• Lydia H. Liu, The Freudian Robot: Digital Media and the Future of the Unconscious (Chicago: U Chicago P, 2010)

8:  “McLuhan and many of his followers are still toeing the line of Confucius’s disciple Zigong when they repeat ad nauseam that the physiological deficiencies of the human species are in need of prosthetic extension through technology. It is one thing to argue that the memory capacity of the human brain can be greatly extended by the increased power of a microchip computer and quite another to argue that the logic of the computer—and communication networks in general—is the same as the logic of the human psyche itself. In fact, the argument of technological prosthesis never works well in the latter case, especially in regard to cybernetic research. The prosthetic argument is actually an alibi for something more fundamental that has been going on since the mid-twentieth century, and this is the cybernetic conception of the human psyche as a computing machine.”

34:  “Marshall McLuhan’s comment on the television’s bombardment of the viewer with light pulses of three million dots matrix per second merely scratches the surface of how the mass media exploited the continuum of consciousness and the unconscious for effective socioeconomic and ideological gain.”

68ff:  “the persistence of logocentricism in media studies since the time of Marshall McLuhan as well as in digital media studies more recently continues to obscure the ideographic unfolding of alphabetical writing and renders it unthinkable by doing one of two things: first, it opposes alphabetical writing to the so-called pictographic, ideographic, or logographic systems of writing on superficial grounds of the script system; second, it confuses the linguistic with the writing system and further collapses the one or the other with the idea of script (writing systems are language specific whereas scripts are not).

It is interesting that McLuhan was among the first of literary scholars to grasp the importance of Joyce’s modernist experiment for understanding media technology, but he did not use the same insight to revise his mistaken views of the phonetic alphabet. Those views, shared by many in media studies, continue to buttress the claims people make about the advances in print technology, telecommunication, and biocybernetic technologies since the introduction of movable type into Europe. Here we need not be overly concerned with the misplaced arrogance in the well-entrenched view that Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type. What matters rather is the familiar intellectual claim McLuhan has advanced on behalf of the phonetic alphabet as a technology. In Understanding Media, he asserts:

The phonetic alphabet is a unique technology. There have been many kinds of writing, pictographic and syllabic, but there is only one phonetic alphabet in which semantically meaningless letters are used to correspond to semantically meaningless sounds. This stark division and parallelism between a visual and an auditory world was both crude and ruthless, culturally speaking. The phonetically written word sacrifices worlds of meaning and perception that were secured by forms like the hieroglyph and the Chinese ideogram. These culturally richer forms of writing, however, offered men no means of sudden transfer from the magically discontinuous and traditional world of the tribal word into the cool and uniform visual medium. Many centuries of ideogrammic use have not threatened the seamless web of family and tribal subtleties of Chinese society. On the other hand, a single generation of alphabetic literacy suffices in Africa today, as in Gaul two thousand years ago, to release the individual initially, at least, from the tribal web.

If this argument sounds persuasive at the commonsense level, it is deeply flawed at the conceptual level, not the least because it is compromised by ignorance. McLuhan imputes primitive pictographic thinking to nonalphabetical writing—confusing the pictographic and ideographic—despite the fact that that view had been discredited before his time.69 Rudimentary knowledge of semiotics or mathematical symbols would have taught us that nonphonetic, visual signs need not be “pictograms” or “tribal” to function as semiotic media. Where the primitivizing of nonalphabetical writing has succeeded so well is the supplementary mystification of the phonetic alphabet itself, which has been the main object of our investigation. For the question then becomes this: by what magic does the “cool and uniform visual medium” of “meaningless” phonetic symbols come to bear meaning at all? Not being able to explain either the science or magic of the phonetic alphabet, one is forced to evoke the familiar position of modern linguistic theory and insist that the phonetic letters represent “meaningless” sounds in speech.”

111: “With the invention of the typewriter, the cause of alphabetical writing was so vastly advanced that many, including McLuhan, began to attribute so-called Western rationality and modern progress to the phonetic alphabet itself. To be consistent in his argument, McLuhan went out of his way to argue that the printing technology and movable type were also invented in Europe. Nevertheless, McLuhan has touched upon a fascinating issue concerning the relationship of script and telecommunication, for there is something to be said about the essential differences between the phonetic alphabet as a simple code on the one hand and, on the other, the square-block character script, legal contracts, signatures, forms, various styles of font type like italics and cursive in alphabetical or nonalphabeti- cal script, not to mention other marks or patterns that cannot be reduced to simple uniform code when it comes to telecommunication. In the age of the typewriter, the degree of difficulty in reproducing the square-block character script and other complex fonts in alphabetical writing was severely constrained by the simplicity of the technology itself. The limitation of the typewriter was overcome by the introduction and popularization of the facsimile machine and then by the more sophisticated computing technology.”

