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Claire Colebrook “Hypo-Hyper-Hapto-Neuro-Mysticism”

December 29, 2013 Leave a comment

Colebrook, Claire 2013. Hypo-Hyper-Hapto-Neuro-Mysticism. Parresia 18: 1-10.

The fact that we are increasingly abandoning thought (as intellection) is proclaimed as a redemption from Cartesianism, logic, disembodied abstraction and the delusion of mind. Just as thinking ought to confront its destructive and dichotomousrelation to the earth, theories of embodied, embedded and affective mindfulness proliferate. (2)

Here [example of Avatar], we approach a first definition of the complex I want to explore today: theory today is tending towards a form of mysticism insofar as it appeals to direct intuition or immediate contact and literal proximity; there is a privilege accorded to the felt rather than stated (to affect and touch over concept and system). (2)

But the paradigm is primarily neural, for what “the brain” has come to figure, after the “decade of the brain,” is not a command centre or ghost in the machine but a plastic, evolving network that comes into being not by imposing code but by being ever more responsive, more connected and more dynamic. This neuro-mania is a form of hyper-haptocentrism precisely because it is touch—body to body and from the body to itself—that overcomes the distance and difficulty of thinking. At the same time this complex is also a hypo-haptocentrism precisely because touch is best thought of (as in the neural network) notas one part to another part, or one thing to another thing, but as a mutually proliferating and multiply connected whole, in which there are not so much parts that touch, but a web of touch from which one might discern relatively stable tendencies. (2)

Haptocentrism. For Derrida, however, touch, proximity and affect have been mobilized as figures that enable a tradition of the metaphysics of presence. Indeed, the very reason or logocentrism that would supposedly be circumvented by embodiment and haptics, establishes itself as a form of self-contact without distance or mediation. (3)

One can use the term “metaphysics of presence” to indicate that across a series of competing claims and traditions a certain ideal of knowing and truth promises to overcome the risks and contingencies of irreducible gaps by some means of a self in touch with itself. Knowledge and experience more generally are properly and normatively defined in terms of the value of proximity (a value that is not one value among others, but the axiom through which all value can be thought). If there is such a thing as reason it is because the thinking subject can intuit directly, without distance or disturbance that which would remain the same through time, and also be true for any subject whatever. (3)

For touch is not the self-presence of reason, but—as in Merleau Ponty’s flesh, or Jean-Luc Nancy’s sense, or Deleuze’s affect—what is posited as the generative givenness from which all logics emerge and which cannot be fully known, mastered or rendered present to thought. It seems as though thought abandons its claim to be able to coincide with itself in a presence of self-touch. (3)

All of Derrida’s work can be considered as a deconstruction of proximity: the condition for something being near to itself and touching itself is that there be distance. (4)

Hyper-haptocentrism. Here, Derrida situates phenomenology’s supposed radicalism, and Nancy’s seeming departure from a metaphysics of self-commanding reason, within haptocentrism. It is now not reason that bypasses the body in order to be self-affecting, for the body possesses its own self-sensing awareness. This self-touching also—attractively—never reifies into a formalized system but becomes nothing more than ongoing self-revelation. Philosophy’s autonomy and self-coinciding principle of logocentrism is at once displaced by modes of affection that occur beyond consciousness in the narrow sense, and yet it is this self-sensing, affective, touching power of flesh, life and world that yields a hyper-haptocentrism. The world now senses itself: this is at once a displacement of the humanprivilege of auto-affection, but it is also a continued valorization of proximity. Nothing is left untouched. The world touches itself, senses itself, and is brought to its own presence, in a phrase that is summed up by Derrida as not only hypo-haptocentrism but “absolute realism”. (4)

Touch has this genuinely ethical value not when it is one body or thing making contact with another body or thing, but when contact is communal, mutual, and disclosive of a certain pre-given ground of life, love, spirit or feeling from which our individual bodies are only temporarily (if at all) detached. (4)

To offer touch is to give oneself more than one had, by giving away. Touch might appear, at least metaphorically, as the ethical concept par excellence: the power of touch signals both the capacity to reach towards what is not oneself, and to be open to what is not oneself (to be touched). (5)

We might say that “man” (the figure of self-affecting, self-constituting and self-present reason) is no longer the privileged figure of presence that calls out to be displaced: for it is now life, the world, cosmos or Gaia that is always already in touch with itself. I would suggest that it is no longer resistant or counter-normative to privilege process, dynamism, interconnectedness, embodiment, affect and de-centered auto-poetic systems over distinct and logically oriented individuals. We have shifted from human or rational haptocentrism, in which knowledge and the good are grounded on a privileged locus of auto-affection—a reason that touches itself, or a subject that presents to itself—to hyperhaptocentrism, in which everything is in touch with everything else. There is one grand network of proximity and mutual, dynamic inter-affective touch. (6)

The brain, formerly and mistakenly perceived as a computer, is now—we are constantly reminded—not a central command centre, but a responsive, adaptive, distributed, dynamic, affective and embodied system. This new neural paradigm was articulated in the works of Maturana and Varela, who tellingly also referred to Buddhism’s model of an ego-less consciousness that is nothing other than its relation to the world. (6)

Hyper-hapto-neuro-mysticism. Mysticism does not approach what is other than itself discursively but passes to direct contact, but this contact is not one in which the self has mastery. The self does not impose its logic on what is other for the sake of knowledge, but is transformed by the encounter. Latour’s account of the affective and embodied nature of knowledge avoids mysticism by stressing the notion of articulation: the body becomes what it is by being affected, just as the world that affects the body takes on its layers of difference through the complex encounters it enables: the world is different, and differentiated, according to the multiple approaches it offers. (7)

On the one hand there can be no ethics without touch: the isolated body that is sufficient unto itself, without relation, and without the tendency or capacity to be affected could not be said to be a living being. (This much is already explicit in Latour’s work on the body and his insistence on the power to be affected.) But ethics is also, necessarily, a question of distance, and “letting be.” Touch and relations in general are required precisely because the other person or other living being is different, and one cannot assume in advance any right or imperative to touch. (7)

There is always some subsumption and reduction of the other, and just as Derrida insists that there is no such thing as a non-violent relation—for all relations must to some extent reduce the pure distance of ethics—we can begin to conclude that there is also no such thing as proper touch. Recognizing the other as otherreduces the other’s absolute separation. And yet for all this supreme difficulty of touch, touch has come to be regarded not so much as cure but as the sign that there has never had been any problem at all. The idea that the world, others, knowledge, feeling and even one’s own self might be different and untouchable has been diagnosed as a modern ill—a problem of the wrong way of thinking—that simply needs to be recognized as a false problem. (7)

We live by touch and yet can never—as living beings—either achieve or avoid the contamination of touch. Touch is required for any achievement of the proper, and yet there is no proper touch. It is symptomatic that precisely when the impossible question of touch ought to be posed—when we are dealing increasingly with the violence and intrusion of touch (both human to human, and human to non-human)—that we present touch as salvation and cure, rather than the impossible predicament that can never be silenced. (9)