|July 21, 1911
|December 31, 1980
Herbert Marshall McLuhan CC (July 21, 1911 - December 31, 1980) was a Canadian educator, philosopher, and scholar – a professor of English literature, a literary critic, and a communications theorist. McLuhan's work is viewed as one of the cornerstones of the study of media ecology. McLuhan is well-known for coining the expressions "the medium is the message" and the "global village." McLuhan's views on the importance of technology for social organization helped to promote the idea that the world is one, transnational human community.
McLuhan was a fixture in media discourse from the late 1960s to his death and he continues to be an influential and controversial figure. Years after his death he was named the "patron saint" of Wired magazine.
Marshall McLuhan was born in 1911 in Edmonton, Alberta, to Herbert Ernest McLuhan and the former Elsie Naomi Hall. His brother, Maurice, was born two years later. "Marshall" was a family name: his maternal grandmother's surname. Both of his parents were born in Canada. His mother was a Baptist schoolteacher who later became an actress. His father was a Methodist who had a real estate business in Edmonton. When World War I broke out, the business failed, and his father was enlisted into the Canadian army. After a year of service he contracted influenza and remained in Canada, away from the front. After Herbert's discharge from the army in 1915, the McLuhan family moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba where Marshall grew up and went to school.
McLuhan earned a BA (1933) — winning a University Gold Medal in Arts and Sciences — and MA (1934) in English from the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, after a one year stint as an engineering major. He had long desired to pursue graduate studies in England and, having failed to secure a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford, McLuhan was accepted for enrollment at the University of Cambridge. Although he already had earned BA and MA degrees at Manitoba, Cambridge required him to enroll as an undergraduate "affiliated" student, with one year's credit toward a three-year Cambridge Bachelor's degree, before any doctoral studies. He entered Trinity Hall, Cambridge in the Fall of 1934, where he studied under I. A. Richards and F. R. Leavis, and was influenced by New Criticism. Upon reflection years after, 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. He received his second Bachelor's degree from Cambridge in 1936 and began graduate work. He returned from England to take a job as a teaching assistant at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which he held for the 1936-1937 academic year, 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, founded on his reading of G. K. Chesterton. In the end of March 1937, McLuhan culminated what was a slow but total conversion process when he was formally received into the Roman Catholic Church. After consulting with a minister, his father was accepting of 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 it was a private matter. He had a lifelong interest in the number three - 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 to 1940 when he returned to Cambridge). At Saint Louis he tutored and befriended Walter J. Ong (1912-2003), who would go on to write his Ph.D. dissertation on a topic McLuhan had called to his attention, and who would himself also later become a well-known authority on communication and technology.
On August 4, 1939, McLuhan married teacher and aspiring actress Corinne Lewis of Fort Worth, Texas, and they spent 1939 to 1940 in Cambridge, where he completed his Masters degree (awarded in January 1940 and began to work on his doctoral dissertation on Thomas Nashe and the verbal arts. World War II had broken out in Europe while the McLuhans were in England, and he obtained permission to complete and submit his dissertation from the United States, without having to return to Cambridge for an oral defense. They returned to Saint Louis University in 1940 where he continued teaching. He was awarded the Ph.D. in December 1943.
Returning to Canada, from 1944 to 1946 McLuhan taught at Assumption College in Windsor, Ontario. Moving to Toronto in 1946, McLuhan joined the faculty of St. Michael's College, a college in the University of Toronto, where Hugh Kenner was one of his students and Canadian economist and media historian Harold Innis was his colleague. He remained at the University of Toronto through 1979, much of it spent 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, New York, for one year (1967-68). While at Fordham, McLuhan was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor; it was treated successfully. He returned to Toronto where for the rest of his life, he worked at the University of Toronto and lived in Wychwood Park, a bucolic enclave on a hill overlooking the downtown where Anatol Rapoport was his neighbor.
Marshall and Corinne McLuhan had six children: Eric, twins Mary and Teresa, Stephanie, Elizabeth and Michael. In 1970, McLuhan was made a Companion of the Order of Canada.
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 center shortly thereafter, but was deterred by substantial protests, most notably by Woody Allen with whom he appeared in Annie Hall.
He died in his sleep on the last day of 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, 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, dialectic, and 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 reemergence 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 analyzing 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 slogan, "the medium is the message" (elaborated in his 1964 book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man) calls attention to this intrinsic impact of communications media. (It should be noted that he titled his later, 1967, book The Medium is the Massage.) The slogan, "the medium is the message," is best understood in light of Jesuit philosopher Bernard Lonergan's further articulation of related ideas: at the empirical level of consciousness, the medium is the message, whereas at the intelligent and rational levels of consciousness, the content is the message.
When McLuhan declares that he is more interested in percepts than concepts, he is declaring in effect that he is more interested in what Lonergan refers to as the empirical level of consciousness than in what Lonergan refers to as the intelligent level of consciousness in which concepts are formed, which Lonergan distinguishes from the rational level of consciousness in which the adequacy of concepts and of predications is adjudicated. McLuhan's inward turn to attending to percepts and to the cultural conditioning of the empirical level of consciousness through the impact of communication media sets him apart from more outward-oriented studies of sociological influences and the outward presentation of self carried out by George Herbert Mead, Erving Goffman, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, Kenneth Burke, Hugh Duncan, and others.
