Vintage black typewriter and old white phone Stock Photo - 2968910
Vintage black typewriter and old white phone

Marshall McLuhan believed that old technologies, especially media technologies, become art forms, that their obsolescence does not spell the end of them, but that they are reconfigured and repurposed. That is why there are collectors of telegraph equipment, old telephones, radios, TVs, old computers, and yes – antiquarian books. I collect books and computers myself, although I have donated much of the former to a computer museum near me. This article demonstrates the truth of McLuhan’s idea that old media does not fade away, but finds new life in new configurations and uses…….AlexK

Back to the future: low-tech returns

Siobhan Lyons reflects on the comeback of the typewriter and other older technologies.

Fri, 14, November 2014

In writing, music, photography and other areas, ”outdated” technologies have been valued for their retro, nostalgic appeal in the hipster culture. Vinyl is one of the technologies to have achieved a noticeable revival, not only for its retro value but also for its superior quality in sound.

Now, people are seeing the security benefits of returning to other so-called anachronistic technologies.

Typewriters, for instance, are experiencing a revival in politics. Earlier this year, German politician Patrick Sensburg announced Germany’s government officials might start using typewriters, as they are seen as an ‘‘unhackable” technology. While this move might be viewed as somewhat regressive, it is actually progressive. Let me explain.

Following last year’s NSA leaks, the Russian Government is also set to return to typewriters in an effort to avoid hacking.

Nikolai Kovalev, former head of the Federal Security Service, said in 2013: ‘‘From the point of view of keeping secrets, the most primitive method is preferred: a human hand with a pen or a typewriter.”

Initially considered obsolete in the digital age, typewriters are experiencing a slow but noticeable resurgence. In 2009, the New York Police Department spent nearly $US1 million on manual and electric typewriters. This year, The Times in London installed a speaker to produce the sound of typewriters in an effort to boost staff energy levels, which ”coincides with a revival of interest in the typewriter”.

The Guardian editorialised last year: ”Type a document and lock it away and more or less the only way anyone else can get it is if you give it to them. This is why the Russians have decided to go back to typewriters in some government offices, and why in the US, some departments have never abandoned them.”

Henry Jenkins once claimed old media never die – they simply transform [Jenkins would have known that McLuhan originated that idea; shame on him for not acknowledging McLuhan]. In contemporary society it appears not only do old media and technology never die, but they return.

Technological determinism and the ”doctrine of progress” dictates society must move forward towards digitally efficient technologies that operate faster, better and longer. The use of old technologies is criticised as anachronistic and pretentious, but people from politics to art are acknowledging the benefits of older technological instruments. Analogue technology is not only valued for its nostalgic, retro value, but for its simplicity in an increasingly digitised world vulnerable to hacking and breaches of privacy.

So while digital technology is most efficient is terms of speed and productivity, older technologies offer something perhaps more valuable but under-appreciated. This trend of returning to ostensibly old technologies, as Sean O’Hagan wrote in The Guardian in 2011, is characterised by a ”willingness to slow down, to run counter to the furious momentum of digitised contemporary culture, its speed and its pursuit of sanitised perfection – of sound, image and format”.

Analogue photography has in recent years become more popular. The analogue camera movement Lomography is aimed at producing pictures with low-fi quality. The Lomographic Society International, founded in 1992 by Viennese students, distributes and celebrates Lomography cameras, which are purposefully low-fidelity and have a very simple construction. It has developed a community of photographers for whom regression is a form of art.

Lomography culture, alongside The Impossible Project, a company founded in 2008 that manufactures instant photographic material, flies in the face of technological determinists who see each successive technology as being overtaken by newer and ”better” technologies.

Technological determinism sees technology as the driving force of change, and the most famous technological determinist, Marshall McLuhan, argued that the medium is the message. But in this instance, social and cultural issues are driving people to use older, simpler technologies.

And, analogue cameras prove better than digital when it comes to privacy. Although there are many famous cases of manipulating or altering analogue photographs, such as Stalin erasing his enemies, the photos are still harder to ”hack” and do not exist in an elusive cloud. The control rests with the photographer.

But if we are moving backwards in terms of technology, does this mean that, as a society, we are regressing, against the doctrine of progress? Are we becoming a regression culture? Well, it depends on what we understand as ”progressive”, since modern technologies such as the internet, as American writer Nicholas Carr noted, ”seizes our attention only to scatter it”.

In his 2010 book The Shallows, he writes: ”We focus intensively on the medium itself, on the flickering screen, but we’re distracted by the medium’s rapid-fire delivery of competing messages and stimuli.”

So this slow return to older technologies can actually be seen as progressive, as we are prioritising content over medium, quality over speed, and privacy over pervasive exposure. Given the impact newer technologies have on the brain in terms of memory and creativity, forcing the brain to slow down with older technologies might actually be a natural progression, rather than regressive.

