Tactility, this Superfluous Thing

Reading McLuhan through the Trope of Sense

in: UTCP Bulletin 4 (May 2005): 26-35

Takeshi Kadobayashi (kanbaya@mac.com)

Marshall McLuhan, a well-known Canadian media theorist of the 1960s, conceived a medium or a technology as an extension of the human body. For example, the car is an extension of the foot, the typography is an extension of the eye, and the telephone is an extension of the ear. According to him, when we use a particular medium, it is connected to a particular part of the body (and, in most cases, a sense organ) and displaces that part of the body. In this sense, a medium is an “auto-amputation” of the body. A medium severs an organ from the rest of the body and simultaneously creates a new totality that is a body and a medium, thus changes our sensibility or “sense ratio,” to quote McLuhan.

With this definition of media as a background, his view of the history of media is, in a fundamental sense, the transition of hegemonic senses with regard to the transition of hegemonic media. In The Gutenberg Galaxy, he describes the development of the western civilization as a gradual transition from the oral culture to the literate culture driven by the two major technologies of the phonetic alphabet and typography. This history can easily be interpreted as a transition of hegemonic senses from the auditory sense to the visual sense and has, in fact, been interpreted in this manner. However, on careful examination, it is observed that this coupling of the auditory and the visual senses is not equally stable in McLuhan’s texts. First, it is true that McLuhan regarded the ancient oral culture as a culture of the ear. However, he frequently refers to it as “audile-tactile.” Second, he witnessed in his contemporary time a great transformation of the western society, comparable to the one triggered by the Gutenberg technology, and characterized it as a return of the oral and tribal quality. And he conceives this new sensibility as tactile to a large extent. For example, he considers TV as a cool and tactile medium.

In this manner, it appears that the tactility complicates his view of media and the dichotomy of the visual and the auditory, which could otherwise be straightforwardly understood without this third and superfluous term—the tactile. This paper attempts to clarify the significance of the notion of “tactility” in McLuhan’s texts and provide a new view to his understanding of the medium-sense relationship.

1. Tactility as Sensus Communis

With this aim in mind, I wish to follow two major sources of McLuhan’s notion of tactility: Thomas Aquinas’ theory of sensus communis and the formalistic thoughts of the German school of Art History around the last centennium. To begin with, concerning tactility and sensus communis, McLuhan writes in Understanding Media:

Our very word “grasp” or “apprehension” points to the process of getting at one thing through another, of handling and sensing many facets at a time through more than one sense at a time. It begins to be evident that “touch” is not skin but the interplay of the senses, and “keeping in touch” or “getting in touch” is a matter of a fruitful meeting of the senses, of sight translated into sound and sound into movement, and taste and smell. The “common sense” was for many centuries held to be the peculiar human 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 consciousness.1

The image of the approaching computer age implied in the last few sentences, which could be either utopian or dystopian, is highly interesting; however, this is presently not a matter of our concern. What is important for our purpose is the manner in which he relates the sense of touch to the sensus communis. First, by using words such as “grasp” and “apprehension,” he attempts to relate our faculty of understanding to the kinesthetic sense, that is, to catch or grab something physically with the hands. Then conversely he declares that touch, which is normally understood as the sense of skin (and mainly of the hand), is, in fact, a synaesthetic sense in depth. This rhetoric of proceeding from our mental faculty to our physical act, and then returning again is itself a perfomative act of translating one sense into another at the textual level. After conducting this synaesthetic act himself, he refers to the tradition of the idea of sensus communis as a translation of experience. There is no explicit reference to Thomas Aquinas at this point. However, when we recall that, in The Gutenberg Galaxy, Aquinas was one of the main figures representative of the middle age, and particularly highlight one note in which McLuhan refers to Edmund Joseph Ryan’s doctoral dissertation on Aquinas’ notion of sensus communis,2 we can estimate that he is referring to Aquinas’ commentary on Aristotle’s De Anima when he says, “‘touch’ is not skin but the interplay of the senses.”

