Innis, McLuhan and “the “power of metamorphosis”

There does not exist, nor will there ever exist, any treatise of mine dealing with this subject. For it does not at all admit of theoretical expression like other studies, but, as a result of continued application to the subject itself and communion about it, it is brought to birth in the soul on a sudden, as light that is kindled by a leaping spark, and thereafter it nourishes itself. (Plato, Seventh Letter, 341c-d)1 

The words spoken by the muzhik had the effect of an electric spark in his soul, suddenly transforming and uniting into one the whole swarm of disjointed, impotent, separate thoughts which had never ceased to occupy him. (…) He felt something new in his soul and delightedly probed this new thing, not yet knowing what it was (…) “And suddenly (…) I understand him from a hint!” (Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, trans Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky)

My aversion to publishing anything has not been due to want of interest in others but to the thought that after all a philosophy can only be passed from mouth to mouth, where there is opportunity to object & cross-question & that printing is not publishing unless the matter be pretty frivolous.” (C.S. Peirce to Lady Welby, letter of December 2, 1904)

The soul (…) has a slow and dark birth, more mysterious than the birth of the body. (Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man)

The printing press and the radio address the world instead of the individual. Their dialectic is overwhelmingly significant to subjects whose subject matter is human action and feeling and is important in the discovery of new truth, but is of very little value in disseminating it. (Innis, A Critical Review)2

By the middle 1930’s, if not earlier, Harold Innis had become highly suspicious of information packaging in modern media like newspapers and radio, but just as much in academic research — including his own.3 He was clear that all information processing inevitably had an element of self-interest and/or of purchased interest and could sense that this inevitable “bias” would precipitate a crisis of civilization.

Starting sometime later, but by the early 1940s at the latest, he began to look into Eric Havelock’s research on “the use of epic poetry as a technique for inter-generational communication of the ‘cultural baggage’ of a non-literate people”.4 Communication as information packaging in modern society and in pre-classical Greece gave him two historical data points 2500 years apart. It must have occurred to him that further data points could be defined by correlating other communication media with their historical and cultural contexts. In fact, the chapters of Empire and Communications (1950) constitute just such a series of civilization/media data points:

Egypt [and “the shift from dependence on stone to dependence on papyrus”]
Babylonia [and questions of clay, scripts and languages]
The Oral Tradition And Greek Civilization
The Written Tradition And The Roman Empire
Parchment And Paper
Paper And The Printing Press

McLuhan was not alone in pointing out that Innis’ economics research into the pervasive and often surprising effects of staple products on the societies processing and transporting them, and on ‘The Penetrative Powers of the Price System’ (1938), provided models for the investigation of the complex relationships between communications media and their social-cultural-political correlates.

But the extension of his data points over a 5000-year history was intended by Innis to be more than a series of snapshots of communication revolutions. The first two sentences of Empire and Communications read: 

The twentieth century has been notable in the concern with studies of civilizations. Spengler, Toynbee, Kroeber, Sorokin, and others have produced works, designed to throw light on the causes of the rise and decline of civilizations, which have reflected an intense interest in the possible future of our own civilization.

Innis’ object, too, was to address “the possible future of our own civilization”. And his central concern was to investigate whether social science could surmount what he called “the fundamental solipsism of Western civilization”5 and thereby become a sort of gyroscope for use in navigating that future. In investigating the space-time implications of the communication capabilities of civilizations since the beginning of recorded history, the hope was to uncover an indirect way around the problem of “fundamental solipsism” through a kind of social science relativity theory. As Innis wrote as early as 1942! in ‘The Newspaper in Economic Development’:

The concepts of time and space must be made relative and elastic and the attention given by the social scientists to problems of space should be paralleled by attention to problems of time.6

This intention of Innis’ work was noted by McLuhan in his ‘Introduction’ to the 1964 reissue of 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. Many scholars had made us aware of the “difficulty of assessing the quality of a culture of which we are a part — or of assessing the quality of a culture of which we are not a part.” (1327) Innis was perhaps the first to make of this vulnerable fact of all scholarly outlook the prime opportunity for research and discovery.

