The Tactile Burden of Severality

Tactile burden of severality. A suggestive phrase, perhaps already located a little too gratuitously in the various crevices that constitute my verbal and written discourse. But isn't this how new concepts find their potential? Something felt is given a tentative genesis in thought and language; this voice swirls around in the mouth like a vintage syrah, opening up new sensations with each passing, and slowly emerges into form. With that in mind, consider the following as preliminary tasting notes for an emerging concept.

The motif of tactile burden may be traced back to the earliest voices posted at sportsBabel. I was concerned from the very beginning about the question of virtual (read: synthetic) sport and how that impacted the embodied aspect of performance. Certainly the best haptic technologies would never be able to replace the proprioceptions and external sensations of moving in concert with other bodies in sporting competition?

Over time I began to develop a more general understanding of the numbing that occurs with electric media technologies and their interfaces, from which the political dimension of such mediation became apparent. In contrast to the remote optics of surveillance, a close sensuous form of haptic control was being employed by the State that challenged prior understandings of bounded spatiotemporality — what Deleuze referred to as the "crisis of enclosure."

It seemed imperative to me that thinking political subjects needed to regain a sense of their own embodiment if they were to engage and resist the networked touching and imaging of their bodies by meshworks of government and corporate interest that occurs every day. Wholly yielding ourselves to the data networks was something that needed to be resisted, and thus my call to embrace a tactile burden.

So what is it that I mean by severality, on the other hand? Here, I am borrowing from the feminist psychoanalyst Bracha Ettinger, who develops within her theory the idea of subjectivity as encounter between two or more individual subjects. These part-subjects affectively and mentally trans-inscribe and cross-inscribe one another to create the conditions of co-emergence within difference. We are part-subjects in several of these severalities, some of which mirror the old institutions of modernity — school, work, family — but many of which are either or both more granular in scale and more spatially diffuse. The crisis of enclosure begins with this fragmentation of the subject.

Interestingly, and departing somewhat from the influence of Deleuze and Guattari, Ettinger insists on the uniqueness of the few and focuses on severality rather than multiplicity. How do we differentiate between the two? It would appear to be simply a semantic distinction in terms of number (at what point does severality become multiplicity?), but it is more than that. Ettinger forces us to acknowledge at the level of lived, embodied, affective experience the many intimate foldings of severalness within a multiplicity. This is not to say that copoiesis with other partial-subjects never met before in the flesh cannot occur via networked forms of communication — after all, text (and increasingly audio, video and haptic technologies) may provide vectors of resonance between erstwhile strangers — but that such a resonance can only be the byproduct of a feedbackforward emanating from the prior lived everyday.

Virno, Hardt and Negri recognize the dimension of hybridity within their respective formulations of the multitude and they take great care not to dissolve and homogenize it, but they perhaps fail to resolve the particulars of affective experience and the myriad foldings of the few that exist in the passages between the real and virtual, between embodied and network-mediated. Ettinger, put simply, retrieves from the multitude the scale of the possible.

So, returning to the original question, what exactly am I saying when I refer to the tactile burden of severality? I'd like to leave that answer open-ended for now, but instead suggest an embodied experience that might offer a clue.

Sensing Several

This is a simple exercise that I did in Sandy Stone's class last year at the European Graduate School, which is apparently common among physical educators, but was new to me and I think quite powerful in its simplicity. Sandy is singular among EGS faculty in that she teaches in both the Media and Communications and the Expressive Arts divisions of the university; given her own history of embodied politics as a post-op transsexual, feminist scholar, and erstwhile performance artist, she brings unique insights about the body to the philosophy of technology.

The exercise: take a group of people within a broad open space such as a gym, dance studio or large classroom. Each person must choose one other person in the room (without notifying that person) and watch them out of the corner of their left eye. Everyone begins moving around the room, continually modifying position so as to keep that person in the corner of their left eye. Then, stop the exercise, choose a different person, and this time follow them out of the corner of the right eye.

The third iteration combines the first two: set everyone into motion while maintaining sight of the first person out of the corner of the left eye and the second out of the right eye. The resultant action will look something like this:

Sandy Stone Experiential Exercise

red arrow indicates viewing from left eye
blue arrow indicates viewing from right eye

I draw three main conclusions from this exercise:

1. Bodies must move rhythmically within the space by continually renegotiating the triangulation between the observer and the two observed (signals), as well as the other bodies in the room (noise).

2. This occurs not by optically focusing on either of the other individuals within the triangle, but rather by perceiving both through peripheral vision in a haptic sense. I understand this as correlative with the tactile burden.

3. Although each observer's severality only numbers three, the exercise demonstrates what Massumi refers to as every body's "immediate, unfolding relation to its own nonpresent potential to vary," albeit in a mutually interconnected fashion that encompasses the few as well as the entire group. This is what I understand as the foldings of severality within multiplicity.


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