The Dialectical Methods of Marshall McLuhan, Marxism, and Critical Theory

Paul Grosswiler (University of Maine)

Abstract: The purpose of this paper is to help reclaim McLuhan’s media and social / historical theories for critical theory, arguing that McLuhan employed a form of dialectical theory containing basic elements of dialectics developed by Hegel, Marx, and, later, his contemporaries of the Frankfurt School. This essay will examine McLuhan’s published writings for analysis of his dialectical methodology and compare his work closely with the work of Walter Benjamin, and the work of Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, lines of inquiry paralleling Judith Stamps’s Unthinking Modernity. The central argument is that McLuhan’s method, like Marx’s radical dialectical method, was not a mechanistic, technological determinism. Instead, McLuhan was mining the interstices of media interaction for openings that allow human awareness and autonomy. This study attempts to reclaim McLuhan by showing that his method was open-ended and processual, not only in his early work, but in the later and posthumous work as well.


Sporadic U.S. research applications of H. Marshall McLuhan’s media and social theories have attempted to reclaim McLuhan’s theories for critical communications research (Grosswiler, 1991; Ferguson, 1991; Bross, 1992; Brummett & Duncan, 1992). Most U.S. communications scholarship, however, has largely continued to relegate McLuhan to the negative assessments that initially accompanied his work (e.g., Carey, 1968; Rosenthal, 1968; Finkelstein, 1968; Miller, 1971; Gambino, 1979) and later reassessments at the time of his death (e.g., Carey, 1981; Czitrom, 1982). Some reassessments, however, were more positive, summarizing and responding to the criticisms directed against McLuhan by other scholars (e.g., Curtis, 1981; Gronbeck, 1981; Levinson, 1981; Olson, 1981; Meyrowitz, 1985).

It has been suggested that Carey’s criticisms of McLuhan (1968, 1981, 1987, 1989; Carey & Quirk, 1989), which misleadingly categorize him as a technological determinist, have shaped scholarly rejection of McLuhan and impeded new readings of McLuhan’s texts (Jeffrey, 1989). Further compounding reassessments of McLuhan, some scholars whose work has been strongly influenced by McLuhan have minimized his importance to their scholarship (Postman, 1985; Ong, 1982). Nonetheless, among communications researchers there are renewed calls for methodological pluralism, multiperspective theories, and dialectical perspectives in communications research that could be enriched by McLuhan’s dialectical methodology and his media analysis (Babrow, 1993; Dervin, 1993; Krippendorff, 1993; Lang & Engel, 1993; Meyrowitz, 1993; Monahan & Collins-Jarvis, 1993; Rowland, 1993; Rosengren, 1993).

More favourable historical reassessment of McLuhan’s contributions to critical communications theory has occurred among Canadian scholars (Heyer, 1989; Jeffrey, 1989; Theall, 1989). Stamps (1995) reassesses McLuhan in a study comparing McLuhan and Harold A. Innis with two Frankfurt School theorists, Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin. Stamps argues that all four shared critiques of modernity using variations of “negative” dialectics. Stamps (1990) and McCallum (1989) have debated similarities between McLuhan and Benjamin, while Carey (1987) has compared Benjamin’s and McLuhan’s concepts of “visual society.”

The purpose of this essay is to help reclaim McLuhan’s media and social /historical theories for critical theory, arguing that McLuhan employed a form of dialectical theory containing basic elements of dialectics developed by Hegel, Marx, and, later, his contemporaries at the Frankfurt School. An early Marxist assessment of McLuhan (Nairn, 1968) argued that separating McLuhan’s historical analysis from his mythology would yield fruitful bases for media analysis by incorporating a social force ignored by Marxism–the media. As argued by other critical scholars (Fekete, 1973; McCallum, 1989; Theall, 1971; Heyer, 1989; Stamps, 1990, 1995), McLuhan’s historical analysis was overtaken after his early work in The Mechanical Bride (1951) by an ahistorical, universalizing analysis of technological determinism. McLuhan’s blend of a synchronous, universalizing, mythological analysis with a diachronous, historical analysis bothers even more supportive scholars (Stamps, 1990). Detaching media technology from history and removing it from concrete social relations, critical scholars charge, removes McLuhan’s media galaxies from the historical to the mythological.

This essay will examine McLuhan’s published writings from The Mechanical Bride (1951) to The Global Village (1989) to argue (1) that McLuhan is employing a form of Hegelian-Marxist dialectics; and (2) that McLuhan’s dialectic analysis of media and history compare closely with those of Benjamin in his seminal work on the media, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1969), and of Max Horkheimer & Theodor Adorno in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1987). The central argument is that McLuhan’s method, like the early Marx’s radical dialectical method, was not a mechanistic, technological determinism. Few critics, until recently, have noticed that McLuhan was mining the interstices of media change for openings that allow human awareness and change or, in another word, praxis. This study attempts to reclaim McLuhan from this misreading by showing that his method was open-ended and processual, not only in his early work, but in the later and posthumous work as well.

McLuhan rejects Marxism

Marchand (1989) documents McLuhan’s early and abiding contempt for Marxism, and his rejection of socialism and capitalism. Later, McLuhan predicted his theory of change based on the means of communication would supersede Marx’s means of production (McLuhan, 1964). In Mechanical Bride, McLuhan introduces the idea that communism has been achieved through mass production, although at the expense of individualism (McLuhan, 1951). McLuhan returns to this theme in Understanding Media, giving the technologically driven communism a more positive reading (McLuhan, 1964). Here McLuhan reports that Europeans could exclaim that Americans had achieved communism, that rich and poor consumed the same goods and lived the same lives; there is no correlation McLuhan can find between income and social class.

Marx and his followers, in McLuhan’s estimate, did not understand the “dynamics of the new media of communication,” using the machine as their unit of analysis at the moment when electronic technology, including the telegraph, began to reverse the mechanical form (McLuhan, 1964, p. 49). McLuhan also offers the thesis that “linguistic media shape social production, as much as do the means of production” as a deep subversion of Marx’s dialectic (1964, p. 58). After all, McLuhan writes, the knowledge that material production affects daily life is a commonplace.

Marx failed to understand that new technology creates new environments, which, in turn, act on the human sensorium. McLuhan, Fiore, & Angel (1968) argue that Marx was thus able to describe changes to which he could not assign causes. The theme that Marx did not understand causality is stated directly in Counterblast, where McLuhan calls the class struggle “a spectre of the old feudalism” that distorted the new middle classes (McLuhan & Parker, 1969, p. 56). As an intellectual enthralled by Gutenberg technology and mass production, Marx “would have revolted from our global upsurge of tribal man” (McLuhan & Parker, 1969, p. 140). Meanwhile, McLuhan & Parker argue, the information environment creates a tribal communism.

McLuhan’s extended analysis of Marx

McLuhan offered one extended analysis of Marx, but that was in a work published after the zenith of McLuhan’s popularity, Take Today: The Executive as Dropout (McLuhan & Nevitt, 1972). This view is much more sympathetic, drawing parallels between Marx and Darwin, Tocqueville and Dickens. McLuhan & Nevitt link Marx’s finding of the “chink in the `iron law of wages’ ” with Charles Darwin’s focus on the “missing link” of nature; thus, both thinkers stand on the cusp of change from the print era to the electronic era. Also, because of his “ignorance of his predecessors” in English thought, Marx enjoyed, as an immigrant observer in England having an anti-environment, his “medieval” Prussian culture (McLuhan & Nevitt, 1972, p. 61). He shared this anti-environmental advantage, which McLuhan & Nevitt reserve for the role of the artist, with Alexis de Tocqueville. Finally, like Charles Dickens, Marx was shocked by his experience of the new industrial society.

