Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 7, No. 1, 1993
Edited by Brian Shoesmith & Ian Angus

Dependency/space/policy: an introduction to a dialogue with Harold Innis

Ian Angus and Brian Shoesmith


This issue of Continuum is a dialogue with the work of Harold A. Innis, the Canadian political economist and communication theorist/historian. In it, we explore a number of issues through an Innisian lens which allows us to focus more sharply on issues that confront developed, and yet, still post-colonial, political configurations such as Australia and Canada.

The project began with a letter one editor wrote to the other inquiring about the current place of Harold A. Innis in North American communication and cultural studies. Shoesmith thought that Innis may have some relevance to Australia, especially in the light of the pioneering work by Tom O'Regan on communication policy in that country. The answer from Angus was inconclusive. He argued that Innis had been canonised in Canada but largely ignored in the USA; a situation which he thought tended, in different ways, to silence a contemporary dialogue with Innis' work. After some preliminary discussions through the medium of letters, we decided to further explore the work of Innis in relation to both Australia and Canada. This decision was confirmed when the editors were fortunate to meet at a conference in Australia, and was followed up in a series of other meetings and further correspondence in which the focus of the issue arose. We recount these events because we think Innis would have appreciated the process of dialogue whereby the anonymity of print was redeemed by the personal letter, and then through the spoken word.

The focus on dependency and post-colonialism, and the role of the intellectual in either creating the conditions of dependency, or challenging them, was based on our joint reading of Innis. Although he is, in a certain sense, thoroughly tied to the Canadian context, we wondered about the broader applications of his approach. However, because his communication work refers principally to the crisis in civilisation as perceived through the lens of marginality rather than centrality, it seemed to us that Innis' ambiguous status as a theorist of culture and communication does, in fact, have wider application than hitherto recognised. We argue that this work is crucial to think through the present cultural crisis because it is intimately linked to positions of dependency which occur in a multiplicity of forms, and arise from the present asymmetrical relationships of power. These are then endlessly played out in the new, global, communication order. Consequently, from our perspective, cultural studies appears to be caught in an endless oscillation between text and audience which effaces questions of power, or deflects them into spurious claims of resistance. In directly confronting the matter of dependency and its relations to the technology of communication, Innis permits us to criticize contemporary forms of power without falling prey to the illusion of transparent, social relations which haunts Marxism. Our use of Innis then, is thoroughly political and attempts to shift the focus of studies of communication and culture from studies of representation towards their material embodiment.

Traditionally, Australia and Canada have compared themselves to the imperial centres, be they England or the United States, seeking to define themselves in the wake of a metropolitan culture. Similarly, the dominant forms at the centre have been seen on the margins as confirmation of the legacy of Europe, but difference has been perceived as residing in the forging of a new identity, different to the centre and determined by the exigencies of a new world. Perhaps the time has come to shift the axis of comparison to the trajectories of post-colonial societies themselves. Canada and Australia share many historical and institutional similarities: both have been British colonies and then Dominions, and both inherited the Westminster system of parliamentary government; the British legal system and the English language; and communication systems (such as the free press which does not exclude government intervention); all of which could be seen as forging some link between the two countries that is material in its forms and symbolic in its content.

However, it is not our intention to deny that significant differences also exist. The bilingual character of Canada - the French fact - is the most obvious manifestation of difference between the two countries, reflecting their specific, historical formations. Moreover, there are geographical, climatic and natural differences which reflect the geographical placement of the two. Nor can the north-south divide be ignored because in political and economic terms, Canada tends to be much closer than Australia to the centre of geo-political realities through its membership of the G7 group of nations. By comparison, Australia is just coming to terms with its Asian location, thereby ceasing to be tyrannised by distance which we interpret as an expression of the desire to deny space.

