Oral Presentation Session - Cosponsored Status Awarded
Sponsored by: Society for Cultural Anthropology
Cosponsored by: Society for Humanistic Anthropology
Primary Theme: The Political
Secondary Theme: Materiality
Touch, as experience, sense, and activity, is both a point of contact with the world and a worlding in itself, central to our capacities to affect and be affected. Acts of touching and being touched pull us into sensuous connection with people, other animals, objects, and ambient surroundings, while giving form and flesh to wider economic and social processes. As an analytic and ethnographic focus, touch draws our attention to the fundamental and sometimes contradictory socio-material qualities of the world; touching is a kind of boundary work that distinguishes things and selves within a given ontology but only though their contact, producing difference out of the very instant in which things rub off of each other. Touch is, of course, something very intimate, the basis of companionship, cultivation, sexuality, as well as manifold forms of violence, contagion, and a variety of other fleshy exchanges. Yet touch also operates at many scales, including very broad ones. Forces like care, toxicity, forensic authority, and historical and material conditions get onto and under the skin. Here touch is inherently political: who and what touches, how, and with what consequences, is historical, hierarchical, inevitably unequal, at times contested, always racialized and gendered. Touch is, as such, a kind of generative vulnerability, the veritable frontline for both harming and flourishing.
Touch is no small matter, then. We approach touch as central to being, becoming, and unbecoming for humans and non-humans alike, foregrounding it as a basis for world-making, semiosis, and configurations of personhood, value, and relatedness. Touch is of course deeply cultural: its place in human affairs varies profoundly across time and place. But it is also universal; it turns out that contact, or being in touch, is central to the mattering of everything that exists. Yet despite being so central, or perhaps precisely because of its ubiquity, touch has often evaded extended conceptual and empirical attention in anthropology, or been downgraded or dismissed outright. Against this tendency, and building on prior conversations in phenomenology and the anthropology of the senses, we take up touch as the basis for thinking through the politics of fleshy and material contact, and the resonant histories of our ramifying socio-material encounters.
Part II, “Contact, Ethics, Force,” extends the first panel’s concern with the production of difference to explicitly engage questions of ethics, subject formation, and sometimes destructive force. The papers engage the politics of touch—the ways that violence, inequality, and hierarchies of life structure tangible relations—while approaching touch as a place where the ethical and political grab hold of each other. Touch here is central to sociopolitical processes and events. Spanning trans-Atlantic Catholic theopolitics, white nationalism in the United States, histories of soil in Guyana, human-animal relations in India, and nonliberal disability politics in Uganda, these papers explore how modes of touch assemble bodies into political and ethical formations, secure religious collectivity, and bind subjects to objects and projects. They also explore forceful contact’s capacity to unmake as well as make persons, worlds, and ways of being together.