Author Archives: McEwen

The Beginnings of Gutenberg Galaxy 7

McLuhan’s Understanding Media project with the NAEB was approved for funding through Title VII of the National Defense Education Act in May 1959. At the end of that month, on May 29, McLuhan wrote Harry Skornia:

Shall spend much of the summer getting things lined up for your [NAEB research] committee so that they can give us maximum aid.  Shall send many memos and suggestions of possible procedures.  Also, the Gutenberg Era can be circulated in mimeo to all of them. Macmillan just wrote asking for it.  I don’t think any better approach to [the] Understanding Media [project] could be developed than the Gutenberg Era MSS.

As shown by references in The Gutenberg Galaxy with dates later than this letter, McLuhan would still do considerable work on the manuscript before it was published in 1962. But by the spring of 1959 The Gutenberg Era — what was to become The Gutenberg Galaxy1 — existed in manuscript form that was complete enough, or at least within sight of being complete enough, for McLuhan to consider showing it to potential publishers and to the NAEB committee that would, at least in prospect, be guiding his project.

In regard to that project, the twin topics of the Gutenberg book were:

  • what happened in history that led to the dis-covery of the understanding of media (including the imperative need for that discovery)?
  • what happened in history that assisted in that dis-covery?

The first was a diachronic or horizontal story, the second a synchronic or vertical one. Like two eyes estimating a distance, or two I’s participating in a dialogue, or two ayes confirming a contract, the two together would both be needed to bring McLuhan’s project into focus.2

  1. The change in title from ‘Era‘ to ‘Galaxy‘ signaled McLuhan’s growing awareness of the question of time to the project of understanding media. He came to see that it was a question of rival mosaics whose relation, although not without a historical dimension, was first of all one of contemporaneous rivalry. An ancient quarrel. All at once. The great trick was to assume by a kind of backwards flip that mosaic which was necessary to ‘put on’ in order to begin an investigation of mosaics. The NAEB research committee, like the McLuhan industry today 40 years after his death, was unable to subject itself to this demand.
  2. The parallel with chemistry is exact. For billions of years, the history of the planet took place, so to say, chemically. But even when humans came to learn how to manipulate that chemistry through cooking, tanning, brewing, etc, and eventually through smelting, they did not understand what they were doing except in terms of practical results: to achieve such and such an end, follow these steps. Ultimately, however, both through evolving practical experience and theoretical considerations taking off from the Greek miracle, the field of chemistry was dis-covered and became subject to investigation. This happened only two centuries ago. Chemistry had always been a possible object of understanding, but this possibility had to be unearthed through a laborious historical process lasting, as it now seems, hundreds of thousand of years. Then, once chemistry was born in our understanding, it could be understood through it both what had always been going on in the world, including in our own bodies, and even beyond our world in the stars — and what in particular had gone on leading to that eventual birth. Understanding media, in McLuhan’s estimation, could be achieved in an analogous way — and had to be achieved if the fruits of civilization where not to be destroyed by our insouciance.

The goal of science 6/25/59

What is especially needed is not so much a theory of advertising and its effects as a critical study of a great variety of particular ads by a diversity of minds using multiple approaches. (Advertising as a Magical Institution, 1952)1

When Alanbrooke discussed strategy with the Americans he was baffled by their preference for global strategy: “again discussion of global strategy which led us nowhere. The trouble is that the American mind likes proceeding from the general to the particular whilst in the problems we have to solve we cannot evolve any sort of general doctrine until we have carefully examined the particular details of each problem.” (Item #21, Explorations 8, 1957)2

like Poe, Mr. Eliot insists on precision achieved by experiment with the art-form used as pilot model. The ultimate causes are tapped in the audience by the art model, the model being used as a control mechanism. The artist here, like the scientist, experiments with the effects of a model until the exact causes are discovered and brought to bear. This method might be called the method of invention itself. And A. N. Whitehead, in Science and the Modern World, pointed out that this fact was the prime discovery of the nineteenth century rather than the discovery of any applied process. For communicators in any medium this method is now indispensable, whether in advertising, in politics, in education, in art. Because a general scattering of shots may not only be wasteful, but it may, in an electronic world of simultaneous effects, touch off unforeseen chains of reaction. The Poe-Eliot method is not only efficient, it is now necessary, and anything less is in fact irresponsible. [For only] in periods or areas when information moved at a pre-electronic pace, [could] the effects of the through-put of information with reference to any given social structure of knowledge and attitudes be counted on to be manageable.3 (Media Alchemy in Art and Society, 1958)4 

In a handwritten letter to Harry Skornia from June 25, 1959, McLuhan put forward some thoughts on science. Part of his point was to locate his NAEB ‘Understanding Media’ project in relation to the sort of ‘normal science’ the NAEB research committee (and on some days also Skornia)5 hoped that the project would quickly begin to practice. For McLuhan, in fundamental contrast, normal science was the goal of the exercise which could not be reached if the assumption were made that its requirements were already in place.

Dear Harry
Perhaps I can clarify a bit more my recently stated questionnaire approach [within the Understanding Media project] in reference to grammars of the media.  [The idea is] to ask in written and oral form:
what is the most obvious and striking power or advantage possessed by your medium (lead pencil, typewriter, radio station) over all other means?
what has your medium done to other media?
what have other media done to yours?
These by way of eliciting observation and anecdote that will reveal the various lines and levels of force operative in any field of relations set up by any medium.
[The ability] to discern and to spell out the lines of force in the world gives us [ordinary] speech, statement, syntax in the first place.  To do this for various segments of reality (physics, chemistry, logic, rhetoric) in a more detailed way is science.  And science in turn produces new media or modes of handling information which like the older languages have their own lines of force and impact for which grammars [of such media]6 or [a] science [of them] can be discerned.
To codify these grammars [in an initial way] or lines of force [as they are unreflectively manifested] in new media must be done by contact with those who are nearest to these media.  But the technicians have no unified procedure of verbalized handling of their experience.  Nor do those closest to the new media have much awareness of the interpenetration of media in man and society.
So Harry, I’m suggesting a descriptive “unified field” approach via particular [unfocused]7 observation and anecdote as the preliminary basis for later [focused] experiment and testing.8

McLuhan made a series of explicit and implicit points:

  • the required science of media was yet to be initiated and would not be initiated at all if the science we have in the rear-view mirror is presupposed as applicable to media
  • one sign of the absence of science was that existing “technicians have no unified procedure of verbalized handling of their experience”
  • conversely, one way to proceed toward science would be to attempt to find a vocabulary which would enable the required unification of designation and so the collective investigation that would be enabled by it
  • since “science in turn produces new media or modes of handling information” and since there is profound “interpenetration of [such] media in man and society” producing revolutionary change in both, the potential of the project to solve currently unsolvable problems was vastly more far-reaching than the NAEB imagined — a prospect that should act as a spur to brave the unfamiliarities on the way to science9
  • another problem that could give direction to the project — like the  designation problem — was the hall of mirrors effect in the fact that “science in turn produces new media or modes of handling information which like the older languages have their own lines of force and impact” (and so on, ad infinitum). The potential for such infinite regress is never absent from human activity, but at the same time does not present an insuperable problem for it. We simply go about our business. A science of media, and particularly a science of sciences, must acknowledge such regress — and endure the finitude which is its motor! We never get to some one fixed foundation for our investigations both because other views are always possible and because our own views are never definitive. Hence, what stands in the way of science can either be too little consciousness of imperfection (like the NAEB notion that the requirements for a science of media were already in place) or too much consciousness of imperfection (like the supposition that while sciences of nature are possible, sciences of human nature are not). McLuhan’s central point to the NAEB was that the passage between this Scylla and Charybdis had to be taken and that it therefore gave an unmistakable signpost of the required way.10
  1. ‘Advertising as a Magical Institution’, Commerce Journal, 1952.
  2.  ‘Churchill Mobilizes English Language’, Explorations 8, item #21, 1957, citing Arthur Bryant, The Turn of the Tide (based on the War Diaries of Field Marshal Viscount Alanbrooke), 1957.
  3. McLuhan: “In periods or areas when information moved at a pre-electronic pace, the effects of the through-put of information with reference to any given social structure of knowledge and attitudes could be counted on to be manageable.”
  4. ‘Media Alchemy in Art and Society’, Journal of Communication, 8:2, 63-67, 1958.
  5. Skornia to William Harley, NAEB President, May 26, 1959: “Still can’t get any 1,2,3 steps out of McLuhan.” This was a month before McLuhan’s June 25 letter discussing different takes on science.
  6. See Grammars of the Media.
  7. McLuhan’s point that the roots of science lie in ordinary speech is to say that focus is so natural to humans that they cannot be without it. There is no language even of gesture without focus. “Particular observation” is, then, unfocused only in relation to the finer focus that is science.
  8. Bold and italics have been added. The underlining is McLuhan’s.
  9. Cf ‘Grammars of the Media‘: “Print (…) quickly invested the minds and attitudes of educators with a new vision and grasp of many problems and possibilities which had been inaccessible to awareness or solution before print.” The same thing happens with the introduction of any medium from spoken language and the use of fire to the internet and nuclear fusion.”
  10. McLuhan’s 1934 UM master’s thesis, 25 years before McLuhan’s note to Skornia, repeated four (!) different times a passage from George Meredith’s Diana of the Crossways (1885): “speeding of us, compact of what we are, between the ascetic rocks and the sensual whirlpools, to the creating of certain nobler races now very dimly imagined” (see Scylla and Charybdis for references and discussion). The man had second sight.

Becker on NDEA Title VII funding

A month after the signing into law of the National Defense Education Act in September 1958, Sam Becker, chairman of the NAEB research committee, attended a Washington conference on the implementation of its Title VII “funding for research in the more effective use of technology for educational purposes”. On October 22 he reported back to Harry Skornia as follows:

This will be a rather hurried exposition of the conference on implementation of Title VII, but I believe there is little time to waste. I believe the NAEB should act as quickly as possible to get a proposal into the works. They have all this money (though only $1.5million rather than the $3million for the first year [as] we discovered only at the last minute. $3million were authorized in the facilitating legislation — however only 1/2 of this was appropriated.) (…) They have all this money and they want to be sure and get it spent by June or they have little chance of getting the $5million for next year. Also they want to give some of their first grants to projects which have some assurance of success and publicity value — again to help assure the $5million for the following year. (…) There were a number of suggestions for research proposals which were made at the meeting. (…) 1. The research proposal should be aimed at answering a significant educational problem — it should deal with central educational matters. 2. Research should promise a conceptual leap in how students learn. (There was constant talk of a “breakthrough” in our knowledge. Again, I think this is important for future dealings with Congress.) 3. Ideally, research projects should grow out of something those proposing it are already doing. 4. In the research proposal it is important to show that it is a cooperative effort of decision makers and researchers — rather than simply one or the other — decision makers who should know their goals and problems, researchers who can do a good job of testing whether the goals are achieved. 5. In the proposal be sure to include a rationale for why it is important to research the particular problem proposed.

The day after the conference, Becker had lunch with one of its HEW organizers, Roy Hall:

He [Hall] had two specific things which he finally told me he would like NAEB to do. Both are research projects for which formal proposals should be made if you wish to do them. The first was to discover the blocks to acceptance of the new media.

Many of Becker’s points must have confirmed Skornia’s existing hunch that a proposal with McLuhan as its lead researcher might obtain a nice piece of the Title VII funding. McLuhan was working on problems that he was sure were of world-historical import, he had breakthroughs several times a day, he had long been working and publishing on the sort of program to be proposed, and he was particularly known for his work on new media and the problems associated with their definition, study and use.

Becker, in contrast, was already leery of McLuhan (the need was for “researchers who can do a good job of testing”) and therefore spent far more of his note on the second idea Hall put forward for the NAEB:

The second project, which I believe that the NAEB is far more able to do, is to do research aimed at discovering the best kinds of equipment, production, performance, etc, for instructional broadcasting. 

Becker would eventually come to mock McLuhan’s project as anything but scientific and that was impossible to understand.1 But it would be a couple years before he ran out of patience and in the meantime he worked with Skornia, the research committee and McLuhan himself to try to bring him into Gutenbergian harness.

  1.  When Becker was contracted in 1960 to do abstracts of projects submitted to HEW, he wrote his friend Warren Siebert, who was a Senior Research Coordinator there and who seems to have been in charge of the work Becker was doing for the department: “I did the best I could to make them (the proposals) sound sensible. I thought that sending me the McLuhan proposal to abstract was an especially low blow!!”

McNamee and Ong remember McLuhan

In 1997, Maurice McNamee, SJ, then 88, and Walter Ong, SJ, 84, sat for an interview with Jeff Daniel of the The St Louis Post-Dispatch. He reported their recollections of Marshall McLuhan from over 50 years before in ‘McLuhan’s Two Messengers’.1

“He had precocious insights,” Ong recalled, “but he didn’t always know entirely what he was saying.” (…) He was a pleasant guy, his two former students remember, one who always seemed to be performing, but never in a self-conscious way. Pleasant, yet intense. Always in control. “Always looking for pay dirt,” Ong recalled. “We would do things with him socially, but even then, he would dominate everything around him,” continued Ong, whose master’s thesis was directed by McLuhan. He broke into a laugh. “Everything was at loose ends when he was around — everything was kind of tentative.” McNamee also had McLuhan as a dissertation director, and he soon found out just what the Canadian-born, Cambridge-educated “Mac” meant by “direction.” “Mac’s directing of my dissertation consisted of coming into that building right over there, plopping himself down on the bed, and talking for three hours a night about his own studies,” McNamee said through a fit of laughter.”He was working on his own dissertation, but he encouraged me to use his methods on my work. So in the end, it was a perfect pairing.”2 (…) Like Ong, McNamee realizes that the relationship with McLuhan was often reciprocal. Although they were mentor and student, they were often peers in many instances. (If McLuhan — who died in 1980 — were still living, he’d fall right between Ong and McNamee in age.) He would listen to you, but he was exactly like my dissertation subject, Francis Bacon — he would never acknowledge his sources,” McNamee said. “When he was speaking, it was if all of this had come from divine inspiration directly to Mac,” he continued. “He had this tremendous ability to synthesize information, but he would sometimes use something he got from us when presenting his insights [back to us]. And I honestly don’t think he ever even realized it.” (…) As Ong remembers it, McLuhan had incredible abilities, such as approaching any subject, from Socrates to Herbert Hoover, with intense resolve. His understanding was intuitive, but never easily explained. “He never cared to explain most things,” Ong said.


  1. ‘McLuhan’s Two Messengers — Maurice McNamee and Walter Ong, world-class interpreters of his message’, St Louis Post-DispatchAugust 10, 1997, 4C. The McLuhan recollections of McNamee and Ong accord closely with those of their Jesuit colleague, R.C. Williams: see Assessment of McLuhan.
  2. McNamee in his autobiography: “what he (McLuhan) had done on Thomas Nashe’s background and on the consequences of this background on Nashe’s several prose styles was precisely what he wanted me to do on Francis Bacon. It worked out perfectly. I followed up on the primary and secondary sources he recommended, and he came back each week for another chat on what I had absorbed. But whether my work on Bacon did or did not add much to a better understanding of his work, I am very grateful to Marshall McLuhan for pushing me into the study and guiding me throughout it.”, Maurice McNamee, SJ, Reflections in Tranquility, 2001.

Assessment of McLuhan

A June 19, 1959, letter to Harry Skornia from Sam Becker, the chair of the NAEB research committee, consisted almost entirely of a quoted assessment of McLuhan by “a man who knows McLuhan quite well”. Skornia noted on its head: Essential! — showing that he agreed with the assessment and with its take on McLuhan’s virtues and vices.

It may be that it came from R.C. Williams, SJ, and that it reflected the experience and judgement of the remarkable group of Jesuits1 who studied with McLuhan in the early 1940s in St Louis — Williams (1906-1975) along with Clement McNaspy2 (1915-1995), Walter Ong3 (1912-2003), and Maurice McNamee4 (1909-2007). The assessment calls McLuhan ‘Mac’ and speaks of his “original brilliance” — both pointing to his time at SLU.5 Further, it came from a person long friendly with McLuhan who was a member of the NAEB and a professor of media well aware of McLuhan’s “lack of concern for most of the things we teach in our media courses”. Few beyond Williams might be thought to fit this profile.

I hope you and NAEB know Mac well. He‘s an authentic genius, I’m sure. He is also a poet in temperament, given to insight as a technique of research, and on him it fits well. He sometimes leaves out all the middle steps in stating conclusions, offering only outrageous (at first) generalizations, which anger many people. Remember always that he cares almost only about the intrinsic form of the various media (as an artist) and has only superficial patience (or understanding) of the likes of statistics, financial structure and even content analysis. He believes that form of the media is greater than anything, that print is not film is not radio is not television, etc. But only half a dozen people I know sense the urgency of this idea with him. They speak of the role of the advertiser, [but] Mac says in effect, ‘the nature of the medium as an art form, makes the role of the advertiser nearly incidental, and, besides, the advertiser is, in a sense, a contemporary artist.’ And he means it, no nonsense.
I [agree with]6 this view because I have seen people tire of Mac after an initial love affair, lose faith and conclude that he is an opportunist. He isn’t. He may well be the most important asset the media have, because he believes with a profundity which most of us only mouth that they are the most important factors in the modern world, not because they are propagandistic, but because they determine perceptual processes (not merely content) of people. Print, by its form, creates a way of thinking, not only a store of content; so do all other media. Few people really understand this message.
Then there is this: Mac needs a translator, an assistant or friend or backer if he is to assume an administrative role (…) I advise you most seriously as a friend, and as his good friend, that he has never been able to speak the heart of his message successfully to most professional media men, and he hates detail, skipping all middle steps, as he generally does. He needs people of proper temperament.
I think NAEB has made a daring and fine decision. I ask you and colleagues in NAEB to remember the original brilliance (which still persists) and to be prepared for Mac’s ignorance and lack of concern for most of the things we teach in our media courses. He could learn them, but he doesn’t care to, particularly, for the important thing [for him] is [only the] inherent form of the media, not control structure, content, audience, etc.
When the doubts arise in NAEB, perhaps you can be Mac’s friend and translator. You’re (NAEB) way ahead of your time in doing this. With understanding Mac can perform beyond expectation, which is beyond the thinking of most of us, by far. He can also be frustrated by the shoe clerks among us.
Also, he can be wrong in factual detail that you carry in your hip pockets. Forget it. Rely on his insight.
He’s an artist, a poet — we need them in the media.

In the finalized NAEB funding proposal to the US Office of Education, March 27, 1959, Williams was among the 6 people singled out for special thanks by the initiator (Skornia) and consultant (McLuhan): 

  1. These were men, some older than McLuhan, like Williams and McNamee, with broad training and experience and who were able to give McLuhan as much as they got from him in return. Ong did his MA thesis on Hopkins — McLuhan did a 1944 paper on Hopkins for the Kenyon Review (‘The Analogical Mirrors’). McNamee did his SLU thesis on Francis Bacon — McLuhan included much on Bacon in his 1943 Nashe thesis and wrote and lectured on him extensively in the 1940s. Perhaps Williams with his early interest in television was eventuallly able to contribute even more decisively than his colleagues to McLuhan’s later development with its focus on media. See McLuhan and Father R.C. Williams.
  2. See McNaspy remembers McLuhan.
  3. See McNamee and Ong remember McLuhan.
  4. See previous note.
  5. It is striking how closely the 1959 assessment, apparently from Williams, agrees with the recollections 40 years later of McNamee and Ong (cited in the previous notes).
  6. Williams: ‘unite in’

Marshall, Harry and Baudelaire

In a letter to Harry Skornia from the last week of February, 1959, McLuhan described

Break-through in class today.  Talking about Baudelaire’s famous line1

Hypocrite lecteur, — mon semblable, — mon frère!

his address to his readers — point is that it is voice through reader to poet not voice of poet to reader. This reversal borne out in all subsequent poetry — same as TV image reversal of light through, not on. Takes whole stress off private, personal role of reader and poet alike.  Both now come to share a common creative action.
Can explain all this in detail.  But you can see my point here about the ease with which the student of the most popular forms can be given either casual or intense introduction to highest art forms of his time. e.g. all poets since Rimbaud have used telegraph-press form of juxtaposed items — no linkages, just mosaic of proportions.  Again a form of light through, not private editorial perspective of light on items.

McLuhan would repeat the point for the rest of his career, endlessly. It was part of the armamentum he employed teaching modern art: allow communication to come to you, don’t force you on it; look for figure and ground — and allow these to flip into the reverse configuration; imagine the images as shots in a movie and ask why they have the place they do; consider the composition as a newspaper page; see what happens when a text is read backwards or a picture seen upside down; ask what the artist is trying to elicit from the audience in general and you in particular; pull out the connections! These were techniques he had picked up in learning to read himself and Mallarmé and the French moderns had been critical in this process.

Skornia answered with a short note on March 2, 1959:

Dear Marshall: From your letter, discovery: You’re a Baudelaire fan too! As a literature and language professor spent nearly a year on him and other French moderns. Also, at other times, Dante, Cervantes, Browning,  etc. 

Skornia was a rare bird, an academic with a practical understanding of organizations from the very large like the federal government to the very small like university radio stations. And who at one time had taught Dante, Cervantes and Baudelaire. This unusual background and eclectic range of interests enabled Skornia to value McLuhan’s potential for the NAEB when many in the organization could not. Further, Skornia was in a position — one he was willing to risk — to give McLuhan practical assistance with recognition, encouragement and funding at a — or the — decisive point in his life. 

  1. Au Lectuer’, Les Fleurs du mal, 1857.

Defining the Understanding Media project

At the end of 1958 or, more likely, early in 1959,1 McLuhan wrote an overview of a contemplated major NAEB research project to be titled2 Understanding Media. As in his December 1, 1958 letter to Skorina he highlighted the need to bring together “in-school and out-of-school experience” with media both as the definitive goal of the needed medium of understanding media3 and as a ready test of movement towards that goal. He concluded the overview by defining the aim of the project as a contribution towards the dis-covery of the elemental structure of media (their “lines of force”) which, alone, might inaugurate that medium: “To provide ways of discerning these lines of force, these currents not of opinion but of perception,4 is the aim of the Project in Understanding New Media.”

Project in Understanding New Media

In the broadest sense, the object is to devise a means of bridging between in-school and out-of-school experience. Since the sheer flow of information outside of school is out of all proportion to the in-school information flow, this fact alone without regard to the forms and modes in which this flow occurs indicates a new educational need.

A possible new strategy presents itself from the fact of the interaction of multiple media today. In teaching writing and language, the great changes in recent decades have arisen from the fact that print now exists as only one among several major media. Photography, film, audio tapes, radio and television have all x-rayed, as it were, the older medium of print, enabling us to see its structure as a form of experience. This structure was not visible in the ages of printing but what the new media have done to print they have also done to one another, rendering themselves structurally luminous from within.

To understand media in this over-all structural way offers a real short cut to the education of perception and judgment. For the various media exert a direct non-verbal pressure upon all habits of perception and judgment. It has not been sufficiently noticed that these powers exercise an almost exclusively non-verbal and subliminal pressure upon the assumptions within our experience.

For example, the telephone has changed the patterns of decision-making to such a degree as to make the older structure of delegated authority in business and management not only obsolete, but a threat to the continued existence of management functions. This clash between telephone and typewriter has received only incidental appraisal in Parkinson‘s Law. It has caused the sudden rise of many management centers which attempt decentralization by means of over-all training of specialists.

The impact of new structures such as photography and film upon habits of learning and judgment are, of course, far greater than that exerted by the telephone. Obsession with “content” seems infallibly to obscure the structural changes effected by media.

The future of navigation in education at any level depends upon an exact knowledge of ever-changing lines of forces exerted by new media structures, and beamed irresistibly into our personal and social modes of awareness.

To provide ways of discerning these lines of force, these currents not of opinion but of perception, is the aim of the Project in Understanding New Media.5

  1. This undated one-page overview appears as the last page in a 1958 NAEB file immediately after a draft proposal wrongly dated to January 1958 (instead of January 1959). This may have led to its misfiling, but it was not in any case unusual at the NAEB for letters or documents to be misfiled in the wrong year folder. While there is nothing in the overview that could not have been written by McLuhan at the end of 1958, it was more probably written as part of the process in the first months of 1959 to put together a proposal for funding under Title VII of the National Defense Education Act which had been signed into law in September 1958. As will be detailed in future posts, the NAEB closely followed developments leading to this NDEA. It may well have contributed to some of its language and it courted the Office of Education assiduously (to the point of sponsoring a joint conference with it in Washington in May 1958 at which McLuhan was an invited speaker). When the law was finally signed into effect by President Eisenhower on September 2, 1958, the NAEB was well aware that an application under Title VII had to be made quickly if funding were to be secured. (See Becker on NDEA Title VII funding.) Harry Skornia seems to have decided already in early 1958, if not even in late 1957, that McLuhan’s writings and energies presented the best opportunity for such a proposal. He therefore promoted McLuhan within the NAEB by inviting him to speak at two NAEB conferences in 1958, republishing McLuhan’s talks on those occasions in issues of the NAEB Journal and frequently mentioning McLuhan favorably in his columns in the NAEB Newsletter. Opposition to McLuhan as a newcomer and wild thinker was never absent in the NAEB, but it did not find its voice until the project had already been defined, submitted and approved. It was then too late to do much but grumble.
  2. This title was first proposed in a McLuhan letter to Skornia of December 16, 1958.
  3. See The chemistry of the interior landscape.
  4. The genitive in play here in the phrase ‘of perception’ must be considered closely. On the one hand, all human experience is ‘of perception’ as a subjective genitive. Such bias as we inevitably bring to our experience is not to be overcome — all experience necessarily belongs to our take on it. On the other hand, perception according to McLuhan is subject to media such that an objective genitive is also operative here — lines of force of what? of perception! As usual with McLuhan, then, the genitive is dual and misunderstanding will result if this complexity is not followed.
  5. Skornia pushed the understanding of new media as a key to the approval of the funding proposal. McLuhan agreed to this as a tactic, but insisted at the same time that new media could not be understood aside from an understanding of media per se. The (elementary nature of the) medium is the message.

Charge of the light brigade

Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
(Tennyson, The Charge of the Light Brigade, 1854)

When in late 1958 McLuhan via André Girard first came upon the notion of TV as “light through” as opposed to “light on“,1 he had already been writing for some years about “the charge of the light brigade” used by Joyce in characterizing TV: 

The TV camera is not the movie camera. It does not arrest the flow of action in a series of still shots. Its continuous pick-up is like the radio mike with respect to the voice. Again the TV screen is not the movie screen. In some sense the spectator is himself the screen. The cathode tube carries ‘the charge of the light brigade’. The tube carries both the charge and the answering barrage.2 The result is the painting of images by the ballet of electrons. (Notes on the Media as Art Forms, Explorations 2, 1954)

Joyce saw TV as the fateful charge of the Light Brigade made possible by the ‘abnihilisation of the etym’. (…) With TV the spectator is the screen. The world external to the TV camera is interiorized in the TV watcher. (Radio and TV vs. the Abced-Minded, Explorations 5, 1955)

The “abnihilisation of the etym” — the dismantling of the atom — as the cutting of the uncuttable is, taken as an objective genitive, the freeing of the electron for its “charge” and resulting “ballet”. Its bullet and resulting bulletin.

On the other hand, this technology, like all others, is enabled by what it at the same time veils, namely the gap or “abnihilisation” at its heart.  And since “the medium is the message” as the ‘root’ or “etym” of all possible messages, this gap is the “abnihilisation of the etym” as a subjective genitive, the gap belonging to the medium-root-etym as its defining structural characteristic. Hence Joyce’s “ab” (from) and not merely “nihilisation”.

In the third place, the “abnihilisation of the etym” taken as a dual genitive, both objective and subjective, is the ‘death of Adam’ (subjective as well as objective because brought about by himself). Joyce brings together ‘atom’ and ‘Adam’ throughout FW: “from atoms to ifs” (455), “adomic structure” (615).  Among the points being made is that ‘objective’ insight is never without ‘subjective’ ramification: “both the charge and the answering barrage”.3 Human extension ends, as McLuhan would repeatedly insist, in implosion.

  1. See From world to worlds.
  2. “The answering barrage” in Tennyson describing the Russian response to the English charge:
    Cannon to right of them,
    Cannon to left of them,
    Cannon in front of them
    Volleyed and thundered.
  3. See The chemistry of the interior landscape for McLuhan to Skornia: “the actual lines of force generated by any medium as it expands, making its own world, yet reciprocally modifying existing forms and being modified by them as well”.

Richard Hughes on media and the senses

R.C. Williams’ 1948 television paper cites an article by Richard Hughes from the  year before: ‘The Second Revolution: Literature and Radio‘.1 Hughes raises a number of issues that I.A. Richards and Eric Havelock were discussing around the same time and therefore shows how these were in the air prior to McLuhan’s detailed treatment of them beginning in Explorations, but especially in The Gutenberg Galaxy, some 15 years later:

  • Before the printing-press was invented, the writer reached the majority of his public not through their eyes but through their ears. Poetry was sung or recited; prose books, too, were recited or read aloud. Not only primitive communal literatures such as the Homeric cycle, the Sagas, and the Mabinogion; at a much later stage than that, long after the poet took to composing with stylus or pen in hand instead of drum or lyre, he still wrote not to be read but to be heard. (34)
  • The lovely illuminated manuscripts of the medieval monasteries were meant to delight the eye, but to be looked at rather than to be read— at least, not read in the sense of passing round the monastery from hand to hand. Their text was read aloud in the refectories, or sung in the Churches, rather than pored over in the cells. The language of King James’s Bible (as well as the English Prayer Book) was so intended. For the effect of the printing press on literary on literary style was profound but it was not sudden. It was a slow development, culminating only in our own century.  (34-35)
  • Gradually, in the intervening time, poetry acquired a subtler intricacy as the poet found he need no longer rely on the immediate aural impact of word added one by one to measured word. (…) By the same token, such poetry had to be banished from the stage. In earlier days poetry had seemed the natural mode for the stage, since the poetic was par excellence the mode of utterance aloud, In Caxton’s own day, John Skelton described himself as “Poet” and “Orator” almost interchangeably. (34-35)
  • Prose likewise developed a greater elaboration of structure, rolling out interminable periods, gorgeous and majestic to the eye, which on the tongue would have taxed the lungs of Aeolus, In short, there grew a split in style between the art of the spoken and of the read word: between oratory, an art which has extension only in time, and literature, which has extension in space coupled with a time-dimension which the reader can manipulate at will… (35)
  • Reading aloud died hard, barely a generation ago. (…) Thus the last echoes of heard literature had died away, but had only just died away, when a second revolutionary invention, wireless broadcasting, set the pendulum swinging again in the opposite direction. The Voice had come back. (35)
  • It may be argued, not implausibly, that radio will be the only literature of the future; that the present age of universal literacy is only a passing phase; that in a generation or two reading and writing will be dead like Greek and Latin, and dead for the same reason — that they will no longer be necessary for daily life. (42)
  1. ‘The Second Revolution: Literature and Radio’, Virginia Quarterly Review, 23:1, 1947, 34-44.

McLuhan and Father R.C. Williams

Harry Skornia in the November 1958 NAEB Newsletter:

After reading many of his articles and his fine magazine, Explorations, and hearing him at our Washington Conference [May 1958], I had suggested Dr. Marshall McLuhan of the University of Toronto as one of the speakers for the [October 1958 NAEB] convention [in Omaha]. This was roundly seconded by Father Williams of Creighton, who had studied under Professor McLuhan, and [by] the rest of the [convention program] committee. 

Roswell Clinton Williams, SJ, 1906-1975, was an MA student in English at St Louis University in the early 1940s. He studied under McLuhan along with his Jesuit colleagues, Walter Ong, Clement McNaspy, and Maurice McNamee. The department head at the time was William H. McCabe, SJ, McLuhan’s fellow cantab, mentor and friend. When McCabe left to head Rockhurst College in Kansas City (alma mater of Bernie Muller-Thym and Walter Ong), Williams joined him there as an instructor. Then, when McCabe moved again to become president of the much larger Creighton University in Omaha, Williams once again went with him and spent the remainder of his teaching career there, eventually becoming its Director of Communications.

Williams was a pioneer in the use of educational TV. Through his interest, Creighton appears to have been the first university in the country, and probably first in the world, to teach courses using television. Already in 1948 he published ‘Present and Future Television in Our Colleges‘.1 While there is no evidence, yet, that McLuhan knew of this article, he may well have. He certainly remained in touch with Ong and McNaspy and could have seen it through them or through Williams himself. But however that may have been, Williams’ article is noteworthy in making many points McLuhan would repeatedly take up in the 1950s:

  • Our [Jesuit’s] most legitimate claim to a place in the ancestry of television is through the scientific side of the family. For it was Father Athanasius Kircher [SJ], one of our greatest scientists, who invented the magic lantern or slide projector which paved the way for the motion picture and thus eventually for television.2 (142)
  • This statement [concerning the magic lantern] is, of course, a vast oversimplification. All that is meant is that the rapid succession of images which creates the illusion of movement in the motion picture is also employed in television, though the images in the latter are produced in a totally different fashion. (142)
  • No television camera takes a picture on film; what it does is to translate an image into electrical impulses… (143)
  • Within individual stations and networks of both radio and television there are men and women trained directly or indirectly in the philosophia perennis who are fully aware of their potential ability to help preserve the core of Christian civilization in a world where the issue with3 materialism and dualism (to use general terms)4 is perhaps more in the open than it has ever been before in history — due in no small measure to the global scope of communications. (149-150)
  • if there was ever a time when it was possible to supply “true principles to popular enthusiasm” (to quote Newman on the benefits of university education), that time would seem to be now.5 (150)
  • But today the doctor, or lawyer, or merchant, or priest may be called upon to communicate his ideas through radio, tomorrow through television. Are we even now equipping him to use these media effectively? We have taken into account the first revolution in communication — brought about by the printing press, which shifted the emphasis from ear to eye — a revolution emerging in St. Ignatius’ own lifetime. But have we sufficiently adverted to the second revolution — brought about by radio, which shifted the emphasis in communication from the eye back to the ear? And what adjustment must now be made for television?6 (151)
  • If the ideal of eloquentia perfecta is not altogether dead, and we should hesitate to say that it was, then in the contemporary world it surely must include some acquaintance with radio and television.7(152)
  • Rather than joining the chorus of those who now carp at radio and will carp at television for commercialization, would it not be wiser to train students who will help to improve the industries from within? Historically, culture has always been wedded to commerce to a certain extent…8 (155)
  1. ‘Present and Future Television in Our Colleges’, Jesuit Educational Quarterly, January 1948, 141-155.
  2. Williams’ attribution of the invention of the magic lantern to Kircher was mistaken. McLuhan did not repeat the mistake but often treated the early history of photography and cinema in the camera oscura.
  3. Williams: “between”.
  4. Williams qualifies his language here with an aside. But the problem with his remarks is not so much with the general terms “materialism and dualism”, but with the preposition “between” — as if Christian civilization ever came down on either one of these.
  5. McLuhan in 1961: “The ideal Marriage of Mercury and Philology, of spiritual values and perfected method, will be consummated, if ever, in the electronic age.” (Humanities in the Electronic Age)
  6. Williams cited Richard Hughes here — see Richard Hughes on media and the senses.
  7. The ideal of eloquentia perfecta was highlighted in McLuhan’s PhD thesis on Nashe, which he was writing in the early 1940s when Williams was studying with him.
  8. ‘Culture is our Business’ was the title of McLuhan’s talk at the 1958 NAEB annual meeting in Omaha 10 years later. Williams was on the program committee for the conference since he was both very active in the NAEB and resident in Omaha at Creighton.

Chemistry of the interior landscape

Not the personal point of view, nor the partiality of perspective and self-expression, but the catalyst role of the non-personal chemical medium became the natural bias of the social sciences and symbolist artists alike. (McLuhan on Frye, 1957/58)1 

The media of communication (…) have their own physics and chemistry which enter into every moment of social (…) change. (Explorations 8, #14, 1957)2

In a letter to Harry Skornia from December 1, 1958, McLuhan set out his thoughts on the project of researching the ‘grammars’ or ‘languages’ of the media:

My own approach to this project (…) follows (…) the actual lines of force generated by any medium as it expands, making its own world, yet reciprocally modifying existing forms and being modified by them as well. (…) I consider my task to be to reduce such data to manageable syntactical forms [that are yet] of compendious scope. (…) My project is (…) designed to make possible in-school training of a sort which makes out-of-school contacts (…) with the physicist, the engineer, the studio men, the program men, and the audience, all at once (…) available as educational resource. (…) All of their actions in relation to [such a theory of media]3 are given a kind of organic unity of which they may be but little aware. (…) And this does re-constitute (…) the Little Red Schoolhouse, where everything was taught at once. Only it is the Little Red Schoolhouse at large, turned inside out, and expanded to global size. (…) We must secure (…) all (…) in concert.4

Consciously or not,5 one of the models McLuhan was deploying for the contemplated investigation of media with the NAEB was chemistry.6 For any chemical substance exists in a dynamic equilibrium with all the materials around it: “making its own world, yet reciprocally modifying existing forms and being modified by them as well” — “everything (…) at once”, “all (…) in concert”.7

Because chemistry has come to understand this “compendious” situation through the dis-covery of how to focus it via the elements — an ongoing event that is only 200 years old — chemical theory taught as a subject in school is not different from the practice of chemistry in the world outside it in, say, manufacturing: “in-school training of a sort which makes out-of-school contacts (…) available as educational resource”. Indeed, the “out-of-school” world of chemistry is just the “in-school” world “turned inside out, and expanded to global size”.

Each of these (the “in-school” and the “out-of-school”) is able to inform the other exactly and only because “the actual lines of force” in the workings of the world itself — the world that exists before8 any chemical theory — have been identified for on-going investigation. Strangely, at least for those unable to swim, it is only because this identification is never perfect, is imperfect in principle, that it is able to progress, usually gradually, sometimes revolutionarily.

As seen in chemistry (but also in genetics and linguistics, and as long ago as Euclid’s geometry), the inaugurating task facing the investigation of any complex of this sort is therefore “to reduce such data” of “global size” to “syntactical forms” which are “manageable” — but are also, however, through rules of their combination and transformation, “of compendious scope”. The aim is enable everyone “in-school” or “out-of-school” (“the physicist, the engineer, the studio men, the program men, and the  audience, all at once”) to set to mental and/or physical work on the same things and the same problems.

As seen everywhere in the history of science, feedback from theory to practice and from practice to theory can become the norm and progress in both is assured as long as the back and forth flow between them is maintained.

Here too, then, the medium is the message. For chemistry exists in a complex global medium of labs and journals and manufacturing plants and mines and educational institutions and much else, including solitary thinkers. McLuhan’s notion was that the same sorts of transformations as inaugurated the sciences of the exterior world are possible — and are imperatively needed! — in regard to the interior one. Further, that the effect of such transformations would be a whole new medium of information exchange in which new possibilities for solving the world’s palpable problems would thereby be founded.

We have to know in advance the effect, on all the cultures of the world, 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. The same technology which has made instantaneous information-flow a chemical danger to every culture in the world has also created the power of total re-construction and pre-construction of models of situations. (Explorations 8, #14, 1957)9

Seen in this way, the task McLuhan took on in 1958 with the NAEB and Harry Skornia was to isolate the elementary structure of media, what he called in this December 1 letter, their structural “lines of force”. Much else might follow of great importance. But this was the essential beginning that had to be dis-covered:10

This was the fundamental aim of the NAEB proposal (given in its abstract) submitted to the US Office of Education on March 27, 1959.


  1. Unpublished review of Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism.
  2. ‘The Alchemy of Social Change’.
  3. McLuhan: “in relation to TV”.
  4. The sentences in this passage follow the rough order of McLuhan’s letter. But some of them are given out of sequence and capital letters have been introduced in a couple places to aid comprehension. For “concert”, see note 7 below.
  5. Full consciousness of anything is hardly possible. But breakthrough ideas in particular are not the sort of thing, according to McLuhan, that may properly be described in terms of individual consciousness. Instead, as he thought had happened with electric technology and media (“Electric media compel us to consider light through as the norm of knowledge and experience”, Media Log #2), it can become possible (a strange enough construction) for models to be articulated which are already at work in various ways in the environment. It is the aim of the resulting investigation to specify and investigate those ways. Consciousness is an effect of that investigation, not its cause. McLuhan in Explorations 8, #17: “Sensibility is inclusive and precedes analytic awareness.”
  6. Along with grammar, literary criticism, aesthetics, management theory, relativity physics, etc etc.
  7. Since encountering Sigfried Giedion in 1943 in St Louis, and reading his Space, Time and Architecture as a result, McLuhan had taken up Giedion’s image of the world as a symphony or concert where the musicians were cut off from each other and could not hear their overall production. Restoring the music of the world was one way of putting Giedion’s aim and became so as well for McLuhan.
  8. It is eminently questionable what time or times are indicated with this ‘before’. On the one hand, chemical elements have always been at work from the beginning of the world, but they are also at work today, in some other sense of ‘before’, in all the manifestations of the world around us and, indeed, in us. Furthermore, human beings have ‘done’ chemistry, albeit unconsciously, ever since they learned to control fire, started cooking, learned to prepare hides, etc.
  9. See note #2 above.
  10. “A break-through in understanding media is needed to cope with, and devise controls of these media in a manner to match the break-through already achieved in their technical phases.” That McLuhan was on his way to the beginning meant that he was subject to a paradox: “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”. (CA, 160) McLuhan mentioned this paradox as early as 1955, a couple years before he became engaged with Skornia and the NAEB: “Everywhere in his work Joyce follows the classical philosophical principle that during ‘the whole of previous time wherein anything is moving towards its form, it is under the opposite form’.” (‘Radio and Television vs. The ABCED-Minded’, Explorations 5.) And in the same year in ‘Space, Time, and Poetry’ he cited Dante from Canto 1 of the Purgatorio: “We paced along the lonely plain, as one who returning to his lost road, and, till he reached it, seems to go in vain.”

McLuhan and Skornia 1957 and 1958

According to Jerry Landay, ‘The Cradle of PBS‘,1 for which he interviewed Harry Skornia:

It was as a communications researcher that Skornia met Marshall McLuhan — an encounter that helped establish the reputation of the Canadian scholar. The first contact was a scrawled note from McLuhan at the University of Toronto in April 1957 to NAEB headquarters promoting a subscription to his periodical on culture and communications, Explorations, along with a personal testimonial to “a magazine of great relevance.” The following year, Skornia heard McLuhan lecture at a meeting of the Modern Language Association. The obscure Canadian scholar impressed him. Skornia recruited him as principal investigator on an NAEB research project funded by the U.S. [Office]2 of Education, Understanding Media. (40-41)

Landay seems to have been working with Skornia’s excellent memory of events more than 30 years in the past rather than the underlying documents. McLuhan’s “scrawled note” is given in First contact with the NAEB. It was not much of a promotion for a subscription to Explorations. But that Skornia remembered it decades later as the first step that he and McLuhan took together is indeed noteworthy. The note must have been referred to him and, through some kind of premonition, he must have followed up by looking into Explorations and being impressed enough by it to want to meet McLuhan. 

A note in McLuhan’s Letters (288) agrees with Skornia that the two first met in person at an MLA meeting, but this cannot have been “the following year”. That MLA meeting of 1958, “the following year”, was held in New York and took place in December. By that time, Skornia and McLuhan had already established their frequent correspondence and intense collaboration. The MLA event where they first met in person, then, following Skornia’s attention to McLuhan’s April “scrawled note”, McLuhan’s invitation to the 1957 NAEB research conference and McLuhan’s acceptance note to Skornia that August,3 must instead have been the unusually early MLA meeting (September) held in that same year of 1957. This was indeed the “following” MLA, but not “the following year”. And it was held in Madison — close to Skornia in Illinois and the location of McLuhan’s first teaching job twenty years before.

It seems from the MLA Proceedings for that Madison meeting that Skornia (or Landay) was also mistaken in reporting that McLuhan lectured there. Instead, perhaps through discussions between Skornia and McLuhan at the MLA meeting in September and/or at the research seminar in December, McLuhan was an invited speaker at the NAEB ‘Conference on Educational Television’ in Washington, D.C., at the end of May 1958, co-sponsored (just like McLuhan’s future NAEB project on research in new media), by the US Office of Education. McLuhan’s talk there was titled ‘The Role of Mass Communication in Meeting Today’s Problems’ — a topic close to Skornia’s heart and perhaps designedly so. It along with the other conference papers were issued in mimeograph by the Office of Education and then McLuhan’s paper there was republished in slightly altered form as ‘Our New Electronic Culture: The Role of Mass Communication in Meeting Today’s Problems’ in the NAEB Journal.4

This version of the progress of the relationship between McLuhan and Skornia seems to have been confirmed by Skornia himself. In his ‘Memo from the Executive Director’ column of the NAEB Newslatter for November 1958, Skornia recorded:

After reading many of his articles and his fine magazine, Explorations, and hearing him at our Washington Conference [May 1958], I had suggested Dr. Marshall McLuhan of the University of Toronto as one of the speakers for the [NAEB] convention [in Omaha in October 1958]. This was roundly seconded by Father [R.C.] Williams of Creighton who had studied under Professor McLuhan,5 and the rest of the [convention program] committee.


  1. ‘The Cradle of PBS’, Illinois Quarterly, 3:1, Winter 1991, 35 – 41.
  2.  Landay: “Department”.
  3. See NAEB seminar December 1957.
  4.  NAEB Journal, 18:1, 1958.
  5. See McLuhan and Father R.C. WilliamsWilliams was an MA student of McLuhan at SLU along with Walter Ong. After graduating from SLU, Williams taught at Rockhurst College (when William McCabe, SJ, was the President there), then moved to Creighton University in Omaha when McCabe became its President in turn. Williams remained at Creighton for the rest of his long career, eventually becoming its Director of Communications.

NAEB seminar December 1957

The NAEB held its first ever research seminar at Ohio State University Dec 9-13, 1957.1 Harry Skornia, the NAEB Executive Director, described the seminar in a note to its invitees dated November 11, 1957, as follows:

This Seminar, which we hope will be only the first in this essential area, seeks to bring together the top twenty or so research people active in and concerned about educational broadcasting, particularly educational television. It will, we hope , help plot research efforts for the future to help insure that research is provided in essential areas, in responsible and adequately supervised form…

The invitees were chosen by the NAEB research committee in a process in which each of its members was asked to rank a list of some 66 candidates (with ‘1’ as the top mark, the results list was ordered like a golf score with the lowest number being best). The clear favorite was Wilbur Schramm of Stanford (formerly of the University of Illinois, where the NAEB was headquartered) who did not, however, accept the NAEB invitation. McLuhan came in at number 4 and did attend the conference.2

McLuhan’s high ranking with the NAEB at this point in his career is thought provoking. He had published two essays in the Columbia Teacher’s College Record — ‘A Historical Approach to the Media’ (1955) and ‘Educational Effects of Mass Media of Communication’ (1956) — and these, given the national prestige of the Teacher’s College, served to certify him as a recognized scholar of media in education.3 But it seems to have been as an editor of Explorations that McLuhan had come to the attention of the NAEB. In a note added to McLuhan’s handwritten acceptance letter of his invitation to the December research seminar, this association was emphasized:4

Similarly in a list of nominations for the seminar:

And again in the title of McLuhan’s presentation to the May 1958 NAEB conference in Washington on educational TV:

In the space of a few years in the middle 50’s McLuhan was able to establish himself as a recognized researcher in education and media. There were, of course, many factors in his past that contributed to this possibility: his work in the early 1930’s at the University of Manitoba with Rupert Lodge on ‘Philosophy and Education’;5 his Cambridge PhD thesis on Thomas Nashe and the trivium which in large part was a two-thousand-year history of education;6 his appeal to Robert Hutchins to establish a new sort of academy based on Sigfried Giedion’s ideas on “interrelation”;7 his turn to Mallarmé and Joyce around 1950 as artists of “cultural communication”;8 and his broadcast work as an academic with the CBC going back to the late 1940s. It was Explorations, however, working as testimony to McLuhan’s engagement with media, that brought him to the attention, not of the general public certainly, but of the cultural cognoscenti in the US and, to a limited extent, in Europe. Through this attention, McLuhan was able to gain a foothold with the NAEB, in particular with its research committee and with its executive director, Skornia, which would then quickly (in the space of only 3 years!)9 lead to the realization of the Understanding Media project in 1960.


  1. The seminar was funded by the Kellogg Foundation.
  2. See the list of attendees.
  3. It may be that McLuhan’s relationship with Louis Forsdale at the Columbia Teacher’s College was critical for his  work with the NAEB and hence for his subsequent success and fame in the 1960s. In remarks at the start of his dialogue with McLuhan in July 1978, Forsdale speaks of their friendship going back 30 years, that is to the late 1940s. Forsdale invited McLuhan to speak at Columbia in 1955 (See Marchand, 141-142) and must have been influential in McLuhan’s appearances in the Teacher’s College Record around that same time.
  4. McLuhan’s August 20, 1957, note to Skornia refers to “last time I was there it was Ford funds”. It may be, then, that his initial contact with the NAEB — apparently not with Skornia — went back to the time of the Ford Foundation grant, 1953-1956. But another reading of the same sentence could take McLuhan’s “I was there” as referring not to the NAEB in Urbana, Illinois, but to Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, where the NAEB research seminar was to take place. Future research will have to resolve this question.
  5. See McLuhan and Lodge (‘Philosophy and Education’).
  6. See Havelock, McLuhan & the history of education.
  7. See Proposal to Robert Hutchins 1947.
  8. See ‘James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial’: “In an important book, Communication, the Social Matrix of Psychology, a psychologist and an anthropologist, Jurgen Ruesch and Gregory Bateson, have recently followed the method of Ulysses in attempting to convey the working image of cultural communication.”
  9. Hegel: “Es ist übrigens nicht schwer, zu sehen, daß unsre Zeit eine Zeit der Geburt und des Übergangs zu einer neuen Periode ist. Der Geist hat mit der bisherigen Welt seines Daseins und Vorstellens gebrochen und steht im Begriffe, es in die Vergangenheit hinab zu versenken, und in der Arbeit seiner Umgestaltung. Zwar ist er nie in Ruhe, sondern in immer fortschreitender Bewegung begriffen. Aber wie beim Kinde nach langer stiller Ernährung der erste Atemzug jene Allmählichkeit des nur vermehrenden Fortgangs abbricht – ein qualitativer Sprung – und jetzt das Kind geboren ist, so reift der sich bildende Geist langsam und still der neuen Gestalt entgegen, löst ein Teilchen des Baues seiner vorhergehenden Welt nach dem anderen 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 Anzug ist. Dieses allmälige Zerbröckeln, das die Physiognomie des Ganzen nicht veränderte, wird durch den Aufgang unterbrochen, der, ein Blitz, mit einem Male das Gebilde der neuen Welt hinstellt.” PhG, Vorrede. Compare 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”. (CA, 160) Without yet fully grasping the paradoxical transformation at stake in the insight, McLuhan mentioned it already in 1955: “Everywhere in his work Joyce follows the classical philosophical principle that during ‘the whole of previous time wherein anything is moving towards its form, it is under the opposite form’.” (‘Radio and Television vs. The ABCED-Minded’, Explorations 5)

First contact with the NAEB

McLuhan’s work with the National Association of Educational Broadcasters in the late 1950’s was central to his subsequent career and fame. But the first personal contact he had with the organization1 may have been a seemingly inconsequential billing reminder, dated April 8, 1957, that he received from the NAEB secretary, Judith Gans. 

McLuhan appears to have returned the Gans reminder correcting the address it had for him, and presumably enclosing his payment, with the following handwritten note:2

Dear Mrs Gans,
Please note that our mag Explorations is of great relevance to NAEB affairs — especially no7.
There is in no7 report of new media experiment which you will want to report to your readers.
University of Toronto
Toronto 5
Sincerely yours
H M McLuhan

McLuhan’s reference in Explorations 7 must have been to ‘The New Languages’, pages 4-21, which lists McLuhan’s close friend, Edmund (Ted) Carpenter, as its author at its end.3 The “media experiment” is reported on pages 16-21. But this essay had previously been published in the Chicago Review4 and there McLuhan was listed as Carpenter’s co-author. Indeed, much of the language of the paper plainly stems from McLuhan.

