Frye on McLuhan: An Overview

Wednesday I’ll be posting the compilation of Frye’s references to Marshall McLuhan that appear in the Collected Works.

I want to make a few observations here, which I don’t intend to be a definitive. I will be writing a longer paper to provide a broader perspective and a more detailed account. However, I think the following points can be responsibly made.

First, Frye’s references to McLuhan require 20,000 words to render them, suggesting that he read and thought about McLuhan’s work extensively. He certainly referred to it in his published work wherever the situation allowed. His private notebooks likewise suggest deep engagement, although with an added and characteristic tartness (“global village my ass”; “that blithering nonsense ‘the medium is the message'”).

Second, his observations are as consistent as his inquiry is thorough. There are more than forty years worth of references here, and they are remarkably free of any notable contradiction.

Third, Frye’s critical assessment of the core elements of McLuhan’s thought reveals that they are unacceptable to him. On the other hand, Frye’s published references to isolated aspects of McLuhan’s work tend to be generous and are regularly cited to make a larger point. Although Frye is careful to distinguish McLuhan from what he at one point calls the “nitwitted McLuhanism” of the 1960s, his frank critique of McLuhan’s work as a whole stands.

Finally, the elements of McLuhan’s thought Frye is most critical of are also those most familiar to general readers, including his formulations regarding “the global village,” “the medium is the message,” and the linearity of print versus the simultaneity of electronic media. It is the last notion especially that Frye believes compromised McLuhan’s work, and he returns to it on a number of occasions.

Below is a small but representative selection of quotes that captures some of this.

From “Speculation and Concern” (1965):

Marshall McLuhan says of the new media of communication that “the medium is the message,” and that the content of each medium is the form of another one. This surely means, if I understand it correctly, that each medium is a distinctive art. Thus the “message” of sculpture is the medium of sculpture, distinct from the message which is the medium of painting. But, as McLuhan also emphasizes, the new media are extensions of the human body, of what we already do with our eyes and ears and throats and hands. Hence they have given us new forms or variations of the arts we now have, and the novelty of these forms constitutes a major imaginative revolution in our time. But though distinctive arts they are not actually new arts: they are new techniques for receiving the impression of words and pictures. (CW 7, 248-9)


From The Modern Century (1967):

The role of communications media in the modern world is a subject that Professor Marshall McLuhan has made so much his own that it would be almost a discourtesy not to refer to him in a lecture which covers many of his themes. The McLuhan cult, or more accurately the McLuhan rumour, is the latest of the illusions of progress: it tells us that a number of new media are about to bring in a new form of civilization all by themselves, merely by existing. Because of this we should not, in staring at a television set, wonder if we are wasting our time and develop guilt feelings accordingly: we should feel that we are evolving a new mode of apprehension. What is important about the television set is not the quality of what it exudes, which is only content, but the fact that it is there, the end of a tube with a vortical suction which “involves” the viewer. This is not at all of what a serious mind and most original writer is trying to say, yet Professor McLuhan lends himself partly to this interpretation by throwing so many of his insights into a deterministic form. He would connect the alienation of progress with the habit of forcing a hypnotized eye to travel over thousands of miles of type, in what is so accurately called the pursuit of knowledge. But apparently he would see the Gutenberg syndrome as a cause of the alienation of progress, and not simply as one of its effects. Determinism of this kind, like the determinism which derives Confederation from the railway, is a plausible but oversimplified form of rhetoric. (CW 11, 20-1)


From “Research and Graduate Education in the Humanities” (1968):

There is, of course, a superstition in our time that this complex, configurated, and, in a sense, mythical thinking is something that can only be brought to us from the new media. I happen to be on a board in Canada concerned with communications, and this board had a committee of policy report to it which recommended that the board should issue publications from time to time. The sentence with which it began this recommendation read: “Despite the disadvantages inherent in the linear representation of a world that is increasingly simultaneous, print still retains its medieval authority.” This sentence, I suppose, is typical of the kind of nitwitted McLuhanism which is confusing the educational scene. McLuhan himself, of course, is another matter, but I think that even he fails to distinguish between the actual operation of reading a book, which is linear, turning over the pages, and following the lines of type from the upper left-hand corner to the lower right, and the effect of a book on the mind as a unity, once read. As that, the book is, and in the foreseeable future will remain, the indispensable tool of the scholar in the humanities. (CW 7, 340)


