Imagine: You’re 16. You’re in school. You’re sitting in class. You have a crush on another student — you’ve fallen hard. You can’t stop thinking about them. You suspect the feelings are mutual — but you don’t know. You’re afraid to just come right out and ask, verbally — afraid of the crushing weight of rejection. But you both wear an Apple Watch. So you take a flyer and send a few taps. And you wait. Nothing in response. Dammit. Why are you so stupid? Whoa — a few taps are sent in return, along with a hand-drawn smiley face. You send more taps. You receive more taps back. This is it. You send your heartbeat. It is racing, thumping. Your crush sends their heartbeat back.
You’re flirting. Not through words. Not through speech. Physically flirting, by touch. And you’re not even in the same classroom. Maybe you don’t even go to the same school.
☛ Daring Fireball: “The Apple Watch” by John Gruber, April 8, 2015.
In the 5,500-word review he wrote about it, John Gruber suggests the Apple Watch is a significant technological innovation that has also something to do with “remote communication”, and more specifically with the introduction of what he calls “digital touch”. In doing so, he remains quite in line with Apple’s marketing campaign, which claims an “Entirely new ways to stay in touch”. A few lines earlier, he had expanded on how the Apple Watch manages “touch communication”, while notably insisting on the higher degree of intimacy associated with the sense of touch:
Apple Watch also has old ways to communicate, like initiating phone calls and sending text messages. But the new ways are all about touch. Touch input from the sender, touch output to the recipient. And they only work between Apple Watches.
There are three forms, in increasing intimacy: doodles, taps, and your heartbeat. Touch communication. What the telephone was for voice, what video was for seeing, Apple Watch is for touch. No, you’re not really touching someone, but when you call someone, you’re not really hearing them, either. When you FaceTime them, you’re not really seeing them, you’re looking at a picture of them on a screen. But a phone call feels like you’re talking to someone. A FaceTime call feels like you’re looking at someone. And with digital touch on Apple Watch, it feels, in a very real sense, like you’re touching and being touched by another person.
Touch is an intimate sense. I see and hear dozens, often hundreds, sometimes thousands of people in a day. Most days, I touch only a few. Some days, I only touch two: my wife and my son.
In what follows, I propose to quickly sketch three provisional observations regarding haptic mediation, while also offering a few relevant references. The first observation has to do with the privilege granted to touch when it comes to intimacy. The second observation has to do with an alternative understanding of communication in general, and of touch in particular. The third and final observation is about the ways in which communication and intimacy are integrated as products in a global economy of exchange.
Those observations stem from a recent comment I wrote about Jean-Luc Nancy’s essay Noli me tangere. On the Raising of the Body ( 2008). Nancy’s essay, which belongs to his ongoing exploration of what he calls the “self-deconstruction” of Christianity, is openly indebted to Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction of the sense of touch in On Touching–Jean-Luc Nancy ( 2005). Nancy’s offered a short, but comprehensive introduction to his work on Christianity and love during a round-table that took place at the European Graduate School, in August of 2001: “Love and Community”.
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The ideas expressed in the excerpt quoted above point to a particular understanding of communication as a means to relate to presence. In this view, it is believed there are various ways to experience a relation with something, or more specifically in this case with someone. To write a letter is one thing, to speak over the phone is another, and to whisper in one’s ear is yet a different kind of communication. Furthermore, all those modes are usually understood as being qualitatively different from one another. For many of us, the last example illustrates a more direct communication (as opposed to the “remote communication” aforementioned).
It follows that some modes of communication are believed to be better than others, more efficient maybe. In each case, what is at stake is the way in which a mediation allows access to what is real, to what is true, to what is authentically present. The premise behind this belief is two-fold. It assumes that reality is not just any kind of fleeting experience, but on the contrary that it is grounded in some actual things. It also assumes that this reality can be somehow accessed, for example as the experience of a real presence.
Among all the different modes of communication, touch is often held as being the most intimate. Indeed, even whispering in one’s ear could still be said to be a form of “remote communication” in the sense that it allows a relation to take place, but only through language. Touching, however, seems to offer an experience that is prior to language and therefor more authentic.
“We found a way to give technology a more human touch,” states Apple website, promoting its new “Taptic Engine” capable of producing “haptic feedback” (“Taptic” would thus be a portmanteau word joining “tap” and “haptic”)1. And it continues:
(…) the Taptic Engine creates a discreet, sophisticated, and nuanced experience by engaging more of your senses. It also enables some entirely new, intimate ways for you to communicate with other Apple Watch wearers. You can get someone’s attention with a gentle tap. Or even send something as personal as your heartbeat.
