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Tactility Lost, Tactility Regained

By Viktor Postnikov

The earth, that is sufficient,
I don’t want the constellations any nearer….

—Walt Whitman, Song of the Open Road

Introduction1

Indeed, things in this world coexist in an inexplicable, mystical way. Have you ever experienced a situation when you meditate on an idea for some time and, surprisingly, acquire confirmations from various sides? When haphazardly you come across books which reveal the thoughts, confirming your most timid assumptions, or recollect the fragments of your life that bring supportive facts? If such miracle happens, you begin to realize that all these disconcerted ideas and feelings are something more than pure coincidence.

It is exactly how I came up with the idea of lost tactility, and the need to regain it through poetry and magic. The revival of tactility, or balanced “interplay of senses” (Marshall McLuhan), I have come to believe, will help us restore true perception, which has been distorted by an overdose of visual and abstract technologies. This, in turn, will re-establish the harmony between the inner nature of humans and the nature of the whole universe.

Tactility Lost

I remember father buying our first TV in the early 50’s. It had a 12×12 cm screen, and in order to see something we had to put a magnifying glass filled with water. All our family would gather in front of a tiny screen, while I had other intentions: to go playing football with my mates instead of sitting still and gazing into a gray little box. Thus I experienced my first enmity to television. Today, while the quality of TV has dramatically increased, I still don’t feel myself attached to it, probably owing to an unperceived antidote received in childhood. But I see how the present allure of TV and other video technics (DVD-players) easily capture the unsteady minds of children (and adults), taking them away from reality. The problem of the addictive television has been discussed widely, and I won’t go into details (they are too complicated, too obvious, and the reader may consult special studies, e.g. [1]); I only want to reiterate: the visualization has won over the audio-tactile perception that existed in human history, long before the invention of a glossy screen.

On the contrary, I have always admired radio. Our family had a 1948 lamp radio, with a full range of short waves, beginning from 11 metres.2 I remember its magic green eye, and a host of voices coming from within, in all languages. Enchanted, I would sit for hours trying to perceive the meaning of the strange words, or simply enjoying the foreign sounds. Music would fill the room with the jazz melodies not known in this part of the world. Later, radio has become my primal source of information and entertainment. I used to listen to the BBC music programs, and gradually was able to understand political commentators. Even now, after more than 40 years, I remain an active listener of the short wave radio. I guess, the explanation is simple. Radio stimulates your imagination, it does not interfere with your vision, you remain on your own, and your perception is full. We may say, that radio has an audio- tactile modality.

Similar metamorphosis can be traced in the musical record business. The records of the 50s – 70’s, that you could not only listen but lovingly caress and put on a turntable, had had a much more profound effect on our perception (at least, for my generation) than the sleazy compact discs that, practically, have no tactile effect.

The printed book had had even more agreeable effect on perception. It would leave the field for thoughts and emotions, stimulate the imagination; besides, you could stop reading and sink into your own ideas provoked by the author’s views, and resume whenever appropriate, and that’s the wonder of the book. You cannot duplicate this experience with video, or TV, or even radio. You have to follow the imposed images passively, without personal attachment, almost unconsciously. In other words, your consciousness is paralyzed by the imposed images, while your perception is distorted. Shall I add to this the charm of an intimate tactile contact with the book, especially if the latter is a masterpiece in itself?

Computers take us even further down the road of alienation from ourselves. My dislike of computers has been spurred, probably,  by numerical methods of calculations (specifically, finite elements method in electromagnetics) as contrasted to analytical methods that I was involved with in the 70’s and 80’s as a researcher, and the subsequent invasion of  PCs in the 90’s. (Or was it vice versa? I mean, were the numerical methods spurred by the computers? I guess, it was a mutual amplification). Let me explain. In analytical method you are the major actor in finding the solution; in numerical, you delegate this function to a computer, and passively accept, or do not accept, the result.3 I mean, from now on, computers stood between the man and the world, and the humans were doomed to understand the world through the “thinking machines.” As a consequence, I felt enmity to science, and it has lost any attractiveness for me ever since. I understood that humans have yielded to machines their most revered, ultimate faculty, i.e., an ability to perceive the world first hand.

At that moment (1995),  I adventitiously ran into a book by Stephen Talbott called “The Future Does not Compute”,4 and immediately felt that I was not alone in my fears towards the plausible dominance of computers.  Talbott formulates many ideas that were brooding in me for years, and gives a thorough description of our phobias hidden in computers. Here is one citation from his book (p.356):

The computer gains a certain autonomy – runs by itself – on the strength  of  its  embedded reflection of human intelligence. We are  thus confronted from the world by the active powers of our own,  most mechanistic  mental functioning.

