Notes on McLuhan's The Gutenberg Galaxy

I don’t know who wrote these, but here are notes on Marshall McLuhan’s The Gutenberg Galaxy.


“We are today as far into the electric age as the Elizabethans had advanced into the typographical and mechanical age. And we are experiencing the same confusions and indecisions which they had felt when living simultaneously in two contrasted forms of society and experience. Whereas the Elizabethans were poised between medieval corporate experience and modern individualism, we reverse their pattern by confronting an electric technology which would seem to render individualism obsolete and the corporate interdependence mandatory.” (p. 1)

‘In the electronic age which succeeds the typographic and mechanical era of the past five hundred years, we encounter new shapes and structures of human interdependence which are ‘oral’ in form even when the components of the situation may be non-verbal.” (p. 3)

New technologies as sense-extensions. Extending one sense to dominate the others.

“Language is metaphor in the sense that it not only stores but translates experience from one mode into another. Money is metaphor in the sense that it stores skill and labour and also translates one skill into another. But the principle of exchange and translation, or metaphor, is in our rational power to translate all our senses into one another. This we do every instant of our lives … Our extended senses, tools, technologies, through the ages, have been closed systems incapable of interplay or collective awareness. Now, in the electric age, the very instantaneous nature of co-existence among our technological instruments has created a crisis quite new in human history.” (p. 5)

Effects of phonetic writing: creation of Euclidean perceptions. Detribalization. The “open society” as created by phonetic literacy and “thereated with eradication by electric media…” (p. 7).

“That the abstracting or opening of closed societies is the work of the phonetic alphabet, and not of any other form of writing or technology, is one theme of the Gutenberg Galaxy. On the other hand, that closed societies are the product of speech, drum, and ear technologies, brings us at the opening of the electronic age to the sealing of the entire human family into a single global tribe.” (p. 8)

1) The Gutenberg Galaxy

King Lear: maps and visuality. Origins of print culture. Competitive individualism. Transition from a world of “roles” to a world of “jobs” (king). Stripping of senses and separation of sight from other senses.

2) King Lear is a working model of the process of denudation by which men translated themselves from a world of roles to a world of jobs

Chaotic transition from world of traditional roles to new world of individuality, segmentation, and functions.

3) The anguish of the third dimension is given its first verbal manifestation in poetic history in King Lear.

First appearance of three-dimensional perspective in any literature. Selection of a visual “point of view” and “vanishing point”.

4) The interiorization of the technology of the phonetic alphabet translates man from the magical world of the ear to the neutral visual world.

“…A child in any Western milieu is surrounded by an abstract explicit visual technology of uniform time and uniform continuous space in which ‘cause’ is efficient and sequential, and things move and happen on single planes and in successive order. But the African child lives in the implicit, magical world of the resonant oral word.” (A world of sound and touch – direct interconnection and significance).

Societies that are still mainly oral-tactile: Russia, China, India. Russian stress on results of exercising freedom, rather than on the abstract right to freedom of expression.

5) Schizophrenia may be a necessary consequence of literacy.

Phonetic writing: abstraction of meaning from sound. Destabilization of self. Dualism. “Split between mind and heart.”

6) Does the interiorization of media such as letters alter the ratio among our senses and change mental processes?

Plato: Phaedrus. (Compare Derrida: “Plato’s Pharmakon”).

Tribal (pre-literate) language: word is an immediate unity of sound and sense, a “momentary deity” or revelation.

7) Civilization gives the barbarian or tribal man an eye for an ear and is now at odds with the electronic world.

The depths of non-literate understand correspond with the most recent results of art and science. “To explain that paradox will be an aspect of the present book. It is a theme around which much emotion and controversy are daily engendered as our world shifts from a visual to an auditory orientation in its electric technology.” (p. 26).

Absolute break between phonetic writing and all other kinds of writing. Chinese culture, e.g., remains “tribal.” Tribal view: natural unity between word and thing, “magic” connection.

8) The modern scientist is at home with oriental field theory.

“…Today, as electricity creates conditions of extreme interdependence on a global scale, we move swiftly again into an auditory world of simultaneous events and over-all awareness…” (pp. 28-29)

Heisenberg on technology. Rage against machines. Modern physics “abandons the specialized visual space of Descartes and Newton [and] re-enters the subtle auditory space of the non-literate world.” (p. 30). New pluralism of cultures.

“But certainly the electro-magnetic discoveries have recreated the simultaneous ‘field’ in all human affairs so that the human family now exists under conditions of a ‘global village.’ We live in a single constricted space resonant with tribal drums.” (p. 31)

9) The new electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village

Tielhard de Chardin. Noosphere: an electronic “brain” for the world “Terror is the normal state of any oral society, for in it everything affects everything all the time.”

