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Jaeho Kang  (New School) Tactility of Media-Space: Marshall McLuhan and Walter Benjamin on Synaesthesia and Technological Innervation of the Body 

"For the tasks which face the human apparatus of perception at historical turning points cannot be performed solely by optical means—that is, by way of contemplation. They are mastered gradually—taking their cue from tactile reception—through habit."
-Walter Benjamin

"Synaesthesia, or unified sense and imaginative life, had long seemed an unattainable dream to Western poets, painters, and artists in general…. Yet these massive extensions of our central nervous systems have enveloped Western man in a daily session of synaesthesia."
-Marshall McLuhan

"The analyses of both Benjamin and McLuhan stand on the borders of reproduction and simulation, at the point where referential reason disappears and production is seized by vertigo."
-Jean Baudrillard

Within the tradition of German and North American media studies, there have been claims that key elements of Walter Benjamin’s original account of the impact of the media on human perception have especially marked similarities with Marshall McLuhan’s idea of the technological extensions of human body. However, those arguments on affinities between Benjamin and McLuhan put forward by authors such as Arnold Houser, Jean Baudrillard, Norbert Bolz, and James Carey, to name a few, fail to address a core tenet of their theories, that is, tactility of media-space. This paper’s primary aim is to examine McLuhan’s idea of synaesthetic function of electronic media with particular reference to the technological innervation of the bodily collective, a concept which Benjamin elaborated via his critical analysis of Surrealism and Russian avant-garde film movements during the 1920s and 30s. For this purpose, I concentrate the key elements in Benjamin’s account of tactile aspect of cinematic experience that have parallels in the work of McLuhan. Such a comparative analysis helps to clarify important theoretical implications of media-space and its contributions to contemporary media theory. First, the paper examines McLuhan’s idea of synaesthesia of media-space through his analysis of tactility of TV. For both McLuhan and Benjamin, the aesthetics of media indicates a study of human senses in conjunction with various forms of communication technology. Echoing Benjamin’s account of the predominance of visual experience in modern society, McLuhan conceives of the rise of visuality as one of the key characteristics of modernity. In his view, civilization involves a process of the stripping of the senses and the isolation of one sense from the other by means of mechanical ‘hot’ media. The development of printing technology accelerated the isolation of sight from the other senses, resulting in the hegemony of pictorialization. In this respect, McLuhan’s analysis of the shift from the aural to the visual and its connection to the uprooting of tradition and the establishment of modern society seems to share similarities with Benjamin’s account of the transformation from storytelling to the novel, and the rise of the information industry. McLuhan finds the emancipatory dimension of the media-space in the tactile function of TV, saying, it integrates the fragmented senses (vision, hearing, touch and smell). Yet, in his works, it is still unclear how the tactility of media-space can retrieve the alienated senses and enable the emergence of the new mode of the collective subject. Second, I endeavor to examine how Benjamin link the tactile aspects of cinematic experience with the theory of ‘bodily collective innervation’, a neuro-physiological theory which is initially developed by William James and further experimented by the Russian avant-garde movements during the 1920s and 30s. While exploring the emergence of post-auratic experience, Benjamin was deeply influenced by Surrealism, which offers him the means of aligning a distinct visual mode of perceiving the metropolis with the processes of dreaming and awakening. Although Benjamin gives centrality to the function of the ‘politically educated eye’ embedded in Surrealist visuality, he critically underscores the shortcomings of Surrealism, by arguing that contrary to what the Surrealists believed, the image-space (der Bildraum) created by technology can no longer be understood by optic contemplation. For Benjamin, Surrealist aesthetic experiments remain locked within ocularcentric hegemony and do not relate to the tactile dimension of new media-space. If we connect Benjamin’s insight into the tactility of media experience with the biomechanical experiments, in which Sergei Eisenstein’s theory of montage is rooted, the synaesthetic aspects of cinema-space can be understood more systematically in a sense of the neuro-physiological dynamics of tactile distraction. Third, this paper thereby argues that media-spaces for Benjamin and McLuhan come to be a prototypical space of play (der Spielraum) where technology, image, and the corporeal body are intertwined. For Benjamin and McLuhan, the electronic media-space is a multi-functional techno-space for the formation of a new subjectivity by means of technological innervation, a space where new experiences are configured, shattered and reconstructed, not only through visual perception, but more decisively through tactile perception of the body.


Brief Bio
Dr Jaeho Kang Assistant Professor Department of Media Studies and Film The New School New York Jae received his PhD from the University of Cambridge, England, with a dissertation on Walter Benjamin’s theory of media and experience. Before teaching at The New School, he was Alexander von Humboldt Research Fellow at Institut für Sozialforschung at the University of Frankfurt, Germany. He has a book in progress, Walter Benjamin and Media: The Spectacle of Modernity. Jae has published articles on the media and social theories of Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, Michel Foucault, and Siegfried Kracauer. His research interests include critical theory of art and technology; new media and political communication; and media and urban space. He contributes to International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (2nd Edition, 2008) entries such as “Media”, “The Medium is the Message” and “The Frankfurt School”. Jae is currently investigating Siegfried Kracauer’s critical theory of media and politics focusing on film, propaganda, and the transformation of the mediated public sphere.