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ARCHIVED - Old Messengers, New Media: The Legacy of Innis and McLuhan

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Media/Medium Theory

Harold Innis has been accused of being a technological determinist29 The same criticism has been lobbed at McLuhan 30 and as Menahem Blondheim points out, McLuhan himself called Innis a determinist in his introduction to The Bias of Communication31 But, Blondheim says, the idea that Innis is a technological determinist is part of the "accepted Innis" that has been constructed over the years as scholars try to work through his writing, research and archive. 32 Blondheim further argues that in light of this sort of criticism, Innis has been marginalized in debates about contemporary media. We know that Innis wrote as much about universities as he did about staples, and that even his staples theory reflects his broader thinking about the balance of power and knowledge. Certainly, there are many interpretations of the intellectual legacy of Harold Innis; scholars continue to contemplate his relationships to economics, politics, philosophy, communications and education, both through his already published works and his rich archive.

McLuhan's body of work, as a whole, points to the necessity of examining technology in context -- a key premise of media and cultural studies. The context is implicitly historical, social, political and economic, even if these terms don't always appear in his analyses. As Judith Stamps has noted, most criticisms of McLuhan in this vein tend to focus on his later works. As she puts it: "For McLuhan, the impact of a medium is itself mediated by the culture that employs it." 33 Technology is made meaningful and is, in this sense, produced, through its social, political, economic and historical circumstances. In turn, these technologies come to produce entirely new contexts. His approach is "highly self-reflexive, probing and exploratory, dialogical and acoustic." 34

In concentrating on a novel approach to technology and its effects, McLuhan departed rather sharply from the scholarship of American communication studies in the 1950s, particularly the behaviourism of Wilbur Schramm and the functionalism of Elihu Katz, Paul Lazarsfeld, Robert Merton and Talcott Parsons. 35 Although his early work in The Mechanical Bride was more ideologically grounded, his later work would focus entirely on the effects of media through technology, not content. McLuhan's thinking reflects a hybridization of the literary roots of the New Criticism, particularly with its focus on effects, and other thinkers who were preoccupied with modernity and mass culture, like C. Wright Mills, Kenneth Burke and Harold Innis. 36

McLuhan favoured new electric technologies because he believed they retrieved previous forms of orality that had been lost with print and the phonetic alphabet. This return to an acoustic space was both geographic and temporal in nature. As it sped up the world, it helped bring down boundaries, retrieving old forms of myth characteristic of tribal society. This position has led to well-founded charges that McLuhan's utopian views on new media are colonial in nature, 37 politically naive, 38 typically Catholic in their mysticism and communalism, 39 and reinforcing of dominant cultural imperialist ideas. 40

Joshua Meyrowitz argues that both Innis and McLuhan stand apart from other communication scholars. Meyrowitz coined the term medium theory to describe the incorporation of history and culture in studying media, a practice which he says both McLuhan and Innis developed. 41 Meyrowitz uses the term medium theory to describe the tradition of research that tried to call attention to the potential influences of communication technologies in addition to and apart from the content they convey. Medium theory focuses on the particular characteristics of each individual medium or of each particular type of medium 42 The evolution and history of communications media have been distinguished by different phases of development. Innis emphasized, among other evolutions, the difference between oral and literate cultures in the development of civilization. He also traced the rise of modern print culture and the dramatic changes that took place with the emergence of technological media in the 19th century. In doing so, he helped to create a framework for understanding the emergence of "new" media, one which continues to influence communication scholars today.


29. See also Ramot, Communication: Technology, Society, Culture, p. 193.

30. Fekete, The Critical Twilight: Explorations in the Ideology of Anglo-American Literary Theory From Eliot to McLuhan; R. Williams, Television: Technology and Cultural Form.

31. McLuhan, in Innis, The Bias of Communication, p. xi.

32. Blondheim, "Discovering 'The Significance of Communication': Harold Adams Innis as Social Constructivist," p. 123.

33. Stamps, Unthinking Modernity: Innis, McLuhan, and the Frankfurt School,p. 124.

34. Marchessault, Marshall McLuhan, Cosmic Media, p. 110.

35. Carey, "Marshall McLuhan: Genealogy and Legacy."

36. Carey, "Marshall McLuhan: Genealogy and Legacy."

37. Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present.

38. Marchessault, Marshall McLuhan, Cosmic Media.

39. Carey, "Marshall McLuhan: Genealogy and Legacy."

40. Ross, No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture.

41. Meyrowitz, "Medium Theory."

42. Meyrowitz, "Medium Theory."

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