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

Communications and the materialist conception of history: Marx, Innis and technology

Sut Jhally

Why do societies periodically undergo radical, structural changes? Why have modes of thought changed over time and space? These two questions have occupied the thoughts and writings of social theorists for at least the last two hundred years. The first question has been posed around the idealist versus materialist debate, while the second has been around a binary versus development position. Within the tradition of Marxism, these two questions have been addressed more specifically as (a) the problems of explaining the transition between modes of production; and (b) the problem of ideology.

In this paper, I would like to bring these two related set of questions together under one framework - specifically around a materialist/ development synthesis focusing on the role of communication technology. In relation to this, I will argue that those who wish to explore these long-standing problematic aspects within Marxism can find much of value in the work of Canadian theorist Harold Innis. More specifically, I will argue two main points: first, that a discussion of communication technology is a required addition to the materialist theory of history; and second, that Innis' concept of "bias" has many similarities with Marx's concept of "fetishism", and that the problem of ideology may be fruitfully addressed from this direction rather than exclusively from the well traversed terrain of the base/superstructure debates.

The materialist conception of history

The materialist theory of history is first developed by Marx and Frederick Engels in The German Ideology in 1846, but is given its clearest summary and formulation in Marx's 1859 Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1968). In this, he writes that a mode of production is constituted by the material productive forces and the relations of production. The relations "correspond to a definite stage of development" of the material forces. Additionally, the relations of production constitute "the economic structure of society, the real basis, on which rises a legal and political superstructure, and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, the reverse, their social being that determines their consciousness". 1 Thus, in a highly compressed expression, we have four major connected (and it seems hierarchical) domains: (a) the material forces of production, to which correspond (b) the relations of production, on which is erected (c) a legal and political superstructure, and to which correspond (d) forms of social consciousness.

The transition between modes of production (Marx lists the Asiatic, the ancient, the feudal and the modern bourgeois) is brought about by a conflict between the forces and relations of production. "From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense super-structure is more or less rapidly transformed". 2 That is, at a certain stage, the development of the productive forces is held back by the existing property relations. This necessitates a change in the relations of production, which correspondingly results in transformations in the superstructures and the forms of social consciousness.

Here, Marx introduces an approach to two key concepts - mode of production and social consciousness. He then proceeds to systematically develop the first, and especially the correspondence between the forces and relations of production as it pertains to the capitalist, social formation. However, Marx does not examine communication technology as an essential part of the mode of production. The second issue is only obliquely addressed in his subsequent work.

Subsequently, twentieth century Western Marxism has been mostly concerned with filling out the undeveloped side of the radical tradition. Cultural studies has been at the leading edge of this attempt to understand the way in which societies move subjectively. Some of the key terms in this attempt have been those of 'ideology', 'hegemony', and 'sub-culture' and have mostly concerned operating on the terrain of the base/superstructure model as outlined in the Preface. Recent attempts to overcome this model (for example: Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe (1985) 3 , and Stuart Hall (1988)) 4 have introduced the new terms of 'discourse' and 'articulation' to the debate. What is significant about cultural studies is that the concern has mostly focused around issues of meaning and content, and has not addressed, in any useful way, issues connected with communication technology, aside from the important issues of ownership and control.

In this paper, I wish to argue that both the 'orthodox' and 'western' wings of Marxism have much to gain for their respective concerns by rethinking the role that communication media have played in the transition between modes of production, as well as the role they play within modes of production. Such a perspective will be a valuable addition to the recent concern with 'representation', for communication technologies play a key role in determining the limits and potentialities of possible social relations. In addition, a focus on communication technology adds an important understanding to the necessary process whereby societies and individuals come to understand the meaning of social relations. The development of a new conceptual tool, the mode of communication, is key to this attempt. As Jack Goody (1977) says: "only to a limited extent can the means of communication, to use Marx's terminology from a different context, be separated from the relations of communication, which together form the mode of communication". 5 Marxian inspired communication studies have concentrated almost exclusively on "the relations of communication" (ownership and control) and have thus developed a one-sided approach to the question of the "mode of communication".

An ecology of information

Key to filling out the undeveloped side of this conceptual model is the work of Harold Innis (1972) who, in an implicit critique of Marxism, noted that for too long the study of the success or failure of "empires" (power structures) has been dominated by economic considerations. "Obsession with economic considerations illustrates the dangers of monopolies of knowledge and suggests the necessity of appraising its limitations". 6 An alternative emphasis that would prove more profitable was an analysis of the role of communication media in the organisation and administration of various social formations. Innis was particularly concerned with the effects of communication media in emphasising a "bias" of space administration, and/or the temporal survival of structures of power. The material form of communication media is argued by Innis to be powerfully connected with the ability of social formations (such as empires) to reproduce themselves based on both force (administration over a wide geographical area), and ideology (survival and maintenance of social relations over a period of time based on legitimation and consensus). It is also connected in important ways to the historical transformation and fall of empires.

