The Original Explorations Journal of Ted Carpenter & Marshall McLuhan (1953 – 1957)

The launch is planned for the first week of March. I will post an announcement when it is online.

By Bob Logan

The New Explorations: Studies in Culture and Communication project and journal is inspired by the journal Explorations: Studies in Culture and Communication. The first eight issues of Explorations were published between 1953 and 1957 at the University of Toronto and edited by Edmund Carpenter and Marshall McLuhan. A ninth issue was published in 1959 and was edited by Edmund Carpenter alone. Marshall McLuhan then edited issues 10 to 32 between 1964 and 1972 that appeared as inserts in the alumni magazines of the University of Toronto with issues number 10 through 19 appearing in the Varsity Graduate magazine and issues 20 through 32 appearing in the University of Toronto Graduate.

Our Goals
We hope to recapture the spirit of the original Explorations journal which had such an important influence in the development of the Toronto School of Communication. Just as the founders of Explorations were focused on the new electric technologies of their times, primarily television, mainframe computers, and other electric and electronic media, our focus will be on the new digital technologies of our times, namely personal computers, tablets, smartphones, the Internet, the World Wide Web, social media, AI, robots and the new devices that have not yet been invented.

Although our focus is on the technology world of today, especially as it relates to media and communication, new knowledge is still being discovered about McLuhan and his work and we will publish articles about such discoveries and understandings that we think are significant. Our basic approach to these studies will basically be that of media ecology as developed by Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan, Ted Carpenter, Walter Ong, Neil Postman and a host of other media ecologists but need not be limited to that. Media studies is a big tent and we are open to other approaches to it such as media and communication history, media anthropology, media ethics and media literacy. Media ecology was formulated in the past and in order to avoid “embalming truth” we must be prepared to consider these and other new approaches to media studies that will arrive.

And we will make use of a variety of digital media to organize and deliver our open access online journal and project as described below.

Mission Statement
Our mission parallels that of the original Explorations. The first paragraph of our mission statement is identical to the of the original Explorations, but the second paragraph takes into account the digital environment in which we now live:

New Explorations, like the original Explorations, is designed not as a permanent reference journal that embalms truth for posterity, but as a publication that explores and searches and questions. We envision a series that will cut across the humanities and social sciences by treating them as a continuum. We believe anthropology and communication are approaches, not bodies of data, and that within each of the four winds of the humanities, the physical, the biological and the social sciences intermingle to form a science of man. – Ted Carpenter and Marshall McLuhan. 1953. Explorations: Studies in Culture and Communication 1, iii.

While we embrace the mission statement of the original Explorations, we will also deal with the dramatically new environments characterized by the new digital media and AI. To the four winds of the original Explorations project, we now add the fifth wind of the new digital technologies to help us understand what it is to be human in 2020 and beyond.
I will be posting additional information about our plans for this journal in few days for authors and readers of New Explorations: our plans for a secondary server that will provide a discussion forum for readers and authors, a place for artists to share their creative work, relevant news sharing, listing of our Editors and staff and Editorial Board with its strong international representation. Stay tuned.

Eric McLuhan & Ted Carpenter

Neil Postman

This is another one of the interviews resurrected or rather, in Tetrad terms, Retrieved from the Understanding McLuhan interactive CD-ROM from Voyager Interactive (1996) [see] which can no longer be watched and read on the PCs of today by Clinton Ignatov, a self-described computer “geek”. He used a Windows 3.1 Virtual Machine to accomplish this, adding to the Derrick de Kerckhove interview published earlier on this blog. And Clinton promises to post more of the other interviews on that CD-ROM. Thanks, Clinton!…

After Marshall McLuhan’s passing in 1980, educator and lifetime New Yorker Neil Postman became the central figure in the field which has come to be known as Media Ecology.

Q: Could you tell us about your first encounter with Marshall McLuhan?

A: I was a graduate student at Teachers College [at Columbia University] and the course was being conducted by Louis Forsdale. He’s retired now but he was a friend of McLuhan. McLuhan was an obscure English professor at the University of Toronto, but Forsdale was well aware of some of McLuhan’s ideas and brought him down from Toronto to give a lecture. McLuhan, in those days, still smoked cigars, although he mostly had them unlit as far as I could see, and he gave his talk with an unlit cigar in his mouth. And he talked in that style that we later came to call McLuhanesque: a series of dramatic propositions and generalizations. He didn’t pause to defend any of them, or even to explain them that much. Charlie Weingartner, my friend—he went to graduate school with me—we loved it. We just thought he was onto something, and we especially liked his style. Of course many of the other students didn’t; some were befuddled, but afterwards Forsdale, McLuhan, Charlie and I went for a drink and I think The Mechanical Bride had been published, and either on that occasion or a later occasion when he came back to speak, we carried about 500 copies of this book which you couldn’t give away at that point, and stored them in Forsdale’s apartment. But that was my first encounter with McLuhan and I was enormously impressed with the range of his knowledge and also with the intellectual daring that he displayed.

Q: Did you have a chance to work with him or hear him speak on other occasions?

