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

Margins at the centre: Innis' concept of bias and the development of Aboriginal media

Hart Cohen

A nomadic society cannot experience enclosed space. (Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy)

The crucial relationship between history and bias is succinctly defined by Crowley and Heyer in their Introduction to the new edition of Innis' The Bias of Communication:

History is perceived as a series of epochs separated by discontinuity. Each epoch is distinguished by dominant forms of media that absorb, record and transform information into systems of knowledge consonant with the institutional power structure of the society in question. The interaction between media form and social reality creates biases, which strongly affect the society's cultural orientation and values. These communication biases function as a first and last point from which we can assess the character of a civilization. 1

With the thesis that bias results from an interaction between media form and social reality, an application to Aboriginal media might offer some clues to the meaning and purpose of Aboriginal cultural practices and values in the context of late twentieth century Australia. From the perspective of the constituents of Aboriginal media, I would like to develop a framework for thinking about the adoption of television and its institutionalisation in remote Aboriginal Australia.

Harold Innis' general theory of communications

H.A. Innis developed transportation and space as themes of communications in his analysis of the emergence, growth and decline of empires. Space for Innis is a communication bias - a concept which invokes matters of culture, social structure and history. The question of bias is how cultural frames of reference, which result from and orient patterns of social interaction, relate to values inherent in those preferred channels laid down by historical circumstance.

Innis observed that changes in patterns of interaction which accompany communication technology are so widely distributed in society that we fail to see how technology orients these interactions. He asserted that communication technologies orient changes in habitual patterns of interaction and can create new patterns of interaction.

Innis' methodology was to map interaction patterns brought about by the predominant channels through which a society's information travels. His work invokes some suggestive questions: Does information in a culture move from the periphery to the centre or vice versa? Does the culture value information as a scarce commodity by storing it up or is it treated as an abundant commodity? Does information move towards increasingly larger spheres of influence pushing cultural borders outwards? Or the reverse?

Innis concluded that two general orientations were present in a culture at any time: (1) An orientation stressing short distant patterns of communication which is largely dependent on interpersonal interaction and local communication; and (2) an orientation stressing long distance patterns of communication which is largely dependent on communication technologies.

A bias towards long distance orientations leads to the undermining of many localised features of cultural and social life. Replacing local sources of information with distant ones leads to a change in what and how people think. Short distance contact emphasises local interests and can lead to a withdrawal from contact with others further afield. This may set new frameworks for bias.

Innis asserted that a society's biases with regards to a particular technology may affect both itself and other (especially geographically adjacent) societies. In this manner, bias establishes the power to define reality - a conceptual and practical position with consequences at various levels of social interaction.

In a chapter of Bias of Communication titled "The Problem of Space", Innis quotes Cornford that: "Space and Time... fall into their places as mere mental frameworks of our own constitution..."; and referring to Gauss, suggests that number was a product of the mind while space had a reality outside the mind. 2 The history of thought is marked by the alternating leadership provided by concepts of space and concepts of time. On this basis, it could be argued that Innis' concept of spatial bias is objective rather than subjective.

In this chapter, Innis traces the development of Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilisation with emphasis given to the geographical or spatial consequences for a political economy that, in turn, is influenced by the control exerted over time. In a curious way, the insights that Innis provides regarding the emergence, maintenance, and decline of empire have a familiar resonance with twentieth century processes of development and dependency. In both cases, the role played by communication processes signals a transformation of patterns in social and political life. The nature of these changes however, is not without ambivalence. The assertion by Innis that "as modern developments in communications have made for greater realism they have also made for greater possibilities of delusion" suggests that bias as a feature of social technology could not be effaced by a formula or critique of practices. Rather, it needs to be studied as a deeply woven dimension of social interaction.

The current concern with the development of satellite technology in the South and South-West Pacific resonates concerns anticipated by Innis. In a detailed account of some of the problems faced by states in this region, 3 Liz Fell argues that older doctrines of national sovereignty based on physical borders is under challenge from states that subscribe to trans-national policies and practices - in short, the doctrine of extra-territoriality signifying a move towards re-colonisation aided by the development of satellite technology. One of the consequences has been the commitment made by poorer states to expensive technology.

