Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 402

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.

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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 Media attempt to convince the reader through reason and argument, while the other works aim, and succeed, at provoking the reader into thought. While both exercises are undoubtedly useful, it can hardly be doubted that the playful explorations of The Medium Is the Massage would not have been possible without the profound conclusions reached in The Gutenberg Galaxy.

In a way, McLuhan’s concept is both simple and complex. The underlying thought is simple: New technologies shift the stress among senses, and this in turn makes changes in the way humans perceive, and therefore organize, the world and society. The complex part of the arrangement comes in providing the evidence for these shifts and proving that these changes do indeed take place.

McLuhan thought that he had discerned two such major shifts in Western consciousness, one from the oral, preliterate world to the world of print, and the ongoing change into the electronic age. The Gutenberg Galaxy is his most far-reaching and effective presentation of the case for the first shift and foreshadows his later efforts at addressing impacts of the electronic media on human society and culture.

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