- Touching:Proximity, Remove, and the Measure of Things1
Published originally as Le Toucher, Jean-Luc Nancy by the Parisian press Galilée in 2000, On Touching—Jean-Luc Nancy is among the first Derrida translations to come out in English after the philosopher's death in 2004. There is a lot to be said about Derrida's relation to Nancy or, as some might put it, about Nancy's relation to Derrida's thought. But even if Nancy "comes after" Derrida and "owes" him more than the other way around, On Touching bears out the substantial, equal-footing kind of dialogue that starts taking place between the two somewhere around the mid-90s. This exchange goes on after Derrida's departure, in this very book, which features Nancy's tribute to Derrida, "Salut to you, salut to the blind we become" ("Salut à toi, salut aux aveugles que nous devenons"), printed by Libération on October 11, 2004. The obituary is brief, unconventional, and deeply moving, touching in more sense than one. While it can no longer touch Derrida properly speaking, in only a few sentences it touches on him, cuts to the heart of what the great philosopher has been ("all about") in life and continues to be in death, in the "blindness" in which his absence has thrown us only to prompt inquiry, discovery and self-discovery, insight. The touching farewell follows and echoes Derrida's own "Salve," the "Untimely Postscript, for Want of a Final Retouch" to On Touching. Notably, this sanctions the epistemological "bliss" of this sort of blindness where that which blinds or keeps us in obscurity also shows the way out by pushing us to "orient" ourselves—"like any good blind man" (303)—"by touch." For we must first touch the world, palpate its body, and poke around in the [End Page 306] "darkness" of the senses, of the invisible here and now, the corporeal, and the "irrational" to "get a sense" of this world, of what it means.
Touching, then, is philosophically groundbreaking. It captures the most fundamental move of thought in general and deconstructive thought in particular. Thus, Peggy Kamuf is right to stress that Christine Irizarry's translation is one of the "most important works in Derrida's immense oeuvre." Touching, indeed, is what the knowing subject must do in order to do more and touch on or, "get to the bottom" of, things. This bottom cannot reveal itself, and as a result the "transcendent" revelation it occasions will not occur unless we touch things first, that is, feel their surfaces. In other words—and these are always the words, the illuminatingly touching circumlocutions Derrida and Nancy speak to each other and to us—there is no depth without surface, no spirit without a body embodying and demarcating it, no territory without limit, no access without the threshold and trial of entry. In brief, and this is what Derrida keeps repeating throughout his career and again in this book, truth, being, and so on are tied into the problematic of the "haptical" (from háptomai, "to touch" in Greek). Or, even better: no matter how elusive and "intangible" (297), all problematics turns out to have something to do with "haptics," with liminality. One reaches the limit of things, of what we know, of our habit and comfort zone, that point that we need to go beyond in order to "find out," only insofar as we activate this sense. And vice versa, it is only through touching that we reach, as Derrida says, "a limit at the limit" (297). Superficial and sensorial as it may be, the haptical instantiates and inaugurates if not absolute knowledge, then at least the awareness without which there is no learning.
I find it quite remarkable that what touching has done for philosophy across its history, and what it does again for Derrida, Nancy as a philosopher of "le toucher" does for his friend. On Touching is anything but a monograph on Nancy although Derrida does not shy away from calling him "the greatest thinker about touching of all time" (4). However, no matter what Derrida touches on in it, he touches on Nancy...