Monthly Archives: August 2021

Innis on the eclipse of truth (PEMS 4)

Innis’ May 1944 convocation address at the University of New Brunswick, ‘A Plea for the University Tradition’1 included warnings he was to reiterate at a similar occasion in 1945 at McMaster.2 But it also specified what the McMaster address only intimated: the fundamental link between force in the determination of truth and force in the determination of the international order between war and peace.

The 1945 McMaster address — given May 14, a week after VE day, May 8  — would repeatedly declare that “western civilization has collapsed”. His apparently more hopeful admonition the year before at UNB, as the war in Europe continued, was that “we [must] commit ourselves afresh to the maintenance of a tradition without which western culture disappears.”

Innis concluded that UNB address as follows: 

Universities have grown beyond the high-school stage of development (…) and [their] maturity involves (…) proper recognition of the role of the scholar and of the university in the nation’s life. The efforts to maintain the traditions of the university are in themselves a testimony to these traditions. As recent graduates, we commit ourselves afresh to the maintenance of a tradition without which western culture disappears. (…) These [convocation] ceremonies — peculiar to an institution which has played the leading role in the flowering of western culture — remind us of the obligation of maintaining traditions concerned with the search for truth for which men have laid down (…) their lives.3 

It is critical to appreciate the multiple circularities at play here in Innis’ famous “obscurity”. It was, he said, essential to the vocation of the university to maintain its own calling: “The efforts to maintain the traditions of the university are in themselves a testimony to these traditions.” The present and future of the university must be dedicated to the fresh cultivation of its own past traditions. Those traditions must be passed on. Those traditions, in turn, were focused on “the search for truth”. It was through this search that the “institution [of the university] has played the leading role in the flowering of western culture”. But this “leading role”, in its turn, was a “testimony” to that “flowering”. That is, the most important way in which the university could maintain its own traditions and so help to maintain the “tradition without which western culture disappears” was to function as an image of that “flowering”. As a “testimony” to it. Only this would constitute, “afresh”, the “proper recognition of the role of the scholar and of the university in the nation’s life.” 

The calling of “the scholar and of the university” was to continue to cultivate the essential tradition of western culture by, first of all, being shaped by it. Their fundamental activity of “the search for truth” required a prior receptivity.4 

Earlier in his address Innis specified the dynamic form to which the university community was called upon receptively to con-form:

Her traditions and her interest demand an obsession with balance and perspective — an obsession with the Greek tradition of the humanities. The search for truth assumes a constant avoidance of extremes and extravagance. Virtue is in the middle way. There are no cures. Always we are compelled to be sceptical of the proposal to cure the world’s ills. We cannot tolerate the dominance of any individual or of any group.5 (UNB)

The search for truth could not terminate in any “proposal to cure the world’s ills”. But neither could it terminate in an empty scepticism. Both were extravagant extremes. Instead “the scholar and of the university” had to cleave to “the middle way” ac-cording to which truth itself is essentially limited — but is nevertheless truth. As seen in all the physical sciences, “the search for truth” is the way truth truly manifests itself to human investigation. It is never fully present (so the search goes on), but it is also never fully absent (so the search goes on).

Innis drew ramifications for contemporary action and for historical perspective from this circular dynamic of reaction and action: “In our time [the university] must resist the tendencies to bureaucracy and dictatorship of the modern state.” (UNB) Elsewhere, Innis depicted these tendencies in terms of the burgeoning of irrationalism at the end of the nineteenth century.2  Since rationalism in Innis’ view “demand[ed] an obsession with balance”, these tendencies to irrationalism were specified in his UNB address as the turn to the extremes of imbalance:

In our time, unfortunately, the power of resistance to extremes has been greatly weakened. (…) the university has largely ceased as a vital force (…) by this ordeal of militarism. (UNB)

In 1944 the “ordeal of militarism” was, of course, the second world war. But it was also, and in Innis’ mind more fundamentally, an “ordeal of militarism” in regard to the university’s essential activity — the pursuit of truth. In his McMaster address, Innis cited Oliver Wendell Holmes to the effect that “truth is the majority vote of the nation that can lick all the others.” Where the essential receptivity required for truth was eclipsed by a militaristic activity “that can lick all the others”, truth, too, would be eclipsed — and freedom and democracy along with it. The balance required for all of these, beginning with truth, would disappear in favor of the one-sided —  unbalanced — exercise of force.

