The Gutenberg Galaxy  

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"Though McLuhan's reading of King Lear is absurdly unconvincing, he has fascinating marginalia on Rabelais, Cervantes, Pope and Joyce. He describes Gargantua, Don Quixote, the Dunciad and Finnegans Wake as the 'four massive myths of the Gutenberg transformation of society'."--"On Reading Marshall McLuhan" (1963), collected in Language and Silence (1967) by George Steiner

"There are, indeed, four massive myths of the Gutenberg transformation of society. Besides Gargantua, they are Don Quixote, the Dunciad, and Finnegans Wake. Each of them deserves a separate volume in relation to the world of typography, but some attention will be given to each in the following pages."--The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) by Marshall McLuhan

"Since the object of the present book is to discern the origins and modes of the Gutenberg configuration of events, it will be well to consider the effects of the alphabet on native populations today. For as they are in relation to the phonetic alphabet, so we once were."--The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) by Marshall McLuhan

"The Gutenberg Galaxy is a prolonged meditation on that theme of J. Z. Young. "--The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) by Marshall McLuhan

"A great deal of what is said by Bernard van Groningen in his study of the Greek time sense, In the Grip of the Past, is useful in understanding the effects of visual bias as they concern the time sense."--The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) by Marshall McLuhan

"Such a reverse perspective of the literate Western world is the one afforded to the reader of Albert Lord's Singer of Tales. But we also live in an electric or post-literate time when the jazz musician uses all the techniques of oral poetry. Empathic identification with all the oral modes is not difficult in our century." --The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) by Marshall McLuhan

"What Montagu opens up here concerning the intense practicality of the non-literate applies perfectly as gloss to Joyce's Bloom or Odysseus, the resourceful man. What could be more practical for a man caught between the Scylla of a literary culture and the Charybdis of post-literate technology to make himself a raft of ad copy? He is behaving like Poe's sailor in the Maelstrom who studied the action of the whirlpool and survives. May not it be our job in the new electronic age to study the action of the new vortex on the body of the older cultures? " --The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) by Marshall McLuhan

"The present volume is in many respects complementary to The Singer of Tales by Albert B. Lord. Professor Lord has continued the work of Milman Parry, whose Homeric studies had led him to consider how oral and written poetry naturally followed diverse patterns and functions. Convinced that the poems of Homer were oral compositions, Parry "set himself the task of proving incontrovertibly if it were possible, the oral character of the poems, and to that end he turned to the study of the Yugoslav epics." His study of these modern epics was, he explained, "to fix with exactness the form of oral story poetry. . . . Its method was to observe singers working in a thriving tradition of unlettered song and see how the form of their songs hangs upon their having to learn and practice their art without reading and writing." --The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) by Marshall McLuhan, prologue

"Most of the Renaissance megalomania from Aretino to Tamburlaine is the immediate child of typography which provided the physical means of extending the dimensions of the private author in space and time. But to the student of manuscript culture, as Goldschmidt says (p. 88) : "One thing is immediately obvious: before 1500 or thereabouts people did not attach the same importance to ascertaining the precise identity of the author of a book they were reading or quoting as we do now. We very rarely find them discussing such points." --The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) by Marshall McLuhan

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The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962) is a book by Marshall McLuhan, in which the author analyzes the effects of mass media, especially the printing press, on European culture and human consciousness. It popularized the term global village, which refers to the idea that mass communication allows a village-like mindset to apply to the entire world; and Gutenberg Galaxy, which we may regard today to refer to the accumulated body of recorded works of human art and knowledge, especially books.

McLuhan studies the emergence of what he calls Gutenberg Man, the subject produced by the change of consciousness wrought by the advent of the printed book. Apropos of his axiom, "The medium is the message," McLuhan argues that technologies are not simply inventions which people employ but are the means by which people are re-invented. The invention of movable type was the decisive moment in the change from a culture in which all the senses partook of a common interplay to a tyranny of the visual. He also argued that the development of the printing press led to the creation of nationalism, dualism, domination of rationalism, automatisation of scientific research, uniformation and standardisation of culture and alienation of individuals.

Movable type, with its ability to reproduce texts accurately and swiftly, extended the drive toward homogeneity and repeatability already in evidence in the emergence of perspectival art and the exigencies of the single "point of view". He writes:

"the world of visual perspective is one of unified and homogeneous space. Such a world is alien to the resonating diversity of spoken words. So language was the last art to accept the visual logic of Gutenberg technology, and the first to rebound in the electric age.


