Marshall words, “civilization is built on literacy because literacy

 Marshall McLuhan argues that the Gutenberg Revolution prompted the metamorphosis of human sensorium, paving the transition from Medieval Times into the age of Modernity. In retrospect, the Middle Ages functioned as a tribally oriented culture, stabilized by an audio-tactile sensibility amongst a large population with a majority of non-literate individuals. With the rise of Modernity came the invention of the first moveable type by Gutenberg, triggering the evolution of print—which triggered a new shift in sensorium that is increasingly ocular-centric due to the vast dissemination of knowledge stemming from the printed word. This mass production of books helped increase literacy amongst the population and contributed to an evolving perspective fueled by technological advances and the physical extensions of human capabilities. Thus, the establishment of print further promoted the extension of visual perception, while eclipsing the predominance of an audio-tactile sensibility.

Drawing on Marshall McLuhan’s, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, he remarks that with every technological extension of the body there is an amputation. In other words, technology can be understood as a sort of medium that sparks change within society; reshaping our cognitive functions through the inauguration of new extensions that simultaneously precipitate an ‘auto-amputation’. 1 The medium of the printed word contributed to the development of linear sequential thinking, presenting a sense of visual order enforced by ocular-centric modes of perceiving. In McLuhan’s words, “civilization is built on literacy because literacy is a uniform processing of a culture by a visual sense extended in space and time by the alphabet.”2 When looking at the biblical narrative in Albrecht Durer’s woodcut, The Four Horsemen, From the Apocalypse (fig. I), C. 1498, one can get a sense of a multidimensional inclusive sensorium inhabited by the audio-tactile people from medieval times. In Durer’s woodcut, there is a sense of chaos alongside an archaic narrative relating to the ratio of medieval society’s cognitive modes of perceiving.

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In contrast to Durer’s work, Raphael’s, Marriage of the Virgin (Fig. II) c. 1504, is a classical painting of methodological significance, conveying notions of an organized three-dimensional space in relation to the contemporary visual culture at the time. Moreover, it ratifies concepts of geometry, mathematics and visual perspective in terms of space. In other words, Raphael replicates a visual image as opposed to a complex expression of a multi-sensational atmosphere. Raphael also exhibits a rationalization of sight through the organization of form and space as described in his painting.

In the 20th century, following the Industrial Revolution in England, we see the rise of the Electric Age, also known as the second Industrial Revolution—affecting Europe and North America. With the inherent emergence of mass production, came the incessant growth of a new consumer culture. These technological advances also prompted the development of new urban centers across the globe, promoting the expansion of international markets alongside mass manufacturing industries.

As a result of new industries, there was a vast increase in population, an established standard of living and the continuous progression of technological advancement. Some of these advancements would come to include: the mobile car, the telegraph, the radio and the television. Each one of these inventions guided civilization into a new era that introduced new extensions of the body, while simultaneously ‘amputating’ a preceding capability that has been substituted by a new mechanism. Essentially, inventions of the Electric Age extended our central nervous system in a global embrace, inclusively emanating the whole of the senses, and similarly reverting back to the multi-dimensional—audio-tactile sensibility of the Medieval tribes.3 Technology served to be the product of decentralization, as McLuhan put it: “the very nature of the telephone, as all-electric media, is to compress and unify that which had previously been divided and specialized.”(McLuhan, The Telegraph p.225)

Consequently, with the many benefits of technology comes a sort deception, for it appears that humans have become enamored with their extensions. Due to this cultural and personal dependence on technology, it can be said that humans have in many ways, become a slave to it. In his text, McLuhan refers to the idea of the ‘Narcissus’, professing that human extensions have a numbing effect on the mind, with the potential to influence or alter equilibrium within cognitive perception and the body. As McLuhan put it: “all technological extensions of ourselves must be numb and subliminal, else we could not endure the leverage exerted upon us by such extension.”4

German scholar, Siegfried Kracauer theorizes with this issue in regards to film in his text called, Theory in Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality. In this particular work, Siegfried Kracauer’s tells the Greek myth about Perseus, who uses the reflection of a shield to confront the monstrous Gordon Medusa, who turns men into stone when subjected to her entirety. He continues by saying that, “we do not, and cannot, see actual horrors because they paralyze us with blinding fear; and that we shall know what they look like only by watching images of them which reproduce their true experience.”5 This paradox of ‘Athena’s’ shield relates to the abstraction of the self, which can is often understood as a product of technological extension. Thus, in order to become fully sutured with one’s technological extensions, the individual user often comes to identify with his new extended self. According to McLuhan’s theory, technological extensions have the ability to bring forth new structures of experience – where the body and consciousness can be extended in space and time. In order to deal with the traumatic collapse of one’s spatial organization, the individual is often encouraged to fully immerse himself with the new extensions that are presented to him. While there are many benefits to technological extensions, it is important to reflect on the repercussions of technology and media’s ability to shape or alter our sensibilities and subjectivity.

