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Fourth part – Obstacles to Contact Culture. By Giancarlo Galeazzi

Giancarlo Galeazzi, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the Istituto teologico marchigiano of the Pontifical Lateran University

It is on the strength of this renewed awareness that we must start to rebuild – without jeopardizing our health – those relations which are grounded on contact, and to specify (as mentioned) their correct conformation.  However, it needs stressing that latterly the culture of contact has been called into question, both by the coronavirus pandemic and by an alternative culture, that of the so-called “contactless” technologies.

To start with the pandemic, Covid-19 has obliged us to adopt health measures to contain and eradicate the virus, besides social measures (political and economic), enforced by emergency rulings, capable of impacting the democratic order, not so much at a formal level as in terms of mentality. Among those who were alert to this  was the philosopher, Massimo Cacciari, in an article which appeared on 10 May 2020 in the weekly “L’Espresso”, entitled “Pensiamoci” (“Think about  it”). An order, or an invitation? Or maybe just a heartfelt appeal? (It is worth suggesting in passing that this and other pieces by Cacciari form a body of editorials which deserve to be collected and published in book form since they transcend the specific circumstances that inspired them and offer what amount to fully-fledged anthropological and axiological reflections). Now, in this particular article, which undertakes much more than is usually found in magazine writing, Cacciari warns that  “at this time we have accepted necessary restrictions to freedom and rights, but we need to be on our guard against them spreading”. He is warning us to beware of a culture that, in the name of health, ends up by binding contagion and contact so fast that  in rejecting the one we reject the other, effectively debasing contact in ways that go well beyond the coronavirus emergency. Faced with certain measures passed by the government, it is difficult not to wonder whether the intention were not to insinuate the doubt, “do we really need physical contact?” To which the answer is a confirmed “we certainly do”, so we cannot pass off as “amazing preventive measures for any pandemic” legislation which devalues and marginalizes personal contact. “Think about it – writes Cacciari – now, not later.” Let’s think about it at once and not wait until it is too late.

It is a warning also issued by a woman philosopher, Donatella Di Cesare, (there are outstanding female philosophers, besides male!) who has recently published a slim volume entitled Virus sovrano? L’asfissia capitalistica (Bollati Boringhieri, Milano 2020) in which she talks about “immunopolitics” to argue (as she briefly explained in a recent interview) that “politics and medicine, heterogeneous spheres, overlap and mingle”, giving rise to a “medical-pastoral democracy” which raises serious questions about the exceptional measures which have been taken. She warns that “the emergency  must not serve as a pretext for authoritarian experimentation”, and stresses the need to remain alert to the “repressive risks” attendant on what she calls “the bio-security measures”, especially since “total immunization is a mirage” and hence we need to live with (rather, learn to live with) viruses and bacteria, and with the knowledge of our own vulnerability. On the other hand, Di Cesare adds, “ immune systems are a two-edged sword: in an effort to eliminate the other, the self ends up killing itself or exposing itself to autoimmune diseases. The identitary self does not come off well here either. Not least because it assumes an integrity and an identity that do not exist”. As we hinted earlier, it is thus that contact, contagion and contamination intertwine.

Moving on to the spirit of the time,  this “is blowing in the direction of the “contactless” technologies”, as the French thinker, Patrick Goujon, points out in his article, “Touch: right relations and true words”, adding that these technologies “in no way blameworthy, are symptoms of the tone we want to give ourselves. Effectiveness, speed, independence. The tendency of “contactless” is light, aerial: it fulfils the dream of a humanity freed from the heaviness of the body and from the risks of contact (…) Saturated with publicity-speak, images, technical feats, our imagination is constantly yearning for an existence different from the one which roots us in the most elementary experiences of our earthly condition.” “However,” the theologian warns, “let’s not be too eager to  cast the first stone at this technical-commercial world which might well throw it back into the garden of our conceptions of the spiritual life and, more specifically, of the Christian life. Our life has weight and our contacts are the first to alert us to it. Now, it is precisely the tactile sense – let’s call it that – of existence that  Christianity nurtures”. And which it can and must nurture. And it is a task which should not be left to the Church alone.

In fact, an education which uses touch in order to cultivate our sense of touch is vital for our all-round human development. From Maria Montessori to Bruno Munari, there has been no shortage of authoratative voices raised in support, but it is a question that still needs to be given due consideration by pedagogues and educators. One positive sign is that material designed to assist with sensory education and the exploration of the environment is now finally being prepared, but particular attention needs to be paid to the sense of touch. It is worth remembering that in his Phenomenology of Perception, the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty devotes a chapter to the hand as exemplifying one’s relationship to the world.