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Amodern 5: Harley Parker
December 2015


R. Bruce Elder

There is a strain of Canadian thought dedicated to developing a new poetics of space and time, more about it learn here; its particular virtue arises from an unusual ability to plumb the depths of mythic consciousness. This ability, I have no doubt, arises in part out of the Europeans’ encounter with a primal landscape and with original peoples, whose difference created an openness among the European settlers and their successors to forms of thinking not dominated by calculative reason. But this interest in mythic consciousness, I contend, is also connected to the rise of the cinema: the interest that Canadian communications theorists Eric Havelock, Marshall McLuhan, Harley Parker, and Northrop Frye have had in the form of consciousness represented in myth can be related to their era’s engagement with cinema. My purpose in this article is to demonstrate the connection between the cinema and the interest Canadian poetics has taken in mythopoesis. I propose to do this by examining a film, Picnic in Space (1967), which includes an extemporized discussion involving Harley Parker and Marshall McLuhan on the topic of space – an issue that must have fascinated the two at this time, for similar ideas appear in their collaboratively-produced book from 1968, Through the Vanishing Point: Space in Poetry and Painting. For purposes of comparison, I also comment on Roman Kroitor, Colin Low, and Hugh O’Connor’s Labyrinth an immersive environment, constructed for Expo ’67 (the same year Picnic in Space was made), that included special projection theatres, which embodies ideas drawn from Northrop Frye’s theories of myth; and a slightly later film, from 1974, Spiral, by the sculptor Sorel Etrog, a work that McLuhan helped turn into a book.

Those works will be examined in the second half of this paper. In the first half, I set out some of the ideas that connect the interest in myth evinced in the work of members of the Toronto School of Communication to what McLuhan and Parker referred to as acoustic space. Barrington Nevitt does a nice job of capturing the essential meaning of the term, through its contrast with what McLuhan called visual space – it must be said, however, that in practice McLuhan tended to use the terms more flexibly, and with less fixed meanings, than Nevitt suggests. Visual space he characterizes as “an EYE-world having separate centres with definite boundaries . . . [it] is the civilized home of literate Western cultures – an inadvertent result of Greek phonetic literacy.” Acoustic space he characterizes as “an EAR-world having centres everywhere with boundaries nowhere . . . [it] is the natural habitat of non-literate cultures.”1 It is worth pointing out, in connection with Vico’s influence on Parker and McLuhan, that McLuhan often suggested that acoustic space is more engulfing and that people who live in an acoustic-dominant culture have a more participatory mentality than do those living in a visual-dominant culture.

There is not time in this paper to delineate Canadian thinkers’ interest in myth: a few overly general remarks will have to suffice. Most readers will be aware that the Torontonian Northrop Frye is widely acknowledged to have been one of the greatest thinkers on myth in the twentieth century. In The Anatomy of Criticism, Frye characterized myth in this way: “The world of mythical imagery is usually represented by the conception of heaven or Paradise in religion, and it is apocalyptic, in the sense of that word already explained, a world of total metaphor, in which every thing is opotentially identical with everything else, as though it were all inside a single infinite body.”2 Another was the English-born thinker who had strong connections with Toronto, Eric Havelock. Havelock stressed the radical differences amongst the ideas that are available to humans under different discursive regimes (including the cosmological/mythic and the naturalist and positivist heuristic).

But allow me to pass over Frye’s and Havelock’s greatness for now, and to begin with a quotation from a very early and important talk by McLuhan, titled “Eliot and the Manichean Myth as Poetry”:

If we grant that human existence is a state of damnation, two possibilities follow. Either we can learn to retrace the stages of our fall into matter, and so escape, or we can devise some means of extinction of personality. The pagan art and culture of the world, past and present, is divided in the pursuit of these alternatives. On one hand art is followed as a continuous labyrinth in which by blind, dogged persistence we may struggle upward by means of will power and ethical struggle. On the other hand there is the intellectual course presented by Mr. [T. S.] Eliot, in which we move from one intensity to another, towards a final flash of awareness and extinction. In the one art – that linked with Plato’s cave man – Time, continuity, dialectic, are of the essence. In the other, time is lost in simultaneities and juxtapositions.


The one proceeds by linked statement in time, the other by discontinuous arrangement in space. In the broader cultural terms, the one view tends to locate human value in the will, the other in the intellect.


Professor Mansell Jones in his Modern French Poetry takes up this theme with reference to two kinds of symbolism which he refers to as vertical and horizontal. Vertical symbolism is of the dualistic variety, setting the sign or the work of art as a link between two worlds, Heaven and Hell. It is concerned with the world as Time process, as becoming, and with the means of escape from Time into eternity by means of art and beauty. Vertical symbolism asserts the individual will against the hoi polloi. It is aristocratic. Yeats is the perfect exemplar.


Horizontal symbolism, on the other hand, sets the work of art and the symbol a collective task of communication, rather than the vertical task of elevating the choice human spirit above the infernal depths of material existence. In idealist terms, the vertical school claims cognitive status for its symbols, because the conceptual meanings attached to art are in this view a means of raising the mind of man to union with the higher world from which we have been exiled. Whereas, on the other hand, the horizontal, or space school, appeals to intuition, emotion and collective participation in states of mind as a basis for communication and of transformation of the self. The vertical school seeks to elevate the self above mere existence. The horizontal symbolists seek to transform the self, and ultimately to merge or annihilate it.


It is not the purpose of this paper to explain the complex falsehoods of the time and space schools of aesthetics, religion and politics. For a Catholic it is easy to admire and use much from each position. But by and large the vertical camp is rationalist and the horizontal camp magical in its theory of art and communication.3

I want to tarry a moment to comment on a surprising feature of that final paragraph – the claim that the horizontal or space school is magical in its theory of art and communication.  One might be inclined towards believing the vertical school, in holding that art elevates the mind to higher levels of reality, would be the one involved with the supernatural. However, the surprise elicited by the dissonance between our expectations and McLuhan’s actual statement is quickly dispelled when we recall two important bodies of thought of the day. The first was developed by the so-called ritual and myth school of classicists (F.M. Cornford, Gilbert Murray, W.C.K Guthrie, et. al.), who maintained that myth has its origin in ritual and that classical drama grew out of myth and ritual. The second is the aesthetic theory of the preeminent aesthetician of the time, R. G. Collingwood, which, inter alia, offered a taxonomy that used the term magic to refer to the ritualized representation of useful emotion, not for the sake of catharsis but for the practical value of that feeling. The war-dance, for example, instills courage by dint of drums and spears. Art that conjures useful emotion he called magic; the idea of using art to provoke useful emotion appeals to the Catholic McLuhan, for the Mass itself is a magical ceremony that creates useful religious emotions.

Giambattista Vico’s writing is the essential link that draws together the work of McLuhan, Havelock, Frye, Parker, and other members of the Toronto School of Communication. We will see presently that this interest McLuhan expresses here in art as effect – as magic – has a basis in Vico’s culturology. Vico was a late-seventeenth and early eighteenth-century thinker whose historicism was as profound as McLuhan’s: Havelock’s Vico (like Frye’s and McLuhan’s) effectively identifies mythical and poetic thinking.4 Myth, Vico maintains, exhibits a participatory form of consciousness – myth comes forth as a realization of human/society’s tendency to attribute to natural events characteristics of human consciousness and so to believe that they possess meaning: the thunder clap tells people something (in his dissertation and early writings McLuhan referred to these meanings by using the Böhmian term signatures).

