seen in chemistry where any and all physical materials and reactions are subject to elementary or ‘essential’ analysis. Compare Joyce in Stephen Hero: “The artist who could disentangle the subtle soul of the image from its mesh of defining circumstances most exactly and re-embody it in artistic circumstances chosen as the most exact for its new office, he was the supreme artist.” S78/65. (Dublin’s Joyce49)
  17. The Joyce citation is from The Day of the Rabblement (1901).
  18. Five years before: in the 1896 To His Heart, Bidding It Have No Fear.

McLuhan and Kenner (Dublin’s Joyce, chap 3)

their aqueous emotional element the humming denizens took for granted, (…) as men take air for granted.1 (Dublin’s Joyce27-28)

He made a careful distinction between lilting gestures of embellishment and the rhythms which imitate those discernible in the subject, S184/163, “the first formal relationship among parts and whole”, P241/234, “the first entelechy”, U425/413 2 (Dublin’s Joyce29)

Whether in fact or in artifact,3 a thing exists first as a set of relations, then [second] when matter joins proportion, or words join rhythm, as a set of articulate [cognate with ‘artifact’] relations.4 (Dublin’s Joyce29)

Controlled rhythms afford a continuous matrix to contain what drops through the sieve of discursive denotations.5 Hence it is always with rhythms, arranged relationships, that artistic imitation begins. Like Flaubert, Joyce always conceives the prose paragraph as a rhythmic unit; it is the component of “absolute rhythm” that explains why so much of Finnegans Wake communicates, when read aloud, before being understood. (Dublin’s Joyce29)

A metaphoric perception (“Votre âme est un paysage choisi . . .” [Verlaine]) is raised to intelligibility (Joyce’s term was “epiphanized”) by articulation of images whose relevance the poet does not need to justify. (Dublin’s Joyce30)

In the emergence of the “meaning” (…) we may discern the “luminous silent stasis of esthetic pleasure” of which Joyce makes Stephen speak: “the instant wherein that supreme quality of beauty, the clear radiance of the esthetic image, is apprehended luminously by the mind which has been arrested by its wholeness and fascinated by its harmony is the luminous silent stasis of esthetic pleasure.6 P250/242 (Dublin’s Joyce30)

Verlaine discovered, or rediscovered, how to make a mode of passion emerge illuminated without employing the images as mere steps in an argument, and with an action, a progression d’effet, that parallels the movement of the mind penetrating — not playing checkers with — the données.7 (Dublin’s Joyce30

Here is the programme of “double-writing”: the received expression used “a little ironically”.8 (Dublin’s Joyce34)

the poem (…) is the first example (…) of the double-writing that is characteristically Joyce’s. To turn “Love in ancient plenilune” into the dream of a “sweet sentimentalist” with (…) poised equivocalness of feeling…  (Dublin’s Joyce35)

 

  1. ‘The humming denizens’ are the Dubliners constantly at their singing. The first words of this chapter are: “Joyce’s Dublin submerged itself in song”. (Augustine: ‘once sung, twice said’.) As was already to be found in the presocratics, the ontological background, on the basis of which all things first of all are, may be thought of as primordial ‘water’ or primordial ‘air’. It is what is always already there enabling both factual things and our artifactual hold on things.
  2. The question, as always, concerns the reality of finite things and the reality of their relation to non-finite things — along with the question of how such matters are to be thought, articulated and communicated.
  3. “Whether in fact or in artifact”: fact is the subject matter of ‘old science’, arti-fact the subject matter of ‘new science’.
  4. “A thing exists first as a set of relations” — this is what Kenner indicated with “the intelligible order (of things) with which (mind) copulates”. “Then when matter joins proportion or words join rhythm, as a set of articulate relations” — this is Kenner’s “intellected order”. (Citations are from Dublin’s Joyce19-20.) McLuhan, 17 years later, in Take Today (3): “the ‘meaning of meaning’ is relationship”.
  5. “What drops through the sieve of discursive denotations” is the gap or medium between them. It works to hold them in being only when it itself is held in being by a prior gap or medium in the ground of things.
  6. Italics added. The “instant” of “arrest” in poetry became very important for McLuhan around 1950 (see “Arrest in time” in McLuhan) and then became the central difference for him between fact and artifact. What characterizes every artifact was the ‘technical means’ or medium of the structural construction displayed in it moment to moment to moment — like frames in film. Hence ‘understanding media’ was the key to a specification of such moments and therefore of all ‘artifacts’ — just as an understanding of the elements was the key to the specification and investigation of physical materials as ‘facts’.
  7. Progression d’effet — compare McLuhan to Skornia: “Media are ‘ideas’ in action” (June 5, 1959).
  8. Double-writing is an artifact considering artifacts; a gapped technique considering gapped techniques “a little ironically”.

McLuhan and Kenner (Dublin’s Joyce, chap 2)

Continuing a reading of Hugh Kenner’s Dublin’s Joyce as background to McLuhan’s second conversion from “moralist” to “student”:

“Coition”, as Joyce is exploiting it in these pages, is the basic Aristotelian and Aquinatian metaphor for the intercourse between the mind and things. It was a classroom commonplace of his Jesuit schooling that the phantasm gathered by the senses fertilizes the active intellect,1 and a concept is generated and flung in affirmation out into existence. The word “conception” unites biology and epistemology. We start with sensory beguilements, whether in begetting or in cognizing; we end with an articulated concept, a begotten Logos, word; an affirmation that this or that exists: is, is irreducibly there, ineluctable. Things are before we know them, that is the first condition; they doubly are after they are known, that is the second. The mind is nourished and impregnated by things, the mind affirms the existence of things, the mind by thousands of successive acts of conception generates an intellected order (…) in (…) analogy [with] the intelligible order [of things] with which it copulates.2 (…) The verb “to be” is a copula in every sense. (…) Words flourish in the soil of known things. (Dublin’s Joyce, 1955, 19-20)

The abstraction and circumlocution of the language derives from the fact that not a mind in the [Dublin][ assemblage is in contact with any but a sort of spectral colloquial reality. Their meeting-ground is the idée reçue.3 (Dublin’s Joyce, 1955, 21)

If we want an English analogue for Joyce, it is Pope; their orientations and procedures are surprisingly similar. Pope is conscious of intellectual traditions running back through St. Augustine to Cicero and Homer; and the universal darkness that he predicted at the end of the Dunciad fell exactly as he foretold; the mind of Europe entered the Romantic night-world.4 (Dublin’s Joyce, 1955, 23)

“under sleep, where all the waters meet”: Stephen’s two fathers during song for an instant one.5 (Dublin’s Joyce, 1955, 25)

Since nostalgia is the sole comprehensive emotion now, integrity beckons to death.6 (Dublin’s Joyce, 1955, 25)

  1. A memorial volume for John Watson‘s 50th anniversary at Queen’s was published in 1923, Philosophical Essays Presented to John Watson. Two of its 13 contributors were McLuhan’s early mentors at the University of Manitoba, Henry Wright and Rupert Lodge. Another contributor to the volume was Henry Carr (1880-1963), then the superior of St Michael’s College, later the founding president of the Institute of Medieval Studies there in 1929, and the person most responsible for bringing Etienne Gilson to Canada and the Institute. McLuhan was, of course, to teach at St Michael’s for 35 years starting two decades later in 1946 and Hugh Kenner would be a student there for his MA, finishing in 1946. The two would be brought together by Fr Gerald Phelan who was the outgoing President of what was now the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies. Carr’s contribution to the Watson memorial volume was titled ‘The Function of the Phantasm in St Thomas Aquinas’. A great many lines crossed at this juncture — Thomas, Aristotle and Joyce, then Watson (Hegel), Wright, Lodge (Plato) and Carr, along with McLuhan and Kenner. It was a key nodal point in Canadian intellectual history — one that could not possibly be less researched than it is.
  2. Italics added. Kenner has “the mind by thousands of successive acts of conception generates an intellected order in more or less exact analogy of the intelligible order with which it copulates”. As usual with writing that does not quite come off, Kenner is trying to say too much here. “Analogy of the intelligible order” (rather than ‘with’ or ‘to’ the intelligible order) wants to make the additional (admittedly highly important) point that “the intelligible order” supplies not only the ground and model for our “intellected order”, but also the possibility of correlation (however imperfect) between the two.
  3. Both ‘their meeting-ground’ and ‘the idée reçue‘ are ambiguous. On the one hand, they lack real “contact with (…) reality”; on the other hand, they are “a distortion, but a distortion of something real” (11). The very existence of such a “meeting-ground” (a good definition of language) and ‘idée reçue‘ (ditto) is marvelous and thought-provoking.
  4. McLuhan ended his unpublished Typhon in America from the late 1940s (probably 1947-1948)  — just as he would conclude the major portion of the Gutenberg Galaxy more than a decade later — with the same extended quotation from Pope’s 1725 Dunciad:
    She comes! she comes! the sable Throne behold

    Of Night Primaeval, and of Chaos old!
    Before her, Fancy’s gilded clouds decay,
    And all its varying Rain-bows die away.
    Wit shoots in vain its momentary fires,
    The meteor drops, and in a flash expires.
    As one by one, at dread Medea’s strain,
    The sick’ning stars fade off th’ethereal plain;
    As Argus’ eyes by Hermes’ wand opprest,
    Clos’d one by one to everlasting rest;
    Thus at her felt approach, and secret might,
    Art after Art goes out, and all is Night.
    See skulking Truth to her old Cavern fled,
    While the Great Mother bids Britannia sleep,
    And pours her Spirit o’er the Land and Deep.
    She comes! she comes! The Gloom rolls on,
    Mountains of Casuistry heap’d o’er her head!
    Philosophy, that lean’d on Heav’n before,
    Shrinks to her second cause, and is no more.
    Physic of Metaphysic begs defence,
    And Metaphysic calls for aid on Sense!
    See Mystery to Mathematics fly!
    In vain! they gaze, turn giddy, rave, and die.
    Religion blushing veils her sacred fires,
    And unawares Morality expires.
    Nor public Flame, nor private, dares to shine;
    Nor human Spark is left, nor Glimpse divine!
    Lo! thy dread Empire, CHAOS! is restor’d;
    Light dies before thy uncreating word:
    Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
    And Universal Darkness buries All.
    The Gutenberg Galaxy then immediately concludes: “This is the Night from which Joyce invites the Finnegans to wake.” Typhon in America, 15 years before The Gutenberg Galaxy, at a time when McLuhan and Kenner were in intense communication, similarly: “In this darkness we must learn to see.”
    McLuhan often complained that Kenner was loose with his credits for points which he, McLuhan, had shared with him in unpublished work and in conversation and letters. The Dunciad passage may be a major exhibit in this general case.
  5. The feminine matrix of the unconscious harbors all the masculine (extending, re-presenting) forms of possible experience. It might be said that this is the one subject of all icons, with their gold background, and the theotokos who re-presents that background, serving to bring forth mostly male divinities, angels and saints. The great question at stake in this topic is the lost relation between between finite insight and universal truth and how, or if, this might be regained.
  6. Modern ontologies have been unable to preserve “the gap where the action is” which alone can valorize and protect plurality at any level — ontological, international, social, familial, individual. Integrity has seemed possible only by a collapse into One. A complex integrity has proved inconceivable.
    In the same year that Dublin’s Joyce was published, 1955, McLuhan reviewed Kenner’s 1954 book, Wyndham Lewis. ‘Integrity’ is said by McLuhan to be at the heart of Lewis’ work: “it is precisely the courage of Lewis in pushing the Cartesian and Plotinian angelism to the logical point of the extinction of humanism and personality that gives his work such importance in the new age of technology. For, on the plane of applied science we have fashioned a Plotinian world-culture which implements the non-human and superhuman doctrines of neo-Platonic angelism to the point where the human dimension is obliterated by (the dominance of) sensuality at one end of the spectrum, and by (the dominance of) sheer abstraction at the other. (…) 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)

McLuhan and Kenner (Dublin’s Joyce, chap 1)

Joyce (…) focussed (…) on what was actually there, and strove so to set it down that it would reveal itself as what it was, in its double nature: a distortion, but a distortion of something real. (Dublin’s Joyce, 1955, 11)

“Distortion, but (…) distortion of something real” is what McLuhan opposed to ‘matching’ as ‘making’. This complex doublin’ — “distortion of something real” — is the great question at stake in all of Joyce’s tales of the ‘Dubliners’. But did Kenner get this fundamental insight from McLuhan, or McLuhan from Kenner, or both from Father Gerald Phelan — or does any of these alternatives fit the case?

McLuhan was already familiar with what he called Kenner’s ‘book on Joyce’ in 1947. This book was then rewritten multiple times until it appeared almost a decade later as Dublin’s Joyce in 1955. One of its manifestations in the meantime was James Joyce: Critique in Progress, Kenner’s 1950 Yale PhD thesis.1 At some point, the various stages of this book need to be collected2 (so far as they still exist), their progressive innovations specified, and these compared to McLuhan’s ongoing contemporaneous work with its innovations. Importantly, the years of the book’s metamorphoses overlapped with McLuhan’s ‘second conversion’ from “moralist” to “student”.3 It is this conversion that the world desperately needs to understand if it is ever to wake from its suicidal woke.4

Further commonalities between the 2 (McLuhan and Kenner) — or 3 (with Phelan):

So the usual criterion of style, that it disappear like glass before the reality of the subject, doesn’t apply to [Joyce’s] pages.5 (Dublin’s Joyce, 1955, 12)

Paul Valery tells us how “a literary langue mandarine is derived from popular speech, from which it takes the words, figures, and ‘turns’ most suitable for the effects the artist seeks”…6  (Dublin’s Joyce, 1955, 13)

educed order from Babel7 (Dublin’s Joyce, 1955, 14)

“It was revealed to me that those things are good which yet are corrupted which neither if they were supremely good nor unless they were good could be corrupted.” U140/132 (Dublin’s Joyce, 1955, 15)

the faded eloquence (…) illustrates the decorums of the whole book, an articulation of the city of the dead.8 (Dublin’s Joyce, 1955, 16)

He started always from the material nearest to hand. He was interested in bad operas because they contained all the dramatic components listed by Aristotle, still held in some sort of classical balance…  (Dublin’s Joyce, 1955, 16)

He was interested in advertising and journalism because they both were and were not aligned with classical rhetoric. He was interested in Leopold Bloom because nothing was in that philosopher’s intellect that had not first been in his senses, though not exactly as St. Thomas stipulated. (Dublin’s Joyce, 1955, 17)

“Methought as I was dropping asleep somepart in nonland of where’s please (and it was when you and they were we)”9 FW 403 (Dublin’s Joyce, 1955, 17)

we are not for a moment tempted to suppose that we ought to be seeing a subject through a style; what is on the page is quite frankly the subject. The subject is “style” and what style implies.10 (Dublin’s Joyce, 1955, 17)

 

  1. From Kenner’s ‘Acknowledgements’: “Earlier versions of parts of this book have appeared in James Joyce : Two Decades of Criticism (Vanguard Press, 1948), Hudson Review, Kenyon Review, Sewanee Review, Essays in Criticism, Shenandoah, and English Institute Essays 1952 (Columbia University Press); I am grateful to the editors concerned for permission to reprint. An early draft of the entire book was written in 1950 as a Yale doctoral thesis, under the guidance of Cleanth Brooks. Though the work has been completely rewritten since then, the effect of his patient counsel has not been obliterated.” (Dublin’s Joyce, 1955, viii)
  2. Eg: ‘The Portrait in Perspective’, Kenyon Review, 10:3, 1948 (reprinted in James Joyce : Two Decades of Criticism, 1948); ‘A Communication’, Hudson Review, 3:1, 1950; James Joyce: Critique in Progress, 1950 Yale PhD thesis; ‘Joyce and Ibsen’s Naturalism’, Sewanee Review, 59:1,1951; ‘Joyce’s Ulysses: Homer and Hamlet’, Essays in Criticism, 2:1, 1952; ‘Pound on Joyce’, Shenandoah 3:3, 1952; ‘Joyce’s Exiles‘, Hudson Review, 5:3, 1952; ‘The Trivium in Dublin’, English Institute Essays 1952; ‘Joyce’s Anti-Selves’, Shenandoah, 4:1,1953.
  3. Playboy interview: “For many years, until I wrote my first book, The Mechanical Bride, I adopted an extremely moralistic approach (…) But gradually I perceived how sterile and useless this attitude was (…) I ceased being a moralist and became a student.”
  4. The required conversion is not at all to be understood as something peculiar to McLuhan. As Kenner was well aware, something like such a conversion is the topic of Joyce’s whole oeuvre. In happier and less dangerous ages, it was thought to be the mark of maturity as undergone by most people most of the time in ‘growing up’. The present situation of the world is exactly that children, ages 30 to 90, have their hands on the levers of terrible power.
  5. On ‘style’, see the last passage below from p17 and its note 9.
  6. Typical of McLuhan, he took “the effects the artist seeks” not as ‘effects’ in the audience the artist addresses with her works, not as audience reactions to those works, but as those works themselves, the artist’s productions as ef-fects (ex-facere) in multiple senses (what is made, what is outered, what is secondary to something(s) prior). Taking all human expressions as effects in this way is the key move to McLuhan’s ‘new science’ — just as it was the key move in the genesis of chemistry to begin taking all physical materials — facts — as effects of underlying elements. For arti-facts those underlying elements are media.
  7. The wonderful un-gnostic insight that ‘in order’ to exist at all, Babel, even as the revolt against God, even as linguistic and social chaos, could not be without order (as little as any event in the physical universe can be without order).
  8. Compare McLuhan, ‘T.S. Eliot’s  Historical Decorum’, Renascence II:1, 1949.
  9. The “nonland of (…) when you and they were we” is McLuhan’s ‘unconscious’ out of whose  “potencies” (Innis letter from 3/14/51) all human experience in its myriad forms is born as “effect”.
  10. Kenner’s ‘style’ = McLuhan’s ‘effect’.

Euclid and effect

The study of media begins, not with their uses or their programs, but with their effects. Indeed, the “cause” of any medium is its effects. (McLuhan to Martin Esslin, Sept 23, 1971, Letters 440)1

To arrive at his laws of geometry, Euclid needed to implement the insight formulated by Heinrich Wölfflin 2300 years later: the effect is the thing that counts, not the sensuous facts.2 (Wölfflin, Principles of Art History, 62)

Wölfflin’s dictum was quoted by McLuhan in 1960 in the context of his discovery that “the sensory impression proffered by a medium like movie or radio is3 not the (…) effect obtained”.4

No “sensuous” or factual circle can ground a law like circular circumference = 2πr. Instead, any material circle qua circle is the effect of such laws. Hence the entranceway to a science like geometry is to regard all factual circles as the effects of a formal shape; they take their form to a greater or lesser degree from a perfect circle whose circumference (unlike any material circle) exactly equals 2πr. That formal circle, in turn, must itself be regarded as the effect of mathematical laws like circumference = 2πr. 

But what is the relation of such an ideal mathematical law to the real? McLuhan says that reality does not primarily belong to either side of the ideal/real relation, but to their middle or medium: “the ’cause’ of any medium [= the cause belonging to any medium] is its effects“.5 That is, it belongs to any medium to manifest itself in and as effects.6 Its cause, its motivation, its raison d’etre, its very being — is to extend itself.7 But precisely for that reason, “the study of media begins, not with their uses or their programs, but with their effects.”

To study beginning with effect means to approach a matter (any matter whatsoever) as effect and therefore as inherently intelligible.8 Attention to effect means to regard something (including regard itself) as imperfect — in the sense of never ‘matching’ its cause, of always reaching out from itself — but not for that reason as untrue!

Effect correlates with McLuhan’s ‘making’ as differentiated from ‘matching’ or ‘merging’. Effect preserves difference, but difference as indicative, as suggestive, as meaningful, as intelligible.9

 

  1. Emphasis added. Both genitives in this passage are dual, but first of all they are subjective genitives! That is, ‘the study of media’ and ‘the cause of media’ belong to media like ‘the ball of the boy’. Not — at least not in the first instance — that media are what is studied or what is caused as objective genitives like ‘the punishment of the boy’. The objective genitives here (the study of media and of their causes) are enabled by the subjective genitives (study and causes grounded in media!)
  2. Plato might be read as generalizing Euclid’s insight that all shapes may be regarded as effects. For Plato, not only all shapes but everything without exception may be regarded in this way. But Plato formulated this insight, not after Euclid, following his lead, but a century or so before him!
  3. McLuhan: “was”. See next note.
  4. Project 69: “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. The gap is where the action is.
  6. See The representative ferment.
  7. McLuhan’s distinctive manner of thought was to consider a term like ’cause’ across the range of its meanings and implications. So ’cause’ here is not only an originating impulse with a certain effect or effects, it is also the goal or conviction or value from which one proceeds: one’s cause.
  8. McLuhan in his letter to Esslin (referenced at the head of this post): “One of the advantages of being a Catholic is that it confers a complete intellectual freedom to examine any and all phenomena with the absolute assurance of their intelligibility. Moreover, there is absolute value in intelligibility as such, to say nothing of pleasure and satisfaction.”
  9. See Effect before cause in Gilson for McLuhan’s debt on this topic to his St Michael’s colleague, Etienne Gilson.

Faculty of Interrelation in Toronto

The Giedion World, a 2019 large format book edited by Almut Grunewald, is subtitled ‘Sigfried Giedion and Carola Giedion-Welcker in Dialogue’. It consists of translated correspondence between Sigfried Giedion (SG) and his wife, Carola Welcker (CGW), in selected periods of their 50-year courtship and marriage, with detailed annotation and hundreds of supporting photographs. 

One of the letters, from SG to CGW in November 1955,1 written from Harvard where SG was teaching that fall, describes an earlier note from McLuhan to Giedion as follows:2

The letter from Toronto you forwarded to me was from McLuhan. He asks whether I wouldn’t accept a one-year term as “resident director for a Faculty of Interrelation3 in Toronto with a handsome payment (…)4 and also Mrs Giedion”5 to run the “pilot teacher” thing!6

McLuhan did not have the power to offer such positions himself, of course. But presumably he had run the idea by his friend Claude Bissell, the President of UT, and received permission to send up this trial balloon. Perhaps he had brought Gideon and Bissell together earlier that spring of 1955 when Gideon came to Toronto from Harvard to give a paper in the ‘Communication and Culture’ seminar.7

Giedion did not take up the Toronto offer, but used the occasion of his letter to his wife to rue the fact that it had not come a decade before:

It’s always the same with these 10 years! How happy I would have been ten years ago if my idea had met with so much as a single outlet! The manuscripts have since yellowed. No door, no hearing, not even a single publication anywhere! 

McLuhan had earlier pursued Giedion’s idea of a Faculty of Interrelation with proposals to the University of Chicago,8 to Harold Innis at UT,9 and to the Ford Foundation (which eventuated in the Communication and Culture seminar). From a December 7, 1955 letter from McLuhan to Giedion10 — a month or so after SG’s note to his wife discussed above — it seems that a further proposal to the Ford and Rockefeller foundations may have been made by McLuhan and Carpenter for a UT “Contemporary Institute” (as they seem to have rebaptized a ‘Faculty of Interrelation’ for the foundations) which, they hoped, might have Giedion as at least its titular head:

Carpenter and I are now drafting outlines for Contemporary Institute to submit to Ford and Rockefeller.  It will be necessary in the Ford case to stress the value of such an institute in clarifying educational aims and procedures. We shall be able to add great force to our presentation in having your consent to act as our advisory head.  Would you prefer any particular title?  Director of Studies?  President?  We are eager to devise ways of working with all branches of Radio, TV and Film Board in working out the grammars of the new visual languages of the new media.  Here you have already done so much for us in discovering the language of vision.11

McLuhan’s later (1963) Centre for Culture and Technology was doubtless conceived primarily as a way to keep McLuhan in Toronto in the face of offers from US institutions. But part of its appeal to McLuhan would have derived, as indicated by its name, from his long-standing interest, since 1943, in Giedion’s ‘Faculty of Interrelations’ between the worlds of ‘Culture and Technology’.12 

  1. The Giedion World, 350.
  2. The letter is otherwise unknown. It is not in the Giedion-McLuhan correspondence preserved with the Giedion papers in Zurich.
  3. See Sigfried Giedion — A Faculty of Interrelations.Interrelation’ seems to have been used, by both Giedion and McLuhan, sometimes in the singular and sometimes in the plural. Indeed the term implicates both plurality (as a relation) and singularity (as a recurrent structure).
  4. Giedion interjection here: “$10,000 dollars I assume”. This would be around $115,000 today.
  5. Giedion interjection: “minimum $5000 dollars, I imagine”. This would be around $57,500 today.
  6. A “pilot teacher” program may have been an initiative at the University of Toronto OCE (Ontario College of Education, predecessor of the current OISE) linking teacher training with the arts in some way. CGW would have been well qualified to lead such an initiative since she had been publishing studies in the fine arts and literature since the 1920s. Her 1952 book, Paul Klee, was reviewed by McLuhan in 1953: ‘Giedion-Welcker’s Klee’, Shenandoah 3(1), 77-82.
  7. ‘Space Conception in Prehistoric Art’, seminar presentation from February 23, 1955, which appeared in Explorations 6 in 1956.
  8. See Proposal to Robert Hutchins 1947.
  9. Innis was Dean of Graduate Studies and the Head of the Political Economy Department at the University of Toronto. McLuhan to Innis, March 14, 1951: I think there are lines appearing in (your) Empire and Communications (…) which suggest the possibility of organizing an entire school of studies. (…) It seems obvious to me that Bloor Street (where Innis’ Political Economy Department was located) is the one point in this University where one might establish a focus of the arts and sciences. And the organizing concept would naturally be ‘Communication Theory and Practice’. A simultaneous focus of current and historic forms. Relevance to be given to selection of areas of study by dominant artistic and scientific modes of the particular period.”
  10. In the Giedion papers in Zurich.
  11. Giedion answered McLuhan’s notes  on January 11, 1956: “Many thanks for your letters. (…) As you know, I am since years on the tracks for a faculty of interrelations establishing or trying to establish a common vocabulary, a clarification & comparison of method used in different disciplines. I have full confidence in you and in Carpenter and I will be delighted to be with the party. Yet I have to let you know, that I have in Spring 1957 the Mellon lectures at the National Galleries (…). So that I should know approximately what you expect from me! You know that I did not accept the very tempting offer of the University of Minnesota last year. I found the people very interesting & the sum at their disposal very high (120,000 dollars) but I did not know personally the work of the participants. (…) All good luck to your plans.” Giedion’s message: ‘If you don’t want to have the same experience as the University of Minnesota, let me know in detail what would be expected of me at a time when my main priority must be the Mellon lectures!
  12. The worlds of Culture and Technology — what McLuhan in his 1951 letter to Innis (cited in note 9 above) called “the arts and sciences” and “dominant artistic and scientific modes”.

“Arrest in time” in McLuhan

In 1951 “arrest in time” became a decisive theme in McLuhan’s work that he would continue to investigate for the remaining three decades of his career. Perhaps no other of his myriad ‘discoveries’ was more important for his project.1

Below are some of his “arrest” passages in chronological order. Their take-off point may be seen in McLuhan’s letter to Harold Innis from March 14, 1951:2

One major discovery of the symbolists which had the greatest importance for subsequent investigation was their notion of the learning process as a labyrinth of the senses and faculties whose retracing provided the key to all arts and sciences (…) Retracing becomes in modern historical scholarship the technique of reconstruction.

McLuhan soon saw that the key to such retracing and reconstruction was ‘arrest’. He seems to have come along the way of this insight by considering picturesque poetry as an attempt to effect an arrested “aesthetic moment” and then to have then seen, apparently through Joyce’s Stephen Hero, that such poetic arrest was a replay or retrieval of the arrest that already operates both in every moment of human awareness” (full passage below) and in all language use as a kind of “stuttering”. So conceived, ‘arrest’ implicated a special understanding of space — “the gap where the action is” — and of time — “a moment in and out of time”.3 “This peculiar fusion of the [ordinary] cognitive and the [extraordinary] creative by an act of retracing the stages of apprehension was arrived at by Joyce as a result of the prior discovery [of the importance of] the technique of fission [for] the moment of aesthetic awareness. (…) In art as in physics fission preceded fusion.”4

The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape Poetry, 1951
It was partly to Schopenhauer that the symbolists owed their peculiar insistence on aesthetic experience5 as an arrested moment, a moment in and out of time,6 of intellectual emotion7 for which, in their poems, they sought the art formula by retracing the stages of apprehension which led to this moment.

The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape Poetry, 1951
The aesthetic moment was recognized as an experience of arrest and detachment.8

The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape Poetry, 1951
Helped by Rimbaud and Mallarm
é, Joyce arrived quickly at the formula of the aesthetic moment and its attendant landscape as consisting in a retracing of the stages of ordinary apprehension. The poetic process he discovered and states in Stephen Hero is the experience of ordinary cognition, but it is that labyrinth reversed, retraced, and hence epiphanized. The moment of arrested cognition achieves at once its stasis and epiphany as a result of the reconstruction of the stages of ordinary apprehension. And every moment of cognition is thus a Beatrician [= epiphanized or sacramental] moment when rendered lucid by a retracing of its labyrinth. (…) T
his secret consists in nothing less than a fusion of the learning and the creative processes9 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 [= arrest] of the moment of aesthetic awareness. (…) In art as in physics fission preceded fusion.10 

McLuhan to Ezra Pound, July 16, 195211
I’m writing a book on “The End of the Gutenberg Era”. Main sections: 
The Inventions of Writing [&] Alphabet (Transfer of auditory to visual; Arrest for contemplation of thought and cognitive process; Permits overthrow of sophist-rhetoric-oral tradition)12

Wyndham Lewis: His Theory of Art and Communication, 1953
“Plato’s theory of Ideas institutes
a gigantic effort to establish the mystic doctrine upon an intellectual basis.”13(…) From this point of view Greek Philosophy and science were a means of
arresting the wheel of existence or of delivering us from the time mechanism of existence.14

James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial, 1953
The idea of speech as stuttering, as arrested gesture (…)
 is basic to the Wake and serves to illustrate the profundity of the traditional philological doctrine in Joyce.

Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters, 1954
Impressionism and symbolism alike insisted on attention to process in preference to personal self-expression. Self-effacement and patient watchfulness preceded the discovery of the creative process. Poets and artists literally turned their own psyches into laboratories where they practised the most austere experiments in total disregard of their personal happiness. Gradually it dawned on Mallarmé that pure poetry was (…) a poetry which would have as its theme the poetic process itself. Henceforth the subject and framework of a poem would be the retracing of a moment of perception. For some of the Romantic poets the doctrine of the aesthetic moment as a moment out of time — a moment of arrested consciousness — had seemed the key to all poetry. The pre-Raphaelites had pushed this doctrine as far as they could. But Mallarmé saw deeper and Joyce saw the rest. Joyce it was who saw that Aquinas had the final answer sought by Mallarmé.  The rational notes of beauty, integrity, consonance, and claritas traced by St. Thomas were actual stages of apprehension in every moment of human awarenessAnd so we arrive at the paradox of this most esoteric of all art doctrines, namely that the most poetic thing in the world is the most ordinary human consciousness.

Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters, 1954
It would seem that the poet differs from other men only in his conscious ability to arrest the intake of experience and to reverse the flow. By this means he is able to externalize in a work the actual process by which each of us in perception or cognition incarnates the external world of experience.
But every word uttered by man requires a large measure of the poetic ability.

Coleridge As Artist, 1957
Poe put crime detection on a scientific basis by bringing into play the poetic process of retracing the stages of human apprehension [in general]. (…) And this process of arrest and retracing (…) provides the very technique of empathy15 which permits intimate insight into the processes and impulses behind products utterly alien to our own immediate experience.16

Coleridge As Artist, 1957
the Senecans had (…) literary techniques for arresting and projecting some phase of the human mind: to arrest in order to project, and to project in order to contemplate. Like the inventors of cinema at the beginning of this century they hit upon the technique of stylistic discontinuity as a means of analyzing or arresting a moment of consciousness.

Coleridge As Artist, 1957
“Calm is all nature
as a resting wheel.” 
That is the master vision of all those “spots of time” for which Wordsworth painfully sought the precise objective correlative in carefully wrought landscapes. It is the key to all his lyrics and even to The Prelude, which in order to follow his process of enlightenment has to arrest for contemplation the entire movement of his mind from youth to age.

Coleridge As Artist, 1957
As poetic practitioners Wordsworth and Coleridge were in agreement (…) that poetry was concerned with the rendering of an instant of arrested awareness which freed the mind from the clogs of habitual perception.

Coleridge As Artist, 1957
Moments of insight in Wordsworth’s poetry are explicitly associated with an experience of an arrest in time.17 

Coleridge As Artist, 1957
Suspense [in Byron] is not for thrill but for arrest of movement for contemplation, and to create one of
those “spots in time” which permit a flash of intuitive wisdom

  1. Introducing his 1943 Nashe thesis, McLuhan specifically contrasted “arrest” with “continuity”: “The first objective envisaged was to extend Professor R. W. Chambers’ Continuity of English Prose beyond the period of More to the end of the sixteenth century. The proposed dissertation was given the title of The Arrest of Tudor Prose.” (The Classical Trivium, 3)
  2. Letters 220. This letter was with certainty written earlier than March 1951, perhaps already in 1950. The copy we have is a “rewrite” of an original which Innis answered in February saying that he was sorry for his delay in doing so.
  3. ‘Tennyson and the Romantic Epic’ (1960): “To transcend time one simply interrupts the natural flow of events.” For “a moment in and out of time”, see note 6 below.
  4. This passage has been slightly edited here. For the passage as it appeared in print in 1951, and as it was retained in its 1969 reprinting in The Interior Landscape, see the third ‘Aesthetic Moment in Landscape Poetry’ passage in the post above.
  5. Especially in his ‘Aesthetic Moment’ essay, McLuhan spoke a great deal about “aesthetic experience”. But his central point was, and remained, that “the formula of the aesthetic moment” consisted in “a retracing of the stages of ordinary apprehension”.
  6. “A moment in and out of time”: unmarked quotation from Eliot’s Four Quartets, iii: ‘The  Dry Salvages’.
  7. “Intellectual emotion” is an inclusive relation between intellect and emotion. Although the two are usually implicitly opposed, they occur together both in the play of ordinary cognition and in the replay of a symbolist poem. “Aesthetic experience (…) of intellectual emotion” is both a subjective and an objective genitive, but for McLuhan it is predominantly a subjective genitive: “aesthetic experience” belongs to the inclusive relation of “intellectual emotion”. That is, “aesthetic experience”, standing in for “ordinary cognition”, illuminates those inclusive relations of the unconscious with consciousness, of the new and old, of the possible with the actual, of the active and the passive, through which experience, moment to moment to moment, is generated — “the stages of apprehension which led to this moment”.
  8. “Experience of arrest and detachment” is a dual genitive, but primarily a subjective one: “experience” belongs to “arrest and detachment”.
  9. “Fusion of the learning and the creative processes” is what McLuhan will later call ‘making’ as opposed to ‘matching’. Finite human beings cannot help but be ‘creative’, that is to say both insightful and biased, in their apprehension. Yet they can and do learn, as especially seen in the acquisition of language by the in-fant.
  10. ‘Preceded’ here is not a matter of chronology! To compare, it might be said in chemistry that the difference (or fission) between electrons and protons precedes their fusion in the elements. This is a logical difference and might be stated in chemistry only to highlight the fundamental nature of the elements — namely, that they are elementary despite their complexity, despite the fact that they may be broken down into constitutive pieces.
  11. Letters 231.
  12. The bracketed amplification is from McLuhan. “Arrest for contemplation of thought and cognitive process”: McLuhan saw the Gutenberg galaxy here as enabling the conscious arrest of unconscious process, whereas he will later see it as obscuring that process. In fact, as he was well aware, all consciousness reveals and hides at the same moment.
  13. G.R. Levy, Gate of Horn, 1948.
  14. McLuhan would later see the Gutenberg galaxy as delivering over to “the time mechanism of existence”!
  15. McLuhan continues here: “The Coleridgean awareness of the modes of the imagination as producer represents an enormous extension of the bonds of human sympathy and understanding, socially and historically.” See the beginning remarks of CHML and the Playboy interview for further discussion of the way of “empathy”.
  16. Two readings are in play here: first, “insight into (experience of others) utterly alien to our own” — that of ‘the savage mind’, for example; second, “insight into (experience of our own) utterly alien ( = unconscious) to our own immediate (= conscious) experience.”
  17. “Experience of an arrest in time” is a dual genitive, but primarily a subjective genitive. Experience belongs to “an arrest in time”, is its effect.

“Arrest in time” in Lewis

“Arrest in time”1 is a central idea in McLuhan.2 It was probably from Lewis that he got the terminology and the spur to consider it further, although the notions of the two concerning “arrest in time” were very different — fundamentally different. For Lewis, “arrest in time” was a manifestation of ‘time philosophy’, while for McLuhan it provided the ever-present possibility of escape from ‘time philosophy’. Still, the profound influence of Lewis’ thought on McLuhan was such that it could prompt even an opposite position from his own.3 

Here are “arrest in time” passages in Lewis:

 arrest his mind (Tarr, 1918, 140)

Picasso is the most useful figure on which to fix your attention. (…) His clock stopped at fifteen (…) These cases of arrested growth are very common in his race. You merely have to consider what sort of a child you have to deal with, what moves him most… (The Caliph’s Design, 1919, 56)

“no human prudence can long arrest the triumphal car of truth” (C.S. Peirce, Chance and Logic, cited in The Art of Being Ruled, 1926, 257; and in Time and Western Man, 1927, 153)

The same emotional tension, the same spurious glamour, in which no one believes, but which yet arrests belief from settling anywhere — extracting, as it were, the automatic reaction from it, without desiring, even, a more conscious, or deep-seated, response; the same straining merely to outwit and to capture a momentary attention, or to startle into credulity; the same optimistic air, suggestive of a bad conscience, or a vulgar self-congratulation ; the same baldly-shining morning face; the same glittering or discreetly hooded eye of the fanatical advertiser, exists in the region of art or social life as elsewhere — only in social life it is their own personalities that people are advertising, while in art it is their own personally manufactured goods only. (In the case of the artist, his own personality plays tlie part of the refuse of the factory.) And these more blandly-lighted worlds are as full as the Business world, I believe fuller, of those people who seem especially built for such methods, so slickly does the glove fit. Yet who will say that the vulgar medium which the scientific salesman must use to succeed, in Western Democracy, does not, thrust into the social world, destroy its significance? The philosophy of ‘action’ of trade is as barbarous as that of war. (Time and Western Man, 1927, 39)

All philosophy of history today — and Spengler is a most perfect example of that — assumes an absolute arrest somewhere or other. There is, on any analogy, advance or [evolutionary] ‘progress’ between the amoeba and Socrates. (…) But now there is nothing but [arrest]… (Paleface, 1929,122)4

It is only by a fresh effort that the Western World can save itself: it can only become ‘the West’ at all, in fact (…) by an act of further creation. (…) As it is, not only such people as Spengler (…) insist on regarding the problem historically,5 in terms of a rigid arrest. ‘The West’ is for almost all of those a finished thing, either over whose decay they gloat, or whose corpse they frantically ‘defend’. It never seems to occur to them that the exceedingly novel conditions of life today demand an entirely new conception (Paleface, 1929, 256)

Disintegrated into a thousand class-warring factions— analysed back into its composite cells, and incessantly stimulated to one huge destructive civil broil — the Occident is much too far gone ever to recover, upon its old lines, even if we desired it. We are here, therefore, taking Occidental disintegration for granted. In the back of our minds it is admissible to entertain some picture of a future integration. And for my own part, the more novel it was the better I should like it. But the disintegration is already very far advanced: the new integration even has long ago begun. Such a book as this is primarily intended to influence the integration. (Certainly it is not intended to arrest the disintegration.) In what manner does it wish to influence the integration? Principally in such a manner as to prevent the mere destructive technique of the transition from being taken too seriously, and so to avoid a great many false and puerile passions and modes of thought — or unthought — from being taken up into the body of the new synthesis. (Doom of Youth, 1932, 62-63)

arrested in its toiling dream (Childermass, 1956, 108)

 

  1. Coleridge as Artist, 1957: “Moments of insight in Wordsworth’s poetry are explicitly associated with an experience of an arrest in time.” Here “experience of an arrest in time” is a dual genitive, but primarily a subjective genitive. That is, experience belongs to “an arrest in time”, is its effect.
  2. See “Arrest in time” in McLuhan.
  3. Lewis seems to have broached the notion of an “arrest in time” especially in Paleface (although it would seem most fitting to Time and Western Man). This is one of the many indications that McLuhan read and was deeply influenced by Paleface, although the book is never mentioned in his work (unlike most other Lewis titles).
  4. The emphasis on arrest in this passage is by Lewis.
  5. “Insist on regarding the problem historically” = the time philosophy.

McLuhan and Plato 14: “nothing exists in itself”

The object of the McLuhan-Plato posts (and of the upcoming McLuhan-Aristotle posts) is not that McLuhan was a considerable classical scholar. He made no attempt in that direction. Instead, the great point (one made by Whitehead in Process and Reality in the characterization of the history of philosophy as a series of footnotes to Plato, and by Heidegger in the second half of Was Heisst Denken? in the turn from Nietzsche to Aristotle) is that thinking, when it truly is thinking, cannot help but return to Plato and Aristotle as the progenitors and exemplars, at least in the western tradition, of the acute deployment of mind.

The remarkable recall by McLuhan of Plato and Aristotle may be seen in terms of his central focus on media. In the first instance, media are not literal phenomena like language, letters, print, radio and television, but are ratios or relations. The second paragraph of Take Today (3) reads:

Nothing has its meaning alone. Every figure must have its ground or environment . A single word, divorced from its linguistic ground, would be useless. A note in isolation is not music. (…) The “meaning of meaning” is relationship.

Plato:

nothing exists (…) itself by itself, but everything is always (…) in relation to something (Theaetetus 157a, full passage below)

Now a ratio or a relation may be specified by its two poles, as with mathematical fractions each with its numerator and denominator.1 But it may alternatively be specified by the middle between its poles: “the medium is the message”. The first paragraph of Take Today (3) reads:

The art and science of this century reveal and exploit the resonating bond in all things. All boundaries are areas of maximal abrasion and change. The interval or gap constitutes the resonant or musical bond in the material universe. This is where the action is. To naïve classifiers a gap is merely empty. They will look for connections instead of bonds. (…) But by directing perception on the interfaces of the processes in ECO-land,2 all gaps become prime sources of discovery.

The media-ting middle or gap between the poles of a ratio is always characterized by a certain emphasis.3 Emphasis, in turn, may be specified in terms of:

(a) the emphasis on one side of the relation, or on the other side, or on both together (when the emphasis is equal between the two)4 = the location of the emphasis

(b) the intensity of the emphasis

A medium specified in this way defines the “relationship” of the two poles of a ratio and hence their respective “meaning”. The total spectrum of such media defines all possible relations of such poles and hence all possible meanings. The spectrum of all possible meanings then defines the field of human experience for open collective investigation.

“The medium is the message” because the location and intensity of emphasis in the structure of a medium defines the message or “meaning” covered by it. The particular ‘content’ of the poles is only a property of the medial configuration, never an essential component of the elementary structure. It is like ‘color’ in chemistry.

The great message of the medium according to McLuhan is that its emphatic structure of location and intensity can serve to delineate all the different varieties of human experience and in this way enable their collective investigation — just as the elementary structure in chemistry serves to delineate all the different varieties of physical material and in this way enables their collective investigation. And since the collective investigation of human experience opens the possibility of openly agreed orientation beyond haphazardly held beliefs, many of which currently are murderous or suicidal, the resulting science represents a possibility of peace for the species which may not be available in any other way. Hence McLuhan’s characterization of his work as a strategy for survival.

*

Here is Theaetetus 155e-157a, with commentary in footnotes:

Socrates: The uninitiated are those who think nothing is except what they can grasp firmly with their hands, and who deny the existence of actions and generation and all that is invisible.5
Theaetetus: Truly, Socrates, those you speak of are very stubborn
and perverse mortals.
Socrates: So they are, my boy, quite without culture. But others are more clever, whose secret doctrines I am going to disclose to you. For them the beginning, upon which all the things (…) depend, is the assumption that everything is motion6 and that (…) there are two kinds of motion, each infinite in the number of its manifestations, and of these kinds one has an active, the other a passive force. From the union and friction of these two are born offspring, infinite in number, but always twins, the object of sense and the sense [of the human subject] which is (…) brought forth together with the object of sense.7 (…) We must assume (…) that nothing exists in itself, but all things of all sorts arise out of motion by intercourse with each other; for it is, as they say, impossible to form a firm conception of the active or the passive element as being anything separately; for there is no active element until there is a union with the passive element, nor is there a passive element until there is a union with the active; and that which unites with one thing [at one time] is [predominantly] active and appears again as [predominantly] passive when it comes in contact with something else [at another time].8 

  1. In a mathematical ratio, the poles of its fractions are numbers which are largely accepted in their ‘natural’ sequence. Given (!) that sequence, mathematics is set free to develop as it will. But when mathematics treats ‘imaginary numbers’ or runs up against ‘surds’, it may be that it exceeds its own field and begins to operate in the more general — or more open — field of human experience. In fact, this is true of all the physical sciences which cannot escape from the fact that their formulations are just as much from a subject as they are about an object.
  2. McLuhan’s ECO-land is an ECO-logy defined by the ECHO-ing or resonating interfaces between the poles of the focal structures constituting the field of experience.
  3. McLuhan sometimes used the term ‘preference’ to designate ’emphasis’: “As for (my) approach itself, it may be said to accept any work of (…) human expression (a road, a town, a building, a poem, a painting, an ashtray, or a motor-car) as a preferential ordering of materials. Since all art expresses some preference, any portion of anything made by man can be spelled out (ed: within the field or spectrum of possible preferences). Every art object and every art situation represents a preferential response to reality, so that the precise techniques chosen for the manipulation and presentation of reality are a key to the mental states and assumptions of the makers. (Stylistic, review of Mimesis by Eric Auerbach, 1956)
  4. McLuhan calls emphasis on one side of a relation, ‘exclusion’ — exclusion, namely, of simultaneous emphasis on the other pole) and calls simultaneous emphasis on both poles together, ‘inclusion’.
  5. “Those who think nothing is except what they can grasp firmly with their hands” — like the giants in Plato’s  gigantomachia.
  6. There are two kinds of fundamental motion in McLuhan’s view. First there are the media or “interfaces” or “boundaries” within the deep structures of experience which are “areas of maximal abrasion and change”. Second, there is the abysmal movement between those deep structures in the moment to moment constitution of subjective experience and objective world: “Language itself and every department of human activity would in this view be a long succession of ‘momentary deities’ or epiphanies” (‘Little Epic’ manuscript). In a seminar at Fordham in November 1967 McLuhan described this metaphoric activity in language use: “the interval is very tactile, the space between sounds is not audible, naturally, it’s tactile, you have to close (or cross) that (space) kinetically”.
  7. The subject in McLuhan’s analysis requires no separate account aside from the momentary emphatic interface in its “sense” of world. The subject just is that sensory emphasis — which, however, implicates a prior abysmal action of the selection of that particular interface out of the totality of possible ones = McLuhan’s ‘unconscious’. And the possible consciousness of this unconscious is foreseen at the end of Take Today (297): “For the best part of a century, we have been programming human consciousness with retrievals and replays of the tribal unconscious. The complementary of this process would seem to be the ‘natural’ program for the period ahead: programming the unconscious with the recently achieved forms of consciousness. This procedure would evoke a new form of consciousness.”
  8. The active and passive here correspond to McLuhan’s making and matching. All experience is both. “The ‘meaning of meaning’ is relationship.”

Evolution: shift from biology to technology

Beginning 70 years ago in 1954, McLuhan anticipated much of the contemporary (2024) discussion around A.I. :

modern technology is so comprehensive that it has abolished Nature. (The God-Making Machines of the Modern World, Commonweal, March 19, 1954) 

Technology has abolished ‘nature’ in the old sense and brought the globe within the scope of art. (Notes on the Media as Art Forms, 1954)

Today, a new technology of great delicacy and precision has created an image of ourselves which invites us to swallow nature. The gap between man and the world, [and between] art and nature, has been abolished. (Radio and Television vs. The ABCED-Minded, 1955)

The old separation of art and nature we now see1 to have been based on an ignorance of nature. (New Media in Arts Education, 1956)

By the end of the first phase of the Industrial Revolution most of the physical organs had been given extension in metallic forms,2 and Samuel Butler could argue that the evolutionary process had been transferred from the biological to the mechanical plane.3 (Humpty Dumpty, Automation and TV, 1962)

The transformations of technology have the character of organic evolution. (Understanding Media, 1964, 182)

Satellites = super human environment around planet = end of “Nature” (Notes in Alphabet: Number Thirteen, June, 1967)4

The evolutionary process no longer belongs to the biology of our bodies. Our bodies create these new environments, the extensions of our bodies, create these new environments like the electric one. And these are the location now of the evolutionary process.5 A new environment like TV, or computer, or telephone, or radio, can compress millions of years of evolution in seconds. What has been happening to us in the 20th century is that we have been going through many millions of years of evolution, biological evolution, psychological evolution, through the extension of our bodies to these new environments. The body doesn’t fit into an environment anymore, it makes the environment. It makes that space. (Fordham lecture, ‘Tribal Retrieval’, September 20, 1967)6

The extension of our own nervous system as a total environment of information is in a sense an extension of the evolutionary process. Instead of it taking place biologically over many thousands of years it is now possible — in fact it has happened to us in the last few decades — it is now possible to traverse many millions of years in seconds by putting evolutionary extensions of ourselves outside [of ourselves] as environments, as teaching machines. The man-made environments that are now planetary are, in terms of evolutionary development, a greater step than anything that ever happened to our biological lives in the whole biological past. (Fordham lecture, ‘Open Mind Surgery’, September 28, 1967)7

With Sputnik, nature ended. The Darwinian environment of evolutionary biology went inside a man-made environment. The evolutionary process shifted from biology to technology. (Noble Purpose but to What End?, 1968)8 

Darwin and Marx ignored the man-made environments in their theories of evolution and causality in favor of the eighteenth century and romantic idea of nature as environment. (War and Peace in the Global Village, 1968)

The important thing is to realize that electric information systems are live environments in the full organic sense. They alter our feelings and sensibilities, especially when they are not attended to (…) This is a principle that applies to all technologies whatever, explaining the pathos and impercipience of historical man. Since the new information environments are direct extensions of our own nervous system, they have a much more profound relation to our human condition than the old “natural” environment. They are a form of clothing that can be programmed at will to produce any effect desired. Quite naturally, they take over the evolutionary work that Darwin had seen in the spontaneities of biology. (War and Peace in the Global Village, 1968)

The evolutionary process has shifted from biology to technology (McLuhan to I.A. Richards, July 12, 1968, Letters 355)

The evolutionary process has shifted from biology to technology (McLuhan to Jacques Maritain, May 6, 1969, Letters 369)

The new extensions of man [tele-graph, tele-phone, tele-vision] and the environments they generate are the central manifestations of the evolutionary process. (Playboy Interview. 1969)

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. (Innovation is Obsolete, 1971)

Hiroshima and The Bomb (…)  returned men to sudden recognition of the precious significance of the human scale. The classic wisdom of nothing in excess was resurrected by this instant of hideous strength, when everything was in excess. The human scale that had been submerged during a century of industrial gigantism was instantly and unforgettably retrieved. Man-made Rim Spins Supplant Natural Cycles. Henceforth, the natural round of seasonal and biological cycles was supplanted by vehement new intensities of man-made “rim spins” demanding a new programming of the entire human enterprise. (Take Today, 1972, 150)

The moment of Sputnik extended the planet. Something happened to the stellar system at that moment. The possibility of “retuning the sky” was born. Previously, the “extensions of man” related to his body, anything from his skin (clothing) to his central nervous system (electric circuitry). Each and all of these extensions affected the transactions between men and their previous environment. The extension of the planet itself meant that the technology was not transported by individual or collective man but by his previous environment — the Earth. It became a totally new game with new ground rules. Our ground now was literally in the sky. (Take Today, 1972, 293-294)

The satellites (…) transform the planet into a work of art by placing it inside a man-made environment. (Take Today, 1972, 294)

The “revolution” of this age has been a new order in which nature has become the extension of man. The centuries-old pattern had been man as an echo vibrating in harmony with the “natural order”. Now nature must play man’s tune. (Take Today, 1972, 296)9

When the planet was suddenly enveloped by a man-made artifact, “Nature” flipped into art form. The moment of Sputnik was the moment of creating Spaceship Earth and/or the global theatre. Shakespeare at the Globe had seen all the world as a stage, but with Sputnik, the world literally became a global theatre with no more audiences, only actors. (The End of the Work Ethic, 1972)10

in both the industrial and electric age Nature is superseded by art. Thus the future of the book is nothing less than to be the means of surpassing Nature itself. The material world, as it were, is to be etherealized and encapsulated in a book whose characters will possess all the formulas for the knowledge and recreation of Being.11 (The Future of the Book, 1972)

  1. With quantum physics, for example.
  2. In telegraphy, photography and phonography, for example.
  3. The printed text of this passage has a typo, ‘revolutionary process’ instead of ‘evolutionary process’. Later in this same essay: “It was just at the point indicated by Samuel Butler’s observation concerning evolution and machinery that the entire mechanical world became enclosed in the seamless web of electro-magnetism, the extension of our central nervous system.”
  4. Transcribed by Andrew McLuhan at his Inscriptorium blog.
  5. War And Peace In The Global Village (1968): “biologists use two (…) categories that are helpful for perceiving (…) the end of nature today (…) They speak of ‘outbreeding’ and ‘inbreeding.’ As (Ernst) Mayr puts it (in Animal Species and Evolution, 1963), ‘Most animals are essentially outbreeders, most microorganisms inbreeders.’ With electricity, all this has changed totally. At present the entire mammalian world has become the micro-organismic. It is the (…) cultures of the world, linguistically and politically, that have become the (outbreeding) mammals, according to the old classifications of evolutionary hypothesis. It is the cultural habitat, in which we have long been accustomed to think that people were contained, that has now become the (outbreeding) mammal itself”.
  6. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tx2ed93_Lpc&t=1337s.
  7. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WFuZQxHynmY&t=525s. On November 25, just two months after this ‘Open Mind Surgery’ lecture, McLuhan underwent a day-long operation to remove a large tumor from his brain. ‘Open Mind Surgery’ — a fine example of second sight!
  8. Review of Erich Fromm, The Revolution of Hope: Toward a Humanized Technology, in Book WorldNovember 10, 1968. The original title of McLuhan’s review seems to have been: ‘Ye Shall Be As Cogs’!
  9. It is thought-provoking that this suggestion was made by a Catholic convert! The heart of the matter lies in the question of “man’s tune”. What is this and how does it sound?
  10. Address to the Empire Club of Canada, November 16, 1972.
  11. See note 9 above. The great question is how McLuhan found this sort of future compatible with Catholicism. Put another way, McLuhan’s work centrally concerns the question, what is the ground of A.I.?

The representative ferment

media are ‘ideas’ in action (McLuhan to Harry Skornia, June 5, 1959)1

As epigraphs to his 1944 ‘Wyndham Lewis: Lemuel in Lilliput’, McLuhan set out two citations from Lewis’ Time and Western Man. The second of these reads:

I unmask the will that is behind the Time-Philosophy, by displaying it in the heart of the representative ferment produced by it — in the full, instinctive indulgence and expansion of the artistic impulse, and imposing its values upon the impressionable material of life. p. xv, Time and Western Man.2

Lewis’ “representative ferment” must be read in at least two ways. First, ‘representative’ is intended in the sense of ‘characteristic’, ‘identifying’, ‘distinctive’. That is, what Lewis terms “Time-Philosophy” may be identified by the particular type of ‘ferment’ it reveals and, as he attempts to demonstrate, that it in fact derives from. The implication is that there are not only different types of ferment, but that these types are original. Fundamentally different sorts of Philosophy — but also of Art and even of Society — are, he claims, grounded in these various kinds of ferment as the effects of these ferments. According to Lewis, ‘Time’ is one sort of these representational or effect-producing ferments, one that has come to dominate “western man”. 

Secondly, ‘representative’ is used in the sense of a ‘drive to represent’, ‘to manifest’, ‘to go forth’: ‘to ex-press’. As Lewis has it, it is the “expansion of the artistic impulse” — ‘re-presentative’ as itself a “ferment” in all its etymological implications:

from Old French fermenter (13c.) and directly from Latin fermentare “to leaven, cause to rise or ferment,” from fermentum “substance causing fermentation, leaven, drink made of fermented barley,” perhaps contracted from *fervimentum, from root of fervere “to boil, seethe” (from PIE root *bhreu “to boil, bubble, effervesce, burn”).

‘Ferment’, then, considered with all its Indo-European cognates deriving from *bhreu:

Sanskrit bhurnih “violent, passionate”, Greek phrear “well, spring, cistern”, Latin fervere “to boil, foam”, Thracian Greek brytos “fermented liquor made from barley”, Russian bruja “current”, Old Irish bruth “heat”, Old English breowan “to brew”, beorma “yeast”, Old High German brato “roast meat.”

It is remarkable that a “representative ferment” is at work both physically and etymologically in the sacraments of bread and fermented drink.

1.

On the one hand, this 1944 citation by McLuhan from Lewis’ TWM reaches back a decade to McLuhan’s 1934 M.A. thesis on George Meredith at the University of Manitoba:

The poet plants himself upon his instincts and permits his temperament sovereign sway. And he has quite as much right to do this as the philosopher has to trust his thought processes. In his table talk, Coleridge noted that all men (…) are born either Platonists or Aristotelians. There are similarly, in all times and places, definite types of temperament displaying consistency of conformation. The literary or artistic expression of such temperaments has properly the same validity as has the philosophizing of the Idealist and the Realist.3

With “the philosophizing of the Idealist and the Realist” McLuhan was explicitly gesturing to the ‘comparative method‘ of his University of Manitoba mentor, Rupert Lodge. And at the same time, with “literary or artistic expression”, he was silently pointing to the third elementary form in that method which Lodge usually called ‘pragmatism’ or ‘pragmatist’. 

a third type of philosophy has tended to develop: a philosophy which tries to be true to experience, and to avoid all (…) one-sided theorizings [such as those of the Idealist and the Realist]. This attempt at interpretation has taken many forms. One of the best known is called “pragmatism” (…) 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.4

McLuhan’s contention in his M.A. thesis was that the “third type” must be taken to exceed philosophy if it is “to avoid all abstract and one-sided theorizings” (Lodge) — the “theorizings”, that is, of “the philosophizing of the Idealist and the Realist” (McLuhan). Hence his appeal to “the poet” as opposed to “the philosopher”, to temperaments” as opposed to “thought processes” and to “instincts” as opposed to “philosophizing”. More than this, McLuhan seems to have been intuiting the further point against Lodge,5 that the very key to a ‘comparative method’ lies in what Lewis termed the “instinctive (…) expansion of the artistic impulse”; what Lodge himself termed the “tende[ncy] to develop” and what McLuhan termed “sway”. 6 7 That is, the “third type” was not only (only!) one of three fundamental forms of expression, it was also and above all the dynamism or inherent “will” to ex-pression in each of these three — the original/originating drive in each not to remain abstract, but to represent or manifest or ex-tend itself concretely. 

Consider any chemical element, say, carbon. It is not to be located only as the ‘abstract’ element ‘C’ in Mendeleev’s table. It is just as much graphite or diamond or a component in the myriad compounds in which carbon plays an essential role. So the element ‘C’ is re-presented in diamonds and elsewhere. But it is not only any one of these — or even all of these manifestations together. ‘C’ is both all those representative manifestations and also itself one ‘representative’ manifestation of the common elementary structure set out in Mendeleev’s table. 

Diamonds re-present ‘C’ because it has an essential drive to manifestation. But this drive does not terminate in ‘matching’ or ‘merging’; instead it is more like ‘making’ in the later sense of McLuhan (which he explicitly contrasted with ‘matching’). ‘Making’ is ‘to manifest justly’, ‘to represent appropriately’, ‘to reveal truly if not absolutely’ — leaving open the possibility in the future for some surprisingly different objective manifestation of ‘C’ and/or for improved subjective insight into ‘C’. 

McLuhan saw with Lewis that finite ‘making’ is not a bar to truthful apprehension but a condition of it. Just as manifestation does not exhaust a chemical element or a physical law, but does re-present truly.

However, there is a great problem to these passages from Lewis and Lodge. Lewis talks of “imposing (…) values upon the impressionable material of life” and Lodge of the “attempt to master experience”. The supposition is that the “material of life” and of “experience” is in some way prior to the forms in which they, life and experience, appear. Their “material” is portrayed as raw stuff that is yet somehow “impressionable” — as capable of being impressed upon. But imagine how far chemistry would get, were it to focus on “the impressionable material” of the physical world, like sub-atomic particles, say, rather than the elements of Mendeleev’s table!

One of McLuhan’s most important tasks was to attempt to recall this mis-taken focus on some supposedly prior material. Unfortunately he did not succeed in this task any more than did Plato and Aristotle 2500 years ago. He himself was always (or at least al too often) trying to find some underlying substrate like the hemispheres of the brain.

2.

On the other hand, it is exactly Plato that this passage from TWM most deeply recalls. As Aristotle, Plato’s great friend and pupil, repeatedly tried to communicate, particularly with his treatments of dynamis, Plato’s forms are not static abstractions. They fundamentally enact a “representative ferment” through which they manifest themselves in “extensions”. 

The subtitle of Understanding Media is “the extensions of man”. The genitive here, ‘of man’, is first of all objective. Human being is what is extended as effect, it is not the creator or possessor of extensions as subjective cause.

Like Plato’s forms or ideas, McLuhan’s media are prior to human being and are what first of all engender it in all its manifestations.

