Reflections on Modernity and Postmodernity in McLuhan and Baudrillard

Abstract

In the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan emerged as a guru of the emergent electronic media culture. His book Understanding Media (1964) was celebrated as providing key insights into the role of the media in contemporary society and McLuhan became one of the most discussed and debated theorists of the time. During the 1980s, Jean Baudrillard was promoted in certain circles as the new McLuhan, as the most advanced theorist of the media and society in the so-called postmodern era. His analysis of a new, postmodern society rests on a key assumption that the media, simulations, and what he calls "cyberblitz" constitute a new realm of experience and a new stage of history and type of society. Both McLuhan and Baudrillard provide provocative theses on the role of the media and new technology in constituting the contemporary world. They provide important and influential models of the media as all-powerful and autonomous social forces that produce a wide range of effects. In this study, I first explicate McLuhan’s media theory and how it can be deployed to produce analyses of modernity and postmodernity that connect McLuhan’s work with Baudrillard. I then explore how McLuhan’s media theory shaped Baudrillard’s theory and the similarities and differences in their work. I lay out what I consider the important contributions of their work, but am also concerned to delineate the political implications of their media theory and to point to alternative theoretical and political perspectives on the media and the contemporary moment.

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