Or, if we are regressing in terms of technology, we may be progressing in terms of intellect, creativity and privacy as a result. –

Siobhan Lyons is a tutor in media and cultural studies at Macquarie University, Sydney. (Source: )

Radical Software, Volume I, Number 4, 1971
Radical Software, Volume II, Number 1, 1972Radical Software, Volume II, Number 4, 1973Radical Software, Volume II, Number 5, 1973

Stewart Brand, publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog from 1968 to 1974, acknowledged the influence of Marshall McLuhan (see 2nd posting below this one) and Radical Software, a historic video magazine started by Beryl Korot, Phyllis Gershuny, and Ira Schneider that first appeared in Spring of 1970, soon after low-cost portable video equipment became available to artists and other potential videomakers.


Alternative Media: Software and Video in 1970s Counterculture

Between 1970 and 1974 the Raindance Corporation published eleven issues of the journal, which are now compiled in an online archive.

It was a DIY [do-it-yourself] venture aiming to disseminate discoveries of any and all possibilities video had to offer, not just for art, but also for activism, documentary, science, psychology, and play. Its distribution forged the consciousness and communication of disparate collectives across the country. The title of this exhibition refers to a system set up at Antioch College in Ohio by which people could send in their own videos to be included in an ever-expanding archive, along with a blank tape to be filled with other programs from the collection, creating a kind of grass-roots library that embodied the ideology of a movement.

Fueled by the teachings of Marshall McLuhan, Radical Software railed against the deeper message of that 1950s family portrait: that the television at its center was broadcasting the same corporate media message into every American living room, a fixed perspective consumed by the masses as truth. One video at Pioneer Works, “Some Short Scenes in the Life of Radical Software,” shows the printing and distribution of the journal. Beryl Korot, one of the journal’s founders, explains to the camera that they believe television can be much “more than a radio with a screen,” or the “feedback of feedback of information.” The journal’s agenda was to promote independent, pirate television, and gave down-to-earth information about equipment and how-to’s in all levels of production. In the videos we see mechanics laid bare – microphones poke into many shots and you hear directions and the voices of people behind the camera. Emphasis is always on the medium and its practicality.

Read the rest of this article at: 


Installation view, “Send Blank Tape” at Pioneer Works

A great example of McLuhan’s “Narcissus as Narcosis” ( as are “selfies” especially). My thanks to Malcolm Dean for sharing this……….Alex

“The Greek myth of Narcissus is directly concerned with a fact of human experience, as the word Narcissus indicates. It is from the Greek word narcosis or numbness. The youth Narcissus mistook his own reflection in the water for another person. This extension of himself by mirror numbed his perceptions until he became the servomechanism of his own extended or repeated image. The nymph Echo tried to win his love with fragments of his own speech, but in vain. He was numb. He had adapted to his extension of himself and had become a closed system.

Now the point of this myth is the fact that men at once become fascinated by any extension of themselves in any material other than themselves….

- The Gadget Lover, Narcissus as Narcosis, Chapter 4, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964), p.41, MIT Press ed.

zombie apocalypse

 Hi, yes, it's Peaches Hi, yes, it’s Peaches

Hang on, I've hit a bump... Hang on, I’ve hit a bump…
Singapore grapples with smartphone addiction

See more pictures here 


Marshall McLuhan was a leading 20th-century thinker on the impact of communications media on society.

The Marshall McLuhan Official website, which is managed by Michael McLuhan, has posted three films focused on Marshall McLuhan, that have either not been available on the Internet before or have not been readily accessible. The films are: 1. The Communications Revolution (1960),  2. This is Marshall McLuhan: The Medium is the Massage (1967), and Picnic in Space (1973). They can be found on the Marshall McLuhan site here: . Noting that the latter is available on YouTube, Michael McLuhan informs me that all of the online versions he’s aware of are conversions from VHS, whereas the one posted on his site is a direct conversion from the 16 mm film, making it much cleaner.

1. The Communications Revolution (1960) is a panel exchange between four academics at the third annual  Conference on the Humanities on October 28-29, 1960 at Ohio State University: Edgar Dale, Marshall McLuhan, Gilbert Seldes and Keith Tyler. McLuhan however, already well-known for his views on electric media, figures as the central focus of the conference, the general theme of which was Popular/Mass Culture: American Perspectives. The text of this panel discussion can be found in Understanding Me: Lectures & Interviews (2003), pp. 34-43.

