Touch: Recovering Our Most Vital Sense is a recently published work by Irish philosopher and public intellectual Richard Kearney. The book is the third in the ‘No Limits’ series published by Columbia University Press.
The blurb and introduction promise a timely meditation on the importance of touch in an age of virtuality. The book, we are told, asks how we are to reconcile the physical with the virtual, our embodied experience with our global connectivity. Unfortunately, however, it contributes little towards answering these questions, spending most of its few pages mulling over the history of philosophy and Western medicine; lingering around the goalposts without registering a direct hit.
This is disappointing because Kearney has his finger on the pulse of a real undercurrent of dissatisfaction with our mainstream cultural model. Many of us believe that something has gone wrong, so we turn to our writers, artists and public intellectuals to identify the root cause. Is capitalism to blame? The invention of print? The discovery of fire?
Kearney considers a neglect of touch as a key feature of our cultural predicament. It all began with the Greeks – he suggests – exemplified by Plato’s valorisation of the spiritually pure sense of sight over our beastly sense of touch. Now, we see the unhappy conclusion of such an idea; a culture founded around the image, where life is increasingly lived virtually at the expense of our physical existences.
This mass sense of disembodiment, caused by engagement with digital technology, Kearney calls excarnation, a term loaded with esoteric theological significance. This aspect to our culture was brought into stark relief during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Thus, most workers and students began working virtually from their own home, as nationwide quarantines were enforced, and social distancing was put in place in supermarkets, restaurants, and other public places. We realised that this was, in a way, the logical next step to the virtualisation of education and work. We just needed one catastrophe to put it in place.
‘A civilization that loses touch with flesh’, writes Kearney, ‘loses touch with itself.’ (p. 47). This is a worthy premise to a book, and from this beginning, one can imagine an author moving towards a rich discussion of the effects of ‘excarnation’ on such matters as sex, violence, sport, the prevalence of body dysmorphia, self-harm etc. in our contemporary culture.
The topic of ‘touch’ is indeed broad, but contemporary writers and cultural critics have gained good mileage with similarly broad topics in the past. An example is Maggie Nelson’s book The Art of Cruelty (2011), which takes the broad theme of cruelty as a foundation to a wide-ranging discussion on everything from avant-garde performance art, to the tropes of advertising, to the coverage of U.S. war crimes during the so-called ‘War on Terror’.
This book, however, fails to deliver on its ambitious premise. Instead of diving into an analysis of contemporary culture, it stalls before it starts with two lengthy chapters introducing a glossary of terms, distinctions and concepts that are seldom used later in the book.
Kearney meanders through etymologies and distinctions, drawing neat moral messages from vague, linguistically questionable associations. The root cause of this may be the unnecessary broadening of an already vague theme. Thus, he writes:
As I hope I clear by now, when we speak of touch we are not just referring to one of the five senses … we are talking about touch in a more inclusive way, as an embodied manner of being in the world, an existential approach to things that is open and vulnerable, as when skin touches and is touched. (pp.15-16)
This is a little too sweet to swallow. Even if we accept the Heideggerian mysticality of this passage, it’s obvious that Kearney is widening his subject matter out of manageable proportion.
Given the current threat of extinction as a species, Peter O'Neill argues for exploration of Heidegger's vital philosophy beyond a reprehensible Nazi dalliance.https://t.co/vy3OdiLV2e@broadsheet_ie @BowesChay @EdwardClarke20 @danieleidiniph1 @wadeinthewate11 @think_or_swim
— CassandraVoices (@VoicesCassandra) August 30, 2021
Indeed, he draws strongly on Heidegger in his concern with words and their hidden meanings. At times, this can be surprising and intriguing, but at other times, the connections seem banal. He argues:
But tact is not the same as contact. Being tactful with someone does not always imply immediate physical proximity. One can be tactful, for instance, by practicing discretion in particular circumstances, as one negotiates the right space between oneself and others. (p. 10)
A baby-steps approach would be justifiable on philosophical grounds if Kearney wasn’t taking flights of fancy elsewhere. At one point, he speaks of the handshake as being the ‘origin of community’(p. 42) without adequately explaining how.