McLuhan & Nevitt credit Marx with finding the flaws of capitalist economist David Ricardo’s insistence on matching labour and product. Marx observed that the work process made a profit as he traced the origins of value, price, and profit in the market process in extensive historical studies. McLuhan & Nevitt fault Marx, however, for focusing on the dehumanizing aspects of the industrial age and mistaking the new service environments as “mere crumbs for the poor from the tables of the rich” when, in fact, the service environments were available to rich and poor alike (1972, p. 62). But rather than the serious offense this mistake seems to be in other writings of McLuhan, in this discussion McLuhan & Nevitt equate Marx’s error with Aristotle’s failure to consider the service environments of the phonetic alphabet and currency. Marx, in turn, ignored the service environment created by steam’s alteration of the work process, an oversight of innovations which he shares with economists since his time. McLuhan & Nevitt assert that Marx was one stage behind, along with other modern Western intellectuals.

McLuhan argues that communism is an effect of technology. Thus, the goal of the socialist age in which Marx envisions that “man assumes control of the production process” and becomes “master of his own destiny” to “get with the historical process” was both “whimsical and hopeful” (McLuhan & Nevitt, 1972, pp. 66, 67). McLuhan & Nevitt argue, too, that the “class struggle”–a time-honoured conflict between owners and workers–was abstracted from the service environments created by new media in the attempt to be scientific. Although this Marxist goal was “noble and feasible,” Marxist analysis did not follow when science “went through the vanishing point into acoustic or resonant space” with Einstein’s relativity theory (McLuhan & Nevitt, 1972, p. 69). As products of “Western literati,” Marx’s followers were surprised by the electric phase of the new hidden environments that retrieved many forms of primitivism and brought revolution outside highly literate and industrialized societies (McLuhan & Nevitt, 1972, p. 70). McLuhan repeats the refrain that communism had been achieved in the West before Marx was born, but he groups Marx with other utopian or anti-utopian thinkers, such as George Orwell, who are focused on the period before their own.

According to McLuhan & Nevitt, if Marx did not transcend the limitations of his time, it was not for want of trying through the use of dialectics: “Marx went all the way to the boundaries of scientific classification seeking an outlet into a `field theory’ via Hegelian dialectic. He was certain that `everything is interconnected’ ” (1972, p. 75).

Dialectics was ineffective, McLuhan & Nevitt argue, because electronic media and culture “bypassed the Hegelian process of interconnectedness, restoring the structure of acoustic space to Western experience” (1972, p. 76). A “visual man,” Marx failed to make the transition because he “remained meshed in his own paradigm trap” (McLuhan & Nevitt, 1972, p. 76).

On McLuhan and Marxism

Despite McLuhan’s criticisms of Marxism, cases have been made that call McLuhan, to some extent, a Marxist (Marvin, 1986; Postman, 1985; Brantlinger, 1983; Nairn, 1968). Marxist scholars and critical scholars, in contrast, almost unanimously reject McLuhan (Finkelstein, 1968; Enzensberger, 1974; Mattelart, 1980; Fekete, 1973). Finding extensive similarities between Marx and McLuhan, Patrick Brantlinger equates Marx’s assertion of the causal primacy in the history of economic modes of production, including the base structure’s influence on the cultural superstructure, with McLuhan’s stress on the mass media as causal factors in history. The parallel finally breaks down in McLuhan’s assertion that political action is pointless because the causes of social change are beyond human control, whereas Marxism insists on the need for political action, or praxis, to achieve change (Brantlinger, 1983). For Brantlinger, another parallel between Marx and McLuhan is their sense of history as progressive and catastrophic; for McLuhan, each new medium violently changes social life. McLuhan also approximates Marx’s alienation of labour in arguing that visual culture separates the producer and consumer.

Tom Nairn (1968) also extensively aligns McLuhan and Marxism by arguing that the media were not an intellectual subject for Hegel or Marx. He cites general social development since the last part of the nineteenth century for bringing media under intellectual study; before that time communications media “fitted society like a glove” (p. 142). The alienation, or reification, formerly attributed to material conditions might be attributed today to “various forms of estrangement of language from reality” (p. 143).

The Marxist model of society, containing the economic base structure and the cultural superstructure, needs to be adapted to contemporary society because modern media no longer fit society as did traditional media. As Nairn writes, “Conscious culture does not echo or transform such a change, as it did the cotton mill, or the railway, for instance; it is the change” (1968, p. 146). Consciousness under the old model was a product of structure, but mass media change the scale of society, making consciousness a part of the structure even as mass media are themselves part of the economy. Media, Nairn contends, void the gap between structure and superstructure in the classical Marxist model.

McLuhan echoes Marx’s concept of a society of the future with its regained unity at a higher level. Capitalism, Nairn argues, has made the material realization of this future society possible and it has created the communications media to help regain Marx’s unity. However, capitalism is restrained from doing this by its social forms. Although this should be the message of McLuhan’s slogan, “the medium is the message,” Nairn argues that McLuhan’s thesis is wrapped in myth. For example, the “global village” was created historically by European imperialism, not, as McLuhan suggests, mythically by television. And, rather than creating McLuhan’s global village, imperialism has created “a cruel class society tearing humanity in two,” made and sustained by “private property and the gun” (p. 150). The social forms of capitalism prevent the emergence of a global village, in which McLuhan insists society already lives. McLuhan’s myth lies in ignoring these contradictions. By believing the new media have ended history, Nairn argues, McLuhan denies any chance of the historical understanding of social processes. McLuhan’s mythology abstracts consciousness from history by making one aspect of that process, the medium, a single cause of the rest. Nairn suggests that further research in McLuhan’s work ought to separate the historical significance of the media he discusses from the mythological form he uses. McLuhan realized the importance of media more acutely than others. Criticism of his thinking could be a major impetus in rethinking basic ideas about society (Nairn, 1968).

Dialectics in McLuhan

Despite their criticisms of McLuhan, both Czitrom (1982) and Theall (1971) identify McLuhan as a dialectician, although Czitrom also argues that McLuhan, as a humanist, favoured rhetoric and grammar over dialectics in the intellectual debate over which was the superior method. Theall argues that McLuhan’s literary tradition emphasized concepts of “tension,” “resolution of conflict,” and “reconciliation of opposites” (1971, p. 39). As wit and paradox are used often by McLuhan and the New Criticism, McLuhan favours dialectics:

The history of the return of this movement to Hegelianism is well known, since its dialectic nature is rather apparent…. A view of the world as a conflict rising out of dialectic interplay is congenial to McLuhan’s whole sensibility. His strategy, and he attributes the source of it to H. A. Innis… is a strategy of interface. (Theall, 1971, p. 39)

McLuhan himself envisioned dialectics as being on the wrong side of the dispute in the trivium between its foes, rhetoric and grammar. For McLuhan & Powers, dialectics, or logic and philosophy, has a “left-hemisphere” focus on abstraction and absolutes, as well as correct thought forms regardless of audience. Rhetoric and grammar are right-brain activities, which makes them valuable according to McLuhan & Powers (1989), with rhetoric the science of transforming audiences with speech, and grammar the ground search for structure and roots. McLuhan & Powers clearly felt they were in a war, fighting on the side of the conservative, traditional grammarian and rhetorician “ancients” against the dialectician “moderns” with their “marvelous new systems and methods for organizing knowledge” (1989, p. 10).