But before giving further consideration to the important connection with Vico, let’s recall just what claims made Eric Havelock so important to McLuhan and to Parker. In The Literate Revolution in Greece (1982), Havelock, then aged 78, recalls that he was struck by the peculiar lack of fit between what has been passed down to us as pre-Socratic texts and language the philosophical commentators on the pre-Socratics used when writing about their subjects (their idiom was profoundly influenced by Platonic philosophy).5 Parmenides and Empedocles wrote poems – others had deemed that fact to be unimportant, but Havelock came to realize it was highly significant. Not only was it important they wrote poetry, but equally important is the fact they used metres and tropes familiar from Homer. One might say that the pre-Socratics belonged to an intellectual/spiritual era in which myth shaped humans’ thinking about life’s big questions (the nature of human being, the meaning of death, our debts to one another, our relation to nature and to super-nature). These thinkers’ mentality was formed by myth (indeed, by Homeric myth). This forma mentis was congenial to myth and symbol – thus, it was a poetic mode of consciousness. One can find, from Plato on, evidence that a new intellectual/spiritual age had come into being, one in which the big questions were dealt with through dialectics (rational argument, in which one thinker advances a thesis, and another offers objections to it, by using logical argument to show the impossibility of that thesis’s being true). Poetic forms were eschewed, poetry (as Plato’s Ion and Republic show) became suspect and prose the preferred form, because it is less emotional and trades in more precise and determinate meanings. A new mentality, founded on such modes of thought, came to be associated with a new form of learning.

Havelock worked on the topic of the shift from poetry to philosophy (prose) from sometime in the 1950s and early 1960s. In this work, he drew on earlier discoveries regarding oral poetry. In1928, Milman Parry’s dissertation for the Sorbonne, dealing with the use of formulaic expression in Homeric verse, was published in French. During the early 1930s, on the advice of his dissertation supervisor, the linguist Antoine Meillet, Parry, together with his assistant Albert Lord, studied the still extant oral poetry tradition of Bosnia. Collecting and analyzing the heroic epic songs of Bosnia, Hercegovina, and Montenegro (but focusing especially on the remote Sandžak-Raška region in Montenegro and Serbia, parts of the former Roman province of Illyria), led Parry and Lord to the conclusion that, of all verse in the southeastern Mediterranean region, the so-called “men’s songs” of that region are most like those of the tradition that produced the Homeric epics.6 Their conclusion was summarized in what is now known as the Parry/Lord Thesis (though it was suggested to Parry by Meillet): the fixed formulae of Homeric epic verse is a characteristic feature of oral composition (this principle is known as the Oral Formulaic Hypothesis).

In the preface to The Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan describes the book as a companion piece to “the work of Milman Parry and Professor Albert Lord” – indeed, he suggests there that The Gutenberg Galaxy is complementary to Albert Lord’s widely read The Singer of Tales, in applying the discoveries of Parry and Lord to understanding the Newtonian universe and its successor, the electrologic cosmos of Michael Farady and John Clerk Maxwell.7 The Gutenberg Galaxy concerns the “confusions and indecisions” one experiences “when living simultaneously in two contrasted forms of society and experience.”8 McLuhan certainly didn’t derive this interest from Havelock’s Preface to Plato (1963): The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) actually antedates the publication of Havelock’s most well-known work. But the distinction between Plato and the pre-Socratics already appears in his The Liberal Temper in Greek Politics, which appeared in 1957, five years before the The Gutenberg Galaxy. While the oral/literate distinction hardly makes an appearance in the earlier book, a key topic of The Liberal Temper is the process by which myth came to be replaced by empirical, liberal thought. The book argues that the mythical heuristic, which dominates Greek thought from Hesiod and Anaximander to Democritus, is demolished by later thinkers, who offer a sober, empirical, liberal way of understanding nature and society.9 Thus, The Liberal Temper underwrites the myth of progress and tells the tale of the liberal philosophical temper supplanting mythic/cosmological thinking. If McLuhan was acquainted with the work, he would have been exposed to the notion that the pre-Socratics traded in myth, and around the time of Democritus a new mentality (“temper”) emerged.10 It would have been easy to connect that historical distinction with The Singer of Tales’ claims about the essential differences between oral and written literary forms and about Homer being an oral poet. That McLuhan cast the difference between the two social and intellectual modes as the conflict between “corporate interdependence” and “individualism” lends weight to the conjecture that McLuhan’s ideas in The Gutenberg Galaxy developed out of some such synthesis (though it must be noted McLuhan also highlighted that this development in his thinking draws on ideas from Parry: “The enterprise which Milman Parry undertook with reference to the contrasted forms of oral and written poetry is here extended to the forms of thought and the organization of experience in society and politics”).11 Further, McLuhan was likely to have known that the Cambridge Ritualists (some of whom were still teaching at Cambridge when McLuhan was there) took as a fundamental concern cultures’ unconscious biases and, in particular, wrote about the tension in Greek tragedy between the chorus and the hero as reflecting the transition from a collectivist society to a more individualist society. And, of course, Harold Innis’ insistence, in The Empire of Communication (1950) and The Bias of Communication (1951) that the medium of communication constitutes its content, has informed McLuhan’s thoughts on the roles of orality and literacy in shaping mind and society.

But Havelock’s own Preface to Plato synthesized The Liberal Temper’s historiography with ideas on literary form – specifically, on the distinction between oral and written forms of literature – expounded by Parry and Lord. The Liberal Temper, as I have noted, divided Greek history into a mythic and an empirical/naturalistic period. Preface to Plato deepens Havelock’s examination of this historical rupture by drawing on the Oral-Formulaic Hypothesis. What was new in Preface to Plato is that in it Havelock expounds a conception of history as a procession of changes in formae mentis.12 The idea of a forma mentis (or a mentality) exists in Havelock’s earlier book only in an incohate form, in the idea of temper. Preface to Plato develops that idea extraordinarily, to the point that it became the book’s core idea.

That is one marked change in the transition from The Liberal Temper to Preface to Plato. The second was a changed conception of poetry itself: an important topic in literary theory in the period from 1915 to, say, 1970 was the distinction between poetry (oral or written), literary prose, and ordinary language – identifying the essential difference among these forms was considered a crucial task of literary theory. Havelock extended this aspect of the modernist theory by connecting oral poetry to a particular heuristic and specific way of thinking – so different are oral poetry and written prose (he maintained) that eras which emphasized oral poetry have ways of thinking available to them that are not really available to eras dominated by written language.13 I contend that this combination of ideas in Havelock’s later history of Greek thinking allowed McLuhan to understand the writings of Vico in a new way – one that resulted in Vico’s assuming a greater significance in McLuhan’s thinking than McLuhan had earlier accorded him. Havelock, following Milman and Parry, described a historic rupture between two eras in Greek thought, one dominated by oral-poetic thinking and the other by written language and prose. Vico, McLuhan realized, offered a more sweeping view of history which saw it as the cycling of mentalities through a repeating series of changes (and James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake testified to the power of this conception).

We must delve a little more deeply into the development of the idea of mentality. As I have noted, Lord and Parry had claimed that Homer was an oral poet, and Havelock accepted that assertion. But that entails that Parmenides and Empedocles must also have been oral poets, Havelock pointed out, for what has come down to us of their writing also uses formulaic constructions similar to those that appear in Homeric verse. Pondering the difference between Parmenides and Empedocles on the one hand and Plato on the other brought Havelock to formulate one of the founding insights of the Toronto School of Communication: challenging the views of his Oxford teacher Francis Cornford, and others of his sort, Havelock maintained that the difference was substantial and not merely stylistic. Further, and of utmost importance, the difference in typical formal features has to be attributed to divergent ways of experiencing and thinking – to disparate mentalities. Havelock contended that the intellectual/spiritual substance of Heraclitus’s and Empedocles’s texts (or what has come down to us as their texts) has more in common with Homer than they do with Plato and Aristotle.

