Harold Innis: Prophet of Empire & Communications

03Jan15

Photograph of Harold Innis standing among lilacs, no date  Harold Innis, no date
Source: University of Toronto Archives/B72-0003/Box 034, file 13, 0005
© Public Domain (online source: http://tinyurl.com/o489t9j )

In view of the publication of portions of Harold Innis’s unpublished History of Communications: Paper and Printing—Antiquity to Early Modernity (see the posting below the last posting), it would be useful to read an account of this University of Toronto political economist who late in his career turned his scholarly attention to the study of media history, before media studies as an academic field even existed. Regarding Innis’s communications studies work, Marshall McLuhan later wrote: “I am pleased to think of my own book The Gutenberg Galaxy (University of Toronto Press, 1962) as a footnote to the observations of Innis on the subject of the psychic and social consequences, first of writing and then of printing” (Introduction to The Bias of Communication). Together with Marshall McLuhan, Harold Innis is the principal figure of what some call the Toronto School of Communication (see Wikipedia http://tinyurl.com/nrzreqv ).

This is an excerpt of a longer article, which you should read in its entirety by following the link after it, by Randall White, titled A marginal junior American hick Baptist in dark times,  “hick Baptist” being a term McLuhan once used to describe Innis. White divides McLuhan’s career into two parts, the first being The First Harold Innis: Poet of The Fur Trade in Canada. The following excerpt describes The Second Harold Innis.

***** 

The Second Harold Innis: Prophet of Empire and Communications

The first Harold Innis is still sometimes said to be the inventor of the so-called “staples theory” of the growth of the modern Canadian resource economy. He (and others whose work he encouraged, sometimes with grants from the Carnegie Endowment in the United States, and then from the earliest beginnings of Canada’s own federal-government-funded academic research support system) followed up his path-breaking research on the first northern resource economy of the fur trade with parallel studies of its later successors – in the forest industries, mining, the cod fisheries, the wheat economy, and so forth. (Oil and gas – the most glittering jewel of the Canadian resource economy today – had just begun to come on stream during Innis’s last years.)

In the early 1940s Innis himself became intrigued by the newsprint sector of the forest industries. This was finally about how the news was communicated. And it logically enough led to his second incarnation, as a rough-hewn pioneering theorist of the role of changing communications technologies in the rise and fall of global empires.

 One further part of the background here was that the Canada of the early 1940s was  still a quite conscious part of the old global civilization of the British Empire. Another  was that during the Second World War the United States started to take over the  leadership of this particular empire from the United Kingdom – in a kind of second fit  of the original “absence of mind” with which the United Kingdom had acquired the  enterprise in the first place. And Canada of course lived right next door to the United  States.

The later Innis’s theorizing on his new subject did not draw on or refer directly to contemporary examples. With his congenital instinct to get at the earliest roots of things (as in the case of the fur trade which began the Canadian resource economy), he turned to the role of communications technologies in the most ancient known empires of the Middle East and Europe. His one premature and quite unfinished attempt to write about his later enthusiasms systematically was in a book called Empire and Communications, first published in 1950 by Oxford University Press. And this book has a half-dozen main parts, respectively entitled: “Egypt”; “Babylonia” (in approximately present-day Iraq); “The Oral Tradition and Greek Civilization”; “The Written Tradition and the Roman Empire”; “Parchment and Paper”; and “Paper and the Printing Press.”

This was the Harold Innis who inspired Marshall McLuhan. The later Innis was preoccupied by the thought that different kinds of communications media have different kinds of centralizing and decentralizing impacts on imperial (or “global”) political and economic projects (and on the management of any other large human organization, for that matter). From here it was only a short distance to McLuhan the literary critic’s oracular pronouncement that “the medium is the message” – and to much else in McLuhan’s almost experimental writing and talking of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s (including his appearance in a Woody Allen movie, and his encounters with the San Francisco advertising guru, Howard Luck Gossage).

Innis the economic historian’s own more restrained (and subtly complex) version of McLuhan’s signature theme is suggested in the title of a collection of his later public addresses and other occasional essays called The Bias of Communication, first published by the University of Toronto Press in 1951. During the late 1940s and early 1950s as well, in public addresses and occasional essays collected elsewhere after his death (see the Note on Reading below), Innis also alluded not all that subtly to the policy implications of his ivory-tower research on empire and communications for the big picture of current political and economic events, in a way that McLuhan would never stoop (or dare?) to touch.

  Read the rest at http://www.counterweights.ca/2006/03/hick/ .

A 2-page spread of Harold Innis’s annotations to Empire and Communications 

Click the box to view:

See http://tinyurl.com/pfezemq 

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