From Literary Modernism to the Tantramar Marshes: Anticipating McLuhan in British and Canadian Media Theory and Practice

Paul Tiessen (Wilfred Laurier Univeristy)

Abstract: This study offers brief sketches of four twentieth-century cultural analysts and activists. It examines their work and illustrates the extent to which a fairly sophisticated McLuhanesque sensibility was operating in Canada in intellectual and government circles from the 1920s to the 1940s, 10 years prior to the arrival of Marshall McLuhan. The four figures are John Grierson, Wyndham Lewis, Graham Spry, and Gerald Noxon, all of whom began their careers in England and played important roles in Canadian media history.

Résumé: Cette étude offre de courts sketches de quatre activistes et analystes culturels du vingtième siècle. Elle examine leur travail et illustre qu'une sensibilité McLuhanesque assez sophistiquée opérait au Canada dans les cercles intellectuels et gouvernementaux, entre les années 1920 et 1940, dix ans avant l'arrivée de Marshall McLuhan. Les quatre personnages sont John Grierson, Wyndham Lewis, Graham Spry et Gerald Noxon; tous ont débuté leurs carrières en Angleterre et ont joué d'importants rôles dans l'histoire canadienne des médias.

In the decade following World War I, such developments as the international flowering of popular, avant-garde, and documentary cinema, the public institutionalization of radio (with the establishment of the BBC) and early experiments with television gave shape to a significant body of media theorizing in Britain. I am suggesting here that this theorizing created in the public realm a conversation, really a critical idiom, which in its content and tone broadly anticipated elements of Marshall McLuhan's post-World War II work.

Technology's promise (or threat) of national and international media landscapes "democratized" by new, universally distributed media prompted a great deal of public commentary and debate in Britain in the 1920s. There, the impact of the Great War, the changes in the empire, the cracks in the class system, the new world order coloured by the actions of a post-revolutionary USSR, and the onslaught of the new media themselves conspired to make cultural and political analysts and agitators either wary or hopeful in ways they had not before experienced. Often, they found a focus for their anxiety in the American invasion of England, evident especially in the British cinemas after the war, and in the "typically American" patterns of behaviour clearly visible in radio production and distribution in the aggressive private sector in the United States, where stations and programs were multiplying with little attention to "taste" or "culture." Modernists from the literary community--in their very status anticipating McLuhan's posture as an intellectual gesturing from within a literary tradition--were prominent among those engaged in the media questions of the 1920s, and they offered significant analyses of the local and world-wide changes occurring in media and technology.

I am suggesting here, too, that the climate, the fabric established through public discourse and debate, of media analysis in England from, say, 1919 to 1929, extended subsequently to Canada. Figures working within literary disciplines were visible among those who contributed to what we might now regard as a pre-McLuhan body of Canadian media theory. The very public expression of that theory (especially in the 1930s and 1940s in Canada), stimulated partly by debates around the formation of such national institutions as the CBC and the NFB (and, again, around the vast "threat" of American initiatives in film and radio as well as television) gave public-minded Canadians, as it had given to the British, a distinctive mass-media consciousness, a consciousness underscored by a sense of national wariness and purpose. It was a consciousness which prepared for McLuhan, as though in anticipation of his arrival, a Canadian audience operating in a critical milieu steeped in sensibilities developed in England and re-articulated in Canada. Perhaps it was this very consciousness which became irritated and aroused when the flamboyantly public McLuhan seemed to ingratiate himself so fully with American popular culture in the 1960s and 1970s.

In this paper, I will not directly discuss McLuhan, the outlines of whose approach and thought in seminal texts such as The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962) and Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964) are well known (and in whose work there is renewed interest). Rather, I will identify certain patterns of thought concerning mass media, technological form, and socio-cultural practice that preceded his "probes" of the 1950s to the 1970s. To offer points of focus, I will locate these patterns in four specific figures (and, with some, in associated institutions or movements) who quite literally can be said to have "travelled" from the England especially of the 1920s (and, in three of the four cases, also the 1930s) to the Canada especially of the late l920s and early 1930s in one case and (in the other three cases) of the late 1930s and early- to mid-1940s. Specifically, I will briefly pay attention to John Grierson and Wyndham Lewis, two British culture critics and polemicists who participated in modernist movements in England and who in the 1940s developed distinct presences in Canadian cultural and intellectual life. I will also make reference to Graham Spry and Gerald Noxon, two Canadians whose "McLuhanesque" contributions to Canadian thought about mass-media effects found inspiration in the British 1920s (and, especially for Noxon, 1930s) milieu. I will point out that by the late 1920s both Spry and Noxon had begun to share with figures like Grierson and Lewis an awareness of the medium having become the message within a global context. Like Grierson, they were both activists who sought to find in the nation-state's uses of new media an effective potential for national cultural creativity; they sought to find in national uses of the media, too, points of resistance to the free, universal flow of American entertainment and information (what they regarded as values and propaganda) in what they acknowledged had become an increasingly borderless, media-shaped world culture.

