McLuhan is perhaps one of the best known media theorists and critics
of this era. A literary scholar from Canada, Marshall McLuhan became
entrenched in American popular culture when he felt this was the
only way to understand his students at the University of Wisconsin.
Until the publication of his best known and most popular works,
The Gutenberg Galaxy: the Making of Typographic Man (1962)
and Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man (1964), McLuhan
lead a very ordinary academic life. His polemic prose (a style frequently
compared to James Joyce) irritated many and inspired some. However
cryptic, McLuhan's outspoken and often outrageous philosophies of
the "electric media" roused a popular discourse about the mass media,
society and culture. The pop culture mottoes "the medium is the
message (and the massage)" and "the global village" are remnants
of what is affectionately (and otherwise) known as McLuhanism.
McLuhan was a technological determinist who credited the electronic
media with the ability to exact profound social, cultural and political
influences. Instead of a thoughtful discourse regarding the positive
or negative consequences of electric media, McLuhan preferred instead
to pontificate about its inevitability which was neither good nor
bad, it simply was. McLuhan was more concerned that people acknowledged
and prepared for the technological transformation. He felt people
subscribed to a "rear-view mirror" understanding of their environment,
a mode of thinking in which they did not foresee the arrival of
a new social milieu until it was already in place. Instead of "looking
ahead" society tends to cling to the past. We are "always one step
behind in our view of the world" and we do not recognize the technology
which is responsible for the shift.
first began to grapple with the relationship between technology
and culture in The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man
(1951). However, he did not elaborate upon their historical origins
until the publication of The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), which
traces the social evolution of modern humanity from tribal society.
This process encompasses four stages.
defines tribal society as dependent upon the harmonious balance
of all senses. Tribal society was an oral culture; members used
speech (an emotionally laden medium) to communicate. As a result,
such non-literate societies were involved, passionate, interdependent
and unified. The "acoustic space" which enveloped tribal society
was eroded by the invention of the phonetic alphabet. McLuhan credits
phonetic literacy for the dissolution of tribal society and the
creation of "Western Man."
Literacy inspired a more detached, linear perspective--the eye,
as opposed to the ear, became the dominant sensory organ. Western
Man evolved into "Gutenberg Man" with the arrival of the printing
press in the 16th century. According to McLuhan, the printing press
was responsible for such phenomena as the Industrial Revolution,
nationalism, and perspectivity in art. The printing press eventually
informed a "Mechanical Culture."
linearity and individualization characteristic of Mechanical Culture
has been usurped by electric media. This process began with the
invention of the telegraph. McLuhan considers the electric media
as extensions of the entire nervous system. Television is perhaps
the most significant of the electric media because of its ability
to invoke multiple senses. Television, as well as future technologies,
have the ability to re-tribalize, that is, to re-create the sensory
unification characteristic of tribal society.
In perhaps his most popular work, Understanding Media: the Extensions
of Man, McLuhan elaborates upon the sensory manipulation of
the electric media. Like most of his writing, Understanding Media
was criticized for its indigestible content and often paradoxical
ideas. Ironically, it was this work which captured the minds of
the American public and triggered McLuhan's metamorphosis from literary
scholar into pop culture guru.
Media contained the quintessential McLuhanism: "the medium is
the message." McLuhan explained that the content of all electric
media was insignificant; it was instead the medium itself which
would have the greatest impact upon the socio-cultural environment.
This perspective was contested by all members of the mass communication
paradigm--empirical researchers rejected McLuhan's grand theorizing;
critical cultural theorists felt McLuhan undermined their agenda
by discounting the power relationships inherent in and perpetuated
by media content.
thesis is judged to be not without merit, however. Understanding
the "televisual experience" and the role of the medium within the
context of contemporary life has inspired much popular culture research.
It is within this same framework that one ponders the impact of
technologies such as the internet and high definition television.
It is perhaps both medium and message which must be considered.
Understanding Media, McLuhan proposes a more controvesial
frame for judging media: "hot" and "cool." These categorizations
are puzzling and contemporary technology renders them practically
obsolete. In simplest terms, "hot" is exclusive and "cool" is inclusive.
Hot media are highly defined; there is little information to be
filled in by the user. Radio is a hot medium; it requires minimal
participation. Cool media, by contrast, are low definition and thus
highly participatory because the user must "fill in the blanks."
Television is the ultimate "cool" medium because it is highly participatory.
This categorization is extremely problematic to those who consider
television viewing a passive activity.
illustrate this concept, McLuhan analyzed the Kennedy--Nixon debates
of 1960. Kennedy's televisual victory was due to the fact that he
exuded an objective, disinterested, "cool" persona. Nixon, better
suited for the "hot" medium of radio, was considered victorious
by those who had listened to the debates on radio.
McLuhanism with the loudest echo in contemporary popular culture
is the concept of the "global village." It is a metaphor most invoked
by the telecommunications industry to suggest the ability of new
technologies to electronically link the world. McLuhan's then outrageous
vision of a post-literate society, one in which global consciousness
was shaped by technology instead of verbalization, has been partially
realized by the Internet. For McLuhan television begins the process
of re-tribalization through its ability to transcend time and space,
enabling the person in New York, for example, to "experience" a
foreign culture across the globe. Marshall
contemplated the profound impact of electronic technology upon society.
