© Ian Angus and Figure/Ground Communication
Dr. Angus was interviewed by Laureano Ralon on August 25th, 2010
Ian Angus is currently Professor of Humanities at Simon Fraser University. He emigrated from England to Canada in 1958 and currently lives in East Vancouver with his wife Viviana and daughter Cassandra. While an undergraduate student at the University of Waterloo in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he became involved in the politics of the New Left. While this influence has changed and developed, it has never left his work. Ian’s intellectual formation began at the same time with the 20th century European philosophies of phenomenology and the Frankfurt School of critical theory. His dissertation from the Graduate Programme in Social and Political Thought at York University was revised into a first book, Technique and Enlightenment (1984) which probed the historical sources of the ‘instrumental reason’ that legitimates the modern advance of technology and argued for a form of technology assessment that is not only ethical but pertains also to the construction of human identity. A significant turn in Angus’ work occurred when he began a critical engagement with the history of English Canadian social and political thought, which resulted in A Border Within: National Identity, Cultural Plurality and Wilderness (1997), which was widely reviewed in both the academic and popular press. Ian writes on philosophy, politics, social movements, technology, communication and the university. Some of his essays are available on his web site.
You were born in London, England. How old were you when you emigrated to Canada, and what made you finally settle in Vancouver?
I was 9 years old during the one-week boat trip from England to Canada in 1958. We came first to the Toronto area and then to Sarnia, Ontario where I continued to live until I finished high school. The Chemical Valley (as it was called locally) south of Sarnia had during the 1960s the highest hourly wage in Canada. So, like many other working class families, we had come in search of steady, well-paid work. When I finished my B.A. degree in Philosophy at the University of Waterloo, I travelled across the country with my good friend Ken Epps. Vancouver in 1971 was quite a place and I swore that I’d come back the first chance I got. As it turned out, my dissertation advisor Bill Leiss managed to get me 2 years work in the Communication Department at Simon Fraser University (SFU) from 1981-3. At that time Vancouver was a provincial city in the best sense. People were intensely interested in what was going on around them and much less concerned with distant places like Toronto, New York and Paris. The current disease of following intellectual fashions from the leading centres hadn’t taken hold. I found that students, artists and activists were much more interested in what local people had to say, because we were here and involved, than in our sources and citations. It was an immensely freeing atmosphere for me after having just finished a Ph.D. dissertation in Toronto—in which the references, sources and commentary usually overwhelm any independent thought. My contract wasn’t renewed during the government cutback years of the mid-80s and the Solidarity campaign against them, so I moved back East, then wandered to the USA in search of work, and finally grabbed a chance at a continuing job at SFU in 1992. I had always wanted to come back, both to Vancouver and SFU, but found that when I did things had fundamentally changed. Vancouver had become a minor cog in the fashionable attempt to become “world-class” and SFU’s radical and innovative history had settled down into work-a-day grinding out of graduates—luckily this was still not the whole story. I still love Vancouver and a number of interesting things are happening at SFU but there’s no doubt that the tide has long since turned.
How did you decide to become a university professor and how long have you been doing this now?
I didn’t really think about being a university professor until very late. I was not a willing participant in high school and wasn’t really interested in learning anything until I got to university. I was only interested in rock and roll and science fiction. Even then, it wasn’t the classroom that turned me on to ideas but the 1960s and the student movement. Since then, radical politics and philosophy have been my twin passions. They diverge often but they never manage to separate entirely. After this turn-on, I read Marx, Plato, Hegel, Sartre, Orwell and Joyce with a passion that has scarcely diminished since—and then, when I was ready of course, I found some good teachers. When I was working on my dissertation my funding ran out and I had to look for work to support myself and my family. I got work teaching in the alternative Integrated Studies Programme at the University of Waterloo and discovered there that I really enjoyed communicating ideas and helping people to think for themselves. So, I came to have a passion for teaching, but it came late as a consequence of my involvement with ideas and is not separable from that.
What makes a good teacher today? How do you manage to command attention in the classroom in an “age of interruption” characterized by information overload?