10) Literacy affects the physiology as well as the psychic life of the African

African students. Changes arising with literacy.

“My suggestion is that cultural ecology has a reasonably stable base in the human sensorium, and that any extension of the sensorium by technological dilation has a quite appreciable effect in setting up new ratios or proportions among all the senses. Languages being that form of technology constituted by dilation or uttering (outering) of all of our senses at once, are themselves immediately subject to the impact or intrusion of any mechanically extended sense.” (p. 35)

11) Why non-literate societies cannot see films or photos without much training.

African students: trouble “getting” conventions of narrative film. Pre-literate people are “with” the object rather than the scene.

12) African audiences cannot accept our passive consumer role in the presence of film.

Viewing films as participants. Trouble abstracting a “consumer” point of view. Compare TV.

13) When technology extends one of our senses, a new translation of culture occurs as swiftly as the new technology is interiorized.

New technology extends on or more of our senses into the world, thus changing the ratios among our senses. Auditory field: mosaic or “two-dimensional” approach. (as opposed to three-dimensionality of the “visual” field).

14) A theory of cultural change is impossible without knowledge of the changing sense ratios effected by various externalizations of our senses.

“primitive” drawing tends to be 2-dimensional; “literate” drawing and painting 3-dimensional and perspective.

First writing: enclosed spaces (end of nomadism). Literacy and melody (repetition, enclosure, the wheel).

15) The twentieth century encounter between alphabetic and electronic faces of culture confers on the printed word a crucial role in staying the return to the Africa within.

Invention of alphabet. Seperation of process from effect. Speech as “content” of phonetic writing. Pictographic and ideographic variants of writing. Formulas (e=mc2) or “figures of rhetoric”. Structures with “no content”. Return to picture-writing.

16) Current concern with reading and spelling reform steers away from visual to auditory stress.

Growing unrest about our alphabetic dissociation of the senses. Alphabet as essential to civilization.

17) The alphabet is an aggressive and militant absorber and transformer of cultures

A society that has an alphabet can “translate” any other society into alphabetic mode (by writing down the “sounds”). But this is a one-way process.

“By the meaningless sign linked to the meaningless sound we have built the shape and meaning of Western man.” (p. 50)

18) The Homeric hero becomes a split-man as he assumes an individual ego.

Mimesis in Plato: necessary effect of separating out the visual mode from audile-tactile interplay of senses. Detribalization and move from “sacred” space of phonetic literacy to “profane” space of civilized man. Movement toward individual with individual ego. Detribalization, individualization, pictorialization. Mimesis as representation (esp. visual); but literacy (abstract visuality) as a dimunition of Being.

19) The world of the Greeks illustrates why visual appearances cannot interest a people before the interiorization of alphabetic technology.

Manuscript phase of alphabetic technology doesn’t yet suffice to completely separate visual from tactile. Only mass production of movable type can do that.

Present day: return to “audile-tactile” of radio, electricity, “the Africa within”.

20) The Greek point of view in both art and chronology has little in common with ours but was much like that of the middle ages.

Greek time sense: like foreshortening WITHOUT a fixed point of view or vanishing point. Homer: all events in foreground, uniform illumination, free expression, few elements of psychological perspective.

Pre-socratic philosophers and post-literate scientists of today.

21) The Greeks invented both their artistic and scientific novelties after the interiorization of the alphabet.

Homogeneity and repeatability: emergence from audile-tactile (to visual) matrix.

22) The continuity of Greek and medieval art was assured by the bond between caelatura or engraving and illumination.

Paper and illumination.

23) The increase of visual stress among the Greeks alienated them from the primitive art that the electronic age now reinvents after interiorizing the unified field of electric all-at-onceness.

Greek art as a mosaic configuration: similar items in a field.

24) A nomadic society cannot experience enclosed space.

Primitive art. Indifference of non-literate man to visual values. Multidirectional orientation.

25) Primitivism has become the vulgar cliché of much modern art and speculation.

Recent nostalgia for the “sacral”. Eliade. “The art and scholarship of the past century and more have become a monotonous crescendo of archaic primitivism.”

26) The Gutenberg Galaxy is concerned to show why alphabetic man was disposed to desacralize his mode of being.

Making a conscious choice of whether to return to tribal mode. Blake: reaction against the visual culture of his time.

27) The method of the twentieth century is to use not single but multiple models for experimental exploration – the technique of the suspended judgment.

Mythical, pre-literate cultures experience all levels of meaning as simultaneous. “As our age translates itself back into the oral and auditory modes because of the electronic pressure of simultaneity, we become sharply aware of the uncritical acceptance of visual metaphors and models by many past centuries.” (Ryle). Dominance of one sense = hypnosis.

28) Only a fraction of the history of literacy has been typographic.