McLuhan’s “scrawled” note was remembered by Harry Skornia over 30 years later5 as igniting the intense collaboration the two would come to have over the next 4 or 5 years.6 With it, McLuhan had correctly sensed the felt need within the NAEB community for a ‘scientific basis’ to ground its commitment to new media in education.7

  1. But see McLuhan’s handwritten letter to Harry Skornia from August 20, 1957, which may indicate an earlier contact. The letter and discussion of it are given in NAEB seminar December 1957.
  2. The Gans letter with its McLuhan note is preserved in the NAEB archive that is steadily being posted to the internet in the great Unlocking the Airwaves project.
  3. Unlike other issues of Explorations, there is no Table of Contents for #7.
  4. ‘The New Languages’, Chicago Review, 10:1, Spring, 1956, 46-52.
  5. Skornia recalled the note in an interview reported in ‘The Cradle of PBS‘ by Jerry Landay (Illinois Quarterly, 3:1, Winter 1991, 35 – 41). For discussion see McLuhan and Skornia 1957.
  6. The two then remained in correspondence until McLuhan’s death.
  7. As reported by Josh Shepperd in ‘Medien miss-verstehen. Marshall McLuhan und die National Association of Educational Broadcasters, 1958-1960‘ (Zeitschrift für Medienwissenschaft, 3:5:2 (2011), 25–43), there was a great gulf between how McLuhan and many members of the NAEB, not least its research committee, understood ‘scientific basis’ (with Harry Skornia caught in the middle between the two sides). For the committee members, the procedures of science were already well known and the need was to apply them to media, especially radio and television, as these might be deployed in education. For McLuhan, in fundamental contrast, the initiation of a scientific investigation of media (dual genitive!) would necessarily require the sort of revolutionary Gestalt-switch as seen in the advent of writing in 5th century Athens: “Writing is the translation of the audible into the visible. The translation is literally, metaphor. Recorded history is thus set upon a metaphor” (‘Space, Time, and Poetry’, Explorations 4, 1955). Now Shepperd recognizes the sharp difference between these views of ‘scientific basis’ and sets it out neatly in the concluding remarks of his paper: “Nur selten in der Wissenschaftsgeschichte kommen zwei wichtige paradigmatische Impulse so eng miteinander in Berührung und scheitern doch daran, eine echte dialektische Wechselwirkung einzugehen. (…) Eher als in einem Verhältnis der wechselseitigen Beeinflussung aber verhielten sie sich zueinander in einem Verhältnis der wechselseitigen Abstoßung.” (43)  For McLuhan, however, such a gap was no “Scheitern” or “wechselseitige Abstoßung”, or it was not only these, but instead was an indication of the elementary structure of media in general: “the gap where the action is”. Indeed, this was precisely the spine-tingling discovery he reported to Skornia in December 1958 in terms of the contrast between light on and light through. While light on had dominated history for 2500 years and produced the entire world as we know it, including the notion of science of the NAEB research committee, as well as Shepperd’s “echte dialektische Wechselwirkung”, it could now, with the electric revolution, be recognized as only (only!) a remarkable species of the genus of light through. As McLuhan would spend the rest of his life upacking, the utterly transformative movement backwards and downwards from the former to the latter was exactly what was at stake in Understanding Media.

McLuhan on phenomenology in LOM

Phenomenology is treated ambiguously in McLuhan’s posthumous Laws of Media, which was edited and co-authored by his son, Eric. On the one hand, it is seen as an abstract attempt1 to achieve what could not, in McLuhan’s view, be achieved in this way:

the root problem of phenomenology [is] that it is an all-out attempt by dialectic to invent — or turn itself into — grammar, to force some sort of ground to surface. (10-11)

Phenomenology is dialectic in ear-mode — a massive and decentralized quest for roots, for ground. (62)

From Hegel to Heidegger, phenomenologists have engaged in an attempt to get at the hidden properties or hidden effects of language and technology alike. In other words, they have tackled a right-hemisphere problem using left-hemisphere techniques and modes of cognition. (126)

On the other hand, phenomenology is seen, at least in Heidegger, as anticipating, however abstractly, just the sort of investigation that McLuhan himself was attempting:  

Heidegger’s language (…) in the German (…) is witty and concise, and his discussions pay close attention to the play of etymologies in [the] terms [he employs]2, in an evident attempt to retrieve grammatical stress as a new mode of dialectic (…) [His work amounts in this way to] a special technique of perception that reveals the ground.3 Since ‘the actual’ emerges as a figure from the ground of [a] ‘standing reserve’ [of possibilities], it is the latter realm that becomes for him the phenomenologist’s quarry. Heidegger is using Husserl’s rubric that ‘the possible precedes the actual,’ which is to observe abstractly that ground comes before figure. (63)

Leaving aside the misuse of some of Heidegger’s terminology here,4 the notion that “the actual emerges as a figure from the ground” of possibilities (= from what McLuhan sometimes termed the ‘unconscious’), is exactly McLuhan’s basic contention. In this context it can well be said that “the possible precedes the actual” and that “ground comes before figure” (even though in our normal experience it is usually figures, effects and other such actualities that come before grounds, causes and possibilities).

To ‘precede’ and to ‘come before’ are temporal designations. But they are plainly questionable in this context (in the sense of provoking questions), since normally we have no experience of any such dealing between the possible and the actual. It was for just this reason that Heidegger gave his Hauptwerk the title of Being — and Time. Whatever the process may be between the possible and the actual and between figure and ground, it is their relationship in time that must above all be elucidated — and this not in some presupposed singular time, but in complicated times, plural, that are allowed to be just as questionable as what they would bind together (the possible and the actual, figure and ground) in some sense or senses of precedence and subsequence. 

Furthermore, as McLuhan pointed out in his 1978 conversation with Louis Forsdale, “the ground comes through the figure or the figure comes through the ground, it can be both ways“. Our usual experience of figure and ground, if we have one at all, is that figure comes first and ground later: lines and circles were familiar before geometry and physical materials before chemistry. Hence, what requires elucidation is not only (only!) the logic of the possible and the actual in their synchronicity (namely no physical material absent its elements and no message absent its medium), but just as much our peculiar diachronic experience of them (as a kind of laboratory) and, above all, the knotted relation of these com-plicated relations of the synchronic and diachronic.

The ambiguity of the treatment of phenomenology in LOM might be taken to reflect changes in McLuhan’s mind over time in his assessment of it. His declaration to Forsdale’s class in 1978 that he would rename LOM as The Phenomenology of Media would seem to indicate that he had overcome his ambiguity about phenomenology at the end of his career and had come to embrace it. Against this, however, it is necessary to consider the generally favorable assessment already made of Heidegger almost twenty years before. Here he is in The Gutenberg Galaxy:

Heidegger surf-boards along on the electronic wave as triumphantly as Descartes rode the mechanical wave.
The5 kind of ballet of mind choreographed by Gutenberg by means of the isolated visual sense, is about as philosophical as Kant’s assumption of Euclidean space as a priori. But the alphabet and kindred gimmicks have long served man as a subliminal source of philosophical and religious assumptions. Certainly Martin Heidegger would seem to be on better ground in using the totality of language itself6 as philosophical datum. (248)

And at the same time as The Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan concluded his 1961 ‘Humanities in the Electronic Age’ as follows:

The concept of history of the philosopher Heidegger recommends itself as a natural model for the humanities in the electric age. It is the idea of the poetic of history, of history as a kind of unified language, the inner key to the creation of which can be grasped by a deepening sense of the spiritual energy encompassed in the ceaselessly growing life of words. The ideal Marriage of Mercury and Philology, of spiritual values and perfected method, will be consummated, if ever, in the electronic age.

It would seem that the multifold relations of McLuhan to phenomenology await much future consideration. Especially, what did he have in mind proposing a title for what he hoped would be his crowning achievement that unmistakably suggested connection with Hegels Phänomenologie des Geistes (1807), Husserl’s Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie und phänomenologischen Philosophie (1913) and Merleau-Ponty’s Phénoménologie de la perception (1935)? And especially to Heidegger’s notion of philosophy as phenomenological ontology?

  1. ‘Abstract attempt’: that is, a dialectical, conceptual, left-hemisphere attempt.
  2. McLuhan: “in his terms”.
  3. Compare Take Today: “Philology and etymology have become once more the basis for the metaphysical in Martin Heidegger.” (151)
  4. ‘Standing reserve’, presumably ‘Bestand’ in the German, has to do in Heidegger with ‘availability for use’, the conception of the planet as an asset whose value is a matter for our economic or aesthetic development. Heidegger was, of course, extremely critical of such a view (like McLuhan). So possibilities for Heidegger are what put us to use, not we them. In addition, that ‘the possible precedes the actual’ is a citation from the end of the Introduction to Heidegger’s Being and Time, not some “rubric” from Husserl.
  5. McLuhan: ‘this’ (referring not to Heidegger but to ‘mechanistic’ philosophy).
  6. At the end of his career McLuhan was beginning to consider how the range of possible phonemes in relation to the restricted range of them employed in any particular language might provide an interesting parallel to the relation of unconscious possibilities to the actualities of particular experience. As suggested by Terrence Gordon, this may well have resulted from his engagement in the 1970s with Saussure.

McLuhan on phenomenology in 1978

In July 1978, as part of Louis Forsdale’s course on communication at Columbia1, McLuhan and Forsdale conducted a dialogue of sorts (with McLuhan doing nearly all the talking, of course). McLuhan’s remarks on phenomenology are particularly worthy of note:

mentioned this peeping through — the light coming through the situation — that is called (…) ‘phenomenology’. It took me a long time to discover [this correlation with my own work], the phenomenologists manage to cover their tracks pretty well. They like to make out that they are very serious bunch, hard-headed logical people, the Heideggers and the Husserls and so on. All they’re telling you — and this has been so ever since Hegel and his phenomenological stuff — ever since Hegel, all they’ve been telling you is that behind every situation there’s another situation that peeps through. That peeping through is phenomenology. I call it simply the medium is the message or the figure and the ground. The ground comes through the figure or the figure comes through the ground, it can be both ways. It’s that process of light through that is phenomenology. (…)2 My Understanding Media is phenomenology of the media. (74:55-76:55

I have a book sort of ready to appear and I think I’ll now call it the Phenomenology of the Media — but it’s called Laws of the Media at the present time (87:54-88:05)

McLuhan says that “behind every situation there’s another situation that peeps through and that peeping through is phenomenology.” Hence, the complex relation or ratio of a figured “situation” to its grounding “situation” is constant. The fact of this relation does not result from diachronic development, but is something that is always the case. Just as in chemistry where elements always ‘peep through’ all physical materials, expressing themselves in them, so, according to McLuhan, in every psychological or spiritual event its ground is always “peeping through” — and it was the aim of the new science he wanted to found to learn how to read this:

To provide ways of discerning these lines of force, these currents not of opinion but of perception, is the aim of the Project in Understanding New Media3

At the same time, this constant (or synchronic) relation of figure to ground and of ground to figure is never the same. It is subject to a myriad variations over time. Hence, time is no singular. It is both synchronic and diachronic at once, so that it, too, appears only in a variable figure/ground co-relation: 

time considered as sequential (left hemisphere) is figure and time considered as simultaneous (right hemisphere) is ground. (Global Village, 10)

The claim is that neither figure nor ground can be understood unless each of them is seen in its essential relation to the other. This essential relation of mutual expression is the medium that is the message (of their “mutual expression”): 

I call it simply the medium is the message or the figure and the ground. The ground comes through the figure or the figure comes through the ground, it can be both ways. (75:48-76:02)

Together these complex points define where consideration of McLuhan’s work must begin: the fundamental plurality of time and the essential relation between figure and ground. It itself is able to be the investigation of figures in their grounds only as a figure itself, one that comes through its own grounding in these interrelated points.

  1. The dialogue is incorrectly titled on YouTube as taking place at Cambridge. As noted by Forsdale at its beginning, it took place July 17, 1978, as part of Forsdale’s ‘topics in communication’ course.
  2. The omitted passage here: “Now when you think of the thousands of books that have been written without even getting close to saying that (viz, the “process of light through that is phenomenology”) — why are they motivated to conceal their credentials? I’ve discovered this in most of the highbrow activities of our world — the jealous guarding of the sacred territory, the specialty, But there is no specialty that is not quite easily understood (when it is stated) in simple terms. If you know enough you can translate it into very simple terms.”
  3. See Defining the Understanding Media project.

McLuhan in Nova Scotia

In his 2-page ‘Autobiography’, McLuhan mentions

a year of early childhood spent on the Bay of Fundy. The scent and action of the sea has permeated my being ever since.1

This would have been in 1915-1916 since Elsie, Marshall and Maurice visited Herb in Montreal, where he briefly served as a recruiter in the the military from August to November 1916.2 Elsie had spent the first two decades of her life in the Annapolis Valley and had many close relatives and friends there; but the particular occasion of the Nova Scotia stay may have been the 1915 death of her paternal grandfather, John Henry Hall (1836-1915). In addition, her maternal grandmother, Susan Starratt Marshall (1835-1914) had died the year before that. Her maternal grandfather, Theodore Harding Marshall (1837-1934) and paternal grandmother, Naomi Ogilvie Hall (1834-1928)3 remained alive and Elsie and the boys, almost certainly also with Elsie’s mother, Margaret Marshall Hall (1861-1931), would have stayed with both over the course of their long visit.

It must have been in happy remembrance of that time in his childhood, along with his Distributist convictions, that led McLuhan to write to Elsie 20 years later from Cambridge:

I am eager for some mundane experience simply that I may use it as a weapon to call the bluff of the “practical”, “no-nonsense”, cads and grafters who have put us where we are. (…) If I felt no vocation in this direction I could think of no more pleasing alternative than to take a 30 acre orchard-dairy farm in the Maritimes. (…) As soon as I have a job I intend to purchase such a small farm (near the sea) which shall have a worthy tenant who shall pay no rent beyond partly providing board and lodging for me and my family (if any) during the holiday months. (McLuhan to Elsie, June 8, 1935, Letters 71)


  1. Eliot’s Four Quartets were an important part of McLuhan’s intellectual life and of his courses for three decades and more. Here he may have been thinking of ‘The Dry Salvages’, the third of the four:
    the sea is all about us;
    The sea is the land’s edge also, the granite
    Into which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses
    Its hints of earlier and other creation
    (…) The salt is on the briar rose,
    The fog is in the fir trees.
  2. At the LDS Family Search site, there is a picture of Herb in uniform with his two boys labeled ‘Montreal 1916’. Herb was discharged from the army in November 1916 due to illness, although he had served only a few months.
  3. Elsie Naomi Hall was named after her Naomi Hall grandmother.

The McLuhans move to Winnipeg

Henry Selden Hall (1862-1926), Elsie McLuhan’s father and Marshall’s maternal grandfather, was a complex man. In Nova Scotia he had repeatedly uprooted his family from one small farm to another; then homesteaded in Alberta where he could finally possess some sizable acreage; then immediately sold the place as soon as he had fulfilled the homestead conditions of building it into a workable farm with a new house, barn, and out-buildings; then managed other farms in Alberta and Manitoba for hire; and finally, in 1915, enlisted in the war effort at age 53 along with his two sons, Ray and Reg.1

It was this latter event, combined with her husband’s own pending enlistment, which precipitated Elsie McLuhan’s 1915 move with her two young sons, Marshall and Maurice, from Edmonton to her relatives in Nova Scotia.2 Although most of the large McLuhan family remained in Edmonton,3 with some of them apparently renting her house there (it wasn’t sold until 1923), Elsie’s mother had been left alone in the Winnipeg area where she and Henry (sometimes with one or both of their sons) had been living since 1912.4 In 1915 Margaret Hall must have accompanied Elsie and the boys back to her birthplace and remaining family there. 

At the end of 1916, or the beginning of 1917, Elsie, her mother and her two boys moved from Nova Scotia back west — to Winnipeg. Herb may have already been with them. In any case the five of them were all living together in 1918 at 314 Rosedale in Winnipeg (Fort Rouge), waiting the return of Henry Hall and of Elsie’s two brothers from the war.

Since they continued to own their Edmonton house, the McLuhans were apparently undecided about eventually moving back to it. Again it may have been Henry who decided the issue. In 1919, he bought land south of Winnipeg in Elm Creek and farmed there, sometimes with one or other of his sons, until he began to sicken in 1924. This precipitated a move back to Winnipeg, where he and Elsie mother’s lived with the McLuhans at 507 Gertrude. Henry died there in 1926, as did Elsie’s mother, Margaret, in 1931.5

Here is a picture of Elsie with her two boys, Marshall (b 1911) and Maurice (b 1913), taken beside their house in Edmonton, not long before they moved away in 1915:6

The house must have been rented soon thereafter since the 1916 census has Herbert living with his parents and two of his siblings elsewhere in Edmonton.


  1. It would seem that Elsie’s itinerant lifestyle and multi-character one-woman theatre must have derived in some part from her father’s impulsive ways and frequent life changes.
  2. Herbert McLuhan’s real estate firm, McLuhan, Sullivan & McDonald, collapsed in 1914 or 1915. (It is still listed in Polk’s Real Estate Register and Directory of the United States and Canada for 1915.) What role this event played in Elsie leaving Edmonton may only be guessed.
  3. James McLuhan, Marshall’s paternal grandfather, died in Edmonton in 1919. Here is his obituary: “Friends of Miss Ethel McLuhan will be sorry to hear of the death of her father, Mr. James McLuhan, 11339 95a street, who passed away Saturday morning (December 7) at the ripe age of eighty-three. Mr. McLuhan was a native of Ireland, but came to Ontario with his parents when nine years of age. He was one of the pioneer farmers of Ontario and farmed for over forty years at Mount Forest, only coming to Mannville about 1900. For some years past Mr and Mrs McLuhan have resided in Edmonton where several members of the family are located. Mr McLuhan was a man of an exceptionally high order of intellect, a genial personality and one who took a broad interest in the affairs of the community and of the world at large. He was a man of wide reading, fond of good music, and keenly interested in astronomy. Those of his family who are left to mourn his passing are his wife, Mrs. James McLuhan (Margaret Grieve), daughters Mrs. Edwin Williams (Jennie McLuhan), Mrs. Peter Mackay (Rita McLuhan), Miss Ethel McLuhan; and sons, John McLuhan, Wallace McLuhan, and Roy McLuhan of this city; and Herbert McLuhan of Winnipeg. (Edmonton Journal, December 13, 1919)
  4. Before he enlisted in the army, Henry worked farms near Winnipeg, first in the Lilyfield and Meadows areas northwest of the city and then in Arnaud to the south.
  5. Elsie left Winnipeg and her family in 1933. (For discussion, see Elsie McLuhan on the Mastery of Life.) Presumably she would have done so earlier if her mother had not been living out the last years of her life with them.
  6. For this picture and others of the house, see the website of the architect in charge of its restoration at

Herb McLuhan in Maclean’s

In 1929 McLuhan’s father, Herbert Ernest McLuhan (1879-1966), writing with W.S. Newman1, published an article in Maclean’s magazine, ‘Our Population Problem’.2

A version of the article, without its last section, appeared earlier in the The Winnipeg Evening Tribune.3

The article reviewed proposals intended to help farmers made by Ernest Charles Drury, the Premier of Ontario from 1919 to 1923. Drury had been Premier as the leader the United Farmers of Ontario party. The Newman-McLuhan piece rejected Drury’s contention that tariffs imposed to encourage Canadian manufacturing were an unsupportable burden on agriculture. At the same time (as indicated by the title, ‘Our Population Problem’) they argued that it was Canada’s small population which limited its manufacturing potential and that tariffs were not decisive for it, either. 

The article anticipates a point that would be at the heart of Marshall McLuhan’s work throughout his career. The authors regret the lack of understanding of the west by the easterner, Drury. Similarly, they detail a lack of understanding of farm life by a politician — even a United Farmers politician. Like his future UT colleague, Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan would treat problems of this sort as imbalances between centre and margin. And he would argue that such imbalance was a defining characteristic of the analog Gutenberg galaxy, while centre-margin balance was the essence of the digital Marconi era. The concluding lines of the Newman-McLuhan Maclean’s article nicely illustrate the principle at stake:

solutions are doomed to failure which are based upon the continued hostility of Canada’s two premier industries — agriculture and manufacturing. These industries are absolutely interdependent and therefore the only policy which can ever hope to succeed is one which replaces friction with harmony and has co-operation for its keynote.4

A lack of balance, aka friction, causes practical problems which cannot be put right by policies which themselves lack balance. Both practice and theory must instead be grounded in harmony. Ultimately, all such questions concern the nature of reality for it is the fundamental characteristic of all oppositions to be “absolutely interdependent”. Absolutely — that is, at the end of day, all things considered, ontologically.

The great problem, of course, concerns the nature of the relation of friction and harmony themselves: are these, too, “absolutely interdependent”?  How not, if their relation is ultimately a matter of reality itself? But how so, when friction so often overwhelmingly asserts itself against harmony?5 How, then, get a handle on such a deep and perplexing problem, especially when it has enormous practical implications?

Herb McLuhan’s 1929 article, and doubtless his thinking in general, may be taken as a springboard from which Marshall McLuhan’s intellectual life took off. He would investigate how the tradition had considered the friction/harmony riddle and how communication about it had broken down in modern times — even awareness that such consideration existed at all. The imperative question was how communication of the two with each other and of the riddle of their relation with our contemporary lives might be repaired and the riddle considered once more.6

  1. Newman, apparently a pal of Herb McLuhan, appeared frequently in the conservative newspaper in Winnipeg, The Tribune, with poems lampooning the Liberals. Marshall McLuhan was a paperboy for the Tribune in the 1920s, but later developed a relation with the Winnipeg Liberal newspaper, The Free Press.
  2. ‘Our Population Problem’, W.S. Newman and H.E. McLuhan, Maclean’s, March 1 1929, 34 & 38. Thanks to Jarrett Cole for the tip.
  3. Ex-Premier Drury and His Tilt Against Tariff Bogey‘, W.S. Newman and H.E. McLuhan, The Winnipeg Evening Tribune, January 5, 1929, 5.
  4. ‘Our Population Problem’, 38.
  5. McLuhan’s appreciation of James Joyce must be situated in this context, for the relation of Stephen to Bloom turns on it, as does the ebb and flow of Finnegans Wake.
  6. Of course, the question is itself an instance of the riddle. For if the relation with the tradition has become one of friction, how is that to be considered harmoniously without fundamental distortion?

How communicate the presupposition to communication?

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. (McLuhan to Innis in 1951, Letters 221)

“We paced along the lonely plain, as one who returning to his lost road, and, till he reached it, seems to go in vain.” (Dante, Purgatorio, Canto 1, cited ‘Space, Time, and Poetry’, 1955)

As discussed in Shaw & medium as the message, McLuhan from the very outset of his intellectual life was aware of the circular problem posed by the attempt to communicate what must already be in place in order to communicate at all

This cannot be done lineally. Zeno’s paradoxes are generated by the attempt and, as those paradoxes may be taken to indicate, you cannot advance lineally to get to where you need to be in order to start advancing.1 In order to initiate investigation of this topic, at last, McLuhan’s suggestion was that we study successful examples of communication (as seen, say, in language learning or advertising) and to do so by “retracing” how they come about.

For human beings do communicate. The infant’s ability to learn language is archetypal. With time it learns to communicate with others, but first of all2 it must somehow have learned to receive communication from them. Such successful prior reception of language is manifested in the passive understanding of infants, which precedes its active use and is the first indication that the ignition of the latter is in process.3 

An infant never learns language in general. It learns the particular language spoken by those around it — otherwise it would never be able to communicate at all. This unremarkable fact reveals the precedence of the reception of form before there is any understanding of information coded in that form.

Such attention to the presuppositions to communication throws new light on McLuhan’s lifelong concerns with such matters as folk practices, advertising and subliminal processes. Although you would never know it from the McLuhan industry, it is not the case that he was motivated by the enlightenment project to illuminate and control these things.4 His interest lay in what can never be illuminated or controlled (in the Gutenberg sense of these) because it is what must be in place before illumination and control are possible in the first place.

In 1976, a few years before his disabling 1979 stroke and 1980 death, McLuhan addressed this topic at a UNESCO conference:

advertising is in every sense a Folk Art, because it concentrates in its activities all of the skills of the community. All of the activities of the advertising people are anonymous. All of their activities they wish to keep at a subliminal level. All advertising is subliminal when effective. If you become conscious of an advertisement, it is a failure. This is probably true of Art, [for]5 great Art communicates without being understood and communicates most powerfully, perhaps, when not understood, by shaping the deepest awareness, subliminal awareness.6

McLuhan returned here to his concerns as a young teacher at St Louis University (1937-1944) when he began to collect ads and to question how they worked. A decade later, the idea of advertising as subliminal folk art was captured in the subtitle of The Mechanical Bride, the Folklore of Industrial Man.7 In fact. even as a teenager, McLuhan’s interest in education and the cultural environment had been directed to the questions of where education really takes place (not in the classroom) and how it does so (apparently through social processes we don’t understand or even try to understand). Advertising always seemed a natural place to pursue these questions since the amount of money spent on it and the central role played by it in the distribution of goods were clear indications that it worked. McLuhan at 22: “we lift up our eyes to the signboards whence cometh our help”.8

When he reached Cambridge in 1934, he found broader contexts for these questions in the Catholic tradition and in the concern with ‘continuity’ in the work of F.R. Leavis and his Scrutiny school. McLuhan’s adherence to Chesterton’s Distributism straddled both. The great question was: what is it that allows communication over time and across space? Work especially on Eliot over the next 15 years (augmented by study of the French symbolists, Lewis, Joyce and Pound) led to the conclusion (which he would not be able to specify in these terms for a further decade) that communication works as a medium and not as a message:

Thomas [can] communicate a great deal even before he is much understood. (Joyce, Aquinas, and the Poetic Process, 1951)

Joyce’s confidence in the mimetic powers of language itself to communicate before and beyond ordinary understanding. (Survey of Joyce Criticism, 1951)

Compare Eliot (‘Dante’, 1929):9

poetry can communicate before it is understood.10

Communication turns on something that is before understanding! Hence McLuhan’s attention to the question of time. A sort of backwards somersault must be effected to ‘reach’ the capability that must already be in place in order to communicate at all. It is this backwards somersault towards communication that must be taught to an infant — via communication!

According to McLuhan, it is the essential feature of a medium that it has this trans-formative power to effect integration into the social environment required by it. He characterized this power as “magical”.

Following Aristotle and Aquinas, McLuhan saw that a sudden knot in time was the key structural feature of such “magic”:

We have to repeat what we were about to say (‘The Be-Spoke Tailor’, Explorations 8, 1957, #4)

The basis of all paradox, Christian and secular, is to be found in the sixth book of the Physics of Aristotle [235b-241b], to which Aquinas refers in his Summa Theologica I.II.q 113.a.7, ad quintum. The question for Aquinas is whether justification by faith occurs instantly or gradually. Aquinas says it occurs instantly because — ­here he appeals to Aristotle’s Physics — “the whole preceding time during which anything moves towards its form, it is under the opposite form.” (From Cliché to Archetype, 1970, 160)11

In a postscript to his May 6, 1969 letter to Jacques Maritain (Letters, 371), McLuhan cited all of this same text, in Latin, and included its continuation:

et in ultimo instanti illius temporis, quod est primum instans… (and in the last instant of that [preceding] time, which is the [succeeding time’s] first instant …)

McLuhan was clear that an understanding of the complications of such time is central to understanding social being — aka PEACE — with other human beings, with our fellow creatures and with the earth itself.

In his 1976 UNESCO presentation McLuhan called this presupposition “the Third World”, “preliteracy”, “non-literate”, “mythic”, “oral”, the “state” of being “intensely aware of the public”, “the Mississippi”:

Mr. Eliot said, for example: “I would prefer to have an illiterate audience”. (…) [Even] as a very highly literate and sophisticated man,12 he saw his job as an artist to open the doors of perception in the First World on to the Third World. He said of Mark Twain, whose great work Huckleberry Finn was abominated by literate and fastidious people, as the work of a non-literate man: “He updated the English language and purified the dialect of the tribe”. The phrase is from Mallarmé: “Il a donné un sens plus pur aux mots de la tribu”. Mark Twain purified the dialect of the tribe by returning English to the conditions of preliteracy. His hero is completely non-literate. Huckleberry Finn has a huge mythic structure based upon the main character, which is the river, the Mississippi. The corporate awareness of Mark Twain in this work was achieved by returning to the conditions of oral culture; in that state, people are intensely aware of the public.

It is plain, however, that the terms used here to describe the presupposition to communication cannot be taken ‘literally’ or ‘lineally’.13 McLuhan cited Eliot’s Sweeney Agonistes: “I gotta use words when I talk to you.”14 And his words at the UNESCO conference (“the Third World”, “preliteracy”, etc) must not be taken as historical or geographical references. Instead, the object was to point up the presupposition to communication — what must come before it (somewhat as “preliteracy” comes before literacy, but in a different order of time!). The need was to become “aware of the public”, of “the main character, which is the river, the Mississippi”, of that whole interior landscape which is always already dynamically operative in all the ways of human being — but unremarked and unstudied.

It was McLuhan’s fate to attempt to change this situation into one of active investigation. Whether he will have contributed to such a transformation remains an open question today, some 40 years after his death.



  1. For example, in the Achilles and the tortoise paradox, Achilles is never able to make a real advance on the tortoise — ie, one that would overtake it — because he can never cover more than some fraction of the distance between the two. In this light, Zeno’s paradoxes may be taken as a demonstration that new conceptions of spacetime and of process are needed to understand even seemingly obvious things (like Achilles winning a race with a tortoise). In the 2500 years since Zeno’s time, although many great minds have been aware of the problem complex broached by him, decisive ‘advance’ has not been made on it (as predicted by Zeno!).
  2. First of all: what time is this? what is its shape?
  3.  The practice of communication can be communicated and is communicated — not only with human beings, but with animals, plants, minerals and the whole physical environment. Humans learn the secrets of all these things and so are able to interact successfully with them. The result today is the astonishing knowledge that has been developed in the hard sciences about the exterior landscape. But the beginnings of this process stretch far back into the prehistory of the species, highlighted particularly by the domestication of plants and animals and the processing of materials (like foodstuffs, stones, hides, ceramics and metals).
  4. McLuhan certainly did speak of the transition of the disciplines of the interior landscape ‘from the ivory tower to the control tower’.  But the key to this idea was a revolution in the meaning of ‘control’: the required transition from the Gutenberg galaxy to the Marconi era turned on the difference between action directed at the environment and action directed by feedback from it.
  5. McLuhan: “that”
  6.  Place and Function of Art in Contemporary Life (Report of an International Symposium organized by UNESCO, 6 to 10 September 1976, McLuhan’s contribution 18-30).
  7. The Folklore of Industrial Man was one of the titles McLuhan considered for his book before settling on The Mechanical Bride. In correspondence he often referred to his ongoing work on ‘Folklore’.
  8. Morticians and Cosmeticians’, The ManitobanMarch 2 1934.
  9.  In the late 1940s McLuhan and Kenner were intensely studying Eliot for a book they were writing on him. It was never completed. The Dante essay by Eliot originally appeared in the Spectator, 19th October 1929.
  10. Cited by McLuhan both in Take Today (1972) and ‘The Argument: Causality in the Electric World’ (1973).
  11.  The passage from Aristotle and Thomas is cited again by McLuhan, but in Latin, in ‘The Medieval Environment’ from 1974. The fact that during “the whole preceding time during which anything moves towards its form, it is under the opposite form” is exactly Achilles’ problem in his attempt to overtake the tortoise. Unless he is able to shed the form of ‘reducing the distance between him and the tortoise’, Achilles can never catch the tortoise, let alone win the race. An infant learning language has the same problem. ‘Hearing noise’ must somehow become ‘hearing words’: a flip into a different form is implicated — and achieved!
  12. The transcript of McLuhan’s remarks has “As a very highly literate and sophisticated man” here.
  13. Ong seems to have done so along with most of the McLuhan industry. When this is done, lineal time is implicated as foundational and the whole perspective on McLuhan is insistently returned to the Gutenberg galaxy!
  14. T S Eliot’, Canadian Forum 44, February 1965, 243-244, originally a talk broadcast on the CBC’s “Critically Speaking” January 10, 1965.

Shaw & the hurdles of communication

The long review1 of Shaw’s Complete Plays which appeared in the Manitoba Free Press in 1931 is astonishing in setting out the problems and potential solutions which would define McLuhan’s intellectual life for the following half century. It would be even more astonishing if McLuhan himself — then only 19! — did not write the piece, but some unknown mentor instead who was to be forever decisive for his work.

McLuhan2 highlights Shaw’s critique of contemporary ‘originality’.

“what the world calls originality is only an unaccustomed method of tickling it” (Shaw, Preface to Three Plays for Puritans)

“I am a crow who has followed many ploughs.” (Preface to Three Plays for Puritans)

Everything [Shaw] says points back to Nietzsche, to Ibsen, to Plato, and always he is swift to affirm his debt: “No doubt I seem prodigiously clever to those who have never hopped (…) across the fields of philosophy, politics and art.” (Preface to Three Plays for Puritans)

Our attempts at originality are superficial because they completely overlook its central problem. McLuhan calls it the “constitutional inability to look below the surface”. Our inability to understand Plato and, especially, his considerations of originality — as well as his genial demonstrations of it — are entailed by this deeper deficiency.3

[Shaw] would have us look for the “underlying will”4 that governs ideals, the unconscious desires that urge them into being.

Our very ideals are masks which hide the springs of ideals and, therefore, also the different ideals which would be prompted from different springs.

Mr. Shaw’s philosophy is not away with all ideals, but: “The ideal is dead: long live the ideal.”

That we cannot understand Plato’s originality necessarily rebounds on Shaw and McLuhan themselves. For if they attempt to follow on after him, how should their thoughts be any more intelligible to us than his?  Admittedly, McLuhan does nod to Shaw’s hope that we might see through his joking to his underlying intent to prompt thought:

the whole tenor of his plays is impatience with us because we never think; but he can give us a premonition of thinking. He drives the comfortable fogs out of our minds as the prophets of old drove demons out of the possessed, not with rites and incantations, but with railleries and caustic jesting.

Exactly on account of our “constitutional inability to look below the surface”, however, McLuhan emphasizes Shaw’s contrary resignation to “the extreme improbability of anybody seeing anything in my treatise but a paradoxical joke.” Hence:

the device contrived to attract the crowd to the entrance [the “paradoxical joke”, the “railleries and caustic jesting”] now covers the whole show. Its creator cannot get free of it, cannot speak through it to those he is trying to reach. When he leaves off capering and speaks directly, with serious passion and therapeutic wrath, what he gets is an idle clapping of the hands.5

McLuhan emphasizes the point, which of course follows directly from our “constitutional inability to look below the surface”, by repeating it, verbatim, in the concluding lines of the review where he speaks of audiences

greeting [Shaw’s] stern wraths as well as his gay frivolities with polite laughter and an idle clapping of the hands.

This “constitutional” superficiality, the fact that “we never think”, may be termed “legend”:

legend obscures the real Shaw, not only from the idealists, who protest that they do not understand him, but from the Shavians, who protest that they do. Shavianism (…) suffers from its ardent converts as well as from its ardent enemies.6

We have come to be defined by a lack of communication with the tradition and its greatest minds. At the same time, this is a lack of communication with the springs of our own experience, including our experience of minds like Plato’s. It is the latter deficiency that entails the former one. The problem, then, is one of remedying our “constitutional inability to look below the surface” of our own selves to begin to reconnoiter those springs which are already active in us, but, somehow, only behind our own backs (a remedial process McLuhan would later come to call “retracing”)7. McLuhan therefore cites Shaw as follows:

To me the tragedy and comedy of life lie in the consequences, sometimes terrible, sometimes ludicrous, of our persistent attempts to found our institutions on the ideals suggested to our imaginations by our half-satisfied passions, instead of on a genuinely scientific natural history. (Preface to Plays Pleasant)

“A genuinely scientific” investigation of our own “natural history” — of what McLuhan came to term, following the French, “the interior landscape” — was McLuhan’s solution to the question of how to reestablish communication with the tradition and with its greatest minds. Of course this remained barely an intimation in 1931. But prompted by his mother’s work as an “impersonator” (which turned on character types), and by the teaching of his Manitoba philosophy professors, Lodge and Wright, that thinking is structured by persistent forms like idealism and realism, and by his beginning acquaintance with Coleridge and his ‘born’ Platonists and Aristotelians, McLuhan’s idea, even at nineteen, was that the investigation of such types might provide a way back to an appreciation of originality (beginning with our own).8

McLuhan’s reading of Shaw (which could be applied to anybody) was plainly derived from his mother’s one-woman theatre:

[Shaw] divides his personality into a hundred appallingly articulate Proteuses (…) so that the entire stage of our time is populated with bits and multiples and off-shoots of Shaw9

It is a small step (one that McLuhan’s mother consciously suggested in her “impersonations”) to wonder how each of these characters might think about virtue and religion, or organize a state, or consider “being itself”. But this was, of course, just what Plato portrayed over and over again in his dialogues. The tradition itself, then, would teach how access to it is first of all possible and how this access must be cultivated — if it were not exactly this access that has been lost!

The as yet inchoate (but somehow obvious) notion was — “the medium is the message”. What ideal or unconscious desire or spring would it take to enable us to get ‘in touch’, once more, with our “potencies” (as McLuhan would call them in his letter to Harold Innis in 1951) and, through them, with the entire tradition? McLuhan would come to his signature expression, “the medium is the message”, in 1958, more than a quarter century in the future from 1931. And yet the notion is already there in germ in his Shaw review waiting, even demanding, to be clarified and developed.

Further, McLuhan already knew what it is that cuts us off from the imperatively needed investigations of “potencies”:

The whole point and substance of Shaw’s teaching are that he is content, that he is in favor of this whirlgig process [of time] that will inevitably bring him to negation.

The reason for our “constitutional inability to look below the surface” is that “negation” stands (if negation may be said to stand or in any way to be!)10 between us and the potentialities or “potencies” of the subterranean “interior landscape”.11 It is possible to investigate possibilities, plural, only by letting go of the singularity of the presently activated one:12

[Ideals aka “potencies”] must conform, not to the arbitrary shape our self-full longings would impose upon them, but to the nature of things. And “nature does not dance to moralist-made tunes.”13

“Negation” is the border, or “no man’s land” (as McLuhan will later say), between any individual point of view or character or part (in a play) or “put-on” and the whole range of views, characters, parts and put-ons which are available for human beings and constitute, in McLuhan’s terminology, the unconscious. Being able to to immerse oneself in the question posed by this range is what McLuhan took to be the “negative capability” of Keats. In his 1943 ‘Aesthetic Pattern in Keats Odes’ he described this capability as:

a mode of being which Keats himself called “negative capability“. Keats’ definition of this phrase (…): “. . . when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”

“Fact & reason” presuppose some ground determined (consciously or not) by some singular point of view.14 To consider the range of points of view therefore requires a tolerance of “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason”.

More, between such basic “potencies” is further “negation” — for the borders between fundamentals cannot themselves be fundamentals. They must be abysmal gaps of “negation” in the range of possibilities — the unconscious — itself.

Already in 1931, it seems, McLuhan had his project (“understanding media”) and a clear view of the role “negation” — or “the gap” — must have on the way to its realization.15 Somehow “content[ment]” and “favor” would have to be communicated in regard to our ineluctable confrontation with that “negation” in order to expose its transitivity or metaphoricity. This was the precondition of his and our entering into the project at all.16

He never succeeded with us, of course. But perhaps he was not wrong that the fate of the world hung on this matter?

  1. See McLuhan and George Bernard Shaw for the review and discussion. All citations here, unless otherwise attributed, are from the review.
  2. The presumption here is that McLuhan wrote the review. The arguments for this presumption have been set out in the post linked in the previous note. Unfortunately, the Free Press has not preserved its correspondence from the time and the correspondence of its editor, J.W. Dafoe, which has partially been preserved at the University of Manitoba, has no letters to or from McLuhan. But McLuhan’s own correspondence is at least four or five times as large as that in the published Letters volume and may yet throw some light on the question.
  3. A “deeper deficiency” that produces our superficiality!
  4. McLuhan takes the phrase from Shaw’s The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891).
  5. The fate of the “creator” who “cannot speak through (his work) to those he is trying to reach” may be compared to Innis’ “fundamental solipsism of Western civilization” (Empire and Communications, 1950 edition, 67; 1972 edition, 56). It is thought provoking how much of these two great ‘media theorists’ remains unknown to those in the business of their explication!
  6.  This would be McLuhan’s fate as well, of course.
  7. McLuhan to Innis in 1951: “One major discovery of the symbolists which had the greatest importance for subsequent investigation was their notion of the learning process as a labyrinth of the senses and faculties whose retracing provided the key to all arts and sciences.” (Letters 221)
  8.  McLuhan was already clear that such investigation was a matter of ‘making not matching’. He quotes Shaw approvingly from the Preface to Plays Pleasant as specifying “I manufactured the evidence.”
  9. It may be seen here why Jung became so important to McLuhan in the 1940’s. He wrote to Jesuit friends, having first specified the need to “master C.G. Jung”, that “anthropology and psychology are more important for the Church than St Thomas”! (McLuhan to Ong and McNaspy, December 23, 1944, Letters 166)
  10. The etymology of ‘existence’ is ‘to stand out’.
  11. The subterranean “interior landscape” is just as much submarine, of course. Hence McLuhan’s repeated appeal to Poe’s ‘descent into the Maelstrom’. But the connection to “potencies” was never far from his mind: “Poe invented the symbolist interval or gap that became the bridge between the structures of art and science in the twentieth century.” (Take Today 10)
  12. NB: The singularity of the presently activated possibility is just who I am! Hence the requirement of an encounter with radical “negation”. The Gutenberg galaxy is the imposition of some single ‘point of view” — or the denial of rival possibilities. The ‘electric age’ is the impossibility of continuing this denial. The denial itself is usually unconscious, of course, and what it obscures is the unconscious.
  13. McLuhan cites the Preface to Three Plays for Puritans, but misplaces the quotation marks only around “moralist-made tunes”.
  14. McLuhan: “We are all trapped in assumption about the nature of reality” (Global Village, 77).
  15. Forty years later (a measure of the forward cast of the Shaw review), McLuhan and Nevitt would put this point in the opening lines of Take Today: “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.”
  16. Hence McLuhan’s concentration over the next six years on the nature of faith and his eventual conversion in 1937. Hence also his lifelong interrogation of time as times, since the time of precondition is not clock-time.

McKeon, Gilson and Rorty

Richard Rorty studied with Richard McKeon as an undergraduate and master’s student at the University of Chicago. 

Richard McKeon, an admirer of Aristotle, dominated the philosophy department at Chicago in those days. A committee he headed had dreamt up a nonstandard introductory philosophy course called “Observation, Interpretation and Integration.” I was anxious to start studying philosophy, so I signed up to take OII in my second year at Chicago. (5)1

Rorty then did his PhD at Yale, but continued to consider McKeon:

[Paul] Weiss was my dissertation advisor, but the dissertation owed less to his influence than to McKeon’s. An ungainly six hundred pages, it was titled “The Concept of Potentiality” and discussed Aristotle’s account of dynamis in the ninth book of his Metaphysics, Descartes’s dismissive treatment of the Aristotelian potency-act distinction, and Carnap’s and Goodman’s treatment of subjunctive conditionals and of nomologicality2. McKeon had specialized in such comparisons and contrasts between philosophers of different epochs. At Yale I was applying techniques I had learned at Chicago. (8)

McKeon’s 1935 paper offered two contrasting ways of advancing from the  “debate” of the three arts of the trivium (dialectic, grammar and rhetoric). Both ways emerged from the determination that the quarrel of the trivial arts is foundational and therefore “persistent”. It was forever irreducible to any one of the three. McKeon remarked, “controversies (…) did not go out of the world” (95) and, indeed, could not go out of the world. 

One pathway from this crossroads could be illustrated from Luther:

Here the extreme of value is put upon uncertainty. This humble despair of all human powers is behind Luther’s strictures against the scholastics for their too great confidence in reason: no reason of man can be taken as certain, for the wisdom of the world is made stupid by God… (McKeon, 1935, 104-105)

Quite aside from God (if anything can be said to be quite aside from God), “no reason of man can be taken as certain” in relation to the debate of the trivial arts because the working of the “debate” is deeper than human beings. As the precondition to what McKeon termed “verbal expression in general”, it is already there before we express anything at all in word or deed, is then variously at work in every expression we attempt, and it remains always there again after we have done so. It may well be said, then, that the “extreme of value is put upon uncertainty”, since all human expression stands before this prior multiplicity and is never determined beforehand in only one of its contesting directions.  

However this might inculcate a fitting humility, it would be wrong to conclude any necessary “despair” from it. Hence, if Rorty (for example) took this “uncertainty” track out of McKeon’s work, he certainly did not do so out of despair, but from the determination that dogged persistence in thought and action in an attempt to put things right was indicated — and that this was enough for beings who are finite in every way. The aspiration to an organized discipline could, he apparently thought, only detract from the required uncertain assessment of the human situation and of our responses in and to it.3

The other pathway was Gilson’s4 ‘philosophy’.5 This ‘nomological’ option was broached at the end of McKeon’s essay in conclusion to it:

when the distinctions [between the arts of the trivium] which have been employed in this essay have been fortified by (…) further materials, it will be time to consider dialectical resolutions, the problems of philosophy and their evolution and finally the character of philosophic truth. (110)

When, however, two [or more] theories [deriving from different arts of the trivium] are set one against the other, when the question of (…) truth (…)6 is raised, the technique of the dialectician is needed. So long as there is no two-voiced controversy, the question may remain on the grammatical or on the rhetorical level. (112-113)7

though each interpretation [of each the three trivial arts] is impregnable within its own limits,8 when brought into controversy [between them] the debate is ultimately dialectical.9 (111)

Once that philosophic view has been established, however, it may not be impossible to show that there are canons of criticism for history according to which one manner of interpretation is preferable to another. (113)

in segregating the philosophic problems involved in history, the character of philosophic problems themselves might be shown more clearly for the examination of what is involved in the making of statements. (113-114)  

McLuhan shared with Gilson, at least,10 the notion that the interior landscape of human beings was just as subject to scientific investigation as the external one. But this would be based, like all sciences, not on some absolute insight (whatever that might be), but on collective investigation focused on central organizing conceptions (like Gilson’s and McKeon’s trivial arts) — which conceptions would always remain, however, perpetually open in principle to scientific revision and even revolution (as articulated by Rorty’s friend and longtime colleague at Princeton, Thomas Kuhn).11 

Here is how McLuhan described this nomological possibility from Gilson in his 1954 ‘Catholic Humanism’ lecture:

What [Gilson’s Unity of Philosophical Experience] does is to elicit the image of truth from past errors and to confirm the unity of man’s quest from the jarring discords of unremitting debate. But what I wish to point out is that Gilson’s method is that of contemporary art and science (for contemporary poetry has healed the old breach between art and science). Gilson does not set out to produce a theory or view that will unify the philosophical disputes of the past. He reconstructs the disputes. He enables us to participate in them as though we were there. We see that they were real. (…) By repeating this process of participation (…) we are liberated both from past and present. We don’t arrive at a simple unifying concept but are put on the road to achieving a wisdom. And the road to this wisdom is by way of sympathetic reconstruction, involving the abeyance of personal prejudice and preconception.
the poetic process as it appears in the work of Poe, Baudelaire and Eliot, and by writers of detective fiction, is also the manifest principle of historical reconstruction as used by Gilson.
Gilson has used the method of reconstruction in the history of philosophy as a new creative technique which permits a new kind of communication between the present and the past. The reader of Gilson is typically given not a view or theory of the past but the experience of it. But the past as experience is present. It is available once more as nutriment. Previous theories of the past really amounted to a way of disowning it or of explaining it away.
the traditional errors of men become for the analogical artist precious matter for his structures even as Gilson has used historical error in philosophy to build a path to truth.

In 1954, McLuhan — now in his 40’s and the father of 6 children — was feeling utterly isolated even in the culture and technology seminar. He felt himself called to consider how a finite yet scientific discipline built out of the most unlikely of materials (“the traditional errors of men”) might be instigated and pursued — as a new (yet oldest of the old) “path to truth”.

The path has been known and traversed forever. Every child takes it in learning to speak. Every practical craft and theoretical discipline was and is established through it. However, its communication has never succeeded beyond a small circle and general investigation never initiated. But, McLuhan worried anxiously, was such communication perhaps the only way to avert disaster in a nuclear global village?

Somewhat like fusion in physics, McLuhan’s eventual breakthrough12 in 1960 must be understood as the product of enormous pressure. Its realization that year would all but kill him.13


  1. ‘Richard Rorty: Intellectual Autobiography’, in The Philosophy of Richard Rorty, ed Auxier & Hahn, The Library of Living Philosophers, vol xxxii, 2009, 3-23.
  2. Nomology. The Wikipedia article cites William Hamilton’s definition of nomology: “The Laws by which our faculties are governed, to the end that we may obtain a criterion by which to judge or to explain their procedures and manifestations (…) a science which we may call the Nomology of Mind (or) Nomological Psychology.” The ‘philosophical’ option broached by McKeon at the end of his 1935 essay might be termed nomological in this sense.
  3. Although Rorty was a great admirer of John Dewey, he rejected Dewey’s Quest for Certainty out of hand. He took it to have been a aberration on Dewey’s part that he, for one, found inexplicable.
  4. Surprisingly, Rorty mentions Gilson in his ‘Intellectual Autobiography’ and does so in high company: “Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, Whitehead’s Adventures of Ideas, and Lovejoy’s The Great Chain of Being gave me a taste for ambitious, swooshy, Geistesgeschichte that I have never lost. This taste was gratified in later years by such writers as Etienne Gilson, Hans Blumenberg, and, above all, the later Heidegger” (6). Gilson was undoubtedly suggested to Rorty by McKeon.
  5. See McKeon’s 1935 Trivium essay (what is philosophy?).
  6. McKeon has “the question of the truth of one of them” here. This is remarkable since the main thrust of his essay is to suggest that truth is necessarily plural and never “one”!
  7. McKeon seems to slide here between two different definitions of “the dialectician”. There is “the dialectician” who is one of the three corners of the trivial debate. And there is “the dialectician”, or philosopher, who considers that debate somehow aside from it. These two are fundamentally different in that the first is inherently ‘one-sided’, while the second (although itself inevitably one-sided, but in other ways belonging to all finite creatures) considers, as best it can, that irreducible multiplicity.
  8. McKeon in the same place: “the controversies (between the trivial arts) are persistent, since no fact can dislodge the historian from any of the three positions” (111).
  9. See previous note. Also, earlier in McKeon’s essay: “But herein lies the whole task of philosophy: the examination by reason of the various theories that have been advanced concerning the nature of things.” (68-69) This is pure Gilson.
  10. McKeon may have been less confident than his mentor, Gilson, in the possibility of such nomological science (although at the end of the 1935 essay, at least, he seems sure enough about it).
  11. It is difficult to see why Rorty should have been so determined against this possibility. Perhaps he saw even the aspiration to it not only as a waste of effort, but even as a barrier to the constant reconsideration he saw as necessary to right thought and action? To an undergraduate paper I once did for Rorty trying to make sense of C.S. Peirce’s ‘thirds’, his only comment was: “There are no thirds”. For Gilson and McLuhan, on the contrary, it might be said that there are only thirds: the medium is the message.
  12. See McLuhan’s #1 breakthrough.
  13. See footnote #12 in McLuhan’s new sciences: “only the authority of knowledge”.