For Jacques Derrida, this belief –if not this ideology– is constitutive of a specific way of thinking that grants special privileges to presence. This is not without consequences. In this regard, the “deconstruction” of what is often called the “metaphysics of presence” has to do –among other things– with the exposure of those consequences. In turn, the possibility to see what seems natural or intuitive as being the result of specific choices may allow for different views to come to light. In the case at hand here, Derrida identifies the priority granted to touch over other senses as a form of “haptocentrism” or “haptocentric intuitionism”:
The fullness of immediate presence signifies above all the actuality of what gives itself effectively, energetically, actually. As the noun might indicate, we know that intuition gives a privilege to vision. But it is always to reach a point there, where the fulfillment, the plenitude, or the filling of visual presence touches contact, that is, a point that, in another sense, one could nickname blind spot; and there the eye touches and lets itself be touched–by a ray of light, unless it is (more rarely, and more dangerously) by another eye, the eye of the other. At least since Plato, no doubt, and despite his indebtedness to the eye that looks, intuitionism has also been a metaphysics and tropology of touch–a metaphysics as hapto-tropologic. (2005: 120)
It follows that touch, at least from the standpoint of Derrida, is not inherently, essentially, or naturally “intimate”, but that it is believed to be so on the ground of a decision that has a very long, and strong tradition2. However, to make this observation does not mean, cannot mean that touch is not as good as we thought, that another sense must be prior to it. That would simply replace one decision by another, while keeping the hierarchy of senses in a different arrangement. In the same way, the deconstruction of the metaphysics of presence certainly does not mean that absence should be privileged over presence.
Regarding the Apple Watch, this could mean at least two things. On one hand, the belief that a “Taptic Engine” is a “more human technology” –that it could provide more intimacy– may have less to do with the nature of touch, than it has with a set of choices regarding what touch is, or should be. The question then would be that of the criteria, or the values that support and promote those choices. On the other hand, as I have already suggested, it would be equally problematic to argue that the haptic experience provided by the Apple Watch is not a “real” touch: that it is only but a pale derivative to what an “authentic” touch would be. And indeed, Derrida himself makes this point when he writes, in the same book, about virtual touch:
One spontaneously has the tendency to believe that touching resists virtualization. And if (continuous and continuistic) haptocentric intuitionism is indeed a dominant tradition, which I have taken as my theme here, then philosophy, as such and constitutively, may be subjected to this very belief To this credulity. How is one to believe that touch cannot be virtualized? And how can one fail to see that there is something like an “origin of technics” there? Let’s note that in California, a haptical museum does exist (it’s not a proof of anything, just a sign): the Integrated Media Systems Center at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, makes available for its visitors a web site on which they can experience “remote touching,” “realistic” sensations in “touching” works of art. (Ibid.: 300-301).
What would it means, then, to think differently about touch? That is to say, how can we think of touch and intimacy in a way that does not obey a logic of access to an authentic or fulfilling presence? This brings us to the second observation.
It could be argued that technology always already has to do not with establishing connexion between properly present beings, but with a meditation through which their respective presence is exposed as being grounded in lack of any given property: in other words, grounded in groundlessness. In Plato’s Protagoras, τέχνη is offered to human beings in order to supplement their defining lack of essential quality (Epimetheus having foolishly distributed all attributes among the other creatures, forgetting in the process to put some aside for mankind). If this lack defines the particular mode of being of humans3, it is possible to argue that there cannot be but “remote communication” (an expression which therefore could be said to be pleonastic). From this standpoint, it follows that even a kiss between two lovers is a form of remote communication: an attempt at engaging the absence of proper intimacy. The sharing of intimacy, in this view, is not about communicating what is essentially one’s “own”, but about experiencing a common lack of any kind of constitutive property. We share not what we own properly, but what we lack: a common impropriety.
An example of such a reading is given in Jean-Luc Nancy’s interpretation of what Jesus says to Marie Magdalene after his resurrection in John 20:17: “Noli me tangere,” says the resurrected (Μή μου ἅπτου, from ἅπτω, thus “haptic”; see previously here). Nancy suggests that love takes place not as the a fulfilling connexion, but as a shared abandonment to this lack of constitutive essence. The most intimate thing I have to share is the finitude of “my” being, which is precisely not my “own”, but common to all beings. Derrida himself insists that the condition for a connexion or a relation to take place, is paradoxically for it to be interrupted: the relation takes place in the interruption, because of the interruption, as the interruption itself (previously here)4.
