Herbert Marshall McLuhan, C.C. (July 21, 1911 – December 31, 1980) was a Canadian educator, philosopher, and scholar — a professor of English literature, a literary critic, a rhetorician, and a communications theorist. McLuhan's work is viewed as one of the cornerstones of the study of media theory. McLuhan is known for coining the expressions "the medium is the message" and the "global village."
McLuhan was a fixture in media discourse from the late 1960s to his death and he continues to be an influential and controversial figure. More than ten years after his death he was named the "patron saint" of Wired magazine.
McLuhan earned a BA (1933) — winning a University Gold Medal in Long Jump — and MA (1934) in English from the University of Manitoba, after a one year stint as an engineering major. He had long desired to pursue graduate studies in England and, having failed to secure a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford, McLuhan was accepted for enrollment at the University of Cambridge. Although he already had earned BA and MA degrees at Manitoba, Cambridge required him to enroll as an undergraduate "affiliated" student, with one year's credit toward a three-year Cambridge Bachelor's degree, before any doctoral studies. He entered Trinity Hall, Cambridge in the Fall of 1934, where he studied under I. A. Richards and F. R. Leavis, and was influenced by New Criticism. Upon reflection years after, he credited the faculty there with influencing the direction of his later work because of their emphasis on the training of perception and such concepts as Richards's notion of feedforward. These studies formed an important precursor to his later ideas on technological forms. He received his second bachelor's degree from Cambridge in 1936 and began graduate work. Later, he returned from England to take a job as a teaching assistant at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which he held for the 1936-37 academic year, unable to find a suitable job in Canada.
While studying the trivium at Cambridge he took the first steps toward his eventual conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1937, founded on his reading of G. K. Chesterton. In the end of March 1937, McLuhan completed what was a slow but total conversion process when he was formally received into the Roman Catholic Church. After consulting with a minister, his father accepted the decision to convert; his mother, however, felt that his conversion would hurt his career and was inconsolable. McLuhan was devout throughout his life, but his religion remained a private matter. He had a lifelong interest in the number three - the trivium, the Trinity - and sometimes said that the Virgin Mary provided intellectual guidance for him. For the rest of his career he taught in Roman Catholic institutions of higher education. From 1937 to 1944 he taught English at Saint Louis University (with an interruption from 1939 to 1940 when he returned to Cambridge). At Saint Louis he tutored and befriended Walter J. Ong, S.J. (1912-2003), who would go on to write his Ph.D. dissertation on a topic McLuhan had called to his attention, and who would himself also later become a well-known authority on communication and technology.
While in St. Louis, he also met his future wife. On August 4, 1939, McLuhan married teacher and aspiring actress Corinne Lewis (1912-2008) of Fort Worth, Texas, and they spent 1939-40 in Cambridge, where he completed his master's degree (awarded in January 1940) and began to work on his doctoral dissertation on Thomas Nashe and the verbal arts. War had broken out in Europe while the McLuhans were in England, and he obtained permission to complete and submit his dissertation from the United States, without having to return to Cambridge for an oral defense. They returned to Saint Louis University in 1940 where he continued teaching and they started a family. He was awarded a Ph.D. in December 1943. Returning to Canada, from 1944 to 1946 McLuhan taught at Assumption College in Windsor, Ontario. Moving to Toronto in 1946, McLuhan joined the faculty of St. Michael's College, a Catholic college of the University of Toronto. Hugh Kenner was one of his students and Canadian economist and communications scholar Harold Innis was a university colleague who had a strong influence on McLuhan's work.
In the early 1950s, McLuhan began the Communication and Culture seminars, funded by the Ford Foundation, at the University of Toronto. As his repute grew, he received a growing number of offers from other universities and, to keep him, the university created the Centre for Culture and Technology in 1963. He published his first major work during this period: The Mechanical Bride (1951) was an examination of the effect of advertising on society and culture. He also produced an important journal, Explorations, with Edmund Carpenter, throughout the 1950s. Together with Harold Innis, Eric A. Havelock, Derrick de Kerckhove, and Barry Wellman, McLuhan and Carpenter have been characterized as the Toronto School of Communication. McLuhan remained at the University of Toronto through 1979, spending much of this time as head of his Centre for Culture and Technology.
