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Alexander John WATSON, Marginal Man. The Dark Vision of Harold Innis

Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2006
Mercedes Escamilla
p. 288-292
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Alexander John WATSON (2006), Marginal Man. The Dark Vision of Harold Innis, Toronto, University of Toronto Press.

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1Harold Innis has attracted critical attention from both authors and scholars that criticize his methodology and from those who, like him, are concerned with « the interplay of force and intelligence in human affairs. »

2In a clearly written book, Alexander John Watson undertakes the long and arduous task of unveiling a complex figure not only in the field of Canadian economic history but also in Academia. It is not an easy task to write a biography of a leading scholar like Innis. This book derives from Watson’s doctoral thesis and from « an effort to elucidate the cryptic communications works that Innis, working alone, produced during the last ten years of his life. » Here the author attempts not to summarise Innis’ economic theories nor his later contribution to the field of communication, but to help us understand how his long career was aimed at constructing a political project by recalling its different stages and levels.

3The book is divided into two parts. The first covers the period from 1894-1939 and details Innis’ formative years, and difficult beginnings as a member of a peripheral community. According to Watson Innis’ early observations gave him a first outlook on the great paradigms of Western culture and « sharpened an aptitude for pattern recognition ».

4Lack of financial resources weighted heavily during his university years but which Innis nevertheless considered to be a « happy time » in his life. Watson examines this period in some depth and revises the notes of this young member of the Debating Society fascinated with « the interplay of ideas and opinions in different matters » including those in times of war. He writes in 1916 : « […] It is to the men who stand fast to the work of strengthening the nation by leadership that the glory of victory will go assuredly as it goes to the man in the trenches » (p. 68).

5Putting university on hold, off to the trenches he goes, coming back wounded and with a different perspective. As a soldier he kept a clandestine diary that appears in his Autobiography with entries far different from the letters he sent to his family. During his convalescence Innis wrote his MA thesis, The Returned Soldier, in which he details the measures of a much needed public policy in order to come to the aid of the veterans. For Watson this was a turning point for Innis who then directed his attention towards economics and « away from religion, philosophy and law ».

6He came back from the War a different man, a nationalist who deplored what he found upon his return. He writes : « I found the universities depleted of staff […] because people were bustling back and forth winning the war, they said […] I determined never to have any part in letting men down who had been in the Front line » (p. 91). And Watson concludes : « In this sense, the soldier and the scholar occupied the same front lines ». It is the War that transformed Innis’ goal of a university education into a political project.

7As a veteran Innis completed graduate work at the University of Chicago, a Baptist institution, between 1918 and 1920 during which time his religious heritage disappears or at least is radically altered. In 1923 his PhD thesis, A History of the Canadian Pacific Railway ; laden with statistical information, is published.

8According to Watson his thesis led him

[…] to recognize the necessity of understanding […] the cultural dynamics that were correlated to the development of any economy […] giving his work a self-critical and political perspective (p. 115).

9In 1921 Innis married Mary Quayle, an elusive personality like himself. She was, according to Watson,

[…] not a cure for Innis psychological wounds but a crutch that he would use right up to his death (p. 103).

[…] Mary Quayle played acolyte to Innis academic priest. She was an intensely private person, even more so than Innis himself (p. 109-110).

10When Innis came home to Canada in 1920 he was imbued with a sense of mission and the project of launching an intellectual movement comparable to the one that existed in Chicago. As Watson puts it, Innis started a scholarly tradition beginning with his search of a new paradigm. Innis combined his travels all over the country with many activities : geographical research, lectures, public speaking, participation in professional organizations and what Watson calls the Canadianization of the University faculty. As a researcher Innis developed his technique of data compilation and his defense of the oral tradition, « not because it is heard but because it is dialogue » writes Watson. During those years he became a public figure, recognized as an authority.

