Haptics, Mobile Handhelds, and other "Novel" Devices: The Tactile Unconscious of Reading across Old and New Media

Theory Beyond the Codes

Haptics, Mobile Handhelds, and other “Novel” Devices

The Tactile Unconscious of Reading across Old and New Media

I. Don’t Press. Just Touch

In a 2007 news article in the Korea Times covering the then innovative technology of the capacitance v. resistive (i.e., pressure sensitive) touch screens, Cho Jin-Seo uses the lead-in “Don’t Press. Just Touch” to capture the habituated finger knowledge one would have to incorporate in order to switch from the more familiar interface of ATM’s and cashier check-out stands to the newer interfaces of mobile devices. [1] These handheld personal data assistants, iPods, and phones work through a continuous electric current and a multipoint interface that allows for mobile electronic gadgets to detect more than one input (aka touches) simultaneously, as in the “two-finger stretch-and-pinch” that, as Stephen Wildstrom writing in Business Week put it, “gave the iPhone its initial wow” (5/19/08). [2] “Don’t Press. Just Touch” also provides an apt metaphor for a redirection in critical practice from a penetrating detection of hidden meanings to a more glancing consideration of the frisson — the shiver of intensity — amplified by a particular event, phenomenon, text, visual medium, and so forth.

Michael Taussig’s 1991 essay, “Tactility and Distraction,” spins the first groove of this riff on “Don’t Press. Just Touch.” Many will recall this essay as an extended meditation on distracted contexts of the everyday, with Taussig himself quoting Walter Benjamin’s icon of the neon sign as emblematic of what can break through “the flitting and barely conscious [apperceptive mode] unleashed … by modern life [that is, by] the city, the capitalist market, and modern technology.” [3] According to Taussig’s reading of Benjamin, this “peripheral-vision perception” engendered by modern life requires forms of stimuli (what we used to denote as forms of representation) that work through a contagious magic, as in the neon sign’s shimmer or “wow” — with the tactile intensity of these latter media not to be semantically parsed (or narrated) as much as invoked. In his closing zinger aimed at the dominant methods of structural anthropology, Taussig brings his observation on modern distractedness, corresponding to a tactile — “imageric … rather than ideational” — sense, to bear on the “allegorizing” trend of critical practice, “a mode of reading ideology into events and artifacts, cockfights and carnivals, advertisement and film … in which the surface phenomenon, as in allegory, stands as a cipher for uncovering horizon after horizon of otherwise obscure systems of meanings … . [this method’s] weakness lies in its assuming a contemplative individual when it should, instead, assume a distracted collective reading with … a tactile eye.” [4] Memorably, the way Taussig evokes a concrete instance of tactility is via a recollection of that weekday ritual of parents’ delivering their kids to school. Amidst the milling bodies of eight-year-olds at PS 3 in New York city, he bumps into a fellow parent, Jim, Petra’s dad, also a sculptor, who carries materials (a pump, tubes, and clay) for an art project for his daughter’s class. As a kinesthetic documentation of a fieldtrip the class took to an overlooked jewel of the city — the New York city aquarium — the children will build a fountain, and Petra is excited about using clay to make handprints that will double as clamshells for the fountain.

I wish to frame Taussig’s essay as part of a broader theoretical movement to shift the question for academic criticism away from vision and semiotics — aka the search for fuller meaning, fuller representation by way of exposing the hidden meaning and bringing it to light — to tactility and affect — the connecting with the magic or enchantment of a material object’s or phenomenon’s intensity, the inquiring into the efficacy of an action or event, and the mapping of how such efficacy is enacted and circulated (cf Sedgwick, Massumi, Clough). [5] The “capitalist mimetics” of advertising, and, interestingly, the pedagogies of preschool education, become exemplary of fields already way ahead of the game, so to speak, in mulling over these questions. [6]

Race and postcolonial studies have registered to some extent this shift — this casting doubt on the critical value of hidden-meanings-exposed — that is, of the project of bringing a heretofore unheard minority, or subaltern population into meaningful representation. For instance, within my field of Asian American literary studies, Kandice Chuh’s notion of a subjectless Asian Americanist critique [7] as well as the aesthetic-affective turn in Asian American cultural criticism — arguing for a richer analysis of a text’s emotional or sentimental impact, its rousing of the listener/observer to action — together attest to a shift from semantics to tactility and affect. [8] In “Rational and Irrational Choices: Form, Affect, and Ethics,” David Palumbo-Liu asks a question similar to Taussig’s regarding how the qualities in an event or text can make a sufficient impact, doing so, however, through the lens not of quotidian distractions versus contemplative solitude, but through the question of justice, proposing (economist) rationality as a perversion of justice, and countering economic rationality to “rhetorics [and] poetics [that] produce some sort of affect that will move people to act in ethical manners.” [9] Indeed, he asks how we can “touch” (his scare quotes) the global community to act humanely and with a sense of shared obligation rather than “according to a chilling bureaucratic logic.” [10] Palumbo-Liu situates his thinking on “form, affect, and ethics,” the subtitle of the essay, not in the Benjamin/Taussig tradition, but in relation to propaganda — “the device for spreading areas of allegiance” [11] — arguing that while such political persuasion has heretofore elicited scholarly suspicion, it may merit our rhetorical emulation rather than mere investigation: “The point would be not only to ‘expose’ those [beliefs, assumptions, and stereotypes] that to our mind work against ‘truth,’ but also to craft our own rhetoric so as to convey our sense of the truth in a compelling, effective manner.” [12]

