Marshall McLuhan Additional Biography


Herbert Marshall McLuhan (muh-KLEW-uhn) was one of the most original and controversial of twentieth century social theorists and critics, and his concepts on the impact of communications media on human society and culture have profoundly influenced later writers. The essence of his views was presented in his famous aphorism “The medium is the message,” by which he meant that it is the form of a communication, rather than its content, which has the greatest impact.

McLuhan was born and reared in western Canada and originally intended to become an engineer. After entering the University of Manitoba, however, he switched to literature and an academic career, earning a B.A. in 1933 and an M.A. in 1934. During this time, he developed a lasting admiration for modernist writers such as Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and, especially, James Joyce. These authors were much quoted in McLuhan’s later works. He pursued further studies with a stay at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, earning a Ph.D. in 1942.

During the 1930’s McLuhan converted to Roman Catholicism, a shift which deeply affected his intellectual view of literature, the media, and culture. Unlike many other academic writers, who prefer to remain detached, neutral observers, McLuhan always insisted upon the need for moral dimensions to his work. In 1946 he accepted a post at the University of Toronto. He remained there until his death on New Year’s Eve, 1980. At Toronto he was soon connected with the University’s Centre for Culture and Technology. There McLuhan began the investigations into the nature of media and their effects which formed the basis of his work. Much of the foundation for his studies was provided by two short but provocative works written by fellow Canadian Harold Innis. In Empire and Communications (1950) and The Bias of Communication (1951), Innis advanced the thesis that societies develop in ways largely determined by their technologies of communication. Like McLuhan after him, Innis defined communications in a broader sense than usual.

Working on these premises and in this environment, in 1951 McLuhan produced The Mechanical Bride. The work is notable for a number of points. First, it was a serious yet highly original treatment of a topic many thought beneath the notice of true academics: advertising. Second, it combined texts,...

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(American Culture and Institutions Through Literature, 1960-1969)

Early Life

The young Herbert Marshall McLuhan was fascinated by technology, but at the University of Manitoba, he discovered literary studies and did graduate work at Cambridge, receiving a doctorate in 1943. In 1946, McLuhan joined the faculty at the University of Toronto and, by 1959, had founded the interdisciplinary journal Explorations and published The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (1951), a study of print advertising.

The 1960’s

McLuhan’s emergence as an authority on media and culture occurred through several channels simultaneously. The University of Toronto established and funded the Centre for Culture and Technology, a research institute run by McLuhan to explore and promote his ideas and topics. The National Association of Educational Broadcasters and the National Council of Teachers of English provided him with access to the education establishment, and such business-oriented think tanks as General Electric’s Management Center helped him become a popular presenter at corporate meetings and executive seminars.

The intellectual center of McLuhan’s work was contained in four books he published in the 1960’s: The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962), which provides the historical foundation for his theories; Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964), in which he analyzed the specific properties of such media as clothing, comics, and television; The Medium Is the Massage (1967), an illustrated popularization of his main ideas; and War and Peace in the Global Village(1968), in which cultural conflict is examined in relation to media.

McLuhan argued that changes in information technology (media) were more important than the messages transmitted by that technology. For example, Gutenberg’s press itself, rather than any book it produced, made medieval Europe’s oral culture obsolete, ushering in the age of print literacy. In the...

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Finkelstein, Sidney. Sense and Nonsense of McLuhan. New York: International Publishers, 1968. A critical assessment of The Medium Is the Massage.

Gordon, W. Terrence. McLuhan for Beginners. New York: Writers and Readers, 1997. A basic introduction, illustrated as a comic book. Part of the “For Beginners” series.

Horrocks, Christopher. Marshall McLuhan and Virtuality. Cambridge, England: Icon Books, 2001. Discusses McLuhan’s theories in terms of the contemporary “information age.”

Marchand, Philip. Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger. Rev. ed. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1998. A good biography that contextualizes McLuhan’s theories.

Marchessault, Janine. Marshall McLuhan.Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 2004. A scholarly analysis of McLuhan’s philosophies and works that gives equal weight to the arguments of his admirers and his critics.

Miller, Jonathan. Marshall McLuhan. New York: Viking Press, 1971. Gives an adequate introduction to the man and his theories.

Neill, S. D. Clarifying McLuhan: An Assessment of Process and Product. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993. Presents a valuable critical perspective.

Rosenthal, Raymond, ed. McLuhan: Pro and Con. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1968. Noteworthy collection of assessments of the psychological aspects of McLuhan’s theories.

Stearn, Gerald, ed. McLuhan: Hot and Cool. New York: Dial Press, 1967. A “primer” for understanding McLuhan’s theories, with a rebuttal by McLuhan himself. The Tom Wolfe essay is particularly noteworthy.

Theall, Donald F. The Virtual Marshall McLuhan. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001. Presents an overall evaluation of McLuhan and his work, written by his first graduate student and, later, colleague.

Willmott, Glen. McLuhan: Or, Modernism in Reverse. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996. Examines McLuhan’s theories in the light of the subsequent development of postmodern theory.