This applies as well to the heart rate the Apple Watch is supposed to be able to mesure and communicate: “a simple and intimate way to tell someone how you feel,” claims the website (“New ways to connect”). Feelings are supposed to be communicated through the haptic sharing of heartbeats5. As Derrida suggests however, heartbeats are the rhythmic expression of an interruption: “What interrupts circulation is what makes the heartbeat” (2005: 284). Earlier, he has further explained:
And the heart beat, with its syncopal interruptions, which gives its rhythm to pulse, pulsion,or even haptical compulsion, the cum of con-tact, coming to link or conjoin only where disconnection remains at work, as well as a possible disjunction. (Ibid.: 70)
Could it be, then, that the Apple Watch actually offers a way to experience this interruption? Hardly so, it seems, if the idea of communication remains exclusively subordinated to a logic of exchange that claims to bring the user closer to a fulfilling presence. And especially not if, all the while, the experience of intimacy remains framed by a logic of property: exchanging my “own” heartbeats, as if it was “proper” to my being (granted that my being, or my “self”, is not reducible to this biometric profile). Which brings us to the third and final observation.
The production of intimacy that is being promoted by Apple is mediated by a notification system. This technological system is itself embedded in a market economy. In other words, the experience of intimacy it offers takes place in, and participate to a living environment (a milieu de vie) that is at once economical and technological. In the introduction to her most recent book, Babette Babich briefly examines how a similar notification system operates in the 1998 movie You’ve Got Mail, written by Nora Ephron. In doing so, she’s specifically interested in AOL’s acoustic notification in its relation to the experience of love:
One waits for the stimulus: you’ve got mail. Today, with or without AOL, one’s phone signals a tweet “connection.” One looks for —one checks, as one says— one’s email, Facebook account, blog, and so on. Anticipation and satisfaction are the same. The checking activity itself reinforces the activity because this mini-event, this little tone or buzz, is all the reward we get and, so advertisers have learned to their profit, as Twitter also knows: this is all we need. (2013: 1-2).
The Apple Watch works as an operator of mediation, claiming to be able to provide its user with the experience of a more immediate presence through haptic feedback. In this experience, the idea of an actual presence is being at once promised and continuously deferred, allowing for both desire and a certain business model to thrive alike.
Indeed, something must be missing for desire to function as desire, and to desire more. If this lack is replaced by the actual object that is being desired, than the lack is apparently fulfilled. This fulfilment actually forbids the desire to keep desiring. The object of desire, once produced, annihilates the movement of desire. This is where, according to Jacques Lacan, anxiety arises: when the lack is lacking (previously here). Babette Babich, who also refers to Lacan in her book, reminds the reader of a quote by Slavoj Žižek to the effect that “enjoyment is primarily enjoyment in the signifier” (Ibid.: 26).
Apple’s promotional strategy for its watch is not unique, nor original. But it illustrates quite explicitly how intimacy can be integrated to a business model by selling not an actual object of desire, but a mean for desire to keep desiring. As the basis for a certain experience of intimacy, this exchange works precisely because what is actually lacking is not recognized as a lack, but rather replaced with the presentation, or the production of something: in this case, notifications. If there is an issue worth thinking about regarding Apple’s watch, it is not simply in the way it claims to mediate the experience of intimacy. Rather, it is to be found in the fact that in doing so, it subordinates the mediation to what is being mediated, and relegates the experience of interruption behind the authoritative ideal of an immediate and fulfilling presence.
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If anything, those three brief observations suggest the necessity to think of an experience of intimacy within a form of haptic mediation that goes beyond an economy of production. The experience of an aporetic touch –not quite touching the void, but voiding the touch– could open the possibility for an equally unproductive or inoperative intimacy: one that could not be properly integrated to a business model. The conditions of such a mediation could be said, in turn, to allow for love to happen as an impossible event, or rather as the event of what is not yet possible. In this regard, it is worth recalling how Derrida, who once explained that deconstruction “never proceeds without love”, also defined deconstruction both as “the impossible” [l’impossible] and as “what happens” [ce qui arrive]7.
