The Technology is not the Cultural Form?: Raymond Williams's Sociological Critique of Marshall McLuhan

Paul Jones (University of New South Wales, Australia)

Abstract: This article's prime aim is to provide an exegesis of Raymond Williams's neglected "mature" theorization of means of communication. Much of this aspect of his cultural materialism is articulated as a critique of Marshall McLuhan. Williams attempts to recover and develop what he saw as the lost early promise of McLuhan's work. The article thus takes the form of an account of the complex relationship between the two authors' projects from their common origins in English literary criticism through to Williams's rejection of McLuhan's proto-postmodern avant-gardism. The normative sociological typologization of means of communication offered by Williams is argued to be directly relevant to contemporary research.

Résumé: Le but principal de cet article est de donner une exègèse des théories "matures" négligées de Raymond Williams sur les moyens de communications. Williams articule une bonne partie de cet aspect de son matérialisme culturel sous forme d'une critique de Marshall McLuhan. Il essaie de récupérer et de développer ce qu'il perçoit comme la promesse inaccomplie des premiers ouvrages de McLuhan. Cet article prend ainsi la forme d'un compte-rendu du rapport complexe entre les projets des deux auteurs, -- partir de leurs origines communes dans la critique littéraire anglaise jusqu'au rejet par Williams de l'avant-gardisme postmoderne avant la lettre de McLuhan. L'article soutient en outre que la typologie sociologique normative des moyens de communications offerte par Williams est directement pertinente -- la recherche contemporaine.

The immediate intellectual influence of the projects of Raymond Williams and Marshall McLuhan has long passed but their major works remain in print and each still warrants inclusion in textbooks of "media theory" (e.g., Stevenson 1995). More than this, each has figured prominently in recent influential literatures. There is now a well-established case that McLuhan's work prefigured many of the concerns made prominent by postmodernists in the 1980s (Ferguson 1991) and in some influential texts of that period at least, direct influence was acknowledged (e.g., Eco 1987). The still-current wave of work on "globalization" has also renewed interest in McLuhan, often by naïvely reproducing the very features of his work which Williams most heavily criticized (cf. Ferguson 1992).

Williams's own work has continued to be regarded as foundational for many in the field of cultural studies (e.g., Turner 1996). Similarly, the recent debate about cultural studies initiated by political economists of the media was remarkable in that both critics and defenders of cultural studies claimed Williams's work to be a pivotal point of departure for their own projects (Garnham 1995; Grossberg 1995; Ferguson and Golding 1997; cf. Jones 1998). Further, contributors to the recent literature on the public sphere, inspired by Habermas's own acknowledgments of the early Williams, have recognized a previously unacknowledged normative dimension within his work (Eley 1993; Niemenen 1997; cf. Habermas 1991, 36-37). Finally, his mature project, the self-styled cultural materialism, has continued to gather interest (e.g., Prendergast 1995). It is not insignificant that Williams regarded his Television: Technology and Cultural Form (Williams 1974), the site of his major critique of McLuhan, as a prime example of this cultural materialism in practice (Williams 1977, 6).

In short, Williams's critique of McLuhan has much contemporary relevance. At the very least their disagreements highlight continuing problems with the conceptual relationship between the categories of "medium" and "technology." However, Williams's critique of McLuhan also speaks to contemporary normative disputes in that it prefigures his own critique of postmodernism as "avant-gardism" from a declared set of norms which in turn elucidate his relationship with the public sphere thesis (Williams 1989a).

There are three related but distinct moments in Williams's relationship with McLuhan's work. The first is his cautious 1964 review of McLuhan's The Gutenberg Galaxy (Williams 1968a). The second is the (aforementioned) extended polemical discussion of McLuhan ten years later in Television: Technology and Cultural Form (Williams 1974) and his related comments in Marxism and Literature (Williams 1977). Finally, there is the attempt to develop an alternative, normatively sociological, typology of means of communication in various works between 1978 and 1983. Each of these shall be dealt with in turn following an examination of some potentially "formative common ground."

Formative common ground?: Renovating the project of literary criticism

Williams's relationship with the work of McLuhan is also a major indicator of shifts within his own project. McLuhan's mature work constituted a significant alternative configuration of intellectual tendencies with which Williams was in negotiation throughout his career: Romanticism, "Leavisism," the growing theoretical acknowledgment of "new media," aesthetic formalism and, following from the last of these (as we shall see), aesthetic and theoretical avant-gardism.

To some degree at least McLuhan and Williams developed their positions from similar intellectual training in English literary criticism. This provided overlapping aesthetico-social conceptual frameworks for their early work. Of more lasting significance is their early recognition of the relevance of locating discussion of "the media" within such frameworks.

McLuhan had commenced postgraduate study of English literature at Cambridge five years before Williams arrived there in 1939. Even more than Williams, he had been drawn towards, without fully embracing, the marginal radicalism of the Leavises' Scrutiny circle. This had included attending F. R. Leavis's lectures and enjoying the intellectual environment of the Leavises' "open house" (Molinaro, McLuhan, and Toye 1987, 67, 120).

McLuhan's earliest popular cultural analyses, such as those in his first book, The Mechanical Bride (1951), bear considerable resemblance to Leavis's "moral critique" of "technologico-Benthamite civilization," his characterization of capitalist modernity (Mulhern 1979). These analyses, McLuhan later stated, were partly inspired by Leavis and Thompson's 1933 Culture and Environment (Leavis and Thompson 1950; cf. Stearn and McLuhan 1968, 303).

That work and its complement, Queenie Leavis's 1932 Fiction and the Reading Public (Q. Leavis 1979), both actively use the "post-Romantic" ideal of "the organic community" as a normative basis for their criticism of contemporary culture and for their advocacy of the contemporary social mission of literary criticism. The former text is also the first extended attempt to develop an educational "manual" in the application of literary-critical techniques such as "close reading" to the critical analysis of popular cultural forms.

Relying on remarkably slim historical sources, the Leavises' analyses postulated in the organic community ideal a lost unity of culture and civilization that had been subjected to a "vast and terrifying disintegration" (Leavis and Thompson 1950, 87). But what is primarily idealized by cited example is a pre-urban, pre-industrial craft labour process in general production.

Curiously absent from the Leavises' lost ideal is an emphasis on the folk cultural forms so prominent in similarly Romantic folkloric arguments (Cocchiara 1981). In its stead are valorized high points of common cultural consumption which are seen to transcend social class barriers (e.g., the works of Shakespeare and Bunyan). Both Leavises were quite insistent about the near-absolute degree of destruction of the "culture of the people" in Britain (F. Leavis 1966, 192; cf. Q. Leavis 1979, 126).

Nonetheless it is the continuity of a quite different tradition which provides a proposed means of reconciliation between the lost craft labour processes, the irrecoverable spontaneity of the organic community, and the crisis of the present. For only one means of transmission, language, and one language-based tradition, literature, remain available. Literary criticism was thus openly invoked as the means of reconstitution of "the art of living" (Leavis and Thompson 1950, 107). The initial goal of the Leavis circle's journal, Scrutiny, was accordingly to establish an intellectual stratum of similar orientation, especially within general education (i.e., school teachers) (Mulhern 1979). But the larger hope was for a subsequent broadening of the required critical "taste." Crucially, however, this was no celebration of a minority position for its own sake. The expansion of this critical "sensibility" amongst the general population was the means of resistance to the expansion of that "technologico-Benthamite civilization," especially its mass cultural forms like the tabloid and advertising. This critique could at times take the form of an almost overtly political project, albeit one vulnerable to the charge of an overly self-confident idealism (Baldick 1983, 186-96).