Taking up the same issues as Taussig, but with respect to new historicism and what she calls “strong theory,” Eve Sedgwick also famously criticized the overreliance on faith in exposure (the paranoid quale of hidden-exposed). But strikingly, she counterpoised the paranoia of strong theory to “weak theory” or New Critical, close reading practices and ethnography’s thick description, implying that the texture they deliver precisely acts as the primary vehicle for attending to an array of affects — or touchings, feelings (to pluralize her book’s title). [13] Rather than vision/exposure versus touch/wow (read: excitement), Sedgwick suggests that, pace the death knell delivered to contemplative acts and attention spans, it might be worthwhile to explore at some leisure our multi-touches, or put another way, our arrayed heroic and “ugly feelings” to cite Sianne Ngai’s book on affect. [14] Hence, “Don’t Press. Just Touch” becomes not merely a redirection of corporeal habits, but a reminder of the split, plural tactilities we can engage in –from tearing, ripping, poking, cutting, shaping, sculpting, heaping, buzzing, shaking, vibrating, brushing up against (not to mention all those passively received touches, such as being embraced, feeling heat, tickle, and so forth). [15] And, as I will suggest in the final section of this paper, while capitalist industry — new media, mobile device and haptics research — may be way ahead in the game of instrumentalizing touch, it may be in the older media — like the book or novel form — where the limits of that instrumentalization are perceived not as a problem to be overcome but as key to a more process-oriented (and sensually distributed) immersion or pleasure.

If flashing neon images and the moving pictures of cinema provide the context for Benjamin’s thinking through the critical essay in modernity (instantiated as an aphoristic “brushing against the grain” of history), and if the quotidian tactility of New York city and the culture of the child provides Taussig’s further occasion for revisiting late 20th century scholarship, I want to experiment with the interactivity of new media –console games and mobile communications/gaming devices –as entrée to thinking (somewhat counterintuitively) about tactility in a contemporary American novel, published in 2003, one deeply concerned with the poetics and extractive economies of modernist writing.

II. Sticky Interactivity

Let us consider, then, the multipoint tactilities of this specific novel, a fictionalized memoir told from the perspective of a gay, Indochinese cook who works for Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas at their Parisian atelier c. 1934. Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt (2003), interleaves its stories of economic and artistic circulation with a focus on identity detection — i.e., the desire to settle figures of passage, connection, and metissage into one or another race, one or another gender, one or another sexual preference, and one or another political persuasion.

Let me begin with a heuristic distinction between the way the book narrates touch and the way it invokes tactility or solicits the reader’s interaction. With its narrative filtered through a cook’s (first-person) point of view, The Book of Salt overtly delves into leitmotifs regarding taste, flavors and heats. [16] As well, the novel features an extended conceit on the hands — conventional symbols of agency but also of alienated labor, especially in the context of Indochinese servants under French colonial rule in Saigon and Paris. Thus, the narrator focuses on the “hollow hands” of his elder brother, Anh Minh, when he is dethroned from his interim status as chef de cuisine, precisely because he lacks the pure blood of the French, the key requirement for assuming the position of chef/chief in both the household of the Governor-General of Saigon as much as in the greater territories of French Indochine (today’s Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia).

The narrator, Bình, quietly comments on the preference of “most Messieurs and Mesdames [for] white-gloved servants … [for] underneath those cotton sheaths are the things [they don’t want to see], fish-scale cuticles, blooming liver spots, the pink and red ridges of scars and burns, warts like a sprinkling of morning dew … . Most Messieurs and Mesdames are too engrossed by the food on their plates to take a good look at the hands that prepared and served it.” [17] Bình points to the role of gloves as a kind of prophylaxis against the possible impressions that manual labor would make upon the food and the consumers of the food; in other words, designed to protect the comestibles and not the hands, servants’ gloves literally cover over manual laborers’ constitutive role in crafting value.

At the same time, ungloved hands (aka fingerprints) act as a not-always-desirable giveaway of identity, upon which I will have more to say in a moment. The above instances are all examples of the novel’s narrating a semiotics of touch. This semiotics of touch remains distinct from, though not unrelated to, the book’s tactile intensity: the way it delivers tactile effects by way of its structural deformations — in other words, its stretching and recycling of its various narrative skeins. While these two aspects of tactility are not wholly separable in the novel, for this essay, I attend primarily to the second rather than the first. To do so, allow me to outline a rough map of the novel’s three structuring chronotopes of Paris, Saigon, and the sea as the major sites where its baroque stories within stories unfold.

