Losing Our Touch
By RICHARD KEARNEY
August 30, 2014 11:30 August 30, 2014 11:30 am
Are we losing our senses? In our increasingly virtual world, are we losing touch with the sense of touch itself? And if so, so what?
I recently had occasion to pose these questions to students in a college class I teach on eros — “from Plato to today.” Not surprisingly, the topic of physical contact and sex came up, and the conversation turned very much to “today.” A number of the students said that they regularly messaged online before having “real contact” with partners, perhaps using online dating and mating services like Match.com, OkCupid, SpeedDate.com and Tinder. They shared messaging acronyms that signaled their level of willingness to have sex, and under what conditions. They admitted to enjoying the relative anonymity of the one-off “hook up,” whose consummation required no preliminary close-quarters courtship rites or flirtation ceremonies, no culinary seduction, no caress, nothing — apart from the eventual “blind rut,” as James Joyce put it — requiring the presence of a functioning, sensitive body.
We noted the rather obvious paradox: The ostensible immediacy of sexual contact was in fact mediated digitally. And it was also noted that what is often thought of as a “materialist” culture was arguably the most “immaterialist” culture imaginable — vicarious, by proxy, and often voyeuristic.
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? Are we perhaps entering an age of “excarnation,” where we obsess about the body in increasingly disembodied ways? For if incarnation is the image become flesh, excarnation is flesh become image. Incarnation invests flesh; excarnation divests it.
In perhaps the first great works of human psychology, the “De Anima,” Aristotle pronounced touch the most universal of the senses. Even when we are asleep we are susceptible to changes in temperature and noise. Our bodies are always “on.” And touch is the most intelligent sense, Aristotle explained, because it is the most sensitive. When we touch someone or something we are exposed to what we touch. We are responsive to others because we are constantly in touch with them.
Richard Kearney is a philosophy professor at Boston College whose books include “The Wake of Imagination” and the forthcoming “Carnal Hermeneutics.”
Frank Schaeffer is a writer. His latest book —WHY I AM AN ATHEIST WHO BELIEVES IN GOD: How to give love, create beauty and find peace
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