Literary/Aesthetic Cliché-Probes



The first to jump on stage was Barrington Nevitt (1908-95) with 4 books:

  • ABC OF PROPHECY: Understanding the Environment

  • THE COMMUNICATION ECOLOGY: Re-presentation versus Replica

    (1985), and

    (1986, with Maurice Hecht).

These efforts by Nevitt may be the best successor to McLuhan’s artistic literary purposes because Nevitt intended them to be Menippean satires. Nevitt understood Menippean satire

(traditionally defined as a “mixed-media” art form, but see Eric McLuhan, THE ROLE OF THUNDER IN FINNEGANS WAKE, 1997, p.3ff.)

is an important element in McLuhan’s theory of communication

(At the end of his Ph.D. thesis, Menippean Thunder at Finnegans Wake: The Critical Problems [1982], Eric McLuhan lists common features and topics of Menippean satire throughout its history, including the following:

  • *Do it Yourself*.
    — The reader is told to add to, subtract from or rearrange the materials of the text to suit himself…., p.455;

  • *Words as Gestures*,
    and vice-versa. — …, p.468;

  • *Words as Things*,
    and vice-versa. — The preceding topic draws attention to eloquence inherent in the formal character of utterance: this topic deals with the relation between language and artefacts…., p.469;

  • *Moderns*.
    — The ‘moderns’, or dialecticians [*gloriosi*] in all ages, are a target of Menippists. The line of attack runs through Menippus, Varro, Petronius, Lucian [e.g., The Sale of Philosophers], Erasmus, Cervantes, Rabelais, Voltaire, Butler, Dekker, Nashe, Swift, Sterne, Carlyle, Flaubert and Joyce…., p.473;

  • *Parody of New Forms*.
    — The chameleon-like and mimetic nature of Menippean satire, which contributes to the impossibility of accounting for it descriptively, gives it immense flexibility and adaptability to new forms and new situations. As soon as new genres or modes or media for expression appear, Menippists quickly adapt to the new form and begin to explore its satirical possibilities…., p.477;

  • *Printing Conventions Trifled With*.
    — …, p.479;

  • *Simultaneity of Past and Present*.
    — …, p.481.”

The lurker familiar with Marshall McLuhan’s writings, beginning with his Ph.D. thesis, should recognize some of their repeated themes in this list.)

and attempted to be true to that tradition while enhancing his own specialist bias as a management consultant with a theoretical interest in the natural sciences of astronomy, biology, and physics, etc. As a result, Nevitt’s writings can be the most appropriate introduction to the Toronto school of media ecology. An example:

“… But, as old nature is transformed into new Nature, a prophet can now foretell that dogmatic faith in anti-magic will revive blind trust in magic; and that science will become occult, while occult becomes science.

James Joyce

[author of FINNEGANS WAKE, 1939],

who foresaw this outcome, asks mythic, tribal Finn, the rhetorical question:

Who gave you that numb?‘ (FW 546).

Joyce then listens to ‘what the thunders said’

[There are eleven thunders in FW, found on
pp.3, 23, 44, 90, 113, 257, 314, 332, 414, 424,
and on the last line of p.612 – ed.]

as the gods replied in Finnegans Wake. In this primer for prophets, Joyce reveals through the multisensuous language of the gods how archetypal Finn reacts psychically and socially to his own technological innovations, from paleolithic barbarism to modern civilization. Finn is alternately awakened to consciousness by the ‘thunder’ of each innovation, and lulled to unconsciousness by the environment that each creates through continued use. But, at the end of the First Cycle of merely reacting to the psychic and social consequences of innovation, he is prepared to enter the Second Cycle by anticipating them; first, he had the experience before its meaning; now he can have the meaning before the experience.

‘Finn, again!’ has discovered ‘The keys to. Given!’ (FW 628) – the KEYS (not only mechanical, but musical) to GIVEN (both data and Heaven) – in the magical intervals between sleeping and waking.”-

Barrington Nevitt,
ABC OF PROPHECY,1980, p.56.