2. This is Marshall McLuhan: The Medium is the Massage (1967) - Everyone interested in the thought of Marshall McLuhan knows about the book he collaborated on with graphic designer Quintin Fiore titled The Medium is the Massage (1967) and most are familiar with the LP that came out around the same time with the same title. But likely few are aware of the film that was distributed that same year (1967) by McGraw-Hill Education under the same title. The only public showing this 54 minute film appears to have had was on NBC TV on Sunday, March 19, 1967. There was a 16 mm film of it made that was sold to mostly academic libraries that was probably viewed (and forgotten) by some university students in a small number of higher education institutions.

The TV Guide entry for this film for March 19, 1967 describes it as follows: Marshall McLuhan discusses his controversial communications theories in this experimental documentary produced by Oscar-winner Ernest Pintoff and Guy Fraumeni.

The basic of McLuhan’s philosophy is “the medium is the message” – how we communicate is more important than what we communicate. Pintoff and Fraumeni have used McLuhan’s latest book, “he Medium is the Massage,” to provide a kaleidoscopic illustration.

The medium is the massage? McLuhan says that the title is “intended to draw attention to the fact that a medium … does something to people. It takes hold of them … it massages them.”

Newspaper and magazine headlines , TV and movie film clips, and still photographs are blended with an interview to provide insight into such McLuhan concepts as “hot” and “cool” communications media.

Actor Edward Binns narrates.

3. Picnic in Space (1973) is a rare film featuring McLuhan and his long time cohort, Harley Parker, a Canadian artist and scholar. The film features McLuhan and Parker’s ruminations on a wide variety of topics; including ‘space’ and its properties, jazz, language, and art. Shot in 1967, the film captures the experimental spirit of the time; with scenes of contemplative pastoral idyll intercut with bold, minimalist animation, pop art, pastiche, and a wonderfully strange electronic soundtrack courtesy of visionary American composer, Morton Subotnick. ( )

See all three films at

Whole Earth Catalog, Spring 1969

Whole Earth Catalog, spring 1969

In 1968, Stewart Brand founded the Whole Earth Catalog. Brand’s goals were to make a variety of tools accessible to newly dispersed counterculture communities, back-to-the-land households, and innovators in the fields of technology, design, and architecture, and to create a community meeting-place in print. The catalogue quickly developed into a wide-ranging reference for new living spaces, sustainable design, and experimental media and community practices. After only a few years of publication it exploded in popularity, becoming a formidable cultural phenomenon.

Books, selected and described by the editorial staff and organized in sections titled Understanding Whole Systems, Shelter and Land Use, Communication, and Community, were the primary resources the Whole Earth Catalog offered. The following are from an exhibition of printed matter in the collection of The Museum of Modern Art Library surveying these publications that summarizes the history of the catalogue project. The selection reflects the publication’s focus on experimental ideas in design and technology and the dialogue between theorists and practitioners these ideas raised.

Mediated Art

In Understanding Media, McLuhan surveys changes in perception affected by evolving media environments, from early print culture to modern television. For McLuhan, the media environment of the electronic age demanded radically new pedagogy to help young minds navigate these new conditions. Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, influenced by McLuhan’s work, promoted experiments in new media as responsive to these shifts in culture, offering new possibilities for teaching and learning for an electronic age.

Marshall McLuhan. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New American Library, 1964).

Understanding Media

Understanding Media Ad

Advertisement for Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man in the Whole Earth Catalog

Culture Is Our Business

The pages of Marshall McLuhan’s Culture is Our Business resemble a slide show, coupling images borrowed from print and television advertisements with excerpts from McLuhan’s writing in an extended meditation and critical discussion of the state of commercial imagery and media. McLuhan was a central thinker on the subject, and his writings were of primary influence for a younger generation of new media practitioners.

Culture Cover Culture Cover

Back (left) and front (right) covers of Culture Is Our Business, Marshall McLuhan (McGraw-Hill, 1970).

See for more from the The Museum of Modern Art Library Whole Earth Catalog collection.

Appreciating Marshall McLuhan

Putting the spotlight on the influential media theorist and University of Manitoba alum

By Tom Ingram   –   November 24, 2014

In its hundred-year history, the Manitoban has been the first step on the way to a professional career for numerous writers. But there is one who leaves them all behind, whose association with the Manitoban gives us instant respectability even with those who sneer at the student press. I speak, of course, of Marshall McLuhan.

McLuhan did his undergrad and master’s in English at the University of Manitoba in the late 1920s and early 30s [B.A. in English & Philosophy (1932) and M.A in English (1934)]. During this time he was a contributor at the Manitoban, writing articles on literary and political issues and editing the literary supplements.

McLuhan grew up to be a new breed of academic. Though very traditionally trained in English literature—he did his doctoral work at Cambridge, tracing the history of grammar, logic, and rhetoric up to Thomas Nashe—his main interests lay elsewhere. For McLuhan, the most significant cultural artifacts were the popular media to which the academy was mostly blind. These interests were revealed in his first published book: The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man.

