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The Materiality of Expression: Harold Innis' Communication Theory and the Discursive Turn

in the Human Sciences


Ian Angus (Simon Fraser University)
Abstract: This essay proposes that Harold
Innis' theory of communication can make a
crucial contribution to the tendency in
philosophy of the human sciences that has been
referred to as "discourse theory." Discourse
theory takes language use as the characteristic
phenomenon of human activity. Innis' focus on
the sensuous materiality of media of
communication analyzes media as the
institution of social relations rather than as the
representation of events. A generalization of
this approach suggests a concept of society as a
complex of expressive media whose "bias"
determines the specificity of a culture.

Rsum: Cet article propose que la thorie de


communication de Harold Innis peut contribuer
de manire dcisive cette tendance dans la
philosophie des sciences humaines qu'on
dnomme la "thorie du discours". La thorie
du discours met l'accent sur l'utilisation du
langage qui est d'aprs celle-ci le phnomne
caractristique de l'activit humaine. Le travail
d'Innis sur la matrialit sensuelle des moyens
de communication envisage ceux-ci comme
institutions de rapports sociaux plutt que de
reprsentations d'vnements. En gnralisant
cette approche, on peut percevoir la socit
comme un ensemble de mdias expressifs dont
les orientations ("biases") dterminent la
spcificit de la culture.

Harold Innis made substantive

recent discursive turn in philosophy and the

contributions to fields as diverse as

human sciences -- a context in which his

Canadian

and

work has not yet been considered. My

communication as a central dynamic of

argument is that it can make a crucial

civilization. Interpretations of his work, and

contribution to the philosophy of language

debates concerning its significance, have

upon which the discursive turn rests by

compared it with Marxism, dependency

virtue of the focus on the "materiality" of

theory, cultural studies, Australian social

communication media rather than the

and economic history, cultural policy, and

manifest content of language. Also, I

many other fields (for an overview, see

suggest how a contemporary philosophy of

Angus & Shoesmith, 1993; Melody, Salter,

the human sciences can be generalized from

& Heyer, 1977; Special issue on Harold

this contribution.

economic

history

Innis, 1977). Clearly, Innis' work remains a

The notion that language and

crucial reference point for reflection on

communication can be studied from the

Canada

an

angle of its "materiality" has gained

international context with respect to the

increasing recognition recently from many

questions of the critique of civilization

influences besides Innis (Gumbrecht &

upon which his later studies concentrated.

Pfeiffer, 1994). The meaning of the term

In this essay, I want to put Innis' theory of

"materiality" is obviously key for such

communication into dialogue with the

interpretations.

and,

increasingly,

in

As

will

argue

subsequently, Innis' focus on the medium of

to by Marx when he distinguished the

communication only apparently refers

reference of his materialism to "human

directly to physical characteristics such as

sensuous activity, practice" from the

heaviness

More

"materialist doctrine that men are products

comprehensively interpreted, it refers to the

of circumstances and upbringing, and that,

characteristics of expressive forms that

therefore, changed men are products of

determine a "bias" that emphasizes a certain

other

perceptual and cognitive direction of a

upbringing" proposed by Feuerbach (Marx,

communication

1845,

or

lightness.

and

makes

another

circumstances

pp.

144-145).

and

changed

Language

and

direction difficult, or even impossible, to

communication are thus taken in an active,

express in that medium. If we compare

practical, and constructive sense rather than

Innis' conception of the bias of a medium of

a descriptive sense referring to already-

communication

constituted objects.

to

Edmund

Husserl's

distinction between the living and the dead

In recent years, there has been a

body -- leib versus korper -- my argument

growing influence by an emergent and still

is that Innis' conception of medium refers to

controversial perspective that suggests that

the expressive capacity of the living body

language use is the most fundamental and

rather than the dead

materiality of

available phenomenon for reflection in

straightforwardly physical characteristics.

philosophy and the human sciences. This is

In Husserl's words, "these systems of

the basic position that underlies most of the

`exhibiting of ' are related back to

debates about postmodernism throughout

correlative multiplicities of kinesthetic

the 1980s. Unlike the predominant modern

processes having the peculiar character of

philosophy of consciousness, which was

the `I do,' `I move,' (to which even the `I

focused on subject-object relations, critics

hold still' must be added)" (Husserl, 1970,

of modernity turn toward language and

p. 161). Media of communication are thus

culture, which is focused on intersubjective

extended

meaning.

bodily

kinestheses

whose

One

way

to

express

this

materiality consists of animated modes of

perspective is to notice that recent language

expression.

differs

theories have been fused with earlier

significantly from the main tendency to

theories of the social construction of reality

introduce materiality into communication

in such a way that language has ceased to

through a focus on the "world of objects,

be understood as a distinct phenomenon

products, goods" (Pfeiffer, 1994, p. 1). The

but, rather, is taken to be the key to social

key difference here is exactly that referred

processes

This

interpretation

outright.

Thus,

recently,

hermeneutics, deconstruction, and speech

undermined. On the theoretical level, this

act philosophy have converged on the

suggestion pertains primarily to the status

proposal that language is the distinctively

of the language of social inquiry: Whereas

human component of social life. This

modern "science" was concerned with the

emphasis on language has been overlaid on

representation of social life, and therefore

the previous position that "reality" is

raised

socially constructed -- a trend in which

methodology,

phenomenology,

emphasizes

systems

theory,

and

questions

of

accuracy

postmodern
language-in-use

and

"theory"
as

the

certain brands of Marxism were significant.

construction of social relationships, which

Many other trends of thought could be

raises issues of institutional legitimacy and

mentioned, certainly. Nonetheless, it is

the

possible

discourses. On the level of substantive

to

discern

beyond

specific

rhetorical

power

intellectual

intellectual traditions and innovations an

social

emerging convergence on the notion that

suggests that society is, or should be,

social reality is constructed in and through

constituted by a plurality of discourses,

language and that, consequently, the proper

none of which can claim overriding

activity of philosophy and the human

legitimacy in the manner that the "grand

sciences is the investigation of language use

narratives" (Lyotard) of progress and

in various settings as well as its wider

emancipation did for modernity. There can

theoretical implications. This paper argues

certainly be more subtle, and more

that the notion of an active, sensuous

extensive, characterizations of this shift. In

materiality of media of communication that

particular, the very distinction between

can be derived from Innis' work can make

theoretical and substantive levels becomes

an original contribution to the philosophy

questionable with the shift away from the

of

discursive

modern epistemological warranting of

approaches to philosophy and the human

inquiry toward the postmodern rhetorical

scences.

