In his poem ‘Lock-step’, John Barnie wryly observes ‘the disciples of iPhones’ taking endless selfies, lost in the images crowding those tiny screens. As the majority walk to the lock-step of technology and the virtual worlds it conjures, John feels he’s walking in the wrong direction, ‘wanting only to see and to touch’.
There’s a resonance here with John Irving’s The World According to Garp. Garp writes a short story about a man who owns a pair of magic gloves. Wearing them, death cannot touch him and he can do anything he desires. But life lacks meaning as a result — the gloves make it always slightly distant, always out of touch. The man throws away the gloves and death finds him. But in that moment he is truly in contact with life — he sees and touches for the first time and, in the last, his life gains texture and meaning.
From certain gnostic sects to René Descartes’ famous declaration that proof of his existence rested solely upon his mind and his thoughts, there’s a history of turning away from the body and favouring the cerebral. As the exercise craze of CrossFit weirdly echoes the extremities of a Medieval flagellant’s mortification of the flesh so that the spirt might be set free, so our culture’s increasing interaction with the physical world through apps and mobile computing devices mirrors those approaches to mysticism that turn away from the body to search for experience that are pure, immaterial… virtual.
The guitarist, Robert Fripp, has spoken of the difference between an LP or CD recording and a live gig as being like the difference between a love letter and a hot date. The letter brings back memories, even memories of having had strong emotions, but it doesn’t create emotion with the intensity of present, physical, carnal experience. It’s a difference in qualia, the textures and properties of experience that vary in the moment — or the ‘pressant’ as James Joyce calls it in Finnegan’s Wake. As Fripp has also pointed out, no drum roll experienced in the moment has ever swirled mightily around from left ear to right as they so often do in a stereo mix. That’s a conceit, an artificial experience that substitutes for being in the same room as the drummer, sharing the same ‘pressant’. It’s drumming while wearing magic gloves.
Fripp is touching on a theme drawn out further in Zoltán Huszárik’s dazzlingly sensual 1971 film, Szindbád, that it’s in the sensory, in the incarnate and bodily, that we truly anchor ourselves not in the shifting and untrustworthy landscapes of rolling news and social media. Descarte’s philosophical position is undermined by the advance of technology — in a virtual world, in which fantasy vies with direct experience and wins out more often than not, our minds become the worst foundation on which to build anything solid.
In contrast, for the eco-philosopher, David Abram, it’s only when we see and touch the world directly that we’re fully alive, fully human. To live as we are being encouraged to do, through the medium of human-made technology, Abram says, is to forget our past and our origins. If the ingrained notion that humans stand at the apex of creation and evolution would set us apart from the natural world, the truth is our bodies, our senses, our very being has been shaped by and has developed in intimate relation to the same planetary environments and forces as every other creature, plant and landscape feature we see framed in a smartphone’s screen.
Descartes argues that mind is the bedrock of reality, the only certain point in the otherwise uncertain welter of stimuli that constitute the ‘pressant’. There’s a separation here as misleading as the notion that humanity is a species different from all others. What happens when the ‘pressant’ of messages, notifications, news headlines, adverts, phone calls, images, zip-panned videos, clickbait, deadlines, popup events, flash sales, and all the rest reaches overwhelm? We feel anxiety not as an abstract but as a bodily reaction. Muscles tense, breath comes shallow, blood pumps faster, pupils narrow, adrenaline and other chemicals are released. Mind and body respond together. Culture might encourage us in the belief that technology’s mediation keeps the world manageably ‘out there’ but visceral experience argues otherwise.
Likewise, the imagination itself seems protean, boundless and, most importantly, separate from the brain that it haunts, ghost-like and untouchable except through the artefacts it brings into being. But, as David Abram has argued, our imaginations also spring from the body — from our senses, in fact. The taste of a madeline dipped in tea, the smell of a bonfire on an autumn afternoon, the caress of a lover, a child’s laugh: all are as intimately linked to the senses as they are evocative to the imagination. To see and to touch is to imagine.
Sometimes, there’s no choice but to listen to a record of a concert, read through old love letters, or wander the streets of a faraway town through the medium of digital images. But to only experience the world in this way — through magic gloves — is to loose a little of ourselves, to forego something vital, visceral, integral to who we are as incarnate beings. The word ‘human’ itself comes from a Latin word meaning ‘earthborn’, a word rooted in older words relating to the ground and to the earth. To want to see and to touch is part of who we are.