Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media

Understanding MediaUnderstanding Media by Marshall McLuhan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I recently saw a distinguished academic Tweet, over a picture of a robot police dog, “We don’t have to accept this.” For Marshall McCluhan, on the other hand,

Physiologically, man in the normal use of technology (or his variously extended body) is perpetually modified by it and in turn finds ever new ways of modifying his technology. Man becomes, as it were, the sex organs of the machine world, as the bee of the plant world, enabling it to fecundate and to evolve ever new forms.

Like later and perhaps related theories that organic life exists to propagate the gene and consciousness to propagate the meme, McLuhan at times implies that humanity is merely the biological substrate of technological development, albeit a stratum that can offer informative feedback to the mechanism riding it. One way to understand McLuhan’s understanding of media in this celebrated 1964 book that made the Canadian literary scholar one of his age’s gurus is to substitute the word “technology” for “media.” His real topic is every inorganic “extension of man,” from the wheel that extends the foot to the printing press that extends the eye to the electronic and cybernetic networks that extend the entire nervous system. In choosing to elongate our agency this way, we ironically subject ourselves to machinic processes over whose implications we appear to have limited control. Analogizing recent techno-social developments to earlier ones, he claims,

Automation retains only as much of the mechanical character as the motorcar kept of the forms of the horse and the carriage. Yet people discuss automation as if we had not passed the oat barrier, and as if the horse-vote at the next poll would sweep away the automation regime.

I’ve begun this essay rather abruptly in tribute to McLuhan’s own fragmentary and oracular style. Understanding Media is not a logically ordered treatise, but a vatic collage. What organization it has—a first part that lays out the main case and a second part that offers a series of studies of different “media” from prints to comic books to television to weapons—goes to pieces due to McLuhan’s circling repetitions and jump-cut transitions. Television is the book’s master medium, the presiding mode of the late 20th century, and McLuhan reads TV as maximally participatory, requiring the viewer to collaborate deeply in assembling its montage of low-resolution imagery into coherent sense and meaning.[1] In an electric, televisual age, he writes an electric, televisual book. The mandarin George Steiner, in his essay “On Reading Marshall McLuhan” (which begins, “This is not an easy thing to do”), expresses discomfort before coming around to the premise:

The writings of Marshall McLuhan are so compounded of novelty, force of suggestion, vulgarity of mind, and sheer carelessness that one is quickly tempted to put them aside. Many aspects of his success represent modern journalism at its most obvious. The McLuhan cult is characteristic of those confidence tricks of “high journalism” which, perhaps, more than any other force, deafen and cheapen the life of ideas. Yet all this is part of the point: the question of how to read McLuhan, of whether reading him is in itself an obsolescent mode of contact, is implicit in McLuhan’s own work. The crises of relationship between traditional literacy and the hypnotic mendacities of the mass-media are exactly those to which McLuhan himself applies his rhetorical, confused, but often penetrating attention.

But that old art-school dodge—it’s supposed to be bad because it’s a comment on badness—is not quite McLuhan’s method. He is, rather, paying tribute to his modernist precursors who were the first to understand that, as his famous dictum has it, “the medium is the message.” They transformed literature into a prophecy of how new media would alter the sensibility of mankind:

The format of the press—that is, its structural characteristics—were quite naturally taken over by the poets after Baudelaire in order to evoke an inclusive awareness. Our ordinary newspaper page today is not only symbolist and surrealist in an avant-garde way, but it was the earlier inspiration of symbolism and surrealism in art and poetry, as anybody can discover by reading Flaubert or Rimbaud. Approached as newspaper form, any part of Joyce’s Ulysses or any poem of T. S. Eliot’s before the Quartets is more readily enjoyed. Such, however, is the austere continuity of book culture that it scorns to notice these liaisons dangereuses among the media, especially the scandalous affairs of the book-page with electronic creatures from the other side of the linotype.

In McLuhan’s historical narrative of the last millennium, the invention of the printing press transfigured western culture. Orderly lines of type, whatever they happened to say, by their mere form turned western Europe into a visually-oriented, linear, and regularized society, with consequences as far-reaching as the development of perspective in painting, classical mechanics in physics, and gunfire in war—all highly visual phenomena. Literate culture is mechanical and leads to the growth of vast mechanisms like heavy industry and the nation-state, even as it disaggregates society into a corps of regulated but distinct individuals. The antitype of print culture is oral culture, which, while centered on the ear, is tribal, intimate, and participatory, and therefore easily disarticulated when introduced to the combined centripetal (individualizing) and centrifugal (nationalizing) forces of print. Yet mechanical culture becomes electric culture as early as the mid-19th-century with the telegraph and its media offspring, the modern newspaper and its bewilderingly non-linear aggregate of disparate human-interest stories. Artists received the wire report quite early:

The meaning of the telegraph mosaic in its journalistic manifestations was not lost to the mind of Edgar Allan Poe. He used it to establish two startlingly new inventions, the symbolist poem and the detective story. Both of these forms require do it yourself participation on the part of the reader. By offering an incomplete image or process, Poe involved his readers in the creative process in a way that Baudelaire, Valéry, T. S. Eliot, and many others have admired and followed. Poe had grasped at once the electric dynamic as one of public participation in creativity. Nevertheless, even today the homogenized consumer complains when asked to participate in creating or completing an abstract poem or painting or structure of any kind. Yet Poe knew even then that participation in depth followed at once from the telegraph mosaic. The more lineal and literal-minded of the literary brahmins “just couldn’t see it.” They still can’t see it. They prefer not to participate in the creative process. They have accommodated themselves to the completed packages, in prose and verse and in the plastic arts. It is these people who must confront, in every classroom in the land, students who have accommodated themselves to the tactile and nonpictorial modes of symbolist and mythic structures, thanks to the TV image.