The narrative present of Truong’s novel is anchored at Stein and Toklas’s atelier at 27 rue de Fleurus in Paris — a center of belletristic experimentation in avant-garde poetics. The relation of the first-person narrator, Bình, to his Mesdames — his American employers –as well as his love affair with Marcus Lattimore — a white skinned “Negro” visitor to Stein’s salon — plays out the primary social relations defining this world. These relations are both askew from direct imperialist dynamics — Lattimore, Stein, and Toklas are not French imperialists but American expatriates — but also wholly evocative of domesticity’s and colonialism’s maternalism/paternalism. Thus, Bình feels bonded to Toklas and Stein not simply by way of an exchange of his labor for wages but by way of recalling their benevolent maternal sufferance of his drinking binges. Shadowing this narrative present is the landscape of Saigon or Indochine where Bình, the narrator, has worked for the French Governor-General and has gotten fired for having an affair with the Chef de Cuisine Bleriot under whom he stewards. Between these two landscapes is the floating-world of the Niobe, the ship bringing Bình from Vietnam to France. Here Bình’s primary intimacy is with his fellow Indochinese shipmate, Bão, from whom Bình learns the trick of fooling his French employers into calling him not by his real name but by pseudonyms such as ToiNguoDien (“IamCrazy), AnhDepTrai (“Good Looking Brother”) or ToiYeuEm (“I LoveYou”). Depicted as a coarse comedian, Bão luridly recalls his good times with Serena the Soloist, a mixed-blood stripper from Pondicherry (the former French colony on the coast of India). Bão, whose name means “storm” in Vietnamese, proffers to the narrator Bình, whose name means “peace”, the possibility of bonding over their shared sexual exploits — an intraracial, working-class (and protonationalist) kinship solidified through the masculine replaying of their sexual exploits.

Even as we might be tempted to read these worlds, these various shelters, as allegorizing the dynamics of certain political formations (the empiric city-state, the colony, the deterritorialized fraternal utopia at sea), the novel’s tactility is not a function of achieving any of these layered congruencies (or of maintaining these various settlements) but a function of the continuity of passage — of migrancy, circulation, transitivity, and the metamorphic possibilities of storytelling, which is to say, the breaching of current limits or containments. Useful to my thinking here is Chris Chesher’s “Neither Gaze, nor Glance, but Glaze: Relating to Console Game Screens.” [19] While never evoking the terms tactility or affective intensity, Chesher nevertheless contours something very similar in his description of these games’ “ludostatic mechanism” calibrated to hold interest — to achieve optimal playing conditions: “If the glaze holds players too tightly, it will alienate them, and they will give up. But its grip cannot be too loose, either, or players drift off and lose interest … glazeplay works [not by giving VR players unlimited power but holds their interest] because it maintains the limits to a player’s capacities … Each level dances around the outer limits of the player’s abilities, seeking at every point to be hard enough to be just doable. In cognitive science, this is referred to as the regime of competence principle, which results in a feeling of simultaneous pleasure and frustration” which Chesher shorthands as the “sadomasochism” of console games. [20]

Distinguishing the immersive technosomatic interface of console gaming by comparing it to those habituated by film and television (see his tripartite table at http://scan.net.au/scan/journal/print.php?j_id=11&journal_id=19), Chesher uses the term “glaze” as a sticky metaphor for the interactivity of console gaming that doesn’t allow one passively to look, a mere voyeur, but requires one to manipulate the joystick. [21] In referring to the ludostatic mechanisms of gaming, however, Chesher emphasizes that it is not simply the joystick’s physical handling that accounts for immersion, but rather, central to glaze-play is the cognitive challenge — the sequencing of game stages that frustrates the player just enough by skirting the outer boundaries of his or her regime of competence. What constitutes the tactility, or sticky adhesive quality, of console gaming is not merely the hand on the joystick but the purposeful directedness of that tactile relation (playing or gaming famously defined as purposive purposelessness). The correlate to purposeful interactivity in Truong’s novel, I would argue, is multiband listening — the attentiveness or hearing of its overlapping stories, connecting with its distributed and networked riffs on identity, migrancy, circulation, and exchange.

Truong’s novel has elements of both the cinematic and the ludically interactive. The pleasure and frustration of Truong’s novel lies in watching the tasks set before Bình, our readerly avatar, that are hard enough to be just doable. That is, if there is a game of suspense in The Book of Salt, it involves the exchanging of tokens of affection — or to put it another way, the making of affection into a token, that is, a commodified object or thing with contained boundaries but with fungible value: e.g., gold leaf, a book of salt, a photograph. [22] Lattimore asks his lover Bình to borrow a manuscript from Stein’s writing bureau, in exchange for which Lattimore will provide Bình a gift for which he yearns — a photograph of the two lovers posed together. Agreeing to this exchange, Bình unwittingly pilfers a manuscript called “The Book of Salt” that conjures the poetic, foreigner’s phrases and recounted stories of Stein’s Indochinese cook, namely Bình himself. Intimacy and social contact become (for the fictional Stein) what one collects or reifies not as power points but as a poetic diction, a dialect of modernism that allows one to travel to America, opening further worlds of gaming –in this case, lecturing and speaking.

Truong plays with whether the transformation of affection (human relation, sociality) into an artwork (poetry) or artifact (the handwritten manuscript and the money it will be worth) constitutes a theft of that sociality or an extension of social relation (a gift). Bình, initially, is outraged at Stein’s literary appropriation, her telling his story without his permission. When Lattimore leaves Paris abruptly, taking the manuscript with him, the narrative suggests Bình, our avatar, as twice dispossessed — first by Stein, and then by Lattimore, who not only steals (rather than borrows) Stein’s handwritten manuscript, but effectively makes Bình an accomplice of that theft, [23] and the (cinematic) suspense of the plot rides on Bình’s anxiety over being discovered for the theft. Eluding detection becomes both the central worry and constitutes the goal, as it were, which is sought (by identifying with this point of view).