In the place concerned, Aquinas comments on Aristotle’s argument on the manner in which we can discriminate sense-objects derived from different sense organs, such as black and sweet. Hence, this, too, is an argument on translation and comparison between different senses, or synaesthesia. Aristotle’s argument runs as follows:

Since we distinguish, however, between black and sweet, and any other of the sense-objects comparing them and perceiving that they differ, there must be some sense for this operation too; for these objects are all in the sense-order. Hence it is also clear that flesh is not the ultimate sense-organ; for, in that case, this discrimination would have to be effected by touching.3

In Aquinas’ commentary, this argument, which certainly does not appear to be clearly articulated, is brought into clarity with the assumption that touch is the most likely sense-faculty of the sensus communis. Thus, he comments:

First, then, he observes that whereas we are able to distinguish not only between black and white, or sweet and bitter, but also between any one sense-object and another, it must be in virtue of some sense that we do this, for to know sense-objects as such is a sensuous activity; the difference between white and sweet is for us not only a difference of ideas, which would pertain to the intellect, but precisely a difference between sense-impressions, which pertains only to some sense-faculty.
If this be true, the most likely sense-faculty would seem to be touch, the first sense, the root and ground, as it were, of the other senses, the one which entitles a living thing to be called sensitive. But clearly, if this discrimination were a function of touch, then the fundamental organ of touch would not be flesh; if it were, then by the mere contact of flesh and a tangible object, this object would be discriminated from all other sense-objects. Now this discrimination cannot be attributed to touch precisely as a particular sense, but only as the common ground of the senses, as that which lies nearest to the root of them all, the common sense itself.4

It is not my aim to argue whether Aquinas is right or whether he is truthful to Aristotle when he brings the assumption of touch as sensus communis into Aristotle’s arguments. What is important here is the manner in which he solves the problem, or rather, the manner in which he views the problem as already solved. Aquinas’ manner of reasoning, which typically proceeds with refutations of different opinions (“if it were...”), might, at a first glance, appear “scientific” in a Popperian sense; however, he holds one opinion as the truth from the first moment. He can easily reject opinions that appear to be logically unsustainable because, for him, there is and there has always been the Truth, and it is only that we, as limited beings, have some difficulty in perceiving it. Further, in the place referred, it appears that his assertion itself coincides with his manner of reasoning. In other words, in asserting the existence of the sensus communis, he is asserting that there is no discontinuity in our sense-order and we can perceive the world that is designed as a unity.

In order to counterpoint this peculiar way of reasoning in Aquinas, it is useful to refer to another argument on synaesthesia, which was held in a different era—the so-called Molineaux problem. The Molineaux problem was first presented in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke as a quotation from a letter written by Mr. Molineaux, and it was widely discussed in the 17th and the 18th centuries by philosophers such as Locke, Berkeley, Condillac, and Didorot. Molineaux’s first formulation of the problem is as follows:

Suppose a man born blind, and now adult, and taught by his touch to distinguish between a cube and a sphere of the same metal, and nighly of the same bigness, so as to tell, when he felt one and the other, which is the cube, which the sphere. Suppose then the cube and sphere placed on a table, and the blind man be made to see: quaere, whether by his sight before he touched them, he could now distinguish and tell which is the globe, which the cube.5

Hence, this again is the problem of translation of the senses, this time from the touch to the sight. Molineaux himself answered this problem in the negative, and although there exist minor differences among philosophers, they agree with Molineaux on the basic points. In other words, they first declare that the blind man, when he is exposed to the sights of the cube and the sphere for the first time, cannot distinguish between them. They then proceed to argue in what manner the notions presented to vision differ from those presented to touch, how intricate a mechanism is required in order to translate the former to the latter, and so on.

Jonathan Crary, in Techniques of the Observer, discusses that the fact that the Molineaux problem emerged as the central problem in the philosophical discussions on perception in this era points to their “concern with achieving a fundamental harmonization of the senses, in which a key model for visual perception is the sense of touch.”6 According to these philosophers, there should exist a testimony of the senses constituted as a common surface of order, and therefore, the problem to be solved was “how the passage from one order of sense perception to another took place.”7 Further, in solving this problem, “vision is conceived in terms of analogies to the senses of touch.”

In this sense, the Molineaux problem can be viewed in succession with Aquinas’ theory of sensus communis. In fact, Crary insists on the extent to which philosophers in the 17th and the 18th centuries differ from physiologists in the 19th century, for whom heterogeneity of the senses was simply a physical fact observed through a physiological examination of the body. However, I would simultaneously argue that the painful efforts Berkeley made in his arguments in An Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision—perhaps the most elaborate answer to the Molineaux problem—are vastly distant from the conviction of Aquinas that we can perceive the unity through our harmonious sensory order. The testimony of the senses was not an undebatable fact for Berkeley and other philosophers in his age. In this sense, the Molineaux problem is situated at the center of the shift in the discourses on the sensory perception, which developed a discontinuity in the sensory order. Our next reference concerning McLuhan’s tactility is an instance after this shift.

