Marshall McLuhan in 1945
|Born||Herbert Marshall McLuhan|
(1911-07-21)July 21, 1911
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
|Died||December 31, 1980(1980-12-31) (aged 69)|
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
|Spouse(s)||Corinne Lewis (m. 1939)|
|Media, mass media, sensorium, New Criticism|
Herbert Marshall McLuhanCC (July 21, 1911 – December 31, 1980) was a Canadian professor, philosopher, and public intellectual. His work is one of the cornerstones of the study of media theory. Born in Edmonton, Alberta, McLuhan studied at the University of Manitoba and the University of Cambridge. He began his teaching career as a professor of English at several universities in the U.S. and Canada before moving to the University of Toronto in 1946, where he remained for the rest of his life.
McLuhan is known for coining the expression "the medium is the message" and the term global village, and for predicting the World Wide Web almost 30 years before it was invented. He was a fixture in media discourse in the late 1960s, though his influence began to wane in the early 1970s. In the years after his death, he continued to be a controversial figure in academic circles. With the arrival of the Internet and the World Wide Web interest was renewed in his work and perspective.
Life and career
Herbert Marshall McLuhan was born on July 21, 1911, in Edmonton, Alberta, to Elsie Naomi (née Hall) and Herbert Ernest McLuhan, both born in Canada. His brother Maurice was born two years later. "Marshall" was his maternal grandmother's surname. His mother was a Baptist school teacher who later became an actress; his father was a Methodist and had a real estate business in Edmonton. That business failed when World War I broke out, and McLuhan's father enlisted in the Canadian army. After a year of service, he contracted influenza and remained in Canada, away from the front lines. After his discharge from the army in 1915, the McLuhan family moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba, where Marshall grew up and went to school, attending Kelvin Technical School before enrolling in the University of Manitoba in 1928.
At Manitoba, McLuhan explored his conflicted relationship with religion and turned to literature to "gratify his soul's hunger for truth and beauty," later referring to this stage as agnosticism. After studying for one year as an engineering student, he changed majors and earned a BA (1933), winning a University Gold Medal in Arts and Sciences. He took an MA (1934) in English from the University of Manitoba in 1934. He had long desired to pursue graduate studies in England and was accepted to the University of Cambridge, having failed to secure a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford.
He had already earned a BA and an MA degree at Manitoba, but Cambridge required him to enroll as an undergraduate "affiliated" student, with one year's credit towards a three-year bachelor's degree, before entering any doctoral studies. He entered Trinity Hall, Cambridge in the autumn of 1934, where he studied under I. A. Richards and F. R. Leavis and was influenced by New Criticism. Upon reflection years afterward, he credited the faculty there with influencing the direction of his later work because of their emphasis on the training of perception and such concepts as Richards' notion of feedforward. These studies formed an important precursor to his later ideas on technological forms. He received the required bachelor's degree from Cambridge in 1936 and entered their graduate program. Later, he returned from England to take a job as a teaching assistant at the University of Wisconsin–Madison that he held for the 1936–37 academic year, being unable to find a suitable job in Canada.
While studying the trivium at Cambridge, he took the first steps toward his eventual conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1937, founded on his reading of G. K. Chesterton. In 1935, he wrote to his mother: "[H]ad I not encountered Chesterton, I would have remained agnostic for many years at least." At the end of March 1937, McLuhan completed what was a slow but total conversion process, when he was formally received into the Roman Catholic Church. After consulting a minister, his father accepted the decision to convert. His mother, however, felt that his conversion would hurt his career and was inconsolable. McLuhan was devout throughout his life, but his religion remained a private matter. He had a lifelong interest in the number three (e.g., the trivium, the Trinity) and sometimes said that the Virgin Mary provided intellectual guidance for him. For the rest of his career, he taught in Roman Catholic institutions of higher education. From 1937 to 1944, he taught English at Saint Louis University (with an interruption from 1939–40 when he returned to Cambridge). There he taught courses on Shakespeare and tutored and befriended Walter J. Ong, S.J., who went on to write his Ph.D. dissertation on a topic that McLuhan had called to his attention, and who also became a well-known authority on communication and technology.
McLuhan met Corinne Lewis in St. Louis, a teacher and aspiring actress from Fort Worth, Texas, and they were married on August 4, 1939. They spent 1939–40 in Cambridge, where he completed his master's degree (awarded in January 1940) and began to work on his doctoral dissertation on Thomas Nashe and the verbal arts. While the McLuhans were in England, war had broken out in Europe. For this reason, he obtained permission to complete and submit his dissertation from the United States, without having to return to Cambridge for an oral defence. In 1940, the McLuhans returned to Saint Louis University, where he continued teaching and they started a family. He was awarded a Ph.D. in December 1943. He next taught at Assumption College in Windsor, Ontario from 1944 to 1946, then moved to Toronto in 1946 where he joined the faculty of St. Michael's College, a Catholic college of the University of Toronto. Hugh Kenner was one of his students and Canadian economist and communications scholar Harold Innis was a university colleague who had a strong influence on his work. McLuhan wrote in 1964: "I am pleased to think of my own book The Gutenberg Galaxy as a footnote to the observations of Innis on the subject of the psychic and social consequences, first of writing then of printing."
