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  • “All that the hand says when you touch”Intercorporeal Ethics in Joyce’s Ulysses
  • Ethan King (bio)

For a novel obsessed with depicting a dense profusion of bodies moving through a chaotic urban space, Ulysses has surprisingly few moments of physical contact. When bodies do come into contact, it usually occurs in the form of collisions, the violent and concussive encounters of physical and ideological opposites that signal not only the Dubliners’ fears and suspicions of the Other, but also the interpellative crash of both Irish nationalism and British colonialism. Leopold Bloom, however, transcends the tactile violence of his community by imbuing his contact with the Other with a recognition of their untraversable alterity and of their bodily or circumstantial vulnerability, establishing a new mode of living through intercorporeal generosity. By engaging in empathetic contact within the realm of touch with the blind stripling, Gerty MacDowell, and Stephen Dedalus, Bloom rejuvenates and is rejuvenated by the Other, each maintaining his or her radical alterity, and each attaining a more liberated subjectivity. By practicing an intercorporeal ethics formulated out of love, he subverts the physical and ethical limitations of Irish nationalism and British colonialism. I argue that to touch the Other, for Bloom, is to see and to see as the Other, an act that co-constitutes the subjectivities involved, creating a mutual intimacy that becomes Joyce’s model for human interdependence, a model stressing that the need to help one another doesn’t derive from political affiliation, but is the primary basis for living an ethical life and for throwing off the nets of Irish nationalism and British colonialism.

While living beings can survive without the sense of smell, sight, taste, or hearing, they cannot survive without the sense of touch. But touch does much more than substantiate biological capacities for life; it is the [End Page 55] sense through which the body and its subjectivity are first formed and continue to be formed. According to Edmund Husserl, the subject becomes aware of his or her body’s being-in-the-world and becomes animated through a double consciousness of tactile sensations, the body operating both as the organ of perception—a body that touches—and as the object of perception—a body that is touched.1 However, to constitute one’s body as a complete thing or object, one must transfer the perception of the Other as a unity onto oneself, which presupposes a necessary alterity outside of the Self for the processes of self-recognition and of subject-formation. In corporeal communion, the intermingling of flesh with another’s flesh, one achieves a reflexive instantiation of one’s Self and a recognition of the Other’s radical alterity. This bodily and subjective dialectic between the Self and the Other forms a system whereby, as Rosa-lyn Diprose notes, “the self is produced, maintained, and transformed through the socially mediated intercorporeal ‘transfer’ of movements and gestures and body bits and pieces.”2 As the Self and the Other are sublated neither physically nor psychically through touch, the act is co-constitutive, both subjectivities being touched into an existence that is distinct from the one established prior to the encounter itself, embedding, as Laura Doyle suggests, ontology and “epistemology in the very structures of physicality we share with the world.”3 This allows for a spectrum of intercorporeal possibilities, from mutual intimacy (the intimacy of a caress or a warming embrace, for example) to nonconsensual violence, which Judith Butler calls “a touch of the worst order,” a touch that “threaten[s] to expunge the other.”4

These variegated possibilities of touch render the human body as a site of vulnerability, a vulnerability that, under certain social and political regimes, can become highly exacerbated. As Butler claims, “The body implies mortality, vulnerability, agency: the skin and the flesh expose us to the gaze of others, but also to touch, and violence” (26). Under the constant threat of being touched, the Self obtains certain anxieties about intercorporeal contact, and the specific threat of normative violence cultivates a sense of helplessness in those who are physically imposed upon or those who are politically and ideologically dominated. Violence dehumanizes the Other...


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pp. 55-72
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