For Jack Goody in The Domestication of the Savage Mind (1977), the study of communications technology enables us to bridge the gap between various contemporary disciplines, and also allows the complex problem of the general effects of technology to be discussed in more manageable terms. Innis similarly argues that a focus on communication media is important because advances in technology are first applied to the communication apparatus of society. Unlike other theorists who see a radical break between historical periods (and consequently between the modes of thought of those periods), Innis and Goody suggest that human history should be viewed in a more continuous manner, and that a study of communications media gives us an instrument both for the analysis of distinct periods, and an explanation for the process of change from 'primitive' to 'modern'.

Vitally however, Goody and Innis do not discuss communication media in an isolated manner, but as being integrated within wider socio-economic frameworks. In this regard, it is especially instructive to examine the relation between the mode of communication and the mode of production - to see the development of communication media as responding to changes in the broader set of social relations. Raymond Williams (1974) in his analysis of television argues for a view of technology as neither determined (where technology is seen as developing and initiating changes, abstracted from the social processes that surround it and mould it), nor symptomatic (where the technology is viewed as a symptom of some other changes, so that it becomes a by-product of the process). For Williams, these views are so powerfully entrenched that it becomes difficult to think past them to intention.

To change these emphases would require prolonged and cooperative intellectual effort... Such an interpretation would differ from technological determinism in that it would restore intention to the process of research and development. The technology would be seen, that is to say, as being looked for and developed with certain purposes and practices in mind. At the same time the interpretation would differ from symptomatic technology in that these purposes and practices would be seen as direct: as known social needs, purposes and practices to which the technology is not marginal but central. 7

In this view, the media are not neutral technology, but are seen as practices responding to the dominant tendencies of societies (and especially powerful groups within societies), and in turn, by mediating and translating social relations; acting as forces within the society itself. As Herbert Schiller remarks: "Technology is a social construct and serves the prevailing system of social power, though it often contributes to changes in the organization and distribution of that power". 8

Within these concerns, the work of Innis is vital in the attempt to understand how communication technology creates an "ecology of information". 9 For Innis, the most critical factor in society is the way in which the means of communication provide a framework of possibilities and parameters - the limits and boundaries within which social power (as well as modes of cognition) operate.

For Innis, social power is measured along two axes - space and time. Different communication technologies will 'bias' the particular form of power operative in any society. Media which are durable but make transportation difficult, will emphasise a bias of time and will tend to be controlled by religious groups. Media which are easily transportable but less durable, will emphasise a bias of space and will tend to be controlled by political and class groups. Thus, different communication technologies encourage different structures of "monopolies of knowledge".

Innis always locates communications within a rich, societal web. William Kuhns (1971) argues that Innis views society as an organism whose skeleton is comprised of its chief institutions (politics, religion, law, economics, and so on), and whose lifeblood (the form of connection between institutions) is the movement of information. It is the information (mediated through the form of communication technologies) that allows the pattern to connect. For Innis, the form of this connection is vital to issues of stability and change. Societies dominated by only one kind of bias are inherently unstable and susceptible to the changes introduced by new media. Societies with a balance between time and space technologies are more likely to experience stability, and provide a healthy environment for creative and cultural innovations. Innis' favourite example is ancient Greece, and the balance between oral and written media. The rise and fall of empires is thus studied by Innis from the viewpoint of communication technology, bias, and the monopoly of knowledge built around this pattern. The dynamic interplay between these factors is held to be the key to history.

Hence, the introduction of a new medium threatens the established relationships/patterns and provides a range of possibilities for new ones. The precise form of the new arrangements will depend upon specific history and the unique social, economic and cultural configurations on which it is acting. There is little doubt that at times Innis overstates the case for a communications perspective on history, but the general framework that can be extracted from his gallop through history provides a rich field of possibilities for the proper integration of a communication approach within a materialist theory of history.

As well as being sources of power, media and their inter-relationships also effect modes of cognition within particular historical periods. Following in Innis' tradition, Jack Goody (1977) has looked at how changes in the means of communication led to the emergence of a whole host of phenomena (the development of logic, a sense of history, mathematics, and so on), that traditionally have been ascribed as products of the mind in different periods. While Goody adopts a carefully documented approach to these issues, the most famous populariser of these ideas, Marshall McLuhan, throws caution (and specificity) to the wind, and deals only in generalities. As David Crowley (1981) has noted, McLuhan's crude popularisation of the more measured approach of Innis and Goody has meant that it is now viewed as "a theory of technological effects and perception where the problem of authority and its deeper constraints on social order gave way to the less complicated surface of events and more painless reformations of the moment". 10 It is this abstraction of media from their societal context that has led most critical analysts to dismiss not only McLuhan, but the view of historical change from this perspective. This is unfortunate and has prevented adequate theorisation in this area.