In this book, McLuhan analyzed newspapers, comic strips, and especially advertisements. His analyses display considerable erudition, but McLuhan did not develop his points along traditional lines. Rather than making any kind of linear argument, he wrote mini-essays that can be read in any order, each of which gives a different perspective on the nature of media and social construction in an age of technology and mass communication.

The result is a fascinating read in its own right, somewhat reminiscent of Montaigne – if Montaigne used 1950s slang. More interesting than the unusual form is the way McLuhan cuts to the core of the collective psyche of industrial capitalism.

The title essay is an analysis of an ad for stockings featuring a woman’s legs standing on a podium with the rest of her body out of frame. McLuhan argues that this ad portrays the legs as interchangeable parts – a cultural obsession in industrial society, he says. “Ads like these not only express but also encourage that strange dissociation of sex not only from the human person, but even from the unity of the body.”

More generally, he says, a pattern in popular culture and advertisements is “the widely occurring cluster image of sex, technology, and death which constitutes the mystery of the mechanical bride.” Advertisers take these images and use them to turn the ordinary sex drive into “a metaphysical enticement, a cerebral itch, an abstract torment.”

McLuhan thought that the extent to which our basic attitudes and beliefs are constructed by advertisers rendered direct resistance futile. The miasma of media and commercials constitutes an education system in itself, he believed, and it has much more money and power behind it than academia. Therefore, it is necessary to use pop culture’s weight against itself by presenting, studying, and reinterpreting the powerful images it creates. The best way to approach these things, according to McLuhan, is with amusement, not anger.

We live in a world of even more advanced technology than McLuhan’s 50s, operating faster and on a larger scale. Popular culture has fragmented into a million pieces. Advertisers are sophisticated and intrusive. Our political media is louder and larger than ever but seems strangely arbitrary and pointless. In such a world, the insights of McLuhan become even more significant.

We have reprinted for your reading pleasure an article McLuhan wrote for the Manitoban in 1934, entitled “Morticians and cosmeticians.” In addition to being a marvellous early example of his allusive and elusive writing style, it deals with issues related to the topics addressed in The Mechanical Bride. (Source: ).

This article first appeared in the March 2, 1934 edition of the Manitoban. The advertisement which inspired it is, unfortunately, lost to history.

Item image

The November 9, 2014 issue of the venerable Times Literary Supplement (TLS) published a mostly positive review of B.W. Powe’s recent study of McLuhan and Frye, although I detect a measure of possibly colonial condescension from the literary voice of the onetime imperial global empire; that’s okay. They can’t yet shake the habit…………AlexK

Selected quotes:-

In his subversive  collaborative “anti-book” From Cliche to Archetype (1970), Mar­shall McLuhan described his University of Toronto colleague Northrop Frye as “like a hedgehog”, building “humourless, water-tight systems that instead of answering the problem or even illuminating it, block access to it”. He criticized Frye’s major work, Anatomy of Criticism (1957), for failing to acknowledge prel­iterate oral traditions or post-literate pop culture: “Working entirely from the medium of the printed word, Professor Frye has devel­oped a classification of literary forms that ignores not only the print process as it created a special type of writer and audience, but all other media as well”. Frye, for his part, wrote in The Modern Century (1967): ‘The McLuhan cult, or more accurately the McLuhan rumour, is the latest of the illusions of progress: it tells us that a number of new media are about to bring in a new form of civilization all by themselves, merely by existing”. He adds: “This is not all of what a serious and most original writer is trying to say, yet Professor McLuhan lends himself partly to this interpre­ tation by throwing so many of his insights into a deterministic form”.

The Northrop Frye statue at Victoria College, University of Toronto

Powe studied under McLuhan and Frye in the 1970s. His long and intimate engagement with their work has culminated in a rich, subtly argued book which offers many first­ hand insights:

Yes, McLuhan was dramatic in his flair and verbal flourishes; Frye seemed passively genteel in comparison. But Frye could quietly and steadily compel the attention of hundreds  in a lecture hall ….They loved teaching others and passing on their readings and discoveries. Frye’s pride was ruled over by his exacting scholarship and pedagogical precision in the classroom. McLu­han’s pride was much more untrammelled. His dissident disposition led to endless upsets with perceived adversaries”.

He convincingly  proves,  though,  that the extent of their interaction has been underestimated. While McLuhan’s attacks on Frye are frequently cited, his praise for his colleague’s work tends to be forgotten. In 1967, for example, he commented in a public lecture that Frye was “extraordinary, with his frontiersmanship between the world of literature and the unconscious”. The two men influenced even as they resisted  each  other.

Marshall McLuhan, from the William McElcheran sculpture located outside the Kelly Library at St. Michael’s College.

