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  • Emergence and Empire: Innis, Complexity, and the Trajectory of History by John Bonnett
  • Liam Cole Young
Emergence and Empire: Innis, Complexity, and the Trajectory of History. John Bonnett. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013. Pp. ix + 371, $110.00 cloth, $34.95 paper

John Bonnett’s ambitious book, Emergence and Empire: Innis, Complexity, and the Trajectory of History, is the latest scholarly monograph to appear on Harold Innis and the first since Paul Heyer’s introductory text (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003) and Alexander J. Watson’s comprehensive intellectual biography (University of Toronto Press, 2006). Bonnett’s meticulously researched book complements these texts by offering a wide-ranging and critical reassessment of Innis’s work and should be of interest to scholars in history, media and communication studies, political science, and the digital humanities. The signal contribution of the book is to excavate from the Innis oeuvre what Bonnett shows, convincingly, to be a coherent and consistent theory of historical change grounded in what we now understand as emergence. In so doing, the [End Page 314] book addresses what he sees as the primary task of Innis interpreters: to move beyond facile statements that Innis initiated something intellectually significant and instead to show what that something is and how it came about. In this spirit, Bonnett proposes that the entirety of Innis’s work “can and should be viewed as a sustained exploration of change” and that the “overarching purpose of Innis’s career was to demonstrate that the patterns of Canadian economic and global history should be identified with the characteristics of emergent change” (5).

The Innis of Emergence and Empire is therefore a theorist of systems and complexity avant la lettre. Such ideas are normally associated with developments in physics, biology, engineering, and information theory (among other disciplines) that occurred concurrent to Innis or much later. Bonnett argues in contrast that, though his theatre was the history of human culture and civilization, Innis was tuned to the same intellectual frequencies that produced theories of emergent change in the sciences. The key to the argument, most clearly stated in Chapter 1, is Innis’s serious and sustained engagement with the work of economists Adam Smith and, especially, Thorsten Veblen. In their work, Innis found a nest of concepts that allowed him to analyze of patterns of historical change in emergent, rather than mechanical, terms. Among these were increasing returns, formal and final cause, and equilibrium. Such concepts, Bonnett argues, map nicely onto those found in the interdisciplinary science of complexity that appeared later, such as positive feedback, emergence, and control parameters.

Bonnett unfolds this argument across Chapters 2 through 5. These offer close readings of Innis’s major works and seek to render explicit what otherwise remains implicit in his account of historical change, namely, that Canada was “an economic system that displayed emergent properties and differential persistence, and was governed by formal and final cause” (Chapter 2, 51); that the process of increasing returns–that is, positive feedback–is of central importance to the dynamics of any given economic and historical situation (Chapter 3); that the amount (and material forms) of information circulating in a given culture is a “control parameter that govern[s] emergent cultural change” (Chapter 4, 130, a welcome return to Innis’s unjustly neglected Political Economy in the Modern State, which will be republished by University of Toronto Press in 2018); and that human intention and action matters, that how we engage with communication technologies plays a role in the biases toward which those technologies move. Bias, for Bonnett, is a concept that should be understood probabilistically rather than mechanically. It is not that paper inevitably exhibits a space bias but, rather, that certain [End Page 315] uses of paper (for example, administration) will affect the wider purchase the medium has over social and cognitive life (here one might protest that this is not an unusual interpretation of the bias concept, which most scholars of Innis understand in similarly relative, rather than absolute, terms). The framework and conceptual language of emergent change, which Bonnett sometimes excavates from Innis’s work and, at other times, applies to it, enables him to synthesize...


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