McLuhan, Marshall — Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man

In the first 70 pages of Understanding Media, McLuhan theorizes about the cultural implications of the turn toward electronic technology in a growing globalized arena.  He advocates for a kind of education that trains perception; afterall, in our global village, we should have a “heightened awareness of responsiblity” about the effects of media on culture (5).   McLuhan emphasizes that the medium is the message; not only because the “content of any medium is another medium” (8) but also because any “medium shapes and controls the scale and form of human action” (9).  McLuhan also reminds us that “no medium has its meaning or existence alone, but only in constant interplay with other media” (26).  In our time, we are concerned not with meaning of media but effect (26). 


McLuhan perceives media to be an extension of ourselves; he claims that we embrace these extensions or accept them into our personal systems, which leads to new relationships with these extensions (45-6).  We both modify and are modified by technology (48).  McLuhan calls these extensions “make happen agents” (48), which “depend on us for their interplay and evolution” (49).  Westerners, especially, must come to terms with this interdependence (50).  McLulan uses the electric light as an extreme example of how all media reshape society.  He also points to the phenomenon of media interacting amongst themselves, which results in an extension of our senses (54-5) as well as our “habits of life and patterns of thought and valuation” (63).  For instance, where as linear thinking and analysis were main thought patterns of mechanical age (also, rational thought = uniform, continuos, and sequential), structuring and configuring reign now in electronic age (26), ie. centering to decentering.


In the electronic age in which media stores experience, McLuhan claims that media translates and transforms experience. Translation, he explains, is a “’spelling out’ of forms of knowing (56).  He claims that in an electronic age, “we see ourselves being translated more and more into forms of information, moving toward technological extensions of consciousness” (57).  In doing so, we “translate ourselves into the other forms of expression that exceed ourselves” (57).   These forms become an “external conscience, which is now as necessary as private consciousness” (58).  In this way, “all media are extensions of ourselves to provide new transforming vision and awareness” (60).


Interestingly, McLuhan claims that artists have an uncanny potential to tap into the awareness of electronic technology’s impact on culture, even before the impact occurs; artists, capable of integral awareness, are prophetic in that they produce art that is “precise advance knowledge of how to cope with psychic and social consequences of …[a] new technology” (66).  Unlike other citizens of a culture, artists have “power for encountering the present actuality” (70).  McLuhan encourages the rest of us to harness our will power to make sure we are well informed and aware.  For “as long as we adopt the Narcissus attitude of regarding the extensions of our own bodies [media] as out there, and really independent of us, we will meet all technological challenges with the same sort of banana-skin piroutte and collapse” (68).


See Written Notes for More: 


Key Questions Addressed:

Why is it important to understand the rhetorical of visual, cultural objects?  Why is it important for rhetorical education to train our students perceptions?  How is the turn toward electronic technology reshaping the way we perceive and behave in the world?



Key Concepts


Translation—‘spelling out’ of forms of knowing (56)

Mechanization—translation of nature, and of our own natures, into amplified and specialized forms -56

Break boundary—point at which system of any medium or structures suddently changes into another or passes some point of no return in its dynamic processes—common cause is cross-fertilization with another system (38)


Key Quotes: 


“every culture and every age has its favorite model of perception and knowledge that it is inclined to prescribe for everybody and everything—mark of time is its revulsion agains t imposed patterns” (5)


“the message of any medium or technology is change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces to human affairs” (8). 


“development of writing and visual organization of life made possible discovery of individualism, introspection, and so on” (45)


“in the history of human culture, there is no example of a conscious adjustment of the various factors of personal and social life to new extensions except in the puny and peripheral efforts of artists” (64).


“artists is indispensable in the shaping and analysis and understanding of the life of forms and structures created by electronic technology” (65)


quoting Wyndam Lewis—“the artists is always engaged in writing a detailed history of the future because he is the only person aware of the nature of the present” (65). 


“The hybrid or the meeting of two media is a moment of truth and revaluation from which a new form is born—that  moment of the meeting of media is a moment of freedom and release from the ordinary trance and numbness imposed by them on our senses” (55)


“We wear mankind as our skin” (48).  “Age of anxiety and electronic media is also the age of unconscious and of apathy.  But it is also the age of consciousness of the unconscious”—social consciousness (48).


“When we fail to translate some natural event or experience into conscious art, we repress it” (59)  —Freud


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