The Materiality of Expression: Harold Innis' Communication Theory and the Discursive Turn in the Human Sciences

Ian Angus (Simon Fraser University)

Abstract: This essay proposes that Harold Innis' theory of communication can make a crucial contribution to the tendency in philosophy of the human sciences that has been referred to as "discourse theory." Discourse theory takes language use as the characteristic phenomenon of human activity. Innis' focus on the sensuous materiality of media of communication analyzes media as the institution of social relations rather than as the representation of events. A generalization of this approach suggests a concept of society as a complex of expressive media whose "bias" determines the specificity of a culture.

Résumé: Cet article propose que la théorie de communication de Harold Innis peut contribuer de manière décisive à cette tendance dans la philosophie des sciences humaines qu'on dénomme la "théorie du discours". La théorie du discours met l'accent sur l'utilisation du langage qui est d'après celle-ci le phénomène caractéristique de l'activité humaine. Le travail d'Innis sur la matérialité sensuelle des moyens de communication envisage ceux-ci comme institutions de rapports sociaux plutôt que de représentations d'événements. En généralisant cette approche, on peut percevoir la société comme un ensemble de médias expressifs dont les orientations ("biases") déterminent la spécificité de la culture.

Harold Innis made substantive contributions to fields as diverse as Canadian economic history and communication as a central dynamic of civilization. Interpretations of his work, and debates concerning its significance, have compared it with Marxism, dependency theory, cultural studies, Australian social and economic history, cultural policy, and many other fields (for an overview, see Angus & Shoesmith, 1993; Melody, Salter, & Heyer, 1977; Special issue on Harold Innis, 1977). Clearly, Innis' work remains a crucial reference point for reflection on Canada and, increasingly, in an international context with respect to the questions of the critique of civilization upon which his later studies concentrated. In this essay, I want to put Innis' theory of communication into dialogue with the recent discursive turn in philosophy and the human sciences -- a context in which his work has not yet been considered. My argument is that it can make a crucial contribution to the philosophy of language upon which the discursive turn rests by virtue of the focus on the "materiality" of communication media rather than the manifest content of language. Also, I suggest how a contemporary philosophy of the human sciences can be generalized from this contribution.

The notion that language and communication can be studied from the angle of its "materiality" has gained increasing recognition recently from many influences besides Innis (Gumbrecht & Pfeiffer, 1994). The meaning of the term "materiality" is obviously key for such interpretations. As I will argue subsequently, Innis' focus on the medium of communication only apparently refers directly to physical characteristics such as heaviness or lightness. More comprehensively interpreted, it refers to the characteristics of expressive forms that determine a "bias" that emphasizes a certain perceptual and cognitive direction of a communication and makes another direction difficult, or even impossible, to express in that medium. If we compare Innis' conception of the bias of a medium of communication to Edmund Husserl's distinction between the living and the dead body -- leib versus korper -- my argument is that Innis' conception of medium refers to the expressive capacity of the living body rather than the dead materiality of straightforwardly physical characteristics. In Husserl's words, "these systems of `exhibiting of ' are related back to correlative multiplicities of kinesthetic processes having the peculiar character of the `I do,' `I move,' (to which even the `I hold still' must be added)" (Husserl, 1970, p. 161). Media of communication are thus extended bodily kinestheses whose materiality consists of animated modes of expression. This interpretation differs significantly from the main tendency to introduce materiality into communication through a focus on the "world of objects, products, goods" (Pfeiffer, 1994, p. 1). The key difference here is exactly that referred to by Marx when he distinguished the reference of his materialism to "human sensuous activity, practice" from the "materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of other circumstances and changed upbringing" proposed by Feuerbach (Marx, 1845, pp. 144-145). Language and communication are thus taken in an active, practical, and constructive sense rather than a descriptive sense referring to already-constituted objects.

In recent years, there has been a growing influence by an emergent and still controversial perspective that suggests that language use is the most fundamental and available phenomenon for reflection in philosophy and the human sciences. This is the basic position that underlies most of the debates about postmodernism throughout the 1980s. Unlike the predominant modern philosophy of consciousness, which was focused on subject-object relations, critics of modernity turn toward language and culture, which is focused on intersubjective meaning. One way to express this perspective is to notice that recent language theories have been fused with earlier theories of the social construction of reality in such a way that language has ceased to be understood as a distinct phenomenon but, rather, is taken to be the key to social processes outright. Thus, recently, hermeneutics, deconstruction, and speech act philosophy have converged on the proposal that language is the distinctively human component of social life. This emphasis on language has been overlaid on the previous position that "reality" is socially constructed -- a trend in which phenomenology, systems theory, and certain brands of Marxism were significant. Many other trends of thought could be mentioned, certainly. Nonetheless, it is possible to discern beyond specific intellectual traditions and innovations an emerging convergence on the notion that social reality is constructed in and through language and that, consequently, the proper activity of philosophy and the human sciences is the investigation of language use in various settings as well as its wider theoretical implications. This paper argues that the notion of an active, sensuous materiality of media of communication that can be derived from Innis' work can make an original contribution to the philosophy of language operative in discursive approaches to philosophy and the human sciences.

