“Touching” the Viewer
Brian Rotman

Each photographic image shows the body of an individual: the person is recognizable but more or less indistinct, the body blurred except for some aspect or part of it that stands out, emerging from the out-of-focus background as if delicately highlighted. This emergence out of the blur suggests an action by the individual, a movement of the part of their body in question towards us, a gesture that attracts or solicits
our attention.


Gesture is considered by many to be an inferior mode of human interaction, a crude medium of communication, a mode of sense-making made obsolescent by spoken language. Unlike speech, gesture doesn’t describe things, deliver information, argue, or make assertions. And unlike words, gestures do not aggregate; they don’t combine into phrases and larger units of meaning. Gestures are movements that perform their meaning: they present rather than represent. 

The most familiar gestures are those of everyday social life, so called emblem gestures—holding up a palm, winking, giving the finger, nodding, and innumerable others; they achieve their effects by being enacted. As psychologist David McNeil explains “they regulate and comment on the behavior of others, reveal one’s emotional states, make promises, swear oaths…salute, command, request, reply to some challenge, insult, threaten, seek protection, express contempt or fear.”1 Such gestures are speech at a distance, speech-acts transposed into acts-of-the-body; they function in place or in silent avoidance of or in opposition to speech. 

Emblems, then, operate outside and independently of speech. By contrast there are two types of gesture deeply connected to speech: gesticulation, which operates parallel to speech, and tone, gestures of the voice that occur inside speech. 

Gesticulation names the idiosyncratic, barely noticed and apparently meaningless movements—facial and head gestures but mainly those of hands and arms—we make in the process of narrative speech. Movements, McNeil observes, that are neither arbitrary nor meaningless. On the contrary they are part of the act of constructing meaning itself, adding a “material carrier” that helps bring meaning into existence. A verbally expressed thought comes into being as the result of a dialectic, a back and forth action between the word—linear, segmental, analytic—and the imagistic, holistic, and synthetic action of gesture.2 Neither domain is primary. Such gestures are produced simultaneously, in parallel with speech; they are the silent embodied version of spoken meaning. 

Tone of voice or prosody comprises the gestures of the vocal apparatus, a constituent part of the sonic substance of spoken language, integral to it, operating within the production and delivery of speech rather than parallel to it. Tone—speech’s cadence, volume, rise and fall of pitch, its musicality, its varied intensity, its movements of acceleration, hesitation, and interruption, its flow, its pauses, elisions, emphasis and silences, and so on—is crucial to the experience of our speaking lives; without these vocal gestures speech would be anonymous and affectless, pure logos without pathos, and song would be impossible. As emblems are speech-at-a-distance, so tone, the affective core and presence of the body in speech, is touch-at-a-distance.

Unmediated Presence

The camera is focused precisely on a screen, a semi-opaque membrane behind which a person is standing. The resulting photograph shows the person’s body as blurred and slightly hazy in the background, against which the part of the body touching the screen confronts us in sharp focus. The membrane itself is not visible in the image; we see only its effects: its physical resistance enabling the individual’s touch and a certain hazing of the visual field. 

The parts of the body the images draw attention to vary. Some suggest an activity related to the practice of care-giving such as a hand offering support, fingertips taking a pulse, and so on. Others range more widely: a woman’s hair hangs in lush detail in front of us; a solitary eye actively stares from a man’s face out into the viewer’s world; a young woman’s cheek presses forward; the patch of skin on a patient’s back not covered by a hospital gown catches our attention; a man’s hands clasped defensively at his waist assert themselves. By appearing in sharp focus, extracting themselves from the intangible blur of the surrounding body, like figures appearing abruptly before us out of the mist, these selected parts have a quality of close, unmediated physical presence. The power of the images, what is intriguing and provocative about them, lies in the particular affect of this presence. It’s as if each individual is allowing a part of her or himself to enter the viewer’s world. As if in some extraordinary way we are the receivers of perhaps the most profound human experience: that of being touched.



Touch is a—one could say the—primary medium of our affective relations to each other and ourselves. In everyday speech we mobilize the sense of touch to create metaphors for physical and psychic distance, for the desired presence or unreachable absence of the other. We say: “The elite are untouchable.” “He kept touching himself.” “She was in touch with her feelings.” “He belonged to an untouchable caste.” “Touch me not!” “They kept in touch by Skype.” “Touch me there.” “I’m touched by your gift of flowers.” “He’s completely lost touch.” “His death touched nobody.” “Politicians won’t touch the topic.” “The game was always touch and go.” “She’s a bit touched.” “We managed to touch bases.” And then there are the many metaphors of touch involved when we talk of “handling situations,” “fingering a victim,” enjoying a “stroke of luck,” suffering “a blow to one’s pride,” and so on.

