On the Future of Print: A Conversation with the Late Great Media Mentor Marshall McLuhan, “A Man of Print”2
Marshall McLuhan in the early 1970s
by Howard R. Engel
No examination of the future of print, the theme of previous issue of Feliciter, would be complete without Marshall McLuhan’s own words, especially now in the centennial year of his birth. What better way to approach this exploration than through a conversation?
HRE: Dr. McLuhan, you have sometimes been accused of being difficult to understand. How do you perceive the world?
McLuhan: … “I use the right hemisphere when they’re trying to use the left hemisphere. Simple. You see, ordinarily, people are trained to try to follow you and to connect everything you say with what they last hear. They’re not prepared
to use their wits. They’re only prepared to use the idea they pick up the first time and try to connect it to another idea. So if you’re in a situation that is flexible, where you have to use your wits and perceptions, they can’t follow you. They
have preconceptions that phase them out at once. You see, that’s left-hemisphere. I use the right hemisphere a great deal, which is a world of perception, [not] concepts.” 3
HRE: Please illustrate your preference for perception or percepts over concepts.
McLuhan: “‘[It] is the same as the difference indicated in Luke 8:18: ‘Heed how you hear.’ The entire text depends on understanding that. Those who get the word of God as a wonderful idea or concept soon lose it. Those who get it as a percept, a direct thing, interfacing and resonating, are those who represent the ‘good ground.’ The sower and seed image is a direct anticipation of the gestalt figure-ground
HRE: What does this notion of “gestalt figure-ground relationship,” as you put it, mean for you?
McLuhan: “The interplay between figure and ground is ‘where the action is.’ This interplay requires an interval or a gap. . ., like the space between the wheel and the axle. … The interaction between the object, or figure and its ground enables one to experience meaning which is the relation of the situation to oneself. … There is no logical connection between figure and ground, but there is always a relationship, since ground always provides the terms on which a figure is experienced. In that relationship, meaning (the effect on you) is generated.” 5
HRE: One of your most famous aphorisms, Dr. McLuhan, is ‘the medium is the message.’ What message do you wish to convey here?
McLuhan: “Apropos ‘the medium is the message’ I now point out that the medium is not the figure but the ground, not the motor car but the highways and the factories. Also, I point out that in all media the user is the content, the effects come before the invention.” 6 “…the medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium – that is, of any extension of ourselves – result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology.” 7
HRE: Where does print fit into your exploration of media?
McLuhan: “Any study of one medium helps us to understand all others. … Mechanization of any process is achieved by fragmentation, beginning with the mechanization of writing by movable type… . A place for everything and everything
in its place is a feature not only of the compositor’s arrangement of his type fonts, but of the entire range of human organization of knowledge and action from the sixteenth
century onward. … In fact, the discovery of moveable type was the ancestor of all assembly lines and it would be foolish to overlook the impact of the technological form involved in print on the psychological life of readers. To overlook this would be as unrealistic as to ignore rhythm and tempo in music”. 8
HRE: So what are some of the effects of print “on the psychological life of readers.”?
McLuhan: “In five centuries explicit comment and awareness of the effects of print on human sensibility are very scarce… Gutenberg made all history simultaneous: the transportable book brought the world of the dead into the space of the gentleman’s library… Print provided a vast new memory for past writings that made a personal memory inadequate… Print created the mental habit of communing with another
mind. The illusion that you are in close and sympathetic contact with another mind is a natural illusion resulting from quickly following the images on the printed page. It is pure illusion. Nobody had such an illusion before printing, at least nothing resembling it. … The fact that print fosters the consumer habit of mind, the readiness to accept completely processed and packaged goods, is a side of print that has been little considered. … Perhaps the most potent of all as an expression of literacy is our system of uniform pricing that penetrates distant markets and speeds the turn-over
HRE: Amazon.com just reported that for the first time since it began selling e-books in 2007, e-book sales have exceeded print book sales. 10 What kind of future do print books have?