I suspect that what makes a good teacher these days is the same as it ever was: dedication to the subject matter, a desire to communicate it, and a concern that students develop their capacity to express clearly and profoundly their own ideas. Nevertheless, it is true that the surrounding ecology of media has changed to such an extent that it takes an effort to enter into book-and-lecture culture if one has been formed by, as you say, information overflow. It takes a capacity to turn off the information overload and seek quiet and solitude which is where thought grows. There is a lot of pessimism about this these days but I take some heart from the observation that quite a few young people have doubts about the culture in which they exist. Usually this begins at the cultural or political level but, given the pervasiveness of media issues, it often extends into the media ecology. I took a few years off teaching to get away from the pressure to dumb-down and spoon-feed that is everywhere these days, but I’m going to go back into the classroom soon with basically the same attitude as before—though I will use more Internet sources of classical works. Part of the issue is concealed in your question: one can’t “command” attention in any other way than by speaking seriously and existentially about something that matters. Other than that, I take the view that if one isn’t listening and participating then s/he shouldn’t be in the classroom. I kick such people out. But I suspect that there is a better answer to your question that I can give. I’m traditionally trained in the European philosophical style and my instincts are still the same on teaching issues. One thing that has clearly happened already is that the book-and-lecture culture of the university now diverges much more than previously from the information overflow culture in which it is embedded, causing a conflict of expectations that today’s students must negotiate.
Let’s get technical. Your book Primal Scenes in Communication blew my mind as an MA student – particularly your account of the debate between Williams and McLuhan, i.e., of representation vs. constitution. It seems to me that that particular exchange was representative of a paradigm shift that took place in the humanities and social sciences in the late 60s and early 70s. Do you agree with this? And whose “legacy” do you think will be more long-lasting?
It’s true that the book attempts to come to grips with the paradigm shift to language in the humanities and social sciences and yet not get stuck in what seemed to me some of the vagaries of that approach at the time (often called post-modernism). It attempts to synthesize phenomenology and communication theory in the tradition of Innis and (to some extent) McLuhan as well as address several key issues such as consumerism, capitalism, free press, etc. It’s interesting that you point to my account of the Williams-McLuhan debate because that is the part of the book that makes the most fundamental contribution. (It is also the section that Gary Genosko chose to use in his massive compilation of writing about McLuhan.) There are two distinctions made in this discussion that have not yet succeeded in making sufficient impact in the field of communication.
The first is, as you say, the distinction between representation and constitution. Every medium represents a content—tv contains the news, drama, advertising, etc. but it also constitutes a social relationship through its form—the form of broadcasting from a single source to multiple receivers. A medium is a combination of content and form. Williams, like most Marxists, was focussed on content, but in his account of the “continuous flow” of televisual experience began to approach its form. McLuhan was focussed on form, and the comparative forms of different media, and tended to reduce content to a previous form. So, this distinction lays the groundwork for a two-tiered approach to communication that sorts out, I think, certain misunderstandings in debates about media effects.
In the course of working this out, I also had to address the relationship between communication and technology. My dissertation work was done under Bill Leiss on the philosophy of technology in phenomenology and the Frankfurt School and this was the field in which I had expected to make my contribution. Due to the difficulty of finding work—I was underemployed, unemployed, and on short-term contracts for 10 years—I ending up teaching in several different fields, such as communication and cultural studies. I was struck by how prominent the theme of technology was in communication studies when, at the time, philosophy of technology was not a recognized field as such, so this was my chance to work out the relationship between communication and technology. In sum, I argue that any ensemble of social relations and material objects can be viewed either from the viewpoint of its results, in which case it is a technology, or from the viewpoint of its internal organization, in which case it is a form of communication in the constitutive sense of social relations. Thus, technology and communication are not different objects but different ways of viewing a social-material ensemble. I think that this is the most important contribution of the book. Andy Feenberg has suggested that Primal Scenes is a philosophy of technology disguised as a theory of communication which I think is a perceptive comment, though I would add that this “disguise” is a necessary one depending on the specialized perspective that one adopts.
One of your most provocative statements in Primal Scenes was your suggestion that McLuhan’s most famous aphorism, “The Medium is the Message,” should in fact be “The Message is the Medium.” What did you mean by that?
For McLuhan the medium has no content as such, rather the content is a previous medium. The content of television is the play, the town crier, and the huckster, for example. This is how he imbeds media ecology within a regress that at its limits refers simply to the content of the world. McLuhan used this phrase to indicate that the real effect of a message is not through its content but through the medium which carries it and founds new cultural-social relations. This is somewhat opaque, it seems to me, in that, rather than reducing the medium to the message as the phrase suggests, McLuhan actually reduces the message to the medium. By reversing this phrase, I intended to emphasize that this is the real nature of the McLuhanist reduction and thereby to enable a connection of McLuhanist media studies to a phenomenology of worldly experience as its origin.
Media Ecology, Canadian Communication Studies, Medium Theory, The Toronto School of Communication. Is there a difference between these terms in your view?
