Critical Context

The concept that the expressive form of a work of art is its true “message,” quite independent from its representational content, has been the mainstay of aesthetic theory since the beginning of the twentieth century. McLuhan’s familiarity with this concept, derived from his background in literary criticism, may be seen as one of the stimuli behind some of the ideas proposed in Understanding Media and may also help to explain the intuitive appeal of the phrase “the medium is the message.”

Furthermore, some of the other themes used by McLuhan in his theory of communication are also derived from works which had already received considerable attention by the time of his writing. In particular, one must remember that two American anthropologists, Edward Sapir in the 1920’s and Benjamin Lee Whorf in the 1950’s, had developed a theory of linguistic relativity which proposes that a culture’s language determines that culture’s overall worldview. Also, as early as the 1930’s, a full-blown theory of technological determinism was developed by the influential Chicago school of sociology. Writing in 1940, Robert Ezra Park summarized this theory by saying, “Technological devices have naturally changed men’s habits and in doing so, they have necessarily modified the structure and functions of society,” an idea not unlike the one McLuhan was to present in his own work.

Yet the phenomenal popular success of Understanding...

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