Despite McLuhan & Power’s view of dialectics, Stamps (1995) also accepts McLuhan as a dialectical theorist. Arguing that Marx had reached an impasse with his dialectic of historical materialism, Stamps suggests that Adorno and Benjamin, as well as Innis and McLuhan, used negative dialectics to work both with and against historical materialism. Negative dialectics substitutes open-ended interaction for the end product or the finality of dialectics as practised by Hobbes and Hegel. Adorno and Benjamin’s totalities are called “constellations,” while McLuhan’s are “galaxies” or “mosaics” (Stamps, 1995, p. 21).

Media as “hybrid energy”

McLuhan developed two methods of media analysis, his early hybrid media concept and his later tetradic laws of the media. Driving McLuhan’s early methodology is an open-ended, processual, relation-based mosaic methodology of “hybrid media,” based on extension of being, alienation and numbness, transformation, break boundary and reversal, and understanding and autonomy, all of which are central elements of Marxist dialectics. The process is based on totalities and constantly interacting media forms. Although McLuhan does not describe the process step-by-step, he does early in his work describe its broad outlines:

The Gutenberg Galaxy develops a mosaic or field approach to its problems. Such a mosaic image of numerous data and quotations in evidence offers the only practical means of revealing causal operations in history.

… [T]he galaxy or constellation of events upon which the present study concentrates is itself a mosaic of perpetually interacting forms that have undergone kaleidoscopic transformation–particularly in our own time. (McLuhan, 1962, p. 7)

Extensions a form of Marxist alienation

Much as Hegel and Marx began with “being” and “nothing,” or self-alienation (Tucker, 1978), McLuhan bases his hybrid media analysis on a form of alienation. In his method, media are extensions of bodily senses and parts–and consciousness itself–into the environment (McLuhan, 1964). McLuhan’s unit of analysis, the extension, is not viewed in isolation, but in relation to “the whole psychic and social complex” (McLuhan, 1964, p. 19), as Marxism studies reality as concrete, open-ended relations rather than as things in isolation (Warren, 1984). McLuhan (1964) makes it clear that the relationship is the key in his discussion of the “mosaic” process of insight when he denies that a medium has any meaning alone. The whole process, or totality, is what McLuhan calls a “galaxy,” which he equates with an “environment” that, again, is processual and interactive.

There might have been some advantage in substituting for the word “galaxy” the word “environment.” Any technology tends to create a new human environment…. Technological environments are not merely passive containers but are active processes that reshape people and other technologies alike. (McLuhan, 1962, p. 7)

The alienated being, or extension, that McLuhan calls media ranges far beyond the means of mass communication such as books, newspapers, magazines, radio, television, film, and recordings, although these are included. A medium is “any extension of ourselves … or any new technology” (McLuhan, 1964, pp. 23-24). Automation, machine technology, electric light, speech, writing, print, the telegraph, abstract painting, the railway–all are examples of media.

Each new extension, or self-alienation, is met with numbness in the individual and society (McLuhan, 1964). McLuhan builds his theory of extension around two themes: the Narcissus myth and the organic theory of autoamputation. First, Narcissus does not recognize himself in his extended reflection and thus becomes a “servomechanism” of his self-alienated being or, as Fromm might say, a “slave of things” (Fromm, 1961, p. 49). As McLuhan writes: “The extension of himself [Narcissus] by mirror numbed his perceptions until he became the servomechanism of his own extended or repeated image” (1964, p. 51). Applying an organic theory of autoamputation, each extension, instead of being a positive agent in controlling the environment, generates shock and numbness much as would the amputation of the limb.

Transformation and reversal

Against the negation of extension and its “numbness” and “amputation,” each extension in dialectical interplay also transforms and translates human knowledge into other modes, so that the extension of being becomes, or transforms, itself into something new (McLuhan, 1964, p. 63). Another indication of dialectical contradictories at work in McLuhan (1964), after the self-alienation of media extension and transformation, is his notion that media totalities reverse themselves after a point in their development. He calls this “reversal of pattern” a “break boundary” (p. 49). It is decisive in changing the entire media environment suddenly as it passes a critical point in the process.

What initiates these “break boundaries” is the hybridization or “cross-fertilization” of media environments, as with printing and the steam press, or with radio and movies, which yielded talking movies (1964, p. 50). In fact, McLuhan’s interplay mosaic rests on the observation that all media are hybrids, with one acting as the “content” of the other, which then create new relationships in their interaction.

McLuhan argues that the possibility of action, what Marxists would call praxis, occurs at this intersection of the two media systems. It is an interaction of forms characterized by dynamic process, power, and release.

The hybrid or the meeting of two media is a moment of truth and revelation from which new form is born. For the parallel between two media holds us on the frontiers between forms that snap us out of the Narcissus-narcosis. The moment of the meeting of media is a moment of freedom and release from the ordinary trance and numbness imposed by them on our senses. (McLuhan, 1964, p. 63)

Critical consciousness in McLuhan’s theory

The technological determinism inherent in this process has been the source of much McLuhan criticism, but few critics appear to notice that here McLuhan is mining the interstices of the media hybridization for openings that allow awareness and change. The media may have the force of nature with a life of their own, but society can “think things out before we put them out.”

These media, being extensions of ourselves, also depend upon us for their interplay and their evolution. The fact that they do interact and spawn new progeny… need baffle us no longer if we trouble to scrutinize their action. We can, if we choose, think things out before we put them out. (McLuhan, 1964, p. 57)

As these environments interact, there is a process of negation that allows perception of the hidden media environment that could be equated with Marxism’s critical consciousness. In McLuhan’s case, though, it is the artist rather than the revolutionary who helps raise critical consciousness in the masses. “As our proliferating technologies created a whole series of new environments, men have become aware of the arts as `anti-environments’ or `counter-environments’ that provide us with the means of perceiving the environment itself” (McLuhan, 1964, p. ix).

The “early warning system” of art opens the “doors of perception.” As media changes accelerate, technologies begin to perform the function of art in making human beings aware of the impact of technology. Using Erza Pound’s definition, the artist is the “antennae of the race” in anticipating social and technological changes by several decades (McLuhan, 1964, p. xi). The prophetic artists’ work enables consumers to prepare to cope with these changes. Technology, McLuhan believes, reaches beneath consciousness and alters sensory balance and perception without human awareness or resistance. The artist alone can counter technological effects because the artist is an “expert aware of the changes in sense perception” (1964, p. 33). McLuhan endows human beings with limited freedom because the artist provides a map to adjust the psyche. The media deeply affect people because the media are human extensions; however, it is possible to assess media effects before media are introduced into society, thanks to the artist (McLuhan, 1964). McLuhan’s purpose is to serve that freedom of action through the arts.

By focusing on the psychic and social effects of media instead of their content, McLuhan takes the radical position that society should not look to content changes in any medium as a solution to the problems created by that medium. Rather, society should examine the media structure itself and change the media (McLuhan, 1964). The point, McLuhan argues, is to understand the media world in order to change the media and increase human freedom. “If we understood our older media, such as roads and written word, and if we valued their human effects sufficiently, we could reduce or even eliminate the electronic factor from our lives” (McLuhan, 1964, p. 93). The central focus of that understanding is on conflict, both in media origins and in media futures. “The present book, in seeking to understand many media, the conflicts from which they spring, and the even greater conflicts to which they give rise, holds out the promise of reducing these conflicts by an increase of human autonomy” (McLuhan, 1964, p. 59).

