Easterbrook on Innis and McLuhan in 1960

In September 1960 McLuhan and Tom Easterbrook presented papers at the annual meeting of the Economic History Association. Their section of the meeting seems to have been a commemoration of Harold Innis organized by Arthur Cole (1889-1974) of Harvard. Cole had been a longtime friend and correspondent of Innis1 and the two were founding members together of the Economic History Association in 1940.2 Meanwhile Easterbrook, working under Innis as his adviser, had, in 1938, obtained the first PhD in Political Economics ever granted by the University of Toronto.3 After WW2 he returned to Toronto, rejoined the Political Economy department, now headed by Innis,4 and then worked closely with him as a colleague and increasingly close friend until Innis’ death in 1952. It was Easterbrook who first brought Innis and McLuhan together in 1947 or 1948. Thereafter McLuhan was decisively influenced by Innis in his turn to media and claimed that his work in that area could be considered a footnote to Innis’ pioneering. 

It seems that Cole introduced the session with remarks that were, however, not reproduced with the Easterbrook and McLuhan papers in the December Journal of Economic History. But Easterbrook gives some indication of them in his paper:

Present interest in communication research in the social and physical sciences raises some interesting and difficult questions for the economic historian. Arthur Cole, who claims that he is merely trying to carry further the work of Harold Innis (…)5 at Toronto, but who is [himself] surely the moving spirit in this session, has suggested that we might begin by pin-pointing a few leading questions for examination. Is this comparatively recent development [viz, interest in communication] to be regarded as merely a passing phase in the history of fashions in thought? Is the process of relating communication to economic change mainly a process of [increasing] sophistication (…)? Or, on the other hand, does it in fact amount to a major breakthrough in scientific and historical analysis?6

Arthur Cole’s challenge — to move beyond ‘increasing sophistication’ — remains unanswered. This session, I take it, is designed to explore prospects of meeting this challenge.

the informational [or content] approach7 (…) represents a many-sided attack on communication problems (…) and for the economic historian it is useful and occasionally exciting stuff. On the other hand, it is difficult to see any indication here of a major break-through of the sort that Arthur Cole — with his talk about “transcendental” aspects of business, and his appeal to an analogy with the human nervous system — appears to be seeking, and I doubt that it will come this way, if in fact it comes at all. Most of us, I think, will be inclined to take the view that this is as far as we can go, at least until much of the research underway goes beyond the speculative, hypotheses-to-be-tested stage. [But] Innis would have disagreed with this point of view, and McLuhan most certainly does. 

Beyond the light it throws on Cole’s continuing concern with the work of Innis, Easterbrook’s paper is interesting in many additional respects. It reflects his close relationship with both Innis and McLuhan and, in regard to the latter, sets out a view of McLuhan’s early media work as few others could have known it in 1960 — that is, before Gutenberg Galaxy, before Understanding Media and before McLuhan’s celebrity. By that point Easterbrook had been an intimate friend of McLuhan for over 30 years, had toured England with McLuhan one summer when the two of them were undergraduates and had been a founding member with McLuhan in the Ford Foundation Culture and Communication seminar in the mid 1950s.8 Outside of McLuhan’s family, Easterbrook probably knew McLuhan better than anybody else on earth.

Easterbrook mentions in his paper his own thesis that “uncertainty or imperfect knowledge as to the outcome of future events” is a, or the, central factor in political economy and in the social sciences generally.9 This view made him an endless opponent10 and perfect foil for McLuhan, of course, and he recognized (as explicitly stated in the passage from his paper cited immediately above) that both Innis and McLuhan sharply disagreed with him on it. But they naturally did not disagree that our “knowledge as to the outcome of future events” is “imperfect”. Rather, they posited that a focus on “the bias of communication” might present a way to investigate “events” that could leverage our inevitably “imperfect” knowledge to enable a new understanding of them in the past, present and, indeed, in the future.11 In the same way, chemistry understands physical events as they always have been and always will be. But it does not understand them ‘perfectly’! Instead, it probes our existing understanding for its ‘imperfections’ and finds in those ‘imperfections’ ways to further our understanding endlessly. We have had such a self-conscious12 knowledge of chemistry only for a couple centuries, however. And the key to its discovery was the increasing specification of the structure of the chemical element in the nineteenth century. Easterbrook saw that Innis and McLuhan had such a development in mind for the humanities and social sciences: 

there are indications that a major shift in thought, or approach, may be underway. Whereas communication has been regarded in the main as merely one element in a large complex, one thread in the web of history [= Cole’s “increasing sophistication”], there is a growing tendency to place it at the center of analysis and to make it the focal point of interest. Innis was convinced that he had found [a] unifying theme13 in communication change, and it has been suggested recently that [media]14 be made the independent variable, economic magnitudes the dependent variables, in the study of economic growth. This would indicate a pronounced shift in vantage point, one which would provide a common core of analysis across the disciplines.