The understandable rejection by critical thinkers of McLuhan's general, celebratory thesis has had unfortunate consequences - the baby was thrown out with the bathwater. As Jean Baudrillard argues about this: "The medium is the message is not a critical proposition... but it has analytic value". 11 If the post-structuralist insight that subjects should not be essentialised but are always in a process of social formation is valid, then it is incumbent upon us to examine the total overall 'ecology' within which such subjects are constructed. A great deal of attention has been paid to content from this perspective, with less focus on form. However, if subjects' experience of themselves and the world is always a social process, then the forms of our connections to the world are also part of that construction.

For McLuhan, human experience is mediated through the senses (sound, sight, smell, taste, touch) and the most effective means of communication are those that utilise the most of these senses. In this respect, speech is said to activate the entire human sensorium. The introduction of writing, especially printing, has broken the "organic unity" of the senses, and imposed the domination of the visual on the complex totality of human experience. The literate human is argued to be logical, visual, linear and literal. The regimentation that writing involves on the mind is reflected in mass submission to the tyranny of mechanical life. Above all, imagination and creativity have been submerged beneath the need for order and discipline. As such, McLuhan sees great hope in the development of modern, electronic media which he hopes will once again emphasise the rich totality of human experience. While McLuhan's stress on the means of communication by itself lead him to ignore the relations of production (and thus to an incomplete understanding of the mode of communication), it is possible to take that stress as showing the range of possibilities that various media offer for communication. Raymond Williams' insight that all media are at once selected and controlled by existing social authorities, should not blind us to the possibility that the uses to which such technologies can be put, may be limited by their material structure. The material limits of technology also limit the range of possibilities of social organisation. This is the dialectic between the means and relations of communication that is encapsulated by the notion of mode of communication.

Innis' importance resides in his linking of communication technology and social control. The discussion of the cognitive effects of modes of communication needs to be similarly theorised. The cultural/ideological effects of media are related to the "monopolies of knowledge" that arise in any period and the uses to which the technology is put. As David Crowley (1981) notes, a communication theory of knowledge should address the manner in which monopolies of knowledge are related to more complicated divisions of labour and more complex, social orders. Specifically, this suggests that media do not have a simple 'blanket' effect on societies. Especially after the introduction of writing, the means of communication were restricted to specific classes and specific functions. The mass of the population experienced these media as instruments of domination, administration and social control, rather than as instruments of enlightened communication. The broader effects of the technology here are mediated through the structure of social relations.

It is only with printing that we can begin, however tentatively, to talk about mass effects based upon the spread of literacy beyond a narrow, elite class, but even here the situation is complicated by the mediation of social power. As Raymond Williams perceptively notes in relation to this:

It is interesting that at the beginning of the industrial revolution in Britain, when education had to be reorganized, the ruling class decided to teach working people to read but not to write. If they could read, they could understand new kinds of instructions and, moreover, they could read the Bible for their moral improvement. They did not need writing, however, since they would have no orders or instructions or lessons to communicate... The full range of writing came later, with further development of the society and the economy. 12

With the development of electronic communication, it was precisely the contact with a mass audience for specific purposes of economic, social and ideological integration and control, that led to more general effects. This suggests that bias does not only derive from the technology (the means of communication) but is related importantly to the functions to which it is put, and the manner in which it is organised (the relations of communication).

In summary then, an adequate, materialist theory of history from a communications perspective, would see the wider mode of production incorporate the mode of communication into itself. The development of the mode of communication is dependent on needs generated by shifts in the wider, social formation. However, once mobilised, the mode of communication then becomes one of the defining characteristics of the mode of production, importantly connected to the lifeblood or the patterns which connect, changing its form, and adding to the set of overdetermined contradictions that lead to qualitative change. Apart from this study of historical change, an emphasis on the mode of communication also allows us to see the way that a particular structure of power achieves domination based on both force (control of space) and ideology (time), and how the precise integration of the mode of communication into the wider mode of production can affect modes of thought and subjectivity (of at least some members). The notion of "monopolies of knowledge" wedded to the concept of bias, helps us to see the precise forms of domination and administration.

Precedents, examples, applications

In this section, I wish to offer some concrete examples of the gain that may be expected from the integration of Innisian themes into subjects that have traditionally interested Marxist thinkers.

a. A Marxian Precedent: Engels and the labour theory of human communication

I have argued that communication technology is not integrated very fully into present Marxist writing on the transition between modes of production and that this is an important and damaging omission. However, there is evidence that one of the 'inventors' of the materialist theory of history was very conscious of the role that communication can play in historical transition. Frederick Engels, in an unfinished 1876 essay entitled The Part Played by Labour in the Transition From Ape to Man (1975), specifically relates labour and communication. In this section, I will present Engels' argument (fleshed out with contemporary sources) as an indication of the importance of integrating communication into the discussion of the mode of production.

