Contemporary philosophy has discovered the human body in the past two decades. This statement leads directly to the question how the human body could be discovered. Wasn’t it there all along, with its heaviness and lightness, with its hunger and pain, for centuries? It was there with us, indeed, but we denied it.
The discovery of the body has reached deeper levels recently and it is colonizing more and more territories that were formerly considered “bodyless”: first, it occupies life and feelings, then emotions, and finally, ideas. According to the majority of contemporary thinkers/philosophers, we would not be able to think without our bodies, which also means that those utopias in which the human mind survives after the death of the body will remain utopias for good. We are rooted in our muscles, nerves, bones, and in our whole bodily function. We are just not aware of this and we do not pay attention to it.
We are bodies and we move among bodies. Our own body is less scary than another one, that is, another, foreign source of life and ideas. Unless prompted and fuelled by passionate love or affection, we do not touch each other, and when we are forced to do so—crammed on a tram, helping someone who has fallen, lifting someone else’s arm in order to be able to reach something—it causes a very specific feeling, as if we were trespassing, entering a dangerous territory without outposts or defenders.
Some time ago, I had to hold hands with someone, a good friend of mine whom I hadn’t seen for a few years, for a photo. It took a long time for the photographer to take the picture, and many objections and instructions: move over here, or rather there where the lights are better. We held each other’s hand and all we could think was how silly and strange and not normal holding our hands was. I know that my friend was thinking the same thing because as soon as the photographer finally nodded that the photo was good, my friend let go of my hand as quickly as if it was on fire.
Such non-normalized touches could be desired or sought after in very specific cases and under thoroughly defined circumstances: one happily leans back and puts one’s head in a hairdresser’s hands for a wash, or we turn our head and show our face to a makeup artist. In a different context, we also obediently cooperate and zealously roll our sleeves up when a nurse is about to take a blood sample from us. There are people who keep overcoming the cultural inhibition, day in and day out, that mandates not to touch another sensible body, because they have work to do with that other sensible body. These touches, these cold, insensible touches, belong to the territory of uncanny or unheimlich; they are on that thin edge that lies between the very strange and somewhat menacing and voluntary, joyful submission. Such relationships, following strict rules, induce strange feelings that are hard to describe and are surrounded by deep secrets; most people would not be able to express what it feels like when their bodies are touching another body. Those few who are able to describe it are poets and writers admired by many.
We fully abandon ourselves when it comes to our significant other, and we feel a complete fusion when the bodies of two lovers are touching each other; we hug our children as if they were lost parts of our own returned. We shrink shyly, however, from the accidental touch of a stranger’s hand on the tram, as if we violated an intransgressible boundary beyond which there are only dangerous and scary connections alien to everyday situations. It evokes erotic passion on one hand, and the possibility of physical conflict on the other.
Physical touch designates the most extreme boundary of personal space: beyond it lies the seemingly infrangible territory of the self, the encroachment of which can cause serious psychological damage and may have legal consequences, especially in the case of touches of sexual character. How else could a rape be described if not as an unwanted physical touch? And couldn’t we say that every unwanted physical touch is a kind of rape? If a casual acquaintance puts their hand on our shoulder, if an adult gives an excessively sharp pinch on the cheek of a child, or if a doctor lifts someone’s limb stronger than necessary, these are all transgressions of a boundary that is strictly guarded nowadays, with the help of legal instruments. It is due to this concept of the inviolability of the human body that we think that it is not right to give a slight slap to a child, that we do not find it acceptable from a nurse to tie down an agitated patient, and that we consider it taboo to slap a women’s posterior. It is not because of the pain but because of the unwarranted encroachment into the sacred and safe haven of the self.
Not all cultures are so protective of physical boundaries. In some countries it is considered normal to grab the hand of the person we talk to; in others, it is a fact of everyday life that one has to push ahead in a huge mass of people, pressing against other people’s bodies. And there are special occasions in which even our culture allows bodily fusion: concerts, music events where the bodies in the audience pulsate together to the rhythm of the music, sometimes even clinging together; sports events, in which a body leans against another body to compete. But these are special experiences, and they are very clearly set apart from our everyday world. Physical connection is a taboo and breaking the taboo often happens in a bacchanalian celebration, or at least it is clearly set apart from normal behavior.
In the past hundred years, the objective gaze of professionals managing the human body has been complemented by a new type of sensibility, which allows the doctor, the physiotherapist, or the beautician to consider the personality, or in other words, the soul of the patient while manipulating their body. This is why it is an exceptionally pleasurable experience to be in the hands of an attentive hairdresser or nurse: We can pass through a situation of vulnerability, we can turn into an object of some sort, without losing our personal freedom. We indeed give a little bit of it up, and we lean on the other person, because we know we can take back control anytime. We can always say “it hurts,” or “I’ll carry on on my own from here.”
Since it is hard to verbalize what is happening in these encounters and touches, this collection of photos takes us on very special adventure, if we try to imagine our own bodies in the situations we see in them. It is an adventure that is safe, yet which plays with the boundaries of the body, constantly signaling to us where the territory of the self, that is, sacrosanct subjectivity, resides.
Text: Eszter Babarczy | Photo editor: István Virágvölgyi | English translation: Nóra Vörös [The original article was published in Hungarian]
The Weekly Fortepan blog is a collaboration between Fortepan and the Capa Center. The original Hungarian article can be found at: https://hetifortepan.capacenter.hu/szenvtelen-erintesek
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