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De Tocqueville, in earlier work on the French Revolution, had explained how it was the printed word that, achieving cultural saturation in the eighteenth century, had homogenized the French nation. Frenchmen were the same kind of people from north to south. The typographic principles of uniformity, continuity, and lineality had overlaid the complexities of ancient feudal and oral society. The Revolution was carried out by the new literati and lawyers. … De Tocqueville’s contrast between England and America is clearly based on the fact of typography and of print culture creating uniformity and continuity.

Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, 1967

The effects attributed by McLuhan to mass media (in this case, the printing press) are grave and deserve immediate attention: a media would have the potential of creating cultural homogeneity across a whole nation, in particular when this media reaches “cultural saturation” (an expression whose meaning could be further discussed).

What did Tocqueville actually say? By which perspicacity had he obtained, in the 19th century, the shocking conclusion carried by McLuhan?

I shall cite only one example from a thousand. In the reports to the minister about the state of the book trade in the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth century, I read that there had existed important printing works in provincial towns which now have no printers or else have nothing for printers to do. It is, however, indisputable that infinitely more written material of every kind was published at the end of the eighteenth century than in the sixteenth; it simply was that the flow of thought radiated now from the centre, as Paris had engulfed the provinces.

Alexis de Tocqueville, Ancien Regime and the French Revolution (translated by Gerald Bevan), 1856


  1. Tocqueville’s observations, who states from the introduction his wish to concentrate himself on a contemporary subject, were false (many printers, in order to escape the severe censorship, simply labelled their works with different locations while still operating out of Paris, giving the impression that the production in France was everywhere similar to what came from the capital, which lack of historical hindsight did not allow De Tocqueville to see);
  2. … and limited (Tocqueville states that “[s]eemingly all men living there … resembled each other exactly,” however he would only consider men from the superior classes, those who are part of the nobility and the bourgeoisie, which he simply compares one to another: “… they had the same ideas, the same habits, they pursued the same tasks, indulged in the same pleasures, read the same books and spoke the same language. No longer did they differ except in relation to privileges“—Tocqueville does not hide his blinders);
  3. It is on such unreliable basis (obsolete and historically unproven) that McLuhan makes too favourable a reading for his case (Tocqueville never speaks of typography, only of print and in less specialized terms than McLuhan).

In which case a statement such as this one:

For any medium has the power of imposing its own assumption on the unwary. Prediction and control consist in avoiding this subliminal state of Narcissus trance. But the greatest aid to this end is simply in knowing that the spell can occur immediately upon contact, as in the first bars of a melody.

Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, 1967

on media (“the power of imposing its own assumption”) merely begs the question—however appealing it may seem.