McLuhan was named to the Albert Schweitzer Chair in Humanities at Fordham University in the Bronx, New York, for one year (1967-68). While at Fordham, McLuhan was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor; it was treated successfully. He returned to Toronto where for the rest of his life, he worked at the University of Toronto and lived in Wychwood Park, a bucolic enclave on a hill overlooking the downtown where Anatol Rapoport was his neighbour. In 1970, McLuhan was made a Companion of the Order of Canada. In 1975 the University of Dallas hosted him from April to May, appointing him the McDermott Chair.
Marshall and Corinne McLuhan had six children: Eric, twins Mary and Teresa, Stephanie, Elizabeth and Michael. The associated costs of a large family eventually drove McLuhan to advertising work and accepting frequent consulting and speaking engagements for large corporations, IBM and AT&T among them. In September 1979 he suffered a stroke, which affected his ability to speak. The University of Toronto's School of Graduate Studies tried to close his research center shortly thereafter, but was deterred by substantial protests, most notably by Woody Allen, in whose Oscar-winning motion picture Annie Hall McLuhan had a cameo role.
He never fully recovered from the stroke and died in his sleep on the last day of 1980.
McLuhan's 1942 Cambridge University doctoral dissertation surveys the history of the verbal arts (grammar, dialectic and logic, and rhetoric -- collectively known as the trivium from the time of Cicero down to the time of Thomas Nashe. In his later publications, McLuhan at times uses the Latin concept of the trivium to outline an orderly and systematic picture of certain periods in the history of Western culture. McLuhan suggests that the Middle Ages, for instance, was characterized by the heavy emphasis on the formal study of logic. The key development that led to the Renaissance was not the rediscovery of ancient texts but a shift in emphasis from the formal study of logic to rhetoric and language. Modern life is characterized by the reemergence of grammar as its most salient feature -- a trend McLuhan felt was exemplified by the New Criticism of Richards and Leavis.
In The Mechanical Bride, McLuhan turned his attention to analyzing and commenting on numerous examples of persuasion in contemporary popular culture. This followed naturally from his earlier work as both dialectic and rhetoric in the classical trivium aimed at persuasion. At this point his focus shifted dramatically, turning inward to study the influence of communication media independent of their content. His famous slogan, "the medium is the message" (elaborated in his 1964 book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man) calls attention to this intrinsic effect of communications media.
McLuhan also started the journal Explorations with anthropologist Edmund "Ted" Carpenter. In a letter to Ong dated May 31, 1953 (p. 236), McLuhan reported that he had received a two-year grant of $43,000 from the Ford Foundation to carry out a communication project at the University of Toronto involving faculty from different disciplines, which led to the creation of the journal.
In 1960 there were few authors who captured the fancy of the Western World as well as Marshall McLuhan did. Like his 1962 book The Gutenberg Galaxy, The Mechanical Bride is sui generis and composed of a number of short essays that can be read in any order – what he styled the "mosaic approach" to writing a book. Each essay begins with a newspaper or magazine article or an advertisement, followed by McLuhan's analysis thereof. The analyses bear on aesthetic considerations as well as on the implications behind the imagery and text. McLuhan chose the ads and articles included in his book not only to draw attention to their symbolism and their implications for the corporate entities that created and disseminated them, but also to mull over what such advertising implies about the wider society at which it is aimed.
Throughout the book, McLuhan takes pains to reveal how communication technology (alphabetic writing, the printing press, and the electronic media) affects cognitive organization, which in turn has profound ramifications for social organization:
...[I]f a new technology extends one or more of our senses outside us into the social world, then new ratios among all of our senses will occur in that particular culture. It is comparable to what happens when a new note is added to a melody. And when the sense ratios alter in any culture then what had appeared lucid before may suddenly become opaque, and what had been vague or opaque will become translucent.
