Design Legend David Carson Brings Marshall McLuhan’s “Probes” to Life


by    –   February 17, 2012

The greatest living graphic designer brings to life the greatest dead media theorist.

“McLuhan searches for semiotics beneath semiotics, levels of meaning beyond the messenger’s intent or the recipient’s awareness,” Philip B. Meggs once wrote. Though his most famous concept-catchphrases remain “the global village”and “the medium is the message”,Marshall McLuhan originated hundreds of other “probes” — cryptic aphorisms designed to push the reader or recipient into completing a thought process.

In The Book of ProbesEric McLuhan, Marshall’s son, partners with media theorist William Kuhns and David Carson, considered by some the most influential graphic designer working today, to bring to life McLuhan’s sharpest probes culled from his books, speeches, classes, and various writings published between 1945 and 1980. Since McLuhan was as much a master of textual provocation as he was a co-conspirer in a new visual vernacular for the Information Age, Carson’s bold, thoughtful visual metaphors — all 400 gripping pages of them — present a powerful lens on McLuhan’s legacy that is at once completely fresh and completely befitting.

Terrance Gordon, author of the authorized biography Marshall Mcluhan: Escape Into Understanding, writes of the McLuhan-Carson pairing in one of the featured essays:

McLuhan’s words are about words, and Carson responds with a map about maps.

[…] Unlike the spines of a cactus in their tidy rows, McLuhan’s prickly probes zigzag across a vast thoughtscape. Following him, keeping up with him, we have no time to rest or recognize a new location before he beckons us to move on. David Carson comes to our rescue. As translation into the local idiom and bearings for our current whereabouts, his art work roots us for a moment, even as McLuhan pulls us ahead. But Carson does not deliver comforting postcard views; his visual mosaics can leave us just as breathless as the punches of McLuhan’s prose. Snap and shoot, but no snapshots from either artist or writer.

The McLuhan-Carson partnership works constantly to turn symbiosis into synergy.”

The probes themselves, wrapped in Carson’s equally provocative and thought-provoking visual micro-narratives, reveal not one McLuhan but many — the social psychologist (“The content of new situations, both private and corporate, is typically the preceding situation.”), the linguist (“Languages are environments to which the child relates synesthetically.”), the artist (“Color is not so much a visual as a tactile medium.”), the scholar (“The content of new situations, both private and corporate, is typically the preceding situation.”), and a near-infinite number more

(Cue in Paola Antonelli on humanized technology.)

Kuhns points to four recurring keywords that define McLuhan’s probes:conditions (the idea that understanding hinges on the ability to remove oneself from a situation just enough to see the connections between various elements at play), space (the question of the human family’s confines and whether escape is even possible), resonant (the inescapability of our sound environment, which is a prison if we let it but an escape mechanism if we know what to listen for), andtribal drums (the concept of the resonant utterance, inspired by James Joyce’s vision for a western world retribalized by electric technology).

Other critical terms and themes also recur throughout McLuhan’s thinking and writing — the relationship between perception and conception (“Effects are perceived, whereas causes are conceived”), the interplay of figure and ground (“Ground cannot be dealt with conceptually or abstractly — it is ceaselessly changing, dynamic, discontinuous, and heterogeneous, a mosaic of intervals and contours”), semiotics and language (“The right word is not the one that names the thing but the word that gives the effect of the thing”).

Read & see more pictures at Brainpickings:

4 Responses to “Design Legend David Carson Brings Marshall McLuhan’s “Probes” to Life”

  1. Thanks for posting this – very interesting.
    BTW – Do you know a good – but not too difficult – introductory book on McLuhan? I’ve been following this blog for some time and now I’m just as afraid of McLuhan as I am of Derrida. I don’t think just buying one of his books is a good idea for a beginner 🙂

    • It’s always good to read an author himself, rather than someone else’s take on him (or her). Yes, McLuhan’s major books can be difficult to read, but as an introduction I recommend the interview of him published by Playboy Magazine (1969). Because it was intended for a non-academic, general audience, McLuhan comes across with clarity and in considerable detail. You can find the entire text of it here: . Beyond that, “The Medium is the Massage” (1967) is his easiest book to understand, unique in its juxtaposition of photos and text; it is easy to understand and can be read in a few hours.

      For non-academic readable secondary sources, I recommend the following, for which I include links to
      1. “McLuhan for Beginners” by W. Terrence Gordon (his official biographer), a “documentary comic book”: see
      2. “Everyman’s McLuhan” by W. Terrence Gordon et al: see
      3. “McLuhan: A Guide for the Perplexed” again by W. Terrence Gordon: see
      These last three I have ranked in order of difficulty, from easiest to more difficult (from 1 to 3)….AlexK

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