Understanding media is the key to controlling the media, but McLuhan does not endorse either strict historical study or a totalitarian utopianism. He favours a study focused on the present, concrete, material facts. That study of the present, in Marxism called praxis, affects the future:

[T]he frequent and futile resort to futurism and archaism [are used] as strategies for encountering radical change…. Yet these two uniform ways of backward and forward looking are habitual ways of avoiding the discontinuities of present experience with their demand for sensitive inspection and appraisal. (McLuhan, 1964, p. 75)

The four laws of media

McLuhan’s open-ended, relational, mosaic methodology of “hybrid media,” based on alienation, break boundary, transformation, reversal, understanding, and autonomy through praxis evolved into the more formalized four laws of media by the mid-1970s. Except for a short academic journal article and a letter to the editor of another journal (McLuhan, 1975, 1977), however, the laws received in-depth treatment only with the publication of the two books published nearly a decade after his death (McLuhan & McLuhan, 1988; McLuhan & Powers, 1989). In the general semantics journal Et cetera, McLuhan discusses the process of media transformation:

There seem to be only four features, and they are in analogical proportion to each other:(a)What does it enhance?(b)What does it obsolesce?(c)What does it retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier?(d)What does it flip into when pushed to the limits of its potential? (1977, p. 175)

Comparison of the four parts of the tetrad with the earlier hybrid media model shows clear lines of descent. The law of enhancement, or amplification, relates to the theory of extension. Media extend bodily and sensory functions, speeding up one function and creating a bias in favour of that function (McLuhan, 1964). The law of obsolescence can be related to the idea that media come in pairs, or hybrids, and the former, becoming content of the latter, is diminished as a form. Electronic media obsolesce print media, for example. The fourth law, reversal, is an explicit part of the earlier hybrid method. When a media system reaches the limit of its energy, it tends to reversal into a form that will drive itself into obsolescence and enhance a conflicting characteristic (McLuhan, 1964). The third law, retrieval, is foreshadowed by McLuhan’s notion that each new media environment turns the older environment into an art form (McLuhan, 1964).

The similarity of the tetrad to Hegel’s dialectic was noted in Et cetera‘s introduction by Paul Levinson: “This categorization bears more than fleeting resemblance to Hegel’s dialectic, and may be thought of as a modern, multidimensional update of Hegel’s more `linear’ system. Like Hegel’s, McLuhan’s laws postulate a cyclical evolution of human processes” (1977, pp. 173-174).

McLuhan, according to Marchand, felt that the tetrad was better than Hegel’s triad, which he considered a “truncated” tetrad that eliminated the third law, retrieval. McLuhan thought the triad was for “visual man” (Marchand, 1989, p. 241). In a letter, McLuhan writes, in contrast, that Hegel was a proponent of “acoustic subjectivism.”

… Hegel simply flipped out of Hume’s visual determinism into acoustic subjectivism. All of their followers are still under the illusion that the acoustic world is spiritual and unlike the outer visual world, whereas, in fact, the acoustic is just as material as the visual. (McLuhan, 1987, p. 489)

As Tucker (1978) noted, turning Hegel’s spiritual acoustic world into a material world was Marx’s original uprighting of Hegelian philosophy.

In McLuhan’s posthumous work, he writes that Hegel’s “great triad” is a connected rather than an interval-bridging form because of the “sameness-in-reverse” of the dialectical thesis, antithesis, and synthesis (McLuhan & McLuhan, 1988, pp. 126-127). He criticizes the triad form, including the Hegelian dialectical triad, for eliminating the element of ground, which “flips” the triad into a new form that is “resonant” and “metamorphic” (p. 127). The tetrad, he argues, is simultaneous rather than sequential, does not impose theoretical classifications as Hegel’s triad does, and treats all four parts as processes. The tetrad and its inner relationships are further explained in The Global Village to embody both a diachronic function, one of history and development, and a synchronic function, compressing past, present, and future into one simultaneously (McLuhan & Powers, 1989).

More importantly methodologically, the tetrad allows understanding of “both-and,” the positive and negative results of the medium (McLuhan & Powers, 1989). The alternative way of thinking to “both-and” is “either-or,” which McLuhan & Powers relegate to an early stage of Aristotle’s analysis of the four parts of metaphor (1989, pp. 29-31). McLuhan & Powers consider Aristotle’s law of the excluded middle as the foundation for constrained, sequential Western logic in which “either-or,” or “A excludes non-A,” is the only possibility. This logic eventually excludes the middle ground rather than “both-and” or “A and non-A” thinking. According to McLuhan & Powers, “both-and” thinking, found in the tetrad, is able to entertain two diametric possibilities at once.

According to Hauser (1982), “both-and” thinking is the essence of Hegelian dialectic. The starting point for Hegelian dialectics, Hauser argues, is “the axiom that A was simultaneously non-A and that everything had a double, even conflicting meaning” (1982, p. 337). He argues that the keys to dialectics are “two contrastive phases.” One is the “negation and surrender of a dominating view” and the “rejection of demands which are just coming into being.” The other is “the settlement of the antagonism… by means of a more complex unity” and a “new synthesis which embraces antitheses.” “Contradiction” is the origin; “reconciliation” is the culmination. Of the whole process, its “decisive criterion is antagonism” (p. 345).

The contrastive phases, each with two parts, could be envisioned in the form of a tetrad. The four parts would correspond to McLuhan’s pairs of figures and grounds. “Negation” and “rejection” would be the figure and ground of “enhancement” and “obsolescence.” New media extend until they encounter non-medium, and, at the end of their extension/enhancement, obsolesce the old medium. “Settlement” and “new synthesis” are comparable to “retrieval” and “reversal” as the other constitutive part of the process, retrieving elements necessary to settle into a new synthesis of old and new, or reversal, which means that it becomes something very different, not the opposite.

Hauser also disagrees with Hegel that dialectics demands a three-part process, and believes that “Hegel’s dialectic moves in a mechanical rhythm, a waltz rhythm, as people have not neglected to remark” (1982, p. 346). Instead, dialectics can reveal more or fewer phases. The key, he argues, is “the global aspect under which the forces in question form a context” (p. 346).

Stamps (1995) contrasts the early and later McLuhan approaches with approval of the dialectics of The Mechanical Bride and The Gutenberg Galaxy and a crescendo of disapproval of the analysis beginning in Understanding Media and culminating in the tetradic laws of the media. In the early negative dialectic, McLuhan introduced the idea of “counter-environments” or “anti-environments,” most notably artists or new media, which would provide negative points of contact that offer the possibility of new levels of awareness (Stamps, 1995, pp. 138-139). Stamps also notes that at this meeting there is a “moment of freedom and release” and a “moment of truth and revelation” (McLuhan, 1964, p. 63, cited in Stamps, 1995, p. 142). In his later career, McLuhan reduced his theoretical claims too closely to specific types of media, making him appear to be a mechanistic thinker, or technological determinist (Stamps, 1995). The posthumous Laws of Media quickens the pace of this decline, offering a “monocausal theory of history” (p. 146). Stamps centres a large part of her critique on the four laws themselves, the first two being tautological, and the second pair too specific to be useful as a critical tool.

This essay argues, however, that McLuhan’s early and later dialectics are closely related, and, according to Hauser’s open-ended concept of dialectics, McLuhan’s tetrad accommodates the essential elements of dialectical thinking. Application may be another matter, but the theory itself should stand above McLuhan’s pronouncements in application. More importantly, Stamps (1995) agrees that despite his protests against dialectics, McLuhan is employing a variant of dialectics. According to the essence of dialectics discussed by Hauser (1982), it is argued that McLuhan was very close to the heart of dialectical thinking throughout his career.

