Friday, November 13, 2015

Eric McLuhan | Marshall McLuhan’s Theory of Communication: The Yegg

University of Toronto

In this paper the methodological implications arising from Marshall McLuhan’s classic refrains—“I don’t have A Theory of Communication” and “I don’t use theories in my work”—are discussed.

Absent a theory, the other way to work is by observation and investigative technique: first the evidence; then later, much later, the theory—if indeed one is necessary by then. Without a theory as a guide McLuhan was influenced by artists and poets in developing the analytical and conceptual tools he relied upon to examine media and communication. He referred to his procedure as starting with a problem and digging into the toolkit for something to open the matter up for elucidation. Chief among his tools of analysis was Practical Criticism, which he viewed as a kind of critic’s Swiss- Army Knife that worked equally incisively across all of the arts and through all areas of culture, from high-brow to low. The argument that emerges from this analysis of McLuhan’s investigative techniques is that many of the conundrums of modern media and culture are understood most effectively through research that transcends the constraints imposed by seeking to make the case for or against the truth of a particular theory. Begin with theory, you begin with the answer; begin with observation, you begin with questions.

Whenever provoked, Marshall McLuhan would declare,
Look, I don’t have a theory of communication. I don’t use theories. I just watch what people do, what you do.
Or words to that effect. That’s the short answer to our question, “What is McLuhan’s Theory of Communication?” Probably I should end the essay here. The long answer follows.

Just as he often said, Marshall McLuhan did not have A Theory of Communication and that he did not use theories in his work. Of course, he did have definite notions about what constituted communication and what did not. He would aver that he “used observation”; he used “probes.” It is a matter of how you begin: if you begin with theory, then one way or another your research winds up geared to making the case for or against the truth of the theory. Begin with theory, you begin with the answer; begin with observation, you begin with questions. A theory always turns into a scientist’s point of view and a way of seeing the job at hand. Begin with observation and your task is to look at things and to look at what happens. To see. That necessitates detachment, and training of critical awareness. Continue reading at the University of Toronto

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