Innis multiplying Hugo (PEMS 6)

The printing press and new methods of communication have been developed as methods of division rather than co-operation. (The Economic Significance of Culture, 1944)

Enormous improvements in communication have made understanding more difficult. (Innis, Minerva’s Owl, 1947)

Probably via Edward Bulwer, Innis read the expository chapter on Gutenberg in Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1943 or 1944.1 Taking off from Hugo Innis proposed:

As [the international Church and its Latin culture] was crushed by the book, so the book [and its culture] was crushed by the newspaper. In turn the newspaper was destined to feel the effects of the radio.2

Similarly in ‘This Has Killed That’:

The power of the [newspaper] press, more recently supported by the radio, [announced that] the day of the printed [book] word (…) was over.3

In these passages Innis was explicitly invoking Hugo’s model of the communications revolution brought about by Gutenberg. For Hugo this had been a revolution that was “indestructible”, one that had passed into “immortality” as “definitive”: “the invention of printing is the greatest event in history.” But Innis applied Hugo’s “definitive” singular model to multiple communications revolutions subsequent to print such as those originated by the newspaper and by radio.

Here is Hugo’s model of a communication revolution:4

  • human thought, in changing its form, was about to change its mode of expression; (…) the dominant idea of each [succeeding] generation would no longer be written with the same matter, and in the same manner
  • everything changes. Human thought discovers a [new] mode of perpetuating itself
  • it is human thought stripping off one form and donning another; it is the complete (…) change of skin of that symbolical serpent which, since the days of Adam, has represented intelligence

Bulwer put Hugo’s “definitive” notion this way:

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…5

Now there was not one “chasm”, however, but a whole series of them and their repeated appearance was accelerating. Hugo had supposed that “human thought”, “intelligence”, indeed “the human race”, were not only preserved through Gutenberg’s revolution, they were enhanced. But as the “gulf” produced by each communications revolution was multiplied by subsequent iterations, the thread holding these together, providing their coherence, was increasingly cut through and threatened to unravel completely — if it had not already done so. It could well be doubted if there were such a thing as “the human race” anymore, let alone “thought” and “intelligence”.6

Such revolutions do not ‘take place’ only in the interior landscape.  Instead, “everything changes” in a process where the interior and the exterior landscapes interactively affect and effect one another. The process is therefore “economic”, as Innis would have it, or “environmental”, as McLuhan would come to say. Changes in the interior landscape of humans result from exterior technological developments and exterior technological developments result from changes in the interior landscape of humans.

Innis saw that three great interrelated problems resulted from the ever more quickly repeated communications revolutions constituting this “second tower of Babel of the human race“.7

First, since further communications revolutions could be anticipated, or at least not ruled out, it was impossible to specify any order as “definitive”. A “complete (…) change of skin” of the psychological or social landscape could happen at any moment, the one then overturning the other, such that ‘reality’ itself, along with ‘truth’ and ‘justice’ and ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, could be specified only by insistence — by dint of force. But, then, by what right could such force be exercised? Only by dint of force. As a result, as Nietzsche was the first to see, or, at least, the first to see clearly along with its cause and its effect, ‘reality’ fell through itself like a black hole:

The true world — we have abolished. What world has remained? The apparent one perhaps? But no! With the true world we also have abolished the apparent one!!8

Or, as Innis repeatedly specified :

the collapse of Western civilization (…) begins with the present [twentieth] century (The Economic Significance of Culture, 1944)

The central internal problem was that repeated communications revolutions though which “everything changes” had eradicated foundation:

the purely logical process itself, when it only follows its own course (…) turns these accepted ideas into mere probabilities… (Ibid)

[we have lost] an anchorage or a point of view from which to approach the problem of European civilization. (Ibid)

Second, when what Innis termed “the Platonic  tradition” had collapsed, and with it the very possibility of specifying truth and reality, international institutions no longer had a basis from which to maintain peace among the nations:

