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McLuhan, Eric and Marshall McLuhan. Theories of Communication.

McLuhan, Eric and Marshall McLuhan. Theories of Communication. New York: Peter Lang, 2011. Pp. xiv, 253. ISBN 978-1-4331-1213-3 (cloth) $149.95; 978-1-4331-1212-6 (paper) $36.95.

At the very beginning of the introduction, Eric McLuhan states his (and his father's) key theory of communication: "communication entails change." He goes on, "the sine qua non of communication therefore is the matter of effect" (p. vii). And, this, of course falls under the domain of rhetoric. Anyone looking for a typical summary text of various communication theories will find this book puzzling--certainly not what the typical reader expected. But the book more than rewards a careful reading, for it introduces a much more complete understanding of communication, particularly in the face of the empirical studies and theories of communication developed through the social science methods of the past 40 years. The more ancient path to knowledge works its way through rhetoric, and various people trained in rhetoric raise questions about effects: not just the effects from efficient cause, but the more profound effects stemming from formal and final cause. In all this, the lodestar for the McLuhans lies in formal cause. Understand that, and one has a good grasp of both communication and of Marshall McLuhan's writings.

The volume consists of 16 chapters plus five appendices, most of them reprinted from the writings of the McLuhans. The original work comes from Eric McLuhan and more directly addresses the idea of the theories of communication as found in various key figures of Western learning: Aristotle, Cicero, Francis Bacon, Thomas Aquinas, and Marshall McLuhan. In each, Eric McLuhan attempts to lay bare the approach to rhetoric: the audience and the effect sought on the audience (p. 189), always with an eye on formal causality. More sweepingly, the last essay discusses "the theories of communication of Judaism and Catholicism" (p. 227). This essay also provides a kind of summary of the McLuhans' general approach:
   Five of the chapters above ... discuss the use of
   the five divisions of rhetoric as a means of structuring
   material for a particular mode of efficacy.
   The five divisions, taken together, constitute the
   logos of rhetoric, the logos prophorikos, which
   always aims at transformation of the audience.
   (p. 227, italics in original)

The approach, Eric McLuhan tells us, was more or less taken for granted by the Western rhetorical tradition and served to discover, structure, and present knowledge. The five divisions appear over and over again, with one or another individual stressing different aspects. Much of this story appears in Walter Ong's book on Peter Ramus (1958), showing how the tradition shifts over the centuries; here McLuhan tellingly applies that history of rhetoric to the history of our understanding of communication.

The impetus, of course, begins in the works of Marshall McLuhan. The older McLuhan, like the larger tradition, does not typically or directly call attention to the workings of rhetoric or communication, but points the way by assuming the rhetorical mode of analysis throughout his writings. In fact, Eric McLuhan suggests that many find his father's writings on the media so difficult because they fail to understand formal cause (pp. 201-225). Because of its debt to Marshall McLuhan, the book reprints 13 of his essays, written between 1944 and 1988, the latter co-authored with his son. Keeping with the elder McLuhan's preparation in literary criticism, the essays address Wyndham Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, Eza Pound, T. S. Eliot, and I. A. Richards, as well as the dominant communication media of the 20th century.

Because the book differs from what so many might expect, it poses real challenges to students of communication (perhaps especially in its easy assumption of a deep knowledge of Western thought and literature). However, it well repays a close reading. One cannot take it all in at a single sitting, but one should not expect that from any well crafted rhetorical presentation. While those prepared in the dominant paradigm of communication or media studies may balk at the approach taken here, every graduate student in communication should wrestle with the book, even if (or especially if) one wishes to reject its reasoning.

The book contains endnotes; each essay follows the conventions of literary rather than social science.


Ong, W. J. (1958). Ramus: Method, and the decay of dialogue; from the art of discourse to the art of reason. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Paul A. Soukup, S.J.

Santa Clara University
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Author:Soukup, Paul A.
Publication:Communication Research Trends
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2012
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