The time when the poetic age was eclipsed by the new thinking can be precisely identified: the philosopher Democritus’s writings do not have exactly the stylistic features of Homer, Parmenides, or Empedocles, but he still understands the Good through deliberating on human behaviour seen in a cosmic framework.14 That is, Democritus understood the Good as the poets did. Plato, on the other hand, ordinarily understood the Good through mathematical formulae (fitting proportions, according to each his due, etc.).

While earlier historians of Greek intellectual history had treated Greek thought as a continuous, unbroken development, Havelock offered the radical hypothesis that there is a sharp division between the literature of the 6th and 5th centuries BCE and that of the 4th. More than that, this division in literary form also represents a change in the sorts of ideas that the mind has available to it. For Havelock, the mentality of oral culture is temporal and associative, while the mentality of the written culture is generalizing (it moves from the specific to the whole). McLuhan, we might note, broadly agreed: the alphabet and the fall into literacy sundered the world – they led to partitioning reality into units that have only extrinsic relations. He also maintained, by and large, that the poetic way of thinking is preferable.

Vico saw history as series or corsi and ricorsi – the development (corso) from gestural language and participatory (mythic) modes of thinking (all of which McLuhan celebrated), to elementary forms of language, then to conceptual and abstract thinking (which results in a form of a split between the subject and the object), and then the return (ricorso) to primary forms of thinking.15 A feature of Vico’s writing that made it appealing to McLuhan and his colleague Northrop Frye – and, in fact, to a number of literary theorists who wrote in the era of New Criticism but challenged its foundational assumptions – was that Vico sought for clues about the mentalities of the different historical eras in studying the language forms of each of those eras. Vico taught McLuhan the lesson that language and thought are inextricably related, and language forms revealed thought forms. In an early essay, from 1953, McLuhan wrote,

At the beginning of the eighteenth century Vico’s Scienza Nuova had proposed language as the basis for anthropology and a new science of history. Extant languages, he argued, could be regarded as working models of all past culture, because language affords an unbroken line of communication with the totality of the human past. The modalities of grammar, etymology, and word-formation could be made to yield a complete account of the economic, social, and spiritual adventures of mankind. If geology could reconstruct the story of the earth from the inert strata of rock and clay, the scienza nuova could do much better with the living languages of men. Previously, historians had attempted to create working models of some segment of the human past in their narratives. These were necessarily hypothetical structures eked out by scraps of recorded data. The new historian need never attempt again to revivify the past by imaginative art, because it is all present in language.16

In Laws of Media: The New Science McLuhan set out with the Vichian ambition of discerning “the modalities of grammar, etymology and [object]-formation” of media, hoping it might yield “a complete account of the economic, social, and spiritual adventures of mankind.”17

Vico’s New Science is in large measure an encomium to Poetic Wisdom. Poetry was the way of the mythic imagination at the origin of society, and it remained the prevalent way of thinking until, with the advent of democracy, the hoi polloi gained control of society through the class struggle. Vico outlines, in remarkable detail, what a poetic metaphysics, a poetic logic, a poetic economics, and a poetic geography might be. The belief systems of early societies, he avers, are rooted in a “poetic metaphysics,” which “seeks its proofs not in the external world but within the modifications of the mind of him who meditates it.”18 This metaphysics is “not rational and abstract like that of learned men now,” Vico emphasizes, “but felt and imagined [by men] without power of ratiocination . . . This metaphysics was their poetry, a faculty born with them . . . born of their ignorance of causes, for ignorance, the mother of wonder, made everything wonderful to men who were ignorant of everything.”19 The earliest peoples were ‘‘sublime poets,’’ and their poetical sublimity was due to their savagery, not to their wisdom. ‘‘Men at first feel without perceiving . . . This axiom is the principle of the poetic sentences, which are formed by feelings of passions and emotion.’’20 “Primitive” thought is thinking-through-metaphor, and metaphor (whose etymological meaning is transfer) involves a direct and immediate connection between the energies experienced and the primal vocabulary that conveys the experiencer’s response (a vocabulary that is more gestural than vocal).

Vico’s conviction in the values of ποίησις (poïesis) led him to a critique of the education of his time (in the wake of the rise to dominance of Cartesianism). Vico’s critique resonated in the writings of Norman O. Brown, a contemporary of McLuhan, a “counterculture” hero of the 1960s, and the author of a book on Vico, titled Closing Time. Modern education, Vico averred, has been debilitated by ignorance of the ars topica (art of topics), which (he argued in true Ciceronian fashion) formerly had encouraged the use of imagination and memory in organizing speech into eloquent persuasion. He protested the undue attention accorded to the “geometrical method” modeled on the discipline of physics and an emphasis on abstract philosophical criticism over poetry.21 This focus on abstract thinking undermines the importance of exposition, persuasion, and pleasure in learning; it “benumbs . . .[the] imagination and stupefies . . . [the] memory,” both of which are central to learning, complex reasoning, and the discovery of truth.22

Among the most controversial of Vico’s ideas is that of “imaginative universals,” which Vico uses to connect language to the body and to ποίησις. The importance of that idea to Vico’s philosophy has often been challenged (Benedetto Croce deemed it a tragic weakness in Vico’s writings and suggested it is best ignored). Vico, on the other hand, maintained it was the “master key’” to his Scienza Nuova. His notion of imaginative universals rested on two key principles. The first is that the earliest form of language was a combination of mute gestures and rudimentary, monosyllabic words.23 The second is that, like children, primitive people, for want of reason, “excel in imitation; we observe that they generally amuse themselves by imitating whatever they are able to apprehend.”24 Together, these principles highlight Vico’s unwavering conviction that the originary, proto-poetic language would have been connected to the body. It served the ends of participation: the combination of somatic and verbal gestures formally imitated the dynamism of the circumambient world (which, for early humans, as for children now, would frequently have been experienced as threatening).

In an insight that anticipated McLuhan by two centuries, Vico identified the decline of this participatory language with the rise of the alphabet. Symbols, Vico said, had been mute, gestural, and remained so in some cultures; in other cultures, they evolved into hieroglyphics. But both the corporeal gestures and the hieroglyphs into which (in some cultures) they evolved remained concrete and particular: by and large, they were deficient in the ability to articulate abstract thought (and, following the principle that “verum et factum . . . convertuntur,” if they could not be articulated, they could not be true, or real). However, the alphabet disposed of this antiquated form of understanding through somatic imitation. A shared, universal form of understanding was supplanted, and the new knowledge that took its place was more highly variegated. After the alphabet, cultures could acknowledge changes in language and the diversity of linguistic forms. Acknowledgement of the diversity of linguistic forms, along with the capacity to argue over truth and untruth, is the origin of the democratic paradigm. In Vico’s view, it is the capacity for reflection, grounded in the abstractions of alphabetic language, that dispatched the gods. A certain savagery and intimacy with bodily energies is necessary for ποίησις. The more direct, immediate knowledge Vico so valorized is embodied in poetry, which has its basis in myth.25

Norman O. Brown laid out some very troubling consequences of Vico’s philosophy of education, which have been nearly universally rejected (with good reason, I might add). In his Phi Beta Kappa oration he announced:

Democratic resentment denies that there can be anything that can’t be seen by everybody; in the democratic academy truth is subject to public verification; truth is what any fool can see. This is what is meant by the so-called scientific method: so-called science is the attempt to democratize knowledge – the attempt to substitute method for insight, mediocrity for genius, by getting a standard operating procedure.26

And, again:

And so there comes a time – I believe we are in such a time – when civilization has to be renewed by the discovery of new mysteries, by the undemocratic power which makes poets the acknowledged legislators of mankind, the power which makes all things new. The power which makes all things new is magic. What our time needs is mystery: what our time needs is magic. Who would not say that only a miracle can save us?27

The Canadian strain of mythological studies, I suggest, has been one that has accepted the belief that the study of poetry and myth provides incomparable insight into human longing but at the same time has tried to relieve mythopoeia of anti-democratic tendencies (after all, these thinkers believed we had arrived at a new age of mythopoeia). McLuhan, as a Roman Catholic (for whom the Good Tidings could be made universal, for all people), Northrop Frye, a minister of the Methodist/United Church (for which the universalization of Christ’s message was a social mission), and Harley Parker, a curator/educator at the Royal Ontario Museum, were constrained to try to make mythic or poetic thinking available to any denizen of the modern regime. This, to be sure, is a challenging project – indeed, I venture to say it was completely batty (but, after all, the two of them were more like artists than the accountants-ledger keepers one finds in the modern research university).