The proposal of an “independent variable” that “would provide a common core of analysis across the disciplines” was indeed the thrust of the work of both Innis and McLuhan — although Innis was never sure it could outweigh our “uncertainty or imperfect knowledge” of events. In this respect, Easterbrook and McLuhan might be seen as the two sides of Innis, the one coming down on the side of ultimate “uncertainty” and the other coming down on the side of truthful insight despite, or on the very basis of, “uncertainty” and “bias”.

What we have here is not an advance on many fronts [= Cole’s “increasing sophistication”], but a concentrated attack on a single front or sector. The interest is in the medium itself, its physical characteristics, its formal, material aspect, seen as a tool with independent qualities of its own and as the key to analysis of total situations. As such, it appears as a resource, one transformed by technology and making its impact over the whole range of human action. The study of change becomes the study of the impact of changes in media and their consequences in terms of the structuring of societies along the lines of force of dominant media. In this view, priority in change is assigned to change in media in its material aspect and to the impact of shifts in media on patterns of human association.

Easterbrook’s description of the medium in McLuhan’s work as having “independent qualities of its own” and “making its impact over the whole range of human action” and “patterns of human association” is not mistaken. The common structure of chemical elements might be described in the same way as regards its “impact” on the whole range of physical nature. But Easterbrook’s repeated references to the medium’s “physical characteristics, its formal, material aspect” is not only untidy (“formal, material aspect”?), it also threatens to make our understanding of media subject to underlying “physical characteristics” rather than our understanding of these subject to media.15 Which is figure and which is ground? Are media to be understood in terms of physical ‘forms’ like roads and books? Or are these phenomena common across media, like properties in the physical sciences, and are to be understood in any given case in terms of the media mix underlying them?16 

It would seem that Easterbrook had understood McLuhan only up to the point where a transformation of the bias of the researcher was called for and, indeed, essential. Only so could “uncertainty” and “bias” be thought together with truth.

McLuhan indicates a way to understand this point in his paper at the conference:

The type of visualizing fostered by high intensity print technology is quite natural and habitual to highly literate populations, putting them at great disadvantage in a nuclear age, since nuclear structures are non-visualizable.17

Not that a “nuclear age” knows no “visualizing”! Only that its “type of visualizing” is fundamentally different from that of a “high intensity print” age! 

In fact, what is “fundamentally different” between the two ‘ages’ is exactly the relation of visuality to their understanding of ground. For the one, this relation is “high intensity”, for the other it is low. If a “totally new form of science”18 of communication (dual genitive) were possible, it would have to understand the whole range of such relations — including the one best suited for the investigators carrying it out.19  

In an address in Vancouver in 1958, two years before his appearance with Easterbrook at the Economic History Association meeting, McLuhan specified the issue at stake here in terms of problems that were  encountered in the Ford Culture and Communication seminar even with its founding members like Easterbrook:

The psychologists could study what the effects of radio are on the structure of human perception: what new habits of perception come from just listening to radio, or watching movies or television, or reading. They’ve never done these studies because they are mutational and psychology has tended to be static and non-mutational in its studies so far. That‘s why when we began those studies, the media studies at Toronto under the Ford grant, we didn’t know how to go about it because the members of our group were all trained in the static non-mutational terms of science. We had gradually, groping around, to discover certain ways whereby we could talk about these things, since they don’t satisfy the ordinary scientific procedures at all. It calls for a totally new form of science.20

Media research is “mutational” exactly because it raises the figure/ground question universally — and specifically in regard to its investigators themselves. In 1960 Easterbrook did not understand — or at least he did accept — the “mutational” figure/ground demands of this “totally new form of science” on himself. Indeed, given his standing reliance on “uncertainty or imperfect knowledge”, he never would. 

Easterbrook continues:

Innis (…) in his search for a more universal theme [than staples] (…) turned to communication in its time aspect. McLuhan, if I judge correctly, is building on his work. If we turn to (…) the dynamics of Iong-period change, it is evident that the media approach lends itself to a more comprehensive analysis of change than the staples thesis permits. Stages [historical periods] are marked out by shifts from one staple or medium to another, but in the latter [media approach] the simple linear sequence that [changes in staples]21 mark out gives way to a more complex array of clashing communication structures (configurations)22. The instability associated with these shifts is again more broadly defined in communication terms [than in staples terms], as each dominant medium is in turn challenged, then replaced by the marginal thrust of a later and more compelling rival.

