The study of communication history is itself historically recent. Until the late nineteenth century, no one thought of communication as an entity unto itself that was distinct from domains such as transportation, publishing, exchange, language, or speech. The idea that there was such a thing as communication and that it had a history emerged in nineteenth-century history and political economy among ﬁgures such as Tocqueville and Guizot in France, Mill in England, and Knies and Schäﬄe in Germany. Two representative ﬁgures who consolidated this work sociologically in the early twentieth century were Charles Horton Cooley in the United States and Werner Sombart in Germany. Cooley’s dictum that “transportation is physical, communication is psychical” was one stop in the long journey of the concept of communication from material to metaphysical modes of carriage.1 By the 1930s, outlines for a history of communication were taking shape in thinkers such as Lewis Mumford, John Dewey, Edward Sapir, Walter Benjamin and his fellow-travelers in the Frankfurt School, but the key ﬁgure is probably the Canadian political economic historian, Harold Adams Innis (1894-1952), who devoted the last years of his cancer-shortened life to preparing a series of essays, books, and a massive incomplete manuscript on the history of communication. Starting his career with the study of staples and ending it with the study of media, Innis’s subject was always the crucial role played by networks and materials of exchange. He too did his bit to push the concept of communication in a more symbolic direction. Many of his colleagues seemed to have thought Innis a bit mad to place
media of communication alongside such traditional drivers of world history as politics, markets, war, demography, and culture. To be sure, Innis could sound a bit monomaniacal about his new key to the rise and fall of civilizations. Read uncharitably, Innis’s discovery that the oral tradition, stone, clay, papyrus, parchment, and paper would each produce a diﬀerent social and political life and kind of historical record might seem banal. Read generously, Innis was more than simply adding another topic to the historian’s repertoire. Once admitted into the study of history, communication was a theme that threatened – or promised – to revolutionize the entire enterprise. As he wrote in 1949, “Our knowledge of other civilizations depends in large part on the
character of the media used by each civilization insofar as it is capable of being preserved or of being made accessible by discovery.”2 Our knowledge of the past is a question of media. Innis not only invented the history of media; he also discovered the media of history. For Innis, history is a problem of communication over time and space, and
every medium selectively transmits, records, and makes accessible to discovery. Each medium of history – documents, ruins, household artifacts, bones, DNA, or whatever else has survived the journey from past to present – has inherent biases. Historians who study long temporal spans, Innis noted, usually overemphasize religion and neglect bureaucracy because the documents that endure are typically designed by time-conserving agents like sages and priests rather than space-controlling agents like lawyers and merchants. The choice of topic and method a priori swerves the record. Interpreting the past means not only reading the content of the historical record but studying the constitution of the record itself. “Bias” implied not only potential threats to objectivity: Innis had in mind the textile metaphor of a slant cut. Historians necessarily read along the diagonal. Inasmuch as they reﬂect on the conditions of their own practice, historians are necessarily media scholars. Communication scholars have hardly sounded our deep resonances with the
task of history-writing. Both ﬁelds face the methodological problem of how to interpret under conditions of remoteness and estrangement. They share a strikingly common vocabulary of sources, records, meanings, and transmissions. Though media studies in particular has typically focused more on diﬀusion over space, media also enable duration over time. Transmission and recording, the overcoming of space and of time, are central themes to both ﬁelds. Recording is the act of inscribing something in enduring form; transmission is the act of sending a record across some kind of distance, whether space or time; and interpretation is the act of receiving transmitted records and putting them to work in the present. Historical research is always a matter of triangulating record, transmission, and interpretation. In this essay, I propose to explore the convergence of the philosophy of history and communication theory with the hope not only of enlarging our vision of what communication history might be, but also of aiding recognition of how central problems of communication are to the study of history. Communication history is not only a supplement to historical inquiry; it is a challenge to how we approach history itself. Historians already have an acute sensitivity to questions of mediation. Their
business is to evaluate documents in terms of their date, provenance, author, authenticity, tradition, and so on. A historian’s ﬁrst question of a document is not, What does it say?, but rather, How did it come to be?, or perhaps even more, How did it end up here? The very fact that it (still) exists at all may be the most telling fact. All historians are media scholars in the sense that they read texts and artifacts in terms of their processes of production and distribution. The past is constellated by the gap between past and present and is shaped by the very historical processes we are trying to understand.