Bad Idea 4

The Bias of Communication


For a long time this book was going to be organized around the axes of time and space that informed Harold Innis’ foundational study, The Bias of Communication. Innis’ argument is that different media are better or worse at communicating across space versus time. For example, books seem very good at communicating over time – manuscripts from the thirteenth century are still legible and accessible – but less so over space – paper is very heavy to transport and its circulation depends on the condition of roads, overseas commerce, etc. Television, on the other hand, can reach across vast swaths of space instantaneously, but if one looks at the way television programming is preserved over time, it is a disaster, or more properly speaking, television does not preserve itself, but has to rely on subsidiary media such as tape or film. Much of this has to do not just with technologies, but also with institutions. Because television came of age within a corporate mentality, public access to televisual archives pale in comparison to bibliographic archives, to take but one example. The archivization of the internet is obviously one of the great problems facing digital communication today.

In my project I was interested in applying Innis’ categories to the medium of the book itself, to show that some book formats were very good at communicating across time (collected editions) and others at communicating across space (translation). I still think this would have been an interesting way to organize the book – and one of its aims was to challenge the recent “spatial turn” and insist on the necessity of both time and space to any cultural analysis – but it started to get overly complicated: translations are also good at preserving texts across time, and critical editions, for example, had spatial and temporal elements driving their existence (they had a preservationist mentality, but also very often contained a sense of geographic alterity as well). And then there was the problem that certain types of books, such as illustrated books, did not have much to do with either of these categories of time and space (or only indirectly, which my chapter does try and address). In the end there were too many exceptions for this organization to prove viable. Here is a sample of where that section of the introduction was heading.
Following the work of Harold Innis, who argued in The Bias of Communication that different media are more or less successful at communicating across the two axes of space and time, my observations address how books and texts, objects and language, worked in concert to regulate both the temporal and the spatial circulation of ideas in the early nineteenth century. In this, I aim to offer a corrective against the increasing spatial turn in book historical and literary studies The increasing prominence of such bibliographic formats as critical and collected editions, for example, were principally designed to promote the transmission of writing over time. They were crucially committed to a preservationist project of ensuring the survival and the wholeness of written works. The typographical and codicological enactments of an intact literary corpus, which I discuss at length in chapters two and three, were vividly on display in such books, and they were most often intended to mirror or prefigure the demarcated boundaries of an emerging national body as well. The book became a remarkably powerful symbolic representation of this new social configuration.
If collected editions and a host of related bibliographic collecting practices addressed the growing instabilities of an early-nineteenth-century temporal sensibility, it was the expansion of translations, which I discuss in chapter five, that helped to promote the establishment of more expansive and interactive cultural geographies. While a recent trend in book historical scholarship has been to emphasize the regional differences in book markets, one of the key things that an attention to books in the early nineteenth century highlights is just how international their production, circulation, and perhaps most importantly, their imagined identity, truly was. An attention to the book thus reasserts the fundamentally international identity of romanticism.