In the early 1950s, McLuhan began the Communication and Culture seminars at the University of Toronto, funded by the Ford Foundation. As his reputation grew, he received a growing number of offers from other universities and, to keep him, the university created the Centre for Culture and Technology in 1963. He published his first major work during this period: The Mechanical Bride (1951). The work was an examination of the effect of advertising on society and culture. He and Edmund Carpenter also produced an important journal called Explorations throughout the 1950s. McLuhan and Carpenter have been characterized as the Toronto School of communication theory, together with Harold Innis, Eric A. Havelock, and Northrop Frye. During this time, McLuhan supervised the doctoral thesis of modernist writer Sheila Watson on the subject of Wyndham Lewis. He remained at the University of Toronto through 1979, spending much of this time as head of his Centre for Culture and Technology.
McLuhan was named to the Albert Schweitzer Chair in Humanities at Fordham University in the Bronx for one year (1967–68). While at Fordham, he was diagnosed with a benign brain tumour, and it was treated successfully. He returned to Toronto where he taught at the University of Toronto for the rest of his life and lived in Wychwood Park, a bucolic enclave on a hill overlooking the downtown where Anatol Rapoport was his neighbour. In 1970, he was made a Companion of the Order of Canada. In 1975, the University of Dallas hosted him from April to May, appointing him to the McDermott Chair.
Marshall and Corinne McLuhan had six children: Eric, twins Mary and Teresa, Stephanie, Elizabeth, and Michael. The associated costs of a large family eventually drove him to advertising work and accepting frequent consulting and speaking engagements for large corporations, IBM and AT&T among them. In September 1979, he suffered a stroke which affected his ability to speak. The University of Toronto's School of Graduate Studies tried to close his research centre shortly thereafter, but was deterred by substantial protests, most notably by Woody Allen. Allen's Oscar-winning motion picture Annie Hall (1977) featured McLuhan in a cameo as himself; a pompous academic arguing with Allen in a cinema queue is silenced by McLuhan suddenly appearing and saying, "You know nothing of my work." This was one of McLuhan's most frequent statements to and about those who disagreed with him.
He never fully recovered from the stroke and died in his sleep on December 31, 1980.
During his years at Saint Louis University (1937–1944), McLuhan worked concurrently on two projects: his doctoral dissertation and the manuscript that was eventually published in 1951 as the book The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man, which included only a representative selection of the materials that McLuhan had prepared for it.
McLuhan's 1942 Cambridge University doctoral dissertation surveys the history of the verbal arts (grammar, logic, and rhetoric—collectively known as the trivium) from the time of Cicero down to the time of Thomas Nashe. In his later publications, McLuhan at times uses the Latin concept of the trivium to outline an orderly and systematic picture of certain periods in the history of Western culture. McLuhan suggests that the Middle Ages, for instance, was characterized by the heavy emphasis on the formal study of logic. The key development that led to the Renaissance was not the rediscovery of ancient texts but a shift in emphasis from the formal study of logic to rhetoric and language. Modern life is characterized by the re-emergence of grammar as its most salient feature—a trend McLuhan felt was exemplified by the New Criticism of Richards and Leavis.
In The Mechanical Bride, McLuhan turned his attention to analysing and commenting on numerous examples of persuasion in contemporary popular culture. This followed naturally from his earlier work as both dialectic and rhetoric in the classical trivium aimed at persuasion. At this point his focus shifted dramatically, turning inward to study the influence of communication media independent of their content. His famous aphorism "the medium is the message" (elaborated in his 1964 book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man) calls attention to this intrinsic effect of communications media.
McLuhan also started the journal Explorations with anthropologist Edmund "Ted" Carpenter. In a letter to Walter Ong dated May 31, 1953, McLuhan reported that he had 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, which led to the creation of the journal.
At a Fordham lecture in 1999, Tom Wolfe suggested that a major under-acknowledged influence on McLuhan's work is the Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin whose ideas anticipated those of McLuhan, especially the evolution of the human mind into the "noosphere". In fact, McLuhan warns against outright dismissing or whole-heartedly accepting de Chardin's observations early on in his first published book The Mechanical Bride (p. 32): "This externalization of our senses creates what de Chardin calls the 'noosphere' or a technological brain for the world. Instead of tending towards a vast Alexandrian library the world has become a computer, an electronic brain, exactly as in 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 super-imposed co-existence."
The Mechanical Bride (1951)
McLuhan's first book, The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (1951), is a pioneering study in the field now known as popular culture. His interest in the critical study of popular culture was influenced by the 1933 book Culture and Environment by F. R. Leavis and Denys Thompson, and the title The Mechanical Bride is derived from a piece by the Dadaist artist, Marcel Duchamp.
Like his 1962 book The Gutenberg Galaxy, The Mechanical Bride is composed of a number of short essays that can be read in any order—what he styled the "mosaic approach" to writing a book. Each essay begins with a newspaper or magazine article or an advertisement, followed by McLuhan's analysis thereof. The analyses bear on aesthetic considerations as well as on the implications behind the imagery and text. McLuhan chose the ads and articles included in his book not only to draw attention to their symbolism and their implications for the corporate entities that created and disseminated them, but also to mull over what such advertising implies about the wider society at which it is aimed.
The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962)
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 in the fields of oral culture, print culture, cultural studies, and media ecology.