The format of the book—a mosaic

The book is unusual in its design. McLuhan described it as one which "develops a mosaic or field approach to its problems". The mosaic image to be constructed from data and quotations would then reveal "causal operations in history".

The book consists of five parts:

  • Prologue,
  • The Gutenberg Galaxy,
  • The Galaxy Reconfigured,
  • Bibliographic Index,
  • Index of Chapter Glosses.

The main body of the book, part 2, "The Gutenberg Galaxy", consists of 107 short "chapters", many of which are just three, two, or even one page(s) in length. Such a large collection of small chapters does fit the picture of a mosaic.

Apparently, McLuhan also had some ideas about how to browse a book. Marshall McLuhan, the guru of The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), recommends that the browser turn to page 69 of any book and read it. If you like that page, buy the book." Such apparent arbitrariness fits with picking a particular piece (or part) of a mosaic and deciding if you like it. Certainly the McLuhan test can be applied to the Gutenberg Galaxy itself. Doing so will reveal a further insight into the purpose of his own book.


McLuhan declares his book to be "complementary to The Singer of Tales by Albert B. Lord." The latter work follows on from the Homeric studies of Milman Parry who turned to "the study of the Yugoslave epics" to prove that the poems of Homer were oral compositions.

Four epochs of history

The book may also be regarded as a way of describing four epochs of history:

  1. Oral tribe culture
  2. Manuscript culture
  3. Gutenberg galaxy
  4. Electronic age

For the break between the time periods in each case the occurrence of a new medium is responsible, the hand-writing terminates the oral phase, the printing and the electricity revolutionizes afterwards culture and society.

Given the clue of "hand-writing" that terminates the "oral phase" one expects "printing" to terminate the manuscript phase and the "electrifying" to bring an end to the Gutenberg era. The strangeness of the use of "electrifying" is entirely appropriate in the McLuhan context of 1962. The Internet did not exist then.

McLuhan himself suggests that the last section of his book might play the major role of being the first section:

The last section of the book, "The Galaxy Reconfigured," deals with the clash of electric and mechanical, or print, technologies, and the reader may find it the best prologue.

Oral tribe culture

The oral tradition is not dead. In schools or at home or in the street, where children are taught to learn by heart, to memorize, nursery rhymes or poems or songs, then they can be said to participate in the oral tradition. The same is often true of the children belonging to religious groups who are taught to learn to say their prayers. In other words, childhood is one of the ages of man (in Shakespeare's sense) and is essentially an oral tribal culture. The transition from this oral culture takes place when the child is taught to read and write. Then the child enters the world of the manuscript culture.

McLuhan identifies James Joyce's Finnegans Wake as a key that unlocks something of the nature of the oral culture.

Of particular importance to the Oral Culture is the Art of memory.

The village

In commenting on the then Soviet Union, McLuhan puts "the advertising and PR community" on a par with them in so far that both "are concerned about access to the media and about results." More remarkably he asserts that "Soviet concern with media results is natural to any oral society where interdependence is the result of instant interplay of cause and effect in the total structure. Such is the character of a village, or since electric media, such is also the character of global village."

Manuscript culture

The culture of the manuscript (literally hand-writing) is often referred to by McLuhan as scribal culture.

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

Associated with this epoch is the Art of memory (in Latin Ars Memoriae).

Gutenberg galaxy

Finnegans Wake: Joyce's Finnegans Wake (like Shakespeare's King Lear) is one of the texts which McLuhan frequently uses throughout the book to weave together the various strands of his argument.

Throughout Finnegans Wake Joyce specifies the Tower of Babel as the tower of Sleep, that is, the tower of the witless assumption, or what Bacon calls the reign of the Idols.

Movable type

His episodic history takes the reader from pre-alphabetic tribal humankind to the electronic age. According to McLuhan, the invention of movable type greatly accelerated, intensified, and ultimately enabled cultural and cognitive changes that had already been taking place since the invention and implementation of the alphabet, by which McLuhan means phonemic orthography. (McLuhan is careful to distinguish the phonetic alphabet from logographic/logogramic writing systems, like hieroglyphics or ideograms.)

