Monthly Archives: December 2013

Henry Wilkes Wright 2

Increasingly we come to confront ourselves, when we are confronted by change in our institutions.  (NAEB Project ’69’, “Materials Developed By Project”)

The ‘common sense’ was for many centuries held to be the peculiar power of translating one kind of experience of one sense into all the senses, and presenting the result continuously as a unified image to the mind. In fact, this image of a unified ratio among the senses was long held to be the mark of our rationality and may in the computer age easily become so again. For it is now possible to program ratios among the senses that approach the condition of [external] consciousness. Yet such a condition would necessarily be an extension of our own consciousness as much as the wheel is an extension of feet in rotation. (UM, 60)

Sometime in the early 1930s, probably in association with one of Henry Wright’s courses in the philosophy department (often taught together with R. C Lodge, each taking a term), McLuhan bought Wright’s 1925 book, The Moral Standards of Democracy, and studied it thoroughly. His heavily annotated copy remains in his library which the McLuhan family has donated to the rare book collection of the University of Toronto.

The following passage appears on pages 86-87 (all emphasis added):

in modern society association by direct personal contact has been supplemented and, so far as social organization is concerned, has been largely replaced by impersonal association and indirect contact. Now these activities of indirect contact and communication proceed through the intermediation and instrumentality of mechanical agencies. And these agencies themselves are extensions in the physical world of those bodily organs of intercommunication and personal association (…) possessed by every human being; namely, those of oral and written speech, of practical contrivance and construction, and of aesthetic perception and artistic creation. Hence these three activities of intercommunication, (…) are fundamental in the double sense of determining both the direct personal association of human individuals with one another, and also the indirect association of millions of individuals as fellow citizens and fellow workers [via the aforementioned “mechanical agencies”]. (…) Moreover such chance as there is of giving personal value to indirect and impersonal contacts brought about by modern large scale social organization, and thereby making it a means for realizing that comprehensive social community for which democracy stands, depends altogether upon our understanding this social machinery as an extension into the physical world of the three activities of personal intercommunication: discussion and cooperation and imaginative sympathy.

When McLuhan turned the focus of his work to the media of communication in the 1950s, the immediate impulse of this turn was his encounter with Harold Innis’ research into ‘the bias of communication‘. But this new turn in his work was also a return to that nexus of ideas which McLuhan had imbibed from Wright two decades before at the University of Manitoba when McLuhan was still an undergraduate. As seen in the passage from The Moral Standards of Democracy above, that nexus brought together notions whose elaboration would now occupy McLuhan, beginning in the early 1950s, for the remaining three decades of his life:

  • that human being, both individually and socially, is fundamentally characterized by “intermediation” and “intercommunication”;
  • that the course of human history has seen the development of “mechanical agencies” of communication effecting “the indirect association of millions of individuals”;
  • that this development has effected a spiritual and social crisis in modern humans (discussed here);
  • that the fitting use of these “mechanical agencies” of “intercommunication”, hence also the understanding of a world dominated by them, “depends altogether upon our understanding this social machinery”;
  • that such understanding, in turn, “depends altogether upon” research into them as “extensions in the physical world of those bodily organs of intercommunication (…) possessed by every human being”.

In 1960, three decades after his first encounter with these ideas at the University of Manitoba, McLuhan will state:

in all these situations we confront only ourselves and extensions of our own senses. (NAEB Project, “What I Learned On The Project 1959-60”)

And in 1967 in The Medium is the Massage (26):

All media are extensions of some human faculty — psychic or physical.

On “things most common”

Writing to Walter Ong on May 31, 1953, McLuhan observes:

Reading St. Tho[ma]s De Trinitate Q VI a 2 objection one and reply thereto, a very Ramistic text, ‘whether in spec[ulating] on divine things imagination must be altogether relinquished: “It may be answered: sacred Scripture does not propose to us divine truths under the figure of sensible things in order that our intellect should remain there, but that from these things it should mount up to such as are invisible”: “Wherefore use is made of things most common, that these may be even less occasion for remaining at their level,” as says Dionysius (Coel. Hier. ch. 2)’. My eyes bugged out! And Thomas is not quite 1/3 right on this point I think. (Letters, 237)

McLuhan does not hesitate to criticize Thomas Aquinas, even to a Jesuit like Ong, where he feels that the revelatory power of “sensible things” and “things most common” has been slighted. On account of the “resonating bond in all things” (Take Today 3), a bond which works through discontinuity and disconnection, not continuity and connection, it is exactly distance from meaning which most points to it.

