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  • Marginal Man: The Dark Vision of Harold Innis
  • Richard Cavell
Alexander John Watson . Marginal Man: The Dark Vision of Harold Innis. University of Toronto Press. xi, 526. $65.00

Harold Innis was a 'marginal' man in both the personal and the political sense: a Baptist from a farm near Otterville, Ontario, he made his name in the metropolitan centre as a professor at the University of Toronto, where, politically, he increasingly became the spokesperson for unpopular views, repeatedly threatening to resign when these views were [End Page 335] not acknowledged. He likewise focused his studies in political economy on those areas marginal to empires; it was on the political margin, he argued, where the civilizing efforts of empire were renewed. But his 'dark vision' was that the prospect of renewal was especially problematical in the twentieth century, a realization that owed much to Innis's appalling experiences in the First World War and his despair at the onset of a second world war. It was particularly the overwhelming spatial bias of the American empire that troubled Innis, in that it ignored the time-binding aspects of the oral tradition, on which Innis pinned his hopes. He ended his career – abruptly, as a result of terminal cancer – with a 'plea for time' that was largely ignored by those who thought his career had gone awry with his inquiries into the nature of communications that occupied him at the end.

The one major revelation in this book – though it comes more as an assertion than as a fact – was that Innis turned to communications, in a strangely compensatory way, from his studies of staple economies, to assuage his hurt at being spurned by his colleague Irene Biss, with whom he had fallen in love.

This is not exactly the revelation that one would expect in an intellectual biography; one would have assumed that much more attention would have been directed to Innis's encounters at the University of Chicago, where he wrote his doctorate. For example, a glancing reference is made to Robert Ezra Park that belies Park's importance for this study, not only for his notion of the 'marginal man' whose fate it is to live in two 'antagonistic cultures,' and of 'dirt[y] research,' of which Watson makes much, but also as a student of the great George Simmel, whose spatial theories are relevant to 'the problem of space' that Innis was seeking to solve through his communications studies. The problem of space, for Innis, was its tendency toward totalization; Watson presents Innis as a process thinker for whom the oral tradition was attractive because it was by nature incomplete.

It is probably impossible to approach Innis without the mediation of Marshall McLuhan's seminal 'The Later Innis' (1952); Watson takes issue with much of this essay, though his approach is reductive and without benefit of the scholarship that has grown up in the wake of Philip Marchand's 1989 biography. Watson does agree with McLuhan's comment that Innis's greatest achievement was the methodological structure he produced in Empire and Communications and The Bias of Communication – a form of radical juxtaposition – rather than the content of his essays.

Watson's book could have been edited down from its 500þ pages; we learn much more than we need to about the Innis farm where Harold grew up, and the questionable notion that farming taught him 'pattern recognition,' and about the internal politics of the Political Economy [End Page 336] Department at the University of Toronto during Innis's reign. Where the book is most useful is in nuancing the blind spots of previous biographies of Innis (as well as of Innis's own, deeply reticent, autobiography), though this does not mean it replaces them; indeed, one of the shortest of such studies, Eric Havelock's, remains pithily pertinent to Innis studies.

On 10 November 1952 the University of Toronto cancelled all classes in memory of Innis, who had died two days before. Innis had championed the university as the last bastion of the oral tradition and the civilizing tendencies it represented, and one still glimpses that possibility – now, alas, from afar – in the university's gesture...


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