Touching – touched

Gosia Wojas

Blurred hands in front of a blue wall touching a screen that appears to be embedded in a white mannequin head
Documentation still – operation manual video of A.I. sex robot. Courtesy of Gosia Wojas

There is not a single word or human gesture – not even the habitual or distracted ones – that does not have a signification.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty
“Phenomenology of Perception”, Paris, 1945

The human body has been radically altered in the space of a human imaginary. Speculative realms with constructed complex body schemas which operate beyond previously thought human potential, rebelling against their own enclosures and their own entropies. At the moment, our proximity to objects is being maximally reduced, not metaphorically anymore, but in reality, while the ultimate, absolute touch – the touch of death – is one that we seem to still reject the most vehemently. What is a body? What is touch? These questions are more often posited in the context of “the last touch.”​*​ But touch is something that we will always long for, paradoxically. For the body to exist in the world, among others, experiencing its immediate environment and its own self as a subject and object is perhaps an ongoing act of longing. In our computational age where mere being is constituted as transgression in its various forms of (artificial) replication and simulation, the human body has always remained the most significant political subject and its mere refusal to cease is the expression of plasticity. 

Catherine Malabou, a scholar who writes extensively on plasticity and neuroscience, converses with the writings by Jacques Derrida on Jean-Luc Nancy on deconstructing touch, in a 2013 book she co-authored, Self and emotional  Life: philosophy, psychoanalysis, and neuroscience . The three French continental philosophers engaged in a scholarly meditation on a sense that is the most metaphysical of all senses, according to Derrida, ask: can the metaphysics of touching be breached? Nancy’s discourse on touching in Corpus, a book he wrote in 1992 following his heart transplant, prompts Derrida to write, On Touching – Jean-Luc Nancy, a philosophical meditation on “the name of all the senses.”​†​ Malabou points out in this relationship that for Derrida, in Nancy, “a nonmetaphysical touch is a touching that structurally loses contact with itself“, and discontinuity, interruption, caesura and syncope express this loss. The touch that does not know about itself – the subject’s self-touching as an act of absence, interruption, syncopation. The space produced by this interruption is, explains Malabou, between me and myself, “the breached affected subject”, for “the primordial affect (the affect of the self for itself) is always interrupted by the intrusion of alterity, all affects (love, hatred, joy, sadness, wonder, or generosity) are also syncopated, interrupted, and discontinuous.”​‡​ The intrusion of otherness enters with the feeling of difference between the self and itself, me and an ‘intruder’ (the other in me). The notion of the other in the act of touching is also present in Derrida’s On Touching. Malabou reminds us that for Derrida “touching, in any case, touches the heart and on the heart, but inasmuch as it is always the heart of the other.”​§​

Nancy’s recent lecture titled, “Touche Touche” at the ICI Berlin which took place via zoom in March of this year was a more or less a summary of the 1992 book Corpus. The subject of Nancy’s lecture is touch and some of the philosophical concerns touched upon are also of close sentiment to Derrida’s discourse in  “Le Toucher (On touching).” Nancy begins by deconstructing the etymology of the word touch in western languages. For example, in English, touchy touchy emotes an erotic sensation of “being on top of the other”. In German, dicot dicot means being tightly together expressing literally a density of compression that results in touch. In French, touché touché means to be very close to one another or to be touching each other. When trying to describe touché touché, Nancy explains that one cannot touch without being touched. But there is also an act of play, a kind of ambivalence of contact, of caress, which can be expressed in an attractive response or a recoil – a repulsive response. Nancy observes that in touch there is no distance – it is a “maximally reduced proximity”, and “to touch a living being is life itself.” In this doubling, the relationship between the self and the other is at stake since touch can be either accepted or refused. As Freud wrote, “the secret is obviously something that must not be touched”. To Nancy, touch presents the possibility of transgression – yet, it is not only something violent or sexual. Touch belongs also to artists, or writers as un touché, an artist’s touch.​¶​ Here it seems the transgressions must take place alongside abstraction. Touch contains something of a movement, as Nancy says, to touch is also to move, to steer, to agitate a call, a response, a disturbance. However, touch is a state of being rather than movement. For example, a work of art or something divine is that which can touch, move us. For Nancy, touch opens and moves, it acts and reacts at once, it attracts and rejects, pulls and pushes back as if with an interior and exterior reason – touch is at once an injection and rejection of what is fit and unfit. In the act of touching our whole being is touching, at once enclosed in ourselves and open to the outside. Representation is less immediate when we touch. To touch is also the ability to receive, to be affected, to feel the touch from the outside. Nancy asks, for how can we receive without being able to also do the same? There has to be a capacity to receive, to feel, to be affect-able. Nancy comments on Merleau-Ponty’s hands touching by stating that this self-touching is indeed accompanied by the representation of the other –  when I touch my hand I am already in the exteriority of the world (flesh of the world). With touch, the body opens itself to the outside (Merleau-Ponty said the body orients itself towards the world to fulfill its plasticity). During the act of touch all senses interlace with touch, if only symbolically, and the extreme reduction of proximity in skin contact between human and other (animal, plant, material) puts into play the sharing of inside and outside. With touch there’s a desire to, or not, be touched that is expressed in proximity –  reducing it or stretching it further in between. Touch is never merely a metaphor, it is always a sensible reality, it is material, tactile, vibrationary – when two become one touch is the mediator. Nancy also observes that touch can also be political when it corresponds to a taboo of where one is permitted, or not, to be touched or caressed.  Gesture, contact, affect > touch – perhaps this is the body being “singular plural.”​#​

