A Philosophy of Contact

Giorgio Agamben

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Two bodies are in contact when they touch each other. What does it mean to touch something? What is contact? Giorgio Colli has provided a precise definition, stating that two points are in contact when they are separated only by a void of representation. Contact is not a point of contact, which cannot exist in itself, because every continuous quantity can be divided. Two bodies are said to be in contact with each other when no medium can be inserted between them, i.e. when they are unmediated. When there is a relation of representation between two things (e.g. subject/object, husband/wife, master/slave, distance/closeness) we do not say they are in contact. But if, on the other hand, every representation fails, if indeed there is nothing between them, then and only then can they be said to be in contact. This can also be expressed by saying that contact is unrepresentable, that it is not possible to represent the kind of relation that is in question here – or, as Colli puts it, that “contact is therefore the indication of a nothingness of representation, of a metaphysical interstice.”

The defect of this definition is that, insofar as it must resort to purely negative expressions, such as “nothingness” and the “unrepresentable”, it risks fading into mysticism. Colli himself specifies that, to say that contact is immediate is merely an approximation, that representation can never be entirely eliminated. To avoid the risk of abstraction, it will thus be useful to return to our starting point and to ask once again what it means to “touch” – to question, that is, that most humble and terrestrial of senses, that of touch.

Aristotle reflected upon the particular nature of touch, which differentiates it from the other senses. For each sense there is a medium (metaxy), which performs a decisive function: for sight, the medium is the diaphanous that, illuminated by color, acts upon the eyes; for hearing it is the air that, moved by a sounding body, strikes the ear. What distinguishes touch from the other senses is that we perceive the tangible not “because the medium exercises an action upon us, but together (ama) with the medium.” This medium, which is not external to us but within us, is the flesh (sarx). Yet this means that what is touched is not merely the external object but also the flesh that is moved or moved by it – that, in other words, in contact we touch our own sensitivity, we are affected by our own receptivity. Whereas in seeing we cannot see our own eyes, and in hearing we cannot perceive our own faculty of hearing, in touch we touch our own capacity to touch and to be touched. Contact with another body is, therefore, at the same time, first and foremost, contact with ourselves. Touch, which seems inferior to other senses, is therefore in a certain way the first, because it is in it that something like a subject is generated, which in sight and the other senses is in a certain way abstractly presupposed. We have an experience of ourselves for the first time when, touching another body, we also touch our own flesh.

If, as is being perversely attempted today, all contact were to be abolished, if everything and everyone were kept at a distance, we would then lose not only the experience of other bodies, but first and foremost any immediate experience of ourselves. We would lose, purely and simply, our flesh.

Translated by Richard Braude