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Amodern 9: Techniques and Technologies
April 2020

Histories of Techne


Techniques of Scholarship and Textual Production

Liam Cole Young


What is the relationship between techniques of scholarly labour and textual production, on the one hand, and the ideas and concepts they articulate, on the other? This question has received attention across a variety of disciplines, though perhaps less than we might have expected.1

I approach this question by exploring the scholarly techniques and administrative labour of one figure associated with the emergence of media and communication theory, Harold Adams Innis. Innis is often cited as the ur-figure of media and communication studies, particularly in Canada, but I am not interested in writing another origin story. My rationale is two-fold and has to do with the question of scale. First, observing specific techniques of a scholar and those around him in particular sites, like an office or a study, provide empirical and granular detail from which to derive larger claims about knowledge production and circulation. Second, looking at figures considered “foundational” in scholarly communities or fields opens views on how intellectual formations coalesce. Through such figures flow scholarly discourse, debate and communication. Put another way, such figures inspire critique, application, expansion and revision; they are discourse generators around and against whom fields and formations come to be constituted. Much thinking and writing has considered these processes in terms of canon formation, intellectual biography, oral history, the formation of “schools” of thought and so on. But less has considered the role of material spaces, tools, techniques and labour in the production and dissemination of ideas that go on to be adopted, applied, or contested.

I am not breaking new ground in suggesting that techniques of scholarship, administration and pedagogy give shape to intellectual culture. Striphas and Hayward, for instance, explore how unconventional modes of scholarly communication like working papers and grey literature shaped the formation and emergence of Cultural Studies.2 Scholars from Science and Technology Studies have similarly explored how “laboratory life,” institutional constraints and resource distribution shape the movement of ideas.3 But it is peculiar that a field, media and communication studies, so attentive to the materiality of communication and knowledge has devoted so little attention to its own material conditions of intellectual production. We have a lot of scholarship on Innis’s and McLuhan’s ideas, for instance, but how did they read, take notes, compile lectures, gather research materials, prepare publications and manage their archives? Surely such practices structured their reasoning and theorizing.

The core of my argument is that techniques of doing generate concepts and even objects of inquiry rather than the other way around. Thus before we think about disciplines, formations, traditions or schools, we should start with the techniques themselves. By carefully re-tracing their operations and the many persons, objects and spaces by which they are enacted, we de-mystify narratives about genius and guru figures and we re-inscribe place and practice into our understandings of how ideas are produced and circulated. It allows us to understand something like “media theory” as a complex and contingent formation rather than a canonized set of figures or texts.

This argument is inspired by recent debates in the German media-theoretical milieu regarding the concept of Kulturtechniken (“cultural techniques”).4 These debates are part of a long humanistic tradition of thinking about technique. I will thus begin with some preliminary remarks on technique and Kulturtechniken followed by a brief introduction of Innis and the tradition associated with his work. Readers familiar with these debates and contextual information may wish to skip to section IV, where I proceed with a more specific discussion of the sites and techniques of Innis’s scholarship and textual production.



Thinking with technique has enjoyed a resurgence. It’s an old word that has circulated for a long time and one could tell a compelling history of the humanities, especially, by tracing this single word. But it has had particular purchase of late in media and communication studies and their various offspring. Much of this discourse has been inspired by media-theoretical debates from German-speaking Europe but it is not limited to that milieu.5 Technique came to media and communication studies, like many things, from anthropology, where it was used by thinkers such as Marcel Mauss to argue for the importance of bodily techniques like eating, washing and swimming and Andrei Leroi-Gourhan, who deemed technique to be the “medium” of evolution.6 Non-anthropologists adopting technique-centred approaches included Lewis Mumford, for whom it was a an important (though underdeveloped) category by which to trace changes in human Technics and Civilization;7 Jacques Ellul, who named as “la technique” what he saw as a cultural-intellectual-historical orientation at the centre of modernity;8 and Pierre Bourdieu, for whom it served as deep background to the concept of habitus.9 These are just a few. Many others could be added, but each found in technique a flexible concept that helped describe the importance of practices and habits of body and mind in the emergence of larger social-historical-civilizational orders.

Technique shares with technology and technical the Ancient Greek root word Techné, a point made by almost everyone who has ever written about any of these three words.10 Techné for the Greeks described an art or craft and thus encompassed the spectrum of human fabrication from the “fine” arts of poetry, sculpture and iconography to “mechanical” arts like architecture, agriculture and metallurgy. For Heidegger, the dissolution of techné into specialized fields of “fine” as opposed to “mechanical” arts was a truly historic blunder, the consequences of which continue to be felt. He writes in his later works on the “meaning” of technology that the task of thought is to reunite these realms, to draw these “two stars” back together (fine and mechanical arts; thinking and making; humanities and sciences).11 The consequences of this split have been considered in too many ways to enumerate here; the Pragmatist lamentation of the split between theoretical and practical knowledge and the more recent calls across Digital Humanities and media theory for a rapprochement of quantitative and qualitative are two that spring readily to mind.

