Marshall McLuhan Facts and Quotes


Some Basic Ideas

"The medium is the message": Content is less important than the structures of media; structures shape human consciousness in profound ways.

Technology is a prosthesis:  an extension of human powers (especially sensory powers); media can even change our senses and our brains


World history has three phases:
Pre-Gutenbergian: Tribal, communal, oral, tactile, emphasized speech, hearing, touching, facial expressions

Gutenbergian, print era:  Emphasized individualism, linear thinking, privacy, repression of thought and feeling, detachment, specialization, led to modern militarism

Electronic communications:  not linear, presentness, juxtapositions, closeness, "mosaic" thinking (filling in blanks of lots of continuously updated inputs), give rise to the new "global village", participation, restore the "primitive"


Hot media (photography, radio, movies):  Exclude, self-sufficient, full of information, high definition

Cool media (cartoon, telephone, TV): Include & require audience completion or participation, superior to hot media, democratic, similar to avant-garde art in encouraging active viewing


Quotes, Part 1

All quotations in Part 1 are from Marshall McLuhan:  The Man and His Message, George Sanderson and Frank Mcdonald, eds. (Golden, Colorado:  Fulcrum, 1989)


"The artist picks up the message of cultural and technical challenge decades before its transforming impact occurs.  He, then, builds models or Noah's arks for facing the change that is ahead."  6


John Cage  on McLuhan:

"I am today as indebted to McLuhan as I ever was.  He was a creative critic, probably the only one there ever was.  His observations of art, media, society in some cases corroborated the independent actions of artists, in other cases suggested what their next ones might rightly be." 120


"The artist is the man in any field, scientific or humanistic, who grasps the implications of his actions and new knowledge in his time.  He is the man of integral awareness. "  139


"New art is sensory violence on the frontiers of experience. " 139


"There is no storyline in modern art or news—just a date line.  There is no past or future, just an inclusive present. " 139


"The same literacy, which destroyed the traditional institutions of Athens, created an abstract rationalism inseparable from the new dominance of the left hemisphere:  "But at this time, in the same generation to which Thucydides belonged, there rose a new faith in reason."  Literacy played a role in the breakdown of Greek tribalism by separating the individual from the group, and contributed to the so-called democratic individualism climaxing in the Peloponnesian War in the fifth century.  The present electronic age, in its inescapable confrontation with simultaneity, may present the first serious threat to the dominance of the left hemisphere since that time. "  182

"Art is a cliché probe that scraps older environments in order to retrieve other clichés that have been tossed aside earlier. " (218)


"Nobody yet knows the languages inherent in the new technological culture. " (219)


"There is a paradox that the "hardware" channels of radio and telephonic communication contribute to an extraordinary "software" effect.  When people are on the telephone or on the air, they have no physical bodies, but are only abstract images.  The result is a discarnate man, an effect which the Shannon-Weaver theory would simply designate as noise.  Minus his body, the user of a telephone or radio is also minus his private identity."  185


Quotes, Part 2

From Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (San Francisco: Hardwired, 1967) (unpaginated book):


Printing, a ditto device confirmed and extended the new visual stress.  It provided the first uniformly repeatable "commodity," the first assembly line—mass production.  It created the portable book, which men could read in privacy and in isolation from others.  Man could now inspire—and conspire.  Like easel painting, the printed book added much to the new cult of individualism.  The private, fixed point of view became possible and literacy confirmed the power of detachment, non-involvement. 


Art, or the graphic translation of a culture, is shaped by the way space is perceived.  Since the Renaissance the Western artist perceived his environment primarily in terms of the visual.  Everything was dominated by the eye of the beholder.  His conception of space was in terms of a perspective projection up on a plane surface consisting of formal units of spatial measurement.  He accepted the dominance of the vertical and the horizontal—of symmetry—as an absolute condition of order.  This view is deeply embedded in the consciousness of Western art.


Primitive and pre-alphabetic people integrate time and space as one and live in an acoustic, horizonless, boundless, olfactory space, rather than in visual space.  Their graphic presentation is like an x-ray.  They put in everything they know, rather than only what they see.  A drawing of a man hunting seal on an ice floe will show not only what is on top of the ice, but what lies underneath as well.  The primitive artist twists and tilts the various possible visual aspects until they fully explain what he wishes to represent. … Electric circuitry is recreating in us the multidimensional space orientation of the "primitive."