The Non-Tactile World

Art by Bradlee Hicks

“Physical work is a specific contact with the beauty of the world, and can even be, in its best moments, a contact so full that no equivalent can be found elsewhere,” Simone Weil wrote in her essay “Forms of the Implicit Love of God.”  “The artist, the scholar, the philosopher, the contemplative should really admire the world and pierce through the film of unreality that veils it and makes of it, for nearly all men at nearly every moment of their lives, a dream or stage set. They ought to do this but more often than not they cannot manage it.  He who is aching in every limb, worn out by the effort of a day of work – that is to say, a day when he has been subject to matter – bears the reality of the universe in his flesh like a thorn.  The difficulty for him is to look and to love. If he succeeds, he loves the Real.”[1]

Our girl Simone

The eccentric French philosopher and mystic Weil was talking about an extreme form of touch, an existential or epistemological conception of contact with the world – not just alighting upon it but piercing, penetrating it, with all the attendant sexual connotation.  The engagement with the knowable world she describes is as bracing as enveloping or entering another person.

We find ourselves suddenly in a non-tactile world.  A world where no one touches anything, least of all each other – at least not much more than our footfalls hit the ground.  And even then we’ve started taking our shoes off inside, much to the relief of our more civilized friends in East Asia and other cultures who observe the custom.  By virtue of the virus, we are living in an extreme version of the future imagined by the telegraph and the Internet’s most ardent enthusiasts: an “annihilation of space” where everything can happen virtually, where the instant transmission of information renders place meaningless, the commute disappears, and it doesn’t matter where anything actually is.

Annihilation of all life in the universe is also an option

Now, this vision of the future, promulgated in the 1960s by the weirdo likes of Herman Kahn and more recently their descendant, Elon Musk, never really came to fruition much at all.  Off-shoring of some service jobs, such as call centers, was possible, but by and large people kept going to work.  If anything, place seemed to matter more than ever in the postindustrial economy, as tech companies and “creatives” clustered in a handful of desirable, hip cities. Maybe companies and managers just felt a coercive desire to make people show up at the office, as perpetual fail-daughter Marissa Mayer did when she curbed working-from-home as CEO of Yahoo, or maybe it still mattered significantly that people see each other in the flesh in order to work effectively, collaborate, or simply be in the state of mind necessary to work.  We have all just embarked on a world-historically epic experiment in what working-from-home, at least for many white-collar workers, would be like if we all did it at once. 

I’m implying that touch is part of work, which in most white-collar workplaces is not encouraged, to say the least.  (Being “handsy” is no longer officially regarded as cute and harmless.)  But the Quarantine is reminding many of us of how personal services – such as haircuts, getting your nails done, physical therapy, and so on – are very much based on touch or, at the very least, close physicality.  They are not happening anymore.  The sociologist Arlie Hochschild talked about the role of affective labor in her classic 1983 book The Managed Heart, which was about how many service-industry jobs rely heavily on mobilizing the emotional, interpersonal, caring aspects of a worker’s effort much more than more traditional jobs in agriculture or manufacturing. (Her main case study was flight attendants, women — primarily — whose utility depended in large part on their ability to perform a subservient but cheerful role and create an emotional experience for the passengers they served.) 

Touch is not necessarily essential to even this kind of affective labor, but we all understand that reaching out for physical contact can have deep emotional resonance – whether soothing, threatening, startling, and so on. As sociologist Millian Kang showed in her 2010 book The Managed Hand: Race, Gender, and the Body in Beauty Service Work, direct physical contact is pretty much necessarily part of the job performed by workers (largely, though certainly not exclusively women) who apply their skills to the bodies of others in nail salons and other similar enterprises. “This work requires both technical expertise and adroit emotional skills,” Kang writes, “to finesse strong reactions of customers in the servicing of their bodies.”  She describes this underrecognized, largely invisible but clearly valorized work as “body labor.”[2]

Touch and communication are far from the same thing – palpable contact is, of course, only one subset of the ways we communicate – but certainly it is the way we first learn to interact and form relationships with others in a primal sense, before our abilities to discern shapes or sounds even come into focus.  So touch might not be all there is to communication, but communication for the vast majority of people has its origin in touch.

