Foundations of Canadian Communication Thought

Robert Babe (University of Windsor)

Abstract: Reviewing the communication writings of five English-language theorists, namely, H. A. Innis, George Grant, Northrop Frye, C. B. Macpherson, and Marshall McLuhan, the article proposes that, foundationally, Canadian communication thought is dialectical, critical, holistic, ontological, oriented to political economy, and concerns mediation and dynamic change. Running through the thought of these five theorists is some variation of the basic time-space dialectic first formulated by Harold Adams Innis. Canadian communication thought is distinct from the American discourse and raises issues that ought to be of continuing concern for the new millennium.

Résumé: Passant en revue les écrits en communication de cinq théoriciens anglophones, c'est-à-dire, H. A. Innis, George Grant, Northrop Frye, C. B. Macpherson et Marshall McLuhan, cet article propose que, à ses fondements, la pensée canadienne en communication est dialectique, critique, holistique, ontologique, orientée vers l'économie politique et portée vers la médiation et le changement dynamique. Présentes dans la pensée de ces cinq théoriciens, il y a des variations sur la dialectique fondamentale temps-espace d'abord formulée par Harold Adams Innis. La pensée canadienne en communication est distincte de l'américaine et soulève des questions qui devraient continuer à nous stimuler dans le nouveau millénaire.

Canada has a rich heritage of communication thought. This paper relates and compares aspects of the thought of five foundational theorists writing in the English language to discern whether there exists a mode of communication study that may be termed "quintessentially Canadian."

Foundational theorists selected for this inquiry are: Harold Innis, George Grant, Marshall McLuhan, C. B. Macpherson, and Northrop Frye. Choice of the latter two may be surprising for some readers. The eminent University of Toronto political philosopher C. B. Macpherson, after all, never referred to himself as a communication theorist, nor do papers and books of renowned literary critic Northrop Frye appear often in the curricula of Communication Studies departments. Yet, Macpherson's writings on property and political philosophy are rich in communicatory insight and, likewise, Frye's proposal that verbal structures (stories, myths, poetry, scientific discourse, and so forth) mediate human relations qualify him as being a preeminent communication theorist.

In a larger study (Babe, in press), I have incorporated also the communication writings of five other theorists, namely, Graham Spry, John Grierson, Dallas Smythe, Irene Spry, and Gertrude Robinson, arguing that their thought too is largely consistent with that of the five addressed here.

Canada as milieu

The bleakness of the Canadian landscape and the country's inhospitable climate are often cited as factors configuring the Canadian mind and artistic imagination. "Nature is consistently sinister and menacing in Canadian poetry," remarked literary theorist Northrop Frye (1971a, p. 142). Whereas Puritans migrating to the Thirteen Colonies described their new homeland in paradisicial terms (Elder, 1989), settlers in the northern half of North America, according to Frye, developed a "garrison mentality,"1 by which he meant an image of themselves as collocations of people huddled in the wilderness for mutual support-an outlook markedly different from the rugged individualism typifying much of American thought.

More fundamentally, Frye (1982) also argued that the Canadian terrain engenders a "double" or dialectical vision: the bleakness of the landscape versus the imaginative purposefulness which people impute to it; the individual's struggle for survival versus the concomitant need for community; frontier versus farmland; wilderness versus metropolis, and so forth.

According to west coast political analyst Herschel Hardin (1974), however, the landscape provides but a superficial understanding of the Canadian identity, and to focus exclusively on that is sheer "escapist fantasy" (p. 13). For Hardin, rather, the deeper contradictions concern: (1) French versus English Canada; (2) the regions versus the federal centre; and (3) Canada versus the United States. Arthur Kroker (1984) also attributed the dialectical cast of Canadian thought primarily to the country's proximity to the United States.

The Canadian preoccupation with community in the face of isolation, regionalism, bilingualism, multiculturalism, and climatic adversity, and with maintaining an identity in the face of a powerful neighbour, may well have contributed also to what I have found to be a much greater concern for ontology in the Canadian discourse compared to the American. Ontology concerns, for example, speculations or beliefs regarding the place of individuals and/or groups within the larger whole. It relates to questions of natural law versus positive law, and to human nature. It inquires into what is ultimately real-the reality behind appearances. Whereas American communication researchers, as Sandra Braman notes, typically avoid specifying or endorsing ontological positions (Braman, 1994), in Canadian communication thought such is not the case; indeed the Canadian discourse is rife with explicitly ontological concerns.