Indeed, in many cultures bowing or other non-contact gestures are the norm. We turn to the endnotes to find an essay that ‘analyses the first wager of hand-to-hand encounter between Diomedes and Glaucus in Homer’s Iliad and Abraham’s greeting of the strangers at Mamre.’ These literary scenes are certainly interesting, and may indeed point to episodes passed down through folk memory, but to suggest that they represent a historically verifiable moment in human history is unsatisfactory.
The first chapter is structured around the questionably useful coining of new terms to describe sight, taste, smell and sound being used ‘tactfully’. ‘A person with tactful taste is savvy.’(p. 17), Kearney writes, a person with a good nose has ‘flair’(p. 21), and so on. But when we talk about the ‘tactfulness’ of touch we don’t really mean the sense of touch; remember we mean the metaphorical way of being in the world that touch acts as an analogy for.
It’s odd to focus on the specifics of each sense when we’ve already established that we aren’t taking the theme of touch literally. In any case, is it still believed that there are only five senses? Isn’t it the case that there are many others beyond those traditional five?
At this point in my reading, the unanswered questions become overwhelming, and I decided to stop thinking too hard about them. Instead, I focused on the texture of Kearney’s style, clearly influenced by Continental Philosophy. There is a lot of jargon, which is at times hard to follow. On the flipside, it is quite playful, making use of a number of touch-based puns and idioms. There is also a tendency towards moralistic aphorisms, and using words poetically. The following sentences give a flavour:
Without the transversality of touch, sensibility risks sensationalism: sense without sensitivity, perception without empathy, stimulation without responsibility. (p. 16)
Savvy is a carnal know-how. (p. 18)
For if ontogeny repeats phylogeny, it also repeats cosmogony. (p. 20)
Hearing is tactful when it resonates with what resounds. (p. 27)
In response to this, however, I am moved to quote Wittgenstein: ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.’
It is popularly acknowledged that we live in a ’visual culture’, and Kearney sees this ‘optocentrism’ as the source of our woes. In his own words, ‘Optical omnipresence trumps tactile contact. Cyber connection and human isolation go hand in glove.(p. 5)’
But Kearney never specifies exactly what a visual culture is, or what it means to live in one. What does the shortening of our attention spans, our growing inability to read longer texts, or the increasing popularity of podcasts and audiobooks actually mean in a ‘visual culture’? Do these elements suggest a deterioration in our visual faculties? Kearney doesn’t linger on these questions. In his eagerness to champion touch, he fails to determine exactly what it is he is fighting against.
The second chapter of Touch is even murkier than the first. Kearney embarks on a historical tour of different philosophical considerations of touch, but only discusses two philosophers at any length: Aristotle, and Edmund Husserl. This leaves a gap of some two thousand years in between. Was there nothing to say about the Christian philosophers and touch, or about Descartes’s suspicion that his physical sensations could be a mere dream?
As someone untrained in philosophy, I found the explanations of Aristotle’s thought particularly difficult to follow. I couldn’t tell where Aristotle’s opinions ended and Kearney’s began, especially since Kearney quotes Aristotle using terms like “tact”, which Kearney had given idiosyncratic definitions for in the previous chapter. Are we to take it that Aristotle aligned with Kearney’s usage of the word?
At one point, Kearney remarks that Aristotle saw touch as the most foundational sense, since all the other senses rely on it. Food must touch the tongue to be tasted, soundwaves must ‘touch’ the eardrum, and ‘light strikes the iris’(p. 43). But was Aristotle aware that photons were material objects? And are photons actually material objects, if they have no mass, and can act like waves?
When you start considering this subject at a quantum level, everyday notions of touch break down. After all, when I ’touch’ a table, at a molecular level none of the atoms in my finger are touching the atoms in the table, and I am only feeling the electromagnetic resistance of the table’s atoms.
Likewise, none of the atoms in my body are ’touching’ each other, but are held in a bond through their orbitals. So, in what sense can you say that light ’touches’ the eye, or sound ’touches’ the ear?
