»It’s the Sense of Touch«

Skin in the Making of Cinematic Consciousness
1/1/2008

It's the sense of touch. In any real city, you walk, you know? You brush past people, people bump into you. In L.A., nobody touches you. We’re always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something. (Crash)

In her article »Memory, Creation, and Writing« Toni Morrison has asserted that »narrative is one of the ways in which knowledge is organised« (Morrison 1984: 388). Especially in the context of classical cinema, this organisation of narrative is often understood in terms of spatial and temporal causality. Within the context of post-classical cinema, however, narrative more often than not unfolds from any spatial and temporal point rather than through a causal development in time and space.1 One only has to think of films such as Traffic (Steven Soderbergh, 2000), Syriana (Stephen Gaghan, 2005), Babel (Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu, 2006) and many others as examples of the films that escape the organisational control of narrative (and are almost impossible to reconstruct in an exact chronological order, at least from memory).2 In these films, ›knowledge‹ is not about causal relationships, but about how different points of time and space randomly intersect. The spectator’s experience of the films of this kind is then also more of a journey from one spatial and temporal crossroad to another, without necessarily providing a totalising overview. It is, therefore, best approached through the concept of touch as a mode of knowledge that constantly forms and reforms itself in a large network of connections.

Paul Haggis’s 2004 film Crash is a good example of this, since it, too, lacks causal relations between the events and encounters that occur not only between scenes but also within a scene. The film opens with haptic, tactile, blurry images of snow and car lights on a highway on top of which the opening credits appear. We hear Graham, played by Don Cheadle, uttering the words: »It’s the sense of touch,« after which his face is brought into sharp focus in the foreground of the image. Racking focus alters between the different planes of the image where the characters are, bringing them into contact with each other and directing the spectator’s attention not to the characters themselves, but to this contact space between them. Selective and racking focuses occur throughout the film, extending the optical vision to the haptical, a vision that is hardly distinguishable from the layered texture of the image, a mode of knowledge that is touch and even coincidence. The dialogue from the opening scene continues whilst the image fades in and out, cut against the rhythm of speech. There has apparently been a car accident. The scene ends with the image fading out in white, after which the story starts to unfold from yesterday onwards.

The narrative of Crash is a weaving together of random incidents, instead of a (linear) chain of cause and effect. Accidents, coincidences and chance encounters are more significant than any causal motivations between them. Milan Kundera has written that our daily life is »bombarded […] with the accidental meetings of people and events we call coincidences. ›Co-incidence‹ means that two events unexpectedly happen at the same time, they meet« (Kundera 1984: 51-2). Similarly, Michel Serres argues that world and human lives are composed in precisely such a fashion, according to the logic of the clinamen that creates order out of chaos. For Serres, the clinamen is the way in which world is organised by the logics of accident and chance, but it is important to keep in mind that this is merely the way in which the subject experiences an unexpected event or »the intersection of independent series,« as there is no intelligence which could comprehend the full multiplicity of the world (Serres 2000: 126).

Accident is the place where narrative comes out »as the mnemonic preserver of this initial condition by chance within the interconnections of things themselves« (Serres 2000: 149). In Crash, for instance, if Peter (Larenz Tate) and Anthony (Chris ›Ludacris‹ Bridges) had not carjacked Rick and Jean Cabot (Brendan Fraser and Sandra Bullock), they never would have crashed into the Asian smuggler and later found his human cargo. If Peter and Anthony had not been African-American, Rick never would have had to worry about his political career. If Rick had not had to save his political career, Graham never would have had to withhold evidence with regard to a case where a (possibly) racist white officer shot his (possibly) corrupt black colleague, in order to get a furthering of his career. Furthermore, if Daniel (the Mexican locksmith played by Michael Peña) had not given his little daughter the invisible cloak against bullets, she never would have run outside their house to protect her father and got hit by the bullet that was not meant for her. If Dorri (the daughter of the Persian shop owner, played by Bahar Soomekh) had not (accidentally?) bought her father Farhad (Shaun Toub) blank bullets, Daniel’s daughter really would have died. And if Peter had not carried a similar figure of Saint Christopher with him as Officer Hanson (Ryan Philippe), Hanson never would have had to shoot him. And so on. Racial prejudices lead to misunderstandings that lead to accidents, accidents lead to racial prejudices that lead to understandings, misunderstandings lead to accidents that lead to understandings; everything leads to everything else in all possible combinations. This is how meaning circulates: it »goes in all directions at once, in all the directions of all the space-times opened by presence to presence« (Nancy 2000: 3).