emphasis on what is done by language

language

operative

in

analysis,

of

anti-foundationalism

The most distinctive nexus of

rather than what is said in it. For this reason,

substantive issues in this convergence on a

questions concerning the "epistemology of

discursive turn is the suggestion that

the social sciences" have now largely been

Western societies, and perhaps others also,

overtaken by contemporary issues of the

have entered a new postmodern condition

"rhetoric of the human sciences," which

in which the "foundationalist" assumptions

focus on what they do rather than on the

of intellectual and social life have been

adequacy of their representations. This

entire

new

including

intellectual

its

substantive

perspective,

elaborated through metaphorical use of

claims,

experiential

is

materials.

Innis'

generally referred to as "discourse theory"

communication theory rediscovers -- in his

due to the key role that language plays in it.

own sense, through the notion of carrying-

The discursive turn in philosophy

over

embedded

in

the

concept

of

and the human sciences thus stems from

transportation as the traversal of space -- the

taking

especially

root from which the idea of metaphor

significant in illuminating the whole of

began. Nowadays, theory is understood

social praxis. Philosophical and scientific

primarily

activity itself, after the turn, takes language

language. This reflexive application of the

as the metaphorical basis for understanding

discursive turn to theory itself is one of the

its own theoretical formation. Metaphors

main sources of the power of the metaphor

drawn from social life have allowed a

of

reflexive conception of the formation and

interesting new descriptions of social praxis

role of theory throughout the history of

but also re-configures the relationship of

philosophy and the human sciences.

theory to social praxis. Or, to state the issue

Consider the (usually) conservative model

somewhat more generally, when society is

of society as an organism, for example, or

understood as a complex of expressive

the liberal theory of society as an aggregate

forms, it also encloses the social role of the

of atoms. Marxism has articulated its

particular expressive formation that is

conception of theory mainly on the

theory. The metaphor of language gives

architectural

and

itself to a concise formulation of the

superstructure, though it has also at times

recursive doubling that is always present in

used labour itself as a model in order to

the project of self-knowledge in philosophy

clarify the tasks and claims of theory. The

and the human sciences since humanity is

basic

both known and knower (Foucault, 1973;

language

use

metaphor

metaphor

communication

in
theory

as

of

base

Harold
of

Innis'

society

through

language.

It

its

not

expression

only

in

provokes

is

Husserl, 1970). Every communication is

transportation, the traversal of space. The

thus reflexive. Since humanity appears as

concept of metaphor is itself a metaphorical

both the subject and object of social

one, based on the Greek for "carrying-

representations, the reflexive capacity of

over." Metaphor carries over a meaning

language demands a theory of social praxis

from one domain to another or, as we often

as a complex of expressive forms.

say, from one "level" to another. Thus,


theoretical

discourse

is

necessarily

The term "expression" has, of


course, a Romantic origin which tends to

lead toward the notion of a deep inner

culture, indeed as the active component of

experience that is pressed outward into

the instituting of a social order.

external forms. It seems to imply an inner-

The shaping of a way of life in

outer dualism, similar to and based upon the

instituting praxis is, among other things, a

subject-object dualism that would be

process of self-convincing into a way of

problematic in the context of the discursive

life, a rhetoric which establishes the

turn. The metaphor of language has,

identifications that constitute a social order.

perhaps above all, undermined the earlier

The term "rhetoric" is used in its theoretical

presupposition that "subjective" human

sense here and is to be distinguished from

experience is inherently separate from

the popular usage in which "mere" rhetoric

"objective" social forms. By way of

refers only to the outer presentation, or

contrast, language occupies a middle realm

fashionable packaging, of an argument

in which human self-conceptions and social

rather than to its internal formulation -- a

activities both emerge from cultural praxis.

formulation which also partakes in the

Language

turned

inner-outer presupposition based on the

philosophy and the human sciences away

philosophy of consciousness. Rhetoric

from this subject-object posing toward a

originally referred

conception of culture as its primary realm

component of any discourse, not in the

of investigation. But culture must be

common sense of mere decoration (though

understood on this basis not as a merely

it can certainly degenerate into that) and as

external activity but as the process of

not

formation of individual, group, and inter-

Language in its rhetorical use is inherently

group life. This process of formation of

connected to action because it deals, in

identities is expressive, albeit one shorn of

Aristotle's words, "with such matters as we

inner-outer assumptions, in the sense of a

deliberate upon without arts or systems to

socio-cultural praxis as the shaping of a

guide us" and "to praise a man is in one

distinct way of life. Such a self-shaping, or

respect akin to urging a course of action"

instituting, of a way of life requires a notion

(Aristotle, 1954, pp. 27, 61). This classical

of expression, even if we must abandon the

formulation involves the notion that the

notion of an already existing subjectivity

speaker and hearer of a discourse are

hiding behind the forms of expression.

already formed as subjects prior to, or

Expression can thus be understood as a

outside, the rhetorical discourse itself

primal scene of self-shaping through

(Aristotle, 1954). Once this presupposition

as

metaphor

has

necessarily

to

the

opposed

persuasive

to

"truth."

