McLuhan For Beginners

McLuhan For Beginners


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McLuhan For Beginners by W. Terrence Gordon, Susan Willmarth

Marshall McLuhan was one of the most brilliant and original thinkers of the 20th century. He was so far ahead of his time that he predicted the future and offered a critique of human behavior in a media saturated world that is perhaps more valuable in today's Internet age than it was in his own time.

McLuhan pioneered the study of Media, unified Art and Science, and warned us about the perils of a televised, computerized, famous-for-15-minutes, social media world. A world where we would live in each other's faces, and become so alike, so isolated, so anonymous that violence would become a scream of identity, a way of saying, "I am not invisible." McLuhan tried to teach us to guard against these dehumanizing, debasing effects of technology, and a thousand other things, but we got reality television anyway.

The centennial celebration of McLuhan's life and the re-release of his books has led to a surge of new interest in his thinking and teachings. McLuhan For Beginners provides an essential introduction that is clear, comprehensive, and easy to remember. It is full of wise and witty art by Susan Willmarth that is a perfect match to W. Terrence Gordon's writing. McLuhan envisioned the media generated Global Village before it existed, and no one since McLuhan has described its allure and pitfalls better.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781934389751
Publisher: For Beginners
Publication date: 10/30/2012
Series: For Beginners
Pages: 160
Sales rank: 1,106,473
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

W. Terrence Gordon has published more than twenty books, including McLuhan For Beginners and Linguistics For Beginners. He is currently at work on a book about James Joyce and a biographical fiction about the legendary linguist Charles Kay Ogden. When he is not busy writing or teaching, Gordon photographs the haunting beauty of Nova Scotia, Canada, where he has lived since the 1970s.

Susan Willmarth was born in New Mexico and moved in the early '70's to New York City. Since graduating from Parsons School of Design, she has worked as a free-lance editorial illustrator for Push Pin Press Books, Edward Booth-Clibborn editions, New York Magazine, The Open Society, Writers and Readers Publishing, and now For Beginners LLC. Past work includes Black History For Beginners and McLuhan For Beginners. She lives in Manhattan with her bicycle.

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McLuhan for Beginners


For Beginners LLC

Copyright © 2012 W. Terrence Gordon
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-939994-16-5


Marshall Me Who?

If you are like most people, you've probably heard of Marshall McLuhan—the man Playboy magazine called "the High Priest of popcult" and the "Metaphysician of Media"—and You probably even recognize a couple of the phrases he came up With—"the medium is the message" arid "the global village"—but that's about it. Not only have you never read any Of McLuhan's books, you've probably never read anything that makes you, think you should.

"... the new environment that McLuhan discerns should be studied as carefully as the O2 system in the Apollo spaceship. Just possibly, understanding McLuhan may help ensure that earth's environment sustains rather than destroys the crew."

"McLuhan is a synthesizer. He has gathered amorphous and scattered ideas, thought them through with force and vivacity, and opened up new areas of awareness."

Novelist George P. Elliott

"McLuhan's teaching is radical, new, animated by high intelligence, and capable of moving people to social action. If he is wrong, it matters."

Author Tom Wolfe

"Suppose he is what he sounds like, the most important thinker since Newton, Darwin, Freud, Einstein, and Pavlo ... what if he is right?"

McLuhan was an obscure Canadian professor of English till he published Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man in 1964. The paperback edition became the fastest selling nonfiction book at Harvard and other universities—with no advertising or promotion! Understanding Media was the book that brought Marshall McLuhan to public attention as a media analyst and catapulted him to international prominence. For the next fifteen years, McLuhan lectured passionately to academic and popular audiences, engaging in all kinds of debates and forums around the world on his key theme: how technology affects the forms and scale of social organization and individual lives.

By 1980, the year McLuhan died, cable TV had not yet come to the Amazon jungle. The inhabitants of the "global village" he spoke of still knew nothing, or little, about interactive television, PCs, CDs, talking books, the world wide web, terminal node controllers, optical discs, pocket computers, the Internet, optical fiber or laser technology.

A few years ago, when Wired, the terminally hip, "future-friendly," magazine of the computer age was hyper-conceived, Marshall McLuhan was chosen as the magazine's "patron saint." Wired exploded into 1996 by featuring McLuhan in their January issue. Three articles and a handsome, spare-no-expense cover were supposed to be a tribute to McLuhan. (His ghost thanks you.)

