Marshall McLuhan Essay - Critical Essays

McLuhan, Marshall


Marshall McLuhan 1911–1980

(Full name Herbert Marshall McLuhan) Canadian non-fiction writer, critic, and editor.

The following entry provides an overview of McLuhan's career.

McLuhan gained notoriety during the 1960s for his controversial theories on communications and for the experimental literary forms in which he presented his concepts. "McLuhanism" is a term that critics apply to his theories and to the aphorisms and puns he commonly used to stimulate reader curiosity and to draw attention to his ideas. The most famous McLuhanism—"the medium is the message"—is a pivotal concept in his beliefs. McLuhan emphasized that human societies are shaped by the nature of their communications media; thus, the media through which society communicates has more impact than the content of the messages being relayed. He argued further that recently developed electronic media—particularly television, which has become the dominant form of communication in the twentieth century—are significantly altering contemporary lifestyles and initiating a new stage in human development.

Biographical Information

The son of a real estate and insurance salesman and an actress, McLuhan was born in Edmonton, Alberta, and grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Though he entered the University of Manitoba as an engineering student, McLuhan switched to English, earning his M.A. degree in 1934 with a thesis on George Meredith. He spent the next two years at Cambridge University, where he attended lectures by I. A. Richards and F. R. Leavis. During his stay in England, he converted to Roman Catholicism, the beliefs of which would exert a strong influence on his later thinking. McLuhan began his teaching career in 1936 at the University of Wisconsin in Madison; he then moved in 1937 to the University of St. Louis, where he remained until 1944. After two years at Assumption University (now the University of Windsor) in Ontario, McLuhan accepted a position at St. Michael's College of the University of Toronto, where he taught for the remainder of his career.

Major Works

McLuhan's theories are elaborated in his three most important works, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962), Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964), and The Medium Is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (1967). The former book presents a historical foundation for McLuhan's claims, and the latter, which became a bestseller and provoked widespread public and critical debate, examines the implications of new electronic technologies. In The Gutenberg Galaxy, which won the Governor General's Award for critical prose, McLuhan claims that there have been four major stages in human development, each directly related to significant changes in the means of human communication. During the first stage, preliterate humans communicated primarily by oral means and used a balance of the five senses to understand the world. McLuhan contends that preliterate societies were necessarily collective in structure and encouraged active participation among members due to their reliance on oral communication. With the creation of the alphabet, a new stage of life evolved in which humans began to use non-oral forms of communication. When printed matter had become the dominant form of mass communication after the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century, a third stage commenced in which humans began to rely primarily on the sense of vision. "Typographic man" began to construct an understanding of life in much the same way that books convey messages—by emphasizing sequential, linear logic and rationalism. McLuhan claims that books fragmented society by promoting individualistic pursuit of knowledge. The new electronic media are initiating a fourth stage, according to McLuhan, changing human communication from the "visual-conceptual" mode of books to the "audiletactile" mode of such media as television. Whereas print media tend to fragment society, the new electronics technology, particularly the television with its mass availability, will effect a web of interdependence that can unite humanity in a "global village." In Understanding Media McLuhan concentrates on the new electronics technologies and examines their effect on contemporary life. This book made McLuhan an international celebrity; he became a popular lecturer who frequently spoke on college campuses and in corporate meeting rooms. McLuhan contributed to his notoriety during the 1960s by being widely accessible and by presenting his ideas in a variety of media. According to James P. Carey, McLuhan became "a prophet, a phenomenon, a happening, a social movement." The Medium Is the Massage—a pun on his own most famous slogan—is the title of a book, a recording, and a television special, all of which appeared in 1967. On the television program, which aired on the National Broadcasting Company network, McLuhan explained that this title "is intended to draw attention to the fact that a medium is not something neutral—it does something to people. It takes hold of them. It rubs them off, it massages them, it bumps them around." In the book McLuhan explained the importance of examining communications media: "All media work us over completely. They are so pervasive in their personal, political, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unadulterated."

Critical Reception

Critics have acknowledged the important implications of McLuhan's theories and the fact that he was exploring aspects of popular culture that had been neglected by social scientists. Despite his popularity, though, critical response to The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media was largely negative. Many critics cited McLuhan's montage-like presentation of ideas as a major obstacle in conveying his ideas. McLuhan attempted to duplicate in typographic form the ways in which electronic mediums convey messages, relying on repetition, generalizations, puns, and a rapid delivery. Other commentators claimed that his facts were inaccurate, that his definitions of analytical terms lacked precision and consistency, and that his arguments were undeveloped, illogical, and obscure. McLuhan countered such criticism by maintaining that his ideas were meant to be "probes" rather than logically argued theses and that he was primarily interested in stimulating discussion of the new electronic technologies as a means toward understanding and controlling them. In retrospect, most critics view him as an important figure for having drawn attention to the relationship between communication and culture in the contemporary world.

