Marshall McLuhan

From Academic Kids

Herbert Marshall McLuhan (July 21, 1911December 31, 1980) was a Canadian educator, philosopher, scholar, academic, professor of English literature, communications theorist, one of the founders of the study of media ecology and an honorary guru today among technophiles.



Born in Edmonton, Alberta, McLuhan studied English at the University of Manitoba and Cambridge University, where he studied under both I.A. Richards and F.R. Leavis. In 1936&ndash37 he taught at the University of Wisconsin. On March 30, 1937], he was formally received into the Roman Catholic Church, and he subsequently taught in Roman Catholic institutions of higher education. From 1937 to 1944 he taught English at Saint Louis University, where he taught a young Jesuit student there named Walter J. Ong (1912-2003). On August 4, 1939, he married Corinne Lewis of Fort Worth, Texas, and they spent 1939-40 at Cambridge University, where he continued to work on his doctoral dissertation on Thomas Nashe and the verbal arts. From 1944 to 1946 McLuhan taught at Assumption College in Windsor, Canada. From 1946 to 1979 he taught at St. Michael's College, University of Toronto, with a short stint at Fordham University in New York City. At this time the famed Fordham Experiment took place.


McLuhan's 1943 Cambridge University doctoral dissertation is a formidible piece of scholarship surveying the teaching of the verbal arts (grammar, dialectic or logic, and rhetoric) from Cicero down to the time of Thomas Nashe. It is scheduled to be published by Gingko Press in the near future. This is a key work for understanding where McLuhan is coming from in all of his subsequent works. For example, when we consider that rhetoric has long been characterized as the art of persuasion, we will more readily understand how he came to study the various items displayed in The Mechanical Bride -- the common denominator is that all of these items in one way or another aim to persuade us. Gingko Press also plans to publish the complete manuscript of items and essays that McLuhan prepared, only of which were published in his 1951 book. When these two announced books have been published, then we will be in a better position to assess McLuhan's work.

The Mechanical Bride

McLuhan's The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (1951) is a pioneering study in the field known today as popular culture. His former student and friend Walter J. Ong wrote a highly laudatory review essay about it: "The Mechanical Bride: Christen the Folklore of Industrial Man," Social Order 2 (Feb. 1952): 79-85. In a letter to Ong dated Jan. 23, 1953, McLuhan says, "Your review of Bride literally the only review that made sense. You were generous, but you saw what was up. The absence of serious study of these matters is total. i.e. universal emotional and intellectual illiteracy. And so unnecessary" (Letters of Marshall McLuhan 1987, p. 234).

In a letter to Ong dated May 31, 1953 (p. 236), McLuhan reports that he has received a two-year grant of $43,000 from the Ford Foundation to carry out a communication project at the University of Toronto involving faculty from different disciplines. In connection with this project, McLuhan and Ted Carpenter started the journal Explorations in Communication.

According to McLuhan, a student at the University of Toronto told him that Harold Innis had put The Mechanical Bride on the reading list for one of his courses there, which led McLuhan to discover Innis's later work.

The Gutenberg Galaxy

McLuhan's The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (written in 1961, first published in Canada by University of Toronto Press in 1962) is a pioneering study of print culture, a pioneering study in cultural studies, and a pioneering study in media ecology.

Throughout the book, McLuhan is at pains to reveal how communication technology (alphabetic writing, the printing press, and the electronic media) affects cognitive organization, which in turn has profound ramifications for social organization:

...[I]f a new technology extends one or more of our senses outside us into the social world, then new ratios among all of our senses will occur in that particular culture. It is comparable to what happens when a new note is added to a melody. And when the sense ratios alter in any culture then what had appeared lucid before may suddenly become opaque, and what had been vague or opaque will become translucent. (Gutenberg Galaxy 1962, p. 41)

His episodic and often rambling history takes the reader from pre-alphabetic tribal humankind to the electronic age. According to McLuhan, the invention of movable type greatly accelerated, intensified, and ultimately enabled cultural and cognitive changes that had already been taking place since the invention and implementation of the alphabet, by which McLuhan means phonemic orthography. (McLuhen is careful to distinguish the phonetic alphabet from logographic/logogramic writing systems, like hieroglyphics or ideograms.)