McLuhan and the Frankfurt School

Although contemporaries, the Frankfurt School theorists and McLuhan apparently never made reference to each other. Yet as dialectical theorists, McLuhan, Adorno, and Benjamin share central comments in their seminal works on the media. The works of Horkheimer, Adorno, and Benjamin suggest varying positive and negative roles for the arts and media as social forces of domination or liberation and the reproduction of ideology.

Brantlinger (1983) suggests the Frankfurt School critical theorists were faced with the fact that monopoly capitalism and imperialism produced fascism and Nazism rather than a workers’ revolution. Civilization had produced its opposite: barbarism. The Frankfurt thinkers argued that the dominated classes had been bought off by mass media. Their goal, Brantlinger argues, was to create radical philosophical consciousness against instrumental reasoning, reification, commercialization, and mass culture and mass media, all viewed as forms of political domination.

The negative assessment of the media does not waver in the work of Horkheimer and Adorno. Brantlinger writes that for Horkheimer, mass communication is non-communication, and the movie, book, and radio destroy personal life. Adorno accuses the culture industry of impeding the growth of independent individuals. The world is filtered through the culture industry and is deadened, as mass media produce a retreat from enlightenment into myth. Again, the media, which promise to universalize culture, lead instead to the regression of civilization into barbarism (Brantlinger, 1983). Horkheimer attributed intellectual passivity to television and expressed resignation toward technology. Adorno found that television follows totalitarian creeds, even though the surface message is anti-totalitarian. The Frankfurt School, Brantlinger contends, emphasized the problems of the nearly universal false consciousness that is seen as the main product of media.

Benjamin offered a more positive role for the media, Brantlinger suggests. Benjamin thought that mechanical reproduction frees art from ritual to political expression and that liberation may come partly through media. In his dialectic, art becomes a reified commodity through media, but it also is democratized by media. According to Brantlinger, younger Marxists have picked up on the hopeful side of Benjamin’s analysis. Enzensberger, for example, faults Marxists for not being aware of the media’s socialist possibilities as a challenge to bourgeois culture (Brantlinger, 1983).

Other discussion comparing McLuhan and the Frankfurt School has been limited (Carey, 1987; McCallum, 1989; Stamps, 1990, 1995; Grosswiler, 1991). Carey (1987) finds four similarities between McLuhan and Benjamin. First, both McLuhan and Benjamin study the human sensorium, although Benjamin has a sense of an entire mode of modern existence, not just technology, which is McLuhan’s focus. Second, both select the transformation of sound into sight as the critical moment historically, although McLuhan focuses on the conversion of oral tradition into print culture. Benjamin, by contrast, focuses on the erosion of tradition by the reproducibility of visual images, from woodcuts to movies. Third, both associate this shift to the visual with the reduction of communication and the loss of authentic experience. Finally, both romanticize the process and include a reversal effect, a moment in history when the lost communication and authenticity will be restored, although Benjamin looks to politics and McLuhan to technologies.

McCallum finds that although it would be “intriguing” to argue that Benjamin and McLuhan’s critical theories are linked, the “structural affinities” may be superficial and the two theories and methods are only “tangentially related” (1989, p. 71). Both use an “ideogrammatic method”–what McLuhan called his “mosaic approach”–and both “ransack the junkyard of mass cultural banalities” (pp. 74-75). Also, Benjamin’s aural and post-aural cultures are “strikingly similar” to McLuhan’s visual and acoustic culture (p. 78). Yet she dismisses McLuhan by saying that he “rechannel[s] Benjamin’s fondness for concrete historical details in the direction of a pure technological determinism” (p. 79). She finds that McLuhan’s theory is pervaded by reification of technology, citing Fekete’s critique. And she calls his mosaic approach, or his dialectic, rigid, one-dimensional, and detached from history.

McCallum’s analysis of McLuhan is rebutted by Stamps (1990), who elucidates similarities between Benjamin and McLuhan, especially in The Mechanical Bride, such as their dealing with themes of fascism, narcissism, mechanism, and individualism; their interest in the banal surface of mass culture; their images of the Middle Ages and the oral reader and storyteller; and their use of mystical traditions. Both were anti-elitists who saw the changing media’s effects as a way of ending domination. Also, both saw the camera and the moving image as key historical moments. The key difference Stamps finds is the difference in schools of political economy–Benjamin following a European Marxist tradition, and McLuhan following a “self-styled, eclectic, highly improvised mode” (1990, p. 55). While Benjamin extended the Marxist framework, McLuhan both rejected and misunderstood Marxism’s basic ideas while at the same time leaning toward dialectical formulations. Benjamin used the standard Marxist categories of class; McLuhan did not. In general, Stamps (1995) argues that the Frankfurt School’s Marxist approach provided a divergence of thinking between them and Innis and McLuhan. All four, in different ways, moved beyond Marxism while providing a historical and material-based analysis.

McLuhan and Benjamin

A close comparison of Benjamin and McLuhan’s media theories shows substantial similarities, using as a basis Hauser’s socialist art history perspective. Hauser (1982) compares the German literary essayist to McLuhan, writing that McLuhan introduced and popularized Benjamin’s idea of “technical reproducibility.” A textual analysis of Benjamin’s seminal essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” reveals more shared concepts between McLuhan and Benjamin.

For Hauser, McLuhan popularized Benjamin’s idea that film and photography introduced the age of technical reproducibility of works of art. Benjamin held that mechanical reproduction through film released “concrete visual sensuality from the dominance of abstraction and poetic expression from that of literature” (Hauser, 1982, p. 614). Hauser disagrees with McLuhan’s identification of the book, rather than film, as the first mechanically reproduced medium. Hauser argues that despite similar technical processes, a gulf separates reproduction of a printed text, which is not identical with the literary work, and reproduction of graphic art, which is the same work.

In Benjamin’s essay, his goal is to determine what form capitalist modes of production had taken in the half century between Marx’s time and his own, during which capitalist production had become fully manifested in the superstructure. He is interested in the dialectics of the development of art under capitalism. Unique to this project is the mechanical reproduction of art, which has been increasing in intensity since the ancient Greeks practised stamping coins. He discusses the woodcut, printing, engraving, etching, and lithography, although he oversteps printing as “merely a special, though particularly important case” despite printing’s enormous influence on literature, to focus on the “new stage” in reproduction techniques introduced by lithography, photography, and sound recording, all culminating in film (Benjamin, 1969, p. 218).

Around 1900 technical reproduction had reached a standard that not only permitted it to reproduce all transmitted works of art and thus to cause the most profound change in their impact upon the public; it also had captured a place of its own among artistic processes. For the study of this standard nothing is more revealing than the nature of the repercussions that these two different manifestations–the reproduction of works of art and the art of film–have had on art in its traditional form. (Benjamin, 1969, pp. 219-220)

Benjamin argues that the age of mechanical reproduction has “eliminated” art’s “aura” of “authenticity” because a reproduction lacks “its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be” (1969, pp. 220-221). Benjamin further suggests that this “shattering of tradition” achieved by removing the work of art from its existence–he includes landscapes reproduced in photography and movies as examples–destroys “the historical testimony” and “authority of the object” (p. 221). Dialectically to this negative, the reproduction “reactivates the object reproduced” as it brings the object into the observer’s own situation (p. 221).

This resonates with two ideas in McLuhan’s Understanding Media: first, that media extend sensory functions, widening their scope, and, second, that the electronic media abolish time and space (McLuhan, 1964). But, as Carey has noted, Benjamin appears even more McLuhanesque as he discusses sensory perception:

During long periods of history, the mode of human sense perception changes with humanity’s entire mode of existence. The manner in which human sense perception is organized, the medium in which it is accomplished, is determined not only by nature but by historical circumstances as well. (Benjamin, 1969, p. 222)

McLuhan (1964) also argues that sense ratios change as media change and as the entire society changes.