However, a precondition of The Mechanical Bride appears to have been the abandonment of the Leavises' overt hostility to such popular cultural forms and, instead, their recognition as, in the words of its subtitle, The Folklore of Industrial Man. This allowed McLuhan to immanently follow the "lines of force" of the "visual language" of advertisements (Stearn and McLuhan 1968, 304) as "social myths." This partial break with Leavis could be seen as commencing his move towards an "affirmative" view of the products of the culture industries.

Williams had published an even more evident emulation of Culture and Environment the year before as his first book, Reading and Criticism (1950). However, the position Williams developed concerning popular culture in that text and over the next decade does not coincide with either the Leavises' or the early McLuhan's "moral" critiques based in an immanent literary analysis. Instead, he maintains Leavis's role for a normatively based critique of popular culture but changes its "content."

This dimension of Williams's project remains a source of confusion today. His opposition to the elitist usage of the category of "mass culture" is well known (e.g., Sparks 1993; McGuigan 1993) but his simultaneous maintenance of a quasi-Marcusean hostility to advertising has presented a superficial "contradiction" for some (cf. Jhally 1987, 4). An immanent analysis of individual advertisements, like those in The Mechanical Bride, thus remained an impossibility for him.

However, this is consistent with a normative perspective based on two chief premises. The first is consistent with the well-known Gramscian thesis that "all men [sic] are intellectuals" (Gramsci 1976, 9ff). The second is one which sees popular access to minimal cultural "skills" and the means of communication as a precondition of the exercise of this generic human intellectual ability. These can be seen to articulate with an encompassing third, the ideal of a participatory democracy (cf. Jones 1995).

This production-focused perspective is not incompatible with the better-known populist Gramscianism within cultural studies today, most visible within the work of John Fiske, which emphasizes the resistant interpretative capacities of audiences and publics as a foil against models of media manipulation (cf. Morley 1996). At one level, of course, this resistant reception paradigm moves from the same first premise. However, Williams remained permanently hostile to any attempt to use such arguments to legitimate unequal relations of cultural production.

Similarly, he remained hostile to all attempts at counter-valorizing what he would later categorize as a "residual" cultural form, an aesthetic urban "folk culture." He especially challenged such an understanding of "working class culture" as it was advocated -- and partly conflated with commercial "popular culture" -- by a contemporary with whom he is often confused, the founder of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, Richard Hoggart (Jones 1994). Perhaps unwittingly, Hoggart laid the ground for the "resistant reception" paradigm within cultural studies. In his 1957 review of Hoggart's seminal The Uses of Literacy (Hoggart 1976), Williams rejected the significance of an immanent analysis of popular cultural forms and moved instead from an acceptance of "how bad most popular culture is" (1957, 425). There is no evidence that he ever significantly revised this position (cf. Brunsdon 1990). It must be emphasized, however, that "popular culture" is so understood as the most formulaic products of the culture industries and "bad" derives from the normative principles above -- that is, a rejection of any instant association of popular cultural commodities and popular culture or popular beliefs -- rather than a mere cultural elitism.

The key issue here is that Williams never embraced either a dismissively "mass culture" perspective nor accepted equations like McLuhan's (even if ironic) between advertising and "folklore."

Instead, Williams's earliest analyses were firmly locked into a "post-Leavisite" popular educational strategy of teaching skills of critical analysis to popular audiences. This practice was developed during his long period in adult education in the 1940s and 1950s. Indeed, even the goal of critical consumption was not enough. Its corollary was what he would later categorize as the "organic intellectual" task of aiding the formation of "cultural producers" drawn from subordinated social strata rather than merely the reproduction of more Leavisites (McIlroy 1993). The popular culture he eventually supported was that produced within these and other designated conditions of compositional autonomy (cf. Brunsdon 1990). The wider political implication of this view was the advocacy of a "long revolution" whose goal was an expansive "educated and participatory democracy" (Williams 1968b, 32). It was principally in this proto-Gramscian context that Williams saw a democratic potential in the new means of communication. As we shall see, these were the normative commitments which later drew Williams into conflict with McLuhan.

Romanticism and The Gutenberg Galaxy

McLuhan appears to have had no influence on the development of Williams's most famous triumvirate of works: Culture and Society (first published in 1958; Williams 1990), The Long Revolution (first published in 1961; Williams 1965), and Communications (first published in 1962; Williams 1962). The first intellectual contact appears to have occurred with McLuhan's citation of Culture and Society in his The Gutenberg Galaxy (first published in 1962; McLuhan 1967a) and Williams's review thereof two years later (Williams 1968a).

Williams opens his brief 1964 review of The Gutenberg Galaxy with an admission of his "curious reluctance to write about it" (ibid., 216). It does seem that Williams took McLuhan's central contention in the book very seriously indeed and accordingly paused in his estimation. As Williams paraphrases it, this contention was "that the inherited procedures of an educated mind are conditioned by the properties of print, so that only by an effort of the critical imagination can these properties be seen" (ibid.).

At one level, the appeal of such a formulation to Williams is obvious. As he put it himself in the review: "I would be the last person to question an emphasis on the means of communication, and its necessary effects on perception, as a major social factor" (ibid.). Likewise Williams was open to McLuhan's account of the book's methodology as a "mosaic construction" or "field approach" by which McLuhan attempted to break with the visual linearity of the serial presentation of argument. This partly resembled Williams's rejection of unilinear determinisms like the economic reductivism of vulgar Marxism which had prevented, in his view, adequate acknowledgment of such cultural determinants as the means of communication. Stylistically, in Culture and Society and The Long Revolution, Williams had also attempted to decentre the role of formal academic citation for a more popular mode of writing. Superficial parallels could thus have been drawn between the claims of McLuhan's field approach and Williams's explorations in the social history of cultural institutions in The Long Revolution.

However, a comparison of the two approaches belies any such parallels. Most obviously, although he does not comment directly, Williams must have been more than surprised by McLuhan's usage of his own research from Culture and Society. This occurs in the conclusion, "The Galaxy Reconsidered" (McLuhan 1967a, 265-79), which McLuhan recommends as "the best prologue" to the mosaic mode of the rest of the book as it presents his case in something closer to conventionally "linear" argument. McLuhan's interest is in Williams's case study of "The Romantic Artist," the chapter of Culture and Society which most prefigures the mode of analysis of the socio-cultural histories in The Long Revolution.

The purpose of Williams's chapter is principally to locate the contradictory character of the (English) Romantics' social criticism, especially of the consequences of the industrial revolution, prior to its later post-Romantic "oversimplification" as the mass civilization/minority culture dichotomy presented by Leavis. But whereas this position is elsewhere in Culture and Society argued polemically, here Williams seeks the social preconditions of the emergence of the Romantics' critique, initially by registering the radical change in "ideas of art, of the artist, and of their place in society" (1990, 32). It is thus a good example of Williams's early attempts to avoid a reductivist sociological analysis of cultural practices.

Accordingly, he finds these preconditions include: (a) the change in relationship between writers and their reading publics due to the decline of patronage and the rise of a middle-class reading public and a "literary market"; (b) the increasing commodification of art works which aided the rise of the novel but had disastrous consequences for poetry; (c) the consequent alienation by "habitual attitude" of the Romantic artist from the public; (d) the related retreat of the Romantic artists into an idealized conception of both their artworks and themselves as "imaginative" writers.

However, Williams does not see (c) and (d) as merely functions of (a) and (b). He argues that while these writings do articulate at times a professionalist pique, they are equally enabling of a genuine social criticism of industrial capitalism.