Loved or loathed, his opinions penetrated academic, popular and
corporate spheres. Within the context of popular culture theorizing,
McLuhan's commentaries will remain a part of history. Mass communication
researchers continue to explore the relationship between media and
society. In doing so they delineate the significance of television
in global culture and amplify the ideas Herbert Marshall McLuhan
contributed to this discourse.
Photo courtesy of Nelson Thall/ Marshall McLuhan Center on Global
MCLUHAN. Born Herbert Marshall McLuhan in Edmonton, Alberta,
Canada, 21 July 1911. University of Manitoba, B.A., 1933; M.A.,
1934; Trinity Hall, Cambridge, B.A., 1936; M.A., 1939; Ph.D., 1942.
Married: Corinne Keller Lewis, 1939; children: Eric, Mary Colton,
Teresa, Stephanie, Elizabeth O'Sullivan, Michael. Instructor, University
of Wisconsin, Madison, 1936-37; instructor of English, St. Louis
University, 1937-44; associate professor, English, Assumption College,
Windsor, Ontario, Canada, 1944-46; instructor, 1946-52, professor
of English, St. Michael's College, University of Toronto, 1952-79;
chairman, Ford Foundation seminar on culture and communications,
1953-60; co-founder Explorations magazine, 1954; co-editor, 1954-59;
editor 1964-79; director, media studies for U.S. Office of Education
and the National Association of Education Broadcasters, 1959-60;
director, Toronto University's McLuhan Centre for Culture and Technology,
1963-66, 69-79; editor, Patterns of Literary Criticism series, 1965-69;
consultant, Johnson, McCormick and Johnson, public relations, Toronto,
1966-80; Albert Schweitzer Professor in the Humanities, Fordham
University, New York City, 1967-68; consultant, Responsive Environments
Corporation, New York, 1968-80; consultant, Vatican Pontifical Commission
for Social Communications, 1973; Eugene McDermott Professor, University
of Dallas, 1975; Pound Lecturer, 1978; fellow, Royal Society of
Canada, 1964. D.Litt., University of Windsor, 1965; Assumption University,
1966; University of Manitoba, 1967; Simon Fraser University, 1967;
Grinnel College, 1967; St.John Fisher College, 1969; University
of Western Ontario, 1971; University of Toronto, 1977; Honorary
LL.D., University of Alberta, 1971; University of Toronto, 1977.
Recipient: Canadian Governor-General's Prize, 1963;; Niagara University
Award in culture and communications, 1967; Young German Artists
Carl Einstein Prize, West Germany, 1967; Companion, Order of Canada,
1970; President's Award, Institute of Public Relations, Great Britain,
1970; Assumption University Christian Culture Award, 1971; University
of Detroit President's Cabinet Award, 1972. Died in Toronto, Ontario,
Canada, 31 December 1980.
Is Marshall McLuhan, 1968; Annie Hall (cameo as himself),
Medium Is the Message, 1967.
Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man. New York: Vanguard
Press, 1951; London: Routledge, 1967.
Poetry of Tennyson, editor. New York: Rhinehart, 1956.
In Communications, editor with Edmund Carpenter. Boston: Beacon
Press, 1960; London: Cape, 1970.
Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. Toronto: University
of Toronto Press, 1962; London: Routledge, 1962.
Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw
Hill, 1964; London: Routledge, 1964.
of Literature, Vols. I-IV, editor with R.J. Schoeck. New York:
Medium Is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects, with Quentin Fiore.
New York: Bantam, 1967; London: Allen Lane, 1967.
the Vanishing Point: Space in Poetry and Painting, with Harley Parker.
New York: Harper, 1968.
and Peace in the Global Village: An Inventory of Some of the Current
Spastic Situations That Could Be Eliminated by More Feedforeward,
with Quentin Fiore. New York: McGraw Hill, 1968.
Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1969; New York: Harcourt Brace,
1969; London: Rapp and Whiting, 1970.
Interior Landscape: Selected Literary Criticism of Marshall McLuhan,
1943-1962, editor, E. McNamara. New York: McGraw Hill, 1969.
Is Our Business. New York: McGraw Hill, 1970.
Cliché to Archetype, with Wilfred Watson. New York: Viking Press,
Today: The Executive As Dropout, with Barrington Nevitt. New
York: Harcourt Brace, 1972.
City As Classroom, with Eric McLuhan and Kathy Hutchon. Agincourt,
Ontario: Book Society of Canada, 1977.
Crosby, Harry H., and George R. Bond, editors. The McLuhan Explosion.
New York: American Book Company, 1968.
Curtis, James M. Culture as Polyphony: An Essay on the Nature
of Paradigms. Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press,
Day, Barry. The Message of Marshall McLuhan. London: Lintas,
Dennis. Marshall McLuhan. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart,
Sidney Walter. Sense and Nonsense of McLuhan. New York: International
Arthur. Technology and the Canadian Mind: Innis/McLuhan/Grant.
New York: St. Martin's, 1985.
P. Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger. New York:
Ticknor & Fields, 1989.
Jonathan. Marshall McLuhan. London: Fontana, 1971; New York:
Raymond, editor. McLuhan: Pro and Con. Funk and Wagnalls,
F., and F. Macdonald. Marshall McLuhan: The Man and His Message.
Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum, 1989.
Gerald Emanuel, editor. McLuhan: Hot and Cool. New York:
Dial Press, 1967; London: Penguin, 1968.
Donald F. The Medium Is the Rear View Mirror: Understanding McLuhan.
Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 1971.