Authors: Marshall McLuhan

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Canadian critic

Author Works

Nonfiction:

The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man, 1951

Explorations in Communications, 1960 (with E. S. Carpenter)

The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, 1962

Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 1964

The Medium Is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects, 1967 (with Quentin Fiore)

Through the Vanishing Point: Space in Poetry and Painting, 1968 (with Harley Parker)

War and Peace in the Global Village, 1968 (with Fiore)

The Interior Landscape: The Literary Criticism of Marshall McLuhan, 1943-1962, 1969

Counterblast, 1969 (with Parker)

Culture Is Our Business, 1970

From Cliché to Archetype, 1970 (with Wilfred Watson)

Take Today: The Executive as Dropout, 1972 (with Barrington Nevitt)

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987 (Matie Molinaro, William Toye, and Corrine McLuhan, editors)

Laws of Media, 1989 (with Eric McLuhan)

Essential McLuhan, 1995 (Eric McLuhan and Frank Zingrone, editors)

Edited Texts:

Selected Poetry by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 1956

Voices of Literature, 1964-1965 (2 volumes with Richard J. Schoeck)

Biography

Herbert Marshall McLuhan (muh-KLEW-uhn) was one of the most original and controversial of twentieth century social theorists and critics, and his concepts on the impact of communications media on human society and culture have profoundly influenced later writers. The essence of his views was presented in his famous aphorism “The medium is the message,” by which he meant that it is the form of a communication, rather than its content, which has the greatest impact.{$I[AN]9810001002}{$I[A]McLuhan, Marshall[MacLuhan, Marshall]}{$I[geo]CANADA;McLuhan, Marshall[MacLuhan, Marshall]}{$I[tim]1911;McLuhan, Marshall[MacLuhan, Marshall]}

McLuhan was born and reared in western Canada and originally intended to become an engineer. After entering the University of Manitoba, however, he switched to literature and an academic career, earning a B.A. in 1933 and an M.A. in 1934. During this time, he developed a lasting admiration for modernist writers such as Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and, especially, James Joyce. These authors were much quoted in McLuhan’s later works. He pursued further studies with a stay at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, earning a Ph.D. in 1942.

During the 1930’s McLuhan converted to Roman Catholicism, a shift which deeply affected his intellectual view of literature, the media, and culture. Unlike many other academic writers, who prefer to remain detached, neutral observers, McLuhan always insisted upon the need for moral dimensions to his work. In 1946 he accepted a post at the University of Toronto. He remained there until his death on New Year’s Eve, 1980. At Toronto he was soon connected with the University’s Centre for Culture and Technology. There McLuhan began the investigations into the nature of media and their effects which formed the basis of his work. Much of the foundation for his studies was provided by two short but provocative works written by fellow Canadian Harold Innis. In Empire and Communications (1950) and The Bias of Communication (1951), Innis advanced the thesis that societies develop in ways largely determined by their technologies of communication. Like McLuhan after him, Innis defined communications in a broader sense than usual.

Working on these premises and in this environment, in 1951 McLuhan produced The Mechanical Bride. The work is notable for a number of points. First, it was a serious yet highly original treatment of a topic many thought beneath the notice of true academics: advertising. Second, it combined texts, pictures, and puns and other types of wordplay to present its message, thus bypassing the traditional scholarly approach and format. McLuhan continued to employ this method throughout his investigations. Finally, the conclusion reached by McLuhan was that the medium of advertising was far more important than its contents. This approach was honed by McLuhan from 1953 through 1957, while he coedited with Edmund Carpenter the journal Explorations, published by the Centre for Culture and Technology. At the same time, McLuhan was refining and expanding the theoretical basis for his works and had become convinced that the communications media are agents of great power in transforming human perceptions and culture.

The Gutenberg Galaxy was published in 1962. In it McLuhan presented his insights in a series of short, thought-provoking chapters, and his message was even more original than before: The invention and development of the printing press caused a final break between the older, “oral” culture and the newer, “print” culture, the result of a shift in the dominant senses. According to McLuhan, an oral culture (one without printing and, in its purest form, without writing) favored the ear and the sense of sound; a print culture gave dominance to the eye and the sense of sight. This change was reflected in changes in human perceptions and culture. In Understanding Media, McLuhan further refined and developed this concept. He defined media as all things that are extensions of some human faculty; clothing, for example, is an extension of the skin, while the wheel is an extension of the foot. When one medium comes to dominate the others, the sense it favors becomes dominant within human beings, thus changing their perceptions of the world and their society. The reason for such dominance is a change in technology, so that the old oral culture was first undermined by the invention of the phonetic alphabet and then destroyed by the printing press. In a similar fashion, the print culture is under siege from the electronic media, which are returning the emphasis to the oral/aural sense of hearing. According to McLuhan’s theories, it is the nature of the technology and its medium that is the decisive element in any such change. The content of a medium is irrelevant; hence his famous dictum, “The medium is the message.”

McLuhan’s theories were hotly debated in academic circles, the popular press, the business world, and the advertising industry, as well as among political and religious leaders. During the mid-1960’s and into the 1970’s, discussion of McLuhan’s work tended to be either sensationalized or polemical. He himself may have added to this confusion with his collage technique and his playful, pun-filled style. The essential McLuhan doctrine was that the form of a medium is more important than its content, and that the form of the dominant medium will determine the general shape of a culture. Thus, The Gutenberg Galaxy attempts to prove that a society without writing is different from a society with a written script and is radically different from a society with the printing press. As cultures move away from a print orientation to an electronic one, they will experience profound changes, which is the central tenet of Understanding Media. Although McLuhan may have pressed his theories with some excesses in claims and lapses in solid evidence, his central concept is sound: The impact of a medium is largely dependent upon its form, and human beings do have their perceptions altered by technologies. Understanding those changes is the challenge of the best of McLuhan’s work.

BibliographyFinkelstein, Sidney. Sense and Nonsense of McLuhan. New York: International Publishers, 1968. A critical assessment of The Medium Is the Massage.Gordon, W. Terrence. McLuhan for Beginners. New York: Writers and Readers, 1997. A basic introduction, illustrated as a comic book. Part of the “For Beginners” series.Horrocks, Christopher. Marshall McLuhan and Virtuality. Cambridge, England: Icon Books, 2001. Discusses McLuhan’s theories in terms of the contemporary “information age.”Marchand, Philip. Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger. Rev. ed. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1998. A good biography that contextualizes McLuhan’s theories.Marchessault, Janine. Marshall McLuhan.Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 2004. A scholarly analysis of McLuhan’s philosophies and works that gives equal weight to the arguments of his admirers and his critics.Miller, Jonathan. Marshall McLuhan. New York: Viking Press, 1971. Gives an adequate introduction to the man and his theories.Neill, S. D. Clarifying McLuhan: An Assessment of Process and Product. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993. Presents a valuable critical perspective.Rosenthal, Raymond, ed. McLuhan: Pro and Con. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1968. Noteworthy collection of assessments of the psychological aspects of McLuhan’s theories.Stearn, Gerald, ed. McLuhan: Hot and Cool. New York: Dial Press, 1967. A “primer” for understanding McLuhan’s theories, with a rebuttal by McLuhan himself. The Tom Wolfe essay is particularly noteworthy.Theall, Donald F. The Virtual Marshall McLuhan. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001. Presents an overall evaluation of McLuhan and his work, written by his first graduate student and, later, colleague.Willmott, Glen. McLuhan: Or, Modernism in Reverse. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996. Examines McLuhan’s theories in the light of the subsequent development of postmodern theory.
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