Principal Works

The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (nonfiction) 1951
The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (nonfiction) 1962
Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (nonfiction) 1964
The Medium Is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects [with Quentin Fiore] (nonfiction) 1967
Through the Vanishing Point: Space in Poetry and Painting [with Harley Parker] (nonfiction) 1968
War and Peace in the Global Village: An Inventory of Some Current Spastic Situations That Could Be Eliminated by More Feedforward [with Quentin Fiore] (nonfiction) 1968
Counterblast (nonfiction) 1969
The Interior Landscape: The Literary Criticism of Marshall McLuhan, 1943–1962 (criticism) 1969
From Cliché to Archetype [with Wilfred Watson] (nonfiction) 1970
Letters of Marshall McLuhan (letters) 1987
Laws of Media [with Eric McLuhan] (nonfiction) 1989


Marshall McLuhan with Gerald E. Stearn (interview date June 1967)

[Stearn is an American educator, publisher, and editor. In the following excerpt from an interview originally published in Encounter in June 1967, McLuhan discusses some of his theories and comments on the critical reception of his work.]

[Stearn]: What originally led to your interest in media and the effect of media upon our culture?

[McLuhan]: I was gradually made aware of these things by other people—artists, the new anthropological studies. As you become aware of the different modes of experience in other cultures—and watch them transformed by new, Western technologies—it is difficult to avoid observation. It becomes inevitable to assume that what...

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George Woodcock (essay date November 1971)

[Woodcock is a Canadian educator, editor, and critic best known for his biographies of George Orwell and Thomas Merton. He also founded Canada's most important literary journal, Canadian Literature, and has written extensively on the literature of Canada. In the following essay, which was originally published in The Nation in November 1971, he compares McLuhan's vision of an electronic "global village" to worldviews expressed in Utopian literature.]

It has become a commonplace in discussing the effect of the media in modern society to point to the way in which reputations can be instantly made, and lost with equal rapidity. The situation is all the more piquant when this happens...

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Anthony Quinton (essay date 1982)

[Quinton is an English philosopher and educator. In the following essay, he maintains that McLuhan is "an academic sheep in Tom Wolfe's clothing" whose theories are neither radical nor couched in a very original manner.]

Any effort to get a clear view of Marshall McLuhan's doctrines is seriously discouraged by his explicit and repeatedly expressed scorn for old-fashioned, print-oriented, 'linear', rationality. By rejecting as obsolete the humdrum business of setting out definite theses, assembling evidence in support of them, and undermining actual and possible objections, he opts out of the usual argumentative game of truth-seeking, rather in the style of a chess-player who kicks over the...

(The entire section is 4391 words.)

Arthur Kroker (essay date 1985)

[Kroker is a Canadian economist, educator, and critic who has written several studies on Postmodernism and popular culture. In the following excerpt, he evaluates McLuhan's contributions to the study of technology and some of his theories' shortcomings.]

Not the least of McLuhan's contributions to the study of technology was that he transposed the literary principle of metaphor/metonymy (the play between structure and process) into a historical methodology for analysing the rise and fall of successive media of communication. In McLuhan's discourse, novels are the already obsolescent content of television; writing "turned a spotlight on the high, dim Sierras of speech"; the movie is the...

(The entire section is 5501 words.)

Brian Fawcett (review date April 1988)

[In the following review, Fawcett offers a favorable appraisal of McLuhan's collected letters.]

With the publication of this overdue collection [Letters of Marshall McLuhan], it should be clear to anyone still not convinced that Marshall McLuhan is among the small company of intellectual geniuses Canada has thus far produced. Arguably, he has been our most exciting and original thinker, and the partial eclipse of his reputation in the past decade is an indictment of our national short-sightedness and mediocrity. We seem content to lavish our "high" cultural attentions on one-eyed English walruses like Robertson Davies, while our truly public attentions go to shallow media stars like...

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Michael Bliss (essay date May 1988)

[Bliss is a Canadian historian and educator who specializes in the history of business, economics, and modern medicine. In the following essay, he assesses McLuhan's impact on Western culture.]

The young wonder who Marshall McLuhan was. Maybe some kind of TV commentator in the sixties? The rest of us remember "the medium is the message," and "a global village," and that McLuhan was otherwise unintelligible. He was famous for a while, and then sort of disappeared. You may have read the obituaries in 1980. Does anyone take seriously today this Canadian academic who was once billed as "the most important thinker since Newton, Darwin, Freud, Einstein, and Pavlov"?

It seems that a...

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Further Reading


The Writings of Marshall McLuhan and What Has Been Written about Him. Ft. Lauderdale, Florida: Wake-Brook House, 1975, 112 p.

Lists works by and about McLuhan in chronological order from 1934 through 1975.


Marchand, Philip. Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger. New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1989, 320 p.

The most comprehensive biography of McLuhan.

Wain, John. "The Incidental Thoughts of Marshall McLuhan." Encounter LXV, No. 1 (June 1985): 11-22.


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