Marshall McLuhan & James Joyce (Posted on Bloomsday, 2015)



Watercolour by Joan Steacy (see )

McLuhan used the works of James Joyce extensively in his own work. This article deals with the source of many of his most startling observations regarding art, society and technology-James Joyce.  

“Nobody could pretend serious interest in my work who is not completely familiar with all of the works of James Joyce and the French symbolists.” – Marshall McLuhan

The irony of all the complex contradictions of Marshall McLuhan’s variegated career apparently is that he failed to successfully communicate the insights of contemporary poetry and art to communications researchers. Whatever else McLuhan was up to in his sometimes exasperating and, often enigmatic writings, he developed a theory of communication which he considered to be “applied Joyce,” in the same sense that he had analyzed Joyce as developing an aesthetic which was “applied Aquinas.” At one stage or another, the working title for both The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media was “The Road to Finnegans Wake”. In a certain sense, this title was McLuhan’s Work in Progress (Joyce’s own working title for Finnegans Wake).~ Consequently, it has, as McLuhan himself suggests in the epigraph, been unfortunate that many of those involved in communication and cultural studies have never read his works in relation to the history of art and literature from the 1880s to the 1960s. (Read the rest of this essay by downloading this pdf Donald Theall and Joan Theall (1989). Marshall McLuhan & James Joyce: Beyond Media from:- .


Some examples of McLuhan’s use of Joyce, the first one from (1962) The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, p. 74.

“… the natural dichotomy which the book brings into any society, in addition to the split within the individual of that society. The work of James Joyce exhibits a complex clairevoyance in these matters. His Leopold Bloom of Ulysses, a man of many ideas and many vices, is a freelance ad salesman. Joyce saw the parallels, on one hand, between the modern frontier of the verbal and the pictorial and, on the other, between the Homeric world poised between the old sacral culture and the new profane or literate sensibility. Bloom, the newly detribalized Jew, is presented in modern Dublin, a slightly detribalized Irish world. Such a frontier is the modern world of the advertisement, congenial, therefore, to the transitional culture of Bloom. In the seventeenth or Ithaca episode of Ulysses we read: “What were habitually his final meditations? Of some one sole unique advertisement to cause passers to stop in wonder, a poster novelty, with all extraneous accretions excluded, reduced to its simplest and most efficient terms not exceeding the span of casual vision and congruous with the velocity of modern life.”


From McLuhan, M. & Watson, W. (1970). From Cliché to Archetype. New York: Viking.

“It is not insignificant that the great epics from Homer’s Iliad to James Joyce’s Ulysses have concerned the destruction a city, or the destruction which a city has brought about”. (p. 78)

“One of the most successful genres of this age is the book title itself as a “youdunit.” It involves the reader in such titles as: Time and Western Man; The Revolt of the Masses; The Managerial Revolution; The Organization Man; The Affluent Society; Time, Space and Architecture; The Impossible Theater; Management and Machiavelli; Gods, Graves and Scholars; The Hidden Persuaders; Doctors and Drugs; The Death of God; The Double Helix; The Biological Time Bomb. Replacing the encyclopedias of earlier centuries, such books are all “guides to understanding”. Jay’s Management and Machiavelli, for example, uses the same overall pattern as Joyce’s Ulysses. Retrieving the figure of Machiavelli, it uses this as a probe of modern management techniques. Its relevance with respect to managerial practices is, however, subordinated to its attack on the reader’s ego…” (pp. 90-91)

“It should be clear … that standards imposed from above have little value in relating people to one another in environments that have never existed before. The creative value of commercial stereotypes appears in the portrait of Gerty MacDowell in Joyce’s Ulysses. Gerty is a mosaic of banalities that reveals the effect of these forms in shaping and extending our lives. Joyce ebnables the reader to exult and triumph over the trivia by letting him in on the very process by which they dramatize our lives. In the same way, in the newspaper, or “Aeolus,” episode of Ulysses, Joyce deploys for us the world of verbal gimmicks as well as the mechanical operations on which they depend. He floods the entire newsmaking situation with an intelligibility that provides a catharsis for the accumulated effects of the stereotypes in our lives”. (p. 176)


From McLuhan, M., & Nevitt, B. (1972). Take Today: The Executive as Dropout. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

“… Following the nineteenth century obsession with the new “hardware” service environment of road and rail, [Marx] saw the entire historical process as a struggle between the “productive forces” of “hardware” technology and the “production relations” or social hierarchy created through the ownership of that “hardware” — the song of the “steal” men. His proposal to resolve this conflict was for the production workers to take over the production “hardware” instead of exploiting the new “software” environment and the new knowledge industries created by mobility of the nineteenth-century “hardware.” The “Rose of Castile” (the Joycean pun in Ulysses) interrelated the worlds of art and industry and the world of the press and the the book to the world of the railway. Joyce asked: “My producers, are they not my consumers?” IN THE ELECTRIC-INFORMATION AGE, EMPLOYER AND EMPLOYEE MERGE AS AUDIENCE. (p. 181)

For more examples of McLuhan’s use of Joyce’s work see Marshall McLuhan on James Joyce at .

2 Responses to “Marshall McLuhan & James Joyce (Posted on Bloomsday, 2015)”

  1. 1 John Bessai

    Beyond Mediahere (pdf). link needs oermission? thx Alex.

    Sent from my iPhone


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