A: Oh yes, on many occasions. One of the most memorable was a meeting in Cincinnati of the National Council of Teachers of English, and I remember that Charlie Weingartner, McLuhan and I shared a room together, which was great fun because Charlie and I had a chance to listen to McLuhan invent ideas and do his probes deep into the night. On that occasion his cigar was lit and the lights were off and it was two or three in the morning, and we finally had to ask him if he could stop and let us all get some sleep. But I would say from roughly 1956 until he died, I took every opportunity I could find to listen to him speak and to have conversations with him. Although the word conversation here has to be explained: I don’t think I ever really did have a conversation with McLuhan and I don’t recall being present when anyone else actually had a conversation. Mostly you listened, let him play this tape out that he had in his mind. And of course, it was always fascinating. Even when you asked him questions you had the feeling that though he always seemed to be answering your question, he was just going on with the tape. No one I knew ever really resented that; we considered it a privilege to be present so we could listen and watch the tape unwind itself.

Q: What probe or idea stands out the most for you?

A: Of course, there were many. I recall once he came to New York, I think to make an appearance on the Today Show. Frequently he would call me when he came to New York, and we would try to have lunch together. I remember this one, because he called to say he was in town and if I could hop down to the Hilton where we could have lunch, but while he was talking about that, he just inserted the idea that the invention of photography made a certain kind of representation of the rich impossible. That conspicuous consumption became impossible as soon as the photograph became invented. Now I don’t know that that’s such an astounding insight, although it’s interesting to think about, it’s just that it came in the middle of his saying did I have time to come to lunch. So I guess that was on “the tape” and he felt that he had to get it out.

Q: How do you think he has influenced your work?

A: I can’t think of a book that I’ve written that I could have written if not for McLuhan. Which is not to say of course that he approved of any he might have read, or would approve of others that he never did read, but so far as I’m concerned, I always have felt that the question that he asked which is I think his main contribution, is embedded in every idea that formed a book for me – whether I was writing about media in Amusing Ourselves to Death or writing about language in Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk, or writing about education in Teaching As A Subversive Activity—that the question that McLuhan posed is at the heart of it. And the question is something like: “Does the form of any medium of communication affect our social relations, our political ideas, or psychic habits, and of course, as he always emphasized, our sensorium?”

So that once you have a question like that you can look at almost any social institution and put that question at the center of it. And I think I’ve done that in every book I’ve written. Certainly, it was right from the first, because the first book I wrote was for the National Council of Teachers of English, and it was about television—it was called Television and the Teaching of English. And I know I couldn’t have written that book if I hadn’t known about McLuhan. So far as I’m concerned, my career as a writer and teacher and social critic, has been dependent on McLuhan, what I call McLuhan’s question. Now I should add that it’s not that others, let’s say Louis Mumford for example, didn’t ask this question before McLuhan did. But McLuhan asked it in a way that called it to everyone’s attention, and that I think is an enormous contribution that he’s made to scholarship, and especially to me. And I’d add that there probably is not a communications department in any college or university in America that does not reflect in some way, McLuhan’s question.

McLuhan’s answers, which you’ll find all over the place in Understanding Media, are sometimes interesting, sometimes I think they may be irresponsible, and sometimes just wrong, but that never bothered me and I don’t think it should bother students who read McLuhan. And he himself said many times, these were probes and that one should not take his answers too literally. He wanted to focus people’s attention on the question, and would have agreed that there would be other people, especially young people raised in the electronic environment, that would be able to come up with a lot better answers than he did.

Q: Where do you think he was wrong, or irresponsible?

A: Well I think the whole idea of hot medium and cool medium didn’t really work. I think in the end I believe Marshall gave it up after awhile. But it was interesting as almost everything he said was interesting. He was trying to construct a new kind of taxonomy for perceiving media—and that is a taxonomy that has to deal with how any particular medium massages or affects your sensorium. But when he tried to explain this idea by categorizing media as hot and cool and then giving definitions, the foundation of the definitions was confused because sometimes he seemed to be concentrating on the mechanical reproduction, the process of a medium; sometimes he seemed to be focused on something else that was not entirely clear. Moreover, if you tried to use his own system: something like print, which he thought was a hot medium, could just as easily have been a cool medium, because that, of all media, seemed to give you the least information. That was one of the characteristics of a cool medium, that it didn’t supply you hotly with lots of information so that there had to be greater participation on the part of the audience to fill in. Well, it always puzzled me that he’d call print a hot medium and as I remember, I think he also called radio a hot medium, which seemed to me to fulfill the conditions of what he meant by cool medium. So that was kind of confusing, and it was too bad because when he became almost a cult figure and a guru of the electronic age, many people focused on this hot and cool medium distinction, and they couldn’t always take it very far because they were confused. But I don’t think he was disturbed about that.

If I had said to him what I just said to you, he would have said, “Well, okay, if it’s not straight, make up a better one.” But he would have given the lead as to what to look at, and we’ve had students here at New York University, that have tried to invent better ones. They would have a value in their work they would have to attribute to McLuhan’s inspiration.

Q: To what extent has he influenced the media ecology programme?

