Media after McLuhan: active extensions of the mind

The work of Marshall McLuhan--still controversial after three decades--remains indispensable for any researcher who considers how different ways of presenting language shape thought and culture. Columbia's James Carey, a noted scholar of communications and economics, is currently exploring the ideas of McLuhan (and of his predecessor Harold Innis) for a full-length study, from which the following passage is taken.

[Marshall] McLuhan...argued that forms of communication such as writing, speech, printing, and broadcasting should not be viewed as neutral vessels carrying given and independently determined meaning. Rather, he proposed that these forms be considered technologies of the intellect, active participants in the process by which the mind is formed and in turn forms ideas. To put the matter differently, he argued that all technical forms were extensions of mind and embodiments of meaning. Technologies of communication were principally things to think with, molders of mind, shapers of thought: the medium was the message. In pressing this argument he opened a new avenue of historical scholarship and rephrased a large set of questions that had vexed scholars.

The second advance McLuhan pioneered and which set certain constraints upon his critics grew directly out of his literary studies. Students of the arts are likely to examine communication with quite a different bias than that advanced by social scientists. The question of the appeal of art is essentially a question of taste, broadly of aesthetics. McLuhan recognized, earlier than most that the new means available for producing and reproducing art would demand and create an entirely new aesthetic. He sensed that cultural forms operated not at the level of cognition or information or even effect. The media of communication affect society principally by changing the dominant structures of taste and feeling, by altering the desired forms of experience. -- James W. Carey

Related links:

  • McLuhan Studies

  • The McLuhan Probes, McLuhan Foundation (e-zine in PDF format; requires Adobe Acrobat Reader)

  • Daniel Chandler, "Technological or Media Determinism," Univesity of Wales, Aberystwyth

  • Gary Wolf, "Channeling McLuhan," Wired

  • Prof. Carey's review of The Video McLuhan, reprinted from Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Spring 1997

    JAMES W. CAREY is CBS Professor of International Journalism at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism. This excerpt is taken from his forthcoming article "Marshall McLuhan: Genealogy and Legacy" and is reprinted with permission from the French journal Quaderni.