The rituals of touching

I had the pleasure of meeting Charlie Gere at the Architecture and Situated Technologies symposium in October, where he gave an intriguing introduction to The Liturgy of Things. You can listen to the whole talk by following that last link, but the main points revolve around cultural rituals that bind communities. As Charlie explained, in the early 60s Marshall McLuhan was writing about the relationship between the liturgy, mass media and new technologies like the microphone, emphasising that new media technologies affect social organisation. McLuhan called on Thomas Merton’s observation that the liturgy is a fundamentally public and participatory activity, and Charlie connected these ideas to Bruno Latour’s parliament of things, emerging technologies (like RFID) implicated in the internet of things, and related discussions on participatory culture. What I took away from all this was a renewed appreciation for ritual, and a desire to further explore touch and touching in terms of cultural rituals of participation, inclusion and exclusion.

Understanding ritual has long been the domain of anthropology, but one of my professors in graduate school was fond of reminding students that ritual is not just the domain of other, more exotic cultures, or of the intellectually-suspect religious amongst us. If nothing else, ritual is as mundane and crucial as everyday life. In New York, Charlie, Richard Coyne and I also spent some time discussing the religiosity of famous philosophers and theorists, and how embodied ritual is a way for different people with different orientations and directives to come together. Although these activities can involve the magical, they share more in common with Matt Jones’ recent descriptions of play, and Blast Theory or Jane McGonigal’s sense of games. Charlie also alluded to this in his talk when he connected the liturgy to the spectacular (one good reason not to abandon the Situationists in discussions of locative technologies!) and I think there are some interesting, and underexplored, connections between bricolage, hacking, syncretism and ritual.
In Touch in art and elsewhere, a small online exhibition he’s just curated for, Charlie recalls bits of our conversations and continues to inspire me:

“Recently, for various reasons, I have become interested in the question of touch, in art and elsewhere. We live in a world in which the ways in which we can communicate with each other become more and more immaterial, incorporeal and virtual, particularly through the increased use and greater ubiquity of digital technologies. In this context touch is often occluded and, at the same time, overly fetishised. In the last half century or so, there has been an increasing interest in touch in art, especially in relation to performance and telematic works, that may be a response to the increasing virtualisation of culture, though the question of touch can be traced in far older works, particularly some of those dealing with the life of Christ, which is, whether we are religious or otherwise, the founding myth of Western culture, and which has determined much of our understanding of questions of presence and absence, corporeality and spirituality, and our relation to the senses and thus to touch.”

From Titian’s Noli me Tangere to examples of museum “look but don’t touch” policies, he draws attention to many of the themes central to our current Touchpædia project. Touchpædia v1.0 is planned for a late January release, and here are just some of the topics it, um, touches on: bodies, commodities, contamination, control, femininity, healing, labour, pleasure, sports…

Like Charlie, I’m interested in cultural practices surrounding what can, and cannot, touch. Applied to RFID and Near-Field Communication, this becomes a question of connecting some things and disconnecting others. Put another way: whether we’re concerned with issues of technological privacy or publicity in our everyday lives, I believe we’re well served by a stronger understanding of cross-cultural examples of ritualised contact and avoidance. It’s my hope that the Touchpædia will be a step in that direction, and I’m looking forward to seeing where it might lead.

Related things:

  1. Introducing touch as culture Hello. My name is Anne Galloway and I’m very pleased to introduce myself as the newest member of the Touch research project team. Some of you may know me from my blog purselipsquarejaw, or......
  2. Touch as culture This is a design brief, one of many themes that the Touch project is investigating. Anne Galloway is a social researcher working at the intersections of technology, space and culture. Anne’s research in the......
  3. Re/Touch: Inspiring touch-related interaction design One of the things that social and cultural research on touch attempts to grapple with is everything people are supposed to touch and not supposed to touch—and what we actually end up touching or......

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