McLuhan's selective citation of Williams demonstrates his entirely different perspective of the significance of Romanticism:

Looking back to the revolution in literary forms in the later eighteenth century, Raymond Williams writes in Culture and Society that "changes in convention only occur when there are changes in the general structure of feeling." Again, "while in one sense the market was specializing the artist, the artists themselves were seeking to generalize their skills into the common property of imaginative truth." This can be seen in the Romantics who, discovering their inability to talk to conscious men, began by myth and symbol to address the unconscious levels of dream life. The imaginative reunion with tribal man was scarcely a voluntary strategy of culture. (McLuhan 1967a, 273)1

McLuhan's extrapolation in his final sentences from Williams's account of the contradictory location of the Romantic artist must be seen as invalid. For he has imposed a completely different conception of "artistic skill" and "common property of imaginative truth" from that which Williams was invoking.

However, the distinction between such differing perspectives is, as Williams states throughout his chapter, no easy matter. Williams is interested in how the Romantics' dilemmas contributed to a conception of culture as art which was also a "court of appeal" and thus a basis of social critique. This is what Williams means by "common property of imaginative truth." Williams demonstrates this by use of the historical semantics he later popularized in Keywords (Williams 1983a). The idealizing and "dematerializing" transformation of the meaning of the word "art" from craft-like "skill" to "creative sensibility" (1990, 43-44) thus registers this transition but also its contradictory burden. That burden is the potential loss of what he elsewhere in Culture and Society called the "material of that process" (1990, 127), that is, the continuing role of manual skill and "material" means of objectivation in artistic practice as well as the self-recognition of the specificity of the social preconditions of such artistic practice. Williams's above-mentioned pedagogy was thus designed to reverse these "burdens" by providing these "skills" to a broader social stratum.

McLuhan, in contrast, attempts in the above passage to identify Williams's position with the goal of "remythologization" which is equally part of the Romantic project. By this is meant the cultural "re-enchantment" of an increasingly disenchanted civilization, best demonstrated by the common Romantic claim that poetry could effectively replace the declining organic social role of religion. Characteristically, Williams acknowledges this dimension only insofar as it generated a critical case for a "social policy" intervention in the institutional organization of the field of culture: Coleridge's eccentric proposal for a quasi-religious cultural "clerisy" (Jones 1994).

McLuhan, however, provides this quite different definition of "imagination" by paraphrasing a passage from the mythological discourse of William Blake's Jerusalem (while also arguing that this mythological vision "remains quite opaque"):

Imagination is that ratio among the perceptions and faculties which exists when they are not embedded or outered in material technologies. When so outered, each sense becomes a closed system. Prior to such outering there is entire interplay among experiences. This interplay or synesthesia is a kind of tactility such as Blake sought in the bounding line of sculptural form and engraving.

When the perverse ingenuity of man has outered some part of his being in material technology, his entire sense ratio is altered. He is then compelled to behold this fragment of himself "clothing itself as in steel." In beholding this new thing, man is compelled to become it. Such was the origin of lineal, fragmented analysis with its remorseless power of homogenization....(McLuhan 1967a, 265-66)

This is clearly a pivotal component of McLuhan's project. As Fekete has argued (1977, 136-37) this "sensorium" and the related "extension thesis" (developed from Innis) is best characterized as an affirmative theory of alienation. The norm against which this alienation thesis is measured is not, as in most Marxian versions, the conscious design of that which is objectified (or "extended"), but instead a dream-like "unconscious" tribal-organic state which the emerging "electric age" will restore. The most curious feature of this section of The Gutenberg Galaxy is that McLuhan repeatedly cites passages from Polanyi's The Great Transformation (Polanyi 1985). This famous account of the emergence of a discrete so-called "self-regulating" market from an embedded set of social practices is entirely compatible with Williams's of the art /market relation in Culture and Society but McLuhan instead unconvincingly insists that the fundamental precondition of Polanyi's case is, also, the change in sense ratios brought about by printing.

It is this position that Williams challenges in his review. Characteristically, he assesses McLuhan against his own immanent criteria. Most obviously, McLuhan's insistence on the revolutionary impact of printing leaves him open to the charge of linear determinism despite his claims to a non-linear mosaicism. Further, the fact that McLuhan cannot avoid academic citation and copyright acknowledgments demonstrates for Williams the inescapable determinacy of other -- social -- determinants at work in articulated critical intellectual composition even during McLuhan's "electric age." He nonetheless concludes the 1964 review with praise that McLuhan's work is susceptible to such immanent critique and with an admission of heightened expectation concerning the publication of Understanding Media (Williams 1968a, 219; McLuhan 1967b).

Williams was to be disappointed. On his own 1968 account, McLuhan believed the moral critique of The Mechanical Bride was "completely negated by TV" and that television had created in America an "organic culture" (Stearn and McLuhan 1968, 302-3). Nothing could be more at odds with Williams's views than such an affirmative reinvention of the key Leavisian critical category that Williams had strongly criticized in Culture and Society. It is as if McLuhan had directly transferred Leavis's idealized function of the bearer of lost organic values from the literary canon to television.

The "mature" critique

The shift in Williams's view of McLuhan from the cautious 1964 review to that in Television ten years later is dramatic. The uncompromising three-page attack on his work is fairly well known but tends to be linked by commentators solely to Williams's charge of "technological determinism" (e.g., Spiegel 1992, xv-xvi). The fact that the book also opens with a famous critique of technological determinism and the advancement of a "social shaping" alternative obviously lends support to this emphasis. It could thus be argued that Williams simply consolidated his 1964 reservations about McLuhan's susceptibility to this failing.

However, even in that earliest contact it is obvious that technological determinism arises as a point of contention between McLuhan and Williams primarily from their shared interest in recognition of "media" as means of aesthetic objectivation rather than an undifferentiated "communication." More accurately, Williams does wish to develop distinct conceptualizations of means of communication in both a "general" and "cultural" (aesthetic) sense which he pits against what he sees as McLuhan's failure to make such a distinction. He tends to refer to this failing in McLuhan by the parallel charge of "formalism."

Thus, the critique opens:

The work of McLuhan was a particular culmination of an aesthetic theory which became, negatively, a social theory: a development and elaboration of formalism which can be seen in many fields, from literary criticism and linguistics to psychology and anthropology, but which acquired its most significant popular influence in an isolating theory of "the media." (Williams 1974, 126-27)

Likewise he acknowledges again that "Much of the initial appeal of McLuhan's work was his apparent attention to the specificity of the media: the differences in quality between speech, print, radio, television and so on" (ibid., 127).

But that initial appeal was reversed for Williams in McLuhan's Understanding Media (McLuhan 1967a). Clearly that work, the only of McLuhan's acknowledged in the bibliography of Television, was the turning point for Williams as it developed McLuhan's position more openly into what he regarded as a formalism.

We can find the roots of Williams's object of complaint in the basis of McLuhan's field approach in The Gutenberg Galaxy. As in his famous "probes," he there draws from the poet Blake not merely a mythologized source for his sensorium but "a diagnosis of the problem of his age" (ibid., 266; emphasis added). McLuhan makes very explicit his adoption of such "insights" from the aesthetic experimentation of a series of artists and critics from Blake to his chief source of inspiration, the French Symbolists. At one point he acknowledges that this lineage is an alternative to Williams's famous "culture and society" tradition (ibid., 269).

Williams was likewise prepared to acknowledge the common properties of "the multiplicity of writing" and the conjoining of sociological and aesthetic writing in Romantic practice (1977, 145-50; 1990, 30). However, he was also remarkably consistent in regarding aesthetic composition and critical socio-cultural analysis as distinctly discrete practices, no matter how useful the "insights" of the former were found to be. For example, in his 1957 review of Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy, a work which began as a Lawrentian social realist novel, Williams, himself also a novelist, reserved some of his harshest criticism for Hoggart's hybridization of "fiction" and "sociology" (Williams 1957, 427). Nor did he spare McLuhan from this criticism.

