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Reviewed by:
  • The Bias of Communication
  • Richard Cavell (bio)
Harold A. Innis . The Bias of Communication. Second edition, with a new introduction by Alexander John Watson. University of Toronto Press. xliv, 226. $29.95

Innis's lasting significance lies in the broad claims that he makes in this book: that media have a material effect on our social, political, economic, and cultural institutions; that those effects are manifested as biases of space or time; and that it is possible to acquire an understanding of history based on a study of these effects of mediation.

Innis famously issues a 'plea for time' in The Bias of Communication. Written in the aftermath of the Second World War, and in the mortal shadow of cancer, this last major book of the Toronto inter-disciplinarian seeks to alert its readers to the increasing dominance of the spatial bias and to make an argument for a degree of balance that would be acquired through an appreciation of the temporal bias, which Innis associated with the oral tradition. It is deeply ironic, then, that Innis's meaning in this work is achieved spatially, through parataxis and juxtaposition, as McLuhan noted in the introduction to the first edition of this work, and not temporally, through the intricacies of argumentation.

Watson states that Innis developed a political theory of mediation that McLuhan de-politicized, though Watson states as well that Changing Concepts of Time, the last book published by Innis, 'is a book to read for those who are interested in the political analysis that falls out of his communications research.' Watson further states that Innis believed in 'apolitical scholarship.' What is certain is that there is very little political analysis in Innis, though there are many political statements from which a politics emerges that is deeply conservative, Eurocentric in focus, Hellenistic in its values, its philosophical affinities Hegelian and Spenglerian, its theoretical matrix anti-Marxist: 'Much of this will smack of Marxian interpretation but I have tried to use the Marxian interpretation to interpret Marx' ('A Critical Review'). Much of what Watson has to say about Innis he already said in his biography, published in 2006, and given that Watson says of Innis that he often 'came close to the scholarly sin of academic plagiarism' in writing his later books, it is only fair to note that sentences in this introduction are highly reminiscent of sentences in the previous work. [End Page 418]

Anti-McLuhanism passes for analysis here; not only did McLuhan de-politicize Innis (the assumption being that otherwise their media theories are the same, which is absolutely not the case, as McLuhan makes resoundingly clear in his 1951 essay 'The Later Innis'), but McLuhan imputed a utopian quality to mediation as opposed to Innis's ambivalence. In support of this last statement, Watson quotes half a sentence from an article written on McLuhan decades ago. After fifty years of scholarship on Innis and on McLuhan, we expect better than this from an introduction to a text that is not only a classic of media theory but a cultural document of profound significance for the Canadian nation. In this regard it should also be noted that the University of Toronto Press cared so little about the republication of this book that they failed to correct the errors of the first edition.

Fortunately, this re-edition of Bias has retained the introduction of Paul Heyer and David Crowley, which, although now dated, will help orient the new reader to Innis's vast stew of insights, directing them toward the grand patterns and preventing them from being caught in the minor points. Heyer and Crowley correctly invoke the name of Foucault in their introduction; what Innis proposed was a theory of mediation as epistemic, attaching to that theory a notion of 'power' that derived from his vast analysis of a staggering historical trajectory.

It is to McLuhan's introduction to the first edition, however, that one must inevitably return for the sense of an intellectual response to Bias on a par with the intellect that wrote it: 'It was my good fortune to begin with the first essay in this book: "Minerva's Owl." How exciting it...


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pp. 418-419
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