Nevitt’s concise precis of Finnegans Wake is very apt in light of his mentor’s Ph.D. thesis which concludes:

“What is true of Nashe is equally true of his contemporaries. One is, therefore, faced with the fact that while much excellent and indispensable work has been done on the Elizabethan period, we have scarcely begun to see its intellectual and literary life in an Elizabethan light. Many facts contributed to make it an age of rhetoric, and even of conflicting rhetorics; but we have long persisted in viewing it in the light of the violent reaction against what Huxley called ‘the pestilent cosmetic of rhetoric’. It required, perhaps, the advent of such a successful devotee of the rhetoric of the second sophistic as James Joyce, to prepare the ground for a scholarly understanding of Elizabethan literature.” –

Marshall McLuhan,

And the relevance is reinforced when we return to the first pages of McLuhan’s thesis:

“Its [the art of grammar] claim to be viewed as an important basis of scientific method, both during antiquity and continuously throughout medieval times, and in the work of Francis Bacon, has, I think, never been indicated before the present study.

In the dialogue named for Cratylus, the follower of Heraclitus, Plato has this exchange of arguments between Socrates and Cratylus:

‘Socrates: But if these things are only to be known through names, how can we suppose that the givers of names had knowledge, or were legislators before there were names at all, and therefore before they could have known them?

Cratylus: I believe, Socrates, the true account of the matter to be, that a power more than human gave things their first names, and that the names which were thus given are necessarily their true names.’

Obviously, with this kind of importance associated with the names of things, and of gods, heroes, and legendary beings, etymology would be a main source of scientific and moral enlightenment. And such was the case. The prolific labors of the etymologists reflected in Plato’s Cratylus, but begun centuries before and continued until the seventeenth century, are as much the concern of the historian of philosophy and of science as of the historian of letters and culture.
Indeed, it was not only in antiquity but until the Cartesian revolution that language was viewed as simultaneously linking and harmonizing all the intellectual and physical functions of men and of the physical world as well.” –

Ibid., pp.2-3.

Nevitt came to understand that Finnegans Wake was the sub-plot of McLuhan’s writings since his Nashe dissertation. That McLuhan was engaged in a lifelong translation of Joyce’s last work can be seen in his reference to an early Menippean satire:

“We can see in the Saturnalia of Macrobius how he has become for the Roman the same source of scientific and ethical lore that Homer had already become for the Greek. Thus for Macrobius the grammarian ‘it is Virgil’s learning that appeals to men rather than his poetry.’ As grammarian, Macrobius applied the method of etymology not only to Virgil but to mythology, and astronomy, and the music of the spheres; for one relation between grammar and astronomy in antiquity was music, or harmony and rhythm. In medieval times Macrobius as grammarian and scientist had a very great prestige; and no better indication of the need for study of the method of grammar as the accepted mode of ancient and medieval science could be adduced than the complete lack of comprehension of the aims and objectives of Macrobius which continues to prevail.” –

Ibid., p.9.

McLuhan worked to prevent Finnegans Wake from suffering the same fate. And he was the first Joyce enthusiast to see its practical utility for perceiving clearly the pressing issues plaguing his contemporaries in all walks and labors of twentieth-century life. Nevitt gives the context:

“The great Cynic/Menippean satires get produced at a time of great technological change: Diogenes and Menippus with the advent of the phonetic alphabet; Rabelais and Erasmus with the printing press; Flaubert with the newspaper; James Joyce with the press, radio, film and TV. McLuhan got us thinking and talking about our new global village with the advent of satellites and computers.” –

Nevitt and McLuhan, p.201.

So Nevitt, McLuhan, and their colleagues, standing on the shoulders of Ovid, Dante, Giordano Bruno, Francis Bacon, Giambattista Vico, and James Joyce, created a new science of media ecology in which:

“The *new* SCIENZA NUOVA recognizes the primacy of percepts and Instant Replay, the complementarity of VISUAL and ACOUSTIC space structures, also the artifacts of old art and science as probes rather than programs. It is not only of words and concepts and theories derived from past experience, but also of multi-sensory images arising from encounter with constantly changing present existence that retrieves old knowledge with new meaning.