In contrast, as we have seen, the final section of The Gutenberg Galaxy is, at McLuhan's own admission, an exceptionally "linear" exposition -- elsewhere in that work, and in later works, McLuhan usually does not reflect on such aesthetic insights but practises them in lieu of a discrete analytic discourse. If one accepts Williams's distinction, then by The Medium Is the Massage (McLuhan and Fiore 1967) McLuhan was barely writing within such an analytic discourse at all but instead, in the main, practising photo-montage. He had thus "resolved" the immanent discursive contradiction Williams had identified in The Gutenberg Galaxy but, on Williams's analysis, had so destroyed the critical potential of his work, including its susceptibility to an immanent theoretical critique.

But why does Williams see McLuhan's hybridization of aesthetic innovations and "media theory" as such a major failing? The passage above is relatively clear in providing preliminary reasons: because of the loss of theoretical recognition of social practices. But evidently more is at stake here than a critique of technological determinism's sociological failings. In effect, Williams identifies three stages in McLuhan's formalism. These are worthy of some further elaboration.

Medium and technology

In Marxism and Literature Williams identifies his Television as one of several earlier texts which practically demonstrate the employment of the theoretical position, the cultural materialism, he stakes out in that work -- and which he further elaborated in (The Sociology of ) Culture (Williams 1981a). He states that "I would now write some of these examples differently, from a more developed theoretical position and with the advantage of a more extended and a more consistent vocabulary (the latter itself exemplified in Keywords)" (Williams 1977, 6). The critique of McLuhan is worthy of such a reconstruction, especially by application of the historical semantics of Keywords (Williams 1983a).

Table 1 attempts to redeem the conceptual losses which result from the first stage of McLuhan's formalism -- the (usually undeclared) translation of specific "experimental" aesthetic techniques into quasi-concepts within his own discourse. This provides the preconditions of the second stage, that is, the adoption of the "insights" of the Symbolists and others results in the interchangeability of the categories of (aesthetic) "medium" and "technology." The table is drawn primarily from Marxism and Literature and Keywords.

The crucial slippage McLuhan exploits is the overlap between the arts/skill-based usages of "medium" and "technology/technique." This enables the further conflation of "technology" with usage (iii) of "medium." This is the chief mechanism of what Williams calls the projection of an aesthetic into a social theory. The distinctions laid out in Table 1 would appear to form the rationale for the subtitle of Television: Technology and Cultural Form (although a fuller version would have been "techniques, technologies, and cultural forms"). In the opening chapter of Understanding Media, for example, McLuhan systematically conflates nearly all these nuances in an apparently interchangeable usage of "medium" and "technology" (McLuhan 1967b, 15-30). This is exemplified most famously of course by the legacy of the phrase, "The medium is the message." The elision that gave McLuhan that "initial appeal" for Williams -- the usage of medium in senses (i) and (ii) which appears to respect "specificity" -- simultaneously elides the social/institutional meanings.

Table 1
The Distinctions Conflated by McLuhan's Use of "Medium" and "Technology"

Arts/skill-based usage Social-formal institutional usage
Medium Intermediate communicative substance
Social organization

(i) "Material" instrument or technique used as aesthetic means of communication e.g., "the medium of oils" (iii) "Social institution of general communication" e.g., "the medium of your publication" (i.e., socio-cultural form with an acknowledged public communicative role)

(ii) "Immaterial" formal component of means of communication (a.k.a. "cultural form," e.g., the thriller genre; current affairs format)

Technology (Contested by Williams in its distinction from technique/technical invention) An instrumental technical invention or technique (cf. next section) Socially shaped institutionalization of techniques/innovations e.g., the technology of broadcasting

Williams generally confines the charge of "technological determinism" to the matters in row 2 and likewise "formalism" to the matters in row 1. However, his own sociological account of the ideological success of McLuhanism is underpinned by his awareness of the slippages between these sets of meanings. It is from these slippages that Williams sees the generic sense of "media" resulting. In effect, the aesthetic formalism which manifests in the elisions relating to "medium" contributes to the ideological success of the technological determinism.

Williams wishes to use the charge of formalism to draw a parallel (as we shall see below, by homological analysis) between McLuhan's technological determinism and his avant-gardist aesthetic formalism. The key to this homology lies in the claim to "technological neutrality" asserted by technological determinists, that is, that technologies are neutral phenomena with no (necessary or even any) relation to their social production. Williams sees the same naïve "neutrality" at work in most aesthetico-theoretical formalisms -- that texts, like technologies, are not seen as "value laden" but merely neutral instruments to be deconstructed. For this reason instrumental formalism (or alternatively, "technicism") is a more suitable characterization of Williams's critical charge against McLuhan and other aesthetico-theoretical formalists.2

What is perhaps most surprising is that, despite the scale of the polemic in Television, Williams never abandons what he first recognized as a parallel project in McLuhan and, paradoxically, in formalism. The task of a sociology of culture in this context is to maintain "specificity," first of sociological analysis itself and, secondly, in theoretical recognition of "technology" and "cultural forms" as distinct social practices. The problem which remains, however, is that of the form of relation between the two.

Before moving to Williams's critique of technological determinism, it is important to see how he resolves this dilemma, as it flows directly from his critique of the third stage of McLuhan's instrumental formalism, his "avant-gardism."

McLuhan and the modernist legacy: Embracing homological analysis

Now, in making this case that McLuhan's argument is instrumentally formalist, Williams anticipates by ten years one of the central elements of Andreas Huyssen's thesis concerning the rise of 1970s and 1980s postmodernism, the recomposition of the modernist avant-garde's aesthetic "technical" initiatives as formalist theoretical ones (Huyssen 1986, 178-221).3 This is also compatible with later theses concerning the anticipatory character of McLuhan's work (e.g., Ferguson 1991).

Williams sees the "overextension" of McLuhan's visualist avant-gardism as intellectually illegitimate. For indeed McLuhan does not delimit his role to that of avant-gardist celebrant of the creative potentials of "new media" -- his "probes" clearly have sociological, and of course socio-historical pretensions (cf. Table 2). The third and final stage of this instrumental formalism is constituted by a further projection:

It is an apparently sophisticated technological determinism which has the significant effect of indicating a social and cultural determinism: a determinism, that is to say, which ratifies the society and culture we now have, and especially its most powerful internal directions. For if the medium -- whether print or television -- is the cause, all other causes, all that men [sic] ordinarily see as history, are at once reduced to effects. Similarly, what are elsewhere seen as effects, and as such subject to social, cultural, psychological and moral questioning, are excluded as irrelevant by comparison with the direct physiological and therefore "psychic" effects of the media as such. The initial formulation -- "the medium is the message" -- was a simple formalism. The subsequent formulation -- "the medium is the massage" -- is a direct and functioning ideology. (Williams 1974, 127)

The "direct and functioning ideology" Williams sees in this further projection is the legitimation of an existing social order by its affirmative characterization as a kind of technological utopia -- the global village or the information society. As we have seen, this relies on a view of television, aided by satellite retransmission, as a restorer of "organic culture" by means of a new sense-ratio. This is what Williams means by his first comment about McLuhan in Television, that McLuhan's work "was a particular culmination of an aesthetic theory which became, negatively, a social theory" (ibid., 126). More explicitly:

If specific media are essentially psychic adjustments, coming not from relations between ourselves but between a generalised human organism and its general physical environment, then of course intention, in any general or particular case, is irrelevant, and with intention goes content, whether apparent or real. All media operations are in effect desocialised; they are simply physical events in an abstract sensorium, and are distinguishable only by their variable sense ratios. But it is then interesting that from this wholly unhistorical and asocial base McLuhan projects certain images of society: "retribalization" by the "electronic age"; the "global village." (Ibid., 127-28)

To aid identification of Williams's and McLuhan's differences, McLuhan's "historical" thesis of the relation between "media" and societal forms can also be represented in tabular form (Table 2).

