Marshall McLuhan
Marshall McLuhan; drawing by David Levine

Any effort to get a clear view of Marshall McLuhan’s doctrines is seriously discouraged by his explicit and repeatedly expressed scorn for old-fashioned, print-oriented, “linear,” rationality. By rejecting as obsolete the humdrum business of setting out definite theses, assembling evidence in support of them, and undermining actual and possible objections, he opts out of the usual argumentative game of truth-seeking, rather in the style of a chessplayer who kicks over the table. In this situation ordinary criticism is enfeebled by an uncomfortable suspicion that it is missing the point.

Although he writes books plentifully sprinkled with the familiar vocabulary of linear rationality (“thus,” “therefore,” “it follows,” “it is clear that”), there is, I think, no doubt of McLuhan’s seriousness about this negative and seemingly self-destructive commitment. For although his books are recognizably books, for the most part full of moderately grammatical prose, they do deviate in various ways from standard forms of exposition. The two main works look ordinary enough at first. But the chapters of The Gutenberg Galaxy are mostly short, have no numbers, and have very long titles. What really enforces one’s bewilderment are the not infrequent cases where the title-aphorism has only a very remote connection with the chapter beneath it. The thirty-three chapters of Understanding Media do have titles of a familiar, Vance-Packardy sort (e.g., “Clocks: The Scent of Time” and “Television: The Timid Giant”); seven of them are about media of communication in general, the rest about twenty-six particular media (or near-media, e.g., clothes). But the content, of the later chapters at any rate, is largely jottings, transferred, it would seem, from the notebook with a minimum of working-over. However dense and organized the prose may look, what it says is connected more by associative leaps than logical linkages. With The Medium Is the Massage a rather thin diet of prose is eked out with a great deal of typographic space-wastage and photographic interruptions, in an attempt to produce something nearer the specifications of his theory.

In varying degrees, then, his writings avoid conventional, linear logic and he instructs his readers to approach them in a non-linear way. The Gutenberg Galaxy, he says, is a “mosaic image” not “a series of views of fixed relationships in pictorial space.” You can, in effect, start anywhere and read in any direction you like. The same spirit is revealed in McLuhan’s regular tactic for dealing with objectors. He sees such linear automata as bogged down in a desperate “unawareness,” so dominated by the print medium to which they are bound by habit and professional interest that they are simply not equipped to see what he is getting at.

Quite a good way of arriving at a general idea of what he is up to is provided by McLuhan: Hot and Cool, a collection of thirty items mostly about, but a few by, McLuhan, finished off by a thirty-six-page dialogue between McLuhan and the editor. The items about him vary from fairly devotional pieces, among which is a quite astounding architectural meditation in the McLuhan manner by an architect called John M. Johansen, through the slightly nervous display of interest by Tom Wolfe, to the somewhat predictable broadsides of reflex liberal ideology from Dwight Macdonald and Christopher Ricks. These are mostly rather short pieces, and even if the commentators had any inclination to give more than the most cursory survey of McLuhan’s ideas (as Kenneth Boulding, a shrewd but amicable objector, clearly has), they have not had the space for it. An interesting feature of this collection is the extent to which people writing about McLuhan tend to be infected by his style, with its fusillade of scriptwriter’s pleasantries, rather in the way that one’s voice falls to a whisper when one is talking to a sufferer from laryngitis. What the collection lacks is any extended effort to elicit a reasonably definite structure of theory from McLuhan’s writings. I should not make this complaint if I did not think the thing could be done. If McLuhan is desultory (as a matter of principle), he is also exceedingly repetitious; not only does the same quite large but wholly manageable body of leading themes recur time and time again in his writings, they are even presented in the same jocular words (he has a grandfatherly indulgence toward his own phrases). What I wish to maintain is that if we ignore his anti-linear instructions, we can easily discern beneath the thin camouflage of his expository idiosyncrasies an articulate theory of society and culture, with all the usual apparatus of first principles, explanatory supplements, and logically derived consequences. What is more, this entirely linear theoretical contraption is of a classic and familiar kind, having a very close formal analogy with the main doctrines of Marx. To speak just once in McLuhanese: he is an academic sheep in Tom Wolfe’s clothing.


