Innis’ Cloud Chamber
In his 1964 introduction to the first reprinting of Innis’ The Bias of Communication, McLuhan revels in the mosaic structure that he associates with Innis’ later writing style, and draws comparisons between Innis’ approach to social historical writing on communications and the artistic strategies of artists to modern culture, particularly artists associated with symbolism like Baudelaire and Mallarmé. According to McLuhan, this mosaic approach emerged later in Innis’ career and it allowed him to move away from a conventional, academic point of view to a more dynamic form of analysis that worked to reveal interface relationships, or dynamic interplay between different elements. For McLuhan, this rhetorical style of “juxtaposing without connectives” is highly generative of new insights, in part because it mimics a form of communication that is closer to dialogue than written exposition but also because it directly involves readers in a series of tests concerning the characteristics of technology and its influence upon different social and historical contexts. McLuhan likens Innis’ approach to that of a physicist using a cloud chamber: “By bouncing the unknown form against known forms, he discovered the nature of the new or little known form” (9). The trails made by Innis’ experimental probes outline the cultural disturbances he associated with sudden extensions of communication. Through these tests, Innis teaches us, as McLuhan sees it “ how to use the bias of culture and communication as an instrument of research. By directing attention to the bias or distorting power of the dominant imagery and technology of any culture, he showed us how to understand cultures” (11).
McLuhan explored similar ground in a letter he wrote to Innis in 1951. In that letter, McLuhan provides more details about the importance he sees in the symbolist perception.
One major discovery of the symbolists which had the greatest importance for subsequent investigation was their notion of the learning process as a labyrinth of the senses and faculties whose retracing provided the key to all arts and sciences. … Retracing becomes in modern historical scholarship the technique of reconstruction (221).
Such retracings or reconstructions are evident in several of the essays collected in The Bias of Communication as well as in Empire and Communication and, indeed, this same technique can be seen in McLuhan’s work in the early 1960’s, particularly with The Gutenberg Galaxy a book that McLuhan refers to as a “footnote to the observations of Innis on the subject of the psychic and social consequences, first of writing then of printing” (8).
An intriguing characteristic that emerges in McLuhan’s introduction is just how much seems to have changed in the media landscape in the thirteen years between the first publication of Innis’ book and the publication of the second edition, particularly with respect to electronic communications. McLuhan draws attention to what he considers to be examples of Innis failing to be true to his own mosaic method when he analyzes electronic media, particularly radio and television and goes far to say that this “technological blindness” in Innis is a form of “the nemesis of creativity” (12). For McLuhan, Innis did not quite manage to recognize the emerging electronic space as a new space rather than merely an extension of mechanized communications media. This limited perspective is also evident in Innis’ “Appendix 1: A Note on Communication and Electromagnetic Resources in North America”, where Innis gets so caught up in calculating the amount of space that radio stations can broadcast across that he doesn’t notice that space is collapsed and decentralized by the advent of multiple sites of communication. As was discussed in our class, a significant shift in centre/margin relationships comes about with these new extensions of communication technologies. The resulting cultural disruptions would be more significant than any of the changes documented by Innis in his earlier works on the cod fisheries or the fur trade and, perhaps, as significant as that brought about by print technologies.
Marshall McLuhan. (2005). “Introduction to: The Bias of Communication” in Marshall McLuhan Unbound. Corte Madera, CA: Gingko Press.
McLuhan, M., Molinaro, M., McLuhan, C., & Toye, W. (1987). Letters of Marshall McLuhan. Toronto: Oxford University Press Canada.