The most distinctive nexus of substantive issues in this convergence on a discursive turn is the suggestion that Western societies, and perhaps others also, have entered a new postmodern condition in which the "foundationalist" assumptions of intellectual and social life have been undermined. On the theoretical level, this suggestion pertains primarily to the status of the language of social inquiry: Whereas modern "science" was concerned with the representation of social life, and therefore raised questions of accuracy and methodology, postmodern "theory" emphasizes language-in-use as the construction of social relationships, which raises issues of institutional legitimacy and the rhetorical power of intellectual discourses. On the level of substantive social analysis, anti-foundationalism suggests that society is, or should be, constituted by a plurality of discourses, none of which can claim overriding legitimacy in the manner that the "grand narratives" (Lyotard) of progress and emancipation did for modernity. There can certainly be more subtle, and more extensive, characterizations of this shift. In particular, the very distinction between theoretical and substantive levels becomes questionable with the shift away from the modern epistemological warranting of inquiry toward the postmodern rhetorical emphasis on what is done by language rather than what is said in it. For this reason, questions concerning the "epistemology of the social sciences" have now largely been overtaken by contemporary issues of the "rhetoric of the human sciences," which focus on what they do rather than on the adequacy of their representations. This entire new intellectual perspective, including its substantive claims, is generally referred to as "discourse theory" due to the key role that language plays in it.

The discursive turn in philosophy and the human sciences thus stems from taking language use as especially significant in illuminating the whole of social praxis. Philosophical and scientific activity itself, after the turn, takes language as the metaphorical basis for understanding its own theoretical formation. Metaphors drawn from social life have allowed a reflexive conception of the formation and role of theory throughout the history of philosophy and the human sciences. Consider the (usually) conservative model of society as an organism, for example, or the liberal theory of society as an aggregate of atoms. Marxism has articulated its conception of theory mainly on the architectural metaphor of base and superstructure, though it has also at times used labour itself as a model in order to clarify the tasks and claims of theory. The basic metaphor in Harold Innis' communication theory of society is transportation, the traversal of space. The concept of metaphor is itself a metaphorical one, based on the Greek for "carrying-over." Metaphor carries over a meaning from one domain to another or, as we often say, from one "level" to another. Thus, theoretical discourse is necessarily elaborated through metaphorical use of experiential materials. Innis' communication theory rediscovers -- in his own sense, through the notion of carrying-over embedded in the concept of transportation as the traversal of space -- the root from which the idea of metaphor began. Nowadays, theory is understood primarily through its expression in language. This reflexive application of the discursive turn to theory itself is one of the main sources of the power of the metaphor of language. It not only provokes interesting new descriptions of social praxis but also re-configures the relationship of theory to social praxis. Or, to state the issue somewhat more generally, when society is understood as a complex of expressive forms, it also encloses the social role of the particular expressive formation that is theory. The metaphor of language gives itself to a concise formulation of the recursive doubling that is always present in the project of self-knowledge in philosophy and the human sciences since humanity is both known and knower (Foucault, 1973; Husserl, 1970). Every communication is thus reflexive. Since humanity appears as both the subject and object of social representations, the reflexive capacity of language demands a theory of social praxis as a complex of expressive forms.

The term "expression" has, of course, a Romantic origin which tends to lead toward the notion of a deep inner experience that is pressed outward into external forms. It seems to imply an inner-outer dualism, similar to and based upon the subject-object dualism that would be problematic in the context of the discursive turn. The metaphor of language has, perhaps above all, undermined the earlier presupposition that "subjective" human experience is inherently separate from "objective" social forms. By way of contrast, language occupies a middle realm in which human self-conceptions and social activities both emerge from cultural praxis. Language as metaphor has turned philosophy and the human sciences away from this subject-object posing toward a conception of culture as its primary realm of investigation. But culture must be understood on this basis not as a merely external activity but as the process of formation of individual, group, and inter-group life. This process of formation of identities is expressive, albeit one shorn of inner-outer assumptions, in the sense of a socio-cultural praxis as the shaping of a distinct way of life. Such a self-shaping, or instituting, of a way of life requires a notion of expression, even if we must abandon the notion of an already existing subjectivity hiding behind the forms of expression. Expression can thus be understood as a primal scene of self-shaping through culture, indeed as the active component of the instituting of a social order.1

The shaping of a way of life in instituting praxis is, among other things, a process of self-convincing into a way of life, a rhetoric which establishes the identifications that constitute a social order. The term "rhetoric" is used in its theoretical sense here and is to be distinguished from the popular usage in which "mere" rhetoric refers only to the outer presentation, or fashionable packaging, of an argument rather than to its internal formulation -- a formulation which also partakes in the inner-outer presupposition based on the philosophy of consciousness. Rhetoric originally referred to the persuasive component of any discourse, not in the common sense of mere decoration (though it can certainly degenerate into that) and as not necessarily opposed to "truth." Language in its rhetorical use is inherently connected to action because it deals, in Aristotle's words, "with such matters as we deliberate upon without arts or systems to guide us" and "to praise a man is in one respect akin to urging a course of action" (Aristotle, 1954, pp. 27, 61). This classical formulation involves the notion that the speaker and hearer of a discourse are already formed as subjects prior to, or outside, the rhetorical discourse itself (Aristotle, 1954). Once this presupposition of a subject already there prior to rhetoric is abandoned, the constitutive function of rhetoric in forming subjects and interpellating them into the social formation can be recognized. In this way, the unfortunate Romantic associations of the term "expression" can be avoided. Such a contemporary reformulation of the concept of rhetoric has been achieved through the concept of "identification" as developed by Kenneth Burke. Through the identificatory aspect of rhetoric, the "consubstantiality" of social actors is established; in short, they are formed into groups with common characteristics (Burke, 1950). It is the nature of humans that their social forms are not given directly by nature. Thus, the expressive formation of these social forms is an anthropological characteristic. As Hans Blumenberg has put it, rhetoric corresponds to the "immanent deficiency" of humans that they do not fit into pre-given structures of the world. Thus, "rhetoric means to be conscious both of being compelled to act and of the lack of norms in a finite situation" (Blumenberg, 1987, p. 437). The discursive turn in philosophy and the human sciences thus brings to the fore both the rhetorical effect of discourses themselves in the social formation as a whole and also the rhetorical formation of the identities of social actors. Anthropological incompleteness stirs rhetorical accomplishments.

