Author Archives: McEwen

Comments on Elder’s comments on Barilli

Elder’s comments on Barilli at New Explorations immediately raise noteworthy difficulties.

First and foremost, when gaps are to be removed or solved or declared absent from McLuhan’s thought, we are no longer dealing with McLuhan. “There is no bifurcation of reality, no ontological gap”, writes Elder. “The barrier, the gap, the hiatus that exists between the two poles [of subject and object or word and thing], denying any possibility of communication (…) was the main feature of all modern philosophical positions as they anxiously awaited an audacious solution that would be able to bypass the obstacle”, writes Barilli, thumbing his notice at Hegel, but presumably pointing to McLuhan’s great gap-obviating contribution.

But McLuhan insisted that “gaps are where the action is” (not least to the Ontario Dental Association), and it or its equivalents featured prominently in his work and were meant very seriously. And this for a series of reasons (quite aside from the fact that the man was a Catholic convert for whom the dead God on the cross symbolized, or was, the condition of a definitively gapped reality).

Creativity, beginning with the infant’s learning of language, does not take place through x number of steps of linear sequence to produce “matching” (by conquering the gap), but through a “paradox” resulting in “making” (on the basis of the gap):

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”.1

Shortly put, no gap, no paradox. And if no paradox, no language and no creativity. (Hence McLuhan’s full agreement with Hume, as cited by Elder, in the supposed obstacle that “the first imagination or invention of a particular effect, in all natural operations, is arbitrary” — but not for that reason, for McLuhan at least, necessarily false or unaccountable!)

Furthermore, what gives for McLuhan the unique revelatory power of the electric form (which Barilli and Elder decidedly want to celebrate, if not apotheosize) is exactly its ineluctable gap between negative and positive poles in electricity and magnetism which, generalized, became the ineluctable gap between yes/no gates and 0/1 binary digits in computers and other computing machines.

But this did not mean previous thought was thereby overcome (as though McLuhan or anyone else could out-Kant Kant, or out-Plato Plato). Instead it meant that the same sort of value free analysis as chemistry can make of materials at any time anywhere could now be made (if McLuhan were right) of all experience anywhere anytime. As Elder himself cites in his extended discussion in this same post of McLuhan’s unpublished review of Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism:

A bedouin’s rug of timeless patterns which include all possible arrangements of human experience is indispensable equipment today.

Right or wrong was not the issue; the issue was how to approach “all possible arrangements of human experience” in a new medium such that collective investigation became possible — with, it was McLuhan’s great hope, the same sort of revolutionary insights and solutions as followed upon those other media revolutions — the instigation of literacy in Athens 2500 ago and again after printing 500 years ago.

Moreover, the key to understanding space, time and media was exactly to understand their inherent plurality and, therefore, the “bifurcation” or “ontological gap” between (!) their instances. “Understanding media”, in particular, posed the problem of this plurality and of its gaping borders (since media cannot be separated and differentiated by media), for here the spectrum of medial gaps was itself gapped.

Finally, McLuhan recognized what might be termed existential gaps. Here he is in his Nina Sutton interview with Barbara Rowes sitting in:

BR: What is the fascination with identity ?
MM: Because it’s gone [under electric conditions]. You are always aware of the thing that’s disappeared. It’s a gap. It’s like a lost tooth, an aching void — you feel it all the time.

In a word, gaps, plural, are what are to be understood in understanding media. They are McLuhan’s topic. They are his one thought, as Heidegger might put it.

The other great difficulty posed by Elder and Barilli is what seems for all the world to be a far too one-sided evaluation of the electric form and electric environment,2 despite the unique dangers they pose (of which McLuhan was well aware early on). It may be that enthusiastic assessment is where Prof de Kerckhove gets his notion of the saving power of digital ID. In any case, however the electric may have solved various problems, it has also created more of its own and more ominous ones to boot. Forgetting this means to overlook the up-down dynamic of Heraclitus’ way of which McLuhan’s tetrads are a modern iteration. For humans there is no up that does not implicate an ever-present down and this gapped-gaping-chaotic3 implication is — the medium that is the message.

  1. From Cliché to Archetype, 160. The passage from Aristotle used by Thomas is cited by McLuhan in Latin in ‘The Medieval Environment’ from 1974 and appears as well in letters to Maritain and others. For discussion see The “magical” essence of communication.
  2. Berilli: “For where else do we find the force in which all the synthetic, holistic and structuralist principles of our age are based, if not in the electromagnetic field with all its features and laws? This is the unifying notion from which no one and nothing can be removed. In itself, holism might be considered a fallacious theoretical, quasi-mystical or religious concept. It might even provoke a degree of suspicion. Yet the notion of the electromagnetic field constitutes an indisputable, physical and material reality that immerses us all at every moment of our lives. This is the link, the ultimate warrant of our present unitary, structuralist condition”.  Elder: “Thinking is electric; spatial reality is electric. There is no bifurcation of reality, no ontological gap (…) The holism of the theory of electromagnetism guarantees thought and spatial reality will be related”.
  3. Cf, the shared etymology of gap-gape-chaos.

Dating McLuhan’s “flush-profile” review of Frye

In his Comments on Renato Barilli post at New Explorations, Bruce Elder has a long footnote on McLuhan’s unpublished “flush-profile” review of Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism. In what is either a simple typo or a confusion of McLuhan’s published review of Frye’s Blake in 1947 with his unpublished review of Frye’s Anatomy a decade or more later, Elder gives 1947 as the date of the latter paper. Since Anatomy was published only in 1957, and since McLuhan mentions Sputnik (which launched in October 1957), the earliest possible date for the “flush-profile” review would be the last couple months of 1957.

As indicated by Elder, McLuhan’s review is reproduced along with a discussion of it in a post, Frye-McLuhan Rivalry?, at the Northrop Frye blog, The Educated Imagination. Philip Marchand is cited there from his McLuhan bio as dating the UT panel discussion on Anatomy, for which the paper is said to have been written, to “shortly after its publication”. Here again, then, the review would date to the last months of 1957 or, perhaps, to early in 1958. But Marchand gives no source for this dating and he goes on to cite Fred Flahiff concerning McLuhan’s paper as saying that Flahiff and McLuhan “went out and walked around and around Queen’s Park” discussing it. While this is not impossible in winter in Toronto, it is unlikely.

Absent other evidence, dating the paper must rely on its vocabulary and style. Tellingly, McLuhan notes in it that “Professor Frye has devised a kind of nomadic bookcase for the cosmic man of today who is inevitably a mental D.P.” The same image of “a mental D.P.” appears in a passage in McLuhan’s address to the NAEB Annual Convention in Omaha in October, 1958, ‘Culture Is Our Business: The meaning of the new electronic media’.1 In his address McLuhan observed:

One of the great problems in pedagogy, I think, is a kind of process of translation from one culture to another culture that we are undergoing; and an extensive medium revolution, such as the electronic one, turns us all into mental DP’s. We are all displaced persons today, whether we like it or not; and we are all confronted with huge undeveloped countries of the mind where we hardly know what to do first.

Since the image of our being displaced persons is very rare2 in McLuhan’s work,3 this would provisionally date his “flush-profile” review to 1958, probably in the early fall when the university was back in session, at the same time as McLuhan was drafting notes for his NAEB convention address in October.4

  1. Published in the NAEB Journal, Volume 18:3, December 1958, 3-5 and 30-4.
  2. The topic of displacement, on the other hand, could be said to be all that McLuhan ever talked about. The Gutenberg Galaxy gives its history, Understanding Media and Take Today its present objective and subjective applications.
  3. It appears also in Take Today, 276: “The rich man becomes the displaced person” — written more than a decade after his NAEB convention address, at a time, admittedly, when the tone of the “flush-profile” review was more common than it was earlier.
  4. Flahiff’s dates in Toronto supply some confirmation to this supposition. From his obituary, it appears that he was a grad student at UT in the late 1950s before beginning his teaching career in Saskatoon in 1960. In Marchand’s recounting of the incident, “a panel of graduate English students was organized by the Graduate English Association at the University of Toronto to discuss Frye’s book shortly after its publication.  One of the panellists (was) Frederick Flahiff”. It seems certain, then, that the review was written at the end of the 1950s, following publication of Frye’s book in 1957 and before Flahiff graduated to begin teaching in 1960. The strange behavior of McLuhan reported by Flahiff, it should be noted, was that observed by a grad student who was bolted to his RVM and determined to report of Frye — and McLuhan — only what he saw in it. That McLuhan might have been trying to spark revolutionary insight in his bean, and through it perhaps also in the beans of the other panelists and their audience, never occurred to Flahiff then or later. This is the McLuhan we have ever since: an odd guy ‘researched’ by folks who know better.

McLuhan at the crossroads

In 1953 McLuhan, now in his 40s, was turning from the literary views that had defined his way for the previous two decades to a new way that would remain indistinct and tentative for most of the remainder of the decade.1 Here he is in letters that year to Wyndham Lewis:

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. (April 15, 1953, Letters 236)

Re-reading Snooty [Baronet] (1922) recently I realized my own situation is not unlike his (…) The range and character of the “cultic twalette” has just dawned on me in the past year. Like Snooty I’m trying to get my bearings. (July 14, 1953, Letters 239)

As for my book. It owes much to you of course. But it was so long in the publishing (6 years) that I had lost interest in its approach before it appeared. Now I see that I was trying to prop up the standards of book culture when we have passed out of the Gutenberg era. (December 9, 1953, Letters 241)

As an indicator of that new way, first of all to himself — “trying to get my bearings” — he twice over in 1953 cited the same passage, word for word, from G. Rachel Levy’s Gate of Horn, once in ‘Wyndham Lewis: His Theory of Art and Communication’ and again in ‘Maritain on Art‘:

Plato’s theory of Ideas constitutes a gigantic effort to establish the mystic doctrine upon an intellectual basis. The relation of created things to the “‘pattern laid up in heaven” is, as we saw, that methexis, or participation, which Aristotle equated with mimesis, the “imitation” by which the living world was built upon the Pythagorean numbers. Thus the relationship created by earliest man, and the means of his growth as already described; the vehicle of the first-known religion is now made articulate. The wheel has come full-circle.2

McLuhan’s work for the whole remainder of his career is captured here in nuce.  But it would take McLuhan himself years and sometimes decades to realize these implications.

To “Plato’s theory of Ideas constitutes a gigantic effort to establish the mystic doctrine upon an intellectual basis” compare McLuhan almost 10 years later at the end of his 1961 ‘Humanities in the Electronic Age’:

The ideal Marriage of Mercury and Philology, of spiritual values and perfected method, will be consummated, if ever, in the electronic age.

What Plato’s “gigantic effort” had been unable to accomplish — even with Aristotle’s further specification of the dynamic “methexis or participation” of the forms (the “pattern laid up in heaven”) in constituting “the living world”  — might now “in the electronic age”, at last, be realized or “consummated”.

The notion at stake is just that of chemistry or genetics where a “pattern laid up in heaven” (the elements in the first, the DNA structure of genes in the second) expresses itself dynamically in and as “the living world”. There is, of course, a fundamental difference between such structures and the physical materials they constitute (even when they are of utmost purity), but the two levels, while maintaining their distinction, are one in any given sample. The answer to the question, ‘what is this?’, must always be given in terms of those elementary structures, but is always also some particular expression of them. Theory and instance are never simply identical, but each mirrors the other in a re-flection that is essential. First starting in 1958, McLuhan would term the necessity of this sort of specification, “the medium is the message”.3

Inherent to this idea even in Plato and Aristotle was a “multilevel” approach. Only so could focus be directed to “methexis, or participation, which Aristotle equated with mimesis“. These are all terms or actions which seek to explicate how differences like form and matter or experience and world are dynamically inter-related and so mediated. No such multilevel approach, no possibility of insight into the medium as focal message. In fact, McLuhan seems to have come to the former multilevel approach before the latter medium as message insight and arguably to the latter only by way of the former. Here he is some years before his insistence, beginning in 1958, that “the medium is the message”:

anybody can test for himself the fact that sixteenth-century prose [like that of Nashe, McLuhan’s PhD thesis subject from 12 years before] still retains many of the rapidly shifting perspectives of multiple levels of tone and meaning which characterize group speech. It took two centuries of print to create prose on the page which maintained the tone and perspective of a single speaker. (Historical Approach to the Media, 1955)

Oral disputation and multi-level comment on texts were the natural result of oral teaching. Multi-level awareness of linguistic phenomena and of audience structure held up during print’s first century [eg, with Nashe], but swiftly declined thereafter, since the speedy linear flow of printed language encouraged single perspective in word use and word study. (The Effect of the Printed Book on Language, Explorations 7, 1957)

McLuhan would incessantly insist on “multi-level awareness” in his writings after 1960, particularly (after reading Wolfgang Kohler’s Gestalt Psychology in 1964)4 in terms of figure and ground. But he became aware of the fundamental importance of this awareness5 only when he began to explore the differences between orality and literacy in the 1950s. 

Another implication of the Levy citation, one that McLuhan would broach in his 1962 ‘Prospect’ piece for Canadian Art Magazine, and then endlessly repeat, was the return to the paleolithic, to Levy’s “wheel [that] has come full-circle” back to “earliest man, and (…) the first-known religion”:

When we put our central nervous system outside us we returned to the primal nomad state. We have become like the most primitive paleolithic man, once more a global information-gatherer instead of a food-gatherer. The source of man’s food, and wealth, and daily life from now on, is just information.6

Finally, the most important implication of Levy’s passage, one that McLuhan himself did not see clearly until the 1970s, was the plurality of time. Levy indicates at least three different workings of time: 1) the linear “effort to establish” intellectual clarification on some newly specified “basis” — “the means of (…) growth”; 2) the synchronic or simultaneous working of that ‘new’ basis via “methexis, or participation” by which the living world [is] built”; 3) the revolutionary time-flip or “paradox” through which (1) culminates in recognition both of itself and of the oldest of the old as constituted by way of (2) — “the relationship created by earliest man, and the means of his growth [up to the present insight] (…) is now7 made articulate. The wheel has come full-circle.” The linear finds itself in the synchonic:

And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.
And all is always now. (Four Quartets, Burnt Norton, v)8 


  1. McLuhan’s way can therefore roughly be put as 20 years spent as a literary theorist (1930 to 1950, age 20 to 40), 10 years spent in transition from literary theory in search of a new ground and discipline (1950 to 1960, age 40 to 50), and 20 years again as an investigator of — dual genitive — the electric, 1960 to 1980, age 50 to 70.
  2. Parts of this passage from Levy were actually cited twice in McLuhan’s 1953 Lewis essay — for a total of three times that year. In doing so, he was saying to himself something like: “get this into your head and figure it out not for Plato’s 400 BC, but for now!”
  3. Although it would be absurd to insist that color or smell must be considered along with the elements in specifying physical materials, champions and foes of McLuhan have never ceased insisting that the message must be considered along with the medium in some way. One of the chief things the intelligibility sought by McLuhan had to explain as a “survival strategy” was this universal obtuseness.
  4. See McLuhan’s letter to Bascom St John, July 10, 1964, Letters 306. He had earlier reported reading Kohler to Harry Skornia in an unpublished letter.
  5. As opposed to practising it, which he had done forever.
  6. McLuhan continues ‘Prospect’ as follows: “The transforming of this information into usable products is now an automation problem, a thing no longer calling for the utmost division of human labour and skill. Automation no longer calls for personnel. This terrifies mechanical man because he does not know what to do about the transition that is taking place.” This was a “transition” McLuhan himself had made in the preceding decade, presumably not without its accompanying ‘terrors’. Here was a reason, namely a lack of courage and perseverance in the face of such “terrors”, along with constitutional intellectual limitations, practical concerns with one’s position in every sense and the workings of Kuhn’s ‘normal science’, that might account for the universal obtuseness noted above.
  7. When is this ‘now’? It is the moment when linear insight ‘paradoxically’ finds simultaneous “basis”. ‘At the same time’, however, this is no satori flash of supreme illumination. Instead it is the initiation of investigation on a ‘timeless’ basis that will not only exercise that basis but also subject it to question. As Kuhn has detailed, the working of ‘normal science’ culminates in a revolution through which its previous ‘basis’ is overthrown — the timeless becomes subject to time.
  8. Eliot, and particularly Four Quartets, was one of the central texts giving orientation to McLuhan’s way. Hugh Kenner has reported McLuhan’s fascination with it in the late 1940s and some of McLuhan’s last published work focused on it thirty years later. In McLuhan’s unpublished work, there seems to be more writing on Eliot than on anybody else. A constant background topic for him after 1950 or so was: what is the central difference between Eliot and Joyce and what does this difference implicate?

The Art of Being Ruled (de Kerckhove 3)

Lewis conducts an elaborate survey of the art, entertainment, science, and philosophy of the contemporary Western world to determine what is going on. (193)1 


McLuhan’s appeal to the work of Wyndham Lewis was founded on Lewis’ critique of modernity, not on Lewis’ attempts to answer that critique. Ultimately, indeed, McLuhan saw Lewis as falling prey to the very trends Lewis specified so well.2 But the farsightedness and accuracy of Lewis’ critique from the 1920s, and arguably from a decade and more before in his Blast writings, together with McLuhan’s appreciation of that critique from the early 1940s, should not be gainsaid. They saw, defined and criticized matters then which de Kerckhove describes as the latest news now.

Consider, for example, de Kerckhove’s thoughts on the “digital twin” as compared to McLuhan in his 1944 essay from 75 years ago — citing Lewis from his 1926 pamphlet written 20 years before that:

The intensity of mass-control and exploitation is increased by the multiplication of superficial differences: “Thus, if a man can be made to feel himself acutely (a) an American; (b) a young American; (c) a middle-west young American; (d) a “radical and enlightened” middle-west young American; (e) a “college-educated” etc etc; (f) a “college-educated” dentist who is an etc etc; (g) college-educated’ dentist of such-and-such a school of dentistry, etc, etc, — the more inflexible each of these links is, the more powerful, naturally, is the chain. Or he can be locked into any of these compartments as though by magic by anyone understanding the wires.”3 (The Art of Being Ruled)

The stupendous value of the FAANG stocks records nothing else, of course, than their “understanding the wires”.

It goes without saying that spying has always gone on, as has the appreciation of customer taste by men and women, in the most ancient professions, and even by singers of tales. What was new in modern times was partly the efficiency of the means of gathering such information, but above all it was the specification of human life as having its meaning and worth in the terms of that information. For Lewis this meant that “the human being is no longer the unit”4 — a condition which McLuhan attributed to Lewis’ “dehumanizing forces of the Magnetic City”.5 The central concern of Lewis, and McLuhan in turn, was first of all to illuminate that and how this had happened — and then to investigate if the sleepers might wake.

Before computers, before the internet, before cookies, before AI, the twin through whom economic and political control could and would be exercised was already precisely identified. That we have nevertheless marched in lockstep into our present dystopia tells us everything we need to know about the “ideologic machine” asteaching machine”: it tells us — who we are and what we are for.


Looking back from the late 1960s, entering his last decade of life, McLuhan described what he had received from Lewis:

In The Art of Being Ruled [Lewis] revealed the vast new Lumpenproletariat of the affluent who have since become so painfully obvious as the successors to the Marxist proletariat. In The Doom of Youth he explained the idiocy of the child cult long before Dr. Spock undertook to sponsor permissiveness. [In The Human Age, his last work, he presents the dehumanizing forces of the Magnetic City. He starts with the telegraph press and its power to generate cosmic political disturbances as a means of selling advertising copy. He concludes with TV and its power to alter the images of self-identity on a world-wide scale.]6 (…) Is it any wonder that his analysis of the political, domestic, and social effects of the new technological environments had a great deal to do with directing my attention to these events? (McLuhan, ‘My Friend Wyndham Lewis’, Atlantic Monthly, December 1969)

Two years earlier, McLuhan can be heard crediting Lewis with his interest in “the new technological environments” on a flexidisc recording included with the November 1967 issue of artscanada.7 Asked what influence Lewis had had on him, McLuhan answered:

Good Heavens — that’s where I got it! It was Lewis who put me on to all this study of the environment as an educational — as a teaching machine. To use our more recent terminology, Lewis was the person who showed me that the manmade environment was a teaching machine — a programmed teaching machine. Earlier, you see, the Symbolists had discovered that the work of art is a programmed teaching machine. It’s a mechanism for shaping sensibility. Well, Lewis simply extended this private art activity into the corporate activity of the whole society in making environments that basically were artifacts or works of art and that acted as teaching machines upon the whole population.8


In fact, even as an undergraduate at the University of Manitoba, a full 35 years before the artscanada recording, years before he had ever read a line of Lewis, and before he was soon to encounter Leavis and Thompson’s Culture and Environment at Cambridge,9 McLuhan already perceived the larger social world as a “classroom without walls”. Here he is as an undergraduate in the UM student newspaper, The Manitoban:

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’, October 17, 1933)

we lift up our eyes to the signboards whence cometh our help (‘Morticians and Cosmeticians’, March 2, 1934)

[Interviewer:] These men have enabled us to control nature. [Johnson:] Yes, sir, and it controls you. When men pride themselves on the mastery of a thing, they are the slaves of that thing. (‘An Interview with Dr Johnson’, March 16, 1934)

While McLuhan was greatly taken by the attempts in the Cambridge English school to investigate the structures of language as the key to understanding social life in general (hence his PhD thesis on the trivium as the backbone of western history from 400 BC to 1600 AD), his long-standing interest in the economic and political implications of the “classroom without walls” led him in the 1940s to the writings of Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis in which they addressed the whole social environment.

In 1944 McLuhan published an essay on Lewis, ‘Lemuel in Lilliput’, which he apparently wrote in some kind of consultation or even collaboration with Lewis.10 Here appeal to The Art of Being Ruled is made repeatedly:

men (…) no longer understand the world they have made and which, as robots, they operate day by day. Such is the situation into which Lewis shot his pamphlet breezily entitled The Art of Being Ruled.11 

The Art of Being Ruled is a study of the major dichotomy of modern life. There is the romanticized machine on one hand [with its] the vulgarized spawn of speculative science committed to perennial and ever-accelerated revolution.12 On the other hand are the traditional human and political values. (…) Against the pseudo-impersonality and supposed [ever-better] “drift of events”, Lewis asserts the prerogatives of human intelligence and control. He 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 [contrivance].13 The worship of the dialectic of history or of the “dynamic aspect of reality” in Hegel, Marx, and Bergson has its natural corollary on the “practical” plane: “Dynamical, as the most ‘hurried’ of men is aware, means the bustle and rush of action — of Big Business, Armaments, Atlantic ‘hops’, Wall Street and Mussolini. A ‘dynamic personality’ means, in journalism, an iron-jawed oil-king in an eight-cylinder car, ripping along a new motor-road, with a hundred-million-dollar deal in a new line of poison-gas bombs blazing in his super-brain, his eye aflame with the lust of battle — of those battles in which others fight and die.”14

Science is often described as the religion of industrialism. It is said to have provided man with ‘a new world-soul’. Its (…) function is actually (…) to conceal the human mind that manipulates it, or that manipulates through it (…) For in its impersonality and its ‘scientific detachment’15 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.”16 (The Art of Being Ruled

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 other17 

Consider again how the press of the world imitates and promotes “scientific detachment” in its methods of “impersonal” news coverage. Yet 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. (…) 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?18 

[Lewis emphasizes] 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 for so long”19 (The Art of Being Ruled)

The Heir of all the Ages20…stands by the death-bed — penniless.”21 (The Art of Being Ruled)

Finally, under the circumstances, it is able to do what no former society has been able to do. It is able to dispense with (…) art…”22 (The Art of Being Ruled)

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: “It is because our lives are so attached to and involved with the evolution of our machines that we have grown to see and feel everything in revolutionary terms”23 (…) “it is the first genuine philosophy of slaves that has ever been formulated … it consists in an exploitation of the joys of slavery and submission.”24 (The Art of Being Ruled)

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 it, or our popular industrially applied version of it.” (The Art of Being Ruled)25 

Modern man, philosophically committed and conditioned to sensation and its twin, action, is automatically manifesting the fruits of that philosophy [of slaves] in a multitude of ways. (…) The [supposed or imposed] constitution of created being guarantees modern man that in seeking sensation and thrills, all his acts will uniformly possess a character of accelerated imbecility: “(…) the religion of merging, or mesmeric engulfing”. 26

The answer then to the question of ‘cui bono‘ is ultimately this. Everybody loses. Society has been made into a machine (…) There are no beneficiaries. The Dagwoods and the billionaire power-gluttons are equally rushing to the suicide of total immersion in the chaos of matter.27  However, they are not equally responsible. There is moral accountability in the profound cynicism of the Hollywood tycoons and of the Hearsts and Henry Luces who toboggan us down to the lowest levels (and biggest profits) of What the Public Wants. But, as the “public” becomes more deeply bored with “what it wants” it turns not in wrath but with envy towards its tormentors. (…)28 Corruptio optimi pessima.29 “But 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 spiritually or unspiritually in the servant’s hall.” (The Art of Being RuledThe exploited and the exploiter coalesceThus it comes about that the attack on the family, for example, which develops first (in the eighteenth century) as an attack on reason and the concept of authority, is conducted very thoroughly on the economic front as well. (…) 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 completed30  

Again, no plan or plot or super-brain is needed for the full inter-meshing and exfoliation of all these things to proceed through innumerable changes, and ever-increasing violence and intensity, to their natural term — the “dialectic” of matter31 itself guides the brutalized mind into the labyrinth.32 

What Lewis gave McLuhan were not answers but questions: if modern human beings were losing their social and individual lives, and were actually complicit in casting these away, how was this death process to be stopped and these irreplaceable treasures regained? Since these machinations were the effects of education — of the “classroom without walls” of “art, entertainment, science, and philosophy” — they could hardly be countered by these same means, at least as presently conceived and configured. What lever was there, then, that might be applied against the mad rush to war and more war and to potential oblivion?

