Defending the print medium in 1958

One theme, Harry, of which I am increasingly aware is the new problem of [maintaining] continuity in a world of accelerating change.1

Grammars of all media in concert (including the medium of print)2 are needed, first, to protect and transmit our great stake in the forms and values of the printed word, and equally to foster enlightened use and control of the much more powerful electronic media. (Grammars of the Media, October 1958) 

It is all too common to find McLuhan dismissed or praised as an uncritical champion of electric culture. This is often combined with the view that he rejected the book medium out of hand. In fact, however, McLuhan went from being a champion of the book3 as the foundation of culture (into the late 1940s) to being a champion of culture via the simultaneity of all media including the book.4

He expressed this view many times in the later 1950s, the time when he was attempting to get clear what “the medium is the message” implied for education, business, research, and, indeed, for all facets of life without exception. (McLuhan first used the phrase “the medium is the message” in May 1958.)

The dis-covery of elementary structure had occurred in chemistry in the course of the nineteenth century in regard to the exterior landscape. Now McLuhan saw the possibility of a similar revolutionary transformation in the investigation of the interior one. Just as chemistry as the language of elements had spread from a few isolated laboratories in England and France to manufacturing, medicine and education around the globe, so McLuhan predicted — and tried desperately to inaugurate himself — “universal education in the languages and values of the media themselves“.5

At the end of May, 1958, McLuhan was an invited speaker at a Conference on Educational Television sponsored jointly by the US Office of Education (a division of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare) and the NAEB. His lecture was titled ‘The Role of Mass Communication in Meeting Today’s Problems‘ and it was immediately published as a Circular (number 574) by HEW.6

Today our natural temptation is to regard the new media as aids or distractions to the older studies. We have not dared to see them as themselves, new art forms which can become direct objects of study.
In his Film as Art, Rudolf Arnheim notes: “The history of human ingenuity shows that almost every innovation goes through a preliminary phase in which the solution is obtained by the old method, modified or amplified by some new feature.”
For us to do this with press, radio and TV would be fatal to our earlier achievement in writing and print, because it leaves to the dynamics of the new media untrammelled license to disintegrate our existing values. If one lesson has emerged in recent decades it is that the Ivory Tower of the artist has [to] become the Control Tower of society. Only by exercising the fullest artistic awareness of these vulgar forms can we maintain the integrity of the earlier forms.

Again, in McLuhan’s October 1958 ‘Grammars of the Media‘:

  • The fact of being confronted daily with several media has begun to impress upon observers the strange fact that the medium is itself the message. So that we are beginning to understand why a written message is so very different from the same information when spoken or when pictorialized. After four centuries of the virtual monopoly of the printed form, we are now in a situation in which more information is moved by electronic means than by the print medium. That is to say that on the one hand our existing educational establishment is faced with the threat of obsolescence, and on the other hand that our educators are doing nothing at all to articulate or educate awareness of the newly dominant media. Grammars of all media in concert (including the medium of print) are needed, first, to protect and transmit our great stake in the forms and values of the printed word, and equally to foster enlightened use and control of the much more powerful electronic media.  An X-ray unit can get very hot but is not a satisfactory space heater.
  • Print, moreover, had a lineal and segmental bias which quickly invested the minds and attitudes of educators with a new vision and grasp of many problems and possibilities which had been inaccessible to awareness or solution before print. And as we marched on to a realisation of these new goals the antecedent forms of awareness and education simply collapsed and were forgotten. Today, however, we are scarcely ready to accept a similar collapse of all that has been achieved by print and segmental analysis. For our legal and legislative institutions, as well as our schools and colleges, stand on the foundations built by the printed wordYet the nuclear and electronic forms of imparting information today are wholly destructive of the mechanized and industrial civilization that we have so painfully achieved via print.

Finally, here he is in a letter to Harry Skornia from December 16, 1958:

  • Outside of the classroom students are faced with a phalanx of technologies which convey great quantities of information with global range and content. The prestige and power of these media are greater by far than those of the older form of printing. And in the presence of these media students are on their own. A world of global educational scope comes disguised as “entertainment”.
  • For the perception and judgement of this new world of experience students receive no training. They are warned that it is passive and vulgar and conformist, and they value it the more accordingly. During the first decades of the Gutenberg era the custodians of manuscript culture sat on a Maginot Line and deplored printing. Printing in turn released the power of the vernaculars as new media and classical humanists deplored these vulgar tongues.
  • This period of lament provides just the time and the tone to inter [ie, bury] the older culture.
  • But today we cannot afford to liquidate and inter the huge establishment of the social and political achievement represented by printing. Yet if we fail to disentangle the dynamics and motivations of the medium of print from the new media we shall have aided in the destruction of the culture and institutions based on printing. It is possible and necessary today to embark on a new educational venture, namely universal education in the languages and values of the media themselves.
  • For teachers to use movie and television in the classroom without awareness of the power these media have to reform our entire sensibilities, is to ape the Trojans in fetching within their walls the wooden horse. We are faced with universal illiteracy with regard to the powers of media as media, and of media as message. (…) For the media as such are art forms shaped by collective skills and experience. They are new languages7 whose grammar and syntax we must learn and teach if we are to hoick ourselves out of the bathos of illiteracy into which their sudden onset has shoved us.
  1. McLuhan to Harry Skornia, March 14, 1959, p 2.
  2. The bracketed insertion of “including the medium of print” was made by McLuhan.
  3. The book = the kind of social and intellectual interaction which the best uses of the book supports and, indeed, demands: the medium is the message.
  4. All media = the kind of social and intellectual interaction which an understanding of all media supports and, indeed, demands: the medium is the message.
  5. Letter to Harry Skornia from December 16, 1958, which is extensively cited in this post above.
  6. Later that same year it was republished in the NAEB Journal for October (18:1), now slightly retitled as ‘Our New Electronic Culture: The Role of Mass Communication in Meeting Today’s Problems’.
  7. Compare ‘Catholic Humanism in Modern Letters’ (1954): “human languages themselves are the greatest of all works of art beside which the works of Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Shakespeare are minor variations. English or any other language is itself a massive organization of traditional experience providing a complex view of the world. Today our increasing knowledge of the languages of primitive cultures has made it easy to observe how language itself is the principal channel and view-maker of experience for men everywhere.”