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.

Resonance

By Vincent Meelberg

It does not happen very often that you read a newspaper article that makes so much sense that it has a profound impact on your academic research. It has happened to me, though, after reading the interview with Hartmut Rosa in the Dutch newspaper NRC. Even though the interview does not discuss sound or music explicitly, which are the areas of my research, the main concept that Rosa introduces – resonance – does.

Rosa argues that modern society is one that operates in what he calls a mode of dynamic stabilization, i.e. a society that systematically requires growth, innovation and acceleration. Such a society can thus only be stable by being in constant motion and acceleration. This kind of dynamics also influences the arts, as contemporary literature, poetry, painting, dancing, theatre and music also seems to primarily value innovation and originality, and in so doing puts the emphasis on constant change. And academia, too, suffers from this. Academic research has to innovate, to produce something new. This is one of the reasons why replication studies, which are crucial to the integrity of academic research, are so unpopular. These studies do not really bring anything new to the table and at most confirm or refute past results.

According to Rosa, these developments have led to a conception of “the good life” as one that is geared towards availability, accessibility, and attainability. At first sight, this may not seem like a bad thing. Take music, for instance. Streaming services like Apple Music and Spotify has made music increasingly attainable and affordable. Virtually every song that was ever recorded is readily available to us listeners. But do we still actually listen? Do we still have the patience to sit down and listen to an entire song, let alone to a complete album, knowing that the next tune is just one click away? 

We simply do not have the time to listen or read anymore, Rosa points out:

As time has become an increasingly scarce commodity, while music and books have become more and more easily attainable and affordable, very often the books and cds or records thus collected are never really or fully read or heard. They are stored away in shelves and cases for possible future use. They are acquired as mere potential, but they are not, or not fully, appropriated in the true sense of “consumption.” (Rosa 2017: 447)

This paradoxical state in which everything is available, but at the same time not fully appropriated, Rosa calls alienation. Alienations is “[…] a particular mode of relating to the world of things, of people and of one’s self in which there is no responsivity, i.e. no meaningful inner connection” (Rosa 2017: 449). Alienation is a state in which it is impossible to make meaningful relations. It diminishes the capacity to feel affected by something, and in turn to develop intrinsic interest in the part of the world that affects us.

The solution to alienation, Rosa suggests, is resonance. Resonance is a dual movement of being touched or affected and responding to this affection in a way that acknowledges the affection. It thus requires an openness and a willingness to affect and be affected. We need to let ourselves be touched, and even transformed, in a non-predictable and non-controllable way. Indeed, this is similar to the manner in which Baruch de Spinoza and Gilles Deleuze conceptualise affect. What Rosa adds to their conception, however, is both a critique of contemporary society and a possible solution to alienation.

The reason why I believe the notion of resonance is so promising for my field of research – sound studies – is first and foremost because sound is resonance. Sounds are a form of resonance and can therefore be understood as a kind of vibrational affect, as Walter Gershon (2013) puts it. Sound literally touches and affects listeners through resonance. So, perhaps sound can teach us how to enter into a state of resonance. After all, as Gershon points out, “[t]he sonic is resonance and knowledge, vibrational affects that effect how individuals and groups are and know” (2013: 258). Sound perhaps is the most explicit manifestation of resonance, and therefore has the potential to incite us to think about what resonance is, or can be.

Yet, sound not only has the potentiality to inform us about resonance, but can also be used in order to stimulate resonance. A good example of this is sound in public spaces. In each and every space that we enter, sounds can be heard. In such spaces we are surrounded by sounds that propagate all around and come from everywhere at once. Sound thus literally places us in the midst of a world and have a huge influence in the manner in which we experience and interpret this space. We interpret this environment and add specific meaning to it, turning the “space” into a “place.” At the same time, we become part of the environment and in doing so contribute to defining its identity. We, as inhabitants of an environment, influence what Jean-Paul Thibaud (2011) calls the ambiance, which is the atmosphere of an environment as experienced by a person. 

Sounds influence the ways in which we get in sync with this environment. Certain sounds may affect us in such a way that we are motivated to open ourselves up to the environment, to let ourselves be touched and affected, and to respond to this affection in a way that acknowledges the affection. In short, to enter into a state of resonance.

Music in public spaces is an example of using specific sounds to influence the ambiance. Music may stimulate certain people to open themselves up to an environment and stay in this environment for a prolonged period of time. But non-musical sounds can have a similar effect, too. Even sounds that we are not consciously aware of may influence our experience of an environment and the manner in which we attune to its ambiance. 

The same holds for the absence of sounds. The recent lockdown, for instance, has resulted in a radical change in urban auditory environments. The city suddenly became quiet and sounds could be heard that previously were inaudible. This has led to a different relationship with urban sounds. People actually missed the sounds that they, in normal times, would label as “noise.” The relationship between these sounds and urban inhabitants changed, and as a result, their relationship with the city as a space changed as well. Sound, and in this case the absence of sound, motivated city inhabitants to enter into a new, meaningful relation with the urban environment. It stimulated resonance. And all they had to do is let themselves be touched and affected by sound, and open their ears.

References

Gershon, Walter (2013). “Vibrational Affect: Sound Theory and Practice in Qualitative Research.” Cultural Studies – Critical Methodologies 13(4): 257–262.

Rosa, Hartmut (2017). “Dynamic Stabilization, the Triple A. Approach to the Good Life, and the Resonance Conception.” Questions de communication 31: 437–456.

Thibaud, Jean-Paul (2011). “A Sonic Paradigm of Urban Ambiances.” Journal of Sonic Studies 1(1). https://www.researchcatalogue.net/view/220589/220590