McLuhan and George Bernard Shaw

In the first of his published letters, from February 19, 1931 to his mother, McLuhan records his introduction to G.B. Shaw:

I was initiated to the writings of Mr Bernard Shaw last evening when we attended a very admirable performance of Pygmalion presented by the University. (…) I was very agreeably surprised. [Shaw] has looked at life with a very penetrating if a somewhat disapproving eye. I should think that he deserves one of the highest places among English dramatists, after Shakespeare. (…) Shaw has studied life and reduced his observations to pithy and valuable aphorisms (…) I shall certainly get thru Shaw at the earliest opportunity. (Letters 9)

Five months later that same year, on July 18, just before McLuhan’s 20th birthday on July 21, a lengthy appreciation of Shaw appeared in the The Manitoba Free Press.1 A clipping of the article was found in McLuhan’s copy of Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion, Overruled, [&] Pygmalion,2 which, in turn, is now preserved among his books donated by the McLuhan family to the Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto.3

No author is identified. But there are multiple reasons to suspect that this was the work of McLuhan4 and, therefore, his first work to appear outside of University of Manitoba student publications:

  • The article appeared half a year after he had written to his mother that he would “certainly get thru Shaw at the earliest opportunity”.
  • The clipping was preserved by McLuhan for 50 years.
  • It was preserved in his copy of Pygmalion, the very play which introduced him to Shaw in the first place.
  • In his library at Fisher, there are more books authored by Shaw than any other author, many of which are annotated and at least one ‘heavily annotated’.
  • Many phrases in the article have the McLuhan ring to them: “a sense of grievance”, “draper’s assistants, who were able to endure the drab realities of their days only by dwelling in preposterous unreality at night”, “the underlying will that governs ideals, the unconscious desires that urge them into being”, “nature does not dance to moralist-made tunes”;5 “the overwhelming sanity with which Mr. Shaw intimidates us”, “how to blast this disorder from the earth has become Mr. Shaw’s chief preoccupation”, Shaw “divides his personality into a hundred appallingly articulate [forms] so that the entire stage of our time is populated with bits and multiples and off-shoots of Shaw”, “the whole point and substance of Shaw’s teaching are that he is content, that he is in favor of this whirlgig process that will inevitably bring him to negation”, “not egotism at all but an unusually superior and bracing kind of honesty”, “a constitutional inability to look below the surface”, “the whole tenor of his plays is impatience with us because we never think; but he can give us a premonition of thinking. He drives the comfortable fogs out of our minds as the prophets of old drove demons out of the possessed, not with rites and incantations, but with railleries and caustic jesting”. 
  • The article mentions Chesterton which very few in Winnipeg aside from McLuhan would have done at the time (or any other time).
  • Shaw is described as being “against schools as they are (his education was ‘interrupted’ by ten years’ schooling)”. This was a frequent topic of McLuhan in Winnipeg.6
  • The ‘Interesting Book Notes’ on the same page includes a short review of The Spirit of British Policy. The reviewer focuses on Germany. McLuhan wrote a series of articles in the UM student paper, The Manitoban, on Germany.7
  • In a letter to his family from Cambridge from September 5, 1935, McLuhan wrote that he was “going to write 2 or 3 articles for The Free Press.” (Letters 76)
  • That McLuhan had some kind of relationship with J.W. Dafoe,   the longtime editor of The Free Press, may be indicated by the fact that in 1936 McLuhan’s first paper for the Dalhousie Review (‘Chesterton: A Practical Mystic’) and Dafoe’s only paper ever to appear there (‘Canada’s Interest in the World Crisis’) were published in the same issue:

Here is the article on Shaw from The Free Press, Saturday, July 18, 1931, p 7:

Literature Unriddles Life’s Meaning

Bernard Shaw’s Work Is Marked by an Unusually Superior and Bracing Kind of Honesty

[Review of] The Complete Plays Of Bernard Shaw (Constable: Macmillans in Canada.)

It probably cannot be helped, but [Shaw’s] prefaces are not here. The present volume contains the plays alone. While this deprivation does not exactly put you in the plight of the critic at Count O’Dowda’s [in Fanny’s First Play, by Shaw], who did not know how to take the play he had just seen because he had not been told who wrote it (“what sort of play is this? that’s what I want to know”), it does put you in the plight of having to do without something you have learned to expect, and to which you feel entitled. To read a Shavian play with the preface is to have a sense of twitching eyebrows and Mephistophelian laughter just over the shoulder. To read without the preface is to have a swindled feeling — and a sense of grievance.

But the plays are here. The first ones, the Plays Unpleasant, recall the fuss over Ibsen and A Doll’s House in the eighteen-nineties; the establishment of the “Independent Theatre,” and Mr. Shaw’s part in it; his discovery that, while the “New Theatre” actually existed, the “New Drama” was a figment of the revolutionary imagination. “This (from the preface to Plays Pleasant) was not to be endured. I had rashly taken up the case; and rather than let it collapse, I manufactured the evidence.”

Then followed the Plays Pleasant and Three Plays for Puritans, with their alarming inversion of the romantic conventions then cluttering the London stage. Plays were written for the “timid majority”, for clerks and seamstresses and draper’s assistants, who were able to endure the drab realities of their days only by dwelling in preposterous unreality at night.8  It was “cheap, spurious, vulgar,” it was “substitution of sensuous ecstacy for intellectual activity and honesty” and “the very devil” — Shaw would have none of it. He had himself carried up into a mountain (where no theatre was) and wrote his own plays, attacking the fatuous conventions of the time with tonic and merciless vigor. Arms and the Man upset romantic ideals of soldiering: The Man of Destiny upset romantic ideals of heroes; Lady Cicely Waynflete, in Captain Brassbound’s Conversion, upset romantic ideals of brigandage with her embarrassing nursing and stitching; and, in our own time, The Apple Cart all but upset the democratic ideal of government.

The thing Shaw is doing in the plays is the very thing he does in the essays and treatises, and in The Quintessence of Ibsenism: assailing “conventional ethics” and “romantic logic” and attempting to substitute natural history for them: “To me the tragedy and comedy of life (from the preface to Pleasant Plays) lie in the consequences, sometimes terrible, sometimes ludicrous, of our persistent attempts to found our institutions on the ideals suggested to our imaginations by our half-satisfied passions, instead of on a genuinely scientific natural history.”

He would have us look for the “underlying will” that governs ideals, the unconscious desires that urge them into being. These ideals “only the swaddling clothes which man has outgrown, and which insufferably impede his movements” — must be discarded if they do not grow and mature and progress as the evolving life in us grows and matures and progresses. They must conform, not to the arbitrary shape our self-full longings would impose upon them, but to the nature of things. And Nature does not dance to “moralist-made tunes.”

All this talk of ideals, of course, must not lead us to pretend that Shaw’s plays are not shocking. They are: intensely shocking. Nothing shocks your man of science so much as the idea — implicit in The Doctor’s Dilemma — that men of science are not infallible; as nothing shocks your true ecclesiastic so much as the idea — implicit in Saint Joan — that ecclesiastics are not infallible. And nothing in the eighteen-nineties, at least, shocked your freeborn Briton so much as the perverse idea — implicit in the domestic plays — that the traditional privileges and liberties of British freedom should be extended to his women and children: “and you may take it from me” (Johnny Tarleton in Misalliance) “that the moment a woman becomes pecuniarly independent, she gets hold of the wrong end of the stick in moral questions.”

It was probably this shocking process that prevented the critics from noticing that Shaw, like the other nineteenth-century dramatists, romanticizes woman. Not as [Arthur Wing] Pinero, not as Henry Arthur Jones romanticized her;9 but the tendency is there all the same. In the eighteen-nineties the New Woman was on the horizon: no one could tell, then, just how she would turn out. So Mr. Shaw recreated her in his own image, invested her with his own omniscience, made her sane and clear-thinking, not only regarding the things women have always known, but also regarding the things men are just beginning to know. Because a woman does her straight thinking — when she does it at all — in the arc of experience that men usually reserve for their conventional, or muddled thinking (that relating to the family, children, the home). Mr. Shaw assumes that she does straight thinking all around the circle. There was no justification — is none now — for such an illogical assumption. Pinero made “Sweet Lavender” simple. Shaw makes his adorable Cicelys and gay charming Candidas intelligent. The one legend is as romantic as the other.

But this is only the heel of Achilles, a single flaw in the overwhelming sanity with which Mr. Shaw intimidates us. It is not romantic heroines, but romantic ethics, romantic politics, romantic morals, that cause disorder and confusion. How to blast this disorder from the earth has become Mr. Shaw’s chief preoccupation. Unlike Mr. Wells, he cannot escape it by slipping sideways into a new dimension, or, like Mr. Chesterton, look at it upside down and prove it is something else. He stays in the midst of it, scolding; divides his personality into a hundred appallingly articulate Proteuses10 and Duvallets11, so that the entire stage of our time is populated with bits and multiples and off-shoots of Shaw:12It is a dangerous thing to be hailed at once (from the preface to Three Plays for Puritans) as a few rash admirers have hailed me, as above all things original; what the world calls originality is only an unaccustomed method of tickling it. Meyerbeer seemed prodigiously original to the Parisians when he first burst on them. Today, he is only the crow who followed Beethoven’s plough. I am a crow who has followed many ploughs.”

Everything he says points back to Nietzsche, to Ibsen, to Plato, and always he is swift to affirm his debt: “No doubt I seem prodigiously clever to those who have never hopped, hungry and curious across the fields of philosophy, politics and art.”

Reputations are nothing. “We must hurry on: we must get rid of reputations: they are weeds in the soil of ignorance.” Shaw’s as well as Ibsen’s, as Strindberg’s or Moliere’s: “I shall perhaps enjoy a few years of immortality. But the whirlgig of time will soon bring my audiences to my own point of view: and then the next Shakespeare that comes along will turn these petty tentatives of mine into masterpieces final for their epoch.”

The whole point and substance of Shaw’s teaching are that he is content, that he is in favor of this whirlgig process that will inevitably bring him to negation. What frequently passes for egotism — “I really cannot respond to this demand for mock-modesty. I write prefaces as Dryden did, and treatises as Wagner, because I can.” — is not egotism at all but an usually superior and bracing kind of honesty.

The cart and trumpet are not for himself, but for his message, for the vision that fills him with apostolic fire. He is the passionate Puritan, the fierce Crusader, using what means he can to win the crowd to his beliefs; hitting them on the head with his extravagant fooleries so they will attend to his serious faiths.

Beside the force and drive and power of the Shavian faiths, the Shavian legends seem singularly idle and beside the mark. The legend of the critics, outlined in the preface of “Plays Pleasant” — “paradoxy, cynicism, and eccentricity, trite formula of treating bad as good and good as bad, important as trivial, and trivial as important, serious as laughable, and laughable as serious” — is only a symptom of a constitutional inability to look below the surface; [it is] the counter-legend of the apologists — Shaw as an amiable and old gentleman, kind to his friends and shy in company. Both legends are negligible. The formidable legend is the one that Mr. Shaw has created for himself: the braggadocio-buffoon legend, the outcome of his frivolous capering and his outrageous boasts: “When the spirit drives me to tell the truth (from The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism) and the flesh reminds me of the police and the fate of those who have yielded to that temptation in the past, I screw my courage up by reflecting on the extreme improbability of anybody seeing anything in my treatise but a paradoxical joke.”

In the later plays this confident expectation of being misunderstood is increasingly apparent. Amanda’s reason for being in “The Apple Cart” is not so much to disconcert the cabinet as to give the audience the right cues for laughter; and the prefaces chiefly consist of cues for critics. But it is no use: “In my plays they — the critics — look for my legendary qualities, and find originality and brilliance in my most hackneyd claptraps. Were I to republish Buckstone’s “Wreck Ashore” as my latest comedy, it would be hailed as a masterpiece of perverse paradox and scintillating satire.13

It is the jest of Hahalaba14: the device contrived to attract the crowd to the entrance now covers the whole show. Its creator cannot get free of it, cannot speak through it to those he is trying to reach. When he leaves off capering and speaks directly, with serious passion and therapeutic wrath, what he gets is an idle clapping of the hands.

This legend obscures the real Shaw, not only from the idealists, who protest that they do not understand him, but from the Shavians, who protest that they do. Shavianism, no less than Taoism, or Behaviorism, suffers from its ardent converts as well as from its ardent enemies.

Mr. Shaw’s philosophy is not away with all ideals, but: “The ideal is dead: long live the ideal.” He is against current conventions because he wants better conventions; against schools as they are (his education was “interrupted” by ten years’ schooling) because they are not good enough; against most churches because “the godhead in me, certified by the tenth chapter of St. John’s Gospel to those who will admit no other authority, refuses to enter these barren places.”

A church must mirror the cathedral in us, must lift the spirit — as Shaw’s spirit was lifted in San Lorenzo — with a confirmation of godhead and ennobling power. The religion that shows through his writings — the Life-Force realizing itself in the developing will and awakening consciousness of man —  is as positive and thrilling, as overwhelmingly assured of divine origin and authority, as any faith that sent a martyr to ecstatic immolation. It is the revelation of Ibsen’s Julian15 “prompted step by step to the stupendous conviction that he no less than the Galilean is God”.16

No cynic finds life “a sort of splendid torch” which he must make burn “as brightly as possible”. No perverse contriver of paradox leaves a system of philosophy in his work as consistent and true in its course, as a system of solar planets. Shaw’s writings are no less divinely inspired for being strewn with gaities instead of being strewn with records of the generations of Pashur17. There is perhaps an instinctive reason for the too-much talking that envelopes the thinking in his plays (apart from the reason that he has probably noticed that people do talk too much). We can no more take our thinking neat than we can take our electricity neat: there must be adequate insulation. Mr. Shaw would insist that he cannot make us think at all: the whole tenor of his plays is impatience with us because we never think; but he can give us a premonition of thinking. He drives the comfortable fogs out of our minds as the prophets of old drove demons out of the possessed, not with rites and incantations, but with railleries and caustic jesting.  

Jester or not, he is a true prophet, and he is even now going the way of the other true prophets: moving in the inevitable curve from heterodoxy to orthodoxy, and achieving his apotheosis in the applause of fashionable audiences who accept him (as Elizabeth told Will Shakespeare England would accept the endowed theatre),18 not because they accept his serious faiths, but because it is the thing to do (“because it is her desire (…) to do humbly and dutifully whatso she seeth everybody else do”):19 greeting his stern wraths as well as his gay frivolities with polite laughter and an idle clapping of the hands.

  1. The newspaper was established in 1872 as The Manitoba Free Press and changed its name on December 2, 1931 to The Winnipeg Free Press. The Shaw article from July 18, 1931 therefore appeared under the Manitoba masthead.
  2. This 1916 book collected three Shaw plays which appeared in 1912 and 1913.
  3. See McLuhan’s library, 01372 and the additions to McLuhan’s library, mcluhan add 01372.
  4. Alternately, the article was not by McLuhan, but by someone who immensely influenced him at the time — and for the rest of his life. But who could this have been?
  5. A McLuhan citation from Shaw’s Preface to Three Plays for Puritans.
  6. See, especially, his article ‘Public School Education’ (The Manitoban, Oct 17,1933): “We see hundreds of millions of dollars being spent annually in destroying (…) children.”
  7. ‘Germany and Internationalism’, Oct 27,1933; ‘Germany’s Development’, Nov 3,1933;German Character’, Nov 7,1933.
  8. Is this a pointer Eliot’s Prufrock and/or Waste Land?
  9. Pinero (1855-1934) and Jones (1851-1929) were English playwrights contemporaneous with Shaw (1856-1950).
  10. Proteus is a character in Shaw’s Fanny’s First Play (1911). But the reference in both Shaw and McLuhan is, of course, to the shape-shifter in Homer and Virgil.
  11. Duvallet  is a character in Shaw’s The Apple Cart (1928).
  12. McLuhan took this view of the theatre, and of all life as theatre, from his mother’s work as an “impersonator”. See The put-on.
  13. John Baldwin Buckstone, 1802-1879, “Wreck Ashore”, 1834.
  14. Lord Dunsany’s one-act play from 1928.
  15. Ibsen, Emperor and Galilean, 1896.
  16. Citation from Shaw’s The Quintessence of Ibsenism. Shaw comments on this “stupendous conviction”: “In his moments of exaltation he (Julian) half grasps the meaning of Maximus, only to relapse presently and pervert it into a grotesque mixture of superstition and monstrous vanity.”
  17. Jeremiah 20:1
  18. McLuhan is referring here to Shaw’s 1910 play The Dark Lady of the Sonnets.
  19. Ibid.

McLuhan, Hayakawa and Allison

The biography of S.I. Hayakawa1 describes how he remained in Winnipeg for college when his family moved back to Japan:

In 1924, Ichiro Hayakawa [S.I. Hayakawa’s father] decided to relocate his firm’s main operation [from Canada] to Japan (…) Hayakawa’s two sons remained in Canada, not only because it was their choice but because both parents recognized that Samuel [nicknamed ‘Hak’] and Fred weren’t culturally Japanese. (…) Hak,2 meanwhile, moved in with the family of one of his professors at the University of Manitoba, William Talbot Allison (…) Allison’s sons (…) had been two of Hak’s closest high school friends (…) Another of his chums was the neighborhood paperboy,3 a youngster named Marshall McLuhan, whose path would cross Hayakawa’s several times in the decades to follow.4

The Allisons lived at 600 Gertude Ave in Winnipeg:

This was just down the street from the McLuhans at 507 Gertude.

According to the biography, “Professor Allison was (…) Hayakawa’s favorite teacher” (29) in the English department at UM.5 But this was far from the case with McLuhan. As a nineteen year old in the first of his published letters, he wrote to his mother (who must have been on one of her impersonator tours at the time) complaining about their neighboring professor:

They are changing the whole [UM] English course from beginning to end. I cannot help but think that the revision should have started with the staff. I am so utterly disgusted and impatient with both [Robert F.] Argue and Allison that I should never enter their classes had I not the idea of the scholarship in the back of my head. (February 19, 1931, Letters 9)

In his biography of McLuhan, Marchand describes the same animus:

In his first lecture in English at the start of his third year (…) [McLuhan] noted that his professor, a W.T. Allison, spoke on Milton for an hour without telling him anything new. (…) In his diary, he claimed that it was impossible to imagine Allison returning again and again to a work like Paradise Lost or Gray’s Elegy for aesthetic pleasure or for edification. (Marchand 19-20)


  1.  In Thought and Action: The Enigmatic Life of S.I. Hayakawa, Gerald W. Haslam & Janice E. Haslam, 2011. Hayakawa (1906-1992) went on from Winnipeg and the University of Manitoba English Department to become one of the foremost semanticists in the US, then the president of San Francisco State University and, finally, a famous US senator from California.
  2. In Winnipeg Hayakawa was called ‘Hak’. Later, in grad school at the University of Wisconsin, he got the nickname  ‘Don’, which stuck for the rest of his life.
  3. A picture of McLuhan as a paperboy in 1927 — the year Hak graduated from UM and was ending his time living with the Allisons — appeared in the Tribune. McLuhan is in the picture on the right, back left:Thanks to R4 for the find.
  4. In Thought and Action, 27-29.
  5. According to Hayakawa’s bio: “Professor Allison was not only Hayakawa’s favorite teacher, but he also wrote a newspaper book-review column (for the Winnipeg Tribune). (…) “When I was nineteen years old (1925) — I remember this very vividly — Professor Allison was way behind in his weekly column. (…) He said, ‘Would you sketch one out for me?’ (…) I wrote the column — the draft of a column— the right length. He read it over and said, ‘That’s just fine; I’m going to send it out just the way it is.’ He sent it out over his name.” (29)

McKeon’s 1935 Trivium essay (the trivial debate)

McKeon’s 1935 essay set out a general theory in which the complex interrelations of the arts of the trivium are held to be fundamental to human consciousness, aka, what McKeon termed “verbal expression in general”. He named this field and its investigation ‘philosophy’.1 He then looked at the changes from the middle ages to the renaissance, and in particular at the work in those periods of Abelaird, Erasmus and Luther, as illustrating the proposed theory.

The general theory:

the history of the dispute of the grammarian, the rhetorician and the dialectician was chosen as the subject of this (…) exercise, since it is not difficult (…) to show how any historical work involves an attitude toward — and a solution of — that dispute.2  (108)

the manner in which discoveries [concerning]3 nature, God and man depend on grammar, rhetoric and dialectic has been shown sufficiently to make obvious the necessity of distinctions [within and between them] at each step [of the proposed investigation]. (110)

grammar differs as it is used by the grammarian, the rhetorician and the dialectician [just as dialectic and rhetoric differ between them in comparable ways]. (109)

The change in the relation of the three arts [to each other] (…) has the curious result of transforming the natures of the arts as they [themselves] are conceived (…) and consequently changing the significance of works that are read [on the basis of these conceptions] (82)4

shift in the emphasis in the [relations of the] three arts [to one another](…) is in itself sufficient to account for the changes [in history and particularly in intellectual history] (87)

positions [assigned to the trivial arts relative to one another] may be considered the corners of a three-sided debate in which men (…) have [always] engaged (55)

the controversies are persistent, since [the trivial arts are deeper than facts such that] no fact can dislodge the historian from any of the three positions…5  (111)

the successive persons [recorded in history] (…) take their complexions from the grammarians, the rhetoricians and the occasional dialecticians who have written about them (111)

The picture of the transformation which knowledge and action have undergone as a result of the shifting places of grammar, rhetoric and dialectic is not complete with the statement of the uses to which the dialectician has put grammar and rhetoric and the changes which the grammarian has introduced by submitting dialectic and rhetoric to his art. The rhetorician had long been at work, too, since the times of Isocrates and Quintillian, and by his approach grammar and dialectic are the tools of rhetoric, with resulting profound mutation of both arts and a particular degradation of dialectic. (105)

letters do not savor as they are but of that which is brought to them. (79)

The design (…) [of this essay] (…) turned upon the trick of restating a historical sequence of views in terms simply of the ideas they expressed [as shaped by the trivial arts] and in thus translating history into a [“persistent”]6 debate.  (114)

The middle ages and renaissance:

For two hundred years [roughly 900-1100?] the problems of philosophy were discussed [in the west] largely in the ordered terms derived from the study of two works attributed to Saint Augustine, the Ten Categories and the Dialectica, and from the sections on grammar, rhetoric and dialectic in the poem of Martianus Capella. The many commentaries on these works produced in the period are testimony of the central place they occupied in the scheme of education [and in] the organization of knowledge in general.7 (50-51)

[the middle ages may be seen as a] grammatical preparation for the dialectical developments of theology in the thirteenth century.8 (70)

What became of grammar, rhetoric and dialectic in the renaissance9? (71)

That shift in the emphasis in the three arts, that subversion of dialectic to grammar, is in itself sufficient to account for the changes which the Renaissance is reputed to have made. (87) 

There is a third form (…) in the hands of rhetoricians who submit grammar and dialectic to the needs of their art (83)  

Abailard, Erasmus and Luther:

Of the three, grammar, rhetoric and dialectic, it is grammar that Abailard finds particularly dangerous. (62)

Abailard conceived the task of philosophy to be precisely to disclose the meanings of various statements he quotes, how the reasons are related, what the arguments demonstrate. This is the task of the three arts. Grammar is used for the explication of the meaning of words, by examining the variation of their significances with the variation of context, speaker, auditor, time and place. The Sic et Non [of Abailard] is thus a vast grammatical exercise.10 (67)

the task [of Abailard] is dialectical: the meanings having been expounded, their agreements and disagreements are set forth, and where the arguments are fallacious they are refuted. Rhetoric falls into a subordinate place to be invoked only when figurative expressions and developments are involved. But herein lies the whole task of philosophy: the examination by reason of the various theories that have been advanced concerning the nature of things. By his approach Abailard discovered greater accord among the philosophers than has been found by other approaches, for his concern is to discover that aspect of reality which the philosopher was attempting to express.(68-69)

Both Abailard and Erasmus (…) bring the arts of grammar, rhetoric and dialectic prominently into the discussion. (72)

Though they differed from Abailard in the relative emphases they would give the arts, Petrarch or Erasmus would not condemn the liberal arts, not even logic, since they are the necessary preparations, the instruments to be used to penetrate to philosophy.11 (71) 

But whereas Abailard is fearful lest one be led by grammar and rhetoric from the true understanding which dialectic alone can procure, the hope of Erasmus centers on the art of grammar, and his suspicions fall on rhetoric and,to a much greater degree, on dialectic. (75)

The difference between the method of Erasmus and that of Abailard may therefore be stated as that between a use of the three arts oriented to an understanding of a passage (that is, the three arts arranged in accordance with the needs of grammar) [versus]12 the use of the three arts oriented to a comparative estimation of a variety of arguments (that is, the three arts arranged under the dominance of dialectic). (81) 

theology [according to Luther] uses the same grammatical terms entirely differently from dialectic. (98)

Between these two foes of dialectic, these two grammarians of the word of Christ, [namely, Erasmus and Luther,] there is a sharp difference concerning the nature of grammar… (103)13


  1. See McKeon’s 1935 Trivium essay (what is philosophy?).
  2. The dashes here have been added here for clarity. As regards McKeon’s ‘persistent dispute’ of the arts of the trivium, McLuhan usually used the words ‘ancient quarrel’. Hence his 1946 article: ‘An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America”.
  3. McKeon: ‘of’
  4. Reading = interpretation = experience = “expression in general” = consciousness.
  5. Facts do not underlie the trivial categories; instead the trivial categories underlie the understanding of fact. Some solution of the trivial debate is implicated in any relation we take up to fact.
  6. McKeon: ‘philosophic’.
  7. McLuhan made a couple minor references to Martianus Capella in his Nashe thesis. Three decades later, however, in his 1974 Bacon essay, he cited Ernst Robert Curtius (European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, 1953, 38) as follows: “The description of the liberal arts which remained authoritative throughout the Middle Ages had been produced by Martianus Capella, who wrote between 410 and 439. Notker Labeo (d. 1022) translated it into Old High German; the young Hugo Grotius won his spurs with a new edition (1599); and Leibniz, even in his day, planned another. Traces of Martianus are still to be found in the pageantry of the late sixteenth century.” This was old news to Gilson and McKeon, but perhaps not to McLuhan. In any case, it would seem that the notion of working from the trivium in intellectual history did not come to McLuhan from Martianus Capella or any other original source, but from Gilson and McKeon. Indeed, McLuhan was well aware that his PhD thesis was predominantly a review of secondary literature and represented few new findings.
  8. The thirteenth century — and fourteenth? So another 200 years?
  9. A further 200 years of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries?
  10. McKeon’s differing descriptions of Abailard in regard to dialectic and grammar may be taken to signify that the three are seldom or never found in pure form. Instead, most work, and all good work, is, as McKeon writes here, “the task of the three arts” together. See the citation from p 72: “Both Abailard and Erasmus (…) bring (all of) the arts of grammar, rhetoric and dialectic prominently into the discussion.”
  11. “Relative emphases” implicates structuralism!
  12. McKeon: ‘and’.
  13. Erasmus used grammar to consolidate the tradition: “the grammar which he praises, however, is that practiced by the old theologians, Origen, Basil, Chrysostom, Jerome” (76); Luther in fundamental contrast  to undermine it — or, at least, to appeal to another tradition.

McKeon’s 1935 Trivium essay (what is philosophy?)

history [i]s disguised philosophy (McKeon, ‘Renaissance and Method in Philosophy‘, 43)1

In the late 1930s at St Louis University, as a follow-up to his 1937 conversion, McLuhan began an intense study of the work of his future colleague in Toronto, Etienne Gilson.2 Consequently, Gilson would be be cited more than any other authority in McLuhan’s 1943 Cambridge PhD thesis on the trivium.3

Through his study of Gilson and his related conversations with Gilson’s student Bernie Muller-Thym, who was McLuhan’s colleague at St Louis University and intimate friend, McLuhan learned of Richard McKeon, who had studied with Gilson in Paris in the 1920s, and of McKeon’s 1935 essay, ‘Renaissance and Method in Philosophy‘. McKeon’s essay would be cited several times in McLuhan’s thesis, along with a related 1942 McKeon essay that appeared as McLuhan was finalizing his work (in time, however, for several substantial citations). But what the thesis does not divulge is that the whole notion of focusing historical research on the three arts of the trivium, dialectic, grammar and rhetoric — the notion to which the thesis was dedicated — almost certainly came to McLuhan from McKeon’s 1935 essay!4

Now the “philosophy” in the title of McKeon’s essay is not the discipline as usually conceived. But it is close to the notion of “comparative philosophy”, championed by McLuhan’s mentor at the University of Manitoba, Rupert Lodge. This would certainly have attracted McLuhan’s interest. Furthermore, explicit in both Lodge and McKeon is the Hegelian5 determination that thought, or reality itself, is grounded in three fundamental forms (Lodge’s idealism, pragmatism and realism, McKeon’s dialectic, grammar and rhetoric).

Another attraction of McKeon’s essay to McLuhan in these years immediately after his conversion: “The grammatical collection of data relative to the progress of philosophy from Abailard to the Renaissance assembled here has been limited to questions of theology and the shifting interpretations of the Bible.” (109)

Importantly for McLuhan, McKeon, unlike Lodge but as McLuhan already urged against Lodge in his 1934 Manitoba master’s thesis on Meredith, the contemplated discipline would not be restricted to philosophy (as usually understood) but would encompass “the expositions of poets and scientists” as well. Hence the great appeal to McLuhan of the terminology of the trivium as opposed to Lodge’s philosophical exposition. Its field would cover no less than what McKeon termed “verbal expression in general”. (109) Here is McLuhan to Walter Ong (October 14, 1954):

I realize now that my own rejection of philosophy as a study in my pre-Catholic days was owing to the sense that it was a meaningless truncation. (Letters 244)

McKeon, however, although openly directing his study to “verbal expression in general”, settled on the term ‘philosophy’ for it:

the means [!] which the historian has at his disposal for its accomplishment introduce into history much the same philosophic problems as are to be found in the expositions of poets and scientists. (37)

a history [like “the expositions of poets and scientists”] must, whether by conscious intention or not, be the expression of a philosophy. (38) 

[the sort of meta-philosophy proposed by McKeon following Gilson is therefore in the business of] recognizing and examining explicitly either the philosophic convictions which [any] narrative adumbrates or the manner in which those convictions determine the narrative itself. (38) 

The historian has shared in the general advance of science (…) but in intellectual history he has been dogged by the paradoxes of philosophy: philosophers can adopt a new language without [actually] changing [the nature of] their doctrines; [conversely] they can continue to use the old language (…) while they [actually] renovate their philosophic positions entirely; finally there are no two philosophic doctrines which a philosopher (…) cannot show to be the same or, if his intention should chance to be the opposite, different. The shifting interpretations and (…) long controversies in which scholars are involved on every major question of the intellectual complexion of ages are at bottom forms of those paradoxes. Consequently, as history has become more scientific, [genuine] philosophic understanding of past philosophers has been on the wane.6 (39-40)

It is our purpose to raise that philosophic question here by translating a historical sequence of ideas (…) into the philosophic debate that is implicit in the relations of those ideas.7 Such a translation will serve to indicate the philosophic aspects of historical interpretation. For the nature of history, the variety of historical interpretations and their origins and principles must be examined before questions of historical truth and accuracy can be considered profitably. The task set in the present essay is [therefore] only the first stage of that inquiry into the nature of history, or of verbal expression in general… (49)8

[regarding any samples of “expression”] only a consideration of their [philosophical] grounds will make clear their meanings and remove the ambiguity. (48)

[such work] prepares for the assimilation of questions of historical truth [or of any “verbal expression” at all] into questions of philosophic truth… (49)9

herein lies the whole task of philosophy: the examination by reason of the various theories that have been advanced concerning the nature of things. By this approach Abailard discovered greater accord among the philosophers than has been found by other approaches, for his concern is to discover that aspect of reality which the philosopher was attempting to express…10 (68-69)

in segregating the philosophic problems involved in history, the character [or nature] of philosophic problems themselves might be shown more clearly for the examination of what is involved in the making of statements [of any kind whatsoever, aka, “verbal expression in general”] (113-114)

An understanding of this entry of philosophy into [the investigations and formulations of] history is important to the understanding of the nature of history. (114) 

The design (…) [of this essay] was (…) philosophical rather than historical. Its accomplishment turned upon the trick of restating a historical sequence of views in terms simply of the ideas they expressed and in thus translating history into a philosophic debate. (114) 

As will be considered in detail in future posts, many of McKeon’s points here implicate a circularity. For if “history [i]s disguised philosophy” already, the “entry of philosophy into history” cannot be something yet to occur. It must be something that is ‘always already’ the case and ‘philosophy’ would be the double recognition of it and — at the same time — of itself.

Further, if it is “the nature of history” to be the “debate” of “persistentforms, any and all investigations in this field must themselves, as McKeon was well aware, be the expression of a decision made in regard to it: 

The history of the sciences of words, since it must be written in words, exemplifies its theme while it states it: the historian when he writes the debate of the grammarian, the rhetorician and the dialectician must himself be partisan of one of the disciplines whose protagonists he expounds. (107)11 

It may have been an aspect of McLuhan’s aversion to philosophy, even when he was working closely with Rupert Lodge in Winnipeg, to have considered this circularity as less than decisive — as something that is always already solved once one looks beyond philosophy to other disciplines like literature or, especially, to practical life beyond the academy. However this may have been, he was certainly well aware of McKeon’s point that such study “exemplifies its theme while it states it” since “any historical work involves an attitude toward and a solution of that dispute”. Here is McLuhan in his thesis:

In studying the history of dialectics and rhetoric, as indeed, of grammar, it is unavoidable that one adopts the point of view of one of these arts... (The Classical Trivium, 41)


  1. McKeon: “history as disguised philosophy”. ‘Renaissance and Method in Philosophy‘ appeared in 1935 in the third volume of Studies in the History of Ideas issued by the Columbia University department of philosophy. All page numbers in this post, unless otherwise identitfied, refer to McKeon’s essay.
  2. Gilson was one of the founders of the Institute of Mediaeval Studies at St Michael’s, along with Henry Carr and Gerald Phelan, in 1929. Phelan was McLuhan’s spiritual adviser in the process of his conversion and thereafter secured McLuhan’s post at SLU for him. Phelan was a close friend of Gilson and there is no doubt that he would have suggested Gilson’s work to McLuhan for the immense amount of work he had to do as an adult convert to acquaint himself with the Catholic tradition. Another prompt to Gilson would have come from Bernard J Muller-Thym, who returned to St Louis University from Toronto at the start of the 1938-1939 school year. Gilson had been his adviser and very close friend In Toronto when Muller-Thym studied there from 1933 to 1938. Gilson recommended Muller-Thym’s PhD thesis on Eckhart for publication and wrote an introduction for it. In fact, Muller-Thym and his wife regarded Gilson as family so that, when their fourth child (of an eventual eight) and first son was born in St Louis in 1939, they named him Bernard Etienne. When Muller-Thym returned to SLU, he and McLuhan very quickly became best friends. As McLuhan had done earlier with Tom Easterbrook in Winnipeg, the two began to take long walks in conversation especially about the Catholic tradition (Muller-Thym’s specialty) and its relation to the contemporary world (McLuhan’s special interest). Muller-Thym was the best man in the McLuhans’ wedding in 1939 and the Godfather for two of McLuhan’s first three children (of an eventual six). For the rest of their lives, McLuhan and his wife Corinne took the family of Muller-Thym and his wife Mary as their model for their family.
  3. In the posthumously published edition, 8 titles from Gilson, half in French, are listed in the augmented bibliography and others were consulted silently. For example, the John of Salisbury citation at p 149 of the print version of the thesis is taken from Gilson’s 1938 The Unity of Philosophical Experience , but the title does not appear in the bibliography. A decade later, McLuhan would underline his assessment of the importance of this book in his 1954 ‘Catholic Humanism’ lecture.
  4. McKeon, in turn, had the idea from Gilson’s work in the 1920s. It is mentioned frequently in his writings from that decade.
  5. This triplicity was ultimately Platonic, if not already mythological long before him. See the gigantomachia posts.
  6. McKeon’s complaints here are as old as philosophy itself. If thought is ‘untethered’ by principles, “shifting interpretations and (…) long controversies” are inevitable. Indeed, these once characterized physics, chemistry, biology and all such fields that eventually isolated their elements and laws and so became sciences.
  7. ‘Relations’ of ideas here must be understood as being both internal and external to them — that is, as characterizing them both individually and collectively.
  8. McKeon’s proposed inquiry inquiry resembles nothing so much as chemistry (but for psychological not physical materials). He will isolate the “origins and principles” of “verbal expression in general” in order to have them in hand “before” any particular investigation. A “debate” is thereby implicated in two senses.  First, before (in chronological time) such “origins and principles” (aka, ‘elements’) are isolated, a debate over their specification and even over their existence is indicated. Second, following their specification, they would now come “before” any practical or theoretical “expression” whatsoever — come “before” in the sense of appearing before a court —  such that a “debate” must ensue as to which of them, alone or in combination, ought to be exercised in the following inquiry. To compare, the first question asked by a chemist in any investigation is, of course, what sort of stuff is ‘before’ it.
  9. As McKeon was well aware, a preparation was required for this preparation: “the long and tedious preparation which must precede expertness in philosophic discussions” (43). But could a fitting preparation be made to ‘philosophy’ that was itself unphilosophical?
  10. The possible success of the method attributed by McKeon to Abailard here turns on a crucial inversion. Not that the philosophers in their plurality should be seen as advancing various aspects reality due to their different vantages, but that different vantages, hence the plurality of philosophers, derive from the multiplicity of reality (aka, realities) as a subjective genitive.
  11. Compare: “The historian of military campaigns, of geographical explorations, or courtly intrigues must similarly be the grammarian, the rhetorician or the dialectician as he considers his materials and constructs his narrative (…) any historical work involves an attitude toward and a solution of that dispute.” (108)

Eisenstein 5 (the time of ‘epoch’)

[René] Guilleré‘s article gains added interest through its description, not only of the correspondence between musical and graphic arts, but also through its presentation of the idea that these arts, fused together [as they are in film], correspond to the very image of an epoch and the image of the reasoning process of those who are linked to the epoch. (Eisenstein, Film Sense)1

In reading this passage from Eisenstein, it is essential to consider the time of an epoch. Is this a bracketed period in chronological (diachronic) time? Or is an epoch the time of one sort of reasoning process which is always (synchronically) available to every human being? And which is bracketed exactly because other reasoning processes are equally available?

The former implies what is all too often silently assumed — that everyone in a chronological epoch shares an identifiable “reasoning process”. But this seems absurd! Do you or I ever exercise the same “reasoning process” as we each did, individually, five minutes ago? Let alone as everybody else did ‘at the time’?

If “reasoning process” is essentially plural — “reasoning processes” — the implication is that human beings ex-ist not only within bracketed epochs, but also between them. Inside and outside the brackets. Between the brackets in at least three fundamentally different senses.2 But in order for this to be the case, it must be that reality itself supports such education, such induction, such metaphor, such communication — between “reasoning processes”.


  1. Film Sense, 99-100. For René Guilleré‘s article, see Eisenstein 4 (1951).
  2. Three senses of between the brackets: (1) inside the brackets defining any one process at any one time; (2) outside and between the brackets of two processes (which must be traversed when an individual changes from one of them to the other, through education, say, or just a change of mood); (3) between persons in their communication where each exemplifies some reasoning process within its defining brackets and communication ‘takes place’ between these. Understanding one other requires such a transitive movement between their respective brackets.

Epoch: Dostoevsky

In 1864/65, Dostoevsky and his brother, Mikhail, published a magazine titled Epocha (Epoch) in which Notes from Underground first appeared:

Epocha replaced their suppressed earlier magazine Vremya (Time), in which House of the Dead and The Humiliated and Injured were first published:


Dostoevsky knew that the topic of time and times was the great task confronting future thought — as it always had been the great task confronting past thought. Indeed, it is the great task confronting thought of any time that is genuinely contemporary.

The Russian word vremya (time) seems to belong to the Indo-Euopean *wer (2) complex which includes words such English vertigo, convert, versus, etc, German werden (become), Russian vreteno (spindle), Old English wyrd (fate, destiny). In the sense of this complex, time moves as a gyre with a complex threefold movement: around and around in a whirl, but ‘at the same time’ also up and down vertically and along a serial path horizontally. Modernity may be the time in which times are simplified to the third of these alone. This would be our epoch.

The Greek fates, the Moirai (Μοῖραι), were collectively termed the Klothes (Κλῶθες, spinners) after the first of them, Klotho (Κλωθώ, the spinner), who spins the thread of life (το νήμα της ζωής) onto her spindle (κλωστήρ). The second, Lachesis (Λάχεσις, the alotter) measures out the thread of life to every individual person and thing. The third, Atropos (Ἄτροπος, the inexorable one) cuts the thread of life with her terrible shears (ψαλίδια) when its appointed length has been reached.

The consideration of time is inevitably a consideration of the working of the fates — the determination of the epoch (ἐποχή) of every individual and thing which comes to be. As the Wiktionary definition has it, the epoch is a check, cessation, stop, pause, epoch of a star, i.e., the point at which it seems to halt after reaching the highest, and generally the place of a star; hence, a historical epoch”.

McLuhan’s ever-repeated adversion to, or into, the vortex of the maelstrom may be seen as an incessant descent into the turbulences of time. Dostoevsky, too, descended into the rings of the vortex1  — in fact, some of Poe’s stories were published in Russian for the first time in Vremya.

This I-E complex of vremya includes ‘worm’ and ‘vermin’, so that Calvin Watkin’s monumental How To Kill A Dragon must be consulted in considering the vast topic at stake here. As Watkins shows, the topic incorporates the gigantomachia in multiple ways.

McLuhan to Innis 1951 (3)

McLuhan’s 1951 letter1 to Innis proposed “the possibility of organizing an entire school of studies” dedicated to “communication study in general” where “the organizing concept would naturally be ‘Communication Theory and Practice’.” 

But how to start?

McLuhan’s suggestion was that the school should be based on “the potencies of language”:

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

The school would replicate in the humanities and social sciences what was already operative in the hard sciences, namely, the study of phenomena in terms of their underlying “potencies” like the chemical elements and physical laws.

But there were obvious problems. First, since those “potencies’ remained to be defined, a start with them presupposed the result of what was yet to be achieved — “points of departure but also return“:

Arts here used as providing criteria, techniques of observation, and bodies of recorded, achieved, experience. Points of departure but also returnFor example the actual techniques of common study today seem to me to be of genuine relevance to anybody who wishes to grasp the best in current poetry and music. And vice versa.

As illustrated in chemistry and physics, the circularity here was both a problem and a solution to that problem.  The problem was: how get to an end along a way that must be based on that end? (Can you get to the correct “potencies” of language by exercising the wrong ones?) The solution was: since that end and that way are already in place all around us, the more closely we study the phenomena of communication, the more we necessarily engage with their existing “potencies”. In this respect, the study of language and communication would be no different than the study of chemistry and physics: the “potencies” of them all are already (and have always been) active in the environment around us.  We are, so to say, directed in advance, and against our own “opposite” consciousness, to the required result — which is also the beginning.

In his 1955 Explorations 4 essay ‘Space, Time, and Poetry’ McLuhan cited Dante from Canto 1 of the Purgatorio:

We paced along the lonely plain, as one who returning to his lost road, and, till he reached it, seems to go in vain.

McLuhan repeatedly drew attention to this ‘paradox’ as described by Aristotle and Aquinas:

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”.2

The “paradox” consists first of all in the fact that a sudden gestalt-switch to an “opposite form” is even possible; but, secondly, it consists in the further fact that it is definitive of humans as occurring already with in the first use language — an event repeated whenever an in-fant begins to speak.

A second difficulty was that the required “esthetic discoveries”, however available they might be in the very nature of things, and however “awareness” of them had been established in the “contemporary consciousness”of a handful of French and English poets, were in ordinary consciousness becoming less and less perceptible, not more:

One immediate consequence [of the rise of the new media], it seems to me, has been the decline of literature. The hypertrophy of letter-press, at once the cause and effect of universal literacy, has produced [in the end] a spectacular decline of attention to the printed or written word.3

In the event it was far from clear just how “a transfer of its [= literature’s] techniques of perception and judgement to these new media” was to be achieved at a time when literature in general and these techniques in particular were increasingly in eclipse. The lamented ‘difficulty’ of all modern art was an index of the problem.

How come to “establish a focus of the arts and sciences” (objective genitive) where this could be accomplished only through the “focus of the arts and sciences” (subjective genitive)?

NOBODY yet knows the language inherent in the new technological culture; we are all deaf-blind mutes in terms of the new situation. Our most impressive words and thoughts betray us by referring to the previously existent, not to the present.4 (Counterblast, 1954)


  1. Letters 220-224. All citations in this post are from this letter unless otherwise identified.
  2. From Cliché to Archetype, 160.
  3. Throughout the 1950s, McLuhan would pursue the implications of this observation both as regards the teaching of literature and the study of the new media: “If literature is to survive as a scholastic discipline except for a very few people, it must be by a transfer of its techniques of perception and judgement to these new media. The new media, which are already much more constitutive educationally than those of the class-room, must be inspected and discussed in the class-room if the class-room is to continue at all except as a place of detention. As a teacher of literature it has long seemed to me that the functions of literature cannot be maintained in present circumstances without radical alteration of the procedures of teaching.” (Letter to Innis, 222)
  4. “Referring to the previously existent, not to the present” points to the “paradox” cited above from Cliché to Archetype, 160.

Eisenstein 4 (1951)

McLuhan appears to have read Eisenstein’s 1949 Film Form in 1950, if not already in 1949. His ‘heavily annotated’ copy (mostly consisting of notes at the end of the book) remains in the Fisher Library McLuhan collection in Toronto. Eisenstein’s earlier Film Sense (1947) was read and cited by McLuhan as well, but it is not in the Fisher collection.

Beginning early in 1951, and continuing throughout the year, McLuhan mentioned Eisenstein in many different contexts:

Mechanical Bride1
it is easy to see that the basic techniques of both high and popular arts are now the same. Eisenstein is certainly of this opinion in his Film Sense, when he quotes René Guilleré2 on the close relation between jazz and cubism: ” (…) In jazz all elements are brought to the foreground. This is an important law which can be found in painting, in stage design, in films, and in the poetry of this period.” For the purposes of the present book it is also important to detect this “law” at work all around us because of the intelligibility it releases from such diverse situations. As the unity of the modern world becomes increasingly a technological rather than a social affair, the techniques of the arts provide the most valuable means of insight into the real direction of our own collective purposes. Conversely, the arts can become a primary means of social orientation and self-criticism.3

To Ezra Pound, January 5 19514
Eisenstein’s Film Form (Harcourt Brace 1949) [is] excellent on importance of Jap NOH [theatre] for cinema and of ideogram as basic grammar of montage.5 (…) My object is to learn the grammar and general language of major 20 fields in order to help on an orchestra among the arts. Cf. S. Giedion’s Mechanization Takes Command as a sample of how I should like to set up a school of literary studies. (…) You and Eisenstein have shown me how to make use of Chinese ideogram to elicit the natural modes of American sensibility. But I’ve just begun. Feeling my way.

McLuhan to Harold Innis, March 14, 19516
Mallarmé saw the modern press as a magical institution born of technology. The discontinuous juxtaposition of unrelated items made necessary by the influx of news stories from every quarter of the world, created, he saw, a symbolic landscape of great power and importance. (He used the word “symbol” in the strict Greek sense sym-ballein, to pitch together, physically and musically). He saw at once that the modern press was not a rational form but a magical one so far as communication was concerned. Its very technological form was bound to be efficacious far beyond any informative purpose.7 Politics were becoming musical, jazzy, magical.
The same symbolist perception applied to cinema showed that the montage of images was basically a return via technology to age-old picture language. S. Eisenstein’s Film Forum and Film [Sense]8 explore the relations between modern developments in the arts and Chinese ideogram, pointing to the common basis of ideogram in modern art, science and technology.
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.

Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press9
just how valid were the impressionist techniques of the picturesque kind familiar to the news reporter appears in the notable essay of Eisenstein in Film Form where he shows the impact of Dickens on the art of DW GriffithsHow deeply English artists had understood the principles of picturesque art by 1780 appears from the invention of cinema at that time. In 1781 De Loutherbourg, the theatrical scene-painter, contrived in London a panorama which he called the “Eidophusikon” so as “to realize pictures in all four dimensions”. His “Various Imitations of Natural Phenomena, Represented by Moving Pictures” were advertised in these words and caused a sensation. Gainsborough, we are told by a contemporary, “was so delighted that for a time he thought of nothing else, talked of nothing else, and passed his evenings at the exhibition in long succession.” He even made one of these machines for himself capable of showing sunrise and moonrise as well as storms and ships at sea. Gainsborough through this cinema was experiencing the novelty of cubism with “lo spettatore nel centro del quadro“. (…) Once picturesque art, following the spectroscope, had broken up the continuum of linear art and narrative the possibility of cinematic montage emerged at once. And montage has to be arranged forwards or backwards. Forwards it yields narrative. Backwards it is reconstruction of events. Arrested it consists of the static landscape of the press, the co-existence of all aspects of community life. This is the image of the city presented in Ulysses.

To Ezra Pound, August 2, 195110
Landscape as a means of unifying inner and outer, strict observation plus erudition, leading to perfect control of states of mind — zoning device etc. Inclusive consciousness. Mosaic of precise juxtapositions in mutual irritation and tension generating power greatly in excess of mere sum of parts.
Eisenstein’s Film Form has the best treatment I know of this in relation to Chinese ideogram.
Cinema was immediate consequence of discovery of discontinuity as principle of picturesque landscape. MOVING PICTURES were made and shown in Naples and London in 1770. Painted scenes on rollers projected by lantern. This led at once to discovery of principle of reconstruction of situation by intellectual retracing. Retracing conditions leading to moment of aesthetic apprehension and arrest was Poe’s discovery. Led to detective story and symbolist poem. Detective story as reconstruction of crime by cinematic projection within the mind. Crime not explained but revealed.

  1. The Mechanical Bride was published in January 1951, but it was written in the 1940s, perhaps with some limited input in 1950.
  2. Guilleré (1878-1931) is cited at great length (5 pages!) by Eisenstein in Film Sense from Guilleré’s posthumously published essay ‘Il n’y a plus de perspective’, Le Cahier bleu, no 4, 1933. Cf, Film Sense, 94-99.
  3. MB, 87. Compare McLuhan to Innis in his March 14, 1951, letter: “Arts here used as providing criteria, techniques of observation, and bodies of recorded, achieved (archived?), experience. Points of departure but also return.”
  4. Letters, 218.
  5. Eisenstein’s ‘The Cinematic Principle and the Ideogram’ (in Film Form): “Cinematography is, first and foremost, montage. (…)  the “copulation” (perhaps we had better say, the combination) of two hieroglyphs of the simplest series is to be regarded not as their sum, but as their product, ie, as a value of another dimension, another degree; each separately, corresponds to an object, to a fact, but their combination corresponds to a concept. From separate hieroglyphs has been fused — the ideogram. By the combination of two “depictables” is achieved the representation of something that is graphically undepictable. For example: the picture of water and the picture of an eye signifies to weep; the picture of an ear near the drawing of a door = “to listen” (…) But this is montage! Yes. It is exactly what we do in the cinema, combining shots that are depictive, single in meaning, neutral in content, into intellectual contents and series.” Compare the principles of Chinese writing set out by Ernest Fenollosa in his essay, edited by Pound, on The Chinese Written Character: “So far we have exhibited the Chinese characters and the Chinese sentence chiefly as vivid shorthand pictures of actions and processes in nature. These embody the poetry as far as they go. Such actions are seen, but Chinese would be a poor language and Chinese poetry but a narrow art, could they not go on to represent also what is unseen. The best poetry deals not only with natural images but with lofty thoughts, spiritual suggestions, and obscure relations (…) You will ask, how could the Chinese have built up a great intellectual fabric from mere picture writing? To the ordinary western mind (…) this feat seems quite impossible. Yet the Chinese language with its peculiar materials has passed over from the seen to the unseen by exactly the same process which all ancient races employed. The process is metaphor, the use of material images to suggest immaterial relations.”
  6. Letters 221. McLuhan’s letter to Innis of March 14, 1951, was a rewrite of an earlier letter that Innis answered in February with apologies for his delay in doing so. It is not known when that earlier letter was written, but it must have been early in 1951 or even late in 1950.
  7. “Its very technological form was bound to be efficacious far beyond any informative purpose.” This is “the medium is the message” already in 1951.
  8. Instead of ‘Film Sense‘, McLuhan has ‘Film Technique‘ here, which was a volume on film theory not by Eisenstein, but by his fellow film director and friend, Vsevolod Pudovkin.
  9. ‘Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press’, Sewanee Review, 62(1), 38-55, 1954. This paper was written and submitted to Sewanee in 1951 but took three years to appear. McLuhan apparently made some minor modifications to it just before it was finally published.
  10. Letters, 224.

