What can be characterised loosely as a “return to the senses” has been taking place in recent years, within the social sciences, cultural history and philosophy. Likewise, we can follow Robert Jütte (2005) and David Howes (2005) in associating a similar shift in the public sphere in attitudes to the body and sensation with a historical period in late capitalism that validates experience and sensation in ever more novel and unusual ways. What Jütte himself terms “the new pleasure in the body” (2005:238) in a chapter of A History of the Senses: From Antiquity to Cyberspace, from which the title for this essay is derived, he situates this rediscovery of the senses firmly within a landscape of consumer capitalism. However, the place of touch remains problematic. This essay explores this problematic and ambiguous status of touch, as a form of direct bodily experience which is always mediated, whether through skin or viscera, but also remediated; explored, presented and represented through other media and alternative sensations, in different ways, and through a variety of technologies as we shall see. As such, it is correspondingly grouped into three interweaving and roughly-divided sections. Firstly, ‘theories’, which situates touch and tactility conceptually and historically. The other two sections are dedicated to ‘experiences’ and to looking at some scholarship of the simple bodily pleasures of the body in the social sciences, around walking and swimming.
Theories. Mediating and losing touch.
Touch is undeniably present, woven into our wider sensory tapestry, a continuous thread that helps constitute the thickness and reassurance of everyday embodied experience. Life without touch is almost unimaginable, and thankfully only occurs in rare neuropsychological cases. There are freakish case studies written by neurologists and psychologists such as Oliver Sacks, whose story “The Disembodied Lady” in The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat (1985) is a shocking reminder of the necessity of touch for everyday embodied existence. Similarly, the neurophysiologist Jonathan Coles, in his book Pride and a Daily Marathon (1995), tells the story of a man who loses his ‘inner’ sense of touch (known as “proprioception”), that is, how we feel our bodily position in space through felt muscular tension. Normally we know whether we are standing up, whether our arm or leg is raised, due to this inner touch of proprioception. But for Sacks‘ and Coles‘ patients that crucial sense was missing. Coles ”story involves a disease that attacks the central nervous system, and as such is extremely rare. Coles‘ patient had to relearn basic bodily movements such as sitting up, standing and walking. Normally we regulate our movements through this sense, but Coles’ patient was unable to. So his arms would move around without his control, and he had to concentrate really hard to be able to get a ‘grip’ on his bodily position in space and then perform basic activities. This was the ‘daily marathon’ of the book’s title, the sense that each day brought vast and sustained efforts of learning, control, regulation and huge bodily expenditure of energy simply in order to perform activities we take for granted. And it underlines the importance of this ‘inner’ touch for our everyday embodied experience. Indeed, while it has formed the basis for neuropsychological case studies, proprioception and other related bodily feelings, sensations and touch, are simply ignored or disregarded in the humanities or social sciences. Dancers, performers and a trickle of anthropologists who look at this area (such as Greg Downey’s work on Capoeira, 2005) are conversant with these experiences at least, but remain largely unaware of the neurophysiological and psychological literatures and terminology that deal with the same phenomena. So much for the ‘inner’ sense of touch, which remains obscure and mostly hidden. What of ‘outer’ touch, sensations of pressure on the skin? Surely this more common sense of touch and touching involves far more scholarship, since it is one of the recognized five senses, along with smell, taste, hearing, and sight? Touch, which comes first in this list of increasingly significant and sophisticated senses, in the view of Western cultural and philosophical history?