Throughout the book, McLuhan takes 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.
His episodic 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. (McLuhan is careful to distinguish the phonetic alphabet from logographic/logogramic writing systems, like Egyptian hieroglyphs 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.
The main concept of McLuhan's argument (later elaborated upon in The Medium Is the Massage) is that new technologies (like alphabets, printing presses, and even 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 affects 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 Western world: 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."
The Global Village
In the early 1960s, McLuhan wrote that the visual, individualistic print culture would soon be brought to an end by what he called "electronic interdependence": when electronic media replaces 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.
The term is sometimes described as having negative connotations in The Gutenberg Galaxy, but McLuhan himself was interested in exploring effects, not making value judgments:
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.
Key to McLuhan's argument is the idea that technology has no per se moral bent—it is a tool that profoundly shapes 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.
The moral valence of technology's effects on cognition is, for McLuhan, a matter of perspective. For instance, McLuhan contrasts the considerable alarm and revulsion that the growing quantity of books aroused in the latter seventeenth century with the modern concern for 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 was invented almost thirty years after The Gutenberg Galaxy, and ten years after his death, McLuhan prophesied the web technology seen today as early as 1962:
The next medium, whatever it is—it may be the extension of consciousness—will include television as its content, not as its environment, and will transform television into an art form. A computer as a research and communication instrument could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organization, retrieve the individual's encyclopedic function and flip into a private line to speedily tailored data of a saleable kind.
Furthermore, McLuhan coined and certainly popularized the usage of the term "surfing" to refer to rapid, irregular and multidirectional movement through a heterogeneous 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." Paul Levinson's 1999 book Digital McLuhan explores the ways that McLuhan's work can be better understood through the lens of the digital revolution.
McLuhan frequently quoted Walter Ong's Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue (1958), which evidently had prompted McLuhan to write The Gutenberg Galaxy. Ong wrote a highly favorable review of this new book in America. However, Ong later tempered his praise, by describing McLuhan's The Gutenberg Galaxy as "a racy survey, indifferent to some scholarly detail, but uniquely valuable in suggesting the sweep and depth of the cultural and psychological changes entailed in the passage from illiteracy to print and beyond." McLuhan himself said of the book, "I'm not concerned to get any kudos out of [The Gutenberg Galaxy]. It seems to me a book that somebody should have written a century ago. I wish somebody else had written it. It will be a useful prelude to the rewrite of Understanding Media [the 1960 NAEB report] that I'm doing now."
McLuhan's The Gutenberg Galaxy won Canada's highest literary award, the Governor-General's Award for Non-Fiction, in 1962. The chairman of the selection committee was McLuhan's colleague at the University of Toronto and oftentime intellectual sparring partner, Northrop Frye.
Understanding Media (1964)
McLuhan's most widely known work, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964), is a pioneering study in media theory. Dismayed by the way people approached and used new media such as television, McLuhan famously argued that in the modern world "we live mythically and integrally ... but continue to think in the old, fragmented space and time patterns of the pre-electric age."
McLuhan proposed that media themselves, not the content they carry, should be the focus of study—popularly quoted as "the medium is the message". McLuhan's insight was that a medium affects the society in which it plays a role not by the content delivered over the medium, but by the characteristics of the medium itself. McLuhan pointed to the light bulb as a clear demonstration of this concept. A light bulb does not have content in the way that a newspaper has articles or a television has programs, yet it is a medium that has a social effect; that is, a light bulb enables people to create spaces during nighttime that would otherwise be enveloped by darkness. He describes the light bulb as a medium without any content. McLuhan states that "a light bulb creates an environment by its mere presence." More controversially, he postulated 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 noted that all media have characteristics that engage the viewer in different ways; for instance, a passage in a book could be reread at will, but a movie had to be screened again in its entirety to study any individual part of it.
"Hot" and "cool" media
In the first part of Understanding Media, McLuhan also stated that different media invite different degrees of participation on the part of a person who chooses to consume a medium. Some media, like the movies, were "hot"—that is, they enhance one single sense, in this case vision, in such a manner that a person does not need to exert much effort in filling in the details of a movie image. McLuhan contrasted this with "cool" TV, which he claimed requires more effort on the part of the viewer to determine meaning, and comics, which due to their minimal presentation of visual detail require a high degree of effort to fill in details that the cartoonist may have intended to portray. A movie is thus said by McLuhan to be "hot", intensifying one single sense "high definition", demanding a viewer's attention, and a comic book to be "cool" and "low definition", requiring much more conscious participation by the reader to extract value.
"Any hot medium allows of less participation than a cool one, as a lecture makes for less participation than a seminar, and a book for less than a dialogue."
Hot media usually, but not always, provide complete involvement without considerable stimulus. For example, print occupies visual space, uses visual senses, but can immerse its reader. Hot media favour analytical precision, quantitative analysis and sequential ordering, as they are usually sequential, linear and logical. They emphasize one sense (for example, of sight or sound) over the others. For this reason, hot media also include radio, as well as film, the lecture and photography.