A: A great deal. Well, first of all I should tell you that he is directly, in a way, responsible for the media ecology programme because he and I had a conversation once and he said that he didn’t think he had the temperament or the desire to form a graduate programme with all of the bureaucratic elements that would entail, at the University of Toronto, but he thought I should do it. So he suggested that we try to develop a grad programme at NYU that would explore these probes, he even suggested the term media ecology. He used that phrase in a letter he wrote to Claire Booth Luce saying something to the effect that the media ecology of cultures probably need to be managed in a systematic way—and the term struck me as very useful, since ecology was used to mean the study of environments and how environments can be healthy and become toxic and so on. I thought that his putting the term media in front of ecology suggested in a forceful way that people studying media were not just studying machines and how they work, but the interaction between the structure and form of machines and the human sensorium. This gave a special kind of meaning to the phrase symbolic environment because we live in at least two kinds of environments: the natural, and the symbolic. I thought it would be helpful to call the programme Media Ecology.

So from the beginning, the spectre of Marshall McLuhan was all over this department. Of course since then, so many people, the heirs of McLuhan’s legacy, have written on the subject from a McLuhanesque point of view, that he is by no means even the best person to read on the subject these days. That wouldn’t bother him either. All of our students are required to read McLuhan, but we no longer place his work at the centre of their studies. I try to get them to understand what his role was in the formation of communication departments and research about media, and most of our students I think do, but they go on to all sorts of other people. Some who are explicitly McLuhanites, like Walter Ong, Mumford of course, who didn’t like McLuhan one bit, but many other people, Weisenbaum and Rojac and Jacques Ellul, and I could go on, who wouldn’t want to think of themselves as McLuhanites, but actually have a point of view that’s very close to his.

Q: Have his questions outlived his own personal legacy?

A: Yes, but I think that’s the way things are supposed to go, that if we looked at Marx’s question, or Freud’s question, we have to pay due respect to those people who either formed those questions or brought them to our attention. But I don’t think we need to be fixated on that person himself or herself, and we have to move on.

Q: Would you say he was a great thinker?

A: I would say great thinker, and then add the following: that there are many rooms in the house of the intellect. And different kinds of thinkers occupy different kinds of rooms. Now if there’s a room for those thinkers who see something quite differently from everyone else, and form a question that people in the other rooms hadn’t thought about, in that sense we could say he was a great thinker. I don’t think we would call him a great scholar, because I don’t think he really had the patience to work through some of the implications of what he was saying, even in a book like The Gutenberg Galaxy. Basically these are quotes and allusions to the role that the printing press and movable type played in shaping people’s psychic habits. But it didn’t go into things so deeply. It also has to be added, other people have said this frequently, that there was more than a touch of the poet in him, as everyone who knew him will tell you, he loved playing with language and making puns. Some of his ideas have almost a poetic import to them, as distinct from a researchable, definable context. So I have no hesitation using the term “great thinker” for McLuhan, provided people understand that there are different kinds of great thinkers.

Q: If you had to have the last word on McLuhan, what would it be?

A: How about if I put it this way: if I could speak to McLuhan in some heavenly situation, and I only had a minute to see him again, after I asked him how things are going of course, I think I would tell him that what he did when he was here was extremely significant, that it opened up new pathways to thinking about media, and that there are thousands of young people now, in both the academic world, and in the communications industry, who think differently about what they’re doing because he lived. So I’d say, “Thanks Marshall, go back to heaven.”

Q: If you had two minutes and were able to ask him one question about 1995, what would you ask?

A: Well, I wouldn’t want to depress him, but I would ask him this question: it seemed to me that toward the end of his life, and I’m not referring especially to after he had the operation on his brain tumor, that he had become more pessimistic about the liberalizing that he thought electronic media would lead to. An opening up of the sensorium, that we would not be quite as inhibited and rigid as the printed word had made us, and he thought there were all sorts of inspiring and freeing ways, or opportunities that electronic media would open up. But as I say, toward the end he was skeptical about whether or not what he prophesized would happen. And I would ask him if he’s been paying attention since he left us, to what’s been going on, and is he still optimistic, or has he become more pessimistic. For example, he did think, as Walter Ong thinks as well, that there would be a restoration of the oral tradition—Ong calls it secondary orality—and I look for that all the time and don’t really see it. So I’d ask him if he sees it and what am I missing? Is there something that he’s noticed that I haven’t—probably there would be—and just when he was about to tell me, time would be up, which would be just fine with him and me because, in a way it would mean he was saying to me, “No, you have to look for it and come to your own conclusion.”

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Edmund “Ted” Carpenter, an anthropologist, was a colleague of Marshall McLuhan’s at the University of Toronto in the 1950s, and a lifelong friend. McLuhan immediately recognized a fellow “intellectual thug” when he met Carpenter in 1948. Both cultivated reputations as academic iconoclasts. In his biography of McLuhan, The Medium and the Messenger, Philip Marchand recounts how Carpenter was reputed by those at St. Michael’s College to have the largest collection of books on the devil and diabolism in Canada.

In 1953, McLuhan and Carpenter were awarded a Ford Foundation grant for their interdisciplinary project “Changing Patterns of Language and Behavior and the New Media of Communication.” Citing the work of Innis as demonstrating that new communications technologies reconfigured political, economic and social dynamics, the proposal suggested that the new media of television, radio and movies were reshaping society, and were creating a new language “since the media of communication were themselves languages, or art forms” (Marchand 117). Their collaboration on this project lead to the publication of Explorations, an eclectic journal of media exploration, from 1953 to 1959. Selected articles from Explorations were reprinted in Explorations in Communications in 1960. The “Introduction” to this collection of articles by an impressive range of writers from D.T. Suzuki and Northrop Frye to Fernand Leger and Gilbert Seldes, establishes a theme which would pre-occupy both McLuhan and Carpenter for the rest of their careers.

As an anthropologist, Carpenter was exploring some of the same territory as Benjamin Whorf and Edward Sapir, Edward Hall and Victor Turner. Each in his own way discovered that we have much to learn about the unacknowledged values of our own culture by juxtaposing them against the values of another culture. Examining one medium through another. After this collaboration with McLuhan, Carpenter went on to pursue his career in anthropology, but he always retained an interest in the shaping of sensibility by media and culture. To the study of media he brought the skills of a person who, as an outsider, must find a way into another culture. The challenge for the anthropologist is to become sufficiently integrated or accepted into a culture to be given a deep enough view of that culture, while still remaining the stranger, the estranged one, capable of seeing the culture with fresh vision.

Likewise, as investigators of the North American media, both McLuhan and Carpenter sought techniques which allowed them deep access to the culture while keeping them estranged from the sleep of reason and familiarity. Both were suspicious of the apparent clarity given to reality by the linearity of logical, sequential discourse; consequently, both experimented with techniques of dislocation and radical juxtaposition–McLuhan’s probes and apparent disregard for inconsistencies–to prevent an overly rigid, fixed-point perspective on the cultural environment. Understanding media was always in the context of motion, of changing perspectives. The result is a collage or mosaic of insights requiring the student of their ideas to assemble the pieces into a meaningful arrangement. The audience becomes the workforce. In this approach, they were participating in Vygotsky’s and Piaget’s constructivist principles of learning.

In the early 1970s, Carpenter published a series of books which approach media of communication, including culture, from an anthropologist’s itinerant perspective. In all three–They Became What They Beheld (1970), Oh, What a Blow That Phantom Gave Me! (1972) and Eskimo Realities (1973)– he uses juxtaposition, association, analogy and dislocation to structure the arrangement of ideas. “Organized ignorance can be a great asset when approaching the unfamiliar,” he writes in They Became What They Beheld, where he also describes his method of presentation.
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The short-lived but influential magazine overseen by Edmund Carpenter & Marshall McLuhan.

By Kevin Plummer

In the 1950s, anthropologist Edmund Carpenter, English professor Marshall McLuhan, and others were at the centre of an innovative working group at the University of Toronto investigating modes and media of communication from a variety of academic perspectives. The establishment of the journal Explorations: Studies in Culture and Communication in 1953 provided an outlet for their discussions and emerging ideas. The Globe and Mail‘s literary critic, William Arthur Deacon, proclaimed that the intellectual magazine’s cultural importance marked “a coming-of-age in Canada.”

Its content was an eclectic mix of treatises, poems, excerpts from popular magazines, and clippings of advertisements, with subjects ranging from indigenous cultures or musical instruments in Africa to experiments conducted in television studios. The magazine was both intellectually exhilarating for its cutting-edge ideas, and ploddingly dull for the opacity of certain articles. In his biography of McLuhan, Coupland characterized the magazine as a “glorious stew of diamonds and rhinestones and Fabergé eggs and merde.” And, along with the Ford Foundation-funded Seminar on Culture and Communication, Explorations was instrumental in laying the foundation of modern media studies.

The journal’s original nine issues, published in limited numbers between 1953 and 1959, were considered collector’s items almost immediately upon their publication and now fetch more than $100 each— [actually, the availability & prices there now are quite reasonable] if you can find them.

Many of McLuhan’s key ideas had their genesis in the pages of Explorations, leading most observers to closely associate the journal with the media theorist. In fact, though often unacknowledged, the real driving force behind the publication was Carpenter, McLuhan’s friend and close collaborator.

In the early 1950s, Marshall McLuhan, an English professor at St. Michael’s College, hadn’t yet made a splash in academic circles or the broader culture. He’d first expanded his area of interest from literary studies to media analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, his first teaching post. Several years after arriving in Toronto, he published his first book, Mechanical Bride (Vanguard Press, 1951), which examined Blondie comic strips and advertisements through a critical lens. But the volume didn’t have much impact inside academe or beyond, selling only a few hundred copies.

As early as March 1951, McLuhan conceived of studying communications through experimental seminar cutting across strict boundaries between disciplines. It was a difficult proposition in an age before interdisciplinarity was widely accepted, but he found a kindred colleague with complementary ambitions in anthropology professor Edmund (Ted) Carpenter.

Born in Rochester, Carpenter was intrigued by excavating prehistoric Iroquoian sites as a teenager. He enrolled in anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania on the eve of the Second World War, but finished his degrees after serving in the Pacific Theatre. After accepting a teaching position at the University of Toronto, Carpenter embarked on a series of expeditions to the Canadian north and published several books on his experiences with the Aivilik people. On the side, Carpenter produced and hosted a series of shows on CBC radio and, later, television.