Print culture, ushered in by the Gutenberg press in the middle of the fifteenth century, brought about the cultural predominance of the visual over the aural/oral. Quoting with approval an observation on the nature of the printed word from Prints and Visual Communication by William Ivins, McLuhan remarks:

In this passage [Ivins] not only notes the ingraining of lineal, sequential habits, but, even more important, points out the visual homogenizing of experience of print culture, and the relegation of auditory and other sensuous complexity to the background. [...] The technology and social effects of typography incline us to abstain from noting interplay and, as it were, "formal" causality, both in our inner and external lives. Print exists by virtue of the static separation of functions and fosters a mentality that gradually resists any but a separative and compartmentalizing or specialist outlook.

The main concept of McLuhan's argument (later elaborated upon in The Medium is the Massage) is that new technologies (like alphabets, printing presses, and even speech itself) exert a gravitational effect on cognition, which in turn affects social organization: print technology changes our perceptual habits ("visual homogenizing of experience"), which in turn affects social interactions ("fosters a mentality that gradually resists all but a... specialist outlook"). According to McLuhan, the advent of print technology contributed to and made possible most of the salient trends in the Modern period in the Western world: individualism, democracy, Protestantism, capitalism and nationalism. For McLuhan, these trends all reverberate with print technology's principle of "segmentation of actions and functions and principle of visual quantification."

Electronic age

The global village

In the early 1960s, McLuhan wrote that the visual, individualistic print culture would soon be brought to an end by what he called "electronic interdependence": when electronic media would replace visual culture with aural/oral culture. In this new age, humankind will move from individualism and fragmentation to a collective identity, with a "tribal base." McLuhan's coinage for this new social organization is the global village.

Wyndham Lewis's America and Cosmic Man (1948) and James Joyce's Finnegans Wake are sometimes credited as the source of the phrase, but neither used the words "global village" specifically as such. According to McLuhan's son Eric McLuhan, his father, a Wake scholar and a close friend of Lewis, likely discussed the concept with Lewis during their association, but there is no evidence that he got the idea or the phrasing from either; McLuhan is generally credited as having coined the term.

The term is sometimes described as having negative connotations in The Gutenberg Galaxy, but McLuhan himself was interested in exploring effects, not making value judgments:

Instead of tending towards a vast Alexandrian library the world has become a computer, an electronic brain, exactly as an infantile piece of science fiction. And as our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside. So, unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence. [...] Terror is the normal state of any oral society, for in it everything affects everything all the time. [...] In our long striving to recover for the Western world a unity of sensibility and of thought and feeling we have no more been prepared to accept the tribal consequences of such unity than we were ready for the fragmentation of the human psyche by print culture.

Key to McLuhan's argument is the idea that technology has no per se moral bent—it is a tool that profoundly shapes an individual's and, by extension, a society's self-conception and realization:

Is it not obvious that there are always enough moral problems without also taking a moral stand on technological grounds? [...] Print is the extreme phase of alphabet culture that detribalizes or decollectivizes man in the first instance. Print raises the visual features of alphabet to highest intensity of definition. Thus print carries the individuating power of the phonetic alphabet much further than manuscript culture could ever do. Print is the technology of individualism. If men decided to modify this visual technology by an electric technology, individualism would also be modified. To raise a moral complaint about this is like cussing a buzz-saw for lopping off fingers. "But", someone says, "we didn't know it would happen." Yet even witlessness is not a moral issue. It is a problem, but not a moral problem; and it would be nice to clear away some of the moral fogs that surround our technologies. It would be good for morality.

The moral valence of technology's effects on cognition is, for McLuhan, a matter of perspective. For instance, McLuhan contrasts the considerable alarm and revulsion that the growing quantity of books aroused in the latter seventeenth century with the modern concern for the "end of the book." If there can be no universal moral sentence passed on technology, McLuhan believes that "there can only be disaster arising from unawareness of the causalities and effects inherent in our technologies."

Though the World Wide Web was invented thirty years after The Gutenberg Galaxy was published, McLuhan may have coined and certainly popularized the usage of the term "surfing" to refer to rapid, irregular and multidirectional movement through a heterogeneous body of documents or knowledge, e.g., statements like "Heidegger surf-boards along on the electronic wave as triumphantly as Descartes rode the mechanical wave." Paul Levinson's 1999 book Digital McLuhan explores the ways that McLuhan's work can be better understood through the lens of the digital revolution. Later, Bill Stewart's 2007 "Living Internet" website describes how McLuhan's "insights made the concept of a global village, interconnected by an electronic nervous system, part of our popular culture well before it actually happened."