A hand squeezing artificial white flesh surrounding what appears to be a camera
Documentation image of A.I. robot for studio archive. Courtesy of Gosia Wojas

To touch, originating from Greek haptein, is to also self-touch. This self-touching is always, for Jean-Luc Nancy, a “self-touching you” (un “se toucher-toi).”​**​ The other in me and outside of me are always present for him. But Derrida, amongst other philosophers, challenges the possibility for the self to touch itself, disagreeing with the concept of what Maurice Merleau-Ponty called “touching-touched” – a relationship between me and myself – when he famously wrote in “Phenomenology of Perception” that “when my right hand touches my left, I touch myself touching: my body accomplishes a ‘sort of reflection’ and becomes a ‘subject-object’.”​††​ Merleau-Ponty’s touching-touched is always located in the body, the body that in this act becomes at once a subject and an object to itself. Derrida’s exclusion of the body in discourse on self-touching prompts a question if a critique of the phenomenological body is a sufficient analysis of a sense touch. Can touch be expropriated from the body without consequences? Catherine Malabou seems to be skeptical of this also, asking “why put the body at a distance?” Derrida famously wrote that lovers separated for life can be satisfied with a telephonic memory of a touch, but Malabou asks again, “is it certain that two lovers can resist the absence of bodily pleasure and be satisfied with fantasm?”​‡‡​

In order to see what it is to be a body in the world and to have perception of our senses Merleau-Ponty takes into account empirical dimensions of the body from developments in neurology and psychology, which he examines closely in the act of perception. Perception is a cognitive act situated between sensation and understanding, positioned between empirical and intellectual elements of analysis. Perception organizes and contextualizes all sense data into a form, “the very appearance of the world, not its condition of possibility” before being intellectually absorbed and organized.​§§​ In contradiction to Kant’s theory, who claimed that sensation is universal and not affected by the outside world, Merleau-Ponty argues that, in fact, our relationship to sensing and understanding needs reinterpretation for they are always in “communication with the world” which opens up the phenomenological field to therefore “let us rediscover a direct experience that must be situated, at least provisionally, in relation to scientific knowledge, psychological reflections and philosophical reflection.”​¶¶​ The ultimate form of what perception organizes is “the identity of the exterior and the interior, and not just a projection of the interior into the exterior.”​##​ Merleau-Ponty challenges Kant’s ontological notion of the body as transcendental, arguing the impossibility of obtaining the meaning of the body if it is disconnected or withdrawn from the world. “The center of philosophy is no longer an autonomous transcendental subjectivity, situated everywhere and nowhere, but is rather found in the perpetual beginning of reflection at that point when an individual life begins to reflect upon itself. Reflection is only truly reflection if it does not carry itself outside of itself, if it knows itself as reflection-upon-an-unreflected, and consequently as a change in the structure of our existence.” ​***​ 

Reflection upon an unreflected suggests the immediate intentionality in the communication with the world, the plasticity of the movement that is oriented toward the possible. Merleau-Ponty lays out this reflexive study of perception, by asking how perception perceives an object and how does it perceive itself, a subjective and objective genitive? In my act of phenomenological perceiving, I am also being perceived (projecting myself into the world is intentionality -> I put myself into the other that I am perceiving, I become conscious of the other, there’s no demarcated line in this act – I am the other, but in the reverse act of the other seeing me I become the object for the other, the demarcated line is drawn between me and the other – this is the double status of the body in act of perception). This would mean that I am a subject for my body and an object for others. How can the body locate itself as both subject and object? Again, Merleau-Ponty explains this in his famous paragraph on touching-touched of the hand: “I can palpate my right hand with my left while my right hand is touching an object. The right hand, as an object, is not the right hand that does the touching. The first is an intersection of bones, muscles, and flesh compressed into a point of space; the second shoots across space to reveal the external object in its place. Insofar as it sees or touches the world, my body can neither be seen nor touched. What prevents it from ever being an object or from ever being “completely constituted” is that my body is that by which there are objects. It is neither tangible nor visible insofar as it is what sees and touches.”​†††​  Merleau-Ponty illustrates the sensorial experience of the body with a stake on proximity. The issue of proximity becomes extremely important in thinking about the intentionality and subject object relation in the context of touch. The famous quote, “When I touch my right hand with my left hand, the object “right hand” also has this strange property, itself, of sensing. … the two hands are never simultaneously both touched and touching. So when I press my two hands together, it is not a question of two sensations that I could feel together, as when we perceive two objects juxtaposed, but rather of an ambiguous organization where the two hands can alternate between the functions of “touching” and “touched.” In speaking of “double sensations,” psychologists mean that, in the passage from one function to the other, I can recognize the touched hand as the same hand that is about to be touching.”​‡‡‡​

