Is today’s virtual dater and mater something like an updated version of Plato’s Gyges, who could see everything at a distance but was touched by nothing?
Richard Kearney, a philosophy professor at Boston College, will presumably build anticipation for his forthcoming book, Carnal Hermeneutics with his “Losing Our Touch” in The Opinion Pages of The New York Times. As of this morning, the Times website listed his essay as the eighth “Most Emailed.” Who says Philosophy Departments lack market savvy?
In a refrain common among scholars and artists interested in the non-visual senses, Kearney argues that contemporary digital culture has devalued the sense of touch. Based on his students’ testimony of their intensive mining of dating websites like OK Cupid and apps like Tinder, Kearney worries that “hook up” culture is another example of how human contact today is all too often “mediated digitally.”
Oh boy. Just what the world needs now is another middle-aged scold decrying the youth’s proclivity for casual sex, perhaps enlivened with a bit of rehash of the doleful arguments against current technology by such analysts as Sherry Turkle in Alone Together. However, Kearney’s interest in the larger role of the senses redeems his essay (at least to a point). Though not without its problems, his essay is timely, zeitgeisty, even.
Invoking Aristotle (who in fact argued both sides of the case), Kearney emphasizes the respectable Western tradition of reverence for touch, a belief that “tactility” is “not merely sensorial but cognitive, too.” Kearney blames Plato for the eclipse of this Aristotelian belief. For Plato and most Western philosophers after him, vision seemed the noblest, most refined, most cerebral of the senses, “because it is the most distant and mediated; hence most theoretical, holding things at bay, mastering meaning from above.”
In an image-saturated modern world, vision reigned while touch bore the stigma of being the lowest of the five senses. Today, Kearney fears, “our current technology is arguably exacerbating our carnal alienation. While offering us enormous freedoms of fantasy and encounter, digital eros may also be removing us further from the flesh.” Oh no!
The professor does not merely mean OK Cupid and Tinder, which beguile his young students with a consumer’s cornucopia of dating and hook up prospects, he is also tilting against online pornography (by now a well-established tradition).
Both online-and-app-dating and Internet porn are, he believes, screen-based, obsessive, joyless pursuits of joy that leave users “out of touch with the body.” And you thought meeting creeps, being stood up, or developing misogynistic prejudices were the chief dangers!
The loss of touch, Kearney suggests, makes ours “more and more a fleshless society.” He finds this trend evident in the world of health care, where the doctor’s hands, ears and even eyes have been rendered obsolete by “anonymous technologies of imaging in diagnosis and treatment;” in warfare, where “hand-to-hand combat has been replaced by ‘targeted killing’ via remote-controlled drones;” and in peacemaking, where we miss the salvation of handshakes like those between former adversaries like Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk. In short, we no longer know how to date, mate, fight, heal and make up.
This leads, inevitably, to his dystopian gesture: “certain cyber engineers” will rework our brains so that we can have our needs met entirely without human contact. “The touch screen replaces touch itself. The cosmos shrinks to a private monitor; each viewer a disembodied self unto itself.”
Like so many recent statements arguing for a rediscovery of the sensuousness of life (including my sensual reading of Naomi Klein’s diagnosis of climate change, to take one modest example), Kearney’s ends with a vague summons to regain our sense (in this case, touch). Getting back to the tactile, the haptic and the kinesthetic, he declares, would restore the truth “that eros is more about proximity than proxy.” Being a fleshier, more touching culture will make the sex much hotter, too:
Such a move, I submit, would radically alter our “sense” of sex in our digital civilization. It would enhance the role of empathy, vulnerability and sensitivity in the art of carnal love, and ideally, in all of human relations. Because to love or be loved truly is to be able to say, “I have been touched.”
Whatever one thinks of the philosophical wisdom of that claim, it certainly merits use on your next Tinder date.
While my engagement with the senses makes me sympathetic to Kearney’s argument and delighted by the large audience it has found, it does seem we should prune some of his exuberance. Some of this work has already begun. In the comments on the Times website, readers have noted some of the problems. W in the Middle, for example, slyly observed,
…I’m losing something when I touch my screen image of the NYT to turn the digital page – and don’t end up with newsprint on my fingertips?
Defending the utility of digital dating while mocking Kearney’s tone, R Lichtman writes:
All this erudition seems to me quite wide of the mark. Things are always changing, and we often romanticize some “lost” world where things were better. I for one have no nostalgia for the endless hours spent in bars or museums hoping that a potential mate might appear.
Whether “swiping right” on Tinder is more refined (or effective) than recitation of cheesy pick-up lines at last call is debatable, but the reader’s skepticism about nostalgia is apropos. There has never been a sensory utopia in which we all had our touch, and there has never been a dating utopia where we all fell head over heels, either.
As for Kearney’s odd inclusion of remote-control warfare (how many philosophers wax nostalgic for the days of the battle axe or bayonet?), Blueingreen66 notes
The author writes as if hand-to-hand combat is somehow synonymous with war. Hand to hand combat disappeared from naval warfare in the 19th century. It has obviously never been a part of aerial combat, something now a century old. Even war between troops on the ground began its move away from hand-to-hand combat in Europe in the Middle Ages with the introduction of cannon and firearms. By the beginning of twentieth century rifles, long-range artillery and the machine gun had become far more effective in war and have been used far more often than handheld weapons. Yet, while that remains true, infantry combat may still involve hand-to-hand fighting. The change the author mentions is a change only in the sense that troops attacked from the air, something that has also occurred for a century, are now being attacked by both piloted and unpiloted aircraft.
This observation, while confined to military history, has much broader applications. As the historian Robert Jütte suggested some years ago in A History of the Senses, the 20th century spawned contradictory trends concerning touch. While some philosophers and psychologists claimed “that the sense of touch was losing its significance in sensory knowledge” in an age of machines and automation, others disagreed. Moreover, the counterculture of the 1960s celebrated “a remarkable rediscovery of the sense of touch,” as many youth rebelled against the TV and image-dominated cocoon of their childhood. By the end of the century, Jütte observed, Western societies clamored for tactile and haptic experiences in many ways, particularly through yoga and body therapies.
Sexually, the vibrator – once promoted as a therapeutic instrument – had become a mainstream instigator of pleasure in a culture newly encouraging of sex, generally, as well as public displays of affection, a culture newly attentive to the body’s many erogenous zones. Desire for “loving sex” – with its promise of emotionally and physically intensive bonding – only grew with the onset of the Internet. Though associated with the kind of demoralizing, passive consumption of visual objectification decried by Kearney, web surfers also reached out for more information (and access – preferably, with partners) on loving sex and maps for a new terrain of haptic, carnal exploration. Indeed, Kearney’s students are apt to prove more reticent in sharing with the professor the decidedly skin-centric experiences ultimately yielded by their exploitation of Tinder. Whatever online-and-app-dating’s costs to the individual, couples, and society, it need not mean a systemic loss of touch.
Reading Kearney’s piece feels a little as it might if we lay hands on a 21st-Century-jeremiad by Aristotle, (On Tinder). While intriguing, the invocation of ancient philosophers to issue authoritative judgments on contemporary digital technology and social media seems as misguided as the turgid debates over what the American Founders would or would not think about such current issues as abortion and gun control. Kearney might therefore have made the worst of a good argument. Cultures of touch are not going away. Tactile appreciation of the arts and the restoration of at least a degree of hapticity in the museum are current trends missed here by Kearney. In an age of mass surveillance and eroding privacy, we have many sensory concerns, but the extinction of the caress is not one of them.