But the pleasure and frustration of Truong’s novel also lies in its deformations of stories within stories that seem to solicit or capitalize on what Chesher designates as a cinematic quest to discover “what’s underneath.” Here, I turn to an exemplary scene of manual detection in The Book of Salt that concerns a peripheral character, Serena the Soloist, who is never narrated but always invoked as the recurrent star in shipmate Bão’s masturbatory fantasies:

On the Niobe, [Bão] had a collection of already-paid-for memories, which he coaxed forward with hands warm like the South China Sea. While the ship … swung us to sleep, I often heard him moan … [24]

Serena and her talented fingers and toes have become for Bão a supple example, a sort of explicit device, that helps him to explain everything he knows in life, from how to bargain for a few extra slices of beef in his bowl of pho to the difference between serving under English ship captains and French ones … : “Remember, as Serena the Soloist showed me, there are just some things a man can’t do!” Bão’s eyes would then open wide, and his body would remain perfectly still, as if he were removing all distractions so that the indelicate meaning of his words could be fully savored. Bão’s own convulsive, silent laughter would then officially end the show. [25]

Serena’s role as an “explicit device” refers not simply to her function as aid to Bão’s sexual fantasies but also to the way she serves Truong’s narrative. She is mentioned not more than twice in the novel, in the initial set up of her as salacious womanhood in the second quote above, and then in the penultimate chapter, where Bão mentions that Serena garbs herself only in “black … elbow-length gloves” — the signature of transvestite sex workers — which then provides the occasion for the narrator Bình to engage Bão tactilely, and for Truong’s narrative to send the reader down a path of seeming exposures that simultaneously act as sleights-of-hand:

“[She wore] Nothing [else]?” [asks Bình]

“Nothing.”

Bão’s quickening breath told me that that was what he wanted to believe. Who am I to question this man’s recollection? I thought, and then I heard myself doing it anyway. “Listen, I do not know how Serena, umm, managed the top half, but let me show you how the rest is done.” I climbed down from my bunk and stood before his. I took his hands, warmer than the South China Sea, and I showed him how to form a cleft between my legs that disappeared into my inner thighs. In the dark, I again heard him moan. This time for me, I told myself. [26]

The scene uses the premise of detection — revealing the (gendered) truth of Serena — to do something else — touch someone, with the narrator guiding Bão’s hands in the creation of a fold, in a pressing of the flesh that is less about seeking what can be grasped or positively contoured, and more about intuiting — guiding touch toward that which cannot be grasped. The scene of Bình, performatively imitating Serena, is certainly about the limits of the gaze/visuality and the preferability, from both an epistemological and phenomenological perspective, of contact. But the touch here is not the two-fingered pinch and spread that gives the iPod its wow (and which effectively dilates and shrinks the visual perspective on the screen). Rather touch in this scene is partly focalized at the hands — i.e., toward manipulating shape/contour (“forming a cleft”) — as it is also simultaneously registered as a diffuse warmth across the entire skin surface, as a proprioceptive swoon, as the apprehension of moisture, of light touch and deep sensations in the hands and elsewhere, and vibrated as a moan of pleasure. If only Apple could be this multipoint.

Emphasizing Serena’s “gloved” performance also serves the narrative’s own trumping of the finality of exposure-as-ending, its tantalizing with the next ludostatic level of storytelling/listening. [27] That is, if something has been detected here (that Serena “is” a man posing as a woman, or more accurately, that Serena has a fleshly protuberance s/he regularly invaginates or folds between her legs), it works merely as a device to tell two further stories, two kinds of endings — the first detailing the consequences of homophobic panic. Shortly after the above lesson in the pedagogies of homoerotic touch, Bão flees Bình’s company, enlists onboard another ship, and steals the narrator’s stash of gold leaf given to him by his mother. Dissatisfied with that “unbearable ending” of erotic intimacy recouched as economic exchange (theft), Bình makes up a second, alternative ending involving Bão’s further travels: he imagines Bão wending his way to Saigon on a mission to return the gold leaf to Bình’s mother. In essence, the narrator’s arsenal of stories reboots the gold leaf’s circulation and makes Bão the avatar of Bình’s own fantasy of value’s return (its final destination at “home”). But that settling down is a further sleight-of-hand, for what is delivered in this second ending is the discovery that Bình is not the narrator’s name, and by extension, a blow to naive faith in the immanence of a circulating object’s intrinsic worth (its proper name restored). Rather, intimated in the story of the gold leaf is the claim that the valence of circulating persons and tokens is determined not by timeless essence but by contingent circumstance:

“This is for your mother,” Bão said, placing the red pouch [of gold leaf] in [Anh Minh’s] hands. “Bình wanted her to have it back.”

“Who?”

