Giancarlo Galeazzi, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the Istituto teologico marchigiano of the Pontifical Lateran University
It is precisely at an existential level that the sense of touch affords food for thought, so much so that from Maurice Merleau-Ponty to Hans G. Gadamer, from Jacques Derrida to Jean-Luc Nancy, and from Luce Irigaray to Umberto Galimberti and Aldo Masullo (*), contemporary thinking (especially in phenomenological and analytical philosophy) has devoted ever greater attention to touch “as the sense organ which orientates us in social relations”. But we are going to consider it here not as “a basic anthropological concept developed within the phenomenological movement” (or analytical movement), but as a category which can help us to understand the present situation. This means that we shall be thinking about touch in its threefold configuration: contact, contamination, contagion, considered as typical expressions of interpersonal and social life, as well as artistic. In any case, the three modes have an ambivalent character in the sense that they are attributed with a negative and a positive meaning: the negative meaning was prevalent in the past and is even stronger today with the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic; the positive meaning has struggled to make headway but has finally gained recognition, both literally and metaphorically. Let’s consider the three modes.
Contact has two accepted meanings: the negative one obviously refers to infectious contacts, as well as those that are vexatious, intrusive or manipulative; the positive meaning points to normal daily intercourse and contacts which are respectful, empathetic and fruitful. Specifically, tactility is positive when touching enacts a convergence, not a grasping. So we can say that contact is negative when it presumes to grasp and positive when it results in moving forward together. Just to give one or two expressions which refer to the “hand”, think of the positive meaning we give to gestures like “giving someone your hand”, “shaking hands”, “taking someone by the hand”, “holding hands”: thus this ethic of the hand (as I like to call it) constitutes a fundamental relational paradigm for community life. But it may happen that we are forced to do without it, as in the case of Covid-19, because it is precisely the hand that can prove infectious; in which case, not only do we avoid a whole range of physical gestures, but we also deny ourselves the symbolic meanings they convey and which (referring back to our “hand” expressions) are welcome, agreement, guidance, friendship and affection, and there is no need to stress the importance of symbolism for man and his social life (civil and ecclesiastical).
Contamination, too, has a dual and antithetical meaning: the negative one which is already there in the everyday use of the word points to an improper mingling, a polluting mixture, something in short that compromises purity and leads us to shun whatever is contaminated. (Ethnically it is a short step to racism). But alongside the negative sense, contamination has recently been acquiring a positive sense as a result of pluralism in ethnic, ethical, cultural and religious matters, reinforced by globalization which promotes awareness not just of the inevitability of contamination but of its axiological significance. Thus “hybridization” comes to be seen as a process at once inevitable and desirable, and thus words like “cross-breeding” and “creolization” normally no longer carry pejorative overtones: having lost their literal meaning which was linked to colonialism (at least, a certain outdated form of colonialism), the terms are commonly used to indicate fruitful forms of contemporary cultural complexity, often deemed worth nurturing.
Contagion, likewise, has a dual meaning – one negative, one positive. Its primary and most widespread meaning is literally negative in referring to infection in the form of illness, epidemics and pandemics. It might, though, be acknowledged to have a positive meaning if – from an educational, moral and spiritual standpoint – it brings about improvment, stimulates growth, or even proves to be at the root of valid life decisions. If the example does not become a model, if the testimony does not become proselytism, what we see are forms of positive contagion. The behaviour and lifestyles of saints and heroes are contagious in a positive sense; and when we talk about saints and heroes, we are not thinking only of those who feature in books of history and hagiography, but also (and mainly) of those who remain anonymous: the heroes of everyday life, the saint from next door. Turning now to the current “Covid-19” emergency, it has to be said that the hygiene measures that we have had to adopt deprive interpersonal relations of what is personal, even identifying. On health grounds, the measures are certainly justified because they protect us from contagion; the fact remains, however, that we are fully aware of their invasiveness and hanker for contact, to the extent that all of us, to a greater or lesser degree, have discovered the need for contact – which is undoubtedly physical, but not only.
Notwithstanding the regulations to prevent and protect from infection, the point needs to be made that we must avoid making the unwarranted equation contact=contagion, and that we must insist on the fact that interpersonal contact is quintessential to human relations, even when we are forced to suspend it for risk of contagion. The restrictions imposed by the authorities appear to have penalized touch more than the other senses, beginning with so-called “social distancing” (which it would be better to call “physical distancing” or “safety distance”), a precautionary measure designed to prevent bodily contact – from the handshake to the hug, from the kiss to the caress. By limiting contact, or even depriving us of it, the present pandemic is a reminder of just how essential it is for a human being. It occurs to us that something similar happens (and the example is no coincidence) with freedom: restricting or removing it makes us aware of a lack and rekindles a sense of need.