 

  1. https://archive.org/details/naeb-b066-f09/page/n66/mode/1upThe whole paragraph here is very important: “One new concept for us: media are ‘ideas’ in action. That is, any technological pattern or grouping of human know-how has the mark of our minds built-into it. The media dynamics are, therefore, parallel to those of our ideas. But many of our ideas are feed-back subliminally from media. Jeep calling unto jeep.” It is possible that “jeep calling unto jeep” here is a dictation error for “beep calling unto beep” — but error or not, the phrase is telling and funny. Around the same time in the late 1950s McLuhan’s unpublished review of of Northrop Frye’s 1957 Anatomy of Criticism has the related “blip calling unto blip”: “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.”
  2. McLuhan’s citation is a slight abbreviation. Lewis has: “I, at the outset, unmask the will that is behind the time-philosophy…”. “At the outset” here is not only an off-hand phrase marking the initial stage of Lewis’ composition. It may also be taken as ‘situating myself at the origin of things’, hence giving him the possibility of seeing into “the heart” of their genesis.
  3. See The essential plurality of the forms of being.
  4. Lodge, ‘The Comparative Method in Philosophy’. For reference and discussion see The Comparative Method of Rupert Lodge.
  5. Intuiting the point — it would require much further thought until McLuhan could formulate the subtitle to Understanding Media, a full thirty years after his M.A, thesis, as “the extensions of man”.
  6. McLuhan would later have many other terms for this sort of outreach, of course. Above all: ‘extension’.
  7. All these terms appear in the citations from Lewis, Lodge and McLuhan given in the body of the post above.

Mimesis in Laws of Media

Laws of Media has more discussion of mimesis than any other McLuhan text. But its appearances in LoM are far from uniform. The demand made as much on a reader today as on the McLuhans, when they discussed these points together in the 1970s, is to interrogate its Protean nature.

The question of subjective, objective and dual genitives is, as always, a key to interrogation. McLuhan employs the following genitive phrases regarding mimesis : the nature of mimesis, versions of mimesis, the spell of mimesis, the oral habit of mimesis, mimesis of the alphabet, the mimesis of human action. It must always be wondered what sort of genitive seems to have been intended, what other sort of sorts might have been intended, and what sort or sorts should have have been intended.

Here in page order are the discussions of mimesis in LoM. A later post, or posts, will supply commentary. 

Laws of Media, 4
There has
 been great confusion for many centuries over certain matters crucial to an understanding of acoustic space, for example, the natures of logos, of mimesis, and of formal causality. This confusion flows directly from the fact that all commentary and research, from Aristotle onwards, was conducted by persons, to one or another degree visually biased, who assumed visual space to be the common-sense norm. As a result, there are at least two forms or rather versions of mimesis and of logos and of formal cause. One of each has an oral structure, and the other a visual — with the former conventionally regarded as a confused or tentative attempt to explain the latter.

Laws of Media, 16-17
The split between conscious and unconscious, as an effect of the alphabet, is of crucial significance. It is a mimesis of the dissociation of perceptual sensibilities (of vision from the other senses), which is inherent in the form of the phonetic alphabet.

For the preliterate, mimesis is not merely a mode of representation but ‘the process whereby all men learn’; it was a technique cultivated by the oral poets and rhetors and used by everybody for ‘knowing’ via merging knower and known. This understanding survives in the maxim ‘the cognitive agent is and becomes the thing known’. Using mimesis, the ‘thing known’ ceases to be an object of attention and becomes instead a ground for the knower to put on. It violates all the properties of the visual order, allowing neither objectivity, nor detachment, nor any rational uniformity of experience, which is why Plato was at pains in the Republic to denounce its chief practitioners. Under the spell of mimesis the knower (hearer of a recitation) loses all relation to [the] merely present persona [of] person and place and is transformed by and into what he perceives. It is not simply a matter of representation but rather one of putting on a completely new mode of being, whereby all possibility of objectivity and detachment of figure from ground is discarded. Eric Havelock devotes a considerable portion of Preface to Plato to this problem. As he discovered, mimesis was the oral bond by which the tribe cohered:
“You threw yourself into the situation of Achilles, you identified with his grief or his anger. You yourself became Achilles and so did the reciter to whom you listened. Thirty years later you could automatically quote what Achilles had said or what the poet had said and about him. Such enormous powers of poetic memorisation could be purchased only at the cost of total loss of objectivity. Plato’s target was indeed an educational procedure  a whole way of life.” (Preface to Plato, 45)
Paradoxically, when the Greeks approached alphabetic technology using their oral habit of mimesis, they put on its visual stress instead.
The new visual ground completely alienated [the Greeks] from tribal culture; and so there came to be an intense rivalry between the two modes of culture. In the Republic Plato vigorously attacked the control exercised through mimesis by the oral establishment, for it constituted the chief obstacle to scientific rationalism, to the use of analysis, to the classification of experience, to its rearrangement in sequence of cause and effect. That is why the poetic state of mind is for Plato the arch-enemy and it is easy to see why he considered this enemy so formidable. He is entering the lists against centuries of habituation in rhythmic memorised experience. He asks of men that instead they should examine this experience and rearrange it, that they should think about what they say, instead of just saying it. And they should separate themselves from it instead of identifying with it; they themselves should become the ‘subject’ who stands apart from the ‘object’ and reconsiders it and analyses it and evaluates it, instead of just ‘imitating’ it.” (Preface to Plato, 47) Through mimesis of the alphabet, the Greeks absorbed visual dissociation of sensibilities…

Laws of Media, 17
Prolonged mimesis of the alphabet and its fragmenting properties produced a new dominant mode of perception and then of culture.

Laws of Media, 19
Previously, with [oral, pre-alphabetic] mimesis, ‘being’ had been immersed in the metamorphic and Protean flux of everyone’s daily experience. With the new ground of alphabetic awareness, objectivity and detachment became the rule. Mimesis was turned from a making process into representational matching, and the old experience of being was retrieved on the new terms of visual space, that is, as an abstract absolute.

Laws of Media, 33
There is much confusion among early commentators and later scholars about the various forms of space as well as other matters such as the nature of mimesis and of the logos.
Aristotle and others were working with one foot in each world, as it were, using the new forms of awareness but trying to retain or update the ideas of the old oral culture.1 

Laws of Media, 35
The mode of cognition in acoustic [and in]2 multisensory spaces is mimesis. ‘The cognitive agent is and becomes the thing known’ while
 the eye is in equal interplay with the other senses.

Laws of Media, 48
The French symbolist poets responded immediately and intuitively to the ground introduced by the telegraph by retrieving pre-alphabetic forms of discontinuous resonance and mimesis. Baudelaire announced the rediscovery of audience as mimetic ground for [his]3 work: his reader puts on and wears the art as a means of correcting not his concepts but rather his perception. The reader is a mask-wearer (‘Hypocrite’), the poem the mask: ‘Hypocrite lecteur, – mon semblable, – mon frère!’

Laws of Media, 64
The acoustic power available to the poetic establishment that Plato warred against was puny by comparison to the sensory stress exerted by any one of our technologies and its grounds. Plato realized that civilization did not have a chance until the mimetic spell of the bards was broken.

Laws of Media, 80
It took many centuries for the alphabet to suppress the right hemisphere and the mimetic tribal bonds of the Greeks and to release the focused energy of the visual left hemisphere, for the technology had to filter up from the working and merchant classes to the aristocracy.

Laws of Media 83
The caricature of inner or right-hemisphere awareness experienced by the drug culture (…) provides an artificial mimesis of the electric information environment

Laws of Media, 123
Ricoeur [in The Rule of Metaphor] leans on Aristotle’s distinction of metaphor as part of rhetoric on the one hand, and as part of dramatic mimesis on the other. His essential point is contained in Aristotle’s statement, “to metaphorize well implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars” [Poetics, 1459a3-8].

Laws of Media, 123-124
The effect of phonetic literacy on the Greek psyche and culture was catastrophic. Mimesis gave way to individualized detachment, and the integral resonating oral logos was broken into multiple fragments, each bearing some one or another of its original properties.

Laws of Media, 205 (Visual Space Tetrad)
the resonant, multilocational, multisensory, transformational

<=> mimesisthe animate universe

Laws of Media, 229-230
It is Aristotle, notes Paul Ricoeur, “who actually defined metaphor for the entire subsequent history of Western thought, on the basis of a semantics that takes the word or the name as its basic unit. Furthermore, his analysis is situated at the crossroads of two disciplines — rhetoric and poetics — with [two] distinct goals, ‘persuasion’ in oral discourse and the mimesis of human action in tragic poetry” (The Rule of Metaphor, 3). It is no accident that Aristotle chose to dissect the point of maximal interface of rhetoric and grammar, [namely] dramatic poetry. The heart of the discussion is found (…) in the Poetics (1457b, 6-9): “Metaphor consists in giving the thing a name that belongs to something else, the transference being either from genus to species or from species to genus, or from species to species, or on grounds of analogy.”

Laws of Media, 235 (Metaphor Tetrad)
transformation/transfiguration <=> fresh awareness via mental mimesis

  1. In a footnote to LoM 35: “The obscurity of this commentary is largely a result of the problem posed Aristotle by his own visual bias when trying to report on audile-tactile awareness.” See McLuhan and Plato 13: epyllion for some discussion.
  2. The McLuhans have ‘or’ here, which is ambiguous between identifying or differentiating ‘acoustic’ and ‘multisensory space’. The suggested amendment takes the differentiating option.
  3. McLuhan: ‘a’.

Wyndham Lewis, Paleface, comments

But if, politically and socially, men are to-day fated to a subjective role, and driven inside their private, mental caves, how can art be anything but ‘subjective’, too? Is externality of any sort possible for us? (Criterion 12) (Paleface 108)1

McLuhan owned a copy of Wyndham Lewis’ 1929 Paleface which is preserved in his ‘working library‘ at the University of Toronto. But he does not seem to have mentioned Paleface anywhere in his published writings.2 At a guess, he may have avoided Lewis’ Paleface3 just as he avoided Pound’s politics, because he wanted to communicate certain of the ideas he shared with them without associating that message with their more notorious notions. Indeed he may well have thought that both men had hurt the cause of their best work by freighting it with dubious and even contradicting social and political theories.

It may be that McLuhan obtained his copy of Paleface, which is not annotated and may not have been read by him, only late in his career.4 But it is possible, of course, that he had earlier read a library copy of it, and/or seen its Part ii in Lewis’ 1927 Enemy No. 2 (which he also had in his library).5 Notably, however, the ‘Introduction’ to Part ii of Paleface, which seems to have been so important to McLuhan, was not included, except for a few of its pages, in Enemy No. 2.

Most of that ‘Introduction’ did appear, however, in an issue of The Monthly Criterion from July 1927 in an essay from Lewis entitled ‘The Values of the Doctrine Behind “Subjective” Art’. And McLuhan certainly knew of this Lewis essay since he cited a passage from it and specifically referenced its appearance in Eliot’s Criterion in an unpublished manuscript now in the Ottawa papers.6

That same issue of The Monthly Criterion had a review of G. K. Chesterton, The Outline of Sanity by its editor, T.S. Eliot, himself. Now Chesterton and Eliot were the two most important figures for McLuhan at the time of his undergraduate stint in Cambridge,7 and Eliot’s review mentions “the Belloc-Chesterton gospel of Distributive Property” — McLuhan’s social and political touchstone at the time.8 It therefore seems highly likely that McLuhan, via his intense interest then in Distributism, knew already at Cambridge in 1934-1936 of this issue of The Monthly Criterion and thereby of the Lewis essay in it.

However all that may have been, McLuhan agreed with a very great deal — arguably the very heart of his enterprise — of Lewis’ ideas as they are particularly expressed in the ‘Introduction’ to the second part of Paleface.9 In that ‘Introduction’ Lewis makes an obvious gesture towards Nietzsche in employing the phrase “All-too-Human” (Paleface 110).10  But in fact his whole project as set out there replays Nietzsche in the following key points:

  • the relation of human beings to nature is always indirect and mediated: “things (…) are not objects of direct perception” (Criterion 4) (Paleface 98
  • as modernity has increasingly become conscious of this lack of “direct perception”, aka of the inevitability and inexorability of mediation, it has at the same time been borne into it that it “is not in touch with nature” (Criterion 4) (Paleface 98), that nature is no longer there” (Criterion 5) (Paleface 99)  
  • an attempt to rediscover true — or any! — relation to nature therefore depends upon a critical understanding of the range of mediations, or media, through which human beings at every instant have their experience: “an art that is ‘subjective’ and can look to no common factors of knowledge or feeling, and lean on no tradition, is exposed to the necessity (…) of instructing itself far more profoundly as to the origins of its impulses and the nature and history of the formulas with which it works” (Criterion 8) (Paleface 103
  • it is evidently in these conditions that you must look for the solid ground of our ‘subjective’ fashions” (Criterion 6) (Paleface 100)

Compare McLuhan:

  • “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.” (Report on Project in Understanding New Media, 1960)11
  • Technology has abolished ‘nature’ in the old sense and brought the globe within the scope of art.” (Notes on the Media as Art Forms, Explorations 2, 1954)12
  • “As for [my] approach itself, it may be said to accept any work of (…) human expression (a road, a town, a building, a poem, a painting, an ashtray, or a motor-car) as a preferential ordering of materials. Since all art expresses some preference, any portion of anything made by man can be spelled out [within the field or spectrum of possible preferences]. Every art object and every art situation represents a preferential response to reality, so that the precise techniques chosen for the manipulation and presentation of reality are a key to the mental states and assumptions of the makers.” (Stylistic [review of Mimesis by Eric Auerbach], 1956)13
  • “The total-field awareness engendered by electronic media is enabling us — indeed, compelling us — to grope toward a consciousness of the unconscious (…) We live in the first age when change occurs sufficiently rapidly to make such pattern recognition possible for society at large. Until the present era, this awareness has always been reflected first by the artist, who has had the power — and courage — of the seer to read the language of the outer world and relate it to the inner world.” (Playboy Interview, 1969)

If McLuhan can be said to have attempted to communicate Lewis after 50 years, so might Lewis be said to have attempted to communicate Nietzsche after 50 years. And so do we need to attempt to communicate McLuhan today — after 50 years.

For Nietzsche, Lewis and McLuhan together:

In a word, we have lost our sense of reality. So we return to the central problem of our ‘subjectivity,’ which is what we have in the place of our lost sense… (Criterion 6) (Paleface 100)

  1. All page numbers below refer to ‘The Values of the Doctrine Behind “Subjective” Art in The Monthly Criterion and to their corresponding pages in Lewis’ Paleface, both at the Internet Archive.
  2. In his unpublished manuscript, ‘The Little Epic’, dating to the middle or late 1950s, McLuhan cites a passage from the ‘Introduction’ to Part ii of Paleface, but in doing so he references, not Paleface from 1929, but the earlier appearance of most of that ‘Introduction’ in T.S. Eliot’s magazine, The Monthly Criterion, from July 1927. Here is the citation: “We have been thrown back wholesale from the external, the public, world, by the successive waves of the ‘Newtonian’ innovation, and been driven down into our primitive private mental caves, of the Unconscious and the primitive. We are the cave-men of the new mental wilderness. That is the description, and the history, of our particular ‘subjectivity’. In the arts of formal expression, a ‘dark night of the soul’ is settling down. A kind of mental language is in process of invention, flouting and overriding the larynx and the tongue.” (Criterion 8) (Paleface 103) McLuhan comments in the same place of his ‘Little Epic’ manuscript: “Wyndham Lewis is no friend or admirer of the various art forms which we are reviewing here under the head of ‘little epic’. But he is an invaluable guide to all that these forms mean.”
  3. Lewis’ Paleface, 1929:

    and then, of course, there is also his 1931 Hitler:

  4. He may have obtained this copy from, or through, Sheila Watson whose thesis on Lewis  he advised in the early 1960s. A hint in this direction lies in an M.A. thesis by Paula Grace Pantry at the University of Alberta in 1972,  The Wyndham Lewis Polemic: The Enemy as Paleface. Pantry notes in an Acknowledgement: “Special thanks are given to Dr. Sheila Watson, without whose inspiration this thesis would not have been written.”
  5. The 3 volumes of The Enemy are in McLuhan’s library at Fisher in Toronto. In ‘My Friend, Wyndham Lewis’ (1969), McLuhan recalled from 1944: “He (Lewis) suggested that if I were to come to Windsor with him, we could start up again his magazine The Enemy, which had been published twice in 1927 and once in 1929.”
  6. For details, see note 2 above.
  7. See Autobiography – encountering Chesterton and Eliot’s bread.
  8. McLuhan’s first published piece after his University of Manitoba newspaper articles was a letter to the Editor of G.K.’s Weekly from September 19, 1935 — and his first academic article was ‘G.K. Chesterton: A Practical Mystic’ published in The Dalhousie Review in January 1936 — both while he was still an undergraduate at Cambridge.
  9. The key passages from that ‘Introduction’ are set out in Wyndham Lewis, Paleface. But it should not be overlooked that Lewis’ best ideas there are not original to him, but in fact have a long heritage going back to the origins of western civilization. It is part of their strength, indeed, that they were not merely his. As Hegel put the point: “Meine Meinung ist nur mein.”
  10. This passage is not in the Monthly Criterion essay. That version of the ‘Introduction’ stops a couple paragraphs before it.
  11. ‘General Introduction to the Languages and Grammars of the Media’. This amounts to a multiplication of our remove from nature. In a medium like film, the ordinary experience of nature, which is always already mediated by, eg, language and culture, is not only presented, it is re-presented such that that mediated experience is again mediated. But this is exactly why, according to McLuhan, that “we live in the first age when change occurs sufficiently rapidly to make such pattern recognition possible”. See the Playboy Interview above for the full passage.
  12. After the launch of Sputnik in October 1957, McLuhan frequently maintained that it was this event that had ‘put an end to nature’. Here he is in a review of Erich Fromm’s Revolution of Hope in 1968: “With Sputnik, nature ended. The Darwinian environment of evolutionary biology went inside a man-made environment. The evolutionary process shifted from biology to technology.”
  13. McLuhan to Pound, July 16, 1952, Letters 231: “Once a man has got onto technique as the key in communication it’s different.”

Paleface (Introduction to Part ii)

McLuhan on the influence of Wyndham Lewis on his work:

Good heavens, that’s where I got it! (…) Lewis was the person who showed me that the man-made environment was a teaching machine — a programmed teaching machine. But earlier, you see, the symbolists had discovered that the [individual] work of art was a programmed teaching machine. It’s a mechanism for shaping sensibility. Well, Lewis simply extended this private art activity to the corporate activity of the whole society in [its] making environments that basically were artifacts, or works of art, and that acted as teaching machines on the whole population. (Lewis in St Louis, 1967)1

According to Lewis, “The artist is engaged in writing a detailed history of the future because he is the only person who lives in the present.” And in his own writing Lewis foresaw many of the problems of today. (…) Giovanelli and I (…) were eager to discuss his own work with him and especially his more controversial “pamphlets” like The Doom of Youth, Time and Western Man, and The Art of Being Ruled. (…) He was utterly beyond the reach of the ordinary political, social, artistic interests of the day. In fact, it is only since the disappearance of the vast bulk of his contemporaries from the scene that his image has assumed its true dimensions in the history of art and letters. (…) He was tirelessly alert to all sorts of contemporary developments in the popular media which I have ever since found a world of delight. (…) Even in the ’20s, as Sheila Watson expresses it, he observed the intrusion of the mechanical foot into the electric desert. Is it any wonder that his analysis of the political, domestic, and social effects of the new technological environments had a great deal to do with directing my attention to these events? (My Friend Wyndham Lewis, 1969) 

  

Below are excerpts from the ‘Introduction’ to the second part of Lewis’ 19292 book Paleface.  Also included here are references to The Monthly Criterion from July 1927 which featured an essay from Lewis entitled ‘The Values of the Doctrine Behind “Subjective” Art’. This was the original appearance of most of Lewis’ ‘Introduction’ — one that McLuhan is known to have seen.3

These essays do not come under the head of ‘literary criticism ’ They are written purely as investigations into contemporary states of mind, as these are displayed for us by imaginative writers pretending to give us a picture of current life ‘as it is lived,’ but who in fact give us much more a picture of life as, according to them, it should be lived. In the process they slip in, or thrust in, an entire philosophy, which they derive from more theoretic fields, and which is usually not at all the philosophy of the sort of people they portray. The whole of Paleface, in fact, deals with and is intended to set in relief the automatic processes by which the artist or the writer (a novelist or a poet) obtains his formularies: to show how the formulas for his progress are issued to him, how he gets them by post, and then applies them. (Paleface 97-98) (Criterion 4)

According to present arrangements, in the presence of nature the artist or writer is almost always apriorist, we suggest. Further, he tends to lose his powers of observation (which, through reliance upon external nature, in the classical ages gave him freedom) altogether. (…) So he takes his nature, in practice, from theoretic fields, and resigns himself to see only what conforms to his syllabus of patterns. He deals with the raw life, thinks he sees arabesques in it ; but in fact the arabesques that he sees (…) emanate from his theoretic borrowing, he has put them there. It is a nature-for-technical-purposes.
(Paleface 98) (Criterion 4)

Scarcely any longer can he be said to control or be even in touch with the raw at all, that is the same as saying he is not in touch with nature: he rather dredges and excavates things that are not objects of direct perception, with a ‘science’ he has borrowed (…) observes only according to a ‘system’4 of opinion which hides from him any but a highly selective reality. (Paleface 98) (Criterion 4)

Life’ is not-knowing: it is [therefore] the surprise packet: so (…) if nature can be so arranged as to yield him as it were a system of surprises, the artist will scarcely take the trouble to look behind them, to detect the principle of their occurrence (…) He automatically applies the accepted formula to nature; the corresponding accident manifests itself, like a djinn, always with an imposing clatter (since it is a highly selective ‘accident’ that understands its part): and the artist is perfectly satisfied that nature has spoken. He does not see at all that ‘nature’ is no longer there. (Paleface 99) (Criterion 5)

If I could surprise anybody into examining with a purged and renewed sense what is taken so much for granted, namely our ‘subjectivity’ — though who or what is the subject or Subject? — I should have justified any method [of attempted communication] whatever. (Paleface 99) (Criterion 5)

Oh it is a wild life that we live (…) between one apocalypse and another!5 (Paleface 100) (Criterion 6)

In a word, we have lost our sense of reality. So we return to the central problem of our ‘subjectivity,’ which is what we have in the place of our lost sense
(Paleface 100) (Criterion 6)

Elsewhere I have described this in its great lines as the transition from a public to a private way of thinking and feeling. The great industrial machine has removed from the individual life all responsibility.6 (…) It is evidently in these conditions that you must look for the solid ground of our ‘subjective’ fashions. The obvious historic analogy is to be found in the Greek political decadence. Stoic and other philosophies set out to provide the individual with a complete substitute for the great public and civic ideal of the happiest days of Greek freedom: with their [Stoic and other then contemporary philosophical] thought we are quite at home. (Paleface 100-101) (Criterion 6)

There is not much resemblance, outwardly, between the pulverization by one central power, such as that of Rome, and the pulverization of our social and intellectual life that is being effected by general industrial conditions all over the world. But there is, in the nature of things, the same oppressive removal of all personal outlet (…) in a great public life of individual enterprise: and (…) at the same time, through the agency of Science, all our standards of existence have been discredited. (Paleface 101-102) (Criterion 7)

[Bertrand Russell] “The kind of difference that Newton has made to the world is more easily appreciated where a Newtonian civilization is brought into sharp contrast with a pre-scientific culture, as for example, in modern China. The ferment in that country is the inevitable outcome of the arrival of Newton upon its shores. (…) If Newton had never lived, the civilization of China would have remained undisturbed, and I suggest that we ourselves should be little different from what we were in the middle of the eighteenth century.” (Radio Times, April 8th. 1928.)
[Lewis] If you substitute Science for Newton (…) that explains our condition. We have been thrown back wholesale from the external, the public world, by the successive waves of the ‘Newtonian’ innovation, and been driven down into our primitive private mental caves, of the unconscious and the primitive. We are the cave-men of the new mental wilderness. That is the description, and the history of our particular ‘subjectivity’.
(Paleface 102103) (Criterion 8)

In the arts of formal expression, a ‘dark night of the soul’ is settling down. A kind of mental language is in process of invention, flouting and overriding the larynx and the tongue. Yet an art that is ‘subjective’ and can look to no common factors of knowledge or feeling, and lean on no tradition, is exposed to the necessity, either7 of instructing itself far more profoundly as to the origins of its impulses and the nature and history of the formulas with which it works; or else it is committed to becoming a zealous parrot of systems and judgments that reach it from the unknown. In the latter case in effect what it does is to bestow authority upon a hypothetic something or someone it has never seen, and would be at a loss to describe (since in the ‘subjective’ there is no common and visible nature), and progressively to surrender its faculty of observation, and so sever itself from the external field of immediate truth or belief — for the only meaning of ‘nature’ is a nature possessed in common. And that is what now has happened to many artists: they pretend to be their own authority, but they are not even thatIt would not be easy to exaggerate the naivete with which the average artist or writer to-day, deprived of all central authority, body of knowledge, tradition, or commonly accepted system of nature, accepts what he receives in place of those things.
(Paleface 103-104) (Criterion 8)

It is astonishing how in all the heated dogmatical arguments, you will never find them calling in question the very basis upon which the ‘movement’ they are advocating rests. They are never so ‘radical’ as that. (…) They have not the least consciousness (…) of the many alternatives open to them. The authority of fashion is absolute in such cases: whatever has by some means introduced itself and gamed a wide crowd-acceptance (…) is, itself, unassailable. Its application, only, presents alternatives. The world of fashion for them is as solid and unquestionable as that large stone, against which Johnson hit his foot, to confute the Bishop of Cloyne. For them the time-world has become an absolute, as it has for the philosopher in the background, feeding them with a hollow assurance.
(Paleface 104-105) (Criterion 9)

a herd of happy and ignorant technicians entranced, not with ‘mind’, but with ‘subjectivity’. (Paleface 105) (Criterion 10)

The kind of screen that is being built up between the reality and us, the ‘dark night of the soul’ into which each individual is relapsing, the intellectual shoddiness of so much of the thought responsible for the artist’s reality, or ‘nature’ today, all these things seem to point to the desirability of a new and if necessary shattering criticism of ‘modernity’ as it stands at present. (Paleface 106)  (Criterion 10)

It is an unenterprising thought indeed that would accept all that the ‘Newtonian’ civilization of science has thrust upon our unhappy world, simply because it once had been different from something else, and promised ‘progress’ though no advantage so far has been seen to ensue from its propagation for any of us, except that the last vestiges of a few superb civilizations are being stamped out, and a million sheep’s-heads, in London, can sit and listen to the distant bellowing of Mussolini; or (…) to the [nearby] bellowing of Dame Clara Butt.8 It is too much to ask us to accept these privileges as substitutes for the art of Sung [China] or the philosophy of Greece. (Paleface 106) (Criterion 11)

Most dogmatically ‘subjective’, telling-from-the-inside, fashionable method — whatever else it may be (…) — is ultimately discovered to be bad philosophy — that is to say, it takes its orders from second rate philosophic dogma. Can art that is a reflection of bad philosophy be good art? (Paleface 107) (Criterion 12)

But if, politically and socially, men are today fated to a ‘subjective’ role, and driven inside their private, mental caves, how can art be anything but ‘subjective’ too? Is externality of any sort possible for us? Are we not of necessity confined to a mental world of the subconscious, in which we naturally sink back to a more primitive level (…)? Our lives cannot be described in terms of action — externally that is — because we never truly act. We have no common world into which we [might] project ourselves (…) To those [political and social] questions we (…) in due course would be led: but what here I have been trying to show is that first of all much more attention should be given to the intellectual principles that are behind the work of art: that to sustain the pretensions of a considerable innovation a work must be surer than it usually is to-day of its formal parentage: that nothing that is unsatisfactory in the result should be passed over, but should be asked to account for itself in the abstract terms that are behind its phenomenal face. And I have suggested that many subjective fashions, not plastically or formally very satisfactory, would become completely discredited if it were clearly explained upon what flimsy theories they are in fact built: what bad philosophy, in short, has almost everywhere been responsible for the bad art.
(Paleface 108-109)  (Criterion 12)

My main object in Paleface has been to place in the hands of the readers of imaginative literature, and also of that very considerable literature directed to popularizing scientific and philosophic notions, in language as clear and direct as possible, a sort of key ; so that, with its aid, they may be able to read any work of art presented to them, and, resisting the skillful blandishments of the fictionist (…) understand the ideologic or philosophical basis of these confusing entertainments, where so many false ideas change hands or change heads. As it is, the popularizer is generally approached with the eyes firmly shut and the mouth wide open. [As a result] the fiction (…) takes with it the authority of life — people live it, as it were, as they read: so it is able to pass off as true almost anything.9 The often very elaborate philosophy expressed in this sensational form very often not only misrepresents the empirical reality, but misstates the truth. (Paleface 109) (Not in the Criterion essay)

 

 

  1. Flexidisk recording in artscanada No. 114, November 1967. For the recording itself, images and discussion, see Andrew McLuhan’s post:
    https://inscriptorium.wordpress.com/2011/01/12/mechanisms-for-shaping-sensibility/.
  2. Much of Paleface was written and published in 1927. As described in this post, much of the ‘Introduction’ to its second part appeared in The Monthly Criterion from July 1927. Nearly all of the rest  of that second part appeared in October that same year in Lewis’ The Enemy Number 2.
  3. In his unpublished manuscript, ‘The Little Epic’, dating to the middle or late 1950s, McLuhan cites a passage from the ‘Introduction’ to Part ii of Paleface, but in doing so he references, not Paleface from 1929, but the earlier appearance of most of that ‘Introduction’ in T.S. Eliot’s magazine, The Monthly Criterion, from July 1927. Here is the citation: “We have been thrown back wholesale from the external, the public, world, by the successive waves of the ‘Newtonian’ innovation, and been driven down into our primitive private mental caves, of the Unconscious and the primitive. We are the cave-men of the new mental wilderness. That is the description, and the history, of our particular ‘subjectivity’. In the arts of formal expression, a ‘dark night of the soul’ is settling down. A kind of mental language is in process of invention, flouting and overriding the larynx and the tongue.” (Paleface 103) (Criterion 8) An echo of this passage appears in McLuhan’s 1969 ‘My Friend Wyndham Lewis’: “he was pleased to quote Eliot’s observation in The Egoist (September, 1918) that ‘in the work of Mr. Lewis we recognize the thought of the modern and the energy of the cave man’.” McLuhan comments further in his ‘Little Epic’ manuscript: “Wyndham Lewis is no friend or admirer of the various art forms which we are reviewing here under the head of ‘little epic’. But he is an invaluable guide to all that these forms mean.”
  4. Although Lewis also uses science and system in other senses than these, he does not mark his depreciative use of them here with scare quotes. They have been added to mark their ambiguity in his work.
  5. Elsewhere in Paleface commenting on “a herd (…) driven madly hither and thither in gigantic wars that have at length become completely meaningless”: “If this apocalyptic picture sounds to your ears sensational or far-fetched, I can only say that you forget very quickly what was called at the time (= WW1) ‘Armageddon’.” (26)
  6. In ‘Lemuel in Lilliput’ (1944), McLuhan cites Lewis from The Art of Being Ruled (142): “The first object of a person with a desire to be free, and yet possessing none of the means (…) such as money, conspicuous ability, or power to obtain freedom, is to avoid responsibility. Absence of responsibility (…) is what men most desire for themselves.”
  7. Instead of ‘either’, Lewis has ‘first of all’.
  8. Clara Butt: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clara_Butt.
  9. Compare McLuhan in Laws of Media half a century later: “Under the spell of mimesis the knower (hearer of a recitation) loses all relation to his merely present persona (…) and is transformed by and into what he perceives. It is not simply a matter of representation but rather one of putting on a completely new mode of being, whereby all possibility of objectivity and detachment of figure from ground is discarded. Eric Havelock devotes a considerable portion of Preface to Plato to this problem.”
  10. The medium is the message. McLuhan in ‘Lemuel in Lilliput’: “It is therefore, politically and humanly speaking, a matter of the utmost concern for us to know from what sources and by what means the rulers of the modern world determine what they will do next.  How do they determine the ends for which, as means, they employ the vast machines of government, education, and amusement?” The phrase “rulers of the world” is used by Lewis in Paleface 88.

