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Innis’ Contextualisation of the Oral Tradition

In his introduction to the 1964 edition of The Bias of Communication, Marshall McLuhan characterised Innis’ writing thus: “Each sentence is a compressed monograph. He includes a small library on each page, and often incorporates a small library of references on the same page in addition”.  A single sentence on page 4 of Innis’ book and its associated footnote seems to me to show that McLuhan was quite right, at least in regard to this sentence.

The sentence itself, and the footnote, is a description of the “oral tradition”, something Innis greatly praised. The sentence, though, doesn’t seem to offer much in the way of description. It’s left to the reader to puzzle it out, possibly by examining the sentence and also seeing what can be elucidated by the footnote.

Here’s the sentence at issue: “An oral tradition[footnote] implies freshness and elasticity but students of anthropology have pointed to the binding character of custom in primitive cultures”. The sentence on its own suggests that the oral tradition which Innis prefers exists in tension with social practices regulated by custom. But it’s possible to gain a much richer understanding of Innis’ view of the oral tradition if one examines the footnote.

The footnote is a citation of a journal article entitled “Communications and Archaeology“, appearing in the May 1952 edition of the Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science. This article was actually written by Innis, and it is a response to a previous article in the same journal (published February 1951) by a person named Gordon V Childe. Childe‘s journal article is a book review of Innis’ previous monograph on communication, Empire and Communications. By tracing this scholarly lineage back along all 4 steps, it’s possible to clarify some of Innis’ ideas about the “oral tradition”. For starters, he seems to be believe that, just as there are multiple types of writing, there are multiple types of oral traditions. And it’s theoretically possible to understand and account for the possibly variations between them.

In Empire and Communications, Innis had made frequent reference to the way in which Classical Greek civilisation resisted the formation of “monopolies of knowledge” via their rich oral tradition. In his review of the work, Childe interpreted Innis to mean that such a resistance inherently resides in any example of an “oral tradition”, or means whereby knowledge is transmitted through time by spoken rather than written language (p100 of Childe’s review). As Childe notes, such a claim about the oral tradition is quite easy to disprove empirically

…the classic example of oral transmission which preserved for centuries the unwritten sacred hymns of the Hindus, commentaries and all, proves that this medium [oral transmission] can consolidate the authority of a priestly caste and its monopoly of knowledge more firmly than any script or writing material!

Innis’ May 1952 response seems almost entirely dedicated to addressing this one sentence, completely ignoring many other criticisms that Childe made about Innis’ less-than-stellar accuracy in dating historical facts and events. While Innis says a lot of interesting things in that response, there is one sentence in particular that’s of particular interest (on page 240 of Innis’ response): “Societies dominated by other media such as parchment, papyrus, and clay will vary in the character of their oral traditions”.

Returning to page 4 of The Bias of Communication, it suddenly becomes clearer why Innis wrote that “an oral tradition implies freshness and elasticity”. As I’ve claimed previously, Innis tracing of how a medium’s “bias” operated was highly contextual, with the material properties of a medium being just one of the determinants of that operation. In the case of an “oral tradition”, it’s clear from Innis’ May 1952 article that, while he may believe that the medium of “the oral tradition” in general inherently encourages “freshness and elasticity”, the operation of bias that arises out of any specific oral tradition will be an outcome of the operations of many factors, including but by no means limited to the nature of the medium itself. In “Communications and Archaeology”, those factors include the material properties of other media of communication that exist alongside the oral tradition. On page 4 of The Bias of Communication, he goes beyond material determinism and includes the factor of a social practice as affecting the way a specific oral tradition works in practice: “the binding character of custom in primitive cultures”.

Regrettably, Innis didn’t really explore these points in much more detail. While he was quite comfortable investigating the differences between different types of written (and later, printed) media, he didn’t do the same for different types of oral tradition. There are a number of quite understandable reasons for this: Innis’ own failing health, the difficulty in accessing any contemporary pure “oral tradition” at all in a world so dominated by the written medium, the lack of records left behind by historical examples of what is a purely spoken form of language. But I think it is worthwhile to accept and consider the implications of “the oral tradition” actually in practice referring to multiple different types of specific oral traditions, all of which would have different characters depending on the material and social context in which they exist.

In any case, this excursion along the chain of citations I believe demonstrates – again – that Innis was much more sensitive to the inter-operation of material (and social) practices and intellectual bias through history than the “technological determinist” epithet often applied to him would suggest.