Thus we had to obey to the powers of the computers that usurped our intelligence, and had to sacrifice all our highest abilities, such as love, intuition, insight, compassion, etc., to the “ghost of the machine,” sitting inside us.

Thanks to Talbott, I was acquainted with the method of Waldorf education – a perfect antidote to turning us into bio-robots. The method has a strong tactile component in educating the child. Founded by Rudolf Steiner in 1919, Waldorf schools now constitute the fastest growing non-sectarian movement in the world. As Talbott writes: “The teacher’s bearing (his grace and his art, his reverence for nature, his deeply won authority); the materials of the classroom (natural objects such as wooden branches, seashells, flowers, rocks, fabrics, as well as the room itself); and above all the child himself – his volition and feeling fully as much as his intellect – all these things are consciously considered.”

However, the majority of school are still based on a belief that facts are building blocks of knowledge, and information has to be memorized. According to Ed Clark, a Mitchell prize laureate,5 “this educational methodology is clearly inappropriate, if not impossible in a culture, where the amount of available information doubles every few years.” He argues that the education has to be re-build on a principle that “humans seek meaning, not just facts and skills, as an intrinsic aspect of their full and healthy development.”6

So what was the first technology that began to alter our inherently balanced perception? According to Marshall McLuhan, it was a common printed book, or even a phonetic alphabet. In his ground-breaking book, The Gutenberg Galaxy [2], written in the 50’s, but, echoing with a 1995 Talbott’s book, McLuhan tracks down a long historical way on which humans have lost their inherent audio-tactility of language, mainly due to the print, introduced by Gutenberg in the 15th century.  McLuhan calls the phonetic language the “first technology” that abstracted men from the world, with even more abstraction followed through print. It has triggered linear perspective, visual thinking, and markets, which finally, brought us to machines, and, their later hypostasis, computers. McLuhan sees this artificial human predicament, but, paradoxically, relies on the electronic world (“global village”) as a possible retreat into tribalism, which, presumably, regains  the lost tactility.   I say “paradoxically”,  because, as S.Talbott has shown, this is not the case: the monster of abstraction becomes even more shrewd and destructive.

However, there is an attempt to authorize the development of machines from the side of philosophers which see the “naturalness” in increasing complexity of the artificial world. According to those scientists, we, humans, are  bound to develop our faculties through ever more sophisticated machines (nanotechnology, genetic engineering, etc) , in order  to fight against the natural disasters, decease, imperfect genomes, possible asteroids, depletion of resources, etc, and, eventually, I reckon, reach the state of immortality. But note: complexity refers largely to technologies, no one is talking about raising the abilities of humans as such. The more complex are the machines, the more vulnerable are humans.

The protesting voices are weak or are made so. Non-the-less, some are brave enough to get through the mass-media (as the case with Stephen Talbott shows), they receive both indignation and praise.7

Poetic paradigm

Having become disenchanted in science, I swiftly turned to poetry, with some rapture and gratitude. I saw within it the only powers that could oppose the Machine.

Basically, poets sensed that something was wrong much earlier than philosophers. One who studies the history of human thought inevitably runs across two main lines of philosophical knowledge, viz. science, a rational approach to the world phenomena, and poetry, a direct insight into the world.8 The gap between them has not decayed over the years, on the contrary, it is only growing, and now is entering its critical, existential phase.

In Gutenberg Galaxy, Marshall McLuhan had attempted to give an account of this poetic sensitivity. He is concerned with the lost “interplay of senses,” and hence the impoverishing of perception due to visual, rationalist bias. He formulates his conclusions convincingly, calling Pope, Dante, Shakespeare, Rablais, Blake and others for witnesses. Who are the accused, then? Descartes, Newton, Bacon, Gutenberg, as well as their followers, obsessed by “visualization of knowledge”; rationalists, verifying the world with their logic; specialists, dissecting the world into segments. «This world is too round, it has to be flattened a bit” – was King Lear’s response to a remark about the “priceless interplay of senses.”9

It is often acknowledged, that science has greatly contributed to the technical development of civilization, but failed to satisfy our higher aspirations. The rational paradigm, in many cases, has become irrational as it provoked multifaceted crisis in human perception and habitat. Poetry, on the other hand, while always being regarded as “mystic, irrational,” now happens to be in more coherence with the ancient wisdom and the physics of the subatomic world.10

I will try to elaborate a little on this. The meaning of life cannot be understood merely intellectually, one needs to use the methods of poetry to merge with Creation and thus directly perceive its beauty and true meaning. There are special “techniques” that assist in seeing the world poetically. Such techniques were elaborated both in the East and West,11 and, of course, constitute the essence of art.

