- "It's the Sense of Touch":Skin in the Making of Cinematic Consciousness
It's the sense of touch. In any real city, you walk, you know? You brush past people, people bump into you. In L.A., nobody touches you. We're always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something.—Crash
In the context of classical cinema, the organization of narrative as an activation of knowledge to construct meaning is often understood in terms of spatial and temporal causality. Within the context of post-classical cinema, however, narrative more often than not unfolds from any spatial and temporal point rather than through a causal development in time and space.1 One only has to think of films such as Traffic (Steven Soderbergh, 2000), Syriana (Stephen Gaghan, 2005), Babel (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2006) and many others as examples of the films that escape the organizational control of narrative. In these films, causality is replaced with disentangled lines of action that randomly intersect, and that are [End Page 35] almost impossible to reconstruct in an exact chronological order, at least from memory. As a result, the spectator's experience is not about constructing meaning along some sort of logic of cause and effect, but rather about forming patterns along how different points of time and space coincidentally traverse.2 The spectator's experience of the films of this kind is therefore also more of a journey from one spatial and temporal crossroad to another, without necessarily the sense of a totalizing overview. Such an experience is therefore best approached through the concept of touch as a mode of knowledge that constantly forms and reforms itself in a large network of connections. The figure of the membrane in this configuration is not just a mediator but a shared existence, "circulating in the with and as the with of this singularly plural coexistence" (Nancy 3).
Paul Haggis's 2004 film Crash illustrates the workings of touch in particularly suggestive ways, since it not only lacks causal relations between the events that occur both between and within scenes, but it also treats these events as "membranes" that co-creatively shape one another in their shared encounters. The film opens with haptic, tactile, blurry images of snow and car lights on a highway on top of which the opening credits appear. We hear Graham, played by Don Cheadle, uttering the words: "It's the sense of touch," after which his face is brought into sharp focus in the foreground of the image. Racking focus alters between the different planes of the image where the characters appear, bringing them into contact with each other and directing the spectator's attention not to the characters themselves, but to this contact space between them. Selective and racking focuses occur throughout the film, extending the optical vision to the haptical, a vision that is hardly distinguishable from the layered texture of the image, a mode of knowledge that is touch and even coincidence. The dialogue from the opening scene continues while the image fades in and out, cut against the rhythm of speech. There has apparently been a car accident. The scene ends with the image fading out in white, after which the story starts to unfold from yesterday onwards.
The narrative of Crash is a weaving together of random incidents, instead of a linear chain of cause and effect. Accidents, coincidences and chance encounters are more significant than any causal motivations between them. Milan Kundera has written that our daily life is "bombarded [. . .] with the accidental meetings of people and events we call coincidences. 'Co-incidence' means that two events unexpectedly happen at the same time, they meet" (51–2). Similarly, Michel Serres argues that world and human lives [End Page 36] are composed in precisely such a fashion, according to the logic of the clinamen that creates order out of chaos. For Serres, the clinamen is the way in which world is organized by the logic of accident and chance, but it is important to keep in mind that this is merely the way...