Dobbs: Hand signals for the blind


One Spring Day in 1976 I was walking with McLuhan in Queen’s Park, across the street from his Coach House, on our way to the subway. I mentioned the title of a play I had just written: “THE DIRECTOR OF THE CENTRE FOR CULTURE AND TECHNOLOGY”. He didn’t react.

Later I changed the play considerably and gave it a new title: “HAND SIGNALS FOR THE BLIND”.

Editor’s comment:

Bob’s identification of McLuhan as the “Director of the Centre for Culture and Technology” with “Hand Signals for the Blind” is an exacting insight. But what is the meaning, or meanings, of “Hand Signals for the Blind”?

Whenever McLuhan is read as evoking literalisms — ‘media’ as literal speech or books or television, ‘senses’ as literal sight or hearing or touch — his work is transported back into the Gutenberg galaxy, into the reign of literalisms, the reign of the rear-view mirror. The great question posed by him, indeed by thinkers since the dawn of time, is how to signal — communicate — aside from the already-known literalisms in that mirror? Absent this possibility, there could, of course, be no real teaching nor real learning. Especially there could be no language learning by in-fants in the first place.

“HAND SIGNALS FOR THE BLIND” nicely gestures toward that great question. Although the phrase may be taken literally as indicating the problem at stake — how to signal something new that by definition is unknown — and which is unknowable as long as the media between the interlocutors remain incompatible, like visual signaling to the blind — it may also be read as specifying how such communication does indeed take place.

Read aside from the rear-view mirror, “HAND SIGNALS FOR THE BLIND” concerns no literal ‘hand’, no literal ‘blindness’, no literal ‘signal’. It concerns tactility.

In his 1954 lecture, ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’,1 McLuhan spoke of “the poetic process which is involved in ordinary cognition”.2 That is, all cognition, specifically including the most “ordinary cognition”, implicates the exercise of creativity (“the poetic process”) in the navigation of the possibilities through which it will come to be as this or that particular instance of experience. Cognition of every sort is always some effect of such a prior process, however unconscious that process may be.

Moment to moment this process of possibility-sifting is entirely free — “poetic” as McLuhan says. Experience comes from it, not it from experience. The upshot is that communication between possibilities, and between the realm of possibilities and “ordinary cognition”, is so little problematic (however mysterious and, indeed, wondrous it is) that human being cannot in any way be without it. It — the “fecund interval” — is always already there.

HAND SIGNALS”, understood non-literally, may be taken to be that incessant exercise of tactility upon which all expressions of human being originally spring. (For discussion and citations from McLuhan’s work see Tactility.)

On this reading of Bob’s title, “HAND SIGNALS FOR THE BLIND” raises the question of how the “blind” artefactual process, the unknown process in which we yet have a “hand”, can be exposed (“signaled”) for investigation. The possibility of that exposure rests on the prior tactility — the resonant interval — that first of all characterizes the relation of possibilities to each other as well as the perpetual, moment to moment, relation of humans to that deep drama.

Here is the etymology of “signal” > sign from the great Online Etymology  site:

early 13c., signe, “gesture or motion of the hand,” especially one meant to express thought or convey an idea, from Old French signe “sign, mark,” from Latin signum “identifying mark, token, indication, symbol; proof; military standard, ensign; a signal, an omen; sign in the heavens, constellation.”


  1. ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’ has been reprinted in The Medium and the Light, 160ff.
  2. Note the title of McLuhan’s 1951 ‘‘Joyce, Aquinas, and the Poetic Process’.