Eisenstein 3 (Balázs)

In the wake of his encounter with Eisenstein, another film theorist read by McLuhan along with Cesare Zavattini1 was Béla Balázs (1884-1949). The three together — Eisenstein, Zavattini and Balázs — exercised enormous influence on all of his subsequent work. It is no exaggeration to say that it would not have been possible without them.

Here is McLuhan in late 1953:

[McLuhan] Béla Balázs in his Theory of the Film (1952)2 notes some of the changes in visual habits resulting from the printing press on one hand and the camera on the other:
[Balázs as cited by McLuhan] “The discovery of printing gradually rendered illegible the faces of men. So much could be read from paper that the method of conveying meaning by facial expression fell into desuetude. Victor Hugo wrote once that the printed book took over the part played by the cathedral in the Middle Ages and became the carrier of the spirit of the people. But the thousands of books tore the one spirit . . . into thousands of opinions (…) tore the church into a thousand books. The visual spirit was thus turned into a legible spirit and visual culture into a culture of concepts. (…) But we paid little attention to the fact that, in conformity with this, the face of individual men, their foreheads, their eyes, their mouths, had also of necessity and quite correctly to suffer a change.
“At present a new discovery, a new machine is at work to turn the attention of men back to a visual culture and to give them new faces. This machine is the cinematographic camera. Like the printing press it is a technical device for the multiplication and distribution of products of the human spirit; its effect on human culture will not be less than that of the printing press. (…) The gestures of visual man are not intended to convey concepts which can be expressed in words, but such (…) non-rational emotions which would still remain unexpressed when everything that can be told has been told (…) Just as our musical experiences cannot be expressed in rationalized concepts, what appears on the face and in facial expression is a spiritual experience which is rendered immediately visible without the intermediary of words.”
[McLuhan] The printed page in rendering the language of the face and gesture illegible has also caused the abstract media of printed words to become the main bridge for the inter-awareness of spiritual and mental states.3 In the epoch of print and word culture the body ceased to have much expressive value and the human spirit became audible but invisible. The camera eye has reversed this process in reacquainting the masses of men once more within the grammar of gesture. Today commerce has channelled much of this change along sex lines. But even there the power of the camera eye to change physical attitudes and make-up is familiar to all. (‘Culture Without Literacy’, Explorations 1, 1953)

In 1954 the culture and communication seminar would take new direction from the topic of ‘acoustic space’. But the shock of recognition registered there through the comments of Carl Williams,4 together with suggestions in the work of McLuhan’s mentor, Sigfried Giedion,5 was surely (given the acquaintance of McLuhan and Theall with Theory of the Film)6 mediated through the chapter on ‘Sound’ in Balázs:

The Acoustic World7
It is the business of the sound film to reveal for us our acoustic environment, the acoustic landscape in which we live, the speech of things and the intimate whisperings of nature; all that has speech beyond human speech, and speaks to us with the vast conversational powers of life and incessantly influences and directs our thoughts and emotions, from the muttering of the sea to the din of a great city, from the roar of machinery to the gentle patter of autumn rain on a window pane. The meaning of a floorboard creaking in a deserted room, a bullet whistling past our ear, the death-watch beetle ticking in old furniture, and the forest spring tinkling over the stones. Sensitive lyrical poets always could hear these significant sounds of life and describe them in words. It is for the sound film to let them speak to us more directly from the screen. (Theory of the Film, 198)8

Balázs continued this passage in a way that not only would have recalled Giedion’s Space, Time and Architecture to McLuhan, but that may well have first sparked Giedion’s own thoughts along these lines (presumably from the original German of Balázs) sometime before the appearance of STA in 1941:

The sounds of our day-to-day life [continued Balázs] we hitherto perceived merely as a confused noise, as a formless mass of din, rather as an unmusical person may listen to a symphony; at best he may be able to distinguish the leading melody, the rest will fuse into a chaotic clamour. The sound film will teach us to analyse even chaotic noise with our ear and read the score of life’s symphony. Our ear will hear the different voices in the general babble and distinguish their character as manifestations of individual life. It is an old maxim that art saves us from chaos. The arts differ from each other in the specific kind of chaos which they fight against. The vocation of the sound film is to redeem us from the chaos of shapeless noise by accepting it as expression, as significance, as meaning.9

Here is Giedion from the start of STA:

In both contemporary science and contemporary art it is possible to detect elements of the general pattern which our culture will embody. The situation is a curious one: our culture is like an orchestra where the instruments lie ready tuned, but where every musician is cut off from his follows by a soundproof wall. 


  1. See Eisenstein 2 (Zavattini).
  2. Theory of the Film is a translation of essays which appeared over three decades from the 1920s to the 1940s. Like McLuhan’s exposure to Eisenstein’s Film Form, the influence on McLuhan of these Balázs essays can hardly be overstated. For example, Theory of the Film has chapters on ‘Sound’, in which “the acoustic world” is named and discussed, and on ‘Dialogue’ — topics repeatedly treated by McLuhan for the rest of his life. An annotated copy of Theory of the Film, given to McLuhan by Don Theall and his wife in 1953, is preserved in the University of Toronto Fisher Library McLuhan collection (#02464).
  3. See Bridges of spiritual and mental states.
  4. See Autobiography 1954: McLuhan & Williams on discovering ‘auditory space’ and Ted Carpenter on discovering ‘auditory space’.
  5. Autobiography 1954: McLuhan & Williams on discovering ‘auditory space’.
  6. See note 2 above. Theall participated in the culture and communication seminar as a junior faculty member.
  7. The title here, ‘The Acoustic World’, is from Balázs. Carl Williams criticized McLuhan’s use of the term ‘acoustic space’ saying that it was properly ‘auditory space’. McLuhan paid no attention to Williams’ point and continued with ‘acoustic’ forever. It may be that his attachment to the term was indication of a continuing allegiance to Balázs.
  8. This passage in Balázs — “It is the business of the sound film to reveal for us our acoustic environment, the acoustic landscape in which we live, the speech of things and the intimate whisperings of nature; all that has speech beyond human speech, and speaks to us with the vast conversational powers of life…” — has clear affinities with Zavattini: “Now it has been perceived that reality is hugely rich, that to be able to look directly at it is enough; and that the artist’s task is not to make people moved or indignant at metaphorical situations, but to make them reflect (and, if you like, to be moved and indignant too) on what they and others are doing, on the real things, exactly as they are.”
  9. In Theory of the Film this passage is cited by Balázs from himself from “two decades ago”. But the original source is not identified and is apparently not included in Theory of the Film.

Eisenstein 2 (Zavattini)

One of the signs of the gravitational pull exercised by Eisenstein on McLuhan was the close attention he came to pay to other theoreticians of film once he had been exposed to Eisenstein. One of the most important of these was Cesare Zavattini, 1902-1989, who was cited by McLuhan at amazing length in his 1954 ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’ lecture:1

[McLuhan:] Another way of seeing this mysterious medium [of film] for transforming experience is to consider it as the exact embodiment of Plato’s Cave. The dreaming eye of the movie god casting his images on the dark screen corresponds to that image of human life offered to us by Plato in the Republic: existence is a kind of cave or cellar on the back wall of which we watch the shadows of real things from the outside world of reality.
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. I can only regard the movie as the mechanization and distortion of this cognitive miracle by which we recreate within ourselves the exterior world. [It is potentially distorting, because]2 whereas cognition provides that dance of the intellect which is the analogical sense of Being, the mechanical medium has tended to provide merely a dream world which is a substitute for reality rather than a means of [probing]3 reality.
The camera, however, in the hands of a realist is capable of quite different effects, and I should like to offer some remarks of Cesare Zavattini, the famous Italian movie-artist as suggesting a humanist rather than an aspirin approach to the film:

[Zavattini:] No doubt one’s first and most superficial reaction to everyday reality is that it is tedious. Until we are able to overcome some moral and intellectual laziness, in fact, this reality will continue to appear uninteresting. One shouldn’t be astonished that the cinema has always felt the natural, unavoidable necessity to insert a “story” in the reality to make it exciting and “spectacular.” All the same, it is clear that such a method evades a direct approach to everyday reality, and suggests that it cannot be portrayed without the intervention of fantasy or artifice.
The most important characteristic, and the most important innovation, of what is called neorealism, it seems to me, is to have realised that the necessity of the “story” was only an unconscious way of disguising a human defeat, and that the kind of imagination it involved was simply a technique of superimposing dead formulas over living social facts. Now it has been perceived that reality is hugely rich, that to be able to look directly at it is enough; and that the artist’s task is not to make people moved or indignant at metaphorical situations, but to make them reflect (and, if you like, to be moved and indignant too) on what they and others are doing, on the real things, exactly as they are.
For me this has been a great victory. I would like to have achieved it many years earlier. But I made the discovery only at the end of the war. It was a moral discovery, an appeal to order. I saw at last what lay in front of me, and I understood that to have evaded reality had been to betray it.
Example: Before this, if one was thinking over the idea of a film on, say, a strike, one was immediately forced to invent a plot. And the strike itself became only the background to the film. Today, our attitude wouId be one of “revelation”: we would describe the strike itself, try to work out the largest possible number of human, moral, social, economic, poetic values from the bare documentary fact.
We have passed from an unconsciously rooted mistrust of reality, an illusory and equivocal evasion, to an unlimited trust in things, facts and people. Such a position requires us, in effect, to excavate reality, to give it a power, a communication, a series of reflexes, which until recently we had never thought it had. It requires, too, a true and real interest in what is happening, a search for the most deeply hidden human values; which is why we feel that the cinema must recruit not only intelligent people, but, above all, “living” souls, the morally richest people.
The cinema’s overwhelming desire to see, to analyse, its hunger for reality, is an act of concrete homage towards other people, towards what is happening and existing in the world. And, incidentally, it is what distinguishes “neorealism” from the American cinema. (…)
What effects on narrative, then, and on the portrayal of human character, has the neorealist style produced?
To begin with, while the cinema used to make one situation produce another situation, and another, and another, again and again, and each scene was thought out and immediately related to the next (the natural result of a mistrust of reality), today, when we have thought out a scene, we feel the need to “remain” in it, because the single scene itself can contain so many echoes and reverberations, can even contain all the situations we may need. Today, in fact, we can quietly say: give us whatever “fact” you like, and we will disembowel it, make it something worth watching.
While the cinema used to portray life in its most visible and external moments — and a film was usually only a series of situations selected and linked together with varying success — today the neorealist affirms that each one of these situations, rather than all the external moments, contains in itself enough material for a film.
Example: In most films, the adventures of two people looking for somewhere to live, for a house, would be shown externally in a few moments of action, but for us it could provide the scenario for a whole film, and we would explore all its echoes, all its implications.
Of course, we are still a long way from a true analysis of human situations, and one can speak of analysis only in comparison with the dull synthesis of most current production. We are, rather, still in an “attitude” of analysis; but in this attitude there is a strong purpose, a desire for understanding, for belonging, for participating — for living together, in fact.
Substantially, then, the question today is, instead of turning imaginary situations into “reality” and trying to make them look “true,” [instead] to make things as they are, almost by themselves, create their own special significance. Life is not what is invented in “stories”; life is another matter. To understand it involves a minute, unrelenting, and patient search.
Here I must bring in another point of view. I believe that the world goes on getting worse because we are not truly aware of reality. The most authentic position anyone can take up today is to engage himself in tracing the roots of this problem. The keenest necessity of our time is “social attention”.
Attention, though, to what is there, directly: not through an apologue, however well conceived. A starving man, a humiliated man, must be shown by name and surname; no fable for a starving man, because that is something else, less effective and less moral. The true function of the cinema is not to tell fables, and to a true function we must recall it.
Of course, reality can be analysed by ways of fiction. Fictions can be expressive and natural; but neorealism, if it wants to be worthwhile, must sustain the moral impulse that characterised its beginnings, in an analytical documentary way. No other medium of expression has the cinema’s original and innate capacity for showing things, that we believe worth showing, as they happen day by day — in what we might call their “dailiness“, their longest and truest duration. The cinema has everything in front of it, and no other medium has the same possibilities for getting it known quickly to the greatest number of people.
As the cinema’s responsibility also comes from its enormous power, it should try to make every frame of film count, by which I mean that it should penetrate more and more into the manifestations and the essence of reality.
The cinema only affirms its moral responsibility when it approaches reality in this way.
The moral, like the artistic, problem lies in being able to observe reality, not to extract fictions from it.4

[McLuhan:] That I think represents a point of view which can only be regarded as a major addition to Catholic humanism and letters. And as we trace the rise of successive communication channels or links, from writing to movies and TV, it is borne in on us that in order for their exterior artifice to be effective it must partake of the character of that interior artifice by which in ordinary perception we incarnate the exterior world. Because human perception is literally incarnation. So that each of us must poet the world or fashion it within us as our primary and constant mode of awareness. And the mechanical or mass media of communication must at least [likewise] poet5 the world in order to hold our attention.
The movie can teach us something more about perception and the poetic process. The characteristic dream world offered to the movie spectator occurs when we reverse the spool on which the camera has rolled up the carpet of the external world. So reversed, the carpet of the daylight world becomes the magic carpet of dreams carrying us instantly anywhere. Similarly, 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. Our words are analogies of the miracle by which we incarnate and utter the world.6

  1. Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’ was first printed by St Joseph College, West Hartford, in The 1954 McAuley Lectures: Christian Humaniam in Letters:

    It was reprinted in the collected McAuley Lectures 1953-1959; and then posthumously reprinted again in McLuhan, The Medium and the Light (1999). Page numbers here are taken from The Medium and the Light edition.

  2. Instead of ‘It is potentially distorting, because’, McLuhan has just ‘But’.
  3. McLuhan: ‘proving’ (probably a typo resulting from the repeated use of ‘provide’ in the preceding lines).
  4. Cesare Zavattini, ‘Interview’ in Sight and Sound, Oct-Dec 1953, pp 64-65. Translated from the Italian, originally in La Revista del Cinema Italiano, December 1952.
  5. The Medium and the Light text hasparrot’ here, not ‘poet’. This is doubtless a typo caused by the unusual construction “must poet” which McLuhan used here twice. As he has it in the following paragraph: “every word uttered by man requires a large measure of the poetic ability”.
  6. ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’, The Medium and the Light, 165-169.

Eisenstein 1

Eisenstein presents the case of someone McLuhan’s thought tended towards — simply because both Eisenstein and McLuhan were called to think — and someone whom McLuhan read and learned from. To compare, there are many parallels between McLuhan and Plato,1 but these did not derive from a serious engagement with Plato: they derived from the two taking similar paths on the way of thought (subj gen!). With Eisenstein, in contrast, McLuhan was shown ways in which his thought could be developed — and was developed.

This was, however, not a matter of read and thereby learn. Not right away. Confrontation with a thinker on the way of thought (subj gen!) takes a lifetime. Even to begin to understand Eisenstein’s thought took McLuhan a decade. And when he did finally see a way forward — the understanding media project — he probably was not more than vaguely aware (if that) of the importance Eisenstein’s way markers had been to him – and were still.

Most of McLuhan’s learning from Eisenstein was accomplished silently. He did not explicitly consider and digest points from him. Instead, as he made his way along the path of thought after encountering Eisenstein around the age of 40, he took turns in the subsequent decade which he may not have recognized even as turns, and almost certainly didn’t recognize as Eisenstein’s turns, but which had a kind of smell of potential to them deriving from Eisenstein (not without crucial impetus also from other thinkers like Eliot, Pound, Joyce and Mallarmé) and which prompted him to try them out.

The way of thought is necessarily an unknown way along which especially the crucial steps must be taken blindly. That this is native to human beings may be seen in the fact that infants follow this way in learning to speak. But the great majority of humans gradually unlearn this ability as they become bound to the opinions of others in the process of socialization. Advertising and propaganda are wagons hitched to this horse. But especially humour reveals that appreciation of the unexpected never disappears and is able to reassert itself from time to time even in the dullest of beans.

Every thinker must go along the same way of thought (subj gen!), but each must do so in his or her own way. The following posts on Eisenstein will attempt to illuminate how this took place in the case of Marshall McLuhan.

  1. See the Plato posts.

Bridges of spiritual and mental states

the abstract medium1 of printed words [has] become the main bridge for the inter-awareness of spiritual and mental states. (Culture Without Literacy)2

There are many important implications to this passage from McLuhan’s essay in the first issue of Explorations in 1953. Above all, it suggests, or demands, that mentality and spirituality are to be distinguished, and that they are to be distinguished in such a way that the subjection of mentality to spirituality is considered a live option. In an age of advertising and propaganda (which turn on the dominion of mentality), this is a radical and unheard of notion that has largely disappeared from western ‘culture’ after having been an important force in it for millennia. 

Unpacking the notion might include considerations like the following:

First, if the medium of print has “become the main bridge of inter-awareness”, there must be other bridges of such inter-awareness. Plural. One alone cannot be said to be the ‘main’ one.

Second, if “spiritual and mental states” need not only to be bridged, but also to be differentiated (since a bridge must have two ends)3, there must be a plurality of mental/spiritual ratios corresponding to the plural bridges of inter-awareness between them.

Third, if there are plural “spiritual and mental states” with plural bridges of the inter-awareness between them, it must be questionable which of them (spiritual or mental) is more basic than the other — ie, which one is figure and which one is ground. And if this question cannot be established apriori (which is what it means for something to be questionable)  it must be allowed that there is a range of possible ratios between the two of them stretching from the dominance of spirituality at one end of the range to the dominance of mentality at the other. 

Fourth, the values represented by the ratios along this range must amount to possible ontologies, plural, since each amounts to a constellation according to which the spiritual and the mental may be perceived, relative to each other, to be. At the same time, the range presents possible moralities (how they ought to be) and utilities (how and why they might aim).

Fifth, entry into consideration of these questions must be made, if at all, freely and spontaneously since it would be thoughtless to consider the range of the ratios or bridges between “spiritual and mental states” on the presupposed basis of one of them. If such consideration is possible at all, therefore, it must be possible to initiate it, either completely absent such presupposition, or on the accepted basis of a presupposition that somehow does not decide in advance on the fundamentality question between them. (This either/or may itself be a both/and!

Sixth, however entry is made to such considerations, the enabled investigation must be aware that it is perpetually subject to recall and revision — since the object of its investigations implicates the question of its own reality and its own fitness to the task at hand. (McLuhan in ‘Culture Without Literacy’: “the basic requirement of any system of communication [from language as learned by an infant to the hard sciences] is that it be circular, with, of course, the possibility of self-correction.”)

Seventh, both because of the unavoidable circularity of such probing, and because of the related essential difference between range4 and instance of that range, investigations of these matters implicate a finitude which has been difficult or impossible for ‘thinkers’ in the propaganda era to admit. Or, even more, to accept as the very keystone of any authentic cum scientific investigation of the humanities and social disciplines.  

Eighth, there is therefore a necessary doubling5 between mentality at any time and its actual and possible spiritual states that introduces incessant questions of its ontology, morality and utility. Demanding (or at least supposing there is) a de-finitive answer to these questions defines the ‘Gutenberg era’. Balancing in the finite dynamics of these questions defines the ‘Marconi era’. (The ‘main question‘ of an understanding media project would be how to investigate both of these without privileging one of them — for privilege in either direction would be not to question.)

Ninth, as soon as the “doublin” of mentality and spirituality is admitted, a new context is identified for human being on this earth. Its implication is  that human beings reside by nature in the questionability of ontology, morality and utility. Known or unknown, intelligibility and action arise at every moment only in relation to these questions — each is always only one possible response among many equally possible other responses to them. Accordingly, human being would be that unique sort of being which is inexorably exposed to plurality in both its exterior and interior landscapes — it would be the offspring of, and witness to, this fecundity.



  1. McLuhan has ‘media’ here, not ‘medium’. At this point in his career he was still on his way to the need to focus on a medium through the range of media.
  2. Explorations 1, 1953.
  3. Joyce in Ulysses: a pier is “a disappointed bridge”.
  4. Range itself implicates finitude, since a range is necessarily a plurality and a plurality must include borders de-fining the units of that plurality.
  5. Joyce on the first page of FW: “doublin their mumper all the time” (where ‘mumper’ is both ‘number’ and ‘lout’ and therefore a multiple and hilarious example of the working of doublin/Dublin).

Early McLuhan on film

In a series of following posts on Sergei Eisenstein, the case will be made that McLuhan came to his topic — understanding media — through a consideration of film and particularly of Eisenstein on film technique.

By the time McLuhan encountered Eisenstein’s theoretical work in the late 1940s, he had been peripherally interested in film for at least 15 years.  Still in Winnipeg, anticipating what he would find at Cambridge in Culture and EnvironmentThe Training of Critical Awareness by F.R. Leavis and Denys Thompson1, he noted in a 1934 article in The Manitoban:

the radio and the movie are even more potent than “bread and circuses” to produce in men that fatigue which is fatal to a civilization.2

Later that same year, now in his first term at Cambridge, McLuhan sent his family a parody of Prospero’s famous lines from The Tempest (IV, 1):

This orgy now is ended. These mad hustlers
As I foretold you, were all bluff and
Are shown to be air, even hot air:
And like the baseless credit of their business
Their sign-capped towers and raucous newspapers,
Their film temples, great Hollywood itself,
And all that it doth breed on shall dissolve,
And like an insubstantial pageant faded
Leave not a rack behind. They were such stuff
Screen-stars are made on and their feverish life
Is quieted now in sleep.3

Then in 1940 in St Louis, McLuhan reviewed Mortimer Adler’s Art and Prudence (1937), a book that had for its subject (in Adler’s words cited by McLuhan) “the influence of motion pictures on human behavior”. Adler’s take was characterized by McLuhan as follows:

Democracy (…) is the result of the mechanization of society and the obliteration of all save economic distinctions between persons and social classes. Thus “one cannot live in a democracy and despise the popular arts”.4 Art in a democracy is an instrument in an instrumental society. And it is thus peculiarly fitting that the art form of a mechanized sub-human society should be highly mechanized. This is the movie. It alone provides for the masses a sense of mass participation in all the functions of society. [While this is a sense] at a very low level, it is true, it nevertheless constitutes a mode of communication between all the functional units of society (units which were formerly persons) without which it is scarcely possible to conceive of Democracy.5

McLuhan’s critique at the time was of course directed at the notion of such an “instrumental society” and its “functional units” — “units which were formerly persons”. This did not prevent him, however, from noting that Adler’s “absence of concern for the technical means (…) of the movie [form] is one of the most striking deficiencies of the volume under review”. Thus:

The trouble with Pudovkin’s Film Technique [1926; translation 1933] and its followers is, from Mr. Adler’s point of view, that they make a drastic critique of the movie (…) [from] within the limits of the art itself.6 Pudovkin and all the critics who speak from a knowledge of the artistic aims and the technical means of the movie are much more devastating and effective in their comment on the old bag of stage tricks which Hollywood serves up as film art…

Already in 1940 McLuhan had a vague sense that “artistic aims and (…) technical means” might not only not be inimitable to the sort of ethical society he championed as a committed distributist7, but might actually help reconstitute and maintain it. It was in pursuit of this notion, particularly in reference to film theory like that of Eisenstein, Zavattini and Balázs, that he would arrive at his topic, understanding media, two decades later.

  1. 1933.
  2. Tomorrow and Tomorrow?’, The Manitoban16 May 1934. Compare in Leavis and Thompson: “whatever play or film he attends for amusement, the pressure of the herd is brought to bear upon him.”
  3. McLuhan to his family, November 3, 1934, Letters 34.
  4. McLuhan cites Art and Prudence p. 114 here.
  5. McLuhan,  Review of Art and Prudence by Mortimer J. Adler, Fleur de Lis, 40:1, October 1940, 30-32.
  6. McLuhan: “they (= Pudovkin’s Film Technique and its followers) make a drastic critique of the movie (medium) he (= Adler) is defending within the limits of the art itself.”
  7. See Autobiography – encountering Chesterton.

Beyond the cultural monad

the written vernaculars have always locked men up within their own cultural monad…(Culture Without Literacy, 1953)1

One of McLuhan’s ever-repeated points was that the modern world has relentlessly and irreversibly exposed every particular culture (here called “vernaculars”) to other cultures in both space and time. The most important effect of this exposure (the message of this transformation of medium) has been to force reconsideration of everything that had previously been accepted only because it was not known to be potentially variable.

There is a close parallel, or parallels, between this social process and the process of individual education. Both require a sometimes difficult reconfiguration as they are exposed to new information. Digestion must be achieved that may or may not be successful. Indeed, complete success in digestion is doubtless not possible, or even conceivable, for entities which are irretrievably finite in multiple ways — unless ‘complete success’ is seen to implicate, somehow, a lack of completion.2

The great perennial relevance of this parallel lies in the fact that the social digestion required for peace and even survival must doubtless first be achieved in the simpler individual form. 

In fact, this process has already long been brought along by individuals like Plato or Confucius in ways we can hardly hope to emulate.

It would seem that we have two tasks. First, to retrieve what Plato and others have achieved by attempting to digest their digestion. Hard enough! But then, second, to work at what Plato and his great fellow thinkers have not been able to achieve, namely, the ignition of a successful social digestion incorporating that individual digestion.


  1. Explorations 1, 1953.
  2. This is exactly ‘the main question‘.

Analog and digital times

In the new translation of the Book of Knowledge into a two-bit language, only the gaps make sense.1

The Bells of Old Tokyo: Meditations on Time and a City (2019) by Anna Sherman:

Jesuit missionaries brought the first clocks to Japan; they were objects of wonder. Unlike temple bells, which sounded at intervals, the new clocks registered permanent time. The ceaseless and visible movement of the clocks’ hands was something altogether new. The idea of time itself changed… (69, emphasis in the original)

Mechanical clocks introduced a new analog sense of time that had previously everywhere, not only in Japan, been digital.  Before their introduction, time had never been without basic spatial and temporal intervals2 — and basic intervals define the digital in distinction from the analog.

Digitality seems to introduce unheard of uniformity — “two-bit” in the negative sense. But its “two-bit” basis brings with it the possibility of relating to the past in a way that does not require either one of the sides of the past/present divide to be privileged against the other.3 Further, the complicated times before mechanical clocks can only then be appreciated when they are understood as incorporating their own complex styles of intelligence — styles of intelligence that today are emerging even in the hard sciences like quantum physics, or particularly there, as capable of yielding more precise insight than analog uniformity (aka, the same ones in series).

McLuhan to Willem Oltmans in a 1974 interview ‘On Growth’:

literate man is a one-way character incapable of two-way dialogue with any other kind of culture.

The last lines of Sherman’s book (225) are:

Nothing ever rests.
Light and Shade.

It should not be thought that Sherman ends by saluting the reign of horizontal analog time. Instead, the well known restlessness of time (“nothing ever rests” — including restlessness) must be appreciated in its fundamentally divided complexity. The digital nature of time must be seen as a vertical or synchronic drive to expression as well as extinction that characterizes all things, like light and shade.4 Here is Anaximander in Nietzsche’s translation:

Woher die Dinge ihre Entstehung haben, dahin müssen sie auch zu Grunde gehen, nach der Notwendigkeit; denn sie müssen Buße zahlen und für ihre Ungerechtigkeiten gerichtet werden, gemäß der Ordnung der Zeit.5

Whence things have their origin, there they must also pass away according to necessity; for they must pay penalty and be judged for their injustice, according to the ordinance of time.

In the middle of her book (81), Sherman cites from the Avatamsaka Sutra:

Sudhana said, ‘Where has that magnificent display gone?’
Matreya said, ‘Where it came from.’6  


  1. See note 3 below.
  2. Spatial intervals: differences in time from place to place; temporal intervals: differences within time at any one place. Even with mechanical clocks these spatial and temporal intervals would not be overcome until uniform time was required by the railroads in the nineteenth century. And even then, communities that were isolated in some way would not easily be ‘integrated’ into what was termed the world economy.
  3. McLuhan began speaking and writing about “two-bits” in the last decade of his life: “Two bits, of course, has taken on a new meaning in the computer age.  It’s a two bit operation — programming a computer; it’s done by yes-no bits. I think when one begins to speak to any group at all he is somewhat in the position of a stripper, who must ‘put on’ her audience by taking off her clothes. This, of course, is an operation that could be reversed. You could come out nude and start dressing…” (‘Hardware/Software Mergers’, 1969); “Computer specialists go all out to reduce every human problem to yes or no questions demanding yes or no answers. In the new translation of the Book of Knowledge into a two-bit language, only the gaps make sense” (Take Today, 1972, 130).
  4. Exactly because time is itself fundamentally divided, and because extinction is as essential to it as expression, time is always also analog!
  5. Die Philosophie im tragischen Zeitalter der Griechen, 1873.
  6. The Flower Ornament Scripture, translated by Thomas Cleary.

Culture Without Literacy

In the inaugural issue of Explorations at the end of 1953, McLuhan set out a series of problems that he would investigate for the rest of the decade. These were problems which stood between him and the founding of science in the humanities and social disciplines, which, he sensed, was the only means through which the multiple potentially fatal directions of the planet might be reoriented.1

The first of these problems was relativity and the implicated disappearance — or at least the veiling — of truth.

In a global village the brute fact of multiple possible approaches to experience could not be avoided:  

every page of [our] newspapers and magazines, like every section of our cities, is a jungle of multiple, simultaneous perspectives(Culture Without Literacy, 1953)2

We are now compelled to develop new techniques of perception and judgement, new ways of reading the languages of our environment with its multiplicity of cultures and disciplines.

Given unavoidable “multiple, simultaneous perspectives”, our every perception might be different and no one perception could, any longer, claim to provide access to truth on the basis of its supposed singularity or traditional privilege.

We are all of us persons of divided and subdivided sensibility through failure to recognize [the essence of] the multiple languages with which our world speaks to us

In characteristic fashion, McLuhan compressed contradictory insights here which must be teased apart to understand his intentions. He wrote that we are “divided and subdivided” by our “failure to recognize the multiple languages with which our world speaks to us.” It is not the failure of recognition, however, but the unavoidable onslaught of that plurality that renders us “divided” and “ineffectual”! Indeed this is exactly what is asserted in the immediately following sentence:

Above all it is the multiplicity of messages with which we are hourly bombarded by our environment that renders us ineffectual.

What McLuhan telescoped here was that our “divided and subdivided sensibility” results not from an outright absence of recognition of the “multiple languages” of the environment, but from a deficient mode of recognition of them. We recognize them in a dissembling and disabling way instead of an enabling one. 

Perhaps the terrifying thing about the new media for most of us is their inevitable evocation of irrational response. The irrational has become the major dimension of experience in our world. And yet this is a mere byproduct of the instantaneous character in communication.3

The Gutenberg era, although coming to an end as a dominant technology, remained in nostalgic command of our “techniques of perception and judgement” precisely through an apotropaic reaction to the “multiplicity of messages with which we are hourly bombarded”. 

It is the perfection of the means which has so far defeated the end

That is, the achieved success of the new media has brought about an unavoidable exposure to multiple perspectives; but this exposure has had the contrary effect of turning us from that multiplicity to a desperate and “irrational” singularity:

The printed page (…) has (…) become the main bridge for the inter-awareness of spiritual and mental states. 

Precisely against such a reversion to the singularity of print, McLuhan suggested that it was only through “new techniques of perception and judgement, new ways of reading” the multiple languages of the environment, that our sensibility could become, not “divided and subdivided” but wholesome and effectual. It then followed that our “divided and subdivided sensibility” resulted from a “failure to recognize [those] multiple languages”, first of all as a fact, and then in the scientific conceptualization of that fact (via the induction of its dynamic essence).


All the types of linear approach to situations past, present or future [associated with the printed page] are useless. Already in the sciences there is recognition of the need for a unified field theory which would enable scientists to use one continuous set of terms by way of relating the various scientific universes. Thus the basic requirement of any system of communication [from language as learned by an infant to the hard sciences] is that it be circular, with, of course, the possibility of self-correction.4 That is why (…) the human dialogue is and must ever be the basic form of all civilization. For the dialogue compels each participant to see and recreate his own vision through another sensibility.5

The key was a turn from the one to the many as the only way to conceptualize the one for its investigation:

the radical imperfection in mechanical media is that they are not circular. So far they have become one-way affairs with audience research taking the place of the genuine human vision (…) and response. There is [as a result] not only the anonymity of press, movies and radio but [also] the factor of scale. The individual cannot discuss a problem with a huge, mindless bureaucracy like a movie studio or a radio corporation [and for that reason is not an individual at all but an anonymous cipher].

Total global coverage in space, instantaneity in time. Those are the two basic characters that I can detect in a mechanical mass medium. There are other characteristics derivative from these, namely anonymity of those originating the messages (…)6, and anonymity in the recipients.

An effectual reading of “the multiple languages with which our world speaks to us” (aka, as McLuhan would put it a few years later, a grammar of media) could provide a new sense of truth based on open collective investigation, but also a new sense of identity (vs anonymity) and new ways of addressing the otherwise insuperable disparities of scale in a technological world. More, this seemed to be the only way to address the dire problems of freedom and power which are precipitated in such a world:

the instantaneity of communication makes free speech and thought difficult if not impossible and for many reasons. Radio extends the range of the casual speaking voice, but it forbids that many should speak. And when what is said has such range of control it is forbidden to speak any but the most acceptable words and notions. Power and control are in all cases paid for by loss of freedom and flexibility.

Everything from politics to bottle-feeding, global landscape, and the subconscious of the infant is subject to the manipulation of conscious [and potentially malicious] control.

The promise of “the end of the Gutenberg era” — sometimes called by McLuhan the advent of “the Marconi era”7 — was that it might energize the needed turn from the one to the many:

One’s vernacular is best seen and felt through another tongue. And for us, at least, society is only appreciated by comparing and contrasting it with others. (…) Whereas the written vernaculars have always locked men up within their own cultural monad, the language of technological man, while drawing on all the cultures of the world, will necessarily prefer those media which are least national.

This hope marked a return by McLuhan to his meeting with Sigfried Giedion ten years earlier in St Louis and his resulting exposure to Giedion’s Space, Time and Architecture (1941).8 This return was a central inspiration of the Ford Foundation seminar (1953-1956) as emphatically expressed by the presence of Giedion’s close friend and translator, Jackie Tyrwhitt, as one of the seminar’s five sponsors and editors (of the seminar’s Explorations journal). But this was a return enriched for McLuhan by the intervening decade in which he had continued his studies of Eliot, Pound, Lewis and Joyce, initiated study of Mallarmé and Innis, and encountered cybernetics. Meanwhile, on top of all this, Giedion had published a second great work, Mechanism Takes Command, in 1948 and McLuhan had immediately reviewed it.

Here is Giedion at the start of Space, Time and Architecture:

In spite of seeming confusion, there is nevertheless a true, if hidden, unity, a secret synthesis, in our present civilization. To point out why this synthesis has not become a conscious and active reality has been one of my chief aims. (…) Unity, for us, will have to come about through the unintended parallelisms in methods that are springing up in the specialized sciences and the equally specialized arts. There are the indications that we are nearing a spontaneously established harmony of emotional and intellectual activities. In both contemporary science and contemporary art it is possible to detect elements of the general pattern which our culture will embody. The situation is a curious one: our culture is like an orchestra where the instruments lie ready tuned, but where every musician is cut off from his follows by a soundproof wall. 

And here is McLuhan in ‘Culture Without Literacy’:

[Our] situation can be snapshotted from many angles. But it always adds up to the need to discover [some] means for translating the experience of one medium or one culture into another, of translating Confucius into Western terms and Kant into Eastern terms.9 Of seeing our old literary culture in the new plastic terms in order to enable it to become a constitutive part of the new culture created by the orchestral voices and gestures of new media. Of seeing that modern physics and painting and poetry speak a common language and of acquiring that language (…) in order that our world may possess consciously the coherence that it really has in latency, and which for lack of our recognition has created not new orchestral harmonies but mere noise.

For the rest of the decade McLuhan would work away on “the need to discover means for translating the experience of one medium or one culture into another.” This would ultimately eventuate in the understanding media project beginning in 1960.


  1. As cited and discussed below from ‘Culture Without Literacy’: “All the types of linear approach to situations past, present or future  are useless. Already in the sciences there is recognition of the need for a unified field theory which would enable scientists to use one continuous set of terms by way of relating the various scientific universes. Thus the basic requirement of any system of communication is that it be circular, with (…) the possibility of self-correction.”
  2. Explorations 1, 1953. Unless otherwise indicated, all citations in this post are from this essay.
  3. The irrational singular reaction to the “instantaneous character in communication” is “a mere byproduct” in multiple senses.  First of all, it itself is realized only as one possibility from amongst the range of possibilities which are instantaneously or synchronically available before every moment of perception. It is a “byproduct” of this dynamic situation. Secondly, it is a reaction against just this situation and its implication of radical finitude (in being ‘only’ one out of a foundational many). It is “a mere byproduct” of this fear. Thirdly, as an assertion of superiority that is ultimately comical in its pretension, it is a mode of perception that demands reorientation through recognitiojn that it is, after all, “a mere byproduct”.
  4. McLuhan’s unstated central point here was that essence and truth in the electric age were now to be understood (as they were in already in quantum physics), not as points requiring matching definition, but as dynamic particulars within a field of possibilities. The former requires some kind of more than mortal insight into fixed forms; the latter requires only (only!) the sort of natural insight — or common sense — that characterizes humans from infancy on.
  5. How something seems to another is exactly what an infant must recognize in learning to speak and what drives science to understand any matter whatsoever. Differences in perception are revelatory. Hence, after Kant defined differences between observers as phenomenology, or the science of seeming, Hegel saw that the phenomenology of spirit was a dual genitive in which seeming was not only an open question but also the native land of the interrogation of that question.
  6. McLuhan has “messages or forms” here, indicating that he was not yet clear about the distinction of medium and message  — nor, of course, about the importance of this distinction. It would be five years before he would begin to insist that “the medium is the message”.
  7. See The Beginnings of Gutenberg Galaxy 6.
  8. Stearn interview: “Giedion influenced me profoundly. Space, Time and Architecture was one of the great events of my lifetime.”
  9. In his better moments, McLuhan did not see East and West as geographical regions — Confucius vs Kant — but as structural variations liable to expression anywhere on the planet. It was from such literalisms that he was struggling at this time to free himself.

The Beginnings of Gutenberg Galaxy 6

In letters to Ezra Pound in July 1952 and to Walter Ong in January 1953,1 McLuhan wrote that he was working on a book titled ‘The End of the Gutenberg Era’. 

In an earlier article in The Varsity,2the University of Toronto student newspaper, McLuhan used the ‘end of the Gutenberg era’ phrase in December 1951, indicating that the project had already taken seed at that time:

At the Renaissance the printing press gave the entire [humanist] program greater vitality by the new possibility of transferring eloquence and literary skill to the unexploited vernaculars. And from the fifteenth to the twentieth centuries the humanities have depended on the careers made possible by literary training as projected by the printed word. But we have now come to the end of the Gutenberg era owing to the advent of a variety of audio-visual forms of communication. (…) So that there is no question but that the centuries-old literary basis of the humanities is so far disestablished by current developments that the real problem of humanists is to decide how much the values associated with their disciplines can be cultivated in a revolutionary situation.

In the same article he referred to “the Marconi era”3 as if it were part of his original idea to juxtapose ‘eras’. Indeed, six years later, these two eras were still on his mind:

Of course, had we had any awareness of the psycho-dynamics of our Gutenberg era before it began to yield to the Marconi era we would have been less surprised and much better able to effect a proper transition to the new culture without total jettisoning of the educational and social values of print and lineality. Instead of understanding these matters we have tended to substitute moral denunciation and recrimination, alarm and complacency. (Explorations 8, 1957)

The crucial problem that McLuhan had with this conception of successive eras has bedeviled scholarship on his work ever since. Namely, serial order of one-thing-after-another — the printed line, the assembly line, the rail line — is an essential characteristic of the Gutenberg galaxy: as McLuhan said in Explorations 8, this galaxy was just the expression of “the  educational and social values of print and lineality. To describe the relationship of eras as a chronological series was therefore to install that galaxy as basic to the order of all possible galaxies, each one coming after a previous one, like moments in time or numbers in sequence. But the assertion of this ultimately ontological claim is just what the “Gutenberg galaxy” was — and is! To suggest that it might be “coming to the end of its era” was, therefore, actually only to extend its dominion immeasurably! Beyond its end!

At the start of 1952 McLuhan had a knot of central problems to solve: how to come loose from the Gutenberg era at all? how come loose from it in a way that was not simply subsequent and oppositional?4 how come loose from it but ‘at the same time’ preserve important values from it?  

At this time McLuhan was already underway to his first article in Explorations, ‘Culture Without Literacy’ (1953) and, ultimately, a decade in the future, to The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media:

When we juxtapose news items from Tokyo, London, New York, Chile, Africa and New Zealand we are not just manipulating space. The events so brought together [in the news] belong to cultures widely separated in time. The modern world abridges all historical times as readily as it reduces space. Everywhere and every age have become here and now. History has been abolished by our new media. If prehistoric man is simply preliterate man living in a timeless world of seasonal recurrence, may not posthistoric man find himself in a similar situation? May not the upshot of our technology be the awakening from the historically conditioned [= Gutenberg] nightmare of the past into a timeless present? Historic man [situated between the prehistoric and the posthistoric] may turn out to have been literate man. An episode. (Culture Without Literacy, Explorations 1)

But if “the upshot of our technology [may] be the awakening from the historically conditioned nightmare of the past into a timeless present”, when would these variations on time, these “eras” or “episodes”, have been? Or, indeed, be

The mechanical clock (…) created a wholly artificial image of time as a uniform linear structure. This artificial form gradually changed habits of work, feeling and thought which are only being rejected today.5 We know that in our own lives each event exists in its own time. (…) Ultimately the medieval clock made Newtonian physics possible. It may also have initiated those orderly linear habits which made possible the rectilinear page of print created from movable type, as well as the methods of commerce. (Culture Without Literacy, Explorations 1)


  1. See The Beginnings of Gutenberg Galaxy 1.
  2. ‘A Federal Offense!’, The Varsity, 71:55, p 8, December 17, 1951. See A Federal Offense!
  3. If somebody totally ignorant Canada were asked what a Victorian colony would be likely to think about cultural matter, in the Marconi Era, he could pretty well provide the profile sketched by the Massey report.”
  4. Unmediated opposition was another characteristic of the Gutenberg galaxy along with serial order. Indeed, the two would seem to imply each other. But how then account for its other central characteristic — ‘continuity’? The twentieth century gnawed on these problems across many fields from music to linguistics to physics — and McLuhan’s enterprise must be understood in this ‘being and time’ context.
  5. With the placement of the word ‘only’ here, did McLuhan mean that these habits were meeting ‘only’ rejection today or that it was ‘only’ today that they were finally meeting rejection?

‘A Federal Offense!’

McLuhan published ‘A Federal Offense!’ ithe December 17, 1951 issue of The Varsity, the University of Toronto student newspaper:1

“The report of the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences” contains no surprises. Royal Commissions are, of course, a principal form of Canadian culture. If somebody totally ignorant Canada were asked what a Victorian colony would be likely to think about cultural matter, in the Marconi Era, he could pretty well provide the profile sketched by the Massey report. 

Immigrant humility paralyzes Canadian perception, so that native energies can only find full expression in areas remote from official conceptions of “culture.” Walt Disney is our only contribution to world culture, a fact which recalls to mind that more than a century ago European audiences were addicted to American frontier wit and fantasy. Edgar Poe’s technical inventiveness revolutionized European art and Pound and Eliot have advanced what Poe began.

In fact, colonies and provinces on the periphery of a core culture have always tended to be prolific in radical inventions in the arts and sciences.2 Unsettled modes of existence call constantly on resourcefulness and encourage sharpness of observation. So that when the social anthropologists turn to Canada they will give special attention to the cultural contribution of the  Massey-Harris Farm Implement industries to unique solutions to a new way of life. Looking at the present Massey Report, they will deplore a conception of culture which forbade the Commission to consider Walt Disney or ice-hockey as Canadian culture, and which, in fact, relegates culture to a “blue law” area. In this way “Culture” becomes attached to the realm of moral obligation and is thus deprived of all spontaneous impulse. Culture is transferred from the intelligence to the will. The consequent anaemia which invades the body of “the humanities” was far advanced in that Victorian England which still provides us with our archetypes of the “higher” things. For English Canada acquired its concepts of culture from England at a most unfortunate time. French Canada is similarly indebted to nineteenth century France. But that period in French life was. in the arts, as magnificently first-rate as the Victorian period was moralistic and uninventive

Technological change, in short, had upset the balance of English society by 1850, producing a large degree of moral, intellectual, and of emotional “illiteracy” which amounted to a critical breakdown of communication at all social levels. This situation was faced by Arnold in Culture and Anarchy. But Arnold’s report on culture in England while deploring the “besetting faith in machinery” was based on no analysis of the changes that had actually occurred. Had he had the insights and tools of analysis employed by a Siegfried Giedion in Mechanization Takes Command, Arnold might not have fallen into the trap of moralizing about the plight of culture in terms of an antecedent situation. He might have substituted precise diagnosis for moral alarm and exhortation. He might even have seen that the arts, at first banished to an ivory tower by an industrial age, were going, for good or ill, to transform the ivory tower into a control tower with the help of the very technology which had begun by being so unfriendly to them. 

Very little reflection will serve to establish that esthetic experience on this continent, as contrasted with Europe, has technically been acquired not from contemplation and analysis of linguistic and elastic forms but from landscape. And the landscapes of this continent are at once a challenge to ingenuity and a promise of power. The eventual control of the geography has brought into existence a great variety of roads, vehicles, factories, and dams which are themselves the main objects of esthetic appeal to young and old. So that our central esthetic satisfactions are related to the precise contours of engineered objects which must be regarded as works of collective art as much as a newspaper or a movie. 

Yet all these objects, as well as the human organization necessary for their creation and maintenance, are officially regarded as non-cultural.  And the humanities as such are fenced off from these vulgar and popular concerns. Nobody, therefore, can question “the plight of the humanities.” The wonder is that anybody can be induced to feel any concern for the plight of so insignificant an entity. For the real plight of the humanities is not the result of ungrateful neglect by benevolent foundations, but is due to their having been cut off from all nutriment to the culture they inhabit. And this starvation is not owing to lack of food but to an inner failure of the assimilative process.

A little historical perspective serves to suggest that the humanities have most flourished when they have provided the skills indispensable to practical careers. The Greek sophists established that encyclopedic training in the arts, and especially in eloquence, which became the royal road to political power. Cicero was in their tradition, and through St, Augustine Ciceronian conceptions of speech culture were cultivated not only during the Dark and Middle ages but during the Renaissance. But the traditions of linguistic discipline were maintained by the Church for the very practical consideration that Scriptural exegesis and pulpit eloquence were built on the same base upon which Cicero had developed the career of the orator.

At the Renaissance the printing press gave the entire program greater vitality by the new possibility of transferring eloquence and literary skill to the unexploited vernaculars. And from the fifteenth to the twentieth centuries the humanities have depended on the careers made possible by literary training as projected by the printed word. But we have now come to the end of the Gutenberg era owing to the advent of a variety of audio-visual forms of communication. And for some decades even the character of printed words has profoundly altered because of changes in the aims and methods of printed communication. 

So that there is no question but that the centuries-old literary basis of the humanities is so far disestablished by current developments that the real problem of humanists is to decide how much the values associated with their disciplines can be cultivated in a revolutionary situation. In practise that means that humanists to survive must make themselves indispensable to the dominant new culture. For both the origin and the continuance of the humanities have depended on that; and with no cynical asperity it must be said that no other possibility exists. Thus English has quite recently supplanted Latin and Greek as the general humanistic discipline because our business and professional world still demands a modicum of literary proficiency. But the tape-recorder, for example has begun to whittle down even that area of demand. 

Perhaps it is time to reflect that the values of civilization cannot be said to depend on either the printed word or on literary skill. To argue that they do would the one hand, unduly depress the claims of other times before printing to be regarded as civilized; and. on the other hand, would be to adopt an unnecessary desponding view of current actualities. However, it can be argued that civilization depends on the human dialogue of which all past and present audio-visual mechanisms of communication are only specialized derivatives. And to the dialogue the humanist has necessarily to address himself as a technological age enfolds the great audience in passive sleep and entertainment. The tower of sleep or Babel is the negative feature of our culture against which the humanist must struggle as those lost in snow and cold.

But there are many positive features of the new culture which command astonishing vistas for those who can keep awake. The mistake is to suppose that either alertness or immunity to the new situations is to be purchased by regarding these developments as merely deplorable or vulgar. The humanist has either to enter technological culture as a new patrimony, to be transformed from within, or else to accept the sentence of effacement. That is, he cannot maintain antecedent values except by unprecedented modes of activity. But the new culture will accept the old values when they are presented in technical terms. Ours is an intellectual age as much as the period of medieval scholasticism which was also unfriendly to the humanities from the twelfth to the fifteenth century and, therefore, it does not take kindly to the moralistic wrappings in which the humanities got involved in the past century. So that the arts must now be restored to their formal technical basis if they are to recover their appeal and function in a technological age

It is the merit of the Massey Report that it focusses a variety of the new developments with reference to Canadian life, albeit, with the hope that Ottawa will establish a Maginot Line to protect our Victorian values.

These notes, however, are intended as a review of the contents of the Massey Report, but only as an indication of its unrealistic assumptions about the nature of culture and social communication. Therapy based on a mistaken or inadequate diagnosis will merely contribute to our present discontents.

  1. The Varsity, 71:55, p8. Emphasis added throughout.
  2. McLuhan revisited the Massey Royal Commission report the next year in ‘Defrosting Canadian Culture’: “The only possible strategy for the Canadian writer, poet, artist (as it was for Joyce, Pound, and Eliot when they found themselves in cultural back-waters) is to conquer the old traditions through the most revolutionary artistic techniques suggested by the current modes of science and technology. This is the really great advantage enjoyed by any provincial in a time of rapid change. He cannot come to the new through the old, but must discover and master the old through what is most recent. By the very nature of his situation, he is familiar with the new and somewhat at a loss in the presence of the traditional.” (The American MercuryMarch 1952, 91-97)

The Beginnings of Gutenberg Galaxy 5

The University of Toronto Presidents Report for 1952 records an address by McLuhan that year given at Hart House:

With singular timeliness, one of the two Library Evenings arranged by the [Library] Committee had [as] its speaker Professor H. M. McLuhan of St. Michael’s College whose subject was ‘The End of the Gutenberg Press Era’.

It may be that the word ‘Press’ here is a typo and that the address was actually titled ‘The End of the Gutenberg Era’. This was McLuhan’s working title for The Gutenberg Galaxy until shortly before its publication ten years later in 1962.1 

  1. See The Beginnings of Gutenberg Galaxy 1 and The Beginnings of Gutenberg Galaxy 4. Importantly, the move from “end” to “galaxy” represented an attempt ‘to move beyond’ serial to dynamic order.

“Canadians” as McLuhan mirror

Canadians (…) have reached the end of the Gutenberg era of the printed word before (…) they have had anything very important to print. They are, therefore, free to exploit the new media without the exhausting effort of self-extrication from the old. Once Canadians adopt that attitude they will drop their defensive tactics against the “threat” from English and American culture and welcome such contacts. (‘Defrosting Canadian Culture’, 1952)1

At the start of the 1950s McLuhan was coming loose from his own snobbish attachment to book culture and opening himself to the rival possibilities exposed by the new media.

Now I see that I was trying to prop up the standards of book culture when we have passed out of the Gutenberg era. (McLuhan to Wyndham Lewis, December 9, 1953)2

Often enough he portrayed his own evolving sympathies and the self-criticism implicated in that process in terms of criticisms of others.3 What he characterizes here as “defensive tactics against the ‘threat’ from English and American culture” had been his own preoccupation for decades. Against this moralist crusade,4 he had begun, starting in the late 1940s, to undertake an exhausting5 effort of self-extrication from the old”. And his advice to Canadians to realize themselves “free to exploit the new media” is just what he was now attempting himself.