This is not a simple logic of cause and effect but an organisation where random event can lead to a large-scale phenomenon, and where every incident within the multiplicity influences each other. Narrative that operates through this kind of organisation brings local things and events together across multiple spaces that can no longer be grasped within the global:
 

It joins things together, ties knots, constructs bridges, establishes relays between spaces determined as radically different. Its primary element would thus not be the building block placed in a linear or vertical relation to others, as has so insistently been the case in narrative theory and notably in narratology. It would be the point of juncture between spaces (Gibson 2005: 88).

 

In Crash, random events, such as Anthony and Peter carjacking Cameron, produce fortuitous changes: Cameron gets himself into a harsh argument with the police, but Officer Hanson intervenes on his behalf and prevents any outbreak of violence. Yet these changes are not being brought into equilibrium, since every change causes a chain of local events leading to another (more or less fortuitous) change in the trajectory of the global network. In a later incident with a hitchhiker who turns out to be Peter, Hansen shoots Peter when Peter reaches for what Hansen suspects to be a weapon, but is actually a statue of Saint Christopher. In this way, different scenes come out of randomness as local »islands of order« that form »a more complex system of becoming and of self-organisation« than a global system organised by temporal and spatial causality (Berressem 2005: 68). The scenes in Crash are interweaved accidentally and asymmetrically, in the service of a multiple network configuration that does not construct a narrative of causes and effects. Peter’s death, for instance, is instigated by chance encounters and misunderstandings rather than by any consequence of action. The car crash that follows Peter’s death is neither the effect of a cause nor justified by narration even though it unifies the characters in a single accident, underlining the logic of the clinamen that underlies the multiple systems of the world.

It comes as no surprise, then, that Crash is situated in Los Angeles, the city that, according to Serres, is an archipelago of regional islands constantly in a state of becoming, emerging from the changing relations between the local and the global. The urban organisation of the city does not assume an orderly metropolis, but a dynamic network of changing multiplicities. In this organisation, power no longer belongs to large, administrative institutions where individuals can be disciplined and policed, but to the one »who holds the network, who goes from the local to the global« (Serres 1994: 203). The ones who ultimately control the networks are those who operate in-between the crossroads within the larger system of random (but not necessarily meaningless) connections, those who control the information and communication between the regional islands and thereby re-define the relation between the local and the global. In Crash, one such operator is Flanagan (William Fichtner), the political advisor to Rick who talks Graham into accepting a corrupt deal from which some profit, others suffer. It is telling that Flanagan’s role in the film is small but important, suggesting that the operators as decisive agents of power who mediate between local islands of order (in this case, the police force and the juridico-political institutions) and change the way in which power dynamics flow within the global (affirmative action that no longer functions as a positive remedy but as a political tactic), are to an ever-increasing extent invisible to those who operate only on the levels of the local.

 

Mingled Bodies

For Serres, narrative that emerges from the logic of clinamen is also the model of identity. Identity is a singular intersection that comes into being as an ensemble of relations between individuals, identity is the body »saturated with singularities« (Gibson 2005: 93; Serres 1997: 33). Crash, for instance, (dis)establishes identity as a complex set of relations between characters that touch each other violently, protectively, threateningly, harassingly and lovingly, on a scale that runs from a stroking caress (which, as we will see, need not be a soothing, beneficial, or pleasant touch, pleasure enjoyed by contact) through the striking blow to the destructive shot and explosion. The moments of touch are the singular, accidental points of intersection between different individuals that define their identity. The way in which people touch, grab and reach out to each other is the ›foundation‹ of identity, but this foundation is, in fact, mobile and relational, continually shaping and reshaping itself. To emulate Luce Irigaray, this touch is not one, and it would be a mistake to unite the ›generality‹ of touch with some causes and qualities in a purely external way; instead, the sense of touch constitutes »a multiplicity without the horizon of a totalisable unity« (Derrida 2005: 69). The moments of touch are defining moments that come upon us accidentally, but that nevertheless make us into who we are. Touching is the very experience of identity as ›plural singularity‹ that comes about upon us by way of an act of touch:
 

[Touch] is the plural singularity of the Being of being. We reach it to the extent that we are in touch with ourselves and in touch with the rest of beings. We are in touch with ourselves insofar as we exist. Being in touch with ourselves is what makes us ›us,‹ and there is no other secret to discover buried behind this very touching, behind the ›with‹ of coexistence (Nancy 2000: 13).