2. Tactility as the Optical Unconscious

McLuhan writes in The Gutenberg Galaxy:

It is simpler to say that if a new technology extends one or more of our senses outside us into the social world, then new ratios among all of our senses will occur in that particular culture. It is comparable to what happens when a new note is added to a melody. And when the sense ratios alter in any culture then what had appeared lucid before may suddenly be opaque, and what had been vague or opaque will become translucent. As Heinrich Wolfflin [sic] stated the matter in 1915, in his revolutionary Principles of Art History (p. 62) “the effect is the thing that counts, not the sensuous facts.” Wolfflin began working from the discoveries of the sculptor Adolf von Hildebrand, whose Problem of Form in Painting and Sculpture had first clearly explained the disorder in ordinary human sense perception, and the role of art in clarifying this confusion. Hildebrand had shown how tactility was a kind of synesthesia or interplay among the senses, and as such, was the core of the richest art effects. For the low definition imagery of the tactile mode compels the viewer into an active participant role.9

Here again we can observe his theory of the medium as an extension of our senses. In addition, when he compares the transformation incited by a new technology with the change in the total unity of a melody induced by one added note, he implicitly refers to the theory of Gestalt quality by Christian von Ehrenfels, a forerunner of Gestalt psychology. Further, he refers to names such as Heinrich Wölfflin and Adolf von Hildebrand, who were the founders of another new discipline around the last centennium, the newborn German school of Art History. Although the extent of McLuhan’s immersion in the discourse of Art History in its foundation era is uncertain, his initial contact with this school would be through his contemporary art historian E. H. Gombrich’s Art and Illusion. Art and Illusion is also one of his sources pertaining to Gestalt psychology, from which he quotes at length in The Gutenberg Galaxy. I wish to follow him because it is useful as an introduction to this school of Art History.

Two German thinkers are prominent in this story. One is the critic Konrad Fiedler, who insisted, in opposition to the impressionists, that “even the simplest sense impression that looks like merely the raw material for the operations of the mind is already a mental fact, and what we call the external world is really the result of a complex psychological process.”
But it was Fiedler’s friend, the neoclassical sculptor Adolf von Hildebrand, who set out to analyze this process in a little book called The Problem of Form in the Figurative Arts, which came out in 1893 and gained the ear of a whole generation. Hildebrand, too, challenged the ideals of scientific naturalism by an appeal to the psychology of perception: if we attempt to analyze our mental images to discover their primary constituents, we will find them composed of sense data derived from vision and from memories of touch and movement. A sphere, for instance, appears to the eye as a flat disk; it is touch which informs us of the properties of space and form. Any attempt on the part of the artist to eliminate this knowledge is futile, for without it he would not perceive the world at all. His task is, on the contrary, to compensate for the absence of movement in his work by clarifying his image and thus conveying not only visual sensations but also those memories of touch which enable us to reconstitute the three-dimensional form in our minds.10

Influenced heavily by Gombrich’s summary of the main idea of this school that visual sense data is and should be supplemented by the quality of touch and movement in order to compose a mental image, McLuhan closely connected this school to Aquinas’ theory of sensus communis. Thus he stated, “Hildebrand had shown how tactility was a kind of synesthesia or interplay among the senses.” However, we should first agree with Yve-Alan Bois when he states, “The ‘tactile’ that art history addresses is only the visual representation of tactility.”11 Guided by Konrad Fiedler’s so-called “theory of the pure visibility,” the aim of this school is to limit the objects of art history to that which is presented to us as a visual image. In this manner, they were able to establish formalistic descriptions of the history of art with the use of several dichotomies that they claimed to be valuefree. The dichotomy of the visual and the tactile is a well-known one among them.

Gombrich rightly pointed out that Hildebrand’s was the first step, although what I wish to highlight is not his tendency toward psychological explanation, but his tendency toward a certain type of formalism. The dichotomy that he posits as an explanation of our visual perception is one of the visual representation and the kinesthetic representation.12 The former is the mental representation gained from a distant view, in which the eyes are at rest and the object is seen two-dimensionally through visual projection. On the contrary, the kinesthetic representation is one from close view and, in this case, we move our eyes as though we touch the object with our eyes, and as a result, a three-dimensional effect is obtained. Hence, the dichotomy in this case is, in reality, one of the distant and the close views, and tactile and kinesthetic qualities are referred to as a mere trope of the close view.

