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In Western culture, touch is often relegated to the lowest tier—in spite of the important role it ...
2022-12-15 09:00:00

The Fifth Sense
On the Primacy of Touch

Photo by William Krause/Unsplash
The Fifth Sense
The Fifth Sense

Taste, smell, sight, hearing, touch—together, they form a sensory web that envelopes us with stimuli. The human senses don’t operate separately or in a vacuum. When we touch another living being, it is always a reciprocal experience.

Read in 9 minutes

Touch tends to be considered one of the five human senses, but perhaps it extends to non-humans, too. When a friend’s greyhound greets me by gently biting my hand, both of us touch each other. The chair that’s supporting my body as I write these words is undoubtedly touching my buttocks, thighs, and back. And what about the sunbeams that brush across my face as I walk to the bakery each morning? It may seem there is nothing simpler, more obvious, or intuitive than touch, but upon deeper reflection—on its place in society, in relationships, and in the culture that shapes us—doubts begin to suddenly pile up, definitions crumble, and boundaries, once so strictly defined, lose their meaning.

All in Your Head?

The separation of the human body into five senses has been a part of the Western belief system for over two thousand years and is the foundation of knowledge about human sensuality—imparted from kindergarten through college, considered when discussing literature, design, architecture, and philosophy, as well as during casual conversations at the family table. According to this division, each sense is associated with a specific organ: sight is the eyes, hearing is the ears, smell is the nose, and taste is the tongue. Thus the majority of human sensuality is located in the head, the center of thought, the seat of rationality. In his book Anatomies: A Cultural History of the Human Body, the British writer Hugh Aldersey-Williams notes that the head signifies who a person is—also confirmed by profiles on coins, carved busts in museums, painted portraits in galleries, and photo IDs. All such depictions serve to reduce the complex, corporeal self and exclude what is beyond the head, including touch.

Around 1607, British playwright Thomas Tomkis published his comedy Lingua, or the Combat of the Tongue and the Five Senses for Superiority. In the play, Lingua (Language) and Mendacio (Lying) form a conspiracy with the intention of turning the senses against each other. They hide a crown and a robe—objects that the lustful Tactus (Touch) is the first to find. Tactus’s victory leads to conflict among the senses. To alleviate the commotion, a more formal competition for precedence is organized, overseen by Communis Sensus (Common Sense). Each contestant is asked to present their contribution to the human world. That’s when Tactus enters the stage in an ornate gown, arguing that its dignity is associated with the hand, the most superior tool of all, before striking a loftier tone and declaring: “I am the root of life spreading my vertue / By sinews that extend from head to foot, / To every living part.” If it wished to, Tactus suggests, it could rule all the senses:

I am the eldest, and biggest of all the rest,
The chiefest note, and first distinction
Betwixt a living tree and living beast;
For though one hear, and see, and smell, and tast,
If he wants touch, he is counted but a block?

Communis Sensus then interrupts Tactus’s lengthy argument, ordering it to stand aside and tell the other Senses that it is awaiting their arrival. Tomkis’s comedy was written in the 17th century yet still remains relevant today, showing what position—collateral, subordinate, marginal—touch occupies in Western culture; in Western thinking, as well as ideas about the body and the relationships that are formed with the world.

Touch resides not only in the hand, but also in the knee, tongue, heel, buttocks, thighs, as well as the eyelids that protect the eyeballs, bones that crack, teeth that bite, and the stomach that hurts. The organ of touch is the entire body covered with skin; it is from where other senses begin and connect. Western culture has a problem with the sense of touch precisely because it cannot be instrumentalized, or rather assigned to a specific part of the body (it is worth noting that in ancient Greek the word órganon means both “sensory organ” and “tool”). It cannot be subordinated to the head—and thus is not bound to reason. It is not without cause that touch is considered—along with the smell and taste—a primitive, animalistic, and subjective sense. Touch opposes rationality and testifies to the uncontrollable animal impulses present in humans.

Contact Is Connection

“We are like spiders in our own webs, and, whatever we may catch in them, it will only be something that our web is capable of catching,” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche in The Dawn of Day, first published in 1881. There he argued that each sense has a defined, limited range, making it impossible for humans  to escape from the “small space” in which “our ear encloses us [...] and so likewise does our touch.” The philosopher criticized anthropocentric thinking (i.e., recognizing humans as the center of the world) and emphasized the limitation of our sensory capabilities—augmented with inventions such as the telephone, telescope, and camera. Above all, he assumed that human sensuality functions on the same principle as a spider’s web—limited, yet interweaving a variety of sensory impressions.

It isn’t clear whether Nietzsche was familiar with the “Wheel of the Five Senses” mural, created at the beginning of the 14th century in Longthorpe Tower, England. Indeed, the painting is characterized by a similar metaphor. It depicts a large circle surrounded by animals symbolizing the five senses—the monkey is taste, the hawk is smell, the rooster is sight, the boar is hearing, and the spider’s web is touch. Behind the wheel is a masculine figure wearing a crown on his head, presumably representing control and understanding of the senses. As Gino Casagrande and Christopher Kleinhenz write in their paper “Literary and Philosophical Perspectives on the Wheel of the Five Scenes in Longthorpe Tower”:  

The positioning of the spider’s web at the highest point on the wheel and next to the sovereign’s head would suggest the greater importance of the sense of touch vis-à-vis the other senses. [...] It could be argued that, by representing the five senses on a wheel with touch as the highest, the Longthorpe Tower artist is perhaps suggesting that just as touch mediates among all the others and guarantees them their foundation and ultimate validity, so the sovereign is the most important element on earth, in human society, the kingpin as it were, on which the maintenance of temporal affairs depends. 