Furthermore, the Canadian discourse is more critical in Paul Felix Lazarsfeld's sense of the term. In a classic 1941 article, Lazarsfeld proposed that critical communication research differs fundamentally from mainstream or "administrative" research in two basic ways: First, referring specifically to increasing concentration of media control and the proliferation of techniques for manipulating large audiences,2 he maintained that critical research "develops a theory of the prevailing social trends" (Lazarsfeld, 1972, p. 160). Second, he continued, critical research presumes "ideas of basic human values according to which all actual or desired effects should be appraised" (p. 160). Indeed it is from this notion of appraisal that the very name, critical, derives. Critical research, then, being evaluative, presumes enduring values (an ontological presupposition) whereby policies, activities, events, modes of human interaction, institutions, and so forth may be appraised, and which serve also as goals to which one may aspire. Critical researchers, Lazarsfeld remarked, "have the idea ever before them that what we need most is to do and think what we consider true and not adjust ourselves to the seemingly inescapable" (p. 161).3

There are also other key points of departure: Canadian communication thought is more holistic and humanities-oriented; it emphasizes dynamic change and exhibits a greater concern for equality. It is more likely to denigrate advertising, public relations, and media motivated primarily by profit. It exhibits stronger attachment to the maintenance of culture through time in the face of commercial, political, and technological pressures. Canadian communication thought also emphasizes the importance, and the power, of the human imagination, and it studies how our imaginations are moulded, or at least influenced, by prevailing institutions, by predominant media of communication, by our stories or myths, by the arts, and by our educational systems.

Perhaps most significantly, however, Canadian communication thought focuses on media, or better on mediation, and on milieux. Experience is seldom direct, according to foundational Canadian communication theorists, and almost invariably relations among people are understood as being mediated by institutions, technologies, philosophies, stories, myths, property law, mass media, and so forth. As well, people are understood as living within a milieu or milieux which bias or condition modes of perception and interaction. Canadian communication theorists often inquire into who controls or affects the means of mediation, into how that control is exercised and for what (whose) purposes. This emphasis on control contributes to the political economy dimension characteristic of Canadian communication thought.

On dialectics

Space limitations dictate that not all the aforementioned commonalties of Canadian discourse and its distinctiveness from mainstream American communication thought can be explored directly or in depth here. This paper therefore focuses on the role of dialectics in Canadian communication thought. Nonetheless, it is to be emphasized that many of the other traits noted above are readily discernible from what follows, and indeed can be thought of as being necessary concomitants (or even as characteristics) of dialectical modes of analysis. In this regard it is instructive to defer to Henry Giroux's (1981) depiction of the dialectic: Dialectical concepts and processes, of course, entail the clash or tension of opposites, out of which issue either new syntheses or, at the very least, balance, equilibrium, or continuing tension. Dialectical logic sees contradiction as the primary means whereby higher truths are attained and deems standard (Aristotelian) logic to be unduly static and rigid. Dialecticians claim, furthermore, that events and indeed history are largely outcomes of contradictory forces.

In addition, however, Giroux claims the dialectic comprises several "central categories" or characteristic features, one being a concern for the social totality: Dialectics conceive not a world in which things, meanings, and relations are removed from human history, but where everything exists in a context of human action. In other words, there is no room in dialectical thought for fragmented, isolated, and ahistorical analyses. Social totality, moreover, presumes that the irreducible unit of analysis is the relation, not the thing.

Furthermore, the dialectic emphasizes mediation; in other words, it proposes that our experiences are not direct. Giroux (1981) writes, "Social and political forces mediate between ourselves and the larger society; [mediation] . . . replaces the myth of the autonomous individual" (p. 120). This, in turn, implies that dialectical modes of analysis are inherent, or should be inherent, to communication studies since communication is concerned with mediation and media.

Finally, according to Giroux, dialectics imply transcendence or synthesis, that is, a refusal to accept the world as it is. Transcendence indicates both a normative (or "critical") dimension and a conviction that from struggle or contradiction better conditions can emerge.

A dialectical cast of mind, however, is not common in Western social science where the goal usually is to detect linear, unidirectional causation ("effects research," for example, in communication studies).4 Nor are dialectical analyses typical in American thought in the humanities. In part this may be because powerful cultures encourage people to see things instrumentally, that is, in terms of how power can be exercised most effectively ("administrative research"). Moreover, according to liberal/pluralist political and economic doctrines of the invisible hand (as developed prototypically by Adam Smith and John Rawls), analysts need not delve into contradictions and conflictual relations because, it is held, each person exercising her power and seeking her own interest contributes automatically, albeit inadvertently, to the "common good."

People at the margins, however, can see things differently, that is, dialectically: unable to escape exposure to dominant discourses, they nonetheless understand that these discourses are not their own. So when Harold Innis took up a teaching position in 1920 at the University of Toronto, for example, after studying at the University of Chicago, he espied a dearth of materials dealing with Canadian economic history and adopted the position that economic models developed in older, industrialized economies should not with impunity be imported into emergent, peripheral ones. It was his contention that economic history and economic theory should be closely integrated, that history provides the test whereby theory is to be judged. He therefore set about developing a "philosophy of economic history or an economic theory suited to Canadian needs" (Innis, 1956, p. 3).

