Monthly Archives: August 2023

Gutenberg Quincentenary 1940

For the academic year 1939-1940, McLuhan had a sabbatical from his teaching position at St Louis University. He and his wife Corinne, who married on August 4, 1939, just before their departure for England, spent the year in Cambridge where McLuhan had obtained his second BA degree three years before (following his first from the University of Manitoba in 1933). During this time, McLuhan would receive his second MA degree based on that earlier work in Cambridge (again following his first MA from the University of Manitoba in 1934) and begin systematic research for his 1943 Cambridge PhD thesis. But the time he would have for this second stint in Cambridge was cut short by WW2, forcing the McLuhans to leave prematurely for North America at the end of May 1940.

At just this time, immediately before the McLuhans’ hurried departure from Cambridge, “an exhibition of printing” was mounted at the Fitzwilliam Museum there celebrating the quincentenary of the invention of movable type by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440. The exhibition was scheduled to run from May 6 to June 23, 1940, but was closed after only 10 days, on May 16, due to the possibility of bomb damage to it from the intensifying air war. 

The excellent History of Information website records the ‘Foreword’ to the exhibition catalogue as follows:

There is no moral to this exhibition. It aims at portraying, as objectively as possible, the uses to which printing from movable type has been put since Gutenberg and his associates invented it five hundred years ago; the spread of knowledge more quickly and accurately than was possible before, the storing of human experience, the providing of entertainment, the simplification of the increasingly complicated business of living. Those books, papers, and other printing have been chosen (so far as the difficulties of the times would permit) which made most effective use of the medium of type; in other words, those which, composed and multiplied, most strongly influenced people and events. Others have been chosen for their illustration of events and trends of particular importance or interest; others again for their intrinsic curiosity as examples of the exploitation of print. All are shewn so far as possible in the original editions in which they were first presented to the world.

The exhibition has been designed therefore to illustrate the development of man’s use of movable type as a tool; its spread from Mainz through the countries of the world, through all the fields of knowledge, through the whole range of man’s activities. Running through the story another theme presents itself and draws occasional comment — the development of the actual form of printing. The technical display deals with the old and modern methods fo type-founding and composition, and briefly illustrates the development of type design. That part of the exhibition is education; for the rest, though there is much to learn from it, it does not set out to teach. It is simply an illustration to that proud but unattributed saying: 

With my twenty-six soldiers of lead I have conquered the world.1  

Although McLuhan would certainly have heard of this “exhibition of printing”, he may or may not have visited it. However that may have been, 11 years later in March 1951,2 he would write to his University of Toronto colleague, Harold Innis, that “the modern press” as a “technological form” (“the medium of type”, as the exhibition catalogue has it) was “efficacious far beyond any informative purpose”. That is, the medium of print was “efficacious far beyond” any particular message it may have been used from time to time to convey:

[Mallarmé] saw at once that the modern press was not a rational form but a magical one so far as communication was concerned. Its very technological form was bound to be efficacious far beyond any informative purpose.3

In the year after that, in 1952, he would announce in a letter to Ezra Pound:

I’m writing a book on “The End of the Gutenberg Era”.4

The book was profiled in the letter to Pound and its second section, “Invention of printing”, had this outline:

  • 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”.

It would be a further 10 years later, in 1962 — 22 years after the 1940 Cambridge exhibition — when McLuhan would finally publish the book under the new title of The Gutenberg Galaxy.

Now in 1963 another exhibition, Printing and the Mind of Man, was held in London which modeled itself on the 1940 one in Cambridge.

This 1963 catalogue noted: 

We pay tribute to the organizers of the Gutenberg Quincentenary Exhibition of Printing, assembled at Cambridge in 1940 (and prematurely disassembled because of the risks from enemy bombing). It was our original inspiration for several sections of our display, and its invigorating catalogue has been our constant friend.

The 1967 edition of the catalogue has a slightly different acknowledgement:

A partial attempt [“to illustrate (…) the internal development of (…) printing as a craft”] had, indeed, been made in the Gutenberg Quincentenary exhibition at Cambridge in 1940. This was a suggestive forerunner for several sections in our display, and its invigorating catalogue was a constant friend.