McLuhan also started the journal Explorations with Edmund "Ted" Carpenter.
McLuhan's 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.
Like his 1962 book The Gutenberg Galaxy, The Mechanical Bride is sui generis and 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. 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.
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 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:
…If 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 and often rambling history takes the reader from pre-alphabetic tribal humankind to the electronic age. According to McLuhan, the invention of movable type greatly accelerated, intensified, and ultimately enabled cultural and cognitive changes that had already been taking place since the invention and implementation of the alphabet, by which McLuhan means phonemic orthography. (McLuhan is careful to distinguish the phonetic alphabet from logographic/logogramic writing systems, like hieroglyphics or ideograms.)
Print culture, ushered in by the Gutenberg press in the middle of the fifteenth century, brought about the cultural predominance of the visual over the aural/oral. Quoting with approval an observation on the nature of the printed word from Prints and Visual Communication by William Ivins, McLuhan remarks:
In this passage [Ivins] not only notes the ingraining of lineal, sequential habits, but, even more important, points out the visual homogenizing of experience of print culture, and the relegation of auditory and other sensuous complexity to the background. […] The technology and social effects of typography incline us to abstain from noting interplay and, as it were, "formal" causality, both in our inner and external lives. Print exists by virtue of the static separation of functions and fosters a mentality that gradually resists any but a separative and compartmentalizing or specialist outlook.
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 impacts social interactions ("fosters a mentality that gradually resists all but a… specialist outlook"). According to McLuhan, the advent of print technology contributed to and made possible most of the salient trends in the Modern period in the 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."
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 replace visual culture with aural/oral culture. In this new age, humankind will move from individualism and fragmentation to a collective identity, with a "tribal base." McLuhan's coinage for this new social organization is the global village, a term which has predominantly negative connotations in The Gutenberg Galaxy (a fact lost on its later popularizers):
Instead of tending towards a vast Alexandrian library the world has become a computer, an electronic brain, exactly as an infantile piece of science fiction. And as our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside. So, unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence. […] Terror is the normal state of any oral society, for in it everything affects everything all the time. [...] In our long striving to recover for the Western world a unity of sensibility and of thought and feeling we have no more been prepared to accept the tribal consequences of such unity than we were ready for the fragmentation of the human psyche by print culture.
McLuhan stresses the importance of awareness of a medium's cognitive effects. He argues that, if we are not vigilant to the effects of media's impact, the global village has the potential to become a place where totalitarianism and terror rule.
Key to McLuhan's argument is the idea that technology has no per se moral bent–it is a tool that 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 30 years after The Gutenberg Galaxy was published, McLuhan may have 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's The Gutenberg Galaxy won Canada's highest literary award, the Governor-General's Award for Non-Fiction, in 1963. The chairman of the selection committee was McLuhan's colleague at the University of Toronto and oftentime intellectual sparring partner, Northrop Frye.
McLuhan's most widely known work, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964), is also a pioneering study in media ecology. In it 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 theory 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 lighbulb 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 in order to study any individual part of it.
McLuhan also claimed in the first part of Understanding Media, 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, 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 television, which he claimed requires more effort on the part of viewer to determine meaning; and with 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.
In this book, initiated by Quentin Fiore, McLuhan adopted the term "massage" to denote the effect each medium has on the human sensorium, inventorying 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 theories. 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 the 1962 The Gutenberg Galaxy—that 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.
McLuhan used James Joyce's Finnegans Wake as a major inspiration for the study of war throughout history as an indicator as to how war may be conducted in the future.
Joyce's Finnegan'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 (auditory) 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:
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."
McLuhan's statement that the content of any medium is another medium leads the concept of a figure and a ground. Here McLuhan claims that when a new medium is created, it will eventually overtake those media from which its content is derived as an innovation. The older medium becomes a ground upon which the new medium stands as a more noticed figure.
A tetrad is a means of examining the effects of any technology on society by dividing its effects into four categories and displaying them simultaneously. Visually, a tetrad can be depicted as four diamonds forming an X, with the name of a medium in the center. 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.
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. This publicity had much to do with the work of two California advertising executives, Gerald Feigen and Howard Gossage, who used personal profits to fund their practice of "genius scouting."
Much enamored 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, editors from the San Francisco Chronicle and Ramparts magazine.
Perhaps more significant, however, was Tom Wolfe's presence at the festival, which he would later write about in his article, "What If He Is Right?" published in New York Magazine and Wolfe's own The Pump House Gang. According to Feigen and Gossage, however, their work had only a moderate impact on McLuhan's eventual celebrity: they later 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. Playboy magazine published a lengthy interview with him.
During his lifetime and afterward, McLuhan heavily influenced cultural critics, thinkers, and media theorists such as Neil Postman, Camille Paglia, Timothy Leary, William Irwin Thompson, Paul Levinson, Douglas Rushkoff, Jaron Lanier, Joshua Meyrowitz, Lance Strate, John David Ebert and French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, as well as political leaders such as Canadian prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau and former California governor Jerry Brown.
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. 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."
Further information about McLuhan's thought can be found in The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. (1st ed. 1994: 481-483; 2nd ed. 2005, 643-45), Encyclopedia of Contemporary Literary Theory: Approaches, Scholars, Terms (Univ of Toronto Press, 1993, 421-423), and Encyclopedia of Literary Critics and Criticism. (Fitzroy Dearborn, 1999, 744-747).
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