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  • Emergence and Empire: Innis, Complexity, and the Trajectory of History by John Bonnett
  • Sara Bannerman
John Bonnett. Emergence and Empire: Innis, Complexity, and the Trajectory of History. McGill-Queen’s University Press. ix, 294. $34.95

John Bonnett’s Emergence and Empire: Innis, Complexity, and the Trajectory of History is a fascinating reinterpretation of the thought of Harold Adams Innis. Bonnett’s aim is to show that a vision of historical change, unidentified to date in Innis’s difficult, complex, and sometimes seemingly incoherent writing, underlay all of Innis’s work.

Scholars’ failure to understand Innis’s conceptualization of history and change, Bonnett suggests, has led to various misunderstandings of his [End Page 466] work. By examining Innis’s intellectual roots in the work of Kantian idealism, Adam Smith, and Thorstein Veblen; by reviewing some of Innis’s lesser-known works, his correspondence, and his Idea File; and by comparing Innis’s thought to that of other thinkers of his time, including information theorists like Norbert Weiner, Bonnett offers significant insight into Innis’s thought on historical change.

Bonnett shows that Innis contributes a non-mechanical vision of historical time that vies, on one hand, with the historical materialism of Karl Marx and the technological determinism of which he is often accused, and also, on the other hand, with post-structuralist views of the death of the human subject, by reserving space for human agency and purpose. Bonnett conceptualizes Innis’s understanding of historical change as centred on the concept of “emergent change.”

In chapter one Bonnett discusses the concept of emergent change, arguing that an understanding of change as emergent underlies all of Innis’s work. This vision of change contrasts with the Newtonian privileging of efficient or mechanical causation; emergent change is governed by probability and encompasses the agency and adaptation that is entailed in complex biological and social systems. This vision of emergent change requires a turn not just to mechanical cause but also to formal cause (such as the self-regulatory properties of the system/form that manage its constituent parts) and to final causes (such as purposes, goals, and ideals) to understand and explain historical change. In this vision of change, human and social agency plays a role. At the same time, change is evolutionary and contingent; Innis, like Veblen, opposed teleological visions of history.

The vision of emergent change to which Innis subscribed, Bonnett notes, is completely incompatible with the determinist or mechanical understandings of change often ascribed to him. This is illustrated in chapters two and three, where Bonnett reviews Innis’s earlier works A History of the Canadian Pacific Railway (1923), The Fur Trade in Canada (1930), and The Cod Fisheries (1940). Bonnett notes, as have others, that Innis’s observations about the path dependencies entailed in staple economies were widely oversimplified and misunderstood via Mel Watkins’s staple theory. Watkins, claiming inspiration from Innis, argued that staple production was a vehicle for domination and dependency. Innis’s account of economic history was, unlike Watkins’s, neither normative nor based in determinism; Innis viewed cumulative causation, active agents, and mental models and schema, rather than mechanical determinism and domination, as key to understanding Canadian economic history.

In chapter four Bonnett begins a review of Innis’s post-war work concerned with communications. Examining Innis’s Political Economy in the Modern State (1946), Bonnett traces the roots of Innis’s interest in [End Page 467] communication and information’s role in cultural leaps and breaks. Here Bonnett argues that Innis, a contemporary of Weiner, the founder of cybernetics, shared many concerns and conclusions with Weiner and ought, like Weiner, to be considered an information theorist in his own right. In chapter five Bonnett reviews Empire and Communication (1950) and The Bias of Communication (1951), arguing that Innis’s thought about the “bias of communication” is commonly misunderstood, and, offering an important reinterpretation of these works, convincingly rebuts claims of technological or material determinism.

In his final chapter, Bonnett, Canada Research Chair in Digital Humanities, argues that Innis, concerned as he was about the role of information overload in the decline of civilizations, would approve of various methods employed in the digital...


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