Table 2
McLuhan's Historical Typology of "The Media"
Dominant "medium"
(a.k.a. "technology")
Resulting society "Sensory balance"
(sense ratio)
Speech tribal "audile" (stable) cool

Writing based in phonetic alphabet "scribal" visual (unstable) hot

Mechanical printing "typographic man" linear, visual,  rationality visual (unstable) hotter

"Electric" technology "re-tribalization" audile-tactile
(envisioned new stabilization)

From this he also generates a particular conception of "participation" which has little in common with Williams's democratic vision:

There is a basic principle that distinguishes a hot medium like radio from a cool one like the telephone, or a hot medium like the movie from a cool one like TV. A hot medium is one that extends one single sense in "high definition." High definition is the state of being filled with data. A photograph is, visually, "high definition." A cartoon is "low definition" simply because very little visual information is provided. Telephone is a cool medium, or one of low definition, because the ear is given a meagre amount of information. And speech is a cool medium of low definition, because so little is given and so much has to be filled in by the listener. On the other hand, hot media do not leave so much to be filled in or completed by the audience. Hot media are therefore, low in participation, and cool media are high in participation or completion by the audience. (McLuhan 1967b, 31)

Williams's alternative model will be presented later in this article. His critique of McLuhan in Television continues in the assumption of familiarity with the above and the contents of Table 2:

As descriptions of any observable social state or tendency, in the period in which electronic media have been dominant, these are so ludicrous as to raise a further question. The physical fact of instant transmission has been uncritically raised to a social fact, without any pause to notice that virtually all such transmission is at once selected and controlled by existing social authorities. McLuhan, of course, would apparently do away with all such controls; . . . But the technical abstractions, in their unnoticed projections into social models, have the effect of cancelling all attention to existing and developing (and already challenged) communications institutions. If the effect of the medium is the same, whoever controls or uses it, and whatever apparent content he may try to insert, then we can forget ordinary political and cultural argument and let the technology run itself. It is hardly surprising that this conclusion has been welcomed by the "media-men" of the existing institutions. It gives the gloss of avant-garde theory to the crudest versions of their existing interests and practices, and assigns all their critics to pre-electronic irrelevance. Thus what began as pure formalism, and as speculation on human essence, ends as operative social theory and practice, in the heartland of the most dominative and aggressive communications institutions in the world. (Williams 1974, 128; emphasis added)

This risk of ignoring the determinacy of communications institutions and policy contexts is again recognizable as the more familiar understanding of the implications of Williams's critique (Spiegel 1992). Indeed, McLuhan was feted by Madison Avenue and provided some of the earliest communication advice to corporate managements (see also Fekete 1982, 51; e.g., McLuhan 1960).

However, the charge of ideological provision of "avant-garde gloss" opens a far broader critique. It directly prefigures Williams's response a decade later to what he analyzed as a postmodernist "conformism" where that conformism was seen to be based, as in Huyssen's analysis, in the critical failure of aesthetic modernism (Williams 1989a; 1983b, 142-43). McLuhan's loss of critical autonomy is seen by Williams to replay the incorporated fate of modernist avant-gardism as a viable alternative cultural formation and its affirmative legacy for postmodernism.

As Fekete has noted, McLuhan's attempt to emulate innovations in the work of the Symbolists bears some resemblance, in both derivation and mode of employment, to Walter Benjamin's concept of "dialectical image" (Fekete 1982, 60-61; cf. Buck-Morss 1993, 17-20). Significantly, Williams's judgment of Benjamin's concept in Marxism and Literature is almost exactly the same, if more muted, as that which he made of McLuhan. More significantly, this critique comes in the chapter entitled "Typification and Homology." There Williams follows Adorno in rejectin the affirmative dimensions of Benjamin's concept. Instead, he embraces a sociological understanding of the related concepts of "homology" and "correspondence":

Both "correspondence" and "homology," in certain senses, can be modes of exploration and analysis of a social process which is grasped from the beginning as a complex of specific but related activities. Selection is evidently involved, but as a matter of principle there is no a priori distinction between the necessary and the contingent, the "social" and the "cultural," the "base" and "the superstructure." Correspondence and homology are then not formal but specific relations: examples of real social relationships, in their variable practice, which have common forms of origin. (Williams 1977, 105-6)

This mode of formal analysis is the legitimate methodological legacy of aesthetic modernism that Williams is prepared to embrace within a sociological frame. Further, this is remarkably compatible with his more famous redefinition of the Marxian category of "determination" as the setting of "pressures and limits." In 1983 he brought these two positions together in his "Marx on Culture" (1989b). But the methodology of establishing determinations by finding homologous correspondences between discrete social practices had already been deployed in his critique of technological determinism and in his construction of an alternative typology of means of communication to that of McLuhan (Williams 1981a, 1981b, 1981c, 1981d). Let us then turn to Williams's critique of technological determinism as such in this context.

Means of communication as means of production

The first chapter of Television, "The Technology and the Society," is justly famous. Accordingly, it has often been reproduced within teaching compilations as a textbook critique of technological determinism (e.g., Corner and Hawthorne 1980). It contains a now famous nine-stage breakdown of "versions of cause and effect in technology and society." It is also a model example of both the clarity of Williams's mode of critique at its best and its influence outside media and cultural studies (1974, 10-14). For instance, both it and Williams's redefinition of "determination" were welcomed by the "social shaping" school within the sociology of "industrial" technology (McKenzie 1996).4

Let us take first, then, Williams's unsurprising definition of technological determinism that he somewhat inductively distills from his breakdown of his nine versions of cause and effect:

It is an immensely powerful and now largely orthodox view of the nature of social change. New technologies are discovered, by an essentially internal process of research and development, which then sets the conditions for social change and progress. Progress, in particular, is the history of these inventions, which "created the modern world." The effects of these technologies, whether direct or indirect, foreseen or unforeseen, are as it were the rest of history. The steam engine, the automobile, television, the atomic bomb, have made modern man [sic] and the modern condition. (1974, 13)

Accordingly, he proposes an alternative for the case of television which is broadly consistent with the "social shaping" approach in the sociology of technology (McKenzie and Wajcman 1985):

it may be possible to outline a different kind of interpretation, which would allow us to see not only its history but also its uses in a more radical way. Such an approach would differ from technological determinism in that it would restore intention to the process of research and development. The technology would be seen, that is to say, as being looked for and developed with certain purposes and practices already in mind. At the same time the interpretation would differ from symptomatic technology in that these purposes would be seen as direct: as known social needs, purposes and practices to which the technology is not marginal but central. (Williams 1974, 14)

However, the broader implications of this critique become evident when its consistency with Williams's revision of the category of determination is explored. The attendant reconceptualization of determination as both "the setting of limits" and "the exertion of pressures" includes a sense of "positive determination" which may appear subjectively intentionalist but, on closer examination, includes senses like that above (1977, 87). That is, pressures (intentions) are located which are irreducible to crude economic (e.g., maximization of profit by communications companies) or technological determinants.

Some elaboration here is necessary. For contrary to common belief, Williams did not entirely reject Marx's "base and superstructure" metaphor but instead only its "epochal" usage in Marx's 1859 Preface and the orthodox Marxist legacy of vulgar reflectionism. He respected Marx's conjunctural usage in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte on the condition that determination -- in the sense of the setting of limits -- was understood to operate homologically (Williams 1989b, 223-25), but he also limited his application of that model to the social determinants of conjunctural autonomy of intellectual and political formations.

