Monday, June 30, 2014

On haptic connectivity and wholeness

Flickr, under Creative Commons licencing

Why were haptic experiences excluded from studies of sociality for decades? It seems that until recently, touch was either promulgated as an instrument of positivist or empiricist analysis, or consigned to the pit of tourist paraphernalia. Today there are reputable tourist studies of the body (e.g. Veijola and Jokinen 1994; Veijola and Valtonen 2007) that support a shift towards holistic phenomenologies, but ‘tourism theory’ itself continues to suffer from accusations of frivolity. The origin of such exorcisms is the idea of experiential authenticity as ordinary, lacking in seriousness and gravity (McCabe 2005). Almost by analogy, the body is something to be discarded as a hedonistic vessel rather than the cradle of human essence.

The renunciation of the body is certainly rooted in Western European contexts. A hermeneutics of suspicion would readily connect this absence of engagement to the ways bodily abjection guided Christian and Cartesian discourses of what it means (or ought to mean) to be human. Haptic dilemmas run deep in other cultures with their own sensory hierarchies and rules. I recall a friend’s anecdotal presentation on Indonesian tendencies to brush off with others in public spaces but not look at them in the eye because straightforward looking is regarded as rude (and yet, touching nude bodies might still be a taboo in some of Indonesian religious contexts such as the Muslim). Hindu appreciation of the senses as a whole translates into the concept of the rasas or ‘flavours’ (yet, even then touchability is not excluded but localised: one hand is clean but the other is unclean and cannot perform decent duties; the tongue can come in direct contact with edible alien items).

There is something too immediate, and hence ‘out of control’ about touch and its bodily mechanisms that civilised humans cannot accept in Western (and European) contexts (though counter-cultures might fight against such objections). Eliasian debates on the management of the body aside, the European legacy of empiricism might still be too strong to allow mainstream acceptance of the haptic in ‘normal’, everyday rituals. Touch is characterised by ‘firstness’ (Peirce 1998) - that is, engagement prior to comprehension. Observation and sight allow safe time to pass between first contact and comprehension of what we see (ocular connections to the world do not have to be ‘felt’ in the same affective way). The awkwardness of touching and being touched is thus carefully side-lined in serious academic discourse in the name of propriety. As a result, the traditional, nomothetic homo academicus can never become complete: a collection of fragments in need of collation is spread across books, conference presentations and photographs, but the whole remains as socially absent as the human body.   

McCabe, S. (2005) ‘“Who is a tourist?” A critical overview’, Tourist Studies, 5(1):85-106.
Peirce, C.M. (1998) ‘Harvard lectures on pragmaticism’, in N. Houser and C. Kloesel (eds) The Essential Peirce, vol. I: 1867-93. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Veijola, S. and A. Valtonen (2007) ‘The body in tourism industry’, in A. Pritchard, N. Morgan, I. Ateljevic and C. Harris (eds) Tourism and Gender. Wallingford: CABI.
Veijola, S. and E. Jokinen (1994) ‘The body in tourism’, Theory and Society, 11: 125-51.    

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