But before all that, techné evolved in English and French to denote activities in mechanical and applied arts that would eventually be associated with science and industry. And even this more specialized use was further split into technology, on the one side, and technique, on the other. Technology came to describe both individual devices or tools (“a” technology like the radio) and the larger, more abstract complexes of mechanization and automation in which such devices participate (the general category of technology took its place alongside culture, economy and politics). Technique, meanwhile, came to describe both individual practices of using such technological devices and, in some cases, a more Mauss-inspired sense of the embodied knowledge required for such using. Technique has always dwelled in the realm of crafting, making and general handedness.12 It is about the convergence of body, tool, act and environment, and it has helped thinkers such as those named above, and many others, derive patterns of historical change by carefully tracing practices and processes of human fabrication.

Because the explanatory movement of technique is from the ground up, it is a concept that demands patience. Studies of technique are about careful observation and gathering of details, a general commitment to tracing and gleaning (rather than, or at least prior to, modelling or interpreting).13 Perhaps because of this slow and plodding nature, this commitment to history as sedimentation rather than rupture, technique was subsumed over the course of the 20th century by concepts that offered explanations that were quicker, more provocative and easily digested as soundbites. Words like its sibling technology, but also media and network, seemed to travel and scale-up more easily. The broad strokes of usage provided by Google Ngram are here instructive.

Lately, scholars dissatisfied with the totalizing tendencies of concepts like media and technology have found technique to be analytically and conceptually attractive once again. It’s a word from the same soil and in some cases with the same root structure as these other concepts but it flowers much differently. In Germany, for instance, the concept of technique has inspired in some circles a wholesale (and not uncontroversial) reformulation of Medienwissenschaft. There, thinkers rediscovered an old term from agricultural engineering, Kulturtechniken (translated as “cultural techniques”), which helped to shift the lens of media analysis from strictly technical considerations of hard- and software (devices, networks, programs) to processual considerations of operations and operators; from media ontologies and epistemologies to the ontical processes that precede them.14 I have written elsewhere about affinities between this and certain traditions of North American communication and cultural studies.15 Here I wish to emphasize two propositions that are shared by most theories of Kulturtechniken: (1) that operational chains (comprised by humans–tools–acts–environments) precede the concepts we project back onto them. We counted on fingers prior to any concept of number, to recall an oft-cited formulation of Thomas Macho;16 (2) that the movement from technique to concept, from operation to language, hand to mouth, is a movement that both creates and delimits knowledge. To point is to name and to name is to set the parameters within which the thing named will come to be known by others. This is how individual techniques of pointing, naming, classifying, categorizing, analogizing, etc. congeal into concepts that can be shared, can move from mind to mind. These eventually become codified in larger “knowledge formations” as disciplines, fields, schools, or traditions. I accept these propositions here in order to ask: how might we locate and analyze the spaces in which these operative chains unfold so as to better understand how they structure the concepts and formations that arise from them? Harold Innis’s office – a metonym, of course, but hopefully a generative one – offers insight into these questions.



Harold Innis was a Professor of Political Economy at the University of Toronto from 1925 until his death in 1952. The majority of his career was spent thinking about the economic history of Canada, first as a colony, then a nation state, and about its place within wider international economies of the 16th-20th centuries. He wrote definitive treatments of the fur trade and cod fisheries associated with European “discovery” and exploration of North America. These works were based on about a decade of field work each (which Innis called “dirt research”) and they demonstrate how such economies of staple extraction, circulation and exchange established the basic infrastructure upon which the cultural and political institutions comprising Canada as a colony, and eventually a nation state, would be built.17 This approach came to be called the “staples thesis” because it emphasized economic staples like fur, fish and timber over abstract concepts like price, market, or supply and demand as the engines of economic and cultural activity and thus of history. In this he followed Thorstein Veblen, whose Theory of the Leisure Class Innis saw as a “direct and devastating attack” on approaches in classical economics such as marginal utility theory.18 Veblen’s issue was that “features of the process [of economic and social life] that do not lend themselves to interpretation in terms of the [classical economist’s] formula are abnormal cases and are due to disturbing causes. In all this the agencies or forces causally at work in the economic life process are neatly avoided.”19 These “agencies or forces” were what Innis sought to properly diagnose, and from Veblen he adopted an understanding of socio-economic systems as complex, emergent ecologies that do not abide by the rigid models economists sought to project onto them.

Technique is a concept at the heart of the approach – explicitly as an object of Innis’s research and implicitly in terms of method. As an object, Innis sought to observe and document the techniques by which action associated with “economy” unfolded: extraction (trapping beavers, catching cod, chopping timber), transformation (of animal into pelt, fresh fish into salted preserve, tree trunk into lumber), exchange (of staples for money, but also other forms of trade and barter), and so on. As a method, he sought to observe these processes in action, via field visits and other dirt research, or by finding descriptions of the habits and routines of life in a staple economy in sources long ignored by economists such as personal journals, articles of incorporation or bills of lading. The approach enabled Innis to capture something of the dynamism of economic activity, which was not subject to fixed laws of markets, supply and demand, or price. He looked for techniques and technologies that stood prior to such concepts. He found them not in traditional economic centres but on the margins, amidst the dirt of place.