 

This touch that is not one is about identity as being-with, with oneself and with the other, and the plural singularity being a common experience. In Crash, the identity of being-with is related to the question of who touches whom and in what way, which, in turn, is very much connected to skin colour and power; who has the power to touch whom, who has the ›touching power‹? Touching aligns bodies with some bodies: the brotherly handshake aligns Anthony and Peter with their ›homies‹ and Cameron with his black crew. But touching aligns bodies also against other bodies: hostile and violent touches, for instance between Farhad and the white security guard, and even between husbands and wives, work to separate the bodies from each other and underline their apartness. Steven Connor has written that the body that actively touches is white (the self), whereas the body that is touched and that cannot touch back is black (the ›not-self‹). This is also why the white body is the body that is »poised to take any shape« whilst the black body is the body in which »every shape has been actualised and objectified« (Connor 2004: 110). Identity is the pigment that is literally and figuratively painted on the surface of our skin, and the touch is the means through which we know the world and our position in it. Identity is a tactile and affective practice that can be a cause of benevolence as well as frustration. In Crash, Farhad is literally prisoner of his skin and frustrated precisely for this reason. His skin colour defines him as a threat and, as a result, he is being touched heavy-handedly, whilst he is the one who is vulnerable, afraid for his safety and integrity. His experience of frustration restraints his thinking ability and leads him to attempt to harm someone as vulnerable as he is.

For Officer Ryan, the black body stands for the other that needs to be ›touched‹ back to its place. The act of active touch that he performs on the body of Christine (Thandie Newton) is molesting and threatening precisely because she cannot touch him back; instead she, humiliated, has to passively receive Ryan’s ›stroking caress‹ that is nevertheless full of racial hate. In a crucial scene that closely follows suit, Ryan is the officer that pulls Christine from a burning car. At first, Christine reacts hysterically and rejects his help, repulsed by his touch. Christine’s strong reaction confronts Ryan with his own racism. (Paradoxically), Ryan’s manner of touching Christine who cannot touch back renders her impossible to touch, and, as a result, Ryan feels his own powerlessness. To touch someone who cannot touch back is to touch without contact, to touch without touching, and therefore Ryan encounters that which he cannot come into contact with, that which he cannot encounter: his own racism. By becoming untouchable, Christine calls upon Ryan to admit to his racist attitudes or to change them. Furthermore, only by first turning into something untouchable, Christine now becomes capable of returning the touch.3 This is an instant of reciprocal touch that leads to Ryan’s conscious self-perception.

The accident, then, becomes a moment of reciprocity, and even the way in which the editing is organised in this scene has a structure of touch that brings two bodies into unmediated contact.4 First the classical eyeline match (in the beginning of the scene) keep the characters apart, calling attention to the gap (the image frame) that separates them and that blocks the possibility of reciprocal touching. But as soon as the possibility of reciprocal touching emerges as described above, there is a change in editing style. Now there is no classical continuity and, as a result, it is impossible to say who is touching whom and who is being touched. After Christine is saved, the editing again becomes continuous, which again suggests a relation of separation between her and Ryan. This time, however, the separation implies not a rejection or an unbridgeable gap, but rather a possibility for reaching out to the other. After all, without a separation contact would not be possible; this fundamental separation between the two bodies is the condition for contact as Jean-Luc Nancy and Jacques Derrida have argued. This new situation for Ryan indicates that, in the moment of reciprocal touch, a change, or perhaps an epiphanic realisation took place of the interconnection of independent events that lead to foundational misunderstandings that allow racism to occur on a general level. Now, Ryan’s expanded affective capacity comes to them with an expanded sense of being in touch with the world. This kind of newly-found affective openness to the world has »a suddenness, a shock, of shifting a gear, moving a plane, making a leap of some sort« (Mazis 1993: 167).5

