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Hors dossierMiscellaneous

Document: Harold Innis’s “History of Communications” Manuscript

  • William Buxton

…plus d’informations

  • William Buxton
    Concordia University

This introduction has been adapted from William J. Buxton, “Harold Innis’s History of Communications Project,” in William J. Buxton, Michael Cheney, and Paul Heyer (eds.), Harold Innis’s History of communications, vol. 1 (forthcoming), Lanham, Rowman and Littlefield, p. 103-111.

Corps de l’article

I cannot but feel that the media of communication has been more important than our general lip service to it has made it. [1]

Harold Innis canoeing on the Peace River, 1924.

University of Toronto Archives
Harold Innis canoeing on the Peace River, 1924.

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Harold Adams Innis (1894-1952) is recognized as one of Canada’s leading intellectual figures. He was born in Otterville, Ontario, in 1894 and studied at McMaster University (then located in Toronto). He served with the Canadian expeditionary force during World War II and was injured in battle at Vimy Ridge. During his convalescence in England, he completed his master’s degree at McMaster. Following his return to Canada, he pursued doctoral work in economics at the University of Chicago, where he wrote his dissertation on the Canadian Pacific Railway. He began his academic career in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Toronto in 1920, remaining there until his death from cancer in 1952. Innis became best known for his studies of how the exploitation of staple products such as fur, fish, lumber, and wheat shaped and directed the path of Canadian economic development. This involved a close examination of the impact of European colonial systems on North America, particularly those of Great Britain, France, and Spain. In the later years of his life he turned his attention to the history of communication, with particular attention given to the relationship between forms of media and broader patterns of power and social control.

During the last dozen years of his life, Harold A. Innis assembled a massive set of writings entitled “A History of Communications: An Incomplete and Unrevised Manuscript.” Overall, it is approximately 1400 pages in length, with a time span running from ancient India and China to the 20th century, with the 18th and 19th centuries receiving particular attention. Copies of the manuscript can be found at the University of Toronto Archives, at the National Archives in Ottawa, and (in microfiche form) at the McLennan Library of McGill University in Montreal.

The work consists of eight large sections (ranging in size from forty to three hundred pages), accompanied by twelve fragments and short treatments (ranging in size from three to nineteen pages). The first five large sections bear chapter numbers from “IV” to “VIII.” The last three large sections appear to correspond to chapters, given their themes and order, but do not bear chapter numbers. This suggests that Innis was still in the process of blocking out the work into specific chapters when he died. That the first chapter is listed as “Chapter IV: The Coming of Paper” suggests that he planned to include three chapters dealing with earlier developments. The fragments at the end of the material suggest that he wished to carry through the analysis into the 20th century, making particular reference to newspapers.

As commentators have been at pains to emphasize, the manuscript largely consists of densely packed factual material and is quite lacking in the occasional theoretical glosses that accompany his other writings on the history of communications. This is not entirely true. Indeed, the document can best be viewed as a set of writings in various stages of development. Some, to be sure, are little more than reading notes. But others are quite well developed and carefully theorized. Giving shape and meaning to the data in question was a framework of analysis that permitted Innis not only to trace recurring patterns over time, but also to juxtapose developments occurring over space. In effect, the work is implicitly informed by a comparative-historical framework, a mode of analysis that was less consistently adhered to in his other major writings.

The excerpt published here is from the first section of Chapter IV, “The Coming of Paper,” which begins with the production of paper in China “as early as 105 A.D.” and concludes with the westward diffusion of paper-making during the Middle Ages. While the manufacture of paper and its spread is at the centre of Innis’s discussion, he gives considerable attention to the related technologies of ink production, block printing, and the introduction of movable type. He also traces the onset of paper and printing within a number of different socio-cultural contexts, including China, India, Korea, the Muslim world, and Europe. In doing so, he examines how paper and printing were bound up with developments in a broad range of areas including religion, language, news, public opinion, politics, literature, and education. The remainder of the chapter parallels the same general themes, but exclusively within a European context. After detailing how the paper-manufacturing process gained a foothold in Europe—becoming a formidable rival to parchment—Innis examines how paper was linked to the broader process of transformation underway. This involved an examination of key developments, such as the extension of credit, the revival of antiquity, the reformation of the Church, and the rise of the modern state.

Abridged versions of Chapters IV, V, and VI will be published by Rowman and Littlefield as Harold Innis’sHistory of Communications, vol. 1 (accompanied by Innis’s autobiographical memoir), edited by William J. Buxton, Michael Cheney, and Paul Heyer. A second volume, tentatively covering material from chapters VII and VIII, is also under contract. Editing Innis’s manuscript has presented distinct challenges. Above all, it was necessary to track down the sources that Innis used and to carefully check his text in relation to the original material to ascertain that his use of quotations was accurate. In order to make the manuscript more readable, we have decided not to use ellipses in cases where Innis omitted words in quoting from his sources. The words that Innis added to his quoted material have been enclosed within square brackets and headings have been inserted.

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