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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