Touch: An #AmAnth2018 Panel Review

Photo by Megan J. Gette.

Touch: Tangible Difference, Worlding Techniques

Touch: Contact, Ethics, Force

Organizers: Zoë H. Wool, Tyler Zoanni

Panelists: Anna Eisenstein, Terra Edwards, Danilyn Rutherford, Vijayanka Nair, Deborah A. Thomas, Stefan G. Helmreich; Naisargi N. Dave, Valentina Napolitano, Anand Pandian, Sarah E. Vaughn, Alex Blanchette

I arrive at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association and am told not to breathe too deep or walk too fast. Someone tells me where to get a mask to stop the smoke from getting into my lungs. But I breathe anyway—what else can I do? The air is always thick with the wreck of someone’s home. Smoke just makes you feel it.

The first panel I attend is on touch. It lays the stakes for an anthropology in which the body knows through its relationships to the world. This knower does not just articulate her givenness, but works through embodied webs of significance. Western knowledge may, as Stefan Helmreich pointed out in the first half of this double panel, have its ocularcentric origins in Plato, who believed that human eyes emit beams of light that touch on objects. But touch does much more than pose a foil to sight. How we process the world and how the world processes us originates in touch: its primacy and finality. In a moment where we are reaching not to reify the differences among bodies but to center the body’s creative capacity, touch participates in an arena of hegemonic domination without being made docile by it.

For Zoë Wool and Tyler Zoanni, who organized the panels, touch is “a socio-material practice that makes worlds at the intersections of harm and care.” Over the course of four hours, sitting in a fluorescent, freezing room, those of us in attendance were offered kinetic foam, silly putty, snacks, Emergen-C, Advil, stain remover, and tampons—a tactile welcome that acknowledged what it means for the body to sit still and listen or speak up in front of strangers for any length of time. Accessible copies of presenters’ papers were passed around, while their speech was transcribed and projected on a scrim.

Touch, eventually turned into thought, reflects the mess of translation: how concepts chafe against each other, layer onto one another, sweat and breathe each other’s air. Deborah Thomas asked whether touch transforms, if there is a difference between touching and feeling, and what renders touch legible. Commenting on her film Tivoli Stories, she invited us to note the “touching moments,” which are not necessarily the moments where a person is telling their story—rather, she suggested, touch is a “glimpse of spontaneous expression.” She then asked whether nonrepresentational media might open to “deeper touch.” Here, media touches or touch mediates, forming a subject as it produces or erases the differences between these forms. For Vijayanka Nair, touch was “a precondition for seeing like a state.” The bureaucracy of touch treats fingers as data points, she noted, “blurring boundaries between recognition and identity.” Touch manipulates as it “assembles bodies into ethical and political formations, secures religious collectivity, and binds subjects to objects.”

The fear of touch and its potential for violation can also reinforce boundaries. Anand Pandian reflected that xenophobia tends to make metaphors of disease: “How best to explain this impulse to isolate and seal off? How did the danger of infection gain such a powerful hold on American ideas of security? To what extent was disease even the problem, rather than the sense of uncertainty that any encounter with foreign lives seemed increasingly to carry?” Touch, here, is a site of inevitable sharing, one that implies sacrifice, vulnerability, scarcity, or invasion, undesired intimacy with the unknown. Pandian then described speaking across enemy lines at a white nationalist rally in terms of a “strange erotics at stake in the encounter.” You’re jerking me off, joked one white supremacist, refusing Pandian’s attempts at touch through conversation. Here, touch feminizes, exposes, and discloses—yanks, pulls, slaps, beats. A traumatized person may also assert herself through touch’s refusal, as one commenter pointed out in the context of implicit harm or its control. As a source of trauma or exclusion, then, touch reforms its environment. It transgresses, reaching across or erecting border walls. Touch colonizes and infects as it protects an idea of safety.

Framed in this way, touch implies the bodymind and its inextricability from the environment. Sarah Vaughn quoted Michel Serres’s statement that “skin on skin becomes conscious.” She spoke of geotextiles as a second skin over the earth, indicating that “climate adaptation unearths the symbolic ways in which social identities become associated with skins. . . . A history of scientific observation then finds comfort in a history of color.” As I squeezed the foam in my hand, as I listened, touch became cosmological. Valentina Napolitano remarked that attending to the theological underpinnings of a “touch-event” like conversion or enfleshment may augment understandings of touch’s radicality—a historical event that “pivots around a tension of intimacy and distance, seduction and sovereignty.” Touch, in the manner of word made flesh, descends only to backpedal and become word or concept again. It extends from the human to the extrahuman or the nonhuman, becoming creaturely. And “when touch is creaturely,” Naisargi Dave reflected, “it is passionately indifferent to difference.” This indifference, as ahimsa, means to do no harm, but it also composes harm and its ethical responses. Instead, the “creaturely touch” that Dave invoked ritualizes a “passion touch” that provides “respite from reason, incarnating transformation.” He touches, Dave said of a veterinarian's ability to captivate onlookers without coercion. That is all.

Without touch, indifference architects the world. Terra Edwards described deaf-blind and protractile communities who advocate awareness for the necessity of structuring spaces that do not “subordinate the world of touch to sight.” The challenges of such projects include how “the environment keeps foregrounding itself” and how a tactile inhabitant “asserts” or “protects itself with its own internal rhythm.” An urban environment reinforces patterns of seeing or stepping bodies that move through it. According to Danilyn Rutherford, touch thus creates a world beyond “regimes of speech and sight,” here echoing Judith Butler’s statement that in this world “we are undone by one another.” Rutherford’s daughter, Millie, was at the center of her presentation. While one school system referred to Millie “multiply disabled,” Rutherford framed Millie’s proprioception—her feeling of her body in space—as a collaborative project. Their relationship thus unfolds in terms of what George Herbert Mead called a “conversation of gestures.” Touch permeates the analytical and becomes love. Touch makes kin. “When I speak,” Rutherford reflected, “I anticipate the way you will view the world and me as a result of what I say. The same goes for you when you respond and together we create what we will have meant.” The shape touch takes in translation forms the rhythm of conversation.

In the case of disabled persons, Tyler Zoanni noted, “a lot of the time, care hurts.” This point indexed one impetus for the session; by illustrating the kinds of bodies produced through touch, we might determine what is at stake in modes of harm or care. Zoanni and Anna Eisenstein, both writing about Uganda, commented on the haptic metaphors used to describe a sociality where “bodily proximity and transactions are central to social life.” Eisenstein considered language ideology among speakers who “let their inner selves speak,” exploring the layering of voices and the overlap of bodies and words. Zoanni referred to this as “being in touch,” which can just as easily become “losing touch,” when extraordinary bodies meet inadequate forms of care.

Afterward, I breathe the bad air and notice what’s strewn on the ground outside the convention center: a microwave, a crushed McDonald’s soda cup, a muddy scrunchie, three rolled newspapers still in plastic, ratty blankets from the vestiges of tent cities. I feel out the neighborhood as I walk past a home with an eviction notice jutted up next to a mansion, the high-rises and coffee shops creeping up on taquerias and peluquerias. Can I see how touch unmakes entire worlds, determines the modes of political sovereignty? And how do I begin to see touch as a form of repair or healing, when so much hurts imperceptibly—like the air in my lungs?