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Book Review: The Gutenberg Galaxy

            There are certain figures in academia who have become synonymous with certain phrases.  Media theorist Marshall McLuhan is one of these cases, having become inextricably associated with the phrase "The Medium is the Message".  This phrase, which was used as the title of one of his books, sums up McLuhan emphasis on the importance of the medium of communication, even going so far as to attribute the content (message) of a communication to the medium it is communicated in.

 

            The Gutenberg Galaxy, the work that concerns me today, is McLuhan's interpretation of a shift in mediums; an enormous transition in world history as McLuhan see it.  As Richard Kostelanetz describes in an article, McLuhan viewed world (I would specify 'western') history as consisting of four stages: " (1) Totally oral, preliterate tribalism. (2) The codification by script that arose after Home in ancient Greece and lasted 2,000 years. (3) The age of print, roughly from 1500 to 1900. (4) The age of electronic media, from before 1900 to the present."  Galaxy is concerned with the shift between (2) and (3), and the enormous shift in perspective, culture, and communication forms and technology that took place during the period historians now call "early modern". 

 

            As McLuhan's claims are centered on historical evidence, I was especially suspicious of them; in my experience, this sort of approach from non-historians often results in skewed or unbalanced characterizations of the past.  McLuhan, to my disappointment, as I am sympathetic to one of his disciples, Neil Postman, seems to fall into this habit.  Most of the text consists of block quotes of secondary (and occasionally primary) sources dealing with the time period.  The scope of the analysis is massive; to a fault, in fact.  The range of citations runs from Shakespeare (13-21) and Thomas More (145-146) to specialized historians of liturgy (156-161), book culture (153-154), and media (88-91).  McLuhan is also heavily interpretive of the primary sources he uses, as can be seen in the opening reading of King Lear (13-21).  Here he claims that Lear's daughter's reactions to his division of the kingdom are Shakespeare responding to the increased individualism and personal opportunism he (McLuhan) attributes to the shift from manuscript culture to print culture. 

 

            Here, then, are my two main criticisms of the book:  (1) the scope is simply too ambitious, and (2) the attempt to cover so much ground results in a disjointed patchwork of citations and interpretations that never form a cohesive, comprehensive whole (or, in McLuhan's language, a "mosaic").  As a historian I cannot help but respond to each of his claims with a "yes, that seems true, but what about x, y, and z; those also had a hand in the phenomenon you describe".  Also as a historian (or maybe from my own temperament) I am always suspicious of any claim that says all the changes associated with a time period are attributable to one source - the smack of architectonic theories borne more out of lack of evidence than evidence.  Early modern Europe is a historical topic of massive scale, and an undertaking of this scale requires a massive number of sources from support and a coherent, consistent thesis displaying how all the disparate parts fit together.  To his credit McLuhan cites a large number of sources, but this brings us to the second problem: unity.  McLuhan doesn't adequately relate all the disparate parts together in a coherent fashion.  The book has no chapters, a necessity for an endeavor of this magnitude, but instead is divided up into small, two to five page sections on specific themes.  The order of these sections does not lend itself to themes, despite occasional exceptions, such as 248-252. 

 

            Overall the book overheated, in the sense of a very hot fire without much wood - it is an ambitious argument without a stable source.  The sheer scope of the project seems to demand multiple volumes, even; for a project of this size, in order to be done as McLuhan wanted, would need a scale that copious, and a unity that coherent.

 

Works Cited

 

Kostelanetz, Richard.  "Understanding McLuhan (In Part)."  New York Times January 29, 1967.

 

McLuhan, Marshall.  The Gutenberg Galaxy.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962.

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