Northrop Frye on McLuhan: An Overview


This just goes to show that, as brilliant as the eminent Doctor Frye was when it comes to literature, he missed the mark when it came to understanding media. Not that Marshall McLuhan was always right, but he was right often enough; neither was Northrop Frye always right. McLuhan rejected the latter’s systematization and categorization of all literature in Anatomy of Criticism (1957) , considering it a vast and not very useful “hardening of the categories”……….AlexK

Posted by Michael Happy on August 9th, 2011

Wednesday I’ll be posting the compilation of Frye’s references to Marshall McLuhan that appear in the Collected Works.

I want to make a few observations here, which I don’t intend to be a definitive. I will be writing a longer paper to provide a broader perspective and a more detailed account. However, I think the following points can be responsibly made.

First, Frye’s references to McLuhan require 20,000 words to render them, suggesting that he read and thought about McLuhan’s work extensively. He certainly referred to it in his published work wherever the situation allowed. His private notebooks likewise suggest deep engagement, although with an added and characteristic tartness (“global village my ass”; “that blithering nonsense ‘the medium is the message’”).

Second, his observations are as consistent as his inquiry is thorough. There are more than forty years worth of references here, and they are remarkably free of any notable contradiction.

Third, Frye’s critical assessment of the core elements of McLuhan’s thought reveal that they are unacceptable to him. On the other hand, Frye’s published references to isolated aspects of McLuhan’s work tend to be generous and are regularly cited to make a larger point. Although Frye is careful to distinguish McLuhan from what he at one point calls the “nitwitted McLuhanism” of the 1960s, his frank critique of McLuhan’s work as a whole stands.

Finally, the elements of McLuhan’s thought Frye is most critical of are also those most familiar to general readers, including his formulations regarding ”the global village,” “the medium is the message,” and the linearity of print versus the simultaneity of electronic media. It is the last notion especially that Frye believes compromised McLuhan’s work, and he returns to it on a number of occasions.

Below is a small but representative selection of quotes that captures some of this.

From “Speculation and Concern” (1965):

Marshall McLuhan says of the new media of communication that “the medium is the message,” and that the content of each medium is the form of another one. This surely means, if I understand it correctly, that each medium is a distinctive art. Thus the “message” of sculpture is the medium of sculpture, distinct from the message which is the medium of painting. But, as McLuhan also emphasizes, the new media are extensions of the human body, of what we already do with our eyes and ears and throats and hands. Hence they have given us new forms or variations of the arts we now have, and the novelty of these forms constitutes a major imaginative revolution in our time. But though distinctive arts they are not actually new arts: they are new techniques for receiving the impression of words and pictures. (CW 7, 248-9)


From The Modern Century (1967):

The role of communications media in the modern world is a subject that Professor Marshall McLuhan has made so much his own that it would be almost a discourtesy not to refer to him in a lecture which covers many of his themes. 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. Because of this we should not, in staring at a television set, wonder if we are wasting our time and develop guilt feelings accordingly: we should feel that we are evolving a new mode of apprehension. What is important about the television set is not the quality of what it exudes, which is only content, but the fact that it is there, the end of a tube with a vortical suction which “involves” the viewer. This is not at all of what a serious mind and most original writer is trying to say, yet Professor McLuhan lends himself partly to this interpretation by throwing so many of his insights into a deterministic form. He would connect the alienation of progress with the habit of forcing a hypnotized eye to travel over thousands of miles of type, in what is so accurately called the pursuit of knowledge. But apparently he would see the Gutenberg syndrome as a cause of the alienation of progress, and not simply as one of its effects. Determinism of this kind, like the determinism which derives Confederation from the railway, is a plausible but oversimplified form of rhetoric. (CW 11, 20-1)


From “Research and Graduate Education in the Humanities” (1968):

There is, of course, a superstition in our time that this complex, configurated, and, in a sense, mythical thinking is something that can only be brought to us from the new media. I happen to be on a board in Canada concerned with communications, and this board had a committee of policy report to it which recommended that the board should issue publications from time to time. The sentence with which it began this recommendation read: “Despite the disadvantages inherent in the linear representation of a world that is increasingly simultaneous, print still retains its medieval authority.” This sentence, I suppose, is typical of the kind of nitwitted McLuhanism which is confusing the educational scene. McLuhan himself, of course, is another matter, but I think that even he fails to distinguish between the actual operation of reading a book, which is linear, turning over the pages, and following the lines of type from the upper left-hand corner to the lower right, and the effect of a book on the mind as a unity, once read. As that, the book is, and in the foreseeable future will remain, the indispensable tool of the scholar in the humanities. (CW 7, 340)