In our day, since Martin Heidegger, philology and etymology have once more become the basis for the metaphysical. Since James Joyce, the emphasis has changed from merely *reacting* to *anticipating* the material, mental, and social effects of man-made Nature — how current artifacts reshape human nature. Today, all current artifacts resume the character of natural language to approach the *logos* with centres everywhere and boundaries nowhere. ‘In my end is my beginning’ (From T. S. Eliot’s East Coker, which replays the last words of Mary Queen of Scots).


  1. The *old* SCIENZA NUOVA of eighteenth-century Vico was concerned with discovering the mainsprings of human thought, feeling, and action in his own day through the languages of ‘gods, heroes, and men’ of ancient historical and mythical times.

  2. The *old* SCIENCE NOUVELLE of eighteenth-century *philosophes* sought to ‘explain’ thinking and being in terms of old Democritean ‘atoms and void’, and the dominant mechanical metaphors of their day, with the Yes-OR-No logic still dominant in our day. Its ideal was to separate thought from feeling *literally*.

  3. The *old* NEW SCIENCE of nineteenth-century Marxists revived the Heraclitean Yes-AND-No dialectic in Hegelian concepts minus percepts, by treating all order as ‘visual’ order, and divorcing thought from feeling *objectively*.

  4. The *new* NEW SCIENCE of twentieth-century Utopians restores ancient Procrustean measures to replace people with machines, or ‘cyborgs’, with two-bit computer wits that have already achieved deadly *logical maturity*.

  5. The *new* SCIENZA NUOVA of Comprehensive Understanding retrieves the Yin/Yang complementarity of ancient Chinese sages and Greek Heraclitus, with *human maturity* that savours the paradoxes of life itself, like Shakespeare at the dawn of Gutenberg. It seeks to achieve a new unity of thought and feeling, like Joyce as ‘Finn, again’ with ‘the keys to. Given!’, by using all human wits and senses with their technological extensions *comprehensively*.

As James Joyce put it in his multi-sensuous Finneganese, an ‘artificial’ natural language, that only an Irishman could have invented:

‘Toborrow and toburrow and tobarrow! That’s our crass, hairy and ever-grim life, till one final howdiedow Bouncer Naster raps on the bell with a bone and his stinkers tank behind him with the sceptre and the hourglass. We may come, touch and go, from atoms and ifs but we’re presurely destined to be odd’s without ends.’ –

(A parody on what Shakespeare’s Macbeth thought of life in his day upon hearing of his wife’s death. Act 5, Scene 5).


Instead of projecting ‘past’ figures to future fantasies, learning to recognize the process patterns of the present ‘ground’ actually shaping the things to come by:

*Instant Preplay*

  1. Expands perceptual process patterns of present ground into the future.

  2. Contracts ground for conceptual ground rules of past sequentiality when causes logically preceded effects.

  3. Retrieves non-visual environment of simultaneity where effects merge with causes ecologically.

  4. Flips present into future, as all times and places NOW HERE, and effects precede causes by design.

We may envisage continuing exploration of the ‘inner-space’ conflicts of specialists and generalists in many disciplines, scientific and humanist, engendered by current artifacts as communication media; and that will suggest how their breakdowns can lead to breakthroughs by learning to recognize the new laws of each new situation in its own terms as *comprehensivists*.

[Note: The GENERALIST applies multi-specialist disciplines of literate Western culture, with its hidden visual sensory bias, *logically* like C. P. Snow, to provide plausible answers to current questions. In contrast, the COMPREHENSIVIST employs multi-cultural approaches of both literate and non-literate, Eastern and Western cultures, with full awareness of their visual and non-visual sensory biases, *ecologically* like Marshall McLuhan, to seek relevant questions for exposing hidden environments that create current problems.]” –

Barrington Nevitt,
Current Artifacts as Communication Media –
paper delivered at a colloquium conducted by
Prof. Maurice Charland, Concordia University,
Montreal, Quebec, Nov. 17 ’86, pp.11-13.