Seldom does touch become the main focus for an academic study, though, treated in its specificity. More often it is examined in conjunction with the other senses, or within more general contexts of embodiment. The paucity of such examinations is noteworthy, and examinations of touch when they do occur often do so tangentially, both metaphorically and literally, as tangere is Latin for “touching”. Through the philosophy of René Descartes, discussing in his 1637 essay “Optics” how a blind man navigates through the environment with a cane, as if “seeing with the hands” (1965:67). Even so, this is not about touch speci∫cally as the relationship between vision and touch, eyes and hands in a way that explores the possibilities of the new sciences of vision and the beginnings of a perceptual psychology of seeing. More recent theoretical writing on touch has started to engage with its specificity, such as the philosophy of Jean-Louis Chrétien (2004) or Jacques Derrida in his On Touching − Jean-Luc Nancy (2005), or within the cultural history and anthropology of Constance Classen (e.g. 1993; 2005). Some recent work has sought to reclaim and re-establish the specifically tactile component of embodied experience (e.g. Paterson 2006; 2007; 2009). But if touch is more typically treated as an adjunct to other senses, the relationship between touch and another sense (usually sight) is supposed to reveal great truths about sensory experience in general. Even considering touch by itself is problematic, however. Without wishing to answer the psychologically and physiologically thorny question “What is touch?”, since inevitably it begs further questions concerning what a ‘sense’ is, exactly, we note that touch works not as a single sense but as a broad sensory modality that utilises the combination of a number of receptors at the cutaneous (skin surface) and subcutaneous levels. Touch, from a psycho-physiological point of view, is therefore as much to do with temperature (thermoreceptors), pain (nociceptors) and position (proprioceptors) as with straightforward pressure (mechanoreceptors). We have been reminded of this relatively recently through the books on skin of Lupton (2002), Connor (2003) and Jablonski (2006).
We face uncertainties, then, in the case of touch. If touch is almost always present, why is it barely addressed in its specificity? And, if the data of touch originate from such distributed receptors, we further question whether touch is ever a single sense, or whether it is the felt coherence of a combination of various data unevenly distributed throughout the skin and flesh. One answer can be found by returning to the root formation of the hierarchy of the senses. It is Aristotle’s section on touch in his De Anima (1986) that edges us in a somewhat different direction. His argument goes like this: As sound is to hearing, and light is to sight, it is difficult to discern the “single underlying thing common to touch”, he says (422b). If the data of touch are multiple and distributed, as recent psychology and physiology assumes, then there is no one-to-one correspondence between a medium and a single sensory organ. Aristotle presciently argues that there is no obvious single organ to which it corresponds because, unlike sight (the eye) or hearing (the ear), touch is distinct. His reason is that flesh is the medium, rather than the organ, of touch. This is a neat explanation, one that usefully enshrines touch as a special case. Aristotle hits on something which, with current scientific knowledge, is as true of touch as it is of the other senses, namely that our sensory experience is always already mediated. Although seemingly obvious or commonsensical, this acknowledgement of the mediated nature of the senses goes somewhat against the grain of the assumptions of the immediacy of sensory experience, the way a “return to the senses” would indicate a return to something like the pure, raw data of unmediated experience, the senses ‘as such’ or extant. Of course, this can never happen. The psychophysiological definition of ‘touch’ and our common, shared tactile experiences are decidedly separate. In the light of this, it no longer seems premature to question the mediation and remediation of touch. The mediated aspect of touch is undeniably present, as Aristotle pointed out, but we do not notice this, it is usually transparent to consciousness. Whenever we deal with tactile phenomena we are not conscious of the particular referents of certain receptors in particular positions, of course. We touch something which happens to be in a particular position, at a particular temperature, and which has certain textural qualities. The sum total of the experience is characterisable and describable as ‘touch’, despite being the synthesis of a variety of different receptors distributed around the fleshy body, each providing a range of information concerning temperature, pressure, pain and texture, always already mediated through the organ that contains these receptors, the skin. Crucially, further mediation can occur when technologies extend this data, provide a tactile illusion or impression of texture. With tactile bodysuits, with force-feedback mice or joysticks, with enhancements to the human-computer interface, tactile or ‘haptic’ technologies are becoming more prevalent (see e.g. Paterson 2005). Therefore, touch is always, already mediated and, through an increasing number of technologies, is effectively becoming remediated. But somehow the import behind the quotidian nature of this observation escapes us. For if touch is by its very nature mediated, the notion of trying to understand what touch ‘is’, or the essence of touch, becomes unappealing and irrelevant. And if mediations of touch occur through other means ñare remediated through tactile technologies, smart fabrics that communicate in proximity, ∫ngertip devices that allow us to feel what we see on the screen, for example − then a whole range of experiences characterisable as ‘tactile’ need not answer any other question apart from those pertaining to the variety, depth and associations of touch. In other words, by meeting some examples of touch tangentially rather than directly, perhaps more is revealed about the natures of touch and tactility as a result.