Transition to concern with print. Joyce: parallels between today’s transitional moment (from print culture back to pictoral) and Homer. “As his title indicates, he saw that the wake of human progress can disappear again into the night of sacral or auditory man.” (p. 75)

29) Until now a culture has been a mechanical fate for societies, the automatic interiorization of their own technologies.

Most previous cultures have accepted their own cultures as fate.

30) The techniques of uniformity and repeatability were introduced by the Romans and the Middle Ages.

Persistent compulsion to split form and content leads to ignorance of specific effects of technological media. Repeatability built into phonetic written characters.

31) The word modern was a term of reproach used by the patristic humanists against the medieval schoolmen who developed the new logic and physics.

Continued development of visual stress. INVENTION of movable TYPE. New understanding of physical world: measurable quantities, uniform motion.

32) In antiquity and the Middle Ages reading was necessarily reading aloud.

Manuscripts were read aloud: oral and tactile. New strategies of modernist poets for getting the reader to read aloud again.

33) manuscript culture is conversational if only because the writer and his audience are physically related by the form of publication as performance.

Manuscript culture and “audience”. Words written to be read aloud (i.e. performed).

34) The manuscript shaped mideval literary conventions at all levels.

Effects on medieval literary conventions. Books meant to be read aloud are meant to be copied. “Spelling” as sacred. Reading as sequential: no “scanning”. Production of techniques of memory and memorization.

35) The traditional lore of school children points to the gap between the scribal and typographic man.

Schoolchildren: transmission of nursery rhymes; community and tenacity of tradition

36) The medieval monks’ reading carrel was indeed a singing booth.

Reading booth as singing booth: connection to memory.

37) In the chantry schools grammar served, above all, to establish oral fidelity.

Medieval writing as inseperable from oral and oratory. Grammar as establishing the right way to speak/read.

38) The medieval student had to be paleographer, editor, and publisher of the authors he read.

Method of dictations. Writing as taking dictation.

39) Aquinas explains why Socrates, Christ, and Pythagoras avoided the publication of their teachings.

Aquinas: writing would have detracted from dignity of oral teaching. Not yet an independent source of knowledge. Writing as essentially connected with oral communication.

40) The rise of the schoolmen or moderni in the twelfth century made a sharp break with the ancients of traditional Christian scholarship.

Rise of universities in 12th century. Method of disputation; abstraction from larger context to consider particular questions. (break with ars grammatica)

41) Scholasticism, like Senacanism, was directly related to the oral traditions of aphoristic learning.

Oral style and techniques of oral memory: rhyme, alliterations, dependence on pun, alliteration, aphorism. In oral society: text as immediate voice of auctor. Oral bias toward aphorisms is rapidly altered in 16th century (with advent of print).

42) Scribal culture and Gothic architecture were both concerned with light through, not light on.

Illumination as “light through” a text (stained glass). The “literal” level as an interplay of light through a text. With print, by contrast: light on everything; space and time as abstract containers. In Medieval, space not yet a container (little furniture)

43) Medieval illumination, gloss, and sculpture alike were aspects of the art of memory, central to scribal culture.

Arts of memory: training of memory for voice. Oratory.

44) For the oral man the literal text contains all possible levels of meaning.

Use of dialectic to recover thoughts of author. The literal as inclusive of all possible meanings and levels. Later (with print): separation of levels. Auditory field as simultaneous, visual field as successive.

45) The sheer increase in the quantity of information movement favoured the visual organization of knowledge and the rise of perspective even before typography.

Transition from “light through” to “light on.” “POINT of VIEW” or fixed position of reader. Development of PERSPECTIVE.

46) The same clash between written and oral structures of knowledge occurs in medieval social life.

Feudal structures. “Centers without margins”. Juxtaposition of specialists with new class of tradesmen and “avant-garde”.

47) The medieval world ended in a frenzy of applied knowledge – new medieval knowledge applied to the recreation of antiquity.

Frenzy of specialized practices: re-creation of classical world as “Hollywood sets”

48) Renaissance Italy became a kind of Hollywood collection of sets of antiquity, and the new visual antiquarianism of the Renaissance provided an avenue to power for men of any class.

Transiton to age of visual. Applied knowledge provides possibility for translation of audile-tactile experience into visual terms.

49) Medieval idols of the king.

Distinction between private and corporate (sovereign) body of King. Analytic separation of functions between PERSON of King and what he stands for. Intensified by move toward visual culture. Constitution of the “body politic”.

50) The invention of typography confirmed and extended the new visual stress of applied knowledge, providing the first uniformly repeatable commodity, the first assembly-line, and the first mass-production.

PRINT: the first mass production. Typography as like cinema. Reduction of handicraft to mechanical terms (simple, repeatable elements). Reader in role of “move projector”. Print makes reading aloud pointless. Print as first uniform, repeatable “commodity”. Visual homogenizing of experience in print culture. New invention of “point of view” and perspectivism.