Doubtless reflecting his close ties with classicists at the University of Toronto, Innis made the point at issue by citing Jacob Burckhardt on the society of classical Athens and its importance to the work of Plato:7

Festivals were a regular feature of life not a strain. Hence it was possible to develop that social intercourse which is the background of Plato’s dialogues.(…) People had something to say to each other and said it. Thus a general understanding was created. Orators and dramatists could reckon with an audience such as had never before existed.8 (UNB)

It is imperative to under-stand that “social intercourse” for Plato, and for Innis in turn, was not, first of all, a matter of what human beings happen to do in the market place. It was a matter, first of all, of truth itself, of what Innis called the “equilibrium of approaches” to “the mysteries of life and death”. Truth is internally limited and hence plural in itself. Submission to this plurality might be termed ‘internationalism’ and its refusal ‘isolationism’.

It was the “collapse” of that “general understanding” that led to the extremes of irrationalism and, ultimately, to the “century of war”:9

If we agree with Professor Whitehead that “The safest generalization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists in a series of footnotes to Plato,” we are forced to conclude that its power succumbed in the face of the Industrial Revolution and machine industry and the rise of romanticism. We have seen the effects of the disappearance of the Platonic tradition in the necessity of appealing to force as the unifying and dominating factor.10

The turn to force in the international order — or disorder — was the result, according to Innis, of the turn to force in a fundamentally misguided or unbalanced “search for truth”.11 It was the calling of the university to refresh its own traditions in the effort to return western culture to “the Greek tradition of the humanities” and to the required “obsession with balance” originated by it.

McLuhan specified this precisely in ‘The Later Innis’:

True social equilibrium, [Innis] saw, consisted in the simultaneous adjustment of the claims of space and time, power and knowledge. In the modern world the divorce between the between the city and the university reflects the loss of such equilibrium.

 

 

  1. Dalhousie Review 24:3, 1944, included in Political Economy in the Modern State. Citations from this address will be signaled by ‘(UNB)’.
  2. See ‘Innis on the state of the world in 2021‘.
  3. This passage from Innis offers a good illustration of what McLuhan termed his “ideographic prose”: “For in his later prose the linear development of paragraph perspectives is abandoned almost entirely in favour of the rapid montage of single shots. He juxtaposes one condensed observation with another, mounts one insight or image on another in quick succession to create a sense of the multiple relationships in process (…) This prose calls for steady contemplation of what is happening on the page. It is not intended to deliver an idea or a concept in a formula or in a package. It is an ideogrammic prose…” (‘The Later Innis’, Queen’s Quarterly, 60:3, 1953).
  4. A decade later McLuhan would come to designate this necessary receptivity as response to “light through” toward us, not the exercise of “light on” from us. Not that “light through” was without intentional activity, however. Instead, like the painting of an icon, intentional activity in this mode was to be awaked and exercised as in-formed.
  5. McLuhan in ‘The Later Innis’: “his deeply conscientious recognition of the just claims of both factors”.
  6. See ‘Innis on the state of the world in 2021‘.
  7. Innis was especially close with his UT classicist colleague, Charles Cochrane, with whom he famously took long walks around the Toronto campus in any weather. In addition, Innis’ mentor, and predecessor as head of the political economy department, E.J. Urwick (1867-1945), had written The Message of Plato, a Re-Interpretation of the Republic (1920).
  8. Jacob Burckhardt (1818-1898) cited from Force and Freedom. These were notes drafted by Burckhardt in 1868 and published posthumously as Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen in 1910. The translation used by Innis appeared during the war in 1943 accounting for the forceful change in the title.
  9. An Economic Approach to English Literature in the Nineteenth Century’: “And so we entered the open seas of democracy in the twentieth century with nothing to worship but the totalitarianism of the modern state. A century of peace gave way to a century of war.” In his UNB address, Innis associated this turn to irrationalism with Gutenberg, nationalism and racism: “The printing press destroyed internationalism, and accentuated the importance of differences in language; these differences were widened by propaganda and by the use of such terms as ‘race’.” That is, printing effected imbalance by weakening the offsets to local nationalism and racism once supplied by the Church and by international Latin scholarship.
  10. University In The Modern Crisis‘, 1945. Cf, Innis on the state of the world in 2021.
  11. If it is asked how force and imbalance are mutually implicating, an answer must begin with the fundamentality of “balance”. In order to deviate in either direction from this natural fulcrum, force must be exercised.