In tracing the chain of events that produced the "human revolution", Hockett and Ascher start their study with the proto-hominids of the Middle/Lower Miocene period: primate-like beings living in the trees of the jungle. The first form of communication that is posited is a primitive, call system. Hewes also posits an "emotional" call system that is not propositional, with the calls not under close, voluntary control but used as responses to other stimuli. 13 There were also other physical aspects of communication such as patterns of body motion, pushing and prodding, changes of body odour, and so forth. Thus, the earliest form of communication we can posit for our primate ancestors is nominally vocal, physical and gestural.

How then are we to explain the development of a complex, open system of language from this crude, closed, call system? Hockett and Ascher suggest that the decisive step in the next stage of human evolution was the forcing out of some of these bands of proto-hominids from the trees, as climatic changes thinned the forest and created more open savannah with scattered clumps of trees. The more powerful of the bands, the ones that stayed in the trees, were the ancestors of today's gibbons and siamangs. The less powerful bands who were forced to abandon the shrinking forest environment were our ancestors. "We did not abandon the trees because we wanted to but because we were pushed out". 14

The forcing into open savannah led to the bipedalism of these groups. In the trees, the hands were used for climbing. But, travelling and scavaging for food in open land encouraged the freeing of the hand for other functions. Frederick Engels writes:

Presumably as an immediate consequence of their mode of life which in climbing assigns different functions to the hands than to the feet, these apes began to lose the habit of using their hands when walking on level ground and to adopt a more and more erect gait. This was the decisive step in the transition from ape to man. 15

The hand was thus left free for other functions - carrying, using weapons, and so on. In short, tool use. This, in conjunction with a new, hominid population increasingly dependent upon social production is viewed by Ruyle (1974) as the distinctive feature which separates hominoid from hominid, and on it he bases, following Engels, a labour theory of human development. Hockett and Ascher also point out how hunting developed into a collective enterprise that stressed a more complex form of social organisation. It was the development of tool use especially, that led to increased brain size and the need for language. As Engels notes, the hand does not develop in isolation from the rest of the organism.

The mastery over nature which began with the improvement of the hand, with labour, widened man's horizon at every new advance. He continually discovered new, hitherto unknown, properties of natural objects. On the other hand, the progress of labour necessarily helped to bring the members of society closer together by multiplying cases of mutual support and joint activity, and by giving each individual a clearer consciousness of the advantage of this joint activity, in short men arrived at the point where they had something to say to one another. The need created its organ. 16

Thus, as a result of environmental/material changes in the mode of life/production of certain groups of hominids, and their adaptation to the new material conditions, a need was created for a change in the means of communication, as well as the material possibilities for its satisfaction.

Obviously, speech did not develop overnight, and there were many intermediate stages corresponding to changes in biology and social organisation in the development of speech and language. Hockett and Ascher write that as the mouth was freed from carrying, so it was possible to use it for other things - like chattering. At the same time, as the hand grew more skilled and flexible, so it became possible to use it as an instrument of communication. Hewes (1973) argues that the archaeological evidence suggests that the early hominids were probably incapable of producing human, speech sounds. However, there are also indications that these same hominids also made tools to a pattern and used fire, both of which have been theorised to have been impossible without the existence of language. Hewes suggests that a gestural language would have been sufficient for these purposes. The kinds of environmental information that would have been needed here (pointing, directing) could have been accomplished by gestures. Similarly, tool use could have depended not on speech but on visual observation and gestural imitation. The success of teaching sign language to chimpanzees would indicate that early humans were at least capable of internalising and using a gestural language.

However, it seems unlikely that gestural developments would have proceeded in isolation. The freeing of the mouth also gave it increased possibilities of expression. As social organisation, tool use and culture became more complex, so was created the need for the development of language proper, as gestural language stretches the limits of memory with a collection of about 100 signs. Hewes suggests that this occurred about the end of the Lower Paleolithic and that speech subordinated, but did not destroy, gesture.

This example suggests that changes in the mode of production create possibilities for new uses of old technologies (the hand) and the development of new technologies (vocal chords), and that the communication was vital to new modes of social existence, pushing it in new directions.