The approach was highly influential, particularly in Canada. Innis’s University of Toronto colleague C.R. Fay wrote of a “Canadian” tradition inaugurated by Innis that emphasized “the commodity itself: its significance for policy; the tying in of one activity with another; the way in which a basic commodity sets the general pace, creates new activities and is itself strengthened or perhaps determined, by its own creation.”20 But Fay here overlooks the crucial point that before there is a commodity to be brought to market there is a staple from which it is fashioned. It is toward these natural resources that colonial, and eventually settler-colonial, economic activity in Canada has always been oriented.

The main contribution of books like The Fur Trade in Canada and The Cod Fisheries was not just the originality of the arguments but the techniques of “dirt” and other research that produced them. We can thus see, early on, the essential role that material practices of research played in Innis’s approach to thinking, analyzing, and theory modelling. The more traditional final form this research took, as books, has led his early work to be considered more scholarly “rigorous” than his later career forays into studying histories of communication and power. We need not level such a judgement to acknowledge that the early books are longer, more detailed, linear and less experimental than the texts he would produce during the final years of his life. Even so, the research techniques by which he gathered data, observations and other material for the early books embody the experimental zeal that would characterize his later work. As he had done with observation and data collection during the dirt research years, he would, in preparing the later works, begin to think more expansively about textual production and archival work, as I will discuss at length below.

Today he is an obscure figure outside of Canada, but Innis scaled the heights of academic life – internationally, as an economic historian, and nationally, as a homegrown Canadian intellectual. Within Canada, he is a giant figure because his work spanned the social sciences and humanities, from economics, history, political science and geography to communication studies (which wasn’t yet named as such), anthropology and even journalism. This made him particularly well positioned to help establish the Social Science Research Council of Canada (SSRC) in 1940 and the Humanities Research Council (HRC) in 1944 (amalgamated in 1977 as SSHRC, still the major public research funding body in Canada). He also served as department chair of his unit from 1937-52, Dean of Graduate Studies from 1947-52, President of the Royal Society (1946) and member of Royal Commissions on public education (Manitoba, 1946) and transportation (Federal, 1949). These administrative aspects of his career have not received enough attention, particularly given that (1) they are emblematic of his central role in, and commitment to, Canadian intellectual culture (“I hold all the threads in my hands,” was the reason he gave his wife, Mary Quayle Innis, for spurning continuous overtures from his alma matter, University of Chicago21 ); (2) they testify to the toll that scholarly and service labour took on his physical and mental health (he died in 1952 after an intense fifteen year period of constant administration); and (3) they coincided almost exactly with Innis’s burgeoning interest in paperwork and its histories, as explored in the late communication texts.



It is surprising – all the more so given his repeatedly-stated commitment to “self-reflexivity” – that Innis never fed this longstanding interest in paperwork back onto his own scholarly and administrative techniques. We do not have any substantive statements from Innis about method let alone a document akin to C. Wright Mills’ The Sociological Imagination. There are only fragments scattered across his published material and the vast Innis archive at University of Toronto (such as a perceptive but undeveloped morsel on the “necessity of having tools with which to do thinking,”22 or his remark, upon graduating from McMaster University in 1916, about wanting to “invent a new loose-leaf system”23 ). Similarly, there is almost no documentation or photographic evidence of Innis’s actual work spaces and tools.

As a result, there is little Innis scholarship devoted specifically to techniques, workspaces, workflow, or other aspects of the material production of his influential ideas. His biographer, Alexander Watson, has done the most to gather and fit these pieces into a coherent picture of scholarly practice. But even earlier, in 1970, Elspeth Chisholm wrote an important if brief report on “Innis’s Method of Working.”24 The report was on behalf of a failed effort in 1969-70, spurred by the Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) and supported by Northrop Frye (among others), to prepare Harold’s voluminous History of Communications project for publication.25 Chisholm’s incisive analysis of Innis’s methods languished for years before Watson extended and complemented her efforts in his chapter “A Telegram from Australia: Innis’s Working Methods.”26 He also drew on fragments and reflections of Innis’s wife, Mary Quayle Innis, which had sat dormant in the Innis fonds for an extended period. It’s to the great benefit of researchers that Chisholm’s and Quayle’s insights have been brought into the light. They probably tell us as much about the relationship between Innis’s working methods and his ideas as anything the man himself wrote.