Harley Parker and Marshall McLuhan’s theories on the museum and learning in the late twentieth century are founded on what I generally call a “perlocutionary poetics” – one could just as accurately characterize the effort by saying it seeks to identify the factors that make poetry a form of magic (in Collingwood’s sense) and allow curators/exhibition designers to create displays that elicit a corporeal response that (through some factor akin to Vico’s imaginative universals) would connect viewers to a collective feeling/collective consciousness. At the core of all their endeavours is the idea that poetry is a form of action. Poetry (whether oral or written) acts on us viscerally. That it is more active is one of the features that distinguish poetry from prose.28 The critique of modernity McLuhan, Parker – and, for that matter, Frye – shared with the exponents of perlocutionary poetics (for example, Ezra Pound and Joyce) has its basis in the fundamental belief that direct experience (for which erotic experience is the model) is really the beginning of knowledge, and direct, immediate experience has been discredited under modernity’s regime. Most exponents of perlocutionary aesthetics would maintain that if it were known that direct experience is the beginning of knowledge, the epistemological quandaries bedeviling modernity would be overcome. The sifting, sorting, and configuring of experience the British empiricists imply is a precondition of experience is a fiction. A doctrine descending from Aristotle had developed across history into the philosophies of mind promulgated by Locke and Hume, and it reached its apogee with Immanuel Kant: it teaches us that elementary percepts are the fundamental ground of knowledge, these elementary percepts are formed by the mind into concepts, concepts are elevated into judgments, and judgments become, under appropriate conditions, actions. Indeed the notion that a sorting-and-sensing process constitutes experience had become, by the time of Kant, philosophy’s deepest meaning, the wisdom acquired through a life of reflection. Nonetheless, this description of mental processes is about as risible as that presented in the cognitive theories that have been fashionable for the past thirty years.

The processes of sifting, sorting, and shaping that the British empiricists, and Kant, suggest are the beginning of knowledge, actually don’t come at the beginning of the process of experiencing: immediate apprehension has precedence and analysis (the sifting and sorting of experience) comes afterward. A saner view is that of Richard of St. Victor: Richard maintained that a direct experience of reality precedes the Aristotelian sorting-and-sensing process. Vico must have realized that some conception of experience close to that of Richard of St. Victor would offer a richer notion of experience than that expounded in the Enlightenment philosophies of his day. Experience of the sort Richard of St. Victor discussed had been downgraded with the rise of Descartes’ philosophy and the beginning of the regime of modernity. Vico’s lamentations over the influence of Descartes can be seen as critique of Enlightenment notions of experience. Despite Vico’s avowed historicism they constitute a privileging of a kind of experience in which one knows things immediately, in an act in which imagination and sensation are one – an act that binds subject and world together in a dense unity. This was the participatory (mythic) mode of consciousness that McLuhan and Parker believed was being awakened in the ricorso of 1960s poetry (seen in the corporeal aesthetics of Charles Olson, Allen Ginsberg and the Beat poets, the song poetry of Bob Dylan, the quotidian poetics of the “tune in, turn on, drop out” generation – and the new cinematic forms of experimental films like Picnic in Space and Sorel Etrog’s Spiral).

The ground for that hope was the conviction that directly addressing the body might revitalize mythic thinking. I would like to try to explain this hope first by using the concrete example of Labyrinth, an immersive multimedia exhibition presented at Expo ’67 that incarnated Frye’s ideas on myth and Parker and McLuhan’s notions of the history of spatial experience.

Labyrinth was an immersive environment (a “pavilion”) created by the NFB. It presented two multi-screen films, the better known of which is In the Labyrinth, by filmmakers Roman Kroitor and Colin Low. The pavilion and its contents were inspired by the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. The Minotaur was a half-man, half-bull creature who lived in the Labyrinth of Crete, and who demanded a yearly sacrifice of fourteen young Athenians. The hero Theseus enters the labyrinth, where he outwits and slays the Minotaur. An internal NFB document on the feasibility of the pavilion, prepared in 1964, indicates that from the start Labyrinth was planned as a multi-screen, multi-media, immersive ambience, completely integrating the film projections and the architectural structures in which they were presented: the planners promised “a union of the latest developments in cinema technique with the arts of architecture.”

The pavilion was made up of three chambers, the first and third of which made use of film projections. The first chamber, Theatre One, had audiences stand on curved balconies (there were four tiers of them) to watch a film composed of paired sequences of co-ordinated 70mm. images. The film was projected onto 5¼-metre screens, one on the floor and the wall facing the audience. The audience moved from the first chamber to the second, The Maze, a confined, winding darkened passageway (labyrinth) lined with two-way mirrors, reflecting one another, so create the effect of space receding into infinity, and through these two-way mirrors, the audience could see many tiny red “grain-of-wheat” lights. The labyrinth led the audience into a more conventional movie theatre auditorium, Theatre Three. Here the film In the Labyrinth was shown: the theatre offered a cruciform-arrangement of five screens, onto to which five separate (but again co-ordinated) sequences of 35mm images were projected.29 The film was co-directed by Roman Kroitor and Colin Low; Hugh O’Connor produced the film, shot the parts set in India, and, importantly, helped solve the technical challenges involved in coordinating the five sequences of images.30

Expo ’67 was called (in the idiom of the time) “Man and his World,” and according to Kroitor, the pavilion was to represent the world, and the trek from chamber to chamber to represent the individual’s course through it, with each room offering a phase in one’s development.31 These stages seem to have been patterned on Erik Erikson’s classic outline of psychological growth (childhood, youth, conflict, etc.), but in fact the psychological transformation that constitutes the work’s thematic can be better stated using descriptors deriving from the phases of the alchemical magnum opus. Labyrinth’s inchoate story is worthy of a Max Ernst – and, in fact, wittingly or unwittingly (I don’t know) the image of life-experience the pavilion offered developed from an alchemical template: Labyrinth used the story of Theseus as a metaphor for man’s confrontation of the beast within himself, through which he might be reborn (these alchemical themes should be familiar from Max Ernst’s painting, collages, and, especially, his collage novels). The filmmakers sought to create a “Total Environment” which would lead its visitors on a personal quest where each would come to terms with the “inevitably incomplete realization of one’s nature.”32 One might just as well have described the goal of that quest as engendering the alchemical Young Prince. Supporting the alchemical interpretation is the fact that the three chambers were configured differently (in keeping with the alchemical topoi figuring the mutability of the self) and had different lighting (in keeping with the topos depicting the cosmos as split between darkness and light) and that the interactive aspect of the work seems to have been designed to evoke in viewers an experience akin to a descent into the underworld and a rebirth; all in all, the makers strove to make the same point the alchemists did – that the human task is one of reconciling the polarities we encounter in the self..