In regard to the work of Marshall McLuhan, several interesting questions are suggested by this history:

  • did the 1940 Exhibition of Printing in Cambridge, mounted while McLuhan was on sabbatical there, plant the seed, not only for his 1962 book, The Gutenberg Galaxy, but even for his one lifelong topic of “the medium is the message”?5 
  • did rumors of the impending 1963 exhibition, Printing and the Mind of Man, finally motivate McLuhan to get The Gutenberg Galaxy out the door at last in 1962? (As noted above, he had been working intermittently on the book since at least 1952!)


  1. The History of Information website has an image of this ‘Foreword’.
  2. What happened between 1940 and 1951 to recall or otherwise activate what McLuhan knew of technological innovations, particularly in the area of communications? Answers to this question point in several directions, the most important of which is: McLuhan’s move to the University of Toronto in 1946 and his exposure there to the work of Harold Innis and of Eric Havelock. By the middle 1940s, both of these professors, the first in Political Economy, the second in Classics, had begun to research, apparently influenced by each other, the role of communication media in historical change. Innis was already publishing in the area and Havelock’s research on the role of orality in Greek culture was widely discussed in the Toronto academic community. Now from his early mentors at the University of Manitoba, particularly Rupert Lodge, McLuhan had long been exposed to the notion that all human experience is preformed by a multiplicity of irreducible forms. His 1943 Cambridge PhD thesis examined the history of this notion in terms of the educational trivium over the 2000 years between between classical Greece in 400 BC and Elizabethan England in 1600. A 1944 lecture (published in 1946) brought this “ancient quarrel” of irreducible forms into the present. But how were these forms to be generally recognized for open investigation? And what accounted for the relative rise and fall of these forms over time? ‘Media’ (although not in a literal sense) would eventually answer these questions for McLuhan. But this realization would take decades and remained in an inchoate form until the late 1950s. In fact, in a 1975 conversation with Nina Sutton (given in James Tenney and Wolfgang Köhler) McLuhan referred even to his 1964 Understanding Media as “the early time” of his thinking!
  3. McLuhan to Harold Innis, March 14, 1951, Letters 221. McLuhan would coin the phrase, “the medium is the message”, after 7 more years had passed, in 1958. See The medium is the message in 1958.
  4. McLuhan to Ezra Pound, July 16, 1952, Letters 231. The End of the Gutenberg Era remained the working title for McLuhan’s book throughout the 1950s. It was changed to The Gutenberg Galaxy in 1960 or 1961 to get away from the chronological implications of ‘era’ — McLuhan had come to see that media as structural possibilities are ‘all at once’.
  5. An important question (further to note 2 above): Did McLuhan engage the topic of ‘the medium is the message’ long before his coining of the phrase in 1958? Consider only that his 1943 Nashe thesis treated the three trivial arts as media in several senses. Each was regarded as a cultural medium in the laboratory sense of promoting identifiable growths. At the same time, each was regarded as a structural form (‘medium’ in another sense) whose recognition could enable collective investigation of the cultural field. These insights lie at the heart of McLuhan’s contribution, along with his slightly later one that media are ratios and that ratios may systematically be expressed in terms of their middles.

James Tenney and Wolfgang Köhler

James Tenney taught at York University in Toronto for 24 years. He was a prolific and influential composer, friend of John Cage and well connected to the Toronto avant-garde musical scene.1 

Tenney’s MA thesis at the University of Illinois, META + HODOS, was published in 1961 and is subtitled “A Phenomenology of 20th-Century Musical Materials and an Approach to the Study of Form”. Along with its central treatment of ‘clang’,2 it repeatedly references Wolfgang Köhler‘s Gestalt Psychology.3

Tenney does not seem to have been mentioned by McLuhan and he may or may not have read Tenney’s META + HODOS.  But it could well have been through knowledge in Toronto of Tenney’s musical and theoretical work that McLuhan came to read Köhler in 1964, just after the publication of Understanding Media. Köhler’s figure/ground would, of course, be at the core of McLuhan’s work for the remaining 15 years of his life. As he said to Nina Sutton:

I was not using figure/ground [in Understanding Media]. It was in the early time [of my thinking] when I wrote that book. I was not using figure/ground. Now [1975] I have switched completely to figure/ground. (…) The medium is ground and the so-called message always figure. (…) The wheel and the axle is figure/ground. (…) They can change roles. The axle can be figure. The wheel can be ground. Or vice versa. (…) They flip all the time. Anything can become a figure to a ground and any ground can become a figure to another ground. They interrelate. (…) Remember, in figure/ground, they both work simultaneously. And it doesn’t much matter which one is top and which one is under. (…) It’s complementary, figure/ground. One has to have the other. You can’t have one without the other.4