Also by  Graeme Patterson’ in History and Communications (1990):

Beginning with the late work, however, [Innis] began to write about the relativity , or “bias” of media both in relation to each other and to space and time. In this instance his pattern of thought resembles relativity theory, which he probably took as a model to escape the “mechanical” theory he so disliked and mistrusted. It offered him an escape from determinism. (79)

And by John Watson in his 2007 ‘Introduction’ to Empire and Communications:

What Innis was attempting to do in the social sciences was to develop a grand synthesis akin to the quest to develop a “unified field theory” in post-relativity science. He was attempting to develop and merge a theory of politics or imperialism (drawing largely on the work of classics scholars) with a theory of consciousness (drawing on scholars researching the concept of time and space) and a theory of technology (based on an understanding of the biases of media of communications). In so doing, he hoped to overcome the persistent problem of objectivity in the social sciences and provide a means of escape from the limitations of contemporary worldviews [like those of “Spengler, Toynbee, Kroeber, Sorokin and others”]. Although Innis did not successfully complete this grand synthesis, his work in my opinion does not represent a dead end but a rich scholarly vein that has been abandoned long before it is exhausted. Innis offers an immensely suggestive way forward in a world dominated by “spin”, punditry, and commercialism.

However, Watson was deeply mistaken in suggesting that the need for Innis, or for us after him, was to “successfully complete this grand synthesis” by going all the “way forward” to some supposed end of the lateral “vein” exposed by him.

Innis did not live long enough to come to grips with two suggestions made in this connection by McLuhan in the programmatic letter he wrote to Innis on March 14, 1951 (Letters 220-224).

The first of these was the strange notion that the only “way forward” was a labyrinthine way backward:

One major discovery of the symbolists which had the greatest importance for subsequent investigation was their notion of the learning process as a labyrinth of the senses and faculties whose retracing provided the key to all arts and sciences (…) Retracing becomes in modern historical scholarship the technique of reconstruction.8


But whereas Machiavelli was concerned with the use of society as raw material for the arts of power, [Wyndham] Lewis reverses the perspective and tries to discern the human shape once more in a vast technological landscape which has been ordered on Machiavellian lines.

In his letter to Innis, McLuhan described this retrograde movement of any medium, by which it establishes the prior social environment required by it in order to begin, as “magical”.9 In a later letter to Wyndham Lewis he characterized this strange action as the “power of metamorphosis” (McLuhan to Wyndham Lewis, December 18, 1954, Letters 245), where the phrase should be read in the first place as a subjective genitive: this is an irrepressible power belonging to metamorphosis.

The second suggestion was that this “magical” backwards step, or “flip”, has in fact already been activated whenever any communication medium is deployed, beginning with “language itself“. And since language defines human beings, differentiating them from all other sorts of beings, this knot in time is always already in operation wherever and whenever humans are at all. Indeed, so essential is it to humans that even their perception (“sensation itself”, “the first stage of apprehension”) cannot occur without it. McLuhan made this point in correspondence with Ezra Pound later in the same year as his letter to Innis:

From Joyce’s Stephen Hero, I gather that he had with the combined aid of Aristotle, Dante and Rimbaud decided that the poetic process was nothing else than the process of cognition. That sensation itself was imitation since the forms of things in our sensations are already in a new matter. Namely a human organ. So that the first stage of apprehension is already poetic. (July 24, 1951, Letters 228-229)

Similarly in another letter to Pound from February 28, 1953:

Art is imitation of the process of apprehension.10

And in his important 1954 lecture, Catholic Humanism and Modern LettersMcLuhan described this “scandal of human cognition” as follows:

As language itself is an infinitely greater work of art than the Iliad or the Aeneid, so is the creative act of ordinary human perception a greater thing and a more intricate process than any devised by philosophers or scientists. The poetic process is a reversal, a retracing of the stages of human cognition. It has and will always be so.11 

In sum, “the first stage of apprehension is already poetic” and “the poetic process is a reversal, a retracing of the stages of human cognition”. It followed that there is no human experience of any sort that does not already enact the backwards flip of media-tion. In the investigation of communication media, therefore, the need was first of all to follow, via “the technique of reconstruction”, what is always already happening on its own in all human experience.