Moreover, communication has often been used as a metaphor for touch, and vice versa (the iconic AT&T slogan “Reach Out and Touch Someone,” or You’ve Got Mail as a metaphor for romantic intimacy).  Before the dawn of the telegraph, communication and transportation were essentially the same thing.  A message traveled exactly as fast as it could be physically carried, hence a written message could arrive to convey the same information that a human would to say it in person, more or less.  (Science writer James Gleick talks about some notable exceptions for pre-electronic communication over a distance in his wonderful 2012 book The Information, as does Alain Corbin in the sensory history classic Village Bells.)  But in many ways the expression fixed on paper was, in a very literal sense, a substitute for the body itself – a container that transmitted meaning exactly as fast as a horse, boat, or human feet could carry it.

All this comes jarringly to light in a moment where physical touch has been more or less suspended by law, and its facsimile in written or electronic communication has had to fill the whole void left by corporeal presence and touch.  We’ve learned recently that the bizarrely limited circumstances of the Quarantine can compel us to the telephone, Skype, email or social media to reconnect with people, reaffirming relationships with old friends, family, and even coworkers that we otherwise would not have occasion to speak to if things were more “normal.” 

Yet we also know that electronic presence is a tenuous bridge indeed.  I’m reminded of an extremely unfortunate comment by the novelist William S. Burroughs, who was living in Mexico with his doomed wife Joan Vollmer in the early 1950s and spoke of spending his monthly allowance on rent boys, until, toward the third or fourth week, his money ran out and he would resort to sex with Joan.  He described it as accepting a tortilla when there’s no steak.  It’s no wonder he murdered her.

But the Skype call, as welcome sometimes as a minifridge in the desert to the parched traveler, is still not as fulsome or satisfying as real physical presence.  We all know this, though at the moment it is perhaps best to willfully suppress that knowledge.  We can still touch each other, if virtually and electronically, at a distance.  There’s a reason why an emotionally affecting film or novel is sometimes described as “touching.” 

It will be extremely interesting to see how we adjust back to a world where we get our eyebrows threaded and nails done again, jostle each other at concerts, and so on if the immediate threat of COVID-19 ever recedes.  But at the moment, the postindustrial economy has been stripped of its most immediate, palpable, affective elements (such as personal services) and reduced to its few other parts – intellectual labor that can be done at a distance, and manufacturing and distribution work (such as Amazon or UPS) that can also be done, to some extent, without direct physical contact with consumers or clients.

In teaching about America in the 1950s, I structure my main lecture around the idea of containment.  I talk about Paul N. Edwards’s 1996 book The Closed World (one of my favorites), and the sense of everyday life as a hermetic loop radically and intentionally confined, of people living in “little boxes” to keep out the dangerous world beyond.  We’re living in a new closed world, at the moment, akin to the fallout shelters and underground bunkers families imagined themselves whiling away the nuclear winter within.  Yet, in this box, despite being so close to each other and so far away from everything else, we’re not supposed to touch.  The affective and palpable elements of work will return at some point, presumably, and hopefully we will recognize them better then.


[1] Simone Weil, Love in the Void: Where God Finds Us, ed. Laurie Gagne (Walden, NY: Plough, 2018), p. 48.

[2] Miliann Kang, The Managed Hand: Race, Gender, and the Body in Beauty Service Work (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), 2-3.

Author: Alex Sayf Cummings

Alex Sayf Cummings is an associate professor of history at Georgia State University, whose work deals with technology, law, public policy, and the political culture of the modern United States. Alex's writing has appeared in Salon, the Brooklyn Rail, the Journal of American History, the Journal of Urban History, Al Jazeera, and Southern Cultures, among other publications, and the book Democracy of Sound was published by Oxford University Press in 2013 (paperback, 2017). Alex can be followed on Twitter at @akbarjenkins.

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