Innis on the state of the world in 2021 (PEMS 3)

A description of the world in 2021 could hardly be done better than Harold Innis was able to provide in 1945. With new technology Innis could not have dreamed of, the world has careened, faster and faster, along a path he could see before it — 75 years ago!

Here he is in a May 1945 convocation address at McMaster, ‘The University In The Modern Crisis’1, an address that begins and ends with the same declaration:

  • western civilization has collapsed
  • [we live] in a century which has witnessed a major collapse of civilization

The address is a description of this “major collapse of civilization” in relation to the university in particular and to society in general:

  • [We] have seen the disappearance of freedom of speech and freedom of the press, to say nothing of academic freedom.
  • The technological advantages in communication shown in the newspaper, the cinema and the radio [and on to TV and the internet] demand the thinning out of knowledge to the point where it interests the lowest intellectual levels and brings them under the control of totalitarian propaganda.
  • We need a study of the professor as sandwich man.2
  • the universities will be (…) one of the kept institutions of capitalism. The attempt (…) to dictate appointments, type of research, conditions under which the results of research shall be made available, and course[s] of instruction (…) is an attempt to twist the use of public funds in particular directions and to destroy the confidence in, and the prestige of, universities. For all universities it is a crime against the traditions of western civilization for which men have been asked to lay down, and have laid down, their lives.
  • The impression that universities can be bought and sold, held by business men and fostered by university administrators trained in playing for the highest bid, is a reflection of the deterioration of western civilization.
  • The descent of the university into the marketplace reflects the lie in the soul of modern society.
  • We can agree with [John Stuart] Mill that (…) “Where power extends in advance of education, the art of organizing delusion threatens to keep pace with the agencies which aim at diffusing enlightenment.”
  • language is deliberately [manipulated]3 as a framework for hocus pocus and unintelligibility (…) with no possibility of a common approach through rationality. Irrationality assumes fresh importance as a means of capitalizing the necessity of unintelligibility and deliberately avoiding rational contacts.
  • The blight of Oriental despotism which has ever threatened the western world becomes evident in bureaucracy and in turn in militarism. The interest in peace of an intelligent commercial (…) society is displaced by the control of the state in bureaucracy, militarism and war.
  • If we agree with Professor Whitehead that “The safest generalization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists in a series of footnotes to Plato,” we are forced to conclude that its power succumbed in the face of the Industrial Revolution and machine industry and the rise of romanticism. We have seen the effects of the disappearance of the Platonic tradition in the necessity of appealing to force as the unifying and dominating factor. In the words of the late Justice Holmes, “Truth is the majority vote of the nation that can lick all the others.”4

 

  1. Included in Innis’ 1946 Political Economy in the Modern State. All citations in this post — given as bullet points — are from this same address.
  2. Sandwich man advertising:
  3. Innis: “built up”.
  4. Innis may have seen this citation from Oliver Wendell Holmes in The Mind and Faith of Justice Holmes: His Speeches, Essays, Letters, and Judicial Opinions, edited by Max Lerner, 1943. Holmes has “that nation” rather than Innis’ “the nation”.

Innis on media revolutions (PEMS 2)

At the end of ‘An Economic Approach to English Literature in the Nineteenth Century’ (1943), Innis cited Edward Lytton Bulwer1 on the world-altering event of the invention of printing:

The magic of Gutenberg (…) hath conjured a wide chasm between the past and the future history of mankind: the people of one side of the gulf are not the people on the other; the physical force is no longer separated from the moral; mind has by slow degrees crept into the mighty mass — the popular Cymon [as personification of the rude crowd] has received a soul! In the primal and restless consciousness of the new spirit, Luther appealed to the people (…) From that moment, all the codes of classic dogmatists were worthless — the expired leases to an estate just let to new tenants, and upon new conditions(Innis citing Edward Lytton Bulwer, England and the English, 1833)