“Bình. Your youngest brother — “

“That’s not my youngest brother’s name … “

“Oh,” Bão said …

I never meant to deceive, but real names are never exchanged. Or did my story about the man on the bridge not make that code of conduct already clear? [28] [notice here the implicit address of this quasi mea culpa to the audience of the novel]

The effect of this particular round of gamesmanship/storytelling is a shiver of intensity at the interface of narrator and audience at the revelation that our avatar has been playing us: the personalities Bình/peace/Serena, have been come-ons, for the narrator’s name “is” also coincidentally storm or Bão.

In a later set of passages, the narrative casually reveals the contingency of the narrator’s self-selected name:

“When Bão first introduced himself…followed by the grunt of his unseaworthy given name, I was speechless. I, who had never even crossed a river … was [now] … sharing a berth with a man with whom I had nothing in common except a highly inauspicious, fate-defying given name. Two “storms” aboard one ship, I thought, was certainly a sign from somebody’s god, a sign to jump overboard and swim back to shore … . By the time my … bunkmate bothered to ask me what I was called, I had had a lot of time to consider the matter … . (247-8)

“Bình,” I replied without blinking an eye … .

“Bình, huh? That’s good. We cancel each other out,” Bão said … . What he meant was that since the name “Bình” means “peace,” it was lucky, not to mention an elegant counterbalance to his “storm.” Thank you, I thought the same myself. [29]

The circumstance of intimately encountering another “storm” (or war) conditions the narrator (and perhaps Truong’s) appellative “choice” to adopt “Bình.” [30] But if the narrative, here, stresses Bình’s pseudonymous adoption as more or less spur-of-the-moment, what is clearly more deliberative is the masquerade and artifice in the relation between narrator and reader (what above I referred to as the revelation that “our avatar has been playing us”). We can take this as a blow (theft) or as a gift, or maybe as both. The game has been played not simply inside the screen of the novel but across its line of contact and through a kind of contagious, tactile magic.

Only in retrospect (in the penultimate chapter) does Truong’s narrative work through something like a game of To Tell the Truth, of matching identities that do not so much recede from grasp as much as proliferate and become distributed. If the avatar of this game is Bình the narrator (aka your avatar), then indeed Truong’s novel works through “levels” of seeming discovery as to whom this gloved servant might be; but each level of discovery, each act of exposure, works a sleight-of-hand.

Assessing the conceptual challenges presented by computing and game theory to the idea of storytelling, famed novelist Italo Calvino — writing more than thirty years before “interactivity” became a catchword — similarly identified the cognitive challenges, or multiband listening, demanded of readers as that which endowed certain assemblies of words and stories with “literariness.” While acknowledging that from a cybernetic perspective, literary composition is merely a combinatorial game — a series of “attempts to make one word stay put after another by following certain definite rules … rules followed by other writers” [31] — Calvino considered this writing game’s immersive quality to depend on the resulting permutation’s capacity to stir “something not yet said … only darkly felt as presentiment … [or] vibrancy,” [32] “an unexpected meaning … that it is not patent on the linguistic plane [not available in the dictionary] … but has slipped in from another level” [33] : “The literature machine can perform all the permutations possible on a given material, but the poetic result will be the particular effect of one of these permutations on a man endowed with a consciousness and an unconscious — that is, an empirical and historical man.” [34] In ways similar to (and anticipatory of) Chesher’s suggestion that the technosomatic interface — which includes the cultural apparatus accompanying a particular media form — determines the quality of user engagement, Calvino privileged the embedded, embodied cognition of an “empirical and historical” reader. Such embedded and embodied cognition is comprised of manipulable levels of ratiocination — conscious processes, on the one hand — and, on the other hand, of visceral, tacit knowing — felt presentiments of vibrancy — that can “[slip] in from another level,” seizing one and “tearing [him/her] to pieces” [35] or tearing his/her stable gendered binaries to pieces.

In placing The Book of Salt in dialogue with Chesher’s theory of new media’s stickiness, my point has been not so much to align Truong’s novel with the console game’s flashing images that the user now putatively physically controls, joystick in hand, as much as to provoke, through the analysis of the novel’s tactile devices, recognition of new media’s emphasis on interactivity (that narrower meaning of tactility) as thoroughly caught up in cognitive challenge. Cognitive challenge is at the core of immersion, with the latter acting as the “new media” term for something resembling contemplation.[36] This interactivity becomes a much-touted feature of new media’s promise to make more sensually rich the screen interface as well as to revolutionize and democratize the consumer’s (now spectator-actor’s) relation to the screen, even as gadgets such as vibrotactile belts and contextual computing in effect manipulate people but without announcing this intent. This brings me to the final section of this essay.

III. Skin/Skein Stretch

Our journey ends not with tactility as the answer to distraction but with tactility’s immersive possibilities and, indeed, the urgency of contemplating the contexts and purposes of such immersion. And perhaps we also need to replace the pseudonym “tactility” — as in, yes press, yes gently touch — with something more stormy: the buzz. Here, I quote from a 2007 white paper from Immersion Corporation that touts the new research on vibrotactile belts that confirms that such haptics, tested on military personnel and first responders, can “off-load the sight and/or sound channel,” thus easing stress and other complications in “high-churn” contexts such as these: “[navigating] a series of waypoints while operating either a helicopter or a military watercraft… the results indicate that touch is a highly effective secondary communication channel that leaves the visual sense able to better attend to other control issues” (citing Jan Van Erp et al,. 2005, and other research on HCI or “human-computer interaction”). [37] Certainly, navigating waypoints in a flight cockpit blends distraction with “engagement” (in both senses of the word) and, not surprisingly, there are lots of HCI and ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) workshops devoted to contemplating these hybrid contexts seriously and extensively. This haptics research is also about manipulating human behavior through tactility’s arrayed bandwidth — and we ought consider how these manipulations (fail to) compare to the way The Book of Salt shakes up, prods, or buzzes the reading body as to her ongoing state of being manipulated — that is, lured into inhabiting an intention (an interface or technosoma) passing as peace all the while roving with the militaristic force of a storm. (This is the tactile unconscious of this essay’s title.)

