Summary

[See LCY note below]; NB. Acrobat wouldn’t save highlights, so go back through w/ a different program later to try to reproduce some of the more useful quotes.

Keywords

  • bias: the orientation or presupposition to which a media form lends itself
  • orality
  • monopoly of knowledge: communications media can be difficult to master and lend themselves to the creation of a priestly class of sorts that controls the production and dissemination of knowledge through that medium.

Notes

[Editorial Introduction]

  • Bias is considered a tremendously difficult work, so I’m relying here on some contextual apparatuses. Heyer and Crowley identify two “grand themes”:
    1. “A communicational approach to history”; in Innis’ words: “I have attempted to suggest that Western civilization has been profoundly influenced by communication and that marked changes in communications have had important implications” (3).
    2. “A critical reflection on the situation of culture and technology in more recent times” (xxvi).
  • The basic ideas of Bias:
    • “Despite the notorious complexity of Bias, the basic ideas are accessible enough. History is perceived as a series of epochs separated by discontinuity. Each epoch is distinguished by dominant forms of media that absorb, record, and transform information into systems of knowledge consonant with the institutional power structure of the society in question. The interaction between media form and social reality creates biases, which strongly affect the society’s cultural orientation and values. These communication biases function as a first and last point from which we can assess the character of a civilization” (xxxii).

“Minerva’s Owl”

  • We start off on a huge scale: Innis wants to take us through the entire history of communications media in an effort to “trace the implications of the media of communication for the character of knowledge and to suggest that a monopoly or an oligopoly of knowledge is built up to the point that equilibrium is disturbed” (3–4).
  • We can compare his argument that a system of writing “becomes the possession of a special class and tends to support aristocracies” with Gleick’s similar claim that the turn toward information supports the rise of a managerial class and also in a roundabout way Hicks’ argument that computing’s broad applicability to a range of industries makes it a key method by which technocratic elites can consolidate power.

“The Bias of Communication”

  • Here Innis begins to develop his ideas of how different communications media handle the problems of time and space: “According to its characteristics it may be better suited to the dissemination of knowledge over time than over space, particularly if the medium is heavy and durable and not suited to transportation, or to the dissemination of knowledge over space than over time, particularly if the medium is light and easily transported. The relative emphasis on time or space will imply a bias of significance to the culture in which it is imbedded” (33). Bolded to emphasize the materialist aspect of his analysis; this question of bias also nicely fits with the arguments I was trying to cultivate about the material forms of weather prediction and what they do to form the state as such.
  • Innis loves the Greeks; argues their alphabet was uniquely responsive to the needs of an oral tradition through its incorporation of vowels (Semitic languages usually just had consonants); the oral tradition (apparently) avoided “the problem of worship of the written word” and also “monopolies of knowledge could not be built around a complex script” (41).
  • Another connective thought: the rise and proliferation of paper leads, in Innis, to the concomitant rise of a class of managers tasked with organizing this paper—not librarians, but a middle management apparatus (49–50).

“A Plea for Time” and “The Problem of Space”

  • Time and space are multiple and emerge from the infrastructural power of communications media; “Neither time nor space is abstractly conceived; time proceeds by cycles and is round; space is square” (62).
  • “The philosophies of Hegel, Comte, and Darwin became enslaved to the superstition of progress. In the corruption of political science confident predictions, irritating and incapable of refutation, replaced discussion of right and wrong” (80).
  • Innis has a very prescient and quite provocative (and conservative) indictment of the role of information culture in the university on pp. 83–84.
  • Also interesting work on the time dimension of planning (itself a speculative, a prediction) as a function of economics on pp. 86–87.
  • Budding ecological consciousness: “Conservation of natural resources, government ownership of railways and hydro-electric power, for example in Canada and by T.V.A. in the United States, and flood control are illustrations of a growing concern with the problems of time but in the main are the result of acute emergencies of the present” (87).
  • Innis does have much to say about the infrastructure of techno-finance capitalism; plumb deeper onto pp. 87–88.