Quayle’s reflections, Chisholm’s report and Watson’s analysis reveal that Innis’s office in the department of Political Economy, his table in University of Toronto’s reference library and his study at home were catastrophically disorganized. The man was a packrat. Mary recounts that Harold fanned books around his reading chair in his study five or six rows deep to make for easy movement between them.27 He’d alternate between several texts with each sitting, always moving fluidly between disciplines (a reading technique McLuhan would also practice). Watson recounts that he would take notes in the chair, as marginalia or by inserting small sheets of paper, before moving to his desk to transfer them to foolscap (writing on both sides in an impossibly small script).28 Innis would place these sheets in piles on every available surface alongside research ephemera and field notes (from his many research trips to the Canadian North and beyond, such as Russia in 1945), as well as papers of all manner arising from his many professional obligations as Chair, Dean and Royal Commission member. He piled these a foot high and didn’t allow anyone to touch them. A filing cabinet sat in the corner of the room ready to accept these piles. It remained, much to Mary’s chagrin, empty.29

In spite of the seeming chaos, there was a set of operating protocols known to the system’s architect and those on whom he depended. Joyce Wry, then secretary of the Political Economy department, recalled “One time [Innis] was home and he telephoned me and said, ‘Will you go to my office and count over nine columns [piles] and go down to the thirteenth letter and bring me the letter from Professor So and So,’ and I did and, Lord, it was the letter!”30 But we shouldn’t fetishize the idea of an eccentric genius who alone held the skeleton key to this system. This would do a disservice to those who contributed to and supported Harold’s scholarship in spite of his sloppiness. Mary, in particular, was enlisted in the battle against entropy, as was Wry and Innis’s longtime personal secretary Jane Ward. Together, they employed an array of idiosyncratic data management techniques while Innis was alive and in the immediate aftermath of his death. As Sharon Larade writes in the introduction to the University of Toronto’s Innis fonds, “While the archives reflect Harold Innis’ life and career, some of the series are based on artificial creations by Mary Quayle Innis as her husband’s personal secretary and editor. The press clippings and scrapbooks are her creation, as are the bibliographic card file and the editorial records for the Communications manuscripts.”31 Mary spent an immense amount of time sifting through the disorder of Harold’s papers, processing them in collaboration with his colleagues and archivists at University of Toronto into a collection that could be ordered and accessed.32 But even earlier, while he was alive, she and other administrative staff compiled indices to be placed on top of Innis’s stacks of paper and made several failed attempts, along with his colleague Donald Creighton, to develop a card catalogue system. But perhaps most interestingly, the group developed an odd cross-referencing system Harold called his “idea file.”

The idea file contains research matter that he collected between 1944 and his 1952 death. It was originally a series of cross-referenced index cards (now lost) in which, according to Innis’s son Donald, “one idea might be referred to under several headings and vice versa.”33 This collection has a complicated editorial and archival history. It is usually conceived of as the product of one brilliant mind but it would not have been possible without the contributions of Mary Quayle, Jane Ward and others.34 It’s a mysterious and alluring collection, a bit like a Canadian version of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, though it has received fewer editorial resources and less commentary. Watson describes it as three related but separate “banks” of documentation into which Innis would deposit research matter, and from which he would draw in preparing publications. One contained a collection of quotations; the second, his voluminous reading notes; the last, Innis’s own ideas, aphorisms and anecdotes.35 The material contained in the file varies widely in scope but mirrors, in general terms, the shift in Innis’s emphasis from questions of economic history to the matter of communication. In other words, the adoption of these new techniques of information gathering, crafting and dissemination corresponded almost exactly with the shift in his scholarly interests.

Working in such ways led Innis to experiment with new modes of writing and composition. His reading habits enabled him to make then-bizarre but now commonplace connections between divergent fields like classics, geography, archaeology and economics. He read fast, wide and loose. Chisholm recounts that he often read books back to front, starting with the index and zeroing in on particular keywords or topics of interest (a practice much more familiar to modern readers used to using CTRL+F). She continues “He skimmed works, using index and table of contents, he darted around in them, he assembled like with like on a given personality, then suddenly switched to something totally unlike, juxtaposing in well-known Innis manner a provocative neighbouring chunk on another topic entirely.”36 The practice of reading multiple books from divergent disciplines in the same sitting allowed him to synthesize and forge connections between fields and topics that would seem otherwise incongruous. Innis transcoded these impressions and inclinations into the realm of the symbolic, writing, while trying to maintain some of the power and movement of active thought and reading. Montage.

One product of these textual experiments survives, though not in its “cut up” form. It is a typed compilation of fifty-three notes from the idea file on the subject of universities and earlier techniques of knowledge storage and transmission. Christian suggests Innis had these collated with an eye to publishing an essay.37 Though this never materialized, Christian included the collated version in his edited version of The Idea File of Harold Adams Innis. The piece moves fluidly between Egyptian monasticism and local considerations at University of Toronto; he draws from economics, ancient history and architecture. “On Universities” is notable because of its in-between nature, more structurally coherent than the sprawling idea file and yet less so than his published material or lectures from the period. It gives us insight into the movement of Innis’s work, the techniques he employed to transcode fragments from the idea file into a form that would be more legible to his readers.

