Sep 7, 2009

Empires of Space and Time: Innis' "Bias of Communications and Monopolies of Power"

I was really excited to see “Theoretical Perspectives” on the syllabus this week, having done my undergraduate work in sociology. I was even more excited to recognize several names (like Claude Henri de Saint-Simon, Alexis de Tocqueville, Herbert Spenser, and Max Weber) from the Thussu, Weaver, and Carey readings this week from my sociological theory textbooks. One name that I did not recognize, but was fascinated with, was Harold Adams Innis.

In the reading, “Harold Adams Innis: the Bias of Communications and Monopolies of Power”, Innis asserts that there is a bias inherent in all media, not always in the physical medium, but in the way the medium allows the messages distributed (specifically the values and the ideas within the message) to conquer both time (ideas or values with longevity) and space (maintaining control of a geographically large empire).

Innis makes a distinction between time-based media and space-based media. Time-based media, he argues, is durable and long-lasting. The article gave the examples of stone and clay. While reading this article, I thought about media in a broad sense and statues and sculptures came to mind. Sculptures contain a message or story in an artistic, creative way that can be easily read by illiterate populations, especially in early Europe. Sculptures can be used to celebrate a particular war victory or display the likeness of a leader. The Arc de Triomphe monument in the Place de l'Étoile in Paris is, I think, an excellent example of Innis’ time-based media that conveys an imperial message. The monument depicts France’s victories during the Napoleonic Wars and still stands as a famous landmark today.

Sculpture can also convey a religious story, like Michelangelo’s Pietà or Bernini’s The Ecstasy of St. Theresa. In addition to sculpture, stained glass windows in churches could be another example of time-based media. The pictures depicted in stained glass windows showed stories from the Bible, and could be understood by the illiterate masses who could not read the Bible themselves.

Innis’ ideas on “the Biases of Communications and the Monopolies of Power” went along well with the readings we had last week from Daya Thussu and Mattelart. Innis’ argues that communication media don’t just appear out of the blue, they are created out of necessity by an empire to enhance and continue its control. Likewise, the readings about the history of international communication from Thussu and Mattelart last week both took care to discuss how new developments in communication were interrelated and how they built upon each other. The three authors also call attention to how nation-state often held sole control over a medium of communication for long periods of time because of the nation-state controls the raw materials necessary to build the medium and keep it running. One of the sources listed in Innis’ “Monopolies of Knowledge” is “control of raw materials.” Mattelart and Thussu both discuss how Britain’s control the telegraph was largely due to owning copper, the raw material required for building telegraph cable lines. Similarly, Daya Thussu’s chapter “Approaches to Theorizing International Communication” discusses the ways in which different theoretical perspectives for international communication developed from each other as a criticism or refinement to the former, not just appearing out of the blue.

1 comment:

  1. I really like how you pointed to the power of sculptures and structures to make large, impactive statements about the values and ideals of a society to the illiterate masses. I find the idea really fascinated (too bad it escaped me during the readings). I am reminded of the Taliban destroying the Buddhas Bamian in Afghanistan as a showing of their power and 'devotion to Islam.' I remember the question I always had was why wasn't Egypt ever asked to destroy the pyramids and sphinx to assert their 'devotion to Islam,' but thinking about it just now I can see how it has to do with power.

    For the Taliban, an invasive group created in large part by Pakistan, to assert their power over Afghanistan they had to disconnect the nation and its people from the history and significance of Afghanistan itself. You can control the people if you force them to erase memories of everything that came before the reign of the current leadership (as illegitimate as it may be). As the people of Afghanistan faced great barriers, and in many cases out right bans, to education the easiest way to show the people that everything came before you is worthless is to destroy it. After all, no matter how illiterate your populace they all understand the power of bombs.