Unfortunately, the Wired articles so drastically misrepresented his teaching that many readers must have wondered: why bother with McLuhan?—there's nothing to be gained from reading him.


McLuhan's Point of View—

McLuhan's approach to any question was to refuse to have a fixed viewpoint. For McLuhan, understanding always requires a multidimensional approach. To fully understand anything, he argued, you have to look at it from several points of view. So, McLuhan would have gone against his own beliefs and teaching with just a single take on anything. With no fixed viewpoint, his writings present no complex argument, no thesis developed over a long stretch.

The unsettling result in The Mechanical Bride was intended. McLuhan claimed that his work offered a mosaic, or field, approach to the questions he studied, in the same way that the media effects he probed reorganized audiences' perceptions of the world around them (more on "probes" later). In The Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan jolts his readers into an awareness of how books function as a medium (more on this later, too!)

The point is, if we read The Gutenberg Galaxy or other books by McLuhan with the dis-comfitting feeling that we have not read such works before, and ask ourselves what makes McLuhan's books different, then we get a starting point for some pretty astounding insights into what media and their real messages are all about.

—The exact entry point is of no importance, because a moment later we will be in a new environment—

... water in the case of the bath,

... media in the case of McLuhan.

So, the organization of a McLuhan book is more like that of a newspaper. Yet, while stepping into a newspaper is inevitable, McLuhan claimed that stepping back from it, to perceive it as an environment, is indispensable to understanding its power and its effect.

"The inside point of view would coincide with the practical point of view of the man who would rather eat the turtle than admire the design on its back. The same man would rather dunk himself in the newspaper than have any esthetic or intellectual grasp of its character and meaning." (The Mechanical Bride, p. 4)

Let us now step into McLuhan's biography. Who was Marshall McLuhan and how did he come to be called the sage of the television age?


Stepping Into McLuhan

Before he was the subject of an off-Broadway play, before he played himself in Woody Allen's Annie Hall, before he gave the world eyes and ears for what it is to have eyes and ears in Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan was a professor of English who loved James Joyce, hated television, denounced "Dagwood," and explained all three. Even though he is the hero of a new generation of cybernauts and Information Highway trekkies, if McLuhan were alive today, he would probably refuse to have an e-mail address!

Marshall McLuhan was born in 1911 in Edmonton, Canada, and raised in Winnipeg. He received his B.A. (1933) and M.A. (1934) from the University of Manitoba, earning a second B.A. in English literature from Cambridge University (England) in 1936. The lessons McLuhan learned during those early days at Cambridge formed the base for his later studies of media. Which brings us to the question: How did a Canadian professor of English become a world-renowned, avant-garde media guru?

By extending lessons on language learned from one of his own teachers—namely I. A. Richards, whose lectures McLuhan attended at Cambridge University in the 1930s. Richards pioneered an approach to literary criticism that focused on the meaning of words and how they are used. He deplored the "proper meaning superstition," the belief that word-meanings are fixed and independent of their use, and he forcefully illustrated the power of words to control thought.

Richards argued that thought should bring words under its control by determining meaning from context. This was the key idea of the book he wrote with C. K. Ogden, called The Meaning of Meaning. The idea stayed with McLuhan right through to his later writings.

"All media are active metaphors in their power to translate experience into new forms. The spoken word was the first technology by which man was able to let go of his environment in order to grasp it in a new way." (Understanding Media, p. 57)

Even more to the point is this example from 1972 with unmistakable echoes from Richards:

"Nothing has its meaning alone. Every figure [consciously noted element of a structure or situation] must have its ground or environment [the rest of the structure or situation which is not noticed]. A single word, divorced from its linguistic ground would be useless. A note in isolation is not music. Consciousness is corporate action involving all the senses (Latin sensus communis or 'common sense' is the translation of all the senses into each other). The 'meaning of meaning' is relationship".

