Christian Fritz-Hoffmann


Embarrassing touch. Analyzing the materiality of social practices


Whoever has nursed somebody before or dealt with sick or disabled people, has probably experienced at one point or another that a diagnose, a change in condition, a gaze, a recollection or the presence of certain persons can be 'touching'. Following a dominant, predominantly implicit understanding, such touches would only be touches in a figurative or negligible sense. In general, touch is a (soft) contact of skin or bodily surfaces. This, of course, is a valid understanding. In my project, however, I am interested in the many-sidedness of the concept in cases, where it goes beyond direct bodily contact: being touched by cultural travels, by subtle violence, by gazes, words, gestures and so on. The study will investigate the question, how such a 'broad' concept of touch can be identified precisely and turned into an analytically manageable concept for a sociological perspective. I will answer this question in four steps.

In the first part, the analytical potential of the concept will be developed. The different uses of the term 'touch' will be the starting point to carve out their factual matter and theoretical modelability. In mathematics, for example, there is a clearly defined concept of touch for the analysis of functions (the “tangent”, from lat. tangere touch), which allows to relate any arbitrary phenomenon to touches – the same holds for its usage in physics (touching atoms) or medicine (touching tissue and circulation). In addition to that, Jacques Derrida has shown that remainders of christian-philosophic traditions are encased within the semantic spectrum of touch. This applies, for example, to discourses about contingency (from lat. contingere befall, touch), or the question, how God made contact with the world and its creatures. Furthermore, I will inquire about touch in sensorimotor systems (e.g. tactile perception), the touching of subjects (e.g. psychological traumata) or cultural comparisons (e.g. being touched by ghosts in shamanic cultures).

In the second part, a theoretical foundation for a broad concept of touch will be laid. Following Helmuth Plessner's category of “excentric positionality”, touches will be investigated as manifestations of living bodies' realisations of borders. In the following, the touch-theoretical reading of Plessner will be differentiated and extended by adding works of Gesa Lindemann and Hermann Schmitz. The project will, hence, make an important contribution to recent debates about theories of practice and subjectivation, since a yet disregarded theoretical tradition is disclosed as well as connectable to further academic work. The second chapter synthesises the conceptual tools for an analysis of touches within a concept of social practice.

In the third part, the description language will be translated into an analytic of touch and employed in case studies. The central task will be to develop individual dimensions of touch following case examples and to make suggestions for an initial differentiation between forms or types of touch (e.g. being touched by a certain form of spatial presence in terms of gazes, gestures and so on). I will take the case examples from my own fieldwork and additional materials grouped around the topics of disability, prostitution, care and medicine. The study is understood as the work of a toolmaker. The objective is not to deductively define each kind of touch beforehand, but to suggest ways for an analysis that operates against an open empirical horizon. Only the respectively situated practices, be they historic-cultural or field-specific, can provide an answer to the question concerning the sorts of touch at hand. This methodological openness will be conceptually hedged in the second chapter. Here, the description language will gain an interdisciplinary connectivity. An analytic of touch can be applied and refined in manifold disciplines, such as history, sociology, literary studies or philosophy.

In the fourth part, the thoughts developed will be merged and I will show how orders of touch can be approached analytically beyond particular case studies. Then, the analytic of touch will disclose significantly more variants of touch, than can be actually realised. At the end of my study, this will allow a socio-theoretical outlook on the problem, how orders of touch can be stabilised or changed through de/sensitisations, e.g. how and whether privacy can be touched or not.

(Changed: 2021-04-30)