Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Herbert Marshall McLuhan (July 21, 1911 – December 31, 1980) was a Canadian educator, philosopher, scholar, academic, professor of English literature, communications theorist and one of the founders of the study of media ecology.
Born in Edmonton, McLuhan studied English at the University of Manitoba and Cambridge University, where he studied under both I.A. Richards and F.R. Leavis. In 1936-37 he taught at the University of Wisconsin. On March 30, 1937, he was formally received into the Roman Catholic Church, and he subsequently taught in Roman Catholic institutions of higher education. From 1937 to 1944 he taught English at Saint Louis University, where he taught a young Jesuit student there named Walter J. Ong (1912-2003). On August 4, 1939, he married Corinne Lewis of Fort Worth, Texas, and they spent 1939-40 at Cambridge University, where he continued to work on his doctoral dissertation on Thomas Nashe and the verbal arts. From 1944 to 1946 McLuhan taught at Assumption College in Windsor, Canada. From 1946 to 1979 he taught at St. Michael's College, University of Toronto.
McLuhan's The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man is a pioneering study in the field known today as popular culture. His former student and friend Walter J. Ong wrote a highly laudatory review essay about it: "The Mechanical Bride: Christen the Folklore of Industrial Man," Social Order 2 (Feb. 1952): 79-85. In a letter to Ong dated 23 Jan. 1953, McLuhan says, "Your review of Bride literally the _only_ review that made sense. You were generous, but you saw what was up. The absence of serious study of these matters is total. i.e. universal emotional and intellectual illiteracy. And so unnecessary" (Letters of Marshall McLuhan 234).
In a letter to Ong dated 31 May 1953 (236), McLuhan reports that he has received a two-year grant of $43,000 from the Ford Foundation to carry out a communication project at the University of Toronto involving faculty from different disciplines. In connection with this project, McLuhan and Ted Carpenter started the journal Explorations in Communication.
According to McLuhan, a student at the University of Toronto told him that Harold Innis had put The Mechanical Bride on the reading list for one of his courses there, which led McLuhan to discover Innis's later work.
McLuhan's The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man is his masterpiece. It is a pioneering study of print culture, a pioneering study in cultural studies, and a pioneering study in media ecology. McLuhan frequently quotes Ong's Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue, which evidently had prompted McLuhan to write this book. Once again, Ong wrote a highly favorable review of this new book in America107 (Sept. 15, 1962): 743, 747. McLuhan's The Gutenberg Galaxy won the 1962 Governor-General's Award for Non-Fiction, Canada's highest literary award.
McLuhan's most widely known work, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, is also a pioneering study in media ecology. In it McLuhan proposes that media themselves, not the content they carry, should be the focus of study -- popularly quoted as the medium is the message. More controversially, he postulates that content had little effect on society -- in other words, it did not matter if television broadcasts children's shows or violent programming, to illustrate one example -- the effect of television on society would be identical. He notes that all media have characteristics that engaged the viewer in different ways; for instance, a passage in a book could be reread at will, but (at least until the advent of the videocassette) a movie had to be screened again in its entirety to study any individual part of it.
McLuhan generally divides media into hot (content-rich) and cool (content-poor). Today this could be demonstrated by comparing a high-speed Internet connection (hot) with a dial-up connection (cold). Despite the content available being identical (if often more difficult to access by dial-up users), the surfing habits of those connected at high-speed are usually very different.
After the publication of Understanding Media, McLuhan received an astonishing amount of publicity, making him perhaps the most publicized English teacher in the twentieth century and arguably the most controversial.
For example, Newsweek magazine did a cover story on him. He made a cameo appearance as himself in Woody Allen's movie Annie Hall. Playboy magazine published a lengthy interview of McLuhan. In 1983 he was lampooned in the David Cronenberg film Videodrome, where his character was given the name "Professor Brian O'Blivion" and issued such memorable quotes as "The television screen has become the retina of the mind's eye" and "I refuse to appear on television, except on television".
For their part, McLuhan's detractors generated enough articles criticizing him to fill up several volumes. But the controversy over his thought generated far more heat than light. Many of his detractors did not give evidence of understanding his thought by accurately summarizing it in their own words before they tried criticizing it.
After McLuhan's death, his former student and friend Walter J. Ong wrote what is arguably the most favorable assessment of McLuhan in print anywhere to this day: "McLuhan as Teacher: The Future Is a Thing of the Past," Journal of Communication 31 (1981): 129-35.
As mentioned above, Oxford University Press published the 550-page Letters of Marshall McLuhan in 1987. Two biographies of McLuhan have been published -- one by Philip Marchand in 1989 and the other by W. Terrence Gordon in 1997. Books and articles in which McLuhan's thought is discussed are far too numerous to enumerate here.
Recognizing his lasting global influence for his pioneering work on the study of media ecology, the government of Canada honoured him with his image on a postage stamp in 2000 (right).
- 1951 (Vanguard Press)
- 1962 The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (University of Toronto Press)
- 1964 (McGraw-Hill)
- 1967 The Medium is the Massage [written with Quentin Fiore] (Random House; 2000 reprint by Gingko)
- UbuWeb Marshall McLuhan featuring the LP The Medium is the Massage
- Official Site
- Marshall McLuhan, the Man and his Message (CBC Archives)
- McLuhan global research network Jeffrey's McLuhan bibliography free online
- McLuhan Revisited by Cecil Adams
- Terry Mockler's Journey Through Cyberspace
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