In ‘Political Economy in the Modern State2, a lecture before the American Philosophical Society from later that same year of 1943, Innis began his presentation, more or less taking off from the end of ‘An Economic Approach‘, by enlarging on the same theme. He started with repeated citations from Lord Acton3:

Lord Acton has outlined the historical background of modern freedom essential to the social sciences. The lesson of Athenian experience taught that “government by the whole people, being the government of the most numerous and powerful class is an evil of the same nature as unmixed monarchy and requires for nearly the same reasons institutions that shall protect it against arbitrary revolutions of opinion.”4 (…) “The ancient writers saw very clearly that each principle of government standing alone is carried to excesses and provokes a reaction. Monarchy hardens into despotism, aristocracy contracts into oligarchy, democracy expands into the supremacy of numbers.5 (…) “When Christ said Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s, those words gave (…) to the civil power (…) bounds it had never acknowledged; and they were the repudiation of absolutism and the inauguration of freedom. For (…) to reduce all political authority within defined limits ceased to be an aspiration (…) and was made the perpetual charge and care of the most energetic institution and the most universal association in the world. The new law, the new spirit, the new authority gave to liberty a meaning and a value it had not possessed (…) before”.5 

With Acton, Innis equates “historical background of modern freedom essential to the social sciences” with the development of “bounds” and “limits” protecting against the “unmixed” or unrestricted exercise of power. But it is unclear, perhaps purposely, if Innis were referring here to the historical and contemporary facts analyzed by social science or also to the essential nature of social science itself. “The state was circumscribed in its authority by a force external to its own”, concluded Acton, and in this circumscription lay the “inauguration of freedom”. But for Innis, social science itself “was circumscribed in its authority by a force external to its own”, namely, its own internal limitations: “the social sciences have been disastrously weakened by the neglect of a study of their limitations”.7 (“External” was used by Acton here in the sense of ‘independent’. Such externality or independence could therefore also be ‘internal’.)

These considerations from Acton and from Innis himself provide clear illustration of Innis’ structuralism. Like Acton,8 he conceived of freedom as determined by the balance of opposed powers like those of church and state.9 Either of the two sides acting alone, or even in preponderant power relative to the other, was a formula for disaster. The essential thing was to realize the fundamental need for a plurality of competing forces — including the plurality of that plurality. That is, the twofold plurality of independent factors in ratio — like church and state — itself has a plurality of different forms depending on the multifold configurations of those ratios. The imperative for the analysis of political economy (dual genitive!) was therefore to investigate social realities, like freedom or war, in terms of the range of ratios whose numerator and denominator10 each required acknowledgement of its self-standing reality — but only in some kind of dynamic homeostatic relation to the other.11

The balance of church and state arose through the bounds each gave to the other and it was through this mutual limitation that social and political freedom was first born. This happy homeostatic situation in history did not long endure, however, since, as Innis wrote, “the downfall of the Roman empire was followed by the rise of the Roman church” to a preponderant power relative to the weak political states into which the empire fragmented.12

However, since “each principle (…) standing alone is carried to excesses and provokes a reaction”,13 the Church, in turn, also met its inevitable limitation14 and the resulting metamorphosis of the whole social and cultural environment:15 

[The Church’s] centralizing tendencies were followed after the invention of printing by the protests of Martin Luther, reinforced by the opposition of [the likewise empowered] political states. He was compelled [!] to take up the position that authority was more dependent on [individual] divine revelation and less on [collective Catholic] ecclesiasticism. His position and the translation and printing of the Bible opened the way, on the one hand, to the growth of the Calvinistic state, as in Switzerland and in Scotland, and on the other, to the growth of Puritanism as it flourished among the sects in Holland and in England. “The substitution of the Book for the Church was the essence of [the] Protestant revolt” (Morley16). Calvin evaded the dangers of the Reformation [as found] in [the renewed] ecclesiasticism under Luther, by enforcing two cardinal laws of human society, [individual] self-control as the foundation of virtue, [collective] self-sacrifice as the condition of the common weal, and created a new centre of union.17 

The relation of structuralism and media revolution is on full display in Innis’ passage here. In it, Gutenberg technology is seen as bringing about, even ‘compelling’, a flip in the ratios of church/state and in all the associated ratios like collective/individual. The cybernetic goal, as always, was to find “a new centre of union”, a renewed balance or homeostasis between independently existent forces in tensoral ratio.