Although Frye evidently found McLuhan’s style histrionic, he fully acknowledged the significance of his achievements, and worked to achieve recognition for them. Frye chaired the committee that awarded Canada’s most prestigious book prize, the Governor General’s Award, to McLuhan for The Gutenberg Galaxy in 1962. On a more personal level, he referred fondly in 1981 to “my late friend and much beloved colleague”.

Unfortunately the TLS only allows its reviews and articles to be read on its online site by subscribers, who require a login. But, you can read the entire review here: TLS_Review_ Powe .

Sandy Pearlman

Sandy Pearlman: University of Toronto, Marshall McLuhan Centenary Fellow, Dean’s Professor for Interdisciplinary Innovation Producer: Blue Oyster Cult, Clash, Dream Syndicate, Dictators, et al

Public Lecture: Faculty of Information, University of Toronto December 3, 2014, 4:30-6pm, Bissel 538

Grateful Dead, Grayfolded, Vinyl and Virtual: John Oswald Unwinds the Toxic Consequences of Digital.

John Oswald/The Grateful Dead (1996), Grayfolded: A completely unique and signal instance of very late 20th century music invention, in describing it to my students I call it “Dream Music of the Information Overlords”.

What should, would or could a recording of a rock Symphony sound like, if it were created (and/or assembled) in the very late 20th Century, and, somehow simultaneously incorporated into its composition, well over a hundred different performances, well separated in time, place and space, of, an originally folk ballad based song, “Dark Star”, which the Grateful Dead first recorded as a 3 minute+ single, and, subsequently turned into a vast long form performance piece which essentially became their most signifying jam base music for most of the 30 years following its original composition?

Furthermore, creating, in this case meant inventing the very means of composition of this quasi-symphony, and, inventing, meant dreaming the whole thing up, since, creating a music/information object of such magnitude was previously possible only in a dream. Impossible, that is to say, until it was actually accomplished, by the musician/composer/technology designer John Oswald, in the form of his Grayfolded, a rock symphony in all but name.

Grayfolded was originally a 2 CD set that virtually recomposes and reassembles numerous recordings of “Dark Star” made by the Grateful Dead under any and all circumstances. Oswald’s work utilizes samples culled from an original ‘database’ of over 200 recordings made over a twenty-six year period. The 100+ performances, eventually chosen as working materials, were sampled in the early 1990s, by means of technology mostly invented by Oswald. In point of fact Grayfolded was impossible until Oswald “dreamt up” the technical means to make it possible: Long before the invention of ProTools, Digital Performer, Logic etc, Grayfolded was impossible until Oswald “dreamt up” the radical technical means to make it possible. As a function of this new Digital technology, Oswald accomplished invention of a radical new sonority, no less than Phil Spector had some 30 years earlier.

Grayfolded is the most dense simultaneous application to date of the theoretics of Plenum Effects; Saturation vs. Coherence, and, the Dialectic of Saturation and Coherence; Horizontal and Vertical Iteration; Distributed Surfacing of Occulted Thematics; etc: i.e., all the core drivers of music as simultaneous Technical and Technological Ecstasy. Recently the means by which music is created, produced and distributed has become the venue for a huge (but) counterintuitive boom in Analog technologies, including the shockingly profitable resurrection of the Vinyl LP. In a de facto recognition of Digital toxicity: The Analog Strikes Back. And now in a truly signal instance of belling the (china) cat, Grayfolded has just been repurposed by Oswald and released as a 3 Disc Vinyl set. Dream Music of the Information Overlords, or, of the Information Overload? And where does all this leave the Identity of Being and Knowledge anyway?


 Sandy Pearlman/MicroBio

Currently Dean’s Professor for Interdisciplinary Innovation and a Marshall McLuhan Centenary Fellow at the University of Toronto . Until recently the Schulich Distinguished Chair at McGill University. A Woodrow Wilson Fellow in the History of Ideas at Brandeis.

A New School Fellow in Sociology and Anthropology. Over the last few years, at McGill and, the University of Toronto, Pearlman, has taught and created, often in collaboration with Dean Don McLean of McGill, and currently, Toronto, a boatload of provocative new courses distributed amongst the Music, English, Religious Studies, Law and Management Faculties. Relentless brainstormer on the Future of Media in general, and, the ever tightening embrace of Music by Technology and Technology by Music in particular.

