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Thoughts after McLuhan

Eric McLuhan

This year, 2011, marks the centenary of Marshall McLuhan’s birth in Edmonton, Alberta, on July 21. The year has seen a great number of lectures and conferences devoted to discussing and assessing his work, which still, more than thirty years after his death, has the power to upset conventional minds and challenge conventional explanations of what new technologies and their media do to the users and their cultures. A centenary also affords, among other things, a timely occasion for taking stock of his contributions to our understanding of media and society. After all, McLuhan established, virtually single-handed, the fields of media study and of media ecology.

His published books include these, among others:

• The Mechanical Bride: The Folklore of Industrial Man (1951)
• Alfred Lord Tennyson: Selected Poetry (1954)
• The Gutenberg Galaxy: The making of Typographic Man (1962)
• Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964)
• Voices of Literature, Vol. I (1964); Vol. II (1965), Vol. III (1970)
• The Medium is the Massage (1967)
• War and Peace in the Global Village (1968)
• Through the Vanishing Point: Space in Poetry and Painting (1968)
• The Interior Landscape: The Literary criticism of Marshall McLuhan, 1943-1962 (1969)
• Culture Is Our Business (1970)1
• From Cliché to Archetype (1970)
• Take Today: The Executive as Dropout (1972)
• City as Classroom: Understanding Language and Media (1977)
• Laws of Media: The New Science (1988)
• The Classical Trivium: The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of His Time (2006)

Nor did publication cease with his death. Aside from fresh releases and editions in recent years of some of his more popular books, he has had numerous new titles appear under his name. This year (2011) alone, Marshall McLuhan has co-authored two trailblazing new books: Media and Formal Cause and Theories of Communication.
The first of these occupied his thoughts for many years because the usual form of causality (efficient cause) was used exclusively as the modus operandi in the sciences and the social sciencesand still is. But efficient cause is of no use whatever in discussing the manner of operation of environments. The form of causality that does deal with environmental change is called formal cause, and it has been a source of confusion to philosophers since the Middle Ages. Sorting the matter out then assumed a high priority, but was one of many things left unresolved at his death. The second, Theories of Communication, was a favourite project on which we began to collect notes and examples in the 70s, but again never got around to finishing. It shows some surprising relations to the matter of formal cause.
These bring up the matter of other projects left unfinished, and there are quite a number of them. Let me mention a few.
A Baedeker of the Twentieth Century. I am sure that the National Archives has quite a lot of material on this as we collected a great deal over the last decade or so. The idea behind the project was to examine innovations and discoveries made in the decade or so surrounding the turn of the century and look for patterns of relations between them and subsequent changes in man and society. The project never got very far though it remained ‘on the back burner.’ The field is now open for someone to do the same for the new millennium: A Baedeker of the 21st Century.
Some years earlier, we discovered that James Joyce had actually made two ‘dry runs’ at a new technique that he exploited in the novel, Ulysses. T. S. Eliot hailed it as being of monumental significance for poets and artists of his time and for many years thereafter. That was the ‘mythic’ technique of maintaining continuous parallels between two situations, in the case of Ulysses, between Homeric Troy and modern Dublin. What Joyce scholars do not know is that there were two earlier attempts. One is the book of short stories, Dubliners; the other, the play, Exiles. The latter exploits parallels between the modern time and Euripides’ play Medea. The former exploits parallels between each of the stories set in Dublin and Ovid’s Metamorphoses: fifteen Books in Ovid’s work and fifteen short stories, one for one. Had we finished these studies, they would have revolutionized Joyce studies. They still can, and might.
Another project was to bring his study of the trivium up to the twentieth century. The project begins with his Ph. D. dissertation, The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of his Time, which outlined the history of the trivium (Rhetoric, Grammar and Dialectic) from Cicero to the Elizabethan period (the time of Nashe). This work provides the first comprehensive account of the Western intellectual tradition. Other studies focus on one or two elements of the trivium, but McLuhan’s was and is the first to take the full trivium into account. Here, the plan was to continue the history from the sixteenth century into the twentieth by adding a second volume. There were plans to publish the thesis as a separate volume to begin the process, and McGraw-Hill had agreed to take it on, but after they bungled the publication of Culture is Our Business so badly, the book was withdrawn. (They published Culture is Our Business without its having been proofread: there are about one and a third errors per page on average in the type and they substituted their own ads for ours in several cases, so the commentary on the facing pages makes no sense.) Eventually, we took the plan for the two-volume set to University of Toronto, which did offer a contract: the set was to be called From Cicero to Joyce. When they gave us the contract, we were tremendously busy with other obligations, so it sat for a while and then had to be postponed until some of the other matters had been dealt with. My father died before that eventuality came to pass. A few years ago, Gingko Press published the thesis under the title, The Classical Trivium. It is one of the most important books of its kind to appear, since that particular work is the foundation of everything my father did in both media and literature during the rest of his career.
Of course, there were quite a few other bits of unfinished business. Much of it has yet to see the light of day. A couple of examples:
The following brief Note on Obsolescence gives an idea.

