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The Toronto School of Communication Theory

The Toronto School of Communication Theory: Interpretations, Extensions, Applications

Rita Watson
Menahem Blondheim
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 336
  • Book Info
    The Toronto School of Communication Theory
    Book Description:

    While never formally recognized as a school of thought in its time, the work of a number of University of Toronto scholars over several decades - most notably Harold Adams Innis and Marshall McLuhan - formulated a number of original attempts to conceptualize communication as a phenomenon, and launched radical and innovative conjectures about its consequences. This landmark collection of essays re-assesses the existence, and re-evaluates the contribution, of the so-called Toronto School of Communication.

    While the theories of Innis and McLuhan are notoriously resistant to neat encapsulation, some general themes have emerged in scholarly attempts to situate them within the discipline of communications studies that they helped to define. Three such themes - focus on the effects and consequences of communications, emphasis on communications as a process rather than as structure, and a sharp focus on the technology of communication, or the 'medium' - are the most fundamental in characterizing the unique perspective of the Toronto School. This collection not only represents a crucial step in defining the 'Toronto School,' it also provides close analysis of the ideas of its individual members.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-8944-2
    Subjects: Economics

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. vii-viii)
    Menahem Blondheim and Rita Watson
  4. Foreword The Toronto School and Communication Research
    (pp. 1-6)

    The “Toronto School” insists that the technologies of the media of communication are far more influential than their content. Harold Adams Innis and Marshall McLuhan are not alone in making this claim, and not the earliest, but they have done so more provocatively and more persistently than others. What’s more they argue that media technologies have a dominant influence not just on individuals but on social structure and culture, and not just in modern times but from the beginning. Their writings have attracted much – interest – and fierce debate – but only little systematic research. If they are right, communications media deserve...

  5. Introduction Innis, McLuhan and the Toronto School
    (pp. 7-26)

    The articles selected for this volume are linked by a common debt to the ideas of a set of scholars commonly identified as the Toronto School. They explore communications and media in human cultures from oral traditions, through early and later forms of writing, to modern electrical and digital media. Many backgrounds and academic orientations are represented by these articles – media and political studies, law, history, sociology, psychology, pragmatics, as well as cultural studies and literary criticism. They also range from the theoretical to the empirical. Such a varied group of works in a single edited volume might appear awkward...

  6. Part I Interpretations

    • 1. Between Essentialism and Constructivism: Harold Innis and World Order Transformations
      (pp. 29-52)

      Although his work is much too diverse to pigeonhole, it is probably fair to say that one of Harold Adams Innis’ overarching concerns was with the dynamics of large-scale social and political change.¹ Such a focus is particularly appropriate today in light of the forces of globalization, the planetary reach of the United States, the prevalence of social and political networks, and the implications of all of these for the modern system of sovereign states. Unlike many of the world political theorists John Ruggie recently chastised for failing to conceptualize change, Innis’ work provides a rich vocabulary of fundamental transformation.²...

    • 2. “The Significance of Communication” According to Harold Adams Innis
      (pp. 53-81)

      Communication technologies represent an interface of mind and matter: They are the physical means for representing, manipulating, conveying, and storing knowledge and ideas.¹ A reasonable proposition would therefore suggest that significant change in media technologies, and in the communication environments they shape, would be related to transformations in the life of the mind and to changes in collectivementalité.Further, should we happen to hold that ideas drive behavior and action, that same proposition would imply, by extension, that changes in communication technology may relate to significant change in society and culture, even in the human condition generally. This simple...

    • 3. Marshall McLuhan: Genealogy and Legacy
      (pp. 82-97)

      In the summer of 1960 I was at the University of Illinois writing a dissertation in a field yet to be invented, the economics of communications.¹ Most of my intellectual training had been in economics, and I aspired to and sometimes practiced the craft of freelance journalism. As is well known, such journalists are paid by the word: a dollar a word on good days, a nickel a word on the bad ones. And every word, from the shortest to the longest, carried the same price. That led to a flirtation with an understanding of the peculiarities of the market...

    • 4. McLuhan: Where Did He Come From, Where Did He Disappear?
      (pp. 98-113)

      Preaching from the threshold between the fall of “typographic man” and the rise of “electronic man,” a Canadian professor of English named Herbert Marshall McLuhan became the guru of the media age following the publication ofThe Gutenberg Galaxyin 1962 andUnderstanding Mediain 1964.¹ Brilliant, erudite and eccentric, the fame went to his head as he pontificated to industrial chiefs, advised publishers and prime ministers on the future of mankind, and appeared as himself in Woody Allen’sAnnie Hall.In books and articles, intellectuals, however disenchanted, continued to ask, “But what if he’s right?” (Wolfe, 1968). And his...

    • 5. Northrop Frye and the Toronto School of Communication Theory
      (pp. 114-144)

      Northrop Frye is one of the most important voices of the Toronto School of Communication Theory that had its genesis in the theories of Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan. Innis was the starting point of Canadian communication theory. McLuhan described his own major books as a footnote to Innis’ investigation. He took Innis toward a more inclusive cultural analysis, “though little remained of economics and politics that was recognizable.”¹ A common denominator in Innis and McLuhan is their focus on the profound changes that occur in society – in culture, economics and political power structure – that may be associated with changes...

  7. Part II Extensions

    • 6. The Bias of Bias: Innis, Lessing and the Problem of Space
      (pp. 147-169)

      Intellectual trends are not always easy to predict. Yet it is fairly safe to assume that the writings of Harold Innis will figure very little in the emergence of new approaches in media theory or in the exploration of new areas of research. Like the image of Canada itself, Innis’ work is treated very much as a “hinterland” within the main schools of Anglo-American communication studies: dauntingly large (in reference if not in volume), idiosyncratic, reassuringly “there” and yet relatively underpopulated.

