Friday, May 28, 2010

Empire and Communications by Harold Innis

Quotation from Wikipedia

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Empire and Communications examines the impact of media such as stone, clay, papyrus and the alphabet on the empires of Egypt and Babylonia . It also looks at the oral tradition in ancient Greece ; the written tradition and the Roman Empire ; the influence of parchment and paper in medieval Europe and the effects of paper and the printing press in modern times.

"The effective government of large areas," he writes, "depends to a very important extent on the efficiency of communication."[3]

Innis divides the history of the empires and civilizations he will examine into two periods, one for writing and the other for printing. "In the writing period we can note the importance of various media such as the clay tablet of Mesopotamia , the papyrus roll in the Egyptian and in the Graeco-Roman world, parchment codex in the late Graeco-Roman world and the early Middle Ages, and paper after its introduction in the Western world from China."[7] Innis notes that he will concentrate on paper as a medium in the printing period along with the introduction of paper-making machinery at the beginning of the 19th century and the use of wood pulp in the manufacture of paper after 1850.[7]

He is quick to add however, that it would be presumptuous to conclude that writing alone determined the course of civilizations.

Harold Innis traces the evolution of ancient Egyptian dynasties and kingdoms in terms of their use of stone or papyrus as dominant media of communication. His outline of Egyptian civilization is a complex and highly-detailed analysis of how these media, along with several other technologies, affected the distribution of power in society.

Innis begins, as other historians do, with the crucial importance of the Nile as a formative influence on Egyptian civilization. The river provided the water and fertile land needed for agricultural production in a desert region.[11] Innis writes that the Nile therefore, "acted as a principle of order and centralization, necessitated collective work, created solidarity, imposed organizations on the people, and cemented them in a society."[12]

Priestly power, Innis writes, resulted from religious control over the complex and difficult art of writing. The monarch's attempts to maintain an empire extended in space were defeated by a priestly monopoly over knowledge systems concerned with time --- systems that began with the need for accurate predictions about when the Nile would overflow its banks.[22] Innis argues that priestly theocracy gradually cost Egypt its empire. "Monopoly over writing supported an emphasis on religion and the time concept, which defeated efforts to solve the problem of space."[23]

[U]nlike in Egypt where calculating the timing of the Nile's flooding was a source of power, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in southern Mesopotamia were used for irrigation. Therefore the ability to measure time precisely was somewhat less critical. Nevertheless, as in Egypt, the small city-states of Sumer depended on the rivers and so, the cycles of agricultural production were organized around them.[25] The rivers also provided communications materials. In Egypt, the Nile's papyrus became a medium for writing while in Mesopotamia, the rivers yielded the alluvial sediments the Sumerians used to fashion the clay tablets on which they inscribed their wedge-shaped, cuneiform script.[26] Their earliest writing recorded agricultural accounts and economic transactions.[27]

Innis writes that as a heavy material, clay was not very portable and so was not generally suited for communication over large areas. Cuneiform inscription required years of training overseen by priests. Innis contends therefore, that as a writing medium, clay tended to favour decentralization and religious control.[29]

Around 2350 BC, the Sumerians were conquered by their northern, Semitic neighbours the Akkadians . Under Sargon the Great , the empire expanded to include extensive territories reaching northwest as far as Turkey and west to theMediterranean .[31] Thus begins the rise and fall of a series of empires over approximately two thousand years. Innis mentions many of them, but focuses more attention on innovations that facilitated their growth. These include the advancement of civil law under Hammurabi , the development of mathematics including fixed standards of weights and measures , as well as the breeding of horses that combined speed with strength and that, along with three-man chariots , helped deliver spectacular military victories to the Assyrians .[32]

In discussing the advent and spread of the alphabet , Innis refers to what he sees as the subversive relationship between those at the centre of civilizations and those on their fringes or margins. He argues that monopolies of knowledge develop at the centre only to be challenged and eventually overthrown by new ideas or techniques that take shape on the margins.[33] Thus, the Phoenician alphabet, a radically-simplified writing system, undermined the elaborate hieroglyphic and cuneiform scripts overseen by priestly elites in Egypt and Babylonia. "The Phoenicians had no monopoly of knowledge," Innis writes, "[which] might hamper the development of writing."[34] As a trading people, the Phoenicians needed "a swift and concise method of recording transactions."[34] The alphabet with its limited number of visual symbols to represent the primary elements of human speech was well suited to trade. "Commerce and the alphabet were inextricably interwoven, particularly when letters of the alphabet were used as numerals."[35]

"Greek civilization," Innis writes, "was a reflection of the power of the spoken word."[42] In this chapter [= Chapter 4], he explores how the vitality of the spoken word helped the ancient Greeks create a civilization that profoundly influenced all of Europe. Greek civilization differed in significant ways from the empires of Egypt and Babylonia. Innis biographer John Watson notes that those preceding empires "had revolved around an uneasy alliance of absolute monarchs and scholarly theocrats."[43] The monarchs ruled by force while an elite priestly class controlled religious dogma through their monopolies of knowledge over complex writing systems. "The monarch was typically a war leader whose grasp of the concept of space allowed him to expand his territory," Watson writes, "incorporating even the most highly articulated theocracies. The priests specialized in elaborating conceptions of time and continuity."[43] Innis argues that the Greeks struck a different balance, one based on "the freshness and elasticity of an oral tradition" that left its stamp on Western poetry, drama, sculpture, architecture, philosophy, science and mathematics.[44]