Once language develops, cultural struggle over the meanings it shapes, also becomes a factor. As Ruyle argues:

Religion cannot appear until after labour and language develops hominid mental abilities to the point where it is possible to begin to conceive on non-existent supernatural beings... Labour and language raise humanity to the level where it can begin to create the sacred and supernatural world. Once this world is created, those individuals who can operate in it are reproductively favored over those who cannot, because the sacred and the supernatural world helps to give people the strength to operate in the world of social production. 17

As soon as language develops, so too do "monopolies of knowledge", and we are into the age of contestation and control over the signification systems that map out social life.

b. An example: exchange and the development of writing - the pre-history of printing

The work of both Goody and Innis on early forms of graphic representation suggests that as the expansion of local production leads to the possibilities of exchanging goods with other geographical markets, a possibility and need is created for some sort of permanent record of supplies, transactions, and identifications of goods. At the same time, and as a result, large scale bureaucratic organisations (empires) arise, also necessitating the need for new forms of graphic communication.

Goody notes that early forms of representation were not alphabetic but graphic. They were representations not of speech but of words. Thus, the first use of writing was mainly pictographic, taking the form of tables and lists.

But what is the topic of the bulk of the written material? Even in Assyrian times, it is not the main 'stream of tradition', either in the form of literary creations or the recording of myth and folktale, but rather the administrative and economic documents found in temples and palaces throughout Babylonia and covering a wider geographical and chronological extent that the more academic records. 18

The earliest forms of writing were lists. Goody suggests that the earliest written forms developed in Sumer about 3000 BC. Clay tags with personal seals were attached to objects being transported. In time a more secure method of identification was developed which consisted of a list of the objects represented by pictures and the corresponding written signs of the senders.

The tablets bearing details of names and objects led to the development of ledgers... It is a system which... owes its origins to the needs arising from public economy and administration. With the rise in productivity of the country, resulting from the state controlled canalization and irrigation systems, the accumulated agricultural surplus made its way to the depots and granaries of the cities, necessitating the keeping of accounts of goods coming to the town, as well as of manufacturing goods leaving for the country. 19

Thus, early written forms were used for administrative and economic purposes within an evolving bureaucratic structure which emphasised systemisation and formalisation. However, the use of lists expands from its purely bureaucratic and accounting function to the listing of events and the emergence of the concept that we understand as history. Also, lexical lists were extensions of this, leading to a growth of classification and knowledge. While the initial impetus for the development of written forms was economic, once introduced the technology advanced "autonomously" into new forms and new effects.

Goody argues that the written word obviously does not replace speech, but adds an important dimension to social action. The existence of a plurality of forms within a social formation suggests that attention also has to be paid to the relationship between these forms within a mode of communication. So for example, the earliest, written forms thus fall under the control of those groups who dominate the monopolies of knowledge of oral culture/religious groups. The first forms of written communication media (stone and hieroglyphics in Egypt, clay and cuneiform in Sumer, and stone/clay and cuneiform in Babylon) emphasised the preoccupation of these groups - the control of time. The early forms of graphic writing set in motion by economic considerations were adapted to fit the needs of religious orders.

It is important to note here that Innis does not merely focus on communication technology, but also on the forms of writing with which they existed. It is the relation between them that gives rise to bias, one way or the other. For instance, when papyrus was introduced into Egypt, it existed in conjunction with a complex system of hieroglyphics which ensured that specialist knowledge was needed to participate in the communication process, which was dominated by religion. It was only once simpler forms of script were introduced that the full use of the potentialities of papyrus could be made.

The use of papyrus undoubtedly did much to help the spatial control of territory by military groups. Just as gesture gave way to language, so the phonetic alphabet develops in succession to a system of closed signs/pictographs. The increasing complexity of state organisations necessitated a corresponding change in the means of communication. The use of papyrus with the phonetic alphabet was thus extremely effective in controlling large territories.

However, the supply of the material of media is always framed within broader, socio-economic structures. Innis argues that the spread of Mohammedanism reduced exports of papyrus from Egypt, and that by 719, it had practically disappeared. Its place was taken by parchment, which in turn led to new monopolies of knowledge based in the monasteries, and gave the Church its monopoly in the Middle Ages.

The monopoly also invited competition from a new medium - paper. The spread of paper manufacturing from China to the West supported the growth of trade and cities, and extended education beyond the influence of the monasteries. It also led, in turn, to the growth of local/vernacular literature. The demands of trade also led to the influx of new supplies of paper, and the development of clerks skilled in writing. As parchment was displaced, albeit slowly, in the university and the church, there also developed for the first time a number of booksellers catering for an expanded market in written materials. This latter factor was to lie at the root of the most important change in communications since the introduction of writing - printing and the well-established revolution in thinking that it precipitated (the Enlightenment), paving the way for the development of capitalist industry. 20

Such a perspective also allows us to negotiate a truce in the Marx/Weber 'debate' about the transition to capitalism. Rather than pitting the "Protestant Ethic" against "material forces" as an explanatory factor in the rise of capitalism, a focus on the mode of communication allows us to see the relation between material and cultural factors in historical transitions.

c. An application: advertising and culture

In addition to examining transitions between modes of production, a focus on communication is important for looking at transitions within a particular period also. For example, advertising has been a key aspect of capitalist, consumer societies since the second half of the nineteenth century. However, its general role of distributing goods has gone through a number of specific and different forms and frameworks. In this section, I will report on an approach to the historical study of advertising that integrates discussion of the issues connected to the means of communication centrally into its analysis.