Note on Obsolescence

Obsolescence is very far from simple. Most people assume that it means disappearance, rather like yesterday’s newspaper, which is declared obsolete by its dateline and by the appearance of today’s newspaper. But obsolescence is actually the matrix of all innovation, and as such it is essential to the functioning of arts and sciences alike. One of the first signs of obsolescence is not disappearance but rather sudden proliferation. A number of studies of the process of obsolescence is much needed to clarify its operation in the ecology of media and culture. Our time is deluged in major innovations, seemingly at the rate of a major new technology or set of competing technologies every couple of years, with a corresponding rate of obsolescences. The sheer rapidity of these changes demands new strategies for observing and dealing with them.
There has been much speculation and discussion surrounding when and where my father first used the now-famous observation, ‘the medium is the message’ (title of the first chapter in Understanding Media, and used as the title of The Medium is the Massage). I found the answer in his library. He made this note documenting the first use in a book by James McCrimmon, From Source to Statement, which reprinted that first chapter:

Note in McCrimmon's From Source to Statement

It reads, ‘1st used this phrase in June (?) 1958 at Radio broadcasters conference in Vancouver. Was reassuring them that TV could not end radio’.

It is remarkable that the phrase is still, nearly half a century after it was first used, almost universally misunderstood, despite the author’s repeated efforts to make its meaning plain. Much of the trouble stems from the fact that readers do not take the trouble to think, or they have lost the ability to read. The word ‘medium’ carries two meanings; readers generally assume that McLuhan intends the meaning that they are accustomed to using when they speak of ‘the media’. But the book was written before that meaning had become general. ‘Medium’ as used in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man principally means milieu or environment. From the first page of Chapter One of Understanding Media:

For the ‘message’ of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs. The railway did not introduce movement or transportation or wheel or road into human society, but it accelerated and enlarged the scale of previous human functions, creating totally new kinds of cities and new kinds of work and leisure. This happened whether the railway functioned in a tropical or a northern environment, and is quite independent of the freight or content of the railway medium. The airplane, on the other hand, by accelerating the rate of transportation, tends to dissolve the railway form of city, politics, and association, quite independently of what the airplane is used for.
. . . ‘the medium is the message’ because it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action.

