History and Communications: Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan, the Interpretation of History

Graeme Patterson

Patterson sorts through a number of issues which have been left hanging since the McLuhan period in Canadian communication theory. The first of these involves the relationship between Innis's early and late work. The second concerns the relationship between McLuhan and Innis, while the third revolves around the role which technology played in the thought of both Innis and McLuhan, and more generally, in the disciplines of history and communication.

While Patterson is clearly an historian, and takes an historical approach to the material, his work is nonetheless perspicacious with respect to unfolding a theory of communication. In the foundation chapters he places Innis in the context of his contemporaries, paying particular attention to Donald Creighton and the role of the "Laurentian Thesis." This research uncovers the contiguity running through the early and late work of Innis, arguing that the central issue revolves around understanding the St. Lawrence Seaway as a transportation system which has historically served equally well as a communication network. In this light, the fact that Innis went on to examine the structure of another river network in relation to the civilization of ancient Egypt (i.e., the Nile) does not seem a radical break with his thought as developed earlier, for example, in Cod Fisheries and Fur Trade.

Indeed, Patterson argues that Innis was an analogical thinker, and it is this aspect of his work which makes his writing so opaque. This tendency is manifest, theoretically, in Innis's employment of space and time, and, more concretely, in his understanding of the transformation of transportation lines into communication networks. Moreover, the same tendency in the thought of Innis is isolated and blown-up by McLuhan, who most freely described technologies as instruments of communication through massaging the idea of media.

But even with all of this, the best is yet to come. In Chapter 3, "Concepts, Models, and Metaphors," Patterson defines McLuhan's pet peeve as the investigation of "formal causality," which is defined as the mode of causation effected when "the process of change [is] implicit in the forms of media technology" (p. 38). This revelation, stated by McLuhan but imputed to the work of Innis, becomes the point of departure for a penetrating discussion of the figure/ground assemblage as promulgated by the former. Patterson's view of this aspect of McLuhan's thought is radically different from those being advanced by Eric McLuhan (in The Laws of Media) and others, notably Bruce Powers. For Patterson, the figure stands against its ground only because the latter enables it. As noted by McLuhan himself: "the motor car is not a medium but a figure in a ground of services, i.e., high-ways, factories, oil companies, etc. It is always the service environment that is the medium, and this is usually `hidden' in the sense of being unnoticed" (p. 100).

Patterson is thus arguing that, for McLuhan, it is the figure/ground relationship itself which constitutes technological media, and that, likewise, all media may be shown to be so constituted. Figure/ground may then become cliche/archetype, and the move is thus made from technology systems to communicational networks. "Language, as such, is a record of human perception" (p. 118), stated McLuhan, knowing full well that it is equally a cognitive technology and thus a bridge between the physical and logical orders of things.

The great strength of Patterson's efforts in History and Communications is compounded in the final chapter, "Comparisons." Beyond any of the specific points mentioned here, and bountiful others in the source, it is the conversion of historical source-material and theoretical inroads which makes the book such a good read. This is accomplished masterfully through comparing different theories and the application of such to history. In this last bit of text, Patterson has captured a sense of the context out of which Innis, and thence McLuhan, arose. It is a rich reading of Canadian history, and of the role which Canadians have played in the formation of communication as the study of cultural development and mediated interaction.



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