This intuitive knowledge of harmony has been fostered in previous centuries but is forgotten now in view of the prevailing scientific mindset.  The universal laws of harmony are both present in science and poetry, though. Poetry can help portray the scientific truths in more holistic, unraveling way, describing the connections between phenomena metaphorically; on the other hand, science provides limitless material for poetic aspiration and fantasy.12

Unfortunately, scientists too often are consumed by their own interests, and ignore the laws of nature (e.g., environmental ethics) which lead to a specialist view of the world with all lamentable consequences. I know how a scientist can be entranced by his work. A hunter is awakened in him. He is carried away by theories and hypotheses, and dwells in the forest of formulas, often forgetful of the mundane world. He feels good, though the world may suffer.

But such committed scientists are few and far between. As a rule, scientists operate in a team that has regulations and specific “ethics,” reminding of a medieval order. Today, many scientists experience remorse while working for large corporations or behemoth institutions, but unable to stop their research. To my mind, the role of scientists and engineers has to be drastically changed to acquire a truly ecological attitude. This rehabilitation of scientists should be conducted by poets and environmentalists. Fortunately, we see an increasing number of “proselyte” scientists refusing to develop harmful technologies and joining the environmentalist camp.

Poetry, as contrasted to science, has never caused harm to nature. It is born out of enchantment, and can be compared to religion, but unlike the latter, has a creative vector. Poetry must be viewed in a broader context than is usually thought. It incorporates arts, music, literature, craftwork, philosophy, and meditation. It can be expanded on every human activity provided that the latter happens spontaneously, and in tune with the universal laws of nature.

Poetry speaks deeper language than science, it operates through metaphors rather than facts, it uses another kind of imagination.13 In genuine eco-poetry, thoughts and feelings cannot be separated. Science, on the contrary, is using an ever increasing abstraction as a method of probing the world. It is concerned with facts, rather than beauty. Computers and other instruments have formed an environment through which men were forced to obtain knowledge of the world, but which, paradoxically, increasingly moves away them from the goal. For the goal is not the burden of knowledge, but the blessing of joy.

Tactility Regained

The only powers that is able to fight this “scientific spiritualism” is regained tactility. This can be achieved by fostering humans’ inherent creativity, which can by-pass the application of machines and regain human dignity.

We are always yearning to be among others, to touch them and to love them. This is our in-born tactility, so well documented in the following lines:

I have perceiv’d that to be with those I like is enough,
To stop in company with the rest at evening is enough,
To be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing,
 Laughing flesh is enough,
To pass among them or touch any one, or rest my arms ever
So lightly round his or her neck for a moment, what is this
 Then?
There is something in staying close to men and women and
 Looking on them, and in the contact and odor of them, that
 Pleases the soul well,
All things please the soul, but these please the soul well.

—Walt Whitman, Sing The Body Electric

We need to feel this world with our own senses, these priceless qualities that cannot be matched even by most elaborate machines.

What we begin to lack is the special character of our hand. The Friedrich Engels’ “The hand made us, humans” still remains valid. Painting, music, sculpture and other arts are being created by human hands. Any intermediary agent destroys the magic of art, alienates the creator from his/her creations. In manual work, the more complex manual operations, the closer is man to his destination, the nobler he, or she, is (writing, drawing, playing musical instruments, weaving, sculpture, any manual work).

We love through hands, we express our deepest feelings through hands, such as holding, shaking, touching. We can gesticulate, using hands to highlight our emotions. Fortunetellers can see our fate through hands. Taoists have developed an elaborate science of hand symbols that can influence our life…

According to Tolstoy, “A man avoiding manual work, may be intelligent, but not wise.” The benefits of manual work for human emancipation are many and have been stressed by such thinkers as Thoreau and Gandhi. Have you noticed that during manual work our brain becomes clarified? Thoughts come and go in a more consistent way, turbulent senses retreat and calm down? Have you ever noticed that after a day of physical work, the sleep comes easily and you fall almost at once into profound, relieving, child-like sleep?

