Edited: November 29, 2019
Update: November 11, 2018
Unless specified otherwise, page numbers are from Letters of Marshall McLuhan (1987) 
McLuhan’s Participation at 1963 and 1972 Delos Conferences
Letter to Stewart Bates (June 17, 1963, p. 289)
Dr. Bates, President of Central Mortgage and Housing in Ottawa, Canada, participated in the first annual Delos symposium (on board the New Hellas, Aegean Sea, July 6-13, 1963). McLuhan had been invited by the Athens Technological Institute and its President, C. A. Doxiadis. The purpose was to talk about “the evolution of human settlements.” They drafted the Declaration of Delos. The participants also included Buckminster Fuller, Sigfried Giedion, Barbara Ward Jackson, Margaret Mead, and Sir Robert Watson Watt (editor’s footnote, p. 289).
This letter was a request for aid (not granted, fn p. 290) to assist McLuhan in attending the conference. McLuhan argued that the conference would further his studies and would be important to problems related to national housing in Canada.
He quoted the invitation from Doxiadis, who praised his book Gutenberg Galaxy in which he found
“so many of the things that we also believe in and so many of the ideas which I think are relevant and essential to human settlements and their problems (p. 289).
McLuhan explained that he was working on his next book about “the extensions of man”:
. . . In the electric age it is the extension of the central nervous system itself . . . that so much confuses the problems of living-space. . . .
What kind of “problems” and “solutions” relating to “human settlements” were these unelected world-planning academics talking about?
Letter to Claude Cartier-Bresson (July 19, 1972, p. 452)
In this letter to the publisher of the French translations of his books, McLuhan refers to his attendance at the July 1972 Delos conference (on board the Orpheus).
Other guests (besides Buckminster Fuller, Margaret Mead and Barbara Ward again), included Herman Kahn, Gyorgy Kepes, Jonas Salt [Jonas Salk: confirmation that “Salt” is typo: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delos_Symposium, accessed Nov. 29, 2019], Arnold Toynbee, Jacqueline Tyrwhitt, and C. H. Waddington (editor’s fn, p. 452).
Letter to Barbara Ward (February 9, 1973, p. 465-468)
This 1973 letter is written in the same way he writes his friends (addressed to “Barbara” and signed “Cordially and Prayerfully Marshall”), and it contains interesting content. He declares himself an admirer of her.
The editor includes a bio of Barbara Ward (Lady Jackson, 1914-81): foreign editor of the Economist, governor of the BBC, instructor at Columbia University. Her books included: The Rich Nations and the Poor Nations (1962), Nationalism and Ideology (1966) and Human Settlements: Crisis and Opportunity (1974, Information Canada, Ottawa). The latter was based on her attendance at Delos (fn, p. 465).
McLuhan complains that the atmosphere of the Delos Conferences “forbade any discourse whatever (p. 466).”
Phonetic=Visual vs. Electric Information=Acoustic
In response to a concern she expressed to him about the threat to literacy because of “the effect of visual, communal images (via television) (p. 466),” McLuhan launches into an analysis of new media, television, and the inability of people to understand what is happening to them because of the bias to abstraction our literacy-based culture has. In other words, he’s claiming that people who casually introduced and accepted new media technologies were naive and blind.
McLuhan tries to correct her terminology and explains that phonetic literacy is the culture of “visual man” whereas television is part of the speed-of-light electric information structure, which is “acoustic man.”
Since his efforts to explain the subject were frustrating to him (see the above comment he made about Delos as just one example), and because his terminology about visual and auditory/acoustic seems so counter-intuitive at first, I wonder whether anyone of Ward’s status or higher in the world oligarchy of government and finance cared to understand what he was saying about the effects of applying new media to the world and western culture. Nevertheless, I assume that many involved in technology, media, culture and social planning have taken an interest in what McLuhan said and wrote.
In his response to Ward, McLuhan states that television “does not present a visual image [like words on paper], but an X-ray icon which penetrates our entire organism.” He quotes Joyce referring to it as “the charge of the light brigade.” McLuhan adds that it is “part of the Crimean war against mankind,” which is strong anti-television language. McLuhan mentions stained glass images, which are “not visual either” because they are “defined by light through.” He describes their structure as “audile-tactile” as in abstract Symbolist and Cubist art and are “at the extreme from phonetic literacy (p. 466).”
He refers to the Japanese funding a program of phonetic literacy and the “abolition of their own iconic culture.”
He explains that the “Graeco-Roman” “phonetic alphabet” like ours is unique because “its images abstract from all semantic meanings.” No other alphabet “is not loaded with semantic meanings and multi-sensory images.”
By abstracting all semantics from the signs, the phonetic alphabet [Greek/Latin/English] abstracted the visual faculty from all the other senses, making Euclid possible.
However, I have read the opinion that there are mystery-school meanings even embedded in (or imposed upon) the appearance of English alphabetical characters. McLuhan believes that the phonetic alphabet makes the absorption of information from other cultures easier and implies that the Graeco-Roman culture was more aggressive as a result.
McLuhan uses the word “visual” to describe the phonetic, literate culture:
Visual man is the most extreme case of abstractionism . . . unlimited powers of blue-printing knowledge and experience and political programming.
I note the term “political programming.”
Having this “visual faculty in isolation” is not threatened by a single factor “such as television or radio, but by the electric speed [roughly the speed of light] of information movement in general (p. 466).”
This is another of McLuhan’s major points. The new “information environment” has an “acoustic structure.” At this speed, “information is simultaneous from all directions” as in the act of hearing. The effect of “electric information is acoustic” even in the form of a newspaper page.
