DID YOU SEE: Richard Kearney on touch in the Sunday NY Times

2007 postcard

Almost every day I have at least one session with a client that confirms two of the basic principles underlying my Body and Soul Work practice: “Touch Heals” and “Healing Through Pleasure.” For people who live with chronic pain, either emotional or physical, the nervous system constructs a four-lane highway between the brain and the cells that signal pain and suffering, so that virtually all other perceptions get left in the dust. But even just an hour of skillful, safe, loving touch can shift someone’s experience entirely, serving as a reminder that alongside pain and suffering, even a chronically ill body is capable of joy, pleasure, and relief.

In a fascinating and thoughtful essay published today in the New York Times’ Sunday Review, philosopher Richard Kearney, who teaches classes about the history of eros at Boston College, discusses the place of touch in our digital culture. He notes that we are much more likely to touch screens these days than each other, even when negotiating sexual connections via social media. Scholar that he is, he looks back to the ancient Greeks for similar dialogue about the rivalry between the sense of touch and the sense of sight:

In perhaps the first great works of human psychology, the “De Anima,” Aristotle pronounced touch the most universal of the senses. Even when we are asleep we are susceptible to changes in temperature and noise. Our bodies are always “on.” And touch is the most intelligent sense, Aristotle explained, because it is the most sensitive. When we touch someone or something we are exposed to what we touch. We are responsive to others because we are constantly in touch with them…

Aristotle was challenging the dominant prejudice of his time, one he himself embraced in earlier works. The Platonic doctrine of the Academy held that sight was the highest sense, because it is the most distant and mediated; hence most theoretical, holding things at bay, mastering meaning from above. Touch, by contrast, was deemed the lowest sense because it is ostensibly immediate and thus subject to intrusions and pressures from the material world. Against this, Aristotle made his radical counterclaim that touch did indeed have a medium, namely “flesh.” And he insisted that flesh was not just some material organ but a complex mediating membrane that accounts for our primary sensings and evaluations.

Consider for yourself what you touch on a daily basis. How much flesh do you make contact with in your life? How do you perceive it in relation to touching other surfaces? Do you appreciate it more, or do you notice any distinction at all?

Check out Kearney’s essay in full here and let me know what you think.

julia jellison

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