Innis: The dialectic of space-time

Innis is if anything a dialectical writer. Running through both his staples and his communication theses are oppositions between periphery and centre, culture and empire, continuity and change, time and space. He saw markets and the price system not simply as givens, as do mainstream economists, but as instruments whereby dominant cultures "penetrate" traditional ones and transform them into societies premised on present-mindedness, self-interest, money value, commodity exchange, and individualism. Through staples like fish, fur, timber, minerals, and wheat, which for mainstream economists are merely commodities and resources subject to and illustrating the "law of comparative advantage," Innis linked modes of transportation, geography, social structure, culture, political organization, business, and economic history, and most significantly relations between imperial centres and their colonial margins. Innis' was an interdisciplinary analysis of cultures in collision, of societies brought into contact (i.e., into communication) by the media of staples. Regarding the fur trade, for instance, he remarked,

The history of the fur trade is the history of contact between two civilizations, the European and the North American. . . . Unfortunately the rapid destruction of the food supply and the revolution in the methods of living accompanied by the increasing attention to the fur trade by which these products were secured, disturbed the balance which had grown up previous to the coming of the European. The new technology with its radical innovations brought about such a rapid shift in the prevailing Indian culture as to lead to wholesale destruction of the peoples concerned by warfare and disease. (Innis, 1962, p. 388)

Innis developed his communication thesis during the last decade of his life. His attention turned from Canadian to world history. In place of staples he proposed that various means of enscription and other artifacts mediate human relations and thereby bias or help structure modes of human interaction. According to Innis, space-bound cultures use predominantly space-binding media-media that are light, transportable, easy to work with, and have a large capacity to carry and store messages. Time-bound or traditional cultures, conversely, rely predominantly on time-binding media-media with low message capacity, intractable, difficult to move, and enduring.

Innis proposed that in addition to attempting continuously to extend empire geographically, space-biased cultures "spatialize" time, that is break it into discrete, uniform, measurable chunks that can be valuated in monetary terms. Like Lewis Mumford, Innis recognized that the mechanical clock is basic to this task. Through clocks, workers are summoned to factories and can be recompensed according to the "time" they put in; "measurement of time," he remarked, "facilitated the use of credit, the rise of exchanges, and calculations of the predictable future essential to the development of insurance" (Innis, 1971, p. 72).

This is not, of course, the only possible conception of time. "Time-bound" communities by definition are not likewise engrossed in the moment. For them, time flows; human life is understood as "a great stream of which the present is only the realized moment" (Innis, 1971, p. 67). Events are a succession of recurrences (the cycle of life) even though each instance may be charged with particular value and significance (Innis, 1971). The biblical book of Ecclesiastes captures well the conception of time as eternal recurrence:

A time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up.

Just as space-bound cultures have a unique concern with time, so time-bound cultures also conceive space in a particular way. For them, space is neither unlimited nor something to be appropriated and annexed; rather, it is differentiated in terms of being sacred or profane, or perhaps more accurately as having differing degrees of sacredness. For time-bound cultures spatial boundaries sustain community and their way of life. Space is where the community lives, where it maintains its connections with the past, and where its future unfolds. This conception is totally at odds with the notion of space maintained by space-biased societies for whom the desire is predominantly to conquer new territories, create larger markets, and organize land into efficient configurations (factories, assembly lines, territorial divisions of labour, and so on). Space, like time, in other words, is commodified in space-biased cultures.

Particularly important for Innis as inculcators of space-biased consciousness in the twentieth century are mechanized (that is, mass) media. Newspapers, he maintained, played a large role in transforming the conception of time from that of continuity to sequential uniformity, and of space from concerns for locality to borderless geographic extent organized through principles of commodity exchange. According to Innis, the telegraph and faster presses combined to give financial advantage to papers serving geographically extended markets with current "news" (Innis, 1971). Reliance on advertising added to these pressures since advertisers are interested in fast turnovers. Hence, the "bias" of newspapers was set: journalism came to be written "on the back of advertisements," emphasizing regionalism rather than localism, functioning in a manner destructive of "time and continuity" (Innis, 1971, pp. 186, 188).

The transition from one conception of time or of space to the other, according to Innis, is typically accompanied by conflict and struggle. The enclosure movement in England, the Oka crisis in Canada, and Indonesia's genocidal treatment of the East Timorese, Innis would undoubtedly agree, are in essence struggles among adherents to rival conceptions of space and of time.

Innis insisted that a balance between institutions, practices, and media exerting control through time and ones managing control over space is essential for stability. Undue emphasis on one mode of control or organization relative to the other inevitably leads to disorganization (Innis, 1971). For our present space-biased era, Innis' plea for balance amounts, in essence, to "a plea for time." He wrote: "The modern obsession with present-mindedness . . . suggests that the balance between time and space has been seriously disturbed with disastrous consequences to Western civilization" (Innis, 1971, p. 76).

For Innis, however, a real sense of time is not simply to affirm that events and objects exist as a "succession of particular states"; rather, it is to recognize, or believe, or have faith, that there exists "a state of permanence beyond time" (Innis, 1971, p. 89). This is a question of ontology. A concern for Time according to Innis, the economic historian, therefore, is not the same as a concern for History. To the contrary! Whereas historical analyses imply that events are unique and that all things change, a concern for Time entails a concern for that which does not change. This is precisely George Grant's main theme and dialectic.