  1. ‘Lewis: Lemuel in Lilliput’, 1944, reprinted in The Medium and the Light, 178-197. All page references not otherwise identified are to this M&L version of McLuhan’s essay.
  2. See especially ‘Nihilism Exposed‘, Renascence 8:2, 1955, 97-99.
  3. 196.
  4. Cited in ‘Lewis: Lemuel in Lilliput’, 185, from Time and Western Man.
  5. McLuhan’s June 1, 1969 letter to Robert Manning, Letters 374.
  6. The bracketed sentences here appeared in the original version of this paragraph in McLuhan’s June 1, 1969 letter to Robert Manning, editor of The Atlantic Monthly, in which he proposed his essay on Lewis for the magazine. Letters 374. But in the published version of this same paragraph these sentences were omitted.
  7. A special issue on Lewis edited by Sheila Watson.
  8. Transcription and recording link from See also Andrew McLuhan’s post:
  9. In his interview with Nina Sutton, McLuhan specifically credited Culture and Environment as an important milestone on his way. It combined all his interests: literary analysis, concern for tradition, environmental education and the manufacture of culture through business and entertainment.
  10. McLuhan to Robert Manning, June 1, 1969, Letters 374: “I enclose a wee essay (‘Lemuel in Lilliput’) I wrote on Lewis years ago when he was visiting us in St . Louis.”
  11. 182.
  12. ‘Revolution’, ‘managerial revolution’, ‘revolutionary terms’, etc, are used in McLuhan’s essay to designate change as desirable in itself, change as both necessary and as necessarily good.
  13. McLuhan: “of deliberate will”.
  14. 184-185 citing Time and Western Man.
  15. The typo “scientific attachment” here was already present in the 1944 printing of McLuhan’s essay and was not corrected for the Medium and the Light version.
  16. 187.
  17. 187n20.
  18. 188.
  19. 191-192n26.
  20. Lewis facetiously cites Tennyson’s Locksley Hall (1835) here: “The heir of all the ages, in the foremost files of time”.
  21. 186.
  22. 192n26.
  23. See note 12 above.
  24. 192.
  25. 192-193.
  26. 194 citing Time and Western Man.
  27. By “the chaos of matter” McLuhan does not mean material stuff, but that which is unformed or at least unformulated. It is mind death.
  28. Part of the omission here is the sentence: “This is not a question of either-or, but of both-and.” (195n31) With it McLuhan characterized our tycoons both as villains and as fools. But the phrase should be noted as a directive (to McLuhan himself) concerning the structural difference between the Gutenberg and Marconi eras.
  29. Corruption of the best is the worst.
  30. 194-195.
  31. See note 27 above.
  32. 196. In regard to this labyrinth, a couple years after this Lewis essay McLuhan would begin consideration of Poe’s maelstrom that he would then maintain for the rest of his life.

“A genus of homicidal puppets, sure enough” (de Kerckhove 2)

The vision flogged by Prof de Kerckhove (see de Kerckhove’s Digital Transformation 1), in jest, one hopes, in an attempt at indirect communication, one prays, but in decided earnest, one fears, is clear at least in this respect: it sets out exactly what McLuhan spent a lifetime thinking against.

Here is McLuhan in his 1944 essay, ‘Lewis: Lemuel in Lilliput’:1   

Anybody who has had the opportunity to observe the workings of a modern university need not be told how the “administrative policy of a great teaching body” (such is the ludicrous terminology) is a brainless submission to the currents of technological (not human) change.2 (…) This [anonymous] class of men is not really detached from the ideologic machine. (…) The rulers of modern society are increasingly identified with these technicians who control “scientifically” [via] educational experiment and the Gallup poll: “In reality they are another genus of puppets, a genus of homicidal puppets, sure enough. And they bear a strange resemblance to the misanthropic masters of the doctrine of What the Public Wants.”3 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.4

The embedded quotation is from Lewis’ The Art of Being Ruled and ‘de Kerckhove 3’ will take up McLuhan’s extended references to this 1926 434 page “pamphlet” (as McLuhan put it to Innis). Suffice it to note here only that 75 years ago McLuhan addressed in horrified detail what de Kerckhove seemingly approvingly describes as the emerging present of today and tomorrow. Something is fundamentally amiss here, something that points beyond the understanding of McLuhan, beyond academic politics, to the very working of the age. 

  1. McLuhan, ‘Lewis: Lemuel in Lilliput’, reprinted in The Medium and the Light, 178-197. References below are to this M&L version.
  2. 188n21.
  3. 189n22.
  4. 188-189.

de Kerckhove’s Digital Transformation 1

The man speaks:

case specific data driven verdicts are already superior to human judgment in many critical sectors, medical, legal, financial and military (de Kerckhove, 13)

The man continues: 

When I announce my “data driven verdicts” in any of these areas (to mention just these) you must give me your mind, your purse, your life, your child.

McLuhan to Harold Innis, March 14, 1951:

The diagnosis of [t]his type [of authoritarian political manipulation] is best found, so far as I know, in Wyndham Lewis’s The Art of Being Ruled. That pamphlet is probably the most radical political document since Machiavelli’s Prince. But whereas Machiavelli was concerned with the use of society as raw material for the arts of power, Lewis reverses the perspective and tries to discern the human shape once more in a vast technological landscape which has been ordered on Machiavellian lines. (Letters 222)

In the 18 months Innis had to live, he found time to read Lewis’ book and to reference it in his last work, The Changing Concepts of Time (1952). But Prof de Kerckhove, the head of the UT McLuhan Centre for 25 years, appears not to have received the memo. 


Prof de Kerckhove’s essay1 gives a snapshot of the digital present (often presented in the mode of the foreseeable future) — which is, however, entirely a replay of past times as seen in the RVM. 

A series of posts here will delineate 3 points in regard to it:

  1. how far the man is already in our heads and speaks through us;
  2. how the multilevel historical dimension (as opposed to the RVM single surface level) is completely absent from de Kerckhove’s essay so that (for example) no note is made of how Lewis already found such “a new social order” (6-7) menacing, crazy and comical all at once (and so became McLuhan’s Virgilian guide into the new inferno whose circles become radio waves were already bending minds and the whole social environment for the man);
  3. how de Kerckhove’s descriptions point via Socratic eristics to the sort of answer McLuhan attempted unsuccessfully to communicate.


That the man is firmly lodged in de Kerckhove’s descriptions of our Digital Transformation2 may be seen in citations from his essay which are so dystopian and yet so funny at the same time that it is hard to know what he was thinking. Surely not what he himself was writing! So, for example, where he opines that our

a new social order will self-organize and fall into place. It will be driven by survival to respond first to the threat of environmental annihilation and second, by the need to protect humans from rampant terrorism, tax evasion and utter poverty. (de Kerckhove, 6-7)

“The need to protect humans from (…) tax evasion” as “driven by survival”! That is, you must become your own thought police as regards your taxes (to mention just these) — if the planet is to survive! So pay up! And while you are at it, sniff out whether your neighbour is paying up! Or we will all die! (Lower on the list of threats, apparently, are nuclear war and mind-death through incessant virtue signalling.) 


The question, as in all political systems, would be how to counter efficiently or prevent human abuse of the system. (de Kerckhove, 14)

Not system abuse of the human but human abuse of the system! Yikes! Help!

And finally: 

assuming that data analysis steered by Artificial General Intelligence (AGI), including mood and sentiment [assessment]would focus on the community, instead of addressing mainly [typo for ‘merely’?] individuals (…) Automated policymaking, regulation and execution of different measures would guarantee increased social good [just ask us!] and thereby reach a higher consensus in the community [whereby alien thought and alien individuals would have to be corrected or eliminated — despite what McLuhan may have said on the artist as outlaw!]. In a political system that is yet to be invented,[but fervently to be desired] for anyone to be entitled to participate  [entitled to participate!] in any policy-making, voters would have to provide evidence [provide evidence! to whom? or, rather, to what machine controlled by whom?] that they were informed, competent and ethical [informed, competent and ethical!]. This could be assessed by analytics. [Miracolo divino!] Access to decision-making would be given [given!] according to the level of competence every citizen achieved [the level of competence achieved!]. (…) In a political system grounded in AGI, [Artificial General Intelligence!] a mature SAS [Symbiotic Autonomous Systems] environment (local or global) would have to emulate for the whole system in real time the kind of survival alertness and opportunity awareness [survival alertness and opportunity awareness!] that each one of us possess[es] individually. [Or might possess individually if these had not been assigned/alienated to the man and his “analytics” team.] That would mean, for example, not recommending [“not recommending”! wink, wink!] a decision that would harm the environment in the long term or identifying and presenting opportunities for improvements to (…) personal processes. (de Kerckhove, 15-16)

This is Plato’s φύλακες (guardians), la Inquisición española, Rousseau’s volonté générale, Marx’s Diktatur des Proletariats and the FAANG stock brotherhood all rolled into one! And now algorithmized! “Automated policy-making, regulation and execution of different measures would guarantee increased social good“. Yes, sir!

Side note: Any problems with this vision may be taken up with the citizen feedback facility. Thank you for calling. Our menu has recently changed so listen carefully to the following options. Push 1 at any time to return to the main menu; push 2 for your options (push ‘1’ for yes and ‘0’ for no); push 3 for further options (push ‘1’ for yes and ‘0’ for no); push 4 if you wish to leave a message for our attention; push 5 if you wish to hang up now to answer your door where the gentlemen there will assist you with your further options. 

But surely I have wildly misunderstood de Kerckhove’s essay and associated interview! Surely I have missed the irony at play here! Surely this is the indirect communication manoeuvre described by Kierkegaard as ‘dropping the guitar’! Surely this is a dire warning and not enthusiastic anticipation!


  1. Page numbers without other identification refer to “de Kerckhove, D. (2020), ‘Three Looming Figures of the Digital Transformation’, New Explorations: Studies in Culture and Communication1(1). Retrieved from“. (The outrageously detailed citation information at the New Explorations site tells us everything we need to know about academic writing as subject to a kind of Nielson rating for hiring, promotion, tenure, salary, benefits, travel, pension and emeritus purposes, all adding up to Who I Am. Against this, Carpenter and McLuhan intended the Old Explorations exactly against this sort of ludicrous packaging of the self and distortion of what it might be to attempt — thought.)
  2. Digital Transformation — is this the DTs or Delirium Tremens?

The Beginnings of Gutenberg Galaxy 8

In the summer of 1959 McLuhan took his family out to Vancouver where he taught in a communications program at UBC. At the end of it he sent a telegram to Harry Skornia in which, among other matters having to do with the announcement of his upcoming NAEB project, he mentioned that “GUTTENBERG [sic] BOOK RACING AHEAD BY MEANS OF TAPE RECORDING”.

Percept and concept 1

In Science and the Modern World (SMW below) Whitehead cites Francis Bacon from his posthumous Silva Silvarum (ca 1625):

It is certain that all bodies whatsoever, though they have no sense, yet they have perception: for when one body is applied to another, there is a kind of election to embrace that which is agreeable, and to exclude or expel that which is ingrate; and whether the body be alterant or altered, evermore a perception precedeth operation; for else all bodies would be alike one to another. (52)

Whitehead comments repeatedly on this passage in SMW:1

[in the Silva Silvarum passage] note the careful way in which Bacon discriminates between perception, or taking account of, on the one hand, and sense, or cognitive experience, on the other hand. (52)

The word ‘perceive’ [along with ‘percept’ and ‘perception’] is, in our common usage, shot through and through with the notion of cognitive apprehension. So is the word ‘apprehension’ even with the adjective ‘cognitive’ omitted. [Therefore, instead of ‘perceive’/’percept’/’perception’,] I will use the word ‘prehension’ for uncognitive apprehension (86)

Bacon’s words, “all objects would be alike one to another” (…) really means that (…) what each (…) object is in itself becomes relevant to the one limited value emergent in the guise of the event.2 (130)

The great point made by Bacon, and by Whitehead in turn, is that all things have inherent form “for else all bodies would be alike one to another” such that the ‘world’ would be an undistinguished and undistinguishable uniformity. Instead, the world fits together through universal differentiation that is inherent (but not, of course, necessarily known). And it is this inherent differentiation in form from the smallest particles to whole galaxies which is at work, or which expresses itself, in their interaction — and everything is in differentiated interaction.

What characterizes the particularity (“limited value” in the mathematical sense) of any and all events whatsoever is the interaction of inherent forms. They exist, as Whitehead has it, by “taking account” of one another and only in this way. 

Leibniz put the same point a century after Bacon in his stipulation that each and every thing — as a distinguished/distinguishing monad — is a mirror of the universe since its inherent form takes part in the complete complex of all the events that are. Each monad therefore informs both about itself and about the surrounding universe into which it must fit in its own particular way in order to exist at all.

Bacon and Whitehead — and McLuhan in his turn — call this inherent form in all things “perception” (though not without notable inconsistently, ie, not without sometimes themselves using it to imply or even outright mean ‘conscious apprehension’).3

This facility is not “cognitive” by nature, but humans are never without at least a vague self-consciousness that there is something variable ‘behind’ experience, like moods. And because humans have an inherent ability to grasp the general being of things, possibly including the being of perception (dual genitive) as this variable ‘behind’ experience, it might become “cognitive” in the same way as geometric forms and chemical elements and biological genes have become cognitive.

Of course such cognition is always “limited” in a great number of ways (only hence, the truly wondrous progress of science), but the initiation of cognitive awareness in any area is always noteworthy and some initiative events are so consequential that history is never the same again. This is true of the infant’s history after it learns to speak and it is just as true of history at large after such seminal events as the species beginning to speak — or its learning to represent speech in letters — or its learning to print letters mechanically — or its learning to print (and do everything else) with electricity — or its learning the general application of electric digitality in cybernetics (and, according to McLuhan in all literature via the epyllion structure) — or its learning (perhaps! — this is the great question posed by McLuhan) how such digitality4 might in turn illuminate even perception itself and so initiate a whole series of new sciences of the human “interior landscape”.5

In 1958, the same year as McLuhan began admonishing that “the medium is the message”, he also began insisting that media give “light through [towards us] not light on [from us]”. That is, media first of all in-form our cognition and experience generally — like light coming through a stained glass window — and have done so in some fashion ‘always already’. In this metaphor, the colors and shapes of the stained glass window may be taken to represent the existing form of perception — subjective genitive! — that human beings can never be without and that is therefore necessarily already in place when the light of some medium comes through it toward us.6

Media illuminate us,7 not we them. Hence, they are not in the first instance conceptual stances taken up by us to understand external or even internal matters. They are prior to this. They are perceptual forms (Bacon) or prehensive forms (Whitehead), not cognitive forms!

For McLuhan, similarly, media are perceptual forms, plural, and his admonition that “the medium is the message” would have us perceive media in their plurality as such perceptual forms. The circularity here, like the plurality, is essential: media are perceptual forms that must be perceived in order to be known. The question is only whether this kaleidoscope can be turned in such a way that these forms become subject to cognitive investigation.


  1. McLuhan uploaded SMW into his brain when he was around 20. It remained there as a largely undigested but fertile source of illumination for the rest of his life. In background mode he never stopped processing it and attempting to unriddle its suggestions, such that his entire intellectual history might be told in terms of his gradual understanding — and sometimes misunderstanding — and sometimes critique — of it.
  2. Whitehead’s “relevant to the one limited value emergent in the guise of the event” may be read simply as ‘relevant to any fact’ or ‘relevant to any state of affairs’. He had his reasons for the more complicated expression, of course, but the heart of his intention may be seen in the chemical analysis of any physical material. Without exception, any material at all is the “limited” interaction of elements in a certain “limited” situation. Even 99.99% gold is along with other elements (constituting gold’s inevitable impurities and its very slow but always ongoing interaction with its environment) of which it necessarily “takes account”. In every case, such a configuration “emerges” from the elementary nature of the materials and the possibilities of their interactions as defined in chemical theory. Furthermore, such a state of affairs always ‘takes place’ in the physical context of variables like temperature and pressure which may or may not be controlled.  Whitehead: “The actual world is a manifold of prehensions” (89).
  3. This lack of consistency may almost be required for the treatment of ‘perception’. Its use as ‘fundamental taking account of’ is constantly threatening to fall into one of its extremes: the ‘perception” of quarks to other quarks, on the one hand, and the ‘perception’ of humans on the other. It teeters between the two — as a medium. Treating ‘perception’ is a slippery business whose slipperiness cannot be gainsaid either in its own specification or in what it implies about the nature of the universe in which it exists.
  4. For thoughts on the analog/digital difference, see The digital Wittgenstein.
  5. McLuhan does not use the word complex around ‘digitality’ for the figure/ground approach he hoped would characterize “perception” enough to initiate its collective investigation. In fact, perhaps prompted by the earliest editions of Dantzig’s Number (1930), he sometimes used ‘digital’ to mean counting by using ‘digits’ or fingers — which is an analog procedure! But his insight into ‘the digital’ was nevertheless quite acute. He saw clearly the “principle of a continuous dual structure for achieving order” (‘Spiral — Man as the Medium’, 1976) and, in fact, had been analyzing literature since the early 1930s in terms of the presence or absence of an inherent complexity. Hence his lifelong emphasis on “multilevel” awareness and his fascination beginning in the late 1940s with the epyllion structure of plot and subplot. In regard to having enough insight to initiate science, McLuhan’s most important thought may have been the idea that it literally doesn’t matter how science starts! Perfection of insight is not needed! Aside from being not possible in any case! In fact, as may be seen in any of the existing sciences, cybernetic self-correction is constantly at work in them as long as the investigation is open. What is most questionable in any science is exactly how it has begun. For the last 20 years of his life, after 1958, a repeated question from McLuhan was: why can’t we get started? Since any start will do? Especially when there is so much at stake! Even survival!
  6. Many problems are knotted at this point. They will be treated in future posts.
  7. ‘Illuminate us’ = give us some particular way to illuminate in turn.

Pugen’s time

In a recent post at New Explorations, Intimations of “Secondary Literacy” in McLuhan and Ong, Adam Pugen unabashedly corrects McLuhan.  He has every right to do so, of course, and may even be correct in doing so. But it is critically important to understand the issues at stake between the two. For not only are these issues at the very heart of McLuhan’s project, especially after 1958, but their specification may serve to illuminate the arguably unique contribution McLuhan made towards solutions of the great problems of his and our time. Since that contribution has been lost, even while the need for it has vastly increased, Pugen’s post may work to indicate the required way towards Understanding Media — in reverse. Conversely, if it is Pugen who is correct between the two, understanding McLuhan’s mis-takes may serve to illuminate Pugen’s corrective insights.

The central issue between McLuhan and Pugen is the question of time. Is it singular or plural? If plural, at least ‘sometimes’, which time is figure and which is ground?

McLuhan is clear that time is inherently plural and that synchronic time grounds diachronic time:1

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

Pugen is equally clear that ‘time considered as sequential is ground and time considered as simultaneous is figure’:

the inclusive “all-at-onceness” of electric media [aka] the simultaneous structure of electric communication [aka] the non-linear collectivistic resonance of electricity [aka] the simultaneous electromagnetism of telegraph, radio, and television signals — has been superseded.2

For Pugen, synchronic time is a ‘sometime’ thing while the supersession of diachrony goes on forever.

Pugen specifies our situation as one of “secondary literacy”. This is put forward as a kind of Hegelian Aufheben3 of the literary ground of the Gutenberg galaxy whereby its virtues would be retained even while its defects would be cured. What Pugen terms “the rise [!] of the digital” — “reaching a kind of fulfillment [!] in digital media” — would on the one hand “retrieve the literate characteristics of ‘visual space’ from within the oral characteristics of ‘acoustic space’.” On the other hand, “the very extension of consciousness in electronic media -– an extension that is especially evident with respect to properly digital media -– retrieves the multisensuous or ‘tactile’ awareness of manuscript culture in a self-reflexive form”. In the first instance, the literary is figure to acoustic ground, in the second the acoustic is figure to literate ground. Such dynamic inter-communication is the heart of the matter for Pugen — as it is, in very different ways, for McLuhan:4

the visual and tactile nature of the (…) word5 is vital…6

At bottom this happy result is grounded for Pugen in the very lineality on the basis of which he openly breaks with McLuhan. First there was “primary literacy” and then, later, through chronological evolution and development there is “secondary literacy”. It may be that a third, fourth and fifth literacy are foreseeable and should, in turn, be even better.

In fact, as illustrated in this retreat to such a nineteenth century perspective on time (without the least notice of ‘missing links’ and potentially catastrophic ‘developments’),7 our precarious state today is a horrendous amplification of the Gutenberg galaxy which we have never left despite all the revolutionary art and science and technological innovations — and world wars — that have marked the last century and this.8 As McLuhan often said in regard to books and cars, for example, and that has truly terrible application today in regard to the engines of war, obsolescence does not mean disappearance, but super-abundance and superfluity.

The great question is: did McLuhan indicate a way out of the Gutenberg galaxy that is currently killing us? Or is Pugen correct that McLuhan’s attempt to do so was a failure (even while supplying helpful “intimations”) such that we must seek an exit elsewhere?

One way to approach this critical difference would be to specify how Pugen’s reading of McLuhan itself exemplifies the Gutenberg galaxy and is therefore subject to the logical and ontological problems (not to speak of the psychological, sociological, political and environmental problems) of the print mindset. The matter of time is only one of the markers of this. Future posts will detail others.

Meanwhile, it may be wondered if Pugen’s reading would not “immerse ourselves again in the destructive element of the Time flux” (aka) “the swoon upon death, the connatural merging in the indiscriminate flux of life, the reflexive feeling and expressing of [merely] one’s [own] time” — where “one’s time” may be read not only as “one’s time” in chronological lineality, but also as “one’s [own conception of] time” and as “one’s [own conception of] time” as an endless series of “ones [as] time”.

  1. The question of time in McLuhan is treated extensively at New Sciences.
  2. Hence, as Pugen remarks, “the artist and theorist of today (…) does not live in the same media environment as Jung, Freud, or the Bauhaus group of artists.” But the nature of a “media environment” (and therefore how we would recognize one) is just as questionable here as the assumption of the fundamental lineality of time.
  3. Aufheben is notoriously untranslatable since it can mean, at least as used by Hegel, cancel, retain and enhance all at once. It may be illustrated in Pugen’s remark that “the detached visuality of manuscript literacy does not suppress – but, rather, complements – the immersive orality of pre-literate sensibility.” McLuhan’s tetrads are a kind of Aufheben of Hegel’s Aufheben.
  4. McLuhan would agree with the centrality of “inter-communication” (which was already stressed by one of his earliest mentors, Henry Wright, at the University of Manitoba). But he would urge a very different specification of the matter in regard to: (1) how and when this comes about (in dynamic synchrony vs Pugen’s diachrony); and (2) what this fundamental difference implicates (in a host of ways, but especially as regards the groundings of human experience).
  5. Pugen has “the written word” here. But the nature of the word is exactly what is most questionable and such questionability ought not to be forestalled at any stage of investigation by, for example, stipulating it as “written”. The “inerrancy” of some particular text and the presuppositions of the Gutenberg galaxy may all too easily be claimed or assumed at this point, obstructing science where it is most needed.
  6. Pugen continues: “vital for the interpretive awareness sustaining McLuhan’s body of insights.” In fact, as Pugen would agree, it is ‘vital for the interpretive awareness sustaining anybody’s insights.’
  7. Admittedly, Pugen’s other work may well take notice of these gaps and catastrophes.
  8. Some of the great difficulties in the specification of media environments may be seen here. As McLuhan was well aware and often cautioned about, new media can be, and in fact are, directed to old media goals. This serves to prolong and amplify the dominance of the old media, not to replace them.

Ignatov on Maritain on Bergson 2

According to Maritain in the first 1913 passage from him cited by Ignatov, in the face of anti-intellectualism (aka, materialism, etc) and hyper-intellectualism (aka, idealism, etc)

there is only one means, only one remedy: authentic intellectualism — submission to the real — which measures thought upon being.

In McLuhan’s later career the very fate of the earth would come to be seen in these terms. For modern media have so transported us that we no longer have contact even with our own bodies, let alone the bodies of others or the body of the earth itself. We have become free floating satellites1 — no-bodies — in a way we cannot consider or even register because we have no experience of what it would be like to have contact — to know ground.

It was around 1950 that McLuhan began to stress the critical importance of real contact with the real.

Mr. Eliot’s Historical Decorum, 1949

  • To read not in the book of the self but in the book of the existent and subsistent world, the world of the incarnate logos, where the least letter is resplendent with intellectual radiance, that was the esthetic task of Mallarmé, but of Joyce especially.
  • Existence is opaque to the rationalist. He seeks essences, definitions, formulas. He lives in the concept and the conceptualizable. Ideally, in a world of essences, actually, in a state of complete inanition. Cut off from the nutriment of existence, his very postulates discourage him from that loving and disciplined contemplation of existence, of particulars.

Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters, 1954

  • The dreaming eye of the movie god casting his images on the dark screen corresponds to that image of [degraded] human life offered to us by Plato in the Republic: [such] existence is a kind of cave or cellar on the back wall of which we watch [only] the shadows of real things from the outside world of reality.
  • the mechanical medium has tended to provide merely a dream world which is a substitute for reality…
  • “neorealism [in Italian film] (…) 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.” (McLuhan citing Cesare Zavattini)2 
  • “I saw at last what lay in front of me, and I understood that to have evaded reality had been to betray it.” (Zavattini)
  • We have passed [with neo-realism] 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 [show in]3 it a power, a communication, a series of reflexes, which until recently we had never thought it had.” (Zavattini)
  • The [neo-realistic] 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.” (Zavattini)
  • Substantially, then, the question today is, instead of turning imaginary situations into ‘reality’ and trying to make them look ‘true’, to [take]4 things as they are,5 almost by themselves, [to free them to] 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.” (Zavattini)
  • “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 oneself in tracing the roots of this problem. The keenest necessity of our time is ‘social attention’.” (Zavattini)
  • “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.” (Zavattini)6

McLuhan’s presentation of self until around 1958 was a put-on of neo-Thomism and neo-realism. He participated in a broad current of thought — a medium — in which Maritain and Zavattini were brilliantly active. But McLuhan, like Zavattini in this respect, was interested in two problems which the neo-Thomists, in the main, either didn’t see at all, or saw but didn’t address effectively. Namely, what were the ramifications in the world that contact with the real was being lost — and what could be done about this? It was in 1958 with the insight that “the medium is the message” that McLuhan finally saw a way of actually doing something about our ‘inflated’ or groundless situation. As he put it in summary of his 1958-1962 investigations:

When raising these themes, one is beset by queries of the “Was it a good thing?” variety. Such questions seem to mean: “How should we feel about these matters?” They never suggest that anything could be done about them. Surely, understanding the formal dynamic or configuration of such events is the prime concern. That is really doing something. (Gutenberg Galaxy, 212-213)7

  1. Satellites of what?
  2. 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. See Eisenstein 2 (Zavattini).
  3. Translation: ‘give’.
  4. Translation: ‘make’.
  5. Phenomenology shared this imperative with neo-realism: zur Sache selbst!
  6. The passages given here are only a small fraction of the multiple pages of Zavattini McLuhan read in his lecture, without pause, before his captive audience. This was to anticipate by a quarter century Andy Kaufman’s routine of reading long passages from The Great Gatsby. Indeed, almost twenty years after his ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’ lecture, in his Arts Festival presentation at USC in Los Angeles, McLuhan self-identified as a comedian. This was 1972 — the year of Kaufman’s first TV appearance.
  7. See the home page of McLuhan’s New Sciences.

Ignatov on Maritain on Bergson 1

A highly interesting post in the New Explorations blog by Clinton Ignatov, ‘Bergson on Machinery‘, cites passages from Maritain’s early (1913) critique of Bergson.1 Ignatov does not tackle the critical question of what these 1913 passages have to with the topic of ‘Bergson on Machinery’, which Ignatov broaches in his post only in relation to much later Bergson and Maritain texts. But these 1913 passages do indeed have clear parallels with the work of Marshall McLuhan — suggesting that a relation with machinery and technology must exist.

This post will examine the first passage from Maritain on Bergson as cited by Ignatov and attempt to show some of its connections to the work of McLuhan. These connections are clear even though McLuhan may never have read anything at all of Bergson — other than snippets in the work of others.2 Nor, despite his great interest in Maritain, does he appear to have read Maritain’s 1913 critique, which forms the backbone of Ignatov’s post.

Two passages from Maritain’s early critique are cited in the post, each of which serves to indicate the tradition which supplied McLuhan’s explanans until he was almost 50 and which then continued for the remainder of his life as the critical explanandum.3 Put otherwise, Maritain’s two passages indicate a certain medium within which McLuhan’s work functioned until 1958. With his admonition that year, above all to himself, that “the medium is the message”, what had been the ground of his thought became figure or effect. His efforts would henceforth be dedicated to the specification of this figure/effect by working back from it in detective fashion to dis-cover and specify its ground and cause. But since this was a question of communication, this meant that he had to ‘put on’ the role of his reader or audience — “the multitude” — and ask with it, or them, how the required retracing and retrieval might be achieved. Achieved, that is to say, by and for us!4   

Ignatov’s first citation from Maritain’s 1913 critique reads as follows:

Here we have it then; the most thorough-going, most intelligent anti-intellectualism, — Bergsonian anti-intellectualism, — compromises and destroys man’s freedom just as much as the [hyper] intellectualism of Parmenides, Spinoza, Leibnitz and Hegel. Let us realize that intelligence alone can correct intelligence and that if we wish to cure the soul of the false intellectualism of Spinoza and Hegel, which measures being upon thought and to which the dogmatism of our pseudo-savants bears but a faint and crude resemblance, there is only one means, only one remedy: authentic intellectualism — submission to the real — which measures thought upon being.

These two lengthy sentences might well be taken to describe McLuhan’s developing intellectual position from around 1930 to around 1960 — roughly, from age 20 to age 50. For just as Maritain sets out three fundamental positions —  “anti-intellectualism”, hyper intellectualism and “authentic intellectualism” — so McLuhan knew of comparable threefold classifications in two other figures he studied intensively in his university years. Rupert Lodge, his mentor at the University of Manitoba, proposed a “comparative method” for philosophy that would work with three fundamental types — realism, idealism and pragmatism. Meanwhile A.N. Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World, a book McLuhan studied with Lodge, put forward a similar typology of realism, idealism and organism. For Lodge everything depended on a bracketing of the question of the relative validity of the three kinds so that the typology itself could be studied methodically. Whitehead, in contrast, emphasized study of the third type as the required key to unlock the world of human experience in comparable fashion to the unlocking of nature that had been achieved since 1600. Broadly speaking, McLuhan leaned more to Whitehead’s emphasis until 1958 and thereafter more to Lodge’s.5

McLuhan’s Cambridge PhD thesis from 1943 traced a related threefold to those of Maritain, Lodge and Whitehead. By compiling secondary sources, he described the complicated history of and between the three trivial arts of rhetoric, dialectic and grammar over the 2000 years from classical Greece in 400 BC to Elizabethan England in 1600 AD.

In all four cases — Maritain, Lodge, Whitehead and McLuhan — the threefold classification turned on the relation of mind to fact, hence on the questions of whether human beings can know truth and, if so, just how. But McLuhan had always been suspicious that philosophy was too narrow a field for the investigation of human experience. Hence his decision to major in English at Manitoba, rather than philosophy with Lodge, and his attraction to the Cambridge English School where the attempt was being made to understand the ambiguities of language as the key to understanding human life in general. Hence also his choice to examine the trivial arts in his Cambridge PhD thesis rather than philosophical classifications like those of Maritain, Lodge and Whitehead.

That 1943 thesis, together with its immediately following ‘An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America’ (originally a 1944 lecture), summed up his progress in developing this line of thought. The idea was to investigate the possibilities of a ‘trivial’ threefold approach to education (very broadly conceived as “the classroom without walls”) in an attempt to illuminate both the methodical classification itself and the objects of its investigation ranging from individual works to historical periods.

Of course McLuhan’s work greatly expanded and somewhat transformed over the three decades between 1930 and 1960 through his exposure to — and continuing rumination on — Giedion and Lewis, French symbolist poetry, Eliot and Pound, cybernetics, film theory and Joyce. But how was all this to apply to life and, perhaps, transform the world as the world had, for good and ill, repeatedly been transformed by, in turn, language, literacy, printing and electricity? This was the great question embedded in the 1958 admonition, “the medium is the message”, and the potential answer to it — although never without the shadow of that other potential of global disaster — offered a unique hope that McLuhan would pursue for the remaining 20 years of his life:

The ideal Marriage of Mercury and Philology, of spiritual values and perfected method, will be consummated, if ever, in the electronic age. (The Humanities in the Electronic Age, 1961)


  1. Translated in 1955 as Bergsonian Philosophy and Thomism — more than 40 years after its original publication in France.
  2. Almost comically, but not untypically, the most telling passage from Bergson ever cited by McLuhan is to be found in Laws of Media where McLuhan is cited by Eric McLuhan as citing Lewis Feuer’s Einstein and the Generations of Science (1974). In the cited passage, Feuer cites Louis de Broglie citing Bergson: in quantum theory, according to de Broglie, “each instant (of) nature is described as if hesitating between a multiplicity of possibilities (…) as in The Creative Mind (where Bergson observes) that ‘time is this very hesitation or it’s nothing’.” (LOM, 55) So: Eric McLuhan > Marshall McLuhan > Feuer > de Broglie > Bergson > the hesitation of time!
  4. See The put-on and Lévi-Strauss on method in anthropology.
  5. This movement might be considered as a deeper look into ‘the main question‘.

Maelstrom in Ertrog and Yeats


In 1976 McLuhan wrote a short commentary (‘Spiral — Man as the Medium’) to the film, Spiral, of his friend, Sorel Etrog.1 In it he reverted once again to some of his favorite images, the spiral or maelstrom, and the labyrinth:

The film Spiral (…) presents the oscillation of two simultaneous and complementary cones or spirals, constituting the synchronique worlds of birth and death. Spiral is not a diachronique or lineal structure, but a synchronique and contrapuntal interplay in a resonating structure whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. The opening [of the film] is a labyrinthine highway and the ambivalent and parallel ambulances set birth and death on wheels. In the interval between time, the preserver, and time, the destroyer, is the creative interval which constitutes both continuity and arrest, both real and imaginary. By grounding his work in the archetype of the spiral, Etrog awakens echoes of the spiral archetype in some of the most celebrated artists of our time. Yeats [for example] explained the process of this unending form of experience…

Elsewhere McLuhan explicitly mentioned “the interlocking cones and ‘gyres’ of Yeats’ vision” (Discontinuity and Communication in Literature, 1970) and in Take Today, on its key page 22, he cited Yeats from The Second Coming:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned…



  1. The commentary appeared posthumously in the 1987 book, Images from the Film Spiral.

McLuhan on Whitehead

McLuhan began studying the work of Alfred North Whitehead with Rupert Lodge in Winnipeg. One of the essays he did for Lodge, ‘The Being of Non-Being’, is preserved in the Ottawa papers as part of his successful application for a teaching assistant position at the University of Wisconsin in 1936. It is a consideration of a Raphael Demos article on ‘Non-Being’.1  Demos, in turn, was an assistant to Whitehead at Harvard. Whitehead’s ‘Preface’ to Science and the Modern World ends: “My most grateful thanks are due to my colleague Mr Raphael Demos for reading the proofs and for the suggestion of many improvements in expression.” For the rest of his life, when McLuhan referred to Whitehead, it was nearly always to Science and the Modern World (1926), although he also cited Adventures of Ideas (1933) occasionally.2

The Classical Trivium [Thomas Nashe in the Learning of his Time], 1943

Lest it should be imagined that modern science has no respect for the techniques and the insights of St. Bonaventure, one might instance the doctrines of A.N. Whitehead. Like Bergson, in full revolt against the long monopoly of Cartesian and Newtonian mathematical physics in the interpretation of the universe. Whitehead says that on the materialistic theory “there can merely be change, purposeless and unprogressive. But the whole point of the modern doctrine is the evolution of the complex organisms from antecedent states of less complex organisms. The doctrine thus cries aloud for a conception of organism as fundamental for nature. (…) The organism is a unit of emergent value, a real fusion of the characters of eternal objects, emerging for its own sake.” (Science and the Modern World, 135) For the ‘forms’ of Bonaventure, Whitehead substitutes “events”. “Events” are patterns of universal being. Mental cognition, he says, “knows the world as a system of mutual relevance, and thus sees itself as mirrored in other things.” (SMW, 184-185)3 The metaphor of the mirror comes as naturally to Whitehead as to Bonaventure, of whom Whitehead knows nothing. All specialism in knowledge disappears4 for Whitehead as for Philo or Hugh of St. Victor: “We can now see the relation of psychology to physiology and to physics. The private psychological field is merely5 the event considered from its own standpoint.” (SMW, 186) The difference between Whitehead and Bonaventure is that between a man taking his first uncertain steps into a new world of inexhaustible significance, and a man born into that world. The concepts in terms of which Whitehead falteringly apprehends his brave non-Newtonian world are crudely makeshift and tentative. Bonaventure’s are delicately and complexly poised, deftly touching his world at innumerable points. (143n32)

The Mechanical Bride, 1951

artistic discovery for achieving rich implication by withholding the syntactical connection is stated as a principle of modern physics by A.N. Whitehead in Science and the Modern World:

In being aware of the bodily experience, we must thereby be aware of aspects of the whole spatio-temporal world as mirrored within the bodily life (…) my theory involves the entire abandonment of the notion that simple location is the primary way in which things are involved in space-time. (SMW113)

Which is to say, among other things, that there can be symbolic unity among the most diverse and externally unconnected facts or situations. (81)

The Mechanical Bride, 1951

No culture will give popular nourishment and support to images or patterns which are alien to its dominant impulses and aspirations. And among the multifarious forms and images sustained by any society it is reasonable to expect to find some sort of melodic curve. There will be many variations, but they will tend to be variations on certain recognizable themes. And these themes will be the “laws” of that society, laws which will mould its songs and art and social expression. A.N. Whitehead states the procedures of modern physics somewhat in the same way in Science and the Modern World. In place of a single mechanical unity in all phenomena, “some theory of discontinuous existence is required”.6 (SMW, 169) But discontinuity, whether in cultures or physics, unavoidably invokes the ancient notion of harmony. And it is out of the extreme discontinuity of modern existence, with its mingling of many cultures and periods, that there is being born today the vision of a rich and complex harmony. We do not have a single, coherent present to live in, and so we need a multiple vision in order to see at all.7 (96-97)

Tennyson and Picturesque Poetry, 1951

As A.N. Whitehead showed, the great discovery of the nineteenth century was not this or that fact about nature, but the discovery of the technique of invention so that modern science can now discover whatever it needs to discover. And Rimbaud and Mallarmé, following the lead of Edgar Poe’s aesthetic, made the same advance in poetic technique that Whitehead pointed out in the physical sciences. The new method is to work backwards from the particular effect to the objective correlative or poetic means of evoking that precise effect, just as the chemist begins with the end product and then seeks the formula which will produce it. Mr. Eliot states this discovery, which has guided his own poetic activity since 1910 or so, in his essay on Hamlet [‘Hamlet and His Problems’, 1919]: “The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.” 

Network 2, 1953

Poe discovered a new method of precision, economy and control in writing backwards.  To start with the effect and to invent the cause, to move from emotion to the formula of that particular emotion. This is what Whitehead in Science and the Modern World refers to as the discovery of the technique of discovery.

Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters, 1954

As language itself is an infinitely greater work of art than the Iliad or the Aeneid, so is the creative act of ordinary human perception a greater thing and a more intricate process than any devised by philosophers or scientists. The poetic process is a reversal, a retracing of the stages of human cognition8. It has and will always be so; but with Edgar Poe and the symbolists this central human fact was taken up to the level of conscious awareness. It then became the basis of modern science and technology. That is what Whitehead meant when he said that the great event of the nineteenth century was the discovery of the technique of  discovery. Because the drama of ordinary perception seen as the poetic process is the prime analogatethe magic casement opening on the secrets of created being.

Media Alchemy in Art and Society, 1958

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 [particular] applied process.

The Humanities in the Electronic Age, 1961

We are all familiar with the computation based on a survey of present-day scientific development: that of all the greatest scientists who have ever lived, 95% are living right now. Does this mean that there is more human intelligence now than before? Not at all. But it does mean that we have hit upon some means of activating intelligence that is new. A.N. Whitehead pointed to the discovery of the nineteenth century as the discovery of the technique of invention.(…) At least in Science and the Modern World, where he makes this statement, Whitehead does not explain his point. Edgar Allen Poe, whom Baudelaire and Valéry regarded as the nineteenth-century Leonardo da Vinci, did explain the point in his “Philosophy of Composition” [1846]. The technique of invention is to begin with the effect one wishes to achieve and then to go backward to the point from which to begin to produce that effect, and only that effect. In a sense this technique of starting with the effect before seeking the causes and means for the effect, is the perfection of the assembly-line method [via its reversal]. It is a method of organized ignorance. Because, whether one wishes to make a car or a poem, a guided missile or a detective story, it is necessary to begin with the solution or effect.9

The Gutenberg Galaxy, 1962

Today, then, it is easy to understand the invention of the alphabet because, as A.N. Whitehead pointed out in Science and the Modern World (p. 141) the great discovery of the nineteenth century was the discovery of the method of discovery:

The greatest invention of the nineteenth century was the invention of the method of invention. A new method entered into life. In order to understand our epoch, we can neglect all the details of change, such as railways, telegraphs, radios, spinning machines, synthetic dyes. We must concentrate on the method in itself; that is the real novelty which has broken up the foundations of the old civilization. (…) One element in the new method is just the discovery of how to set about bridging the gap between the scientific ideas, and the ultimate product. It is a process of disciplined attack upon one difficulty after another. (SMW, 120-121)

The method of invention, as Edgar Poe demonstrated in his “Philosophy of Composition,” is simply to begin with the solution of the problem or with the effect intended. Then one backtracks, step by step, to the point from which one must begin in order to reach the solution or effect. Such is the method of the detective story, of the symbolist poem, and of modern science. It is, however, the twentieth century step beyond this method of invention which is needed for understanding the origin and the action of such forms as the wheel or the alphabet. And that step is not [only] the backtracking from product to starting point, but the following of process in isolation from product.10 To follow the contours of process as in psychoanalysis provides the only means of avoiding the product of process, namely neurosis or psychosis. (45)

The Gutenberg Galaxy, 1962

A most luminous passage of A.N. Whitehead’s classic Science and the Modern World (p. 141 ) is one that was discussed previously 11 in another connection.

The greatest invention of the nineteenth century was the invention of the method of invention. A new method entered into life. In order to understand our epoch, we can neglect all the details of change, such as railways, telegraphs, radios, spinning machines, synthetic dyes. We must concentrate on the method in itself; that is the real novelty, which has broken up the foundations of the old civilisation. The prophecy of Francis Bacon has now been fulfilled; and man, who at times dreamt of himself as a little lower than the angels, has submitted to become the servant and the minister of nature. It still remains to be seen whether the same actor can play both parts(SMW, 120-121)

Whitehead is right in insisting that “we must concentrate on the method itself.” It was the Gutenberg method of homogeneous segmentation, for which centuries of phonetic literacy had prepared the psychological ground, that evoked the traits of the modern world. The numerous galaxy of events and products of that method of mechanization of handicrafts, are merely incidental to the method itself. It is the method of the fixed or specialist point of view that insists on repetition as the criterion of truth and practicality. Today our science and method strive not towards a point of view but to discover how not to have a point of view, the method not of closure and perspective but of the open “field” and the suspended judgment. Such is now the only viable method under electric conditions of simultaneous information movement and total human interdependence. (276)

The Electronic Age — The Age of Implosion, 1962

It was said by A. N. Whitehead, in Science and the Modern World, that “the greatest invention of the nineteenth century was the invention of the method of invention.” He develops the observation as follows:

The whole change has arisen from the new scientific information. Science, conceived not so much in its principles as in its results, is an obvious storehouse of ideas for utilisation. But, if we are to understand what happened during the [nineteenth] century, the analogy of a mine is better than that of a storehouse. Also, it is a great mistake to think that the bare scientific idea is the required invention, so that it has only to be picked up and used. An intense period of imaginative design lies between. One element in the new method is just the discovery of how to set about bridging the gap between the scientific ideas, and the ultimate product. It is a process of disciplined attack upon one difficulty after another. (SMW, 121)

We Need a New Picture of Knowledge, 1963

It was Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World that first drew wide attention to the close relations between art and science. Any structural approach in education has to take into account his observations about structural procedures of the nineteenth century.

Here McLuhan gave the same citation from Science and the Modern World as given above from The Gutenberg Galaxy (45): “The greatest invention of the nineteenth century was the invention of the method of invention…” etc.

Understanding Media, 1964

It was Bertrand Russell who declared that the great discovery of the twentieth century was the technique of the suspended judgment. A.N. Whitehead, on the other hand, explained how the great discovery of the nineteenth century was the discovery of the technique of discovery. Namely, the technique of starting with the thing to be discovered and working back, step by step, as on an assembly line, to the point at which it is necessary to start in order to reach the desired object. In the arts this meant starting with the effect and then inventing a poem, painting, or building that would have just that effect and no other.

Alarums in a Brave New World (Review of Cyborg),12 1965

It was A.N. Whitehead who pointed out that one of the great sources of confusion in our time is the illusion that the environment is stable and that all change and innovation occur within this unchanging environment. This illusion is a legacy of the Newtonian system. This system had no more place for change than it had for people.

Is It Natural That One Medium Should Appropriate and Exploit Another?13 1967

All that remains to study are the media themselves, as forms, as modes ever creating new assumptions and hence new objectivesThis basic change has already occurred in science and industry. Almost any natural resource has, with the rise in information levels, become substitutable for any other. In the order of knowledge this fact has given rise to Operations Research, in which any kind of problem can be tackled by nonspecialists. The technique is to work backward from effect or result to cause, not from cause to effect. This situation resulting from instantaneous information movement was referred to by A.N. Whitehead in Science and the Modern World, when he pointed out that the great discovery of the later nineteenth century was not the invention of this or that, but the discovery of the technique of discovery. We can discover anything we decide to discover.

Take Today, 1972

It has been said by A.N. Whitehead that the greatest discovery of the nineteenth century was the discovery of the technique of discovery. That technique consists in the retracing of any process of generation or cognition. Bertrand Russell noted as complementarity [to Whitehead] that the greatest discovery of the twentieth century was the technique of “the suspended judgement” — not single but multiple models of experimental exploration. The need to suspend points of view and private value judgments is indispensable to the programming of total environments. (97)

Laws of Media (posthumous)

Alfred North Whitehead mentions in Science and the Modern World that the great discovery of the nineteenth century was that of the technique of discovery. The art of discovery, the art of acoustic, probing awareness, is now a cliché, and creativity has become a stereotype of the twentieth century. Dis-covery, or uncovering, is a form of retrieval. The archetype is retrieved awareness of consciousness.14 It is consequently a retrieved cliché — an old cliché retrieved by a new cliché. Since a cliché is a unit extension of man, an archetype is a quoted extension, medium, technology, or environment, an old ground seen as figure through a new ground. The cliché, in other words, is incompatible with other cliches, but the archetype is extremely cohesive, the residues of other archetypes adhere to it. When we consciously set out to retrieve one archetype, we unconsciously retrieve others (…) In fact, whenever we ‘quote’ one consciousness, we also ‘quote’ the archetypes we exclude15 (103-104)


  1. Raphael Demos, ‘Non-Being’, Journal of Philosophy 30:4, February 1933.
  2. In the McLuhan books collection housed in Fisher Library at the University of Toronto, there are two copies of Science and the Modern World (1926: ‘annotated’; 1938: ‘lightly annotated’) and an ‘annotated’ copy of Adventures of Ideas.
  3. Whitehead ties (or at least points to) a not-able (k)not here. If the ontological structure of the world is one of “mutual relevance”, then “mental cognition” must have this deep structure simply as being. More, the relation between “mental cognition” and world must also be one of “mutual relevance”, again simply as being something that is. Lastly, all beings must be “mirrored” in one another both because they are grounded in common in this structure of “mutual relevance” and because mirroring itself, even while it necessarily exhibits this same structure in its particular being, also functions as the signature of this complex commonality of being (dual genitive!) in general. The great problem, of course, is that “mutual relevance” as ground can hardly exclude essential relation to limitation and error. That is, “mutual relevance” must somehow implicate its own failure and rejection. How to articulate this difficult figure is exactly “the main question“.
  4. McLuhan criticized such an “urge to merge” throughout his career. That “the gap is where the action is” would become a central insistence of his later work.
  5. Merely!
  6. See notes 2 and 3.
  7. McLuhan immediately thereafter: “And it is here that the ad agencies are so very useful. They express for the collective society that which dreams and uncensored behavior do in individuals. They give spatial form to hidden impulse and, when analyzed, make possible bringing into reasonable order a great deal that could not otherwise be observed or discussed. Gouging away at the surface of public sales resistance, the ad men are constantly breaking through into the Alice in Wonderland territory behind the looking glass which is the world of subrational impulse and appetites. Moreover, the ad agencies are so set on the business of administering major wallops to the buyer’s unconscious, and have their attention so concentrated on the sensational effect of their activities, that they unconsciously reveal the primary motivations of large areas of our contemporary existence. In this respect the ad agencies function in relation to the commercial world much as Hollywood does in respect to the world of entertainment.”(97)
  8. A re-cognition of cognition.
  9. Text: “solution of effect”.
  10. “The following of process in isolation from product” implicates the paradox that “the whole of previous time wherein anything is moving towards its form, it is under the opposite form” (Aristotle as cited by Thomas). For references and discussion, see the “paradox” posts.
  11. Gutenberg Galaxy, p 45 cited above.
  12. Winnipeg Free Press, December 11, 1965, p73.
  13. McLuhan Hot or Cool, 1967,
  14. LoM text: “or consciousness”. If ‘of consciousness’ is correct, it is a dual genitive — an awareness ‘of consciousness’ both as perceived object and as pro-ducing subject.
  15. Compare chemistry. Properties of materials are “incompatible” in that they can  be compared only via their different underlying chemical elements. The ‘white’ of snow cannot be compared directly with the ‘white’ of a baseball (a problem that took many millennia to solve). Exactly as properties, they have no grounding common structure. In contrast, the chemical elements are “cohesive” since any one of them is a particular example of their common elementary structure — we therefore “quote” them all via that structure when we cite any one of them. The ‘table of elements’ is the ground or being of all the elements figured in it.

McLuhan to Skornia 6/8/59

McLuhan continued his torrid pace of notes to Harry Skornia in June 1959 with this on the 8th:

Basically the trouble with the tests that isolate factors and fragment situations is that they are derivatives of Gutenberg (albeit subliminal).  These procedures won’t touch the realities of the all-at-once electronic world of configurations. Our Ford seminar simulcast was a crude sample of new approach but via older method, like skis on grass. The whole subliminal side of the Gutenberg era now comes home to roost, as it were, in the tester’s hay mow. (…) You see, the [Dewey] general theory leads to batch of mechanical model experiments. Can we get from my general theory that medium is the message to a similar set of mechanical models?1 Why not?2     

McLuhan was working his way here to the point he would make explicitly in his letter to Skornia two weeks later on June 25, namely, that investigation of the interior landscape required new science and would only be distorted if approached within the old science of “mechanical model experiments”. However, perhaps his “dynamic model” could be illuminated by considering exactly how and why it was not fitted to “mechanical model experiments”. If not, “why not?” How and why did such experiments get ‘mowed’ down?

