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Marshall McLuhan (1911 - 1980)

mass media - media - media theory

Visual, individualistic print culture will soon McLuhan is writing in the early 1960s be brought to an end by what McLuhan calls "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." --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marshall_McLuhan#The_Gutenberg_Galaxy_.281962.29 [Feb 2006]


Canadian academic whose work about the impact of the mass media on human consciousness (The Gutenberg Galaxy 1962), the social effects of the motor car (The Mechanical Bride 1951), electronic communications and the 'global village', were extremely influential in the arts of the 1950s and 1960s. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marshall_McLuhan [Nov 2004]

Global Village [...]

The phrase "global village" was coined by McLuhan in 1959, and appears in 1962's The Gutenberg Galaxy, his study of the psychological and cognitive effects of standardised printing. The title of the same book was the origin of the term "Gutenberg Galaxy". --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marshall_McLuhan [Nov 2004]

McLuhan Intro

Marshall McLuhan was born in 1911 and died in 1980. By the time of his death, he had been dismissed by respectable academicians, and he was known in the popular press as an eccentric intellectual whose day in the media spotlight had come and gone. By 1980, the transformation of human life catalyzed by television was taken for granted, and it no longer seemed interesting to ask where the electronic media were taking us. But in recent years, the explosion of new media - particularly the Web - has caused new anxieties. Or to put a more McLuhanesque spin on it, the advent of new digital media has brought the conditions of the old technologies into sharper relief, and made us suddenly conscious of our media environment. In the confusion of the digital revolution, McLuhan is relevant again. -- Gary Wolf, Jan 1996, Wired Magazine.

Jean Baudrillard

Marshall McLuhan is frequently linked to Jean Baudrillard --Scott Bukatman

Marshall McLuhan and David Cronenberg

The function of media in society is a subject that has been investigated by media theorist Marshall McLuhan and, in another register, filmmaker David Cronenberg. The theories that Marshall McLuhan proposes in Understanding Media are highly relevant to Cronenberg's films, as is Cronenberg's portrayal of mediated societies to McLuhan's theories. McLuhan and Cronenberg both focus on the relationship between electronic media and the human condition, and the possible affects of this relationship in the social sphere. 

In this essay I will be discussing the implications of McLuhan's theoretical understanding of media, as proposed in Understanding Media, comparing these theories to the representation of the mediated society in two films by David Cronenberg. The films I will be discussing are the 1982 release Videodrome and the 1999 release eXistenZ. Both films deal explicitly with media presence in the modern world. --(Rowan Laing, 2000) via http://www.otago.ac.nz/DeepSouth/spring2000/laingone.html [Aug 2005]

Camille Paglia on McLuhan

We all thought, "This is one of the great prophets of our time." What's happened to him? Why are these people reading Lacan or Foucault who have no awareness at all of mass media? Why would anyone go on about the school of Saussure? In none of that French crap is there any reference to media. Our culture is a pop culture. Americans are the ones who have to be interpreting the pop culture reality. -- Camille Paglia in Wired 1.01, 1993

The Mechanical Bride : Folklore of Industrial Man (1951) - Marshall McLuhan

The Mechanical Bride : Folklore of Industrial Man (1951) - Marshall McLuhan [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

Here is the devastating book which first established Marshall McLuhan's reputation as the foremost (and the wittiest) critic of modern mass communications.

This is vintage McLuhan so aptly illustrated by dozens of examples from ads, comic strips, columnists, etc., that those who have been stung by McLuhan have been hard put for rebuttals.

Here is how sex sells industrial hardware ... how Orphan Annie keeps the world on track ... how an Arabian Nights wonderland of mass entertainment and suggestion makes information irrelevant, and sends us to bed at night too dazed to question wether we're happy.

The 50th anniversary edition of The Mechanical Bride, first published in 1951, contains surprisingly topical themes forseen by the author at mid-century. --http://www.gingkopress.com/_cata/_mclu/mecbrid1.htm [Jun 2005]

Few people know that Marshall McLuhan's first book, published in 1951, is completely devoted to the phenomenon of advertising. Although popular in the 1960s, The Mechanical Bride is difficult to obtain nowadays, in contrast to the Mythologies Roland Barthes wrote five years later. On the back cover of the 1973 Granada edition of Mythologies a blurb actually cites Barthes as the McLuhan of signs. ...and like McLuhan's most engaging book, The Mechanical Bride, Barthes' Mythologies has its penetrating gusto. (Sunday Times).