History is seen as the play of such ratios, always momentarily constellating themselves in some variety of homeostasis, with the media of communication at times compelling a sudden catastrophic change in them, Then would arise a “new spirit [and] new authority [with] a meaning and a value (…) not possessed (…) before”:18

The magic of [these media revolutions] hath conjured a wide chasm between the past and the future history of mankind: the people of one side of the gulf are not the people on the other…19

 

  1. Edward Lytton Bulwer’s mother was Elizabeth Lytton, hence his middle name. After his mother’s death in 1843, in accordance with a provision in her will, Bulwer changed his last name to Bulwer-Lytton, thus becoming Edward Lytton Bulwer-Lytton. When Innis cited him as Edward Lytton Bulwer for his 1833 England and the English he was doing so correctly, therefore, since Bulwer would not become Bulwer-Lytton for another decade.
  2. ‘Political Economy in the Modern State’ is the title essay in PEMS and its longest contribution. All passages not otherwise identified in this post are from this essay.
  3. John Dalberg-Acton, 1834-1902.
  4. Innis citing Acton, The History of Freedom and Other Essays (1922).
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. The University In The Modern Crisis‘, in PEMS.
  8. Elsewhere in ”Political Economy in the Modern State’ Innis followed Acton’s severe criticism of the Catholic Church. But as Innis knew, Acton was a Catholic himself. The frequently cited antipathy of Innis to McLuhan’s Catholicism is simplistic since his actual antipathy was to a thoughtlessness in the exercise of the Church’s authority which was fully shared by Acton and, indeed, by McLuhan.
  9. Innis on the university in ‘A Plea for the University Tradition‘: “Her traditions and her interest demand an obsession with balance and perspective — an obsession with the Greek tradition of the humanities. The search for truth assumes a constant avoidance of extremes and extravagance. Virtue is in the middle way. There are no cures. Always we are compelled to be sceptical of the proposal to cure the world’s ills. We cannot tolerate the dominance of any individual or of any group.”
  10. Like church/state, but also state/church — and all other ratios in what McLuhan would come to call the fundamental “figure/ground” configuration of all things.
  11. Structural analysis was therefore itself a species of the genus of its own investigations. It arose only as an expression of respect for balanced ratios — including its own balanced ratio between truth and inevitable limitation. Its communication, both of its method and its results, hung on the involuted knot in play here. In order to understand its mode of investigation, an observer had first to be able to see — its mode of investigation!
  12. The way up is the way down‘ according to Heraclitus. This law may be seen, as Innis does here, as expressing a topological relation where increase in one pole or one direction correlates with the decrease in the other. The constant in the dynamic action of the two is the sum total of each of their momentary positions. That is, the sum of the two can never vary (=1), although each of its components can vary over the range (0>1) with the other always varying in the corresponding way of (1>0).
  13. Acton — full passage from The History of Freedom and Other Essays cited above.
  14. Innis in ‘The Economic Significance of Culture’ (1944) included in PEMS: “Centralized religious institutions checked fanaticism but their limi­tations were evident in the emergence of dissent. (…) The restraining influence of religious institutions has limitations, and dis­senting groups and philosophical systems emerge on their fringes. Centrali­zation is followed by decentralization.” As broached in note 12, the way up is the way down. But now focus is on the dynamic flip of ratios.
  15. McLuhan fully followed Innis’ structuralism and its various laws like the stability of dynamic balance and the ‘flip’ of extremes. He did not not have this only from Innis, of course, but Innis certainly helped bring McLuhan to focus on structural ratios as a central factor in historical change. Cybernetics, which McLuhan was studying in the work of Wiener and Deutsch at this same time, held a similar message, as did the epyllion form described by Havelock. In all these, structural analysis of ratios and communication — or such ratios as communication — was at stake. Investigation into this nexus became McLuhan’s life work.
  16. The bracketed insertion of ‘Morley’ is from Innis but is otherwise unidentified. This was John Morley, 1838-1923, cited from his 1899 Oliver Cromwell.
  17. Italics added throughout.
  18. Cited in full above from Acton, The History of Freedom and Other Essays. See note 4.
  19. This is Innis in ‘An Economic Approach to English Literature in the Nineteenth Century’ citing Edward Lytton Bulwer from England and the English, 1833. Full passage given above at the head of this post.

