Nicholas Friesner '05, Brown University, Spring 2005
Perhaps one of the most remarkable aspects of Marshall McLuhan’s technological theories deals not with the nature of the theory, but with how quickly he went from popular acclaim to general rejection. What seemed to be a valuable and illuminating theory of technology quickly turned into “technological determinism”, and as such, was dismissed without much further thought. It seems possible that McLuhan’s fall from popularity was aided by his approach to writing - he often cites artists instead of scholars, thus straying from scientific investigations of his claims - combined with his confessed conservatism and his unwillingness to be part of the movement he created. McLuhan’s unorthodoxy is profound, his writing style unusual compared to contemporary academia, and his steadfast adherence to his doctrine is at times remarkable. McLuhan reads less like a scholar and more like a visionary prophesying about technology. Or, as Grosswiler notes, McLuhan’s methodology put him more in the realm of poets than empirical science. Viewed by many as unscholarly and unscientific, McLuhan seems to have willingly moved against the popular currents, openly rejecting most popular theories and relying instead on a murky, sometimes confused, methodology. In the preface of Understanding Media, McLuhan writes of the problems he had with printing the book. “[One of the editors] noted in dismay that ‘seventy-five per cent of your material is new. A successful book cannot venture to be more than ten per cent new.’” (19-20)
After years of rejection, and despite a steadfast group of scholars still dismissing his work, McLuhan’s ideas appear to be resurfacing. This is in part due to theorists such as Paul Grosswiler who have reevaluated McLuhan’s original ideas and addressed many of his critics. The goal of this second-look is to wade through McLuhan’s own views: his expressed contempt for Marxism, his vague and sometimes misleading methodology, his conservative Catholicism, and his apparent failure to address social processes. In tackling these deep problems, McLuhan sometimes appears to have said one thing and done another. Working to make sense of this apparent contradiction requires deep inquiry into the methodology of McLuhan's writing, and not necessarily the outside comments that McLuhan makes. This inquiry can lead to new and surprising interpretations of McLuhan's ideas. As Grosswiler writes in his introduction:
The purpose of this book is to reconcile McLuhan and Marxism in order to contribute to the history of critical communication research, including qualitative and Marxist-based research. In faulting method and other normative values of administrative methodology, mainstream positivist research has been able to dismiss McLuhan. An argument can be made that McLuhan offers fertile ground for empirical social science research, however, McLuhan’s dialectical theory and qualitative approach makes him better suited in alliance with the critical communication theorists. By illustrating the methodological foundation shared by McLuhan and Marxism, McLuhan’s media theories may find a home in Marxist-based research and cultural studies (3).
The main body of Grosswiler’s book takes up the project of delineating and then evaluating McLuhan’s similarity to dialectical theories. His analysis is intriguing, mainly because he strays from directly addressing the specific contents of McLuhan’s theories. Instead, Grosswiler analyses McLuhan’s methods and his implicit dialectical tendencies, elements of methodology which have not previously been investigated. Central to this analysis is the idea of the galaxy, or the realm of conflicting forces which engage in a process to determine culture. These media galaxies, or culture galaxies as Grosswiler uses, are the primary link between Marxism and McLuhan. But whereas Marxism uses the modes of production to analyze culture, McLuhan takes a harder materialist stance – the product itself determines culture in that the technology produced by man augments his sensorial experience of the world. Man is thus conditioned by the technological extensions of himself, and those technologies are determined in the realm of the culture galaxy.
But man also plays a part in this galaxy. Grosswiler compares the effective role of man in the galaxy as comparable to Marxism’s critical consciousness. By reevaluating McLuhan in this manner, Grosswiler puts to bed the label of ‘technological determinism’ that has plagued McLuhan since cultural studies scholars affixed it to him in the 1970s. Man is not completely determined by technology that is out of his control. On the contrary, McLuhan gives the artist the power to raise awareness of technology's effects before they occur. This consciousness, or “the ‘early warning system’ of art helps make people aware of the impact of technology, as artists, the ‘antennae of the race,’ are several decades ahead of social and technological change” (Method, 75). McLuhan’s emphasis that understanding media is the only route to controlling the media allows the cultural galaxy to be complete – man works on technology which works to determine man’s consciousness. In this way,
McLuhan's dialectical methodology, allied with other critical theory paradigms and their dialectical methods, offers a bond that would bridge diverse researchers. Stripped of mythology and reinforced in his dialectic and historical methodology, McLuhan's work offers a theory of media evolution and human intervention that Marxism has missed. McLuhan's methodology forms a bond with Hegelian and Marxist dialectics and its descendants in the critical theory of Benjamin, Adorno, and Horkheimer as well as in the new generation of cultural studies scholars, postmodernists and more generally, in Canadian media theory (Method, 207).
The later section of the book presents an account of the wide array of responses that have been given to McLuhan. From Raymond Williams and British Cultural Studies, to the Neo-Marxists, to communications theory, Grosswiler goes over the specific objections that have been raised and the possible misreading, or false assumptions, on which they have been based. The most interesting of these analyses is of Raymond Williams, the British cultural theorist who originally compared McLuhan to Marx by showing that McLuhan isolates himself to media as Marx isolates himself to Capital. Williams had originally given McLuhan reserved praise, but then later reverses his critic to show open contempt. Grosswiler traces numerous instances of Williams’ lectures and writing all of which focus aggressively on refuting the idea that the media can configure social relationships and content. These criticisms, in turn, create Williams' own ideas about the total evaluation of man's social relationships, of which the media is only a small part. The problem with Williams' interpretation of McLuhan seems to be the product of his misreading of McLuhan, making man's relationships to technology essentially fatalistic. Williams' does not acknowledge that McLuhan allows man to have an effect on media - it is exactly the role of the artist, or other cultural visionary, to change the social relationships of man before a new technology is instituted. Unfortunately Williams, being one of the few people to address McLuhan with some depth, augments the views of many other theorists for years to come.
By situating McLuhan within the contemporary discourse, Grosswiler can resubmit McLuhan to the scholarship which he has lacked for the past 40 years. Although McLuhan has undoubtedly made a large impart on contemporary theories, the quantity and quality of work on McLuhan and the evaluation of media has been lacking. As Grosswiler discusses in his last chapter, perhaps the resurrection of McLuhan is due in part to the emergence of electronic mediums like the computer, which allow for a more diverse and variegated mediascape. The applicability of McLuhan to emerging media is persuasive, but it should not be at the cost of a total methodological examination of all media. McLuhan's theories rest on the universal affectivity of technology on man, not just in particular instances.
Rapidly, we approach the final phase of the extensions of man - the technological stimulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society, much as we have already extended our senses and our nerves by the various media. Whether the extension of consciousness, so long sought by advertisers for specific products, will be a 'good thing' is a question that admits a wide solution. There is little possibility of answering such questions about the extensions of man without considering all of them together. Any extension, whether of the skin, hand, or foot, affects the whole psychic and social complex (Understanding Media, 19).
Grosswiler, Paul. Method is the Message: Rethinking McLuhan through Critical Theory. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1998.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: Mentor Books. 1964.