THE FUNDAMENTAL principle of McLuhan’s system is a theory of the main determinant of historical change in society, culture, and the human individual. Such changes according to this system are all ultimately caused by changes in the prevailing or predominating medium of human communication. McLuhan got this idea from the later works of the Canadian economic historian Harold A. Innis, but what the teacher used vertiginously enough, as an interpretative clue, the pupil asserts, with only the most occasional and perfunctory qualification, as the basic truth about causation in history. The main evidence for this proposition is provided in The Gutenberg Galaxy in which a vast array of disparate works is ransacked for quotations (they must make up half the book) describing the social and cultural effects of the invention of printing. Print, he tells us, created (that is his usual word in this connection) individualism, privacy, specialization, detachment, mass-production, nationalism, militarism, the dissociation of sensibility, etc., etc.

The connection between cause and effect affirmed in the fundamental principle is explained by the doctrine of “sense-ratio,” which McLuhan derived, it appears, from the work of Father Walter J. Ong. McLuhan associates different historical periods or cultural situations with different balances of emphasis in the communicative and mental life of human beings as between the various senses. Tribal man, with his oral culture, was a conversational being who heard, smelt, and felt the people he was in communication with. Gutenberg man acquires information through focusing his eyes on clearly printed rows of alphabetic symbols. Tribal man brought all his senses to bear on his world in a healthy balance; Gutenberg man overconcentrates on vision and leaves his other senses numb and deprived.

The third element of McLuhan’s system is a patterning or schematization of history, which is achieved by applying the fundamental principle to raw historical fact. Broadly conceived, the schema divides human history into three parts: the remote or pre-Gutenberg past, the immediate or Gutenberg past, and the immediate or electronic future. The first and longest of these eras further subdivides, on closer inspection, into a tribal epoch of oral, face-to-face communication, an ideographic epoch, and an epoch of alphabetic handwriting (i.e., prehistory, the East, and Western civilization from the Greeks to the Renaissance).

The final stage of this schema, the electronic future, develops into a largescale prophecy which also implies a diagnosis of current cultural discontents. With electronic means of communication rendering printed matter more or less obsolete we are on the edge of a new type of society and a new type of man. Indeed the new men are already among us: they are our children with their sense-ratios transformed by TV-watching at an impressionable age, dedicated to “cool,” participative enjoyments like the frug, and altogether alienated from the Gutenberg assumptions of traditional instructional schooling. That is why we get on with them so badly. The coming society will be appropriate to this type of human being. It will be a “global village,” a unitary world of neo-tribesmen, sunk in their social roles and fraternally involved with one another in a way that excludes what their forebears would regard as individuality.

Faced by the inevitable we need some kind of strategy to meet it with. Here McLuhan recurs, with a frequency unusual even for him, to Poe’s story about a sailor caught in a maelstrom who saved himself by coming to understand how it worked. As things are, ignorance about the irresistible effects of new electronic media is general and blinding. The first step, at any rate, is to understand them by directing attention away from their content to their form and its effects on sense-ratios. It is not wholly clear that there is a second step, that anything more than understanding is required.

THE GLOBAL VILLAGE is as welcome in McLuhan as it is inevitable. In Understanding Media he says that the faith in which he is writing is one that “concerns the ultimate harmony of all being.” Generally the social and cultural features of the Gutenberg era that we are about to lose are described in an unfavorable way, their connection with war, inequality, indifference, the mutilation of the self is emphasized. But on the other hand, from the time of The Mechanical Bride, McLuhan has been insisting that he is not concerned with whether the changes he is investigating are “a good thing,” and strongly suggests that this is a crude and unenlightened sort of question to ask. Rudolph E. Morris in McLuhan: Hot and Cool is sufficiently impressed by these protestations of detachment to praise the book, quite wrongly, for its freedom from moral indignation (a fairly dense cloud of moral steam rises from McLuhan’s collar on page thirteen of The Mechanical Bride, for example). Despite his insistence on detachment there is no doubt that he strongly favors the future as he descries it.