The Electronic Revolution and the Undeveloped Countries of the Mind

In the summer of 1958, the whole McLuhan family drove to Fort Worth to see Corinne’s family, then went on to the University of California, Santa Barbara. The trip seems to have taken 3 months, with 2 months spent at the summer session of UCSB. The UCSB newsletter, El Gauchito, for June 21, 1958, included the following information:

Four of our distinguished visiting professors will give public lectures during July on Tuesday afternoons at 3 p.m. for both the campus community and campus visitors. The series will be given in the lecture hall of the New Classroom Bldg.
The summer lectures will open July 1 with the distinguished Canadian critic and author, Marshall McLuhan, professor of English Literature, University of Toronto, speaking on “The Electronic Revolution and the Undeveloped Countries of the Mind.” A brilliant wit as well as an intellectual leader, Prof. McLuhan is the founder of the Canadian journal, “Exploration”, and is interested in the problems of communication in this century.

The announcement was repeated later in the newsletter:

Important Coming Events, on campus:
July 1 ALL-COLLEGE LECTURE by Marshall McLuhan, Professor of English Literature, University of Toronto, on “The Electronic Revolution and the Undeveloped Countries of the Mind,” at 3 p.m., New Classroom Building Lecture Hall. No admission charge.  

Earlier that year, on March 31, McLuhan had lectured at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee campus, on “TV and the Undeveloped Countries of  the Mind”.

Innis citing Trollope on CV-building

All those who are struggling for success have forced upon them the idea that their strongest effort should be made in touting for praise. Those who are not familiar with the lives of authors will hardly believe how low will be the forms which their struggles will take: — How little presents will be sent to men who write little articles; how much flattery may be expended even on the keeper of a circulating library; with what profuse and distant genuflexions approaches are made to the outside railing of the temple which contains within it that great thunderer of some metropolitan periodical publication! The evil here is not only that done to the public when interested council is given to them, but extends to the debasement of those who have at any rate considered themselves fit to provide literature to the public. (Harold Innis citing Anthony Trollope in ‘An Economic Approach to English Literature in the Nineteenth Century’1 from Trollope’s 1883 Autobiography)

Legal notice: Any resemblance of this passage to the machinations of contemporary academic publishing, and to “the debasement of those who have (…) considered themselves fit to provide literature to the public” by submitting themselves to it, are purely coincidental.

  1. Included in Political Economy in the Modern State. Renamed in PEMS from ‘The English Press in the Nineteenth Century: An Economic Approach’, UTQ. 15:1, October 1945.

McLuhan reads Innis (PEMS 1)

Harold Innis’ 1945 An Economic Approach to English Literature in the Nineteenth Century’1  was read by McLuhan in the late 1940’s, probably in 1948, along with the rest of Political Economy in the Modern State (PEMS).2 Here a series of nuggets are to be found, often in citations by Innis from other authors — augmented and reinforced by the rest of PEMS and by further writings of Innis from The Fur Trade in Canada (1930) to ‘Minerva’s Owl’ (1947) — whose extended investigation could not unfairly be said to have informed McLuhan’s whole career for the next thirty years.3

Of course there were other major influences on McLuhan at this time — his first 5 years at the University of Toronto — including French poetry, Pound, cybernetics, Joyce, Havelock and the tradition of the epyllion form. And behind him since his undergraduate and masters degrees in English lay his study of Maritain and Gilson in theology, Richards and Leavis in criticism, Eliot and Lewis in modern literature, as well as — only a few years before — his PhD thesis on the history of the trivium. But all these interests and further influences were often correlate with what was to be found in Innis and all were subject to Innis’ historical analysis based on political economy calculations of opportunity and cost and on the then available means of communication.4

The specialties of Innis and McLuhan in history and literature were different. But Innis had a theory of historical change which illuminated McLuhan’s interests in new and surprising ways. This lent it a sort of independent verification, on the one hand, and supplied a fundamental factor to McLuhan’s work, on the other hand, which it had hitherto lacked.5

