In his 1919 essay “Primal Sound,” Rainer Maria Rilke details his fascination with the human skull en route to a discussion of the phonograph. “The coronal structure of the skull (this would first have to be investigated) has–let us assume–a certain similarity to the close wavy line which the needle of a phonograph engraves on the receiving, rotating cylinder of the apparatus.” Ignoring all the implications to the connections between the unconscious and media, it is fascinating to see what Rilke suggest we do with this, to run a phonograph needle across these ridges on the skull, producing “a series of sounds, music…” This is his Primal Sound.
Not long after, and in partial reference to his earlier idea, he speaks of the experience of Arabic poems, “which seem to owe their existence to the simultaneous and equal contributions from all five sense…” as nothing short of “presence of mind and grace of love.”
What strikes me most about this essay are his consistent nods in the direction of synesthesia. Media, it seems, is both synaesthesia and metaphor. Whereas a metaphor draws it’s power from the traversal of linguistic boundaries, media draws its power from the traversal of sensual boundaries, or to grossly oversimplify a neurological phenomenon, synesthesia. The phonograph takes something we can touch and turns it into something we can hear, or vice versa using the very same needle. Media is a synesthetic metaphor, translating the stuff of one sense into another.
Digital media is the logical conclusion of this synesthetic trajectory, placing all mediated sensory experience on the same plane in that they are all derived from and reduced to ones and zeroes. Now we have programs that will make music from a picture, or programs that will create a visual from a song. You can take an essay you wrote and put it in to a program and come out with a sound, or a video. The possibilities are endless. With a little bit of imagination, we can all be now synaesthetes. We can, as Rilke wanted to do with the phonograph needle and the human skull, “experience it, as it makes itself felt, thus transformed, in another field of sense.”
Media, as always, shows both the capacity to equalize (now Nabokov isn’t the only one that can see alphabets in color), but also the capacity to rob us of our own natural imaginative and cognitive abilities through overdependence.