The similarities are, however, at least as significant. Both countries displaced and marginalised their indigenous populations through immigration, principally from Europe, but subsequently from Asia and elsewhere. Immigrant populations appeared to create the conditions for multicultural discourses but indigenous populations fit neither multicultural, nor European discourses. This created a crisis in consciousness for both colonial cultures which ultimately meant that they had problems coming to terms with their own history and formation, especially in relation to the indigenous legacy. The intellectual formation of post-colonial societies requires an historical consciousness of this suppression, and then the paradigmatic articulation of its consequences. To this extent, comparison between Australia and Canada can be useful to both.

Colonial economies are developed to supplement the productive needs of the empire, primarily for raw materials exhausted or unavailable at the centre. Wood for the British navy ships, furs for the fashion conscious bourgeois, fish, wheat, and other staple products were produced in the colonies for consumption in the metropolitan centres. These conditions of production meant, in fact, that the margins continually subsidised the centre. Escape from this economic structure has been hard, particularly as the colony was a prime market for the transformed product. An ignored dimension of this asymmetrical, economic order has been the export from the colonies of their intellectuals, often to be replaced by the second rate from the centre. Innis was very conscious of this intellectual legacy, and in an acerbic aside in his Russian diary, he observed: "The [British] Commonwealth of Nations is [a] monument to Anglo-Saxon snobbery and greed". 1 A further consequence of this traffic in ideas has been a refusal by the metropolitan powers to take the colonial, social and cultural formation seriously. The silly jokes about convicts and Australia that one still hears in England are testament to this profound ignorance of the margins that one finds at the centre - it is both conscious and deeply-rooted, and rests on the snobbery that Innis has commented upon. Moreover, colonial intellectuals themselves have been trained to perceive the world in terms determined by the magisterial vistas of Oxbridge and Harvard. Again, Innis observed with regard to his war experiences: "The treatment of Canadians and all others by officers and NCOs sent out from Great Britain must have been an important factor in hastening the demands for autonomy... " .2 To break with the colonial mentality requires massive, intellectual effort and a risk of even further marginalisation.

At one level, Australia could be seen to have made the necessary break. National identity was, it is claimed, constructed in the battlefields of Turkey and Europe during World War 1, giving expression to a character and demeanour shaped by the bush experience. Difference (meaning not British) was articulated in a series of cultural products (poetry, paintings, short stories, and at a later date, film and television drama) that specified what it meant to be Australian. Significantly, this articulation was located principally in the popular domain and divorced from the conception of culture which was developed in the universities. Australian history and Australian literature have been sites of contestation in academia, only winning a place in the curriculum in the late 1960s. In one sense, the popular articulation is romantic in that it ignored the economic and political realities that were primary for university-style, cultural criticism which sought universality as its theoretical base to accommodate the cultural disjuncture. Thus, the fact that Australian intellectuals still look to Europe for the latest theory to validate their work, by which to interpret Australia, suggests that the break has still not been truly made.

Canada, in comparison, has only a weak sense of national identity, and this is partly because it was formed from two distinct languages and cultures. In addition, the proximity of the United States of America has influenced the ways in which Canadians have defined themselves. Thus, it is the continuity of Canadian history and culture that is perceived as significant, rather than any break with one of its dominant centres. In recent years, this has allowed a strong recognition of ethnic traditions and public discourses of multiculturalism to emerge. A weak conception of national identity seems to encourage a strong sense of internal differences, and to allow their appearance in the public realm. In English Canada, difference from the United States appears to serve as an adequate concept of identity. Quebec, by contrast, is more secure in its sense of identity and is much less likely to be threatened by assimilation into American cultural hegemony. Canadian Studies only made its appearance in Canadian universities in the 1970s, against the concerted opposition of an American dominated professoriate. Yet, intellectual work which engages with the specificities of Canadian culture and sub-national identities, remains marginalised because it is perceived as being too specific for any general or universal significance. It is the important task of post-colonial intellectuals to contest this reduction of their concerns to merely local significance, while they cannot assert its simple universality in the imperial style.

The conditions under which both Australia and Canada have sought to establish their cultural autonomy have always been against the grain of an increasing global, economic centralisation. An outcome of this process is the creation of dependency in all senses of the word. How then can we articulate opposition to the tendencies discussed above?

