The Method is the Message: Rethinking McLuhan Through Critical Theory

Paul Grosswiler

Raymond Williams' (1967, 1974) critique of Marshall McLuhan's technological determinism has greatly influenced the way McLuhan has been received in communication and cultural studies. For instance, Williams was one of the first to suggest that McLuhan was a technological determinist because his formalist analysis of the media was lacking in its ability to account for the workings of power, political economy, institutional organization, and everyday life. Williams' critique was timely in its call for an explicit discussion of ideology overlooked in the apolitical stance of modernists like McLuhan. As many recent books about McLuhan argue, however, in the long term Williams' orientation has lead to a disregard for relevant aspects of McLuhan's media theory.

Recently Paul Grosswiler and Glenn Willmott have contributed to this long-standing debate. They retrieve McLuhan for their respective disciplines of critical communication studies and postmodern literary criticism. McLuhan's interpretive methods are of use, they argue, for navigating the shifting terrains of culture, society, and technology. To counter his dismissal as a formalist and determinist, Grosswiler and Willmott suggest that McLuhan's media theories are intersubjective. Media, therefore, shape the dimensions of human communication and as such they are communicative, expressive, and interactive. Media are not merely machine objects that determine human behavior. McLuhan's use of dialectical reasoning, Grosswiler argues, is at the root of his intersubjective approach. For Willmott, McLuhan is orientated by modernist and postmodernist theories. Furthermore, both Willmott and Grosswiler agree, following Arthur Kroker (1984), that McLuhan is a technological humanist. According to Kroker, McLuhan aimed to discover the ways in which technology could contribute to human well-being.

In Method is the Message: Rethinking McLuhan through Critical Theory, Grosswiler analyzes a wide range of scholarly and theoretical literature in the fashion of a historical materialist. He synthesizes McLuhan's eclectic approach to the media with seemingly incompatible orientations such as Marxism, critical theory, and cultural and communication studies. One of McLuhan's goals in studying the media, Grosswiler suggests, was to locate opportunities for human agency in the context of technological change. Grosswiler reviews an array of approaches to dialectical reasoning and then historically situates McLuhan. In so doing, Grosswiler intends to overcome the antagonistic impasse that exists between Marxists and McLuhanites--each of whom accuse the other of resorting to instrumental modes of thinking. Grosswiler also attempts to temper McLuhan's rejection of dialecticians. McLuhan associated dialectics with what he understood to be the mechanistic logics of Platonists, Enlightenment rationalists, and Marxists. Grosswiler suggests that McLuhan, many Marxists, postmodernists, critical and postmodern theorists, and cultural studies and critical communication scholars can be connected through their use of dialectic reasoning. He compares dialectical reasoning with qualitative research methods asserting that both formations consider knowledge to be open-ended and process-oriented rather than empirical and positivist. In constructing, from a range of seemingly incompatible positions, a dialectical theory of the media in which McLuhan is central, Grosswiler aligns himself with Nick Stevenson (1995), a British social theorist of the media. Stevenson, like Grosswiler, synthesizes a number of established theoretical perspectives from communications and cultural studies in order to create a multiperspectival and hybrid theory to understand how new media shape the communicative dimensions of the public sphere.

Grosswiler links McLuhan's dialectical mode of reasoning to his thesis of sensory balance and laws of the media. In his sensory thesis, McLuhan presents a theory of change rooted in the perceptual bias of dominant media. For instance, McLuhan claimed that electronic media in its privileging of oral and acoustic perception created the Global Village, a homogeneous and harmonious social space. In reviewing disputes surrounding McLuhan's concept of the Global Village, Grosswiler notes that because it offers a binaristic and ahistorical definition of media, this aspect of McLuhan's dialectic is limited. To go beyond the dualistic and determinist limits of the sensory thesis, Grosswiler argues that McLuhan's laws of the media are a more flexible form of dialectic and postmodernist reasoning. The laws of the media chart change in terms of how media extend, retrieve, negate, and refigure socio-cultural relationships.

In arguing for the value of McLuhan's media theories for critical communications theory, Grosswiler draws on a variety of sources, key of which is the debate over the state of communications studies published in the Journal of Communications (summer 1983 and summer 1993). He also refers to complimentary bodies of work emanating from a special 1989 issue of the Canadian Journal of Communication devoted to the study of McLuhan, from social theorists of the media and history of communication scholars, from poststructuralist theorists, and from political economists. The aim here is to locate McLuhan's position within disciplinary debates about the value of administrative and critical communication research. Given the parameters of this ongoing discussion Grosswiler relocates McLuhan within critical communications theory arguing that he employed expressive modes of reasoning rather than linear forms of communication. Moreover, McLuhan's intent was to explore how communication media shape and reshape culture--in the name of social change that is humanist and knowledge that is interdisciplinary. He was unconcerned with administrative research and its goal of ensuring the efficient operation of organizations.

