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Harold Innis

The overwhelming pressure of mechanization evident in the newspaper and the magazine, has led to the creation of vast monopolies of communication. Their entrenched positions involve a continuous, systematic, ruthless destruction of elements of permanence essential to cultural activity.

Harold Adams Innis (5 November 18948 November 1952) was a Canadian professor of political economy at the University of Toronto and the author of seminal works on media, communication theory and Canadian economic history.

QuotesEdit

Application of power to communication industries hastened the consolidation of vernaculars, the rise of nationalism, revolution, and new outbreaks of savagery in the twentieth century.

The Fur Trade in Canada (1930)Edit

  • The history of Canada has been profoundly influenced by the habits of an animal which very fittingly occupies a prominent place on her coat of arms.
  • We have not yet realized that the Indian and his culture were fundamental to the growth of Canadian institutions.
    • Conclusion (1930) of The Fur Trade in Canada, (1970 edition), p.392.
  • Canada emerged as a political entity with boundaries largely determined by the fur trade. These boundaries included a vast north temperate land area extending from the Atlantic to the Pacific and dominated by the Canadian Shield. The present Dominion emerged not in spite of geography but because of it.
    • Conclusion, p.393.
  • Canada came under the sweep of the Industrial Revolution at one stroke whereas the western movement of the United States was a gradual development. There are no transcontinental railroads controlled by one organization in the United States. In Canada transcontinental roads are distinct entities controlled in eastern Canada. Similarly in financial institutions the branch bank system with its headquarters in the east has been typical of Canada but not of the United States. No such tendency toward unity of structure in institutions and toward centralized control as found in Canada can be observed in the United States.
    • Conclusion, p.401.
  • The Canadian government has a closer relation to economic activities than most governments. The trade in staples, which characterizes an economically weak country, to the highly industrialized areas of Europe and latterly the United States, and especially the fur trade, has been responsible for various peculiar tendencies in Canadian development. The maintenance of connections with Europe, at first with France and later with Great Britain has been a result. The diversity of institutions which has attended this relationship has made for greater elasticity in organization and far greater tolerance among her peoples.
    • Conclusion, p.401.
  • The diversity of institutions has made possible the combination of government ownership and private enterprise which has been a further characteristic of Canadian development. Canada has remained fundamentally a product of Europe.
    • Conclusion, p.401.

Empire and Communications (1950)Edit

  • It is suggested that all written works, including this one, have dangerous implications to the vitality of an oral tradition and to the health of a civilization, particularly if they thwart the interest of a people in culture, and following Aristotle, the cathartic effects of culture. "It is written but I say unto you" is a powerful directive to Western civilization.
    • From the 2007 Voyageur Classics edition, pp. 19-20.
  • The concepts of time and space reflect the significance of media to civilization. Media that emphasize time are those that are durable in character, such as parchment, clay, and stone. The heavy materials are suited to the development of architecture and sculpture. Media that emphasize space are apt to be less durable and light in character, such as papyrus and paper. The latter are suited to wide areas in administration and trade. The conquest of Egypt by Rome gave access to supplies of papyrus which became the basis of a large administration empire.
    • 2007 edition, pp.26-27.
  • The significance of a basic medium to its civilization is difficult to appraise since the means of appraisal are influenced by the media, and indeed the fact of appraisal appears to be peculiar to certain types of media. A change in the type of medium implies a change in the type of appraisal and hence makes it difficult for one civilization to understand another.
    • 2007 edition, p.29.
  • Innis comments on how the invention of writing and the advancement of military techniques led to the founding of ancient empires: The sword and the pen worked together. Power was increased by concentration in a few hands, specialization of function was enforced, and scribes with leisure to keep and study records contributed to the advancement of knowledge and thought. The written record signed, sealed, and swiftly transmitted was essential to military power and the extension of government. Small communities were written into large states and states were consolidated into empire. The monarchies of Egypt and Persia, the Roman empire and the city states were essentially products of writing.
    • 2007 edition, p.30
  • Following the invention of writing, the special form of heightened language, characteristic of the oral tradition and a collective society, gave way to private writing. Records and messages displaced the collective memory. Poetry was written and detached from the collective festival.
    • 2007 edition, p.31.
  • Graham Wallas has reminded us that writing as compared with speaking involves an impression at the second remove and reading an impression at the third remove. The voice of a second-rate person is more impressive than the published opinion of superior ability.
    • 2007 edition, p.31.