McLuhan and Carpenter co-wrote an application to the Behavioral Sciences Division of the Ford Foundation for an inter-faculty project investigating the effects of new media of communication. After being awarded funding in the spring of 1953, the two assembled their collaborators to lay out the content and scope of the Culture and Communication seminars (which was to be the core of their project) and to identify common areas of interests and methodological parallels between disciplines. This cadre, which became known as the Explorations Group, included D. Carl Williams of the psychology faculty and political economist Tom Easterbrook. Jaqueline Tyrwhitt, visiting professor of Town Planning in the School of Architecture, had been an early supporter of McLuhan’s seminar proposal, but wouldn’t rejoin the group until her return to Toronto from an overseas assignment in mid-1954.

The 8 issues of Explorations (1953 – 57)
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Read the rest of this article here:

Sept. 20, 1976 issue (Vol. 6, No. 12)

If the Media Didn’t Get Marshall McLuhan’s Message in the ’60s, Another Is on the Way

By Barbara Rowes

At 4 a.m. Herbert Marshall McLuhan, hip prophet of the ’60s for whom “the medium was the message,” awakens in his Toronto bedroom and slips into an ancient green bathrobe. He hurries into the kitchen not for breakfast but for a taste of biblical scholarship. For an hour he pores over scriptures in Greek, Latin, French, German and English, while gnawing on an orange.

Then he shifts to research for a new book, reading and scribbling notes. It will be called Laws of the Media, a sequel to his landmark Understanding Media. This year he also will publish a media textbook for high schools, one book on Canadian identity and two more on literature. McLuhan is returning to public prominence after a fallow period of nearly five years.

Just as Sigmund Freud is the father of psychoanalysis, Marshall McLuhan is the pioneer in media sociology [now the term is media ecology], the study of the effects of electronic information—TV, radio, stereo and cassettes—on society. Understanding Media created a storm of controversy when it was published in 1964, but now it is used in nearly every university on the North American continent and has been translated into 15 languages.

At 5:10 a.m. the 65-year-old scholar reaches for a white wall telephone and dials. “Barry, I think I’ve discovered something,” he booms in an imperious English accent. Barrington Nevitt, a consultant to the Ontario government like many of McLuhan’s friends, is accustomed to predawn calls. McLuhan plunges on. “I ran across a phrase just now which said that a scientific hypothesis can be disproved. Not proved. Disproved. I realized I might be able to use this in media study. It’s really quite enraging that nobody has ever thought of this before.” McLuhan apparently means that he will ask media students to consider what society would be like if radio and television did not exist. He hangs up abruptly and returns to his reading. Before he has breakfast he goes back to bed for a while. Second only to his devout faith in Catholicism is his belief in the catnap. He returns to the kitchen at 8 a.m., wearing a Hawaiian shirt and slacks. Corinne McLuhan, his wife of 37 years, is preparing his breakfast. He alternates between rare beefsteak and organic whole wheat bread, honey and an egg.

For years, while he waited for breakfast, McLuhan read the New York Times, until he suddenly decided it was obsolete. “The complicated layout of the Times is 19th-century. To get through the whole damn thing would take at least a week. In the electronic age people want information quickly.” He now picks up the news of the day from the Toronto Globe and Mail.

He is reading the society page aloud to his wife when George Thompson, his middle-aged assistant, walks in. “Good morning, George!” McLuhan bellows. “Did you get a chance to look at the glorious sky? There’s not a cloud in it. Why in the world would anyone want to do anything serious on such a beautiful day?”

McLuhan picks up his battered briefcase and marches across the lawn of his English manor house to Thompson’s vintage Chevrolet. He has driven McLuhan to his office at the University of Toronto for the past three years—ever since McLuhan gave up driving. “It was the least I could do for the environment,” McLuhan explains. Hidden from the road is a 19th-century carriage house which the university converted into the Centre for Culture and Technology to honor McLuhan in 1963. At 9:30 a.m. McLuhan bounds up the spiral stairway to his office. Poised stiffly with dictation pad in hand, Margaret Stewart, his secretary, runs down the messages. Woody Allen wants him to act in a film. After speaking to the comedian, McLuhan agrees. (Shooting took place two weeks later at 7:45 a.m. in a movie theater in New York. McLuhan plays himself.) Gov. Jerry Brown wants McLuhan to speak at a political conference in California. The vice-president of Televisa de Mexico asks McLuhan to a media conference in his country. Will he give hour-long interviews to Radio Québec and the BBC? Does he have time to fly to Denver to address a convention of computer executives? A Michigan educator has heard of the forthcoming textbook on the media. Can he order a thousand copies, even though it is not yet in print? Would McLuhan and his wife like to be the guests of the Smothers Brothers while they are performing in Toronto?…
Read this interesting Day in the Life of Marshall McLuhan at

This 3.5-minute segment of a televised interview of Marshall McLuhan on The Today Show on NBC TV with journalists Tom Brokaw and Edwin Newman show what McLuhan looked like in 1976. In it McLuhan criticizes a recent televised presidential debate between Democrat Jimmy Carter of Georgia who that year defeated incumbent Republican President Gerald Ford from Michigan.