Easterbrook’s use of “structures” and “configurations” here points to his fitting sense of what McLuhan was up to. But at the end of the day, he could not bring himself to — could not allow himself to be mutated to — a scientific investigation that would bring into question (bring into investigation) his existing point of view. As McLuhan was to write to Jacques Maritain in 1969:

There is a deep-seated repugnance in the human breast against understanding the processes in which we are involved. Such understanding involves far too much responsibility for our actions. (Letters, 370)

Much more, there is another “repugnance” at work on the way to under-standing media as proposed by McLuhan, a kind of repugnance2 (repugnance squared). Between the identities of a researcher who cannot see the new science and one who can, there is no identity! This gap, this dark night of the soul, this cloud of unknowing, this pathless path, must be ventured and somehow navigated in order to reach a destination which cannot be seen until it is seen:23

Without knowing it, you are questing for a new identity (…) which cannot be known until it has actually been made. (Adopt a College)24

As McLuhan was well aware, Eliot25 has the point wonderfully in Four Quartets:

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing
(East Coker)

And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment.
(Little Gidding)

Not in the scheme of generation.
Where is the summer, the unimaginable
Zero summer?26
(Little Gidding)



  1. Innis and Cole corresponded regularly throughout the 1940s. John Bonnett’s Emergence and Empire: Innis, Complexity, and the Trajectory of History ably discusses their exchanges.
  2. Innis and Cole were the second and third presidents of the Economic History Association respectively.
  3. Easterbrook’s PhD thesis, Farm Credit in Canada, was published by the University of Toronto Press in 1938 with a foreword by Innis.
  4. Easterbrook himself would become the head of this large department a decade later and serve in that capacity from 1961 to 1970.
  5. Easterbrook has “the work of Harold Innis and others at Toronto” here, but it is unclear what is meant by “others”. Was he referring to the subsequent work of McLuhan and himself after Innis’ death? Or was he thinking also of the early work in Toronto of Eric Havelock, who was now a colleague of Cole at Harvard?
  6. W.T. Easterbrook, Problems in the Relationship of Communication and Economic History’, Journal of Economic History, 20:4, December, 1960. All otherwise unidentified passages in this post are from this paper.
  7. Easterbrook differentiates in his paper between an informational approach to communications and a media one. In his paper, McLuhan offers “a comment on Easterbrook’s allusion to the difference between information and media approaches to problems today. The information theory approach, based on statics, is probably self-liquidating by virtue of the electric speeds available to it. It seems to me involuntarily and unnecessarily limited by a “content” concept. Wherever one meets the “content” concept, it is reasonably certain that there has been insufficient structural analysis. Phonetic writing and printing, for example, have content only in the sense that they “contain” another medium, namely, speech. But since the origin of writing, the simultaneous presence of the medium of speech, albeit in low definition, has fostered this habit of dichotomy and content-postulating, which in fact obscures major components in the situations with which we must deal.”
  8. As evidence of the exploding interest in communications, Easterbrook recalls in his paper how, “following a modest experiment in testing the comparative efficiency of various media, a Toronto communication group in which I participated with McLuhan and others, found itself swamped with a deluge of enquiries from communication centers previously unknown to us.”
  9. See his paper ‘Uncertainty and Economic Change‘, The Journal of Economic History, 14:4, 1954 and the recollections of Easterbrook by his friend and colleague, Mel Watkins: “Easterbrook was at heart a pluralist”.
  10. McLuhan in Speaking of Winnipeg: “We (Easterbrook and McLuhan) had an absolute agreement between ourselves to disagree about everything and this kept up (…) a very hot dialogue from morning to night for years in Winnipeg”.
  11. It is critical to note that by “events” (and, indeed, by “communication”, knowledge”, the ‘imperfect”, etc) Easterbrook, Innis and McLuhan did not mean the ‘same thing’. Indeed, one way of putting the differences between them would be to ask how each of them understood these words and things. McLuhan’s insistence that the arts provide the best way to illuminate such differences, and potentially to move beyond them, reflected his training in the Cambridge English School and its focus on “ambiguity”. Another way of putting the point would be to consider the differences between, say, 1750 and 1850 as to what was meant by ‘air’ and ‘water’ and all other physical substances. Everything had changed and yet at the same time, nothing had changed. Ordinary intercourse with ‘air’ and ‘water’ remained ‘the same’.
  12. Humans have had a unconscious knowledge of chemistry forever — in cooking, for example.
