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Innis in the Age of Vectorial Acceleration

On the Possible Impossibility of Ontological Balance


While capital must on the one side strive to tear down every spatial barrier to intercourse, i.e. to exchange, and conquer the whole earth for its market, it strives on the other side to annihilate this space with time, i.e. to reduce to a minimum the time spent in motion from one place to another. Karl Marx, Grundrisse, 539 Why do you think its going to last when everything youve ever done went to the past just think about our bodies in this place and imagine us shooting through space Chad VanGaalen, Infiniheart

Is an expansive, robust, and easily engaged-with conception of time possible at the dying shadowy days of the liberal-democratic telos? Under the sign of conquered-space and the epoch of completed metaphysics? Wandering like last-men as we are, children of the Obscure Disaster1, it strikes as a very serious possibility that it is not possible. And the question, then, is whether the forerunners of such a discourse with their guarded optimism were glimpsing the promise of a salvation that is still opened up towards us today, or whether they were simply watching the sunset on an always-already pre-ordained forclosure of possibility; whether the structures and geometries of political modernity can still reign in temporality and spatiality into some sort of functional milieu, or whether (precisely as a result of those structures and geometries), temporality and spatiality have become catastrophically and irrevocably unglued, plunging us into either a chest-thumping militaristic amnesia, never quite able to remember to remember, as the case arguably is now, or into some form of disturbed and babbling Tithonus, always forgetting to forget, as the situation arguably could be soon. 1 Alain Badiou. Of an Obscure Disaster: On the End of the Truth of State. Lacanian Ink. 22:Fall (2003).

Indeed, perhaps Kurt Vonnegut Jr. to be crass and begin with fictions in the

writing of his novel Slaughterhouse Five, might have been reading or had previously read some potent words from the pages of Canadian theorist Harold Innis on exactly this problem! so prescient as it was, back those now many decades ago. One could note, that is, that the alien species that Vonnegut constructs evoke exactly the kind of biases of communication to say: physical territorialisation and the breadth and play of duration that Innis champions. And does so in order, it would seem, to rattle our conceptions of how we are embodied, (or encaged if you take the Klee and Benjamin slant on things), in a history that is almost entirely not of our own design. The Tralfamadorians2, as Vonnegut terms them, are constructed in such a manner as to be simply beyond incredulous towards and fundamentally incapable of understanding our or, in other words, humanitys relation to time. Bolted to rails, forever hurtling forward without truly understanding what forward implies, the description in metaphor that Vonnegut proffers about us, as such, finds us mindlessly covering ground, so to speak, to the extent that space is consumed almost as fuel in the furnace of a machine whose function it is specifically to destroy time. It is precisely this situation, applied rote large, that we find ourselves in as a contemporary western culture; as the West and as Westerners in the early twenty-first century. Or worse still! not even as Westerners, but simply ahistorical bodies under both the aegis and codings of the digital-now. Though Vonnegut understood something which Innis did not, that acceleration is not equivalent to material speed, it is relational; it is, rather, vectorial; and it is this notion which may function in place of the cynical impossibility of the kind of balance between space and time that Innis sought and conceptualized as a normative ideal in the constitutive makeup of the state. Innis penned his understanding of this situation, as it was, as A Plea for Time3, a uniquely optimistic construction, to say a plea, though it seems far more likely today some 60 years later as though it were a warning yelled from tree-tops to an in-flight 2 Kurt Vonnegut Jr.. Slaughterhouse Five: Or, The Childrens Crusade, a Duty-Dance with Death. (New York: Dial Press). 85. 3 Harold Innis. Bias of Communication. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008). 61 92.