By Andrew McLuhan

I like to focus on what’s practical today from McLuhan’s work, but that said, history is important and it can be instructive and useful to know where things come from. It can also be interesting, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Some years ago, when I undertook the inventory and evaluation of Marshall McLuhan’s ‘working library’ of some six thousand items, I made a discovery which, at the time, made me a bit giddy with excitement. I found a note, written by Marshall, showing where and when and why he first said ‘the medium is the message.’

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Chapter 1 from ‘Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man’ (1964 MIT Press) ‘The Medium is the Message’ reprinted in ‘From Source to Statement’ by James M. McCrimmon (1968, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company) where ‘The Medium is the Message’ (chapter 1 of “Understanding Media) is reprinted. This copy is now at the Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto.

The penciled note reads: “1st used this phrase in June (?) 1958 at Radio broadcasters conference in Vancouver. Was reassuring them that TV could not end radio.”

Finding that note in 2011 was a pretty cool moment. It wasn’t a lot of information, and the question mark raised questions, but still… pretty cool. I made a post about it on the blog I was keeping at the time chronicling my inventory adventures, ‘inscriptorium.’

I did a bit of research to try to find out a date of the ‘radio broadcaster’s conference’ mentioned, but no luck. Given my more recent discovery, I may try again to find out.

The recent discovery happened in a folder marked ‘1975′ in the metal filing cabinet containing our McLuhan archives. Started by my father Eric, we try to have a copy of everything written by Marshall McLuhan to match the bibliography-in-progress making note of same. I refer to the bibliography a lot, and hope to someday make it shareable but much work needs to be done first to make it completely accurate and presentable.

I was looking for something else (to do with ‘Laws of Media: The New Science’) when I noticed another mention of where ‘the medium is the message’ came from. This gave the date as 1957, not 1958, but more importantly, it gave more detail to illustrate the reference:

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‘Professor Marshall McLuhan’s talk at Georgia State Univ. on Feb. 20, 1975. To be published in Franklin Foundation Lecture Series publication.’ Cover page / page 1.

I will spare you the customary (and quite dated) opening jokes and skip ahead to the reference in question.

It’s an 11pp. transcript, purportedly to be published but I have only the transcript, and there’s no mention elsewhere in the bibliography of publication. I did a light internet search without further results.

Here are the goods:

p5./11 of McLuhan’s 1975 speech at Georgia State University
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p6./11 of McLuhan’s 1975 speech at Georgia State University
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(5)… “My phrase ‘the medium is the message’ popped up at a radio conference in 1957 when radio broadcasters were concerned about their future as TV entered the home. I had merely wished to reassure the radio people that the unique qualities of their medium would survive any kind of revolution, since the medium is a transforming service which rearranges experiences in unique ways. It is easier to understand this process of interplay between a technology and its effects from the example of the motor car which has a special but ever changing place in our lives. My friend, Joe Foyle of Dublin, is find of explaining to executives that the great enemy of reading ability is car driving. Driving requires a perceptual but peripheral alertness which displaces the tunnel vision necessary for effective coping with the printed page. Many people have pointed out the advantages of reading in a room that is otherwise dark. However, the special place of the motor car in our lives related to a hidden ground, namely our North American need to go outside to be alone. Unlike other communities around the world who go outside to be social, we prefer to find our social lives at home. To North Americans, the motor (6) car is the ultimate form of privacy, and our cars are designed accordingly. The figure of the car creates a ground of services that are the message, or the social effects. The car requires a surround of highways, factories and oil companies which are, in effect, both the medium and the message of the car. If TV has begun to bring the outside inside the home, then it could well become a factor in the overthrow of the motor car. When a new service goes around an old one, the old one becomes as it were, an art form. When TV went around the movie, the movie was recognized as a serious art form. When our electronic environment goes around the old hardware of the motor car, it too tend to become an art form.”

And there you have it. What more is there to say, really?

Of course, there’s a lot more to say. It’s McLuhan 101. Those five little words sure pack a lot into them. Fortunately, in the just over twenty more years Marshall lived, he repeated those words many times, and went to great lengths to help us understand what they mean. The first, and largest, effort to elaborate on ‘the medium is the message’ was in that first chapter of ‘Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (McGraw-Hill, 1964), but he repeated it in speeches and interviews over the years. Someday I will gather them all together in one place.

Of course, what ‘the medium is the message’ meant in 1957, with television taking over from radio, is vastly different from what it means today, with 5g and quantum computing drifting from the horizon to our hot little hands. And it will change again and again and again — which is why the statement is as true and powerful now as it was and ever will be.

“I don’t explain, I explore” Marshall said in a 1965 interview. Let’s follow his lead.


Andrew McLuhan


There is perhaps no person more responsible for the radical transformation of the humanities since the 1960s than the Canadian philosopher and provocateur Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980). McLuhan’s voluminous publications, lectures, interviews, and talks (and in one case, cameo film appearance in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall) have made him one of the most widely recognized names of the twentieth century. McLuhan was more than an individual author; he was what Michel Foucault would call the initiator of a discourse (like Marx or Freud). His intellectual legacy created a climate of opinion, one that the French nicknamed “mcluhanisme.” He was also perhaps the pioneering public intellectual. Although he died before the internet was invented, his talks on (and about) media such as radio, television and in film ushered in public intellectual debate concerning the electronic world. Far beyond academia — and far beyond North America — audiences recognize his slogans such as “the medium is the message” and coinages such as “the global village,” “print culture,” “electronic culture,” and “the Gutenberg era.”

