Writing Nationalism

Harold Innis says a major foci of his work on communication is to “trace the implications of the media of communication for the character of knowledge and to suggest that a monopoly or oligopoly of knowledge is built up to the point that equilibrium is disturbed” (3-4). The essays making up The Bias of Communication explicate this point in considerable detail – though somewhat tautologically – and it is clear enough to see the influence of Innis’ work on such paradigmatic statements as Marshall McLuhon’s “the medium is the message” (Drucker 16) or Friedrich Kittler’s “media determine our situation” (Mitchell & Hansen vi). But I think Innis’ critical analyses of communication in history are also useful to understand the emergence of nationalism as a dominant discourse of modernism. This paper will put Innis’ commentary into conversation with Benedict Anderson influential Imagined Communities to argue writing and print-capitalism in the west functioned to bring about the imagined community of the nation discursively.

Innis’ critical prognostications on the future of the Western nations are certainly bleak – though if read as what Sacvan Berkovitch has called the “American- or Puritan- jeremiad” they become optimistic treatises invested in assumptions of Anglo-American exceptionalism. Innis’ major jeremiadic point is that “the balance between time and space has been seriously disturbed with disastrous consequences to Western civilization” (76). The most explicit manifestation of this disruption can be seen in modernity’s overwhelming privileging of writing over orality. For example, he explains, the separation of church and state as enunciated by the Puritans… recognized the clash between the written and oral tradition, the latter persisting in parliament and common law, and the former in the scriptures” (26). Subsequent concentrations of force and pedantic affairs in the infrastructure of the state and its laws has meant a privileging the writing tradition and created a need for its mastery by society as such, and a pushing away of the oral tradition into the private sphere – liberalism sees religious faith as the most private of matters.

Modernity’s greater emphasis on writing has meant ever-greater investments and “improvements in communication” that ironically “made understanding more difficult” (31). Whether in terms of law, science, culture, communication norms, western societies emphases on specialization and “commercialism has required the creation of new monopolies in language and new difficulties in understanding.” I would only point to the fact that as instructors in our composition classes, we have to each our students how to write communicative genres such as business-memos, formal-letters, emails, CVs, SoPs, etc. and how often we come across lapses of understanding – it was fairly recently that I learned when addressing a missive “To Whom It May Concern” it is improper to write “Sincerely” or “Regards” at the end. Generally speaking, this is not specific to composition and most of the modern education curriculum is directed towards “mastering the technique of [writing as technology… leaving] little possibility for considering implications of the technique” (9).

In terms of nationalism, this monopoly of language – certainly one major concern for education institutions – takes a particular imaginary function, that of monolingualism and a corresponding simultaneous consumption of space- and time-binding articulation. The imagined binding of space around a notion of vernacular singularity formed the very basis for the modern nation state in the west. Innis alludes to this in his comment that “until the Enlightenment that the historical world was conquered and until Herder and romanticism that the primacy of history over philosophy and science was established” (63) – though not spelling out the exactness of the Herderian triad as concept of historical essense drawing equivalencies between place-language-community. As Anderson explains, whereas in the pre-modern era religion and the connections made by the religious union of marriage were the sole way to establishing a community, in the age of modern discourse, people could imagine connections and communities through the language-based narratives and ritualizations of novels and newspapers. “One can sleep with anyone,” Anderson writes evocatively, “but one can only read some people’s words” (77).

Writing, specifically in the form of print-capitalism, were critically important in this project of imagined equivalency and community-articulation. Modern printing in the west, Innis says, initially developed in the Italy, which had easy access to the raw material needed to make paper. In the proto-Capitalist city-states, publishers were able to gain control of the production and dissemination of books, putting “an emphasis on commerce at the expense of the printer” (22). Fast forward a few centuries, England, in the wake of its volatile eighteenth century, “imposed taxes on paper and advertising,” pushing the industry to “change its character” and invest in the American colonies. “The prominent role of the newspaper in the American revolution,” he writes, “ was recognized in the first article of the Bill of Rights… The results were shown in the rapid expansion in exports of rags from Italy to the United States” (27).

Anderson calls the newspapers “this extraordinary mass ceremony” of modern man and it is important to understand that it functions in terms of simultaneous consumption of a written artifact binding space and time. Newspapers –especially the largest ones – were certainly products of print capitalism, operating through the revenue of advertising and circulation. But in terms of the latter – and this is where its logic is more than that of profit or material production – the reader is “well aware that the ceremony he performs is being replicated simultaneously by thousands (or millions) of others” imagined the modern nation into being every morning as read the morning paper. “What more vivid figure of the secular, historically clocked imagined community can be envisioned?” It is an imagining bounded in time – the date is printed in the corner and the stories are of things that had happened in past, but were of relevance to the present date. It is an imagining bounded in space – there are distinct sections in terms of national, regional, international, topic, etc. And of course nationally circulated papers were printed in only one tongue – the national language or in the case of the U.S. the implicit national language.

At the onset of modern nationalism, orality could offer no viable substitute for such utility of print and therefore everywhere nationalism was intially articulated in the medium of the written word. Only the advent of radio was able to offset the “bias of communication in paper and the printing industry” (60). However, at this stage, Innis charges, western democracy had already mortally “sacrificed the past and the future to the present” and national societies of the age-of-radio “was destined to be offset by planning and bureaucracy.”

Works Cited

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. New York: Verso, 1991. Print.

Bercovitch, Sacvan. The American Jeremiad. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1978. Print.

Drucker, Johanna. “Art.” Critical Terms for Media Studies. Eds. W. J. T. Mitchell & Mark B. N.Hansen. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2010. 3-18. Print.

Innis, Harold. The Bias of Communication. Toronto: University of Toronto, 2006.

Mitchell, W. J. T. & Mark B. N. Hansen. “Introduction.” Critical Terms for Media Studies. Eds. W. J. T. Mitchell & Mark B. N. Hansen. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2010. vi- xxii. Print.

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