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Myth and Mass Media

Author(s): Marshall McLuhan


Source: Daedalus, Vol. 88, No. 2, Myth and Mythmaking (Spring, 1959), pp. 339-348
Published by: The MIT Press on behalf of American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20026500
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Myth

and Mass Media


Marshall

McLuhan

an attempt
ismade to bring the relatively articulated
concept
of "myth" into the area of "media"?a
concept to which
surprisingly
to reconsider
is necessary
httle attention has been given in the past?it
both "myth" and "media" in order to get at relevant data. For exam
as is any
is itself a mass medium,
language employed by
ple, English
use of the
But
the
any society.
phrase "mass media" would
general
seem to record an unfavorable
valuation
of new media,
especially
the
advent
of
since the
the telegraph,
pictures,
telephone, moving
These media have had the same kind of drastic
radio, and television.
that print had in Europe
and culture
in the
effect on language
sixteenth century, or that it is now having in other parts of the world.
It might even be well to avoid so highly charged a phrase as "mass
can be
media"
until a httle more
thought
given to the problem.
as human artifacts, collective
products of human skill and
Languages
as "mass media,"
but many
find it
need, can easily be regarded
difficult to consider the newer media deriving from these languages
as new
can be
in its several modes,
"languages." Writing,
regarded
as the
new
of
For to trans
development
technologically
languages.
into the visible by phonetic means
late the audible
is to institute a

When

process that reshapes every aspect of thought, language, and


To record the extended
of such a process
in a
operation
or Cadmus
a
to
is
reduce
to
affair
historical
myth
Gorgon
complex
an inclusive timeless
Can
case
in
that
the
we,
say
image.
perhaps,
is present as a single snapshot of a
of a single word, myth
complex
its peripety,
process, and that in the case of a narrative myth with
a
in a
is recorded
complex process
single inclusive
image? The
or
its
with
of
montage
multilayered
"transparency,"
abridgement
as familiar in the cave
is
as
in
cubism.
logical relationships,
painting
in their modes of awareness.
Oral cultures are simultaneous
Today
we come to the oral condition
again via the electronic media, which
dynamic
society.

us
abridge space and time and single-plane
relationships,
returning
to the confrontation
of multiple
at
same
the
moment.
relationships
If a language contrived and used by many
a
people is mass medium,
is in a sense a new
a new codifica
any one of our new media
language,

340

Marshall

McLuhan

tion of experience
achieved by new work habits and inclu
collectively
awareness.
sive collective
But when
such a new codification
has
of
and repeatability,
reached the technological
stage
communicabihty
a
has it not, hke a spoken tongue, also become
How
macromyth?
a process must occur before
of
the
elements
of
much
compression
are
one can say that
in mythic
form? Are we inclined
certainly
they
to insist that myth be a reduction of coUective experience
to a visual
form?
and classifiable
to
old and new, as macromyths,
have that relation
Languages
that characterizes
the fullest scope of myth.
words and word-making
that constitute
skills and experience
The coUective
both
spoken
as movies
or radio can also be
new
and
such
languages
languages
as static models
with prehterate myths
of the universe.
considered
to be
in
But do they not tend, like languages
dynamic models
general,
in action? As such, languages
old and new would
of the universe
or for
seem to be for participation
rather than for contemplation
and
classification.
reference
Another way of getting at this aspect of languages as macromyths
as it
is the message.
is to say that the medium
Only
incidentally,
a
means
or of
is such a medium
of signifying
were,
specialized
or
as
And in the long run, for such media
reference.
macromyths
the
the
tele
the phonetic
movie,
printing,
alphabet,
photography,
the social action of these
radio, and television,
graph, the telephone,
or
A lan
forms is also, in the fullest sense, their message
meaning.
one hand, httle affected
use individuals make
on
the
the
is,
guage
by
the character
of it; but, on the other hand, it almost entirely patterns
is thought,
of what
felt, or said by those using it. And it can be
as
was
intrusion of another
speech
utterly changed by the
language,
television.
and
radio
by
changed by writing,
or "still"
Is, then, what concerns us as "myth" today a photograph
in action? As a word uttered
is an auditory
shot of a macromyth
and the phonetic
arrest of mental motion,
translation
of that sound
is a frozen image of the same, is not myth a
into visual equivalence
A kind of myth
means
from hve process?
of static abstraction
and with Madison
is
associated
often
with
Hollywood
making process
as
are concerned,
far
So
advertisements
Avenue advertising
agencies.
a
in
at
to
strive
in
intention
least,
comprise
single image
they do,
that is imagined as desirable.
That
the total social action or process
tries both to inform us about, and also to produce
is, an advertisement
aU the stages of a metamorphosis,
in us by anticipation,
private and

