Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.