Print culture, ushered in by the Gutenberg press in the middle of the fifteenth century, brought about the cultural predominance of the visual over the aural/oral. Quoting with approval an observation on the nature of the printed word from Prints and Visual Communication by William Ivins, McLuhan remarks:
In this passage [Ivins] not only notes the ingraining of lineal, sequential habits, but, even more important, points out the visual homogenizing of experience of print culture, and the relegation of auditory and other sensuous complexity to the background. [...] The technology and social effects of typography incline us to abstain from noting interplay and, as it were, "formal" causality, both in our inner and external lives. Print exists by virtue of the static separation of functions and fosters a mentality that gradually resists any but a separative and compartmentalizing or specialist outlook.
The main concept of McLuhan's argument (later elaborated upon in The Medium is the Massage) is that new technologies (like alphabets, printing presses, and even speech itself) exert a gravitational effect on cognition, which in turn affects social organization: print technology changes our perceptual habits ("visual homogenizing of experience"), which in turn affects social interactions ("fosters a mentality that gradually resists all but a... specialist outlook"). According to McLuhan, the advent of print technology contributed to and made possible most of the salient trends in the Modern period in the Western world: individualism, democracy, Protestantism, capitalism and nationalism. For McLuhan, these trends all reverberate with print technology's principle of "segmentation of actions and functions and principle of visual quantification.
Instead of tending towards a vast Alexandrian library the world has become a computer, an electronic brain, exactly as an infantile piece of science fiction. And as our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside. So, unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence. [...] Terror is the normal state of any oral society, for in it everything affects everything all the time. [...] In our long striving to recover for the Western world a unity of sensibility and of thought and feeling we have no more been prepared to accept the tribal consequences of such unity than we were ready for the fragmentation of the human psyche by print culture.
Note again McLuhan's stress on the importance of awareness of a medium's cognitive effects. He argues that, if we are not vigilant to the effects of media's influence, the global village has the potential to become a place where totalitarianism and terror rule.
Key to McLuhan's argument is the idea that technology has no per se moral bent -- it is a tool that profoundly shapes an individual's and, by extension, a society's self-conception and realization:
Is it not obvious that there are always enough moral problems without also taking a moral stand on technological grounds? [...] Print is the extreme phase of alphabet culture that detribalizes or decollectivizes man in the first instance. Print raises the visual features of alphabet to highest intensity of definition. Thus print carries the individuating power of the phonetic alphabet much further than manuscript culture could ever do. Print is the technology of individualism. If men decided to modify this visual technology by an electric technology, individualism would also be modified. To raise a moral complaint about this is like cussing a buzz-saw for lopping off fingers. "But", someone says, "we didn't know it would happen." Yet even witlessness is not a moral issue. It is a problem, but not a moral problem; and it would be nice to clear away some of the moral fogs that surround our technologies. It would be good for morality.
The moral valence of technology's effects on cognition is, for McLuhan, a matter of perspective. For instance, McLuhan contrasts the considerable alarm and revulsion that the growing quantity of books aroused in the latter seventeenth century with the modern concern for the "end of the book." If there can be no universal moral sentence passed on technology, McLuhan believes that "there can only be disaster arising from unawareness of the causalities and effects inherent in our technologies."
Though the World Wide Web was invented thirty years after The Gutenberg Galaxy was published, McLuhan may have coined and certainly popularized the usage of the term "surfing" to refer to rapid, irregular and multidirectional movement through a heterogeneous body of documents or knowledge, e.g., statements like "Heidegger surf-boards along on the electronic wave as triumphantly as Descartes rode the mechanical wave." Paul Levinson's 1999 book Digital McLuhan explores the ways that McLuhan's work can be better understood through the lens of the digital revolution. Bill Stewart's Living Internet describes how McLuhan's "insights made the concept of a global village, interconnected by an electronic nervous system, part of our popular culture well before it actually happened."