Later, Heinrich Wölfflin revisited this idea and elaborated it into the dichotomy of the visual and the tactile, one among several dichotomies with which he established Art History as a “history of seeing.”13 This theory, in which he rephrases this dichotomy of the tactile and the visual as the linear and the painterly, describes the two modes of visual expression. The tactile or the linear is the expression in which the contour of the object is clear as though we can touch it, and the visual or the painterly is the expression that sees the object as a mere visual appearance of a plane with colored dots. Hence, the tactile for Wölfflin too, is a certain mode of vision with respect to the tactile sense, not the sense of touch in the literal sense. With this dichotomy as a weapon, he describes the “history of seeing” as a gradual transition from the tactile mode of vision to the pure painterly vision.

It is true that their arguments are ambivalent, and we can observe in them those moments in which they appear to rely on the tactile sense as a clue to psychological inference to obtain visual images, as Gombrich practiced and McLuhan followed. However, it is simultaneously clear that they, as art critics and art historians, attempted to compose a formalistic theory of visual arts based on the assumption of pure vision. In this sense, it appears as though the fact that they repeatedly resort to tactility in order to explain visual experience is an indication of heterogeneity in the vision itself.

It was Walter Benjamin who acutely highlighted this ambivalence with the pregnant words “the optical unconscious.” Benjamin refers to the idea of tactility toward the end of his famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1935–39), when he describes the perceptual experience of Dadaism, cinema, and architecture as opposed to the traditional attitude of contemplating before a painting. It is certain that he was aware of the use of the visual/tactile dichotomy in Wölfflin’s school, considering that he criticized Wölfflin in a book review “The Rigorous Science of Art” (1932) and mentioned in the Artwork essay the name of Alois Riegl, one among this school. However, for Benjamin, it cannot be a valuefree category for a static description of history. It is evident that he uses the notion of tactility to describe something new and sudden. Thus, for him, the work of Dadaists is “an instrument of ballistics” that “hit the spectator like a bullet, it happened to him, thus acquiring a tactile quality”14. The same holds for the perceptual experience of cinema, “the distracting element of which is also primarily tactile, being based on changes of place and focus which periodically assail the spectator.”15 Therefore, the tactility, which he rephrases as the “shock effect,” constitutes an element that resists the traditional and contemplative attitude of seeing. In other words, the tactility is the otherness within the visuality, that is, “the optical unconscious.”16

3. Tactility as the New Sensibility

To summarize, I have thus far followed two sources of McLuhan’s notion of tactility—tactility as the sensus communis or interplay of senses and tactility as “the optical unconscious,” or that which is barred from the visual regime. As I have shown through his interpretation of the idea of Wölfflin and Hildebrand, McLuhan displays a tendency to reduce the latter to the former. In this respect, it is likely that McLuhan, a converted Catholic, saw the image of redemption in the coming electric age when he characterizes it as tactile.

However, his description of the contemporary electric age is not always cheerful. In fact, he begins the chapter on TV in Understanding Media with the episode of the “pathetic” efforts of TV children to read books with their eyes as close as approximately six and a half inches from the printed page. According to him, TV is a myopic medium, as he mentions toward the end of this chapter in the special section entitled “WHY THE TV CHILD CANNOT SEE AHEAD”:

The TV image, that is to say, even more than the icon, is an extension of the sense of touch. Where it encounters a literate culture, it necessarily thickens the sense-mix, transforming fragmented and specialist extensions into a seamless web of experience. Such transformation is, of course, a “disaster” for a literate, specialist culture. It blurs many cherished attitudes and procedures. It dims the efficacy of the basic pedagogic techniques, and the relevance of the curriculum. If for no other reason, it would be well to understand the dynamic life of these forms as they intrude upon us and upon one another. TV makes for myopia.17

It is remarkable that McLuhan here rephrases the blurring, tactile quality of TV as myopia since it may point to the ambivalence in the notion of tactility which McLuhan shares with Hildebrand and Wölfflin, for whom tactility and close-view are interchangeable notions. However, apart from this, this paragraph shows how this notion is put into tension between two attributes we have followed till this point. That is, he sees how the tactile quality of TV fosters a “sense-mix,” “seamless web of experience,” and simultaneously regards it as a “disaster” for a literate culture, which he characterizes as visual.