  1. The American MercuryMarch 1952, pp. 91-97, here 97.
  2. Letters 241.
  3. See Bacon in McLuhan 7 (Lewis 2) and Lewis in McLuhan 3 (‘Nihilism Exposed’) for McLuhan critiques of Lewis that were at least as much about himself.
  4. 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 (…) I ceased being a moralist and became a student.”
  5. McLuhan in a letter to Ong from January 23, 1953: “After 5 years of miserable health I am suddenly recovered and full of energy again. It was a gall bladder condition. Not serious. Just debilitating.” (Letters, 234)

Bacon in McLuhan 8 (Induction = Metaphor)

The theory of Induction is the despair of philosophy — and yet all our activities are based upon it. (Whitehead, Science and the Modern World)1

In Stephen Hero Joyce wrote: “For Stephen art was neither a copy nor an imitation of nature. The artistic process was a natural process (…) a veritably sublime process of one’s own nature which had a right to examination and open discussion.” (McLuhan, ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’, 1954, 171-172)2

Here is McLuhan further from this 1954 lecture given at St Joseph College in Hartford:

As a teacher of literature I have frequently to explain the nature of metaphor. (…) When we look at any situation through another situation we are using meta-phor. This is an intensely intellectual process. And all language arises by this means. So that it is a commonplace of the poetic and critical discussion of the last 100 years to note that human languages themselves are the greatest of all works of art beside which the works of Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Shakespeare are minor variations. English or any other language is itself a massive organization of traditional experience providing a complex view of the world. Today our increasing knowledge of the languages of primitive cultures has made it easy to observe how language itself is the principal channel and view-maker of experience for men everywhere.3 (154)

Later in the same lecture:

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. (165)


as we trace the rise of successive communication channels or links, from writing to movies and TV, it is borne in on us that in order for their exterior artifice to be effective it must partake of the character of that interior artifice by which in ordinary perception we incarnate the exterior world. Because human perception is literally incarnation. So that each of us must poet the world or fashion it within us as our primary and constant mode of awareness (…) each of us in perception or cognition incarnates the external world of experience. (169) 


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. (169)

In sum:

[our every] cognition provides [an instance and a demonstration of] that dance of the intellect which is the analogical sense of Being. (165)

McLuhan’s ‘metaphor’ is Bacon’s ‘induction’. Both implicate a transitive movement which ‘carries across’ and ‘leads into’. The great question is what first of all underlies and supports this movement? Not the movement itself in some kind of Baron Münchhausen manoeuvre!

Here is the Baron extricating his horse and himself from a mire by pulling on his own braid.

McLuhan asserts that “all language arises by this [metaphoric or inductive] means.” When an infant first learns to understand language, it “looks at [the] situation [= what is said around it] through another situation”, namely its own (lack of) understanding. Somehow these poles get bridged and aligned. Indeed, language never stops bridging and aligning diverse ‘points of view’ such that this miracle is never superseded as long as we live — it simply gets overlooked because ubiquitous. “We don’t know who discovered water but we are pretty sure it wasn’t a fish!”

For both Bacon and McLuhan the most important fact about the world is this underlying foundation on the basis of which humans are able to ‘carry across’ and ‘in-duce’: the “dance of Being”. It is what enables all language and science and, in fact, all in-sight whatsoever. And now, whether this be 1620 or 2020, this in-sight must itself be ‘looked into’. 


  1. McLuhan was exposed to Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World through Rupert Lodge while he was still in Winnipeg. One of his lifetime tasks was the attempt to understand, enlarge upon and apply this great 1925 lecture series.
  2. Reprinted in The Medium and the Light, 1999, 153-174. Page numbers unless otherwise identified are from this edition of the lecture.
  3. Compare from the previous year (1953) in ‘James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial’ citing Paul Valéry: “in considering these things from the highest point of view, one cannot but see Language itself as the supreme literary masterpiece, since every creation in this order reduces itself to a combination of forces in a given vocabulary, according to forms instituted once and for all.” And in the same lecture from McLuhan himself: “For these new studies ( archaeology and anthropology) directed attention to the role of language and writing in the formation of societies and the transmission of culture.”

Lewis in McLuhan 3 (‘Nihilism Exposed’)

In 1955 McLuhan published ‘Nihilism Exposed’, a review of Hugh Kenner’s 1954 book, Wyndham Lewis.1  It had been McLuhan who first introduced Kenner to Lewis’ work less than a decade before. But his appreciation of Lewis had radically changed in the meantime,2 such that his review amounted to a critical interrogation not only of Lewis, but also of himself. What it worked to set out was an ontology whose transformational implications were new to McLuhan at this time;3 but it was not at all new in history and had roots going back millennia to classical Greece4 and even millennia before that to old dynasty Egypt.5 Perhaps humans have always had some sense of it.6

In the review, McLuhan first traced modern nihilism to the late 1500’s when the effects of Gutenberg revolution were beginning to be felt and even to be theorized by a thinker like Bacon:

Lewis has this kind of representative importance. To an exceptional degree his work has raised to the level of intelligibility what Eliot described as the “dissociation of sensibility” that set in late in the sixteenth century

Such “dissociation” or unmediated duality implicates a monism, exactly because its opposing terms are held to be ultimately incompatible:

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 exclusive privilege of] sensuality at one end of the spectrum, [or]7 by [the exclusive privilege 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“. 

Structurally, these pointed monisms (despite seemingly as different as graphite and diamonds) are identical:

it is the merest whim whether these views are used to structure [the abstract monism of] a Berkeleyan idealism or [the sensuous monism of] a Darwinian mechanism.

A monistic world that is fundamentally lacking in critical differentiation and judgement has no impediment to manipulation and degradation:

It just happens that in the new age of technology when all human arrangements from the cradle to the grave have taken on the hasty extravaganza aspect of a Hollywood set, the nihilist philosophies of neo-Platonism and gnosticism have come into their own. Existence is an empty machine, a cheap art work, they have always said.(…) And now in the twentieth century (…) nature has been abolished by art and engineering, (…) government has become entertainment and entertainment has become the art of government 

Unfortunately, however, Lewis’ “representative” attention to this great matter was itself dissociated resulting in “double talk”. This worked against the penetrating insight of his theoretical work since its force against dualism-cum-monism was expressed only in dualistic opposition to his own art work

This situation became so evident to Lewis in 1920 that he devoted the next two decades to warning us about and explaining the anti-human nihilism emanating from modern philosophy and physics, as well as our everyday activities in commerce and social engineering in this century. His political and social analysis pursued a humanist course but his art remained on the plane of the doctrinaire super-human level of abstract art and neo-Platonic “spirit”. His uncompromising exposés of nihilism, in the time-philosophers and positivists, went parallel with an artistic nihilism (…) The result was (…) double talk

In its allegiance to such a gnostic-cum-nihilist monism, Lewis’s art was radically anti-incarnational:8

Lewis (…) assumes the Pythagorean and neo-Platonic doctrine of spirit and imagination as a divine or superhuman power. This power is no part of the human soul or intellect but [is] merely imprisoned there. The tragedy and comedy of the human condition is a result of the juxtaposition of this divine spark with matter, sense, and intellect…

for Lewis, as for the great pagan tradition of neo-Platonism and gnosticism, existence as such is the ultimate sham. To exist is damnation

Differentiated (but not simply opposed) to this dualism-cum-monism is the Christian tradition of incarnation:

The Catholic doctrine of the body-soul composite confers a substantiality on the existent.

That is, the Christian tradition, instead of privileging one pole of an oppositional dualism (body≠soul), valorized instead the dialogue or resonance between such poles: body and soul are fundamentally different (body≠soul), it held, but yet also and at the same time they are fundamentally reconciled (body=soul). Although such poles were fundamentally distinguished, it was the very principle of the universe that they should also and at once be coupled. They were held, and be-held, to interpenetrate and to form a complex “composite”.9 And such was the case with all such fundamental differences beginning with the Persons of the Trinity and extending throughout creation precisely through the willed interpenetration of it by the power of its necessarily distinguished God.10 

In an essay from the previous year, ‘James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial’ (1953), McLuhan made these points explicitly:

Dante, like Joyce and Eliot, employs grace to reconcile East and West. Reconciliation is not merging, however.11 

As a true analogist Joyce attempts no reduction of these realities, but orders their ineluctable modalities to the reconciliation of vision rather than of fusion.

Remarkably, however, McLuhan’s own work for the past twenty years had itself been guilty of just such Lewisian “double talk” — despite his first conversion and the traditional Christian lifestyle of him and his family:12

I may not be untypical of most Catholics in having been slow to apprehend this matter.

Beginning already in Winnipeg, McLuhan, like Lewis, had described how:

in the twentieth century (…) nature has been abolished by art and engineering, [while] government has become entertainment and entertainment has become the art of government.

He, too, had spent:

two decades (…) warning (…) about and explaining the anti-human nihilism emanating from modern philosophy and physics, as well as our everyday activities in commerce and social engineering..

But again just like Lewis (at least in McLuhan’s reading which was doubtless as much about himself as about Lewis), despite his prescient social and cultural observations, McLuhan’s metaphysics had “remained on the plane of the doctrinaire super-human level”. To cease such “double talk”, what he now had to do was to find a way to relate “his political and social analysis [that] pursued a humanist course” to a new metaphysics that was not a variety of a singular “super-human” dualism-cum-monism, but instead recognized non-evaluatively all possible varieties of human perception:

What we have to defend today is not the values developed in any particular culture or by any one mode of communication. (‘Sight, Sound and the Fury’, 1954)13

But in order to do that — ie, to initiate the understanding media project — he would have to investigate how it had first of all happened to him and to the world at large to fall into such “double talk” — and to communicate its cure:

I was trying to prop up the standards of book culture when we have passed out of the Gutenberg era. (McLuhan to Wyndham Lewis, December 9, 1953)14


  1. In Renascence, 8:2. 1955, 97-99. All citations in this post that are not otherwise identified are taken from this short review.
  2. McLuhan to Lewis, April 15, 1953: “For Shenandoah magazine Lewis number I’ve attempted to present your ‘Theory of Art and Communication’. Mainly in your own words. Only in the past year have I become fully aware of the reality of the secret societies in the arts, philosophy and politics. Your own work has consequently taken on a much different significance for me.” (Letters, 236)
  3. McLuhan had been fascinated by triple forms of reality ever since working with Rupert Lodge in the early 1930s at the University of Manitoba. A decade later, his PhD thesis on Nashe carried this fascination forward with its focus on the trivium. But it was not until the early 1950s that McLuhan realized that he had to apply the consideration of these forms first of all to himself. This was the bottom-line meaning of the need to ‘pass out of the Gutenberg era’.
  4. See McLuhan and Plato 8 – Gigantomachia.
  5. See Assmann on the battle between Horus and Seth.
  6. See The ancient bond of guest-host-enemy.
  7. McLuhan: ‘and’.
  8. Thereby illustrating the inevitable reduction of an unmediated dualism to an ultimate monism.
  9. Everything depends on the time of the “reconciliation” of this composite. Where it is held to be subsequent to ‘previous’ forms, some sort of ontological monism is eventually implicated through the reduction of any and all complexes to a prior simplicity. In deep contrast, where “reconciliation” is held to be primitive, everything that is — including monisms — becomes subject to dialogue.
  10. Distinguished God — both internally and externally, the immanent Trinity and the economic Trinity.
  11. ‘James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial’, 1953.
  12. For discussion, see Bacon in McLuhan 7.
  13. In that same year, 1954, McLuhan delivered his ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’ lecture at St. Joseph College. (See Bacon in McLuhan 8 (Induction = Metaphor.) It represented his attempt to define, as he said in the very first sentence of the lecture, how it is possible “to understand all (…) men through (…) Catholic faith.” The goal was to define Catholicism not on the basis of “any particular culture or (…) any one mode of communication”, but instead through investigation of the complete range of cultural and communication possibilities in what would become the understanding media project. Compare Bacon in his 1592 Burghley letter: “And I do easily see, that place of any reasonable countenance doth bring commandment of more wits than of a man’s own; which is the thing I greatly affect.” (The Letters and the Life, 109)
  14. Letters, 241.

Bacon in McLuhan 7 (Lewis 2)

[Wyndham] Lewis wants nothing less for Art than the power to create total environments for Life and Death. (…) I find it a bit staggering to confront Lewis as a man who really wanted to be pontifex maximus of a magical priesthood. I suppose Yeats, Joyce and Pound had similar aspirations. Their priesthood was to create new worlds of perception. They were to be world engineers who shaped the totality of human awareness. (…) The [total] environment as ultimate artefact. (McLuhan to Wilfred Watson, Oct 4, 1964)1

In Bacon in McLuhan 3 it was suggested that the renewed attention to Bacon in The Gutenberg Galaxy (20 years after McLuhan’s first treatment of him in his PhD thesis and the related unpublished Bacon essays from the early 1940s) reflected McLuhan’s growing appreciation during the 1950s of what Bacon had nicely formulated as: 

no empire, no sect, no star seems to have exerted greater power and influence in human affairs than these mechanical inventions. (Bacon, Novum Organum, aphorism 129, Works VIII, 162).

Whether Bacon contributed to McLuhan’s new sense of the centrality of technological media in human experience (language being the first and archetype of these), or this new sense led him to see in Bacon what he had previously missed, may be left an open question. But however that may have been, Bacon’s insight into the significance of mechanical inventions was only one factor in the extensive treatment of him in The Gutenberg Galaxy;2 another was Bacon’s recognition of the defining function of essential perception (“the ancient doctrine […] of the Cratylus of Plato”) for human being.3 But a further insight in Bacon amounting to a needed revision of McLuhan’s previous understanding of such essential perception4 was more important, both for McLuhan himself and generally.

In the early 1950s, and as was completely clear to him at the latest by 19555McLuhan came to see that his previous understanding had rested on an individual elitist position that was ultimately gnostic, unchristian and even (examined seriously enough) senseless. It had been, he said, in what amounted to a veiled self-criticism, insight that was Gutenbergian or literary when it ought to have been post-Gutenbergian or electric:6  

Now I see that I was trying to prop up the standards of book culture when we have passed out of the Gutenberg era. (McLuhan to Wyndham Lewis, December 9, 1953)7

When I wrote The Mechanical Bride some years ago I did not realize that I was attempting a defense of book-culture against the new media. I can now see that I was trying to bring some of the critical awareness fostered by literary training to bear on the new media of sight and sound. My strategy was wrong, because my obsession with literary values blinded me to much that was actually happening for good and ill. What we have to defend today is not the values developed in any particular culture or by any one mode of communication. (‘Sight, Sound and the Fury’, 1954)

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 (…) I ceased being a moralist and became a student. (Playboy Interview, 1969)

This was especially manifested in his understanding of essential perception8 which he explicated in Gutenbergian mode as late as 1953 (probably based largely on old notes) in one of his many publications that year, ‘Wyndham Lewis: His Theory of Art and Communication’.9 Here he reported, without obvious criticism, that Lewis was “seeking to arrest the flux of existence in order that the mind may be united with that which is permanent…”10 (84). 

The dualism between “the flux of existence” and “that which is permanent” was repeated throughout the 1953 Lewis essay as between above and below, the individual and the collective, the artist and society, and mind and body:

The artist, gifted with mania from above, is always confronted with the great collective mania from below (88)

this war of the collective puppetry against the individual (88)

the sense of disproportion between our mental and our physical dimensions… (89)

moving toward the pole of intelligibility instead of that of feeling. (91)

All of this “disproportion” had been implied in the title of McLuhan’s essay on Lewis from a decade before in 1944: ‘Wyndham Lewis: Lemuel in Lilliput’.11

Since the subject of the 1953 essay was the work of Lewis as writer and artist, this pronounced dualism was particularly evidenced in the essay’s discussion of the work of art: 

“It [art] therefore pauses at [some] particular thing: the course of time stops: the relations vanish for it: only the essential, the idea, is its object. (…) A sort of immortality descends upon these objects.” (89, citing Lewis in Wyndham Lewis the Artist, 1939, in turn citing Schopenhauer’s World as Will and Idea, 1819)

Lewis (…) adopts the Schopenhauer intellectualism in seeing the movements of vision as an arrest and detachment [from]12 the great mechanism of the world… (91)

The moment of art is not a moment of time’s covenant. And art emotion is specifically that experience of arrest in which we pause before a particular thing or experience. (89)

art for Lewis appears as a natural vortex of patterned energy, presenting us with creative cores or vortices of causality. In the heart of these cores or vortices there is an absolute calm, but at the periphery there is violence and the unmistakable character of great energy. These “untumultuous vortices of power”13 are at the center of every vital work of art as they are in any vital civilization. And it is presumably the view of Lewis that the role of the artist in society is to energize it by establishing such intellectually purified images of the entelechy of nature. (94)

It may be that McLuhan was able to express these essential dualisms so starkly only when he was beginning to perceive their difficulties and to come away from them himself. As he wrote to Lewis about his essay on him:

For Shenandoah magazine Lewis number I’ve attempted to present your ‘Theory of Art and Communication’. Mainly in your own words. Only in the past year have I become fully aware of the reality of the secret societies in the arts, philosophy and politics. Your own work has consequently taken on a much different significance for me. (McLuhan to Wyndham Lewis, April 15, 1953)14

Just what McLuhan meant by “secret societies in the arts, philosophy and politics” has been a matter of some conjecture and controversy, even within the McLuhan family.15 Suffice it to note here only that it seems at a minimum to have meant “secret” at least to McLuhan himself until 1952 (“the past year”). The “secret societies” meme was “consequently” a marker of his own second thoughts and evolving second conversion.16

By 1955, if not before a year or two before, McLuhan was clear that the universal nihilism resulting from “the Gutenberg era” was structured by an unmediated dualism which, in turn, forced a monistic ontology.17 Dualism could not obtain at the level of ontology since the co-presence of two fundamentally opposed factors at that level necessarily implicated some third factor through which, alone, such gigantic opposition could be maintained ‘there’. It followed that every differentiated perception ultimately (or ontologically) implied either a monism (McLuhan’s ‘gnosticism’ or ‘visual perception’) that renounced such dualism, or it implied a complex ontology of three or more factors (McLuhan’s ‘resonance’, ‘dialogue’, ‘tactility’, etc), that could account for such dualisms. Moreover, a second conversion was demanded by this ‘essential perception’ of the field of human experience since it could not be realized without applying first of all to its proponent, in this case McLuhan himself. As he wrote at the time (as cited above): “What we have to defend today is not the values developed in any particular culture or by any one mode of communication.” “I ceased being a [dualistic cum monistic] moralist and became a student [in complex dialogue with the entire range of human perception].

In fact, correctives to such dualistic formulations in Lewis — and, if less systematically, in McLuhan himself18 — were to be found in Bacon and it may well be that this is exactly why Bacon came to have such a central place in The Gutenberg Galaxy:

Bacon’s allusion to scientific discovery as a children’s game brings us close to another of his basic notions, that as man lost his Eden through pride he must regain it by humility:
“So much concerning the several classes of Idols, and their equipage: all of which must be renounced and put away with a fixed and solemn determination, and the understanding thoroughly freed and cleansed; the entrance into the kingdom of man, founded on the sciences, being not much other than the entrance into the kingdom of heaven, where into none may enter except as a little child.” [Gutenberg Galaxy, 190, citing Novum Organum, aphorism 48, Works VIII, 99.]

Bacon insisted in the same way that “the course I propose for the discovery of sciences is such as leaves but little to the acuteness and strength of wits, but places all wits and understandings nearly on a level.” [Gutenberg Galaxy, 190, citing Novum Organum, aphorism 41, Works VIII, 89.]

Bacon’s “natural knowledge of creatures”19 (dual genitive, but first of all a subjective genitive) in which “all wits and understandings [are] nearly on a level” and where the scientific stance before nature was one of “humility”, could hardly contrast more sharply with Lewis’ acceptance that “the artist, gifted with mania from above, is always confronted with the great collective mania from below” (88) and that it is “the role of the artist in society (…) to energize it by establishing such intellectually purified images of the entelechy of nature” (94).

Indeed, McLuhan had already cited Bacon to such corrective effect in his early (but only posthumously published) essay on ‘Francis Bacon’s Patristic Inheritance’20:

“For God forbid that we should give out a dream of our own imagination for a pattern of the world; rather may He graciously grant to us to write an apocalypse or true vision of the footsteps of the Creator imprinted on His creations.” (Works VIII, 53)21

Before his second conversion in the middle 1950s, McLuhan’s mind was muddled between observations of the world and of literature which were true enough, but which were based, as he supposed, on a superior insight akin to that of Wyndham Lewis. This resulted in the sort of “double talk” that he specified and critiqued in Lewis in 1955.22 Now he came to see that true perception was a natural, even childish, characteristic of human being operating on the basis of finitude and not at all on some supposed, indeed ultimately ludicrous, overcoming of our inevitable limitations.

The understanding media project was born out of McLuhan’s new-found sense that it is exactly the finitude of every moment of human experience that enables essential insight. Just as the infant perpetually shuffles its processing of the input it receives from the world around it, until it arrives at some rough notion of its information environment enabling it to begin to speak, so with human beings always and everywhere — such that they come to find all sorts of further rough correlations culminating in what we call scientific laws (although these, too, are always  paradigmatic acceptances inherently subject to revision and and even revolution).

As set out largely through citations in The Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan found in Bacon the correctives and corresponding prescriptions he and the world at large needed in order to aim at new — potentially saving — sciences of the interior landscapes of human nature. But since it is ultimately from these interior landscapes that the theories of the so-called hard sciences emerge in their attempts to understand the exterior landscapes of physical nature, it may be, as Bacon conjectured, that it will be findings and demonstrations in the latter that at last bring us to the former.

Four hundred years ago, a path was taken, definitively signaled by Descartes, but prepared for him by developments in Bacon’s lifetime and before, that have led into a cul-de-sac. McLuhan saw that the crossroads had to be regained from which that mistaken path took its start and another path going out from it taken in its stead. Bacon may have been — and may yet be seen even by us to have been — a way marker on that alternate route.


  1. Cited in Andrew Chrystall, The New American Vortex: Explorations of McLuhan, Massey University PhD thesis, p 79.
  2. For citations and discussion see Bacon in McLuhan 3 (Gutenberg Galaxy).
  3. For citations and discussion see Bacon in McLuhan 2 (‘Bacon’s Patristic Inheritance’).
  4. See Bacon in McLuhan 2 for citations and discussion: “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. There is no room for error in our intuitive grasp of nature…” (The Classical Trivium, 51). In fact there is a great deal of “room for error in our intuitive grasp of nature” and it exactly in this room that further insight is to be gained, sometimes leading to the need for revolution in our prior grasp.
  5.  This evolution must have occurred gradually, beginning in the late 1940s, and seems to have been associated with physical symptoms as well as mental agitation. As the latter began to ebb, McLuhan reported to Ong (mistakenly said by Gordon to be to Pound in Escape p158): “After 5 years of miserable health I am suddenly recovered and full of energy again. It was a gall bladder condition. Not serious. Just debilitating.” (January 23, 1953, Letters, 234)
  6. Two fundamental mistakes are near universally made in the reading of McLuhan at just this point. First, it is imagined that the relation of Gutenbergian to post-Gutenbergian insight is one of so-called ‘historical development’. But time’s singular arrow is a characteristic acceptance of Gutenbergian experience as seen in lines of print, railroads, assembly lines — and so on. Such a reading of McLuhan therefore reinstalls Gutenbergian determinations exactly where they are to be exposed to question! Second, since electric experience for McLuhan is synchronic, not diachronic, such that it implicates all experience, not some particular privileged mode of it, post-Gutenbergian perception decisively includes the Gutenbergian and does at all not replace or otherwise exclude it.
  7. Letters 241. As treated in the previous note, this diachronic movement in McLuhan’s thought was to a synchronic understanding of different mentalities (such as the literary and the electric) as possibilities. This enabled him to perceive new ways to investigate the past as well as to navigate the present — exactly through recognition of the essentially plural ways of human being.
  8. See Bacon in McLuhan 2.
  9. Shenandoah, 4:2/3, 1953, 77-88. Page numbers here, unless otherwise identified, are to the reprinting of this essay in The Interior Landscape (83-94).
  10. Since just such “arrest” had been appreciatively examined in a number of earlier literary essays like ‘The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape Poetry’ (1951), McLuhan’s developing critique of Gutenberg era perception was plainly self-criticism.
  11. See Lewis in McLuhan 1 (‘Lemuel in Lilliput’).
  12. McLuhan has ‘of’ here instead of ‘from’. The phrase ‘detachment of’ is usually used as a subjective genitive, but McLuhan uses it here objectively.
  13. Francis Thompson, ‘Contemplation‘.
  14.  Letters 236.
  15. McLuhan’s biographer, W.T. Gordon, mentions a letter Eric McLuhan wrote to his parents on September 22, 1976, criticizing his father’s ideas on the subject (Escape, 394n193).
  16. The personal application of McLuhan’s “secret societies” ruminations may clearly be seen in letters to Ezra Pound at the end of 1952 and beginning of 1953: “I was a Fool. Now that I have found out all about the umpteen liturgies as revealed in all the “schools” of art, I’m just a wee bit disgusted with many things. I can’t take the arts very seriously for the time being.” (December 3, 1952, Letters 233) — Last year has been spent in going through rituals of secret societies with fine comb. As I said before I’m in a bloody rage at the discovery that the arts and sciences are in the pockets of these societies.” (February 28, 1953, Letters 235) — Was McLuhan not “disgusted” that he himself had been “in the pockets of these societies” when it came to the structure of his essential perceptions?
  17.  See Bacon in McLuhan 3 (‘Nihilism Exposed’). At the time McLuhan termed this dualism ‘gnosticism’ and saw that it necessarily manifested itself in two different basic forms, depending on which monism (above or below, mind or body, individual or society, etc) it privileged. He called these ‘east’ and ‘west’ gnosticism. These ideas amounted to a fundamental self-criticism since McLuhan himself had worked tirelessly “attempting a defense of book-culture” (which he now saw as powered by a “secret” dualism-cum-monism). He himself had been an unwitting nihilist. The great question he now took up was how to communicate the insight that allowed, or forced, or that accompanied, or followed from, the sort of transformation he had come to experience personally. After 5 more years, in 1960, it was this question that would eventuate into the project of understanding media.
  18. As a practising Catholic and father of 6 children, McLuhan could hardly understand himself only within the context of a “war of the collective puppetry against the individual”. In fact his ideas remained fundamentally jumbled until his “breakthrough” in 1960 when McLuhan was almost 50.  See McLuhan’s #1 breakthrough for citations and discussion.
  19. Advancement of Learning, Bk 1,Works VI, 137-138.
  20. McLuhan Studies I, 1991, 7-26. See Bacon in McLuhan 2 (‘Bacon’s Patristic Inheritance’).
  21. Bacon has ‘creatures’ here, not ‘creations’. McLuhan references in this context also Works VIII 46-47358-361 and 369.
  22. See Bacon in McLuhan 3 (‘Nihilism Exposed’).

Lewis in McLuhan 1 (‘Lemuel in Lilliput’)

From early on in Winnipeg McLuhan was clear about the critical role played by the environment in education:

It is, of course, mistaken to suppose that education in any important sense is connected with the schoolroom. Education is the sum total of all those ideas and objects pressing in on the mind every hour of the waking day. (‘Public School Education’, Manitoban, October 17, 1933)

But in 1967, in answer to a question about the influence of Wyndham Lewis on his own work, McLuhan observed how it was Lewis who had supplied the critical impetus towards an environmental analysis in which the programming of culture was the central component:

Good heavens, that’s where I got it, it was Lewis who put me onto all this (…) 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 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 making environments that basically were artifacts, or works of art, and that acted as teaching machines on the whole population.1

McLuhan’s point about the importance of Lewis to this aspect of his work may be documented in his 19442 essay, ‘Wyndham Lewis: Lemuel in Lilliput’,3 where his remarks are as applicable today, 75 years later, as they were then — “only more so”4:

To read (…) Lewis is to become aware not only of the scope of the forces arrayed against reason and art, but it is [also] to have anatomized before one’s eyes every segment of the contemporary scene of glamorized commerce and advertising… (181)

[Words today] have no meaning. They are spoken in a trance of inattention while the reason is in permanent abeyance. They are typical of men who no longer understand the world they have made and which, as robots, they operate day by day. (182)

Everything in our life today conspires to thrust most people into prescribed tracks, in what can be called a sort of trance of action. Hurrying, without any significant reason, from spot to spot at the maximum speed obtainable . . . how is the typical individual of this epoch to do some detached thinking for himself? All his life is disposed with a view to banishing reflection.” (183, citing Lewis, Time and Western Man)

This “trance of inattention” was and is no accidental happenstance:

[Lewis] unmasks the long-preserved anonymity of supposedly unwilled and irresistible forces in modern life. The atomization of consciousness, the attack on the continuity of personal experience, whether by the medicine man of the laboratory or the dionysiac ecstasies of advertisement and high-finance, are alike shown to be the products of deliberate will. (185)

“Science is often described as the religion of industrialism. (…) Its public function is actually (…) to conceal the human mind that manipulates it, or that manipulates through it (…) For in its impersonality and its ‘scientific detachment’ it is an ideal cloak for the personal human will. Through it, that will can operate with a godlike inscrutability that no other expedient can give. It enables man to operate as though he were nature on other men. In the name of science people can be almost without limit bamboozled and managed.” (187, citing Lewis, The Art of Being Ruled)

nothing is more hysterically personal than ‘news’ in its reflection of the human will. Time, Life and Fortune put up an enormous front of ‘detachment’ which upon slight examination proves to be violently emotional and interested. (188)

it is impossible (…) to exercise [such] power openly (…) it is necessary [for the manipulators] to pretend to be merely private citizens when in reality they are the rulers of the world” (180, citing Lewis, The Art of Being Ruled.)

While modern technology may not necessitate this bamboozling management, it certainly is what makes it possible:

The dehumanization of life by means of centralized methods of “communication”… (180)

the modern state is necessarily an educationalist state owing to the huge impassivity of the urban masses on the one hand and to the closely centralized control of all agencies of communication on the other. (187)

Huge impassivity” was the result; “the closely centralized control of all agencies of communication”, the means.

Such a ‘society’ is operated by “technicians who control ‘scientifically’ [the] educational experiment” (188) — an “educational experiment” which was and is the modern environment as the “educationalist state”. An essential aspect of the machine operated by these “technicians” is that it works to obviate any consciousness of this condition:

The life of free intelligence has never, in the Western World, encountered such anonymous and universal hostility before. (181)

The scientist and the stock-broker today are alike (…) in that they have no detachment, they make no effort to criticize the total situation in which they find themselves. So with the ordinary artist and politician — they are immersed. (189)

Paradoxically, the machine has not stiffened but melted life. Mechanism has imposed universal fashions of primitivism. It has rendered all the conditions of experience so fluid and frothy that men now are swimming in another Flood. (192)

“Science makes us strangers to ourselves. (…) It instills a principle of impersonality in the heart of life that is anti-vital. In its present vulgarized condition science represents simply the principle of destruction: it is more deadly than a thousand plagues, and every day we perfect (…) our popular industrially applied version of it.” (192-193, citing Lewis, The Art of Being Ruled)

So powerful and so essentially lacking in discrimination is this machine that the manipulators themselves come to share the fate of the manipulated:

“with all the resources of his fabulous wealth, the democratic magnate is able to drag the poor into depths of spiritual poverty undreamed of by any former proletariat or former ruling class. The rich have achieved this awful brotherhood with the poor by bleeding them of all character, spirituality, and mental independence. That accomplished, they join them (…) in the servant’s hall.” (195, citing Lewis, The Art of Being Ruled)

The exploited and the exploiter coalesce. (195)

Who are the beneficiaries of the modern world?  Are they that tiny handful of people such as Lord Beaverbrook and Henry Luce [or Bezos or Zuckerberg] who exercise absolute control over the thoughts and emotions of many millions of people? (…) The answer then to the question of ‘cui bono‘ is ultimately this. Everybody loses. (…) There are no beneficiaries. The [mass of] Dagwoods and the billionaire power-gluttons are equally rushing to the suicide of total immersion… (193-194)

If “no detachment” and “total immersion” were the problem, the way out of the cul-de-sac, if there were one, could be found only in the “toil of detachment” (178). 

We want a new race of philosophers, instead of hurried men, speed-cranks, simpletons, or robots” (178, citing Lewis, Time and Western Man)

The first object of such “philosophers” would be to lift the veil obscuring the exercise of “deliberate will” in the deployment of “the ideologic machine”.5 They would expose what lies behind its ideal cloak for the personal human will” that “operate[s] as though [it] were nature on other men”.

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?  (188)

This sort of revolutionary simpleton, this beaming child of the Zeitgeist, is precisely the sort of ruler the modern world cannot afford to have at the head of its enormous machinery. Lewis presents a massive documentation and analysis of the art and science and philosophy which manufacture the Zeitgeist. (188-189)

To read (…) Lewis is to become aware (…) of the bogus science, philosophy, art, and literature which has been the main instrument in producing the universal stupefaction. (181)

Much of McLuhan’s work for the remainder of the 1940s would, of course, be dedicated to just “this toil of detachment” (178) and to the description of what was exposed through it. He would closely “consider how the ‘ideologic machine’ has gone to work” (189). His labors would eventuate in The Mechanical Bride, which was published, at last, in January 1951. Here he would document such matters as:

the pathological blindness of the modern world to anything but itself: “It is naturally, for itself, the best that has ever been — it is for it that the earth has laboured so long…” (191, citing Lewis, The Art of Being Ruled)

the spurious reverence of the modern world. Man, the master of things, is about to enter the terrestrial paradise of gadgets. (186)

The destruction of family life, in theory and in practice, the flight from adulthood, the obliteration of masculine and feminine has all gone ahead — by means of a glorification of those things. Never was sex so much glorified, children and motherhood so idolized and advertised in theory as at this present hour when the arrangements for their internment have been completed. (195)

But there were some inherent instabilities to McLuhan’s analysis which would act, consciously and unconsciously, as spurs to his work going forward. Especially, he was a family man and a convert. How was this compatible with the sort of internal exile prescribed by Lewis and by many other writers and artists at that time like Camus and Beckett? Further, the sort of cultural collapse he described with Lewis had eventuated in two world wars, one of which was ongoing. And yet McLuhan could write:

Maritain is perfectly at home amidst modern art and letters. He has a contemporary sensibility. This in turn has energized and directed his philosophical activity, and given a precise, contemporary relevance to the philosophia perennis. (180)

How could anyone be “perfectly at home” amidst the debacle set out by Lewis and McLuhan? And in regard to the philosophia perennis, it would seem either that it was not “perennis” at all (given what had become of modern ‘culture’) or, if it were in fact “perennis“, its peculiar relation to that ‘culture’ would have to lie in factors which remained unidentified and undefined in McLuhan’s essay:

The Art of Being Ruled is a study of the major dichotomy of modern life. There is the romanticized machine on one hand, the vulgarized spawn of speculative science committed to perennial and ever-accelerated revolution. On the other hand are the traditional human and political values… (184)

What was the relation, if there were one, between these hands?


  1. ‘Recollections of Wyndham Lewis’flexidisk recording with Marshall McLuhan included with arts/canada No. 114, November 1967: side 1, side 2. Side 1 until 3:50 (of 6:20) is a recording of Lewis reading his own work; Side 2 again has a Lewis reading from 2:45 until the end. McLuhan’s recollections of Lewis begin at 3:50 of Side 1 and continue until 2:32 of Side 2. The cited passage from McLuhan begins at 0:09 of Side 2.
  2. McLuhan encountered the work of Lewis during his first years at Cambridge between 1934 and 1936. Then he met Lewis personally in 1943 when he, McLuhan, was teaching at St Louis University.
  3. Included in Key Thinkers and Modern Thought (St. Louis University studies in honor of St. Thomas Aquinas), Volume 2,  1944, 58-72; reprinted in The Medium and the Light, 1999, 178-198. All page numbers below, unless otherwise identified, refer to ‘Wyndham Lewis: Lemuel in Lilliput’ as reprinted in The Medium and the Light.
  4. McLuhan liked to use the phrase “only more so” with superlatives or comparisons that were already weighted positively or negatively.
  5. McLuhan uses this phrase repeatedly in his essay on 188, 189, 190 and 192. It is from Lewis’ Art of Being Ruled.

Wakese 4: Swift’s engine of communicativeness

Joyce’s countryman, Jonathan Swift, perhaps prompted by Bacon’s Novum Organum (1620), was the architect in 1726 of an engine which Joyce contrived to assemble following Swift’s design (from part 3, chapter 5, of Gulliver’s Travels). Finnegans Wake is the resulting working model:

The first professor [Gulliver] saw [in the Academy of Projectors], was in a very large room, with forty pupils about him.  After salutation, observing me to look earnestly upon a frame, which took up the greatest part of both the length and breadth of the room, he said, “Perhaps I might wonder to see him employed in a project for improving speculative knowledge, by practical and mechanical operations.  But the world would soon be sensible of its usefulness; and he flattered himself, that a more noble, exalted thought never sprang in any other man’s head. Every one knew how laborious the usual method is of attaining to arts and sciences; whereas, by his contrivance, the most ignorant person, at a reasonable charge, and with a little bodily labour, might write books in philosophy, poetry, politics, laws, mathematics, and theology, without the least assistance from genius or study.” He then led me to the frame, about the sides whereof all his pupils stood in ranks. It was twenty feet square, placed in the middle of the room. The superfices [surface] was composed of several bits of wood, about the bigness of a die, but some larger than others. They were all linked together by slender wires. These bits of wood were covered, on every square, with paper pasted on them; and on these papers were written all the words of their language, in their several moods, tenses, and declensions; but without any order. The professor then desired me “to observe; for he was going to set his engine at work.” The pupils, at his command, took each of them hold of an iron handle, whereof there were forty fixed round the edges of the frame; and giving them a sudden turn, the whole disposition of the words was entirely changed. He then commanded six-and-thirty of the lads, to read the several lines softly, as they appeared upon the frame; and where they found three or four words together that might make part of a sentence, they dictated to the four remaining boys, who were scribes. This work was repeated three or four times, and at every turn, the engine was so contrived, that the words shifted into new places, as the square bits of wood moved upside down.
Six hours a day the young students were employed in this labour; and the professor showed me several volumes in large folio, already collected, of broken sentences, which he intended to piece together, and out of those rich materials, to give the world a complete body of all arts and sciences; which, however, might be still improved, and much expedited, if the public would raise a fund for making and employing five hundred such frames (…) and oblige their managers to contribute in common their several collections.
He assured me “that this invention had employed all his thoughts from his youth; that he had emptied the whole vocabulary into his frame, and made the strictest computation of the general proportion there is in books between the numbers of particles, nouns, and verbs, and other parts of speech.”
I made my humblest acknowledgment to this illustrious person, for his great communicativeness; and promised, “if ever I had the good fortune to return to my native country, that I would do him justice, as the sole inventor of this wonderful machine.” 

Joyce’s machine improved on Swift’s only by substituting for “all the words of their language” all the possible sounds of all possible languages. The generation of words was therefore a laborious and prior work of his machine compared to Swift’s. Remarkably, however, it was found upon inspection that this laborious and prior work had already been performed by each of the world’s languages in its ‘turn’, each anticipating, as it were, the FW engine and, arguably, obviating the need for its initial computations which turned sounds into words. Words had somehow already been generated!1

Swift’s diagram of the knowledge machine:

  1. Of course, Joyce’s machine also generated words for possible languages that were not, or were not yet, actual languages. Recognizing these words, let alone reading them, presents gigantic difficulties! How know when such a possible word from a possible language begins or ends — let alone what ‘it’ might mean? And yet, don’t infants somehow accomplish just this impossible task?

Hayakawa and Alfred Korzybski

In some of McLuhan’s earliest work he gestured in the direction of ‘Count’ Alfred Korzybski (1879-1950):

The grammatical method in science (…) persists as long as alchemy, which is to say, well into the eighteenth century. But from the time of Descartes the main mode of science is, of course, mathematical.  In our own time the methods of anthropology and psychology have re-established grammar as (…) a valid mode of science. Full justification for this statement is found in Count Korzybski’s Science and Sanity [1933], which makes claims for linguistic study (grammar in the old sense) which extend far beyond the modest position of Cratylus. (The Classical Trivium, 1943, 17) 

The general incredulity concerning Socrates’ seriousness in this dialogue [Cratylus] 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 is owing to his great, though not exclusive, respect for the method of grammar in philosophy. (…) So far as I have been able to discover, this subject has received no attention from historians of philosophy, to whose province it belongs; and I merely indicate its bearings here as a means of showing that grammar and science were inseparably linked in their origins. The fullest treatment which the claims of universal language as based on universal reason ever received was during the late Middle Ages in the numerous works on speculative grammar which were written by dialecticians. But there is an uninterrupted tradition through Francis Bacon, Thomas Urquhart, and the Cambridge Platonists, to James Harris [author of Hermes, a philosophical inquiry concerning universal grammar (1751)], to say nothing of Condillac, Comte, and, today, Count Korzybski and the Chicago University school of encyclopedists. So far I have tried to indicate, in a large and unexplored field, how science and grammar were quite naturally united by the concept of language as the expression and analogy of the Logos. (The Classical Trivium, 1943, 27)

Anthropology and psychology together have also revindicated the traditional ‘magical’ view of language fusing the seemingly distinct activities of the brothers Grimm, on the one hand, as philologists, and on the other, as students of folk-lore, so that we are once more in a position to adopt a sympathetic view of the divine Logos of late antiquity. Quite incidental to the radical readjustments in awareness we can relax where Francis Bacon is concerned. We can take him in our stride, as it were, nodding at him as a useful landmark in a great literary tradition whose representatives today are Jung and Count Korzybski. (Medieval Grammar as the Basis of Bacon’s Novum Organum, 1943)1

Just as Korzybski offers us a correlation of knowledge by an extension of the modes of grammar (and in this respect belongs to an ancient tradition headed by Cratylus and carried on by Pliny, Philo-Judaeus, Origen, St. Bonaventura, and the later alchemists) so Mr. Richards, whose Meaning of Meaning is a treatise of speculative grammar of curiously scholastic stamp, offers us a method for interpreting and manipulating our lives by an extension of the devices of rhetoric. In this respect Mr. Richards is a true nominalist son of Ockham, Agricola, and Ramus; and it is no accident that Harvard has welcomed this distinguished schoolman. Mr. Richards’ rediscovery of the functional rhetorical relationships in speech and prose was timely, indeed, after three centuries of Cartesian contempt for metaphor and rhetoric in all its modes. (‘Poetic and Rhetorical Exegesis: The Case for Leavis against Richards and Empson’, 1944)2

It may be that McLuhan was alerted to Korzybski by his onetime Winnipeg neighbour and fellow University of Manitoba graduate, S.I. (Don) Hayakawa (1905-1992).3 Hayakawa became the first editor of the semanticist journal, Etcetera, in 1943 and remained in this position until 1970 (before becoming a US Senator from California in 1976). 

Even aside from their acquaintance on Gertude Avenue in Winnipeg, McLuhan would certainly have been interested in Hayakawa’s 1939 book, Language in Action,4 both as a topic close to his own preoccupation at the time with Logos, but also as a publishing phenomenon: Hayakawa somehow got Language in Action into the Book of the Month Club. Korzybski is introduced in it and this is probably where McLuhan first came across him.

Neither Hayakawa nor McLuhan were ever strict semanticists, but McLuhan’s eventual problems with Korzybski (to the extent that he completely disappeared from his work) went far beyond any question of doctrinal adherence. As seen in the passage from The Classical Trivium p27 above, the modern tradition of grammatica seemed to lead to Comte and the “Chicago University school of encyclopedists”. Now McLuhan had already taken up a position against the Chicago school in his 1940 critique of Mortimer Adler5 and he would continue that critique in publications into the 1950s (especially in ‘An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America’ from 1946). In the event, he found himself uncomfortably straddling incompatible positions. On the one hand, particularly as a Catholic convert, he championed the tradition of Logos. On the other, modern representatives of this tradition, it seemed, were often fierce opponents of the Church and the sort of fuzzy thinkers McLuhan despised.

McLuhan’s attention to the three arts of the trivium went back to the three types of philosophy identified by his mentor at the University of Manitoba, Rupert Lodge.6 McLuhan sensed that some such typology was required for a science of interpretation. But it was not at all clear that the two classifications were compatible with each other or that either one of them would do the job he required. This was the aporia that drove McLuhan away from his early ‘trivial pursuit’ in search of a classification that would both be unambiguously identifiable for collective research and capable of sufficient combinations to account for the myriad complications of the ‘interior landscape’. Only so could scientific investigation be initiated in the humanities and social sciences.

It would not be until 1960 that McLuhan thought he had found a solution to this aporia at last.7 Whether he did or not remains an open question — but one that is ignored even in McLuhan research, let alone outside of it. Suffice it to note here only that his itinerary at the least opened this question along with many others and suggested interesting ways in which they might be interrogated.


  1. W.T. Gordon cites this passage in his biography of McLuhan, Escape into Understanding, 380, n8. Apparently these are the closing lines of a version of ‘Medieval Grammar as the Basis of Bacon’s Novum Organum’ which remains unpublished. The version which has been published (Explorations in Media Ecology, 6:3,  2007, 167-174) is dated by hand to February 22, 1943 — but it is unknown what changes were made to this version after this date.
  2. Sewanee Review, 52(2), 1944, 266–76.
  3. Hayakawa got his ‘Don’ nickname at grad school at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. In Winnipeg he was called ‘Hak’.
  4. Later retitled as Language in Thought and Action.
  5. Review of Art and Prudence by Mortimer J. Adler, Fleur de Lis, 40:1, 1940, 30-32.
  6. See Taking Lodge to Cambridge and beyond and the Lodge posts generally.
  7. For discussion and references, see McLuhan’s #1 breakthrough.

Bacon in McLuhan 6 (‘Medieval Grammar as the Basis of Bacon’s Novum Organum‘)

The grammarian observes and interprets the great book of nature. The dialectician arranges and reduces to “methods” what the grammarian discovers. The rhetorician (…)1 applies the discoveries to the benefit of the commonweal for the relief of man’s estate. (169-170)2

On December 27, 1944, at the first annual meeting of the MLA since 1941, McLuhan presented a paper on ‘Medieval Grammar as the Basis of Bacon’s Novum Organum‘. An abstract was printed in the PMLA Supplement for 1944, pp 1324-1325:

The art of grammar in Greek and Roman times was in its etymological and analogical functions inseparable from physics, cosmogony, and the interpretation of phenomena, or the book of nature. Philo of Alexandria adapted the art, with its four levels of interpretation, to scriptural exegesis. Patristic theology took over his methods, and the encyclopedic tradition in education which it implied. Until the time of Abelard, grammatical theology and science were supreme. Its temporary eclipse did not effect a breach in continuity. St. Bonaventure was its greatest exponent. Erasmus was the key figure for his contemporaries because he restored grammatical theology while struggling against decadent dialectical theology. Bacon’s significance is best understood in this tradition and against this background. 

In this MLA presentation McLuhan summarized the narrative of his Nashe PhD thesis from 1943 by way of setting out in brief form the background to Bacon’s work, in particular the Novum Organum:

It is necessary to go back at least as far as Heraclitus and his doctrine of the Logos to get our bearings in this matter. (…) With the great metaphysical concept of the Logos, which the Romans found necessary to translate as ratio et oratio (reason and speech), Heraclitus was able to harmonize (…) “such diverse provinces as those of physics, religion, and ethics.”3 Human reason was a participation in the Logos or divine reason, and the whole external world (…) a network of analogies expressing the universal reason. (169)

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. This same method had already been widely applied to the Homeric poems by philosophic grammarians,4 (…)5 and it was, of course, widely applied in Roman and Medieval times to Virgil and others. (169)

Philo of Alexandria adapted the grammatical exegesis of the Greeks to the Hebrew Books of Scripture. (…) He was a direct influence on the beginnings of patristic theology based on grammatical exegesis,6 which was practised as late as the Cambridge Platonists. The fact that grammatical education both in Greek and Roman times was (…) the means of introducing the young to the egkuklios paideia, or the encyclopedia of learning, was also decisive. No other form of education was available to, or thinkable by, the Christian Fathers; and, as Professor Marrou has recently shown in detail in his fine work on Saint Augustin et la Fin de la Culture Antique (Paris, 1938), Christian culture in the Middle Ages was, owing to this tradition, to rest on a grammatical base. (170)

The cultivation of the liberal arts was an inevitable adjunct of the grammatical business of scriptural exegesis; and all learning was subordinate to this art until the rise of dialectical exegesis in the twelfth century with Abelard. (170)

The struggle between the humanists, between Pico della Mirandola, and Colet, and More, and Vives, and Rabelais, and Reuchlin, and Agrippa on one hand, and the schoolmen on the other, is unintelligible apart from the traditional war between the grammarians and dialecticians.  (171)

McLuhan’s reading of Bacon took it that he was well aware of this background in the tradition of the trivium, and sympathized with it, but that he was equally aware of the potential of the Gutenbergian revolution. His great merit lay in the attempt to do justice to both:

A strange wedding of the medieval Book of Nature and the new book from movable types was conducted by Francis Bacon. (The Gutenberg Galaxy, 186)  


  1. Omitted here: “and in this Bacon is an ardent Ciceronian rather than a Stoic”.
  2.  ‘Medieval Grammar as the Basis of Bacon’s Novum Organum‘, Explorations in Media Ecology, 6:3,  2007, 167-174. The paper is dated by hand to February 26, 1943, but was not published until over 60 years later in 2007 — more than a quarter century after McLuhan’s death. Furthermore, in his biography of McLuhan, Escape into Understanding (1996), W.T. Gordon cites (380, n8) a different ending of the paper than the one given in the Explorations in Media Ecology version. Presumably McLuhan, and perhaps also his son, Eric, edited it from time to time to unknown purpose. All page numbers below, unless otherwise identified, are from the version of it published in Explorations in Media Ecology.
  3. E. V. Arnold, Roman Stoicism, 1911, p. 37
  4. McLuhan refers here to E. Bréhier, Les Idées Philosophiques et Réligieuses de Philon d’Alexandrie (1908).
  5. Omitted here: “exactly as Bacon applies it in The Wisdom of the Ancients.”
  6. McLuhan’s reference: William Fairweather, Origen and Greek Patristic Theology, 1901

Bacon in McLuhan 5 (‘Francis Bacon, Ancient or Modern?’)

McLuhan’s last substantial piece on Bacon was his 1974 essay, ‘Francis Bacon, Ancient or Modern?’1

In The Orphic Voice; Poetry and Natural History (1960) Elizabeth Sewell studies the Orphic or metamorphic and “magical” tradition in poetry and science from Ovid to Mallarmé. Francis Bacon has a very special place in her study, precisely because of his concern with the language of the Book of Nature: “A Collection of all varieties of Natural Bodies … where an Inquirer … might peruse, and turn over, and spell, and read the Book of Nature, and observe the Orthography, Etymologia, Syntaxis, and Prosodia of Nature’s Grammar, and by which as with a Dictionary, he might readily turn to and find the true Figures, Composition, Derivation, and Use of the Characters, Words, Phrases and Sentences of Nature written with indelible, and most exact, and most expressive Letters, without which Books it will be very difficult to be thoroughly a Literatus in the Language and Sense of Nature.”2 (97-98)

This “new” approach was, however, something that had a continuous history throughout the patristic and medieval periods before Bacon. The bond which Elizabeth Sewell finds between poetry and science in the Orphic tradition is the one which [more than a thousand years before] Martianus Capella had tied between the trivium and the quadrivium in his marriage of Mercury and Philology: “The description of the liberal arts which remained authoritative throughout the Middle Ages had been produced by Martianus Capella, who wrote between 410 and 439. Notker Labeo (d. 1022) translated it into Old High German; the young Hugo Grotius won his spurs with a new edition (1599); and Leibniz, even in his day, planned another.”3 (…) Martianus Capella had succeeded in bringing the language arts to bear on the sciences and mathematics, creating that unified encyclopedism which characterizes the inclusive and acoustic approach to knowledge, which is represented by ancient and medieval and Baconian grammatica alike. (98)

In this (…) philosophical sense, grammar had been a main mode of physics, cosmogony and theology for centuries [before Bacon]. (96)

Gilson’s study of The Philosophy of St. Bonaventure indicates Bonaventure’s [1221-1274] complete accord with traditional grammatica: “Since the universe was offered to his eyes as a book to read and he saw in nature a sensible revelation analogous to that of the Scriptures, the traditional methods of interpretation which had always been applied to the sacred books could equally be applied to the book of creation. Just as there is an immediate and literal sense of the sacred4 text, but also an allegorical sense by which we discover the truths of faith that the letter signifies, a tropological sense by which we discover a moral precept behind the passage in the form of an historical narrative, and an anogogical sense by which our souls are raised to the love and desire of God, so we must not attend to the literal and immediate sense of the book of creation but look for its inner meaning in the theological, moral and mystical lessons that it contains. The passage from one of these two [sacred and profane] spheres to the other is the more easily effected in that they are in reality inseparable.” (95)

Now that we have the work of Henri de Lubac (Exégèse médiévale, les quatre sens de l’Écriture, 4 vols., Paris, 1959-1964), it is easier to explain how the multi-levelled exegesis of Scripture blended with the scientific work of the interpreters of “The Book of Nature” in an unbroken tradition from the Fathers to the Novum Organum of Francis Bacon. (94)

Bacon’s humanist and grammatical approach to (…) the book of creatures makes for “a conception of organism as fundamental for nature” (Whitehead).5 Bacon’s organic approach, I suggest, is derived from the multi-levelled exegesis of the book[s] of Nature and Scripture alike. (94)

What is to be seen in contemporary arts and science, particularly physics, McLuhan suggests, is a return to the organic, synchronic, multi-levelled exegesis of pre-Gutenbergian perception:

The simultaneity of all levels in ancient grammatica coincides with twentieth century quantum mechanics which is concerned with the physical and chemical bond of nature as the “resonant interval.” The acoustic simultaneity of the new physics co-exists with “synchrony” and structuralism in language and literature and anthropology as understood in Saussure and Levi-Strauss. (94-95)

In fact, the entire development of symbolism and structural synchrony from Baudelaire onward has tended to restore the understanding of the rationale of ancient exegesis. (97)

Today the submicroscopic world of electronics has once more attuned our senses to the acoustic properties of natural phenomena and the arts, rendering contemporary both the “science” [of nature] of Bacon and the science of theological exegesis, long familiar to the commentators on both the Natural and the Sacred Page. (98)

This 1974 essay from McLuhan pictured Bacon as representative of both pre- and post-Gutenbergian approaches, somewhat as did McLuhan’s early work on Bacon from the 1940s.6 In the intervening Gutenberg Galaxy from 1962, however, and in the associated ‘Printing and Social Change’ essay from 1959, Bacon was presented as promoting the Gutenbergian approach itself.7 Taken together, these different portraits of Bacon show him as a kind of universal man, the understanding of whom requires (and thereby elicits) insight into the full spectrum of human possibilities.

