Saturday, 27 October 2012

The Unity of Touching

In the last posting I looked at the 11th section of Book 2 of Aristotle's De Anima and in this posting I want to address the second part of the "exergue" to On Touching where Derrida's text lists some points concerning this part of De Anima and connects them to some thoughts about Jean-Luc Nancy.

The "exergue" returns to one voice when it addresses the notion that Nancy is a great thinker of "touching" and responds to the scepticism of the second voice concerning this claim by stating, in a way said to show "tact" that Nancy is the greatest thinker of this topic since Aristotle hit upon the "manifold aporia" of touch. Touch appears not to have been clear for Aristotle since he termed it adelon, that is, "obscure" or even "nocturnal". 

Now in turning to Aristotle at this point the discussion in Derrida's text articulates a view of aporias that was the explicit topic of the work Aporias. As it is put here the aporia is not necessarily "a moment that can be passed or surpassed". Aporias are, in terms of their "name", something with which one is not ever done. An aporia is not something that one can see the end of. So let's not hope to simply "step over" these ones that are listed in De Anima or On the Soul as we term it in English.

The discussion in the last posting of De Anima showed a set of questions that were raised there but here one point is picked out initially and this concerns the unity of the "sense" (if it is one and only one) of touch. Starting from this the text moves from the unity of touching "itself" to the unity of that which would be "tangible", the unity of sense which refers touch to the tangible and the question of the credit that should be given by philosophers to common opinion or doxa

These four aporias are next tracked back to precise points in Aristotle's text and become somewhat refined as they are so followed up. The first question of whether touch is a single sense or a "group" of them is related to the question of what the organ of touch is. In placing these points together in the citation it appears from Derrida's text that these are two sides of the same question. This means that the controversy that Aristotle sets out concerning whether or not flesh is the 'organ' of touch is viewed as part of the problem of whether touch is a single sense or many senses.

The second citation given concerns what the "single subject" (2.11.422b) [hupokeimenon] is which underlies the different qualities of touching. In listing this citation separately from the first question it appears from Derrida's text that this problem is distinct from the one concerning what the "organ" of touch is. Going back to the initial statement of four aporias this question would concern the unity of sense not of touch but instead of the tangible.

The third citation concerns how different movements are transmitted to our bodies and articulates the claim that there is something manifold in touching given we get a manifold set of qualities by means of it. This third question would concern the unity of sense between touching and the tangible.

The fourth citation asks whether the perception of all objects of sense is one that we receive in the same way with different senses or in different ways with different senses and here Aristotle mentions the doxa that suggests that touch is in an immediate relation to that which it touches. This fourth citation is related by Derrida's text to the question of the credit that should be given to common opinions or doxa

The four citations related to the four aporias Derrida's text has mentioned come together in a way in this questioning of the credit to be given to common opinion. Aristotle will question this common opinion, at least in a certain way. However since the questions being raised are not necessarily clear for Aristotle it is not obvious that the text will state things that are free of enigma. 

Derrida's text mentions the way the four aporias are apparently resolved within the course of the argument in terms of asserting that the "organ" of touch is interior, thus not flesh; that flesh is only the "medium" of touch; that touch concerns both the tangible and the intangible and that such propositions question, in some ways, the status of views held commonly. However after mentioning the ways the aporias are thus apparently addressed Derrida's text goes on to make the point that there are questions in the course of this treatment that are not even raised including what is meant by the notion of the "interior" of the body, what a "medium" or "intermediary" is and, most mysterious of all, how there can be a form of "intangible" touching.

The last question is one that raises, in particular, the general question of how we can touch upon that which is untouchable.  That general question, which we can see emerges from the problem of the intangible, produces something that is named here both an "obsession" that persists in the thinking of touch and one that "haunts" such thinking. The reference to the notion of "haunting" brings straight to mind the claim about spectrality mounted in Specters of Marx and appears thus to connect the questioning (dating from 1993) of Aristotle here to the earlier questioning of Marx. 