But such a conclusion is perhaps too easy, too hidden-exposed, as it were. Instead of ending at the military-industrial complex as that which undergirds our tactile interactivity of both this novel and the interface of our mobile communications devices (which we all already know anyway), let me instead turn to a newer haptics research that, to my knowledge, has not as of yet been incorporated into everyday consumer devices: skin stretch. Quoting from The Economist: “By laterally stretching the surface of the skin (without pushing or poking it) it is possible to mimic the feeling of complex shapes and sensations. This is because the sense of touch seems to depend far more on the way in which skin is deformed and stretched than it does on the degree of pressure applied … . In one dramatic example Mexican and Italian researchers showed that a flat surface could be made to feel sharp,” leading haptics researcher Karon MacLean (University of British Columbia) quipped, “The Holy Grail for me is to do fur.” [38] Don’t Press, Just Stretch.

Instead of tactility instrumentalized as information (more bandwidth on the soma), or tactility as the immersive quality of being stuck to an interactive console game — here, one tactility (pulling, stretching) itself torques into another (sharpness, edginess) and possibly, yet another, the hyperdistributed glancing of mink bristles. Here, the tactile immersion of skin stretch is the interactivity of being fooled … and loving it — the holy grail, or everyday magic, of pulling a furry feeling out of a flat hat.

Notes

[1] Cho Jin-seo, “Touch-Sensors Making Smoother Gadgets.” Korea Times (11/19/07) at http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/tech/2011/10/129_14021.html (accessed on 10/31/11).

[2] Stephen Wildstrom, “A Touch of Genius.” Bloomberg BusinessWeek (5/8/08) at http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/08_20/b4084073144159.htm (accessed on 10/31/11).

[3] Taussig, Michael, “Tactility and Distraction.” Cultural Anthropology 6.2 (May 1991): 148.

[4] Ibid, 152.

[5] It has become de rigueur in literary and cultural criticism to question new historicist methodology’s reliance on what Paul Ricoeur calls a “hermeneutics of suspicion,” or as Eve Sedgwick paraphrases this method, a “paranoid” reading enthralled to a depth model of significance, with criticism merely following the function, “hidden->shown” (Sedgwick, Eve, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham: Duke UP, 2003: 124-125). Among the alternatives posed to this allegorizing critical trend are “surface reading,” initially coined by Sharon Marcus and Stephen Best in a special issue of Representations 108.1 (Fall 2009); as well as the embodied-embedded school of theorizing immersion, cognition, and affect, itself highly influenced by research in cybernetics. See Brian Massumi’s Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. (Durham: Duke UP, 2002), and Patricia Clough, ed., The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social (Durham: Duke UP, 2007).

[6] Though Taussig focuses on advertising (aka visual culture), the parallel conversation in the literary arts would be the move from biblical exegesis (hermeneutics/gnosis) to the disorientations of what Bob Perelman (writing on LANGUAGE poetry) calls parataxis or the new sentence — the denarrativizing or unbuilding of ruined grammars, the metaphoricity of devolved, word smash-ups. See Perelman, Bob, The Marginalization of Poetry: Language Writing and Literary History. (New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1996).

[7] Kandice Chuh argues for “conceiving Asian American Studies as a subjectless discourse,” by which she means reorienting the field so that coming into subject status (from a putative prior objectified status) does not define its raison d’être or become the field’s equivalent to liberation. The overarching concern of Chuh’s study is “justice,” with Chuh framing the law as exemplifying a subject-full discourse: “U.S. law works upon the assumption of the consensual subject — a subject anterior to politics — an understanding that drives identity-based models of political activism” (Kandice Chuh, Imagine Otherwise (Durham: Duke UP, 2003): 9, 15). To adopt a practice of racial critique that attempts to bring (the fiction of) “a prior Asian American subject” into fuller presence is to have endorsed the legal fiction of the subject and to have not recognized that such an endorsement, according to Chuh, will not work for minority subjects because the abstract subject of law “cannot represent, can neither fully stand nor act for, the racialized ‘other.'”

[8] On the aesthetic-affective turn in Asian American literary studies, see for instance Sue Im Lee and Rocio Davis, eds., Literary Gestures: The Aesthetic in Asian American Writing; Mark Chiang’s response to Palumbo-Liu’s “Occupation of Form” American Literary History (2008): 814-35; and Colleen Lye’s “Racial Form,” Representations (Fall 2008): 92-101 and her account of race as a rhetorical form in “Afro-Asian Analogy” PMLA 123.5.

[9] Palumbo-Liu, David, “Rational and Irrational Choices: Form, Affect, and Ethics,” Minor Transnationalisms, Shu-mei Shih, Francoise Lionnet, eds. (Durham: Duke, 2005): 43.