of a subject already there prior to rhetoric is

abandoned, the constitutive function of


rhetoric

in

focus

on

language thus turns away from inner-outer,

interpellating them into the social formation

or consciousness-reality, dichotomies to the

can be recognized. In this way, the

process "in-between" where instituting

unfortunate Romantic associations of the

praxis is understood as the expression of a

term "expression" can be avoided. Such a

way of life that forms itself. Its most basic

contemporary reformulation of the concept

theoretical shift is thus to drop the

of rhetoric has been achieved through the

assumption

concept of "identification" as developed by

communication could be a neutral channel

Kenneth Burke. Through the identificatory

for the passage between inner and outer, or

aspect of rhetoric, the "consubstantiality" of

consciousness and reality. Language, and

social actors is established; in short, they

thus communication more generally, is seen

are formed into groups with common

as an active process of the formation of

characteristics (Burke, 1950). It is the

expression (Laclau & Mouffe, 1985; Rorty,

nature of humans that their social forms are

1989; Taylor, 1991, 1992). Representation

not given directly by nature. Thus, the

itself becomes questionable when the

expressive formation of these social forms

assumption that a social fact can be

is an anthropological characteristic. As

represented without being thereby altered is

Hans Blumenberg has put it, rhetoric

dropped. Terms such as "articulation" or

corresponds to the "immanent deficiency"

"expression" seem to capture this active

of humans that they do not fit into pre-given

process more completely. Indeed, what

structures of the world. Thus, "rhetoric

becomes

means to be conscious both of being

plurality of forms which the active process

compelled to act and of the lack of norms in

of expression can take. Philosophy and the

a finite situation" (Blumenberg, 1987, p.

human sciences after the discursive turn

437). The discursive turn in philosophy and

centre precisely on the forming influence of

the human sciences thus brings to the fore

language, and media of communication

both the rhetorical effect of discourses

generally, in giving shape to the form of life

themselves in the social formation as a

that may later be distinguished into the

whole and also the rhetorical formation of

extremes of consciousness and reality

the

actors.

(which are constituted by the specific form

stirs

of modern life). They are concerned with

Anthropological

of

subjects

contemporary

and

identities

forming

The

social

incompleteness

rhetorical accomplishments.

that

interesting

the

is

medium

of

precisely the

expressive culture or "language as practical


consciousness," as Marx & Engels said in

The German Ideology, continuing to

primary function of language is not to

explain that "consciousness is, therefore,

describe social action scientifically but

from the beginning a social product" (Marx

rather to constitute social action as

& Engels, 1845-46, p. 158). Nietzsche also

meaningful. In other words, it should be

made this point in The Gay Science, where

understood as primarily constitutive rather

it is argued that "consciousness has

than representational. If the understanding

developed only under the pressure of the

of

need for communication" (Nietzsche, 1974,

components, then we may say that the mode

p. 198). The origin of the contemporary

of expression that animates a social action

discursive turn is thus in the nineteenth-

is modeled on discourse. At this point, it is

century break with the philosophy of

the constitutive character of expression that

consciousness that was achieved by Marx

has become exemplary for philosophy and

& Engels and Nietzsche.

the

language

human

includes

sciences

these

and

the

two

main

The discursive turn in philosophy

consequence is that the mode of expression,

and the human sciences rests on the notion

or medium of communication, can no

that the investigation of meaning is best

longer be seen as a mere outer clothing of a

pursued through a focus on language, since

pre-existing content. Rather, the medium of

language can be taken as the model of

communication is understood to be a

meaningful

This

formation of meaning. Interest thus turns

metaphorical status of language requires

toward the particular characteristics of

that language is not understood merely in

various formations of meaning, which can

the sense of speaking activity but rather that

be

such speaking activity, insofar as it forms

discursive formation, which Foucault called

and conveys meaning, be taken as

a "regularity in dispersion," is concerned

exemplary for all social action. Other types

not mainly with the characteristics of

of social action that do not obviously

language in general but rather with the

involve speaking, such as wearing clothing

constitutive character for social life of a

or jumping out of airplanes, can also be

specific form of expression (Foucault,

investigated as meaningful activities in

1972, p. 38). It consists of an indefinite

which

spoken

plurality of related expressions, made from

language can be used to identify analogous

a number of social identities (or subject-

characteristics.

this

positions), that constitute an arrangement of

metaphorical extension of language to

social life and, thereby, an understanding of

social action in general suggests that the

"what is," or social reality in general.

the

activity in

general.

characteristics

of

Moreover,

called

discursive

formations.

Discourse
philosophy

and

as
the

metaphor

human

for

sciences

(Wittgenstein), and so forth. In the present


introductory

context

the

specific

involves two main aspects. First, an

formulations of this system of meaning are

expression

not important. The point is that meaning is

description of an extra-linguistic event, but

not produced by a single term in isolation

as an action in its own right. Classic

but by the placing of the utterance within

examples of language functioning in this

the context of an (at least partially

way include "I now call this meeting to

organized)

order" and "I now pronounce you husband

components. The turn to discourse thus

and wife." These language uses do not

replaces the question of the relation

describe an event outside of language, but

between words and things, which has been

perform the event through an utterance or

the main philosophical formulation of the

expression. This active conception of

problem of language since Plato and is

language has been called text (Ricoeur),

probably

speech-act

theme

construction of meaning through given acts

(Volosinov). While it may seem at first as if

within a system of difference-relationships.

such speech acts refer only to a distinct

This shift has been described as a critique

class of utterances, further reflection

of "essentialism." Essentialism is a critical

suggests that performativity is rather a

term referring to the pre-discursive notion

question of a component of any discursive

that an expression has an internal meaning

act (Austin, 1971). The upshot of this shift

that could be determined without reference

has been described as a critique of

to the actual discursive formation in which

"foundationalism," which is a critical term

it occurs. Human "subjects" or identities are

referring to the pre-discursive assumption

thus re-defined as subject-positions, as

that language acquires its meaning by

places within the field from which

describing an extra-linguistic reality upon

characteristic utterances originate. The field

which its truth and significance would be

defines possible speakers through these

founded. The second main aspect of the

subject-positions, as well as expressions,

concept of discourse is that every utterance

and the current critique of the "essentialist

occurs within an organized but not closed

subject" is a rejection of the notion that the

system of related terms from which it takes

subject exists prior to expression and

its meaning. This system has been called a

"enters into" language as a formed unity.

structure (Lvi-Strauss), a system of

Rather, it is suggested, the discursive

differences (Saussure), a language game

formation itself encompasses expressions,

is

understood,

(Austin),

not

and

as

system

of

unanswerable,

meaningful

with

the

speakers, and a field of discourse. Clearly,

abilities to see, perceive, and think are

the determination of the limits and,

formed by media of communication, then

therefore, definition of a given discursive

this "outside" cannot be outside media of

formation is a key question for a specific

communication as such, but only outside

discourse analysis. Based on these two

the medium which is at present being

aspects, discourse may be preliminarily

analyzed. Thus, every study of the forming

defined as an act within a field of

influence of a medium of communication is

discriminations. Its primary model is an

always at least implicitly comparative, and

expression

is

often bringing this comparative dimension

generalized into a whole approach to

explicitly into concern sharpens the issues.

philosophy and the human sciences.

Second, what does "media" mean? Though

in

language,

but

this

Innis' work gives the discursive turn

related to technology, a medium is not

in the human sciences another twist. The

simply a technology, but the social relations

turn toward language is expanded into the

within which a technology develops and

notion of media of communication as a

which are re-arranged around it. A medium

theory of expressive forms and then

is thus a mode of social organization,

analyzed from the viewpoint of the

defined not by its output or production but

materiality of forms of expression. I give

by the relations obtaining within it. These

the name "comparative media theory" to

two terms, medium and technology, while

this form of investigation derived from

conceptually distinct, are thus concretely

Innis -- synthesized with the contributions

closely bound together, and comparative

of other authors such as Eric Havelock,

media theory has the effect of emphasizing

Jack Goody, Marshall McLuhan, and

the role of technology not only in

Walter Ong -- and generalized into an

production,

approach to society as a complex of

institutional, and cognitive consequences.

expressive forms (Angus, 1994a, 1994b).

Third,

Let us look at the name for a moment. First,

emphasize that descriptive focus on media

why "comparative"? Because the forming

is not sufficient. To the extent that the thesis

influence of a medium of communication

holds up, the standpoint of the theorist is

on

and

also formed by media. Thus, there is needed

cognitive capacities is invisible as long as

an explicit account of the reflexive

one "lives inside" it. Only by looking at it

dimensions opened up by this theory, of

"from outside," as we say, can its influence

how the standpoint of analysis interacts

be defined. But, if it is indeed true that our

with

our

perceptual,

institutional,

why

the

but

in

its

"theory"?

phenomenon

perceptual,

Primarily

to

described.

10

Comparative media theory is concerned

might we be attending to?" and even

with various dimensions of continuous

"Where are the limits of our attention?"

translations in the media environment

Through

which, at any stage of relative fixity, define

media theory becomes at once more

a culture through what it assumes as

philosophical and more political than in

common sense and what it explicitly poses

Innis' version.

such

questions,

comparative

as problems to be addressed. Society is

The fundamental thesis underlying

understood as a complex of expressive

the media theory of Harold Innis is "that

forms constituted by the materiality of

civilization has been dominated at different

media of communication in which is

stages by various media of communication

compacted a relationship of technology and

such as clay, papyrus, parchment, and paper

social identities.

produced first from rags and then from

The later work of Harold Innis

wood. Each medium has its significance for

incorporates a critique of modernity as

the type of monopoly of knowledge which

space-dominating or globalizing, and time-

will be built and which will destroy the

vulnerable

unstable,

conditions suited to creative thought and be

articulated through its focus on the specific

displaced by a new medium with its

characteristics of media of communication.

peculiar type of monopoly of knowledge"

This approach can be generalized into a

(Innis, 1949, p. 5). His written work on

theory of media of communication as

communication tends to use the concepts

instituting a historical formation of social

(space, time, bias, medium, and so forth)

relations. For the philosophy of the human

through which his

sciences, the constitution of perception,

articulated in large-scale historical analyses

institutions, and thought by media of

rather than directly explaining or defining

communication is the thesis proper to

what they mean. Thus, there is plenty of

communication studies, the thesis from

room for interpretation. But while my

which its larger significance derives. The

interpretation of Innis may be controversial,

study of communication is turned towards,

its main significance in this context is as a

in Innis' words, "Why do we attend to the

way of introducing the materiality of

things to which we attend?" understood not

expression into the discursive formation of

only in a psychological, but also in an

contemporary

institutional, historical, and intellectual

science. In Empire and Communication

sense (Innis, 1973, p. xvii). In my version,

Innis introduces his focus on the materiality

however, it is as important to ask "What

of media of communication through

or

temporally

media theory is

philosophy

and

human

11

centrifugal and centripetal social forces --

more hierarchical. The axis of hierarchy,

forces tending to make a society more

then, refers to the administrative chain of

integrated over a given area versus forces

command. To say that an administrative

which tend to allow more independent

organization is more hierarchical is to say

peripheral areas. The concepts of time and

that it is more or less continuous from

space are used to describe the constitutive

bottom to top -- that there are no equivalent

power of media of communication in

but dispersed powers.

constructing

and

maintaining

society.

Time-oriented

media

promote

Initially, it is clear that media that

means of social organization which are

emphasize time are durable, such as clay

decentralized, involving more dispersed

and especially stone. Media that emphasize

centres of power, but in each of these

space, on the other hand, are light and easy

centres

to move over large areas, in particular

hierarchy is more direct from top to the

papyrus and paper. He thus connects the

bottom. By contrast, media that emphasize

latter media with administration and trade

space

because of their space-orientation and the

hierarchy.

former with permanence and time. These

ordination over a large area. Less hierarchy

characteristics are connected to aspects of

implies

institutions. "Materials that emphasize time

administrative ladders, the relations of

favour decentralization and hierarchical

command overlap each other. There are

types of institutions while those that

equivalent ladders of power in different

emphasize space favor centralization and

places, one of which does not necessarily

systems of government less hierarchical in

subsume the rest. It is through these terms

character"

The

that Innis investigates what is for him the

centralization-decentralization axis refers

key subject matter of communication

to the manner and extent of co-ordination in

theory -- the persistence of a society in the

space. To say that an organization is

two dimensions of space and time, or the

decentralized is to say that there is not much

constitution of a historico-geographical

(or only very loose or difficult) co-

unity of a form of life. Every society

ordination over a given area, implying that

persists in both space and time, of course,

there are more dispersed centres of power.

but with different degrees of effectiveness

Innis' claim is that when there are more

dependent on the complex of media through

dispersed centres of power the tendency is

which it is articulated. He introduces the

for each of these centres of power to be

term "empire" to describe a society which

(Innis,

1972,

p.