McLuhan frequently quoted Walter Ong's Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue (1958), which evidently had prompted McLuhan to write The Gutenberg Galaxy. Ong wrote a highly favorable review of this new book in America. However, Ong later tempered his praise, by describing McLuhan's The Gutenberg Galaxy as "a racy survey, indifferent to some scholarly detail, but uniquely valuable in suggesting the sweep and depth of the cultural and psychological changes entailed in the passage from illiteracy to print and beyond."

McLuhan's The Gutenberg Galaxy won Canada's highest literary award, the Governor-General's Award for Non-Fiction, in 1962. The chairman of the selection committee was McLuhan's colleague at the University of Toronto and oftentime intellectual sparring partner, Northrop Frye.

See also

Full bibliography

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H., "The Social and Intellectual Background," in Boris Ford, ed., The Modern Age, Pelican Guide to English Literature (London: Penguin Books, 1961). 278 BARNOUW, ERIK, Mass Communication (New York: Rinehart, 1956). 128 BARZUN, JACQUES, The House of Intellect (New York: Harper, 1959). 32 BeldSY, GEORG VON, Experiments in Hearing, ed. and trans. E. G. Weyer (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1960). 41-2, 53, 63, 127 "Similarities Between Hearing and Skin Sensation," Psychological Review, vol. 66, no. 1, Jan., 1959. BERKELEY, BISHOP, A New Theory of Vision (1709), Everyman 483 (New York: Dutton, n.d.). 17, 53, 271 BERNARD, CLAUDE, The Study of Experimental Medicine (New York: Dover Publications, 1957). 3, 4 BETHELL, S. L., Shakespeare and the Popular Dramatic Tradition (London: Staples Press, 1944). 206 Blake, The Poetry and Prose of William, ed. Geoffrey Keynes (London: Nonsuch Press, 1932). 265-6 BOAISTUAU, PIERRE, Theatrum Mundi, trans. John Alday, 1581 (STC 3170). 203 BONNER, S. F., Roman Declamation (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1949). 100-1 BOUYER, Lours, Liturgical Piety (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame, 1955). 137-40 BRETT, G. S., Psychology Ancient and Modern (London: Longmans, 1928). 74 BROGLIE, LOUIS DE, The Revolution in Physics (New York: Noonday Press, 1953). 5, 6 BRONSON, B. H., "Chaucer and His Audience," in Five Studies in Literature (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1940). 136 BUHLER, CURT, The Fifteenth Century Book (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1960). 129, 153-4, 208 BURKE, EDMUND, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Everyman 460 (New York: Dutton). 170-1 BUSHNELL, GEORGE HERBERT, From Papyrus to Print (London: Grafton, 1947). 62 CAPONIGRI, A. ROBERT, Time and Idea: The Theory of History in Giambattista Vico (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1953). 250 CAROTHERS, J. c., "Culture, Psychiatry and the Written Word," in Psychiatry, Nov., 1959. 18-20,22,26-8,32-4 CARPENTER, E. s., Eskimo (identical with Explorations, no. 9; Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1960). 66-7 CARPENTER, E. S., and H. M. MCLUHAN, "Acoustic Space," in idem, eds., Explorations in Communication (Boston: Beacon Press, 1960). 19,136 CARTER, T. F., The Invention of Printing in China and its Spread Westward (1931), 2nd rev. ed., ed. L. C. Goodrich (New York: Ronald, 1955). 40 CASSIRER, ERNST, Language and Myth, trans. S. K. Langer (New York: Harper, 1946). 25,26 CASTRO, AMERICO, "Incarnation in Don Quixote," in Angel Flores and M. I. Bernadete, eds., Cervantes Across the Centuries (New York: Dryden Press, 1947). 225-7 The Structure of Spanish History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954). 225-6 CHARDIN, PIERRE TEILHARD DE, Phenomenon of Man, trans. Bernard Wall (New York: Harper, 1959). 46,174,179 CHAUCER, GEOFFREY, Canterbury Tales, ed. F. N. Robinson, Student's Cambridge ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: Riverside Press, 1933). 96 CHAYTOR, H. J., From Script to Print (Cambridge: Helier and Sons, 1945). 86-9,92-3 CICERO, De oratore, Loeb Library no. 348-9 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, n.d.). 24,98,101 CLAGETT, MARSHALL, The Science of Mechanics in the Middle Ages (Madison, Wisc.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1959). 80-1 CLARK, D. 