SARS-CoV-2 has reorganized common understandings of touch, as well as the politics of who or what we can touch. Indeed, the virus is deeply intertwined with the sense of touch, reshaping how we see and experience touch. The crucial role of touch in our lives now intersects with potential threats and hazards, since touching one another or touching items such as food or our non-human companions may increase the likelihood of transmission. Suddenly, more concerning, these actions may become political where once they were not.
The Need for Touch
Touch is fundamental to human co-existence, but this latest Coronavirus has radically recast this innate human capacity. Touch is no longer just about tactility; now, its absence prompts us to consider distance and isolation. Early in the pandemic, in Britain, doctors advised younger medical professionals not to forget to hold a dying patient’s hand as they pass. Since the patient’s own relatives are forbidden to be by their side, doctors are being called on to offer the relief of touch, a basic human connection. The COVID-19 pandemic has robbed people of their right to what sociologists of health call a “good death”, whose passage is assuaged by the presence of others.
Touch is how we humans surpass the boundary of our own flesh. Holding a dying patient’s hand connects them to their ever-contracting world. In the same vein, elderly residents in care homes are being described as experiencing “touch hunger.” On this very significant level, the virus does not just damage its host, but infiltrates the stability of the community as well, by infecting and withholding the human contact, for which we have a very basic need.
Touch and Community
While touch establishes and maintains the cohesion of a community, it does not always bring people together. As the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy has written, touch is a community keystone. Notably, it has as much to do with maintaining distance amongst members as it does with proximity. In other words, touch maintains the meaning of community because it also individuates members of the community.
When we make physical contact with another person, we close the gap between us. But this very action also reaffirms that we are normally separate beings, with distance between us. Thus, touch is a means to both elucidate and explore the boundaries that usually keep bodies apart. Nancy takes up this notion in his writing on the phenomenology of touch: to touch is to admit and explore a fundamental separation between us as human beings.
In Jacques Derrida’s book devoted to Jean-Luc Nancy’s attention to touch, he writes:
“Touching is not a sense, at least not one sense amongst others. A finite living being can live and survive without any other sense; and this occurs with a host of animals that have no vision (it is possible to be sensitive to light without “seeing”), no hearing (it is possible to be sensitive to sound waves without “hearing”), no taste or sense of smell … But no living being in the world can survive for an instant without touching, which is to say without being touched … for a finite being, before and beyond any concept of “sensibility,” touching means “being in the world.” There is no world without touching …”
When we touch another person, we also have a sense of that other person’s immediate presence. So, holding your friend’s hand, or your child’s, or your dog’s, may feel right—but it reminds us that we are part of a larger collective of friends, family, community, nation, species, even while we are our own individual self. When a person is denied touch, as hundred of thousands of loved ones on their death beds have been, they are in this way denied their individuality as well ascommunity.
But we also must resist any generalizing tone about touch, not rush into its metaphysics. In effect, touch is mandatory for those workers whose presence has kept the global economy going, and who may be living in those multi-generational living arrangements where the spread of COVID-19 happens more readily. In Canada, meat-packing plant employees, for instance, who are often migrant workers on temporary and precarious work permits, are not invited to reflect in such terms on the meaning of touch, while cutting flesh in close quarters with others. Against the tendency of the dominant phrase, we’re all in this together, such labour demonstrates that sense, that all-encompassing sense of touch, is subject to the same principles of unequal distribution as other components of COVID-19. Structural economic forces determine who, at this point, has the privilege of connecting touch with ethics, in order to leave those they love untouched and thus unharmed.
Touch and the Virus
The initial outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has pulled into focus the longstanding relationship between how our individual, embodied actions resonate within local and global communities. Signs were everywhere, never letting us forget that our personal behaviours bear immediate consequences on the statistical rate of infection. We are still continually being asked to consider what are we touching, what we have touched, and what will we touch, and to consider their broader implications.
To “flatten the curve” means restraining ourselves, and as the second and third waves are rising, and variants of the virus are encroaching, this becomes more pressing than ever. And, so, we screen our daily interactions, since any one of us could be carriers before we exhibit symptoms. This makes our bodies “mediated” territory. The concept of a body in the world now resonates with questions of proximity and viral spread and just where the boundaries between individuals really lie. In the our skin? In our breath? We are being called to reevaluate the limits of the inside and the outside of the body, mediated by an invisible organism we can’t see or touch, but which is very real.
Like others in my profession, COVID-19 has had a massively disruptive effect on my work. My ethnographic research was put on hold. I could no longer inhabit the corporeal space with my informants in real time, and was effectively barred access from their shimmering worlds. As I followed my intuition to become responsive to and response-able about the pandemic, my question turned to one of methods. In particular, I am interested in exploring tech-enabled methods such as live streaming with research informants as they navigate their wonderfully and frustrating complex lives in this new indeterminate mediascape. If SARS-CoV-2 has reorganized our sense of touch, let’s be in touch with new ways of touching others and bringing our research communities in new proximities. As we navigate this new, mediated terrain we all know this: Alone, we work together.
Mickey Vallee holds a Canada Research Chair (Tier II) in Community, Identity and Digital Media at Athabasca University, Canada’s Open University, where he teaches in the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies. He is the author of Sounding Bodies Sounding Worlds: An Exploration of Embodiments in Sound (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020). His current research is on touch, the body, and the new global maskscape.