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

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A key to Harold Innis's thinking about communications and communications history is his claim that the introduction and development of communications media in society is responsible for social change and upheaval equivalent to the creation, rise and fall of empires. He argues that the stability of cultures depends on the balance and proportion of their media -- a hypothesis he tests in countless examples to show that communication technologies embody a bias in terms of organization and control of information. He asks how specific communication technologies operate, what assumptions they take from and contribute to the society in which they operate, and what forms of power they encourage.

Innis presumes tension in cultural transfer and in the introduction of new communication technologies into society. Take, for example, the following two citations from The Bias of Communication:

The varying effects of technological change spreading from the United States destroyed the unity of Europe and contributed to the outbreak of the First World War. 43

…the search for news made unprecedented use of cables and private wires and exploited Paris as a vast and cheap source of journalistic wealth with the result that French influence became more powerful. 44

The above citations strongly illustrate the way Innis groups events, positioning new media at the heart of social and cultural shifts in history. He incorporates those on the margins of history and situations where marginal power consolidates and ultimately challenges the authority at the center. Innis argues that one of the effects of technology as it is introduced into society is that it influences patterns of perception and understanding of power. In addition, Innis focuses on specific media, locations and periods of time wherein he finds that "shifts to new media of communication have been characterized by profound disturbances." 45 In doing so, he recognizes that the introduction of a new medium destabilizes the relationships and systems that existed previous to it. Innis's constant reflection upon centuries of history and the creation and destruction of civilizations does not allow for a preoccupation with the present or an obsession with current technological gadgetry.

Although Marshall McLuhan considered media from a variety of perspectives, he paid particular attention to how communication is embodied or disembodied. Senses are important to McLuhan because they form the basis upon which a view of reality is constituted. An extension of the sense of sight, for instance, leads to a view of the world that is characterized by linearity, rationalism, objectivity and a focus on the self. Thus, media do not simply record or transmit information, but shape knowledge itself. McLuhan's work continually explores the epistemological grounds that technologies produce and are produced by. 46

McLuhan saw his work as a critical intervention into the world of media. His rhetoric and fondness for aphorisms often leaves readers with the impression that what he offered were final pronouncements on events. Yet McLuhan insisted that he offered only glimpses into ever-changing conditions. At the root of his project is a deep concern with pedagogy, with teaching people how to understand the ways media work on an unconscious level. In this sense, his work can be located within a humanist tradition that fuels the development of media literacy. This helps account for McLuhan's own use of the media as a way of popularizing his ideas, despite his deep reservations about the medium of television, for instance. As Janine Marchessault remarks:

…McLuhan would use the artistic process and the learning process interchangeably. Learning is a creative activity, an act of the imaginative retracing of experience, of making experience visible. McLuhan understood that aphorisms, paradox and collage represent a broken knowledge and, as such, invite further speculation and participation. This is an aspect of McLuhan's work that is often misunderstood. He views knowledge as necessarily always partial and always grounded in the senses and in dialogue with others. 47

Given his concerns with pedagogy, it is not surprising to note how interdisciplinary McLuhan's work was, particularly after joining the University of Toronto and launching the Communication and Culture seminars. The central problem these seminars considered was understanding how communications affected perception. Given this broad question, and McLuhan's equally broad conception of technology, many different perspectives were needed.

McLuhan asserted that art could be a crucial method for discerning the effects of technology. It is an important counterforce in making visible the hidden ways artefacts "[work] us over." Believing that art produces audile-tactile environments that allow figure and ground to be comprehended in tension, McLuhan considers art as an important source of knowledge and commentary on culture and society: art opens the "doors of perception" and operates as an "early warning system." 48 He argues that as technologies continue to proliferate at ever-greater speeds, further changing the environment, the arts can produce "'anti-environments' or 'counter-environments' that provide us with the means of perceiving the environment itself." 49

It can be argued, then, that the phonetic alphabet, alone, is the technology that has been the means of creating "civilized man" -- the separate individuals equal before a written code of law. Separateness of the individual, continuity of space and of time, and uniformity of codes are the prime marks of literate and civilized societies…. As an intensification and extension of the visual function, the phonetic alphabet diminishes the role of the other senses of sound and touch and taste in any literate culture. 50


43. Innis, The Bias of Communication, p. 59.

44. Innis, The Bias of Communication, p. 60.

45. Innis, The Bias of Communication, p. 188.

46. Marchessault, Marshall McLuhan, Cosmic Media, p. 203.

47. Marchessault, Marshall McLuhan, Cosmic Media, p. 70.

48. McLuhan, Understanding Media, p. xi.

49. McLuhan, Understanding Media, p. ix.

50. McLuhan, Understanding Media, p. 84.

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