Perhaps Bacon performed the role for McLuhan that Virgil did for Dante — guiding him among those underlying synchronic shades (or possibilities) from amongst which ‘we’ must ‘choose’, in an ever-repeated process, momentarily to incarnate. There is a need for scare-quotes around ‘we’ and ‘choose’ here, however, since we are the effect of this strange “organic” action and not its cause. In order to ‘undergo’ it, we must be exposed to a “resonant interval” that is by definition between identities and between the senses of reality that are correlate with those identities.

But this is a fearsome prospect of freedom, responsibility and mortality which is nearly always consigned to oblivion:  

they marched on in a scorching heat to the plain of Forgetfulness, which was a barren waste destitute of trees and verdure; and then towards evening they encamped by the river of Unmindfulness, whose water no vessel can hold; of this they were all obliged to drink (…) and each one as he drank forgot all things. Now after they had gone to rest, about the middle of the night there was a thunderstorm and earthquake, and then in an instant they were driven upwards in all manner of ways to their birth, like stars shooting.
(Republic 621a-b)

  1. In Renaissance and Reformation, X:2, 93-98. Several passages in this essay were taken directly from McLuhan’s unpublished Bacon studies from 30 years before. But this is only one of the signs in the piece (along with, eg, extended third-party citations) that it was composed hastily for a local University of Toronto journal. Perhaps McLuhan was unwell at the time as he often was throughout the 1970s: the decade opened with him suffering a heart attack and closed with his fatal stroke.
  2. This citation by Sewell is from Robert Hooke in 1705, a century after Bacon. It is unclear from McLuhan’s essay if he mistakenly attributed it to Bacon or if he merely thought it typical of Baconian grammatica.
  3.  Ernst Robert Curtius (1886–1956), European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, 1948, English translation 1953, p 38.
  4. McLuhan has ‘profane’ here, not ‘sacred’. He may have have been thinking of the development he treats at length elsewhere, the derivation through Philo of multilevel patristic exegesis of scripture from the earlier Alexandrian exegesis of literary texts.
  5.  Science and the Modern World, 1938, p. 130.
  6. See Bacon in McLuhan 1 and 2.
  7. See Bacon in McLuhan 3 and 4.

Bacon in McLuhan 4 (‘Printing and Social Change’)

McLuhan’s 1959 essay, ‘Printing and Social Change’,1 has the following paragraph on Bacon:

The Essays of Francis Bacon are a high instance of all the new characteristics of the reading and writing disciplines which were having such exciting results in 1600. Bacon’s scientific program was frankly based on the printed book as offering  a supreme instrument of applied science. For centuries men had spoken of the ‘book of nature’ meaning pages for contemplation and meditation. Bacon understood the resources of print technology very well. His idea was to catalogue the entire face of nature in systematic book form in such a way that as by a kind of synoptical device one could consult any phenomenon in a printed form. If the cataloguing were completely done in tables and columns, Bacon was sure that a child could read off the most profound natural laws which had been hidden from man since the fall of Adam.2 Bacon had no concern with speculative science. He wanted practical results for ‘the relief of man’s fallen estate‘.  He was not mistaken in the power of print to provide the means of applied science. The methods of spelled-out and segmented processes have been at the base of all Western achievement. Technology is explicitness. (27-28)

Bacon (1561-1626) and Galileo (1564-1642) were contemporaries. Galileo’s telescope used a mechanical device to extend an existing human ability, sight, through the application of focus.3 

Bacon, in McLuhan’s reading, considered that human being is founded on an even more fundamental ability than sight (or any of the physical senses, alone or together), namely what McLuhan termed “an intuitive perception of essentials” (The Classical Trivium, 51). He cited Bacon describing this ability as the faculty of “touching the nature of things”. (Works IX, 239) This was the faculty enabling the uniquely human characteristic of language use and was therefore what gave humans the ability to read the books of scripture and of nature in their languages.

Bacon could then be seen as asking how this most basic human ‘sense’ might itself be focused. How magnify its results in analogous fashion to the magnification of sight by the telescope? As cited above from ‘Printing and Social Change’:

Bacon understood the resources of print technology very well. His idea was to catalogue the entire face of nature in systematic book form in such a way that as by a kind of synoptical device one could consult any phenomenon in a printed form. If the cataloguing were completely done in tables and columns, Bacon was sure that a child could read off the most profound natural laws which had been hidden from man since the fall of Adam.

Since the “intuitive perception of essentials” was most purely exercised by infants learning to speak in their recognition of names and words as names and words, the focused magnification of this sense could be termed its return to that superlative childish state. This had the added advantage of appealing at the same time to the many instances in scripture calling for such a return in the exercise of faith.

So much concerning the several classes of Idols, and their equipage: all of which must be renounced and put away with a fixed and solemn determination, and the understanding thoroughly freed and cleansed; the entrance into the kingdom of man, founded on the sciences, being not much other than the entrance into the kingdom of heaven, where into none may enter except as a little child. [Novum Organum, aphorism 48, Works VIII 99.]

Bacon’s insight was that focus or “explicitness” in regard to the nature of things” could align humans ever more closely with the design of the world. Four centuries of spectacular scientific discovery since his time have shown that he was correct as far as the exterior landscape is concerned (although, even there, abysmal black holes have been encountered).4

McLuhan’s proposal following on Bacon’s was that an analogous focusing of the interior landscape was required to address our increasing individual and social problems (and perhaps even to solve theoretical problems of the exterior landscape): Understanding Media

  1. ‘Printing and Social Change’, in Printing Progress: a mid-century report, 1959, 89-112, reprinted in McLuhan Unbound, 1:1, 3-31.
  2. McLuhan was referring to the Novum Organum here with its ‘tables of presentation’. A century later, Swift may have had Bacon’s notion in mind with the engine of “communicativeness” seen by Gulliver on his travels: “out of those rich materials to give the world a complete body of all arts and sciences”. See Wakese 4: the engine of communicativeness.
  3. The principle had long been known (at least since the classical Greeks) through the magnification effect of glass and could be put to use, as it was by Galileo and others in Bacon’s lifetime, also for a microscope.
  4. Black holes have certainly been exposed as well in the interior landscape in its drive to “explicitness”. Our knowledge of knowledge has fallen through itself as specified by Nietzsche in Twilight of the Idols: “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!!” (Die Götzen-Dämmerung: “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!!”) McLuhan’s proposal was that black holes are actually the key to understanding both the exterior and interior landscapes: “the gap is where the action is!” After all, was such an abysmal gap not already crossed in our “touching (interior sense) the nature of things (exterior sense)”? Was this not a “fecund interval” (as McLuhan began to term it late in life), however unfathomable it was and would always remain?

Bacon in McLuhan 3 (Gutenberg Galaxy)

Francis Bacon is probably the single most cited figure in McLuhan’s 1962 book of citations, The Gutenberg Galaxy. This was twenty years after McLuhan’s engagement with Bacon in the early 1940s in his PhD thesis on Thomas Nashe and the essays on Bacon associated with it.1 Bacon was mentioned here and there in the intervening period by McLuhan, but never substantially. Then in the early 1960s Bacon suddenly emerged once again as a central figure in McLuhan’s work.

It would seem that McLuhan’s sense of the general importance of Bacon didn’t change, but his appreciation of the nature of that importance did. He came to find in Bacon what he had previously missed and what he first had to learn from Wyndham Lewis and Harold Innis in order to see it there: the insight, namely, that no empire, no sect, no star seems to have exerted greater power and influence in human affairs than these mechanical inventions (full passage from Bacon’s Novum Organum cited below in the selection from The Gutenberg Galaxy, 184). 

In the early 1940’s McLuhan was only a few years out from his religious conversion, which had resulted from an intense study of Catholicism beginning with Chesterton but culminating in Hopkins and Maritain. From that personal experience, combined with the critical theory of Eliot, Richards and Leavis that he imbibed at Cambridge at the same time, he had the notion that the great problems of the world were problems of individual reading — and that individual reading, therefore, required renovation. On the other hand, however, he had had the notion since his teens that education was more a societal than a school process and that economics, billboards and radio had decisive effect on it. He had yet to resolve how the individual and social components of human experience come to be knotted.

In the course of the 1940s McLuhan began to perceive through Lewis and Innis (with Mallarmé playing a decisive supporting role) how to bring these strands together via the study of media. The reading of the world and of the world’s traditions — the reading of our exterior and interior landscapes — was indeed the crux of the matter, but reading was not a matter of individual insight and decision. Instead, it was exactly the ‘individual’ and ‘its’ insight that had to be decided and determined. What was needed, then, and what McLuhan found to be prescribed already in Bacon, was the exercise of “that faculty which (…) is perpetually operative — an intuitive perception of essentials” (The Classical Trivium, 51) but directed now on our technologically extended collective sensibilities (from which our individual ones derive as a secondary constellation): Understanding Media.

So it was that Bacon was revisioned by McLuhan as foreseeing a way out of what Innis called “the fundamental solipsism of Western civilization”2 (and Bacon “total defection from God (…) to depend wholly upon himself“)3 via “laws of media”. Furthermore, McLuhan fully shared, and was motivated in his turn by, the religious ground of Bacon’s insight. Both saw the alienation of human beings from God as the cause and further effect of the great problems of the world. Both saw that the repair of that alienation could, and arguably could only, come from essential investigation into the landscapes, exterior and interior, of that world. From them, and arguably from them alone, could come the desperately needed turn. Both were books of instruction for the soul’s direction.

The Gutenberg Galaxy, 183
The figure of Francis Bacon has always seemed full of contradictions. As the PR man for modern science, he has been found to have both feet firmly planted in the Middle Ages. His prodigious Renaissance reputation baffles those who can find nothing scientific in his method. (…) Simply on his own terms, however, he does make sense. He hangs together once you grant his assumption that Nature is a Book whose pages have been smudged by the Fall of Man.

The Gutenberg Galaxy, 184
Bacon himself was aware of the discontinuity between his age and previous history as consisting in the rise of mechanism. He writes in Novum Organum
It is well to observe the force and effect and consequences of discoveries. These are to be seen nowhere more conspicuously than in those three which were unknown to the ancients, and of which the origin, though recent, is obscure; namely, printing, gunpowder, and the magnet. For these three have changed the whole face and state of things throughout the world; the first in literature, the second in warfare, the third in navigation; whence have followed innumerable changes; insomuch that no empire, no sect, no star seems to have exerted greater power and influence in human affairs than these mechanical inventions.” [Novum Organum, aphorism 129, Works VIII, 162.]

The Gutenberg Galaxy, 185
Bacon was more impressed by the meaning of print as applied knowledge than anybody else except Rabelais. The entire Middle Ages had regarded Nature as a Book to be scanned for the vestigia dei. Bacon took the lesson of print to be that we could now literally get Nature out in a new and improved edition. An encyclopedia is envisaged. It is his complete acceptance of the idea of the Book of Nature that makes Bacon so very medieval and so very modern. But the gap is this. The medieval Book of Nature was for contemplatio like the Bible. The Renaissance Book of Nature was for applicatio (…) like movable types. A closer look at Francis Bacon will (…) elucidate the transition from the medieval to the modern world

The Gutenberg Galaxy, 185
Erasmus directed the new print technology to the traditional uses of grammatica and rhetoric and to tidying up the sacred page. Bacon used the new technology for an attempt to tidy up the text of [the Book of] Nature. 

The Gutenberg Galaxy, 186
A strange wedding of the medieval Book of Nature and the new Book [of Nature] from movable types was conducted by Francis Bacon. 

The Gutenberg Galaxy, 187-188
our present goal is (…) to relate Bacon’s notion of science to the medieval tradition of the two Scriptures of Revelation and [of] Nature (…):

for as the Psalms and other Scriptures [of Revelation] do often invite us to consider and magnify the great and wonderful works of God, so if we should rest only in the contemplation of the exterior of them, as they first offer themselves to our senses, we should do a like injury unto the Majesty of God, as if we should judge or construe of the store of some excellent jeweller, by that only which is set out toward the street in his shop. The other [scriptures of Nature], because they minister a singular help and preservative against unbelief and error: for our Saviour saith, You err, not knowing the Scriptures, nor the power of God; laying before us two books or volumes to study, if we will be secured from error; first, the Scriptures [of Revelation], revealing the Will of God; and then [the Scriptures of] the creatures expressing His Power; whereof the latter is a key unto the former: not only opening our understanding to conceive the true sense of the Scriptures [of Revelation], by the general notions of reason and rules of speech; but chiefly opening our belief, in drawing us into a due meditation of the omnipotency of God, which is chiefly signed and engraven upon His works. Thus much therefore for divine testimony and evidence concerning the true dignity and value of Learning.” [The Advancement of Learning, Bk 1, Works VI, 143-144.]
The next passage gives Bacon’s ever-recurrent theme that all of the arts are forms of applied knowledge for the sake of diminishing the effects of the Fall:
Concerning speech and words, the consideration of them hath produced the science of grammar: for man still striveth to reintegrate himself in those benedictions, from which by his fault he hath been deprived; and as he hath striven against the first general curse by the invention of all other arts, so hath he sought to come forth of the second general curse, which was the confusion of tongues, by the art of grammar; whereof the use in a mother tongue is small, in a foreign tongue more; but most in such foreign tongues as have ceased to be vulgar tongues, and are turned only to learned tongues.” [The Advancement of Learning, Bk 2, Works VI, 285.]
It is the Fall of Man which engenders the arts of applied knowledge for the relief of man’s fallen estate:
So in the age before the flood, the holy records within those few memorials which are there entered and registered have vouchsafed to mention and honour the name of the inventors and authors of music and works in metal. In the age after the flood, the first great judgment of God upon the ambition of man was the confusion of tongues; whereby the open trade and intercourse of learning and knowledge was chiefly imbarred.”  [The Advancement of Learning, Bk 1, Works VI, 138-139.]
Bacon has the utmost regard for the kind of work done by unfallen man:
After the creation was finished, it is set down unto us that man was placed in the garden to work therein; which work, so appointed to him, could be no other than work of Contemplation; that is, when the end of work is but for exercise and experiment, not for necessity; for there being then no reluctation of the creature, nor sweat of the brow, man’s employment must of consequence have been matter of delight in the experiment, and not matter of labour for the use.4 Again, the first acts which man performed in Paradise consisted of the two summary parts of knowledge; the view of creatures, and the imposition of names. As for the knowledge which induced the fall, it was (…) not the natural knowledge of creatures, but the moral knowledge of good and evil(…) which man aspired to know; to the end to make a total defection from God and to depend wholly upon himself.” [The Advancement of Learning, Bk 1, Works VI, 137-138.

The Gutenberg Galaxy, 188-190
Before the Fall the purpose of work was just for experience or “experiment,” “not for necessity,” “nor matter of labour for the use.” Strangely, although Bacon is quite explicit and repetitive in his derivation of the program of applied knowledge from the Scriptures, his commentators have avoided this issue. Bacon pushes Revelation into every part of his program stressing, not only the parallelism between the book[s] of Nature and of Revelation, but also between the methods used in both.

Bacon’s conception of applied knowledge concerns the means of restoring the text of the Book of Nature which has been defaced by the Fall, even as our faculties have been impaired. Just as Bacon strives to mend the text of Nature by his Histories, so he sought to repair our faculties by his Essays or Counsels (…). The broken mirror or glass of our minds no longer lets “light through” but enchants us with broken lights, besetting us with Idols.
Just as Bacon draws on traditional inductive grammatica for his exegesis of the two books of Nature and Revelation, so he relies heavily on the Ciceronian conception of eloquence as applied knowledge, explicitly uniting Cicero and Solomon in this regard (…):
Of this wisdom, it seemeth some of the ancient Romans in the saddest and wisest times were professors; for Cicero reporteth that it was then in use for senators that had name and opinion for general wise men, as Coruncanius, Curius, Laelius, and many others, to walk at certain hours in the Place, and to give audience to those that would use their advice; and that the particular citizens would resort unto them, and consult with them of the marriage of a daughter, or of the employing of a son, or of a purchase or bargain, or of an accusation, and every other occasion incident to man’s life. So as there is a wisdom of counsel and advice even in private causes, arising out of a universal insight into the affairs of the world; which is used indeed upon particular causes propounded, but is gathered by general observation of cases of like nature. For so we see in the book which Q. Cicero writeth to his brother, De petitione consulatus (being the only book of business that I know written by the ancients), although it concerned a particular action set on foot, yet the substance thereof consisteth of many wise and politic axioms, which contain not a temporary, but a perpetual direction in the case of popular elections. But chiefly we may see in those aphorisms which have place among divine writings, composed by Salomon the king (of whom the Scriptures testify that his heart was as the sands of the sea, encompassing the world and all worldly matters), we see, I say, not a few profound and excellent cautions, precepts, positions, extending to much variety of occasions; whereupon we will stay awhile, offering to consideration some number of examples.” [The Advancement of Learning, Bk 2, Works VI, 351-352.]

The Gutenberg Galaxy, 190
Bacon has much to say of Solomon as the forerunner of himself. In fact, he derives his pedagogical theory of aphorism from Solomon:

So like wise in the person of Salomon the King, we see the gift or endowment of wisdom and learning, both in Salomon’s petition and in God’s assent thereunto, preferred before all other terrene and temporal felicity. By virtue of which grant or donative of God Salomon became enabled not only to write those excellent Parables or Aphorisms concerning divine and moral philosophy; but also to compile a Natural History of all verdure, from the cedar upon the mountain to the moss upon the wall (which is but a rudiment between putrefaction and a herb), and also of all things that breathe or move. Nay, the same Salomon the King, although he excelled in the glory of treasure and magnificent buildings, of shipping and navigation, of service and attendance, of fame and renown, and the like, yet he maketh no claim to any of those glories, but only to the glory of inquisition of truth; for so he saith expressly, The glory of God is to conceal a thing, but the glory of the king is to find it out [Prov 25:2]; as if, according to the innocent play of children, the Divine Majesty took delight to hide His works, to the end to have them found out; and as if kings could not obtain a greater honour than to be God’s playfellows in that game; considering the great commandment of wits and means, whereby nothing needeth to be hidden from them.” [The Advancement of Learning, Bk 1, Works VI, 141.]
Bacon’s allusion to scientific discovery as a children’s game brings us close to another of his basic notions, that as man lost his Eden through pride he must regain it by humility:
“So much concerning the several classes of Idols, and their equipage: all of which must be renounced and put away with a fixed and solemn determination, and the understanding thoroughly freed and cleansed; the entrance into the kingdom of man, founded on the sciences, being not much other than the entrance into the kingdom of heaven, where into none may enter except as a little child.” [Novum Organum, aphorism 48, Works VIII, 99.]
Earlier (…) Bacon insisted in the same way that the course I propose for the discovery of sciences is such as leaves but little to the acuteness and strength of wits, but places all wits and understandings nearly on a level.” [Novum Organum, aphorism 41, Works VIII, 89.]

The Gutenberg Galaxy, 190-191
Print had inspired Bacon not only with the idea of applied knowledge by means of the homogeneity of segmental procedure, but it gave him the assurance that men would be levelled in their capacities and performance as well. Some strange speculations have resulted from this doctrine, but few would care to dispute the power of print to level and to extend the learning process as much as cannon or ordnance did level castles and feudal privilege.5 Bacon, then, argues that the text of [the Book of] Nature can be restored by great encyclopedic fact-finding sweeps. Man’s wits can be reconstructed so that they can once again mirror the perfected Book of Nature. His mind is now an enchanted glass, but the hex can be removed. It is quite clear, then, that Bacon would have no respect for scholasticism any more than for the dialectics of Plato and Aristotle 
because it is the duty of Art to perfect and exalt Nature; but they contrariwise have wronged, abused, and traduced Nature. 

The Gutenberg Galaxy, 191-192
Early in The Advancement of Learning, Bacon has a compact history of Renaissance prose that illuminates the role of printing indirectly: “Martin Luther, conducted no doubt by a higher providence, but in discourse of reason finding what a providence he had undertaken against the bishop of Rome and the degenerate traditions of the church, and finding his own solitude, being no ways aided by the opinion of his own time, was enforced to awake all antiquity, and to call former times to his succours to make a party against the present time. So that the ancient authors, both in divinity and in humanity, which had long time slept in libraries, began generally to be read and revolved. Thus by consequence did draw on a necessity of a more exquisite travail in the languages original, wherein those authors did write, for the better understanding of those authors, and the better advantage of pressing and applying their words. And thereof grew again a delight in their manner of style and phrase, and an admiration of that kind of writing; which was much furthered and precipitated by the enmity and opposition that the propounders of those primitive but seeming new opinions had against the schoolmen; who were generally of the contrary part, and whose writings were altogether in a different style and form; taking liberty to coin and frame new terms of art to express their own sense, and to avoid circuit of speech, without regard to the pureness, pleasantness, and, as I may call it, lawfulness of the phrase or word.”  [The Advancement of Learning, Bk 1, Works VI, 118-119.]

Bacon says here that the entire humanist effort in languages and historical revival was incidental to religious differences. The printing presses made available authors of remote times. People began to imitate their styles. The schoolmen had such a technical terse way that they fell quite out of fashion, being utterly unable to develop any popularity with the new reading public. The growing public could only be won by flowery rhetoric and, Bacon goes on to say:
for the winning and persuading of them, there grew of necessity in chief price and request eloquence and variety of discourse, as the fittest and forciblest access into the capacity of the vulgar sort: so that these four causes concurring, the admiration of ancient authors, the hate of the schoolmen, the exact study of languages, and the efficacy of preaching, did bring in an affectionate study of eloquence and copie of speech, which then began to flourish. This grew speedily to an excess; for men began to hunt more after words than matter; more after the choiceness of the phrase, and the round and clean composition of the sentence, and the sweet falling of the clauses, and the varying and illustration of their works with tropes and figures, than after the weight of matter, worth of subject, soundness of argument, life of invention or depth of judgment. Then grew the flowing and watery vein of Osorius the Portugal bishop, to be in price. Then did Sturmius spend such infinite and curious pains upon Cicero the Orator, and Hermogenes the Rhetorician, besides his own books of Periods and Imitation, and the like. Then did Car of Cambridge, and Ascham with their lectures and writings almost deify Cicero and Demosthenes, and allure all young men that were studious, unto that delicate and polished kind of learning. Then did Erasmus take occasion to make the scoffing Echo: decem annos consumpsi in legendo Cicerone; and the Echo answered in Greek, Ove Asine. Then grew the learning of the schoolmen to be utterly despised as barbarous. In sum, the whole inclination and bent of those times was rather towards copie than weight.” [The Advancement of Learning, Bk 1, Works VI, 119-129.]
There in a page or so Bacon renders a detailed image of the literary struggles and fashions of his day. Like his idea of scientific methods, his idea of the literary scene is rooted in religion. His outline of a history of English prose has yet to be examined seriously by literary historians. When, for example, Bacon says [at the end of the preceding passage]: “Then grew the learning of the Schoolmen to be utterly despised as barabarous” he does not say that he himself despises it. He has no respect for the ornate and affected eloquence that was [then] currently trumped up. 

  1. See Bacon in McLuhan 1 and 2.
  2.  Empire and Communications, 1950 edition, 67; 1972 edition, 56.
  3.  The Advancement of Learning as cited in The Gutenberg Galaxy, 187-188 passage given below.
  4.  An ever-repeated topic in McLuhan’s later work is the relation of ‘school’ to the Latin ‘schola‘ = leisure. He may well have been gesturing with this to Bacon’s notion that the natural vocation of humans is to the delightful and unnecessitated appreciation of creation.
  5. McLuhan made the same points earlier in GG: “Although the main work was done by Cromwell and Napoleon, “ordnance” (or cannon) and gunpowder had (…) begun the levelling of castles, classes, and feudal distinctions. So print, says Rabelais, has begun the homogenizing of individuals and of talents. Later in the same century Francis Bacon was prophesying that his scientific method would level all talents (…) Bacon’s ‘method’ (…) was the extension of the idea of the new printed page to the whole encyclopedia of natural phenomena.” (148)

The gigantomachia in GG from Rabelais

The Gutenberg Galaxy (148): “Albert Guerard’s comment on (…) Rabelais in The Life and Death of an Ideal1 is as follows”:

This triumphant Pantagruelism inspires the chapters, full of quaint erudition, practical knowledge and poetic enthusiasm, which, at the end of the third book, he [Rabelais] devotes to the praise of the blessed herb Pantagruelion. Literally, Pantagruelion is mere hemp; symbolically, it is human industry. Capping the wildest achievements of his own times with wilder boast and prophecy, Rabelais first shows man, by virtue of this Pantagruelion, exploring the remotest regions of his globe, “so that Taproban hath seen the heaths of Lapland, and both the Javas, the Riphaean Mountains.” Men “scoured the Atlantic Ocean, passed the tropics, pushed through the torrid zone, measured all the Zodiac, sported under the equinoctial, having both poles level with their horizon.” Then, “all marine and terrestrial gods were on a sudden all afraid.” What is to prevent Pantagruel and his children from discovering some still more potent herb, by means of which they shall scale the very heavens? Who knows but they may “contrive a way to pierce into the high aerian clouds, and shut and open as they please the sluices from whence proceed the floodgates of the rain (…) then, prosecuting their ethereal voyage, they may step into the lightning workhouse and shop … where, seizing on the magazine of heaven, they may discharge a bouncing peal or two of thundering ordnance for joy of their arrival at these new supernal places (…) And we the Gods shall then not be able to resist the impetuosity of their intrusion (…) whatever regions, domiciles or mansions of the spangled firmament they shall have a mind to see, to stay in, or to travel through for their recreation.”2

  1. 1956. Guerard’s subtitle: France in the classical age.
  2.  The Life and Death of an Ideal, p39.

Bacon in McLuhan 2 (‘Bacon’s Patristic Inheritance’)

We must make therefore a complete solution and separation of nature, not indeed by fire, but by the mind, which is a kind of divine fire. (Novum Organum, #41)

The doctrine of names is, of course, the doctrine of essence and not a naive notion of oral terminology. (The Classical Trivium, 16) 

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. There is no room for error in our intuitive grasp of nature, but in our methods of inference leading to the forming of opinions there is much likelihood of error. (The Classical Trivium51) 

“…the entrance into the kingdom of man, founded on the sciences, being not much other than the entrance into the kingdom of heaven, where into none may enter except as a little child.” (‘Francis Bacon’s Patristic Inheritance’,1 8, citing Bacon’s Novum Organum)2

[Bacon cited] the widely held Christian tradition that Solomon alone of the sons of men had recovered that natural wisdom and metaphysical knowledge of the essences of things, of which Adam had been deprived. It is precisely to the task of recovering natural wisdom that Bacon’s labours were addressed. (‘Medieval Grammar as the Basis of Bacon’s Novum Organum‘, 168)3

McLuhan noted in his Cambridge PhD thesis on Thomas Nashe that he had begun a monograph on Bacon, but had put it aside when a paper by Richard McKeon appeared that covered much the same ground:

I have already suggested how completely Bacon’s scientific program was tied up with grammar and dialectics and with rhetorical theory and practice, and had already undertaken a separate monograph on this subject before McKeon’s paper appeared. (The Classical Trivium, 119n22)4  

Parts of this effort which could have eventuated in a monograph on Bacon are be found in two posthumously published papers which go back to 1942-1943 when McLuhan was feverishly writing his thesis5: ‘Francis Bacon’s Patristic Inheritance’ (“Expanded version of a paper written for the M.L.A. meeting of 1942″) and ‘Medieval Grammar as the Basis of Bacon’s Novum Organum‘ (dated by hand to February 22, 1943).6 These two papers must have had a complicated origin in relation to the Nashe thesis and to each other. Then (like the thesis itself) they were continually revised and mined for different purposes, not only in the 1940s, but throughout McLuhan’s lifetime (as late, eg, as ‘Francis Bacon: Ancient or Modern’ in 1974)7 — and even after his lifetime by Eric McLuhan. No effort will be made to retrace this complicated history here.8 

As broached in his Nashe thesis, McLuhan’s chief point in the ‘Patristic Inheritance’ paper was that Bacon was both the herald of the coming scientific age and the heir of ancient tradition:

I shall try to show that [Bacon’s] concept of science and the way9 in which he stresses the arts of the trivium entitle him to be considered a highly orthodox ancient, a representative of a long and uninterrupted line of interpreters of the “book of nature”. (7)10

If these — the revolutionary insights of modern science and the anchor of tradition — could be shown to be fundamentally linked, the incomparably important result would be to suggest, conceivably even to help demonstrate, that modern science does not contradict the tradition, but presupposes it and, properly understood, furthers it and affirms it.

This would, of course, be transformative. Instead of the tradition and science being two continents drifting inexorably apart in unrecallable divide, or, in reverse fashion, moving unstoppably into catastrophic collision, they would form a bulwark together against our reigning nihilism.11

The role of language and its implicated grammar as the key to both spiritual and natural investigation was formulated in the Nashe thesis as follows:

From the time of the neo-Platonists and Augustine to Bonaventura and to Francis Bacon, the world was viewed as a book, the lost language of which was analogous to that of human speech. Thus the art of grammar provided the sixteenth-century approach not only to the Book of Life in scriptural exegesis but to the Book of Nature, as well. (The Classical Trivium, 7)

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. (The Classical Trivium, 16) 

Now “human speech” takes place first of all through a curious chain of recognition: the recognition that certain environmental sounds are peculiar objects, namely words, the recognition that those words have certain restricted meanings, the recognition that those meanings may be controlled through certain manipulations (the province of traditional grammar). Fundamental to all of these is the prior (but unknown or at least ignored) recognition that humans exist in a communicative matrix in which, alone, something like a meaningful word, together with its enabling net of meanings and grammar, is possible at all.

Just as a newborn must learn to breathe in the new matrix of air after its life in the womb for nine months, so (during its life in in-fancy — ‘non-speaking’ — for a further 12 months or so) must it learn to function in that matrix of communication in which alone humans exercise their being.

As with its acclimatization to air, so in regard to the matrix of communication is it necessary for the infant to learn to live with what is already there and on no account to attempt to invent something of its own: 

Just as the grammarian is always compelled to establish and stick to a text, so Bacon urges the scientist always to stay with nature and never to build hypotheses such as William  Gilbert [1544-1603] did. Thus, the Novum Organum is a set of rules for interpreting and clarifying the obscurities of nature, but rules designed always to refer the observer back to his text [of word or world], and to prevent him both from “anticipations” and from contumacious construction, or hypotheses. (20)

Bacon viewed the rerum natura as a book, and man’s task as the true exegesis thereof: “For God forbid that we should give out a dream of our own imagination for a pattern of the world; rather may He graciously grant to us to write an apocalypse or true vision of the footsteps of the Creator imprinted on His creations.”12 The restoration of the study of languages is indispensable since grammar is as it were the harbinger of other sciences(19-20)13

Taken in this broad sense, grammar was the enabling matrix of “exegetical techniques of interpretation” (9),14 and this, in turn, fundamentally the effort to supply “the name which each thing by nature has”.15 The ancient tradition of grammar (gen. subj.), according to McLuhan, attended this exercise as the basic way in which humans exist.

These grammatical recognitions which infants must learn to perform are, of course, seldom considered. As McLuhan often remarked, the ubiquitous goes unperceived. Nor need they be perfect. Sounds may be mispronounced or misheard and yet still be understood. Meanings may be confused but usually with little ill effect. Grammatical mistakes may be made without necessary problems. Language is able to struggle through such imperfections because it is, so to say, more basic than they are.16

The great mystery is: what is the source of such recognition?  How does a child recognize that some sounds are words with meaning and other sounds are meaningless?  Or that some meanings work for a word and others do not? Or that some manipulations are significant and others are not? And if this mystery is somewhat obscured when it is repeated by infants millions of times a day around the world, how did it take place in the first place?

McLuhan read Bacon as participating in a “grammatical” tradition for which such recognition was the chief characteristic of both theology and science and, in fact, of all history. Just as humans somehow sort words from noise, so (analogously) do they differentiate holy things from profane things and learn to sift out the elements in all sorts of scientific disciplines.  Grammar may in this broad way be termed the study of the recognition of what things are and are not, whether these things be words or physical stuff or gods. It is the “harbinger” of study and reflection in all these areas since, like human speech itself, none can begin without sufficient recognition (conscious or unconscious) of the particular nature at stake in the activity at hand.

What an infant must first of all come to understand in learning to speak is that it exists in a universe where communication is a basic possibility. This understanding is of course only implicated in the infant’s growing capability to process and produce meaningful sounds, but it is the foundation of all that it does and all that it will ever do.

Socrates concurs in Cratylus’ statement that “a power more than human gave things their first names, and that the names which were thus given are necessarily their true names.” (10-11)17

McLuhan enlarged on this point in his Nashe thesis as follows:

Plato’s Cratylus broaches the question of analogy and anomaly in such a way as to indicate that their dispute was of ancient origin even in his day, but the issues [between the two], of course, are drawn on a plane loftier than that of 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, or the work of light or chance persons; and 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.’ 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, though not exclusive, respect for the method of grammar in philosophy. It is quite impossible to make any sense of the scope and intensity of the strife between the analogists and anomalists unless the philosophic implications are perceived. (The Classical Trivium, 28)

The “first names” which were “true names” were not certain sounds (which of course vary between languages); instead the action at stake was the recognition of names as names, of words as words, of the fact that a certain kind of sound in the environment carries meaning.

The doctrine of names is, of course, the doctrine of essence and not a naive notion of oral terminology.  (The Classical Trivium, 16) 

The Stoics, of course, are analogists to a man, although Varro, himself, as well as Cicero, Caesar, Pliny, and Quintilian, freely admit the influence of custom or usage on language.  (The Classical Trivium, 27) 

By extension, this (usually utterly unattended) existence in a matrix of meaning enabling the recognition of essential natures happens again when a geometer understands a shape like a triangle as significant in a way a squiggle is not; or when copper is recognized as significant in a way wood is not. None of these recognitions begins (or ends) in perfection, but all do begin and apparently they do so through some “power more than human”. For we do not recognize through recognition (as the occultists maintained and as seems to be implied in much research into how infants learn to speak), but through a possibility built into the very nature of the universe that is there before us and that is deeper than us.

The initial imposition of names in this sense signifies essence, metaphysical knowledge. The corresponding doctrine, that to know the name of a thing was to have direct power over it, is responsible for what we have so long smiled at as alchemy. (11n14) 

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. (10n7)

The doctrine of the Logos, with its insistence of the dynamic unity of all nature, inevitably made for the encyclopedic ideal which we find equally in the practice of the Stoics, the Fathers, in Vincent of Beauvais, Roger Bacon, and Francis Bacon. Isidore of Seville named his encyclopedic synthesis of the arts Etymologiae simply because grammar (with etymology)18 was the basic mode of the synthesis. (12n16)19

The fact that man was distinguished from the brutes by virtue of his power of speech was the fact which in connection with the doctrine of the Logos lent special impetus in the ancient world to the cultivation of eloquence. After Isocrates and Cicero, it was urged as a reason for the arduous disciplines of speech by the Fathers, by Alcuin, John of Salisbury, and humanists of the Renaissance. This is signally the case with Francis Bacon. From the humanist point of view, Socrates had initiated the fatal destruction of eloquence and good letters by his divorce between head and heart, thought and speech20. It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of this insight21 for the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. This extraordinary account22 of the disastrous rise of Greek dialectics and the breach between eloquence and wisdom (the humanists of the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries make precisely the same complaints about the rise of [scholastic] dialectics in the twelfth century) is given classic statement in Cicero’s De Oratore. Francis Bacon repeats and endorses this account of Cicero’s.23 (10n10)

Bacon readily allows the validity of the physics of the Timaeus but points out that it is theological, concerned with final causes. This, of course, is the reason it was held in such esteem in the Middle Ages. Similarly, Aristotle’s physics is valid within its limits, but the method is dialectical and the aim no more for the relief of men’s estate than Plato’s. The trouble with Plato and Aristotle, said Bacon, is that they are more interested in truth than utility.24 (11n14) 

The kind of importance attaching to traditional grammar [in this much broader sense than we now understand] in Bacon’s scheme is evident from the following passage: “Concerning Speech and Words, the consideration of them hath produced the science of Grammar (…) examining the power and nature of words as they are the footsteps and prints of reason, which kind of analogy between words and reason (…) I think (…)  very worthy to be reduced into a science by itself.” 25 In this latter philosophical sense, grammar had been the main mode of physics, cosmogony, and theology for centuries [before Bacon, or even millennia]…(9)

This understanding of the imperative role of the recognition of natures in all human activity whatsoever and especially in the study of sacred and natural phenomena led Bacon to a novel view of history from Adam to himself and beyond into “a new period of study”:

Francis Bacon envisaged his encyclopedic task as the vindicator of ancient truths, which had been obscured by the arrogant follies (…) of Plato and Aristotle and (…) of the Schoolmen, and [also] as the “buccinator” [or herald] of a new period of study… (13)

Bacon wished to associate his endeavors with the widely held Christian tradition that Solomon alone of the sons of men had recovered that natural wisdom and metaphysical knowledge of essence of which Adam had been justly deprived. (8)

What kind of knowledge was lost by Adam in consequence of his fall? Fortunately it isn’t necessary to speculate about [Bacon’s] answer. (…) He states it thus in The Advancement of Learning: “After the creation was finished, it is set down unto us that man was placed in the garden to work therein; which work, so appointed to him, could be no other than the work of Contemplation. […] Again, the first acts which man performed in Paradise consisted of the two summary parts of knowledge; the view of creatures, and the imposition of names.” [Works VI, 137-138] The view upon26 creatures and the imposition of names corresponds precisely to the major aims of Bacon’s own program. The first was to be achieved by a universal natural history [as his field of inquiry], the second by exegetical techniques of interpretation [of that field] based on traditional grammar. (9)27

Just as Adam had had the power to give the names (essences) to things, so Solomon in viewing creatures had written commentaries of precisely the kind which Bacon’s inductive method aimed to reproduce touching the nature of things, wherein he treated of every vegetable, from the moss upon the wall to the cedar of Lebanon, and likewise of all animals…”. [Works IX, 239.] (9n4)

Typical of the statements by which Bacon focussed the scope and relevance of his work are the closing sentences of the Novum Organum: “For man by the fall fell at the same time from his state of innocency and from his dominion over creation. Both of these losses, however, can even in this life be in some part repaired: the former by religion and faith, the latter by arts and sciences. For creation was not by the curse [on Adam] made altogether and for ever a rebel, but in virtue of that charter ‘In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread’, it [creation] is now by various labours (…) at length and in some measure [to be]28 subdued (…) to the uses of human life.” [Works VIII, 350.] (7)

  1. In McLuhan Studies I, 1991, 7-26.
  2. The passage is from Novum Organum, #69 = Works VIII, p 99.
  3. In Explorations in Media Ecology, 6:3,  2007, 167-174. For discussion see Bacon in McLuhan 6 (‘Medieval Grammar as the Basis of Bacon’s Novum Organum‘).
  4. McLuhan was referencing Richard P. McKeon, ‘Rhetoric in the Middle Ages‘,  Speculum, 17:1, January 1942, 1-32.
  5. McLuhan’s PhD thesis on Thomas Nashe was submitted in April 1943 and approved in December of that year. It was put together in a tremendous hurry because he had come to see his job in St Louis as a dead end and urgently required his doctorate to obtain a position elsewhere. Seeking a job without it, so he wrote in a letter to Wyndham Lewis, was “like a man presenting himself in a bathing suit at an embassy ball” (January 17, 1944, Letters 147). As a result, the thesis shows many signs of haste and even outright incompletion (like the hundreds of Nashe references that are simply listed in the last chapter of his thesis with the implication that they might have been organized into a narrative had it not been for, eg, the exigencies of wartime). Since these loose threads were obvious enough, the thesis needed to include countervailing points intended to excuse or otherwise offset them. McLuhan’s suggestion that he had been at work at the same time as he was writing his thesis on a parallel enterprise that he then had to abandon (however true this may have been) was one of these offsets.
  6. References given in notes 1 and 2 above.
  7. In Renaissance and Reformation, X:2, 1974, 93-98. For discussion see Bacon in McLuhan 5.
  8. One of the two Bacon papers from the early 1940s was submitted, unsuccessfully, to the Journal for the History of Ideas in late 1943 or early 1944. But McLuhan’s two biographers, Philip Marchand and W.T. Gordon, disagree about which of the papers it was. Marchand says (73) it was the ‘Patristic Inheritance’ piece and he is probably correct. For Gordon, after naming ‘Medieval Grammar’ as the submitted paper, notes (115) that the journal’s reviewer critiqued McLuhan’s use of ‘decorum’ — a word which appears only in ‘Patristic Inheritance’.
  9. McLuhan has ‘order’ here, not ‘way’.
  10.  All page numbers not otherwise identified are from ‘Francis Bacon’s Patristic Inheritance’.
  11. These three fundamental possibilities of ‘continental drift’ are already present in Plato’s gigantomachia from the Sophist.
  12. Works VIII, 53. Bacon has ‘creatures’ here, not ‘creations’.
  13. McLuhan references Works VIII 46-47, 358-361 and 369 here.
  14. Full passage from The Classical Trivium (9) given below.
  15.  The Classical Trivium, 28. Full passage given below.
  16. Perhaps Finnegans Wake is an attempt to demonstrate this thesis in practice. At any rate, all science works in this way. A working but inevitably imperfect perception is mined until it gives way to a more workable perception — that is imperfect in its own ways. What McLuhan called ‘grammar’ is the fit between insight and imperfection, especially when this fit itself is investigated via imperfect insight.
  17. The Nashe thesis: “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 wellAt any time from Plato to Francis Bacon the statement of Cratylus would have made sense, and would have evoked respect” (The Classical Trivium, 15-16).
  18. McLuhan has ‘and etymology’ here.
  19. “Inevitably made for the encyclopedic ideal” exactly because “language was viewed as simultaneously linking and harmonizing all the intellectual and physical functions of men and of the physical world as well” (The Classical Trivium, 16). An encyclopedia simply set out in systematic fashion these “linking and harmonizing (…) functions of men and of the physical world”.
  20. McLuhan has ‘eloquence’ here instead of ‘speech’.
  21. McLuhan has ‘view’ here instead of ‘insight’.
  22.  McLuhan has ‘view’ here instead of ‘account’.
  23. McLuhan references Spedding’s Works VI 42-43 and 135 here. (All his references to Bacon’s Works are to the Spedding edition.)
  24. McLuhan references Works VI, 224; VIII, 102-103, 132. For Bacon on utility, see Bacon in McLuhan 1 (Nashe thesis).
  25. McLuhan references Works VI, 285-286.
  26. McLuhan has ‘of’.
  27. Cf, The Classical Trivium57n45: “Grammar is the art of gathering and interpreting congruous instances, whether phenomenal (= physical nature, the exterior landscape) or textual ( = human nature, the interior landscape).”
  28. On the orientation to the future in the Novum Organum: “the thorough passage of the world (which now by so many distant voyages seems to be accomplished, or in course of accomplishment), and the advancement of the sciences, are destined by fate, that is, by Divine Providence, to meet in the same age.” (Aphorism XCIII)

Bacon in McLuhan 1 (Nashe thesis)

Man cannot look with understanding on the book of nature until he has been perfected in the art of grammar. (140)1

Francis Bacon (1561-1626) played an important role, or important roles, in McLuhan’s work from 1940 (when he began blocking out his Cambridge PhD thesis on Thomas Nashe) to 1980 (when he died on the last day of the year).

At the start of his thesis (submitted and approved in 1943) McLuhan specified that Bacon could and perhaps should have been its subject rather than Nashe:

What the present study tries to do directly for Nashe, it does incidentally for his contemporaries; so that if Nashe appears to be a kind of appendix to a chapter in the history of education, he is really intended to be a focal point [illustrating it]. Bacon or Donne would have served this function better in some ways than Nashe.  It would have been possible to relate them more complexly to their age, in so far as they were more complex and comprehensive writers. This study will achieve its end if it can indicate the lines along which further enlightenment concerning Bacon and Donne and their age is possible. (6)2 

Still, even with Nashe as its nominal subject, by describing the dynamics of education3 in terms of the trivium, that is of grammar vis-a-vis dialectic, on the one hand, and rhetoric, on the other — and this over the two millennia between classical Athens and Elizabethan England — McLuhan hoped to supply new illumination particularly on Bacon:

[Grammar’s] claim to be viewed as an important basis of scientific method, both during antiquity and continuously throughout medieval times, and in the work of Francis Bacon, has, I think, never been indicated before the present study. (15)

A central idea of the thesis, one which McLuhan would continue to pursue for the rest of his life, concerned the “Book of Nature” (7) with its implicated “language of nature” (16) — the “language” with its enabling “grammar” in which that “Book of Nature” was written:4

From the time of the neo-Platonists and Augustine to Bonaventura and to Francis Bacon, the world was viewed as a book, the lost language of which was analogous to that of human speech. Thus the art of grammar provided the sixteenth-century approach not only to the Book of Life in scriptural exegesis but to the Book of Nature, as well. (7)

[grammar’s] claim to be viewed as an important basis of scientific method… (15)

grammar and science were inseparably linked in their origins. (27)

Finding his place in a long line of Ciceronians, Bacon has the same conception [as the others in that line] of the function of the arts. Grammar is the art of gathering and interpreting congruous instances, whether phenomenal [physical nature, the exterior landscape] or textual [human nature, the interior landscape]. (57n45)

[Hugh of Saint Victor] shows like the Fathers before him and like Francis Bacon after him, that the arts are for the relief of man’s fallen state. Grammar is the most basic art of all. Man cannot look with understanding on the book of nature until he has been perfected in the art of grammar. (140) 

It is within this system of analogy, rooted in the ancient notions of the Logos and grammar, and seeking the light of revelation, that Bonaventure’s fellow Franciscans Grosseteste and [Roger] Bacon envisaged the importance of their physical experiments. There is thus no inconsistency but propriety in the fact that Roger Bacon, like Erasmus and Francis Bacon, asserted the primacy of the art of grammar in approaching both Scripture and the book of nature. (145)

Grammar as the interpretive study of the language of life and of nature aims to illuminate, not to conclude. Its aim is to open relationships for mutual regard — or to recognize relationships which are already open for mutual regard. Of course science can follow from this (and can follow from this alone); but so does every social activity extending from family interaction through all social exchange to “communication between divinity and humanity” (89n32):

Bacon considered his own aphoristic style in the Essays as part of a scientific technique of keeping knowledge in a state of emergent evolution.5 (57n45)

Francis Bacon’s remark in the [1623] De Augmentis [Scientiarum] (…) asserts the superiority of allegorical or parabolical poesy above all others “especially as religion itself commonly uses its aid as a means of communication between divinity and humanity.” (89n32, citing Works VIII, 442)

Donne is quite explicit about his rhetorical aims in preaching. His intention was to arrange his rhetorical effects in such a way as “to trouble the understanding, to displace, and discompose and disorder the judgement … or to empty it of former apprehensions, and to shake beliefe, with which it had possessed it self before, and then, when it is thus melted to poure it into new molds, when it is thus mollified, to stamp and imprint new formes, new images, new opinions in it.” [Donne Works 3, 275] Donne is here stating the Attic or anti-Ciceronian concept of style espoused by the Senecans. His words describe the aims set [for] themselves by Montaigne and Bacon in their essays.6 In The Advancement [of Learning, 1605] Bacon contrasts the two modes of delivering knowledge as the modes of aphorism and [of] orderly method: “But the writing in aphorisms hath many excellent virtues, whereto the writing in Method doth not approach. For first, it trieth the writer, whether he be superficial or solid: for Aphorism, except they should be ridiculous, cannot be made but of the pith and heart of sciences; for discourse illustration is cut off: recitals of examples are cut off; discourse of connection and order cut off; descriptions of practice are cut off…. And lastly, Aphorisms, representing a knowledge broken do invite men to inquire farther; whereas Methods, carrying the show of a total do secure men, as if they were at farthest.” [Works VI, 291] Both Montaigne and Bacon made compromises, gradually admitting examples, authorities, and descriptions, but persisting in their original intention of employing an aphoristic style in order to dislocate the mind from its customary courses.7 (200)

Contrary to the common supposition that self-interest necessarily counts against the truth of a matter,8 the thesis places repeated emphasis on the properly utilitarian character of an enterprise like Bacon’s when it is pursued in true self-interest:

Bacon’s account of the history of philosophy in the Novum Organum [1620] is almost identical with Cicero’s [in works written almost 1700 years before in the middle of the first century BC]. This is not strange, since both hold the view that the arts are entirely to be judged on the basis of their usefulness to man. (56n43)

Bacon never for a moment ceases to view the business of the arts as being the relief of man’s fallen moral state. In this matter he is in perfect accord with (…) a long tradition in which man’s task had been defined as “as the organization of our earthly exile into a sort of suburb of the heavenly kingdom.”9 (56n43)10

Just as Bacon was later to claim in attacking the dialecticians, St. Augustine says arts and knowledge are for use, for the relief of man’s estate; and, as Bacon freely admits, the greatest art is theology, since it is for the relief of man’s spiritual estate.11  (73n45)

It is, of course, the utilitarianism of Bacon which charms Macaulay, and the utilitarianism of the fathers from which Bacon’s derives, is, of course, intense. Nothing was more utilitarian than the salvation they preached. Naturally the arts and sciences which assisted in this grand utilitarian scheme were also of great practical concern. The Middle Ages were completely utilitarian. Even the classics were of utility and St Bonaventure the theologian put up a much better case for the study of classics than Macaulay the civil servant. Insofar as Macaulay retains a grasp of the Ciceronian view of the great utility of eloquence as a political wisdom, he can thank Bacon and the Fathers. (147)

McLuhan’s deepest intent in the thesis was to begin showing the hidden roots of modern science and of modernity generally. As roots these had never been lost and never could be lost; but they could be obscured and for all the world could seem to be lost. And this for essential reasons.12 This radical intent was, again, a matter McLuhan would pursue for the rest of his life.