Ryan’s epiphany might, in fact, be an instance of ethological change inasmuch as it is grounded in a change of relations between individuals. In Gilles Deleuze’s definition, an ethological attitude maintains that »you do not know beforehand what good or bad you are capable of; you do not know beforehand what a body or a mind can do, in a given encounter, a given arrangement, a given combination« (Deleuze 1992: 627). The ethological attitude goes together with an acceptance that you cannot know in advance how you will behave in a certain (changed) situation, and, as a basis for identity, it is a matter of bodies entering into ever-shifting compositions with one another. Deleuze distinguishes three aspects in ethology: firstly, it is a study of the capacity for affecting and being affected that characterise each and every body. Secondly, it is a study of the way in which these capacities for affecting and being affected are realised according to certain, altering circumstances. Thirdly, and most importantly for the purposes of this essay, it is a study of the diverse compositions of relations or capacities between different bodies. This

…is a question of knowing whether relations (and which ones?) can compound directly to form a new, more ›extensive‹ relation, or whether capacities can compound directly to constitute a more ›intensive‹ capacity of power. It is no longer a matter of utilisations or captures, but of sociabilities and communities […] How can a being take another being into its world, while preserving or respecting the other’s own relations and world? (Deleuze 1992: 638)

 

From an ethological perspective, then, identity is the effect of the configurative mingling of bodies that is characterised by common belonging (since the mingled bodies relate to each other in their singular but collective becoming), chance (since mingling is the effect of the emergence of possibility) and randomness (since mingling can occur at any point of intersection in the network). The identity of mingled bodies is one »constituted not just by the projective coincidence of agents and objects […]but also by a temporal manifold of occasions on which mind, hand, and matter have met and reciprocally precipitated each other« (Connor 2006: 8). Touch, then, is essential to the »philosophy of the mingled bodies« and ethological identity is a way of being in the midst of the world, folded in its affective threads that connect us all (Connor 2005: 157). In Crash, not only is the narrative such a mingled yarn, also encounters between characters also become a unifying infoldment that defines their sense of selfhood. For instance, faced with bureaucracy and arrogance, Ryan’s encounters with Shaniqua Johnson, a HMO (Health Maintenance Organisation) administrator, turns him from a concerned son into a racist prick, which he then acts out on Cameron and Christine. Yet in the scene discussed above, Ryan apprehends himself as he is through the sense of reciprocal touch which allows him to tell the difference between who he is becoming and who he wants to be, and, as a result, develops a newly-found desire to encounter novel possibilities in the world. In the ethological thinking, it could be said that touch becomes the faculty of identity; no longer through the way in which touch defines the border of self and non-self, inner and outer on the surface of the skin, but through the way in which it functions as the meeting place of the self and the world (and the other selves in it), making a breeding ground for identity of mingled bodies possible:

In the skin, through the skin, the world and the body touch, defining their common border. Contingency means mutual touching, world and body meet and caress in the skin […] I mingle with the world that mingles itself in me. The skin intervenes in the things of the world and brings about their mingling (Serres 1985: 97, translated in Connor 2005: 157).

 

Consciousness in the Skin

But how is the spectator’s body situated in this drama of the mingled bodies? This, too, is best characterised by the sense of touch insofar as the experience of film becomes a matter of ›self-touching you‹ in which local, random events are felt as global, purposive effects, shifting the spectator’s viewpoint from a singular place to a multiple space whilst in one place. In this process, the spectator feels himself touched by the system of cinema that he, too, touches with his eyes (but of course it is evident that this process is remarkably different from the experience of finger touching something external to it). What, then, is the power of engaging the spectator of films of this kind based on, if one assumes that it is not on visual pleasure and narrative desire (since they do not invite identification, but communicate affect as empathic sharing by means of touch)? It is already clear that, in post-classical cinema, the ways of seeing, emoting and making sense often do not come in a simple or direct way, but as a result of »creative engagement with processes of thinking and feeling« that demands a certain effort from the spectator (Burnett 2005: 13). In Crash, the narrative structure woven together by accident keeps its distance from the spectator, whilst the visual superimpositions, digital effects and smooth, overlapping sound whereby the events flow together throughout the whole film evoke an effect of affection. As a result, an exteriority emerges that is needed for the touching and the touched sides of spectatorship, at the same time as the proximity leaves impressions on our skin, guiding the spectator into the mode of touch-sensing. We literally feel with the film, but not in the traditional, empathetic sense that is based on the psychic mechanism of identification, but on the tactile values of the film that stimulate the sense of touch. In this way, the film places the spectator at the threshold of the touching-touched, between continuity and interruption. This is a question of sharing the touch, sharing the affect without fusion, a being-with without confusion.