Myth and Mass Media

341

appear as the record of such


myth might
an
advertisement
extended metamorphosis,
proceeds by anticipation
causes with effects and effects
of change, simultaneously
anticipating
In myth this fusion and telescoping
of phases of process
with causes.
a kind of
or mode
becomes
of
explanation
intelligibility.
are the
men have recorded
What
the action of
myths by which
on their hves?
new media
in the fact that the
Is there significance
so far not been found among the
Is
Oedipus myth has
prehterate?
the action of literacy in the shaping of individualism
and nationalism
Is the Gorgon myth an account
also severe on kinship structures?
in arresting the modes
of the effects of hteracy
of knowledge?
Cer
as
the
letters
Cadmus
the
about
teeth
that
tainly
sprang
myth
dragon's
is an image of the dynamics
of
in creating
up armed men
literacy
has given
empires. H. A. Innis in his Empire and Communications
us a full exegesis of the Cadmus
is in
But
the
myth.
Gorgon myth
much greater need of exegesis,
since it concerns the role of media
in
social.

So that whereas

means
of a computer
it is
learning and knowing.
Today, when by
a
mere
an
to
a
translate
of
into
unbuilt plane
wind
easy
blueprint
tunnel test flight, we find it natural to take all flat data into the domain
of depth interpretation.
Electronic
culture accepts the simultaneous
as a
of auditory space. Since the ear
reconquest
picks up sound from
all directions
at once, thus creating a
spherical field of experience,
it is natural that
moved
information
should also assume
electronicaUy
this spherehke
Since the
then, the forms of
pattern.
telegraph,
Western
culture have been strongly shaped by the
spherehke pattern
to a field of awareness
that belongs
in which
are
all the elements
simultaneous.
practically
It is this instantaneous
character
of the information
field today,
from
electronic
that
the
confers
formal
media,
inseparable
auditory
character on the new culture. That is to say, for
that the
example,
since
the
introduction
of
the
has
had a
newspaper
page,
telegraph,
a
character
and
lineal, literary
formally auditory
only incidentally
form. Each item makes
its own world, unrelated
to any other item
save
a kind of
of items constitutes
by date line. And the assembly
in
which
is
there
much
and
but httle
global image
overlay
montage
or
For
moved
information,
perspective.
pictorial space
electronically
in
assumes the total-field
being simultaneous,
pattern, as in auditory
societies hkewise hve
space. And prehterate
largely in the auditory
or simultaneous
an inclusiveness
mode with
of awareness
that
our
characterizes
electronic
shock
increasingly
age. The traumatic

342

Marshall

of moving

McLuhan

from

the segmental,
lineal space of hteracy
into the
of
electronic
is
field
information
the
unlike
auditory,
quite
so many of the
reverse process.
But today, wh?e we are resuming
we can at the same time watch many
prehterate modes of awareness,
tour through the cultural
their
cultures
prehterate
beginning
phases
unified