McLuhan frequently quoted Walter Ong's Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue (1958), which evidently had prompted McLuhan to write The Gutenberg Galaxy. Ong wrote a highly favorable review of this new book in America. However, Ong later tempered his praise, by describing McLuhan's The Gutenberg Galaxy as "a racy survey, indifferent to some scholarly detail, but uniquely valuable in suggesting the sweep and depth of the cultural and psychological changes entailed in the passage from illiteracy to print and beyond. McLuhan himself said of the book, "I'm not concerned to get any kudos out of [The Gutenberg Galaxy]. It seems to me a book that somebody should have written a century ago. I wish somebody else had written it. It will be a useful prelude to the rewrite of Understanding Media [the 1960 NAEB report] that I'm doing now."
McLuhan's The Gutenberg Galaxy won Canada's highest literary award, the Governor-General's Award for Non-Fiction, in 1962. The chairman of the selection committee was McLuhan's colleague at the University of Toronto and oftentime intellectual sparring partner, Northrop Frye.
McLuhan's most widely known work, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964), is also a pioneering study in media ecology. In it McLuhan proposed that media themselves, not the content they carry, should be the focus of study –- popularly quoted as "the medium is the message." McLuhan's theory was that a medium affects the society in which it plays a role not by the content delivered over the medium, but by the characteristics of the medium itself. McLuhan pointed to the light bulb as a clear demonstration of this concept. A light bulb does not have content in the way that a newspaper has articles or a television has programs, yet it is a medium that has a social effect; that is, a light bulb enables people to create spaces during nighttime that would otherwise be enveloped by darkness. He describes the light bulb as a medium without any content. McLuhan states that "a light bulb creates an environment by its mere presence. More controversially, he postulated that content had little effect on society –- in other words, it did not matter if television broadcasts children's shows or violent programming, to illustrate one example -– the effect of television on society would be identical. He noted that all media have characteristics that engage the viewer in different ways; for instance, a passage in a book could be reread at will, but a movie had to be screened again in its entirety to study any individual part of it.
"Any hot medium allows of less participation than a cool one, as a lecture makes for less participation than a seminar, and a book for less than a dialogue."
Hot media usually, but not always, provide complete involvement without considerable stimulus. For example, print occupies visual space, uses visual senses, but can immerse its reader. Hot media favour analytical precision, quantitative analysis and sequential ordering, as they are usually sequential, linear and logical. They emphasize one sense (for example, of sight or sound) over the others. For this reason, hot media also include radio, as well as film, the lecture and photography.
Cool media, on the other hand, are usually, but not always, those that provide little involvement with substantial stimulus. They require more active participation on the part of the user, including the perception of abstract patterning and simultaneous comprehension of all parts. Therefore, according to McLuhan cool media include television, as well as the seminar and cartoons. McLuhan describes the term "cool media" as emerging from jazz and popular music and, in this context, is used to mean "detached." (See: CBC Radio Archives)
This concept appears to force media into binary categories. However, McLuhan's hot and cool exist on a continuum: they are more correctly measured on a scale than as dichotomous terms.
Fiore, at the time a prominent graphic designer and communications consultant, set about composing the visual illustration of these theories. Near the beginning of the book, Fiore adopted a pattern in which an image demonstrating a media effect was presented with a textual synopsis on the facing page. The reader experiences a repeated shifting of analytic registers -- from "reading" typographic print to "scanning" photographic facsimiles -- reinforcing McLuhan's overarching argument in this book: namely, that each medium produces a different "massage" or "effect" on the human sensorium.
In The Medium is the Massage, McLuhan also rehashed the argument -- which first appeared in the Prologue to 1962's The Gutenberg Galaxy -- that media are "extensions" of our human senses, bodies and minds.
