The Senses of Touch: Haptics, Affects, and Technologies

The Senses of Touch: Haptics, Affects, and Technologies

The Senses of Touch: Haptics, Affects, and Technologies

The Senses of Touch: Haptics, Affects, and Technologies

Synopsis

Problems of touch and tactility run as a continuous thread in philosophy, psychology, medical writing and representations in art, from Ancient Greece to the present day. Not merely immediate skin sensation, touching and feeling are inextricably woven into embodied experiences that are emotional and expressive, personal and interpersonal, and mediated through technologies. Examining the role of touch in art, memory, digital design, developmental psychology, experiences of visual impairment,and tactile therapies, The Senses of Touch demonstrates the varieties of sensory experience, and explores the diverse range of our "senses" of touch.

Excerpt

And I found that of all the senses the eye was the most superficial, the ear the most
haughty, smell the most voluptuous, taste the most superstitious and inconstant, touch
the most profound and philosophical.

Diderot, 'Letter on the Blind,' 1749

While we might agree with the sentiments of Diderot, we usually think of touch in more prosaic terms. A hand brushing or stroking a piece of exposed skin, perhaps. The immediacy of cutaneous contact with the skin surface. But if we scratch that surface, if we dig deeper into the physiology, psychology and the fleshy philosophy of the body, the manifold meanings of touch start to reveal themselves. Sight, sound and the body in general have been studied extensively in the humanities, the social sciences and the natural sciences. But within an academic climate that celebrates visual cultures, and the popular media's infatuation with visuality, touch remains largely neglected, forgotten. Looking at the cultural, historical and philosophical treatment of touch, we can see why. We have an enduring cultural assumption, present in Plato and compounded in the Enlightenment, of the primacy of vision. In Aristotle's famous hierarchy of the five senses in De Anima of c.350 BC, sight is the superior sense while touch is relegated to the lowest, basest position. He reserves contempt for the 'bestial' pleasures of taste but especially erotic touch in his Ethics (1118a24–25). The Neoplatonic philosopher Ficino was not untypical in equating touch with the baser, more carnal forms of love, contrasting it with the 'higher' or spiritual love associated with vision (Johnson 2002:62). Yet touch is crucial to embodied existence. The lowly position of touch in the hierarchy belies its complex constitution, being a singular sense that corresponds to no single organ. Physiologically, touch is a modality resulting from the combined information of innumerable receptors and nerve endings concerned with pressure, temperature, pain and movement. But there is more to touch. It is a sense of communication. It is receptive, expressive, can communicate empathy. It can bring distant objects and people into proximity.

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