Wilbur Schramm and Noam Chomsky Meet Harold Innis

Robert E. Babe

When I first saw the cover of this hundred-and-ten dollar academic textbook, I felt personally called out. The title alone could be a legal indictment to some horrible and grotesque crime I have no honest memory of, yet wouldn't doubt I still did. The book itself is possibly the pristine output of a demented genetic-learning algorithm trained with full access to the very contents of my mind, all in the sole attempt to fleece me of what little money I already had.

I was in a unique position during my undergrad to become very amenable to the works of Marshall McLuhan. I had each foot in two entirely separate graves; one in the corrupt engineering of computer science and the other in the vivid-but-weak chaos of the humanities. My status as a drifter meant I was never fully accepted as a “proper student” by either one, and media studies was the only way I could achieve any form of synergy between the two realms, especially as it applied to the then-still-unfolding world of digital media. However, while McLuhan was the nationally characteristic point of focus for the subject of media studies, the long-form destruction caused in the wake of the 02008 Recession made Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman more justifiably in vogue. While I always found Chomsky interesting on a personal level, to the point where I was never sure if I was reading Chomsky or if Chomsky was reading me, even then I could notice that Chomsky’s method of media study only ever yields fruit when dealing with systems of sufficient enough size and scale. In contrast, the McLuhan method allowed me to break things down to a level of pure technological consideration, where it would end up being more relevant to what I imagined my job as a software programmer would be. Chomsky’s method was never truly about media in itself, but instead the social organization which occurs around it—which is just as important, if not moreso, but also something of much higher difficulty to affect practical change.

Because I had access to two entirely different methods of media study, I was always trying to find ways to compare the two, in an effort to match and distill the strengths of both. It was frustrating to me, back then, how the two would be taught in complete isolation of each other. Part of this was due to the completely different national origins in each school of thought, but another was the decades-long buildup of frustrations with McLuhan, who came to be seen as the unwitting handmaid of corporate mass media control. This would’ve never been a problem while McLuhan was still alive, but following the rise of neoliberalism in the 01980’s and the fallout from the 01996 Telecommunications Act which enabled the near-complete consolidation of power in anglophonic mainstream media, the knives have since come out. (The charge is only partly unfair; nothing in McLuhan's theory and academic work directly led to that result, but the overtly nonpolitical nature of his theory was used by actants in 01960's/01970's broadcast media systems to rout any other forms of analysis which would threaten their growing entrenchments.) Perhaps if I had studied at the elite Laurentian universities in downtown Toronto where he remained reverent things might have been different, but my lesser-off professors had branded McLuhan a charlatan, and I had to learn his methods mostly at my own heretical lonesome. In their view, Chomsky might have been crazy, sure, but at least Chomsky had never betrayed them in such a cruel manner.

This book was amazing to me, because it actually tried to do the comparative synthesis I had so longed for. The three figures of comparison are: the Nom Chom himself; Harold Innis, who was McLuhan’s predecessor and the one who actually had to do all of the heavy lifting in founding the first school of Canadian media studies; and Wilbur Schramm, some nerd I’ve never heard of, and will continue to never hear of. The three of them exist as the stereotypical faces for each mode of communication studies that exists in North America: the theory-based Canadian school with Innis which I got into, the marketing-based American school with Schramm which everyone seems to despise, and the politics-n-activism-based “Contra-American” school with Chomsky, which I’m slowly beginning to think only ever came about because nobody actually liked the “actual” American school of communication studies.

The renewed historical interest in Harold Innis is something of a salvage job. The hope is that by focusing on Innis, as this book does, the method of work done by the Canadian school of communications might be saved from McLuhan’s lingering disrepute. McLuhan was the one who popularized the works of the then-ignored Innis, and brought his theories into mainstream acceptance. Sadly, this move was—politically speaking—recuperative. Many of those classic one-liner “McLuhanisms” such as “the media is the message” might have deftly adapted entire curricula into the bite-sized slogans of the television age, but brevity slaughtered all too much for the soul of wit. While the core functioning of the theory may have remained, the radical politics which was the source of that theory was nowhere to be found. Even more, that radical politics had its source in the frenzied search for the Canadian soul. This evidence of censorship is, in part, what fuels the accusations against McLuhan now.

But this is not to say that Innis was some forgotten hero of the academy, or even the “Chomsky of his time,” as this book would have it. This is not quite my first outing trying to learn about Innis, and I fear my opinion of him may have been set in advance. While this book’s dive into Innis’s politics was refreshing enough to bring some much-needed life into the very dry and morally-uncompassed field, the historical sidelining he eventually received was not wholly undeserved. He arrived on the scene as that most dire of all things: an economist. For all of his claims of “dissent,” he was still freely gifted with the topmost position of the entire Canadian academy during a time when higher education and scientific development was still the sole purview of the rich and elite. This conservatism and right-wing blow-hardiness only turned from a boon into a liability when his bitterness over the treatment Canadian soldiers received from their British superiors during the First World War boiled over and made him take numerous positions against the hegemony of the British Empire. He rejected the European theories of economic function which were part and parcel of British hegemony, seeking out Canadian solutions for Canadian problems. When the economic establishment at large rejected his (for what it was worth, mostly functional) findings, he was desperate enough to instead repackage them into a new field entirely, which soon became media studies. Condemning the misrule of a corrupt empire and calling out the empty rhetoric of his own pseudo-scientific discipline were indeed the historically correct positions to have, but my suspicion is for the motive. His overall uselessness during the ravages of the Great Depression, a time when other economists like Keynesians and Marxists were at least trying to do something helpful to ordinary people, gives me the impression that he just wanted to become a big fish in the small pond that was Canada.

For all their purported similarities, Chomsky and Innis might pass each other in the night. It’s strange to realize that Innis is looked upon so favourably now, in both media and critical economics, due to how the political situation has so shifted that his original right-wing positions on the independence of the Canadian economy can retroactively become extremely left-wing following the development of globalization and neoliberalism decades after his death. I even have my own fears that once Chomsky himself passes, the work he did on the propaganda model and the boundaries of acceptable debate—all originally done to highlight how leftism was systematically oppressed during the broadcast media age of the Cold War—would soon be repurposed to drive right-wing agendas and force into purview things that were originally sidelined out of popular discourse for damn-good reason. It’s an entirely unfounded fear, but given the current circumstances towards fascism, it’s one I nervously carry. Even the economic origins of Canadian media theory are a source of frustration for me, as there are times when I very desperately want something a little more grounded-in-reality than mere axiomatic thought. I’ve carried this frustration for a long time now, that the thing I happen to rely on for the analysis of software design might be compromised by the very same original sin which corrupted other fields before it. Somewhat ironically, this was something that McLuhan’s censoring recuperation of Innis was actually able to help with.

But my semi-partisan whinging should not discount these figures of the past entirely. I’d like to think I am only doing this because, for lack of a better term, I care. Deeply so. We need them to be better, such that we can use them for better purposes. And the need is there.

... after all, so long as monsters like Wilbur Schramm and Edward Bernays exist, the weight on our shoulders will fall heavy.

End of shelf.

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  • ISBN: 978-0-7391-2369-0

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