Social Communication in Advertising (1990) by William Leiss, Stephen Kline and Sut Jhally develops an institutional approach to the study of "the discourse through and about objects" (advertising). In seeking to analyse this discourse and its historical evolution, Leiss et al. draw upon and attempt to synthesise elements from a number of different perspectives. 21

First, Leiss et al. focus on broad economic changes that characterise the transition from agricultural to industrial modes of production which necessitated the development of new mechanisms for the distribution and circulation of goods. Second, they draw upon socio-cultural perspectives in seeking to understand how economic shifts influenced the way in which people related to goods, especially the growing influence of marketplace institutions in everyday life.

Third, and most importantly for the concerns of this paper, a focus on the means of communication is key to their historical argument about the transition between the 'cultural frames' that characterises North American, consumer society. Leiss et al. pay special attention to the specific manner in which these economic and socio-cultural shifts were institutionally mediated by the emergence and development of two key, symbiotically related industries: the commercial mass media and advertising agencies. Of special importance was the way in which the successive integration of newspapers, magazines, radio, and television into the sphere of marketplace communications that deal with the discourse through and about objects, profoundly influences the nature of that discourse. Different media offer different potentialities for advertising formats and strategies. The commercial media are the delivery system for advertisements, which are actually planned and created by advertising agencies who act on behalf of their manufacturing clients. Leiss et al. focus on how the agencies and advertisers thought about consumers and ways to appeal to them.

Fourth, Leiss et al. examine advertisements from all periods of the century to see how the economic, socio-cultural, and institutional contexts influence their form and content. Lastly, they ask how this framework impacts upon the general understanding of goods and the ways in which they are integrated into the process of satisfaction and communication in consumer society throughout the twentieth century. In focusing on the predominant set of images, values and forms of communication in any period, Leiss et al. develop the notion of cultural frames for goods, and identify four of these frames that historically have given some definition to the relationship between people and things.

This is a very complex framework, and I wish here to simply draw attention to the third aspect of this project - the role that the progressive integration of different forms of media into the institutional arrangements of commercial culture played in the process whereby North American consumer society came to understand itself.

The first of the commercial media are the print media, with their reliance on columns of text. In seeking to extend commercial messages beyond merely the announcements of previous years, the agencies had to invent new, persuasive, informational discourses arguing the merits of the product. The appeals were predominantly rationalistic and the written text was the core of this explanation. Slogans resembled newspaper headlines. However, as new technologies of printing (in magazines and then newspapers) emerged, there was an increasing use of illustration and visual layout in the development of arguments about the qualities of products. In magazines, photography and art allowed for innovations in the associational dimension of argumentation. Products were presented less and less on the basis of a performance promise, and more on making them "resonate" with qualities desired by the consumer - status, glamour, reduction of anxiety, happy families - as the social motivations of consumption. The world of goods became more abstract.

The integration of radio into the commercial framework added a dramatically new possibility to the world of goods - speech. The agencies did not merely create the ads on radio; they also controlled the programming. People could not listen to selling messages all day, so the agencies began to explore styles of communication and the production values that would draw and hold listeners. Music, humour, stars, pathos, tragedy, excitement and human relationships became familiar terrain for advertising agencies, and opened up new ideas about how to improve advertising. For instance, soap operas were written by agencies and usually revolved around emotionally excruciating, family dilemmas. A whole new domain of human interest and human interaction was being added to the agencies' repertoire as they experimented with storyline, characterisation, dramatic impact, and emotional tone, and then applied what they had learned to the construction of ads. As a result, advertising became rooted in a distinctly human-interest environment. One important consequence was that products began to speak - to tell their own story. Although the full anthromorphising of goods had to await the use of animation on television, radio took a preliminary step in dialogue. Products, through ads, began to tell stories, and the writing styles incorporated allusions to real social situations and a variety of settings.

After the heyday of radio advertising in the late 1940s, much of the experience and talent accumulated from radio production was turned to developing advertising modes suited for television. As a medium of communication, television, like radio before it, offered new possibilities to advertising strategists. Products had been woven into a broad range of simulated and fictional settings since the turn of the century, but television simply could do everything so much better. Magazines had displayed goods amid Doric columns or Greek statues, thus positioning them within an associational matrix of images and styles; radio had opened up dialogue and social interaction as contexts within which appeals were made; television swept all earlier forms into its orbit and added others, ultimately offering the whole range of cultural reference systems to advertisers as aids in selling products.