In Britain in the early 1920s, the success of American and other films and the unleashing of a new wave of non-print texts such as radio broadcasts forced literary and other communities to consider closely the nature of post-war socio-cultural change. While their assessments were both buoyant and gloomy, they often included lucid gestures of fresh analysis and insight. New publics, new mass audiences, new centres of power, new means for determining culture and distributing control--these were the images and topics in the great debates shaped by the presence of radio by 1920, as well as film and, by about 1927, the first wave of television. These debates often contemplated in mythopoeic terms the ultimate import of these new tools for good and evil and, as part of those debates, the new centres for mass-media control that now seemed to be managed by god-like, or demonic, forces. One's prejudice, politics, or personality might help to determine whether one thought a control-centre was run by God, or--as in an image by Wyndham Lewis--by Lucifer (Lewis, 1955a, p. 135). Whatever the range of specific details of their impact in Canada, figures such as Lewis and Grierson, Spry and Noxon are suggestive in underlining that what developed in Canada in the 1930s to 1940s was a consequence of a particular, highly charged, post-war British atmosphere in which intellectual and cultural, propagandist and ideological, radical and reactionary debate and dialogue came to the fore in a concentrated field of discourse.

The British discussion in the 1920s encompassed a wide range of assessments, from darkly apocalyptic to brightly Utopian formulations, in its anticipation of the world as seamless global village. Four brief excerpts from the 1920s not only summarize strands of the ongoing discussions in Britain, but also produce an intellectual resonance that is clearly recognizable once we have read McLuhan. First, a statement that acknowledges mass-media technology (in this case radio) as an extension of individual and collective experience: "The contemporary European or American is a part of a broadcasting set, a necessary part of its machinery" (Lewis, 1926, p. 105). Second, a statement that picks up the trope or metaphor of the "global village" in a twentieth-century world:

It is not possible perfectly to disentangle from that of the wireless [radio], the popular newspaper and the gramophone, the influence of the cinema in rural districts.... [Even rural] youths and maidens in becoming world citizens, in getting into communication with the unknown, become... recruits available ... for the world-wide conversations now increasingly upon us. (Richardson, 1928, pp. 55, 57)

Third, a statement reverberating with the sense that the medium--in this case, specifically, cinema--is the message: "... the world of the film to-day (there is no getting away from it) is no longer the world of the film, it is the world. It is only those who are indifferent to the world itself and its fate, who can afford to be indifferent to the fate of the film industry and the fate of the film art" (Doolittle, 1928, p. 20). Fourth, a statement that acknowledges not only that globalization but also that disintegration of individual sensory experience can be enforced by the distribution of a new technology such as cinema:

... people are to be trained from infancy to regard the world as a moving picture.... [T]heir truth is entirely built upon the facts of the visual sense, but that sense in isolation.... [Such a truth] is based on a disintegration of the complex unit for the senses, and a granting of unique privileges to vision, in its raw, immediate and sensational sense. (Lewis, 1957/1927, pp. 394, 404, 405)

These four statements from 1926 to 1928--taken from work by the novelist Dorothy Richardson, the poet Hilda Doolittle, and the novelist /painter/polemicist Wyndham Lewis--are typical of many one might select especially from the end of the 1920s. During this period, a shrewdly articulated mass-media consciousness was as richly present in intellectual, cultural, artistic, and specifically literary circles as it was 35 years later, when The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media arrived. What writers such as these saw in the decade following a war which had made them all too aware of the effects of new technologies of a horrific kind, McLuhan saw doubly one war later.

Much of the English-speaking literary world centred in London (and, by extension, Paris) in the 1920s felt that there seemed to be much at stake with the proliferation of the new sound and moving-image media. Literary figures therefore sometimes responded with enormous hostility, fear, contempt, loathing--or, oppositely, with curiosity, jubilation, positive anticipation, or tolerance. Writers, in effect invited by the media to intensify their role as cultural observers, read society under the pressure of modern technologies as a new body in the making. They saw in the expansion of diverse new communication technologies a complex interpenetration of many texts of quite differing kinds, and they became acutely aware of the new and potential social practices being initiated or enlarged during the 1920s. In a way, the highly visible new media made strangely appropriate bedfellows for the new literature developing under the modernism of Joyce and Eliot, Richardson and Woolf. The modernists were "making it new" in their prose fiction and poetry, largely discarding conventional literary allegiance to linear space and time and the objective authority of the omniscient narrator. They were exploring subjectivity, dream, memory, and the unconscious by concentrating on the impressionistic role of the various senses in apprehending experience; to observers as early as 1919 and 1920, the modernists seemed at times to be imitating, or parodying, the new media. Scores of scholarly studies have paid attention to the seemingly parallel techniques of the modernists and those of film and radio. So while what flourished in the modernist literary world of the 1920s was a distinctly twentieth-century critical intelligence operating within an atmosphere of post-war cultural anxiety and hope, it was operating also within an atmosphere of ambivalence with regard to what some saw as competing (or compellingly stimulating) narrative forms. At the very least, the new media became cultural irritants which extracted from British intellectuals and artists their politics, whether élitist or egalitarianist.

