RETOUCHING McLUHAN – THE MEDIUM IS THE MASSAGE Conference Lecture Abstract
Topic: An ear for an eye – Traveling visual, acoustic and tactile space with Marshall McLuhan, John Cage and Nam June Paik
According to Marshall McLuhan the dominant visual mode of our culture is an effect of the printing press: ‘The phonetic alphabet forced the magic world of the ear to yield to the neutral world of the eye. Man was given an eye for an ear.’ (Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage, Gingko Press 2001 edition. pp. 44) Accordingly, hearing is related to the associative thought attributed to the right brain, while sight is connected to the left brain’s rational structuring.
McLuhan himself contributed in great deal to reasserting the legitimate stature of associative thinking, linking it to hearing and touching. This can be seen and felt by browsing Quentin Fiore’s graphic design for the collaborative book ‘The Medium is the Massage’, and even more in the ‘audio book’ version McLuhan released in 1968 as an LP. His contentious notion that the television image is an „expansion of the tactile sense“ seems more understandable with todays touch screens than in McLuhan’s time. (Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, 1995, pp. 504). His emphasis on the ‘tactile’ surprisingly connects McLuhan with Walter Benjamin’s own theory of media.
However McLuhan’s media theory is much less a theory of machines, of communication or of information – but rather a theory of the senses and their multi-modal relationships to media. This made it so influential for the inter-media arts of the 1960′s. In their musical and artistic works John Cage and Nam June Paik explored the relationships between acoustic and visual space. Both make reference to McLuhan’s propositions. And that television is a tactile medium, as McLuhan always argued, was first put to test by Paik. At this moment in time, the art and the theory of media are two sides of the same coin.