It is not the sole example. In another place in the same chapter, he writes:

The mode of the TV image has nothing in common with film or photo, except that it offers also a nonverbal gestalt or posture of forms. With TV, the viewer is the screen. He is bombarded with light impulses that James Joyce called the “Charge of the Light Brigade” that imbues his “soulskin with sobconscious [sic] inklings.”18

As the tactile quality of Dada and cinema for Benjamin is a bullet that penetrates the body of the viewer, McLuhan considers TV as a tactile medium that bombards the viewer with light impulses. As in the case of cinema for Benjamin, TV for McLuhan symbolizes that which is new and sudden. Further, a few paragraphs later:

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.19

Again, there is a reference to tactility as the synaesthetic sense in depth, but this “convulsive sensuous participation” is certainly not a utopian life of peace and harmony, which the image of the sensus communis might imply. What we should detect here in tactility is rather an anesthetic and numbing effect, which McLuhan argues every medium has.

As I mentioned in the beginning, a medium for McLuhan is a simultaneous extension and auto-amputation of the body. In the process of extending and replacing a part of the body, the medium numbs that part in order to bring about a new sense-ratio or equilibrium among other organs. In this sense, McLuhan considers the myth of Narcissus as the primal scene of media. In this myth, Narcissus is connected to and numbed by his own image reflected in water and is unable to hear the voice of the nymph Echo.20 However, it is this numbing effect that simultaneously enables the new equilibrium of a body and a medium. In this sense, every medium has both synaesthetic and anesthetic effects simultaneously. It is this tension between synaesthesia and anesthesia that complicates McLuhan’s narrative. We can no longer hold the stable story that proceeds from the ancient utopia of the harmonious oral culture to the dystopia of the dissociating visual and literary culture (and then redemption in the electric age), for there have already existed both synaesthesia and anesthesia since the introduction of the first medium. In addition, it is precisely this moment of suspension between synaesthesia and anesthesia, or the auditory and the visual, in which the notion of tactility intervenes. Thus, McLuhan summarizes this mythical moment as follows:

The classic curse of Midas, his power of translating all he touched into gold, is in some degree the character of any medium, including language. This myth draws attention to a magic aspect of all extensions of human sense and body; that is, to all technology whatever. All technology has the Midas touch. When a community develops some extension of itself, it tends to allow all other functions to be altered to accommodate that form.21

This tactile quality of media is definitely not the perpetual quality of any medium at any point in time. Tactility is a quality of newness and suddenness that can only be exhibited in a medium in its early stage. Thus, the tactile quality of TV for McLuhan (or, of cinema for Benjamin.) In this sense, tactility, this superfluous thing, makes it impossible to understand McLuhan’s texts as a theory of media that claims itself to be universal. Instead, it demands that we read his texts as explorations into his contemporary age and its “new sensibility” that Susan Sontag saw in the same age.


1 Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994) 60, hereafter UM.

2 Edmund Joseph Ryan, Role of the Sensus Communis in the Psychology of St. Thomas Aquinas (Cartagena: Messenger Press, 1951).

3 Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle’s De Anima, trans. by Kenelm foster and Silvester Humphries (Notre Dame: Dumb Ox Books, 1999) 426b12–17.

4 Aquinas 602–603.

5 John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding II, ix, 8.

6 Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the19th Century (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992) 58.

7 Crary 58–59.

8 Crary 59.

9 Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of the Typographic Man (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962) 41, hereafter GG.

10 E. H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000) 16, quoted in GG 81–82.

11 Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss, Formless: A User’s Guide (New York: Zone Books, 2000) 25.

12 Adolf von Hildebrand, Das Problem der Form in der bildenden Kunst (Strassburg, 1893).

13 Heinrich Wölfflin, Kunstgeschichtliche Grundbegriffe: das Problem der Stilentwicklung in der neueren Kunst (München, 1915).

14 Walter Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, trans. by Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1985) 238.

15 Benjamin 238.

16 The well-known passage containing this phrase is as follows: “With the close-up, space expands; with slow motion, movement is extended. The enlargement of a snapshot does not simply render more precise what in any case was visible, though unclear: it reveals entirely new structural formations of the subject. So, too, slow motion not only presents familiar qualities of movement but reveals in them entirely unknown ones [...] The camera introduces us to the optical unconscious as does psychoanalysis to the instinctive unconscious” (Benjamin 236–237, translation slightly modified).

17 UM 335.

18 UM 313.

19 UM 314.

20 UM 41–42.

21 UM 139.

Copyright 2005 Takeshi Kadobayashi All rights reserved.