a writing and architecture workshop

Understanding Media

In Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man Marshall McLuhan imparts his famous maxim, “the medium is the message”. For McLuhan the terms media and technology are interchangeable and claims that their impact on our lives must be judged not by the content they disseminate but by the nature of the medium itself.

The book is written in two parts, the first outlining his core concepts and the second organised in a non-linear series of chapters each elaborating the characteristics of a particular medium. In this second section, McLuhan outlines separately the nature of the spoken, written and printed word. It may not be directly concerned with the relationship between language and architecture, however it is important in order to understand the autonomy of each medium and therefore its possibilites in relation to describing an architecture.

The following is an edited extract of McLuhan’s chapters on the spoken, written and printed word.


The spoken word involves all of the senses dramatically. It is in this way that audience participation is created. Separation of the senses and of the individual from the group, can scarcely occur without the influence of phonetic writing. The spoken word does not afford the extension and amplification of the visual power needed for habits of individualism and privacy.

It helps to appreciate the nature of the spoken word to contrast it with the written form. Although phonetic writing separates and extends the visual power of words, it is comparatively crude and slow. Many a page of prose and many a narrative has been devoted to expressing what was in effect, a sob, a moan, a laugh, or a piercing scream. The written word spells out in sequence what is quick and implicit in the spoken word.

Again, in speech we tend to react to each situation that occurs, reacting in tone and gesture even to our own act of speaking. But writing tends to be a kind of separate or specialist action in which there is little opportunity or call for reaction. The literate man or society develops the tremendous power of acting in any matter with considerable detachment from the feelings or emotional involvement that a non-literate man or society would experience.

Henri Bergson considered that language is a human technology that has impaired and diminished the values of collective consciousness. It is the extension of man in speech that enables the intellect to detach itself from the vastly wider reality.

Language does for intelligence what the wheel does for the feet and the body. It enables them to move from thing to thing with greater ease and speed and ever less involvement. Language extends and amplifies man but it also divides his faculties.

The patterns of the senses that are extended in the various languages of men are as varied as styles of dress and art. Each mother tongue teaches its users a way of seeing and feeling the world, and of acting in the world, that is quite unique.

The Written Word

The phonetic alphabet is a unique technology. There have been many kinds of writing, pictographic and syllabic, but there is only one phonetic alphabet in which semantically meaningless letters are used to correspond to semantically meaningless sounds. This stark division and parallelism between a visual and auditory world was both crude and ruthless, culturally speaking. The phonetically written word sacrifices worlds of meaning and perception that were secured by forms like the hieroglyph and the Chinese ideogram.

It can be argued that the phonetic alphabet, alone, is the technology that has been the means of creating “civilised man” – the separate individuals equal before a written code of law. Separateness of the individual, continuity of space and time, and uniformity of codes are the prime marks of literate and civilised societies.

As an intensification and extension of the visual function, the phonetic alphabet diminishes the role of the other senses of sound and touch and taste in any literate culture. The fact that this does not happen in culture such as the Chinese, which use non-phonetic scripts, enables them to retain a rich store of inclusive perception in depth of experience that tends to become eroded in civilised cultures of the phonetic alphabet. For the ideogram is an inclusive gestalt, not an analytic dissociation of senses and functions like phonetic writing.

Only alphabetic cultures have ever mastered connected lineal sequences as pervasive forms of psychic and social organisation. Consciousness is not a verbal process. Yet during all our centuries of phonetic literacy we have favoured the chain of inference as the mark of logic and reason. In Western literate society it is still plausible and acceptable to say something “follows” from something, as if there were some cause at work that makes such a sequence. Yet the sequence is merely additive, not causative.

To sum up, pictographic and hieroglyphic writing as used in Babylonian, Mayan and Chinese

cultures represents an extension of the visual sense for storing and expediting access to human experience. All of these forms give pictorial expression to oral meanings. As such, they approximate the animated cartoon and are extremely unwieldy, requiring many signs for the infinity of data and operations of social action. In contrast, the phonetic alphabet, by a few letters only, was able to encompass all the languages. Such an achievement, however, involved the separation of both signs and sounds from their semantic and dramatic meanings. No other system of writing has accomplished this feat.

The Printed Word

Psychically the printed book, and extension of the visual faculty, intensified perspective and the fixed point of view. Associated with the visual stress on point of view and the vanishing point that provides the illusion of perspective there comes another illusion that space is visual, uniform and continuous. The linearity precision and uniformity of the arrangement of movable types are inseparable from these great cultural forms and innovations of Renaissance experience. The new intensity of visual stress and private point of view in the first century of printing were united to the means of self-expression made possible by the typographic extension of man.

Printing changed learning and marketing processes alike. The book was the first teaching machine and also the first mass-produced commodity,In amplifying and extending the written word, typography revealed and greatly extended the structure of writing.

Another significant aspect of the uniformity and repeatability of the printed page was the pressure it exerted toward “correct” spelling, syntax, and pronunciation. Even more notable were the effects of print in separating poetry from song, and prose from oratory, and popular from educated speech.

The uniformity and repeatability of print permeated the Renaissance with the idea of time and space as continuous measurable quantities. The immediate effect of this idea was to desacralise the world of nature and the world of power alike. The new technique of control of physical processes by segmentation and fragmentation separated God and Nature as much as Man and Nature, or man and man.

Directly associated with these expansive qualities was the revolution in expression. Under manuscript conditions the role of being an author was a vague and uncertain one, like that of a minstrel. Hence, self-expression was of little interest. Typography, however, created a medium in which it was possible to speak out loud and bold to the world, just as it was possible to circumnavigate the world of books previously locked up in a pluralistic world of monastic cells. Boldness of type created boldness of expression.


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This entry was posted on June 29, 2012 by in architecture, EASA, media, writing and tagged , , , , .
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