According to McLuhan, the most important elements in shaping human society, culture, and even consciousness, are the technologies which have been created. Having the greatest impact are the “media,” a term which McLuhan uses to include more than the traditional methods of conveying information such as speech, print, or the visual arts. For McLuhan, a medium is any extension of a human sense or faculty: Thus, the wheel is an extension of the foot, while clothing is an extension of the skin.
The important point about media as extensions of human senses is that the introduction and development of such media will alter what McLuhan terms the “ratios” between the senses. In other words, a medium such as print, which favors the eye, will shift the ratios in favor of the visual sense, thus producing in human beings a perception of the world which is visually oriented, perhaps to the point of distortion. McLuhan sums up the process early in The Gutenberg Galaxy:If a technology is introduced either from within or from without a culture, and if it gives new stress or ascendancy to one or another of our senses, the ratio among all of our senses is altered. We no longer feel the same, nor do our eyes and ears and other senses remain the same. The interplay among our senses is perpetual save in a condition of anesthesia. But any sense when stepped up to high intensity can act as an anesthetic for other senses.
This shift from a balance of senses to the supremancy of the visual, and the consequent changes it caused in Western culture, is the concern of The Gutenberg Galaxy.
According to McLuhan, preliterate man lived in a world which was dominated by the sense of sound rather than sight. Drawing upon research from anthropology, McLuhan cites examples from cultures which have remained wholly or primarily preliterate well into the twentieth century; he finds the worldviews of such cultures to be in accord with his theory. Such persons perceive the universe as an organic whole, with the total effect being what McLuhan calls “a simultaneous field,” characteristic of such oral/aural cultures. In other words, events happen without reference to Western concepts of time, cause and effect, or sequential logic. According to McLuhan, such ideas are visual and therefore have no place in a culture dominated by the oral/aural senses.
Such was the world of preliterate man. It is also the world of the future, McLuhan predicts, claiming that the electronic media have re-created the “global village” and that society is already well into the post-Gutenberg stage. While this book is filled with dozens of such allusions, McLuhan does not fully expound upon them, reserving that task for his subsequent volume, Understanding Media. His immediate task is to trace the disruption of the preliterate world by the creation and spread of the phonetic alphabet, sometime around 2000 b.c.e.
The phonetic alphabet caused a change because it makes a break between the eye and the ear. McLuhan notes a point which others have observed before, without his daring speculation on its potential impact. The letters of the alphabet have no intrinsic relationship to the sounds which they represent; the connection between the two is arbitrary. Furthermore, in order to devise a phonetic alphabet and assign values to its letters, it is necessary to break words down into their constituent sounds, which are also without meaning in such isolation. A phonetic alphabet, then, becomes meaningless...
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Generally speaking, McLuhan’s cultural commentaries can be grouped into two categories: the more traditional and structured works, such as The Gutenberg Galaxy or Understanding Media, and his more innovative juxtapositions of images and brief, provocative commentary, found in such works as The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (1951), The Medium Is the Massage (1967), or Culture Is Our Business (1970). The subtitle of The Medium Is the Massage is especially significant—An Inventory of Effects—because this is the essence of McLuhan’s method: determining and explaining the effects which media and their extensions have on human beings and their culture.
Even in his more traditional writing, however, McLuhan was far from conventional. The Gutenberg Galaxy is indeed what its author proclaimed it to be: a mosaic of bits and pieces, evidence and proof gathered from a dozen different disciplines and at least 288 authors, cited in its bibliography. It is far ranging, it is lively and stimulating, and it is one of the central works in the McLuhan canon.
Along with Understanding Media, The Gutenberg Galaxy gives a definite form to McLuhan’s thesis about the impact of media and provides the most consistent and articulate presentation of his evidence in support of that thesis. It might be said that The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding...
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