The Gutenberg Galaxy: Centennial Edition with New Essays by W. Terrence Gordon, Elena Lamberti, and Dominique Scheffel-Dunand Paperback – 31 Jul 2011
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'The book that helped establish McLuhan as the original media guru.' --The New York Times
About the Author
Marshall McLuhan (1911 - 1980) was a literature scholar and the founder of the Centre for Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto.
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Another way of looking at this is to say that in McLuhan's view, history is not determined by politics or economics or weather or science per se so much as by our media--the "extensions of man." This book is a must-read followup to anyone who liked "Understanding Media"; it's also a great book to cut one's teeth on before reading "Understanding Media" because it's a more traditional (i.e., formal and linear) type of academic work. And undeniably brilliant. For what it's worth, I was a communications major at the University of Virginia in the mid-1970s when reading McLuhan's work was rougher than it is now; many of his concepts like "global village" have since filtered thru society. But I read all of McLuhan's media-oriented writings, wrote term papers on him, and feel as though I benefited as a result--he's the main reason I'm a writer today.
McLuhan 'glosses' through a wide range of scattered historical pieces of information to show how oral, written and print cultures have different patterns. He ably shows how printing also transformed art, architecture, society and industry.
The book is thoroughly historical, dense and rich in informative detail. It forms the foundation for McLuhan's clearer theoretical articulation of his ideas in 'Understanding Media', but is more accessible to the layman.
This book belongs to a pantheon of books that revolve around similar ideas like Harold Innis's 'Empire and Communications' & 'The Bias of Communication'; Walter J. Ong's 'Orality and Literacy' and William J. Ivins's 'Print and Visual Culture' and 'Art and Geometry'. But this is the most sweeping, convincing, dramatic statement of the common theory proposed by these various writers.
And for those who love theory with a dose of history, this makes for really delightful reading.
But despite my objection I understood that McLuhan was saying startling new( for me anyway) things in a brilliant way. He was connecting fields of endeavor exhibiting a kind of thinking, I could only admire. I might not understand the epigrammatic flashes he scatters throughout the work but I had a sense of them being deep and profound. In another sense it was clear to me McLuhan was the cultural critic who himself is a remarkable kind of creator.
Now it is over forty years since this book was published and we live in an Internet era in which the degree of participation of individuals in producing material for a wider public is far greater than before. This small review is evidence of that for it can conceivably reach any of millions of Amazon readers. In the past I could write such a review for myself and put it in the drawer. Or try to get it into a magazine where it might be read by a few hundred or maximum a few thousand before being forgotten about.
Yet just as it is possible to have great reservations about what has and what is going to happen to the overall intellectual development of Mankind( thanks to the Internet) so it is possible to have reservations for the electronic age global community which produces hate- literature and pornography in vast quantities ( not to speak of millions and millions of mediocre pages which no one should be asked to read )
This book does not as I understand it hold the key to the Age we live in, or to the human future. But it is chucked full of wonderful insights suppositions suggestions connections that the reader can be illuminated and inspired by.
The book is a cultural archaeology of the effects of the rise of print upon Western society in the period between 1450 - 1850. It is concerned with analyzing the new kinds of social and cultural structures which typography brought into being, such as nationalism, the concept of individuality, the idea of authorship and intellectual private property, new genres such as the literary essay and the novel. The rise of the printing press, McLuhan points out, was coincident with the rise of the mastery of depth perspective in Renaissance painting, and this is not an accident, for both the new Euclidean space conception and typography had in common an emphasis upon the organization of the world around the eye favored as a sense organ at the detriment and exlusion of all the other senses. During the manuscript culture of the Middle Ages, the senses were still synesthetically woven together like a tapestry, and no single one of them was favored to quite the degree of exclusion which the favoring of vision brought about in the Renaissance. Illuminated manuscripts, according to McLuhan, have a textural feel to them that still relies heavily on the sense of touch, and Medieval art, with its disproportionate sense of space in which one character -- such as Christ -- will be represented as larger than everyone else primarily due to the emphasis upon his spiritual importance rather than his inclusion as one individual among many occupying the same field of homogeneous space, is similarly haptic. Gothic lettering, he points out, is hard on the eye and difficult to read because it is tactile and still appeals to the sense of touch. Roman lettering, together with Arabic numerals, was favored by print, and this had the effect of streamlining the ability to read such that silent reading became common. Printers began to do new things like number the pages, create indices and Tables of Contents, and this had the effect of emphasizing authorship since it now became possible to track citations properly. Typography, McLuhan never tires of pointing out, favors the eye at the expense of all the other senses, and it tends to favor an abstract view of space as a container within which objects are placed in an arrangement that takes all spatial relations into account.
All of this began to change in the nineteenth century with the rise of electric technology and the favoring of discontinuities brought about by the telegraph and the newspaper. This kind of syncopated feeling for space, in which each object begins to occupy its own space no longer held in relation to other objects, began to erode and change the old typographic world of the Gutenberg Galaxy. Electric culture, which McLuhan does not discuss much in this book, favors tribalism, spatial discontinuity, erosion of individuality and the rise of corporatism, decentralization and so on.
This book should be read together with Understanding Media, for the latter volume picks up where The Gutenberg Galaxy leaves off, at the threshold of the Electric Society.
It is a masterpiece of scholarship by one of the greatest intellects America has ever produced, an intellect that easily puts the French po-mo philosophers in the shade. You will get more useful ideas out of any one of McLuhan's books than you would out of a whole crate of books by postmodern French philosophers.
SEE ALSO MY YOUTUBE VIDEO "MARSHALL MCLUHAN CULTURE WITHOUT LITERACY DISCUSSION BY JOHN DAVID EBERT"
--John David Ebert, author of "The New Media Invasion: Digital Technologies and the World They Unmake" (McFarland Books, 2011)
Many readers of McLuhan treat his probes as absolute statements of truth. Then, if they disagree with him, they reject his whole approach. One important fact to keep in mind while reading this or any of McLuhan's books is that he himself refers to the clever slogans which sum up many of his insights ("The medium is the message" being the best known, of course) as "probes", not facts. Their purpose is to explore an idea in order to stimulate thought. Even if you ultimately disagree with the concept set forth, if it makes you think about it, the probe has accomplished its principal purpose.