Last Call from Harold Innis
Salutin, Rick, Queen's Quarterly
RICK SALUTIN, a novelist, playwright, and journalist, teaches culture and media each spring at the University of Toronto. His play, The Farmer's Revolt, is being remounted at Toronto's Theatre Passe-Muraille. He writes a weekly column for The Globe and Mail.
In a time when communications media loom very large, and we get what seems to me pretty shabby, shallow interpretations of them, it is nice to go back to Harold Innis. He took a technological approach to the analysis of historical and economic issues, in part to supplement and counter the devotion to sheer statistics and what he called "accountancy," which seemed to dominate the profession even then. But it seems to me that Innis' interest in a technological form of explanation grew out of a deeper soil, intellectually and autobiographically. In the preface to his final book, The Bias of Communications, he says all of what follows is by way of a response to a question put by his professor of philosophy, James Ten Brooke, when Innis himself was an undergraduate. The question was, "Why do we attend to the things to which we attend?"
I CONSIDER this question of Ten Brooke's stunningly subversive. It is enough to interrupt almost anyone's life at any point if you seriously ask it, and I take Innis' allusion to it seriously. I propose to treat it as a genuine preface to his thought on the subject of communications. Where was Innis at the point in his life when he posed it to himself, or rather, to what had he been attending all his adult and professional life? To economic history, in short. I take Innis to be looking back on his entire life of effort and achievement and saying, What was that about? Why did I pay such attention to these questions of economic history, along with history in general, and Canadian economic history in particular? The answers he gives are quite sweeping and unexpected, and I do not intend to go through them in detail here. But I can say that he pins the blame for his -- and our -- concern with history itself on the effects of the biases of the technologies of communications which through time brought us to the current moment. In a sense you can say then that Innis uses his skill as a historian to identify the sources of the concern with history itself. But he also unleashes a critique of the mentality that takes history seriously. I think it is fair to say he regrets that mentality and having spent most of his life inside it. I am saying, in other words, that I do not see Innis' final phase -- his writings on communications -- as an extension of the rest of his career; it was not, for example, simply an application of the theory of staples to the area of communications, as Marshall McLuhan proposed in his introduction to the book. In my opinion, Innis' ideas on communication are a radical undercutting of the kind of thinking that marked the rest of his career. I do not think it would be right to say they are a rejection of his earlier writings; it is more a matter of walking away from the things that concerned him in them. The owl of Minerva takes flight only at dusk, Hegel wrote and Innis quoted; consider that this refers to Innis' own wisdom coming only at the end of an illustrious and, by all conventional standards, successful intellectual career. There is a deeply existential quality to this turn in Innis' life.
TAKE, for instance, his embrace of the Oral Tradition over the Written Tradition, the two main categories in Innis' theories of communication. We are not talking television versus computers or the Internet: this is the Oral versus Written Tradition. A "tradition" as a medium of communication. And then he opts for oral, the man who had been probably more successful than any other Canadian within the written tradition as it is known in our society. He had written many lauded books; he was part of the tradition, but here he more or less dissociates himself from it and dumps on it. Let me add that what Innis meant by the Oral Tradition was not chit-chat: talk shows would not qualify. …