Harold A. Innis' status as a Canadian intellectual is beyond question. A seminal figure in the discipline of political economy of Canada, his latter work on communication theory has influenced Canadian, intellectual work in most fields of the social sciences. The studies of staple production in fisheries, wood pulp and wheat, outline with great clarity the conditions of Canadian, economic dependency. However, we contend that the connections between the domain of the economic and that of communication have not been fully recognised, but rather glossed over in most accounts of Innis' work. For us, the connection is paramount. Innis' dependency theory assumes that the colonial system enmeshed in staple production must necessarily remain in a condition of subservience to the economic back-tier that consumes the staples, transforms them, and re-exports them back to the frontier. Economic marginalisation reproduces a cultural marginalisation which validates itself in the reproduction of metropolitan forms that deny the specificity of location.

The recognition of these forces directed Innis to consider centre-margin relations historically, necessitating a breathtaking break with his prior intellectual practices. Innis moved from the specific and local to the general and global, without abandoning the problematic of dependency. All western history and culture became his field to cultivate. The breadth of his undertaking lead him to adopt a dense and elliptical style that is frequently commented on. What is not acknowledged, however, is the central contradiction: how can the global be used to redescribe Eurocentric civilisation as a repression of its margins?

It is precisely at this point that the power of Innis' theory of communication comes into play. Because he was located on the margin in Canada, he was able to analyse the relations of power between the centre (USA/UK) and the periphery (Canada) with great clarity. To illuminate the imbalance, Innis traversed history. His task was essentially global in its scope but the purpose was always specific - the analysis of the relations of power, and the role that communication and its various technologies played in constructing and maintaining these relationships. Although his analysis was largely founded on ancient civilisations, it presupposes a specific, political economy of Canadian history in which the spatial orientation of colonial, transportation systems is paramount.

Transportation systems in Canada have been funded historically through the Federal Government and articulated on an east-west axis. The periphery was thus connected to the centre by the technologies for traversing space. Communication is the construction of this traversal. For Australian history, the tyranny of distance has become the hegemonic, discursive trope and thus the organising problematic of Australian historical discourse. By contrast, Innis argued for a counterbalancing temporal emphasis when considering Canada, in order to overcome the over-emphasis placed on the spatial as a consequence of the colonial experience. The continuity of ethnic cultures with their pre-immigration (primarily European) origins constitutes such a temporal emphasis, even though it was not investigated by Innis himself. In other words, the history of Canada is the history of its ethnic groups much more than it is the history of Canada as a nation state.

Australian culture has, by contrast, defined itself through a relatively strong conception of national identity and a correspondingly weak acceptance of ethnicity. Consequently, no Australian historian or political economist has addressed these issues in a manner comparable to Innis. Geoffrey Blainey's important book The Tyranny of Distance is not the foundation of a new, post-colonial history, but the summation of the colonial history in which Australia is defined through its isolation from Britain. 3 For Blainey and others, space is not something to be traversed but something to be conquered through the application of technology. This is curious given that space is a major way of defining Australianness in popular discourse. Literature, film, advertising, mythology and legend are perceived as drawing their inspiration from the bush experience that has crystallised around the figure of the bushman and his derivatives. Space thus tends to be experienced as disjunction (Australia defined on the shores of Gallipoli), rather than as traversal. The east-west axis remains weak in comparison to the north-south axis of the eastern coastline where the major settlement occurred. Thus, the temporal has been the major interpretive of the Australian experience which, paradoxically, has created the myth of the absent centre. Consequently, there is a strong case for Australian communication and cultural studies to address the problem of space and the means by which it has been traversed.