The contemporary focus on language thus turns away from inner-outer, or consciousness-reality, dichotomies to the process "in-between" where instituting praxis is understood as the expression of a way of life that forms itself. Its most basic theoretical shift is thus to drop the assumption that the medium of communication could be a neutral channel for the passage between inner and outer, or consciousness and reality. Language, and thus communication more generally, is seen as an active process of the formation of expression (Laclau & Mouffe, 1985; Rorty, 1989; Taylor, 1991, 1992). Representation itself becomes questionable when the assumption that a social fact can be represented without being thereby altered is dropped. Terms such as "articulation" or "expression" seem to capture this active process more completely. Indeed, what becomes interesting is precisely the plurality of forms which the active process of expression can take. Philosophy and the human sciences after the discursive turn centre precisely on the forming influence of language, and media of communication generally, in giving shape to the form of life that may later be distinguished into the extremes of consciousness and reality (which are constituted by the specific form of modern life). They are concerned with expressive culture or "language as practical consciousness," as Marx & Engels said in The German Ideology, continuing to explain that "consciousness is, therefore, from the beginning a social product" (Marx & Engels, 1845-46, p. 158). Nietzsche also made this point in The Gay Science, where it is argued that "consciousness has developed only under the pressure of the need for communication" (Nietzsche, 1974, p. 198). The origin of the contemporary discursive turn is thus in the nineteenth-century break with the philosophy of consciousness that was achieved by Marx & Engels and Nietzsche.

The discursive turn in philosophy and the human sciences rests on the notion that the investigation of meaning is best pursued through a focus on language, since language can be taken as the model of meaningful activity in general. This metaphorical status of language requires that language is not understood merely in the sense of speaking activity but rather that such speaking activity, insofar as it forms and conveys meaning, be taken as exemplary for all social action. Other types of social action that do not obviously involve speaking, such as wearing clothing or jumping out of airplanes, can also be investigated as meaningful activities in which the characteristics of spoken language can be used to identify analogous characteristics. Moreover, this metaphorical extension of language to social action in general suggests that the primary function of language is not to describe social action scientifically but rather to constitute social action as meaningful. In other words, it should be understood as primarily constitutive rather than representational. If the understanding of language includes these two components, then we may say that the mode of expression that animates a social action is modeled on discourse. At this point, it is the constitutive character of expression that has become exemplary for philosophy and the human sciences and the main consequence is that the mode of expression, or medium of communication, can no longer be seen as a mere outer clothing of a pre-existing content. Rather, the medium of communication is understood to be a formation of meaning. Interest thus turns toward the particular characteristics of various formations of meaning, which can be called discursive formations. A discursive formation, which Foucault called a "regularity in dispersion," is concerned not mainly with the characteristics of language in general but rather with the constitutive character for social life of a specific form of expression (Foucault, 1972, p. 38). It consists of an indefinite plurality of related expressions, made from a number of social identities (or subject-positions), that constitute an arrangement of social life and, thereby, an understanding of "what is," or social reality in general.

Discourse as a metaphor for philosophy and the human sciences involves two main aspects. First, an expression is understood, not as a description of an extra-linguistic event, but as an action in its own right. Classic examples of language functioning in this way include "I now call this meeting to order" and "I now pronounce you husband and wife." These language uses do not describe an event outside of language, but perform the event through an utterance or expression. This active conception of language has been called text (Ricoeur), speech-act (Austin), and theme (Volosinov). While it may seem at first as if such speech acts refer only to a distinct class of utterances, further reflection suggests that performativity is rather a question of a component of any discursive act (Austin, 1971). The upshot of this shift has been described as a critique of "foundationalism," which is a critical term referring to the pre-discursive assumption that language acquires its meaning by describing an extra-linguistic reality upon which its truth and significance would be founded. The second main aspect of the concept of discourse is that every utterance occurs within an organized but not closed system of related terms from which it takes its meaning. This system has been called a structure (Lévi-Strauss), a system of differences (Saussure), a language game (Wittgenstein), and so forth. In the present introductory context the specific formulations of this system of meaning are not important. The point is that meaning is not produced by a single term in isolation but by the placing of the utterance within the context of an (at least partially organized) system of meaningful components. The turn to discourse thus replaces the question of the relation between words and things, which has been the main philosophical formulation of the problem of language since Plato and is probably unanswerable, with the construction of meaning through given acts within a system of difference-relationships. This shift has been described as a critique of "essentialism." Essentialism is a critical term referring to the pre-discursive notion that an expression has an internal meaning that could be determined without reference to the actual discursive formation in which it occurs. Human "subjects" or identities are thus re-defined as subject-positions, as places within the field from which characteristic utterances originate. The field defines possible speakers through these subject-positions, as well as expressions, and the current critique of the "essentialist subject" is a rejection of the notion that the subject exists prior to expression and "enters into" language as a formed unity. Rather, it is suggested, the discursive formation itself encompasses expressions, speakers, and a field of discourse. Clearly, the determination of the limits and, therefore, definition of a given discursive formation is a key question for a specific discourse analysis. Based on these two aspects, discourse may be preliminarily defined as an act within a field of discriminations. Its primary model is an expression in language, but this is generalized into a whole approach to philosophy and the human sciences.

