Minerva’s Owl

Innis’s mosaic writing approach can seem a bit overwhelming at times, particularly when historical examples spanning thousands of years are crammed together within the space of several sentences or paragraphs, often without any rhetorical mortar to demarcate clean and definite lines of relationships, of order, that readers have come to expect from fastidious historians or diligent scholars.  Stepping back from the clipped and carefully juxtaposed details provided by Innis, however, it is possible for an engaged reader to discern dynamic pairings that provide a resonating tension or dialetic for Innis’s analysis: temporal-biased and spatial-biased cultures; monopolies of knowledge and the vernacular; central or imperial power and marginalized or peripheral emergence of new power. Innis arranges the history of Western culture in a manner that draws attention to the interval or oscillation between states, the ripples or disturbances resulting from “sudden extensions of communication” (32).  By putting these states into tension without stepping in to resolve things, Innis invites his readers to make connections within and beyond the immediate text or period.

Coming back to Innis’s  (1947) “Minerva’s” after several years, I find myself dwelling on the relationships between monopolies or oligarchies of knowledge and vernacular, probably because in our contemporary world, there is so much evidence that Minerva’s owl has taken wing with respect to dominant forms of mass media.  When Innis wrote “Minerva’s Owl” in 1947, he was concerned about the danger of the “large-scale mechanization of knowledge” a trend “characterized by imperfect competition and the active creation of monopolies in language which prevent understanding and hasten appeals to force” (32).  Mass media concentrated in the hands of limited numbers of people kept Western culture poised on the edge of an anxious now, tensed up in the present moment, unable to draw upon reflection or dialogue to negotiate difference, and certainly the recent-lived experiences of the Second World War, its deadly nationalism and the extension of communications technologies for command and control warfare reinforced Innis’s concerns.

Moving forward beyond Innis’s considerations of electromagnetic resources (radio and television) to a world of 500 cable channels not much changes in terms of the consolidation of knowledge production and specialization in the hands of a limited few.  However, with the advent of networked telecommunications and the Internet, it is clear that we are seeing significant cultural disturbances, particularly in terms of communication media.  Whereas printed newspapers and corporate television networks dominated channels for public discourse, a range of internet-based technologies now are shifting power to the vernacular, to social interaction within informal networks of self-selecting groups.  And, significantly, within such a network, the power of publication, of broadcast, or distribution is as much in the hands of the oligarchs as it is in the hands of individuals.  I’m sure that were he alive today, Innis would be looking closely at the realignments in culture that are being brought about by the force of electronic communications and the Internet.  Whether or not Innis would see in electronic communication the same potential that McLuhan and Ong saw with respect to a return to an aural condition, or secondary orality, is a question for a later response paper.

References: Innis, Harld Adams. (2008). The Bias of Communication. (2nd ed.). Toronto: University of Toronto Press.


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