Since television was best at simulating interpersonal communication either directly or as observed in drama, it seemed natural for television commercials to focus on these elements, and thus the testimonial and the mini-drama became important elements of television advertising. Television offered a whole new range to the uses of people and dialogue that had been explored during the 1930s and 1940s, but personalised it more intensely. The development of cable television in the 1970s has enabled advertisers to draw audiences together in specific segments and to appeal to them on the basis of lifestyle.

The four cultural frames Leiss et al. identify - Idolatry, Iconology, Narcissism, Totemism - to categorise commercial culture through the twentieth century are importantly connected to the development of new media forms that allowed experimentation with new, associational relationships between people and things. While certainly not sufficient explanations, the focus on the new potentialities offered by media forms as they became integrated into the institutional structure of commercial culture, helped to make sense of the direction and shape of frameworks of understanding and action that people live in and through. That is, a purely economic focus on advertising as a distributive mechanism par excellence would simply not offer as much as the framework outlined.

Bias and fetishism

Innis's notion of 'bias' is concerned with highlighting the issue of form in the study of societies from a communication perspective. In this regard, it is illuminating to consider that the idea of forms also seems to be important to the way that Marx approached the analysis of social problems. Richard Johnson, a former Director of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham, remarks how in his own thinking about cultural studies, the notion of 'forms' repeatedly arises, and that this is partly connected to Marx's framing and usage of terms such as 'social forms' or 'historical forms' when he is examining the various moments of economic circulation, for example: the money form, the commodity form, and the form of abstract labour. In the 1959 Preface, Marx also talks about the "ideological forms in which men become conscious" of their social actions. Johnson writes of the implication of this view of forms in the following way with regard to cultural studies.

What interests me about this passage is the implication of a different project to Marx's own. His preoccupation was with those forms through which human beings produce and reproduce their material life. He abstracted, analysed and sometimes reconstituted in more concrete accounts the economic forms and tendencies of social life. It seems to me that cultural studies too is concerned with whole societies (or broader social formations) and how they move. But it looks at social processes from another complimentary point of view. Our project is to abstract, describe and reconstitute in concrete studies the social forms through which human beings 'live', become conscious, sustain themselves subjectively. 22

The clearest example of Marx's own stress on form as a structuring principle of social life is in his analysis of the fetishism of commodities. The opening lines of Capital announce that capitalism presents itself as an "immense accumulation of commodities". Marx is specifically concerned with delving beneath this "appearance" (the market) to the "hidden abode" (production) that is the dynamic element of the process. To do so, he starts with a focus on the surface, what we can all see, the commodity, and distinguishes between its use-value and exchange-value. So far as the former is concerned, there is no disjuncture between appearance and essence. The mystery of the commodity, the making of it into a fetish, arises from its form, its exchange-value.

There is not room here for a thorough explication of the theory of fetishism, except to say that some writers have claimed that the search for a Marxist theory of ideology may have no better starting point than this, for the theory is essentially a story of how the realm of exchange - the market - comes to structure how we understand society, and also to legitimate the status quo as natural and unchanging. In this, the exchange of labour-power for wages is held to be key.

The relation of exchange between capitalist and worker becomes a mere semblance belonging only to the process of circulation, it becomes a mere form, which is alien to the content of the transaction itself, and merely mystifies it. 23

The wage-form also gives rise to other appearances - that workers are 'free' to dispose of their own labour-power as they see fit.

All the notions of justice held by both worker and capitalist, all the mystifications of the capitalist mode of production, all capitalism's illusions about freedom, all the apologetic tricks of vulgar economics, have as their basis the form of appearance... which makes the actual relation invisible and indeed presents to the eye the precise opposite of that relation. 24

Marx's argument is not about trickery and manipulation but about viewing social life through the lens of exchange only, and especially commodities themselves, which become material bearers of the ideology of the marketplace.

In this regard, Stuart Hall 25 has recently suggested that the perennial problem of Marxist cultural studies, the base/superstructure model and determination in the last instance by the economic, may be more fruitful if we reverse the normal equation and think of "determination by the economic in the first instance". This is based upon the construction of a different causal model in which "the economic" structures the ground on which we move, live, "become conscious". We live through the forms offered by our social life. Central to this is the market.