In his Filium Labyrinthi [1606], Francis Bacon shows himself an exception to the Renaissance habit of ignoring the predecessors of the hated Schoolmen. After conventionally attacking the contentious dialectical learning which the Schoolmen had derived from (…) Aristotle, he says [that] the true and precious heritage of antiquity, both natural and revealed knowledge, has been preserved by the Church: “in the bosom and lap thereof, in the greatest injuries of times, ever preserved as holy relics, [were] the books of philosophy and all heathen learning”. [Works VI, 423] (87n27)

Bacon [was] an enthusiastic exponent of the revived grammatical theology and encyclopedia of the arts, which had been neglected by the dialectical Schoolmen: “and lastly in our times (…) when Luther and the divines of the Protestant church on the one side, and the Jesuits on the other, have enterprised to reform, the one the doctrine, the other the discipline and manners of the Church of Rome, (…) both of them [together] have awaked (…) human learning.” [Works VI, 423]13 (87n27)

In the De Augmentis [1623] discussing the relation of dialectics and scientific method, Bacon makes quite explicit that he approves the Old Logic: “And herein Ramus merited better in reviving those excellent rules of propositions that they should be true, universally, primarily, and essentially…”. [Works IX, 128]14 Bacon’s impatience with the “vermiculate questions” of the schoolmen is owing to his conviction that this tradition of logic with its rhetorical topics dealt with arguments and things, while that of the Aristotelians dealt with words only. (105n4)15

  1. Page numbers below, unless otherwise specified, are from the posthumous publication in 2006 of Marshall McLuhan’s 1943 PhD thesis, The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of his Time, retitled as The Classical Trivium and edited by W.T. Gordon.
  2. In papers from the early 1940s which remained unpublished in his lifetime,  McLuhan himself attempted to pursue such “further enlightenment concerning Bacon”. One paper was intended for the Journal of the History of Ideas, but was not revised as the editors wished and never did appear there. Another was intended for an MLA meeting which was cancelled on account of the war. These two papers were eventually published posthumously and will be discussed in future posts in this series.
  3. The dynamics of education — broadly considered as the variable ontological and epistemological foundations of individual and social culture.
  4. The genitive construction, “language of nature”, must be considered both  subjectively and objectively. That is, nature is both the object of this language and its author (or subject). Only when we learn this language can we learn about nature — precisely because it is nature’s own in multiple senses.
  5. The phrase “emergent evolution” points to two times, one that is eruptive or emergent and one that is continuous or in evolution. Times plural are combined in all life and all knowledge.
  6. It is no contradiction when McLuhan sometimes describes Bacon as Ciceronian and sometimes again as anti-Ciceronian. Bacon was a grammarian, in McLuhan’s view, and the crux of grammar derives exactly from its power to hold together without merger such complex matters as anti-Ciceronian dialectic and Ciceronian rhetoric.
  7. In a May 22, 1944 letter to John Randall, editor of the Journal of the History of Ideas, which had rejected a paper on Bacon drawn from his Nashe thesis, McLuhan wrote: “This Bacon paper was intended as a raid, but not as a raid to set up a scholastic regime — merely a raid to upset a mass of complacent cliché.” (Cited by Gordon In Escape into Understanding, 116.)
  8. This notion is, of course, often extended through the observation that everything shows some self-interest, so that there is, therefore, no such thing as the truth of any matter.
  9. McLuhan takes this phrase from St Bonaventure, translated by Gilson in The Philosophy of St. Bonaventure, 479.
  10. At the start of his 2006 edition of the Nashe thesis, W.T. Gordon states that “With the exception of pages 192 to 197 of this edition, published as ‘Cicero and the Renaissance Training for Prince and Poet’ in Renaissance and Reformation Studies VI, 3 (1970), pages 38- 42, none of the material has appeared in print previously.” But this is mistaken. Pages 197 to 202 of his edition appeared in another issue of Renaissance and Reformation Studies (VII:1, 1970, 3-7) as ‘The Ciceronian Program in Pulpit and in Literary Criticism’. Furthermore, Eric McLuhan included many pieces of the thesis in papers he published after his father’s death. Parts of this note, for example, appeared in Eric’s ‘Francis Bacon’s Theory Of Communication And Media’, McLuhan Studies, 1996, Issues 3 and 4.
  11. This is another note from the thesis used by Eric McLuhan in his ‘Francis Bacon’s Theory Of Communication And Media’ essay. See note 10 above for details.
  12. Leibniz, Monadology (1714): “this is the way of obtaining as much variety as possible (…) that is, it is the way of obtaining as much perfection as possible.”
  13. Mcluhan continued: “The Jesuits shared with (…) Bacon the Ciceronian doctrine of the primacy of eloquence and political or civil prudence among the arts and sciences. Without these, knowledge could never, they said, be applied to the relief of man’s fallen state.” (87n27) The conclusion intended here was not that politics or other civil pursuits are more important than the arts and sciences. It was, rather, that all humans understand family and society in some fashion and the key to this understanding is also the key to the arts and sciences. Call it ‘language’ or ‘grammar’ — it is that medium that links the generations in time and the members of family and society in every present. The sciences must understand this key both as something that is, indeed, something that is superlatively, but also as that medium into which they themselves must fully enter if they are to succeed. The arts and sciences must, this is to say, relate to their various subject matters — and know that they thus relate to them — as naturally as family and society members do in their mutual intercourse.
  14. Bacon continues here: “Ramus merited better in reviving those excellent rules (…) than he did in introducing his uniform method and dichotomies; and yet it comes ever to pass, I know not how, that in human affairs (according to the common fiction of the poets) ‘the most precious things have the most pernicious keepers’.” McLuhan was intrigued with the complexity of Bacon’s sentiment here and therefore recommended to his best student at the time, Walter Ong S.J., that he pursue a study of Ramus. In fact, Ong did just this. He went on to complete his PhD on the topic at Harvard a dozen years later — part of which, published as Ramus and Talon Inventory, was dedicated to McLuhan “who started all this”.
  15. Emphasis added. Words are not words merely as sounds or as marks on paper. Indeed, grammar is not properly concerned with words in these ways at all, but with words in essential relation to things.

Stewart Robb

In her 1974 “Intimate look at Marshall McLuhan”, Kaye Rowe mentions a University of Manitoba classmate, Stewart Robb (1909-1991), who was part of an unofficial Monday night study group along with her (she was then Kaye Moreland) and McLuhan. Since Robb graduated from UM in English in 1932 and since the group studied texts for a survey course, this must have been in 1930 or 1931.

The 1931 Brown and Gold yearbook for the University of Manitoba has this thumbnail portrait:

Robb cannot be measured by the common rules of the student body; you can never put your finger on him long enough to decide whether he is goblin or elf, or Puck himself. Here he is distinguished by a love of music, a fly-away temperament, and certain eccentricities. There is a spark of something which promises, when matured, to be at least quite extraordinary.

Like McLuhan, Robb continued at UM after graduating with his B.A. in 1932. He obtained his M.A. there in 1933 with a thesis on Evidences Of Christian Influence In The Epic Of Beowulf. Noteworthy here already is Robb’s familiarity with German, which he would put to use decades later translating Wagner.

An article in The Winnipeg Tribune, December 29, 1934 (p 14) mentions Robb and McLuhan as  studying in Oxford and Cambridge:

The last issue of the [University of Manitoba] “Alumni Journal” In its “Around the Globe” column gives news of (…) Stewart Robb, last year’s I.O.D.E. scholarship man, now spending his second year at Oxford (…) [and] Marshall McLuhan, honors B.A., ’33, [in his first year] at Trinity Hall, Cambridge.1 

The two remained in touch in England: Gordon’s bio (following Letters 70n2) records them meeting at the end of June, 1935, to make a trip together to Belgium and France.2  

Rowe’s characterization of Robb forty years later in her “intimate look” as “the world’s leading authority on Nostradamus” was doubtless accurate:3 

Robb authored many other Nostradamus and parapsychology titles as well.4 But he was up to much more than this.


The liner notes for these 1962 Folkways albums5 describe the artist as follows:

Stewart Robb, harpsichordist, as well as author, lecturer and translator, is a graduate of Oxford and the University of  Manitoba. He is the world’s leading authority on
Nostradamus, and a noted scholar on the Bacon-Shakespeare controversy.6
A regular panel member on WOR’s Long John Nebel [All Night Radio] Show,7 he has also appeared on other radio and television programs, speaking on psychic phenomena and related subjects.
He is equally well known as a harpsichordist. He studied with Fernando Valenti and subsequently has been heard many times on the radio and in concert  performances. He holds an L.A.B. (performer’s degree) in piano from the Associated Board of the London Royal Academy of Music and the London Royal College of Music.
Mr. Robb’s libretto translations have won him praise from leading musical personalities, including Lawrence TibbettHenry Weber, and Frederick Jagel.
His recently published 
translation of the entire Ring of the Nibelung (Dutton, 1960) has been acclaimed by Dr. Sigmund Spaeth; Toscanini’s  assistant, Dr. Walter du Cloux; and the editors of the The Library Journal, and is being used as a text in University classes. This spring his translation of Parsifal will appear in an anthology of Opera Librettos published by Doubleday Music.8

A favorable review of Robb’s Music for the Harpsichord and Virginal appeared the year after its release in a section of Audio magazine called ‘Hi-ways and By-ways’ by Edward Canby.

Record Review of Music for the Harpsichord and Virginal (Stewart Robb, Folkways FM 3320 mono)
Edward Tatnall Canby
Audio (the original magazine about high fidelity!)
47:1, January 1963, p 53
For a long while this Mr. Robb kept calling me to find whether I’d received his record, then whether I’d played it. Since I tend to be swamped with everybody’s records, I was mildly annoyed. Well, I’m happy to say that the disc is really very excellent. He was right. Never heard of “it” [virginal] in the singular before, like a trouser — one normally speaks of the “virginals,” plural, always wondering how “they” came to be that way. “They” are a single small-edition harpsichord, table-model (with or without legs), with a single set of plucked strings and a short keyboard. There was much lovely music in Elizabethan times for the instrument, and Mr. Robb manages to make it sound a lot less monotonous than it can sometimes sound, what with the one, single tone color and loudness available for the playing. On a medium-size harpsichord, Mr. Robb plays a fine long set of later Buxtehude variations on a simple theme. The Italian works by Frescobaldi and several items by Purcell are technically post-virginal but sound out very musically on the little instrument even so.9

Over twenty years later a description of Robb and his virginal appeared in an article describing the 10th anniversary event of the Tustin (California) Historical Society, “A May Day in a Victorian Garden”. Here is an excerpt:

A Shaggy Garden Blooms in Tustin
Richard Buffum
Los Angeles Times, May 11, 1986

Ah, spring, sweet spring in a Victorian garden, while sipping tea and listening to ancient music played upon a virginal, a type of early harpsichord, while beside my feet oregano grows rampant and overhead a great lemon tree dangles fruit the size of baseballs. Over the Minuet in G, over the hum of voices of others at tea, from behind the avocado trees and the giant pecan tree, from beyond the old barn, the honking of geese is heard.  After tea (…) I excuse myself to talk with the virginal player, Stewart Robb.
Robb and his wife, Marilyn, who accompanies him on the violin, are from up the road in Anaheim. He says he has been playing the same virginal, a small rectangular keyboard instrument of the 16th Century, for the past 30 years. Its strings are plucked with plectrums of leather.
“Look,” says Robb, “look at those keys.” They had worn depressions in their wood. “They are from my fingers playing on them over the years.”
It seems that the instrument, which can be set upon any convenient table, appears to be 400 years old. But it is a replica, he says, built by a friend of 30 years ago.
Robb plays from memory the oldest piece he knows, a 15th-Century dance tune named “My Lady Carrie’s Dump.” He cautions me not to be misled by the last word in the title, explaining that it was a form of dance.


  1.  McLuhan obtained the same I.O.D.E. scholarship for, according to Letters 18, 1934-1935. But it is plain from McLuhan’s correspondence from Cambridge that his scholarship did not kick in until the start of the school-year in the fall of 1935. For his travel, tuition and living expenses in 1934-1935 he had to rely on a small travel grant from UM together with money from his family. During this time he was frequently down to his last pound. See The Winnipeg Tribune, December 3, 1934 (p 3) : “McLUHAN AWARDED I.O.D.E. SCHOLARSHIP (…) Herbert Marshall McLuhan, M.A., a graduate of the University of Manitoba, has been awarded the I.O.D.E. ‘War Memorial Overseas post-graduate scholarship for 1935, it was announced today (…) The award which is made annually in each province of the Dominion, consists of some $1,400, covering McLuhan one year’s tuition in a British university. This will enable Mr. McLuhan to complete his Bachelor of Arts course at Trinity (Hall) college, Cambridge, which he commenced last year when awarded a Travelling Fellowship by the University of Manitoba.”
  2.  Escape into Understanding: “McLuhan remained in Cambridge until the end of June 1935, meeting then with his Winnipeg friend Stewart Robb, a student at Oxford, and sailing from Harwich for Belgium” (58). The Letters note followed by Gordon here indicates that there are unpublished McLuhan letters in Ottawa describing this trip to the continent which could not be included in the volume “for reasons of space”. Indeed, according to Corinne McLuhan, the original Letters manuscript amounted to four volumes, but OUP would agree to issue only one. The work of the editors, including Corinne, had to be reduced by 75%.
  3.  Robb: “There is only one Nostradamus. There is only one Bach, one Beethoven, one Nostradamus.” (Talk delivered at the 1967 Congress of Scientific UFOlogists, June 23-25, 1967, Commodore Hotel, New York City. See pages 26-30 of the transcript for Robb’s remarks.)
  4. Nostradamus on Napoleon, Hitler and the present crisis (1942); Letters on Nostradamus and miscellaneous writings (1945); Nostradamus and the end of evil (1983); Nostradamus and the end of evils begun (1984). Parapsychology titles from Robb included Strange prophecies that came true (1967), True spirit stories from the beyond (1969) and More true spirit stories from the beyond (1970). Regarding parapsychology, New University, the campus newspaper of UC Irvine, in an item from December 2, 1969, reported the following event for that evening: “The alleged posthumous voice of George Bernard Shaw will be heard on tape this evening at the Psynetics Foundation. The event, which will be open to the public, will take place during the third in a series of weekly lectures on parapsychology and mediumship being given by the musician and author, Stewart Robb of Anaheim. The lecture is scheduled to start at 8 o’clock in the main meeting room of the foundation, 1135 Barkley Avenue, Orange. (New University, 2:17, December 2, 1969,  p 2.) Kandi Roche from Hundred, WV, reported in what amounts to a testimonial that she “learned how to capture & record sounds & voices of entities from the other side (in a course) “Exploring Parapsychology” taught by Stewart Robb, Cal State Fullerton, 1975.” The voices of the dead came from an unknown future: so, for Robb, also Nostradamus — but while he was still with us in the present.
  5.  Music for the Harpsichord and Virginal, FM 3320, and Music for the  Virginal FM 3321, both recorded in 1961.
  6. Both Robb and McLuhan were trained in Winnipeg and the UK in the literature of the English renaissance. Robb published three pieces in Baconiana, the publication of The Francis Bacon Society: ‘Shakespeare and Cambridge University’, xxxiii:132, summer 1949; ‘Shakespeare’s Schoolboy Howlers’, xxxiv:134, January 1950; and Francis Bacon, Macbeth and James I‘, xxxv:141, autumn 1951. Bacon and Shakespeare appear very frequently in McLuhan as well, of course, though not in regard to the authorship controversy. McLuhan published ‘Henry IV, A Mirror for Magistrates’ in UTQ, 1948, just before Robb’s ‘Shakespeare and Cambridge University’ in 1949.
  7. Robb is mentioned several times in Nebel’s book, The Way Out World. Nebel’s other book, The Psychic World Around Us is to be found “sanitized” and “approved for release” in the CIA reading room.
  8. Later translations of Wagner operas by Robb included Das Rheingold: English version (Schirmer, 1960), Lohengrin (Schirmer, 1963), Der fliegende Holländer (Dutton, 1964) and Tristan and Isolde (Dutton, 1965).
  9. Canby concluded his short review with a technical recommendation: “Note that this is a kind of absolute recording, i.e. with almost no liveness (reverberation time). Play it at the absolute loudness of the instruments themselves.”

The essential plurality of the forms of being

McLuhan’s Ph.D. thesis from 1943, The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of his Time, retitled as The Classical Trivium, was edited and published 25 years after his death by W.T. Gordon. In his ‘Editor’s Introduction’, Gordon cites some notes from McLuhan written in the 1960s:1

I think it can be shown that the general cultural confusion and merging of the past century or so has been favorable to the rebirth of grammatica in its ancient sense— a sense even wider than that in which Vives or Bacon understood it and a sense more profound than current semantic studies provide. (…) The pursuit of psychological order in the midst of a material and political chaos is of the essence of grammatica. Thus modern symbolism in art and literature corresponds to ancient [grammatical] allegory. (…) Of course, the weakness of grammatica is that it never seems able to avail itself of the aids of dialectics and philosophy.2

As described by Gordon, these notes went back twenty-some years from the 1960s to the early 1940s when McLuhan was writing his thesis on the three arts of the trivium: rhetoric, grammar and dialectic. But in fact they had roots a decade earlier in McLuhan’s work with Rupert Lodge at the University of Manitoba in the early 1930s.

Lodge’s ‘comparative method‘ for philosophy postulated that it has three irreducible forms: realism, pragmatism and idealism. As illustrated by the obvious parallel between this notion and McLuhan’s investigation of the trivium in his Nashe thesis a decade later, he was so deeply taken by this idea of an essential threefold plurality that he would continue relentlessly to probe it in various ways all during the half century of his subsequent work.3

Even while he was working closely with Lodge, however, McLuhan suspected that Lodge’s restriction of the notion to philosophy was questionable. How could essential plurality be limited to a single discipline? Hence, in his 1934 Manitoba M.A. thesis on George Meredith, McLuhan gave what was at once a nod to Lodge and an implicit criticism of him:

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

This same critique was forcibly expressed twenty years later in a 1954 letter to Walter Ong, who had been McLuhan’s student at St Louis University in the early 1940s when McLuhan was writing his Nashe thesis:

I realize now that my own rejection of philosophy as a study in my pre-Catholic days4 was owing to the sense that it was a meaningless truncation.5

“Meaningless” here may have been intended to correlate with “pre-Catholic” and in this case could be brought together with McLuhan’s explicit critique of Lodge in a 1935 letter to his family from Cambridge:

Lodge is a decided Platonist and I learned [to think] that way as long as I was trying to interpret Christianity in terms of comparative religion. Having perceived the sterility of that process, I now realize that Aristotle is the soundest basis for Xian doctrine.6

But it may also have had the sense of “unaccountable”, “counterproductive”, even “contradictory”. For if it is the first business of thought to be dynamic in regard both to what it studies and how it studies — that is, both to investigate fundamental plurality7 and itself to be fundamental plurality — it must always and only be the practice of anti-truncation.8

The short concluding chapter on Thomas Nashe in McLuhan’s Ph.D. thesis may be used to illustrate the point at stake.

Nashe was thus a fulIy enlightened protagonist in an ancient quarrel (…) It was not a quarrel between Catholic and Protestant, but a dispute about methods of exegesis in theology and preaching, concerning which some [on each side of the divide between] Catholics and Protestants held patristic views and some held to scholastic positions. (The Classical Trivium, 226)

Elsewhere in the chapter, the dispute is said to have concerned “the way of right studie” (217), “the authority of Aristotle“,9 (229),  the “mode of eloquence” (235), the “mode of theology” (235), and “conflicting rhetorics” (253).

In a word, the “ancient quarrel” concerned “at once (…) style and doctrine” (242). A truncation to the latter alone — the charge against Lodge — represented a problematic limitation of both the objective matter of investigation and of the investigating subjects’s own focus and method. 

The notes published by Gordon cited at the start of this post returned to the same theme, but now reversed: just as philosophy needed in 1934 to be open to “literary or artistic expression”,10 aka to grammatica, so in the 1960s grammatica had to be open to “dialectics and  philosophy”. The question was always how to investigate the matter of irreducible plurality — first of all by being it.

  1. Gordon gives no reference, but these are apparently to be found in McLuhan’s papers in Ottawa.
  2. W.T. Gordon, ‘Editor’s Introduction’ to McLuhan, The Classical Trivium, 2005, xi.
  3. The fundamental threefold in McLuhan’s 1960-1980 work in “understanding media” may be seen in his determination that the Gutenberg galaxy is inherently dualistic and that it cannot equally valorize both horns of its dilemma without also valorizing their medium. Since the latter was the signal difference between electric configuration and that of the Gutenberg galaxy, the result was to posit three basic forms (the two horns + their metamorphic dialogue or resonance) each with a characteristic estimate of the possibility of positive relation to its other (“the medium is the message”): each of the horns refusing it and the electric embracing it. The unavoidable (yet universally avoided) ‘main question’ followed: how to understand the implicated positive relation of the all-at-once electric to its other, namely, the inherently dualistic assembly line of print? If there were no such positive relation, the electric would itself be one horn of a dilemma vis-a-vis print and hence not electric at all. (Thus McLuhan’s observation in a May 13, 1975 letter to Don and Louise Cowan cited in Gordon’s Escape into Understanding bio, p 260: “The phrase — ‘Print Oriented Bastards’ — was invented by John Culkin and has never been used by me in conversation. The feeling of animus in it is not characteristic of me.”) But this concern for fundamental relation across fundamental difference was, of course, exactly the chief preoccupation of Rupert Lodge: “As the speculative construction of interpretations which essentially admit of alternatives, philosophy is necessarily sceptical of (any and all) one-sided claims; and its proper method of study is necessarily comparative.” (‘The Comparative Method in Philosophy’, 1937, 432, ‘any and all’ added here.) Amazingly, McLuhan’s 1960-1980 investigations of media, which represented the final form of his long engagement with the thought of Rupert Lodge, did so on the basis of the work of McLuhan’s other University of Manitoba philosophy professor, Henry Wright. For it was Wright who introduced McLuhan to the importance of communications and media in all aspects of human being (verbal) and who grounded this importance in the roots of media in the human psyche. See Henry Wilkes Wright 2 for citation and discussion.
  4. McLuhan converted in 1937, but he seems to be referring here to the period around 1934 when he was beginning the study of Catholicism that led to his conversion. He felt a tension then between Lodge’s philosophy and the Church which he decided in favor of the latter. Over the next decade, however, he would gradually find a way to reconcile the two, especially in the philosophical-theological work of his future colleague at St Michael’s, Étienne Gilson. His Nashe thesis was a formulation of this reconciliation.
  5. October 14, 1954, Letters 244.
  6. McLuhan to Elsie, Herbert & Maurice McLuhan, February 1935, Letters 53.
  7. Dynamism implicates plurality since it is the movement between two states, or two levels, or two times. Meanwhile, the fundamental must be dynamic since it necessarily exists only in contrast to the non-fundamental and the relation between the two must be dynamic in some way.
  8. McLuhan’s rejection of philosophy may usefully be compared and contrasted to that of Verlinde as discussed in Verlinde and the aversion to philosophy. For Verlinde, philosophy is too unscientific. For McLuhan, it might be said, it was too scientific.
  9. Full passage: “The responsible historian should guard himself from repeating the opinion that the ‘authority of Aristotle’ was absolute at any time in the history of European thought” (229).
  10. The phrase is from the Meredith thesis cited in full above.

Verlinde and the aversion to philosophy

After his Delft lecture, Verlinde gave this answer to a question about the possibility of a theory of everything:

I don’t even want to go into the direction of religion or this kind of thing because for me that’s philosophy. What I can do with my equations is only estimate how much information is there, what it’s doing and for us that’s enough. And so I don’t think that that question is part of what we need to answer as physicists. (63:46ff)

It may be guessed that Verlinde has been criticized in the physics community for a tendency to ‘philosophy’. This might especially come from physicists like Lee Smolin who are insistent realists. Here is Smolin in an April 2019 Perimeter Institute lecture, ‘Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution‘:

I don’t want a theory of myself intervening with nature or having a conversation about nature. I’m doing science because I want to understand how nature is in our absence. (…) After all, through most of the history of the universe (…) we weren’t there. So our knowing, believing, thinking, intervening, preparing, measuring shouldn’t play a role in what fundamentally the atoms and the elementary particles are doing.1 (…) Those of us are realists believe that nature exists independently of our knowledge and beliefs about it, and that the properties of systems in nature can be characterized and understood independent of our existence and our manipulations. That’s what I mean by a realist. (12:20ff)2

Since information is a primitive property3 of the universe for Verlinde,4 and since information is necessarily implicated in the “knowing, believing, thinking, intervening, preparing, measuring” rejected by Smolin, Verlinde might seem to violate Smolin’s strictures in the very foundations of his work.  It may well be, then, that his declared aversion to ‘philosophy’ is an apotropaic attempt to deflect such criticism away from his research at the outset. ‘I’m not declaring myself in either of the realist-idealist directions’, he might be seen as assuring Smolin and other realists, ‘I’m just doing my work — please look at my equations before judging what I’m up to.’

Now McLuhan’s undergraduate mentor at the University of Manitoba, Rupert Lodge, held that philosophy comes in three flavors5 — realism, pragmatism and idealism.6 And Verlinde’s portrayal of his research might be seen as typical of the middle position of Lodge’s three forms, that of the ‘pragmatist’:

Realism interprets experience as a kind of being, idealism as a kind of knowing. It is easy to see that (…) both realism and idealism are one-sided. Experience has been split up into two aspects, and then the whole has been interpreted exclusively in terms of one of its aspects. It is all nature, or all mind. The extreme forms of these views have always invited criticism. (…) Consequently a third type of philosophy has tended to develop: a philosophy which tries to be true to experience, and to avoid all abstract and one-sided theorizings. This attempt at interpretation has taken many forms. One of the best known is called “pragmatism”.7

However, despite its declared wish “to avoid all abstract and one-sided theorizings”, such as might seem to characterize only realism and idealism, Lodge saw pragmatism as falling prey to this same ambition (or, at least, the same fate).8 He therefore explicitly rejected it as philosophy’s “proper method of study”:

If philosophy is essentially speculative, an affair of alternative possibilities, I must study those alternative possibilities, and must not, in my enthusiasm for realism (or idealism or pragmatism)9 close my eyes to alternative possibilities. In so far as any one alternative (…) refuses to be regarded as one alternative amongst others, and claims to be in exclusive possession of the whole truth, I must be sceptical of its claims. In fact, in so far as it ceases to be sceptical about its own claims, and becomes [for example] (…) convinced pragmatism, it loses its open-mindedness and is really ceasing to be truly speculative and philosophical.10 ln a word, it is precisely such one-sided philosophizing which is anti-philosophical, and not comparative philosophy, with its scepticism directed against one-sidedness. As the speculative construction of interpretations which essentially admit of alternatives, philosophy is necessarily sceptical of [any and all] one-sided claims; and its proper method of study is necessarily comparative. 11

For Lodge, the essential thing was to reject every form of “one-sidedness” and to remain “necessarily comparative”. Such fundamental pluralism in Lodge’s work — and of McLuhan’s in “understanding media” as opposed to ‘understanding the medium’ — is also to be found in Verlinde, notably in his attention to entangement:

  • [Qubits] can do something called being entangled in the sense that one qubit, here, is doing the same thing as another one somewhere else [over there]. This is two qubits that are entangled, where the zero of one [qubit] is combined with a zero of the other, or the 1 of the one [qubit] is combined with the 1 of the other. This is an example of entanglement.  So this is the language we’re going to use to consider even our universe — we’re going to think about the universe in terms of information and also in terms of this entangled quantum information. (8:22ff)
  • it’s the power of quantum mechanics, it’s the essence of quantum mechanics that we have entanglement. And our [whole] universe [itself] is very entangled. (47.45ff)

The many implications of entanglement are of fundamental importance and will be considered in future posts. Suffice it to note here only that, at a minimum, entanglement entails plurality — and if Lodge and Verlinde are followed, this means essential plurality characterizing the very ontology of everything that exists.12 In this case, plurality cannot not characterize philosophy simply insofar as it is part of the furniture of the universe. And if philosophy, too, is essentially plural, it (it!) cannot be waved away as Verlinde does in his answer to the question in Delft (as cited above). Indeed, as Smolin illustrates, even a decided realist can see value to philosophy in at least some of its necessarily plural senses:

Philosophy cannot settle scientific questions, but it has a role to play. A bit of philosophical thought may prevent us from getting hung up on a bad idea, and the record of people who have struggled with the deep questions we face, such as the meaning of time and space, may suggest new hypotheses for us to play with. (The Life of the Cosmos, 1997, 21)

But a stronger claim may be made for philosophy in physics if (a) theory is required to do physics at all13 and if, as Lodge claimed, (b) philosophy is the comparative investigation of the field of fundamental theories.

As to the first, Eric McLuhan in a lecture claiming his father had no theories, yet somehow managed to cite Stephen Hawking as follows:

“[W]e cannot distinguish what is real about the universe without a theory,” [Hawking] writes. A good, elegant theory will describe a wide array of observations and predict the results of new ones. “Beyond that, it makes no sense,” he points out “to ask if [a theory] corresponds to reality, because we do not know what reality is independent of a theory”.14

Hawking’s claim that “it is no good appealing to reality”15 is, of course, not “model independent”16 itself. So it would appear that, if theory is necessary to do physics at all, and if theory is necessarily plural, something like Lodge’s philosophy as the “speculative construction of interpretations which essentially admit of alternatives” must be applicable within physics before any assurance from it that “it is no good appealing to reality”. Or, of course, before ‘it’ is dismissed out of hand.17

  1. Compare Verlinde: “there might be a way of thinking about gravity in a different way than what Einstein told us by thinking about the microscopic structure of space-time, not in the language of particles (…) but thinking about more fundamental building blocks in terms of information and in particular its quantum properties.”  (Perimeter, 36:58ff)
  2. This is the auto-generated transcript of Smolin’s Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution lecture at YouTube, corrected against the audio.
  3. It may be wondered if ‘property’ is the correct term here as opposed to possible alternatives such as ‘substance’ or ‘structure’ or ‘formation’.
  4. Information (is) contained in everything that nature is made of, even space and time” (Delft 5:15ff); “we’re going to think about the universe where we think about the basic building blocks as being information. This is maybe a way of phrasing it: that we live in an information universe not an information world. The whole universe is revolving around information” (Delft, 6:21ff).
  5. Comparable, perhaps, to the division in nature between mineral, vegetable and animal or to the states of matter between solid, liquid and gas.
  6. See Quantum communications (the implications of essential plurality) and the Lodge posts generally.
  7.  ‘The Comparative Method in Philosophy’, in Manitoba Essays, ed Lodge, 1937, 405-432, here 413.
  8. Lodge’s interesting point seems to have been that one-sidedness is not, or is not only, a potential property internal to a philosophical position, but is also and above all a property of its external relations with other philosophical positions!
  9. This bracketed insertion is original to Lodge.
  10. Lodge: “in so far as it ceases to be sceptical about its own claims, and becomes convinced realism (or convinced idealism or convinced pragmatism), it loses its open-mindedness”. The bracketed insertion is from Lodge.
  11.  ‘The Comparative Method in Philosophy’, 432.
  12. It might be objected that Lodge’s three forms concern philosophy and not, at least not explicitly, ontology.  But this is to overlook the question at stake in those forms, namely, the relation of mind to nature. Restricting his forms to thought means to decide that question in an idealist manner and hence to contradict Lodge’s demand for a “comparative” method.
  13. Required to do physics at all — or to do philosophy at all or, indeed, to do anything at all as a human being.
  14. Eric McLuhan, ‘Marshall McLuhan’s Theory of Communication: The Yegg, Global Media Journal — Canadian Edition, 1:1, 25-43, here 28, citing Hawking, Black Holes and Baby Universes, 1993.  Hawking’s full passage: “If what we regard as real depends on our theory, how can we make reality the basis of our philosophy? I say that I am a realist in the sense that I think there is a universe out there waiting to be investigated and understood. (…) Beyond that, it makes no sense to ask if (a theory) corresponds to reality, because we do not know what reality is independent of a theory. This view of scientific theories may make me an instrumentalist or a positivist (…) I have been called both. (…) It is no good appealing to reality because we don’t have a model independent concept of reality.” (44)
  15. See previous note.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Curiously, this is just the conclusion which the arch-realist Smolin puts forward: “What might it mean to extend science to encompass the whole universe? Is it possible to describe the whole of the universe in scientific terms? And, if it is possible, how must we modify our current theories in order to be able to do this? I have come to believe that this is the central issue that we must confront if we are to solve many of the key open problems in theoretical physics. How we think about the universe as a whole affects such apparently diverse questions as the problem of unifying quantum theory with general relativity, the problem of understanding the origin of the properties of the elementary particles, the problems of the interpretation of the quantum theory, the problem of what “caused” the Big Bang, and the question of why the universe is hospitable to life. These are all problems we have so far failed to solve (…) In my view, part of the reason for this (failure) is that we have not paid enough attention to the ways in which a theory that could be sensibly applied to the whole universe must differ from our present theories. (The Life of the Cosmos, 12-13) Or again from Smolin, and more strongly: “If not for the philosophers, who is going to have the courage to tell the physicists when quantum theory, or another of our constructions, just cannot be made sense of? In the past, philosophers like Leibniz did not hesitate to tell physicists when they were speaking nonsense. Why now, when at least as much is at stake, are the philosophers so polite? (The Life of the Cosmos, 195)

Verlinde: Physics in the Information Age

On October 5, 2017, Eric Verlinde gave a lecture on A New View on Gravity and the Dark Side of the Cosmos.1 Many of the points Verlinde made in developing his lecture recapitulated insights which Marshall McLuhan repeatedly urged beginning in the early 1950’s. This was almost 70 years before Verlinde’s lecture held at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo Ontario — 70 miles from McLuhan’s base in Toronto. 

Here is McLuhan writing to Harold Innis in 1951:

One major discovery of the symbolists which had the greatest importance for subsequent investigation was their notion of the learning process as a labyrinth of the senses and faculties whose retracing provided the key to all arts and sciences.

And here is Verlinde retracing McLuhan along this labyrinthine way in a whole series of inter-related points:2

Technology and Thought

McLuhan in 1967:

  • this kind of [technological] revolution is one in which (…) all of us [are] actually living and it enables all sorts of things to appear and to be noticed for the first time that had previously been unobservable. This [is the] principle that whenever a new technology develops it creates a new environment for the whole culture…3

Verlinde in 2017:

  • The way that science progresses has very much to do with the times that we live in and with the technology that we use. Science helps us to develop technology but also our current technology influences the way we think about science. (4:33ff)
  • The revolutions in the 19th century were very much related to the existence of the steam engine. Now in the [20th] century we developed televisions and other things and a television, if you think about it, is actually a particle accelerator. It accelerates electrons which are moved around with electric fields and are projected on a screen and then we see photons coming out. So the ideas of forces and particles is really the language of the 20th century and there our understanding of nature was in terms of the most fundamental building blocks, which are elementary particles, and the fundamental forces. So we built theoretical physics using that language. Today we are already far in the 21st century and again we have a different type of technology — smartphones, computers, big data. (5:20ff)

Age of Information

McLuhan in 1958:

  • Today the movement, packaging and transfer of information is the world’s largest industry. The consuming of information in multiple-packaged form has become the largest occupation of mankind. The packaging and moving of information has transformed the globe into a community of learning. Since technology has undertaken the transfer of information the entire globe has become an adult education centre.4
  • General Motors is a small operation compared to the electronic processing and packaging of information. The moving of information itself has become by far the largest industry in the world. The consuming of information, electronically processed, is by far the largest activity today.5

Verlinde in 2017:

  • Most of what we’re doing every day has to do somehow with information and that’s again a new language and this is again influencing the way we think about science. Today the new view on gravity has to do with information.  And because this is basically the language that we’re developing in our current century, we live in an Information Age. (6:17ff)
  • My new view on gravity has to do with a new view on the universe [as] built out of information and we’re going to understand the forces in it, in particular gravity, in terms of this new language [of information]. (8:27ff)
  • Information [is] contained in everything that nature is made of, even space and time. (Delft 5:15ff) 
  • we’re going to think about the universe where we think about the basic building blocks as being information. This is maybe a way of phrasing it: that we live in an information universe not an information world. The whole universe is revolving around information (Delft, 6:21ff) 

The Medium is the Message

McLuhan in 1953

  • the fury for change is in the form and not the message of the new media6

Verlinde in 2017:

  • But what is information? You might say, well it’s what I read in a newspaper because I’m interested in certain things. But there’s also an abstract way to think about information in terms of the way it’s stored in bits and then we don’t look at what is written somewhere, we just count for instance how many bits we have, how many bytes. And so I will think about information in this more abstract way so that we’re going to talk even about information that we cannot really access, but we still have a way of counting it by saying how many bits are used. (6:41ff)
  • So what indeed is information? I mean, it’s stored in bits and it is sort of unimportant (…) what is written there. You just count for instance how many bits you have and that tells you how much information you in principle can store, say on a chip or even in other parts of nature. (Delft 5:20ff)  
  • The link between entropy and information is going to be important, so if I talk about information later on and you wonder what I really mean, it’s counting the number of bits. (13:15ff)
  • There’s also another development going on, namely, we make things smaller and smaller and then we arrive at even sub-atomic scales or atomic scales where things become quantum mechanical. Then information has another meaning again because in quantum mechanics you get something called qubits. Not bits like zeros and ones but there’s also things that are somewhere in between. Qubits are funny objects because they can do things that are possible only in quantum mechanics — they can namely not just be 0 and 1 but can be something in the middle. (7:16ff)


McLuhan in 1963:

  • The (…) simultaneous character of electrical information coverage tends to create ‘field’ rather than point of view. And ‘field’ necessarily partakes of the character of interplay or of dialogue.7

Verlinde in 2017:

  • [Qubits] can do something called being entangled in the sense that one qubit here is doing the same thing as another one somewhere else. This is two qubits that are entangled, where the zero of one [qubit] is combined with a zero of the other, or the 1 of the one [qubit] is combined with the 1 of the other. This is an example of entanglement.  So this is the language we’re going to use to consider even our universewe’re going to think about the universe in terms of information and also in terms of this entangled quantum information. (8:00ff)
  • it’s the power of quantum mechanics, it’s the essence of quantum mechanics that we have entanglement. And our  [whole] universe [itself] is very entangled. (47.45ff)
  • Information [is] contained in everything that nature is made of, even space and time. (Delft: 5:15ff)


McLuhan in 1968:

  • As painters well know, space is created or evoked by all manner of associations among colors, textures (…) and their intervals.8

Verlinde in 2017:

  • And this is the same in nature — if we ask what things are made of, then some of the terms that we use, like maybe even matter or space and time, may not exist [as such at microscopic scale]. This is an indication of the way we are going in this lecture — and let me tell you then what the term [for this phenomenon] is: it’s called emergence. Mainly we use concepts and observe phenomena at macroscopic scales, which are derived from the microscopic scale but have a priori no meaning in that language [of the microscopic scale]. So the language that we use at macroscopic scales is different than the microscopic and we use concepts and things that are not meaningful [at microscopic scale], so we have to derive them… (10:02ff)

Emotion of Multitude

McLuhan in 1967:

  • the emotion of multitude (…) is a state in which we live constantly, that is, on the border. We live constantly in two worlds…9

Verlinde in 2017:

  • Bits are zeros and ones, quantum bits are also zeros and ones, but (…) [the quantum bit] can also be something in the middle and we call that a superposition (…) and this is why a qubit has many more possibilities [than bits]. (45.53ff)
  • A bit has only two possibilities, zero [or] one — [but] a qubit can be thought of as a sphere [where] all points on this sphere is a different state of that qubit and this is why if you do calculation with qubits, you’re doing many calculations at the same time — [using] many more bits than we normally have in a classical computer. In a quantum calculation you do all these things in parallel — all calculations are being done at the same time. This is why quantum computers are much more powerful [than classical computers]. (46.18ff)

Sphere of Meaning

McLuhan in 1960:

  • Today it is axiomatic that we live in a global space fed by information from every point on the sphere at the same time.10

Verlinde in 2017:

  • a qubit can be thought of as a sphere [where each] point on this sphere is a different [possible] state of that qubit (46:20ff)


McLuhan in 1967:

  • Ours is a brand-new world of allatonceness. ‘Time’ has ceased…11

Verlinde in 2017:

  • if you do calculation with qubits, you’re doing many calculations at the same time (…) In a quantum calculation you do all these things parallel — all calculations are being done at the same time. (46:28ff)
  • if you measure an [entangled] object (…) here, it can determine the outcome of a measurement somewhere else [over there]. Instantaneously. (47.18ff)

McLuhan held that art is always out ahead of science by a generation or two. So when Verlinde retraces McLuhan, it may be wondered if there are further aspects of McLuhan’s work which have not yet come to light in physics and which might help to solve outstanding problems in its investigations.

In fact, it is not at all merely McLuhan’s work that is of potential use to Verlinde’s physics. Instead, McLuhan may be regarded as a door opening onto both contemporary developments in the humanities and social sciences, as well as onto their long history. Entanglement (for example) has been considered for millennia in many different cultural traditions. Here is Heraclitus 2500 years ago:

ὁδὸς ἄνω κάτω μία καὶ ὡυτή12

Given such a long and varied history, it would be very strange if did not include the discovery and specification of ideas which physicists have not yet considered — but which could turn out to be critical for their research.

  1. On March 19, 2018 at Delft, Verlinde loosely repeated his Perimeter talk with a lecture called ‘A New View on Gravity and the Cosmos‘. Some of his formulations in this later lecture offer interesting variations on his earlier one at Perimeter.
  2. The remarkable thing between Verlinde and McLuhan (aside from the fact that McLuhan had these insights a half century ago), is not the number of similar points in the work of both, but the similar shape which the ensemble of these points takes for each of them. The passages cited from Verlinde’s lectures are taken from the auto-generated transcripts of the two ‘New View of Gravity’ lectures in YouTube.  They have been lightly edited to correct mistakes in the auto-transcription. The time stamps given in each case make it easy, of course, to proof Verlinde’s actual words.
  3. The Technological Unconscious‘, Inaugural Lecture at Fordham, September 18, 1967, 9:47ff.
  4. Radio in the Future of Canada’, lecture at UBC in Vancouver, May 5, 1958.
  5. Our New Electronic Culture’, lecture held 26 May 1958, printed in NAEB Journal, 18:1, October 1958.
  6. Culture Without Literacy’, Explorations 1, Dec 1953. McLuhan in 1958: “The medium is the message. (…) It follows that if we study any medium carefully we shall discover its total dynamics and its unreleased powers. (Our New Electronic Culture’, lecture held 26 May 1958, printed in NAEB Journal, 18:1, October 1958.) McLuhan’s signature phrase has three entangled meanings: (1) form not content; (2) different forms have different middles or media and these forms can be classified on the basis of those different middles — so the middle is “where the action is” since it determines the form of the form (comparable to how the number of electrons and protons determine the particular form of the general form (EnPn) of chemical elements); (3) The middle is “where the action is”  because all messages are grounded in it — nothing comes to light except from some impetus out of the superposition of possibilities there.
  7. ‘We need a new picture of knowledge’, Yearbook: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1963.
  8. Through the Vanishing Point, 1968, 6. Interestingly, Verlinde, exactly like McLuhan, uses a picture to illustrate what he means by emergence. He shows his audience a few pixels of a picture which have no discernible significance at that level of detail (Perimeter, 8:53ff; Delft 6:53ff). Emergence is then shown in action when he pulls back to reveal the picture composed of those and many thousands of other pixels — just as in McLuhan’s painted picture where “space is created or evoked by associations among colors, textures (…) and their intervals”.
  9. ‘Canada: the Borderline Case’, 1967. For McLuhan and Yeats’ 1903 ‘Emotion of Multitude’ see Lévi-Strauss on method in anthropology.
  10.  Report on Project in Understanding, ‘Materials Developed for the Project’. Cf, McLuhan in 1970: “Without the interval (between them), there would be neither wheel nor axle. It is this resonant interval that constitutes the chemical bond, according to Linus Pauling (1939) in The Nature of the Chemical Bond. Heisenberg (1927) had pointed this out as relevant to quantum mechanics. What the Japanese call MA, the significant space between forms, evokes the world of auditory or acoustic space. It is the peculiar character of acoustic space, constituted by the act of hearing from all directions at once, that it is a sphere whose centre is everywhere and whose margin is nowhere.” (‘Discontinuity and Communication in Literature’, lecture given at University College, Toronto, Nov 21, 1970, printed in P. R. Leon, ed, Problèmes de L’Analyse Textuelle/Problems of Textual Analysis, 189-199, 1971.)
  11. The Medium is the Massage, 1967, 63.
  12. The way up and the way down are one and the same (DK B60). The sayings of Heraclitus have been investigated from Plato to Eliot (whose Four Quartets used this B60 fragment as one of its two epigrams from Heraclitus).

Quantum communications (the implications of essential plurality)

All media are active metaphors in their power to translate experience into new forms. The spoken word was the first technology by which man was able to let go of his environment in order to grasp it in a new way. (Understanding Media)1

the ratio2 among sight and sound, and touch3 (…) offer[s] precisely that place to stand which Archimedes asked for: “Give me a place to stand, and I will move the world.” The media [as defined by the elementary structure of this ratio] offer exactly such a place to stand, for they are extensions of our senses, if need be into outer space. (Effects of the Improvements of Communication Media, 1960)

inputs are never the same as (…) outputs! This pattern of non-lineality is evident in every human activity. (Take Today, 137).4

Reading Heisenberg has made me feel that my media studies are at the state that nuclear studies had reached in 1924. But my heart sinks, because those nuclear studies were being urged forward by eager teams, and media studies enjoys no such support at all. But I am bold [enough] to say that many of the same techniques and concepts are needed for advancing media studies as were used for nuclear studies. But there is the huge difference, that media studies involve human lives far more profoundly than nuclear studies ever have done, or ever can do. (McLuhan to E.T. Hall)5

The signature suggestion of McLuhan’s undergraduate mentor at the University of Manitoba, Rupert Lodge, was that philosophy — and by extension truth and reality6 — comes in three irreducible flavors: realism, idealism and pragmatism:7

If philosophers are to come down from their ivory tower and be of some practical use in the world — as is so often demanded nowadays — one great difficulty which they must somehow surmount is the difficulty occasioned by their internecine differences. There are, roughly speaking, three schools of philosophy (…): realism, idealism, and pragmatism. Each has many branches, concerning which, qualifications might have to be introduced; but taken as wholes, the three are fundamentally distinct. (…) Each of these schools exploits a particular kind of explanatory hypothesis. Realism exploits what Aristotle called the “material cause,” idealism the “formal cause” and pragmatism the “efficient cause”. These lines of explanation as followed by the three philosophical schools, are not only different. They are divergent. The methods, backgrounds, and outlooks of the three schools become increasingly different. Even where they all use the same words, they understand them in distinctive senses. They compete with each other over the whole field of experience, and, as far as they can, negate each other’s explanatory efforts. To the practical mind, philosophers appear to be engaged in a sort of triangular duel.8

Lodge was interested in the “practical use” of his ideas in education, business and throughout society, taking his three different possibilities more or less at face value. The central questions for him were: how to recognize the basic forms? how to interrogate their influence throughout the life of the individual and society?  how to put to use the ever-present possibility of other approaches? McLuhan took over the importance of these questions, but also intuited that the further exploration of the implications of such pluralism might be of critical importance in a global village where truths and worldviews were increasingly in deadly conflict with one another and with the physical environment. This would lead him in the direction of what might be termed a quantum theory of information and communication.

The central implication of Lodge’s threefold proposal, McLuhan eventually found, was that no human experience can be continuous on its preceding moment or input. As he recorded in Project in Understanding New Media: “Early in 1960 it dawned on me that the sensory impression proffered by a medium like movie or radio, was not the sensory effect obtained.”9

If input and output were connected in some continuum, a plurality of different fundamental approaches to experience would not be possible.

No fundamental approach can be based on a previous one since in this case it would no longer be primary — it would be secondary on that earlier basis and itself not basic at all. Instead, a fundamental approach must be able to bootstrap itself as its own cause on its own base or ground. Further, this possibility of bootstrap auto-ignition must be synchronic — always available and always active — since, were this not the case, experience would at least sometimes be continuous on previous moments. At such hypothetical times, the activation of the supposedly fundamental approaches would be repressed or cancelled by continuity. Here again they would not be fundamental at all.

The upshot is that human experience, at its deepest level, must take place as a kind of perpetual auto-ignited sparking of some one of the fundamental possibilities of approach. Above this level, just as in the physical universe, there may be all sorts of predictable regularities having to do with, say, the typical compound formations of the fundamental possibilities and their properties. But at the level of contesting fundamentals, constraints comparable to those of quantum physics must be in force.  For example, it must always be uncertain in principle what sort of experience will follow on a chronologically prior one. So experience at any moment may be specified, but not its trajectory. Or typical trajectories may be identified, but the particular moments constituting them cannot be specified without interrupting the continuity of those linear trajectories (aka, ‘world lines’).

Hence, the ‘location’ and the ‘momentum’ deriving from the fundamental dominants of human experience — media — may be specified, but not both together and at once.

McLuhan’s vocabulary can be understood only in this context. Thus, ‘probing’ and ‘exploring’ in his work have to do with an exercise of thought that is exactly not continuous. They arise freely out of the ineluctable “gap” in every moment of human experience between input and output, “the medium [that] is the message”, and represent the attempt to find a new way to consider, and perhaps to solve, suddenly, some problem.

Because McLuhan saw that quantum physics had encountered these sorts of problems, he foresaw that the conceptualities deployed in it could be helpful in the investigations of quantum communications.  As he said in his letter to Hall cited above:

many of the same techniques and concepts are needed for advancing media studies as were used for nuclear studies.

The reverse is also possible:

many of the same techniques and concepts are needed for advancing nuclear studies as were used for media studies.

But the potential synergies between quantum physics and quantum communications go far beyond “techniques and concepts”. Especially, the inter-working of the two could establish truth once again as the ground and calling of human beings and so put an end to the reign of nihilism.

Nihilism would be ended by demonstration that quantum communications can aid in the specification of physical reality (from quarks to the universe).10 For such demonstration in the hard science of physics would rebound on the domain of communications in the supposedly soft social sciences and humanities to reveal their capacity for truth.

Life in truth would be re-established on this earth — only now on “the authority of knowledge“.

  1. Understanding Media, 61. Cf: “So it is with the emergence of language in the child. In the first months grasping is reflexive, and the power to make voluntary release comes only toward the end of the first year. Speech comes with the development of the power to let go of objects. It gives the power of detachment from the environment that is also the power of great mobility in knowledge of the environment” (Understanding Media, 132). In these passages from Understanding Media McLuhan does not explicitly raise the issue if ‘man’ may properly be said to have existed before being “able to let go of his environment in order to grasp it in a new way” through language. The implication of “the spoken word was the first technology” is that there was indeed something like ‘pre-technological man’. But elsewhere McLuhan was clear that humanity and language use are coextensive. Or even that language as logos is prior to humans and that the beginning of human being (verbal) and learning the use of language were simultaneous in origin — no humanity absent language. This event, in turn, would have been the inauguration of an unaccountable accord between humans and that prior logos.
  2. The ratio, singular, “among sight and sound, and touch”, names a spectrum of ratios, plural, in the same way as the singular elementary structure in chemistry names a table of elementary structures, plural.
  3. McLuhan’s hypothesis was that all media are based in an elementary ratio “among sight and sound, and touch”. This ratio extends over a spectrum with 3 main types: predominantly sight, predominantly sound, and sight/sound balance in which touch predominates. These 3 types recapitulate Lodge’s 3 types, just as did the “ancient quarrel” of the 3 arts of the trivium in McLuhan’s work in the 1940s.
  4. See “Food for the mind is like food for the body”.
  5. McLuhan to Edward T. Hall, April 5, 1962, Papers of Edward Twitchell HallUniv of Arizona Special Collections.
  6. As Lodge says in the extended passage cited above from ‘Balanced Philosophy and Eclecticism’: “They (the 3 forms of philosophy) compete with each other over the whole field of experience“. As cannot be emphasized enough, it is precisely the relation of philosophy, experience and thought, on the one hand, to truth and reality, on the other, that is the question at stake in the ‘ancient quarrel’ of the 3 forms. Wherever this quarrel is decided in favor of one of them, the primacy of the quarrel has been abrogated. The central insight of Lodge, inherited from a long tradition, and bequeathed to McLuhan, was that the quarrel is deeper than its forms — although it exists through its forms.
  7. This notion of a 3-fold beat to reality was hardly original to Lodge — it goes back at least 2500 years to Heraclitus and Plato. See Gigantomachia, triangular duel, siamese triplets.
  8.  ‘Balanced Philosophy and Eclecticism’, Rupert C. Lodge, The Journal of Philosophy, 41:4, February, 1944, 85-91, here 85. This article is in McLuhan’s papers in Ottawa, but misnamed in the finding aid as ‘Balanced Philosophy and Scholasticism’.
  9. This insight occurred 25 years after McLuhan was explicitly exposed to the idea in 1936 books by Francis Yates and Muriel Bradbrook (see “Food for the mind is like food for the body”) and 40 or so years after he was implicitly exposed to it in the work of his mother as an impersonator. Elsie’s whole art was founded on the notion that sensibility is founded, knowingly or unknowingly, on a creative decision among possible options. It followed that any particular exercise of sensibility could be acted out by reproducing that decision.
  10.  For example, all theory in quantum physics is, of course, just that — theory. Quantum communications might provide quantum physics with a new way, or ways, to test and evaluate competing theories. Or quantum communications might provide a formulation of ontology — creative autonomous sparking of a spectrum of possibilities in both the physical and psychological domains — and so provide a kind of target conceptual map for (and of) investigations in physics. Above all, communications and the humanities in general have explored the implications of entanglement (under a series of different names) for centuries, indeed for millennia.  These can supply new questions and new answers for the interrogations of physics (dual genitive).