Nevitt demonstrates his awareness of the comprehensivist’s role as having a tactile feature when he constantly highlights the biases of visual and acoustic spaces and collapses them into a statement such as:

“For understanding is the simultaneous grasp of the conflicting facets of any situation in its changing figure/ground relationships, that reveal both their complementary aspects and their dominant process patterns. Understanding demands comprehensive awareness that uses all wits and senses with ESP.” –


Or when engaging his aforementioned interest in the physical sciences, he offers a tactile “concept” to the astrophysicists:

“Pre-Socratic Parmenides reduced the infinitude of the measurable Many to the logical necessity of a finite One. But the time is now ripe to reinstate the boundless *apeiron* (Greek *Apeiron*: the unbounded) of his opponent Anaximander as a metaphor for thinking about immeasurable existence; for that is both One in Many, unity in diversity, continuity in discontinuity, and vice versa. We may think of apeiron as an invisible environment or ground with neither beginning, nor ending, nor measures – a multiverse made manifest through the interplay of its figures. Only the figures emerge and decay. Both ‘space’ and ‘time’ are relations among them.” –

Ibid., p.9.

It is to Nevitt’s credit that while he had a professional career as an electrical engineer who helped corporations build the global theater, he did not blind himself to the fact it had been hijacked by tetrad-managers

(See Marshall McLuhan [with Eric McLuhan], LAWS OF MEDIA: The New Science, 1988, pp.93ff. for an X-ray of the tetrad used by passive, postmodern social engineers who let the global audience get into the act)

who electronically massaged the “global village”

(“It is important to grasp Lindberg’s idea of myths and norms since they have characterized all civilization till now. But henceforth they must have new functions. Myths are for Lindberg the traditional religions imposed on men. They are products of reason. They are expedient lies. They are the means of curbing the monsters bred of men’s passions. Norms or moral conventions, on the other hand, are merely a cinematic projection on the screen of the city of the passions and preferences of men. Myths are vertical affairs imposed by ruling authority on the ruled. Norms are horizontal developments spreading outwards in accordance with men’s desires. Myths are static. The authoritarian myth-built city is local, brittle, easily susceptible of shock. If one myth falls, all will tend to fall. But the norm-structured society is open, elastic, malleable, receptive of change. Under current conditions of communication the static, myth-built cities of the Western world are doomed, says Lindberg. …And it will perhaps amuse Lindberg to learn that his book is the best introduction written to date to Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.” –

Marshall McLuhan, The God-making Machines of the Modern World [a review of Foundations of Social Survival by John Lindberg], The Commonweal, March 19 ’54, pp.606-607)

with the anticipatory principle that

“today, effects precede causes by design.”

Nevitt and McLuhan, p.290).

With McLuhan he sought to reveal the invisible vectors behind conventional postmodern “media ecology”:

“Current interest in communications media is itself an effect of electric media speedup, just as current difficulties in understanding media are the result of assuming that they can be neutral if properly programmed.” –

Barrington Nevitt,
Re-presentation versus Replica,
1982, p.17.

Whereas others in the post-McLuhan Toronto school of media ecology merely emphasized one or more of the old McLuhan themes such as:

  • breakdown as breakthrough;

  • the new environment turns the old environment into an art form – a rear view mirror;

  • Pound’s aphoristic style and technique of poetic synchronicity;

  • preference for percept rather than concept;

  • delight in the transformation of language and insight via punning;

  • Yeats’s “emotion of multitude”;

  • the strategy of Poe’s wise sailor in “A Descent into the Maelstrom”;

  • Eliot’s “auditory imagination”;

  • stressing of rhetorical devices and downplaying of dialectical ploys;

  • technological environments as numbing extensions of ourselves;

