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Séminaire TACT


► Main convenor : Caroline Pollentier (Sorbonne Nouvelle University)

► Co-convenor : Antonia Rigaud (Sorbonne Nouvelle University)

With the support of 19-21 (EA Prismes)

Following the inaugural conference “Touched: Transdisciplinary Perspectives” (2021), the TACT network (Touch, Arts, Affects) is launching an interdisciplinary seminar series in Spring 2023. The goal of this seminar is to interrogate the experience of touch in works of art and to explore the diversity of haptic affects across artistic media. With speakers from various areas of expertise, we intend to discuss the elusive tactility of the arts in relation to technology, science, ethics, politics, and everyday life.

Though long considered as a minor sense, touch is now reclaimed as the “first sense” (Fulkerson) which defines intersubjectivity from embryonic formation to social interactions. The main hypothesis of this seminar is that touch constitutes a primordial dimension of aesthetic experience and cannot, as such, be reduced to the language of affect. When texts, films, dances or performances touch us, how do they mobilise and mediate haptics—even when there is apparently no actual contact? Didier Anzieu’s psychoanalytical concept of the skin-ego, theorised after Freud’s early work on “contact barriers,” revalued the epidermis as a founding affective boundary. The recent discovery of C-tactile afferents in neurobiology has subsequently renewed the understanding of “affective touch” (McGlone), now conceived of as a physiological category distinct from discriminative touch. In dialogue, but also in contradistinction with the science of affective touch, this seminar will defend the ability of the arts and the humanities to register the affects of touch, to retrace their genealogies and “nomadic” forms (Anzieu 1990), and to imagine haptic futures.

The singularity of the tactile sense lies in its reflexivity—one is touched when one touches. Focusing on the ethics and politics of this chiasm, this seminar will foreground the ability of haptic aesthetics to disrupt and remodel relationality. From Marinetti’s utopian “Manifesto of Tactilism” to Jan Švankmajer’s tactile collages, from the transgender craft of “the handmade” (Vaccaro) to “touchscreen archælogies” (Strauven), from the “shared motricity” of contact improvisation (Bigé) to the body-centered medium of performance, touch produces communal sensorialities. However, touch also materialises acute forms of vulnerability—“hapticality, the touch of the undercommons” (Moten and Harney). While Roberto Esposito, following Elias Canetti, inscribes the tactile in biopolitical processes of immunisation, Michael Marder, focusing on vegetal surfaces, points out the precariousness of the living. Haptics alerts us to shared conditions of exposure and embodied forms of exclusion, even as it opens up concrete modalities of care.

This first seminar series will centre on romantic and contemporary literature, philosophy, and sculpture. As such, it will engage with multiple “senses of touch” (Paterson) as well as with varying degrees of haptic presence and absence across media. While literary haptics differs from sculptural contact, both texts and sculptures can displace sensorial hierarchies. By exploring the artistic shapes of the “touchable-untouchable,” as theorised by Jacques Derrida in the wake of Jean-Luc Nancy, we intend to place touch at the core of aesthetic dissensus—between optics and haptics, between the bodily and the virtual, between agency and passivity, between coloniality and decoloniality, between ableism and disability. In our economic and technological “age of excarnation” (Kearney), what can the arts and the humanities remind us about our own skins?


Maison de la recherche

Salle du conseil & Googlemeet
4, rue des Irlandais
Paris 5ème

9 February 2023 (5pm-7pm CET)

Sophie Laniel-Musitelli (Lille):
“Feeling one’s Way towards Expanded Modes of Vision: The Poetics of Contact in Romantic Literature”
Respondent: Carle Bonafous-Murat (Sorbonne Nouvelle)

9 March 2023 (5pm-7pm CET)

Mirt Komel (Ljubljana):
“Certain Haptolinguistic Aspects of Jean-Luc Nancy's Philosophy of the CorpoReal Body”
Respondent: Marie Chabbert (Cambridge)

20 April 2023 (5pm-7pm CET)

Kenneth Wilder (University of the Arts, London):
“Blindness and the Role of Touch in Contemporary Sculpture”
Respondent: Charlotte Gould (Paris Ouest)

8 June 2023 (5pm-7pm CET)

Liliane Campos (Sorbonne Nouvelle):
“Grasping Extinction: The Natural History Museum as Haptic Space in the Work of Gillian Clarke, Jane Robinson and Kathleen Jamie”
Respondent: Thomas Dutoit (Lille)