Reflecting something of the spirit of literary modernism, there emerged within the 1920s in England a self-reflexive and self-critical layering within the actual institutions of film-production and radio-production; in part, this critical idiom developed from the mapping out of a political/intellectual strategy designed to offer resistance to the forms and the artefacts of mass production generally identified by the early 1920s with radio and film in the United States. Literary modernists found their own various locations within this intellectually radical, or reactionary, strategy. Many members of the British (and, to be sure, American) film communities in the 1930s come from literary studies at Cambridge and the stimulating climate of discussion there in the 1920s concerning media, particularly the cinema.

The contours of a British society alerted to the presence of the new mass media are visible in a variety of forms. For example, in the 1920s in Britain film screenings expanded from the commercial and popular to the artistically more serious realm with Wiene's 1919 The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (which played at London's Marble Arch Pavilion in 1920), though Chaplin may already have hooked the attention of some London artists and intellectuals, including Lewis, even earlier. With films such as Caligari, intellectual audiences were "distanced" from usual commercial fare, as finer work provided, in effect, its own critical commentary on the conventions of the medium itself. At the same time, as I have noted, popular institutionalized cinema gave advance notice in England (and, of course, in Canada) of what it was like to be invaded by a foreign, notably American, power camouflaged by the apparently benign Birnam Wood of a new mass medium and against which one was little prepared.

BBC radio began its structuring of national behaviour and thought in 1922 (the year of publication of Joyce's Ulysses and Eliot's "The Waste Land"). In 1925 (the year in which Eisenstein's Potemkin was released in Russia), Roger Fry, Julian Huxley, Augustus John, Bernard Shaw, and H. G. Wells were among the founders of the famous London Film Society. It screened about 150 films in the late 1920s--by directors such as Wiene, Lang, Stroheim, Pabst, Renoir, Pudovkin, and Eisenstein. Its manager, who later started the film division of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, was Iris Barry, a friend of Lewis.

In 1927, public television broadcasting began in England (its history eclipsed by the now better-known surge in television broadcasting that occurred after World War II). In the summer of 1928 London's Shaftsbury Avenue Pavilion Cinema began a two-year run of important foreign films which, in the words of its manager, gave "the intelligenzia, the intellectual amateur,... and the ordinary, average middle-class business man" a chance not only to see interesting films but also to contemplate the effects, evident in commercial houses, of "the fare provided for `the masses' " (Low, 1971, p. 34). That year, too, the British Parliament tried to stem the influence of American dominance in film production and distribution by passing a quota act; this had the unexpected and ironic effect of stimulating the production of a couple of dozen very shoddy feature-length American films in Canada between 1929 and 1939.

In 1929, the Cambridge Film Guild, expanding on interest expressed in film at Cambridge, and operating partly in tandem with the London Film Society, was formed. Its program, like the London Film Society's, included guest speakers, most notably Eisenstein, the great film modernist who had recently travelled from Russia to Paris, where in November 1929 he huddled with James Joyce. It included, also, John Grierson, who in 1929 made his first documentary, Drifters, and thus gave shape to a film movement that was largely inspired by Eisenstein's ideology and art. The silent film, Winifred Bryher recalled in her memoirs, offered artists and intellectuals of the late 1920s a sense of a new "internationalization" by offering a single, unifying, visual language to all of its viewers (Bryher, 1962, p. 246).

Time and again, as various British-based accounts of broadcasting and cinema suggest, it was the American influence (from radio soap operas to the Hollywood dream imagery) that was targeted as the enemy, the threat, the other. The unbridled capitalist product of Hollywood necessarily cut a broad audience swath, in effect a lowest common denominator: "the celluloid is so fabulously expensive that only the films of the vulgarest type can be undertaken in Hollywood" (Lewis, 1955b, p. 95). Such a cinema ravenously consumed its consumers. These were often pilloried and pitied by Lewis for their place in the "gum-chewing World-pit" (Lewis, 1932b, p. 104) and vigorously defended by other, particularly women, modernists such as Dorothy Richardson.

