- Archaeologies of Touch: Interfacing with Haptics from Electricity to Computers by David Parisi
By David Parisi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018. Pp. 472.
At present, technologized touch is subtle and yet seemingly ubiquitous: in the vibrations beneath one's fingers on a smartphone; in the slides, glides, and swipes of a touchscreen; and in the rumbles of videogame controllers one can find technological and electrical experiences designed to stimulate feeling in the hands and to create a "new" kind of tactility in the twenty-first century. David Parisi's Archaeologies of Touch: Interfacing with Hap-tics from Electricity to Computers meets this historical moment and complicates it with a rich, deeply researched and thoughtful analysis spanning the eighteenth century to the present.
In Parisi's words, "This is a book about touch's impossible complexity: about the dreams of connecting bodies seamlessly through networks, and about the recurrent efforts to unleash a touch transformed by technoscience as a positive, productive, and liberatory force" (p. xvi). The author's [End Page 1229] task is no small one—to write a history of what he calls "tactile modernity" and the "haptic subject." In the vein of Jonathan Crary's Techniques of the Observer (a history of "recoding" the eye, MIT Press, 1990) and Jonathan Sterne's The Audible Past (Duke University Press, 2003), imagining an "ensoniment," an historical moment of conceptualizing hearing and listening in new ways, the book aims to carve a space for a historicized understanding of touch as distinct and unique from other senses. Parisi calls this work a "haptocentric media archaeology," drawing on influential media scholars like Erkki Huhtamo and Friedrich Kittler to make a case for archaeological approaches to history. Yet he also argues for the linear, fairly conventional form the book takes as an antidote to the dearth of work on touch and technology. As Parisi notes, there is currently no canon to resist or existing narrative to complicate. In this regard, Archaeologies of Touch offers readers not only a historical account, but it also tries to carve out a field of study that would provide fertile ground for future scholars.
To this end, the text is comprised of five "interfaces" that take readers inside laboratories and corporations to understand how touch has been made legible through scientific experimentation, material technologies, and marketing materials. Parisi's main actors are psychophysicists, physicians, computer scientists, and roboticists. And, while many of his objects of study will be familiar to historians of technology, he makes them new in his work by attending to their tactile dimensions: the Leyden jar, shock therapy, computers, and virtual reality (VR) each take on new meaning through the book's sensitivity to touch. Readers will encounter new and riveting tales, too, in descriptions of devices like the "Teletactor" and the "Vibratese," and in the inner workings of research labs such as the Cutaneous Communication Lab at Princeton (run by Frank Geldard) and the Vibro-Tactile Research Laboratory (run by Robert Gault).
One of Parisi's most notable contributions is his coining of the phrase "perpetual immanence" to show that haptic technologies seem always on the cusp of revolutionizing how people interface with machines. His fifth interface details how laboratory studies in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries give rise (though perhaps not always directly or intentionally) to a techno-utopian emphasis on touch in the twenty-first century. Parisi charts how corporations commercialize haptic technologies for mass consumption: examples such as Apple's "Touching is believing" campaign for its iPhone and Oculus (gaming/VR) promises of a revelatory and transformational device each demonstrate a cultural hunger to bring the haptic subject closer to "feeling" the digital. Interestingly, while such a revolution has yet to occur, it is the more mundane uses of haptics in smart-phones and computers that have trained and acculturated users to expect a particular tactile experience with their devices.
Archaeologies of Touch is an ambitious book chock-full of fascinating experiments and anecdotes. Parisi demonstrates an impressive command of scientific and technical literature, reading across disparate fields to make [End Page 1230] sense of...