Another possible tack towards open collective investigation was to focus on the difference between the Gutenberg era and the Marconi era in regard to the subliminal: 

A project to bring all aspects of our old and new media technology out of the subliminal into the levels of intellectual day? You see, the all-at-once dynamic of the electronic doesn’t permit any subliminal side any more. Print had a huge subliminal side just because it favored one level of meaning at a time; applied knowledge equals one scrap at a time.

Behind these suggests was the notion that media could be compared structurally. The subliminal aspects of the Gutenberg era which were unconscious and excluded could be considered as a negative property, while the conscious and included subliminal of the Marconi era could be considered as a positive one. The sign between the era/medium and the subliminal would vary, as could the relation to the conscious and unconscious, but the medial +/- structure would not. Just as the dis-covery of the common elementary structure had been the key to chemistry, and DNA structure to genetics, McLuhan’s suggestion was that media require comparable structural definition and that it, too, must be formulated as a variable ratio. 

“The medium is the message” in this way had two structural meanings. First, that everything depended on specification of “the medium” as a single but variable structure. The message to researchers was the need to establish such medial specification. Second, that such specification must be derived from the structure of the electric medium now dominating all contemporary life. The message to researchers was that this medium was already everywhere in force and that its signature was the digital (0/1) ratio.

  1. McLuhan’s question “Can we get from (…) to” implicates the “paradox” that he would note repeatedly in his later writings: “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 (…) 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) His earlier assertion that “these (mechanical) procedures won’t touch the realities” goes to the same point. Ultimately, the question at stake here and throughout McLuhan’s work concerns if and how the world can transition (as he himself had done around 1950) from meaning anchored in the book to meaning implicated in the interplay of all media.
  2. In his following letter to Skornia 2 days later (June 10, 1959), McLuhan set out the same point, again in relation to Dewey: “These matters are easy of test and valid for investigation. But they are not mechanical models of testing. They are nearer to Dewey’s ‘learning by doing’ pattern” (than to mechanical models).

McLuhan to Skornia 6/7/59: “We can’t assume that we understand media already!”

McLuhan’s note to Skornia from 6/7/59 made the all important point that “We can’t assume that we understand media already!” This was the chief meaning, addressed above all to McLuhan himself, of “the medium is the message”. This had many implications for the NAEB Understanding Media project he was then working on, not least in regard to the testing and demonstration of his general proposal to educational broadcasters. But it also captured the question at the heart of his life’s work: how to initiate open collective investigation of the shaping forces of the interior landscape?1

We are going to have to devise some new types of testing for non-verbal factors in attitude change resulting from various media. But isn’t this what the project is all about? We can’t assume that we understand media already! Exciting types of testing are [already available] via [such mechanical means as] the abstraction and isolating of single factors by segmental analysis and static snapshotting. I’m prepared to go into this bald-headed, Harry, and to push back frontiers in psychological testing just as much as we have done in other areas already. But I’ll gladly use all the available talent and savvy.

Later in the same note in its handwritten ending:

we are going to invent new forms of revealing and testing media uses. (…) We are not going to be content with existing methods of testing but won’t ignore them [either].2 

  1. Strangely, McLuhan research has failed to follow his lead into a new research area, or areas, not because it is not collective enough, but because it is not open enough. It has established itself as Kuhn’s ‘normal science’ with professorial chairs, grad departments and journals, without going through the required first step of Gestalt-switch through which its focus would be established. It has not been able to attend his admonition that “we can’t assume that we understand media already” which would direct us through the RVM looking glass and “through the vanishing point”. Hence, instead of participating in the new world of Marconi, it is one of the forces attempting to perpetuate the tottering world of Gutenberg. This is no service to him. Far more important, it is no service to a world in desperate need of a “survival strategy”.
  2. “What you can assure Walter Stone (of the US Office of Education) and (the NAEB Research) Committee is that we are going to invent new forms of revealing and testing media uses. We are in for as big a campaign as Dewey undertook. We are not going to be content with existing methods of testing but won’t ignore them (either).”

McLuhan to Skornia 6/5/59

A few days after his May 29 and early June notes to Harry Skornia, and a single day after his June 4 note, McLuhan followed up on June 5 with another reflection on their upcoming project:

One new concept for us: media are “ideas” in action.1 That is, any technological pattern or grouping of human know-how has the mark of our minds built-into it. The media dynamics are, therefore, parallel2 to those of our ideas. But many of our ideas are feed-back subliminally from media. Jeep calling unto jeep.3 Another basic fact: Men never have conscious grasp of any medium until it has been translated into another medium. The Gutenberg era behind us was the subliminal phase of print. Now that we have translated print into the electronic modes we begin to be conscious of what had been subliminal. Yet we have to deal with a professoriat that remains subliminal in respect to print; ergo blocked in respect to new media perception. This is not just a nuisance, or regrettable. It is dangerous to our civilization.4 The business world is more alert to dangers to Its interests than we [professors] are. They would help us if they knew what we were up to. (…) What about motto: “Let’s get the media out of the subliminal gulch“? Let’s articulate ’em, hoick ’em up into daylight of consciousness. Let’s harness them, TVA style, instead of letting them flood and gouge and brainwash us.  Let’s make ’em deliver music. Let’s orchestrate them like the sections of a symphony. Let’s teach them the score. Let’s score the media instead of letting them score.

McLuhan specifies two levels of the subliminal here. There is subliminal action at the level of elementary structure — medium — and there is the associated subliminal action at the level of the properties of elementary media: the “subliminal phase of [media like] print” vs “ideas [which] are feed-back subliminally from media”. Both together are what he calls here the “technological pattern or grouping of human know-how“, “the mark of our minds” and “media dynamics“. 

The great question — formulated at the time by McLuhan as “the medium is the message” — was how to begin the general investigation of the field defined by such elements and their properties? 


  1. From McLuhan’s note to Skornia a day or two before: “the electronic is not static bits but live field”.
  2. “Parallel” here apparently means something like “an alternative mode of explication” to that of the ‘history of ideas’.
  3. “Jeep calling unto jeep” — one mechanical notion giving rise to another — is the sort of precise-telling-funny formulation that came naturally to McLuhan before his 1960 stroke. After it, and especially after his brain tumor afflictions throughout the 1960s and his 1970 heart attack, this facility became less and less forthcoming. Rote expressions more and more took their place. The man burnt himself out for what will, as one hopes, become recognized as a great cause.
  4. “Dangerous to our civilization” in two directions. Dangerous to our civilization built upon print foundations and dangerous to all future civilization since blocking access to survival.

McLuhan to Skornia 6/4/59

Following his end of May 1959 trip to NAEB headquarters at the University of Illinois in Urbana, McLuhan wrote back to Harry Skornia, the NAEB executive director, on a near daily basis. His June 4 note raised the prospect of coordinated action with the newly (1958) established Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania:

Had hearty letter from Gilbert Seldes about his taking directorship of Annenberg School and asking me to come regularly to seminars.  I hope we can get [to] those soon, Harry, both to help and to get help.  Because they may not only be able to use the grammars approach but may be disposed to help with kinescope [films] etc for teaching.  Do you plan to look over his set-up soon?  Could we go at the same time — sometime before July 4 say?  Might help with my plans for the Vancouver procedure for summer-school. Since we can be of genuine aid in the large scope of the Annenberg school, and since we need all the allies we can discover or create, let us see what we can do at once.1 

McLuhan proposed similar associative relations to Skornia with businesses like GE, ATT and IBM, with the television networks and with ad agencies. These suggestions were largely ignored by Skornia and especially by his NAEB colleagues.2 They openly expressed that McLuhan already had more work and more ambitious plans than he could possibly handle — without getting into relationships they did not understand and could not even imagine. This turned out to be unfortunate for the businesses and networks which are now dwarfed by new businesses and networks which have been built on McLuhan’s insights into an electric world of information. Whether this was yet a larger disaster for the planet remains an open question.  

In the same note McLuhan further reflected on the nature and method of his project:

I would much like to talk to you under those conditions Harry, in the company of Seldes.  Because you would find that we made lots of headway while actually talking, saving years of work, and error.  I learn fastest while talking; making discoveries that way — mode of organized ignorance, light through vs light on.
Look at Peter Drucker’s Landmarks of Tomorrow, early section on organized ignorance.  I understand this principle better than he does because of its art bearings.  But in a word, if you take a total field you have to get light through, because the areas you can reach with a few organized data (light on) are too spotty to be relevant.  Heisenberg explains the principle in A Physicist’s Concept of Nature pointing out that what we call a law of science is organized ignorance. 

  1. The next day, June 5, 1959, McLuhan in another letter to Skornia, brought up the possibilities with Seldes again: “I do think we ought to confer soon with Gilbert Seldes, who is a good friend of mine. I respect his work, and he does mine. He could use our whole approach, and we could use his staff and facilities for shaping teaching materials collaterally to huge advantage. We need allies. I know we are going to put this job right out in front of national attention– where it belongs.”
  2. For example, in his letter to Skornia from 6/7/59, McLuhan wrote that “once we get rolling in this new kind of media testing, the biggest dough on Madison Avenue will be ours if we want it.” He was right, of course, and of course it would be a great thing if Madison Avenue were engaged in an open collective investigation of media. But Skornia crossed out the suggestion and wrote ‘Delete’ in the margin beside it.

McLuhan to Skornia early June 1959

In the last week of May 1959 McLuhan visited Harry Skornia at the NAEB headquarters for a couple days.1 The funding of the Understanding Media project had been obtained, but not yet announced. The project would begin in September and in the meantime McLuhan and his family were headed to UBC where he would teach in its summer session.2

Back from Urbana in Toronto in early June, McLuhan reflected on the project in an undated note to Skornia, received on June 5, 1959, as follows:

the electronic is not static bits but live field.  That’s why the artist comes back into the control tower (out of ivory tower) in modern industry and town-planning.  That’s why us language men can move up to vanguard in many enterprises today.

The transactional psychologists
The structural linguists
The anthropologists en masse

Those are the 3 main groups who already are moving our way in re media.  But they don’t know it yet.  Also all those in all the arts are on our side though concepts about the spiritual status of individual art vs. the materialist condition of group art (mass media) prevent perception of actualities for the time [being]. (…) Ours must be mobile war not positional, if we are to salvage an appreciable proportion of our establishment, educational and political.  We must waste no time or strength in opposition or diatribe.

  1. McLuhan was back in Toronto by May 29 when he wrote Skornia. See Present as history, history as present.
  2. See Communications Programme at UBC.

Present as history, history as present 5/29-59

Soon after hearing the news that the Understanding Media project was to be funded, McLuhan wrote Harry Skornia in a May 29, 1959, letter describing his excitement about the task before them:

for the first time in history we are setting out to discover the patterns of subliminal action resulting from media — and since all of them are simultaneously operative in our midst today we can use the present as history, as lab for tests etc.

Just as present investigation in chemistry or genetics throws new light on what has happened in the past, so would exploration of media serve to illuminate human history. Study of possibility now can be applied to actuality then — “the present as history”.

Five years later, in another note to Skonia from July 6, 1964, he set out the obverse point: 

I only realized today that we cannot transcend our “flat earth” view of media so long as we rely on private impressions at a particular time and place. The meaning and effect of a medium is the sum total of all its impact upon psyche and society. Such a vision requires the historical dimension as the laboratory in which to observe to change. (…) By showing the effect of a medium upon a diversity of institutions, you gain the historical dimension of the present. (Letters, 305)

Just as present questions in chemistry can be suggested by historical events , so contemporary understanding of media can be prompted by past developments. Actuality then points to present possibility now — “the historical dimension of the present”.

McLuhan to Skornia 3/14/59

The funding application for McLuhan’s Understanding Media project with the NAEB was finalized early in 1959. During this time, after McLuhan’s very long letter to Harry Skornia in January, he wrote another to him in March — this on top of the short letters McLuhan was sending to Skornia weekly or even more frequently. Here are highlights from his long letter of March 14, 1959:

  • Our media now must be contact-oriented, rather than protective devices for private prestige.  
  • Detribalization of backward countries we carry out via (…) industrial culture. Result is individualism and nationalism in these [formerly tribalized] areas, as it was with us in the 16th century, etc. Meantime we, via electricity [= beyond industrial culture], are retribalizing ourselves. That is, we create a global village in which every event vibrates with every other event — including the violent effects of swift detribalization. But retribalization [also has its own “violent effects” since it] evokes new yearning for stability, security, and equilibrium in the old centers of technological innovation [the formerly detribalized areas].1   
  • “Transaction” amounts to simultaneous interacting field. Let me suggest that we keep in mind that the impact of media forms has always been subliminal and nonverbal until hoicked up into daylight by artists. Most people seem to feel “safe” so long as their assumptions are unspoken and non-verbal. Artists as blabs and revealers of inner postures and attitudes used to be a nuisance. Now they are indispensable. From ivory-tower-to-control- tower…  
  • One theme, Harry, of which I am increasingly aware is the new problem of [maintaining] continuity in a world of accelerating change.
  • [Peter] Drucker points out that in the business world the awareness that technological change could put them, any of them, out of action in a few years has led to capital investment in research as by far the heaviest item of expenditure. In other words, don’t wait for change, rather become change and control it from within.
  • We shall have to institutionalize change educationally just as business has done. And this means spending perhaps ten times our total present budgets on research. We must effect a means of (…) transition2 at all levels and in all age groups simultaneously. So that we must abolish our present idea of education as that done for the young. In our kind of electric technology education becomes inclusive of all ages and all interests. The global community of learning can be nothing less than that literally. For hundreds of years we have gloried in the discontinuities and destruction caused in society and its institutions by innovation. In the age of simultaneity this becomes intolerable.
  • Everybody can see the advantages and excellence, however limited, of that which is to be scrapped. So they begin to want inclusive [both-and] rather than exclusive [either-or] modes of experience. 
  • As Peter Drucker insists at the outset in his recent Landmarks of Tomorrow, in the past two decades we have moved out of the modern age into one for which we have yet no name or concept. The new media are themselves the image and motive-power of this new age. So that Understanding Media must become a book by the same means and procedures that necessitate such a book, following the contours of the new reality. In the electric age of simultaneous data from many fields, there is an overwhelming drive back to the human dialogue as the instrument of discovery and awareness. Understanding Media will show what we already know about media and their action upon human institutions by setting up the basis for dialogue between student and teacher, student and student, expert and expert. Since most of us live in and through the new media all our waking lives, we already share with all age groups the implicit non-verbal knowledge and experience which education seeks always to make articulate, verbal and explicit. The discovery of the wealth of such shared experience via dialogue and utterance is a perennial creative experience which, since the fifteenth century, book culture may have done something to diminish. But Understanding Media will proceed to show the unique properties of older media including the book in a variety of ways. For example, the older media of book and press are now detribalizing many backward countries where it is easy to study the effect some of these media once had on ourselves in the Western world. Our contemporary world is, from a technological point of view, almost a continuous historical movie of episodes from the Western past, and our own past achievements are revealing monuments to the shaping powers of phonetic script and print in the development of human freedoms and our own patterns of culture. The transforming effect of the TV image on habits of reading in depth, the relation of radio to habits of study, and of the typewriter upon habits of thought, speech and writing, are nowhere gathered together in one place for thoughtful inspection. But they have been known to scattered students for some time. To get most of this kind of knowledge and insight into Understanding Media would entail a variety of procedures in presentation…
  • The co-existence and inter-action of media both in the past and especially today offers the richest and most natural procedure of study and evaluation of the powers and bias of each of the media.  
  • Today, the co-existence of all media easily reveals their quite unique properties and also calls for a new kind of many-levelled training in perception for the young.
  • it would seem necessary to devise a means of making Understanding Media an occasion of two-way discovery via dialogue and discussion. Few teachers know anything about the subliminal effects of print which they could teach to a class. But both teacher and class can discover, explicate, and verbalize a great deal about the nature of print, photography, movies, telephone, television, radio, and typewriter.
  1. Although a whole market niche has been created around the notion of McLuhan as a Pollyanna optimist, in fact he was very much aware of the unprecedented dangers posed in the “global village’ by electric culture. A great part of this danger, as already foreseen by Nietzsche in the 1880s, had, indeed has, to do with attempts at “security”. As he immediately went on to note to Skornia: “One theme, Harry, of which I am increasingly aware is the new problem of continuity in a world of accelerating change.”
  2. McLuhan has “continuous transition” here. The problem, of course, is that he usually deploys “continuous” to designate Gutenbergian perception and practice. Here he has in mind unity in diversity, hendiadys, as indicated by his specification at the end of the sentence of “simultaneously”.

McLuhan on dialogue February 1959

Understanding Media must become a book by the same means and procedures that necessitate such a book, following the contours of the new reality.1

In an undated 1959 letter to Harry Skornia, apparently from early February that year, McLuhan described what was both the goal of his Understanding Media project and the only means of working towards that goal and even of communicating about it. Since these were the same, the implicated circularity was exactly the problem that had to be solved: the goal had to be already in effect in order to advance toward the goal.

My suggested approach [to the NAEB project], the one entirely natural to me, is the dialogue form of movement of information between teacher and student [and, indeed, between any interlocutors].  I came across this quote on the dialogue: “The purpose of the dialogue seems to be, first of all, mutual creativeness.  It is not merely the expression of a finished truth, to be exchanged like goods in the market place.  Dialogue is more [an ongoing] shaping2 than a communication of ideas.  But this [ongoing] birth of truth is at the same time an encounter of persons (…) awakening truly creative values in us that lead us to the freedom of self-acceptance.”3 You can see that the electronic media above all, since they are shaped by student and teacher alike, call for this kind of dialogue [or] (…) shared quiz approach.4

  1.  McLuhan to Harry Skornia 3/14/59.
  2. The word “ongoing” has been introduced here and in the following sentence.
  3. The source of this citation is yet to be discovered.
  4. Bold has been added to this passage, but the underlining is original. In another letter to Skornia, later that same month of February 1959, McLuhan stressed the same point: “This reversal (ie, from statement to dialogue) takes whole stress off private, personal role of reader and poet alike.  Both now come to share a common creative action (…) not private editorial perspective.” See the  discussion in Marshall, Harry and Baudelaire.

Media Log II

McLuhan’s ‘Media Log II’ was written as part of his Understanding Media project with the NAEB in 1959-1960. It is included in the NAEB files which the great Unlocking the Airwaves has posted online.

Media Log II

Sir Arthur Eddington, in his New Pathways in Science (Cambridge University Press 1935) makes a statement of relevance to those who are trying to understand why “the medium is the message”:

Out of the unknown activities of unknown agents1 mathematical numbers emerge. The processes of the external world cannot be described in terms of familiar images; whether we describe them by words or by symbols their intrinsic nature remains unknown. But they are the vehicle of a scheme of relationship which can be described by numbers, and so give rise to those numerical measures (pointer-readings) which are the data from which all knowledge of the external universe is inferred.
Our account of the external world (when purged of the Inventions of the story teller In consciousness) must necessarily be a “jabberwocky” of unknowable actors executing unknowable actions. How in these conditions can we arrive at any knowledge at all? We must seek a knowledge which is neither of actors nor of actions, but of which the actors and actions are a vehicle. The knowledge we can acquire is knowledge of a structure or pattern contained In the actions. I think that the artist may partly understand what I mean. (p 256).

After 3000 years of writing, and 500 years of printing. Western man is not surprisingly devoted to the idea of knowledge as a static, repeatable aspect or item, Eddington is saying that all along we have never had any knowledge of content or component, But he is not saying that we have not had knowledge. We have really had a higher form of knowledge than our theories, our speculative instruments and our instructional materials would permit us to recognize. Our knowledge is of the dynamic

symmetries, and the inexhaustible proportionalities among the actors and actions of sense, sensibility, and consciousness. Light through these proportionalities may be quite undetectable when the bias of a medium like writing, or print, sets up a powerful pressure for light on, directed from a rigid, private vantage point. But electric media compel us to consider light through as the norm of knowledge and experience.


What Eddington here says about our not being able to know content or components, but only structure and patterns applies to verbal structure. Recent studies make clear that so great is the semantic variation in ordinary discourse, that communication between people cannot be accounted for by the notion of agreement on meanings of words. That we communicate at all seems to be the result of sharing an action that is made possible by words and persons as actors and actions. The pattern or structure of meaning is communicable, not the “content” in the sense of some detachable, fixable set of data. This older idea of meaning, originating in the Cartesian age, is strikingly captured in the absurd statements

“Meaning is an arrow which best reaches its mark when least encumbered with feathers.”

But the idea of meaning as a pellet or arrow shooting along in a line toward a target is still embedded in some prominent

“encoding and decoding” theories of communication. As soon as the artists liberated us from lineality into field theory, a century ago, the idea of meaning as package or capsule assumed a grotesque aspect. The idea of art as self-expression faded out at the same time; and the idea of the artist as working with and through the media of public language and group awareness, took over in Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé. Yeats, Eliot, Joyce and Pound made the same assumptions. And these assumptions hoick the artist from the Ivory tower to the control tower. He becomes an indispensable person, not a luxury. In quite the same way that higher education has become a necessity of production.


It may well be that the artist will now merge with the media, rather than staying outside as ironic spectator and commentator. Certainly the avant gardism of yesterday is more evident in the public than the private arts to-day.


The role of the newspaper in structuring the habits and assumptions of human association Is obviously complex. For example, in a recent Ph.D. dissertation on methods of teaching media in Grade XI, the writer mentioned, casually, that he assumed as the basis of all media teaching that the student should become alert to the factors of program control. Thus, who owned the station, or the movie studio, would be Important for studying the type of programs emanating therefrom.

Further, the student can Influence programming decisions by knowing who to write to about such matters. This “content” approach to the media has real meaning for the newspaper as a medium. Its relevance outside the newspaper, for radio or movie or TV, is very small.


Was it the newly achieved power of press technology that led Marx, in the same way, to assume that the important thing about the means of production was who owned them? It is puzzling to know how Marx managed to ignore the media of communication, as the major factor in the process of social change. For the means of production, especially since Gutenberg, are so many footnotes, or appendages, of the printing press Itself. This fact appears, clearly, at present, when the assembly-line is obsolete by reason of electric tapes entering and altering the production patterns. Print from movable types was the archetype of all assembly-lines, and of all static analysis of movement.


The form of the newspaper changed many times, as various changes were made in the speed of type-setting, and of the presses. These changes in turn affected the process of news-gathering and news-distribution. As Innis showed, the newspaper hastened and paid for the development of highways, and was inseparable from the development of modern postal services.

However, it was the telegraph that made the greatest change in the role and format of the newspaper. Here, a century before electronic tapes repatterned the meaning of production, information from everywhere-at-once, by wire, repatterned English prose and verse. Private “point of view” disappeared from the newspaper at the same time as Cezanne, Seurat, Baudelaire and Rimbaud abandoned it in poetry and painting. “Point-of-view” in the perspective sense came in with printing, but not directly because of printing. Rather, the same kinds of visual analysis that occurred in fifteenth century logic, philosophy and science made common cause with art technology and the printed book to produce fixed point of view or single perspective. (See a book by Walter Ong, S, J., devoted to these themes: Ramus: Method and Decay of Dialogue – Harvard 1958.)


When information began to flow electrically, field supplanted “point-of-view” in the arts, and in technology alike. And when information began to arrive at the newspaper at electric speed the newspaper mosaic, or format, changed very much.


Browning’s The Ring and the Book is a conscious abandoning of “point-of-view” in favor of multi-levelled perception. It is a newspaper epic, as it were. What Browning did in that work, Ruskin was hoping could be done. He put it this way, in Volume III of Modern Painters:


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


This do-it-yourself stress and character is as typical of the arts, after 1860, as of the post-telegraph newspaper. Even now, the sober and serious newspapers retain a good deal of perspective or fixed point-of-view, compared with the popular press with its mosaic of grotesque juxtapositions of unrelated data. And it is the sober press that is passively and consumer-oriented, whereas the popular press provides no single-perspectives upon any event at all, save on editorial pages,


Speaking technically then, not appraisingly, the ready-made packaged views of the sober press are consumer goods. Whereas, the grotesque mosaic of the popular press, a sort of Marx Brothers charade, is a do-it-yourself form, “Make your own meanings.” It is producer-oriented, like symbolist poetry,


Another aspect of “point-of-view”, as it rose in all its technical novelty, appears in the satisfaction which the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries took in the new power of enclosing space in painting and architecture. But also the

craze for methods and systems was the discovery of the enclosing power of single, fixed perspectives, applied to law and politics and economics, as well as to art and poetry.


The simple fact is, as sense psychologists have shown, that the awareness of fixed perspective or of vanishing points, is not a visual experience of which man is capable. The illusion of visual perspective is a mix of sensuous components, tactual and kinesthetic, but to “see” at a distance is a form of prediction, not of sensation. Thus what we see is flat. What the cubists painted as spatial form is far closer to pure unaided visual experience than what Western men have for centuries supposed to be visual experience.


It is worth dwelling on this matter, since it directly concerns the powers of media to modify our sensuous lives without benefit of concepts or of indoctrination. Printing fostered visual perspective subliminally. Yet, already with the Romantics, and their drive towards unconstrained spontaneity of vision and sensuous impression, the matrix of Gutenberg culture was dissolving. The Romantic vision moved steadily towards cinematic illusion. And the achievement of the cinematic conveyor belt of still shots superseded the line of verbal-visual still shots that is printing. The photo superseded the print, and engraving, in the same way. The words of William Ivins, Jr. (Prints and Visual Communication – Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1953) are of great relevance.


