Recovering touch in a digital world

Getting back in touch

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.

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In saying all this, Aristotle was challenging the dominant prejudice of his time. The Platonic doctrine of the Academy, as noted, held that sight was the highest sense because it was deemed the most distant and mediated; and hence the most theoretical, holding things at bay, mastering experience from above. Touch, by contrast, was judged the lowest sense because it was ostensibly immediate and thus subject to pressures from the material world. Against this, Aristole made the radical counterclaim that touch does indeed have a medium, namely “flesh(sarx). For flesh is not just a material organ but a complex mediating membrane that negotiates our primary evaluations of things. Tactility is not blind immediacy, as Platonism professed. Our first wisdom comes through touch—mediated by flesh—where our sensing is already a reading of the world, interpreting things as this or that, constantly registering differences and distinctions. Tactful sensation makes us human by responding to singularities here and now.

But Aristotle did not win the battle of ideas. The Platonic vision prevailed, and Western culture became a system governed by “the soul’s eye.” Sight came to dominate the hierarchy of the senses and was esteemed the chosen ally of theoretical knowledge. (In Greek theoria means to see, hence the visual spectacle of “theater.”) Western philosophy thus sprang from a dichotomy between the “intellectual” sense of vision and the “animal” sense of touch. And Christian theology —though supposedly heralding a message of Incarnation (“Word made flesh”)—all too often endorsed this injurious Platonic dualism, prompting Nietzsche to decry Christianity as “Platonism for the people”: a doctrine that “gave eros poison to drink.”

It seems the eye continues to rule to this day in what Roland Barthes calls our “Civilization of the Image.” The world is no longer our oyster but our screen. Spectacle has swallowed the senses.


Reclaiming touch in the age excarnation

My ultimate question is this: can digital culture, critically deployed, address the question of “touch” for new generations? Can certain forms of digital pedagogy serve as creative alternatives and antidotes to our simulation crisis by engaging directly with our contemporary media of communication? Like the hair of the dog—might the best response to digital abuse be digital reuse? Namely, digital technology putting itself in question and reopening spaces where we might invent new ways to reinhabit our world— what we might call “ana-technology” (from the Greek ana, meaning up, again, anew in time and space).

My ultimate question is this: can digital culture, critically deployed, address the question of “touch” for new generations?

These concerns inform the thinking of recent digital literacy campaigns and groups like Digital Action for Democracy—which invigilate our cyber culture and keep it honest—as well as pioneering efforts to devise new com- pacts between the virtual and the lived. I am thinking especially of cutting-edge projects with digital storytelling and VR technology at the MIT Open Doc Lab and Public VR Lab in Boston. The latter, for instance, hosts a participatory storytelling project, “Arrival VR,” where participants are invited to enter virtual worlds in which they empathize with immigrants and interact in common collaborative spaces— galleries, town halls, museums, studios, and community centres—exploring encounters with others in their life- world. Such projects in “empathy” are partly inspired by recent experiments in the amplification of touch by digital technology—notably the 2019 tree experiment with haptic vests enabling participants to “feel” what it is like to be a tree growing and expanding or the use of haptic prostheses to “feel” the embrace of fellow humans removed in space or time.

These ventures in haptotechnology are still embryonic, to be sure, but I believe they portend productive possibilities of collusion between virtual and embodied experience—ways in which our real and simulated worlds may cooperate rather than compete, avoiding rigid dual- isms of artificial versus tactile intelligence. For there is surely no point replacing the Platonic dichotomy of mind versus body with a “postmodern” equivalent. The challenge is to find new modalities of accommodation between our digital and lived bodies, acknowledging their differences while exploring modes of mutually enhancing symbiosis. This is arguably one of the most vital tasks for our emerging Symbiocene—meeting the demands of the “reciprocity principle” for our time. As we move from the Anthropocene of optocentric dominance to a Symbiocene of collaboration between digital and tactile therapies, the question of healing the whole person—and planet—is crucial.

But we must begin with little things. Modest gestures. In addition to systemic leaps, addressing our global crisis, we can also take small steps, one at a time. Here are simple examples of what symbiotic gestures of collaboration might include in our everyday life. Using GPS to navigate journeys while not hesitating to ask people in the street for directions or to wander down unchartered paths and be surprised by what we find. Plugging into iTunes with headphones but also finding time to listen to random sounds of wind, birds, sirens, or silence. Asking Siri and Alexa to do our bidding without ceasing to use our bodies in the service of others— placing a hand on a shoulder to show care. Watching movies on computer screens while also visiting movie houses, theatres, and live shows where a sense of shared community can trigger unexpected feelings of solidarity and com- passion. Ordering books online, googling databases, and taking remote education courses, without forgetting to browse volumes in bookstores and libraries or attend “live” classes in the presence of living teachers. Enjoying e-sports, e-entertainment, and e-travel without forgoing the excitement of huddling in stadiums with living bodies or traveling physically to places where we encounter real strangers in strange worlds. Using online banking and shopping but also trading with actual people in markets and malls. Profiting fully from teledoctoring, AI readings of X-rays, and novel forms of imaging technology without forfeiting Asclepian contact between healer and healed. And, finally, zooming with people online while also finding time to converse with tangibly present persons face to face. In short, let’s make the most of digital technology but never forget the real thing.


This article is composed of passages from Richard Kearney’s book Touch: Recovering Our Most Vital Sense and is published with the author’s permission. 


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