Innis' work gives the discursive turn in the human sciences another twist. The turn toward language is expanded into the notion of media of communication as a theory of expressive forms and then analyzed from the viewpoint of the materiality of forms of expression. I give the name "comparative media theory" to this form of investigation derived from Innis -- synthesized with the contributions of other authors such as Eric Havelock, Jack Goody, Marshall McLuhan, and Walter Ong -- and generalized into an approach to society as a complex of expressive forms (Angus, 1994a, 1994b). Let us look at the name for a moment.2 First, why "comparative"? Because the forming influence of a medium of communication on our perceptual, institutional, and cognitive capacities is invisible as long as one "lives inside" it. Only by looking at it "from outside," as we say, can its influence be defined. But, if it is indeed true that our abilities to see, perceive, and think are formed by media of communication, then this "outside" cannot be outside media of communication as such, but only outside the medium which is at present being analyzed. Thus, every study of the forming influence of a medium of communication is always at least implicitly comparative, and often bringing this comparative dimension explicitly into concern sharpens the issues. Second, what does "media" mean? Though related to technology, a medium is not simply a technology, but the social relations within which a technology develops and which are re-arranged around it. A medium is thus a mode of social organization, defined not by its output or production but by the relations obtaining within it. These two terms, medium and technology, while conceptually distinct, are thus concretely closely bound together, and comparative media theory has the effect of emphasizing the role of technology not only in production, but in its perceptual, institutional, and cognitive consequences. Third, why "theory"? Primarily to emphasize that descriptive focus on media is not sufficient. To the extent that the thesis holds up, the standpoint of the theorist is also formed by media. Thus, there is needed an explicit account of the reflexive dimensions opened up by this theory, of how the standpoint of analysis interacts with the phenomenon described. Comparative media theory is concerned with various dimensions of continuous translations in the media environment which, at any stage of relative fixity, define a culture through what it assumes as common sense and what it explicitly poses as problems to be addressed. Society is understood as a complex of expressive forms constituted by the materiality of media of communication in which is compacted a relationship of technology and social identities.

The later work of Harold Innis incorporates a critique of modernity as space-dominating or globalizing, and time-vulnerable or temporally unstable, articulated through its focus on the specific characteristics of media of communication. This approach can be generalized into a theory of media of communication as instituting a historical formation of social relations. For the philosophy of the human sciences, the constitution of perception, institutions, and thought by media of communication is the thesis proper to communication studies, the thesis from which its larger significance derives. The study of communication is turned towards, in Innis' words, "Why do we attend to the things to which we attend?" understood not only in a psychological, but also in an institutional, historical, and intellectual sense (Innis, 1973, p. xvii). In my version, however, it is as important to ask "What might we be attending to?" and even "Where are the limits of our attention?" Through such questions, comparative media theory becomes at once more philosophical and more political than in Innis' version.

The fundamental thesis underlying the media theory of Harold Innis is "that civilization has been dominated at different stages by various media of communication such as clay, papyrus, parchment, and paper produced first from rags and then from wood. Each medium has its significance for the type of monopoly of knowledge which will be built and which will destroy the conditions suited to creative thought and be displaced by a new medium with its peculiar type of monopoly of knowledge" (Innis, 1949, p. 5). His written work on communication tends to use the concepts (space, time, bias, medium, and so forth) through which his media theory is articulated in large-scale historical analyses rather than directly explaining or defining what they mean. Thus, there is plenty of room for interpretation. But while my interpretation of Innis may be controversial, its main significance in this context is as a way of introducing the materiality of expression into the discursive formation of contemporary philosophy and human science. In Empire and Communication Innis introduces his focus on the materiality of media of communication through centrifugal and centripetal social forces -- forces tending to make a society more integrated over a given area versus forces which tend to allow more independent peripheral areas. The concepts of time and space are used to describe the constitutive power of media of communication in constructing and maintaining society. Initially, it is clear that media that emphasize time are durable, such as clay and especially stone. Media that emphasize space, on the other hand, are light and easy to move over large areas, in particular papyrus and paper. He thus connects the latter media with administration and trade because of their space-orientation and the former with permanence and time. These characteristics are connected to aspects of institutions. "Materials that emphasize time favour decentralization and hierarchical types of institutions while those that emphasize space favor centralization and systems of government less hierarchical in character" (Innis, 1972, p. 7). The centralization-decentralization axis refers to the manner and extent of co-ordination in space. To say that an organization is decentralized is to say that there is not much (or only very loose or difficult) co-ordination over a given area, implying that there are more dispersed centres of power. Innis' claim is that when there are more dispersed centres of power the tendency is for each of these centres of power to be more hierarchical. The axis of hierarchy, then, refers to the administrative chain of command. To say that an administrative organization is more hierarchical is to say that it is more or less continuous from bottom to top -- that there are no equivalent but dispersed powers.

