Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Irving Goh reviews The Forgotten Sense

Pablo Maurette. The Forgotten Sense: Meditations on Touch. Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 2018. 192 pp.

Review by Irving Goh

17 July 2019

As someone who works more frequently with twentieth- and twenty-first century materials, reading Pablo Maurette’s The Forgotten Sense: Meditations on Touch, for me, was an insightful experience in terms of learning how writers of much earlier centuries––writers such as Homer, Lucretius, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Francesco Patrizi, Johannes Secundus, Antonio Rocco, and Cyrano de Bergerac––were already thinking about touch in ways that anticipate how recent French thought––in the likes of Jean-Luc Nancy, Jacques Derrida, and Luce Irigaray––has been dealing with the topic. Maurette’s turn to those early writers is clearly driven by his training and interest in Renaissance literature, and this is no less indicated by the fact that the book is very much guided by Lucretius’s De rerum naturum. And while an endnote suggests a consultation of recent scholarship on touch in the fields of cultural history and analytic philosophy, it is less clear if the author is fully cognizant of related works in French thought. No doubt he brings Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari on haptics and Michel Henry on the flesh into his discussion, but he certainly does not work through the writings on touch in Nancy, Derrida, Irigaray, and Merleau-Ponty. Perhaps that explains the reiterations of some of those ideas in the book, albeit without references to those thinkers. For example, when the author writes that touch “is [. . . ] not a sense: it is many” (p. ix), one almost immediately recognizes such a move as Derrida’s; when he writes of us touching ourselves in terms of the fact that “we are both touching and being touched” (pp. 11–2), it is undoubtedly a strong echo of the idea and/or rhetoric of Merleau-Ponty and Nancy; and when he considers “what happens in the moist and dark space formed by two mouths closed onto one another” (p. 81), one cannot fail to recall that that has been Irigaray’s interest for some time already.

Where Maurette is more original is when he considers touch as hinged upon a haptics-affect structure. He first gives precision to the consideration of haptics. Then he underscores that affect is “not merely another variant of the haptic: it is its touchstone and its ground zero” (p. 9). I would have liked to see this idea further explicated and developed throughout the book, but that is regrettably not the author’s plan (I will come back to this in a bit). The other place where the book comes across as indeed interesting is the chapter on the kiss. To Maurette, the kiss is an enigma because, even though “the erotic kiss is given with the entire body” (p. 82), it remains “inaccessible” (p. 83). And while one might place the kiss on some sort of hierarchy––the author regards it as “the second most intimate form of touch” (p. 83) (what counts as the first is not quite clear), the kiss, according to him, undoes all distinctions: “in the kiss both parties are at once active and passive because the lovers penetrate and are penetrated, alternatively or simultaneously, by means of the tongue, a phallic substitute that, unlike the male organ, works both erect and flaccid” (p. 94). As the author sees it, the kiss “is a nonhierarchical, horizontal, and perfectly reciprocal endeavor” (p. 94). It is through the kiss as such that we will learn not only to be sensitive to others and their differences but also something else about ourselves: we will “discover the erotic idiosyncrasies of the other, but also of ourselves” (pp. 97–98). (At this point, I cannot help but think again of the works of Irigaray on lips, or the part of Nancy’s “The ‘There Is’ of Sexual Relation” on “baiser”––which means both kiss and, in slang, “fuck”––that can definitely add to the conversation.) So, even though there might be another more intimate form of touch, the kiss arguably constitutes, for the author, a first philosophy, a “philematology” that, he will add, “must [. . .] be a descriptive rather than prescriptive form of knowledge” (p. 101). 

The book does suffer from a few notable weaknesses. Firstly, the title is really unfortunate. I do not think that one can say that touch is a “forgotten sense” today. As the author himself has acknowledged, there has already been a growing literature on touch in the field of philosophy, both in the analytic and continental tradition. Now, should the author claim that the forgetfulness lies in literature, I am afraid the author has not looked hard enough amidst the current literature. Thus, the author does not take into account Steven Connor’s Book of Skin, Santanu Das’s Touch and Intimacy in World War I Literature, Abbie Garrington’s Haptic Modernism, and Sarah Jackson’s Tactile Poetics. Also glaringly absent is Richard Kearney’s “Carnal Hermeneutics.” Even though “Carnal Hermeneutics” is not concerned with literary analysis per se, it does, in my view, nonetheless further pave the way for the inquiry into the question of touch in literary studies, hence could have been particularly critical to the author. (The missed engagement with Kearney’s work can really be felt when the author writes of life being “defined by the ability to touch, to be touched, and to feel one’s body as a balanced organism that can move” [p. 51], for existence as such and its intimate link to touch is preciously the guiding thread in Kearney’s text.) Otherwise, the works of Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht (who, ironically, wrote the blurb for this present book), especially Atmosphere, Mood, Stimmung: On a Hidden Potential of Literature, or Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey, also could have added to the author’s discussion in interesting ways.

The other troubling weakness of the book is that it actually does not read like a book. It reads more like a collection of occasional essays, all variations on the theme of touch, gathered into a single collection, occasionally peppered with anecdotes of the author’s adventures in Paris or the Bibliothèque Nationale there (which hardly add to the point the author wishes to make). I am aware that the author at the outset already announces his desire for a “refuge from the constrictions imposed by academic discourse; a refuge both methodological and stylistic” (p. xii). However, I am afraid the lack of organization of the essays into a coherent whole, or the lack of a clear developing, overarching narrative, only proves trying for any reader picking up a book published by a university press, who would expect at least an unfolding of an argument through the book. As well as eschewing a strong central line of argument, the chapters themselves exhibit a touch-and-go allusiveness, referring widely to writers and artists from different eras but going only (as one chapter heading has it) “skin deep.”