The bias of communication

Innis taught us how to use the bias of culture and communication as an instrument of research. By directing attention to the bias or distorting power of the dominant imagery and technology of any culture, he showed us how to understand cultures. (‘Media and Cultural Change’ McLuhan’s introduction to The Bias of Communication by Harold Innis, 1964)

When Marshall McLuhan arrived at the University of Toronto after the second world war at the age of 35, fundamental pieces of his mature position were already in place. These included:

1. the importance of “inter-communication” or “essential community” in all areas of modern life — personal, familial, commercial, religious, social, national and international. McLuhan had imbued this notion 15 years earlier at the University of Manitoba through one of his professors there, Henry Wilkes Wright (1878-1959), and particularly through Wright’s 1925 book The Moral Standards of Democracy.  McLuhan studied this book intensively in the early 1930s. Andrew McLuhan confirms that McLuhan’s copy of this book, which the McLuhan family has donated to the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at UT, is heavily annotated. McLuhan’s interest in communication was then furthered at Cambridge through the work of I A Richards and, particularly, F R Leavis. The title of a collection of Leavis essays from Scrutiny published in 1933, For Continuity, expresses an idea, communication through time, that was important enough to McLuhan that it played a major role in his conversion to Catholicism a couple years later in 1937. Communication as continuity, but not as identity, particularly through time, was central to McLuhan’s very different attractions to the two great scholars he would befriend at the University of Toronto after hsi arrival there in 1946, Etienne Gilson and Harold Innis.

2. the notion that there are three “approaches” to experience whose definition is at once an “ancient quarrel” in human history and an outstanding topic of research in the domain of the human sciences and humanities. Here again, both Wright and his University of Manitoba colleague, Rupert Clendon Lodge (1886–1961) were important in supplying McLuhan not so much with an idea as with a tradition for life-long rumination. Both Wright and Lodge had backgrounds in neo-Hegelianism; importantly (beyond McLuhan, for Canadian intellectual history at large), both had contributed to the memorial volume for John Watson‘s 50th anniversary at Queen’s, Philosophical Essays Presented to John Watson. Another contributor (of 13) to that volume was Henry Carr (1880-1963), then the superior of St. Michael’s College, later the founding president of the Institute of Medieval Studies at St Mike’s (in 1929) and the person most responsible for bringing Etienne Gilson to Canada. Gilson and McLuhan would be colleagues at St Mike’s for decades following McLuhan’s appointment there in 1946, but before then Gilson had already decisively influenced the direction of McLuhan’s research. For it was Gilson (not without decided influence from Hegel on his own thought) who supplied a link between the triple “ancient quarrel” of neo-Hegelianism, which McLuhan had from Wright and Lodge, and McLuhan’s Catholicism.  This link was, of course, the history of the trivium which formed the cornerstone of McLuhan’s 1943 PhD thesis.

3. the conviction that human life is intelligible even while being (or exactly on account of being) definitively finite.  McLuhan had this conviction from Aquinas and Chesterton, and again from Gilson, but also in a different way from Leavis. It was this conviction he would later express in a letter to Martin Esslin: “One of the advantages of being a Catholic is that it confers a complete intellectual freedom to examine any and all phenomena with the absolute assurance of their intelligibility.” (Sept 23, 1971, Letters 440)

What McLuhan did not yet see when he arrived in Toronto in 1946 was how to bring these insights together into a unified program. It was just here where his new colleague at the University of Toronto, Harold Adam Innis (1894-1952), was able to supply the decisive clue in the very title of his April 1949 lecture — ‘The Bias of Communication’.

It would take McLuhan decades to understand the implications of this insight: they would emerge fully only in Take Today, his 1972 book with Barrington Nevitt.  The basic idea can be formulated as follows:

(1) All human action and experience presupposes a certain style or structure of communication.

(2) Communication is inherently biased and therefore inherently plural, since bias is inherently plural (bias would not be ‘bias’ if it were singular).

(3) The full range of communication, hence the full range of human action and experience, can be mapped on the range of bias.

(4) Bias ranges over 3 settings or “preferences”: (a) exclusive preference for one side of a communicative pair; (b) exclusive preference for the other side of that communicative pair; (c) dual or inclusive preference for both sides of that communicative pair (an inclusive preference which is possible precisely because exclusive preferences for both sides are possible).

(5) That humans are capable of mapping the range of bias is fundamentally related to the plurality of bias.  Bias could not be plural (and bias would not be ‘bias’ if it were singular) if humans were not capable, somehow, of navigating between biases: “the executive as dropout”. From the navigational position between biases (“the gap is where the action is”), humans can achieve understanding not only for both sides of any one communicative pair (and thereby dual or inclusive “preference” in regard to it) , but in fact for all possible preference states or biases for that pair (where “stress” differences introduce further variations even within a single “preference”). The same holds for all such pairs. 

In this way McLuhan was able to bring together his existing ideas of the centrality of communication in all human action and experience with the triplicity of “approaches” found in the “comparative philosophy” of Rupert Lodge, in the disciplines of the trivium and in Hegel’s “absolute” forms.  At the same time, the intelligibility of this domain could be revisioned as consisting in an ongoing set of sciences based on the structures of bias identified in this way.

Texts in Take Today setting out the importance of bias (limitation) are given here.

Also see media as atomic structures.




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