  • Lewis’s valuation of the detached eye and collage of varying graphics;

  • grammar as the root of media awareness;

  • encyclopedism’s advantages over specialism;

  • Joyce’s use of the tactile aesthetic;

  • the dropping of a moral stance after THE MECHANICAL BRIDE, Marshall McLuhan, 1951;

  • spotlighting of advertising and its appropriation of artistic effects,

Nevitt saw a more comprehensive McLuhan who played the whole Trivium

(“In brief, we are engaged in developing a new *Trivium*: the Dialectic, Grammar, and Rhetoric of everything imaginable, as communication media.” –

Barrington Nevitt with Maurice Hecht,
1986, p.181)

in his writing and regarded the above inventory as only idiosyncratic reflexes and Clichés of the inevitable consciousness of the electric (and later electronic) age and its “Hundred Years’ War” (1840-1960).

So Nevitt, an invisible environment himself today, succeeded in stinging the futurists, scientists, economists, and engineers who followed in McLuhan’s wake, by targeting the “technology” side of the technology-culture dialectic in McLuhan’s probe (McLuhan having been the Director of the Centre for Culture and Technology) through foregrounding the “cultural” products of James Joyce as an “INSTANT PREPLAY” in the context of the Menippean Global Theater created by the instant-replay technologies. Herewith his programmatic miming of the ‘anticipatory democracy’ sponsored by the tetrad-managers:

“Fictions foreshadow facts. We have all had the experience of living mythically as disembodied spirits via media. Those who have not missed its meaning may now plunge through the Looking Glass, like Alice, to play *yestermorrow* in:

  1. POLITICS, to hide behind nineteenth-century planks, while seeking twentieth-century electronic images to put on new publics;

  2. ECONOMICS, to deflate the inflators by leaving staples to public establishments beyond the market, while playing free private markets to speed beyond the established for testing the new; and to satisfy humanity through community that makes markets supply human needs, rather than fragment humanity to match market demands;

  3. MANAGEMENT, to decentralize the centralizers through Management by Prevision, which soars above Management by Objectives, when goals move faster than plans can change; and to leave decisions to people ‘on the spot’ who can recognize the laws of their instantly changing situations demanding instant action;

  4. EDUCATION, to learn the old disciplines as art forms inside academic walls, while exploring the new problems outside where the action is; to shift stress from conceptual to perceptual training, where ‘bull sessions’ retrieve dialogue and lectures become entertainment;

  5. COMMUNICATION, to anticipate all the main effects of everything natural and artificial, sacred and profane, dead and alive, on every other living body and itself; to harmonize programs with their media in order to share intended experience with living beings involved in this communication ecology; to perceive that such communication is revolution by conversion, both inner and outer; and to leave communication between machines to engineers and scientists;

  6. CORRECTION, to convert the culprits not merely outside, but inside-out, by understanding the laws of their situation rather than destroy them totally by preconceptions; and to recognize that the current alternative to written law, which lags further and further behind justice, is tribal law, which leaps further and further beyond it;

  7. GENERALISM, to multiply technical specialisms that proliferate the fallacies of misplaced concrete, both hardware and software, as profitable substitutes for comprehensive awareness that anticipates not merely the material, but all the other consequences of major change;

  8. SCIENCE, to organize ignorance for deliberate discovery by recognizing new process patterns through fresh percepts; to harmonize knowledge for rapid access by reorganizing the old groundrules with new concepts; to escape ‘tunnel vision’ through ‘second sight’ by perceiving the complementarity of Art and Science for matching and making; and to restore the ancient unity of thought and feeling;

  9. FUTURISM, to regurgitate packaged futures, that replay the past, as popular substitutes for understanding the present, which is the only future for the future; and thus become self-fulfilling;

  10. PROPHECY, to preplay *alternate* Fate, which circumvents technical grounds and digital figures alike; to make the effects precede the causes through human harmonies of rhythm, rime, reason, and silence; and thus become self-negating.” –

ABC OF PROPHECY, pp.82-84.

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