Tactility

In his use of wheel and axis imagery starting around 1970 (so in the last decade of his life), McLuhan described what he variously called “the very principle of mobility” in and between moments of experience (1972), “the principle of the dynamic at work in a[ny] new kind of situation” (1973), “the basis of human communication” (LoM posthumous).1

A central name for this basic principal in McLuhan’s work is ‘tactility’. It is “the interplay among the senses”, “that steady ratio among the senses which is the norm of human consciousness”, “the bond among the other senses”, the “unconscious inference or mental action [at work] even in the most basic sense experience”, “the very crux of the interplay of the senses”, the “agent of unified perceptionthe world of the interval”, “the space of the significant bounding line, of pressure, and of the interval”.

These snap-shot characterizations of ‘tactility’ are taken from the following citations of McLuhan describing tactility, given in chronological order, with an emphasis on 1960-1961. It was at this time that he appears to have begun stressing its importance:

From Visual To Tactile Experience, 19602
Externalizations of our senses, such as the wheel, the phonetic alphabet, radio and photography, also constituted closed systems which invaded the open systems of our senses with tremendous transforming power. But the TV image is the first technology by which man has outered his haptic, or tactile, powers. It affects, therefore, the balance or ratio among our senses. Since at all times consciousness involves a ratio resulting in the immediate “closure” or completion of pattern, such new “closure” or completion is, in fact, a new posture of mind charged with new preferences and desires, as well as with new patterns of perception. 
Tactility means not contact of skin but interplay of all senses.

From Visual To Tactile Experience, 1960
For the tactile image involves not so much the touch-of skin as the interplay or contact of sense with sense, of touch with sight, with sound, with movement.

Letter to Serge Chermayeff, December 19, 19603
Is not tactility and the mode of creative process that very interplay of the senses which we call synesthesia?

Inside the Five Sense Sensorium, 1961
Just at the end of the nineteenth century Bernard Berenson had begun a crusade ‘to endow the retinal impression with tactile values‘. There was wide awareness that photography and other technological change had abstracted the retinal impression, as it were, from the rest of the sensorium. Thus, in 1893 Adolf Hildebrand the sculptor published a small book called ‘The Problem of Form. He insisted that true vision must be much imbued with tangibility, and that creative, aesthetic awareness was touching and making. Such was the timeliness of his insistence, that the theme of artistic vision as tangible, tactile, and based on the interplay of the sense[s] began to enjoy acceptance in poetry and painting alike. The art historian Heinrich Wölfflin taught the Hildebrand stress on visual forms as haptic or tangible-tactile — and his pupil Sigfried Giedion embodied it in his Space, Time and ArchitectureHow little these men foresaw television as the fulfillment of their program! Photography gave separate and, as it were, abstract intensity to the visual, a development which called for and received swift compensating strategy in the arts. Movies and photo-engraving created a further revolution in Western sensibilities, tending to high stress on pictorial quality in all aspects of human association. And I am bold [enough] to say that there has been no respite from this growing pictorial stress till the advent of television. (…) The television image is, in effect, a haptic, tactile, or synesthetic mode of interplay among the senses, a fulfillment on a popular plane of the aesthetic program of Hildebrand, Berenson, Wölfflin, Paul Klee, and Giedion.

Inside the Five Sense Sensorium, 1961
When Hildebrand conducted his campaign for tactility against mere retinal pictorial impression, he was in the centre of a great cultural current which, from Cezanne in painting to Conrad in literature, swept up all into the ‘Heart of Darkness’ or ‘the Africa within’.

Inside the Five Sense Sensorium, 1961
T
actility is less a separate sense than it is the interplay among the senses. When, therefore, I speak of the tactility of the television image, I mean this stepped-up interplay of the senses which the nineteenth century artists and polemicists struggled to foster in an aesthetically starved milieu. That nineteenth century program makes no sense to anybody who fails to understand the peculiar monopoly and separation of visual experience, at the expense of the other senses, which is imposed by print and its industrial, organizational extensions. Television, then, is not part of the nineteenth century art program for the reconquest of synesthesia. Television is rather the overwhelming and technological success of that program after its artistic exponents have retired.

Inside the Five Sense Sensorium, 1961
A cartoon or an abstract painting offers sparse data and demands much of the viewer by way of
‘closure’ or completion and fill-in. The television image, then, demands much participation from the audience compared to movie, radio, or photo. Its two-dimensional, contoured character fosters the tactile interplay of the senses which painters since Cezanne had stressed as needful. And this sculptural, contoured image with its tactile stress is, in the case of the television medium, given a scope and extent of vulgarization unknown even to movie, photo or newspaper.

Inside the Five Sense Sensorium, 1961
Our technical media, since writing and printing, are extensions of our senses. The latest such extension, television, I am suggesting, is an extension, not just of sight and sound, but of that very synesthesia which the artists 
of the past centuries have stressed as accessible via the tangible-tactile values of the new vision. Television is not just sight and sound, but tangibility in its visual, contoured, sculptural mode.

Care and Feeding of Communication Innovation, 1961
T
he senses never operate in isolation. If one sense is suppressed, the other senses compensate in various ways in order to maintain that steady ratio among the senses which is the norm of human consciousness. If one sense is isolated by stress or intensity we are in the state of hypnosis at once. Pushed a bit further, the isolation of sense leads swiftly to insanity (…) the tactile sense (…) appears to be the bond among the other senses.

Care and Feeding of Communication Innovation, 1961
The TV image is the first technology to project or externalize our tactile sense
. The externalizing of our tactility has brought great change in the ratios between sight and sound. Sight and sound had reached some degrees of stability in relation to one another, thanks to the evenly divided empires of radio and film, of press and photography. The sudden project[ion] of touch itself changed everything.  The human senses were suddenly given an altogether new diet, and a new ratio or proportion among our senses was set up as soon as TV began.