In his letter to Innis McLuhan put this point in the middle of reflections on the cybernetics work at MIT which he saw as being “a dialectical approach born of technology” — that is, a linear method taking only the “way forward“: 

The fallacy in the Deutsch-Wiener approach is its failure to understand the techniques and functions of the traditional arts [ie, “the poetic process [a]s a reversal, a retracing of the stages of human cognition”] as the essential type of all human communication. It is instead a dialectical approach born of technology and quite unable of itself to see beyond or around technology. The Medieval schoolmen ultimately ended up on the same dialectical reef.

Between the lines, McLuhan was suggesting to Innis that his own studies of “the (…) type[s] of human communication”, like those of Karl Deutsch and Norbert Wiener at MIT, might have missed its essence. Innis’ approach, despite its great many virtues, had itself fallen prey at its core, perhaps, to the very “technology” he intended to critique. His research would therefore be subject to the same “dialectical” limitations as those of “the Medieval schoolmen” which culminated in “the fundamental solipsism of Western civilization”. (The irony here, of course, was that Innis had famously been critical of McLuhan’s Catholicism in one of their first encounters and now McLuhan was implying that ‘bad Catholicism’ was actually central to Innis’ own work.)

The point at stake, or knot, might be put in terms of Innis’s ‘Plea for Time’ which was correct, in McLuhan’s estimation, in associating time — or times — with “the human dialogue” and with the correlative need for space-time and eye-ear balance. But Innis missed the essential factor that one of the times implicated in “the human dialogue” was backwards (in the continual readjustments of interlocutors to each other in dialogue, a readjustment that was also operative in the “magic” of communications media) such that the fundamental plurality of time did not lie only in the undoubted complications of “forward” linearity.

But precisely since the plurality of time implicated questions of its “magical” reversal, it also forced the further question of that plurality’s synchronicity or “allatonceness”.12 For otherwise differences in time, regardless of their forward or backward direction, would be ‘one at a time’ and ‘one at a time’ is just what ‘time singular’ is!  If time were fundamentally plural, it followed that it must be plural at once — that is, all at the same time!  In this case, not only did time have different forward and backward horizontal directions, but also different vertical ones (‘odos ano katosuch that plural times could unfold simultaneously as well as progressively and retrogressively.  Time itself, like language for Saussure, was both diachronic AND synchronic. It was, as McLuhan put the point in Through the Vanishing Point  (1968), “multileveled“.13

Investigation of this space-time and media complex, while initiated by Innis, needed to be reoriented, in McLuhan’s judgement, if it were to specify the only way out of the problem that was plaguing that investigation, namely “the fundamental solipsism of Western civilization”. And the key to this reorientation was that it learn how to take up itself the “magical” resetting of space-time(s) which was already fundamental to the operation of media throughout the register of human sentience from perception to cognition. Understanding plural space-times could therefore be restated as “understanding media”, as Innis had shown, not only because each medium was inherently structured by some space-time configuration, but also, as McLuhan added, because media operate precisely and only on the basis of a “magical” resetting of these configurations.

The essence of communication according to McLuhan was the step back14 into its own possibility. So, when a child (or the human species for that matter) first begins to speak, the requirement is that it unexpectedly first find itself in a communicative environment. In his letter to Innis McLuhan called this “participation in a process”. Only so, only with some sudden feel for an already existing social medium (however unconscious this must be in the beginning), could a message ever be sent or received. Even, or especially, the initial message, ontogenetic or phylogenetic, requires the activation of a prior medium through which such a message could first be a message at all

A reworked ‘Plea for Time’ would therefore have to consider how an environment could already be in place before the first message and how it was possible to understand this — then and now. In McLuhan’s 1964 ‘Introduction’ to The Bias of Communication he observed:

One can say of Innis what Bertrand Russell said of Einstein on the first page of his ABC of Relativity (1925): “Many of the new ideas can be expressed in non-mathematical language, but they are none the less difficult on that account. What is demanded is a change in our imaginative picture of the world.”15