The following excerpts from ‘An Economic Approach to English Literature in the Nineteenth Century’, must have particularly struck McLuhan as coming, not from a scholar of literature, but from an economic historian:

  • we shall (…) concentrate on technological developments affecting communication.6
  • London was like a newspaper“Everything is there and everything is disconnected.” (Innis citing Walter Bagehot, ‘Charles Dickens’, National Review 7, 1858)
  • The stage was used to appeal to the eye rather than to the ear
  • Spectacles (…) were the fashion. “At present the English instead of finding politics in the stage, find their stage in politics.” (Innis citing Edward Lytton Bulwer, England and the English, 1833)7
  • I  would have the paper address itself to the quarter-educated, that is to say, the great new generation that is being turned out by the Board schools, the young men and women who can just read, but are incapable of sustained attention. People of this kind want something to occupy them in trains and on buses and trams. As a rule (…) what they want is the lightest and frothiest of chit-chatty information — bits of stories, bits of description, bits of scandal, bits of jokes. bits of statistics, bits of foolery.8 Am I not right? Everything must be very short, two inches at the utmost; their attention can’t sustain itself beyond two inches.9 Even chat is too solid for them: they want chit-chat…” (Innis citing George Gissing, The New Grub Street, London, 1904)10
  • The new literature followed the new journalism
  • “The modern editor (…)  explores the nature of the demand to be met as patiently and  thoroughly as a German manufacturer. The public, which hitherto had accepted meekly what the publisher provided, found itself elevated to a throne.” (Innis citing Arnold Bennett, Fame and Fiction, 1901.)11
  • “With a mixture of logic and cynicism [the modern editor] states boldly that what people ought to want is no affair of his; and in ascertaining precisely what they in fact do want he never loses sight of the great philosophic truth that man is a frail creature. He assiduously ministers to human infirmities. The public would like to read, to instruct itself, educate itself, amuse itself, elevate itself, but no effort and no sacrifice must be involved in the process.” (ibid)
  • The magic of Gutenberg (…) hath conjured a wide chasm between the past and the future history of mankind: the people of one side [of] the gulf are not the people on the other (…) In the primal and restless consciousness of the new spirit (…) all the codes of classic dogmatists were worthless — the expired leases to an estate just let to new tenants, and upon new conditions.” (Innis citing Edward Lytton Bulwer, England and the English, 1833)12

In Innis’ essay, this “magic of Gutenberg” quotation is given in a footnote. But it is the last footnote in the essay on its last page and in this way constitutes its final word.

The last words of the essay proper, however, were these:

And so we entered the open seas of democracy in the twentieth century with nothing to worship but the totalitarianism of the modern state. A century of peace gave way to a century of war.

Here Innis expressed his foresight into the fate of the modern world. At the same time he exposed the grounding impetus of his ceaseless attempts to analyze the course of that fate and, perhaps, to indicate a way out of its hunger for disaster. The great question was and is: what does the “magic of Gutenberg” have to do with our robotic pursuit of annihilation?13

 

 

