Παρασκευή, 27 Μαρτίου 2020

DON’T TOUCH IT! THE ECLIPSE OF THE TACTILE IN THE TIMES OF THE PANDEMIC

For Teresa Fenichel
John Panteleimon Manoussakis (College of the Holy Cross)

One could think of a number of other ways that the present apocalypse might had happened.
There is no shortage, after all, in the dystopian variations generated by our collective imaginary  that we call Hollywood. It could had been the invasion by an alien species, the attack of a  meteorite, the eruption of a super-volcano or, simply, the uprising of the zombies. In each and  every of these scenarios our response to the threat of destruction, whatever form it might had  assumed, would have found us united by a renewed sense of community, a community solidified  by its common struggle for survival. Not so with the plague. He who faces the plague stands alone.
For it is precisely society that is sick and it is only in isolating itself away from society that the  individual might have hope for its survival. Hence, the new imperative of social distancing and of  voluntary or enforced quarantine.
The element of contagion, which plays so large a part in an epidemic, has the effect of making people separate from each other. The safest thing is to keep away from everyone else, for anyone may already have the infection on him. Some flee from the town and disperse to their estates; others shut themselves up in their houses and allow no-one in. Each man shuns every other; his last hope is to keep his distance. The prospect of life, and life itself, is expressed in terms of distance from the sick. Those who catch the infection end by forming a dead mass; those who have so far escaped it keep away from everyone, even their closest relatives, their parents, husbands or wives and children. It is strange to see how the hope of survival isolates them, each becoming a single individual confronting the crowd of victims.1
Since it is through community that the pandemic spreads, mankind has lost its ultimate and most  effective line of defense, that is, our ability to organize ourselves into communities. The only community admitted by the plague is the community of its victims,2 the numbers of which are  promptly updated daily.
Unlike all other enemies, no matter how fanciful and apocalyptic, the virus is an intruder  as intimate as my own skin.  The virtue of the virus is that it is microscopic and thus invisible.
Because it is invisible, the virus cannot be seen anywhere and, therefore, its presence must be  assumed everywhere: on anything I touch and by which I touch the virus touches me back. The  virus inserts itself in that imperceptible space between me and the world, so that avoiding it  would necessitate that, somehow, I extricate myself entirely from the world—a task that, as we  find out daily, is impossible since I am not in the world as a fish is in the aquarium, but rather I  am the point of convergence for the infinite nexus of relations among the things of the world  and, therefore, I take the world with me wherever I go. Its workings are equally unnoticeable.
For one cannot know when or even if the virulent adversary has launched its attack, except when  it is already too late.
Not only does it have such virtues, but the virus itself is in some sense “virtuous.” See how  quickly it has us all—states and governments, factories and corporations, churches and  universities—grounded in our homes like misbehaving children who need to learn not to do it  again. Do what? Touch it, of course. That has been always the parental interdiction: “don’t touch  it!” ...but God did say, “You must not eat the fruit from the tree [of the knowledge of good and evil], and you must not touch it, or you will die.” (Gen. 3:3)
 Was this prohibition a prohibition against touching the tree of knowledge or against knowing that knowledge that is acquired by touching? Was it that I cannot touch the tree of knowledge so that I don’t come to know—grasp, as we say—the knowledge of touch? For there is a knowledge of the eyes (of insight, foresight and hindsight), as there is a knowledge of touching and tasting, of  sapience and sagacity (from the Latin sapere, to taste). The former is established in distance, the  latter is occasioned only in proximity. I can see you without being seen and I can know you  without you know it or me, indeed, without knowing myself, but I cannot touch you without being touched by you, without both of us touching and being touched. Touch does not produce the transcendence beyond an active subject and a passive object, it requires it.3 
And so, once more, the undergoing pandemic reiterates the ancient prohibition: “you must not touch, or you will die.” The tactile taboo, of course, cannot be blamed entirely on the measures against the COVID-19 outbreak. These are only the latest and perhaps more emblematic examples among many others that pathologize touch. More recently, for example, the ideological discourse of the metoo movement provided us with another case that illustrates  the criminalization of human contact. To trace the genealogy of such puritanical attitudes on  touch and touching would take us as far back as Plato who, faithful to his Greek worldview, gives  to theoria, (that is, to the knowledge of the eyes), the prominent place in his metaphysics. Not  only has touch nothing to offer to the philosophical observations of the speculating soul, it even  hinders it. We should not expect to hear something different from philosophy’s mouth except  “don’t touch it!” Only this time the taboo is reinforced with a language that sounds particularly  familiar to us today, that of miasma:
 While we live, we shall be closest to knowledge if we refrain as much as possible from association with the body and do not join with it more that we must, if we are not infected with its nature but purify ourselves from it until the god himself frees us. In this way we shall escape the contamination of the body’s folly; we shall be likely to be in the company of people of the same kind, and by our own efforts we shall know all that is pure, which is presumably the truth, for it is not permitted to the impure to touch the pure.4  There is only one notable exception in the long history of the devaluation of touch: Christianity. Against this classical worldview “gods do not mix with men,”5 the Fourth Gospel  offered a radical alternative: “and the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).
In no better way can we glance over the intellectual abyss that separated antiquity from  Christianity than in the juxtaposition of these two statements. From the clandestine touch of the bleeding woman to Thomas’ fingers touching the wounds of the crucifixion, Christ is a god who watches the world from a distance6 but a god who touches us and whom we can touch. 
 In the no-foam, no-fat spirituality that in the last few years spread across Catholic campuses and which has come to be known as Agape Lattes, the scandal of a physical God was enlisted in the war against the younger generation’s addiction to pornography and the hook-up culture. It remains all the more paradoxical, therefore, how easily and quickly both institutions, the church and the academy, hurried to embrace, implement, and promote the same teletechnological media and their voyeuristic principles—previously vehemently criticized—on the wake of the present pandemic. In doing so, they replaced the hitherto required physical presence of the faithful in the pews and of the student in the classroom with webcam lectures and livestreamed masses that can now be enjoyed from the safety and comfort of one’s bedroom. Being there and being-present are not essential anymore either for faith or for knowledge. For, surely, one does not forego the essential as readily as that. That swift transition from the physical to the  virtual space cannot but signal the triumph of the ocular hegemony. The commandment “don’t touch it” is best enforced when there is nothing left that one could still touch.
 Yet, it was not too long ago that clergy and parishes lamented over the dropping numbers  in church attendance. The majority of the absentees among the faithful did not leave the Church  altogether; even if they did not attend services regularly, they still continue to consider  themselves members of their church; only they could not understand why is one required to be  physically present in the services when one can simply pray from their home. As it was not too  long ago either that Colleges and Universities, especially those with a pedigree, scorned the fast food approach to education that online institutions offered to students who could not afford the  architecture of their campuses. The advent of the pandemic has forced a change on both establishments—and it has done so for good. For, once they have replaced themselves with a  cheaper, more expedient, virtual copy of themselves, could either church or academy continue to lay a claim afterwards to the authenticity of the original?  
 Surely, one might retort, the extraordinary danger to the common good posed by the  pandemic ought to excuse and justify such measures of emergency. I would argue that the temporary suspension of classes and even of the liturgy would have been preferable to their  substitution. The problem—as of yet neither acknowledged nor recognized—is that by offering a  virtual alternative for themselves the institutions of faith and knowledge have already conceded  that personal and physical participation is not essential to their respective practices of learning  and worshiping. If I am told now that praying from my home is the same as going to church, then  it will not be possible, after the plague, to claim that my participation in the sacramental life of  the Church is essential for my salvation. If remote-learning classes are now supposed to offer the  same quality of instruction as that in a classroom, then it cannot be maintained, after the plague,  that paying the steep prices for room and board in a pretty campus is somehow essential to the quality of my education.
 Finally, the response of Christian churches around the globe to the new reality of the  pandemic confirms what Derrida has called—to return to the language of viral pathology—the  auto-immunization of religion:
Whether it is a question of the cenotaph, of the tomb without corpse, or of the void of kenosis, that absence or emptiness, the disappearance of the body does not necessarily contradict the appeal to visibility or to the image. In a certain manner television itself would be the figure: the appeal to the media is the disappearance of the body, whether because there is no longer a corpse...or because it has become wine and bread, wafer, spiritualized blood and body, spectralized, virtualized, sanctified, and consumable. Certain Christian theologians can denounce, no doubt, television as a perversion. But that does not necessarily go against this logic. Theology always has more resources than one believes. Television is conjured not as a spiritualizing spectralization but as the temptation of a new idolatry, a pagan cult of the image. Evil, for this theology, is the carnal temptation of the idol, not the spirituality of the icon.7

