Staples, Markets, & Cultural Change:
Selected Essays

by Harold A. Innis, Daniel Drache,
552 pages,
ISBN: 0773512993

Post Your Opinion
by William Christian

"Who the hell is Harold Innis?" is a line in a song of the students at Innis College at the University of Toronto (named in his honour). But when he died in November 1952, he was Canada's pre-eminent social scientist. Although he has a substantial following across Canada and in the United States, if he is known to the general public at all, it is perhaps as the man who influenced the far more famous Marshall McLuhan.

Innis deserves to be much better known, and these essays are a fine place to begin. This new collection commemorates the hundredth anniversary of his birth in Otterville, Ontario, in 1894, and is one of a series of volumes that arose from the many conferences held across the country as part of the centenary. Daniel Drache, the editor of this volume and director of the Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies at York University, was one of the chief organizers of these events.

Drache's first selection is an extract from Innis's breathtakingly brilliant and influential conclusion to The Fur Trade in Canada (1930), which begins: "Fundamentally the civilization of North America is the civilization of Europe and the interest of this volume is primarily in the effects of a vast new land area on European civilization." Piling one spectacular insight on another, Innis showed that Canada arose with its current boundaries, not in spite of geography, but because of it. This analysis alone put Innis at odds with the prevailing continentalist neo-classical school of economic interpretation and made him the darling of the left-wing nationalists such as Mel Watkins and Daniel Drache who flourished in the 1970s. Drache has been continuously engaged with his thought since then, and is preparing a biography of him.

Innis's next major book, The Cod Fisheries (1940), showed how Canada fitted into the international economy, and he developed his ideas, as Drache shows with great clarity in his introduction, of staple-production, of metropolitan-hinterland relations and of the penetrative power of the price system.

Innis's theoretical work and his studies as an economic historian would have sufficed (and did) to make his international reputation. He was the first-and last-Canadian to be elected president of the American Economics Association. His administrative responsibilities as head of the University of Toronto's Political Economy department and later as Dean of Graduate Studies also made him the most powerful academic in Canada. However, his greatest achievement was the creation of a new field of intellectual investigation, communications studies.

Opinions differ as to how Innis came to this new field. For some, his interest flowed from his analysis in the early 1940s of the pulp and paper industries. From there, it is suggested, he turned his attention to the factors that influenced demand for newsprint, and the growth of mass market newspapers in the United States. Others see an enduring interest in communication from his earliest interest in the history of the CPR, through his concern with the role of transportation in the fur trade and cod fisheries. From this perspective, communications theory is a logical development of his concern with how ideas were affected by the media of transportation throughout history.

Whatever McLuhan may have been, Innis was no determinist. As the essays in Part IV of this collection show, he developed a concept of bias. Simply put (though Innis rarely put anything simply), he became interested in the general tendency of various media of communications. Some, he argued, tended to focus thought in the direction of continuity through time; others made it easier to exert control over space. For example, the Egyptians engraving their hieroglyphs on stone concerned themselves with thoughts that would endure, primarily religious ideas. The Romans, who had access to an easier form of writing and used light and cheap papyrus, were able to administer a larger empire.

These biases became entrenched into what Innis called monopolies of knowledge, whose effect, he contended, was to prevent creative responses to changing circumstances. Monopolies eventually were challenged by people or peoples at the margin, where their influence was weakest. A new order, usually based on a new technology of communication, swept out the old, but always at an enormous social cost: wars, revolutions, social breakdowns. The task Innis set for himself was to understand how these changes happened and how to prevent them.

It was not merely a theoretical problem, since Innis thought that mass newspapers based on cheap newsprint had created a preoccupation with the short-term thinking in North American and Western civilization. Some of the writings included in this volume, "A Plea for Time," and "The Concept of Monopoly and Civilization," and "The Problem of Space," show how his speculations were directed toward preventing what he feared was a rapidly approaching crisis in Western civilization. McLuhan and others subsequently took up Innis's interest in the effect of different media of communication on thought and civilization.

For Innis, universities were the institutions in contemporary society with the potential to check the current present-mindedness. As Doug Owram has shown in The Government Generation, Innis influenced a generation of Canadian academics with his view that their primary responsibility was to counterbalance the trends in their society. This meant, for Innis, that scholars should remain aloof from government, business, and industry, to avoid subjection to their dominant biases. The contemplative, rather than the engaged, intellectual was his ideal.

This is a fine collection, comprehensive in its contents. The introduction is clear, useful, and well-argued, although it focuses a little too narrowly on Innis's economic concerns. For someone who knows little or nothing about Innis, it is a must-have and must-read volume.

William Christian is the author of George Grant: A Biography and editor of George Grant: Selected Letters, to be published by University of Toronto Press in the spring of 1996.


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