Cool media, on the other hand, are usually, but not always, those that provide little involvement with substantial stimulus. They require more active participation on the part of the user, including the perception of abstract patterning and simultaneous comprehension of all parts. Therefore, according to McLuhan cool media include television, as well as the seminar and cartoons. McLuhan describes the term "cool media" as emerging from jazz and popular music and, in this context, is used to mean "detached." Cool medium incorporates increased involvement but decreased description while hot medium is the opposite, decreased involvement and increased description. In other words, a society that appears to be actively participating in the streaming of content but not considering the effects of the tool is not allowing an “extension of ourselves.” 
This concept appears to force media into binary categories. However, McLuhan's hot and cool exist on a continuum: they are more correctly measured on a scale than as dichotomous terms.
Critiques of Understanding Media
Some theorists have attacked McLuhan’s definition and treatment of the word "medium" for being too simplistic. Umberto Eco, for instance, contends that McLuhan’s medium conflates channels, codes, and messages under the overarching term of the medium, confusing the vehicle, internal code, and content of a given message in his framework.
In Media Manifestos, Régis Debray also takes issue with McLuhan’s envisioning of the medium. Like Eco, he too is ill at ease with this reductionist approach, summarizing its ramifications as follows:
The list of objections could be and has been lengthened indefinitely: confusing technology itself with its use of the media makes of the media an abstract, undifferentiated force and produces its image in an imaginary "public" for mass consumption; the magical naivete of supposed causalities turns the media into a catch-all and contagious "mana"; apocalyptic millenarianism invents the figure of a homo mass-mediaticus without ties to historical and social context, and so on.
Furthermore, when Wired interviewed him in 1995, Debray stated that he views McLuhan "more as a poet than a historian, a master of intellectual collage rather than a systematic analyst ... McLuhan overemphasizes the technology behind cultural change at the expense of the usage that the messages and codes make of that technology."
Dwight Macdonald, in turn, reproached McLuhan for his focus on television and for his "aphoristic" style of prose, which he believes left Understanding Media filled with "contradictions, non-sequiturs, facts that are distorted and facts that are not facts, exaggerations, and chronic rhetorical vagueness." 
Additionally, Brian Winston’s Misunderstanding Media, published in 1986, chides McLuhan for what he sees as his technologically deterministic stances.Raymond Williams and James W. Carey further this point of contention, claiming:
The work of McLuhan was a particular culmination of an aesthetic theory which became, negatively, a social theory [...] It is an apparently sophisticated technological determinism which has the significant effect of indicating a social and cultural determinism [...] If the medium – whether print or television – is the cause, of all other causes, all that men ordinarily see as history is at once reduced to effects. (Williams 1990, 126/7)
David Carr states that there has been a long line of "academics who have made a career out of deconstructing McLuhan’s effort to define the modern media ecosystem," whether it be due to what they see as McLuhan’s ignorance toward sociohistorical context or the style of his argument.
While some critics have taken issue with McLuhan’s writing style and mode of argument, McLuhan himself urged readers to think of his work as "probes" or "mosaics" offering a toolkit approach to thinking about the media. His eclectic writing style has also been praised for its postmodern sensibilities and suitability for virtual space.
The Medium Is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (1967)
The Medium Is the Massage, published in 1967, was McLuhan's best seller, "eventually selling nearly a million copies worldwide." Initiated by Quentin Fiore, McLuhan adopted the term "massage" to denote the effect each medium has on the human sensorium, taking inventory of the "effects" of numerous media in terms of how they "massage" the sensorium.
Fiore, at the time a prominent graphic designer and communications consultant, set about composing the visual illustration of these effects which were compiled by Jerome Agel. Near the beginning of the book, Fiore adopted a pattern in which an image demonstrating a media effect was presented with a textual synopsis on the facing page. The reader experiences a repeated shifting of analytic registers—from "reading" typographic print to "scanning" photographic facsimiles—reinforcing McLuhan's overarching argument in this book: namely, that each medium produces a different "massage" or "effect" on the human sensorium.
In The Medium Is the Massage, McLuhan also rehashed the argument—which first appeared in the Prologue to 1962's The Gutenberg Galaxy—that all media are "extensions" of our human senses, bodies and minds.
Finally, McLuhan described key points of change in how man has viewed the world and how these views were changed by the adoption of new media. "The technique of invention was the discovery of the nineteenth [century]", brought on by the adoption of fixed points of view and perspective by typography, while "[t]he technique of the suspended judgment is the discovery of the twentieth century", brought on by the bard abilities of radio, movies and television.
- The past went that-a-way. When faced with a totally new situation we tend always to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavor of the most recent past. We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backward into the future. Suburbia lives imaginatively in Bonanza-land.
An audio recording version of McLuhan's famous work was made by Columbia Records. The recording consists of a pastiche of statements made by McLuhan interrupted by other speakers, including people speaking in various phonations and falsettos, discordant sounds and 1960s incidental music in what could be considered a deliberate attempt to translate the disconnected images seen on TV into an audio format, resulting in the prevention of a connected stream of conscious thought. Various audio recording techniques and statements are used to illustrate the relationship between spoken, literary speech and the characteristics of electronic audio media. McLuhan biographer Philip Marchand called the recording "the 1967 equivalent of a McLuhan video."
- "I wouldn't be seen dead with a living work of art."—'Old man' speaking
- "Drop this jiggery-pokery and talk straight turkey."—'Middle aged man' speaking
War and Peace in the Global Village (1968)
McLuhan used James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, an inspiration for this study of war throughout history, as an indicator as to how war may be conducted in the future.
