Teaching McLuhan: Understanding Understanding Media

04Nov19

Marshall McLuhan Teaching at the University of Michigan

David Bobbitt, Wesleyan College, (Published: December 30, 2011)

“After three thousand years of explosion, by means of fragmentary and mechanical technologies, the Western world is imploding” (McLuhan 3).1 With these words on the first page of Understanding Media published in 1964, Marshall McLuhan burst onto the intellectual scene with his most influential book. At the time the Commonweal Review called the book “infuriating, brilliant, and incoherent” (Gordon, “Critical Reception” 545). More recently, Nicholas Carr wrote that Understanding Media is “oracular, gnomic, and mind-bending” (1). Terrance Gordon argues that “Understanding Media occupies a central place in McLuhan’s work” but also says that the book “defies summary” (“Editor’s Introduction” xiii).

With its mosaic style Understanding Media is not an easy book to understand or to teach to students. I have been teaching Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media to undergraduates for 18 years.2 When teaching major theorists such as McLuhan, I prefer to expose students to the original texts rather than distillations provided by another author whenever possible. This, of course, presents some difficulties in McLuhan’s case because of his nonlinear style and the complexity of his ideas.

In this essay I will explain how I interpret McLuhan’s Understanding Media to my students. This essay is more interpretative than pedagogical. If we understand what McLuhan is saying in this book and how he is saying it, we can make these ideas understandable to undergraduates. I impose some linearity and coherence on McLuhan by identifying the following four themes that run throughout Part I of the book: media as extensions of ourselves, hot and cold media, the reversal of the overheated medium, and antidotes to the narcotic effects of media. Then my students and I explore the application of these themes in Part II of Understanding Media as McLuhan discusses how his theories apply to specific media.

Media as Extensions of Ourselves

The core of McLuhan’s theory, and the key idea to start with in explaining him, is his definition of media as extensions of ourselves. McLuhan writes: “It is the persistent theme of this book that all technologies are extensions of our physical and nervous systems to increase power and speed” (90) and, “Any extension, whether of skin, hand, or foot, affects the whole psychic and social complex. Some of the principle extensions, together with some of their psychic and social consequences, are studied in this book”(4). From the premise that media, or technologies (McLuhan’s approach makes “media” and “technology” more or less synonymous terms), are extensions of some physical, social, psychological, or intellectual function of humans, flows all of McLuhan’s subsequent ideas. Thus, the wheel extends our feet, the phone extends our voice, television extends our eyes and ears, the computer extends our brain, and electronic media, in general, extend our central nervous system.

In McLuhan’s theory language too is a medium or technology (although one that does not require any physical object outside of ourselves) because it is an extension, or outering, of our inner thoughts, ideas, and feelings—that is, an extension of inner consciousness. McLuhan sees the enormous implications of the development of language for humans when he writes: “It is the extension of man in speech that enables the intellect to detach itself from the vastly wider reality. Without language . . . human intelligence would have remained totally involved in the objects of its attention” (79). Thus, spoken language is the key development in the evolution of human consciousness and culture and the medium from which subsequent technological extensions have evolved.

But recent extensions via electronic technology elevate the process of technological extension to a new level of significance: “Whereas all previous technology (save speech, itself) had, in effect, extended some part of our bodies, electricity may be said to have outered the central nervous system itself, including the brain” (247). Thus, pre-electric extensions are explosions of physical scale outward, while electronic technology is an inward implosion toward shared consciousness, a change that has significant implications. McLuhan states: “Our new electric technology that extends our senses and nerves in a global embrace has large implications for the future of language” (80). This electronic extension of consciousness is one about which McLuhan himself seems conflicted, as when he writes:

Rapidly, we approach the final phase of the extension of man—the technological simulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society, much as we have already extended our senses and nerves by the various media. Whether the extension of consciousness, so long sought by advertisers for specific products, will be ‘a good thing’ is a question that admits of a wide solution. (3-4)

Thus, it is incorrect to categorize McLuhan as either a technophile or a technophobe, as his critics often try to do. McLuhan is more interested in exploring the implications of our technological extensions than in classifying them as inherently “good” or “bad.”

At times McLuhan speaks of a movement toward a global consciousness in positive terms, as when he writes: “might not our current translation of our entire lives into the spiritual form of information seem to make of the entire globe, and of the human family, a single consciousness?” (61). But at other times, he expresses reservations about this development: “With the arrival of electric technology, man extended, or set outside himself, a live model of the central nervous system itself. To the degree that this is so, it is a development that suggests a desperate and suicidal autoamputation . . .” (43). Thus, one of McLuhan’s key concerns in Understanding Media is to examine and make us aware of the implications of the evolution toward the extension of collective human consciousness facilitated by electronic media…
Read the rest of this essay at http://enculturation.net/teaching-mcluhan

I recommend that instructors consider using the Critical Edition of Understanding Media, especially for graduate-level courses. It features an appendix that makes available for the first time the core of the research project that spawned the book and in which individual chapter notes are supported by a glossary of terms, indices of subjects, names, and works cited. There is also a complete bibliography of McLuhan’s published works.
W. Terrence Gordon is Associate General Editor of the Gingko Press McLuhan publishing program, author of the biography Marshall McLuhan: Escape into Understanding and McLuhan for Beginners.



No Responses Yet to “Teaching McLuhan: Understanding Understanding Media

  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


%d bloggers like this: