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     Media and Formal Cause
     by Marshall McLuhan and Eric McLuhan

One of the 10 best books of 2011 - Artforum Magazine

Marshall McLuhan (1911 – 1980) attended the University of Manitoba and there earned a B.A. and M.A. in English (1934). He then attended Cambridge University and received the B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. in English (1944).  

He taught at the University of Wisconsin, the Saint Louis University, Assumption University (Windsor, 1944) and St. Michael’s College (Toronto,1946-1980), where he headed the interdisciplinary Centre for Culture and Technology. Besides many hundreds of articles in a broad variety of magazines and journals, he has written over twenty books. These include The Mechanical Bride: The Folklore of Industrial Man; Alfred Lord Tennyson: Selected Poetry; The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man; Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man; The Classical Trivium: The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of his Time; Voices of Literature (three volumes; with Richard Schoeck); Verbi-Voco-Visual Explorations; The Medium is the Massage; War and Peace in the Global Village; Through the Vanishing Point: Space in Poetry and Painting (with Harley Parker); The Interior Landscape: The Literary Criticism of Marshall McLuhan, 1943-1962; Counterblast (designed by Harley Parker); Mutations 1990; Culture is Our Business; From Cliché to Archetype (with Wilfred Watson); Take Today: The Executive as Drop Out (with Barry Nevitt); City as Classroom: Understanding Language and Media (with Kathryn Hutchon and Eric McLuhan); D’oeil a Oreille, Autre homme autre chretien a l’age electronique (with Pierre Babin).  

Posthumous publications include the following: Letters of Marshall McLuhan; Laws of Media: The New Science (with Eric McLuhan); The Global Village: Transformations in World Life and Media in the 21st Century (with Bruce Powers); Marshall McLuhan: The Man and His Message; Essential McLuhan; Forward Through the Rear View Mirror: Reflections on and by Marshall McLuhan; The Medium and the Light: Reflections on Religion and Media; The Book of Probes; Understanding Me: Lectures and Interviews; McLuhan Unbound; Theories of Communication (with Eric McLuhan); and the present volume, Media and Formal Cause (with Eric McLuhan).  

Marshall McLuhan is recognized as the inventor of the field of media study. In Laws of Media, he showed the seamless relation between literary criticism and understanding new media and artifacts, and he demonstrated that the new tools for media study had dissolved the long-held division between the arts and the sciences. This book concerns one of the principal such tools.

Eric McLuhan received his B. Sc. in Communication from Wisconsin State University in 1972. He got the M. A. and Ph. D. in English Literature from the University of Dallas in 1980 and 1982. An internationally-known lecturer on communication and media, he has over forty years’ teaching experience in subjects ranging from highspeed reading techniques to English literature, media, and communication theory, and has taught at many colleges and universities in both the United States and Canada.  

He has published articles in magazines and professional journals since 1964 on media, perception, and literature, and assisted Marshall McLuhan with the research and writing of The Medium is the Massage, War and Peace in the Global Village, Culture is Our Business, From Cliché to Archetype, and Take Today: The Executive as Drop-Out. He is co-author: with Marshall McLuhan and Kathryn Hutchon, of City as Classroom (Irwin, 1977); with Marshall McLuhan, of Laws of Media: The New Science (University of Toronto Press, 1988); and with Wayne Constantineau, of The Human Equation (Toronto: BPS Books, 2010).  

Eric McLuhan is the author of The Role of Thunder in Finnegans Wake (University of Toronto Press, 1997); Electric Language: Understanding the Present (Stoddart, 1998); and Theories of Communication (New York: Peter Lang, 2010). He is the co-editor of: Essential McLuhan (Stoddart, 1995), and Who Was Marshall McLuhan? (1994; Stoddart, 1995), and the editor of: The Medium and the Light (Stoddart, 1999); the academic journal, McLuhan Studies; and editor, for Gingko Press, of: Understanding Media, Critical Edition (2003); McLuhan Unbound (2004); and The Book of Probes (2004), and was consulting editor for Voyager/Southam’s “McLuhan Project,” which produced Understanding McLuhan (1997), a CD on Marshall McLuhan and his work.

Media and Formal Cause
by Marshall McLuhan and Eric McLuhan

A sage and perceptive quartet of essays which capture and extend a still quintessentially unique way of thinking about media, via patterns and connections that harken to the ancient world and redound to our present and future.
- Paul Levinson, Professor of Communication and Media Studies, Fordham University; author of Digital McLuhan, and of New New Media

ISBN 978-0-9832747-0-4
188 pages
5.5”x8.5” perfect bound, paper

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From the Foreword  

On behalf of NeoPoiesis Press, I would like to express our great pleasure at being able to publish this important little book.  It is indeed quite fitting that our first venture outside of the realm of poetry and creative writing is a work that concerns itself with poetics and aesthetics, with the creative process, with poiesis both new and old.  Moreover, many have commented on the poetic nature of Marshall McLuhan’s probes and commentary, and this work, co-authored by Eric McLuhan, is no exception. . . .  as Buber indicates, there is a spiritual dimension to formal causality, as there is to all acts of creation.  But for those who prefer a more scientific outlook, let me simply note that formal cause corresponds to the systems view of Gregory Bateson, to the dissipative structures of physicist Ilya Prigogine, to the fractal geometry of Benoit Mandelbrot and the metapatterns of Tyler Volk, to the autopoietic systems of biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, and in general to the systems concept of emergence.