The cultural intensification of new media formulations in England in the 1920s fuelled elements of Canadian cultural and intellectual sensibility, and affected practice and policy. The recent publication of Graham Spry's letters reminds us of Spry's sojourn as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford and his subsequent relentless efforts, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, to establish a public broadcasting system in Canada modelled on the critical and ideological methodology and pedagogy of the BBC in England, established in 1922. Spry signalled his point of view in the heading of an early letter that he wrote on behalf of the Canadian Radio League: "... Canadian Radio for Canadians. Britannia rules the waves--shall Columbia [CBS in the US] rule the wave lengths?" This 1930 letter makes clear that the Canadian Radio League "has as its object the protection of Canada from a radio system like that of the United States" (Spry, 1992, p. 67; see also p. 57). Lord Reith, architect through most of the 1920s and 1930s of the BBC, had said the same thing on behalf of the BBC, the institution in which Spry's friend, the McGill graduate and 1913-1914 Rhodes Scholar Gladstone Murray worked from 1924 to 1935, before taking over as general manager of the CBC in 1936 and carrying on until 1942. Indeed, Spry sent a telegram to Murray at the BBC in London in 1930 with this terse request: "Confidential group here alarmed American radio influences in Canada starting league to urge nationalization Canadian radio.... Could you send relevant information work BBC" (Spry, 1992, p. 68). In 1930 Spry urged Prime Minister Bennett, on a visit to London, to take note of the BBC as a valuable public educational tool not governed by commercial advertising interests and as a means for drawing the different and diverse parts of a country together (Spry, 1992, pp. 70-71).

Cultural and class norms were always implicit in the argument that the family home should not be turned into a billboard for American commercial interests but should serve as a theater, a concert hall, a club, a public meeting, a school, or a university that would enlarge the audience for what were considered traditional British or Anglo-Canadian values (Spry, 1992, pp. 72, 77). In his diary the Utopian Spry noted that the "stuff " average Americans take over radio might be enough to convince anyone that they are "not civilized," ill equipped to take "their part in the world," in the contemporary international community (Spry, 1992, p. 79). "It is a choice between the State and the United States" (Spry, 1992, p. 81), he would say. And here the state, for Spry, represented an idealism of civility and order, with the capacity to improve the moral and cultural lives of its Canadian audience, even the mandate to assimilate its "ethnic" parts.

Spry and his Canadian Radio League contemporaries, while putting forward a Canada guarded and inspired, taught and led, by its own culturally and politically sophisticated media voices, saw clearly that radio was contributing to the creation of a global village, blind to political borders around the world (Spry, 1992, pp. 73-74). Spry echoed some of Wyndham Lewis's and anticipated some of Marshall McLuhan's categories of response to (and concerns about) radio and television when he summarized in 1931:

We have taken as a matter of course a development of science which enables the human voice to be heard around the world.... We await... the casually anticipated pleasure of seeing on our own walls from our own chairs the living picture of some event instantaneously transmitted to our sight and hearing from the far-off place of its occurrence.... The urgent question is, who shall control this lamp? Who shall administer this instrument of such mighty and blossoming power? (Spry, 1992, pp. 76-77)

Spry distinguished, in his argument, between broadcasting and publishing, emphasizing that the issue of control pertained only to the former, not the latter. Once Spry had won his case, in 1932, and the sense of a BBC-influenced CBC had become firmly established, the Prime Minister summed things up: "It may well be, Graham, that you have saved Canada for the British Commonwealth" (Spry, 1992, p. 84).

The National Film Board of Canada, like the CBC, is a mechanism built partly on the hope of offering cultural, creative, and critical distance from the United States, and built largely on British experience of the preceding decades. In the 1920s, when he was studying in the United States, John Grierson had based his vision for the new media on his growing realization of their incredible power to lead and, to be sure, transform mass society, and on his conviction of the need to configure and express that power in terms of what he saw as the highest potential for public service and responsibility. For his moral tone Grierson too, in effect, adapted the vision of John Reith, a fellow Scottish "evangelist" and sponsor of the BBC's structure and tone, as one model. He borrowed also from the political and socio-cultural vision of Eisenstein who in the 1920s was popular among many British intellectuals and with whom Grierson shared a platform at the London Film Society and at the Cambridge Film Guild in the 1929-1930 season.