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1. The complete quote reads “We found a way to give technology a more human touch. Literally.” There would be much to say about the final emphasis –“Literally”– in regard to the way we understand both what is human and how this predicate operates in regard to technology. The seemingly innocuous idea that a touch can be “more” or “less” human already points to the problem –which could be said to be political through and through– of how exactly “being” can be predicated as “human”. Far from performing its celebrated slogan –“Think different”– Apple’s statement carries over a very old tradition where “being human” is defined in a variety of essential distinctions (from machines, from animals, etc.). ↩︎︎︎
2. I use the word “decision” thinking specifically of the way in which Miguel de Beistegui qualifies Aristotle’s attitude towards the question of being: as the expression of an “ethico-ontological decision”. See previously here: Gilbert Simondon and the Aristotelian sunolon. ↩︎︎︎
3. This view is present in Jean-Luc Nancy’s treatment of the problem of “community” throughout his work, starting maybe in Le partage des voix (Paris: Galilée, 1982; “Sharing Voices” tr. by Gayle. L. Ormiston, in Transforming the Hermeneutic Context: From Nietzsche to Nancy, Albany: SUNY, 1990, pp. 211-259). For another take on this issue, see L’homme sans by Martin Crowley (Paris: Éditions Lignes, 2009). ↩︎︎︎
4. A relation that takes place as a separation is also an idea one can find in Maurice Blanchot’s treatment of friendship. I have developed this topic more thoroughly in an essay regarding Jean-Luc Godard’s film Adieu au langage: see “The Gaze of Interruption”.↩︎︎︎
5. It is worth noting that this feature is introduced at a time when technology also allows for the human heart to be successfully replaced by centrifugal pumps capable of circulating the blood in a continuous manner, that is without producing a pulse or a beat. A patient living with such a transplanted device has no heartbeat. It’s the case, for example, of former Vice President Dick Cheney. See “A New Pumping Device Brings Hope for Cheney” (The New York Times, Lawrence K. Altman, July 19, 2010), and “Heart With No Beat Offers Hope Of New Lease On Life” (NPR, Carrie, Feibel, July 3, 2011) ↩︎︎︎
6. The reference, which is provided in Babich’s book, is to Enjoy Your Symptom! Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out (London: Routledge, 1992, p. 27).
7. [Deconstruction ] “never proceeds without love”: interview with Christian Descamps published under the title “Jacques Derrida sur les traces de la philosophie,” in Le Monde, January 31, 1982; tr. by Peggy Kamuf as “The Almost Nothing of the Unpresentable”, in Points… Interview, 1974-1994, Stanford: Stanford University Press,  1995, p. 83). Here’s a longer excerpt:
Deconstruction as such is reducible to neither a method nor an analysis (the reduction to simple elements); it goes beyond critical decision itself. That is why it is not negative, even though it has often been interpreted as such despite all sorts of warnings. For me, it always accompanies an affirmative exigency, I would even say that it never proceeds without love…
The two other definitions that follows –deconstruction as the impossible, and as what happens– come from a radio interview: “Jacques Derrida”, Surpris par la nuit. Raison de plus (France Culture), Alain Veinstein. December 17, 2001 (YouTube). During this interview, Derrida recalls how he once provided “deconstruction” with four definitions. Below is a partial transcript I made of this segment (starting approximately 56 mins into the interview).
Si pour faire vite et pour jouer un peu j’essaie de me rappeler les définitions que –sous la pression d’une question– je me suis laissé allé à donner de la déconstruction, brièvement, il y en a si je compte bien au moins quatre. Si vous permettez, je les rappelle: elles sont très brèves. J’ai dit une fois: la déconstruction, c’est l’Amérique, dans un texte sur Paul de Man. Une autre fois, dans le même livre, ayant abandonné cette première hypothèse, j’ai dit: la déconstruction, c’est plus d’une langue. Et puis une autre fois, la déconstruction c’est l’impossible. Enfin, une quatrième fois, c’est ce qui arrive. Je crois que ces quatre définition –qui sont à la fois algébriques, brèves, ironiques, mais sérieuses aussi– ne sont pas disparates ou incompatibles les unes avec les autres. Elles sont, elles forment je l’espèrent une sorte de cohérence. D’abord, ce qui arrive comme l’impossible. Il est évident que si ce qui arrive, comme l’événement –ou bien «qui arrive», c’est-à-dire l’arrivant, le «qui» arrive n’est-ce pas, ce qui arrive ou bien l’arrivant– si ce qui arrive ou l’arrivant était possible, autrement dit si je les voyais venir, s’il était en mon pouvoir de les recevoir ou de les prévoir, et bien ils n’arriveraient pas. Ce serait simplement le remplissement d’un programme, d’une attente, et donc l’événement serait neutralisé par sa simple possibilité. Autrement dit, pour que quelque chose arrive, ou que quelqu’un arrive, au sens fort du terme, il faut que cette personne, ce quelqu’un, ou cet événement, arrive comme impossible, comme ce qui n’était pas encore possible. Donc la deconstruction n’est pas justement une doctrine ou un savoir ou quelque chose qui est à ma disposition comme un instrument, une méthode, ou quelque chose de calculable que j’ai à ma disposition, une technique que j’enseigne. La déconstruction a lieu chaque fois où quelque chose arrive, où quelqu’un arrive. [C’est] l’expérience de l’hospitalité inconditionnelle par exemple, n’est-ce pas, de don, de pardon; où ce qui arrive comme l’impossible désorganise en quelque sorte le champ du possible, le champ de la réception. Comme un hôte inattendu qui arrive est un principe de désordre dans l’espace qui le reçoit. C’est à cette condition qu’il y a de l’hospitalité pure. Si celui qui arrive est invité et ne dérange personne, ce n’est pas de l’hospitalité. Donc seul l’impossible arrive d’une certaine manière.↩︎︎︎
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