  13. Easterbrook: “his unifying theme”. Easterbrook’s formulation suggests that Innis’ work was driven by a search for such a “unifying theme” in history.
  14. Easterbrook: “information flow”. It is unclear if Easterbrook confused his contrast between media and “information flow” at this point or if he was thinking of the former here as one of the many varieties of the latter.
  15. Easterbrook speaks in his paper of the need for communication studies to be “brought down to earth”.
  16. McLuhan is his presentation at the conference: “the formal characteristics of the medium, recurring in a variety of material situations”. In regard to ‘media mix’, McLuhan emphasized throughout his work that media are never expressed singularly, but only and always in some form of “rapport” (between speech and writing, say, or ear and eye). See note 18 below.
  17. McLuhan, ‘Effects of the Improvements of Communication Media’, Journal of Economic History, 20:4, December, 1960.
  18. For a “totally new form of science”, see the citation in this post from McLuhan’s 1958 presentation in Vancouver and its discussion at McLuhan on media science in 1958.
  19. What is somehow still not understood in regard to McLuhan’s work is that an investigation of media requires research that would understand both of these ‘ages’ in their individuality and in their commonality as media. In an important paper from 1970, which was typeset but apparently never published, ‘Libraries: Past, Present and Future’, McLuhan described Innis’ importance in this respect as follows: “Innis understood that acoustic and visual space were antithetic and complementary. like the written and oral traditions. That is why he has such relevance (…) His work is founded on recognition of the fact that there must be some rapport between the written and the oral traditions — between the visual and the auditory — for any society to persist in a state of health.”
  20. When McLuhan was talking off the cuff, he tended to express himself in very long run-on sentences with his thoughts joined (or disjoined) by conjunctives like ‘and’ and ‘but’. In the transcript his last sentence here reads: “That‘s why when we began those studies, the media studies at Toronto under the Ford grant, we didn’t know how to go about it because the members of our group were all trained in the static non-mutational terms of science, and we had gradually, groping around, to discover certain ways whereby we could talk about these things and they don’t satisfy the ordinary scientific procedures at all; but I think it calls for a totally new form of science.” See The medium is the message in 1958 and McLuhan on media science in 1958 for discussions of the Vancouver conference.
  21. Easterbrook: “staples changes”.
  22. The bracketed “configurations” here is from Easterbrook.
  23. The unknowing described by McLuhan, and by the tradition at least since Plato, cannot be appreciated aside from the personal experience of it. McLuhan as the man without difficulties and anxieties must be revisioned as a kind of Zen threshold which cannot be crossed without seeing through the untroubled mask of the doorkeeper.
  24. McLuhan, ‘Adopt a College’, This magazine is about schools, 2:4, 1968. There are four different senses implicated in “without knowing it” here. First, “without knowing it” the world is on the way to the new science and associated new identity that must be achieved if it, the world, is not to destroy itself. Second, which of the two possibilities contesting here will dis-place the other cannot be known. We must live in the space or gap of this question “without knowing it” — namely “without knowing” the answer to this outstanding question of science or doom. Third, the “new identity” needed to begin the new science cannot be known as a goal “without knowing it”. That is, it “cannot be known until it has actually been made” (achieved). Fourth, because the goal cannot be known, neither can the way to the goal be known. This way must be ventured “without knowing it” —  without any orientation upon it. Easterbrook was hardly alone in avoiding this “worldpool” of uncertainties!
  25. Eliot has the point — but so did Plato. In fact the point at stake has been made throughout the tradition by its best minds. Therefore: “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.” (East Coker)
  26. Like ‘spring’, which in Four Quartets is first and mainly the vertical moment by moment action of humans of springing forth into their being and only secondarily a horizontal time of year, so ‘summer’ is first of all the realization of ‘spring time’ by humans — at last! — and only secondarily the ‘following’ time of year to ‘spring’. It is “unimaginable” because it cannot be known until it is known: “not in the scheme of generation”. It can be designated as “zero” because it is the ever repeated beginning that can be found, at last, as McLuhan repeatedly insisted, only (only!) through a ‘retracing’: “the learning process as a labyrinth of the senses and faculties whose retracing provided the key to all arts and sciences” (Letter to Innis, 1951). Eliot has it this way in Little Gidding: “And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time. / Through the unknown, remembered gate / When the last of earth left to discover / Is that which was the beginning.”