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(Herbert) Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980)


Canadian academic and commentator on communications technology, who developed theories about the role of the electronic media in mass popular culture. He is best-known for the studies institutionalized as the University of Toronto's Center for Culture and Technology, where he was director from 1963. McLuhan's works include Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964) and The Medium is the Massage (1967), written with Quentin Fiore, in which he argued that the form of media has more significant effect on society and knowledge than the contents carried. McLuhan prophesied that printed books would become obsolete, killed off by television and other electronic information technology.

"The new electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village." (in The Medium is the Massage)

Marshall McLuhan was born in Edmonton, Alta. His father, Herbert Marshall McLuhan, was a real-estate and insurance salesman. Elsie Hall, McLuhan's mother, was an actress, who performed in church halls. Independent, stubborn, with a strong tendency to bully, McLuhan was not a good student at school. He was admitted to grade seven only after the efforts of his mother.

McLuhan entered in 1928 the University of Manitoba, where he studied English, geology, history, Latin, astronomy, economics, and psychology. In 1933 he obtained his bachelor's degree and won a University Gold Medal in Arts and Science. He then went to England, where he spent to years at Trinity Hall at Cambridge University. Later he said that Cambridge was at that time full of homosexuals, but he also spoke of these years as the great years of his life.

McLuhan's conversion in 1937 to Roman Catholicism was a shock to his mother, who thought that Harvard went down the drain. Thereafter he taught only in Catholic institutions, at St. Louis University, a Jesuit institution then reputed to be the finest Catholic university in America from 1937 to 1944, and at Assumption College in Canada. McLuhan's doctoral dissertation, completed in 1942, dealt with the rhetoric of Thomas Nashe (1567-1601). In 1939 McLuhan married Corinne Keller, a drama and speech teacher; they had six children. As a father McLuhan was impatient and he believed in corporal punishment. His son Eric became a paid assistant to him in 1965.

During his last year at St. Louis McLuhan started his public career as a culture critic. He had met in 1943 the English painter, novelist and critic Wyndham Lewis and confessed that Lewis had influenced deeply his thinking. From 1946 to 1977 McLuhan was a member of the department of English at St Michael's College of the University of Toronto. He was not a conventional pedagogue and many of his colleagues had a great deal of antipathy toward him – feelings were reciprocal. Other professors discouraged graduate students to take courses with him and during his career in Toronto, only seven Ph.D. theses were completed under McLuhan's supervision. In spite of his international renown, he was often seen as an embarrasment in the academic circles of his home country.

McLuhan founded in 1953 with the anthropologist Edmund S. Carpenter and with part of a Ford Foundation grant a magazine called Explorations. Some of its essays were later published in Explorations in Communication (1960). The last issue of the magazine appeared in 1959. McLuhan became in 1959 the director of the Media Project of the National Association of Educational Broadcasters and the United States Office of Education. During this project he collected material for Understanding Media, which made him a celebrity. Influenced by the Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), who explained that electro-magnetic waves make individuals simultaneously present in every corner of the earth, and his Cambridge mentor F.R. Leavis (1895-1978), who wrote a set of pioneering critical works on post industrial culture, McLuhan examined the ways in which technology extends our physical selves and our abilities. In McLuhan's terminology, de Chardin's "noosphere," in which human minds "as though dilated upon themselves they each extended little by little the radius of their influence upon this earth, which by the same token, shrank steadily," became later the "global village".

The Gutenberg Galaxy  (1962) won McLuhan the prestigious Governor General's Award for critical prose, and was translated into several languages. The Times Literary Supplemant included McLuhan to the world's current avant-garde thinkers. "He was a serious-faced Lewis Carroll," said Tom Wolfe, who met McLuhan in the 1960s at a regular luncheon meeting of a New York advertising group. "Nobody knew what the hell he was saying." In 1967 McLuhan was appointed to the Albert Schweitzer Chair in the Humanities at Fordham University.

Since the late 1950s McLuhan had suffered from blackouts. Douglas Coupland has argued in Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work! (2010) that he thought differently because he had two arteries pumping blood to his brain. McLuhan was operated in 1967 when a tumor "as big as a tennis ball" was found in his head. Although McLuhan recovered with an amazing rapidity, the effects of the operation changed his life. He become hypersensitive and he discovered that "several years of reading got rubbed out". Microchip computer, which started its world conquest in the 1970s, did not interest him much as a new cultural phenomena. In 1979 he suffered a stroke, which affected his ability to read and write, and he was forced to retire from teaching. McLuhan died in Toronto on December 31, 1980.