      Regarding the latter – a poor analogy, perhaps, for the dearth of enthusiastic readers – it is Innis’ writing style rather...

    • 7. Monopolies of News: Harold Innis, the Telegraph and Wire Services
      (pp. 170-198)

      The sending of a telegraphic message from Baltimore to Washington in May 1844 is widely recognized as a milestone in the history of communication. It introduced to the world a technology that exponentially increased the speed of communication; more radically, as James Carey has observed, the telegraph separated communication and transportation for the first time, with far-reaching consequences for the treatment of information as a separate and valuable commodity.¹ It transformed the way business was transacted, setting the stage for an era in which the “visible hand” of large business corporations increasingly dominated the economy of North America and Europe;...

    • 8. Revitalizing Time: An Innisian Perspective on the Internet
      (pp. 199-214)

      Harold Innis died at a time when television was making its entry into ordinary households. Fifty years later, television is already an “old” medium. A variety of new media based on digital technology have come about and started to be widely used. The Internet is an outstanding representative of these new media. It carries a colossal amount of information and disseminates it with an unprecedented level of efficiency. Such enormous capacity residing in a single medium would be simply unimaginable to Innis’ contemporaries (with the exception, perhaps, of Marshall McLuhan). Living in this Internet age, we cannot help but wondering:...

    • 9. Articulating McLuhan: A Cognitive-Pragmatic Perspective on the Consequences of Communication Media
      (pp. 215-234)

      A revival of interest in McLuhan has been occasioned by a new resonance his ideas have found as the media environments of the twenty-first century unfold. The immediacy, intimacy and simultaneity of communication enabled by electronic media, the erosion of political and national boundaries and the flattening of cultural and social hierarchies are only a few recent developments that reflect his early predictions (Carey, 1998; Meyrowitz, 2002). While former critics are revisiting his theories, the impression persists that McLuhan may have come up with the right ideas for the wrong reasons. He flouted not only the rules of rational argumentation,...

  8. Part III Applications

    • 10. The Global Village, the Nation State and the Ethnic Community: Audiences of Communication and Boundaries of Identity
      (pp. 237-271)

      The nation state, with its recognized borders, political and civil bodies, and national culture, is a complex political entity, whose very existence, some would say, is presently under threat. This may be the consequence of two seemingly contradictory social trends, which emerged during the end of the last century and continued into the beginning of this one. These trends are globalization, on the one hand, which promotes social relations with the wider, global community, often by transcending the boundaries of the nation state, and multiculturalism, which reinforces the consciousness of ethnic communities living within the nation state, allowing them to...

    • 11. Rare to Medium: A Full Taxonomy of Elements for Assessing How Well (Done) the Internet’s Unique Capabilities are Currently Exploited by e-Magazines
      (pp. 272-304)

      The fast pace of the Internet’s technological evolution and its somewhat unique character as amultimediumconstitute a challenge for both practitioners and scholars alike. One such challenge is to understand its sundry capabilities and exploit them to the fullest¹: to what extent, at this relatively early stage of the Internet’s development, are its practitioners maximally using its (full) potentialities? The comprehensive list provided in this article offers a solid basis for analyzing² and comparing the extent to which the technical capabilities of the Internet are impacting the substantive contents as well as the communicative mode of transmission. While our...

    • 12. Conceptualizing the Right to Privacy: Ethical and Legal Considerations
      (pp. 305-336)

      We all care about our privacy. We all would like to keep some part of it outside the public domain. However, this is becoming increasingly difficult as technology advances and the media are struggling to fill time slots and empty pages. When news is becoming entertainment (infotainment) and private stories become public spectacle, individual lives can be mercilessly exposed to the glaring spotlight of unwanted publicity. In delineating the boundaries of intrusion, distinctions are made between children and adults; between public figures and ordinary citizens; between people who choose to live in the spotlights, and ordinary citizens who stumble into...

    • 13. From the Spider to the Web: Innis’ Ecological Approach to the Evolution of Communication Technologies
      (pp. 337-353)

      Harold Adams Innis is widely considered a founding proponent of a technological deterministic approach to communication studies. One of the fundamental notions usually ascribed to such an approach is that technology is an autonomous, powerful force, emerging independently of social expectations. Technology, according to this view, is the independent stimulus, social change the dependent response (Bijker, 1997; MacKenzie & Wajcman, 1990; Smith & Marx, 1996). In this sense, at least, we fail to detect symptoms of technological determinism in Innis’ writings about communications (Blondheim, 2003; Innis, 1951; 1972). Far from it: Innis, rather than considering communication technologies to emerge out...

  9. Afterword Whatever Happened to the Toronto School?
    (pp. 354-360)

    The excitement that greeted the publication of McLuhan’sThe Gutenburg Galaxyin 1962 and inUnderstanding Mediatwo years later is now difficult to imagine. Indeed, in Canada, McLuhan remains a revered icon frequently mentioned in the popular press. The enthusiasm for McLuhan brought with it a renewed interest in Harold Innis’The Bias of Communication(1951) and in Eric Havelock’sPreface to Plato(1963). These three along with a few acolytes including myself were first labeled the “Toronto School” by Jack Goody, himself a leading theorist of culture and communication (Goody, 1986; 1987). Walter Ong, who was deeply influenced...

  10. List of Contributors
    (pp. 361-366)