[10] Ibid, 43.

[11] Ibid, quoting Burke, 68.

[12] Ibid, 69.

[13] Sedgwick, 145.

[14] Ngai, Sianne. Ugly Feelings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2005).

[15] Carla Mazzio, for instance, notes that “touch is positioned … as the one sense most threatening to intellectual and ethical systems … precisely [because] … touch challenges the logic of synecdoche and metonymy upon which analogies between macrocosm and microcosm depend” (Carla Mazzio, “The Senses Divided,” Empire of the Senses, Ed. D. Howes, (Ford: Berg Publishers, 2005): 89). Citing “the polymorphous diversity of touch,” Mazzio expands that “if one dimension of touch is located in one part of the body, the other sensitive parts, functions, and capacities would be necessarily neglected or eclipsed: the touch of the blind man understanding depth and visual space with his hands could not also represent the force of a puncture or the unexpected touch of another; the feel of coins in a hand could not signify the place of touch in detecting temperature in and out of the body; the light sensation of a fingertip (or the fantasy of God almost touching Adam’s finger) could not signify the rough, soft or liquid texture of food in the mouth” (Mazzio, 89, 91).

[16] While this essay’s focus does not permit me to give a full account of the novel’s leitmotif on flavors, I would briefly note that The Book of Salt’s flavor ratios incline more toward the astringent and the savory (sour, bitter, and salty) than to the dulcet or meaty. What is most interesting about the book’s palate, however, is its overt commentary on the nonflavor (at least in European cuisine) of hot chilies or heat (yang), which is at the same time a fundamental principle in Asian designations of foods and energies. In one memorable scene, a fellow Indochinese employee of Bình’s (medically trained as a doctor in Paris) makes an unsolicited suggestion that Bình avoid chilies, garlic, and other hot foods, as a remedy for Bình’s homosexuality. While overtly rejecting this advice by equating it with “quack[ery],” Bình nonetheless proceeds to recount in luscious detail dish after dish prepared for his various employers, as well as his lover in France, all of which notably lack any hot notes. Indeed, much of the narrative is spent dwelling on the frigid weather of Paris in winter, the incapacity of coats and gloves to provide adequate heat, and the remembrance of Saigon as the place where “heat licked her heavy lips and embraced me” (217), referring to the crossed sensations of temperature and aroma (smell) that proceed his first taste of mother’s milk. The narrative’s signature style in concocting prose as much as food lies in this seeking out hinged flavors and textural, tactile sensations. See Monique Truong, The Book of Salt (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2003).

[17] Ibid, 65.

[18] Ibid, 107.

[19] Characterizing a different regime of vision brought about vis-à-vis the television/computer screen, Chesher speaks of the glaze: “The glaze is a liquid adhesion holding players’ eyes to the screen. Identification between player and the central on-screen character is direct and visceral. The player takes on the role of a character directly, rather than the cinematic spectator who vicariously identifies with others. Players are glazed into a game world subjectivity, rather than detachedly gazing as cinematic voyeurs, or indifferently glancing at the world through television” (2). He also notes that “the audiovisual regime of the glaze is characterized by at least three distinctive characteristics: spectacular immersion, interactive agency and mimetic simulation” (3). See Chris Chesher, “Neither Gaze, nor Glance, but Glaze: Relating to Console Game Screens,” SCAN Journal, Vol 1, No. 1. (January 2004) at http://scan.net.au/scan/journal/print.php?j_id=11&journal_id=19 (accessed on 10/31/11).

[20] Ibid, quoting James Paul Gee, 5, italics mine.

[21] Chesher distinguishes the adhesive qualities of film from that of television — and both of these from console games — by noting that while “phantasy, voyeurism” are cinema’s pleasures, television produces a viewing subject of “distracted complicity,” and console games entrain an interactive player motivated by “sadomasochistic fetishism.”

[22] Exchanging tokens of affection — I also mean to evoke Gayle Rubin’s notion of the traffic in women that consolidates kinship networks among men, and which Rubin shorthands as the phallus, since this power accrues to the parties of the exchange and not the exchanged items themselves (e.g., women). See Gayle Rubin, “The Traffic in Women,” The Second Wave Reader, Ed. Linda Nicholson (New York: Routledge, 1997): 26-62). Significantly, at the figurative (but not paginated) center of the action (that is, aboard the middle passage of the seascape of the Niobe) is invoked (through a highly tactile scene) a missing or folded phallus — both Bình’s and that of the transvestite, Serena the Soloist.

[23] Alternatively, Bình — having been the source of Stein’s “The Book of Salt” — has effectively taken back what is his, even if he no longer possesses it — and thus, no theft has occurred.

[24] Truong, 240.

[25] Ibid, 24.

[26] Ibid, 240.