51) A fixed point of view becomes possible with print and ends the image as a plastic organism.

“There is then this great paradox of the Gutenberg era, that its seeming activism is cinematic in the strict movie sense. It is a consistent series of static shots or ‘fixed points of view’ in homogeneous relationship. Homogenization of men and materials will become the great program of the Gutenberg era, the source of wealth and power unknown to any other time or technology.” (p. 127)

52) How the natural magic of the camera obscura anticipated Hollywood in turning the spectacle of the external world into a consumer commodity or package.

Camera obscura: the separable image. Preservation and repeatability of the image in itself.

53) St. Thomas More offers a plan for a bridge over the turbulent river of scholastic philosophy.

Movement away from traditional scholastic dialogue (oral and conversational). Toward invention of a visual “method”: New sequential processing of problems. It took a long time for people to react appropriately to print. Producer and consumer of text as arising from print. Failure at first to understand typography. Compare to current failure to understand new “organic” production.

54) Scribal culture could have neither authors nor publics such as were created by typography.

Scribal culture: indifference to identity of the AUTHOR of a text. No standard practices of citation or duplication. PRINT makes possible the BROADCAST of a PRIVATE image to a PUBLIC audience. Print as the first “mass medium.” Print constitutes the PRIVATE and the PUBLIC (such as we understand it).

“It is not entirely self-evident today that typography should have been the means and occasion of individualism and self-expression in society. That it should have been the means of fostering habits of private property, privacy, and many forms of ‘enclosure’ is, perhaps, more evident. But most obvious is the fact of printed publication as the direct means of fame and perpetual memory. For, until the modern movie, there had been in the world no means of broadcasting a private image to equal the printed book.” (p. 131) Concerns with AUTHORSHIP begin with print.

55) The medieval book trade was a second-hand trade even as with the dealing today in old masters.

Medieval readers: indifferent to chronology of authorship. Typography and homogeneity. “But lest it be inferred that this effect of print culture is a ‘bad thing,’ let us consider rather that homogeneity is quite incompatible with electronic culture. We now live in the early part of an age for which the meaning of print culture is becoming as alien as the meaning of manuscript culture was to the eighteenth century … For the electronic age, as de Chardin insisted, is not mechanical but organic, and has little sympathy with the values achieved through typography, ‘this mechanical way of writing’ as it was called at first.” (p. 135)

56) Until more than two centuries after printing nobody discovered how to maintain a single tone or attitude throughout a prose composition.

Prose still remained “oral” rather than visual for centuries after the invention of typography. Chaucer still has no “consistent point of view”. Invention of point of view (Milton). (The novel (Cervantes, Defoe)).

57) Later medieval visual stress muddied liturgical piety as much as electronic-field pressure has clarified it today.

Liturgy as political act (Merton). Decline of liturgical practice with advent of print. Return of liturgical practice today.

“With regard only to our new electronic technology, it might baffle many to explain why there should be such a profound liturgical revival in our time, unless they were aware of the essentially oral character of the electric ‘field.’ Today there is a ‘High Church’ movement within Presbyterianism as well as in many other sects. The merely individual and visual aspects of worship no longer satisfy.” (pp. 138-39)

“Print as an immediate technological extension of the human person gave its first age an unprecedented access of power and vehemence. Visually, print is very much more ‘high definition’ than the manuscript. Print was, that is to say, a very ‘hot’ medium coming into a world that for thousands of years had been served by the ‘cool’ medium of script. Thus our own ‘roaring twenties’ were the first to feel the hot movie medium and also the hot radio medium. It was the first great consumer age. So with print Europe experienced its first consumer phase, for not only is print a consumer medium and commodity, but it taught men how to organize all other activities on a systematic lineal basis. It showed men how to create markets and national armies. For the hot medium of print enabled men to see their vernaculars for the first time, and to visualize the national unity and power in terms of the vernacular bounds … Inseparable from a nationalism of homogenous English or French speakers was individualism.” (pp. 138-39).

Liturgy of Catholic church still carries deep marks of effects of visual technology. Visuality of hierarchy (“great chain of being”) Current changes in management and industrial organization reverse this trend toward visuality. New decentralization, reversal of hierarchies, move away from pyramidal, specialist forms of organization.

“The ‘simultaneous field’ of electric information structures, today reconstitutes the conditions and need for dialogue and participation, rather than specialism and private initiative in all levels of social experience. Our present involvement in these new kinds of interdependence produces in many an involuntary alienation from our Renaissance heritage. But for the readers of this book it is hoped that we can deepen our understanding both of the typographic and the electronic revolutions.” (p. 141).

First published Jun 8, 2021