The great question is when and where this “change in our imaginative picture of the world” takes place. After the ‘I’ is in place in its accustomed environment?  Or before?  Produced by and through the experiencing subject?  Or productive of the experiencing subject?16

If a child (or the species) in linear fashion simply continued its existing inability to understand language, no message would, of course, ever be sent or received. But this was just the cul-de-sac in which Innis was trapped.  As he baldly put the point in ‘A Plea for Time’: “It is impossible for [the economic historian] to avoid the bias of the period in which he writes”. That is, temporal conditions are both determinative and unbreakable — unbreakable on account of time’s (singular) arrow forward. “The fundamental solipsism of Western civilization” necessarily followed from the suppositions that time is singular and that singular time takes only the “way forward” and that there is no remove from this moving staircase.

Instead, according to McLuhan, a “magical” resetting of identity is always occurring to humans through a flip back in time and space into a new sensed environment — a flip he called “the learning process as a labyrinth of the senses and faculties” — and that he saw as already characterizing perception itself. So where Innis was prescient that “a stable society is dependent on an appreciation of a proper balance between the concepts of space and time” (‘A Plea for Time’), between the eye and the ear, he did not consider that this balance as a dynamic sensus communis might be more fundamental than linear time and the familiar environment in space — and than the identity correlate with these. He therefore did not see that it is entirely possible “to avoid the bias17 of the period in which [one] writes” and thereby to avoid “the fundamental solipsism of Western civilization”. 

In his letter to Innis, McLuhan indicated that this “learning process”, particularly in the case of language but in fact with any medium at all, “provided the key to all arts and sciences” and even to contemporary commerce and politics in what he called “the age of advertising”: 

Working concepts of “collective consciousness” in advertising agencies have in turn given salience and practical effectiveness to these “magical” notions of language.

But the modern world was caught in the strange fate that although it everywhere put this “magic” to use, it remained unconscious of it (like fish of water) and therefore remained trapped in it —  trapped in what could and should be its way out. As McLuhan put it to Innis:   

The whole tendency of modern communication whether in the press, in advertising, or in the high arts is toward participation in [such] a [magical] process (…) And this major revolution, intimately linked to technology, is one whose consequences have not begun to be studied although they have begun to be felt.

Technology itself had gone from Gutenbergian linearity to electric “allatonceness”. And now McLuhan was proposing to Innis that study of “this major revolution” be initiated on “Bloor St”, meaning in the old McMaster Building where Innis had been a student 40 years before and that now (following the McMaster move to Hamilton) housed the UT department of political economy that Innis headed.

McLuhan’s letter ends with a description of how this study might operate: 

A simultaneous focus of current and historic forms. Relevance to be given to selection of areas of study by dominant artistic and scientific modes of the particular period. Arts here used as providing criteria, techniques of observation, and bodies of recorded, achieved, experience. Points of departure but also return.

His estimation here of the potential of the “arts” echoed claims made earlier the letter:

But it was most of all the esthetic discoveries of the symbolists since Rimbaud and Mallarmé (developed in English by Joyce, Eliot, Pound, Lewis and Yeats) which have served to recreate in contemporary consciousness an awareness of the potencies of language such as the Western world has not experienced in 1800 years.

an experiment in communication which is to follow the lines of this letter in suggesting [a] means of linking a variety of specialized fields by what may be called a method of esthetic analysis of their common features.

What was at stake in these “esthetic discoveries” and in an “esthetic analysis” derived from them was the “method” of a flip back into changed presuppositions (or media)18

From the point of view of the artist however the business of art is no longer the communication of thoughts or feelings which are to be conceptually ordered, but a direct participation in an experience.