Mimesis

‘Mimesis’ is part of a group of terms with ‘simulation‘ and others (like the nous poietikos) which are used in complex ways by McLuhan, both in regard to the individual terms themselves and to their relations with each other. Note 11 below gives some attention to this complexity, but it will need further posts in the future to do justice to the topic — which lies at the heart of McLuhan’s project.

Survey of Joyce Criticism, 1951
Heinrich Straumann recalls a conversation with Joyce during which he asked whether a knowledge of the local conditions in Dublin would make the reading of Finnegans Wake any easier. Joyce replied firmly In the negative. “One should not pay any particular attention to the allusions to place-names, historical events, literary happenings, and personalities, but let the linguistic phenomenon affect one as such.” Here is Joyce’s confidence in the mimetic powers of language itself to communicate before and beyond ordinary understanding.

Poetry and Opinion (review), 1951
Pound’s (…) prose (…) is, in its mimesis of the drama of intellectual maneuver, unmatched since Bacon and Jonson. The basis of Pound’s prose as of his verse is the immediency of its grip of the object.

Maritain on Art, 1953
G.R. Levy [in] The Gate of Horn views Plato and Aristotle as having been consciously engaged in doing just what Maritain is tackling: “Plato’s theory of Ideas constitutes a gigantic effort to establish the mystic doctrine upon an intellectual basis. The relation of created things to the ‘pattern laid up in heaven’ is, as we saw, that methexis, or participation, which Aristotle equated with mimesis, the ‘imitation‘ by which the living world was built upon the Pythagorean numbers.”1

Media Fit the Battle of Jericho, 1956
Writing was the break-through from sound to sight. But with the end of the acoustic wall came chronology, tick-tock time, architecture. Writing, the enclosure of speech and sound space, split off song and dance and music from speech. It split off harmonia from mimesis
Writing permitted the visual analysis of the dynamic logos that produced philology, logic, rhetoric, geometry, etc.

Technology, the Media, and Culture, 1960
T
he growth of the Euclidean fictions in the patterns of human sensibility were as upsetting then as the return of nuclear non-Euclidean modalities of experience today. Gombrich, writing [in Art and Illusion] of the rise of pictorial space and illusion in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C., says: “The very violence with which Plato denounces this trickery reminds us of the momentous fact that at the time he wrote, mimesis was a recent invention.“ (…) The multiple levels and modes of sound and tactility are favored in cave art above the visual. So it is with speech itself. But the reduction of speech to sight by the phonetic technology gave the eye an ascendancy over the other senses which is anything but natural to man. l am not making a value judgment. The natural may not be desirable at all. But the ascendancy of eye over the other senses gave us the miracle of mimesis, of foreshortening, and, eventually of perspective and vanishing point, which we have accepted as natural and rational for centuries. Such assumptions do not coincide with those of the electric media.

Understanding Media, 19642
Eliot and Pound used the typewriter for a great variety of central effects in their poems. And with them, too, the typewriter was an oral and mimetic instrument that gave them the colloquial freedom of the world of jazz and ragtime.

Understanding Media, 19643
Joyce puts these matters not so much in cryptic, as in dramatic and mimetic, form. The reader has only to take any of his phrases such as this one, and mime it until it yields the intelligible. Not a long or tedious process, if approached in the spirit of artistic playfulness that guarantees “lots of fun at Finnegan’s wake.”

The Emperor’s Old Clothes 1966
In his Poetics (Chapter IV, 1448b), Aristotle reminded us that mimesis is the process by which all men learn. He alluded to the process of making by which our perceptions simulate within us the environment that we encounter outside ourselves.  It is this learning and making process that, by electric circuitry, is being extended beyond our central nervous system.4

McLuhan to Donald Theall, Aug 6 1970
The sensory completion, or the actual experience of anything never corresponds to the event or input, i.e. there is no matching, but only making in human experience. This relates, of course, to Aristotle’s poiesis and mimesis, and his phrase: “It is the process by which all men learn.”

From Cliché to Archetype, 19705
The main Cinderella plot of My Fair Lady (…) is a retrieval of the nineteenth­ century world of mechanical industry that had mass-produced a large new upper middle class, The industrial technique of precise repetition gets new force from the musical rhythms, which also increase the irony of dehumanization by which both mechanized speech and mechanized production are attained. This class had been provided with a special uniform speech by the new public schools. It was a speech that unconsciously mimed the machine itself (as T.S. Eliot wittily observed when his Madame Sosostris speaks to her client: “Tell dear Mrs. Equitone … “). To speak with the mechanical precision of a machine has been an aspect of the comic mask worn by the corporate English upper class for some decades. To acquire this manner is not only easy but devastating. One puts on vocally the technology of the age, much as Chaplin did in his way, as if in revenge and reversal. First American jazz and now the English Beatles have me­chanically extended the speech modes of the lower middle classes with image-acceptance. For such mimetic enlargements of ordinary experience are as enticing and flattering clichés as the movie or the motor car. The mime of mechanization is then the subplot in My Fair Lady.

From Cliché to Archetype, 19706
Mimesis or Making Sense — The entire world of technology makes sense by miming the human body and faculties. Most studies of mimesis (…) proceed on the assumption of matching inner and outer. Notable exceptions are found in E.H. Gombrich’s Art and Illusion and Eric Havelock’s Preface to Plato. The technique of continuous parallel that Eliot indicates as the essential myth-making form of mimesis in his classic essay “Ulysses, Order and Myth” simply tosses aside the idea of matching in favor of interface and metamorphosis.

From Cliché to Archetype, 19707
Aristotelian mimesis confirms the James Joyce approach, since it is a kind of recap of natural processes, whether of making sense via cognition or of making a house by following the lines of Nature. For example, in the Physics, Book II, Chapter VIII, Aris­totle writes; “Thus, if a house had been a thing made by Nature it would have been made in the same way as it is now by art; and if things made by Nature were made also by art, they would come to be in the same way as by Nature.” Aristotle thus confirms the sacral quality of the cliché or artifact by aligning it with the cosmic forces, just as biologists say ontogeny recaps phylogeny.

Take Today, 1972
The artist by retracing the processes of cognition (
mimesis) bridges the world of sense and the world of awareness.8

Monday Night Seminar, January 22, 19739
Mimicking is an act of making but notice it’s in another medium. You replay something that took place in one medium and you put it in another medium. It’s translated into another material. That is the nature of mimesis. Poetic mimesis means snatching one mode of experience and putting it into another mode, namely language or pigment. It’s translation, it’s metaphor.

The Medieval Environment, 1974
Havelock contrasted the corporate mimesis involved in the performance of the Greek epics and drama with the individualist analysis that came with the innovation of the phonetic alphabet.

Laws of Media, posthumous10
The effect of phonetic literacy on the Greek psyche and culture was catastrophic. Mimesis gave way to individualized detachment, and the integral resonating oral logos was broken into multiple fragments, each bearing some one or another of its original properties.11

  1. This passage from Levy is also cited in ‘Wyndham Lewis: His Theory of Art and Communication’ from that same year of 1953.
  2. Page 262.
  3. Page 302.
  4. Compare ‘Joyce, Aquinas, and the Poetic Process’, 1951: “In the Poetics (Chap. 4) Aristotle mentions imitation as connate to man, being the process by which men learn.” McLuhan often quoted Aritotle to this effect — see the next citation. He did so again, 30 years after the 1951 essay, in the conclusion to Take Today (296).
  5. Page 144-145.
  6. Page 147.
  7. Page 147.
  8. “The world of sense” here does not mean ‘the world of material objects’. See McLuhan’s 1970 letter to Don Theall above: The sensory completion, or the actual experience of anything never corresponds to the event or input“.
  9. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PVBc7v5vjUI
  10. Laws of Media treats mimesis more extensively than any other McLuhan text. These LoM passages will be assembled in a separate post.
  11. Page 123-124. Mimesis is here (and in the preceding citation) seen as what was lost along with oral culture in Greece, whereas it is elsewhere said to have been what was gained with that loss. Compare the present passage (“mimesis gave way to individualized detachment, and the integral resonating oral logos was broken into multiple fragments”) with, for example, passages from Technology, the Media, and Culture, 1960, above: “mimesis was a recent invention“, “the ascendancy of eye over the other senses gave us the miracle of mimesis”. This sort of striking ambiguity is not infrequent with McLuhan, but it does not amount to outright contradiction (as is often alleged). Instead, he is using ‘mimesis’ in different senses. Laws of Media notes something of this complexity as follows: “there has been great confusion for many centuries over certain matters crucial to an understanding of acoustic space, for example, the natures of logos, of mimesis, and of formal causality. This confusion flows directly from the fact that all commentary and research, from Aristotle onwards, was conducted by persons, to one or another degree visually biased, who assumed visual space to be the common-sense norm. As a result, there are at least two forms or rather versions of mimesis and of logos and of formal cause. One of each has an oral structure, and the other a visual — with the former conventionally regarded as a confused or tentative attempt to explain the latter.” (4)

Nous poietikos, agent intellect

The nous poietikos or agent intellect as “imitation” belongs to McLuhan’s family of terms ‘simulate-simulation’, ‘mimesis-mime-mimicry‘, ‘making’, etc. He seems to have been concerned with the nous poietikos chiefly in the 1948-1954 period.

Difficulties of Yvor Winters,19481 
Coleridge was quite right in lifting from Kant the idea of the esemplastic or creative imagination since it was the nearest Kant could get to the nous poietikos by which in the hylomorphic philosophy the active intelligence reveals the intelligible species of things present. (…) The nous poetikos makes of every moment of human perception a creative activity.2

Joyce, Aquinas, and the Poetic Process,1951
In the Poetics (Chap. 4) Aristotle mentions imitation as connate to man, being the process by which men learn. But this fact is not linked with the power of abstraction which in the De Anima he attributes to the nous poietikos, or the agent intellect. That there is, however, a degree of poetic imitation in abstraction itself, is plain from the fact that even in sensation “things exist in the soul without their proper matter, but with the singularity and individuating conditions which are the result of matter.” (St. Thos., De Anima, article 13) That this is so is the effect of the nous poietikos, which has the power of individuating anew in a bodily organ that which it has abstracted from existence. “For in things made by art the action of an instrument is terminated in the form intended by the artisan.” (St. Thos., De Anima, article 12) Again, “For every object produced by art is the effect of the action of an artificer, the agent intellect being related to the phantasms illuminated by it as an artificer is to the things made by his art.” (article 5). And in the same place the creative efficacy of the nous poietikos as “illuminative” is referred to the text in the Psalms (4:7) “The light of thy countenance is signed upon us, O Lord.”
For Joyce and Eliot all art is a shadow of the Incarnation,3 and every artist is dedicated to revealing, or epiphanizing the signatures of things, so that what the nous poietikos is to perception and abstraction the artist is to existence at large: “The artist who could disentangle the subtle soul of the image from its mesh of defining circumstances most exactly and reembody it in artistic circumstances chosen as the most exact for it in its new office, he was the supreme artist.” (Stephen Hero, 78)
Ordinary experience is a riot of imprecision, of impressions enmeshed in preconceptions, cliches, profanities and impercipience. But for the true artist every experience is capable of an epiphany: “By an epiphany he meant a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phrase of the mind itself….Imagine my glimpses of that clock as the gropings of a spiritual eye which seeks to adjust its vision to an exact focus. The moment the focus is reached the object is epiphanized. It is just in this epiphany that I find the third, the supreme quality of beauty.” (Stephen Hero, 211) 

Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters, 1954
In ordinary perception men perform the mira
cle of recreating within themselves, in their interior faculties, the exterior world. This miracle is the work of the
nous poietikos or of the agent intellect — that is, the poetic or creative process. The exterior world in every instant of perception is interiorized and recreated in a new matter. Ourselves. And in this creative work that is perception and cognition, we experience immediately that dance of Being [subj gen] within our faculties which provides the incessant intuition of Being [obj gen]. (…) Cognition provides that dance of the intellect which is the analogical sense of Being (…) that interior artifice by which in ordinary perception we incarnate the exterior world. Because human perception is literally incarnation. So that each of us must poet the world or fashion it within us as our primary and constant mode of awareness.4

Sight, Sound, and the Fury, 1954
In cognition we have to interiorize the exterior world. We have to recreate in the medium of our senses and inner faculties the drama of existence. This is the world of the logos poietikos, the agent intellect. In speech we utter that drama which we have analogously recreated within us. In speech we make or poet the world even as we may say that the movie parrots the world. Languages themselves are thus the greatest of all works of art. They are the collective hymns to existence. For in cognition itself is the whole of the poetic process. But the artist differs from most men in his power to arrest and then reverse the stages of human apprehension. He learns how to embody the stages of cognition (Aristotle’s “plot”) in an exterior work which can be held up for contemplation.

Memory Theatre Encounter 1967
When the Schoolmen translated Aristotle’s phrase
nous poietikos they used the words “intellectus agens” or the agent intellect. The function of the agent or making intellect extends to the very idea of knowing. Knowing as making is an idea central to Aristotle and Aquinas. 

  1. Submitted to Sewanee Review and perhaps elsewhere, but never published. Like other work of McLuhan, this essay bore several different titles over time. More than 20 years later, McLuhan recalled it: “Years ago I wrote an essay on Winters entitled ‘Rhymer Reditus’. (…) Winters pushed criticism into a pattern of concept minus percept, which was also an unwitting parody of paraphrase and poetic commentary of the preceding time (namely that of Thomas Rhymer, 1643–1713, hence the ‘Rhymer Reditus’ title). The great discovery of the Symbolists had been the need to start with effects even when dealing with ideas and systems. To perceive a theory or a philosophy as itself an object for aesthetic experience and testing…” (Roles, Masks, and Performance, 1971)
  2. Two decades later in his Playboy interview: “For many years, until I wrote my first book, The Mechanical Bride, I adopted an extremely moralistic approach to all environmental technology. I loathed machinery, I abominated cities, I equated the Industrial Revolution with original sin and mass media with the Fall. In short, I rejected almost every element of modern life in favor of a Rousseauvian utopianism. But gradually I perceived how sterile and useless this attitude was, and I began to realize that the greatest artists of the 20th Century — Yeats, Pound. Joyce, Eliot — had discovered a totally different approach, based on the identity of the processes of cognition and creation. I realized that artistic creation is the playback of ordinary experience — from trash to treasures. I ceased being a moralist and became a student.” The unpublished Winters essay shows that this shift was in full swing by 1948 at the latest: “The nous poetikos makes of every moment of human perception a creative activity.”
  3. “All art is a shadow of the Incarnation” — at once illuminating (because grounded in the Incarnation) and obscuring (because shadowing) .
  4. Also inCatholic Humanism and Modern Letters’: “The drama of ordinary perception seen as the poetic process is the prime analogate, the magic casement opening on the secrets of created being.” And: “The poet differs from other men only in his conscious ability to arrest the intake of experience and to reverse the flow. By this means he is able to externalize in a work the actual process by which each of us in perception or cognition incarnates the external world of experience. But every word uttered by man requires a large measure of the poetic ability. Our words are analogies of the miracle by which we incarnate and utter the world.”

Simulation

McLuhan deploys packages of related terms throughout his work. Understanding his thought requires that these packages be teased apart to uncover how they work, that is, to see how similarities and differences operate within them.1

One such package includes ‘simulation’ and ‘mimesis‘-‘mime’-‘mimic’ — and would have included ‘meme’ had the term become current before the last years of McLuhan’s life.2 

Here in chronological order are passages in which McLuhan uses the words ‘simulate’ and ‘simulation’. With the exception of an isolated example from 1947, all fall within the 1963-1971 time period:

the academic mind (…) would simulate a passionate perception which it cannot feel. (The Southern Quality, 1947)3 

The next extension of man will be the simulation of the process of consciousness itself.4 (MM to Harry Skornia October 4, 1963)5

Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned. Rapidly, we approach the final phase of the extensions of man — the technological simulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society, much as we have already extended our senses and our nerves by the various media. (Understanding Media, 1964, 3-4) 6

the electric extension of the process of collective consciousness, in making consciousness-without-walls, might render language walls obsolescent. Languages are stuttering extensions of our five senses, in varying ratios and wavelengths. An immediate simulation of consciousness would by-pass speech in a kind of massive extrasensory perception, just as global thermostats could bypass those extensions of skin and body that we call houses. Such an extension of the process of consciousness by electric simulation may easily occur in the 1960s. (Understanding Media, 1964, 130)7

Computers (…) can be made to simulate the process of consciousness, just as our electric global networks now begin to simulate the condition of our central nervous system. But a conscious computer would still be one that was an extension of our consciousness, as a telescope is an extension of our eyes, or as a ventriloquist’s dummy is an extension of the ventriloquist.  (Understanding Media, 1964, 351)8

Another way of looking at our situation today in the age of cybernation and information machines is to say that from the time of the origin of script and wheel, men have been engaged in extending their bodies technologically. They have created instruments that simulated and exaggerated and fragmented our various physical powers for the exertion of force, for the recording of data, and for the speeding of action and association. With the advent of electromagnetism, a totally new organic principle came into play. Electricity made possible the extension of the human nervous system as a new social environment. (Cybernetics and Human Culture 1964)

It is one of the mysteries of cybernation that it is forever challenged by the need to simulate consciousness. In fact, it will be limited to simulating specialist activities of the mind for some time to come. In the same way, our technologies have for thousands of years simulated not the body, but fragments thereof. It was in the city alone that the image of the human body as a unity became manifest. (Cybernetics and Human Culture 1964)9 

In the case the astronauts they have to take the planet with them in order to survive. We have now had to build space capsule environments that include the planet. We have to be so much involved in our own planetary forces and gravitations and so that we can simulate it. The old idea of participation in natural forces was by simulation — the tribal dancing and so on was done by mimicry of the natural forces in order to control them. Well, that’s what modern science does. Modern science mimics nature in all its levels. (McLuhan to Studs Terkel, 1966) 

electric technology enables us to mime or simulate the old planetary environment in our [space] capsules. (The Emperor’s Old Clothes 1966)

In his Poetics (Chapter IV, 1448b), Aristotle reminded us that mimesis is the process by which all men learn. He alluded to the process of making by which our perceptions simulate within us the environment that we encounter outside ourselves.  It is this learning and making process that, by electric circuitry, is being extended beyond our central nervous system. The next phase of this extension will naturally concern the action of making consciousness technologically. What we have called education in recent centuries has consisted in visiting or in simulating as many earlier environments and cultures as possible. Language is unrivaled in providing the actual sensuous modalities of other environments, with their unique ground rules. Electric circuitry can become a means to bypass language and plug directly into other modes of consciousness.  (The Emperor’s Old Clothes 1966)10

The all-at-onceness of the electronic environment dispenses with connections. To this degree does it not simulate our unconscious? Having long supposed that the next extension of man would be that of his consciousness, it strikes me as only too fitting that all the while it was the unconscious that had been externalized.11 That is, it is a fitting mark of my own inability to see the present.12 (McLuhan to Warren Brodey, February, 8, 1967)

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. That is why electronic information services can simulate the character of the unconscious so readily.  These same services involve us in depth in all the past and present experiences of the race, creating a profoundly mythic milieu for living, if not for thinking. (The Future of Morality: inner vs outer quest 1967)

The computer enables you to simulate any type of situation, a learning situation, a war situation, way in advance of its coming into reality. (CBC Interview of McLuhan by Bob Quintell, , 1967)

Art is ceasing to be a special kind of object to be inserted in a special kind of space. The sense of participation in the art process has reached an extreme in the so-called “Happenings,” which are plausible simulations of environmental control. (Through the Vanishing Point, 1968)

the story line in the minotaur myth is that of human cognition, leading to the confrontation with human identity, which is the monster. This is what [the] labyrinth was. It simulated the act of cognition.13 (Exploration of museum communication, 1969)

The [trips induced by] hallucinogenic drugs, as chemical simulations of our electric environment,14 thus revive senses long atrophied by the overwhelmingly visual orientation of the mechanical culture.15 (Playboy Interview, 1969)

The motorcar has been obsolete for some time but it may be some quite irrelevant aspect of the car that will finally finish it off. The car, as a means of concentrating workers, or polluting environments with both hardware and smog, seems to continue quite merrily. Its persistence in spite of numerous inconveniences may be due to some hidden factor such as its simulation of the space capsule, providing a carapace for the human organism in an ever more intimidating environment. In other words, transportation may not be the reason for the continuance of the car at all. (Innovation is Obsolete, 1971)

No greater fulfillment of the visual man’s preference has occurred than the faking of the real world in the “software” world of “celluloid” and the silver screen. In this “reel world” a vast simulation of the outer realities was provided as a fantasia of the semiconscious movie patrons. (Take Today, 95-96)

 

 

 

  1. See note 3 for example.
  2. Richard. Dawkins published The Selfish Gene in 1976. Chapter 11 is ‘Memes: the new replicators’.
  3. ‘Simulate’ is used here to mean ‘put on’, ‘pretend’, ‘dissemble’, etc. It is deceptive and decidedly negative. Later it becomes something more like ‘account for’, ‘formulate an algorithm for’, ‘provide a demonstrable discipline of’, ‘set out an investigative field for’, etc.  It is revealing and decidedly positive. Yet another meaning emerges when he maintains in Through the Vanishing Point (1968) that “happenings (…) are plausible simulations of environmental control”, where the sense is ‘provide an example of’, ‘show the ultimate implications of’, etc.
  4. See McLuhan to Warren BrodeyFebruary 8, 1967, cited in the post above, where McLuhan corrects this notion from the extension of consciousness to the extension of the unconscious.
  5. The letter to Skornia continues: I think it will occur in the 1960’s. It does not mean the end of private awareness, rather a huge heightening of same via involvement in corporate energies. Corporate awareness, of course, is iconic, inclusive, Not an aspect, not a moment out of a total life, but all moments of that life simultaneously.” “Corporate awareness” here is “all moments (…) simultaneously” in the same way as chemistry is “all moments” of material nature “simultaneously”. McLuhan’s notion is that human experience must become just as conscious of its own laws and properties as it has come to know, mostly in the last two centuries, those of physical entities.
  6. Regarding “the technological simulation of consciousness”, see McLuhan to Warren Brodey, February 8, 1967, per note 4 above.
  7. Regarding “the electric extension of the process of collective consciousness” see note 4 above.
  8. Regarding “simulate the process of consciousness” and “extension of our consciousness”, see note 4 above.
  9. Regarding “the need to simulate consciousness”, see note 4 above.
  10. Regarding “the action of making consciousness technologically”, see note 4 above.
  11. See MM to Harry Skornia October 4, 1963 above — and the following passages which also speak of the extension of consciousness, not of the unconscious.
  12. Fine example of McLuhan’s self-depreciation which is nearly always missed in assessments of his work which commonly take it to be absurdlyly self-aggrandizing.
  13. Beginning around 1950, McLuhan investigated the notion of “the identity of the processes of cognition and creation” — “artistic creation is the playback of ordinary experience” (Playboy Interview).
  14. Compare Laws of Media 83: “the caricature of inner or right-hemisphere awareness experienced by the drug culture of hallucinogenics (…) provides an artificial mimesis of the electric information environment.”
  15. McLuhan continues: “LSD and related hallucinogenic drugs, furthermore, breed a highly tribal and communally oriented subculture, so it’s understandable why the retribalized young take to drugs like a duck to water.”

McLuhan and Plato 13: epyllion

In his unpublished notes on ‘little epic’ from the middle or late 1950s, McLuhan makes these interesting points regarding Plato:

  • “There is nothing that was later known as idyll and epyllion in Alexandria that was not familiar to Plato and Aristotle.”
  • “There was nothing new about little epic to Plato and Aristotle — the Platonic dialogues can be read as epiphanies of truth obtained in the ritual tracing of the labyrinths of dialectic.”

A decade or so later, in ‘Toward an Inclusive Consciousness’, 1967:

Plato and Aristotle, the representatives of the new literate culture of Greece in philosophy, had this same doubleness. They straddled the written and oral traditions. They translated the tribal encyclopedia of the preceding culture into the written, classified form.1 

The same point is made regarding Aristotle in Laws of Media:

Aristotle and others were working with one foot in each world, as it were, using the new forms of [literate] awareness but trying to retain or update the ideas of the old oral culture. (33)

Doubleness’ was the central characteristic of the little epic (epyllion) for McLuhan. In his view its labyrinthine character amounted to a resonance between distinct plots, styles and lessons. ‘Dialectic’ in Plato could be seen as the attempt to instill acquaintance with this resonance — via this resonance.

  1. McLuhan seems to have taken this point from G.R. Levy. His ‘Maritain on Art’ (1953) quotes Levy’s Gate of Horn (1948) on what she saw “Plato and Aristotle as having been consciously engaged in doing”, namely: “Plato’s theory of Ideas constitutes a gigantic effort to establish the mystic doctrine upon an intellectual basis. The relation of created things to the ‘pattern laid up in heaven’ is, as we saw, that methexis, or participation, which Aristotle equated with mimesis, the ‘imitation’ by which the living world was built upon the Pythagorean numbers.” The same passage from Levy is cited in McLuhan’s Wyndham Lewis essay later that year of 1953.

Predicting the present

John Kettle’s 1965 article, ‘Marshall McLuhan: Prophet and Analyst of the Age of Instant Knowledge’,1 ends with some observations by McLuhan which uncannily look ahead to 1968 — 3 years later.

Kettle concludes his article with McLuhan’s “response (verbatim, complete)2 to my request for biographical detail”:

I like being Canadian. Being Canadian is to be a 19th century person in a very special sense. The Canadian can use his country as a DEW Line for the whole century. A Canadian knows more about Americans than anybody; they’re his immediate environment.
I have this immediate sense of the 20th century as very odd, surreal — as if the whole thing had been done by Dali, very witty, full of the most crazy conceits and witticisms. In my youth I merely rejected it totally as unfit for human habitation. Now I look at the 20th century as a new form.

The Dali TV Guide cover for June 8-14, 1968 elicited many comments from McLuhan.

The first Dew-Line newsletter, “Black Is Not A Color”, McLuhan Dew-Line Newsletter I/1, appeared in July 1968.

McLuhan’s Playboy Interview was published in 1969 but recorded in 1968:

For many years, until I wrote my first book, The Mechanical Bride, I adopted an extremely moralistic approach to all environmental technology. I loathed machinery, I abominated cities, I equated the Industrial Revolution with original sin and mass media with the Fall. In short, I rejected almost every element of modern life in favor of a Rousseauvian utopianism. But gradually I perceived how sterile and useless this attitude was, and (…) I ceased being a moralist and became a student.3

 

  1. John Kettle, ‘Marshall McLuhan: Prophet and Analyst of the Age of Instant Knowledge: Easing the Technological Burden of Western Man’, Canada Month, October 1965, 10-12.
  2. The bracketed specification is from Kettle.
  3. Full passage: “For many years, until I wrote my first book, The Mechanical Bride, I adopted an extremely moralistic approach to all environmental technology. I loathed machinery, I abominated cities, I equated the Industrial Revolution with original sin and mass media with the Fall. In short, I rejected almost every element of modern life in favor of a Rousseauvian utopianism. But gradually I perceived how sterile and useless this attitude was, and I began to realize that the greatest artists of the 20th Century — Yeats, Pound. Joyce, Eliot — had discovered a totally different approach, based on the identity of the processes of cognition and creation. I realized that artistic creation is the playback of ordinary experience — from trash to treasures. I ceased being a moralist and became a student.”

Global Conference on the Future

“The First Global Conference on the Future” was held in Toronto, July 20-25, 1980. It was sponsored jointly by the World Future Society and the Canadian Futures Society.1

Marshall McLuhan was given an award for his outstanding futures writings. He was in declining health at the time and as he struggled to the front to receive the award, his son Eric had to assist him. (Looking Back on the Future157)2

McLuhan died 5 months later on New Year’s Eve.

  1. The 59 page brochure for the conference is available at the Internet Archive:
  2. Looking Back on the Future by Fred G. Thompson (1992) describes the conference in Chapter 18, ‘The Great Global Conference of 1980’, 153-159:

    Thompson was a friend of McLuhan and at the time was Director of Communications Studies at Bell Northern Research in Ottawa.

