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Contact philosophy – Giorgio Agamben

Two bodies are in contact when they touch. But what does it mean to touch? What is a contact? Giorgio Colli gave an acute definition of this by stating that two points are in contact when they are separated only by a vacuum of representation.

Contact is not a point of contact, which in itself cannot exist, because any continuous quantity can be divided.

Two entities are said to be in contact when no medium can be inserted between them, when they are immediate. If there is a relationship of representation between two things (for example: subject-object; husband-wife; master-servant; distance-proximity), they will not say they are in contact: but if every representation fails, if there is no connection between them. there is nothing, 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 make a representation of the relationship in question here – or, as Colli writes, that “contact is therefore the indication of a representative nothing, of an interstice metaphysical”.

The defect of this definition is that, in so far as it has to resort to purely negative expressions, such as “nothing” and “unrepresentable”, it risks fading into mysticism. Colli himself states that the contact can be said to be immediate only approximately, that the representation can never be completely eliminated. Against any risk of abstractness, it will then be useful to go back to the starting point and ask ourselves again what it means to “touch” – that is, to question that most humble and earthly of the senses which is touch.

Aristotle reflected on the particular nature of touch, which differentiates it from the other senses.

For every sense there is a medium (metaxy), which performs a determining function: for sight, the medium is the diaphanous, which, illuminated by color, acts on the eyes; for hearing it is the air, which, moved by a sound body, strikes the ear.

What distinguishes touch from the other senses is that we perceive the tangible not “because the medium exerts an action on us, but together (loves) the medium”.

This medium, which is not external to us, but within us, is the flesh (sarx). But this means that not only the external object is touched, 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.

While in sight we cannot see our eyes and in hearing we cannot perceive our ability to hear, in touch we touch our own ability to touch and be touched.

Contact with another body is, that is, together and above all, contact with ourselves.

Touch, which seems inferior to the other senses, is then in some way the first, because it is in it that something like a subject is generated, which in sight and in the other senses is somehow abstractly presupposed. We have an experience of ourselves for the first time when, touching another body, we touch our flesh together.

If, as we are now perversely trying to do, we abolish all contact, if everything and everyone were kept at a distance, then we would lose not only the experience of other bodies, but above all, all immediate experience of ourselves, that is, we would lose purely and simply our flesh.

January 5, 2021
Giorgio Agamben

  • Translated

Header: Touch – Janine Petzer, Behance