The metaphor of the spider’s web proves useful in thinking about human sensuality and touch primarily because it is based on interconnectedness, rather than division, isolation, or hierarchy. It is founded on staying connected, being in “contact” with one another.

Nowadays the word “contact” is used to describe various forms of  technological and social connection, as in the expressions “If found please contact” and “I lost contact with my friend.” The Latin word contingō, from which the word “contact” is derived, is closely related to touch and means “to touch on all sides.” Indeed echoes of this can be seen in the idiom “to be in touch.”

Touch is always shared—whether it’s sunbeams brushing across the face, a chair supporting the  body, or a greyhound gently biting the hand. The word “shared” implies a connection with objects, animals, and the warmth of the morning sun; it also suggests that the chair, the dog, and the sun belong to everyone. It means “giving access to the body.” In this sense “contact” involves tactility, a way of being able to feel others while simultaneously granting us permission to one another. Thus, at the most basic level, one cannot not be in touch or in contact.

Lucretius wrote about this in his philosophical poem from the first century BCE, “The Nature of Things” (translated by A. E. Stallings): 

So much do various bodies stream from every thing and flow
And scatter in every direction on all sides, and there is no
Delay and there’s no respite to disrupt the stream, since we
Sense things sans interruption, and at all times we can see
All things, can smell their odours, and their noises strike the ear.

Two thousand years later, Rebecca Solnit wrote similar words in Recollections of My Nonexistence:

Everyone is interdependent. Everyone is vulnerable. Everyone is penetrable and everyone is penetrated incessantly by the vibrations of sound traveling into the inner ear, by the light shining in our eyes and on the surface of our bodies, by the air we must never stop breathing, by the food and water we take in, by the contacts that generate sensations that run from the surface of our skin to our brains, by the phenomenon and bacteria we transmit imperceptibly to each other by air and contact, by the smells that are tiny particles we have inhaled, by the myriad species of beneficial bacteria in the gut and elsewhere that constitute so vast a portion of a human body that self is something of a misnomer or at least a crowd and maybe a party.

Taking the above into account, it is impossible to give a simple answer to the question of what touch is. One can only try to understand this sense as broadly as possible—as a metaphor for human closeness with the world, which weaves us together like the threads in a spider’s web. Touch makes us dependent on each other. It makes us open, exposed, susceptible to injury and the contingency of relationships (the word “contingency” etymologically means coming into contact, into tactile relationships). Humans are unable to break out of this web of touch out of our limited bodies entangled with other, equally limited bodies.

The way our perception has been culturally constructed fundamentally determines how we experience our bodies and the world. Reflecting on the patterns that form an individual’s sensory being thus involves revealing the aspirations, problems, relationships, divisions, and hierarchies operating in the culture that shaped them. Polish philosopher and feminist Jolanta Brach-Czaina wrote in her essay Dotykanie Świata [Touching the World]: 

The culture of flashes, sounds, and images in which we live is silent about the world of touch. So that we forget about it altogether and stop trying to grope at reality, our brains are caressed by visions of the unreal. [...] These images, slogans, and short cries suggest a density of attractions that the sand in your shoe, which got in there by accident and is now in between your toes, cannot match. Compared with human culture, sand is a failure, although the toes of the foot attest to the real thing.

Brach-Czaina rightly states that sight and hearing (the senses of distance and abstraction) dominate European culture—the very culture that has not created tactile arts (although everyone is familiar with museums, galleries, and visual arts institutions), has not established the concept of a “toucher” (although viewers and listeners exist), has not introduced the category of tactility (while still dissecting visibility and audibility.) As it turns out, Western culture ultimately values thinking over feeling, isolation over connection, distance over closeness, exploitation over empathy, classifications over coincidence, and individuality over community.

A New Future

Recent years have seen a slow resurgence of touch in Western culture. This has been driven by various societal changes, such as those influenced by: scientific discoveries (American molecular biologist Ardem Patapoutian received the 2021 Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology for the discovery of specialized molecules that allow signals to be transmitted in response to touch or pressure); innovative publications (considering tactile aspects of European films, or the tactile relationship between mother and child in Japanese culture); a variety of practices focused on building body awareness (the important influence of meditation practices); the development of research into psychedelics (which expand the sensation of the self); the creation of a non-visual and non-auditory language (Protactile was created in 2007 at the Deaf-Blind Service Center in Seattle in response to the needs of deaf-blind people); artistic activities exploring touch (e.g., works by Rafal Pierzynski); the crisis of intimacy brought about by the pandemic (contributing to, among other things, Nivea’s #CareForHumanTouch campaign); the climate crisis (forcing everyone to think about the future in terms of a community of all living beings); as well as all activities revealing the mechanisms of control, institutional violence, and subtle ways of disregarding bodies and sensualities deemed different (e.g., non-white, non-heteronormative, non-male, non-disabled, non-human).

The aim of these initiatives is to create a different culture and different categories through which humans will be able to experience ourselves and the world. They represent the possibility of a different future, where touch—so closely linked to life, responsible for psychological wellbeing, overseeing the functioning of the other senses, impossible to switch off or block—will not be forgotten.


Translated from the Polish by Julie Sadowski

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