A tribute to and a lament for Marshall McLuhan.  Five days a week, Tuesday through Saturday, I present one of McLuhan’s observations and talk about its relevance today.  300 ideas. 300 days.  300 posts.

The Roman Empire rose and fell because of papyrus?

Marshall McLuhan (May, 1964, age 52).  Don’t underestimate the power of papyrus

I owe my understanding of the power of papyrus to H.A. Innis.  It was Innis who told me about it at one of our 4 p.m. gab sessions in the basement cafeteria of the Royal Ontario Museum.  Empires that cover great distances are only feasible if they can take advantage of a medium of communication that allows easy and cheap communication over long distances.  Hence the obvious point that without papyrus the Romans could never have built their far flung empire and the end of their empire was assured with the scarcity of papyrus.    

Michael Hinton (October, 2009, age 57).  Don’t overestimate the power of papyrus  

Papyrus is a fibrous plant from which the Egyptians and Indians made a kind of paper.  H.A. Innis made the basic point in Empire and Communication and in The Bias of Communications that the basic mediums of communication available to a society, culture or Empire influence or bias what is possible for those societies, cultures and empires to be or become.  The argument is that without a light and easily transmitted medium like papyrus the Roman Empire would have been impossible.  To earlier Empires other things were possible.  Stone and clay allowed the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians, for example, to last for a very long time, but they restricted their geographic spread.    

In 1968, Sydney Finkelstein wrote that McLuhan should be required to post the following disclaimer in his books:  No statements … are necessarily to be taken as true or not.  Any agreement between what this book says about history, and what happened in history, is purely coincidental.  On the subject of papyrus and the coming and going of the Roman Empire, Finklestein is particularly scathing. “Does McLuhan mean that the Roman generals were able to dash off quick papyrus messages to their soldiers like, ‘Don’t hurl your javelins until you see the whites of their eyes?’?”  And on the fall of the Empire, he says even if papyrus was a factor, surely factors that were more important that McLuhan ought to acknowledge are: “the internal collapse of Rome’s slave-holding economy and the invasions of the Germanic tribes, who refused to be enslaved or exploited.”  And he says it is remarkable that McLuhan asserts the fall came in the 5th century at the hands of “the Mohammedans” who cut off the Romans access to supplies of papyrus from Egypt.  Remarkable because Mohammed was not born until the 6th century and the Mohammedans were not powerful enough to cut off access to Egypt until the 7th century.  

What are we to make of McLuhan’s idea here about the power of papyrus?  Is Finklestein right that on papyrus and the Roman Empire McLuhan has given us a pack of lies and mistruths?  (To be continued tomorrow)

Cordially, Marshall and Me


Reading for this post

Finkelstein, Sidney. Sense and Nonsense of McLuhan.  New York: International Pub., 1968, pp. 13-17.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media, 1964, pp. 100 and 134.

Innis, H.A. The Bias of Communication, (1951) Second ed. Toronto: U. of T. Press, 2008, pp. 47-49.

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Michael Hinton Thursday, October 29th, 2009
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Communication, Education, Technology, Vol. 1 No Comments

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