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.