From Notebook 12 (1968-70):

When I settled into my real line I naturally wanted to be “great” there too: but maybe the great mind is obsolete. . . [S]omething about greatness ended around 1940. We’re doing different things now. Marshall McLuhan is a typical example: a reputation as a great thinker based on the fact that he doesn’t think at all. (CW 9, 146)

[T]he more I think about McLuhan’s obiter dicta, the more the exact opposite of what he says seems to me to be true. As I say earlier in this notebook, the oral tradition is linear: we’re pulled along by it in time, & at the end there’s nothing. Writing provides a spatial focus: the process of reading a book is linear, but at the end you have the “simultaneous” possession of the whole thing. Also in a newspaper. That’s why writing is democratic, potentially: the oral tradition is much closer to the mob, with its easy access to “lend me your ears” rhetoric. Its revival today goes with anarchism, and also with unscripted improvised dramas, music, and socio-political “happenings.” (CW 9, 237)


From Notes 58-7 (1969/1975):

[H]aving worked with archetypes all my life, I feel that the world in which Jung’s unconscious forces emerge and threaten sometimes to overthrow the ego-consciousness forces is really an interpenetrating global village. Archetypes represent a world-wide language independent of time and space. The phrase global village made [Marshall] McLuhan famous, and the present eclipse of his reputation is due to the fact that people surmised that he was on to something, but got disillusioned by his apparent inference that the electronic media actually communicate news of this world, which they bloody well don’t. (CW 20, 249-50)


From Notebook 11f (1969-70):

The religious quest of youth today shows up in the search for human contact, encounter groups, folk singers, the sense of comradeship attained in demonstrations (of course it’s the enemy outside that makes it all so cuddly, not the friends inside.) Television is like a telescope, a new method of perception which tells us more, but also makes what it sees look cold, dead, and inconceivably remote. Global village my ass. (Every idea contains its own opposite or antithesis.)

The “flow of information,” which is mostly disinformation, is actually a presentation of myths. And people are increasingly rejecting the prescribed myths & developing their own counter-myths. Take another McLuhan phrase, “global village”–one early satellite broadcast was called the “town meeting of the world.” The myth behind this phrase assumes that every technological development creates a new anxiety & understanding–that a village is a community of friends. But, of course, a village may be a community of cliques & feuds & backbiting & gossip of a ferocity far worse than any metropolis, like those hideous little towns at the divisional points of railways, where the conductor’s wife couldn’t compromise her dignity by speaking to the brakeman’s wife. So when communicators, with a schoolteacher’s bright & glassy smile, say: now we’re going to be able to create a dialogue with Paraguay & Tanzania, & won’t that be nice? the reaction is, very often: we don’t want all those people in our living room: we want to get together with the people who speak our language & share our beliefs & prejudices, including, if we’re lucky, a minority that we can have fun of kicking around. Separatism, except when it is a genuine effort to escape from tyranny, is in most respects a mean, squalid & neurotic philosophy, but it is the strongest force yet thrown up by the age of total communication. (CW 13, 97)


From “Rear-View Crystal Ball” (1970):

Marshall McLuhan has a phrase about reactionaries who don’t get with it as people driving by a rear-view mirror. This assumes the monumental fallacy that we move forward in time as well as space, whereas actually, of course, we face the past, and the rear-view mirror of that direction is the shape of things to come. (CW 12, 408)


From “The Definition of a University” (1970):

I am often asked if a student today is different from his predecessors, and usually the answer expected is yes. The answer happens to be no. There has been a tremendous increase in the rain of sense impressions from the electronic media, and this has produced a considerable alertness and power of perception on the part of students. However, the power to integrate and co-ordinate these impressions is no greater than it was. This is a situation which has been interpreted by my colleague, Professor Marshall McLuhan, but I would regard his interpretation, if I have understood it correctly, as quite different from mine. He distinguishes between the linear and fragmented approach which he associates with the printed book and the total and simultaneous response which he associates with the electronic media. It seems to me, on the other hand, that it is the existence of a written or printed document that makes a total and simultaneous response possible. It stays there: it can be referred to; it can become the focus of a community. It is the electronic media, I think, which have increased the number of linear and fragmented experiences–experiences which disappear as soon as one has had them–and because of that, they have also increased the general sense of panic and dither in modern society. At the same time, there is no doubt that television and the movies have developed new means of perception, and that they indicate the need for new educational techniques which, as far as I know, have not yet been worked out. I did hear a lecture some time ago by an educator which began by showing the audience a television commercial. He then said, “There is one thing in that commercial which all of you missed and which all the young people to whom it was shown got at once.” I thought to myself, “Now we’re getting to something important. Now we shall find out how education is going to adjust itself to this situation.” But, unfortunately, all he said after that was, “This indicates a fact of great educational importance. We don’t know quite what it is, but we have it under close study.” (CW 7, 419-20)