Grant's dialectic of time

Just as Innis proposed that human artifacts, particularly modes of transportation, the means of inscription, and technologies for extracting staples, constitute milieux within which human communication and social organization are shaped, so too did political philosopher George Grant regard "technology" as a general mediation decisively affecting modes of human interaction and the formation of values and ontological perspectives. Grant distinguished between "antiquarian" and modern conceptions of time. By antiquity Grant meant civilizations prior to the rise of Western science, that is, prior to "the age of progress." People of antiquity believed that meaning and value are intrinsic to the universe. Accordingly, by repeating, imitating, and fulfilling divine acts as revealed in sacred stories and myths, people thought of themselves as participating in a fixed order of meaning and goodness. Actions not conforming to or re-creating the sacred were of, at best, little significance to the ancients. Grant frequently referred to Plato's conception of time as "the moving image of an unmoving eternity" (Grant, 1995, p. 41). Through the doctrine of pure forms, Plato maintained that the most real and perfect order is an ideal, incorporeal one. Although perfection, being an ideal, exists by definition in the immaterial realm of ideas, it nonetheless can have profound material consequences. As Grant (1969b) expressed the point, "The desire for good is a broken hope without perfection, because only the desire to become perfect does in fact make us less imperfect" (p. 47). However, Grant reflected, with the "age of progress," belief in a fixed order of goodness (what he termed "mythic consciousness") all but disappeared. Attention came to be riveted on "unique and irreversible events" (p. 21). Modern people believe that humans make all meaning, that people create all value, and hence that we are "the measure of all things." Grant termed this conception, time as history, meaning time-as-change.

For Grant continual "technical achievement" has been the major agent in the transition to modern consciousness (1969a, p. 15). Technological change weakens people's sense of continuity, particularly annihilating conceptions of natural law, including belief in the sanctity of human life. He maintained that positive (or legislated) law, devoid of considerations of natural law (that is, law intrinsic to the universe and extrinsic to human culture or consciousness), ultimately is tyrannical. That is because positive law is set by the most powerful in society, and generally to their own advantage, and parri passu to the disadvantage of the weak. Grant (1981) prophesied:

If tyranny is to come in North America it will come cosily and on cat's feet. It will come with the denial of the rights of the unborn and of the aged, the denial of the rights of the mentally retarded, the insane and the economically less privileged. In fact it will come with the denial of rights to all those who cannot defend themselves. It will come in the name of the cost-benefit analysis of human life. (p. 13)

Grant submitted further that our technological order is sustained by the mass media, the arts, and the educational system, which together ensure that antiquarian conceptions of time, community, equality, continuity, justice, and law remain largely unarticulated, leaving us thereby more or less oblivious to the prisons in which we live. For him, it is primarily by loving and by remembering the teachings of the ancients (that is by recovering a sense of time) that our best hope for freedom is to be found (Grant, 1969b).

Both Innis and Grant, then, were critical, holistic, dialectical thinkers. Both proposed strong connections between societal evolution and technological change, and both warned that society cannot survive if, in Grant's words, it puts "its faith in techniques and not in wholeness" (Grant, quoted in Christian, 1993, p. 144). Like Innis, Grant railed at growing control over educational curricula by business interests and was appalled at the emphasis afforded narrow, technocratic instruction. Like Innis, Grant lashed out at commercial media, viewing them as propaganda agents for liberal, capitalist modes of control. Innis and Grant alike dwelt on the dark side of liberalism and commodity exchange. Each thinker was deeply concerned that North America in general, and Canada in particular, were becoming increasingly depersonalized and alienating due to the growing predominance of these modes of thought and interaction. Canadian governments, they felt, were choosing power/objectivity/scientism/ technology rather than equality/love/community/continuity. Such choices, both scholars attested, were ripping apart the social fabric: "Values" (how Grant hated that term; he felt it denoted something people create rather than something that is given) were being effaced or reconstituted in accordance with the nihilism of technological society.

Frye's double vision

Similar themes recur throughout the immense corpus of writing of Northrop Frye. In Fearful Symmetry, Frye (1969) maintained that people generally adhere to or dwell in one or other of two "cosmologies." One is the "realist" or objectivist worldview which conceives the universe as existing independently of the thinker or observer. The task of knowing for those subscribing to this cosmology is to understand the world "as it is." This cosmology accords well with what George Grant referred to as time as history, and to what Innis called space-bias. For Frye, however, this outlook is unduly unimaginative and ultimately, he declared (as did Innis and Grant), nihilistic. Untempered by the human imagination, scientism (what Frye also sometimes called "the truth of correspondence") turns people into "psychotic apes" (Frye, quoted in Cayley, 1992, p. 53), that is, animals possessing the powers to reason but bereft of any answers to questions concerning why we are here and who we are.