For Grierson, who was much more publicly programmatic than McLuhan would ever be but who predicated his actions on what we now regard as "McLuhanesque" insights concerning the effects of the mass media, it was crucial that what he viewed as benign interests (in England, the Empire Marketing Board and the General Post Office, for example) should use "wholesale approaches to the making of the mind over to fit the future;... the mass media must bear the brunt of what duty there may be" (Grierson, 1966, p. 388). So, in Canada, when Prime Minister Mackenzie King (by then already aware of Gerald Noxon's views of the mass media in this regard) asked Grierson what could be done about Canada's sense of dependence shifting from England, "the Mother Country," to the United States, "our good neighbor to the South," Grierson's answer drew on his assurance that media techniques used in England in the 1920s, and popularized, as Grierson knew, even more vigorously in Eisenstein's Russia, could be applied in Canada. For Grierson, the country-wide defences developed by the widespread operation of mass-media screenings could be made to follow the ideological and cultural interests of a nation state. Years later Grierson recalled about his work in Canada:

...[W]e set about making the Canadians look to the north and, to that end, we began by changing the maps to focus on the North Pole.... We multiplied the expeditions into the north, we established better news services from the north, we started on what turned out to be an excellent series of films from the north.... [I]n a short period of years the people of Canada were aided and abetted, and of deliberation, in realizing themselves as a people. (Grierson, 1966, p. 388)

Grierson's words remind us of the common practice--given reinforcement by Eisenstein in Russia--of railways, the hardware of the previous century, employed in the distribution of Canadian film images, and of the ongoing "media" invention and mapping of Canada where earlier surveyors and map-makers had constructed grids and colours and names to interpret this land in particular ways. (They echo, too, as I shall note, Gerald Noxon's 1930 comparisons of Canada and Russia.) In general, what developed in Canada was a widely articulated sense of deliberate analytical and critical positioning in a world where the century's new mass media were inviting, by force, a series of individual and collective, conscious and unconscious, responses.

During his adult years in Canada, Gerald Noxon worked for the NFB from 1940 to 1941, with the CBC from 1941 to 1947. His career is yet another kind of articulation of some of the strands of thought and practice which I am offering as succinct summary of early "McLuhanism," for he was active for at least 10 years in British film and radio circles beginning in the late 1920s, and then in Canadian film and radio circles during the 1940s. Like Spry, he advocated for Canada a nationalist model of broadcast control, but, looking beyond Canada to the world, he envisaged by 1945 a global audience for a specifically Canadian media voice.

Noxon was born in 1910 in Canada, but by 1919 had been sent by his father to schools in Europe and England, where he attended Stowe. At Cambridge University in 1929 he joined with later prominent documentary film makers (Basil Wright, Humphrey Jennings, Stuart Legg) in the work of the Cambridge Film Guild (of which he was the first president). In his writings of the time, Noxon expressed his preferences for a modernist aesthetic deriving particularly from Eisenstein and generally the literary avant-garde, with whom he had come into occasional contact in Paris between 1926 and 1928. Noxon's seven-page pamphlet, Films and the State, published in England in 1930, probably was one of the arguments that directly affected Mackenzie King's determination to form the National Film Board of Canada. Subtitled "A Survey of the Use of Motion Pictures in the Spreading of Knowledge Relative to the Development of a Country," the essay suggested that Canada, typically regarded as a developing country in the twentieth century but already finding itself in a modern and mass-media defined age, should model a national film program on the post-revolutionary Russian experiment. Such a program, Noxon argued from Cambridge, would (as it did in the USSR) create a defence against the American Hollywood system: "Canada is a new country and the means of her development must necessarily be new. It would be criminal were she to ignore the gigantic and significant cinema, the cinema which is the greatest propagandist power in the world" (Noxon, 1987a /1930, p. 64). It was necessary for Canada, he insisted, to fight fire with fire in order to resist the "terrific absorption" of American ideals and customs through American cinema.

While working in England from 1932 to 1940, Noxon had a chance to prepare for his vision for Canada through his contributions to the documentary and drama units in the Talks and the Feature Programming departments at BBC radio. He also contributed to Grierson's documentary film units at the Empire Marketing Board and the General Post Office. Noxon often clashed with Grierson who, he thought, took a politically and dramatically alien, a sentimentally romanticized, approach to his subject. Partly because of their differences over questions of approach and tone, he was twice fired by Grierson during this period, and once again later, in Canada. He felt that Grierson was too preoccupied with intimating, like Eisenstein, a revolutionary state of mind, but one which he thought did not really match the situation in Britain. Noxon preferred a more logical and non-dramatic structure for the documentary, and he tried to carry his views from film to radio. In Canada, after Grierson's collaborator and Noxon's old Cambridge friend, Stuart Legg, had established the agenda of the NFB, Noxon made an early French-language film for the NFB (Un du 22ième [1940]). Subsequently in his work for CBC radio, he served as documentary director, dramatist and, during World War II, analyst of Canadian affairs in the context of world developments. He scripted the two war-time radio docudrama series, They Fly for Freedom and Our Canada. He kept three other series going too--News From Europe, Background to Battle, and The World and Ourselves--and wrote many radio dramas for Andrew Allan and other producers. And right after the war, people interested in getting the Film Society moving again in Vancouver approached Noxon--through his 1920s Cambridge friend, the British-born novelist Malcolm Lowry.

