Touching Me Touching You

written by Vincent Meelberg

One thing social distancing has taught us is how important touch is for us human beings. When people do not have the possibility to physically touch other people they can develop a condition called touch starvation or touch deprivation. Touch starvation increases stress, depression, and anxiety, which in turn may result in serious health problems such as headaches, depression, and chronic pain. 

And yet, touch seems to be a rather neglected human sense that, at least until recently, we took for granted. Vision, on the other hand, is usually regarded as the most important means by which human subjects acquire knowledge regarding the world, and ever since the visual turn theory has focused on that sense primarily. Hearing, too, is increasingly regarded as a sense worthy of study as well. Touch, however, remains rather undertheorized, at least in cultural studies.

Nevertheless, on October 4, 2021, the US physiologist David Julius and the Lebanese-American molecular biologist Ardem Patapoutian received the Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of the receptors of nerve cells that allow us to feel heat, cold, pain, and touch. Thanks to these receptors the nervous system is able to detect what the positions of our bodies are, where the arms and leg are, to feel the heat of a warm drink, or the sun on our faces. Without these facilities we would not be able to survive, as through touch we are able to establish contact with the outside world. Also, touch enables us to manipulate and interact with our environment. And interpersonal contact, let alone intimate contact, depends on touch as well. Touch thus seems to be rather important after all, and the pandemic has reminded us of its importance.

Touch is crucial for direct interpersonal contact. According to Matthew Fulkerson interpersonal contact can be established through what he calls affiliative touch: affiliative touch involves contact through touch with another person. Direct affiliative, interpersonal touch is quite intimate, sometimes erotic even. Caressing another person’s body, or kissing someone else’s lips, are examples of quite intimate and affective acts of affiliative touch. 

Affiliative touch can also be distal, indirect, or mediated. This may sound paradoxical, but Fulkerson explains that “[…] through touch we are sensitive to pressure waves and vibrations, as well as other similar signals, and these stimuli are capable of travel through media just like light and sound waves. It thus makes sense that our touch receptors could bring us into contact with distal objects or features, especially when there is a strong mutual informational link between the distal object and our bodies supported by our exploratory actions” (Fulkerson, Matthew. 2014. The First Sense: A Philosophical Study of Human Touch. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, p. 150). 

And this is how cultural practices such as theatre and musical performances work. These practices establish interpersonal contact through distal affiliative touch. Sounds touch the eardrums, as well as the entire body, of the audience. The actual physical presence of actors on stage can almost literally be felt. We feel the movements of dancers in our own bodies while watching a dance performance. And this is an experience that cannot be had, at least not in the same manner and with the same intensity, by watching or listening to a recording of such performances. These recordings simply do not have the capacity to touch an audience in the way a live performance can. Experiencing performances via recordings only may ultimately even lead to touch starvation as well, albeit of a different kind. 

Despite the somewhat derogatory comment made by the Dutch Secretary of Health, Hugo de Jonge, that one can easily compensate for not being able to visit live performances during the pandemic by watching a DVD, live performances are essential to our mental health. They are not only essential because artistic practices in general may be beneficial to both practitioners and audiences alike, but also because these performances allow for different ways to be touched, to be caressed by the physical presence of performers on stage. Live performances create possibilities for affiliative touch, and as such may help to prevent touch deprivation. In short: in times of social distancing the performing arts are sorely needed.

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