TOUCH I: Tangible Difference, Worlding Techniques

Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2:15 PM - 4:00 PM
San Jose Convention Center, MR 211 D
Cosponsored with the Society for Cultural Anthropology

Touch, as experience, sense, and activity, is both a point of contact with the world and a worlding in itself, central to our capacities to affect and be affected. As an analytic and ethnographic focus, touch draws our attention to the fundamental and sometimes contradictory socio-material qualities of the world; touching is a kind of boundary work that distinguishes things and selves within a given ontology but only though their contact, producing difference out of the very instant in which things rub off of each other. The veritable frontline for both harming and flourishing, touch is essential to companionship, cultivation, sexuality, as well as manifold forms of violence, contagion, and a variety of other multivalent fleshy exchanges.

Acts of touching and being touched pull us into sensuous connection with people, other animals, objects, and ambient surroundings, while also giving form and flesh to wider economic and social processes. Forces like care, toxicity, forensic authority, and historical and material conditions get onto and under the skin. Here touch is inherently political: who and what touches, how, and with what consequences, is historical, hierarchical, inevitably unequal, at times contested, always racialized and gendered. Touch is deeply cultural: its place in human affairs varies profoundly across time and place. At the same time, touch is also universal; contact, or being in touch, is central to the mattering of everything that exists.

Despite being so central, or perhaps precisely because of its ubiquity, touch has often evaded extended conceptual and empirical attention in anthropology, or been downgraded or dismissed outright. Against this tendency, and building on prior conversations in phenomenology and the anthropology of the senses, in two paired panels we offer touch as a provocation, inviting experiments that take up touch as an analytic focusing us on the politics of resonant fleshy and material moments and the histories of our ramifying socio-material encounters.

Part I: “Tangible Difference, Worlding Techniques,” explores the practices through which touch both produces worlds of difference and mediates encounters with difference: enduring sensations emerging from experimental ethnographic practices, relations of disability, differences between self and other produced as forms of life are made known through touch. Panelists trace the ways such differences then make a difference, having material, social, and psychic consequences for those who touch and are touched, while transforming the way difference is made a subject, object, or mode of knowledge. As such, this conversation offers a kind of extension of Merleau-Ponty’s observation about the reversibility of touch—that to touch is always in some sense to be touched. Examining tangible relationality in Uganda, biometric socialization in India, and experimental representational practice and profound sensory difference in North America, all of the papers on this panel are concerned with signature anthropological concerns—kinship, sociality, and otherness—while engaging interdisciplinary conversations in disability studies, aesthetic theory, and STS.

Presenters: Zoe Wool, Rice University; Tyler Zoanni, New York University; Anna Eisenstein, University of Virginia; Terra Edwards, Saint Louis University; Danilyn Rutherford, Wenner-Gren Foundation; Vijayanka Nair, University of Wisconsin-Madison; Deborah Thomas, University of Pennsylvania; Stefan Helmreich, Massachusetts Institute of Technology