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Introduction to Canadian Media Theorists:
Tricksters on the Margins

A Canada of light (Coach House, 1993) is a passionate meditation on Canada as a "communication state." In it, author B.W. Powe argues for an inclusive and accommodating vision of the "discontinuous" Canadian identity:

I believe that Canada has a hermetic past: its meanings are concealed in private whisperings and interrupted signals, in insoluble arguments about unity and misread messages, and in quiet resistances to the pressures to join into one supreme political system. I suggest that Canada has a discontinuous character. I mean that without a single purpose or predetermined historic goal--no violent creation and imposition of a political myth or ideology--Canadians have lived with, invited and responded to many stories, moods and visions, and many different kinds of people. (68-9)

Canada by Design Central to Powe's vision of the discontinuous national character is a recognition of our complex reliance on communication technologies--"The only way we can live in this country is through advanced technologies of communication." And we are thus forced to live with the paradox that "these technologies do not solidify individual identity...Electricity scatters individual memory, conjuring ghosts and simulations." Communications technologies have forced--and allowed--us to accept this paradox into our national consciousness:

...electronic technologies spur and excite questions, allow for multiple points of view, add to the strange feeling of fusion with world events and confusion about significance and intent. Communications technologies threaten us, summon us, immerse us: they appear to be capable of dehumanizing our lives and of enhancing our awareness, sending out images and reflections of ourselves everywhere. (67-8)

Powe thus takes his place within a tradition of Canadian media theorists who have articulated an evolving theory of communications and media which addresses not only the Canadian national character, but more significantly, also the role of the global citizen living in a media-saturated culture.

This Canadian media tradition is often seen to originate with the work of Harold Adams Innis, a political economist who spent most of his career at the University of Toronto. Innis was keenly aware of Canada's position as a former British colony, and as a struggling "dominion" on the northern border of the United States. From his earlier work on the fur trade, the cod fisheries, the dairy and pulp industries, he developed his "staples thesis" of political economy before turning his attention to the role of communications technologies in the formation of empire. It is significant to the future of Canadian media theory that Innis' attention turned from primary resources to communications technologies, from the content of trade to the medium of empire building. In Empire and Communications (1950) and The Bias of Communication (1951), Innis reviewed the history of communications technology from the Egyptians to the National Socialists. He paid special attention in these works to the pivotal role played by nations on the margins or borders of stronger empires. The Bias of Communication is filled with observations such as the following on the effect of the Counter-Reformation on printing and the supply of paper:

Supression of printing in response to ecclesiastical demands was accompanied by an interest in the increased production and export of paper by the state. As a result of this conflict between restriction of consumption and increase of production and exports, cheaper supplies were available in the Netherlands, Geneva, and countries in which printing remained free. From these marginal areas printed material was smuggled back into France. Freedom of the press in marginal free countries was supported by repression in France. (26)

Innis was particularly adept at tracing complex connections between seemingly unrelated communications developments: repression of printing in France promoted a publishing boom in surrounding nations, with the result that the hegemony of the church in France was subverted by foreign publications. Throughout The Bias of Communication Innis reveals his bias in favour of the national underdog. In doing so, he became a strategist for the survival of less powerful nations, and an apologist for the nation as trickster. From Hermes and Mercury to Esu-Elegbara, Coyote and Raven, the trickster has served as a pan-cultural archetype of the messenger with a penchant for disrupting the social order with playful antics and double riddles in order, paradoxically, to reaffirm enduring cultural values.

In his introduction to the 1964 reprint of The Bias of Communication, Marshall McLuhan gives us some insight into the role of the trickster when he describes Innis' method of exploration:

He changed his procedure from working with a "point of view" to that of the generating of insights by the method of "interface," as it is named in chemistry. "Interface" refers to the interaction of substances in a kind of mutual irritation...It is the natural form of conversation or dialogue rather of written discourse. In writing, the tendency is to isolate an aspect of some matter and to direct steady attention upon that aspect. In dialogue there is an equally natural interplay of multiple aspects of any matter. This interplay of aspects can generate insights or discovery. ...[A]n insight is the sudden awareness of a complex process of interaction. (viii)

McLuhan is telling us that to read Innis we must be prepared to be irritated, in the sense of being forced to interact actively with his juxtaposition of ideas. Innis wants to challenge our commonsense notions of power and the status quo. He wants us to think about process and interaction when we think about the impact of communications technology on culture.

McLuhan learned from Innis and carried forward his work on communications technologies as extensions of human consciousness in the most trickster-like of ways. Even more than his ludic, or playful, theories, McLuhan has become known for his method of exploring communications technologies. His (in)famous McLuhan probes have troubled critics with their inconsistency, and inspired a web-site. B.W. Powe, in his book of profiles of intellectuals in a post-literate age, The Solitary Outlaw (1996), comments on McLuhan's disruptive humour:

This self-contradictory literary individual...masked his critique in the tomfoolery and cajolery of a subtle satirist, in paradoxes and quixotic sayings....While McLuhan's perceptions and intuitions are urgent, they were not tragic in their implications. His response was to turn to public alert through satire and laughter: the exposure of the power of all media, electric and literary....McLuhan's wit was selfprotective. "If any person became totally aware of what is going on today, he'd go instantly mad." And: "The young people of today undergo a psychic torture through media bombardment and fallout that is unprecedented." His approach is comic-apocalyptic, though we can see him as a chronicler of disintegration and reintegration. (182-98)

For Powe, McLuhan is one of those "solitary outlaws" who "sensed from the beginning that a consciously critical, imaginative writer could defy from the margins, outside the silicon dynamos of electrical force" (203). Taken together, Innis and McLuhan set a provocative challenge before students of the media: don't be distracted by the raging debates over content; look, instead, to the ways in which a particular medium of communication affects the equilibrium of power in the ebb and flow of nations. Both were convinced that meaningful change could be effected from the margins of empire, and, as we'll see, both felt a special respect for the subversive power of orality within the print-biased culture.


Canada by Design: See especially the Visionary Speakers Series.

Davis, Erik. Trickster at the Crossroads: West Africa's God of Messages, Sex and Deceit. Originally appeared in Gnosis, Spring, 1991

Innis, H.A. The Bias of Communications. 1951. Introduction, Marshall McLuhan. Toronto: University of Toronto, 1964.

Powe, B.W. The Solitary Outlaw. 1987. Toronto: Somerville House, 1996.

---. a Canada of light. Toronto: Coach House, 1993.