McLuhan rejected Marx's view of production as a primarily determinant in social change and replaced it with technological inventions. The most important aspect of media is the technical medium of communication. The medium, claimed McLuhan, is the message. Thus it was the mass production of printed materials shaped the culture of Western Europe from 1500 to 1900, not capitalism or democracy. In The Gutenberg Galaxy McLuhan stated that "print is the technology of individualism." Similarly electric modes of communication reshape civilization in the 20th century. "Electricity does not centralise, but decentralises." (Understanding Media)

McLuhan argued that technology is an extension of the human nervous system and that technological changes create new environments of sense and feeling altering gradually patterns of perception. The form of medium shapes its content. McLuhan used the categories "hot" and "cool" to separate different means or channels of communication. "Any hot medium allows of less participating than a cool one, as a lecture makes for less participation than a seminar, and a book for less than a dialogue." (Defined by participation, the Web would be a "cool" medium.) McLuhan's fascination with paradoxical concepts and his circular style could be compared to that of Joseph Heller.

Cooler media exhibit lower levels of information intensity. Thus radio is a hot medium, as are books are comics; telephone is cool, and also television: "It rejects hot figures and hot issues and people from the hot press media. Had TV occurred on a large scale during Hitler's reign he would have vanished quickly." (Understanding Media) However, cinema is hot – the activity of film viewing, isolation and passivity, has similarities to the book reading. "It is relevant to consider, that the old prints and woodcuts, like the modern comic strip and comic book, provide very little data about any particular moment in time, or aspect in space, of an object. The viewer, or reader, is compelled to participate in completing and interpreting the few hints provided by the bounding lines. Not unlike the character of the woodcut and the cartoon is the TV image, with its very low degree of data on objects, and the resulting high degree of participation by the viewer in order to complete what is only hinted at the mosaic mesh of dots." (Understanding Media)

Print is an outmodern medium, too "linear" in its approach to reality, while television and other visual media override time and distance instantaneously – making the world a "global vilage". Noteworthy, this concept was created before the real breakthrough of the Internet. The globe's citizens share a culture which has much in common with that of oral societes. The global village has swept aside the individualising culture of print production. "Department sovereignties have melted away as rapidly as national sovereignties under conditions of electric speed." (Understanding Media) The mass media have created a world of instant awareness to which the categories of perspective space and sequential time were irrelevant and in which a sense of private identity was untenable.

McLuhan's first book about the media world, The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (1951), a high-spirited book about advertising and manipulation, did not arise much attention, when it appeared. Its title referred to Marcel Duchamp's Nude descending a Staircase (1912), and The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (the Large Glass, 1915-1923), in which the bride is actually a machine. This book, which first sold only a few hundred copies, contained also a passing tribute to Fritz Leiber, whose 'The Girl with the Hungry Eyes' (1949) was about exploitation of the female image of ad-men. Luhan derived his analysis of electro-mechanization from Siegfrid Giedion's Mechanization Takes Command (1948), though the work cited most is Margaret Mead's Male and Female 1949).

McLuhan's attitude toward technology was ambivalent, open minded but  never without a critical eye. According to McLuhan, contemporary culture only offers the illusion of diversity.  The commercialisation produces mass uniformity and has dehumanising effect on those caught in its web. However, a decade later McLuhan's concept of "media landscape" became highly topical through the works of Pop artist and media critics, such as Andy Warhol (1930-1987), Eduardo Paolozzi (1924) and Rayner Banham (1922-1988).

The advertising and communications industries paid McLuhan's ideas much attention: he lectured to the top executives of General Electric, I.B.M. and Bell Telephone. "Ads are news," he once said. "What is wrong with them is that they are always good news." McLuhan also made a special appearance in Woody Allen's Academy Awarded film Annie Hall (1977). Allen playing Alvy, silences a self-impressed McLuhan expert in a movie line by pulling McLuhan out of a poster to tell the man, "You know nothing of my work!"

