CanLit Canon Review #12: Harold Innis’s Empire and Communications

In an attempt to make himself a better Canadian, Craig MacBride is reading and reviewing the books that shaped this country.

What is most remarkable about Harold Innis is his consistency through the years. Whether it’s his first book, The Fur Trade in Canada or, 20 years later, his last book, Empire and Communications, Innis is always, without exception, unreadable.

Unlike Fur Trade, Empire and Communications has nothing to do with Canada, but should be important to Canadians because it is the book that started Toronto down the road to becoming a centre of communications theory.

While Innis, who was a professor at the University of Toronto most of his adult life, influenced several younger U of T professors, it was his impact on Marshall McLuhan that is most notable. McLuhan went on to popularize the field Innis helped create.

In the introduction to Empire and Communications, Innis explains his goal for the book: “I shall attempt to outline the significance of communication in a small number of empires as a means of understanding its role in a general sense and as a background to an appreciation of its significance to the British Empire.”

He continues:

“The concepts of time and space reflect the significance of media to civilization. Media that emphasize time are those that are durable in character, such as parchment, clay, and stone… Media that emphasize space are apt to be less durable and light in character, such as papyrus and paper.”

What is the importance of that, you ask?

“Materials that emphasize time favour decentralization and hierarchical types of institutions, while those that emphasize space favour centralization and systems of government less hierarchical in character.”

A durable empire would balance the importance of space and time and the affiliated media, and all of this is covered, with a fair amount of lucidity, in the introduction.

The rest of the book is a disaster. Looking at Egypt, Babylonia, Greece, and Rome, Innis tells the reader everything except how his thesis holds up, and he does it in a way that leaves the reader baffled.

The problem is that Innis is a discourteous writer who isn’t going to waste space teaching you what he already knows. As a result, there are 1,000 sentences like this one, without any explanation as to why the developments chronicled are important:

“In spite of the success of Tiglath-Pileser (1090-1060 BC) in breaking up the Hittite federation and in laying the foundations of an efficient imperial organization, contraction of Assyrian power as a result of encroachments from Arameans who were pushed into Assyrian territory to the left bank of the Euphrates from the fourteenth to the twelfth centuries enabled the Hittites to establish Carchemish as a bridgehead on the Euphrates about 1050 BC.”

Empire and Communications is important for what it represents, not for what it contains. So, unless you’re studying the history of communications theory, do not attempt to read this book.  You will regret it if you do.