Read through Innis' theory of bias, the problem with respect to Australia's role in the region may be seen as a peculiar variant of centre-periphery lines of communication. One of Innis' assertions was that access from the centre to the periphery also meant access from the periphery to the centre. In this regard, the term "cultural monopoly" (the control of communications and culture by the centralised power) becomes particularly potent. The results however, may be potentially more radical than initially perceived.

As Liz Fell concludes, acquisition of satellite technology by states not aligned to the dominant, corporate group may disrupt plans that members of that group may have for the region (e.g. Australia). The participation of Aboriginal media groups within Australia's satellite network may further erode the implied centralising power exerted by this technology.

It was Innis' work that most effectively illustrated the disintegration of empire - a form of spatial domination - through the diffusion of innovative, technological forms. Empire, as Innis pointed out, may be militaristic and concerned with the conquest of space; or religious and therefore concerned with the conquest of time. While religious empire favours de-centralisation, military-space conquest favours centralisation. It is this tendency with respect to the corporate control of communications technology, that appears to alarm critics of the present information order.

James Carey has identified the study of space and communication in American communication studies as split between a "frontier" model - the myths of nation-building and expansion, and the Chicago School's concept of an organic society. The research of this School (scholars such as Dewey, Mumford and Park) was concerned with the preservation of social interaction in the community. They looked at the acceleration of public transport, telegraph, telephone, and other communication inventions as well as increasing urbanisation and suburbanisation. Their conclusions often stated that social relations were adversely affected by changes in transportation and communication.

The conflation of transportation and communication by the Chicago School's communications theory explains why great potential regarding democratisation was attributed to electrified communication. (McLuhan's now popularised notions are drawn directly from this position). With the development of the telegraph and the railroad, James Carey suggests that the communication was divorced from the physical movement of people. 4 In Carey's view, the idea of bias developed as a consequence of this misperception: the physical movement of people and things is given a secondary place and an administrative concept of communications. Communications is turned to questions of how authority is handled, how messages transmitted in space control distance and people, and how power is shared and/or monopolised.

The questions of power that result from this level of investigation into the communications biases of media are found high on the agenda of critical appraisals of Aboriginal media. With this in mind, I would like to explore a further application of Innis' work to Aboriginal media development.

The application of Innis to Aboriginal media

In James Carey's evaluation of Innis' thought, he suggests that the character of "reversibility" appears to be one of the most significant perceptions about communication processes which Innis offered, 5 particularly in the development of concepts in which oppositions (oral/written, space /time, frontier/ backtier) are shown to partake of each other's characteristics, thereby nullifying any binarism that might have been implied. As commentators often suggest, Innis chose to sketch the "big picture" rather than delineate details (Heyer and Crowley: 91). For this reason, some detailing of the Innis concepts in relation to Aboriginal media practice may afford some insight into both Aboriginal media and the viability of those concepts.

Innis' account of media, particularly electronic media, anticipates satellite technology as the most effective space-biased form of information distribution. Perhaps the most significant essays by Innis, in this regard, are "A Plea for Time" and "The Problem of Space".

The play on the term "Centre" in the title of this paper is a pretext for looking at the theme of space in the early examples of Aboriginal media - particularly in the material that came out of Ernabella and Yuendumu. It was the introduction of satellite transmissions to remote Australia that led to the "impact" study commissioned by the Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies in 1982. The move was caused by an Innis-type hypothesis (one inspired by the imbalanced relationship between Canada and the US): that smaller industrialised countries and those "undeveloped" parts of large industrialised countries view the free-flow of information from satellites as contributing to their dependence on the larger industrialised nations. This dependence carries with it effects on social relations, cultural activities, economic sustenance and local forms of representation. The evolution of indigenous media, while the outgrowth of many influences, also reflects an Innis-type of dialectic: as the margin/frontier may be dependent on the centre/backtier, so may the margin begin to influence the centre. This is by no means a static dialectic but remains historically moving. Regrets about the form and substance of indigenous media as being too "commercial" reflect the inability to see this continual process of both the re-absorption by, and rejection of, the centre by the margins. Deployment of satellite communication, in Carey's terms, is an example of a high communications policy - a term that invokes a bias towards centralisation of power and transmission through space. What is sacrificed is the local, cultural originality formally sustained by individuals as part of the growth and persistence of cultural life - a bias towards time. Through a number of initiatives, Aboriginal media was invented and then developed in line with the cultural originality that remained a condition of their survival. The story of the remaking of television by Aboriginal groups in remote Australia, even as it strives to exert its centralising power via the satellite, can be told as a tale of Innisian paradoxes: a largely orally-based culture concerned with time-biased preservations of traditional laws, engaged in space-biased media concerned with distribution across space; a medium that retains too much in public of what is required to be secret or private; a medium with high, capital costs and low, cultural priorities in a situation with high, cultural capital and few financial resources. Most significantly, against the centralisation and domination of Los Angeles-style television and video, an incorporation and creative resistance through a committed persistence to own, develop, produce and distribute indigenous media. In this moment of reversal, the centre was captured by the margin - itself a centre in name and geographic location - Australia's first public TV originated in the least likely, and least "possible", of geographical, policy and economic environments.

To understand the invention and development of Aboriginal television along Innisian lines, the rich metaphors of space and time which he utilised are clues to working across the paradoxes of the total situation. If the historical trajectory of civilisation was designated by Innis as moving away from orality towards print/electronics, these biases were first and foremost biases of technology. Changes in technology create changes in cultural life by affecting the content, context and representation of thinking processes. The invasion by Europeans of Terra Australis was an effect of space-biased technology. It is a history of precisely the pattern suggested by Innis: Aboriginal oral culture came under severe pressure in the context of a genocidal practice, though as Innis noted, oral cultures are persistent and hard to destroy. It would seem, however, that overcoming physical distances did not automatically translate into the eradication of localisms. Instead, short-distance communication persisted, and permitted the continuation of cultural, political and communal integrity.

As McLuhan stated: "A nomadic society cannot experience enclosed space". Although Aboriginal groups ceased nomadic lifestyles in this century, the values of nomadism persist as a means of controlling space and transforming space into time. Innis describes this as "the political power of the foot and the tongue", and saw the oral tradition as linked to the essential, communicative structures of a democracy: a public sphere, a public discourse and the possibility for rational agreement. The bias of technology is therefore not only the means of orienting social interaction, but it also affects the possibilities of understanding, and the acquisition and sharing of knowledge. Print and literacy are less embraced by Innis, than analysed for their historical consequences.

The Aboriginal development of media

Since the first wave of research emerged on the invention and production of Aboriginal television, a number of commentaries have appeared both to celebrate and to theorise the consequences of this development. This ocurred in a zone not generally acknowledged for its contributions to local and general knowledge - it was introduced by a researcher (Eric Michaels) with strong commitments to the public appreciation of the importance of Aboriginal media, and an equally strong sense of the ironies of his task.

It is instructive to contemplate what sort of sense would have been given to the emergence of Aboriginal media if Michaels had not been the researcher in question: would the focus have been as sharp on the debate between what Michaels termed the "lifestyle future" versus a cultural future for Aborigines? Would the post-McLuhan critique be as well developed in its scepticism of utopian positions? Would the concerns over the appropriations of "Aboriginality" be as strident? The answer is likely to be no. Some of the strengths of this research also sustained its own internal contradictions: the role of the researcher, so prominent in the fabric of this media development, is not adequately reflected upon, or if acknowledged, not adequately reckoned into the consequences of the research activity.

In the context of this commentary, I quote from a recent presentation by Francis Jupurrurla and Grant Japananga, Warlpiri video makers and members of the Warlpiri Media Association. Their presentation served to underline some of these early insights into the character and protocols of Aboriginal media:

Francis Kelly: Good morning everyone. My name is Francis Jupurrurla Kelly from Yuendumu. I work at Warlpiri Media. I have to introduce Grant Japananga. I have to put him on first to talk.

