Touched: Transdisciplinary Perspectives (19th-21st centuries)

This is very exciting – an interdisciplinary day conference on touch at the Nouvelle Sorbonne in Paris, organized by Dr. Caroline Pollentier, and the launch of the Touch, Arts, Affects (TACT) network.

There are talks throughout the day by touch scholars and artists, and I’m giving the Keynote at the end of the day, ‘Social Touch and its Futures: Tales of Haptic and Affective Loops’ with a Response by Catherine Pélachaud (CNRS, Institute of Intelligent Systems and Robotics).

Here’s some information from the event website, which you should consult for further details including the full timetable, abstracts, and location details:

This seminar proposes to explore the elusive experience of being touched from a transdisciplinary perspective. Touch and affect are entangled in the “metaphors we live by” (George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, 1980). In revaluing experiences of tactility, haptic studies have detected “more affective and metaphorical forms” of “deep touch” across discourses, practices, and technologies (Mark Paterson, 2007). Recent research in neuroscience has alternatively identified affective touch as distinct behavioural and neural mechanisms ranging from social thermoregulation to stress regulation (India Morrison, 2016). Whether approached as a socially constructed metaphorical medium or as physical, biological, and neural phenomena, the sense of touch mobilises multiple affects and emotions.

The first goal of this seminar will be to interrogate these affective ecologies of touch across a range of disciplines and methodologies—literature, sociology, philosophy, linguistics, arts and media, neuroscience, robotics. How is one touched by a hand, a crowd, by literary texts, needles, films, digital images, and robots? How can artworks, like haptic media, convey the sensation of being touched from a distance, or “being touched as if from the inside,” according to Toni Morrison, quoted by Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht? From mid-nineteenth century psycho-physiological experiments to the current pandemic, the experience of being touched, at once immediate and mediated, has not only taken on many forms, meanings, and resonances, but has also increasingly become a virtual mode of being-in-common.

The second goal of this seminar will be to revaluate the tactile and affective paradigm of passivity. According to J. J. Gibson’s canonical distinction between active touch and passive touch in “Observations on Active Touch” (1962), touch is passive when it is “receptive” and brought about by “some outside agency.” Conversely, haptic sensing is defined by an emphasis on active touch, whereby “the sensory information a person receives does not come from just passive contact but from actively exploring the environment” (Lynette A. Jones, 2018). What happens to agency in the experience of affective touch? In Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (2003), Eve Sedgwick coupled affect with texture within the framework of performative theory. Could pathos be reconsidered at the intersection of active and passive? This study day seeks to revalue the singularity and potentialities of passive touch, foregrounding the bidirectionality of touch of a way of rethinking categories of agency, action, and actant.

This study day will serve as the launch for the TACT network (Touch, Arts, Affects) which aims at leading transdisciplinary research on touch and haptics in the arts.


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