Care and Feeding of Communication Innovation, 1961
tactility — or what the psychologists call “closure”.

The Gutenberg Galaxy, 1962
Gombrich records the stages of nineteenth-century discussion and analysis of “sense data” leading to the Helmholtz case for “unconscious inference” or mental action even in the most basic sense experience. “Tactility” or interplay among all the senses was felt to be the very mode of this “inference”.
 

The Gutenberg Galaxy, 1962
An oral manuscript culture had no fear of tactility, the very crux of the interplay of the senses.

The Gutenberg Galaxy, 1962
It was not till the pre-Raphaelites and Hopkins that a deliberate campaign for Saxon tactile values in language was to begin in English. Yet tactility is the mode of interplay and of being rather than of separation and of lineal sequence.

The Gutenberg Galaxy, 1962
This interplay or synesthesia is a kind of tactility such as Blake sought in the bounding line of sculptural form and in engraving. (…) Blake, at least, had understood the Berkeleyan critique [of vision] and had restored tactility to its prime role as agent of unified perception.

Humpty Dumpty, Automation and TV, 1962
For tactility is not so much the isolated sense of touch as it is the interplay of all the senses.

Understanding Media, 1964
The TV image requires each instant that we “close” the spaces in the mesh by a convulsive sensuous participation that is profoundly kinetic and tactile, because tactility is the interplay of the senses, rather than the isolated contact of skin and object.4

Understanding Media, 1964
tactile participation (…) is sex

McLuhan to Wilfred Watson, 1965
Tactility is directly related to Thomism and St. Thomas. It is explicitly the inclusive circle of the sense in interplay.

Through the Vanishing Point, 1968
tactility includes all the senses as white light incorporates all colors

Include Me Out: Reversal Of Overheated Image, 1968
tactile space is the space of the interval, the icon, the contour.

Counterblast, 1969
Tactility is not a sense but an interplay of all senses.

The Hardware/Software Mergers, 1969
The electric world is the world of discontinuity, the world of resonating intervals, the world of involvement, the world of touch. Tactility is the world of interval. When you touch something, you do not create a connection; you create a space between you and it. It echoes, there’s the base of musical “beat.” That is ‘where it’s at’, this is the interface of change resulting from interval. The “missing link” was  the greatest discovery of the 19th Century. But it was not missing at all ; it was an interface; it was where the new evolution began. 

The Hardware/Software Mergers, 1969
The TV image is not visual at all (…) there are no connections in it. It is all iconoscope or iconic action of the scanning finger. The TV image resembles the painting technique developed by Seurat around the 1880’s. It was pointillism: a mesh of luminous dots creating a tactile bounding line.

Discontinuity and Communication in Literature, 1970
The double plot structure (…) presents no connection or continuity, but only an interface or continuous parallel between two actions. This interface is tactility itself, the metamorphic moment of the resonant interval such as occurs between the wheel and the axle.

Last Look at the Tube, 1978
It was the symbolists who had stressed the character of the discontinuous as the key to tactility and involvement: their structures were never continuous or connected statements so much as suggestive juxtapositions. As Mallarmé 
put it: “To define is to kill. To suggest is to create.” The simultaneous world of electric information is always lacking in visual connectedness and always structured by resonant intervals. The resonant interval, as Heisenberg explains, is the world of touch, so that acoustic space is simultaneously tactile. 

Laws of Media, posthumous
each configuration of senses creates a unique form of space
— figure and ground are in dynamic equilibrium, each exerting pressure on the other across the interval separating them. Intervals, therefore, are resonant and not static. (…) Tactility is the space of the significant bounding line, of pressure, and of the interval.5

 

  1. For extended passages, sources and discussion of the citations in this paragraph, see Wheel and Axle.
  2. This short essay, which was published in the first volume of Canadian Communications, might be considered as one more of McLuhan’s ‘Canadian’ announcements. His specification of the importance of the tactile here is comparable to his initial use of “the medium is the message” in Vancouver in 1958 and “global village” in Winnipeg in 1959.
  3. Full letter given at Letter to Serge Chermayeff.
  4. “The TV image” here stands in for “all experience”:  all experience “requires each instant that we ‘close’ (…) by a convulsive sensuous participation that is profoundly kinetic and tactile”. And it was no accident, in McLuhan’s view, that television and the possibility of the collective investigation of human being emerged in the same “Marconi era”. Each represented in their different ways an ‘outering’ of the human sensorium. See the Opto( )phone posts for further discussion.
  5. The LOM text here is: “Resonance is the mode of acoustic space, tactility is the space of the significant bounding line…”. But “resonance” is the mode of all space, not just of “acoustic space”. Especially in the years just after “acoustic space” was dis-covered in the culture and technology seminar, McLuhan tended to equate it with something like ‘underlying space’ — as if “acoustic space” were more basic than “visual space”. But this was a linear perspective (since “acoustic space” may be imagined to have come first in time) he later corrected himself to acknowledge that: “in our desire to illumine the differences between visual and acoustic space, we have undoubtedly given a false impression: and that is that the normal brain, in its everyday functioning, cannot reconcile the apparently contradictory perceptions of both sides of the mind” (GV 48). Again: “visual and acoustic space are always present in any human situation, even if Western civilization has (…) tamped down our awareness of the acoustic” (GV 55). McLuhan’s emphasis on “acoustic space” was an attempt to rebalance that “awareness” and to show the possibilities that emerged with that rebalancing. As regards what is ‘first’, careful note should be made of McLuhan’s recourse to ‘allatonceness’ here: “visual and acoustic space are always present in any human situation“.