The other "cosmology," according to Frye, is imaginative, subjectivist, and mythological. This is the lived ontology of the poet William Blake and was adopted at times by his disciple, Northrop Frye. It is much the older of the two and in Fearful Symmetry said to be much the superior. There are, Frye acknowledged, many imaginative worldviews, but each one, he insisted, positions humans at the very centre of things. The earth, for example, according to mythopoeic understanding, was created for human enjoyment. When a person accepts that proposition, the environment immediately takes on "a human shape" (Frye, 1969).

In addition to close and obvious similarities between Frye's mythopoeic worldview and both Grant's antiquarian notion of time and Innis' conception of time-bound cultures, all three theorists recommended "balance." Innis commended balance between time-binding and space-binding media of communication, and Grant between the modernist and antiquarian conceptions of time since either one on its own is completely unsatisfactory.5 Likewise, Frye extolled double vision-an ability to see simultaneously the fallen (material/fragmented) world and an unfallen (imaginatively united or reconstructed) one. Fallen, or normal vision, sees things "as they are," complete with antitheses, oppositions, struggles, fragmentations, and an absence of meaning. The imaginative vision, in contrast, transcends the absurdity or nihilism of fallen vision. The imaginative vision, however, must be kept in check by the "truth of correspondence," as otherwise people can lose all touch with reality.

In Frye's view, however, science too has mythic elements. Science spawns the myth of progress, for example, which he insisted has had particularly devastatingly harmful consequences. Developing out of science and technology and from Darwinian speculations regarding the origin of the species, the myth of progress has been used to "justify" horrendous acts, even to the point of exterminating "primitive" peoples. At times, in addressing the myth of progress, Frye was positively Innisian, as in the following extract: "According to the myth of progress, history shows a progress from primitive to civilized states, which turns out on investigation to be a progress in technology, though it is often called science. If two cultures collide, the one that gets enslaved or exterminated is the primitive one" (Frye, 1971b, p. 85).

Also like Innis, Frye proposed that the means of message transmission have a bearing on the nature of the messages transmitted. In oral society, he suggested, the chief transmitters of culture are people with poetic and rhetorical skills, particularly the bards, prophets, and religious leaders. Reliant on memory, oral culture uses verse, formulaic units, stock epithets, and metrical phrases (Frye, 1971b). He characterized oral and early writing cultures as expressing themselves "in continuous verse and discontinuous prose" (p. 41). Discontinuous prose consists of a series of disconnected but easily remembered proverbs or aphorisms-the Gospels of the New Testament, for instance. Continuity in verse, on the other hand, is achieved by mnemonic devices such as rhythm and rhyme. A culture habituated to writing, on the other hand, tends toward "continuous prose and discontinuous verse." Continuous prose denotes continuity of ideas and logic, a requisite for the development of philosophy and history. Discontinuous verse means that poetry makes a break with continuous rhythms and rhymes, and is intended more to be read than heard.

Frye contended that writing helps transform a society's myth of concern from the language of prescription ("thou shalt not"), and from stories recounting origins ("in the beginning . . ."), to a more conceptual and propositional language (Frye, 1971b). People therefore begin to think less in terms of community and common heritage ("common good"), and more in terms of an objectively given world. Indeed Frye proposed that it was writing that gave rise to the truth of correspondence. In part this was because authors and readers in a culture with writing are less reliant on memory since they can turn to documents which can be cross-referenced, stored, and compared. As well, writing allows for greater abstraction and the induction of general principles (laws of nature).

Frye could be Innisian also in comparing old and new media. He remarked that media developed primarily in the twentieth century, such as film, radio, and television, follow "the imperial rhythms of politics and economics more readily than the regionalizing rhythms of culture" (Frye, 1982, p. 38). He remarked also that "the fight for cultural distinctiveness . . . is a fight for human dignity itself" (p. 43), the implication being that in homogenizing cultures mass media erode people's sense of uniqueness and hence of worth. Frye (1967) concluded, again in a manner worthy of Innis, "The triumph of communication is the death of communication: where communication forms a total environment, there is nothing to be communicated" (p. 38).

Like Grant and Innis, Frye expounded upon the dialectic of time versus space. But Frye, unlike Grant, was no Platonist, at least once he lost his early religious fervour. Frye, rather, followed Blake, whom he viewed as the antithesis of Plato. He summarized: "To Plato, whose Muses were daughters of Memory, knowledge was recollection and art imitation: to Blake, both knowledge and art are recreation" (Frye, 1969, p. 85).

McLuhan's dialectic of eye versus ear

Marshall McLuhan self-consciously borrowed from Innis when he transmuted the dialectic of time/space into that of eye/ear. By focusing on sensory modes of message perception instead of biases inherent to different modes of message diffusion, McLuhan went some distance in depoliticizing Innis. However, McLuhan's dialectic nonetheless can easily be recast into time/space once more, and hence re-politicized. This is because the eye orients receivers to objects in space, whereas the ear inclines people to the invisible and hence mystical, engendering community and intersubjectivity, also accentuating the importance of continuity.