No Central Thrust
Even if you accept all the concepts, definitions and distinctions found in the philosophical survey, your work won’t be rewarded because Kearney barely mentions them again. Instead, the text turns to medicine. In chapter three, he talks about literary/folkloric/mythological figures like Odysseus and Oedipus who embody a ’wounded healer’ archetype. Then, in chapter four he talks about the importance of physical touch in modern medicine, particularly in psychotherapy.
At this point, to my mind at least, it became clear that there was no central thrust to this book, and my attempt to follow his train of thought would go unrewarded. Instead, I found a collection of loosely connected rambles through Kearney’s reading, with no development between the chapters.
The final chapter on popular culture (social media, video games, movies) finally gave me what I had been hoping for – a discussion of touch in contemporary culture – but is, sadly, the least satisfactory of the lot. Kearney is clearly unfamiliar with the details or nuances of internet culture, consistently misusing terms. At one point, he refers to the leaking of Hillary Clinton’s emails as ’revenge porn’ (p. 119), a blunder that reveals a deep unfamiliarity with the expression he is using.
At another, he disparages the state of internet discourse as infuriatingly simple compared to the Golden Age of communication that existed back in an Edenic past: ’communication is becoming daily more simplified by social media tweets, memes, acronyms, and hash tags – ’What’s up’ being replaced by WhatsApp.’
Putting aside the cringeworthy final sentence, is it really self-evident that internet communication is more ’simplified’ than print or verbal speech? Couldn’t you argue the opposite – that the increasingly ironic, self-referential, meme-ified soup of internet discourse is actually maddeningly Baroque?
Avoiding odious comparison, you could speak of internet discourse not as better or worse, simpler or more complex than speech, but just as a new modality which is still in the process of growth, of finding its feet and testing its limits.
There are plenty of scholars analysing internet culture now. It may seem absurd to study memes, but when you consider their effect on politics, it appears intellectually reckless to dismiss them as simplistic, and unworthy of analysis.
The ignorance latent in Kearney’s cultural analysis hits a peak in his discussion of video games, such as Grand Theft Auto V (2013), which he calls ’controversial’. When describing it he first gives an inaccurate description of its contents, speaking of how players can ‘build or destroy cities’ (Is he thinking of SimCity (1989), perhaps?) and ’seduce strippers’ (according to my research on the GTA forum, you can only purchase lap dances from the strippers in the game).
He gives an inaccurate account of what it feels like to play a game he surely hasn’t played. It’s ’vicarious’ he says. With ’a click of a button, one exits the world of tangible reality and enters a computer-generated universe’. If only GTA V gave one the escape from tangible reality Kearney imagines. Alas, however, technology can only progress so fast.
After painting this Black Mirror-esque picture of the reality-warping power of the computer game, Kearney exhorts the lost souls of gamers that ‘it is but a simulacrum’, and warns against ’the risk of losing touch’. The only one out of touch here is Kearney himself.
Apart from GTA V, Kearney lists a number of examples from modern media that deal with the sense of isolation and alienation engendered by digital media, referencing such titles as ‘Her’ (Spike Jonze, 2013), ‘The Truman Show’ (Peter Weir, 1998) and ‘Black Mirror’ (Charlie Brooker, 2011 – present). But all these works communicate much more nuanced and rich critiques of contemporary culture than Kearney is able to muster in this text.
There are insights and interesting titbits scattered throughout the book, but on the whole it is lacking in a sense of progression, with little development from chapter to chapter, and a cumbersome amount of time is spent advancing distinctions and definitions that are never called into use.
Columbia University Press claims that the No Limits series ‘brings together creative thinkers who delight in the pleasure of intellectual hunting, wherever the hunt may take them and whatever critical boundaries they have to trample as they go.’ With Touch, we see the weaknesses of this interdisciplinary approach, as the book’s lack of precision and relative naivete provides unsatisfactory responses to important questions in contemporary culture.
Featured Image: A Missouri National Guardsman looks into a VR training head-mounted display at Fort Leonard Wood in 2015