Understanding the media of the message: making McLuhan's presuppositions explicit

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    In The Gutenberg Galaxy, Marshall McLuhan states ‘…the ‘is,’ rather than the ‘ought,’ of all these developments is alone being discussed. Diagnosis and description must precede valuation and therapy.’ These words sum up a consistent feature of McLuhan’s work: his desire for it to offer a purely descriptive account of the effects of technology upon culture. Against it, this essay argues that McLuhan’s work contains many implicit assumptions on how technology and culture ought to relate, and that its contemporary relevance is best demonstrated by bringing these assumptions to light. The reason for this, I argue, is that we live in a digital age that shares many of McLuhan’s assumptions, but that encounters challenges foreign to his work. To assess what McLuhan can bring to our understanding of the present age, it is therefore necessary to make his assumptions explicit.
    The main part of the essay seeks to draw out assumptions underlying McLuhan’s work. Since, for McLuhan, ‘the new media of communication in any age… are the source of new assumptions,’ the appropriate method here is to focus on the media through which McLuhan conveyed his message. This requires attention not merely to how McLuhan used print, TV and radio, but also to a host of further factors, for example: his tendencies towards hubris and gnomic expression, his use of metaphors, puns, aphorisms, neologisms, and assertoric sentences, through to his method of ‘probing’. These are the consistent tropes mediating McLuhan’s message. Consequently, I argue, they reveal McLuhan’s own deep assumptions on how communication ought to occur.
    In concluding the essay, I argue for a critical reading of McLuhan that uses awareness of his assumptions to assess the capacity of his work for addressing philosophical, psychological and sociological challenges engendered by contemporary digital culture.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)263-269
    Number of pages7
    JournalRoyal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Science and the Arts: Contact Forum Series
    Publication statusPublished - 2013
    Event "McLuhan's Philosophy of Media" Centennial Conference/Contact Forum - Brussels, Belgium
    Duration: 26 Oct 201128 Oct 2011


    • McLuhan, Marshall
    • Media
    • Information Theory
    • Technology
    • Philosophy of Technology


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