Our conference will address McLuhan’s legacy for the humanities. While he remains one of the best known and most influential intellectuals of the twentieth century, his reputation declined in the later 1970s. Today, everyone knows his slogans but few people actually read his works. (Fewer still attempt to understand the origins and implications of those works in their own time.)

Although he is remembered today chiefly as a media theorist, McLuhan was an English professor by occupation. Above all, he was a voracious reader, and our conference will focus on his reading (and on reading McLuhan). Recently, his personal library of some 6000 books was acquired by the University of Toronto Libraries, and the McLuhan Library and Archive received a UNESCO Memory of the World Designation as an irreplaceable part of the human heritage. We believe that our current moment is a unique one ideally suited to a reconsideration of McLuhan’s exhilarating and complex (yet sometimes troubling) legacy.

R.S.V. P. This event is free and open to the public, but space is limited, and pre-registration is required. Identification will be required for entrance.

PATRICK DEER, New York University
MONIKA DOMMANN, University of Zurich
PAUL EDWARDS, Bath Spa University
ALAN GALEY, University of Toronto
LISA GITELMAN, New York University
JOHN GUILLORY, New York University
ADRIAN JOHNS, University of Chicago
PAULA MCDOWELL, New York University
ANDREW MCLUHAN, McLuhan Institute
PETER NICHOLLS, New York University
SARAH SHARMA, University of Toronto

Date & Time: Thu, Mar 5, 2020, 1:00 PM – Fri, Mar 6, 2020, 7:00 PM EST

Location: NYU Center for the Humanities, 20 Cooper Square, 5th Floor, Room 503, New York, NY 10003 United States
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Download full schedule here.

RSVP REQUIRED TO ATTEND – Register at Eventbrite here

Marshall McLuhan at Cambridge University

By Colin Marshall

So many of us use Facebook every day, but how many of us know that its enormous presence in our lives owes, in part, to modern philosophy? “In the course of his studies at Stanford,” writes John Lanchester in a recent London Review of Books piece of Facebook, Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, an early investor in the company, “became interested in the ideas of the US-based French philosopher René Girard, as advocated in his most influential book, Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World, especially a concept he called “mimetic desire..”

“Human beings are born with a need for food and shelter,” writes Lanchester. “Once these fundamental necessities of life have been acquired, we look around us at what other people are doing, and wanting, and we copy them.” Or as Thiel explained it, “Imitation is at the root of all behavior.” Lanchester reports that “the reason Thiel latched onto Facebook with such alacrity was that he saw in it for the first time a business that was Girardian to its core: built on people’s deep need to copy,” yet few of us, its users, have clearly perceived that essential aspect of Facebook and other social media platforms.

Marshall McLuhan, despite having died decades before their development, would have caught on right away — and he understood why even we savvy denizens of the 21st century haven’t. “For the past 3500 years of the Western world, the effects of media — whether it’s speech, writing, printing, photography, radio or television — have been systematically overlooked by social observers,” said the author of Understanding Media and The Medium is the Message. “Even in today’s revolutionary electronic age, scholars evidence few signs of modifying this traditional stance of ostrichlike disregard.”

Those words come from an in-depth 1969 interview with Playboy magazine that broke the celebrity literature professor McLuhan’s ideas to an even wider audience than they’d had before. In it he diagnosed a “peculiar form of self-hypnosis” he called “Narcissus narcosis, a syndrome whereby man remains as unaware of the psychic and social effects of his new technology as a fish of the water it swims in. As a result, precisely at the point where a new media-induced environment becomes all pervasive and transmogrifies our sensory balance, it also becomes invisible.”

As McLuhan saw it, “most people, from truck drivers to the literary Brahmins, are still blissfully ignorant of what the media do to them; unaware that because of their pervasive effects on man, it is the medium itself that is the message, not the content, and unaware that the medium is also the massage — that, all puns aside, it literally works over and saturates and molds and transforms every sense ratio. The content or message of any particular medium has about as much importance as the stenciling on the casing of an atomic bomb.”
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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture.

Narcissus Narcosis

Marshall McLuhan is still the most penetrating Christian humanist to grasp that technology has forced us to rediscover how humans can use it to advance our species and preserve its humanity.
By January 3, 2017

It’s time—again—for a resurgence of interest in Marshall McLuhan. After a posthumous revival in the 1970s and ‘80s, McLuhan fans renovated his legacy again in the mid-‘90s, as Muhlenberg professor of media Jefferson Pooley notes in a new appraisal at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Just last year, Pooley observes, Tom Wolfe, who helped make McLuhan famous way back when, gave tribute in a taped appearance to his enduring relevance. “Today thousands of young Internet apostles are familiar with Marshall McLuhan,” the old New Journalist said, “and are convinced that his light shines round about them.”