Distance works to emphasize the gap over which it extends. Emphasis on the gap, in turn, poses the question of its nature. Is it an “empty (…) vacuum” (Take Today 3) or a ”resonating bond” (Take Today 3)?

This question forms the entry way to McLuhan’s “critical vision“.


Henry Wilkes Wright

The media can be viewed as artificial extensions of our sensory existence (McLuhan, ‘A Historical Approach to the Media’, 1955)

In modern society association by direct personal contact has been supplemented and, so far as social organization is concerned, has been largely replaced by impersonal association and indirect contact. Now these activities of indirect contact and communication proceed through the intermediation and instrumentality of mechanical agencies. And these agencies themselves are extensions in the physical world of those bodily organs of intercommunication and personal association (…) possessed by every human being. (Henry Wright, The Moral Standards of Democracy, 1925, emphasis added)

Henry Wilkes Wright (1878-1959) was one of McLuhan’s professors (in the combined philosophy-psychology department) at the University of Manitoba during his years of study in the English department there (1929-1934).  A case might be be made that Wright was the single most important influence on McLuhan as he sought, and then made his way along, his life’s pathway.1

As discussed here, it was from Wright, and specifically from Wright’s 1925 book, The Moral Standards of Democracy, that McLuhan first took an interest in communication (often called “inter-communication” by Wright and, following Wright, also by McLuhan).

Long before McLuhan’s conversion (first broached to Fr Gerald Phelan at St Michael’s in November 1936 as noted, presumably from McLuhan’s diary, in Letters 93), Wright provided a link to St Michael’s and hence to Fr Phelan and to Etienne Gilson who, in turn, were to prove decisive for McLuhan’s spiritual and intellectual life. Some of this story has been told in the bias of communication; more of it will follow in later posts.

Much ink has been spilled on the question of where McLuhan got the idea of media as extensions of human faculties . R.W. Emerson, Buckminster Fuller and E.T. Hall have been put forward on the basis of McLuhan’s own ascriptions. In fact, the idea may have been in the air in the early twentieth century, but it was almost certainly from Wright that McLuhan first received news of it. Here is Wright in ‘Mechanism and Mind in Present-Day Social Life’, which he contributed to Manitoba Essays: Written in Commemoration of the Sixtieth Anniversary of the University of Manitoba (1937):

  • Machine technology and the mechanical instruments it has devised for facilitating the outward activities and inter-play of human individuals on a large scale have had the effect of externalizing the interests and activities of man to such a degree that his inner, personal life is becoming impoverished and his spiritual faculties atrophied through disuse.
  • The enormous enlargement which radio and film have given to the scope and range and diversity of sensory stimulation is too obvious to need illustration. The same may be said of the effect of automobile, aeroplane, machine tools, electrical appliances, etc., upon man’s powers of outward action and motor performance. But no such adventitious aids have been supplied by the arts of technological invention to the inner interpretative processes of rational reflection and creative imagination. Thus, in a generation preoccupied with new ranges of sight and hearing, and fascinated by a variety of new mechanical tools and toys, these inner activities have for the time at least been relegated to the background and allowed to wither from neglect.
  • No more urgent or pressing problem confronts modern society than [the question] of the influence of mechanism and mechanical intermediaries upon the character and relations of men.
  • What measures it is practically wise to adopt, however, will depend upon the relation of mechanism and mechanical instrumentalities to the nature of man.
  • The characteristic activity of the human organism is not mechanical, topographical, and aggregative, but is rather dynamical, configurational and organismic.
  • The question (…) of the influence on present-day social life and personal development of the newly invented machinery of social interaction and inter-communication
  • The question (…) of how the technological instruments which in their great and amazing variety dominate our civilization and differentiate it from every previous stage of human history are related to human nature and the personal associations of men.
  • these technological instruments which have revolutionized the social life of man, from telephone and radio to automobile and aeroplane, from electrical household appliances to automatic machinery for (…) manufacture of economic goods and the reproduction of art products, are extensions through physical forces and mechanical intermediaries of man’s bodily organs
  • Consider in the first place all mechanical devices for the transmission of fact and opinion: telegraph and telephone and radio, the newspaper and colour-press, billboard, illuminated sign, and news-reel. These are all of them means of of increasing through physical intermediaries the range both in space and time, and the social influence, of man’s powers of articulate speech, oral and written.
  • These are one and all mechanical means for making available for popular appreciation and enjoyment on a practically unlimited scale the products of man’s powers of emotional expression and aesthetic perception. Now if this is a fact, and I do not see how it can be denied, there follow from it consequences of genuine, far-reaching social importance. The products of modern science and invention are not correctly understood as belonging to another, alien world, a world of matter and mechanism, forever separate and divorced by essential nature from that other inner realm in which alone are realized the distinctively human and truly personal values, such as truth, practical goodness and beauty, the “imponderables” of the spirit. On the contrary, they, like the organic agencies whose power and range they enormously augment, are in veritable fact projections of human personality itself and means of satisfying the distinctively personal interests of man.
  • these mechanical instruments and devices which dominate the modern social scene (…) are veritable extensions of the powers of human personality and effective means for the co-operative realization [or not] of the most comprehensive and enduring values of personal and social life.

