Touching at Four Airports

When we touch, our bones clatter and clang,
This new music the only song we sing.
—Melvin Dixon, “Just Us, at Home”

Taboo dominates Nairobi. Security guards still believe in the sacredness of bodies, avoid touching other Kenyans, touch foreign-passport holders reluctantly. Amsterdam, famed for public sex, touches everyone. Touch feels less offensive, as though the breaking of all rules justifies rule breaking. Our bodies do not belong to us. Touch happens in Dubai, as it happens everywhere, but rarely, if ever, with a public audience. But Dubai is so busy that I may have missed public touching. In the U.S. touch is ritually uneven—a pat down here, a caress there, a grope elsewhere. Always in public. The place that created personal space struggles with how to breach it, reaches for suspicious bodies—the foreign, the domestic, the brown, the white, the old, the young—all those gazed upon by security cameras.
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My title derives from Eve Sedgwick’s Touching Feeling and Lisa Lowe’s “The Intimacy of Four Continents.” My banal observation: airport surveillance is a metonym for global practices of surveillance. I write this not with the sense that it is new or unexpected. Indeed, as a claim, it exists, more properly, in the register as the claim that a typical English sonnet contains fourteen lines.

Yet, I want to argue for the value of the banal observation. It is, after all, in the quotidian that ideology inheres most powerfully. And ideology labors relentlessly to render the banal observation forgettable.

From J.K. Rowling I continue to lean the value of “Constant Vigilance!”
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Touch, following Fanon, gives us back to ourselves, and it is that we cannot do without:

Locked in this suffocating reification, I appealed to the Other so that his liberating gaze, gliding over my body suddenly smoothed of rough edges, would give me back the lightness of being I thought I had lost and taking me out of the world put me back in the world.

Why not simply try to touch the other, feel the other, discover each other?

One might ask what is being given back as one is touched across space and time by indifferent borders and border-crossings that enflesh us. How are we being bodied, to invoke Beyoncé? And to what ends? What might it mean to accept touch as, variously, taboo, sacred, indifferent, purposive, inimical, ordinary, and extraordinary? What expectations can be attached to touch?

And what happens to touching after touching?
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Touching, as an adjective, refers to something that breaks a certain wall or that finds emotional resonance despite or because of its conventionality. One is touched, to borrow from Sara Ahmed, by what one anticipates to be touching. To claim that what is touching is convention-bound is to register the labor of genre as a strategy to manage affect, a lesson I learn from Lauren Berlant.

From Raymond Williams I learned to think of feeling’s materiality: shifts in material conditions effect shifts in feeling.

What, to get to my question, is touching after touching?
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In prior thinking, I have reached for the callus as a figure for the ongoing labor of feeling—to register not unfeeling, but the habit of feeling. Calluses make feeling easier, ritual. This is, I want to say, the U.S. ritual of affirming “love.” “I love you,” which I once found lacking in African contexts, until I wondered at the demand for the claim, about its ritual affirmation, as though the practice of love depended on it being habitual.

That’s not quite right.

I want to suggest something about how we can no longer use touching to describe emotional attachment—I wanted to write intensity—about how being touched has done something to touching.

What, to repeat a question, is touching after touching?
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I want to return to Fanon’s optimism that one can “touch” the other, that “touch” exists beyond the violence of the “gaze.”

If, as I have suggested, we might now be able to think of love as Fanon could not, we are also in a position where Fanon’s optimism about touch may no longer be possible. Touch subjects differently, produces our bodies differently, to defamiliarize the other, as Fanon hoped, but in the service of surveillance, which is to say, in a way he could not have anticipated.

If touch today moves us beyond being “other,” that is because we are made familiar as sets of data, as our movements, our conversations, our hopes, our dreams. We are given back to ourselves, via touch, as that which is touched and touchable. But this is not the touching beyond the violence of the subject-abrading gaze. And it might be that we have lost the possibility of a touch beyond the gaze, as touch and gaze conflate to produce us as data-subjects, known and knowable habits and practices.
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We have not lost touch or touching; that is not what I am suggesting. Instead, I am suggesting that both touch and touching have acquired additional layers of meaning, become less “knowable.” Which is not to suggest that they were ever simple.

It would be easy to say that what I am attempting here is to think “beyond” touch and touching, to render them more impossible to understand in a simple way, were it not that I would have to falsify a prior simplicity. It would also be easy to say that I am arguing against touch and touching, seeing act and affect as complicit within an already suspect sentimental economy. In this scenario, I would be devaluing the already devalued. Or, refusing to believe in the possibilities of that which we cannot do without. Giving in, that is, to the cynical promise of despair. It would also be easy to say that a non-linear meditation on touch and touching believes (too much) in the promise of form to evade the logic of data sets: I have no argument that can be readily summarized. But that would be to suggest that data sets, those technologies for managing bio-power, work with simple formulations—and that seems like a silly assumption.

So much for silly assumptions.
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More properly, I am grasping for something whose significance I do not yet know, a barely felt idea about what it means to inhabit the now as a feeling, which is to say touched, subject.

Here’s Sedgwick:

Even more immediately than other perceptual systems, it seems, the sense of touch makes nonsense out of any dualistic understanding of agency and passivity; to touch is always already to reach out, to fondle, to heft, to tap, or to enfold, and always also to understand other people or natural forces as having effectually done so before oneself, if only in the making of the textured object.

What might it mean to think of our newly textured bodies, abraded by the logic of touch and touching?
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And to articulate where I am now, I borrow, again, from Sedgwick:

In writing this [post[ I’ve continually feel pressed against the limits of my stupidity.

2 thoughts on “Touching at Four Airports

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