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Message, Medium, Milieux

 By Elise Cotter | November 24th, 2016

What makes a space a milieu? How are they formed and what do they promise to create?

When media historian, John Durham Peters visited Concordia University as a guest speaker for the Media History Research Centre, he was delighted to hear about its association with Milieux, particularly what that name signified.

In his book The Marvellous Clouds, Peters explains that the words “milieu” and “medium” are related. They both derive from the latin word medius locus: “medium comes directly from medius, while milieu is the French descendant of medius locus or middle place; a milieu, like a medium, is a place in the middle” (Peters 2015 77). The milieu is both where the message meets the recipient, as well as the determinant of that message’s medium.

Composed of tools and techniques, the milieux determines how the message is communicated. For Peters, techniques are our bodily practices and tools are the material accessories we use to complete tasks; tools include pen, paper, trains and, now, computers and cellphones; techniques include the ability to write, walk or write HTML code (Peters 2015 87).

The milieu is not only a communicative intersection, but an actual geographic place. The medium of a message has long been integrally interdependent with geography. James W. Carey has written about media’s dependence on geography. In “Technology and Ideology: The Case of the Telegraph”, he notes that the possibility and efficacy of communication had to be measured by geographic elements because all messages had to be transported (Carey 3). That is, until the telegraph. With the invention of the telegraph, communication and transportation were divided. The need to physically transport a message was replaced by an instant form of transmission. The telegraph “not only altered the relation between communication and transportation; it also changed the fundamental ways in which communication was thought about” (Carey 3).

For Canadian communication theorist Harold Innis, it is a medium’s tools that truly matter. He placed media’s infrastructure at the heart of society. For Innis, media are the root cause of an civilization’s rise and fall. He divided media through the dimensions of time and space; time-based media are more durable yet narrow in their reach (such as infrastructure), while space-based media are much more transportable, therefore far-reaching, but ephemeral (like paper) (Innis 7). The brokers of society are its roads, radio wavelengths, and now, its social media networks. From ancient Rome’s papyrus, to Canada’s fur trade, the milieu is always the necessary intermediary.

Nowadays, with untethered, instant communication we no longer think of media as environmental. Peters hopes to return to such a way of thinking. For him, media are more than mass (television and radio) or new (websites, video games), they “are our infrastructures of being, the habitats and materials through which we act and are” (Peters 2016 2). He hopes to push the boundaries of what may be considered a medium to not only include techniques and technologies, but also cultural practices.

With Peters, media’s definition is limitless. It is the material, manners and mentalities we make use of to construct the world around us.

Whether the habitat is developed virtually to retell indigenous stories or conceptually through rhetoric, whether we are considering human-caused planetary scale transformations or social infrastructures that both enable and restrict our movement through space, we are indeed exploring our “milieux.”


Works Cited

Carey James W. “Technology and Ideology: The Case of the Telegraph”

Innis, Harold. Empire and Communications. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1950

Peters, John Durham. The Marvellous Clouds. University of Chicago Press,  2015.

Peters, John Durham. “Media of Breathing”. 2016.