What is characteristic of Wright, and would later be so of McLuhan in turn, is the coupling of the idea of human extension through technology with the question of its effect on our “spiritual faculties”.

It may be that this is a frontier concern, native to a place like Winnipeg, or indeed Canada, which was exposed to the explosive changes of modernity, but in a belated, unfree, and often decidedly negative way. This forced change on the margin (Innis) to what was not necessarily for the better, and in some ways was certainly for the worse, excited raw perceptions of alienation (which they still do today). McLuhan, following Wright, took these to raise great questions regarding the nature and destiny of human beings and, ultimately, regarding the relation of human beings to God.

  1. A late picture of Wright, age 70, is available at an Ontario history website: he taught in Ontario for a few years after he retired from UM.

Exploring ignorance 12 – “mechanization of total human gesture”

Continuing Exploring ignorance 8 – “Nothing completely packaged” . . .

In The Mechanical Bride McLuhan observes:

The magic that changes moods is not in any mechanism. It is critical vision alone which can mitigate the unimpeded operation of the automatic. (87)

The word ‘mood’1 in this passage must be taken in the wide sense implicit in its etymology:

Mood: “emotional condition, frame of mind,” Old English mod “heart, frame of mind, spirit; courage, arrogance, pride; power, violence,” from Proto-Germanic *motha- (cf. Old Saxon mod “mind, courage,” Old Frisian mod “intellect, mind, intention,” Old Norse moðr “wrath, anger,” Middle Dutch moet, Dutch moed, Old High German muot, German Mut “courage”).

What is at stake here for McLuhan is not only (only!) changes in our feelings or emotional states, but changes to our “frame of mind”, to our whole way of being and to the paradigmatic ways according to which we view the world and act in it. Therefore his characteristic attention to the different global understandings of societies organized via orality or manuscript or print or electric media.

When humans change moods in this wide sense, this does not take place through some further mood. There is no mood between moods. Such a supposition would institute an infinite regress since the intermediary mood of change from one mood to another would itself require further moods to differentiate it from the moods between which it is supposed to operate. Such a supposition cannot answer the question of how a transition from mood to mood occurs. In fact, instead of answering the question, it merely postpones it indefinitely — a popular remedy to a great many problems in today’s ‘fast paced’ world. Change between moods does not require further explanation where recourse is made to some infinitely partitioned evolutionary process. Here the frontier to be crossed from one mood to another becomes smaller and smaller as more and more intermediary moods are added to the linear picture. In the end, the ever shrinking gap of change itself elicits no notice and therefore no wonder.

Instead of this evolutionary perspective, mood change according to McLuhan must be perceived to transpire in that border or gap or “resonating bond” which both differentiates moods and yet also joins them in “metaphorical” fashion. But this gap (“where the action is”) is necessarily “hidden” since it falls only between one “frame of mind” and another. Functioning between moods in this way, this magic is not itself perceptable within any one of them. Instead it manifests itself only (only!) as a kind of withdrawal through which moods (plural!) appear in their resonatingly bonded assembly and which are thereby subject to change (since housed in this magic, since figured on this ground).

