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Philosophy of Touch in the Digital Age

Applicant Schwerzmann Katia
Number 183835
Funding scheme Postdoc.Mobility
Research institution Program in Comparative Literature School of Arts and Sciences University of Pennsylvania
Institution of higher education Institution abroad - IACH
Main discipline Philosophy
Start/End 01.04.2019 - 30.04.2020
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Keywords (7)

Community; Politics; Algorithms; Digital Humanities; Artificial Intelligence; History of touch; Affective Studies

Lay Summary (French)

Nos interactions sociales sont toujours davantage médiatisées par les technologies numériques. Loin d’être immatérielles, ces technologies sont localisées dans des appareils avec lesquels nous sommes en contact constant. Ces technologies traquent nos habitudes, nos déplacements, nos relations. Plus important encore, elles médiatisent nos rapports aux autres en déterminant qui nous rencontrons et ce qui entre dans la sphère de nos perceptions. Occupant l'espace entre les corps, les nouvelles technologies jouent un rôle grandissant dans la formation de la collectivité.
Lay summary

Contenu et objectifs du travail de recherche
Pour décrire la façon dont les technologies numériques transforment le rapport entre les êtres humains au plan à la fois individuel et collectif et en penser les implications sociales et politiques, j'étudie ces transformations à partir des concepts de contact et de toucher, insistant ainsi sur la dimension incarnée des technologies.
Si dans la première partie du projet, je discute les conceptions classiques du toucher, afin de montrer que le toucher, loin d’être une figure de l’immédiateté, a depuis Aristote une affinité avec la technique (ayant un caractère de médium, voire de prothèse), j'étudie, dans la deuxième partie du projet, la façon dont le rapport du corps à la technique subit un retournement 19 siècle. Alors que jusque-là, la technique fonctionne comme prothèse, ajout, extension du corps humain, l'humain devient organe, voire prothèse de la machine.

Contexte scientifique et social du projet de recherche
La question est de savoir quelles sont les conséquences sociales et politiques de cette transformation du contact entre corps et technologie. Le corps couplé à la machine devient source de données, lesquels constituent la base d'algorithmes dont est fait un usage grandissant dans le cadre de prises de décision (par. ex. assurances, système judiciaire). Ce projet de recherche doit permettre de clarifier de façon critique les implications politiques et sociales de la transformation du contact entre corps et technologie.

Direct link to Lay Summary Last update: 21.03.2019

Responsible applicant and co-applicants


Janina Loh: Trans- und Posthumanismus zur Einführung
Schwerzmann Katia (2020), Janina Loh: Trans- und Posthumanismus zur Einführung, in Zeitschrift für philosophische Literatur, 8(2), 9-14.
‘Coupling Parts that are not Supposed to Touch’ oder die Berührung als Kritik
SchwerzmannKatia (2020), ‘Coupling Parts that are not Supposed to Touch’ oder die Berührung als Kritik, Nomos, Baden-Baden, 281-297.
Derrida, Kittler et le calendrier des post
WiserAntonin, SchwerzmannKatia (2020), Derrida, Kittler et le calendrier des post, in Études de lettres, 312, 75-80.
Theorie des graphischen Feldes
SchwerzmannKatia (2020), Theorie des graphischen Feldes, Diaphanes, Berlin, Zürich.
SchwerzmannKatia, Begegnung, in Ungelenk Johannes, Sohns Hannah (ed.), August Verlag, München.
Moralisation de la vie nue – transhumanisme et biopolitique
SchwerzmannKatia, Moralisation de la vie nue – transhumanisme et biopolitique, in Revue des Sciences Humaines, 340.
Wirken und Wissen im Wechselspiel: Das Verhältnis zwischen Schema und Bild
SchwerzmannKatia, Wirken und Wissen im Wechselspiel: Das Verhältnis zwischen Schema und Bild, in Jochmaring Julian, Etten Jonas (ed.), Kadmos, Berlin.


