Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Marshall McLuhan’s The Gutenberg Galaxy is subtitled The Making of Typographic Man, and the study is precisely that: an examination of how literacy, first in the form of the phonetic alphabet and later reinforced by printing, has created the culture of the modern Western world. It is McLuhan’s underlying thesis that all media are extensions of one or more of the human senses and that the development of any one medium will favor the particular sense which it extends. When that happens, the human perception of the world will come to be dominated by the favored sense. According to The Gutenberg Galaxy, the sense of sight has been favored in the Western world for thousands of years, since the development of the alphabet, and has been supreme for the past five hundred years, following the invention of printing. The configuration that resulted is the “galaxy” in McLuhan’s title, aptly named for the inventor of the printing press, Johannes Gutenberg.

During the second half of the nineteenth century, and with increasing speed during the twentieth century, this Gutenberg galaxy has been penetrated by a new organization of perceptions based on the electric media: the telegraph, radio, television, and computers. As Western culture moves into this latest phase, it is now possible to examine the all-pervasive, and therefore unconscious, framework which has held the Gutenberg galaxy in place. This is the task McLuhan sets for himself in this work. The study of the electronic galaxy is carried on in his subsequent volume,...

(The entire section is 638 words.)