Light Through McLuhan

The source of McLuhan's concept of the technology as the 'extension' of a sense has been widely debated. In his 'Report on Project in Understanding New Media' (1960), reformulating Harold Innis, McLuhan says that 'Any medium whatever is an extension, a projection in space or in time, of our various senses.' (NAEB III: 13; see Innis, 1991 [1951]: 31) In Take Today (1972) and at, the concept of 'extension' is credited to American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), and dated 1870. To Emerson, 'The human body is the magazine of inventions, the patent-office, where are the models from which every hint was taken. All the tools and engines on earth are only extensions of its limbs and senses' (TT 86). James M. Curtis (1978: 34-35, 61-79; 1981: 147-148) attributes the concept of technology as 'extension' to German writer Ernst Kapp in Outlines of a Philosophy of Technology (1877), prefigured by Hegel's Philosophy of Nature in his Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences (1816, revised 1827 and 1830); he finds the same concept in Henri Bergson's Creative Evolution (1907) and The Two Sources of Religion and Morality (1932); in Part Two of Ernst Cassirer's Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (1925), translated as Mystical Thought; in Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's The Phenomenon of Man (1955, written 1938-1940), influenced by Bergson; and in Jean Gebser's Ursprung und Gegenwart (1949/1953, literally 'Origin and Present', tr. The Ever-Present Origin), influenced by both Cassirer and Bergson. Bergson's work was familiar to McLuhan from the late 1930's, and Teilhard's from the late 1940's; in fact McLuhan once attributes the concept of extension to Teilhard (L 292). While there is no evidence that McLuhan had read Cassirer's Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, his Language and Myth (1946), translated by Susanne K. Langer from the short essay Sprache und Mythos (upon which Cassirer's three volume Philosophy of Symbolic Forms is based), is referenced by McLuhan in The Gutenberg Galaxy (GG 25-26). Here, Cassirer (1946: 59) says that the evolution of humankind and its environment is characterized by 'increasing mediation', reflected in 'the invention and use of tools'; moreover, 'as soon as man employs a tool, he views it not as a mere artifact of which he is the recognized maker, but as a Being in its own right, endowed with powers of its own. Instead of being governed by his will, it becomes a god or daemon on whose will he depends - to which he feels himself subjected ...' Richard Cavell (2002: 256-257, note 52) first finds McLuhan using the term 'extension' in an article of 1955, 'A Historical Approach to the Media', and notes still other incidences of the concept that may have influenced McLuhan: e.g. Nobel laureate Georg Von Békésy's Sensory Inhibition (1967) and Le Corbusier's concept of decorative art as 'an extension of our limbs - in fact artificial limbs.'

It is likely that McLuhan's concept of 'extension' was partly inspired by James Joyce. McLuhan first read Ulysses in 1936-1937, while working as a Graduate Assistant at Wisconsin University (L 92). Joyce presents the chapters of Ulysses each as an analogy of an organ of the human body: one chapter represents the heart, another the brain, another the lungs, another the genitals, the eye, the ear, the nerves, and so on, as revealed in Joyce's chart of the book (Gilbert, 1930: 40). McLuhan wrote in 1952: 'The shape of Ulysses is that of the city presented as the organic landscape of the human body. The shape of [Finnegans Wake] is the same, save that the landscape of the human mind and body is presented more intimately and under a much greater diversity of forms ...' (IL 158) Refracted through Joyce, the city functions as an organizing body (or sensus communis) for the manifold 'extensions' of man, a concept further pursued by McLuhan from the early 1950's in discussions with Jacqueline Tyrwhitt. McLuhan acknowledges Joyce in an article of 1967, writing that 'Joyce ... calls the extensions of man, whether in weaponry or clothing, the "extinsions of man". For every extension not only colors and enlarges our lives but also extinguishes a part of us.' (McLuhan in Matson & Montagu, 1967: 39)

