Mcluhan, Herbert Marshall (1911-1980)

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Herbert Marshall McLuhan, universally known as Marshall McLuhan, combined Cambridge University's New Criticism of literary textual analysis with the political economy-inspired communication theory of fellow Canadian and University of Toronto colleague Harold Innis. McLuhan was a leading scholar of popular communication media from the mid-1940s until his death in 1980 (which followed a stroke that had left him without his greatest gift, speech). An unconventional, colorful, and controversial professor of English who became the director of the Center of Culture and Technology of the University of Toronto, McLuhan rose to popular culture status himself with a handful of best-selling books and nonbooks published in the 1960s, including The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962), Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964), The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (1967), and War and Peace in the Global Village (1968).

McLuhan created his own iconoclastic mix of observations about media by adapting and popularizing the communication bias theory of Innis and drawing from an interdisciplinary array of humanist thinkers, including T. S. Eliot, I. A. Richards, F. R. Leavis, St. Thomas Aquinas, Lewis Mumford, and a group of scholars at Toronto in the 1950s, such as anthropologist Edmund Carpenter. Considered today to be a member of the loosely knit Toronto school of communication studies, McLuhan's well-turned theoretical aphorisms, including "the medium is the message" and "the global village," became part of scholarly and popular consciousness in thinking about the media. McLuhan helped create a humanistic, qualitative, cultural, and critical analysis of the complex relationship between technology and culture. He offered an alternative to mainstream mass communication research.

McLuhan contended that all media, or technologies, extend the human body and human functions. All material existence qualifies as media, including wheels, which extend the foot, and clothing, which extends the skin. Numbers, clocks, roads, architecture, and many other material technologies are media, in addition to the traditional communication media of speech, writing, printing, and electronic media. Individuals and societies respond to this extension of human form with a sense of shock and pain, associated with amputation of a limb, thus failing to recognize the ultimately human source of all technology, much as the Greek figure Narcissus failed to recognize his reflection as his own. McLuhan's stated goal was to make people aware of the humanness of technology in order to lead them to exert human control over technology.

Another important concept in McLuhan's thought was that media alter the perceptual or sensory ratios of individuals and cultures, so that all media, but most important the dominant media of a historical period, emphasize either the acoustic or the visual. Ear-based oral culture and multisensory or tactile electronic media culture both emphasize the acoustic. Eye-based literate and print media cultures emphasize sight and the visual, or the sense of vision operating in isolation of the other senses. In this scheme, the three stages of history are (1) the acoustic oral communication stage, from the emergence of speech to the advent of alphabetic writing systems and the rise of literacy, (2) the visual print communication stage, from the advent of movable type and the printing press in 1450s-era Europe to that of the telegraph in 1830s-era America, and (3) the acoustic electronic communication stage, beginning with the telegraph but intensifying with the rise of film, radio, television, satellites, and computers. Acoustic and visual cultures create opposing modes of consciousness and forms of social organization, including religion, politics, economics, and the arts, the last of which interested McLuhan the most deeply. Acoustic cultures are associated with tribal and sacred cultures, participatory local and global politics, noncapitalist economies, and both traditional and nonrepresentational art, music, literature, and media. Visual cultures are characterized by a focus on the individual and the secular, representative democracy and nationalism, socialism and corporatism, and representational art, music, and literature. The message of the medium, McLuhan argued, is the way it changes individual sensory perceptions and the cultures in which one type of medium is always dominant. As mechanization of the media has intensified from the natural forms of speech and ideogrammatic language to the printing press and industrial production, and more recently to the globally integrated field of television and beyond, the media environment now retrieves elements of the tribalism of village culture on a global geographic scale, thus creating a global village.

The style and tone, as much as the substance, of McLuhan's media and social theories drew increasingly sharp reactions from media researchers and educators. His first book, The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (1951), critically and morally protested against the effect of popular culture. Print media advertisements, he argued, degrade culture, destroy individualism, and blur the distinctions between the human and the technological. Reflecting his contact with Innis and others in Toronto, The Gutenberg Galaxy (published more than ten years later) offered a humanistic and literary history of the harmful effects of print culture on psychology and society. With the publication of Understanding Media in 1964, critics argued that McLuhan was losing his critical stance and embracing technological determinism. Although he achieved widespread recognition in the late 1960s, McLuhan's spirited attacks on the print culture methods of education and social science research in mass communication and other fields made many adversaries, whose criticisms were strengthened by his collaborative turn to unconventional book forms filled mostly with graphic elements and aphorisms and by his confrontational and arrogant demeanor. By the time of his death in 1980, McLuhan had published little new material and had fallen from serious consideration by many media scholars.

In the 1980s, publications by media ecologists Joshua Meyrowitz (1985) and Neil Postman (1985), a biography by Philip Marchand (1989), McLuhan's letters (1987), and two posthumously coauthored books (McLuhan and McLuhan, 1988; McLuhan and Powers, 1989) helped rekindle interest in McLuhan's work. The emergence of a more cohesive and humanistic turn toward studies in culture and communication, and the continuing interest in McLuhan and Innis in Canada (Babe, 2000), also helped initiate what may be considered a renaissance in McLuhan studies, including comparisons of McLuhan to the Frankfurt School (Stamps, 1995) and to an array of critical, cultural, and postmodern theorists (Stevenson, 1995; Grosswiler, 1997). McLuhan has even been characterized as a transitional post-modernist figure (Willmott, 1996). Drawing as he did from many disciplines with a focus on the whole cultural field, McLuhan remains an influential scholar and a fruitful source of study in communication and culture.

See also:Culture and Communication; Innis, Harold Adams; Social Change and the Media.


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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: University of Toronto Press.

McLuhan, Marshall. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: Mentor.

McLuhan, Marshall. (1987). Letters of Marshall McLuhan, eds. Matie Molinaro, Corinne McLuhan, and William Toye. Toronto: Oxford University Press.

McLuhan, Marshall, with Fiore, Quentin, and Agel, Jerome. (1967). The Medium Is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. New York: Bantam.

McLuhan, Marshall, with Fiore, Quentin, and Angel, Jerome. (1968). War and Peace in the Global Village. New York: Bantam.

McLuhan, Marshall, with McLuhan, Eric. (1988). Laws of Media: The New Science. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

McLuhan, Marshall, with Powers, Bruce. (1989). The Global Village: Transformations in World Life and Media in the 21st Century. New York: Oxford University Press.

Meyrowitz, Joshua. (1985). No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior. New York: Oxford University Press.

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Postman, Neil. (1985). Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. New York: Penguin.

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Stamps, Judith. (1995). Unthinking Modernity: Innis, McLuhan, and the Frankfurt School. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press.

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Theall, Donald F. (1971). Understanding McLuhan: The Medium Is the Rear View Mirror. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press.

Willmott, Glenn. (1996). McLuhan, Or Modernism in Reverse. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Paul Grosswiler

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