Finally McLuhan has a special intellectual technique, both of exposition and defense. His procedure is to heap evidence up in tumultuous and disparate assemblages, with little critical appraisal of his sources—unless they deviate very grossly in some way from one of his main theses—and with only the most tenuous thread of topical, relevance to connect them. To justify this shapeless and enthusiastic technique of almost random accumulation he falls back on the idea that he is producing a mosaic, not a linear argument. In fact he is producing a linear argument, but one of a very fluid and unorganized kind. Objectors are discounted for benighted visuality and obsession with print. Yet McLuhan not only writes books, he is immensely bookish, in the manner of some jackdaw of a medieval compiler or of Burton in The Anatomy of Melancholy.

The analogy between this system and Marx’s is plain enough to be set out briefly. Each system begins with a general interpretation of history, an account of the ultimate cause of historical change. Each applies this to arrive at a schematization of the actual course of historical events. For exciting, practical purposes each schema divides history into three parts: the remote past (before print or capitalism), the immediate past (print or capitalism), and the immediate future (global village or classless society). But the remote past can be divided further, into prehistory (the oral tribe or primitive communism), the East (ideographic script or slave economy), and the early West (alphabetic script or feudalism). Both McLuhan and Marx devote their main work to the shift from the early West to the immediate past: as The Gutenberg Galaxy tells what print did to the scribal culture, so Capital describes the emergence of capitalism. Each system concludes its historical schema with a prophecy of imminent major change to a state of affairs that is nebulously described but enthusiastically welcomed. In each case the welcomed future is a reversion, in a major respect, to the initial phase of the whole historical process. McLuhan and Marx both present strategies for dealing with the inevitable. Marx calls for an activist endeavor to ease the birth-pangs of the coming order; McLuhan, less exigently, calls for an effort to understand, best pursued by reading his works. Both are strongly in favor of the future that they predict, for all its obscurity of outline. Finally both have a brisk way of disposing of hostile critics. They have a self-sealing device against any possible attempt at refutation: the theory predicts it and explains it away, what Popper calls “reinforced dogmatism.” Objectors must be visual or bourgeois.

TO POINT OUT this analogy is not to criticize McLuhan, except in so far as he maintains that his ideas cannot be set out in a conventionally systematic way. But it does put one on one’s guard. A system of this form embodies two crucial elements about whose acceptability very general and very elaborately worked-out doubts have been raised: a schematization of history which implies the inevitability of a predicted state of affairs and a strongly positive evaluation of this none-too-clearly-described inevitable future.

There is clearly something in McLuhan’s fundamental principle, just as there is in Marx’s. Major changes in styles of communication do have large effects. What is wrong here is the violent exaggeration with which McLuhan blows up a truth about the causal relevance of media into a full-blooded and unqualified theory of historical change. What he usually does is to argue that some change in media of communication is a necessary condition of a certain major social or cultural change, and then to represent his discovery as an account of what created the major change in question. Print, he says, created the large national army of modern times. Now it may be that the large national army does make a good deal of use of printed matter for such things as training manuals and quartermaster’s forms. But the railway, as indispensable for rapid mobilization of large numbers, is obviously more important. Anyway McLuhan’s timing is all wrong here. The print age, for him, begins about 1500, but the type of army he has in mind first appears in the mid-nineteenth century with the American Civil War and Bismarck’s wars against Austria and France, or, at the earliest, with the armies of the French Revolution and Napoleon. During the three preceding, print-dominated centuries, armies had been small bodies of mercenaries or long-service professionals.

He might, at this point, reply that the mass army of modern times was created by nationalism and that nationalism was created by print: Q.E.D. Even if we allow the questionable assumption that creation is transitive in this way, this still will not do. For how does print create nationalism? By stabilizing the vernacular? But were not Elizabethan Englishmen nationalistic even though most of them were illiterate? Or is it enough that the ruling class should be literate? Then why was eighteenth-century Italy not nationalistic?

