- Plus d’un toucher: Touching Worlds
The equivocity of the English term “touch” brings together perfectly the idea of an agonistic, loving contact between the flesh of the painter and what Merleau-Ponty called the flesh of the world and the connotation of a singular style.– Jean-Francois Lyotard “Touches” (19)
Touch exposes. A mere tap on the shoulder, or a brush of the skin, gives exposition to the one who was previously neither seen nor heard. That same touch may also awaken, in the one whose shoulder is tapped or whose skin is brushed against, an aspect of the self that he or she never knew existed, an aspect that he or she never presents to others. At times, the exposition of that other aspect of the self does not need an accidental touch or a touch that surprises. As François Noudelmann has argued in Le toucher des philosophes, the caresses of the piano keyboard by thinkers such as Barthes, Sartre, and even Nietzsche can reveal, if not betray, musical tastes that they would not admit in their philosophical writings. In other words, touch opens up worlds—the world of oneself and the world of others, and even the hidden world within oneself. Touch is the negotiation of the thin membrane where the “I” leaves off and the world begins.
Touch provides our notions of boundedness and its limitations, of entities related to yet separate from others, of the self enmeshed in the tug and pull of the world. Any boundedness here is illusory though, for the porosity of the skin (touch at its most primary level) opens the self to the world in ways joyous and threatening. From there, one can begin to understand that touch really is a matter of exposition; or in Jean-Luc Nancy’s French, as he has intimated in Corpus and in his contribution to this collection, touch is ex-peau-sition, where peau in French marks the skin that offers us up to that thin membrane that is touch and/ or exposition. The question of skin as the hinge upon which all our living experience is structured, or upon which we touch or “address” worlds and vice-versa, is similarly addressed here by John W. P. Phillips, who writes that there is an “obscure figure of a kind of skin that simultaneously endangers and protects from the danger.” What touch reveals via skin is that there is not just one world, but worlds, known and unknown, safe and dangerous. [End Page 3] Touch is likewise not singular—not defined solely by the one who touches, since he or she receives in return a sensation from the other who has been touched. To follow Nancy’s rhetoric further, one could say that touch reveals the “singular plural” nature of things or existence—the “singular plural” of worlds, of being, and of touch itself.
When we acknowledge that to touch is also to be touched, we may also consider it in linguistic and semantic terms, likening it to a “middlevoice” sense, if not the quintessential middle-voiced phenomenon. In this case, touch undermines semantic subject and object divisions, and blurs the direction of transitivity. This is the sense we seek to evoke in the phrase “touching worlds.” This gerund phrase (in English, a rich ground for residual middle-voice strategies) could mean either worlds touching one another, or someone or something touching those worlds, not to mention that “touching” in this phrase could also mean an emotional quality. The latter is what Nancy reminds us in the his contribution here, via the German word rühren for touch; hence touching worlds would also designate worlds bearing an emotional force that affects us. Or as Peter Fenves writes in his response to Nancy’s piece, touching in this sense is “e-motility,” “a differential of the body, which stirs and touches accordingly.”
But let us return to the question of subjects and objects in middlevoice constructions, which imply that the subject of the sentence or utterance is only the subject because it has undergone the ambiguous action of the verb. An example of this can be found...