Experiences. The pleasure of cinema.
From an alluring appearance or persuasive structure of sound the work of art of the Dadaists became an instrument of ballistics. It hit the spectator like a bullet, it happened to him, thus acquiring a tactile quality. It promoted a demand for the film, the distracting element of which is also primarily tactile, being based on changes of place and focus which periodically assail the spectator. (Benjamin 1999:231)
So far my notion of remediation as the extension and transformation through various technologies of the mediated experiences of touch is comprehensible but idiosyncratic. Readers might be aware of another, more conventional formulation of remediation which incidentally remains relevant here. Readers are probably familiar with Bolter and Grusin’s 1999 book Remediation: Understanding New Media. “Remediation”, explain Bolter and Grusin, is “the formal logic by which new media technologies refashion prior media forms” (1999:273). Each new medium refashions an older medium, so for example the laws of Renaissance perspective on the canvas are recreated in computer arts and virtual reality. Often this intertextuality between media conventions is transparent, and we glide between webpages, books and films for example without being drawn to the specificities of each particular medium. While perspective is clearly an optical example, the case of touch offers multiple, alternative remediations. To try to capture or evoke tactility through other means, through the skin or the screen, via a bodysuit or a textual redescription of embodied experience, all are remediations of touch and some occur in the examples or case studies of digital art and performance that follow. Quite apart from remediation, however, in some cases we become aware of the particularities of a medium, such as the form of interaction and immediacy in videogames, and this Bolter and Grusin term “hypermediacy”, something that “privileges fragmentation, indeterminacy, and heterogeneity and (...) emphasizes process or performance rather than the finished art object” (Mitchell, in Bolter and Grusin 2000:31). As will be seen in some of the other examples that follow, engagements with touch are sometimes remediations and sometimes hypermediations. Which is which will become clearer as I go on to describe each case study’s particular engagement with touch.
There are very different areas of expertise and notions of what ‘touch’ actually is. Whether touch is something encountered as a by-product of a multimedia experience, whether it is explicitly addressed in ethnographic terms, or whether engineering problems had to be encountered and solved in order that something could literally be ‘felt’, touch, its mediations, remediations and hypermediations are approached in different ways in the pieces. The Italian Futurist F.T. Marinetti wrote of “tactilism” as part of an artistic project celebrating the powers of texture and touch. At a time of innumerable manifestos, sweeping artistic statements and deeply questionable politics, something of the boundless enthusiasm for tactile experimentation comes through clearly and resonates. Despite originally writing in 1921, Marinetti’s concern that artists commonly subordinate tactile values to other visual values, and the need to expand the repertoire of tactile impressions, remains absolutely valid today. As Merleau-Ponty famously argues some twenty years later, Marinetti also boldly declares: “The distinction between the five senses is arbitrary” (2005:331), and in terms of a tactile aesthetics claims that the purpose of a celebration of tactility is “to achieve tactile harmonies” and to enhance communication through the skin. Marinetti stops short of a true manifesto for tactile art, although suggests some scales and categories of texture through which we can grade tactile experience. Tactilism lends itself easily to forms of art that explore material presence and space, especially sculpture and installations of course. But, with the tendencies for artistic boundaries to bleed and blur through various technologies, Marinetti’s exuberant call for a celebration of tactile values and harmonies can be seen echoing through some artistic examples. In particular, the stop-motion animation of Jan Svankmajer, or more generally the feeling of sound within cinematic experience both explore ways that tactility occurs through other means, yet directly as a function of technology. In these cases, touch is clearly being remediated through film, although the genres differ greatly.
Experiences. The pleasures of walking. Feeling through the feet.
Let us return to some of the simple pleasures, the simple and pleasurable act of walking. We can take a great many tangents from touch, of course, many areas that touch is impinging upon. Another tangent is from social science research, through touching ethnographies of walking, of being on the beach, of cycling, and many other seemingly mundane or quotidian examples. As a technique in social research that originally developed from anthropology, ethnography always mediates the experience of the social researcher, and always turns it into something else, or remediates it, usually into a text. Sometimes it is a film. There is a whole anthropology journal devoted to the photographic and the filmic, Visual Anthropology Review, for example. But increasingly anthropologists such as Paul Stoller and David Howes have started to take up some of the momentum from the previous decade’s interest in the body and embodiment in social theory, and is beginning to directly address sensory experience. As a result, conducting a “sensuous ethnography” produces its own problems of writing, presenting and representing the felt immediacy of bodily and sensory experience. And this is further hampered by the lack of words in European languages for those unusual visceral feelings that seem to be located ‘inside’, those sensations of kinaesthesia, proprioception and the vestibular sense of balance mentioned previously. In other words, the temptation in sensuous ethnography perhaps is to assume that respondents straightforwardly report what they feel. Another temptation, especially when it comes to blindness or visual impairment, is to make assumptions concerning the importance of touch, and so speak for other people. Yet we know that in cases of blindness and visual impairment, touch and the tactile body comes to the forefront of experience. This is what we expect, have heard, and is supported in the literature on blindness. But is it not refreshing to think about, research and write about the feeling of texture through the feet? Calling this ‘feet-focused thought’ or ‘thinking through the feet’, ascribing an ‘in the moment absorption’ to this process, whether we go for traditional walks in the countryside or more psychogeographical walks around the city? It is within this mode of walking and talking, of course, that touch figures most significantly in order to get a sense of the terrain through the feet, but this is always intersensorial.
Conducting anthropological fieldwork in Scotland’s mountains, Katrin Lund makes the immediate yet accurate claim that “touch, as one of the five senses, has so far been under examined in the ethnographic context”, and she seeks to rectify this by thinking how the sense of touch is involved with “how the body moves in different contexts” (2005:28). This is a literal ‘grounding’ (in the sense of contextualising but also of contact with the earth) of perception through the feet as a muscular consciousness. Lund identifies that ‘touch’ is not reducible to tactility or tactile sensation alone, and that immediate bodily experience combines other sensations distributed throughout the body, felt as muscular tensions, movements and balance, along with sensitivity to temperature and pain. All these sometimes uncomfortable tactile, muscular and balance sensations are indubitably present in a variety of embodied activities and contexts such as running, swimming or walking within urban or rural settings, as readers will recognise. These sensations I collectively term “somatic sensations” (Paterson 2007), under-explored bodily sensations that take place within what perceptual psychology terms the larger “haptic system”. As this essay unfolds, these and associated terms from a variety of disciplines are hopefully being clarified, further re∫ning what we mean by touch and the ‘haptic’ in general. Along with other work in this area, it is hopefully also starting to make clear what is distinctly haptic about our embodied spatial experience, and therefore produce knowledge: knowledge about touch, touching knowledge, haptic knowledge.
Although the word ‘haptic’ derives from the Greek haptesthai meaning “of, or pertaining to, touch” (Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Ed.), the kind of touch implied extends beyond straightforward skin contact, that is, cutaneous touch, as we have discussed. Confusion persists in the terminology as a result of the diversity of disciplinary approaches, so an opportunity for clarification presents itself here. Even cutaneous skin sensations are irreducible simply to pressure on the skin, as it includes returns from various receptors in the skin that deal with pressure (mechanoreceptors), temperature (thermoreceptors) and pain (nociceptors). Beyond immediate skin contact the term ‘haptic’ is therefore applied more extensively to include internally- felt bodily sensations. This has been formalised most comprehensibly by psychologists such as James J. Gibson as the “haptic system”. What other psychologists such as Sherrington in 1947 termed “interoception”, or what Boring et al. in 1948 termed “somesthesis”, refers to the set of inwardly-felt bodily sensations distinct, the ‘inner’ senses of touch. As such, the separation of ‘outer’ and ‘inner’ senses, and the recognition that ‘touch’ becomes more complex psychologically and physiologically, departs from the usual model of the five senses formulated by Aristotle in De Sensu et Sensibilibus (On the Senses and Sensibilities) and De Anima (On the Soul) onwards. Such sensations are difficult to resolve as distinct perceptions, evidenced by the fact that Western medicine, psychology and social science has only relatively recently acknowledged them within the lexicon and there remains little consensus on the terminology. Recent cross-cultural anthropology such as the work of Kathryn Linn Guerts and David Howes, certainly explores this area, as we have seen. But it is in the world of language, the analysis of linguistic constructions and everyday idiomatic expressions that reveals a clear and concrete awareness of these sensations in various pre-industrial cultures. Rather than conceiving of the senses as ‘inner’ or ‘outer’, that is, inwardlydirected or outwardly-directed in orientation, however, I prefer the collective term “somatic senses”. Somatic, meaning bodily, acknowledges the multiplicity and the interaction between different internally-felt and outwardlyoriented senses as felt in everyday embodied experience. The different somatic senses collectively help constitute the under-explored background feelings of embodiment, the self-perception of inner bodily states. The somatic senses generally work synergistically, informing and interacting with each other, whereby balance and movement and bodily orientation in space work together with skin to build up a larger bodily ‘touch’ that departs from mere skin sensation.
This broader use of ‘touch’ (or more technically the “haptic system” in James J. Gibson’s language) is crucially important for all those activities such as dance, performance, and sports where the body is messily involved with movement, interaction, the negotiation of proximity and distance, and so on. These are all pleasurable activities, activities that require bodily and technical skill yet which also provide great rewards for, in some cases, great physical effort and expenditure. But another aspect of experience that foregrounds this larger, deeper sense of ‘touch’ is in blind or visually impaired experience of space. The blind body is a more deeply tactile body of course. The heightened tactile sensation of swimming and walking can be a great stimulus, a form of tactile pleasure that cannot be equated exactly with the tactile experience of the sighted. A blind character in a play by Brian Friel explains this beautifully. In a world without the distraction of vision and light, the character Molly Sweeney for example expresses the merging of self and tactility, of sensuous envelopment. Reflecting on a time before her vision was restored by an operation, she remembers:
And how could I have told those other doctors how much pleasure my world offered me? From my work, from the radio, from walking, from music, from cycling. But especially from swimming. Oh I can’t tell you the joy I got from swimming. I used to think − and I know this sounds silly − but I really did believe I got more pleasure, more delight, than sighted people can ever get. Just offering yourself to the experience − every pore open and eager for that world of pure sensation, of sensation alone − that could not have been enhanced by sight − experience that existed only by touch and feel; and moving swiftly and rhythmically through that enfolding world; and the sense of such assurance, such liberation, such concordance with it ... (Friel 1994:24)
Not just touch, but acoustics are important to the blind body in space. The use of echolocation (so-called “facial vision”, as Hull 1991 and others refer to it) is a particularly embodied way of encountering space, converting the altered acoustics into a sense of cutaneous pressure, especially on the face. Many academics and disability workers may admonish those who try to essentialise ‘blind’ experience or generalize about the sensory worlds of the visually impaired, reminding us that we cannot take individual statements by respondents concerning tactile experience too literally. Autobiographies written by blind authors, or by writers in the process of going blind, undeniably articulate differing sensory worlds however, and thereby indicate a variety of bodily constitutions of knowledge (for more on this, see my forthcoming book Seeing with the Hands: A Philosophical History of Blindness, 2009). If such differing sensory worlds are created, then they are also articulated differently. Discussion of what blind people say when they ‘walk and talk’ with an academic is particularly interesting, itself a form of remediating and representing to the reader something of those worlds of the blind respondent, yet being mindful of the varieties of such worlds and the different significances of hands, feet and movement. Like the sighted, the blind and visually impaired are already experiencing mediated touch, since the body is that primary site of engagement with the roughness of the ground and the fragrance of the air. But it is certainly the case that, reflecting upon such embodied experience and subsequently attempting to articulate it, that this is another form of representation and a way of remediating sensory experience through the body to a vocal, then textual, articulation of this experience.
Through walking, talking, experiencing the landscape through that felt texture and continuity with the earth, it is felt through the feet and the skin, and a set of inner bodily experiences that is also ‘touch’ or at least ‘tactile’.