McLuhan's theories were widely discussed in the 1960s and 1970s, but after this his work was little cited. However, his aphoristic style produced many slogans widely adopted to common usage, and several centennial celebrations of his birth were conducted with conferences in 2011. McLuhan's basic ideas, emphasis upon process rather than product, form over content (''the medium is the message"), have not lost its importance, but anticipated advances in deconstructivist criticism and avant-garde art. Many postmodern philosophers have developed his theories further, including Jean Baudrillad, who shared his view that the medium of communication is a central feature of media culture. Raymond Williams has noted in Television: Technology and Cultural Form (1974) that McLuhan's technological determinism acts as an ideological justification of dominant social relations.

Science fiction works, which have to some extent been influenced by McLuhan and the ideas about the media include John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar (1968), Dean R. Koontz's The Fall of the Dream Machine (1969), Michael Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius novels, John T. Sladek's The Muller-Fokker Effect (1970), J. M. G. Le Clézio's Les Geants (1973; Giants) and Barry N. Malzberg's The Destruction of the Temple (1974).

For further reading: McLuhan: Hot and Cool, ed. by Gerald Emanuel Stearn (1967); McLuhan: Pro and Con, ed. by Raymond Rosenthal (1968); Sense and Nonsense of McLuhan by Sidney Finkelstein (1968); Marshall McLuhan by Dennis Duffy (1968); The Medium is the Rearview Mirror by D.Theall (1971); The Critical Twilight by J. Fekete (1977); Media and the American Mind: From Morse to McLuhan by D. Czitrom (1982); Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger by Philip Marchand (1989); History and Communications by Graeme Patterson (1990); Clarifying McLuhan by S.D. Neill (1993); Understanding Media Cultures by Nick Stevenson (1995); Forward Through the Rearview Mirror, ed. by Paul Benedetti and Nancy DeHart (1996); Marshall McLuhan by W. Terrence Gordon (1997); Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work! by Douglas Coupland (2010); McLuhan Galaxy Conference: Understanding Media, Today, edited by Matteo Ciastellardi, Cristina Miranda de Almeida, Carlos A. Scolari (2011)

Selected works:

  • The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of His Time, 1942 (doctoral dissertation)
  • The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man, 1951
  • Alfred Lord Tennyson: Selected Poetry, 1954 (editor)
  • Report on Project in Understanding New Media, 1960
  • Explorations in Communication, 1960 (edited by Marshall McLuhan and Edmund Carpenter)
  • The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, 1962
  • Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 1964
    - Ihmisen uudet ulottuvuudet (suom. Antero Tiusanen, 1968)
  • Voices of Literature, 1965, 1965 (edited by Marshall McLuhan and Richard J. Schoeck)
  • The Medium is the Massage, 1967 (with Quentin Fiore and Jerome Angel)
  • Verbi-Voco-Visual Explorations, 1967 (reprint of Explorations in Communication)
  •  War and Peace in the Global Village, 1968 (with Quentin Fiore and Jerome Angel)
  • Through the Vanishing Point, 1968 (with Harley Parker)
  • The Interior Landscape: The Literary Criticism of Marshall McLuhan 1943–1962, 1969 (edited by Eugene McNamara)
  • Counterblast, 1970 (with Harley Parker)
  • From Cliché to Archetype, 1970 (with Wilfred Watson)
  • Culture is Our Business, 1970
  • Take Today: the Executive As Dropout, 1972 (with Barrington Nevitt)
  • City As Classroom: Understanding Language and Media, 1977 (with Eric McLuhan and Kathryn Hutchon)
  • The Possum and the Midwife, 1978
  • Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987 (selected and edited by Matie Molinaro, Corinne McLuhan, William Toye)
  • The Global Village, 1988 (with B.R. Powers)
  • Laws of Media: The New Science, 1988 (with Eric McLuhan)
  • Essential McLuhan, 1995 (edited by Eric McLuhan and Frank Zingrone)
  • Media Research: Technology, Art and Communication, 1997 (edited by Michel A. Moos)
  • The Medium and the Light: Reflections on Religion, 1999 (edited by Eric McLuhan and Jacek Szlarek)
  • The Book of Probes, 2001 (edited by Eric McLuhan William Kuhns)
  • Understanding Me: Lectures and Interviews, 2003 (edited by Stephanie McLuhan and David Staines)
  • Media and Formal Cause, 2011 (with Eric McLuhan)

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