Elsewhere, he applied a "production paradigm" to the field of culture. He thus apparently unwittingly reproduced elements of the work of Benjamin but especially Adorno (Markus 1990; Jones 1991). Like Adorno he "culturally duplicated" the categories of the traditional base (productive forces and relations) of the base and superstructure metaphor, as summarized in Table 3.

Table 3
Williams's Extension of the Production Paradigm to Culture

Forces of production, i.e.,
labour plus these varying means of production
Relations of production
"General" means of "general" production capital/labour skilled/unskilled
"Cultural" means of communication a) social divisions of labour
b) intellectual divisions of labour

Determination here is still understood as the exertion of pressures and limits to be discovered by homological analysis, but now between distinct sets of productive forces and relations. It is this reworking that he applies in the case of means of communication. As Williams argues in the pivotal essay, "Means of Communication as Means of Production":

first, . . . the means of communication have a specific productive history, which is always more or less directly related to the general productive historical phases of productive and technical activity....second...the historically changing means of communication have historically variable relations to the general complex of productive forces and to the general social relationships which are produced by them and which the general productive forces both produce and reproduce. These historical variations include both relative homologies between the means of communication and more general social productive forces and relationships, and, most marked in certain periods, contradictions of both general and particular kinds. (Williams 1980b, 50)

More precisely, in the case of communications technology, the reconceptualization finds determinacy operative in the historically variable forms of relation between the two sets of productive forces, cultural and "general," and their attendant social relations. Nor is there a naïve confidence in the necessarily "progressive" character of the contradiction between communicative means of production and existent social relations.5 Rather, as the passage above indicates, Williams considers that there is a range of historical variations in the mode of determination which is not arbitrary, and so is reproducible as a typology (see Table 4).

The case study of the social development of broadcast television later in chapter 1 of Television locates causality within "known social needs" arising within broader social relations of production, social institutions, and the reproduction of a specific social order (Williams 1974, 14-31). In terms of the categories in Table 4, the historical movement is from "contradictory pressures" to a (re)stabilized relative homology between the two sets of productive forces and relations within the maintenance of what Williams elsewhere acknowledges as a hegemonic order. In short, Williams proposes that the institution of broadcasting resolved "at a certain level" the contradictory pressure which he conceptualizes in his famous phrase, mobile privatisation. The latter is a product of "two apparently paradoxical yet deeply connected tendencies of modern urban industrial living: on the one hand mobility, and on the other the more apparently self-sufficient family home" (Williams 1974, 26).

Table 4
Historical Variants of Determinacy Involving Means of Communication as Means of Production
Relative homology Contradiction
Between means of communication and
"general" productive forces and
social relations
a) between means of communication and
"general" social relations

b) between "general" productive forces and
social relations

Here, the "cultural" productive force of a means of communication achieves a specific social form in relative homology with -- that is, within limits and pressures set by -- the "general" productive forces. In this way Williams satisfies his own criterion of restoring to the historical account his understanding of "intention" already cited: "The technology would be seen, that is to say, as being looked for and developed with certain purposes and practices already in mind" (1974, 14).

It is at this point of the development of Williams's position that McLuhan's work faces him as an "ideological block" (1980b, 50). What McLuhan's project "blocks" is precisely Williams's need to conceptualize broadcasting as a social institution consistent with the analysis above (see Table 1). It is this need which also drives Williams's alternative typologization.

Williams's alternative typologization of means of communication

As we have seen, Williams does not merely equate McLuhan's most famous phrase, "the medium is the message/massage" (McLuhan 1967b, 15ff; cf. McLuhan and Fiore 1967), with technological determinism. Instead, McLuhan's interchangeable use of "medium" and "technology" indicates to Williams at least his equal indebtedness to instrumentally formalist cultural and aesthetic legacies. Let us now look more closely at Table 1.

The broad distinction between two of the senses of "medium" -- communicative means of artistic skill and social institution of communication -- moves in parallel with his historical semantic discussions elsewhere of the category of "technology" (Williams 1981d, 226-38; 1981a, 108-9; 1983b, 128-52). In this case he draws a distinction between technology and technique:

A technique is a particular skill or application of a skill. A technical invention is then a development of such a skill or the development or invention of one of its devices. A technology by contrast is, first, the body of knowledge appropriate to the development of such skills and applications and, second, a body of knowledge and conditions for the practical use and application of a range of devices. (Williams 1981d, 226-27)

Once again, the clarification of the conceptual distinction leads to a reassertion of his own model of determination which we have already met in a preliminary discussion of Television's account of what can now be called the "technology" of broadcast television.

What matters, in each stage, is that a technology is always, in a full sense, social. It is necessarily in complex and variable connection with other social relations and institutions, although a particular and isolated technical invention can be seen, and temporarily interpreted, as if it were autonomous. As we move into any general social inquiry, we then find that we have always to relate technical inventions to their technologies, in the full sense, and, further, that we are starting from one kind of social state or institution -- a technology -- and relating it to other kinds of social state and institution rather than to a generalized "society" so pre-defined as to separate or exclude it. (ibid., 227; emphasis added)

Consistent with this account, we can briefly lay out the main points of Williams's argument from the first chapter of Television in Table 5.

The "general" social institutions specific to nation-states within which the socially shaped technology of broadcasting is "related" could easily be broadened. Most obviously this could be done by discussion of the forms of organization -- public or private/capitalist -- within which broadcasting is (later) administered. These are the "institutions of the technology" Williams typologizes in his second chapter of Television. Apart from the problem of the inability of direct charging for "each use," specific institutional forms "did not follow from the character of the technology, but from the predominant political and economic institutions of different societies" (1981d, 236). These are certainly discussed within the above analysis, but it is the contradictory social needs of mobile privatization and "the self sufficient family home" which receive the most prominence. What is perhaps most significant is that the recasting of the definition of technology to a socially shaped one allows Williams to employ "technology" as the "mediation" between technical inventions and general social institutions and "social states." One crucial consequence of this for his historical account is that, especially in the U.S. case, broadcasting is found to have been planned as a system of distribution without any consideration of "content."

Table 5
The Social Shaping of Broadcasting
Technical invention(s) (Socially shaped) social institution of technology "Other"(general) social state or institutions
Multiple inventions of devices which enable development of radio transmitter/receiver Broadcast radio (single transmitter/multiple receivers) Development of broadcast technology consolidates because it successfully responds to a "new social need," i.e., the need for a means of reconciliation of contradiction between increased personal mobility (mobile privatization) and "apparently self-sufficient family home" of the emergent consumer culture.

Development of technical inventions required for television proceeds towards known "intention" of broadcast technology Broadcast television As above

The attempted introduction of a distinction between technique/technical invention and technology is not new. It is the norm in French and German usage and Williams's distinction is not the first such in English, the most notable precursor being Lewis Mumford (McKenzie and Wajcman 1985, 24-25n). But Williams does seem to be the first to self-consciously attempt to extend such a project to the means of communication. With Table 1 still informing this exegesis, we can turn now to the available usage of "medium."

First there is the long legacy of usage of the category of medium as "intermediate communicative substance" in "artistic" practice. It is clear Williams wishes to prioritize the sense of "objectified material bearer" so that he can link it with the sense of skilled "technique" used in general production. However, another sense is available here. This is the sense of compositional conventions of artistic practice which Williams replaces with "cultural form."

The case of the newspaper provides the other historical examples of the use of "medium" as "social institution of general communication" (Williams 1977, 159). This meaning Williams tends to replace with "social institution of technology."

