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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 638

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.

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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, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964).

In The Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan takes what he calls a “mosaic or field approach” to the subject. Moving in roughly chronological order, he examines preliterate cultures and their characteristics; probes the impact of the alphabet and its effect on art, philosophy, and human behavior; traces the rise of manuscript culture in the Middle Ages; and finally, charts the dramatic shift in consciousness following the invention and spread of printing. Within this general guide, however, McLuhan freely darts from subject to subject, touching upon disciplines ranging from art history to anthropology and considering topics as seemingly diverse as the reaction of tribal Africans to motion pictures and the reason that the introduction of Arabic numbers in the late Middle Ages caused the divorce between arts and sciences in Europe.

There are 107 short chapters, each headed by a provocative gloss which the chapter proceeds to explain or refine, frequently by the copious use of quotations from a variety of sources: William Shakespeare, Francis Bacon, James Joyce, medieval theologians, and modern scholars. As in his other books, McLuhan makes use of puns—“Medieval Idols of the King,” for example. He also refuses to confine himself to the strictures of approved academic style: “Heidegger surf-boards along the electronic wave as triumphantly as Descartes rode the mechanical wave.”

Like the glosses, the chapters are thought-provoking, sometimes puzzling, always interesting. Seldom does any single chapter advance a complete argument or concept; instead, McLuhan builds his work just as he said he would, as a mosaic, and it is only after the entire work has been studied that it fits together as a whole.

This approach derives logically from McLuhan’s basic premise. The creation of the Gutenberg galaxy involved the whole spectrum of human existence, since one central event—printing—affected innumerable other parts of human life. To depict such a world-altering shift from a single point of view not only would be difficult but also would distort beyond recognition the actual patterns which McLuhan believes he has found. The method of his book is fitted to the nature of his concern, for, as he writes:the galaxy or constellation of events which the present study concentrates is itself a mosaic of perpetually interacting forms that have undergone kaleidoscopic transformation—particularly in our own time.


Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 57

Duffy, Dennis. Marshall McLuhan, 1969.

Miller, Jonathan. Marshall McLuhan, 1971.

Ong, Walter J. Review in America. CVII (September 15, 1962), pp. 743-745.

Rosenthal, Raymond, ed. McLuhan: Pro and Con, 1967.

Simon, John. “Pilgrim of the Audile-Tactile,” in The New Republic. CXLVII (October 8, 1962), pp. 21-23.

Stearn, Gerald, ed. McLuhan: Hot and Cool, 1967.

Theall, Donald. The Medium Is the Rear View Mirror: Understanding McLuhan, 1971.

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