Minotaur

In the myth of Dedalus the Greeks symbolized several matters. Primarily responsible for the Minotaur, he destroyed many generations of hopeful youth. The Minotaur he preserved by a labyrinth of great ingenuity whereby, says Francis Bacon, “is shadowed the nature of mechanical sciences, for all such handicraft works as are more ingenious and accurate may be compared to a labyrinth in respect of subtlety and divers intricate passages (…) For mechanical arts are of ambiguous use, serving as well for hurt as for remedy.” (Typhon in America, ca 1948)1

Any movement of appetite within the labyrinth of cognition is a “minotour” which must be slain by the hero artist. Anything which interferes with cognition, whether concupiscence, pride, imprecision or vagueness, is a minotaur ready to devour beauty. So that Joyce not only was the first to reveal the link between the stages of apprehension and the creative process, he was the first to understand how the drama of cognition itself was the key archetype of all human ritual myth and legend. And thus he was able to incorporate at every point in his work the body of the past in immediate relation to the slightest current of perception. (Joyce, Aquinas, and the Poetic Process, 1951)

Joyce (…) wanted and got a simultaneous control of widest perspectives and the most intimate and evanescent moments of apprehension. And this he was able to achieve by analysis of the labyrinth of cognition which Aristotle and Aquinas had revealed to him. It is thus, for example, that he is able to include in the first two pages [of The Portrait of the Artistthe entire experience of the race, the ground plan of all his unwritten work, and the most individual features of Stephen’s expanding awareness. The opening words place the hero in the traditional labyrinth and confront him with a minotaur adopted to his infant years: “Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo…”. Stephen Hero is so named because the artist in that work confronts and slays scores of minotaurs. The book swarms with labyrinths of many kinds and levels. (Joyce, Aquinas, and the Poetic Process, 1951)

Traditionally there are two kinds of labyrinth, stone and sea, eye and ear. Joyce uses both constantly. (…) The moment of arrest is an epiphany, a moment not in time’s covenant, and it is by the bringing of complex perceptions to a focus in such moments that the minotaurs of the labyrinths are always overcome. (Joyce, Aquinas, and the Poetic Process, 1951)

Know-how is so eager and powerful an ally of human needs that it is not easily controlled or kept in a subordinate role, even when directed by spectacular wisdom. Harnessed merely to a variety of blind appetites for power and success, it draws us swiftly into that labyrinth at the end of which waits the minotaur. So it is in this period of passionate acceleration that the world of the machines begins to assume the threatening and unfriendly countenance of an inhuman wilderness even less manageable than that which once confronted prehistoric man. Reason is then swiftly subdued by panic desires to acquire protective coloration. As terrified men once got ritually and psychologically into animal skins, so we already have gone far to assume and to propagate the behavior mechanisms of the machines that frighten and overpower us.2 (The Mechanical Bride, 1951)

the labyrinth with its accompanying association of the Minotaur, symbol of the encounter with the self. (Through the Vanishing Point, 1968)3

the story line in the minotaur myth is that of human cognition, leading to the confrontation with human identity, which is the monster. (Exploration of the ways, means, and values of museum communication with the viewing public, 1969)

Daedalus, the mightiest maker or engineer of an­tiquity, contrived the labyrinth that enclosed the Minotaur. The first page of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man concerns the cognitive labyrinth as it is traversed by Stephen, the artist hero, in his first encounter with the Minotaur and the other scandals (cf. Greek etymology)4Stephen’s surname is not Daedalus but “Dedalus,” i.e., “dead all us.” Joyce’s last story in Dubliners, “The Dead,” and the last lines of the Portrait explain the relation of the young artist to the dead; “I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of ex­perience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated con­science of my race.” This verbal implication of ricorso, the millions of repetitions of the cognitive labyrinth, which is traced on the first page of the Portrait, is the task of making sense, of waking the somnambulists in the labyrinth of cognition. (From Cliché to Archetype, 1970)5

Q — is television a monster? A — Yes. It’s literally a tribal monster like the Minotaur from Greek mythology trapped in a maze of sensation. This Bull-man monster swallowed humans lost in the maze. And that’s exactly what TV does. Some of our young are fed to the Minotaur every year. (McLuhan on the Evils of TV, 1977)

  1. Book III.
  2. “As terrified men once got ritually and psychologically into animal skins, so we already have gone far to assume and to propagate the behavior mechanisms of the machines that frighten and overpower us.” Compare McLuhan to Pound, June 22, 1951: “Consider the effect of modern machinery in imposing rhythm on human thought and feeling. Archaic man got inside the thing that terrified him — tiger, bear, wolf — and made it his totem god. To-day we get inside the machine. It is inside us. We in it. Fusion. Oblivion. Safety. Now the human machines are geared to smash one another. You can’t shout warnings or encouragement to these machines. First there has to be a retracing process. A reduction of the machine to human form. Circe only turned men into swine. Our problem is tougher.” (Letters 227).
  3. Page 219.
  4. The bracketed suggestion is from McLuhan.
  5. Page 148-149.

Easterbrook on Innis

In 1978 Tom Easterbrook participated in the University of Toronto oral history project, completing 4 roughly one-hour tapes between November 27 and December 8 that year.

The Easterbrook tapes are very disappointing, not only because the quality of the recordings is often poor, but especially because the questioner seems to have been more interested in the minutiae of the administration of the Political Economics department than in Easterbrook’s incomparably more important relations with Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan. Easterbrook’s intimate interactions with Innis in the 1951-1952 period, when Innis was dying, are mentioned only in regard to Easterbrook taking over Innis’ course on communications.1 And the 1953-1955 Ford seminar on culture and technology, where Easterbook worked with Ted Carpenter, Carl Williams, Jacky Tyrwhitt and McLuhan, is hardly touched upon in passing. 

Both Williams and McLuhan were decades-long friends of Easterbrook from the University of Manitoba and Easterbrook and Williams were grad students at UT at the same time in the mid 1930’s when McLuhan was at Cambridge. The three were then colleagues at the University of Toronto for around 30 years beginning in the 1940s until Williams left UT to become president of the University of Western Ontario. Information from Easterbrook about the relations of the three friends over the 1930-1978 period would have been priceless, especially concerning the dynamics of the Ford seminar. 

The eight-minute passage transcribed here from the first tape2 gives an abbreviated overview of Easterbrook’s relation with Harold Innis. Innis was Easterbrook’s PhD thesis adviser in the mid 1930s and arranged the 1938 University of Toronto Press publication of that thesis, Farm Credit in Canada, with a ‘Foreword’ by Innis himself. Easterbrook’s observations have been edited for clarity here, but can easily be checked against the original via the link given in the second footnote below.

Then something [happened] that changed my whole life (…) I had heard about a guy named Innis, who (…) had an awful lot to say if you cared to listen. So I went along to a class (…) and watched this (…) figure walk in with some scrappy looking notes and stand in front of the class. He seemed to be completely unaware that anyone was present. Pedagogically this was a disaster. He read this stuff and, you know, that seemed to me heresy. I’d been raised in what seemed to me the oral tradition where, if you knew your stuff, you spouted it and you kept people alive [to the flow of the lecture]. 

I don’t think he was ever really aware of the size of an audience or cared very much [about it]. There was a story that during a blizzard he arrived in a great hall (…) and I think three people had arrived out of a hundred or so [enrolled students]. I was told that he [nevertheless] gave the full lecture. 

On the other hand, what caught me was that this was an exploring mind at work and this was his own work. Now this was something new to me. For years I’d been listening to professors spouting about the work of others. [In contrast], this [from Innis] was hard rock mining in Canadian scholarly areas of research. When he talked, it was his work. And the lessons he drew from seemingly minor incidents, you know, like how steam points in the Klondike revolutionized the [gold mining] industry up there and then [could be] traced through the whole effects of what was a much more massive change than I’d realized because I’d had no historical background at all. I’d avoided history as poison in Manitoba because of my high school experience where you memorized kings from now to kingdom come (…).

So I was caught. 

Now there was a problem. I talked to him and while he never talked much, for a man who was such a communications expert in his field it was very hard to engage in dialogue with him. (…) He’d say, ‘it’s interesting’ or something — but l don’t ever remember the kind of spontaneous open discussion that I had with McLuhan and several others over the years. It never worked [with Innis]. On the other hand, when you left him, you were fired up [to get on with your work]. (…)

So I began very intensive studies of Canadian economic history right from the beginning, the French period and all the rest of it, and discovered that Innis had a helluva lot to say and that he had the most revealing mind I’ve ever encountered. He could take a simple fact like the contrast between drying [salted ashore] and green [salted onboard] fisheries. They had the most physical difference and the most profound effects on the trading systems of two empires and their relationships with the new world. He saw a whole set of interrelationships from what often seemed to be a very simple proposition into quite a network of change with a definite sense of pattern to it. It was exciting. I tried to tell students who didn’t read his Fur Trade, they ought to read it just to see how you have the whole thing laid out. That’s why it’s such an interesting book. You have tremendous massing of evidence, [the details of] quintal [weights, and so on] — and then [you have] the purple passage, the pulling [everything] together. It’s just like raising a curtain on the whole thing. A whole set of revelations appears in just two or three paragraphs and then you’re back into the sifting, the turning over, [of further details]. His processing seemed to be to sift, turn over, work with material until, intuitively, a sense of pattern emerges, in which he could relate a whole series of elements in terms of their interactions against the background of change regarded in the Gestalt sense.3

[Lately] I’ve been trying to absorb some of this in a course in the physics area, and I’m astonished how many of the findings that they regard as very modern in modern science involve a methodology that is very similar to the one [Innis] adopted.4 (…)

[In my grad work in the 1930s] I carried on doing a bit of statistics on banking and then [got] going into Innis and doing something on early farm finance. (…) My whole interest had shifted to Innis.5 (…) I swung completely over [to him]. So then followed nearly three years [~1934-1937] of intensive work [by me] largely devoted to Innis’s preoccupations… 

 

  1. This may be one more nail in the coffin of McLuhan’s account of his meeting Innis. For discussion see McLuhan on first meeting Innis. But if Innis gave over his communications course to Easterbrook, presumably in 1951, McLuhan’s account falls apart completely.
  2. William Thomas James Easterbrook (oral history, part 1) — 27 November, 1978, 32.10–40:10.
  3. Easterbrook’s appeal to Gestalt here, and to the similarities between methodologies in the humanities and modern sciences, doubtless reflects the influence of McLuhan. Since 1964, when he first read Wolfgang Köhler‘s Gestalt Psychology, McLuhan had been talking incessantly about the Gestalt relation of figure and ground. Meanwhile, since meeting Sigfried Giedion in 1943, and reading Giedion’s work as a result, McLuhan had come to share Giedion’s view that the hidden ‘orchestration’ of the methodologies in the humanities and modern sciences needed to be brought to light and investigated in a ‘Faculty of Interrelations’. For discussion see Sigfried Giedion — A Faculty of Interrelations and Faculty of Interrelation in Toronto.
  4. See the previous note.
  5. A contemporary review of Farm Credit in Canada begins by indicating its Innisian methodology: “The eighty-five pages of notes which supplement the 169 pages of text indicate the character of this book”.

Crump’s Epyllion

McLuhan often referred to Marjorie Crump’s 1931 The Epyllion from Theocritus to Ovid.1 For example, in his ‘Intro­duction’ to Alfred Lord Tennyson: Selected Poetry, published in 1955, but apparently written and submitted years earlier, perhaps as early as 1951, he cites Crump describing “the general characteristics of this form(Crump, 22) as follows

An epyllion is a short narrative poem. The length may and does vary considerably, but an epyllion seems never to have exceeded the length of a single book, and probably the average length was four to five hundred lines. The sub­ject is sometimes merely an incident in the life of an epic hero or heroine, sometimes a complete story, the ten­dency of the author being to use little-known stories or possibly even to invent new ones. The later Alexandrians and Romans preferred love stories and usually concen­trated the interest on the heroine. (Crump, 22)2

This same passage from Crump was then re-cited decades later in From Cliché to Archetype (1970) in the course of a long self-quotation there from that same Tennyson ‘Introduction’:

The only extensive study of this form is Marjorie Crump’s The Epyllion from Theocritus to Ovid, which is discussed in the Intro­duction to Tennyson by Marshall McLuhan3: “The so-called art of the little epic (the idyll and epyllion) was a late Greek form associated with magical rituals. It was especially cultivated by Theocritus, who was Tennyson’s favorite poet. Theocritus and the Alexandrian school were di­rectly responsible for “the new poetry” of Catullus, Ovid, and Virgil.
The work of Theocritus, Catullus, Ovid, and Virgil, masters of the epyllion, needs to be known for any deep understanding of Tennyson’s technique in narrative poetry. But the discontinuous technique of the epyllion is equally the clue to the art form of
Dubliners, of The Waste Land, and of The CantosProfessor Crump describes the epyllion as follows: ‘… a short narrative poem. The length may and does vary considerably, but an epyllion seems never to have exceeded the length of a single book, and probably the average length was four to five hundred lines. The sub­ject is sometimes merely an incident in the life of an epic hero or heroine, sometimes a complete story, the ten­dency of the author being to use little-known stories or possibly even to invent new ones. The later Alexandrians and Romans preferred love stories and usually concen­trated the interest on the heroine.’ (…) Whereas the cyclic epic, as in Homer, moves on the single narrative plane of individual spiritual quest, the little epic as written by Ovid, Dante, Joyce, and Pound is ‘the tale of the tribe.’ That is to say, it is not so much a story of the in­dividual quest for perfection as it is a history of collective crime and punishment, an attempt to justify the ways of God to man. From this point of view ‘In Memoriam’, like Petrarch’s Sonnets, is a seasonal cycle of little epics or idylls in the form of the individual quest. And the Idylls of the King is the collective quest, the tale of the tribe. The twelve idylls follow the cycle of the zodiac, each book corresponding faith­fully to the traditional character of the twelve ‘houses’ of the zodiac. By following this traditional zodiacal track Tennyson was able over a long period to compose his twelve idylls in any order he found convenient.
The pattern of collective quest lends the prominent salva­tion note to the Idylls of the King and explains his philosophy of history. ‘The Coming of Arthur’ is thus the coming of the culture-hero, and Arthur’s struggles with the demonic earth powers are the theme of the cycle. The masculine-feminine duality of most of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King may have been suggested to him by the similar aspect of each house of the zodiac.”4

Another essay on Tennyson, the 1960 ‘Tennyson and the Romantic Epic‘,5 also touches on Crump’s book:

The culture-hero as conceived in our time by James Joyce (Stephen Hero) is he who has learned the technique of intercession between the profane and the divine. He is the inventor of language, the one who can capture in his net the divine powers. In her Epyllion from Theocritus to Ovid, Marjorie Crump comments on the passion for abstruse erudition which attached itself to the little epic forms: “The fashion for learning affected not only the style but the choice of subject. Scholars searched their records for unknown myths, strange customs and marvels of all kinds. The idea of explaining some custom or ceremony, which appears in certain of the Attic tragedies, took firm root in Alexandrine poetry, and gave rise to the Aitia of Callimachus and to various poems dealing with ktiseis or the founding of cities.”6 Here is an aspect of little epic which never leaves the form whether it is cultivated by Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, Spenser, or Marlowe. But its major phase is found in Joyce, Pound, and Eliot. Digression is the principal artistic device by which little epic exists. The reason for this is quite simple. To transcend time one simply interrupts the natural flow of events.7 

McLuhan wrote an introduction (‘Empedocles and T.S. Eliot’) to Empedocles by Helle Lambridis which appeard in 1976. Here again Crump is referenced after a citation from Empedocles:

“I shall speak a double truth;
at times one alone comes into being;
at other times out of one several things grow.
Double is the birth of mortal things and double their demise.
For the coming together of all both causes their birth
and destroys them; and separation nurtured in theirbeing makes them fly apart. These things never stop
changing throughout, at times coming together throughAmity in one whole, at other times being violently
separated by Strife. Thus, on one side, one whole
is formed out of many, and then again, wrenched from
each other, they make up many out of one. This is
the way they become, and their life is not long their
own, but in as far as they never stop changing throughout,in so far they are always immobile in a circle.” (…)
[McLuhan:] Empedocles (…) stresses “a double truth”. This is a matter central to Eliot, but it is also closely involved in the work of Yeats, who, as I have suggested, has elucidated the procedure in his brief essay on “The Emotion of Multitude”.8 This emotion, or sense of the universal in the particular, is born of “a double truth”, somewhat in the mode of Quantum Mechanics where the chemical bond is the result not of a connection but of a “resonant interval” such as must obtain between the wheel and the axle. The means [or media!] indicated by Yeats for achieving the emotion of multitude are familiar to modern students of Shakespeare under the head of “double plots”, and these means were taught in antiquity as essential to the aitiological epic or the Epyllion. 
(See Marjorie Crump’s The Epyllion from Theocritus to Ovid.)9

One of McLuhan’s last publications, the 1979 ‘Pound, Eliot, and the Rhetoric of The Waste Land’10 reverts to Crump once again: 

The discontinuous epyllion, or mythic, structure, as Marjorie Crump explains, requires a plot and digression, or a double plot, which constitutes a metamorphic structure of figure in interplay with ground — necessary to the etiological epic, a study of origins and causes.

One chapter in Crump must have particularly struck McLuhan, reminding him of Eric Havelock’s 3-part essay, ‘Virgil’s Road to Xanadu’, which was published in the first year McLuhan taught at UT, 1946-1947. Since McLuhan does not appear to have read Crump before the early 1950s, it must have been this essay by Havelock, McLuhan’s UT colleague at the time, which introduced him to the epyllion form and may have prompted him to the study of Virgil which he made over the next decade.11

Crump’s chapter begins:

The story of Aristreus, which closes the fourth Georgic, is the most beautiful of the Latin epyllia. Embodying, as it does, Vergil’ s most finished work in the epic style, it has at once the technical perfection (…) and the poetic beauty of Vergil’s greatest period. So direct is the narrative and so great the charm that it is almost a shock to the critic to discover that it is constructed on the lines of the formal epyllion, and is a genuine product of Alexandria. It is, in fact, an Alexandrian epyllion transfigured by that undefinable quality which constitutes the genius of Vergil.12 (178)

It was Havelock’s essay exactly on this Aristaeus episode in Georgics 4 (perhaps itself suggested by Crump’s monograph), that prompted McLuhan to a study of the epyllion form and of Virgil’s use of it — studies he began in the late 1940s. And it was these, not without other factors like his encounters at that time with Mallarmé and Innis, that prompted McLuhan to a changed sense of the “intercession between the profane and the divine’ (as cited above from his 1960 Tennyson essay). And it was this shift that entailed the great change recorded by him in his 1969 Playboy interview:

For many years, until I wrote my first book, The Mechanical Bride,13 I adopted an extremely moralistic approach to all environmental technology. I loathed machinery, I abominated cities, I equated the Industrial Revolution with original sin and mass media with the Fall. In short, I rejected almost every element of modern life in favor of a Rousseauvian utopianism. But gradually I perceived how sterile and useless this attitude was, and I began to realize that the greatest artists of the 20th Century — Yeats, Pound. Joyce, Eliot — had discovered a totally different approach, based on the identity of the processes of cognition and creation. I realized that artistic creation is the playback of ordinary experience — from trash to treasures. I ceased being a moralist and became a student.14

The great lesson from the epyllion form is put by Crump as follows:

The digression [on Orpheus and Eurydice] obeys the [Alexandrian] convention which requires a contrast of style in the two parts of the epyllion.15  The convention of a contrast and yet a parallel in subject is also observed. The main subject [Aristaeus and his bees] is the story of a loss, which is ultimately made good. The digression [Orpheus and Eurydice] tells of loss without recovery, the pathos being heightened by the frustrated restoration of Eurydice [from Hades]. Underlying the pathos is the moral, characteristic of many of Vergil’s tragic stories, that the consequences of guilt fall most heavily on innocent people. Aristaeus, who is responsible for the whole tragedy, ultimately recovers his bees; for Orpheus and Eurydice there is no recovery. (189-190)

Until he was around 40, McLuhan had seen only the contrast between the  tradition he revered and the modernity he detested. He had not also seen the parallel between them. And it was this change of vantage from mere exclusion — only difference — to inclusion — difference and unity — that  spurred him to become a student of the two of them at once.

 

 

  1. The Epyllion from Theocritus to Ovid, by M. Marjorie Crump. Pp. viii + 284. Oxford: Blackwell. 1931.
  2. Crump continues here: “The style varies; it may be entirely narrative, or may be decorated with descriptive passages of a realistic character. The dramatic form is frequently employed, and it is usual to find at least one long speech. So far the only distinction between the epyllion and the narrative hymn consists in the subject. A hymn always tells the story of a god, whereas an epyllion deals with human beings; gods may appear as characters, but there is no emphasis on their divinity. There is, however, one characteristic of the epyllion which sharply distinguishes it from other types, namely the digression. Except the Hylas of Theocritus, all the extant epyllia before the time of Ovid possess digressions. The digression is a second story, often of great length, con­tained within the first, and frequently quite unconnected with it in subject. Usually it appears as a story told by one of the characters; less commonly as a description of a work of art. Judging from the extant examples, it seems to have been the practice to secure an artistic connection between the two parts of the poem by using parallel subjects and contrasting the details; or two definitely contrasting subjects might be chosen; in many cases there is also a contrast of style. (…) The digression is probably an inheritance from both Homer and Hesiod. The Shield of Achilles and the narrative of Odysseus are obvious Homeric examples (…) But in Homer the important digressions are an integral part of the whole story, while any irrelevant matter is kept strictly subordinate to the main interest. In the epyllion the digression is often as important as the main subject, and sometimes even becomes the more important of the two, the main subject acting as a framework. Here we find the Hesiodic tradition at work, for the genealogical catalogue had to depend for its interest on its narrative digression. The general style of the epyllion is that of all Alexandrian poetry, formal, allusive, learned. The language and atmosphere are more homely than those of grand epic, and a graceful use of realism gives great charm to the work of some poets.” (Crump, 22-23-24)
  3. McLuhan and Wilfred Watson refer to McLuhan in the third person here.
  4. From Cliché to Archetype, pp. 94-96. McLuhan and Watson continue here: “For each planet’s day home is located in a positive masculine sign, and its night home in a negative or feminine sign.” The wokers will jump on this as an indication of McLuhan’s prejudice and ignorance and as reason to cancel him. But McLuhan’s life was in fact happily dominated by women — by his mother Elsie, his wife Corinne, his secretary Marg Stewart and his 4 daughters, Mary, Teri, Stephanie and Elizabeth. Over and over again in his work he praises the feminine ability to multitask roles. In his view, women are more ‘electric’ than men, less Gutenbergian, and therefore more likely than men to lead the world in healthy directions. So ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ are used here not in an evaluative sense, but in the electro-magnetic sense of interactive poles.
  5. ‘Tennyson and the Romantic Epic’ in Critical Essays on the Poetry of Tennyson, ed. John Killham, 1960, 86–95.
  6. Crump, 14. McLuhan cites this same passage in his unpublished notes on the little epic dating from the 1950s.
  7. For Crump on digression in the epyllion form see note 2 above.
  8. See Yeats on the emotion of multitude.
  9. The bracketed reference here is from McLuhan. The same point about “the aitiological epic” had been made in a letter from him to Joe Keogh in 1969: “Apropos aitios, remember it is the technical term for ‘little epic’, cf. Marjorie Crump.”
  10. ‘Pound, Eliot, and the Rhetoric of The Waste Land’, New Literary History, 10:3, Spring 1979.
  11. For references and discussion, see Jackson Knight on “the main question” and The Road to Xanadu.
  12. Crump and other British scholars like Jackson Knight preferred the ‘Vergil’ spelling to ‘Virgil’.
  13. The Mechanical Bride appeared early in 1951. But it was largely composed in the late 1940s.
  14. McLuhan’s realization “that artistic creation is the playback of ordinary experience — from trash to treasures” might be formulated as the artist’s “sense of the universal in the particular” and of the “intercession between the profane and the divine”.
  15. For Crump on digression in the epyllion form see note 2 above.

Gutenberg Quincentenary 1940

For the academic year 1939-1940, McLuhan had a sabbatical from his teaching position at St Louis University. He and his wife Corinne, who married on August 4, 1939, just before their departure for England, spent the year in Cambridge where McLuhan had obtained his second BA degree three years before (following his first from the University of Manitoba in 1933). During this time, McLuhan would receive his second MA degree based on that earlier work in Cambridge (again following his first MA from the University of Manitoba in 1934) and begin systematic research for his 1943 Cambridge PhD thesis. But the time he would have for this second stint in Cambridge was cut short by WW2, forcing the McLuhans to leave prematurely for North America at the end of May 1940.

At just this time, immediately before the McLuhans’ hurried departure from Cambridge, “an exhibition of printing” was mounted at the Fitzwilliam Museum there celebrating the quincentenary of the invention of movable type by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440. The exhibition was scheduled to run from May 6 to June 23, 1940, but was closed after only 10 days, on May 16, due to the possibility of bomb damage to it from the intensifying air war. 

The excellent History of Information website records the ‘Foreword’ to the exhibition catalogue as follows:

There is no moral to this exhibition. It aims at portraying, as objectively as possible, the uses to which printing from movable type has been put since Gutenberg and his associates invented it five hundred years ago; the spread of knowledge more quickly and accurately than was possible before, the storing of human experience, the providing of entertainment, the simplification of the increasingly complicated business of living. Those books, papers, and other printing have been chosen (so far as the difficulties of the times would permit) which made most effective use of the medium of type; in other words, those which, composed and multiplied, most strongly influenced people and events. Others have been chosen for their illustration of events and trends of particular importance or interest; others again for their intrinsic curiosity as examples of the exploitation of print. All are shewn so far as possible in the original editions in which they were first presented to the world.

The exhibition has been designed therefore to illustrate the development of man’s use of movable type as a tool; its spread from Mainz through the countries of the world, through all the fields of knowledge, through the whole range of man’s activities. Running through the story another theme presents itself and draws occasional comment — the development of the actual form of printing. The technical display deals with the old and modern methods fo type-founding and composition, and briefly illustrates the development of type design. That part of the exhibition is education; for the rest, though there is much to learn from it, it does not set out to teach. It is simply an illustration to that proud but unattributed saying: 

With my twenty-six soldiers of lead I have conquered the world.1  

Although McLuhan would certainly have heard of this “exhibition of printing”, he may or may not have visited it. However that may have been, 11 years later in March 1951,2 he would write to his University of Toronto colleague, Harold Innis, that “the modern press” as a “technological form” (“the medium of type”, as the exhibition catalogue has it) was “efficacious far beyond any informative purpose”. That is, the medium of print was “efficacious far beyond” any particular message it may have been used from time to time to convey:

[Mallarmé] saw at once that the modern press was not a rational form but a magical one so far as communication was concerned. Its very technological form was bound to be efficacious far beyond any informative purpose.3

In the year after that, in 1952, he would announce in a letter to Ezra Pound:

I’m writing a book on “The End of the Gutenberg Era”.4

The book was profiled in the letter to Pound and its second section, “Invention of printing”, had this outline:

  • Mechanization of writing
  • Study becomes solitary
  • Decline of painting music etc in book countries
  • Cult of book and house and study
  • Cult of vernacular because of commercial possibilities
  • Republicanism via association of simple folk on equal terms with “mighty dead”.

It would be a further 10 years later, in 1962 — 22 years after the 1940 Cambridge exhibition — when McLuhan would finally publish the book under the new title of The Gutenberg Galaxy.

Now in 1963 another exhibition, Printing and the Mind of Man, was held in London which modeled itself on the 1940 one in Cambridge.

This 1963 catalogue noted: 

We pay tribute to the organizers of the Gutenberg Quincentenary Exhibition of Printing, assembled at Cambridge in 1940 (and prematurely disassembled because of the risks from enemy bombing). It was our original inspiration for several sections of our display, and its invigorating catalogue has been our constant friend.

The 1967 edition of the catalogue has a slightly different acknowledgement:

A partial attempt [“to illustrate (…) the internal development of (…) printing as a craft”] had, indeed, been made in the Gutenberg Quincentenary exhibition at Cambridge in 1940. This was a suggestive forerunner for several sections in our display, and its invigorating catalogue was a constant friend.

In regard to the work of Marshall McLuhan, several interesting questions are suggested by this history:

  • did the 1940 Exhibition of Printing in Cambridge, mounted while McLuhan was on sabbatical there, plant the seed, not only for his 1962 book, The Gutenberg Galaxy, but even for his one lifelong topic of “the medium is the message”?5 
  • did rumors of the impending 1963 exhibition, Printing and the Mind of Man, finally motivate McLuhan to get The Gutenberg Galaxy out the door at last in 1962? (As noted above, he had been working intermittently on the book since at least 1952!)

 

  1. The History of Information website has an image of this ‘Foreword’.
  2. What happened between 1940 and 1951 to recall or otherwise activate what McLuhan knew of technological innovations, particularly in the area of communications? Answers to this question point in several directions, the most important of which is: McLuhan’s move to the University of Toronto in 1946 and his exposure there to the work of Harold Innis and of Eric Havelock. By the middle 1940s, both of these professors, the first in Political Economy, the second in Classics, had begun to research, apparently influenced by each other, the role of communication media in historical change. Innis was already publishing in the area and Havelock’s research on the role of orality in Greek culture was widely discussed in the Toronto academic community. Now from his early mentors at the University of Manitoba, particularly Rupert Lodge, McLuhan had long been exposed to the notion that all human experience is preformed by a multiplicity of irreducible forms. His 1943 Cambridge PhD thesis examined the history of this notion in terms of the educational trivium over the 2000 years between between classical Greece in 400 BC and Elizabethan England in 1600. A 1944 lecture (published in 1946) brought this “ancient quarrel” of irreducible forms into the present. But how were these forms to be generally recognized for open investigation? And what accounted for the relative rise and fall of these forms over time? ‘Media’ (although not in a literal sense) would eventually answer these questions for McLuhan. But this realization would take decades and remained in an inchoate form until the late 1950s. In fact, in a 1975 conversation with Nina Sutton (given in James Tenney and Wolfgang Köhler) McLuhan referred even to his 1964 Understanding Media as “the early time” of his thinking!
  3. McLuhan to Harold Innis, March 14, 1951, Letters 221. McLuhan would coin the phrase, “the medium is the message”, after 7 more years had passed, in 1958. See The medium is the message in 1958.
  4. McLuhan to Ezra Pound, July 16, 1952, Letters 231. The End of the Gutenberg Era remained the working title for McLuhan’s book throughout the 1950s. It was changed to The Gutenberg Galaxy in 1960 or 1961 to get away from the chronological implications of ‘era’ — McLuhan had come to see that media as structural possibilities are ‘all at once’.
  5. An important question (further to note 2 above): Did McLuhan engage the topic of ‘the medium is the message’ long before his coining of the phrase in 1958? Consider only that his 1943 Nashe thesis treated the three trivial arts as media in several senses. Each was regarded as a cultural medium in the laboratory sense of promoting identifiable growths. At the same time, each was regarded as a structural form (‘medium’ in another sense) whose recognition could enable collective investigation of the cultural field. These insights lie at the heart of McLuhan’s contribution, along with his slightly later one that media are ratios and that ratios may systematically be expressed in terms of their middles.