From The Critical Path: An Essay on the Social Context of Literary Criticism (1971):

More recently, Marshall McLuhan has placed a formalist theory, expressed in the phrase “the medium is the message,” within the context of a neo-Marxist determinism in which communication media play the same role that instruments of production do in more orthodox Marxism. Professor McLuhan drafted his new Mosaic code under a strong influence from the conservative wing of the New Critical movement, and many traces of an earlier Thomist determinism can be found in The Gutenberg Galaxy. An example is the curiously exaggerated distinction he draws between the manuscript culture of the Middle Ages and the book culture of the printed page that followed it. (CW 27, 12-13)

The revival of oral culture in our day has been variously interpreted, and one interpretation, suggested and strongly influenced by McLuhan, is that print represents a “linear” and time-bound approach to reality, and that the electronic media, by reviving the oral tradition, have brought in a new “simultaneous” or mosaic form of understanding. Contemporary unrest, in this view, is part of an attempt to adjust to a new situation and break away from the domination of print. We saw in the first section, however, that the difference between the linear and the simultaneous is not a difference between two kinds of media, but a difference in two mental operations within all media, that there is always a linear response followed by a simultaneous one whatever the medium. For words, the document, the written or printed record, is the technical device that makes the critical or simultaneous understanding possible. The document is the model of all teaching, because it is infinitely patient, repeating the same words however often one consults it, and the spatial focus it provides makes it possible to return on the experience, a repetition of the kind that underlies all genuine education. The document is also the focus of a community of readers, and while this community may be restricted to one group for centuries, its natural tendency is to expand over the community as a whole. Thus it is only writing that makes democracy technically possible. It is significant that our symbolic term for a tyrant is “dictator,” that is, an uninterrupted oral speaker.

The domination of print in Western society, then, has not simply made possible the technical and engineering efficiency of that society, as McLuhan emphasizes; it has also created all the conditions of freedom within that society: democratic government, universal education, tolerance of dissent, and (because the book individualizes its audience) the sense of the importance of privacy, leisure, and freedom of movement. Democracy and book culture are interdependent, and the rise of oral and visual media represents, not a new order to adjust to, but a subordinate order to be contained. What the oral media have brought in is, by itself, anarchist in its social affinities. They suggest the primitive and tribal conditions to a preliterate culture, and to regard them as a new and autonomous order would lead, once again, to adopting a cyclical view of history, resigning ourselves to going around the circle again, back to conditions we have long ago outgrown. . .

It is all very well to say that the medium is the message, but as we seem to get much the same message from all the media, it follows that all media, within a given social environment like that of the Soviet Union or the United States, are much the same medium. This is because the real communicating media are still, as they always have been, words, images, and rhythms, not the electronic gadgets that convey them. The differences among the gadgets, whether they are of high or low definition and the like, must be of great technical interest, especially to those working with them, but they are clearly of limited social importance. If a country goes to war after developing television, the use of a “cooler” medium does not, unfortunately, cool off the war. The identification of medium and message is derived from the arts: painting, for instance, has no “message” except the medium of painting itself. But it is a false analogy to apply this principle to interested, or baited-trap, communication from A to B. There, one identifies form and content only as long as one is relatively unconscious of the form and still bemused by its novelty: but in direct communication, as soon as one becomes aware of the form, the content separates from it. (CW 27, 103-5)


From Notes 54-5 (1976):

