Philosophy Weekend: Tactile Philosophy, from Helen Keller to Jacques Lacan

Tactile philosophy. These words popped into my mind when I saw a beautiful, amazing photograph of a blissful 74-year-old Helen Keller enveloped by a troupe of Martha Graham’s dancers, feeling the music and visual expression through vibration and touch, raising her arms and joining in the dance. (Is this not one of the greatest photographs ever taken? Am I the only person who didn’t know that this photograph has existed since 1954?)

I was already thinking about the sense of touch on the day I saw this photo. Philosophical rationalists and empiricists have long debated whether or not we experience the world through sensory data alone. This question has never been satisfactorily answered, but I bet many on both sides would agree that touch is the most philosophically final, the most authoritative, of all the human senses. Where the rubber hits the road. The stick a Zen master strikes an inattentive student with. To the extent that we develop our philosophy of life from our sensory experience of the world, it seems likely that our tactile experiences are the most philosophically influential of all.

A person may have been beaten as a child, or may have been deprived, or coddled, or forced at an early age to gain mastery of the physical world in order to survive. In all cases, we must expect this to influence that person’s developing sense of ethics and morality. In this light, Helen Keller’s achievement as a living example of a capable and communicative deaf-and-blind person is all the more remarkable — not only because she transcended her assumed limitations, but because she proved that a person who experiences the world primarily through the sense of touch can have a positive attitude. She knows the world in a different way than you or I do, but she too has discovered joy. At the age of 74, she stands in a circle of moving dancers, a beatific smile on her face, and raises the roof.

I thought some more about the sense of touch after watching an amusing and revealing 8-minute video of a confrontation that took place in 1972 between the famous French philosopher and Freudian psychologist Jacques Lacan and an angry, rebellious student who interrupts Lacan’s presentation to spill water on his notes as a symbolic protest. The student appears to be an anarchist, no doubt inspired by the Parisian protest movements of 1968, which makes Jacques Lacan a slippery target for his protest, since Lacan was also known to be sympathetic to the French extreme left.

Perhaps it’s because the young student knows how difficult a target Lacan will be that the student crosses the line from intellectual argument to a gesture of physical confrontation, a gesture of touch. The act of physical protest is also a perfectly valid form of communication, as any fashionable semiotician must know, and Lacan coolly accepts it as such. He says, “I understand”. A few others in the room jump to Lacan’s aid, and the young man wishfully asks if he is going to be “roughed up”. He’ll have no such luck.

In fact, the young protestor’s nervous demeanor as he explains the purpose of his protest makes him so easy a target for the 71-year-old master that Lacan’s attempt to respond calmly and without rebuke begins to appear condescending. He asks, “Shall I carry on from here?”, inviting the young man to sit down, and the audience laughs.

The young man, realizing that he is in danger of becoming a comic figure of inarticulate youthful intensity, refuses to play along, and soon attacks Lacan a second time. Unlike the first act of physical confrontation, which Jacques Lacan tried to gently laugh off, the second seems to make him angry, perhaps against his will. As the mood in the room intensifies, the intellectual coherence of the confrontation between Lacan and the young protester begins to dissipate. Nothing has been decided or debated, but perhaps something has transpired.

I find historic moments like this delicious to watch, because, even with all the intense self-consciousness, philosophical irony and awkward foolishness that must fill the room of any modern seminar in philosophy, the young man’s act of physical protest does succeed in fabricating a moment of revealed truth. Here is the act of protest. There is smug Jacques Lacan, an aged lion, a celebrity, basking in the glory of his questionable fame even as the failure of his philosophy — the world in 1972, after all, is still not cured of its terrible mental illness — is evident all over Paris, and all over the world.

Philosophy is at its most exciting when it becomes tactile. May we always experience it directly — as a rush of waving hands and moving feet around us, like Helen Keller does at the center of this loving circle. If we can’t dance to the moving touch of philosophy, let us feel it as a blast of cold water to the face, like Jacques Lacan in his seminar room. Through the sense of touch, and sometimes through touch alone, we are able to feel the friction and texture of truth.

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The Helen Keller image is apparently found in a book called Hello Goodbye Hello: A Circle of 101 Remarkable Meetings by Craig Brown, featured on Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings. A video of her encounter with Martha Graham’s dance company can be seen here:

I read about the Jacques Lacan confrontation on Richard Metzger’s Dangerous Minds, though the accompanying article mainly finds comedy in the sheer number of cigars and cigarettes being smoked during the confrontation. Here’s the video of the event:

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