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Marshall McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980), Canadian professor of literature and culture, developed a theory of media and human development claiming that "the medium is the message."

Herbert Marshall McLuhan was born in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, on July 21, 1911. His father was a real estate and insurance salesman, his mother an actress. McLuhan studied first engineering and then literature at the University of Manitoba, earning his B.A. degree in 1933 and M.A. in 1934. He then continued his studies in medieval education and Renaissance literature at Cambridge University, which granted him the M.A. degree in 1940 and the Ph.D. in 1942. After several years of teaching in American universities, McLuhan returned to Canada and became a full professor at the University of Toronto in 1952.

In a series of books written while he was at Toronto, McLuhan set forth his "probes" and "explorations" about the way communication influences society. He frankly declined to follow the rules of systematic social scientific empiricism or the rigorous logic of theory building, preferring instead to draw upon his wide erudition and his flair for popularizing his ideas. His books became influential and were highly controversial.

McLuhan's theories consisted of a core of related propositions. He argued that human communication media are extensions of one or more of the senses and that use of these media re-arranges the sensory balance by stressing one sense over another. The self-definition of a culture (or a person) can thus be traced, says McLuhan, to the media that the culture relies on. To emphasize the importance of the sensory reorganization imposed by a medium, McLuhan claimed that "the medium is the message," which he later extended to the metaphor that "the medium is the massage."

In The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (1951), written before McLuhan's theories had reached their full development, one can see the brilliant attempt of a professor of literature to demonstrate to his students the ideologies that are invisibly (and therefore influentially) built into the content and structure of popular culture. Drawing mainly upon newspaper and magazine advertising, McLuhan argued that images of mechanical technology had come to dominate popular consciousness, so that human beings reduced themselves to mechanical and instrumental objects.

The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962), which won the 1963 Governor-General's Award for critical writing, is a study of the results of introducing movable type into the culture of 15th-century Western Europe. McLuhan argued that the invention of print culture made possible the creation of the public and the organization of the public into a nation. Movable type also changed the culture by altering people's sensory balance, emphasizing a visual fragmentation and linearity consistent with mechanical print.

McLuhan became famous with the publication of Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964). In this book McLuhan made his most comprehensive statement of his theory. He argued that "the medium is the message," in the sense that

the 'message' of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs. The railway did not introduce movement or transportation or wheel or road into human society, but it accelerated and enlarged the scale of previous human functions, creating totally new kinds of cities and new kinds of work or leisure. This happened whether the railway functioned in a tropical or a northern environment, and is quite independent of the freight or content of the railway medium. The airplane, on the other hand, by accelerating the rate of transportation, tends to dissolve the railway form of city, politics, and association, quite independently of what the airplane is used for.

Understanding Media also advanced McLuhan's notions of the narcotizing effects of media and of the distinction between hot and cool media. McLuhan claimed that when one of our senses is "extended" through a new medium, our sensory balance is altered in such a way that the other senses become dimmed or "narcotized." The hot versus cool distinction claims that hot media deliver information in high definition, and hence require little effort from the receiver. Cool media, on the other hand, provide little information, forcing the receiver to fill in what is missing to make sense out of the message, thus demanding a high degree of participation by the receiver. McLuhan wrote that, just as the change from oral and manuscript cultures to print culture had altered history, so, too, the change from print to electronic culture (television, computers) would, apart from whatever messages might be sent on television or computers, bring about a fundamental alteration in human consciousness.

McLuhan became a sensation in the popular press and among academics from many different disciplines. His ideas and methods were widely debated. Some critics pointed out that McLuhan was not as original as he seemed, having borrowed and perhaps distorted his fundamental premises about technological determinism from Toronto economist and historian Harold Innis. Others derided his views as utopian or mythical, or pointed out that, though it might be true that a medium has some structural influence as a medium, McLuhan was wrong to ignore the content, purpose, and context of particular messages, such as books, films, television shows, poems, songs, and paintings. McLuhan's refusal to respond to his academic critics with systematic proof, his grandly historical scope, his utopian tone, and the difficulty of translating his ideas into theory and research led to a decline of his enormous influence on academic and popular discussions of media. But, as one of his critics pointed out, "if he is wrong, it matters."

Further Reading

The following works of McLuhan are important to understanding the development of his theories: The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (1951); The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962); Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964); and The Medium Is the Massage (1967). For the essential works of Harold Innis, which exerted a strong influence on McLuhan, see Innis, The Bias of Communication (1951) and Empire and Communications (1950, 1972). Good examples of the debate about McLuhan can be found in Raymond Rosenthal (editor), McLuhan: Pro and Con (1968) and in Gerald Emanuel Stearn (editor), McLuhan: Hot & Cool (1967). On McLuhan's place in communication theory, see Richard L. Johannesen (editor), Contemporary Theories of Rhetoric: Selected Readings (1971) and Stephen W. Littlejohn, Theories of Human Communication (1978).

Additional Sources

Marchand, Philip, Marshall McLuhan: the medium and the messenger, New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1989; Toronto: Random House, 1989.