Curious the number of times people have sold out to some silly cause because they couldn’t distinguish the demonic parody from the real thing. Heidegger has some remark in an essay about National Socialism being essentially the struggle against technology: he wanted so much to have peasants woo-wooing around the soil that he didn’t see that the Nazis were interested solely in demonic technology. Similarly with all the jerks who went for Stalinism, and disregarded all the evidence that Stalinism was the demonic opposite of Marx’s goal. On a very small scale, McLuhan contrasted a linear abstract spatial perception with a sensory and immediate spatial perception, and then spent the next fifteen years gradually realizing that the contrast of reading and television-watching he’d got it identified with was its demonic opposite. (CW 13, 304)


From “Criticism, Language, and Education (1979):

The mythological universe that surrounds us includes all the really serious beliefs that we have. First of all, you get a level of utterly phony mythology, a level addressed by advertising and propaganda, that is expressed by all the cliches you can pick up on the streets and all the silly prejudices about minority groups that are a product of certain forms of class conditioning–the phony aspect of mythology has been quite extensively explored in our time by Roland Barthes, for example, in his book Mythologies, and by Marshall McLuhan in his book The Mechanical Bride. Behind that, however, are the real informing myths of our lives, of which we normally become conscious in some kind of crisis. In our society we do grow up with very powerful beliefs in things like democracy and equality of opportunity and so on, but it’s only in something like the Watergate crisis where we begin to realize how immensely powerful these myths are. (CW 25, 323)


From “Medium and Message” (Recorded 1 May 1981: interview with Russell Davies):

Frye: I rather wish that Marshall had come to terms with the linear nature of the book because I think he would have been a much more permanent influence if he had done. What he said about the linear quality and the self-hypnotizing power of the eye in written books and mathematics was, I think, with all due respect to him, a half truth. There’s another side to the printed text, and that’s its uniformity, the fact that it always says the same thing, no matter how often you open it. That seems to me an equally obvious aspect of it. For example, when it came in in the sixteenth century, it had a very close association with magic. You can see that in Shakespeare’s Tempest when Caliban says of Prospero, “Burn but his books, because without them he is just as big a fool as I am.” And that capacity for the printed word to create a kind of instant hallucination is distinct from the merely remembered thing of oral culture. There are so many aspects of the written word which were there right in front of him and which he knew about, and I rather wish he had incorporated them. It was really the G.K. Chesterton butterslide: the notion that everything was unified in the Middle Ages and that we have been splitting and specializing ever since.

What I regret in the distinction of hot and cool media is the tendency to determinism in this thinking, which made him assume that a nation would turn hot or cool as its prevailing media were hot or cool. And he might perhaps have noticed the fact that he lived in a very cool country where all the tempers are cool and consequently all the media are cool. . .

I don’t think academics ought to get on this manic-depressive roller-coaster of publicity. There are just not built for it; they are built for much longer and more leisurely rhythms. And I think he was a little confused by being blown up so much in the 1960s and even more confused by being neglected in the 1970s. . . (CW 24, 536-7)


From “The Double Mirror” (1981):

[M]etaphor was made for man and not man for metaphor; or as my late and much beloved colleague used to say, man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a metaphor? (CW 4, 90)


From “The View from Here” (1983):

It was a similar intuition that started off the work of Marshall McLuhan, who also contrasted a linear, causality-bound, tunnel-vision type of perception with a simultaneous type capable of taking in many aspects of a situation at once. He associated the linear perception with the reading of print and the simultaneous one with the more many-sided appeal of the electronic media. I think these were the wrong referents, because it is only the preliminary process of reading that is really linear: once read, the book becomes the focus of a community, and may come to mean, simultaneously, any number of things to any number of people. The electronic media, on the other hand, vanish so quickly in time that we can make no sensible use of them without falling back on the continuous ego. I think McLuhan also realized very quickly that these were the wrong referents, but by the time he had been ground up in the mass-media blender and was unable to set the record straight. (CW 7, 564)


From “The Expanding World of Metaphor” (1984):

