Monthly Archives: February 2019

Power and Touch

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“Humans get distracted when we see and touch something” – Dinesh Paliwal

Physical contact or touch between two people is both the extension and the fulfilment of that which is implicit in the gaze and even more so of that which is implicit in the voice (see upcoming blog posts on both of these topics).

The ultimate potentiality contained within the touch of another and the bridging of a boundary of space between two separate bodies will always take on one of two forms, the tendency towards:

  • Birth – nurture / a return to the womb
  • Death – annihilation

The full set of possibilities stretched out across the spectra associated with each of these two potentialities is contained within any form of interpersonal physical contact. Where the nature of such contact is ambiguous i.e. it is unclear in the moment as to which of these spectra the contact in question belongs, power dynamics will more readily come into play and can be most effectively leveraged, principally by the initiator of that physical contact.

Being touched will elicit one of three responses on the part of the recipient, namely:

  • Supplication
  • Aggression
  • Comfort (which may or may not be accompanied by arousal)

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Certain forms of interpersonal physical contact must be contextually interpreted such as a pat on the back, a kiss on the cheek, or the placing of one individual’s hand on top of another’s. A pat on the back can communicate friendship and equality however, given that it essentially involves the pushing of one person by another into a physically lower position, it can also be legitimately interpreted as an attempt to utilise physicality for the purposes of demonstrating social superiority.

Since a handshake involves the mutual engagement of the same body part between two people, and given that the distinction between initiator and non-initiator is typically less overt in such circumstances, the handshake tends to symbolise mutual trust and respect. Nonetheless, it is not unusual for one party to grasp the hand of the other more tightly or, indeed, with both hands, providing another example of physical intimidation (imbued with the underlying and ultimate threat of annihilation) being used to communicate superiority. Thus, the recipient of this type of handshake will respond either with supplication or aggression, depending upon the perceived status of the other party and the resources over which they exercise possession and/or control1.

Touching as a means of merging

Touch and physical contact is a fundamental way in which individuals relate to objects, especially those objects that are owned or coveted. It is normal to grasp and to hold a desired object, enclosing it within a part of the body in an effort to fuse it with the body and to fuse the body with it. This is done whenever ingestion of the object is unsafe, inappropriate, or physically impossible, i.e. because the object is too large. The eating and ingestion of an object is not merely an attempt to make that object a part of the body, but also reflects an attempt to bring that object as close as possible to the very core of the individual’s being in order to achieve a merging between object and individual. Food is an object which, when ingested, literally becomes a part of the body and in this sense achieves a closeness with an individual’s core being that is almost unsurpassed. It is for this reason that the act of sharing a meal is considered something of an intimate act across both cultures and time periods; an act that communicates mutual trust but also one that can lend itself to erotic connotations.

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In a romantic context two individuals hold hands in an attempt to enclose, or cathex, the other through the use of a part of the body. Kissing represents, through physical ingestion, another attempt to enclose and to fuse with the desired other at the level of the core being. The ultimate expression of all efforts to enclose the other in a physical way is sexual intercourse which for the woman involves ingesting, in one sense, the very essence of the man while, for the man, involves the placing of a part of himself inside another person. Both are expressions of the choice to subsume oneself and, thus, to merge and to lose one’s identity within the personhood of another. It should also be noted that the momentary but complete loss of identity at the point of sexual climax, the essential form of touch, is highly regressive in nature – an ultimate return to the womb.

The male preference for placing himself inside the object of his desire extends beyond the romantic relationship and can be observed in the way in which he relates to certain desired objects. For example, a man will place himself inside a sports car or into the midst of a crowd of sports fans; his identity becoming that of the car, or becoming voluntarily subsumed within the collective identity of the crowd.

The scarce and greatly desired resources of sexual gratification and nurture will often become a means of leverage within the context of an ongoing relationship, allowing one individual to control the behaviour of the other in return for access to that very specific desired form of touch. The transactional reality of such an arrangement will rarely be expressed openly, however both parties will have an implicit understanding of the nature of the situation as it becomes the default dynamic of the intimate side of their relationship.

The touch of complete resource provision

Chapter 8 of the Gospel of Matthew opens with the account of Jesus healing a man with leprosy. Here Jesus not only imparts with a touch the desired scarce resource of physical wholeness and wellbeing but also, in the act of touching the man – a social outcast on account of his disease – bestows upon Him spiritual cleansing, familial restoration, social reintegration, and the dignity and financial provisioning that comes with the capacity to work once more. Additionally, the very act of touching the man was of significance since Jesus, had He so chosen, could have healed the leper without touching him at all (see Matthew 8:8 ref. the power of the voice). Jesus’ reputation was already well established among the people and, while many took Him to be a prophet, some dared to believe that He was the promised Saviour of the Jewish people. Therefore, for Jesus to touch the leper not only imparted upon him manifold scarce desired spiritual, physical, material and social resources but also, in many onlookers’ eyes, elevated him to a place of greater standing than he had occupied even before he was afflicted with the disease. There is, thus, an evident comprehensiveness of power and resource-provision wrapped up in this single touch from the hand of Jesus.

The body as the subject of power

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The body is the principal subject of and conduit through which, the will of the other is translated from command into physical reality; the body being the means by which word becomes deed.

The Classical relationship between a soldier and his commanding officers, and “…the body as (an) object and target of power…” serves to illustrate this dynamic (Foucault, 1975). Within this context the body of another “…may be subjected, used, transformed, and improved…” by the more powerful party in order to achieve a particular set of desired objectives. Here bodies are programmed, firstly to be docile, secondly to be useful (that is, healthy), and thirdly to respond to specific commands in specific ways. The body becomes the vessel through which the more powerful party exerts its will while also becoming the very emblem and demonstrable expression of that power relationship.

The occupier (but no longer the owner) of the body in question is the subject of this programming endeavour. Such programming is most effective, not only when compliance with the will of the more powerful party is achieved, either through resource-based incentivising or where necessary, the instilling of fear, but also where the programming itself is the means by which subjects are instructed, albeit covertly, upon which particular incentives are to be found most desirable. It is no accident that these incentives will typically align with the resource-capabilities of the party in power, along with its particular aims and objectives relating to scarce-resource accumulation and power consolidation.

Foucault, M. (1975), Discipline and Punish, Allen Lane, pp. 136

  1. The table below lists the main forms of interpersonal touch (some of which make use of an intermediate object), the potentiality towards which each form of touch has a tendency, and the response that is typically elicited on the part of the recipient of that touch. A comprehensive analysis could certainly be written about each of the entries presented in this table:
Form of Touch Tendency Towards Response
Handshake Contextual Contextual
Pat on the back Contextual Contextual
Slap Death Supplication or aggression
Punch Death Supplication of aggression
Surgery Birth Supplication
Sex Birth Comfort / Arousal
Hugging / Cuddling Birth Comfort / Arousal
Massage Birth Comfort / Arousal
Kissing Birth Comfort / Arousal
Syringe (medical) Birth Supplication
Tattoo Death Supplication
Stabbing Death Supplication or Aggression
Shooting Death Supplication or Aggression
Maiming Death Supplication or Aggression
Burning Death Supplication or Aggression
Being cleaned / toileted Birth Contextual
Being carried Birth Supplication / Comfort