  1. Tenney’s Collage No. 1 (‘Blue Suede’) from 1961 is said to have been an early model for John Oswald’s plunderphonics:
  2. ‘Clang’ is discussed already in McLuhan’s 1951 ‘The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape Poetry’: “T.E. Hulme on space-thinking in Speculations will lead the student back through Hartmann and Lipps on these questions. Lipps is of special importance for an understanding of Joyce, Pound, and Eliot: ‘The simple clang represents to a certain extent all music. The clang is a rhythmical system built up on a fundamental rhythm. This fundamental rhythm is more or less richly differentiated in the rhythm of the single tones.’ Theodor Lipps, Psychological Studies, 2d ed., tr. by H.C. Sanborn, Baltimore, 1926, p. 223.” The thinking here is that the same momentary process, or ‘rhythmical system’, beginning in an act of creation, underlies all cognition, from the most ordinary to the most artistic: “the greatest artists of the 20th Century — Yeats, Pound. Joyce, Eliot — had discovered a totally different approach, based on the identity of the processes of cognition and creation. (…) Artistic creation is the playback of ordinary experience” (Playboy interview).
    Lipps and clang are mentioned again in ‘James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial’ (1953): “The experiments of Lipps at the end of the last century illustrated how all possible musical structures were contained in a single clang of a bell.”
    Twenty years later in a letter to Ted Carpenter: “
    You remember Theodore Lipps with his observation that all possible symphonies were contained in the single clang of a bell? Is not the same true of language? Acoustically speaking, an entire linguistic culture could be encoded acoustically in almost any phrase or pattern of that tongue.” (March 23, 1973, Letters 473)
  3. The term ‘gestalt’ appears 82 times in the 95 pages of META + HODOS; Köhler is mentioned by name a further 6 times.
  4. Around the same time as his conversations with Nina Sutton, McLuhan wrote to his old friend, Morton Bloomfield (the two were at the University of Wisconsin together in 1936-1937): “I have begun to realize that my peculiar approach to all matters has been to enter via the ground rather than the figure. In any gestalt the ground is taken for granted and the figure receives all the attention. The ground is subliminal, an area of effects rather than of causes.” (March 26,1973, Letters 473-474)

The kinetic sense

McLuhan often ran together “the kinetic sense” or “movement” with the sense of touch, although these (“the kinetic sense” or “movement”) are usually, of course, not thought of as ‘senses’ at all. For example, here he is in one of his presentations at Fordham in September 1967:

The visual sense is the only sense we have that gives detachment: movement, touch, hearing etcetera, are very involved senses.1 

Touch was not to be taken literally, of course, but as the tactile ‘in-between’ of the other senses, particularly seeing and hearing, the eye and the ear.2 In this context, “the kinetic sense” seems to have been intended as the ‘action of tactility’, the dynamism or metaphoricity of tactility in the multiple ways the gapped ‘in-between’ of the eye and ear may be crossed.

McLuhan indicated this intention in another presentation at Fordham as follows:

the interval is very tactile — the space between sounds is not audible naturally, it’s tactile — you have to close that [space] kinetically3 

Later in this seminar he spoke of the flash between the eye and ear”.4

The time of this tactile crossing/closing/flashing between eye and ear is first of all synchronic and vertical, not diachronic and horizontal. Consciously situating oneself (one’s self) in the complex of these times5 is the required parameter, or medium,6 of thinking with McLuhan. Once ‘there’, the following step is to consider the range of ways the crossing/closing/flashing may be effected — and is always already being effected via ‘the kinetic sense’. On that basis, it may then be de-cided7 which of these eye-tactility-ear parameters must be in place to begin the investigation of media and so to initiate its ‘new science’.

Hence the repeated citation by McLuhan of the admonition in Joyce’s Stephen Hero

The apprehensive faculty must be scrutinized in action.8



  2. For McLuhan, the eye and the ear are no more to be taken literally than is the tactile. One of the central differences between the Gutenberg and Marconi galaxies is that the former demands some literal basis, while the latter is fundamentally relativistic. How beauty, goodness and truth are compatible with relativity is the great question at the heart of McLuhan’s work.
  3. ‘Earopen End’ seminar, November 1967:
  5. See McLuhan’s Times.
  6. See Media Definition for media as “parameters”.
  7. See the etymology of ‘decide’ and particularly of its cognate family of terms.
  8. See The spectacle of redemption for discussion.