Wait, Who is this McLuhan Guy? [Trenchant Edges]

In which I try to pretend I've got a schedule to stick to

Welcome back to Trenchant Edges, where I progressively fret over the realization I’ve become that guy from megatokyo.

In any case, we’re about deep dives into fringe topics and we’re discussing the man behind the medium is the message and founder of media studies, Marshall McLuhan.

A Brief Biographical Sketch

Little Marshall was born in Alberta Canada on July 21st of 1911, making him a Cancer if astrology is your thing. ;-) As a Capricorn, I never bothered learning about sun signs other than my own. I think it means, like all lifeforms on earth, he’s slowly becoming a crab? idk.

Skipping ahead to the 1930s where he swapped studying at the university of Manitoba and getting a BA/MA in English Lit, teaching at the University of Wisconson-Madison/Saint Louis Univeristy, while occasionally hopping over to Cambridge to get another BA/MA and eventually a PhD in English Lit.

His dissertation, oddly enough, was published as “The Classical Trivium: The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of his time.” I bring it up because it’s a good indication of the kind of mind we’re dealing with. Since I happen to own a copy, let’s pick a random paragraph from it. From page 103:

”No more important evidence of the powerful influence of the tradition of grammar could be asked for than the fact that Abelard, the great enemy of grammar, and the initiator of the dialectical revolt, was yet, involuntarily, a grammarian in most of his work: ‘…in this concern to gather the significant texts of any controversy, discipline, or science from philosophers, Scriptures, Fathers and decrees of councils, he worked as did most of the grammarians, theologians and canon lawyers of the century.’ Further evidence of the vitality of grammar, in spite of dialectical supremacy, can be seen in the celebrated Didascalion of Hugh St Victor in the twelfth century. Grammar is the supreme method for him, as for his equally famous discipline the encyclopedist Vincent of Beauvais.”

This paragraph has two citations, a quote, and references to 3 people I’ve never heard of. And the whole thing is written like this. The prose isn’t difficult, but since McLuhan treats his dissertation like that Carl Sagan quote about needing to create the universe before you can bake an apple pie from scratch it’s densely packed with references someone who doesn’t have a PhD in the classics will need to look up and probably read some of to hope to understand.

The whole thing is just shy of 250 pages and its namesake, Thomas Nashe shows up at page 204.

It’s really a kind of methodological history of teaching within Christendom, tracing the roots back to ancient Greece. It’s about the Liberal Arts of classical education: Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric known as the Trivium and Arithmetic, Astronomy, Music, and Geometry known as the quadrivium.

The premise is that you learn the Trivium to learn how to think, and then pick up domain-specific knowledge to apply it on. Now that I’ve said this I kinda think we need a whole email about it. It’s a whole thing and fits into a great many of our other interests in unexpected ways.

Slow Rise to Prominence

McLuhan spent much of the 40s and 50s refining his ideas and eventually published Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man in 1960.

The core of his understanding of media is as a technological extension of the capabilities of the human body. Different technologies extend our capabilities in different ways and these have cognitive second and third order effects we’ll get to as well as their obvious benefits.

His long view of “Western” history, though limited, did provide enough perspective to see how the dominant metaphors of the day shifted with technology and culture over the last 3000 years.

His work also suggested that the different ratios of emphasis different technologies place on our senses strongly shapes our cognition. I don’t want to get too deep into that right now but it’s a big point.

The TLDR is preliterate cultures tend to live in a more hearing based cultural environment, where cultures with writing develop more visually.

Alright, this is going to have to go to a part 2 as I’m out of time to sit and write.

See you soon.