Since McLuhan has been promoted to patron saint of Wired magazine, it would be fitting for the West Coast New-Edge firms to see to it that the complete works plus a critical study edition roll off the presses on the double. If McLuhan is so worshipped these days, it must be worth something; the digicash should be forked over. No cheap cd-rom indulgences, please, but a first real Gutenberg edition of his complete works. After which, as far as I'm concerned, McLuhan can sink into digitality forever.

The Mechanical Bride consists of sixty separate commentaries on magazine advertisements which McLuhan tore out in the late 40s and classified to the best of his abilities. --http://www.mediamatic.net/article-200.5845.html [Jun 2005]

see also: advertising - art - creativity - Marshall McLuhan - 1951 - media theory

Understanding Media : The Extensions of Man () - Marshall McLuhan

  • Understanding Media : The Extensions of Man () - Marshall McLuhan [Amazon.com]
    With a new introduction by Lewis H. Lapham This reissue of Understanding Media marks the thirtieth anniversary (1964-1994) of Marshall McLuhan's classic expose on the state of the then emerging phenomenon of mass media. Terms and phrases such as "the global village" and "the medium is the message" are now part of the lexicon, and McLuhan's theories continue to challenge our sensibilities and our assumptions about how and what we communicate. There has been a notable resurgence of interest in McLuhan's work in the last few years, fueled by the recent and continuing conjunctions between the cable companies and the regional phone companies, the appearance of magazines such as WiRed, and the development of new media models and information ecologies, many of which were spawned from MIT's Media Lab. In effect, media now begs to be redefined. In a new introduction to this edition of Understanding Media, Harper's editor Lewis Lapham reevaluates McLuhan's work in the light of the technological as well as the political and social changes that have occurred in the last part of this century.

    The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962) - Herbert Marshall McLuhan

    The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962) - Herbert Marshall McLuhan [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

    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 of print culture, a pioneering study in cultural studies, and a pioneering study in media ecology.

    Throughout the book, McLuhan is at 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. (Gutenberg Galaxy 1962, p. 41)

    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. (Galaxy pp. 124-26)

    We find the gist of McLuhan's argument (later elaborated in The Medium is the Message) that new technologies (like alphabets and printing presses, and, for that matter, 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 West: 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" (Galaxy p. 154).

    Visual, individualistic print culture will soon McLuhan is writing in the early 1960s be brought to an end by what McLuhan calls "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. (Galaxy p. 32)

    Note again McLuhan's stress on the importance of awareness of a medium's cognitive effects: 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 shapes profoundly 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. (Galaxy p. 158)

    Technology affects cognition, and the moral valence of these changes is, for McLuhan, good or bad, depending on one's perspective. In the later seventeenth century, for instance, McLuhan identifies a considerable amount of alarm and revulsion towards the growing quantity of printed books. A few hundred years later, though, many thinkers express alarm at 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 did not yet exist when McLuhan wrote The Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan is, if not the coiner then a popularizer, of the term "surfing" when used to refer to rapid, irregular and multidirectional movement through a heterogenous 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."

    McLuhan frequently quotes Ong's Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue (1958), which evidently had prompted McLuhan to write this book. Once again, Ong wrote a highly favorable review of this new book in America 107 (Sept. 15, 1962): 743, 747. However, in the 1967 New Catholic Encyclopedia, Ong subsequently qualified his earlier praise by characterizing 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" (8: 838). In short, certain parts should be read with a grain of salt, but it is definitely worth reading to this day.

    McLuhan's The Gutenberg Galaxy won the 1962 Governor-General's Award for Non-Fiction, Canada's highest literary award. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marshall_McLuhan#The_Gutenberg_Galaxy_.281962.29 [Sept 2005]

    For Marshall McLuhan the beginning of modernity is the invention of movable type: the Gutenberg press.

    See also: reproduction - 1962 - literacy - modernity - Gutenberg - Marshall McLuhan

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