7).

of

power

favour

the

administrative

centralization

Centralization

that,

in

some

and

less

means

co-

of

those

12

is persistent with a substantial degree of

I believe to be truest to Innis' historical

efficiency in both dimensions. That is, an

discussions,

empire covers a large area and it lasts a long

phenomenological and Marxist. Space and

time.

of

time as they are experienced (in the widest

communication has a tendency or "bias"

sense) within any society are understood to

toward either space or time, an empire

be

involves a co-existence of different media

communication,

of communication. A society that manages

communication are formed and developed

to balance the influence of space-oriented

by human praxis. Space exists only insofar

media and time-oriented media will be

as it is traversed in some manner and time

successful in both space and time.

exists

Since

every

medium

The dimensions of space and time

might

constituted

only

through
and

through

transmission

be

called

media
media

the

between

means

of
of

of

generations.

might be interpreted in two different ways.

Communication media thus constitute,

Perhaps as a Kantian formal structure

through human labour, the limits of what is

which is more or less filled out by media of

experienceable and the manner in which it

communication in concrete cases. In this

is experienced in a social formation. We

case, the space-time categorical schema

can thus say that, for Innis, communication

would be pre-existent to media and there

media "set up" or constitute the limits of

would be a distinction between the "real"

what is experienceable and the manner in

(noumenal) space-time nexus and the

which it is experienced in a social

(phenomenal) extent to which it is

formation.

experienced within a given society. This

communication institute a social order, a

interpretation poses several intractable

regime. In this version there is no

problems since, while the distinction

distinction between "real" or scientific

between the "real" (i.e., scientifically

space-time and the social experience of

conceptualized) and the perceptual is

space-time. Rather, one would have to

necessary on this interpretation, they cannot

interpret the scientific scheme as a specific

in principle be related to each other. Thus,

cultural formation whose historico-spatial

the space-time nexus would be split into a

emergence in the Renaissance period of

scientific version and one pertaining to

European society has its own conditions of

social perception which would lead back to

existence in the complex of communication

the earlier dilemmas concerning the relation

media emergent in modernity.

In

short,

media

of

of discourse to an external "real" material

Let us explore in more detail the

world. The alternative interpretation, which

notion of medium utilized here. It is evident

13

from Innis' historical discussions that he

the Nile. This concern with time led to

views pyramids and architecture in general

calendars and exact methods of reckoning

as means of communication in addition to

time. In Babylon, the problem was

language and writing. A "medium of

irrigation. There was lots of water but it was

communication" is understood in a very

not in the right place. Irrigation solved this

wide sense as any kind of a formative and

problem of space. Thus, the same content -

integrating social mechanism. Media of

- water -- led to a medium oriented toward

communication, understood in this way, are

an emphasis on time in Egypt, whereas in

described

intrinsic

Babylon it led toward an emphasis on

characteristics. Most straightforwardly, if

space. While water was the content at issue

one writes on stone it tends to last; if one

in both cases, the "medium" is different.

writes on paper it can be easily transported.

Thus, it is not the object carried but the

These characteristics are not given to the

manner of carrying; it is not the flooding

medium by its environment, though they

but the construction of a manner of

are certainly used in a specific way in a

overcoming the problem of flooding. The

given environment. At first blush, it may

characteristics

appear as if the characteristics of media are

communication cannot be defined through

primarily, or even exclusively, directly

the material characteristics of the object

physical. But the distinction between heavy

with which it is concerned but only the

and light media as media oriented toward

manner of dealing with that object. Thus,

time or space, even though it is used by

the intrinsic characteristics of a medium

Innis (1972), is drastically oversimplified.

may include its durability or portability, but

A more thorough analysis of the structure

it is not confined to these. It is more

and

fundamentally

as

argument

having

of

Empire

and

of

about

medium

the

manner

of

of

Communications can clarify the relation

organization that is constructed. It is not

between a medium and its object, or

only a material resource and a technology

content. After the introductory chapter, the

(oriented to dealing with a particular

second chapter is on Egypt and the third on

object), but also a social relation between a

Babylonia. In both of these the main object

plurality of identities that is constructed co-

that is at issue is water. But it is not the

extensively

content "water" that is key in deciding the

medium

time or space bias in a medium of

incorporates both a technology and a series

communication. In Egypt, there was a

of related social identities (or subject-

necessity to predict the annual flooding of

positions).

with
of

this

technology.

communication

A
thus

14

The

between

and cognitive abilities. Similarly, the

technology and social relations in the

alphabet is a technology of writing that sets

theory of media of communication was not

up new cognitive capacities and relations

addressed directly by Innis, a fact which has

between reader and writer. The common-

provided some justification for the incorrect

sense

tendency by some critics to view Innis as a

technologies applied to communication

technological determinist. I will try to fill in

from technologies applied to other things --

that gap here. The most common usage

such as making shoes, automobiles, or

suggests that a medium of communication

contact lenses. It is based on what is usually

should be understood as a technology that

known as the transportation model of

is applied to communication, that is to say,

communication. Despite the common focus

to the transfer and dissemination of

on transportation, the "transportation model

information.

telegraph,

of communication" is distinct from Innis'

television, and film would be technologies

concept of transportation insofar as his

of communication and thus "media." One

theory is a constitutive one concerned not

might also include writing and even speech

only with transportation between different

-- though the latter is usually excluded

locations but with the constitution of social

because

generally

relationships by traversal. The conventional

mechanical

transportation model of communication is

contraptions that are distinct from the

distinguished by the presupposition that

capacities of the human body. Innis' theory

what characterizes communication is the

is very interesting in this respect: he

movement of meaning across space -- only

regarded

of

the delivery as opposed to the formulation

communication and thus did not assume

of meaning. In this model, communication

that the separation of a medium from the

is a secondary process presupposing the

human body was a defining characteristic.