super-sonic jet: his words are there, of course, in time then as they are now available for anyone still enough to hear them, but we may simply be going, by now, too fast. To wit, large-scale political organizations such as empires must be considered from the standpoint of two dimensions, those of space and time, and persist by overcoming the bias of media which over-emphasize either dimension, Innis writes of the axis and geometries defining his conception of empire, they have tended to flourish under conditions in which civilization reflects the influence of more than one medium and in which the bias of one medium towards decentralization is offset by the bias of another medium towards centralization.4 In other words some societies are temporally present but materially absent and others the reverse; some embodied in space, others ensconced in time. The most successful empires, organizations of power and the like, are those for whom for Innis there exists something of a play between the mediums in these structures that favour space and those that favour time. America, to be blunt, seems to be again, in Inniss understanding very much of the former persuasion. There exists little play, in this sense, that is, compromises between the demands of a monopoly of space and of a monopoly of time,5 as it seems America, as such, has always-already been covering ground while forgetting itself. Even today the so-called Tea Partiers champion the very same constitution that they unabashedly wish to alter, mutate, and re-craft to their own particularly yet unknowingly historicized interests. That is, historically, as Innis argues, the rise of print media facilitated the democratization of knowledge and the triumphs of humanistic culture writes Jody Berland, yet the spread of space-biased communication technology has led to the accelerating marginalization of oral culture, rationalization of knowledge, and displacement of difference, reflexivity, and duration.6 The entrenchment of the West in space reduces and mitigates its ability to reflect itself historically through time as a coherent and self-instantiating identity, other than, of course, the societal identity of its own 4 Ibid, 27. 5 Ibid, 100. 6 Jody Berland. Space at the Margins: Critical Theory and Colonial Space after Innis. in Harold Innis in the New Century: Reflections and Refractions. Ed. William Buxton & Charles R. Acland. (Montreal: McGill/Queens Press, MQUP, 1999). 292.

becoming-anonymous (see Georg Simmel, Andr Groz, mile Durkheim, and both the early work of Marx and the entire works of Albert Camus). The question, then, is whether the teetering-top of the anonymous West has become too instant to save; whether the time that Innis so desperately wants to see flow in ying to the spatial-wests yang can indeed be brought out-from-concealment; whether or not weve reached the vectorial acceleration of acceleration that exceeds the possibility of spatial or ontological balance, marginalizing or obliterating media appropriate to memory, tradition, spirituality, and dialogue all aspects of oral culture that have been appropriated and transformed through the production of technological space.7 Profering the notion if albeit implicitly that Innis is, ultimately, out of his element, a thinker of the 20th century without recourse to the 21st century conflagrations that confront us, is oddly enough a near-contemporary of Inniss! One who was simply much more cynical, much earlier in his career, which is to say, Paul Virilio: A theorist of pure speed, who saw the world in terms of its becoming-collapsed to the terminal phase of technological society, that phase where technology actually comes alive in the form of eating space, eating culture, eating time,8 Virilio and Innis cannot speak to each other in the traditional sense. Rather we can, at least for our current purposes, posit them as the arch priests of two orders: that which believes modernist political orthodoxy can be curved and contoured into a functional balance of space and time, in the case of Innis, and that which believes the acceleration of space under the sign of digital culture. . . has been reduced to a specious present, and the social engineering of time into a micro-managed prism of empty granularities9 in the case of Virilio. Nor is it our place to decide in the traditional sense who is right or wrong, but should be our purview simply to posit the historicized station of both in, perhaps, dialectical opposition to one another; to ask the question of speed at the margins of our own acceleration. According to Innis, bureaucracy in terms of the state implied an emphasis on space and a neglect of the problems of time and in terms of religion an emphasis on 7 Ibid, 292. 8 Arthur Kroker. The Possessed Individual. (Montreal: New World Perspectives, 1992). 13. 9 Kroker. Will to Technology and the Culture of Nihilism: Nietzsche, Heidegger, Marx. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004). 6.

time and a neglect of the problems of space,10 though what can we read from this? Innis was not without his own breed of cynicalism; not without his own disdain for conscious effort-towards in terms of a knowing-subject and a will-towards-will. Inniss thought is such that what saves in the Heideggerian sense is that which damages or mitigates the knowing savingness of other agencies of salvation. Are we therefore to find refuge in the edifices of political structure and its concomitant stability, replicability, and amenable forms to human endeavour? Heavens no! Nor are we to find refuge in the dialogical spirituality and rememberance inherent to religion! Only, as Innis is wont to assert, can we be saved by a particular kind and type of quagmire by their getting in each others way, to phrase it thusly; by an ontological stalemate of the media and mediums that favour one or the other, under which society might flourish in directions unattainable and unthinkable whilst under the sway of exclusively one or the other (as it could be contended we are now, i.e. the media and mediums of space). To say, as Kroker does, that if we live in the era of the empire of space (and the disappearance of time), it is because the western rationalist eschatology has inscribed itself by means of a twofold political strategy: by the policing of the imminent codes of perspective, and by the ideological constitution of the viewing subject, the bourgeois ego, as the triangulation point of politics, culture and society.11 Weve replaced the potential epistemologies of a lived-relation towards temporality with a world where the loss of material space, through the dromoscopic Dromos, from the greek: to race possibility of the instantaneous moment of arrival before having left, leads to the government of nothing but time.12 That is, as Adrian MacKenzie understands it today we are beginning to realize that systems of telecommunication do not merely confine extention, but that, in the transmission of messages and images, they also eradicate duration or delay, to wit, contemporary technological conditions, spatial exteriority and temporal futurity are themselves under assault from instantaneity.13 10 Innis. Bias of Communication. 159. 11 Kroker 12 Paul Virilio. Speed and Politics. (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2007). 174. 13 Adrian MacKenzie. Transductions: Bodies and Machines at Speed. (New York: Continuum, 2002). 120.