McLuhan, along with other media ecology scholars, has been accused of being a technological determinist.  And while technological determinism has largely been used as a straw man argument to dismiss McLuhan and others without due consideration, the deterministic language of cause-and-effect is easy enough to slip into, by force of habit, and for wont of easily accessible alternatives. Thus, we may end up with statements like, the stirrup caused feudalism as a shorthand, in the same way that we might say that evolution caused us to walk erect.  For media ecologists and biologists alike, we understand that that kind of language is a form of shorthand, and a kind of poetry, used to represent much more complex processes.  That complexity can be better represented by the concept of formal cause, rather than cause-and-effect (otherwise known as efficient cause); formal cause is the causality of emergent properties, the causality that media ecologists often have in mind when we consider the impact of technological change on individuals and societies, on communication, consciousness, and culture.  

- Lance Strate, Fordham University, author of Echoes and Reflections: On Media Ecology as a Field of Study


No one understood causality, whether Aristotelian or electric, like Marshall McLuhan.  Now, in Media and Formal Cause, no one reveals understanding of formal cause in the digital environment better than McLuhan’s protégé son, Eric.  In the foreword, Lance Strate writes that M. McLuhan’s Understanding Media was one of the most important books of the 20th century.  For anyone who wishes to understand how things truly work, Media and Formal Cause is one of the most important books of the 21st.    Arguably formal cause has been the least understood but and the most intellectually important of all of Aristotle’s four agents or processes of causation. This small volume proffers a large understanding of this formative, previously mysterious level of invisible creation.  Three essays by Marshall (one with co-author Barry Nevitt) and a powerful new essay by Eric give new meaning to ye olde cliché, “like father, like son”.  While reading writing that is engaging, encyclopedic, and electric, we discover that formal cause is not what you think...  but it is vital to how you think.

- Thomas Cooper, Professor of Visual and Media Arts, Emerson College; author of Fast Media/Media Fast    

In Media and Formal Cause Eric McLuhan updates an important part of his father’s work that is often overlooked, the quixotic role of causality in making sense of how new media change the way we construct our environment and our communication.  How does novelty cause antiquity?  When do effects precede causes?  Read on, and you shall find out.

- David Rothenberg, Professor of Philosophy and Music, New Jersey Institute of Technology; author of Why Birds Sing and Thousand Mile Song    

Like his mentor, Gilbert Keith Chesterton, Marshall McLuhan was often accused of indulging in mere paradox. But Media and Formal Cause demonstrates the profound understanding that underlies the work of both Chesterton and McLuhan, the understanding that we live in a paradoxical world. Both McLuhan and Chesterton attempted to jar readers loose from what Cardinal Newman called "paper logic" into a recognition of the total situation in which we find ourselves. This very readable and accessible volume should greatly assist new readers of McLuhan and remind long time students of just how challenging and exhilarating his explorations were.

- Philip Marchand, author, Marshall McLuhan:  The Medium and the Messenger    

This insightful book entices the reader to engage the legacy of McLuhan.  The paradox of formal cause resonates with our post-literate environment.  The reader who truly wishes to understand media will recognize the value of these essays.

- Catherine Waite Phelan, Chair and Professor of Communication, Hamilton College; author of Mediation and the Communication Matrix    

This well-chosen collection of essays is essential reading for anyone who wants to think critically about how to understand the pervasive role of media in our world.  A provocative and highly innovative perspective on modernity is provided by the use of the notion of formal causation, while new light is also shed on the Aristotelian tradition in which the notion was first developed.  This neglected conception of causality remains of profound importance today.
- Paul Franks, Senator Jerahmiel S. and Carole S. Grafstein Chair in Jewish Philosophy, University of Toronto    

Questions about the nature of causality have puzzled philosophers for a very long time.  In this collection of papers by and about Marshall McLuhan, we see how these issues can gain new and wider relevance in today's media-focused age.  The book illustrates and elucidates McLuhan's thoughts on formal cause, a concept that he believed could help us to grasp the complex relations between media and their effects.  In addition to three of McLuhan's own characteristically challenging papers, the associated commentary from Eric McLuhan and Lance Strate help to clarify and contextualize these vital ideas for scholars, artists, and anyone else interested in the fundamental issues of human communication.

- Gerald Erion, Professor of Philosophy, Medaille College