prior existence of the origin, destination,

To the contrary, understood in the terms we

and content of the message. The technology

have suggested above -- as a relation

of communication is thus understood as the

between technology and social relations --

channel whereby a message, or sign, is

there is no difficulty in treating speech as a

transported in space -- as the means of this

technology

the

secondary process of delivery. From this

rhetorical arts of memory, invention, and

common perspective, and again in contrast

delivery which leads to a determinate

to Innis, a medium of communication is

complex of human perception, institutions,

thus considered to be a particular category

understood

relationship

Thus,

print,

technologies
as

orality

are

external

as

accomplished

medium

through

perspective

distinguishes

15

of technologies defined by their orientation

communication

toward a particular purpose. It can be

differently. Media cannot be understood as

placed

comparable

a certain specific category of technologies,

categories -- such as technologies of

but are the communicative aspect of

transportation, oriented to moving people

technologies themselves. Stated generally,

and goods in space, or technologies of

the

agriculture, oriented to producing food.

technology are those social relationships

This understanding of communication,

(including their institutional and symbolic

though still the most common one, can be

forms) which are brought about by the

criticized by suggesting that this secondary

practical functioning of the technology.

process of delivery is based upon a more

They are thereby thoroughly imbued with

primary process, and that this primary

the specific form of the socio-cultural

process is itself communication, not

context as a whole. They are ethically and

something other, which has to do with

politically, as well as perceptually and

"making common," being in contact with,"

cognitively, laden. The technology, then, is

"establishing

maintaining

the same set of communicative relations

participation," and so forth. In this

looked at from the side of the technical

understanding,

combination -- that is, from the side of its

alongside

other

and

communication

is

the

needs

communicative

to

be

relations

medium of communication persists in space

accomplish human goals. Technology and

and time through the establishment of

communication are thus two sides of the

connection

same

constituent

organization,

with

ability

productive

its

its

of

constitutive process of social relations. A

between

capacity,

posed

to

technology

elements. This has two aspects: the

indicating a focus on the output or

construction of a technology with a certain

consequences of the organization of human

practical goal in mind and the establishment

abilities, and communication emphasizing

of a social identities, or subject-positions,

the social relations that are required in order

through the formation of constituent

to accomplish this output -- the construction

relations between them.

of social identities in definite relations. The


explosion

With

this

understanding

of

technologies

and

of

communications in the contemporary world

communication as a cultural process of

has thus given rise to a politics of identity-

constituting complexes of technology and

formation. Raymond Williams has noted

social identities, the question of the relation

this qualitative change in the extended, and

between technology and a medium of

increasing,

development

of

16

communication:

"The

communication

as

means

is

certain

organization

of

perception, institutions, and thought, lead in

production, and in relation to this the

a given environment to effects of re-

production

organization of that environment. It is this

new

of

which

social

of

means

of

means

of

communication themselves, have taken on

interplay

a quite new significance, within the

characteristics and the media environment

generally

communicative

that is the main domain of investigation for

character of modern societies and between

comparative media theory. However, the

modern societies" (Williams, 1980, p. 53).

conceptual relation between these two

From this perspective we can understand

aspects of the influence of a medium of

the complementary character of the social

communication is not addressed by Innis

phenomena

and does not emerge clearly from his

extended

described

within

between

discussions.

Other

medium's

communication as the "information age"

historical

and the technological developments that

concerned with the social influence of

designate this society as an "advanced" or

media of communication fall into two main

"developed" one in comparison to those

camps with regards to this issue. The

described metonymically as the "Third

emphasis on the media environment is

World" -- though I want simply to note the

taken to its logical conclusion by Marshall

relationship between these developments

McLuhan. He claims that there are no

here without endorsing a specific analysis

intrinsic characteristics to a medium of

of them, whether they constitute a

communication

"revolution," or anything of that sort.

characteristics that it has in a given situation

whatsoever,

writers

that

the

We should notice that in Innis'

depend on its relation to the whole media

historical discussions the social influence of

environment and the given state of

a medium of communication is always

translations between media. Thus, the

analyzed

whole

"content" of a medium is nothing intrinsic

environment in which it operates. It is not

but only a previous medium on which it

an isolated thing but the central factor

builds. If we follow the chain of contents

within a complex environment made up of

back to its origin, the implication is that the

many media of communication and the

content of orality is thought and the content

objects they carry or reckon with as

of thought is the world. This is a thoroughly

contents. Its bias has to do with its influence

rhetorical concept of the social influence of

on the whole of this environment. Thus, the

media insofar as the influence in question

intrinsic characteristics of the medium,

originates entirely from outside the medium

in

relation

to

the

17

in question and there is no intrinsic content

relation to the media environment as a

of the medium as such at all (McLuhan,

whole. Bias in Innis' sense is not a bad or

1964). The opposite view is taken by Don

distorting

Ihde

unavoidable. From this notion of bias

in

investigations

his
of

phenomenological
the

use

of

medium.

It

is

intrinsic

follows the idea of "monopolies of

characteristics of each medium considered

knowledge." Innis' communication theory

as an alteration, or "inclination," of human

places a key stress on institutions as the

perception (Ihde, 1979, 1983). This view

constitution of an organization of human

might be characterized as "essentialist"

society. Institutions are based on a medium

insofar as each medium is investigated as

of

such in isolation from its context, but it is

institution, is the most significant and then

not determinist insofar as the inclination

monopolizes

can be resisted even though a certain degree

monopolizing access to and use of that

of consciousness is required to do so.

medium of communication. While Innis

Rather than accept either one of these two

discusses the bias towards space or time, he

polarized interpretations, I suggest that

also refers to a "concern," or a concern with

further development of Innis' work in this

the "problem," of space and time. This is

respect needs to address what might be

best understood as a figure-ground shift.

called the inside-outside relation of a

When a society has been reasonably

specific medium to the complex media

successful in extending itself in space

environment. It is in this inside-outside

through utilizing media with a bias towards

tension that the relation of particular local

space, this success then comes to be taken

embodiments to the cultural horizon as a

for granted and the explicit concern, or

whole would have to be determined.