  • Steve Lohr, “Now Playing: Night of the Living Tech: A faster-moving drama in which Web-era media evolve unpredictably,” The New York Times: Week in Review, 22 August 2010, pp. 1; 4

Life in the media and communications terrarium, it seems, is getting increasingly perilous. The predictions of demise are piling up. Phone calls, e-mail, blogs and Facebook, according to digerati pundits recently, are speeding toward the grave. Last week, Wired magazine proclaimed, “The Web is Dead.”

Yet evolution–not extinction–has always been the primary rule of media ecology. New media predators rise up, but other media species typically adapt rather than perish. That is the message of both history and leading media theorists, like Marshall McLuhan, [father of media-adaptation theory; p. 4] and Neil Postman. Television, for example, was seen as a threat to radio and movies, though both evolved and survived.

  • John Guillory, “Genesis of the Media Concept,” Critical Inquiry 36 (Winter 2010) 321-362

Nearly all works written before the sixteenth century … are transmitted in the remediated form of print, as well as (usually) translated into modern languages, arguably a form of remediation as well. For the concept of remediation, see Jay Daivd Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media (Cambridge, Mass., 1999). The notion derives ultimately from Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964; Corte Madera, Calif., 2003), p. 19: “the ‘content’ of any medium is always another medium.”

  • Mark B.N. Hansen, “New Media,” in Critical Terms for Media Studies, ed. Hansen and W.J.T. Mitchell (Chicago: Chicago UP, 2010) 172-185

“Perhaps the most crucial dimension of McLuhan’s vision for the topic of new media is his concerted effort to couple media form and media use. Indeed, it is perhaps this dimension that best anticipates current developments in social networking technologies, developments dubbed Web 2.0, that have driven home the profound interdependence of content (use) and form (technology) in the wired age. Far from the technological determinist he has commonly and simplistically been held to be, McLuhan can now be seen as the keen social analyst he always was. In arguing that the ‘medium is the message,’ McLuhan certainly did not intend to advance a purely formalistic doctrine; rather, he sought to establish and to foreground the large-scale societal impact of particular media as a phenomenon distinct from their concrete deployments by individuals and groups.” (175)

  • W.J.T. Mitchell and Mark B. N. Hansen, “Introduction” to Critical Terms for Media Studies, ed. Mitchell and Hansen (Chicago: U Chicago P, 2010) vii-xxii.

“The passage from content to medium, from a plurality of divergent contents to the collective singular, lies at the heart of what is arguably the first and still most influential effort to articulate a comprehensive theory of media. In Understanding Media (1964), Marshall McLuhan famously identified the medium and the message, or rather, he identified the message as the medium itself.” (x)

“Though some, perhaps many, practitioners of media studies find this deeply problematic, McLuhan’s redirection is foundational for ‘media studies’ in the sense that we employ it here. For precisely this reason, his approach has a capaciousness that can encompass the multiple and historically disjunctive origins of the term media as well as related terms like medium and mediation.” (xi)

“McLuhan is the recognized source for Friedrich Kittler’s media science.” (xii)

“[T]he very burden of this volume [is] its neo-McLuhanesque injunction to understand from the perspective of media. Rather than determining our situation [as Kittler suggests], we might better say that the media are our situation.” (xxii)

  • John Durham Peters, “Introduction: Friedrich Kittler’s Light Shows,” in Kittler, Optical Media: Berlin Lectures 1999, trans. Anthony Enns (Cambridge: Polity P, 2010) 1-17