Other senses besides touch—taste, smell, hearing, seeing—provide metaphors for mental states. We talk of behavior as “unpalatable” and memories as “bittersweet,” we detect “the smell of corruption,” are “deaf to the truth,” and “stare at the future.” Hamlet’s dead father appears in his “mind’s eye,” we can be “blinded by love,” we talk of “transparent lies,” and so on. But “touch,” Aristotle insists, “is the most acute of man’s senses.”3 And touch is certainly more concrete, “pressing” and somehow more ancient and than our other senses. Touch seems so natural a way to describe our psychic being that (at least in English) we name our inner states, as well as the entire dynamic of our affective lives, “feeling.”  Likewise “tact” names a certain behavior, a way of “handling” others, and “contact” describes any non-apartness of things and people. Touch is a powerful means of inducing deep kinds of human affection and pleasure, of inculcating or confirming psychic states outside of language, a fact evident from the multiple uses religions make of repeated touch in their rituals and taboos. Entering a place of worship, Catholics genuflect and affirmatively touch themselves making the pattern of a cross on their bodies; Muslims faithfully touch their foreheads to the ground in obeisance when praying to Allah; Jewish males are forbidden to touch a menstruating woman, and in some sects are not allowed to touch any woman but their wives. Eastern orthodox Christians reverently worship holy icons by touching their lips to them. And so on.

Unlike our other senses—one can watch unseen, hear and not be heard, eat without being eaten, and so on—touching is a two-sided affair. It has an internal intimacy: one cannot touch without being touched by what one is touching. In touching, the self is simultaneously a subject and object, active/passive, giver and receiver. Touch is a primeval sense possessed by animate life. For humans, being touched and touching things and people can be the ultimate source of excitement or intimacy, of care and nearness, of reassurance, affirmation, and feeling secure. In particular, the skin, the organ of touch and the physical boundary of the self, can reflexively fold back: one can touch oneself (though not always mimicking being touched: we can stroke and scratch ourselves but not, for example, tickle ourselves). Self-touch puts the embodied psyche in relation to itself, allowing touch’s affordances to become the means of affecting ourselves. Touching oneself, then, can offer a reassuring affirmation, a gestural confirmation of one’s physical being, one’s presence in the world. Transposed into speech, the self-touching gesture becomes the uttering of “I”: the act of self-enunciation establishing one’s presence in language. Ontologically, touch is the always-reverted-to sense of what cannot be doubted about the material self and the so-called outside world, the “touchstone” of what our embodied selves are obliged to accept as real. (One thinks of Samuel Johnson famously rebutting philosophical idealism by kicking a stone to demonstrate its indubitable reality.) Being “out of touch with reality” is a defining symptom of insanity. 

Photographic Capture

The principle underlying the photographic images is an imposed discontinuity of vision created by a close focusing of the lens on the membrane. The effect is an internal break within the visual scene, a bifurcated image divided between the sharp clarity of the part touching the screen and the hazed blur of the body physically contiguous with it. “Photography,” Susan Sontag observes, “is intimately connected with discontinuous ways of seeing—the whole by means of the part (an arresting detail, a striking way of cropping).”4 These photographs are no exception to the observation. On the contrary, they add their own discontinuous way of seeing to Sontag’s list. In addition, the part in question (a cheek, clasped hands, a patch of skin, etc.) becomes something more significant, more consequential than an arresting detail in a photograph: it is the key to the affect the entire image is designed to elicit. It points to a gesture that is evoked—one might say captured—in the image, as if the individual concerned has separated a part of his or her body from the rest and brought it nearer to us, as if it has been extended into the space of the viewer. We cannot of course see the movement, only infer it as having occurred. The photograph, being a still image, can do no more than register this emergence out of the blurred depth as an instantaneous jump into the foreground. More accurately, the photograph registers the gesture’s terminus, the place at which the gesture is arrested by the membrane to become a touch. 

Gesture’s Capability

Gesture permeates human culture where despite—or because of—its primitiveness it plays a significant role in the arts, everyday life, religion, and as the source of abstract thought. It reigns supreme when communication and meaning is direct and presentational, when sense is made through visual icons and indexical movement and not through the symbolic, re-presentations of spoken and written mediation. 