of hteracy.
The phonetic

the translation
which
of the
permits
alphabet,
so
into
audible
the visible, does
of meaning
in the
by suppression
sounds of the letters. This very abstract technology
has made pos
sible a continuous
of cultures by the Western
one-way
conquest
seem that with
But it would
that is far from finished.
world
the
more
of the telegraph
than a century we
during
as weU as to
to Eastern
art and
accessible
technology
in
At
and
cultures
least, let us be
prehterate
general.
auditory
to consider
in
the
character
carefully
formaUy auditory
prepared
and in subsequent
electronic
forms of codifying
the telegraph
For the formal causes inherent in such media
information.
operate
on the matter of our senses. The effect of media, hke their
"message,"
is really in their form and not in their content. And their formal effect
so far as our ideas and
is always subhminal
concepts are concerned.
since they
It is easy to trace some of the effects of phonetic writing
are coextensive with the most familiar features of theWestern
world.
The phoneticaUy written word, itself an abstract image of a spoken
not
word, permits the prolonged
analysis of process but does
greatly
to
action beyond
the application
of knowledge
the verbal
encourage
It is not strange,
that the ancient world
should
therefore,
sphere.
under the mode of rhetoric. For
have considered
apphed knowledge
to
it possible
all the individual postures
writing made
card-catalogue
commercial

use

have become

the "figures" of rhetoric. And these became available


as direct means
The
of control over other minds.
was
of
these
reign
by printing,
figures
swiftly liquidated
oligarchic
a
to the mental
that shifted attention from the audience
technique
reader.
state of the individual
of
has
the means
of segmenting
many
given
phases
Writing
lineal
and
the
segmentation
by
doing. Apphed
knowledge
knowing
comes with
is itself
the first
of outward motion
print, which
had
And whereas
of an ancient handicraft.
mechanization
writing
of mind called
to all students

of the arts and sciences in depth, print gave


fostered the classification
on one
access to the arts and sciences at
plane at
high speed and
a time. While manuscript
to
culture required gloss and commentary

Myth

and Mass Media

343

it held for the awareness,


extract
the various
levels of meaning
because of the very slow reading necessary, print is itself commentary
or
The form of print is single-leveled.
And the print
explanation.
is
to
feel that he is sharing the movements
reader
greatly disposed
to
Print drove people
like Montaigne
of another mind.
explore the
a
an
means
as
new art form
medium
of self
elaborate
providing
as weU as
in
act
and
the
of
investigation
learning,
self-portraiture
self-expression.
we hve in a
and electronic world,
By contrast, today
posthterate
even when
in which we seek images of coUective postures of mind,
some respects,
means
was
In
the
of
the
individual.
studying
myth
access to such collective postures
in the past But our new technology
us many
new means
to
of access
patterns.
gives
group-dynamic
Behind us are five centuries during which we have had unexampled
access to
means
of the printed
aspects of private consciousness
by
now
us
ease
But
and
page.
anthropology
give
archaeology
equal
of access to group postures and patterns of many cultures,
including
our

own.

Electronic
tape permits access to the structure and group dynamics
on
of entire languages. My suggestion that we
might regard languages
one hand as mass media and on the other hand as
seems
macromyths
obvious to the point of triteness to the structural linguists to whom
I have mentioned
these approaches.
But it may be useful to point
to some of the many nonverbal postures, both individual and
pubhc,
in the media.
that accompany
That is to say, a new form is
changes
a cluster of items. For
in the very first decades
of
usuaUy
example,
at
the
end
of
the
fifteenth
became
century, people
printing
vividly
aware of the camera obscura. The relation of this interest to the new
is itself just
printing process was not noted at the time. Yet printing
a
such a camera obscura,
movements
vision
of
the
private
yielding
of others. While
sitting in the dark, one has in the camera obscura
a cinematic
of the outside world.
And in reading print,
presentation
the reader acts as a kind of projector
of the still shots or printed
to have
he can read fast
which
the feeling
of
words,
enough
movements
the
of
another
not
mind.
could
re-creating
Manuscripts
be read at a speed sufficient to create the sense of a mind
actively
in
But here, centuries before
engaged
learning and in self-expression.
the movie,
is the ultimate magic and myth of the movie
in the camera
as
camera
was
obscura.
the
obscura
is
the first, the movie
Perhaps
the last phase

of print

technology.