The one natural link of Kittler’s work in extant media studies is to the Canadian tradition of Innis and McLuhan. Innis’s great contribution was the notion of ‘bias’ in time and space, and McLuhan’s was the notion of media as human extensions (or amputations). Kittler’s key contribution is the notion of ‘time-axis manipulation.’ He is the pre-eminent thinker of time-based media and what it means to edit the flow of time with technical means. Like most scholars [sic], Kittler would rather be compared to Innis than McLuhan and this is quite fair intellectually [sic]. Kittler’s materialist account of history, love of ancient Greece, and disdain for the kind of body-humanism at the heart of McLuhan’s thought puts him closer to Innis. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, the most astute commentator on Kittler in English, calls Kittler ‘Innis in battle fatigues.’ But his persona–witty, arch, devil-may-care, politically incorrect–is closer to McLuhan. In tone, Kittler also is closer to McLuhan’s flamboyant vaticism than to Innis’s cranky accumulation of detail. Like both Canadians, his subject is the play of media in history, but he has taken a step forward over either. Over Innis’s staccato inventories of historical occurrences and McLuhan’s defiance of rigor, we have in Kittler a kind of media analysis whose method is dialectically acute and philosophically deep. Kittler brings a Hegelian ambition and lucidity to media studies. (6)

Media, for Kittler, are always about themselves. In this, he subordinates content to form, quite in the spirit of McLuhan. (15)

  •  Friedrich Kittler, Optical Media: Berlin Lectures 1999, trans. Anthony Enns, with an introduction by John Durham Peters (Cambridge: Polity P, 2010)

The basic concept in the following history and analysis is the concept of the medium in the technical sense, which was developed above all by Marshall McLuhan, whose work was based on the fundamental historical groundwork laid by Harold Adams Innis. (29)

You are presumably familiar with the famous formula that the medium is the message. Without this formula, which virtually prohibits looking for something else behind technically manufactured surfaces, media studies would actually continue to have a subject … but media studies itself would not exist as such in isolation or with any methodological clarity. (31)

  • Glenn Willmott, “Waking Up to the Call Girl,” in Transforming McLuhan: Cultural, Critical and Postmodern Perspectives, ed. Paul Grosswiler (N.Y.: Peter Lang, 2010) 37-65

“Indeed, McLuhan’s most startling quality is his deconstruction of the conscious / unconscious discursive hierarchy upon which The Mechanical Bride and modern cultural criticism more generally has been based. Hence the archetype must not be understood merely as the ‘coming to consciousness’ of a cliche, but as an ongoing retracing of that very process itself as it stages itself, as it plays itself out in [a] series of cultural productions of the ‘authentic’ (conscious) self and ‘real’ (basic) social forms. Such a retracing is not wholly conscious, nor guided by conscious or individual mastery. When McLuhan says … that everything he says is quoted or borrowed, or he emphasizes collective dialogue over individual argument, there is something to it that goes to the heart of his intellectual project in the sixties and beyond.” (61)

  • Marks, Laura U., Enfoldment and Infinity: An Islamic Genealogy of New Media Art (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT P, 2010)

“Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964) influenced a generation of techno-hippie media tribalists. The movement took shape in video collectives like Videofreex, TVTV, Raindance, Ant Farm, and, in Canada, the Challenge for Change / Societe Nouvelle.” (142)

  • Christian Huck, Fashioning Society, or, the Mode of Modernity: Observing Fashion in 18th Century Britain (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2010)

“With the written alphabet, and even more so with print becoming the dominant mode of communication, other forms of perception are devalued—as McLuhan famously argued. Visual perceptions, gained from a distance, emerge as the preferred subject for print communication, which is also predisposed to giving information about distant (absent) objects. In the end, people are enabled to learn what to expect before travelling into the Far East, or taking a walk east of the City. They are, indeed, enabled to take a close-up look from a safe distance. (That this, of course, also produces new forms of proximity will be the subject of later chapters.)”


  • Various authors, “Readers’ Forum: The Age of McLuhan, 100 Years On,” English Studies in Canada 36:2-3 (June/September 2010)1-32. [authors include Marco Adria, Catherine Adams, B.W.Powe, Richard Cavell, Gordon Gow, David Black, Wayne DeFehr).

12  “McLuhan’s theoretical quest was left in probing incompletion. His resistance to the label ‘theorist’ was in part comic, in part a refusal to totalize his thought. No matter how variably alive he was in his shape-shifting, McLuhan left discontinuities. His gaps poetic reconstructions.” [introduction]

  • Mervyn Nicholson, review of David Rampton, ed., Northrop Frye: New Directions from Old (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2009), in English Studies in Canada 36:2-3 (June-Sept. 2010)235-238

237:  “[T]here is a lot going against Frye. Marshall McLuhan appears to have won the big rivalry, even though McLuhan, insofar as I understand him, is a much more limited thinker. Frye is arguably the most original intellectual Canada has produced. Because Frye did not fit the categories with which the academy is familiar, he was easy to caricature and to diminish, and no thinker has been so terribly misrepresented as Frye.”