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(London: Macmillan, 1951). 90-1 FRIEDENBERG, EDGAR Z., The Vanishing Adolescent (Boston: Beacon Press, 1959). 214-15 FRIES, CHARLES CARPENTER, American English Grammar (New York: Appleton, 1940). 232,238 FRYE, NORTHROP, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957). 193 GIEDION, SIEGFRIED, Mechanization Takes Command (New York: Oxford University Press, 1948). 44,147 The Beginnings of Art (in progress; quoted in Explorations in Communication). 65-6 GIEDION-WELCKER, CAROLA, Contemporary Sculpture, 3rd rev. ed. (New York: Wittenborn, 1960). 251 GILMAN, STEPHEN, "The Apocryphal Quixote," in Angel Flores and M. I. Bernadete, eds., Cervantes Across the Centuries (New York: Dryden Press, 1947). 227 GILSON, ETIENNE, La Philosophie au Moyen Age (Paris: Payot, 1947). 185 Painting and Reality (New York: Pantheon Books, Bollingen Series, xxxv. 4,1957). 51 GOLDSCHMIDT, E. P., Medieval Texts and Their First Appearance in Print (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1943). 130-5 GOLDSMITH, OLIVER, Enquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe, cited by Leo Lowenthal in Popular Culture and Society. 274 GOMBRICH, E. H., Art and Illusion (New York: Pantheon Books, Bollinger Series xxxc. 5, 1960). 16,51,52-3,81-2 GREENSLADE, S. L., The Work of William Tyndale (London and Glasgow: Blackie and Son, 1938). 228 • GRONINGEN, BERNARD VAN, In the Grip of the Past (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1953). 56-8 GUARARD, ALBERT, The Life and Death of an Ideal: France in the Classical Age (New York: Scribner, 1928). 148, 228 GUILBAUD, G. T., What is Cybernetics? trans. Valerie Mackay (New York: Grove Press, Evergreen ed., 1960). 154-5 HADAS, MOSES, Ancilla to Classical Learning (New York: Columbia University Press, 1954). 62, 85-6, 207 HAJNAL, ISTVAN, L'Enseignement de l'ecriture aux universites medievales, 2nd. ed. (Budapest: Academia Scientiarum Hungarica Budapestini, 1959). 94-9, 109 HALL, EDWARD T., The Silent Language (New York: Doubleday, 1959). 4, 231 HARRINGTON, JOHN H., "The Written Word as an Instrument and a Symbol of the Christian Era," Master's thesis (New York: Columbia University, 1946). 109 HATZFELD, HELMUT, Literature through Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1952). 136 HAYES, CARLETON, Historical Evolution of Modern Nationalism (New York: Smith Publishing Co., 1931). 217-24 HEISENBERG, WERNER, The Physicist's Conception of Nature (London: Hutchinson, 1958). 29 HILDEBRAND, ADOLF VON, The Problem of Form in the Figurative Arts, trans. Max Meyer and R. M. Ogden (New York: G. E. Stechert, 1907, reprinted 1945). 41 HILLYER, ROBERT, In Pursuit of Poetry (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1960). 232 HOLLANDER, JOHN, The Untuning of the Sky (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961). 60, 202 HOPKINS, GERARD MANLEY, A Gerard Manley Hopkins Reader, ed. John Pick (New York and London: Oxford University Press, 1953). 83 HUIZINGA, J., The Waning of the Middle Ages (New York: Doubleday, 1954; Anchor book). 117-18, 120, 138 HUTTON, EDWARD, Pietro Aretino, The Scourge of Princes (London: Constable, 1922). 194, 197 HUXLEY, T. H., Lay Sermons, Addresses and Reviews (New York: Appleton, 1871). 172 INKELES, ALEXANDER, Public Opinion in Russia (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1950). 21 INNIS, HAROLD, Empire and Communications (Oxford: University of Oxford Press, 1950). 25, 50, 115 Essays in Canadian Economic History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1956). 162 The Bias of Communication (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1951). 25, 61, 216-17, 260 The Fur Trade in Canada (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1930). 216, 236 IVINS, WILLIAM, JR., Art and Geometry: A Study in Space Intuitions (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1946). 39, 40, 54, 81, 112 Prints and Visual Communication (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1953). 71-3, 77-9, 125-6 JAMES, A. LLOYD, Our Spoken Language (London: Nelson, 1938). 87 JOHNSON, SAMUEL, Rambler no. 4 (March 31, 1750). 273-4 JONES, R. F., The Triumph of the English Language (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1953). 224, 227, 229, 240 JONSON, BEN, Volpone. 168-9 JOSEPH, B. 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