Understanding Radio by Marshall McLuhan – Summary Essay

The following is a summary of Understanding Radio by Marshall McLuhan

England and America were immunized against radio by their long histories of literacy and industrialism. Their “intense visual organization” contrasted with the “more earthy and less visual European cultures.” There, the “tribal drum” of radio is “magic” and “began to resonate with the note of fascism.” Highly literate people were bewildered.

Radio listeners are deeply involved, people “carry transistor sets in order to provide a private world for themselves amidst crowds.” “Radio affects people most intimately, person-to-person, offering a world of unspoken communication between speaker and listener.”

Hitlers rise to power was “directly owing to radio.” “Radio provided the first massive experience of electronic implosion: that reversal of the entire direction and meaning of literate Western civilization.” Highly literate societies “have managed to absorb and to neutralize the radio implosion,” elsewhere the exposure is “utterly explosive.”

Typographic technology and literacy represent one grand logic that impacts societies key components. “Continuity, uniformity, repeatability” had permeated England and America. In contrast, the middle-European world had “ready access” to the rich non-visual resources of auditory and tactile form and felt “the hot impact of radio.” “The message of radio is one of violent, unified implosion and resonance.”

Literacy “fostered an extreme of individualism” while radio revived “the ancient exposure of kinship webs of deep tribal involvement.” Radio “is really a subliminal echo chamber of magical power to touch remote extensions of ourselves and forgotten chords.” Radio is “an extension of the central nervous system that is matched only by human speech itself.”

“The phonetic alphabet and the printed word exploded the closed tribal world into the open society of fragmented functions and specialist knowledge.” Radio has the power to “retribalize mankind.” This has gone virtually unremarked upon and that itself is what needs explaining.

Click here for a summary of The Roles of Radio by Harold Mendelsohn. It’s a much less intense analysis of radio focused on everyday consumption.

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