(Take Today, p.30)

Richards viewed any act of understanding or acquiring knowledge as a matter of interpreting and reinterpreting—a process he called "translation." A key chapter in McLuhan's Understanding Media, titled "Media as Translators," not only picks up this theme but links it to Richards's observations on the multiplicity of sensory channels:

"Our very word 'grasp' or 'apprehension' points to the process of getting at one thing through another, of handling and sensing many facets at a time through more than one sense at a time. It begins to be evident that 'touch' is not skin but the interplay of the senses, and 'keeping in touch' or 'getting in touch' is a matter of a fruitful meeting of the senses, of sight translated into movement, and taste and smell." (p. 60)"

Of course, there were many sources of influence on McLuhan's thought besides I. A. Richards, but few that came so early in his career or endured so long. Beyond Richards, the sources of influence on McLuhan were many and varied:

* the French symbolist poets of the late 19th century

* the Irish writer James Joyce

* the English painter and writer Wyndham Lewis

* Anglo-American poet and critic T. S. Eliot

* American poet Ezra Pound

* literary critic F. R. Leavis


* Canadian economic historian Harold Innis.

The richness of McLuhan's thought comes from the unique meshing of all these sources and the "feedforward" (another idea from I. A. Richards) he developed as a method for understanding popular culture and media.


Meanwhile Back at McLuhan's Bio ...

During his first stint at Cambridge University, McLuhan converted to Roman Catholicism, under the influence of such writers as G. K. Chesterton, and was received into the church in Madison, Wisconsin in 1937. After one year of teaching at the University of Wisconsin, he moved to St. Louis University Though just twenty-five years old when he began his teaching career, McLuhan was shocked to find a "generation gap" between himself and his students. Feeling an urgent need to bridge this gap, he set out to understand what he suspected as its cause—the effect of mass media on American culture. He was on his way to writing his first book—The Mechanical Bride(1951).

McLuhan's earliest writings distinguished him as a fine literary critic, but in 1951, when he published The Mechanical Bride and tore a strip off advertising, popular culture, and comic strips, his long-standing interest in media became the focus of his books. Dropping his academic prose for a jazzier, more elliptical, and journalistic style, McLuhan began examining the pop objects of the emerging technological age.

Now if you are wondering what the title The Mechanical Bride means, McLuhan himself summed it up by saying that the book is about the death of sex.

Madison Avenue did, with magazine advertising that gives everything from death to sex the same treatment and reduces humans to dreaming robots.

In 1953, McLuhan founded the Magazine Explorations to publish works on language and media. In 1955, he formed a company called Idea Consultants. The outfit offered a creative business advice service and promoted some innovations of its own. These were not always big hits:

* a muffler attachment for using exhaust fumes to kill lawn rodents in their burrows

* lawnmower headlights (well, if you don't asphyxiate the little devils, you can take a crack at scaring them to death when they try to get some sleep)

* 3-D fireplaces

* airborne gift packages (promotional samples to be released by balloon) Slightly better ideas that just never made it:

* the Peel-Aid (adhesive bandage on a tape-style dispenser)

* transparent training potties (to solve the lift-and-check problem)

And a lot of others that were well ahead of their time:

* aluminum soft drink containers

* cartons for alcoholic beverages

* electronic garage door openers

* frozen diet dinners

* toilet preparations in single-use disposable foil capsules

* "television platters" (videocassettes more than twenty years before they came on the market)

McLuhan's second book, The Gutenberg Galaxy, warned anyone who was looking that he was a seriously brilliant and totally unconventional man. Galaxy won him the Canadian Governor-General's Award for nonfiction in 1962 and established his reputation in the Western Hemisphere as a unique thinker.


Exploring the Gutenberg Galaxy

In the mid-fifteenth century, a German gent named Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type. This invention led to another—the printing press.

For McLuhan this is always the most important question, so let's find out what he had to say ...

On the one hand, McLuhan explains, it meant the end of manuscript culture. But he also argued that the consequences were much more far-reaching than simply the loss of jobs for scribes and monks. Printing, he points out, led to the mechanization of writing, which led to the promotion of nationalism and national languages, because international Latin did not have enough scope to provide markets for all the printers.

However, rather than diminish the effects of the older technology of writing, McLuhan suggests, print culture intensified it. According to McLuhan, before the invention of the alphabet, communication among humans involved all the senses simultaneously (speaking being accompanied by gestures and requiring both listening and looking). The immediacy and rich complexity of this type of communication was reduced by the alphabet to an abstract visual code.

