Congress Joint Session “Innis Acros the Disciplines”, May 27, 2014 14:00 – 15:30


Harold Innis public-domain library archives-canada.jpg Innis in the ’20s

Innis Across the Disciplines: New Insights, New Opportunities for the Digital Humanities Communications and History

John Michael Bonnett, H.V. Nelles, William Buxton, Geoffrey Rockwell

Time:  May 27, 2014,  14:00-15:30

Harold Innis is one of the most compelling and important figures in 20th century Canadian intellectual history. A founder of the Toronto School of Communications, his writings have proven influential in fields ranging from history to the digital humanities, and in the writings of individuals as diverse as Marshall McLuhan, John Seely Brown and the British geographer Sir Peter Hall. Despite the widely acknowledged importance of his work, however, Innis’ writings have also frustrated and challenged scholars, in large measure because of the author’s dense, elliptical verbiage. Incoherence, the Economist magazine once noted in 1946, was Harold Innis’ besetting sin. Innis’ work may not be an easy read, but scholars continue to find his writings an interesting place to visit and re-visit, in large measure because his contributions continue to yield new insights when viewed in relation to other items in his corpus, and in relation to the intellectual discourse of his time.

The purpose of this panel is to examine the past, present and potential future contributions of Innis’ writings to the disciplines of history, communications and the digital humanities. It is occasioned by the publication of John Bonnett’s Emergence and Empire: Innis, Complexity and the Trajectory of History. It will feature the insights of three senior scholars, one from each discipline, who will draw on their own understandings of Innis, and insights from Emergence and Empire, to comment on how past, present and emerging understandings of Innis present opportunities to influence the expressive, analytical and pedagogical practices of the three disciplines. It will also feature a paper from the book’s author, John Bonnett. The three scholars are:

William J. Buxton, Department of Communication Studies, Concordia University • H.V. Nelles, L.R. Wilson Professor of Canadian History, Department of History, McMaster University • Geoffrey Rockwell, Humanities Computing Program and Department of Philosophy, University of Alberta. The publication of Emergence and Empire is a propitious moment to consider Innis’ impact on the three disciplines, for two reasons.

The first is that Innis’s writings in both economic history and communications continue to generate interest amongst scholars in the social sciences and the humanities, particularly in Canada. As such, they can be used by Canadian digital humanists as a resource to inform, consolidate and legitimize their research and practices. This argument is prompted by two arguments in Emergence and Empire, the first being that Innis was an early social science proponent of information visualization; and that Innis proposed modes of analysis currently being pursued in historical GIS. By drawing on Innis, Canadian scholars in particular can argue that they are undertaking activities consistent with the finest traditions of scholarship in Canada. Innis’ writings will likely also prompt new scholarship. He pressed for GIS-like studies showing the relationship between Canada’s economic evolution and innovations in transportation infrastructure, studies to date that have not been extensively undertaken.

Emergence and Empire also presents historians and communication scholars an opportunity to reconsider Innis’ place in the intellectual context of his time. It also affords an opportunity to reconsider the relationships Innis drew between communication technologies, information flows, social cohesion, and the historical process. This claim is prompted generally by the book’s argument that Innis’ work should be viewed as a sustained meditation on the nature of historical change: Innis believed human history was governed by self-organizing systems governed by positive feedback as well as formal and final cause. More specifically, this claim is supported by two arguments of the book, that Innis independently and concurrently produced work that mirrors Norbert Wiener’s Cybernetics; and that Innis was a neo-Kantian who promoted an Idealist philosophy of history.

The task of this panel, in short, will be to re-visit each discipline’s respective understanding of Innis, to reflect on how Innis’ writings can and should influence each discipline’s practice now, and how his writings suggest the three disciplines should collaborate in future.

This panel will be a joint session of the Canadian Historical Association, the Canadian Communications Association and the Canadian Society for Digital Humanities at Congress 2014 of the Humanities & Social Sciences (see ).

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