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Marshall McLuhan 1911-2011
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GINGKO PRESS — The official Publisher of Marshall McLuhan — is preparing new critical works and reprints of Marshall McLuhan’s writings.
Marshall McLuhan
Marshall McLuhan
MMcL MAGAZINE
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Marshall McLuhan:
Letter to Harold Adams Innis
Toronto, 14th March 1951

Dear Innis,

Thanks for the lecture re-print. This makes an opportunity for me to mention my interest in the work you are doing in communication study in general. I think there are lines appearing in Empire and Communications, for example, which suggest the possibility of organizing an entire school of studies. Many of the ancient language theories of the Logos type which you cite for their bearings on government and society have recurred and amalgamated themselves today under the auspices of anthropology and social psychology. Working concepts of “collective consciousness” in advertising agencies have in turn given salience and practical effectiveness to these “magical” notions of language.

But it was most of all the esthetic discoveries of the symbolists since Rimbaud and Mallarmé (developed in English by Joyce, Eliot, Pound, Lewis and Yeats) which have served to recreate in contemporary consciousness an awareness of the potencies of language such as the Western world has not experienced in 1800 years..

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. 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 Technique 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 (basis of myth of Daedalus, basic for the dreams and schemes of Francis Bacon, and, when transferred by Vico to philology and history of culture, it also forms the basis of modern historiography, archaeology, psychology and artistic procedures alike.) Retracing becomes in modern historical scholarship the technique of reconstruction. The technique which Edgar Poe first put to work in his detective stories. In the arts this discovery has had all those astonishing results which have seemed to separate the ordinary public from what it regards as esoteric magic. From the point of view of the artist however the business of art is no longer the communication of thoughts or feelings which are to be conceptually ordered, but a direct participation in an experience. The whole tendency of modern communication whether in the press, in advertizing, or in the high arts is toward participation in a process, rather than apprehension of concepts. And this major revolution, intimately linked to technology, is one whose consequences have not begun to be studied although they have begun to be felt.

One immediate consequence, it seems to me, has been the decline of literature. The hyper-trophy of letter-press, at once the cause and effect of universal literacy, has produced a spectacular decline of attention to the printed or written word. As you have shown in Empire and Communications, ages of literature have been few and brief in human history. The present literary epoch has been of exceptional duration — 400 years. There are many symptoms that it is at an end. The comic book for example has been seen as a degenerate literary form instead of as a nascent pictorial and dramatic form which has sprung from the new stress on visual-auditory communication in the magazines, the radio and television. The young today cannot follow narrative but they are alert to drama. They cannot bear description but they love landscape and action.

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. Failure in this respect relegated Latin and Greek to the specialist; and English literature has already become a category rather than an interest in school and college.

As mechanical media have popularized and enforced the presence of the arts on all people it becomes more and more necessary to make studies of the function and effect of communication on society. Present ideas of such effects are almost entirely in terms of mounting or sagging sales curves resulting from special campaigns of commercial education. Neither the agencies nor the consumers know anything about the social or cutural effects of this education.

Deutsch’s interesting pamphlet on communication is thoroughly divorced from any sense of the social functions performed by communication. He is typical of a school likewise in his failure to study the matter in the particular. He is the technician interested in power but uncritical and unconcerned with social effect. The diagnosis of his type 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.

The fallacy in the Deutsch-Wiener approach is its failure to understand the techniques and functions of the traditional arts as the essential type of all human communication. It is instead a dialectical approach born of technology and quite unable of itself to see beyond or around technology. The Medieval schoolmen ultimately ended up on the same dialectical reef.

As Easterbrook may have told you I have been considering an experiment in communication which is to follow the lines of this letter in suggesting means of linking a variety of specialized fields by what may be called a method of esthetic analysis of their common features. This method has been used by my friend Siegfried Giedion in Space, Time and Architecture and in Mechanization Takes Command. What I have been considering is a single mimeographed sheet to be sent out weekly or fortnightly to a few dozen people in different fields, at first illustrating the underlying unities of form which exist where diversity is all that meets the eye. Then it is hoped there will be a feedback of related perception from various readers which will establish a continuous flow.

It seems obvious to me that Bloor St. is the one point in this University where one might establish a focus of the arts and sciences. And the organizing concept would naturally be “Communication Theory and practice.” A simultaneous focus of current and historic forms. Relevance to be given to selection of areas of study by dominant artistic and scientific modes of the particular period. Arts here used as providing criteria, techniques of observation, and bodies of recorded, achieved, experience. Points of departure but also return.

For 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. There is a real, living unity in our time, as in any other, but it lies submerged under a superficial hubbub of sensation. Using Frequency Modulation techniques one can slice accurately through such interference, whereas Amplitude Modulation leaves you bouncing on all the currents.


Marshall McLuhan

from Marshall McLuhan — Complete Correspondence,
edited by Matie Molinaro & Corinne McLuhan








“Many of the ancient language theories of the Logos type have recurred and amalgamated themselves today under the auspices of anthropology and social psychology”










“The whole tendency of modern communication whether in the press, in advertising, or in the high arts is toward participation in a process, rather than apprehension of concepts. And this major revolution, intimately linked to technology, is one whose consequences have not begun to be studied although they have begun to be felt.”










“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 mechanical media have popularized and enforced the presence of the arts on all people it becomes more and more necessary to make studies of the function and effect of communication on society.”










“There is a real, living unity in our time, as in any other, but it lies submerged under a superficial hubbub of sensation.”