Member, National Recording Preservation Board (NRPB) of the Library of Congress.  Producer, creator, songwriter, manager and theorist for many of the most important bands and musical trends of the last 30 years: Blue Oyster Cult, Clash, Black Sabbath, Dictators, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Pavlov’s Dog, Dream Syndicate, Space Team Electra. In this capacity, he is variously blamed and/or lauded for the launch of such cultural trends as Heavy Metal, Occult Rock, Goth, Punk, New Wave.In all formats his recordings have sold in the range of 40 million copies. Described by the Billboard Producer’s Directory as “the Hunter Thompson of rock, a gonzo producer of searing intellect and vast vision.” Gonzo enough to be played by Christopher Walken in Saturday Night Live’s awesome skit on the making of “The Reaper” (which Pearlman produced for Blue Oyster Cult).

The Grateful Dead / John Oswald: Grayfolded - Transitive Axis Vinyl 3LP


Professor Thomas Farrell has provided an interesting commentary proposing that Marshall McLuhan was influenced by the Canadian Jesuit scholar Bernard Lonergan in his writing of Understanding Media (1964), regarded by many as his most important book. Specifically, he writes below that McLuhan “almost certainly had been influenced by Lonergan’s inward turn of consciousness [in his Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (1957)], at least to a certain extent”.  Dr.
Farrell is correct in asserting that no McLuhan scholar appears to have explored the possible connection between these two intellectual giants, who were located physically on the University of Toronto campus at the same time, between 1965 and 1975, when Lonergan was at St. Regis College; the latter is a short block south of St. Michael’s College and McLuhan’s Centre for Culture and Technology. Lonergan isn’t even mentioned in the two biographies of McLuhan (Marchand, 1989) and Gordon (1997) and he is mentioned in only one published letter, this one to another Catholic Jesuit intellectual, Walter Ong, dated Sept 21, 1957. In the postscript of that letter, McLuhan writes: “Find much sense in Bern. Lonergan’s Insight” (Letters, 1987, p. 251).   
Now another Jesuit influence on McLuhan that is clear is that of Teilhard de Chardin, SJ, whose name is mentioned several times in McLuhan’s writings. Both Marchand and Gordon had access to the McLuhan Archive in the National Library of Canada and spent abundant time there; it seems that Lonergan isn’t mentioned sufficiently enough in McLuhan’s unpublished letters and papers to warrant being mentioned in either biography, as de Chardin is, to warrant mentioning as a possible influence. Still, perhaps the possible influence of Lonergan on McLuhan bears further investigation…….AlexK
 Contextualizing McLuhan’s UNDERSTANDING MEDIA, November 15, 2014 – By Thomas J. Farrell
This review is from: Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man : Critical Edition (Hardcover) appended to’s review – see .
On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the publication of Marshall McLuhan’s book UNDERSTANDING MEDIA (1964), I would like to point out something about McLuhan that I consider to be very important for understanding the inward turn he took in writing UNDERSTANDING MEDIAIn the late 1950s, McLuhan carefully worked his way through Bernard Lonergan’s book INSIGHT: A STUDY OF HUMAN UNDERSTANDING (1957; 5th ed. 1992). Lonergan’s book is a profound philosophical study. (McLuhan had no formal training in philosophy. In philosophy, he was an autodidact.) [Actually, McLuhan’s 1933 Honours B.A. at the University of Manitoba was in English & Philosophy]. Because Lonergan’s book INSIGHT: A STUDY OF HUMAN UNDERSTANDING is wide-ranging, I should point out that Mark D. Morelli and Elizabeth A. Morelli have perceptively selected the central parts of Lonergan’s treatise in their edited book THE LONERGAN READER (University of Toronto Press, 1997, pages 29-359).Briefly, in his inward turn to consciousness, Lonergan identified and discusses what I will style here as moments of consciousness: (1) sensory input and imagination, (2) intellectual processing of sensory input and imagination, (3) rational processing (judging and adjudicating), and (4) decision-making and taking action. Lonergan claims that his account of human consciousness constitutes a generalized empirical way of proceeding to think about human thinking.Now, Buddhist meditation and some other forms of non-imagistic meditation aim to transcend consciousness. No doubt the experience of transcending consciousness can contribute to providing us with a certain distance from consciousness. Walter J. Ong, S.J. (1912-2003), liked to say that we need both proximity (closeness) and distance to understand anything.

However, as a Jesuit, Lonergan had been trained in the Jesuit tradition of imagistic meditation - deriving from the founder of the Jesuits, Ignatius Loyola. As a result of his Jesuit training in imagistic meditation, Lonergan was primed to examine human consciousness. In his philosophical treatise he establishes enough distance from human consciousness that he is able to understand how it works.

Now, McLuhan famously declared that he was concerned with percepts. Percepts involve the moment of consciousness that Lonergan refers to as sensory input and imagination. In all honesty, I have to say here that paying attention to percepts sounds remarkably similar to the spirit of imagistic meditation practiced by Jesuits. (I am not claiming that McLuhan was familiar with the Jesuit tradition of imagistic meditation, because I don’t know if he was.)