Experience conceived on the model of language learning — “awareness of the potencies of language” — was the continually renovating exercise of perception based on the flip back into a changed medium. Study of this “process” as implemented on the basis of different dominants would allow “a simultaneous focus of current and historic forms” AND the testing of each of these forms through “direct participation in an experience” for the intelligibility it was able to give (or not) to the great questions implicated in communication (especially that of its unavoidable “bias”).  Once “achieved”, such intelligibility would itself already represent an overcoming of “the fundamental solipsism of Western civilization” and so be a new “departure but also [a] return”.19

Communications study on this model would be a search for its own beginning and itself be knotted in time. For it would actually begin only after the sort of testing for intelligibility it was already doing came into sudden focus for a community of speakers of what would constitute a new language. It would genuinely begin only when the pieces suddenly fell into place as described by Plato in his Seventh Letter as cited above — but now, not for isolated individuals who have “found [it] and [and then have it be] lost again and again”, but for an ongoing community of researchers.

Plato’s descriptions of the necessarily dialectical process of communication in philosophy have been reported with some frequency. Here is Tolstoy:   

It was something like that which might happen to a man who, after vainly attempting, by a false plan, to build up a statue out of a confused heap of small pieces of marble, suddenly guesses at the figure they are intended to form by the shape of the largest piece; and then, on beginning to set up the statue, finds his guess confirmed by the harmonious joining in of the various pieces. (What I Believe, 1884)

And Thomas Kuhn:

Suddenly the fragments in my head sorted themselves out in a new way, and fell into place together. My jaw dropped, for all at once Aristotle seemed a very good physicist indeed, but of a sort I’d never dreamed possible. Now I could understand why he had said what he’d said, and what his authority had been. Statements that had previously seemed egregious mistakes now seemed at worst near misses within a powerful and generally successful tradition. That sort of experience — the pieces suddenly sorting themselves out and coming together in a new way — is the first general characteristic of revolutionary change that I shall be singling out after further consideration of examples. Though scientific revolutions leave much piecemeal mopping up to do, the central change cannot be experienced piecemeal, one step at a time. Instead, it involves some relatively sudden and unstructured transformation in which some part of the flux of experience sorts itself out differently and displays patterns that were not visible before. (The Road Since Structure, 2000, 16-17)

And here is McLuhan on Innis in his ‘Introduction’ to the 1964 reissue of The Bias of Communication discussing “the basic difference between classified knowledge and pattern recognition”:

It is a helpful distinction to keep in mind when reading Innis since he is above all a recognizer of patterns. Dr. Kenneth Sayre explains the matter as follows (…): Classification is a process, something which takes up one’s time, which one might do reluctantly, unwillingly, or enthusiastically, which can be done with more or less success, done very well or very poorly. Recognition, in sharp contrast, is not time-consuming. A person may spend a long while looking before recognition occurs, but when it occurs it is “instantaneous”. When recognition occurs, it is not an act which would be said to be performed either reluctantly or enthusiastically, compliantly or under protest. Moreover, the notion of recognition being unsuccessful, or having been done very poorly, seems to make no sense at all.20

Along the way of trying out “participation” in the different ‘space-time resetting’ processes of multiple media21, communications study might at some happy and necessarily sudden moment join physics, chemistry, genetics and other sciences which have been born from the same experimental procedure and which have the same basis in the social resetting “magic” of new language learning. As McLuhan suggested in his letter to Innis:

One major discovery of the symbolists which had the greatest importance for subsequent investigation was their notion of the learning process as a labyrinth of the senses and faculties whose retracing provided the key to all arts and sciences…

