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.