Our intellect surpasses any computer since we know beforehand the goal of mental work, and this goal overrides the mere result of computations. According to Howard Gardner,14 in addition to the commonly accepted verbal and mathematical modes, there are “musical, spacial, kinesthetic, intrapersonal, and interpersonal intelligences.” In other words, we can think “bodily,” incorporating all of our senses, not only brain. Each of us has a special bent for at least one of these intelligences, each of us is a genius in its kind.

Our imagination can be displayed in any of our activities, and it is directed towards creativity (conscious or unconscious). This is the most complex and mystical quality of humans. All that was created by human culture is the sorcery of imagination. Paradoxically, technologies while being the product of imagination, in the end, are prone to kill it. Television, more than anything, is paralyzing imagination and deprives us of our main asset – the ability of fantasy. A computer goes even further: it bereaves us of self-conscious thinking.

Human faculties, such as manual skills, intellectual thinking and fantasy (poetic thinking) are in close relation; by eliminating one of these faculties, others become withered and underdeveloped. Computers in this respect are destroying all three faculties.

Our creativity must not be hostile to nature. As contrasted to “hype creativity” of mass-media, or aggressive technological development, it is through the loving tactile contact with nature that humans are becoming nobler and more exquisite creatures.

We, humans, possess many qualities that go beyond reasoning, or logic. There’s much wisdom accumulated in ancient times (such as tantra in the East, or alchemy in the West). But it is also important that we develop our own cultural context. We need to be ourselves, above all, and develop a strong “sense of the place.” This will strengthen cultural diversity and beauty in the world. I see the potentialities primarily in art, craftwork, music and magic.

Humans need to develop their inherent faculties to overcome the limits imposed by materialism, or, by the words of Tagore, “the everyday monstrosities.” And what’s more: these faculties do not require huge investments, complex scientific experiments, or “resources” of the Earth; instead, they feed upon our unfathomed spirituality.

In this respect, we may point at the faculties that our ancestors had known long before we were lost on the  way.  In Tantra, for example, we find exercises to develop extra psychic powers and awareness. They include clairvoyance, clairaudience, clairtactition, clairfaction and clairsentience.15 Any one of these modes of awareness may be dominant in a person, similarly to the above mentioned set of intelligences. I tend to think that modern sciences cannot explain many things, and we have to be much more diligent to graduate to a higher level of understanding.

The Earth, that is sufficient…

Tactility means intimate connection to earth and people. We cannot live being separated from both. But modern civilization is tearing us from the earth, and its citizens, it has led us nowhere. Capitalism separated us by furtively expousing the idea of competition. Communism took our souls in exchange for social wealth. Religion withdrew us from this tangible blessed Earth.

Fortunately, there always were visionaries in history who tried to enlighten the “unwise man-child.” Such were Rousseau, Thoreau, Tolstoy, Tagore, Gandhi. Their voices are heard among the new generations of environmentalists. Many new voices are being added to this growing choir, coming from activists, poets, scientists, and ordinary people.

All people tend to lean to each other, they lean to nature, for this is their inborn tactility. This life-strong anarchistic movement is breaking barriers, seen and unseen, that have been constructed by politicians and priests for so long. New paradigms appear. New economy. New ethics. I think there are many common ideals that unite, for example, Tolstoy communities, Buddhist sanghas, and self-sustained organic farmers. William Orphus in an article Notes for a Buddhist Politics16 cites five general principles that may refer to all such communities, viz., respectful tolerance, secular and spiritual equality, emphasis on duties, simplicity, and nonviolence.

But opposition to such politics from the wealthy class is relentless. The tension in the world is growing daily, or, maybe, even hourly. The world that was built on individualism and materialism for the last several centuries agonizes, but is tough on giving way to a new perception of humans – as collective, spiritual creatures, and the Earth – as a goddess. All our institutions based on the pursuit of “progress,” consumption, industrialism, suddenly appear obsolete and poorly conceived, despite all its high-praised rationality. The wars that we witness today are the convulsions that the new world engenders. Or rather, it is the same old world that is struggling to throw away the chagrin skin of imposed rationality and reconsider its genuine, tactile, relations to earth.

I have a copy of Breughel’s painting at home, The Fall of Icarus, depicting the sunrise over our magnificent Earth. At the forefront, we see a plot of land with a busy ploughman; at the background – a small figure, floundering in the sea waters. This is Icarus who ignored his father’s advice not to rise too high in the sky. Too fast he flew, too high ascended in the sky, for the scorching sun soon melted the wax and scattered feathers in the air. In desperation crushes Icarus from a dreadful height. Yet the ploughman does not make note of the figure, he has to plough the earth.