McLuhan: “There are many ways in which the book and literate values are threatened by the mere fact of the electric service environment. … Today there arises the possibility of direct brain-printing of books and data, so that the individual can be equipped instantly with all he need ever know. Such a bypassing of all reading raises many questions about the function of books. … The future of the book is inclusive. The book is not moving towards an omega point, but is actually in the process of rehearsing and re-enacting all the roles it has ever played, for new graphics and new printing processes invite the simultaneous use of a great diversity of effects… Gutenberg had, in effect, made every[one] a reader. Today, Xerox and other forms of reprography tend to make every[one] a publisher.”11 “As technology advances, it reverses the characteristics of every situation again and again. The age of automation is going to be the age of ‘do it yourself’.”12
HRE: What with desktop publishing, YouTube, podcasts, etc., the age of “do it yourself” has indeed arrived! Among the tools you have left us for probing our mediated world are, of course, your four laws of media. Please explain what are
the “laws of media”. McLuhan: “We [my son Eric and I] propose no underlying
theory to attack or defend, but rather a heuristic device, a set of four questions, which we call a tetrad …
• What does it enhance or intensify?
• What does it render obsolete or displace?
• What does it retrieve that was previously obsolesced?
• What does it produce or become when pressed to an extreme?”13
HRE: Let me apply these questions to the printed book. You have already suggested in The Medium Is the Massage at the book is an extension of the eye.14 I propose that the printed book obsolesces manuscripts, retrieves elders and flips into libraries. I invite the reader to apply the tetrad to printed books (or whatever other human artefact they wish), as there is no one right answer.15
Thank you, Dr. McLuhan, for showing us how to ask our own questions and probe the maelstrom of our mediated world!
McLuhan: “I don’t want them to believe me; I just want them to think.”16
“The central purpose of all my work is to convey this message, that by understanding media as they extend [us], we gain a measure of control over them.”17
1. As described by Eric McLuhan in an interview with Nora Young on Episode 147 of CBC Radio’s “Spark,” May 8 & 11, 2011.
2. “Often other intellectuals and artists would ask [McLuhan] incredulously, ‘Are you really a Catholic?’ He would answer, ‘Yes, I am a Catholic, the worst kind – a convert,’ leaving them more baffled than before.” From the front flap of The Medium and the Light, Stoddart, 1999.
3. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Me (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2005), pp. 248-49.
4. As quoted in W. Terrence Gordon, Marshall McLuhan: Escape into Understanding: A Biography (Berkeley, CA: Gingko Press, 2003), p. 221.
5. Marshall McLuhan, Kathryn Hutchon and Eric McLuhan, City as Classroom: Understanding Language and Media (Agincourt, ON: Book Society of Canada, 1977), pp. 9, 16, 21.
6. Essential McLuhan, Eric McLuhan and Frank Zingrone, eds. (Concord, ON: Anansi, 1995), p. 276.
7. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. W. Terrence Gordon, ed. (Corte Madera, CA, 2003), p. 19.
8. Essential McLuhan, pp. 277, 286, 285.
9. Ibid., pp. 285, 286.
10. See “E-books outselling print at Amazon.com” (May 19, 2011) at www.cbc.ca/news/arts/books/story/2011/05/
19/technology-ebooks-amazon-kindle-print.html (accessed October 23, 2011). 11. Understanding Me, pp. 175-179, passim.
12. Essential McLuhan, p. 283.
13. Marshall and Eric McLuhan, Laws of Media: The New Science, University of Toronto Press, 1988, p. 7.
14. Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, The Medium Is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (New York: Bantam Books, c. 1967). pp. 34-37.
15. For more information on tetrads, please see
(accessed October 23, 2011).
16. From a 1966 New York Times quote found at
www.spectersofmcluhan.net/1988.htm (accessed May 23, 2011).
17. From the 1969 Playboy interview as quoted in Essential McLuhan, p. 265.
Howard R. Engel struggles to gain control over media as a Public Services Technician at Red River College Library and thinks as a Director of the McLuhan Initiative, St. Paul’s College, University of Manitoba, in Winnipeg.
“With acknowledgement that the article was first published in the Canadian Library Association publication Feliciter, Vol. 57, No. 6 (December 2011) and is used with permission of the Canadian Library Association.
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