Marshall McLuhan


Marshall McLuhan : biography

July 21, 1911 – December 31, 1980

He never fully recovered from the stroke, and died in his sleep on December 31, 1980.

Major works

During his years at Saint Louis University (1937–1944), McLuhan worked concurrently on two projects: his doctoral dissertation and the manuscript that was eventually published in 1951 as the book The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man, which included only a representative selection of the materials that McLuhan had prepared for it.

McLuhan’s 1942 Cambridge University doctoral dissertation surveys the history of the verbal arts (grammar, logic, and rhetoric—collectively known as the trivium) from the time of Cicero down to the time of Thomas Nashe.McLuhan’s doctoral dissertation from 1942 was published by Gingko Press in March 2006. Gingko Press also plans to publish the complete manuscript of items and essays that McLuhan prepared, only a selection of which were published in his book. With the publication of these two books a more complete picture of McLuhan’s arguments and aims is likely to emerge. 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.For a nuanced account of McLuhan’s thought regarding Richards and Leavis, see McLuhan’s "Poetic and Rhetorical Exegesis: The Case for Leavis against Richards and Empson" in the Sewanee Review, volume 52, number 2 (1944): 266–76.

In The Mechanical Bride, McLuhan turned his attention to analysing 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 aphorism "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.The phrase "the medium is the message" may be better understood in light of Bernard Lonergan’s further articulation of related ideas: at the empirical level of consciousness, the medium is the message, whereas at the intelligent and rational levels of consciousness, the content is the message. This sentence uses Lonergan’s terminology from Insight: A Study of Human Understanding to clarify the meaning of McLuhan’s statement that "the medium is the message"; McLuhan read this when it was first published in 1957 and found "much sense" in it—in his letter of September 21, 1957, to his former student and friend, Walter J. Ong, S.J., McLuhan says, "Find much sense in Bern. Lonergan’s Insight" (Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987: 251). Lonergan’s Insight is an extended guide to "making the inward turn": attending ever more carefully to one’s own consciousness, reflecting on it ever more carefully, and monitoring one’s articulations ever more carefully. When McLuhan declares that he is more interested in percepts than concepts, he is declaring in effect that he is more interested in what Lonergan refers to as the empirical level of consciousness than in what Lonergan refers to as the intelligent level of consciousness in which concepts are formed, which Lonergan distinguishes from the rational level of consciousness in which the adequacy of concepts and of predications is adjudicated. This inward turn to attending to percepts and to the cultural conditioning of the empirical level of consciousness through the effect of communication media sets him apart from more outward-oriented studies of sociological influences and the outward presentation of self carried out by George Herbert Mead, Erving Goffman, Berger and Luckmann, Kenneth Burke, Hugh Duncan, and others.