Take a moment to remember the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic; before vaccines offered us some semblance of normalcy. Despite our best efforts to be there for each other (remember Zoom cocktail hours?), you probably felt at some point the acute sense of something lost—the “hunger” for human touch.
In this episode of the podcast series Pulled Up Short, Charles F. Donovan, S.J., Dean Stanton Wortham is joined by featured guest Richard Kearney and commentator Colleen Griffith. Dr. Kearney is the Charles Seelig Professor in Philosophy at Boston College and the author of more than 24 books on European philosophy and literature, including his recent work, Touch: Recovering our most vital sense. In their discussion, Kearney reflects on the legacy of “optocentrism” in Western philosophy—the supremacy of sight over the other senses, especially touch. Just consider the many ways that we are accustomed to metaphors of sight: we “envision” the future, being recognized requires being “seen,” and we often describe love as “blinding” us to the flaws of the other. Kearney identifies this dominance of sight as an important source of the loneliness and anxiety that characterize our digital age, and calls for the development of alternative models through which we can become more tactile, vulnerable, and fully human.
“Our modern age of digital technology,” and the social ills it has brought, are “ultimately the triumph of optocentrism, where the screen rules our experience,” says Kearney. “Hence the paradox that when we touch the touch screen, we exit from our incarnate, embodied, tactile existence, into a world of hyperconnectivity, where at one level, we’re all connected virtually, but in fact, physically, carnally, empirically, biologically, actually, we’re all on our separate screens—disembodied and separate. This is the digital paradox: hyperconnectivity leads to isolation.”
Kearney emphasizes that these problems predate the pandemic. He draws attention, for example, to earlier studies linking rising anxiety in young people to their use of social media, which often extends to six to eight hours per day. The pandemic was, however, a wakeup call; a shock that demonstrated how touch truly is “our most fundamental way of relating to the world.” It was only once the pandemic curtailed the possibility of touch that we realized how essential this sense is to our humanity. Consider the tragedy of those who died without the comforting touch of their families and loved ones; the isolation of those who weathered the pandemic alone; and the significant increase in pet adoptions in this period. These phenomena illustrate just how much our quality of life and relationships depend on touch, rather than sight.
So how can we reconcile our “touch hunger” with the enormous and obvious benefits offered to us by digital communication? Can we balance physical and virtual connection, and perhaps mitigate violent and voyeuristic tendencies in digital culture? To explore these questions, listen now to episode 10 of season one: “Have we lost touch with our most important sense?”
Pulled Up Short is a podcast that aims to create moments of being “pulled up short”—addressing our assumptions about the world by using our curious minds to facilitate conversation and reflection. Follow us on Twitter @PulledUpShort to stay connected with us as we explore exciting new inquiries in season three, launching in February 27.
Eric Bushnell is Content Development Specialist at the Lynch School of Education and Human Development.