Like Frye, McLuhan expressed a continuing concern for myth, although he differed fundamentally from Frye on the nature and role of myth in modern society. Frye, it will be recalled, maintained that myth is an imaginative construct lending meaning to an otherwise meaningless universe; myths for Frye, then, are inconsistent with the scientific "truth of correspondence," and hence he deemed them to be flights from reality, albeit flights necessary to lessen psychological turmoil. For McLuhan (1962), in contrast, myth is the highest form of truth because it generalizes particulars. Myths affirm patterns. In adopting this position, McLuhan was much closer to the idealism and natural law position of George Grant and to Innis' conception of authentic time-bias than to Frye's atheistic existentialism.

True to his pronouncements, McLuhan spoke and wrote in mythic terms: of King Cadmus and the dragon's teeth (McLuhan & Watson, 1971), which he likened to letters of the alphabet chewing up oral culture; of Narcissus' self-absorption through bodily tension (McLuhan, 1964), which he saw paralleling our own mesmerization with technological devices; and most fundamentally, albeit usually implicitly, of the biblical story of the Fall and Resurrection (McLuhan interview with G. E. Stearn [Stearn, 1969]).

Although eye/ear is a much less politicized mode of analysis than time/space, McLuhan (1962) nonetheless was aware of and pointed to certain power dimensions of technological change. "There can be no greater contradiction or clash in human cultures," he pronounced, "than that between those representing the eye and the ear" (p. 68). Moreover, McLuhan saw the innovator as a political force since new technologies heighten people's awareness of their environment and hence lessen the "taken-for-grantedness" of their surroundings; technological innovators and artists alike, in McLuhan's view, are therefore enemies of the established order, a notion not unlike Innis' conception of struggle by peripheral groups to wrest power from entrenched interests by developing new media to bypass established "monopolies of knowledge." McLuhan noted further that information speed-up makes porous previously well-defined borders. Historically, the independence of villages and city-states declined as information movement accelerated. McLuhan (1964) declared that when this happens, new centralist powers invariably take action "to homogenize as many marginal areas as possible" (p. 93). Although he acknowledged that the wheel, roads, paper, money, and the mechanical clock were important innovations accelerating transactions and thereby shifting power, the phonetic alphabet and typography for him were of utmost significance: "The phonetic alphabet has no rival," he insisted, "as a translator of man out of the closed tribal echo-chamber into the neutral visual world of lineal organization" (McLuhan, 1964, p. 93).

Parallels between McLuhan's thought and Frye's are manifest. Both proposed, for instance, a magical kingdom where meaning once abounded. Both contended that the rise of objectivity banished this magical kingdom and placed humanity in a fragmented world. Whereas Frye proclaimed that, once removed from the garden (through the "truth of correspondence"), one can re-enter only sporadically and temporarily through suspensions of disbelief as when reading a novel or viewing a play, McLuhan insisted that, through electronics, humanity enters the garden automatically and inadvertently once more.

Although seldom if ever referring specifically to the dialectic in his own work, McLuhan was in fact the most dialectical of the writers surveyed here. In addition to counterpointing orality and literacy, ear and eye, acoustic and visual space, cool and hot media, and so on, his treatment chiasmus illustrates well his penchant for dialectics. By chiasmus, McLuhan meant that reversals occur when processes are taken to extremes. For example, virtue pushed far enough becomes a vice (McLuhan & Watson, 1971). Applied to communications, the electric telegraph and ensuing electronic media have sped-up information movement to such an extent that there is now an implosion rather than an explosion: centres of power, according to McLuhan (1964), no longer extend their reach as they did with "mechanical" media like the printing press; rather, the movement with electronics is toward the negation of centres of power. As in a pointillist painting, everyone and everything is increasingly understood as being related simultaneously in a complex system of mutual interdependence. The notion here is that the seeds of reversal are within every process, an idea McLuhan elaborated most fully in his Laws of the Media (McLuhan & McLuhan, 1988).

Macpherson's dialectic of property

Finally, C. B. Macpherson's dialectical analyses of property and political philosophy can likewise be understood as variations on Innisian themes of time-space. Macpherson (1978) defined property not as a thing, but as an enforceable claim to some use or benefit. He also distinguished between property as a concept and property as an institution, arguing that these dual aspects are in continual interaction, either reinforcing or contradicting one another. "What [people] see," he wrote, "must have some relation (though not necessarily an exact correspondence) to what is actually there"; he added: "Changes in what is there are due partly to changes in the ideas people have of it" (p. 1). During times of stability, property as a concept and property as an institution are mutually supportive, the concept justifying the institution and the institution verifying the concept. During times of transition, however, conceptions of property inconsistent with the institution foreshadow change in the institution. Therefore, a good starting point for those interested in reforming property (i.e., changing social relations) is to challenge property's justificatory theories and its commonly accepted meanings.

Historically, property has been conceptualized and institutionalized dichotomously: Private property is the right to exclude others from some use or benefit, whereas common property is the right of an individual not to be excluded (Macpherson, 1973). For example, the right to access streets and parks, according to Macpherson, is a property right common to all; in Canada so is Medicare, unemployment insurance, and education up to and including the secondary level.