From Notebook 12 (1968-70):

When I settled into my real line I naturally wanted to be “great” there too: but maybe the great mind is obsolete. . . [S]omething about greatness ended around 1940. We’re doing different things now. Marshall McLuhan is a typical example: a reputation as a great thinker based on the fact that he doesn’t think at all. (CW 9, 146)

[T]he more I think about McLuhan’s obiter dicta, the more the exact opposite of what he says seems to me to be true. As I say earlier in this notebook, the oral tradition is linear: we’re pulled along by it in time, & at the end there’s nothing. Writing provides a spatial focus: the process of reading a book is linear, but at the end you have the “simultaneous” possession of the whole thing. Also in a newspaper. That’s why writing is democratic, potentially: the oral tradition is much closer to the mob, with its easy access to “lend me your ears” rhetoric. Its revival today goes with anarchism, and also with unscripted improvised dramas, music, and socio-political “happenings.” (CW 9, 237)


From Notes 58-7 (1969/1975):

[H]aving worked with archetypes all my life, I feel that the world in which Jung’s unconscious forces emerge and threaten sometimes to overthrow the ego-consciousness forces is really an interpenetrating global village. Archetypes represent a world-wide language independent of time and space. The phrase global village made [Marshall] McLuhan famous, and the present eclipse of his reputation is due to the fact that people surmised that he was on to something, but got disillusioned by his apparent inference that the electronic media actually communicate news of this world, which they bloody well don’t. (CW 20, 249-50)

Read the rest of this posting here:

Northrop Frye’s Victoria College in the University of Toronto

4 Responses to “Northrop Frye on McLuhan: An Overview”

  1. I scanned through your article. I am interested and will be back to read more. I have an impression of McLuhan which is not always generous. On the other I know very little of Frye. I suspect that both of them may have been over their heads. A phil. prof of mine, a Dr. Deck, used to call the English department, the hall of grade B ideas. Meaning that literature is not the conveyer of ideas but of experiences. Of course like most academics he was not entirely wrong or right.

    • David, I have no idea in what way you think either Northrop Frye or Marshall McLuhan were “over their heads”. What’s that even mean, other than being a put-down? The fact is that they are two of Canada’s greatest thinkers and both of them went way beyond what English departments typically do. The fact is that McLuhan was the founder of media studies, especially that aspect of it known as media ecology, the study of media as environments. I have never heard of “Dr. Deck” and probably never will. His comment is typical of the kind of asinine infighting between academic departments that McLuhan loathed. What a dumb comment! Literature conveys ideas in a more influential manner than philosophy does, which is why there is a Nobel Prize for Literature, but none for philosophy………..AlexK
      December 1997 article “In Defense of the McLuhan Doctrine,” Washington Post reporter Scott Rosenberg wrote “…in the 17 years since death stilled the Canadian professor’s scattershot volleys of verbiage; the world has begun to catch up with some of his insights. His fundamental notion, that different media radically transform the human environment, no longer raises eyebrows.” – Rosenberg, S. (Dec. 11, 1997). In Defense Of the McLuhan Doctrine. The Washington Post. Retrieved November 18, 2008, from

      “… McLuhan’s work was, if anything, increasing in relevance, almost as if our information age was crystallizing along the patterns of his vision.”
      – Levinson, P. (1999). Digital McLuhan: A guide to the information millennium. London: Routledge, p. xii).

  2. Hello Alex

    Your blog is mentioned by Michael Happy at _The Educated Imagination_ in the 14 August post, “Frye on McLuhan Roundup”:

    Your reply to David Halliday is excellent. I couldn’t resist; I looked up Dr. Deck on Google. It appears that Halliday’s Dr. Deck is John Norbert Deck (1921-1979), a Canadian philosopher who “inspired generations of students with his highly idiosyncratic form of idealism, deriving from Plotinus but equally rooted in Thomas Aquinas and Hegel.”

    • Veronica, thanks for looking up Dr. Deck for me, which I didn’t have time to do, as I was in New York and wanted to minimize my time online. May Dr. Deck rest in peace! But he still knew little about university English departments, the value of literature, or understand what either McLuhan or Frye were up to. Marshall McLuhan was so far beyond English departments, that many within his University of Toronto department disowned him, spoke out against him, and would have had him booted if he wasn’t tenured. McLuhan went where English departments failed to – to communication and media studies – which is why the latter thrive, while English departments are in decline……..AlexK

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