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Theory of Touch

Updated: May 8, 2020

It is interesting to look at the affect theory in terms of traditional galleries. Galleries are often considered as untouchable, sacred places, where the spectator is expected to walk quietly between artworks and contemplate from a distance. But, as with our human nature, the spectator often feels the innate need to bridge that distance and interact with the art more intimately. As Jean-Louis Chrétien said, “no phenomenology of life, of body and the flesh, can be constituted without basing itself on a phenomenology of touch” (Chrétien, 2004). While many have discussed the phenomenon of touch, it is once again Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy on this particular phenomenon that has influenced countless artists and thinkers. His writings successfully draw the attention of the reader towards the embodied experience and how our own bodies come into play in terms of perceiving the surrounding world. Merleau-Ponty reinterprets Edmund Husserl’s notion of ‘double sensation’. Husserl states that double sensation only incorporates the sensation of touch, but Merleau-Ponty expands on this notion further by applying it to all the human senses. Husserl’s argument is that the intentionality of reflexivity on the body is completely dependent on the distinct act of touch:

"The body as such can be constituted originally only in tactuality and in everything localised within the sensations of touch, such as warmth, cold, pain, and the like. A subject with eyes only could not have an appearing body at all. The body becomes a body only through the introduction of sensations in touch, the introduction of pain sensations, etc., in short, through the localisation of sensations." (Husserl, 1913)

In Merleau-Ponty’s book The Visible and the Invisible he wrote about the experience of a handshake and the double sensation of touching. He comments on the dual nature of the human body, as the spectated and the spectator or the touched and the ones touching. He goes on to argue that the two experiences, to be touched and to touch are not concurrent. In terms of a handshake, even though both of the hands touch each other, they will always remain detached. We cannot touch without being touched, in both a physical and philosophical sense. The double nature of touch, exposing yourself at the same time as experiencing, serves as an analogy for how we encounter works of art. Philosopher, Jacques Derrida, also explores the sensation of touch and his concepts can also be applied to our interactions with art works. Derrida’s research has been continually obsessed with hands and the act of touching. He explored this interest most deeply in his book On Touching—Jean-Luc Nancy, in which Derrida uses Jean-Luc Nancy’s philosophy as an anchor to explore the philosophy of the sense of touch and examine the act of touching the untouchable. As Derrida questions, “How do we touch upon the untouchable? Distributed among the indefinite number of forms and figures, this question is precisely the obsession haunting a thinking of touch – or thinking as the haunting of touch. We can only touch on a surface, which is to say the skin or thin peel of a limit” (Derrida, 2000).

- A segment from my dissertation

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