It is precisely because property can be set as either an enforceable right to exclude or as a right not be excluded that Macpherson declared that property helps define and redefine relations among people. In our terms, property mediates human relations. To have property is to be able to participate in social/communicatory life; to have no property (no rights of access) is to be foreclosed from this. Property therefore signifies the selective protection of interests and thereby denotes the selective capacity to participate in social, economic, and communicatory life.

Macpherson (1978) further emphasized that although both private and common property are created and enforced by the state or the community, these are rights of individuals (including corporations as "artificial persons"). He wrote: "In neither case does the fact the state creates the right make the right the property of the state. . . . The state creates the rights, the individuals have the rights" (p. 5).

Further, Macpherson (1978) maintained that modes of property always require justification. He declared:

Any institution of property requires a justifying theory. The legal right must be grounded in a public belief that it is morally right. Property has always to be justified by something more basic; if it is not so justified, it does not for long remain an enforceable claim. If it is not justified, it does not remain property. (pp. 11-12, emphasis added)

Through the ages, property has been justified either as being necessary for people to realize their "fundamental nature" or as a "natural right." Disputes concerning what type of property is best, therefore, are usually couched in terms of "human nature," or with regard to what comprises a "natural right" to property. Political philosophers such as John Locke, who supported private property, promoted a particular view of human nature-what Macpherson (1962) referred to as proprietary individualism, that is, a "conception of the individual as essentially the proprietor of his own person or capacities, owing nothing to society for them. The individual [is] seen neither as a moral whole, nor as part of a larger social whole, but as an owner of himself" (p. 3).

Proprietary individualism means, furthermore, that people are considered, and consider themselves to be, divisible, that aspects of the person (her skills and energy) can with equanimity be hived off and sold to others. Labour, therefore, can and should be sold in the marketplace as a commodity. Proprietary individualism, in brief, provides an ontological justification for the market economy and for relations of commodity exchange. It also constitutes a rationale for immense disparities among people in terms of their capacity to access the means of living.

In contrast to human nature as proprietary individualism, John Stuart Mill proposed that the human essence is that of exerter, enjoyer, and developer of capacities and skills. That conception of humanness, Macpherson declared, was also endorsed by the ancients (Plato, Aristotle, the Church fathers), but the market economy and its justificatory philosophy penetrated human consciousness to such a degree that the developmental view of human nature all but vanished. Utilitarians since the time of Jeremy Bentham have viewed the human essence as essentially a bundle of appetites demanding satisfaction. Macpherson (1973) wrote, "the idea of man as activity rather than consumption" is what we need to retrieve (p. 5).

Common property, of course, is subversive of commodity exchange and the price system, both of which Innis associated with space-bound cultures. Common property, on the other hand, is consistent with Innis' notion of time-bound society. Moreover, just as Innis proposed a trend from time-binding to space-binding media of communication, so Macpherson (1973) detected a movement historically from common property to private property, the latter being, in his view, "largely an invention of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries" (p. 122). Furthermore, Macpherson's dialectic concerning rival conceptions of human nature, namely, people as infinite accumulators and consumers versus users and developers of their talents and capacities, is quite consonant with the space/time dialectic of Innis. Whereas Innis urged a balance between time-binding and space-binding media and made "a plea for time," Macpherson implored us to "retrieve" the sense of people as doers and exerters of their capacities and urged a larger place for common property.

Moreover, Innis and Macpherson had similar notions of mediation. Neither saw communication as merely the dispatching of messages by autonomous senders to recipients. Rather, for both these writers, as for the other theorists considered here, senders, recipients, messages, and media are simultaneously parts and products of an ongoing social order. If we conceive ourselves as infinite acquirers and accumulators, Macpherson charged, that is because the philosophical/propertied order into which we have been born tells us that this is who we are and requires that we act accordingly.

Finally, it is in the context of mediation that asymmetrical power relations are treated by both writers. Innis focused on relations between centre and periphery and ascribed these significantly but not exclusively to the means of inscription; Macpherson concentrated on relations between owners of the means of production and workers, and ascribed asymmetric power relations to the mode of property. Innis declared that relations between centre and margin, between time and space, must be readjusted to restore balance and prevent chaos; for Macpherson (1978), the ratio between private property and common property must be altered to allow greater opportunity to fulfill the human potential and to prevent environmental collapse.

Macpherson (1973) discerned a "race" between ontology and technology. By ontology he meant the predominant conception, at any particular time, of the human "essence." By a race he implied not only that ontology and technology are both subject to change, but also that it really matters which changes the more quickly. Only if the conception of the human essence as doer, exerter, and developer of capacities quickly replaces the view of people as infinite desirers and accumulators can technological advance remain consistent with democratic freedoms.


Having detected and summarized key themes and concerns that permeate the thought of these five foundational writers, let me conclude by addressing the implications and importance of their thought for the present and future.