At a broad referential, or journalistic, level they refer to the same approach to communications but if one approaches the issue from a more analytical and theoretical angle, then there are important differences. The “Toronto School,” for example, constructs its reference through a spatial pseudo-concretion: Were the main thinkers all in Toronto? Does their being in Toronto have anything to do with the theory? Does the theory only apply to Toronto? Are thinkers from outside Toronto in principle excluded, such as Eric Havelock, Don Idhe or the role of members of the McGill University or Simon Fraser University Communication Departments in developing the theory? Etc. “Canadian” is more descriptive because certain features of the media theory approach are definitely and relevantly connected to Canadian history—the role of transportation and communication in a dependent economy especially. But even here it is clear that other dependent economies have similar features — this is one of the productive aspects of the theory — as Brian Shoesmith and I tried to show by editing a special issue of Continuum on Innis studies in Australia and Canada. “Medium theory” and “media ecology” are better, in my view, because they go directly to the heart of what is distinctive about the theory. I would prefer the second insofar as it is the comparative approach between media that is distinctive of the approach, not the isolated study of one medium’s supposedly intrinsic characteristics. It is the available translations between media that constructs a given culture.
In teaching, I used to just say “Innis, McLuhan and all that.” When challenged by my student Shakuntala Rao to come up with something better, I invented “comparative media theory” and that is what I have used since, because the theory is about media in the plural, is comparative between them and about their interactions, and is a theory in the sense that it is held together by basic philosophical suppositions that require justification. But “media ecology” is a more elegant term and has become more widely accepted. Nevertheless, it has the disadvantage that it might seem that the formal and comparative approach to media is necessarily tied to ecology in the natural scientific, environmentalist, or naturalist sense. This is rather a challenge for the theory’s development rather than a given, so I would be careful about that. A name is just a name, after all, and what is important is that the theory is used as a point of departure rather than a received truth.
McLuhan is often regarded as one of the forerunners of post-structuralism. We know that Jean Baudrillard – perhaps one of the most representative figures of postmodern thought – was “born again” after reading McLuhan, and during the 80s and 90s, he was even regarded as his successor. Douglas Kellner wrote a piece entitled “Baudrillard: A New McLuhan?” and Gary Genosko published a book entitled “McLuhan and Baudrillard: Masters of Implosion.” Now, without denying this affinity, I personally believe Baudrillard’s work didn’t really advance McLuhan’s but led it to a dead end. I feel McLuhan’s philosophy – with his emphasis on the senses, embodiment and mediation – has more elements in common with Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and the existential turn. What’s your opinion on this?
Reading McLuhan certainly took Baudrillard from the realist interpretation of Marxism which dominated his early works toward analyses based in the constitutive power of media but unfortunately it led him to believe that this constitutive power was based on no relation to the world at all. Moving from representation to constitution in media studies is very important but Baudrillard is a telling example of how this can go wrong: one takes media representations as if they were themselves constitutive, instead of moving to another level of analysis. This is why I contest his thesis of the “loss of authenticity” in Primal Scenes and argue instead that the external media of the media ecology construct a “staged authenticity” within a given medium. This is a special case of the basic philosophical claim in my approach to communication studies—that representation within a given medium is an effect of the constitutive relations of the media ecology external to the given medium. So, I don’t think that, in the end, Baudrillard added much to McLuhan and, yes, I agree with you that the connection to phenomenology is crucial to maintaining an analysis of experience and thereby social criticism. In Primal Scenes I stayed more with Husserl’s analyses of language and signs, but in the end it is the thread of the “living body” in Husserl which is carried forward by Merleau-Ponty’s focus on the senses (especially his wonderful essays on painting) which is most basic here.
In one of your articles, Phenomenology as Critique of Institutions: Movements, Authentic Sociality and Nothingness, you write: “the original demand of phenomenology is that theoretical and scientific judgments must be based upon the giving of the ‘things themselves’ in self-evident intuition. This demand could only emerge as such if the thinker was already gripped by a suspicion that many claims to knowledge, or adequate evidence, were not actually such. For this reason, phenomenology re-experiences and radicalizes the situation described by Descartes in the first part of Discourse on Method: there are many authorities that contradict each other, many different approaches and things to consider; the only course of action is to think everything through from the start for oneself.” It’s true that Descartes’ move can be taken as a sort of reduction, but is phenomenology a philosophy in the first-person? Yes, it all begins with subjectivity, but how do we make sure that subjectivity doesn’t degrade into radical, individual subjectivism. Isn’t there more to the “I” than the “I” that says “I”, to paraphrase Derrida? Isn’t there a sense, as George Grant says, in which “I’m not my own”? Isn’t there a sense in which “I am what I’m not and I’m not what I am,” following Sartre?