By placing the spectator at the threshold of touching-touched, Crash guides the spectator’s attention to the way in which local agents can have global effects dynamically, constantly negotiating new relations. This means participation, proximity, affinities, crossings and chance encounters that leave their impressions right onto our skins. More than a question of vision, this is a matter of being in touch with the world with a touching and a touched component; in other words, consciousness in the skin:
 

By itself, the skin takes on consciousness […] Without this folding over, this contact of the self with itself, there would be no internal sense, no body of one’s own, or even less coenesthesia, no body image, we would live without consciousness, featureless, on the point of vanishing (Serres 1985: 20, translated in Connor 2005: 155).

 

Skin in the making of cinematic consciousness is to be found in the way in which the spectator reaches out and opens up to touch, touches the screen in order to be touched back. The ›touching eye‹ is an openness waiting to be touched, to be sensitive to touch. This openness requires trust which spectators are prepared to invest in a film, a trust of ourselves in the process of self-touching the cinematic other. For contact to occur, there is a need for an openness to become affected through trust. This is the effort of trusting which allows touching and being touched; openness requires trust in the continuous emergence of the being-with that allow one to self-touch the other with affect.6

Touch, then, is also part of affect and cinematic pleasure. Being in touch without affect is simply flesh; by means of affect, however, touch becomes contact. Affect charges vision so that it becomes an »affected act of touching« (Derrida 2005: 271). Affect is the stuff that fills the ›empty‹ space between the membranes in touch, rendering it a space of vectors, connections, and valences which can either be attractive or repulsive to touch. We are ›in touch with‹ through the affective valence of things which push and pull us into relations with the world and others. A thinking through post-classical cinema would seem to have to go through skin due to its capability to convey affect through it by means of touch. Whilst classical cinema invited identification as a result of transitional interplay based on the mirror stage (as has been argued in the context of psychoanalytic reasoning) or the structures of recognition, alignment and allegiance (as has been argued in the context of cognitive film theory, as represented by Murray Smith), post-classical cinema responds by inviting reciprocal touch from the spectator. In Crash, the existence of the diegetic world depends on the process of reciprocal touch between the spectator and the film, as the spectator aims to come to terms with the way in which he is positioned in the intersection of random events. This process is neither immersive nor symmetrical, since at every act of touch there is a part of touching and touched; this is a question of what ›mode‹ outweighs the other at a given moment.

When our eyes touch, they orient toward and intersect with the eyes of the other through affect; this is…

…the kiss of the eyes: the meeting of looks, eyes that see themselves in the eyes of the other should be an example of the ›self-touching-you‹ and be part of tactile experience; in short, they should involve skin—a caress or a kiss, eyes kissed by eyes—if desire or love passed through them (Derrida 2005: 291).

 

In Crash, we are both touching and touched by, internal and external to, the depicted events. The intersections of events become a mode of self-touching you that does not let itself be ›all-owning‹ spectatorship (that aims to make the unfamiliar familiar) but spectatorship that de-familiarises the self and accepts the externality of the other. This acceptance is the condition of affective openness of being that is »a becoming-self without returning to self« orienting toward what is beyond self (Derrida 2005: 284). In Crash, the intersecting, random events (that float into each other in such a way that the inside and the outside, the local and the global, are no longer in opposition) become affective components with which it is possible to enter into contact. Such affective openness provides an avenue for moving from identification to getting in touch »not with one another, not yet with the creative mind somehow ›behind‹ the film, but with the system-cinema as a [corporeal] intelligence other than human« (Cubitt 2005: 363).