344

Marshall

McLuhan

The movie, which has so httle in common with television, may be


era before it fuses via the
the last image of the Gutenberg
telegraph,
and fades into the new world
the telephone,
radio, and television,
of auditory space. And as the habits of reading print create intense
do not our instantaneous
and nationalism,
forms of individualism
return us to group dynamics,
both in theory and
electronic media
in practice?
Is not this shift in media
the key to our natural concern
with ?ie concept and relevance of myth today?
in the sixteenth
and nationalism
Printing evoked both individuahsm
as
in
it
and
do
Russia. For
will
India, Africa, China,
century, just
again
it demands

of solitary initiative and attention to exactly repeat


from industry, and
able commodities, which are the habits inseparable
and
Where
enterprise,
production
production
precedes
marketing.
no uniform market and no
Industrial
price structure.
hteracy, there is
markets
and literacy makes
without
weU-estabhshed
production
"communism" necessary.
Such is the state of our own ignorance of our
to find that radio has very different
media
that we are surprised
culture.
effects in an oral society than it had in our highly hterate
is structured
In the same way
of an oral world
the "nationalism"
the nationalism
of a newly hterate
from
society.
quite differently
see
to
the
mother
It would
that
one's
appear
tongue dignified with
a new vision of unity and power,
releases
of
print
precise technology
even today.
force in the West
remains a subliminal
divisive
which
habits

of the effects of our media


these past two thousand
an
seem
more
to
that
effect of hteracy
and
be
itself
would
years
as "ab-ced" or absent-mindedness.
James Joyce designated
that accom
The sentiment
of spatial and territorial nationalism
is
which
also
reinforced
the
provides
printing press,
panies hteracy
by
not only the sentiment but also the centralized
instru
bureaucratic
ments of uniform control over wide
territories.
a way, as
we tend to define
something
myth in too literary
Perhaps
can
written
down.
If we can regard
be
and
that
verbahzed,
narrated,
as
all media
and as the prolific source of many
subordinate
myths
we
spot the mythic
aspect of the current hula
myths, why cannot
is a myth we are living. Many
Here
hoop activity?
people have
over the fact that children
to roll these hoops on
refuse
puzzled
a
was for rolling.
A mere
roads or walks.
thirty years ago
hoop
an external space.
use
in
children
lineal
of
the
the
Today
reject
hoop
use it in a nuclear mode
as a means
their own
of generating
They
a
or
is
hve
model
drama
of
the
then,
space. Here,
power of
mythic
Unawareness

Myth and Mass Media

345

to alter sensibihty.
For this change in child behavior
the new media
to do with ideas or programs.
has nothing
is as definitive
Such a changed attitude to spatial form and presence
as the
to
from
the
the
television
In his
image.
photographic
change
Prints and Visual Communication
and
(London: Routledge
Kegan
M. Ivins explains how the long process of cap
Paul, 1953), Wilham
in the "network of rationality,"
turing the external world
by the
con
ever more subtle syntax,
line
and
reached
engraver's
by
finally
The photograph
is a total statement of the
clusion in the photograph.
external

syntax. This kind of peripety w?l strike the


object without
as characteristic
of media
of all media
But
development.
in television
the striking fact is that the image is defined by hght
on. It is this fact that
from
separates television
through, not by hght
it
to
and
stained
movie,
relating
photography
glass. The
profoundly
sense
television
is
unlike
that
spatial
experience
generated by
utterly
of the movie.
to
the
of
difference
has
with
do
course,
And,
nothing
as ever, the medium
the "content" or the programing.
itself
Here,
is the ultimate message.
The child gets such messages,
when
they
are new, much
sooner than the adult. For the adult
instinctively
retards awareness
that wiU disturb a cherished
order of perception
or of
seem to have no such stake
the child would
past experience;
student