We have seen the effects of the disappearance of the Platonic tradition in the necessity of appealing to force as the unifying and dominating factor9 (University In The Modern Crisis, 1945)

[ours is] a period in which we have been unable to find a solution to the problem of law and order, and have re­sorted to force rather than to persuasion, bullets rather than ballots. (The Economic Significance of Culture)

[repeated wars reflect] the inability of the twentieth century to find a solution to the eternal problem of freedom and power (Ibid)


The basic post-war problem is that of stopping the loss of blood or the problem of peace. Plans of the new world or of the new international order can be purchased in large quantities at low price. The question remains as to why there are so many plans for the new world. What is the source of the confusion? Why has a century of comparative peace such as prevailed from the end of the Napoleonic Wars to the beginning of the last war been followed by the breakdown of Western Civilization? Why has European civilization turned from persuasion to force or from ballots to bullets? What has brought about a change of such disastrous consequence? (Problems of Rehabilitation, 1946)10

The need for force in the specification  of ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ at the individual psychological level — in the interior landscape — was inevitably reflected in the need for force at the international level — in the exterior landscape — to ‘settle’ any matter of contention. No other method of settlement — that is, of justice — was recognized.

Third, the collapse of accepted standards in the interior and exterior landscapes inevitably characterized the national economy as well — “the fabric of human institutions”.11 Weapons manufacturing became the major national industry and war became an economic necessity.

the phenomenal rise in the standard of living (…) and the prosecution of major wars were a result of increasing efficiency of machine industry (Political Economy in the Modern State, 1943)

Weapons manufacturing was no longer a requisite of war; war was a requisite of weapons manufacturing.12

Has commercial development been effective in destroying religious centralization as a stabilizing influence to the point that new sources of power such as nationalism and autarchy with subordination to militarism have taken their place?  (The Economic Significance of Culture)

At the same time, war fever in ever-varying flavors became the staple product of the news. Here again, news did not follow war, but war followed the news.

The Spanish-American War and the South African War came at the beginning of the new journalism and were exploited to the full in efforts to increase circulation in New York particularly and in London; the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, the Journal, and the World pushed circulation to new levels. They were ideal newspaper wars. To Mr. Hearst was attributed the telegram to [Frederic] Remington, “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” (The Newspaper in Economic Development, 1942)

in both Great Britain and the United States the Boer War and the Spanish American War enabled sensational journalism to reach new peaks. Wemyss Reid wrote of the Boer War, “It has been said that this has been a war made by newspapers. Evidently the newspapers are [also] capable of carrying it on.” (An Economic Approach to English Literature in the Nineteenth Century, 1945)

The mind of the individual, together with the family and society as a whole, were all taken over to serve collective forces no one saw, let alone understood and controlled. Indeed, life and death themselves were put to work somehow — two world wars, with fifty million deaths, or so, were symbols of a fall into a fatal robotism that did not end with those wars. Furthermore, these repeated communication revolutions with their implicated militarism were inevitably styled as ‘progress’ — the ‘rise of freedom’! — so that the first casualty in them was the word.

These three failures of understanding, along with the implicated death of language, all reinforced each other in a planetary mesh and the great question was (and is): how to get out? where is the exit?13 

McLuhan took over this problem complex from Innis. Here he is to Pound in a letter of June 22, 1951:

the word has been used to effect a universal hypnosis. How are words to be used to unweave the spell of print?  Of radio commercials and ‘news’-casts?  I’m working on THAT problem.  The word is now the cheapest and the most universal drug.
Consider the effect of modern machinery in imposing rhythm on human thought and feeling. Archaic man got inside the thing that terrified him — tiger, bear, wolf — and made it his totem god. To-day we get inside the machine. It is inside us. We in it. Fusion. Oblivion. Safety. Now the human machines are geared to smash one another. You can’t shout warnings or encouragement to these machines. First there has to be a retracing process. A reduction of the machine to human form. Circe only turned men into swine. Our problem is tougher.14 


