The Toronto School of Communication: An Introduction
Toronto in the 1950s, looking north on Yonge Street
It was Donald F. Theall, Marshall McLuhan’s first PhD student in English Literature, later English and Communication scholar, and President of Trent University who coined the term Toronto School of Communication, as he himself relates:-
“In 1983 in a lecture to an audience in Paris at a UNESCO sponsored symposium on McLuhan, I coined the phrase “The Toronto School of Communication” to describe this phenomenon as an analogy with what at that time was widely known as “The Cambridge School of English”. There was a deliberation in my doing this, since McLuhan as an undergraduate and then a graduate student at Cambridge was associated with this movement during its major impact on literary studies, literary theory and the connection of popular culture with those subjects. Intuitively (and most probably consciously), therefore, McLuhan viewed the multidisciplinary project that he and Carpenter started as the establishment of a “school of thought” which would have a substantial future impact (or perhaps more precisely it should be called “a school of perception” since both McLuhan and Carpenter became more concerned with percepts than concepts)”.
However, it is to be noted that others, notably David R. Olson and Derrick de Kerckhove, attribute the origin of the term “Toronto School,” though not “Toronto School of Communication”, to Jack Goody, so perhaps both Theall and Goody should get credit, the latter for “Toronto School” and the former for its expansion to “Toronto School of Communication”.
Dr. Donald Theall
Theall goes on to name the foundational figures of the Toronto School: Marshall McLuhan, Ted Carpenter, Harold Innis, also adding Eric Havelock later:
“The point at which to begin then is the coming together of McLuhan and [Ted] Carpenter within the context of Toronto in the late 1940s, a marriage of a softer, non-behavioural social scientist, a forerunner of the human sciences, with a historian of literary education and of contemporary poetry and the arts. Within this encounter, Innis ultimately played a secondary role, since the ways in which they supplemented and complemented Innis used some of his insights, but critiqued and transformed them through principles and methods derived from archeology, poetry, the medieval, Renaissance and post-Enlightenment arts, aesthetic criticism and anthropology”. The entire essay can be downloaded as a pdf from ( http://tinyurl.com/pxvdmy8 ).
The book on the Toronto School of Communication is yet to be written (although, please note the collection of essays identified below), but a number of essays available online discuss the idea in broad strokes:-
By Derrick de Kerckhove: “Havelock, McLuhan and, to a lesser degree, Innis, all addressed the issue of the structure of the communication medium itself. They have gone much deeper into the analysis, and that is where the strength of their most interesting conclusions is found. While Innis, owing to his early training in the staple theory, remained primarily concerned with the networking aspects of the ecology of a given medium, Havelock and McLuhan paid closer attention to the distinguishing features of the media themselves. They were looking for possible effects of media deep into the mechanics of the writing system or the electronic medium in question”. (essay available as a pdf from http://tinyurl.com/lqefwg8 )
By Ana Viseu: The Toronto School writes extensively on the effects of any technological change, and particularly on the effects of the change from “oral” to “written” societies. These thinkers advocate the idea of writing as the basis of western culture, or as McLuhan puts it: “By the meaningless sign linked to the meaningless sound we have built the shape and meaning of the Western man” (Olson, 1994, p. 5). The print technology – that arose from this new representation system — is associated with the “suppression of poetic consciousness, and the victory of the written word, the logos” (Kroker, 1984, p. 114). (essay available from http://tinyurl.com/mvyoj4v )
And by Elihu Katz: “McLuhan and his later adherents proposed to understand media as vehicles/engines of (a) change (b) in the mental processing (c) of individuals (d) in the long-run (e) as a result of unique technological attributes of the different media. This combines with the emphasis laid by Innis and developed by his followers on conceptualizing media’s ultimate effects as (a) change (b) in social organization (c) of societies and institutions (d) in the long-run (e) in response to shifting media ecologies. Either of these approaches thus posits that the introduction of new media technologies is destined to bring about thoroughgoing and long-lasting change.” – From Watson, R., & Blondheim, M. (Eds.) (2007). Jerusalem & Toronto: Hebrew University Magnes Press & University of Toronto Press, p. 4.
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