Bernard Lonergan, S.J. (1904-1984), was a Canadian, as was Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980). At the time when McLuhan carefully worked his way through Lonergan’s philosophical study in the late 1950s, McLuhan was teaching English at St. Mike’s [St. Michael’s College], a Roman Catholic institution in the University of Toronto. (In the mid-1930s, McLuhan had converted to Roman Catholicism.)

In the 1950s and for decades earlier, St. Mike’s was one of the two leading centers in North America of Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy. At the time and for decades earlier, St. Louis University, the Jesuit university in St. Louis, Missouri, was the other leading center of Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy in North America. Earlier in his professional career, McLuhan taught English at St. Louis University, as he worked on his 1943 Cambridge University doctoral dissertation.

Centuries earlier, the Jesuits had joined the Dominicans in promoting the thought of Thomas Aquinas in philosophy and theology. In his Jesuit training, Lonergan had become an expert in the thought of Thomas Aquinas in philosophy and theology.

However, because of the extraordinary status of Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy in the Roman Catholic Church before the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), many non-Catholics in North America considered Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy to be somehow “religious” – or more specifically, somehow tainted by religion. Oftentimes, non-Catholics in North America used this patently false claim to dismiss Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy. This tendency to dismiss Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy was especially pronounced in the United States, where the American prestige culture had been dominated for centuries by white Anglo-Saxon Protestants who tended to be anti-Catholic in spirit.

When Harvard-educated Senator John F. Kennedy was narrowly elected president of the United States in 1960, he was the first Irish-American Roman Catholic to be elected to that office. In the 1960 presidential campaign, he had to defend his personal religious affiliation because it was a stigma at that time for that office.

Because of the still strong anti-Catholic bias in the 1960s, McLuhan was not likely to present himself publicly as a Roman Catholic who was seriously interested in Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy – or as a Roman Catholic who had carefully worked his way through Lonergan’s monumental book INSIGHT: A STUDY OF HUMAN UNDERSTANDING.

Now, the subtitle of Lonergan’s book advertises its central focus on human understanding.

The main title of McLuhan’s book is UNDERSTANDING MEDIA.

Granted, as an English professor, McLuhan was familiar with Brooks and Warren’s influential book UNDERSTANDING POETRY. (McLuhan and Brooks were friends.)

After McLuhan had carefully worked his way through Lonergan’s monumental philosophical treatise, he almost certainly had been influenced by Lonergan’s inward turn of consciousness, at least to a certain extent.

When we turn our attention to McLuhan’s publications before 1964, we do not find anything remotely approximating his inward turn of consciousness in UNDERSTANDING MEDIA.

But McLuhan’s inward turn to consciousness in UNDERSTANDING MEDIA (1964) threw many readers for a loop, to put it mildly. Nevertheless, it sold remarkably well, and it helped catapult the author to extraordinary celebrity. (However, I myself do not find all of McLuhan’s analyses in UNDERSTANDING MEDIA perceptive.)

Of course Lonergan’s INSIGHT: A STUDY OF HUMAN UNDERSTANDING (1957) also threw many readers for a loop, to put it mildly. But Lonergan’s philosophical treatise was not as widely read as McLuhan’s UNDERSTANDING MEDIA was.

Now, if you want to argue that McLuhan was not influenced by carefully working his way through Lonergan’s treatise, you are of course free to claim this and to advance this claim.

However, if you want to contextualize McLuhan’s UNDERSTANDING MEDIA, you should not overlook Lonergan’s philosophical treatise.

As I have noted, both McLuhan and Lonergan were Canadians. Certain followers of McLuhan are also Canadian, just as certain followers of Lonergan are. However, as far as I know, the influence of Lonergan’s INSIGHT on McLuhan’s UNDERSTANDING MEDIA has not been explored.

As far as I know, none of McLuhan’s followers have never explored the influence of Lonergan’s philosophical treatise on him – perhaps because they are not familiar with Lonergan’s philosophical treatise.

Conversely, as far as I know, none of Lonergan’s followers have ever paid any attention to how his philosophical treatise influenced McLuhan’s UNDERSTANDING MEDIA.