In 1945 Noxon formally summarized and expanded on his earlier vision for Canada, the vision he had begun to develop during the heat of the great media debates in England in the 1920s. On a Montreal-based program for the trans-Canada network of the CBC, in a talk he titled "Canada's New Voice," Noxon referred to Canada's new short-wave radio transmitter at the Tantramar Marshes near Sackville, New Brunswick, for international broadcasting. He referred to speech and music originating in Montreal being received, over waves stronger than from any American transmitter, in Europe, where the turmoil and chaos of war formed the backdrop for radio reception. With the war still underway but the Allied victory in sight, Noxon was pleased that Canada could now "speak quickly and directly" to its men and women fighting overseas, could reinforce for Germans the argument that they had lost the war and should stop their side of the fight, and could "place a Canadian point of view" before Europeans, to let them hear from Canadians about developments in Canada: "... Canada must have this great new voice--a voice that will reach almost every country in the world with outstanding power" (Noxon, 1945, p. 2).

For Noxon (as we have seen with Spry) the question of which political interests would control the mass-media voices of the future was of paramount importance, and he moved beyond the merely nationalist argument he had expressed in Cambridge in 1930 to a new internationalist argument sensitive to the needs of a post-war world needing to rebuild a new order. In the new economy Canada should, he insisted, keep a considerable distance not only from the voices of the Americans but also of the British and, by the technologically most advanced mass-media vehicles of the day, Canada should provide not only its own people but also the post-war world with a sense of a rejuvenated human vision. Canada should take its distinctive place in what McLuhan would later call the global village.

The critical rhetoric within and surrounding the CBC and the NFB and other institutions, such as the Film Societies movement, a rhetoric expressed by Grierson, Spry, Noxon, and many others, emerged from the public debate that Wyndham Lewis also engaged in England, especially from 1926 to 1932, and in which Lewis was, to be sure, a very vocal figure. Lewis, like many other leading literary modernists, was extremely interested in and concerned about contemporary developments in literature and the arts, and in the use of new media to alter public and private space and sensibility. And his was never merely a national but a meta-national vision. He directly anticipated McLuhan in his assessment of the effects of radio, cinema, television, the press, and the photograph, of processes and mass-products exploiting photomechanical, electromagnetic, and electronic miracles.10 In his The Art of Being Ruled (1926), Lewis described (as I have noted above) the individual and the mass as an extension of the machine (the radio), and vice versa. Lewis's Time and Western Man (1927) warned against the fragmenting of the sensorium or altering the ratios of the senses--notably the enforced detachment of the sense of sight from the other senses, especially touch--effected for Lewis less by the printing press than by the photograph (which had been around since 1839) and the cinema. With media operating as fragmenting and anaesthetizing instruments, "democratic masses could be governed without a hitch by suggestion and hypnotism--Press, Wireless, Cinema. So what need is there to slaughter them?" (Lewis, 1957/1927, p. 137) In The Childermass (1928) Lewis pleaded for individuals and society to throw up bulwarks against a "massacre of the innocents" brought on by the "accelerated media change" (McLuhan, 1968/1964, p. 31) of our time. Lewis's The Doom of Youth (1932) exposed further his identity as a kind of technological determinist, gloomier, and more apocalyptic than the public McLuhan would later be about mass-media "hypnotism" guided by "the lowest average `low-brow' " (Lewis, 1932a, p. viii). Yet, for all his pessimism about the television child as happy global citizen, Lewis strove vigorously to create valuable space for a future in which the individual artist could flourish as seer.

That Lewis anticipated the McLuhan whose media theories we know comes as no surprise, for McLuhan developed a close knowledge of Lewis's work when he was in England. By 1935-1936, when he was at Cambridge, McLuhan had read Lewis's Time and Western Man, and by 1938, several other of Lewis's works (Toye in Molinaro, et al., 1987, pp. 6, 94). His interest in Lewis's twentieth-century program of analysis was reinforced also during many conversations between Lewis and McLuhan in Canada and the US between mid-1943 and early 1945 when Lewis (like the other emblematic figures in this essay: Spry, Grierson, Noxon) found himself taking up residency in Canada after earlier work in England. Notwithstanding McLuhan's apparent insistence on the corrective or reformative power of television as a mechanism for the provision of new harmonies and accommodations in the individual and the mass, it is worthy of note that Lewis comprehensively anticipated McLuhan's emphasis on the social aspects of technological culture in all its complexity.