Grant Granites: Hello there. I am Grant Japananga Granites of the Warlpiri tribe. There are two sections of Warlpiri: The desert people and the hill people. My father is a desert (person) and my mother is a hill (person). There are two different names: Waneiga and Wamberal (Walmalla) - hill people and desert people. We do a lot things for kids. Keep the kids out of trouble. And... take old people out to the country... and we do video for kids - a kind of Sesame Street... and now I'll pass it back to Francis Kelly.

F. Kelly: Thank you Grant. Yesterday a lady mentioned that in our language Dharug, means "great, great grandmother". That's in our language - Dharug means land of our mother's mother. I have to say about Warlpiri Media's history - Well Warlpiri Media's history started from their own people... because they're worried about their culture mainly kids concern about future. Warlpiri Media started in 1983 probably same time as Ernabella - that's South Australia. Ideas didn't come from Europeans, it came from themselves in the community... because the satellite went up and that time if we been too light for our culture we wanted to say something against the satellite or against television in our territories. People gather up - they were really fair dinkum about this television and we had no gear - meaning video camera and all that. We rang up ABC in Melbourne but they had only a black and white one which they didn't want so they sent it down to us. The bloke who worked with us - his name was Eric Michaels. He is no longer with us. He passed away. He worked for the Institute for Aboriginal Studies in Canberra. He supported us and we were working under a contract with the Institute for Aboriginal Studies. And for Warlpiri Media we didn't get any money for it. The community decided to chuck in for it. Everybody put money towards it themselves. They made about ten grand - everybody chucked in - the buildings were from their own money. The store allocated three grand as a donation. We finally got buildings up and the gear. We were thinking and saying on the language, culture, law and sharing. The language is the most important - whether it be English, French, Italian - they are important - not only our language. And the culture is the same - and the law - we have to obey the two laws - one is European law, another is our law - we have to obey these two laws and join them sometimes. Another is about sharing things - Aboriginal people always share things and talk about those things and talk about which is the right way - the better way for the future. Another thing I have to talk about with the law - about media groups - the filmmakers. If filmmakers come to our community, they have to obey our laws and rules and regulations. If he doesn't, he has to leave the community. The law is about filmmaker's contract. He has to sit down with our Media Board members and discuss what he can shoot and what he cannot shoot. And the media person has to be with the film groups just in case. And if he finishes his contract, when he leaves he has to pay the contract. The contract for that media is about $200 to enter our community. Before the film goes to air we have to look at it first. If there is something we are not happy with, we tell him to cut it off. If he refuses, we take him to court. That is our policy. And last I have to talk about what Grant referred to : our Sesame Street. What we call in our language Manyuwana - Children's Playground - We'll look at it. It's in our language.

(Shows videos) Thanks a lot for paying attention. Thanks a lot for everyone".

Francis Jupurrurla's and Grant Japananga's address (quoted from a transcript above) was delivered at a community media conference held recently in Western Sydney, New South Wales. 6 The substance of the presentation had its force in their video productions of which their verbal introductions were only a small part.

The emergence of Aboriginal media in Central Australia is part of a field of events, issues and contestations in and around the subject of Aborigines and the adjective, Aboriginal. The development or invention of Aboriginal media conveys within it the expression of contestation: the land and land rights, freedom of expression, and human rights. In these claims, nothing is stronger than the right to self-determination and its links to the demand that Aboriginal people should control the ways in which they are represented. Recently, for the most part, it means the control over the production and circulation of images. It implies that the practice of audio-visual media be closely aligned to a politics of representation. Indigenous media contribute to goals of empowerment, and to the repair of cultural identity.

A number of insights into current, Aboriginal media production may be gleaned from these opening comments and their manner of presentation. First, the presentation is by two members of the Warlpiri Media Association. This conforms to Aboriginal protocols regarding performances. Two classes of performers are identified: Kirda and Kurdungulu, roughly translated as owners and workers. This complementary relationship guides the social organisation and production of any performance. Kirda (related through the father) have the rights to perform (i.e. tell or dance a story) but only in the presence of Kurdungulu (related through the mother). The Kurdungulu have the responsibility to witness and authorise the telling, and to ensure its correct performance. When Francis Kelly says in reference to Grant Granites, that "he has to put him on first to talk" which is then followed by a brief statement by Grant, the roles suggested by Kirda and Kurdungulu are being played out in that moment. One finds these same protocols guiding video production. In this way, they offer a clue to the ensuing performance of their video production - that the social and cultural formations that authorise the video make its content subservient to these protocols.