James Tenney and Wolfgang Köhler

James Tenney taught at York University in Toronto for 24 years. He was a prolific and influential composer, friend of John Cage and well connected to the Toronto avant-garde musical scene.1 

Tenney’s MA thesis at the University of Illinois, META + HODOS, was published in 1961 and is subtitled “A Phenomenology of 20th-Century Musical Materials and an Approach to the Study of Form”. Along with its central treatment of ‘clang’,2 it repeatedly references Wolfgang Köhler‘s Gestalt Psychology.3

Tenney does not seem to have been mentioned by McLuhan and he may or may not have read Tenney’s META + HODOS.  But it could well have been through knowledge in Toronto of Tenney’s musical and theoretical work that McLuhan came to read Köhler in 1964, just after the publication of Understanding Media. Köhler’s figure/ground would, of course, be at the core of McLuhan’s work for the remaining 15 years of his life. As he said to Nina Sutton:

I was not using figure/ground [in Understanding Media]. It was in the early time [of my thinking] when I wrote that book. I was not using figure/ground. Now [1975] I have switched completely to figure/ground. (…) The medium is ground and the so-called message always figure. (…) The wheel and the axle is figure/ground. (…) They can change roles. The axle can be figure. The wheel can be ground. Or vice versa. (…) They flip all the time. Anything can become a figure to a ground and any ground can become a figure to another ground. They interrelate. (…) Remember, in figure/ground, they both work simultaneously. And it doesn’t much matter which one is top and which one is under. (…) It’s complementary, figure/ground. One has to have the other. You can’t have one without the other.4

  1. Tenney’s Collage No. 1 (‘Blue Suede’) from 1961 is said to have been an early model for John Oswald’s plunderphonics:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plunderphonics
    https://ciufo.org/classes/114_fl11/readings/Oswald_audio_culture.pdf.
  2. ‘Clang’ is discussed already in McLuhan’s 1951 ‘The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape Poetry’: “T.E. Hulme on space-thinking in Speculations will lead the student back through Hartmann and Lipps on these questions. Lipps is of special importance for an understanding of Joyce, Pound, and Eliot: ‘The simple clang represents to a certain extent all music. The clang is a rhythmical system built up on a fundamental rhythm. This fundamental rhythm is more or less richly differentiated in the rhythm of the single tones.’ Theodor Lipps, Psychological Studies, 2d ed., tr. by H.C. Sanborn, Baltimore, 1926, p. 223.” The thinking here is that the same momentary process, or ‘rhythmical system’, beginning in an act of creation, underlies all cognition, from the most ordinary to the most artistic: “the greatest artists of the 20th Century — Yeats, Pound. Joyce, Eliot — had discovered a totally different approach, based on the identity of the processes of cognition and creation. (…) Artistic creation is the playback of ordinary experience” (Playboy interview).
    Lipps and clang are mentioned again in ‘James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial’ (1953): “The experiments of Lipps at the end of the last century illustrated how all possible musical structures were contained in a single clang of a bell.”
    Twenty years later in a letter to Ted Carpenter: “
    You remember Theodore Lipps with his observation that all possible symphonies were contained in the single clang of a bell? Is not the same true of language? Acoustically speaking, an entire linguistic culture could be encoded acoustically in almost any phrase or pattern of that tongue.” (March 23, 1973, Letters 473)
  3. The term ‘gestalt’ appears 82 times in the 95 pages of META + HODOS; Köhler is mentioned by name a further 6 times.
  4. Around the same time as his conversations with Nina Sutton, McLuhan wrote to his old friend, Morton Bloomfield (the two were at the University of Wisconsin together in 1936-1937): “I have begun to realize that my peculiar approach to all matters has been to enter via the ground rather than the figure. In any gestalt the ground is taken for granted and the figure receives all the attention. The ground is subliminal, an area of effects rather than of causes.” (March 26,1973, Letters 473-474)

The kinetic sense

McLuhan often ran together “the kinetic sense” or “movement” with the sense of touch, although these (“the kinetic sense” or “movement”) are usually, of course, not thought of as ‘senses’ at all. For example, here he is in one of his presentations at Fordham in September 1967:

The visual sense is the only sense we have that gives detachment: movement, touch, hearing etcetera, are very involved senses.1 

Touch was not to be taken literally, of course, but as the tactile ‘in-between’ of the other senses, particularly seeing and hearing, the eye and the ear.2 In this context, “the kinetic sense” seems to have been intended as the ‘action of tactility’, the dynamism or metaphoricity of tactility in the multiple ways the gapped ‘in-between’ of the eye and ear may be crossed.

McLuhan indicated this intention in another presentation at Fordham as follows:

the interval is very tactile — the space between sounds is not audible naturally, it’s tactile — you have to close that [space] kinetically3 

Later in this seminar he spoke of the flash between the eye and ear”.4

The time of this tactile crossing/closing/flashing between eye and ear is first of all synchronic and vertical, not diachronic and horizontal. Consciously situating oneself (one’s self) in the complex of these times5 is the required parameter, or medium,6 of thinking with McLuhan. Once ‘there’, the following step is to consider the range of ways the crossing/closing/flashing may be effected — and is always already being effected via ‘the kinetic sense’. On that basis, it may then be de-cided7 which of these eye-tactility-ear parameters must be in place to begin the investigation of media and so to initiate its ‘new science’.

Hence the repeated citation by McLuhan of the admonition in Joyce’s Stephen Hero

The apprehensive faculty must be scrutinized in action.8

  

 

  1. https://youtu.be/Tx2ed93_Lpc?t=659
  2. For McLuhan, the eye and the ear are no more to be taken literally than is the tactile. One of the central differences between the Gutenberg and Marconi galaxies is that the former demands some literal basis, while the latter is fundamentally relativistic. How beauty, goodness and truth are compatible with relativity is the great question at the heart of McLuhan’s work.
  3. ‘Earopen End’ seminar, November 1967: https://youtu.be/9ABWzOmS0fM?t=192.
  4. https://youtu.be/9ABWzOmS0fM?t=1337
  5. See McLuhan’s Times.
  6. See Media Definition for media as “parameters”.
  7. See the etymology of ‘decide’ and particularly of its cognate family of terms.
  8. See The spectacle of redemption for discussion.

The spectacle of redemption

The apprehensive faculty must be scrutinized in action. (James Joyce, Stephen Hero)1

Subliminal characteristics are group dynamics. (McLuhan to Harry Skornia, March 24 1960)2

In the early 1950s, marking his way from individual literary analysis to collective multimedia investigation, McLuhan repeatedly cited a passage from Joyce’s Stephen Hero:

The modern spirit is vivisective. Vivisection is the most modern process one can conceive. The ancient method investigated law with the lantern of justice, morality with the lantern of revelation, art with the lantern of tradition. But all these lanterns have magical  properties: they transform and disfigure. The modern method examines its territory by the light of day. (…) All modern political and religious criticism dispenses with presumptive states (…)3 It examines the entire community in action and reconstructs the spectacle of redemption.4

The passage appears in ‘Joyce, Aquinas, and the Poetic Process’ (1951),  ‘Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press’ (1954)5 and ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’ (1954). The two Joyce essays, in turn, were then republished in the 1960s — ‘Joyce, Aquinas, and the Poetic Process’ in 1962 in  Joyce’s Portrait: Criticisms and Critiques;6 and ‘Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press’ both in McLuhan Hot and Cool (1967) and in The Interior Landscape (1969). The net effect was to cite the passage 6 different times over a period of almost 20 years — McLuhan age 40 to 60.7

In sum, and leaving aside his own repeated discussions of these same notions, especially of “the entire community in action” as language and/or as the unconscious, McLuhan on six separate occasions marked out his way, both in anticipation and in retrospect, by citing and reciting this passage from Joyce’s Stephen Hero.

 

  1. See note #4 below for the full passage.
  2. https://archive.org/details/naeb-b067-f01/page/n133/mode/1up
  3. Only ‘Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press’ includes “All modern political and religious criticism dispenses with presumptive states” which was Joyce’s clarification of the preceding “The modern method examines its territory by the light of day.” Tellingly, Joyce, but not McLuhan, then continued “dispenses with presumptive states” with “presumptive Redeemers and Churches”.
  4. Another passage from Stephen Hero was also cited repeatedly: “What we symbolize in black the Chinaman may symbolize in yellow; each has his own tradition. Greek beauty laughs at Coptic beauty and the American Indian derides them both. It is almost impossible to reconcile all tradition whereas it is by no means impossible to find the justification of every form of beauty that has ever been adored on earth by an examination of the mechanism of esthetic apprehension whether it be dressed in red, white, yellow or black. We have no reason for thinking that the Chinaman has a different system of digestion from that which we have though our diets are quite dissimilar. The apprehensive faculty must be scrutinized in action.” McLuhan has this passage both in ‘Joyce, Aquinas, and the Poetic Process’ (1951) and ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’ (1954).
  5. This essay was submitted to The Sewanee Review in 1951, but published there only in 1954.
  6. Edited by Thomas Connolly. For this reprinting McLuhan added a new section on The Problem of Form (1893) by Adolf Hildebrand.
  7. A related passage from McLuhan himself appears in his ‘Introduction’ to Tennyson: Selected Poetry (1955): “Whereas the cyclic epic, as in Homer, moves on the single narrative plane of individual spiritual quest, the little epic (epyllion) as written by Ovid, Dante, Joyce, and Pound is ‘the tale of the tribe‘. That is to say, it is not so much a story of the in­dividual quest for perfection as it is a history of collective crime and punishment, an attempt to justify the ways of God to man.” This passage from McLuhan himself was also repeated/reprinted — in the 1970 From Cliché to Archetype.

Extra sensory perception

Like his attention to Pretribal Awareness, McLuhan’s thoughts on ESP were concentrated around 1970.1 The connection between the two, and the allied connection with ‘pattern recognition’, is highly important for a fitting understanding of his work.

Explorations 8 #3, 1957
Extra sensory perception is normal perception.2 Today electronics are extra sensory, Gallup polls and motivation research are also. Therefore people get all steamed up about E.S.P. as something for the future. It is already past and present.3

McLuhan to Harry Skornia, March 24 19604
Subliminal characteristics are group dynamics. Consciousness will always be the area of the individual and freedom, but of course most of those who talk about such things may be merely subliminally misguided people. Is it not strange that as we push into the areas of awareness of our own mechanisims people should shrill “determinism” when all they mean is that they are becoming conscious of their own mechanism. Consciousness can never Itself be mechanical. Therefore the more consciousness the less mechanism. Thus the whole of the educational enterprise may pass into ESP hands and the only possible consequence would be liberation.

The Humanities in the Electronic Age, 1961
But what has happened with the electronic advent is not [only] that we
move the products of human knowledge or labour to all corners of the earth more quickly. Rather we dilate the very means and processes of discourse to make a global envelope of sense and sensibility for the earth. From the moment of the telegraph, extra-sensory perception became a daily factor in shaping the human community and private perception alike. It is not the products of perception and judgment which now reach us by electric media, but involvement in the entire communal process of interfused co-existence. Each one of us, actively or passively, includes every other person on earth. The world no longer offers the possibility of the separatist, centre-margin structure which is featured in all our institutions, legal, educational, political. Centres-without-margins, inclusive consciousness, inclusive organization, these alone are viable or relevant to the new electric age.

Understanding Media, 1964, 130
It is (…) conceivable that the electric extension of the process of collective consciousness, in making
consciousness-without-walls, might render language walls obsolescent. Languages are stuttering extensions of our five senses, in varying ratios and wavelengths. An immediate simulation of consciousness would by-pass speech in a kind of massive extrasensory perception, just as global thermostats could by-pass those extensions of skin and body that we call houses.

Understanding Media, 1964, 265-266
With the telephone, there occurs the extension of ear and voice that is a kind of extra sensory perception. With television came the extension of the sense of touch or of sense interplay that even more intimately involves the entire sensorium.

The Role of New Media in Social Change, 19645
It is an ancient observation, that was repeated by Henri Bergson, that speech is a technology of extension that amplified man’s power to store and exchange perceptual knowledge; but it interrupted the sharing of a
unified collective consciousness experienced by pre-verbal man. Before speech, it is argued, men possessed a large measure of extra sensory perceptions which was fragmented by speech technology.6

All of the Candidates are Asleep, 19687
The radio age turned Oriental and inward. It became tuned to the cosmic and to ESP.

Playboy Interview, 1969
Tribal man is tightly sealed in an integral collective awareness that transcends conventional boundaries of time and space. As such, the new society will be one mythic integration, a resonating world akin to the old tribal echo chamber where magic will live again: a world of ESP.

Counterblast, 1969, 23
The content of writing is speech; but the content of speech is mental dance, non-verbal ESP.8

Counterblast, 1969, 83
Today the return to oral conditions of communication is not merely to be noted in the strictly acoustic sphere. The oral is the world of the non-linear, of all-at-onceness and ESP. There 
are no lines or directions in acoustic space, but rather a simultaneous field. It is non-Euclidean.

The Hardware/Software Mergers, 1969
When you put a software information environment around a hardware environment, you scrap hardware. But, there’s another feature. When you scrap an old service environment you retrieve a still older one. When we put electricity around the old mechanical hardware, we retrieved ESP; the most primitive forms of society and occultisms were dumped into the Western lap in vast quantity. Five hundred years ago with Gutenberg, the manuscript culture of the Middle Ages was scrapped overnight — and they retrieved antiquity.  Manuscript culture was not powerful enough to retrieve antiquity. Gutenberg was able to bring Greece and Rome back and dump it into the Renaissance lap. Electric circuitry scrapped industrialism, and along with that, it rendered ineffective all forms of specialism. All forms of fragmentation, all forms of classified data were scrapped by electrical circuitry. Everything you call “subjects” — “sex”,  “curriculum” — all these forms were scrapped by the new instantaneous electric networks, which represent our own nervous systems outside us; but while scrapping recent procedures we have retrieved the most primitive forms of culture from the most remote pasts. In fact, there is no “past” now. All cultures are simultaneous; all pasts are here.

Address to NYC Author’s Luncheon, 1969
The coming year has been dubbed ‘
the year of the witch’ in book publishing because it is the world of the occult. Alice. I mean of the inner trips of numerology and general mysticism. ESP. The world of the witch. The book of the future. The inner trip. The outer trip of civilized man is finished.

From Cliché to Archetype, 1970, 40
The new cult of ESP is a natural adjunct to telecommunications. When you put your nervous system outside as a world environment, ESP would seem to be rather “Plurabelle”. Edward T. Hall’s The Silent Language stresses the new awareness of languages as struc­tures of awareness and patterns of gesture.

Culture is our Business, ‘Author’s Note’, 1970, 7-8
Ads are the cave art of the twentieth century. While the Twenties talked about the caveman, and the people thrilled to the art of the Altamira caves, they ignored (as we do now) the hidden environment of magical forms which we call “ads”. Like cave paintings, ads are not intended to be looked at or seen, but rather to exert influence at a distance, as though by ESP. Like cave paintings, they are not means of private but of corporate expression. They are vortices of collective power, masks of energy invented by new tribal man. 

Culture is our Business, 1970, 82
The present electric ESP age of multiple interfaces finds no problem in metamorphosis or transubstantiation such as baffled abcede-minded culture of the sixteenth century and after.

Electric Consciousness and the Church, 1970
we live in post-history in the sense that all pasts that ever were are now present to our consciousness and that all the futures that will be are here now. In that sense we are post-history and timeless. Instant awareness of all the varieties of human expression constitutes the sort of mythic type of consciousness of ‘once-upon-a-timeness’ which means all time, out of time. It is possible that our new technologies can bypass verbalising. There is nothing inherently impossible in the computer, or that type of technology, extending consciousness itself as a universal environment. There is a sense in which the surround of information that we now experience electrically is an extension of consciousness itself. What effect this might have on the individual in society is very speculative. But it has happened, it isn’t something that’s going to happen. Many people simply resort instantly to the occult, to ESP and every form of hidden awareness, in answer to this new surround of electric consciousness.

Innovation is Obsolete, 1971
The electric service environments of telegraph, telephone, radio, and TV have literally junked the nineteenth-century industrial hardware, and all the assembly-line processes and organization charts born of specialism and fragmentation of functions. At the same time, these same environmental services have recovered, or recuperated the entire world of the occult and ESP.

Take Today, 1972, 7
The world of man’s artifacts was considered neutral until the electric age
. As the electric environment increasingly engulfed the old Greek “Nature,” it became apparent that “Nature” was a figure abstracted from a ground of existence that was far from “natural.” Greek “Nature,” which sufficed until Einstein, excluded most of the chaotic resonance of the great Sound-Light Show of existence itself. Most of the pre-Socratic magic and ESP and all the Oriental and “Primitive” Natures were pushed into the “subconscious.” Civilized man exists by dumping most of his experience into that convenient bin. Electric man has discovered that it is his major resource center.

Take Today1972,14
When a man-made environment circumvents the entire planet, moon, and galaxy, there is no alternative to total knowledge programming of all human enterprise.
Any form of imbalance proves fatal at electric speeds with the superpowers released by the new technological resources representing the full spectrum of the human senses and faculties. Survival now would seem to depend upon the extension of consciousness itself as an environment. This extension of consciousness has already begun with the computer and has been anticipated in our obsession with ESP and occult awareness.

Take Today, 1972, 39
the world of ESP-rit

Take Today, 1972, 100
The tribal outlook of the young TV kids is as anti-innovation and anti- growth as in any tribal society of the past. Those who “play it by ear” are instantly aware of the effects of change. The same electric technology that has retrieved ESP and the occult for many levels and areas of American life has turned the kids away from “moreness,” from glossy consuming to homespun and “camp” and “found” art. They are finished with both job goals and market values This change of outlook is not ideological but psychological. These children are very much their own “fathers,” in that their early man-made environment
programmed their sensory and perceptual lives for a totally different range of satisfactions than those of their parents and teachers. 

Take Today, 1972, 115-116
All religions
have recognized a social bond (resonance) between the world of numbers, names, and hidden divinity.  Much of what we call the occult or ESP today is simply the recovery of awareness of nonvisual ground for the figures and configurations of our visual civilization. The visual ground of literacy provides the rationale of connectedness and goals, without which “performance” and “progress” would be meaningless. But in today‘s new hidden surround of information flow, the old visual ground of hookups and hang-ups is transformed by electric speeds into a new acoustic ground of resonant interfaces. All boundaries become porous, the opaque becomes pervious, and goals move faster than measures of performance can. What is your telephone number for today

Globe & Mail Review of Julian Jaynes, 19779
Contemporary schizophrenia, says Jaynes, affords a partial reply [replay?] to the bicameral mind. Just as contemporary mediums and faith-healers raise the subject (…) This reminds us that Women’s Lib in the nuclear age is as normal a development as E.S.P. and Parapsychology.

 

  1. But even at the start of his career, in his 1943 PhD thesis, McLuhan had already posited something like “pre-tribal awareness” or ESP as a native facility of human being: “Just as language offers an extensive and complex apprehension of the structure of beings, so that faculty which produced this state of language is perpetually operative — an intuitive perception of essentials.” (The Classical Trivium, 51)
    An early example of the use of E.S.P. in a negative sense (thus demonstrating its positive potential) appears in the 1951
    Mechanical Bride (p31):
    “Writing in the New York Herald Tribune (January 25, 1948), John J. O’Neill gave an account of Professor Joseph B. Rhine’s views on the possibility of E.S.P. (Extrasensory Perception) as a means of wiping out crime. E.S.P. turns out to be even more pretentiously totalitarian than the Hopkins Televoter mechanism. Using mechanically controlled telepathic powers to probe into the subconscious of individual and society alike, it follows, in the view of Professor Rhine, that ‘Crime on any scale could hardly exist with its cloak of invisibility thus removed; graft, exploitation and suppression could not continue if the dark plots of wicked men were to be laid bare’.
    Neither crime nor human consciousness could exist in the scientific circumstances Professor Rhine outlines in his book, The Reach of Mind. A single mechanical brain, of the sort developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by Professor Norbert Wiener, when hitched to the telepathic mechanism of Professor Rhine, could tyrannize over the collective consciousness of the race exactly in comic-book and science-fiction style. The means envisaged for this purpose are complex, but the kind of wish for unlimited power over men which evokes such means is moronic. From the point of view of civilized values, it is obvious that, as our powers of crime detection have advanced, the power to define vice or virtue has declined. In the same way, as market-research tyranny has developed, the object and ends of human consumption have been blurred. Know-how has obliterated the why, what, and when.
    The dream of E.S.P. has stirred the minds and hopes of the top brass of the executive world much as the comic books stir the passions of the very young. If any measure in addition to that of ridicule and satire could be effective in recalling such adult minds to a sense of the true proportions and dignity of human life, it should be invoked at once.”
  2. In his essay ‘Cloning ESP’, Bob Dobbs points out helpfully: “ESP as pattern-recognition is a perceptual complex of mental and non-verbal dance — the tactile sense. However, tactility, as used here, is not one of the senses, but the interplay of the senses, evoking ordinary consciousness. Electric technologies, from the telegraph on, when they became generally used and environmental, simulated that ordinary consciousness, the tactile ESP, collectively. So, personal ESP now existed parallel with a collective, ongoing, dynamic ESP.” For illustrative passages from McLuhan see Tactility.
  3. In this note McLuhan brings together ESP with synesthesia: “SYNESTHESIA the new sin of the nineteenth century roused as much misunderstanding as E.S.P. today. Extra sensory perception is normal perception. Today electronics are extra sensory, Gallup polls and motivation research are also. Therefore people get all steamed up about E.S.P. as something for the future. It is already past and present. Synesthesia is simply totalism in the use of the senses. After centuries of abstract, printed lineality the Baudelaires and Rimbauds revolted into synesthesia because the telegraphic and photographic resources of the earlier nineteenth century had suddenly revealed the possibility of simultaneous experience at many levels. Wagner leapt at the possibilities. The Bauhaus gave institutional form to the same developments. Today we take the entire Bauhaus program of Synesthesia for granted as normal suburban living.”
  4. https://archive.org/details/naeb-b067-f01/page/n133/mode/1up.
  5. The Role of New Media in Social Change’, Address to Canadian Orthopsychiatric Association, March 1964. Printed posthumously in the Antigonish Review, no. 74-75, summer-autumn, 1988.
  6. McLuhan to Wilfred Watson, summer 1965: “Eric has worked out that the sin committed by HCE in Phoenix park is language itself i.e. the ultimate self-exhibitionism, the ultimate uttering”. ‘The Role of New Media in Social Change’ comes from the previous year, 1964. At this time in the mid-1960s, at least in these two instances, McLuhan may have deviated from his usual position that human being and language are coextensive: “man is language” (GG 231).
  7. ‘All of the Candidates are Asleep’, Saturday Evening Post., v241, August 10, 1968, 34-36.
  8. UM (8): “If it is asked, ‘What is the content of speech?’, it is necessary to say, ‘It is an actual process of thought, which is in itself nonverbal’.
  9. Review of Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, 1977, in the The Globe & Mail, Toronto, June 18, 1977.

Pre-tribal awareness

Der Philosoph ist nicht Bürger einer Denkgemeinde. Das ist was ihn zum Philosophen macht. Wittgenstein: Zettel #4451

Here are texts in chronological order in which McLuhan opens the critical question of the relation between individual and corporate identity, between “pre-tribal awareness” and tribe, between “an intuitive perception of essentials” and language.

Each of these may be seen as preceding the other. Humans must first have the capacity for language in order to be able to learn it. But an understanding of what is entailed in language learning can only be achieved in language.

*

Just as language offers an extensive and complex apprehension of the structure of beings, so that faculty which produced this state of language is perpetually operative — an intuitive perception of essentials. (The Classical Trivium, 1943, 51)2

every word is the product of a complex mental act with a complete learning process involved in it. In this respect words can be regarded not as signs but as existent things, alive with a physical and mental life which is both individual and collective. (James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial, 1953)

Today with the revelation of the poetic process which is involved in ordinary cognition3 we stand on a (…) threshold (…) the door to the positive powers of the human spirit in its natural creativity. This door opens on to psychic powers comparable to the physical powers made available via nuclear fission and fusion. (Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters, 1954)

Until WRITING was invented, we lived in acoustic space, where the Eskimo now lives: boundless, directionless, horizonless, the dark of the mind, the world of emotion, primordial intuition (Five Sovereign Fingers Taxed The Breath, 1954)4 

By surpassing writing, we have regained our WHOLENESS, not on a national or cultural, but cosmic, plane. We have evoked a super-civilized sub-primitive man. [Ibid.]

And no matter how many walls have fallen, the citadel of individual consciousness has not fallen nor is it likely to fall. For it is not accessible to the mass media. (Educational Effects of Mass Media of Communication, 1956)5

It is an ancient observation, that was repeated by Henri Bergson, that speech is a technology of extension that amplified man’s power to store and exchange perceptual knowledge; but it interrupted the sharing of a unified collective consciousness experienced by pre-verbal man. Before speech,6 it is argued, men possessed a large measure of extra sensory perceptions which was fragmented by speech technology. (The Role of New Media in Social Change, 1964)7

an inclusive consciousness that is at the same time8 private and tribal (Towards an Inclusive Consciousness, 1967)

In television, images are projected at you. You are the screen. The images wrap around you. You are the vanishing point. (The Medium is the Massage, 1967) 9

Calvin Springer Hall & Gardner Lindzey, Theories of Personality (1957): “The motivational state exists first and exerts an influence upon the way in which the person will perceive the world.” (Cited in War and Peace in the Global Village, 1968, 13)

It could almost be defined as a subliminal awareness of the microscopic extrapolated into the macroscopic. (Through the Vanishing Point,1968, 231)

The content of writing is speech; but the content of speech is mental dance, non-verbal ESP.10 (Counterblast, 1969, 23)

Because of the invisibility of any environment during the period of its innovation, man is only consciously aware of the environment that has preceded it; in other words, an environment becomes fully visible only when it has been superseded by a new environment; thus we are always one step behind in our view of the world. Because we are benumbed by any new technology — which in turn creates a totally new environment — we tend to make the old environment more visible; we do so by turning it into an art form and by attaching ourselves to the objects and atmosphere that characterized it (…) the Greeks [for example] were oriented toward the pre-Homeric primitives. (Playboy Interview, 1969)11

Today we are electrically stoned, humming, drumming, thrumming, with this electric energy within us and without us, which puts us into an extremely primitive state of mind, like that of a Hindu sage listening to insects in a jungle. The kids know this as they sit with their guitars, listening, strumming: they are trying to tune in on a world they never made. They are explorers.  (…) I mean by [a “primitive state of mind”] the levels of perception at which they resonate in relation to the universe that we share. These kids live by ear: they resonate in depth and respond to depth, to worlds that are primal and basic and beyond the range of our educational activities. Beyond increasing our awareness. (The Hardware/Software Mergers, 1969)12

The Expressionists had discovered that the creative process is a kind of repetition of the stages of apprehension, somewhat along the lines that relate Coleridge’s Primary and Secondary imagination. In the same way there would seem to be an echo of the formative process of consciousness in the entire content of the unconscious. This, in turn, implies a close liaison between private and corporate awareness (From Cliché to Archetype, 1970)13 

Today, electric technology scraps mechanical industry while retrieving the most primal modes of human consciousness. Your own unique study, Preface to Plato, prompts me to write this note. Is it possible that the phonetic alphabet, by upgrading the visual powers of man after many centuries of the dominance of aural culture, may have scrapped the poetic arts of tribal man and also retrieved the autonomous human entity? This would seem to have been the only time and only circumstances in which the metaphysical and independent human being had been able to manifest himself amidst the vast amorphous resonance of the tribal culture(McLuhan to Eric Havelock, May 22, 1970, Letters 406)

Havelock’s Preface to Plato shows how the phonetic alphabet scrapped tribal man but retrieved the primordial role of individual and pre-tribal14 awareness. (McLuhan to Joe Keogh, July 6,1970, Letters 413)

The liquidating of the tribal encyclopaedia of the bards (…) was done by phonetic literacy, but there was retrieved something of great antiquity, namely pre-tribal metaphysical man.(McLuhan to Lynn White, August 17, 1970)

Man is no longer conceptual. His metaphysics has become a perceptive one. What I mean is that he leaves the world of logic to enter the world of mysticism, with immediate perceptions. (Interview with L’Express, 1972)

our age-old right-hemisphere affinity for telepathy (Ma Bell Minus the Nantucket Gam: Or the Impact of High-Speed Data Transmission, 1981)15

  1. The philosopher is not a citizen of any thought community. This is what makes him into a philosopher.
  2. McLuhan would consider for the rest of his life how “an intuitive perception of essentials” (dual genitive) might be apprehended in that very language that it “produced”. Instead of “an extensive and complex apprehension of the structure of beings” (objective genitive) in the experienced world, now “the structure of beings” (subjective genitive) would be apprehended in, or as, the “parameters” of the experience of world = the underlying range of the “intuitive perception of essentials”. (McLuhan to Skornia, September 3, 1960: “Media are the parameters of all enterprises, whether private or collective. They impose, they are the assumptions. (…) it may be more effective to say ‘Media are the parameters’ rather than that ‘the medium is the message’.”)
    McLuhan was clear about this flipped perspective by 1951:
    the Symbolists (took) aesthetic experience as an arrested moment (…) for which (…) they sought the art formula by retracing the stages of apprehension which led to this moment” (Tennyson and Picturesque Poetry, 1951); “one major discovery of the symbolists which had the greatest importance for subsequent investigation was their notion of the learning process (of ordinary perception) as a labyrinth of the senses and faculties whose retracing provided the key to all arts and sciences” (McLuhan to Harold Innis, March 14, 1951, Letters 221). Such an “arrested moment” is not situated in chronological (linear) time. Its “stages of apprehension” cannot, therefore, themselves be linear. These “stages” or “phases” are synchronic and vertical. And what is brought together in every such “arrested moment” is some variety of “intuitive perception”, some “parameter”, and some corresponding variety of world.
  3. In this same CHML essay: “Knowledge of the creative process in art, science, and (ordinary) cognition”…
  4. Counterblast, 1954; Explorations 4, 1955; Shenandoah 7:1, 1955; Counterblast, 1969.
  5. See The very citadel of civilized awareness. This passage from 1956 was reused 15 years later in the 1969 Counterblast.
  6. McLuhan to Wilfred Watson, summer 1965: “Eric has worked out that the sin committed by HCE in Phoenix park is language itself i.e. the ultimate self-exhibitionism, the ultimate uttering”. ‘The Role of New Media in Social Change’ comes from the previous year, 1964. At this time in the mid-1960s, at least in these two instances, McLuhan may have deviated from his usual position that human being and language are coextensive: “man is language” (GG 231). But it is highly important in this context to consider what sort(s) of time are implicated in “before speech”.
  7. ‘The Role of New Media in Social Change’, Address to Canadian Orthopsychiatric Association, March 1964. Printed posthumously in the Antigonish Review, no. 74-75, summer-autumn, 1988.
  8. ‘At the same time’ — see note #8 below.
  9. The “vanishing point” is the ‘pre-tribal’ filter where “essentials” are separated from non-essentials. It operates in an in-fant when language is learned and has to be already there for that language learning or, indeed, for the subsequent use of language itself, to occur at all.
  10. See Extra Sensory Perception.
  11. McLuhan’s take on the Greeks was highly complicated. On the one hand, he saw them as introducing via alphabetic literacy what would become the mechanical mindset. On the other, he saw them as preserving a fundamental (“pre-Homeric”) primitivity within literacy. Like Harold Innis in this respect, he considered that it was this combination of literacy with the preliterate that enabled the unique cultural unfolding of the classical period. As McLuhan wrote to Havelock in 1970 (cited more fully above): “This would seem to have been the only time and only circumstances in which the metaphysical and independent human being had been able to manifest himself amidst the vast amorphous resonance of the tribal culture.”
  12. Presentation at ‘Reappraisal of the Educational Technology Industry’ conference at the University of Chicago, November 16-18, 1969. Printed in Educational technology: Hearings, Ninety-second Congress, second session, on H.R. 4916United States Congress, House of Representatives, Committee on Education and Labor, Select Subcommittee on Education, 250-274.It is possible that McLuhan was particularly struck by his own remarks at this conference with the ‘pre-tribal awareness’ theme that he took up repeatedly in the closely following year of 1970. Here is the wider context of his presentation: “We are the primitives of a new world. We are more primal today than any primitive society ever was — the reason being that, electrically, we have put our own nervous systems outside us as an environment of resonating, pulsating experience. The Hindu on his sitar makes sounds like insects in a jungle, consciously and deliberately, because he regards them as the most primal modes of being. The kids with their guitars (the Beatles’ name is not accidental; they chose it deliberately as the resonance of a bug, humming, whining, primal, primitive) — the kids, on their guitars are trying to relate, to tune in on this new primitive culture that we have created electrically. It is an inner trip. We are all stoned today, electrically. Western man lives in a perpetual “stoned” condition,  I mean in a psychedelic sense. (…) Today we are electrically stoned, humming, drumming, thrumming, with this electric energy within us and without us, which puts us into an extremely primitive state of mind, like that of a Hindu sage listening to insects in a jungle. The kids know this as they sit with their guitars, listening, strumming: they are trying to tune in on a world they never made. They are explorers.(…) I mean by (“primitive state of mind”) the levels of perception at which they resonate in relation to the universe that we share. These kids live by ear: they resonate in depth and respond to depth to worlds that are primal and basic and beyond the range of our educational activities. Beyond increasing our awareness.”
  13. Marshall McLuhan and Wilfred Watson, From Cliché to Archetype, 1970, 200.
  14. It is all important to ask after the time or times implicated in ‘pre-tribal’. The key consideration is given in the 1951 passage from ‘Tennyson and Picturesque Poetry’ (cited above): for the symbolists “the aesthetic experience (w)as an arrested moment (…) for which (…) they sought the art formula by retracing the stages of apprehension which led to this moment.” This is first of all synchronic time and only secondarily or derivatively, diachronic: “time considered as sequential (left hemisphere) is figure and time considered as simultaneous (right hemisphere) is ground” (The Global Village, 10). For further texts and discussion, see Genitives, times and essential types and McLuhan’s times.
  15. McLuhan with Bruce Powers in the Journal of Communication, published posthumously. The same phrase appears in their later Global Village, p124. McLuhan assigns ‘telepathy’ or ESP or ‘pretribal awareness’ to the right hemisphere here, with the implication that ‘tribal awareness’ is left hemisphere. But “inclusive consciousness (…) is at the same time private and tribal” (cited above from 1967) and “no matter how extreme the dominance of either hemisphere in a particular culture, there is always some degree of interplay between the hemispheres” (Global Village, 62).