Benjamin equates changes in perception brought about by mechanical reproduction with the “decay of the aura,” and he relates them to the concurrent and contradictory desires of “contemporary masses” to “bring things `closer’ spatially and humanly” on the one hand, and of “overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction” on the other (Benjamin, 1969, p. 223). These desires are manifest in the increasing social perception of “the universal equality of things” and in the increasing importance of statistics in the “theoretical sphere.”

McLuhan (1964) equates the ideas of individual equality and statistical reasoning with the typographic media–the alphabet and printing. Yet he would agree with the idea that electronic media increase the desire for closeness and intimacy in the “global village.”

For Benjamin, the central insight of the age of mechanical reproduction is that it liberates the work of art from dependence on ritual and its cult value, as in cave paintings and the cult of beauty developed in the Renaissance. With mechanical reproduction, art becomes designed for reproducibility and is based on the practice of politics and its exhibition value. He cites photography and film as the best examples of the latter. He pinpoints the change as occurring around 1900, as photography’s exhibition value waxed and its cult value waned. The change, he argues, went unnoticed even by those who in the nineteenth century debated the value of painting versus photography:

The dispute was in fact the symptom of a historical transformation the universal impact of which was not realized by either of its rivals. When the age of mechanical reproduction separated art from its basis in cult, the semblance of its autonomy disappeared forever. The resulting change in the function of art transcended the perspective of the century; for a long time it even escaped that of the twentieth century… (Benjamin, 1969, pp. 226-227)

The notion that media effects are met with lack of awareness, shock, and numbness is, as discussed earlier, central to McLuhan’s thesis.

Considering film, Benjamin argues that the audience’s position vis-à-vis the performance is different than in the theatre. Because the camera mediates in film, the audience “takes the position of the camera” and its identification is with the camera. For its part, the camera continuously changes its position, so the movie becomes multiperspectival. By contrast, the stage performance is presented in person, the actor can adjust to the audience, and the audience must “respect the performance as an integral whole” (1969, p. 228).

McLuhan, who also argues that in film the audience takes the position of the camera and that movies are multiperspectival, is interested as well in the same dialectical interplay of media pairs such as television and movies. For example, McLuhan compares the movie, which heralded a world of “growth” and “organic interrelation,” of “configurations” and “the inclusive form of the icon,” to cubism, which destroys the point of view with “all facets of an object simultaneously” (1964, pp. 27, 28). Suggesting dialectical interplay, McLuhan argues that all media come in pairs, such as television restructured the movies and “the newspaper killed the theater” (1964, p. 60).

Benjamin presages another idea of McLuhan’s as he notes that the new print media of the daily press are changing the book era’s writer-reader, or producer-consumer, relationship. McLuhan heralds photocopying technology as making everyone a publisher (McLuhan, Fiore, & Angel, 1967). Benjamin considers this process in literature as analogous to Soviet cinema’s use of people who portray themselves instead of actors. Benjamin writes:

For centuries a small number of writers were confronted by many thousands of readers. This changed toward the end of the last century. With the increasing extension of the press … an increasing number of readers became writers…. And today there is hardly a gainfully employed European who could not, in principle, find an opportunity to publish somewhere or other comments on his work, grievances, documentary reports…. Thus, the distinction between author and public is about to lose its character…. At any moment, the reader is ready to turn into a writer. (1969, p. 232)

Mechanical reproduction also causes other relational changes, according to Benjamin. It changes the role of the artist, he argues, drawing an analogous ratio, or metaphor, that the painter is to a magician as the cameraman is to a surgeon. The painter-magician keeps his or her distance from the reality-patient, while the cameraman-surgeon penetrates deeply with mechanical equipment. McLuhan would agree that perspective painting puts the viewer outside the painting, at a distance, while cinema and abstract painting involve the viewer in depth (McLuhan & Parker, 1968; McLuhan, 1964).

Mechanical reproduction changes the reaction of the masses toward art, too, Benjamin argues. Painting, by the nature of the medium, is viewed by one or a few and so individual reaction is enhanced. Individual responses to film, by contrast, are controlled by the collective experience, and “the individual reactions are predetermined by the mass audience response they are about to produce” (Benjamin, 1969, p. 234). McLuhan would agree that print era media, such as representational painting, foster individualism and that film and electronic media foster participation (McLuhan, 1964).

Benjamin might even be said to agree with McLuhan’s assertion that the electronic media cause an implosion that wipes out print media’s compartmentalization and abstraction (McLuhan, 1964).

Our taverns and our metropolitan streets, our offices and furnished rooms, our railroad stations and factories appeared to have us locked up hopelessly. Then came the film and burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite of the tenth of a second, so that now, in the midst of its far-flung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go traveling. With the close-up, space expands; with slow motion, movement is extended…. The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses. (Benjamin, 1969, pp. 236-237)

And McLuhan’s notion of the cross-bred media recreating in their own forms the messages of the emerging dominant form also is found in Benjamin (1969). McLuhan (1964) detected that literary and artistic forms resonated with the new perceptions created by electronic technology, ahead of their time. Benjamin writes:

One of the foremost tasks of art has always been the creation of a demand which could be fully satisfied only later. The history of every art form shows critical epochs in which a certain art form aspires to effects which could be fully obtained only with a changed technical standard, that is to say, in a new art form…. Dadaism attempted to create by pictorial–and literary–means the effects which the public today seeks in the film. (1969, p. 237)

McLuhan and Benjamin would appear to agree that audience participation changes as media change, and both find positive lessons in popular, or lowbrow, culture. McLuhan (1964) argues that the popular electronic media, which academicians had ignored, were important cultural indicators. Benjamin, in pursuing the idea that changing media forms result in change in the nature of participation, writes:

The fact that the new mode of participation first appeared in a disreputable form (movies) must not confuse the spectator. Yet some people have launched spirited attacks against precisely this superficial aspect…. Clearly this is at bottom the same ancient lament that the masses seek distraction whereas art demands concentration from the spectator. That is a commonplace. (1969, p. 239)

Evocative of McLuhan’s sensory balance dialectic, Benjamin defines the “polar opposites” of distraction, on one hand, as the spectator absorbs the work of art, and concentration, on the other, as the spectator is absorbed by the work of art or contemplates it. Benjamin then compares “use” and “perception” to touch and sight, as two ways of appropriating art.

On the tactile side there is no counterpart to contemplation on the optical side. Tactile appropriation is accomplished not so much by attention as by habit…. [H]abit determines to a large extent even optical reception…. For the tasks which face the human apparatus of perception at turning points of history cannot be solved by optical means, that is, by contemplation alone. They are mastered gradually by habit, under the guidance of tactile appropriation. (1969, p. 240)

At this century’s historical turning point, Benjamin argues, the distraction-tactility mode of participation provided by the mass arts, especially film, had led to profound changes. Instead of focusing attention or contemplation, the public participated in an absent-minded, habitual mode. The mode of perception presented a “covert control” of the manner in which reception occurred. Learning became unconscious and appeceptive, rather than conscious and analytical.

McLuhan (1964) contends that all multisensory media–with television at the apex–are by virtue of that fact essentially tactile and unconscious, terms that echo Benjamin’s tactile and distracted. Contemplation, a rational, visual response fostered by print technology, is the opposite of tactile, for McLuhan, drawing fairly clear parallels.