On page 122 he reports the invention of photography by Talbot who, in 1839, gave to the Royal Society an account of “the Art of Photogenic Drawing, or the Process by which Natural Objects may be made to delineate themselves without the aid of the Artist’s Pencil.” Ivins’ comment:

Here were exactly repeatable visual images made without any of the syntactical elements implicit in all hand made pictures. Had Talbot been a competent draughtsman instead of an incompetent one he would probably not have recognized this fact, even if he had discovered how to make the images.


Here, Ivins is vividly aware of traditional competence, and of acquired knowledge and skill as blocks to new perception. It would be possible to build an art of media study on this passage alone. For he also points to the primacy of the repeatability factor in all printing, from book and engraving to photo and movie. Even more important is the awareness that, in the shift from engraving to photo, there is a reversal from light on to light through. (The kaleidoscope was almost simultaneous with Talbot’s photos.) Also, there is key perception in Ivins’ noting the absence of syntax in the photo. The paradox of statement without syntax rides herd on our world now. It is stated by Ivins on page 28:

The great importance of the half-tone lay in its syntactical difference from the older handmade processes of printing pictures in printer’s ink. In the old processes the report started by a syntactical analysis of the thing seen, which was followed by its symbolic statement in the language of drawn lines. (Known in the trade as “the network of rationality.) This translation was then translated into the very


different analysis and syntax of the process. The lines and dots in the old report were not only insistent in claiming visual attention, but, they, their character, and their symbolism of statement, had been determined more by the two superimposed analyses and syntaxes than by the particularities of the thing seen. In the improved half-tone process there was no preliminary syntactical analysis of the thing seen into lines and dots, and the ruled lines and dots or the process had fallen below the threshold of normal vision. Such lines and dots as were to be seen in the report had been provided by the thing seen and were not those of any syntactical analysis. At least men had discovered a way to make visual reports in printer’s ink without syntax, and without the distorting analyses of form that syntax necessitated.


Ivins’ work provides one of the best guides to all media study, Just because he is working in a relatively neutral territory. To make statements like the above about the book, movie, press, radio, and TV, is to assault the largest vested interests of acquired knowledge and power.


In his book on Painting and Reality (Pantheon Books, New York 1957) Etienne Gilson pointed out that until Giotto a painting had not been a report about things, but a thing [itself]. From Giotto till Cezanne, painting became increasingly reportorial and representational. Since Cezanne, paintings have become things again, (pp.284-5). That is, perspective and reporting from a single point-of-view co-exist in various media for centuries, and disappear from those media at much the same time — that is, from about 1860 onwards.


A further point, related to the rise and fall of perspective, is made by Mircea Eliade in his The Sacred and the Profane (Harcourt Brace New York, 1959). He points to the rise in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries of the new concepts of time and space as “continuous and homogeneous.” Modern man abandoned these notions of time and space, at the same time as he “abandoned” perspective. The artists are the radar screen whose invented models and explorations report new lines of force in our culture decades before the scientists and engineers achieve them.


The educational establishment, however, is not able to achieve rapport with lines of force, even after the scientists and engineers have projected them into our daily tasks.


Now, in the time of accelerated change, this lag is critical. We have now to institutionalise change itself. Business is trying to do this via its research centers. The largest educational expenditure must now be for research also, if public education is to have any further relevance. Educational irrelevance is not waste only, but sheer destruction of new potential.


To return then to relate the mosaic of the telegraph press to all this. The Ruskin passage focused the issue of symbolism and mosaic pattern. A bit further on (p 96) he points


to the possibility of a new kind of popular epic which James Joyce was to write (Ulysses). But the newspaper is actually such a daily epic as Raskin describes, though he would have been embarrassed to hear it:

Hence it is an infinite good to mankind when there is full acceptance of the grotesque, slightly sketched or expressed; and, if field for such expression be frankly granted, an enormous mass of intellectual power is turned to everlasting use, which, in this present century of ours, evaporates in street gibing or vain revelling; all the good wit and satire expiring in daily talk, (like foam on wine,) which in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries had a permitted and useful expression in the arts of sculpture and. Illumination, like foam fixed Into chalcedony.


The nineteenth century drive towards gothic, Raskin explains, as it were, was to get away from fixed, private points-of-view back to group dynamic expression, back to the field and the folk. Of course, there was much self-deception in all this. But, at least, the Romantics strove to revive a period of culture which preceded perspective. And to this extent Gothic was truly avant garde, just as is Chinese art in our time.


The newspaper mosaic is a collectively achieved photo of the world2 and its inter-associations, hour by hour. To teach the understanding of what such a medium Is, and what it does to our association with ourselves and with one another, can scarcely be achieved by noticing the ownership, or policy, of the paper. Even Its contents, item by item, are not much help.


Why Is big news bad news? Why is advertising good news?


How much bad news is needed to sell advertising?


Why is the exposure of public motives and morals, in the daily press, such an Intense concern? Is this owing to medium or to policy?


Why are radio and television less concerned with the public mosaic of actions? Is this owing to medium or to policy?


Why must television elections be devoid of Issues? Why must all points-of-view be excluded, or included (the result is the same) in TV elections?


Why does the television image say so little, and imply so much, as contrasted with photo and film?


Why does television in politics neutralise the role and structure of the press? Why do electric media inevitably neutralise private concepts at all levels of sensibility, of education, of legal Institutions and politics?


If everybody were aware and agreed upon the nature and effect of media structures upon private and public structures of experience and action, would anything be done to moderate or to control the impact of such structures upon life and Institutions?3

  1. Bolding has been added throughout.
  2. Cf above in regard to this “photo”: (1) “a way to make visual reports in printer’s ink without syntax, and without the distorting analyses of form that syntax necessitated” and (2) “the paradox of statement without syntax rides herd on our world now“.
  3. Bolding and underlining have been added to McLuhan’s text.

Report on Washington Educational TV conference (May 1958)

The US Office of Education1 and the NAEB co-sponsored a conference on Educational Television in Washington DC, May 26-28, 1958.2 A week after the conference, the president of the NAEB, Burton Paulu, reported on it to the NAEB board and officers: 

It was a significant meeting! We of NAEB can take pride in having initiated it!
Being mailed under separate cover (to those of you who were not there) is some material which describes what went on, such as the program, a list of participants, and copies of several of the principal speeches.3
The quality of the talks was up to the very best I have heard anywhere at a conference, convention or institute. We got off to an excellent start Monday morning [May 26, 1958] with fine statements by Novice G Fawcett, President of Ohio State University, and William G Carr, executive secretary of the NEA4. Marshall McLuhan of Toronto University threw us a couple of fast curves with his distinctions between ideas expressed in print and through the electronic media. Whether or not one agreed with his point, though, the overall effect was highly stimulating.
Press coverage of the conference was good. We made the New York Times twice (copies are enclosed for your information). I think this meeting achieved its main objectives, among which I would include the following:
To outline America’s basic educational problems.
To review the status of educational broadcasting today.
To bring together people of different backgrounds to get acquainted and to exchange ideas.
To point the way for future developments in educational broadcasting.
To advance the status and prestige of NAEB.5 

Significantly, Paulu went on in the same report to describe his failure to secure funding for the NAEB from the Fund for the Advancement of Education, a specialized arm of the Ford Foundation, or from the Ford Foundation itself. Since NAEB support from the Kellogg Foundation was due to expire in 1959, the organization needed to secure funding if it were to remain in existence as more than a loose group of university broadcasters. The combined conference with the US Office of Education was part of its attempt to gain greater visibility, especially in Washington.

In this context, it may be that Harry Skornia saw McLuhan’s energy and growing notoriety as one possible tool in tackling the NAEB funding problem.

Another connection with the NAEB quest for funding, and with McLuhan, is provided by a further section of Paulu’s report:

The Magnuson Bill
The Senate passed the Magnuson Bill on May 29. The final text of the bill, together with the discussion which preceded its passage, may be found in the Congressional Record, Senate, for May 29, pp. 8779-8782. Congratulations to our committee (headed by Bob Schenkkan)6 for its good work! We are already in touch with Lenny Marks7 about the bill’s future in the House. 8 

Senator Warren Magnuson (Washington) played a central role in federal education funding for a quarter century. This 1958 bill passed as part of the National Defense Education Act in September 1958. It was through this Act that McLuhan’s Understanding Media project with the NAEB was funded in 1959.

In these years, especially through its work with Marks, the NAEB was learning how to lobby the federal government for favorable legislation and for monetary support. The passage of the Education Act marked the start of its great success in this area which eventually led to the founding of NPR and PBS. As part of this process, the NAEB would move its headquarters from Illinois to Washington in 1960. 


  1. The Office of Education was part of the federal Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW).
  2. For context and discussion, see McLuhan and Skornia 1957 and 1958.
  3. McLuhan’s talk (‘The Role of Mass Communication in Meeting Today’s Problems’) was immediately issued in mimeograph by the US Office of education and reprinted later that year as ‘Our New Electronic Culture’ in the NAEB Journal for October 1958.
  4. National Education Association.
  6. Robert Schenkkan was a board member of the NAEB and the president and general manager of station KLRN in Austin TX. He headed the NAEB legislative committee.
  7. Leonard H. Marks, 1916-2006, Washington communications attorney and legal counsel for the National Association of Educational Broadcasters.

McLuhan to Skornia 1/25/59 (Cassirer)

The second part of McLuhan’s 1/25/59 letter to Harry Skornia discusses points raised in a letter to Skornia from Henry Cassirer.1 Skornia had asked Cassirer to comment on the first (December 1958) draft of the NAEB funding proposal for its Understanding Media project with McLuhan. Cassirer did so in a typed 2-page letter to Skornia dated 1/20/59.

Here is McLuhan’s discussion of Cassirer’s letter:

Now, about Cassirer’s letter. On his second page under “Project Title”, he makes what strikes me as an excellent statement of our project plan and strategy.

Cassirer’s statement:

Project Title: The nature of audio-visual media. To develop through theoretical analysis and practical experimentation a clear notion of the peculiar style, structure and impact of the principal audio-visual media (Radio, Film, Television, Photography) which are changing a civilization based primarily on the printed word, profoundly influencing the mind of young people, and offering new challenges to educational methodology. The objective of obtaining a fresh understanding of these media is to contribute to their better utilization in the educational process and to the critical training of student audiences so they may experience them profitably while avoiding their many pitfalls.

McLuhan then considers in some detail the 5 points (a-e) raised by Cassirer about the project proposal and the project itself:

  • (a) His doubt about our ability to isolate the electronic media2 [aside from media in general] points to [the] need for a bit of further clarification in our statement. We appear to be, willy-nilly, drafters of a new educational constitution suited to the oligarchic rule of the new media which have taken over power formerly exercised by the monarchy of print. I take it we do not wish to isolate electronic media [from other media] but to focus relevant attention on their unique properties and powers in shaping the learning and teaching procedures and also in giving special configuration to information and data used in these procedures. So great is the shift here that our educational establishment, the entire context of culture, of judiciary and legislative [functioning], as well, are in danger of dissolution. This danger is not apparent to the merely print-minded who are naturally impervious to the awareness of the degree to which the medium is the message. [Similarly, but inversely]3 the young do not get the message of the old media save as translated and transformed via the new media.  
  • Cassirer’s insistence on the global dimension of media is valid precisely for the electronic media. Can we satisfy his UNESCO [global] stress while moving toward a [particularized] school program? (…) Let us consider that our text can easily take account of the global impact of old media today, as well as of new media on both developed and undeveloped countries.
  • the widely different effect of telegraph on news stories, and press format, as well as on diplomacy, investment banking, and the structure of decision-making in management, offers the method of revealing the nature of the medium via its effects, which is central in our project. Because this stress [on method] leads to prediction and control of our destinies as social beings. It is because of the telescoping of effects, and also the speed-up of the means of noting effects simultaneously in scattered times and places, which confers on media study a primacy today which they could not have won for themselves before.
  • It seems to me, Harry, that we can overcome the problem of electronic vs older media simply by stressing the fact of the co-existence of all media today, old and new, and therefore the fact that they are in process of modifying one another even now. Film is being changed by TV, but so is print and the book. New powers and roles for all media constantly emerge as a result of their inter-action. This basic principle can surely be made to satisfy the [NAEB research] committee about the need for studying the new media in closest relation to the old.4
  • (b) Cassirer’s second point I thought we had made fairly clear.5 Not only is the teacher to be trained while teaching the student these matters, but the student in conversation as with the teacher will be as much teacher and student. Where the essential data are possessed as much by class as by teacher, teaching ceases to be a one-way flow of potted Information. But this is true in the highest degree of poetry and language as has been realized finally by the teaching revolution of the “new criticism”. For twenty- five years I have been active in the ”new criticism”, and it is from this area of discovery that I derive my interest in the media as art forms. But don’t bring up the “new criticism” among people who cannot be expected to be familiar with it. It itself derives from Coleridge, Baudelaire, Eliot, etc, and those concerned with learning as itself part of the creative process. There is nothing specialized about this “new criticism” except that it is, accidentally, known mostly to specialists.
  • Print produced specialist categories. Electronics knocks out these older walls.
  • (c) Cassirer’s third point also good.6 But apart from such acquaintance as I have with the interest taken by other cultures in the new media (and it goes back over 20 years), it seemed unnecessary to stress such global savvy in our brief. Certainly it would be most important to use this kind of lore in the text [to be produced by the project]; eg, [as] says [Rudolf] Arnheim in Film as Art, the Americans stress ”shot”; the Russians stress montage. ”Shot” or statics is easy for [the] print cultured; montage is easy for an oral culture. Same goes for differences between our nuclear physics and the Russians’. So let us stress the UNESCO help we could rally here, if you think fit.
  • (d) Note how Cassirer assumes here in his fourth point7 that the “use of these media for the purposes of education” would leave these purposes much as they now are. The sense in which the media transform the purposes and goals he ignores, but it is our concern to ascertain.
  • (e) As for his last point,8 I shall try me hand at another sample or two that may strengthen the image of procedure. I shall sketch these in a way that can leave you a free hand, Harry, in adapting them as you see fit to a text for any level of education that you think we ought to stress. I can’t see from here just why to press harder at one level than another for the purpose of a preliminary text. After such [a] text is achieved, it can be up-graded or down-graded at will.

At the end of his letter McLuhan added:

At this late stage of briefing, you [= Skornia] must feel entirely free to include or omit what you wish or to commit me to any program of action that will get this project rolling.
Am enclosing an uncorrected galley of an essay [‘Myth and Mass Media‘]I read at Harvard last spring and which is to appear in their Daedalus in the next few weeks. Re-reading it, I realize that the particularized example is the only procedure. Talk about is no good.
One impression I should like to avoid giving is that I’m setting out to produce a text [through the NAEB project] that encapsulates what I know already. Everyday I learn more about these media. So that if I were to spend 2 years of closer study I should come up with a mass of new insight. But the more insight, the easier to communicate, the easier to teach.9

  1. Henry R Cassirer (1911-2004) was a naturalized American (originally German) journalist and diplomat who worked for CBS news in the 1940s and then became a longtime official with UNESCO.
  2. Cassirer: “I doubt that it is practicable to isolate the ‘electronic’ media for study and to contrast them with print. This leaves out film, photography and to a certain extent graphics. It is significant that much of your bibliography refers to film. I think that one must take these “new” media globally and then analyse them separately in greater detail; but that any study which leaves out film, in particular, will fail to build on acquired knowledge and be arbitrarily partial.”
  3. Instead of “Similarly, but inversely” McLuhan has “So that”.
  4. McLuhan runs together here two matters which are distinct. “The need for studying the new media in closest relation to the old” may be taken as a conceptual point, namely, that the definition of media must of course apply to all of them. But this “need for studying the new media in closest relation to the old” also arises in the investigation in the phenomenology of media — in the ways media express themselves and in doing do interact with one another. Running these together distorts both.
  5. Cassirer: “study of these media is essential from an educational point of view not merely to teach the student to appreciate them, but to teach the teacher how to use them. In other words, the project should have two objectives: proper media utilization and proper media appreciation.”
  6. Cassirer: “Any study of this kind should take note of considerable thought and experience on this subject in other countries.”
  7. Cassirer: “A distinction should be made in the use of these media for the purposes of education, their utilization as tools of the learning process and the appreciation (…) of these media when used for general communication (entertainment, information, advertising etc).”
  8. Cassirer: “I would have welcomed a very concrete passage under a separate section entitled: Method. There are references to this under Procedure and Facilities, and elsewhere, but method is neither one nor the other, and the project is liable to be judged to a considerable degree on the convincing explanation of the practical work it implies.”

McLuhan to Skornia 1/25/59

In the course of his work with the NAEB, McLuhan wrote a series of long letters to Harry Skornia — somewhat to Skornia’s chagrin. For while he was flattered suddenly to find himself as a kind of sounding-board for McLuhan, he could not see the use of such extended meditations to the immediate task of refining a funding application for the proposed NAEB project on Understanding Media. 

McLuhan’s 12 page letter from January 25, 1959, has a note at the top of its first page, apparently made by Skornia:

Point – length of letter – 11 [typed] pages + long-hand on back

This seems to have been a note to Skornia himself to take up this matter with McLuhan. Another note at the bottom of the page, again by Skornia, seems to record McLuhan’s answer to the question:

Such letters are “trial balloons”, later expanded 

Here are the highlights from the first 7 pages of McLuhan’s letter.1 The remainder of the letter will be treated in a separate post.2

  • Unconscious media bias and misunderstanding of electronic media is something I take for granted as natural, normal, and universal today. Just how to set about providing a means of self-correction for such bias is the problem of Understanding Media. You can’t simply stuff such corrections into people. It is necessary to devise a means of discovery and self-enlightenment3
  • the new media in education are going to do, not the old jobs, but jobs that couldn’t have been tackled or conceived of without the new media. Understanding Media, therefore, is not to be a capsule of existing views about the media, but a series of procedures with specific materials and exercises which will in turn generate many new insights and exercises when it gets into use. I know from long experience that it is not helpful to have a lot of views about poems, ads, or other art forms to heave at a class. The fruitful thing is for teacher and student together to get into the poem, ad, etc. Remember the TV syndrome: light through, not light on. In learning and teaching this implies that the subject reveals itself, is defined or revealed in the very act of being creatively perceived.
  • This mode of learning and teaching which our age has seen developing in all fields is also one which reduces the former gap between child and adult to a great degree. So, [the] question4 about what level the book is aiming at can be answered (a) in terms of the conventional and accepted educational patterns, or (b) in terms of the new media. In conventional terms I conceive that we might aim at dual versions of the text for elementary and secondary school use. But in new media terns a text perfectly adapted to elementary school use might well be a revelation to adults, as well.
  • I have no a priori ideas about procedures, Harry. I know that I can work with you and learn from anybody in these fields. If we decide that the first text simply must follow old media and classroom patterns in order to gain acceptance, then I shall be glad to go that road.
  • I have in mind approaches to the media, rather than textual capsules of existing views. Tried and tested notions of unique powers of radio or television can be tossed into the discussion and exercises as observation stations. But we can afford to keep in mind, Harry, that media inter-act, and that radio and movie are steadily being changed by television; that is, new potential is always revealed in an old medium after the advent of a rival medium. But the rival may knock out the old one for quite a spell. You can see how important it is to establish what new potential has emerged in the form [of experience] over the centuries, as a result of the power press, photography, telegraph, etc. Our sense of spatial form, for example, is radically altered by such new forms. Our sense of language is constantly changing as a result of such development.5 And it is the poets and the painters who are the best radar controls through these changing relations. The sense of language as “a network of tentacular roots reaching down into the deepest terrors and desires” (Eliot,1917) heralded an auditory breakthrough and the end of the dictionary and grammatical approaches to language with their exclusively visual ideas of order.
  • Their [Jurgen Ruesch and Weldon Kees on Nonverbal Communication] main head for their first sections is ‘The Frame of Reference’. Nowhere do they seem to understand how the frame itself is modified6 by the action of media on each other. For them a medium is a frame of reference. And a “frame” is a kind of Newtonian mechanical model which is incapable of itself communicating with other models. Here is where the work of Ken Boulding in The Image takes over, and makes possible “a frame of reference” which is a live model capable of constant growth and metamorphosis, of emanation and feedback. So that a medium can be a frame of reference, and [at the same time] a constantly operative model of method in perception.7
  • But, Harry, let us use these data about the media clash involved in the present bias toward static and mechanical models — let us use our knowledge of this clash to avoid clash at this stage of project presentation. Lots of time to clear up these subliminal biases if we get the grant.
  1. See
  2. See
  3. The self-conscious circularity of McLuhan’s point here is notable. The medium of the new media is “a means of discovery and self-enlightenment” — so the means (medium) of understanding new media is to understand their means (medium). “The very act of being creatively perceived” can itself be perceived only creatively.
  4. McLuhan has “Sam’s question” here, a reference to Sam Becker, the chair of the NAEB research committee.
  5. In everyone’s lifetime this occurs naturally: “Our sense of language is constantly changing”. What technology does, as McLuhan repeatedly insisted, is to make explicit what is implicit.
  6. “The frame itself is modified” — that is, what is modified is both our understanding of the “frame itself” and our understanding by the “frame itself”.
  7. It may be wondered if McLuhan were not thinking beyond himself here and muddying the water. It is as if a proto-chemist were to insist that elements must be used to focus investigation of the material world and, at the same time, to observe that there are a myriad complications to the interaction of elements and that even the definition of elements is subject to scientific revolution. Of course there are and of course it is.  But would this help establish chemistry in the first place? As he himself immediately pointed out, there was “lots of time to clear up” these issues once investigation were underway.

Psycho-dynamics (the medium is the message)

It is not easy to convince a literary man that an interest in the psycho-dynamics of the printed form of codification of information is anything but malice toward literature. Moreover, he is likely to feel personal humiliation at finding that he is, in fact, quite unaware of some of the basic effects of the print form upon many of his most cherished ideas and attitudes. (…) Personally I am not trying to upset such people. I am really trying to understand media and to discover their unique dynamics. (The Medium is the Message, 1960)1

If there is one dominating theme to McLuhan’s 24 ‘items’ in Explorations 8, it is that of “psycho-dynamics”.2 When he states in #3 that “extra sensory perception is normal perception” he means that in “normal perception” there is more going on than “sensory” reception and deployment. The additional “extra sensory” factor at work in perception is the medium in terms of which any and all experience is always already structured. Both the working and corresponding study of such media may be called “psycho-dynamics”.

In #8 he compares such “psycho-dynamics” to modern physics and medicine:

the rise of field theory in physics now has its medical counterpart in Dr. Hans Selye’s stress view3 (…) The Selye theory (…) that “all vital phenomena depend merely upon quantitative variations in the activation of pre-existent elementary targets.”4 is not a superficial view5 (…) The analogical drama of being and perception needs no more than the quantitative terms postulated by Selye. With these the living word constitutes and manifests itself in all mental and spiritual complexity.6

“The living word constitutes and manifests itself in all mental and spiritual complexity”7: such constitution/manifestation is the work of “psycho-dynamics” and is further specified in #6:

The most obvious feature of any (…)8 situation is extreme flexibility in immediate foreground and extreme persistence or rigidity in overall pattern. 

Compare this to Selye from Explorations 1 as cited (see above) by McLuhan in Explorations 8: “all vital phenomena depend merely upon quantitative variations in the activation of pre-existent elementary targets”. Selye’s “vital phenomena” = McLuhan’s “extreme flexibility in immediate foreground”; and Selye’s “pre-existent elementary targets” = McLuhan’s “persistence (…) in overall pattern”. If the former may be taken as the message or figure and the latter as the medium or ground9, a central implication of “the medium is the message” is that — just as in chemistry — understanding depends on a specification the underlying elements (= media grounds) and of their expression in the production (pro-duction) of the experienced world (whether material or mental).

Again just like chemistry, “the literal level was held to include all levels” (#22) since the literal level was to be investigated as the law-governed expression of the levels below it terminating in elements/media.10

The dynamic model at work here is further described in #16 as “the contrapuntal stacking of themes” and is fleshed out there as follows:

In Chaucer the realism never detracts from the polyphony of character themes or contrapuntal melodies all simultaneously heard.  Until about 1600 in art, literature and music, the only way of organizing a structure was the song technique of superimposed or parallel themes and melodies. (…) All of Shakespeare exists in auditory depth. The complexity of any of his characters is enforced by all of the others being simultaneously present.

The narrative of characters as figures driven by grounding external forces or internal drives is reversed here. Now characters are to be taken as ground and external and internal circumstances to be produced from “quantitative variations in the activation of [such characters as] pre-existent elementary targets”. 

In this reversal, as stressed by McLuhan, time is the critical factor: the model posits “the polyphony of character themes or contrapuntal melodies all simultaneously heard” — “all (…) simultaneously present”. 