Before writing became widespread, McLuhan claims, humankind lived in acoustic space, the space of the spoken word. This space is boundless, directionless, horizonless, and charged with emotion. Writing transformed space into something bounded, linear, ordered, structured, and rational. The written page, with its edges, margins, and sharply defined letters in row after row brought about a new way of thinking about space.

McLuhan claimed that the portable book "was like a hydrogen bomb," from whose aftermath "a whole new environment—the Gutenberg Galaxy—emerges." His scenario goes something like this:

"Gutenberg's invention of movable type forced man to comprehend in a linear, uniform, connected, continues fashion."

Then linear thought produced ...

"... economically ... the assembly line and industrial society"

"... in physics ... the Newtonian and Cartesian views of the universe as a mechanism in which it is possible to locate a physical event in space and time"

"... in art, ... perspective"

"... in literature ... the chronological narrative"

There is more—much more—in The Gutenberg Galaxy but it expands into and dovetails with the full bloom of McLuhan's vision in Understanding Media, so we'll put it on hold till we get there.


Understanding Understanding Media

In this book McLuhan notes that his objective is not to offer a static theory of human communication but to probe the effects of anything humans use in dealing with the world. "To understand media," he wrote,

If that approach makes academics nervous, it is certainly one that every artist is comfortable with.

McLuhan's method? It's all in the fingers:

"Most of my work in the media is like that of a safecracker. In the beginning I don't know what's inside. I just set myself down in front of the problem and begin to work. I grope, I probe, I listen, I test—until the tumblers fall and I'm in." (From the Introduction to Gerald Stearn's McLuhan Hot and Cool)

McLuhan called his way of thinking and investigating "probes" (you know, like the things we shot off into outer space in the '60s and '70s?) Throughout his writings he relies on such probes to gain insight into media and their effects.

To many academics of McLuhan's era, his concept of probes remains one of the most irritating aspects of his method. Faith in the power of the probe allowed McLuhan to take stabs at a wide range of topics, from the serious to the ridiculous, without necessarily committing himself to conclusions or testing his hypotheses scientifically—a habit that infuriated his critics and detractors.


During McLuhan's heyday, people argued for hours about what he really meant. In Woody Allen's charming film "Annie Hall," Woody and Diane Keaton were standing in a movie line, when a nerd ahead of them started spouting off about what McLuhan really meant, McLuhan—who just happened to be standing nearby—began to explain himself. (Actually, to misquote himself.) One of McLuhan's favorite retorts to hecklers was "You think my fallacy is all wrong?" But in the film, McLuhan's "probing" question was changed into a statement: "You mean my fallacy is all wrong."

QUESTION: Why do you think McLuhan was displeased with the change he was asked to make in the form of this quip in his cameo as himself in "Annie Hall"?

Answer: In the film, McLuhan's question is turned into a statement and is no longer a disabling tactic against an aggressive opponent. As a question, it forces an opponent to stop and think, because it is unexpected—a probe! As a statement, it loses this force and undermines the authority that McLuhan represents in the scene.

Canadian artist Alan Flint shapes words out of wood, brick, cardboard, plastic, plaster, etc. In a field he dug out the word WOUND in giant letters to symbolize the effect of human systems on the earth.

QUESTION: Is this an example of the medium being the message?

Answer: Yes. For McLuhan, language is technology and words are artifacts. Flint's WOUND is part of the technology of language executed in a way that reminds us that the technology of digging wounds the earth. Flint weds his words to different technologies but in every case reminds us of the link between the word's meaning and the technology used in spelling it out. He also reminds us that words are artifacts and forces us to reflect on the medium and the message by forcing them together in new ways. (This is an example of an artist making probes out of clichés, a process that is explained in detail on page 107.)


Excerpted from McLuhan for Beginners by W. TERRENCE GORDON, SUSAN WILLMARTH. Copyright © 2012 W. Terrence Gordon. Excerpted by permission of For Beginners LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Marshall McWHO?,
What Is So Special About Marshall McLuhan?,
McLuhan's Point Of View,
Stepping Into McLuhan's Bio,
EXPLORATIONS & Idea Consultants,
CULTURE IS OUR BUSINESS = Business Is Our Culture,
The Global Village,
Wrapping It Up,

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