“A Critical Review”

  • Innis goes in: “Mechanization has emphasized complexity and confusion; it has been responsible for monopolies in the field of knowledge; and it becomes extremely important to any civilization, if it is not to succumb to the influence of this monopoly of knowledge, to make some critical survey and report. The conditions of freedom of thought are in danger of being destroyed by science, technology, and the mechanization of knowledge, and with them, Western civilization” (190).
  • Innis’ politics value the cultural unification that arises from the continuous oral tradition; the written tradition and its attendant mechanization (you can’t mechanize the oral, I suppose) lead inevitably to discontinuities that destroy civilization (192).
  • In particular, Innis has grave concerns for the transformations that mechanization (necessary to deal with a post-war influx of students) pose for the university; we can perhaps see the development of New Criticism as part of the overall emergence of university bureaucracy that Innis claims will lead to its downfall (hard to disagree) (194).

Archive and Impact

  • Harold Innis inaugurated the Toronto School of communication theory, an approach also represented on my list by McLuhan and influencing later work such as Young. Northrup Frye is also another prominent literary critic who forms part of this tradition.
  • Innis began his work as a political economist interested in narrating the history of Canada from the inside, rather than from the perspective of Britain. His focus was on objects of industry—fisheries, lumber, and other “staples.” “This narrative saw Canada as being developed through a succession of products or stabples demanded by the imperial centre” (xiii–xiv).
  • In the last years of his life, he transitions his interests to communications media, begun through an examination of the staple of pulp and paper—a staple with qualities far different from cod. McLuhan was instrumental in taking these later works up and making Innis’ name known, although a number of the scholars writing prefaces and introductions to this book claim that McLuhan simplifies and misuses Innis.
  • From the introductions, I get the vibe that Innis was a bit of a cultural conservative: he seems personally perturbed by leftists and his analysis of empire is toward its defense rather than degradation?
  • The orality/literacy question will later inform McLuhan and get taken up by Ong.
  • Innis is foundational to the archive of communications studies, which is distinct from media studies or media theory as I understand it. This is media in the sense of mass media, concerned with questions of audience, transmission, and content, rather than media theory which works within a more explicitly continental tradition. However, Innis is an odd duck given that he rejects empirical analysis—the kind of sociological work that has become key to contemporary communications and mass media studies. Rather, we can position Innis’ “macro-historical project” and focus on objects as a kind of proto-media-archaeology (this is the approach I learned from Darren et al. at Concordia).
  • Innis’s writing style is nigh-impenetrable; the man doesn’t seem to believe in commas. I also have trouble with the style of the time—he’s prone to broad sweeping claims about what various media can do in highly deterministic ways.
  • I’m currently interested in Innis insofar as he gives us 1) an early model for a materialist, object-centered analysis that presages media archaeology, and 2) his attention to media in the formation of state power and state apparatuses, which links together the problems of networked politics with infrastructure.

Liam Cole Young’s Media Archaeological Analysis of Innis

  • Young is the major animating force for including Innis and McLuhan as proto media archaeologists. Here are some major points distilling Innis from a paper of his:
    • Innis’ central conceit—”that the dominant forms or modes of communication media structure the production and circulation of knowledge, and in so doing shape the character of civilizations”—are shared concerns of media archaeology and cultural techniques. (For more on cultural techniques, which are going to be a major bridge b/t Innis and, say, Kittler, see Siegert).
    • Innis’ approach is the civilizational approach to media and communications study, which has taken more root in Germany in response to the Kittlerian tradition, and which contrasts to the otherwise Anglo tradition of “text, audience, and industry.” In the Innisian tradition, media have biases or inclinations that “shape the character civilizations, marshalling social, political, and institutional life toward certain tendencies.”
    • Young’s argument, which I find really compelling, is that the civilizational tendency is precisely what impells our current turn toward “infrastructure, logistics, and materiality.”
    • Young then offers three ways that Innis lingers into media archaeology:
      1. Innis makes time and space into media concepts; are indeed products of media themselves. This is frustratingly vague in Innis himself but becomes generative through something like Ernst’s idea of “operative time”: a different kind of time formation imposed by algorithmic materiality.
      2. Innis had a methodological nomadism: his early “dirt research” object studies are early works of logistics research, and they demanded alternative techniques (often quite hands-on) to do materialist analysis.
      3. Young argues that Innis’ tortuous style is in fact a generative rather than analytic approach: “accumulation rather than argumentation.”