That said, the extreme reluctance to offer verbal or other explanations of their work, bespeaks an important feature of Aboriginal, social and cultural life - that the intricate body of knowledge that would be explanatory of cultural practices is rarely made available in whole or in part. In point of fact, individuals can only offer fragments of fragments of explanations - knowledge being a socially divisible commodity - distributed and shared according to laws which constrain the management of information in a predominantly orally based system of communication exchange. As within modern media systems, what is not said is more significant than what is. The difference is that the demarcations between the permissible and the taboo are fluid - you can subject television production to the general community laws (avoidance rules, kinship divisions of labour) but you must also devise strategies to cope with non-indigenous forms of intervention. This frequently takes the form of an interpretation by a non-Aboriginal person, and a difficult bind ensues in which the offer of a counter-interpretation by an Aboriginal person is necessarily lacking because of the strictures governing knowledge secrecy, but is, nonetheless, necessary to counter the authority of non-Aboriginal interpretations. The strategy then is to offer something - preferably an explanation (of a work of art or a cultural practice) that satisfies the preconceived ideas held by non-Aboriginal persons about Aboriginal art and culture - enough at least to mollify both the desire for knowledge and interpretative authority.

An example from the medium of painting exemplifies this point. "Bush-plum Dreaming" is a painting I purchased from Francis Jupurrurla Kelly. It is executed in the Warlpiri style of a "sloppy" dot painting - dot painting being a style from the Western Desert made famous at Papunya. Warlpiri painting is both derivative of and distinctive from Papunya painting. 7 Prior to its purchase, Francis gave a brief presentation to a gathering of a mainly white audience, extrapolating the "meaning" of some of the graphic elements of the painting. Again, the brevity and economy of his commentary suggests a reluctance to travel the length and breadth of his experience. Despite this, the explanations assigning meanings to various marks and patterns on the canvas carried much weight. It was especially revealing to discover that the artist (Francis Jupurrurla) had taken a "bird's eye" point-of-view in executing the painting. The appearance of flatness given by the painting orients the viewer to two, rather than three dimensions. The markings in their abstractions were said to reflect features of a landscape, kinship groupings, and traditional (Warlpiri) stories about migrations and conflicts. As part of the artist's discourse about his own work, these explanations were sufficient to satisfy the desire for an explanation that would, in an important way, detract from any tendency towards ethno-centrism in the interpretation of the painting. Nonetheless, questions regarding the meaning of the painting remained, and further attempts to explore these questions after I purchased the painting were unproductive.

My need to have these explanations was as much a part of the exchange protocol as it was a pursuit of knowledge about Aboriginal art and cultural practice. Eventually, understanding the limitations placed on the explanations offered about the painting replaced the desire for knowledge about the painting itself.

In the terms of analytical theorising, it suggests a move from looking at the cultural object itself to the conditions of its production, distribution, and especially its recuperation by an interpretative community or communities - a kind of ethnography of communication. These conditions may then be read back into a renewed appreciation of the practice or problem under consideration.

The Aboriginal development of television in Central Australia focused attention on precisely this issue of interpretation. Francis Jupurrurla as a founding Warlpiri videomaker was, and is, an important figure in the bulk of research executed at Yuendumu, a Warlpiri speaking community south of Alice Springs. This research frequently centred on the specific Warlpiri constraints on tv production: kinship and the land converged in Jukurrpa - sometimes translated as the Law - a body of traditional knowledge that encodes its cosmology in performance (dance, story, and song). The Law is a kind of communications network which uses time and space to bind communities and thereby sustain cultural inheritance. In Eric Michaels book, For A Cultural Future, 8 a section called "Restricted Expressions" suggests how the Law or Jukurrpa gets translated into certain conventions. These are worked upon, invented and altered in the process of video production to ensure that video is as much a part of the culture as it is a representation for the cultural fabric.

