Tara Brabazon: Trade routes of the mind

Harold Innis was a professor at the same institution for decades – but while he remained steadfastly local and empirical, he probed the expansive variables of space and time. Tara Brabazon reveres the Canadian historian and economist

November 3, 2010

Academic life is strange. Parts of the job are transcendent: seeing the beaming face of a struggling student making an intellectual breakthrough in a seminar, or the moment we forge a crucial link in our research that reshapes knowledge. These moments are rare. Most days are filled with deleting emails that should not have been sent and recycling pages of reports, minutes and strategic plans that should never have been printed.

The talk of virtual universities and mobile learning is pretence. “With an iPad and a Blackboard app, students can learn anywhere”: such phrases displace the location of learning. Actually, universities exist in real space and real time. I remain inspired by scholars who use the landscape as oxygen for teaching and punctuation for writing.

Quality-assurance mechanisms and research assessments evaluate world-leading scholarship, but I am more interested in the specific, the local and the particular. Such research is demeaned by descriptions such as “case study”. These “case studies” are supposedly waiting for writers such as Richard Florida or Chris Anderson to collate the results and create “the great reset” – the title of Florida’s most recent book. The engagement in, and with, local research is not dependent on triangulation by North American or British scholars deploying “representative” methods. Sometimes, research is not generalisable. It is not a model to be moved and applied. Sometimes, the best learning, teaching and writing remains hooked into the landscape.

It is a privilege to walk through the spaces where important academics produced their best research. One of the benefits of working in Wellington was to see where James Belich wrote his landmark two-volume A History of the New Zealanders (1996, 2001). Oriental Bay would bring out the poet in a corpse. Watching the petticoat of light lifting from a Wellington morning offers a pathway through Belich’s research and a reason for the gentle propulsion of his prose.

Previously colonised spaces provide a dense, difficult and productive environment to think, read and write. This is particularly the case in Aotearoa/New Zealand and Canada. The reason, I suspect, is one of power. Both nations “managed” membership of the British Empire, but also overbearing neighbouring countries that were louder, brasher and better at sport (sorry). New Zealanders negotiated with those pesky Australians. Canadians had to handle the US. It meant that the scholars in both countries often took big themes – injustice, inequality, colonisation and biculturalism – and interrogated them in specific, local and defiant ways.

The embodiment of this maxim is one of my great intellectual heroes. I have a few: E.P. Thompson, Fred Inglis, Howard Zinn, Henry Giroux and Eric Michaels. These scholars’ books are positioned closest to my desk and I look to them for inspiration on a daily basis. But it is Harold Innis who has quietly accompanied me through adult life.

I first studied Innis as part of my second degree in literature and communication. I enrolled in Tom O’Regan’s outstanding course, Cultural Technologies and Innis; James Carey and Eric Michaels were the bedrock scholars of the curriculum. Innis fascinated me because he probed the expansive variables of space and time while remaining steadfastly local and empirical. I never got over his book The Bias of Communication (1951). That was intellectual leadership the rest of us can only follow.

Innis embodied a particular moment in Canadian history, thinking about cities, regions and the nation in a way that balanced the double squeeze from Britain and the US. It is no coincidence that he wrote about the Greek and Roman empires, exploring how oral communication sustains cultural practices, while written communication commands power and respect.

Offering “a plea for time” and “the problem of space”, Innis took risks. He had – to summon Edward Said – a late style. A distinguished Canadian historian and political economist, in the last decade of his life he moved from the debates and subjects where he held credibility, expertise and reputation and entered a new field, the study of communication. At its most basic, he investigated the relationship between the medium of communication and the configuration of identity.

While there is much talk of the “early Innis” and the “late Innis”, it is important to remember that his PhD investigated the building of the Canadian railway system. He probed how space could be managed. His other major projects explored the fur trade and cod fisheries. Innis linked transportation and communication. While working with sudden political, technological and natural changes, he showed how economic success emerged not by defeating or taming the landscape – those damaging colonial verbs – but by negotiating with it. He was interested in how products and people move. The “later Innis” focused on the consequences of that movement.

The scale of his achievements is often undervalued through a precursory paragraph leading into the main man: Marshall McLuhan. But Innis is much more than an academic John the Baptist. Undoubtedly, it was – and is – McLuhan’s writing that has kept Innis’ late-career monographs on communication in print. When reading McLuhan and Innis in tandem, the tissue of connectivity is obvious. But Innis was more careful than McLuhan, and more conservative.

