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3 Touch: a lost sense?

In terms of ancestry, evolutionary biologists now understand how all of the senses are descended from the sense of touch. Touch is also the most important sense for the infant. Other senses come later. Perhaps on some level touch becomes identified as a stage to outgrow: it is for babies, older children or proper adults do things differently. In many contemporary cultures, tactility between adults has a tendency to be both brief and accompanied by embarrassment. Grown up children who were once touched freely by their parents discover, as they get older that physical contact is increasingly rare.


Quarryman Neil Swinebank connects with ripple-marked sandstone in the Corsehill quarry, Annan, ScotlandProfessor Watanabe positions his point as he forms a wedge hole in granite. Zokei University, Japan


Sculpture is both made and experienced in a tactile mode. It is first understood with the body and only afterwards with the mind. Touch is silent. Touch joins with the tacit to build its own world. Sight builds another one. In such a divided world, where is experience positioned?

Studies show that in France people touch far more than in the UK, but even in France uninhibited touching is not part of everyday life. This becomes obvious on a visit to the Parisian fabric warehouses at the Marché St Pierre. In that market, touch is overt and everywhere. One particular building has five floors of fabric and on every floor we can watch fingers touching the different textures without any hint of embarrassment. Restraint is relaxed. It is like a symphony of squeezing, pinching and stroking. Between the layers of cloth time slows down. Time here is up close and intimate. There may be impatience at the checkout counter, but on the floor there is rarely a sign of haste.

What I believe most of all is that in the late twentieth century, culminating in Postmodernism, we have distanced ourselves from a sense of touch. Increasingly the surface is everything. To touch, to move inside the surface of something, is a capacity that takes time to develop, and increasingly, in most experiences, that seems to me to be in the public interest. The luxury of time is, however, increasingly foreclosed. More than anything in the world I want this sense of touch to be made more available. I have staked everything on the belief that if I want to increase the experience of the sense of touch, then maybe somebody might want to share it.

—Thomas Joshua Cooper, Interview with Nick Hackworth

What kind of social shift might happen if we begin to think of increased tactility as service to the public rather than a risk? Touch has been so proscribed that just the thought of unregulated touch can make us nervous. The conviction that we need to keep touch safely separate is so deeply engrained in our minds that any alternative is scarcely imaginable.

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