Sophie Laniel-Musitelli (Lille): “Feeling one’s Way towards Expanded Modes of Vision: The Poetics of Contact in Romantic Literature”

What happens to Romantic vision when touch reasserts itself in the writing process? In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the modern sciences which gradually emerged out of the wider field of natural philosophy developed new methods to apprehend their objects through direct contact, from anatomical casts to the study of fossil imprints. How does Romantic literature’s confrontation with emerging life and physical sciences enhance its tropism towards tactility? The Romantics turned to the aesthetic potentialities of direct contact in order to extend and diffuse creative vision to the whole body, but also to imaginatively reach beyond the human senses. Touch being the most widely shared sense across the living world, that attentiveness to contact opened Romantic writing to nonhuman modes of sensation. That tropism towards contact also allowed Romantic writers to explore the sensitivities of matter itself, from the acuity of experimental devices to the impressionability of photosensitive surfaces.

Mirt Komel (Ljubljana): “Certain Haptolinguistic Aspects of Jean-Luc Nancy's Philosophy of the CorpoReal Body”

Derrida in his On Touch baptized Nancy as the “first great thinker of touch” while reading all of his opus as a progressive development of a philosophy of touch, up until then one of the most disregarded senses in philosophy. To which Nancy peculiarly replied with his own book entitled Noli Me Tangere – “Do not touch me” – making explicit what was only implicit in his previous works. Thus, the lecture will explore Nancy’s philosophy of touch and the body as developed from Corpus to Noli Me Tangere – from his first, novel experimental conception of the body to an attempt of grasping the elusive object of touch – by employing haptolinguistics, a specific post-structuralist methodological approach that focuses on the intersection between touch and language. The theoretical bet underneath this attempt is that touch can be identified as a moment of the Real, where language as the Symbolic breaks, and the Imaginary corporeity dissolves.

Kenneth Wilder (University of the Arts, London): “Blindness and the Role of Touch in Contemporary Sculpture”

Since the Tate’s 1981 exhibition Sculpture for the Blind, there have been a number of ‘tactile’ exhibitions by major galleries that seek to engage blind and partially-blind audiences, and sculptural work has often been to the fore of these multi-sensory exhibitions. However, when curated by sighted curators (as was the case with the Tate’s show) the engagement afforded has often considered touch a 'compensatory' sense—a substitution for visual experience—or, at best, a 'retrieval' of the artist's creative processes, hence an essentially passive role. By contrast, I want to claim that a consideration of ‘expanded’ sculptural practices, including those by blind and partially-blind artists, not only confronts this notion of 'substitution', but raises wider problems for established ocularcentric accounts of the ontology of contemporary art, and particularly sculpture. This is no more manifest than in the durational shift such work requires when experienced primarily through touch, the opposite of Michael Fried’s notion of ‘instantaneousness’.

Liliane Campos (Sorbonne Nouvelle): “Grasping Extinction: The Natural History Museum as Haptic Space in the Work of Gillian Clarke, Jane Robinson and Kathleen Jamie”

This paper will examine depictions of natural history museums in a selection of poems and essays drawn from Gillian Clarke’s Zoology, Jane Robinson’s Journey to the Sleeping Whale and Kathleen Jamie’s Sightlines. These texts present the museum as a place in which we confront extinction through conflicting emotions, perceiving it as a space of care built on acts of violence, where presence here is conditioned by absence elsewhere. Contradictory emotions are negotiated not only through the gaze, but through a poetics of touching, gripping and holding. This haptic relation to the bones or bodies of dead animals raises questions that are both ethical and epistemological. We can approach touch, as Donna Haraway does in When Species Meet, as an action that 'ramifies and shapes accountability': the museum bears witness to complex agencies, to the hunter’s blow as well as the conservationist’s touch. But the ambivalent gestures explored by these poets also foreground the desire and difficulty of grasping extinction. My analysis explores how physical prehension, real or imagined, contributes to attempts at mental prehension.

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  • RIEGL, Alois, “Late Roman or Oriental?” 1902, German Essays on Art History, ed. G. Schiff (London: Continuum, 1997), 173-74.
  • STRAUVEN, Wanda, Touchscreen Archælogies: Tracing Histories of Hands-On Media Practices (Lüneburg: Meson P, 2021).
  • ŠVANKMAJER, Jan, Touching and Imagining, An Introduction to Tactile Art (London, I. B. Tauris, 2014).
  • VACCARO, Jeanne, “Handmade,” Transgender Studies Quarterly &-2 (2014): 96-97.

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mise à jour le 21 février 2023