It is difficult to imagine a clearer statement of the meaning of that phrase. Elsewhere in the book, he reiterates that ‘a medium is an environment of services and disservices’ that the new form brings into play and which, because it is environmental, remains largely invisible – and therefore omnipotent. One of McLuhan’s greatest contributions to the study of media is recognition of this fact of invisibility and techniques he developed for studying environments of that sort. The statement also points to the urgent need for an ecological approach to studying new media and technologies before they are released into a culture or society, much as we now do for new chemical drugs. The idea behind every type of ecological study is always eventual control of the matters beings studied. We applaud the control of drugs and the study of their effects and side-effects. We abhor the idea of control of media, no less addictive than tobacco or heroin, as somehow unpatriotic or as striking at the root of capitalism and free enterprise. Drugs are visible; media and their environments are another matter.
Much of the resistance to his work, I presume, was due to the reaction of rationally-trained minds when confronted with causes and forces that are invisible and therefore irrational. As recently as last year, students at some universities were still being advised to direct their attentions away from McLuhan or face the consequences of having their work disallowed or disregarded. Alternately, they ought to keep quiet about their interest. And do not teach McLuhan’s ideas or you’ll find your academic career sidelined. I do not exaggerate. These caveats and conditions are far less frequent now than they were thirty years ago: then they were to be heard nearly everywhere. Actually, they are good testimony to the potency of McLuhan’s thoughts and observations. Today, the acceptance of his importance to the field is widely recognized, though understanding has not yet caught up with popularity2.
It might be useful to list a few of McLuhan’s major contributions to the study of media (not to mention his contributions to the study of literature).
One contribution is the discovery that media are environments that require special tools and techniques to enable their study. A main tool is formal cause, which has now, finally, been set on a firm footing. Environments are causes. But along with formal cause, there is the matter of the role of the arts in providing counter-environments. Allied to this is the observation that media are not additive: you cannot simply add a new medium to an existing situation. Any new medium (environment), regardless of the use to which it is put, takes the entire preexisting situation as its content. Media, then, are transformative. McLuhan’s theory of communication is transformation, not transportation of goodies or ideas from person to person pr place to place.
The Global Village idea soon became a popular cliche, which it remains today. But the subsequent development, afforded by the satellite environment, was that the Global Village had turned into a Global Theatre in which there is no audience but everyone is actor. Warhol’s thought of everyone getting fifteen minutes of fame pales by comparison to the reality, of which the current craze for ‘social media’ is a minor symptom.
A principal element of McLuhan’s approach to the study of media and of literature was the role of perception both in the impact stage and in the much more important area of closure and audience involvement. For example, the movie-goer is not and cannot ever be objective about the movie he is watching, for the simple reason that he is completely involved in completing the images on the screen. Regardless of the content of the movie, the viewer is required to supply all of the movement. No viewer has ever been able to stand to one side and simply observe the events on the screen without supplying the movement, which occurs between frames while the screen is dark. It cannot be done. Movies, therefore, are not a visual medium so much as a kinetic one.
Put the same movie on TV and it demands a totally different form of closure from the viewer. The TV image does not provide snapshots (there is no shutter on the TV camera); it scans the image continuously and turns comprehending it into a continuous process of filling-in the image of dots of imformation. Too, the colours are supplied by the viewer. The set (computer or TV) gives only the classic red/green/blue elements, from which the viewer manufactures instantly all the rest of the spectrum as required. Again, the viewer cannot stand aside and observe (and claim objectivity); he is forced to supply the colours and to complete the mosaic image. The visual sense plays a comparatively small part in these manipulations. It is worth noting that as involvement escalates, objectivity evaporates. Our first experience of objectivity and detachment was provided us by the phonetic alphabet and its intense stress on the visual sense. Needless to say, media that insist rather on involvement are not visual media but multi-sensory in one or another manner. TV and film are, paradoxically, not visual media.
A major, if little known, contribution to the field is the subject of From Cliche to Archetype, which was written in response to the observations of Northrop Frye and Carl Jung (and Plato) about the role of archetypes in life and society. The theme of the book appeared succinctly on the dust jacket: ‘New’ Archetype is Ye Olde Cliche writ large. The process of transformation whereby cliche becomes archetype is that of retrieval, as mysterious in its way as its complement, the process of obsolescence.
McLuhan’s last work is the study, Laws of Media, completed some eight years after his death. It began as an updating of Understanding Media for McGraw-Hill, who wanted to issue a tenthanniversary new edition in 1974. But they rejected the revisions and new chapters, so it took on a life of its own. The first chapter of the book is an extended essay that would have formed part of the project to revise the study of the trivium into the two-volume From Cicero to Joyce. It shows how the trivium emerged from transformations of sensibillity occasioned by the introduction of the phonetic alphabet. In this, the work of Eric Havelock (Preface to Plato) and of Pedro Lain-Entralgo (Therapy of the Word in Classical Antiquity) have been crucial. Another chapter discusses the difference between the reigning ‘transportation’ theory of communication and the muchneeded transformation theory, which Laws of Media proposes. The search for laws of media took a number of years and resulted in the statement that there were only four that applied in every single case – which statement still holds true, after over thirty years of search for a fifth or an exception that allows the number to be reduced to three. Four it is. Because the four exhibit an organic interrelation, the set of four that defines each subject, each human artifact, we called a tetrad (somewhat in contradistinction to Hegel’s triad). Two years ago, I discovered another feature: the tetrad of four Laws is also an analytic of formal cause: the two are related indissolubly. Here is matter on which philosophy can chew for the next couple of centuries.
The tetrad is not merely descriptive: it enables discovery of a new kind. I was working at a tetrad last week on the subject of cloud computing. It begins of course with the ubiquitousness of computers, and the obsolescence and retrieval phases are also pretty clear. But the reversal phase for cloud computing unexpectedly means the environment itself turns into computer. Marshall McLuhan’s work is far from over: it has just begun.