It is by means of medium as "cultural form," however, that Williams establishes his most basic subtitular distinction between television as technology and television as cultural form. In effect, Williams regards "the forms of television" as an "intermediate communicative substance." Indeed, in shifting to his discussion of the cultural forms of television in Television, Williams states: "to regain the substance of the medium, we need to look more closely at television as a cultural form" (1974, 43). We could thus re-present the television component of Table 5 as shown in Table 6.

Table 6
Television: Technology and Cultural Form(s)
Technical inventions/techniques Technology Cultural forms
Development of technical inventions required for television proceeds towards known "intention" of broadcast technology "Free to air" broadcast television employing "planned flow" programming a) Combination and development of Earlier Forms
-- news
-- sequences
-- priorities
-- presentation
-- argument and discussion
-- education
-- drama
-- films
-- variety
-- sport
-- advertising
-- pastimes

b) Mixed and new forms
-- drama-documentary
-- education by seeing
-- discussion
-- features
-- sequences
-- television

The third column here merely lists the elements of the typology of program forms Williams undertakes in his third chapter of Television. This typologization has tended to be overlooked in favour of the much discussed conception of the "flow" of programming in the next chapter (e.g., Fiske 1987, 99-100). As Laing has emphasized, however, it is important to stress that Williams builds a case for not just "flow" -- the non-discrete sequencing of televisual content -- but "planned flow" as a consequence of the social institution of broadcasting itself, especially in its more commercialized forms (Laing 1991, 167).

Of most interest in Table 6 perhaps is Williams's provision for the television "medium" as "message" in his acknowledging typologization of television itself as, under certain conditions, a cultural form (column 3). Without reference to McLuhan -- and in contradiction of his emphasis on the inherent orality of televisual communication -- Williams argues that the visuality of television can best be recognized "with the sound down" and that indeed "this is one of the primary processes of the technology itself" (1974, 71). Of course this marginalization within the typology of the convergence of television as both technology and cultural form is also a de facto restatement of his critique of McLuhan's conflation.

And yet, as already noted, Williams clearly remains intrigued by the "non-linear" historical consequences of McLuhan's extension thesis. His is not a merely progressivist technological determinism which simply declares that the latest is best. The questions McLuhan raises about the recovery of direct "oral" communication within contemporary means of communication demarcate McLuhan's sense of "participation" from that which Williams employs as his undertheorized "normative" typologizing criterion. The task for Williams becomes that of accounting for the specificity of literacy and to conceptualize a role for social institutions of communication in this context.

He thus attempts an alternative typologization of means of communication as means of production (see Table 7).

Table 7
Williams's Typology of Means of Communication
Mode/system of communication Type of communicative resource Means of communication  Required level of skill for effective social access to means of composition   Technical division of labour necessary?
Direct --
spoken language
human-physical voice "primary" social communication no

Direct --
non-verbal communication
human-physical body/bodily gesture as above no

"Direct" -- mediated non-human material transformed by human labour but "modally correspondent with" human-physical (i) amplificatory
(ii) durative
as above no

Indirect --
non-human material transformed by human labour but not "modally correspondent with" human-physical (i) amplificatory
(ii) durative
(iii) instrumentally alternative (to human-physical) material-signifying
requirement of further intermediate labour, e.g., writing, a/v editing yes

Several variants of this typologization exist within Williams's later writings which employ slightly different, but compatible, terminology.6 Its precondition is a preliminary division of means of communication which is clearly informed by McLuhan's extension thesis for its basic "technical" criterion, "the degree of independence from the human body" of each means of communication. Thus the transformation of "types of communicative resource" into "means of communication" occurs in four modes: human-physical, amplificatory, durative, and alternative. The second two categories in this list are "extensions" while the last is designed for fully objectified signifying systems such as writing.

As can be seen, a distinction is drawn between uses of the human body as a communicative means or resource and other means. Other communicative means are those which are the products of human labour upon materials "outside" the body. These are "separable objects," "separable instruments," and "separable systems" which are in turn the products of skilled techniques and "technical inventions" in the sense discussed above. They are initially classified as "instrumentally alternative" (to bodily resources).

A further distinction is drawn within this "instrumentally alternative" group between those which are "modally correspondent" or not with the primary bodily communicative means. It is by this conceptualization, another form of homologous relation, that Williams absorbs but critically reconstructs the gains of McLuhan's extension thesis. The modal correspondence is seen to take place between existent bodily resourced "modes of communication" rather than body parts (Innis) or sense-ratios (McLuhan).

Thus amplificatory and durative means of communication may be seen to resemble bodily resourced communicative modes. The use of a simple megaphone resembles the amplification of the pitched projected voice, for example. Painting and sculpture render durable some means of non-verbal communication in painted or sculpted gesture, and so forth. Williams classifies these forms of modal correspondence as "direct" in the sense of socially transparent. The human labour of their composition, at least when contained within artisanal or post-artisanal relations of cultural production, is readily discernible. He also tends to categorize human-physical means as direct.

Electronic communications technologies of amplification and duration -- such as broadcasting and cinema -- make possible "much closer" modal correspondence with such bodily resourced modes as speaking, listening, gesturing, and even "observing" (Williams 1980b, 57). These modal correspondences appear socially transparent in the very directness of the audio-visual reproduction they facilitate but are also, of course, the product of "further intermediate labour" such as audio-visual editing.

However, Williams's priority here is not only to make evident in his typologization the role of such "obscured" human labour at all stages of communicative production. It is, more significantly, to investigate potential obstacles posed to greater social access by a "technical division of labour." He thus concludes that all such modes are actually indirect.

It is here that the case of writing becomes crucial. In the most sophisticated version of this argument available within his work, Williams activates the distinction between "separable systems" and other "objects" employed as means of communication. Writing is his prime example of a "separable material system of signification" (1981a, 90). The implication is that writing is a socially shaped "technology" in the sense discussed above. Unlike mere objects of communication and "direct" communicative modes, it thus necessitates a considerable apprenticeship in order to acquire effective participation. Of course, this applies to both production and consumption, writing and reading (Williams 1984, 3). There is no modal correspondence between literacy and bodily resourced modes which provides a point of ready access.

The social significance of the "technology" of writing is thus that it is the first communicative mode in which a technical division of labour can be fully utilized as the basis of a social division of (intellectual) labour.7 That is, the necessity of education enabled control of access to literacy.

A social theory of the media?

We are thus returned to the initial differences between Williams's and McLuhan's "post-Leavisite" approaches to popular culture and "the media." Williams manages in his later work to reintroduce the criterion of literacy as, once again, a precondition of both effective modern cultural composition and reception and, by implication, a minimal requirement for citizenship in a participatory democracy. This is perhaps his most significant recasting of McLuhan's position which nonetheless retains those elements of McLuhan he respects. Such a perspective certainly ratifies Williams's long-standing advocacy of the teaching of skills of critical analysis and its extension to compositional practice:

Of critical importance, in this respect, and as the necessary ground for any effective transition, is sustained discussion and demonstration of the inherent transforming processes involved in, for example, television and film. The modes of "naturalization" of these means of communicative production need to be repeatedly analysed and emphasized, for they are indeed so powerful, and new generations are becoming so habituated to them, that here as strongly as anywhere, in the modern socio-economic process, the real activities and relations of men [sic] are hidden behind a reified form, a reified mode, a "modern medium."

...The critical demystification has indeed to continue, but always in association with practice: regular practice, as part of a normal education, in this transforming labour process itself: practice in the production of alternative "images" of the "same event"; practice in processes of basic editing and the making of sequences; practice, following this, in direct autonomous composition. (Williams 1980b, 61-62)

This carefully delimited construction of a case for the preconditions of "direct autonomous composition" is characteristic of the normative statements that the engagement with McLuhan appears to have stimulated in Williams. With this norm in place, he goes further and so provides one of the most forthright statements of his mature position:

But socialism is not only about the theoretical and practical "recovery" of those means of production, including the means of communicative production, which have been expropriated by capitalism. In the case of communications, especially, it is not only, though it may certainly include, the recovery of a "primitive" directness and community. Even in the direct modes, it should be institution much more than recovery, for it will have to include the transforming elements of access and extension over an unprecedently wide social and inter-cultural range.

