From the Point of View to the Point of Being

by Loretta Secchi

Research on tactility at the University of Toronto.


The Point of Being is the title of a new publication by Derrick de Kerckhove, researcher in knowledge media of international repute. In July 2007, he brought together at the University of Toronto, in Canada, a few experts on aesthetic and perception of tactile and visual values, to develop an editorial project of which he provided the original idea and is the co-author. The venue for the meeting was The McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology, a wonderful site for its history and cultural value, and touching as well since Kerckhove, now the Centre's Director, was once one of its brilliant students and the assistant of a long-time researcher, Marshall McLuhan, who gave his name to the Centre. In the red-brick building's rooms, located in the heart of the University, in Queen's Park, the lively atmosphere immediately transpires a tradition of hospitality towards students and researchers: the Institution's sensitivity and intellectual honesty have been preserved since its foundation to this day. Because of this prestigious invitation, it was possible to participate in the collaborative draft work dedicated to the potential of tactile perception as another modality for seeing and feeling. During our stay, discussions between colleagues and shared activities of study and integration between different, not divided, material gave a new perspective on the meaning that contemporary society attributes today to communication and knowledge sharing. In intense working days, we dealt with the subject of structured classification introduced, from Modern age, by the perspective vision of space to gradually arrive to the reasons for a virtual perception, distinctive to contemporaneity. Moreover, we considered the anthropology of touch in its scientific and psychological contribution. We owe in fact to the great masters of the Anglo-Saxon school of the last century and their studies, which cannot be disregarded, the first theoretical reading of the idea of syntactic prospective vision and paratactic continuous vision, of diachrony and synchronicity, introductions to hyper-textual culture, basis for the modern theories on communication applied to the network. The role of the various cognitive and expressive functionalities, that we activate when we perceive the world and give it a meaning in relationship to what we are, makes us think about what we could become by means of an education to intensive sensory integration towards sensitivity and identity even in accordance with communication and information ethics. 

Derrick de Kerckhove has planned that the publication be first and foremost a reflection on the development of society deriving from the adaptation to vision and which requires a change of attitude to contrast with the risk of loss of sharpness in the sensory experience. Only the intellectual re-elaboration of our interpretation, generated by the concrete and harmonious agreement between perception and understanding, can help us understand changes in the state of conscience between surface and depth. No spiritualistic breach characterizes the study of the system by this man: his clear vision of the history of spirit between the potential and the limits of conscience, in the intentional and unintentional activation of communication, in the effective relation between knowledge, in a globalized vision of the individual. A careful evaluation of the authentic meaning of interconnectivity that the scholar has been forever studying is at the basis of a comparison between tactile physiology and cognitive function of contact. The simulated reproduction of perceptual effects from the haptic experience, form of communication and extension of the potential of touch, is studied at the Adaptive Technology Resource Centre (ATRC) of the University of Toronto, and is focused on leading-edge research based on the application of high technology for visual disability. In this environment, studies have led to the development of interfaces that can provide pressure sensations, density of substances, and surface temperature. These advanced representations are not inappropriate substitutes to the real tactile experience, but experiences without aesthetics and creations of codified effects able to provide some haptic and functional sensations that make it possible to read plans and environments. There is in fact a substantial difference between the informative function generated by the tactile sensation induced by stimulation, and the contact with tactile images. This requires an education to touch and a cognitive act which lead to the meaning of shape, therefore to the aesthetic emotion, in which the mental reconstruction of a representation is based on its iconographic and iconological meanings, poetical and aesthetic. The education to perception through the process of training necessary to the development of perceptual tactile abilities surpasses but does not elude pure cognition.

Tactile reading of a work of art

Tactile reading with sensors

The meeting with the Director of this Centre, Jutta Treviranus, was very important as well as the profoundly significant meeting at the Psychology Department of the University of Toronto in Scarborough, following the invitation of cognitive psychologist Prof. John M. Kennedy, thanks to whom, in the presence of graduate and doctoral students, it was possible to present the content and the results of the research being lead within the Tactile Museum Anteros at the Institute for the Blind Francesco Cavazza in Bologna. A discussion about various yet comparable surveys done to this day on the comprehension and representation of space in perspective by blind persons has shown common denominators of mental representation of spatial concepts and their graphical and plastic reproduction. The accuracy and clearness of the Canadian researchers and experts' objectives showed the distinction between haptic devices intended for informative support and tactile illusions generated by virtual experiences, and most of all it allowed the characterization
of real elements of correspondence between perception, comprehension and illustration of regular and irregular geometry in congenital or acquired blindness. The contribution to the publication, which looks into the point of view to the point of being and also on perspective as a symbolic form, was the opportunity to travel overseas and to listen, and share approaches on research, methodologies and effectiveness. It ended with a visit at the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB). In that efficient and friendly Institution, discussions took place with Karen Taylor, Director of Production and Technical Services, on the role of craftsmanship in the process of translation, interpretation and communication of aesthetic values inherent to works of art and on the extensive use of representation endowed with aesthetic value. Of this unforgettable experience in North America remain very beautiful souvenirs of infinite spaces, sincere dialogs, the completeness of intensive and generous workdays as well as critical analysis, concrete and appropriate, to which we contributed and from which we learned.