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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1990

Article abstract: With a cryptic, maddeningly epigrammatic style, McLuhan provided the twentieth century with its most provocative critique of the way technology, specifically electronic media, has shaped the modern view of what it means to be human.

Early Life

Herbert Marshall McLuhan was born in western Canada on July 21,...

(The entire section contains 1990 words.)

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Article abstract: With a cryptic, maddeningly epigrammatic style, McLuhan provided the twentieth century with its most provocative critique of the way technology, specifically electronic media, has shaped the modern view of what it means to be human.

Early Life

Herbert Marshall McLuhan was born in western Canada on July 21, 1911, to religious, Scotch-Irish parents; his father earned his livelihood by selling real estate and insurance, while his mother worked in theater as an actress and monologuist. His family moved to Winnipeg during his youth, and in his adolescence, McLuhan began his lifelong infatuation with electronic media, building his own crystal radio set at the age of ten. He later enrolled at the University of Manitoba, intending to become an engineer but, in his own words, eventually “reading his way out of engineering into English literature”; he was graduated from the university in 1933 with a B.A. in literature. The following year he earned an M.A. in the same field and took a vacation to Europe, acquainting himself with Continental scholarship.

Soon after this trip, McLuhan decided to study further in England, enrolling at Cambridge University and attending the lectures of such famous British scholars as I. A. Richards and F. R. Leavis. Eventually McLuhan took a second B.A. and M.A. at Cambridge and remained long enough to complete a brilliant graduate career with a Ph.D. in medieval and Renaissance studies in 1942. In the midst of his graduate study, McLuhan had begun a teaching career in the United States, where he was first exposed to the power of popular culture in Western society, as he noticed the hold that the relatively new media of cinema and radio had on young American students. It was also during this period that he met his wife, Corinne Keller Lewis, and converted to Roman Catholicism—the latter an event that undoubtedly influenced his critique of the morality of technology.

After having taught at various colleges and universities in the United States and Canada between 1937 and 1946, McLuhan accepted a professorship at the University of Toronto, where he spent most of his teaching career and where he enjoyed his most fruitful and provocative years of scholarship. In the early 1950’s, surrounded by evidence that the popular culture of film and television had begun to displace centuries of traditional literary values and preoccupations, McLuhan began his incisive inquiry into the nature of media. In particular, McLuhan focused on the effect of advertising on human behavior, a subject which he pursued in his first book, The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (1951). Influenced by his colleague at the University of Toronto, economist Harold Innis, McLuhan continued to enlarge his critique of mass media and reached the zenith of his productivity and notoriety in the early 1960’s.

Life’s Work

To appreciate McLuhan’s impact on and contribution to the twentieth century’s understanding of communication and communications media, one must examine not only particular events or achievements in his life but the substance of his ideas as well. In 1962, McLuhan published The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, a far-reaching analysis of the effect of the printing press on the culture of Western Europe, a book which earned for him the Governor-General’s Award for Critical Prose, Canada’s equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize. In this book, McLuhan argued that the fixed, linear nature of typeset texts affected the way sixteenth century writers, musicians, and scientists thought about their disciplines and about the meaning of humanness, thus forging a radical change in the values and modes of perception in Western culture. The eye displaced the ear as the primary sensory organ, and, McLuhan claimed, this alteration of perception encouraged a self-reflectiveness or narcissism. This in turn led, McLuhan believed, to a fragmentation in society that sharply divided literates from nonliterates, creating a new underclass.

Sociologists had long debated the effect of industrialization—of the machine—on society’s members and their modes of perception, but McLuhan was one of the first to identify the printed word as a unique technology that altered perception, value, and authority in a culture. He, in effect, made a “thing,” or a “machine,” out of the printed word, so that it could be seen as the powerful and thus disruptive influence it was in human society. By objectifying the technology of writing, he empowered communications theorists to recognize and explain the burgeoning gap between the highly technologized cultures of the West and the undertechnologized cultures of the third world and elsewhere.

In 1963, McLuhan established, at the University of Toronto, the Center for Culture and Technology, an institution devoted to the investigation of the social consequences of the new technological media (telephone, television, and radio). This led to his next book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964), an elaborated discussion of how the next wave of media had influenced civilization by creating a “global village” that linked all cultures through an electronic circuitry, potentially uniting and stabilizing the world community. McLuhan’s most important and most enduring generalization was that “the medium is the message.” In other words, the “content” of any electronic message is in part defined by the medium itself. He further extended his point by characterizing print media (books, newspapers, and magazines) as “hot” media that saturated the reader with information and demanded his direct attention, while categorizing electronic media (television, film, and radio) as “cool” media that required little audience involvement and encouraged passivity. The linearity and logical thought processes fostered by printed matter were undermined by the more “immediate,” less structured thought process implicit in viewing television programming. The implication was that television especially was creating a new orality in society that would restore a sense of community and solidarity which had been lost to literacy after the birth of the printing press.