Time-oriented media promote means of social organization which are decentralized, involving more dispersed centres of power, but in each of these centres of power the administrative hierarchy is more direct from top to the bottom. By contrast, media that emphasize space favour centralization and less hierarchy. Centralization means co-ordination over a large area. Less hierarchy implies that, in some of those administrative ladders, the relations of command overlap each other. There are equivalent ladders of power in different places, one of which does not necessarily subsume the rest. It is through these terms that Innis investigates what is for him the key subject matter of communication theory -- the persistence of a society in the two dimensions of space and time, or the constitution of a historico-geographical unity of a form of life. Every society persists in both space and time, of course, but with different degrees of effectiveness dependent on the complex of media through which it is articulated. He introduces the term "empire" to describe a society which is persistent with a substantial degree of efficiency in both dimensions. That is, an empire covers a large area and it lasts a long time. Since every medium of communication has a tendency or "bias" toward either space or time, an empire involves a co-existence of different media of communication. A society that manages to balance the influence of space-oriented media and time-oriented media will be successful in both space and time.

The dimensions of space and time might be interpreted in two different ways. Perhaps as a Kantian formal structure which is more or less filled out by media of communication in concrete cases. In this case, the space-time categorical schema would be pre-existent to media and there would be a distinction between the "real" (noumenal) space-time nexus and the (phenomenal) extent to which it is experienced within a given society. This interpretation poses several intractable problems since, while the distinction between the "real" (i.e., scientifically conceptualized) and the perceptual is necessary on this interpretation, they cannot in principle be related to each other. Thus, the space-time nexus would be split into a scientific version and one pertaining to social perception which would lead back to the earlier dilemmas concerning the relation of discourse to an external "real" material world. The alternative interpretation, which I believe to be truest to Innis' historical discussions, might be called phenomenological and Marxist. Space and time as they are experienced (in the widest sense) within any society are understood to be constituted through media of communication, and media of communication are formed and developed by human praxis. Space exists only insofar as it is traversed in some manner and time exists only through the means of transmission between generations. Communication media thus constitute, through human labour, the limits of what is experienceable and the manner in which it is experienced in a social formation. We can thus say that, for Innis, communication media "set up" or constitute the limits of what is experienceable and the manner in which it is experienced in a social formation. In short, media of communication institute a social order, a regime. In this version there is no distinction between "real" or scientific space-time and the social experience of space-time. Rather, one would have to interpret the scientific scheme as a specific cultural formation whose historico-spatial emergence in the Renaissance period of European society has its own conditions of existence in the complex of communication media emergent in modernity.

Let us explore in more detail the notion of medium utilized here. It is evident from Innis' historical discussions that he views pyramids and architecture in general as means of communication in addition to language and writing. A "medium of communication" is understood in a very wide sense as any kind of a formative and integrating social mechanism. Media of communication, understood in this way, are described as having intrinsic characteristics. Most straightforwardly, if one writes on stone it tends to last; if one writes on paper it can be easily transported. These characteristics are not given to the medium by its environment, though they are certainly used in a specific way in a given environment. At first blush, it may appear as if the characteristics of media are primarily, or even exclusively, directly physical. But the distinction between heavy and light media as media oriented toward time or space, even though it is used by Innis (1972), is drastically oversimplified. A more thorough analysis of the structure and argument of Empire and Communications can clarify the relation between a medium and its object, or content. After the introductory chapter, the second chapter is on Egypt and the third on Babylonia. In both of these the main object that is at issue is water. But it is not the content "water" that is key in deciding the time or space bias in a medium of communication. In Egypt, there was a necessity to predict the annual flooding of the Nile. This concern with time led to calendars and exact methods of reckoning time. In Babylon, the problem was irrigation. There was lots of water but it was not in the right place. Irrigation solved this problem of space. Thus, the same content -- water -- led to a medium oriented toward an emphasis on time in Egypt, whereas in Babylon it led toward an emphasis on space. While water was the content at issue in both cases, the "medium" is different. Thus, it is not the object carried but the manner of carrying; it is not the flooding but the construction of a manner of overcoming the problem of flooding. The characteristics of a medium of communication cannot be defined through the material characteristics of the object with which it is concerned but only the manner of dealing with that object. Thus, the intrinsic characteristics of a medium may include its durability or portability, but it is not confined to these. It is more fundamentally about the manner of organization that is constructed. It is not only a material resource and a technology (oriented to dealing with a particular object), but also a social relation between a plurality of identities that is constructed co-extensively with this technology. A medium of communication thus incorporates both a technology and a series of related social identities (or subject-positions).