The Bias of Communication (1951)Edit

The discovery of printing in the middle of the fifteenth century implied the beginning of a return to a type of civilization dominated by the eye rather than the ear.
  • The mixture of the oral and the written traditions in the writings of Plato enabled him to dominate the history of the West.
    • Minerva's Owl (1947), an address to the Royal Society of Canada, published in The Bias of Communication (1951) p.10.
  • Writing with a simplified alphabet checked the power of custom of an oral tradition but implied a decline in the power of expression and the creation of grooves which determined the channels of thought of readers and later writers.
    • Minerva's Owl p.11.
  • The effect of the discovery of printing was evident in the savage religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Application of power to communication industries hastened the consolidation of vernaculars, the rise of nationalism, revolution, and new outbreaks of savagery in the twentieth century.
    • Minerva's Owl p.29.
  • We must appraise civilization in relation to its territory and in relation to its duration. The character of the medium of communication tends to create a bias in civilization favourable to an over-emphasis on the time concept or on the space concept and only at rare intervals are the biases offset by the influence of another medium and stability achieved.
    • A Plea for Time (1950), a paper presented at the University of New Brunswick, published in The Bias of Communication (1951) p.64.
  • The discovery of printing in the middle of the fifteenth century implied the beginning of a return to a type of civilization dominated by the eye rather than the ear.
    • Industrialism and Cultural Values (1950), a paper presented at meetings of the American Economic Association in Chicago, published in The Bias of Communication (1951) p.138.
  • The full impact of printing did not become possible until the adoption of the Bill of Rights in the United States with its guarantee of freedom of the press. A guarantee of freedom of the press in print was intended to further sanctify the printed word and to provide a rigid bulwark for the shelter of vested interests.
    • Industrialism and Cultural Values p.138.
  • The Middle Ages burned its heretics and the modern age threatens them with atom bombs.
    • Industrialism and Cultural Values p.139.
  • Industrialism implies technology and the cutting of time into precise fragments suited to the needs of the engineer and the accountant.
    • Industrialism and Cultural Values p.140.

Changing Concepts of Time (1952)Edit

  • The overwhelming pressure of mechanization evident in the newspaper and the magazine, has led to the creation of vast monopolies of communication. Their entrenched positions involve a continuous, systematic, ruthless destruction of elements of permanence essential to cultural activity.
    • Changing Concepts of Time (1952) p.15.

Essays in Canadian Economic History (1956)Edit

  • Modern civilization, characterized by an enormous increase in the output of mechanized knowledge with the newspaper, the book, the radio and the cinema, has produced a state of numbness, pleasure and self-complacency perhaps only equalled by laughing-gas. In the words of Oscar Wilde we have sold our birthright for a mess of facts. The demands of the machine are insatiable. The danger of shaking men out of the soporific results of mechanized knowledge is similar to that of attempting to arouse a drunken man or one who has taken an overdose of sleeping tablets. The necessary violent measures will be disliked. We have had university professors threatened with the loss of their positions for less than this.
    • p. 383 (originally from an essay entitled The Church in Canada first published in 1947).

Quotes about InnisEdit

  • In his office or his study, with his long legs stretched out and his chair tilted back, he would exchange stories with unhurried delight; and the deep stream of his conversation rambled amiably through generous meanderings and over laughing shallows.
  • Anybody who has looked up the reference material that Innis cites so frequently will be struck by the skill with which he has extracted exciting facts from dull expositions. He explored his source materials with a "Geiger counter," as it were. In turn, he presents his finds in a pattern of insights that are not packaged for the consumer palate. He expects the reader to make discovery after discovery that he himself had missed.
    • Marshall McLuhan, in his introduction to the 1964 edition of The Bias of Communication (1951). This quotation appears on pp. 5-6 of the 2005 Gingko Press republication of McLuhan's introduction.
  • I am pleased to think of my own book The Gutenberg Galaxy as a footnote to the observations of Innis on the subject of the psychic and social consequences, first of writing then of printing.
    • Marshall McLuhan, in his Introduction to the 1964 edition of The Bias of Communication (1951). Gingko republication (2005), p.8.
  • Innis's work, despite its maddeningly obscure, opaque and elliptical character, is the great achievement in communications on this continent. In The Bias of Communication, Empire and Communications, Changing Concepts of Time and in the essays on books on the staples that dominated the Canadian economy, Innis demonstrated a natural depth, excess, and complexity, a sense of paradox and reversal that provides permanent riddles rather than easy formulas. His texts continue to yield because they combine, along with studied obscurity, a gift for pungent aphorism, unexpected juxtaposition, and sudden illumination. Opening his books is like reengaging an extended conversation: they are not merely things to read but things to think with.
    • James W. Carey, (1992) Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society p.142.
  • To this day, in my opinion, the last chapter of Innis's The Fur Trade in Canada still represents the most concentrated and profound single piece of writing for anyone seeking to understand the nature of Canada.
    • Alexander John Watson, from the General Introduction to the 2007 edition of Innis's Empire and Communications (1950) p. 13.
  • It is easy to criticize Innis's negativism and his encouragement of an apolitical stance for the intellectual in society. But to see only the negative side of his outlook --- his economic determinism, relativism, and apoliticism --- is to miss a positive central thread that runs through his work, from the investigation of the fur staple to his defence of scholarship, and later, his explorations in the biases of communications: to understand limits is to enhance the freedom of the nation and the individual.
    • Carl Berger (1976) in The Writing of Canadian History, p.111.
  • Innis made the study of technology and civilization (Canada as a big "staples commodity") an opportunity for the development of a distinctive Canadian way of thinking. In the Innisian world of technological realism, there emerges an epistemological toolkit for the exploration of dependency and emancipation as the two faces of technological society. Innis's thought is perfectly styled to the historical specificity of Canada's political economy and culture because it is a constant reflection on the great tension between centre/periphery in Canada's historical formation.
    • Arthur Kroker (1984) in Technology and the Canadian Mind, p.18.

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