  1. Innis first mentioned Hugo’s chapter from Hunchback, at least in published form, in ‘The Economic Significance of Culture’ (1944): “The restraining influence of religious institutions has limitations, and dis­senting groups and philosophical systems emerge on their fringes. Centrali­zation is followed by decentralization. The printing press and commerce implied far-reaching changes in the role of religion. In Victor Hugo’s famous chapter in the Notre Dame de Paris, entitled ‘This Has Killed That’, he writes: ‘During the first six thousand years of the world (…) architecture was the great handwriting of the human race.’ (…)  As the ‘ancient Gothic genius, that sun which sets behind the gigantic press of Mayence’ (Mainz) was crushed by the book, so the book was crushed by the newspaper. In turn the newspaper was destined to feel the effects of the radio. With Victor Hugo we can say, ‘It is the second tower of Babel of the human race’.” Similarly in ‘Minerva’s Owl’ (1947): “The monopoly position of the Bible and the Latin language in the church was destroyed by the press and in its place there developed a wide-spread market for the Bible in the vernacular and a concern with its literal interpretation. To quote Jefferson, ‘The printers can never leave us in a state of perfect rest and union of opinion.’ In the words of Victor Hugo the book destroyed the ‘ancient Gothic genius, that sun which sets behind the gigantic press of Mayence.’ Architecture which for six thousand years had been ‘the great handwriting of the human race’ was no longer supreme.” Around that same time in the middle 1940s Innis prepared notes for an address with the title, taken from Hugo, ‘This Has Killed That’. It was published from his papers only 25 years after his death in the Journal of Canadian Studies (Winter 1977): “I have not been able to suggest a title sufficiently broad to cover the material I propose to put before you but the title of the famous chapter in Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris, ‘This has killed that’, will probably cover it more adequately than any other. Some of you may remember that he discusses the impact of printing on architecture. ‘During the first six thousand years of the world… architecture was the great handwriting of the human race.’ But the book destroyed the edifice (of that great handwriting) and, in the French revolution, not only did it destroy architecture but the fabric of human institutions as well. The last sentence of Victor Hugo’s chapter is: ‘It is the second tower of Babel of the human race‘; and this may well serve as the subject of this paper.”
  2. ‘The Economic Significance of Culture’, 1944. See the previous note for the full passage.
  3. See note #1 for the full passage.
  4. See Hugo on Gutenberg in 1831 for the full passage of these snippets.
  5. Edward Lytton Bulwer, England and the English, 1833, as cited by Innis in ‘An Economic Approach to English Literature in the Nineteenth Century’.
  6. “Man as a biological phe­nomenon has been unable to sustain the excessive demands of rationalism evident in the mathematics of the price system and of technology” (The Economic Significance of Culture). Here “rationalism” means a closed system encapsulated from “the mysteries of life and death”. But, depending on context, it could also mean the opposite: a structure open to these mysteries. For discussion see Innis on thought and its eclipse.
  7. See note #1 for Innis’ repeated citation of this phrase from Hugo.
  8. Twilight of the Idols, 1889.
  9. Nietzsche’s ‘History of an Error’ also couches Western civilization as the decline and fall of “the Platonic tradition”.
  10. First published in PEMS.
  11. ‘This Has Killed That’ — see note#1 for the full passage.
  12. McLuhan to Pound, January 1951: “2nd War produced great discovery of war as new way of life. Financial pages simply chortling these days over prosperity rooted in 3rd War. Ordinary guy eats this up. Total war = total security he figures. THAT is the scale of imbecility now current.” (Letters, 219)
  13. Innis would term this mesh “the fundamental solipsism of Western civilization” (Empire and Communications, 1950 edition, 67, 1972 edition, 56). Empire and Communications was first given as a lecture series at Oxford in 1948.
  14. Letters, 227. McLuhan’s capitalized ‘THAT’ was a reference back to his letter to Pound earlier in the year. It was a marker for the “imbecility” of the contemporary mind — and of the loss of the word. See note #12 for the earlier letter.