[27] Following Marjorie Garber’s claim that a general “category crisis” is indicated by figures of transvestitism (Marjorie Garber, Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety (New York: Routledge, 1997), I claim that it is through the gloved figure of Serena and Bình (aka cross-dressing species of serenity and peace) that Truong’s novel highlights not only the instability of boundaries of nationality, race, gender, sexuality, and (fusion) cuisine reverberated through the cross-dressing Serena from Pondicherry, but also with a category crisis in terms of closed (restricted) and open (general and speculative) economic and storytelling systems. The closed economy emphasizes return of property and contractual (i.e., mystified reciprocal) exchanges (and, I argue, narrative closure emphasizing justice), where the open economy emphasizes what escapes that logic of market exchange as “gifts,” losses, or entropic energies (and corresponds to an invitation to the reader of Truong’s narrative to dwell in an open-ended, unsettled position). On the restricted and general economies, see David Staples, “Women’s Work and the Ambivalent Gift of Entropy” in The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social ed. Patricia Ticineto Clough w/Jean Halley (Durham: Duke UP, 2007), 119-150.

[28] Truong, 243.

[29] Ibid, 247-249.

[30] In an essay on “Vietnamese American Literature” published in 1997, Truong writes that because it emerged “out of a social and historical moment of military conflict, Vietnamese American literature speaks of death and other irreconcilable losses and longs always for peace” (Monique Truong, “Vietnamese American Literature,” An Interethnic Companion to Asian American Literature, Ed. King-Kok Cheung (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997): 219). Moreover, as Truong acknowledges in a 2003 interview regarding her novel, The Book of Salt, “[In this book] There are no military conflicts … there are no soldiers, there are no weapons … .I suppose it is no coincidence that the first long-distance flight of my imagination as a writer would take me to a time in history when Vietnam was more or less at peace. When you are a child of wartime, peace is the all-consuming fantasy” (“Monique Truong Interview,” Readers Read (May 2003) at http://www.readersread.com/features/moniquetruong.htm (accessed on 10/31/11).

[31] Calvino, Italo. “Cybernetics and Ghosts” 1967. The Uses of Literature. (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1986), 15.

[32] Ibid, 18

[33] Ibid, 22.

[34] Ibid, 22. Calvino’s main point is that what vanishes in the “cybernetic” view of literature as “combinatorial game” is the “figure of the author,” and that correspondingly, what becomes elevated to a position of decisiveness in adjudicating the literary is the reader. For my purposes, Calvino’s “literary” is the analogue to Chesher’s stickiness — that which deserves prolonged human engagement precisely because it eludes one’s regime of competence or the patent linguistic plane of meaning or a singular rather than arrayed assemblage of often conflicting meanings.

[35] Ibid, 18.

[36] Cognitive challenge is precisely what Bình poses to Bão in the earlier discussed scene. That is, in recounting the two men’s tryst aboard the Niobe, Truong provides a literal scene of “tactile epistemology” which Laura Marks, in her theorization of haptic visuality in film, aligns with mimesis, a type of knowledge premised upon physical contact, a “yielding to one’s environment, rather than dominating it … mimesis shifts the hierarchical relation between subject and object, indeed dissolves the dichotomy between the two” (Laura Marks, The Skin of Film (Durham: Duke UP, 2000): 140-1). The mimesis of Bình’s tactile pedagogy involves his teaching Bão to yield to his erotic feelings for Bình — who, in the present moment, is not only imitating Serena’s act of invaginating her genitalia but also showing or guiding Bão’s own fingers into this autoerotic folding of flesh, rendering Bão, too, a mimetic participant in transvestite folding or torsion. The immersion of this scene, in other words, though it involves or is launched through manual control, hinges on the yielding of visual epistemology to a tactile one — so that the sizeable hand (from a sure sign of masculine identity) turns into a felt expanse of categorical indistinctions or mimetic blurred boundaries between skin of the hand/skin of the genitalia, Bình/Bão, Bình/Serena, and man/woman. The pleasure of this scene, in short — its stickiness — is a function of such yielding or losing ground — a swoon into distributed sensory-cognitions rather than a steady or continuous stickiness to one focal site.

[37] Immersion Corporation White Paper, “Haptics: Improving the Mobile User Experience Through Touch”: 7 at www.awt.be/contenu/tel/mob/haptics_mobile-ue_nov07v1.pdf

[38] “How Touching.” The Economist (March 8, 2007) at http://www.economist.com/node/8766116 (accessed on 10/31/11). In a March 12, 2011, update, The Economist notes new developments in research on the digital interface with human skin, but not so much in the direction of manipulating (twisting, stretching) skin to mimic the feel of variously textured materials but in rendering digital circuitry bendable and wearable — less rigid and breakable. The primary prospective application of such electronic skin is medical, as in the capacity to attach “an artificial hand to the central nervous system” (“Stretchable Electronics: A Shapely Future for Circuits,” The Economist (3/12/11): 15 at http://www.economist.com/node/18304110 (accessed on 10/31/11)).

Rachel C. Lee, Associate Director of the Center for the Study of Women and Associate Professor of English at UCLA, specializes in Asian American literature, performance culture, and studies of gender and sexuality. She is the author of The Americas of Asian American Literature: Gendered Fictions of Nation and Transnation (Princeton University Press, 1999), and lead editor of the volume Asian America.Net: Ethnicity, Nationalism, and Cyberspace (Routledge University Press, 2003). Her current project, The Exquisite Corpse of Asian America, examines Asian American body parts as they overlap with various discourses on technology, sexuality, race and biopolitics, in a variety of genres such as stand-up comedy, digital media, and literature.