Joyce's Wake is claimed to be a gigantic cryptogram which reveals a cyclic pattern for the whole history of man through its Ten Thunders. Each "thunder" below is a 100-character portmanteau of other words to create a statement he likens to an effect that each technology has on the society into which it is introduced. In order to glean the most understanding out of each, the reader must break the portmanteau into separate words (and many of these are themselves portmanteaus of words taken from multiple languages other than English) and speak them aloud for the spoken effect of each word. There is much dispute over what each portmanteau truly denotes.
McLuhan claims that the ten thunders in Wake represent different stages in the history of man:
- Thunder 1: Paleolithic to Neolithic. Speech. Split of East/West. From herding to harnessing animals.
- Thunder 2: Clothing as weaponry. Enclosure of private parts. First social aggression.
- Thunder 3: Specialism. Centralism via wheel, transport, cities: civil life.
- Thunder 4: Markets and truck gardens. Patterns of nature submitted to greed and power.
- Thunder 5: Printing. Distortion and translation of human patterns and postures and pastors.
- Thunder 6: Industrial Revolution. Extreme development of print process and individualism.
- Thunder 7: Tribal man again. All choractors end up separate, private man. Return of choric.
- Thunder 8: Movies. Pop art, pop Kulch via tribal radio. Wedding of sight and sound.
- Thunder 9: Car and Plane. Both centralizing and decentralizing at once create cities in crisis. Speed and death.
- Thunder 10: Television. Back to tribal involvement in tribal mood-mud. The last thunder is a turbulent, muddy wake, and murk of non-visual, tactile man.
From Cliché to Archetype (1970)
In his 1970 book, From Cliché to Archetype, McLuhan, collaborating with Canadian poetWilfred Watson, approached the various implications of the verbal cliché and of the archetype. One major facet in McLuhan's overall framework introduced in this book that is seldom noticed is the provision of a new term that actually succeeds the global village; the global theater.
In McLuhan's terms, a cliché is a "normal" action, phrase, etc. which becomes so often used that we are "anesthetized" to its effects.
An example of this given by McLuhan is Eugène Ionesco's play The Bald Soprano, whose dialogue consists entirely of phrases Ionesco pulled from an Assimil language book. "Ionesco originally put all these idiomatic English clichés into literary French which presented the English in the most absurd aspect possible."
McLuhan's archetype "is a quoted extension, medium, technology or environment." "Environment" would also include the kinds of "awareness" and cognitive shifts brought upon people by it, not totally unlike the psychological context Carl Jung described.
McLuhan also posits that there is a factor of interplay between the cliché and the archetype, or a "doubleness":
Another theme of the Wake [Finnegans Wake] that helps in the understanding of the paradoxical shift from cliché to archetype is 'past time are pastimes.' The dominant technologies of one age become the games and pastimes of a later age. In the 20th century, the number of 'past times' that are simultaneously available is so vast as to create cultural anarchy. When all the cultures of the world are simultaneously present, the work of the artist in the elucidation of form takes on new scope and new urgency. Most men are pushed into the artist's role. The artist cannot dispense with the principle of 'doubleness' or 'interplay' because this type of hendiadys dialogue is essential to the very structure of consciousness, awareness, and autonomy.
McLuhan relates the cliché-to-archetype process to the Theater of the Absurd:
Pascal, in the seventeenth century, tells us that the heart has many reasons of which the head knows nothing. The Theater of the Absurd is essentially a communicating to the head of some of the silent languages of the heart which in two or three hundred years it has tried to forget all about. In the seventeenth century world the languages of the heart were pushed down into the unconscious by the dominant print cliché.
The "languages of the heart", or what McLuhan would otherwise define as oral culture, were thus made archetype by means of the printing press, and turned into cliché.
The satellite medium, McLuhan states, encloses the Earth in a man-made environment, which "ends 'Nature' and turns the globe into a repertory theater to be programmed." All previous environments (book, newspaper, radio, etc.) and their artifacts are retrieved under these conditions ("past times are pastimes"). McLuhan thereby meshes this into the term global theater. It serves as an update to his older concept of the global village, which, in its own definitions, can be said to be subsumed into the overall condition described by that of the global theater.
The Global Village: Transformations in World Life and Media in the 21st Century (1989)
In his 1989 posthumous book, The Global Village, McLuhan, collaborating with Bruce R. Powers, provided a strong conceptual framework for understanding the cultural implications of the technological advances associated with the rise of a worldwide electronic network. This is a major work of McLuhan's because it contains the most extensive elaboration of his concept of Acoustic Space, and it provides a critique of standard 20th century communication models like the Shannon–Weaver model. McLuhan distinguishes between the existing worldview of Visual Space – a linear, quantitative, classically geometric model – and that of Acoustic Space – a holistic, qualitative order with a complex intricate paradoxical topology. "Acoustic Space has the basic character of a sphere whose focus or center is simultaneously everywhere and whose margin is nowhere." The transition from Visual to Acoustic Space was not automatic with the advent of the global network, but would have to be a conscious project. The "universal environment of simultaneous electronic flow" inherently favors right-brain Acoustic Space, yet we are held back by habits of adhering to a fixed point of view. There are no boundaries to sound. We hear from all directions at once. Yet Acoustic and Visual Space are in fact inseparable. The resonant interval is the invisible borderline between Visual and Acoustic Space. This is like the television camera that the Apollo 8 astronauts focused on the Earth after they had orbited the moon.
