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 [must be posed] (…) of the influence on present-day social life and personal development of the newly invented machinery of social interaction and inter-communication (…), 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.

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