The relationship between technology and social relations in the theory of media of communication was not addressed directly by Innis, a fact which has provided some justification for the incorrect tendency by some critics to view Innis as a technological determinist. I will try to fill in that gap here. The most common usage suggests that a medium of communication should be understood as a technology that is applied to communication, that is to say, to the transfer and dissemination of information. Thus, print, telegraph, television, and film would be technologies of communication and thus "media." One might also include writing and even speech -- though the latter is usually excluded because technologies are generally understood as external mechanical contraptions that are distinct from the capacities of the human body. Innis' theory is very interesting in this respect: he regarded orality as a medium of communication and thus did not assume that the separation of a medium from the human body was a defining characteristic. To the contrary, understood in the terms we have suggested above -- as a relation between technology and social relations -- there is no difficulty in treating speech as a technology accomplished through the rhetorical arts of memory, invention, and delivery which leads to a determinate complex of human perception, institutions, and cognitive abilities. Similarly, the alphabet is a technology of writing that sets up new cognitive capacities and relations between reader and writer. The common-sense perspective distinguishes technologies applied to communication from technologies applied to other things -- such as making shoes, automobiles, or contact lenses. It is based on what is usually known as the transportation model of communication. Despite the common focus on transportation, the "transportation model of communication" is distinct from Innis' concept of transportation insofar as his theory is a constitutive one concerned not only with transportation between different locations but with the constitution of social relationships by traversal. The conventional transportation model of communication is distinguished by the presupposition that what characterizes communication is the movement of meaning across space -- only the delivery as opposed to the formulation of meaning. In this model, communication is a secondary process presupposing the prior existence of the origin, destination, and content of the message. The technology of communication is thus understood as the channel whereby a message, or sign, is transported in space -- as the means of this secondary process of delivery. From this common perspective, and again in contrast to Innis, a medium of communication is thus considered to be a particular category of technologies defined by their orientation toward a particular purpose. It can be placed alongside other comparable categories -- such as technologies of transportation, oriented to moving people and goods in space, or technologies of agriculture, oriented to producing food. This understanding of communication, though still the most common one, can be criticized by suggesting that this secondary process of delivery is based upon a more primary process, and that this primary process is itself communication, not something other, which has to do with "making common," being in contact with," "establishing and maintaining participation," and so forth. In this understanding, communication is the constitutive process of social relations. A medium of communication persists in space and time through the establishment of connection between its constituent elements. This has two aspects: the construction of a technology with a certain practical goal in mind and the establishment of a social identities, or subject-positions, through the formation of constituent relations between them.

With this understanding of communication as a cultural process of constituting complexes of technology and social identities, the question of the relation between technology and a medium of communication needs to be posed differently. Media cannot be understood as a certain specific category of technologies, but are the communicative aspect of technologies themselves. Stated generally, the communicative relations of a technology are those social relationships (including their institutional and symbolic forms) which are brought about by the practical functioning of the technology. They are thereby thoroughly imbued with the specific form of the socio-cultural context as a whole. They are ethically and politically, as well as perceptually and cognitively, laden. The technology, then, is the same set of communicative relations looked at from the side of the technical combination -- that is, from the side of its productive capacity, its ability to accomplish human goals. Technology and communication are thus two sides of the same organization, with technology indicating a focus on the output or consequences of the organization of human abilities, and communication emphasizing the social relations that are required in order to accomplish this output -- the construction of social identities in definite relations. The explosion of technologies and communications in the contemporary world has thus given rise to a politics of identity-formation. Raymond Williams has noted this qualitative change in the extended, and increasing, development of communication: "The means of communication as means of social production, and in relation to this the production of new means of communication themselves, have taken on a quite new significance, within the generally extended communicative character of modern societies and between modern societies" (Williams, 1980, p. 53). From this perspective we can understand the complementary character of the social phenomena described within communication as the "information age" and the technological developments that designate this society as an "advanced" or "developed" one in comparison to those described metonymically as the "Third World" -- though I want simply to note the relationship between these developments here without endorsing a specific analysis of them, whether they constitute a "revolution," or anything of that sort.

We should notice that in Innis' historical discussions the social influence of a medium of communication is always analyzed in relation to the whole environment in which it operates. It is not an isolated thing but the central factor within a complex environment made up of many media of communication and the objects they carry or reckon with as contents. Its bias has to do with its influence on the whole of this environment. Thus, the intrinsic characteristics of the medium, which is a certain organization of perception, institutions, and thought, lead in a given environment to effects of re-organization of that environment. It is this interplay between a medium's characteristics and the media environment that is the main domain of investigation for comparative media theory. However, the conceptual relation between these two aspects of the influence of a medium of communication is not addressed by Innis and does not emerge clearly from his historical discussions. Other writers concerned with the social influence of media of communication fall into two main camps with regards to this issue. The emphasis on the media environment is taken to its logical conclusion by Marshall McLuhan. He claims that there are no intrinsic characteristics to a medium of communication whatsoever, that the characteristics that it has in a given situation depend on its relation to the whole media environment and the given state of translations between media. Thus, the "content" of a medium is nothing intrinsic but only a previous medium on which it builds. If we follow the chain of contents back to its origin, the implication is that the content of orality is thought and the content of thought is the world. This is a thoroughly rhetorical concept of the social influence of media insofar as the influence in question originates entirely from outside the medium in question and there is no intrinsic content of the medium as such at all (McLuhan, 1964). The opposite view is taken by Don Ihde in his phenomenological investigations of the intrinsic characteristics of each medium considered as an alteration, or "inclination," of human perception (Ihde, 1979, 1983). This view might be characterized as "essentialist" insofar as each medium is investigated as such in isolation from its context, but it is not determinist insofar as the inclination can be resisted even though a certain degree of consciousness is required to do so. Rather than accept either one of these two polarized interpretations, I suggest that further development of Innis' work in this respect needs to address what might be called the inside-outside relation of a specific medium to the complex media environment. It is in this inside-outside tension that the relation of particular local embodiments to the cultural horizon as a whole would have to be determined.