In the late 1960s a state of mind developed that we might characterize as a feeling that the old subject-object consciousness, in which the individual is merely one of a social aggregate, had to give way to a new and heightened form of consciousness. Hence many forms of ecstatic metaphor reappeared. Certain drugs seemed to bring about something close to a sense of identity with one’s surroundings; teachers of yoga and Zen forms of concentration became immensely popular; folk singers and rock music festivals seemed to symbolize a new conception of comradeship. It was a period of neoprimitivism, of renewed identity through ecstatic music or contemplation of a visual focus. McLuhan suggested that the physiological impact of television and other electronic media would create a new sensibility, forming bodies of social awareness in which nations and states as we know them would wither away and be replaced by a revitalized tribal culture. In the 1970s he became less sanguine about this, but something of his earlier view survives as a vague hope that some technological gimmick will automatically take charge of the human situation. (CW 18, 354-5)


From Notebook 44 (1986 to 1990):

I have never understood why that blithering nonsense “the medium is the message” caught on so. Apparently the terms “medium” and “message” are being aligned with “form” and “content” respectively. And while it would make sense to say that form and content are inseparable, a medium is just that, a medium. It’s a vehicle, a transmitter, a means of communicating words and sounds and pictures. It is not and never can be a form. The form of verbal message is as verbal as its content. The content of a musical message, say a Mozart quartet, is a musical form. It may be heard in a concert hall of over the radio and read as a score in a book, but such varieties of media touch neither form not content. On Magritte’s pipe principle, the content of a picture is not the objects it represents, but its form or pictorial organization. But painting itself is not a medium: painting cannot be a means of transmitting painting. (CW 5, 234-5)


From “Literary and Mechanical Models” (1989):

Apart from the analogies of ballad and folklore scholarship, I was also influenced by the twentieth-century fluidity of media, in which a story might begin as a magazine serial, then become a book, and then a film. I remember the shock of picking up a copy of [Dostoevsky’s] The Brothers Karamozov and seeing it described as “the book of the film,” but I also realized that certain verbal cores, of the kind I usually call archetypes, were constants throughout the metamorphoses. The variety of media, in fact, was what made the conventions and genres I was interested in stand out in such bold relief.

It was this that made it impossible for me to go along with McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” axiom, despite my general sympathy for what McLuhan was trying to do. McLuhan’s formula was essentially in application of the Aristotelian form-content unity. He says, for example, that the form of one medium is the content of a later medium. I could see the identity of form and content: the content of a picture, for example, is the form of that picture, as long as we are talking about it as a picture and not as a representation of something else. But the McLuhan aphorism also implied an identity of form and medium, and that I cannot buy. A medium is precisely that, a vehicle or means of transmission, and what is transmitted are the real forms. The form of a Mozart quartet is not affected by whether it is heard in a concert hall or over the radio or read in a score, though there would be psychological variants in reacting to it, of the kind that McLuhan made so much of. The real forms are not media but verbal or pictorial structural units that have been there since the Stone Age. (CW 18, 455-6)


From “Convocation Address: University of Bologna” (1989):

Introversion in itself, however, does not greatly affect the distinction we have been making between the more public and the more private aspects of the arts. In some quarters the distinction levels out: devotees of a rock singer, for example, show a curious mixture of cult and mass reaction. But the distinction still exists in an electronic environment, where my late friend and colleague Marshall McLuhan tried to characterize it in the metaphors “hot” and “cool” media. A radio is a “hot” or involving medium because a great deal of data is provided in the medium and the listener has nothing to do but listen; black and white television is “cool” because it gives him less definition and more to fill in by himself. Cool media correspond to the more private aspects of our cultural tradition; hot ones to those more public and directly rhetorical in emphasis. But it soon becomes obvious that such metaphors as hot and cool really describe the quality of response to a medium even more than the characteristics of the medium itself. Radio is a hot medium for McLuhan, but if one leaves a radio on all day without listening to it, there is not much heat left in it. The technological context expands McLuhan’s distinction into a larger contrast between an active and a passive response. An active or creative response fosters both public and private emphases; a passive one moves toward a systematic destruction of both.

The primary element in an active response is selection, the free choice of what one will experience in communication. This freedom of choice obviously depends on the degree of freedom of choice in society. Some societies suppress many dimensions of communication on various political or religious pretexts. Elsewhere there may be unrestricted access to thirty or more television stations, but competition and reverence for ratings soon reduces this to minor variations of much the same repertory. Yet it is clear that an industrial high-technology society can put in an immense amount of potential experience, both of the arts and of every other form of communication, into individual hands. The technical developments of the last two decades, cassettes, videotapes, and the like, give access to far more musical, pictorial, and literary material than was available to anyone in even the recent past, and this variety of access is reflected in the variety of cultural influences brought to bear on our arts, our lifestyles, our clothing and food.

