Current open calls for submissions
Volume 27, Issue 2 - On Touch
Deadline: 31 May 2021
Martin Welton (Queen Mary University of London)
Proposal deadline: 31 May 2021
Whatever can be said of what is tangible, can be said of touch, and vice versa; if touch is not a single sense but a group of senses, there must be several kinds of what is tangible. It is a problem whether touch is a single sense or a group of senses. It is also a problem, what is the organ of touch; is it or is it not the flesh (including what in certain animals is homologous with flesh)? On the second view, flesh is 'the medium' of touch, the real organ being situated farther inward.
Aristotle (1907: II.11.)
Much of the animating affect of live performance must surely rest on the possibility that a spectator could just reach out and touch a performer if they wished. Even so, and notwithstanding the interruption of etiquette and aesthetic that this would entail, the tangible rarely makes itself present in either popular or critical reckonings with performance. There are of course many examples in which touch between performer and audience does take place—from Adrian Howells’ careful acts of communion, to the discomfort of spectators and critics as the naked dancers of Dave St-Pierre company crawled over them at Sadler’s Wells in 2011. Despite this, the activity, application and experience of touch within the performance sensorium remains under-discussed for the most part—an oddity given the ubiquity of ‘embodiment’ in accounting for meaning-making in both production and reception.
While the audio-visual encompasses much of what can be apprehended in and of performance, there is a phenomenological primacy to touch, as Matthew Ratcliffe has argued: ‘Without vision or hearing, one would inhabit a very different experiential world, whereas one would not have a world at all without touch’ (2013: 132). Although performance is as often a matter of attending to a ‘world’ as it is to the world per se, that the latter comes to ‘make sense’ at all is dependent in some respects on a sensible contact with the substance of the former (Wilshire 1982: 262). That we remain in touch with our surroundings even while in flights of imagination, or caught up in kinaesthetic conjunction with the movement of others perhaps goes without saying. Even so, as Drew Leder (1990) has persuasively argued, in ordinary circumstances the body recedes from awareness, as attention is directed to objects and activities in the world beyond the container of the skin, returning significantly only in states of discomfort or pain. While acknowledging the recession of touch (and thus the perceptual body) within audiovisual modes of attention, Daniel Heller-Roazen proposes that this absence is in and of itself the experience of a certain kind of feeling—sunaisthesis: ‘The principle of the presence of perception as of its absence, it is that by which living beings feel that they feel and feel, no less, that they do not’ (2009: 89). Expanding on Aristotle’s curiosity in De Anima concerning touch as a sense that is not only multimodal, but also a register of both subjective conditions and objective knowledge of environmental changes, Heller Roazen proposes further that touch is the felt knowledge that sensing is happening at all. Even engrossed in spectacle, we are so because, rather than in spite of the caress of the theatre seats on our backsides, the warm summer air that suffuses the darkness and enfolds our skin, the shiver of bass across tympanic membranes and bellies, and the ingress of light shuttering retinas and eyelids.
As well as underpinning your own sense of self, touch also mediates intersubjective encounters—the knowledge of your dancing partner’s weight shifting your own centre, the calming touch of parent to child, the desire in a lover’s caress. For Luce Irigary, touch is thus the natal sense of communication:
Before orality comes to be, touch is already in existence… The most subtly necessary guardian of my life is the other’s flesh. Approaching and speaking to me with his hands. Bringing me back to life more intimately than any regenerative nourishment, the other’s hands, these palms with which he approaches without going through me, give me back the borders of my body and call me to the remembrance of the most profound intimacy. (Irigaray, 2001: 121)
However, as well as giving sensuous currency to erotic and aesthetic pleasures, touch also is the reality of horror and pain—of what is ‘ungraspable’—as Fred Moten contends in his critique of ‘black pessimism’:
Touch is not where subjectivity and objectivity come together in some kind of self-determining dialectical reality; beyond that, in the hold, in the basho (the place of nothingness, that underground, undercommon recess), is the social life of black things, which passeth (the) understanding. In the hold, blackness and imagination, in and as consent not to be a single being, are (more and less than) one. (Moten 2013: 752)
This issue invites proposals for articles that deal with touch as it appears, is deployed, applied or experienced in either the production or reception of performance. However, rather than continue to perpetuate a dyadic account—of touching or of being touched—in which it retains a fundamentally passive receipt of sensory information about other things, the issue invites attention to the active, the multiple and the mysterious in the act of touching. Even when, pace Merleau-Ponty’s famous chiasm, the thing being touched is one hand under the weight of the other, to reduce touch to sensation alone is to obscure the tension and release inherent to the acts of hefting, grasping, stroking, pressing, testing and so on that together inform it. Furthermore, touch not only describes the arrival of environmental information, to, on or within the body, but the admixture of one’s own body with the other stuff and substance that constitutes experience. As Michel Serres proposes, the sensation of touch is irreducible from the activity and multiplicity of its engagement:
Contingency means common tangency: in it, the world and the body intersect and caress each other. I do not wish to call the place in which I live a medium, I prefer to say that things mingle with each other and that I am no exception to that, I mix with the world which mixes with me. (Serres 2005: 80)
To attend to this mixing means not only investigating the blend or composition of states in which touch might also participate in auditory, visual or gustatory experience, but also to the activity that draws them together. Perhaps especially in respect of performance, it is in its organization around movement, that touch finds its aesthetic potential. As Maxine Sheets-Johnstone argues:
We have direct and immediate experiences not of muscles but of movement, and in particular, of distinctively different kinesthetically-felt spatial dynamics in stretching and contracting, and in fact, distinctively different overall dynamics that include temporal and intensity differences between the two kinds of movement, i.e., stretching and contracting, precisely as Luria’s descriptions of movement… as kinesthetic melodies pinpoints. (Sheets-Johnstone 2015: 33)
While Sheets-Johnstone applies both evolutionary and phenomenological perspectives to what she terms the ‘tactile-kinaesthetic’ knowledge exemplified and intensified in modes of performance such as dance, it is also worth remembering that these terms and ideas emerge from within sensuous histories in which such knowledge is disciplined and encoded: ‘It is not just a history from below. It is a history from inside and a history from in between’ (Classen 2012: xvii).
With such multiplicities and mixtures in mind, the special issue invites contributions that cut across phenomenological, material and historical perspectives on touch in or as performance. Possible topics include, but are not limited to:
- Tangibility and ‘metaphors we live by’ (Lakoff and Johnson 1980)
- Distant and distal touching—including prostheses, virtual reality (VR)/augmented reality (AR) and haptic technologies
- Tactility and the experience economy
- Audience and performer consent
- Touch as an expression or application of care
- Touch and the non-visual
- Absent, anaesthetized and blunted touch
- Avoidances—social distancing, revulsion, indifference
- Race, touch and trauma—‘the hold’ (Moten 2013), ‘the wake’ (Sharpe 2016)
- Modalities of touch—contact, temperature, proprioception, mechanoreception, kinaesthesia,
- Pain and power—violence, control and coercion
- Touch and cross-modal sensing—listening-as-touch, gustatory touch, ‘textures of light’ (Vasseleu 1998), synaesthesia
- Tactility, tact and technique in performer training
- Non-manual touch—tactility and tangibility beyond the hand
- Difference, disability and disablement (Garner 2018)
Aristotle (1907) De Anima, trans. R. D. Hicks, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Classen, Constance (2012) The Deepest Sense: A cultural history of touch, Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
Garner, Stanton B. (2018) Kinesthetic Spectatorship in the Theatre: Phenomenology, cognition, movement, Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.
Heller-Roazen, Daniel (2009) The Inner Touch: Archaeology of a sensation, New York, NY: Zone Books.
Irigaray, Luce (2001) ‘The fecundity of the caress: A reading of Levinas, Totality and Infinity, “phenomenology of eros”’, in Tina Chanter (ed.) Feminist Interpretations of Emmanuel Levinas, Philadelphia, PA: Pennsylvania University Press, pp.119–44.
Lakoff, George and Johnson, Mark (1980) Metaphors We Live By, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Leder, Drew (1990) The Absent Body, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Moten, Fred (2013) ‘Blackness and nothingness: Mysticism in the flesh’, South Atlantic Quarterly 112(4): 737–80.
Ratcliffe, Matthew (2013) ‘Touch and the sense of reality’, in Zdravko Radman (ed.) The Hand, An Organ of the Mind: What the manual tells the mental, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 131–58.
Serres, Michel (2005) The Five Senses: A philosophy of mingled bodies, London: Continuum.
Sharpe, Christina (2016) In the Wake: On blackness and being, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Sheets-Johnstone, Maxine (2015) ‘Embodiment on trial: A phenomenological investigation’, Contemporary Philosophical Review 48: 23–39.
Vasseleu, Cathryn (1998) Textures of Light: Vision and touch in Irigaray, Levinas and Merleau-Ponty, London: Routledge.
Wilshire, Bruce (1982) Role Playing and Identity: The limits of theatre as metaphor, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Proposals: 31 May 2021
First drafts: July 2021
Final drafts: October 2021
Publication: March 2022
Alongside long-form articles, we encourage short articles, provocations and other forms of creative response. As with other editions of Performance Research, we welcome artist’s pages and other contributions that use distinctive layouts and typographies, combining words and images, as well as more conventional essays.
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Issue-related enquiries should be directed to the issue editor:
Martin Welton: firstname.lastname@example.org
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