Innis introduced the notion of a "bias" of communication to refer to the specific social inclination inherent in the dominant expressive forms. Every medium of communication has a bias toward either space or time. By "bias" is meant the emphasizing of a certain aspect of experience, the time-oriented aspect or the space-oriented aspect, intrinsic to the medium of communication or through its relation to the media environment as a whole. Bias in Innis' sense is not a bad or distorting use of a medium. It is unavoidable. From this notion of bias follows the idea of "monopolies of knowledge." Innis' communication theory places a key stress on institutions as the constitution of an organization of human society. Institutions are based on a medium of communication that, within that institution, is the most significant and then monopolizes knowledge through monopolizing access to and use of that medium of communication. While Innis discusses the bias towards space or time, he also refers to a "concern," or a concern with the "problem," of space and time. This is best understood as a figure-ground shift. When a society has been reasonably successful in extending itself in space through utilizing media with a bias towards space, this success then comes to be taken for granted and the explicit concern, or thematization, of the social energy becomes directed toward time. Time becomes the problem which must be addressed on the basis of a presupposed success with space, or vice versa. The notion of bias is utilized also to articulate a relationship between the presupposed taken-for-granted organization of a society and the specific thematic projects that the society pursues. Since every medium of communication is biased towards either space or time, it is not possible for a single medium to be complete. If the society was only oriented to space, for example, it would be unstable with respect to time. If a society was only oriented to time, it would have great difficulty in occupying a single area successfully. Innis introduces the notion of "balance" to suggest that a society is most successful when it is based not upon one predominant medium of communication but upon several, especially a combination of several media which orient towards competing biases of space and time. This notion of balance is Innis' reformulation of the idea of disinterestedness in traditional humanism. Though it is no longer suggested that one can "rise above" the conflicts of social life and judge them from an "unbiased" perspective, it is argued that a balance of biases can allow a viewpoint which, in a sense, neutralizes the conflicting biases of a plurality of media.

This theory of media of communication is, then, oriented to a twofold task. First of all, it attempts to present an historical theory of civilization which would incorporate and surpass previous theories by showing historical changes as emerging from shifting relations between competing media of communication. Second, Innis' media theory is oriented especially towards the present, towards answering the diagnostic question concerning the present state of civilization. This eventually also implies the reflexive question of "Why does a communication theory of civilization arise now?" What is it about our own society that motivates us to inquire into communication in a way that has not been done before? Innis suggests that our society has been extremely efficient in media oriented towards space. We have more and more organization over a larger and larger area, developing what is essentially a world system. What we do not do well is organize things in the dimension of time. While we have a very efficient and well-integrated world system, it is extremely sensitive to periodic shocks and dislocations. The critique is that it does not have stability over time despite a remarkable stability over space. In this respect, the emphasis on space is taken to be characteristic of industrialization, mechanization, and modernity. In this critical vein, Innis stresses "the importance of the oral tradition in an age when the overpowering influence of mechanized communication makes it difficult even to recognize such a tradition. Indeed the role of the oral tradition can be studied only through an appraisal of the mechanized tradition for which the material is all too abundant" (Innis, 1973, p. 76). The emphasis on time, by way of compensation, is a metonymic and synechdochic critique of industrial civilization. Innis claims that orality was a stabilizing influence in civilization in the past, though this has not been adequately enough understood (Innis, 1949). In the present we need to recover and extend orality in order to develop greater stability in time and this is the healing intention of Innis' theory -- to restore balance where balance has been disturbed. The diagnostic and therapeutic intention originating in the contemporary crisis of civilization ensures that comparative media theory contains a reflexive, or recursively doubling dimension, that is characteristic of the project of self-knowledge of the human sciences.

The concept of balance through which Innis' therapeutic intention is expressed thus seems replete with conservative political implications, and these cannot be removed from Innis' theory entirely even though recent ecological critiques of industrial capitalist society suggest that its propensity for instability over time should be incorporated into critical social theory (Angus, 1997). The conservative implications of the term balance can, however, be overcome if we connect it to the notion of monopolies of knowledge. The relation between developed institutional knowledges and repressed or incipient ones is a main concern in this context. Innis spent great energy to argue that the unacknowledged influence of the oral tradition was essential to whatever remaining stability Western society contains. Undeveloped and incipient forms of knowledge, in contrast to the developed and articulated forms of powerful institutions, can be understood as a figure/ground relationship. The idea of monopolies of knowledge necessarily involves conflict between knowledges, but not normally between equally constituted forms, since the resources commanded by powerful institutions allow their knowledges to be more developed and extensive. Rather, conflict is usually between instituted and emergent knowledges. In other words, the oppression of subaltern knowledges means that they are not articulated to a comparable degree as dominant monopolies. In addition to, in fact as a consequence of, the lesser social power they command, the knowledge they wield is less developed. While one need not agree with Gayatri Spivak that the subaltern cannot speak at all, it is nonetheless the case that voicing and articulation are radically problematic for emergent knowledges (Spivak, 1988). This is precisely why they are interesting in contrast to prior constituted monopolies of knowledge: they problematize and investigate their own conditions of emergence, rather than hiding these conditions behind an ideology of universal applicability. To this extent, Harold Innis' theory of monopolies of knowledge can come to the aid of a critical social theory oriented to the emergent knowledges proposed by new social movements, and can aid in the critique of his own central concept of balance (Angus, 1992; Stamps, 1995).