Electric culture reaches its apogee in television, as aforementioned. In McLuhan’s celebrated distinction, TV is a “cool” medium, a fragmentary and low-information form that needs audience collaboration to consummate itself (other cool media include the woodblock print and the comic book). “Hot” media, by contrast, are much more high-resolution and therefore require less work from the audience, whether the medium is print, with its orderly exposition, or radio, with its hypnotic tribal rhythm.[2]

Does this hot/cool distinction hold up? Not especially. I laughed when McLuhan wrote that TV so solicits our participation that it can’t be experienced as background noise—it was the background noise of my entire childhood. I suspect he was overly dazzled by the medium’s novelty. Meanwhile, I was reading a print copy of his book, a battered old ’60s paperback. I enjoyed its musty vanilla smell and the cursive red-pen annotations of its previous owner (Dorothy Lamberton, according to her inscription on the title page) even as I underlined sentences and scribbled in the tiny margins myself. Unless I don’t grasp what he means by “participation,” I participated more in reading his book that I ever have in watching TV. On the other hand, almost everything he writes about TV applies tenfold to social media, from its participatory character to the way it permits the emergence of social groups that been literally marginalized by the regularizing function of print culture:

As electrically contracted, the globe is no more than a village. Electric speed in bringing all social and political functions together in a sudden implosion has heightened human awareness of responsibility to an intense degree. It is this implosive factor that alters the position of the Negro, the teen-ager, and some other groups. They can no longer be contained, in the political sense of limited association. They are now involved in our lives, as we in theirs, thanks to the electric media.

Even here, though, is the medium really the message? Is all print matter equal? Didn’t the novel, back in the 18th century, give a social voice to women and the working class? Wasn’t it Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Narrative of Frederick Douglass, not television or even telegraph, that brought down slavery in the 19th? And, finally, doesn’t McLuhan know this perfectly well when he celebrates modernism as a monumental anti-literature, a literature that turns print inside out to effloresce as the invitingly portent-struck chaos of the newly-networked cosmos? For modernism to be the Golden Age he makes it (“[the modernists] gave the arts of this century an ascendancy over those of other ages comparable to that which we have long recognized as true of modern science”), its creators had to have more agency that he grants them.

I don’t deny that media has a message. This would read differently if I were writing it by hand, by candlelight, in a silent room, or if I were pounding it out on a manual typewriter. Instead I am typing it into a TextEdit document, copying and pasting quotations from an illicit pdf of the book, switching over to YouTube to change the music and then to another browser tab to see what’s trending on social media, with glances at my phone to see if any email has come through, not to mention guiltily avoiding the open tab with the “SpeedGrader” where I’m supposed to be reading student essays even now, when the hour is approaching midnight. As McLuhan says at the end of the book, the electric age makes us all modern artists, lifelong and 24-hour-a-day learners and teachers arranging information into new patterns. Yet to be this conscious arranger, I must also be more than the machine’s unconscious pollinator; the message must be, as much or more than the medium’s, mine.

[1] McLuhan describes this process of making meaning from the TV as “closure,” the term Scott McCloud will borrow for the experience of reading comics in his own Understanding volume, but McLuhan allows that comic books and TV are media kin. He also says that TV has induced a decline in comics—a statement written three years into the Marvel revolution, in the prime of Jack Kirby’s creative life. Like many of his prophecies, it’s suggestive but unpersuasive.

[2] Which radio rhythm McLuhan, incidentally, blames for the rise of Hitler, along with the comparative savagery of Germans. His anthropology—e.g., much talk of “primitives”—will not cheer the contemporary reader, though his overall point that the west returns via electric media to premodern ways just as the east, due its later industrialization, enters the modern mentality, is probably not a wrong description of the midcentury situation despite the offensively outdated language.


  1. Good review. It seems that McLuhan is enjoying a revival in the Internet age. This makes sense, since the Internet represents the kind of communications revolution that he was interested in.

    “Inorganic extension of man” – this is really his overall theme, isn’t it? As he said in the 1969 Playboy interview (which provides a good overview of his thinking), “to the spoils belongs the victor.”

    Also, I wonder what he would make of post-2000 long-form television. Visually and dramatically, it is a lot closer to cinema in its density and storytelling, and would therefore be much “hotter” than the TV he was used to. Meanwhile cinema appears to have lost its edge as an art form.

    • Thanks very much! Yes, McLuhan was rarely cited when I was in school, I think because some of what he said about TV seemed not quite to have panned out. Whereas social media is much closer to what he was talking about. Great point about TV—I wonder if he’d even consider later TV developments from cable to streaming as even the same medium. Especially with streaming, where one isn’t changing the channel all the time or being interrupted by commercials—it is, as you say, closer to cinema.

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