Finally, McLuhan described key points of change in how man has viewed the world and how these views were changed by the adoption of new media. "The technique of invention was the discovery of the nineteenth [century]", brought on by the adoption of fixed points of view and perspective by typography, while "[t]he technique of the suspended judgment is the discovery of the twentieth century", brought on by the bard abilities of radio, movies and television.
Joyce's Wake is claimed to be a gigantic cryptogram which reveals a cyclic pattern for the whole history of man through its Ten Thunders. Each "thunder" below is a 100-character portmanteau of other words to create a statement he likens to an effect that each technology has on the society into which it is introduced. In order to glean the most understanding out of each, the reader must break the portmanteau into separate words (and many of these are themselves portmanteaus of words taken from multiple languages other than English) and speak them aloud for the spoken effect of each word. There is much dispute over what each portmanteau truly denotes.
McLuhan claims that the ten thunders in Wake represent different stages in the history of man:
In McLuhan's terms, a cliché is a "normal" action, phrase, etc. which becomes so often used that we are "anesthetized" to its effects.
An example of this given by McLuhan is Eugene Ionesco’s play The Bald Soprano, whose dialogue consists entirely of phrases Ionesco pulled from an Assimil language book. "Ionesco originally put all these idiomatic English clichés into literary French which presented the English in the most absurd aspect possible.
McLuhan's archetype "is a quoted extension, medium, technology or environment." "Environment" would also include the kinds of "awareness" and cognitive shifts brought upon people by it, not totally unlike the psychological context Carl Jung described.
McLuhan also posits that there is a factor of interplay between the cliché and the archetype, or a "doubleness":
Another theme of the Wake [Finnegans Wake] that helps in the understanding of the paradoxical shift from cliché to archetype is 'past time are pastimes.' The dominant technologies of one age become the games and pastimes of a later age. In the 20th century, the number of 'past times' that are simultaneously available is so vast as to create cultural anarchy. When all the cultures of the world are simultaneously present, the work of the artist in the elucidation of form takes on new scope and new urgency. Most men are pushed into the artist's role. The artist cannot dispense with the principle of 'doubleness' or 'interplay' because this type of hendiadys dialogue is essential to the very structure of consciousness, awareness, and autonomy.
McLuhan relates the cliché-to-archetype process to the Theater of the Absurd:
Pascal, in the seventeenth century, tells us that the heart has many reasons of which the head knows nothing. The Theater of the Absurd is essentially a communicating to the head of some of the silent languages of the heart which in two or three hundred years it has tried to forget all about. In the seventeenth century world the languages of the heart were pushed down into the unconscious by the dominant print cliché.
The “languages of the heart,” or what McLuhan would otherwise define as oral culture, were thus made archetype by means of the printing press, and turned into cliché.
The satellite medium, McLuhan states, encloses the Earth in a man-made environment, which "ends 'Nature' and turns the globe into a repertory theater to be programmed. All previous environments (book, newspaper, radio, etc.) and their artifacts are retrieved under these conditions ("past times are pastimes"). McLuhan thereby meshes this into the term global theater. It serves as an update to his older concept of the global village, which, in its own definitions, can be said to be subsumed into the overall condition described by that of the global theater.
In Laws of Media (1988), published posthumously by his son Eric, McLuhan summarized his ideas about media in a concise tetrad of media effects. The tetrad is a means of examining the effects on society of any technology (i.e., any medium) by dividing its effects into four categories and displaying them simultaneously. McLuhan designed the tetrad as a pedagogical tool, phrasing his laws as questions with which to consider any medium:
The laws of the tetrad exist simultaneously, not successively or chronologically, and allow the questioner to explore the "grammar and syntax" of the "language" of media. McLuhan departs from his mentor Harold Innis in suggesting that a medium "overheats", or reverses into an opposing form, when taken to its extreme.