He explains that the Symbolists and also Yeats, Joyce, Pound and Eliot “spent their entire lives expounding the aesthetics of the resonant intervals of acoustic space.”
Visual space is “continuous, uniform, connected and static” but “the spaces created by all the other senses are discontinuous and dynamic.” Electric information “easily dominates and erodes all visual culture with its rational bias for the connected”. In other words, we are dominated by the acoustic-style electric information environment because of our visual, literacy-based, “rational bias for the connected.”
I think an example of this in our Internet age is the presence of hyperlinks interrupting the flow of a text. Thoughts that we are privately processing, that would have been connected and developed in a sequence (hopefully with us questioning what we are reading also) are unfortunately more likely to be interrupted with what we may think is equally important information — and we are likely to be distracted as a result. I think we lose an advantage of literacy if we interrupt what we are reading this way. Possibly it is better to go back over references after completing an article or book.
Figure and Ground
He complains to Barbara Ward that the “flaw of the Graeco-Roman thing has always been specialism and unrelatedness,” so nobody ever discussed “theories of communication,” Plato’s for example (p. 467). He mentions that Newton spent his life on Christian apologetics and explaining the Bible with mathematics. “His main scientific endeavours were spent on the Book of Daniel (p. 467).”
Communication theory for any figure requires the including of the ground for that figure and the study of the interplay between the figure and its ground (p. 467).
The phonetic, literate, “visual man” has “consistently studied the figure minus the ground.”
There was an “uproar” when Q. D. Leavis “did a study of Fiction and the Reading Public” because “she had ventured to suggest that highly literate people could lead moronic lives.” In this case, the reading public is the ground and the novel is the figure. Ordinary studies ignore the ground. They study the contents of the novel and ignore “the kinds of readers and their relation to the novel (p. 467).”
In other words, our literate, visual culture failed to make us mature enough to understand what we’re getting into. “Visual man likes to assume a merely neutral transportation process” and ignores the “complex changes that take place in both figure and ground during all communication” (“except H. A. Innis’ Empire and Communication“) (p. 467).”
This explains the famous line by McLuhan that “the medium is the message.” You should not assume that one form of media is the same as another in terms of your interaction with it and its effect on body and mind, and that somehow you’re just going to absorb the information in some neutral, completely rational way regardless of the medium. I think people should be careful of both the content and the type of medium.
I think, despite experiments that worked against it apparently (another subject), the education system still trains students in phonetic literacy. I’m sure that can be a good thing, but it’s not necessarily a good thing in itself if it’s just used to bury our minds in propaganda.
In a television interview, McLuhan clearly states that although he is all about literacy and reading, which are good things, nevertheless they make us vulnerable to propaganda: https://canadianliberty.com/marshall-mcluhan-interview-from-1977-surveillance-identity-propaganda/
Students should be trained to think for themselves. Literacy just ends up impressing on us what we are supposed to believe is important and good. We should learn to be skeptical of what we read. If books that oppose traditional or parental values are going to be pushed on students (there shouldn’t be forced education anyway), students must be allowed to fully express themselves to the contrary.
I think we should read material that we are going to disagree with and not be afraid of it. How else are you going to find out that approved authors and “authorities” and those in power can spout as many lies and worthless, destructive, even malevolent drivel, as anyone else if you never read any of it. Read, think, learn and argue. I used to only read authors who wrote in my own adopted political niche which had been pre-constructed for me to fall into. This is ridiculous. This is not living in the real world. This is LARPing or role-playing in fantasy land. There are multiple pens for the human livestock to mull around in and repeat comforting doctrines to each other to calm them and make them feel understood and secure, affirming their adopted prejudices or truths (usually skewed) to each other while failing to make any effective difference in acting constructively to correct injustice and destructive policies. This keeps us in check. This is how we are victims of control. We need to somehow survive our “education” and the electric media we’re immersed in, grow up and snap out of it, and somehow shield ourselves from further media immersion.
McLuhan underlines the problems with the old-fashioned model not helping us deal with the risks of new media realistically:
Visual man cannot tolerate the study of the subliminal and the non-visual aspect of his own life. . . . Panic and inhibition characterize Graeco-Roman man when his visual assumptions are either studied or threatened.
McLuhan explains that we do not need to be locked in to either state of “visual man” or “acoustic man.” He adds his formula that
“visual = “civilized”, and acoustic = “tribal.” All non-visual cultures are tribal, in varying degree; that is, time-bound and structured by kinship (p. 468).
So, in my opinion, it’s good to have a mix of tribal life and individual life if possible (literacy and other media along with awareness). However, I also think that the ever-present instantaneous electric information structure tends to bury us in an imposed and destructive pseudo-tribal culture that impedes our ability to think as individuals with private thoughts while at the same time eroding our more natural family and cultural identities. This is the “global village” McLuhan wrote about.
Additional Information Areas for Further Research
Note: unless specified otherwise, web references are cited as accessed on or before November 4, 2018.
To be continued: Part 8 – Follow Up Research
- topics, names and documents in the above text, including Salt/Salk, Watt, declaration, etc.
- other documents and info on Barbara Ward
- terminology, connections with later Agenda 21
- Check associations regarding Trilateral Commission if any and Chatham House
- separate topics: extreme tech interfacing mind, body, surveillance, etc.
- separate topic: strategies: conundrum of fighting censorship against legitimate speech and fighting toxic effects of media containing obscenity: define the terms, resolve the contradictions and find ways to resist BOTH.