The publication of these two books brought McLuhan immediate celebrity—both wide adulation and wide disparagement—and have earned for McLuhan his somewhat notorious place in twentieth century communications theory. In 1964, McLuhan was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, but critics have ever since diverged widely in their appreciation for McLuhan’s broad dichotomies and characteristically elusive style. In essence, McLuhan’s books serve as cogent examples of one of his main tenets, that the medium is the message. By deliberately undermining the accepted conventions and standards of typical scholarship (clarity, linearity, and cohesiveness), McLuhan served notice that the next century would be dominated no longer by learned professors who proved their learnedness in dry, deliberative tomes, but by media-sensitive provocateurs who would communicate as much with their mastery of the medium as they would with their selection of words.

McLuhan’s prescient, prophetic analyses of the effect of technology, especially electronic media, on human society immediately became an important contribution to a number of fields, among them journalism, rhetoric, anthropology, and the philosophy of science. The gnomic quality of his work, and the appearance it has of deliberate eccentricism, however, also undermined, to some extent, the scholarly appreciation of McLuhan’s basic insights into what it means to be a human being and the foundations of human society. The sheer quotability of the Canadian professor’s early maxims distracted and dismayed professional media scholars, while pleasing social pundits who were anxious to exploit McLuhan’s sudden fame by linking their own critiques with his punning, antiacademic style. McLuhan retained his connections with the University of Toronto until his death on December 31, 1980.

Summary

In the words of admirer and critical protégé Hugh Kenner, “though McLuhan’s pronouncements on the electronic age and its global village made him briefly famous, what he really knew was literacy, and what he developed most fully was his insight into its consequences.” Marshall McLuhan’s exposition of the changes the printing press had wrought in destroying the older, less linear, oral Western culture and his further delineation of how more recent media such as film and television have altered consciousness and have effectively restored humankind to a new, “secondary orality,” are only beginning to permeate scholarly citadels.

McLuhan’s legacy to the twenty-first century, finally, is a sharpened realization that no medium or technology is neutral or value-free, that the very tools by which we attempt to communicate, build, and structure human relationships and define their nature affect those relationships and become part of their definition. Because of McLuhan, wielders of words, cameras, and microphones can no longer disguise the effects that their technologies foist upon their audience in the garb of objectivity. In the McLuhanesque universe there are no neutral corners, only the recognition that what and who we are as human beings is in part determined by the lenses and earphones—the technologies—with which we choose (or which are chosen for us) to perceive and negotiate the world at large.

Bibliography

Curtis, James M. Culture as Polyphony: An Essay on the Nature of Paradigms. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1978. A densely written but ultimately illuminating volume, which uses the work of McLuhan and his most famous student, Walter J. Ong, to posit a coherent definition of culture and those forces which effect cultural change. This volume effectively weaves together the many strands of McLuhan’s critique of media and explains the role of media in redefining humankind and human relationships at the end of the twentieth century.

Duffy, Dennis. Marshall McLuhan. Toronto: New Canadian Library, 1969. A brief overview of McLuhan’s life and work by a Canadian author whose purpose is to delineate the essential ideas for which McLuhan became notorious. Of particular merit is Duffy’s terse but provocative discussion of the influences on McLuhan’s thought: James Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, and Harold Innis, the latter a fellow Canadian.

Finkelstein, Sydney. Sense and Nonsense of Marshall McLuhan. New York: International Publishers, 1968. An early, surprisingly harsh attack on McLuhan’s views as a new utopianism and a kind of benign totalitarianism. Provides a more cynical view of McLuhan than most treatments contemporary with it and thus is a useful counterpoint to the adulation McLuhan engendered in the late 1960’s.

Kroker, Arthur. Technology and the Canadian Mind. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985. The chapter on McLuhan in this volume may be the single most helpful exposition of the sources and impact of his ideas available. In discussing the ways in which Canadian intellectuals have understood the impact of technology on Western culture, the author helpfully compares McLuhan with colleague Harold Innis in articulating McLuhan’s vision of a new technological humanism. Especially valuable is the author’s perceptive elucidation of the impact of McLuhan’s Catholicism on his view of humankind.

Miller, Jonathan. Marshall McLuhan. New York: Viking Press, 1971. Miller’s early assessment of McLuhan’s importance as a media critic/philosopher holds up well as perhaps the most useful short introduction to the main themes of his work. This work captures, as well as any extant volume, the tantalizing and elusive quality of McLuhan’s analysis of media and the paradox of using print media to convey the news that books were passé.

Rosenthal, Raymond, ed. McLuhan Pro and Con. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1967. Uneven collection of brief, popular essays and reactions to McLuhan’s ideas. Valuable chiefly for the contributions of such renowned rhetoricians and media critics as Hugh Kenner, Anthony Burgess, Theodore Roszak, and Kenneth Burke, who assess McLuhan’s notions and contrast them with the older rhetorical tradition of literacy founded in print media.

Stearn, Gerald E., ed. McLuhan: Hot and Cool. New York: Dial Press, 1967. The best compendium of the wide range of early scholarly reactions to McLuhan, especially enlightening in that it includes McLuhan’s response to his early critics. A helpful though somewhat dated volume that assists the reader in understanding what impact McLuhan initially had as a “media prophet.” The volume’s bibliography offers a nearly complete list of McLuhan’s most important essays and books from 1934 to 1967, his most productive periods.

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