Innis conducted further experiments, such as using early Photostat technology to make copies of reading notes and other works that he could cut and paste in preparing Empire and Communications and the other communication texts. According to Chisholm, he “cut sheets with scissors to separate pieces when he decided to assemble for a particular subject, often at an angle.”38 These cut-ups began as reading notes but eventually made their way into published material. This cavalier attitude toward attribution and citation has received sustained and intense criticism, most recently from Watson.39 But the effect of the technique was clearly generative for Innis, and for his readers. It went further, even, then his montage reading notes in disrupting the linear flow of ideas such as found in prose, and producing a new kind of order via disorder and disunity. Such juxtapositions forged new pathways through historical archives and opened space for critical reflection about Innis’s own time, place and the modes of thinking, reading, writing and reasoning in which he felt trapped (his allergies to standardization and the “mechanization of knowledge” are well documented).40 He was crafting compendia of seemingly incongruous items to shake himself and his readers out of their familiar grooves of thought. The desired result was something akin to how Foucault described his experience of reading Borges’ fantastical encyclopaedia, an “unthinkable” list that forced him to confront the conditions of possibility of his own thought and episteme.41

Innis’s techniques of working with paper – montage reading notes, dirt research journals, cut-up textual production – participate in what Krajewski shows to be a long, minor tradition of using “paper machines” like card catalogues for catachresis. This term comes from rhetoric and describes “a failed transfer, a juxtaposition of incongruous elements.” Because they are always incomplete and incompatible, metaphors and other catachrestic forms – weird items in a list, two sentences lacking traditional connective tissue – produce a “surplus of meaning that stimulates thought.”42 Johannes F.K. Schmidt borrows “serendipity” from Merton and Barber to similarly describe how meaning springs forth from incongruity in sociologist and media theorist Niklas Luhmann’s peculiar card catalogue system (Zettelkasten). Luhmann developed this system, totalling over 90000 cards, to organize his research but also stimulate his thinking. He used it from 1952 until just before his death in 1998. With the Zettelkasten, Luhmann sought to enact a systems-based approach that he believed was key to broader analyses of social and communicative life. The cards, still available to researchers today, are cross-referenced using a numerical address system and indexed by concept. But, importantly, it was the technique itself that Luhmann found so generative. In Schmidt’s words,

his main concern was not to develop an idea to maximum sophistication before including the note into the collection; rather, he operated on the assumption that a decision on the usefulness of a note could only be made in relating it to the other notes – and therefore would (in many cases) be a matter to be decided in the future: by re-reading the note in the context of new notes compiled afterwards or in the context of an inquiry, i.e. in using the card index as a database for new thoughts and publications.43

Innis’s idea file was a more rudimentary attempt at achieving a similar result. Whatever we might call it – a database, an engine of serendipity, a catachrestic machine – this poetic dimension of Innis’s work offers a different mode of sensory experience than typically on offer in print. It was derived from an ethos of experimenting with the boundaries of his media environment. A generalizable concept like “bias,” one of Innis’s lasting contributions, emerges directly from these techniques of research and textual production. Probing the borders of writing and print through cut-ups and jump cuts worked hand-in-glove with his burgeoning interest in how the material properties of any medium, used uncritically or unthinkingly, tend toward particular patterns of thought and organization, or, “biases.”

William J. Buxton suggests Innis developed these techniques in response to his worry that ever-expanding state, corporate and intellectual archives would mechanize knowledge and turn historians into technicians. Reflecting in 1944 on the 25th anniversary of the Canadian Historical Review, Innis writes,

Already there are tales of trainloads of material with numerous trained historians and the interest in the mechanics of archives will increase with the size of the archives. The Canadian Historical Review must somehow try to keep the philosophical interest alive in spite of the threat of the avalanche of documentary material. It should systematically foster and cherish an interest in new points of view and interpretation.44

These remarks are noteworthy not just in relation to Innis’s own archival practices but when read in the context of his broader ideas about how communication techniques and devices each exhibit a bias toward certain habits of mind and institutional structures. They evince a clear connection between Innis’s scholarly praxis and his larger arguments about the mechanization of knowledge and dangerous presentism of Western society.

Speed seemed to be essential to this train of thinking and Innis’s techniques were increasingly geared toward the acceleration of reading, gathering, combining, composing and disseminating. How should we think about the fact that the author of “A Plea for Time,” a most vociferous critic of modernity’s “space bias,” worked with such rapidity? Part of the story was, of course, the increasing demands on his time and deterioration of his health. His practices are exemplary of scholarly and administrative “workarounds” that we all develop to get by. But there is probably more we can say. Frustration and circumstance are often the engines of creativity, as theorists of the “workaround” suggest.45 Perhaps we should consider the speed of their composition as essential to the energy of these texts, which Wernick describes as “the relentlessly indicative flow of his discourse.”46 To read Innis is to feel the crush of wave after wave of history. Five thousand years in fifteen pages (or less!). I am not sure if Paul Virilio ever read Innis, but in this, at least, he is part of an Innisian lineage.