Reading, writing, and hierarchical ordering are associated with the left brain, as are the linear concept of time and phonetic literacy. The left brain is the locus of analysis, classification, and rationality. The right brain is the locus of the spatial, tactile, and musical. "Comprehensive awareness" results when the two sides of the brain are in true balance. Visual Space is associated with the simplified worldview of Euclidean geometry, the intuitive three dimensions useful for the architecture of buildings and the surveying of land. It is too rational and has no grasp of the acoustic. Acoustic Space is multisensory.
McLuhan writes about robotism in the context of Japanese Zen Buddhism and how it can offer us new ways of thinking about technology. The Western way of thinking about technology is too much related to the left hemisphere of our brain, which has a rational and linear focus. What he called robotism might better be called androidism in the wake of Blade Runner and the novels of Philip K. Dick. Robotism-androidism emerges from the further development of the right hemisphere of the brain, creativity and a new relationship to spacetime (most humans are still living in 17th century classical Newtonian physics spacetime). Robots-androids will have much greater flexibility than humans have had until now, in both mind and body. Robots-androids will teach humanity this new flexibility. And this flexibility of androids (what McLuhan calls robotism) has a strong affinity with Japanese culture and life. McLuhan quotes from Ruth Benedict, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, an anthropological study of Japanese culture published in 1946: “Occidentals cannot easily credit the ability of the Japanese to swing from one behavior to another without psychic cost. Such extreme possibilities are not included in our experience. Yet in Japanese life the contradictions, as they seem to us, are as deeply based in their view of life as our uniformities are in ours.” The ability to live in the present and instantly readjust.
Beyond existing communication models
"All Western scientific models of communication are—like the Shannon–Weaver model—linear, sequential, and logical as a reflection of the late medieval emphasis on the Greek notion of efficient causality." McLuhan and Powers criticize the Shannon-Weaver model of communication as emblematic of left-hemisphere bias and linearity, descended from Aristotelean causality.
A third term of The Global Village that McLuhan and Powers develop at length is The Tetrad. The tetrad is something like threads in a complexly interwoven flowing superspace, a four-fold pattern of transformation. "At full maturity the tetrad reveals the metaphoric structure of the artifact as having two figures and two grounds in dynamic and analogical relationship to each other."  Like the camera focused on the Earth by the Apollo 8 astronauts, the tetrad reveals figure (Moon) and ground (Earth) simultaneously. The right-brain hemisphere thinking is the capability of being in many places at the same time. Electricity is acoustic. It is simultaneously everywhere. The Tetrad, with its fourfold Möbius topological structure of enhancement, reversal, retrieval and obsolescence, is mobilized by McLuhan and Powers to illuminate the media or technological inventions of cash money, the compass, the computer, the database, the satellite, and the global media network.
Tetrad of media effects
Main article: Tetrad of media effects
In Laws of Media (1988), published posthumously by his son Eric, McLuhan summarized his ideas about media in a concise tetrad of media effects. The tetrad is a means of examining the effects on society of any technology (i.e., any medium) by dividing its effects into four categories and displaying them simultaneously. McLuhan designed the tetrad as a pedagogical tool, phrasing his laws as questions with which to consider any medium:
- What does the medium enhance?
- What does the medium make obsolete?
- What does the medium retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier?
- What does the medium flip into when pushed to extremes?
The laws of the tetrad exist simultaneously, not successively or chronologically, and allow the questioner to explore the "grammar and syntax" of the "language" of media. McLuhan departs from his mentor Harold Innis in suggesting that a medium "overheats", or reverses into an opposing form, when taken to its extreme.
Visually, a tetrad can be depicted as four diamonds forming an X, with the name of a medium in the centre. The two diamonds on the left of a tetrad are the Enhancement and Retrieval qualities of the medium, both Figure qualities. The two diamonds on the right of a tetrad are the Obsolescence and Reversal qualities, both Ground qualities.
Using the example of radio:
- Enhancement (figure): What the medium amplifies or intensifies. Radio amplifies news and music via sound.
- Obsolescence (ground): What the medium drives out of prominence. Radio reduces the importance of print and the visual.
- Retrieval (figure): What the medium recovers which was previously lost. Radio returns the spoken word to the forefront.
- Reversal (ground): What the medium does when pushed to its limits. Acoustic radio flips into audio-visual TV.
Figure and ground
Main article: Figure and ground (media)
McLuhan adapted the Gestalt psychology idea of a figure and a ground, which underpins the meaning of "The medium is the message". He used this concept to explain how a form of communications technology, the medium or figure, necessarily operates through its context, or ground.
McLuhan believed that in order to grasp fully the effect of a new technology, one must examine figure (medium) and ground (context) together, since neither is completely intelligible without the other. McLuhan argued that we must study media in their historical context, particularly in relation to the technologies that preceded them. The present environment, itself made up of the effects of previous technologies, gives rise to new technologies, which, in their turn, further affect society and individuals.
