McLuhan the Younger: Two New Books

April 01st, 2011 | Category: Reviews

There have been plenty of people touted to carry the mantle left behind by Marshall McLuhan — Neil Postman, Douglas Rushkoff, Paul Levinson, even Jean Baudrillard, but no one has been working more behind the scenes and under the radar to keep his legacy alive than his own son and sometimes co-author Eric McLuhan.

Eric McLuhan has amassed a significant body of work in his own right, including Electric Language (St. Martin’s Griffin, 1998), The Role of Thunder in Finnegans Wake (University of Toronto Press, 1997), the forthcoming Theories of Communication (with Marshall), and The Human Equation (BPS Books, 2011; discussed below), among many others.

One of Marshall’s most important and most overlooked works was co-authored by Eric. The posthumously published Laws of Media (University of Toronto Press, 1988). In this book, they tackle the Shannon-Weaver model of communication as needlessly linear (a task I’ve attempted myself), writing, “The Shannon-Weaver model and its derivatives follow the linear pattern of efficient cause — the only sequential form of causality” (p. 87). Formal cause was a lesser known but chronic concern for McLuhan.

[T]he formal causes inherent in… media operate on the matter of our senses. The effect of media, like their ‘message’ is really on their form and not in their content (Marshall Mcluhan in Gordon, W. T., 2005, p. 10).

In Media and Formal Cause by Marshall and Eric McLuhan (NeoPoiesis Press, 2011), Eric brings together three pieces by Marshall and an extended essay of his own (“On Formal Cause”) that references them, as well as historical context provided by his new introduction and a Foreword by the inimitable Lance Strate.

Aristotle’s definition of formal cause — one of four causes he defined, and the one that contains the other three — reads the “essense, idea, or quality of the thing concerned” (Bunge, iii; what Heidegger would call “the thing thinging”). McLuhan saw Aristotle’s oral orientation conflating formal and final cause. This view and the Shannon-Weaver model are the results of left-brain thinking, and we need a right-brain perspective if we are to cope with the new electronic age. “Communication theory necessarily concerns the study of the public and not of the program,” McLuhan wrote in an unpublished letter to Archie Malloch. “The ‘content’ of any performance is the efficient cause which includes the user or the cognitive agent who is, and becomes, the thing known, in Aristotle’s phrase” (p. 10). He goes on to cite his mentor Harold Innis as the first to show that the alphabet is what split Greek thought between “thinking” and “being” (p. 30). “Literacy become synonymous with Western civilization that divorced ‘subject’ from ‘object’ and thought from feeling, just as the dominant metaphors of mechanism widened the separation of  ’cause’ and ‘effect'” (p. 31). Knowledge of the alphabet distances us from knowledge of formal cause.

And understanding formal cause is tantamount to understanding our new media ecology. It was at the center of McLuhan’s work. Eric writes, “Formal cause is still, in our time, hugely mysterious: The literate mind finds it is too paradoxical and irrational. It deals with environmental processes and it works outside of time” (p. 87). McLuhan wrote, “effects precede causes” (p. 43). The bright light of the future casts shadows on the present from forthcoming events — that’s formal cause.

[Media] Ecology does not seek connections, but patterns. It does not seek quantities, but satisfactions and understanding (p. 8).

Mass media in all their forms are necessarily environmental and therefore have the character of formal causality (McLuhan to Ruth Nanda Ashen, NAC, 1975).

McLuhan mentioned predicting the present in his work several times, and an observance of “daily miracles” like his oft-studied subject Chesterton. He also approached all of this mass-media mess from what amounts to a systems point of view: figures, grounds, environments, anti-environments, sense ratios. He was trying to get outside of it all to see what it was doing from the highest possible vantage point.

So this is all about perspective. And McLuhan pointed out that perspective is a mode of perception that involves a single point of view — or fragmentation, in space and time, in painting and in poetry (Gordon, Hamaji, & Albert, 2007, p. 139).

The perspective is part of what makes The Human Equation by Wayne Constantineau and Eric McLuhan (BPS Books, 2010) so effective: the vantage point, the human as central concern, the human as center of the universe. This is “Book 1: The Human Equation Toolkit,” and the toolkit consists of numerous sets of four related concepts, tetrads, not unlike the ones in Marshall McLuhan and Bruce R. Powers’ The Global Village (Oxford University Press, 1992), and those included in the aforementioned Laws of Media. The Human Equation starts with four embodied positions — standing, lying down, sitting, and kneeling — as the basis of all extensions thereof (i.e., media, technology, etc.). Co-authored by the late mime Constantineau, that the book’s foundation is comprised of body positions should come as no surprise.

This short book is rife with odd new perspectives on our media, culture, our place in the universe, and indeed our bodies themselves — much like so many of Marshall McLuhan’s own odd shorter works.

This year marks the centennial of Marshall McLuhan’s birth, and his work is as relevant now as it ever was. Here’s to everyone who’s keeping his legacy alive, especially his son Eric McLuhan.


Bunge, M. Causality: The Place of the Causal Principle in Modern Science. Metaphysics, 32, Bk. 1, ch, iii.

Gordon, W. T. (2010). McLuhan: A Guide for the Perplexed. New York: Continuum Books.

Gordon, W. T. (2005). McLuhan Unbound, #14. Corte Madera, CA: Gingko Press.

Gordon, W. T., Hamaji, E, & Albert, J. (2007). Everyman’s McLuhan. New York: Mark Batty Publisher.

Heidegger, M. (1971) Poetry, Language Thought. New York: Harper & Row.

McLuhan, M. & McLuhan, E. (1988). Laws of Media: The New Science. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

McLuhan, M. & Powers, B. R. (1992). The Global Village. Oxford University Press.

National Archives of Canada. (1975, July 2). Marshall McLuhan to Ruth Nanda Ashen.

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