To be sure, the visionary theorist, famous for buzz phrases like “the global village” and “the medium is the message,” was primed for importance in the Internet era back when the most even he could divine was a coming “electric age.” But were McLuhan merely a cross between David Riesman and Shingy, his voluminous pop prophesies would be plowed under by the very deluge of content and change-ology that he predicted would come to define our immersive media experience.

McLuhan is far more than an egghead or a guru—and, in a subtler way, beautifully less than either. He is, still, the most prolific and penetrating Christian humanist to grasp that technology has forced us to rediscover how humans can use it to advance our species and preserve its humanity. The time has come to care about McLuhan again because the time has come to pull off that rediscovery before it’s too late.

McLuhan Knew Internet Would Change Our Workplaces

But how? The key is found in the gap between the McLuhan of the elite imagination and the real McLuhan, the man of faith whose existence is a muted but open secret. The first McLuhan was already in place when Wolfe first profiled him—the McLuhan who foretold how the future us will act.

“They will work at home, connected to the corporation, the boss, not by roads or railroads, but by television,” Wolfe summed it up. “They will relay information by closed-circuit two-way TV and by computer systems. The great massive American rush-hour flow over all that asphalt surface, going to and from work every day, will be over. The hell with all that driving. Even shopping will be done via TV. All those grinding work-a-daddy cars will disappear. The only cars left will be playthings, sports cars. They’ll be just like horses are today, a sport. Somebody over at General Motors is saying—What if he is right?”

Well, he wasn’t all right. But in our ongoing headlong retreat from the collective effort of civil society, with the biggest of marketplaces moving out of the open air and the big box store and into the cloud, he could still be more right.

“Whole cities, and especially New York, will end too just like cars, no longer vital to the nation but…just playthings,” Wolfe marveled at the McLuhan whose prognostications captivated the elite mind. “People will come to New York solely to amuse themselves, do things, not marvel at the magnitude of the city or its riches, but just eat in the restaurants, go to the discotheques, browse through the galleries.”

Horrible! Or wonderful? From the age of “Mad Men” to the age of “Sex in the City” and the terminal (?) age of “Girls,” this titillating ambivalence has fueled our content-choked culture of work, play, communications, and commerce. Try as we might to keep up, we’ve felt increasingly uncertain about our command of the technology that lurches us ever faster into a future so heavy on the activity and light on the agency.

A Cry of Anxiety: ‘I Am the World’

Amid such velocity anxiety, it’s small wonder so many seek refuge in the pathos of selfhood and identitarianism. Delinked relationally from our fellow humans and wired into a decentered and disembodied realm of constant motion, we cry out for purchase on what Tocqueville called a “fixed point in the human heart,” and we increasingly surmise that today that point can only be found within the protective, prideful shell of our chosen and unchosen identities…
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Media theorist Marshall McLuhan’s work best explains how the world changed in the 2010s—and what we can expect in the decade ahead.

By Zach Weissmueller

What did the 2010s add up to?

I spent the decade at Reason creating videos about the democratization of everything and the declining power of society’s gatekeepers.

“Everything that we prize in our Western world, in matters of individualism, separatism, private point of view…all of those things are highly favored by the printed word,” said media theorist Marshall McLuhan in a 1965 BBC interview [by Frank Kermode], (see below).

McLuhan, who coined the axiom “the medium is the message,” argued that history’s prime mover isn’t the Great Leader or the Great Thinker but ever-changing communications technologies. 

As societies moved from oral traditions to written ones, McLuhan argued, there was a  bottom-up cultural shift. Tribal groups who relied on face-to-face communication and mythology morphed into more complex, less homogeneous societies thanks to the written word. And when the printing press standardized communications, the distribution of literature created the very concept of “a public” bound together by common languages and texts. This set the stage for the rise of modern nation-states and the Enlightenment. 

In the 1960s, McLuhan identified our current epoch as the “Electric Age,” in which circuit-based media gave rise to what he termed “the global village.” For the first time in history, the entire world could follow a single event.

McLuhan predicted that this electric “global village” would undo both the national homogeneity and personal individuality engendered by print, reviving our more fractured and tribal past.

“Involuntarily, we’re getting rid of individualism,” McLuhan said, identifying the shift away from print towards “electric” media like radio and television as the main causal factor. “We’re more concerned with what the group knows, of feeling as it does, of acting ‘with it.'”

And as the electric age evolved into the digital age with its cheap, limitless replicability, this retribalization accelerated in the 2010s. This is why the past decade has both created opportunities and dangers for the libertarian worldview.

Barack Obama epitomized the best and worst of the decade: As a long-shot candidate, he used new modes of communication to route around and eventually co-opt media gatekeepers.

He built a cult of personality through social media, using inspiring rhetoric so vague that people could project anything onto his words.

The Obama White House produced and distributed its own content, undermining the ability of the establishment to define him.

Photojournalists, for example, were denied access to the president’s most intimate moments—but were free to publish the selective imagery of the official White House photographer.

“The White House went to create an identity for the president. And because they [could] distribute directly through all these channels, there really [wasn’t] much downside to it,” photojournalism analyst Michael Shaw of Reading the Pictures told Reason‘s Todd Krainin in 2014.

Read the rest of this essay at

The 2010s: When the Media Lost Their Gatekeepers