Richard Cavell (2002: 82) connects McLuhan's concept to Sigmund Freud's description of the technology as an 'auxiliary organ' or 'prosthetic' in Civilization and its Discontents (1930). Freud says that: 'With every tool man is perfecting his own organs, whether motor or sensory, or is removing the limits to their functioning.... Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic God.' (SE XXI: 90-92) McLuhan read Civilization and Its Discontents in the years prior to the publication of The Mechanical Bride (1951). However, it is Edmund T. Hall's book The Silent Language (1959) from which McLuhan cites in The Gutenberg Galaxy: 'Today man has developed extensions for practically everything he used to do with his body.... all man-made material things can be treated as extensions of what man once did with his body or some specialized part of his body.' (Hall, 1959: 79; GG 4) Ted Carpenter (2001: 19) attributes McLuhan's concept of the technology as 'extension' to Hall; McLuhan indicates his respect for Hall in a number of letters to Walter Ong in late 1961 and early 1962, and in one of these letters attributes to Hall the concept of 'media as extensions of the sense organs' (L 280). McLuhan met Hall, then Professor of Political Theory and Cultural Relations at John Hopkins University, Washington, in 1963, when McLuhan visited the University to speak at the Institute for International Development (L 383, note 1). The two corresponded over the years, and in 1975, Hall sent McLuhan the proofs for his book Beyond Culture, which included a note on the term 'extension', indicating that McLuhan had 'borrowed' the term in The Gutenberg Galaxy (Hall, 1981 [1976]: 245, note 4; L 515, note 1). In fact, the concept of 'extension' was not originally Hall's. Writing to Walter Ong in February 1962, McLuhan says that Hall 'got the idea of our technologies as outerings of sense and function from Buckminster Fuller'; Fuller (1895-1983), whom McLuhan met at the Delos symposium of 1962, meanwhile asserted ownership of the concept in a letter of November 1966 (L 287 and 308, note 1). Fuller, however, was writing in the pre-war era when Freud's work was generating much interest in America, so we may reasonably assume that Fuller had read Civilization and its Discontents.

The concept of 'extension' has also been traced to Lewis Mumford's Technics and Civilization (1934), which McLuhan read in the 1940's (Curtis, 1978: 74-75; Marchand, 1998 [1989]: 77). In fact characteristic of the concepts put forward by Freud and McLuhan, as well as by Bergson (whose Creative Evolution predates Civilization and Its Discontents by more than twenty years), Teilhard, Mumford, and Hall, is that all characterize technological 'extensions' in terms of the evolutionary process (e.g. SE XXI: 90-91; Mumford, 1946: 10; Hall, 1959: 78-79). McLuhan had been blurring the distinction between the 'mechanical' and the 'organic' since The Mechanical Bride, repeating Norbert Wiener's argument that 'since all organic characteristics can now be mechanically produced, the old rivalry between mechanism and vitalism is finished' (MB 34) If the technology is no more than an evolutionary adaptation, then there is no distinction to be found between an organ such as the eye and a technology such as the telescope. Technology becomes the organs of the environment itself, leading McLuhan to suggest that 'Man becomes, as it were, the sex organs of the machine world, as the bee of the plant world, enabling it to fecundate and to evolve ever new forms.' (UM 46) As he puts it in War and Peace in the Global Village, 'The extensions of man with their ensuing environments, it's now fairly clear, are the principal area of manifestation of the evolutionary process.' (WP 19) Again, in Counterblast: 'The new media are not bridges between man and nature: they are nature.' (CB 14)

As well as an 'extension', McLuhan dubs the technology an 'enhancement', 'amplification', 'outering', 'uttering', or 'translation' of an organ, sense or function; from 1963, he borrows from the work of Adolphe D. Jonas to characterize the technology as a 'counter-irritant' or 'auto-amputation'. Note, however, that from 1973 or so, McLuhan ceases to conceptualize the technology primarily as an 'extension', instead conceptualizing it as a 'metaphor' or 'word' - 'with a linguistic structure', manifesting four 'simultaneous processes' of 'Enhancement', 'Obsolescence', 'Retrieval' and 'Reversal', of which extension (i.e. enhancement) is merely one.

© Alice Rae 2009