Going quantum

If McLuhan is ever to be understood and applied, chances are it will not happen via academics in the humanities or by artists.  The former are not free enough in their thinking, the latter too free. Instead it may be that he will gain a fitting hearing only if his work is able to contribute to ongoing work in the sciences, especially quantum physics. In this way it might be seen to belong together with demonstrable truth sufficiently enough to motivate a fundamentally changed reception among his current champions.

In a substack newslitter to be launched shortly, McLuhan’s new science of media will be used to examine the work of quantum theorists. The hope is that that new science will reveal itself as unremarkably a necessary part of physics as does chemistry or electrical engineering, say, in the James Webb Space Telescope project.

 

 

Solution lies in the problem

Alchemy of Social Change, 19571
We have to know in advance the effect (…) of any change whatever. This is necessity, not ideal. It is also a possibility. There was never a critical situation created by human ingenuity which did not contain its own solution. 

Technology, the Media, and Culture 1960
Let us return for a moment to that increasing awareness of the dynamics of process and learning and creativity which l suggest gains new force from the subliminal patterns of the TV image. 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”2 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. If you can’t keep the cow out of the garden, keep the garden out of the cow. A. N. Whitehead was fond of saying that the great discovery of the nineteenth century was not this or that invention but the discovery of the technique of invention. lt is very simple, and was loudly proclaimed by Poe, Baudelaire, and Valéry, namely, begin with (…) the problem, and then find out what steps lead to [that problem].
3 In other words, work backwards.

MM to Pierre Trudeau April 14, 1969
The real solution is in the problem itself, as in any detective story.

Take Today, 13
Our chief resources are the gripes and jokes, the problems and breakdowns, of managers4 themselves; for therein lie the solutions and breakthroughs via pattern recognition of the processes involved. Managing
The Ascent from the Maelstrom today demands [new] awareness that can be achieved only by going Through the Vanishing Point.5

Take Today, 92
It is not possession of the solution, but the recognition of the problem itself that provides a resource and the answers.

Take Today, 103
All solutions are in the very words by which people confuse and hide their problems…

The Argument: Causality in the Electric World, 1973
The breakdown or hang-up is always in the connection whereas the breakthrough or discovery is inside the problem itself (…) Breakdown is the old cause in action, the extension of the old figure to the new ground.  Breakthrough is the effect of understanding as the new cause. The solution is a figure that we can discover by organizing our ignorance and swarming over the ground. This process is encapsulated in the myth of Hercules in the Augean stables.

At the Flip Point of Time — the Point of More Return, 1975
Understanding that the entrance to knowledge is through the back door of ignorance is basic to an understanding of media and technology. It seems to be a human characteristic to hide the effects of our actions when they move out into the environments of services and/or disservices. Yet as James Joyce said of these man-made environments “when invisible they are invincible”. To free ourselves from the invincible effects of our own programs of organized activity, it is necessary that we inspect the ignorance systematically engendered by our applied knowledge.6

In sum: only with the problem do we have a solution.7

 

  1. Explorations 8.
  2. As often broached by McLuhan, Keats described “negative capability” in a December 1817 letter to his brothers: “when a (hu)man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching-after-fact & reason“.
  3. McLuhan has “the solution” here, not “that problem”. The substitution has been made to clarify his suggestion that, when identification is made of “what steps lead to” a problem, a “solution” to that problem will then be found in the modification of those steps.
  4. Take Today is addressed to ‘managers’ and ‘executives’. Its subtitle is ‘The Executive as Dropout’. But its larger topic is the human subject as the ‘manager’ or ‘user’ of media (dual genitive).
  5. In order to attain new awareness, transition Through the Vanishing Point is required. “Managing the ascent” is the movement between worlds of experience — from a world with the problem to another with its solution. This requires ‘vanishing’ since there is no world between worlds.
  6. See the following note: “all technical solutions have a new problem”.
  7. At the same time, however, with the solution we have a problem. Barry Nevitt (?) in the Monday Night Seminar, January 22, 1973: “all technical solutions have a new problem” — οδός άνω κάτω…

McLuhan and Plato 12 — Cratylus

The doctrine of names is, of course, the doctrine of essence and not a naïve notion of oral terminology. (The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of His Time)1

Just as language offers an extensive and complex apprehension of the structure of beings, so that faculty which produced this state of language is perpetually operative — an intuitive perception of essentials(The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of His Time)2

*

Here in chronological order are McLuhan’s thoughts on the Cratylus of Plato and its “doctrine of names” (with commentary in footnotes):

The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of His Time, 1943:3
In the dialogue named for Cratylus, the follower of Heraclitus, Plato has this exchange of arguments between Socrates and Cratylus: Socrates: But if these things are only to be known through names, how can we suppose that the givers of names had knowledge, or were legislators before there were names at all, and therefore before they could have known them?Cratylus: I believe, Socrates, the true account of the matter to be, that a power more than human gave things their first names, and that the names which were thus given are necessarily their true names. Obviously, with this kind of importance associated with the names of things, and of gods, heroes, and legendary beings, etymology would be a main source of scientific and moral enlightenment. And such was the case. The prolific labors of the etymologists reflected in Plato’s Cratylus, but begun centuries before and continued until the seventeenth century, are as much the concern of the historian of philosophy and of science as of the historian of letters and culture. Indeed, it was not only in antiquity but until the Cartesian revolution that language was viewed as simultaneously linking and harmonizing all the intellectual and physical functions of men and of the physical world as well. At any time from Plato to Francis Bacon the statement of Cratylus would have made sense, and would have evoked respect.

The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of His Time, 1943:4
Plato’s Cratylus broaches the question of analogy and anomaly in such a way as to indicate that their dispute was of ancient5 origin even in his day, but the issues [between analogy and anomaly]6, of course, are drawn on a plane loftier than that of [linguistic] conjugations and declensions. Socrates refutes the superficial anomalist doctrine of Hermogenes at great length. Hermogenes says, ‘I have often talked over this  matter, both with Cratylus and others, and cannot convince myself that there is any principle of correctness in names other than convention and agreement.’ Socrates replies that ‘I should say that this giving of names can be no such light matter as you fancy (…) and [that] Cratylus is right in saying that things have names by nature, and that not every man is an artificer of names; but he only who looks to the name which each thing by nature has, and is, will be able to express the ideal forms of things in letters and syllables.7 The general incredulity concerning Socrates’ seriousness in this dialogue is an adequate measure of the modern failure to apprehend the nature of grammar in the ancient and medieval worlds; and much of Plato’s power over St. Augustine and the medieval mind [generally] is owing to his great (…)8 respect for the method of grammar in philosophy.

Medieval Grammar as the Basis of Bacon’s Novum Organum, 1944:
One obvious consequence of the doctrine of the Logos is seen in the Cratylus, named for the famous grammarian who was Plato’s teacher. Socrates concurs in Cratylus’ statement that “a power more than human gave things their first names, and (…) the names which were thus given were necessarily their true names.The dialogue is then given over to the consideration of essence and the basic nature of things by means of the grammatical arts of allegory and etymology. 

Medieval Grammar as the Basis of Bacon’s Novum Organum, 1944
Bacon, like the Stoics, was an analogist, though a cautious one. That is, he held the ancient doctrine (…) of the Cratylus of Plato. An understanding of the great historical dispute waged for many centuries between the analogists and the anomalists is basic to an understanding of ancient, medieval, and Renaissance culture

James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial, 1953
By 1885 Mallarmé had formulated and utilized in his poetry these concepts about the nature of language uniting science and philology, which nowadays are known as “metalinguistics.” However, these views of language were commonplaces to Cratylus, Varro, and Philo Judaeus. They were familiar to the Church Fathers, and underlay the major schools of scriptural exegesis. If “four-Ievel exegesis” is back in favor again as the staple of the “new criticism”, it is because the poetic objects which have been made since 1880 frequently require such techniques for their elucidation

The Little Epic, late 1950s9
Language itself and every department of human activity would in this view be a long succession of “momentary deities” or epiphanies.10 And such indeed is the view put forward in the Cratylus of Plato: “I believe, Socrates, the true account of the matter to be, that a power more than human gave things their first names, and that the names which are thus given are necessarily their true names.” In this way etymology becomes a method of science and theology. William Wordsworth called these momentary deities “spots of time”, Hopkins called them “inscapes”11, and Browning built his entire work on the same concept of the esthetic of the “eternal moment”.

The Gutenberg Galaxy
Cratylus: I believe, Socrates, the true account of the matter to be, that a power more than human gave things their first names, and that the names which were thus given are necessarily their true names
This view of Cratylus was the basis of most language study until the Renaissance. It is rooted in the old oral “magic” of the “momentary deity”12 kind such as is favoured again today for various reasons. (27-28)

McLuhan to Tom Wolfe, October 25, 1965 (Letters, 326)
Plato’s Cratylus presents a theory of language as the key to an inclusive consciousness of human culture much in the style of Finnegans Wake.
 

 

  1. The Classical Trivium, p16.
  2. The Classical Trivium, p51.
  3. The Classical Trivium, 15-16.
  4. The Classical Trivium, 28.
  5. With ‘ancient’ McLuhan signaled a different order of time from the chronological. As seen in the very title of his 1944 lecture (published in 1946), ‘An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America’, ‘ancient’ time was not, or was not only, long ago. It was also, and equally, contemporaneous. “Ancient origin” was therefore also, and equally, active — right now.
  6. Analogy and anomaly are not 2, but 3. If there were not the third possibility of ‘both together’ their “dispute” could not be perennial. See McLuhan and Plato 8 – Gigantomachia.
  7. The giving of names is assimilated here to science, since the proper name of an entity is said to follow from what it is — and it is the task of scientific inquiry to establish just that. As McLuhan noted in ‘Francis Bacon’s Patristic Inheritance’ from 1944: “The initial imposition of names in this sense signifies essence, metaphysical knowledge.”
  8. McLuhan has “great, though not exclusive, respect” here. He breaks his train of thought regarding the continuity between Plato and “the medieval mind” to indicate how “respect” is subject to the “ancient quarrel”, or “great historical dispute“, between the trivial arts. Plato was “great” exactly in that his “respect” was not “exclusive”: “Plato and Aristotle, the representatives of the new literate culture of Greece in philosophy, had this same doubleness. They straddled the written and oral traditions. They translated the tribal encyclopedia of the preceding culture into the written, classified form” (‘Toward an Inclusive Consciousness’, 1967). McLuhan differentiated between an “exclusive” and “inclusive consciousness”, but recognized at the same time that an inclusive consciousness could not exclude ‘respect’ for exclusive consciousness without itself becoming exclusive. Like air or water, “inclusive consciousness” had in principle to give way to everything other than it.
  9. Unpublished manuscript in the Ottawa archive. This citation is from a chapter entitled ‘The Greeks’.
  10. For “momentary deities or epiphanies” compare “every letter is a godsend” in ‘James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial’ (1953): “Whereas the ethical world of Ulysses is presented in terms of well-defined human types the more metaphysical world of the Wake speaks and moves before us with the gestures of being itself. It is a nightworld and, literally, as Joyce reiterates, is “abcedminded.” Letters (“every letter is a godsend“), the frozen, formalized gestures of remote ages of collective experience, move before us in solemn morrice. They are the representatives of age-old adequation of mind and things, enacting the drama of the endless adjustment of the interior acts and dispositions of the mind to the outer world. The drama of cognition itself. For it is in the drama of cognition, the stages of apprehension, that Joyce found the archetype of poetic imitation. He seems to have been the first to see that the dance of being, the nature imitated by the arts, has its primary analogue in the activity of the exterior and interior senses. Joyce was aware that this doctrine (that sensation is imitation because the exterior forms are already in a new matter) is implicit in Aquinas. He made it explicit in Stephen Hero and the Portrait, and founded his entire poetic activity on these analogical proportions of the senses.” The bracketed insertion, every letter is a godsend“, is from McLuhan and is fundamental to his thinking. It names the ‘dynamic’ or ‘dramatic’ extension that is just as characteristic of media as it is of chemical elements or of DNA: all inherently express themselves in and as particulars to comprise the concrete world around us. The dynamic order is vertical and synchronic; the particular order is horizontal and diachronic. Human being is situation at the crossing of these vectors of space and time.
  11. McLuhan’s interesting suggestion is that Hopkins’ ‘inscape’ is to be understood as the complement of ‘escape’.
  12. For “momentary deity”, see note 10 above.

Inclusive consciousness

What Bacon did was to take the Book of Nature, which had been the medieval image of the natural world, and to this he added the Book of Scripture, the Sacred Page. He took both these pages and directed to these pages a kind of analytic gaze of comprehensive inclusiveness. I’m suggesting that the very components that make for a divided consciousness also can (…) become the means of an inclusive consciousness such as Bacon took for granted in his own case. Plato and Aristotle, the representatives of the new literate culture of Greece in philosophy, had this same doubleness. They straddled the written and oral traditions. They translated the tribal encyclopedia of the preceding culture into the written, classified form, and they too [like Bacon] produced an (…) encyclopedic philosophy. (Toward an Inclusive Consciousness, 1967)1

McLuhan differentiated between exclusive and inclusive consciousness. But at first he identified “inclusive consciousness” with the “auditory organization of many-layered and interpenetrating experiences”. Here he is to this effect in 1960:

The theme of Romantic Image by [Frank] Kermode [1957] is that the quest for the means of an inclusive consciousness drove artists away from discourse of reason and even from language. (…) Romantic poetry developed a one-thing-at-a-time kind of vision and awareness which had succeeded an all-at-once sort of auditory and simultaneous order: “The decline of the aristocratic world of the eighteenth century with its hierarchy of ordered values had sent the Romantic poets scurrying into their own souls in search of a new scale of values. (…) Each created his own order, in terms usually of the vision of love or the journey of life, and each was able to oppose to the flux of a world of broken values, to the anarchy of individualism, symbols of that order in the beauty and permanence of the natural world” (p. 166). Foakes here [in The Romantic Assertion: A Study of the Language of Nineteenth Century Poetry, 1958] reminds us that the image of order that became dominant in the age of Newton was visual. Poetry, too, succeeded in achieving a new visual order based on the correspondence between the inner faculties and the natural scene outside. But this new order was exclusive rather than inclusive in its very nature. It had to deal with one emotion at a time and one level of experience at a time. It could not include erudition and accumulated past experience in the single perspectives of visual space that were devised in order to isolate and to control single emotions. But, above all, it could not fulfill the human craving for an inclusive auditory organization of many-layered and interpenetrating experiences.2

By 1967, as indicated by the lead passage from Toward an Inclusive Consciousness’ he realized that this identification of the inclusive with the auditory had been an error. Now he saw that “inclusive consciousness” demanded balance between “the written and oral traditions”, aka the visual the auditory.

He seems to have come to this awareness in the years immediately following the 1960 review.

The 1962 Gutenberg Galaxy notes:

The speculators of our time can as easily fall unawares into the auditory bias of “field” theory as the Greeks leapt into the flatland of abstract visuality and one-way lineality. (p57-58)

And here he is in a October 4, 1963 letter to Harry Skornia, his partner in crime at the NAEB:

My central idea, as you know, since the GALAXY [1962], is that of electro-magnetism as an extension of the central nervous system. Closely related to this is my insistence that the next extension of man will be the simulation of the process of consciousness itself.3 (…) It does not mean the end of private awareness, rather a huge heightening of same via involvement in corporate energies. Corporate awareness, of course, is iconic, inclusive. Not an aspect, not a moment out of a total life, but all moments of that life simultaneously. That is the meaning of tactual involvement. It is the interplay of sense, all the senses, not the isolation of any one sense

‘Tactility’ was not used by McLuhan as the single sense of touch, but as the junction or switchyard or “interplay” of “all the senses”. So in this passage the “inclusive” is specifically withdrawn from “any one sense”, like the “auditory”, and instead is expressly assigned to “the interplay of (…) all”.  

The great difficulty here (but at the same time is the key to McLuhan’s whole enterprise),4 is the fact that the inclusive cannot exclude the exclusive without itself becoming exclusive! This is why McLuhan notes in the 1967 passage: “the very components that make for a divided [or exclusive] consciousness also can (…) become the means of an inclusive consciousness”

Here “of an inclusive consciousness” must be taken in the first instance as a subjective genitive like ‘the ball of the boy’ — not as an objective genitive like ‘the punishment of the boy’. Hence “the very components that make for a divided [or exclusive] consciousness” belong to “inclusive consciousness” — even as they on their side contradict it!

McLuhan’s insistence that “language itself” is the model and means of “inclusive consciousness” is at work here: 

Corporate awareness, of course, is iconic, inclusive. Not an aspect, not a moment out of a total life, but all moments of that life simultaneously.5

Language brings together in dialogue different persons who never match or merge with each other. It enables the expression of all points of view. And nothing at all happens among humans absent this environment which is, however, neither singular nor still.

*

McLuhan read Joyce as grappling with the problems and promise at stake here:

Joyce was all his life attempting to devise means of coping with the problems of inclusive consciousness that have been thrust on men by the simultaneous and instantaneous flow of information which results from electronic channels since the advent of the telegraph. Anybody who can look at Joyce and say, “It is all very confusing,” has not looked at the world he lives in. (One Wheel, All Square, 1958)

it was his mastery of the art process in terms of the stages of apprehension that enabled Joyce to install himself in the centre of the creative process. Whether it appears as mere individual sensation, as collective hope or phobia, as national myth-making or cultural norm-functioning, there is Joyce with cocked ear, eye and nose at the the centre of the action. He saw that the change of our time (‘wait till Finnegan wakes!’) was occurring as a result of the shift from superimposed myth to awareness of the character of the creative process itself. Here was the only hope for a world culture which would incorporate all previous achievements. The very process of human communication, Joyce saw, would afford the natural base for all the future operations and strategies of culture. Towards this vivisectional spectacle of the human community in action we have been led ever more swiftly in recent decades by increasing self-consciousness of the processes and effects of the various media of communication. Our knowledge of the modes of consciousness in pre-literate societies together with our sense of the processes of culture formation in many literate societies past and present, have sharpened our perceptions and led to wide agreement that communication itself is the common ground for the study of individual and society. To this study Joyce contributed not just awareness but demonstration of individual cognition as the analogue and matrix of all communal actions, political, linguistic and sacramental.6 (Notes on the Media as Art Forms 1954)

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

 

  1. Toward an Inclusive Consciousness’, Lecture of March 17, 1967 at the University of Toronto, in Understanding Me, pp124-138.
  2. McLuhan review of The Romantic Assertion: A Study of the Language of Nineteenth Century Poetry by R. A. Foakes, 1958, in Modern Philology, 57:4 (May, 1960), pp279-280.
  3. This prediction of AI was made 60 years ago. But phrases like “the simulation of the process of consciousness itself” should not be taken as if McLuhan had in mind only a conscious machine of some sort. Certainly this was one aspect of his vision, the spectre of a monstrous take over of the planet by the machines we have created. But the “simulation” of consciousness would at the same time be analogous to the simulation of the material world that we have in chemistry and physics — and, before them and anticipating them, in language and in all human experience. Such physical sciences simulate the world even as the world simulates them. For McLuhan, then, “the simulation of the process of consciousness itself” would eventuate in and through a ‘new science’, in fact a new genus of sciences. This would be an ongoing science or sciences that would specifically include all the ways of human being, just as chemistry includes the ways of being of physical materials (including those of the human body).
  4. See Jackson Knight on “the main question” and related ‘main question’ posts.
  5. One sentence of the McLuhan October 4, 1963 letter to Harry Skornia cited above.
  6. McLuhan’s vision here is of “individual cognition” sparking different synchronic possibilities as its way of creating and maintaining a diachronic flow of life. This is a microcosmic figuration of the macrocosmic ground of “language itself” — an analogous sparking of possibilities, but playing out on a gigantic scale. Cf, McLuhan in The Little Epic from the late 1950s, an unpublished manuscript in the Ottawa archive: “Language itself and every department of human activity would in this view be a long succession of ‘momentary deities’ or epiphanies.  And such indeed is the view put forward in the Cratylus of Plato: I believe, Socrates, the true account of the matter to be, that a power more than human gave things their first names, and that the names which are thus given are necessarily their true names. In this way etymology becomes a method of science and theology. William Wordsworth called these momentary deities ‘spots of time’, Hopkins called them ‘inscapes’ and Browning built his entire work on the same concept of the esthetic of the ‘eternal moment’.” Compare ‘James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial’ from 1953: “every letter is a godsend“. These epiphanic moments consist of the ‘dynamic’ or ‘dramatic’ extension of pre-existing possibilities. In this way human experience expressing itself via media would be assimilated to the working of chemical elements or of DNA: all inherently express themselves in and as particulars to comprise the concrete world around us. The dynamic order is vertical and synchronic; the particular order is horizontal and diachronic. Human being is situated at the crossing of these vectors of space and time. (McLuhan, as seen in his famous letter to Innis in March of that year, had this vision by 1951 at the latest: “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, p221) By “retracing” human experience back to its sparking of discrete possibilities, McLuhan would follow the same path of dynamic expression that all experience takes, but in reverse direction. This would expose the underlying forms which express themselves in and as concrete awareness.)

McLuhan replays Elsie

He do the police in different voices…1

The City as Classroom, published in 1977 a few years before McLuhan’s death at the end of 1980, replays his early experience, growing up with the constant murmur of his Mother’s preparation of her one-woman shows. As she moved about the house Elsie would have recited passages from poems and plays, both to aid her memorization of them and to try out different voices for them. Later, when McLuhan was at Cambridge, her elocution work was a frequent topic of their correspondence.2

The City as Classroom highlights the role of sound in everyday life and describes its potential use in school, particularly with tape recorders. Here is one of its recommended exercises:

Using tape, rather than the printed page, as the means of presenting the poem (…) edit the tape for a listener. Cut out all the material that is not absolutely necessary to create the effect of the poem, or anything that detracts from its meaning and effect.
Is it necessary to change the sequence of lines or of images in order to present on
 tape 
the essential effect of the poem? If you think that it is, try it.
Use sound effects both where they seem called for by the poem, and where they will help to make the poem more concise. Try this with poems written by four or five different authors of different periods. Try to translate something of each poem’s essence into terms relevant to your audience. This is a very difficult exercise, but try it at least: what you are really doing is updating an old situation for a contemporary audience. (p94-95)

Isn’t this just what was going on in Elsie’s mind as she worked around the house? And what McLuhan came to consider when he began his teaching career at the University of Wisconsin in 1936?

  1. “He do the police in different voices” is a line from Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend. It referred to the police news section of the newspaper as read by the orphan, Sloppy. Eliot used the line as the working title for what was to become The Waste Land. For Joyce on “the living texture” of this “unchanging unceasing murmur” see Voices in Dubliners and A Portrait.
  2. See The put-on for an extended discussion of these points. McLuhan’s title for his 1964 Voices of Literature anthology should be considered in this context.

McLuhan on Dali TV Guide cover

In 1968 and 1969 McLuhan reverted over and over again to Dali’s TV Guide cover…

McLuhan to Sheila Watson, June 12, 1968:1
Obtain cover of TV Guide for June 8-14. It is a Dali explanation of the tactile nature of the TV image. Wonderful interview inside, too.

McLuhan to Warren Brodey, June 12, 1968:2
Don’t fail to study TV Guide cover for June 8-14. (…) The Dali picture on the TV Guide cover reveals his deep understanding of TV as tactility, an interval. Also it includes his awareness of the software environment as the extension of the CNS.

McLuhan to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, June 12, 1968:3
The cover of the June 8 – 14 TV Guide is a Dali masterpiece. It manifests in detail the tactile quality of the TV image. The extension of the central nervous system via electricity is environmentally indicated in the upper right corner by a segment of brain tissue. The two thumbs with the TV images on the nails are carefully separated to indicate the gap or interval constituted by touch. The age of tactility via television and radio is one of innumerable interfaces or gaps that replace the old connections, legal, literate and visual.

Include Me Out: Reversal Of Overheated Image, 1968:4
The extreme coolness and tactility of TV has received its most impressive testimonial in a new painting by Salvador Dali. It appears on the cover of TV Guide for June 8, 1968. Two TV screens appear on two thumbnails. The thumbs are widely separated, looking like cracked sculpture (tactile space is the space of the interval, the icon, the contour).

Foreword to The Interior Landscape (1969):
TV Guide for June 8-14, 1968, has a painting by Dali on the cover. Two thumbs exhibit two TV screens as thumbnails. That is pure poetry, acute new perception. Dali immediately presents the fact that TV is a tactile mode of perception. Touch is the space of the interval, not of visual connection. I have been trying to elucidate this fact for years. In vain. The somnambulist knows better. Can’t he see TV with his eyes? How could it be tactile? Pasteur was thrown out of the medical profession because he insisted that doctors wash their hands before surgery. They knew better. They could see their hands were clean.

Retribalized Makers, 19695
The cover for TV Guide for June 8-14, 1968 consists of a painting by Salvador Dali. It presents two TV images in two thumbnails. The thumbs are coarsely textured and carefully spaced to indicate different worlds. Among other features there is on the horizon a segment of brain tissue. The new “software” environment of electric information is literally an extension of our central nervous system. The interface or touch or “gap” that constitutes the sense of touch is scarcely acknowledged except among artists. As an artist, Dali understands that the TV image is profoundly tactile and quite unlike photo or movie. Touch is not only the world of musical beat but of the Beats [– and the Heepies!6].

  1. Letters, p353.
  2. https://ionandbob.blogspot.com/1988/06/
  3. Letters, p354.
  4. Playboy, December 1968.
  5. In Alexander Klein, ed, Natural Enemies? — Youth and the Clash of Generations, 1969.
  6. See Dali TV Guide interview: watch TV upside down

Pasteur

Flaubert taught us that there is no neutral area in human communications, and no more merit in tolerating hideous and tendentious forms of pictorial arrangement than in putting up with polluted drinking water. Before Pasteur, Flaubert introduced the germ theory into social communication. (McLuhan NAEB presentation September 1959, reused in The Medium is the Message,1960)

The world of body and mind observed by Baudelaire and Bernard was not photographical at all, but a nonvisual set of relations such as the physicist, for example, had encountered by means of the new mathematics and statistics. The photograph might be said, also, to have brought to human attention the subvisual world of bacteria that caused Louis Pasteur to be driven from the medical profession by his indignant colleagues. Just as the painter Samuel Morse had unintentionally projected himself into the nonvisual world of the telegraph, so the photograph really transcends the pictorial by capturing the inner gestures and postures of both body and mind, yielding the new worlds of endocrinology and psychopathology. (Understanding Media, 1964, pp201-202)

The utmost purity of mind is no defense against bacteria, though the confreres of Louis Pasteur tossed him out of the medical profession for his base allegations about the invisible operation of bacteria. To resist TV, therefore, one must acquire the antidote of related media like print. (Understanding Media, 1964, p329)

TV Guide for June 8-14, 1968, has a painting by Dali on the cover. Two thumbs exhibit two TV screens as thumbnails. That is pure poetry, acute new perception. Dali immediately presents the fact that TV is a tactile mode of perception. Touch is the space of the interval, not of visual connection. I have been trying to elucidate this fact for years. In vain. The somnambulist knows better. Can’t he see TV with his eyes? How could it be tactile? Pasteur was thrown out of the medical profession because he insisted that doctors wash their hands before surgery. They knew better. They could see their hands were clean. The effects of new media on our sensory lives are similar to the effects of new poetry. They change not our thoughts but the structure of our world. (Foreword to The Interior Landscape, 1969)

Dali TV Guide interview: watch TV upside down

McLuhan to Sheila Watson, June 12, 1968:1

Obtain cover of TV Guide for June 8-14. It is a Dali explanation of the tactile nature of the TV image. Wonderful interview inside, too.

Here is that wonderful interview…2

He Prefers To Watch TV Upside Down

Salvador Dali, genius
and madman, tells what he
thinks of the medium

By Edith Efron

Salvador Dali painted the cover of TV Guide this week. He calls it ‘Today, Tonight and Tomorrow’.3

Dali is both genius and madman. (…)

We were sent to interview him about his cover painting and to get his views about television. Here is an exact report of what happened. (…)

“I want to talk about the Heepies. The Heepies are my friends”, he says, while the picture editor and the photographers arrange him. (…)

We begin the interview. “Would you care to interpret the cover you painted for TV Guide?”

“Ahhrrgh,” shouts Dali excitedly.  “TV — everything rigid, square, very clear. Soft watches, soft pianos, soft violoncellos — I create that. Now I create soft television.”

“Why thumbs?”, we ask.
 
“Thumbs? Very adequatt for looking TV. Shape. Thumbnail. Like TV.”
 
“Why just thumbs?” We ask. Why not other fingers?
 
“One feenger sufficient”, says Dali.
 
“Oh”, we say.
 
“Myself”, says Dali, “never watch television. Don’t like TV. Only one very leetle minute.”
 
“You never watch it at all?”
 
“Watch it upside down”, says Dali triumphally. “Through moiré filter.”
 
“Through taffeta?”
 
“Taffeta filter. Change completely. Is possible to see what my own brain create.”
 
“What does your brain create?”

“Liquid television!” Dali beams with satisfaction. “My last invention. Put liquid on hands.” He rubs imaginary liquid into his hands. “TV appear! DNA proves that origin of life . . . TV one day become correlated with DNA. Everything mechanical collapse except cybernetic machines!”

“Mmmmm”, we say. “Referencing back to your watching TV upside down — how does that work exactly?”

“Upside down. Everything in my brain. Project my brain on the screen. Vary agreeable! My brain very superior every medium.”

“What sort of thing does your brain project on the screen?”

“Happenings!” cries Dali instantly. “I make happenings in Paris. I did things extraordinaire. Omelettes aux fines herbes put on head of old, old lady.  She sits with omelette on head, trembles. Omelette falls to ground. Servant puts other omelette on head. Again she tremble, omelette falls. Finally, she up to knees in omelettes!”