The question of intent inevitably arises. Did Innis intentionally engineer all of what I have just described? Certainly not all. But the question of intent is here less important than that of effect. The full scope of intentions behind any text are always uncertain. But what a text achieves, how it works, is more clearly discernible. Innis’s texts do for his readers what his techniques did for him: they loosen the grip of scholarly convention and offer an escape from repetitious modes of reasoning and argumentation that, Innis thought, were ill-suited for the challenges of the day. He used text and archival material as clay to be moulded and shaped toward different effects. These techniques were about his resolute conviction that one must avoid specialization or mechanization at any cost, to avoid something like Diderot’s Encyclopedia, of which he wrote (perhaps unfairly): “Extent to which encyclopedia may tear knowledge apart and pigeon-hole it in alphabetical boxes – necessity of constantly attempting a synthesis to offset influence of mechanization – possibl[e] basis for emphasis on civilization as a whole.”47 The style receives dismissal or disdain from many a reader because it demands different, more active modes of engagement. It was a cool medium avant la lettre. I invoke McLuhan here because he seemed as interested in Innis’s peculiar techniques and style as anything else. In his senior colleague’s work, McLuhan saw tools that could slice through the noisy information environment of modernity. Central among these was “pattern recognition,” which became increasingly central to McLuhan’s media theory and was clearly part of what drew him to Innis’s work.48 As he wrote in the introduction to Innis’s Empire and Communications, Innis was “the first to apply possibilities of pattern recognition to a wired planet burdened by information overload.”49 John Bonnett similarly notes “pattern detection” as one of Innis’s crucial insights and a way to connect him to an intellectual lineage including Norbert Wiener and Claude Shannon.50

That these aspects of Innis’s work are not more widely remarked upon, and that The Idea File of Harold Adams Innis is not widely cited, suggests we still don’t really know what to make of them. Scholars have been, in my view, too concerned with questions of provenance and citation politics – where Innis found these ideas and how they were used in the emplotment of his communication histories. These are important questions but not the only ones that should be asked. There has been, for instance, considerably less work that has used the fragments themselves as what McLuhan would call probes: concise, under-developed, sometimes bewildering but often brilliant insights and connections. Rather than something to think only about, why not conceive of Innis’s idea file as a machine to think with, and also against? Such an approach would resonate with Innis’s own comportment. His techniques were not simply about encoding and decoding, sending and receiving information. Nor were they solely a matter, as has been repeatedly suggested, of Innis trying to hide his lack of expertise in the fields he sought to synthesize, or of transcoding the power of orality onto the page51. There is another way to read them, more poetically, as attempts to stitch together fragments, to create surprising juxtapositions that probed the boundaries of thought and language to create something new. Innis sought different pathways through archives and new structures for articulating material and textual residues of the past. He tried to bypass what he describes in the idea file as the “[d]ifficulty of extending history or projecting bias of historian back to period in which a different type of bias [existed] – inevitable creation of a series of fictitious histories running in a flat line or plane uniform surface and difficulty of creating uneven surface adapted to periods of history with different types of bias.”52 Innis sought to craft his texts as such “uneven surfaces,” to fold, warp or otherwise reshape historical material to avoid linear, causal narratives that conflate too much.

This style resonates with approaches to gathering, thinking and writing evident in a range of “marginal” work across the humanities. There are particular affinities with Walter Benjamin and recent thinkers inspired by his work, such as Caroline Steedman and Esther Leslie. Benjamin was a noted collector of fragments, a lover of aphorism and list. Through such scraps, he suspected, modernity’s secret histories reveal themselves, piece by piece, shade by shade. Benjamin throught through the paradigm – the singularity that does not stand in for the totality (as a microcosm), but instead reveals a picture of place and past through resemblance and affinity, usually hidden, between things. Part-to-part rather than part-to-whole. Agamben attributes this “paradigmology” to Michel Foucault but it is perhaps a more apt description of Benjaminian – or Innisian – approaches to stitching together fragments53. Caroline Steedman uses the emblem of the rag rug to convey this idea in both form and content in her essay “What a Rag Rug Means.”54 Peter van Wyck, similarly, takes direct inspiration from both Benjamin and Innis in his crystalline account of The Highway of the Atom.55 Each of these formulations seek creative force in modes of knowledge production and storytelling that escape the well-worn grooves of modern reasoning and analysis.

Contemporary intellectual and administrative culture is biased toward conventional scholarly research design and outputs that discourage experiments with form, style, and craft. But, as a close look at techniques of Innis’s reading, research, writing and thinking shows, form and content, theory and method, can never be dissociated. They are hopelessly entangled. This entanglement is precisely from where they derive power (perhaps we should think of them as “hopefully entangled”). We might take a lesson from the history of the Techné concept, which thinks these pairs together, as two sides of the same coin.



Harold Innis’s office, and the people, tools, texts and techniques that populated it, is a productive space in which to think about the relationship between the craft of scholarship and larger knowledge structures. I have suggested here that such spaces invite consideration of how seemingly banal techniques of administration and information management facilitate modes of reasoning and leaps of imagination that take shape as concepts and theories. These latter become grist for the intellectual mill, and this is how intellectual formations coalesce. In a hidden corner of the Innis fonds, a note written by Mary Quayle offers a reminder (or perhaps an instruction for future readers?) about the movement of ideas. She notes “copy sentence p. 244-45” from Hanock’s Country and Calling, and writes out the following passage: “Striking sparks is the teacher’s gift – it may sometimes be the historian’s gift – I remember my Canadian friend, Harold Innis, a great historian who died last year with his work unfinished but still continuing in the work of others, for his difficult prose was full of smouldering coals that burst aflame in other people’s minds.”56