Instead of McLuhan’s clichéd – and brilliant – phrase “the medium is the message”, Innis affirmed that each communication medium has a “bias”. Whether a society has a bias to space or time – geography or history – is enabled through the dominant medium of communication. The time bias preserves and transforms cultures over centuries. A space bias, such as Ancient Rome’s, moves information through space via the written word. An oral society maintains knowledge in a community through storytelling, song and conversation. The ancient Greeks and their epic poems were clear examples, but a range of indigenous societies also confirms this mode of knowledge management across the decades and centuries.

For Innis, theories of the state, culture and technology conflated. The choice of media influenced the type of empire constructed. It was McLuhan who overlaid technological determinism on this relationship. Instead, Innis was interested in the senses: what happens when a culture is organised for the ear rather than the eye?

Innis desired a mixture of space- and time-binding media (papyrus and parchment, talk and writing). This combination was the way to ensure that the biases were balanced. The dominance of the web in today’s culture would worry him, but the way in which oral and aural cultures are surviving online would be of interest. For example, Google Maori was released on 23 July 2008, creating a digital Aotearoa that was distinct from e-New Zealand. The Maori language has since been added to the Google Translator toolkit. Such space-biased media can enable the survival of oral culture of formerly colonised people. There is not – yet – an Inuit Google, but Nunavut names are being added to Google Earth. Places are gaining a history.

The embedding of time-biased sound, stories and memories into space-biased media may provide Innis’ balance. For him, oral traditions blocked monopolies of knowledge. He realised that “we have no history of conversation or of the oral tradition except as they are revealed darkly through the written or the printed word”. One profound consequence of the read-write web is that sound and vision can be embedded in space-biased media. A different way of thinking and hearing may emerge.

This body of research, revealing the biases of communication, emerged from Canada and specifically Toronto. The specific problem of being Canadian in the early 20th century, pulled between the empires of Britain and the US, intensified in Toronto, so close to New York but distant from London. Above Toronto was a huge country with a small population. It was difficult and expensive to move goods, services and information through the nation. There was discontent between East and West, North and South, and Quebec and the rest.

Toronto mattered to Innis’ research. He had a gift that most of us will never experience. He was professor at the University of Toronto for decades, remaining at the institution from 1920 until his death in 1952. He filled the roles of head of the department of political economy and dean of graduate studies. His career emerged at the time that British-born and educated academics held senior posts in Canadian universities because they were supposedly superior. Yet Innis committed to his nation and city. He was an undergraduate at McMaster University when it was based in Toronto, only leaving the city for two years to complete a doctorate at the University of Chicago. This stability of employment matters to academics. There is a continuity of students, library facilities, transportation and home life. That ability to develop projects through the decades may never return. Innis’ long-term contribution remains a part of the university, with a college named in his honour. Toronto became a centre for studying the social effects of media technologies thanks to his influence.

So many fine scholars wrote at their best when applauding Innis. The late Carey, a leading academic in the fields of media, communication and cultural studies, was at his most evocative in a memorial to Innis’ work. He described it as “self-consciously etched deep into the geography and history of North America”. Just as The Band were able to be Canadian while summoning American musical history in Big Pink, so was Innis able to use his role as a North American scholar who was not from the US to offer an alternative pathway through national-communication systems.

Very few scholars dominate their disciplines. Even fewer are able to affect as many disciplines as Innis: economics, history, communication, cultural studies, media studies and Canadian studies. The Bias of Communication is unarguably one of the most influential books to have been published in Canada. Two others by Innis, Empire and Communications (1950) and Changing Concepts of Time (1952), are still in print. In 1951, McLuhan wrote to Innis and stated that his work was so important that it would be the basis for “organising an entire school of studies”. He was right. One year after Innis’ death, McLuhan affirmed: “If one were asked to state briefly the basic change that occurred in the thought of Innis in his last decade, it could be said that he shifted his attention from the trade routes of the external world to the trade routes of the mind.”

To borrow Alexander Watson’s title from his fine biography, Innis was a “marginal man”. Every generation discovers a new use for his marginality. A fragment of Toronto lives and breathes in Brisbane, Brighton, Singapore and Dunedin. Unfortunately, not the same can be said for Salford. I treasure my multiple versions of Innis’ posthumous Essays in Canadian Economic History (1956). But one copy has an odd history stamped on to its pages. It was “withdrawn” from the University of Salford’s library and sold as a cheap second-hand copy by Amazon. The richness of Innis was sold for less than £1 to an individual consumer. Generations of students at Salford cannot read his work. That is a bias of communication.

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