In the Australian context, Tom O'Regan has come closest to the problem by taking up "high communication policy" as a way of analysing current changes in the Australian communication industries. 4 He has argued that the historical impediments to a smooth information transfer between the centre and the margins has often allowed a degree of local autonomy in the Australian context. However, the tendency towards the local has been overcome by the introduction of new communication technologies. O'Regan draws on the work of James Carey in developing his analysis of communication policies and technology in Australia. Carey appropriated Innis' work to an American context and coined the term "high communication policy" which refers to "the channelling of all communication in America through centralizing corridors in the north-east". 5 Central to this argument is the important view that new technological developments should be understood within a context of policy and dependency, not as supposed "technological imperatives". This is implicit in O'Regan but poorly developed in Carey whose location at the centre renders it unlikely that the relationship between power, technology and dependency should be explicitly theorised. Other appropriations of Innis by Czitrom and Meyerowitz in the USA have a similar tendency. 6

In the Canadian context, Innis is clearly understood as the author of both political-economic studies of dependency and communication theory. However, these two sides of Innis are rarely integrated. Our argument is that post-colonial intellectuals need a dependency theory of communication, and for this, Innis is an important starting point. Any theory of dependency presumes that two things are at stake: firstly, the nation or national identity, however it is constructed; secondly, the relationships of that nation to another which is, by definition, economically and culturally superior due to its historical preponderance. Immediately, the slipperiness of the term "nation" comes into play. Similarly, "dependency" is equally as ambiguous, and both must be seen as floating signifiers whose meanings are always relational. In other words, nation and dependency are not one thing in themselves but a set of conditions that must be investigated on a case by case basis. Nevertheless, common to both these conditions is the formation of national or sub-national identities within a framework of habitual deference expressed through culture. In this sense, nation and dependency circumscribe a field of power relations more multi-dimensional than the Marxist reduction to the economic.

Comparisons oriented towards the centre lose precisely this problematic. The contributions to this special issue seek to orient comparison between (post-) colonial nations of Canada and Australia in order to enrich our understanding of nation and dependency, and to contribute to a wider, post-colonial, discourse. Crucial to this construction is a reconsideration of the role of the intellectual in the generation of knowledge about conditions on the margins. It is our view that Harold Innis provides the possibility of re-thinking the articulation of dependency that must, and does shift, according to the relations of power extant at any historical moment.


We have organised the contributions to this issue into four discrete but related sections. Section 1 deals with Innis' dependency theory of communication in the Canadian context from which it emerged. Angus analyses Innis as a post-colonial intellectual who provided new axes for the interpretation of European culture. Onufrijchuk provides a re-evaluation of Innis' influence on Canada's best known communication theorist Marshall McLuhan, arguing that while McLuhan is an increasingly important figure in postmodern cultural analysis, Innis is far from being just a footnote to McLuhan. Beale examines the policy dimensions of Innis' thought through an analysis of Canadian cultural policy, beginning with the important Massey Report (1951), and argues that Innis influenced the formation of Canadian cultural policy through his institutional position, and through his status as an intellectual power-broker. However, the intellectual paradigm that linked Innis and Massey, has fractured in the face of the powerful ideology of market forces that now drives Canadian cultural policy. Beale argues strongly for the need to return to the ideological alignment of Innis, in regard to the state and culture, in order to counter economic rationalism.

Section 2 initiates a debate concerning the applicability and development of Innis' contribution to Australia through a comparative dialogue. Heyer explores the conditions of colonial intellectuals at the height of the British Empire, through a comparison of the work and ideas of Innis and the Australian archaeologist V. Gordon Childe. Cohen extends the applications of Innis to Australia, through a critique of the writings of Eric Michaels who argued for the significance of Aboriginal television which has hitherto been viewed as a marginalised enterprise.

Section 3 continues the concept of the Dossier developed in previous issues of Continuum. We publish here for the first time an excerpt from the previously unpublished "History of Communication" manuscript lodged in the University of Toronto Archives. "Printing In China in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Century" is published with the kind permission of the Innis family and the University Archives, University of Toronto. Appended to the Dossier is a brief account of the confusions surrounding the communication work of Innis among his contemporaries, which also seeks to position Innis in a specific cultural, intellectual, and historical formation.

