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Introduction to Canadian Media Theorists:

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Introduction to Canadian Media Theorists:

Tricksters on the Margins


A Canada of light (Coach House, 1993) is a passionate
meditation on Canada as a "communication state." In it, author B.W.
Powe argues for an inclusive and accommodating vision of the "discontinuous"
Canadian identity:



I believe that Canada has a hermetic past: its meanings are
concealed in private whisperings and interrupted signals, in insoluble
arguments about unity and misread messages, and in quiet resistances
to the pressures to join into one supreme political system. I suggest
that Canada has a discontinuous character. I mean that without a single
purpose or predetermined historic goal--no violent creation and imposition
of a political myth or ideology--Canadians have lived with, invited
and responded to many stories, moods and visions, and many different
kinds of people. (68-9)


Central to Powe's vision of the discontinuous national character is
a recognition of our complex reliance on communication technologies--"The
only way we can live in this country is through advanced technologies
of communication." And we are thus forced to live with the paradox that
"these technologies do not solidify individual identity...Electricity
scatters individual memory, conjuring ghosts and simulations." Communications
technologies have forced--and allowed--us to accept this paradox into
our national consciousness:


...electronic technologies spur and excite questions, allow
for multiple points of view, add to the strange feeling of fusion with
world events and confusion about significance and intent. Communications
technologies threaten us, summon us, immerse us: they appear to be capable
of dehumanizing our lives and of enhancing our awareness, sending out
images and reflections of ourselves everywhere. (67-8)

Powe thus takes his place within a tradition of Canadian media theorists
who have articulated an evolving theory of communications and media
which addresses not only the Canadian national character, but more significantly,
also the role of the global citizen living in a media-saturated culture.


This Canadian media tradition is often seen to originate with the work
of Harold Adams Innis, a political economist who spent most of his career
at the University of Toronto. Innis was keenly aware of Canada's position
as a former British colony, and as a struggling "dominion" on the northern
border of the United States. From his earlier work on the fur trade,
the cod fisheries, the dairy and pulp industries, he developed his "staples
thesis" of political economy before turning his attention to the role
of communications technologies in the formation of empire. It is significant
to the future of Canadian media theory that Innis' attention turned
from primary resources to communications technologies, from the content
of trade to the medium of empire building. In Empire and Communications

(1950) and The Bias of Communication (1951), Innis
reviewed the history of communications technology from the Egyptians
to the National Socialists. He paid special attention in these works
to the pivotal role played by nations on the margins or borders of stronger
empires. The Bias of Communication is filled with observations
such as the following on the effect of the Counter-Reformation on printing
and the supply of paper:


Supression of printing in response to ecclesiastical demands
was accompanied by an interest in the increased production and export
of paper by the state. As a result of this conflict between restriction
of consumption and increase of production and exports, cheaper supplies
were available in the Netherlands, Geneva, and countries in which printing
remained free. From these marginal areas printed material was smuggled
back into France. Freedom of the press in marginal free countries was
supported by repression in France. (26)

Innis was particularly adept at tracing complex connections between
seemingly unrelated communications developments: repression of printing
in France promoted a publishing boom in surrounding nations, with the
result that the hegemony of the church in France was subverted by foreign
publications. Throughout The Bias of Communication

Innis reveals his bias in favour of the national underdog. In doing
so, he became a strategist for the survival of less powerful nations,
and an apologist for the nation as trickster. From Hermes and Mercury
to Esu-Elegbara, Coyote and Raven, the trickster has served as a pan-cultural
archetype of the messenger with a penchant for disrupting the social
order with playful antics and double riddles in order, paradoxically,
to reaffirm enduring cultural values.


In his introduction to the 1964 reprint of The Bias of Communication,
Marshall McLuhan gives us some insight into the role of the trickster
when he describes Innis' method of exploration:


He changed his procedure from working with a "point of view"
to that of the generating of insights by the method of "interface,"
as it is named in chemistry. "Interface" refers to the interaction of
substances in a kind of mutual irritation...It is the natural form of
conversation or dialogue rather of written discourse. In writing, the
tendency is to isolate an aspect of some matter and to direct steady
attention upon that aspect. In dialogue there is an equally natural
interplay of multiple aspects of any matter. This interplay of aspects
can generate insights or discovery. ...[A]n insight is the sudden awareness
of a complex process of interaction. (viii)

McLuhan is telling us that to read Innis we must be prepared to be
irritated, in the sense of being forced to interact actively with his
juxtaposition of ideas. Innis wants to challenge our commonsense notions
of power and the status quo. He wants us to think about process and
interaction when we think about the impact of communications technology
on culture.


McLuhan learned from Innis and carried forward his work on communications
technologies as extensions of human consciousness in the most trickster-like
of ways. Even more than his ludic, or playful, theories, McLuhan has
become known for his method of exploring communications technologies.
His (in)famous McLuhan probes have troubled critics with their inconsistency,
and inspired a web-site. B.W. Powe, in his book of profiles of intellectuals
in a post-literate age, The Solitary Outlaw (1996),
comments on McLuhan's disruptive humour:



This self-contradictory literary individual...masked his
critique in the tomfoolery and cajolery of a subtle satirist, in paradoxes
and quixotic sayings....While McLuhan's perceptions and intuitions are
urgent, they were not tragic in their implications. His response was
to turn to public alert through satire and laughter: the exposure of
the power of all media, electric and literary....McLuhan's wit was selfprotective.
"If any person became totally aware of what is going on today, he'd
go instantly mad." And: "The young people of today undergo a psychic
torture through media bombardment and fallout that is unprecedented."
His approach is comic-apocalyptic, though we can see him as a chronicler
of disintegration and reintegration. (182-98)

For Powe, McLuhan is one of those "solitary outlaws" who "sensed from
the beginning that a consciously critical, imaginative writer could
defy from the margins, outside the silicon dynamos of electrical force"
(203). Taken together, Innis and McLuhan set a provocative challenge
before students of the media: don't be distracted by the raging debates
over content; look, instead, to the ways in which a particular medium
of communication affects the equilibrium of power in the ebb and flow
of nations. Both were convinced that meaningful change could be effected
from the margins of empire, and, as we'll see, both felt a special respect
for the subversive power of orality within the print-biased culture.



References



Davis, Erik. Trickster
at the Crossroads: West Africa's God of Messages, Sex and Deceit
.
Originally appeared in Gnosis, Spring, 1991



Innis, H.A. The Bias of Communications. 1951. Introduction,
Marshall McLuhan. Toronto: University of Toronto, 1964.




Powe, B.W. The Solitary Outlaw. 1987. Toronto: Somerville
House, 1996.



---. a Canada of light. Toronto: Coach House, 1993.





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