The result:

all the arts approach a condition of music; for in music all parts tend to be simultaneous in the sense that narrative progress in musical composition must constantly recapitulate and unify…” (#10)

Time is not only “simultaneous” or only “narrative progress”, but both together. And it is just our inability to conceive time in this complex way that prevents our understanding media (and all the complex problems to which understanding media is the key):

Our present conceptions of what constitutes social cause, effect, and influence are quite unable to cope with this electronic simultaneity of conspicuous co-existence. (#14, italics added)

Real control [of our out-of-control world] comes [only] by study of the grammars of all the media at once. (#16, italics added)

Just as there is no such thing as some chemistry that would apply only to a part of the world but not to other parts, so a general investigation of “all the media at once” is needed “to understand the psycho-dynamics of these totally new conditions of culture” (#17). Or to preserve the many derivatives of the Gutenberg galaxy that we should not allow to be overwhelmed by the electric tsunami:

the old set-up may be saved [only] by an understanding of the new one [as a necessary piece of “all the media at once”]. (#24)


  1. ‘The Medium is the Message’, Forum magazine, spring 1960. This is the lead paragraph of McLuhan’s influential essay. But it may have been the last time McLuhan employed the term ‘psycho-dynamics’ after using it repeatedly between 1957 and 1960.
  2. The term itself appears in #6, #15 and #17 (twice). For an overview of McLuhan’s 24 ‘items’ in Explorations 8, see Birthpains of the new: “an arduous metamorphosis”.
  3. McLuhan specifies here that Selye “becomes at once intelligible and acceptable in our twentieth century oral awareness”. This is problematic in that McLuhan habitually — not to say always — confounded four different sorts of “oral awareness”: 1) the (the?) “oral awareness” of pre- and post-literate peoples; 2) “oral awareness” as one medium of perception among others; 3) “oral awareness” as implicating “all the media at once” (#16); 4) “oral awareness” as dynamically related to ‘literate awareness’ in some ratio of the two in every moment of all experience whatsoever. An important demand made in the observation/admonition that “the medium is the message” (an admonition first of all to McLuhan himself) was that these ambiguities needed to be sorted out. He was still working on this when he died twenty years later.
  4. Two McLuhan sentences have been spliced together here. The Selye citation is from his paper in Explorations 1 (1953), ‘Stress’.
  5. “Not a superficial view” intends both (1) that the theory is profound and (2) that its profundity lies in seeing through the superficial level of perception to its “psycho-dynamic” springs. McLuhan continues this sentence with “in terms of auditory space”. But “auditory space” in McLuhan has all the problems of “oral awareness” as discussed above.
  6. McLuhan continues here: “Analogical proportion is a basic aspect of auditory space and of oral culture. It is the oral equivalent of the golden section in architecture and design.” This adds a further complication to his use of the terms “auditory space” and “oral culture”, for he was well aware that not all auditory or oral experience exemplifies “the golden section”. The questions arise: What level (message or medium, figure or ground) is intended here? At this level (whichever it is), how to account for the presence or absence of “the golden section”? And how to specify all this for education and all other practical applications extending from governance to entertainment?
  7. From earlier in #8: “In the old lineal terms, quantitative relations mean the exclusion of (…) all spiritual complexity.”
  8. McLuhan has “oral situation” here. For the implicated problems see the discussions above.
  9. McLuhan was not yet using figure/ground at this time. He would later consider the figure/ground contrast as essential to the understanding of his work.
  10. McLuhan came to this view from poetry and theology, in both of which he had long recognized interlocking levels of significance. His path to science from the arts and religion came via Whitehead and, especially, Giedion.

Birthpains of the new: “an arduous metamorphosis”

Poets and artists literally turned their own psyches into laboratories where they practiced the most austere experiments in total disregard of their personal happiness. (Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters, 1954)1

Ezra Pound says “Poetry is news that stays news.” He invaded the oral sphere and became [lasting] news — an arduous metamorphosis. (Explorations 8, #5, 1957)

Every headache is the attempt of a creative idea to get born. (Explorations 8, #24, 1957)2

It is not strange, therefore, that we should feel an especial fascination for Oedipus Rex and its companion Oedipus at Colonus at this time. There is much that is relevant for us in these plays. Oedipus, the corporate image or mask of tribal Thebes, sets forth on an individual quest for private identity. Plunging into the collective tribal unconscious to discover himself, he discovers a web of guilt and horror. His corporate tribal mask is rent asunder. He is fragmented out of Thebes by the force of his private explosion of insight, and goes to detribalized or civilized Athens, seeking peace of mind and a lessening of the collective guilt weighing on his now private consciousness.3 In Athens he discovers a private absolution from guilt, and the means to a corporate, hero death.4 The tormented and fragmented self that his life quest had fashioned from his sleuthing in the collective mind, is united once more with the corporate mask of his culture. (Masks And Roles And The Corporate Image, Explorations 10, 1964)

In Explorations 8, on top of a short article on Wyndham Lewis, ‘Third Program in the Human Age’, McLuhan published 24 unpaginated ‘items’ amounting to around half the volume. They averaged 2 or 3 pages in length. These were notes he had assembled on a variety of topics and were now included in the penultimate issue of the original Explorations series and the last of that series to which he would contribute.5

Explorations 8 appeared in October 1957, a month after McLuhan and Harry Skornia first met at an MLA conference in Madison and a month before McLuhan attended the first NAEB ‘research seminar’ in Columbus. His ‘Understanding Media’ project with the NAEB would be conceived the next year and begun in September 1959. These Explorations 8 ‘items’, along with his other 1957 publications, therefore provide a snapshot of McLuhan’s thinking just as he was beginning the intense research he would under-take for the NAEB.

This research relationship would represent the single most insightful period of McLuhan’s half century intellectual career. As he entered it, McLuhan knew that it would require a difficult transformation — one that would, in fact, all but kill him when he suffered a stroke in 1960 severe enough that he was given the last rites.6

The ‘items’ he published in Explorations 8 record the pointers he would follow in interrogating media as the message to our time — but also the stress he was feeling in anticipation of the “arduous metamorphosis”, or trial, he would have to under-go in an attempt to win the new conception he sought. For what was in question was no purely objective matter requiring only (only!) a new perspective, but an intensely subjective riddle in which perspective on perspective was at stake. In the implicated exploration of “the interior landscape” all ground threatened to give way. For a plurality of media grounds had to be interrogated — but between grounds there was, and is, no ground.

Amplifying these personal struggles, none of which could be resolved in less than a lifetimes’s unremitting work, was McLuhan’s clear recognition of two looming social catastrophes. First, the freedoms, rights and bonds that had been won in the Gutenberg era were now threatened with implosion along with it. Second, the new Marconi era could unleash a tsunami of war and other violences if we failed to understand its potential for destruction. 

In ‘item #15’ (‘The Organization Man’) McLuhan described the “fight [he had before him] to loosen [all] the older social bonds”:

You have to struggle alone and in silence against a distracting social environment which looks askance at your solitary quest. This quest engenders psychological powers [in and against the self] of an intensely dedicated and aggressive kind. From the point of view of the solitary quester with his inner direction and self-appointed goals and standards, it is society that is THE LONELY CROWD.7 

In the same item, McLuhan specified the task of the contemporary executive (standing in, as McLuhan would repeat in Take Today, for everyman): “though it is painful8 he is sufficiently the realist to accept the new social ethic of electronic communication.” This was an ethic that at once split him off from his social past and that could be investigated only through an internalization of that same split in himself. 

The new organization man is an oral man with a heart of type. (Item #7)9

In item #5 he concluded by noting that “the split between the two worlds [of irreducibly plural media] has grown wider in the hearts” of those attempting to understand it.  Further, that this attempt at understanding, this trial, necessitated “an arduous metamorphosis“. For what was demanded was no healing or amelioration of fundamental rift, but a new appreciation of it as the inalienable situation of human being.

Humans had always been faced with this demand and had responded to it in many ways. Now it had to be faced again under the unprecedented circumstance that we considered ourselves somehow beyond it (either positively and negatively).10 McLuhan’s arguments against “lineality” in favor of an appreciation of “simultaneity” carried an existential demand that research on his work hurries over on its way to the next conference. “It is the anguished effort of the bureaucrat to keep the new oral demands of electronic simultaneity in the groove of lineality.” (Explorations 8, item #1, ‘Brain Storming’) It is the moment of wrong-doing, the moment of death and loss, the moment of missed opportunity to do the right thing that is, as Eliot has it, “always now”.11

At the same time as his Explorations 8 items, McLuhan concluded his essay on ‘Coleridge as Artist’ (1957) by noting the unavoidable psycho-physical ordeal of the required trial:

as with Rimbaud, the very magnitude of the change he [Coleridge] experienced in his own modes of thought and feeling (…) made (…) exhausting demands on mind and heart.


  1. McLuhan made this observation a few years before entering into the depths of his own “most austere experiments” in the context of his NAEB project. He had always known what it demands, and what it feels like, to think against one’s time — and against one’s self.
  2. No Upside Down in Eskimo Art’. With his blackouts, brain tumor and congenital disposition to stroke, McLuhan had frequent headaches. His association of them with “creative ideas” was grim humor.
  3. Substituting Winnipeg and UM for Thebes, and England and Cambridge for “civilized Athens”, compare McLuhan speaking with Nina Sutton:I first encountered the work of I.A. Richards at Manitoba University (…) at first it was shattering. I thought it was the end.” Passages like this (and the others in this post) expose a need to rethink two acceptances. First, that McLuhan had no existential problems (as he himself often claimed — perhaps as a kind of shield for others against them?). Second, that in the early 1930s Winnipeg and UM were cut off from modernity. For additional discussion of the second point, see T.S. Eliot in Winnipeg.
  4. “Hero death” is a strange phrase in this context where it might be thought that Oedipus had to lose his heroic asperations and accustom himself to the wisdom of the sphinx. Perhaps McLuhan intended something more like “meaningful death”?
  5. The original series concluded with #9 in which Carpenter’s ‘Eskimo’ was the only contribution. Explorations would start up again in the 1960s, but as a part of the UT Varsity magazine, not as a free-standing publication.
  6. Corinne McLuhan recorded that he began to have blackouts in 1959. See the note on Letters 175 which must have stemmed from her. For information on McLuhan’s 1960 stroke — suffered at a time when his mother was dying from one — see note 13 of McLuhan’s new sciences: “only the authority of knowledge”.
  7. McLuhan’s use of masculine pronouns in regard to human beings in general (“the solitary quester with his inner direction and self-appointed goals”) is retained here because of its implication of his own situation. His use of ‘you’ has the same effect.
  8. Compare Heidegger from a few years earlier in ‘Die Sprache im Gedicht’: “Alles, was lebt, ist schmerzlich.” Everything that lives is in pain.
  9. ‘Bathroom Baritone and Wide Open Spaces’.
  10. Somehow beyond it either positively and negatively: positively, because humans considered themselves to be the new gods of the universe and didn’t need to consider it; negatively, because the fate of humans was so “absurd” that no resolution were possible for them.
  11. Eliot, Four Quartets (Burnt Norton): “And the end and the beginning were always there/Before the beginning and after the end./And all is always now.” The cross had functioned as the sign of this fallen situation of human beings for almost two millennia. But now we had left it behind us as we raced ‘ahead’ on the lineal freeway of progress.

What is the basis of prediction?

Why did Marx miss the communication bus? (American Model 1795, 1957)

In Explorations 8 (unpaginated ‘item’ #2) McLuhan foresaw the breakup of the USSR that would occur thirty years later:

Now launched on a program entirely antithetic to their oral culture, the Russians (…) ignore and discount all that is basic in their own make-up.1 (…) The intense individualism and even more ferocious nationalism that is born out of (…) print-processing is just now being discovered in the Soviet area. It will eventually splinter the Soviet area as effectively as it splintered England and Europe in the sixteenth century. Is it not strange that the Marxists should have no awareness of the means of communication as the constitutive social factor? That Marx should not have noticed that English and American industry were merely projections of print technology?2  

McLuhan’s foresight was remarkable and is increasingly recognized today, 40 years after his death in 1980. What he could see then, we are just beginning to see now. But the most important implication of his foresight is ignored today as much as it was during his lifetime. Namely, if he could perceive what would unfold in the future,3 the seemingly obvious question is: how did he do it? On what basis was he able to foresee so accurately?

If a chemist were able to make reliable predictions about the consequences of reactions that other chemists did not understand, there would be enormous interest in trying to replicate her results and to tease out their implications for the field. With McLuhan, however, although his predictions themselves are beginning to win some recognition, there is still inexplicably no interest in the question of just how he was able to make them.  

McLuhan himself was fully conscious that this was the case and he had many explanations for it: specialists protecting their turf (ie, their reputations, salaries, bennies, and especially their self-importance); the lineal bias against revision and starting again; the ‘free’ individual’s reluctance to admit subliminal determination — und so weiter! But this was exactly the case when chemistry was first securing its foundations 200 years ago. Most contemporary researchers were not interested in the findings of Priestley and Lavoissier because they had their own findings and these findings had roots in their education and current practices which they were unwilling to give up. Only slowly in the first half of the nineteenth century was it possible for new investigators to establish the field of element-based chemistry, above all by discovering practical applications for it.

What is remarkable about McLuhan’s NAEB Understanding Media project in 1959-1960 (within a wider frame stretching roughly from 1957 to 1964) is that this was the time when McLuhan investigated questions like these in regard to his own thinking. “The medium is the message” was an admonition addressed above all to himself! He had to turn himself inside out in a ‘through the looking glass’ attempt to understand where he himself was coming from.4 Thanks to the remarkable Unlocking the Airwaves project, with its comprehensive NAEB files, this is a process we can now follow in great detail.

  1. McLuhan enlarged on “all that is basic” in the Russian “make-up” as follows: “For many centuries the Soviet area has been as oral as a pre-literate society. The Greek Orthodox Church has an oral tradition compared to the legalistic and individual Roman tradition. As Geoffrey Gorer puts it in The People of Great Russia: ‘The central sacrament of Western Christianity is Communion, the intimate connexion between the individual worshipper and Jesus Christ; in the Orthodox Church the central experience is Sobornost, the Pentecostal descent of the Holy Ghost on the whole congregation simultaneously.’
  2. ‘American Model 1795’. The order of these sentences has been reversed.
  3. McLuhan always maintained, of course, that the future was the present if you knew how to look.
  4. See Birthpains of the new: “an arduous metamorphosis”.

McLuhan NAEB presentation 9/23/59

Dedicated to my dear sister, MJCB, on the occasion of her 72nd birthday!

When McLuhan’s Understanding Media research project with the National Association of Educational Broadcasters began in September 1959, one of the first things he did was to meet with the NAEB research committee at the LaSalle Hotel in Chicago. The talk he gave on that occasion is preserved in the NAEB files posted online as part of the great Unlocking the Airwaves project. From a note sent to Harry Skornia on Sept 5, 1959, it seems that the talk was carefully crafted beforehand and circulated to the committee in advance of the meeting. 

Let me apologise right off for all the distress which my media project will cause specialists in many subjects. I wish I knew some way of avoiding this discomfort, but how is it possible to do the cross subject study that this purports to be without disturbing the convictions and the acquired knowledge of many people?

If I explain that radio and TV are not really consumer media in the full sense that photography and film are, Madison Avenue gets upset. So do many people in film and in radio and television skills.

They are eager to prove me wrong before they have the faintest idea of what I mean. Personally I am not trying to upset such people. I am really trying to understand media and to discover their unique dynamics.

But it is not easy to convince a literary man that your interest in the psycho-dynamics of the printed form of codification of information is anything but malice towards literature. Moreover, he is likely to feel personal humiliation that he is, in fact, quite unaware of some of the basic effects of the print form upon many of his most cherished ideas and attitudes.

The mere recognition of the existence of the subliminal in ordinary human experience seems of itself to create fear and insecurity. Since every moment of perception is loaded with subliminal intake, all of us are unaware of most of the factors that shape our experience.

Personally, I should greatly welcome any suggestions as to how to diminish the discomfort of other people when their subliminal lives are involved. But media study must go on! And so far the only advice is to shut up.

It is sometimes said that my approach to media is philosophical. I hope it may soon be seen to be scientific. For a long time philosophy has been associated with systems, with world-views, Weltanschauungen, and general pictures of things. Since the Renaissance most methods and procedures have strongly tended toward stress on the visual organization and application of knowledge. Printing gave enormous stress to such visual process, to differential calculus, and to statistics.

But since the early nineteenth century with the arrival of electrical problems and processes, mathematics and physics have moved away from visual organization and statistics towards dynamics, time organization, and what psychologists refer to as “auditory space.” (Auditory space is that sphere of simultaneous relations created by the act of hearing. We hear from all directions at the same instant. This creates a unique unvisualisable space.)

To ask whether either the Renaissance achievement of statics or our modem conquest of dynamics is a good thing or a bad thing seems to mean: “what will this do to me?” The question seems to be a request for applied knowledge, but knowledge applied on one level, and for one person at a time.

The modern world of dynamics is an all-at-once world in which there cannot be single levels or one-thing-at-a-time awareness. This change is a very bad thing, indeed, for the previous technology and for all of us whose education represents a heavy investment of precious years in acquiring what may now be irrelevant modes of knowledge.

The Affluent Society by Kenneth Galbraith opens with a discussion of the “vested interests in acquired knowledge,” “the bland leaders of the bland” whose discourse and perception move evenly in the single lines and the single planes of “conventional wisdom.” By taking an all-at-once view of our economic world Galbraith has so shocked the one-at- time people that the American Journal of Economics has reviewed the book on the assumption that it is a hoax.

In the same way Parkinson’s Law (by Parkinson) in taking an all-at-once view of the operation of written forms in bureaucratic organization today, has appeared as a sort of Marx Bros entertainment. It is a multi-leveled analysis of a complex dynamic.

Conventional sobriety as it affects scholarly decorum would seem to be merely the accidental result of the static procedure of taking one-thing-at-a-time. Such procedure in media analysis is as incapable of getting at the dynamics of a medium as are statistics in motivation study or social dynamics.

Statistics can tell of a trend, provide a picture or a view, or a perspective but cannot reveal causes. In fact, it is only in our century that over-all data and all-at-once knowledge have so increased that we have moved toward the study of causes in personal and social operations. That is, we are now concerned with causes, not on a single plane or in mere sequence but as a total field of interaction and inter-penetration. This leads us to feel about statistics as the beatnik about bikinis: “Man, they seem to reveal all, but they really withhold vital data.”

It is important for us in media work to understand the statics of the medium of statistics and their relation to differential calculus and the older Newtonian picture. For the problems we face are not static but dynamic, because of their nuclear origin and focus. Likewise, the means at our disposal are no longer mechanical but electronic. And the dominant impress which the young today receive (non-verbally) from our new technology is not mechanical or print-oriented but electronic and dialogue-oriented.

The world of production and management is today grappling with the changes in the patterns of command and of production resulting from the telephone, on the one hand, and from the complex synchronization in production resulting from the use of electronic tapes. The latter have ended the centuries-old regime of the assembly-line. The end of the assembly-line in the outer-world could well be a portent for the entire educational establishment. Because Gutenberg provided the prototypical assembly-line

basis for all that followed. So that we may now be in the position, so far as literacy is concerned, of propping a superstructure without a base.

During the recent centuries we seem to have been as oblivious of this overall pattern of our Western culture as the humble tortoise is of the articulate design on its shell. It is hard to see how anybody could have been more subliminal than Western man since Gutenberg.

But the electronic age is becoming alert to the dangers of the subliminal whether in psychology or politics and education. The all-at-once, many-leveled awareness of the electronic age discourages the continuation of the single-plane depths of unexamined subliminal back-log of literate man.

In this time of coexistence, itself resulting from instantaneous movement of information, we are confronted predominantly by oral cultures like the Chinese and the Russian. These oral peoples take to electronic and nuclear modes of organisation more readily than we do with our centuries of linear and sequential training of perception. The nuclear physicists have to master the non-visual and non-Euclidean modes of order today. But since the telegraph, the press has presented a non-lineal mosaic, and so have radio and television.

All of my work has tended more and more to center on the misunderstandings and clashes that occur between these two basic types of order in experience and organisation; namely, the visual and the auditory.

For the basic patterns of eye and ear are typically non-verbal in their message in most of their media occurrence. And it is even more confusing at first for some to learn that the mosaic of a page of telegraph press is ‘auditory’ in basic structure. That, however, is only to say that any pattern in which the components co-exist without direct lineal hook-up or connection, creating a field of simultaneous relations, is auditory, even though some of its aspects can be seen. The items of news and advertising that exist under a dateline are inter-related only by that dateline. They have no inter-connection of logic or statement. Yet they form a mosaic whose parts are interpenetrating. Such is also the kind of order that tends to exist in a city or a culture. It is a kind of orchestral, resonating unity, not a logical unity of discourse. It is not necessary to be satisfied with such a state of affairs once it is understood.

Personally, I feel none of the fervor in favor of such order, as an ideal to be sought for, that is not uncommon among anthropologists. My notion is that this kind of order is inseparable from electronic technology and that such auditory order quickly wipes out or brainwashes visual kinds of order by subliminal action. As a teacher of language and literature I am aware of the values to be had from these in their printed form. But I am also aware that the artists, poets and musicians of the past century have unanimously abandoned visual structure in their

work in favor of auditory all-at-onceness. It would seem that artists, of all media, respond soonest to the challenge of new pressures. I would like to suggest that they also show us ways of living with new technology without destruction of earlier achievement and form.

If there is one theme in all the arts of the past century it is that of the need for relevance in the patterns of human interests. To be out-of-touch with one’s time, they have not ceased to urge, is to be irrelevant.

To cultivate irrelevant attitudes and rhythms and order is to be not only futile but to be an enemy of one’s fellows.

Prior to the cry for relevance was the idea of steadiness of perspective and consistency of point-of-view. This was the visual man’s strategy and bias from Gutenberg and the Renaissance onwards. But since Baudelaire and Cezanne such individual perspective has been held to be as irrelevant as “self-expression.”

It needs no insistence to show that “relevance” is an all-at-once, inclusive, and total affair, and that as an attitude it is born of the ear mode of awareness; whereas individual point-of-view is the eye mode and is born of a technology in which mechanical and animal forms are dissociated.

(The wheel, for example is referred to as the classic instance of the separation of mechanical and animal form; whereas today, with rocket and air-cushioned saucers and electronic circuits in which there are no moving parts, there is a transmutation of mechanical into animal again, as it were. We move towards the post-mechanical.)

The ear mode of all-at-once or total-field awareness seems naturally to prepare the climate of opinion to welcome organic and ecological approaches to problems of education and society, of the arts and industrial production alike.

If my diagnosis is on the beam, does it not afford a means of isolating causal factors and relations in our open society of over-all coexistence? Will it not be possible to test my diagnosis by careful checking, for example, of the impact of one medium upon another? Just as electronic nuclei can only be reached or probed by other accelerated electrons, cannot we not use the action of the media themselves upon one another to reveal their powers and properties?

When radio is released in a widely and long-literate area like the U.S. its effect on social and psychological structures would seem to be quite different from the effects of radio in Japan, or Germany or Spain. But the effect of radio on non-literate areas like India, Iran, or Africa would seem to be quite different again.

This approach of mine is structuralist but is not derived from the recent field of structural linguistics. Rather it derives from the practice and criticism in the field of poetry and painting during the last 100 years. However, the electronic tapes which are ending the assembly-line in industry also made possible structural linguistics. And this new field, as it clashes with older language study and teaching, affords another instance of the clash of ear and eye structures of knowledge. For to the structural linguist the fact that the letter “k,” for example, as written, may suggest a single sound, does not hide from him the fact that there are several quite distinct “k” sound-structures mastered by every child by two or three years of age. For the “k” in “quick” Is not the “k” in “chalk.” Using the fill-at-once approach of electronic tape, the linguist becomes aware of the interpenetration of the alphabetic sounds and the consequent modification of letters that look alike in the one-thing-at-a-time world of the written word. So he doesn’t hesitate to say that written letters, insofar as they pretend to point to distinct sounds, are a very crude gimmick for reducing couples and subtle qualities of sound to mere averages.

But the ear order of the structural linguist finds a clash when he turns to the visual order of words on the page. What has long passed as “grammar” to the visual and literary person seems crude and arbitrary to the ear perception of the structural linguist. Here he could be mistaken.

The eye-order of the printed page and of the written word, as sponsored by the grammarian, may lack the organic unity and delicacy of spoken idiom. But eye-order may here have a validity imperceptible to the structural linguist with his subliminally-espoused ear-order via electronic tape.

But the pros and cons can more easily be tested when the real nature of the clash is clarified.

The eye man in this order of observation is satisfied that film and TV images are roughly alike. Yet just as small children can make the most delicate distinctions of subtle sound structures, so do they receive and react to the distinction between movie and TV imagery. That is, between the still shot and the continuous pick-up, between light on and light through an image, etc.

This illustration may serve to introduce a theme that could be crucial to the Understanding Media project. Professor Johnson of McGill’s department of Psychology has been working on what can be called a “saturation theory” of learning. I look forward to conferences with him. Because if a child can learn a language by three or four in the sense of being at home with its sounds, gestures, and syntax, how long does it take a child to be at home in the same way with the structure of print, photo, film, TV, radio, and grammaphone?

This question includes another: Can familiarity or saturation with one medium block introduction to others? The child who learns one language before another will have only one mother-tongue. He will not learn the second In the same total way as the first. Carl Orff, the Viennese composer, has a music school in which he seeks to train his pupils before they can read or write. His view is after literacy nobody can really master the modes of music.

This approach, quite apart from the validity of the particular case, suggests that in understanding media we might check whether the current familiarity of children with photo and TV, for example, before they read and write may really be an unfortunate sequence. I am sure that if a more natural and fruitful sequence of media experience exists, it can be discovered and demonstrated. This approach is related to the now accepted idea that some media are especially indicated for some kinds of learning. But Ferguson’s theory that saturation in language and media experience occurs very early may prove of major aid in study. It certainly points to a variety of procedures and controls in observation that have been lacking.

Speaking casually to a member of the Institute of Child Psychology in Washington D.C., I just happened to inquire, “What is the effect of the telephone on children?” The reply was this: “We know one thing; namely, that neurotic children are normal when using the telephone.”

That remark suggests, to me at least, a basic aspect of all media: that experience in one is transmuted and translated into a different experience in another. Some people stutter in English but not in French or Spanish.

Would it not interest Bell Telephone to use their research laboratories to consider some aspects of their medium in relation to other media and to the training and education of children? That is, can we not enlist the resources of all the communication industries to concentrate on discovering the inter-relation of media in terms of experience and education?

Can we not reasonably expect to interest Remington Rand and Underwood, etc, in investigating the effect of composing on the typewriter? What is the effect of publishing oneself, as it were, while composing at the typewriter? What has been the effect of the typewriter in structuring decision-making in our world? How has the typewriter been affected by tape-recorders? What has been the effect of the typewriter on the writing and publishing of books and newspapers? On the short-story? On poetry? On reading habits?

Speaking to top executives of General Electric at Crotonville about their attitude toward media study, I was assured, “We will help you in every way we can,for whatever raises the general level helps us, too.”