The whole purpose was to effect a ricorso, back to a participatory – a mythic – relation to the circumambient space, through which learning is engendered feeling, without ratiocination (to use Vico’s terms). The voiceover was in both English and French (the English text was written and read by the distinguished documentary filmmaker Donald Brittain, the French text by the inventive Quebec filmmaker Claude Jutra). The two tracks were not translations of one another, but instead were autonomous discourses, sometimes presented simultaneously (to provoke a regression to primary process thinking, as what might once have had meaning approaches the condition of pure sound). Labyrinth’s narrative is rudimentary, or vestigal, because narrative invites viewers to engage in sequential processing of discursive meaning (in fact, it prescribes a single path of sequential information processing), while the filmmakers wanted to provide a participatory and multimodal experience whose character (again) resembles that of primary process thinking. That ambition helps explain the project’s use of multi-screen technology. Labyrinth is a deeply Vichian work: Vico had pointed out the gestural and corporeal basis for poetic language and mythic understanding. Creating a participatory space was a principal goal of the exhibition’s designers.

The rejection of narrative form and the evocation of participatory modes of experience is an important aspect of Parker’s challenge to curatorial authority. According to Parker and McLuhan, nineteenth-century museums offered exhibitions with a storyline, where the viewer dealt with one thing at a time, then moved on to the next and the next and the next. Parker and McLuhan argued instead for an electronic bombardment of the viewers’ senses – after all, modern experience is plural, simultaneous, all-at-once, random, and instantaneous.

Historically, museums have placed an emphasis on objects – and on the topic of objects (judging by their respective talks at the 1969 “Exploration of Ways Means and Values of Museums with the Viewing Public” conference), McLuhan and Parker seem to differ, however mildly. Parker offered the more radical view. As a keeper and displayer of artefacts from pre-literate societies, he was troubled by the traditional emphasis on the object, preferring to shift the focus to the body in space – he seemed to believe that a technologically induced cultural ricorso had made it possible, and desirable, to elicit a mode of experience that approximates that for which these objects originally had a meaningful place. For his part, McLuhan considered the matter in dialectical terms: yes, of course, the knowing exhibition designer will place emphasis on the viewer in the environment. But unlike Parker, McLuhan believed that if the viewing situation is understood correctly, the object creates its own environment, and a key part of that environment is the viewer. He was content to rely on that.

McLuhan, then, emphasized the object (and its capacity to set up an environment), while Parker highlighted the body’s participatory experience of space. But both Parker and McLuhan concurred that the museum exhibition is a unique medium, and they pleaded for its possibilities to be realized. Labyrinth, I believe, came close to providing the scenes of instruction that Parker and McLuhan pleaded for – and, I insist, its roots lie in a mythic consciousness that was then (and still is) a potent factor in Canadian thinking.

McLuhan and Parker also personally engaged in actual cinematic and paracinematic projects. McLuhan worked with the sculptor, painter, and writer Sorel Etrog. In 1975, CBC television showed Etrog’s Spiral, a silent surrealist film (exploiting the new mythic consciousness’s proximity [or formal similarity] to the unconscious). McLuhan presented the film to his students at his Centre for Culture and Technology that same year, and shortly after the presentation suggested to Etrog that he produce stills from the film and put them into a sequence that would be appropriate for publication as a book. During 1975, McLuhan worked selecting quotations from a range of sources (several came from Joyce’s Ulysses, a triumph of modern mythopoesis), to fit those images. The complete Images from the Film Spiral Spiral was published in 1986, after McLuhan’s death.

The book version of Spiral bears comparison with McLuhan and Parker’s Through the Vanishing Point. In fact, Spiral, both as a film and a book, is fragmentary and consequently multi-sensory (as, indeed, Through the Vanishing Point is), and both the film and the book concern the fall into an anti-civilization (or barbarism). Spiral’s theme concerns history’s collapse (the spiral mentioned in the title is history) into the impersonality and inhumanity of the machine age (or, more exactly, into the rationality of law and language in the post-Cartesian era, which has broken with the unconscious). For Etrog, the vector of history points downward: he develops his Spenglerian theme using faceless nudes and surrealist tableaux that evoke a sense of foreboding and menace (that nonetheless remains indefinite). His view of history’s corso is Vichian, though it is unalleviated by any Vichian promise of a ricorso.33

The course of history that Spiral maps is the loss of identity. Loss of identity as a source of affliction was also one of McLuhan’s major themes, highlighted especially in War and Peace in the Global Village. There he writes, “For two centuries, at least, the frontier has taught us how to go out alone . . . going out to be alone raises the ultimate question: who am I?”34 For McLuhan’s Toronto School of Communication colleague Northrop Frye, literature serves as counter-history, offering fables of identity. For McLuhan, by way of contrast, theoretical inquiry (exemplified in studying poetry and media) and faith serve as counterweights to the empirical truths of history, just as art serves as a counter-environment and helps undo the numbing effects of our nearly all-pervading, brutal environment (of which we are ordinarily unconscious, though art can throw it into relief and make us conscious of it).

In the 1960s a new form of cinema – elliptical, non-narrative, and often mythic (for example, Stan Brakhage’s Dog Star Man, Kenneth Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, and Gregory Markopoulos’s Twice a Man and The Illiac Passion) – attracted poets and visual artists with an abiding interest in poetry. Not surprisingly, given the mythopoeic roots of the Canadian mind, Canadian artists took up this interest, among them McLuhan and Parker. Before commenting on the forms of the paracinematic projects McLuhan and Parker participated in, it would be worthwhile to ask what message – that is, what viewer response – McLuhan imagined film might exert. Part of the answer to this can be found (remarkably enough) in comments McLuhan made about television. Interviewed by Dick Cavett in December, 1970, McLuhan stated, “T.V. goes right into the human nervous system, right into the midriff. The image pours right off that tube into the nerves. It’s an inner trip. The T.V. viewer is stoned . . . This deprives the Westerner of his private identity. This is very upsetting to many people – the loss of identity is very disturbing.” We can connect McLuhan’s comments to remarks Etrog made to Kay Kritzwiser, the Globe & Mail’s art critic at the time, regarding his doubts about technology and the humanizing power of art. After making a facetious remark about the foolishness of attempting to make art with computers, he went on to say that, “The humanitarian aspect of art can never be fulfilled by the endless cleverness of the computer. Art doesn’t begin with cleverness. The computer belongs only to immediate subconsciousness. But our subconscious is made up of many layers. That collective subconscious is what we are and all our great art, religion, ideas, and poetry have emerged from it. The computer can never mine that.”35 In essence, he affirms McLuhan’s view that art acts as a counter-environment, and it operates to throw the anaesthetizing effects of the quotidian environment into relief by eliciting a collective, mythic consciousness.

The self that Etrog alludes to, a self beyond consciousness, individuality, and conditioning (and so wholly internal) – a self lost to the language of science and technology and of which only poetry can speak – is a spiritual being. Frye commented on the form of awareness of this (spiritual) entity: “Finnegans Wake is the only book I know which is devoted entirely to this hidden intercommunion of Word and Spirit, with no emergence into the outside world at any point, but of course the creative energy involved has produced all literature.”36 McLuhan, we have seen, spoke of the new consciousness as an “inner trip.”