  1. Renamed in PEMS from ‘The English Press in the Nineteenth Century: An Economic Approach’, UTQ. 15:1, October 1945.
  2. It is not impossible, of course, that Easterbrook shared an offprint of the article with McLuhan or that he saw it first in the UTQ itself. However that may have been, McLuhan would have regarded the essay as a kind of challenge as to whether Innis, an economic historian, could teach him anything new in what was his specialty — not only English Literature in general, but ‘English Literature in the Nineteenth Century’ in particular. For McLuhan had written his master’s thesis on just this topic focused on George Meredith whose life — 1828-1909 — spanned it.
  3. Here is how McLuhan concluded his memorial for Innis in 1953, ‘The Later Innis’: “In moving towards this harmonizing of the arts and sciences, the later Innis appears as one of the indisputable pioneers whose work will for long remain not only a standard reference but a source of ever renewed insight.”
  4. Innis’ famous ‘staples theory’ might be read as a species of opportunity and cost calculation. Its basic law might be put: the more difficult the geographic conditions, and the more undeveloped the economic conditions, the more opportunity and cost calculation tends to the exploitation of a single staple. Canada, in Innis’ view, was a conglomeration of various difficult conditions in which a series of staples — fish, fur, timber, metals, wheat — dominated its fragmented economic environments.
  5. McLuhan’s PhD thesis was indeed a history. It showed the interplay of the three arts of the trivium over 2000 years, much as McLuhan’s mentor at the University of Manitoba, Rupert Lodge, categorized the history of philosophy as the expression of three basic forms. But what was the impetus behind changes among these forms through time? It was just here, as much in the question as in the answer, that Innis’ work proved fundamental to the whole remainder of McLuhan’s career.
  6. Everything in this section in bold, such as we shall (…) concentrate on technological developments affecting communication, is a citation from Innis himself in ‘An Economic Approach to English Literature in the Nineteenth Century’. The passages in quotation marks are citations from others given by Innis in that same essay.
  7. Many ideas in Innis lay dormant in McLuhan for decades. It was only a quarter century later that he would begin to talk of the “global theatre” and “all the stage is a world”. Of course these did not arise in McLuhan’s work only from Innis, any more than their appearance in Innis came only from Bulwer. But (as it is the main point of this post to document in regard to only a single paper from Innis) the work of Innis was studded with interesting ideas for further investigation. McLuhan put it this way in ‘The Later Innis’: “Innis had no position. He had become a roving mental eye, an intellectual radar screen, on the alert for objective clues to the inner spirit or core of our times.”
  8. This perfect description of Twitter was made more than a century before its founding — on the technical basis of ‘bits’!
  9. Cited by Innis earlier from Gissing: “No article In the paper is to measure more than two inches in length, and every inch must be broken into at least two paragraphs.”
  10. Innis cited Coleridge in related fashion: “For as to the devotees of the circulating libraries, I dare not compliment their pass-time, or rather kill-time, with the name of reading. Call it rather a sort of beggarly daydreaming, during which the mind of the dreamer furnishes for itself nothing but laziness, and a little mawkish sensibility; while the whole material and imagery of the dose is supplied ab extra by a sort of mental camera obscura manufactured at the printing office, which pro tempore fixes, reflects, and transmits the moving phantasms of one man’s delirium, so as to people the barrenness of a hundred other brains afflicted with the same trance or suspension of all common sense and all definite purpose. We should therefore transfer this species of amusement (…) from the genus reading, to that comprehensive class characterized by the power of reconciling the two contrary yet co-existing propensities of human nature, namely indulgence of sloth, and hatred of vacancy.” (Biographia Literaria, 1817)
  11. In Bennett, and in Innis following Bennett, these sentences are given in the opposite order. They have been reversed here to emphasize McLuhan’s later maxim that the public must be ‘put-on’.
  12. This idea must have been in the air in the 1830s. The very next year, 1834, as cited by Innis in ‘On the Economic Significance of Culture (1944 and included in PEMS), Carlyle wrote in Sartor Resartus: “He who first shortened the labor of copyists by the device of movable types was disbanding hired armies and cashiering most kings and senates, and creating a whole new democratic world”.
  13. One cause of the modern disaster suggested by Innis is given in the sentence immediately preceding his concluding words: “popular clamour made rapid headway. And so we entered (…) a century of war“. Much of Innis’ essay is given over to a description of such “popular clamour” and its rise, namely of how a “quarter-educated” public found itself “elevated to a throne”. At the beginning of his 1944 essay “Political Economy in the Modern State”, included in PEMS, Innis cited Acton to the effect that “government by the whole people, being the government of the most numerous and powerful class, is an evil of the same nature as unmixed monarchy.” Here the problem was government by an unchecked single power, whether it be a king or a public. In the 1833 “magic of Gutenberg” passage from Bulwer, the related point was suggested that such an externally unbalanced power could also be ‘unbalanced’ internally. Via Gutenberg, wrote Bulwer, “the mind has by slow degrees crept into the mighty mass — the popular Cymon has received a soul!” Indeed, animated by the brain of a lunatic, since the glass jar with the intended brain of a genius was dropped by the clumsy Igor, Frankenstein — “in the primal and restless consciousness of the new spirit” — looks around, wild-eyed, and begins to take his first fateful steps…. 

    In Goya’s astonishing painting, El Coloso (1808-1812), special note should be made of how man and beast flee in every direction from the stupendous apparition.