For Innis then, this this assault from instantaneity, to the extent we can read it into his textual body is a challenge to our ability to maintain as a society, as an identity, as a fixed amalgam of principles that hold through history in order that they might become-historical (as in the case of any of Inniss many historical archetypes the Summerians, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Russians, ect.). For Virilio, conversely, it is a challenge to escape our almost inevitable becoming-historical! Being trapped [at] the end of the outside world where the whole world suddenly becomes endotic and where such an end implies forgetting spatial exteriority as much as temporal exteriority (no future) and opting exclusively for the present instant, the real instant of instantaneous telecommunications.14 This, again, then, contrasts with but does not contradict, per se Inniss less dogmatic assertion that we are simply mired in a modern obsession with present-mindedness,15 as though this modern obsession were something that we could opt-out of as nonchalantly as a gym-membership. The truth, for our purposes seems to tend more towards something ontologically inescapable, whether or not we subvert our relation or surpass our station, like a pollution, which is to say, the pollution of time distances that reduces to nothing, or almost nothing, the extent and duration of our habitat; this human environment that, besides matter, yet possesses geophysical dimensions that are unextendable.16 This is possibly, then, the truth in both: that the overarching and unbalanced focus on space in Inniss understanding, which then results in the totalizing and unsustainable using-upof-space, in Virilios understanding, ultimately rests upon our coming to terms with the realms in which we are given to have being. Left, as we are, in this fishbowl of temporality, the question dawns, who would want to remember more than having swam past our plastic undersea castle, yet again. As Kroker writes, the more standing still the time, the more proof positive that even the denial of the emptiness that bores confirms the fundamental reality of the metaphysical crisis of technological society.17 But maybe this was the lesson the children of the obscure disaster were meant to learn: that the 14 Virilio. Open Sky. (New York: Verso, 1997). 24-25 15 Innis. Bias of Communication. 76. 16 Virilio. The Original Accident. (Cambridge: Polity, 2007). 40. 17 Kroker. Will to Technology and the Culture of Nihilism: Nietzsche, Heidegger, Marx. 62.

inevitable crisis is not always quite so inevitable and that sometimes, in trying so urgently and implacably to rescue our fate from spatiality (or indeed temporality! That is, either in isolation, as has been mentioned) run amok, were called upon by something beyond ourselves, though what is a different issue. . . ethics? Being? Political engagement to get our hands dirty. To say, as Innis does, in other words, the limitations of culture, in point of duration, are in part a result of the inability to muster the intellectual resources of a people to the point that stagnation can be avoided and that boredom can be evaded.18 Like Vonneguts protagonist we approach lived-time as though knowing only to find out that knowing outside of fostering, shaping and enacting this that or the other narrative, doesnt achieve much, even if you have had the proverbial wool pulled off from over your eyes. It is perhaps the gap between Innis and Virilio, then, to say that if someone is to calm the waters of temporality and bring our lived-time into balance, harmony and sympathetic discourse that this is still, of course, within the realm of possibility, it just conforms to the same laws governing any mindless coverning of ground and has, over the last 60 years, gotten a lot farther away. Haruki Murakamis timeless advice from his novel After Dark seems pertinent: walk slowly, drink lots of water.

Dock Currie Theory & Criticism

18 Innis. Industrialism and Cultural Values. The American Economic Review. 41:2. (May, 1951). 203.