Print culture, ushered in by the Gutenberg press in the middle of the fifteenth century, brought about the cultural predominance of the visual over the aural/oral. Quoting with approval an observation on the nature of the printed word from Prints and Visual Communication by William Ivins, McLuhan remarks:

In this passage [Ivins] not only notes the ingraining of lineal, sequential habits, but, even more important, points out the visual homogenizing of experience of print culture, and the relegation of auditory and other sensuous complexity to the background. [...] The technology and social effects of typography incline us to abstain from noting interplay and, as it were, "formal" causality, both in our inner and external lives. Print exists by virtue of the static separation of functions and fosters a mentality that gradually resists any but a separative and compartmentalizing or specialist outlook. (Galaxy pp. 124-26)

We find the gist of McLuhan's argument (later elaborated in The Medium is the Massage) that new technologies (like alphabets and printing presses, and, for that matter, speech itself) exert a gravitational effect on cognition, which in turn affects social organization: Print technology changes our perceptual habits ("visual homogenizing of experience"), which in turn impacts social interactions ("fosters a mentality that gradually resists all but a... specialist outlook"). According to McLuhan, the advent of print technology contributed to and made possible most of the salient trends in the Modern period in the West: individualism, democracy, Protestantism, capitalism and nationalism. For McLuhan, these trends all reverberate with print technology's principle of "segmentation of actions and functions and principle of visual quantification" (Galaxy p. 154).

Visual, individualistic print culture will soon — McLuhan is writing in the early 1960s — be brought to an end by what McLuhan calls "electronic interdependence," when electronic media replace visual culture with aural/oral culture. In this new age, humankind will move from individualism and fragmentation to a collective identity, with a "tribal base." McLuhan's coinage for this new social organization is the global village, a term which has predominantly negative connotations in The Gutenberg Galaxy (a fact lost on its later popularizers):

Instead of tending towards a vast Alexandrian library the world has become a computer, an electronic brain, exactly as an infantile piece of science fiction. And as our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside. So, unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence. [...] Terror is the normal state of any oral society, for in it everything affects everything all the time. [...] In our long striving to recover for the Western world a unity of sensibility and of thought and feeling we have no more been prepared to accept the tribal consequences of such unity than we were ready for the fragmentation of the human psyche by print culture. (Galaxy p. 32)

Note again McLuhan's stress on the importance of awareness of a medium's cognitive effects: If we are not vigilant to the effects of media's impact, the global village has the potential to become a place where totalitarianism and terror rule.

Key to McLuhan's argument is the idea that technology has no per se moral bent — it is a tool that shapes profoundly an individual's and, by extension, a society's self-conception and realization:

Is it not obvious that there are always enough moral problems without also taking a moral stand on technological grounds? [...] Print is the extreme phase of alphabet culture that detribalizes or decollectivizes man in the first instance. Print raises the visual features of alphabet to highest intensity of definition. Thus print carries the individuating power of the phonetic alphabet much further than manuscript culture could ever do. Print is the technology of individualism. If men decided to modify this visual technology by an electric technology, individualism would also be modified. To raise a moral complaint about this is like cussing a buzz-saw for lopping off fingers. "But," someone says, "we didn't know it would happen." Yet even witlessness is not a moral issue. It is a problem, but not a moral problem; and it would be nice to clear away some of the moral fogs that surround our technologies. It would be good for morality. (Galaxy p. 158)

Technology affects cognition, and the moral valence of these changes is, for McLuhan, good or bad, depending on one's perspective. In the later seventeenth century, for instance, McLuhan identifies a considerable amount of alarm and revulsion towards the growing quantity of printed books. A few hundred years later, though, many thinkers express alarm at the "end of the book." If there can be no universal moral sentence passed on technology, McLuhan believes that "there can only be disaster arising from unawareness of the causalities and effects inherent in our technologies."

