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.

Leave a Reply