Thus repeated gestures underpin ritual experiences, collective ceremonies, enunciations, and oaths of allegiance, not least the numerous practices of the body prescribed for their adherents by secular and religious institutions. Performance arts such as dance, music, song, and theater deploy gesture—choreographed compositions of visual, kinetic, and sonic gestures—as their essential semiotic vehicle. Or their principal vehicle: Antonin Artaud’s theater of cruelty eschews text and demands that “gesture…instead of serving as a decoration, an accompaniment of thought, instead causes its movement.”5 For Gilles Deleuze the cinema, though manifestly a visual medium, is before all else a “cinema of bodies,” an art form within which what he calls the “movement-image,” an entity perceived corporeally, precisely as a gesture, is the irreducible element of filmic thought.6 Artifacts—tools, clothes, food, buildings—as soon as they exceed the purely instrumental, cannot but express ideas, display attitudes, make gestures in relation to their users and inhabitants. “Architecture,” for example, Ludwig Wittgenstein insisted, “is a gesture, [it] expresses a thought, it makes one want to respond with a gesture.”7 For mathematician Gilles Chatelet gestures, which arise from “disciplined distributions of mobility,” operate inside the mathematical universe at the embodied origin of its ideas; they give rise to diagrams, gestures “frozen in midflight,” to become the source of the rumination behind mathematical thought.8 It is impossible, Giorgio Agamben observes, to express in sentences what is means “to be in language,” one can only gesture to the silence the question demands. Gesture always indicates something “to endure” and leads to the formation of an ethos.9

Entering the Image

To touch is to be touched. The images deny this duality. They show no object of touch but only that which touches: the individual in the image can only be seen to enact half the dyad. The other half is absent. The person is seen performing the gesture of touch in empty space without being touched. This is a picture of an incomplete, truncated contact, an unreal possibility. Visually impossible it prompts more than a purely visual response. The photographic image asks us to actively engage with it, to respond in some way to the gesture located within it. The demand to actively respond to a visual scene is not unnatural: our mirror neurons encourage us to perform or imagine performing gestures that we observe. Here the situation is more complex than an imitative mirroring. We are asked not merely to reproduce the gesture we imagine has taken place but construct it by supplying its missing portion. As if we’re called upon to fill the absence in the image, to occupy the place of the invisible membrane, to complete the dyad and, by becoming the thing that is touched, experience a virtual touch. Additionally we might identify with the generic subject of the photographs, with the individual who touches from the other side of the screen. The effect of entering the image in this way would be one of self-care in which we “touch” ourselves.

This demand made by the images is neither overstated nor obvious and easily missed; the part that touches the membrane can appear to us as no more than a highlighted patch of the photograph, a purely visual sensation devoid of anything tactile or haptic. And when the patch is correctly recognized, reacting to the image’s offer of a virtual touch is necessarily a brief, fugitive experience, a barely if at all consciously registered response. Seen en masse the differences between the individuals and their varied proffered parts become less important than what they share. The repeated images merge the individuals into a generic subject, a collective persona performing a touch. As a result, the project becomes imbued with an ambience, a general (collective, institutional) experience of touch, projecting what a human touch might mean, the affordances that before all else it promises: the offer of care, trust, affection, security. 

The theme of things merging, coming together, nullifying apartness, of which touch is the supreme example, is present in the oddly impacted title of the project, the non-word O N E E V ER Y O N E. The title abolishes the space between the words “One” and “Everyone,” typographically uniting the single individual with the collective universal. In this it re-enacts in words the overcoming of separation the images offer the viewer: the sensation of being in touch, of being able to “touch” and be “touched” by all the many individuals portrayed. 

1. David McNeill, Hand and Mind: What Gestures Reveal about Thought (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 64.
2. David McNeill, Gesture and Thought (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).
3. Aristotle, Historia animalium, book alpha.
4. Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977), 169–70.
5. Antonin Artaud, The Theatre and its Double (New York: Grove Press, 1958), 39.
6. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986).
7. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, ed. G. H. von Wright, trans. Peter Winch (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1980), 42e, 22.
8. Gilles Chatelet, Figuring Space: Philosophy, Mathematics, and Physics (Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic, 2000), 10.
9. Giorgio Agamben, Means without End: Notes on Politics (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 59–60.

Brian Rotman is Emeritus Distinguished Humanities Professor in the Department of Comparative Studies, The Ohio State University. His books include Signifying Nothing, Ad Infinitum…the Ghost in Turing’s Machine, Mathematics as Sign, and Becoming Beside Ourselves. He is also the author of several plays; his most recent,
A Land Without People, was produced in London in 2015.