The basic philosophical formulation of the role of communication in the human sciences that I am proposing here is of the body as the root-phenomenon of expressive forms, media of communication as material expressions, a particular complex of expressive forms as the construction of a world, and the historical succession of such worlds as manifestations of Being. Let me conclude by making two comments about the concept of media of communication in this context. First, a medium of communication initially appears to be simply the manifest form in which a communication content occurs, from which derives the conventional lineage of media forms -- orality, writing, print, photograph, gramophone, and so forth. But, in the version outlined here, a medium is also understood as that which makes a communication possible. That is to say, while there is an immanent history of media forms, there is also a transcendental history of the constitution of media forms themselves (which is the version from within comparative media theory of the doubling necessary to the project of self-knowledge constitutive of philosophy and the human sciences mentioned above). Put another way, every speech act occurs within a medium of communication but also, through its medium of communication, amplifies the notion of expression that is constitutive of human Being itself. This notion of expression, though it is manifested within the immanent history of media forms, is, in a certain sense, the presupposition of the immanent history. Every determinate history of media forms is expressible due to the phenomenon of expression itself. Thus, while every immanent history tends toward systematic formulation, it also presupposes a transcendental history that undoes its systematicity. Through this doubling, immanent history is turned "outside" toward a wonder at the phenomenon of expression itself. A theory of media of communication as human science is concerned with the immanent history of media forms, but it presupposes a philosophy of media forms in which the possibility of expression itself is manifested. To make the same point in a rather different way, every communication act is an "institution" in a double sense. It is an act within a given communication medium through which it is situated in the cultural complex of institutions that defines a world. It is also an instituting act, whereby a given form of expression is brought into being and sustained as such. In this sense, it is a rhetoric of media forms in which one is persuaded not primarily to a given content, but to see the world with a certain perceptual, social, and cognitive emphasis. Every communication act occurs within a given cultural complex but is also a persuasion to alter or sustain that complex and is thus a "choice" to promote a certain view of expression, and therefore involves a manifestation of expression as such.

The second comment involves situating this doubling within the human body that is the origin of the phenomenon of expression and the privileged medium of communication manifested in orality. The body, in the same double sense of institution, is both an origin of expression and is enfolded within an immanent cultural complex. Within the latter it may be disciplined in Foucault's sense, but it always contains the possibility of an original manifestation of the world in Husserl's sense (Foucault, 1977; Husserl, 1970). The expressive body is thus a "folding," whereby an expressive origin is folded within an immanent cultural complex. Every cultural world is constituted by such a folding-in of its origin, a making-systematic of what originates every system. This immanent closure is achieved through inscribing within the immanent of the manifestation of immanence itself. Such a turning inward constitutes a certain cultural form as the closure of the unboundedness of the manifestation of expression itself.

The reflexivity of the theory of media of communication from which these comments stem is a central component of the discursive turn in the human sciences and philosophy. While the discursive turn by itself tends to focus on the manifest content of communication acts, the comparative media theory that can be derived from a generalization of Harold Innis' theory of media of communication can shift the issue toward the materiality of expressive forms themselves. This materiality constitutes a "form of life" (Wittgenstein) "in its characteristic style" (Husserl) that constitutes "a whole way of life" (Williams) such that "as men produce their life, so they are" (Marx). In this way, Harold Innis can make a key contribution to the recent discursive turn in philosophy and the human sciences. Comparative media theory can investigate an immanent history of media forms oriented to the rhetorical construction of a cultural complex that is the mirror-image, as it were, of the transcendental manifestation that is the philosophical constitution of the phenomenon of expression itself. Manifestation enters into immanent history only in glimpses. It is these glimpses that institute monopolies of knowledge, and which social movements re-figure when they rediscover the unbounded in order to confront existing institutions with their incipient forms of instituting anew.


The term "institution" derives from Edmund Husserl's concept of Urstiftung or sometimes simply Stiftung, which is normally translated into English as "instituting," "primal instituting," or "establishment" and which refers to the setting-into-play of a primal scene that founds a scientific or philosophical tradition -- that is to say, a distinct formation of temporality (cf. Husserl, 1970, pp. 73-74, 378; 1976, pp. 74-75, 386). This concept of institution adds to the more general concept of "constitution" used in phenomenology, the notion that an instituted meaning is more solid or "material" in the sense that it structures the experienced world that the subject encounters. It was developed by Maurice Merleau-Ponty to refer to social institutions (Merleau-Ponty, 1970, chap. 5). He also suggested that the notion of institution as Stiftung in Husserl's work was the basis for a theory of culture (Merleau-Ponty, 1962). Claude Lefort (1988) has taken the concept of Urstiftung further to include the notion of "regime" in political philosophy that can distinguish between various forms of society. The concept is a major contribution of phenomenology to contemporary philosophy and the human sciences.
This approach is often known as the "Toronto School of Communications," a term which has a number of disadvantages. First, an indexical term such as this says nothing specific or descriptive about the nature of the theory itself. Second, the reference to Toronto works for Innis and perhaps McLuhan, but it has to be stretched to include Havelock (who was only in Toronto for a short time) and is entirely inappropriate for Goody and Ong. Third, the notion that these thinkers were of a single "school" is exaggerated -- in comparison with the Frankfurt or Birmingham "schools" for example. They focused on the same theme, that is all. My term attempts to characterize in a theoretically sustainable way the common theme underlying the various contributions -- even though only the work of Innis is discussed in this essay -- and to characterize not only the existing work on this theme but its teleology, its convergence with other traditions in philosophy and the human sciences, and its extension into new areas of research (Angus, in press).


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