in the past, at least when he is


new
experience.
facing
It is my point that new spatial orientation
such as occurs in the
format of the press after the advent of the
the swift disap
telegraph,
is also discernible
in the new
pearance of perspective,
landscapes of
in poetry and C?zanne
in painting. And in our time Rouault
Rimbaud
the mode of the television
His use of
anticipated
image by decades.
stained glass as a means of defining the image is what I have in mind.
The mythmaking
that is itself a myth
form
power of a medium
now
in
as
the
consumer
the
in
of
the
appears
age
posthterate
rejection
favor of the producer.
The movie now can be seen as the peak of the
consumer-oriented
society, being in its form the natural means both
consumer
of providing
and of
But in
goods and attitudes.
glorifying
the arts of the past century the
has
from
been
away
swing
packaging
for the consumer
to
kits. The spectator or
providing
do-it-yourself
reader must now be cocreator.
Our educational
natu
establishment
in this radical
the popular media
The
rally lags behind
change.
to
when
the
once
television
at
a
receive
total
young,
exposed
image,
in spatial matters
orientation
that makes
the hneality of the printed
word a remote and alien
for them wiU have to be
language. Reading

346

Marshall

McLuhan

as if it were
or some
of reality.
heraldry
quaint codification
taught
The assumptions
that accompanied
the
about reading and writing
are no
rise
of
of
and
related
forms
the
industrial
monarchy
print
or
in their
to, those being re-formed
acceptable
longer vahd for,
a
or
in the electronic
To
ask
is
sensibilities
this
whether
age.
good
a bad
natu
is
is
to
of
the
bias
efficient
which
express
causality,
thing
a futile gesture
man of the
raUy that of the
printed word. But it is also
era
to
the real situation. The values of the Gutenberg
of inadequacy
as
came
are
unaware
cannot be salvaged by those who
of how they
as
are of
are now in the process
into existence
of
they
why
they
liquidation.
are
is not necessary
those who
agreement
among
Philosophic
on human sensi
insistent
of
that
media-forms
the
operation
agreed
awareness
is an observable,
and controUable
bility and
intelligible,
is
consciousness
to the
situation.
when
Today,
ordinary
exposed
more atten
at once, we are
of
several
media
patternmaking
becoming
tive to the unique properties
of each of the media. We can see both
are
that media
mythic
"images" and that they have the power of
as it were,
can
their own assumptions.
imposing subliminaUy,
They
tracts
of
be viewed at the same time as intelligible
explanations
great
of time and of the experience
and they can be
of many processes,
as
such bias and preference
of perpetuating
used as a means
they
structure.
in
their
codify
It is not strange that we should long have been obsessed with the
The "form" and
literary and "content" aspect of myth and media.
as
to
is
native
the
and printed
"content" dichotomy
abstract, written,
as
is
the
and
"consumer" dichotomy.
forms of codification
"producer"
for the direction
and control of education,
such a
Unfortunately
new
to
the
cope with
literary bias is quite unable
"images" of the
age. As a result of our using literary lenses, the relevant
posthterate
our
new data have
scrutiny. My book, The Mechanical
escaped
Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man, is a case in point. Turning
literary
is easy.
of the Madison
Avenue world
guns on the new iconology
era. But I failed
in a postmechanical
It is easy to reveal mechanism
at that time to see that we had
out
the mechanistic
of
already passed
was
it
into
this
made
mechanism
the
and
that
fact
that
electronic,
age
obtrusive
and repugnant.
One of the great novelties
effected by printing was
the creation
of a new sense of inner and outer space. We refer to it as the discovery
of perspective
in the arts. The space
and the rise of representation