Here, right at the foundations of McLuhan’s system, a persisting vagueness of terms makes it difficult beyond a certain point to see precisely what is being said. Media, he contends, are the ultimate causal factors in history. But what is a medium? Much of the time the term is taken in a fairly ordinary way to mean a technique for the communication of ideas between human beings. It is in this sense that the concept of a medium occurs in his schematization of history. But in Understanding Media roads, clothes, houses, money, cars, and weapons are all included in the repertoire of media discussed, things which either do not communicate information but carry altogether heavier loads, or which communicate information only as a very minor and peripheral function (as a nun’s habit says “don’t ask me to have a drink with you.”). In this extended sense a medium comes to be any item of technology, and the sense in which the fundamental principle is to be taken becomes very much diluted. Nevertheless, McLuhan’s fundamental principle does make a point and he has certainly assembled evidence relevant to it which is impressive in its bulk and often intellectually stimulating.

This is less true of the schematization of history that he derives from its application, which simply draws old and familiar distinctions between historical periods in a new terminology. What everyone is used to calling modern history is renamed the Gutenberg era, ancient and medieval history is renamed the era of alphabetic script, the epoch of the oriental empires is renamed the ideographic era. This would be all right in a modest way if it served to confirm a well-known distinction and to deepen our under-standing of it. But here a pedantic-looking doubt must be voiced. What does he mean when he says of some medium that it is the dominant medium of a given historical period? Does it mean that everyone was preoccupied with it, in which case the Gutenberg era began in Europe only a hundred years ago with a fair approximation to universal literacy? Or does it mean that the medium of an era is the one through which the ruling class acquires most of its information or most of its important information? In that case the beginning of the Gutenberg era is pushed back to where he wants it all right (1500 roughly), but the basis of his claim that we are on the edge of an electronic age dissolves. This serious indeterminacy is one that he generously exploits. He says that England is much less visual and print-oriented than the United States. Yet England was the first country to exhibit most of the social and cultural symptoms of Gutenbergian domination: massproduction industry, big cities, individualism, nationalism, etc. Allowing himself this degree of freedom he deprives his schematization of any definite content.

AT THIS POINT his explanation of his fundamental principle by means of sense-ratios needs to be considered. Once again a very ample point seems to have been exaggerated into confident and unqualified assertions which cry out for justification. It is reasonable and enlightening to say that tribesmen do not have a detached, impersonal point of view on a visually conceived world stretching out uniformly from them in space and time. But to talk of sense-ratios suggests a kind of mathematical precision about this kind of perception which he nowhere begins to achieve. To raise a very simple question: why does he say nothing about the blind? Plenty of blind men display all the marks of extreme visuality in his terms, are individualized, specialized, detached and so forth. But how can this be possible for people who have been blind since birth and have had to get their information either tactually through Braille or auditorily through a reader?

This becomes highly important when he arrives at the final stage of his schematization, his prophecy about the electronic age just ahead of us, peopled with its global villagers. All the alleged products of print are declared moribund and about to disappear: the individual, privacy, specialization, detachment, militarism, nationalism, massproduction, and so forth. In their place the world will become a unity of emotionally involved tribesmen, aware of everything that is happening everywhere. The real basis for this prediction is his account, in terms of senseratios, of the effect of TV on people accustomed to it from early life. TV, he says, is a cool medium, whereas print is hot. It involves the collaboration of its watcher in what it presents, for he has to fill out its low-definition picture with imaginative efforts of his own, while print, where everything is clear and determinate, imposes a passive receptiveness on the reader.

My limited observation of children’s TV habits makes me doubt this. If the show interests them they watch it with passive absorption; if it does not they leave it buzzing on around them and get on with something on the floor. But I would not rest the case on such anecdotal material, particularly since the effect is alleged to take place at a fairly subconscious level, as inaccessible to naïves observation as it is to modification or control. It seems reasonable, however, to argue that despite its low pictorial definition TV leaves a lot less to the supplementative imagination of its watchers than print does to its readers. But even if electronic media do decrease detachment, as they might be held to do by the very lifelikeness of their representations, why does he infer that this involvement will inevitably be fraternal and charitable? There is no necessary connection whatever between making people more emotional and excitable and making them more humane and unselfish. Words like “sensitive” and “involved” can be used to mean either sympathetically concerned with the welfare of others or, more neutrally, just concerned. No doubt young people at present are more given to global idealism than their elders, but then that is nearly always the case; having few other responsibilities they can afford this emotional expenditure.