On nisus

In a 1933 paper for a philosophy seminar with Rupert Lodge at the University of Manitoba, McLuhan wrote:

In a universe constituted by inclusion, exclusion, limitation and participation,1 there can be no principle of value; but if there is a nisus2 of which these forms are an empirical expression and which is prior or superior to them, then it alone could be the principle of value or the unifying impulse of the universe.3

Almost 50 years later, in the last year of McLuhan’s life, here is Barry Nevitt (speaking as always more or less in McLuhan’s name) in ABC of Prophecy:

things properly understood are the visible manifestations of their invisible harmony.4

Empirical expression’ and ‘visible manifestations’ remain the same.  But a movement has been made away from the striving of nisus, or at least from a certain understanding of the striving of nisus, to perception of an existing “harmony”.

Nisus as a horizontal striving reveals no harmony, visible or invisible, precisely because it would reach something that remains outstanding and unrealized. However, nisus as a vertical striving, as the essential dynamic of all possibilities to realize themselves, is an existing harmony of possibility and actuality, of new and old, of creativity and reality. Nisus in these two senses is isomorphic with diachronic and synchronic times and the need (in general, but McLuhan’s in particular) was to move from the first of these to the second. Not to the second alone, however, but to the second in essential relation with the first — where the first would be the “empirical expression” of the second.

The great question is hinted at in McLuhan’s 1933 paper with its phrase, “a nisus (…) which is prior”. But “prior” in what sense? Diachronic or synchronic?5


  1. McLuhan considered these (“inclusion, exclusion, limitation and participation”) as types of judgment and maintained that “the fundamental error committed by Mr. Demos is to (…) erect a metaphysics on a foundation of elementary judgment.” Instead, he thought, the reverse had to obtain: judgments and values had to follow on a foundation of elementary metaphysics.
  2. Nisus was a central notion of Rupert Lodge which he treated especially in the books he published in the 1930s: “But in all milieus, and whatever the particular medium in which mind expresses itself, the inward and spiritual nisus is essentially the same and exhibits the same laws of operation. It happens that language is peculiarly important as (such) a medium of expression (…) in the intercommunication of experiences in our ordinary social living” (The Philosophy of Education, 1937, 136). McLuhan would soon leave off thinking about nisus, but he would never, of course, leave off thinking about media, language and intercommunication. (‘Intercommunication’ was a central topic also in the work of Henry Wright, Lodge’s colleague in the University of Manitoba philosophy department and another great early influence on McLuhan.)
  3. The Non/Being of Non-Being (A Reply to Mr. Demos)’ is preserved in the McLuhan papers in Ottawa. Raphael Demos was a longtime professor of philosophy at Harvard and the author of ‘Non-being’, Journal of Philosophy, 30:4, Feb. 16, 1933, 85-102. McLuhan included this paper, along with another seminar paper on ‘Creative Thought Versus Pragmatism’, in his applications for a teaching position in 1936 with this note: “These two essays in philosophy were products of ordinary seminar work which I did for Prof. R.C. Lodge — the well-known Platonist. I kept them because he considered them to be worthy of publication.” With this note, McLuhan was apparently signalling that anyone wanting to know of his potential as a teacher and researcher should contact Rupert Lodge. He was also saying, what he would later openly admit, that in his two years at Cambridge he had failed to impress anybody sufficiently to use as a reference.
  4.  ABC of Prophecy, preview edition, 1980, 44.
  5. One answer might be ‘both’, once the diachronic is consider as “an empirical expression” of the synchronic. But this answer is wrong where the diachronic is considered on its own. In this case, nisus at the diachronic or factual level implies a continuity which is one of the signatures of the Gutenberg galaxy only. Such continuity is not the case, is broken, once a rival form of representation (‘medium’) is considered (like the preliterate or the electronic) and especially not where plural forms are considered.

Vertical and horizontal times in Saussure and Nevitt

In ABC of Prophecy: understanding the environment,1 Barry Nevitt cites Ferdinand de  Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics:

All sciences would profit by indicating more precisely the co-ordinates along which their subject matter is aligned. Everywhere distinctions should be made, between (1) the axis of simultaneities (vertical), which stands for the relations of existing things and from which the intervention of time is excluded; and (2) the axis of successions (horizontal), on which only one thing can be considered at a time but upon which are located all the things on the first axis with their changes.2

As noted by Nevitt, the bracketed designations of “vertical” and “horizontal” were added to Saussure’s passage by him.

McLuhan had this notion3 of crossing vertical and horizontal times very early from T.S. Eliot (and even earlier by implication from Lodge in Winnipeg), and of course knew of Saussure, but apparently did not read him until the late 1960’s, perhaps as prompted by Nevitt. Here he is in the posthumously published The Global Village: 

time considered as sequential4 (left hemisphere) is figure and time considered as simultaneous5 (right hemisphere) is ground. (10)

  1. Preview edition, 1980, publication 1985. The reference for the following citation is taken from the preview edition, which was the edition used by Eric McLuhan and may even have been known to Marshall.
  2.  Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, ed Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye with Albert Riedlinger, orig 1916, translated by Wade Baskin, 1959 (later 1966 paperback edition used by Nevitt), 80. Saussure’s three courses in general linguistics were given in 1906-7, 1908-9 and 1910-11 and were not published in his lifetime. The Bally-Sechehaye edition used by Nevitt in the Baskin translation brought all three courses together mostly on the basis of students’ notes.
  3. It is a very different thing to ‘have a notion’ and to understand it and its implications. McLuhan continued to think about the plurality of time as times for his entire life, but was arguably as much in the dark about it when he died in 1980 as when he began to think about it in the 1930’s. (‘In the dark’, as used here, does not mean that no progress has been made.  It means that whatever progress has been made has not been understood internally.  It can be seen only by an external observer.)
  4. Diachronic.
  5. Synchronic.

S.D. Neill on Innis and McLuhan

S.D. Neill1 provides one more example of mistakenly taking McLuhan at his word regarding how and when he “felt the influence of H. A. Innis”:

The Mechanical Bride (…) was written before McLuhan felt the influence of H. A. Innis (1951), whose Bias of Communication was published the same year as the Bride. (115)

McLuhan claimed in the late 1970’s — almost 30 years after the event — that he became interested in Innis only after Innis put The Mechanical Bride on his communication course reading list in 1951. This supposedly then prompted McLuhan to seek out Innis and to read The Bias of Communication. But, as detailed in McLuhan on first meeting Innis, McLuhan’s memory of this sequence of events was mistaken in multiple ways.

However, most if not all of the Bride was probably indeed written before McLuhan met Innis and certainly before Innis became much of an influence on his work. McLuhan sometimes claimed that the Bride was finished by 1946 and then required five years’ work with publishers to see the light of day early in 1951. Even if this were an exaggeration, by 1947 McLuhan was able to publish two papers based on the book:

Neill was correct, then, that the great influence of Innis on McLuhan’s work would become evident only after 1951. But, like most researchers, following McLuhan’s own memory, he was mistaken as to when and how this influence came about.

  1. S.D. Neill’s 1993 book, Clarifying McLuhan, was published posthumously — he died in 1992. It incorporated as an appendix an earlier article of his, ‘McLuhan’s Media Charts Related to the Process of Communication’, AV Communication Review, 21:3, 1973, 277-97. The citation from his book comes from that earlier paper.

Gigantomachia, triangular duel, siamese triplets

ὁδὸς ἄνω κάτω μία καὶ ὡυτή (Heraclitus)1  

It seems that only one course is open to the philosopher who values knowledge and truth above all else. He must refuse to accept from the champions of the forms2 the doctrine that all reality is changeless, and he must turn a deaf ear to the other party3 who represent reality as everywhere changing. Like a child begging for ‘both’, he must declare that reality or the sum of things is both at once. (Plato, Sophist 249c)

Philosophers appear to be engaged in a sort of triangular duel (Rupert Lodge)4

when each of these [three arts of the trivium] is viewed not singly but as one of a set of Siamese triplets, the perspective changes enormously as does the entire significance of every development in their histories. (Eric McLuhan)5

The notion that there is a kind of triple beat to reality itself and, therefore, to all philosophy and to all human experience whatsoever, goes back at least to Heraclitus. But the notion is common in mythologies and is probably much older, stretching far back into pre-history.

The third position is what is called a superposition in quantum physics. It accounts for all of the possible subpositions but also, and this is one of its mysteries, it itself appears in the spectrum of possible subpositions. Other great mysteries are: why are there subpositions at all?  And once they come to be somehow, how do they hold out against the overwhelming power of the superposition?

  1.  The way up and the way down are one and the same (B60). This is one of the two epigrams from Heraclitus to Eliot’s Four Quartets.
  2. The gods in the heights above.
  3. The giants in the depths below.
  4.  ‘Balanced Philosophy and Eclecticism’, Rupert C. Lodge, The Journal of Philosophy, 41:4, February, 1944, 85-91. This article is in McLuhan’s papers in Ottawa, but misnamed in the finding aid as ‘Balanced Philosophy and Scholasticism’. Lodge’s “triangular duel” is that of the three fundamental assumptions — realism, idealism and pragmatism — which he saw as basic, always in one of these modes, to all human experience. McLuhan was very familiar with Lodge’s hypothesis from his work with him between 1931 and 1934 at the University of Manitoba and especially from Lodge’s 1934 paper, ‘Philosophy and Education‘. See Taking Lodge to Cambridge and beyond and McLuhan and Lodge (‘Philosophy and Education’) for citations and discussion.
  5. ‘Introduction’ to The Medium and the Light, 1999, xii. The full passage (beginning on xi): “He (McLuhan) decided that he had to master and then draw the outlines of the trivium, which had for many centuries been the traditional Western system for organizing intellectual activity. The trivium compressed all knowledge into three streams: rhetoric (communication), dialectic (philosophy and logic), and grammar (literature, both sacred and profane, including modes of interpretation). Grammar included written texts of all sorts, as well as the world and the known universe, which were considered as a book to be read and interpreted, the famous ‘Book of Nature’. Incredible as it may seem, the job had never before been done. Certainly, there were — and are — plenty of histories of philosophy, for example, and histories of literature as well as accounts of rhetoric. But when each of these (arts of the trivium) is viewed not singly but as one of a set of Siamese triplets, the perspective changes enormously as does the entire significance of every development in their histories.” Eric probably got the phrase ‘Siamese triplets’ from a caption in the University of Toronto Varsity newspaper, October 5, 1979, 6.

Taking Lodge to Cambridge and beyond

Rupert Lodge’s 1934 ‘Philosophy and Education1 gave McLuhan a series of deep ideas which he took with him to Cambridge. All would remain with him his whole life, but it would take him decades to understand their implications. Better, since understanding is not a momentary individual event, but an ongoing collective enterprise, it would take him decades to perceive how it might be possible to ignite such investigation of their implications.

On the plurality of truth and its practical effects:

Our conclusion then is that realism, idealism, and pragmatism remain fundamentally distinct [approaches to experience]2, and that the positions constructed by philosophers [reflecting and analyzing these distinctions] are of direct concern to educationists in the pursuit of their profession [along with everybody else in pursuit of their professions].3

On the object of philosophy:

[Philosophical] “speculations” seem remote, but are merely technical formulations of those backgrounds which affect our outlook in every detail of class-room and laboratory procedure [in education — and similarly in every other field]. Philosophers merely try to bring these [backgrounds] out into the open, so as to focus attention upon them. It is surely better to realize how they affect our thoughts and actions, than to leave them to work obscurely in the background.

On the spectrum of the forms of experience as defined by its extreme ends and middle:

when the realist sets up Einstein’s position in place of Newton’s, he shows how and why Einstein’s is better as a picture of the physical world. With the idealist, what looks at first like realist logic and objective information becomes transformed into (…) dialectic and (…) the transcendental realms of the spirit (…) The pragmatist avoids both extremes [of “the physical world” vs “the transcendental realms of the spirit”]

On the community as the multitude of these forms and their permutations:

The community (…) is never wholly realist, idealist, or pragmatist in type (…) the community [includes] all differences of background and outlook (…) all powers of insight and initiative (…) every alternative4

  1. Dalhousie Review, 14:3, 1934, 281-290. The citations below are taken from this essay.
  2. It is impossible to formulate what “realism, idealism, and pragmatism” are without deploying one of them in doing so. Hence they may variously be termed ‘approaches to experience’, ‘forms of reality’, ‘kinds of truth’, ‘sorts of hypotheses’, etc. This self-referential circularity is an essential aspect of the problem complex at stake here.
  3. Lodge wrote books on The Philosophy of Education (1937), The Philosophy of Business (1945) and Applying Philosophy (1951).
  4. Decades later McLuhan would come to call this the “emotion of multitude” after Yeats’ 1903 little essay of this title. See Lévi-Strauss on method in anthropology for citation and discussion.

McLuhan and Lodge (‘Philosophy and Education’)

In 1933 McLuhan obtained his bachelor’s degree from the university and won a University Gold Medal in Arts and Science. (…)  McLuhan’s gold medal along with recommendations from professors such as R.C. Lodge — who called McLuhan his “most outstanding” student — ensured that he would have no problem being accepted at Cambridge. (Marchand, Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger, 32 and 34.)

From the very first note included in his published Letters — McLuhan to his mother, Elsie, on February 19, 1931 — it appears that McLuhan had decided as a nineteen year-old that Rupert Lodge was an exceptional talent1 at the University of Manitoba and that he needed to work with him:

Next year2 I shall throw myself into Philosophy and leave the English for the summers. I shall certainly attend very few lectures in English. (Letters 9)

Then, in his job-seeking letter from December 1935 to E.K. Brown, the new head of the UM English department (appointed after McLuhan had left Winnipeg in 1934), McLuhan would write from Cambridge: 

I wish merely to introduce myself as one of the products of some of the leanest years of the Manitoba English Department. The last year was somewhat relieved by the presence of Dr. Wheeler3, but I had directed my energies to philosophy, and did my best work for Professor Lodge. (Letters 79)

The two letters were written almost five years apart and yet they show a remarkable continuity. Halfway through his third year at UM (second in English), McLuhan had identified the path that he would follow over the next three years as he completed his B.A. and M.A. degrees there — namely, he would work chiefly with a professor outside his major, Rupert Lodge in philosophy.

A close personal and intellectual relationship grew up between the two.4 Since both had a strong theoretical bent, their personal and intellectual relations could hardly have been strictly compartmentalized, but McLuhan (as he came to realize himself at Cambridge) had further to grow personally in order to understand (and thereby to share) Lodge’s intellectual insights.

A remarkable portrait of McLuhan is preserved in a paper which Lodge published in 1934 in the Dalhousie Review, ‘Philosophy and Education‘. In the paper Lodge characterized what he held to be the three basic forms of all human experience — realism, idealism and pragmatism5 — in terms of education. Some one of these basic forms must always already be in place to the exclusion of the other two, he held, whenever any sort of human experience unfolds. His idea in ‘Philosophy and Education’ was to illustrate these three forms in terms of the fundamentally different kinds of pupils, teachers and education administrators which are pro-duced from their varying assumption.

Here is Lodge describing what he termed “the idealist pupil” (as contrasted with “the realist pupil” and “the pupil with a pragmatist outlook”):

He feels drawn toward persons rather than subjects, and has a tendency toward hero-worshipMerely to associate with some of the teachers, altogether apart from taking courses with them, seems to help him.6 Others, he avoids.7 However great their objective knowledge, he feels that he has “nothing to learn” from them. When he looks back over his school life, in later years, he finds that the books which were “vital” were not the painfully accurate, up-to-the-last-minute textbooks which bristled with objective footnotes, but the books which, whatever their objective shortcomings, had about them some touch of greatness.

In this portrait of “the idealist pupil” there seems to have been a two-way influence between Lodge and McLuhan. For Lodge almost certainly formulated his description of how an ‘idealist” student thought and behaved taking McLuhan as his model. And McLuhan eventually accepted this description from Lodge as an accurate depiction of how he had experienced the world at the University of Manitoba. At the same time, Lodge’s insistence on the plurality of truth served as a way-marker to McLuhan of how he would have to grow if he were to overcome his provincial limitation to a singular “idealist” bent of mind and become e-ducated — that is, be ex-posed to multiple truths.8

Confirmation of these rather surprising claims may be found in letters McLuhan wrote to his mother, Elsie, and to E.K. Brown (already cited above) in the fall of 1935 when he had entered his second and last undergraduate year at Cambridge.

The great difficulty about Truth is that it is not simple [he wrote to Elsie] except to those who can attain to see it whole [that is, in its fundamental plurality]. The very definition of an enthusiast is that he has seized a truth which he cannot and would not if he could, relate to other truths of life. He is invariably unsympathetic and lacking in humanity. l have some elements of enthusiasm which have been more than occupied in hero-worship —- e.g. Macaulay and Chesterton. Them days is gone forever but I shall always think that my selection of heroes was fortunate. Both were calculated to suppress effectively any tendency I had towards harping on one truth at a time. (McLuhan letter to his mother, September 5, 1935, Letters 72)

McLuhan returned again and again in this letter to Lodge’s view that “truth (…) is not simple”, that there are always “other truths of life”, that there is something both blind and wrong about “harping on one truth”.  Further, in specifying that he had “some elements of enthusiasm which have been more than occupied in hero-worship” he was identifying the way he had been at UM  (now “gone forever”) with Lodge’s portrait of “the idealist pupil” and its “tendency toward hero-worship”.

He made a similar admission in his letter to Brown three months later:

until I came to the Cambridge English School, my principal qualification was a boundless enthusiasm for great books, great events, and great men. Dr. Richards and Dr. Leavis have proved to be a useful supplement and corrective to that attitude.  (McLuhan letter to E.K. Brown, December 12, 1935, Letters 79)

At Manitoba McLuhan had self-admittedly been Lodge’s “idealist pupil”, with “a tendency toward hero-worship“, for whom the books which were ‘vital’ (…) had about them some touch of greatness“. Indeed, in articles he wrote in the Manitoban, only months before he would leave UM for Cambridge, he gave clear evidence of this “idealist” commitment:

Shakespeare (…) no more questioned the health and value of the great traditions that he inherited than a flower disputes the value of the ambient air or the nature of the soil beneath. Men become great only when they accept with gusto a great tradition made by millions before them. (‘George Meredith, Feminist?‘, Manitoban, Nov 21,1933)

Two years ago certain active and noble-spirited students voluntarily undertook to make a comprehensive report of the state of that vital community within the [general] community which is our university. It [“that vital community”] is to the [general] community what the head is to the body. (‘Stupid Student Apathy‘, Manitoban, February 13, 1934)

Whoever reads Newman or “Q”9 on education will discover the simplicity that is the effect of  profundity in the minds of a few great men.  (‘Adult Education‘, Manitoban, Feb 16, 1934)10

According to Lodge, such emphasis on the “vital” and on “greatness” and “hero-worship” was typical of “idealism” — but “idealism” was only one of multiple possible basic approaches to experience. So when McLuhan began at Cambridge to appreciate other manners of experience11 as a “supplement and corrective to that attitude” he had had at Manitoba, it was actually first of all Lodge, not Richards or Leavis or anyone else there, who was his mentor and spur in this process.12

Whether McLuhan appreciated the fundamental role played by Lodge in his education is questionable (although correspondence in the Ottawa papers shows that the two remained in touch until at least 1945). But Lodge and McLuhan himself frequently argued that the dominants of our experience are rarely conscious.


  1. Lodge and Henry Wright were the two professors in the UM philosophy department and co-taught some of its offerings, each taking one semester of a year-long course. As well as from Lodge, McLuhan certainly learned much from Wright, especially concerning the centrality of communication and environment for human beings, in ways that would profoundly affect him for the rest of his life. But McLuhan’s relation with Lodge was more personal and even more influential.
  2. “Next year” — probably the next school year beginning in the fall of 1931.
  3. See Lloyd Wheeler.
  4. In his letter to Brown, McLuhan clearly suggests that Lodge is the person at UM Brown should contact about him.
  5. For discussion of Lodge’s philosophy, see The Comparative Method of Rupert Lodge.
  6. Marchand: “McLuhan (…) noted in his diary that Lodge did not try to slip away from him after lectures” (20).
  7. McLuhan in the letter to Elsie cited above: “I shall certainly attend very few lectures in English.”
  8. It is indicative of how much work McLuhan had yet to do on himself and on his thinking that at Cambridge he directed Lodge’s critique of monolithic living (“one truth at a time”) back against Lodge himself: “Lodge is a decided Platonist and I learned (to think) that way as long as I was trying to interpret Christianity in terms of comparative religion. Having perceived the sterility of that process, I now realize that Aristotle is the soundest basis for Xian doctrine” (McLuhan to his family, February 1935, Letters 53). In fact, however, McLuhan never grew away from Lodge’s ideas and continued to investigate them, consciously and unconsciously, for the rest of his life.
  9. Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863–1944), the doyen of the Cambridge English School, about whom McLuhan frequently reported in letters home from Cambridge. Reference to him in this Manitoban article shows that McLuhan was boning up on the school before leaving UM to study there. It may be that McLuhan was referring here to Q’s 1920 book, On the Art of Reading and particularly to its chapter ‘On a School of English‘.
  10. A few months before this ‘Adult Education’ article in the Manitoban, McLuhan had another piece on education, ‘Public School Education’ (Oct 17,1933). His work with Lodge at a time when Lodge was writing ‘Philosophy and Education’ can hardly have been incidental to McLuhan’s interest in these topics.
  11. McLuhan to Elsie from Cambridge only a few months into his career there: “How rapidly my ideas have been shifting and rearranging themselves to make room for others!” (January 18, 1935, Letters 51)
  12. McLuhan’s religious conversion in 1937 surely resulted in part from this e-ducational process in which he learned, personally, that fundamental assumptions are plural and are therefore subject to transformational change.

Lloyd Wheeler

McLuhan knew Lloyd Wheeler as a professor in the English Department at the University of Manitoba only for a year or two. Some sources say he came to UM in 1931, but Wheeler’s obituary has him coming to UM in 1933 and in a 1935 letter (cited below) McLuhan specified that he knew him only in his “last year” there, 1933-1934. In any case, it was Wheeler who helped McLuhan to his first job in 1936-1937 as a teaching assistant at the University of Wisconsin, where Wheeler had done his doctoral work and begun his own teaching career.1

When McLuhan was looking for a job at the end of his undergraduate career at Cambridge, he mentioned Wheeler in a letter to E.K. Brown, then the new head of the English Department at Manitoba:

I wish merely to introduce myself as one of the products of some of the leanest years of the Manitoba English Department. The last year was somewhat relieved by the presence of Dr. Wheeler, but I had directed my energies to philosophy, and did my best work for Professor Lodge. (…) I should be very happy indeed to work under you and Dr. Wheeler. (December 12, 1935, Letters 79)

Here is Wheeler’s obituary in the Winnipeg Free Pressage 34:

Arthur Lloyd Wheeler, formerly of Winnipeg, died in Halifax on June 7, 1970. Professor Wheeler was born in Victoria [in 1898], served in the First World War, taught school in Barkerville, B.C., and studied in Vancouver, Toronto and Madison, Wisconsin, where he began lecturing in English literature. He came to Winnipeg with his wife, the late Helen Bennett of Victoria, in 1933 to join the Department of English at the University of Manitoba. He was chairman of the department from 1946 to 1963 at which time he retired from his post and became Visiting Professor of English at Dalhousie University until 1969. He was laid to rest on Lynn Island, Lake of the Woods.

For a time Wheeler was Chairman of the Radio Broadcasting Committee of the University of Manitoba. A report from him in this capacity was included in The University of Manitoba President’s Report for the Year Ending 30th April, 1946, 106-107.

  1. McLuhan to his mother from Cambridge, September 5, 1935 (Letters 72): “I am waiting advice from Wheeler at present regarding what U’s in Canada and U.S.A. to apply to, and how to apply to them.”

Bradbrook’s School of Night and the dynamics of experience

Beyond posing the important question “if anything comes out of Shakespeare’s mind recognizably akin to what it was on going in” (153),1 Bradbrook’s 1936 School of Night had a series of further points that McLuhan would find of great interest for his future investigations.

For example, his entire Nashe PhD thesis from 1943, together with the associated ‘Ancient Quarrel’ essay from 1946,2 amounted to a huge expansion of Bradbrook’s observation:

There appears to have been a kind of literary ‘war’ between [Ralegh’s] school [of night] and the faction of Essex, not unlike the dramatists’ ‘war’ of 1598-9, or the earlier one between Harvey and Nashe. (7)

As tutored by Rupert Lodge in philosophy in Winnipeg,3 and as he found also in Coleridge in his English studies there, McLuhan arrived in Cambridge in 1934 with the idea that confrontation with plural possibilities is a perennial or synchronic feature of the exercise of mind. As he stated earlier that same year in his Manitoba M.A. thesis on George Meredith:

In his table talk, Coleridge noted that all men (…) are born either Platonists or Aristotelians. There are similarly, in all times and places, definite types of temperament displaying consistency of conformation. The literary or artistic expression of such temperaments has properly the same validity as has the philosophizing of the Idealist and the Realist.4

This insight was confirmed and deepened at Cambridge through his further study of Coleridge,5 combined with his new studies of Eliot and Richards there.6 As McLuhan reported in his first publication after leaving Cambridge, ‘The Cambridge English School’ (1938):

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

The “continuing life of the language itself” in this conception is a matter of dynamics. Like the vast diversity of the physical world which is based on a limited number of elementary structures (themselves the expression only of protons, neutrons and electrons), so here the diversity of language over space and time was imagined as eventuating out of some few basic possibilities.

In the allied 1936 studies of Francis Yates7 and Bradbrook8, McLuhan found these dynamics described as a “civil war of wits”.9 Then in Etienne Gilson, particularly in his Unity of Philosophical Experience from 1938, McLuhan found a comparable use of this same imagery with the superlative advantage for him at that time that it was integrated into Gilson’s unparalleled knowledge of Catholic philosophy:

In a metaphysical system wherein the whole of reality is included, such a doctrine does not limit itself to ideas, it applies to things. The conflict between philosophies then becomes a conflict between philosophers; the “battlefield of endless controversies” described by Kant under the name of metaphysics is, therefore, a battlefield of men, where each philosopher, as a  particular moment of the universal law, has to be the antithesis of another, until both are resolved into the synthesis of a third. That which is contradiction between ideas is war between men, and in such a world, war is by no means an accident. It is law.10

Bradbrook cited Nashe in this context of mind’s position before discrete synchronic possibilities:

In all points our brains are like the firmament, and exhale in everie respect the like grose mistempered vapors and meteors. (175)11

McLuhan must have been flabbergasted to find in Bradbrook’s citation of Nashe here with its “the like grose mistempered vapors and meteors” what he had offered far less flamboyantly a few years before in his Manitoba M.A. thesis as “consistency of conformation”:

There are (…) in all times and places, definite types of temperament displaying consistency of conformation. 

Focusing on the contesting disciplines of the classical trivium, McLuhan’s Nashe thesis, together with his following ‘Ancient Quarrel’ article, would attempt to trace this “civil war of wits” over the two and a half millennia from Socrates in fifth century BC Athens to ‘modern America’.

Not incidentally, the last chapter of Bradbrook’s book, ‘Shakespeare, the School, and Nashe’, put forward the notion that the writings of Nashe might supply particular illumination on the quarreling ‘schools’ of the 1590s. McLuhan would take up this idea, but reverse it. To understand Nashe, he suggested, it was first of all necessary to understand the wars of mind which are continually waged in all human experience:

No sound evaluation of a writer can be given in terms which exclude his basic assumptions as an artist. Nashe has never been considered on his own [basic] terms (The Classical Trivium — The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of His Time, 2006, 4).

The war between these literary camps is basically the opposition between dialectics and rhetoric to control the modes of literary composition; and the ramifications of this opposition stretch into the realms of ethics and politics, both in antiquity and in the Renaissance.  For example, the ethical, political, and stylistic opposition between Machiavelli and Castiglione, between Harvey and Nashe, are at bottom and on the surface, owing to a reconstitution of ancient rivalries between dialectics and rhetoric. While Harvey and Nashe are scarcely commensurate with the others, their relevance to this study is such as to make it important to bring them into the focus of [such] discussion… (Ibid, 42)

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

But to understand the “civil war of wits” between dialectics and rhetoric, it was necessary to start from the third position, or superposition, of the trivium in which the complete grammar of ‘trivial’ possibilities was arrayed:

In studying the history of dialectics and rhetoric, as indeed, of grammar, it is unavoidable that one adopts the point of view of one of these arts12 and the history of the trivium is largely a history of the rivalry among them for ascendancy. (…) The essential opposition between the arts of the trivium being such, then, as frequently to pit the one against the other, with results of the greatest importance, it is useful to recognize that the present exposition of the history of the trivium is being made from a  grammatical point of view. Exposition and interpretation of stated doctrines are grammatical problems… (Ibid, 41-42)

  1. For discussion and citations see “Food for the mind is like food for the body”.
  2. ‘An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America’, Classical Journal, 41:4, January 1946, 156-162. Originally a 1944 lecture in St Louis. Reprinted in The Interior Landscape.
  3. See The Comparative Method of Rupert Lodge for discussion and citations.
  4. The last part of the last sentence was a nod to Lodge, the first part a nod to McLuhan’s continuing allegiance to literature despite Lodge’s case for philosophy.
  5. I.A. Richards published Coleridge on Imagination in 1934, the year McLuhan arrived in Cambridge and began hearing Richards’ lectures.
  6. McLuhan to E.K. Brown, December 12, 1935: “You probably know all about the very exciting and thriving time that the Cambridge English School is experiencing. Dr Richards has been a great stimulus, even to his opponents (!), and  the easy accessibility of Willey, Tillyard, Lucas and Leavis (editor of Scrutiny) makes for an intellectual variety that not even my wildest hopes had prefigured.” (Letters, 79) The exclamation point is original.
  7. F.A. Yates, A Study of Love’s Labour’s Lost, Cambridge, 1936.
  8. M.C. Bradbrook, The School of Night, Cambridge, 1936.
  9. Yates, 158. Cf, Understanding Media, 48: “this civil war (in the world of art and entertainment) affects us in the depths of our psychic lives, as well, since the war is conducted by forces that are extensions and amplifications of our own beings. Indeed, the interplay among media is only another name for this civil war that rages in our society and our psyches alike.”
  10. Gilson, The Unity of Philosophical Experience, 1938, reprint 1955, 250.
  11. Without attribution, Bradbrook cited here from Nashe’s 1594 tract on dreams, Terrors of the Night.
  12. “Unavoidable that one adopts the point of view of one of these arts” because they are treated by McLuhan, following Rupert Lodge, as both basic and incommensurate.

“Food for the mind is like food for the body”

McLuhan and Muriel Bradbrook seem to have become friends during his first stint in Cambridge.1  During his second stint, immediately after his marriage with Corinne, Bradbrook advised him on his PhD thesis on Nashe before leaving Cambridge for war duty in London. 

Bradbrook’s 1936 book, The School of Night, which McLuhan probably read the year it was published, is referenced in a note in the thesis (212,n7), along with a book on a related subject which was published that same year by Francis Yates, A Study of Love’s Labour’s Lost.2 The School of Night has not aged well: it’s proposals about a school around Sir Walter Ralegh (Bradbrook’s spelling) have largely been discarded by contemporary scholarship. Nonetheless, the book had profound effect on McLuhan that was still strikingly evident 35 years later.

Here is Yates:

One must never forget to reckon with the subtlety of Shakespeare and with the fact that he was intensely creative. The imaginative artist uses but does not exactly reproduce his experience. (19)

Two decades later, Gombrich’s Art and Illusion (1960, but based on 1956 lectures) demonstrated this thesis in detail, helping to spur McLuhan to his 1960 breakthrough:

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.3

Bradbrook sharpened Yates’ point:

It may be questioned if anything comes out of Shakespeare’s mind recognizably akin to what (…) was (…) going in. (153)4

And here is McLuhan in Take Today, 35 years later:

sensations and concepts [involve] (…) the continual transformation of sensory inputs into outputs of quite different kinds. Food for the mind is like food for the body; the inputs are never the same as the outputs! This pattern of non-lineality is evident in every human activity. (Take Today, 137)


  1. A note in McLuhan’s Letters, doubtless from Corinne McLuhan, says that McLuhan and Muriel Bradbrook met only in 1939 (462, n1). But the index to the same Letters volume identifies Bradbrook with references to a “Miss B” in McLuhan letters from 1935 (Letters 67 and 120). In fact, there is an unindexed mention of a “Miss B” even earlier than this, in a Dec 6, 1934 letter to McLuhan’s family (Letters 41). But this “Miss B” is called “Margery”, not “Muriel”. An interesting possibility is that “Margery” was a Freudian slip mixing McLuhan’s erstwhile girlfriend back in Winnipeg, Marjorie Norris (mentioned earlier in the same letter), with someone else, perhaps Muriel. The name “Margery” would then say ‘girlfriend (Marjorie) — changed (Margery)’. However any of this may have been, McLuhan and Bradbrook remained correspondents for the rest of his life.
  2. The Classical Trivium — The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of His Time, 2006, 212,n7: “M. C. Bradbrook, The School of Night, Cambridge. 1936; F. A. Yates, A Study of Love’s Labour’s Lost, Cambridge, 1936. As Miss Bradbrook points out (page 16) the ‘school’ chafed against those exegetists of Scripture who held that the literal interpretation was divinely inspired. Ramist rhetoric was, of course, a godsend to the rationalists; for, once all figures had  been planed away from the text, it could mean anything or nothing.”
  3.  Project in Understanding New Media. For discussion and citations from Art and Illusion, see Ernst Gombrich.
  4. Bradbrook: “It may be questioned if anything comes out of Shakespeare’s mind recognizably akin to what it was on going in.”

Aesthetic Pattern (singular) in Keats’ Odes

McLuhan’s 1943 essay, ‘Aesthetic Pattern in Keats’ Odes’,1 treats aesthetic patterns in Keats’ odes: why, then, his specification of the singular “aesthetic pattern” in the title?

Instead, however, of oscillating “up” and “down” movements, there is in this ode a single motion of expanding awareness…  (112)2

The answer to this question goes to the very heart of McLuhan’s project and may be put simply: from early on McLuhan sought what in physics is termed a superposition that would define at once what a work of great culture achieves and what rigorous criticism must be able to recognize as present or absent in particular works (be they aesthetic works or works in education, commerce, politics or religion).3 Such a superposition embraces all the possibilities available before any individual work (in multiple senses of ‘before’) and is therefore able to explicate in terms of their complete range the achievement, or lack of achievement, in that work. McLuhan would later come to call such a superposition “the emotion of multitude” from Yeats’ short 1903 text of this title.4

Without as yet knowing how to specify such a superposition (or, therefore, the individual positions subsumed by it), McLuhan’s 1943 Keats essay5 repeatedly gestured towards it in the following terms:

  • the high place which the odes have held in the regard of those who care for poetry is owing to qualities (…) of intense organization arising from the strict discipline of a critical intelligence. (99)
  • a basis of stability [is achieved] (…) resolution in “rational” wakefulness. (100)
  • there is something basically characteristic of Keats’s artistic mode arising from his preoccupation with these paradoxes or conflicts in the very heart of experience. How very far he was from refusing to undertake their resolution with the full intellectual energy of a great artist has been quite insufficiently recognized. (102)
  • the achievement of a patterned economy (104)
  • an equilibrium born of previous conflicts  (107)
  • one notes a harmonious conjunction and assimilation of the themes of depression (…) and the flight on the “wings of Poesy” (…). That is, the first “down” movement and the second “up” movement recur6 together as a new thing. (107)
  • [there is] a change of tone. The poem is now, for the first time, at the level of explicit rationality, and it is at this level that the resolution of the conflicting claims of all the other modes of life in the poem is effected. (110)
  • The “meaning” of this poem is only to be apprehended in terms of this complex structure and the reverberation and interaction of its delicately modulated themes. (111)
  • the stability was achieved not by espousal or rejection of life, nor by affirmation nor negation, but by a mode of being which Keats, himself , called “negative capability“. Keats’ definition of this phrase is (…): “. . . when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason. (112)7
  • Instead, however, of oscillating “up” and “down” movements, there is in this ode a single motion of expanding awareness…  (112)8
  •  Rossetti, Swinburne, Pater, and Tennyson (…) had only a small share of that artistic toughness of fiber which made Keats finally reject anything less than a total view of his experience. It is just such a totality (…) which is the concern of these odes. (113)


  1.  University of Toronto Quarterly, 12:2, January 1943, 167-179.
  2. This and all references below are to the reprinting of the essay in The Interior Landscape (where the Keats essay is the earliest piece included in the collection).
  3. Formulation of a superposition is critical in art and science both individually and in their mutual connection, according to McLuhan, but also to religion and to social, even world order. However, the larger the claim, the more the imperative for precise definition and open investigation. Hence the need for McLuhan’s work for the 20 years between 1940 and 1960 to be directed to the question of how to specify a superposition such that the required collective study might at last begin.
  4. For discussion see Lévi-Strauss on method in anthropology.
  5. Probably McLuhan had been drafting studies of Keats over many years going back at least to the late 1930’s, if not to the middle 30’s in Cambridge. Using these drafts he must have brought the Keats essay to completion in parallel to his Nashe thesis by 1942 at the latest. What is here called his gesture towards a superposition is called in the thesis the “grammar” component of the trivium: “The essential opposition between the (rhetorical and dialectical) arts of the trivium being such, then, as frequently to pit the one against the other, with results of the greatest importance, it is useful to recognize that the present exposition of the history of the trivium is being made from a grammatical point of view. Exposition and interpretation of stated doctrines are grammatical problems; and derivative philosophy and almost all histories of philosophy are the products of grammarians” (The Classical Trivium — The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of His Time, 2006, 42). Hence, Keats’ “negative capability” can be defined in ‘trivial’ terms as follows: it unfolds “when a (hu)man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, (grammar) without any irritable reaching-after-fact (rhetoric) & reason (dialectic)“. Such a “capability” may therefore be termed an incomplete (hence its “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts” ) intuition of a complete domain. So, for example, when the elements of geometry or of chemistry were first hypothesized, millennia apart, they were not by any means known in their complete range. But the implicated intuition of those ranges was wondrously accurate, so that they were able to supply frameworks for endless investigation in the future. Endless investigation, that is, exactly of their “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts”. McLuhan’s 1960 proposal for “understanding media” represented a comparable flyer.
  6. McLuhan’s considerations of a superposition would increasingly turn on ‘repetition’ verbs like ‘recur’, ‘retrace’, ‘recognize’, ‘retrieve’, ‘recollect’, ‘remember’, ‘replay’, ‘reflect’. Implicated questions were: when does this repetition take place? how? ‘who’ does it?
  7. Keats’ “negative capability” from a December 1817 letter to his brothers would have been generally familiar at Cambridge. It is noteworthy, however, that McLuhan’s friend and sometime adviser, Muriel Bradbrook, cites it in her 1936 School of Night: “(Ralegh) possessed the faculty which Keats thought of the first necessity for a man of achievement, ‘negative capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’.” (64) There are many reasons to believe that Bradbrook’s little book, although it is not in McLuhan’s library at UT, and whose theses have largely been rejected by scholarship, influenced McLuhan decisively for the rest of his life.
  8. This formulation is particularly close to the superposition specification in physics of orientation in quantum particles.

Lodge in Dalhousie Review

McLuhan’s mentor at the University of Manitoba, Rupert Lodge, published two essays in The Dalhousie Review in 1934 and 1936:

Philosophy and Education, Dalhousie Review, 14:3, 1934, 281-290

Plato’s Secret, Dalhousie Review, 16:1, 1936, 36-40

McLuhan was working closely with Lodge when the first of these was published. In regard to the second, he knew more than enough about Lodge’s Platonism from courses with him in Winnipeg to criticize it in letters home from Cambridge.1

Lodge must have established some kind of connection with the Dalhousie Review editor, Herbert Leslie Stewart, in the early 1930s.2 Perhaps they met or re-met at a conference or learned in some other way of a common interest in philosophy and education (to judge from Lodge’s first paper in the Review).3 Since Lodge was encouraging McLuhan to publish in philosophy at the time (perhaps hoping to turn him from literature), he may well have recommended McLuhan to Stewart for a submission. If so, it may be that McLuhan came to publish in Dalhousie Review not through Gerald Phelan, as previously conjectured4, but through Lodge.5

The choice of an essay on Chesterton would, however, hardly fit with Lodge’s philosophical interests or with the idea of promoting a possible career in philosophy for McLuhan. It is not impossible, therefore, that the Dalhousie Review connection came about in some fashion through Lodge and Phelan. At a guess, if McLuhan first came to Stewart’s attention though Lodge, and if McLuhan then proposed a paper on Chesterton, Stewart may well have turned to his old Halifax friend, Fr PheIan, for input on the notion. Phelan’s interest and expertise in Chesterton was well known. In this case, the profound influence Phelan came to exercise on McLuhan’s life (encouraging his study of Phelan’s Toronto colleagues Maritain and Gilson, guiding his conversion, obtaining his first full-time teaching position at SLU, bringing him back to Canada to teach with the Basilians at Windsor and, finally, securing his position in Toronto at St Mike’s) may in some small part have originated through McLuhan’s old Winnipeg connection with Rupert Clendon Lodge.



  1. “Lodge is a decided Platonist and I learned (to think) that way as long as I was trying to interpret Christianity in terms of comparative religion. Having perceived the sterility of that process, I now realize that Aristotle is the soundest basis for Xian doctrine” (McLuhan to his family, February 1935, Letters 53).
  2. It turns out that both Lodge and Stewart began their North American teaching careers at the same place, Dalhousie, in the same year, 1913! As recorded in the Dalhousie Gazette from November 1913 (p 44), Stewart’s mother took ill just when he was to take up his Dalhousie appointment. As a result, he could not teach his first term there in the fall of 1913. Lodge filled in for him. So the two certainly knew of each other from that time and in all probability met personally when Stewart finally arrived to take up his duties. For a picture and biographical information for Lodge see his entry in The Database of Classical Scholars.
  3. Lodge enlarged his DR paper into a book on Philosophy of Education in 1937 (revised edition 1947); cf, also Plato’s Theory of Education, 1947, reprint 2000.
  4. For discussion see McLuhan and Father Gerald Phelan 1934-1936.
  5. In the same DR issue with Lodge’s ‘Philosophy and Education‘ paper there is an article by Watson Kirkconnell on ‘Icelandic-Canadian Poetry‘. Kirkconnell was another of McLuhan’s mentors from Winnipeg and sent the article to McLuhan in Cambridge. So with Phelan and Lodge, Kirkconnell was a further contact with DR.

McLuhan’s 1963 Dalhousie book review

McLuhan published his first article (outside of University of Manitoba student publications) in The Dalhousie Review in 1936: ‘Chesterton: A Practical Mystic’. But in 1963 he also published a review1 there of a new translation of Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism.2

Here is McLuhan’s review:

Art and Scholasticism and The Frontiers of Poetry
Jacques Maritain

A new translation by Joseph W. Evans
New York: Charles Scribners’ Sons [Toronto: S. J. Reginald Saunders], 1962. Pp. 234. $5.00

Scholastic philosophy was for Maritain, as for James Joyce, an aesthetic discovery in itself. Maritain first presented his discovery of scholastic precision and inclusiveness to his readers under the title “The Philosophy of Art”. The scholastic definition of the imitative faculty as offering a dramatic enactment of nature itself in sua operatione came most acceptably to the 1920’s. The age of mathematical physics was quite prepared to approach art, not as a visual representation of any recognizable surfaces, but as a live model, as it were, of processes not otherwise to be apprehended or experienced. The rediscovery of scholastic definitions, already familiar to readers of The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, came like the rediscovery of the letters of the alphabet as plastic and sculptural forms by Bracque. Maritain’s rehearsal of scholastic definitions similarly recovered for aesthetic thought and language a kind of sculptural and tactile firmness and richness that was new and exciting. Comparable novelty and relevance today attaches, not to the observations of Aquinas so much as to the archetypal dramas of Ovid’s Metamorphoses as they were assimilated by Dante and Joyce and Eliot and St. Jean Perse.
Maritain’s familiarity with the work of the symbolist poets and the painting of his time provided him with a sensibility that gave him access to scholasticism, not as an historical, but as a contemporary, mode of awareness. The present volume stresses this fact by combining the study of scholastic aesthetic with his essays on contemporary poetry and art.
Professor Evans has made a fine translation that brings a wide range of Maritain’s essays into a unified style.
Marshall McLuhan
St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto 

  1. Dalhousie Review, 42:4, 1963, p 532. A search at the Dalhousie Review website for ‘McLuhan’ as ‘author’ returns only the 1936 article. Apparently book review authors have not been tagged in the otherwise excellent database.
  2. Art and Scholasticism was first published in 1920, translated in 1923, and read by McLuhan at Cambridge.

The Keats essay from 1943

McLuhan’s January 1943 essay on Keats1 is an important milestone on his way in many respects. For one thing, it was doubtless organized by Father Gerald Phelan as part of a plan to secure an appointment for McLuhan in Toronto. Three years later the plan would be brought to completion and McLuhan would then spend the remaining three and half decades of his life teaching there.

For another, the Keats essay was exemplary of a whole series of portraits in English literature written by McLuhan. These had begun when McLuhan was not yet 20 with ‘Macaulay: What a Man!‘ (for the The Manitoban student newspaper).2 Then his first published paper outside of Manitoba student organs was another portrait of another Englishman, ‘G. K. Chesterton: A Practical Mystic’ in 1936.3

At Cambridge and in his first teaching positions at the University of Wisconsin and St Louis University, McLuhan continued to draft such portraits which came to include (often focused on a single work) Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey, Byron and Shelley as well as Keats. Together these portraits were called Character Anthology and are preserved today in McLuhan’s papers in Ottawa. In the 1940s, although he may never have brought it into definitive shape, the ambition was to publish the anthology and McLuhan solicited the aid of Sigfried Giedion and Cleanth Brooks and doubtless others in this hope — which was never fulfilled. It may be that his 1944 Kenyon Review essay on Hopkins began its life in this same context, as in all probability did his three published pieces on Tennyson.4

Also preserved in Ottawa are a great many finished and unfinished pieces on Eliot, few of which ever saw the light of day. McLuhan intended to bring them together in a portrait volume to be called Great Tom. He also did many pieces on Wyndham Lewis, at least three of which were published.5

In all of this, McLuhan was continuing the work of his mother, Elsie.  What she had done in sound portraits, he did in visual literary ones. But he, too, loved to imitate the voices of people like Eliot and Lewis. It may be, indeed, that around 1960 he was finally able to realize his project of ‘understanding media’, when he came to perceive how sound and sight are not alternate modes of information coding, but are both present in all human experience as a co-variable ratio:

The break-through in media study has come at last, and it can be stated as the principle of complementarity: that the structural impact of any situation is subjectively completed as to the cycle of the senses. (McLuhan to Bernard Muller-Thym, February 19th, 1960)6 

It is remarkable that one of the central points of this thesis — that the eye and the ear together might serve to focus the collective study of experience — was already present in germ in the Keats essay. McLuhan noted “the delightful visual and auditory life” (103) in Ode to a Nightingale and the associated contrast in it of “the superior senses of eye and ear”  to “the lower senses of taste and touch” (ibid). 

Important steps on his way in the next two decades would be the realization that he himself in his pursuit of the literary life was dominated by the eye and by print — by the Gutenberg galaxy — and that he therefore needed to balance that dominance with an appreciation of “acoustic space”. This would not come for another decade with Carl Williams’ suggestion of this possibility in a 1954 meeting of the culture and communication seminar. But already in the Keats essay, as a kind of unconscious directive to himself, he observed:

In the case of these odes it is necessary to grasp that the relations between their parts rather resemble the internal structure of a fugue or a sonata than a paragraph of statements. (100)

It was not enough, however, simply to step up appreciation of the auditory relative to the visual. It was also necessary, indeed it was even more important, to realize that it was the hinge between them, their variable relation, that first allowed the required specification and resulting collective study. This was exactly that “complementarity” and “cycle of the senses” that McLuhan would finally come to perceive early in 1960. 

This variable hinge was the medium [that] is the message — a phrase which McLuhan began to emphasize beginning in 1958 — again as a kind of directive to himself that he came fully to understand only two years later. This hinge was often called ‘tactility’ by McLuhan as the nominally sensory7 joint between the eye and ear. Such ‘tactility’ was not one of the lower senses” as he had suggested of touch in the Keats essay, but the very heart of the sensorium through which it ceaselessly transformed.

But here again the Keats essay was prescient and directive. In its concluding remarks on Keats’ Ode to Autumn:

There is here a world of rich organic and tactual awareness… (113)

  1.  University of Toronto Quarterly, 12:2, January 1943, 167-179.
  2. October 28, 1930.
  3. The Dalhousie Review, January 1936. See the Chesterton posts and Innis and McLuhan in 1936 for further discussion.
  4. On Hopkins: ‘The Analogical Mirrors’, The Kenyon Review, VI:3, 1944, 322-332. On Tennyson: ‘Tennyson and Picturesque Poetry’, Essays in Criticism, I:3, 1951, 262–282; ‘Introduction’ to Alfred Lord Tennyson: Selected Poetry, 1955, v-xxiv; ‘Tennyson and the Romantic Epic’, in J. Killham (ed), Critical Essays on the Poetry of Tennyson, 1960, 86-95.
  5. ‘Wyndham Lewis: Lemuel in Lilliput’, Key Thinkers and Modern Thought: St. Louis University Studies in Honour of St. Thomas Aquinas, Volume 2, 1944, 58-72; ‘Wyndham Lewis: His Theory of Art and Communication’, Shenandoah 4.2-3, 1953, 77- 88; ‘Wyndham Lewis’, Atlantic Monthly, December 1969, 93-98.
  6.  Cited in Gordon, Escape into Understanding, 313-314. What McLuhan called “complementarity” and “the cycle of the senses” was just sound and sight as a co-variable ratio of the two in all human experience — like the proton and electron in all physical material.
  7. ‘Nominally sensory’, because the essence of McLuhan’s way of “understanding media” was that “the cycle of the senses” cannot be read from their input, but only from their output.  Hence television was no a visual medium although its input was visual, but ‘tactual’. Symphonic music was not auditory although its input was auditory, but ‘visual’. And so on.

McLuhan on “dichotomizing” in 1944

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

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

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

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

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

Again, how was “the dichotomizing habit” to be rigorously understood without implicating one more dualism between that “habit” and the understanding of it?  Between assertions “born of a bogus parentage” and ‘legitimate’ ones?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

McLuhan was probably thinking here of ‘Poetic and Rhetorical Exegesis:  The Case for Leavis against Richards and Empson’, which was published that same year (1944) in the same journal (Sewanee Review).2 But in January 1943, in a UTQ article on Keats3,