both

Myth and Mass Media

347

an
of "perspective"
conditioned
by
artificiaUy fixed stance for the
viewer leads to the enclosing
of objects in a pictorial
space. Yet so
new
was
and abstract
this
space that poets avoided it in
revolutionary
it. It is
their language for two centuries after painters had accepted
a kind of space very
to
the
media
of
uncongenial
speech and of
One can gain some idea of the psychic pressures exerted by
words.
of
Blake, who sought new strategies
print in the work of William
the segmented
and fractured
culture to reintegrate
human
spirit.
of Blake is the greatest monument
In fact, the exphcit mythmaking
and antidote to the mythic pressures of the printing press, to "single
vision and Newton's
type contains
sleep." For the matrix of movable
as weU as the means of
the totality of industrialism
global conquest,
once more
into
the prehterate
world
which,
by peripety,
brought
the heart of the industrial metropolis.
The prevalent concept that the mass media exert a baneful influence
on the human
Nicolson
has
spirit has strange roots. As Marjorie
in
Newton Demands
it was Newton's
shown
the Muse,
that
Opticks
between
the correspondence
the inner and outer
taught poets
the structure of seeing and the structure
between
of the
worlds,
scene. This notion
in
to
the
control
ambition
poets
planted
gain
over the inner life
a calculus of
The idea
by
landscape composition.
as a lever upon the
of verbaUy constituted
landscape,
psychic eye of
to
the
culture
of the printed
man, was a dichotomy
quite congenial
word. And whereas
external landscape has been abandoned
for inner
since
to
Madison
Avenue
the
earlier
Rimbaud,
landscape
clings
consumer
means
Romantic
of
control
of
concept
by
externally
scenes. The recent flutter about "subliminal"
arranged
advertising
indicates the delayed
shift of attention from outer to inner landscape
that occurred inmany of the arts in the later nineteenth
century. And
it is this same shift that today focuses attention
on
in aU its
myth
or transparency
For myth
is always a montage
modes.
comprising
several external spaces and times in a single image or situation.
Such
or
an
is
of
electronic
mode
the
compression
multilayering
inescapable
movement
and simultaneous
of information,
in popular
whether
media or esoteric speculation.
It is, therefore, an
occurrence
everyday
to stress "content," while
for academic entertainment
com
displaying
to
new.
we
media old and
For
have now
plete illiteracy with regard
to possess many cultural
even the most
for
languages
ordinary daily
purposes.
The newspaper wiU serve as an
example of the Babel of myths or

348

Marshall

McLuhan

information
from every quarter
arrived at the
When
languages.
a
same time, the paper became
of
the
daily snapshot
globe, and
news became
in
could still
Editorials
meaningless.
"perspective"
or
a
a
some
to
tie
into
chain
items
with
sequence
try
special
together
or
were
But
views
view
such
of
vanishing point.
point
reaUy capsules
the unprocessed,
uninter
for passive
readers, while,
paradoxically,
raw news offered far more
to the reader to find his
preted,
challenge
own meanings.
it is easy to see how Edgar Allen Poe, both
Today
in his symbolist poems and in his detective
stories, had anticipated
orientation
dimension
of producer
this new mythic
by taking the
it is easy to see
into the creative process
itself. Likewise,
audience
how the spot news of the telegraph press really acts like the yes-no,
an inclusive world
in creating
dots of the wirephoto
black-white
even now the sponsors of
continue
Yet
media
image.
pre-electronic
to overlay
the new myth
of
earher
creating
myth,
by injections
hybrids of the "horseless carriage" variety in the interests of superior
culture.

The

same

of "audio-visual

type of confusion
aids." It would

exists
seem

in education
that we must

in the concept
do in education

to
and composers
have done, namely,
painters,
test
and
define
their
before
and
powers
purge
unique
was
not
concerts.
The Gutenberg
attempting
Wagnerian
myth
more
a means
of modifying
than
the
the Cadmus myth,
any
Henry
as
Ford myth modified
the horse and buggy. Obliteration
occurred,
itwill with the movie under the impact of television, unless we choose
to restrain the operation of form on form by due study and strategy.
We now stand at that point with regard to all myth and media. We
the masters
of cultural and historical
can, perhaps we must, become
we can, I
means
to
in the study
this
end
And
suggest, find
alchemy.
as
as
our
and
For
of media
experience
languages
myths.
languages
can be made
available
with the grammar and syntax of languages
and control of media
old and new.
for the direction
what

the poets,
our media