That was also the reply of the NBC.

I am sure it will be the reply of the big research divisions of Madison Ave. publishing and advertising, including Time, Life, and Fortune.

The question, then, arises: Should I, or should I not, seek the co-operation of these great enterprises? If Understanding Media is from one point of view a project to inter-relate in-school and out-of-school experience by educational articulation of areas that are common to both, would it be seriously compromising to ask the aid and counsel of the out-of-school areas?

Much of the data about the effect of one medium on another is to be found only in the experience of the big industries. I spent a week at a radio conference in Vancouver in the spring of 1958. The theme was: What has happened in radio since TV? The answers were most helpful. Radio has changed in its uses and programming since TV. It has switched from a group to a private form, etc.

What happened to the book after the newspaper? To the book after the movie? To the book after radio and TV? Nobody seems to know.

But what has happened to the movie since TV is much better known, and if studied not as a change in our view of the movies but as a change in the uses and forms of the movie, much can be learned about the movie, and about TV and movie at the same time; i.e., much that could not be learned by inspecting merely one-at-a-time.

To Illuminate media from within by noting their effect upon one another is a procedure that I should like to have criticised pro and con. It also appears, as I have pointed out, to be the current method in the discovery of nuclear structures in physics.

The “content” approach to media and to the testing of media efficacy in teaching and in public relations and politics is, I am reasonably satisfied, derivative from the habit of literacy itself. We would not talk about the “content” of a tune or a melody. But as soon as man learned how to encode the audible in visible terns (writing) he easily began to make divisions between ”form” and “content,” and between thought and feeling, individual and state, and so on. Insofar as these separations correspond to real modes of being we should try to retain them. Insofar as they are fictions and illusions fostered by the subliminal action of media, they need to be considered and criticised with a view to their permanent value. Perhaps we shall learn to cherish some of the fruits of literacy as we might do with precious artifacts of vanished societies. Whether it be possible to retain the fruits of literacy without the soil and tree of literacy would appear to be the test we are now undergoing in the Western world. Certainly we shall learn many new aspects of literacy as we study its intact on the ancient cultures of India and China. For literacy in the West did not slice into ancient civilisations, but struck into tribal societies which wilted under its impact.

This raises a major issue for us all to study: Namely, when does a mechanical code of transmission of information itself become a language? Under what conditions does a language revert to a code of transmission? With our new coding devices today such as movies and TV, tapes, discs, radio, teletype and so on, we are setting about to establish whether these means of transmission have themselves so deeply altered human sensibilities and re-shaped human institutions and attitudes as to have acquired the status of new languages. For to an infant, English is not a language but a mechanical code. To an adult beginning Russian, that, too, is at first a mechanical code. It becomes a language only when it has become subliminal to him. English in its totality becomes a code again to the structural linguist who begins to translate the whole structure into auditory terms alone. To the same man as a speaker of English, it exists in all his senses at the same time.

Is a code the translation of one sense into another single sense; e.g.. Morse code? Morse reduces the multi-leveled structure of English into one sense — the ear. It is at once translated into a code for the eye.

When writing was invented it was a visual code for a many-leveled auditory thing. Phonetic writing has proved much the most powerful of written instruments for it abstracted “all” meaning from the visual code. Other kinds of writing did not attempt to divorce the code from meaning. Once this divorce had been effected, it was possible to translate any sound structure into phonetic alphabetic form. The phonetic alphabet gave to the Graeco-Roman world the power of conquest of all cultures it contacted. We see that aggressive power today at work in India and China.

Today by means of “translating machines” we are setting out to do with entire languages what once was done in divorcing meaning from visual written forms. When by frequency counts we have averaged out the lexical meanings of all words in a language we can use that language as a mechanical code such as it is for a beginner. When the same has been done for other languages they can be translated into one another lexically and semantically, just as they formerly were reduced from auditory to visual state by means of the phonetic alphabet.

What I am saying is that new media may at first appear as mere codes of transmission for older achievement and established patterns of thought. But nobody could make the mistake of supposing that phonetic writing merely made It possible for the Greeks to set down in visual order what they had thought and known before writing. In the same way printing made literature possible. It did not merely encode literature.

That is what I mean when I say that (in the not-so-long run) the medium is the message. So that what we have to study now is what totally new curricula and modes of organisation are inherent in our current new media

Let us step aside from teaching a moment and notice what the telephone and other electronic means have done to well-established patterns of management and decision-making:

We still express the structure of authority, responsibility, function and rank in organisation in the typical organization chart, which shows the chief executive at the top and the lesser executives as exercising authority delegated by him. It is still customary to explain the existence of organisation by the fact that there Is more work to be done than any man can do, so that he has to delegate to others what is really part of his job.
But this is nonsense in modern organization. The individual people of skill, knowledge and judgment cannot exercise somebody else’s authority or somebody else’s knowledge. They exercise their own knowledge and should have the authority that befits their contribution. It is the job that determines the authority and responsibility of the holder — and this is original authority grounded in the needs and objective requirements for performance rather than in the power of the man above. The only power the top man must have is that of deciding whether a certain contribution is needed — and even that, increasingly, must be an objective decision according to objective needs of the organization rather than a power decision.

That is Peter Drucker writing in Landmarks of Tomorrow (p. 96) (Harpers, 1959). Delegated authority cannot in the long run be transmitted or used by telephone. The decentralization of industry that has followed upon the break-down of delegated authority has compelled industry to give to all its executives an overall training in the entire operation of their companies and also compelled the study of the entire relation of business to society. In Nazi Germany the clash between delegated authority and electronic transmission was given a brief moment of attention by Albert Speer at the Nuremberg trials:

The telephone, the teleprinter and the wireless made it possible for orders from the highest levels to he given direct to the lowest levels, where, on account of the absolute authority behind them, they were carried out uncritically; or brought it about that numerous offices and command centres were directly connected with the supreme leadership from which they received their sinister orders without any intermediary; or resulted in a widespread surveillance of the citizen, or in a high degree of secrecy surrounding criminal happenings. To the outside observer this governmental apparatus may have resembled the apparently chaotic confusion of lines at a telephone exchange, but like the latter it could be controlled and operated from one central source. Former dictatorships needed collaborators of high quality even in the lower levels of leadership, men who could think and act independently. In the era


of modern technique an authoritarian system cm do without this. The means of communication alone permit it to mechanize the work of subordinate leadership. As a consequence a new type develops: the uncritical recipient of orders.” (Albert Speer, German Armaments Minister in 1942, in a speech at the Nuremberg trials, quoted in Hjalmar Schacht, Account Settled, London, 1949, p. 240.)

Speer does not dissociate the effect of electronic media from some of the special features of German cultural organisation. And, for example, what he notes about the older type of organisation as calling for “men who could think and act independently” is quite the reverse of the situation seen in U.S. business by Peter Drucker. For the new situation in America is precisely the one that calls for such “authority of knowledge.” Whereas the older literacy, at least in the U.S., fostered the pattern of delegated authority. What seems to have occurred in Germany and Japan under electronic impact was the brainwashing of a recently assumed literacy and reversion to tribal cohesion and pre-individualist patterns of thought.

I have said (and I hope I am wrong) at various times that we ought to expect a steady trend toward irrational tribal behavior in North America, as our youngsters get saturated with the all-at-once auditory experience of our new media. Such tribal experience was still intact and available to the Jap and the German. But for us to retribalize would be quite a different matter. And in the global village created by our electronics there would, of course, be room for only one tribe — the human family itself.

It would seem obvious that our responsibilities as educators and broadcasters is to understand our media and their effects just as an X-ray expert should understand the effects of his medium and not permit patients to receive an overdose. X-rays units can get “hot” but they do not make good space-heaters. And we must learn how far we can safely proceed in applying new media to older educational purposes without destruction of older goals and achievements.

Moreover, since the saturation in a medium may occur outside school contexts before any school use is attempted, we must know what are the relevant educational uses of such media. “Saturation” in English as the mother-tongue occurs by three or four years of age and the traditional educational superstructure is based upon that prior saturation. Have we used a similar wisdom in relation to the new media? As they cease to be codes, and invade and structure our entire beings and all areas of our sensibility, they become “languages” themselves. Pictorial media tend to be non-verbal it is true.

But so are writing and printing non-verbal in their primary phases. Only gradually do they permeate the verbal and spoken areas. The Morse

code if known and experienced daily by everybody would quickly cease to be a code. The African drum and whistle languages are not codes but languages to African natives. So with their dances. Ads, comics, and movies are not codes in North America but basic languages. That we have not yet begun to teach their grammars is as natural as it is for preliterate man to ignore the written or visual mode of his language. Grammar comes from the Greek “written.” And education would seem to involve the translation of experience into a new mode.

We can begin, then, to consider the relevance of grammars for media which have become languages all within our own century. Whatever may be the educational advantages of traditional grammars now apply to our new media. Yet one of the effects of the new auditory media has been to dissuade people from the cultivation of grammar. May it not be that the translation of the auditory structure of a language into a grammar or visual structure is ultimately necessary in order to confer personal adequacy of control over experience? But as we regain auditory space via the electronic revolution, we fail to see the relevance of visual grammar?

May not the translation of one sense into another, and of one language into another be the irreducible modality of education, just as it is the irreducible mode of nuclear investigation? May not this training confer the detachment and criticism necessary for viable civilized man anywhere, anytime?

For the Greeks numbers were indications of auditory structure not visual structure. Ernst Cassirer in The Problem of Knowledge tells us how the vogue of Euclidean geometry depressed and retarded the study of numbers and arithmetic for centuries. Today the effect of new auditory modes on the young will naturally sensitize them to number theory in a way which is taken for granted in old oral cultures like Russia, Hungary, Poland, etc.

Today it is impossible to predict at what moment one may make a large break-through into new dimensions of awareness. Because such a casual fact as that the sound waves on the wings of a jet plane become visible just a moment before breaking through the sound-harrier, such a fact may be encountered for the first time in a newspaper or in overheard chat. It has profound implications for the dynamics of sight and sound and tells us much about their power and habit of transmutation. The radio tube principle, pushed far enough, led to TV.

It was Flaubert in the middle of the last century who first alerted his time to the subliminal power of bad pictorial forms. His people are all shown as victims of atrocious commercial art and communication. His own concept of le mot juste (which our age translates as The Most Juice) is auditory, not pictorial. For it implies an all-at-once order of words,

any slightest change in which obliterates the whole effect. But Flaubert taught us that there was no neutral area in human communications, and there is no more merit in tolerating hideous and tendentious forms of pictorial arrangement than putting up with polluted drinking water. Before Pasteur, Flaubert Introduced the germ theory into social communication. That is, he entered the electronic age at the same time as Sam Morse. But he had his eyes open for the full consequences as Sam Morse, perhaps, did not. However, it might well be no accident that the painter Sam Morse should have been the first to introduce us to auditory or all-at-once space; that is, the space which is a simultaneous field of relations such as we create in each moment of hearing. For we hear from all directions at once. We do not see that way at all.

“A medium is the sum total of all its impact”

We cannot transcend our “flat earth” view of media so long as we rely on private impressions at a particular time and place. The meaning and effect of a medium is the sum total of all its impact upon psyche and society. (McLuhan to Harry Skornia, July 6, 1964, Letters 305)

In chemistry, the sum total of the impact of any reaction on the physical world is — chemistry!

Impact radiates out from a physical reaction1 in an endless series of waves like a stone dropped in a pond. But it is useless to try to trace those endless repercussions, since the overwhelming majority of them are inconsequential. Besides, they are indeed endless and an account of them, too, could never end.2 Instead, we are able to repose in the knowledge that all of the endless impacts of any reaction are covered by the field of chemistry — and if any one of them turns out to be consequential, it may be illuminated in turn within that field. (Occasionally, of course, some peculiar reaction forces us to revise our notion of the field in what amounts to a ‘scientific revolution’. But this, too, belongs to chemistry and, far from undermining it, is one of its great motors. Or, findings in a field may lead to the founding of a new field like organic chemistry from chemistry. But this, too, is simply the way science works and amounts to no disruption of it. On the contrary!)

McLuhan had a comparable notion of media. His idea was that media have an endless impact on individuals and societies, but our study of those impacts need not be exhaustive. Indeed, it cannot be exhaustive!3 Instead a field must be established within which any impact can be studied in a limited way and which would be illuminating only because so limited! The main thing was simply to start and then to allow the normal workings of science to deal with problems, imprecisions, contradictions, and unknowns — etc etc.4 Hence — a signpost indicating an impending advance in understanding — “You mean my whole fallacy is wrong?”


  1. Everything that exists is in constant interaction with its environment and so is part of a reactive event, actually events. Nothing exists aside from such ‘reaction’ events.
  2. See Chemistry of the interior landscape 2 for the absurdity of a map with a scale of 1 mile to 1 mile.
  3. See previous note.
  4. See Und so weiter! (the gap).

Chemistry of the interior landscape 2

Philosophic agreement is not necessary among those who are agreed that the insistent operation of media-forms on human sensibility and awareness is an observable, intelligible, and controllable situation. (‘Myth and Mass Media‘, 1959)

We can, perhaps we must, become the masters of cultural and historical alchemy. (‘Myth and Mass Media‘)

In his 1960 review of American Folklore by Richard Dorson, ‘Myth, Oral and Written’ (Commentary, 30:1), McLuhan reflected on the reversal he proposed from the analysis of human experience in all its forms by philosophy1 — to the analysis of philosophy by human experience in all its forms.2

He did so by recounting with deadpan humor how Dorson put him in mind of Lewis Carroll:

The scientific folklorist seeks out, observes, collects, and describes the inherited traditions of the community, whatsoever forms they take.”3 Such is Professor Dorson’s undertaking [in American Folklore], and it is a broad program [a broad program!] which has my own sympathies and interests deeply involved. Yet such a program might easily parallel Lewis Carroll’s idea of a map of the scale of one mile to the mile. Carroll pointed out that since such a map would inevitably rouse the hostility of farmers [whose fields would be covered over by the map], we might alternatively [just] use the earth itself as a map of itself. And is not this what folklorists have hit upon as a strategy of culture — with the ordinary citizen in the role of the farmer about to be blanketed by an earth map?4 If so, can we find some means of awareness that will not obliterate the cultural scene, some way to get enough light through and still prevent a general brainwashing by putting too much light on?5

The question was, and is, how bring to bear an understanding of human experience in all its forms6 on the analysis of particular examples of experience? A series of notions are implicated in McLuhan’s thinking here:

  1. The understanding of any cultural phenomenon can be achieved only by an analysis, like that of chemistry regarding the material world, that applies to all such phenomena, regardless of where or when they are found.7 
  2. The understanding of anything must involve an equal understanding of what it is not — but might have been. Actualities must be understood in relation to their possibilities.8 This implicated what McLuhan called “multi-levels of simultaneous presentation“.
  3. The understanding of the complete universe of psychological phenomena cannot be made by taking it entire (“Lewis Carroll’s idea of a map of the scale of one mile to the mile”), or by the reduction of the whole to some simplicity (as has been attempted forever, like Thales’ water) — the two extremes of ‘matching‘.9 Instead, an understanding of the complete universe of psychological phenomena must be ‘made‘ through a self-conscious reduction that is acknowledged from the outset as less than ‘fully true’ (and exactly therefore, subject to future investigation). For such an understanding, the necessary reduction it makes — like the reduction of a liquid by boiling that may be stopped at different points with different results — is necessarily questionable. “Philosophic agreement is not necessary” — or permitted!
  4. The initiation of such investigation does not depend on truth (although individual thinkers may well mistakenly believe that they are discovering truth), but only on the collective determination to begin and continue investigation on some agreed basis — an agreed basis that approaches every individual or social act of human being as “an observable, intelligible, and controllable situation.”
  5. Truth in this case (as exemplified in all the hard sciences) is just the open collective investigation of what are known to be finite samples by finite methods. Some final consolidation (whatever that might be) is neither possible nor desired.
  6. Nostalgia for finality (which is manifested also by regret at its loss) tracks the continuing grip of the Gutenberg galaxy on our innards (a variation of inwards) — which extend, as always, also outwards.
  1. ‘Philosophy’ here and in the following instance stands in for all the disciplines (psychology, anthropology, sociology, etc) that undertake to ‘understand’ human being.
  2. For further discussion, see A medium is the sum total of all its impact. The field of chemistry is the physical world in all its forms. McLuhan contemplated a similar field of media that would cover human experience in all its forms.
  3. McLuhan citation from Dorson’s American Folklore.
  4. About to be blanketed — since nothing at all of human being falls outside the blanket of “the inherited traditions of the community, whatsoever forms they take.”
  5. See The goal of science for some thoughts on the Scylla and Charybdis of this too little light (“obliterate the cultural scene”) vs “too much light”.
  6. See A medium is the sum total of all its impact.
  7. Regardless of where and when = spacetime independence. Chemical elements in the early universe, billions of light years away in time and space, are not different from elements here and now (although subject to very different conditions, of course).
  8. Heidegger’s Introduction to Sein und Zeit (1927) concludes: “Higher than actuality stands possibility. We can understand phenomenology only by seizing it as a possibility.” (Höher als die Wirklichkeit steht die Möglichkeit. Das Verständnis der Phänomenologie liegt einzig im Ergreifen ihrer als Möglichkeit.)
  9. The two extremes: all is all (and nothing less) vs all is one (and nothing more).

“Understanding is not a point of view”

Sensibility is inclusive and precedes analytic awareness (Explorations 8, #17, 1957)

We cannot transcend our “flat earth” view of media so long as we rely on private impressions at a particular time and place. The meaning and effect of a medium is the sum total of all its impact upon psyche and society. (McLuhan to Harry Skornia, July 6, 1964Letters 305)

 In McLuhan’s letter to The Listener, August 11, 1971 (Letters 435):

The private point of view (…) is detached and non-corporate. (…)  Understanding is not a point of view.1 

Similarly in ‘The Argument: Causality in the Electric World’ (1973):

Understanding Is Neither a Point of View nor a Value Judgment

The Gestalt switch or paradigm shift that has to be made to initiate (an) Understanding (of) Media is captured here and can well be described as “the medium is the message”. The individual point of view as the de-tached stand-ard of truth must be give up in favor of the corporate medium. This involves a triple fundamental change at once: (1) change in what is understood as “the medium as such”, (2) change in what is understood of the range of “the medium as such” and (3) change in the place of the individual within that range.

Understanding Media cannot be initiated, this is to say, without the fitting (1) objective and (3) subjective focus — with ‘fitting’ understood (2) within the complete range of its possibilities. Since “understanding is not a point of view”, the required focus cannot be achieved except by the whole person in the whole medium.

Focus is not a point, but a complex. The medium is the message. The gap is where the action is. Understanding is not a point of view.

While some few individuals have long been able to achieve this tour de force, this exemplary turning,2 establishing it within a general program of education and social being has proved fatally beyond us. The tower of babel (la tour de Babel).3 No one is about to out-think Plato and yet how far have we advanced in 2500 years in the practical application of his insights? Meanwhile untold millions have died in the throes of the resulting horrors. Saturno devorando a su hijo

The astonishing amount of energy expended in McLuhan’s incessant speaking, writing and traveling must be understood as a passion engaged in this age-old educational struggle, the “ancient quarrel” that is implicated in the attempt to initiate, at last, a general understanding among humans of human being. The medium that is the message.

  1. A March 24, 2020 tweet from Andrew McLuhan shows an annotation of this maxim made by McLuhan on the first page (‘Preface to the Third Printing’) of Corinne McLuhan’s copy of Understanding Media:
    Since McLuhan’s other uses of the phrase date from the early 1970s, this one probably does as well.
  2. Tour‘ in tour de force is from French tourner, ‘to turn’.
  3. Tour‘ in tour de Babel is from Latin/Greek turris/τύρρις, ‘tower’.

On the subliminal 1

Electronic media (…) abridge space and time and single-plane relationships, returning us to the confrontation of multiple[-plane] relationships at the same moment. (…) The multilayered montage or “transparency,” with its abridgement of [sequential] logical relationships, is as familiar in the cave painting as in cubism. (Myth and Mass Media, 1959)1 

this fusion and telescoping of phases of process becomes a kind of explanation or mode of intelligibility. (Myth and Mass Media)

McLuhan had always been interested in the subliminal working of advertising and of other sorts of education outside the classroom like comics and the movies. This was the “classroom without walls”. But in the later 1950’s he became interested in the subliminal in a new way.

For 500 years our idea of efficacy and efficiency was rooted in the technology of explicitness. To make happen and to explain scientifically have both meant the consecutive spelling out of consequences, one at a time. In the electronic age we enter the phase of the technology of implicitness in which by grasp of total field relationships we package information and deliver messages on many levels, all in an instant. (‘The Subliminal Projection Project’, The Canadian ForumDecember, 1957)

He now realized that the subliminal was not only something we needed to become aware of throughthe consecutive spelling out of consequences”. This latter sort of investigation could certainly expose subliminal messages suggested by ads (for example) and could therefore contribute to consumer insight. But such ‘subliminal’ messages were potentially fully conscious and this was, indeed, just what study of them aimed to bring about: the conversion or “spelling out” of the subliminal into the “consequence” of conscious awareness.

But the subliminal could also to be investigated as being part of “total field relationships (…) on many levels, all in an instant.” And this was an entirely different matter.

Compare brain chemistry.2 The subliminal working of molecules in the brain is not something to be brought into consciousness in the same way as the exposure of hidden messages in ads. Instead, that molecular working can certainly be investigated in labs, and even be imaged through microscopy or MRI, but the object of this sort of highly conscious endeavor is not at all to bring that brain activity into the consciousness with which we go about our daily business. Indeed, the former can never become part of the latter because its working takes place, instantaneously, on a different level. As McLuhan put it, we have to deal here with “many levels, all in an instant”.  The different level of brain biochemistry is essentially subliminal — but not for that reason hidden from fully conscious investigation. Indeed, it is open to investigation only as subliminal.

At roughly the same time that he began to reconceptualize the subliminal in this way as “implicitness”, McLuhan formulated the phrase (or the admonition): “the medium is the message”. And these were closely linked. The electric medium (“a new codification of experience collectively achieved by new work habits and inclusive collective awareness”) through which we have particle physics, genetics and modern medicine is inherently multi-level, simultaneous and therefore (combining these two) ‘all at once’. In many different sciences, this model of understanding — this medium, this “mode of intelligibility” — is taken for granted. Of course our bodies and brains work through biochemical interactions, and of course they do so simultaneously with our every action and thought, and of course this takes place on a different level from our conscious attention, and of course this does not mean that this molecular work cannot be investigated consciously but instead means that it can. But this is a new sense of the subliminal that is only a few centuries old (at least as a practical matter), which has in that time revolutionized every field into which it has been introduced.3

Now in the later 1950’s McLuhan proposed that this multilevel simultaneous electric medium of explanation be brought to bear also in the humanities and the social sciences. Further, he proposed that we initiate this transformation first of all by — Understanding Media.

  1. The order of these sentences from ‘Myth and Mass Media‘ has been reversed. McLuhan enlarged on new media in this essay as follows: “Any one of our new media is in a sense a new language, a new codification of experience collectively achieved by new work habits and inclusive collective awareness. (…) The collective skills and experience that constitute both spoken languages and such new languages as movies or radio can also be considered (…) as static models of the universe. But do they not tend, like languages in general, to be dynamic models of the universe in action? As such, languages old and new would seem to be for participation rather than for contemplation or for reference and classification.” Both “static” and “dynamic” at once, the new media, like the new sciences of the last two centuries, have learned how to build upon the multiplicity of time.
  2. Explorations 8, #8: “the rise of field theory in physics now has its medical counterpart in Dr. Hans Selye’s stress view.”
  3. Only a few centuries old at least as a practical matter — because one would have to look carefully at figures like Aristotle and Leibniz (for example) to see how they understood “implicitness” long ago. Centuries or millennia before such insight could be put to practical use, they may well have understood it better than we do.

Und so weiter! (the gap)

In his handwritten letter to Harry Skornia from November 21, 1958, McLuhan used the German phrase “und so weiter!”

This followed on from the sentence: “TV image is not contained in space but makes its own.”

“Und so weiter” is German for ‘and so on’ or ‘et cetera’. In fact, a few weeks later in another letter to Skornia, from December 16, 1958, McLuhan concluded a list of points with “etc., etc., etc……..”.

The point he was making in both these instances was both funny and profound.

Funny, because he was using the very formula for the Gutenberg era, as seen in lines of print, assembly lines, railway lines — namely, ‘und so weiter’, ‘etc., etc., etc……..’ — to implicate the very formula of the Marconi era, as seen in bits of data, namely:

0-space-1/space/1-space-0/space/0-space-1/ — und so weiter!1

Profound, because he was indicating that the Gutenberg era could not have arisen without an implicit understanding of the spatial notion of the Marconi era that would overthrow it.2 

the visual lineality of scribal and print cultures really includes the anal-oral axis, with strong anal stress, of course. (Explorations 8, #9)

Lines of print cannot function without the implicit understanding that any unit is both different from and related to the units before and after it. But the space of this ‘identity and difference’ between units was not theorized or even recognized in the Gutenberg era. It was “the missing link”. Recognition and theorization would come only with the Marconi era and particularly with the development of digital technologies. 

The distinctive difference between the ‘eras’ — or ‘galaxies’ as McLuhan came to call them to get away from the chronological time implicated in ‘eras’ — lay in their understanding (or not) of the nature and time (Sein und Zeit!) of the ineluctable intervening space. As McLuhan would come repeatedly to insist: “the gap is where the action is!”


  1. McLuhan, Myth and Mass Media (1959): “the spot news of the telegraph press really acts like the yes-no, black-white dots of the wirephoto in creating an inclusive world image.”
  2. One all important implication to this suggestion was that all chronological ‘eras’ are always subject, consciously or not, to all of the galaxies of the interior landscape — “all at once”!