Lewis's anticipation of McLuhan was stimulated by Lewis's own commitment to join in the contemporary investigations and public debates concerning the media-defined culture that was emerging so palpably in the 1920s in England. It was at least at one level a self-reflexive culture in which practitioners and propagandists alike (Spry mainly in Canada; Grierson and Noxon first in England, then Canada) were intellectually exploring and expounding on its future. It was a culture many of whose critics and proponents played a large role in developing a mass-media self-consciousness in Britain, then in Canada, in the first half of this century, a self-consciousness which later found a special flowering in the voice of Marshall McLuhan.


I presented this article in an earlier form to a conference of the Association for Canadian Studies (on theoretical discourse in the Canadian intellectual community) in the fall of 1992. The paper is also part of my contribution to the introduction to a book-length study I am writing with David Black. I am grateful to David Black for his comments and suggestions here.
McLuhan's recent posthumously published writing includes Letters of Marshall McLuhan (Molinaro, et al., 1987), Marshall McLuhan & Eric McLuhan's Laws of media: The new science (1988), and Marshall McLuhan & Bruce R. Powers's The global village: Transformations in world life and media in the 21st Century (1989). Philip Marchand's biography, Marshall McLuhan: The medium and the messenger, appeared in 1989. The Antigonish Review devoted the Summer-Autumn 1988 issue to McLuhan. McLuhan Studies began publication in 1991. Signature included articles on McLuhan in its first three issues, in 1989 and 1990. What Neil Postman observed in Amusing Ourselves to Death--that it had become fashionable among "respectable scholars" to disavow association with McLuhan's thought--has, then, perhaps changed. Postman announced his own ready acceptance of McLuhan who, as prophesier in the tradition of Orwell and Huxley, taught that "the clearest way to see through a culture is to attend to its tools for conversation" (1985, p. 8). The present study suggests that the broad interest in "tools for conversation" in England in the 1920s had a subsequent direct impact on Canadian practice and thought that preceded McLuhan's work.

At the same time, this study does not deal with Harold Innis, whose thought from the 1920s to the 1940s developed during the very period here under consideration, and of course is often cited as having influenced McLuhan's. For a recent study of these two frequently linked Canadian intellectuals, see Robert K. Logan's "The Axiomatics of Innis and McLuhan" (1991). See also Rowland Lorimer & Jean McNulty's discussion of the Toronto School in their Mass Communication in Canada, pp. 23-33.