The mediation of the Eucharist was, for Derrida, structurally parallel with, if not responsible for,  the “globalized mediatization of religion.” There is a common structure, for Derrida, between the
live broadcasting of a television program (“the simulation of ‘live’ transmission which has you believe...that you are before ‘the thing itself’; you are there”8) and the “hoc est [meum corpus]”  of the Eucharist: During a Christian mass, by contrast, the thing itself, the event takes place in front of the camera: communion, the coming of real presence, the Eucharist...the thing actually takes place “live” as a religious event, as a sacred event.9

I admit that, in part at least, Derrida’s critique of the televised mass was right then and even more so now in the time of live-streaming the Eucharist. It seems that the Church has forgotten not only that the Eucharist is not an event open to all10 but also that it is par excellence an act of embodiment. The invitation expressed by the words “take, eat, this is my body” cannot be taken as anything less than an exhortation to touch—and to touch not only what can be  touched but even the intangible. 

 1 Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power. Translated by Carol Stewart. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1962), p. 275.
2 “But only those seized by the contagion constitute a crowd.” Ibid., p. 274.
3 I have outlined a phenomenology of touch in the third part of my God After Metaphysics (Indiana University Press, 2007). For a more recent and complete discussion on the topic see Richard Kearney’s forthcoming book on touch. 
4 Plato, Phaedo, 67, translated by G.M.A. Grube in Plato Complete Works (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997), p. 58. Translation modified. 5 Plato, Symposium, 203. 
 6 According to one possible etymology the Greek term for god, theos, is derived from the verb “to see,” theaomai. 
 7 Jacques Derrida, '”Above All, No Journalists!” in Religion and Media, eds. Hent de Vries and Samuel Weber (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), p. 93. 
8 Ibid., p. 63. 
 9 Ibid., p. 58. 
10 Not even for the catechumens who, after a certain point in the celebration of the liturgy, are expected to leave the church. The first Christians worshipped in secret and that secrecy (disciplina arcani) was despised by Roman society, which began to fabricate notorious stories about cannibalism and incest. In the Orthodox churches, the iconscreen that separates the sanctuary from the rest of the church protects the altar from the curious gaze even of the faithful themselves.