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

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Harold Innis went beyond most historical writers, and rather than accounting for philosophy, science, libraries and religions as the structures of empire and power, approached these forms as "organized power." Innis sought to explain how an empire became as powerful as it was or how, despite its perceived and envied strength, it could crumble to the ground. He did this by tracing the development of media technologies and their properties, and determining how media were used to create, keep and end powerful regimes in world history.

Over the course of his work on communication theory, Innis witnessed the introduction of the telegraph, the telephone and the radio. His work is the underpinning of the discourse regarding the "annihilation of time/space" that has emerged with new work on media and space, like that included in the 2005 collection Mediaspace: Place, Scale and Culture in a Media Age. Though Innis is still thought of as "somewhat deterministic," 51 communication and cultural studies scholars are grouping his work with other theorists like Raymond Williams and John Dewey to form a "nuanced understanding of the formative relationships between time, space, communications and public life." 52

McLuhan's work has been influential in a wide range of disciplines, reflecting not only his methodology, but also the enduring legacy of his ideas. From the first of McLuhan's publications, The Mechanical Bride, his work demonstrated an abiding concern with teaching us how to examine media. Unlike others who were concerned with the transmission model of communication, McLuhan worked to disprove that communication moved in a singular line from transmitter to audience. Rather, he insisted communication was more like a field, creating an environment from which meanings were derived. These meanings or effects, therefore, were historically contingent. McLuhan was highly critical of functionalism and early mass communication theories, offering instead a focus on culture.

McLuhan has been described as a historian of culture 53 and as a historian of communication 54. Other critics have recognized that he shared many affinities with the Frankfurt School, including Theodor Adorno, Max Horkeimer and Walter Benjamin 55. Unlike Innis, McLuhan and members of the Frankfurt School were profoundly interested in popular culture. Both McLuhan and Benjamin, for instance, argue that audience participation changes as media change. Both were early theorists who took seriously, rather than dismissing, audience engagement with popular, or mass, culture. 56

Much like Innis, McLuhan believed that juxtaposing different elements was instrumental to discovering the taken-for-granted ways that artefacts were made meaningful. What he sought to produce through the juxtapositions of effects, ideas and practices were mosaics to hold the elements in tension rather than in a coherent unity. Paul Heyer describes mosaics as "a style of exposition that juxtaposes divergent observations, [and] moves back and forth across history in a comparative way." 57 McLuhan's method of creating mosaics of effects sought to highlight moments of change, particularly when media worked together. Indeed an important argument in Understanding Media and The Gutenberg Galaxy was that the contents of media technologies are other media technologies, which, in turn, create new environments through their interaction. Both McLuhan and Innis examine these sites of change as key to understanding media effects and the new environments they produce.


51. Parks, "Kinetic Screens: Epistemologies of Moving Media," p. 37.

52. Barnett, "Neither Poison or Cure: Space Scale and Public Life," p. 59.

53. Katz and Katz, "McLuhan: Where Did He Come From, Where Did He Disappear?"

54. Marchessault, Marshall McLuhan, Cosmic Media, p. 170.

55. Grosswiler, The Method is the Message and "The Dialectical Methods of Marshall McLuhan, Marxism, and Critical Theory"; Heyer, "Probing a Legacy: McLuhan's Communications/History 25 Years After"; Marchessault; Stamps.

56. Grosswiler, The Method is the Message and "The Dialectical Methods of Marshall McLuhan, Marxism, and Critical Theory"; Katz and Katz, "McLuhan: Where Did He Come From, Where Did He Disappear?"

57. Heyer, "Probing a Legacy: McLuhan's Communications/History 25 Years After," p. 36.

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