Though the World Wide Web did not yet exist when McLuhan wrote The Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan is, if not the coiner then a popularizer, of the term "surfing" when used to refer to rapid, irregular and multidirectional movement through a heterogenous body of documents or knowledge, e.g., statements like "Heidegger surf-boards along on the electronic wave as triumphantly as Descartes rode the mechanical wave."

McLuhan frequently quotes Ong's Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue (1958), which evidently had prompted McLuhan to write this book. Once again, Ong wrote a highly favorable review of this new book in America 107 (Sept. 15, 1962): 743, 747. McLuhan's The Gutenberg Galaxy won the 1962 Governor-General's Award for Non-Fiction, Canada's highest literary award.

Understanding Media

McLuhan's most widely known work, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964), is also a pioneering study in media ecology. In it McLuhan proposes that media themselves, not the content they carry, should be the focus of study -- popularly quoted as the medium is the message. More controversially, he postulates that content had little effect on society -- in other words, it did not matter if television broadcasts children's shows or violent programming, to illustrate one example -- the effect of television on society would be identical. He notes that all media have characteristics that engaged the viewer in different ways; for instance, a passage in a book could be reread at will, but (at least until the advent of the videocassette) a movie had to be screened again in its entirety to study any individual part of it.

McLuhan generally divides media into hot (content-rich) and cool (content-poor). This could be compared with hot a high definition photograph where the viewer can glean a lot of information contrasted with a quick sketch where the viewer has to 'fill in the blanks'.

McLuhan in Popular Culture

After the publication of Understanding Media, McLuhan received an astonishing amount of publicity, making him perhaps the most publicized English teacher in the twentieth century and arguably the most controversial.

For example, Newsweek magazine did a cover story on him. He made a cameo appearance as himself in Woody Allen's movie Annie Hall. Woody captured an important aspect of McLuhan's personality--having him utter the line "You don't understand my work at all." McLuhan was fond of telling his students and others that they simply did not understand him, no matter how much of his work they had studied. Playboy magazine published a lengthy interview of McLuhan. In 1983 he was lampooned in the David Cronenberg film Videodrome, where his character was given the name "Professor Brian O'Blivion" and issued such memorable quotes as "The television screen has become the retina of the mind's eye" and "I refuse to appear on television, except on television".

For their part, McLuhan's detractors generated enough articles criticizing him to fill up several volumes. But the controversy over his thought generated far more heat than light. Many of his detractors did not give evidence of understanding his thought by accurately summarizing it in their own words before they tried criticizing it.

In 1970 McLuhan was made a Companion of the Order of Canada.

After McLuhan's death, his former student and friend Walter J. Ong wrote what is arguably the most favorable assessment of McLuhan in print anywhere to this day: "McLuhan as Teacher: The Future Is a Thing of the Past," Journal of Communication 31 (1981): 129-35.

As mentioned above, Oxford University Press published the 550-page Letters of Marshall McLuhan in 1987. Two biographies of McLuhan have been published -- one by Philip Marchand in 1989 and the other by W. Terrence Gordon in 1997. Books and articles in which McLuhan's thought is discussed are far too numerous to enumerate here.

Further information about McLuhan's thought can be found in The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism (1st ed. 1994: 481-83; 2nd ed. 2005: 643-45), Encyclopedia of Contemporary Literary Theory: Approaches, Scholars, Terms (U of Toronto P, 1993: 421-23), and Encyclopedia of Literary Critics and Criticism (Fitzroy Dearborn, 1999: 744-47).

Recognizing his lasting global influence for his pioneering work on the study of media ecology, the government of Canada honoured him with his image on a postage stamp in 2000 (pictured above).

According to the University of Chicago Press, Marshall McLuhan and Walter Ong today "enjoy the status of honorary guru[s] among technophiles" (see the back cover of Ong's Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue: From the Art of Discourse to the Art of Reason that was reissued by the University of Chicago Press in 2004, with a new foreword by Adrian Johns).


External links

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