For Noxon, see not only his "Films and the State" (1987a /1930) but also his correspondence concerning radio drama, film, and film societies in England and Canada in Tiessen (1988a), Noxon's contribution (1987b) to All the Bright Company: Radio Drama Produced by Andrew Allan, his 10 Canadian radio plays (mainly from the 1940s) in Fink and Jackson's The Road to Victory (1989), and his three radio plays (1992), including one for Studio One in 1947 in New York, with Fletcher Markle. See also Spry's recently published letters (1992).
Three of these four figures, and McLuhan, have been associated with English-language modernism in a variety of ways, and I point here only to obvious points of contact or obvious characteristics. By the late 1920s, Wyndham Lewis had shifted from his earlier role as modernist, as (with Eliot, Pound, and Joyce) one of the "men of 1914," and had in many respects become a leading anti-modernist--his stance symbolized, for example, in his attacks on Gertrude Stein and James Joyce in Time and Western Man (1927) and elsewhere. John Grierson's modernism was partly a function of the lessons he learned from Eisenstein, the international film director and theorist who saw his work (such as The Battleship Potemkin, released in 1925) as operating in the idiom of Joyce's 1922 novel, Ulysses; Grierson's documentary vision, exemplified by 1929 in his film Drifters, can arguably be classified as modernist in temper. Gerald Noxon's life in Paris, London, and Cambridge in the 1920s and early 1930s, as well as his essays and poetry, reveal his strong alliance with modernism in that period, prior to his return to Canada, where he worked for the NFB and the CBC in the 1940s. In 1948 the CBC produced the radio version of Mr. Arcularis, widely regarded as the finest of the radio plays produced during Canadian radio drama's golden age; it was written by Noxon, his adaptation of a short story by Conrad Aiken. See aspects of the wide range of Noxon's work, especially concerning film and radio, in his "On Malcolm Lowry" and Other Writings (1987a). Concerning Noxon's career, see also Howard Fink & John Jackson's essay, as well as my essay, in Fink & Jackson (1989); my article "A Canadian Film Critic in Malcolm Lowry's Cambridge" (1986); and my introduction (1988a) to The Letters of Malcolm Lowry and Gerald Noxon, 1940-1952. Marshall McLuhan--even through his self-avowed links with Joyce's thought, and a writing style which at times resembles Joyce's--is a kind of late modernist. Indeed, that there was a transfer of ideas and techniques from the London (and Paris) of the literary modernists--Eliot, Joyce, Pound, and Lewis, for example--to McLuhan was suggested often enough by McLuhan himself. In the present study I draw attention not to Joyce but to the Lewis of the later 1920s in discussing intellectual arguments that anticipated McLuhan's. In his The Medium is the Rear View Mirror (1971), Donald Theall strongly alerts us to the importance of Lewis's work in this regard. Spry is not a modernist, of course, even in the very loosely defined terms I have employed here--though his sensibility concerning media in the late 1920s, and the categories of his anxieties and hopes, are openly shared by many modernists active in the late 1920s.
By the early 1920s the American film industry had become increasingly influential in international film production, distribution, and exhibition, an influence (including its effects on block-booking and theatre ownership) felt in England and Canada alike. By 1920-1921, a year or two after the first public broadcasts, American entrepreneurialship placed hundreds of American radio stations in the hands of private or commercial interests, a phenomenon that threatened to spread outside the United States. Television became a possibility, in terms of demonstrable technological opportunities, in the mid-1920s, although it did not gain widespread acceptance and use until later.
Wees has commented on Lewis's early interest in Chaplin (1972, p. 147). Anglo-Canadian novelist Malcolm Lowry, writing in Canada to an American during the winter of 1949-1950, has commented on the invasion of Britain by American films during his childhood in England: "there has never been any hesitation on Hollywood's part in infiltrating her values wherever she could reach in the world, even as far as New Brighton, England, where... [I] was born. In fact for years as a boy I Malcolm--Hollywood quite aside for the moment--never saw a single British newsreel (let alone as it happened thank God a British film) only American, which is much as if you were forced twice a week to see a cricket game in Stow-in-the-Wold, Worcestershire, you didn't understand, together with your national problems being solved by our prime minister. (The same went for American songs too, and still does: Red Hot Mamma being especially popular in my day: the English still think it means mother.) The formative power, for better or worse, of Hollywood on the youth of the world has been colossal: and we shall never know how much our own character has been moulded by it. And it is the same in Canada. Whether one feels grateful or abusive, most everyone has a stake in it, whether they know it or not. To most people it's the only Sunday school, college, or military to say nothing of sexual training they ever get" (Lowry, 1974, p. 7).

Similarly, Gerald Noxon, concerned about American impact on Canada, wrote in 1930 in England: "Canada is a large country and her southern neighbor the world's greatest producer of films of all kinds. Many of these films come into Canada and are eagerly seen by the great majority of her population. This means a terrific absorption of American Ideals and customs on the part of Canadians and in some degree this is inevitable but were the Canadian Government to produce a certain number of good educational films and mingle these with the American fare the effect of the latter would be tempered and certain economic and nationalistic benefit to Canada would accrue. Thus the very existence of these films quite apart from their intrinsic value would benefit the country and preserve its individuality and to those who value it the cinema is a great defensive weapon" (Noxon, 1987a /1930, pp. 59-60).

The Film Society movement that developed in Canada in the mid-1930s and renewed itself in Canada in the mid-1940s was an outgrowth of that established in England, where resistance to what was thought of as the American product flourished at the London Film Society from 1925 on, the Cambridge Film Guild beginning in 1929, and many other societies; in the Film Society movement Grierson's attitude and artifact were highly valued ingredients.
See my article, "Eisenstein, Joyce, and the Gender Politics of English Literary Modernism," especially pp. 19-24.
British-born novelist Malcolm Lowry was one of the greatest admirers of Noxon's Cambridge Film Guild. When, with the outbreak of World War II, both Lowry and Noxon arrived in Canada, Lowry contemplated joining Grierson, Noxon, and his and Noxon's old Cambridge schoolmate, Stuart Legg, at the National Film Board. Later, still in Canada, Lowry wrote the final drafts of this century's most famous "cinematic" novel, Under the Volcano (1947), and from 1949 to 1950, a "metacinematic" filmscript, inspired by F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night. In 1946 Lowry urged Noxon to use his late-1920s, "British" Film Society know-how to help Film Society prospects in Canada (Lowry, in Tiessen, 1988a, pp. 127-129).
For discussions of Lewis and contemporary mass media see my articles: "Wyndham Lewis's The Childermass (1928): The Slaughter of the Innocents in the Age of Cinema" (1988b), "A New Year One: Film as Metaphor in the Writings of Wyndham Lewis" (1984), "The Critic, the Film, and the Astonished Eye" (1978) and (with H. Froese Tiessen) "Wyndham Lewis and Documentary Film in the 1920s/1930s" (1990).


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