What Merleau-Ponty suggests here is that reflection takes place when my body catches itself from the outside in the active process of touching itself, which he argues is enough to distinguish it (the body) from objects. In his discourse on touching Derrida writes that “Merleau-Ponty’s major concern is not only the “reflexive” access to the “incarnation” of “my body”, in this first allusion to the touching-touched of the hand; it is also and immediately to involve the other, and my experience of the other’s body or the “other man’s” – the other as other human being – in the being touched of my own proper hand that is touching”.​§§§​ Although Derrida explicates this passage in order to argue that this gesture is not important for the philological discipline as much as it presents paradoxical consequences in Merleau-Ponty misreading of Husserl, he cautions, referring to the touching-touched, that “one runs the risk of reconstituting an intuitionism of immediate access to the other, as originary as access to my own most properly proper”, and one also runs the risk of “reappropriating the alterity of the other, more blindly, or more violently than ever” (my italics). Derrida stresses that it is necessary to watch over the other’s alterity as it will always remain inaccessible to an originally presentive intuition, an immediate and direct presentation of the here. He writes, 

“I do know or feel that there is another here, and since this is our theme, the other here of a touching-touched (which is to say others who themselves are also put at a distance from themselves, up to and including in the presentation of their present, by the timing of their experience and the simple gap, the syncopated noncoincidence in their self-relation) , but this other “here” presents itself as that which will never be mine: this nonmineness is part of the sense of this presentation, which, like my own, itself suffers already from the “same” expropriation. No substitution is possible; and the more surprising logic of the substitution, wherever it is necessarily at work, presupposes the substitution of nonsubstitutables, of unique and other ones, of uniquely others. Being singular plural, Nancy might say at this point.” ​¶¶¶​ 

Derrida’s skepticism of touching-touched lies in the impossibility of metonymic substitution – no substitution is possible, moreover, the logic of the substitutive mechanism presupposes there is something substitutable, presupposes the other. Merleau-Ponty however suggests the phenomenon of substitution as “movement of being in and toward the world.”​###​ Being in the world can be understood as something physical, or physiological but also psychological. Merleau-Ponty explores the relationship between the two, pointing out that in the case of a phantom limb for example, “the phantom arm is not a representation of the arm, but rather the ambivalent presence of an arm”​****​ Being in and toward the world is illustrated by intentionality, which is not a re-presentation but a presence. Therefore, it is not about a conscious imagining, or wanting to represent something that is absent, it is in fact there, present in its ambiguity but also present in its refusal to be fragmented. It is being toward.

Merleau-Ponty elaborates on the ontological question of being in a body through an important bodily morphology phenomena, in which he locates the implicit negation of our worries as something that clearly contains a revolutionary potential – a refusal for the body to accept its own fragmentation is a confirmation not only of its need to be whole but also a validation of the movement toward the world and being open to it – there is an authority in this ability of the body schema to move toward, despite. Thinking through an artificial object such as prostheses leads us down the path of artificial human simulation models and soon the question arises: what is the role of the emerging artificial intelligence dolls in this operation? It seems that partially it has to do with being a mediator between its user, the human, and the other. The “I” refuses to be perceived as deficient or fragmented and an AI doll, as a human companion, provides an opportunity for the “I” to tend toward the world unbroken. For Derrida, substitute can only be read through sign and proxy. In this line of thought AI dolls effectually stand in for something else and thus only supplement something that already exists in nature. They are therefore a surplus that nonetheless in its presence fills a void, but “as a substitute, it is not simply added to the positivity of a presence, it produces no relief, its place is assigned in the structure by the mark of an emptiness.”​††††​ 