“The magic that changes moods”, but which “is not in any mechanism”, can seem to be “nothing”. But it is attention to this “hidden” power (Take Today 22), aka “nothing”, which characterizes that “critical vision” which “alone . . . can mitigate the unimpeded operation of the automatic”. Here again the etymology is of ‘critical’ importance:

Crisis: early 15c., from Latinized form of Greek krisis “turning point in a disease” (used as such by Hippocrates and Galen), literally “judgment, result of a trial, selection”, from krinein “to separate, decide, judge”, from PIE root *krei– “to sieve, discriminate, distinguish” (cf. Greek krinesthai “to explain;” Old English hriddel “sieve;” Latin cribrum “sieve,” crimen “judgment, crime”, cernere [cf, discern] (past participle cretus) “to sift, separate;” Old Irish criathar, Old Welsh cruitr “sieve;” Middle Irish crich “border, boundary”).

McLuhan’s “critical vision” is that sort of perception which discerns through focus on the “turning point”, “border” and “boundary”. It concentrates on the gap “where the action is” — even though this gap is necessarily “hidden” and can well appear to be no more than “nothing”.

It is through his focus on the “resonating bond” that McLuhan rejects “merger”. In another passage from The Mechanical Bride note should be made of the repeated contrast drawn between “orchestrating” and “fusing”, between “discontinuity and endless variety” on the one hand and “the universal imposition of . . . one social or economic system” on the other, between “harmony” and the “unilateral, monistic, or tyrannical”:

The symbolist esthetic theory of the late nineteenth century seems to offer an even better conception than social biology for resolving the human problems created by technology. This theory leads to a conception of orchestrating human arts, interests, and pursuits rather than fusing them in a functional biological unit, as even with Giedion and Mumford. Orchestration permits discontinuity and endless variety without the universal imposition of any one social or economic system. It is a conception inherent not only in symbolist art but in quantum and relativity physics. Unlike Newtonian physics, it can entertain a harmony that is not unilateral, monistic, or tyrannical. It is neither progressive nor reactionary but embraces all previous actualizations of human excellence while welcoming the new in a simultaneous present. (MB, 34)

Everything depends for McLuhan on the initiation and exploratory development of the “critical vision” which is here associated with “orchestrating”, “discontinuity”, “endless variety” and “harmony”. Each of these is structured by a fundamental gap across which “the magic that changes mood” transpires. But in modern times, this “critical vision” becomes lost exactly through, strangely enough, its extended application — through the use of “the magic that changes moods” within such “mechanisms” as the movies and television and, above all, advertising.

In a surprisingly early note to Ezra Pound on Jan 5, 1951 (which will require extended consideration in a later post), McLuhan is already mulling over these ideas:

Basic modes of cognition on this continent not linguistic but technological. (…) Present procedure is to slap an alien culture over the actual one. The real one is killed and the alien one is worn as a party mask. (Letters 218)

Then, in another letter to Pound from July 16, 1952, outlining what would become The Gutenberg Galaxy a full decade hence, McLuhan writes of the “mechanization of total human gesture” by “radio-telephone-cinema-TV” (Letters, 232). Similarly some months later, January 23, 1953, to Walter Ong:

Am working on a book whose theme is The End of the Gutenberg Era. Tracing impact of print, and now, the switch to media which rep[resent] not the mechanization of writing but of word and gesture (radio movies TV) Necessarily a much greater change than from script to print. (Letters 234)

McLuhan calls modernity “the age of advertising” (the title of an important article he wrote for Commonweal magazine in 1953) because advertising in the sense of the manipulation of moods characterizes all aspects of modern life. As he shows in The Mechanical Bride, and again in Understanding Media 15 years later, politics, news and entertainment all turn on mood manipulation as much as advertising itself does.

The key to advertising in this broad sense is its operation under the cover of manifest ubiquity. Like water to fish, advertising is the last thing we notice exactly because it is everywhere present and everywhere efficacious: it is the air modernity breathes.

Further, advertising functions by putting this “magic that changes moods” to use. It is “nothing completely packaged, the “mechanization of total human gesture”. Here (as McLuhan wrote to Pound in 1951) the “basic modes of cognition” become surface figure instead of foundational ground: the “procedure is to slap an alien culture over the actual one”. This transfer of the “hidden” power of change from the essential gap between moods as ground, to functionality within a defined purpose as figure, obscures the nature of this magic exactly through its illumination and application.