This kind of narrative, then, does not tell us what to expect, it requires effort and creative engagement. This is also part of its pleasure which derives from the manner in which both the random events are brought together and the spectator is brought in touch with the system of cinema. The narrative brings us into the realm of touch and provides us with the delight we take in making sense with instead of making sense of. A film is fully apprehended by a spectator who, as affected, is also touched into the delight of the affective components of the film. An analytical viewer can dissect the film into a series of events passed through and learn something about the workings of narrative, but this far from exhausts its phenomenology which can only be apprehended by those who open themselves up to an affective sensitivity towards the film.

Cinematic consciousness in the skin, then, is to make sense with, to be in touch with the film one is to make sense of; not self-sufficiently, but turning towards it, opening up to it and becoming permeable to the ever-changing, intertwining, interdependent affective components of the film, just as one opens up to the new possibilities in the world. Only an open membrane can affectively touch and be touched by another membrane. This kind of openness does not seek closure, for understanding by being-with is a very different notion than the traditional notion of understanding and knowledge. According to Nancy, »to-be-with is to make sense mutually, and only mutually« (Nancy 2000: 83). Therefore, to make sense by being-with means to comprehend something that is not to be found in causal relationships but in chance encounters; in the reciprocal touch with what is known.

Many thanks to Saskia Lourens.

  • 1. Whereas classical cinema has been characterized as efficient action-centered, goal-oriented linear storylines driven by the desire of a single protagonist, leading to definitive closure and producing narrative identification, post-classical cinema is typified in experiences centered on immersion and sensation, on the whole body as the sense organ rather than on visual perception (Elsaesser 1998: 43). These ›categories‹, however, are not watertight. In many classical films there are non-linear, sensational ›excesses‹, and many post-classical films contain classical elements. So even though my reading of the film focuses on the post-classical elements in Crash, the fact is that the film constantly fluctuates between the two modes.
  • 2. Sean Cubitt makes a similar notion in his book The Cinema Effect: »A rival and widespread school of thought sees narration as the essential model of cinematic duration, and cinema as a machine for telling stories. Now a major theme of film and cultural research, narratology is nonetheless at once too narrow a focus and too broad a concept to provide us with an insight into the multiple ontological temporalities of films« (Cubitt 2005: 35-6).
  • 3. See Derrida: »The touching is never exactly the touched. (…) Something else than the body is needed for the junction to be made: it takes place in the untouchable. That of the other which I will never touch (…) body proper and in the flesh« (Derrida 2005: 329-30, ft 17).
  • 4. Similarly, in J.G. Ballard’s novel Crash (1973), as well as in David Cronenberg’s 1997 film adaptation of it, people use car accidents in order to be able to touch and feel; but unlike Haggis’s Crash, this novel/film is a cautionary tale of an effect of our culture’s overvaluation of technology and devaluation of the lived body. For a discussion, see Sobchack 2004: 165-78.
  • 5. This is not to say that the scene under discussion would not also be highly problematic. From the perspective of gender the scene can almost be read as a moment of (sexual) violation where a woman, who initially says ›no‹, is forced to say ›yes‹ within the conventions of classical cinema. Whether or not this is the case, is not the main issue in this essay; nonetheless, the scene in question is also about something larger, namely a system of power in which Christine has none, except waiting to be ›rescued‹.
  • 6. In contrast to post-classical cinema, classical cinema often seems to require an effort not to allow affect to come forth: »My teenage daughter convinces me to accompany her to a ›tear-jerker‹ movie with a fictional script. I try to keep an open mind, but find it wholly lacking in artistry. I can’t wait for it to end. Still, tears come welling up at the tragic climax, and, cursing, I brush them aside and hide in my hood on the way to the car […] how can someone who forswears any imaginative involvement in a series of fictional events, respond to them with tears of sadness?« (Hartz 1999: 572).
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Berressem, Hanjo (2005) »Incerto Tempore Incertisque Locis: The Logic of the Clinamen and the Birth of Physics«, in: Mapping Michel Serres, hrsg. v. N. Abbas, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press

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