Canadian Media Theorist

Marshall 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.

McLuhan 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.

McLuhan 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."

The 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.

Understanding 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.

His 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.

In 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.

To 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.

The 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

McLuhan 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.

-Sharon Zechowski


Marshall McLuhan
Photo courtesy of Nelson Thall/ Marshall McLuhan Center on Global Communications

MARSHALL 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.


This Is Marshall McLuhan, 1968; Annie Hall (cameo as himself), 1977.


The Medium Is the Message, 1967.


The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man. New York: Vanguard Press, 1951; London: Routledge, 1967.

Selected Poetry of Tennyson, editor. New York: Rhinehart, 1956.

Explorations In Communications, editor with Edmund Carpenter. Boston: Beacon Press, 1960; London: Cape, 1970.

The 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.

Voices of Literature, Vols. I-IV, editor with R.J. Schoeck. New York: Holt, 1964-70.

The Medium Is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects, with Quentin Fiore. New York: Bantam, 1967; London: Allen Lane, 1967.

Through the Vanishing Point: Space in Poetry and Painting, with Harley Parker. New York: Harper, 1968.

War 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.

Counterblast. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1969; New York: Harcourt Brace, 1969; London: Rapp and Whiting, 1970.

The Interior Landscape: Selected Literary Criticism of Marshall McLuhan, 1943-1962, editor, E. McNamara. New York: McGraw Hill, 1969.

Culture Is Our Business. New York: McGraw Hill, 1970.

From Cliché to Archetype, with Wilfred Watson. New York: Viking Press, 1970.

Take Today: The Executive As Dropout, with Barrington Nevitt. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1972.

The 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, 1978.

Day, Barry. The Message of Marshall McLuhan. London: Lintas, 1967.

Duffy, Dennis. Marshall McLuhan. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1969.

Finkelstein, Sidney Walter. Sense and Nonsense of McLuhan. New York: International Publishers, 1968.

Kroker, Arthur. Technology and the Canadian Mind: Innis/McLuhan/Grant. New York: St. Martin's, 1985.

Marchand, P. Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger. New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1989.

Miller, Jonathan. Marshall McLuhan. London: Fontana, 1971; New York: Viking, 1971.

Rosenthal, Raymond, editor. McLuhan: Pro and Con. Funk and Wagnalls, 1968.

Sanderson, F., and F. Macdonald. Marshall McLuhan: The Man and His Message. Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum, 1989.

Stearns, Gerald Emanuel, editor. McLuhan: Hot and Cool. New York: Dial Press, 1967; London: Penguin, 1968.

Theall, Donald F. The Medium Is the Rear View Mirror: Understanding McLuhan. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 1971.