Innis’s approach to scholarly communication and research is emblematic of an ethos of dissolving conceptual, methodological and disciplinary boundaries, such as between theoretical and empirical research, art and science, thinking and making, that remains a central tenet of media-theoretical inquiry. I hope this essay invites considerations about our own techniques of scholarship – how, where, with what and whom we do our thinking, reading, writing, teaching and service – to say nothing of the labour of figures, historically ignored or marginalized in intellectual histories, that perform the secretarial, administrative and domestic labour upon which our efforts depend.57

  1. Anne Blair offers, to my knowledge, the most wide-ranging exploration of this question in her book Too Much to Know (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011). Another seminal text in this register is C. Wright Mills’ The Sociological Imagination (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959), a rare instance of a scholar explicitly lingering on the question of the relationship between techniques, method, imagination and scholarship. 

  2. Ted Striphas and Mark Hayward, “Working Papers in Cultures Studies, Or, The Virtues of Grey Literature,” New Formations 78 (2012): 102-116. 

  3. Influential texts in this genre include Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986); Steven Shapin and Simon Schaeffer, Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle and the Experimental Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985); Mary Poovey, A History of the Modern Fact: Problems of Knowledge in the Sciences of Wealth and Society (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1998); Janet Abbate, Inventing the Internet (Cambridge MA: The MIT Press, 1999). 

  4. The Theory, Culture and Society special issue 30, no. 6 (2013) remains the definitive collection of debates available in English. The journal Zeitschrift Für Medien- Und Kulturforschung (ZMK) has been an eminent German-language publication since 2009. 

  5. See the M/C Journal 18, no 2 (2015), a special issue on technique. The concept has also enjoyed a special purchase in sound studies thanks to Jonathan Sterne’s extensive development of “audile technique” in The Audible Past (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), especially pp. 91-96. 

  6. Marcel Mauss, “Body Techniques,” in Sociology and Psychology: Essays, trans. Ben Brewster (Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979). André Leroi-Gourhan, Gesture and Speech, trans. Anna Bostock Berger (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1993). 

  7. Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1963). 

  8. Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society (New York: Vintage, 1964). 

  9. See especially Pierre Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice, trans. Richard Nice (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), 52–65. 

  10. In addition to Jonathan Sterne’s The Audible Past, see his “Techné” in Communication As… Perspectives on Theory, eds. Gregory J. Shephard, Jeffrey St. John and Ted Striphas (Thousand Oaks: SAGE, 2006), 91-98; John Durham Peters, The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 87-91; Raymond Williams, “Technology” in Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (London: Flamingo, 1983). 

  11. See Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology” in Basic Writings, trans. Joan Stambaugh, ed. David Farrell Krell (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1991), 307-341; and Heidegger, “‘Only a God Can Save Us’: Der Spiegel’s interview with Martin Heidegger,” The Heidegger Controversy: A Reader, ed. Richard Wolin (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1991), 91-117. 

  12. For a strange but unjustly neglected exploration of technology and the hand, see David Rothenberg, Hand’s End: Technology and the Limits of Nature (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995). 

  13. I’m inspired here by how Peter van Wyck develops gleaning into a critical mode of observing, learning and listening in his expansive work The Highway of the Atom (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010). 

  14. See Berhard Siegert, Cultural Techniques: Grids, Filters, Doors, and Other Articulations of the Real, trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young (New York: Fordham University Press, 2015), 1-17 and Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, “Cultural Techniques: Preliminary Remarks,” Theory, Culture and Society 30, no. 6 (2013): 3-19. 

  15. Liam Cole Young, “Cultural Techniques and Logistical Media: Tuning Anglo-American and German Media Studies,” M/C Journal 18.2 (2015). 

  16. Thomas Macho, “Second-Order Animals: Cultural Techniques of Identity and Identification,” Theory, Culture and Society 30, no. 6 (2013): 45. 

  17. Liam Cole Young, “Innis’s Infrastructure: Dirt, Beavers, and Documents in Material Media Theory,” Cultural Politics 13, no. 2 (2017): 227-249. 

  18. Harold Innis, “A Bibliography of Thorstein Veblen,” The Southwestern Political and Social Science Quarterly X, no. 1 (1929): 7. 

  19. Thorstein Veblen, “Why is Economics not an Evolutionary Science?,” The Quarterly Journal of Economic Science 12, no. 4 (1898): 384. 

  20. C.R. Fay, “The Toronto School of Economic History,” Economic History 3 (1934): 171. 

  21. “When he was pressed to go to the University of Chicago (and I wanted to go very much) he said in explaining his refusal to me, one revealing thing, “I can’t leave Canada. I have all the threads in my hands.” He meant that he knew every economic dept. in every university and ever man in every dept. – he knew the plans, prospects, the fears, the weaknesses, the dangers. No one made a move without consulting him. No one person could probably be in such a position today.” See “Notes on H.A. Innis by M.Q. Innis and Others,” Harold Innis Fonds, B1972-0003/036(07), University of Toronto Archives, 1958. 

  22. Harold Innis, The Idea File of Harold Adams Innis, ed. William Christian (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980). Number 5/20. 