AGAIN IT IS NOT at all clear why the involving nature of exposure to electronic media should eliminate individuality. If print makes men passive it should, according to McLuhan’s own argument, presumably be well equipped to stereotype them. No doubt there are many forces in the world making for Riesman’s other-directedness, but TV with its rapid diffusion of advertisers’ ideas of fashionable life-styles is only one of them.

McLuhan’s predictions often go far beyond the global village toward the imminent formation of a kind of cosmic, preverbal consciousness. Media, like all technologies, extend or externalize our faculties. In particular media extend our senses. Electronic media, he goes on, extend or externalize the central nervous system. Here he has really taken off. Certainly tools can augment the power and precision of our muscular operations. In line with this, media strictly so called can be regarded as ways of improving the performance of our sense-organs, though this more accurately applies to things like microscopes and telescopes. Going a little further still, we can allow that computing machines can assist and improve on the thinking work of the central nervous system. But this is not to say that computers or other media detach our faculties from us altogether, that they literally externalize the human capacities they reinforce.

Perhaps a community could enslave itself to a computer by programing it to make social decisions on the basis of its inflow of information, and by linking it up with machinery designed to put the decisions into effect. Such a community would be well advised to put the main power switch in an accessible position. But since in our entropic universe destruction is easier than construction, the descendants of people clever enough to construct such an appliance ought to be clever enough to blow it up if it gets out of hand. Moreover, whatever sort of computer it is, it will not be preverbal in McLuhan’s lavish sense: its tapes may have combinations of 1s and 0s on them instead of ordinary words but it will not operate with blank tape. I have almost certainly misunderstood McLuhan on this topic, probably by taking his word “externalize” literally. If he does not mean it to be understood in that way, all he can mean is that there will be a collective consciousness—or subconsciousness—of the kind an excited patriotic crowd might have, with everybody thinking or feeling the same thing. We must try to avoid this unappetizing prospect by leaving TV-watching in its current voluntary condition and keeping more than one channel going.

McLuhan describes the electronic future in reasonably attractive ways on the whole. Not least in the phrase “global village” itself with its intimations of rusticity, friendliness, the simple life. But his neo-primitive future does seem to be without most of the things which men have laboriously struggled to achieve and in virtue of which, despite everything, they still think of themselves as superior in more than brute strength to the other animal species: freedom, individuality, foresight, even detachment, the indispensable condition of rationality itself. In so far as the outlines of the electronic future are clear they are by no means enticing, but then in so far as they are clear the arguments on which their inevitability is based are very far from persuasive. And in so far as they are not clear there is nothing to take a position for or against. But anyway taking a position about the future has little point in McLuhan’s system, since it is not shown how the understanding he offers is related to any possible action. What he really offers is a kind of general relief from historical anxiety: Amazing things are going to happen but considered in themselves they are not at all bad, and the disturbance of their arrival can be brought within manageable bounds by one’s being intellectually prepared for them.

Whatever else he is McLuhan is consistently interesting. His scope is unlimited and there are the added attractions of his remorseless and all-inclusive contemporaneity and his jokes. Contemporaneity is a rapidly wasting asset. The Mechanical Bride, which is now sixteen years old, has a largely camp interest. The jokes often seem a little automated, like those in a Bob Hope show. His technique has a Gutenbergian repeatability. “Money,” he says “is the poor man’s credit card.” Why not “Gratitude is the poor man’s tip” or “Changing the furniture around is the poor man’s interior decoration.” But there are so many of them that the strong can carry the weak. What he claims to offer is much more than this, a general scheme of individual and social salvation. Compared to all such schemes it perhaps makes the least exacting demands on those who would like to follow it. They do not have to mortify the flesh or hurl themselves against the armed lackeyes of the bourgeoisie or undergo 500 hours of analysis. All they have to do is to read a few books, a curiously Gutenbergian device. If, as I have argued, the scheme does not stand up very well if approached with the good old linear questions, “Just what does he mean?” “Is there any good reason to think that it is true?” they must remember that they were offered salvation at a bargain price

This Issue

November 23, 1967