The Beginnings of Gutenberg Galaxy

In letters to Ezra Pound and to Walter Ong in 1952 and 1953, McLuhan set out a vision of what would become The Gutenberg Galaxy ten years later in its 1962 published form. In both letters, the contemporary revolution beyond Gutenberg — beyond the cultural environment of print communication — is highlighted. Indeed, the working title of the book at that time was ‘The End of the Gutenberg Era’, a topic eventually covered in the book only in a short (15 page) concluding section: ‘The Galaxy Reconfigured’. McLuhan’s many essays in the 1950s, particularly in Explorations, would increasingly turn to a consideration of this electric revolution and these thoughts, in turn, would find their book form above all in the 1964 Understanding Media.

McLuhan to Ezra Pound July 16, 1952 (Letters 231/232; the formatting has been changed to aid clarity, but the word order is unchanged):

I’m writing a book on “The End of the Gutenberg Era”.

Main sections:

[a] The Inventions of Writing [&] Alphabet.

  • Transfer of auditory to visual.
  • Arrest for contemplation of thought and cognitive process.
  • Permits overthrow of sophist-rhetoric-oral tradition

[b] Invention of printing.

  • Mechanization of writing.
  • Study becomes solitary.
  • Decline of painting music etc in book countries.
  • Cult of book and house and study.
  • Cult of vernacular because of commercial possibilities.
  • Republicanism via association of simple folk on equal terms with “mighty dead”.

[c] Telegraph ultimate stage of mechanization of writing.

  • Creates newspaper form.
  • Simultaneity of many spaces = simultaneity of many different eras = “abolition” of history by dumping whole of past into the present.
  • Rimbaud

[d] Radio-telephone-cinema-TV

  • mechanization of speed.
  • mechanization of total human gesture.
  • Last 2 stages too steep for present day adjustment.

Since Rimbaud the newspaper as landscape enters all the arts.1 With landscape comes necessary musical adjustment of all parts of poetic composition. Juxtaposition of forces in field rather than continuous statement.2 With mechanization of speech and gesture and swamping with visual-auditory matter after print-created drought we come to age of semi-literacy, at best.

McLuhan to Walter Ong, January 23, 1953 (Letters 234, emphasis added): 

Am working on a book whose theme is The End of the Gutenberg Era. Tracing impact of print, and now, the switch to media which rep[resents] not the mechanization of writing but of word and gesture (radio movies TV). Necessarily a much greater change than from script to print.

A later letter to Wyndham Lewis (July 11, 1955) shows McLuhan continuing to work on the same themes:

Am spending summer on a book on The Gutenberg Era — an attempt to assess the pre-literate, the pre-print, and post-print eras of culture. (Letters, 248)

  1. McLuhan has a question mark here. His intent was presumably to elicit Pound’s expert opinion on the matter.
  2. “Juxtaposition of forces in field rather than continuous statement.” Here McLuhan formulates the contrast he will later draw between “the principle of complementarity” and “lineal exposition”.  In 1952 he was thinking of this contrast in terms of the arts and especially poetry. Over the next decade leading up to The Gutenberg Galaxy he would come to see it as specifying different kinds of space (acoustic vs visual) and different kinds of time (synchronic vs diachronic). Even more importantly, he would come to see that the “juxtaposition of forces in field” characterizes scientific specification and that its application to the individual and social (and, indeed, ontological) sensus communis would thereby enable the inauguration of a series of new sciences in the human domain.

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