There is also a passive response to the communication media, and here too we see a difference between the “hot” involving response and the “cool” detached one. But passivity takes both in pathological directions: the hot response toward hysteria, the cool one towards apathy. Radios blaring from every street corner are a regular feature of dictatorships: the appearance of feverish political activity that results is deceptive, because it is really produced by a hypnotizing and sleepwalking under pressure. The “cooler” medium of television, on the other hand, may reduce its viewers to a catatonic trance by its brief bursts of continuity and the interruption of commercials, which are what Bertold Brecht would call an alienation device. We can see the dead end of this in the horrifying stories of people being robbed and beaten on busy streets in the middle of the day while staring crowds stand around with their hands in their pockets. The world for them has turned into a huge television screen: they see what is going on, but their participation in it is paralyzed.

In Canadian communications philosophy McLuhan was preceded by the economist Harold Innis, who spoke of the “bias” of communication, meaning that whenever a new form of communication arises, it creates a power struggle in society to get control of it. Those who succeed in doing so naturally want everything it can communicate to serve their own interests. This means that in every age writers and artists have to struggle for a greater freedom of expression than most of the authority in their society is willing to give them. The twentieth century has seen an unparalleled number of writers, artists, and intellectuals harassed, imprisoned, exiled, sent to concentration camps, murdered, or driven to suicide by power-maddened governments. Such tyranny has popularity on its side, because shouting slogans and predictable formulas is clearly much easier than reading or thinking, and gives an immediate illusion of doing something. And when a tyrant wishes to distract attention from his incompetence by bawling for the death of a heretical or “blasphemous” writer, he gets a ready response, because, while any form of anti-cultural activity may be pleasurable, bigotry is positive fun. There can be nothing more deeply satisfying, for a great many people, than to feel justified in murdering someone for writing a book one does not even have to read. (CW 10, 345)

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4 thoughts on “Frye on McLuhan: An Overview

  1. Veronica Abbass

    From “The Definition of a University” (1970):
    “It is the electronic media, I think, which have increased the number of linear and fragmented experiences–experiences which disappear as soon as one has had them–and because of that, they have also increased the general sense of panic and dither in modern society.”

    The word _they_ most definitely refers to the proliferation of texting and online chat, which have become a metaphor for communication.

    From “The Expanding World of Metaphor” (1984):
    “but something of his earlier view survives as a vague hope that some technological gimmick will automatically take charge of the human situation.”

    Cell phones and computers, especially the Internet may indicate that technological gimmick(s) were more than a “vague hope.”

    1. Michael Happy Post author

      As Frye says in a number of places with regard to McLuhan, media are media: they are means of transmission of words and pictures, and that is all. They have no power in themselves. How they are used is up to us. How we might best use them lies in our response to the art and literature media can transmit.

  2. Veronica Abbass

    I have some questions that I hope someone more familiar with Frye’s writing can answer:

    What exactly does Frye mean when he says in _The Critical Path: An Essay on the Social Context of Literary Criticism_ (1971): “the book individualizes its audience”?

    In “The Double Mirror” (1981), to whom is Frye referring when he says “my late and much beloved colleague”?

    Was is Frye who said something similar to “If only teachers could ruin television the way they ruined Shakespeare”?

    1. Michael Happy Post author

      Hi Veronica. Like you, I hope that someone more knowledgeable than me will weigh in, but it’s August and I’m still hanging around the shop sweeping up, so here goes.

      Frye’s notion that reading individualizes the reader is an often repeated one in his writings. It is based on at least two factors: first, that reading is a private activity beyond the verbal torrent of everyday life that carries in with it a lot of distracting rhetorical debris; second, the book, as Frye likes to say, repeats itself with infinite patience and it is always there for us to consult. When we know a book well enough, it gives us the “simultaneous” perspective that McLuhan claims for the electronic media (and Frye, of course, thought he was wrong about this). You might want to look at his essay, “The Renaissance of Books,” which you can read at Google Books:

      Frye’s reference to “my late and much beloved colleague” is to McLuhan.

      I do not recognize the last quote. But if anyone would know, it’s Bob Denham.


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