thematization, of the social energy becomes

communication

that,

knowledge

within

that

through

Innis introduced the notion of a

directed toward time. Time becomes the

"bias" of communication to refer to the

problem which must be addressed on the

specific social inclination inherent in the

basis of a presupposed success with space,

dominant expressive forms. Every medium

or vice versa. The notion of bias is utilized

of communication has a bias toward either

also to articulate a relationship between the

space or time. By "bias" is meant the

presupposed

emphasizing of a certain aspect of

organization of a society and the specific

experience, the time-oriented aspect or the

thematic projects that the society pursues.

space-oriented aspect, intrinsic to the

Since every medium of communication is

medium of communication or through its

biased towards either space or time, it is not

taken-for-granted

18

possible for a single medium to be

civilization. This eventually also implies

complete. If the society was only oriented

the reflexive question of "Why does a

to space, for example, it would be unstable

communication theory of civilization arise

with respect to time. If a society was only

now?" What is it about our own society that

oriented to time, it would have great

motivates us to inquire into communication

difficulty in occupying a single area

in a way that has not been done before?

successfully. Innis introduces the notion of

Innis suggests that our society has been

"balance" to suggest that a society is most

extremely efficient in media oriented

successful when it is based not upon one

towards space. We have more and more

predominant medium of communication

organization over a larger and larger area,

but upon several, especially a combination

developing what is essentially a world

of several media which orient towards

system. What we do not do well is organize

competing biases of space and time. This

things in the dimension of time. While we

notion of balance is Innis' reformulation of

have a very efficient and well-integrated

the idea of disinterestedness in traditional

world system, it is extremely sensitive to

humanism. Though

no longer

periodic shocks and dislocations. The

suggested that one can "rise above" the

critique is that it does not have stability over

conflicts of social life and judge them from

time despite a remarkable stability over

an "unbiased" perspective, it is argued that

space. In this respect, the emphasis on space

a balance of biases can allow a viewpoint

is

which,

industrialization,

in

it

is

sense,

neutralizes

the

conflicting biases of a plurality of media.


This

theory

of

to

be

characteristic

mechanization,

of
and

modernity. In this critical vein, Innis


of

stresses "the importance of the oral tradition

communication is, then, oriented to a

in an age when the overpowering influence

twofold task. First of all, it attempts to

of mechanized communication makes it

present an historical theory of civilization

difficult even to recognize such a tradition.

which would incorporate and surpass

Indeed the role of the oral tradition can be

previous theories by showing historical

studied only through an appraisal of the

changes as emerging from shifting relations

mechanized tradition for which the material

between

of

is all too abundant" (Innis, 1973, p. 76). The

media

emphasis on time, by way of compensation,

theory is oriented especially towards the

is a metonymic and synechdochic critique

present, towards answering the diagnostic

of industrial civilization. Innis claims that

question concerning the present state of

orality was a stabilizing influence in

competing

communication.

Second,

media

taken

media
Innis'

19

civilization in the past, though this has not

society

been adequately enough understood (Innis,

incipient forms of knowledge, in contrast to

1949). In the present we need to recover and

the developed and articulated forms of

extend orality in order to develop greater

powerful institutions, can be understood as

stability in time and this is the healing

a figure/ground relationship. The idea of

intention of Innis' theory -- to restore

monopolies of knowledge necessarily

balance where balance has been disturbed.

involves conflict between knowledges, but

The diagnostic and therapeutic intention

not normally between equally constituted

originating in the contemporary crisis of

forms, since the resources commanded by

civilization ensures that comparative media

powerful

theory contains a reflexive, or recursively

knowledges to be more developed and

doubling dimension, that is characteristic of

extensive. Rather, conflict is usually

the project of self-knowledge of the human

between

sciences.

knowledges. In other words, the oppression

The concept of balance through


which

Innis'

institutions

instituted

allow

and

and

their

emergent

of subaltern knowledges means that they


are not articulated to a comparable degree

with

as dominant monopolies. In addition to, in

conservative political implications, and

fact as a consequence of, the lesser social

these cannot be removed from Innis' theory

power they command, the knowledge they

entirely even though recent ecological

wield is less developed. While one need not

critiques of industrial capitalist society

agree with Gayatri Spivak that the subaltern

suggest that its propensity for instability

cannot speak at all, it is nonetheless the case

over time should be incorporated into

that voicing and articulation are radically

critical social theory (Angus, 1997). The

problematic for emergent knowledges

conservative implications of the term

(Spivak, 1988). This is precisely why they

balance can, however, be overcome if we

are

connect it to the notion of monopolies of

constituted monopolies of knowledge: they

knowledge.

between

problematize and investigate their own

developed institutional knowledges and

conditions of emergence, rather than hiding

repressed or incipient ones is a main

these conditions behind an ideology of

concern in this context. Innis spent great

universal applicability. To this extent,

energy to argue that the unacknowledged

Harold Innis' theory of monopolies of

influence of the oral tradition was essential

knowledge can come to the aid of a critical

to whatever remaining stability Western

social theory oriented to the emergent

thus

The

seems

intention

Undeveloped

is

expressed

therapeutic

contains.

replete

relation

interesting

in

contrast

to

prior

20

knowledges proposed by new social

a medium of communication but also,

movements, and can aid in the critique of

through its medium of communication,

his own central concept of balance (Angus,

amplifies the notion of expression that is

1992; Stamps, 1995).

constitutive of human Being itself. This

The basic philosophical formulation

notion

of

expression,

though

it

is

of the role of communication in the human

manifested within the immanent history of

sciences that I am proposing here is of the

media forms, is, in a certain sense, the

body as the root-phenomenon of expressive

presupposition of the immanent history.

forms, media of communication as material

Every determinate history of media forms is

expressions, a particular complex of

expressible due to the phenomenon of

expressive forms as the construction of a

expression

world, and the historical succession of such

immanent history tends toward systematic

worlds as manifestations of Being. Let me

formulation,

conclude by making two comments about

transcendental history that undoes its

the concept of media of communication in

systematicity.

