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  • Making Sense from Singular and Collective Touches
  • Verena Andermatt Conley (bio)

In the 1960s French theorists criticized the privileging of sight in Western culture, connecting it to all evils, from phallocentrism to colonialism and bourgeois capitalism. They quoted Martin Heidegger who discussed the West’s ineluctable march toward abstraction in “The World as Picture,” in which he showed how the now-quaint-looking wind charts of the Renaissance with their figural décor were increasingly replaced with signs.1 Michel de Certeau criticized this obsessive flattening of the world as an attempt on the part of strategists of state reason to render it legible. He noted the progressive loss of the figural and the poetic, or what he called the charm of the old maps and atlases. However, Certeau observed that at the very moment that it was seemingly perfected, the ideal of control through sight found itself challenged. Challenged from the introduction of a metaphor or counter-text in the urban concept, and from psychoanalysis’s spacing of the ego. This shift brought renewed attention to other senses, such as hearing and, for our purposes here, touch. 2

Over the last half-century, the critique of sight in French theory has led to a renewed attention to touch. In the context of a critique of modernity, consumerism and the proliferation of machines, touch is associated with a return to the body and to a writing that is closer to the unconscious. In retrospect, perhaps rather romantically, French feminists criticized a phallocentric universe founded on the gaze by valorizing bodily touch. Luce Irigaray’s 1977 essay “Quand nos lèvres se parlent,” (“When our lips speak together”), argues that bodily touch leads to a way of speaking. 3

That same year, Jean Baudrillard challenged this return to the body, seeing touch as hopelessly archaic. His argument that the world is rapidly changing under the influence of cybernetics and electronic technologies now seems prescient. By way of McLuhan, he concluded that the era of electronic media is one of tactile communication. With electronic communication, he wrote, we are closer to the tactile than to the visual universe, where distancing is greater and reflection is always possible. With instant messages, spatial and temporal gaps are eliminated.4 However, in most communication touch loses its sensorial and sensual value for people (“touching is an interaction of the senses rather than a simple contact of an object with the skin”). It is possible, he surmised, that touch returns as a strategy in a universe of communication, but only as a field of tactile [End Page 79] and tactical simulation. As if to concur, an AT&T slogan, much quoted in academic papers at the time, soon tried to lure customers with the message: “Reach out and Touch Someone.” Baudrillard asserted in his typically perspicacious and supercilious way that “the message becomes a massage.” He lamented that everywhere one is tested and palpated; the method is “tactical,” the sphere of communication is “tactile.” An ideology of “contact” is being pushed in all its forms as a substitute for social rapport that depends on the senses. This nightmarish universe that Baudrillard gleefully describes depends on eliminating any gap or space, visual or otherwise, that would allow time for reflection, while cybernetics depend solely on reflexes.

Cixous’s Focus on Touch

It is such a nightmarishly seamless cybernetic universe that a writer like Hélène Cixous sets out to combat. Not only for feminist purposes, Cixous continually reaffirms the necessity of appealing to the senses by writing from the body. To write, she declares in the best of Romantic traditions, we have to close our eyes and focus on touch. In “Writing blind, Conversation with the donkey,” reprinted in a collection of essays under the title Stigmata, Escaping Texts,5 Cixous rejects writing the way most university people conceive of it today—that is, on a computer. “It is in the contact with the sheet of paper that sentences emerge. As if coming out with great wing-strokes from a nest hidden beneath the paper” (149). Rewriting Baudrillard, she praises a sensorial contact between hand and paper. She writes from the body in such a way...


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