The final parallel between Benjamin and McLuhan is one of tone rather than specific content. Benjamin has been noted as the one Marxist theorist who alone developed a liberatory function for the media (Enzensberger, 1974). And McLuhan is well known as the herald of new technology (Brantlinger, 1983).

In stark contrast to all these parallels, though, are striking differences. Benjamin as a Marxist interjects the concepts of private property relations and class struggle. He sees his theory of art as a “weapon” against fascism, which he notes makes use of mechanical technology, and for “the formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art” (1969, p. 218). Benjamin holds that the ritual value of art is analogous to attempts to render politics aesthetic, as fascism does; conversely, communism’s response is to politicize art. Mechanical reproduction, with its own dialectics, contributes to both the politicization of art and the aestheticization of politics.

[T]he aesthetics of today’s war appears as follows: If the natural utilization of productive forces is impeded by the property system, the increase in technical devices, in speed, and in the sources of energy will press for an unnatural utilization, and this is found in war. The destructiveness of war furnishes proof that society has not been mature enough to incorporate technology as its organ…. Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic experience of the first order. This is the situation of politics which fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art. (Benjamin, 1969, p. 242)

The ideas that technical “speed” and technology itself demand an outlet; that technology is society’s “organ”; that mankind has reached an extreme “self-alienation,” and become its own art form; and that the electronic media present an opening for fascism in creating the mass, all resonate in McLuhan. Yet McLuhan cannot be said to count private property or the class struggle in his analysis. In fact, he argues that by virtue of extending the human nervous system in electronic media, society has no rights left (McLuhan, 1964). Regarding fascism, McLuhan simply states that radio is a medium that retribalizes masses, allowing for collectivization, whether fascist or Marxist, a claim which he says has gone unnoticed. And he reports that Hitler owed his rise to radio:

That Hitler came into political existence at all is directly owing to radio and public-address systems. This is not to say that these media relayed his thoughts effectively to the German people. His thoughts were of very little consequence. Radio provided the first massive experience of electronic implosion, that reversal of the entire direction and meaning of literate Western civilization. (McLuhan, 1964, p. 262)

McLuhan, Horkheimer, and Adorno

This observation about radio, fascism, and Hitler, however, had been made two decades before McLuhan in the writing of two Frankfurt School critical theorists who survived Benjamin’s death in 1940, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. Unlike Benjamin, Adorno and Horkheimer focused on the dark side of the media in their negative dialectics (Brantlinger, 1983). Their thoughts on radio resonate deeply with McLuhan’s:

The radio becomes the universal mouthpiece of the Fuhrer…. The National Socialists knew that the wireless gave shape to their cause just as the printing press did to the Reformation. The metaphysical charisma of the Fuhrer invented by the sociology of religion has finally turned out to be no more than the omnipresence of his speeches on the radio, which are a demoniacal parody of the omnipresence of the divine spirit. The gigantic fact that the speech penetrates everywhere replaces its content…. The inherent tendency of radio is to make the speaker’s word, the false commandment, absolute…. (Horkheimer & Adorno, 1987, p. 159)

In both passages, the medium of radio is more important than the message content in creating Hitler, but if one contrast may be made between McLuhan and Horkheimer & Adorno in these two passages, it is between the lack of moral tone in the former and the strong moral condemnation found in the latter. This may indicate the larger contrast noted above by Brantlinger that Horkheimer & Adorno condemned mass communication as non-communication and McLuhan cheerfully welcomed the new media.

Yet despite the moral differences, the content of the two passages are similar. More importantly, a reading of the deeper historical dialectic observed by Horkheimer & Adorno concerning the dialectic of Enlightenment, although interpreted from a different moral ground, echoes McLuhan’s process in what could be called, in McLuhan’s terms, the dialectic of visual culture, or the dialectic of the Gutenberg Galaxy.

The task Horkheimer & Adorno set out is “nothing less than the discovery of why mankind, instead of entering into a truly human condition, is sinking into a new kind of barbarism…. [I]n the present collapse of bourgeois civilization not only the pursuit but the meaning of science has become problematical…” (1987, p. xi). In this excerpt, the new barbarism is a reminder of McLuhan’s “retribalization” and the questioning of science echoes McLuhan’s doubt that scientific method could exceed its historical environment.

Horkheimer & Adorno continue:

The dilemma that faced us in our work proved to be the first phenomenon for investigation: the self-destruction of the Enlightenment. We are wholly convinced… that social freedom is inseparable from enlightened thought. Nevertheless, we believe that we have just as clearly recognized that the notion of this very way of thinking, no less than the actual historical forms–the social institutions–with which it is interwoven, already contains the seed of reversal universally apparent today. (1987, p. xiii)

Here “bourgeois civilization” is equated with the Enlightenment, which is destroying itself. Without enlightenment, however, the authors’ values cannot exist. McLuhan, by contrast, posits that the new barbarism will create its own values, which are, perhaps like the values of oral culture, superior. Whatever the outcome of this area of disagreement, McLuhan shares with Horkheimer & Adorno that a way of thinking and living is passing in a process of reversal.

Technology fits into this primary phenomenon as a dialectic of “social progress” and the “fallen nature of modern man.” Material productivity offers the conditions for “a world of greater justice,” but allows a minority to control and administer the technology, while most people are devalued (Horkheimer & Adorno, 1987, p. xiv). The authors describe their theses as: Myth is already enlightenment and enlightenment reverts to mythology. The role of the “culture industry,” or the new media, is to aid the regression of enlightenment into myth and ideology (1987, p. xvi).

Beginning in ancient Greece, the goals of enlightenment were the end of human fear, the establishment of sovereignty, the “disenchantment of the world, the dissolution of myths, and the substitution of knowledge for fancy” (1987, p. 3). The Enlightenment identified anthropomorphism, projecting onto nature the subjective, as the principle of myth.

In this view, the supernatural, spirits and demons, are mirror images of men who allow themselves to be frightened by natural phenomena…. “It is man!” is the Enlightenment stereotype repeatedly offered as information, irrespective of whether it is faced with a piece of objective intelligence, a bare schematization, fear of evil powers, or hope of redemption. (Horkheimer & Adorno, 1987, pp. 6-7)

McLuhan describes the same process, when man traded an eye for an ear and left the dark terror of acoustic space armed with the logical, rational, empirical alphabet to create 3,000 years of enlightenment (McLuhan, Fiore, & Angel, 1967). Horkheimer & Adorno do not attribute a cause to the emergence of enlightenment from myth. Certainly they do not attribute it to the alphabet. They do agree that the transition occurred between the pre-Socratic cosmologies and the absorption of the Olympic gods in Plato’s logos. Enlightenment, however, is equally dialectic in an admixture of positive and negative; science lacks some of the advantages of myth and magic.

Myth turns into enlightenment, and nature into mere objectivity. Men pay for the increase of their power with alienation from that over which they exercise their power. Enlightenment behaves toward things as a dictator toward men. He knows them insofar as he can manipulate them. (Horkheimer & Adorno, 1987, p. 9)

Enlightenment reverts into mythology, the authors contend, because it, too, is a totalitarian system: “[F]or enlightenment, the process is always decided from the start” (Horkheimer & Adorno, 1987, pp. 24-25). The return to myth is the result of enlightenment’s confounding of truth and thought with mathematics, so that mathematics is made into an absolute.

