5.0 - 5.8


Storing and Sorting


5.0

With its techno-erotic jingle, the telephone company invites consumers to reach out and touch someone.  The corporation promises an encounter perhaps only realizable in the audio-tactile universe of a McLuhanesque global village where talking and touching are commutable.  However, as with all effective advertising, cognitive dissonance inhabits the telephonic slogan.  Seductive aurality suspends itself upon the delectable pain of hearing your party talk and an aching for the touch of their touching.  The telephone company of course has no interest in mentioning that the infliction or experience of such a state is possible without technological mediation nor that its equipment provides functions equivalent to the services of a dominatrix.

5.0

5.1

Striking analogies aside, the ache is the kernel of an implied narrative.  The substitution of talk for touch follows a bodily state of talk with touch.  The sequence need not unfold in this order.  Nostalgia can be inflected in a future tense and the wish for contact, directed towards strangers.  Whatever the case, talk with touch is highly desirable.  Touch here functions as a synecdoche for fuller bodily contact including smell, sight, taste.  But the wisdom of the telephonic cliche resides in the counter desire to avoid sensory overload.  The coiners of the saying astutely recast McLuhan:  one reaches out to touch someone, not the world.

5.1

5.2

Even as telecommunications technology repeatedly places persons in contact, a phone call is no Hegelian Bewußtlosigkeit of lovers nor is it blessed maternal-infant bliss.  A chat is not a caress.  Material limits do apply to the figure of total touch in the McLuhanite myth of the uttering/outering of man [sic] in language.  Nevertheless, much discussion of language and technology continues to invoke metaphors of touch.  Unfortunately, non-verbal modes of cognition tend to be mystified in these explorations.

5.2

5.3

George Steiner, for example, has written "[w]e know no exit from the skin of our skin" (After Babel 299).  Skin is here a metaphor for language.  Earlier in his book, Steiner speculated that "[i]f coition can be schematized as dialogue, masturbation seems to be correlative with the pulse of monologue or of internalized address." (40).  His conceit is developed further:

There is evidence that the sexual discharge in male onanism is greater than it is in intercourse.  I suspect that the determining factor is articulateness, the ability to conceptualize with especial vividness.  In the highly articulate individual, the current of verbal-psychic energy flows inward.  The multiple, intricate relations between speech defects and infirmities in the nervous and glandular mechanisms which control sexual and excretory functions have long been known, at least at the level of popular wit and scatological lore.  Ejaculation is at once a physiological and a linguistic concept.  Impotence and speech-blocks, premature emission and stuttering, involuntary ejaculation and the word-river of dreams are phenomena whose interrelations seem to lead back to the central knot of our humanity.  Semen, excreta and words are communicative products. (40)

One wonders if the production of female cyprine is greater in masturbation or intercourse.  One wonders about the inwardness of flow, about its relation to an articulateness and why articulateness determines ability to conceptualize.  Thinking and speaking are linked without justification.

5.3

5.4

There is one suggestion that can be salvaged from Steiner's rather speculative exercise.  If one were to mop up the fluid, one would find that articulations are very much like folds of skin and such folded skin possesses different temperature as well as moisture zones.  If, in the comparison of sexual activity with linguistic performance, liquid production is not accepted as the prime comparator, touch metaphors can be activated in a less totalizing and less dichotomous fashion.  Activity with oneself, masturbation, cannot be so readily opposed to intercourse, activity with others.

5.4

5.5

Indeed, as Vygotsky argued contra Piaget, children acquire capacities for ego-centric speech after passing through a stage of speech for others.  Such a developmental scheme stems from the metadiscursive dimensions of language.  Furthermore, avoidance of Steiner's phallic-based dichotomies permits one to draw an analogy between the self-sensing capacities of skin and the self-referring possibilities of verbal sign systems.

5.5

5.6

Skin like language can be sensitive to its own workings.  The tactile and the metalinguistic both act as transcoders:  the one of languages, the other of sensory modalities.  The power of touch to translate is celebrated by Michel Serres in Les Cinq Sens.  He proposes touch as the common sense:

Les choses nous baignent des pieds à la tête, la lumière, l'ombre, les clameurs, le silence, les fragrances, toutes sortes d'ondes imprègnent, inondent la peau.  Nous ne sommes pas embarqués, à dix pieds de l'eau, mais plongés. (72)

We are from head to toe bathing in a sea of things, their light, their shadows, their noise, their silence, their fragrances; all kinds of waves flood, saturate our skins.  We are not floating ten feet above the waters, we are submerged.

Although he situates touch as the common sense, Serres places its operations in a tacit, silent dimension.  In concluding an extended ekphrasis of the medieval unicorn tapestries, Serres relates the enigma of the mythical animal to "le secret de la subtilité: l'emprise tacite du tactile" [the secret of subtlety: the tacit hold of the tactile] (60).  This perhaps explains why despite the prodigious power of touch, Serres places the sensory in opposition to the linguistic:

Il faut sentir ou se nommer, choississez.  Le language ou la peau, esthésie ou anesthésie.  La langue indure les sens. (74)

One must name or sense, take your pick.  Language or skin, the bodily or the non-bodily.  Language dulls the senses.

For Serres language is noisesome.  It generates, in his words, dialectic and battle.  He values quiet since for him it is the condition for creativity.  However the initial opposition drawn by Serres does not remain absolute.  Battle, political or intellectual, linguistic or bodily, leads to thick skins.  Serres recommends making one's skin delicate and sensitive, rendering it attentive to things and to others, ready for the birth of the work and the man (74-75).  Perhaps the gender exclusivity in Serres's invocation of the venerable commonplace of giving birth to oneself by being in contact with the world explains the bloodless, screamless parturition.

5.6

5.7

However, shorn of reproductive mystique, the apparatus of self-sensing skin retains its role as mediator between self and the world.  As Daniel Putman writes "[t]he learning that occurs through skin receptors has a reference, the disposition of the person or the texture of the object being touched" (Putman 61).  Any acknowledgement of cognitive attention divided between two foci, a sensory apparatus and an object of perception, forces a revision of McLuhan's metaphorics of touch and language.  There is no exit from the skin of our skin, no exit from language, because we are never in language, never in our skins.  We inhabit a space of inbetweens, a space of transcodings and metamoves.  It is a reticulated conceptual space for language itself is between.  A dyad will never suffice to stage its dialectic.

5.7

5.8

Nondyadic dynamics as well as dialectical distinctions are made possible by the double articulation of language.  As demonstrated by Émile Benveniste in his essay "Sémiologie de la langue", the sign system of verbal language possesses not only a communicative function, it exists also in a relation of interprétance to other semiotic systems.  He links the metalinguistic element of verbal language to its ability to form interpretative relations between semiotic systems.

5.8


wake bridge prow





© François Lachance, 1996