Isn’t is so with us, who, having been torn off the ground, sooner, or later will crush from the heights of abstraction and self- esteem?

About the author

Viktor Ivanovitch PostnikovViktor Ivanovitch Postnikov is a Russian-born independent scientist (DSc.) who lives in Kiev, Ukraine. A prolific poetry translator, he has also translated books on both eastern philosophies and deep ecology, and written many essays on Russian anarchism and eco-poetry for journals and other publications.

References:

[1] Mander, Jerry., Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television New York: William Morrow/Quill, 1977
[2] McLuhan, M.H., Gutenberg Galaxy (Toronto University Press, 1992)
[3] Talbott, S.L. The Future Does Not Compute (O’Railley & Associates, 1995)
[4] F.Capra et al, Guide to Ecoliteracy (A publication of the Elmwood Institute, 1993)
[5] Joy, Bill, Why The Future Does Not need Us? (Wired, 2000)
[6] Owen Barfield. Poetic Diction, A Study in Meaning.= (Wesleyan University Press, 1973)
[7] Capra, F., The Tao of Physics (Bantam books, 1980)
[8] Postnikov, V. , Eco-poetry The Trumpeter, Vol. 17-1. 2001
[8] Tagore. R. , Our Universe Trans by Indu Dutt. (Jaico Books, 1980 )
[9] Tagore’s Testament, Trans. by Indu Dutt (Jaico Books, 1982)
[10] Talbott, S. The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst (O’Reilly & Associates, 1995
[11] Dharma Rain Ed. By Stephanie Kaza and Kenneth Kraft (Shambhala, 2000)
[12] Gavin and Yvonne Frost, Tantric Yoga (Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Ltd, Delhi, 1996)

Endnotes

1 This article was written in 2005 for the Trumpeter ecosophic journal.

2 In 1949, Stalin introduced jamming and banned the manufacturing of short-wave radios as a countermeasure against the launching of the US-sponsored Radio Free Europe station, broadcasting over the Soviet Union from Munich, West Germany. This had broken the fragile audio-tactile contact that was about to adjust itself between the East and the West.

3 In many applications, the solutions can be obtained only through the so-called numerical modeling. Usually, this envisages the writing of the system of fundamental equations that cannot be resolved analytically and transforming it into a very large number of simple approximate relations (finite elements) that are being calculated by computer. The outcome of such solution, generally speaking, cannot be known beforehand. An interesting reflection on this phenomenon we find in McLuhan’s Gutenberg Galaxy.

4 Stephen L.Talbott, The Future Does Not Compute (O’Railley & Associates, 1995), p. 356.

5 In “Guide to Ecoliteracy,” F.Capra et al, (A publication of the Elmwood Institute, 1993)

6 Ibid.

7 For example, see an amazing confession of Bill Joy, a co-founder and Chief Scientist of Sun Microsystems in an article called “Why The Future Does Not need Us?” in a Wired magazine, Spring, 2000.

8 Here, poetry is not to be confused with religion, although there is an intimate connection between the two. This interesting and vast topic is outside the scope of the article.

9 Shakespeare, King Lear.

10 Capra, F., The Tao of Physics (Bantam books, 1980)

11 Postnikov, V. 2001. “Eco-poetry.” The Trumpeter: Vol. 17-1

12 Tagore. R. 1980. Our Universe. (Indu Dutt trans). Jaico Books.

13 Owen Barfield. Poetic diction. A Study in Meaning. (Wesleyan University Press, 1973)..

14 In the “Guide to Ecoliteracy,” F.Capra et al, (A publication of the Elmwood Institute, 1993)

15 Gavin and Yvonne Frost, Tantric Yoga (Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Ltd, Delhi, 1996)

16 In a book “Dharma Rain” (Ed. By Stephanie Kaza and Kenneth Kraft, Shambhala Publications, 2000)

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2 comments

1 Penny J. Novack { 10.06.09 at 6:21 am }

It takes a stubborn will to use technologies which seem to abrogate our own natural abilites to perceive and not feel lessened thereby.

It is a pleasure reading what Victor has to say

2 Victor { 10.07.09 at 9:11 am }

Thank you, Penny.

Only sometimes I think, I’ve said too much…

VP