Visually, a tetrad can be depicted as four diamonds forming an X, with the name of a medium in the center. The two diamonds on the left of a tetrad are the Enhancement and Retrieval qualities of the medium, both Figure qualities. The two diamonds on the right of a tetrad are the Obsolescence and Reversal qualities, both Ground qualities.
Using the example of radio:
McLuhan adapted the Gestalt psychology idea of a figure and a ground, which underpins the meaning of, "The medium is the message." He used this concept to explain how a form of communications technology, the medium or figure, necessarily operates through its context, or ground.
McLuhan believed that to fully grasp the effect of a new technology, one must examine figure (medium) and ground (context) together, since neither is completely intelligible without the other. McLuhan argued that we must study media in their historical context, particularly in relation to the technologies that preceded them. The present environment, itself made up of the effects of previous technologies, gives rise to new technologies, which, in their turn, further affect society and individuals.
Furthermore, all technologies have embedded within them their own assumptions about time and space. The message which the medium conveys can only be understood if the medium and the environment in which the medium is used — and which, simultaneously, it effectively creates — are analyzed together. He believed that an examination of the figure-ground relationship can offer a critical commentary on culture and society.
After the publication of Understanding Media, McLuhan received an astonishing amount of publicity, making him perhaps the most publicized English teacher in the twentieth century and arguably the most controversial. This publicity had much to do with the work of two California advertising executives, Gerald Feigen and Howard Gossage, who used personal profits to fund their practice of "genius scouting." Much enamoured with McLuhan's work, Feigen and Gossage arranged for McLuhan to meet with editors of several major New York magazines in May 1965 at the Lombardy Hotel in New York. Philip Marchand reports that, as a direct consequence of these meetings, McLuhan was offered the use of an office in the headquarters of both Time and Newsweek, any time he needed it.
In August 1965, Feigen and Gossage held what they called a "McLuhan festival" in the offices of Gossage's advertising agency in San Francisco. During this "festival", McLuhan met with advertising executives, members of the mayor's office, editors from the San Francisco Chronicle and Ramparts magazine. Perhaps more significant, however, was Tom Wolfe's presence at the festival, which he would later write about in his article, "What If He Is Right?", published in New York Magazine and Wolfe's own The Pump House Gang. According to Feigen and Gossage, however, their work had only a moderate effect on McLuhan's eventual celebrity: they later claimed that their work only "probably speeded up the recognition of [McLuhan's] genius by about six months. In any case, McLuhan soon became a fixture of media discourse. Newsweek magazine did a cover story on him; articles appeared in Life Magazine, Harper's, Fortune, Esquire, and others. Cartoons about him appeared in The New Yorker. Playboy magazine published a lengthy interview with him.
During his lifetime and afterward, McLuhan heavily influenced cultural critics, thinkers, and media theorists such as Neil Postman, Jean Baudrillard, Camille Paglia, Timothy Leary, Terence McKenna, William Irwin Thompson, Paul Levinson, Douglas Rushkoff, Jaron Lanier and John David Ebert, as well as political leaders such as Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Jerry Brown. Andy Warhol was paraphrasing McLuhan with his now famous 15 minutes of fame quote. When asked in the 70s for a way to sedate violences in Angola, he suggested a massive spread of TV devices. In 1991 McLuhan was named as the "patron saint" of Wired Magazine and a quote of his appeared on the masthead for the first ten years of its publication. He is mentioned by name in a Peter Gabriel penned lyric in the song "Broadway Melody of 1974". This song appears on the concept album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, from progressive rock band Genesis. The lyric is: "Marshall Mcluhan, casual viewin' ead buried in the sand." McLuhan is also jokingly referred to during an episode of The Sopranos entitled "House Arrest" (season 2). Despite his death in 1980, someone claiming to be McLuhan was posting on a Wired mailing list in 1996. The information this individual provided convinced one writer for Wired that "if the poster was not McLuhan himself, it was a bot programmed with an eerie command of McLuhan's life and inimitable perspective.