The writers treated here are virtually univocal in their condemnation of the market as the chief means of organizing human activity and, by implication, of subordinating communication systems to commercial concerns. In the view of these theorists, markets cause people to be unduly individualistic in their actions, whereas human existence is radically contingent upon the actions of others. The price system and the ensuing concerns for economic power and efficiency, narrowly conceived, tend to wipe out the ethic of community. Media trends which further commodify communication, these theorists admonish, are erosive also of democracy and hence of human rights.

These theorists, at least implicitly, urge us to consider critically the communication environment (the "cultural ecology," in McLuhan's words6) in which we are immersed, and thereby begin to free ourselves from the power of professional communicators who do not necessarily use the media to promote the common good. Individually and in combination our theorists issue a clarion call to resist, and thereby to become more free.

Harold Innis, for instance, warned of "present mindedness," a tendency for people to be preoccupied with the concerns of the day and to think that these are unique to the present time. Near the time of his own death he warned that Canadians "are indeed fighting for our lives. . . . We can only survive by taking persistent action at strategic points against American imperialism in all its attractive guises" (1952, pp. 19-20). Likewise, George Grant (1969b) pronounced: "The present darkness is a real darkness" because we have largely forgotten our ancient compasses (p. 68).

Indeed, there is a rhetoric circulating which assuages some people's anxieties by contending that we are entering a new era-an "information society," the "end of history," a new millennium, a Third Wave-which renders history irrelevant and venerable concerns obsolete. This is forgetfulness raised to the level of ontology!

Taken together, though, the communication theorists reviewed here retrieve issues as old as human history, questions and issues that simply do not go away, indeed ones which we ought now to be considering in the context of burgeoning technological change in the field of communication: What is truth; what is knowledge; and how do these relate to the means of communication? What is an individual; what is a culture; and what is the relationship between individual and society? What is power; how is power exercised; for what purposes ought power to be exerted; and how should it be distributed and controlled? What is the relation between communication and power? What is freedom; what is technology; and what are the connections between freedom and technology? What is equality; what is justice; and how can these be attained? How do peoples relate to one another? Is there transcendence and, if so, how is that achieved or experienced? How can we judge?

Studying the communication thought of these acclaimed scholars increases awareness of questions we should continue to ask, and presents some answers that may fit circumstances in which we find ourselves and thereby help open up further possibilities for the pursuit of freedom, equality, justice, and peace in the early decades of the twenty-first century.


Frye wrote: "Small and isolated communities surrounded with a physical or psychological `frontier,' separated from one another and from their American and British cultural sources: communities that provide all that their members have in the way of distinctively human values, and that are compelled to feel a great respect for the law and order that holds them together, yet confronted with a huge, unthinking, menacing, and formidable physical setting-such communities are bound to develop what we may provisionally call a garrison mentality" (Frye, 1997, p. 73).
Critical scholars today, it may be noted, have identified additional, concomitant trends: increases in the commodification of information and communication, the globalization of information systems, a shrinking of the public sphere, and growing disparities between the information rich and information poor.
It is important to note that Lazarsfeld was himself an administrative researcher par excellence. He founded research institutes and served clients like CBS. He determined the size of radio audiences, their composition, and the "gratifications" listeners derived from media use. He even helped construct the so-called "minimum effects model" of media which claims that media content is essentially insignificant in terms of personal and social effects, a panacea to media organizations if ever there was one. Nonetheless, despite his marked administrative bent, Lazarsfeld not only acknowledged the vital importance of critical research to the proper functioning of a humane, democratic society, but gave practical expression to this belief by making space available, albeit not without serious disagreement, to critical researchers Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno (see Hardt, 1992).
According to American historian of communication thought Everett Rogers, concern for effects constitutes "the dominant focus of communication research" in the United States. Researchers in this tradition test the consequences on recipients of one-way transmissions. Although appropriate for certain questions (the relation between television violence and children, for instance), the approach, according to Rogers (1994), is "inconsistent with communication as interrelationships and as processes of mutual influence" (p. 100).
Grant found much merit in modern conceptions of time, law, and justice. He acknowledged that the freedom-to-do inherent in the modern conceptions had brought about multitudinous improvements-modern medicine and the plethora of labour-saving devices, for instance. No sane person could doubt this, Grant affirmed. That being the case, modern accounts of law and of justice must be true. But hence his dilemma. For while both modern and antiquarian accounts of time, law, and justice are true, Grant saw them to be mutually exclusive. In Philosophy in the Mass Age, he expressed his perplexity by asking how these two, "true" accounts could even be "thought together" (Grant, 1995, p. 70). Difficulty there may be, Grant opined, but assuredly both must be thought since either one by itself is "wholly unacceptable." On the one hand, antiquarian conceptions of law and justice allow people to attribute horrendous conditions to the "will of God" and, on the other hand, "the worst crimes of the twentieth century have been perpetrated in the name of progress and man's right to make history" (p. 71).
"Genetic studies of human groups offer no certainty and very small data, indeed, compared to cultural and environmental approaches. My suggestion is that cultural ecology has a reasonably stable base in the human sensorium, and that any extension of the sensorium by technological dilation has a quite appreciable effect in setting up new ratios or proportion among all the senses" (McLuhan, 1962, p. 35).


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