1 - Culture Is Our Business is the planned third volume in a trilogy that began with Mechanical Bride – The Folk- lore of Industrial Man, continued with Gutenberg Galaxy – The Making of Typographic Man, and ends with this volume on the Folklore of Electric Man. That trilogy has not heretofore been announced publicly.

2 - Well, one has to begin somewhere.


Entralgo P. L. (1970). Therapy of the word in classical antiquity. (Ed. and trans. by Rather L. J. and Sharp J. M.).
New Haven: Yale University Press.
Havelock E. (1963). Preface to Plato, Cambridge and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. McCrimmon J. (1968). From source to statement. Boston: Houghton MifflinMcLuhan M. (1951).
McLuhan M. (1951). The Mechanical Bride: The Folklore of Industrial Man. New York: The Vanguard Press. ID (ed). (1956). Alfred Lord Tennyson: Selected Poetry. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
ID. (1962). The Gutenberg Galaxy: The making of Typographic Man. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. ID. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: Signet.
ID. (1964). Voices of Literature. Vol. I. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
ID. (1965). Voices of Literature. Vol. II (1965). New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
ID. (1968). War and Peace in the Global Village. New York: Bantam Books/Random House.
ID. (1968). Through the Vanishing Point: Space in Poetry and Painting. New York: Harper and Row. ID. (1969). The Interior Landscape: The Literary criticism of Marshall McLuhan, 1943-1962 (1969).
New York: McGraw-Hill.
ID. (1970). Voices of Literature. Vol. III. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. ID. (1970). Culture Is Our Business. New York: McGraw-Hill.
ID. (1970). From Cliché to Archetype. New York: The Viking Press.
ID. (1972). Take Today: The Executive as Dropout. Toronto: Longman Canada Ltd /New York: Harcourt Brace
ID. (1977). City as Classroom: Understanding Language and Media. Toronto: The book society of Canada Ltd. ID. (2006). The Classical Trivium: The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of his Time. (Ed. Gordon W. T.).
Corte Madera: Gingko Press.
ID. (2008). ‘Marshall McLuhan’s Theory of Communication: The Yegg’. Global Media Journal 1 (1), pp. 25-43. McLuhan M., Fiore Q. and Agel J. (1967). The Medium is the Massage: an Inventory of Effects. New York: Random House. McLuhan M. and McLuhan E. (1988). Laws of Media: The New Science. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
ID. Media and formal cause.
McLuhan M. and Carson D. (2003). The Book of Probes. Corte Madera: Gingko Press. McLuhan M. and Watson W. (1970). From Cliché to Archetype. New York: The Viking Press.


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