The Gutenberg Galaxy

by Marshall McLuhan
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1454

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 signs linked to meaningless sounds.

Such an analysis would have been inconceivable to preliterate man; only persons on the verge of creating the alphabet or those who have inherited the system can so casually split the magical words of an oral/aural culture into bits and pieces of sound. When this is done, however, the split is made between the eye and the ear; the result is to transfer this technique of splitting and dividing into the world at large.

According to McLuhan’s theory, the technology was introduced which gave new stress or ascendancy to one of the senses, the visual. This altered the ratios among all the senses, making sight dominant and reducing the others to subsidiary positions and leading to a form of anesthesia or hypnosis, two images frequently used in The Gutenberg Galaxy. After the spread of the phonetic alphabet, humans reordered the world according to the visual bias imposed by the new medium.

McLuhan finds support for this assertion in a variety of fields and studies. The key products of the alphabet are homogeneity, uniformity, and repeatability. To some extent, the ancient Greeks expressed this greater visual bias in their arts, and the Romans—more fully under the spell of the medium—demonstrated its power in many ways, such as their exaltation of order and uniformity in their famous road system and in the regularity and discipline of their legions.

Nevertheless, though the phonetic alphabet was a powerful medium which could profoundly influence European culture, it could not dominate it, because the culture remained manuscript based. When documents are copied by hand, they lose much of their uniformity; when handwritten documents are read, the process is slow, frequently difficult, and often done aloud. McLuhan points out that until the advent of printing, reading almost always meant reading aloud, so that the visual bias of the alphabet was counteracted by the continued presence of sound. Although greatly weakened, the old oral/aural culture persisted through classical times, the medieval period, and up to the early days of the Renaissance.

It was the invention of the printing press that made the Gutenberg galaxy possible. Yet the press was able to transform society only because it utilized the phonetic alphabet. As McLuhan points out, the Chinese had developed wood-block printing techniques many centuries before Europeans, yet they had never harnessed this technology to the mass production of books. Chinese writing is in the form of ideograms, with the characters being based on ideas, rather that sounds. Thus, there was no break between sight and sound in China. In the West, however, language had already been recast into a system of symbols which could be formed and reformed as independent, discrete units. Printing was therefore a perfect method for reproducing these symbols.

Its effects were enormous. As opposed to a manuscript volume, a printed book represents a much more complete separation of the visual sense from the oral/aural sense. Print made possible much greater uniformity and repeatability. Gone were the different handwritings of scribes; vanished were the elaborate, intricate Gothic and minuscule letterings. In their place were line after line of ordered, justified, standardized print. The shift of sense ratios in favor of the visual was brought to its highest degree, and all Western culture began to show the results.

In science, men could now visualize the universe as some sort of celestial machine, with parts and workings that could be examined and explained separately, their functions isolated and abstracted. In society, there was the concept of the individual, something simply not found in earlier cultures and possible only with the visual reinforcement given by print. This, in turn, led to the artistic discovery of the point of view, which made perspective possible. All these were the results of printing.It was, above all, the concept of homogeneity, which typography fosters in every phase of human sensibility, that began to invade the arts, the sciences, industry, and politics from the sixteenth century forward.

There were other results as well, some of them in conflict with one another. While print fostered individuality, it also encouraged conformance, the human analogue of homogeneity. The rise of print encouraged the establishment of the vernacular languages, which led to a sense of national identity and so to nationalism, leading to human beings in the mass, rather than as individual persons. Finally, the printing press was a direct precursor of the modern economic system, since the book was the first mass-produced object and the press the first assembly line. This created a whole galaxy of its own, never before seen: modern markets, the price system, and that arcane art which would later begin Marshall McLuhan on his studies, advertising.

McLuhan brings together evidence for these effects from a variety of sources, especially literature and the social sciences. The Gutenberg Galaxy is filled with quotations and references ranging from Shakespeare’s King Lear (1605-1606) to Sir James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough: A Study of Magic and Religion (18901915) and from histories of music to theories of visual perception and studies on the origins of myths or the foundations of modern science. This exploration of the making and unmaking of typographic man is itself galactic in scope.

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