  1. Heidegger used this text in his 1929 laudatio for Husserl to describe Husserl’s ability to spark die Sache des Denkens in his students.
  2. Instead of “their dialectic” in this passage Innis has “the oral dialectic”. He meant something like: ‘Having significance which ultimately derives from oral dialectic, their subject matter is human action and feeling and is important in the discovery of new truth…’.
  3. See Innis and McLuhan in 1936. Innis’ experience in WW1 and his graduate work in Chicago just after the war with the then 34 year old Frank Knight had inclined him in this direction. Then, in 1935, articles in the maiden issue of The Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science by Knight and by Innis’s mentor at UT, E.J. Urwick, prompted Innis to specify his suspicions.
  4. See Sirluck on Innis, Owen and Havelock and Innis and Havelock – 1930 and Beyond. Much ink has been spilled on the question of how Innis came to have an interest in communications.  The suggestion here is that he had it at least since his graduate studies in Chicago in the inchoate field of “political economy”. Havelock’s work (which was abroad at UT and particularly, of course, in the classics department where Innis had close friends) then suggested the need for a similar — but interestingly different — concern in relation to the development of Greek society leading up to Plato. As McLuhan noted, the suggestion was then close of “a shift in attention from the trade-routes of the external world to the trade routes of the mind” (‘The Later Innis’, 1953).
  5. Empire and Communications, 1950 edition, 67; 1972 edition, 56.
  6. Originally in the Journal of Economic History, December 1942, reprinted in Political Economy in the Modern State, 1946, p 34.
  7. McLuhan is citing Innis here from an essay included in The Bias of Communication, ‘Industrialism and Cultural Values’.
  8. In his first published paper in 1936 on Chesterton, McLuhan, age 25, had already noted that “history is a road that must often be reconsidered and even retraced”.
  9. See ‘the “magical” essence of communication‘ for further discussion.
  10. Letters 235.  With “imitation” here, McLuhan has Greek ‘mimesis‘ in mind.  Such “imitation” is anything but a “matching”.
  11. The Medium and the Light, 157
  12. See Through the Vanishing Point, p 103: “The Shakespearean moment (“that time of year”) includes several times at once…”.
  13. Through the Vanishing Point, 55: “If the three-dimensional illusion of depth (in Western European art) has proved to be a cul-de-sac of one time and one space, the two-dimensional (in Eastern art) features many spaces in multileveled time.” Cf, The Gutenberg Galaxy citing Georges Poulet: “For the man of the Middle Ages, then, there was not one duration only. There were durations, ranked one above another, and not only in the universality of the exterior world but within himself, in his own nature, in his own human existence” (14; also Through the Vanishing Point, 9). And Understanding Media: “plurality-of-times succeeds uniformity-of-time” (152).
  14. The ‘horizontal’ step back is just as much, according to McLuhan, a ‘vertical’ step down. Hence the importance to him of Poe’s Maelstrom and the underworlds of Odysseus, Orpheus. Aeneas and Alice. The notion of such a ‘step back’ appears as ‘der Schritt zurück’ at least as early as Schiller’s Über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen (1794).
  15. Similarly in his later (1972) ‘Foreword’ to Empire and Communications citing Schrödinger instead of Russell: “What Erwin Schrödinger tells us about the change of outlook from Newtonian to quantum physics concerns the student of Harold Innis: This intrusion (of quantum physics) has, in a way, overthrown what had been built on the foundations laid in the seventeenth century, mainly by Galileo, Huygens and Newton. The very foundations were shaken.
  16. It is hard to see how any sorts of discoveries (especially “scientific revolutions”) can be made without a resetting of perception and identity. But how to delineate the ‘resetting of perception and identity’ is a fateful question which has been posed without answer for at least 2500 years and probably for many millennia more than that. A great part of the problem, of course, lies in the questions of where and when this ‘takes place’, if a resetting of time and space is of its essence, and who ‘does’ it, if the experiencing subject is its result.
  17. There is no such thing for McLuhan as “the bias”. For not only are psychological and sociological contexts as complicated as chemical and genetic ones, implicating an array of different biases, but any bias is itself always situated in an ontological context which supplies a kind of counter-current to it. This underlying counter-current to bias is “the main question“.
  18. Media for McLuhan are not ‘mechanical things’. They are psychological and sociological and even ontological dominants. In his ‘Introduction’ to The Bias of Communication (1964) he wrote of the bias or distorting power of the dominant imagery and technology entailing new perception and new experience“.
  19. The great mystery to communications research is that such intelligibility has long been “achieved”, but its achievement resists communication:
    And what there is to conquer
    By strength and submission, has already been discovered
    Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
    To emulate — but there is no competition —
    There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
    And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
    That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
    For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.  (‘East Coker’, v)
  20. McLuhan cites Sayre from The Modeling of Mind (1963), 17-18.
  21. In his ‘Introduction’ to The Bias of Communication McLuhan described Innis’ method as the “use of history as a scientific laboratory, as a set of controlled conditions within which to study the life and nature of forms”.