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Marginal Man: The Dark Vision of Harold Innis

Author(s):Watson, Alexander John
Reviewer(s):Neill, Robin

Published by EH.NET (March 2006)

Alexander John Watson, Marginal Man: The Dark Vision of Harold Innis. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006. ix + 525 pp. $65 (Canadian) (cloth), ISBN: 0-8020-3916-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Robin Neill, Department of Economics, Carleton University and the University of Prince Edward Island.

Watson asserts a dominating and consistent intention in all of Harold Innis’s academic activities, from before his service in the First World War to his death in the early 1950s: an intention to raise concern about the condition of Western Civilization. In the past, according to Watson’s Innis, Western Civilization had been renewed by activity liberated from ossified intellectual and institutional expressions of its genius. This renewal took place on the margins of established forms of civilization. Indeed, Watson’s Innis, born on the frontier of Euro-American civilization, is a “marginal man” crying doom. As he saw it, the forces suppressing insurgency on the margin were getting the upper hand. By exhaustive reference to Innis’ writings, the sources of his ideas, and his political program in the academic world, Watson makes his point. It may be a mere imputation that Innis was from the beginning self-conscious of his role as prophet, but that Innis assumed this role, whether deliberate and self aware or not, is evident from Watson’s exhaustive and exhausting exposure of Innis’s analysis of the advance of Western civilization.

Watson is not writing as a practicing academic or private sector economist. Following degrees in English Literature, Political Science, and Political Economy (PhD, 1981) he has given most of his time to Care Canada, a non-sectarian international humanitarian aid organization. At the time of the publication of Marginal Man he was its Chief Executive Officer. Still, there is something that can be said apropos of the book that should be of interest to Canadian economic historians, and historians of economic thought of whatever nationality.

There are now at least four book-length treatments of Innis, each with a different purpose. (1) Donald Creighton’s Harold Innis; Portrait of a Scholar (University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1957) is a eulogy out of which, by reference to Innis’s studies of the fur trade and the cod fisheries, Creighton drew the conclusion that Canada was a British country, and, by implication, not French and not American. (2) My own, A New Theory of Value: The Canadian Economics of Harold Innis (University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1972) was part of an extended attempt to take a fresh look at Canadian economic development through the history of economic thought in Canada. In that exercise I had some success in extracting Innis’s economics from his broader considerations, but I was more successful later when I compared Innis to Herbert Simon and found similarities. I was not fully successful (in my own estimation) until I saw Innis as a partial contributor to a grand narrative of Canadian economic development. Innis wrote about primary product exports. Others, bringing the narrative closer to the substance of the Canadian case, wrote about agriculture, manufacturing, and banking. This grand narrative, to which they (Adam Shortt, Donald Creighton, W.A. Mackintosh, W.J.A. Donald, S.D. Clark, Vernon Fowke, and others) were all contributing, was still unfinished when grand narratives of national emergence passed from intellectual fashion in North American history. Watson’s account quite misses this. (3) Paul Heyer’s Harold Innis (Rowman and Littlefield, London, 2003), focusing on “the later Innis,” is a most readable account of the content of Innis’s essays on media of communication. Innis’s essays were considered, and perhaps still are considered, unreadable by all but a few devoted disciples. Watson apologizes for this by asserting that Innis developed a special method of presentation with hidden purposes, without explicitly explaining what those purposes were. I think Innis’s “special method” was a consequence of the time constraints on a very busy academic administrator, and of the less than felicitous literary style that marked all of his work. Heyer goes some distance in overcoming the difficulty. Finally there is John Watson’s Marginal Man.

Watson focuses on Innis’s personal life, his motivation and his inner struggles, but in a one-sided way. At the very end of his exhaustively researched account Watson refers to Innis as a pleasant, encouraging, even light hearted and sociable person. The depiction comes as a surprise after most of the book depicted him as an obsessive, psychopathic, Machiavellian academic entrepreneur, successfully bullying his way up the administrative ladder at the University of Toronto. Indeed, after reading Watson’s restrained account of Innis’s apparently pathetic relationship with a particular female student, it takes some effort to see him as in any way light hearted. The book presents Watson’s dark vision of Innis, as much as it presents Innis’s dark vision of the trend of Western Civilization.

In other ways Watson’s treatment of Innis is one-sided. He reveals, with painstaking, even excessive, proof, that in his communication essays Innis relied on the writings and insights of a number of contemporary Classicists — to a point just short of “plagiarism” (the word is Watson’s). But much that Innis wrote from 1935 on was heavily influenced also by a number of economists in the United States, and Watson only mentions this. Watson seems not to have been looking for the economist in Innis. Terms such as “Historical Economics,” “Institutional Economics,” “Neoclassical Economics,” and “Positive Economics” do not appear in the index. Three pages (111-14) out of 416 are devoted to Innis’s place in the history of economics. The term “cyclonics,” by which Innis pointed to the dynamics of an economy passing from one general equilibrium to another under the impetus of technological change, is given a passing nod in two pages (159-60). All of this, of course, is not a criticism of the book, but an indication of its content.

Watson’s biography of Innis, like all biographies, is a work of art. It puts a construction on Innis’s work, attributing to it a single, consistent, life-long intention to elaborate a paradigm of the advance of civilization. In this paradigm, advance is generated by the vision of frontiersmen who are free from the entrenched, unchanging, and suffocating mentality of those at the center of which the frontier is a frontier — hence, “marginal man.” With this construction Watson is able to assert that the communication studies that Innis produced towards the end of his life were not an outgrowth of his staples histories, but part of a larger pre-existing project. By the end of the book one is almost convinced.

Watson misses the fact that Innis was not the only one dealing with the generality of his concern in the middle years of the twentieth century, though Innis took a different approach. Frank Knight, with whom he was in constant contact, and J.J. Spengler, like Innis, were shocked at the passing of Modernity. In Modernity, rationality, objectivity, a generally accepted moral order, and truth, though not achieved, were thought to be achievable and approaching achievement. Much of what Innis wrote in his last seventeen years was an account of changing informational environments — an attempt to explain the passing of Modernity. The account was depressing for Innis, Knight, and others, because it led up to the advent of the Postmodern view in which objective truth and emotion-free rationality are thought to be not attainable. There were many others, however, who, writing very shortly after Innis, saw the same thing without dismay. Intellectual historians, philosophers, and sociologists of science (Jacques Derrida, John Higham, Maurice Mandelbaum, H.J. White), whose work was germinating contemporaneously with “the later Innis,” saw that the informational environment was changing, and accepted that all informational environments were largely constructed and constantly changing under pressure from internal and external forces.

It was Marshall McLuhan, who was aware of trends in literary criticism and pursued communication studies with Innis, who introduced me to Postmodernism at Toronto in the early 1950s – indeed, even when I was first hearing of Innis. That aspect of McLuhan’s thought and its implications for the place of Innis in the history of thought have not found a place in Marginal Man.

Robin Neill is Adjunct Professor of Economics at Carleton University and the University of Prince Edward Island. Neill is author of A New Theory of Value: The Canadian Economics of H.A. Innis, University of Toronto Press, 1972; “Rationality and the Informational Environment: A Reassessment of the Work of H.A. Innis,” Journal of Canadian Studies, 22, 1988: 78-92; and “Innis, Postmodernism, and Communications: Reflections on Paul Heyer’s Harold Innis,” History of Economic Thought and Methodology, 24, 2006 (forthcoming). He is currently researching the place of the history of economics in the practice of economics, and continentalizing forces in the economic development of Canada.

Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII