Liam Cole Young is a faculty member of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication in Ottawa, Canada, where he researches and teaches media and cultural materialism. He is the author of List Cultures: Knowledge and Poetics from Mesopotamia to BuzzFeed (Amsterdam University Press, 2017), which traces listing as a cultural technique of administration and imagination.
Prior to arriving at Carleton, he was Assistant Professor in Trent University’s Department of Cultural Studies and taught in Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies (FIMS), where he earned a Ph.D. in Media Studies.
Dated from 2018
IKKM Research Project
Salt: A Media History
This project investigates the global history of salt as a staple good and an “elemental” medium. It proposes salt as an emblem or paradigm through which to observe emergent infrastructures of civilization and empire.
The project begins by inverting one of media theory’s most influential formulations. In 1960, two years before The Gutenberg Galaxy, Marshall McLuhan conceived of media as staples, as “natural resources in the fullest and most unqualified sense. But the resource which they constitute and which they tap is the human sensorium itself.” McLuhan derived this conception from Harold Innis’s pioneering ‘staples thesis’ in economic history. Innis proposed that staples such as fur, fish, and timber are central to the emergence of economy, culture, and even civilization—particularly in peripheral zones like Canada. McLuhan proceeded by analogy in applying the staples thesis to technical devices and systems of modernity, “media,” to which he attributed similar civilizational implications. Much work has expanded and extended McLuhan’s theses, but almost none has fed his media concept back onto the staples that enabled them. My animating question is thus: how can staples be considered as media, and what might such analysis bring to media theory?
Salt offers a privileged view onto such questions. It performs functions typically associated with media: processing foodstuffs for storage and transportation, enabling trade, commerce, and war between empires. For millennia, its pursuit has established geographic boundaries and navigational patterns upon which social and political orders are founded. Early human migration and settlement patterns are characterized by the pursuit of salt via techniques of mining, such as at Duzdagi in Azerbajan ca. 3500 BCE, refining, such as at Go O Chua on the Mekong River Delta ca. 900 BCE, or trade, such as at Jericho as early as 9000 BCE.
To investigate such a global history of salt contributes to Peters’s call for viewing elements from the natural world in a new light as infrastructural moorings upon which culture and civilization are built. These wider chains of supply, transportation and circulation also resonate with recent studies that position infrastructure and logistics as key sites of media-theoretical inquiry.
Young, Liam C. (2017). List Cultures: Knowledge and Poetics from Mesopotamia to Buzzfeed. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.
Young, Liam C. (2017). “Innis’s Infrastructure: Dirt, Beavers and Documents in Material Media Theory.” Cultural Politics 13.2.
Young, Liam C. (2016). “Foreword: Wolfgang Ernst’s Media-Archaeological Soundings” in Wolfgang Ernst, Sonic Time Machines (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2016).
Young, Liam C. (2015). “Cultural techniques and logistical media: Tuning Anglo-American and German media studies.” M/C Journal 18.2.