What McLuhan responded to in Etrog’s film was its mythopoeic structure outlining the loss of identity. This is evident in his choice for the opening quotation for Images from the Film Spiral, “Midway in our life’s journey” (page 5), followed closely by “I went astray from the straight road and awoke to find myself alone” (page 7). McLuhan’s myth begins where, Frye claimed, all myth begins. The same interest in mythic mentalité is evident in another film McLuhan and Parker participated in, titled Picnic in Space, made in collaboration with Bruce Bacon for the television documentary series Great Minds of Our Time.37

The film is ostensibly a dialogue between McLuhan and Parker on space in modern art and experience, the same topic as their other significant collaboration, Through the Vanishing Point: Space in Poetry and Painting (1968). It revolves around a set of binary oppositions – between visual and tactile/audio space; Euclidean/Newtonian space and electric space; closed and open space; and monocular and multi-perspectival space. Though McLuhan, during the course of the film, insists that film and television are completely different media, the film itself actually propounds another of McLuhan’s views on the relation between the media, viz., that the media of one era foretell the media environment that will take shape thirty or forty years later – another way of saying each new medium takes as its content the media of the preceding period.38 McLuhan makes that idea explicit in Picnic in Space, when he notes that the film Bruce Bacon, Parker, McLuhan, et. al. are involved in making will be shown on television. “When that happens,” he asks, “will it be film or television?” Like any unreconstructed modernist, McLuhan believed form, content, medium, and effect to be inextricably linked, so in opening up speculation about what the work will be when it is shown on television, he is asking questions about the work’s final form, content and effect.

But there is a deeper insight couched in McLuhan’s remark, which can be expressed in Gombrichian terms: the form of making that a new medium adopts is often based on matching (conforming) its elements (content) to those of its predecessor medium. In keeping with the idea that the content of a successor medium is its predecessor, this television program-to-be takes the nature of film as its content, and highlights the fact that advanced visual art and poetry of the three or four decades before the film was made were striving to become film. In keeping with that insight the work emphasizes that its form, like that of the painting and poetry of the half-century that preceded its making, relies on the method of montage. In this sense, its formal construction resembles that of Through the Vanishing Point. The filmmakers make clear this television documentary is retrospective – that its content is the television’s predecessor medium, the cinema (and the mentalité that brought forth the cinema) – by literalizing a metaphor that McLuhan frequently used to suggest the relation between successor and predecessor media: parts of the film show McLuhan and Parker riding in a car, and these sequences were made by shooting Parker’s and McLuhan’s reflections in the car’s rear-view mirror.39 This film, the trope implies, reveals what the visual and literary arts of the previous five decades had longed to be (or, more exactly, reveal the entelechy of the art of that period).

McLuhan astutely realized that collage in poetry and visual art (McLuhan’s and Parker’s favoured media) instantiates cinema’s montage principle. Accordingly, Picnic in Space adopts a collage form and juxtaposes images and texts, to suggest the longing of earlier media to become cinema.40 There are numerous shots of the camera panning and tilting over grid-forms in Piet Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie-Woogie (1942–43): the bars, divided into linear cells, resemble film strips. (This form of construction involves a ricorso to the non­-hypotactical composition of monosyllabic units, which Vico claims is characteristic of phylogenically early speech.) This allusion to jazz connects with McLuhan’s remark that the word “jazz” derives from the New Orleans’s French “jaser,” meaning to yatter (boogie-woogie music appears on the sound-track when this element reappears). Jazz is an art form whose origins are contemporaneous with the cinema and shares the cinema’s electric interest in dynamic form. In this connection, McLuhan repeats here what he also states in “Communication in the Global Village”:

Jazz is based on discontinuity: not on connection. On the tactile space of the interval, not on the visual continuity of melody (melody-hodos [I presume this should be melos-hodos] the song road).

Jazz was in spatial terms the mosaic of the telegraph press, as much as the cubist multi-faceted world of Picasso. (When Le Corbusier first saw New York, he said, “it is le jazz hot en pierre.” [That sense of the city is conveyed in Piet Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie-Woogie].)

The syncopated and discontinuous character of jazz has been as much misunderstood as “Finnegans Wake”. Touch, or contact, does not create continuity or connectedness. Quite the reverse. It creates the interval. As beat creates rhythm.41

McLuhan evidently understood beat to be a processive element (positive space), and every processive element becomes a processive element in opposition to a recessive element (negative space), which McLuhan called the interval. Though McLuhan did not acknowledge it, this is a very cinematic understanding: a film frame, a positive element, demands the dark interval to create an articulate form. McLuhan’s phenomenological analysis of the interval arrives at a principle that his electrological enthusiasm sometimes obscured from him: post-modern tactile art is not an art of interpentration, of flows and continuities. Tactile art is what the cinema is – an art of unit and the resonant interval.

The interval is fundamental to the cinema: it is the space between juxtaposed elements (the times when the shutter blocks the light) that creates movement. McLuhan insisted the space of intervals is characteristic of touch – and that tactile space gives rise to the form of Finnegans Wake. He also claimed that foregrounding tactile experience restores making (as opposed to matching, to use McLuhan’s Gombrichian language) to its full dignity – that is, the interval confirms construction’s precedence over representation. The filmmakers highlight making over matching partly through self-reflexive comments on the work’s repudiation of narrative form and especially by McLuhan’s ironic comments on Bacon’s seeming inability to get the work underway and to keep the project supplied with raw stock – in fact, these are humorous ways of pointing out the film does not have a beginning or end.

Another leitmotif in this cinematic mosaic is a grid displaying multiples of Marilyn Monroe (likely recoloured images from Andy Warhol’s 1962 silkscreen, Marilyn Diptych). This inclusion, too, draws attention to the visual arts’ incorporating the cinematic method of repetition with slight variation (exemplified in the successive frames of a film strip). The same principle is joined with the idea of the proliferation of multiples in advertising and commercial art by incorporating reproductions of Warhol’s Brillo box images. The idea that the imaginary of the last decades of the nineteenth century (just before cinema’s invention) was dominated by cinematic modes of representation is made even more forcefully by including cinematic sequences made from Eadweard Muybridge’s photographic series “Animals in Locomotion” (187881): Muybridge’s studies, which began as a scientific endeavour and ended in a catalogue of obsessions, are a key moment in proto-cinema. Animating these sequences suggest they hankered (like much of the progressive art of the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries) to become cinema. These animated sequences also highlight this film’s (and, more generally the cinema’s) intervallic construction.

References to flight abound – of course, air-flight (1903) dates from the same period as the cinema (1895) does. An aviator (whom the film at one point identifies as Amelia Earhart) appears at one point; the film also includes shots of a rocket launch and allusions to the Wright brothers and Charles Lindbergh. These references invoke the ideas of a mobile point-of-view (a notion Sigfried Giedion had convinced McLuhan was a key to the post-modern understanding of space) and of the planet having become a theatre, viewed from outer space. Picnic in Space thus offers fragmentary reflections on the phenomenology of spatial experience (which, ever since Sputnik, has included the globe as a theatrical environment).42 It shows a mother and her eight children, in twilight: four of them run with their arms stretched out, as though wanting to fly, another two seemingly gliding through the air, while a girl walks on a cloud, and another seems to have landed on the roof. One of the glosses on this image (probably by McLuhan) notes,

Simulating the action of the technologies in our environment is one of the major thrills of childhood in North America. The machine has provided the poetry of our childhood for more than a century. Perhaps the airplane, which seems to mark the end of the regime of the wheel, exists somewhere between the machine and the human body.43

The airplane returns us to the body, because it makes the senses mobile, as the cinema does.

