We live in digital culture that elevates sight and downgrades touch. This cultural bias has deep philosophical roots that go all the way to Plato. Aristotle disagreed, pronouncing touch the most universal and intelligent of the senses, but ultimately lost the argument. There is no going back from our digital culture but by making space in our life for offline activities, and developments in haptotechnology, we can hope to bridge the gap between virtual and embodied experience, writes Richard Kearney.
Her, the sci-fi movie by Spike Jonze, a man falls madly in love with his Operating System. So madly that he can think of nothing else and becomes insanely jealous when he discovers that she (called OS) is also flirting with a few hundred other subscribers. Eventually OS feels so badly for him that she decides to supplement her digital persona with a real body by sending a surrogate lover in her name. But the love scene fails miserably because while the man touches the embodied lover, he hears the virtual signals of OS in his ears and cannot reconcile the two. The split between digital absence and tactile presence is too much to bear. The man loses touch with himself as an incarnate person and can only relate to the virtual chimera. He freezes up.
Welcome to the age of excarnation and the postmodern paradoxes that attend it. With the proliferation of internet sex via chat rooms, Instagram, and advanced simulation technologies, we are witnessing a shift in our relation to the body. As we pass through the touchscreen, we replace tangible persons with intangible personae—surrogates who sate our fantasies, Alexa and other avatars who do our bid- ding, GPS voices who tell us where to go, Amazon shop- ping hosts who execute our commands. No need to move to get what we want. Indeed, is it not ironic, in a culture addicted to body images, that we seem to have gotten so out of touch with touch itself—the mirrored work-out rooms, the self-peeps, the looking each other over in virtual posts, cropped photos, and edited profiles, all circling in a cyber- world of simulations?
With the proliferation of internet sex via chat rooms, Instagram, and advanced simulation technologies, we are witnessing a shift in our relation to the body.
I shared with my students Plato’s tale of Gyges’ ring, which gave the wearer the power of invisibility—to see others without being seen. And this led us to consider whether the gains of today’s digital revolution—which we all agreed are huge—might not be accompanied by a real risk: namely, losing touch with ourselves and each other. We concluded by wondering if the “Platonic” heritage of optocentrism, prevalent for two thousand years, was not culminating in today’s culture of “spectacularity”—a digital theatre where the eye rules supreme. Was today’s virtual dater not at risk of becoming a reiteration of Gyges, viewing everything at a distance with- out actually touching or being touched by anything? Were we not entering a “Civilization of the Image” where the world is a screen, out of touch with the real?
The Platonic origins of our sight-centred culture
A first philosophy of touch was sketched by Aristotle at the outset of Greek thought. He deemed tactility to be the most pervasive and intelligent of the senses. But his claim was largely side-lined for two thousand years. Platonism judged sight to be superior to touch since it was considered closer to reason, rising upward to supersensible ideas rather than descending, with touch, to dark feelings of flesh. Plato declared that “man is the spectator of all existence,” citing the etymology of anthropos as “upward gazer”: “The word anthropos implies that man not only sees but looks up at that which he sees, and hence he alone of all animals is rightly called anthropos because he looks up at (anthropei) what he has seen.” For Plato the eye is sovereign. The tactile body is a beast of burden and contagion to be kept in place. The pure and impure must live apart: “While we live we shall be closest to knowledge if we refrain as much as possible from association with the body . . . and by our efforts we shall know all that is pure, which is presumably the truth, for it is not permitted to the impure to touch the pure.”
Platonism judged sight to be superior to touch since it was considered closer to reason, rising upward to supersensible ideas rather than descending, with touch, to dark feelings of flesh.
The outcome of this battle of ideas was to characterize Western philosophy as optocentric—sight-centred — relegating the other senses, and especially touch, to the lower realms of perception. We would have to wait until the twentieth century for existential phenomenology to rehabilitate the original Aristotelian discovery of touch, returning our sensibility “to the things themselves.” The most primordial things (phenomena) would now, once again, be relocated in our embodied lived experience—our sensations, moods, and emotions prior to intellectual cognition.
Phenomenology recognizes truth as already present in our life-world. But this recognition depends on us coming to our senses: learning to suspend ingrained prejudices and retrieve our primary carnal experience—what our every- day tact, savvy, and flair tell us all the time. If only we dare to know what we already know. In contemporary phenomenology we find a revolutionary effort to redeem Aristotle’s inaugural insight, challenging the optocentric paradigm and restoring touch to its rightful place.
Aristotle, the philosopher of touch
In the first great work of human psychology, the De Anima, Aristotle declared touch to be the most universal of the senses. Even when we are asleep, he noted, we are susceptible to changes in temperature and noise, pressure and movement. Our bodies are always “on.” All living beings possess touch and every sense implies tactility of some kind: light strikes the iris, sound the tympanum, odour the nose buds, taste the tongue. The entire human body is tangible qua skin (only hair and nails feel no touch).
Touch is also the most intelligent sense, says Aristotle, because it is the most sensitive. When we touch something, we respond to what is touched. We are responsive to others in their distinctiveness precisely because we are in touch with them. “Touch knows differences,” thus serving as our basic power to discriminate between diverse kinds of persons and things. Intelligence begins with the vulnerability of skin. The thin-skinned person is sensitive and perceptive, observes Aristotle, while the thick-skinned is coarse and ignorant. Our first intelligence is epidermal. And this primal sensibility is also what places us at risk in the world, exposing us to adventure, suffering, and wonder.