The key questions regarding the understanding of Aboriginal video are addressed by Eric Michaels as a trans-cultural problem. In his essay entitled "Bad Aboriginal Art", the term "bad art" is considered an ethnocentric, value judgement - a tendency in the non-Warlpiri appreciation of paintings and video. This is generally expressed as an urge to see it purged of unnecessary detail. Michaels' response was to emphasise the social practices which produce and circulate these works, rather than attempting to evolve an "independent", aesthetic system that would, in any case, be highly problematic. The intersection of non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal discourses on Aboriginal media production may also produce a highly corrosive effect on indigenous authority in the interpretation of these documents for the communities in question. Competing interpretations of ceremonies or performances spawn contradictory systems of authority that would normally guarantee the authenticity of the performances. However, it can result in disastrous consequences when too many discourses can abrogate the Law. Indeed, the whole point of supporting localised, indigenous media practice is to protect the viability of the Law and to have it reproduced in all of its manifestations. The stakes are great enough to specify what might be called "Bad Aboriginal TV" - TV in which the terms of indigenousness are appropriated by individuals and institutions unsympathetic to the values they claim to represent. There is a radicalisation of this position implied by Michaels' occasional provocations based on exploitative versions of "Aboriginality" ("It is Aboriginality that will destroy Aborigines..."). 9

The management of information and knowledge in traditional cultures long struggling with, and within dominant, European societies, suggests that critical approaches would benefit by being informed by a history of communications. (In this manner, I am anticipating the literature on emergent technologies and their epistemologies in the work of Innis). Indigenous epistemologies embodied in art and texts also evoke emergent methodologies for interpretative theory. Aboriginal painting and television appear to mediate an old problem (semiotics of difference) and a new one (semiotics of authenticity). The initial reflections on Warlpiri media by Michaels were extensions of the Whorfian hypothesis - an approach rooted in earlier, visual, anthropological research by Worth and Adair. By the time For A Cultural Future was written, the discourses about not only cultural anthropology, but art history, communications theory, and post-modern aesthetics were invoked - invoked but not exhausted by the problems under consideration.

In Michaels' quest for an adequate, interpretative model, the semiotics of difference and authenticity are collapsed: the features of Warlpiri TV designated as different are also unique and original. Nothing can really be compared to Warlpiri media (or other Aboriginal media). The differences themselves are the evidence for their uniqueness, and their uniqueness is the basis for their authenticity. But, it is not a discourse of authenticity that Michaels is seeking to install.

Anticipating the tautology of this model, Michaels stresses an extreme localism in the interpretation of Warlpiri TV, and a refusal to deal in the currency of "authenticity". Unique conventions are not meant to be generalised beyond their immediate use. Instead, conditions of production present a determinate relation between text and context. In bridging the Law and the future ("historical time"), Warlpiri media radicalises the interpretative model because it implies a "direct" representation of the world - an equation between media institution and "content". The media studies canon cannot accept this kind of equation, but in raising the example of Warlpiri media in this manner, the question of interpretative values is linked to a profound scepticism of any attempt to administer the meaning of Aboriginality. It is also, as Tom O'Regan suggests, a manner of raising the question of continuity and/or discontinuity between Warlpiri media and Western media. Michaels appears to want it both ways, though O'Regan suggests that the use of the oral/print opposition overdetermines the arguments for discontinuity between Warlpiri and Western media. 10 It is instructive in this regard to acknowledge the emergence of protocols surrounding the relations between European and Aboriginal production practices.

In the comments quoted earlier, Francis Jupurrurla Kelly suggests having to conform to two laws: Warlpiri and European. He then goes on to spell out the protocols governing the work of European filmmakers in Yuendumu.

The existence of protocols like these have been elaborated in a text compiled by Lester Bostock - an Aboriginal film and television producer, and radio broadcaster living in Sydney. The text is titled The Greater Perspective: A guideline for the production of film and television on Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. 11 Published by SBS (Special Broadcasting Service), an Australian government television network dedicated largely to "ethnic" programming, The Greater Perspective is a response to the many abuses exacted by white filmmakers and television producers on Aborigines in Australia. The guidelines are based on five principles:

1. Program makers should challenge their own prejudices and stereotyped beliefs about Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders.