It is the part of the capitalist circuit which everyone can plainly see, the bit we all experience daily... So the market is the part of the system which is universally encountered and experienced. It is the obvious, the visible part: the part which constantly appears. 26

It is through this sphere that we experience, make sense of, become conscious of our social lives. This is an active process that takes place under specific conditions of determinacy - the generative set of categories of market exchange that may be extended to other spheres of social life. The hegemonic ideas of freedom, equality, property, individualism, "the ruling ideological principles of the bourgeois lexicon, and the key political themes which, in our time, have made a powerful and compelling return... may derive from the categories we use in our practical commonsense thinking about the market economy. This is how there arises, out of daily, mundane experience the powerful categories of bourgeois legal, political, social and philosophical thought". 27

For Hall, such a model of "determination" based on "a setting of limits, the establishment of parameters, the defining of the space of operations, the concrete conditions of existence, the 'givenness' of social practices, rather than in terms of the absolute predictability of particular outcomes, is the only basis of a 'Marxism without final guarantees'". 28

The notion of 'bias' in Innis shares much in common with this model of determination, but is grounded in the operation of a specific, key, communication technology which becomes the medium through which social action is conducted and understood. Unlike McLuhan's fundamentalist extensions, Innis would find much in common with Hall's more measured and more precise discussion of limits, pressures, parameters, and emphases. It is through these forms that we live and become conscious of ourselves and our lives. These forms structure the ground on which we operate and on which we actively construct meanings - they are the conditions "not of our own choosing".


This paper has argued that both the 'orthodox' and the 'non-orthodox' variants of Marxism have much to gain from an investigation, entanglement and conversation with the issues raised by the work of Harold Innis. I have attempted to show the value of such a theoretical collaboration by charting some of the main themes in Innis' work; showing how that work has a precedent within classical Marxism itself; giving an example of how the addition of a communication technology perspective might aid the discussion of transition; describing an application of such a perspective to the study of advertising within a social formation; and finally, suggesting that the concepts of 'bias' and 'fetishism' may be alternative ways of thinking about the problem of ideology. If we accept Richard Johnson's argument that cultural studies is a parallel project to Marx's economic project, then we also need to recognise that such an endeavour is a massive undertaking that will require the collaboration of analysts in many different fields of investigation. We also need to recognise that we are in the beginning stages of such a project, and that our best chance of advance will be dependent upon remaining open to the contributions of others working on similar issues, albeit within different frameworks. The work of Harold Innis is just such an opportunity and should not be missed.


1. K. Marx & F. Engels, Selected Works (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1968), p.181.

2. Ibid, p.182.

3. E. Laclau & C. Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (London: Verso, 1985).

4. Stuart Hall, The Hard Road to Renewal (London: Verso, 1986).

5. Jack Goody, The Domestication of the Savage Mind (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), p.46.

6. Harold Innis, Empire and Communication (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972), p.4.

7. Raymond Williams, Television: Technology and Cultural Form (London: Fontana, 1974), p.14.

8. Herbert Schiller, Communication and Cultural Domination (White Plains, NY: International Arts and Sciences Press, 1976), p.51.

9. William Kuhns, The Post-Industrial Prophets (New York: Weybright & Talley, 1971).

10. D. Crowley, "Harold Innis and the Modern Perspective of Communications" in W. Melody, L. Salter & P. Heyer (eds) Culture, Communication, and Dependency: The Tradition of H.A.Innis (Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1981).

11. Jean Baudrillard, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (St Louis: Telos Press, 1981), p.172.

12. Raymond Williams, Television: Technology and Cultural Form (London: Fontana 1974), p.131.

13. See C.F. Hockett & R. Ascher, "The Human Revolution" in M.F.A. Montagu (ed) Culture: Man's Adaptive Dimension (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968) and G.W. Hewes, "Primate Communication and the Gestural Theory of Language," Current Anthropology, v.14, nos.1-2 (1973).

14. Hockett & Ascher, p.30.

15. Frederick Engels, The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man (New York: International Publishers, 1975), p.2.

16. Ibid, p.5.

17. E. Ruyle, "Labour, People, Culture: A Labour Theory of Human Origins", Yearbook of Physical Anthropology (1974), p.161.

18. Goody, p.79.

19. Ibid, p.82.

20. See Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979).

21. This section draws heavily from material presented in Chapter Six of Social Communication in Advertising. See W. Leiss, S. Kline & S. Jhally, Social Communication in Advertising (New York: Routledge, 1990), Second Edition. I gratefully acknowledge my debt to William Leiss and Stephen Kline.

22. R. Johnson "What is Cultural Studies Anyway?" in Social Text 16 (1986-7), p.45.

23. K. Marx, Capital v.1 (London: Penguin, 1976), p.729-30.

24. Ibid, p.680.

25. Stuart Hall, "Marxism without guarantees: the problem of ideology" in Journal of Communication Inquiry, v.10, n.2 (1986).

26. Ibid, p.34-5.

27. Ibid, p.35.

28. Ibid, p.43.

New: 24 November, 1995 | Now: 23 March, 2015