Surfaces would surely be what gets touched. This claim, which we could find also to be part of what is made at a different point in the same section of Aristotle that Derrida's text here engages with, would keep us at the sense that touch has something to do with the "limits" of bodies. But Derrida's text pursues this notion of limit by asking whether limit is itself really part of body since that which is a limit seems, in a sense precisely not to be that which is touched or to be that which cannot touch itself. (Similar here is the peculiar question raised about bodies touching in water in Aristotle's text, something not mentioned in Derrida's text but which raised the same problem.)

Having arrived at this point Derrida's text lists some distinctions that have, so far, not featured in the discussion of Aristotle's text. Included here is the distinction between actual and potential that is central to Aristotle's claims about the sense of touch and which led to the view that the senses are potentialities and thus do not sense themselves unless something from outside intervenes. This claim concerning the need for reference to the exterior infects the whole question of what is going on with "self-touching" or, as it is also called, auto-affection.

Even before we touch on touching itself this question about the status of sense arises since it is a general thesis of Aristotle's that relates to his treatment of each sense and to his view of sensation as such. Touch, however, it is suggested, is distinct from other senses as well since it does not have one proper object in the way that hearing relates to sound but rather encompasses many different types of qualities. 

This claim that touch "discriminates more than one set of different qualities" is taken to be so important that it is listed next as the "epigraph" of the "exergue". In so taking this we find thus an emphasis upon the view that qualities that are so distinct are nonetheless related, in some way, to an apparently unitary sense.

It is with this point that Derrida's text reverts again to the point with which the whole "exergue" began, namely that it will be necessary to engage in "storytelling". Having stated this we arrive again at the classic reference to the statement that there is something occurring "once upon a time". But the story in question will not be one that can be told in a linear fashion and will instead require "tangents" even if they will be ones that will be, in some way, around the topic of "the soul" or De Anima. Words of trouble are involved here: words such as "soul", "mind", "spirit", "body", "sense" and "world".

These words are ones that the text declares to be "inexact" and not to be ones that are "understood". These words lack "exact sense" and have, it is claimed, no "reliable value". In this respect these words, like "being" itself, let alone "presentation" will be ones that will focus our attention. The clear emphasis, however, on the status of what is "exact" is related now specifically to Nancy for whom, we are told, the "exact" is specifically important since Nancy will have required us to attend to it. Indeed, what Nancy understands by the "exact" is what it is the "sole ambition" of the book to "explain".

A number of things arise from looking at the second part of this "exergue" but I wish to conclude with three. Firstly, let's look at how the treatment that has been given here of Aristotle relates to the motifs that emerged in my last posting. The four questions or aporias that Derrida's text listed were all emergent in the argument as I analysed it. It was less obvious to me that the claim concerning the single sense of touch was one that should be collapsed into the question about the tangible object. The nature of what a body consists in was not specifically listed in the aporias Derrida's text stated but it came back in how he responded to the questions the text raised. The argument for viewing the "organ" of touch to be interior was not treated by Derrida but the reason why it was not became clear, namely, that the notion of the "interior" itself is one that he viewed Aristotle as having assumed a view of.

A second question concerns the way that the status of the "exact" and the "inexact" are to be tracked from now on. Derrida's text names Nancy as central to the question of how we will come to look at this although no one who has studied Husserl can fail to see that the question is one that was also decisively important for Husserl. Perhaps this question of the relation between the "exact" and the "inexact" will be one of the ways that Nancy and Husserl will be brought into relation. In any case the sense of exactitude as one that is key to the whole book is the most decisive claim in the "exergue" in terms of the clues it gives for how the rest of On Touching should be viewed.

The third point will concern precisely the status of De Anima and the reference to it for the understanding of Nancy. In a footnote Derrida refers to Nancy's own text "On the Soul", one of those collected in Corpus but which Derrida states here he only became aware of "after" writing this analysis. In the next posting the questions pursued by Nancy in "On the Soul" will be analysed prior to returning to the main text of On Touching.

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