All technologies have embedded within them their own assumptions about time and space. The message which the medium conveys can only be understood if the medium and the environment in which the medium is used—and which, simultaneously, it effectively creates—are analysed together. He believed that an examination of the figure-ground relationship can offer a critical commentary on culture and society.
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.[according to whom?] This publicity began with the work of two California advertising executives, Howard Gossage and Gerald Feigen who used personal funds to fund their practice of "genius scouting." Much enamoured with McLuhan's work, Feigen and Gossage arranged for McLuhan to meet with editors of several major New York magazines in May 1965 at the Lombardy Hotel in New York. Philip Marchand reports that, as a direct consequence of these meetings, McLuhan was offered the use of an office in the headquarters of both Time and Newsweek, any time he needed it.
In August 1965, Feigen and Gossage held what they called a "McLuhan festival" in the offices of Gossage's advertising agency in San Francisco. During this "festival", McLuhan met with advertising executives, members of the mayor's office, and editors from the San Francisco Chronicle and Ramparts magazine. More significant was the presence at the festival of Tom Wolfe, who wrote about McLuhan in a subsequent article, "What If He Is Right?", published in New York Magazine and Wolfe's own The Pump House Gang. According to Feigen and Gossage, their work had only a moderate effect on McLuhan's eventual celebrity: they claimed that their work only "probably speeded up the recognition of [McLuhan's] genius by about six months." In any case, McLuhan soon became a fixture of media discourse. Newsweek magazine did a cover story on him; articles appeared in Life Magazine, Harper's, Fortune, Esquire, and others. Cartoons about him appeared in The New Yorker. In 1969, Playboy magazine published a lengthy interview with him. In a running gag on the popular sketch comedy Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, the "poet" Henry Gibson would randomly say, "Marshall McLuhan, what are you doin'?"
McLuhan was credited with coining the phrase Turn on, tune in, drop out by its popularizer, Timothy Leary, in the 1960s. In a 1988 interview with Neil Strauss, Leary stated that slogan was "given to him" by McLuhan during a lunch in New York City. Leary said McLuhan "was very much interested in ideas and marketing, and he started singing something like, 'Psychedelics hit the spot / Five hundred micrograms, that’s a lot,' to the tune of a Pepsi commercial. Then he started going, 'Tune in, turn on, and drop out.'"
During his lifetime and afterward, McLuhan heavily influenced cultural critics, thinkers, and media theorists such as Neil Postman, Jean Baudrillard, Timothy Leary, Terence McKenna, William Irwin Thompson, Paul Levinson, Douglas Rushkoff, Jaron Lanier, Hugh Kenner, and John David Ebert, as well as political leaders such as Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Jerry Brown. Andy Warhol was paraphrasing McLuhan with his now famous "15 minutes of fame" quote. When asked in the 1970s for a way to sedate violences in Angola, he suggested a massive spread of TV devices. The character "Brian O'Blivion" in David Cronenberg's 1983 film Videodrome is a "media oracle" based on McLuhan. In 1991, McLuhan was named as the "patron saint" of Wired Magazine and a quote of his appeared on the masthead for the first ten years of its publication. He is mentioned by name in a Peter Gabriel-penned lyric in the song "Broadway Melody of 1974". This song appears on the concept albumThe Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, from progressive rock band Genesis. The lyric is: "Marshall McLuhan, casual viewin' head buried in the sand." McLuhan is also jokingly referred to during an episode of The Sopranos entitled "House Arrest". Despite his death in 1980, someone claiming to be McLuhan was posting on a Wired mailing list in 1996. The information this individual provided convinced one writer for Wired that "if the poster was not McLuhan himself, it was a bot programmed with an eerie command of McLuhan's life and inimitable perspective."
A new centre known as the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology, formed soon after his death in 1980, was the successor to McLuhan's Centre for Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto. Since 1994, it has been part of the University of Toronto Faculty of Information and in 2008 the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology incorporated in the Coach House Institute. The first director was literacy scholar and OISE Professor David R. Olsen. From 1983 until 2008, the McLuhan Program was under the direction of Dr. Derrick de Kerckhove who was McLuhan's student and translator. From 2008 through 2015 Professor Dominique Scheffel-Dunand of York University served Director of the Program. In 2011 at the time of his centenary the Coach House Institute established a Marshall McLuhan Centenary Fellowship program in his honor, and each year appoints up to four fellows for a maximum of two years. In May 2016 the Coach House Institute was renamed the McLuhan Centre for Culture and Technology; its Interim Director was Seamus Ross (2015–16). Sarah Sharma, an Associate Professor of Media Theory from the Institute of Communication, Culture, Information and Technology (ICCIT) and the Faculty of Information (St. George), began a five-year term as director of the Coach House (2017- ). Professor Sharma's research and teaching focuses on feminist approaches to technology, including issues related to temporality and media. Professor Sharma's thematic for the 2017-2018 Monday Night Seminars at the McLuhan Centre is MsUnderstanding Media which extends and introduces feminist approaches to technology to McLuhan's formulations of technology and culture.
In Toronto, Marshall McLuhan Catholic Secondary School is named after him.