this

of

immanent history is turned "outside"

communication initially appears to be

toward a wonder at the phenomenon of

simply the manifest form in which a

expression itself. A theory of media of

communication content occurs, from which

communication as human science is

derives the conventional lineage of media

concerned with the immanent history of

forms -- orality, writing, print, photograph,

media

gramophone, and so forth. But, in the

philosophy of media forms in which the

version outlined here, a medium is also

possibility

understood

manifested. To make the same point in a

communication possible. That is to say,

rather different way, every communication

while there is an immanent history of media

act is an "institution" in a double sense. It is

forms, there is also a transcendental history

an act within a given communication

of the constitution of media forms

medium through which it is situated in the

themselves (which is the version from

cultural complex of institutions that defines

within comparative media theory of the

a world. It is also an instituting act, whereby

doubling necessary to the project of self-

a given form of expression is brought into

knowledge constitutive of philosophy and

being and sustained as such. In this sense, it

the human sciences mentioned above). Put

is a rhetoric of media forms in which one is

another way, every speech act occurs within

persuaded not primarily to a given content,

context.

as

First,

that

medium

which

makes

itself.

it

forms,

of

Thus,

also

Through

but

it

while

every

presupposes

this

doubling,

presupposes

expression

itself

is

21

but to see the world with a certain

The reflexivity of the theory of

perceptual, social, and cognitive emphasis.

media of communication from which these

Every communication act occurs within a

comments stem is a central component of

given cultural complex but is also a

the discursive turn in the human sciences

persuasion to alter or sustain that complex

and philosophy. While the discursive turn

and is thus a "choice" to promote a certain

by itself tends to focus on the manifest

view of expression, and therefore involves

content

a manifestation of expression as such.

comparative media theory that can be

of

communication

acts,

the

The second comment involves

derived from a generalization of Harold

situating this doubling within the human

Innis' theory of media of communication

body that is the origin of the phenomenon

can shift the issue toward the materiality of

of expression and the privileged medium of

expressive

communication manifested in orality. The

materiality constitutes a "form of life"

body, in the same double sense of

(Wittgenstein) "in its characteristic style"

institution, is both an origin of expression

(Husserl) that constitutes "a whole way of

and is enfolded within an immanent cultural

life" (Williams) such that "as men produce

complex. Within the latter it may be

their life, so they are" (Marx). In this way,

disciplined in Foucault's sense, but it

Harold Innis can make a key contribution to

always contains the possibility of an

the recent discursive turn in philosophy and

original manifestation of the world in

the human sciences. Comparative media

Husserl's sense (Foucault, 1977; Husserl,

theory can investigate an immanent history

1970). The expressive body is thus a

of media forms oriented to the rhetorical

"folding," whereby an expressive origin is

construction of a cultural complex that is

folded

the mirror-image, as it were, of the

within

complex.

an

Every

immanent
cultural

cultural

world

is

forms

themselves.

This

transcendental manifestation that is the

constituted by such a folding-in of its

philosophical

constitution

origin, a making-systematic of what

phenomenon

originates every system. This immanent

Manifestation enters into immanent history

closure is achieved through inscribing

only in glimpses. It is these glimpses that

within the immanent of the manifestation of

institute monopolies of knowledge, and

immanence itself. Such a turning inward

which social movements re-figure when

constitutes a certain cultural form as the

they rediscover the unbounded in order to

closure of the unboundedness of the

confront existing institutions with their

manifestation of expression itself.

incipient forms of instituting anew.

of

of

expression

the
itself.

22

Notes
1

The term "institution" derives from Edmund Husserl's concept of Urstiftung or sometimes
simply Stiftung, which is normally translated into English as "instituting," "primal instituting,"
or "establishment" and which refers to the setting-into-play of a primal scene that founds a
scientific or philosophical tradition -- that is to say, a distinct formation of temporality (cf.
Husserl, 1970, pp. 73-74, 378; 1976, pp. 74-75, 386). This concept of institution adds to the
more general concept of "constitution" used in phenomenology, the notion that an instituted
meaning is more solid or "material" in the sense that it structures the experienced world that
the subject encounters. It was developed by Maurice Merleau-Ponty to refer to social
institutions (Merleau-Ponty, 1970, chap. 5). He also suggested that the notion of institution as
Stiftung in Husserl's work was the basis for a theory of culture (Merleau-Ponty, 1962). Claude
Lefort (1988) has taken the concept of Urstiftung further to include the notion of "regime" in
political philosophy that can distinguish between various forms of society. The concept is a
major contribution of phenomenology to contemporary philosophy and the human sciences.
2

This approach is often known as the "Toronto School of Communications," a term which has
a number of disadvantages. First, an indexical term such as this says nothing specific or
descriptive about the nature of the theory itself. Second, the reference to Toronto works for
Innis and perhaps McLuhan, but it has to be stretched to include Havelock (who was only in
Toronto for a short time) and is entirely inappropriate for Goody and Ong. Third, the notion
that these thinkers were of a single "school" is exaggerated -- in comparison with the Frankfurt
or Birmingham "schools" for example. They focused on the same theme, that is all. My term
attempts to characterize in a theoretically sustainable way the common theme underlying the
various contributions -- even though only the work of Innis is discussed in this essay -- and to
characterize not only the existing work on this theme but its teleology, its convergence with
other traditions in philosophy and the human sciences, and its extension into new areas of
research (Angus, in press).
References
Angus, Ian. (1992). Mediation and new social movements. Communication Theory, 2(1), 7183.
Angus, Ian. (1994a). A blank sheet of paper: The phenomenological foundations of
comparative media theory. Human Studies [Special issue on Phenomenology in
Communication Research], 17(1), 9-22.
Angus, Ian. (1994b). Democracy and the constitution of audiences: A comparative media
theory approach. In John Cruz & Justin Lewis (Eds.), Viewing, reading, listening: Audiences
and cultural reception (pp. 233-252). Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Angus, Ian. (1997). A border within: National identity, cultural plurality and wilderness.
Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press.
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