In this, but even more in the advanced indirect communicative modes, socialism is then not only the general "recovery" of specifically alienated human capacities but is also, and much more decisively, the necessary institution of new and very complex communicative capacities and relationships. In this it is above all a production of new means (new forces and new relations) of production, in a central part of the social material process; and through these new means of production a more advanced and more complex realization of the decisive productive relationships between communication and community. (Williams 1980b, 62-63)

Thus by recasting McLuhan's extension thesis into a defensibly genuine sociological analysis, he also employs the case of literacy paradigmatically to develop a position which articulates the need for appropriately planned social institutions which do not merely reproduce the "hidden" history of broadcasting he has uncovered. Beyond this, in his rearticulation of the norm of "community" he provides perhaps the most precise reply to those who continue to conflate his position with Leavis's and /or Hoggart's nostalgia for lost "ways of life" (e.g., Hall 1993; cf. Jones 1996). It would also appear to provide at least a viable alternative to recent attempts within critical sociology by John Thompson and Craig Calhoun to develop similar typologies based in the direct /indirect distinction between forms of "mediated interaction" (Thompson 1995; Calhoun 1992). Somewhat surprisingly, neither of these recent projects acknowledge Williams's precedent.

The emergence of this rearticulated normative goal of "communication and community" as institutionalized innovation rather than "recovery" of "primitive directness" also provides an answer to a dilemma noted by Laing -- that the "technology" and "form" chapters of Television appear not to speak to each other (Laing 1991, 163). This dilemma is closely related to Williams's apparent disinterest in the later development of the "resistant reception" paradigm within cultural studies in which, following a reworking of Hall's encoding/decoding thesis (Hall 1973) "resistant decodings" of programs -- or indeed of "flow" -- are valorized (e.g., Fiske 1987; cf. Williams 1989c).

Rather, it becomes evident that Williams is more interested in a different "contest of interpretations," one that Andrew Feenberg has recently called the role of the "cultural horizon of technology" in social hegemony (Feenberg 1992). Feenberg's thesis moves from the same premises as Williams's social shaping approach to technology. Like Williams he provides a critique of technological determinism which leaves open the determinate possibility of social intervention "between" what Williams distinguishes as technical invention and technology. He calls this possibility "subversive rationalisation." It is here that Feenberg sees a possible role for organized social movements, providing examples in the user/consumer "redefinition" of the "technical code" of the Minitel computer network in France and the challenge to the technical code of technocratic medicine posed by organized AIDS patients (ibid., 319; cf. Feenberg 1995).

It is this determinate possibility of subversive rationalization -- that Feenberg and Williams both regard as a key component of deepening democratic practice -- which also provides the normative values of Williams's assessment of popular cultural forms. For Williams never shifted from his earliest contention that a popular culture worthy of the name required democratic organization of the cultural means and skills of cultural composition so that all societal members might be "direct autonomous composers." His early policy formulations such as the following indicate this clearly:

Where the means of communication can be personally owned, it is the duty of society to guarantee this ownership and to ensure the distribution facilities are adequate, on terms compatible with the original freedom. Where the means of communication cannot be personally owned, because of their expense and size, it is the duty of society to hold these means in trust for the actual contributors, who for all practical purposes will control their use. (Williams 1962, 122)

Without such provisions, the very features of modern broadcasting he delineated in his post-McLuhanist typology provide a critical account of an alternative "training" which also belies any suggestion that his was an unconditional optimism:

Even with the eventual coming of general literacy, there was a continuing direct relation between a specific training and the uses of print. What then happened, or can appear to have happened, was a radical shift of the relations between systems of social training and access to the products of the new technologies. The most basic social skills, of a kind acquired in quite primary development and relationship, gave access to the motion picture, the radio broadcast, the television program, at the level of reception, while very easily learned skills gave more general access, including some production, to the photograph and telephone.

Thus the new technologies were inherently more general, and less apparently subject to systems of training....It was not only that the institutions of the new technologies, in the very course of their development, and especially of autonomous production, became, in themselves, training systems. In immediate ways, types of speech, points of view, catch phrases, jingles, rhythms were in effect taught....What had been true of all communications systems was now more generalized by the very fact that the new systems meshed so readily with unspecialized receptive skills. (Williams 1981d, 236-37; emphasis added)

Williams's last major writing on this topic, the "Culture and Technology" chapter of Towards 2000 (1983b) already cited for its critique of modernist avant-gardism, deliberately draws the two themes of popular culture and technology together again. The limited innovations within commodified popular culture are acknowledged but only those independent of market standardization and/or which "keep living and look to live beyond the routines which attempt to control and reduce them" (Williams 1983b, 134) are valorized. It is these sectors which Williams wishes to see privileged in the contest of interpretations concerning the future technical codes of institutionalization of "post-broadcasting" communications technologies. In so doing the "contentless" vision of broadcasting might be prevented from being replicated in the newly emerging systems. Further, if "interactivity" were understood as "interaction" rather than "reaction" to pre-programmed marketized "choices," then the envisioned "necessary institution of new and very complex communicative capacities and relationships" might take shape thus:

Again, one of the major benefits of the new technologies could be a significant improvement of every kind of voluntary association: the fibres of civil society as distinct from both the market and the state....This could be, in practice, the achievement of full social and cultural powers by civil society, as opposed to their appropriation or marginalisation by the corporations or by the state. (1983b, 150; emphasis added)

These comments of course speak directly to the present discussion around the relationship between the Internet and the revived democratic norm of a public sphere (e.g., Buchstein 1997) (with which Williams's work has been linked [Eley 1993; Niemenen 1997]). And yet current discussions of this "new medium" frequently fail to distinguish between technical inventions (digitalization of data and its means of transmission), the socially instituted technology ("the Internet"), and its attendant cultural forms (email, websites, reactive and interactional interactivity, etc.).

The conflations and social projections made famous by McLuhan are then still very active today and so render perhaps more relevant than ever Williams's sociological alternative as a foil.


Parentheticized page references to the edition of Culture and Society cited by McLuhan have been removed after each citation. They are respectively (Williams 1990, 39) and (Williams 1990, 40).
However, this use of "formalism" here becomes potentially confusing. Williams did not sufficiently distinguish the formalism he criticized in McLuhan in the mid-1970s from the (social) formalism which he admired in the "Vitebsk group" (Bakhtin, Volosinov, Medvedev) in the mid-1980s (Williams 1986).
More specifically, McLuhan and Susan Sontag (who wrote a remarkably sympathetic avant-gardist celebration of McLuhan [Sontag 1968]) are regarded by Huyssen as members of the "American avant-garde" who revive 1920s avant-gardism, so making "theoretical" initiatives such as McLuhan's more likely.
Cf. the productive usage recently made of it in Mackay's discussion of information technology (Mackay 1995).
This codicil broadly distinguishes Williams's position from that advocated by Enzensberger (1970) in his famous critique of McLuhan and "left archaism."
I draw here from 1980b, 1981c, 1981d, and chapter 4 of (The Sociology of) Culture (Williams 1981a).
Williams deals with the obvious objections to this claim by a reliance on the completeness of the break between writing and bodily resourced modes. Thus dance, for example, no matter how immanently sophisticated or culturally unfamiliar, still provides a dimension of accessibility impossible in the case of literacy (1981a, 92).


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