For this reason, I think it is appropriate to explore this here. (See Dr. Farrell’s review on


As you may know, Marshall McLuhan explicitly indicates in one of his published letters that that he is reading Lonergan’s INSIGHT. The letter is to Walter Ong. I don’t recall the exact date on the letter, but it was in the late 1950s.[The letter was to Walter Ong, S.J. dated Sept 21, 1957; see p. 251 of McLuhan’s published letters.]
Marshall McLuhan somehow enlisted a graduate student in English named Donald Theall to undertake reading Lonergan’s INSIGHT along with him in the late 1950s [Donald Theall was McLuhan’s first doctoral candidate.]
According to Donald Theall, who is now deceased, they read some of Lonergan’s book and then met and discussed what they had read, before they proceeded to read the next part. From my memory of my email exchange with Donald Theall, I don’t remember if they read a chapter at a time, or perhaps more than a chapter at a time. Lonergan’s book is lengthy. So if they read only one chapter at a time, they would have proceeded slowly through the book, and they would have had a number of meetings to discuss the part they had read.
In light of their read-discuss way of proceeding, I would not be surprised if each of them marked his copy as he read the assigned part of the book.
As you may know, Lonergan was a local big shot among Roman Catholics in the Toronto area in the 1950s when his book INSIGHT was published. So Marshall McLuhan probably heard about Lonergan’s book from other faculty members at St. Mike’s.
However, I believe that by 1957 Lonergan was teaching at the Gregorian University, the Jesuit university in Rome. [The Bernard Lonergan Archive provides the following: “He taught at the Jesuit Seminary in Toronto from 1947 to 1953, and then at the Gregorian University from 1953 to 1965 …. From 1965 to 1975 he was Professor of Theology at Regis College, Toronto.” ( )]


Report on Project in Understanding New Media prepared for and published by The National Association of Educational Broadcasters (NAEB) for the Department of Education, Washington, D.C., 1960

Students and scholars of Marshall McLuhan will be happy to learn that the modest looking typescript document depicted above can now be downloaded as a PDF, thanks to Professor Norm Friesen, presently teaching at UBC. According to Terrence Gordon, McLuhan’s second biographer, McLuhan referred to the project as “Vat 69″, the name of a popular brand of blended Scotch whisky of the time; in effect the project was a “cauldron where he tossed in as many ideas as he could seize, hoping eventually to turn his study into a book”. That book of course, published four years later, was Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964). NAEB had contracted McLuhan to design a method and syllabus for teaching high school students about the nature and effects of media, old media, as well as new media. McLuhan was using the phrase “new media” decades before its latest incarnation as a term for digital media and the Internet.

Noting that the “Canadian philosopher’s ideas prepared the way for a new way of teaching”, Moody (2002) traces McLuhan’s influence on the teaching of media literacy to his curriculum written for the National Association of Educational Broadcasters (NAEB), under contract with the Office of Education, US Department of Health, Education and Welfare (McLuhan, 1960). She writes: “There… he introduced his basic theme that media — speech, print, photography, telegraphy, telephone, film, radio, television — all function as extensions of the human organism to increase power and speed”. McLuhan explained his purpose in creating that curriculum as follows; it’s purpose was:

  • to explain the character of a dozen media, illustrating the dynamic symmetries of their operation on man and society,
  • to do this in a syllabus usable in secondary schools. (McLuhan, 1960, p 4)

McLuhan explained that secondary schools were chosen because their students had not yet acquired any vested interest in acquired knowledge, had great experience of media, but no habits of observation or critical awareness, “yet they are the best teachers of media to teachers, who are otherwise unreachable” (1960, p. 4). The last comment is especially pertinent today. This appears to have been the very first media literacy curriculum ever written, predating later work in Britain and Australia in the late 1960s and ‘70s.


Gordon, T.G., Ed. (1994). The critical edition of ‘Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man’. Corte Madera, CA: Gingko Press.

McLuhan, H.M. (1960, June 30). Report on project in understanding new media.   Washington, DC: National Association of Educational Broadcasters.

Moody, K. (2002). Marshall McLuhan: The revolution is – media! Center for Media Literacy. Retrieved from    room/marshall-mcluhan-revolution-media .


McLuhan’s 1960 Report on Project in Understanding New Media

Untitled-1This two-volume text was commissioned by the National Association of Educational Broadcasters. In the opening paragraph, McLuhan refers to it as “Project 69,” and memorably explains its purpose as follows:

Project 69 in Understanding Media proposed to provide an approach to media and a syllabus for teaching the nature and effects of media in secondary schools. A new tactic was used, namely to consider not so much the constituents nor the “content” of media, as their effects. I therefore raise the question at once: “Why have the effects of media, whether speech, writing, photography or radio, been overlooked by social observers through the past 3500 years of the Western world?”

In the cryptic note at the top right (on p. 2), McLuhan writes to Harley Parker, with whom he later co-authored Through the Vanishing Point: Space in Poetry and Painting (1968) and Counterblast (1969). Parker also appears with McLuhan in the 28 min 1969 filmPicnic in Space, directed by Bruce Bacon.

This text reflects McLuhan’s then-coalescing thought as it relates to both education and to multiple media forms; and the text serves as relatively direct and clearly-written precursor for the 1964 Understanding Media.

The full text of this report is available for downloading at .

Understanding_Media a British edition


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 547 other followers