2. An Aboriginal view of Aboriginal issues is preferable to a non-Aboriginal view.

3. Where non-Aborigines produce programs, they should do so in consultation with Aborigines; particularly those that are the subjects of the programs.

4. Dealings with the subjects of programs should be conducted with honesty and the subjects should be fully informed of the consequences of any proposed agreement.

5. No damage should be done to Aboriginal land or property, nor to the subjects of programs.

It is noteworthy that in both remote locales (Yuendumu) and densely populated areas, Aborigines have insisted on the protection of indigenous rights and intellectual property, and that a government broadcaster (albeit a marginal one) has supported this intervention as part of its explicitly anti-racist stance.


In the context of the emergence of Aboriginal media, Innis' critique of dependency is particularly potent. Innis believed that empires formed around relations of dependency which were inherently unstable, often provoking the use of force to contain elements resistant to the economic relations invoked by empires. Innis also attached importance to the assertion of particularism among groups - what is referred to today as localism - an increasing manisfestation of cultural assertion in the face of massive globalisation.

The strength of the oral tradition for Innis was that it could not be easily monopolised. The Aboriginal protocols regarding information management alluded to earlier exemplify this by placing great emphasis on speech and performance, and carefully controlling dissemination. When the transition to electronic media occurs, it is the values of oral culture that constrain the tendency of this media towards consumerist and centrist characteristics. By ensuring that authority, community and the Law were served by its media, Aboriginal media from central Australia worked against the monopolising tendencies of space-biased communications in making orality the dominant medium in a new, electronic, space-oriented, media environment. The manner and means of this division of labour and shared, knowledge framework has been well-documented. 12 The closer this media comes to embracing the protocols of its bureaucratic cousins to the south, the further it moves from these traditional constraints with control and interests concentrated in the hands of "experts". If Innis' insights regarding monopolies of knowledge are to be heeded, then the original impulses guiding traditional, Aboriginal media production are the only guarantors to the preservation of time, and the rights to tradition.

It is a position that is especially instructive for Western media and the civilisation it purports to serve. The margins are indeed at the centre - at the centre of understanding the need to preserve ownership of a tradition of knowledge creation, whatever the media of its transmission.


1. Paul Heyer and David Crowley, "Introduction" in H.A. Innis, The Bias of Communication (Toronto: University of Toronto, 1991).

2. H.A. Innis, "The Problem of Space" in The Bias of Communication, op. cit.

3. Liz Fell, "Space Communication: Australia in the South Pacific" in Helen Wilson (Ed.), Australian Communications in the Public Sphere (Melbourne: Macmillan, 1988).

4. James Carey. "Technology and Ideology: The Case of the Telegraph" in Communication As Culture. (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989).

5. James Carey. "Space, Time and Communications: A Tribute to Harold Innis" in Communication As Culture, ibid, p.7.

6. Francis Jupurrurla and Grant Japananga. Warlpiri Media (Nepean: UWS, July 1990).

7. Eric Michaels, For A Cultural Future: Francis Jupurrurla Makes TV At Yuendumu, Art and Criticism Monograph Series; Juan Davila and Paul Foss (Eds.), v. 3 (Sydney: Artspace, 1987).

8. Eric Michaels, "Aboriginal Content: Who Got It? Who Needs It?" Ethnographic Film Panel, Australian Screen Studies Association, (Sydney: New South Wales Institute of Technology, December 1986). Reprinted in Art & Text, nos.23-24 (1987), pp.58-79.

9. Tom O'Regan, "TV As Cultural Technology: The Work of Eric Michaels", Continuum, v.3, n.2 (1990), pp.53-98.

10. Lester Bostock The Greater Perspective (Redfern: SBS, 1990).

11. See Eric Michaels, "The Social Organization of an Australian Video Workplace", Australian Aboriginal Studies, n.1 (1984), pp.26-34.

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