Marshall McLuhan

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Marshall McLuhan : biography

July 21, 1911 – December 31, 1980

McLuhan also started the journal Explorations with anthropologist Edmund "Ted" Carpenter. In a letter to Walter Ong dated May 31, 1953, 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.

Tom Wolfe suggests that a hidden influence on McLuhan’s work is the Catholic philosopher Teilhard de Chardin whose ideas anticipated those of McLuhan, especially the evolution of the human mind into the "noosphere". Wolfe theorizes that McLuhan may have thought that association of his ideas with those of a Catholic theologian, albeit one suppressed by Rome, might have denied him the intellectual audience he wanted to reach and so omitted all reference of de Chardin from his published work, while privately acknowledging his influence.

The Mechanical Bride (1951)

McLuhan’s first book, The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (1961), is a pioneering study in the field now known as popular culture. His interest in the critical study of popular culture was influenced by the 1933 book Culture and Environment by F. R. Leavis and Denys Thompson, and the title The Mechanical Bride is derived from a piece by the Dadaist artist, Marcel Duchamp.

Like his 1962 book The Gutenberg Galaxy, The Mechanical Bride is unique 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.

The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962)

McLuhan’s The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (written in 1961, first published in Canada by University of Toronto Press in 1962) is a pioneering study in the fields of oral culture, print culture, cultural studies, and media ecology.

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.Gutenberg Galaxy 1962, p. 41.

Movable type

His episodic history takes the reader from pre-alphabetic tribal humankind to the electronic age. According to McLuhan, the invention of movable type greatly accelerated, intensified, and ultimately enabled cultural and cognitive changes that had already been taking place since the invention and implementation of the alphabet, by which McLuhan means phonemic orthography. (McLuhan is careful to distinguish the phonetic alphabet from logographic/logogramic writing systems, like hieroglyphics or ideograms.)

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.Gutenberg Galaxy pp. 124–26.