Deconstruction might be the method in all of this, but phenomenology seems to be the recipe for thinking through the imminent artificial touch, touch of the inanimate object, an artificial love companion, an AI sex doll, but ultimately the question remains: how do we think about artificial love? Our proximity to objects gets narrower with the rapidly advancing technologies. With that the need for navigating within the territories of technology, science, art and philosophy seems to be more critical than ever. How we think not only of our bodies, philosophically and politically, our environment, but especially pivotal, our relationship to objects is being radically reconstituted. Transhumanists claim that we are not just built out of DNA, but also functioning in a social and technological context. Our phenotypes are considerably different from those of hunter-gatherers, as we live with biological and external extensions to human capabilities which have not de-humanized us.​​‡‡‡‡​ The latest technology of mind-controlled prosthesis that ‘feel’, such as the revolutionary sensations of touch in prosthetic hand, with direct connection to persons nerves, muscles and skeleton are becoming part of everyday life and seem to challenge technological anxieties of bioconservatives. The recent phenomena of artificial companions engages with human intersubjective relationship on an entirely different and unexamined philosophically level. Sex dolls are not a new concept, yet sex dolls equipped with artificial intelligence simulating affects are presently being manufactured as affordable objects expanding not only the concept of the human relationship to objects, but on notions of touch and love. They are the locus for the critique of the disciplinary divide between the real and the artificial, bodies and genres, between object and subject, sexualities, the dis-embodied body, between active and passive, and between valid and invalid.  In the act of touch it is the unbroken, nonpathological body and the body of an-other that we miss today the most. By longing for touch, we are suspended between the experience of lack and a sense of connectedness. Whatever the gap, it is being filled with technology nudging yet another question: does closeness and intimacy achieved with the help of technology have limits?

  1. ​*​
    Jean-Luc Nancy, “touche touche,” a lecture, ICI Berlin, 24 March, 2021, via zoom.
  2. ​†​
    ~Jacques Derrida, “*On touching /Le toucher – Jean-Luc Nancy”,* “Tangent III,” trans. by Christine Irizarry (Stanford University Press, 2005), 155.
  3. ​‡​
    ~Catherine Malabou, Adrian Johnston, “*Self and emotional Life: philosophy, psychoanalysis, and neuroscience “* (Columbia University Press, 2013), 24.
  4. ​§​
    Ibid., 21.
  5. ​¶​
    Nancy, “touche touche” lecture; for Nancy, touch here is irreplaceable.
  6. ​#​
    ~Derrida, 115. Derrida references here Nancy’s 1996 book “Etre singulier pluriel” [Being Singular Plural], and focuses on Nancy’s “logic” of touch, where “Touching is the very experience of “origin” as “plural singularity.” – the origin [can] be touched – touching itself as *self*-touching. To *self*-touch *oneself*; (*self-*)touch *one another* (among two or many) : *se toucher*, in French, means all: [1] to (self*-*)touch oneself, [2] to be in touch, [3] to touch each other (feminine or masculine, among two or many). French grammar tolerates reflexiveness in the singular as in the plural;” For Nancy, therefore what counts is access to the origin, “it is the plural touch upon the singular origin”. In this way, touching would be-within Being, as Being, as the Being of beings-contact of the with (cum or co-) with oneself as well as with the other.
  7. ​**​
    ~Ibid., 284. Derrida polemizes with Nancy on this, as for him touching is a touching of the edge/surface of something, touching its limit. Nancy, who wrote “Corpus” after having recovered from a heart transplant, writes that “this other heart that self-touches you, that belongs to you, that gives pleasure only there where pleasure is made all the more intense by not returning to me, by returning to me without returning to me, there where I self-touch you.”
  8. ​††​
    ~Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “*Phenomenology of Perception*,” trans. Donald A. Landes (New York, Routledge, 2012), 95. To follow the history of touch, follow the hand!
  9. ​‡‡​
    Malabou, 68.
  10. ​§§​
    Maurice Merleau-Ponty, 62.
  11. ​¶¶​
    Ibid., 54.
  12. ​##​
    Ibid., 62.
  13. ​***​
    Ibid., 63.
  14. ​†††​
    Ibid., 94.
  15. ​‡‡‡​
    Ibid., 95.
  16. ​§§§​
    Derrida, 190.
  17. ​¶¶¶​
    Derrida, 192. For Husserl, fingers that touch deem contact, the experience of presence, which is full, immediate, direct; Nancy’s syncope interrupts.
  18. ​###​
    MP, The body as an object and mechanistic physiology”, p.80.
  19. ​****​
    ibid, p.83.
  20. ​††††​
    ~Derrida, “*Of Grammatology,”* Part II: Nature, Culture, Writing, “From/Of Blindness to Supplement”, Translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, The Johns Hopkins University Press Baltimore and London, 1997, 144-145.
  21. ​‡‡‡‡​
    ~Nick Borstom, “In Defense of Posthuman Dignity” (*Bioethics*, Vol. 19, No. 3, 2005), 202-214.