Nature, before and after the quantum theory, is that which is to be comprehended mathematically; even what cannot be made to agree, indissolubility and irrationality, is converted by means of mathematical theorems…. Thinking objectifies itself to become an automatic, self-activating process; an impersonation of the machine that it produces itself so that ultimately the machine can replace it. Enlightenment has put aside the classic requirement of thinking about thought…. Mathematical procedure became, so to speak, the ritual of thinking…. [It] turns thought into a thing, an instrument which is its own term for it. (Horkheimer & Adorno, 1987, pp. 24-25)

With the medium of number, cognition and thought are turned into repetition and tautology:

The more the machinery of thought subjects existence to itself, the more blind its resignation in reproducing existence. Hence enlightenment returns to mythology, which it never really knew how to elude. For in its figures mythology had the essence of the status quo: cycle, fate, and domination of the world reflected as the truth and deprived of hope…. The world as a gigantic analytic judgment, the only one left over from all the dreams of science, is of the same mold as the cosmic myth which associated the cycle of spring and autumn with the kidnapping of Persephone. (Horkheimer & Adorno, 1987, p. 27)

The reversal from enlightenment to myth is not propelled by media extensions any more than is the reversal from myth to enlightenment. Other than linking radio to the rise of Hitler and fascism, the authors treat electronic media as without redeeming value as agents of domination in mass culture:

Modern communications media have an isolating effect…. The lying words of the radio announcer become firmly imprinted on the brain and prevent men from speaking to each other; the advertising slogans for Pepsi-Cola sound out above the collapse of continents; the example of movie stars encourages young children to experiment with sex and later leads to broken marriages. Progress literally keeps men apart. (Horkheimer & Adorno, 1987, p. 221)

The unremitting gloom is in stark contrast to McLuhan’s retribalization. The electronic media of Horkheimer & Adorno do not revive the mythology of the old barbarism, but seem to extend the domination of nature that was the goal of the enlightenment, only in nightmare fashion. Despite these contradictions, through the overall cyclic movement of history from myth to reason, and its return to myth, the operation of dialectics is shared by McLuhan, Horkheimer, and Adorno.

Reclaiming McLuhan for critical theory

As a dialectical theoretician with a similar methodology and project as forms of Marxism, McLuhan should be given a more central space in communication studies, cultural studies, and theory as researchers seek to form a pluralistic community. Scholars have debated theoretical issues for which McLuhan’s dialectical theory could be an important factor (Babrow, 1993; Dervin, 1993; Krippendorff, 1993; Lang & Engel, 1993; Meyrowitz, 1993; Monahan & Collins-Jarvis, 1993; Rowland, 1993; Rosengren, 1993). Recent research also has applied McLuhan’s theories to critical communications theory problems (Ferguson, 1991; Bross, 1992; Brummett & Duncan, 1992). And a reassessment of McLuhan in Canadian communications theory should help reclaim a place for McLuhan (Heyer, 1989; Jeffrey, 1989; Theall & Theall, 1989).

Among U.S. researchers, there are renewed calls for methodological pluralism, multiperspective theories, and dialectical perspectives in communications research. Much of this discussion, although it centres on contributions made at least in part by McLuhan’s dialectical and pluralistic analysis, ignores McLuhan. Monahan & Collins-Jarvis document a shift from a positivist, behavioral science perspective in the 1950s and 1960s to the rise by the 1980s of an “eclectic mix of scholars” with a diversity of theoretical and methodological perspectives, such as critical and cultural perspectives (1993, p. 152). To meet the challenge of unifying and diversifying communications research, Babrow (1993) argues that as communication is treated more as a multiple-process theory, dialectical perspectives have particular significance in communications research. The dialectical themes of opposition, totality, and change, applied to communications phenomena, could reveal many distinct relational processes and lead to multiple-process theorizing (Babrow, 1993).

In U.S. communications scholarship, Innis is mentioned, along with Ong and Meyrowitz, as essential exponents of work on electronic culture (Lang & Engel, 1993; Rowland, 1993). But no mention is made of McLuhan. Krippendorff, however, strikes a McLuhanesque theme as he argues that the dominant message-driven scholarship is slowly being challenged by “reflexive” explanations (1993, p. 34). Meyrowitz (1993), who has written on McLuhan elsewhere (1985), contrasts metaphors for media as conduits, languages, and environments. Clearly, treating media as languages with their own grammars, and as environments, is a McLuhan project.

Other recent scholarship on McLuhan has continued to probe his continued relevance to communications research. McLuhan’s critique of popular culture predates Roland Barthes and semiotics by a decade, making him a “founding father” of postmodern media scholars (Ferguson, 1991). Bross integrates McLuhan’s sensory balance theory within the theory of cybernetics, making McLuhan’s theory “a more useful tool for analyzing and understanding how changes in media technologies affect individuals and societies” (1992, p. 91). Brummett & Duncan (1992) follow McLuhan’s thesis that media are extensions of the self and argue that the perspective is more consistent with the everyday experience of communication and so should be applied in critical studies.

As previously mentioned, this reassessment of McLuhan has been under way in Canada for some time. McLuhan is being reassessed more favourably in Canada for the importance he placed on rhetoric and dialectics, the centrality of orality and literacy, the arts and literature, and the need for a multidisciplinary approach to cultural studies (Theall, 1989). McLuhan is also resurfacing in communications research via the works of Ong, Postman, Meyrowitz, and Heyer (Jeffrey, 1989). The key to McLuhan’s approach is his dialectical contention that his was the “only communication theory of transformation” rather than of transportation (Jeffrey, 1989, p. 13). Jeffrey compares McLuhan to Raymond Williams, who took a neo-Marxist approach while McLuhan “was a North American pioneer in a similar (if non-Marxist) vein” (1989, p. 18).

Jeffrey also defends McLuhan against charges leveled primarily by Carey that McLuhan was a technological determinist. As this study has tried to show, and Jeffrey contends, this charge seems untenable when considering McLuhan’s dialectical approach in all of his work. Working at a time when mainstream social science research dominated and before imported ideas from Europe in cultural studies and post-structuralism filled the void, McLuhan may be regarded as a precursor for some of these perspectives (Jeffrey, 1989).

This review of ferment in U.S. communications issues and the Canadian reassessment of McLuhan should provide a solid argument that McLuhan’s relevance, both theoretically and methodologically, could benefit communications research. Into this ferment, the dialectical methodology of McLuhan, allied with other critical theory paradigms and their dialectic methods, could provide a bond that would unite diverse researchers. Stripped of mythology and reinforced in his dialectic and historical methodology, McLuhan offers a theory of media evolution and human intervention that Marxism has missed. McLuhan’s methodology forms a bond with Hegelian and Marxist dialectics, and its descendants in the critical theory of Benjamin, Adorno, and Horkheimer.

By demonstrating McLuhan’s theoretical and methodological similarities to critical theory and dialectics, this essay has argued that McLuhan can serve as a theoretical base for studying the dialectical relationship of media production and consumption, of evolving media systems, and of media and the sociopolitical system. McLuhan’s analysis could be applied to hegemony and ideology, false consciousness, and praxis. All are formulated under other concepts by McLuhan.

Researchers could devise studies reflecting the hegemonic ideology–the beliefs, values, and the way of living that try to become common sense explanations for the relationship between socioeconomic classes–and its relationship to media forms. McLuhan and critical theory also suggest that the mass media create false consciousness when the dominated media consumers believe the interests of other groups are their own. With McLuhan, critical theory research would be given an expanded opportunity to question the ends of the media and political systems and ask systemic questions about what the media should be, so that society “can think things out before we put them out.”


1An earlier version of this paper was presented to the Philosophy of Communication Division of the International Communication Association 1991 Annual Conference, Chicago, IL.


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