Reviews / Comptes rendus - Graeme Patterson, History and Communications: Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan, The Interpretation of History

Reviews / Comptes rendus

Graeme Patterson, History and Communications: Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan, The Interpretation of History

Bryan Dewalt
National Museum of Science and Technology
Patterson, Graeme. History and Communications: Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan, the Interpretation of History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990. 251 pp. Cloth $40.00, ISBN 0-8020-2764-4. Paper $16.95, ISBN 0-8020-6810-3.

1 Like many researchers in the field of the history of technology, I do not know enough about Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan's work on communications. Despite the lip service paid to Innis as the father of staples theory and despite the fleeting fame of McLuhan, the work of neither man has proven amenable to conventional analysis. The reader will search their sweeping passages in vain for a clear statement of theme, the coherent presentation of evidence, and the integration of both into narrative or dialectic. This very opacity of Innis and McLuhan's work has been both their main appeal and their primary liability; just as they attract so they repel. Many of us might well turn then, to Graeme Patterson's curious book in the hope of finding the lucidity and coherence lacking in the originals. If they are looking for such a primer, however, they will be disappointed.

2 History and Communications: Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan, the Interpretation of History is not a beginner's guide to the work of these two men. The book is rather a collection of interrelated essays aimed at placing Innis and McLuhan within the context of evolving historical thought in Canada and therefore also demonstrating their relevance to the study of Canadian history, particularly intellectual history.

3 Patterson begins with Innis, arguing that his later work on communications was not a radical departure from his early books on the fur trade and the cod fishery. They were in fact linked by a common concern for transportation systems as the means for the movement of physical things, be they "made beaver" or papyrus scrolls. These systems and the products they carried had formative influences on societies and empires and thus were, in a McLuhanesque sense, media of communications. Furthermore, Innis's early and late work were both written in the context of historiographical concern for Canada as a part of the British Empire and as the centre of a new (commercial) empire itself.

4 Innis's treatment of communications media as agents of historical causality was to inspire McLuhan. But perhaps even more so was Innis's analogical and elliptical mode of discourse. McLuhan was to take this personal style, elevate it to a form of methodology, and build a career. McLuhan, claiming Innis, James Joyce, and modern physics as his inspirations, sought to shatter what he believed were the linear patterns of thought that were imprinted on the mind by typography but which were becoming outmoded in an age of instantaneous electronic communications. Patterson accepts McLuhan's claim as the heir to Innis, despite obvious differences between Innis's focus on the relation between communications and political power and McLuhan's preoccupation with the effects of technology on the collective psyche.

5 From Innis, Patterson elaborates an analysis of the 1837 Rebellion through a focus on newspapers and pioneer roads. I'll leave it to experts on Upper Canadian history to judge this endeavour. From McLuhan, Patterson appropriates tools for examining narrative and Whiggish biases in Canadian historiography. It is not clear what Patterson finds so useful here. He specifically applies two concepts that McLuhan was fond of: "figure/ground" relations and the "cliché/archetype." Despite attempts to use the former to discuss contexts for various historiographical ideas, it is never made clear why figure/ground is superior to more commonplace words like, well, "context." As for cliché/archetype, despite a 27-page essay on the history of these two useful words, Patterson comes no closer than McLuhan did to providing his working definition of either. In fact when Patterson does apply them, in his essay on the ideas of "Family Compact" and "Responsible Government," he conflates them into the single construct, "cliché/archetype." This ambiguity underlines his failure to present compelling reasons for a McLuhan-inspired application of these words or for preferring them to others like "myth," "model" or "paradigm."

6 As an exercise in intellectual history this book will be, as the polite expression goes, thought provoking. Patterson's idiosyncratic juxtaposition of Marshall McLuhan and Lord Durham may well prove fruitful. Time will tell. To the extent that Patterson has insisted that the study of communications is part of history, and not of some social-pseudo-science, he has also performed a valuable service. But for historians interested in communications and in material history, the book is less satisfying. In this regard, the work of James W. Carey offers a more suitable introduction to and elaboration of the work of Innis and McLuhan.