Innis argues that Plato's use of the flexible oral tradition in his writing enabled him to escape the confines of a rigid philosophical system. "Continuous philosophical discussion aimed at truth. The life and movement of dialectic opposed the establishment of a finished system of dogma."[47] This balance between speech and prose also contributed to the immortality of Plato's work.[47]

According to Innis, Plato and Aristotle developed prose in defence of a new culture in which gods and poets were subordinated to philosophical and scientific inquiry.[50] Innis argues that eventually, the spread of writing widened the gap between the city-states hastening the collapse of Greek civilization.[51]

To administer such a vast empire, the Romans were forced to establish centralized bureaucracies .[66] These bureaucracies depended on supplies of cheap papyrus from the Nile Delta for the long-distance transmission of written rules, orders and procedures.[67] The bureaucratic Roman state backed by the influence of writing, in turn, fostered absolutism, the form of government in which power is vested in a single ruler.[68]

Innis discusses various aspects of Ptolemaic rule over Egypt including the founding of the ancient library and university at Alexandria made possible by access to abundant supplies of papyrus. "By 285 BC the library established by Ptolemy I had 20,000 manuscripts," Innis writes, "and by the middle of the first century 700,000, while a smaller library established by Ptolemy II ...possibly for duplicates had 42,800."[80] He points out that the power of the written tradition in library and university gave rise to specialists, not poets and scholars ? drudges who corrected proofs and those who indulged in the mania of book collecting. "Literature was divorced from life, thought from action, poetry from philosophy."[81]

Innis writes that the Antigonids "gradually transformed the small city-states of Greece into municipalities."[83] They captured Athens in 261 BC and Sparta in 222 BC. The Greek cities of this period developed common interests. "With supplies of papyrus and parchment and the employment of educated slaves," Innis writes, "books were produced on an unprecedented scale. Hellenistic capitals provided a large reading public."[84] Most of these books however, were "third-hand compendia of snippets and textbooks, short cuts to knowledge, quantities of tragedies, and an active comedy of manners in Athens. Literary men wrote books about other books and became bibliophiles ."[84] Innis reports that by the second century "everything had been swamped by the growth of rhetoric ."[84] He argues that once classicalGreek philosophy "became crystallized in writing," it was superseded by an emphasis on philosophical teaching.[84] He mentions Stoicism , the Cynics and Epicurean teachings all of which emphasized the priority of reason over popular religion. "The Olympian religion and the city-state were replaced by philosophy and science for the educated and by Eastern religions for the common man."[85] As communication between these two groups became increasingly difficult, cultural division stimulated the rise of a class structure. Innis concludes that the increasing emphasis on writing also created divisions among Athens, Alexandria and Pergamum weakening science and philosophy and opening "the way to religions from the East and force from Rome in the West."[86]

Monopolies of knowledge had developed and declined partly in relation to the medium of communication on which they were built, and tended to alternate as they emphasized religion, decentralization and time; or force, centralization, and space. Sumerian culture based on the medium of clay was fused with Semitic culture based on the medium of stone to produce the Babylonian empires. Egyptian civilization, based on a fusion of dependence on stone and dependence on papyrus, produced an unstable empire which eventually succumbed to religion. The Assyrian and Persian empires attempted to comnine Egyptian and Babylonian civilization, and the latter succeeded with its appeal to toleration. Hebrew civilization emphasized the sacred character of writing in opposition to political organizations that emphasized the graven image. Greek civilization based on the oral tradition produced the powerful leaven that destroyed political empires. Rome assumed control over the medium on which Egyptian civilization had been based, and built up an extensive bureaucracy, but the latter survived in a fusion in the Byzantine Empire with Christianity based on the parchment codex.

3 Innis, Harold. (2007)
Empire and Communications. Toronto: Dundurn Press, p.23. ISBN 13: 978-1-55002-662-7. This is the fourth and latest edition of Innis's book. The original edition of 1950 published by Oxford University Press was reissued in 1972 by University of Toronto Press, edited by Mary Quayle Innis with an introduction by Marshall McLuhan. An illustrated third edition was published by Press Porcepic in 1986.
7 Innis (Empire), p.27
11 O'Brien, Patrick K., general editor. (1999)
Atlas of World History. New York: Oxford University Press, p.30.
12 Innis (Empire), p.32.
22 Innis (Empire), p.44.
23 Innis (Empire), p.45.
25 Innis (Empire), p.46.
26 Heyer, Paul. (2003)
Harold Innis. Lanham, MD.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc., p.48.
27 Innis, (Empire), p.46.
29 Innis (Empire), pp.48-49.
31 Innis (Empire), p.50 and O'Brien, p.28.
32 Innis (Empire), pp.51-60.
33 Innis (Empire), p.62.
34 Innis (Empire), p.64.
35 Innis (Empire), pp.64-65.
42 Innis (Empire), p.78.
43 Watson, ohn Alexander. (2006)
Marginal Man: The Dark Vision of Harold Innis. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, p.368.
44 ohn Alexander. (2006)
Marginal Man: The Dark Vision of Harold Innis. Toronto: University of Toronto Press,
47 Innis (Empire), p.79.
50 Innis (Empire), pp.79-80.
51 Innis (Empire), p.104.
66 Innis (Empire), p.122.
67 Innis (Empire), pp.125 & 129.
68 Innis (Empire), p.125.
80 Innis (Empire), pp.112-113.
81 Innis (Empire), p.113.
83 Innis (Empire), p.115.
84 Innis (Empire), p.116.
85 Innis (Empire), p.117.
86 Innis (Empire)p.117.


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