Section 4 we have called 'Themes in Comparative Media Theory'. Hitherto, we have frequently referred to the term "dependency" and, as an alternative, would like to introduce the term "Comparative Media Theory" because "dependency" has connotations which it is probably best to avoid. In most cases, "dependency" is perceived as assigning unadulterated power to the centre, and providing very little space for the formation of alternative views on the margins. If Innis has provided us with anything, it is an understanding that centres are as much dependent on their margins as margins are on the centres. Consequently, we wish to draw attention to the interrelatedness of these tiers of relations through the concept of comparative media theory, which, for us, refers to the Innis-type studies of the media and technologies of communication. The work of Eric Havelock, Walter Ong, Marshall McLuhan and others relate to this concept insofar as they are concerned with the intrinsic characteristics of the different media of communication in forming the perceptual, institutional, and cognitive capacities of a culture.

Since any culture is defined by, and through, a plurality of media of communication, any investigation of that culture must proceed comparatively. We regard Harold A. Innis as the most important figure in this literature to date, due precisely to the emphasis on dependency which he saw in terms of expanding and contracting relations, challenging the tendency towards monopolies of knowledge and power that characterise all empires.

Contributions to the section on Comparative Media Theory include essays by Wark, Jhally, Edmonds, and Attallah. Each of the essays investigates themes pertinent to a contemporary, comparative theory. Wark develops a theory of new, imagined, technological space derived from the ubiquity of digitalised, computer technology that challenges us to re-think the mathematised, spatial co-ordinates that currently influence our imagination. Jhally defines the contribution Innis can make to contemporary Marxist theory through a number of case studies, not least of which is a meditation on the origins of language. The importance of aviation to the history of technology in Australia is given interpretation by Edmonds, with the creation of the concept of "airmindedness" shown to be a crucial factor in establishing the airplane as an accepted mode of transport. Finally, we have Paul Attallah's analysis of Richard Collins' important book Culture, Communication and National Identity: The Case of Canadian Television. 7 Attallah takes on Collins' attempted evacuation of the problematic of dependency in Canada, providing an atypical and sympathetic, Canadian perspective on this provocative book.

We also offer two book reviews which deal with the legacy of empire. The first by John Corner is of a collection of articles that analyse the relations between the state, the media and the Falklands War, and the second by Barrie McMahon and Robyn Quin deals with media education in South Africa. Finally, there is an occasional piece by Noel King on changes in cultural studies over the 1980s.

Collectively, these offerings are extremely broad. Although this may bother some, we do it deliberately because we feel that the scope of Comparative Media Theory accurately reflects the breadth of thought of Harold A. Innis, to whose memory this volume is dedicated.

In conclusion, we hope that this special issue of Continuum fulfils three crucial functions: firstly, that it re-inserts Innis into his rightful place as the major communication theorist of dependency; secondly, that it is a contribution to the development of Comparative Media Theory as a means of investigating historical and global communication issues; thirdly, and most importantly, that it is a means of provoking further research and debate into the issues which Innis raised in respect to communication, especially as the year 1994 marks the centenary of his birth.


1. Harold A. Innis "Russian Diary", Harold Innis Collection: University of Toronto Archives (B72-0005/020(06).

2. Harold A. Innis "Autobiographical notes, p. 50", Harold Innis Collection: University of Toronto Archives. (Series XV11: 72-0003/036(01).

3. Geoffrey Blainey The Tyranny of Distance: How Distance Shaped Australia's History (Melbourne: Sun Books, 1970).

4. Tom O'Regan "Towards a High Communication Policy" in Continuum: An Australian Journal of The Media (1988/89) 2:1, pp.135-158. See also his forthcoming Australian Television Culture (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1993).

5. James W. Carey Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989).

6. Daniel J. Czitrom. Media and The American Mind: From Morse to McLuhan (Chappel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1982); Joshua Meyerowitz No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior (New York: OUP, 1985).

7. Richard Collins. Culture, Communication and National Identity: The Case of Canadian Television (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990).

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