  23. Alexander J. Watson, Marginal Man: The Dark Vision of Harold Adams Innis (Toronto: Univeristy of Toronto Press, 2006), 256. 

  24. Elspeth Chisholm, “Innis’s Method of Working,” Harold Innis Fonds, B1972-0003/036(06), University of Toronto Archives, 1970. 

  25. William J. Buxton, “The Bias Against Communication: On the Neglect and Non-publication of the ‘Incomplete and Unrevised Manuscript’ of Harold Adams Innis,” Canadian Journal of Communication 26, no 2 (2001): 211-229. 

  26. Watson, Marginal Man, 256-284. 

  27. Quayle Innis, “Notes on H.A.”; Watson, Marginal Man, 268. 

  28. Watson, Marginal Man, 265-66. 

  29. Quayle Innis, “Notes on H.A.” 

  30. Quoted in Watson, Marginal Man, 268. 

  31. Sharon Larade, “Scope and Content Note” in Finding Aid – Harold Innis Fonds, B1972-0003 and B1972-0025, University of Toronto Archives, 1985. 

  32. For more on Mary Quayle’s important role on the “Innis legacy,” see J. David Black, “‘Both of us can move mountains’: Mary Quayle Innis and Her Relationship to Harold Innis’ Legacy,” Canadian Journal of Communication 28, no 4 (2003): 433-447, Donica Belisle & Kiera Mitchell, “Mary Quayle Innis: Faculty wives’ contributions and the making of academic celebrity,” The Canadian Historical Review 99, no 3: 456–486 and Liam Cole Young, “The McLuhan-Innis Field: In Search of Media Theory,” Canadian Journal of Communication 44, no 4 (2019): 527-544. 

  33. Donald Innis quoted in William Christian, “Preface” in The Idea File of Harold Adams Innis, ed. William Christian (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980), xvii. 

  34. Ward, for instance, typed and collated the cards into a single manuscript which Innis numbered 1-339. Later, upon Innis’s death, a committee comprised by Creighton, Quayle, Donald Innis, as well as University of Toronto colleagues W.T. Easterbrook and S.D. Clark spent many hours debating not just what to do with the idea file but also how it worked. Clark summarized the committee’s decision that “[g]iven his cryptic style of writing, and his tendency to make great leaps in his thinking, there was clearly no way in which these notes could be prepared for publication. But there was much here too valuable to be lost completely” (quoted in William Christian, “Harold Innis’ Idea File,” Queen’s Quarterly 84, no. 4 (1977): 536-37). The committee thus requested that Ward edit, re-organize and type yet another version that could be microfilmed and entered into the Innis fonds (as accession no. B1972-0003/13(09) ). The idea file would eventually be published in a 1980 version edited by William Christian. 

  35. Watson, Marginal Man, 261-278. 

  36. Chisholm, “Innis’s Method of Working,” ii-iv. 

  37. Christian in Innis, Idea File, 267. 

  38. Chisholm, “Innis’s Working Method,” i. 

  39. Watson, Marginal Man, 278-284. 

  40. See Harold Innis, “The Mechanization of Knowledge” in Staples, Markets, and Cultural Change: Selected Essays of Harold A. Innis, ed. Daniel Drache (Montreal-Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1995), 350-355. 

  41. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (New York: Routledge, 2009), xvi. 

  42. Markus Krajewski, Paper Machines: About Cards & Catalogues, 1548-1929, trans. Peter Krapp (Cambridge MA: The MIT Press, 2011), 7. 

  43. Johannes F.K. Schmidt, “Niklas Luhmann’s Card Index: The Fabrication of Serendipity,” Sociologica 12, no. 1 (2018): 55. 

  44. Quoted in Buxton, 2007. 

  45. See, for instance, Sebastian Gießmann and Gabriele Schabacher, “Umwege und Umnutzung oder: Was bewirkt ein »Workaround«?,” Diagonal 35, no. 1 (2014): 13-26. 

  46. Andrew Wernick, “The Post-Innisian Significance of Innis,” Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory 10, no. 1-2 (1986): 130.  

  47. Innis, Idea File, 27/7. 

  48. See Young, “McLuhan-Innis Field.” 

  49. Marshall McLuhan, “Foreword” in Innis, Empire and Communications, Revised Edition (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972). 

  50. Bonnett, Emergence and Empire, 171-183. 

  51. See McLeish, 2007; Watson 2006 

  52. See Young, “McLuhan-Innis Field,” for more on McLuhan’s use of these techniques. 

  53. See Giorgio Agamben, “What is a Paradigm?” in The Signature of All Things: On Method, trans. Luca D’isanto Agamben with Kevin Attell (New York: Zone Books, 2009), 9-32. 

  54. Carolyn Steedman, “What a Rag Rug Means,” Journal of Material Culture 3, no. 3 (1998): 259-281. 

  55. van Wyck, Highway

  56. Quayle Innis, “Notes on H.A.” 

  57. I develop this argument in Young, “McLuhan-Innis Field.” 

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Image: "Intereactions," (Screenshots) by Eric Schmaltz with Kevin McPhee and Graeme Ring (2017).