The incorporation of scenes of a picnic, and of McLuhan sitting outdoors, sometimes in a lawn-chair, is one of the film’s most puzzling aspects. Two ideas come to mind. First, the configuration of figures having lunch sometimes resembles the arrangement of figures in Edouard Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1862–63), and that work clearly points forward to photography and the cinema. Secondly, it might well be an amusing reference to Canadian interest in wilderness painting, in which McLuhan seems to have had little interest (and Parker somewhat more). On page 128 of Through the Vanishing Point offers a reproduction of Ironworks at Coalbrookdale, a piece depicting the effects of the Industrial Revolution, from the 1805 The Romantic and Picturesque Scenery of England and Wales from Drawings Made by P. J. de Loutherbourg. 44 A gloss on that picture, page 129, states, “Not yet the astronaut. The man-made environment usurps the natural world . . . The humanly contrived environment of electric information and power has begun to take precedence over the old environment of nature. Nature, as it were, begins to be the content of our technology . . . The new media are not bridges between man and nature – they are nature.”45 McLuhan assesses this change: “Youth instinctively understands the present – the electric drama. It lives mythically and in depth.”46 The astronaut, by turning this human-made environment into an artefact, converts this myth of the nature’s redemptive power into theatre.

An article in Explorations titled “Five Sovereign Fingers Taxed the Breath” offers a similar idea – and at the same time encapsulates Parker’s and McLuhan’s notions about the new paratactical forms and their relation to cinema and to nature.

The handwriting is on the celluloid walls of Hollywood; the Age of Writing has passed. We must invent a NEW METAPHOR, restructure our thoughts and feelings. The new media are not bridges between man and nature: they are nature . . .


Movies and TV complete the cycle of mechanization of the human sensorium. With the omnipresent ear and the moving eye, we have abolished writing, the specialized acoustic-visual metaphor that established the dynamics of Western civilization.


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


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


We are back in acoustic space. We begin again to structure the primordial feelings and emotions from which 3000 ears of literacy distanced us.


Hands have no tears to flow.47

A ricorso has taken place. A new poetic has emerged – one that we don’t yet understand. We are not much closer today to understanding this historic transformation than we were when McLuhan wrote these words. But when that understanding emerges, it will surely take as a central theme the new poetic that arises from a mythopoeic basis, which manifests itself in the novel forms anticipated in the cinema of poetry.


  1. McLuhan was very fond of Cusanus’s remark (from De Docta Ignorantia II, 11-12) about God being an infinite sphere whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. That he characterized acoustic space in this way gives reason to conclude that McLuhan conceived of acoustic space as sacred. Barrington Nevitt, “Explorations,” in Barrington Nevitt with Marshall McLuhan, Who Was Marshall McLuhan?: Exploring a Mosaic of Impressions. Eds. Frank Zigrone, Wayne Constantineau, Eric McLuhan (Toronto: Stoddart, 1995), 15. 

  2. Northrop Frye, The Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957), 135. 

  3. Address to Spring symposium of the Catholic Renascence Society, 19 April 1954. The talk was unpublished – it can be found among The McLuhan Papers, Vol. 130, File 29, Manuscript Division, National Archives of Canada, Ottawa. 

  4. Max Horkheimer rightly points out that Vico, against the Cartesians, astutely understood “human self-knowledge derives only from an analysis of the historical processes in which humans are engaged, and not from mere introspection or inner reflection (as subjective idealism has always contended). Economy, state, law, religion, science, art – all these specifically human creations have their origin in history, and thus cannot be understood from the vantage point of isolated individuals but only from the angle of the relations between individuals; in Vico’s language: from the fact of their sociability” (Horkeimer, “Vico and Mythology,” New Vico Studies 5 [1987]: 63–76, esp., 65–66). 

  5. Eric A. Havelock, The Literate Revolution in Greece and Its Cultural Consequences (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982). 

  6. The majority of the songs collected by Parry, Lord, and Bartók are Bosnian Muslim songs – and a number of them, far from being tunes preserved only in remote regions, are actually common throughout the Muslim areas of Bosnia and Serbia. 

  7. Albert B. Lord, The Singer of Tales (Cambridge: Harvard University of Press, 1960). McLuhan refers to “the work of Milman Parry and Professor Albert Lord” in his preface to The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962), 3.  

  8. McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy, 3. 

  9. Readers will know that a similar historical route is charted in John Burnet’s Early Greek Thought (1892). But Havelock was a fierce critic of Burnet. The difference centred on their differing ideas about the relation of Plato to Socrates. Burnet believed that Socrates developed the theory of Forms, and Plato simply expounded (in elegant dramatic form) the views of his teacher, while Havelock maintained that the theory of forms was Plato’s innovation, and that in his dialogues he was putting words in his teacher’s mouth. Seen from the vantage point of history, we can see that Havelock was tying the development of the theory of Forms to the era of abstraction which first manifests itself fully in Plato’s writing. Behind this, however, is a political difference – Burnet was radically conservative, Havelock a stalwart left-liberal (who paid a price for his association with leftists). Havelock earnestly desired to cast the development from mythic/cosmological thinking to naturalist/positivist thinking as a progress in liberality. 

  10. It is never easy to tell exactly what McLuhan read or heard in conversation, since, as is generally well known, he had a strikingly relaxed view of the propriety of citation. But on this topic it bears being pointed out that during his years in Toronto (1929–47), Havelock was well-known for his work with hard-left groups. Among those who stirred up trouble for the left circle at the university was Harold Innis, and he made the administration aware of his views on Havelock’s political engagements (see Eric A. Havelock, Harold Innis: A Memoir [Toronto: The Harold Innis Foundation, 1982], 24). McLuhan joined the University of Toronto in 1946, so he could well have been aware of Havelock’s earlier work. 

  11. McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy, 4. 

  12. Late in his life, Havelock offered a tribute to F.M. Cornford, noting that his “Cambridge lecture on the Presocratics had . . . first taught me that the task of the historian of early Greek thought is, in William James’ terms, to understand foreign states of mind’” (Harold Innis: A Memoir, 41). It is worth noting that Guthrie remarked that Cornford had once said “that it sometimes seemed to him as if he had been all of his life writing one and the same book” (W.C.K. Guthrie, “Memoir,” in F.M. Cornford, The Unwritten Philosophy and Other Essays, ed. W.C.K. Guthrie (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1950), viixix, here, viii.) Guthrie connected this to Cornford’s interest in tacit philosophies’ influencing thought, an interest which he articulated in his inaugural lecture “If we look beneath the surface of philosophical discussion, we find that its course is largely governed by assumptions that are seldom, or never, mentioned. I mean that groundwork of current conceptions shared by all men of any given culture and never mentioned because it is taken for granted as obvious” (ibid.). Clearly, an interest in the way unconscious forces/assumptions shape thought was in the air. Also of interest to Havelock and the other members of the Toronto School of Communication (Innis, McLuhan, and Frye) would have been Cornford’s adopting Émile Durkheim’s idea of collective consciousness. 

  13. To understand the connection between Havelock’s thesis and New Criticism, one must keep in mind the belief that poetry itself – even written poetry – is closer to oral language than written prose is (and that some forms of written poetry, for example the Romantic lyric, have retained many of the features of oral poetry). 

  14. It is significant that The Liberal Temper, too, treats Democritus as a sort of middle term. 

  15. Marshall McLuhan and Harley Parker, Through the Vanishing Point: Space in Poetry and Painting (New York, Evanston and London: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1968). 

  16. Included in Marshall McLuhan, The Interior Landscape: The Literary Criticism of Marshall McLuhan 1943–1962. Ed. E McNamara (New York and Toronto: McGraw Hill, 1969), 24. 