Marshall McLuhan: the man and his message, Golden, Colo.: Fulcrum, 1989. □

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Mcluhan, Marshall

Mcluhan, Marshall 1911-1980

BIBLIOGRAPHY

In 1964, when Canadian educator and social theorist Marshall McLuhans Understanding Media appeared, the terms medium and media were generally understood in the sense of intermediary or intermediate. The media were not recognized as a subject of study; reviewers and teachers cautioned that the word was obscure and needed definition. McLuhans radical observation was that it is the medium (not the program content) that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action:

The message of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs. The railway did not introduce movement or transportation or wheel or road into human society, but it accelerated and enlarged the scale of previous human functions, creating totally new kinds of cities and new kinds of work and leisure. This happened whether the railway functioned in a tropical or northern environment, and is quite independent of the freight or content of the railway medium. (McLuhan 1964, p. 8)

This is essentially a sociological outlook, though it has not been adopted by that field. Yet Understanding Media did serve to found the field of media study in North America and ultimately throughout the world.

Among its groundbreaking insights were that some media involve the user deeply (cool media), while others (hot media) do not: The involvement takes place on the sensory level, below consciousness. For example, the movie viewer must supply all of the movement that occurs on the screen between frames while the screen is black. The television viewer or computer user supplies most of the mosaic image from moment to moment and nearly all of the color. These effects, which occur independently of the content or uses, shape the sensory preferences of the users and supply new perceptual biases that affect how they construe their cultures and societies.

McLuhan was the first to study advertising seriously: In his first book, The Mechanical Bride (1951), he called advertising the Folklore of Industrial Man. This work applies then-new critical techniques (practical criticism, developed in England) for the first time to ads and other facets of North American popular culture. McLuhan followed it with Culture Is Our Business (1970), a companion study of advertising after television.

The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) delved into the manner in which print and the press reshaped culture and sensibility in the centuries that followed their introduction and showed how to study the social-environmental actions of new media. Take Today: The Executive as Dropout (1972) examined the effects of electric media on management practice and business culture.

Laws of Media: The New Science (1988), written with his son Eric, sought to place McLuhans style of environmental media study on a scientific basis for the first time. In it, the authors proposed that four invariable laws govern the action of all mediaand also of all human artifacts. Briefly, every human artifact extends or amplifies some process or faculty; obsolesces some established pattern; reinvigorates or retrieves some older, previously obsolesced form that now returns in a new shape or guise; and reverses its characteristics when pushed to its limit. The four laws exhibit an inner relation to each other as A is to B as C is to D.

During his life, McLuhan was a controversial figure, not least because his techniques of media study departed so radically from the established methods, which focused on content analysis and research into the desires and motivations of audiences. McLuhan, in contrast, approached media study from the angle of perception and changes in sensibility occasioned by media as forms and as extensions of the users senses. Although McLuhans work remains controversial, his techniques work as well now as they did in his time, to the chagrin of those who have tried to apply them superficially, without first understanding how perception is modified by media.

SEE ALSO Critical Theory; Cultural Studies; Film Industry; Journalism; Media; Popular Culture; Television; Theater; Visual Arts

BIBLIOGRAPHY

McLuhan, Marshall. 1951. The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man. New York: Vanguard.

McLuhan, Marshall. 1962. The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.

McLuhan, Marshall. 1964. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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

McLuhan, Marshall. 1999. The Medium and the Light: Reflections on Religion, eds. Eric McLuhan and Jacek Szklarek. Toronto, ON: Stoddart.

McLuhan, Marshall, and Quentin Fiore. 1967. The Medium is the Massage. New York: Random House.

McLuhan, Marshall, and Quentin Fiore. 1968. War and Peace in the Global Village: An Inventory of Some of the Current Spastic Situations That Could Be Eliminated by More Feedforward. New York: Random House.

McLuhan, Marshall, and Eric McLuhan. 1988. Laws of Media: The New Science. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.

McLuhan, Marshall, and Barrington Nevitt. 1972. Take Today: The Executive as Dropout. New York: Harcourt.

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

McLuhan, Marshall, and Wilfred Watson. 1970. From Cliché to Archetype. New York: Viking.

Eric McLuhan

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McLuhan, Marshall

Marshall McLuhan (Herbert Marshall McLuhan), 1911–80, Canadian communications theorist and educator, b. Edmonton, Alta. He taught at the Univ. of Toronto (1946–80) and at other institutions of higher education in Canada and the United States. McLuhan gained popularity and fame in the 1960s with his prophetic proposal that electronic media, especially television, were creating a "global village" in which "the medium is the message," i.e., the means of communications has a greater influence on people than the information itself. While many of the mass media were in early stages of development, McLuhan considered their effects on people to be potentially toxic and dehumanizing. His books include The Mechanical Bride (1951), The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), Understanding Media (1964), From Cliché to Archetype (1970, with W. Watson), and City as Classroom (1977, with K. Hutchon and E. McLuhan).

See biographies by W. T. Gordon (1997) and D. Coupland (2010).

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McLuhan, (Herbert) Marshall

McLuhan, (Herbert) Marshall (1911–80) Canadian academic and expert on communications. His view that the forms in which people receive information (such as television, radio and computers) are more important than the messages themselves was presented in The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (1951), Understanding Media (1964), and The Medium is the Message (1967).

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