Whereas Grosswiler's discussion of McLuhan's dialectic aims to construct a multiperspectival method for locating human agency in the midst of socio-technical change, Willmott argues that McLuhan's media theory is idealist and modernist in its attempt to realize forms of intersubjective communication able to adequately express the exigencies of the modernity. McLuhan's idealist approach to culture, according to Willmott, allows for a definition of media that is expressive, communicative, and interactive, thereby exceeding materialist forms rooted in instrumental rationality. In establishing that media are open systems, relational, and produce many forms of cultural reason, Willmott affirms that McLuhan was one of the first to demonstrate the relevance of humanistic and aesthetic analysis for studying expanded forms of rationality, media, and culture. However, Willmott adds, McLuhan negotiates the emergence of postmodernity by using modernist methods to interpret identities and meanings uprooted from the essentialist foundations of Enlightenment rationality.

Willmott's book, McLuhan, or Modernism in Reverse, is organized according to the modernist-postmodernist trajectory that he ascribes to the shape of McLuhan's thinking. In part one, Willmott discusses McLuhan's uses of modernism. He begins with a discussion of the influences of new critics such as I. A. Richards, T. S. Eliot, and F. R. Leavis; principles of montage borrowed from Sergei Eisenstein, Wyndham Lewis, and Ezra Pound; as well as the principles drawn from theorists of society and technology like Lewis Mumford, Siegfried Giedion, and Harold Innis. In part two, Willmott speculates on McLuhan's breach with modernism through his idealization of the pre-modern past, his performative approach to identity and the other, and his blurring of the boundaries between high art, popular culture, corporations, and the mass media. Finally, Willmott compares McLuhan's synaesthetic approach to perception, technology, and experience to existential and phenomenological philosophies of Martin Heidegger, George Grant, and Canadian literature.

The core of Willmott's argument about McLuhan's intersubjective approach to the media grows out of Fredric Jameson's theory of postmodernity. McLuhan's application of modernist aesthetic methods to the interpretation of media and culture allows Willmott to link modernist theories to postmodern cultural phenomena. Moreover, Jameson's theory of postmodernity was in part influenced by McLuhan's conclusion that electronic media lends cultural form to the emerging global society. For Jameson, media are the primary modality organizing the postmodern era. Through the logic of late capital, the media penetrate all aspects of life thereby completing the project of modernization, heralding a new society distinctly separate from the modern. Modernist critical values that privilege specialization, fixed identity, and transparent language are inadequate in a multimediated world fostering modes of interrelation that are pluralistic, performative, contingent, and intersubjective. Willmott relates Jameson and McLuhan's use of techne to the intersubjective approaches of modernists such as the new critic I. A. Richards and architectural historian Siegfried Giedion. McLuhan, for example, was influenced by Richard's study of the formal elements of poetry designed to discover ethically adequate modes of communication, understanding, and consciousness. From Giedion, McLuhan drew on the notion of techne, a concept characterizing the imposition of human form on material phenomena. Giedion and McLuhan supposed that techne shaped epistemologically adequate and historically relevant structures that in turn could constitute interdisciplinary links between the sciences, arts, and everyday life.

The value of Grosswiler's and Willmott's work is that they situate McLuhan's theory of the media within a broad spectrum of scholarly literature in order to argue that McLuhan's formal analysis was intersubjective rather than determinist. Media are constitutive of the dimensions of human communication, interaction, and expression. They are not merely pieces of technological hardware that dictate the outcomes of human behavior. At the same time, both scholars are concerned with illuminating the importance of McLuhan in bringing an expanded sense of rationality and aesthetic methods of interpretation to the study of media and communication. This allowed for accounts of subjectivity, taste, feeling, and perception excluded from the dominant theoretical formulations. Willmott historically locates McLuhan within the humanities as an integral contributor, not an anomalous instance. For critical communications studies, Grosswiler constructs a hybrid, working theory of the media highlighting McLuhan's contributions. While Grosswiler and Willmott acknowledge some of the limitations of McLuhan's media theories, they often build on these limits by borrowing from other theorists. For example, to compensate for McLuhan's inability to account for social and ideological relationships, Grosswiler draws on the writing of the Frankfurt School, John Fiske, Raymond Williams, and Louis Althusser.

While the authors' focus on McLuhan's intersubjective approach to the media attempts to negate dismissals of his work, Willmott and Grosswiler nevertheless, in some ways, sidestep important questions about the ideological and institutional positions that McLuhan and his work occupied. By perhaps more explicitly connecting the ways that the institutional and ideological relate to the intersubjective dimensions of McLuhan's theory, while accounting for how McLuhan's work is not only similar to, but differentiated from, those he borrowed from and is linked to, it would be possible to avoid perpetuating the limits of McLuhan's theories. At the same time, when these considerations are combined with the authors' thorough review and synthesis of the literature, future work on McLuhan could forge beyond the ongoing and oscillating debates that either dismiss McLuhan for his inability to account for ideology and everyday life, and those who claim him as a humanist with sophisticated formal methods of interpretation.


Kroker, Arthur. (1984). Technology and the Canadian Mind: Innis/McLuhan/Grant. Montreal: New World Perspectives.

Stevenson, Nick. (1995). Understanding Media Cultures: Social Theory and Mass Communication. London: Sage.

Williams, Raymond. (1967). Paradoxically, if the book works it to some extent annihilates itself. In Gerald E. Stearn (Ed.), McLuhan hot and cool (pp. 188-191). New York: Dial Press.

Williams, Raymond. (1974). Television: Technology and Cultural Form. London: Fontana.

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