11At the start of the 1930s Innis had published three more books : Selected Documents in Canadian Economic History, 1497-1783 (1929), Peter Pond : Fur Trader and Adventurer (1930) and his best known opus The Fur Trade in Canada (1930). In these he asserts that in countries situated at the « margin » of empires, the patterns of social organization are the results of the technologies employed in the staples production. In The Fur Trade he sets the foundations for a new approach, sometimes referred to as deterministic theory, and introduces a new methodology in historical analysis. According to Watson, it is here that Innis began elaborating his theory of the Empire and the role of peripheral nations such as Canada. In a later work, The Cod Fisheries : The History of an International Economy (1940), Innis is more ambitious as the study aims to underline the significance of the fishing industry, not only for Canada but for Europe as well.

12In the second half of Marginal Man, Watson focuses on Innis’ study of communication during the last decade of his life. He examines his archives, his reading notes, his theories of imperialism and technological change and the methodology that he introduced to process and to study these social and historical phenomena. According to Watson, the depression had brought about the collapse of social dynamics and « […] pushed Innis to the emotional breaking point ». At the time it was expected that intellectuals and social scientists would produce new schemes to solve these crisis and benefit society. Innis was torn between his social commitment and empathy for the victims of the economic crash and his position that politics and social sciences do not mix. During the debates that ensued, the position he defended, in the end, isolated him from the intellectual community and set him on a new path of investigation and writing : communications. It was a period of greater solitude but also one of greater change in methodology « […] the context but also the content of his research […] changed ».

13Watson devotes a most interesting chapter to Innis’ research methods prior to the Second World War when he, working alone, undertook « a new set of intellectual architectonics » that led him to the humanities and classical studies. In 1940 Innis was head of the department of political economy at the University of Toronto. After the War he traveled extensively to the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom and « […] it opened his eyes to the dangers of extreme bipolarization in the world polity ». He writes to his friend George Ferguson.

[…] the world seems to be getting a little way from the dumbbell arrangement with two large powers at each end of a very thin shank but it is a long way back. Our role appears to be the most difficult of all with the U.S. constantly breathing down our necks (p. 381).

14During his last years he published his polemical essays and a set of given public lectures under the title Empire and Communications. In this we find his famous lecture « Minerva’s Owl » which he delivered in 1951 as elected president of the Royal Society of Canada. In it, Innis argues that new technologies can only expand in marginal regions because the central empowered groups are not interested in encouraging innovation. A polemical and abstruse piece, it was not understood by the audience at the time but it represented « […] a summary of the quintessential ´later´ Innis, the media determinist ».

15«Innis was set on a course of working himself to death » writes Watson. Even at the end, he was launching new research projects surrounded by friends and colleagues. He died, November 8 1952.

16In his epilogue, Watson concludes : 

Innis vision was a dark one because the margin, as he knew it, was disappearing. New technologies were integrating marginal areas in an unprecedented manner […] And […] when we look at how things are unfolding in the world today, might not he be considered prescient ? Historically, has there ever been an imperial imbalance as great as that which now exists  (p. 427-428)

17He continues: 

Innis’ hope that scholarly excellence would develop in Canadian universities, underwritten by the economic and cultural independence of their nation-state, has not been realized. Canada is more thoroughly integrated with an imperial economy than ever before, and our universities are far from focused on specialist solutions to practical problems to fulfill the role Innis assigned them (p. 428).

18But he adds, « I believe that Innis would have been pleased, however, that the college established in his name has adopted a “generalist”, multidisciplinary approach ».

19The focus that Marginal Man places on Innis’ formative years allows the reader to reach a deeper understanding of the circumstances that bred and transformed his young mind. The reader is also able to retrace the many scholars that influenced his work and whose paths crossed his own. While we no longer contest his idea that communication technologies produce social changes and that empires flourish under the influence of more than one medium, thanks to Watson’s biography we discover the kind of man that produced and developed such a milestone in communication theory and methodology.

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Mercedes Escamilla, « Alexander John WATSON, Marginal Man. The Dark Vision of Harold Innis », Communication, Vol. 26/2 | 2008, 288-292.

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Mercedes Escamilla, « Alexander John WATSON, Marginal Man. The Dark Vision of Harold Innis », Communication [En ligne], Vol. 26/2 | 2008, mis en ligne le 12 septembre 2013, consulté le 24 mars 2017. URL :

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Mercedes Escamilla

Oficina de Comunicacion del Lago. Courriel :

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