In This Article Marshall McLuhan

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • McLuhan’s Influences
  • McLuhan in the 1980s
  • McLuhan’s Legacy

Communication Marshall McLuhan
by
Paul Levinson
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 April 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0139

Introduction

Marshall McLuhan (b. 1911–d. 1980) burst into iconic fame in the 1960s as a scholar who could explain the revolutionizing medium of the time, television, as well as radio, motion pictures, telephone, print, and all the media that had come before and now accompanied TV in its impact. His two most important books, The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media, argued via analogy and poetic example that the dominant media of any time shaped the surrounding society—without radio there would have been no Hitler; without television, no John F. Kennedy as American President. These books were read and talked about by many, but fully understood by few. A flurry of sharply critical tracts and anthologies ensued. At the same time, McLuhan was dubbed the “sage of Aquarius” by William Kuhns and favorably compared to Darwin, Freud, and Einstein by literary critic Tom Wolfe. McLuhan was mentioned on the TV show Laugh-In, interviewed by Playboy, and appeared in Woody Allen’s movie Annie Hall. He had begun collaborating with other thinkers as early as the 1950s, with Edmund Carpenter, and he later co-wrote important books with Harley Parker, Quentin Fiore, and Barrington Nevitt. His former students and other disciples, most notably Walter Ong in the 1950s and Neil Postman in the 1960s, began publishing essays and books that built upon McLuhan’s work. At the time of his death in 1980, he was somewhat out of favor, but the digital revolution that his writing anticipated brought him back to public and scholarly notice by the beginning of the next decade, when Wired magazine made McLuhan its “patron saint.” Books by a new round of younger disciples, including Joshua Meyrowitz, Paul Levinson, and Robert K. Logan, followed in the 1980s and into the 21st century. The rise of social media, which further epitomized McLuhan’s 1962 notion of the global village, cemented and accentuated his preeminent position in media studies in the second decade of the 21st century. Numerous academic conferences were held to commemorate the centennial of his birth in 2011. Conferences continue to explore his work, and books and articles continue to be written about him on a yearly basis.

General Overviews

McLuhan’s two most important books—The Gutenberg Galaxy (McLuhan 1962) and Understanding Media: The extensions of man (McLuhan 1964)—provide the best general overviews of his work and an introduction to his array of ideas. Culkin 1967 offers a succinct overview of McLuhan’s media studies. Meyrowitz 2001 examines McLuhan’s migration into the 21st century.

  • Culkin, John. 1967. A schoolman’s guide to Marshall McLuhan. Saturday Review, 18 March: 51–53.

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    Explicates and evaluates McLuhan’s unique approach to understanding media and their impact on society.

  • McLuhan, Marshall. 1962. The Gutenberg galaxy. New York: Mentor.

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    Consists of 107 brief essays with lengthy titles or glosses, such as “the electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village.” This was a hallmark of McLuhan’s style, and from the vantage point of our social media age these can be seen as tweets (the titles) followed by blog posts (the short essays).

  • McLuhan, Marshall. 1964. Understanding media: The extensions of man. New York: Mentor.

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    Presents most of McLuhan’s key ideas, including “hot and cool” media and “the medium is the message.” As a striking example of both, McLuhan observes that “had TV come first there would have been no Hitler”—because Hitler was too “hot” for the “cool” medium of television, and the medium through which he presented his ideas (radio) made his ideas viable in 1920s and 1930s Germany.

  • Meyrowitz, Joshua. 2001. Morphing McLuhan: Medium theory for a new millennium. Keynote address delivered at the Second Annual Convention of the Media Ecology Association, New York University, 15–16 June 2001.

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    Balanced assessment of the relevance of McLuhan’s work in the 1960s to the world of media fifty years later.

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