From world to worlds

Rimbaud invented the newspaper landscape poem in 1870, giving the world a new art-form which provided luminous interpretation of the new technology. (McLuhan, ‘The Subliminal Projection Project’, Canadian Forum, December, 1957)1 

McLuhan in a handwritten letter of 21 November, 1958, to Harry Skornia:

Big insight in New York recently talking with André Girard, painter who works with CBS and NBC.  Pointed out how TV image resembles stained glass image — Image is defined by light through not light on.  This all came home fast to my work on space changes in poetry and painting from 12th century to the present. TV image is not contained in space but makes its own.2

The work McLuhan was referencing here was his 1955 essay in Explorations 4‘Space, Time, and Poetry’3 and particularly this passage from it:

The revolutionary switch from the outer space of Romantic poetry to the inner spaces of symbolist art meant the discovery of the simultaneity of many times and many spaces in the inner landscapes of the mind.

Combined with McLuhan’s November notes to Skornia, a series of reversals were recorded. Not media in world, but worlds of media. Not singular space but plural spaces. Not the “outer space” of the exterior landscape but the “inner spaces” of the interior landscape. Not one time after another in  chronological time, but “the simultaneity of many times”. And all these “revolutionary switch[es]” were captured for McLuhan in the reversal of perception determined “not by light on but by light through“. 

These inversions had enormous appeal to McLuhan — “makes me tingle all over” — because they hinted at a possible way out of the cul-de-sac into which humanity had stumbled. In ‘Space, Time, and Poetry’ he described this fate as follows:

Has technology adopted as its province the entire human psyche and the earth which it inhabits? Are there [not] sufficient signs that technological man is prepared to manipulate, as his matter, both earth and spirit? Have the ancient boundaries between art and nature been erased? Since the mass production of the book began in the 16th century and with the later arrival of the popular press, magazine, movie, radio and television, it has been a tendency for the media to act less as a bridge between the individual and various segments of the outer world than for them to usurp4 the function of that outer world. The new media have blurred the boundaries of inner and outer. The omnipresence of news and views has merged man’s inner and outer life. Uninhibited mechanization is totalitarian at many levels.5

The totalitarian grasp of the media was manifested in many areas: the control of consumption and therefore of distribution through advertising; the control of news and therefore of politics through propaganda; above all, control of reality and therefore of access to religion and art and tradition — since these function (if at all) only as treating ‘reality’.6

McLuhan’s programmatic response to this totalitarian threat amounted to a restatement of the goal he had taken up from Sigfried Giedion in 1943, namely, the need to specify the symphonic interplay animating the humanities and the technological sciences in their seemingly only antagonistic contemporary manifestations. As he continued in ‘Space, Time, and Poetry’

A few Europeans like Le Corbusier and Giedion have undertaken to verbalize our technology for us. A few of our artists such as Poe, Henry James, Pound, and Eliot have in reverse order undertaken to technologize7 the traditional verbal world of the European.
There does exist, then, a two-way bridge between the traditional and technological worlds which are at war in Western culture. But it has been officially ignored or condemned. To travel this bridge requires of the traveller an acquaintance with the language and techniques of [the tradition] on the one hand, and of the language and techniques of [technology] on the other.8 Few are prepared to acquire both languages and so the war between these worlds continues, waged witlessly in classroom and market-place alike (…) As technology advances, verbalization declines — verbalization, that is to say, of the esthetic or human meaning and implications of technology. It needed a great poet-painter [on the “two-way bridge” between oral poetry and and the visual painting] like Wyndham Lewis to bring the English mind ([at least] some of it) to the verbal level of awareness of [the technology of] this century.9 

However, none of the attempts of Le Corbusier, Giedion, Poe, Henry James, Pound, Eliot, Lewis, Dostoevsky and Dickens, all named in the essay, and doubtless many others who might have been named, beginning already with Heraclitus and Plato, had succeeded in delineating the required bridge. Or, at least, of communicating its delineation. A new campaign to this end needed to be mounted in some new direction.

In this 1955 essay McLuhan made several suggestions to be probed: 

Poe and Dickens, however, made their move not at the privileged level of [individual] art consciousness (…) [but] in the new conditions of collective consciousness from which sharp individual articulation had disappeared or in which it was insignificant

This was to replay an assertion from his ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’ lecture from the previous year:

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.

But in this 1954 passage McLuhan still appealed to “the world”, apparently singular, even if he was clear that access to ‘it’ was mediated by “languages”, plural, as “the principal channel[s] and view-maker[s] of experience for men everywhere.” To understand the “organization of traditional experience”, or any experience, it was therefore necessary to understand the functioning of “languages” or, as this might be put, of “language itself” (just as the key to an understanding of the chemical elements is to perceive the structure of the ‘element itself’).

With the reversals recorded in 1958, McLuhan would now suggest that consideration should be made, not of the mediations of world engendered by language, but instead the engendering of worlds through media working as languages. So he now conceived that the medium was the message such that the great need was to isolate “the medium itself”. And the way to do this might lie in the analysis of media as languages having a new kind of “grammar”. Hence: “Grammars of the Media“.    

McLuhan was making a series of recommendations, above all to himself: come away from world singular; come away from the exterior world; come away from one sense (the eye or the ear); come away from one tradition (the humanities or technology); come away from individual cognition to “the new conditions of collective consciousness from which sharp individual articulation ha[s] disappeared”. These indicated a pathway he would attempt to follow leading up to the publication of Understanding Media in 1964.

Near the end of his long December 16, 1958, letter to Skornia, he put the demands of this way — to which his own investigations would have to conform — as follows:

For the media as such are art forms shaped by collective skills and experience. They are new languages whose grammar and syntax we must learn and teach if we are to hoick ourselves out of the bathos of illiteracy into which their sudden onset has shoved us. 

  1. McLuhan’s second sight can be seen in action here: “luminous interpretation” looks ahead to “light through” a full year later, but at the time he probably had little notion what the phrase might mean or why he was deploying it. A further passage from the same Canadian Forum article, for all the world directed to the sleepers among us, may in this context be seen to apply in a different way to McLuhan himself: “A subject like subliminal projection is thus a red-herring which encourages the inattentive suddenly to snap to attention while they glimpse a cultural march-past of facts and figures which they should have mastered decades earlier.”
  2. Parts of this note replicated one sent to Skornia a few days earlier on November 18. The earler note may have been the first time McLuhan mentioned “light through“: “Big break-through in insight into TV came in NYC via André Girard, the painter who works for CBS and NBC. In a word, key fact about TV is that image is defined not by light on but by light through, exactly as stained glass principle of art form.  Makes me tingle all over just to see those words because very big matters hinge on this fact.  Opens up understanding fast. Painting of Rouault based on this subliminal awareness of new media.”
  3. This may have been the piece Sam Becker referenced a month later in a December 23 1958 letter to Skornia recommending that the NAEB funding proposal for the Understanding Media project include a bibliography of McLuhan’s writings “especially that wonderful paper he did in Explorations.” This was a month after McLuhan mentioned the essay to Skornia in his November 21 letter. Skornia may have followed up by circulating copies to the research committee headed by Becker.
  4. Typo in the Explorations text which has ‘usury’.
  5. Compare McLuhan in his 1957 Canadian Forum article: “Man has acquired a vast new inflated status but he has thereby become dirigible (steerable, directable) in several senses. As we take for granted knowledge not of segments but of total field relationships in personal and political existence alike, we also acquire directive or make-happen powers at many levels. (…) Automation means ultimate personal enslavement.” (The order of these sentences has been reversed.)
  6. McLuhan’s Catholicism must be understood in this context. God and religion have lost any claim to reality in a certain medium; but that medium is thoughtless in many ways — especially in its claim to be singular and therefore necessary. Other media entail other realities. McLuhan came to his conversion simply by seriously entertaining multiple realities and considering their grounds and entailments. But to do this demands going “through the vanishing point” (since between realities there is no reality) and McLuhan research, like the world in general, has been unable to meet this necessity.
  7. By “technologize” here McLuhan does not mean to transform into technology or even to transform by technology. He means something like ‘to formulate in terms that work as well for the arts as for technology’. This is the “reverse order” from the attempt of  Le Corbusier and Giedion ‘to formulate in terms that work as well for technology as for the arts’.
  8. McLuhan has: “To travel this bridge requires of the traveller an acquaintance with the language and techniques of (the oral world of) poetry on the one hand, and of the language and techniques of painting, architecture, and the visual world on the other.” This formulation was to come away from the tradition/technology contrast he was drawing in most of the essay to the isomorphic contrast between ear and eye and between oral poetry and “the visual world”. McLuhan’s pathway at this crucial decade of his career, 1955-1964, amounted to the ever-repeated twisting of the kaleidoscope of all these terms in the hope that they would come into focus. Later in Space, Time, and Poetry’ he would offer: “Book culture, which was all that came to America from Europe, was an excellent matrix for technological development, but proved mainly useless in educating eye and ear to emotional literacy about technology.” This brought eye and ear together from their opposition earlier in the essay (and as just cited in this note). A two-way bridge between them was just as possible as one between tradition and technology. Indeed, the last words of McLuhan’s essay named this possibility as “the union of the visual and acoustical space in a new space-time poetry.”
  9. An October 8, 1959, letter from McLuhan to his friend Wilfred Watson (co-author of From Cliché to Archetype), put the point at stake here nicely: “Is not the artist one who lives perpetually on this borderland (…) between technology and experience, between mechanical and organic form? And when a time or a culture is similarly poised between the new technology and traditional experience is not that the moment of maximal creativity for that culture?  And are not we today, in every field, so poised? And understanding such principles would it not be possible to perpetuate that moment of maximal poise by educational arrangement?” This would be to institutionalize, he continued, “the spirit of play which is necessary to maintain (such) poise between worlds of sensibility.” (Letters 257)

McLuhan on Burroughs

In 1964, the same year that Understanding Media appeared, McLuhan published a review of two of William Burroughs’ novels, Naked Lunch (1959) and Nova Express (1964).1 Here are excerpts from McLuhan’s review:

  • We have made our environment out of our own nervous systems.2    
  • Each technological extension involves an act of collective cannibalism. The previous environment with all its private and social values, is swallowed by the new environment and reprocessed for whatever values are digestible.3  
  • During the process of digestion of the old environment, man finds it expedient to anesthetize himself as much as possible. He pays as little attention to the action of the environment as the patient heeds the surgeon’s scalpel. The gulping or swallowing of Nature by the machine was attended by a complete change of the ground rules of both the sensory ratios of the individual nervous system and the patterns of the social order as well. Today, when the environment has become the extension of the entire mesh of the nervous system, anesthesia numbs our bodies into hydraulic jacks.4
  • The moment one achieves this environmental state all things and people are submitted to you to be processed. Whether a man takes the road of junk or the road of art, the entire world must submit to his processing. The world becomes his “content.”5
  • The vision of the city as a physiological and psychic extension of the body he [Baudelaire in Fleurs du Mal] experienced as a nightmare of illness and self-alienation. Wyndham Lewis, in his trilogy The Human Age, began with The Childermass. Its theme is the massacre of innocents and the rape of entire populations by the popular media of press and film.
  • There is no privacy and no private parts. In a world in which we are all ingesting and digesting one another there can be no obscenity or pornography or decency. Such is the law of electric media which stretch the nerves to form a global membrane of enclosure.
  • The power of the image to beget image, and of technology to reproduce itself via human intervention, is utterly in excess of our power to control the psychic and social consequences.
  • It is the medium that is the message because the medium creates an environment that is as indelible as it is lethal.
  1. ‘Notes on Burroughs’, Nation, 28 December 1964, pp 517-519. It is noteworthy that Burroughs’ grandfather, after whom he was named, made the Burroughs family fortune through the invention of the adding machine — a step on the way to the complete outering of the human nervous system. A newspaper article from 1890 reports: “William S Burroughs, a young St Louisan, who ten years ago did not know he had mechanical genius enough to use a file, has perfected in a strong, durable, compact machine of 2,165 pieces, an adjunct to the counting house that is already in successful operation in fifty banks. It is an adding-machine which is said to work more rapidly and more correctly than the most expert accountant.” Like T.S. Eliot (on whom McLuhan wrote many essays, including one on Eliot’s St Louis connection), Burroughs (1914-1997) was born in St Louis where McLuhan taught from 1937 to 1944.
  2. Before the last centuries, most tools — the great exception being language — extended the physical capabilities of humans. But with the new media ways were found to replicate the internal networks of the senses and of conscious and unconscious mentation. The effects of these innovations may still be too close to us for definitive study, but the irritation they introduce into the individual and social body is plain. Here is McLuhan in 1962: “In our time, instead of putting out this or that organ such as feet into wheels or (…) our skin into city walls, we have projected our brains and nerves outside. Telegraph, radio, television, telephone really are extensions of our central nervous system, not of our physical organs. We’re putting our central nervous system, our most intimate selves, outside (…) These new forms — television and radio — are new languages. They’re huge extensions of ourselves which enable us to participate in one another’s lives, much as a language does. But these forms lay down their own ground rules. (…) Now, when we put our nerves outside, we become of course vulnerable to the nth degree; in fact, we barely survive from day to day. Mere existence becomes one of perpetual anxiety. At least while we had our physical organs outside to protect the central nervous system, we had a relatively low-geared comfortable life which we like to call “the olden days.” We now have an unimaginably harassed one by putting our nerves outside ourselves; it is like living without a skin.” (‘Prospect’, Canadian Art, # 81, 1962) The order of the passages cited here has been changed.
  3. ‘Values’ here echoes ‘social values’ earlier in the sentence. McLuhan’s ever-repeated point was that social values are grounded in a specific environment and are in great danger when that environment is undermined and so disappears as ground. It would doubtless have been more accurate to say that the previous environment is reprocessed for whatever the new environment finds digestible in it, not only its values.  But as is not unusual in McLuhan, he sacrificed a general point for a particular one.
  4. Why “hydraulic jacks”? Because this is a “a world in which we are all ingesting and digesting one another”. As “hydraulic jacks” we enact the penetration and fragmentation of the old forms of identity which supported what each of us once were.
  5. When everything is “content”, a dissolution into nothing is precipitated. Nietzsche: “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!!” (‘History of an Error’ in Twilight of the Idols). “The true world” was a world that was there before all consideration of how it was seen. That world no longer existed. There was nothing that was not what it was by being seen in some particular way. But with the destruction of “the true world”,  Nietzsche saw, also the “apparent” world is abolished — for how was it seen?

Grammars of the Media

Beyond general discussions, the first concrete step towards the NAEB Understanding Media funding proposal (submitted to the US Department of HE&W, Office of Education, March 27, 1959) was a short composition called ‘Grammars of the Media1 which McLuhan sent to Skornia on October 28, 1958:

Grammars of the Media
Having long been engaged in exploring the characters of the various media of communication, I have become convinced that what is needed is a series of Grammars of the Media. A “grammar of a medium” like English or Latin means a codified awareness of the powers and properties of the medium. And the advantage of such codification is its speed and precision in teaching and imparting the special powers of the medium.

Today the young are confronted daily with several media besides that of their mother tongue. The absence of any grammar or articulated awareness of these new media is a source of weakness and confusion both for teacher and student alike, for we are attempting the conscious articulation and instruction of formal education in only one medium — that is, English. More to the point, however, is the fact that the medium of English is recognized as existing only on the written or printed plane.

The fact of being confronted daily with several media has begun to impress upon observers the strange fact that the medium is itself the message. So that we are beginning to understand why a written message is so very different from the same information when spoken or when pictorialized. After four centuries of the virtual monopoly of the printed form, we are now in a situation in which more information is moved by electronic means than by the print medium. That is to say that on the one hand our existing educational establishment is faced with the threat of obsolescence, and on the other hand that our

educators are doing nothing at all to articulate or educate awareness of the newly dominant media.

Grammars of all media in concert (including the medium of print)2 are needed, first, to protect and transmit our great stake in the forms and values of the printed word, and equally to foster enlightened use and control of the much more powerful electronic media.  An X-ray unit can get very hot but is not a satisfactory space heater.

Perhaps the overall situation can be expressed this way. About 7500 years ago the phonetic alphabet enabled men to arrest, observe, and spell out a great variety of mental and verbal motions. Yet the peculiar powers and properties of the phonetic technology have in themselves gotten about as little educational attention as have the unique powers and properties of print or the TV image. Educators have used these things as audio-visual aids in varying degrees but without specific attention to their effects on the habits of perception and judgement. Today, however, we cannot afford this easy-going unconcern because the peculiar powers of print, telegraph, photo, TV, movie, typewriter, gramophone, and tape are in strong and jarring conflict. Their constant co-presence has created a situation unknown before, a situation far richer educationally than ever before, yet so confused that the danger is that we smother all the media by their unstudied and uncoordinated expressions.

Right off, this situation amounts to a sort of national and even global classroom without walls. It had been the glory of

Gutenberg that he gave us a class-room with walls and curricula with boundaries. Until his mechanization of the handicraft of writing it had been unthinkable that students and readers everywhere could have almost simultaneous access to exactly repeatable data. 
It was this exactly repeatable character that made possible the modern classroom, so remote in kind from the student pattern of antiquity and the middle ages.

Print, moreover, had a lineal and segmental bias which 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. And as we marched on to a realisation of these new goals the antecedent forms of awareness and education simply collapsed and were forgotten. Today, however, we are scarcely ready to accept a similar collapse of all that has been achieved by print and segmental analysis. For our legal and legislative institutions, as well as our schools and colleges, stand on the foundations built by the printed word. Yet the nuclear and electronic forms of imparting information today are wholly destructive of the mechanized and industrial civilization that we have so painfully achieved via print.

At present we are aware of the nuclear clash with lineal education only in the form of the decline of attention in the classroom and in the intense rivalry created by the out-of-class offerings. This, of course, is immediately the area of challenge to educational broadcasting. It needs the most careful study in media terms rather than in the form of program and curriculum content. Exact knowledge

of the educational power exerted by a medium, quite apart from any particular content, becomes necessary when a society is using widely a variety of media at the same time. So long as educational procedures are conducted in only one or two media, such analysis is less insistently indicated. Or so long as the young are not exposed to such a variety of media the formal stress of educational procedure can be effectively confined to one or two media.

Formal education in the middle ages was confined to a few people and to the medium of Latin. But after print Latin could not contain even the basic information flow. And as soon as codified information moved into the vernacular media it became necessary to educate the student in the grammar and powers of these media.

Such is, in an unexpectedly new manner, the case again today. Highly codified and patterned information is available ’round-the- globe’ and ’round-the-clock’ in a variety of media. Most decisive of all factors in lending character to this new information structure is the basic fact of the simultaneous, which is inevitable in any electronic structure. And as any business organization is aware, the time factor in the information flow entirely determines the inter-personal patterns of the organization. A slow-moving memorandum set-up will enclose each member of the personnel in a private office space. Telephone and telegraph will tend to send all personnel out into a common space such as “the partners room” in a stock brokerage. For the speed of decision calls for constant face-to-face processing of data.

Electronic information-flow strongly impels people to assume oral and face-to-face relations at all times in teaching and learning. Moreover, it just as strongly throws the load of communication in a do-it-yourself direction. The natural and discriminating consumer habits of patient attention fostered by print and reading, get short shrift from the electronic media which cast the “viewer” increasingly in a “do-it-yourself” role. 
Here, for example, is the explanation why the new poetry, music, and painting are so unintelligible to those trained in the earlier consumer habits. For the new arts , like the new media, expect the audience to be co-author, and co-producer. And students now refuse the docile consumer role in the classroom.

Until, therefore, the psychic geography, as it were, of the world of the new media has been discerned and described, educators are going to be an elite corps without maps or strategy. The first step towards this goal could be a manual of grammars of the media.

  1. In a letter to Walter Ong from September 21, 1957, McLuhan noted: “Am giving a private course this Fall to 30 secondary school teachers on the Grammars of the Media.” (Letters, 251)
  2. The bracketed insertion of “including the medium of print” is original to McLuhan.

Defending the print medium in 1958

One theme, Harry, of which I am increasingly aware is the new problem of [maintaining] continuity in a world of accelerating change.1

Grammars of all media in concert (including the medium of print)2 are needed, first, to protect and transmit our great stake in the forms and values of the printed word, and equally to foster enlightened use and control of the much more powerful electronic media. (Grammars of the Media, October 1958) 

It is all too common to find McLuhan dismissed or praised as an uncritical champion of electric culture. This is often combined with the view that he rejected the book medium out of hand. In fact, however, McLuhan went from being a champion of the book3 as the foundation of culture (into the late 1940s) to being a champion of culture via the simultaneity of all media including the book.4

He expressed this view many times in the later 1950s, the time when he was attempting to get clear what “the medium is the message” implied for education, business, research, and, indeed, for all facets of life without exception. (McLuhan first used the phrase “the medium is the message” in May 1958.)

The dis-covery of elementary structure had occurred in chemistry in the course of the nineteenth century in regard to the exterior landscape. Now McLuhan saw the possibility of a similar revolutionary transformation in the investigation of the interior one. Just as chemistry as the language of elements had spread from a few isolated laboratories in England and France to manufacturing, medicine and education around the globe, so McLuhan predicted — and tried desperately to inaugurate himself — “universal education in the languages and values of the media themselves“.5

At the end of May, 1958, McLuhan was an invited speaker at a Conference on Educational Television sponsored jointly by the US Office of Education (a division of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare) and the NAEB. His lecture was titled ‘The Role of Mass Communication in Meeting Today’s Problems‘ and it was immediately published as a Circular (number 574) by HEW.6

Today our natural temptation is to regard the new media as aids or distractions to the older studies. We have not dared to see them as themselves, new art forms which can become direct objects of study.
In his Film as Art, Rudolf Arnheim notes: “The history of human ingenuity shows that almost every innovation goes through a preliminary phase in which the solution is obtained by the old method, modified or amplified by some new feature.”
For us to do this with press, radio and TV would be fatal to our earlier achievement in writing and print, because it leaves to the dynamics of the new media untrammelled license to disintegrate our existing values. If one lesson has emerged in recent decades it is that the Ivory Tower of the artist has [to] become the Control Tower of society. Only by exercising the fullest artistic awareness of these vulgar forms can we maintain the integrity of the earlier forms.

Again, in McLuhan’s October 1958 ‘Grammars of the Media‘:

  • The fact of being confronted daily with several media has begun to impress upon observers the strange fact that the medium is itself the message. So that we are beginning to understand why a written message is so very different from the same information when spoken or when pictorialized. After four centuries of the virtual monopoly of the printed form, we are now in a situation in which more information is moved by electronic means than by the print medium. That is to say that on the one hand our existing educational establishment is faced with the threat of obsolescence, and on the other hand that our educators are doing nothing at all to articulate or educate awareness of the newly dominant media. Grammars of all media in concert (including the medium of print) are needed, first, to protect and transmit our great stake in the forms and values of the printed word, and equally to foster enlightened use and control of the much more powerful electronic media.  An X-ray unit can get very hot but is not a satisfactory space heater.
  • Print, moreover, had a lineal and segmental bias which 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. And as we marched on to a realisation of these new goals the antecedent forms of awareness and education simply collapsed and were forgotten. Today, however, we are scarcely ready to accept a similar collapse of all that has been achieved by print and segmental analysis. For our legal and legislative institutions, as well as our schools and colleges, stand on the foundations built by the printed wordYet the nuclear and electronic forms of imparting information today are wholly destructive of the mechanized and industrial civilization that we have so painfully achieved via print.

Finally, here he is in a letter to Harry Skornia from December 16, 1958:

  • Outside of the classroom students are faced with a phalanx of technologies which convey great quantities of information with global range and content. The prestige and power of these media are greater by far than those of the older form of printing. And in the presence of these media students are on their own. A world of global educational scope comes disguised as “entertainment”.
  • For the perception and judgement of this new world of experience students receive no training. They are warned that it is passive and vulgar and conformist, and they value it the more accordingly. During the first decades of the Gutenberg era the custodians of manuscript culture sat on a Maginot Line and deplored printing. Printing in turn released the power of the vernaculars as new media and classical humanists deplored these vulgar tongues.
  • This period of lament provides just the time and the tone to inter [ie, bury] the older culture.
  • But today we cannot afford to liquidate and inter the huge establishment of the social and political achievement represented by printing. Yet if we fail to disentangle the dynamics and motivations of the medium of print from the new media we shall have aided in the destruction of the culture and institutions based on printing. It is possible and necessary today to embark on a new educational venture, namely universal education in the languages and values of the media themselves.
  • For teachers to use movie and television in the classroom without awareness of the power these media have to reform our entire sensibilities, is to ape the Trojans in fetching within their walls the wooden horse. We are faced with universal illiteracy with regard to the powers of media as media, and of media as message. (…) For the media as such are art forms shaped by collective skills and experience. They are new languages7 whose grammar and syntax we must learn and teach if we are to hoick ourselves out of the bathos of illiteracy into which their sudden onset has shoved us.
  1. McLuhan to Harry Skornia, March 14, 1959, p 2.
  2. The bracketed insertion of “including the medium of print” was made by McLuhan.
  3. The book = the kind of social and intellectual interaction which the best uses of the book supports and, indeed, demands: the medium is the message.
  4. All media = the kind of social and intellectual interaction which an understanding of all media supports and, indeed, demands: the medium is the message.
  5. Letter to Harry Skornia from December 16, 1958, which is extensively cited in this post above.
  6. Later that same year it was republished in the NAEB Journal for October (18:1), now slightly retitled as ‘Our New Electronic Culture: The Role of Mass Communication in Meeting Today’s Problems’.
  7. Compare ‘Catholic Humanism in Modern Letters’ (1954): “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.”

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 [workers’] 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,” [rather] to take things as they are, almost by themselves, [as they] 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 [is fit] 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, Mechanization 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. Here is a transcript with added bolding: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.
  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