“What other happenings do you create?”

“Deux mille boiteux!” shouts Dali in French. “Je mets deux mille boiteux dans une chambre.”

“Lame people?” we ask. “You put 2000 lame people in one room?”

“Si, si. After I throw one hundred wild ducks! Then observe.  Ah, if they did thees kind of theeng on TV, I would watch! But to look at people on pan-ells who discuss? What use? I know everything they say already.”

“You learn nothing new from TV?”

”Nevair”, cries Dali. ”Nevair anything new. Besides, everyone mediocre. Everyone. Except me. Me and Watson. Discover DNA. And Buckminster Fuller. Invent structures the most sublime of epoch. Monarchiques! I’m monarchique. The Heepies, they are becoming monarchiques.”

 ”Excuse me”, we interrupt. “The Heepies?” we ask, astonished.

Absolument. After Louis XIV there was Revolution Française.  It  brought triomphe of bourgeoisie. The Heepies, they bringing back l’aristocratie.”

“Mmmm,” We say again. “What else would you like to see on TV?”

“Happenings. And things scientifiques! Lots of things scientifiques! And lots of Heepies, lame people. 0p and Pop artists who are most alive. Nevair filmed in advance. Everything filmed advance dead.”

Dali suddenly interrupts himself with an extreme double take. He stares across the room at the picture editor, who is a very pretty and non-ambiguous-looking young lady. “Are you boy in girl’s clothes?” he demands.

“No”, replies the picture editor coldly.

“Arrrgh,” says Dali softly.

“TV”, we coax. “Please stay on TV, would you?”

“TV for masses. Don’t like masses. Only like minority. Masses never cultivé, never good taste. TV should be for to shock them. Force them theenk. But nevair to please. TV for aristocrats to show them [the masses] what they don’t understand.”

”What aristocrats?”

”Op and Pop artists”, says Dali. ”Op and Pop artists superior to masses.”

“Would the masses enjoy a TV run by Op and Pop artists?”
 
“No, no. They would protest. The lame people, the wild ducks. They wouldn’t understand. They…” There ensues a flurry of talk about DNA and molecules in a self-liquefying merger of English, French and Spanish. Then: “Leeches represent living soft watches. The Dalínian universe represents the ideas of Watson. DNA is the… ”

“Excuse me,” we interrupt . ”What have leeches, soft watches, DNA, Dali’s universe, Op and Pop artists, the taste-less masses and TV got to do with each other?”

Dali looks at us with contempt . “The lame people – they are the templates,” he says. “In the genetic code, there are messengers. They always lame.”

”Oh,” we say.

“Everybody idiot but me,” announces Dali loudly.

”You say the masses would protest the lame people and the ducks,” we say, struggling to hold on to the interview. “Why make them watch what they wouldn’t like?”

”Masses need enigmas. Like religion. Must give them enigmas”.

“Do you consider yourself a priest?”

”Not a priest”, says Dali coldly. “Am Dali. That ees sufficient. TV not need humans to run it. Need brains not human. Cybernetics. Very  superior to human brains.

“But computers have to be programmed by humans. Who’d program them?”

“Fuller. Watson. Myself. We program the machines.”

“What’s wrong with the present programmers?”

“Afraid to lose job. Full of bureaucracy. No private initiative. All initiative completely lost. Too much pleasing the masses.”

“The situation would be improved by showing the masses omelletes on trembling old ladies’ heads?”

Naturalement! The Heepies are against thees bureaucracy,  thees uniformity.” Suddenly, there is a new flurry of Heepies, DNA, molecules and cybernetics, with a few protons and antiprotons thrown in.

We ask again. “About this cover you’ve done for TV Guide — what else  can you say about it?”

“Ees desert. Dalínian landscape. Desert of Spain. Also like desert of California. Put TV set in thumbs. In usual desert.”

Does the desert symbolize TV?”

Dali looks blank.

“My editor thought maybe you meant the ‘vast wasteland’.”

Dali looks blank. “No, ees usual Dalían universe.”

“The cover just means…thumbs in a desert? It doesn’t actually have a meaning?”

“No. Just thumbs.” Dali changes the subject. “Must uplift masses. Op and Pop artists must uplift”, he repeats.

“Would you comment on the future of TV, Mr. Dali?”

This question provokes a veritable scientifique explosion. “Laser beams…DNA…oxydic nucleic acid…holograms! I make hologram of God!..My religious pictures metaphysical. Full of protons, antiprotons, molecules. Everybody make images of God. Michelangelo make of marble. Who make God like that? I make portrait of God with mathematical formula. Holograms! I make God with holograms. Show on TV. Fantastique!

“God on TV?” We stare at Dali.

“Ahhrrgh”, Dali leaps up from his chair. Fantastique. TV experts don’t know what hologram is. Nobody here know nothing. Should do your job! DNA — don’t know what DNA is. How can you SPEAK people who know nothing? Hologram bring Into existence object in HEAD. Fantastique technology. God is in head, make real. Put on TV”. (…)

Someone tries to pay Dali tribute by mentioning his magnificent Crucifixion [paintings]. Dali stares at the speaker — and then rattles off a long and totally pointless anecdote about having received an elephant as a gift. “From Delhi to Dali”, he says triumphantly.

For a moment we all mill around him like stray cats, unwilling to go without a moment of true communication. But Dali will not have it. 

  1. Letters, p353.
  2. Interview with Salvador Dali by Edith Efron, TV Guide, June 8-14, 1968, pp6-10. The transcript here has been prepared from online photographs of this TV Guide interview. Copies of the issue are regularly offered at ebay and elsewhere and sellers often illustrate their wares in this way. The interview has been lightly edited by omitting some of the less interesting material and by deleting words Dali probably did not use. For example, Ephron’s “Is possible to see whatever my own brain create” appears as “Is possible to see what my own brain create”. Dali might have known the word ‘whatever’; but he was too much of a genius to use it in the way reported by Efron in an interview with the press. Still, odd constructions like “No private initiative” remain. Could Dali really have said this? Or, at least, could he really have made his point about the lack of creativity in TV in such strange (for him) language as this?
  3. The ‘Today Show’ and the ‘Tonight Show’ were TV programs in 1968 — which are still going 55 years later in 2023. The ‘Tomorrow Show’ would also become a TV program, but only 5 years later in 1973. Its use in the title of the TV Guide cover painting has the effect of contrasting present time, ‘Today’ and ‘Tonight’, with the future, ‘Tomorrow’. Or, as Dali’s intent seems to have been, to use time to contrast unreality with reality and superficiality with creative work.

Ear-view mirror

Gordon records that McLuhan used the great phrase “ear-view mirror” in a letter to Barbara Rowes from August 9, 1977.1 But he does so as part of a questionable claim:

The television medium forces the use of what McLuhan later referred to as the ‘ear-view mirror,’ because the eye never receives a complete picture from the screen, just as the ear never receives a word in isolation from a stream of speech.

Gordon’s sentence is often enough cited with approval as if it captured the intent of McLuhan’s play on words. But of course it does not. In fact, once actually considered, it is hard to know what Gordon could have been thinking — his sentence is a sequence of non-sequiturs.2

The phrase is first of all a product of McLuhan’s Joycean mind that found it easy, enjoyable and informative to juggle words and thoughts.  Leaving off the ‘r’ from ‘rear-view mirror’ reveals a mind in action and reflects a common phenomenon in language — like the Cockney ‘enry’ or the Greek ‘oinos’. A funny thing happened on the way to the present.

Secondly, the phrase captures ‘tactility’ in its characteristic action of melding without merging, in this case ‘ear’ with ‘eye’ (view, mirror). According to McLuhan, this is what television, as the epitome of new media, is — the extension of tactility.

Thirdly, the coinage indicates that its twin, the rear-view mirror, is more complicated than might be thought. Like everything else, it is knotted and not-ed internally.

  1. Escape into Understanding, p210 with reference at p405, n63.
  2. McLuhan’s phrase does not concern what “the television medium forces the use of”. Whether or not “the eye (…) receives a complete picture from the screen” depends entirely on how the ‘eye’ is conceived and how “a complete picture” is understood. And what this has to do with the reception of a word in “a stream of speech” — which is usually the case, but sometimes not — is obscure at best. At a guess, Gordon equated the linear “stream of speech” with an analogous ‘stream of images’ in TV and considered that both make sense only in such a chronological context. But this ignores McLuhan’s ‘allatonceness’. So a series of non-sequiturs goes wrong through an overconcern with sequence.

DNA

McLuhan frequently referred to the discovery of DNA by Francis Crick and James Watson and apparently saw it as analogous to his discovery of the medium as the structure of all possible messages.

McLuhan to Barbara Rowes, April 29, 1976

All of man’s artifacts are structurally linguistic and metaphoric. This discovery, unknown to anybody in any culture, would justify a book without any other factors whatever. Remember the Watson autobiography of his discovery of the double helix in the DNA particle? Literally speaking, this breakthrough [of mine] about the linguistic structure of all human artifacts [= the medium is the message] is incomparably larger and deeper-going.1 I am, myself, unable to grasp the implications. Certainly it means that the unity of the family of man can be seen, not [only] as biological, but as intellectual and spiritual.2

*

The University In The Electric Age, 19643

Today, in the Age of Information, all materials and energy tend to become a form of programmed knowledge. The process of translation, or application, has become easy. The real work now consists in doing something else, namely imagining the present in all its depth. The power of the imaginative grasp of the present seems to have belonged only to artists till now. That is why they seem to have been “ahead of their time”. But their power to seize their own time in depth is also accompanied by a vision of the unused possibilities of their time. They are often inclined to refashion the sensory life of their age as if they were the Life Force providing DNA particles with new programs. Indeed it is not misleading to envisage the artist as Life Force so far as inventing new sensory environments and ground rules is concerned. If new technology is very much in the order of biological extension and mutation, the artist is not without his role in orchestrating such change with the orderly needs of our sensory life. Without this orchestration of established sensory modes with new technological environments, man undergoes progressive alienation from himself.

Toward an Inclusive Consciousness 1967

If the DNA particle is programmed from all eternity, or is totally programmed before anything happens, it’s an all-at-once operation.

McLuhan to Sheila Watson, June 12, 19684

Obtain cover of TV Guide for June 8-14. It is a Dali explanation of the tactile nature of the TV image. Wonderful interview inside, too.

Dew-Line 1.5, November 1968

The twentieth century is not the era of outer but of inner space. Ours is the era of the inner trip and DNA. The outer trip is for tourists only and for the cultivators of the old hardware.  

Dew-Line 1.6 December 1968

The scholastics were oral dialoguers who had memorized all the basic philosophic components needed in their dialogue. Each schoolman had to be an encyclopedia of such lore. They then went to work (operation-research style) to solve new problems by banging old clichés together, much as Watson and his colleagues did in approaching the DNA. problem (see The Double Helix).5

McLuhan in conversation with to Nina Sutton, 19756

You cannot have learning except at the price of creative ignorance. The moment you learn some vast new thing you realize how very ignorant you were up to that moment and so learning is always creating ignorance — it is like discoveries made on DNA particles or something like that — this suddenly reveals to the scientists themselves their ignorance. So discoveries are always creating ignorance.7


  1. Compare from ‘Effects of the Improvements of Communication Media’ (1960): “I would suggest that the penetrative powers of any structure of technology lie precisely here: namely, that the ratio among sight and sound, and touch and motion, offer precisely that place to stand which Archimedes asked for: “Give me a place to stand, and I will move the world.”
  2. Cited in Gordon, Escape into Understanding, p224.
  3. ‘The University In The Electric Age: The End Of The Gap Between Theory And Practice’, University of Toronto Varsity Graduate, 11:3, December 1964.
  4. Letters, 353.
  5. Watson’s Double Helix was published earlier in that same year of 1968.
  6. Barbara Rowes, to whom McLuhan wrote the letter quoted at the head of this post, frequently joined Sutton in her sessions with McLuhan.
  7. The ignorance revealed by discoveries is not only past ignorance. More important is the ignorance revealed by discovery in the present for future investigation. What might be called ‘essential ignorance’ is embedded in all the tenses of time. The ‘rule of thumb’: no light without dark, no dark without light!

Archimedes

In 1960 and for a few years thereafter, McLuhan used the image of Archimedes’ lever to point to the inherently ontological or universalizing nature of media such that they “embrace the globe”, “imposing their assumptions upon the entire community”:

Technology, the Media, and Culture, 1960
The boast of Archimedes was fulfilled in the phonetic alphabet. The culture that uses it stands on the human eye and levers all the other senses into distorted configurations. Today, Archimedes can stand on the ear by radio or our tactile sense by television and enlarge the operation of these organs till they embrace the globe. 

Effects of the Improvements of Communication Media, 1960
I would suggest that the penetrative powers of any structure of technology lie precisely here: namely, that the ratio among sight and sound, and touch and motion, offer precisely that place to stand which Archimedes asked for: “Give me a place to stand, and I will move the world.” 

Effects of the Improvements of Communication Media 1960 
…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. 

McLuhan to Serge Chermayeff Dec 19, 19601
Natural resources and staples, whether cotton, fish, lumber, coal, iron, water power or waterways are in certain respects low-grade media of communication gradually imposing their assumptions upon the entire community, creating a kind of organic unity. But our electronic media are in a very basic sense new natural resources, new staples of global extent and distribution since they are extensions of our own private senses. Archimedes said, “Give me a place to stand and I’ll move the world.” Photography, radio, television, et cetera enable anybody to stand on the collective human ear, eye, skin and to manipulate the entire human population as natural resource.

The Humanities in the Electronic Age 1961
Madison Avenue is the collective Archimedes of our time. Archimedes had rightly observed: “Give me a place to stand and I will move the world.” Today, looking at our globally dilated senses, he would comment: “Well, I’ll be fulcrummed. Why, I can stand on your ear, on your eye, on your skin and move your world as I wish.” 

Understanding Media, 19642
Once we have surrendered our senses and nervous systems to the private manipulation of those who would try to benefit from taking a lease on our eyes and ears and nerves, we don’t really have any rights left. Leasing our eyes and ears and nerves to commercial interests is like handing over the common speech to a private corporation, or like giving the earth’s atmosphere to a company as a monopoly. (…) As long as we adopt the Narcissus attitude of regarding the extensions of our own bodies as really out there and really independent of us, we will meet all technological challenges with the same sort of banana-skin pirouette and collapse. Archimedes once said, “Give me a place to stand and I will move the world.” Today he would have pointed to our electric media and said, “I will stand on your eyes, your ears, your nerves, and your brain, and the world will move in any tempo or pattern I choose.” We have leased these “places to stand” to private corporations.3 

  1. For the full letter see McLuhan to Serge Chermayeff.
  2. UM, p68
  3. McLuhan would come to see this as a mode of “hijacking”. See The Hijacked World.

Hominization of the planet 2

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

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

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

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

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

McLuhan continued to emphasize the point 15 years later in his Playboy Interview:

I began to realize that the greatest artists of the 20th Century — Yeats, Pound. Joyce, Eliot — had discovered a totally different approach, based on the identity of the processes of cognition and creation. I realized that artistic creation is the playback of ordinary experience

The notion is that all human experience, the most ordinary to the most artistic, begins in momentary exposure to the range of the available possibilities together with all the possible combinations of those possibilities. A free or swerved or creative choice must ‘then’ be made between them in the momentary activation of some one of them. So conceived, human being is Aristotle’s energeia, the incessant sparking activation of particular linguistic and experiential forms.

“The gap is where the action is” in that the gap between conscious life and the unconscious domain of possibilities is crossed at every instant and then, in the unconscious, the gaps between the possibilities there are crossed, too, as those possibilities are surveyed and assessed. It is like language use where all possible sounds, words and grammatical markers are available to speakers, moment to moment to moment.2 They must choose between these possibilities and their words are the activated result, or effect, of this discriminatory process. Thus conceived, language is the “playback” of preexisting forms. And, according to McLuhan, so is experience.

In both processes, in the generation of language and in the isomorphic generation of experience, there is a complication of space and time and of the speaking/experiencing subject. The space-time of these processes is not that of the ‘regular world’. They do not unfold in ordinary three-dimensional space nor in chronological time. And identity is more the effect of these processes than its cause. These fundamentally obscure processes are therefore the actions of McLuhan’s nomad/no-man/nobody.3

A kind of “artistic creation” where “we swerve our motions” is implicated, since the ‘rearview mirror’ of previous enunciation or of previous experience does not bind the spoken word or the experiential perception to follow. There is an essentially exploratory aspect to every moment of experience that consists in a sort of reconnaissance of the possibilities before it, forcing a swerved choice between them.

Perception is exploration and you do not know from one moment to the next what you’re going to discover.4

The space, time and subjectivity of ‘ordinary’ life is incessantly left behind for this ‘upside down world’ (as Hegel styled it).

We have to repeat what we were about to say.5

a way of living as if every moment were your next.6

A central question here: what does the actuality of such ubiquitous creativity7 indicate about possibility?

Strangely (since on reflection what could be more obvious?), it has occurred less and less to our purported thinking in the last two centuries that what is actual must also be possible! One of the explicit aims of Heidegger’s 1927 Sein und Zeit (Being and Time) was to address this thought-provoking oversight. The last sentences of its ‘Introduction’8 reads:

Higher than actuality stands possibility. The understanding of phenomenology [dual genitive!] lies entirely in the grasping of it [dual genitive!] as a possibility.9

What happens when creativity is recognized as actual and therefore also as possible is that the structural leap or gap expressed in creativity must be rooted in the ground of human being (dual genitive!).10 Hence McLuhan’s insight that “it is man who has become both figure and ground”. That is, human creativity points to the conditions of creativity in possibility — namely, plurality and the bordering gaps that are necessary for that plurality, gaps that are re-played in the re-creative leaps we make in actuality. In this way humans re-present ‘ground’: “men perform the miracle of recreating (…) in every instant”. But in re-presenting ‘ground’ in their actual circumstances, humans cannot enact plural fundamental possibilities at once, any more than physical material can be more than one chemical formula at once.11 So at the very instant when humans re-present ground, they do so as a dynamic figure of that ground.12 “It is man who has become both figure and ground”.

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

The cliché (…) is incompatible with other clichés, but the archetype is extremely cohesive, the residues of other archetypes adhere to it. When we consciously set out to retrieve one archetype, we unconsciously retrieve [all the] others (…) In fact, whenever we ‘quote’ one consciousness, we also ‘quote’ the archetypes we exclude.13

_________________________

  1. Take Today, p11. Humans becoming “both figure and ground” is not a matter that first becomes possible in some chronological time like the “electro-technical” era. Instead, what becomes possible today is a new “awareness” of this perennial condition. As McLuhan said of the objects of the new awareness made possible by literacy in classical Greece: “The functions and processes were not new. But the means of arrested visual analysis, namely the phonetic alphabet, was as new to the Greeks as the movie camera in our century.” (The Gutenberg Galaxy, 23)
  2. For ‘language’ as McLuhan’s central metaphor see Language itself and Grammars of the Media.
  3. For Plato’s description of the journey of this “nomad”, see McLuhan and Plato 1 – Phaedrus and Er.
  4. McLuhan, Interview with Kenneth AllsopBBC ’24 Hours’, August 19, 1971.
  5. ‘The Be-Spoke Tailor’, Explorations 8, 1957, #4.
  6. McLuhan, ‘A Media Approach to Inflation’, NYT, September 21, 1974.
  7. Creativity is most manifest, perhaps, in the arts and sciences. But we properly recognize it as well, of course, throughout the whole range of human activity: in child-rearing, cooking, hunting, sewing, telling jokes, etc etc. And the often startling creativity of animals manifests it as well!
  8. Since SZ was never completed, there is an important sense in which these concluding sentences of the ‘Introduction’ represent Heidegger’s ‘last word’ on the SZ project. Not to say that there are not other ‘last words’ on it as well, of course — such as ‘Zeit und Sein’ from 35 years later in 1962.
  9. Sein und Zeit, ‘Einleitung’: “Höher als die Wirklichkeit steht die Möglichkeit. Das Verständnis der Phänomenologie liegt einzig im Ergreifen ihrer als Möglichkeit.”
  10. For both Lucretius and McLuhan, the creative freedom of human being is grounded in prior possibility that is ontological.
  11. Not to say that human being or physical being cannot have the form of some highly complicated combination of fundamental possibilities! In fact, it is probable that with human being, as much as with physical being, it is disappearingly rare for a singular elemental possibility to be manifested purely and simply on its own.
  12. Dual genitive.
  13. From Cliché to Archetype, p21 = Laws of Media, p104.

Multi-space dialogue in Greece

Toward a Spatial Dialogue…1

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

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

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

Through the vanishing point with Nietzsche

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

The true world — we have abolished. What world has remained? The apparent one perhaps? But no! With the true world we also have abolished the apparent one!!1

Compare in McLuhan:

Let us keep in mind that the new reality is in the image and not behind it.2

Nietzsche’s conclusion about the loss of the “apparent world” — aka, the loss of the image — is precipitated from McLuhan’s observation as soon as it is asked if an image is still an image if it is not an image of something? If its reality is only in it “and not behind it”?

McLuhan did indeed appreciate this utter loss:

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. (Address to Author’s Luncheon in NYC, 1969)3

Whereas mechanical “dehumanization” wrecked the person, electric super-“humanization” wrecks the entire system. (Take Today, p221)4

 

  1. Nietzsche (1844-1900), Götzen-Dämmerung, ‘Geschichte eines Irrtums — Wie die »wahre Welt« endlich zur Fabel wurde’, 1889: “Die wahre Welt haben wir abgeschafft: welche Welt blieb übrig? die scheinbare vielleicht?… Aber nein! mit der wahren Welt haben wir auch die scheinbare abgeschafft!!” For discussion, see Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters 2: What Mallarmé saw.
  2. ‘The Electronic Age – The Age of Implosion’, in Mass Media in Canada, ed. John A Irving, 1962.
  3. YouTube recording 12:50ff. The date given at YouTube for this address is 1966. But it 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 — that this date is mistaken and should be 1969.
  4. Later in Take Today: The UNPERSON is the inevitable result of improved communication, all barriers of private consciousness are overcome, the resulting collective form of awareness is a tribal dream. Western man experiences it only in his sleep. (…) We all become unpersons at night” (p269).

Hominization of the planet 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Technology has abolished ‘nature’ in the old sense and brought the globe within the scope of art. (Notes on the Media as Art Forms)4

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

The first humanoid uttering his first intelligible grunt, or “word,” outered himself and set up a dynamic relationship with himself, other creatures, and the world outside his skin. Speech (…) is (…) a tool to reconstitute nature (…) to translate one form [nature] into another [human experience and its collective expression in culture].5 (…) The pre-neolithic [= paleolithic] art of making stone tools [like the art of making speech tools] moved man out of the process of [natural] evolution and into a world of his own making. (The Global Village, 1989, p93)

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

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

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

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

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

Where do we get that freewill, wrenched away
From the fates, by which we each proceed to follow pleasure’s sway,
So that we swerve our motions not at a designated spot
And fixed time, but the very place we will it in our thought?
Without a doubt these motions have their beginning in the whims
Of each, and from that will these motions trickle into the limbs.6

With all living beings, but especially with humans, a decided clinamen (swerve) is seen to operate in the world alongside, but exceeding in some way, the world of nature, the world of the natural ‘course of events’.

.

  1. Harley Parker’s fontwork here is well conceived. The labyrinthine shape of the ‘2’ traces the complications of creation and the analogous complications of thought that would ‘follow’ it. Meanwhile the halving of ‘creation’ illustrates that “original creation” is not the full story. As McLuhan says, a “second phase” is essential to it. Furthermore, creation in both its divine and human iterations takes place across a gap — amounting to an absence that is essential to creation. The very heart of creativity is a gap “where the action is”. This gap is what must be retraced and retrieved today after centuries in which it has been largely ‘overlooked‘ (as the top half of Parker’s “creation” overlooks its missing bottom “phase”).
  2. The Global Village, 1989, p93.
  3. Compare ‘At the moment of Sputnik the planet became a global theatre in which there are no spectators but only actors’, 1974: “At the moment that the earth went inside this new artifact, Nature ended and Ecology was born.”
  4. In the same 1954 essay (‘Notes on the Media as Art Forms’): “The power of the machine to transform the character of work and living strongly invites us to transform every level of existence by art.”
  5. ‘Speech is a tool to reconstitute nature, to translate one form into another’. Compare ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’ (cited in part above): “In ordinary perception men perform the miracle of recreating within themselves, in their interior faculties, the exterior world. This miracle is the work of the nous poietikos or of the agent intellect — that is, the poetic or creative process. The exterior world in every instant of perception is interiorized and recreated in a new matter. Ourselves. And in this creative work that is perception and cognition, we experience immediately that dance of Being within our faculties which provides the incessant intuition of Being.”
  6. Bk2.257ff:
    unde est haec, inquam, fatis avolsa voluntas,
    per quam progredimur quo ducit quemque voluptas,
    declinamus item motus nec tempore certo
    nec regione loci certa, sed ubi ipsa tulit mens?
    nam dubio procul his rebus sua cuique voluntas
    principium dat et hinc motus per membra rigantur.

McLuhan’s communication problem

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

In a recording of the studio proceedings, McLuhan voiced a central problem regarding communication of his work:2 

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

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

have no values as regards anything I talk about.4

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

 

 

  1. Also mentioned in the recording as present along with McLuhan, Parker and Schwartz: George (Thompson?) and Suzy (?).
  2. Other related problems: McLuhan’s words (like any words) were read or heard via the rear-view mirror, thereby fundamentally distorting them and preventing the perception of the new that he was attempting to foster. Letting go of one’s frame of reference is not easy. Perception of the new requires a step back ‘through the vanishing point’ to another identity and another world and there is no identity between identities and no world between worlds. These problems strongly motivate the “megalomania” and “utter nonsense” assessments.
  3. https://youtu.be/YEtdaqjzCGc?t=2820. McLuhan adds: “It’s like Alice in Wonderland.”
  4. https://youtu.be/YEtdaqjzCGc?t=4915.
  5. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VQIPf4ezrwg.

The vortex of the living community

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate — but there is no competition —
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again….5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

A whole new genus of sciences

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

to read the language of the outer world and relate it to the inner world(Playboy Interview)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And in From Cliché to Archetype in 1970:

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

*

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

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

Similarly a few years later in Understanding Media:14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

 

 

  1. “Aber wie beim Kinde nach langer stiller Ernährung der erste Atemzug jene Allmählichkeit des nur vermehrenden Fortgangs abbricht – ein qualitativer Sprung – und das Kind geboren ist, so reift der sich bildende Geist langsam und stille der neuen Gestalt entgegen, löst ein Teilchen des Baues seiner vorgehenden Welt nach dem andern auf, ihr Wanken wird nur durch einzelne Symptome angedeutet; der Leichtsinn wie die Langeweile, die im Bestehenden einreißen, die unbestimmte Ahnung eines Unbekannten sind Vorboten, daß etwas anderes im Anzuge ist. Dies allmähliche Zerbröckeln, das die Physiognomie des Ganzen nicht veränderte, wird durch den Aufgang unterbrochen, der, ein Blitz, in einem Male das Gebilde der neuen Welt hinstellt.” Pinkard’s translation has been used with considerable changes.
  2. From Cliché to Archetype, p160.
  3. McLuhan wanted not only to foresee such science, of course, but actually to initiate it. His last 20 years, after the start of his blackouts in 1959 and his first serious stroke in 1960, must be seen as a repeated attempt to communicate his findings through writing, lecturing, teaching, media interviews and the cultivation of co-workers who might be his intellectual heirs. But none of this worked — at least not yet.
  4. The Gutenberg Galaxy was McLuhan’s attempt to explicate the foundations of the existing genus of ‘old science’ as defined by a certain kind of subjectivity related to a certain kind of objectivity within a certain kind of space-time.
  5. Like Hegel 200 years ago, McLuhan saw that the goal of conducting investigation somehow aside from the instruments supplying its data, and from the mentalities supplying its experimental design and conclusions, is ultimately senseless and self-defeating. McLuhan: “The old separation of art and nature we now see to have been based on an ignorance of nature.” (New Media in Arts Education, 1956). How so? Because art and nature belong to each other and can be separated only artificially (in a fruitless Gutenbergian attempt to install some One). ‘Nature’ is always ‘nature as experienced in some way’, ‘nature as mediated’. And ‘experience’ (aka ‘art’) is always the ‘experience of natural beings (subj gen!) living in a natural world’. (The equation of ordinary experience and art was the central object of McLuhan’s research for the 10 years or so after WW2. See note 24.)
  6. Terms such as ‘old’ and ‘new’ science, and ‘first’ and ‘second’ nature, must, of course, be specified. McLuhan repeatedly tried to do so. He recognized that “the crucial study that remains is that of working out in precise detail the relations between second and first nature” (Laws of Media, 117).
  7. For many reasons McLuhan thought that “new science” could emerge ‘now’ — 70 years ago and counting! — from its previous invisibility. One was that we already apply much of this “new science” in cybernetics, advertising, entertainment, politics, in fact everywhere. These are all much more than chemical constructions! They all implicate a practical knowledge of the workings of human being (understood verbally). What was and is needed: to become conscious of what we already live! Nietzsche’s motto for Ecce Homo “How one becomes what one is” (Wie man wird, was man ist).
  8. Without such “perception of essentials”, how could infants learn language in the first place? Language is just (just!) a filter of essential noise from inconsequential noise and without intuitive perception of this difference, it could not exist! Decades after his 1943 Nashe thesis, in 1970, McLuhan termed this “perpetually operative” faculty “pre-tribal awareness” (since being a member of a tribe entails that its language — including its languages of gesture, story-telling, taste, etc, be subject to intuitive assimilation): “Havelock’s Preface to Plato shows how the phonetic alphabet scrapped tribal man but retrieved the primordial role of individual and pre-tribal awareness.” (McLuhan to Joe Keogh, July 6,1970, Letters 413) Again: “The liquidating of the tribal encyclopaedia of the bards (…) was done by phonetic literacy, but there was retrieved something of great antiquity, namely pre-tribal metaphysical man.” (McLuhan to Lynn White, August 17, 1970). Literacy retrieves this perpetually operative faculty in that it requires the same pre-tribal awareness or intuitive perception of essentials as does language. For it, too, is a filter — in this case of essential marks from inconsequential ones. The implication is that humans cannot be at all absent a “faculty which (…) is perpetually operative — an intuitive perception of essentials”. This explains (a) how it is that humans are an ontological animal who cannot perceive or feel or do anything that is not preformed by some intuitive understanding of the essentials of being itself; and (b) how it is that humans invent technologies through the apprehension of the essentials at work in different areas. The life or death question posed to contemporary humans is whether an understanding of essentials (aka, media) can be achieved before the unconscious application of essential intuition kills us.
  9. By ‘Being’ here McLuhan does not mean some kind of cloud of unknowing. He means that humans ‘incessantly’ interrogate their surroundings for the being of things. This has eventuated in our understanding of the being of the physical universe. Nothing occurs in it aside form its being in (or being from) the chemical and physical laws we have learned to identity and further investigate.  This same power can also come to an understanding of ourselves in all our various &#