“The magic that changes mood” is therefore in oblivion today for 3 distinct reasons:

  • In the first place, this “magic” is “hidden” by nature. As McLuhan cites the I Ching in Take Today, “[the Creative] does indeed guide all happenings, but [it never becomes manifest;] it never behaves outwardly as the leader. Thus true strength is that strength which, mobile as it is hidden, concentrates on the work without being outwardly visible (22);
  • In the second place, this “hidden” power has become ubiquitous in an entire “age of advertising” and this ubiquity makes it just as difficult to discern as water to fish;
  • In the third place, this “magic” has become displaced from the “hidden” gap between one “frame of mind” and another, to use within a single “frame of mind”. Such use makes this power visible only as what it is not and thereby invisible as what it is.

But there is also a fourth reason. The “magic” which is the “resonating bond” between moods would expose our radical finitude if we were to become consciousness of our ever-repeated transitions through it. This does not occur, in part because of its natural obscurity and its unnatural use, but even more (since consciousness and obscurity are not necessarily opposed and especially consciousness and unnatural use are not opposed at all) because ‘mood’ is correlate with identity and with the perceived world and to appreciate the finitude of the former (mood) would be to appreciate the finitude of the latter (identity and world) along with it.

Dread forbids this.

Advertising has been able to harness this magic power of change and metaphor only by partnering with our dread to suppress awareness of the true nature of such change. It rivets our attention, as one says — rivets it to surface effect away from the ground of its own action and of the action it is all too successful in precipitating in us.


  1. Great phrase: ‘word mood’! The definition of language!

Exploring ignorance (11) – Mystical Unity?

In Exploring Ignorance 8, McLuhan’s observation from the first page of Take Today — “Nothing has its meaning alone” — was read as the injunction that the original hidden power (aka “nothing”) should not be figured or framed in human definition and use, but allowed — acknowledged — “its meaning alone”. But would this not install merger (that which is “alone”) at the very heart of reality?  How, indeed why, critique merger elsewhere if this sort of mystical unity “came before” and may therefore be taken as a, or the, standard “in all things” (Take Today 3)?

At this ‘point’, it is imperative to note the full context of McLuhan’s appeal to priority (to what “came before”, to the a-priori):

dialogue as a process of creating the new came before, and goes beyond, the change of “equivalents” that merely reflect or repeat the old.  (Take Today 22).

After specifying the priority of “dialogue” as what “came before”, McLuhan immediately adds that it “goes beyond”.  In the classic terms of Hegel, he is saying that the ‘in-itself’ of the original hidden power (aka “nothing”) is to be ‘for-itself’. As the fundamental “process of creating”, it is already complex in the beginning. It is therefore “dialogue” and “the creative” (as the I Ching has it), not as an after-thought, but in its essence!

The essential plurality of time is implicated here.  The ontological as “dialogue” is already plural and dynamic and therefore timely. Our historical times result from that original timeliness exactly because it is “a process of creating the new” that refuses to “reflect or repeat the old” and therefore issues into times, our times, which are fundamentally different from its time.  And yet are held to it in its need for “innovation”.

The “hidden” bond of our times with the original power, our pointing to it in being closed off from it, has its ground in this original “innovation”. Our closure from it reflects its hold to and with us as fulfilling its need to be creative of “the new”. Our inferiority is essentially related to its superiority as being the only way for it to be that “innovation” which it is “in the beginning” as that which “came before”.  Its way down is our way up.

This dynamic between the ontological and the ontic, between its open “dialogue” and our closed “merger”, rests on, and so reveals, “the resonating bond in all things” (Take Today 3).

Exploring ignorance (10a) – Rembrandt

‘Human being is a sign that points in its closure beyond itself.’

This knot has been illustrated in wonderful fashion by Rembrandt (1606-1669) in his painting of Peter denying Christ from ca 1660.

The woman’s hand obscures the light source but thereby points above.

Peter is shown with one hand veiled and the other open. It is the hand exposed to the light which is veiled — which denies. It is the hand extending into the dark which is open.

Peter is the closure (denial) that points beyond itself.  The reversed sign. The life there is in death.