  17. McLuhan’s remarks on the Vichian influence in that work are not especially helpful. He asserts that Vico pursued the same course Francis Bacon had charted in the Novum Organum and that in Ulysses Joyce proclaimed the same course as proper to the poetic sensibility: “Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signature of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot . . . ” “Such men,” McLuhan says, “are not isolated eccentrics but links in a continuous tradition that extends from the present work back to the schools of manifold interpretation of the preliterate poets, including Homer and Hesiod” (Marshall McLuhan and Eric McLuhan, Laws of Media: The New Science [Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988], 215).

    Certainly Vico claimed Bacon as a major influence. Nonetheless, the links connecting the proto-empiricist Francis Bacon with Vico’s speculative historigraphy are not especially clear – and Bacon’s affinity with the Böhmian mystical idea of the signature of all things is even more obscure (though, again, it must be admitted that Vico hoped to develop a universal mental dictionary). Likely, in McLuhan’s mind Vico, Bacon, and Joyce are connected through the idea of a λόγος (logos) dwelling in things (an idea that came up in McLuhan’s doctoral dissertation) that could be identified by careful study. But the λόγος is a principle of thought and language, and so the idea of an indwelling λόγος can be taken to mean that mind shapes things. And that idea can be developed into the claim that things are really concepts synthesized by percepts (sometimes the synthesis is effectively immediate and other times more abstract). In his letters, McLuhan often uses the term sensus communis (Marshall McLuhan, Letters of Marshall McLuhan, sel. and ed. Matie Molinaro, Corinne McLuhan, WiIliam Toye. [Toronto: Oxford UP, 1987], 271, 277, 281, 386). He seems to use the term in the sense St. Thomas and the Thomists do, of an agent intellect that transforms phenomena into sense (Vico used the term with a similar meaning). An understanding of the process by which meaning is generated would reveal the λόγος inherent in that assembly of phenomena. If that is the case, then the Laws of Media would seek to understand the λόγος implicit in media forms  – and that understanding would connect McLuhan’s book to the tradition which McLuhan alluded to. (Remarks McLuhan makes about Bacon in The Gutenberg Galaxy [183] seem to me to lend weight to this interpretation.) To my mind, it is unfortunate that Eric McLuhan ordinarily has used this comment to summarize the method of the Laws of Media – for doing that created a generation of scholars who take this statement as a simple straightforward remark, failing to recognize the strangeness in so blythely connecting Vico, Bacon, and Böhme. But one issue that is quite clear is the relation in McLuhan’s mind between Havelock, Parry and Lord, and Vico. 

  18. Giambattista Vico, “Poetic Wisdom,” in The New Science of Giambattista Vico (Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1984) §374, 116. 

  19. Vico, “Poetic Wisdom,” §375, 116. 

  20. Vico, The New Science §§218–19, 83–84. 

  21. On this, see Vico’s De Nostri temporis studiorum ratione (1709); On the Study Methods of Our Times, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990), 21ff. 

  22. Vico, On the Study Methods of Our Times., 42. 

  23. See Vico, Part LVI of “Establishment of Principles”, in The New Science §225, 76 and Part LX in ibid. §231, 77. 

  24. Vico, Part LII on ibid. §215, 75. 

  25. This helps explain the great importance of Vico’s thought for Northrop Frye. 

  26. Norman O. Brown, Apocalypse and/or Metamorphosis (Berkeley : University of California Press, 1991), 3f. 

  27. Brown, Apocalypse, 4. 

  28. The distinction between poetry and prose is a major theme of New Criticism – and it should always be borne in mind that McLuhan was writing at a time when New Criticism dominated the critical discourse. His writing is in dialogue with (and often pitched against) New Criticism. It should also be noted that the visceral effects of written poetry differ in both degree and kind from those of oral poetry. This difference is relevant to considering McLuhan’s (and his colleague Northrop Frye’s) interest in oral poetry and how that put them at odds with New Criticism. But we have not space enough to go into that here. 

  29. It was really only on its re-release as a single-screen film in the 1979 that it assumed this title. 

  30. O’Connor had spent five years as head of the NFB’s science unit. 

  31. Frye, following Aristotle, often distinguished (Anatomy of Criticism, 73, 136, 140, 158) between mythos (the verbal imitation of action) and dianoia (the verbal imitation of thought). Mythos, in this sense, is the linear pattern of development and dianoia the simultaneous element. Obviously, I have been using the term myth in a more Vichian sense. But in truth, my use of the term is closer to what Frye meant by ethos – the third term in this taxonomy (mythos, dianoia, ethos). Taking up this distinction, the simultaneous projection in the first chamber represented dianoia, the darkened passageway mythos, and reaching in communal projection theatre, ethos. (All this is quite appropriate for a pavilion at an event called “Man and His World”). 

  32. “Labyrinthe.” The National Film Board of Canada Technical Operations Branch: Technical Bulletin Number 8. March 1967, 3. 

  33. Their shared interest in Finnegans Wake was undoubtedly one of the factors that brought McLuhan and Etrog together. Nonetheless, Spiral sets out the “long, dense night of darkness” (to adopt a phrase from Vico’s The New Science), while Finnegans Wake seeks an end to that alienation from the real in the triumph of imagination – to overcome the negativity (a find a fin negans) in the world of dream (illusion) made real (just as the primary process – that mental process which makes poetry possible – knows no negation). McLuhan sometimes viewed history much in the same way Etrog did, but on the whole his view was closer to Vico’s and to Joyce’s (indeed, he was Joycean on almost everything). 

  34. M. McLuhan and B. R. Powers, The Global Village: Transformations in World Life and Media in the 21st Century. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 147. 

  35. Kay Kritzwiser, “At the Galleries” The Globe & Mail 26 July 1969: 25. 

  36. Northrop Frye, Words with Power: Being a Second Study of the Bible and Literature (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990), 232. 

  37. A series of documentary films, produced by the University-at-Large, Inc, in New York City in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Other subjects included Buckminister Fuller and John Cage. 

  38. Barrington Nevitt develops this theme in “Matching the Old and Making the New” in Don Toppin, ed., The Cybernetic Age: War Violence and Poverty Can Be Eliminated! Security and Self-Fulfillment Can Be Yours (New York: Human Development Corporation, 1969), 316–330. 

  39. Literalizing metaphors has the effect of highlighting the metaphor’s vehicle (and so makes the vehicle available for incorporation into paratactical structures). For that, McLuhan – and Parker – often resorted to the device (as did early-modernist poets) – indeed, it is used frequently in Through the Vanishing Point

  40. My usual way of stating this is to say that the earlier media manifest a paragonal response to the new rival, the cinema. See my Harmony and Dissent: Film and Avant-Garde Art Movements in the Early Twentieth Century and DADA, Surrealism, and the Cinematic Effect

  41. McLuhan, “Communication in the Global Village,” in Don Toppin, ed., The Cybernetic Age, 164. 

  42. Marshall McLuhan and Harley Parker’s Through the Vanishing Point: Space in Poetry and Painting makes a similar point: page 216 of that work offers a reproduction of a painting by Harley Parker, titled The Trip (1950). (The website of the Parker estate,, identifies the painting as Flying Children.)  

  43. Marshall McLuhan and Harley Parker, Through the Vanishing Point, 217. 

  44. McLuhan and Parker use Iron Works (rather than Ironworks) as the picture’s title and give From a Series of Views of British Scenery as the title of Loutherbourg’s book. 

  45. Marshall McLuhan, The Book of Probes. Compiled by David Carson (Corte Madeira: Ginko Press, 2003), 168–59 and 18­–19. 

  46. McLuhan, The Book of Probes, 11. 

  47. Edmund Carpenter and Marshall McLuhan, eds., Explorations in Communication (Boston: Beacon Press, 1960), 208. 

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Image: We Built Excitement by Jennifer Marman and Daniel Borins. Used with permission.