A Look Back at Marshall McLuhan’s The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962)


This is a non-scholarly journalistic look back at Marshall McLuhan’s The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. It is mostly an appreciation but it also includes some cutting comments about McLuhan’s “obscure” writing style and criticism of McLuhan’s “matrix” structure for the book. He should have read the page that is untitled and unpaginated that precedes page one of the Prologue to The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962); there he wrote of his “mosaic or field approach,” stating that it represents “the galaxy or constellation of events” in a “mosaic of perpetually interacting forms that have undergone kaleidoscopic transformation—particularly in our own time.”  He chose a matrix structure as opposed to a traditional linear approach because he thought it reflected the post-literate “allatonceness” world of electronic media and technology. 

Living in Marshall McLuhan’s Galaxy

One can find fault with his showy, wilfully obscure style, but the world he predicted 50 years ago is the one we live in.

True, you have to get past the fact that it’s a hastily written, over-padded undergraduate term paper. It consists of little more than a series of lengthy, brain-cramping quotations about the alphabet and typography, and scatterings of slick bite-sized ad copy, unborn ideas and incomprehensible references. A cast of brilliant writers including Cervantes, James Joyce, Edgar Allan Poe, Plato, and Shakespeare walk across the book’s stage in roles that, while entertaining if you’re into literature, are more perplexing than illuminative.

But to dismiss it as frustrating gibberish, tempting though this may be, would be foolish. McLuhan, the crafty gadfly, knew exactly what he was doing. For the serious, patient reader, this book reveals, over time, powerful insights into the impact of communications technology on human existence.

In communicating his message, McLuhan eschews clear, linear writing for the “grotesque,” an approach that, in principle, expresses truths by throwing together collections of symbols, leaving it up to the “beholder” to make the connections; truths that would otherwise take much longer to express verbally; a kind of “witty jazz” with no point of view, no linear connection and no sequential order, where the reader participates as co-author.

This may explain why the book starts by leaping immediately to its conclusion, as McLuhan invokes William Blake to explain his delivery:

The Reasoning Spectre Stands between the Vegetative Man & his Immortal Imagination.

By beginning at the end, and throwing all sorts of ideas around in a “mosaic pattern of perception and observation” McLuhan is drawing attention to the fact that print is biased in favour of organised, logical, segmented thinking … when really there’s a whole lot more going on. Reason, he seeks to show, offers only incomplete understanding of the world.

The book’s main topic has to do with the senses we use to make sense of the world. When this orientation changes, men change. And they change when any one sense, or bodily or mental function, is externalised by technology. Imagination is the balance that exists when there is unity of experience, an entire, natural interplay among the senses; when no senses are “outered”. When outered, each sense becomes a closed system, and in “beholding this new thing, man is compelled to become it”.

Plato is quoted as saying that the onset of literacy diminished ontological awareness, thereby impoverishing experience. The stated purpose of The Gutenberg Galaxy is to discover how far the restrictive visual bias was pushed by introduction of the alphabet, then manuscripts, then typography. The message of the book is not that print, or any other communications technology, is good or bad, but rather that to be unconscious of its effect is disastrous. Print-biased man, for example, is unwittingly subjected to “its remorseless power of homogenisation” and is therefore in jeopardy of losing the capacity to imagine freely and independently.

Standing on mentor Harold Innis‘s shoulders, McLuhan suggests that revolution takes place as personal and social life adjusts to new models of perception produced by new technologies. From the alphabet on, he says, there has been a continuous drive in the west toward a separation of the senses which has had a profound impact on our emotional and political existence.

Non-literate modes, says McLuhan, are implicit, simultaneous and discontinuous (much like his text). They existed in the primitive past, and as he predicted, seem to be shaping the future. (Source: https://goo.gl/2NeufV)

Marshall McLuhan, Canadian philosopher, holding a book as he leans over a chair. Photograph, 1966.

No Responses Yet to “A Look Back at Marshall McLuhan’s The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962)”

  1. Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: