The Forgotten Sense gives touch its due, addressing it in multifarious ways through a series of six essays. Literary in feel, ambitious in conception, admirable in their range of reference and insight, these meditations address questions fundamental to the understanding of touch: What do we mean when we say that an artwork touches us? How does language affect our understanding of touch? Is the skin the deepest part of the human body? Can we philosophize about a kiss? To aid him in answering these questions, Pablo Maurette recruits an impressive roster of cultural figures from throughout history: Homer, Lucretius, Chrétien de Troyes, Melville, Sir Thomas Browne, Knausgaard, Michel Henry and many others help him unfurl the underestimated importance of the sense of touch and tactile experience.
The resulting book is essay writing at its best—exploratory, surprising, dazzling, a reading experience like no other. You will come away from it with a new appreciation of touch, and a new way of understanding our interactions with the world around us.
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A Squeeze of the Hand
The man has no eyes. He arrives at the brothel, and upon being presented with the selection of choices he proceeds to feel his way around them. He touches their limbs and strokes their skin, brushes their hips, grabs, pokes, and decides which one is the softest, the whitest, the most beautiful. By touch he discerns, touching he assesses. Eventually, he picks one; his docta libido has endowed him with many eyes, why would he want two more? Luxorius, the forgotten Latin poet, poses this question in one of his epigrams. In another poem, he praises a famous gladiator of his time, whose dexterity with the spear and the sword was such that, in a celebratory portrait, the artist had depicted him with eyes on the palms of his hands. One might think that these two scenes reflect the poet's agreement with the traditional view according to which sight is the most precious and trustworthy among the senses. The blind man has more than two eyes, the gladiator sees with his hands. However, when Luxorius uses eye imagery, he almost seems to be contesting, even parodying, the even then already long-standing belief in the preeminence of sight. The blind man's tactile perception, certainly hyperdeveloped to compensate for the visual handicap, endows him with a sensibility that is richer, more nuanced, and more complex than that of someone who sees with merely two eyes. The gladiator's infallible technique resides in his hands, in his movements, in his posture and balance. Rather than celebrating eyes, the poet is stressing the limitations of the visual.
Luxorius lived in Carthage in the fourth century AD, when the city was part of the Vandal empire. His work — lost for over a millennium — recreates with striking vivacity this extraordinary world saddled between antiquity and the Middle Ages. A journey through his ninety-one extant epigrams is a fascinating promenade down the streets of Vandal Carthage, a city that Luxorius portrays with realism, humor, and compassion. Characters like Lucius, the obese falconer, Zenobius, the bad poet, Syracus, the gambler, Gattula, the clumsy ballerina, and Marina, the unfaithful wife, materialize and come back to life in his verses. The men and women, the statues, the frescoes, the houses of that Carthage inexorably lost in time, rebel against the forces of oblivion and resist in all their tangible reality. Luxorius stands out for his ability to recreate the very textures that make the fabric of everyday life. But this is not what makes him a rarity. After all, his poetry is part of a long tradition that goes back all the way to ancient comedy and is continued in classical Latin poets like Catullus, Ovid, and Martial. If I bring up Luxorius here it is because of his curious habit to reflect upon the relationship between the senses, and because of his appreciation of the importance, complexity, and self-sufficiency of touch.
Let's return to epigram 71:
In need of some light, losing His way, the blind, uncertain Lover with the widowed face gently Touches and strokes the skin And examines the limbs Of the women, to judge, for himself,
The tactile sensibility of this blind whoremonger reveals a number of things. First, sight has been overappreciated. In the beginning we are told that he is "in need of" (egenus) light and that his face is "widowed," or "void" (viduae frontis), which presumably means that his eyes have been gouged out; but this simply describes his lack of sight. Soon we will find out that this man not only does not need it but, were it up to him, he would rather remain blind. And the reason for this is that, second, touch is not one sense, but many. It enables the perception of textures, temperatures, silhouettes, forms, and even colors, thus allowing the blind man to composite a mental perception of tactile nature that helps him consolidate the type of aesthetic judgment needed to make a rational decision. But the most striking suggestion here is that this array of faculties that compose the sense of touch, and that assist the blind man as he decides who his companion will be, has its origins in a "skillful lust" (docta libido). Libido in Latin, as well as in English, refers specifically to sexual desire, but also to will and yearning in general. It is a term that brings together the spheres of affect and volition. In fact, the blind man's libido is not ignited when he begins stroking and feeling bodies. The man arrives to the brothel moved by this lust that — one might presume — took possession of him suddenly and unexpectedly, as often happens with desire. Furthermore this libido is a docta libido — an astute, expert, trained, skillful kind of lust. But isn't this an absurdity? Isn't lust by nature irrational, flighty, unhinged? Not in this case. This kind of libido is all too familiar to the blind man; he has experienced it before. This libido is of a restrained kind, the man knows how to steer it and where to direct it. It is a docta libido, a learned lust. Just like touch can be trained and refined until it becomes a sense so subtle and comprehensive that it supplants sight, so too can lust be educated. Through his portrait of the blind man at the brothel, Luxorius suggests that behind, or underneath, touch understood as mere physical contact, there is something more primordial that functions as a principle of movement, an affective engine that can be operated in manners that vary in their degree of rationality, with more or less skill.
Since "touch" is mainly associated with physical contact on a superficial, epidermal level and, in particular, with the sense whose organ is the skin, the word proves insufficient when it comes to affect, the sensation of one's own body, as well as in reference to other faculties alluded to in Luxorius's epigram. And in spite of the fact that language itself, understood as the millenary sediment of fossilized metaphors and forgotten meanings, reveals the astonishing polysemy of the word "touch," this conceptual deficiency is crippling. The word "touch" comes into English through the Old French verb tochier, from the Latin tactus, participle of the verb tangere, and it has the longest entry in the Oxford English Dictionary. From very early on, apart from its literal significance, it meant "to pertain to," a type of contact without actual contact, a connection based on affinity. So too, when a word, a melody, a gesture, an image "touches" us, we are referring to some form of contact without actual contact. Another even more interesting metaphorical sense of the word is that inherent in the notion of "tact." To act with tact is to be skilled in successfully having a certain influence on and in directing the emotions of others. To act with tact is to know how to manipulate affect; it is a form of touch that dispenses with physical contact. Eloquent and rich though these senses of the word and its derivations may be, they are still metaphorical. And although a large number of terms in any given tongue are archaic metaphors, whose literal meaning has been forgotten in the course of the many and constant semantic mutations that languages go through as they evolve, in some, as in "tact," or in "touch" understood as affect, the metaphoric element is still prominent and dominating. In order to explore the range of varieties of the tactile phenomenon, it is preferable to employ another concept, that of the haptic, whose relative novelty ensures a level of literality that helps to avoid misunderstandings and ambiguities. Thanks to the strangeness that its newness and artificiality arouse, this concept creates the distancing needed to ponder something as familiar and immediate as the question of touch from a different angle. The notion of the haptic possesses three great advantages: first, it is unfamiliar and contrived enough to create estrangement and demand attention. Secondly, its relative novelty guarantees (for now) a certain degree of stability and impermeability vis-à-vis the inexorable semantic mutations that characterize the history of every word. Finally, it is an elastic enough concept that, in the course of its short history, has expanded rather than shrunken its umbrella of meanings. The notion of the haptic includes touch understood in its literal and metaphorical sense and cannot be but thought alongside the tactile, but its artificiality, its impermeability, and its elasticity make of it an invaluable navigational instrument for whomever sets out to explore the ocean of tactility, of which skin is only the surface.
This tendency to nuance and expand the notion of "touch" is not unique to our era of distraction and multimedia. The development of virtual reality, experiments in teletactility, three-dimensional images and printing, haptic interfaces, and other such twenty-first-century extravagances are the expression of intellectual and aesthetic concerns as old as human beings themselves. The visual arts have always looked for tricks to imitate depth and three-dimensionality. From late Roman bas-relief sculpture to Anish Kapoor's monumental structures and installations, from Zeuxis's grapes to the (re)discovery of linear perspective in the fifteenth century and to the invention of film and holography in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, these are all examples of how plastic arts respond to the same demiurgic impulse — the impulse that moved Pygmalion and Victor Frankenstein — by which we strive to create artificial representations of life that are as realistic and tangible as possible. In the last couple of decades, the development of technology that reproduces tactile sensation has skyrocketed in the form of ever more sophisticated and subtle touchscreens and tactile interfaces, computer games and watches that allow us to share our heartbeats with others, sex toys that work remotely, forms of media that allow for teletactility, and even prosthetic limbs that restore sensation. So too, we have seen the increasing engagement of art with senses other than sight, and especially touch in growing numbers of artistic exhibits that propose a tactile involvement with the visitor, be it by touching the works of art themselves or by entering them and experiencing their space and atmosphere. Needless to say, scholars and intellectuals have echoed this haptic enthusiasm. From fields as far apart as art history and medicine, philosophy and history of science, anthropology, psychology, cognitive theory, and others, more and more research has been mounting on the topic of the senses in general, but, more specifically, on the topic of the senses that were historically neglected, like touch and smell. It is in this context that the notion of the haptic proves to be a fruitful theoretical framework from which to consider the sense of touch in innovative ways, while still accounting for its multifarious nature.
In 2005, historian Robert Jütte announced that the twenty-first century marked the beginning of a "haptic age." Over a decade has passed since the bombastic announcement and the interest around the haptic has not given any signs of declining. The term "haptic" comes from the Greek verb haptomai, which means to "come into contact with," "to touch," "to grab." The deponent character of the verb (active in meaning, but bearing the form of a verb in passive or middle voice) reflects one of the most fundamental features of the haptic: its simultaneity. To touch is to be touched. To feel something is also to feel oneself. The notion of the haptic results from a growing suspicion among intellectuals that touch is exceptional among the senses. Its reluctance to schematization, its fleeting and versatile nature, and its peculiar relation with the other senses were the first aspects that drew the attention of those who pioneered the positions that would eventually lead to the coining of the term "haptic." In his Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision (1709), George Berkeley elaborates on an intuition that Descartes before him had introduced in his own work on optics: touch and sight collaborate. According to this idea, which one can actually already find in classical and medieval works on vision, the senses are not independent and discrete faculties, they converge, they overlap, they assist, and they compete with one another. A few decades after Berkeley, Johann Herder, in his treatise on sculpture (Plastik, 1778), went deeper into the notion of the complexity of the tactile experience and placed the focus of his aesthetic theory on the relationship between sight and touch. Finally, toward the beginning of the twentieth century, art historian Aloïs Riegl introduced the term "haptic." After a long career as curator of textiles at the Imperial Royal Austrian Museum of Art and Industry, Riegl developed a theory of aesthetics that conjugates formalism and historicism based on the observation of textures and surfaces to detect stylistic patterns across cultures through different historical periods. According to Riegl, the haptic is related to two characteristics of the work of art and the cultural context in which it is produced: the conception of space and the distance that must be kept between the spectator and the artifact. The more disconnected from its surrounding space an artifact is, the more haptic-sensitive the culture that produced it proves to be. By blurring the connections with and reducing the importance of the spatial context, attention is directed solely to the object itself in its unique texture and design pattern. In order to access the aesthetic universe of such artifacts, the spectator must approach them, bracketing as they do so the surrounding space. Riegl also talks about "haptic devices," such as overlapping and foreshortening, that by appealing to a type of sight from up close that caters to tactility "create the sense of spatial recession." On the other hand, when the artist strives to create a spatial coherence within the work, and situates the different elements as organic parts of a whole, the distance required to understand the work increases. This tendency Riegl ascribes to what he calls optic cultures. In the triumph of linear perspective and other techniques of trompe-l'oeil, as well as in the tendency toward abstraction, Riegl finds confirmation of the preference for optic vision in Western art. Some of Riegl's contemporaries, art historians like Wilhelm Worringer and Bernard Berenson, also explored the notion of a tactile vision in their studies of painting and sculpture, the latter focusing on the Italian Renaissance, but after them this approach and even the term "haptic" are mostly relegated to oblivion. In the second half of the twentieth century, Gilles Deleuze goes back to Riegl and borrows the notion of the haptic to analyze film and modern painting. Deleuze believed that the greatest advantage of the term resided in its ability to overcome the dichotomy sight-touch. Some of Robert Bresson's films and some works by Francis Bacon construct, says Deleuze, a space in which only haptic vision can orient us — one that demands from us a type of seeing that is like touching. In A Thousand Plateaus (1980), Deleuze and Guattari also borrow Riegl's notion of the haptic as they introduce the distinction between the smooth and the striated, two concepts that account for close and distant vision. Paradoxically, Deleuze overcomes the duality sight-touch by introducing a new duality: optic and haptic vision; and the haptic engenders a new form of duality (rizomatic, but dual nonetheless): smooth-striated.
The notion of the haptic was introduced to account for a certain type of synesthesia between the senses of sight and touch by means of which we are able to anticipate the texture of things without having to touch them. We do this thanks to a repository of data that we collect from very early on in our lives. We don't need to touch sandpaper to know how rough it feels, or velvet to know how soft and smooth it is. We know these things thanks to our haptic memory. In the past decade, however, the notion of the haptic has expanded to include other forms of sensitivity that transcend the sphere of epidermal contact (exteroception), as well as the space where the negotiations between sight and touch take place. Intraception (the perception of the interior of the body), proprioception (the perception of the different parts of the body in spatial relation to one another), and kinesthesia (the perception of the movement of the body) are also considered haptic faculties. It is hard to deny that swallowing and vomiting, chewing, eating, defecating and excreting in general, and sensations such as a stomach cramp, a pang of headache, the beating of the heart (any form of internal pain and pleasure in general, for that matter) manifest themselves in tactile ways. And, elusive, ungraspable even, though the feelings of balance, bodily orientation, movement, acceleration, and deceleration of the body are, they too produce a type of sensorial feedback that one can associate with the tactile, rather than with any other of the senses. Ultimately, all these forms of bodily perception are associated with the sense of touch and fall under the notion of the haptic because their nature is, first and foremost, affective.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Forgotten Sense"
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Table of ContentsPreface
A Squeeze of the Hand
Torn to Pieces
Elements of Philematology
The French Connection