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Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media

Author: Laura U. Marks
Publisher: Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2002
Review Published: April 2006

 REVIEW 1: Ted Kafala

Ted Kafala's thoughtful and thorough review of Touch is a great pleasure to read. His criticisms are welcome, for they work with the nuances of argument in a spirit of generosity toward the general ideas. I'll respond briefly to a couple of points he raises, in part to show where these arguments have moved since that writing, and in part because I seem to have been inspired to speechify about the virtues of Peirce.

Indeed, the haptic and embodied experience on which I've focused is grounded in a Deleuzian privileging of surface over depth, singularity over ideality, which I have continued to pursue. Singularity explains the importance of artists' media to my work, which Kafala notes, for art is capable of suspending moments in synechistic flows (of which more below) in order to expand, divert, or enliven them. Singularity also characterizes perceptions whose meaning cannot be communicated, and here smell wafts to the fore. I must note that it was not Deleuze but I who "olfactorized" Bergson, arguing that that smell can be a recollection-image. Deleuze, following Bergson, focused on relationships between memory and the higher senses. My interpretation argued that embodied perception involves the senses as a whole, and pursued neuroscientific research on olfaction to explain the particularly affective nature of smell and its connection to memory.

Touch marked the height of my materialist thinking, which reflected a desire to think non-dualistically while also privileging embodied experience that I learned from the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty. Kafala kindly advances an argument that permits phenomenology and Deleuze to be philosophical bedfellows, despite the latter's critique of the former. Certainly existential phenomenology isn't liable to Deleuze's critique of subjectivity, insofar as it analyzes embodied experience not as the privileged centering of a subject but as an oscillation between perception and action that is not so different from Deleuze's (from Bergson) "center of indetermination." Feminist thought also influences the book's emphasis on the materiality and particularity of experience. I was also pushing a hard-core materialism in order, as Kafala notes, to counteract the techno-futurist idealism that makes odd bedfellows of media corporations and certain avant-garde artists, arguing, for example, for the historical materiality of programming practice, of code itself, and even of the subatomic particles that make it all move. Yet it was actually the thought of Peirce that allowed me to begin to push this rather dogged materialism into a non-dualist way of thinking about art and communication that was capable of abstraction. I note that I arrived to the philosophy of Peirce from Deleuze's Cinema 1, in which the earlier thinker's triadic semeiosis (as he called it) allows Deleuze to conceive of the relations among perception, affection, action, and thought without recourse to dualism. Peirce's semeiosis permits a wonderfully flexible relationship between the singularity of events (for example, sensations), the emergence of general laws (for example, word), and the latter’s reincorporation as singular. In short, while Touch supported a monistic argument, the monistic sack was weighted on the material side, as it were.

I've always dealt with phenomena that are invisible or barely-visible. Gradually teasing out different orders of invisibility: that which is excluded from the symbolic but available to experience (this includes almost everything); that which is perceptible but not visually (my favorite example being smell); that which is produced in the symbolic but withdraws from it (information). I did not want to posit a break between different orders of experience; so I'm arguing that the relationship among them is one of enfolding and unfolding [1]. These terms for the continuity between disparate phenomena are informed, of course, by Deleuze's work on the Baroque, and particularly inspired by quantum physicist David Böhm. Peirce's "synechism," an emphasis on the connectivity among all things, not distinguishing between their materiality or ideality, insofar as they communicate, indirectly informs the process by which experience, information, and images (each of which is a plane of immanence) unfold from and enfold into one another. Enfolding and unfolding emphasize the connections between seemingly disparate ontological or historical moments. (Not that there are never ruptures, watersheds, and quantum jumps.) Currently I'm working with a new media designer, Raegan Kelly -- who is adept at building expressive interfaces that are not user-friendly but recalcitrant -- to translate this process into an audiovisual, animated form. The online version of "Enfolding/Unfolding" will show not only the flow of this synechistic process but also the ruptures and bottlenecks effected in it by the capitalist encoding of meaning [2]. It will appear in Vectors: Journal of Culture and Technology in a Dynamic Vernacular, a journal that may be of special interest to RCCS readers as a resource and venue for publishing.

My present research looks at those relationships of enfolding/unfolding as they occur in both computer-based art and classical Islamic art of the 9th to 12th centuries. I'm hoping the richly developed tradition of aniconic and often algorithmic art will deepen the roots of contemporary media art. Also, the understanding of perception in classical Islamic philosophy and science as embodied, subjective, and multisensory is a provocative parallel to contemporary theories of perception [3]. Some people are disappointed that my present research is less sensuous. But maybe they can consider erotic the way that phenomena are always tickling the plane of immanence, trying to unfold.


  1. See "Invisible Media," in New Media: Theories and Practices of Digitextuality, ed. Anna Everett and John T. Caldwell (Routledge, 2003), 33-46.

  2. "Enfolding/Unfolding" will appear in Vectors in late 2006.

  3. See, for example, "Infinity and Accident: Strategies of Enfoldment in Islamic Art and Computer Art," Leonardo 39:1 (Winter 2006): 37-42, and "The Haptic Transfer and the Travels of the Abstract Line: Embodied Perception from Classical Islam to Modern Europe," in Verkörperungen: Patient Embodiment, ed. Christina Lammer and Kim Sawchuck (forthcoming).

Laura Marks


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