 Despite McLuhan’s theory that technology is an extension of man, David Rokeby argues that ‘true interactive art’ can mediate a sort of the extrusion of the self, similar to a mirror which, “not only reflects back, but also refracts what it is given.”6 Interactive art questions the role of the viewer, the medium and the artist, yet it also sustains the coexistence of reality and virtual reality as one. Interactive art is meant to harness a visceral relationship between the body, the senses, and technology. To Rockeby, ‘true interactive art’ must act as a “permeable membrane”, which allows for a mutual trafficking of information between both the participant and the computer or technological mechanism.7 In addition, Rokeby believes that interactive art can be used to harness a visceral relationship between the body, the senses, and technology; while simultaneously putting into question the role of the user, the medium, and the artist. 

In his writing, Rockeby further discusses the idea of transforming awareness through interruption as well as the artistic rendering of a medium. He continues by theorizing about how one’s interaction with technology is often preceded by the human desire for control. In order to avoid the fast identification and amputation process as announced by McLuhan, Rokeby suggests that interactive art should have the objective of interrupting the full extension of the self by incorporating elements of distortion and dissonance. In relation to this, Rokeby states that: “the less distortion there is, the easier it is for the interactor to identify with the responses the interactive system is making.”8 He continues in saying: “the interactive artist must strike a balance between the interactor’s sense of control, which reinforces identification, and the richness of the responsive system’s behavior, which keep the system from being closed.”9

Peter Campus’ Interface (fig. III) uses the medium of interactive art to extend the viewer’s experience beyond the rationales of sensory perception. In brief, Interface challenges the subjectivity of the viewer who is confronted with two images of the self on a glass screen. The first reflection is stimulated naturally by means of the glass, while the other presents a refracted image with a blurry monochromatic effect that is projected via camera. Together, these images signify the binary between one’s subjective self and the shadow self – in other words, the extended self, which is often produced through the medium of technology. The materiality of the glass allows the viewer to interact with himself within a given space, and as the reflected image collides with the projected one, the viewer can viscerally experience a simulated splitting of the self. The work incorporates elements of distortion and dissonance, which interrupt the seamless process of identification with technology and one’s extended self.  

Paul Sermon’s Telematic Dreaming (fig. IV) also illustrates elements of Rokeby’s theory on interactive art. In short, Sermon’s utilizes a technology, which allows people from different places to inhabit a virtual space together in real time. This “telematic space” dismisses the locational restraints of the body, allowing it to exist beyond one’s physical and situational location in terms of time and space. While the individual interactor can experience the telematic presence of another user in real time, the overall sensations as stimulated by the technology are limited by its synthetic nature. Each user can react to one another’s movement, which is recorded and then projected by the camera. Nonetheless, the technology restricts each user from feeling any physical sensation as he/she interacts with the other. While the work allows for a mutual trafficking of information between both participants, it also makes them aware of their own virtual and physical limitations as well as that of the interactive technology.  

Both of these artworks relate to McLuhan’s idea of electric technology as a medium used to extend our central nervous system in a global embrace. Moreover, these works allude to the notion of ‘Narcissus’, insinuating that technological extensions can often numb human perception, causing the user to become the ‘servomechanism’ of his own extended self. Nonetheless, the mentioned works are more than an extension of the self, for they sympathize with Rockeby’s analogy of the “permeable membrane” in interactive art.

In summary, Marshall McLuhan proposes the idea of electric technology as a medium that has extended our central nervous system in a global embrace, reverting back to a multi-dimensional—audio-tactile sensibility of primitive men. He also conjures the example of ‘Narcissus’, insinuating that technological extensions can numb human perception, causing the user to become the ‘servomechanism’ of his own extended self. (McLuhan, p.51) Although technology provides an extension of the self, it is also said to come with an amputation, as these extensions often impact the stability of our sensibilities by challenging the rules and limitations of human rationale. David Rokeby argues that interactive art presents more than an extension of the self, for interactive technology can function as a permeable membrane, allowing a mutual trafficking of information between both the participant and the computer mechanism, and then back again to the participant. To Rockeby, interactive art provides an interconnection between technology and the self, allowing the spectator to become more conscious of his presence within a constructed environment. It could be said that interactive technology is an intermingling of self and environment, placing emphasis on the moment of reception and the subjectivity of technology. To conclude in Rokeby’s words, “The technology that can connect you to the world in unprecedented ways is the same technology that can isolate you in a fantasy of your own, or another’s construction.” (Rokeby, Transforming Mirrors p.156)

1 McLuhan, Marshall. “Part I, 4: The Gadget Lover: Narcissus as Narcosis.” Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man New York: McGraw-Hill (1964): p.52 (p.51-56).

2 McLuhan, Marshall. “Part II, 9: The Written Word: An Eye for an Ear.” Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man New York: McGraw-Hill (1964): p.88 (p.84-90).

3 McLuhan, Marshall. “Part II, 25: Telegraph: The Social Hormone.” Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man New York: McGraw-Hill (1964): (p.217-227).

4 McLuhan, Marshall. “Part II, 30: Radio: The Tribal Drum.” Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man New York: McGraw-Hill (1964): p.254 (p.259-269).

5 Siegfried Kracauer, “Epilogue: Film in Our Time,” in Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1997), p.305 (p. 285-311)

6 David Rokeby. “Transforming Mirrors: Subjectivity and Control in Interactive Media.” In Critical Issues in Electronic Media. Edited by Simon Penny. New York: State University of New York Press, 1995, pp. 133-138

7 Ibid. David Rokeby, P. 133

8 Ibid. David Rokeby, P. 148

9 Ibid. David Rokeby, P. 148