Group / person Country
Types of collaboration
Versammeln, DFG Forschungsnetzwerk Germany (Europe)
- in-depth/constructive exchanges on approaches, methods or results
- Publication
- Research Infrastructure
- Exchange of personnel
Berühren, DFG Forschungsnetzwerk Germany (Europe)
- in-depth/constructive exchanges on approaches, methods or results
- Publication
- Research Infrastructure
- Exchange of personnel
MIRA, University of Pennsylvania United States of America (North America)
- in-depth/constructive exchanges on approaches, methods or results
- Exchange of personnel
S-1 Lab, Duke University United States of America (North America)
- in-depth/constructive exchanges on approaches, methods or results
- Publication
- Research Infrastructure
- Exchange of personnel

Scientific events

Active participation

Title Type of contribution Title of article or contribution Date Place Persons involved
ACLA Talk given at a conference “One Unique You”: DNA Tests, Identity and the Proliferation of Mis/Recognition 19.03.2020 Chicago, United States of America Schwerzmann Katia;
Versammeln als (politische) Kulturtechnik Talk given at a conference Diskussion von 'How We Became Our Data' 27.02.2020 Dresden, Germany Schwerzmann Katia;

Associated projects

Number Title Start Funding scheme
174737 Philosophie der Berührung im digitalen Zeitalter 01.10.2017 Early Postdoc.Mobility


Digital technologies increasingly mediate social interactions. Far from immaterial, these technologies are located in devices with which human beings are in permanent bodily contact: they track our habits, our movement, our relationships. More importantly, they mediate our contact with one another, as they increasingly determine who we encounter and what enters our perceptual realm. As a result, these digital devices occupy the space between bodies and shape the very nature of their encounter. They transform each individual body into a dataset that is, in essence, quantitative and is always already compared to other data. In doing so, digital media negate the singularity of the individual body. Decisions made based on these data have a profound impact on society by increasing and potentializing tendencies to which society is already prone (e.g., disparities in the treatment between the rich, who are personally catered to, versus the masses, or between white people and people of color). To describe and reflect upon the implications of the ways in which digital media transform the relations between individual and collective bodies, my research project engages the concepts of touch and contact. This reflection is based on a double assumption. Pursuing recent philosophical discourses about the community and the political, most notably by Jean-Luc Nancy, Erin Manning and Sara Ahmed, my first assumption posits that the community, characterized as “being-with,” originates in the production of the touching proximity between bodies. While this proximity has traditionally been described-for instance by Nancy-in terms of spatiotemporal simultaneity, digital devices aim at producing proximity-effects despite spatial distance and technological mediations. My second assumption is that far from being a figure of immediacy, touch since Aristotle has been understood in terms of mediality, technicality and prosthetics. However, I argue that digital media actualize a different concept of touch that I call “posthuman,” as touch no longer originates from the human body, but rather consists of coupling bodies to technological devices.Part I of the project discusses classical philosophical discourses about touch. Here, I uncover a medial understanding of touch and show in what sense this understanding corresponds to a humanist conception. While relying on a medium (from Aristotle’s flesh as metaxu to the stick of the blind from Descartes on), this prosthetic medium is integrated with the body proper and most commonly centered on the human hand. At the end of Part I, I explore a competing understanding of touch as contact from a distance-a type of haunting. Already present in Thomas Aquinas’s theology, the conception of touch as haunting can be traced through the 19th century’s experiments with seances, which flourished significantly around the same time as the appearance of new technical media. Touch as the haunting of the body of a (human) medium from a distance can be conceived of as the prefiguration of the virtuality of contact through digital media. In Part II, I explore-from Marx’s account of workers becoming the organs of the machine to cybernetics and system theory-a posthuman understanding of touch, whereby the body is coupled to and haunted by the medium. While touch traditionally means touching (and constituting) the limit of the touched body, touch as haunting tends to displace and even dissolve the limits of the body. In this project, I aim to describe the conceptual shift from human to posthuman touch centered around digital technologies, and how posthuman touch transforms community and the political. To articulate the main issues at stake in this shift: the mediation of digital technologies tends to eliminate the contingency of the encounter with other bodies. It reduces decision-making to computation or, more precisely, it hides the very moment of decision-making that always entails a contingency, as philosophers like Jacques Derrida and Chantal Mouffe have recently shown in order to describe the founding of a political order. Digital technologies-whose predictions are based on past dataset and feedback loops-endanger the possibility of an event as the unpredictable disruption of the existing order. However, I also argue that this posthuman conception of touch can function as a form of engaged, materialist critique of such an order. Thinking the possibility of a critique “in touch” with its object is essential to a nuanced approach to technological transformations. While I approach my corpus in Part I through a discourse analysis to advance a humanist understanding of touch, deconstructing the idea that touch has ever been about immediacy, my approach in Part II is a materialist one: I seek to understand the material and technological conditions of digital media and especially of algorithms to describe the ways in which they affect bodies.This research proposal forms Part II of the “early Postdoc.Mobility” project I submitted in March 2017, entitled: “Philosophy of Touch in the Digital Age (Part I).” Parts I and II will result in my habilitation writing.