This is a partial list of works cited in this article. See Bibliography of Marshall McLuhan for a more comprehensive list of works by and about McLuhan.
by Mark Federman
McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology
"In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium - that is, of any extension of ourselves - result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology." (McLuhan 7) Thus begins the classic work of Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, in which he introduced the world to his enigmatic paradox, "The medium is the message." But what does it mean? How can the medium be its own message?
Of all the Internet searches that end up at the McLuhan Program website and weblog, the search for the meaning of the famous "McLuhan Equation" is the most frequent. Many people presume the conventional meaning for "medium" that refers to the mass-media of communications - radio, television, the press, the Internet. And most apply our conventional understanding of "message" as content or information. Putting the two together allows people to jump to the mistaken conclusion that, somehow, the channel supersedes the content in importance, or that McLuhan was saying that the information content should be ignored as inconsequential. Often people will triumphantly hail that the medium is "no longer the message," or flip it around to proclaim that the "message is the medium," or some other such nonsense. McLuhan meant what he said; unfortunately, his meaning is not at all obvious, and that is where we begin our journey to understanding.
Marshall McLuhan was concerned with the observation that we tend to focus on the obvious. In doing so, we largely miss the structural changes in our affairs that are introduced subtly, or over long periods of time. Whenever we create a new innovation - be it an invention or a new idea - many of its properties are fairly obvious to us. We generally know what it will nominally do, or at least what it is intended to do, and what it might replace. We often know what its advantages and disadvantages might be. But it is also often the case that, after a long period of time and experience with the new innovation, we look backward and realize that there were some effects of which we were entirely unaware at the outset. We sometimes call these effects "unintended consequences," although "unanticipated consequences" might be a more accurate description.
Many of the unanticipated consequences stem from the fact that there are conditions in our society and culture that we just don't take into consideration in our planning. These range from cultural or religious issues and historical precedents, through interplay with existing conditions, to the secondary or tertiary effects in a cascade of interactions. All of these dynamic processes that are entirely non-obvious comprise our ground or context. They all work silently to influence the way in which we interact with one another, and with our society at large. In a word (or four), ground comprises everything we don't notice.
If one thinks about it, there are far more dynamic processes occurring in the ground than comprise the actions of the figures, or things that we do notice. But when something changes, it often becomes noticeable. And noticing change is the key.
McLuhan tells us that a "message" is, "the change of scale or pace or pattern" that a new invention or innovation "introduces into human affairs." (McLuhan 8) Note that it is not the content or use of the innovation, but the change in inter-personal dynamics that the innovation brings with it. Thus, the message of theatrical production is not the musical or the play being produced, but perhaps the change in tourism that the production may encourage. In the case of a specific theatrical production, its message may be a change in attitude or action on the part of the audience that results from the medium of the play itself, which is quite distinct from the medium of theatrical production in general. Similarly, the message of a newscast are not the news stories themselves, but a change in the public attitude towards crime, or the creation of a climate of fear. A McLuhan message always tells us to look beyond the obvious and seek the non-obvious changes or effects that are enabled, enhanced, accelerated or extended by the new thing.
McLuhan defines medium for us as well. Right at the beginning of Understanding Media, he tells us that a medium is "any extension of ourselves." Classically, he suggests that a hammer extends our arm and that the wheel extends our legs and feet. Each enables us to do more than our bodies could do on their own. Similarly, the medium of language extends our thoughts from within our mind out to others. Indeed, since our thoughts are the result of our individual sensory experience, speech is an "outering" of our senses - we could consider it as a form of reversing senses - whereas usually our senses bring the world into our minds, speech takes our sensorially-shaped minds out to the world.
But McLuhan always thought of a medium in the sense of a growing medium, like the fertile potting soil into which a seed is planted, or the agar in a Petri dish. In other words, a medium - this extension of our body or senses or mind - is anything from which a change emerges. And since some sort of change emerges from everything we conceive or create, all of our inventions, innovations, ideas and ideals are McLuhan media.
Thus we have the meaning of "the medium is the message:" We can know the nature and characteristics of anything we conceive or create (medium) by virtue of the changes - often unnoticed and non-obvious changes - that they effect (message.) McLuhan warns us that we are often distracted by the content of a medium (which, in almost all cases, is another distinct medium in itself.) He writes, "it is only too typical that the "content" of any medium blinds us to the character of the medium." (McLuhan 9) And it is the character of the medium that is its potency or effect - its message. In other words, "This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium - that is, of any extension of ourselves - result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology."
Why is this understanding of "the medium is the message" particularly useful? We tend to notice changes - even slight changes (that unfortunately we often tend to discount in significance.) "The medium is the message" tells us that noticing change in our societal or cultural ground conditions indicates the presence of a new message, that is, the effects of a new medium. With this early warning, we can set out to characterize and identify the new medium before it becomes obvious to everyone - a process that often takes years or even decades. And if we discover that the new medium brings along effects that might be detrimental to our society or culture, we have the opportunity to influence the development and evolution of the new innovation before the effects becomes pervasive. As McLuhan reminds us, "Control over change would seem to consist in moving not with it but ahead of it. Anticipation gives the power to deflect and control force." (McLuhan 199)
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw Hill, 1964.
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Federman, M. (2004, July 23). What is the Meaning of the Medium is the Message? Retrieved <DATE> from http://individual.utoronto.ca/markfederman/article_mediumisthemessage.htm .
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