Jaleel Akhtar – Touch and Violence: Reading Toni Morrison’s Jazz with Irigaray

Touch is at the heart of Luce Irigaray’s dialectic regarding our relations with others.  It is a gesture that responds to the call of the other, and first from the mother (Sharing the World, p. 20). Touching corresponds to a gesture of respect and reverence towards the source of the call or a gesture of violence if it seeks to appropriate the body or subjectivity of the other (ibid.). To quote Irigaray, ‘Touching or being touched, can concern an intimacy that cannot be approached with the hand’ (‘Toward a Divine in the Feminine’ in Touching Transcendence, p. 23). It is a question of intimacy and one can develop intimacy through touching each other at an internal or intersubjective level. Touch also implies being in contact tactfully. It sets certain boundaries and limits in human relationships. It requires mutual consent. To borrow from Irigaray, ‘To touch one another in intersubjectivity, it is necessary that two subjects agree to the relationship and that the possibility to consent exists’ (‘The Wedding Between the Body and Language’ in Key Writings, p. 20). Unlike the gaze, touch should not arrest or grasp the subject in a way which prevents the economy of subjectivity (Sharing the World, p. 128).

Touch in the works of Irigaray is an expression of infinite possibilities as it circulates in the economy of fluid interchanges. Touching continues to be touching as long as it does not capture or annihilate the other’s subjective autonomy (‘Beyond All Judgment, You Are’ in Key Writings,  p. 75). Irigaray also defines touching as a movement from the external to the internal (‘Toward a Divine in the Feminine’ in Touching Transcendence, p. 24). According to her, touch ‘is not only an external touching through our senses but also an internal touching’ (ibid.). She defines touch as ‘the medium par excellence of interiority’ (Sharing the World, p. 128). Touch is not merely a matter of mediated relations with the outside world, but it is also a matter of ‘auto-affection’,  which is a way of being in touch with one’s own self ‘with a positive feeling’ (‘Toward a Divine in the Feminine’ in Touching Transcendence, p. 16).  However, like a rite de passage touch should also pave our way from ‘self-affection to affection for the other and with the other, and also lead us toward a possible Other’ (op. cit., p. 24). Touch should perform the role of a guide along the path of becoming divine, attaining wisdom, finding and recovering our lost selves. Our relationships are prone to violence if there is lack of authenticating touch and this remains without mediations. If touch is lacking in mediations, it can take violent expression in forms of ‘hurting, cutting, striking, or dazzling’ (ibid.).  ‘Lack of respect for the identity or subjectivity of each [. . .] amounts to a kind of murder: a spiritual murder, the most serious murder and also the most serious suicide’ (op. cit., p.  15).

These are some of the poetics of touch in the corpus of Irigaray. I will expand upon her concept of touch as a background to my discussion of touch as either a recuperative gesture or a source of violence in Toni Morrison’s novel Jazz. However, unlike other theorists of touch like Levinas, Merleau-Ponty and Sartre, who discuss touch in terms of a power struggle or an appropriation of the body of the other, my discussion is based upon Irigaray’s notion of touch not only as constitutive of physical relationship based upon consent, but also in terms of her notion of touch as a possible tactile and reciprocal experience in the act of communication or of understanding/reading a work of art which calls for tactile response (‘The Wedding Between the Body and Language’ in Key Writings, p. 18).  Kelly Ives brings in Roland Barthes in her discussion on the aesthetics of reading whether the text is a painting, film, magazine, photograph or a theatrical performance (cf. Cixous, Irigaray, Kristeva: The Jouissance of French Feminism). She argues that the reader derives pleasure from the text when his/her look is aligned with that of the author (op. cit., p. 39). I extend this argument vis-à-vis my reading of Toni Morrison’s novel Jazz with the texts of Irigaray. Basing my reasoning on Irigaray’s aesthetics of touch, I postulate that the pleasure in reading the text can occur when the aesthesis of the reader coincides with that of the author of the story. This is especially true in the case of Jazz, whose narrator seeks to elicit a tactile response from the reader, as it is possible to observe.