In using Descartes as an introduction to phenomenology in this way I am doing no more than following Husserl’s most fundamental orientation. However, Descartes has become the object of critique for several reasons these days—which raises important questions for the conception of phenomenology, even though Ludwig Landgrebe’s early article “Husserl’s Departure from Cartesianism,” especially when combined with Eugen Fink’s work, answers them adequately. Phenomenology is definitely undertaken in the first person through adequate evidence. It is this which makes it philosophy rather than speculative theorizing. One of the contemporary questions this raises is, as you suggest, whether such an approach does not condemn one to a personal and uncritical subjectivity. This was a question which Husserl already addressed through the concept of intentionality. Perception is always perception of x and is thus not enclosed within personal subjectivity as in Descartes but is an opening onto the world.
It also has implications for how one understands the “I.” If one defines the “I” provisionally as that which is aware of itself, or, self-interpreting, then it is clear that the “I” that is interpreting is not simply identical to the “I” that is interpreted. There is always more to the “I” as experienced within an indefinite horizon than can be represented to itself as an object (noema) of perception or thought. One should then attend carefully not only to the “I” that is interpreted (the I that I say I am), but also the “I” that says “I” (the unthematic and impersonal “I” that is the source of perception and thought and which thus always escapes full thematization), and the self-closure, one might say, of the “I” from others and its surrounding world that is necessary to saying “I”. It is the first of these that Derrida is referring to and the second to which Sartre refers. The third is Grant’s concern, which is quite similar to Levinas’ in that it is about the construction of an “I” as against others and therefore the ground of ethics as opening to another. These are all aspects of a phenomenology of the “I” as I have sketched it provisionally. In (Dis)figurations (Verso, 2000) I explained why I didn’t see Levinas as opposed to phenomenology (as he claims).
When we were scheduling this interview, you said that “this is a new era of reading in which such public-action is overtaking the book and journal. It needs to be done seriously and at a high intellectual level to combat the mountains of crap that are out there.” McLuhan himself said that specialism no longer holds in an age of information; however, he was often accused of covering a lot of ground but merely touching the surface of phenomena. Do you think it’s possible to be a serious generalist?
It’s easy to be too carried away by the Internet which is, after all, still a very new phenomenon. Many over-simplifications abound. First it was said that it would do away with reading, then it was pointed out that there is even more reading with Internet text. It obviously needs more specification to analyze what kind of reading is involved and whether it has the same assumptions and consequences as reading novels, systematic philosophy, post-it notes, letters, etc. Even so, it does seem that the Internet is undermining paper-based print to a sufficient extent to anticipate a new era of public-action in which, among other things, old authorities are being undermined and new authorities are being legitimated. I regard McLuhan’s phrase, like many of his phrases, as a brilliant, provoking sally, but no more than that. It’s ironic that McLuhan said that he didn’t have a theory and wasn’t bound by his previous pronouncements, whereas a lot of McLuhanites take his pronouncements canonically.
Every real thinking requires that one scale down. One can’t think about everything at once. In that sense, some specialization is required by thinking and this will not change except to the extent that thinking simply degenerates into recycling clichés and unfounded generalizations. Such degeneration has always been with us, however the sheer scale of material available on the Internet may well accelerate this possibility. This requires serious study. The difficulty is that the specialization necessary to thinking is often confused with disciplinary specialization as it has evolved within the university. In my view, while excellent disciplinary work can obviously be done, interdisciplinarity responds to changes in our current world in which the foundations of modern knowledge and its disciplinary specializations are being transformed. To be a generalist in this sense is to open oneself to the transformations of the world, to be a phenomenologist in responding to experiential rather than academic questions, and I certainly think that it is both possible and necessary.
What are you currently working on and when is your next book coming out?
Well, I published a book on English Canadian philosophy in 2008 (Identity and Justice, University of Toronto Press) and a book on the university in 2009 (Love the Questions: University Education and Enlightenment, Arbeiter Ring Press) — you can see an excerpt in Truthout under the title “Does the University Have a Future in the Network Society?” so perhaps I can be forgiven for not having another book coming out soon. Recently, I’ve been talking a fair bit about contemporary problems of the university. You may be interested in an interview with Bob Hanke on the topic in Canadian Journal of Media Studies. Other than that, I’m in a period of transition in which I’ve been simultaneously going back to my roots in phenomenology and Marxism and looking at contemporary changes in knowledge formation, storage and transmission (an issue which emerged as central in the university book). I’m tentatively planning a rather long and systematic work, but this is in its very early stages and I can really say no more about it.
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